Saturday 3 March 2018

“A Giant Beast Called The Government”

Leviathan: “The Labour Party is not the government. The government is the government. I don’t go and try to lobby the Labour Party. The party does have its democratic structures and its policy platforms and manifesto and that is something that the government — the Labour government, the Labour Party-in-government — the government tries to advance. But ultimately there is a giant beast called the government and it’s the public service, it’s MPs, ministers, ministers from various parties.” - Neale Jones, Lobbyist.

SOMETIMES the mask of politics-as-it-is-officially-presented slips and the true face of the political class is revealed. A particularly serious slippage occurred quite recently in a Spinoff feature about “partisan lobbyists”. Neale Jones, a senior backroom operative in the dreary days of Andrew Little’s leadership of the Labour Party, but now the go-to lobbyist for people and businesses in need of some face-time with Labour cabinet ministers (or the public servants advising them) did something no member of the political class should ever do – he told us exactly what it thinks of our democracy.

It is a fundamental mistake, he told the feature’s author, Asher Emanuel, to assume that the Labour Party has anything to do with the day-to-day decision-making of cabinet ministers and public servants. Never mind that Labour spin-doctors rattle-on about New Zealand having a “Labour-led Government”, the actual, this-is-really-going-to-affect-you, business of government takes place in an almost entirely non-partisan environment.

“The Labour Party is not the government” says Jones. “The government is the government. I don’t go and try to lobby the Labour Party. The party does have its democratic structures and its policy platforms and manifesto and that is something that the government — the Labour government, the Labour Party-in-government — the government tries to advance. But ultimately there is a giant beast called the government and it’s the public service, it’s MPs, ministers, ministers from various parties.”

It’s the same with policy. Jones is scornful of the whole notion of public policy being, at its core, a democratic process.

“A Labour Party member sitting in a dusty hall in Temuka is not writing the government’s policy”, Jones says. “Eventually there’s an impact. But you’re not dealing with that person in the democratic process. You’re dealing with the government.”

At least Jones was decent enough to throw that “eventually there’s an impact” life-line to all those benighted souls raised on the notion that ordinary citizens, sitting in dusty halls, might be able to change the way their society is run. Although, he makes it pretty darn clear that those party members will find it very hard to recognise their ideas in what finally emerges from the “giant beast called the government”.

As Emanuel observes, there is no way of escaping the need for expertise when it comes to influencing the formation of public policy. An organisation wanting to change things, says Jones, is unlikely to succeed without “a decent communications and government relations capacity.”

And, as Emanuel quips: “it helps to be of the political world.”

“If you’re not in that world,” says Jones, “you don’t know, necessarily, how to engage with legislation and regulation. You don’t know who the people are, you don’t know them personally. You don’t know what makes them tick.”

In other words: “Ordinary citizens wishing to change the world should not attempt to do so without a $200-per-hour guide. Citizens requiring guides should proceed to the nearest lobby.”

Emanuel is gloomily philosophical about the world Jones inhabits.

“A certain kind of realism insists that this is simply the shape modern democracy must take. From this vantage, these trends are an inevitability, principle must yield to practicability, and moral conviction is mere aesthetics.”

Jones, of course, agrees: “I got into politics for economic justice issues and I believe in social justice. But also, I’m a pragmatist and a realist and I focus on how to get things done. The measure of what we do is what we get done, or what we achieve.”

These, then, are the opinions of what passes for a “progressive” member of the political class.

But is Jones right? Do pragmatism and realism require the quest for economic and social justice to remain seated in the waiting-room of history until the political class – those professional servants of the “great beast called government” – are ready to receive them?

The history of social and economic change in New Zealand strongly suggests that Jones is very far from being right.

New Zealand’s social welfare system which, in its essentials, came into existence on 1 April 1939, wasn’t written in a dusty hall in Temuka. It was, however, written 80 miles down the road, in the tiny rural settlement of Kurow.

Its authors were Gervan Macmillan, the local GP; Arnold Nordmeyer, the local Presbyterian minister; and Andrew Davidson, the local schoolteacher. On the doctor’s dining-room table, these three – whose jobs had brought them face-to-face with the worst privations of the Great Depression – mapped out the contours of a system which would, eventually, take care of their fellow citizens “from the cradle to the grave”.

Nordmeyer and Macmillan took the plan to the 1934 Labour Party Conference, where it was enthusiastically endorsed and included in the party’s 1935 manifesto. By 1938 it was the law of the land.

Not bad for three ordinary citizens, gathered around a dining-room table in Kurow, North Otago.

And not a lobbyist in sight.

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


Kat said...

There is a scene in the movie "The Darkest Hour" where Winston Churchill takes a London subway train on his own to find out what the "ordinary" people think of standing up to Hitler. Churchill is given the message loud and clear. Churchill went on to sway government and made one of his most famous speeches for the defense of Britain, the rest is history. Whether the scene on the subway train actually happened or was just a bit of theatrical license it was definitely a poignant moment in helping Churchill decide what he must do.

greywarbler said...

That is an interesting cautionary piece Chris. I will extract it and put it alongside your one of 2 May 2017 'Our path to the future is blocked by the past' which I found enlightening and challenging.

Looking back to Savage and what he grappled with I see similarities to now, and hopefully we will find the strength, insight and even determination to the death that he showed when fighting for the right laws and procedures to serve the country.

An example of the political ability to handle all forces was in the Social Security Act passed on 14th September 1938 to begin in April 1939. This was done just before the election on 15 October 1938 to give the public an incentive to vote Labour back in.
It was also Savage who insisted that the Act contain a provision that it would not come into force until 1 April 1939, thereby giving National the opportunity to revoke it if they won the 1938 general election
"Mickey" Savage, along with Peter Fraser and Walter Nash were considered the big three in the early years of the first Labour Government. In 1938, despite already being diagnosed with colon cancer, Savage made many inspiring speeches during the election campaign, leading the Labour government to an even greater victory than in 1935. Despite declining health he continued to lead the government, until on 27 March 1940, he died at his home in Wellington, at the height of his popularity.

(I remember a story that Savage had to get up from his sickbed to give a crucial vote to pass the Social Security Act, It might be fable but has been passed into the public mind.
Shortly before the 1938 election Savage was diagnosed with colon cancer. He ignored advice to have immediate surgery to lead the fight in the election against a refreshed opposition. The key election issue was the Social Security Bill,...Savage showed no sign of slowing down. After collapsing in August 1939 he finally had the operation he had been advised to have almost a year earlier. By now it was too late.

I looked up Te Ara on Michael Joseph Savage and in their summation the last paragraph of the item on 'The Man' is valid.

Savage was not as able intellectually as were his principal lieutenants; he was not nearly as well read as Holland or Fraser, and he had a simplicity of approach which sometimes amounted to naïveté....

The secret of his remarkable appeal must, however, lie to a great extent in the New Zealand of the early thirties, in an electorate more hungry in a social than in a physical sense, longing for reassurance, and for personal security. Savage's personality provided the public with a sense of kindliness in government. Moreover, as far as the general public were concerned, this simplicity was by no means a handicap...

Savage had much to contend with - improving Depression conditions, introducing the pensions scheme in 1938, seeing the need for war preparation though he was at heart a pacifist with a 1939 meeting with Britain and Australia, troublesome John A Lee who wanted to reform the economy, and finally carrying on despite his colon cancer which killed him in 1940.

Which brought us to this below, and thinking how to climb back?
Highest living standards in the world
In the 1940s and 50s, living standards in New Zealand were among the highest in the world.
For 30 years, successive governments had the resources and public support to expand the welfare state. The system was affordable because of low unemployment, which all political parties favoured. Restrictions on imported products continued to protect local manufacturing jobs.

Nick J said...

Jones viewpoint is akin to a courtier at Versailles in 1785, thinking that they have more divine access and fekk the unwashed. As we know the unwashed women came calling, heralding Madame Guillotine. Similarly Jones should know about a group of Labour MPs who ate fish and chips. They too seemed well in control of direction and destiny when their turn came.

As was said in Pythons Holy Grail by a peasant, "True executive power comes from a mandate from the masses".

I would note that similar to Jones concept of how government works in NZ, so to does the "swamp" class of Washington who have set themselves against a democratically elected president. The people who voted for Trump will be well displeased at this betrayal of their democratically laid vote.

My take is that akin to Trump draining the swamp Labour to be effective needs to break the power of the public service executive and Treasury. They need to reestablish a master servant relationship on behalf of the voting public.

Victor said...


That scene was pure invention.

Moreover, many historians consider that the Brits were far from united in their resolve to fight on in May 1940 and that it was Churchill who convinced ordinary men and women of the necessity of resistance, rather than vice versa.

There's a somewhat better scene in "Dunkirk" when the defeated troops get back from France expecting to be lynched, only to find that Churchill's rhetoric had turned them into returning (if not quite conquering)heroes.

The moral might be that you should never ignore the power of those with the ability to shape narratives!

BTW "Darkest Hour" is a bit unfair to Neville Chamberlain, who, in reality, was largely loyal to Churchill after the latter replaced him as PM. Halifax was a bit out on a limb in the war cabinet, albeit that he had many friends in high places who shared his perspective.

Kat said...


Yes, that scene may have been a dream, but it tells a story. The British population was ready to fight on, on the beaches in the streets and never surrender. However the aristocratic Conservative MPs were ready to throw in the towel. The British working population reflected the attitude of the Labour party, the social democratic opposition party which strongly backed Churchill and continuation of the war. But Churchill had to save Britain and the aristocracy and he appeared to already understand the population’s resolve. Churchill never had to do a poll in giving Halifax and his "lobbyists" the bums rush.

I doubt whether Gervan Macmillan, Arnold Nordmeyer and Andrew Davidson had to do a poll either.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"True executive power comes from a mandate from the masses".

Or in our case.

"Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?" – Tony Hancock

Olwyn said...

Capitalism derives its legitimacy from democracy, but democracy cannot always be trusted to deliver it; e.g. the election of Allende in Chile in the early '70s. Prior to universal enfranchisement the answer to that problem was to limit the vote to property-owning men of the dominant ethnicity. The introduction of the TINA doctrine has allowed them to cope with universal enfranchisement by limiting democracy's field of decision making. From Regan/Thatcher to 2008 this meant politicians who represented constituencies acting within the constraints set by TINA. Since 2008 it has increasingly meant politicians who are willing to take directions and who represent brands; e.g. Cameron, Key, Obama. Since the election of Trump it has meant politicians like Trudeau being promoted as stars. Corbyn, with a large grass roots constituency, seems to be the counterexample, but I would not be surprised if a direction-taking bearer of some sort of cool, rebellious brand is currently being groomed to be thrust before the public, accompanied by media accolades. The question then would be whether Corbyn's supporters are entrenched enough to reject the bait. On one level, this technocratic mode of government has become entrenched, but on another, it has proved unable to form an invisible background, and is forced to keep coming up with new tactics.

jh said...

I imagine Jones is correct. Remember in the 1930s we had booms and busts but post war we kept developing as the hill country was broken and hydro dams built. The old possibilities are no longer there. The country is run on a vision of progressive goodness as a primary objective and the spill over of migrants buying property. That is the gag and there is no room to move economically.

jh said...

Tim Hazledine - NZ's optimum population 2 million

Thinking the unthinkable. What if he is correct? There is a big divide in this country. Try being someone on a low wage who works in the mire of over stretched resources (traffic/parking)? Typically insiders have large salaries and are therefore isolated.

Really though the media are part of the government. Recently Tracy Watkins asked Simon Bridges position "on views important to you". Immigration wasn't mentioned: euthanasia, abortion??

greywarbler said...

Just to illustrate how difficult it can be for the lower orders to overturn the systems that the higher-ups have the ability to confer on them; like the order of the bath perhaps? As I feel that we are being worked towards the role of peasants I don't look on this as interesting entertainment.

I've been watching the wonderful documentary fronted by Tony Robinson who we remember fondly as Baldrick from Blackadder. He is great also as the frontman for this historic rerun of The Peasants Revolt of 1381. A marvellous campaign from the peasants and other dienchanted people that functions as an illustration of the saying that anything 'is not over till the fat lady sings'. (Almost 2 hrs i think.)

Then for the ones who are short on time and want to get the gist quickly.
The 3 minute version, also an excellent piece of television.

Victor said...


I really think you're over-simplifying the situation in Britain in 1940.

The Conservatives were split down the middle over continuing the war and, although the Labour Party leadership was reasonably united, this can't be said for the broader Labour movement, let alone for those it represented.

Churchill created the narrative of a resolute, defiant people, of which he claimed, with undue modesty, to be merely the spokesperson.

Similarly, the left subsequently created the narrative of the 'People's War', in which the masses had taken command of the levers of power in order to defeat Fascism and then usher in a new egalitarian dawn.

Both narratives were partly true and partly myth. And the former has turned out to have the longest shelf-life and continues to inspire the narrative of British exceptionalism, as manifested disasterously in the 2016 referendum result.

As I say, narratives are powerful things.

BlisteringAttack said...

It's the bureaucrats, not the politicians, you have to watch.

Easier said than done, as bureaucrats work in darkness.

greywarbler said...

Terrific overview and underview as well Olwyn.

The prevailing view of citizens in the present democracy is she'll be right and though it is not working as we thought it should, if we keep pretending then the money and opportunities will continue to be handed out, even if sparingly to some. So we enter into the Great Myth of a good society, and move happily into the future naively, unwarily while being fascinated by our new devices, which the capitalists sell us with planned obsolesence.

Unfortunately we are also sneering at our old basic services that helped form and sustain our lives. Government under the capitalist control, is pushing us to prefer and force the use of new technological devices and systems, which are dynamic and each change replaces the previous one.

Citizens then can be cut off from communication with their government, which is drawing away from personal interface. Those citizens may lose their identity and right to be included and receive services to citizens if their devices are out-dated and not renewed and their identity codes are not confirmed regularly. This has happened to me with Outlook (Microsoft) for example.

Don't people understand what is happening, a rewriting of what government is that is widening all the time, or are they too busy looking at coloured, moving pictures or fights on screen or satirical comedians lampooning the process for our stupid laughter, as transference from what is reality immediately around us or in the wider world?

Victor said...

Nick J

Sorry to sound like a rusty gramophone needle, but Trump didn't owe his triumph to American Democracy but to a kink in the American Constitution.

This same Constitution famously created the very checks and balances that are now stymieing his administration.


Thank you for a brilliantly brief account of why(to paraphrase Rousseau), we are always in chains. Forgive me, though, if I find your account excessively holistic.

In much of the western world, it was often impeccable establishment types who ushered in the epoch of the welfarist, mixed economy, in which I was fortunate enough to spend the first half of my life.

Moreover, even when it didn't usher in these beneficial circumstances, the establishment accepted and fostered them for more than one third of a century, with "Sir Humphrey" often in the van.

There were, of course, specific historical factors that promoted this development, just as there were other even more specific historical factors that attended its demise (e.g. 'Stagflation').

Similarly, it was normally elite politicians (and by no means all of them radicals) who introduced universal male suffrage across Europe in the later nineteenth century.

So, while I relish the sweep of your argument and acknowledge the broad truth about human motivation embedded in it, I'm left with a large smidgen of doubt as to particulars.

This, in turn, renders me sceptical about the potential of Corbynissimo and other forms of "progressive" populism for effecting long-term beneficial change. But I acknowledge that I might be wrong.

Olwyn said...

Hi Victor, and thanks for your reply. I agree that the picture I painted was in very broad brush strokes. I also concede that for beneficial change to occur, some parts of the establishment must be won over, or new forces enter into it. You must surely allow that the rise of trade unions, etc. will have had some influence on establishment players who supported change in the past. The Corbyn movement is at least significant in showing that there is a growing appetite for change, and is preferable to some of the anti-establishment contenders from the right.

Nick J said...

Hi Victor, yes Trump played the election to the rather strange way it is set up, Hillary could have but didn't. As for checks and balances he is not faced by any constitutional balances, rather by departments of state gone rogue, such as the entire security state. If in NZ the GCSB and SIS sought to overtly and actively object to Jacinda how would you call it? Is Trump versus the FBI any different? I suspect not. My point is that voters whether they win or lose generally expect the organs of state to support the elected leadership.

Victor said...

Hi Olwyn

Total agreement

sumsuch said...

Kurow, where my Mum holidayed with her uncle, the then Presbyterian minister, where she was bored silly on Sunday by 3 exactly similar sermons. Dust was universal then, as it is now, if you leave aside media. Democracy, the only beauty (government-wise).

Victor said...

Hi Nick

There's a difference, surely, between, the role and status of POTUS and that of prime minister in a Westminster system, particularly if unconstrained by a written constitution.

The former, despite the grandiloquent flummery and baubles of his office, is just an elected official with (at least in the domestic sphere)clearly circumscribed authority.

The latter, in contrast, has something approaching the powers of an absolute monarch, provided that she's able to keep Parliament onside. And, under our system, Parliament is sovereign, whereas, in the US, sovereignty sort of resides in the Constitution.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that the said PM could be gone by lunchtime if Parliament deemed this appropriate, whereas the POTUS can only be removed by impeachment or by a complex process that finds him incapable of exercising office.

That said, Trump seems now to be succeeding with his inane domestic agenda, so piquantly defined by John Gray as "Globalism in One Country", with massive tax cuts for the rich and tariffs to protect some of the jobs of the poor, albeit at the expense of others (e.g. car workers).

As to foreign policy, Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley seem to be in permanent damage control mode, whilst the former dreams of Texas and latter burnishes her CV. But, anguished looks and private conversations notwithstanding, neither of them has, to date, publicly differed from the Orange Anarch.

To my mind, then, the only things preventing Trump from exercising the levers of office just as freely as any of his predecessors are his own incompetence, ignorance and narcissistic personality disorders.

Those who voted for him either warmed to those very characteristics or failed to heed the obvious warnings. So I really don't think they've got anything to complain about in terms of a denial of democracy.

Victor said...

Nick J

Further to my previous email, if a New Zealand prime minister was facing the level of suspicion of malfeasance that Trump is facing, he or she would almost certainly be forced by his or her colleagues to resign at a very early stage.

So it's hard to envisage the equivalent here of the chess game currently being played out in DC. That's not how parliamentary government works or needs to work.

Meanwhile, both here and in the US, the first duty of law enforcement agencies should be to uphold the law and not to protect the administration.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Victor. I believe that Trump is just discovering that he has more power than you might think, due to the power of the president to basically legislate without Congress. At least in certain areas. I'm not sure the Constitution constrains him as much as you might think.

Nick J said...

Victor agree with what you say except one thing; the organs of national security in the U.S. have gone rogue against their elected president. If as I questioned the same happened here we would all be up in arms. I don't see the FBI as currently a neutral player upholding the law. They clearly have a partisan agenda.

As for Trump I agree he is hopeless, and his agenda dreadful. Interestingly John Michael Greer contended in his column that the same flyover state deplorables who voted for Obama voted in turn for Trump. They will be disappointed in turn.

Victor said...


You're right. He can make executive orders. Previous presidents have also had this power, which Obama, for one, used extensively. Trump's been aware of this from the start and has used this power, albeit that, in the case of entry bans, it's been challenged in the courts.

But he's not monarch of all he surveys, as is a Westminster-style PM provided she/he keeps Parliament on-side. He's one center of power, who has to wheel and deal with the others.

Nick J

I just don't read what's going on that way. There's enough evidence of Russian involvement in the election to merit investigation. Law enforcement agencies would be falling down on the job if they weren't investigating this.

If I was to question the role of the FBI, it would be for its involvement in undermining the Clinton campaign in 2016.

I'm too ancient to be a tech expert but I can't believe that it took ten whole days to check out whether a mere 600,000 emails were or were not identical to another clump of emails. Surely there's software that could do that in half an afternoon, if not in nano seconds.

Nick J said...

Victor, yes technically there is the capability to do things in seconds. The FBI have had 18 months to provide prima facie evidence, even just a smidgen of something tangible. I'd suggest that they have found zippo.

By contrast the much lower powered and resources Wikileaks managed to find and publicise various debatable legalities with the Democratic party and Hillary... not a whisper from the FBI.
I will be kind to the FBI and question both their competence and partiality.

This is no way absolves Trump from being what he is. All I see is that the opposition to Trump needs to get it's house in order to be seen as credible, and this constant rebellious noise and nonsense do them great harm.

Victor said...


I think they've found out quite a lot about subordinate characters though not about the President. My own impression( and that's all it is) remains diffrent to yours on this issue.

But there's a much bigger story of an authoritarian power's studied subversion of western political processes here. To my mind, the law enforcement and security agencies of the countries concerned have every need to keep probing.

The 'debatable legalities' of the losing campaign are pretty small potato in comparison.

And if it's technically possible to identify 600,000 emails in a few seconds, why were we treated to the 'Sturm und Drang' of Comey's announcement of their discovery, followed by a loaded pause for paranoid speculation whilst Election Day grew ever closer.

If you're looking for a scandal about the FBI, that's surely it!