Friday, 6 December 2019

Adrian Orr – The Reserve Bank’s Revolutionary Governor?

New Zealand's Underarm Banker: It bears recalling that the “independence” of the Reserve Bank Governor was for decades held up by neoliberal capitalists as the most compelling justification for passing the Reserve Bank Act. Interesting, is it not, how the ruling class’s support for the Bank’s independence lasted no longer than its Governor’s first attempt to regulate (albeit modesty) the behaviour of Australasian capital?

I’M BEGINNING to suspect that Reserve Bank Governor, Adrian Orr, is, at heart, a revolutionary. The decision of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand to nearly double the “Big Four” Australian banks capital requirements – from 10.5 to 18 percent – has deeply shocked financial communities on both sides of the Tasman. What Orr has triggered in the minds of the Australian bankers is a truly fateful question: “At what point does our involvement in the New Zealand finance sector become unprofitable?” It’s a question fraught with potentially revolutionary implications for New Zealand’s economic sovereignty.

The reaction from the Right confirms the boldness of Orr’s move. The consensus among those opposed to the Reserve Banks’s decision is that it will make it harder for the Australians to perform to their shareholders’ expectations. In other words, Orr stands accused of reducing the Australian banks’ profitability. New Zealanders are being warned that they will have to endure higher interest rates on their borrowing, and lower rates for their savings, as a consequence of Orr’s actions. National’s Finance Spokesperson, Paul Goldsmith, is predicting a substantial hit to the country’s growth prospects:

“The two primary effects of today’s decision will be higher borrowing costs than would otherwise have been the case and businesses and farmers will find it harder to access the funds they need to grow.”

The NZ Initiative (the successor organisation to the dark knights of Business Roundtable) echoes Goldsmith’s fear:

“The RBNZ’s decision to increase the capital banks are required to hold will have adverse effects for borrowers and the wider economy. The effects are likely to be felt most acutely by high loan-to-value borrowers, the rural sector and small-to-medium-sized enterprises.”

Exposed in these statements, however, is a reality which both authors would undoubtedly prefer to keep hidden from New Zealanders. Namely, the degree to which we have become slaves to the financial power of Australia. Not only that, but how little – if anything – our ruling class is prepared to do to defend (let alone rebuild) New Zealand’s economic sovereignty.

A party calling itself “National” might have been expected to applaud the Reserve Bank Governor’s decision to protect New Zealand depositors from the worst effects of a catastrophic financial collapse. Instead, we have its finance spokesperson chiding the Bank for daring to twist the Kangaroo’s tail. Meanwhile, the front organisation for the country’s biggest capitalists mutters darkly about the need to curb the Reserve Bank’s powers.

It bears recalling that the “independence” of the Reserve Bank Governor was for decades held up by these same neoliberal capitalists as the most compelling justification for passing the Reserve Bank Act. Interesting, is it not, how the ruling class’s support for the Bank’s independence lasted no longer than its Governor’s first attempt to regulate (albeit modesty) the behaviour of Australasian capital?

For those few adherents of “democratic socialism” (still the official ideology of the NZ Labour Party BTW) who continue to soldier-on, the reaction of big capital is extremely instructive. It points the way to how the Australian banks might one day be “persuaded” to relinquish their dominant position in New Zealand.

Way back in the early-1990s, when Jim Anderton’s Alliance was considerably more popular than the Labour Party, I remember being contacted by one of the Alliance’s policy activists with an intriguing question. He wanted to know, in practical terms, how one might go about re-nationalising privatised public enterprises without the legally required compensation payments bankrupting the nation.

Whew! That was a poser! Where to begin? Why not with a country that had already confronted and solved the problem? How did the largest surviving communist state – the People’s Republic of China – deal with/to the private sector? The answer proved to be both remarkably shrewd and surprisingly simple.

What the new communist government of China did, in the early 1950s, was to pass a law requiring all existing capitalist businesses above a certain size to make the Chinese state a 25 percent shareholder in the enterprise. Naturally, such a large shareholding would also entitle the state to be represented on the enterprise’s board of directors. As the years passed and the new regime consolidated itself, the legislation was amended constantly. Year by year, the state’s shareholding in the enterprise was increased – along with the number of its directors.

Unsurprisingly, the value of these enterprises’ shares plummeted. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, all those Chinese capitalists with a lick of sense offered-up their business’s remaining shares to the state. The latter generously agreed to take these off their hands – albeit for a handful of cents on the dollar. In this way, China’s largest capitalist enterprises were legally, peacefully – and cheaply – acquired by the state. As an added bonus, most of the by-now-former capitalists took what was left of their money and ran – to Taiwan, Singapore and the United States.

So, that was how you did it. By deploying the state’s legislative and administrative powers against the entrenched economic power of private enterprise. Far from sending in the revolutionary guards to seize, in the name of the people - and without compensation – the banks, insurance companies, department stores and factories, a democratic-socialist government would send in … its lawyer.

Like the ruthless, clear-eyed hero of the television series McMafia, the state’s representative will patiently explain to the people who used to be in charge, the new rules of the game:

“From now on” he’ll quietly inform the Chairman and his CEO, “your bank will be obliged to meet a capital requirement of 18 percent. In two years’ time that will rise to 25 percent. Three years after that the Reserve Bank’s CR will be 33 percent.”

“But that will ruin us!”, the Chairman and the CEO of the Aussie bank will wail. “We will have nothing to offer our shareholders.”

“With respect to that”, the young, clear-eyed lawyer will respond, with just the flicker of a smile, “the Minister of Finance has authorised me to make you the following offer …”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 6 December 2019.



Driving Us Up The Poll.

Rubbish In, Rubbish Out: Put all this together, and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that anyone who responds positively to a pollster’s request to “answer a few questions” is just ever-so-slightly weird. Desperately lonely? Some sort of psephological train-spotter? Political party member primed to skew the poll for or against her opponents? All of the above?

THE INCONVENIENT TRUTH about opinion polls is that the people who participate in them are not really typical Kiwis. Agreeing to participate in anything remotely public-spirited is something fewer and fewer New Zealanders are willing to do. Charities struggle to attract volunteers. Sports teams can’t get enough players. Political parties have long since ceased to be mass organisations. Just finding enough people to satisfy the statistical requirements for an accurate public opinion survey gets harder and harder with every passing year.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the era when nearly every New Zealand household had an old-fashioned land-line telephone; and the easiest way to locate somebody was to simply ‘look them up’ in the phonebook; polling was a breeze.

It was a time when community action and political debate was engaged in by an extremely broad cross-section of the population. Indeed, New Zealanders were gently chided by Austin Mitchell, the best-selling author of The Half-Gallon, Quarter-Acre, Pavlova Paradise, for being inveterate committee formers. “Pressure groups” were studied forensically by political scientists. Overseas visitors marvelled at a nation of joiners.

The late Professor Keith Jackson, in his book New Zealand: Politics of Change, confirms the strongly participatory character of our democracy by citing the research of R.S. Milne:

“Membership of the New Zealand Labour Party which had peaked in the year 1939-40 at 235,605 remained high after the war at 201,765. By 1960, however, this figure was down to 180,000 distributed through more than 600 branches.”

National’s engagement with New Zealanders was no less impressive: “Much the same pattern appears to have developed within the National Party. Speaking in 1956 the President of the National Party claimed that membership varied from 143,000 in a non-election year to 250,000 in an election year.”

In a nation this politicised, the opinion polling companies of the 1960s and 70s easily assembled the requisite number of participants.

The contrast between those times and our own could hardly be sharper. Who uses the land-line-generated phone book anymore? Asked to do so, most younger Kiwis would probably look at you blankly. The ubiquitous cell-phone presents the pollsters with endless difficulties. There’s no “phone book” for a start, and caller ID allows us all to screen our incoming calls. Many people simply don’t answer unidentified callers – justifiably fearing tele-marketers and scammers.

These latter miscreants have become the bane of land-line subscribers’ lives. For many citizens – especially the elderly – it is considered foolhardy to converse with anyone whose voice isn’t instantly recognisable. Someone can say they’re calling from Colmar Brunton or Reid Research – but how do you know? Better to politely decline and hang-up the receiver.

Put all this together, and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that anyone who responds positively to a pollster’s request to “answer a few questions” is just ever-so-slightly weird. Desperately lonely? Some sort of psephological train-spotter? Political party member primed to skew the poll for or against her opponents? All of the above?

These distorting possibilities are only increased when the fact that landlines tend to be attached to owner-occupied dwellings is factored into the polling equation. Just ask any Gen-Xer or Millennial what sort of person is likely to pick up the phone in their own home and they will hiss “Baby Boomer!” Quite correctly. Which way, do you suppose, a voter sitting on a million dollars-plus of tax-free capital gain is more likely to vote – Left or Right? No wonder, really, that about 45 percent of the Party Vote appears to be welded-on to the National Party!

So, what do the pollsters do? Basically, they innovate. They try to assemble a representative number of cell-phone-using voters to offset the encrusted biases of land-liners. Or, like the new kid on the New Zealand polling block – YouGov – they step away from phones altogether in favour of a “panel” of potential online participants many thousands strong.

Trouble is, these innovations require the pollsters to run the raw data through all manner of algorithms to make sure their samples remain representative. They then have to make some, frankly, subjective assumptions about voter behaviour. That’s when things can turn very seriously pear-shaped.

The highly-experienced pollster advising the campaigners for “Remain” in 2016 assumed those who didn’t vote in the 2015 UK General Election would also sit out the Brexit referendum.

That worked out well.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times of Friday, 6 December 2019.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

The Birth Of Israel: Wrong At The Right Time.

Before The Birth: Israel’s most fervent supporters set their clocks ticking in Biblical times. They cite the kingdoms of David and Solomon as proof that, in the words of the Exodus movie’s theme-song: “This land is mine.” The majority of Israel’s backers, however, start their clocks in 1933 – the year Adolf Hitler and his Nazis took over Germany – setting in motion the dreadful sequence of events that culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust.

IN ANY DISCUSSION about the morality of Israel’s conduct, the most important question is: “When did you start your clock?” Meaning? In assessing the ethics of the Israeli state, exactly when, historically-speaking, do you begin?

Many critics of Israel start their clocks in 1948, the year of Israel’s birth. Others prefer 1917 – the year in which Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, declared his government in favour of establishing a “national home” for the Jewish people in what was then the Ottoman province of Palestine. A few even start their clocks in 1897, when Theodore Herzl’s international Zionist movement held its first conference in Basle, Switzerland.

Israel’s most fervent supporters, by contrast, generally prefer to start much further back. Setting their clocks ticking in Biblical times, they cite the kingdoms of David and Solomon as proof that, in the words of the Exodus movie’s theme-song: “This land is mine.” The majority of Israel’s backers, however, start their clocks in 1933 – the year Adolf Hitler and his Nazis took over Germany – setting in motion the dreadful sequence of events that culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust.

Setting the clock ticking in 1933 makes perfect sense. What happened in Germany, and then throughout Europe, between 1933 and 1945, provided incontrovertible proof of the Zionists’ contention that Jews could never be safe in other peoples’ countries. Those who had argued that the national laws emancipating and conferring citizenship upon European Jewry offered sufficient protection against the continent’s endemic antisemitism had been proved tragically mistaken. In a world shocked and stunned by the Nazi death-camps, the argument that only under the protection of their own nation-state could the Jews of the world be safe resonated strongly.

For Israel’s critics, however, the year 1948 offers the most telling evidence of the moral deficiency built into the Israeli state. 1948 was a year of Jewish outrages and massacres: of terrible crimes committed against the Arab population of Palestine by armed Jewish terrorists. The purpose of these attacks was to facilitate what would later be called “ethnic cleansing”. A viable “State of Israel” required the expulsion and dispossession of as many Palestinian Arabs as possible. 1948, the year of the Palestinian “Nakba” (Catastrophe), is thus presented as the source from which flows all the other wrongs committed by Israel over the subsequent 70 years.

The Nakba (Catastrophe) - Palestinian Arabs driven from Israel, 1948.

What Israel’s critics fail to acknowledge about the years immediately following the end of World War II, however, is that, throughout Europe, the displacement of millions of human-beings – most of them ethnic Germans – had been sanctioned and facilitated by the victorious allies.

Ethnic cleansing did not begin in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, it began in the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe in the 1940s. The victorious powers had witnessed the malign consequences of leaving large ethnic minorities in the midst of other people’s countries. They remembered the trouble caused by the Sudeten Germans. How Hitler’s Germany had exploited their nationalist grievances to break up Czechoslovakia in the late-1930s. Accordingly, it became the official policy of the Allies to eliminate ethnic German enclaves completely from Eastern Europe. Whole communities: families who had lived in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Russia for centuries; were ruthlessly uprooted and “repatriated” to Germany.

Few objected to this brutal exercise. In the minds of most people living in the war’s aftermath, Germany and the Germans had it coming. To secure a peaceful future “inconvenient” communities simply had to be moved on. What strikes us, at the remove of 75 years, as a deeply immoral policy, struck the people of the immediate post-war world as a tough but fair solution. After all, they had just spent 6 years proving the proposition that when reason and persuasion fail, and all-out war becomes the only option, then the over-riding priority is to do whatever is necessary to end it – as quickly as possible.

This was the moral environment in which the State of Israel took shape and was declared. Starting your clock in 1948, as if everything that happened in the preceding 15 years had no bearing on the behaviour of those determined to establish a secure national home for the Jewish people, is not a strategy with high prospects of success. The grim shadow of 1933, and all that followed, will always obscure the foundational sins – if sins they be – of the Israeli state.

For as long as the vast and unprecedented immorality of the Holocaust weighs upon the conscience of the World, the unethical conduct of the Israeli state will continue to be, if not forgiven, then unresisted.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 5 December 2019.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

“Not The Labour Party We Once Knew.”

All Smiles Now: Claire Szabo is taking up her presidential role after serving as the CEO of Habitat For Humanity. Which is absolutely perfect! After KiwiBuild was so comprehensively mismanaged by Phil Twyford, the party has not only elected a new president from a thoroughly respectable not-for-profit, but one who has also actually managed to get real “affordable houses” built!

THIRTY YEARS AFTER he quit the party in disgust, a man calledMark has re-joined Labour. That’s remarkable. It’s also a tribute to the power of Jacinda Ardern, and to the strength of the hopes she has kindled. People who once wanted nothing more to do with Labour are returning to the fold. The Coalition Government’s failure to deliver on child poverty, affordable housing and a more equitable tax system has not disillusioned them. They are standing firm: willing Jacinda to succeed. Willing to cut her enough slack to secure a second term.

What remains to be seen is whether the Labour Party – thirty years on from 1989 – can fulfil the expectations of Jacinda’s hopeful recruits. After reading “Politik” editor Richard Harman’s report of the party’s annual conference, I’m doubtful. This is how he began:

“For over 30 years the Labour Party could have only dreamed of the conference it has just held. Labour has finally found its happy space; devoid of factional rivalries; bitter personality feuds or fundamental challenges from the party activists to the Parliamentary wing. Delegates who were there for the fights of the 80s or even more recently the Cunliffe challenge in 2012, were left reminiscing about the bad old days. Otherwise, the 400 or so who attended spent the weekend basking in the Whanganui sun and cheering and applauding their leadership with considerable enthusiasm. This was not the Labour Party we once knew.”

Harman has a gift for understatement! The entity he describes isn’t merely a far cry from “the Labour Party we once knew”, it barely qualifies as a political party at all! It certainly has nothing at all in common with the inveterately quarrelsome and rambunctious political movement that, for more than a century, accommodated the overwhelming majority of the New Zealand Left. A progressive party without factional rivalries, personality feuds, or party activists hankering to challenge the Parliamentary wing has lost every defining characteristic of a living left-wing movement.

Nowhere was this lack of living political sentiment more evident than in the election of Claire Szabo. The 300-400 delegates assembled at Whanganui (a number well down on previous conferences) opted to elect not a party president but a curriculum vitae. Indeed, it would be difficult to come up with a more perfect example of the modern political professional. Szabo’s first interview with the news media struck Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill as “a string of platitudes”. She was being kind.

The presidential election result did, however, serve to clarify what the Labour Party no longer sees itself as representing. Szabo’s principal challenger for the party presidency was Tane Phillips, a working-class Maori battler and trade union leader from Kawerau. It was people like Phillips who reclaimed every last one of the Maori seats for Labour in 2017. Their highly effective campaign (which drove the Maori Party from Parliament) spoke not to the Maori middle-class, but to the strong working-class communities in which most urban Maori still live. That sort of success would have been enough to get the Secretary of the Pulp & Paper Workers Union elected president in the old Labour Party – but not Jacinda’s new one.

Jacinda’s Labour Party would have had a pink fit if a woman of Szabo’s outstanding professional credentials failed to head-off a burly trade unionist. Certainly, all the bright young things currently polishing their own CVs would struggle to understand what sort of outfit they’d signed up to if degrees from Trinity College, Dublin and Harvard Business School could be outclassed by qualifications from the School of Hard Knocks!

Not that such an upset was ever on the cards. Well, not on the 56 E-Tu Union card votes carried around by the Labour affiliates’ superannuated bag-man, Paul Tollich, anyway. For more than three decades the combined votes of the Affiliates and the Women’s Council has dictated the outcome of annual conference ballots. Maybe, if the blue-collar Pulp & Paper Workers had affiliated themselves to the party, then things could have turned out differently? But, probably not. Mark, returning to Labour after 30 years – and finding “Tolly” still “doing the numbers” – would have known in an instant which horse to put his money on.

Anyway, it’s impossible to argue with the optics. Standing side-by-side, Szabo and Ardern speak eloquently of a party well-and-truly equipped for the third decade of the twenty-first century. The idea that politics might be a struggle between rulers and ruled; bosses and workers; rich and poor: well, that’s just so twentieth century! A modern – nay, a post-modern – political party is there to recruit and indoctrinate the personnel necessary to ensure an “orderly circulation of elites”. It’s slogans aren’t drawn off the placards of union picketers and Climate Strikers; they’re carefully crafted by copy-writers, and then focus-group tested by public relations professionals and advertising executives.

What’s more, Claire Szabo is taking up her presidential role after serving as the CEO of Habitat For Humanity. Which is absolutely perfect! After KiwiBuild was so comprehensively mismanaged by Phil Twyford, the party has not only elected a new president from a thoroughly respectable not-for-profit, but one who has also actually managed to get real “affordable houses” built!

When Mark walked out of the Labour Party in 1989 he was not alone. It was in May of that year that Jim Anderton led between a third and a half of the NZ Labour Party into “NewLabour” – soon to become the Alliance. Except, of course, Anderton’s NewLabour Party wasn’t really “new” at all. The imaginations of those who followed Anderton overflowed with visions of a rebirth of the sort of working-class power that enabled Michael Joseph Savage to transform a Depression-ravaged New Zealand into something the whole world could admire. But, it was not to be. No matter what Labour did to its working-class base, they never deserted the party. Like the loyal draught-horse, Boxer, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, they soldiered-on. That’s why Anderton’s Alliance is long gone and Labour’s still here.

There’s a lot of dying in an old and trusted brand. While Labour’s leaders can still raise people’s hopes, they’ll always be in with a chance.

This essay was posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 3 December 2019.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Authoritarian Friends, Democratic Enemies.

What Kind Of Empire? The thing for Kiwis to decide is what kind of empire they want to belong to. The kind that, while offering its own citizens democratic rights, demands absolute obedience from its “friends”? Or, the kind that, while authoritarian at home, takes a relaxed attitude to the domestic political arrangements of its economic “partners”?

UNDERSTANDING AUTHORITARIANISM is challenging. For New Zealanders especially, raised in one of the world’s oldest democracies, official hostility to political liberty is difficult to comprehend. Likewise the carefully organised suppression of individuals and groups deemed hostile to the state. We bridle at the brutality and injustice that characterise authoritarian regimes. “Something must be done!”, we cry. “Cease trading with these butchers! Boycott their sports teams! Send their ambassador packing! Shut down their embassy!” As a means of letting off steam it’s a highly effective strategy. As a useful means of conducting diplomacy – not so much.

The People’s Republic of China, like practically all the previous iterations of Chinese sovereignty, going back nearly 4,000 years, is a rigorously authoritarian state. The Communist Party, within which all meaningful political activity in contemporary China takes place, prizes order and obedience no less than any of the country’s previous rulers. Accordingly, disorder and disobedience are met with swift and ruthless retribution. Though the tenets of Maoism no longer constitute the basis of CPC economic policy, Mao Zedong’s methods of keeping the Chinese people in line continue to be much admired – and emulated. Authoritarianism ensures that the continuities of Chinese history continue to greatly outnumber its discontinuities. The Chinese people would have it no other way.

How does this relate to the treatment of the Uighur people of Xinjiang? Why have the Chinese authorities gone to such extreme lengths to suppress the cultural and religious traditions of this far-flung ethnic minority? The simple answer? For precisely the same reasons the USA invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and is currently imposing swingeing economic sanctions upon Iran. Fear of Islamic extremism. Beijing is also deeply concerned about the opportunities for destabilisation which the spread of Islamic extremism offers China’s enemies.

Beijing looks westward and sees the new nation states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – all of them born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The home of the Uighurs, the “autonomous region” of Xinjiang borders no less than three of these Soviet successor states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Rightly or wrongly, Beijing is convinced that Uighur nationalism, allied with Islamic extremism, constitutes a clear and present danger to China’s territorial integrity – and, hence, to its national security. Sporadic outbreaks of nationalistic Uighur violence have only reinforced Beijing’s fears. The mass incarceration of Uighurs in specially constructed “re-education” complexes is the Communist Party’s profoundly authoritarian response.

Those Westerners affronted by Beijing’s actions should, however, ask themselves which is worse: China’s “re-education complexes”, or the hundreds-of-thousands of Afghans and Iraqis killed by the American military? They might also like to consider the moral calculus which allowed the USA to pour munitions into Syria while the country descended into a prolonged civil war which killed tens-of-thousands, displaced upwards of half the civilian population and provided the murderous ISIS “Caliphate” with a territorial base of operations. Beijing’s hope is to “educate” its Uighur citizens out of Islamic extremism; Washington’s preference is to deliver its “lessons” via drone strikes and proxy Jihadi fighters.

New Zealand diplomacy, if it has any meaningful role to play at all vis-à-vis the plight of the Uighurs, might consider working more closely with the Russian Federation which, while no friend of Islamic extremism, continues to have strong economic ties with the “Stans”. If Moscow could reassure Beijing that it would use its good offices to restrain nationalist and religious fervour in the territories adjoining Xinjiang, Beijing, in turn, might be persuaded to relax its iron grip on the Autonomous Region. Because Beijing has great respect for New Zealand’s record of diplomatic independence, the prospect of Jacinda Ardern assuming the role of “honest broker” would almost certainly return better dividends than shouting derogatory anti-Chinese slogans from the side-lines.

Such a course of action would obviously outrage our Five Eyes partners. The expectation of Washington, London and Canberra is that the Russians will, at all times, be treated as international pariahs. One has only to recall the severe “telling-off” administered to Foreign Minister Winston Peters when he dared to suggest that New Zealand and the Russian Federation could secure considerable mutual benefits by negotiating their own free trade agreement.

This scolding from our “friends” raises the question of what – exactly – New Zealand gains from its attachment to the Anglo-Saxon empire. After all, the Americans have consistently refused to admit our dairy products in anything like the quantities authorised by the NZ-China FTA. Perhaps the time has come to pose the question of whether or not the membership fee of the Anglo-Saxon “club” has grown too high for New Zealand to go on paying?

The thing for Kiwis to decide is what kind of empire they want to belong to. The kind that, while offering its own citizens democratic rights, demands absolute obedience from its “friends”? Or, the kind that, while authoritarian at home, takes a relaxed attitude to the domestic political arrangements of its economic “partners”? The United States is an empire of the first kind – and it is growing weaker. China belongs to the second kind and, within the next twenty years or so, seems certain to become the world’s richest and most powerful nation state – albeit an authoritarian one.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 29 November 2019.

Friday, 29 November 2019

A Bi-Partisan Commitment To X-ing "P".

Pure Fear: Worse than Heroin, this drug’s addictive power was terrifying. People under its influence didn’t drift off to Elysium. Nor did it persuade inadequate individuals that they could conquer the world. No, this drug – pure crystal methamphetamine, “P” for short – unlocked the gates of Hell itself. It conducted its users not to God, but straight to the Devil.

IT MUST BE 20 years, now, since the old hippie’s prophecy. Labour and the Alliance had just formed a government – with the Greens in tow. Nandor Tanczos, wearing his green hemp suit, had skateboarded into Parliament to cries of “Decriminalise Dope!” from his shaggy supporters. All things seemed possible. It was a hopeful time.

But, the old hippie, who looked like Gandalf: long white hair and beard to match; wasn’t hopeful.

New Zealand, he said, was about to be overwhelmed by a drug more terrible than any he had ever before encountered. Worse than Heroin, its addictive power was terrifying. People under its influence didn’t drift off to Elysium. Nor did it persuade inadequate individuals that they could conquer the world. No, this drug – pure crystal methamphetamine, “P” for short – unlocked the gates of Hell itself. It conducted its users not to God, but straight to the Devil.

The old hippie could not see how P could be stopped. The same ingenious Kiwis who had infused plain old New Zealand Green with near-psychedelic potency would be “cooking” methamphetamine before you could say “Breaking Bad”. And, after just one taste, their customers would be back for more, and more, and more, and more. No need to wait upon the seasons. No more trimming resinous heads. No more bulky packages to transport. P could be sold in fractions of a gram. According to “Gandalf”, the P-dealers’ biggest problem was going to be coming up with a way to clean all that dirty money!

He saw it all. The ruthlessness that would follow the introduction of P to New Zealand’s illegal drug market. Serious money, he said, attracts serious people. If you are sitting on hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in used banknotes, then you’re instantly an irresistible target. Arming yourself with something designed to win arguments quickly and decisively makes perfect sense. Your bosses, as unforgiving as they are uninsured, are not the sort of people you want to trouble with tales of loss.

And, twenty years later, here we are – right where “Gandalf” said we would be. Awash with methamphetamine. Awash with “serious people”. Awash with dirty money. Awash with addicts. Awash with the awful social misery serious drug addiction leaves churning in its wake.

New Zealand, like Tolkien’s Shire, has begun to attract attention. We are now on the international drug suppliers’ maps. A small but vigorous market, well worth investing in. And just look at the “investors” who have come a-calling!

Time was when our Kiwi “cooks” got their pseudoephedrine from cold remedies. When these became harder to get, Chinese “triads” took up the slack. Then the Aussies started exporting their worst Kiwi-born criminals across the Tasman. These new gangsters turned out to be linked-in to the supply-chains of the Central and South American drug cartels.

Very serious people indeed!

What to do? Who wants to mess with “the men from Sinaloa”? Is New Zealand big enough to win this fight? On the other hand, can we afford to lose it?

The answer is, we have to win this fight – because the scourge of methamphetamine is relentless. Yes, it is well established in our big cities, but it is also taking hold in those rural and provincial communities from which all who can have already fled. Looking at these dwindling country towns, all the gangsters see are captive markets waiting to be bled dry: economically, physically, emotionally and spiritually. They don’t care – which means we must.

So, let’s have a great deal less political grand-standing, and a great deal more cross-party co-operation and consensus. Rather than put the boot into National for declaring war on the gangs – who are, when all is said and done, the people who make the illegal drug market work – why not invite the Opposition to join with the governing parties in formulating a long-term and unflinching bi-partisan strategy to combat the scourge of methamphetamine from top to bottom?

Yes, Simon Bridges has borrowed a silly Australian name for his task force, but the “broken windows” strategy of not letting even small-scale criminal offending go unchallenged is a bloody good one. Make this country such a difficult environment in which to operate that the gangs’ international suppliers decide that our methamphetamine game is no longer worth their candle.

Prove my old hippie friend wrong – by X-ing P.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 November 2019.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

A Bloody Great Political Story (From A Parallel Universe).

Things That Make You Go - Hmmmm: “All right. Let me come at this another way. I’m guessing that what you’ve got in that box contains names, dates, bank account numbers – all the details you need to put Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern squarely in the cross-hairs. So, the first question you have to ask yourself is: ‘Why is such politically damaging material sitting in that box-file you’re clutching so tightly?’ Cui bono, Max? Who benefits?”

MAX DIDN’T HEAR Malcolm calling his name. The contents of the box file in front of him were dynamite. Exactly what he’d been hoping for from his informant. Names, dates and amounts – everything he needed to bring Peters to book. He had in his hands the sort of story that turns an unknown young journalist into a household name. Eat your heart out Nicky Hager!

“Max! Mate! What’s up?”

The voice of his old university chum, Malcolm, was the very last thing he wanted to hear. Mad-As-A-Meat-Axe Malcolm – that’s what everyone on his journalism course called him. A crazy left-winger, forever peddling wild conspiracy theories. What the hell did he want?

Max slammed the lid of the box-file shut as Malcolm plonked himself down at Max’s table.

Malcolm raised an eyebrow.

“Something interesting? From your departing friend? He nearly fell over me on his way out? Your source?”

Max couldn’t resist the temptation to skite – just a little.

“You could say that. He’s only handed me a bloody great political story. By the time I’ve knocked it into shape it’ll be on every front page and leading every bulletin.”

“Really? Sounds interesting. May I ask what it’s about?”

“You can ask, Malcolm.” Max smiled ironically, and deposited the box-file on the seat of the empty chair beside him.

“Like that is it? Well, if you won’t tell me, Max, I’ll just have to work it out for myself. A big story you say. And it’s been given to you. What does that tell me? Given your output to date, I’m assuming it’s not an anti-National story. And anyone with a box full of evidence guaranteed to embarrass the powers-that-be wouldn’t bring it to you, they’d offer it to Nicky Hager or Jon Stephenson. Also, your informant appeared to be getting on in years. Not the sort of bright young thing you find hanging around Labour, National and the Greens these days. So, who does that leave? Huh! NZ First! Oh, Max! Tell me you’re not about to launch another donations scandal?”

Max’s mouth fell open. His grip on the box-file tightened appreciably.

“Hah! I’m right aren’t I? Your body language confirms it. So, come on, you might as well tell me.”

“What? And find some garbled version popping up on The Daily Blog or Bowalley Road. I don’t think so!”

“Okay, okay – keep your hair on! I’m a colleague, Max. There’s no chance I’m going to scoop you. I’m just a wee bit curious about your informant. What has he told you about himself?”

“What? You think I’m going to rat out a source? I may not be a trendy-lefty attention-seeker like Hager, but I’m not about to abandon the ethics of my profession – just to satisfy your curiosity.”

“Hmmm. All right. Let me come at this another way. I’m guessing that what you’ve got in that box contains names, dates, bank account numbers – all the details you need to put Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern squarely in the cross-hairs. So, the first question you have to ask yourself is: ‘Why is such politically damaging material sitting in that box-file you’re clutching so tightly?’ Cui bono, Max? Who benefits?”

“Maybe it’s from someone who is sick and tired of Peters' lies. Someone fed up with him pretending to be the people’s friend, while all the time he’s taking wads of cash from his dodgy mates in the racing and fishing industries. Maybe it’s from the sort of guy who makes copies of all the cheques, all the ledger entries, all the bank statements. So that, one day, the world finally gets to see what a fraud that bloody man and his party truly are!”

Malcolm, smiled sadly at his friend. Max, frowning, made to leave.

“Sit down, Max. You need to hear what I’m going to tell you.”

Max, hesitated.

“For a start, mate, nobody outside of Peters' most trusted inner-circle has access to the information you’re apparently carrying under your arm – and they’re not about to share it with anyone – certainly not you. It hasn’t been copied by some disgruntled party president or secretary. Unless life-long confidants and allies like Brian Henry and Doug Woolerton have turned on Peters, the contents of that box-file have been obtained by other … agencies.”

“Like who?” Max resumed his seat.

“Well, you’re spoilt for choice these days, aren’t you. Could be the Police. Could be the SIS, Could be the GCSB. Could even be a private investigation firm with close ties to all of the above. And if you doubt that such things are possible, just have a chat with Martyn Bradbury. On behalf of a friend of the National Party, the Police gained access to all Martyn’s bank accounts. Didn’t even need a warrant – all they had to do was ask.”

“Jeez, Malcolm! You’ve always been a hopeless conspiracy theorist. This is just crap.”

Malcolm gave Max another of his enigmatic smiles and shook his head.

“My money’s on the cops, Max. Or at least some rogue element within their ranks. Maybe they’re in cahoots with the Nats – maybe not. Maybe they’re working with some Black Hat hackers on a free-lance basis. The thing you have to realise, Max, is that conspiracies do happen. They happen all the time. If you knew anything about the intricate workings of the plot that got rid of Peters back in 2008, then you wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the possibility that its happening again – and for exactly the same reasons. And, mate, you’re right in the thick of it.”

“You’re fucking crazy, Malcolm! And jealous. You can’t bear it that I’ve got a real story, based on real evidence. Not the half-arsed bullshit you and your commie mates spout off on blogs no one reads. You know nothing about my informant – nothing. You’re just guessing.”

Malcolm rose from his chair and leaned in close.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Max. I’m not guessing at all. I know exactly who your informant is. We’ve been aware of him for years. He’s a senior deep state operative. Yes, that’s right, Max. Your source is a bloody spook! Every one of the documents in that file-box has been obtained illegally for the purposes of ensuring the Coalition Government loses the next election. So, you go right ahead. Write your story. Destroy Peters. Smash NZ First. Smear Jacinda. I can’t stop you. But, while you’re doing it. While you’re bringing the whole damn temple down on our heads. Don’t you dare presume to call yourself a journalist!”

But Max was already out the pub door. The box-file wedged tightly under his arm. Cell-phone glued to his ear.

Malcolm pulled out his own cell-phone.

“Tell Winston – he’s got it all.”

This short story was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 22 November 2019.

Friday, 22 November 2019

The Message From Messenger Park.

Coasters Turn Out In Droves: It’s precisely the widening gulf between those with actual experience of things like guns, chainsaws and drilling machines, and those who regulate their use, that accounts for the angry crowd at Greymouth’s Messenger Park on Sunday, 17 November 2019. In the rarefied atmosphere where decisions to shut down whole industries are made, hands-on experience is not only rare – it’s despised. What do workers know about anything?

THE NUMBERS WERE IMPRESSIVE. Indeed, it looked as is half the Coast had turned out to give this government a piece of its mind.

Many of those present wore their work-clothes. Lots of high-viz vests and brightly-coloured safety helmets – those universal signifiers of blue-collar labour – were on display. Hardly surprising. The West Coast has long celebrated its status as the birthplace of the New Zealand labour movement. Trade union historian, Bert Roth, dubbed its fiery founding fathers – Pat Hickey, Paddy Webb and Bob Semple – “Two-Gun Men from the West Coast”. Labour’s current MP, Damian O’Connor, has been called many things in his time, but a “Two-Gun Man” isn’t one of them!

About the only thing the modern Labour Party has to do with the region’s two-gun men is its grim determination to turn them all into One-Gun, or No-Gun, West Coasters.

It’s what makes law-abiding gun-owners so damned mad. Growing up with firearms invariably instils a strong ethic of care and responsibility in their users. Seeing up-close what a high-powered rifle can do to a deer or a pig makes sure of that. If the bureaucrats sipping coffee on Lambton Quay, most of whom have never fired a gun in their lives, understood that ethic, then they might be a little less fearful – and a lot less judgemental.

It’s precisely this widening gulf between those with actual experience of things like guns, chainsaws and drilling machines, and those who regulate their use, that accounts for the angry crowd at Greymouth’s Messenger Park. In the rarefied atmosphere where decisions to shut down whole industries are made, hands-on experience is not only rare – it’s despised. What do workers know about anything?

That’s the question isn’t it? What do workers know? The answer, of course, is “more than they think”.

For a start, they know that human-beings have been changing nature for millions of years. From the moment some brave ancestor pulled a burning branch from the edge of a blazing forest, our species ceased to be just another mammal. From chipping flint to smelting steel, humanity’s relentless drive to innovate and alter has granted it, in the solemn language of Genesis: “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

You don’t truly understand this truth until, using your own strength and skill, and the strength and skill of your workmates, you collectively transform your world. And that sort of truth: the knowledge you gain down in a mine or felling a tree: you won’t find in a book anywhere.

Workers know that all those people in the cities going on and on about “keeping the coal in the ground” don’t understand that without the high-quality coking-coal from places like the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, the world’s steel mills couldn’t function. Without steel there is no modern world. Without coking-coal we’re back in the Iron Age – cutting down whole forests to make the charcoal crucial to the smelting of iron and most other metals.

Workers know what civilisation is made of because they extract it every day.

Farmers are the same. They know what it takes to coax crops out of the ground. How much they are beholden to forces no human-being can ever truly tame or control. They also know what city dwellers pampering their pets in suburban bungalows do not. That the relationship between human-beings and animals has always been one of ruthless exploitation. As inescapable as it is irreducible: we consume them.

It’s a hard world – as hard as the callouses on the hands of those who work it. And there is precious little which the world is able to surrender to us without long and bitter struggle.

In the process of exploiting its plants, animals and minerals is humankind damaging this world? Are we ruining the atmosphere by wrenching from its bowels the fossil fuels that make our lives so much easier?  

The answer from the protesters of Messenger Park is “Yes.”, and “Yes.” And, unless we want to return to the day before that brave ancestor picked up that burning branch, they’re telling us to “get over it”. Nothing comes from nothing.

Nobody lives closer to Mother Nature than the people of the Coast.

It’s hard work.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 November 2019.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

The Second (And Final?) Crucifixion Of Winston Peters.

Stag At Bay: Twelve years ago, Winston Peters was still robust enough to come back from the political crucifixion which his political and media enemies had prepared for him. In his seventies now, the chances of a second resurrection are slim. We should, therefore, prepare for the last gasp of Old New Zealand’s very Kiwi corruption.

AND SO IT BEGINS. Once again, the enemies of Winston Peters are manoeuvring to eject him and his NZ First Party from Parliament. Once again the primary vector for their attack is the news media. And, once again, Peters is making it easy for them.

To understand what is happening and why requires (at least) two investigations. The first, into the chameleon-like character of NZ First and its leader. The second, into the uses to which New Zealand’s political journalists have allowed themselves – and are still allowing themselves – to be put.

NZ First, like its leader, has always had two faces. Outwardly, it is a conservative-nationalist party determined to preserve both the New Zealand character and the New Zealand economy from the cultural, political and financial impositions of foreign powers and peoples. Behind the scenes, however, Peters and his party have simultaneously positioned themselves as practiced and practical political enablers.

NZ First’s hidden face is a necessary adjunct to its public countenance. Throughout New Zealand’s brief history, conservative parties and crony capitalism have marched together in lock-step. In such a tiny society how could they not? Only the state has ever had access to the huge capital resources required to facilitate economic development. For capitalists, large and small, that meant securing their desired economic outcomes by cultivating mutually beneficial political relationships. Naturally, the individuals, businesses, and political parties involved in this activity were not at all keen to have their behaviour trumpeted from the roof-tops. If deals needed to be done, it was overwhelmingly in the interests of all parties that they be done in secret.

Up until the 1980s, National had been the go-to party for business leaders on the scrounge for government assistance. It would be wrong to brand what took place as “corruption”. (Although that is certainly what most Americans and Europeans would have called it!) Only on the very rarest of occasions were individuals quietly handed a brown paper envelope stuffed with banknotes. Not necessary. The rules of the game were clear. If a government minister intervened on a business’s behalf, then the very least it could do was make a generous contribution to the coffers of the governing party. And when the obliging politician retired, a seat on the assisted company’s board-of-directors. No brown paper envelopes required – only patience.

A very Kiwi kind of corruption.

Winston Peters learned how to play this game from one of its grand masters, Rob Muldoon. The expectation that helping businesses to flourish was one of the most important responsibilities of a conservative New Zealand politician was deeply ingrained in Peters’ generation. They neither understood nor approved the sudden economic shift from the local to the global. If the distribution of resources was no longer the function of those in control of the nation state, but of transnational corporations and financiers, then what, exactly, was the point of politicians?

When viewed from this perspective, Peters political practice makes perfect sense. If his party was to rescue New Zealand business from the clutches of international financiers, then Kiwi businessmen would have to help him do it. Quid pro quo. But never, ever, where anybody not familiar with the rules of the game might witness the quids pro-quoing! NZ First’s obsessive secrecy is simply the organisational refection of its rock-solid commitment to rescuing New Zealand Inc: one contribution at a time.

If this is errant political behaviour, then there is something quaintly patriotic about it. Those tempted to climb upon their high moral horses should first ask themselves which is worse: taking thoroughbred-breeders’ money to rescue the racing industry; or, taking money from the People’s Republic of China to ensure that New Zealand remains open to its investors? Because it would be a huge mistake to think that political corruption is a thing of the past. All that’s happened is that, just like the rest of the economy, the locus of corruption has shifted from the local to the global. And, as the stakes have grown higher, so have the pay-offs.

Where does the news media fit into all this? Essentially the role of the news media in dealing with political corruption hasn’t changed at all. In the past, the job of the press was to ensure that, even when they were looking directly at it, New Zealanders would fail to recognise corrupt behaviour. In a country as dependent upon crony capitalism as New Zealand, scorching media exposés of political and business venality could only undermine people’s faith in the system - maybe to the point where it collapsed completely. Best to turn a blind eye.

The advent of globalisation, along with the neoliberal revolutions it necessitated, only reinforced the news media’s role as the justifier of capitalism’s mysterious ways to the ordinary man and woman. In the new order, however, there was an additional duty. The final and furious destruction of any politician or party foolhardy enough to defend the way things were done in the bad old days – back when the country was run, you know, like a Polish shipyard.

Unsurprising, then, that Winston Peters and NZ First, from the moment they acquired independent political form, were targeted by the news media for termination with extreme prejudice. That Peters cemented his status as the people’s tribune by exposing the massive financial corruption scandal known as “The Winebox Affair” only made his political termination all the more urgent. The 25 years of unrelenting media hostility to which Peters has, accordingly, been subjected by this country’s political and business journalists is nowhere near as surprising as the fact he has survived it.

Just as they did in 2008, the present attacks will go on and on. Politicians will collude with press gallery journalists, and press gallery journalists will collude with politicians, both groups making sure that the grubby process of leaking information and priming the public for ever-more shocking revelations continues right up until the general election. Completely ignoring the decades-long enfeeblement of our electoral watchdogs, Peters and NZ First will be condemned for the gaming of a system which no government has ever bothered to make un-game-able. This time, however, the assistance rendered by right-wing bloggers and tweeters will be even more decisive.

Twelve years ago, Winston Peters was still robust enough to come back from the political crucifixion which his political and media enemies had prepared for him. In his seventies now, the chances of a second resurrection are slim. We should, therefore, prepare for the last gasp of Old New Zealand’s very Kiwi corruption.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 21 November 2019.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Democracy "A Bit Bonkers" - Thoughts Inspired By Lizzie Marvelly's Latest Column.

Didn't See It Coming: NZ Herald columnist Lizzie Marvelly's latest column merits serious scrutiny because such a clear example of anti-democratic thinking is encountered only rarely on the pages of the daily press. Which is not to say that the elitism which lies at the heart of such social disparagement goes unnoticed by the people who are its principal targets. Just as Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” only strengthened her opponent’s hand, the “progressives” all-to-obvious disdain for the competence of ordinary people will inevitably rebound to the Right’s electoral advantage.

THE EXPRESSIONS of stunned horror that greeted the news that Donald Trump had won the 2016 Presidential Election spoke volumes. Almost none of the people gathered to celebrate the election of the USA’s first female president believed a Trump victory was even remotely possible. On display that fateful November night was a lethal mixture of social isolation and social ignorance. The shocked and horrified young Democrats who turned their grief-stricken faces from the television screens clearly knew next to nothing about the America that had just dashed their hopes.

In New Zealand, the world’s most “woke” country, the risk of something very similar to Trump’s upset 2016 victory grows stronger by the day. The 2020 General Election may deliver New Zealanders their first one-term government in 45 years. If that is the outcome, then it will likely be produced by exactly the same combination of forces that toppled the Kirk-Rowling Labour Government in 1975. An angry cocktail of resentments and denials; of ordinary people feeling abandoned by the decision-makers; of core values and cherished traditions perceived as being under threat. A dark tsunami of voter anger: barely perceptible in its approach, but rearing-up to terrifying heights as, finally, it comes ashore.

And, of course, like Hillary supporters, the partisans of Labour and Green haven’t a clue. They just don’t see it: the anger and resentment; the alienation and bewilderment. Or, if they do, they simply don’t rate it. In the eyes of the decision-makers and their opinion-former allies, “ordinary people” simply aren’t up to it.

Consider the latest contribution from NZ Herald columnist Lizzie Marvelly. The fact that New Zealand’s District Health Boards contain a majority of elected members strikes her as a serious design fault. “Democratic elections for District Health Boards have always seemed bizarre to me”, she writes. “Though it’s important to listen to the views of the community when designing services to serve them, the idea that anyone, regardless of their experience, qualifications and skill set (or lack thereof) could be elected to a position where they are tasked with effectively running the health system in their region seems a bit bonkers.”

In these two chilling sentences, we can identify all the ingredients of the looming political disaster. Of these, it is Marvelly’s careless disdain for the capabilities of her fellow citizens that is the most telling. That such people might possess insights and understandings of which the “experts” she so clearly prefers are entirely innocent, does not appear to have occurred to her. Neither, apparently, has the thought that democracy itself is predicated on the notion that the views of ordinary people, as expressed through the ballot-box, constitute the beating heart of political sovereignty.

No, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” cuts little ice with Marvelly. The word she offers up in preference to “government” is “governance”: something best left to professionals.

“Making a difference in an organisational setting, providing quality services for clients and ensuring at the very least that the bills are paid and the doors stay open, is a challenge that requires good governance,” opines Marvelly. Such work, she goes on to say, with all the breathless confidence of the recent convert, must be “conducted by directors who have the right mix of skills, experience and foresight to plan for worst and best case scenarios, pivot quickly when things aren’t quite right, and steer an organisation through times of both trouble and success.”

That working-class mums and dads, struggling to make their meagre wages stretch to housing, feeding and clothing their families might also have the skills, experience and foresight to plan for both the best and the worst, pivot quickly when things go wrong, and so steer themselves and their loved ones through good times and bad, is apparently an idea that has never crossed her mind.

Which is why, presumably, she felt compelled to suggest that “at least half of each health board around the country should be appointed experts, or even better, 60 percent.” With astonishing condescension, all the more objectionable for being unconscious, Marvelly concludes: “Retaining a minority of elected board members would allow DHBs to stay connected with their local communities, without giving the balance of power to people who may not have the skills to wield it properly.”

I have quoted Marvelly at some length because such a clear example of anti-democratic thinking is encountered only rarely on the pages of the daily press. Which is not to say that the elitism which lies at the heart of such social disparagement goes unnoticed by the people who are its principal targets. Just as Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” only strengthened her opponent’s hand, the “progressives” all-to-obvious disdain for the competence of ordinary people will inevitably rebound to the Right’s electoral advantage.

The thousands of West Coasters who gathered in Greymouth last weekend to demonstrate their opposition to the Coalition Government’s policies will no doubt be dismissed as feral rednecks. Even worse epithets will be reserved for the 200+ women who attended the Speak Up For Women conference hosted by David Seymour in the Beehive’s banqueting hall.  Sticks and stones. The Act Party leader’s gesture, prompted by the failure of Massey University to defend the free speech rights of radical feminists, has significantly boosted Act’s chances of adding two – maybe three – new members to its parliamentary caucus.

There was a time when progressives and conservatives could both agree that 2+2=4. As next year’s election draws near, however, the confidence that there are still some propositions to which all politicians can sign-up – such as freedom of speech – diminishes. When young newspaper columnists openly disparage the notion that ordinary people can be trusted with the reins of government; when the same “experts” who led the world into its current condition are held up as the only persons capable of leading it out; then those still capable of grasping basic political arithmetic should not expect next year’s election to have a happy ending.

So long as ordinary people retain the right to vote; so long will pissing them off remain the very worst political strategy.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 19 November 2019.

Friday, 15 November 2019

When World's Collide.

Different Strokes: If a multicultural immigration policy imposes no obligation on immigrant communities to acknowledge and ultimately embrace their host nation’s most cherished traditions and values, then how is that nation to prevent itself from being reduced to a collection of inward-looking and self-replicating ethnic and cultural enclaves?

THE COALITION GOVERNMENT’S new “Culturally Arranged Marriage Visitors Visa” offers a powerful demonstration of multiculturalism at work. It signals to all those persons intending to settle in New Zealand that their traditional cultural practices will not be forbidden or discouraged by the authorities of their prospective new home. Regardless of how jarring those practices might be to the native-born population, official tolerance is guaranteed.

The cultural phenomenon of arranged marriages is widespread in the Developing World – with good reason. In traditional cultures, the extended family and its resources – both social and economic – has for centuries been the most important means of protecting and advancing its members’ interests. In circumstances of crippling poverty and inequality, the institution of marriage not only regularises procreation, it also offers multiple opportunities for increasing family wealth and prestige. The personal desires of the man and the woman involved are secondary to the advantages accruing to both sets of parents (the groom’s especially) from these carefully arranged and fiercely negotiated family alliances.

Westerners find it difficult to accept the level of individual self-sacrifice which arranged marriages require of the young men and women involved. Our own culture long ago abandoned the notion that parents are entitled to expect the unquestioning obedience of their offspring. In traditional cultures, however, such expectations remain extremely strong. Defiance of parental wishes is not just frowned upon, it can lead to the offender’s expulsion from the family home; withdrawal of financial and emotional support; and, in the worst cases, to their complete disinheritance.

Historically, immigrant children broke free from the strictures of their parents’ cultural traditions by taking advantage of the host nation’s more liberal legal and cultural regimes to seek partners and establish families independently. One or two generations was usually all it took for the cultural traditions of immigrant communities to become more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Crucial to this process of assimilation was the host nation’s unashamed assumption of cultural superiority. Immigrants were told that they were joining a “modern” society founded on the principles of personal liberty, private property and human equality. Clinging to the ideas and practices of the “old country” was not the way to make “progress” in the new.

This “Melting Pot” approach to resolving the cultural tensions inherent in mass immigration worked relatively well in the age of “scientific racism”. This was because the diverse cultural practices of European ethnicities could be subsumed, in the racist ideology of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, by lumping them all under the broad category of “Caucasian”. In essence, the Melting Pot “worked” because the only peoples thrown into it were white. The populations constructed in this way – especially that of the USA – are, therefore, best described as multi-ethnic, rather than multicultural, societies.

It is significant that the assimilation processes which transformed Europe’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” into “Hyphenated Americans” – as in Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans, Polish-Americans and, more grudgingly, Jewish-Americans – were simply not equal to the task of assimilating either the descendants of former slaves or, until quite recently, immigrants from Asia. In this regard, New Zealand and the USA have much in common. In both countries the hatred for Asian immigrants – the Chinese in particular – was so intense that their respective governments were obliged to pass legislation which viciously restricted Asian immigration.

The scientific racism of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries also accounts for the dramatic difference between the way Australians treated “their” indigenous peoples as compared to the way Pakeha New Zealanders treated the Maori. According to leading New Zealand historian, James Belich, a small monograph entitled The Aryan Maori goes a long way to explaining the difference in treatment.

Penned by Edward Tregear, a senior and well-respected public servant, The Aryan Maori purported to prove that the Maori were a far-flung offshoot of the Caucasian (or, as they preferred to say in those days, “Aryan”) race. Whether Tregear truly believed this claim, or whether he made it up for the express purpose of bringing the races together, is difficult to establish. The important point is that it worked. The idea that Maori and Pakeha were racially kindred was reiterated everywhere: in political speeches, newspaper articles and school textbooks. In Belich’s own words, The Aryan Maori “arguably ranks with the Treaty of Waitangi as a key text of Maori-Pakeha relations.”

Alas the Australian Aborigines had no Edward Tregear to soften the extreme racial prejudice of Australian settler society.

Influential monographs aside, the driving conviction of European settler societies was that they represented the distillation of all that was most admirable in the “old world’s” civilisation. In these far-flung outposts of the West, the “pioneers” asserted, all that was rotten in Europe had been discarded, leaving only its most wholesome influences in play. New Zealand’s national anthem asks God to “guide her in the nations’ van/preaching love and truth to man”, all in the name of “working out [the Almighty’s] glorious plan”. Or, to quote the Louisianan populist, Huey Long, in these “new worlds” it was a case of “Every man a king – no one wears a crown”.

Who wouldn’t want to assimilate themselves into the very point of civilisation’s spear? That’s the question a great many Pakeha still (very quietly) ask themselves. Scratch the descendant of a New Zealand settler, and the dull gleam of assimilationism, with all its vices and virtues, remains the most likely result. Much less common, outside the universities’ sociology and anthropology departments, is the deep cultural pessimism born out of twentieth-century Europe’s horrific self-immolation.

In the ears of post-war intellectuals, Europe’s claim to global moral leadership sounded obscene. What sort of civilisation could produce Auschwitz?

The First World War had raised all manner of questions about the moral endurance of the West – and the Second World War settled them. European “civilisation” had turned the world into a charnel house. And it refused to stop. In Vietnam, the New World appeared to have decided to carry on from where the Old World left off. Post-war Americans may have looked upon their country as a “shining city set upon a hill”, but non-European eyes saw only cities burning under American bombs.

The central moral question of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries thus became: by what right do Europeans pronounce upon who is, and who is not, “civilised”? After Auschwitz, and the Gulag; after My Lai and Srebrenica; who dares assert cultural hierarchies in which killers and colonialists occupy all the topmost places? And right up until the moment when the “wretched of the earth” started flying airliners into tall buildings and posting beheadings on Facebook, these were good – and fair – questions.

Here are some others.

In a world where no culture or ethnic group can credibly lay claim to moral superiority, is it not permissible for the citizens of a nation to demand that their government take particular care to nurture and defend its unique traditions and values?

If a multicultural immigration policy imposes no obligation on immigrant communities to acknowledge and ultimately embrace their host nation’s most cherished traditions and values, then how is that nation to prevent itself from being reduced to a collection of inward-looking and self-replicating ethnic and cultural enclaves?

Though the ashes of our fathers be scattered and dispersed; and the temples of our gods stand cracked and blackened; should not the voices crying out to save such treasures as still remain within – be heeded?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 November 2019.

Could There Be Method In Massey University’s Madness?

Protective Zone: Reading the rules and guidelines released by Massey University, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that its governing body considers the whole concept of free speech a disruptive threat to the orderly imparting of orthodox academic knowledge.

IN TRUE ORWELLIAN fashion, Massey University has announced its commitment to Free Speech by restricting it. Beneath the ponderous bureaucratese of its official communications, the University authorities’ censorious impulses are chillingly clear. The process of inviting controversial external speakers onto the Massey campus has been made so daunting, so potentially penalising, that only the most fearless staff members and students will now be game to attempt it. Reading the rules and guidelines released by the University, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that its governing body considers the whole concept of free speech a disruptive threat to the orderly imparting of orthodox academic knowledge.

The Wellington-based lawyer and former Act MP, Stephen Franks, has speculated as to what the students and university staff of the 1960s and 70s would have made of such a blatant administrative power grab. The answer, of course, is “very short work”!

Two examples will suffice – both of them drawn from my old alma mater, the University of Otago. The first dates back to 1972, when the university authorities announced a new and draconian set of regulations. The students responded by occupying the University Registry. Roughly half the student body was involved in the protest, during which, according to legend, they consumed the Vice-Chancellor’s entire supply of chocolate biscuits!

Five years earlier, the poet and prophet, James K. Baxter, the University’ Burns Fellow, had responded to a similar outbreak of official folly by penning his celebrated “A Small Ode to Mixed Flatting” in which he mocked the authorities attempt to ban the practice. He slyly referenced the wild Scottish poet, Robbie Burns – “that sad old rip/From whom I got my fellowship” who liked nothing better than to “toss among the glum and staid/A poem like a hand grenade”.

Needless to say, in 1972 – as in 1967 – the glum and staid lost the fight. The offending regulations were either amended or withdrawn altogether.

The second example is more recent, dating back to the mid-1990s. Students were, once again, in occupation of the Registry building – this time in protest at the impact of student fees. When the University authorities discovered that the Alliance Party leader, Jim Anderton, had accepted the occupiers’ invitation to explain his party’s fees-free policy, they were outraged. As Anderton emerged from the Registry, he was greeted by the University Proctor who threatened to trespass him if he again set foot on Otago’s campus.

It was then the turn of the university’s staff to protest. Hundreds crowded into a lecture theatre to affirm Anderton’s right to discuss politics with the student body. A Vote of No Confidence in the Vice-Chancellor was proposed.  The anger of the meeting was palpable. As in 1972, the University authorities backed away from the controversy precipitated by their errant authoritarian instincts.

What has happened to New Zealand’s universities that the fighting spirit of staff and students, once so evident on the nation’s campuses, has been reduced to a pallid pile of expiring embers? Historically speaking, university bureaucracies have never hesitated to tighten-up and screw-down the turbulent inhabitants of their ivory towers. What is it, then, about the times we live in that allows those same bureaucrats to do their worst and encounter resistance only from former staff and students old enough to remember when they couldn’t?

Talking to today’s academics it would seem that the teachers and students of the modern university are at each other’s mercy. Lecturers and tutors are subject to the detailed written appraisal of their “paying customers” – whose career expectations it is most unwise to set back with anything less than “As” and “Bs”. The students, meanwhile: products of parenting strategies as over-protective as they are over-expectant; cannot take too much in the way of challenging ideas or uncompromising expression. The use of the term “snowflake”, while derisive, is not entirely inaccurate. Academics have learned the hard way just how sensitive these kids can be.

Certainly, the Massey authorities seem confident that it will not be their restriction of free speech that provokes outrage and protest. In their estimation, it is much more likely to be the presence on campus of representatives of ideas and causes deemed “hateful”, “harmful” or “offensive” that gets the staff and students up in arms.

God help us, but there just might be some method in Massey University’s bureaucratic madness.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 November 2019.