Thursday, 19 September 2019

Jojo Tamihere Salutes Herr Goff.

Get Back Jojo! The elation in Mayor Phil Goff’s camp may be easily imagined as they watched social media light up in indignation at challenger John Tamihere’s "Sieg Heil to that" quip. Just when JT’s notoriously right-wing, sexist and homophobic stains were beginning to fade back into his ‘colourful’ past, “there he goes again”, handing his enemies a very large stick and inviting them to beat him to death.

GODWIN’S LAW hardly covers it. Drawing a comparison between the person, or persons, you are arguing with and the Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, was identified by US lawyer Mike Godwin, way back in 1990, as the point where meaningful debate ends. There can’t be many in John Tamihere’s mayoral campaign team who would disagree. JT’s “Sieg Heil to that!”, blurted out in response to a Phil Goff soliloquy on Auckland’s diversity has definitely become the takeaway comment from last night’s (17/9/19) bruising Pub Politics Mayoral Debate.

The elation in Goff’s camp may be easily imagined as they watch social media light up in indignation at Tamihere’s intervention. Just when JT’s notoriously right-wing, sexist and homophobic stains were beginning to fade back into his ‘colourful’ past, “there he goes again”, handing his enemies a very large stick and inviting them to beat him to death.

To make the whole debacle even worse, Tamihere explained his “Sieg Heil” quip by referencing Goff’s claim to have de-platformed Stefan Molyneux and Cheryl Southern – the two far-right Canadians prevented from holding a public meeting in Auckland in 2018. Given the views of the banned speakers, the comparison with Hitler was ideologically absurd. If Goff really did harbour Hitlerian tendencies, then he would have welcomed Molyneux and Southern with open arms.

If JT had to make some quip, “Long Live Chairman Phil!” would have sufficed. After all, it’s not just Nazis who censor their opponents, the Reds also have ‘form’ when it comes to putting a muzzle on free speech.

The other factor JT failed to consider before blurting was that, in the grim shadow of the 15 March mosque massacres in Christchurch, Goff’s impulse to de-platform the likes of Molyneux and Southern seems much less high-handed than it does prescient. Speaking up for the free speech rights of alt-right Valkyries and “scientific” racists was a lot easier before one of their gruesome tribe gunned down 51 innocent human-beings in their houses of worship.

So, why did he do it? What was he thinking?

The host of Pub Politics and Daily Blog editor, Martyn Bradbury, put his finger on it in his review of the Goff/Tamihere clash: “Trump and Brexit won by tapping into a deep resentment within the electorate, that resentment exists within Auckland and if JT wins, it will be because he understands that.”

“And because”, Martyn might have added, “he gives it a voice.”

Long before the Internet and its lawmakers, New Zealanders used to describe that all-too-familiar Kiwi stereotype – the authoritarian boss who thinks he knows everything and takes great pleasure in making the lives of everybody below him on the pecking order miserable – as a “Little Hitler”.

Those hard-bitten Kiwi soldiers returning from the Second World War weren’t overly tolerant of such people, and in the days when the trade unions still had some kick, they weren’t frightened to let them know. Blokes of a certain age, and blokesses too, will have no difficulty in recalling those moments when one of these Little Hitlers, having rattled-off their orders, provokes one long-suffering staff-member to raise their arm in a mocking “Sieg Heil!” salute to his retreating back.

Tamihere, in blurting “Sieg Heil to that”, wasn’t signalling his membership of some perverse right-wing fraternity. All he was doing was signalling his membership of something much less acceptable – the Maori working-class of West Auckland. (Not too many of them amongst the woke patrons of the Chapel Bar on a Tuesday night in trendy Ponsonby!)

And why might a working-class Maori from West Auckland consider Phil Goff to be a “Little Hitler”?

Could it have something to do with an Auckland Council that appears to only have ears for the bicycle-riders and the public transport theoreticians – by refusing to listen to the men and women who are forced to drive half-way across the city to work every morning in a car that gets harder and more expensive to warrant with every passing six months, and whose gas tank cost more to fill – thanks to Phil.

Could it be because when the Mayor waxes eloquent about diversity, the people in his mind’s eye are the wealthy property speculators and business investors from Asia – the ones who pour hundreds-of-thousands of dollars into the pockets of the New Zealand political class. That’s not the sort of diversity that trickles down the walls of those dank dwelling-places where the Maori, Pasifika and poor immigrant workers of Auckland live. Liberal Neoliberals like Mayor Goff don’t run into very many of them at their fundraisers.

At the doors of the Waipareira Trust, however, John Tamihere meets many such people. They come to see the doctors at its medical centre; the dentists at its dental practice. Many come for help with housing (far too many) or for a food parcel to see their kids through the week. Waipareira serves them all.

John Tamihere doesn’t ask for donations from the rich – he provides services to the poor. Has done for thirty years. His words may leave a lot to be desired at times, but you cannot fault his deeds.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 19 September 2019.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Behind Every Good Woman Should Stand – Another Good Woman.

Alone, Alone, All, All, Alone: To argue that the Prime Minister is the victim of her advisers’ failure to keep her informed may offer Jacinda some measure of exoneration – but only at the cost of casting her as a hopeless political ingénue. A star-dusted muppet, whose only purpose is to keep the punters entertained while the big boys get on with the job of governing the country.

TOO MANY BLOKES. Those three words sum-up the burgeoning problems afflicting Jacinda’s prime-ministership. Just consider the names that dominated the headlines of the past week: Nigel, Grant, Andrew, Rob. You don’t need a PhD in Political Science to know what’s wrong with this picture. Where, in the tight circle of advisers surrounding the Prime Minister are the women’s names? Helen Clark had Heather Simpson – who does Jacinda Ardern have?

Well, there’s Megan Woods. But, at last count, the Member for Wigram was holding down four big ministerial portfolios: Research Science and Innovation; Energy and Resources; Greater Christchurch Regeneration; and Housing. Certainly, Woods is one of the most competent ministers in the Coalition Government and, deservedly, one of Jacinda’s “Kitchen Cabinet”, but she is not – and cannot be – the sort of adviser Jacinda so urgently requires.

The huge service that Heather Simpson (H2) was able to provide Helen Clark (H1) was a drone-like overview, not simply of what was happening in ministerial offices, but also of who was doing what to whom in the Wellington bureaucracy, the trade unions, and, crucially, the NZ Labour Party. The crisis that has fastened itself so dangerously about the Prime Minister this past week simply couldn’t have happened back in the days of H1 and H2. Long before the complainants had become angry enough and disillusioned enough to take their stories to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, H2 would have heard about the problem, investigated the problem, and resolved the problem – keeping H1 informed of her progress every step of the way.

Could Jacinda’s Electorate Secretary, Barbara Ward, fill the role? Probably not. Ward knows a great deal about the Auckland Labour Party, but she’s not a Wellington mover-and-shaker. Besides, a prime minister has to have someone she can trust watching her back at the electorate level. No, Ward should probably stay where she is.

That no name springs to mind as the obvious candidate to fill the role of Jacinda’s H2 is, arguably, part of the problem. Unlike Helen Clark, Jacinda has risen to the top without hauling a conspicuous number of her sisters up with her. Indeed, if one wished to court controversy, one might observe that Jacinda’s journey to the top was accomplished largely on the shoulders of men. After all, people joked about “Gracinda” – Grant and Jacinda – not “Jacingrant”. If Helen Clark was Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, then Jacinda is “Gloriana”, Queen Elizabeth I, surrounded by her glittering retinue of male courtiers.

It’s an appealing comparison, but is Jacinda really our Elizabeth I? Yes, the Tudor Queen surrounded herself with powerful and intelligent men, but she never for one moment ceased to be her own woman – the person in control. A much less flattering comparison might place Jacinda alongside Mary Queen of Scots. She, too, was a Queen who found herself surrounded by dashing and determined men. Unlike the men surrounding her English cousin, however, the Scottish nobility always controlled Mary: Mary never controlled them.

Consider the argument of “plausible deniability”: the argument which, over the past week, has emerged as the most persuasive explanation for Jacinda’s late arrival at the sharp end of this devastating scandal. In a nutshell, this argument paints Jacinda as a leader more sinned against than sinning; someone deliberately kept out of the loop by her own closest advisers for her own political protection: “Nothing that need concern you here, Jacinda, we’ve got this.”

But, just think about the whole notion of plausible deniability for a moment. Who uses it – and under what circumstances? We all know the answer to that question: plausible deniability is what the CIA gives the US President by not informing him of activities that are either unethical, or unlawful, or both.

To argue that the Prime Minister is the victim of her advisers’ failure to keep her informed may offer Jacinda some measure of exoneration – but only at the cost of casting her as a hopeless political ingénue. A star-dusted muppet, whose only purpose is to keep the punters entertained while the big boys get on with the job of governing the country.

Even worse, it casts these “big boys” as deeply cynical power-brokers who long ago lost their moral compasses. And that, in turn, casts Jacinda as the hapless little woman kept in the dark by a bunch of cold-hearted bastards prepared to do whatever was necessary to keep their mate in his job.

The truth of the matter is much more likely to involve a whole lot of people cocking things up, than a vicious band of misogynist conspirators doing the dirty. Unfortunately, those observing the events of the past week from the outside may well opt for conspiracy over cock-up as the most plausible explanation for the Labour Party’s extraordinary behaviour. That moment, in politics, when people are more willing to believe the worst of you than the best of you, is the moment when you can be pretty certain you’ve got problems. Big problems.

Which is why Jacinda’s most urgent priority should be getting rid of the stink of testosterone from the upper floors of the Beehive and Bowen House – as well as the upper echelons of the Labour Party. If the women of New Zealand want to keep the Prime Minister safe from more cock-ups, then they should apply themselves to the task of identifying her very own H2. Someone to keep her fully informed. Someone to watch her back. Someone whose name isn’t Nigel, Grant, Andrew or Rob.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 17 September 2019.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Pissing-Off The Israelis Is A High-Risk Strategy.

Dangerous Foes: For those readers of Bowalley Road who feel disposed to dismiss any prospect of an Israeli destabilisation of New Zealand politics, the example of the United Kingdom repays close attention. Ever since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party, the Israelis have sanctioned, funded and organised one of their most shameless interventions, ever, in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation.

NEW ZEALAND’S GOVERNMENT faces a difficult choice between doing the right thing and the expedient thing over Israel’s latest outrage. This country has a proud record of lending its voice to the United Nations’ condemnation of the Israeli state’s repeated violations of international norms in its treatment of the Palestinian people. In the current international climate, however, upholding that proud diplomatic record risks making New Zealand politicians targets for Israeli destabilisation.

The latest, and potentially one of the most dangerous, Israeli threats to the Palestinians has been issued by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. His proposal is, in essence, to annex the entire Jordan Valley to the Israeli state. Were he to be in a position, following the pending Israeli elections, to implement this promise, all hope of a “two state solution” peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would evaporate completely.

For those readers of Bowalley Road who feel disposed to dismiss any prospect of Israeli destabilisation, the example of the United Kingdom repays close attention.

Ever since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party, the Israelis have sanctioned, funded and organised one of their most shameless interventions, ever, in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation.

Utilising every individual, group and institution responsive to Jerusalem’s guidance, the Israeli national security apparatus first redefined and then weaponised the concept of antisemitism, unleashing it upon Corbyn and his supporters with unprecedented political fury. Challenges to the foreign and domestic policies of the Israeli state – such as Corbyn has made for the past 30 years – are now routinely presented as incontrovertible proof of his antisemitic prejudice.

Such a self-serving redefinition of antisemitism would, almost certainly, have been laughed off the political stage had it not been for the extraordinary support it received from the mainstream British news media.

It is no accident that the two media organisations responsible for prosecuting Corbyn’s “antisemitism” most forcefully are the BBC and The Guardian. Had these two leaders of liberal opinion refused to buy into Jerusalem’s campaign, the attack would have had to be carried out by all the usual right-wing media suspects. That apparently “left-wing” journalists and columnists were willing to brand Corbyn an antisemite was crucial to the campaign’s impact.

So, how does the definition work? The proposition advanced is a very simple one.

The State of Israel represents the last, best hope of protecting the Jewish people from persecution and genocide. To suggest that the Jews can rely upon anybody but the State of Israel in this respect is to wilfully misread the lessons of history. To undermine in any way the strength and coherence of the Israeli state is, therefore, a hostile act. Those who do so represent a clear and present danger to the Jewish people’s sanctuary. Only those who seek to do the Jews harm could countenance such a policy. They are, ipso facto, antisemites.

That this simplistic formula actually works on well-educated and otherwise progressive individuals is explicable in no small measure by the identity of those who have, over the course of the last 70 years, made no secret of their wish to destroy the State of Israel. Journalists over 60 recall the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and ask themselves what would have happened had the Israeli Defence Force not prevailed. Younger intellectuals remember the terrorist campaigns of the PLO, Hamas and Hezbollah, and ponder the ethics of “ proactive self-defence”.

“If you’re looking for a good reason to stand with the Jewish people,” say Israel’s defenders, “just take a look at who’s standing against them.”

The Israeli case is strengthened by the geopolitical considerations that have never ceased to drive the policies of both the United Kingdom and the United States – especially when it comes to oil. The repeated trashing of the Middle East by the UK and the USA, from the end of World War II to the present day, has, among many other effects, increased immeasurably the military and economic strength of Israel. All three states have a powerful vested interest in keeping the balance of power firmly tilted in Israel’s favour.

Such are the considerations that New Zealand’s diplomats must weigh before responding to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s incendiary promise. Our convalescing Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, will, therefore, be asking himself two vital questions.

Dare we remain silent in the face of a policy that can only lead to the wholesale ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Israeli-occupied territory?

And.

Will Jacinda thank me for adding the fearsome capabilities of the Israeli national security apparatus to a plate already piled high with troubles?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 13 September 2019.

Friday, 13 September 2019

A Movement That No Longer Moves.

Moving And Shaking: There was a time when people spoke matter-of-factly about the “labour movement” – a political phenomenon understood to embrace much more than the Labour Party. Included within the term’s definition was the whole trade union movement – many of whose members looked upon the Labour Party as their wholly-owned subsidiary. No more.

A PAIR OF SCANDALS, one afflicting Labour, the other the Greens, raise troubling questions about the state of the Left.

There was a time when people spoke matter-of-factly about the “labour movement” – a political phenomenon understood to embrace much more than the Labour Party. Included within the term’s definition was the whole trade union movement – many of whose members looked upon the Labour Party as their wholly-owned subsidiary.

No longer. What remains of the New Zealand trade union movement is now little more than a collection of powerless political supplicants. Every three years their leaders gather to thrash out a list of requests (demands would be altogether too strong a word!) to be tentatively inched across the table towards Labour Party representatives empowered to decide which of these the next Labour-led government might, at some point, and only after lengthy consultations with all the other stakeholders, be prepared to enact.

It’s a transition which has taken more than 40 years to complete: from a mass political party born out of, and filled with representatives of, the organised New Zealand working-class; to what the political scientists call a “cadre party”, composed of professional politicians and careerist chancers, more than willing to watch the working-class, many of them homeless and hungry, queue for food parcels in the rain.

It is precisely this lofty detachment from the suffering of others; this ability to weigh all appeals in the scales of partisan political advantage; that explains the appalling treatment meted out by the Labour Party organisation to the young women, all of them party members, who came before their governing body seeking some measure of redress – some semblance of justice.

On Monday, 9 September, the National Party’s chief pollster, David Farrar, a man well-ensconced in the many intersecting networks of the capital city, blogged about the Prime Minister’s Office staff-member at the centre of the women’s accusations of sexual assault, harassment and bullying: “I’ve heard that his role makes him invaluable to Labour’s election campaign. Labour have decided he must be protected.”

The Prime Minister’s barely-suppressed fury at being kept only minimally informed about the purpose and progress of the party’s inquiry into the young party members’ accusations, lends Farrar’s charge a daunting ring of authenticity.

Coming hard on the heels of the trial of another young man accused of sexual misbehaviour at a Labour Party youth camp, this present case (for the exposure of which we are all indebted to the journalistic efforts of The Spinoff’s Alex Casey) makes a paraphrase of Lady Bracknell’s famous quip in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest irresistible.

“To preside over one sex scandal, Mr Haworth, may be regarded as a misfortune; to preside over two looks like carelessness.”

But if these latest revelations raise serious questions about the transactional morality currently defacing Labour’s reputation, the censoring of an 80-year-old feminist by the Greens has caused many of their supporters to respond with anger and deep, deep disappointment.

The removal of Jill Abigail’s opinion piece: an essay politely critical of some aspects of transgender activism; from the Green Party’s website, Te Awa, is but the latest example of the bitter rancour and division which this issue is constantly provoking across the entire New Zealand Left.

Scores of women, among them some of New Zealand’s most distinguished feminists, have put their names to an open letter calling upon the Greens to reaffirm their commitment to all women’s rights, including their right to freedom of expression. Until such a recommitment is forthcoming, the signatories longstanding support for the Green Party at the polls will be withheld. The negative electoral ramifications of this dispute are likely to be substantial.

There was a time when the Greens presented themselves as the “elves” of the left-wing movement. Otherworldly they may have seemed, in their tie-dyed skirts and embroidered braces, but they were capable of performing spectacular electoral magic. Like the shimmering inhabitants of Tolkien’s enchanted forests, they appeared benignly disinterested; refusing to sully themselves with the dirty politics practiced by the other political parties.

“The Greens are not of the Left,” quipped the late Rod Donald, “the Greens are not of the Right. The Greens are in front.”

Theirs was the high, cold call of conscience, raised above the cacophony of partisan self-interest and ideological intransigence.

The Left already misses it.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 September 2019.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Labour's Fatal Flaw.

 Two-Faced? Labour insiders' commitment to the neoliberal status quo puts them at odds with their party’s membership; its trade union affiliates; and a majority of Labour voters, but this only serves to strengthen the perception they have of themselves as a special elite. Among the lesser breeds, they’ll talk up a social-democratic storm – promising them everything from 100,000 affordable houses to the end of child poverty. But, among themselves – among the ones who "get it" – the objectives, and the rules of the game, are very different.

WILL ANYBODY IN the Labour Party learn anything from this latest debacle? It seems doubtful, especially coming so soon after the last debacle! (The 2018 Summer School Scandal.) Nigel Haworth, who didn’t so much fall on his sword this morning (11/9/19) as get thrust very roughly into it, has gone, but the malady lingers on.

What Labour is suffering from is a disease that is easy to diagnose but hard to explain. The Ancient Greeks called it hubris – roughly defined as: “excessive pride and/or over-confidence”. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but a better sense of the word’s meaning is gleaned by listing its synonyms: arrogance, conceitedness, haughtiness, pride, vanity, self-importance, pomposity, superciliousness, hauteur. Those afflicted by the fatal flaw of hubris harbour unfaltering feelings of superiority over all those lesser breeds with whom they are forced to have dealings. It is usually fatal.

The time-line of this latest scandal, helpfully pulled together by the journalists at The Spinoff, reveals just how seriously infected Labour has become by the hubris disease. Throughout the crooked course of this tawdry saga every one of the synonyms listed above has been in evidence; and each character failing appears to have occasioned a corresponding failure in performance. That’s the awful thing about hubris: its way of leading the sufferer into terrible misjudgements and mistakes. Wonderful for driving forward the action in Ancient Greek theatre. Not so helpful in politics.

It wouldn’t be so bad if Labour had a lot to feel excessively prideful and over-confident about. But they don’t. The party’s record since 2008 has been one of ever-worsening failure – calibrated by the steady decline in Labour’s Party Vote up until 2017. And who was the person who rescued the party’s fortunes that fateful year? It most certainly wasn’t Nigel Haworth; or the Labour Caucus; or the clowns in the Leader’s Office. No, it was Jacinda Ardern wot won it. Except, of course, not even that is true. The person wot won it for Labour in 2017 was Winston Peters.

And yet the hauteur of Labour MPs and their party-dwelling apparatchiks remains undiminished. They still evince utter disdain for all those “lesser breeds without the law”.

Rudyard Kipling’s line is especially apt in this context, because it is the Labour Party’s movers-and-shakers understanding of what constitutes “the law” that lies at the very heart of their hubris.

Jacinda, herself, must have come into contact with it during her brief stint as one of Tony Blair’s bright young things in the early-2000s. The key question for any Blairite was whether or not so-and-so “gets it”. Gets what? Simple: the whole “New Labour”, “Third Way”, “New Times” – call it what you will – “project”. You were either smart enough (and ambitious enough) to get that the days of old-fashioned social-democracy (don’t even mention the word ‘socialism’!) were over, and that capitalism had won the battle of ideas hands-down, or you weren’t. If you didn’t “get” this – if you still don’t “get it” – then you are no bloody use to anybody who takes politics seriously.

Putting all this back into a New Zealand context, the “getting-it” test goes all the way back to Rogernomics. It’s not so much a matter of having to sign-up to everything Roger Douglas and his fellow free-marketeers did. It was more a case of, to make your way upward in the post-1984 Labour Party, you had to make it absolutely clear to all the people who mattered that you had no intention of un-doing it.

That this commitment to the neoliberal status quo must instantly set the movers-and-shakers at odds with a pretty big chunk of their party’s membership; an even larger chunk of its trade union affiliates; and what is still, almost certainly, a majority of Labour’s most loyal voters, only serves to strengthen the perception they have of themselves as a special elite. Among the lesser breeds, they’ll talk up a social-democratic storm – promising them everything from 100,000 affordable houses to the end of child poverty. But, among themselves – among the ones who get it – the objectives, and the rules of the game, are very different.

And yet, these are the rules the young complainants in this latest scandal have had to negotiate their way through: a task made all the more difficult and distressing by the fact that nobody told them what they were. They did not understand that the invitation to come forward with their personal experiences of sexual misconduct was never meant to be taken seriously. They did not grasp that the prime objective of the Labour Party is not to build a better, fairer world, but to win the next election. Or, that the people to be protected within the party are not its youngest and most idealistic members, but its most skilled electoral technicians; the paid staffers who know their way around the ever-more-complex circuitry of political power.

These complainants, however, have proved to be fast learners of the elite’s unwritten rules. (Telling their stories to Paula Bennett and The Spinoff proved a masterstroke!) What was supposed to have been “managed” out-of-sight and off-camera, has been hurled bodily into the media’s unforgiving glare. Suddenly, the vast abyss that separates the idealistic from the hubristic Labour Party (the Labour Party that “gets it”) has been revealed in all its Nietzschean darkness and danger.

So, talk fast Jacinda. You’re talking for your political life.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 11 September 2019.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Warning! Warning! Danger Jacinda Ardern! Danger Marama Davidson! Warning!

Lost In Political Space: The most important takeaway from this latest Labour sexual assault scandal, which (if I may paraphrase Nixon’s White House counsel’s, John Dean’s, infamous description of Watergate) is “growing like a cancer” on the premiership, is the Labour Party organisation’s extraordinary professional paralysis in the face of an accusation that demanded the most circumspect and judicious handling.

IF THE SEXUAL ASSAULT scandal engulfing the Prime Minister’s office hasn’t been properly dealt with by the time you read this, Labour’s in big trouble. An article in this morning’s (9/9/19) edition of The Spinoff has catapulted this matter squarely into the realm of full-blown political crisis. The detail supplied brings to life the victim’s accusations in a way that cannot help but elicit sympathy. The Labour Party’s response, by contrast, inspires nothing but the most profound contempt.

The question repeated endlessly after the posting of Alex Casey’s article is: “How on earth did it get to this?” The person at the centre of these allegations isn’t just a Labour mover-and-shaker among other Labour movers-and-shakers, he’s a mover-and-shaker who works in Jacinda’s office! This means that, like Caesar’s proverbial wife, he must be “above suspicion”. Why those around the Prime Minister did not see fit to protect her from the fallout of a potentially catastrophic investigation is a deeply problematic mystery.

National’s pollster and Kiwiblogger, David Farrar, has openly stated that: “I’ve heard that [the accused person’s] role makes him invaluable to Labour’s election campaign. Labour have decided he must be protected.” If true, this tells us a great deal about the moral quality of decision-making within Labour’s ranks – none of it good.

It also tells us that everyone within the Wellington “Beltway” knows who this guy is. That includes, of course, the Parliamentary Press Gallery, who will be on nodding terms (at least) with every staff-person in the Prime Minister’s Office. This knowledge, privileged for the moment, can only add a dangerously intimate ingredient to what is already a toxic political mix. How long Wellington’s political journalists and commentators will allow themselves to go on knowing things that their viewers, listeners and readers do not, is anybody’s guess – but it cannot be for very much longer.

Word has it that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Paula Bennett, will name the accused staffer under the protection of Parliamentary Privilege as early as Tuesday afternoon (10/9/19). It was to Bennett that a number of aggrieved young women went with their grievances about Labour’s handling of this matter, so the DLO has skin in the game.

The most important takeaway, so far, from this scandal, which (if I may paraphrase Nixon’s White House counsel’s, John Dean’s, infamous description of Watergate) is “growing like a cancer” on the premiership, is the Labour Party organisation’s extraordinary professional paralysis in the face of an accusation that demanded the most circumspect and judicious handling. Senior party officials should have spared no effort to ensure that the process of their investigation was as impartial as it was forensic. “Best Practice” should have been only the starting-point!

That it was so far from anything resembling best practice only reinforces the rapidly congealing public impression that this government can do nothing right – or well. It is becoming harder by the day to avoid the conclusion that the movers-and-shakers in and around this government are incapable of assessing how bad their own behaviour, and the failure that flows from it, looks to those living outside the bubble.

Jacinda has about 24 hours to seize control of this situation – or risk being seriously damaged by it. Everyone in the Prime Minister’s office serves at the Prime Minister’s pleasure – something which every staffer’s contract makes clear. Jacinda needs to make her displeasure known in ways that cannot possibly be misconstrued. She must act – now.

*  *  *  *  *

EQUALLY IN NEED of remedial action is the Green Party. It’s recent decision to take down from its Te Awa website an opinion piece penned by the veteran New Zealand feminist, Jill Abigail, has set in motion what shows every sign of turning into an avalanche of voter disaffection.

Abigail’s entirely reasonable and courteously framed objections to the words and deeds of those she clearly regarded as transgender zealots very soon fell foul of the very zealotry she was complaining about. The justification advanced by the Greens’ co-leader, Marama Davidson, for censoring Abigail was that she had put “trans people’s right to exist” up for debate.

By any reasonable reading of Abigail’s essay, Davidson’s accusation is entirely groundless. And, for that very reason, it has inspired scores of formerly Green Party-voting women and men to put their name to an open letter demanding a full accounting of the party’s apparent unwillingness to defend not only the rights of women, but also the right of citizens to express themselves freely without being subjected to emotional and/or physical violence.

That some of these signatures belong to feminists whose careers span more than 40 years of struggle on behalf of women and girls should give Davidson and her ilk serious pause. Just as positive word-of-mouth communication can be a wonderful form of advertising; a steadily rising chorus of outrage is capable of inflicting extreme damage upon a minor party’s reputation and – hence – its chances of re-election.

What the Green Party needs to decide is whether or not it is willing to bow to the demands of what may – or may not – be a majority of its members, even if, by doing so, it alienates a very substantial number of its voters. Twitter is not New Zealand. Indeed, it is nothing like New Zealand – not even that narrow slice of the country some people still like to call “progressive New Zealand”. Confined within the hothouse precincts of the Parliamentary complex it is all-too-easy to forget that.

Demographics matter. Psychographics matter. That being the case, it makes no sense for the current Green leadership to drive out female voters aged 55+ whose progressive political principles – especially those relating to women’s rights – were forged in the 1970s and 80s. This is especially true of those conscientious voters who look upon the attitudinal and legislative changes secured for women during their lifetimes as some of the most important achievements of their generation.

Nor should the Greens forget that these female voters have partners and brothers, daughters and sons, and grandchildren – all of whom are about to hear, from someone very close them, a vivid description of the intolerable and unforgivable treatment meted out to an 80-year-old feminist veteran, Jill Abigail, by the Greens.

Exactly who does Marama Davidson believe these folk are most likely to side with in the polling-booth? The Green Party Co-Leader – or their mothers and grandmothers?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 9 September 2019.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Who Shall We Turn To When God, And Uncle Sam, Cease To Defend New Zealand?

Bewhiskered Cassandra? Professor Hugh White’s chilling suggestion, advanced to select collections of academic, military and diplomatic Kiwi experts over the course of the past week, is that the assumptions upon which Australia and New Zealand have built their foreign affairs and defence policies for practically their entire histories – are no longer valid.

WHO IS HUGH WHITE and why is he so determined to alarm us? Formally, Hugh White is the Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. Informally, he’s a disrupter of cherished fictions. Unwilling to further embellish the orthodox accounts of Australia’s and New Zealand’s strategic obligations, White dares to ask the sort of questions that make his audiences either bristle with indignation or recoil in horror. In short, White possesses the Devil’s imagination: that terrifying ability to interrogate a worst case scenario without flinching.

White’s chilling suggestion, advanced with bewhiskered geniality to select collections of academic, military and diplomatic Kiwi experts over the course of the past week, is that the assumptions upon which Australia and New Zealand have built their foreign affairs and defence policies for practically their entire histories – are no longer valid.

Both nations are the offspring of empire: peripheral adjuncts to a core imperium powerful enough to guarantee the security of both. Accordingly, the unwavering principle of Australian and New Zealand statecraft has been to keep strong the ties that bind them to their distant protectors. Up until the Second World War that meant listening intently to the voice of London. After HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sent to the bottom of the South China Sea by Japanese bombers in 1942, however, Canberra and Wellington found it more expedient to tune-in to Washington.

The key image to keep in mind is that of the “young lions”. A poster depicting Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand answering the summoning roar of the leader of the imperial pride, Great Britain. Alone, not one of the so-called “White Dominions” was strong enough to see off either Hitler or Hirohito. That is why they answered the call. The British Empire would face the “audit of war” as a unit: Albion’s “pride” would stand, or fall, together.

In the words of the New Zealand Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, broadcast to the nation almost exactly 80 years ago: “Both with gratitude for the past and confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand.”

It was the same (minus the eloquence) with Uncle Sam. When he hollered, the Aussies and the Kiwis came a-runnin’. Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq: one way or another both countries made it their business to show up. The Australians were always more demonstrative of their love for Uncle Sam than the Kiwis. Even before the break with Washington in 1985, occasioned by New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy, Wellington generally contrived to contribute only the very least it could get away with. Where Robert Menzies sent thousands of young Australian conscripts to South Vietnam, Keith Holyoake sent a few hundred volunteers – albeit with Howitzers.

White’s unnerving propositions posit a strategic situation in which not only does Uncle Sam cease to holler, but also – and much more alarmingly – ceases to come when called. He sees a new, multi-polar, world in which the principal nation-states have withdrawn behind their nuclear-fortified walls in watchful suspicion. A world frighteningly similar to that of the 1930s, in which a feeble and increasingly despised League of Nations simply ceased to matter. When leaders closed their mailed fists around the hilts of their swords and no longer bothered to pay even lip-service to the principles of international law.

This grim strategic position, so far from the “amazingly benign strategic environment” inherited by Helen Clark in the dying days of American hegemony, is made much worse by the USA’s ability to cast-off the ties that bind without significant cost. Great Britain depended on the food and raw materials of its far-flung dominions in a way that the USA, a vast continental power, does not. Abandoning the Western Pacific will not break the American economy, nor will it cause its people to starve. Indeed, the reverse may be true!

Which leaves us facing the one power which does evince an interest in what Australia and New Zealand have to offer – the Peoples Republic of China. White taxes his audience with questions about how far we Anzacs are prepared to go to preserve a modicum of freedom of action within the new imperium radiating from Beijing.

More importantly, how much are we willing to pay?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 September 2019.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

A Step Too Far.

A Crown Asset? For reasons relating to its own political convenience, the Crown pretends to believe that “No one owns the water.” To say otherwise would re-vivify the promises contained in the Treaty of Waitangi – most particularly those pertaining to the power of the chiefs and their proprietary rights to the lands, forests and fisheries belonging to their iwi and hapu. 

“WHO OWNS NEW ZEALAND’S freshwater?” In resolving issues as fraught as this one it often helps to engage the imagination. Picture these islands before the arrival of human beings roughly 700 years ago. Who owned the water then? Ask the same question of the period between 1300 and 1769 when this country was occupied exclusively by Maori. Finally, ask the present inhabitants of Aotearoa-New Zealand: “Who owns the water?” To offer the same answer to all three of these questions invites ridicule. Clearly, each answer will be different.

When these islands were the exclusive preserve of the flora and non-human fauna which lived in, on, above and around them, the ownership of freshwater wasn’t an issue. Every living thing which dwelt here needed water, but none of them owned it. Ownership is a human concept. It arrived here with the Maori. That makes it very difficult to argue that Maori were not freshwater’s first owners. It is equally difficult, however, to argue that they are still its owners. Not after 250 years of European colonisation.

Even according straightforward “ownership” of freshwater to the Maori of the pre-European contact period is problematic. “Maori” is one of those collective nouns that only come into existence in response to the creation of another collective noun – in this case “Pakeha”. Before the arrival of Europeans the people who now call themselves “Maori” called themselves something else – the collective nouns iwi, hapu and whanau spoke to their tribal, clan and family identities. In 2019, we use the word “Maori” to designate a race, or, as we prefer to say nowadays, an ethnicity. But race and ethnicity are concepts that came ashore from sailing ships, not ocean-going waka.

The owners of freshwater in pre-European Aotearoa-New Zealand were, therefore, iwi and hapu. Access to freshwater was basic to their survival. Not only did springs, streams, rivers, marshes and lakes supply these groups with drinking water, but they were also important sources of food, as well as the raw materials necessary for making clothing, tools and weapons. Obviously, once secured, these water resources had to be defended. They may not have been tribal or clan “property” in the European sense, but woe betide the person or persons who attempted to convert these resources to their own use. Stealing another clan’s freshwater was an act of war.

The protection guaranteed to the chiefs’ “lands, forests and fisheries” in the Treaty of Waitangi is difficult to interpret as anything other than a recognition of tribal and clan property rights. Equally difficult, one would think, would be to separate the proprietorship of freshwater from the proprietorship of  the springs, streams, rivers, marshes and lakes in which fish tend to be found. The Waitangi Tribunal’s argument that iwi and hapu retain a proprietary interest in water is, accordingly, well-founded. Whether “Maori” own the water is, however, much less certain.

The nearer iwi and hapu came to transforming themselves into a united political and economic entity – a Maori realm or nation – the more urgently did the Pakeha colonisers petition London for the means to disrupt, defeat and disinherit Aotearoa-New Zealand’s indigenous inhabitants. They were only too aware that the moment the traditional property rights of the many tribes and the clans were codified into a specifically Maori system of land and freshwater ownership, then the whole process of colonisation would come to a shuddering halt. The idea of two distinct political and economic entities – one Maori and the other Pakeha – held in place by the promises of the Treaty was anathema to the new-born settler state.

For traditional British forms of land ownership and resource use to prevail, the Crown’s writ had to run from Cape Reinga to the Bluff. There could be only one legal system: one means of determining who owned what; one method for transferring titles of ownership; one code for protecting the freshwater that falls and runs freely upon the earth; and one means of granting persons the right to use this vital resource.

It was to establish these, the preconditions for a unitary and sovereign state, that the colonial government of Sir George Grey, in 1863, sent 12,000 imperial troops into the Waikato to destroy the nascent Maori realm that was taking shape under the Kingitanga. And when the guns finally fell silent in the 1870s, so too did the voice of the Treaty – for close to 100 years.

This, then, is the answer we must give to the question “Who owns this country’s freshwater in 2019?” It is the New Zealand State – a.k.a “The Crown”.

For reasons relating to its own political convenience, the Crown pretends to believe that “No one owns the water.” To say otherwise would re-vivify the promises contained in the Treaty – most particularly those pertaining to the power of the chiefs and their proprietary rights to the lands, forests and fisheries belonging to their iwi and hapu. Were the Crown to keep the promises of 1840, it would be forced to acknowledge the very same truth it fought a war to deny: that in Aotearoa-New Zealand sovereignty is shared between two peoples – not exercised exclusively by one.

This is precisely what the Waitangi Tribunal’s Stage 2 Report on the National Freshwater and Geothermal Resources Claims makes clear.

Unsurprisingly, the Opposition spokesperson on Crown-Maori Relations, Dr Nick Smith, has come out swinging:

“National rejects the proposals for Maori being given an ownership interest in freshwater as proposed by the Waitangi Tribunal”.

Dr Smith goes on to reiterate the position taken by his party when in government:

“National has consistently and sensibly maintained that no one owns freshwater. We urge the Government to reject the more radical recommendations in this report on water ownership. The Government is creating uncertainty and confusion by not clearly ruling out Maori having an ownership interest in freshwater.

“Water is a public resource, like air. Maori have a right to be involved in decision making on freshwater and National provided for that in changes to the Resource Management Act and Treaty Settlements. Transferring ownership or providing a veto to iwi over water is a step too far.”

Hapu and iwi leaders are hoping that Jacinda Ardern’s government will have the “balls” to heed the Waitangi Tribunal’s report’s recommendations. But that would require of Labour, NZ First and the Greens more courage than any of them have shown to date. If you can picture David Parker, Andrew Little and Winston Peters bravely contradicting the statements of Dr Smith, then you possess a much more vivid imagination than I do!

This essay was posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 30 August 2019.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Where We Stood: Chris Trotter Replies To Stevan Eldred-Grigg.

Joining The Fight: Stevan Eldred-Grigg's argument for New Zealand staying out of the Second World War fails not only on the hard-headed grounds of preserving the country’s strategic and economic interests; and not just on the soft-hearted grounds of duty and loyalty to the nation that had given New Zealand birth; but, ultimately, on the grounds of the damage it would have inflicted on New Zealand’s soul – for want of a better word.

SHOULD NEW ZEALAND have declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939? This is the startling question posed by Stevan Eldred-Grigg, one of New Zealand’s more interesting historians, in an essay posted on TheSpinoff. I say “startling” because, while many wish that New Zealand could have stayed out of World War I, the number suggesting we should have stayed out of the existential struggle against fascism is vanishingly small.

The first great global conflict of the Twentieth Century may have been a vicious brawl between competing imperial powers, tricked out in the bunting of King and Country and, later, as a noble crusade “to make the world safe for Democracy”, but the Second World War was the real thing. Adolf Hitler and his regime constituted a clear and present danger to human civilisation which simply had to be stopped.

Eldred-Grigg’s revisionism should not, however, be dismissed out of hand. Nothing is lost by holding the icons of our history up to the light and scrutinizing them closely for flaws and blemishes. Such scrutiny becomes an urgent necessity when the accusation is made that the historical icon in question depicts a lie. Let us then take a closer look at Eldred-Grigg’s argument.

His case against New Zealand’s participation in the war is presented in two parts. The first suggests that the “hard-headed” strategic and economic arguments for joining the fight against Hitler simply do not stack up. Great Britain, he says, was simply too far away to offer the slightest strategic protection, and Nazi Germany too far away to pose a credible threat. Our export trade, he implies, would have prospered regardless of which nation emerged victorious.

The second line of attack is directed at what Eldred-Grigg calls the “soft-hearted” reasons for ranging ourselves alongside the “Mother Country”. Poland, he suggests, wasn’t worth fighting for – being little better than Nazi Germany in terms of its politics. Likewise, the Mother Country, herself. Great Britain remained an imperial power whose hands, vis-à-vis the promotion of freedom and democracy, were still far from clean. “[B]eliefs about freedom and democracy, together with emotions about duty and loyalty”, Eldred-Grigg suggests, were an insufficient justification for plunging New Zealand into someone else’s war.

But, Eldred-Griggs revisionism is wrong on all counts.

Strategically-speaking, Great Britain was not that far away at all. In 1939, the Royal Navy was still capable of considerable force projection – even into the Southern Hemisphere. Moreover, if Britain had been defeated by Germany, and the Royal Navy had fallen into the hands of the Kriegsmarine, how long does Eldred-Grigg think it would have taken the Fuhrer’s reflagged battleships to come a-calling?

As for New Zealand’s economic situation on 3rd September 1939 – well, it was parlous. The Labour Finance Minister had earlier that year visited Britain seeking the continued co-operation of the Bank of England and the City of London in extending New Zealand’s lines of credit. This they were most reluctant to do. Labour’s social welfare reforms and her state house construction programme did not meet with the British bankers’ approval. Had war not broken out in September 1939, it is almost certain that British capital would have put a suffocating financial squeeze on the errant left-wing government of its far-flung economic colony.

The outbreak of war radically shifted the pieces on the economic board in New Zealand’s favour. Michael Joseph Savage’s famous declaration: “Both with gratitude for the past and confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand.”, wasn’t simply a “soft-hearted” acknowledgement of “duty and loyalty”. It was also a hard-headed decision to do what was required to keep the workers’ government in office.

The weakness of Eldred-Grigg’s argument lies precisely in its refusal to acknowledge the political context in which the decision to go to war was taken. Does he really suppose that a left-wing New Zealand government which refused to join Canada, Australia and South Africa at Britain’s side could have endured in office for more than a few days? Has he forgotten that, as Mickey Savage was committing New Zealand to a war against fascism, the Soviet Union was preparing to roll across the Polish border in fulfilment of the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Pact? Can he not see that the National Party and the newspapers would have accused the Labour Party, with ample justification, of taking up a position indistinguishable from that of the Moscow-aligned Communist Party? An historian of Eldred-Grigg’s standing must, surely, acknowledge that Savage, Nash, and the prime-Minister-in-waiting, Peter Fraser, would not have been able to convince their own Labour caucus – let alone the broader New Zealand electorate – that such a position was even remotely tenable?

A decision to remain neutral in September 1939 would have produced only one thing – a crushing victory for the right of New Zealand politics. All of Labour’s work between 1935 and 1939 would have been undone. The state housing programme would have been abandoned, and what the National Party leader, Sid Holland, described as the “applied lunacy” of the Social Security legislation would have been swept away.

That is the price the New Zealand working-class – whose interests Eldred-Grigg has long and honourably championed – would have had to pay. Not for peace, because peace was never on the agenda; but for the utter foolishness of those who thought they could stay out of the most important moral struggle in human history.

And therein lies the clinching argument. Staying out of the war fails not only on the hard-headed grounds of preserving New Zealand’s strategic and economic interests; and not just on the soft-hearted grounds of duty and loyalty to the nation that had given New Zealand birth; but, ultimately, on the grounds of the damage it would have inflicted on New Zealand’s soul – for want of a better word.

No possible outcome of the war could have left us unsullied in the eyes of the civilised world. Had Britain accepted Hitler’s generous surrender terms in 1940, we would have fallen under the sway of the very worst elements in British – and New Zealand – society. Why? Because a British Empire in thrall to Nazi Germany would have been a fascist empire. And, if Britain had won the war without us? What would we be then? Certainly not the widely respected “social laboratory of the world” whose Prime Minister spoke up successfully for the rights of small nations at the San Francisco Conference which gave birth to the United Nations. No, New Zealand would have found itself lumped in with the likes of Eamon De Valera’s Ireland, and Juan Peron’s Argentina: countries not-so-secretly regretful that Hitler had been defeated.

How would Stevan Eldred-Grigg feel, I wonder, writing the history of a nation like that?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 3 September 2019.

Friday, 30 August 2019

What If Jacinda Was Suddenly Taken From Us – Like “Big Norm”?

God Forbid - But, What If? Recalling Kirk’s death raises some troubling thoughts about New Zealand’s current prime-minister, Jacinda Ardern. God forfend that it should happen, but if she were to die, suddenly and unexpectedly, in the second year of her premiership – how would she be remembered?

ON SATURDAY, 31 August, it will be 45 years to the day since Norman Kirk died. He was no age at all, just 51, and although he died in hospital, hardly any New Zealanders were aware that his reasons for being there were likely to prove fatal.

That’s why the shock of his passing was so devastating. For a brief moment it brought the whole country together. Bosses and trade union leaders stood side-by-side to pay their respects. RSA men wept alongside long-haired hippies. Pakeha and Maori mourned according to their own traditions, but, as always, the Maori did so in ways that both enriched and enlarged the moment of national grief. For the first time, the Maori proverb: Kua hinga te totara i te wao nui a Tane – A Totara has fallen in the forest of Tane, imprinted itself upon the cultural consciousness of the Pakeha nation.

The tragedy of “Big Norm’s” passing was by no means contained within his homeland’s borders. Upon hearing the news in faraway Tanzania, its President, Julius Nyerere, burst into tears. In Beijing the Chinese premier, Chou Enlai, bowed three times before Kirk’s photograph in solemn acknowledgement of his worth. Australia’s Gough Whitlam hastened across the Tasman to stand by his casket.

Though few were willing, or able, to articulate exactly what it might be; the feeling that something vitally important to the country’s future would now be left undone was palpable. Long before he was buried amidst rain and an all-enveloping mist (as befitted a rangatira of such great mana) the myth of Norman Kirk and his all-too-brief prime-ministership was sending its taproots down deep into the nation’s collective memory.

Recalling Kirk’s death raises some troubling thoughts about New Zealand’s current prime-minister, Jacinda Ardern. God forfend that it should happen, but if she were to die, suddenly and unexpectedly, in the second year of her premiership – how would she be remembered?

Only the most churlish (and dishonest) of observers would suggest that the death of “Jacinda” would inspire anything less than a truly massive outpouring of national grief. The public’s sense of shock and bereavement would be every bit as great as that which greeted Kirk’s demise. Indeed, it would, almost certainly, be greater. Young New Zealanders, in particular, would feel that they had lost not only a personal friend, but a generational champion. Jacinda’s defining quality of empathy would be reflected many times over in the over-brimming emotions of the nation’s stricken youth.

The parallels would not end there. As a living Prime Minister, Kirk had towered above his political contemporaries. The NZ Labour Party contained no one within its parliamentary ranks who could hold a candle to “The Boss”. His eventual successor, the intelligent and thoroughly decent Wallace “Bill” Rowling, was never able to escape Kirk’s huge shadow. The only political leader of any substance left upon the national stage following Kirk’s departure, was the Leader of the Opposition, Rob Muldoon. Everyone who understood the politics of the day grasped immediately that he was the man who, in just 15 months, would be leading the country. The moment Big Norm’s heart stopped beating, Labour became a dead man walking. Without Jacinda, Labour would, similarly, be transformed instantly into a zombie party.

The Myth of Jacinda, like Kirk’s, would swell rapidly to epic proportions. “If only Grant Robertson, Winston Peters and James Shaw had let Jacinda be Jacinda!”, would be the cry that went up from her bereft followers, “Instead of always coming up with reasons why everything she wanted to do couldn’t be done. If only she had been allowed to spend the money needed to end child poverty and homelessness. If only all those men hadn’t prevented her from making Climate Change – as she had promised – the Nuclear-Free Moment of her generation. Jacinda knew what had to be done – why wasn’t she empowered to simply forge ahead and do it?”

Like Kirk before her, a Jacinda taken from her people many years before her time, would rapidly become the righteous receptacle for an ever-increasing multitude of what-ifs and might-have-beens.

Nearly always, the counterfactuals swirling around Kirk posit an alternative future in which all of the Third Labour Government’s reforms – NZ Superannuation in particular – bear healthy fruit and prosper. Hardly ever do those who ask “What if?” raise the possibility that, even in the New Zealand where a healthy Norman Kirk contests the 1975 general election, a rampantly populist Rob Muldoon might still have delivered a knockout blow against the big man’s government. What if the  widely-held assumption that “Big Norm” would have defeated Muldoon easily is dead wrong? What if, as is demonstrably happening to Jacinda as she approaches the second anniversary of her prime-ministership, the gloss had well-and-truly come off Kirk?

In 1974-75 a great many New Zealanders were frightened and angry. Frightened by the power of the trade unions; by New Zealand’s growing indebtedness; by inflation eating away at the purchasing power of their salaries and pensions; by hippies and protesters calling the shots at home (hadn’t they persuaded Kirk to cancel the 1973 Springbok Tour?) and by Third World nations defeating the United States, and pushing up the price of oil, abroad. Young people, women and Maori had forgotten their place. Many of the old certainties were under serious challenge – along with the authority figures who defended them. Conservative working-class voters, no less than National’s traditional middle-class supporters, were looking for a strong leader: someone prepared to give them New Zealand the way they wanted it.

Who’s to say that, under a first-past-the-post electoral system, that fear and anger would not have been enough to overpower even Norman Kirk’s hopeful visions of the future?

We shall never know. Forty-five years on, Kirk’s might-have-beens, like the lustre of the man himself, are still sufficiently tantalising to inspire us. Courage. Vision. A principled refusal to step back when confronted with the concentrated malice of the Powers-That-Be. These remain the sacred political talismans handed down by the Labour Prime Minister who died on Saturday, 31st August 1974.

All nations need a mythologised Totara to shelter under.

Even after it has fallen.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 29 August 2019.

A Grim Necessity.

No Laughing Matter: Simon Bridges and his National Party team are all too aware of the voters’ disinclination to confront too much in the way of political and economic reality. It is why, presumably, they are not only expecting them, like Lewis Carroll's Red Queen, to believe in six impossible things before breakfast, but to perform the same feat before lunch, dinner and supper as well!

POLISH PATRIOTS will tell you that, while fighting the Germans became a grim necessity, fighting the Russians was always a guilty pleasure. Old fashioned leftists feel much the same way about Labour and National. Upbraiding Labour-led governments is something the Left engages in not because it wants to, but because it has to. How else can these hopeless social democrats be shown the error of their ways? The National Party is a different proposition altogether. Demolishing its arguments is something the Left enters into with genuine relish. There is about the entire political exercise an inescapable element of fun.

National’s biggest hurdle, electorally, has always been how to present policies designed to advantage a fortunate few as being, somehow, to the advantage of everyone. The party achieves this by convincing people that managing the economy is something only the Nats are qualified to do. Handing over the job to people with no real experience of operating successfully in the marketplace, say National politicians, is bound to end in tears. Best to leave that sort of thing to people who know what they’re doing.

Why does this argument work so well? Anyone who’s studied the economic history of the last forty years (and that’s all of us who remember Maggie Thatcher’s historic electoral victory in 1979) cannot reasonably confirm the assertion that right-wing politicians are better economic managers than all the others. The political chaos gripping the United Kingdom, and the economic chaos poised to emerge from it, is traceable directly to Maggie Thatcher’s project.

Closer to home, the six year period between 1984 and 1990, when a tiny cabal of Labour Party politicians decided to embrace the policies of Thatcherism, is distinguished only by the enormous damage which their radical right-wing agenda inflicted on their fellow New Zealanders. So much of what disfigures this country in 2019: beggars on the footpaths; the crippling lack of affordable housing; a crumbling social infrastructure; daily living costs which far outstrip the incomes of ordinary working-class families; is the legacy of Roger Douglas’s “revolution”.

Ultimately, the Right’s argument works because, in a society comprised of a small number of winners and a large number of losers, the creation and maintenance of a strict social hierarchy is indispensable to its rulers’ survival. Accordingly, we are taught to believe that the brutal struggle to seize and hold the summit of the socio-economic pyramid produces an elite group of rulers characterised not by a ruthless will to power, but by wisdom, tolerance and love for their fellow human-beings.

Believing in this fairy tale is, in many ways, a psychological necessity for the put-upon majority. Accepting that our rulers are cruel and exploitative ogres, but obeying them anyway, engenders more cognitive dissonance than most of us can handle. Rather than look this petrifying Gorgon in the eye, we turn away. Distraction is the sine qua non of modern politics – and in the distraction department, at least, we’re spoilt for choice!

Simon Bridges and his National Party team are all too aware of the voters’ disinclination to confront too much in the way of political and economic reality. It is why, presumably, they are not only expecting them, like Lewis Carroll's Red Queen, to believe in six impossible things before breakfast, but to perform the same feat before lunch, dinner and supper as well!

Like: their promise to simultaneously reduce taxes and improve the quality of our health and education services.

Like: their pledge to improve the productivity of New Zealand labour while stripping New Zealand workers of their rights.

Like: increasing housing affordability while reducing the “bright line” test for property speculators from five years to two.

Like: promising to mitigate the effects of Climate Change while inviting the energy exploration companies to: “Drill, baby, drill!”

My favourite promise, though, the promise that reveals how convinced so many voters have become that National knows best; is its promise to eliminate 100 regulations in the first 100 days after regaining office and, after that, to abolish two old regulations for every new regulation introduced.

Do we really think this is a good idea? Can we really have forgotten the Leaky Homes Saga, Pike River and the CTV Building Collapse so soon?

That last question has forced this old left-winger to concede that fighting the Nats isn’t a guilty pleasure after all.

It’s a grim necessity.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 August 2019.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Save The Ship!

Damage Control, Report! Why are the world's leaders not issuing an ultimatum to the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro? Why isn’t he being ordered to save the Amazonian Rain Forest, the planet’s “lungs”, by ending his government’s indiscriminate land clearance programme. Why isn’t he being told that if these clearances, which have led directly to the deliberate lighting of thousands of forest fires, are not halted immediately, then his country will be purged of all those responsible for this devastating environmental crime – starting with himself?

WHAT WOULD YOU DO if you discovered a deranged crew-member deliberately endangering the onboard atmosphere of your spacecraft? Obviously, the delicate mechanism responsible for scrubbing the air and keeping it breathable is absolutely crucial to the survival of the ship’s entire crew. If you allow the saboteur to continue his destruction, everyone on board will die. What is your optimal course of action?

A powered-up and fully-functioning phaser to everyone who said: “Stop him! Stop him at all costs. Kill him if you have to – but save the ship!”

Why, then, are the leaders of the seven most prosperous nations on Earth, currently gathered in the French resort city of Biarritz, not issuing an ultimatum to the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro? Why isn’t he being ordered to save the Amazonian Rain Forest, the planet’s “lungs”, by ending his government’s indiscriminate land clearance programme. Why isn’t he being told that if these clearances, which have led directly to the deliberate lighting of thousands of forest fires, are not halted immediately, then his country will be boycotted, blockaded, invaded, occupied and purged of all those politicians, bureaucrats and businesses responsible for this devastating environmental crime – starting with himself?

After all, when the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, invaded and annexed the tiny Kingdom of Kuwait in 1990, the Western World, led by the United States President, George H.W. Bush, assembled a vast military coalition (to which New Zealand was a proud contributor) to drive the Iraqi forces out. The justification for this massive military response was the need to defend the territorial sovereignty of small states.

Nine years later, another American President, Bill Clinton, supported enthusiastically by the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, prevailed upon his Nato allies to authorise the bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The latter had not attacked any member of the Nato alliance, but it was accused of committing genocide against the Muslim population of the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo.

Nato’s “humanitarian intervention” – undertaken without the authorisation of the United Nations – cost upwards of 500 Yugoslav lives and wrought millions of dollars’ worth of damage to the nation’s industry and infrastructure. Subsequent investigations revealed that the US/UK accusations of genocide levelled against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were, if not wholly fabricated, then grossly exaggerated. Kosovo has since become a haven for human traffickers, drug smugglers and illegal arms traders.

Four years later, in 2003, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, acting, once again, without UN authorisation, invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was accused of stockpiling “weapons of mass destruction” which the invaders claimed he was intending to use against his neighbours – and (outlandishly) themselves. Not only was it later proved that Saddam’s “WMDs” did not exist, but in sharp contrast to his actions in 1990, the Iraqi dictator had not ordered his armed forces into action against anyone.

Between 500,000 and a million Iraqis died as a result of the illegal invasion of 2003. The Americans and their co-conspirators reassured the world that they were bringing democracy to the Iraqi people. What they actually delivered was massive corruption, the wholesale sell-off of Iraq’s state-owned enterprises to foreign corporations, vicious sectarian violence, and ISIS.

As you read these words, the United States President, Donald Trump, is waging a brutal economic war against the people of Iran. For reasons that would appear to have more to do with his personal animosity towards his predecessor, Barack Obama, than they do with international peace and security, Trump withdrew the United States from the multilateral agreement which brought an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons programme by reauthorising and restoring its economic relationships with the rest of the civilised world.

In place of this “very bad deal”, Trump imposed a draconian regime of economic sanctions intended to inflict so much pain and suffering on ordinary Iranians that they will rise up and overthrow their rulers.

Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement was entirely unilateral. The other signatories (which include the UK, the EU, Russia and China) begged the USA to stick with the deal. Not only did Trump refuse their request, but he also warned that any corporation deemed guilty of defying US sanctions would be severely punished – regardless of its country of origin.

Unsurprisingly, tensions in the Persian Gulf have risen to extremely dangerous levels. Iran has vowed that it will not go down without a fight. Its territory borders the Straits of Hormuz through which one fifth of all the world’s oil must pass on its way to market. This crucial seaway has thus become the most likely flash-point for yet another war in the Middle East. A war which would likely trigger a devastating global recession.

These then are the kinds of situations in which the great powers of our age – particularly the United States – deem it not only advisable, but ethical, to authorise the use of military and economic force. None of them, you will note, constituted a threat to humanity on a scale even remotely comparable to the destruction of the Amazonian Rain Forests. (They do, however, share a common obsession with who should control the world’s oil!) And yet, in the countries directly involved in these military adventures, practically the whole of the mainstream news media treated their government’s justifications for direct intervention seriously.

That no significant media organisation anywhere has called for direct and forceful intervention against Bolsonaro’s Brazil (other than in the form of polite requests for him to stop burning the trees) clearly delineates (just in case younger members of the human family were in any doubt) international intervention which is plausible and possible, from demands for action that are absurd and impossible.

This media silence reflects the political dead-end into which the world’s leaders have driven themselves over climate change and the measures needed to address it. Though they can see as clearly as any ordinary citizen that a madman intent on destroying a spaceship’s artificial atmosphere would have to be stopped immediately, by any means necessary, those in charge of “Spaceship Earth” simply cannot recognise in Jay Bolsonaro an identical existential threat.

In the minds of our current political masters, the Amazon Rain Forests “belong” to Brazil – a sovereign state. Using massive amounts of economic and military force to reverse a nation’s agricultural policies – no matter how dangerous they may be to the planet’s “lungs” – is simply unacceptable in relation to the current thinking about the rights of nation states. To suggest otherwise is to advance the view that humanity has every bit as much right to be protected from environmental aggression as it has from military aggression. From ecocide as well as genocide. And what sort of borderless world would that lead us into?

The ordinary people of Planet Earth would say: “One in which it is the duty of everyone to do whatever is necessary to save the ship.” Their rulers, however, would reply: “Nations do not go to war to save the world, or its inhabitants. War has always been, and will always remain, organised theft – up to and including the future itself.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 27 August 2019.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Jacinda's Library

A Long Time Ago, In A Parallel Universe Far, Far Away: The political journalist scratched his head in confusion. Only then did he notice the name of the building: ‘The Jacinda Ardern Presidential Library and Public Resource Centre’. Making his way inside to the information desk, he asked the librarian for an explanation.

SOME COSMOLOGISTS SAY that ours is but one of an infinite number of universes. It’s a wild thought, because, if they exist, this infinity of parallel universes grants us an infinity of parallel lives. Whatever we can imagine ourselves doing has already been done, is happening right now, or will be done at some point in the future, in one of these alternate worlds. In this universe we may be powerless paupers, but elsewhere – in at least one of these parallel universes – we are kings.

How’s that for a comforting thought the next time you’re feeling down?

The idea that there are other worlds, adjacent to this one, is far from new. In the myths and legends of many cultures we find tales of people who left their homes on hum-drum errands, only to encounter mysterious beings who, in the twinkling of an eye, transported them to places of wonder and enchantment. When they return home, time itself seems to have been stretched and twisted. By their reckoning, their absences can only have lasted a few hours, but in the country they left behind, many years have passed. Loved ones have died, or grown old, and our baffled heroes pass, unrecognised, down streets that did not exist when they set out – only a day before.

All very Einsteinian (or should that be Schrodingerian?) but rest easy, there is a purpose to all this esoteric speculation.

Nowhere is the experience of contingency stronger than in the realm of politics. Politicians and political activists may live in this universe, but their heads and hearts are filled with the multiple worlds that could exist – if only the voters; the proletariat; the national community; were courageous enough to bring them into existence.

This multiplicity of possible worlds is often expressed in the musings of what are called “counterfactual” historians. How often have we heard someone pose the question – “What if?”

What if the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car had turned down another street in Sarajevo – instead of the one where his assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was eating his lunch?

What if JFK had toured Dallas in a standard – instead of an open-topped – presidential limousine?

What if Roger Douglas had been hit by a Wellington trolley-bus on his way to Parliament in 1983?

Whenever questions like these are posed, we sense the presence of alternate pasts: histories of worlds that might have been – but never were.

So now, arriving at the crux of the matter, I intend to pose a question of my own. A question which, simply by being asked, raises before us that shimmering membrane which separates the world as it is, from the world as it might be. A world that, even now, could break through the web of contingency – but only if the leaders of the Labour-NZ First-Green Government can find the courage to change course.

It has been nearly 40 years since the imaginations of New Zealanders hungry for change have been seized so forcefully by an incoming prime minister and government. The last time the thin membrane separating the parallel worlds of political reality and political aspiration shimmered so brightly was in 1972.

The difference between now and then, however, is that Norman Kirk and the Third Labour Government actually attempted that most dangerous of all political manoeuvres: the merging of “what is” with “what could be”. Kirk made a wonderful start, but like so many other political leaders who have attempted the manoeuvre, it proved too much for him. With his death, the two worlds straightaway began to disentangle themselves. On election night 1975, the once bright membrane shimmered faintly – and went dark.

At this point, I feel duty-bound to explain the enormous difference between attempting to bring into being that which has never before existed – which his immensely difficult – and allowing the ideas and practices of the past to break through into the present.

The relative ease with which this can be accomplished was demonstrated by the prime ministers and governments that followed Kirk’s. Political and economic concepts that many believed dead and buried passed effortlessly from the world of “what was” and into the world of “what is”. Once inside this world, the world of the present, these ghost concepts began to transform it. More rapidly than many believed possible “now” began to look like “then”. Mass unemployment returned. Inequality grew by leaps and bounds. Homelessness became commonplace. The streets filled with beggars. New Zealand soldiers went off to fight in other people’s wars.

The ghosts of the past are easily summoned. The angels of the future require considerably more persuasion.

What then should Jacinda and her government do?

I will answer that question with a story.

It concerns a political journalist who, in fulfilling some hum-drum errand, found himself in the company of a mysterious band of revellers who insisted that he accompany them to a marvellous party.

He awoke the next morning in a deserted mansion shaded by tall macrocarpa trees and enclosed by a tumble-down and ivy-covered wall. Pushing open the rusted front gates, he stumbled into the streets of a city that seemed greatly changed.

What has become of all the cars? He wondered. And why is the Tino Rangatiratanga flag flying above the library?

When he put these questions to a passer-by, the person looked at him strangely.

“That the flag of the Aotearoan Republic, stranger, and has been these last 25 years.”

The journalist scratched his head in confusion. Only then did he notice the name of the building: ‘The Jacinda Ardern Presidential Library and Public Resource Centre’. Making his way inside to the information desk, he asked the librarian for an explanation.

“It’s named after the Prime Minister who ushered-in the Republic back in 2022 – after the uprising.”

“Uprising? What uprising?”

The librarian shook his head in disbelief.

“What uprising? Where have you been for the past quarter-century? When Jacinda and her coalition introduced what was soon being called “The Rollback”, the neoliberals did everything they could to prevent it from happening. When a crazed junior staffer from the Treasury attempted to assassinate the Prime Minister in the Beehive Theatrette, hundreds of thousands turned out to demand the passage of her government’s reforms. The protesters, led by rangatahi, stormed Parliament and proclaimed the Bi-Cultural Republic of Aotearoa. With the neoliberals ousted, and Jacinda elected President, the real changes began. Aotearoa rapidly became a beacon for equality, freedom and ecological wisdom across the whole world.”

“And Simon Bridges?”, asked the journalist, hardly able to believe what he was hearing.

“Bridges! That rogue! Hah! He fled to Australia – still there as far as I know.”

“And Jacinda? Is she still alive?”

“Still alive! Where have you been! Jacinda Ardern is Secretary-General of the United Nations!”

Wide-eyed, the journalist, had only one more question.

“So, who’s running the country now?”

“Why, President Swarbrick, of course. She’s halfway through her second term. In two years’ time, the presidency will pass back to the Tangata Whenua. Most people are picking Pania Newton to succeed Chloe.”

The journalist, thanked the librarian and, plucking a free map of the city from the counter, headed off in what had, only the day before, been the direction of his home.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 23 August 2019.