Friday, 31 July 2020

Who Ya Gonna Call? Labour and the New Zealand Economy.

Truth In Advertising: Labour, it would seem, is the party that knows nothing about running the economy right up until the moment that it does. 

HOW DID LABOUR acquire its reputation for being a poor economic manager? As with most things political and historical, it’s a long story.

In the beginning, the very idea that Labour might become New Zealand’s government was considered so preposterous that its economic policies weren’t considered seriously. To be fair, in its early days Labour’s economic ideas were more ideological than practical. The party espoused “the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. Once the people were firmly in control of the economy, Labour seemed perfectly content to leave the details of its management to them.

Unfortunately, the revolution in Russia and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks provided the rest of the world with a lurid picture of what “socialisation” could look like. Most New Zealanders recoiled in horror. If this was class war, then roughly 8 out of every 10 voters wanted no part of it. Clearly, hair-raising and formulaic responses to economic questions were not the way to win votes for Labour outside its working-class bastions in the big cities – and the West Coast’s coal mines.

Thus began the long and difficult journey from the Red Dawn of Labour’s adolescence to the Pink Sunrise of its adult years. Along the way the party steadily shed the most radical of its manifesto promises. That Labour was finally ready to occupy the Treasury Benches was signalled when the party voted to abandon its longstanding commitment to nationalise all privately-owned land in New Zealand.

The event which drove this crucial shift from revolutionary rhetoric to reformist realism was, of course, the Great Depression. Labour had to present the electorate with something it could vote for because it was fast becoming clear to a majority of New Zealanders that the conservative coalition government of the day was utterly bereft of ideas about how to get the economy moving again. Labour owed the people a workable alternative – and in the 1935 general election it delivered one.

For the next 14 years, through depression and world war, Labour kept on delivering. For tens-of- thousands of New Zealanders, the party not only stood for the nation’s, but also their own families’, economic salvation. The policies of Mickey Savage, Peter Fraser, Bob Semple, Jack Lee and Walter Nash were widely credited with transforming New Zealand. The country entered the post-war period with one of the world’s most prosperous economies. The opposition National Party only secured the reins of government in 1949 by promising to leave Labour’s “cradle to grave” welfare state intact.

The event that cost Labour its reputation as a wise and just economic manager was the so-called “Black Budget” of 1958. Confronted with a ballooning balance-of-payments deficit, Labour’s Finance Minister, Arnold Nordmeyer, increased excise taxes and sharply curbed the importation of foreign goods. For old and ignoble political and personal reasons, the trade union leader, Fintain Patrick Walsh, joined with the National Opposition in castigating Nordmeyer’s “Black Budget” as a puritanical Presbyterian’s attack on the booze-and-baccy pleasures of the working man.

That Nordmeyer’s tough-but-fair measures actually righted the economy and restored its forward momentum was forgotten. For the best part of two decades all any National Party politician had to say was: “Remember Nordy’s Black Budget!” and voters winced.

By the mid-1980s, however, the gross incompetence of a conservative government had, once again, compelled Labour to set aside its social-democratic dreams. New Zealand urgently required an economic programme capable of extricating its economy from the cul-de-sac into which the dirigiste policies of National’s Rob Muldoon had driven it. “You can’t run a country like a Polish shipyard!”, boomed Labour’s leader, David Lange. Roger Douglas wasn’t about to disagree.

Labour, it would seem, is the party that knows nothing about running the economy right up until the moment that it does. It is nothing short of astounding that in spite of everything that has happened since the party’s formation in 1916 – up to and including Labour’s two decisive re-organisations of the New Zealand economy of 1935-49 and 1984-1990 – New Zealand’s conservative establishment still finds it expedient to cast the Labour Party as a bunch of blood-thirsty Bolsheviks hell-bent on nationalising everything and shooting the buggers who complain.

This woeful lack of gratitude on the part of New Zealand’s capitalists makes me wish (almost) that their false description of Labour was true.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 31 July 2020.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Arguing About China.

Fact Check: New Zealand’s own relationship with China might, however, be salvageable if our own Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was willing to equip its minister, Winston Peters, with a few facts. Legislating for the protection of national security – the very action our Foreign Minister is decrying – was specifically provided for in the Basic Law of the Hong Kong SAR more than 20 years ago.

ARGUING ABOUT CHINA is fast becoming a “thing” – especially on the Left. On one side stand the old-timers, derided by some as “tankies”, who grew up during the first Cold War and are deeply troubled by the increasingly reckless, United States-led campaign to create a second. On the other side stand the defenders of human rights and democracy, the people who will not countenance any attempt to intrude economic, diplomatic or military considerations into their quest for liberty. These are the people for whom the ancient cry: “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!” was invented.

Given the obvious dangers associated with deliberately heightening the tensions between the Peoples Republic of China and the “Five Eyes” anglophone association of the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and (reluctantly) New Zealand, it seems only prudent to test the moral consistency of the Human Rights and Democracy Camp’s position. How much, exactly, are they willing to give up for the liberal-democratic values they are so determined to promote?

Let’s begin with something very close to the average Westerner’s heart – the miraculous technology that connects and transports them to the rest of the world. Since most of the world’s “Rare Earths”, those incredibly scarce and valuable minerals that make our cutting-edge technology function, are sourced from China, are the liberal-democrats willing to stop using their miracle machines until the Chinese Communist Party is dethroned?

Not fair? Okay. Let’s bring it all back home.

New Zealand’s Five Eyes “partners” are currently putting very heavy pressure on Wellington to join them in “decoupling” this country’s 5G network from the Chinese IT flagship Huawei. If the government buckles and Huawei is banned in New Zealand  (as it has just been banned in the UK) and the CCP retaliates by banning New Zealand’s dairying flagship, Fonterra, from operating in China, will the Human Rights and Democracy Camp accept the resulting domestic economic hardship as the price to be paid for standing up to Chinese tyranny?

And what will the Human Rights and Democracy Camp’s position be if, emboldened by their success over Huawei, our Five Eyes partners insist that New Zealand join with Australia in lifting its defence expenditure to a minimum of 2 percent of GDP? Are these stalwart champions of liberal-democracy willing to see the billions of dollars currently earmarked for schools,  hospitals and fighting climate-change redirected to fighter-jets, frigates and submarines? Will this, too, be accepted as the price of securing regime change in Beijing?

Following the logic of this new Cold War, is the Human Rights and Democracy Camp prepared to accommodate something similar to the sharp shift to the political right that accompanied the onset of the first Cold War in the late-1940s and early-1950s? Will they, as so many “liberal-democrats” did in the face of the “red scare” and the McCarthyite witch-hunts, look the other way as artists, writers, journalists and trade unionists are accused of being communist agents of the People’s Republic and transformed overnight into jobless, friendless political pariahs? Will they, too, embrace the paradox of trashing human rights and democracy in the name of promoting human rights and democracy?

Following this descending geopolitical staircase to its dark terminus, will our by now fully-paid-up New Cold Warriors remain silent as their government ranges itself alongside a United States determined to “face down” the Chinese communist tyrants regardless of the cost? Will they be content to leave the management of this confrontation to a US President who, unlike Jack Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, possesses no personal experience of war and insufficient intellectual resources to test and challenge the advice of his Joint Chiefs of Staff? Will they simply hope that the Chinese – as they did 160 years ago – reluctantly surrender their sovereignty to the West’s superior firepower? And what will they tell their children and grandchildren as intercontinental ballistic missiles and their multi-megaton nuclear payloads start criss-crossing the Pacific? That they made sure that justice was done – even at the cost of setting the heavens on fire, bringing down human civilisation and condemning their families to a lingering death from radiation among the ruins?

But isn’t this an argument in favour of craven appeasement? According to its logic, wouldn’t Britain have been wiser to allow Adolf Hitler free-rein in Europe? Aren’t we “tankies”, like the despised Neville Chamberlain, pursuing peace at any price?

The comparison is, of course, entirely spurious. In 1938, neither the UK nor Nazi Germany possessed nuclear weapons. Had they done so, the diplomatic and military calculations of the 1920s and 30s would have been made using the same formulae applied during the first Cold War. Joseph Stalin was, after all, every bit as foul a villain as Hitler, and just as worthy of destruction. But, once his Soviet Union acquired atomic and hydrogen bombs, the costs of making war on it far exceeded any possible benefits – up to and including human rights and democracy! There’s not much call for either in the irradiated wastelands that follow the mutual and assured destruction of a nuclear exchange.

We tankies would like nothing more than to see a China in which human rights and democracy have sunk down deep roots. We are simply doubtful that either goal can be achieved when the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is openly declaring his determination to force regime change in Beijing. The policy we much prefer is the policy that took the heat (so to speak) out of the first Cold War: “Peaceful Co-existence”. Only when the Chinese Communist Party no longer views the US and its allies as an existential threat will it be possible to resume a meaningful dialogue about human rights and democracy in the Peoples Republic of China. While the Five Eyes powers brazenly advance the diplomatic, economic and military containment of China – also known as the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” – such a dialogue is impossible.

New Zealand’s own relationship with China might, however, be salvageable if our own Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was willing to equip its minister, Winston Peters, with a few facts. In relation to Hong Kong, for example, it would have been immensely helpful for the New Zealand Government to have drawn its citizens’ attention to Article 23 of the 1997 treaty by which the UK returned Hong Kong to China as a Special Administrative Region. The article states:

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.

In other words, legislating for the protection of national security – the very action our Foreign Minister is decrying – was specifically provided for in the Basic Law of the Hong Kong SAR more than 20 years ago. (Hat-tip to Mike Smith for drawing Article 23 to my attention.)

All that has changed since the West happily signed-off on Article 23 is that China has grown stronger. That strength has helped to make New Zealand a more prosperous country. In joining the reckless efforts of the United States and the other Five Eyes powers to contain and weaken China we will do nothing to strengthen human rights and democracy in that country and may, by heeding the dangerous counsels of coercion, end up weakening them in our own.

Just months before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy addressed the students of the American University in Washington. What he said then is as relevant to international relations today as it was in 1963:

So, let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 30 July 2020.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Killing The Nats With, Of All Things, Kindness.

Powerful Connection: Neoliberalism is the antithesis of everything that has traditionally been associated with the feminine aspects of human nature. Kindness and compassion, nurturance and inclusiveness: such qualities have no place in the neoliberal order. When Jacinda proclaimed her determination to practice the “politics of kindness”, she was, wittingly or unwittingly, raising a revolutionary banner.

WHY ARE THE RIGHT so very, very frightened of Jacinda Ardern? Are the fears of the Mike Hoskings of this world driven solely by the fact that she is a woman? Or, is it about something deeper than that? Is it actually driven by the fact that, as a woman, she is given the cultural space to deploy ideas which would, were she a man, be denied her?

From the moment she became New Zealand’s prime minister in 2017, Jacinda’s signature theme has been “kindness”. Theoretically, there is absolutely nothing to stop a male politician from adopting the theme of “kindness” as his own. The fact that so few – anywhere around the world – have done so is, however, instructive. To elevate kindness and compassion over all the other traditional political virtues, such as strength, sound judgement and decisiveness, is not something 999 out of 1,000 male politicians would do. Why not? Because in the minds of far too many voters such a move would be interpreted as effeminate and weak.

Recall the fate of David Cunliffe? With rare emotional honesty, he responded to the shocking domestic violence statistics presented to him at a conference of Women’s Refuges by telling the assembled delegates that there were times when he was “sorry I’m a man”. How well I recall the evening of the day he uttered those words. My drinking companions, all of them good, card-carrying “progressives”, had their heads in the hands. Male or female – it made no difference – everyone around the table knew that Cunliffe’s heartfelt admission would sink Labour’s campaign. Socialists, feminists, socialist-feminists: we all knew that no New Zealand male, much less one intent on becoming prime minister, could so openly cast aspersions upon Kiwi masculinity and be forgiven.

So ingrained is this fear of being branded weak and effeminate that even female politicians have made it their business to present themselves as the best man for the job. Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Jenny Shipley and even Labour’s own Helen Clark: all of them worked tirelessly to come across as tough, strong, decisive and, yes, ruthless politicians. Each of them, in their own way, echoed the words of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth:

Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait upon nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

Tellingly, it is no great stretch to imagine Judith “Crusher” Collins smiling grimly at Lady Macbeth’s terrifying repudiation of the feminine. Equally tellingly, it is impossible to credibly attribute such sentiments to Jacinda Ardern.

It is Jacinda’s refusal to “thicken her blood” that has caused such fright among the Right. In spite of its apologists’ protestations to the contrary, managing the neoliberal order requires very thick blood indeed. And although neoliberals would recoil from the description, “direst cruelty” is precisely what the free market inflicts upon those lacking the resources to engage with it successfully. In other words, neoliberalism is the antithesis of everything that has traditionally been associated with the feminine aspects of human nature. Kindness and compassion, nurturance and inclusiveness: such qualities have no place in the neoliberal order. When Jacinda proclaimed her determination to practice the “politics of kindness”, she was, wittingly or unwittingly, raising a revolutionary banner.

Jacinda’s response to the Covid-19 Pandemic has proved particularly difficult for the neoliberal order to swallow. Her refusal to place the needs of the few ahead of the needs of the many continues to enrage its defenders. For the first time in 35 years, the New Zealand State has told its business people: its employers, bankers and landlords; that their interests must take second place to those of ordinary working-class New Zealanders. Billions have been – and continue to be – spent to keep the nation’s households functioning. Rights have been constrained, not, this time, in the name of “labour market flexibility”, but in order to keep the whole population safe. For the first time in a long time, the New Zealand government has instructed its people to be something other than “competitive”. For the first time in a long time, it has asked them to treat each other with “kindness”.

The Mike Hoskings of this world are telling New Zealanders not to believe the numbers thrown up by Newshub’s Reid Research poll. They simply cannot accept that the social solidarity which was asked for, and given, during the period of Lockdown has paid such handsome political dividends. Clearly, they are no historians.

Eighty-two years ago, an equally flinty-faced National Party described Labour’s Social Security legislation as “applied lunacy”. The Prime Minister, Mickey Savage, responded that all his government was offering the people of New Zealand was “applied Christianity”. Mickey could say this, of course, with complete confidence. New Zealanders in the 1930s were an actively Christian people. The injunction to “love they neighbour as thyself” constituted the beating heart of the Christian religion. “Humbug!” cried the capitalists. “Amen!” shouted just about everybody else.

The secret of Christianity’s power has always been it’s capacity to integrate its unashamedly feminine values with the all-too-masculine impulses of the classical and feudal regimes it tamed and civilised. For two millennia, frustrated patriarchs have railed against the womanly weakness of this “slave religion”. Everyone from Gibbon to Nietzsche has lamented its tendency to soften and re-direct the all-important will to power that makes societies such wonderful places for men to live in.

New Zealand is no longer the Christian country it was in Mickey Savage’s time, but “kindness” makes a pretty good substitute for “applied Christianity” nonetheless. I strongly suspect that Jacinda knows to the decimal point the mighty harvest of votes her predecessor reaped in the general election of 1938. The 55.8 percent given to Labour for its “applied Christianity” isn’t far off the 60 percent currently being offered for Jacinda’s “kindness”. Right now, though, I’m pretty sure our young prime minister, who is modelling a whole new way for women to do politics in the Twenty-First century, would happily accept either figure!

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 28 July 2020.

Friday, 24 July 2020

Why Is The Left Not Opposing The West’s New Cold War With China?

Carve-Up: 120 years after the Eight-Power Intervention of 1900 the racist assumptions of the Western powers vis-à-vis China have hardly changed at all. They still arrogate to themselves the right to dispose of the future of the Chinese people as they see fit. There remains the same racist assumption that the West’s values and institutions are superior in every way to those of a civilisation that has endured for 3,000 years. The same hunger for profits that drove the British to force their opium into the lungs of the Chinese people at the point of a gun, continues to drive the Western capitalist elites.

ANTI-RACISM IS BIG at the moment – very big. Why, then, are so many on the left of politics, both here and overseas, climbing aboard the Western powers’ New Cold War Express? The European nations that profited most from the trans-Atlantic slave trade; the ruthless beneficiaries of the plantation system; the peoples who introduced the terms “white” and “black” to the world’s vocabulary; these are the racist capitalist imperialists the Left is lining up with against the Peoples Republic of China. Given that the Old Cold War brought the world to the very brink of nuclear annihilation, the idea of joining in the creation of a new one seems ever-so-slightly daft. Why can’t the Left see that?

The answer, sadly, is that the contemporary Left is almost entirely ignorant of geopolitics and the strict limitations it places on diplomatic action. Even when it comes to basic economics and its decisive influence on politics, the Left’s powers of analysis have atrophied to an astonishing degree. All that remains to those who still identify themselves as “left-wing” is the ersatz “morality” with which the Western powers are so adept at cloaking their attacks on geopolitical and economic rivals. China must become our enemy because of its treatment of Tibet, the persecution of the Uighurs, and the suppression of political dissent in Hong Kong.

Let’s deconstruct this analysis piece by piece – starting with Tibet.

In geopolitical terms, Tibet constitutes the “high ground” of Eurasia. Whenever the Chinese Empire was strong enough to assert its suzerainty over Tibet (which was most of the time) the Tibetan theocracy willingly paid homage to Beijing. In the nineteenth century, however, the British transformed Tibet into one of its many “protectorates”. In the “Great Game” (the euphemistic term employed to describe the imperial moves and counter-moves of the British and Russian empires for control of Central Asia) Tibet was seen by London as crucial to the protection of India’s northern flank. China, humbled in the same wars that secured the island of Hong Kong for Her Britannic Majesty, was in no position to resist.

Fast-forward to the middle of the twentieth century. The British Empire is in full retreat. India has won its independence. The Chinese Communist Party has driven the nationalist Kuomintang regime off the Chinese mainland and, with the support of its Soviet ally, is well-positioned to restore China’s suzerainty over Tibet. In geopolitical terms, the CCP has little choice. Acknowledging Tibet’s “independence”, would be interpreted by the Indians and the Soviets as an invitation to fill the power vacuum themselves. Accordingly, the Peoples Liberation Army occupies Tibet, dismantles its feudal Buddhist theocracy, and drives the Dalai Lama over the Himalayas to exile in India.

While the Communist Party retains power in Beijing, Tibet will remain under Chinese control. And, for as long as well-meaning new-agers in the West demand the restoration of the Dalai Lama, Beijing will do everything it can to smother Tibetan nationalism. Tragically, that means smothering the ancient religious culture which inspires the nationalists’ resistance. The louder the international clamour for an independent Tibet, the more determined the CCP becomes to transform the territory into just another Chinese province. Perhaps Richard Gere and his fellow travellers might like to think about that the next time they feel moved to raise the flag of “Free Tibet”?

An equal determination to crush the forces of religious nationalism is evident in Xinjiang, where the CCP has launched a massive campaign to neutralise the ability of the Islamic faith to arm – both literally and figuratively – the nascent movement for Uighur independence. With Xinjiang sharing its western border with five Islamic states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Beijing’s nervousness is understandable. The concentration of upwards of a million “suspect” Uighurs in massive high-rise complexes reflects the CCP’s longstanding belief in the superiority of coercive social-engineering over the much more costly alternative (in every sense) of full-scale military engagement and “pacification”.

Beijing has observed the philosophical cul-de-sacs into which the West’s policies of multicultural diversity and religious tolerance have driven it, and remains committed to enforcing a single, Han Chinese-derived definition of citizenship. That China’s official communist ideology now finds itself engaged in a no-holds-barred, hearts-and-minds struggle with the Islamic religion is in no way considered wrong or unfortunate. Rather, it is seen as a necessary and unavoidable confrontation between progressive and reactionary thinking. A vast “struggle session” from which, it is confidently assumed, the Chinese state will emerge stronger and more united than ever.

Beijing is no more willing to countenance a challenge to its sovereignty from the eastern extremity of the Peoples Republic than it is from its uttermost west. Indeed, the threat of an Islamic jihad breaking out in Xinjiang, and the year-long protests bedevilling the “Special Administrative Region” of Hong Kong, are viewed as evidence of a single, US-led, effort to divert and delay China’s re-emergence as the world’s dominant power. From the CCP’s perspective, the slightest indication of weakness on the part of the Chinese state will only encourage the West to apply new and greater pressures at other points of perceived vulnerability.

The story of Hong Kong is illustrative of the West’s long-term Chinese strategy. It has been an article of faith in Western capitals for many decades that the adoption of what they considered “capitalism” by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 would lead China inexorably towards “liberal democracy”. Far from being seen as proof that Beijing will do whatever it takes to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, the West interpreted the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square as merely the first act in a drama that would expand and intensify until the inevitable triumph of human rights and freedoms. Hong Kong was supposed to show Beijing the way. In time the whole of China would embrace free speech and the rule of law.

What China saw was something quite different. “Liberal democracy”, as applied in what had been the Soviet Union, brought only territorial disintegration, corruption and Nato’s relentless advance to Russia’s suddenly buffer-less and strategically vulnerable borders. Boris Yeltsin, a boorish drunkard, epitomised the humiliation of the once proud Soviet state. He presided over a vicious kleptocracy while the life expectancy of the Russian people plummeted. That he won re-election was due almost entirely to the shameless intervention of American political fixers. If these were the blessings of liberal democracy, Beijing wanted none of them!

China’s national security apparatus was particularly determined to ward off any hint of the so-called “colour revolutions” which had swept Europe’s former socialist states. It familiarised itself with the tactics of these initially student-based “non-violent” protest movements. They noted how, when met with brutal state repression, these movements were able to blossom into society-wide uprisings. They also tracked the involvement of foreign advisers and their American funders.

What had worked in Belgrade, Tbilisi and Kiev would not be permitted to work in Hong Kong. While Washington waited impatiently for the arrival of the PLA – and another Tiananmen bloodbath – Beijing quietly prepared its new Security Law. Slowly, but unmistakably, the yellow ribbons and umbrellas of Hong Kong’s year of living dangerously are melting away.

In 1900, an eight-nation alliance of Western powers mounted a military intervention to suppress the popular revolutionary movement which was threatening to end foreign influence in China. Comprised of British, French, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Italian, United States and Japanese military units (along with state contingents from Australia) this 45,000-strong force subdued the revolutionaries, pillaged Beijing, and forced the Imperial Chinese government to meet the costs of their punitive expedition.

The moral tenor of this frankly and unapologetically imperialist intervention is best captured in the message sent to his troops by the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II:

“A great task awaits you: You must see to it that a serious injustice is expiated. The Chinese have overturned the law of nations. Never before in world history have the sanctity of diplomats and the obligations of hospitality been subjected to such contempt. It is all the more outrageous that these crimes have been committed by a nation which prides itself on its ancient culture ….. When you come upon him, know this: Pardon will not be given. Prisoners will not be taken. Bear your weapons so that for a thousand years no Chinaman will dare even to squint at a German.”

120 years later, the racist assumptions of the Western powers vis-à-vis China have hardly changed at all. They still arrogate to themselves the right to dispose of the future of the Chinese people as they see fit. There remains the same racist assumption that the West’s values and institutions are superior in every way to those of a civilisation that has endured for 3,000 years. The same hunger for profits that drove the British to force their opium into the lungs of the Chinese people at the point of a gun, continues to drive the Western capitalist elites. Nothing is forbidden to those whose skins are white.

Such is the historical force alongside which the Western Left has chosen to position itself.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 24 July 2020.

In 2020, As In 1984, Young And Old May Vote Together.

Together, Not Apart: In political terms, 2020 represents the exact reverse of 1984. Then, the tide was running with the challengers. Now, it is running with the incumbents. If Labour and the Greens can plausibly guarantee to keep us working and keep us safe, then traditional demographic voting patterns will cease to matter. Young and old, rich and poor, brown and white will repay Jacinda with a landslide.

HERE WE GO AGAIN. Young New Zealanders are not registering to vote in anything like the numbers needed to re-elect Jacinda Ardern. Labour relies on the voters aged between 25 and 55 years-of-age to supply the bulk of its Party Vote. If voters aged between 18 and 25 registered and voted in anything like the same numbers as the centre-left’s core vote, Labour would long ago have become New Zealand’s “natural party of government”.

Labour’s vulnerability stems not only from the unwillingness of 18-25 year-olds to engage with and participate in electoral politics, but also from the determination of older voters to make their voices heard. Unfortunately, those older voices chorus persistently for the Right.

This raises the grim spectre of a right-wing victory secured almost entirely by the toxic combination of an extremely high percentage of older voters turning out to vote for the National Party, and a comparatively low percentage of younger voters actually bothering to vote Labour or Green. If Judith Collins makes sure she does nothing to dissuade the over-55s from following their usual political instincts, and if Jacinda Ardern cannot persuade the youngest cohort of voters to come out for her in record numbers, then National could end up defeating Labour on 19 September.

The $64,000 question for Labour is: “How do we prevent this from happening?”

It’s not enough to say that the party should offer 18-25 year-olds a manifesto shaped to fit their preferences. Given that those aged between 18 and 25 are consistently the staunchest supporters of radical left-wing economic, social and environmental policies, constructing Labour’s platform to reflect their preferences exclusively would, almost certainly, alienate the support of older voters. If an 80-90 percent turnout of the youngest voting cohort could be guaranteed, it might be worth the risk. The problem is, not even the proudly radical policies of the Greens are enough to make 18-25 year-olds turn out like the over-70s.

Perhaps the only circumstances in which the 18-25 cohort could be lured to the polls in great numbers would be those in which the hunger for national unity, stimulated by a once-in-a-generation confluence of multiple interests, was strong enough to generate a massive cross-class and cross-generational spike in electoral participation.

Something very close to this occurred in the snap-election of 1984. Economic controls usually reserved for wartime, including wage, price, rent and interest-rate “freezes”, combined with high levels of unemployment and rapidly rising fears of a nuclear holocaust to produce a nationwide determination to change the government. Workers and employers united against Muldoon’s dirigiste economic management. Old and young came together to create a nuclear-free New Zealand.

Against this extraordinary coalition, the National Government of Rob Muldoon, which had come to epitomise everything hostile and/or resistant to what many argued were long overdue social and economic changes, didn’t stand a chance. The highest turn out in New Zealand political history – 93.7 percent of registered voters – swept Muldoon and his divisive policies out of office and ushered in an unexpected (and unannounced) revolution.

The question to be answered, just 8 weeks out from the 2020 general election, is whether or not a similar tidal wave of change is gathering?

While there is, indisputably, a strong desire among the politically engaged to seize the opportunity provided by Covid-19 to undertake a general social, economic and environmental “re-set”, it in no way matches the “Spirit of ‘84”. Which is not to say that the cross-class, cross-generational momentum that characterised 1984 isn’t also present in 2020. On this occasion, however, the public mood may best be summarised by paraphrasing Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring:

“Keep us working, and keep us safe!”

The still-raging global Covid-19 pandemic has drawn New Zealanders together in ways not seen since World War II. Jacinda Ardern’s “Team of Five Million” may be a brilliant rhetorical flourish, but that doesn’t make it an inaccurate description of the current Kiwi voter’s self-congratulatory self-perception.

In political terms, 2020 represents the exact reverse of 1984. Then, the tide was running with the challengers. Now, it is running with the incumbents. If Labour and the Greens can plausibly guarantee to keep us working and keep us safe, then traditional demographic voting patterns will cease to matter. Young and old, rich and poor, brown and white will repay Jacinda with a landslide.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 July 2020.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Is National’s Bundle of Conservative Sticks Falling Apart?

Falling To Pieces?  After 84 years, is the electoral compromise forged in 1936 – when the National Party was born – in danger of falling apart?

AFTER 84 YEARS as New Zealand’s preeminent centre-right political party, is National on the point of disintegrating? Six months ago, that question would have been dismissed as both irrelevant and absurd. In mid-February 2020 the National Party was polling strongly, and its leader, Simon Bridges, while hardly a stellar political performer, was working hard to improve his act. Any pundit predicting that by mid-July National would be poised to elect its third leader in a single year would have been laughed off the telly.

After an extraordinary week in New Zealand politics, two big questions hover over the debris of Todd Muller’s career. 1) How badly will the conservative vote fracture on 19 September? 2) Are National’s internal divisions serious enough to break the party apart?

As matters now stand, the answers to these questions are likely to be: “very badly”, and “yes”.

As conservative voters’ confidence in the National Party falters, they will begin casting about for the most effective way of serving the broader right-wing cause. National’s internal polling is already registering a dramatic surge in voter support for Act, with David Seymour’s party currently sitting on 9 percent of the Party Vote. If these numbers hold, then Act could be looking at a post-election parliamentary contingent of about a dozen MPs.

More traditional conservatives may decide that, since National cannot win the election, it is vital that the NZ First “handbrake” be returned to Parliament. If a big enough chunk of National’s 2017 support decamps to NZ First, then Jacinda Ardern may opt to keep the existing coalition arrangements intact. After all, having Winston Peters at her side to temper the radical policy ambitions of the Greens is a state-of-affairs the Prime Minister is probably perfectly happy to prolong.

Those conservative voters even further to the right may give their votes to the New Conservative Party. Deeply frustrated – and not a little alarmed – by National’s “liberal” drift under Muller, these voters may no longer see much point in remaining part of the Right’s rapidly unravelling bundle of conservative sticks.

Finally, there’s the likely effect of tens-of-thousands of conservative voters deciding to sit the 2020 general election out altogether. With no party they any longer feel comfortable voting for, these New Zealanders may simply decide not to vote at all. Any significant decline in the turn-out of right-wing voters will, of course, have the effect of boosting the impact of the left-wing vote. Expressed as a percentage of the Party Vote, National’s support may plumb depths even more abysmal than the 20.9 percent recorded in 2002.

A descent into the teens would see National transformed into an ultra-conservative rump party. Brim-full of far-right fundamentalist Christian evangelists (who would in no way have been displeased to lose their more liberal colleagues in the electoral rout) such a culturally out-of-touch National Party would have nothing to offer the well-educated, socially-liberal, metropolitan professionals whose support has played such a crucial role in keeping National a mainstream political force. After 84 years, the electoral compromise forged in 1936 – when National was born – would be in danger of breaking apart.

Most New Zealanders have no idea of the context out of which the National Party emerged. The mid-1930s were a particularly fractious time for the Right. The rural-and-provincially-based Reform Party, whose angry, protestant and deeply anti-socialist supporters (most of them farmers) were under enormous economic pressure, had become the reluctant coalition partner of the United Party (formerly the Liberals) which represented the commercial and professional urban middle-classes. These latter voters, alarmed at the political radicalisation caused by the Great Depression, had flirted in their tens-of-thousands with the profoundly undemocratic, quasi-fascist New Zealand Legion. In short, the Right was all over the place. The only thing they had in common was a visceral fear of a working-class-based socialist Labour Government.

It was that fear which, within 12 months of Labour’s 1935 election victory, drew all the squabbling factions of the Right together under the rubric of the New Zealand National Party. As an electoral foil for Labour, this eccentric amalgam of centrists, rightists and far-rightists would prove remarkably successful. While Labour remained a scary, working-class, socialist proposition, National would win election after election.

National’s problem, in July 2020, is that Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party – unlike Mickey Savage’s – is neither scary, nor working-class, nor socialist.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 July 2020.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

The Judith Collins-Led National Party: Be Scared – Be Very Scared.

Lookout! Here She Comes! It’s her political ambiguity that makes National’s new leader, Judith Collins, so dangerous. Collins does not belong to the crazy Christian Right faction of her caucus, but neither is she a member of the Nikki Kaye, Amy Adams, Chris Bishop “soppy liberal” wing of the party. For a long while now this ambiguity has constituted an unhelpful obstacle to her advancement. With the right rejecting her as too left, and the left dismissing her as too right. But now, with both factions severely discredited, being a little bit country and a little bit rock-n-roll has proved to be no bad thing at all.

WHOEVER E-MAILED MARK RICHARDSON on Wednesday morning’s [15/7/20] AM Show was right: Judith Collins scares me. For the first time since National’s caucus replaced Don Brash with John Key, the party has chosen a leader who can win. The new Leader of the Opposition is a clear-sighted defender of the neoliberal order who is prepared to give when she needs to give, and takes no prisoners when she doesn’t. Collins is articulate, shrewd and possesses a disarming (if somewhat cruel) sense of humour. Those on the left who dismiss her as a major electoral turn-off will, almost certainly, be proved wrong. She has what it takes to manoeuvre Jacinda and Labour onto the defensive. And, as everybody knows: explaining is losing.

Like Act’s current collection of strategists, Collins understands that delivering neoliberalism straight leaves voters with a sour taste in their mouths. It goes down much better when fizzed-up with lashings of law-and-order rhetoric – along with generous splashes of “culture wars” liqueur. That Collins, herself, happily owns up to being a “social liberal”, only adds an extra kick to her political cocktail.

It’s this political ambiguity that makes National’s new leader so dangerous. Collins does not belong to the crazy Christian Right faction of her caucus, but neither is she a member of the Nikki Kaye, Amy Adams, Chris Bishop “soppy liberal” wing of the party. (Although she may, from time-to-time, be found voting alongside them.) For a long while now this ambiguity has constituted an unhelpful obstacle to her advancement. With the right rejecting her as too left, and the left dismissing her as too right, she has fallen repeatedly between the two stools. But now, with both factions severely discredited, being a little bit country and a little bit rock-n-roll has proved to be no bad thing at all.

When pitted against Jacinda, however, it’s Collins’ neoliberalism which is likely to prove most deadly. Labour’s leader has never been that strong on economic issues, and of late she has taken to including a few anti-neoliberal flourishes in her keynote speeches. Collins and her propaganda team will seize upon these as proof of Labour’s reversion to type, and will do everything they can to cast Jacinda as an old-fashioned borrow-and-spend socialist. That the Prime Minister has never been anything of the kind will only make it harder for her to present a clear alternative to Collins’ orthodox economic prescriptions.

In debating terms, governments are required to present the affirmative case. It’s their job to sell an argument to the audience. Opposition parties have it a lot easier. As the negative team, all they have to do is rip the government’s case apart. If that case isn’t a strong one to begin with, and if the person making it fails the passionate commitment test, then guess who wins the debate? (Hat-tip to Prof. Wayne Hope for this analogy.)

Up until now, Labour’s strategists have thought it wisest to offer only the broadest of policy commitments. While National was led by Simon Bridges and Todd Muller this was a sound strategy. Jacinda’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has elevated her to the status of national saviour, and with Bridges and Muller idiotically concentrating their fire on Covid-19-related glitches for which the Government could hardly be held responsible, Labour’s lead over National in the polls remained substantial. In the glow of Jacinda’s success, a detailed manifesto seemed unnecessary.

The election of Collins as National’s leader renders Labour’s broad-brush strategy politically untenable. She is far too clever to repeat Bridges’ and Muller’s mistakes. Labour and its leader will not be faulted for their handling of the public health emergency precipitated by Covid-19’s arrival in New Zealand. Instead, Collins will concentrate her fire on Jacinda’s alleged failure to present a coherent and detailed recovery plan for a New Zealand economy devastated by the impact of the virus. She will attribute this “failure” to the weakness of Labour’s team, contrasting the Ardern-led Government’s paucity of talent with what she will insist is her own stronger and more competent government-in-waiting. All of Collins’ cruel humour will be unleashed on Labour’s lesser vessels. Social media will be flooded with painfully funny memes and attack videos.

Jacinda and Labour can counter Collins in one (or both) of two ways. The first relies upon the Prime Minister’s superlative communication skills. If the Prime Minister can parry Collins’ attacks by making the voters laugh at her, then the Opposition’s strategy will fail. Rather than become angry or defensive in the face of Collins’ jibes, Jacinda needs to make fun of the thinking behind her criticisms. If she can expose the emptiness of National’s claims of superior competence and strength, for example, or make a joke out of her own government’s failures (KiwiBuild!) then the Leader of the Opposition will herself become an object of mirth and scorn. If Jacinda is able to embarrass her opponent severely, then there is every chance Collins will reveal her dark side. That would be “Game Over”.

The second way to counter Collins’ attack-lines is for Labour to give Jacinda a comprehensive and popular recovery package to defend. The Prime Minister is a quick study and, as she demonstrated during the Level 4 Lockdown, has an impressive ability to master voluminous and complex detail. Properly briefed, and personally committed to the message she has been asked to deliver, Jacinda performs magnificently. Indeed, those occasions when her performances have tended towards the less magnificent, are those occasions when she has been given too few details to work her magic with.

Of course, if Jacinda was able to laugh Collins off the stage and argue passionately for a Jeremy Corbyn-style “For the Many, Not the Few” election manifesto, then Labour’s leader would be unstoppable.

Herein lies the problem which Collins (who has already demonstrated her leadership qualities by doing what Todd Muller lacked the guts and gumption to do – sack Michael Woodhouse and replace him with Dr Shane Reti) is bound to exploit throughout the election campaign. Confronted with a whole host of critical policy choices (most particularly on the future shape and direction of the New Zealand economy) Labour has proved itself woefully indecisive. In almost every circumstance, the party simply defaults to the orthodox Treasury line. Boldness and imagination is not to be expected from this government – and Judith Collins knows it.

Throughout this term, Labour has failed to do what Michael Joseph Savage’s government did: introduce radical and comprehensive changes and then spend every waking political hour for the next three years explaining to the voters why they were worth keeping. It’s a bloody big ask to set Jacinda the task of selling even a mildly radical recovery plan in just 6 weeks – although if anybody can do it, she can. With considerable justification, however, Collins is betting that such a recovery plan is beyond the capacity of the 2020Labour Party. Presumably, that is why she told RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan that National has some “mildly radical” plans of its own.

You can bet your bottom dollar they will not be mildly radical left-wing plans! Which is why we should all be scared of a Judith Collins-led National Party – very scared.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 16 July 2020.

Friday, 10 July 2020

A Party Of Honourable Men?

Reprehensible: There is much that could be said about Michael Woodhouse, but what would be the point?  Any man who willingly involves himself in a situation as reprehensible as the one depicted in the above photograph has already vouchsafed all that decent people need to know about his character. That there have been no reports of the National MP apologising to Clare Curran, or making any other attempt to atone for this vile incident, merely confirms the futility of pursuing Mr Woodhouse any further.

IT’S ONE OF those rules that every politician lucky enough to have a responsible political mentor learns very early. Never say or do anything that you wouldn’t be happy to see reported on the front page of the daily newspapers.

The former National Party Prime Minister, John Key, must have been blessed with such a mentor at a very early age. No matter how hard the Labour Party trawled through Key’s past (and they trawled very hard indeed!) they always came away empty-handed.

This absence of dirt was all the more remarkable given Key’s chosen profession. Currency traders are notorious for their reckless lifestyles. But, while the future prime minister’s friends and colleagues were winging their way across the Atlantic to sample the manifold delights of New York and Las Vegas, Key was on his way home to his wife and kids in the suburbs. It was almost as if he was proactively protecting himself from the sort of past his political enemies would one day be desperate to exploit.

Clearly, National’s Michael Woodhouse has never made the acquaintance of a responsible political mentor. Had he done so he would never have allowed himself to be photographed holding up a toilet seat with Dunedin South MP Clare Curran’s face attached to it.

One must assume that Mr Woodhouse is far from happy that the image in question, and all it says about him, is everywhere on-line and in the news media. Moreover, if National’s Health spokesperson really has no memory of the circumstances in which this disgusting photograph was taken – and Mr Woodhouse insists that he does not – then he is far beyond the help of any sort of mentor.

Perhaps he should learn how to pray?

There is much more that could be said about Mr Woodhouse, but what would be the point?  Any man who willingly involves himself in a situation as reprehensible as the one depicted in the photograph has already vouchsafed all that decent people need to know about his character. That there have been no reports of the National MP apologising to Ms Curran, or making any other attempt to atone for this vile incident, merely confirms the futility of pursuing Mr Woodhouse any further.

The only entity worth pursuing in this whole sordid story is the National Party itself.

The comic maestro, Groucho Marx, once quipped that he could never join any club that was prepared to have him as a member. What, then, does it say about National that eight years after allowing himself to photographed displaying that appalling toilet seat, Mr Woodhouse remains a member in good standing of both the National Party and its caucus?

More importantly, what does it say about National’s new leader, Todd Muller?

For the sake of argument, let’s give Mr Muller the benefit of the doubt and say that he knew nothing of the toilet seat with Ms Curran’s face on it: that he was as shocked and appalled by its crudity as every other decent New Zealander. But if, as we all hope, that was Mr Muller’s reaction, then are we not entitled to ask why he didn’t take the next obvious step of demanding Mr Woodhouse’s immediate resignation?

Because that is what any decent, honourable leader of a political party looking to become the next government of New Zealand would have done. Such a leader would have transformed this sordid stain on his party’s reputation into a learning opportunity. He would have made it clear to every member of his caucus and party that anyone deriving any sort of perverse excitement from such scatological misogyny had no place in either. He would have used the occasion to reaffirm his determination to elevate politics above the bloody cruelty of the bearpit. To make of the word “honourable” something more than a perfunctory honorific. And, finally, to demonstrate his bona fides, Mr Muller would have tendered his apology to Ms Curran on behalf of every National Party member.

At the time of writing, however, Mr Muller has made no obvious effort to do any of these things. Mr Woodhouse remains a member in good standing of the National Party club.

Which raises the obvious question: If this malodorous boot was on the left foot of New Zealand politics, what would Jacinda Ardern be expected to do?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 July 2020.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Are Walker and Boag National’s (and the Media’s) Designated Villains?

No Other Suspects? The mainstream news media was willing to print and broadcast harsh Opposition criticism of the Government, even though they knew that the source of the leaked information was a National Party MP. Even though, by pushing the story up towards the top of every news bulletin they were stealing oxygen from the Prime Ministers keynote address to the Labour Party Congress. It’s a very strange kind of journalism that keeps more information hidden from the public than it reveals!

THIS LATEST SCANDAL will be the making of Todd Muller. The news media, up to its armpits in Hamish Walker’s and Michelle Boag’s leaking of confidential medical information, will do everything possible to deflect its impact. Radio NZ, Stuff and NZME, the outlets that received the leaked information all have a powerful interest in moving the story on.

Fortunately for them, this will not be difficult. The villains of the piece have conveniently identified themselves. Muller has ended Walker’s political career, and the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust is in the process of dealing with/to Boag. As a news story, the scandal has lost its “legs”.

Over the next few days we should expect to see the mainstream media pivot away from National’s bad behaviour and begin praising Muller for his decisive cauterisation of the Walker-Boag wound. The right-wing commentariat will already be bashing-out commentary pieces for the weekend papers celebrating the “fact” that, at last, National has put the era of “dirty politics” behind it.

Todd Muller will be hailed for seizing the moment and driving the National Party in a new direction. The Right will be encouraged to rally around its new, ethical, leader. Walker’s and Boag’s indiscretions will be presented as having given Muller his moment to shine.

As I noted in my last posting, a malign symbiosis exists between the mainstream news media and the parliamentary opposition. The passing-on of information – from MPs to journalists – constitutes a crucial stage in the production of major news stories. Journalists mask the highly tendentious nature of this exchange by invoking their core professional obligation to “protect one’s sources”.

No matter that this obligation originated from the need to protect the relatively powerless providers of information from the excessively powerful institutional players committed to its suppression. Under the current interpretation of source protection, even a National Party MP, determined to disprove the charges of racism levelled against him by breaching patient confidentially, is deemed to possess the same expectation of anonymity as a genuine whistle-blower. From an ethical perspective, however, such an expectation is outrageous. To facilitate an already powerful politician’s absurd quest for personal vindication, by concealing his betrayal of powerless Covid-19 sufferers beneath the cloak of anonymity, is morally and professionally indefensible.

Just consider the likely sequence of events in this latest case. A journalist is contacted by an Opposition MP claiming to be able to prove that his racially-charged allegations are backed by official information. Before viewing this information, however, the MP extracts from the journalist a promise that both his identity and the nature of the proof will be kept under wraps. Rather than demanding to know what he’s insisting she keep hidden from the public, the journalist gives the MP her promise – and he hands over the confidential medical records of citizens who have tested positive for Covid-19.

At this point the journalist finds herself horribly compromised. She has in her hands clear proof that not only is a National MP guilty of an appalling breach of the public’s trust, but also that someone within the Ministry of Health is passing highly sensitive information to a person or persons closely associated with the National Party. The clear public interest in her revealing these facts is obvious, but she can’t – not without “revealing her source”.

Inevitably, somebody further up the chain of command called “bullshit” on this insanely conflicted situation. The leak of information identifying Covid-19-positive patients was made public – but not the identity of the leaker. Entirely predictably, the release of this information immediately sparked yet another round of harsh National Party criticism. Once again, the Leader of the Opposition, Todd Muller, and his Health spokesperson, Michael Woodhouse, castigated the Government’s “shambolic” handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

Just think about this for a moment. The mainstream news media was willing to print and broadcast these criticisms of the Government, even though they knew that the source of the leaked information was a National Party MP. Even though, by pushing the story up towards the top of every news bulletin they were stealing oxygen from the Prime Ministers keynote address to the Labour Party Congress. It’s a very strange kind of journalism that keeps more information hidden from the public than it reveals!

It would be nice to think that Hamish Walker and Michelle Boag “came clean” because of a belated attack of common decency. More likely, however, their confessions were driven by fear of the official inquiry into the leak ordered by Minister of Health, Chris Hipkins. The powers given to Michael Heron QC, the man charged with undertaking the investigation, were certainly comprehensive enough to inspire such fear. He had the ability to subpoena witnesses and extract testimony under oath. Scary stuff.

Will Mr Heron, knowing the identity of the leakers, be content to deliver a pro forma report to Minister Hipkins? The mainstream media will be hoping so. They have nothing at all to gain from someone asking too many searching questions about the way this story was handled. The poor, misinformed public, however, has every reason to hope that Mr Heron goes hard and goes early to lock down all the elements of this scandal.

Was there, for example, some sort of quid pro quo arrangement by which the National Party was encouraged to offer up Walker and Boag in return for the mainstream media pivoting swiftly towards Muller’s “decisive handling” of the crisis? Certainly, that would take the spotlight off the implications of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust’s insistence that Boag could not possibly have obtained the Covid-19-positive patient’s details from them. If National, as seems increasingly likely, has a “Deep Throat” located in the heart of the Ministry of Health, or, even worse, in the Prime Minister’s Office, it will not want such a useful informant dislodged.

I am not optimistic, however, that these sorts of questions will be asked or answered. With the General Election less than three months away, it is most unlikely that anything like the entirety of this scandal’s moving parts will be examined too closely – by anyone. The voters need to be able to believe that New Zealand’s major political parties conduct themselves ethically and responsibly at all times. Bad behaviour must always be presented as the product of “bad apples”. That National’s whole apple tree might be blighted and diseased is not a conclusion which this country’s political establishment will ever allow to pass unchallenged.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 9 July 2020.

Why Kurt Taogaga Had To Go.

Sacrificial Lamb: If the stories about Mr Taogaga and the unauthorised release of confidential medical data had been deliberately orchestrated by Labour’s political opponents, their deflection of the news media’s attention away from the Prime Minister’s address to the Labour Party Congress could hardly have been more successful.

THE LABOUR PARTY delisted Kurt Taogaga for one very simple, very brutal, reason:  to appease the mainstream news media. The party was pulling out all the stops to generate as many positive news stories as possible from the Prime Minister’s speech to Labour’s election year congress. Had Mr Taogaga not been purged, his presence on the Party List would have completely overshadowed Jacinda’s speech. By delisting him, Labour’s President, Claire Szabo, demonstrated the seriousness with which the party responds to the slightest hint of Islamophobia. It staunched the wound which Newshub-Nation had very deliberately inflicted on the party. Political triage of this sort is never pretty but, sadly, it is necessary.

The journalistic decision-making that went into the Taogaga story is also rather ugly. Given the skeletal nature of Newshub’s current staffing arrangements, it is hard to see any of its reporters having the time to trawl through Labour’s entire Party List for embarrassing social media postings from several years ago. That’s the sort of job a parliamentary staffer might be tasked with on the off-chance that something politically useful might turn up. Which, in this case, it did.

It is worth emphasising how useful Mr Taogaga’s social media commentary was to the Government’s enemies. A very substantial part of Jacinda Ardern’s dazzling political persona is attributable to her deeply empathic response to the Christchurch mosque shootings. The viral image of Jacinda, hugging in a headscarf, rocked the entire world – it was even projected on the Burg Khalifa. The damage done to her reputation, should she fail to move immediately against a Party List candidate found to have posted anti-Islamic sentiments on social media, is easily imagined. Instant cauterisation of the media-inflicted wound was the only viable option.

If Newshub was tipped-off by a parliamentary source, it raises the question: should they have allowed themselves to be used to inflict political damage on the Government? After all, Mr Taogaga’s indiscretion (if that is what it was) took place seven years ago in 2013. What’s more, his comments were made well before he became involved in Labour Party politics. What were the ethics of using information this old to almost certainly destroy a young man’s political career? What should the producer of Newshub-Nation done?

In another era of current affairs broadcasting, she would, at the very least, have made an effort to put Mr Taogaga’s comments in context.

Between 2012 and 2013 the number of deaths from terrorism had increased by 61 percent. In 10,000 terrorist attacks 17,958 people had been killed. According to the BBC: “Five countries - Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria - accounted for 80% of the deaths from terrorism in 2013. More than 6,000 people died in Iraq alone.” Just four terrorist groups were responsible for the deaths of two-thirds of 2013’s nearly 18,000 terrorist victims: Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram and the self-styled Islamic State. The Global Terrorism Index reported that: “All four groups used ‘religious ideologies based on extreme interpretations of Wahhabi Islam’.”

This was the context in which the NZ First MP, Richard Prosser, wrote his infamous “Wogistan” article. The article which Mr Taogaga somewhat naively endorsed. The anti-Islamic mood of the times was further heightened by the terrorist attacks launched against European targets – especially against the staff of Charlie Hebdo and the audience at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris – over the course of the next two years.

Responsible journalists will always strive to contextualise statements like Mr Taogaga’s, lest the passions and fashions of the present are unfairly and anachronistically projected back onto the past.

Unfortunately, current affairs producers and their staff no longer have the time to do the right thing. They are acutely aware that if they are not prepared to use leaked information, more or less immediately, then it will be passed on to somebody who is. These sort of pressures play directly into the hands of parliamentary research teams and their political masters. It makes it almost impossible for the mainstream news media to do anything other than act as a conduit for information likely to prove useful to the Government’s enemies. If they don’t use it – they lose it.

Mr Taogaga also suffered from the coincidence (if that is what it was) of the unauthorised release of confidential Ministry of Health information. Just hours before his own story had found its way into journalists’ hands, Radio NZ, Stuff and NZME had all been supplied with the names, ages, addresses and current locations of 18 individuals who had recently tested positive for Covid-19. This was a truly appalling breach of patient confidentiality, which senior Government ministers seemed pretty sure was malicious – and quite possibly criminal. Their urgent need to deal with this problem left them no time to deal with media accusations that Labour was harbouring Islamophobes. They had witnessed the damage done to the reputation of the British Labour Party by media accusations of antisemitism. Better to be safe than sorry.

If the stories about Mr Taogaga and the unauthorised release of confidential medical data had been deliberately orchestrated by Labour’s political opponents, their deflection of the news media’s attention away from the Prime Minister’s address to the Labour Party Congress could hardly have been more successful. If the woman who broke out of quarantine on Saturday – instantly commandeering the top slots of both 6:00pm news bulletins on Sunday night – turns out to be a fervent supporter of the Parliamentary Opposition, who would really be surprised?

Editors and producers must know when they are being used for political purposes – and by whom. This raises an important question: in protecting their journalistic “sources”, are the media also protecting the shadowy teams of political operatives and their bureaucratic helpers who, by fair means or foul, supply the information? Equally importantly, are these same editors and producers “equal-opportunity” political facilitators? Is the Left, when it is in Opposition, always offered the same consideration and protection from those who own and run the mainstream media as the Right?

In forty years of covering politics in New Zealand I can only recall one period in which the whole of the mainstream news media was lined-up to keep Labour in office, and that was between 1984 and 1987. Everyone who mattered in television, radio and the daily press were determined to see the programme of David Lange and Roger Douglas succeed. Is it significant that for those three years Labour’s economic policies were further to the right than National’s? What do you think?

Mr Taogaga shouldn’t feel too bad. His was a personal sacrifice. Between 1984 and 1987, to keep their newfound mainstream media friends onside, Labour was willing to throw the entire New Zealand working-class under a bus.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 7 July 2020.

Defending The Revolution.

The East is Rent:  The consequences of unleashing the young against the old; of elevating ideological rigor above reasoned debate; and of setting the present against the past; was a decade of unprecedented social stress and tension, interspersed with explosions of murderous mob violence and tragic material destruction. More than 30 years after its final suppression by the People’s Liberation Army in the mid-1970s, the legacy of the Cultural Revolution lingered on in families torn apart, careers destroyed, artistic treasures and historical monuments laid waste.

THE GREAT PROLETARIAN CULTURAL REVOLUTION, the very name unfurls like a crudely painted red banner. Most people, if they have heard of it at all, picked up most of what they know from documentaries in which the Cultural Revolution rates only a few minutes of critical historical scrutiny. What those who grew to adulthood in the years following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 will never understand, however, is the sheer disruptive energy of Maoism. Mao’s “Little Red Book”; his fanatical “Red Guards”; the whole terrifying experience of the Cultural Revolution; left an entire generation of leftists deeply scarred. Not only in China, but across the world.

Recent developments on the left of politics, however, are stirring painful memories of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. On college campuses, in particular, grey-bearded observers are witnessing the same inflamed political passions; the same terrifying group-think; the same reckless determination to tear down the entire cultural inheritance of the past that characterised the Cultural Revolution. What distinguishes the present ideological extremism from the excesses of Maoism, however, is the opaqueness of its ultimate purpose. The prime mover – and prime beneficiary – of the Cultural Revolution was Mao himself. Cui bono? – who benefits? – from the present “woke” revolt?

Following the abject failure of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” (essentially an attempt to achieve the modernisation of China’s economy through acts of sheer collective will) the “Great Helmsman” of the People’s Republic found himself increasingly side-lined by the more pragmatic members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. The leader of these “revisionists”, Deng Xiaoping, famously summed up his approach by citing the ancient Chinese proverb: “It matters little whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” To recover his supremacy, both within the party and the country, Mao needed to mobilise a force powerful enough to challenge Deng and his revisionist comrades.

With towering cynicism, Mao chose as his battering-ram the first generation to have grown up under Communist rule: literally the “children of the revolution”. The unquestioning loyalty of these young people to the man who had made it possible for China to “stand up” was directed against what Mao called “The Four Olds”: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas. China, said Mao, was in danger of sliding back towards the untruths and injustices of the past. This could only be prevented by mass struggle. “To rebel is justified”, Mao proclaimed. The time had come to “bombard the headquarters” of a Communist Party which had fallen under the thrall of bourgeois ideas.

Mao’s young “Red Guards” needed little encouragement to attack Mao’s revisionist enemies. Hardly surprising, when his “Little Red Book” offered the following words of inspiration:

“The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you.… The world belongs to you. China’s future belongs to you.”

The consequences of unleashing the young against the old; of elevating ideological rigor above reasoned debate; and of setting the present against the past was a decade of unprecedented social stress and tension, interspersed with explosions of murderous mob violence and tragic material destruction. More than 30 years after its final suppression by the People’s Liberation Army in the mid-1970s, the legacy of the Cultural Revolution lingered on in families torn apart, careers destroyed, artistic treasures and historical monuments laid waste.

Visiting China in 2008, I was deeply saddened by the personal testimonies vouchsafed to me by the victims of those terrible ten years. Not the least injured by Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution were the young Red Guards themselves. Seldom in human history has a generation been so cruelly used and cast aside.

It wasn’t only the youth of China who suffered as a result of the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s reassurance that “to rebel is justified” also caught the imagination of thousands of young people in the West who had lost faith in the United States-led capitalist system that encouraged endless consumption at home while dealing out death and destruction to the people of Vietnam. The young people who led the Youth Revolt of the late-1960s in the West took heart from the Maoist anthem “The East Is Red” – seeing their own surging street battles magnified a thousand-fold in China’s teeming cities.

It is one of history’s vicious ironies that the only reward for all the exertions of the young revolutionaries of East and West was the triumph of a form of capitalism ten times more ruthless and exploitative than the one they were rebelling against. Deng Xiaoping survived the Cultural Revolution, and very soon his ideologically agnostic cats were teaming-up with all manner of running-dogs. Likewise in the West, where, by the end of the 1970s, the managed capitalism which had delivered three decades of unprecedented prosperity was being traded-in for the “freedom-loving” neoliberal capitalism we know today.

One could argue that, in both cases, these dramatic changes amounted to a revolution – of sorts. If that was the case, then the resurgence of ideologically-inspired inter-generational conflict that we are witnessing today is explained.

Mao Zedong, just like Joseph Stalin before him, considered it most unwise to let the members of his own revolutionary generation keep alive the traditions of dissent, mass organisation, and lively political debate which had made the overthrow of the previous system possible. Keeping these traditions alive, he argued, was an open invitation to the forces of counter-revolution to subvert the new order from within. Better by far to undermine and discredit the revolutionary values of the past by unleashing against them carefully formulated and entirely contradictory ideas deliberately inculcated in a younger generation of officially-sanctioned “rebels”.

By adopting this profoundly cynical and supremely manipulative strategy of fomenting inter-generational strife, Mao restored himself to absolute power. Is Neoliberalism hoping to do the same? Preserving capitalism by taking a leaf out of the little red Maoist playbook?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 3 July 2020.

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.