Friday, 3 July 2020

There’s Never A Right Time For Left-Wing Policies.

Raising The Bar: Would that the Prime Minister and her colleagues would listen as intently to what the people – as opposed to the power elites – are saying as the Greens. Were they so disposed, the popular clamour for a transformational post-Covid reset would be loud in their ears. Listening intently, they would also hear the fear in the voices of those who have already lost, or are about to lose, their jobs. The argument for a level of income support that allows them to live with dignity is compelling.

JACINDA ARDERN dismissed them. Winston Peters savaged them. Todd Muller attributed them to Labour. The Taxpayers’ Union turned them into a fundraising opportunity. The Parliamentary Press Gallery filed them under ‘N’ for “Not Going To Happen”. The wealthy castigated them. Economists panned them. The rest of us, however, thought they sounded pretty good.

What could possibly fire-up so many competing interests? Who has the power to unite Peters and the Press Gallery? Labour and the Taxpayers’ Union? The answer, of course, is – The Greens. More specifically, the Greens’ welfare and tax policies.

To the delight of their supporters (many of whom were teetering on the brink of abandoning the party as insufferably “woke” and out-of-touch) the Greens have rediscovered their left-wing mojo. Offering policies radical enough to set virtually the entire power elite against them.

To paraphrase the late, great Murray Ball: “If you want a good reason for supporting the Greens’ tax and welfare policies, just take a look at the people opposing them.”

Sadly – very sadly – that appears to include Jacinda Ardern. When asked to comment on the Greens’ plans to boost the incomes of the poor by increasing the taxes of the rich, the Prime Minister, rather snootily, informed Morning Report’s Corin Dann that they were based on “some pretty heroic assumptions”. And, no, Labour has no plans to introduce a Wealth Tax.

Not that the Leader of the Opposition is at all disposed to accept Labour’s denials – not even when they come straight from the horse’s mouth. According to Muller, Labour’s just waiting for the voters to return a Labour-Green parliamentary majority, so that they can then remind the country that “this is MMP”, and that although Labour had no plans for two extra steps at the top of the Income Tax scales, and had repeatedly ruled out a Wealth Tax, they’d been required to accept them all as the price of remaining in office.

This “Labour and the Greens have a hidden agenda” claim will be repeated endlessly by the National Party as the General Election draws near. Last weekend the Opposition unveiled its first election hoarding. It features Muller and his deputy, Nikki Kaye, standing proudly beside the words: “Strong Team. More Jobs. Better Economy.” The hoardings promising “No New Taxes” are clearly being held in reserve. As the campaign intensifies, however, you can bet they’ll start popping up everywhere.

Those of us with grey beards but still-functioning memories have seen this strategy rolled out time and time again by the Tories. It prompts us, equally regularly, to pose the question: “Why doesn’t Labour decide that it might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb?” If the National Party has both the intention and the resources to convince the electorate that they are facing the grim spectre of socialism, then why doesn’t the Labour Party, instead of denying the charge, respond by reassuring the voters that the sort of socialism they’re proposing isn’t grim at all – it’s great!

A big part of the explanation for why they won’t make a virtue of National’s imposed necessity lies in the crucial contribution Labour’s cautious fiscal management has made to this country’s ability to cope with the Covid-19-induced economic crisis. It has reinforced the natural caution of Finance Minister Grant Robertson, and it has reaffirmed the Prime Minister’s faith in her closest friend and ally in Labour’s caucus. If Grant reckons the Greens have made all kinds of heroic assumptions about how the wealthy will react to the Left’s best efforts to make them contribute their fair share, then that’s the message Jacinda will relay to the public.

Would that the Prime Minister and her colleagues would listen as intently to what the people – as opposed to the power elites – are saying. Were they so disposed, the popular clamour for a transformational post-Covid reset would be loud in their ears. Listening intently, they would also hear the fear in the voices of those who have already lost, or are about to lose, their jobs. The argument for a level of income support that allows them to live with dignity is compelling.

With National painting Labour’s caution as a lie, why not throw it to the wind? If there is never a right time for Labour-Green left-wing policies, then there’s never a wrong time, either.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 July 2020.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Why Todd Muller – and National – Are Toast.

Not Ready: Todd Muller’s lack-lustre and self-contradictory performances offer conclusive proof that a political leader cannot be managed into competence. National’s new boss has Janet Wilson handling his media and Matthew Hooton writing his speeches. Both are highly professional political and public relations specialists, and Muller is lucky to have them. But, they can’t be Leader of the Opposition for him.

TODD MULLER is toast. All the signs are there. The weird contradictions contained in his own public statements. The constant leaking of damaging information from inside his own caucus. The obvious delight of former colleagues as they lower their lifeboats and pull away from National’s sinking ship. The party’s been here before. Unfortunately, it was in 2002.

Just think about Paula Bennett’s bravura exit performance. Dancing up a storm with Tom Sainsbury – as if to say: “You always thought Tom was exaggerating, didn’t you? Nah, the boy never even got close!” There was something very P.J. O’Rourke about Bennett’s departure: something subversively liberating. When right-wingers turn out to have a sense of humour strong enough to make even hard-bitten lefties chortle, it says something very reassuring about our common humanity. Though some of us are loathe to admit it, we are all much more the same than we are different.

One of O’Rourke’s most memorable lines was: “First we got all the money. Then we got all the votes. Now we’ve got all the power!” Bennett’s celebration boogie, in anticipation of Muller’s failure to win O’Rourke’s electoral trifecta, has about it the same bracing honesty. Speaking of her hardcore National colleagues, she once told a startled journalist: “We didn’t come to Wellington to fuck spiders!” And wasn’t that the truth?

Muller’s lack-lustre and self-contradictory performances offer conclusive proof that a political leader cannot be managed into competence. National’s new boss has Janet Wilson handling his media and Matthew Hooton writing his speeches. Both are highly professional political and public relations specialists, and Muller is lucky to have them. But, they can’t be Leader of the Opposition for him.

It was exactly the same with David Cunliffe. Not even Matt McCarten, a.k.a “Mattiavelli”, could transform the ambitious climber who deposed David Shearer into a credible alternative prime minister. In the end, the person has to want the job enough to do what it takes to get it. Also needed is a clear idea of what to do with “all the power” once you’ve got it. This is where Muller falls short. Quoting Mickey Savage is all very well, but when a traditional Catholic talks about “applied Christianity” – what, exactly, does he mean?

It’s something which, I suspect, Muller’s evangelical Christian colleagues would also like to know. Their right-wing, fundamentalist version of the Christian message would see National taking a very different stance on a broad range of social issues from the one so clearly favoured by Muller and his liberal allies. A couple of months back, David Cormack (another PR maven) offered up his own take on National’s Christian conservatives:

“There is a large bloc in National of Christians with some pretty extreme views. They’re not traditional Christian National Party folk, but more fire and brimstone. Muller is a traditional National Party Christian, he voted No on the abortion bill’s second and third reading, he voted No on all three readings of the euthanasia bill. But he is considered not right wing enough by the large Christian bloc.”

According to Cormack:

“All of the highly conservative Christian MPs want to fight their very own culture wars here in NZ; think GOP level. Staunchly pro-Israel, really strongly anti-abortion, anti-women and gay rights. They want to fight the ‘Marxism’ that they believe has infested our schools, universities and even Labour (!)”

Contrast these hardline views with the gentle conservatism set out by Muller in his Te Puna hometown address in mid-June. Beautifully crafted by Hooton, the speech enunciated a set of values radically at odds with the proudly reactionary beliefs of Chris Penk and his comrades. Reading that speech, Muller’s opponents in the National caucus must have wondered whether their party was any longer big enough for the both of them.

On the one hand stands Muller (and Hooton) eager to keep the two main political parties committed to delivering the same neoliberal lines (albeit with some relatively minor differences in emphasis) that have bound the precious “median voter” to the aspirations of the broad centre of New Zealand politics for the best part of four decades.

On the other hand stand what might best be described as the “Radical Conservatives”. Their principal objection to the existing neoliberal order is its acceptance of what they see as the immoral and socially-destructive consequences of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s. With some justification, they see identity politics as intrinsically hostile to the unequal distribution of power and wealth under patriarchal capitalism. Take patriarchy out of the capitalist equation and, in the view of the Radical Conservatives, it will fall.

These are not the sort of ideas to earn more than a curl of Nikki Kaye’s upper lip. Rightly, she foresees the wholesale rejection of such an avowedly sexist National Party by the overwhelming majority of middle-class Pakeha women. Indeed, it was to forestall such a radical-conservative deviation into Trumpland that the coup against Simon Bridges was mounted. That it succeeded only because the erratic Judith Collins anticipated taking more satisfaction from shafting Bridges and Bennett than from saving them, merely reinforces the scale of the dysfunction currently besetting the National Party.

Such dysfunction is essentially ineradicable by anything other than the annihilation of one of the two contending factions. This is, after all, what happened in the Labour Party when the Rogernomes and their careerist enablers made it more-or-less impossible for the left faction to remain within the party without surrendering their most deeply held convictions.

For National’s Radical Conservatives, the path to this annihilation solution is clear: engineer a defeat on a par with the disaster of 2002. The principal victims of such a strategy would be the party’s liberal faction. In Lenin’s famous phrase, it would lead to “fewer – but better” National MPs. A solid foundation of radical-conservative patriarchal Christian capitalism upon which National’s electoral recovery can be built.

You see now why Todd Muller is toast! Also clear, is why so many National women are now determined to give their votes to Jacinda.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 2 July 2020.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Labour Will Not Win With A Yeah-Nah Strategy

Heroic Evasions: Labour needs to be unequivocal in its communications with the electorate. Either it has a plan to prevent their fellow New Zealanders from falling off the economic cliff, or it doesn’t. Either it has a fiscal policy equal to the task of funding that plan, or it hasn’t. Either it will task the citizens of today with stepping-up to their responsibilities, or it will kick the can down the road for future generations to deal with – just as National does.

“TRIANGULATION” – Bill Clinton loved it; Tony Blair loved it; Gerhard Schroeder loved it. Hell! – Since the 1990s, all God’s social-democratic children have loved it! Question is: will Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson declare their love for it by adopting a tax policy that hovers harmlessly halfway between National’s “no new taxes” and the Greens just-released policy of welfare reform and making the wealthy pay their fair share? Given the Prime Minister’s rather snooty comments about the Greens making “some fairly heroic assumptions” about the fiscal gains to be expected from their two new steps of Income Tax and their proposed Wealth Tax, I would say that Labour’s getting ready to triangulate like crazy.

Which, if true, should be filed under: “Extraordinarily Short-Sighted and Disappointing Decisions Political Parties Have Made.” Labour cannot win this election by playing it safe. If it tries it will fail. We are not living in the 1990s – when, as Helen Clark liked to say, “a rising tide lifts all boats” – we are living in 2020, when tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders, and millions more around the world, are staring down the barrel of the most devastating economic downturn since the 1930s.

This is no time to play Goldilocks: triangulating frantically to produce a set of policies that are “just right”. This is a time for the righteous language of the Gospel of Matthew (5:37) “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”

Labour needs to be equally unequivocal in its communication with the electorate. Either it has a plan to prevent their fellow New Zealanders from falling off the economic cliff, or it doesn’t. Either it has a fiscal policy equal to the task of funding that plan, or it hasn’t. Either it will task the citizens of today with stepping-up to their responsibilities, or it will kick the can down the road for future generations to deal with – just as National does.

Maybe that’s why Jacinda sounded so grumpy on this morning’s Morning Report? Because the Greens policy announcements on welfare and tax have made the whole triangulation process ten times more difficult.

For the tactic to work, the distance between the two political poles needs to be relatively modest. When the whole political colour-chart is made up of boring shades of grey it’s hard for the voters to get all that excited. Who’s going to die in a ditch for dark- as opposed to light-grey? That’s the beauty of triangulation: it’s all about limiting the range of electoral choices – not expanding them. Giving voters real and exciting options only complicates matters.

But that is exactly what the Greens have done. They have borrowed from the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s report to produce a radical programme of income-support which, if properly presented, has the capacity to get young, poor voters up off the couch and into the polling booths. It has also borrowed fiscal ideas from TOP – The Opportunities Party – to construct an alternative to the electorally radioactive Capital Gains Tax. In doing so they have aggressively expanded the distance between the Right and the Left – replacing all that National and Labour grey with a dazzling in-rush of primary colours: red, blue, and bright, bright green.

Poor Jacinda: I’m pretty sure that her own, and Grant’s, preference was to approach the looming economic crisis in the spirit of a military surgeon charged with deciding who should be categorised as walking wounded; who should be treated immediately; and who is clearly beyond help. Economic policy-making in the grim spirit of battlefield triage: heart-wrenching but unavoidable.

But now, with the Greens promising to keep all those without adequate paid employment afloat, being seen to allow whole sectors of the economy to simply bleed-out in a corner, while Labour’s surgeons struggle bravely to save what sectors they can, will start to look pretty damned heartless. Especially when – as they always do – the National Party will borrow every last dollar they can lay their hands on to avoid raising taxes (except, of course, the regressive GST) leaving the matter of debt repayment for the poor schmucks of some future government to sort out.

From Labour’s point-of-view, the most scary aspect of the Greens’ radical renaissance is that it may not stop at welfare and tax reform. What if, between now and the General Election on 19 September they unveil their own version of the Green New Deal? What if they offer the voters something pretty close to a complete re-prioritisation of all the activity that makes up the New Zealand economy? What if they give expression to the widespread hope of people all over the world that the Covid-19 Pandemic will stimulate a fundamental rethink about where we are and where we’re going? What then?

My sense of Labour’s campaign strategy, to date, is that it was all supposed to hinge on presenting Jacinda and her colleagues as compassionately competent pragmatists. The contrast with National: willing to promise anything and risk everything for political power; was supposed to make people opt for the safer pair of hands. That meant “solid” policies – not inspirational ones. If the Blues are threatening to push the country into the red, then grey doesn’t seem so bad.

It all depended, of course, on the Greens not being able to rise above their interminable squabbles over human identity. Seeing their hapless coalition partners as woke and out of touch with Covid-19’s grim realities, Labour was hoping that voters would glance in their direction, register their disappointment, and turn back to Labour. Frustratingly, the risk is now that the opposite will occur: the voters will register Labour’s all-too-obvious intention to play it safe and, disappointed, turn to the Greens for policies worth voting for.

If Jacinda is wise, she will reposition Labour quite a bit further to the left than she was planning to originally. The resulting triangle might look a bit lopsided, but a left-leaning red-green triangle has a lot more going for it than a boring and blurry blue-grey triangle that robs progressive voters of the will to live.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 30 June 2020.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Sack Him, Jacinda. Sack Him Now!

Are You Still Here? Just like his colleague, Phil Twyford – of KiwiBuild fame – David Clark juts out his chin and shamelessly apportions blame to everybody but himself. Even worse, he has turned viciously on Ashley Bloomfield, the nearest approximation to a competent, decent, humble and accountable public servant that this country possesses.

IF DAVID CLARK hasn’t been sacked by the time you read this, then Jacinda isn’t doing her job. His point-blank refusal to accept responsibility for the multiple institutional failures of his Health portfolio more than justifies Clark’s dismissal.

Ministers of the Crown only have one job: to be responsible. As members of both the legislature and the executive they are a living bridge between citizen and state. A ministerial refusal to accept responsibility for failures occurring on his watch is also a refusal to uphold the essence of our Westminster-style representative democracy. If Jacinda doesn’t get this, then she should be given a swift tutorial by someone who does.

Jacinda needs to get rid of Clark for another, much less high-falutin – but no less politically compelling – reason. He was unforgivably disrespectful of Ashley Bloomfield – and Newshub’s cameraman, Billy Paine, captured Bloomfield’s reaction for the whole world to see.

That should not be a survivable offence.

Week-in, week-out, like Jacinda herself, Ashley has stood behind a lectern in the Beehive Theatrette and kept us not only informed, but also calm. Has he let the ball fall through his hands of late? Yes, he has. But, for Christ’s sake, the guy has been carrying half New Zealand on his shoulders (with Jacinda carrying the other half) for months. That he hasn’t been able to catch every single operational curve-ball, thrown at him by every delinquent player in the New Zealand health system, is forgivable – isn’t it?

If anything is likely to provoke such forgiveness, then it must surely be the callous treatment meted out to him by the guy who thought the Level 4 rules were only there for the “Team of Five Million” to follow. The guy who went mountain-biking during Lockdown. The guy who took himself off to Dunedin instead of insisting that – as the responsible minister – he be allowed to stand at his boss’s side for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency. The guy who owned-up on nationwide television to being “a bit of an idiot”.

That guy doesn’t get to be mean to Ashley Bloomfield – and survive.

Surely, Jacinda, you see that? Surely you’re not guilty (as one outspoken right-wing gentleman suggested to me this morning) of having questioned, in the finest Machiavellian style, whether it might not be advisable, during the heroic phase of the Covid-19 war, to have Clark sequestered in Dunedin; bringing him back to Wellington only when all the inevitable blunders, committed by the exhausted employees of our understaffed and under-resourced health system, started coming to light? I told him firmly that you weren’t that sort of politician. Don’t you dare prove me wrong!

New Zealanders need to be shown, Jacinda, that you genuinely understand how pissed-off they are. It’s not just the sheer, mind-numbing dumbness of the mistakes that the people supposedly in charge have been making that’s got us all yelling at the television. Underneath it all there’s the sneaking suspicion that, once again, we’ve been played for fools. Staying in our bubbles; washing our hands; socially distancing; coughing into our elbows: doing all the things we were told to do; while the people in charge, the people paid more than the prime minister, were fucking everything up.

If you want to remain prime minister, Jacinda, you have to give us some sign that you get all this. Because if you don’t, then we, the voters, might start joining a few dots. You know what I’m talking about. We might just recall the young woman who stood in front of us and asked us to join her in transforming New Zealand through the “politics of kindness”. The young woman of “relentless positivity” and “practical idealism”, who said: “Let’s do this!” – and, God help us, persuaded Winston Peters to give her the chance.

But then what happened, Jacinda? After we had given you our votes, what happened next? Were the promises of transformation fulfilled? Did the people charged with rolling out the changes give us anything that looked even remotely like genuine reform? Or, were the voters forced to endure one disappointment after another? Were the only tangible results produced by the general incompetence of your ministers the derisory snorts and disillusioned sighs from the electors they had let down?

Your government’s consistent failure to deliver might have been forgiven if it had led to a radical shake-up of the entire coalition. If you had gotten tough with Winston and his NZ First colleagues: warning them that if the expectations of the people who voted for the governing parties were not met, then you would simply jump in a government car and make the short trip from the Beehive to Government House. If the numbers aren’t there for real change, Jacinda, then the only right move is to go out and win yourself some new numbers!

Sadly, Jacinda, you haven’t followed that course. Instead, and exactly as happened in relation to the failure of our health services to deliver secure defences against the re-entry of the Covid-19 virus, incompetence and arrogance have gone unpunished. Just like his colleague, Phil Twyford – of KiwiBuild fame – David Clark juts out his chin and shamelessly apportions blame to everybody but himself. Even worse, he has turned viciously on Ashley Bloomfield, the nearest approximation to a competent, decent, humble and accountable public servant that this country possesses.

And still, Jacinda, you do nothing. New Zealand’s self-confessed “idiot” of a Health Minister is still in possession of his warrant.

Why? And for how much longer?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 26 June 2020.

Doubling-Down On Donald Trump's Dream.

Willing Victims: What would all those Americans in MAGA hats be left with if they abandoned Trump? Just the sick feeling of having been cheated. Just the knowledge that the man in the White House is nothing more than a shape-shifting New York grifter; and that they have always been his “marks” – the hapless victims of his con.

WHY DO THEY stay with him? What keeps all those guys with the rolled-brim MAGA caps coming back for more? Why is it that nothing: not facts, not ridicule, not the scorn of sensible women, hell, not even Covid-19, can break the faith of Donald Trump’s followers? The world keeps posing the question, but Trump’s people won’t, or can’t, answer.

The historian in me comes back with a question of his own: “Why did the working-class of the Soviet Union stay with Joseph Stalin? He’d laid them waste like a field of corn, but the surviving stubble kept cheering him on. Not the NKVD, not the gulags, not even all those pistol shots in the back of their neighbours’ skulls were enough to keep the workers’ tears at bay when the monster finally died.

Could it be that the story he told them, like Trump’s, was so compelling, so empowering, that they couldn’t let it go?

Stalin called them the most important people on the planet: the beating heart of a great experiment that was changing the world. No, they weren’t clever intellectuals like Trotsky. They weren’t ambitious climbers like the party apparatchiks. They certainly weren’t hard-hearted money-grubbers like the rich peasants. No, they were just the hard-working toilers of hand and brain – the ones left standing after the Party had shot all the others. Ordinary, decent proletarians: the soul of the Revolution.

And doesn’t all of that sound oddly familiar? Not all the stuff about Trotsky, apparatchiks and proletarians – the American working-class has never bought into all that socialist mumbo-jumbo – but the bit about being the most important people on the planet. That’s the key: Trump’s promise that, as hard-working White Americans they constitute the rock-solid core of the world’s greatest, most exceptional and indispensable nation.

They may not be as clever as all those talking pointy-heads on CNN. They’re not cold-eyed bureaucrats like the people on the other side of the welfare counters. And they’re certainly not crawlers like the guys who always seem to escape being laid-off when the economy turns sour. No, they’re nothing like that. They’re just the hard-working, hard-drinking, working-class sons-of-bitches who want to make America great again.

To abandon Trump makes no more sense to these good ole boys than abandoning Stalin would have made to the long-suffering Russian worker. Were they to do that it would mean that it had all been an almighty con. All those assurances about them being the soul of the revolution; the bedrock of the American dream; would have been lies.

It would have meant that all the clever people, the ambitious people, the successful people: the ones with the ideals and talents to transform Russia; the people the Party had murdered in their millions; had died for nothing. Just as, turning to the contemporary USA, it would mean that all the promises to bring the factories back from China – along with steady jobs, living wages and good health plans – were never meant seriously. That they were always just words rolling-up on the teleprompter of some obscene political game show.

What would all those guys in MAGA hats be left with then? Just the sick feeling of having been cheated. Just the knowledge that the man in the White House is everything seven-out-of-ten of the women in their lives have been saying he is for the past four years. That Trump is nothing more than a shape-shifting New York grifter; and that they have always been his “marks” – the hapless victims of his con.

And if they were forced to admit that, then they would also have to admit that all the cultural and racial furies Trump has aroused – mostly within people like themselves – were nothing more that the profoundly disreputable means employed to secure the Republican Party’s equally disreputable ends. Worse still, it would mean that 120,000 of their fellow Americans – twice the number that died in Vietnam – have perished needlessly. That the worst depression since the 1930s, into whose twilight their beloved country is fast descending, could have been avoided.

Like all those stunned Russian workers forced to watch their precious Soviet Union simply blip-off History’s screen, Trump’s working-class American followers would be left with an agonising existential choice. Give up the illusion, or double-down on the dream.

Russia chose Putin. Who will America choose?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 June 2020.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Can Labour Still Win?

Time To Get Tough: What Jacinda Ardern needs to project in the wake of all those embarrassing new Covid-19 cases is a no more Ms Niceperson image. She has tried to be kind, and far too many selfish bastards have taken advantage. Now it is time to kick some idiot Kiwi butt – and kick it hard.

THE QUESTION IS, can Labour still win in September? A week or so ago, the answer would have been an unequivocal “Hell yeah!” Indeed, the general consensus about the forthcoming general election was that Labour would not only be re-elected, but would win enough seats to govern alone.

Never has Harold Wilson’s famous quip: “A week is a long time in politics” been more appropriately applied than to the brief space of days during which Jacinda Ardern transitioned from international poster-girl to clay-footed statue. A decidedly wobbly-looking statue!

It all boils down to trust. What’s required to build it. How easily it’s lost. And how much more effort – not to mention plenty of old-fashioned good luck – it takes to get it back. Jacinda, and the whole Labour operation which she, single-handedly, is holding up, faces a gruelling uphill struggle just to get back to where they were. Todd Muller, who had been looking suspiciously like dog-tucker, is now very much in with a chance.

Jacinda’s situation isn’t helped by the fact that an unhealthily large percentage of the Parliamentary Press Gallery is in the market for her scalp. They hated being seen as the bad guys. Every day that the Jacinda and Ashley Show was playing, they had to endure the public scorn that poured down upon them. The public had no idea what their leaders had to endure from the news media. But there it was, laid bare, live, on national television. The petty point-scoring. The holier-than-thou posturing. The preening “people’s prosecutors” all vying to ask the “gotcha” question guaranteed to make Jacinda squirm.

Ah, but now everything has changed. Overnight, the story of those two unfortunate women and their fateful road-trip to Wellington, has broken the spell. Overnight, what had looked like – and been accepted internationally – as a practically faultless performance on the part of the New Zealand government and its compassionate prime minister began to unravel. Now it’s just one big ball of tangled wool, and all the media kitty-cats’ little claws are giving it hell.

Saint Ashley has had his angel’s wings ripped bloodily from his back. Unfair? Of course it’s unfair! But that’s the whole nature of the political game, isn’t it? Win big. Lose big. And, being brutally honest, he really did need to make sure that the wires connecting his command-and-control levers were actually attached to something ready, willing and able to be commanded and controlled. It’s a bit late in the day, now, to discover that they weren’t.

Oh sure, Jacinda has called in the troops. That was a cool move. People like that sort of thing. But her next move, bringing in Megan Woods, wasn’t so smart at all. Jacinda needed to remain front and centre. No longer paired with a Director-General of Health, but with an Air Commodore. What she needed to project after the detection of all those embarrassing new Covid-19 cases was a no more Ms Niceperson image. She had tried to be kind, and far too many selfish bastards had taken advantage. Now it was time to kick some idiot Kiwi butt – and kick it hard.

Megan looks like an admission of failure. Political tragics living within the Wellington beltway may understand that she’s one tough cookie who gets the job done and suffers fools not at all. But all the public is likely to remember about Comrade Woods is that she was the person Jacinda brought in to clean up the god-almighty fuck-up that was KiwiBuild. Their entirely predictable conclusion: the Nats are right, this is another fuck-up. Their next entirely predictable conclusion: Labour just can’t get anything right – they’re bloody hopeless!

Is it hopeless? No, not yet. There’s still a bit of time to sort out this omnishambles. But, boy-oh-boy, it will require everybody in Jacinda’s kitchen cabinet to reach down deep into themselves and retrieve a whole lot more imagination, competence and courage than they have displayed to date. This government needs a plan – a solid, simple, no-frills, no-excuses plan for New Zealand’s economic recovery. Not a Treasury Plan, but a Labour plan. A plan that looks, smells, tastes and feels like the sort of remedy Mickey Savage, Bernie Sanders, or – oh, what the hell! – that AOC would be proud of. A plan that the Greens will swoon over, and that NZ First will reject outright.

Are you beginning to see where I’m going with this? No? Well let me make myself crystal clear.

To get out of the awful predicament in which she and her party now find themselves, Jacinda needs to goad Winston and Shane into doing something really dumb. Like refusing to back Jacinda’s and Grant’s democratic-socialist plan. The moment he does that the Prime Minister can justifiably pay a visit to Dame Patsy Reddy, advise her to dissolve Parliament and issue the writs for an early election.

When she’s done that, she can return to the Beehive Theatrette and deliver the speech of her life. A speech calling upon New Zealanders to give her the majority she needs to steer the country out of danger. A speech that asks the voters to set the principles of MMP aside for the duration of this once-in-a-generation national emergency. An emergency that New Zealanders dare not leave to the free-market instincts of the National Party to fix. A “give us the tools so we can finish the job” sort of speech.

As a garnish to this blood-rare steak dinner, she might then tip the wink to Labour voters in Auckland Central to cast their Electorate Vote for Chloe Swarbrick. You know, just to rub salt in Winston’s wounds!

In the meantime, while all this political drama is unfolding, Jacinda needs to make it very, very clear to Air Commodore Darren (Digby) Webb that she expects him and the NZDF to make this country’s borders tighter than a tin drum, and while it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to shoot anyone, a few cuts and bruises wouldn’t unduly bother her – or the rest of the country.

So, get to it, Jacinda. Strap some steel around those clay ankles of yours. Shut this omnishambles down. Change the conversation. And, for Christ’s sake – for all our sakes – win the bloody election!

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 23 June 2020.

Monday, 22 June 2020

Flat Earthers: For how much longer must New Zealand be damaged by Neoliberalism’s demented perceptions of reality?

Watching The World Burn: What was it that Michael Caine, playing the role of  Batman’s butler, said: “...some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Just substitute the word “worthwhile” for “logical” and replace “money” with “human decency” and you’ve defined the amoral narcissistic pyromania that is neoliberalism.

IF SOMEONE TOLD YOU they could jump off your roof and float gently to the ground, you’d doubt their sanity. Gravity is something we all experience. All of us – bar the seriously deluded – understand that it cannot be overcome. At least, not without the help of parachutes, gliders, hot-air balloons, aeroplanes and rocket-ships. Most of us – but, bafflingly, not all of us – are similarly convinced that the earth is a sphere. Significantly, this conviction is born of the faith we place in science. A spherical earth is not something most of us are able to grasp intuitively. Rather, it is something we trust to be true because we accept the explanations of people clever enough to prove it. In short, most of what we believe derives from direct personal experience. The rest we take on faith. This can be a problem.

For example. If someone attempts to convince a Treasury official that the performance of state institutions is improved by appointing leaders on the basis of their proven expertise and long years of experience within the relevant organisations, and by offering state employees secure lifetime employment, then the chances are the official will respond as if you have just declared that the Earth is flat. Since the number of state servants who can still remember how the public sector functioned before the neoliberal revolution grows smaller with every passing year, the Treasury official’s dismissive response will, almost certainly, be based on faith not direct experience.

Were you to suggest that the entire neoliberal ideology – from which his ideas about the best way to organise the state sector are derived – makes no more sense than the notion of a flat Earth, he would be astonished. He would struggle to believe that any sane person could doubt the veracity of neoliberalism. Mentally, he would file your suggestion under “N” – for nuts.

The events of the past few days: the appalling failure of our neoliberalised state sector to keep our borders secure from the threat of the Covis-19 virus; ought to produce the same reaction from its defenders as a person who, having jumped off a roof, mysteriously finds himself failing to float gently to the ground.

Certainly, it is difficult to imagine a more convincing example of the way in which neoliberalism has corroded the whole ethos of public service. The civil servants of 50 years ago would have been a rock against which the special pleading of selfish visitors/citizens, and the asinine braying of journalists, would have broken without effect. They would have understood that officials like themselves were all that stood between the people of New Zealand and a renewed outbreak of the disease which had already gouged a huge hole in their economy. Unmoved by the howls of protest of people unaccustomed to being told what to do they would have enforced the rules without fear or favour. What does it say about the state of our state that the only people who can now be relied upon to protect it are the personnel of the NZ Defence Force?

The person I feel most sorry for is Dr Ashley Bloomfield. His own professional training (which, unusually in the neoliberalised state sector, actually relates to public health) told him that granting “compassionate” exceptions to the strict requirements of self-isolation and quarantine would be extremely unwise. That ruthlessly defending the border against Covid-19 was the only way to eliminate the virus. He had reckoned without the faux outrage of a news media seemingly unable to understand the need for all responsible New Zealanders to close ranks in the interests of national survival.

Day after day the journalists bleated. “What would you say to those who cannot say farewell to the their loved ones?” Simply by asking that question they must have known that they were helping to dismantle the crucial defences against a resumption of community transmission.

Would their counterparts at the time of the Blitz have asked Winston Churchill such a question? Would they have turned the natural grief of families caught up in a once-in-a-generation national crisis into an excuse for embarrassing the government? Would the journalists of 1940 have deliberately compromised the nation’s resistance for a cheap headline? Not bloody likely!

In the New Zealand of 2020, however, after years of neoliberal corrosion, the Parliamentary Press Gallery knows exactly how to break a civil servant’s resolve. They are well aware of the fundamental caution which utterly pervades the state sector. They know how determined senior members of the public service are to protect their ministers from the clamour of an aroused populace. Evoke sufficient emotion; enlist sufficient support from Opposition politicians; apply sufficient pressure; and to protect his Prime Minister even an Ashley Bloomfield will break. This is how we got compassionate exemption. The Gallery broke the will of the Director-General of Health and forced the Prime Minister to bend. I hope they’re happy.

And, of course, they are happy: in fact they’re delighted. So delighted that they’re still doing it. Still asking the Prime Minister and her Director-General: “What would you say to … ? Don’t you owe an apology to … ?

What was it that Michael Caine, playing the role of  Batman’s butler, said: “...some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Just substitute the word “worthwhile” for “logical” and replace “money” with “human decency” and you’ve defined the amoral narcissistic pyromania that is neoliberalism.

No matter how high the casualties pile up, broken and bleeding, on the ground below, Neoliberalism keeps pushing humanity off the roof. Because, in their eyes, nobody is falling. In the world defined by their demented vision, we are all floating gently to the ground.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 19 June 2020.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Whose History?

Confronting The Past: What to do with our anger? That’s what counts now – as the promised New Zealand History curriculum nears completion. Should every Pakeha explorer; every missionary and trader; every royal emissary and military man be tried and convicted posthumously? Should every statue of the squat Queen-Empress be hauled down? Must every town and city – and the streets transecting them – be re-named? How are such questions to be answered - and by whom? Image by Dave Tipper.

THE DESCENDANTS of nineteenth century Pakeha colonists have some questions to answer about the past. By the same token, however, the descendants of nineteenth century colonialism’s Maori victims have some questions to answer about the future.
 
For the past 150 years only one story has been told about the origins and evolution of New Zealand – the Pakeha story. That needs to change. But, if the change amounts to nothing more than substituting a new Maori narrative, every bit as all-encompassing and unchallengeable as its Pakeha predecessor, then it is difficult to see how we, as a nation, will be very much further ahead.

Let us consider some examples of this growing determination to replace an old story with a new one. About a week ago, the Hamilton City Council responded to a threat to vandalise the statue of Captain John Fane Charles Hamilton (after whom the city is named) by uplifting and removing it. The Royal Navy Captain, it was alleged, was responsible for the deaths of many Maori in the Land Wars of the nineteenth century. His statue constituted an egregious affront to the sensibilities of local iwi.

The fact of the matter is that Captain Hamilton fell, sword in hand, at the Battle of Gate Pa, not far from Tauranga, in 1864. He met his death on the parapet of a Maori fortification while attempting to rally wavering British troops who, at that moment, were being shot down in their dozens by skilfully entrenched Maori warriors. Hamilton killed no one in that brutal encounter. By my calculation, the length of the naval officer’s sojourn in and around New Zealand, prior to being struck between the eyes by a musket ball, was just 177 days.

Hamilton’s conduct did, however, conform in every respect with the Victorian ideal of martial valour. He died, as all good Victorian captains were expected to die: bravely, facing the foe, for the honour of his sovereign and the glory of her realm. It’s why the new colonial settlement on the banks of the Waikato River was given his name. As a bona fide hero of the war Her Majesty’s forces had just won, he was someone to be remembered.

That the Maori activist who threatened Hamilton’s statue got most of the details of its subject’s short sojourn in New Zealand wrong, matters much less than the general validity of his objection to Hamilton’s posthumous role in memorialising the confiscatory colonial war in which he, however briefly, had participated. That objection is made even stronger by the statue’s provenance. Far from being a relic of the nineteenth century, it was gifted to the Hamilton City Council well into the twenty-first. Were I Maori, such careless reiteration of the colonial narrative would leave me frustrated and angry.

What to do with that anger? That’s what counts now – as the promised New Zealand History curriculum nears completion. Should every Pakeha explorer; every missionary and trader; every royal emissary and military man be tried and convicted posthumously? Should every statue of the squat Queen-Empress be hauled down? Must every town and city – and the streets transecting them – be re-named? Shall future generations of Otago university students be denied the pleasure of sinking a pint or three at The Captain Cook?

Because, if that is the way it must be: if the nineteenth century imperialists’ actions can only be answered by equal and opposite indigenous reactions in the twenty-first; then isn’t it inevitable that the anger and frustration ignited by the erasure of Pakeha history will set off a whole new cultural conflagration?

Maybe not. Earlier this week I heard a supposedly well-educated journalist and broadcaster make it clear that he hadn’t the faintest idea of Oliver Cromwell’s contribution to our history. Like Captain Hamilton and Captain Cook, Cromwell stood condemned for participating in historical events too vast for blame, too permanent for guilt.

That a small Central Otago town, once the home of disenfranchised goldminers, was named for the man whose “New Model Army” decided the issue between the Divine Right of Kings and the Rights of the People, has long been forgotten – along with its sharp political point.

The wind that blows from the past scatters the fog of the present, revealing the future. It’s blind breath cannot distinguish white skin from brown. History touches us all.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 June 2020.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

A Vigorous Rearrangement of Deck Chairs: Heather Simpson’s Neoliberal Prescription For New Zealand’s Health System.

Efficient and Effective? If Heather Simpson had dared to produce a report that restored to “efficient” and “effective” their true meanings, then it would have recommended the complete abolition of both the Ministry of Health and the District Health Boards, and their replacement with an all-encompassing Department of Health and Wellbeing. Sadly, she did not dare.

MUCH WILL BE WRITTEN about Heather Simpson’s plans for the New Zealand health system. Most of the attention, if the media’s coverage so far is any indication, will centre on the abolition of the system’s already anaemic democratic elements, along with the acceptability or otherwise of the provision made for addressing the health needs of Maori. Virtually nothing will be written, however, about the verbal formula which signals that, in spite of all the vigorous rearrangement of deck-chairs, nothing of any real substance in our public health system is going to change.

What is that verbal formula? Easy. It’s the one which reassures the reader of the Report’s unwavering commitment to the “efficient and effective” management of public resources.

What’s wrong with efficiency and effectiveness? I hear you say. In and of themselves, nothing. Nobody in their right mind wants an inefficient and/or ineffective public health system. (Arguably, that’s what we’ve got now!) It’s just that whenever the two words are linked together in the context of providing public services, they carry a meaning over and above their simple dictionary definitions.

Anyone familiar with the political and administrative history of the past 35 years will recognise immediately that that those who use this verbal formula are offering a great deal more that efficiency and effectiveness:

E&E is code for: this institution is being managed according to the theories and practices of neoliberalism.

E&E stands for the “funder/provider split” and against the existential threat of “provider capture”.

E&E signals the presence of a parasitic, grotesquely over-rewarded management layer dedicated to ensuring that scientific knowledge and professional expertise is kept in its place.

E&E means the payment of generous “performance bonuses” to those who prove, year-in, year-out, that more “outputs” can always be extracted from fewer “inputs”.

E&E has no interest in unions, professional organisations, or democracy.

E&E represents neoliberal managerialism uber alles.

Everything else in the Report flows from this verbal ritual of obeisance to the neoliberal paradigm. The breaking-up of the Ministry of Health. The establishment of competing centres of demand for resources and personnel. The elimination of what little remains of popular participation – via democratic elections – in the allocation of public resources. The assumption (or should that be the pretence?) that meritocracy constitutes the fundamental organising principle of the entire system. Everything, in short, that guarantees the system’s ability to go on resisting genuine and meaningful institutional change is summed-up in those two words: efficient and effective.

It was George Orwell who first made explicit the totalitarian practice of describing a regime’s actions by using words that describe the exact opposite. In his chilling dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the “Ministry of Truth” was where the regime concocted its biggest lies. The “Ministry of Peace” was the place from where Big Brother’s endless wars were planned and run. The “Ministry of Plenty” managed scarcity. And the “Ministry of Love” was where people were sent to be tortured. Under neoliberalism – the world’s most successful totalitarian ideology to date – we find exactly the same methods at work.

What could be more inefficient and ineffective than a health system which has been starved of human and material resources for the best part of four decades? What could be more guaranteed to produce sub-optimal results than the insertion of a layer of decision-makers charged with second-guessing and countermanding the advice and recommendations of medical specialists, doctors, nurses, carers and para-medics? What better way to produce the most dire and unintended consequences than allowing managerial staff to set financial “targets” achievable only by reducing the resources (beds, operating theatres, ICUs) that hospitals need to treat their patients?

If Heather Simpson had dared to produce a report that restored to “efficient” and “effective” their true meanings, then it would have recommended the complete abolition of both the Ministry of Health and the District Health Boards, and their replacement with an all-encompassing Department of Health and Wellbeing.

This new organisation would be equipped with a state-of-the-art IT system capable of tracking every patient and the resources expended in treating them. Each hospital would be run by a superintendent who was an experienced medical professional and overseen by a democratically-elected Health Review Committee.

The day-to-day management of the hospitals would be undertaken alongside and with input from the medical staff and their professional organisations. Within the department there would be sub-departments dedicated to primary healthcare, healthcare for the disabled, public health, mental health, women’s health, children’s health and Maori health, along with a special bureau dedicated to financial management, and another to the maintenance and extension of health infrastructure.

The Department of Health and Wellbeing would be statutorily required to present an annual, publicly available, report to the Minister of Health detailing both its achievements and its failures of the preceding 12 months, and setting forth its financial, workforce and material requirements for the coming year.

It would be understood by both the public and their parliamentary representatives that the health and well-being of the people is not only the state’s prime duty, but also that, in fulfilling this most fundamental of collective obligations, the sums allocated will never be enough. They would also be resolute in their determination that “efficiency” and “effectiveness” must never again have their meanings twisted to produce a system that condemns vast swathes of the population – particularly New Zealand’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens – to lives that are unhealthy and unwell.

This is not the understanding which Heather Simpson’s report seeks to promote. What’s more, it’s clear that the news media and other groups commenting on its content and recommendations never expected it to. Proof, I would argue, of just how firmly the ideology of neoliberalism has us in its grip.

The Coalition Government’s response to the arrival of the Covid-19 virus proved beyond all doubt that when money is urgently needed to serve the common welfare, it can always be found. If only Heather Simpson’s report had loudly and unequivocally proclaimed the urgency of the need to rebuild our public health system, and called upon New Zealand society to find both the money and the will to do it.

As it stands, Simpson’s $3 million report represents neither an efficient nor an effective use of public resources.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 18 June 2020.

Something Very Big.

Freedom Now: Residents enjoy the new order established in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone of central Seattle in Washington state, USA.

IT’S DOUBTFUL whether many of those applauding the current US protests grasp fully the enormity of what is happening there.

Take those six city blocks in Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington State. By ordering the Seattle Police to evacuate their East Precinct station-house – the city’s mayor effectively acquiesced in the creation of an “Autonomous” and “Police-Free” Zone in her city’s heart. Not even in the wildest dreams of the Black Panthers – the black revolutionary movement of the 1960s – was such a development ever seriously anticipated. Wanted? Yes. Fought for? Definitely. Achieved? Never.

And, as if the creation of “CHAZ” – the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone – wasn’t enough, the adjoining Cal Anderson Park has been converted into a “people’s park”. This development, too, links back directly to the radical struggles of the 1960s.

In 1969, students at the University of California at Berkeley had attempted to thwart the university authorities’ plans to “develop” what had been a free space frequented by the local community, by setting up a “people’s park” and planting a garden. The area was cleared with considerable brutality on the orders of the then Governor of California – Ronald Reagan.

Peoples Park protesters, Berkeley, California, 1969.

What we are witnessing in Seattle – and in a host of other cities across the United States – is an astonishing eruption of ideas and projects long since consigned to what their critics assumed was “the dustbin of history”. That this is so clearly not the case raises some quite intriguing questions about what we are actually seeing in the United States. Perhaps the most important question is whether these events, taken together, constitute a pre-revolutionary situation?

In the CHAZ, for example, the watchword has been “self-management”. The local inhabitants have collectively taken over the functions of the exiled police officers. Health care facilities have been established, along with food distribution centres for the poor and homeless. In short, CHAZ has taken on all the attributes of an anarchist “commune” – something not seen (at least not on anything approaching this scale) since the anarchists took over the Spanish city of Barcelona back in the 1930s. (If you want to know what that was like, then read George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”.)

I would be most remiss if I did not also mention the fact that Seattle, itself, has long been a city where progressive ideas and actions have flourished. It was the famous “Battle of Seattle” which, 20 years ago, called a halt to the hitherto unstoppable forces of “free” trade and globalisation. And 80 years before that, the quasi-revolutionary Seattle General Strike, not only struck fear into the capitalists of Washington State, but also into the entire American ruling-class.

The Battle of Seattle, December 1999.

Similar terrors must now be disturbing the sleep of the USA’s present rulers. In the months following the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 they had been perturbed, briefly, by the Occupy Movement. The ease with which the Occupy protests were crushed, however, put them off guard. America’s masters allowed their neoliberal ideologues to persuade them that the youth of America had lost all capacity to organise effectively and, accordingly, posed no serious threat to the status quo. Their big mistake was to assume that all American youths were white and college-educated. As we have seen over the course of the past three weeks, there are others.

More worrying still, for America’s rulers, must be the way so many authority figures: mayors, police chiefs, media bosses; have openly expressed their support for the ongoing protest demonstrations and – even worse – indicated their willingness to meet many of their demands. Since Neoliberalism and History don’t really mix, the vast majority of the American ruling-class will be unaware of the ominous historical precedent in which ordinarily reliable defenders of the existing order suddenly embrace the key demands of the revolutionary masses.

On the night of 4 August 1789, the French National Assembly, overwhelmed by the giddy elixirs fermented by the revolution then convulsing the country, voted to abolish the feudal system. The entire edifice of aristocratic privilege came tumbling down in a single night – laid low by the aristocrats themselves.

Watching the Minneapolis City Council vote to disband its own Police Department, or the entire Democratic Party membership of the US House of Representatives “take a knee” in remembrance of George Floyd, indicates just how powerful today’s messages of resistance have grown.

The key question, of course, is: Where will it stop? Or, perhaps, more darkly: Who will stop it? Certainly, President Donald Trump would like to stop all of it immediately. He was quick to insist that the “ugly anarchists” be driven from Seattle’s streets. The rest of the Republican Establishment: Senators, Governors, Mayors; must similarly be asking themselves when the counter-stroke will fall. When will law and order be restored in the streets? When will the revolution gathering pace across America be asphyxiated in a cloud of tear-gas – or worse.

Because there is much, much worse lurking in the shadows of American society than rogue police officers. Those determined to Make America Great Again have a very different utopia in mind from the one taking shape in the Capitol Hill district of Seattle. Such people will be pulling out their well-thumbed copies of the murderous “Turner Diaries” and just waiting for the word to split-open American society like a rotten log. That’s no idle boast, because, as we all know, not only are these Far-Right fanatics extremely dangerous, but they are also fearsomely well-armed.

But, they are not the only men with guns. When the truly serious shit hits the fan it will be the armed forces of the United States that has the final word. Over the course of the past fortnight the world has been heartened to learn how seriously America’s most senior military officers take their oath to “uphold, protect and defend” the Constitution of the United States. In the end, however, it is the common soldiery that will have the final say on who they will – and will not – slay.

If they decide to heed their Commander-in-Chief, then the Republic will fall. If they decide to defend the Constitution, then a new birth of freedom can, indeed, be expected in the USA.

In the powerful invocation of Leonard Cohen’s revolutionary anthem, “Democracy”:

Sail on, sail on, oh mighty ship of state
To the shores of need, past the reefs of greed,
Through the squalls of hate.
Sail on, sail on, sail on.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 16 June 2020.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Absent Friends: Labour knows what needs to be done to win – but not how to make it happen.

Give Her The Tools: The challenge confronting the Prime Minister and her colleagues is to somehow muster the intellectual forces needed to move Labour’s admirably simple campaign strategy from the lofty realm of theory into the gritty world of practice.

WINNING IN SEPTEMBER should be a doddle for Labour. The successful campaign strategy virtually writes itself. Draw together a comprehensive plan for economic recovery post-Covid. Indicate the Government’s general direction of travel by announcing creative solutions to the problems which will, inevitably, arise over the next 100 days. Maintain a “relentlessly positive” approach by insisting, in the spirit of 2017, “We can do this!”

Unfortunately, the biggest problem confronting Labour isn’t recognising what needs to be done; it’s working out how to make it happen.

For the best part of 30 years, Labour’s caucus hasn’t needed to draw together a comprehensive economic plan. In 1984, the plan that came to be known as “Rogernomics” was handed to them, ready-made, by Treasury. Labour and National have dutifully followed Treasury’s plan ever since. So rock-solid has the neoliberal consensus become in New Zealand that both of the major political parties have forgotten how to think in any other way. When either one of them wants to know what to think, they simply ask Treasury.

Prior to 1984, in the years when both Labour and National were mass parties boasting hundreds-of-thousands of members, policy advice was largely sourced in-house. What could not be obtained from members tended to be supplied by key interest groups. National could rely on Federated Farmers, the Employers Association and the Chambers of Commerce. Labour had the trade unions, schoolteachers and university staff, liberal churchmen, voluntary-sector workers, and elements of the Manufacturers Association. The secret to successive National Governments’ extraordinary longevity was simply a matter of stealing Labour’s policies, watering them down, and then introducing them as their own.

This complex process of producing economic and social policy even had a name: “Pluralism”. Society was presented as a multitude of competing “power centres” which the pressure of regular electoral contests forced into the self-reinforcing negotiation of political compromises. Viewed historically, pluralism was an indisputably progressive system. It guaranteed that the interests of workers and their families were both protected and advanced, but only at a speed with which capitalist investors and employers could keep pace, and which afforded them the time required to adapt. In this way “evolution” forestalled “revolution”.

Obviously, pluralism represented everything which the followers of what we now call neoliberalism detested. In their estimation, the only “power centres” which merited the state’s protection were those which protected the rights and interests of the market. Rogernomics thus set about the systematic dismantling of just about every competing centre of power in New Zealand society. Its straightforward purpose was to create a system in which the formulation of economic and social policy became the preserve of private think tanks and a state apparatus re-configured to serve the interests of capital exclusively. Their objective, largely achieved, was to leave all those seeking an alternative to neoliberalism with literally no viable means of either thinking it up, or making it happen.

You see the problem here? The Covid-19 Pandemic has exogenously generated (i.e. in the way the asteroid-Earth collision influenced the dinosaurs!) a critical need for new and imaginative economic and social policies. Unfortunately, the only institutions capable of formulating such policies are intellectually incapable of thinking outside the neoliberal box. The ideas of neoliberalism permeate not only the advice flowing into National’s caucus from the “Right”, but also the advice flowing into Labour’s caucus from the “Left”. Neither the trade unions, nor the universities; the churches nor the not-for-profit sector; have anything to offer, policy-wise, that even remotely resembles a detailed and comprehensive alternative to the status-quo.

Just consider the fate of what is probably the most heterodox policy package presented to a New Zealand government in the last 30 years: the report of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group. What happened to this radical, sector-wide suite of reforms? It was almost completely ignored. Carmel Sepuloni, the Social Development Minister, simply couldn’t summon-up the independence of mind required to over-rule her MSD advisers – for which her colleagues were no doubt profoundly grateful. What on earth would they have done if she had!

Because it would be a mistake to think that policy orthodoxy and a general reluctance to challenge official advice is behaviour peculiar to Carmel Sepuloni. The same could be said of just about every minister in Jacinda Ardern’s cabinet – including Jacinda herself.

She and her senior colleagues cut their political teeth in an environment where the neoliberal foundations of social and economic policy were regarded as immovable. Those who suggested otherwise, like Jim Anderton’s Alliance, and the Green Party under Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons, were treated like embarrassingly eccentric family members: people to be endured – not heeded. Certainly, anyone within Labour’s ranks foolish enough to suggest that neoliberalism might have had its day – like David Cunliffe – inspired only the rolling of eyes and grinding of teeth among their colleagues.

Like that asteroid, however, the Covid-19 crisis has brought on one or two changes. As both the Prime Minister and her Finance Minister have made clear in recent weeks, the need for a comprehensive policy reset is now urgent. Facing unemployment levels not seen since the darkest days of the Great Depression, the Labour component of the Coalition Government is reaching back, through its own history, for the inspiration needed to confront the vast challenges ahead.

What they are discovering, however, is that Rogernomics’ most pernicious legacy – at least in Labour – is the extraordinary damage it inflicted on the party’s intellectual and moral capacities. Never has the left-wing faction of the party which departed with Jim Anderton in 1989 been needed so desperately. Never has the absence of the alternative thinking it would have encouraged been more telling.

Pluralism, you see, is as vital to the health and progress of parties as it is to the general welfare of societies. I have this on the authority of no less an expert than Matt McCarten – who served as chief-of-staff to Jim Anderton, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little. Ruminating recently upon the ideological monoculture Labour has become, he told me sadly: “We should have stayed, Chris. We should have stayed.”

History, however, seldom offers us second chances. Notwithstanding Jacinda’s need for new ideas, she is unlikely to find them within her current ranks. Certainly, she will not discover them in the policy papers passed up by her neoliberal officials. They won’t be found in the glossy submissions of right-wing think tanks and PR firms either.

The challenge confronting the Prime Minister and her colleagues, therefore, is to somehow muster the intellectual forces needed to move Labour’s admirably simple campaign strategy from the lofty realm of theory into the gritty world of practice.

Never was the old saying more true: “Now is the time for every good person to come to the aid of the party.” Especially those with democratic socialist ideas!

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 12 June 2020.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

One Cheer For Democracy.

Tough Crowd: The democratic tree’s once wholesome fruit has been poisoned by the malodorous blight of populism. A toxic virus composed of three-parts racism, two-parts misogyny, one-part homophobia and four-parts malignant nationalism. Small wonder that so many young people, struggling to free themselves from the fear of fascist-populist intolerance and violence are increasingly giving up on freedom of speech – which only serves to spread the deadly disease.

GIVING UP ON DEMOCRACY, thankfully, remains unthinkable to most – if not all – New Zealanders. Ever since the triumph of democratic values in 1945, our political system’s moral superiority over all other governmental regimes has simply been assumed by those fortunate enough to live in liberal democratic societies.

The veterans of the global war against fascism needed no persuading. Their children, convinced by the Cold War rhetoric of freedom and justice, demanded its extension into every last corner of the world. Those born in the post-Cold War era, however, seem less enthused; less willing to take Democracy at its face value. Some are even demanding to know if Democracy is worth preserving.

They may have a point. Though the American President who led the United States into World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had promulgated the “Four Freedoms” (Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear) as the core war aims of the Allies, he did so in a land where those freedoms were neither universally acknowledged nor enforced.

It was Roosevelt himself who had given the order to inter all American citizens of Japanese descent in what were essentially concentration camps. The armies that fought Japanese militarism in the Pacific, and German and Italian fascism in Europe, remained racially segregated throughout. African Americans migrating from the Jim Crow South to the North and West in search of wartime employment were welcomed with white-inspired race riots. A great many of the otherwise progressive American trade unions maintained a rigid colour-bar right up until the 1970s.

Nor was it considered tasteful to acknowledge too forthrightly the indisputable fact that Hitler was not defeated by the democratic armies of the West, but by the armies of the totalitarian Soviet Union. No democratic leader, and certainly not Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt, would have dared to squander human life as carelessly as the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. The almost incomprehensible Soviet military and civilian losses – 24 million dead – only hint at the unprecedented ferocity of the fighting on the Eastern Front. In essence, the Second World War turned out to be a titanic struggle between two equally abhorrent dictators. The total number of American and British soldiers who died for Democracy is considerably less than a million.

To make matters worse, the gun barrels had hardly had time to cool before the Western nations decided to interpret the Soviets’ extreme defensiveness vis-à-vis Eastern Europe as proof of their intention to roll Stalinism all the way to the English Channel. As if the Soviets, bled almost white by Hitler’s Wehrmacht and Himmler’s SS; its cities in ruins and its villages charred piles of rubble; were in any state to threaten the sole possessor of the atomic bomb!

The western capitalists states’ deep fear of communist world dominion, however ill-founded, was nevertheless real enough for them to spend the best part of three decades curtailing the democratic rights of their own citizens at home, while denying them entirely to human-beings living abroad.

It was only when the Soviet Union blipped ignominiously off History’s screen in 1991 that the peoples of the West began to understand just how many of their economic and social rights had depended upon its existence. Absent the restraining influence of its principal geopolitical and ideological competitor, free-market capitalism could finally and unceremoniously jettison the “social” democracy which had made the post-war lives of western workers so secure and prosperous. Their unconscionable drag on corporate profits was no longer justifiable.

And so we come to the political environment in which the young people of today are required to contemplate their future. A world in which it is seemingly impossible for the edicts of the market to be gainsaid – at least, not through the ballot-box. No matter which Jeremy or Bernie they vote for, neoliberalism always wins.

The democratic tree’s once wholesome fruit has been poisoned by the malodorous blight of populism. A toxic virus composed of three-parts racism, two-parts misogyny, one-part homophobia and four-parts malignant nationalism. Small wonder that so many young people, struggling to free themselves from the fear of fascist-populist intolerance and violence are increasingly giving up on freedom of speech – which only serves to spread the deadly disease.

Seventy years ago, E. M. Forster could muster only “Two Cheers for Democracy”. Today, it barely rates one.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 June 2020.

Taking Back Our Eyes.

Seeing For Ourselves: If remaining in the Anglo-Saxon alliance means embracing a far-right version of populism already indistinguishable from incipient fascism; if it requires New Zealand to join its “allies” in repeating all the horrors of Anglo-Capitalism’s imperial past; then we must have nothing to do with it.

WHY IS AUSTRALIA so keen to bring the finance ministers of the “Five Eyes” together? Since when did the intelligence gathering and sharing arrangement launched nearly 70 years ago as the UK-USA Agreement start morphing into an economic and military alliance? More importantly, how long has Canberra been anticipating New Zealand’s participation in this transformation? Clearly, the promoters of what is looking more and more like ANZUS 2.0 are not particularly worried that such a policy would jeopardise our relationship with China. Indeed, alienating China from New Zealand may be one of the key objectives of the whole exercise.

Canberra clearly believes that if Beijing is ready to impose a heavy economic cost on  Australia for its unwavering allegiance to the United States, then Wellington, too, should be prepared to endure the lash of Chinese displeasure. And make no mistake, Canberra is paying a price. Its food exports to China are being impeded and the Chinese Government is warning its citizens to avoid visiting Australia on account of its deep-seated racial antagonism towards Asian peoples. This warning will damage not only the Australian tourist industry (already stricken thanks to Covid-19) but it will also choke off the multi-billion-dollar flow of Chinese fee-paying students to Australia’s schools and universities.

These are merely the preliminaries, however, should Australia persist in its determination to be the best deputy-sheriff Uncle Sam has ever had. New Zealanders often express concern at their own country’s growing economic dependence on the Chinese market. Our economic vulnerability pales, however, when set alongside the Australian mining industry’s reliance on China’s apparently insatiable appetite for the Lucky Country’s mineral exports. A full-scale boycott of Australian coal, copper, bauxite and iron-ore would plunge the Australian economy into an even deeper recession.

What reward is Canberra hoping to receive in return for jeopardising its economic future? Why is it so keen to take up such an exposed position in the “New Cold War” which is fast intensifying between the Peoples Republic and the so-called “Quad States” – the USA, Japan, Australia and India? Has the rise and rise of China awakened all the old atavistic Australian fears of the “Yellow Peril”? The existential fears which fuelled the frankly racist “White Australia Policy” which lasted from federation in 1901 until well into the 1970s. And if that is the driving force behind Canberra’s reckless willingness to put at risk Australia’s own vital economic interests, then how does it expect the USA to make good the loss of its Chinese buyers?

The crucial feature of a declining power is its diminishing capacity to offer a credible quid pro quo for its friends’ and allies’ loyalty.

Why was New Zealand (a nation of barely one million in 1914) prepared to sacrifice upwards of 12,000 of its young sons for the greater glory of the British Empire in World War I? The cynical answer: because the primary produce importers on London’s Tooley Street were willing to take everything Britain’s South Seas “farm” could send them. Not to put too fine a point upon it, we traded blood for butter. A Devil’s bargain, no doubt, but a profitable one!

Is Canberra labouring under the illusion that the USA will absorb all its vital mineral exports should China decline to receive them? Does the Australian Government really believe that America’s own mining industry is just going to sit back and let Australian imports flood their markets and drive down their prices? The United States is a mature, almost post-industrial, capitalist economy. It passed through the phase through which China is currently passing more than a century ago. Australia’s much-vaunted “luck” stems from it being handsomely endowed and strategically located to supply the needs of a rapidly industrialising Asia. Overwhelmingly, for the last 40 years, that has meant China. What has Washington told Canberra about the region’s geopolitical future that has made Australian politicians so willing to court the ire of Beijing. What does Scotty Morrison know that we don’t?

The name of the “Quad’s” new geopolitical initiative, the “Indo-Pacific Strategy”, offers a pretty big clue. Simply recall that, until very recently, all the talk among the Five Eyes and their allies was about their “Asia-Pacific Strategy”. The shift in focus, from East to South Asia, from China to India, points to the overall direction of travel of Anglo-Capitalism in the twenty-first century. With China stubbornly refusing to follow the same path as the Soviet Union; with Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan significantly failing to replicate the fates of Ukraine, Georgia, the “stans” and the Baltic states; with Beijing forging ahead to reclaim its historical primacy in the region; the time has apparently arrived for the Five Eyes powers to sink their talons into yet another vast population of peasants. For India, what came around in the seventeenth century is about to come around again.

The politics required for the Five Eyes powers to pull this off isn’t pretty.

Remember the BRIC countries? (Brazil, Russia, India and China) Remember the Anglo-capitalists’ alarm at the emergence of a bloc determined to step out of the shadow of its individual members’ tragic histories? Where are they now? Brazil and India – like the USA and the UK – are (mis)ruled by far-right populists hellbent on leading their people back into the steely embrace of the imperialists. The survivors, China and Russia, are now – according to the Five Eyes powers – Public Enemies 1 and 2.

And so, at last, we can answer the question of why the Australians are so determined to ensure that every last one of the Five Eyes are on the same economic (i.e. ideological) page. Why it is so important that no one (and, yes, they’re looking at you Jacinda and Grant) breaks ranks by declining to see China as an enemy. How vital it is that no member state draw attention to the fact that the planet cannot possibly sustain the massive carbon investment required to turn India into another China.

It was the “Asia-Pacific Strategy” that fouled the lungs of Planet Earth. The “Indo-Pacific Strategy” threatens to bring on a fever that will stop her heart.

We should inform Canberra, Washington, Ottawa and London that we are taking back our eyes – the better to find and follow an independent foreign policy path. If remaining in the Anglo-Saxon alliance means embracing a far-right version of populism already indistinguishable from incipient fascism; if it requires New Zealand to join its “allies” in repeating all the horrors of Anglo-Capitalism’s imperial past; then we must have nothing to do with it.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 11 June 2020.