Friday, 16 November 2018

Communication Breakdown.

"Leave It To Us." Over the course of the last 35 years, at both the national and local levels of government, there has been a steady – and quite deliberate – effort to sever the lines of communication which used to link the governors with the governed. Since the mid-1980s, the objective of those ideologues who regard democracy as both corrupting and inefficient has been to ensure that the day-to-day running of government is kept as far away from the people’s elected representatives as possible.

THE CHIEF OMBUDSMAN, Peter Boshier, clearly found it difficult to explain (or forgive) the actions of the Horowhenua District Council CEO. What on earth possessed this appointed local authority official to take it upon himself to decide which e-mail messages elected councillors should read and which they should not? What made him think putting active Horowhenua citizens’ names on a “blacklist” was a good idea? The Chief Ombudsman was plainly baffled.

With some reason. Boshier and I belong to the same generation of New Zealanders who grew up in local authorities managed by a Town Clerk. If our parents had a complaint about the effectiveness of the town’s drainage system, or the punctuality of its busses, they simply picked up the phone and called their local councillor. He or she would then call the City Engineer, or the Transport Manager, and pass on the complaint. Almost always action followed.

Why? Because the council officials understood that a councillor’s reputation was built upon his or her ability to get things done for the people who voted them into office. Repeated failure to fix their problems would very soon lead to gripes about Councillor So-and-So being “useless”. The slightest whisper that such an opinion was abroad in the electorate would have the impugned councillor knocking very loudly on the door of the Town Clerk, demanding to know what the hell was going on. That’s why action almost always followed.

Sadly, those days are long gone. Over the course of the last 35 years, at both the national and local levels of government, there has been a steady – and quite deliberate – effort to sever the lines of communication which used to link the governors with the governed. Since the mid-1980s, the objective of those ideologues who regard democracy as both corrupting and inefficient has been to ensure that the day-to-day running of government is kept as far away from the people’s elected representatives as possible. Councillors have found themselves restricted to determining “policy”. Giving effect to that policy is somebody else’s job – most commonly the private sector company’s which won the contract.

Any councillor who tried to pressure a private sector manager into making sure the local bus service kept to its printed timetable would be told, in no uncertain terms, to mind his own business. The matter would not end there. Almost certainly, the private bus company would complain to the contracting authority about the councillor’s attempted interference. The CEO of the local authority would pick up the phone to the city mayor, or the district council chairman, and suggest that the offending councillor be reminded of those “governance” boundaries which must not be crossed.

It gets worse. Over the last decade or so our local authorities’ legal advisers have attempted (often successfully) to persuade councillors who have run for office on promises to rescue this much needed municipal service from the accountant’s calculator, or that particularly beautiful park from the developer’s bulldozers, to refrain from participating in the debates and, most importantly, the votes, which would allow them to fulfil their promises. It would not be possible, say the lawyers, for these crusading councillors to act impartially. They must abstain.

You see where this is going, don’t you? The whole notion of local democracy is being called into question. If it is no longer possible to campaign forcefully for or against council policy, for fear of being denied the right to participate and vote in the subsequent debates, then the electors have no way of knowing which candidates are pledged to make something happen – or not happen. Councillors are reduced to a browbeaten collection of rubber-stampers: prey to private sector contractors, condescending legal advisers, and over-mighty CEOs. The final indignity being that, having signed up to the Councillors’ Code of Conduct, these poor souls are forbidden from speaking out angrily, or publicly, about their powerlessness.

Perhaps, therefore, we should be baffled at the Chief Ombudsman’s bafflement. Perhaps the truly remarkable thing is how few CEOs behave like the CEO of the Horowhenua District Council. After all, is it not cruel to encourage councillors to believe that they have the slightest ability to intervene on behalf of their constituents?

And the very idea of ordinary citizens having the right to a say in how their community is governed. Well, that’s just silly.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 November 2018.

Rating Reality Television.

Recognizing Ourselves: When, in the midst of a reality tv show, we observe people cheating, lying and generally behaving reprehensibly, we are reminded of the things we do every day to survive in our workplaces, our families, our most intimate relationships. Unfolding on our screens is something much more visceral and real than anything we’re likely to see on Shortland Street or The Brokenwood Mysteries.

HAVE YOU EVER wondered what the enormous popularity of reality television reveals about contemporary New Zealand culture? Understandably, the nation’s cultural elites do not consider this to be an important question. What the lower orders choose to pollute their minds with is hardly worthy of serious consideration. The only social significance attachable to reality television is the extent to which it uses up space and resources that could, much more profitably, be devoted to genuine cultural production.

And yet, reality television rates its little socks off. The hard-nosed men and women who invest in reality tv shows don’t do so out of a sense of cultural responsibility, they put their money in so they can take more money out. It’s a genre which, unlike so many of its high-tone cultural competitors, actually returns a profit to the production houses that churn it out. Netflix it ain’t – but then Netflix isn’t what it’s trying to be.

I used to think that reality tv was a neoliberal conspiracy. That the programmes were carefully designed to inculcate the values of aggressive individualism and ruthless competition. That the moral emptiness of the shows and the unrelenting narcissism of their participants was intended to faithfully replicate the values of the “real world”.

This was, of course, the purest drivel. The personalities and behaviour of the participants in reality tv are what shape each programme’s content. The producers do not set out with a pre-written script, they simply go with the flow. Yes, they set the tasks that must be accomplished, thereby constructing the rough framework upon which each episode is hung. But the fascination, the sheer drama and entertainment value of reality tv derives from the people who make up the “cast”.

That so many viewers become engrossed in the unfolding “drama” of reality television strongly suggests that they see themselves reflected in at least one member of the cast. This identification is rendered all the stronger by the knowledge that each character’s words and actions are their own and not the work of some script-writer or director. Yes, it’s true that the dramatic coherence of each episode is achieved primarily through careful editing. Even so, what moves the viewers is their firm belief that what they are seeing on their screens is “real”.

The educated elites may sneer at this, confident that it confirms the extreme gullibility of the masses. But what if the popularity of reality tv is derived from its radical difference from the “made up” stories that constitute so much of our televisual fare? After all, “normal” tv dramas feature characters who are impossibly clever, virtuous, beautiful and strong, caught up in plot-lines that are as moralistic as they are predictable. In other words, “mainstream” drama is nothing like reality. Perhaps the gullible masses have simply grown tired of being preached at by their betters?

Consider the greatest reality tv shows of all: live sporting fixtures. Certainly, the rules offer a shape and purpose to the game, but everything else rests upon the skill and fervour of the players. Most important of all, the outcome of the “show” is not known prior to screening. In contrast to the lives of most people living in industrialised society, there is in every live sporting fixture an inescapable measure of unpredictability. For the duration of the game the viewer remains uncertain of the outcome. Small wonder that sport rates through the roof!

Perhaps reality tv shows wouldn’t be so popular if those responsible for funding the production of New Zealand television commissioned programmes which did as much as the average reality tv series to show real New Zealanders doing real things. Programmes which refuse to juxtapose beautiful presenters against ugly punters. Dramas that don’t always end with the “goodies” overcoming the “baddies”. Shows which reflect the facts of life in twenty-first century New Zealand: a country where the rich stay rich and what trickles down into the lives of the poor carries the very strong smell of piss.

“The purpose of epic theatre”, wrote Bertolt Brecht, “is not to encourage an audience to suspend their disbelief, but rather to force them to think introspectively about the particular moments that are occurring on stage and why they are happening a certain way.”

When, in the midst of a reality tv show, we observe people cheating, lying and generally behaving reprehensibly, we are reminded of the things we do every day to survive in our workplaces, our families, our most intimate relationships. Unfolding on our screens is something much more visceral and real than anything we’re likely to see on Shortland Street or The Brokenwood Mysteries. Great theatre – and great television drama – isn’t about good versus evil in the outside world, it’s about how the outside world sets good and evil against each other in our own souls.

Which arguably makes reality television the epic theatre of our age.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 15 November 2018.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

A Diet Of Lies.

Imperial Beast: Very few New Zealanders ever grasped what the rest of the world saw when it looked upon the British Empire: a huge blood-smeared lion whose sharp teeth and vicious claws struck terror into the hearts of all those too weak to resist them.

WE HAVE JUST CONCLUDED four years of commemorating the First World War. What amazed me about all that official amplification of 100 year-old echoes is how little new information it contained. As is the case with Sir Peter Jackson’s stunning colourisation and all-round technical enhancement of First World War film footage, we have learned nothing that we did not know before. Our troops wore khaki uniforms. Their buttons were made of brass. They sang as they marched. In a strange way, by being stripped of their black-and-white historical dignity, they have been rendered ordinary: indistinguishable from the inhabitants of the here-and-now. They look and sound like extras in one of Sir Peter’s movies.

Perhaps it was always so with official attempts to appropriate the past? To dress contemporary problems in antique costumes and pack the past’s dialogue with all the lies our masters would like us to mistake for history.

It is a task which, tragically, is becoming easier with every passing decade. Reading some of the comments to Mike Treen’s latest post, I was astounded by the number of readers who had no idea of what was happening in 1918. They were clearly astonished by Mike’s snapshot of the dramatic events which drove the Allied and Central Powers to sign the Armistice of 11/11. But, then, why shouldn’t they be astonished? The “official” commemorative programme did not appear to regard the revolutionary wave washing across Europe in 1917-18 as in any way relevant to the War’s end.

Those same officials were even more determined to keep from New Zealanders living at 100 years remove from the First World War just how authoritarian the government of their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ was. Far better to simply go on insisting that the young men fighting and dying in far-off Gallipoli, Flanders and Palestine were engaged in advancing the cause of freedom, justice and democracy. Informing young Kiwis that their forebears were actually fighting to secure for Great Britain the strategic oil reserves of the Middle East might cause them to ask – given the number of wars (some quite recent) that have been fought for the same prize – whether it was worth the sacrifice of 18,000 young New Zealanders.

The historians’ problem is that they assume that everyone knows the story when, as Mike’s post makes clear, hardly anybody understands what actually happened 100 years ago. How the fighting ships of Great Britain, the world’s greatest naval power, had made the transition from coal (of which the British had plenty) to oil (of which the British had none). How the Brits key oil supplier, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, had suddenly become vulnerable to the intertwined military and economic ambitions of the German and Ottoman Empires. How the rapidly expanding German High Seas Fleet and the proposed Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway convinced the Foreign and Colonial Office that the Germans had to be stopped. How the British Government could have prevented the outbreak of war in 1914 – but chose not to. How the big losers of the First World War were, you guessed it, Germany and the Ottomans. How Great Britain’s new best friends in the Middle East all just happened to live on top of a sea of oil.

And it’s still going on. New Zealand, whose Governor-General, Lord Liverpool, declared war on Germany in 1914 without bothering to consult the NZ House of Representatives, remains a loyal member of the Anglo-Saxon “Club”. (John Key’s term for the “Five Eyes” security pact linking  Britain’s ‘white empire’: The UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; with that other great Anglo-Saxon power, the United States of America.)

The great disadvantage of being a member of the Anglo-Saxon Club is that it makes it practically impossible for most New Zealanders to see their country and its allies for what they are – imperialist bullies.

The present Coalition Government has made much of the “danger” China poses to the micro-states of the South Pacific. So much so that our Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, has declared the need for a “Pacific Re-set”. Exactly why the presence of China should pose a danger to the peoples of the South Pacific, while the ongoing presence of its former imperial and colonial powers does not, is never explained. It is simply assumed that “we” are the good-guys and the Chinese are the bad guys.

No one asks the question: Is it appropriate that Australia is essentially re-colonising Papua-New Guinea? Or wonders why the Australians have turned the tiny tropical state of Nauru into a sweltering island prison for Middle Eastern refugees, utterly destroying its democratic institutions in the process.

Most New Zealanders remain blissfully unaware that 100 years ago the New Zealand military occupation force of what had been German Samoa allowed a ship carrying the deadly influenza virus to dock in Apia. Or that, over the course of the next few weeks, that criminally negligent decision led to the death of fully one quarter of the inhabitants of the western half of Samoa. Or that, a few years later, New Zealand soldiers shot down unarmed Samoans demanding their country’s independence from New Zealand colonial rule.

We forget that both the British and the Americans, the good guys, held the Pacific peoples in such high regard that they turned their home islands into test sites for their atomic and hydrogen bombs. The radioactive fallout from these atmospheric tests poisoned the Pacific environment – along with the peoples who lived off its fruit, root vegetables and fish.

Such is the heritage of the Anglo-Saxon powers in the South Pacific. And yet “we” are not perceived to be a “danger” to its peoples. Rather it is the Chinese: a nation which has seized no colonies; created no pandemics; and exploded no nuclear devices in this part of the world who are considered “dangerous”. The country that kept New Zealand prosperous through the Global Financial Crisis is slowly but surely being transformed into our enemy, while the country that has imposed tariffs on our steel and which demands that we endanger our own health by dismantling Pharmac, is hailed as our “very, very, very good friend”.

One hundred years ago, New Zealand was a small but vigorous limb the great heraldic beast known as the British Empire. Being so, we were able to see only the great heraldic beasts identified as our enemies: the German and Austrian eagles; the Ottoman’s crescent moon and star. Having laid them low, we hailed our victory as a good thing. Very few New Zealanders ever grasped what the rest of the world saw when it looked upon the British Empire: a huge blood-smeared lion whose sharp teeth and vicious claws struck terror into the hearts of all those too weak to resist them.

Perhaps it is time for New Zealanders to give up their diet of imperial lies and learn, at last, how to digest the truth?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 November 2018.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

What We “Don’t Know And Can’t Know” – The Truth About World War I.

World War I: The Glorious Version: The Battle of Le Quesnoy was New Zealand's last engagement of World War I. The battle's most famous image, depicting Second Lieutenant Leslie Averill stepping out on to the ramparts, revolver in hand, perpetuates the notion that war is a noble and manly enterprise. The censors were happy to let the image pass. What the New Zealand public were not permitted to see, however, were images of the utter slaughter that was the Western Front.

ON THE ELEVENTH HOUR, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, 2018 – this Sunday – we will celebrate the centenary of the Armistice. It is Armistice with a capital “A” because this was the historic ceasefire, negotiated by representatives of both the Allied and the Central Powers, which caused the guns to fall silent. With the coming into effect of the Armistice at 11:00 hours, 11 November 1918, the world-shattering conflict that would come to be known as World War I finally ground to its end.

The past fortnight has been notable for the amount of media attention devoted to a relatively insignificant incident which took place during the final phase of the decisive allied offensive that knocked Germany out of the war.

The taking of Le Quesnoy, by elements of the New Zealand Division, on 4 November 1918, was unquestionably a moment of great gallantry and humanity. By scaling the fortified town’s massive walls, the New Zealanders obviated the need for the artillery bombardment by which the capture of so many other German-occupied towns and villages had been effected. Small wonder that the citizens of Le Quesnoy still fete the rescuers of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Small wonder that the Germans laid down their arms and surrendered to them. When, just a week later, the war ended, thousands of human-beings were still breathing who, in the normal course of that terrible conflict, would have been dead. It is a wonderful story and well worth remembering.

But what happened at Le Quesnoy is about as far from typical of the fighting in World War I as it is possible to get. For a start, the New Zealand Division was advancing: moving forward through the French countryside in a fashion which had become tactically impossible just a few weeks after the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. For most of the war a vast defensive line, stretching all the way from the English Channel to the Swiss border, had been transformed into an obscene meat-grinder into which the flower of European manhood had been fed by commanders who had no idea how to wage industrialised warfare without shedding veritable lakes of human blood.

The most famous image of the Battle of Le Quesnoy: that of Second Lieutenant Leslie Averill stepping out on to the ramparts, revolver in hand, perpetuates the notion that war is a noble and manly enterprise. The censors were happy to let the image pass. What the New Zealand public were not permitted to see, however, were images of the utter slaughter that was Passchendaele. The bodies ripped to pieces by shrapnel; the grey-green corpses barely visible in the all-conquering mud. These obscenities, grimly typical of the rapacious imperialist conflict, are still considered unfit for general consumption.

World War I: The Reality 

In 1917, Britain’s wartime leader, David Lloyd George, told the editor of The Manchester Guardian, C.P Scott: “If the people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

The tragedy of the past four years is that, for the most part, the politicians and propagandists of 2014-2018 appear to share Lloyd George’s breath-taking cynicism. Whether it be Sir Peter Jackson’s larger than life heroes; or the fusillade of revisionist war histories unleashed by military writers determined to gun down the comic accuracy of the final Blackadder series; allowing the people to know the truth about World War I seems to be as impossible as ever.

Instead, New Zealanders are treated to the wicked conflation of the humanity and valour of the men who took Le Quesnoy with the purposes of the war itself. The conflict in which so many young New Zealanders perished was not conducted in the name of humanity, but in the name of the King-Emperor – whose representative, Lord Liverpool, announced this country’s participation from the steps of the General Assembly Library, without the slightest reference to the wishes of the people’s parliamentary representatives.

Moreover, as the butcher’s bill grew the supply of volunteers dried up and the gaping holes in New Zealand’s lines after Gallipoli, the Somme and Passchendaele were filled with conscripts. What could New Zealand have become if those 18,000 young men who died – had lived?

That is the truly obscene cost of World War I: its opportunity cost. The future that might have been.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 November 2018.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Trump: The White, Male, Losers’ Liberator Wins Again.

Tin Drummers: Things have changed for the white, male, American loser. Now he understands the reasons why he failed. Now he knows that it wasn’t his fault. Donald Trump told him that the game was rigged from the start: designed to make losers out of people exactly like himself.

VERY LITTLE on this earth can match the agony of being trapped inside your own skin. To be aware that you are not what those whose opinions you respect wanted you to be. Your parents, your family, your pastor, your teachers, your boss, your friends: all of them at one time or another believed in you; thought you had what it took to succeed. Except you didn’t succeed, you failed. You are not a winner, you’re a loser. A loser trapped inside his own skin.

America is full of losers trapped in their own skins. Angry, lonely, unwell, poor, white and male: and many of them beholden to people they despise. Like the petite, close-cropped, college-educated public servant whose good opinion the unemployed, former-warehouse-worker who never graduated from high-school has to retain in order to remain fed and housed. Like the overweight black woman at the second-hand clothing store who gives him “that look” whenever he enters the building wearing his coat with the confederate shoulder patches. Like the Latino dispenser of the pure “black tar” heroin he’s become addicted to ever since the supply of prescription opioids dried up. These are the people who make up the loser’s cast of “Them”. Until recently, there had been no “Us”.

But things have changed for this American loser. Now he understands the reasons why he failed. Now he knows that it wasn’t his fault. The game was rigged from the start: designed to make losers out of people exactly like himself.

Was it his fault the factories and warehouses either moved offshore or got automated? Was it his fault the badly-assembled scaffolding on the building site failed to prevent him falling and wrecking his back? Was it his fault the big pharmaceutical companies convinced so many doctors that opioid painkillers like Oxycontin were non-addictive? Nothing he did caused any of these things to happen, but he’s the one who was left to pay the price. He lost – but he’s not a loser. Thanks to Donald Trump he’s become something much more acceptable – a victim.

It’s why he loves Trump. It’s why he’s willing to forgive his President just about anything. Because Trump has made him feel free in his own skin. His own male skin. His own white skin. His own straight skin. His own “poorly educated” skin.

What’s more – much more – the President has alerted this guy to the way in which the system has been rigged to the advantage of just about everyone except him. Look at how much help has gone to women and minorities. Look at the way the college-educated have grabbed all the best jobs for themselves and their kids. Look at the faces of these “professionals” whenever you step into one of their bright, airy offices. How do they make you feel? Like you belong to a whole different species – an inferior species? Just think of the way the media makes all this seem right and proper. Think of how the hero of just about every TV series is a woman, or a black, or a gay, or all three at once! And how the bad guys in all these dramas tend to be white, working-class males: rednecks, trailer-trash, deplorables. People just like himself.

That’s why the media hate the President and are always telling lies about him. Because he’s seen through their game. He knows whose interests they serve. He knows who’s picking up the tab. He knows how far they’re willing to go prevent him from telling the Americans they’ve branded losers that they and their country can be great again. When he calls them “enemies of the people”, the people know exactly what he’s talking about.

Making America great again: that’s what its all about. Except Trump has done much more than that. Not only has he transformed the losers into victims, but he has also turned them into Americans again. Real Americans: small-town Americans who live in the states that the privileged fly over on the way to the “left coasts”. Americans who can strip a car engine down to its component parts, figure out what’s wrong, and reassemble it again all on their own, or with the help of a couple of buddies. Americans who can track a buck through the woods and fell it with a single shot from their daddy’s deer rifle. Americans who still know all the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Americans who served their country in Afghanistan and Iraq. Who looked their country’s enemies in the eye – and pulled the trigger.

In short, what Trump has done is create for the angry, the lonely, the unwell, the poor, the white and the male the “Us” that had been missing from their lives. Not forgetting the “Them” they had always known to be out there but who, until Trump, had been little more than the vague and indistinct shapes featured in Republican Party attack ads. By bringing the losers back into the “Us” and by bringing the “Them” into much sharper focus, Trump has created an extremely powerful political force.

Oh sure, it is possible to defeat Trump’s candidates at the district level and reclaim control of the House of Representatives. But, as progressive America discovered to its horror on 6 November 2018, the real power lies not in the districts but with the states. It is the state which is entitled to two senators – regardless of whether it contains four or forty million voters. And, in 2020, it will be the states dispatching their electors to the Electoral College – which chooses the President of the United States of America.

Trump’s “Us” may not be as numerous as the “Them” he has created for his followers to hate, but, as he demonstrated in 2016, they don’t have to be. What counts is where your supporters are located and how determined they are to cast their votes. Having freed so many white, poorly-educated American males from the agony of perceived personal failure: having cleared their consciences; restored their pride; and stoked their fears; Donald Trump has the American Republic exactly where he wants it – and needs it – to be.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 8 November 2018.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Labour’s Dunedin Conference: Returning To The Scene Of The Crime.

Perp Walk? Ruth Dyson moves towards the stage of the Dunedin Town Hall after defeating Jim Anderton for the Labour Party Presidency by 572 to 473 votes. Saturday, 3 September 1988.

THE LAST TIME the NZ Labour Party held its conference in Dunedin the stakes could not have been higher. Those for whom the Labour Party represented democratic-socialism were pitted against those for whom the Labour Party represented electoral pragmatism and the fulsome praise of New Zealand’s leading capitalists. In other words, it was a straight-out fight between the Left and the Right.

Tragically, the Right won.

Had Jim Anderton been elected President of the party (as he would have been, had the Engineers’ Union boss, Rex Jones, cast his 55 votes with the other affiliated unions supporting Jim) there would have been no NewLabour Party, and New Zealand Labour would become a Corbyn-style left-wing party long before its British namesake.

Anderton’s plan was simple: to have his allies on the Executive and Council of the party oversee the de-selection of the leading exponents of “Rogernomics” (Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Michael Bassett, Mike Moore) and ensure that their replacements were reliable opponents of the far-right policies these “Rogernomes” had introduced.

Anderton was well aware that de-selection would trigger a full-scale crisis within the party. Richard Prebble had already shown how far the right of the party was prepared to go by legally injuncting Labour's governing NZ Council from installing a hostile (but duly elected) electorate committee in his Auckland Central seat. At that time (May 1988) it was made clear to the party organisation that Roger Douglas’s supporters in the Labour caucus were willing to split the party rather than see Labour return to its traditional left-wing beliefs.

Anderton’s strategy was to call their bluff – precipitating their defection from the Labour Party. They would, presumably, be followed by their supporters in the Labour Party electorate committees and branches. Such a course of action would, in all likelihood, have caused the government to fall, requiring an early general election. Labour, purged of its free-market cuckoos, would have been free to run as its old self. The Rogernomes’ new party, hamstrung by the First-Past-The-Post electoral system, would have been defeated, and the Labour Left would have come into its inheritance.

The Labour “centrists”, led by Helen Clark, were horrified by the prospect of Labour moving so decisively to the Left. They may have hated Roger Douglas and his allies, but they feared Jim Anderton and his comrades much more. Rather than see the party split to the right, they prevailed upon the Rogernomes and their hard-line supporters in the infamous “Backbone Club” to acquiesce in the election of Ruth Dyson. The centrists hoped that Dyson, a senior party office holder with an honourable left-wing past, would encourage just enough of the rank-and-file to remain loyal to David Lange and his government - thereby ruining Anderton’s plans. Which is exactly what happened.

Did Clark and her centrist allies understand that by ensuring Anderton’s defeat they would be making a split to the left well-nigh inevitable? Almost certainly. But why would that worry them? Their strategic position would be secured by Anderton’s and the Labour Left’s departure. Moreover, the party’s inevitable defeat in 1990 would make it possible for them to appropriate Anderton’s de-selection strategy and make it their own in the run-up to 1993. The hapless Mike Moore could be duped into carrying the can for Labour right up until the moment Clark had the numbers to depose him – which she duly did just weeks after the 1993 General Election.

The Labour Party that last weekend (2-4 November 2018) returned to Dunedin, thirty years after the dramatic events of September 1988, is the inheritor of all that ideological and personal treachery. What’s more, it is a party that has never confronted and acknowledged its own wretched complicity in the events that inflicted so much harm upon its supporters back in the 1980s. It came very close in 2012 – at the Annual Conference held at Ellerslie – but, once again, a frightened leadership saw to it that the past remained unexamined. A pity, because as any theologian or psychotherapist will attest: sins unrepented have a nasty habit of repeating themselves.

In this regard, it was certainly fascinating to read Richard Harman’s account of the 2018 Annual Conference in Dunedin. The most notable feature of which he described as the “airbrushing” of Helen Clark out of Labour’s recent history:

“The weekend Labour conference saw the party rule a line under the last 30 or 40 years of its turbulent past and launch what in effect is a new Labour Party.”

Harman argues that “the new ‘progressive’ party is very much the product of the leader, Jacinda Ardern, with a new emphasis on pragmatism and the realities of MMP coalition government.”

The political legacies of Lange, Palmer, Moore and Clark went unacknowledged, says Harman: “[T]hat would have brought back too many horrific memories of the last time the party had a conference in Dunedin in 1988 and nearly ripped itself in two over Rogernomics.”

What Harman doesn’t say is that the only reason such political legerdemain is even possible is because Jacinda Ardern is such an extraordinary electoral asset. Single-handed, she has resurrected Labour’s morale; refilled her coffers, boosted her membership, and filled her activist base with confidence and delight. Her “relentlessly positive” personality is like a powerful spotlight, illuminating brilliantly that little part of Labour’s stage upon which she sits and smiles. Meanwhile, in the darkness her brilliance does so much to render impenetrable, the party leadership does all within its power to render a genuine shift to the left impossible.

It is fitting, in a way, that the decision to free the caucus from its crucial constitutional obligation to uphold the party’s manifesto – its policy platform – was taken in Dunedin. Justified as a practical and necessary concession to the exigencies of MMP, it nevertheless severs the last of the ties that bind the parliamentary wing to the party organisation. The caucus is now officially “Corbyn proof”. Thirty years after stabbing her in the back, the centrists have finally summoned-up the courage to drive the dagger of pragmatism deep into Labour’s democratic-socialist heart.

This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Tuesday, 6 November 2018.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Why Lime Is Leaving A Sour Taste In My Mouth.

Scoot! That a vehicle every bit as silent and speedy as the bicycle has been allowed to use the footpaths, while bicycles remain prohibited, is astonishing. Serious questions should be asked about who, or what, made the decision. Was it the result of quiet (but obviously effective) lobbying on behalf of “Lime”, the company responsible for unleashing hundreds of electric scooters upon the unsuspecting cities of Christchurch and Auckland? Certainly, the extensive public consultation normally associated with activities involving potentially serious and expensive social consequences does not appear to have been undertaken.

WHAT DOES IT SAY about the times we are living in, that electric scooters are permitted to share our footpaths? These vehicles are capable of speeds of up to 27 kms p/hr –  constituting a significant threat to the health and safety of riders and pedestrians alike. Thirty years ago, the idea that local authorities would have allowed such vehicles to travel where children and the elderly expect to walk in safety would have been preposterous. That the owners and promoters of such vehicles were motivated purely by the expectation of profit would have made the notion of scooters on footpaths even more outrageous. And yet, here they are.

Now, before the partisans of electric scooting offer up the usual ripostes to this partisan of vehicle-free footpaths allow him to freely concede that pedestrians have been sharing the footpaths with mobility-scooters, non-electric scooters, skateboards, roller-skaters and, of course, cyclists, for many years. Unwillingly – for the most part.

Not surprisingly, exception was made for the mobility-scooter. Had it not been, a wonderfully liberating invention for the elderly would have been denied them. That the scooters travelled at roughly walking speed and were easily identified when still many metres away did much to ease their introduction. Non-electric scooters, skateboards and roller-skates, while potentially as dangerous as the electric scooter, at least made a fair amount of noise. You can hear them coming.

That is not the case with the bicycle. These are capable of travelling silently and at speeds even greater than the electric scooter. Not surprisingly, it was long ago declared illegal to ride a standard-wheeled bicycle on New Zealand’s footpaths. In 2016, David Clendon, then a Green MP, attempted to have the law changed, without success. Not that this stops all manner of cyclists using the footpaths as their preferred cycle-way – much to the fury and, all-too-often, the injury of innocent pedestrians.

That a vehicle every bit as silent and speedy as the bicycle has been allowed to use the footpaths, while bicycles remain prohibited, is astonishing. Serious questions should be asked about who, or what, made the decision. Was it the result of quiet (but obviously effective) lobbying on behalf of “Lime”, the company responsible for unleashing hundreds of electric scooters upon the unsuspecting cities of Christchurch and Auckland? Certainly, the extensive public consultation normally associated with activities involving potentially serious and expensive social consequences does not appear to have been undertaken.

Those consequences are readily apparent in every country where the short-hire electric scooter companies have set up shop. In the emergency departments of hospitals – and city morgues – physicians and pathologists are dealing with the entirely predictable results of people being allowed to travel at close to 30kms p/hr along crowded city footpaths and/or dangerous city streets. Pedestrians struck down from behind. Riders struck by motor vehicles; pitched over the handle-bars; dragged bare-legged across rough concrete and bitumen. Electric scootering’s victims are running-up quite a tab on the public purse. Needless to say, the hire companies contribute almost nothing towards the medical and economic costs of their “service”.

Why, then, haven’t our national and local politicians stepped in to remove electric scooters from our streets until a fulsome set of regulations governing their safe and responsible use has been drawn up? The answer lies in the culture that has evolved, both here in New Zealand and around the world, since the economic liberalisation programmes of the 1980s. In the thirty-something years since “the markets” were given their head, the whole notion of “heavy-handed” regulation has been anathematised. Those who attempt to protect the public from irresponsible entrepreneurs and their enterprises are dismissed as promoters of “The Nanny State” – a political crime only a short step away from full-throated Stalinism.

It is an interesting commentary on contemporary society that the name given to the people (usually women) whom parents hire to look after their children and keep them safe has become a term of political abuse. As if there is something fundamentally wrong with a state that manifests a similar level of concern for the welfare of its citizens.

This thirty-year disdain for government regulation in the public interest has now been overlaid with the much more recent adulation of “digital disruptors”. Entrepreneurs who have developed successful new businesses out of the opportunities provided by the global positioning system and the near ubiquity of smart cellular phones. Uber is the most famous, but it has many, many imitators. With the right app, a company can attract billions.

And with those billions the digital disruptors can hire the best advertising and public relations agencies in the world which, in turn, can make their clients unchallengeably “cool”. So cool, that no politician or regulator is going to be in any hurry to slow or obstruct the roll-out of their service.

Never mind that their service is leading to an unacceptable and ever-rising number of deaths and injuries around the world. Or, that the massive cost of this new transportation craze is being heaped upon the taxpayers of the countries in which the electric scooter hire companies operate.

After all, who wants to be called old, cantankerous and not in the “now”?

So, here they are. Electric scooters. With more to come.

Take care.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 2 November 2018.

Friday, 2 November 2018

KiwiBuild Should Be Targeting The Poor.

Lotto - Oops, I Mean KiwiBuild Ballot - Winners: Derryn Jayne and Fletcher Ross pose with Phil Twyford and Jacinda Ardern outside their new KiwiBuild property in Papakura. Twyford is willing to buy Labour’s promised houses straight off the property developers’ plans. At a stroke, bad financial bets are transformed into sure things. Phil’s happy. The developers are happy. The banks are happy. And the winners of KiwiBuild ballots are over the moon.

KIWIBUILD, Labour’s flagship housing policy promising first-home-buyers 100,000 affordable dwellings by 2028, is a dog. It started out as a political fix and has yet to mature into coherent policy. Nowhere are Labour’s ambitions for KiwiBuild matched by the resources needed to fulfil them. Worst of all, the people most in need of 100,000 extra dwellings – beneficiaries and the working poor – are not the scheme’s targets. KiwiBuild is a perverse mixture of corporate and middle-class welfare, offering a handsome subsidy to builders and a generous hand-up to young professionals.

KiwiBuild began its life as David Shearer’s answer to David Cunliffe. In November of 2012, convinced that the Labour Left was plotting to replace him, Shearer was casting about desperately for a political circuit-breaker. He needed something that would halt the ambitious Cunliffe in his tracks and reassure the party’s rank-and-file that he was a Labour man through-and-through. KiwiBuild was that something. His announcement that the next Labour government would build 100,000 affordable homes for young New Zealanders brought Labour’s 2012 annual conference to its feet. In the warm glow of the membership’s support, an emboldened Shearer banished Cunliffe to the back-benches.

Having served its purpose, KiwiBuild was filed and forgotten. The necessary detailed development work on how it would be implemented, by whom, and at what cost, never progressed much beyond the hurried sketch vouchsafed to conference delegates and the news media six years ago. The consequences of Labour’s failure to fill in the gaps are now embarrassingly clear.

A Labour Party with stronger connections to the world beyond Parliament would have identified much sooner the practical limitations of KiwiBuild. The people and the products required to build 10,000 dwellings every year for 10 years simply aren’t out there. New Zealand’s construction industry remains chronically short of labour. The private sector will struggle to meet its own deadlines – let alone the government’s.

Unlike the First Labour Government, Jacinda Ardern’s coalition is attempting to build thousands of additional new dwellings with a construction industry at full-stretch. John A. (Jack) Lee, the man who oversaw Labour’s massive state-house-building programme between 1935-1938 could summon thousands of unemployed carpenters, tilers, plumbers, electricians and other construction workers to the cause of housing the people. Idle factories could be reactivated to supply the required building materials. This is what made “The Houses That Jack Built” possible. The absence of such vital enabling factors explains the houses that Phil Twyford cannot build in 2018.

Six years ago, when KiwiBuild was born, the full extent of the housing crisis had yet to emerge. Back then, affordability was the issue. The near impossibility of young professionals getting their feet on the first rungs of the housing ladder. Fortuitously, these same young professionals just happened to be the Shearer-led Labour Party’s prime electoral targets. First and foremost, KiwiBuild was a political “solution” to a middle-class “problem”.

Six years on, and the focus has shifted to beneficiaries and the working-poor sleeping in their cars or shivering in the overcrowded garages of family and friends. Voters for Jacinda’s transformational “politics of kindness” they may be, but they’ve not been deemed worthy of 10,000 houses per year. For these, the working-class people in whose name Jack Lee built the “social housing” of 80 years ago, 6,000 new state houses, in total, is considered adequate.

The irony is that, at an estimated price of $650,000, KiwiBuild’s “affordable homes” are rapidly moving beyond the reach of all but the luckiest of middle-class offspring. Those to whom the Bank of Mum and Dad still happily provides a deposit. Those for whom the wills of Mum and Dad hold out the prospect of eventual relief.

Undeterred, the Housing Minister presses on. Treasury may have revised downwards its projection of the scheme’s contribution to residential investment – but what do those “kids” know? Twyford is willing to buy Labour’s promised houses straight off the property developers’ plans. At a stroke, bad financial bets are transformed into sure things. Phil’s happy. The developers are happy. The banks are happy. And the winners of KiwiBuild ballots are over the moon.

About the only people who aren’t happy are those who believe that publicly funded social interventions on the scale of KiwiBuild should be directed first to those most in need. Tragically, however, the Coalition Government is selling the poor a pup.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 2 November 2018.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Nightmare On Bolsonaro Street.

Scary As: Working-class demobilisation produces a perfect political storm. It emboldens the worst elements of the Right even as it causes the political discipline among working-class conservatives to weaken. The result is an apparent coming together of right-wing middle- and working-class voters: usually around a charismatic right-wing leader like Jair Bolsonaro (above) who is willing to give eloquent voice to all those inflammatory prejudices which, in less extreme political circumstances, are kept out of “mainstream” discourse.

PRESIDENT-ELECT JAIR BOLSONARO and Halloween are made for each other. If you’re attempting to evoke feelings of fear and dread, then the next President of Brazil is indisputably the right man for the job. For sheer terror, however, nothing beats contemplating the people whose votes propelled him into office.

What does it say about the 55 percent of Brazilian voters who supported Bolsonaro that they were willing to set aside his open support for the former military dictatorship. (Apparently its biggest failing was not killing enough dissidents!) Or, that they refused to be put off by his overt expressions of racism, misogyny and homophobia? (He’d rather his son was dead than gay.) How could a country which, for the past decade-and-a-half, has voted for the Workers’ Party, suddenly be persuaded to elect the “Trump of the Tropics”?

One might just as easily ask: How could the people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 possibly have voted for Donald Trump in 2016? Or: What made the men and women of Waitakere, Labour supporters for most of their lives, deliver their votes to National’s Paula Bennett in 2008? What is it that leads people to vote against their own objective interests?

The straightforward answer to that question is the subjective rage of a hard-pressed and/or deeply disillusioned electorate. Such was certainly the case in Brazil. Under the Workers’ Party, the Brazilian economy, following an impressive initial surge in the early 2000s, succumbed to a vicious recessionary one-two punch inflicted by the global financial system. After lifting the living standards of 20 million of the poorest Brazilians, the Workers’ Party was bullied by its Wall Street creditors into imposing a grim austerity regime on the Brazilian working-class.

As if this wasn’t enough, an unflinching team of official investigators has, over several years, exposed political corruption on a truly massive scale. Its stain spread inexorably through the entire Brazilian political class; undermining and ultimately destroying two Workers’ Party presidents (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as “Lula”, and Dilma Rousseff.) In the election just past, districts which had been Workers’ Party strongholds for decades went to Bolsonaro by wide margins. Partly, this was a reflection of angry and embittered Workers’ Party supporters seeking revenge; but mostly, it was the consequence of mass working-class abstentions. Huge numbers of former Workers’ Party supporters simply stayed home.

The disillusionment of working-class voters, and the demobilisation of working-class political strength it encourages, produces two extremely dangerous political effects. First, it allows the Right to shrug-off any obligation to conduct itself responsibly. Without the consciousness of having to behave itself – or suffer dire electoral consequences – the Right feels free to up-the-ante by encouraging its more unruly elements to give free rein to their most incendiary rhetoric. The result is a swift and pronounced deterioration in the political climate – an environment in which the Right is obviously best placed to flourish.

Restraint having become electorally counterproductive, the scene is thus set for the second extremely dangerous political effect to manifest itself.

Strong and progressive working-class parties not only discourage the parties of the Right from behaving badly, they also serve to isolate and disarm the more conservative elements within their own ranks. These people may privately abhor many of the policies advanced by the Left’s leaders – especially those relating to race, sexuality and gender. But, so long as “their” party delivers economically, the open expression of racist, sexist and homophobic views is resisted. If, however, their economic security and status is undermined by their own party’s policies, and its support declines accordingly, then the willingness of working-class conservatives to go on biting their tongues will decline with it.

Working-class demobilisation thus produces a perfect political storm. It emboldens the worst elements of the Right even as it causes the political discipline among working-class conservatives to weaken. The result is an apparent coming together of right-wing middle- and working-class voters: usually around a charismatic right-wing leader who is willing to give eloquent voice to all those inflammatory prejudices which, in a less extreme political climate, are kept out of “mainstream” discourse.

Conservatives from all classes are thereby encouraged to use their vote as a weapon against all those social elements deemed responsible for their loss of security and status.

The result is a Jair Bolsonaro; a Donald Trump; or even – lest we Kiwis begin to feel too smugly superior to all those sad Brazilians and Americans – a Rob Muldoon.

This essay was posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Thursday, 1 November 2018.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

The Long-Term Green Advantage of Uncommon Sense.

Thought For Food: Saving the planet and feeding all its people long ago ceased to be a practical proposition. The amount of cultivatable land will shrink – along with the quantity of water necessary to ensure adequate harvests. As the mean global temperature increase passes 2oC, millions of human-beings will begin to starve. 

THE MAINSTREAM NEWS media’s constant and effusive praise for Green co-leader, James Shaw, draws into sharp focus the party’s fundamental contradiction. That the supra-political character of the present planetary crisis must doom to failure any attempt to present the Greens as just-another-political-party. Undaunted, Shaw exploits with considerable skill the urgent need of the status-quo’s defenders’ to keep “common-sense solutions” in play. Were in not so tragic, this acquiescence to the short-termism that defines both the intractability of climate change, and of modern politics, would be hugely and comically ironic.

If Shaw’s acquiescence could be offset by a co-leader determined to bear witness to the long-term challenges of responding to anthropogenic global warming, then the damage to the Green cause might be mitigated. Unfortunately, Marama Davidson seems to be as much a prisoner of the short-term as Shaw. In the passing circus parade that is day-to-day politics she has opted for the role of clown.

In fairness, playing the whole Green thing for laughs must be tempting when the challenges are so very, very great. How, for example, do you inform humanity that their sheer numbers preclude any sort of “soft landing” for the climate change crisis?

Saving the planet and feeding all its people long ago ceased to be a practical proposition. The amount of cultivatable land will shrink – along with the quantity of water necessary to ensure adequate harvests. As the mean global temperature increase passes 2oC, millions of human-beings will begin to starve. What is the correct moral response to famine, disease and conflict on an unprecedented scale? When the boatloads of desperate climate-change refugees start appearing off New Zealand’s coast, what should a Green New Zealand government do?

This is a long way from green technological fixes and rehabilitating four-letter words.

So, too, is deciding what to do when the big container ships and the oil-tankers stop venturing this far south. When the sheer number of super-hurricanes renders voyages too far out into the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans uninsurable. How will a Green government keep the chronically-ill provided with their life-saving pharmaceuticals; and crucial machinery supplied with spare parts; when the flow of these vital imports ceases? How will it keep the lights on and the electric cars powered-up when the snow refuses to fall and the hydro lakes are empty?

Who in today’s Green caucus has the courage to tell New Zealanders that teaching young people the skills required to keep the post-industrial communities of the future functioning is now a matter of urgency. Because in 100 years’ time Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin will be only a fraction of their present size and most of the population will be living in the countryside – where the food is. Which of today’s Greens are working with Maori to preserve the indigenous medical and pharmacological knowledge built-up over the 600 years of non-European occupation of Aotearoa?

Who will dare to tell today’s captains of industry that in 50 years the Internet will be but a memory? That the genocidal global resource wars will kick off with the destruction of the undersea communication cables. That the revolutions, civil and religious wars that roll across the sweltering continents will leave the control hubs for satellite communication unmanned for a generation. That the rocket launching pads will become nesting places for such birds as still fly through Earth’s fetid air.

These are the challenges which Green parties should be preparing us for. The challenges arising out of the fundamental transformations anticipated and demanded in the latest IPCC report. Deluding voters into thinking that somehow the scientists will come up with a way of saving us all: a way which allows capitalism, consumerism and narcissistic individualism to continue unchecked and unmodified; is not something with which any responsible Green should be associated.

Green leadership should be about thinking the unthinkable and working through the changes required to live in the world which humanity’s unthinking folly is steadily bringing into being. It may even be about anticipating that world by encouraging the formation of communities capable of guiding the survivors of humankind’s addiction to fossil-fuels towards a very different way of living on – and with – the planet.

Like the medieval monasteries which kept literature, art and music alive when all around them the vestiges of civilised order were disintegrating, these Green communities may serve as bridges between the devastating collapse of our fossil-fuelled civilisation and the new, much smaller, more self-sufficient and ecologically humble human societies of the future.

Those who preach this Green gospel must anticipate scorn and ridicule from the majority of today’s voters. For a crucial minority, however, this Green version of the future will resonate loudly. And as, one after another, the predictions of the scientists come true, that minority will grow. Until the day eventually dawns when the Greens’ long-prepared and uncompromising policies strike the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders as the only “common-sense-solutions” on offer.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 30 October 2018.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Who Do The Greens Think They Are?

On Life Support: Most activists would assume that an ecological party of the Greens’ pedigree would be in the vanguard of the struggle against climate change: advocates for the most radical and uncompromising means of defending the biosphere. Most activists would, however, be wrong.

“WHAT WE THINK, we become”, observed Siddhartha Gautama, the Enlightened One. What then, have the Greens, particularly their parliamentary representatives, been thinking to become the confused collection of MPs we see today?

The easy answer would be to say that thinking is the one activity the Greens have not been engaging in since facilitating the formation of the Coalition Government. In part, the party’s shambolic unmindfulness is the consequence of sheer panic. The destruction of Metiria Turei caused considerable collateral damage. The party lost a lot of talent – much of which it has yet to successfully replace.

Even more serious than temporarily losing its collective head, however, was the Green Party’s loss of direction. Ever since the 2017 election, the Greens have been spinning around in their own aimless eddies. No longer caught up in the strong currents of ecological activism which had propelled them forward since entering Parliament in their own right in 1999, the Greens energies have been swallowed up in the constantly multiplying micro-conflicts of identity politics.

Such appears to be the fate of all left-wing and progressive organisations that lose the impetus supplied by a single, unifying cause. In the absence of the latter, all the essentially irresolvable conflicts of identity politics – Male vs Female; Black vs White; Cis vs Non-Cis; Trans vs TERF – rush in to fill the vacuum. Regaining the movement’s forward momentum is never easy in these circumstances, but without effective and inspiring leadership it is practically impossible. Tragically, this is precisely where the Aotearoan Greens have ended up: unmoved by a great cause and uninspired by ineffectual leaders.

On the face of it, the Greens predicament is absurd. Most activists would assume that an ecological party of the Greens’ pedigree would be in the vanguard of the struggle against climate change: advocates for the most radical and uncompromising means of defending the biosphere. Most activists would, however, be wrong. The Green Party of Aotearoa is not in the vanguard of the struggle against climate change: it’s best and its brightest are holding down ministerial jobs outside of the Cabinet; diligently toiling in the bureaucratic vineyards of mainstream politics.

In spite of the fact that the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for massive sacrifices from the world’s wealthiest nations and a fundamental transformation of the global economy, the Aotearoan Greens have committed themselves to “the technological fix” that will, somehow, allow the planet to survive without its most dangerous species having to change very much of anything.

This is nothing short of tragic. Defeating anthropogenic global warming has always depended on humanity treating it as the moral equivalent of war. But, instead of green warriors urging their fellow citizens to fight and, if necessary, die for the planet, Aotearoa has been blessed with a party of conscientious objectors. To the question: “Is anybody standing up to the big corporates? The farmers? The road transport lobby?” James Shaw, Julie Anne Genter and Eugenie Sage reply that they are doing the best they can. That politics is the art of the possible. Moreover, there’s the Budget Responsibility Rules to consider – not to mention the wishes of Labour and NZ First. Not to worry, though, because Marama Davidson is rehabilitating the word “cunt” and sticking it to the misogynist “bros” on social media. Right-on, sister!

The Green Party’s key strategic error, post-election, was to want anything to do with ministerial warrants – or coalition partners. They should have told Labour and NZ First that if push came to shove on the floor of the House, then they would always vote to keep them in office and the National Party in opposition, but, beyond that, all bets were off. They would wield the hammer of justice, ring the bell of freedom and sing the song of love between their brothers and their sisters exactly as they saw fit – while fighting for the planet with all their might.

In the end, the increasingly urgent need to keep Planet Earth liveable is going to burn off the denialists and the compromisers; the incrementalists and the technological fixers. And when that moment comes there needs to be one party that has steadfastly refused to buy into the dangerous optimism of the she’ll-be-righters and the let’s-hope-for-the-besters. A party ready to step forward with the hard answers where all other answers have failed. A party that is willing, after many, many years in the political wilderness, to offer a terrified electorate the same terse instruction that Kyle Reese gave to Sarah Connor in The Terminator: “Come with me if you want to live!”

If the Greens think anthropogenic global warming is real; if they think that only ecological-wisdom-in-arms can defeat it; then that is the sort of party they will become. Sorting out the bros can wait until the planet stops burning.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 26 October 2018.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Too Close For Comfort.

Hand In Hand: Is there not then a serious risk that their constant breathing-in of the aphrodisiacal perfumes of naked power will seduce the Parliamentary Press Gallery from their role of Democracy’s gamekeepers and transform them into poachers on the people’s estate? What is the electorate supposed to do if those entrusted with reporting the actions of the principal political players, themselves become important actors in the drama?

IN THE BACKWASH of the Jami-Lee Ross debacle, the National Party has announced an internal review of its organisational culture. The exercise will not be open to public scrutiny. National’s board will undoubtedly argue that a confidential review is more likely to encourage a “warts and all” representation of the party’s features. It won’t, of course. Before you could say “Copy” and “Send”, any honest estimation of National’s strengths and weaknesses would be leaked. Understanding this, the reviewers will produce a document as bland as it is unhelpful.

National’s proposed review does, however, serve as a useful pointer to our capital city’s flawed culture of power – as well as to its long-standing imperviousness to reform. There is simply too much power on offer in Wellington for anyone with the slightest chance of wielding it, limiting it.

Proximity lies at the heart of the capital’s power culture. The higher an ambitious person climbs, the closer they get to the people who exercise decisive political authority. This proximity works both vertically and horizontally. The higher one climbs, the more opportunities one finds to influence the course of events. This, in turn, encourages other ambitious souls to get as close as possible to the successful climber. Power in Wellington thus flows not only up and down the city’s many hierarchies, but also through them, spreading outwards in all directions.

In the centre of this three-dimensional web of power looms the parliamentary complex. The Beehive and the House of Representatives are the most obvious repositories of executive and legislative authority. Easily forgotten, however, when mapping the distribution of power, is the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Its members enjoy an enviable degree of access to the entire cast of Government and Opposition players. In the proximity-to-power stakes, few get as up-close-and-personal as political journalists.

The justification for allowing political journalists such easy access to Government and Opposition politicians is that it allows them to observe and interrogate the nation’s leaders and thereby hold them accountable for their actions. Ostensibly, this is done in the interests of the voters: without an unimpeded flow of political information, democracy cannot work.

Except that the above is not the real job description of a parliamentary press gallery journalist. The common-or-garden parliamentary journalist’s primary function is to preserve the best possible access to the movers and shakers of Government and Opposition. Their editors need to know that when a story breaks, or a major announcement is signalled, their reporters will have no difficulty getting into the media conference, and that every few weeks they will be in line for a “strictly-background, not-for-attribution” ministerial briefing.

The parliamentary journalist who made a habit of holding Cabinet Ministers to genuine account; or who successfully uncovered secrets she or he wasn’t supposed to expose; would not only be guilty of writing about matters that nobody else was writing about (a cardinal sin) but, even worse, would be provoking increasingly bitter complaints to their bosses from ministerial press secretaries (former parliamentary press gallery journalists for the most part) along the lines of: “What the hell does so-in-so think she’s doing? You tell her that unless she plans to stay on the salary she’s receiving forever, she needs to pull her bloody head in!”

It usually works.

But this poses a real problem for those who assume that the purpose of the “Fourth Estate” is to “keep the bastards honest”. If the true function of a parliamentary press gallery journalist is act as the glove into which power inserts its steely hand, then their formal democratic role is nothing but a sham.

It gets worse. If political journalists are positioned close to power, but warned against antagonising the powerful, then doesn’t it make more sense for them to befriend and enable the Government and Opposition players they are supposed to be observing and interrogating? Is there not then a serious risk that their constant breathing-in of the aphrodisiacal perfumes of naked power will seduce them from the role of Democracy’s gamekeepers and transform them into poachers on the people’s estate? What is the electorate supposed to do if those entrusted with reporting the actions of the principal players, themselves become important actors in the drama?

Was Jami-Lee’s downfall the result of him having too many enemies in National’s caucus – or too many friends in the Press Gallery?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 October 2018.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Questions, Questions, Questions.

The Public Calls Simon Bridges To The Stand: For Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett the Jami-Lee Saga is far from over. A great many questions have accumulated over the course of Labour Weekend and it is clear that neither the Leader nor his deputy can answer them without the risk of re-igniting the political firestorm of the past ten days.

THE RIGHT’S RESPONSE to Jami-Lee Ross’s temporary detention at Middlemore Hospital has been interesting. The National Party’s defenders flatly reject the idea that its leadership has acted in any way improperly in relation to Ross. And yet, piecing together what little information has made its way into the public domain, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that at the point of crisis, early on Sunday morning (21/10/18) Ross was in the company of a National Party MP. Whether it was this MP, or someone else, who became so alarmed by Ross’ behaviour that they called the Police, remains unclear. What is certain is that Ross was conveyed to Middlemore because he represented a danger to himself, or others, and against his will.

That, barely 48 hours later, Middlemore was willing to release Ross strongly suggests that the circumstances which gave rise to his temporary detention no longer existed. Friends have provided a place of refuge for him out of Auckland where he is currently recuperating, taking stock, and considering his future.

For Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett, however, the Jami-Lee Saga is far from over. A great many questions have accumulated over the course of Labour Weekend and it is clear that neither the Leader nor his deputy can answer them without the risk of re-igniting the political firestorm of the past ten days.

If, for example, the blogger Cameron Slater’s claim that three of the four anonymous complainants who featured in the Newsroom exposé of Ross’ behaviour towards women are employed in either the Leader’s or the Deputy-Leader’s office is confirmed, then the public may feel that they have been short-changed when it comes to being given all the relevant details surrounding the charges levelled against the Botany MP. The public may also begin asking why these details are available from a blogger, but not from the journalists of the Parliamentary Press Gallery?

Questions are also being asked about whether or not, over the course of the past month, the National leader and/or his deputy were in contact with Ross’ medical adviser/s? And, if so, whether those advisers had warned Bridges and/or Bennett that it would be unwise to do or say anything likely to jeopardise Ross’ already compromised mental state? If the public were to discover that the National Party leadership had been explicitly cautioned against naming Ross as the probable leaker of Bridges’ travel expenses – but went ahead and did it anyway – then they might form the opinion that Ross’ manic night-time ride from Auckland to Wellington, and his epic media stand-up the following morning, were entirely avoidable events.

Such speculation cannot possibly be helpful to Bridges and Bennett – raising as it does the thought that Ross may have been used as the unwitting instrument for rallying the National Party caucus behind a leader whom the voters showed little sign of warming to or respecting. The idea of making a mentally unwell MP the means of achieving such a disreputable objective is not likely to inspire very much in the way of trust or confidence in the putative perpetrators. Quite the reverse, in fact.

The problem with this sort of speculation is that much of the known conduct of the National Party leadership appears to reinforce it. If someone was intending to push a mentally fragile person over the edge, then threatening him with the anonymous testimony of four aggrieved female complainants, might recommend itself as a highly effective way of doing so. If that someone then publicly suggested that the person in question had been behaving in ways incompatible with his status as a married man, well then, it’s easy to see how the notion that he was being pushed to the limit might take a firmer grip on the public mind.

To the truly cynical, the sudden appearance, in the very midst of Ross’ jihad against his former National colleagues, of a sensational exposé detailing the Botany MP’s abusive and manipulative relationships with three parliamentary staffers and an unnamed National MP would elicit only the most sardonic of grins. If one was writing the script for such a political melodrama, the line given to Bridges would have to be: “Whew! That was lucky!”

Just how lucky was revealed by TVNZ’s political editor, Jessica Mutch Mackay, on Tuesday evening (23/10/18) when she described how National’s numbers, in the Colmar-Brunton poll being conducted coincident with Jami-Lee’s jihad, were plummeting right up until the moment, mid-week, when the story detailing Ross’ improprieties began to dominate the headlines. The word “fortuitous” hardly seems to cover it!

Questions, questions, questions: there is still so much that we don’t know about the extraordinary events of the past ten days. And perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the whole saga is how unwilling all but a handful of journalists have been to dig too deeply for the facts the public is so anxious to learn.

Fortunately, for the historical record, there is one person who knows a great deal about all of the events touched on in this post. Resting quietly, in an undisclosed but secure location, the MP for Botany, Jami-Lee Ross, waits patiently for all of these many questions to be put to him. How should we expect a man who has nothing left to lose to answer – except with the truth?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 25 October 2018.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Missing.

Where's Jami? Jami-Lee Ross has promised to expose what he alleges to be the corruption and moral failings of at least some of this country’s leading parliamentarians. When a person promising revelations of this kind is suddenly uplifted and immured in a secure mental health facility, the public has a right to know on whose authority it was done; how it was accomplished – and to what purpose?

LOCKING DISSIDENTS AWAY in mental institutions was arguably a more humane sanction than sending them off to the gulag. Even so, many of the stories that have emerged from the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 80s are just as chilling as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s description of the camps. “Patients” subjected to chemical lobotomisation wandered the corridors of state asylums like ghosts. By no means all of the citizens detained were released, and those who made it out were much changed. For a start, they were no longer dissidents.

Learning that a New Zealand Member of Parliament had been detained under the Mental Health Act, it was hard not to think of those Soviet era victims. After all, the MP for Botany, Jami-Lee Ross must be counted among the most destructive malcontents ever to occupy a seat in the NZ House of Representatives. His determination to punish the National Party and its leadership for (as he saw it) abandoning him, was threatening to dissolve all the protections so painstakingly erected by MPs to keep themselves safe from each other’s spite. Prior to Ross’s detention, the party was looking at weeks, perhaps months, of drip-fed excoriation. Who knew how much undiluted political acid Jamie-Lee had in his possession?

Who has that acid now? Who is in possession of Ross’ property? His family? The unnamed mental health facility detaining him? The Police? The National Party? What, if any, obligation are those holding Ross’s phone, his laptop, his hard-copy files, under to keep them safe from prying eyes? What, if anything, has been happening at Ross’s home and/or his parliamentary and electorate offices in the time that has elapsed since he was taken into state custody? Has anyone come calling? If so, who was it – and what were they after?

The public has a right to know the answers to these questions. That would not be the case if Ross was just another citizen, but he is much more than that. Ross is someone who has promised to expose what he alleges to be the corruption and moral failings of at least some of this country’s leading parliamentarians. When a person promising revelations of this kind is suddenly uplifted and immured in a secure mental health facility, the public has a right to know on whose authority it was done; how it was accomplished – and to what purpose?

In particular, the public has a right to know what part, if any, the most obvious beneficiary of Ross’s extraction from the political environment, the NZ National Party, played in his detention.

There has been some comment to the effect that National has a duty of care to Ross. Such a claim presupposes that, in its dealings with Ross, National stands in a relationship akin to that of an employer. Such a presupposition is hard to reconcile with the fact that all political parties are voluntary organisations, whose members are free to remain with them, or leave, as they see fit. Having announced his resignation from the National Party on Tuesday, 16 October, Ross had clearly exercised his right to exit the organisation. Whatever relationship existed between Ross and National ended then. So, why, five days later, was the National Party giving out the very strong impression that it had, in some way, been involved in his detention under the Mental Health Act?

Moreover, if some nebulous duty of care towards Ross remained on National’s part, then why was the party so aggressive in its response to his actions. If its MPs were convinced that their former colleague was mentally unwell (something which the National Opposition’s spokespeople had strongly insinuated in a number of public statements) then why did they feel it necessary to so dramatically increase the stress he was under?

On his Whaleoil blog, Cameron Slater states that it fell to him and at least one other person to inform Ross’s wife of her husband’s fate. This information is deeply disturbing: suggesting, as it does, that at least one of Ross’ next-of-kin was not told of his situation, or even his whereabouts, by the authorities responsible for his detention. If confirmed, it raises serious questions about the legality of the entire process.

This is why the public deserves a full explanation of the Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? of Jami-Lee Ross’s detention. There may be a completely acceptable reason for the MP for Botany being taken into custody; and those responsible may have been acting in strict accordance with the provisions of the Mental Health Act; but given the extraordinary circumstances in which Ross and his antagonists were enmeshed, and the very high stakes for which they were playing, the people of New Zealand need to hear it – all of it.

The old Soviet joke had it that the Russians must enjoy the best mental health in the world, because only an insane citizen would complain about living under Communist rule – and so few did. It’s the sort of black humour that dictatorships have long been famous for. Let’s hope that New Zealanders never learn to laugh, however sardonically, at their own loss of freedom.

This essay was posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 23 October 2018.