Thursday, 21 June 2018

New Zealand's Very Own Pinkertons.

The All-Seeing (Private) Eye: When it comes to protecting private property the trick lies in learning how to undermine the legal protections guaranteed to those attempting to modify property relations, while taking full advantage of the protections guaranteed to property owners. The ideal mechanism for giving effect to these contradictory objectives is the private detective agency.

THE POLITICAL SCANDAL swirling around the private detective agency Thompson & Clark Investigations Ltd (TCIL) lays bare capitalism’s rawest nerves.

The core function of the modern state is the facilitation of private wealth-creation. The so-called “rule of law” is critical to this function. In the absence of a reliable legal system the protection of private property reduces swiftly to the application of brute force – a most unreliable servant and an even worse master.

Making the rule of law one of capitalism’s central talismans, however, means extending the law’s equal protection to the system’s enemies as well as its friends. When it comes to protecting private property, therefore, the trick lies in learning how to undermine the legal protections guaranteed to those attempting to modify property relations, while taking full advantage of the protections guaranteed to property owners.

The private detective agency is the ideal mechanism for giving effect to these contradictory objectives. It is no accident that the first and most famous of these, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, was founded in the United States in 1855. The big industrial capitalists of the era were only just becoming aware of their need to be protected from their own employees, who were, similarly, just becoming aware of the need to protect themselves in trade unions.

Allan Pinkerton, a Scotsman, offered his services to these captains of industry. His spies would provide them with intelligence about who their employees were listening to and what was being planned. If worse came to worst and a strike broke out, Pinkerton also offered to organise strike-breakers and provide them with armed protection.

As the Pinkerton agency grew in size and strength it found itself providing intelligence and muscle not just to private industry, but also to the federal government of the United States. In 1860 the “Pinks” as they were called, foiled a plot to assassinate the President-Elect Abraham Lincoln and were immediately hired as his bodyguards for the duration of the Civil War.

For the next 50 years, the Pinkertons would occupy that shadowy territory between the lawful and the unlawful. Their principal value lay in their ability to do what was necessary in such a fashion that their actions could not be attributed directly to either big business or the state. In carrying out their employers’ dirty-work, however, the Pinkertons were forced to descend deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld. It was in no one’s interests to ask too closely how the trade union organiser fell into the ravine, or who was responsible for beating the muck-raking journalist senseless.

As the federal government expanded, the work formerly contracted out to the Pinkertons was taken in-house. The “Pinks” were replaced by the “G-men” of the FBI, the Secret Service and the CIA. The need for “the work”, however, never ceased. Keeping left-wing dissidents and activists under surveillance; intercepting and reading their mail; sowing suspicion and discord in their organisations – such services were always in high demand.

As the rapidly emerging picture of TCIL’s activities in New Zealand makes clear, when the official organs of law enforcement and national security find themselves lacking the human and material resources (not to mention the legal authority) required to carry out “the work”, being able to contract the private sector to assist the public sector in fulfilling its core function of keeping the country safe for private wealth-creators is extraordinarily helpful.

Like the Pinkertons of old, TCIL has parlayed its ability to move with confidence in the shadowy territory between what is lawful and unlawful; ethical and the unethical; into a highly lucrative business. There has always been, and will always be, a lot of money to be made out of letting capitalism’s friends know, in some detail, what their enemies are up to.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 21 June 2018.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Can The Nurses Win On Their Own?

The First Of Many? If the CTU pledged itself to ensuring that the Nurses fight does not turn into a solitary struggle. If frontline health professionals could be presented as merely the first of many workers ready to embrace the tactics necessary to win substantial improvements in their wages and conditions, then trade unionism in New Zealand could have a new birth of freedom.

NEW ZEALAND’S NURSES are about to discover whether their store of public good-will is big enough to see them through a strike. New Zealanders with experience of this country’s public health system almost always speak very highly of its staff. Nurses in particular draw the public’s praise and respect. In our overburdened and understaffed hospitals they display the weary-but-unflinching professionalism of workers required to operate in an environment of more-or-less permanent crisis.

No one knows better that this country’s frontline health professionals how potentially dangerous this situation can become. New Zealand needs more nurses – lots more nurses. But to keep the staff it already has – let alone attract new recruits – nurses insist they must be paid more. Lots more.

But, how much more? That is the question. In an economy where roughly half the paid workforce have not had a pay-rise for close to two years, will the NZ Nurses’ Organisation’s demand for an immediate, across the board, 11 percent increase strike the average Kiwi as “about right” or “too much”. With an experienced registered nurse’s salary set to rise from $66,755 to $77,386 by December next year under the present offer, will the two-thirds of workers who earn considerably less than that sum (in 2016 the median NZ income was just $48,800) regard the union’s proposed strike action as reasonable – or unreasonable?

The offer on the table also guarantees that an additional 500 nurses will be recruited to the national health-sector workforce. This is clever. The single most important contributing factor to the crisis in the nation’s hospital wards is chronic understaffing. More than anything else it is the personal toll extracted by the excessive workloads caused by understaffing that is fuelling nurses’ anger and impatience with the District Health Boards’ management. It would be interesting to know whether the 9 percent offer on the table would be deemed enough if nurses could be convinced that their workloads were about to be reduced very rapidly to more bearable levels.

The DHB negotiators have also been clever in advancing the figure of half-a-billion dollars as the all-up cost of the settlement on the table. Many New Zealanders will see this as an extraordinarily generous sum – especially when the money on offer has been drawn from their taxes. In rejecting the offer, the Nurses’ union runs the risk of being dismissed as either unrealistic or greedy – or both.

The best way to avoid this perception taking hold would be for the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) to present the Nurses’ claim as the first of many. After nearly a decade of both public- and private-sector wage restraint, the unions should argue, the time has come for working people to make up the lost ground. The CTU should also emphasise the fact that Nurses are not the only workers in New Zealand who have been expected to work harder and longer for no appreciable improvement in their overall living standards. Nurses are, however, the first occupational group to vote in favour of doing something about it.

If the CTU pledged itself to ensuring that the Nurses fight does not turn into a solitary struggle. If frontline health professionals could be presented as merely the first of many workers ready to embrace the tactics necessary to win substantial improvements in their wages and conditions, then trade unionism in New Zealand could have a new birth of freedom.

If the nurses are left to fight this battle on their own, however, then, sadly, there is a better than even chance that the politics of envy and resentment will prevail over the politics of solidarity.

A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 19 June 2018.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

If Labour Wants Fewer Prisoners, Then It Needs To Create More Prison Space – Not Less.

He Should Be Locked Up: To hear Kelvin Davis acknowledge that it may soon be necessary to put prisoners on mattresses on the floor was sickening. That a Labour cabinet minister is willing to countenance the New Zealand prison system becoming indistinguishable from the Third World hellholes visited by Ross Kemp’s “Extreme World” TV show, marks a new low for what is already a sadly compromised party.

STUPIDITY ON STILTS. How else should the decision-making on Waikeria Prison be characterised. From practically every perspective, the Labour-led government’s determination not to proceed with the construction of a new 3,000-bed “mega-prison” was flawed. Most particularly (and most worryingly) it demonstrated the Cabinet’s inability to think politically. And, when your business is politics-at-the-highest-level, that’s a very serious flaw indeed.

Let’s begin from where we are right now. New Zealand’s current prison muster has never been higher. In a nation of just 4.7 million it has topped 10,000 – making New Zealanders one of the most incarcerated peoples in the OECD.

The consequences of this rapid rise in prisoner numbers is that the country’s existing prisons are already dangerously over-crowded. The acute lack of space has already led to the introduction of double-bunking (thank you Judith Collins) and to prisoners being locked in their cells for extended periods. Not surprisingly, these conditions have led to an increase in the number of prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-guard assaults, as well as to a sharp spike in the number of prisoner suicides.

If there’s one thing that would really help New Zealand’s prisoners; its prison guards; and, ultimately, it’s people as a whole; it would be to increase the amount of prison space dramatically. It is only after the Department of Corrections takes possession of enough state-of-the-art “correctional facilities” to humanely house not only its current, but also its projected muster, that any kind of serious discussion about prisoner rehabilitation can begin.

While prisoners are being double-bunked, locked in their cells 22 hours a day, and denied access to the sort of medical, educational and vocational services most of them need, all talk of rehabilitation is not only meaningless – it’s mendacious.

To hear Kelvin Davis acknowledge that it may soon be necessary to put prisoners on mattresses on the floor was sickening. That a Labour cabinet minister is willing to countenance the New Zealand prison system becoming indistinguishable from the Third World hellholes visited by Ross Kemp’s “Extreme World” TV show, marks a new low for what is already a sadly compromised party.

But, what else could he say? The botched compromise he’d just announced: a new 500-bed prison at Waikeria incorporating a 100-bed mental health facility; will not admit its first inmate until 2022. By which time the muster is unlikely to have fallen appreciably and chronic overcrowding will still be making bad men worse.

That’s why it is so dishonest of the Labour-led government to talk about its long-term (15 years!) goal of reducing New Zealand’s prison muster by 30 percent. The last political party to be in power continuously for 15 years was “King Dick” Seddon’s Liberals. Back in the days when politicians wore top-hats and spats.

The only way a political party can talk about a 15-year-plan for reducing prisoner numbers by 30 percent with any semblance of credibility is after it has already succeeded in forging a broad bi-partisan consensus on all the major issues relating to crime and punishment. While Labour remains unmoved by the electorate’s strong emotional attachment to the arguments of the Sensible Sentencing Trust: i.e. that the perpetrators of horrendous crimes must be kept as far away from society as possible, for as long as possible; no such consensus is possible.

A good first-step for Labour would be an open acknowledgement that in all societies there is an irreducible number of bad bastards who must be caught, convicted and locked away. In matters of crime and punishment it is also important to acknowledge that the government’s highest priority should always be the safety of the public. Prisons may represent, as Bill English noted, both a fiscal and a moral failure, but this side of the Second Coming they are failures that cannot be avoided.

It is only after the public has been convinced of a party’s commitment to their safety that the conversation about crime and punishment can be extended to embrace the broader questions of rehabilitation and crime prevention. Advances in both these areas stand a much better chance of being achieved when the effort is concentrated within the prison system itself. Creating the necessary settings for such activity will, paradoxically, require the creation of more correctional space – not less.

In other words, if Labour’s long-term goal is to reduce the size of the New Zealand prison system, then its short-term priority must be to expand it.

New Zealanders will only believe in rehabilitation when they are presented with irrefutable evidence of its success. When prisoners’ physical and mental health problems are treated professionally and effectively. When they are taught to read, write and count well enough to pass the written driving test. When the people released from this country’s prisons stay released.

Only then will the prison muster fall and the resulting savings be seen to exceed the money spent on providing the space and services needed to reduce New Zealand’s appalling incarceration rate.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 June 2018.

The Symptom … And The Cure?

The Art Of The Deal: “[T]he old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles, but we have overcome them and we are here today.” North Korea's Kim Jong Un responds to President Donald Trump's introductory remarks at their historic summit-meeting in Singapore on Tuesday, 12 June 2018.

THE NOTE OF SURPRISE in the voices of the talking heads on CNN was unmistakable. How could this be happening? How could these two men – both of them routinely ridiculed by those claiming expertise in international relations – have gotten even this far? The leaders of USA and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, meeting in Singapore on Tuesday, 12 June 2018 and exchanging warm handshakes across the table. The eccentrically-coiffed and generously-fleshed scion of the redoubtable Kim dynasty, Kim Jong Un, offering up to the world the amazing soundbite:  “the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles, but we have overcome them and we are here today”. How was any of this possible?

One might as well ask – how was the 1972 meeting between Mao Zedong and President Richard Nixon possible? American GIs and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had been in a shooting war barely 20 years before that historic summit in Beijing. For quarter-of-a-century the US Pacific Fleet had shielded the Nationalist regime on Taiwan from the People’s Republic’s wrath. And yet, it happened.

In Oliver Stone’s movie “Nixon” there is a memorable scene in which Chairman Mao, through his interpreter, asks Nixon: “Is peace all you are interested in? The real war is in us. History is a symptom of our disease.” The dialogue is, of course, the work of the film’s screenwriters: Stephen J. Rivelle, Christopher Wilkinson and Stone himself; but it succinctly captures an essential truth about such extraordinary political figures as Mao Zedong, Kim Jong Un, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.

Some political leaders are content to be guided by their advisers – like George “Dubbya” Bush. For others, it is the events in which they are caught up that provide the opportunities for extraordinary displays of leadership. Think Winston Churchill in World War II, or, Lyndon Johnson and the struggle for Black civil rights 1964-65.

Then there are the leaders who, for a whole host of reasons, become the authors of events to which all these other, lesser, statesmen must respond. Grandiloquent and narcissistic, often paranoid, they are prey to deep existential fears and driven by inner-demons of unrelenting ferocity. This kind of leader has the power to project the turmoil and tumult of their own psyches onto the world around them. The ability to, in Stone’s memorable formulation, make History a symptom of their disease.

The rest of humanity has every reason to fear such individuals. Who in their right mind would cast themselves as a plaything in someone else’s paranoid fantasy? Democracies, in particular, should reject such individuals, in whose character there is much more of the emperor and dictator than there is the citizens’ humble representative.

Except, of course, History has a way of infecting individuals with the diseases whose morbid symptoms they will subsequently cause it to display. A nation rent by anxieties and resentments can hardly avoid throwing up the exceptional individual in whom those anxieties and resentments have not only been distilled to an uncommon purity, but who is also able to express them with extraordinary clarity and force.

Democracies in decay are particularly vulnerable to such individuals. The causes of a nation’s inner corruption, when given individual political expression, become accentuated and the process of decomposition is speeded-up. A malign feedback loop emerges by which the neuroses of the nation are both fed by – and feed – the person it has made its own. Be it Julius Caesar, Adolf Hitler or Donald Trump, the people’s “drummer” renders a double service: he is both the person who beats – and the person who is beaten.

Is it really so unbelievable, then, that the America which has grown so deeply resentful and untrusting of its political elites should be willing-on the President who has so openly defied them? That the more the experts deplore Trump’s ignorance and denounce his unwillingness to be guided, the more his supporters thrill to his insouciance.

“It’s about attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done”, declared the President, who went on to claim that he would know within the first minute of their meeting whether Kim Jong Un was serious about reaching a deal. When asked how, he replied simply: “My touch, my feel – that’s what I do.”

Encountering this phenomenon, it is hardly surprising that Kim, a genuine emperor, could believe that all the old prejudices, practices and obstacles might – just – be overcome.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 June 2018.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

What’s Wrong With The Progressive Movement’s Bloody Ships?

Something's Gone Wrong: The thing that’s gone wrong with the progressive movement's bloody ships is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded that protest’s only value is as a means of expressing our purely personal discontent with the status quo. This is, of course, bullshit. The purpose of protest is to apply pressure in order to achieve change. To force the wielders of effective political power into making a favourable response.

ABOUT THE TIME the second of Britain’s battle cruisers exploded, Vice-Admiral Beatty famously remarked: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” Trying to make sense of the political passivity of New Zealanders in the twenty-first century, I am often minded of Beatty’s words at the Battle of Jutland. Throughout the vicious class warfare of the past 35 years there does, indeed, seem to be something “wrong” with the progressive movement’s bloody ships!

God knows, it’s not as if there’s been a shortage of issues for people to mobilise against! Low wages; unaffordable housing; the appalling treatment of beneficiaries and state house tenants; the collapse of our mental health service; neoliberalism’s subjugation of the universities: the list is a long one.

The roll-call of resistance is, however, depressingly short. After 1991, protest activity on the streets fell away quite sharply. Campus-based protests against rising tuition fees flared in the early 1990s only to fade away almost completely by the turn of the century.

Environmental causes could still draw middle-class New Zealanders onto the streets in large numbers, however. The biggest of these protests: the anti-GE marches and the 50,000-strong Auckland protest against mining in national parks; were even able to persuade the government of the day to take action.

The most calamitous decline in popular resistance, however, occurred in the New Zealand working-class. Strike action, the most reliable measure of the willingness of working people to stand up and defend their interests, fell away almost completely. Prior to the passage of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, the number of strikes recorded in a single year plummeted from dozens to single figures. So punitive was the new industrial relations law that neither the unions’ paid officials, nor their members, were willing to test it.

That had not been the case in the period between the introduction of the Employment Contracts Bill in 1990 and the legislation being signed into law in May 1991. In April 1991 an estimated 100,000 workers marched against the Bill and mass rallies attended by thousands of rank-and-file unionists voted in favour of a general strike to “Kill the Bill”.

The blank refusal of the leaders of the largest unions to countenance a general strike struck the labour movement a mortal blow from which it has never recovered. Since 1991 the Council of Trade Unions and its affiliates have never been able to muster more than 5,000 unionists in one place. Workers had been ready to fight in 1991 but their so-called “leaders” had not.

The 2012 Ports of Auckland dispute, led by the late Helen Kelly, offered a glimpse of what working people might achieve if given half a chance – and courageous leadership. So, too, did Matt McCarten’s “Unite” union of low-paid security guards and fast-food workers. Sadly, these proved to be the exceptions – not the rule.

Then there were the great “one-offs”: protests that surged and exploded into genuine demonstrations of “people power” only to be sucked into the swamp of parliamentary politics and drowned.

The first of these was the hugely impressive 2004 hikoi against the controversial Foreshore and Seabed legislation. After setting forth from the Far North, the hikoi grew in strength until it arrived in the capital numbering somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 protesters. The Maori Party was born out of this impressive mobilisation of New Zealand’s indigenous people. Sadly, the huge hopes invested in the party ended up producing only the most meagre of political dividends.

The second big one-off protest was the February 2016 demonstration against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. It wasn’t just the number of protesters (somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000) but their palpable anger and energy that startled the political class. Alas, as happened with the hikoi, the anti-TPPA movement allowed itself to be skilfully finessed by the parliamentary opposition. The Labour Party, in particular, encouraged the protesters to believe that, once elected, it would keep New Zealand out of the TPPA’s trans-national corporate clutches.

The energy and anger of February 2016 soon dissipated and could not be reactivated when, 20 months later, the new Labour-NZF-Government proudly attached its signature to something called the “Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership”.

At the Battle of Jutland, the thing that was wrong with Beatty’s “bloody ships” was that the necessary precautions against enemy shells penetrating the battle cruisers’ magazines had not been taken. In effect, it was Beatty’s negligent approach to safety that sank his ships.

What, then, has gone wrong with New Zealand’s progressive ships?

In the simplest possible terms, the link between protest and political action has been broken.

For most of the post-war period, widespread protest activity almost always brought forth an answering political response. People marched and petitioned to “Save Manapouri!” – and Manapouri was saved. Thousands protested New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War – and NZ troops were withdrawn. For 56 days in 1981 the country was convulsed by the Springbok Tour – NZ’s sporting contact with Apartheid South Africa ceased. Most importantly, workers went on strike to improve their pay and conditions – and their pay and conditions were improved. Direct action worked.

It was one of the core objectives of the neoliberal counter-revolution that this relationship between popular agitation and the democratic political process be destroyed. Most especially in matters relating to the economy. The idea that ordinary people might influence the way in which wealth was created and distributed had to be discouraged.

The thing that’s gone wrong with our bloody ships is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded that protest’s only value is as a means of expressing our purely personal discontent with the status quo. This is, of course, bullshit. The purpose of protest is to apply pressure in order to achieve change. To force the wielders of effective political power into making a favourable response.

If those with the power refuse to respond to our protests, then the correct reaction is not to give up and go quiet. It is to protest louder and harder and longer until the powers-that-be give up – and give in.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 14 June 2018.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

What They Do In The Shadows: Winston Saves Labour From Itself.

They Want It Darker: Peters knows exactly what is going on in the minds of the dark, rock-solid mass of National Party voters – there was a time when he stood in the shadows with them. Aware that Laura Norder was getting ready to let loose one of her full-throated screams, Peters moved swiftly to save Labour from itself. Andrew Little will just have to wait.

THANK GOD FOR WINSTON PETERS! The decision of the NZ First Party to torpedo the Labour Party justice minister’s proposal to scrap the “Three Strikes” legislation came in the very nick of time. Andrew Little may be a good man, and Sir Peter Gluckman a powerful advocate for evidence-based decision-making, but neither of them would appear to possess Peters’ gut instinct for what is – and is not – possible politically.

The leader of NZ First is looking at the dark and rock-solid mass of National Party support ranged against the Labour-NZF-Green government, and he is drawing some pretty gloomy conclusions.

The first and most obvious of these is that the Nats smell blood. At both the parliamentary and grass-roots level of the National “movement” (for want of a better description) the frequently voiced opinion whatever else this government may do it is most unlikely to win a second term is rapidly solidifying into a right-wing conviction.

The second is that Jacinda’s “stardust” only works on the “woke”. If you’re young and following the right people on Twitter and Instagram; if you’re middle-class and well-credentialed; if you’re a working couple living in your own home and raising a young family; well then, Jacinda’s bloody marvellous. In the grim ghettoes of deprivation and despair, however, Labour’s promises of kindness and transformation have yet to evoke a measurable political response.

Peters knows exactly what that means in electoral terms. Labour is failing to grow its vote out of anything other than the support bases of its own partners. The non-voting poor and marginalised – who should be their target – have yet to hear anything from Jacinda and her team compelling enough to distract them from the grim business of day-to-day survival.

For a few magical moments in 2017, Metiria Turei caused a number of them to lift up their heads – just in time to witness her brutal political destruction. But who’s giving hope to beneficiaries and the working-poor in 2018? Certainly not Carmel Sepuloni!

The third – and the gloomiest – conclusion Peters is likely to have drawn is that this is not an era of political sunshine. He is old enough to remember the early 1960s when, for a few brief years, both here in New Zealand and around the Western World, there was a public willingness to embrace social policies founded in compassion, bolstered by science and delivered by political parties temporarily freed from the encumbering baggage of traditional conservatism.

Full-employment and steadily rising living-standards had emptied communities of the fears and anxieties to which, throughout history, they had been prey. The sunshine of empathy shone into places usually cast in the shade of envy and prejudice. To an electorally significant number of citizens the world seemed to be getting better and better and they were willing to vote for politicians who promised to make it better still. Social-democracy and progressive liberalism made common cause against all manner of social evils: prisons built to punish not rehabilitate; birching and flogging; the death penalty.

Peters is also old enough to remember the Third Labour Government and how its sunniest ministers – the most outstanding of which was the Justice Minister, Dr Martyn Findlay – attempted to press ahead with ever more liberal and progressive reforms. He’d remember, too, the souring of the New Zealand electorate in the wake of the hugely inflationary oil-shocks and Kirk’s tragic death.

Peters will recall how fear and anxiety returned to the nation’s communities as unemployment rose and living-standards began to fall. Watching all this, that much younger Winston Peters observed how easily National’s leader, Rob Muldoon, turned it all to his advantage. How traditional conservatism – momentarily outshone – once again cast its pall over the electorate. How Dr Martyn Findlay and his liberal reforms were unceremoniously cast aside - along with the rest of the Labour Government.

Peters knows exactly what is going on in the minds of that dark, rock-solid mass of National Party voters – there was a time when he stood in the shadows with them. Aware that Laura Norder was getting ready to let loose one of her full-throated screams, Peters moved swiftly to save Labour from itself. Andrew Little will just have to wait.

A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 June 2018.

Monday, 11 June 2018

It’s Time To Stop Subsidising New Zealand’s Least Efficient Employers.

The Biggest Subsidy Of All: Rather than force inefficient businesses – and businessmen – out of the economy, the National Government of Jim Bolger, Ruth Richardson, Jenny Shipley and Bill Birch opted to keep inefficient businesses afloat by allowing them to consistently reduce their wages bill.

NEW ZEALAND has a major problem with the way its bosses do business. In simple terms, the problem boils down to this: Kiwi employers expect Kiwi workers to subsidise their profits.

It has been this way since 1991 when the Employment Contracts Act effectively eliminated the institutions principally responsible for ensuring a fair distribution of businesses’ surpluses between shareholders and employees – the trade unions.

The elimination of state-sanctioned and state-facilitated collective bargaining was intended to depress wages and boost profits. On both counts it was extremely successful.

In the years immediate following the passage of the Employment Contracts Act, profits rose spectacularly and union density fell precipitately. In the 1980s, more than half the private-sector workforce were unionised; today, fewer than one-in-ten private-sector workers belong to a trade union. Without unions, Kiwi workers’ share of the wealth they’d helped create began a steady decline which has yet to cease. In 2018, the purchasing power of their wage packets is not much higher than it was in the 1970s.

The comparison with Australia – where collective bargaining enjoys far greater protection – is as bleak as it is alluring. The wages paid to Australian workers are, on average, a full third higher than the wages paid to workers doing the same jobs in New Zealand. Small wonder that so many skilled New Zealanders have “crossed the ditch”.

Bad though this situation has been for New Zealand’s workers, their subsidisation of the nation’s businesses has had an even more malign impact on the New Zealand economy as a whole.

In theory, capitalist enterprises grow more profitable by becoming more efficient – more productive. Fewer – but better – workers is the goal. A firm’s investment in better machines and more highly-skilled (and highly-paid) staff may be expensive in the short term, but the long-term improvement in its performance will not only increase its profitability, but also cause it to become more resilient and competitive.

This was precisely the conclusion arrived at by government, employer and union representatives in Sweden in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Together, they embarked upon a project to “compress” wages – i.e. reduce the gap between the lowest and the highest paid workers – by means of what the Swedish unions called “solidaristic wage bargaining”. Highly-skilled and highly-paid paid workers in the most efficient industries moderated their wage demands, while the unions representing Sweden’s low-paid workers demanded more.

Did this force some firms to go out of business? Yes it did – that was the whole idea. Wage compression forced Swedish employers to either become more efficient – or go under. The improvement in Swedish productivity and the stimulatory effect of higher wages easily absorbed the workers laid-off by the businesses forced to close. Firms whose proprietors probably shouldn’t have been in business in the first place.

New Zealand’s solution was the exact opposite of Sweden’s. Rather than force inefficient businesses – and businessmen – out of the economy, the National Government of Jim Bolger, Ruth Richardson, Jenny Shipley and Bill Birch opted to keep inefficient businesses afloat by allowing them to consistently reduce their wages bill.

Slashing the basic level of social-welfare assistance by 25 percent was the indispensable companion-policy to National’s low-wage strategy. No matter how low wages fell, it was absolutely vital that benefits fell lower. Being in work had to be preferable to being on the dole.

Regrettably, the Labour-led government of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen failed to reverse National’s low-wage strategy. Not only did they decline to restore the trade unions to anything like their former strength, but they augmented National’s low-wage strategy by introducing “Working For Families” which was nothing more nor less than a massive wage-subsidy to New Zealand’s worst employers, and yet another structural impediment to New Zealand capitalism improving its overall efficiency and productivity.

The question to be answered now is whether or not the present Labour-NZF-Green Government is willing to take the steps necessary to purge the New Zealand economy of its least efficient employers and force the rest of them to lift their game? Neither John Key nor Bill English were willing to put an end to the rank injustice of a system that kept bad bosses afloat by constantly shrinking their workers’ slice of the pie.

Could Iain Lees-Galloway’s lifting of the minimum wage to $20.00 by 2020 be interpreted as a first step towards solidaristic wage-bargaining?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 June 2018.

Forget the 1970s, Labour’s Fair Pay Agreements will take New Zealand back to the 1890s!

Poacher Turned Gamekeeper? Will Jim Bolger, the one-time master-poacher of worker’s rights, be able to transform himself, over the course of the coming months, into the incorruptible game-keeper of their interests?

“FAIR PAY AGREEMENTS” (FPA) are the final proof that Labour is evolving backwards into the Liberal Party. Predictably, National’s ignorance of its own country’s history has rendered it incapable of placing this latest example of Labour milksoppery into its proper context. Scott Simpson can witter-on all he likes about Jim Bolger (of whom more later) taking New Zealand back to the 1970s. A much more accurate historical invocation would be the 1890s. Or, if we’re being precise, 1894. That was the year the Liberal Government of Richard John Seddon passed the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act (ICAA) – the true inspiration for Iain Lees-Galloway’s FPAs.

The ICCA empowered the state to bring employers and workers together for the purpose of establishing minimum rates-of-pay and working conditions across whole industries and occupations. If these could not be arrived at by negotiation, then binding arbitration was available from a special Arbitration Court. Crucially, unions and employer associations who submitted their disputes to the Court were forbidden from engaging in strikes or lockouts. These “awards” of the Arbitration Court spelled out the minimum standards workers could expect and prevented the employers’ competitors from initiating a ‘race to the bottom’ on wages and conditions.

The parallels with Labour’s proposed FPAs are obvious. What has yet to be established, however, is whether or not the advisory group headed by Bolger will incorporate a twenty-first century equivalent of the Arbitration Court into the new FPA machinery. Without such a mechanism, the negotiation of anything resembling a useful FPA will be next-to-impossible. Strikes and lockouts have already been ruled out of the process, so in the absence of a binding arbitration mechanism, negotiations between employers and unions could be prolonged indefinitely. Or, at the very least, until the National Party is re-elected and the legislation enabling FPAs repealed.

This will be the true test of whether Bolger’s ‘road to Damascus’ conversion: from hard-line anti-union promoter of the Employment Contract’s Act, to conscience-stricken repudiator of neoliberalism and all its works; is genuine. With National’s workplace relations spokesperson, Scott Simpson, on record as promising to repeal all FPA-related legislation, any hopes Labour may have entertained of Bolger inspiring an outbreak of constructive bi-partisanship have already been dashed.

The best the Left can hope for now is that the one-time master-poacher of worker’s rights will, over the course of the coming months, transform himself into the incorruptible game-keeper of their interests.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 6 June 2018.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Generating Our Own Momentum.

Radical Millennial: As one of the most articulate and progressive representatives of “Roger’s Children” – those young New Zealanders who have grown up knowing nothing but neoliberalism –– Max Harris (above) is constantly searching for the raw materials with which to launch in his own homeland the same sort of fightback made possible by Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum in the UK.

CAN A “MOMENTUM” be built in New Zealand? This, in essence, was the question posed by millennial political scholar extraordinaire, Max Harris, to the sixty-or-so leftists who showed up at the Kai Pasifika restaurant on Wednesday night (30/5/18) for the welcome return of Laila HarrĂ©’s political “salon”.

The question is important because, as Harris made clear, it is the 30,000-strong Momentum movement which can claim most of the credit for consolidating Jeremy Corbyn's grip on the leadership of the British Labour Party, and most certainly it is Momentum which is keeping him there. Harris, himself, seemed less than optimistic that such a movement could get off the ground in this country, citing the profound depoliticization wrought by 30 years of extreme neoliberalism. Not helped, he might have added, by the New Zealand Labour Party (NZLP) hierarchy’s ingrained hostility to “Corbynism” and all forms of “bottom-up” organisation.

The reason for that hostility may be traced back directly to the 1989 split in the NZLP, when hundreds of left-wing activists followed the late Jim Anderton out of the organisation to form the NewLabour Party (NLP) – later to become a dominant force in the Alliance. The centrists who remained in the NZLP never forgave their erstwhile left-wing comrades for leaving them alone with the Rogernomes (who themselves decamped to form the Act Party in 1994). The key consequence of these centrists’ political traumas was that, throughout the 1990s and well into the 2000s, the NZLP’s default ideological setting was a rather bloodless version of Tony Blair’s “Third Way-ism”.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had the NZLP not split. Would the enormous energy and imagination that went into the formation of the NLP, and then the Alliance, have been devoted instead to hurling the neoliberal cuckoos out of Labour’s nest? Could New Zealand have given birth to its own intra-party generator of left-wing organisation and power a good twenty years before the British Labour Party generated its own Momentum?

The answer is – probably not. The extraordinary fact remains that it was the NZLP which accepted the task of introducing neoliberalism to New Zealand. In so doing it denied itself the historic role of leading the fight against it. The contrast with the British Labour Party, whose members waged a long and bitter struggle against Thatcherism, is a stark one. After eighteen years in the wilderness, Tony Blair may have been able to overlay his Third Way message on the British Labour Party, but its deep-in-the-bone hatred of the Thatcherite project was ineradicable. Had it not been, Momentum and Corbyn (who, almost alone, kept the flame of Labour’s core values burning for more than thirty years) would have had nothing to work with.

Even with British Labour’s proud history of resisting Thatcherism, Blair’s capture of the party’s “commanding heights” in the mid-1990s allowed him to populate Labour’s parliamentary contingent with careerist clones of their master and his minions. Corbyn undoubtedly faces powerful opponents in the all the usual bastions of the British establishment, but his bitterest enemies continue to be seated behind him on the Opposition benches.

Had Anderton and the Labour Left stayed put in 1989, and then flexed their muscles in the aftermath of the fourth Labour government’s inevitable defeat in 1990, the party would still have split. A good proportion of the caucus and much of the organisational hierarchy would have refused to accept a left-dominated NZLP. The legal battle over who had the right to call themselves the Labour Party would have raged on for months – possibly years. There would have been no winners.

The depoliticization of New Zealand society which Harris noted in his address was inescapable either way. It is simply not possible for a party of the Left to oversee the imposition of policies which the Right could only have introduced with the assistance of policemen’s truncheons without fundamentally deranging the entire political system for at least a generation.

As one of the most articulate and progressive representatives of “Roger’s Children” – those young New Zealanders who have grown up knowing nothing but neoliberalism –– Harris is constantly searching for the raw materials with which to launch in his own homeland the same sort of fightback made possible by Corbyn and Momentum. With the Alliance dead by its own hand, however, and with the NZLP allergic to “Corbynism” in all its forms (who was the one person Jacinda didn’t exchange public kisses with on her triumphant European tour?) the chances of building a Kiwi Momentum here are heartbreakingly slim.

Harris’s “politics of love” will require a very different vector. One which, given the history of Aotearoa-New Zealand, is most unlikely to have anything British about it at all.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 1 May 2018.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Who's Left In The Country?

In The Most Unlikely Of Places: The store of left-wing votes in the countryside, revealed in the Taranaki-King Country by-election of 1998, was forgotten about almost as soon as it was discovered. Which was a great pity. Because left-wing Kiwis living in rural and provincial New Zealand have facts to share about life in the countryside: facts their urban comrades urgently need to hear.

IT’S ONE of those facts that stick in the back of your mind. Information that forces you to consider carefully the difference between important and significant. That the event which gave rise to the fact happened 20 years ago doesn’t matter one bit. Some happenings continue to resonate long after their occurrence. That’s why the left-wing Alliance winning polling-booths in the Taranaki-King Country towns of Eltham, Stratford and Te Kuiti will always be a fact that counts.

Those small victories remain significant because they show that even in the most conservative of blue-ribbon electorates there are pockets of left-wing support. Hundreds and, quite possibly, thousands of voters with a radically different take on rural life from the occupational groups that dominate the countryside: farmers, contractors, stock-and-station agents, bankers, accountants and agricultural supply companies. Voters who, given the right incentives, could become politically important.

Back in the days of First-Past-The Post, no one paid much attention to these voters. Since there were never enough of them to affect the outcome in National’s blue-ribbon seats, their votes simply weren’t worth the effort of soliciting. Whether they made it to the polling-booths was essentially up to them. For the Labour Party such seats represented little more than useful training-grounds for ambitious young activists like Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern (both of whom were blooded in the National Party’s Waikato heartland).

Everything should have changed with the advent of Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP). The new electoral system, which got its first run in 1996, transformed the country into what was, essentially, a single electorate. Under MMP, every vote cast for a political party counted. It no longer mattered that practically all of your neighbours voted for the Nats because there were plenty of other communities where Labour voters hugely outnumbered supporters of the National Party. Winning under MMP was all about getting every last one of your party’s supporters to a polling-booth so that their all-important Party Votes could be added to the nationwide tally.

The 1998 Taranaki-King Country by-election, necessitated by Jim Bolger’s appointment as New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States, was a politically crucial test for all the political parties represented in Parliament. As such, voter mobilisation was critical. The Alliance, in particular, was determined to show Labour how far away it still was from recovering its former easy dominance of the left-wing vote.

In the process, the Alliance persuaded upwards of 3,000 voters to get themselves to the polling-booths on its behalf. Who were they? No one really knows. The hewers of wood and the drawers of water of rural and provincial New Zealand probably: the people you never see on Country Calendar; the ones the cockies and their mates look down their noses at; the men and women who keep the roads passable and serve behind the counter in the local store. Who knew there were so many!

I thought about these voters earlier this week as I watched Jacinda Ardern deliver the Labour-NZF-Green Government’s verdict on Mycoplasma Bovis. To see a Labour Prime Minister and the head of Federated Farmers seated side-by-side, united in a common cause, was presumably as jarring for rural and provincial voters as it was for an old socialist like me. It set me to wondering how Labour’s numbers in the Newshub and One News opinion polls might be improved if the party trained-up some organisers and put them to work in all the little country towns studded across this country’s beleaguered dairy heartlands. After all, Jacinda herself was raised in Morrinsville, not Mt Albert. Come to think of it, isn’t Helen Clark a Waikato farmer’s daughter?

There’s a widely held view among farmers (especially dairy-farmers) that Labour and the Greens have it in for them. That the Left doesn’t understand what it means to work on the land – just one biosecurity failure away from disaster. Well, there’s some truth to that. And, in many respects, the responsibility for this growing urban-rural split lies with the Left.

The store of left-wing votes in the countryside revealed by the Taranaki-King Country by-election was forgotten about almost as soon as it was discovered. Which was a great pity. Because left-wing Kiwis living in rural and provincial New Zealand have facts to share about life in the countryside: facts their urban comrades urgently need to hear.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 June 2018.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Italian Job.

The Ring-In: Italy's supposedly apolitical President, Sergio Mattarella, objecting to the victorious populist coalition’s choice of the eurosceptic, Paolo Savona, as Finance Minister, collapsed the government-formation process. Undaunted, Mattarella appointed an interim Prime Minister of his own choosing: a former high official of the International Monetary Fund, Carlo Cottarelli (above). Italy’s repudiation of the Euro, and even its departure from the European Union, cannot now be discounted.

RECENT EVENTS IN ITALY raise some disturbing questions about the possibility of executing radical policy reversals in this country. While New Zealand’s constitution is a considerably looser affair than Italy’s, it is still worth pondering what might happen here if a newly-elected, about-to-be-sworn-in government was promising to roll back the gains of neoliberalism. Before attempting an answer, however, it is worth re-capping what has happened in Italy.

Back in March, Italian voters went to the polls to elect a new legislature. The results of that election were reasonably clear: the traditional parties of both the left and the right suffered major losses and the two leading populist parties, the Internet-based Five-Star Movement and the anti-immigrant La Lega (The League) made significant gains. After several weeks of intense negotiation, the two populist parties presented a ministry led by Giuseppe Conte to the supposedly apolitical President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, so that he could swear them into office.

Rather than bestow his formal blessing on the new government, however, the President objected to the populist coalition’s choice of Paolo Savona as Finance Minister. Savona was an outspoken critic of the European Union’s rigid economic policies and Mattarella was unwilling to entrust such a person with Italy’s economic management. Not surprisingly, Conte refused to comply and the coalition parties withdrew from the government-formation process altogether.

Undaunted, Mattarella appointed an interim Prime Minister of his own choosing: a former high official of the International Monetary Fund, Carlo Cottarelli. Mattarella’s decision to ignore the will of the Italian people and appoint a notorious neoliberal technocrat as their prime minister has sparked both a political and a financial crisis. Italy’s repudiation of the Euro, and even its departure from the European Union, cannot now be discounted.

Could such a blatant attack on democracy occur here? Does our lack of a written constitution protect us from a similar intervention by the executive arm of government?

The short answer, unfortunately, is – No.

The German jurist, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) summed up the fraught issues associated with a democratic system in crisis (he was writing about the doomed Weimar Republic of the early-1930s) by posing a key question. Who has the authority to identify the presence of a crisis, or emergency situation, serious enough for the executive power to declare an Ausnahmezustand, a “state of exception” in which the normal functioning of democracy is suspended lest its continuance put at jeopardy the security and/or survival of the legally constituted order? “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”, declared Schmitt.

In the New Zealand context, Schmitt’s formulation would encourage the view that if a situation ever arose where the political and financial security of the realm were about to be put at risk by a yet-to-be-sworn-in government committed to implementing policies inimical to that security, then the Governor-General would be justified in wielding her reserve powers to prevent such a government taking office. As the sovereign’s representative, she would be entitled to decide that the election result had precipitated circumstances of such exceptional severity that a temporary suspension of New Zealand’s democratic norms was justified.

The Governor-General would not, of course, be making such critical constitutional decisions in a political vacuum. The moment it became clear that a government of transformational radicalism was in the offing, and that its leaders were absolutely determined to carry out their reform programme, the principal defenders of the status quo would mobilise all their resources to stop them.

The first to act would be the major financial institutions. These would set in motion a rapid devaluation of the Kiwi dollar and instigate a precipitate drop in share prices on the NZ stock exchange. These real-world effects would provide the mainstream news media with all the excuse it needed for a no-holds-barred assault on the parties readying themselves for government.

Very soon after the media began campaigning, surrogate voices speaking on behalf of the major right-wing parties would raise the possibility of vice-regal intervention. They would be joined in this effort by spokespersons from all the major right-wing interest groups: Federated Farmers, the Employers and Manufacturers Association, Chambers of Commerce.

Simultaneously, conservative youth organisations would unleash a whole series of social-media campaigns full of hair-raising disinformation about the reform parties’ intentions so as to arouse maximum public anxiety. Mass street demonstrations would follow which, if answered by the followers of the reform parties, would be marred by widespread violence and property destruction. If the reform parties declined to rise to the bait, then agent provocateurs could be hired to do the job.

Finally, the various agencies of national security would intervene with “hard evidence” of the reformers’ subversive intentions. Real or not, these revelations would lift the intensity of right-wing opposition to a whole new level. However reluctantly, all “responsible” opinion would now be urging the Governor-General to act.

Anxious that the ongoing political and financial crises not be allowed to deepen, the Governor-General would, with equal reluctance, agree to exercise her reserve powers. The “caretaker” Prime Minister from the previous government would be invited to remain in office pending new elections.

Needless to say, the much-maligned, misrepresented and now deeply unpopular reform parties would suffer decisive electoral defeats. The “state of exception” could then, with great solemnity, be declared over.

All of which leads to the inescapable conclusion that if Grant Robertson didn’t already exist, Jacinda would have to invent him. It’s one thing to promise “transformation” when none of the powers-that-be believe you; quite another when they do.

Just ask the Italians.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 31 May 2018.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Killing Them Softly: Labour’s Caution Is Proving Fatal To NZ First.

Happier Times: Seven months into the Ardern-led government's first term, it is clear that Winston Peters' assumption that Jacinda and the Labour Party were one and the same was profoundly mistaken. Peters was right in thinking that without her even the possibility of change would be non-existent. Where he erred was in thinking that Labour’s willingness to be guided by the person who had brought power within its grasp was anything like as great as NZ First’s.

WINSTON PETERS had better have something up his sleeve – preferably an ace – or things are going to get messy. Reviewing the latest poll from Newshub/Reid Research, the thought must surely have crossed the NZ First leader’s mind: “Did Jacinda play me?” Because, it is almost impossible to imagine a politician as experienced as Peters agreeing to install such a potentially unstable combination as the Labour-NZF-Green government without first being convinced that Jacinda was genuinely committed to New Zealand’s economic and social transformation.

Seven months into the Ardern-led government, however, it must be clear that his assumption that Jacinda and the Labour Party were one and the same was profoundly mistaken. Peters was right in thinking that without her even the possibility of change would be non-existent. Where he erred was in thinking that Labour’s willingness to be guided by the person who had brought power within its grasp was anything like as great as NZ First’s. Jacinda may have rescued Labour from a crushing (perhaps fatal) defeat but that didn’t mean she was the boss – not by a long chalk.

Since Helen Clark’s departure in 2008 the Labour Party has come to resemble the Scotland of the 1500s. Nominally an absolute monarchy, England’s northern neighbour had singularly failed to produce a dynasty to match the all-powerful Tudors. Scotland had thus become a rancorous and fractious realm in which the monarch wasn’t even primus inter pares (first among equals) but the plaything of its most powerful noble families.

Over the past nine-and-a-half years Labour’s parliamentary caucus has steadily fallen under the sway of a handful of ambitious MPs, without whose backing none of its leaders have been able to operate effectively. The most powerful of these MPs, Grant Robertson and Phil Twyford, have become (not coincidentally) the crucial arbiters of what is – and is not – going to happen in the Labour-NZF-Green government. If Peters had anticipated calling the shots alongside Ardern, then he must be feeling tremendously frustrated.

Certainly, Peters was able to secure a considerable sum for his own foreign ministry and a billion-dollar regional investment fund with which his most likely successor, Shane Jones, can top-dress the provinces. But, the Deputy Prime Minister is not blind, he must see that it is these two men, Robertson and Twyford, who will make or break the government he and Ardern caused to be formed.

What Peters needed, and what Ardern showed every sign of wanting to form, was a government dedicated to making big changes. Nothing less could hope to deliver the “transformation” promised by the Prime Minister. Her “politics of kindness” would require a revolution – of sorts.

The 2.4 percent level of electoral support to which NZ First has fallen is a reflection of just how far the government put in place by Peters has fallen short of its followers’ expectations. Only now, on the eve of becoming NZ’s acting prime minister, is it becoming clear to Peters that “Jacinda” is a politician with two faces. The first is the face New Zealanders thrill to: hopeful, open, empathic. The second is the face she wears in Labour’s caucus: shrewd, cautious, realistic. Peters is realising, too late, that it is this all-important second face that Ardern will, on no account, set against her two overmighty subjects: Robertson and Twyford.

What Peters needed from Labour were revolutionaries. What he got, in the seats of power that truly mattered, were two uninspiring tinkerers with the status quo. Last October, Peters and NZ First were confident that what they were hearing from Jacinda and her colleagues were the uplifting harmonies of kindness and transformational change. Seven months on, it’s clear that whatever kind of music is killing them softly – it isn’t the Hallelujah Song.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 29 May 2018.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Historic Victory For Irish Women.

Dublin. Saturday, 26 May 2018: Thousands of Irish women cheer the announcement that a nationwide referendum has produced a decisive 66.4 percent vote in favour of repealing the constitutional prohibition against abortion in Ireland.

TRUST THE IRISH to tell a good story. Fifty years from now the young women who gathered in their thousands outside Dublin Castle to cheer the stunning result of the “Repeal the Eighth Amendment Referendum” will have a wonderful tale to tell their grand-daughters. Not only was the result wonderful – 66.4 percent voted in favour of removing what was in effect a constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland – but so too was the way it was won.

As the polls showed a tightening of the gap between the “Yes” and “No” camps, the call went out to Irish women and men scattered across the globe to come home and vote for change. And come home they did. Ireland’s wild geese flocked home in their thousands. The distinctive black “Repeal” T-shirts of the Yes Campaign could be seen at airports and ferry terminals across Ireland. Irish women from as far away as Canada and Australia made the journey to rescue Ireland from the reactionary grip of a Catholic Church which, in the wake of child abuse revelations spanning 20 years, has lost all moral authority.

As the results of the referendum came in, it was clear that something politically and culturally profound has been taking place in the country once written off as a hopelessly conservative, priest-ridden culture still languishing in the dark politics of the Republic of Ireland’s violent birth. Only in County Donegal did the No Campaign prevail – and only by a single percentage point. Throughout the rest of Ireland, most noticeably in Dublin and the larger cities, but also in the rural counties and provincial towns, clear and decisive votes were cast for repeal.

The patient and respectful campaigning of a coalition of moderate and radical women’s groups had done its work. Not even the presence of “Pro-Life” campaigners shipped in from the United States could withstand the clear and incontrovertible evidence of the costs: physical, psychological and economic; of the legal denial of Irish women’s right to exercise control over their own bodies.

By the end of the year the two political parties commanding a majority in the Irish parliament are pledged to introduce and pass reform legislation that will propel Ireland well ahead of New Zealand on abortion rights.

It’s a grand tale which will, no doubt, grow grander in the telling. How the women of Ireland and their upright brothers brought home the Goddess to Erin’s green isle.

This essay is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Testing The Speaker.

Parliament's Poacher-Turned-Gamekeeper: Mallard positively twinkles in the Speaker’s Chair. His many years in the Chamber have armed him against every trick in the Opposition play-book. Hardly surprising, since Mallard has, at one time or another, played every one of them. Knowing exactly what to expect, this parliamentary poacher-turned-gamekeeper lies in wait for the lumbering Nats and daily spoils their fun by dispensing a judicious measure of galling intellectual acuity and dead-eyed malice.

QUESTION TIME IN PARLIAMENT this afternoon was a useful reminder of what Jacinda and her government are up against. In theory, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition are supposed to impress the Visitor’s Gallery as a government-in-waiting: sagacious, witty and (to use a favourite parliamentary term) honourable. In practice, Simon Bridges’ National Party Opposition comes across as ignorant, boorish and disturbingly truculent.

Bridges’ people put one in mind of a hitherto unbeatable rugby team which has unaccountably lost the season’s most important game to a rag-tag bunch of scrawny and inexperienced ring-ins. “It shouldn’t have happened!”, has slowly-but-surely morphed into “It didn’t happen!” National appears convinced that if everyone had played by the rules they could not have lost the game. In their minds, Labour, NZ First and the Greens were only able to claim victory by cheating outrageously.

And so, they sit there on the Opposition’s side of the House, forced to swallow the bitter bile of defeat every time they lift their eyes to the mocking gaze of Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters and James Shaw.

The person who makes them retch most violently, however, is the Speaker, Labour’s Trevor Mallard. There’s an insouciance about Mallard’s management of the House; a barely suppressed glee; that is quite clearly driving National’s MPs crazy.

Mallard positively twinkles in the Speaker’s Chair. His many years in the Chamber have armed him against every trick in the Opposition play-book. Hardly surprising, since Mallard has, at one time or another, played every one of them. Knowing exactly what to expect, this parliamentary poacher-turned-gamekeeper lies in wait for the lumbering Nats and daily spoils their fun by dispensing a judicious measure of galling intellectual acuity and dead-eyed malice. He isn’t the least bit scared of Gerry Brownlee, Paula Bennett, Jamie-Lee Ross or David Bennett. They know it – and he knows they know it.

And still they come at him: proud Tory Samurai whose traditional swords and arrows are utterly unequal to Mallard’s pearl-handled Colt 45. He shoots them down for sport.

It will be interesting to observe how long Bridges is prepared to let this unequal contest go on. He must know that a battle with the Speaker, if it is not to end in the Opposition’s complete humiliation, must be escalated to the point where the normal operation of Parliament becomes impossible.

The problem is that the raising of spurious points-of-order and refusing to withdraw and apologise for unparliamentary conduct is an extremely risky strategy. Open defiance of the Chair, leading to the naming of members, interventions by the Sergeant-at-Arms, mass walkouts and point-blank refusals to re-join Government members in the Chamber will certainly bring the business of the House to a standstill. Unfortunately, it may also send the National Party’s public support into free-fall. New Zealanders don’t tend to have much time for players who argue with the ref.

But, even if National’s 44 percent support-base stays solid behind their wronged heroes; and even if Labour, NZ First and the Greens buckle in the face of such reckless political hatred; New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy would be irreparably damaged. New Zealand would have reached the point so terrifyingly described in William Golding’s dystopian novel, Lord of the Flies, when Jack and his fellow savages overthrow the schoolboys’ brave attempt at self-government – symbolised by the beautiful conch-shell which guarantees whoever holds it a fair hearing.

“By him stood Piggy still holding out the talisman, the fragile shining beauty of the shell. The storm of sound beat at them, an incantation of hatred. High overhead, Roger, with a sense of delirious abandonment, leaned all his weight on the lever […..] The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time even for a grunt, travelled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across the square red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red.”

Democracy, too, is a fragile thing and the rocks used to destroy it take many forms.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 23 May 2018.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Speaking For The Don.

Role Model? What does it mean when the United States Secretary of State acts like one of the Godfather’s enforcers? How should the international community respond when a nation, armed to the teeth and openly contemptuous of the rule of international law, commands the rest of the world to join it in “crushing” its enemy?

MIKE POMPEO looks and sounds like one of Tony Soprano’s capos. That first impression was powerfully reinforced earlier this week when he addressed the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation. His speech, full of insults and threats to the government of Iran, was clearly intended to convey “an offer they could not refuse”.

When, a week or so ago, the late-night talk-show host, Bill Maher, made a case for the Trump Administration being indistinguishable from a Mafia family, his viewers no doubt appreciated the black humour of the comparison. It is now clear that Maher wasn’t joking.

What does it mean when the United States Secretary of State acts like one of the Godfather’s enforcers? How should the international community respond when a nation, armed to the teeth and openly contemptuous of the rule of international law, commands the rest of the world to join it in “crushing” its enemy?

Believing in the word of the United States, leading members of the European Union responded to the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal by investing billions of dollars in the Iranian economy. Bad luck. Secretary of State Pompeo has told them to tear up their contracts and get the hell out of Tehran. In future, he warned them, any country trading with the United States had better not be caught trading with Iran also – not if it wants to keep its access to America’s markets. A number of European oil companies have already taken the hint and abandoned Iran to its fate.

And what is that likely to be? What does the United States expect Iran to do? If Secretary Pompeo’s speech is any guide, that unfortunate country is expected to render itself defenceless militarily and to abandon any pretence of conducting an independent foreign policy.

Iran’s production of advanced ballistic missiles – the only weapons in the Iranian arsenal capable of inflicting serious damage on a would-be aggressor – must cease.

The same cease-and-desist order has been slapped on Iran’s diplomatic relationships with Iraq, Syria, Russia, China and the rebel forces in Yemen.

Secretary Pompeo has further declared that Iran, despite it being a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and ignoring its membership of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has no right to possess a nuclear reactor – not even for the purposes of generating electricity.

Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, seated next to Vice-President Mike Pence, looks on as President Donald Trump addresses his Cabinet.

In other words, the United States isn’t making Iran an offer it cannot refuse, it is sending Iran an ultimatum it cannot possibly accept. In effect, Secretary Pompeo is demanding that the Iranians place themselves under the “protection” of the United States. Whereupon, having driven its European, Russian and Chinese competitors out of the Iranians’ oil and natural gas fields, the Americans will, presumably, settle down to suck the country dry.

Because, stripped of all the bombast and all the faux concern for the Iranian people, the real reason for the United States’ implacable hostility towards the government of Iran is that ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79 the Ayatollahs have refused to let the USA “wet its beak” in their nation’s most valuable natural resource. The core of Secretary Pompeo’s message to Tehran’s leaders is, therefore, brutally simple. “If you continue to refuse America its cut, then the Global Godfather will rub you out. Capisce?”

In its determination to emulate La Cosa Nostra, however, the Trump Administration has all-too-clearly forgotten what happens to the Don who goes rogue and makes it impossible for the other crime families to do business. Nothing unites Mafia chieftains faster than a threat to their cash flows. As Bob Dylan puts it his poignant tribute to the maverick Italian-American mobster, Joey Gallo: “It’s peace and quiet that we need to go back to work again.”

If the United States insists on extorting a bigger slice of the global pie than the European Union, Russia and China can afford to concede, then they will have no choice except to come together in defence of their economic interests. If that happens, then the United States will find itself competing with a vast global alliance stretching all the way from the Pacific Ocean to the English Channel; the North Pole to the Cape of Good Hope. Militarily formidable and economically self-sufficient, this monster-of-America’s-own-making is likely to prove a great deal harder to intimidate than the beleaguered nation of Iran.

These gangsters will be packing nuclear pistols.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 May 2018.