Thursday, 30 November 2017

Green Party Lesson No. 1: Anticipating The Direction Of Political Sniper Fire.

Not A Good Look: Golriz Ghahraman (then an intern for the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) poses alongside Simon Bikindi - the Hutu singer-songwriter whose "killer songs" played a deadly role in the killing of 800,000 to one million Tutsi tribes-people during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Ghahraman has come under intense criticism for not making clearer this, and other, associations with war criminals. That the Greens did not anticipate such attacks should be of real concern to the Ardern Government.

IN POLITICS, as in war, the aggressor’s first strike is almost always directed against the defender’s weakest point. That being the case, the National Opposition has clearly identified the Ardern Government’s lacklustre political management skills as its primary target. Their secondary target, equally clearly, is the Greens. This should be the cause of considerable angst on the Government’s part. The Labour-NZ First Coalition’s political management skills will improve with practice. Improving the Greens political skills is a much taller order!

The Greens face a number of serious problems at the moment, not the least of which is the extremely heavy workloads being borne by the most experienced members of their tiny caucus. James Shaw, Julie-Anne Genter and Eugenie Sage, as Ministers Outside of Cabinet, have their hands full just bringing themselves up-to-speed with their portfolios. Of the remaining five Green MPs: one is an Under-Secretary; one the Party Whip; another is campaigning to become the next Female Co-Leader; and the remaining two are complete newbies.

Unsurprisingly, it was one of the latter, Golriz Ghahraman, who this week found herself in the cross-hairs of David Farrar and Phil Quin, two of New Zealand’s most deadly political snipers.

Both men’s attention had been drawn to what can only be described as the unnecessary grandiloquence of Ghahraman’s CV. Describing her fairly modest role in the massive UN exercises known as the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and the Special Tribunal for Cambodia (ICTs) in terms that made her sound like Geoffrey Robertson and Amal Alamuddin Clooney all rolled into one, really was asking for, if not trouble, then most certainly some pretty close enemy scrutiny.

That Ghahraman was not well-placed to withstand such scrutiny, raises two obvious and important questions. Why did she draw attention to her participation in these ICTs without fully disclosing her potentially controversial roles as a member of the defendants’ legal team? And, why didn’t the Green Party carry out the same sort of due diligence exercise on Ghahraman’s CV as Quin and Farrar? At the very least, these simple precautions would have allowed Ghahraman and her Green Party colleagues to anticipate precisely the sort of attacks that eventuated.

The obvious lesson which the National Party will have drawn from this incident is that the Green Party – or at least those responsible for its communications strategies – are in the grip of a conception of politics that places far too much emphasis on marketing and spin. Only the most inexperienced (and cynical) public relations flack could consider it “okay” to leave out of a politician’s most immediately accessible biography (the one on her own party’s website!) something as potentially explosive as the information that she had helped to defend people accused of genocide and other, equally horrifying, crimes against humanity.

The incident will also have alerted National to the fact that the Greens have learned absolutely nothing from the parliamentary bullying meted-out to their colleague, the former Green MP, Keith Locke.

It was the Labour Party’s Opposition Research which dug out of the pages of Socialist Action, the Trotskyite newspaper which Locke edited for many years, a nugget of pure political gold. The Socialist Action League had been an enthusiastic early supporter of the Khmer Rouge – the revolutionary party led by Pol Pot which, in 1975, toppled the right-wing military government of Cambodia. As the editor of Socialist Action, Locke had celebrated the Khmer Rouge takeover as a “victory for humanity”.

In vain did Locke attempt to explain to his parliamentary accusers that, at the time the offending articles were written, neither he nor the Socialist Action League were aware of the wholesale “politicide” unfolding in the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia. John Pilger’s shocking revelations that the Khmer Rouge had murdered millions of Cambodians, however, rendered Locke’s after-the-fact explanations utterly ineffective. He had written in support of Pol Pot – and for many MPs that was enough to place him beyond the pale of political respectability.

The point of this cautionary tale? That a political party – especially one which, like the Greens, attracts radicals and activists of all kinds – not only needs to keep its institutional memory alive, it needs to keep it kicking-in. The most important lesson to be drawn from Locke’s experience is that political parties need to conduct exhaustive research into the backgrounds of all its candidates, so that areas of weakness and vulnerability can be identified early and, if possible, neutralised by preventive revelation.

It is supremely ironic that Ghahraman, Locke’s successor in the role of Green Spokesperson for Global Affairs, was a member of the Special Tribunal for Cambodia’s prosecution team for bringing the mass murderers of the Khmer Rouge to justice. Ironic, too, that she, like Locke, has seen her credibility in the Global Affairs and Justice Spokesperson roles severely damaged by a failure to anticipate how the Greens’ enemies, however unfairly, might turn the actions of her past, no matter how well intentioned, against her.

After Ghahraman’s ambush, Jacinda Ardern will be acutely aware that improving her government’s political management skills is not simply a matter of keeping her own Labour Party safe from political snipers, but that the job also entails teaching the Greens how to anticipate – and then dodge – their common enemy’s bullets.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 30 November 2017.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Genuine Open Government Empowers People And Politicians Alike.

"What I See, You See." In Chris Mullins' political thriller, A Very British Coup, the democratic-socialist prime minister, Harry Perkins, empowers the people by sweeping away all government secrecy. In the process, he makes it easier for his colleagues to resist the temptation to keep the media and the electorate in the dark. What a coup it would be if the Labour-NZ First-Green Government did the same. 

ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE aspects of A Very British Coup, is the left-wing prime minister’s commitment to open government. Thirty years may have passed since the television adaptation of Chris Mullin’s novel was broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4, but with a left-wing pacifist Leader of the Opposition poised to become the UK’s next prime minister, the series has taken on a surprisingly contemporary feel. Certainly, the question of how much of the day-to-day business of government should remain hidden from public view has become a very live issue in New Zealand.

Much has been made of the National Party Opposition’s “spamming” of the new Labour-NZ First-Green government. The thousands of written parliamentary questions piling-up in Ministers’ offices have been decried as a cheap political stunt by the Government’s supporters, but other commentators, determined to uphold the principles of government accountability and transparency have defended the Opposition’s actions.

When A Very British Coup first screened here, back in the late 1980s, I very quickly came to think of it as a wonderful primer in how a genuinely left-wing Labour government should behave. Nowhere was the radicalism of the fictional British PM, Harry Perkins, more vividly on display than in the way he treated his government’s “official information”.

Rather than force political journalists and Opposition MPs to file endless OIA requests and ask endless parliamentary questions, Harry simply announced that what he saw, they would see, also. Everything, from his daily appointments schedule, to Cabinet briefing papers and departmental reports, would be released to the news media, and the public, immediately and without distinction. Government secrecy would become a thing of the past.

Chris Mullin (a British Labour Party MP, as well as a thriller writer) was making a truly revolutionary point about political information.

The moment a government decides that some information is simply too sensitive, problematic and/or embarrassing to be shared with the voters, it is entering into a conspiracy against the public good. Why shouldn’t ordinary citizens know who Cabinet Ministers are meeting with – and the nature and content of their discussions? It is, after all, in their name that government decisions are made, and their money which pays for them. Surely, only a politician with something to hide would raise objections to a policy of full and immediate disclosure?

Civil servants and lobbyists would, of course, object that by exposing their interventions to public scrutiny such a government would very quickly end up being told only those things that their advisers would be happy to see on the front page of the NZ Herald. To which I would respond: “And what’s wrong with that?” If their advice is well-founded in fact and devoid of any hint of self-interest, then what possible objection could they have to the public being copied in? Surely, it would only be those offering tendentious, ideologically-driven advice to ministers, or appealing to them on their private clients’ behalf, who would find such a radical open government policy objectionable?

The old adage: “Information is Power”; imposes a real moral burden on democratic socialist politicians. If democracy is all about giving power to the people, then withholding information from them is, objectively, an act of deliberate disempowerment.

A radical open government policy, such as that adopted by Harry Perkins in A Very British Coup, offers something else to democratic socialist politicians: protection from themselves. Unable to hide their words and deeds from the public, deviating from their own principles and/or their party’s policies becomes much more difficult!

Harry Perkins, unlike Steve Maharey, could never quietly abandon a policy with the cynical observation that it was “just one of those things you say in Opposition and then forget about in Government”. His radical open government policy was, at once, a means of further empowering the people who elected him, and of making sure they were governed by decent and more honest politicians.

No wonder the Establishment was so desperate to bring him down!

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 28 November 2017.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

When Five Million Seems Like A Very Small Number.

Divided Loyalties: When it comes to settling on a Twenty-First Century protector, New Zealand faces a dilemma. The United States provides military protection, but refuses to offer economic security. China provides economic security, but cannot (for the moment) offer military protection. Neither power is likely to go on contributing the ‘missing half’ of a complete protection package indefinitely.

NEW ZEALAND is a tiny nation living in a big country. It’s one of those mind-boggling facts that in an island roughly the same size as New Zealand’s two largest islands combined, the United Kingdom somehow manages to squeeze-in 66 million human-beings. Greater London, alone, packs twice New Zealand’s entire population into an area smaller than Stewart Island. In the greater scheme of things, Planet Earth’s roughly five million New Zealanders don’t count for much: not in the eyes of the other 7.6 billion human-beings who share it with them.

Given its tiny population, how should New Zealand position itself vis-à-vis the rest of the world? How does it deal with the all-too-obvious discrepancy between its landmass and its population?

This is not a trick question. As Maori discovered in the Nineteenth Century: a large pair of islands, located comfortably in the southern hemisphere’s temperate zone, and peopled by (at most) 150,000 human-beings; is simply too-tempting a prize for the world’s predator nations to ignore. Had the tribes not signed-up with the British, chances are they’d have signed-on with the French.

From a strategic perspective, the Maori decision to place themselves under the protection of what was then the world’s most powerful state makes perfect sense. That their faith in the British Government’s promise to respect the manifold local sovereignties of hapu and iwi was misplaced is hardly their fault! Even after the military defeat and economic marginalisation of New Zealand’s indigenous population, however, the Waitangi signatories’ original strategic insight remains unimpeachable. Two relatively large, but thinly-populated islands, located at the bottom of the world, will always be in need of at least one unanswerably powerful friend.

Unfortunately, that sort of protection comes at a price. (As any victim of the New York Mafia will attest!) And, Dear God! New Zealand has paid dearly! For keeping the sea-lanes open to the endless circuit of refrigerated vessels transporting this country’s lamb, wool, butter and cheese to the port cities of the British Isles, the “Mother Country” siphoned-off a small lake of New Zealand blood.

Less visceral, but arguably even more debilitating, was the oppressive cultural straight-jacket into which the United Kingdom fastened its most loyal dominion. All the worst features of British imperialism: its deeply ingrained class prejudices; the complacent avarice of its monied elites; and, most damaging of all, the Empire’s indefatigable racism; left deep scars on New Zealand’s collective psyche. More than a century after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and notwithstanding the tragic losses of two world wars, New Zealanders – Maori as well as Pakeha – could still be reduced to obsequious delirium by the mere physical presence of the reigning British monarch.

There was, however, no disputing the fact that Britain’s imperial sun was setting. If New Zealand was to remain safe, it would require a more credible protector than the over-extended empire whose power-projection pretentions were sent to the bottom of the South China Sea in December 1941.

The United States’ rise to super-power status during World War II, when combined with the UK’s demise as a global player, unleashed a cultural revolution in far-off New Zealand. The official egalitarianism of the American republic, especially when combined with the raw energy of its artistic output – its music and cinema particularly – armed the USA with a historically unprecedented amount of “soft-power”. Though Kiwis have been slow to admit it, the emancipation of their cultural imagination owes an enormous debt of gratitude to their American protector.

New Zealand’s strategic dilemma in the Twenty-First Century arises out of two historically related developments. The first was Deng Xiaoping’s decision to pursue “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” – basically, his Communist Party’s re-invention of traditional Chinese mercantilism. The second, the “Reagan Revolution’s” triumph over Rooseveltian progressivism in the 1980s. This brought about a qualitative change in the character of American soft power. It was a change which many New Zealanders found unpalatable – even frightening.

As the consequences of these two historical shifts worked their way through New Zealand’s economy and society, the maintenance of a coherent foreign policy became increasingly difficult. Economically, New Zealand is oriented firmly towards its crucial Chinese markets. Culturally, diplomatically and militarily, however, the ties that bind remain American. The challenge confronting successive New Zealand governments has been how to reconcile Washington’s insistence that New Zealand remain a US protectorate, while simultaneously refusing to guarantee its economic security.

When it comes to settling on a Twenty-First Century protector, therefore, New Zealand faces a dilemma. The United States provides military protection, but refuses to offer economic security. China provides economic security, but cannot (for the moment) offer military protection. Neither power is likely to go on contributing the ‘missing half’ of a complete protection package indefinitely.

There are times when five million seems like a very small number indeed.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 November 2017.

Monday, 27 November 2017

A Moral Victory: The Supreme Court Rescues Our Judiciary From Itself.

The Last Line Of Defence: What is wrong with our justice system that the judgements of its lower courts have so often been overturned and criticised by the Law Lords of the UK Privy Council and, more latterly, the judges of our own Supreme Court?

THE SUPREME COURT has finally declared the deal struck between the Department of Labour and Pike River boss, Peter Whittall, “unlawful”. A moral victory for Sonja Rockhouse and Anna Osborne, certainly, but hardly a victory for the New Zealand justice system. Though the Supreme Court came through for the plaintiffs in the end, the High Court and, more worrying still, the Court of Appeal, had both earlier rejected their legal team’s arguments. Had these two women not been as tough as the Pike River rock, their gruelling legal journey all the way to the Supreme Court might never have been completed. It would still be legally acceptable for delinquent chief executives to buy their way out of a conviction. Significantly, too much time has passed for Mr Whittall to be hauled back into court.

What is wrong with our justice system that the judgements of its lower courts have so often been overturned and criticised by the Law Lords of the UK Privy Council and, more latterly, the judges of our own Supreme Court? Why, for example, did it require a determined journalist, an Aussie jurist and a bloody-minded prime minister to give Arthur Alan Thomas justice? Why was New Zealand’s Court of Appeal so manifestly unequal to that task? And why was Peter Ellis unable to rely upon that same Court of Appeal to clear his name? In other jurisdictions, all the victims of the moral panics induced by false “Satanic Abuse” accusations had their convictions overturned in their countries’ courts of appeal. Not here.

It’s almost as if the New Zealand courts are afraid of acknowledging the occasional mistakes that all highly complex human institutions are bound to make. That once the State, or the Courts, have determined a person to be guilty, and an institution innocent, then that judgement must be upheld at any cost. Those exercising authority over their fellow citizens have been robed, like the Pope, in the vestments of infallibility. Thus protected, their judgements are only very rarely overturned.

Those filling the high seats of our justice system are not only reluctant to overturn the decisions of their colleagues in the lower courts, but they seem equally reluctant to hold accountable their peers in public administration and corporate management. And woe betide any members of the judiciary who so forget themselves that they condemn wrong-doing in high places in memorable and evocative language. When Judge Peter Mahon called the testimony of Air New Zealand to the Erebus Inquiry “an orchestrated litany of lies”, the national airline appealed to his brother judges to have the offending words struck out. They happily obliged!

This ingrained reluctance to hold New Zealand’s most powerful citizens and institutions to account, renders our justice system contemptible in the eyes of those who look to the judiciary for protection against the growing power of the state and its agencies. As if this failure wasn’t serious enough, the judiciary’s all-too-obvious reverence for the wielders of power in New Zealand society has, over many decades, seeped down into the minds of the broader population, contaminating the pool of potential jurors.

The near impossibility of securing a conviction in even the most egregious cases of police officers breaking the law is, in part, a reflection of the judiciary’s failure to educate the public in the supreme importance of making sure that those entrusted with the enforcement of the law understand how absolutely they are professionally and personally bound to uphold it. It is not difficult to understand why, earlier this week, after learning of the acquittal of two Police officers charged with kidnapping a 17-year-old youth, Dr Dean Knight, a senior law lecturer at Wellington’s Victoria University, tweeted: “I worry the rule of law took a hit today.”

It’s as well the Supreme Court chose the same week to reaffirm the principle that, in a nation of laws, it must remain utterly unacceptable for persons charged with offences to avoid conviction by simply handing over a great deal of money. Until the members of this country’s highest court intervened, the Labour Department’s refusal to present evidence against Peter Whittall had provided the critics of our judicial system with a seemingly irrefutable example of the way in which the powerful are able to close ranks against people like Sonja Rockhouse and Anna Osborne – making a mockery of their expectation that all citizens will be treated equally before the law.

Had they not, then the words of the Ancient Scythian philosopher, Anacharsis, would have been borne out in their entirety:

“These decrees of yours are no different from spiders’ webs. They’ll restrain anyone weak and insignificant who gets caught in them, but they’ll be torn to shreds by people with power and wealth.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 26 November 2017.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Raising Hitler's Ghost.

Another Wild Ride Through Germany? As Germany struggles to construct a government, Eastern European nationalism, the nationalism of Russia, Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine, is having its revenge. The unabashedly white supremacist and Islamophobic populism that has taken hold in the lands to Germany’s east, is summoning from its grave the ghost of Hitler’s psychopathic god. (Painting: "The Wild Ride", 1889, by Franz Von Stuck.)

GERMANY’S TROUBLES always blow in from the East. Unsurprising really, since, geographically speaking, there’s not a lot to stop them. Those fastnesses of steppe, plain and forest, home to all manner of divine scourges, have haunted the Germanic imagination for centuries. Indeed, “guarding the borders” against the ravages of barbarian Lithuanians, Poles and Russians “from the east” has proved to be one of the most consistent themes of Germanic history. Teutonic Knights and Prussian grenadiers; the warriors of Empire and Reich: all have braved the dragons of the East, until, as Germany’s poet-philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, rightly predicted – they turned into dragons themselves.

What began as a mission to protect the volk, eventually morphed into a mandate for conquest. For a thousand years, Germans have inflicted upon their neighbours the very horrors they feared their neighbours were conspiring to inflict upon them. Germanic culture’s unrelenting Drang nach Osten (drive towards the east) stirred up a witches’ brew of ethnic and cultural resentments which continue to trouble the dreams of Europe. The nations born out of the bleeding corpses of the Hohenzollern and Hapsburg empires were never able to transcend the circumstances of their post-World War I creation. Eastern European nationalism remains as extreme in its expression as the German chauvinism which gave it birth.

And now, as Germany struggles to construct a government, all that Eastern European nationalism, the nationalism of Russia, Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine; is having its revenge. The unabashedly white supremacist and Islamophobic populism that has taken hold in the lands to Germany’s east, is summoning from its grave the ghost of Hitler’s psychopathic god. Is it possible that these populist regimes actually believe that a reanimated German fascism will be their friend and ally? That the political genes of the beast which laid waste the physical and human infrastructure of their homelands 75 short years ago, have somehow been altered?

It’s as if the populist governments of Eastern Europe have somehow been persuaded to take seriously Joseph Goebbels’ last ditch propaganda campaigns of 1944-45 – in which the same German armies that had slaughtered millions of Jews and Slavs were re-presented as Europe’s last, best hope against the Asiatic hordes of the Bolshevik East. Are the populists hoping that, in 2017, Germany can be persuaded to undertake another racist crusade: this time against the “Islamisation” of Europe?

Sadly, the unintentional author of this hellish narrative is Germany’s moderate and motherly Chancellor, Angela Merkel. It was she who metaphorically spread wide the arms of her prosperous, post-fascist/post-communist Germany to receive the anguished victims of the Syrian civil war. Upwards of a million refugees poured across Germany’s borders – initially to a warm welcome from tens-of-thousands of generous German citizens. But, even as the new Germany welcomed them in, the flood of Arab refugees prodded awake some of the German nation’s oldest fears. For many of Angela Merkel’s compatriots the refugees represented the archetypal “other”. Syria may be located to Germany’s south, but in the volkish imagination of millions of older Germans they will always be “Easterners”.

Small wonder, then, that the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is so determined to avoid another federal election. Unike Chancellor Merkel, Steinmeier, the Social-Democratic Party and the Greens, are terrified that if another election is forced, the authoritarian populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) already Germany’s third-largest party – will take even more votes off Merkel’s Christian Democrats and its Bavarian sister-party the Christian Social Union.

In the days following the 24 September federal election, it was hoped that a black-yellow-green “Jamaica Coalition” (after the signature colours of the Christian Democrat, Free Democrat and Green parties) could be cobbled together. This ideologically implausible combination of conservatives, neoliberals and ecologists was required because the Social-Democrats had already ruled themselves out of another “Grand Coalition” with Merkel – in part because they did not want to cede the AfD the status of Germany’s largest opposition party.

So corrosive has the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic atmosphere in Germany become, however, that large numbers of rank-and-file members of the leading right-wing parties are falling into step with the AfD’s ideological drummers – forcing their leaders to follow them. The AfD may have secured only 12.6 percent of the Party Vote, but its sympathisers are estimated at three-times that number.

Those rising winds from the East are laden with ashes and tears.

This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 November 2017.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Communist In All But Name! Is Jacinda About to Oversee the Second Peaceful Transition to Kiwi Socialism?

 That's One Scary Lady! For all its bluster and bullshit, Neoliberalism turns out to be a remarkably fragile ideology. So much so, that the election of Jacinda Ardern – the Kiwi politician who dared describe Capitalism as “a blatant failure” – was enough to give Forbes magazine's readers the heebee-jeebees.

TO HEAR FORBES MAGAZINE TELL IT, socialism was achieved in New Zealand during 1960s and 70s, without bloodshed. In an opinion piece published by Forbes on Monday (20/11/17) former Lehman Brother’s staffer, Jared Dillian, put it like this:

“Not long ago, [New Zealand] was one of the most unfree economies that was not actually Communist in name. Most industry was nationalized, from telecommunications and transportation, to banks and hotels.”

This description is intended to – and probably will – shock the One Percenters who subscribe to Forbes. I, however, would happily wear Mr Dillian’s description of pre-1984 New Zealand as a badge of honour.

Most right-wingers insist that socialism can only be imposed on a country by force. They point to Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba and, more recently, to Chavez’s and Maduro’s Venezuela, as proof that the slightest deviation from the shining path of Neoliberalism can only end in tears – and firing-squads. And yet, according to Dillian, New Zealand cracked it! Accomplishing its transition from Capitalism to Socialism through free and fair elections, and without the need for a single gulag, or a single shot being fired.

Naturally, Dillian does his best to paint for his readers the most lurid picture possible of life under New Zealand’s democratic-socialist regime. One can only imagine his millionaire readers shuddering with fear upon learning that:

“There were strict capital controls and prohibitions on owning foreign assets. And of course, punitively high tax rates, inflation, and extraordinary levels of government debt.”

Now, high inflation and crippling government debt were all-too-common afflictions during the 1970s, and by no means confined to “unfree economies” like New Zealand. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 had destabilised the “free” and “unfree” economies of the world with admirable even-handedness.

Not that Neoliberal boosters, like Mr Dillian, will ever admit that these sudden and dramatic increases in the price of industrial capitalism’s most indispensable commodity offer a far better explanation for the demise of post-war prosperity than the Right’s “usual suspects” – meddling politicians, self-serving bureaucrats and out-of-control trade unionists.

Like all good fairy stories, however, Mr Dillian’s has a happy ending:

“The 1980s saw an enormous rollback in the size and scope of government, and the beginning of a supply-side revolution. Of course, economic liberalization was happening around the world at that time, but it was most dramatic in tiny New Zealand.”

On that Mr Dillian and I find ourselves in agreement!

A few sentences back, I made reference to Mr Dillian’s happy ending: in that regard, it seems, I was a little premature. For all its bluster and bullshit, Neoliberalism turns out to be a remarkably fragile ideology. So much so, that the election of Jacinda Ardern – the Kiwi politician who dared describe Capitalism as “a blatant failure” – was enough to give Mr Dillian (and no doubt a good many of his readers) the heebee-jeebees:

“It seems likely that New Zealand will experience a recession during Ardern’s term. Nobody is predicting a return to the bad old days of the 70s, but New Zealand will probably lose its status as one of the most open, free economies in the world. It takes decades to weaken an economy, just like it takes decades to strengthen it. But investors will probably want to avoid New Zealand for the time being.”

For my money, that’s the most heart-warming endorsement of our new Labour Prime Minister that I have read to date. If Jacinda, with just two words, can shake the very foundations of Wall Street, then it’s possible that a “return to the bad old days of the 70s” may turn out to be something more than this old socialist’s pipe dream.

According to Mr Dillian, we Kiwis have pulled off a peaceful transition to something approaching “Communism” (although we didn’t call it that!) once before. If he’s right about that, then who’s to say that he isn’t also right about our new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, being just the person to do it again!

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 23 November 2017.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Building an “Active Democracy” through “Constructive Engagement”. Chris Trotter responds to John Minto.

 Woman In The Hot Seat: New Zealand needs to develop new relationships with the countries of the Pacific Rim. And those new relationships need to be based on progressive ideals, mutual protection and solid economic self-interest – with the latter being underpinned and facilitated through mutually beneficial multilateral trade agreements. Throughout history, trade and peace have marched hand-in-hand. New Zealand diplomacy needs to reflect that fact.

“UNBELIEVABLE! WRONG! IDIOTIC!” One of the many admirable qualities about John Minto is that he never leaves anyone in any doubt about where he stands. His rejection of the strategy of “constructive engagement” with the Labour-NZ First-Green Government is unequivocal. For John, only “active democratic opposition” to Labour’s rather tentative embrace of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) will suffice. In spite of the fact that barely thirty days have passed since Winston Peters anointed Jacinda Ardern as New Zealand’s first progressive prime minister in nine years, John is ready to call the Left onto the streets in protest at her government’s refusal to walk away from the CPTPP.

John’s argument for actively opposing the coalition government on this issue is driven by his conviction that the CPTPP is, substantially, the same document that the previous National Government signed up to in 2016. If this is true, then his question – “Why would any self-respecting New Zealander oppose the TPPA when National was in government and then excuse Labour for signing up to it?” – is entirely fair. But is the CPTPP substantially the same document as the TPPA? Unfortunately for John’s argument, the answer is an emphatic “No!”

The withdrawal of the United States from the TPP has fundamentally weakened the agreement and prompted its signatories to set in motion a plethora of revisionist initiatives. In the absence of the US, most of the worst clauses of the TPP are in abeyance until the Americans are ready to return to the fold – at which point the remaining signatories are practically certain to demand their renegotiation. True, the hated Investor/State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions stand part of the new CPTPP, but only in an attenuated form, and with a majority of the signatories actively pursuing bi-lateral “side agreements” intended to render them toothless.

These agreements are evidence of the growing global effort to diminish the power and scope of corporate interference in the affairs of nation states which the ISDS processes represent. This resistance to corporate power is not limited to “working people around the world”, as John suggests. On the contrary, it is being spearheaded by the same national governments which were forced to bail-out the delinquent financial institutions responsible for the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09. Donald Trump, himself, is a fierce opponent of the ISDS provisions of multilateral trade agreements – quite rightly perceiving them as a threat to United States’ sovereignty. John is insisting that Jacinda’s government lop-off the ISDS provisions as some sort of grand anti-corporate gesture. She and her advisers, wisely in my view, are content to let them wither on the vine.

The Coalition Government’s circumspection in regard to the CPTPP is admirable in another, very import, respect. It indicates the Labour-led Government’s determination to avoid being drawn into the looming geopolitical stand-off between the United States and China.

Many New Zealanders would have noticed the diplomatic bonding that took place between Jacinda and the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in Danang and Manilla. This relationship is important – especially in the light of Australia’s recent, heavy-handed pushback against Jacinda’s Manus Island initiative. The new government is clearly looking to build diplomatic relationships untainted by America’s and Australia’s aggressive geopolitical ambitions. Wooing Canada is a good start. If followed by a strengthening of New Zealand’s relationships with the peoples of South America, it may allow us to “respectfully decline” to participate in Donald Trump’s, Shinzo Abe’s and Malcolm Turnbull’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy”.

With Australia as its southern pivot, the Indo-Pacific Strategy envisages the United States, Japan and India running a two-ocean-straddling policy of economic and military containment against the People’s Republic.

This is not a strategy New Zealand should have any part of, and yet, as John rightly points out: “The big Australian banks have been [plundering our economy] for decades. In 2015 for example the BNZ, ANZ, ASB and Westpac took over $4.4 billion in profit from this country.” New Zealand needs to prepare – and quickly – for the day when it may need to unequivocally distance itself from the increasingly bellicose policies of the US, Japan, Australia and India. When that day comes, the Australian bullying we have witnessed over the past week will be made to look like child’s play!

New Zealand needs to develop new relationships with the countries of the Pacific Rim. And those new relationships need to be based on progressive ideals, mutual protection and solid economic self-interest – with the latter being underpinned and facilitated through mutually beneficial multilateral trade agreements. Throughout history, trade and peace have marched hand-in-hand. New Zealand diplomacy needs to reflect that fact.

Is the CPTPP perfect, John? Of course, it isn’t. But, it is a substantially different document from the TPP-11, and the original TPPA. Rather than see the as-yet-unsigned agreement as a reason to get out and protest on the streets, it is my contention that we should view it as an opportunity to construct a new, progressive consensus about New Zealand’s place in the world – one which eschews the dangerous ambitions of our larger neighbours. It seems to me that Jacinda has already caught a glimpse of this radically different future, and she is as determined as we are to reposition New Zealand in a way that keeps its people safe, prosperous and independent.

My term for this drive towards a new consensus encompassing New Zealand’s diplomatic, military and economic future is “constructive engagement”. John might prefer to call it “active democracy”. Whatever its name, I do not believe it is in any way unbelievable, idiotic or wrong to call for a united front of progressive activists on the ground, to complement and energise the united front of progressive parties – Labour, NZ First and the Greens – in Parliament.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 21 November 2017.

Is The Talented Mr Twyford Talented Enough?

The Man With The Plan: The “Housing Crisis” strikes at the core expectations of hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders. By promising to meet those expectations, the Labour-led government has made itself a hostage to the supremely-confident individual who insists that he alone has the political skills to end the crisis – Phil Twyford.

PHIL TWYFORD is an eye-roller. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We all know eye-rollers: those guys (and gals) who consider themselves to be so incontestably “across” a subject that anyone offering a contrary viewpoint is dismissed with an exasperated roll of the eyes. All well and good, providing the subject under discussion is rugby, or the best way to cook a Christmas turkey. But, if the subject under scrutiny is housing: the issue upon which this government is positioned to either succeed or fail; well then, that’s not so good. Not so good at all.

It doesn’t help that the Minister of Housing and Transport, in addition to being an eye-roller, is also a chin-jutter. As anyone who’s ever watched him on television can attest, he is prone to sailing into political discussions like one of those Ancient Greek war-galleys: with his chin standing-in for the battering-ram! Unhelpfully, by positioning his head in this way, Phil is more-or-less required to look down his nose – which only makes things worse!

Eye-rolling superiority, coupled with chin-jutting belligerence, can sometimes work for a politician. Especially when they’re simply part of a much larger ensemble of intimidating behavioural gestures. Just think of Sir Robert Muldoon – or Donald Trump! On the other hand, if you’re determined to be Mean Mr Mustard, then there’s absolutely no point in you also attempting to be Sweet Baby James! Or Phil, for that matter.

All very personal. But, a politician’s personality is not something to be casually disregarded. As Jacinda Ardern has so spectacularly demonstrated, the ability to project a likeable personality can take a politician – and her party – a very long way indeed! By the same token, an irritating political persona can all-too-easily distract voters from their government’s core messages, or, even worse, impede the progress of its core policies.

There is no policy more critical to this Government’s political survival than housing. The availability and affordability of warm, dry houses for all New Zealanders was a key voter motivator in the 2017 election. For many working-class Kiwis, simply finding somewhere to live – at a rent they can afford – has become a relentless struggle. At the same time, young middle-class Kiwis are beginning to despair of ever being able to afford to buy a home of their own. The “Housing Crisis” thus strikes at the core expectations of hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders. By promising to meet those expectations, the Labour-led government has made itself a hostage to the supremely-confident individual who insists that he alone has the political skills to end the crisis – Phil Twyford.

No pressure, then, Phil.

Except, every day, the pressures bearing on just about every aspect of the housing crisis grow. Most seriously, doubts have been expressed within both the Reserve Bank and Treasury about the viability of Labour’s flagship housing programme, “KiwiBuild”.

Promising to build 100,000 “affordable houses” in ten years, KiwiBuild has stood at the centre of Labour’s housing policy since 2012: a flashy hand-me-down from the doomed leadership of David Shearer. Essentially, KiwiBuild was a feel-good policy, cobbled-together by the Labour Right to defuse an internal party crisis. It was a rickety concept five years ago and, unfortunately, it’s gotten no stronger.

The problem with KiwiBuild, along with Labour’s other big promise to build an additional 1,000 state houses per annum, is that there simply isn’t an agency of sufficient size and authority; with sufficient financial resources, labour and building materials; to turn Labour’s promises into actual houses in anything like the numbers promised. Regardless, Twyford refuses to countenance the socialistic methods adopted by the First Labour Government, preferring, instead, to rely upon “the market” for a construction effort unprecedented in 80 years.

Accordingly, KiwiBuild looks set to become one of the largest Public-Private-Partnerships in New Zealand history. At least as large as the partnership between the First Labour Government and James Fletcher’s state house construction firm. Unfortunately, this is not 1937: there is simply no slack in the building industry: everything, including its labour force, is fully stretched. Nevertheless, Twyford remains “confident” that the private sector will come to the KiwiBuild party. In the absence of substantial state subsidisation, however, that seems unlikely.

The only path to fulfilling Labour’s housing promises is via the creation of a massive state-directed, properly resourced and publicly-funded entity, driven forward with the same monomaniacal zeal displayed by New Zealand’s first housing “czar”, John A Lee. Jacinda Ardern erred in over-loading Twyford with two key portfolios: Transport and Housing. She should have given the whole Transport portfolio to the Greens’ Julie Anne Genter.

Twyford does not believe he is overburdened. Nor does he accept that his reliance on the private sector will ensure Kiwibuild becomes a fatal political failure. Suggest otherwise and he will simply jut out his chin, and roll his eyes.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 November 2017.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Settling In: How Was The Last Labour-Led Government Doing Two Months Out From Election Day?

Entitled “The View From The Seventh Floor”, this article was published on 26 January 2000, sixty days after the election of the Labour-Alliance coalition government on 27 November 1999. The circumstances and challenges confronting Helen Clark’s new government, when set alongside those facing Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues, are at once strikingly similar but also jarringly different. By reproducing my seventeen-year-old article today, I hope to provide the readers of Bowalley Road with an opportunity to compare and contrast these two historical moments of significant political departure. - Chris Trotter

WHAT HAPPENS on the Seventh Floor of the Beehive affects everyone. From a handful of cramped offices thirty metres above Lambton Quay, issue forth the media releases, speech notes, bills and regulations intended to shape ­- and re-shape - the New Zealand economy. For the next three years, the speed and direction of economic policy will be determined by the two politicians currently occupying the Seventh Floor – Labour’s Treasurer and Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, and Jim Anderton, the Alliance’s Minister for Economic Development. The success or failure of these two ministers will have an enormous bearing on the fate of the Labour-Alliance Coalition. Voters respond most vociferously to Government decisions which have a direct impact on their material standard of living. If they wish to remain on the Seventh Floor, Cullen and Anderton will have to get it right much more often than they get it wrong.

Five years ago, the idea that Michael Cullen and Jim Anderton might one day be working alongside one another would have been greeted with derision. As Labour and the Alliance staked out their respective economic positions, the responsibility for articulating the issues which divided the two parties fell to the two men who must now – somehow – unite them. It must be said, that both Cullen and Anderton embraced the former task with all the fervour and vitriol for which the Left is famous. Cullen christened the Alliance Leader “Jim Il Sung” – equating Anderton’s protectionist predilections with the North Korean command economy. Anderton, not to be outdone, never tired of reminding Alliance audiences that Cullen’s air-fare to an exclusive seminar in Aspen, Colorado, had been paid for by a member of the Business Roundtable so that Labour’s finance spokesperson could be further indoctrinated with New Right economic theory.

These were blunt rhetorical instruments, however, when compared to the razor-sharp analysis of Laila Harré, who, in her maiden speech to Parliament, provided by far the best summary of the policy issues separating Labour and the Alliance:

“A government cannot both embrace the full force of globalisation and retain sovereignty over key economic decisions. A government cannot deliver a first class health and education service accessible to all regardless of wealth without a substantially more progressive income tax system. A government cannot deal with fundamental issues of biosecurity and ecological diversity by adopting a market model which will by definition subsume these needs to the perceived interests of foreign investors. These fundamental issues of difference between the Alliance and Labour must be resolved, and not simply disguised by clever packaging.”

It is now clear that Harré’s words were directed as much towards her own party’s leadership as they were to Labour. The 1996 election débacle brought about a decisive shift in Jim Anderton’s
long-term political strategy, the first sign of which was his June 1997 speech to the NewLabour Party conference in Hamilton, where he proposed a substantial revision of the Alliance’s taxation policies. This rightward shift brought the smouldering civil war within the Alliance’s ranks to flash-point - precipitating a battle in which the Marxist Left of the NLP was pitted against an opportunistic coalition made up of Anderton supporters, Mana Motuhake and the Democrats. The Greens, rather than become involved in another three years of fratricidal bloodletting, opted to withdraw from the Alliance altogether.

Anderton’s faction – as so often in the past – emerged triumphant from the repositioning argument, thereby clearing the way for the formal rapprochement with Labour which took place at the Alliance Annual Conference held on Massey University’s Albany campus in August 1998. The decision of the latter to opt for a “loose” coalition with Labour – rather than a detailed National/NZ First-style agreement – signalled a further defeat for the NLP Left. Harré and her allies had argued strongly for a much less accommodating approach.

From Helen Clark and Michael Cullen’s perspective, Anderton’s demonstrated capacity to master the Left of the Alliance was a necessary precondition to any reciprocal shift of position on the part of the Labour Party. The Labour Caucus’s decision to confirm a six cent tax hike for those earning more than $60,000 per annum was Clark and Cullen’s answering gesture to Albany’s warm fuzziness – and proof positive that the process of “policy convergence” was now an accomplished fact.

Astute readers will recognise in this brief historical narrative a political motif strikingly similar to the one imposed on NZ First by Michael Laws in 1996. Before either party could “coalesce” with a mainstream political force, it first had to be shorn of its more radical elements. That this process necessarily entailed the shedding of large chunks of its electoral support, and the steady disillusionment of its most active supporters, was considered by both the Alliance and the NZ First leadership to be the unavoidable price of power.

All attempts by the Left of the NLP to arrest this process of de-radicalisation proved fruitless. In spite of Alliance Director Matt McCarten’s best Machiavellian efforts to supplant Mana Motuhake and Democrat candidates with NLP Leftists on the Alliance List, the tax issue once again provided Anderton with the means to demote and exclude the radicals from serious contention. By aligning the Alliance’s initial tax rate with Labour’s, Anderton not only eliminated the progressive elements of Alliance fiscal policy, but also undermined its capacity to offer a truly radical alternative to Labour’s economic direction. The NLP Left’s last ditch defence of Progressive Taxation did little more than reveal the true extent of its isolation and weakness within the wider Alliance coalition.

Walking around the Seventh Floor of the Beehive today, one gets the feeling that Jim Anderton has “come home”. Surrounding the Minister of Economic Development is exactly the same group of individuals who supplied him with advice and support back in the late 1980s. Just across the circular stairwell is the office of Peter Harris - the former CTU economist who, alongside the redoubtable Pat Kelly, was one of the key driving forces of the Labour Party’s “Economic Policy Network” – a group set up by Anderton in the mid-1980s to contest the Douglas/Prebble assertion that “There is No Alternative”. Interestingly, Peter Harris is now advising Michael Cullen. Advising Anderton, as they have done since 1988, are Integrated Economic Services’ John Lepper, Petrus Simons, and Len Bayliss. The other long-term advisor from the 80s with easy access to Anderton’s office is constitutional lawyer, Andrew Ladley. It was Ladley who successfully argued the case for Anderton’s readmission to the Labour Caucus following his suspension for refusing to support the privatisation of the BNZ in 1988.

Matt McCarten’s request to keep the Alliance’s Parliamentary and Organisational staff in close physical proximity – i.e. on the same floor of the Executive Building - was over-ruled by both Anderton and Clark. If you want to chat with the radicals nowadays you have to move out of the Beehive altogether and make your way through a maze of corridors to their new offices in the old parliamentary complex. Nothing could better illustrate the changes that have swept over the Alliance as it has moved steadily towards the political mainstream.

It was a series of tactical – not ideological – differences which separated Cullen, and Anderton back in the late-1980s. Ten years on, even those have disappeared.

This essay was originally published in The Independent Business Weekly of Wednesday, 26 January 2000.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

A Song For The Times - "The Perilous Night" by Drive-By Truckers.

Something's got a hold of our feel alright
out of control in the appetite.
We're moving in to the perilous night, Amen.

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Not Quite An Act Of War: Analysing Australia’s Push-Back Against Jacinda’s Manus Island Outreach.

Real Human Suffering: In the face of the extraordinary Australian push-back against the government of Jacinda Ardern, it is important to remember the people at the centre of this controversy - the appallingly-treated victims of Australia's "Pacific Solution" who remain trapped on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

YOU HAVE TO GO BACK A LONG WAY to find anything remotely resembling Australia’s current treatment of New Zealand. For a supposedly friendly government to deliberately inject inflammatory disinformation into the political bloodstream of its supposedly closest neighbour is an extraordinarily provocative act. Not quite an act of war, but the sort of intervention that can all-too-easily provoke a catastrophic loss of trust.

It’s the sort of thing that the Soviets and the Americans used to do to one another all the time during the Cold War. Except, of course, those two superpowers were ideological and geopolitical rivals of the first order. It takes a real effort to re-cast the relationship between New Zealand and Australia in similar terms. Nevertheless, it’s an effort we are now obliged to make.

So, what is it that Australia has done? Essentially, its national security apparatus (presumably at the instigation of their political leaders) has released, mostly through media surrogates, a number of related stories calculated to inflame the prejudices of a certain type of New Zealander.

Like Australia, New Zealand harbours a frighteningly large number of racists. Politically-speaking, such people are easily aroused and have few qualms about setting-off ugly, racially-charged, debates on talkback radio, in the letters columns of the daily newspapers and across social media. These individuals are trouble enough when all they have to fight with are their own stereotypes and prejudices. Arm them with the carefully assembled disinformation of “fake news” and they instantly become quite dangerous.

And yet, this is exactly what the Australian authorities have done. Planting stories in their own press (knowing they will be picked up almost immediately by our own) about at least four boatloads of illegal immigrants that have set out for New Zealand only to be intercepted and turned back by the ever-vigilant officers of the Royal Australian Navy and their Coast Guard comrades. The purpose of this story (unsourced and lacking in detail, making it, almost certainly, fake news) was to paint New Zealand’s prime minister as an ill-informed and ungrateful diplomatic naïf: an inexperienced young idealist who doesn’t know which way is up when it comes to dealing with real-world problems.

This, alone, was an extraordinary intervention. To gauge how extraordinary, just turn it around. Imagine the reaction in Australia if some unnamed person in New Zealand’s national security apparatus leaked a memo to one of this country’s daily newspapers in which the negative diplomatic and economic consequences of being tainted by association with Australia’s flouting of international law is set forth in clinical detail. If the memo also contained a collection of highly critical assessments of Turnbull’s cabinet colleagues, allegedly passed-on by a number of unnamed western diplomats, then so much the better!

Canberra would not be impressed!

If the Australians had left it at just one intervention, then perhaps New Zealanders could simply have shrugged it off as yet another case of bad behaviour from the land of the under-arm bowlers. But when have the Aussies ever left it at “just one”?

The next intervention came in the form of “Ian” – formerly a guard (or so he said) at both the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. For reasons it has yet to adequately explain, RNZ’s Checkpoint programme provided “Ian” with nearly ten, largely uninterrupted, minutes of air-time during which he poured-forth a stream of accusations and characterisations which, to put it mildly, painted the protesters occupying the decommissioned Manus Island facility in the most lurid and disquieting colours. The detainees were criminals, drug-dealers – paedophiles even! Not at all the sort of people New Zealanders would want in their country.

“Ian”, it turns out, is a “witness” well-known to the many Australian NGOs that have taken up the cause of the detainees on Manus and Nauru. They have noted the curious similarities between “Ian’s” supposedly personal observations and experiences, and the inflammatory talking-points constantly reiterated by Australia’s hard-line Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton. A cynic might describe the grim “testimony” of “Ian” and Dutton as mutually reinforcing.

No matter. New Zealand’s racist, Islamophobic and militantly anti-immigrant community had been supplied with yet another truckload of Australian-manufactured ammunition.

Enough? Not hardly! Only this morning (17/11/17) New Zealanders were fed the shocking “news” that the protesting Manus Island detainees are harbouring within their ranks an unspecified number of men guilty of having debauched and prostituted local girls as young as 10 and 13!

Too much? Over the top? Redolent of the very worst instances of the murderous racial-incitement for which the Deep South of the United States was so rightly infamous? It sure is! Which is why we must hope that the Internet does not operate on Manus Island. Because, if the local inhabitants were to read on-line that the detainees were responsible for prostituting their daughters, what might they NOT do?

One almost feels that the Australian spooks behind this extraordinary disinformation campaign would actually be delighted if the locals burned down the Manus Island detention centre with the protesting detainees inside it.

“This is what comes of 37-year-old Kiwi prime ministers meddling in matters they know nothing about!” That would be the consistent theme of the right-wing Australian media. It would not take long for the same line to be picked up here: first on social media, and then by more mainstream media outlets. Right-wing outrage, mixed with a gleeful “we told you so!”, could not, however, be contained within the news media for very long. Inevitably, the more outré inhabitants of the Opposition’s back bench would take possession of the controversy, from there it would cascade down rapidly to Opposition politicians nearer the front.

Before her enemies could say: “It’s all your fault!”, Jacinda would find herself under withering political fire from both sides of the Tasman. Canberra would register her increasingly fragile government’s distress with grim satisfaction.

As the men and women responsible for organising “Operation Stardust” deleted its final folder, and fed the last incriminating document into the paper-shredder, one or two of them might even have voiced a judiciously muted “Mission Accomplished!”

This essay was posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Saturday, 18 November 2017.

Friday, 17 November 2017

What Are The Greens Playing At?

"WTF, James!" The Greens do not appear to understand that the key to improving their party’s position electorally, as well as strengthening its hand politically, lies in conceiving of the Labour-NZ First-Green government as a single entity: one which must either hang together or, most assuredly, it will hang separately! Stealing their comrades’ electoral lunch, in these circumstances, can only damage the Greens every bit as much as it damages (and enrages!) Labour and NZ First.

WHAT DO THE GREENS think they’re playing at? Their response to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has done themselves, and the government they’re ostensibly part of, a huge disservice. Honestly, it’s the sort of reaction one might expect from a clutch of radical student politicians: long on “principle”, short on common-sense. If this is how the Greens plan to conduct themselves over the next three years, then they had better find themselves an electorate they can win (without Labour’s support!) and fast. Because keeping their party above the 5 percent MMP threshold is likely to prove a constant struggle.

Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves that by waving their anti-TPP banners across Twitter and Facebook they will pick up all those “woke” voters who’ve accused Jacinda Ardern and David Parker of “selling out” to global capitalism at Danang. How many might that be? Almost certainly a lot fewer than the very substantial number of generous Labour supporters who gave the Greens their Party Vote on 23 September to make sure they didn’t disappear from Parliament altogether. If the Greens aren’t willing to reciprocate that sort of solidarity, then there’s bugger-all chance of it being repeated!

The Greens do not appear to understand that the key to improving their party’s position electorally, as well as strengthening its hand politically, lies in conceiving of the Labour-NZ First-Green government as a single entity: one which must either hang together or, most assuredly, it will hang separately! Stealing their comrades’ electoral lunch, in these circumstances, can only damage the Greens every bit as much as it damages (and enrages!) Labour and NZ First.

But, then, strategic (or even tactical!) thinking would not appear to be the Greens’ strong suit. Was there no one in their caucus capable of imagining the grim spectre that was bound to be raised by their very public repudiation of the CPTPP? Not one person in their ranks with the wit to realise that by withdrawing their 8 votes from the Government, the Greens would be driving Jacinda straight into the arms of Bill English and the National Party? Did no Green MP pause to consider the “optics” of that? Of how much damage it would inflict on all three of the governing parties?

Even if Labour capitulated at the last moment, and agreed to pull New Zealand out of the CPTPP – would the Greens count that as a “victory”? If so, they’d be wrong. Such a public demonstration of the tail wagging the dog would be catastrophic for Labour and the Greens alike. And if Labour refused to be blackmailed and allowed the National Party to ride to its rescue? What would that say about the viability of the Labour-NZ First-Green government? What would it mean for the relationship between Jacinda and James Shaw? Labour’s wrath would be terrible to behold – but not as terrible as their revenge!

It all could have been handled so differently. All that was required of the Greens’ caucus was some evidence they understood that contributing usefully to the work of a progressive government requires just a little more in the way of political finesse than denying the right of free speech to a handful of National Front tragics in Parliament grounds.

On the CPTPP issue, for example, the Greens could have reached out to their Canadian counterparts for advice on how to build the largest possible political consensus around what should – and should not – be included in a multilateral trade agreement. In this, they would have been doing Labour a huge favour: making the arguments that the Prime Minister and her Trade Minister could not be seen to make, but which would, nevertheless, strengthen their hand in future negotiations.

As it is, by firing off all their “principled” bullets at once (and before their target was even within range!) they have taken themselves out of the game. Even worse, they have demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, that they don’t even know what the game is – or how to play it!

That is not something which can be said of NZ First. Winston Peters has maintained a judicious silence concerning the desirability – or otherwise – of the CPTPP. He will study the problem professionally, from all angles, until he locates exactly the right point to exercise his leverage.

My advice to the Greens? Watch and learn.

This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 November 2017.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Darkness At The End Of The Rainbow?

YES! Australians cheer the result of the postal plebiscite on Marriage Equality. This emphatic victory for social liberalism (61.6/38.4 percent) will hit conservative Australians hard. Liberal and National Party strategists may, however, attempt to exploit the fact that of the 17 federal electorates that voted "No", 11 are held by the Labor Party. Progressive Australians have won an important battle - but the culture war will go on.

WEDNESDAY, 15 NOVEMBER 2017 will go down in Australian history as Marriage Equality Day. In an unprecedented national plebiscite, 61.6 percent of the 79.5 percent of voting-age Australians who returned their postal ballots voted YES to marriage equality. With this resounding vote in favour, Australia joined the rest of the world’s progressive nations in rejecting homophobia and discrimination.

But, Wednesday, 15 November 2017 will be remembered for something more than Australia’s endorsement of marriage equality. It will also be recorded by social historians and psephologists as the day conservative Australians were required to accept a forceful and irrefutable message confirming their minority status in Australian society.

Hostility towards homosexuality is one of the most reliable markers of the authoritarian personality. It will, therefore, come as a profound shock to people of this personality type that their attitudes are not shared by an overwhelming majority of the population. That nearly two-thirds of their fellow citizens see nothing untoward about same sex couples getting married will deliver a shattering blow to their perception of “normality”. They will be dismayed by how far the world has strayed from their “traditional values”.

For some, the events of 15 November 2017 will prompt a thorough-going reassessment of their moral and political expectations of themselves and their fellow Australians. If they are lucky, this reassessment will liberate them from the debilitating effects of conservative ideology, fundamentalist religious beliefs and authoritarian attitudes. For many others, perhaps a majority, however, the discovery that their hatreds and prejudices towards the LGBTI community is shared by just 38.4 percent of their fellow Australians will evoke a very different – and potentially dangerous – response.

For these conservatives, the plebiscite outcome will be interpreted as irrefutable proof of how sick and sinful their society has become. Religious conservatives, in particular, will have no difficulty accepting their minority status. After all, doesn’t Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, enjoin them to enter in by the strait gate? “[F]or wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat”? And doesn’t he also say that “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

No, the Christian fundamentalists will not be in the least bit surprised to discover that 61.6 percent of their neighbours are going to Hell.

Political conservatives and authoritarian personalities will have a much harder time of it, however. For their brand of politics, 15 November 2017 can only have been a profoundly delegitimating experience. Electorally, it could very easily signal their imminent marginalisation. “Mainstream” politicians will now have to adjust to the fact that social liberalism, which they understood to be confined to the effete inhabitants of the inner-cities, is actually embraced by a much more extensive cross-section of the Australian population. For many, on both sides of the parliamentary aisle, it will rapidly become advisable to evince a more progressive and tolerant political persona.

For the diehards, however, it is not yet the time to lay down their arms and surrender to the bacchanalian throngs gyrating joyously in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne. They still have eleven cards left to play.

The more sharp-eyed and ruthless members of the Liberal and National party rooms will have noticed that of the 17 federal electorates which voted “No” to marriage equality, fully 11 of them are held by the Australian Labor Party. In the strategically vital “Western Suburbs” of Sydney, the seats of Greenway, Chifley, McMahon, Fowler, Warriwa, Blaxland, Watson, Barton and Parramatta – all of them held by Labor MPs – voted “No”. Some, like Greenway, only very narrowly. (53.6 percent) Others, like Blaxland, by a huge margin. (73.9 percent!) In socially-liberal (some would say, radical) Melbourne, the only electorates which rejected marriage equality were the Labor-held seats of Calwell and Bruce.

There is simply no way the Labor Party can defeat the Liberal-National Coalition if even a handful of these eleven safe seats slip from the Opposition’s grasp. And while, in normal times, any suggestion that a seat like Chifley might be lost to the Liberals would be greeted with full-strength Aussie derision, it remains an awkward fact that we are not living in normal times.

Prior to 8 November 2016, the very idea that the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania might be about to fall to Trump would have been met with loud American guffaws. But not after 8 November. Lashed and goaded in just the right way, the normally left-voting inhabitants of places like Michigan – or Chifley – can end up doing the strangest things.

For progressive Australians, 15 November 2017 will forever be bathed in all the vibrant colours of the rainbow. But, for the conservative ideologues, the religious fanatics and the authoritarian personalities trapped in their suffocating character armour, 15 November 2017 will be registered as nothing more than a temporary setback. The bigots might concede that, on this memorable day, they have lost a battle. But, for them, the war against a society grounded in gentleness, tolerance and love will go on.

This essay has been posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Thursday, 16 November 2017.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A Very Lucky Escape.

Brave Faces At Danang: David Parker and Jacinda Ardern field questions from the news media at the meeting of Apec in Danang, Vietnam. What the new Labour-led government needed more than anything else from this meeting was what they came home with - Time.

THE TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP (TPP) is not dead, but neither can it be said to be in the rudest of health. Considerable last-minute diplomatic scurrying was required to save the Japanese government from a humiliating loss of face. Negotiations, accordingly, are said to be “continuing”. Nothing, however, should be expected before February 2018 – at the earliest. Which means that, for the moment at least, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Trade Minister David Parker, like Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, have taken possession of the commodity they most needed to bring home from Danang – Time.

The situation into which Ardern was flying aboard the RNZAF’s Boeing 757 at the end of last week offered no guarantee that such precious time would be on offer. Danang was fraught with multiple dangers: economic, diplomatic and political.

As the leader of a small trading nation, New Zealand’s prime minister simply cannot affect a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to something as big as the TPP. The inescapable truth confronting Ardern (as it has every one of her predecessors) is that this country’s status as a first-world nation is inescapably contingent upon earning sufficient overseas currency to import the sort of lifestyle to which most Kiwis believe themselves entitled. Bluntly: faced with the choice of announcing whether her government is “in” or “out” of a major trade agreement; no New Zealand prime minister can say “out” with impunity.

All of the official advice the Prime Minister has received to date on the TPP will have kicked-off from that position. Certainly, it will have been the argument reiterated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). It will also have been the lustily repeated refrain of this country’s major exporters. Likewise, from what might be called the “globalisation lobby” imbedded in NGO-land, academia and the media.

Taken together, a very large and intimidating crowd to say “no” to!

Even larger and much more intimidating, however, are the nation states determined to see the TPP (or, as it has rather tendentiously been re-named, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership – CPTPP!) ratified and implemented. The agreement’s principal cheerleader (now that the USA has withdrawn) is Japan, whose diplomatic reach proved to be more than long enough to secure Justin Trudeau’s return to the negotiating table. (It may have been Canada’s wish to walk away from the TPP-11 altogether, but Japan’s “arguments” were clearly “persuasive” enough to cause its prime minister to have second-thoughts and turn around!)

If Canada, with 36.3 million people and the second-largest economy of the remaining TPP signatories, couldn’t make it all the way to the departure lounge at Danang, then what were the odds of little New Zealand making it even as far as the door? New Zealand political leaders have only to review their country’s diplomatic, military and economic experience with the USA between 1984 and 2010 to gain some appreciation of the costs associated with taking a “principled stand”. World headlines last only a few days – their consequences can last for decades.

And then, of course, you have to come home.

It is probable that the National Party was hoping more earnestly than Professor Jane Kelsey and the entire New Zealand Left that Prime Minister Ardern would take a “principled stand” on the TPP. Had she stood up and said “no”, not only would she have felt the full wrath of Japan and its allies, but, from the moment her feet once again touched New Zealand soil, she would also have felt the full blast of a searing political firestorm.

The Urgent Debate in Parliament, which Speaker Mallard would have no choice but to grant the National Opposition, would only be the beginning. Day after day, the voices of exporters, business leaders, bank economists, business journalists, media commentators, academic experts and the globalisation lobby would be ringing in the Labour-NZ First-Green Government’s ears.

The Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues would then have just two political options: either back-down, or double-down.

If they backed-down, then Ms Ardern and her government would stand exposed as a bunch of juvenile attention-seekers who simply had not thought through the consequences of their irresponsible actions. It would be a full-scale debacle from which they could not recover.

But, doubling-down would be even worse. By adopting a sharp-edged, radically left-wing, stance on international trade at both the diplomatic and domestic levels, Ms Ardern’s government would rapidly find itself re-positioned among the world’s “nutty” nation states. Inevitably, New Zealand would find itself drifting, economically and diplomatically, under the influence of China and Russia. For an overwhelming majority of New Zealanders, this would represent an unmandated repudiation of everything their country stands for. Politically, it would be unsurvivable.

To Ms Ardern’s and Mr Parkers’ no doubt immense relief, both of these catastrophes have been avoided. They have had a very lucky escape.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 November 2017.