Friday, 23 February 2018

Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord!

Succession Planning: The core political mission for National’s caucus is a curiously biblical one. It must choose a John the Baptist figure to prepare the way for National’s Saviour to come.

WHOEVER EMERGES VICTORIOUS from National’s leadership contest will face the challenge of re-defining their party’s core political mission. With Labour showing little sign of deviating from the general policy lines of the Clark-Cullen ministry – lines which John Key and Bill English more-or-less adhered to for nine years – it makes little sense to define National as Not-Labour. The steady reduction of the formerly stark ideological differences between National and Labour makes the Not-Labour definition increasingly problematic.

The relative sameness of the two major parties leaves both of them acutely vulnerable to any sudden break from the status-quo. Any sudden lurch to the far-right by National, for example, would benefit Labour hugely. Without having to deviate even slightly from its current policy settings, the Labour Party would be able to energise its base by presenting Jacinda Ardern’s government as the defender of moderate mainstream values against right-wing extremism. A lurch to the far-left by Labour and its allies would confer an identical advantage upon National. Policy convergence guarantees obvious electoral benefits to both parties.

Just how important preserving bipartisan policy convergence has become in the major western democracies was illustrated by the reaction of the US Democratic Party’s National Committee to Bernie Sanders presidential bid, and the response of British Labour Party MPs to the election of Jeremy Corbyn. The reaction of both party establishments was one of shock and horror. They were convinced that the enunciation of radical ‘socialist’ ideas would render their parties “unelectable”.

Events appear to have proved them right.

By the same token, the triumph of the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom, and the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, has been taken as evidence of a sudden lurch towards extremism by two political parties hitherto perceived as moderate and mainstream. The dramatic improvement in the fortunes of the Democratic Party and the British Labour Party would appear to confirm the wisdom of keeping one’s political colours safely inside the lines.

Presumably, this explains why so many National Party MPs, while remaining tight-lipped about who they intend to vote for, are only too happy to make clear who they will be voting against.

The election of Judith Collins as Leader of the Opposition would allow Jacinda Ardern to go into the 2020 general election as the nation’s protector. The electorate would be urged to use their votes as shields against a rabidly right-wing National Party. The effectiveness of this pitch was proved by Helen Clark’s 2005 exhortation: “Don’t put it all at risk!” In successfully casting National’s Don Brash as an ideological bridge too far, Labour eked out a narrow election win.

The rejoinder of Team Collins would, undoubtedly, be that the secret to winning elections is to increase – not decrease – the level of political polarisation. Pitting like against like in any political contest benefits only the incumbent.

Polarisation can be benign, as it was, generally speaking, in Jeremy Corbyn’s “For the Many, Not the Few” campaign against Teresa May’s Tories; or, malign, as in Trump’s divisive crusade to “Make America Great Again”. The point Team Collins would make is that there has to be a clear reason for voting one way or the other. Without a clear choice before them, voters have an irritating tendency to opt for the devil they know.

The core political mission for National’s caucus is, therefore, a curiously biblical one. It must choose a John the Baptist figure to prepare the way for National’s Saviour to come. The hard-line Brash energised National’s base and gathered-up the overwhelming majority of New Zealand’s right-wing voters beneath its dark-blue banner. He was then removed from the scene so that John Key’s sunny, jokey, Labour-Lite Messiah could start turning water into wine. National’s caucus is thus tasked with identifying which candidate’s voice will sound the most persuasive crying in the wilderness. It must also decide whose head it is most willing to see served up on a platter in the aftermath of a 2020 election defeat.

The candidate seeking the role of Jesus in this two-part resurrection drama would be well-advised to spend the next two-and-a-half years keeping his, or her, head down in the National Party equivalent of Nazareth.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 23 February 2018.

Of Radical Conservatism and Illiberal Democracy

Straight Shooters: Radical Conservatives like Judith Collins encourage the electorate to seek out and support those politicians who promise to strengthen the powers and purview of the State. That this will inevitably entail curbing the independence of the Judiciary; authorising the increased surveillance of citizens; and locking-up an ever-increasing number of their fellow citizens; bothers them not at all.

ACCORDING TO former Labour cabinet minister, Steve Maharey: “Social democracy is in trouble”. Who cares? If challenged to define social democracy, most Kiwis would shake their heads and shrug. It’s not a term that pops up very often in New Zealand political conversations. Whether or not it’s in trouble is unlikely to keep anyone awake at night except left-wing politicos.

On the other hand, if Mr Maharey were to say “Labour is in trouble”, then New Zealanders would have no difficulty at all in understanding what he was saying. With Labour riding high at 48 percent in the polls, they might question his grasp on political reality, but at least they’d know what he meant.

A more interesting question, especially in the context of National’s unfolding leadership contest, might be: “Is New Zealand conservatism in trouble?” If, for example, the National Party caucus were to make Judith Collins Leader of the Opposition, what would stand out as the most important item on her political agenda?

If her past record is any indication, the Law and Order issue would be right at the top of her To-Do list. It was, after all, in recognition of her get-tough approach to boy-racers that she was given the political nickname “Crusher”. She has worn it with pride ever since.

The Law and Order issue works exceptionally well for right-wing politicians because it allows them to play directly to the average voter’s powerful emotional response to the horrors of serious criminal offending. People see the damage inflicted on the victims and their families, and their first response is to demand that the person, or persons, responsible be subjected to the harshest possible punishment.

They do not want to hear the explanations put forward by bleeding-heart liberals or left-wing academics. As far as they’re concerned the people who kill, rape and injure innocent human-beings are evil monsters. Lock them up and throw away the key.

End. Of. Story.

In the febrile atmosphere whipped-up by right-wing political firebrands and media sensationalists, the demands of due-process and constitutional legal safeguards are received with scorn. If the Police have arrested you and brought you to trial, then you must be guilty.

Sir William Blackstone’s famous legal dictum: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”, cuts little ice with a public whose blood is up. To the mob, the idea that the Law might occasionally allow the guilty to escape punishment is an insufferable provocation.

All of which encourages the electorate to seek out and support those politicians who promise to strengthen the powers and purview of the State. That this will inevitably entail curbing the independence of the Judiciary; authorising the increased surveillance of citizens; and locking-up an ever-increasing number of their fellow citizens; bothers them not at all.

On the contrary, the State is perceived as their champion: a counter-force to all those “activist judges”, annoying civil libertarians and immoral defence lawyers who demand proof of guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”, and who bleat on about the “rights of the accused”. What about the rights of the victims – eh? Don’t they deserve justice!

The perverse consequence of this kind of conservatism is that, far from preserving the traditions and institutions bequeathed to us by past generations, it actively seeks their destruction.

In place of the liberties of the citizen: extracted at great cost from the arbitrary power of the state, these “radical conservatives” advance the notion that the collective welfare of the people can only be secured by suppressing anyone who sets their individual “rights” against the obligation of the state to execute the people’s will.

The political consequences of this decidedly troubling variety of conservatism are observable in the so-called “illiberal democracies” of the Russian Federation, Hungary and Poland. In these countries, elections still take place and opposition parties continue to exist alongside a diversity of media outlets. The crucial factor which distinguishes illiberal democracy from the real thing, is that in illiberal democracies the definition of “the people” is radically narrowed to exclude all those who refuse to support the governing party.

In winning power, illiberal democrats avail themselves of all the opportunities genuine democracy provides. Once elected, however, they move swiftly to delegitimise and marginalise their political opponents.

For those unlucky enough to live under it, illiberal democracy tends to be a crushing experience.


A version of this essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 February 2018.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Too Little, Too Late: The Opportunity To Stop the CPTPP Has Passed.

Off The Hook: Since early-November 2017, the Labour-NZF-Green Government has been able to sell its message that the CPTPP represents a genuine improvement on the TPPA. So much so, that the street-based protest option has quietly dropped-off the anti-TPP agenda. That’s why the anti-TPP pressure group "It's Our Future" is promoting a “Day of Action” on 4 March 2018, rather than an honest-to-goodness protest march like the one that stunned New Zealand on 4 February 2016.

“TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE.” That’s what I would say to David Parker on the day he released the text of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). With the signing ceremony due to take place in the Chilean capital, Santiago, on 8 March – a mere fortnight from the document’s release – the time available for thorough public scrutiny and debate is simply too short.

I would also say “Too little, too late” to Oliver Hailes, the new spokesperson for the anti-TPP pressure-group, It’s Our Future (IOF). He has announced a “Day of Action” against the CPTPP on Sunday, 4 March. But, at just four days out from the signing ceremony, what is IOF’s “action” supposed to achieve?

It’s hard to tell. In the bulletin released by Hailes, the Day of Action is described as:

“[A] Nationwide Day of Action across New Zealand in opposition to the Government’s plans. The Government intends to sign the treaty in Chile on Thursday 8 March and there will be an organised presence at Parliament on that day - watch this space, details are to come!”

Reading on, it becomes clear that IOF’s strategy in relation to the CPTPP is fundamentally unchanged from the strategy it adopted against its predecessor, the plain old Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).

In Hailes’ own words:

“Signing is not the end of the process! [The CPTPP] must be presented to Parliament for debate, and then it will be referred to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee for examination. These are opportunities for all of you to have your say through written or oral submissions. Eventually the Select Committee will make a recommendation to the Government as to whether or not it should ratify the text and adopt implementing legislation to bring New Zealand law into line with its international commitments. And then, if the Government gets its way, New Zealand will undertake binding action. Each one of these steps provides an opportunity for you to intervene and let the Government know why it should turn back. Remember, the whole plan fell to pieces last time.”

Well, yes, it did, but only because President Donald Trump yanked the United States out of the Agreement at the last minute. Submissions to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee made absolutely to difference to the National Government’s plans to bring the TPPA into effect. It is fanciful to suggest that submitting to the same select committee on the CPTPP will produce anything other than exactly the same outcome.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”? The IOF should turn that quotation into a poster and pin it up on the wall above Oliver Hailes’ desk.

So, what would work? The answer, sadly, is that, right now, a fortnight out from the signing ceremony, it’s hard to see anything working.

Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters and David Parker were vulnerable to the critics and opponents of what was then being called TPP-11 for only a very brief moment: the period immediately preceding, and immediately after, the Apec Meeting in Danang, Vietnam on 6-11 November 2017.

That was the period during which it became clear to all those who had trusted in Labour’s, NZ First’s and the Greens’ declared opposition to the TPPA, that the new coalition government was preparing to renege on its promises. If the IOF movement had called its 20,000-plus supporters onto the streets in early-November 2017, under the slogan “Hold Them To Their Word!”, then there might have been a chance of spooking Jacinda, Winston and David into resisting the pressure from MFAT, MBIE, MPI, Federated Farmers and Business NZ to treat their pre-election promise to defend New Zealand’s sovereignty as “just one of those things you say in Opposition and then forget about it Government”.

Sadly, the IOF did not activate its data-base of followers and lead them into the streets, with the result that, in the weeks and months that followed, the Government has been able to sell its message that the CPTPP represents a genuine improvement on the TPPA. So much so, that the street-based protest option has quietly dropped-off the anti-TPP agenda. That’s why Oliver Hailes is promoting a “Day of Action”, rather than an honest-to-goodness protest march like the one that stunned New Zealand on 4 February 2016.

Getting a handful of worthy souls to gather in city-centres and parks on 4 March 2018 and hold up a tired display of re-cycled placards and banners, is something IOF can manage. Putting 50,000 angry Kiwis on Queen Street is no longer within its power.

The impact will be negligible. A Government riding-high on 48 percent in the latest Colmar Brunton opinion poll has nothing to fear from a single day of [in]action.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 22 February 2018.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

A New Zealand Political Dissident.

Dangerous Mind: International interest in Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s research into the growing reach of Chinese "soft power" was sharpened recently by her disclosure of the presence of former Chinese nationals in the caucuses of New Zealand’s two largest political parties; most particularly, the fact that one of those Members of Parliament has historical links with the Chinese intelligence community (if only in a pedagogical capacity).

THAT PROFESSOR ANNE-MARIE BRADY has had her home and office broken into, and her lap-top stolen, is deeply troubling. That the perpetrators were brazen enough to warn her that their attack was imminent, only heightens that concern. The most compelling reason for feeling uneasy about Professor Brady’s misfortunes, however, is their obvious potential to seriously damage Chinese-New Zealand relations.

Professor Brady is a China specialist who has won international acclaim for her research into the methods used by the Chinese government to monitor and, where possible, influence the conduct and opinions of Chinese nationals living abroad; as well as for describing the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) efforts to build maximum support for the “Motherland” among the world-wide Chinese diaspora.

What has sharpened international interest in Professor Brady’s work is her disclosure of the presence of former Chinese nationals in the caucuses of New Zealand’s two largest political parties; most particularly, the fact that one of those Members of Parliament has historical links with the Chinese intelligence community (if only in a pedagogical capacity).

Taken together with her itemisation of the appointments of former political leaders of New Zealand to the boards of a number of Chinese financial institutions, the Professor’s revelations were more than sufficient to secure coverage in major media outlets in Australia, the UK and the United States.

The most recent reference to Professor Brady’s research is to be found in the influential US magazine, “Foreign Policy”. Concerned about the links between the Chinese Embassy in Washington and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association operating on the campus of Georgetown University, foreign-policy specialist, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, quotes Professor Brady on the information-gathering role of these Chinese Government-supported student groups:

“It’s a deliberate strategy to make sure that the Chinese students and scholars living abroad don’t become a problem.”

That the political and cultural views of young Chinese citizens studying abroad could become a problem for the Chinese Government is readily appreciated. As Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian points out, there are 330,000 Chinese nationals studying in the United States, alone, with scores-of-thousands more at other universities around the world. That’s an awful lot of highly-educated, highly-skilled young people to come home with “problematic” ideas!

This is much more than a theoretical proposition. As an at-least-nominally revolutionary party, the CPC will be well aware of the “Russians in Paris” syndrome.

Following the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, the armies of the victorious powers – which included the Russian Empire – occupied Paris. Young Russian officers suddenly found themselves in the midst of a free-wheeling culture which prized intellectual and artistic pursuits of all kinds – not least the passionate discussion of political philosophy.

Unsurprisingly, these Imperial Guardsmen returned home to St Petersburg with more than a taste for French cuisine and Parisian coffee. Travelling with them were the core principles of the French Revolution: “Liberty. Equality. Fraternity.” Within ten years, some of them (known as “Decemberists”, after the month in which they rose against the Tsar) were attempting to spark a democratic revolution in Russia.

The last thing the Chinese authorities want is a “Decemberist” revolt of their own. A revolt fuelled by ideas and ideals imported into China from the United States of America in the heads of their best and brightest university graduates. Those among the CPC leadership who had to deal with the consequences of the tragic events of June 1989 will not have forgotten that the symbol of that earlier student revolt was a papier-mâché replica of the Statue of Liberty.

The studied indifference towards Professor Brady’s research (not to mention her personal security) displayed by the New Zealand authorities, speaks to the existence of considerable sympathy within New Zealand’s own ruling circles for the stern measures which the Chinese authorities feel obliged to undertake.

Peoples’ uprisings may be a recurring feature of Chinese history, but they are generally remembered as short-lived periods of chaos and confusion, preparatory to the restoration of order and tranquillity by a centralised, authoritarian government, in whose strong hands the gods have reposed the all-important “Mandate of Heaven”.

It is, clearly, the view of the Ministry of Foreign Relations and Trade, the Ministry for Primary Industries, and Treasury, that an orderly and tranquil China is much to be preferred to a democratic and turbulent China. As a crucial market for its primary production, and an equally important source of foreign direct investment in its industry and infrastructure, China is obviously regarded by the New Zealand Government as an economic partner much too big to rile.

Equally obvious, is Professor Brady’s status as a New Zealand political dissident. Innocent of any crime, but guilty of that most heinous offence – upsetting the apple cart. If she is waiting for the New Zealand authorities to help her, then she will likely be waiting a very long time.

UPDATE: On Monday (19/2/18) came the welcome news that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has asked the Security Intelligence Service to investigate the break-ins to Professor Brady's home and office and the theft of her lap-top computer. Welcome, too, the news that the PM's intervention has breathed new life into the hitherto stalled Police investigation. It is, however, noteworthy that the PM has yet to use the word "China" in relation to Professor Brady's case.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 February 2018.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

National’s Moderates May Win This Leadership Battle – But Can They Win The War?

All Smiles - For Now: A victory for the moderate Amy Adams will not sit well with the National Party rank-and-file who, pretty obviously, favour the more right-wing Judith Collins for the role of Opposition leader. Moreover, the longer the race continues, the more pressure Collins’ rank-and-file supporters will be able to apply to their local and/or List MPs to give her their support.

IN THE RACE FOR OPPOSITION LEADER, the numbers are solidifying around Amy Adams. A consensus is forming among the journalists of the Parliamentary Press Gallery that Adams, with 20 votes, is at least 2 or 3 votes ahead of her nearest rival, Simon Bridges. The moment Adams assures the National Party Board that she has no intention of dispensing with the services of National’s chief strategist, Steven Joyce, her lead will advance by at least 4 votes. At that point, Adams will be only 4 or 5 votes shy of the 29 votes she needs to become Leader of the Opposition. If Mark Mitchell can be enticed into Adams’ camp (with the offer of the Deputy’s spot, perhaps?) then it will require only 1 further defection from either Team Bridges or Team Collins for the game to be over.

A victory for Adams will not sit well with the National Party rank-and-file who, pretty obviously, favour Judith Collins for the role of Opposition leader. Moreover, the longer the race continues, the more pressure Collins’ rank-and-file supporters will be able to apply to their local and/or List MPs to give her their support.

Team Collins’ argument that only their candidate has the strength and decisiveness to keep National polling in the mid-40s is already beginning to tell with those MPs positioned at the bottom of National’s Party List contingent. Indeed, some have already moved quietly to join Collins’ very small band of supporters – just 4 to 7 strong at this stage.

From the vantage points of both Adams and the National Board, it therefore makes sense to hold the Leadership ballot as soon as possible.

The less time Team Collins has to raise a clamour from the membership for their candidate’s election, the easier it will be for Team Adams to nibble away at the edges of Bridges’ support.

The Board, meanwhile, has every reason to fear that Collins’ efforts to rouse the membership could very easily set the National Party up for exactly the same “Us” versus “Them” struggle that tore the Labour Party apart between 2011 and 2013. (That was the fight which erupted after Labour’s parliamentary caucus imposed a leader on the wider party organisation that it clearly did not want.) A swift and decisive victory by Adams would, from the Board’s point of view, be less likely to provoke such a debilitating outcome.

The pressure is, therefore, on Adams to accede quickly to Joyce’s and Mitchell’s demands, so that, having pocketed their votes, she can commence the deal-making required to deflate Bridge’s numbers.

This is the point at which Bridges would be well advised to secure what he can from his position (a place in Adam’s “Kitchen Cabinet”, perhaps?) by magnanimously marching as many of his followers as possible into her camp and, figuratively, crowning her National’s Queen before the smoke of battle has had time to clear. The title of “Queenmaker” is not one to be discarded lightly!

With the serried ranks of the now largely unified National Caucus arrayed against her, Collins could elect to either fight it out to the bitter end, or, to lower her banners and join in Adams’ victory feast.

That meal need not taste too bitter in Collins mouth. After all, a victory for Adams can only be interpreted as a victory for the Key-English status-quo. Collins and her followers, convinced as they are that, ideologically-speaking, that status-quo has positioned National well to the left of where its members and voters believe it should be, need only wait for the polls to register conservative New Zealand’s disappointment at the National caucus’s failure to elect their champion. When that happens, Team Collins’ banners can, once again, be unfurled; and the battle for the heart and soul of the National Party can recommence – minus Amy Adams.

UPDATE: This morning (20/2/18) Steven Joyce further complicated National’s leadership contest by announcing his own candidacy for the top job. Clearly, the contest is now set to run until Tuesday 27 February. Team Collins will, therefore, re-double its efforts to mobilise the National Party rank-and-file in her support. Also stepping-up their effort will be National’s Board. It is now absolutely imperative that the two front-runners – Amy Adams and Simon Bridges – strike a deal. With Labour at its highest poll-rating in 15 years, the last thing National needs is a divided Opposition caucus.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 February 2018.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

“The Data Is Simply Not Available, Minister.”

SIR HUMPHREY APPLEBY: "Yes Minister, promising to build 500,000 affordable homes would be a very courageous policy, indeed!"

IS LABOUR getting Sir-Humphreyfied on housing? For younger readers, Sir Humphrey Appleby is one of the leading protagonists in Antony Jay’s and Jonathan Lynn’s incomparable 1980s television satire “Yes Minister”. So compelling was the Sir Humphrey character (played to perfection by the late Nigel Hawthorne) that his name quickly became synonymous with the obfuscating, prevaricating, manipulative and often downright misleading senior civil servant who steers his ministerial master away from his better instincts towards the maintenance of the bureaucratic and political status quo.

Dr Chris Harris, a specialist in urban design and planning, raised the Sir Humphrey question with me after a careful reading of “Stocktake of New Zealand’s Housing”, the study authored by Alan Johnson of the Salvation Army, Otago Public Health Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman and economist Shamubeel Eaqub, which was released by the Housing Minister, Phil Twyford, on Monday afternoon.

One figure, in particular, caught his attention. This was Figure 3.4 “New Dwellings Consented, By Owner Type, 1970-2017” (see below). It’s most notable feature, explained Dr Harris, was the extraordinary spike in new dwelling consents which followed the election of the Third Labour Government, led by Norman Kirk, in 1972.


The graph shows consents flat-lining at around 23,000 per year in 1970, 1971 and 1972. Between the end of 1972 and the beginning of 1974, however, the number of dwelling consents shot up to an astonishing 39,000.

The first and most obvious question that springs to mind is: “How on earth did the Kirk Government do it?” Finding the answer to that question would, surely, be of considerable assistance to Minister Twyford as he sets about tackling New Zealand’s appalling shortage of affordable housing?

Presumably, the same thought occurred to the “Stocktake” authors. What was their conclusion? That’s when Dr Harris’s eye fell upon the concluding sentences of the paragraph printed immediately below Figure 3.4:

“While current levels of new house building compare favourably with the low levels of construction seen immediately after the global financial crisis, during the period 2009 to 2011, these current volumes are not historically exceptional particularly compared with the early 1970s. However, data on government involvement in the 70s boom is not available.”

Get that? Information on the way in which the Kirk Government managed to nearly double the number of houses being consented “is not available”. (My emphasis.)

In his e-mail alerting me to this extraordinary omission, Dr Harris writes:

“Note the last sentence! In fact, you can find out quite a lot from consulting the on-line NZ Official Yearbooks of the time. State Advances credit, available for actual housing construction but not speculation since 1919, was increased. And on top of that there was as yet no Accommodation Supplement to fritter away government housing money, so that it very much went on actual building. There was also a shift from building large stand-alone houses on the city fringe to building lots and lots of small and affordable flats in more urban locations, which is where the real shortage was, and had long been. And this was all directed from the top by Big Norm.

“Norman Kirk re-founded the old-time Ministry of Works as the Ministry of Works and Development in 1973, and founded the Housing Corporation in 1974, also to try and get more houses and flats built. It turned out that urban flats proved easiest and quicker to build once central government weighed-in to overcome the usual obstacles. This was a really important part of the recipe for getting runs on the board quickly. Our cities are still full of flats built in the 1970s – the standards were higher than in later decades. Mass-produced hollow concrete blocks, suitably reinforced, were the building material of choice. Concrete block walls signify a 1970s flat in the same way that a tiled roof is typical of a 1940s state house. 

“Big Norm's policy of pulling out as many stops as possible and focusing on flats really did work surprisingly quickly and the proof is in the consent graph. Our population back then was only a bit over three million, so the graph actually understates the success of the policies of the 1972-1975 Labour Government.

“Actual builds are always a bit less than consents granted. In the early 1970s the peak rate for actual housing construction was 34,300 units built in one year. This roughly equates to 50,000 a year today, if not more, and that nice round number might explain why Shamubeel Eaqub challenged the government to see to it that 500,000 housing units are built in ten years.

“Interestingly enough, few of the houses built under Kirk's administration were state houses. To get things moving quickly, the policy was very much one of collaboration with commercial builders and developers, who were offered guarantees to go and work flat out building small affordable units without worrying too much where the money was coming from, or whether the consent was going to be approved.”

Dr Harris goes on to observe:

“You have to wonder whether there is some kind of an embargo on the level of government activism that led to such a boost in housing production in the early 1970s. It's like an episode of Yes Minister in which the bureaucrats have hidden all the relevant files and the politicians don’t notice that they’re missing straight away. Adding to suspicion of a stitch up by a business-as-usual brigade is the fact that the word ‘credit’ does not appear in the report and there is only spotty and empirical reference to ‘finance’. So, no need to frighten the banks in other words. There also doesn't seem to be any mention of the really important part played by central government institutions in making things happen more effectively and in a streamlined way back in the past: institutions such as the State Advances Corporation, the MWD – which the Rogernomes abolished in 1988 while dialling-back state construction lending at the same time – and the Housing Corporation. The Housing Corporation is still with us of course, but only in a feeble and gutted sort of a way.”

Here, perhaps, is the explanation for Shamubeel Eaqub’s extraordinary forthrightness during Monday’s media conference in the Beehive Theatrette. With barely concealed frustration at what he clearly regards as the new government’s half-hearted housing effort, he urged the governing parties to break free of the fiscal “straightjacket” in which they are currently restrained by Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s Budget Responsibility Rules.

The last thing the “Sir Humphrey’s” at the top of our own civil service want, deeply imbued as they are with the neoliberal economic orthodoxy which has guided New Zealand public policy for more than 30 years, is for “their” ministers to begin searching back through the historical record to discover how, forty years ago, a newly-elected Labour Government responded to the needs of its people by – of all things – fulfilling them.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 17 February 2018.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Princess Stardust versus The Crusher Queen.

Demolition Woman: Who is best placed to demolish Labour's Jacinda Ardern most effectively? Simon Bridges? Amy Adams? Some other National MP of whom the overwhelming majority of conservative voters have heard next to nothing? Or the woman tens-of-thousands of conservative voters already admire for her take-no-prisoners approach to parliamentary politics – Judith “Crusher” Collins?

IT’S GOT TO BE JUDITH COLLINS. There will be many in National’s caucus who bridle at the very suggestion of Collins replacing Bill English. “She’s too divisive!”, they’ll cry. “She carries too much baggage”, others will mumble. “It would be the Woman of Yesterday going up against the Woman of Today”, the pundits will pronounce. “Jacinda’s relentless positivity would leave Collins battered and bleeding in the rubble of her negativity.”

And all of them would be missing the point.

The sort of leader the Right chooses when the Left has been in power for nine years is always very different from the leader it chooses when the Left has been in power for less than nine months. The former needs to present himself as the friend of continuity: the man who will hold the country together; the fresh pair of eyes in a familiar landscape. The latter must be a demolition agent: someone who can smash to pieces the dangerous installations of left-wing radicalism; a living rebuke to socialism in all its forms: a crusher.

The most vivid exemplar of the National-Party-leader-as-demolition-agent was, of course, Rob Muldoon. The redoubtable Norman Kirk, himself, would have struggled to match the political force-of-nature that was Muldoon. The mild-mannered Bill Rowling stood no chance at all.

What do you say to a man who wisecracks to his followers that he has seen “the shivers running ‘round Bill Rowling’s body looking for a spine to crawl up”? (And here you were thinking it was Donald Trump who invented that sort of political invective!)

Muldoon’s weapon-of-choice against the Rowling-led Labour Government was his self-proclaimed mastery of all things economic. Presented with the political gift of the 1973 Oil Shock – which injected a virulent booster-shot of commodity price inflation into the already inflation-plagued economies of the West – Muldoon seized upon the Labour Government’s policy of borrowing heavily overseas (to prevent the New Zealand economy from falling into recession) as proof of its economic recklessness.

Given that the debate on whether or not Grant Robertson should relax his grip on the nation’s purse-strings is likely to grow ever more heated over the next few months, it would make sense for National to elect a leader who is ready, willing and able to expose and exploit the divisions over the proper level of public debt already widening within the government’s ranks.

Who is best placed to do this most effectively? Simon Bridges? Amy Adams? Some other National MP of whom the overwhelming majority of conservative voters have heard next to nothing? Or the woman tens-of-thousands of conservative voters already admire for her take-no-prisoners approach to parliamentary politics – Judith “Crusher” Collins?

The expectation of a head-to-head contest between the Kiwi equivalents of Game of Thrones antagonists Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister extends well beyond the boundaries of the political Right. Collins is one of those rare politicians who, like Rob Muldoon, are able to imbue their bids for leadership with a sense of political inevitability.

Jacinda Arden displayed considerable political skill in masking the scale of her ambition until she was certain of success. From the moment she trounced Julie Anne Genter in the Mt Albert by-election, however, that same sense of inevitability was all around her as well.

It was the tragedy of Bill English’s career that, in spite of his supporters’ best efforts, not quite enough New Zealanders were able to look at him and see a prime minister. A highly competent finance minister? Yes. But, a prime minister? Yeah-Nah.

The question National’s caucus needs to ask itself is how many New Zealanders look at Simon Bridges, or Amy Adams, and say to themselves: “That person is going to be prime minister one day.” Does either politician possess that twinkle in the eye; that infuriatingly knowing smirk; which betrays the leader’s intimate acquaintance with Destiny?

The other factor National’s caucus needs to consider is whether its leadership candidates are strong enough to truly test Jacinda? This is the question that the Labour caucus and party never answered honestly in relation to John Key. It would be astonishing if the National Opposition repeated the folly of sending one leaden amateur after another to do battle with such a consummate sprinkler of stardust.

It is a huge mistake in politics to pit like against like.

Judith is nothing like Jacinda.


This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 February 2018.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Second Coming Of National's Rough Beasts.

Its Hour Come Round At Last: Instead of being thankful that New Zealand’s democratic constitution transforms days of retribution into peaceful transitions of power from one combination of political parties to another, National's far-right seethes with frustration, and consoles itself with fantasies of imposing a day of retribution of its own. On that day, all those who have deprived them of their rightful power and status will get what’s coming to them.

WHAT ROUGH BEAST SLOUCHES towards Wellington to be born? What sort of National Party are the people who brought down Bill English trying to establish? And will there be enough reasonable men and women in National’s caucus on Tuesday, 27 February to stop them?

In the movie, Schindler’s List, the hero, Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) attempts to persuade the SS labour-camp commandant, Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes) to refrain from picking-off random prisoners with his hunting rifle. For a few days, Schindler’s appeal appears to be working. Eventually, however, the commandant’s murderous impulses get the better of him and he resumes his deadly sport.

For 12 years, Bill English has played the role of Oskar Schindler: cajoling, persuading and, on occasion, outmanoeuvring the far-right of the National Party into running with a moderate, liberal-conservative political agenda. It was by trading on the popular appeal of this agenda that John Key and Steven Joyce were able to give the National Party three general election victories in a row.

Not that English was some sort of bleeding-heart liberal in disguise. On the contrary, his Catholic faith mandated a deeply conservative stance on many of the social issues which Key supported as proof of National’s liberal bona fides. By the same token, however, it was English’s Catholic faith that caused him to reject the swingeing economic austerity measures imposed by right-wing finance ministers in the UK, Canada and Australia.

Not only was English convinced that austerity was economically ineffective, but he also recognized that it was politically counter-productive. Not that the economic and social policies of the Key-English era were entirely benign – far from it. The National Right had to be appeased with anti-worker and anti-beneficiary measures that were intended to – and did – inflict a great deal of unnecessary suffering on tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders. In the hands of a different finance minister, however, matters could have been a great deal worse.

This was the knowledge with which the National Right, like SS Commandant Goeth, found it so difficult to be reconciled. Why be just a little oppressive of the poor and marginalised when you possess the power to grind their faces in the dust? Why restrict oneself to fastening legal leg-irons on the trade unions when you can legislate the evil socialist bullies out of existence altogether?

For the far-right, political power only becomes real when it is used. To exercise restraint is to allow those within your power to set the limits of their own persecution. Far from being a manifestation of strength (as Schindler suggested to Goeth) the willingness to exercise restraint is a craven demonstration of weakness.

In his fascinating Newsroom essay on Bill English’s political career, Bernard Hickey describes the occasion upon which his subject was so moved by the recollection of his own and his wife Mary’s family histories that he wept:

“He talked of his admiration for his father-in-law’s family ethos and hard work in raising a big family in Wellington, despite the struggles of arriving with little from Samoa in an unfamiliar city. He also talked about a quiet chat he had with a kaumatua on a marae about the problems of Maori youth, and the need for strong communities with their own resources. His point was that he admired the self-reliance and quiet conservatism of family and community life. He saw his role as helping those communities and pulling Government out of the way to let them get on with it. It wasn’t an ugly or dry form of libertarian scorched-earth politics. It was a deeply humane and thoughtful approach where Government was supposed to treat people with empathy and dignity and as individuals, rather than as just another beneficiary locked into welfare for life. His views on helping to lift people out of poverty were a precursor to his championing of the social investment approach, which he was only just starting to roll out through the Government as Labour returned to power in late October.”

It was during this part of his talk that English was obliged to pause for a few moments:

“The tears rolled down his nose and splashed onto the lectern. You could hear a pin drop. The audience was with him though. English's story was utterly authentic and thoughtful and showed a depth of humility and humanity that struck a chord that night. He got a standing ovation when he finished.”

English’s moderate conservatism, Hickey seems to be saying, is born out of a love for ordinary people. By contrast, the vicious conservatism of the far-right is born out of the gnawing fear that ordinary people might one day decide to exact retribution from those who have found it expedient to grind their faces in the dust. That fear begets hate which, in turn, is translated into institutional and physical violence. The great paradox of far-right aggression, however, is that by oppressing the poor, the marginalised and the dispossessed it only brings the terrifying day of retribution closer.

Instead of being thankful that New Zealand’s democratic constitution transforms these days of retribution into peaceful transitions of power from one combination of political parties to another, however, the far-right seethes with frustration, and consoles itself with fantasies of imposing a day of retribution of its own. On that day, all those who have deprived them of their rightful power and status will get what’s coming to them.

That’s where we are now. English’s moderation is deemed, by his colleagues, to have failed the National Party. New, and much more aggressive leadership is required. Those panderers to, and enablers of, the poor and marginalised – Labour and the Greens – must be driven from the Treasury Benches as quickly as possible. And Winston Peters, that conservative turncoat and traitor, must be cast into the ninth circle of political hell – and his worthless party with him.

William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, saw it all happening nearly a century ago, in the fretful aftermath of the First World War. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”, he wrote in his most famous poem, The Second Coming.

The final lines of that poem can still send a chill down the spine:

… but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


This essay was jointly posted on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of  Thursday, 15 February 2018.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Taking Stock: Is the Government Doing Enough to End the Housing Crisis?

A Fading Dream: “The past 25 years have seen the gradual demise of the so-called Kiwi Dream – a place where home ownership and the economic independence which this offers, was within reach of most working families. Home ownership rates have fallen to a 60-year low and could fall further. These falls have been alongside rapid house price inflation in many parts of New Zealand and, with this, deteriorating affordability. We are quickly becoming a society divided by the ownership of housing and its related wealth and recent housing and tax policy settings appear to have exacerbated this division.” - Stocktake of New Zealand's Housing, 12 February 2018.

THE FULL MAGNITUDE of the housing crisis confronting the new government stands revealed in its Stocktake of New Zealand’s Housing. Released this morning, the document paints a far worse picture of the situation than even the parties now in government presented to voters from the opposition benches.

In the words of the three authors of the stocktake, Alan Johnson of the Salvation Army, Otago Public Health Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman and economist Shamubeel Eaqub:

“The past 25 years have seen the gradual demise of the so-called Kiwi Dream – a place where home ownership and the economic independence which this offers, was within reach of most working families. Home ownership rates have fallen to a 60-year low and could fall further. These falls have been alongside rapid house price inflation in many parts of New Zealand and, with this, deteriorating affordability. We are quickly becoming a society divided by the ownership of housing and its related wealth and recent housing and tax policy settings appear to have exacerbated this division.”

The policies advanced by the Labour-NZF-Green government in response to New Zealand’s housing crisis – most particularly Labour’s KiwiBuild initiative – no longer impress informed observers as either bold or comprehensive enough to bring about a speedy resolution of the crisis. On the contrary, they seem doomed to fail: there being neither the material, nor the human, resources required to make them succeed.

One has only to look back at the first great wave of state-initiated and funded house construction to appreciate the full scale of the difficulties confronting the new government.

Between 1936 and 1949 the first Labour government was responsible for the construction of 30,000 state houses. In other words, over a period of 13 years, the Department of Housing Construction and its private sector contractors were able to build fewer than a third of the number of dwellings which the present government has promised to build in ten!

What’s more, those 30,000 state houses were built at a time when the New Zealand economy was awash with unemployed labour and underutilised resources impatient to be set to work. Labour’s state housing programme was the New Zealand equivalent of US President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”: a massive public works programme designed to both enhance the nation’s quality of life and provide steady and well-paid employment for its people.

One of the ways the First Labour Government accomplished these goals was by mandating the use of local materials in state house construction. This decision gave an immediate and massive boost to all those businesses ancillary to the construction industry. To help the private sector keep pace with the state-induced demand, the Department of Housing Construction established two publicly-owned factories dedicated to producing the standardised joinery used in state house interiors.

The present government’s chief promoter of the CPTPP, David Parker, might pause to consider that such a policy of buying and using only Kiwi-made and sourced materials is expressly forbidden in practically all of the free-trade agreements New Zealand has signed since 1984 – including the CPTPP.

The state housing programme of 1936-1949 involved an unprecedented mobilisation of New Zealand’s human and material resources to construct a total of 30,000 dwellings. Even allowing for the fact that New Zealand’s population has more than doubled in size, how likely is it that Labour’s Phil Twyford is going to out-build Jack Lee’s Department of Housing Construction by a factor of 3 – in just 10 years?

Is it even remotely feasible that: from a tight labour market already suffering serious skill shortages; and from a construction sector already running at full-tilt; this government will be able to elicit an average of 10,000 additional houses per year?

Because, just to be clear, that total of 30,000 state houses constructed between 1936 and 1949 was over-and-above the normal total of dwellings commissioned and constructed by and for private companies and individuals. It is not yet clear whether Twyford’s promise of 100,000 “affordable homes” between 2017 and 2027 is on-top-of, or included-in, the output of private house construction.

It is important to remind ourselves at this point that Twyford’s “affordable” KiwiBuild homes are expected to sell for between $500,000 and $600,000 – a price completely beyond the reach of the tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders who possess neither a home of their own, nor a secure tenancy in somebody else’s.

For these: the working-poor on rock-bottom wages; Kiwis struggling to survive on a benefit; and, increasingly, for pensioners without a freehold home of their own; the Labour-NZF-Green government is promising to build just 1,000 state houses a year.

With the findings from the Stocktake of New Zealand’s Housing in their hands. With their heads chock-full of data showing how desperate New Zealand’s housing situation has become, Mr Twyford and his colleagues are proposing to build 1,307 fewer state houses than Jack Lee and the First Labour Government managed to build in a little country laid flat by the greatest depression in human history – eighty years ago.


This essay was posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 13 February 2018.

No Matter Whether You’re Red Or Blue – You Must Keep Paddling In Your Own Canoe.

Each To Their Own: More than any other party, NZ First has good reason for seeking legislative protection against “waka jumping”. It was, after all, NZ First that, in August 1998, was forced to watch eight members of its caucus jump out of their own party’s waka to become either solo kayakers or de facto paddlers in National’s.

SHOULD MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT be permitted to jump from their own party’s waka into the waka of another political party? The question is more than rhetorical because under the provisions of the Election (Integrity) Amendment Bill, currently before Parliament’s Justice Select Committee, political defection by parliamentarians will render them liable to expulsion from the House of Representatives.

Introduced last December by Justice Minister, Andrew Little, in fulfilment of the coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First, the Bill is being strenuously opposed by the National Party and Act. The Greens, having supported the legislation’s introduction, are now entertaining some pretty outspoken second thoughts.

Why the fuss? Who could seriously oppose the idea of penalising politicians who head off to war in the coat of one army only to turn it when the heat of battle grows too hot?

Many New Zealanders would endorse the argument of the bill’s NZ First promoters: If you don’t like what your party is doing, then quit. It is, quite simply, unethical to upset the balance of the House of Representatives by giving another political party, or parties, votes that they did not win.

More than any other party, NZ First has good reason for seeking legislative protection against “waka jumping”. It was, after all, NZ First that, in August 1998, was forced to watch eight members of its caucus jump out of their own party’s waka to become either solo kayakers or de facto paddlers in National’s.

That spectacular act of political mendacity was glossed-over at the time and has remained largely unexamined ever since. National’s supporters were too busy celebrating their escape from the clutches of their erstwhile colleague, Winston Peters. While Labour voters were prepared to write-off the whole episode as but the first instalment in the political retribution NZ First had well-and-truly merited by leaving Helen Clark standing at the altar.

The unacknowledged truth of the matter, however, was that the nature and general policy direction of a New Zealand government had been fundamentally changed without the fuss-and-bother of a general election. The last occasion upon which such a change-of-government-by-political-defection had been accomplished was the destruction of Thomas Mackenzie’s Liberal Government by the Reform Party leader, William Massey, in 1912.

But, if it suited both National and Labour to turn a blind eye to this blatant assault upon New Zealand’s constitutional norms, it was never forgotten by Winston Peters and NZ First. Nor, indeed, by the late Jim Anderton, who had, similarly, been required to sit back and watch as the renegade Alliance MP, Alamein Kopu, took tea with Jenny Shipley and cast her vote with the National Party.

National and Act’s “principled” opposition to the Election (Integrity) Amendment Bill should, therefore, be taken with a grain of salt.

The Opposition’s objection to the legislation, if the speeches of its MPs can be taken seriously, is because Members of the House of Representatives are there to carry out the wishes of their constituents – not the orders of backroom party chieftains.

If that was ever true, then it was only in the era before the establishment of coherent and tightly disciplined political parties. Since the advent of party politics (which in New Zealand dates from around 1890) candidates have taken their parliamentary seats not on the strength of their character and ability, but courtesy of the political colours they stand under, and the support those colours attract.

This crucial role played by political parties has been further entrenched and strengthened by the introduction of Mixed Member Proportional Representation.

That being the case, becoming a political turncoat is not simply an act of personal moral inadequacy, but of constitutional vandalism. New Zealanders elect parties to govern them – not individuals. Members of Parliament who repudiate their party spit in the face of the whole ethos of representative government.

“Oh, but what about the individual member’s conscience!”, cry the waka-jumping legislation’s opponents. “Is that to be sacrificed to faceless party bureaucrats?”

The only answer to that is: “Of course not!” But, that does not mean that members of parliament are free to do as they please. If an MP no longer finds it possible, in good conscience, to support his or her party, then the only ethical course of action is to resign.

That is precisely what Winston Peters did in 1993 (and what Jim Anderton should have done in 1989). By resigning, Peters gave the electors of Tauranga the opportunity to reject or endorse his refusal to toe National’s party line. Would that his colleagues, four years later, had demonstrated a similar respect for the basic tenets of representative democracy.

There really is no need for the Greens to further equivocate on this matter. The only politicians opposing the Election (Integrity) Amendment Bill are those who have no qualms about rorting our representative democracy.


This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 February 2018.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Hypothetical Questions.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?  (Who Will Guard The Guardians Themselves?) All knowledge is power: and the acquisition, by your enemies, of knowledge you’d rather they did not possess, and of whose unauthorised transfer you remain entirely ignorant, could – hypothetically – give them a great deal of power indeed.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP and his White House staff are convinced America’s “Deep State” is out to get them. They’re probably right.

Regardless of their ideological leanings, a persistent base-note of paranoia thrums through the heads of most politicians. In the case of the Trump Administration, however, that drumbeat is growing faster and louder with every passing day. Making it stop is fast becoming a POTUS obsession.

It’s easy to imagine how vulnerable a political leader must feel when it becomes clear that the individuals and institutions charged with protecting the integrity of the state are, simultaneously, being encouraged to gather information about the private life of the head-of-state. Knowing that was happening could easily drive a person onto Twitter in the early hours of the morning!

If New Zealand even has a “Deep State”, then it is unlikely to be a very big or a very scary one. Our population is simply too small for big secrets. Always, there’s someone who knows someone, who heard it from someone who was/is directly involved. The fear of being exposed publicly is almost always enough to prevent those institutions best equipped to undertake covert surveillance of New Zealand’s political leaders – the SIS, the GCSB, the NZDF and the Police – from even considering such a risky mission.

But, what if the surveillance and the reporting-back was being undertaken unofficially? What if a group of renegade state operatives, motivated out of ideological conviction – or baser considerations – decided to act independently, outside the chain-of-command? What if, having seen their superiors escape any kind of meaningful official reprimand for engaging in unethical conduct, they decided to embark on a little free-lance politicking of their own?

Suppose, to illustrate these hypothetical questions, we imagine a small, democratic nation governed by a young, socialist, prime-minister. Like her immediate predecessors, this young prime minister is protected by a group of specially-trained and armed bodyguards.

These bodyguards are, naturally, sworn to keep secret everything they see and hear pertaining to the public and private life of the politician under their protection. Because, of course, anyone spending so much time in such close proximity to another person is bound to witness all kinds of behaviour; overhear all manner of exchanges; which, if wrenched from their context and passed on to an interested third party, could give rise to the most acute political and personal embarrassment.

Now, let us further suppose that a number of this young prime minister’s bodyguards, being strong supporters of the conservative political party which she and her left-wing allies have only recently supplanted, decided to “help” her conservative opponents by feeding them detailed information of a private, personal and politically highly-sensitive nature.

Obviously, our hypothetical prime minister’s hypothetical opponents could not use this information publicly without betraying its source. Nevertheless, the intelligence in their possession would likely prove to be of enormous benefit to them, both strategically and tactically. All knowledge is power: and the acquisition, by your enemies, of knowledge you’d rather they did not possess, and of whose unauthorised transfer you remain entirely ignorant, could – hypothetically – give them a great deal of power indeed.

Not that anything as dangerous as the scenario sketched-out above could possibly unfold in corruption-free New Zealand. Our happy South Pacific democracy is simply too small for really big secrets, and our public servants too big-hearted to pass on its small and private ones to unauthorised persons.


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

Friday, 9 February 2018

Hard Choices: Genter’s Candidacy Lights-Up The Greens’ Internal Divisions.

The Pragmatist Most Likely To Succeed: The historical pattern of Green leadership elections is clear. Asked to choose between a candidate associated (at least in the public mind) with radical and/or controversial political causes; and a candidate unburdened by an excess of electorally-negative baggage; the Greens have consistently opted for the latter over the former. In the face of historical precedent, therefore, the smart money would be on Julie Anne Genter – not Marama Davidson.

JULIE ANNE GENTER’s entry into the Greens’ co-leadership race presents Green Party members with a hard choice. Either, they will opt for sentiment and symbolism, and elect Marama Davidson. Or, by electing Genter, signal their determination to prioritise cool-headed pragmatism and substantive policy achievement.

Some commentators have already decided that the Greens’ “activist base” will vote in overwhelmingly numbers for Metiria Turei’s “natural successor”. As both a Maori nationalist and a fervent fighter for social justice, Davidson openly celebrates the sort of street-level agitation that the “Baby Boomer” Greens look back on with pride, and which some Green “Millennials” regard as the only “authentic” way of doing Green politics.

The assumption here is that these “activists” constitute a clear majority of the Green Party’s membership. A swift review of Green leadership elections, however, raises serious doubts as to whether the party membership really is as radical as many New Zealanders believe it to be.

Following the tragic death of Rod Donald in 2005, Green Party members were presented with a choice between Nandor Tanczos and Russel Norman. They chose Norman. A few years later the choice was between Sue Bradford and Metiria Turei. They chose Turei. The last contest was between Kevin Hague and James Shaw. They chose Shaw.

The historical pattern here is clear. Asked to choose between a candidate associated (at least in the public mind) with radical and/or controversial political causes; and a candidate unburdened by an excess of electorally-negative baggage; the Greens have consistently opted for the latter over the former.

In the face of these historical precedents, the smart money would be on Genter – not Davidson.

That historical preference for a safe (or, at least, safer) pair of hands is likely to be accentuated this time around by the traumatic experiences of the 2017 General Election campaign.

Just how likely is it that a majority of the Green Party membership stands ready to embrace a candidate who proudly aligns herself with the radical policies of Metiria the Martyr? Do they really want to witness their female co-leader engaging in ideological fisticuffs with the leaders of the Labour Party and NZ First? Are constant headlines highlighting the policy differences between the coalition partners and their activist sidekicks more, or less, likely to see the Greens lift their share of the Party Vote in 2020?

The political trajectory of the Green Party over the past ten years has been towards precisely the cool-headed pragmatism and substantive policy achievement that Genter, more than any other member of the Green Caucus (with the possible exception of Shaw himself) has come to represent.

At her announcement on Parliament’s forecourt, she told the assembled journalists that she wanted to help the Greens develop a “clear, bold and distinct vision for 2020”.

Decoded, her message is all about presenting voters with the sharpest possible contrast between the Greens’ and the coalition parties’ election manifestos. Genter is betting that the Green Party truly is, as she told waiting journalists, “the future of politics”, and that if the Greens’ vision of a sustainable New Zealand is presented in a way that doesn’t frighten the electorate, then the Greens position in the House can be improved dramatically.

That is a goal which can only be achieved, argues Genter, if her party “manages the risks”. Which is the closest thing to a “dog whistle” anyone is ever likely to hear in the mouth of a Green candidate. The message, aimed at what Genter clearly believes to be the “moderate” Green majority, could not, however be simpler – or more brutal: The last thing we need now, after waiting 20 years for a place in government, is another Metiria!

It’s a dog-whistle to which a great many Green Party ears will prick-up and listen.

Assuming the fight remains a straight-forward contest between Davidson’s symbolism and Genter’s pragmatism, the pragmatist will, almost certainly, join Shaw at the top of her party’s greasy pole.

The entry of a third candidate – most likely the Conservation Minister, Eugenie Sage – would, however, signal an effort by the Greens’ “old hands” to blunt the increasingly sharp edges of the Green Party’s internal differences.

The risk, however, is that the membership might fail to take the hint, and that the moderate vote would be split between Sage and Genter – allowing Davidson to come through the middle. Should that occur, the Minister for Women, and the Associate Minister for Transport and for Health will simply have to put her head down and wait for better weather.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 9 February 2018.

Bonny Prince Billy.

Leader In Waiting? If this government falters, then the Opposition Leader will be perfectly placed to become the nation’s “Jacobite” leader-in-exile: the only legitimate inheritor of the 2017 General Election; the King-Over-The-Water; Bonny Prince Billy.

Will ye no come back again?
Will ye no come back again?
Better lo’ed ye canna be;
Will ye no come back again?

Jacobite Lament


THAT, FIVE MONTHS AFTER the 2017 election, 44.5 percent of New Zealanders remain loyal to the National Party is astonishing. Political defeat almost always foreshadows political desertion – usually on a large scale. Finding oneself on the losing side of any conflict is never a happy experience. The temptation to treat harshly the people who put you there can be very strong.

And yet National’s support remains precisely where it stood on election night. Conservative New Zealand is yet to be convinced that the government of Jacinda Ardern is worthy of so much as a second glance – let alone a second thought.

The reason for the Right’s steadfast opposition to the new regime is very simple: they do not believe it to be a legitimate government. No matter how many times the constitutional lawyers and political scientists insist that the present arrangement is perfectly legitimate: that a ‘coalition of the losers’ has always been one of the potential outcomes of any MMP election; the Right refuses to accept their arguments.

As adherents to New Zealand’s informal constitution, they cannot reconcile National’s stunning election-night plurality with its subsequent exclusion from government. How is it possible that a political party securing 44.5 percent of the popular vote – 7.6 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival – is denied power? How can it be ethical for a party receiving fewer than 7 percent of the votes cast, to set aside the clear preference of nearly half the electorate?

In the eyes of a worryingly large number of voters, the politicians currently seated on the Treasury Benches cannot be considered a legitimate government; and their leader, Jacinda Ardern, cannot be considered a legitimate prime minister.

The corollary to this denial is equally troubling. If Jacinda Ardern, the leader of the party which won the second-highest tally of votes, is not the legitimate prime minister; then the proper bearer of that title can only be the leader of the party which received the most votes: Bill English.

It is possible that Bill English’s colleagues are unaware of the power of this sentiment. As Members of Parliament, they know that the only votes that count in the formation of a government are the votes cast on the floor of the House of Representatives; and that the brutal truth of the present situation is – National doesn’t have enough.

Unlike so many of those who voted for them, they are moving on. The big question exercising their minds: Who should replace Bill – and when?

In this regard, they are, arguably, a little premature.

Jacinda’s stardust continues to dazzle us – her performance at Waitangi being just the latest demonstration of its brilliance – but, beneath the sparkling surface of this coalition government, powerful contradictions are at work. The Labour-NZF-Green government is determined to lift New Zealanders into paradise, but it lacks the funds required to pay for their new accommodation. Even worse, it is refusing to do what’s necessary to raise them.

By Budget Day – 17 May – it will have become demoralizingly clear to Jacinda’s Cabinet that her Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, is about to make liars of them all. By then, he’ll have made it clear that their generous promises of redress and renewal simply cannot be adequately funded. That’s when the deepening fissures in this ramshackle political construction will suddenly and dramatically widen; and the government’s most loosely-fastened adornments will begin falling-off.

That will be National’s Jacobite Moment.

For those who know their Scottish history, the Jacobites were the followers of the descendants of the deposed Stuart king, James II, whom they hailed as the only legitimate rulers of Great Britain.

If this government falters, then the Opposition Leader will be perfectly placed to become the nation’s “Jacobite” leader-in-exile: the only legitimate inheritor of the 2017 General Election; the King-Over-The-Water; Bonny Prince Billy.

The National Party’s best strategy is, therefore, to make no move against Bill English until it becomes clear whether or not Jacinda Ardern possesses the political skill to both deliver on Labour’s promises and adhere to her Government’s self-imposed “Budget Responsibility Rules”

If she doesn’t, then the 44.5 percent can start serenading their Bonny Prince Billy:

“Will ye no come back again?”


This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 February 2018.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Image Of The Day - No. 1



Jacinda Ardern as Ziggy Stardust promises New Zealanders ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!

The quotation belongs to Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) the despised Second International reformist, who spurned the doctrine of violent revolution in favour of an evolutionary, peaceful and parliamentary road to socialism.

If any readers know the identity of the artist, please let the rest of us in on the secret. Such a brilliant piece of agit-prop deserves to be properly credited.

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.