Friday, 23 March 2018

Labour And NZ First: Partners In Populism - Or Not?

Kindred Spirits? The only way the coalition between Labour and NZ First can ever be made to work is if Jacinda Ardern, beneath the necessary veneer of “responsible government”, is actually every bit as populist as Winston Peters.

POPULISM VERSUS RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT. The Regions versus Metropolitan New Zealand. NZ First versus Labour. Shane Jones versus Grant Robertson. “Oh yes, Ladies and gentlemen, there’s Trouble: Trouble with a capital ‘T’; and it’s brewing right here in Political City!”

The only way the coalition between Labour and NZ First can ever be made to work is if Jacinda Ardern, beneath the necessary veneer of “responsible government”, is actually every bit as populist as Winston Peters.

No other political modus vivendi offers the slightest chance of success. In no time at all, an ideologically “responsible” Labour-led government would be placing a whole platter-full of dead rats before its coalition partners and expecting them to smack their lips with delight. How many of these delicacies NZ First could consume before its remaining followers threw up their hands in horror and disgust is uncertain – but it’s highly unlikely to be a lot.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if Labour’s junior coalition partner possessed a solid buffer of popular support to keep it safely above the 5 percent MMP threshold. Enough to sanction a little tactical erosion. But this is not the case. By opting to put Labour on the Treasury Benches, Winston Peters instantly burned-off that part of his electoral base which had been expecting him to turn right. The 7.2 percent support NZ First attracted at the General Election was halved in the first of the big post-election opinion polls. A steady diet of dead rats is hardly likely to improve the party’s position!

The biggest of those rats – the CPTPP – was, perhaps, unavoidable. To take on the combined forces of MFAT, MPI, Treasury, Business NZ and Federated Farmers in the first crucial weeks of the coalition’s life was simply too big an ask. Even the most radical of NZ First’s populist followers could see that. Likewise, the need to cry ‘Tai Hoa!’ on the free-trade agreement with the Russian Federation. If Teresa May’s “sexed-up” accusations are proved to be as false as Tony Blair’s WMDs – as a great many of NZ First’s members expect – then Albion’s perfidy will soon be made clear and negotiations can resume with gusto.

The consumption of rat carcases must, however, end right there. Labour cannot afford to set any more before Winston Peters and his caucus colleagues. They have allowed Jacinda to take what she absolutely had to have – now it’s her turn to give NZ First what it needs.

But can she? Will her “Kitchen Cabinet” – David Parker, Grant Robertson, Phil Twyford – let her? The answer would appear to be ‘No’. Not if the Labour Party leadership’s reaction to Shane Jones’ full-scale populist assault on Air New Zealand’s treatment of the provinces is anything to go by.

Jones’ attack was perfectly pitched to the pissed-off provincial voters NZ First needs to win back. It was excoriatingly anti-corporate and anti-elitist: directed with pin-point populist accuracy at the Big End of Town. All that Labour had to do in response was avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as a reproof of Jones’ rhetorical axe-swinging.

After the arrogant telling-off directed at Finance Minister Robertson by Air New Zealand’s management, saying nothing should have been a no-brainer. No government can afford to let itself be lectured to by a corporation in which the people of New Zealand hold a 51 percent stake.  Certainly, a brief media release from Robertson (confirming that he would be carefully considering the composition of the Air New Zealand board in September) would have popped a cherry on the top of Jones’ populist sundae – but it wasn’t essential. Labour’s silence would have spoken loudly enough.

Significantly, neither Jacinda Ardern nor Grant Robertson were willing to keep silent on the subject of Jones’ populist broadside against the management of Air New Zealand. The Prime Minister felt compelled to tell the news media that: “Calling for the sacking of any board member is a step too far and I have told Shane Jones that.” Robertson, according to the NZ Herald, “said he disagreed with Jones and the board and chief executive were doing a good job.”

It is impossible to argue that Robertson’s comment was not also directed with pin-point accuracy at the Big End of Town. The problem is, instead of informing the corporate elite that Labour was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with its coalition partner, he let them know, in terms that could not possibly be misconstrued: “We’re with you guys.”

All of which leaves Winston Peters with some very serious thinking to do. Because the party in which he opted to place his trust in October 2017: the party he still believed capable of belting out Mickey Savage’s and Norman Kirk’s “Hallelujah Song”; is steadily demonstrating, both to NZ First and the New Zealand electorate, that the only songs it remembers how to sing are the ones it learned from Roger Douglas back in the 1980s.

And that won’t do – not at all. Thirty-nine working-parties and policy reviews are no substitute for NZ First’s plain and simple promises to put things right. Those promises were a big part of the reason why Labour, NZ First and the Greens won enough seats to form a government.  If they are not kept or, worse still, they are shown – by Labour – to be “just the sort of thing you say when you’re in Opposition and then forget about when you’re in Government”, then NZ First will simply have no to say “fuck it” – and walk away.

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

Asking The Right Questions.

Mouth Wide Shut: James Shaw is hoping that if he and his caucus colleagues are seen as good team-players, then by 2020 the Greens will have earned the voters’ respect and, more importantly, their votes.

THE BEST WAY to characterise the Greens curious policy on parliamentary questions is as a gesture of good will. Not, as some might be thinking, towards the National Party, but to their partners in government – Labour and NZ First.

So long as those one or two questions per sitting day remained, the temptation would always be there for the more radical members of the Green Party caucus to use them. Indeed, Marama Davidson has made it clear to Green Party members that she regards it as her duty to ask the questions they need answers to – no matter how embarrassing.

If elected as their new female co-leader, she sees herself as ideally placed to keep the Greens’ brand sharply and safely differentiated from every other party in Parliament. Unlike her opponent, Julie Anne Genter, she is without ministerial responsibilities. That leaves her free to speak truth to power.

Being “spoken to” by a Green Party co-leader determined to raise aloft Metiria Turei’s tattered banner is not, however, anywhere near the top of either Jacinda Ardern’s or Winston Peters’ to-do lists.

Like all political leaders, they fear even the perception of disunity. As far as they’re concerned, most voters do not draw a distinction between the well-intentioned and principled criticism of a government’s friends and the uncompromising and ill-intentioned opposition of its foes. To raise doubts about the Government’s overall policy direction will only weaken it. In the context of electoral politics, dissent is almost always interpreted as treason.

The Greens’ decision to give up their questions to the National Party (and just how that decision was made, and by whom, remains unclear) suggests that at least some of the party’s MPs also fear the prospect of disunity and are keen to keep dissent on the down-low.

Clearly, they are of the view that only by presenting the voters with an image of industrious and effective teamwork can the Greens hope to elude the historical hoodoo of small parties being destroyed on account of their association with large ones.

Whether it be the fate of NZ First’s, Act’s and the Maori Party’s doomed associations with National, or the Alliance’s messy divorce from Labour (the only known case of the kids deciding who should have custody of the parents!) the precedents are far from encouraging!

Paradoxically, Marama Davidson’s and her fellow fundis’ (fundamentalists) view of this problem is very much the same as James Shaw’s realos (realists). Both factions are convinced that the best way to escape the small party curse is by drawing the voters’ attention to the nature of their party’s relationship with its larger partners.

Shaw hopes that by being good team-players the Greens will earn the voters’ respect and, more importantly, their votes. Davidson believes that it is only by differentiating the Greens from Labour and NZ First, and by reassuring the voters that their MPs have not “sold out” their principles, that they will be returned to Parliament.

Neither of these strategies are likely to prove effective. The first reduces the Greens to docile little lambs; the second makes them look like irritating little bastards. That the voters will, almost certainly, reject both of their survival “solutions” is clear to everyone except the Greens themselves.

What both factions need to grasp is that the Green Party has always been about ideas. Forthrightly addressing the big questions confronting people and planet and offering uncompromising answers. That’s the “special sauce” in the Greens’ recipe for electoral success.

The more clearly Greens describe the challenges confronting humanity, the easier it is made for the voters to accept the radicalism required for their remedy.

Getting back into Parliament is not about keeping your head down and working hard; nor is it about shouting slogans and throwing stones.

The unchanging objective of all Green parties is to make it known to the voters that while they are willing to achieve as much as they can in co-operation with other parties; their focus will remain forever fixed upon the measures required to address the injustices identified by the human conscience and to resolve the problems identified by human science.

The Greens’ message from now until 2020 must be: The steps we are currently taking are in the right direction – but they’re too small. If we’re to travel further, our vote must be bigger.

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 March 2018.

The Political Economy Of Mainstream Political Journalism.

New Faces - Same Old Spin: Sensationalism and scandal-mongering have become the bread-and-butter of political journalism. Politics is being reduced to an endless struggle between the good-guys (us) and the bad-guys (them). Complexity and nuance just get in the way of relating this Manichean struggle between darkness and light. All the punters need to remember is that all politicians are driven by the will to power; and all governments are out to get them.

FEW WOULD ARGUE that journalism is not in crisis. Beset by the manifold challenges of a global on-line culture, journalists struggle to keep pace with the demands of readers, listeners and viewers whose tastes they once led but now must follow. The mainstream news media’s dwindling share of the advertising dollar drives it inexorably towards the sensational, scandalous, salacious and bizarre: the “clickbait” upon which its profitability increasingly depends.

For political journalism the consequences of these trends have been particularly dire.

Prior to the arrival of the Internet, the coverage of politics by the mainstream media, like its coverage of the arts, was seen as a necessary and important contribution to the well-being of the community. A well-informed electorate was widely accepted as an essential prerequisite to the proper functioning of the democratic process. Covering politics soberly and comprehensively was just one of the many important services provided by the mainstream news media in return for the rivers of advertising gold flowing into its coffers.

As the revenue required for this sort of disinterested political coverage diminished, the mainstream news media was confronted with a very different set of imperatives. Political personalities and events, which had formerly provided the raw material for professional political journalists’ speculation and analysis, underwent a dramatic transformation. From being the passive subjects of political journalism, politicians and their actions were fast becoming the active drivers of it.

Readers, listeners and viewers were interested in politics, but only on their own terms. Political journalists whose copy failed to both reflect and amplify the prejudices of their mass audiences required the most steadfast of editors to keep their words in print; their voices and images on the airwaves.

How did the mainstream media’s consumers perceive politics? Poorly. As the “more-market” polices of the 1980s and 90s became bedded-in; and as political practice – regardless of which party was in power – took on a dismal and dispiriting sameness; the voting public’s respect for politicians (never all that high) sank even further. Increasingly, politics came to be seen as something which politicians did to – rather than for – the people.

Political journalism which did not reflect the public’s deep-seated cynicism and suspicion of politics and politicians became increasingly difficult to sustain. By far the best way to keep people reading, listening and watching political journalism was for journalists to affect the same cynical and suspicious air towards the entire political process.

Regardless of party, politicians were portrayed as being in it for what they could get: and what they most wanted was power. Those who attributed noble motives to politicians were mugs. It was all a game. It was permissible to admire a politician for how well he or she played the game – but not for any other reason. And the only acceptable measure of how well they were playing the game was the opinion poll.

The medieval saying Vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God) was re-worked by political journalists to read: The results of the polls represent the opinion of the people, and the opinion of the people is the only thing that counts.

It was a formulation that removed from political discourse every other criterion by which the voters could judge the political performance of their elected representatives. In effect, the political journalism of cynicism and suspicion had trapped them in an inescapable feedback loop. If a political party was losing support, then that was only because it was failing to give the people what they wanted. What did the people want? Whatever the political party ahead in the polls was offering them.

The other rule-of-thumb by which political journalists were now encouraged to operate was the rule that told them to regard every person in a position to wield power over others as automatically suspect. Since most people are not in a position to tell anyone what to do (quite the reverse!) this mistrust of authority allowed political journalists to cast themselves as the ordinary person’s champion; their courageous defender; their righter of wrongs. Which meant, of course, that they had constantly to be on the lookout for wrongs to right.

Sensationalism and scandal-mongering became the bread-and-butter of political journalism. Politics was reduced to an endless struggle between the good-guys (us) and the bad-guys (them). Complexity and nuance just got in the way of relating this Manichean struggle between darkness and light. All the punters were required to remember was that all politicians are driven by the will to power; and that all governments are out to get them.

Does it help to sell newspapers? Does it boost radio and television audiences? Of course it does. Human-beings have always been easy prey for those who insist that individuals and groups who thrust themselves forward to the front of the crowd are not to be trusted. And, of course, they’re right to be suspicious: not everyone who claims to have our interests at heart is telling the truth. And yet, the political journalism of cynicism and suspicion cannot, in the long-run, be constitutive of a healthy democracy.

Sometimes those in power are genuinely bad, and those seeking to turn them out of office are motivated by an honest desire to put things right. But, if political journalists are no longer willing to recognise any politician and/or political party as a force for good, what then? If their profession has become nothing more than an endless search for scandal and the abuse of power; if even the possibility that a politician might be idealistic and well-intentioned is rejected with a cynical smirk; then the always difficult process of implementing progressive political change will become next-to-impossible.

The tragedy of our on-line culture, is that to remain profitable the mainstream news media has little choice but to alarm, outrage and inflame its audiences. “If it bleeds it leads” turns tragedy into journalism’s most negotiable currency. For a news media on life-support, there is simply not enough clickbait in the stories generated by a properly functioning democracy. For the foreseeable future, therefore, the only news fit for political journalists to use – will be bad.

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

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Questioning The Greens.

Just Politicians? The Green Party Caucus 2018: Jan Logie (Realo) Chloe Swarbrick (Fundi) Gareth Hughes (Fundi) James Shaw (Realo) Marama Davidson (Fundi) Julie Anne Genter (Realo) Eugenie Sage (Realo) Golriz Ghahraman (Fundi). The term fundi indicates a fundmental and uncompromising attachment to Green Party principles. Realos argue for a  more realistic and instrumental approach to the questions of political power and how it should be used.

IF THE GREENS were a party like any other party, would they have given away their “patsy questions” to National? If we were able to put aside our admiration for the Greens’ proud record of being out “in front” of New Zealand politics-as-usual, how would we analyse their surprising decision? If we were willing to say: “They’re all just politicians: neither better nor worse than their counterparts in Labour, National and NZ First.” How would we call it?

We are tempted to answer that first question by saying: “Of course not! No political party with three Ministers Outside Cabinet would ever voluntarily strengthen the hand of their allies’ enemies. Not while those allies and the government they lead remain utterly reliant on their continuing and steadfast parliamentary support.”

It’s easy to imagine both Labour and NZ First struggling to make any kind of sense out of the Greens’ announcement. If, as they insist, the Greens regard their patsy questions as a waste of parliamentary time, then the simple and most politically defensible solution would surely be – not to ask them. Rather than rising to their feet, the Green MPs could spend the whole of Question Time sitting on their arses – as silent and mysterious as eight little sphinxes.

That they have chosen, instead, to give their questions to the National Party must have all the other Members of Parliament racking their brains for an explanation that doesn’t leave the Greens looking like a bunch of impossibly naïve muppets.

“What’s the catch?”, would have been Simon Bridges’ most likely response. “What do you expect from us in return?”

“Who’s the target?”, would have been the response of Jacinda Ardern’s back-room boys: David Parker, Grant Robertson and Phil Twyford.

NZ First would merely have concluded that the entire Green caucus had been taking Ecstasy. “I warned Jacinda,” would be Winston Peters’ world-weary response. “I told her they couldn’t be trusted.”

But, hold on a minute. Is it really impossible that the Greens’ decision was motivated by genuine political values? Why shouldn’t their assurances that the party’s sole intention is to make the government more accountable be accepted? Why can’t it be a case of, as Rod Donald used to say, the Greens not being on the Left, or the Right, but out in front?

The answer is brutally simple. If the Greens really were determined to subject the Labour-NZ First Coalition to the scrutiny of the most informed, articulate and progressive members of the House of Representatives, then they would hardly have given away the chance to do exactly that to Parliaments most ill-informed, inarticulate and reactionary elements.

Progressive Kiwis have only to ask themselves: “Who would we rather held this Government to account: Chloe Swarbrick or Mark Mitchell? Golriz Ghahraman or Judith Collins?” – to realise that the justification advanced to them by Green Party co-leader, James Shaw, is pure, unadulterated, bullshit.

The Greens as a whole are not out in front on this issue. But the Greens realo (realist) faction is, almost certainly, behind it.

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that at this point in the race for the Green Party’s female co-leadership, the fundi (fundamentalist) Marama Davidson is out in front.

One of the more substantial planks in Marama’s election platform has been her argument that as a Green MP without ministerial responsibilities, she will be well-placed to raise the issues, and voice the concerns, that are exercising the Green Party membership.

How would that be done? Well, she could ask questions of the Labour-NZ First Coalition Government: questions relating to the CPTPP, oil-drilling and climate-change. She could hold Jacinda and Winston (and James?) to account on their commitment to end child poverty and homelessness. It’s a promise with clear appeal to those members of the Green Party already heartily suspicious of the pig they’re being asked to support – and the poke it came in.

But, just how effective could Marama be if there were no questions to ask?

The idea of putting a muzzle on the Greens’ fundi faction would have enormous appeal to those realo members of the party determined not to blow this long-awaited opportunity to demonstrate that Green Ministers can make a real difference.

It would also be received with profound relief by the apprehensive leaders of Labour and NZ First.

Giving away the Greens patsy questions to National has drawn a line in the sand for the members of the Green Party’s electoral college. “Cross that line by electing Marama,” they are being told, “and all you will be signalling to Labour and NZ First is your fundamental untrustworthiness. Why? Because stripped of the right to ask questions in the House, Marama will be left with no choice but to keep her party honest by other means – and that can only result in a destabilised government.”

By declining to cross the line which Shaw and his allies have drawn in the sand, the representatives of the Green Party branches will be demonstrating their commitment to effecting real change from within the system – and inside the government.

Progressive New Zealand’s loyalty to the Labour-NZ First-Green Government will only be enhanced by the gift of additional questions to the National Party Opposition. In politics, as in war, it is always preferable to have your enemies’ fire coming at you from the front, not from behind – or even to one side.

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

A Lively Terror

An Indiscriminate And Reckless Attack: Curiously, the British Prime Minister, Teresa May, does not appear to regard the “indiscriminate and reckless” attacks made against “innocent civilians” living on the soil of other United Nations member-states as being worthy of the unequivocal condemnation contained in her statement to the House of Commons on 12 March 2018. Only when the alleged attacker is the Russian Federation does the UK start screaming blue, bloody murder.

“I AM STRONGLY in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.” So said Great Britain’s Secretary of War, Winston Churchill, in 1920 – and he was as good as his word. That same year, Aylmer Haldane, the commander of British forces in Iraq bombarded the villages of rebellious “uncivilised tribes” with gas-filled shells. The British estimated Arab casualties at 8,450 killed and wounded. The action was deemed a resounding success. The use of chemical weapons had engendered, in Churchill’s telling phrase, “a lively terror”.

It still does.

Much of Southern Iraq remains contaminated with the residue of the depleted uranium shells used by American armoured columns against the Russian-made tanks of the Iraqi army in the Gulf War of 1991. During the first and second battles for the Iraqi city of Fallujah, in 2004, the use of white phosphorus explosives (first developed for anti-personnel purposes in World War I) inflicted hideous burns on hundreds of the city’s inhabitants – civilian as well as insurgent.

The United States and British-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, undertaken in defiance of the United Nation’s Charter and without the authorisation of the UN Security Council was, in the near-unanimous opinion of jurists around the world, an egregious breach of international law.

To date, no nation state, or collection of nation states, has imposed diplomatic or economic sanctions on the United States or the United Kingdom. The individuals responsible for planning and executing the illegal invasion of Iraq are free to travel and conduct business wherever they choose.

The suspected use of an illegal chemical weapon by the Russian Federation has provoked near-universal condemnation. Rightly so, because the deployment of a deadly nerve agent in the picturesque medieval city of Salisbury was an extraordinarily reckless act. The sheer lethality of the substance has inflicted critical injury not only upon the target of the assassination attempt, the Russian double-agent, Sergei Skripal, but also upon his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, and the local police officer who rushed to their aid. Anyone or anything coming into contact with the Skripals is now being treated as a potential bio-hazard.

The British Prime Minister, Teresa May, has condemned the attack in the most unequivocal fashion. In her 12 March statement to the House of Commons, she unhesitatingly identified the Russian Federation as the source of the nerve agent used in the Salisbury incident. Her concluding remarks made the UK’s position very clear:

Mr Speaker, this attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals. It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk. And we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”

Curiously, Prime Minister May does not appear to regard the “indiscriminate and reckless” attacks made against “innocent civilians” living on the soil of other United Nations member-states as being worthy of an equally forthright parliamentary statement.

Since 2001, armed Predator drones piloted by United States armed forces personnel have patrolled the skies above Africa and the Middle East. Their mission: to track the precise location of individuals and groups whose very existence has been deemed inimical, by the CIA and other intelligence gatherers, to the national security of the United States.

When the location of these “targets” had been pinpointed, the US launched one, or both, of the Hellfire missiles carried under the Predator’s wings. Sometimes these missiles achieved a “clean kill” – “neutralising” only their targets. On other occasions, however, these US drone strikes inflicted “collateral damage” – killing or maiming the “innocent civilians” living inside the blast zone.

It is passing strange, is it not, that the global news media has, to date, seen no need to whip itself into a lather of fury over the fate of these casualties of state-sponsored terrorism? Especially when the death-toll from this US policy, which operates well outside of any reasonable reading of international law – or justice – now numbers in the thousands.

Then again, we are only dealing here with members of those “uncivilised tribes”: human-beings for whom the protection of the law was deemed, as long ago as 1920, and by no lesser authority that Winston Churchill, to be unwarranted.

When set against these current and historical facts, the propensity of Vladimir Putin to engage in “indiscriminate and reckless” acts is suddenly rendered grimly intelligible.

If the West’s use of poison gas, depleted uranium, white phosphorus and Hellfire missiles elicits no outrage in the House of Commons; and if the “international community” is not moved to impose diplomatic and/or economic sanctions against those responsible; then perhaps the only reasonable lesson to be drawn is that “international outrage” has now become just one more “lively terror” to be unleashed upon the “uncivilised tribes” of Planet Earth.

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

The Theory And Practice Of Plausible Deniability.

Nothing To Smile About: Was it the need to give the Prime Minister "plausible deniability" that prompted Andrew Kirton to keep Jacinda Ardern out of the loop? Acutely aware of her unblemished political reputation, was it his judgement that the delicate questions arising out of the summer school scandal were better dealt with in places where the Prime Minister was never present?

WHY HASN’T ANDREW KIRTON been sacked? By any common-sense definition of accountability, the actions of the Labour Party’s General Secretary offer ample justification for dismissal. Upon learning of the youth wing of the Labour Party’s failure to keep four young people in its care safe, he decided not to alert their parents; not to alert the Police; and not to alert the leader of his party: The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Surely, at this stage of the scandal, Kirton should be shorter by a head? Why isn’t he?

To understand why the Prime Minister has so far spared her party’s General Secretary, it is necessary to frame a counter-factual account of the incident.

It’s the morning after the party at which four young people have been sexually assaulted or harassed by a 20-year-old attendee at Labour’s 2018 Summer School. The Young Labour organisers have contacted both the Party President and the General Secretary seeking advice about how they should proceed. Andrew Kirton tells them he’s on his way to Waihi and instructs them to do nothing until he arrives. His next call is to the Prime Minister’s Chief-of-Staff, Mike Munro. Having established as clear a picture of the incident as possible, Munro contacts Jacinda Ardern. A small crisis-team is formed to determine the best way of dealing with what is clearly a serious and potentially very damaging incident.

And, therein lies the problem. The number of people involved in an event of this kind begins to grow exponentially the moment state officials become involved. What’s more, every discussion entered into and every decision made by state officials is subject to public discovery under the Official Information Act. (Significantly, decisions made by the senior officials of a private political organisation, such as the New Zealand Labour Party, fall outside the scope of the OIA.)

Once informed of the summer school incident, the Prime Minister would have had no choice except to front it. The scandal would have been hers, regardless of the spectacular twists and turns that inevitably characterise such human dramas – especially after they enter the public realm. It would have been the Prime Minister’s face that people saw on television; the Prime Minister’s words that would, for good or ill, have defined the scandal’s meaning.

Cold political logic would, therefore, dictate that the Prime Minister should be kept in ignorance of such an event for as long as possible. That way, when the story breaks (and in a democratic state, with a free media, the story will always break) she can say – hand on heart – that this is the first she has heard about it. The Prime Minister will have, in the value-free vocabulary of statecraft: “plausible deniability”.

“Plausible Deniability” may be defined as:

“A condition in which a subject can safely and believably deny knowledge of any particular truth that may exist because the subject has been deliberately kept unaware of said truth in order to benefit or shield the subject from any responsibility attached to the knowledge of such truth.”

The first explicit use of the concept may be traced back to the Central Intelligence Agency, whose first Director, Allen Dulles, emphasised the importance of protecting the government of the United States from the consequences of failed agency operations by ensuring its officials are able to offer the American public a “plausible denial”.

As the Wikipedia entry on Plausible Deniability helpfully points out, however, the idea has been around for a lot longer than the CIA:

“[I]n the 19th century, Charles Babbage described the importance of having ‘a few simply honest men’ on a committee who could be temporarily removed from the deliberations when ‘a peculiarly delicate question arises’ so that one of them could ‘declare truly, if necessary, that he never was present at any meeting at which even a questionable course had been proposed’.”

Was this the sort of thinking that prompted Andrew Kirton to keep the Prime Minister out of the loop? Acutely aware of her unblemished political reputation, was it his judgement that the “peculiarly delicate questions” arising out of the summer school scandal, were better dealt with in a setting where the Prime Minister “never was present”.

If the matter could be resolved out of the public spotlight – all well and good. The Party would have dodged some potentially very harmful bullets. If the news media ended-up getting hold of the story – well then, at least none of the bullets would hit the Prime Minister.

This interpretation of events had clearly occurred to senior NZ Herald political journalist, Claire Trevett, as she was summing up the state-of-play of the summer school scandal on 15 March:

“It may have been accidental, but the worker bees [protecting their Queen in the Beehive] have done their job because ‘political management’ was also the only reason not to tell Ardern. Her lack of knowledge now means she does not carry the blame for the initial clumsy handling of it. Ardern is also free from any claims of a cover-up. It is Andrew Kirton who is the worker bee paying the price for his Queen. He fronted on it and it was he who dealt with – or at least made the decision to let Young Labour deal with it without sufficient oversight – after the event.”

And that, almost certainly, is why the Queen in the Beehive is not shouting “Off with his head!” Or, at least – not yet.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 16 March 2018.

Friday, 16 March 2018

School For Scandal.

In Loco Parentis: The errors of judgement made by the event organisers, and then compounded by the party organisation’s leadership, have been well rehearsed over the past week. Too many participants under the age of 18; too much alcohol; too little supervision; too few people with the experience required to manage a serious crisis; too many party members desperate to avoid a scandal.

“WHAT WERE THEY THINKING!?” That’s the question which thousands of New Zealanders put to their families, friends, workmates and, of course, to themselves, when they learned what had happened at Labour’s 2018 summer school, held at the Waitawheta Camp near Waihi on 9-11 Februray.

The errors of judgement made by the event organisers, and then compounded by the party organisation’s leadership, have been well rehearsed over the past week.

Too many participants under the age of 18; too much alcohol; too little supervision; too few people with the experience required to manage a serious crisis; too many party members desperate to avoid a scandal.

And that was just for starters. Having been informed by four sixteen-year-olds that they had been sexually assaulted by an extremely drunk twenty-year-old male, the summer school organisers failed to either lay a complaint with the Police or inform the victims’ parents of what had happened to their children.

Even more astonishing was the revelation that the highly contentious decisions of the “first responders” were not immediately countermanded by the Labour Party’s General Secretary, Andrew Kirton. Not only was the senior administrative officer of the NZ Labour Party unwilling to involve the Police and the parents, but he was also unwilling to inform the leader of his party, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern!

It was only when Labour’s senior officials realised that the story was about to break in the news media, that any serious thought was given to how the country might react to the summer school scandal. The extent to which these officials failed to anticipate the public’s response is, politically-speaking, one of the most concerning aspects of the whole, sorry saga.

Instead of putting themselves in the shoes of the ordinary Kiwi parent of a teenage daughter or son and trying to imagine how they might feel about a political party which kept themselves, the cops and the Prime Minister – for goodness sake! – in the dark about their kids being sexually assaulted, the party organisation opted instead to frame its public response in terms of the victims’ right to determine what, if anything, should be done about the summer school incident.

The party’s senior officials did not believe they had the right to inform anyone about the events of 10 February without the consent of the young people directly affected. In taking this position, they were following the lead of doctors, counsellors and teachers who refuse to involve the parents of the young people who come to them seeking advice on sexual intimacy, contraceptives or, more rarely, the termination of unplanned pregnancies. According to Andrew Kirton, the party organisation was following the “victim-led” protocols of individuals and agencies who deal with sexual trauma on a daily basis.

Nor should it be forgotten that it was only a few years ago that the Labour Party membership came within a few votes of carrying a remit calling for the voting age to be lowered to 16. Should New Zealand parents be surprised that a political party which seriously considered allowing 16-year-olds to vote, decided to allow the four 16-year-old victims of the summer school incident to set the parameters within which the rest of the world would be granted access to their own, extremely personal, experiences?

By adopting this impeccably “progressive” stance, Andrew Kirton and his comrades have forced Labour back into the same perilous political position it took up to defend the so-called “anti-smacking” legislation.

Morally-speaking, that was unquestionably the right thing to do. Politically-speaking, it was the height of folly. Far too many of its working-class voters interpreted Labour’s stance on smacking as an implied criticism of the way they’d raised their kids.

On this issue, Labour seems to be saying: “We’re not going to tell you that some drunken creep has groped your daughter/son during an out-of-control party at one of our summer schools, because we don’t believe you have the right to be informed.”

In the words of the irrepressible editor of The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury:

“That position is utterly untenable to every single voting parent in NZ. And that this is the best excuse Labour could come up with since the event is a terrible blunder and political miscalculation. As the enormity of [Labour’s] defence sinks-in to every voting parent in the country, the backlash will grow and grow and grow.”

Jacinda Ardern simply cannot allow that to happen.

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 March 2018.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

A Fork In The Road

A Choice To Be Made: The question New Zealand’s elected leaders are now required to answer is whether or not they are obliged to respond to the Russian Federation’s dangerous and despicable attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal, by joining-in with London’s equally dangerous retaliatory sanctions. Measures which may prove detrimental to the long-term foreign policy aspirations and economic interests of the New Zealand people.

NEW ZEALAND is fast approaching a fork in the road. Over the next few hours and days the Labour-NZ First coalition government will be required to identify who its friends are. Will Prime Minister Ardern and Foreign Minister Peters reaffirm their willingness to abide by the rules of “The Club” – also known as “The Five Eyes” – or will they respectfully decline to participate in the ratcheting-up of tensions between the Anglo-Saxon powers and the Russian Federation?

At stake is the Prime Minister’s vision of a New Zealand which acts independently, as an “honest broker”, on the international stage. A nation committed to easing – not exacerbating – international tensions. Her Foreign Minister’s long-held conviction that New Zealand and the Russian Federation have much to gain, and very little to lose, by strengthening their economic relationship is also on the line.

Winston Peters’ concern about this country’s growing dependence on the Chinese economy and his wish to increase the number of baskets in which New Zealand carries its eggs, has not escaped the notice of this country’s Five Eyes “partners”. Neither have his sceptical comments regarding the shooting-down of Flight MH-17 over the Ukraine, nor his refusal to add New Zealand’s voice to the Western chorus condemning Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Most certainly this reticence has not endeared him to the British.

So alarmed have the British become about a possible New Zealand departure from the London-forged consensus on Russia’s aggressive culpability, that their Wellington High Commission has started briefing against the New Zealand Foreign Minister to New Zealand journalists. According to Richard Harman’s POLITIK website:

“The British invited selected journalists (POLITIK did not attend) to a briefing clearly intended to soften up New Zealand public opinion to join in any sanctions Britain might try and impose on Russia who it suspects of being behind the poisoning [of Russian double -agent Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia]. The fact that a senior diplomat conducted the briefing suggests that the British felt they needed to make a strong case in Wellington.”

This is an extraordinary revelation. It shows the British Government is willing to interfere directly in the domestic politics of an independent nation state – ironically, the very same “crime” Russia stands accused of in relation to the American electoral process. It also shows, by the way, that there are New Zealand journalists in New Zealand’s capital city who are willing to allow themselves to be used for the purposes of advancing the interests of a foreign power. (It remains to be seen whether the journalists who allowed themselves to be used by the National Party to drive Winston Peters out of Parliament in 2008, were included in this select little group.)

It is instructive to compare the British High Commission’s willingness to brief against Winston Peters, with the willingness of the Australian Government to foot-trip Jacinda Ardern’s efforts to relieve the suffering of the detained asylum-seekers on Manus Island. Canberra sanctioned the leaking of “classified” information to both the Australian and New Zealand news media: unconfirmed reports that were seized upon by right-wing journalists and broadcasters in both countries to paint New Zealand’s young prime minister as a naïve and ill-informed diplomatic amateur.

What these two countries have in common is membership of the “Five Eyes Club”. Clearly, New Zealand is not expected to deviate by so much as a single step from the diplomatic and national security “line” laid down by its larger and much more powerful “partners” in global surveillance – and intervention.

Equally clearly, the senior members of the Five Eyes Club can rely upon a trusted group of local “opinion formers” to work against any politician and/or political party deemed to be placing the “long-standing security relationships” of club members at risk.

Also to be relied upon are the national security apparatuses and the armed forces of the Five Eyes partners. It has long been an article-of-faith among the left-wing critics of Western Imperialism that the ruling institutions of the imperialist powers have much more in common with each other than they do with the subordinate populations of their own nation-states. To discover where these countries’ spooks and soldiers true loyalties lie, all their citizens need do is elect a government committed to severing the ties that bind them together.

Clearly, the British and the Australians are convinced that an irresponsible New Zealand electorate (aided and abetted by the country’s absurd MMP electoral system) has saddled them with a coalition government that can no longer be relied upon to follow the rules of The Club. The sanctions London is determined to impose upon the Russian Federation will thus become a litmus test of New Zealand’s readiness to join in the diplomatic and economic “containment” measures demanded by Prime Minister Teresa May.

Over the course of the next few days, Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters must decide whether the international relationships and economic interests of New Zealanders are to be decided in Wellington, by the government they have democratically elected, or in London and Canberra by politicians, spies and soldiers over whom they exercise no control whatsoever.

That great powers sometimes do dangerous and despicable things to those they suspect of acting against their interests is a regrettable fact of international life. In this respect, the British and Americans have as much to be ashamed of as the Russians. The question New Zealand’s elected leaders are now required to answer is whether or not they are obliged to respond to the Russian Federation’s dangerous and despicable attempt to assassinate Mr Skripal, by joining-in with London’s equally dangerous retaliatory sanctions. Measures which may prove detrimental to the long-term foreign policy aspirations and economic interests of the New Zealand people.

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

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

A Very Special Sort of New Zealander.

Deaf Ears: In vain do those seeking to radically curtail high-speed Police chases point out to those very special New Zealanders who insist that "The Law" must be enforced - at any cost - that the offences for which drivers are pursued by the Police are more often than not quite trivial. Violations of the road code and petty thievery are crimes punishable by fines, or a short spell in prison – not death.

WHENEVER A POLICE CHASE ends in tragedy, a very special sort of New Zealander steps forward into the spotlight. The contribution offered by this kind of Kiwi never varies. What happened is all about “The Law”. The offenders, otherwise known as the dead and horribly injured, are solely to blame for the tragic outcome of their offending. They chose not to stop when ordered to do so by the Police – a crime. As law-breakers, they simply had to be apprehended and punished. Any other course of action is unthinkable. The Law is The Law.

When, as so often happens, high-speed Police chases ending in high-speed collisions leave not only the offenders, but also entirely innocent citizens, dead and injured, this very special sort of New Zealander does not blink.

They understand that even the slightest acknowledgement of the right of innocent road-users not to be put in danger unnecessarily can only end in some form of limitation being placed upon the obligation of the Police to pursue and apprehend law-breakers. That cannot be allowed to happen. Innocent road-users are, therefore, straightforward collateral damage: unavoidable casualties in the brutal but absolutely necessary war against disobedience and disorder.

In vain do those seeking to radically curtail high-speed Police chases point out to these very special New Zealanders that the offences for which drivers are pursued by the Police are more often than not quite trivial. Violations of the road code and petty thievery are crimes punishable by fines, or a short spell in prison – not death.

For these special Kiwis, the original justification for the Police pursuit is irrelevant: it is the offenders’ open defiance of authority that constitutes the real crime. Allow people – especially young people – to defy authority and the entire social structure is put at risk. Hounding these miscreant drivers to their deaths, and even to the deaths of innocent road-users, is a small price to pay for the maintenance of law and order.

The mindset of these special New Zealanders is very similar to the mindset of those conservative white Americans who refuse to condemn local law enforcement for killing unarmed black Americans. Even when there is clear video evidence of a police officer emptying his firearm into a defenceless African-American who is running away, white juries have refused to convict the accused. In the eyes of these conservative American whites, law enforcement’s “thin blue line” is all that stands between them and an America in which the rights of “Real Americans” are no longer respected.

The rigid character structure of this particular type of human-being has for long been the special study of psychologists and sociologists. Taken in its entirety, it is referred to as “The Authoritarian Personality” and is distinguishable by the presentation of some, or all, of the following behaviours:

Conventionalism: Adherence to conventional values.
Authoritarian Submission: Towards in-group authority figures.
Authoritarian Aggression: Against people who violate conventional values.
Anti-Intraception: Opposition to subjectivity and imagination.
Superstition and Stereotypy: Belief in individual fate; thinking in rigid categories.
Power and Toughness: Concerned with submission and domination; assertion of strength.
Destructiveness and Cynicism: Hostility against human nature.
Projectivity: Perception of the world as dangerous; tendency to project unconscious impulses.
Sex: Overly concerned with modern sexual practices.

At the core of the Authoritarian Personality lies a deep-seated and all-pervasive fear of complexity. The simpler the world can be made to appear, the more these authoritarians like it. Clear boundaries and strict rules are crucial to easing their manifold anxieties. The idea that the world might best be rendered in a multitude of shades and colours – as opposed to black and white – both incenses and terrifies them.

It’s why these very special New Zealanders are so willing to countenance the death of youngsters whose only real crime is being stupid – and even the death of people who have done nothing wrong at all – rather than offer the slightest challenge to the authority of the Police. When all that’s holding you up psychically is the rigid and unforgiving structures of patriarchal hierarchy and laissez-faire capitalism, letting go is not an option.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 13 March 2018.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Not Taking Green Principles As Red.

Surely Not! Can it be possible that at least two of the Green Party's core principles - "Social Responsibility" and "Appropriate Decision-making" - could push it out of the Red and into the Blue? The Greens' long-standing opposition to so-called "waka-jumping" legislation aligns them more with National's belief in individualism than it does with Labour's historical commitment to caucus collective responsibility. It's a strange and contradictory position - especially for the party that fought so hard for proportional representation.

IS IT POSSIBLE to reconcile the Green Party’s long-standing opposition to “waka-jumping” legislation, with its constitutional commitment to “appropriate decision-making”? No other political party has a more consistent record of support for proportional representation. It is, therefore, perplexing to hear Greens argue for the right of individual MPs to undermine their own party’s decision-making power in the House. In an electoral system which allocates parliamentary seats according to a party’s share of the popular vote, how can compromising the proportionality principle ever be considered “appropriate”? Surely, under MMP, it must rank as the cardinal political sin?

That the Greens do not consider voting against the wishes of their own party to be a sin leads us back ineluctably to that wonderfully weaselish word “appropriate”. Why does the word even feature in the party’s four core constitutional principles? (Ecological Wisdom. Social Responsibility. Appropriate Decision-making. Nonviolence.) Surely, the party’s third core value should read Democratic decision-making?

The explanatory sentence accompanying the Green’s third core value only makes its meaning murkier. It reads: “For the implementation of ecological wisdom and social responsibility, decisions will be made directly at the appropriate level by those affected.”

Now, as I understand the rules of philosophical discourse, it is unacceptable to define a thing simply by referring to the thing itself. As in: a cat is an entity possessing cat-like qualities. Accordingly, it is extremely cheeky of the Greens to define “appropriate decision-making” as, in effect, decision-making which is made appropriately. Officially, this form of rhetorical evasion is known as “tautology”.

What, then, are the Greens seeking to evade by using the word “appropriate”?

Well, for a start, they’re evading the ideological obligations imposed upon the international Green movement by the Global Green Charter. The Global Green Charter lists the core Green values as: Ecological Wisdom. Social Justice. Participatory Democracy. Nonviolence. Sustainability. Respect for Diversity. These core values differ significantly from those listed in the New Zealand Green Party’s charter.

Participatory Democracy, for example, is a concept with a long and illustrious political pedigree extending all the way back to the “Port Huron Statement” issued in 1962 by the radical American youth organisation called Students for a Democratic Society. The substitution of the bland verbal formulation “appropriate decision-making” speaks volumes about the willingness of the New Zealand Greens to put their money where their mouths are. (Their craven substitution of “social responsibility” for “social justice” speaks a whole additional library of volumes!)

That the NZ Greens are unwilling to commit themselves to the principle of participatory democracy is highly significant in relation to at least some of their MPs openly equivocal stance on the Waka-Jumping Bill currently before the House. It signifies what can only be described as an ultra-individualistic approach to the vexed question of when, if ever, it is permissible to step away from decisions arrived-at collectively.

To hear some Greens tell it, the answer appears to be: “Whenever an individual Green MP feels like it.”

Some of these critics have justified their stance by citing the former Green MP, Sue Bradford’s, scathing denunciation of previous waka-jumping legislation. Unfortunately, this merely draws attention to Ms Bradford’s propensity to set a much higher value upon her personal political judgement than upon the collective judgements of her comrades. An old-fashioned Marxist-Leninist might condemn such behaviour as “petit-bourgeois individualism”; the Greens, bless them, are considerably less censorious.

This Green tolerance of dissent may, however, come back to bite them. The present, Labour-led government’s political survival is entirely dependent on the preparedness of the Green Party caucus to remain true to the undertakings given to Jacinda Ardern and her team of negotiators following last year’s general election. Among those undertakings was Green Party leader, James Shaw’s, commitment to facilitate the passage of the waka-jumping legislation demanded by NZ First. The slightest suggestion that Shaw may no longer be in a position to deliver on the deal will arouse serious misgivings not only in NZ First, but also in Labour. The mutual trust upon which the Labour-NZF-Green Government depends will be severely tested.

For the National Party, the Greens apparent willingness to put the rights of the individual ahead of the expectations of the group will be good news indeed. Simon Bridges can draw considerable comfort from the clear evidence that, in spite of the widely held view that they are more socialist than environmentalist, the New Zealand Greens are actually well to the right of their overseas counterparts.

Far from exhorting members to become “Social Justice Warriors”, the Green Party constitution calls upon them to demonstrate “social responsibility”. The New Left doctrine of “participatory democracy” is, likewise, deemed inappropriate. What’s more, in the finest National Party tradition, Green MPs are insisting that if their conscience requires it, then they must have the right to both abandon their party’s waka – and remain in Parliament.

A version of this essay was published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 March 2018.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Still Looking For A Compatible Rabbit.

A Blast From The Past: It is nothing short of astonishing that Bill Sutton, the former Rogernome who aggressively countered the Fourth Labour Government’s critics with the assertion, “There is no alternative!”, is still unable to connect the dots between an economic and political system which insists that it represents the terminus of history, and the rising levels of political disillusionment and despair.

BILL SUTTON, a Labour politician of the 1980s, was the butt of one of David Lange’s most vicious jokes. Like so many of Labour’s “Class of ‘84”, Sutton was a Rogernome. Swept-up in the tornado of change unleashed by Labour’s Finance Minister, Roger Douglas, he and his colleagues found themselves, by the beginning of the Fourth Labour Government’s second term, dangerously off-side with both their prime minister and their party. By 1988 the divisions within Labour had grown to the point where Lange felt besieged by upwards of half his own caucus. Bill Sutton was one of the more outspoken of the prime minister’s critics.

This was the context in which Lange quipped to reporters that Bill Sutton’s much-needed brain transplant had been delayed because his doctors hadn’t been able to find a compatible rabbit.

Not many politicians come back from a crack like that. Certainly, few were surprised when Sutton’s “marginal seat” of Hawkes Bay – along with a great many others – returned to its more natural shade of deep Tory blue in 1990. In a few years, Bill Sutton had become just another former MP whose name, outside of Hawkes Bay, had been forgotten by everyone except political train-spotters.

As a member of that querulous fraternity, however, I simply had to discover whether the Bill Sutton whose Hawkes Bay Today/NZ Herald opinion piece I’d spotted in Dr Bryce Edward’s inestimable “New Zealand Politics Daily”, was the Bill Sutton – David Lange’s incompatible rabbit.

It was. And the title of his commentary, “Politics Has Changed For The Worse”, was more than interesting enough for me to click on the link. After all, if politics isn’t what it used to be, then its Rogernomes like Bill Sutton who must shoulder a fairly large share of the blame.

Not that there’s a single contrite word in the entire piece about the ongoing social and economic effects of the “reforms” of the Fourth Labour Government. Although a scientist by profession, Sutton was never able to grasp that, for all its pretentions to the contrary, economics owes almost nothing to the scientific method. The whole so-called “discipline” has always been, and remains, a sub-set of politics – hence its original designation as “Political Economy”.

I always got the impression that Sutton saw Rogernomics as an expression of natural law, like gravity. Certainly, he was one of the most tireless repeaters of TINA – the “There Is No Alternative” mantra which Douglas’s defenders dutifully deployed against the growing number of critics of the Fourth Labour Government’s economic “revolution”.

Thirty years on, however, Sutton (a published poet) is acutely aware that something has gone wrong with New Zealand politics – and society. As he observes, plaintively: “in the 1980s it was still possible for people with good jobs and supportive families to set these aside, and seek election to Parliament, in the hope of changing New Zealand for the better. And even within a conservative electorate like Hawke's Bay, it was possible to persuade a narrow majority of voters to agree.”

Not anymore.

“That would be inconceivable today, because New Zealand politics has changed, and not for the better. Steadily fewer people are bothering to vote, significant numbers don't even get their names on to the electoral roll, and those who still do these things have fewer expectations about changing anything. The best that most voters today are hoping for is a government that won't make things any worse. What a discouraging prospect for potential candidates!”

It is nothing short of astonishing that the man who aggressively countered his government’s critics with the assertion, “There is no alternative!”, is unable to connect the dots between an economic and political system which insists that it represents the terminus of history, and the rising levels of political disillusionment and despair. If this, the neoliberal world order, is as good as it gets; and if all the truly meaningful decision-making powers have been taken out of the hands of politicians; then what, in God’s name, is the point of casting a vote?

How does Sutton explain this lamentable demise of the democratic spirit? Oh, that’s easy. The steady decline in political engagement is just “one tiny part of a global phenomenon, the move away from representative democracy towards its only proven alternative: rule by power-hungry despots, who brook no disagreement, even from their supporters, and are ready to resort to whatever means seem necessary to shore up their power.”

Ummm, no, Bill. I don’t think so. The malaise you describe is traceable to the hollowing-out of our political institutions which began with the very same reforms you were so proud to champion as a young MP in the Lange-led Labour Government. The reforms which caused the Labour Party to shrink from a party numbering close to 100,000 members to one numbering fewer than 10,000. The reforms which gave birth to a professionally-trained political class, whose members glide effortlessly between the public service, the news media, public-relations and Parliament, and who have nothing but contempt for the opinions of ordinary people.

People haven’t “moved away from representative democracy”, Mr Sutton, representative democracy has been moved away from them. A necessary precaution, lest ordinary people get it into their heads to take on the greatest “power-hungry despot” of them all: the totalitarian ideology we call Neoliberalism.

The despot you helped to enthrone, Mr Sutton. The reason why New Zealand politics has changed so profoundly for the worse.

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

Friday, 9 March 2018

Italy Beset By An Impious Spirit Of Misrule.

Masque Of Folly: Politically and ideologically, Italy's parliamentary elections resembled the sort of riotous carnivals for which Italian cities became notorious during the Eighteenth Century. Everybody was in costume; every face was masked; nothing was as it seemed; and the whole mad procession was presided over by an impious spirit of misrule.

WHAT’S WITH THE ITALIANS? Viewed from the perspective of a country located about as far from Italy as it is possible to get on a spherical planet, its people appear to have taken leave of their senses. Politically and ideologically, last Sunday’s parliamentary elections resembled the sort of riotous carnivals for which Italian cities became notorious during the Eighteenth Century. Everybody was in costume; every face was masked; nothing was as it seemed; and the whole mad procession was presided over by an impious spirit of misrule.

There is, however, justification for Italy’s apparent madness. What happened on Sunday was the Italian electorate’s entirely understandable response to a corrupt political class which, for the past 70 years, has perfected ever-more outrageous strategies for preventing ordinary Italians from getting what they want.

For more than 40 years Italy was ruled by a single political party, the Christian Democrats, which, in collusion with the country’s leading capitalists, the Catholic Church and organised crime bosses, kept the United States happy by preventing the powerful Communist Party of Italy (the largest communist party in the western world) from taking power democratically.

Oh, yes, we of the English-speaking countries like to joke about the revolving door of Italian politics and its seemingly endless procession of jowly, horn-rimmed bespectacled prime ministers. Less is said, however, about the corruption and manipulation basic to the perpetuation of a permanent anti-communist political regime dedicated to thwarting the aspirations of the Italian working-class.

Certainly, we English-speakers have witnessed nothing-like the exercise unleashed by the Italian magistracy following the collapse of the Soviet Union (and with it the credibility of communism) in 1991. The so-called “Mani Pulite” (Clean Hands) investigations brought to book so many senior members of the Italian political class – most especially the leaders of the anti-communist parties – that people began to refer to the world of politics as “Tangentopoli” (Bribesville) and wondered whether there was even one honest official left in the whole country.

The answer to that question appeared to be “No”. Because “Bribesville”, in the person of Italy’s “Mr Media” – Silvio Berlusconi – struck back at the “Clean Hands” investigations, accusing Italy’s relentless magistrates of wearing “red robes” (i.e. of being pawns of the Communist Party).

Berlusconi’s genius was to gather together against the Left all that was historically disreputable in Italian society: the defensive conservatism of the Italian family; the clientelism fundamental to making one’s way in Italian society; the disdain of Italy’s “civilised” northern provinces for the people of Italy’s “undeveloped” south; and, most worryingly, the resurgent ideology of Italian fascism. “Forza Italia” (Go Italy!) was the Christian Democracy Party reborn as a combination of football supporters club and anti-political crusade.

Did right-wing Italians know that Berlusconi was conning them? Of course they did. But, being conned was preferable to finally facing-up to Italy’s all-too-obvious economic and social decline, and the political putrefaction at the heart of its national life.

As a strategy for defeating the Italian Left it was nothing short of brilliant. To succeed, left-wing parties require an electorate which believes fervently in the possibility of a better future. By the time Berlusconi was finally forced from office, that crucial pre-requisite had been pummelled into a pervasive and despairing cynicism about all forms of political engagement. Increasingly, Italian politics was driven by the issues that most enraged the electorate: illegal immigration; the redistribution of the north’s wealth to the impoverished south; the growth of an unaccountable political bureaucracy more responsive to the urgings of Brussels than Rome; the inability of anybody to actually change anything.

Small wonder, then, that a shady stand-up comedian, Beppe Grillo, has pushed his Internet-based “Five Star Movement” to the front of the political pack. Or that “The League” – formerly the Northern League – has surged ahead of Forza Italia by promising to drive 600,000 illegal immigrants into the sea. Or that the parties of Italy’s increasingly decrepit status-quo have been soundly beaten. Or that there is currently no reasonable prospect of Italy’s mutually allergic political parties coming together to form any sort of responsible government.

Fittingly, it was the Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci, who penned the best description of Italy’s predicament: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

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 March 2018.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Bridges And Adams Trapped In The Ghetto Of The Comfortable Third.

Utterly Predictable: Anyone seized with the notion that the Nats new leadership team might actually make a serious effort to face up to the enormous challenges confronting New Zealand and the world should now un-seize themselves. The new Opposition Finance Spokesperson, Amy Adams, has made it very clear that National will be governing, as it has always done, for the only New Zealanders who have ever counted for anything in its political universe – farmers and businessmen.

OH, WHAT A SURPRISE – it’s Amy Adams! On the day after Steven Joyce announced his retirement from politics, Simon Bridges appoints the runner-up in National’s latest leadership contest as his Shadow Finance Minister. So far, so utterly predictable.

Equally predictable, but a lot more depressing, were Adams’ announced priorities. In her first press release as Opposition Finance Spokesperson, she singled out “Labour’s overseas investment changes, employment law changes, and proposed new taxes as things that would ankle-tap the country’s medium-term economic performance.”

Anyone seized with the notion that the Nats new leadership team might actually make a serious effort to face up to the enormous challenges confronting New Zealand and the world should now un-seize themselves. Adams has made it very clear that National will be governing, as it has always done, for the only New Zealanders who have ever counted for anything in its political universe – farmers and businessmen.

Just listen to Adams assessment of National’s economic stewardship:

“New Zealand currently has one of the strongest economies in the western world. That’s not an accident. That’s a result of the hard work of New Zealanders backed by the strong economic plan of the previous National-led Government”.

Strong economic plan? And what might that have been? To open the floodgates to tens-of-thousands of immigrants? To facilitate the transformation of New Zealand’s agricultural sector into one huge dairy farm? To quietly inject the trade union movement with yet another cocktail of immobilising drugs? To dole out millions of dollars in corporate welfare to the National Government’s most generous friends?

If Adams’ only measure of success is the growth in GDP under National; or, perhaps, the appreciation in the value of urban real estate; or, the increasing share of New Zealand’s economic surplus currently being distributed to shareholders, at the expense of wage- and salary-earners; well then, yes, her party’s “strong economic plan” may be rated an unqualified success.

That Adams clearly cannot appreciate that all of these positive outcomes need to be set alongside a much longer list of negative economic and social consequences: homelessness, rising inequality, declining health and educational outcomes, environmental degradation; merely reinforces her own and her party’s location among the comfortable third of New Zealand society.

National’s capacity to present itself to the New Zealand electorate as something more than a crude political vehicle for the advancement of narrow sectional interests can only diminish while its leaders feel free to spout such facile and uninspiring rhetoric.

Adams’ words betray her party’s continuing failure to accurately interpret the result of the 2017 general election. Under a proportional electoral system, the support of just one third of the population is simply not enough to guarantee victory.

That National’s support manifested itself in a Party Vote of 44.5 percent only indicates the continuing depressed levels of electoral participation. If the progressive political parties can secure even a modest lift in the participation rate of their supporters (and if anybody can do that it’s Jacinda Ardern) then National’s share of the Party Vote will be driven down even further. Without a coalition partner commanding approximately 10 percent of the Party Vote, Adams’ hopes of re-booting National’s “strong economic plan” will be unfulfilled.

Conservatism, as Winston Peters demonstrated so adeptly at the head of NZ First throughout 2017, is a political philosophy capable of transcending sectional boundaries. Conservatives appeal to their fellow citizens from the much more solid foundation of shared values: individual freedom and responsibility; cherished cultural and religious traditions; the principles of equity and fairness. Values as likely to be found among the poorest members of society as the wealthiest.

Certainly, conservatives are hostile to the claims of the mob, but they are no less hostile to the grasping selfishness of the elites. The power of the state is important to conservatives not only because it guarantees law and order, but also because it alone is strong enough to resist – and, if necessary, overawe – the special-pleading of the heedless rich.

While Bridges and Adams espouse a social and economic programme which reeks of sectional self-interest, the National Party’s ability to break out of the ghetto of the comfortable third will continue to be compromised. If, between them, they are unable to convince the New Zealand electorate that a principled conservative party called “National” still exists, then they may soon find it necessary to re-invent one.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 8 March 2018.