Monday, 28 December 2020

When Conservatives Are The Only True Radicals.

Restoration, Not Revolution: Throughout history, the popular call for change has been motivated overwhelmingly by a fervent desire to restore the status-quo ante: to make things the way they were before they went wrong. Only very seldom are masses of human-beings moved to demand a shift towards an entirely new and unfamiliar order of things. 

 

DR BRYCE EDWARDS, of Victoria University, has proclaimed New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, a “conservative”. Writing in The Guardian, Edwards declares: “Ardern’s instincts have been to protect and conserve. She has trodden cautiously throughout the pandemic, providing reassurance and the promise of normality to those in fear of the worst.”

The key concepts in Edwards’ first sentence are, of course, “protect” and “conserve”. He bolsters these, in the next, with “caution”, “reassurance” and “normality”. Though he does not say so explicitly, Edwards clearly regards these concepts as irreconcilable with any genuinely radical purpose.

Radicalism and left-wing politics are generally held to be inseparable: to describe someone as a left-winger presupposes their possession of a radical disposition – and programme. It is not, however, permissible to argue that the reverse is true: one can be a radical and yet have not the slightest respect for left-wing ideas. Indeed, these days there are arguably many more radicals on the Right, than on the Left.

That being the case, Edwards’ generally negative framing of Ardern’s “conservatism” is more than a little problematic. To be a radical, or, to use Edwards’ own words, “a pioneering progressive or socialist” is not always to be, more-or-less by definition, on the side of the angels. (Or, for that matter, the Proletariat!)

In honour of the season, let us take as our example the “radical” measures adopted by the puritan supporters of the “Commonwealth” – the republican political arrangement held in place by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army (think: the Taliban in breastplates!) between 1649 and 1660.

By the puritans’ radical reading of Christianity, festivals such as Christmas were altogether too close to pagan revelry for the comfort of God-fearing men and women. Even before the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the radical protestants who dominated the House of Commons had thought it best to encourage his subjects to treat the mid-winter period “with the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’.”

Legislation confirming this puritanical rejection of the sinfully joyous yuletide season soon followed. The feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun were simply removed from the Christian calendar. From 1644 until the Restoration in 1660, celebrating Christmas was illegal. As C.S. Lewis, that devout Christian, keen royalist, Oxford scholar and children’s author puts it in The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe: “Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”

Leaving Narnia behind, and returning to this considerably less enchanting world, we might further consider the actions of other radical puritans – like those belonging to the now thankfully defunct Islamic State. Or, the radical “Tea Party” Republicans, who saw moderation as treason and prepared the way for the radically disruptive Donald J. Trump. Thirty years on, a great many New Zealanders still resent deeply the radical reforms of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. Even more Kiwis, in 2020, are profoundly grateful that their Prime Minister did not adopt the radically unsuccessful Swedish approach to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

Perhaps the strangest observation in Edwards’ Guardian article argues that Ardern’s “self-declared ‘politics of kindness’ isn’t particularly revolutionary, nor very tangible”. In a world where the very idea of kindness has been out of fashion for so long, the Prime Minister’s use of the word generated a public response that was as physical in its consequences as it was revolutionary in its intent. It was kindness that bound together “The Team of Five Million”, and it was their unforced solidarity and unity of purpose that made New Zealand the envy of the world. Tell all those young New Zealanders dancing at this summer’s music festivals; tell all the grandparents who hugged their grandchildren on Christmas Day; that the “politics of kindness” has produced no tangible effect!

Edwards also notes that: “The political left is […] increasingly bristling at the conservatism of Ardern.” To many New Zealanders, however, that will not be interpreted as a bad thing – quite the reverse, in fact. When they think of the political left, the images called to mind are not of Cabinet ministers carrying furniture into the first state house. No, their thoughts are all about the excoriating tweets, outlandish claims and bitter recriminations of “Cancel Culture”; and the equally distressing diatribes against “colonisation”, “hate speech” and “white privilege”. If the Prime Minister has made it her mission to “protect” people like themselves – ordinary Kiwis – from such excesses, and to “conserve” a measure of decency in their country’s political discourse, then they won’t be “bristling” – they’ll be cheering.

Just like the hundreds-of-thousands of Englishmen and women who lined country roads and filled city streets from Dover to London to welcome home Charles Stuart – King Charles II – in the very merry month of May 1660.

The dour regime of the Commonwealth; of Cromwell’s “Protectorate”; may have been radical (certainly they were the only successful republicans in 1,500 years of English history) but they were also dictatorial and joyless. For centuries after the rule of the New Model Army’s “Major-Generals”, Englishmen resisted the idea of a large standing army as a threat to their “ancient liberties”. The restoration of the monarchy (and Christmas!) was indisputably the wish and will of the overwhelming majority of the English people. If they had been given a vote on it in 1660, Charles would have won by a landslide.

If its “conservative” to give the people what they want, then Jacinda Ardern is a conservative. If protecting them from Covid-19 and political extremism is “conservative” then she stands guilty-as-charged. If offering people caution, reassurance, and a semblance of normality as the rest of the world plunges deeper into chaos, makes our Prime Minister a “conservative”, then that’s a badge-of-honour she can wear with pride.

Dr Edwards favours radical change, but he does not appear to be aware of what motivates people to seek change. Throughout history, the popular call for change has been motivated overwhelmingly by a fervent desire to restore the status-quo ante: to make things the way they were before they went wrong. Only very seldom are masses of human-beings moved to demand a shift towards an entirely new and unfamiliar order of things. Certainly, history is studded with minorities who were absolutely certain about the proper ordering of paradise. Most people, however, hanker after the good times they remember – and not for H.G. Wells’ “Things To Come”. Radicals would do well to remember that the winning slogan in the 2016 Brexit Referendum was “Take Back Control”. It was the back wot won it!

Which leaves me wondering whether, in these peculiar times, the only true radicals are conservatives. If the only way to ensure that the voters’ lives remain the same, is for everything to be changed, then I strongly suspect that Jacinda Ardern is the ideal politician for the job.


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 28 December 2020.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Christmas In The Time Of Covid.



“COME IN GENTLEMEN!” The three professors came forward to shake the hand of the CEO of Herod Pharmaceuticals.

“It’s good of you to see us, Sir, at such short notice. But our information is of tremendous importance.”

“So I am given to understand. Something about the DNA of a miraculous child?”

Professor Melchior waved away the description impatiently. “My staff have taken to calling him that – all nonsense, of course. Although, I have to concede there are more than a few aspects of his young mother’s pregnancy that baffle me entirely.”

“That’s why my colleague ordered the tests”, interjected Professor Caspar.

“And the results”, chimed in Professor Balthazar. “The results were so unusual and appeared to offer so much promise, that we contacted Herod Pharmaceuticals immediately.”

“When this child is born,” Professor Melchior explained, “his blood offers the best hope yet of ending the global pandemic.”

The CEO of Herod Pharmaceuticals’ expression of benign (if somewhat bemused) interest changed abruptly. “Our vaccine is already making a huge impact, gentlemen. We’ve got the virus on the run. The world simply does not have the time to start the process all over again.”

“No, no, you don’t understand”, Professor Balthazar responded. “What this child’s DNA offers is what you might call the makings of a ‘super-vaccine’. How he got it, and from whom, we have so far been unable to determine. The mother is very vague about the identity of the child’s father. The fellow she’s with, Joseph, is a lovely bloke, and he obviously loves Mary to bits – but he’s not the child’s father. Our tests have ruled him out definitively.”

The CEO steepled his index fingers and brought them to his lips in a gesture of intense concentration. “It would be extremely helpful, gentlemen, if we could be introduced to this child. When is his mother – Mary is it – due?”

“Very soon”, Professor Caspar replied. “In fact, we’re expecting to hear that she’s gone into labour any time now.”

“Well, in that case, don’t let me keep you, gentlemen. Just be sure to let me know how everything goes – so that Herod Pharmaceuticals can perform some exploratory tests of its own. After all, this company – and the whole world – has a huge amount invested in the fight against this awful pandemic.”


OUTSIDE, ON THE SIDEWALK, the three professors huddled together in conference.

“I don’t trust that man”, said Caspar. “Did you see the look on his face when he heard the word ‘super-vaccine’?”

“Yes, I did”, Melchior replied. “He had the look of a man watching billions of dollars’ worth of investment going up in smoke.”

“I agree,” said Balthazar. “We must be careful to see that Mary’s little boy is kept as far away from Herod Pharmaceuticals as possible.”

“They’ve located them!” Caspar held up his cellphone. “Somewhere down on the south coast. They’re stuck apparently, the roads are all blocked up with lorry-drivers trying to get across the Channel.”

“Dear God! How are they going to get home? The whole of the bloody south-east is about to go into Tier Four!”

“Our people have got a lock on their position from Mary’s cellphone. They’ve hired a helicopter to take us there. We can still make it – but we’re going to have to hurry!”


THEY SPOTTED THE GARAGE from a thousand feet up. It was ringed by a score of big twenty-six wheelers, their lights all trained on the humble concrete-block structure. From that altitude the beams of the lorries’ headlamps formed a pattern resembling a bright star that had fallen to earth.

The professors’ chopper set down in a flurry of snowflakes at the far-end of the carpark. Hastening towards the garage, they had to elbow their way through a great throng of lorry-drivers.

“What are you blokes doing here?” Melchior shouted above the din.

“It was strange,” one of the men replied. “We were parked-up on the hard, going nowhere, when our radios suddenly crackled into life, and all our phones lit up with the same text: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men’ – along with directions to this place.”

And the three professors found the baby in that roadside garage, wrapped up tight in a travel blanket and lying in a sports bag, because all the motels were in lockdown.


To all the readers of Bowalley Road, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


This short Christmas story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Thursday, 24 December 2020.

2021 Will Be About Brown Poverty And White Guilt.

Whose Priorities? If Labour MPs, under pressure from guilt-ridden white radicals, opt to offer legislative validation to the most divisive elements of the so-called “Culture Wars”, then the broad social unity needed to buttress a colour-blind programme of social uplift will be undermined. The war against poverty and homelessness will be fatally compromised by the war of the woke against the un-woke.

IN THE COMING YEAR New Zealand politics will be driven by two inter-related forces: brown poverty and white guilt. Jacinda Ardern’s government will not be given a choice on the issue of brown poverty. Dealing with white guilt, however, will be very much a matter of opting to behave wisely or foolishly. It remains to be seen whether Labour possesses the wisdom to not act like a fool.

The capital city rumour mills have recently been grinding out an intriguing story involving a head-on stoush between Grant Robertson and Willie Jackson. It seems that Robertson carelessly reassured a group of Treasury bureaucrats that spending across all portfolios would be strictly constrained for the foreseeable future. Grant’s big mistake was to say this in front of the Maori Development Minister.

As a general rule, ministers do not contradict each other in front of their departmental advisers. As Don Corleone admonished his eldest son, Sonny, in The Godfather, it is most unwise to display the slightest disunity in front of anybody other than “family” members. Apparently (and understandably) Willie called BS on that – openly contradicting Grant’s fiscal reassurances, at least as far as spending on Maori issues was concerned.

The ensuing barney was, reportedly, so intense that the whole dispute was handed-up to Jacinda for resolution. The fact that Willie is still in his post strongly suggests that if the rumour about this epic ministerial battle is true, then Grant did not win it.

What is indisputable about the current predicament of Maori New Zealanders is that if it is allowed to worsen, then some sort of explosion is likely to result. Poverty and homelessness are not improving with anything like the rapidity required to head-off major disturbances in the most deprived “brown” suburbs. One has only to read the Maori Party MP for Waiariki, Rawiri Waititi’s, maiden speech to appreciate how angry Maori are becoming:

I refuse to allow my tamariki or my mokopuna to one day sit in the same seat asking the same question. We will no longer accept this approach, as it allows the State to continue to feast on the dysfunction that it has created amongst our people. We will no longer accept that the State continues to fund itself every year to allow Oranga Tamariki to steal more of our babies, a justice system to lock up more of our people, a welfare system that keeps my people dependent and poor, an education system that keeps my people dumb, a health system that keeps my people sick, and a housing system that keeps my people homeless. This has to stop.

Willie Jackson, with his longstanding and very close ties to urban Maori, knows that if he and Labour’s Maori caucus do not produce meaningful progress on the failings enumerated by Waititi, then the Maori Party will be quick to exploit their failure. That’s why Jackson is unwilling to keep silent about the prospect of an austerity budget. If they are to make a real dent in poverty and homelessness, then he and his Maori colleagues are going to need money – lots and lots of money.

Almost against its will, Ardern’s government is going to have to engage in massive amounts of public spending. What’s more, it will not be politically acceptable for this mobilisation of state resources to be directed solely at Maori communities. Working-class Pakeha, Pasifika and other immigrant families will have to be offered the same fiscal support. Jacinda and her colleagues are going to have to become socialists in spite of themselves!

It is at this point that the so-called “woke” elements of the Professional & Managerial Class (PMC) will have to choose whether or not to make, or break, the Ardern government. This includes members of the PMC inside Labour’s caucus, as well as those outside it. If Labour MPs, under pressure from guilt-ridden white radicals, opt to offer legislative validation to the most divisive elements of the so-called “Culture Wars”, then the broad social unity needed to buttress a colour-blind programme of social uplift will be undermined. The war against poverty and homelessness will be fatally compromised by the war of the woke against the un-woke.

Sadly, there is a real possibility that the PMC will do exactly this. So great is its guilty sense of having been born with far too many advantages, and so certain is it that Pakeha workers, denied its guiding hand, will never be able to understand the true extent of their “privilege”, the PMC is perfectly capable of deciding that homelessness and poverty are second-order issues. Matters to be addressed only after the Pakeha working-class has proved itself worthy of enjoying the socially integrative benefits of warm, dry, affordable houses and well-paying jobs.

The woke are very big supporters of “intersectionality” – the concept of fighting all the ills of society simultaneously, rather than “privileging” one form of injustice over another. It’s a concept that conflicts fundamentally with the idea of politics being all about the ordering of priorities. What is often called “the art of the possible”. With Labour’s Maori caucus prioritising action on poverty, housing, education, justice and health, about the best thing the PMC’s woke intersectionalists could do to assist the Ardern government, and working-class people of all ethnicities and genders, is maintain a solidaristic silence.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 24 December 2020.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Annus Horribilis.

Covid Crushers: In this horrible year of 2020, we have learned some important lessons about the importance of leadership and the power of science.

THE BOYS would have heard them coming. The roar of dozens of powerful motorcycles telling them everything they needed to know. Bandits in the pay of Boko Haram. A raid. 

Of the more than 800 pupils at the Government Science Secondary School, in Kankara, North-West Nigeria, 500 managed to flee. The rest, more than 300 teenage boys, were taken prisoner and marched at gunpoint into the forest, where military helicopters could not track them. They would be ransomed by the Nigerian Government and released, mostly unharmed, a few days later – for an undisclosed sum.

After an earlier raid, in which 100-plus teenage girls were taken, ransomed, and returned to their distraught parents, Boko Haram – Islamist terrorists with a deep hatred for everything associated with Western science and education – had a chilling message for the local population: “Don’t you ever send your daughters to school again.”

Over the past twelve months, in the Northern states of Nigeria, more than a thousand people, many of them children, have been killed by Boko Haram and their proxies. More than 100,000 have been displaced: refugees in their own country.

Worse afflictions than Covid-19 have beset the peoples of the world in 2020.

Boko Haram’s terrorists do, however, have more than a little in common with at least some of the citizens of the world’s wealthiest nations – especially when it comes to science. In the United States, especially, there are many equally fanatical religious believers who, like Boko Haram, see science as a deadly threat to their faith. More than that, they see it as a threat to their whole conception of the world, and to their roles within it.

Multiple reports from the United States describe evangelical Christians, only hours away from succumbing to the Covid-19 virus, still breathlessly insisting to their professional carers that the whole pandemic is a hoax: part of a grand political conspiracy to rob them of their faith and their freedom.

New Zealand had these people, too. Billy Te Kahika and his Public Party courted them on social media and brought them to their feet at indoor and outdoor rallies across New Zealand. Alongside the former National MP, Jami-Lee Ross, and his Advance NZ Party, Te Kahika sought parliamentary representation in the October general election. When all the votes had been counted, however, it was clear that, in this country at least, the political market for anti-science is extremely small. Fewer than 30,000 New Zealanders cast their votes for Billy TK and his outlandish conspiracy theories.

The scale of Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern’s electoral victory attests to the considerable faith New Zealanders are still willing to invest in the twin pillars of modern society: science and democracy. From the moment it became clear that the world was facing a pandemic of huge potential destructiveness, the country’s political leadership made the crucial decision to be guided by their scientific advisers – rather than business lobbyists.

That this was a decision made in their interests, to keep them safe, very soon became clear to the New Zealand electorate. The voters had only to look at the Covid-19-related death and havoc unleashed in the countries whose politicians refused to be guided by the scientists, to grasp how fortunate they were in their Prime Minister and her Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield.

Most of those delinquent countries were located in the West. That New Zealand followed a different path is, therefore, unusual. As one of the key scientific voices in New Zealanders’ ears throughout the pandemic, Professor Michael Baker, observed to Jim Mora on his last Sunday Morning show for the year: New Zealand, throughout its history, has taken its cue from Europe and North America; but in relation to Covid19, we allowed ourselves to be guided by Asian nations. Is it possible that New Zealanders, looking back on their country’s handling of the pandemic, will see it as the moment we finally and irrevocably relocated our imaginations from the North to the South?

What became indisputably clear to New Zealanders, as the pandemic raged across the planet, was that their political leaders and their scientific advisers had reclaimed the state for the people. From the mid-1980s onwards, as the veteran political journalist Colin James has observed on many occasions, New Zealanders ceased to look upon the state as their friend – as their parents had done since the days of “King Dick” Seddon and Mickey Savage – and began, instead, to see it as an inhumanly programmed apparatus for the advancement of “market forces” and the businesses who benefited from them.

In the daily performances of the “Jacinda and Ashley Show”, however, it was made very clear that the business voices decrying the Government’s decision to lock down the economy, and demanding a less rigorous and costly approach to managing the pandemic, were not being heeded. Business journalist Bernard Hickey’s angry imprecations notwithstanding, the Government’s Covid response was very far from being a gift to our biggest capitalists. On the contrary, the full resources of the state were being rolled out on behalf of its citizens: a frankly socialist gift to the New Zealand people, for which, on 17 October, they showed themselves to be extremely grateful.

That socialist response would not have been possible without the ideology-defeating power of science. For nearly 40 years now, the makers of the “free market revolution” have done everything within their power to convince people that their economic nostrums are, in fact, scientific truths. Faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the perceived interests of business, and the facts of epidemiological science, began to diverge.

In other Western nations, the UK and the USA in particular, the political leadership responded to this divergence by side-lining the scientists in favour of re-starting the economy. In New Zealand, however, that did not happen. Prime Minister Ardern and her key Cabinet colleagues, in accordance with the best scientific advice, opted to “go hard and go early”.

New Zealand’s lockdown, one of the most draconian on the planet, was predicted to produce dire economic consequences. Treasury warned the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, to expect an unemployment rate of around 14 percent – Depression Era stuff. But, as Ardern consistently argued: getting on top of the pandemic is the only sure way of getting the economy back on its feet. She was right. New Zealand’s GDP fell sharply, but then it roared back, as New Zealand’s “Team of Five Million”, in marked contrast to the citizens of other Western nations, succeeded in eliminating community transmission of the virus – thereby freeing themselves to resume living something pretty close to a normal life.

What the people of Northern Nigeria would give for a normal life. For a country in which science, far from being denounced as the work of Satan, was the guarantor of the people’s health and safety. Where girls could not only be educated in perfect safety, but go on to lead their people to a better future.

In this annus horribilis – 2020 – we have discovered two things about the power of science. The first is that science, rationally applied, can preserve and enhance our lives, and keep us safe. The second is that who controls the power of science is a matter of the utmost importance.

Because, behind Covid-19 there still lurks the much vaster threat of runaway climate change. In combatting this truly existential danger, will our leaders be guided by the science – as they were in this country over Covid-19? Or, will the bandits of business kidnap science and extract from us all a ransom the planet cannot afford to pay?


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 21 December 2020.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Signs and Portents: Is Middle New Zealand Really Less Racist Than It Used To be?

Savage Reaction: Local politicians foolhardy enough to recognise the case for special Maori representation very soon found their efforts rolled back by huge majorities. The vehemence with which proposals for Maori wards were rejected by Pakeha voters was matched only by the vehemence of their rejection of the Treaty when polled. The near unanimity of these rejections pointed strongly to the depth of racial animus in Middle New Zealand.

THERE ARE SIGNS and there are portents – if you know how to read them. Fifteen years ago it was easy to predict how New Zealanders would react to Don Brash’s infamous Orewa speech. Public antipathy to the Treaty of Waitangi registered strongly in opinion surveys. Hatred for all things Maori was widespread across “Middle New Zealand”. Not overtly (except among trusted family and friends) but disguised beneath their equally bitter hatred for what amounted to the same thing – welfare beneficiaries and gangs. Political parties, wary (until Brash!) of playing the race card too obviously, had worked out that they could derive just about as much electoral benefit by beating-up on Maoridom’s body-doubles. Everybody knew exactly who the politicians were talking about, and just about everybody played along.

Ronald Reagan had kicked it off twenty-five years earlier with his inflammatory speeches about “Welfare Queens”. Conservative Americans had no trouble decoding the Gipper’s language: “Welfare Queens” was shorthand for African-Americans taking criminal advantage of White Americans’ generosity. New Zealand conservatives were fast learners of this game. The political emphasis (from both major parties) on beneficiary fraud: on “welfare cheats” criminally gaming the welfare system; was intended to (and did) persuade Middle New Zealand that they were being taken for a ride by “these people”. They were, of course, willing to concede that there were cases of genuine hardship: decent New Zealanders (a.k.a Pakeha) who really did need the community’s help; but not many.

Some of the most powerful signs and portents came in the form of resident-initiated referenda on the creation of Maori wards for district and regional councils. Local politicians foolhardy enough to recognise the case for special Maori representation very soon found their efforts rolled back by huge majorities. The vehemence with which proposals for Maori wards were rejected by Pakeha voters was matched only by the vehemence of their rejection of the Treaty when polled. The near unanimity of these rejections pointed strongly to the depth of racial animus in Middle New Zealand. They had learned how to mask their racism by unloading it onto racially identified proxies, but given the chance to express it safely and anonymously through the ballot box the results were unequivocal.

The silver lining which redeemed all these grim storm clouds was the strong geographical element to Middle New Zealand’s racist impulses. The animosity towards Maori was concentrated in rural and provincial New Zealand. The nearer you got to the centre of New Zealand’s largest cities, the more attenuated the racism of Pakeha New Zealanders became. Notwithstanding the growing strength of this urban liberalism, it was in the “brown” suburbs of the big cities – most especially South Auckland – that Don Brash’s 2005 bid to assuage Middle New Zealand’s hunger for racial rectification was ultimately halted. Even so, as the Duke of Wellington said of the Battle of Waterloo: “It was a damn near-run thing!”

The key question thrown up by the extraordinary results of the 2020 general election is, therefore: “Is Middle New Zealand less racist than it used to be?” Did Jacinda Ardern’s inspired rhetoric about the “Team of Five Million”, and the colour-blind nature of the pandemic, put a temporary stop on the deeply embedded racism of Middle New Zealanders – even in Ilam and Rangitata? Or, has natural demographic attrition thinned out the ranks of the provinces’ aggressive racists to the point where the attitudinal shifts of the past forty years have acquired a permanent and decisive electoral heft?

Sadly, the signs and portents from the Sixth Labour Government are all pointing in the opposite direction. A decisive shift in public attitudes away from the racism that has characterised so much of New Zealand history would, presumably, be measurable in the quantum of prejudice still directed towards beneficiaries. If Maori and Pacifica in the grip of poverty and homelessness were becoming recognisable to Pakeha New Zealanders as fellow citizens in need, then surely Jacinda and her Finance Minister would have felt safe in authorising a Christmas bonus for all those Kiwis on benefits. That they have point-blank refused to contemplate such a gesture suggests that Pakeha are still a long way from making this solidaristic identification.

According to Richard Harman of the Politik website, the Labour Party currently enjoys an embarrassment of riches on the polling and focus-group front. Jacinda and her colleagues know more about what New Zealanders are thinking than any party in the last twenty years. That they are unwilling to risk the ire of the hundreds of thousands of voters they have lured away from National, by handing out extra cash to beneficiaries, strongly suggests that the warm glow of unity which Covid kindled has cooled considerably.

That the prejudices of Middle New Zealand appear to be in rude good health this Christmas season is further attested to by the Labour Government’s ever-so-careful tip-toeing away from its earlier commitment to criminalising hate speech. They may also be receiving worrying feed-back from those tasked with devising the new (and compulsory) New Zealand History curriculum. Certainly, a long period of public consultation has been promised before the new programme is rolled out in 2022. More than enough time, perhaps, for a whole pack of sleeping racist dogs to wake up and start barking?

That’s the thing about signs and portents: there’s little point in paying attention to some while studiously ignoring others. Those who insist that the pernicious influence of New Zealand’s colonial history continues to permeate the present state of Maori-Pakeha relations, would surely be unwise to proceed as if the legacy of colonisation carries no contemporary political weight. If there are no signs of Pakeha racism diminishing significantly, then the portents for this government doing very much to advance a serious policy of decolonisation would appear to be decidedly unfavourable.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 22 December 2020.

Monday, 21 December 2020

Understanding The State We’re In.

Not A Bug, But A Feature: The complex componentry of civilisation, if it is to function effectively, requires a single locus of ultimate authority – along with the human and material resources necessary to enforce its will. What’s more, the state’s coercive powers cannot be shared: everywhere and always, the state must maintain a monopoly on the use of force. In the end, the state and violence are inseparable.

THE INITIAL REVELATIONS of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care are deeply troubling. For conservative leftists like myself they raise a host of unsettling questions – most particularly about whether the creation of a caring and empowering state is, or has ever been, a realistic objective.

Socialists like to believe that the state will take on the qualities, and take up the causes, of the class that controls it. A workers’ state, therefore, would naturally prioritise those issues neglected or made worse by the bosses’ state. Its institutions would never fall prey to the dark impulses of capitalists driven by selfishness and the desire for power over others. Children in the care of a socialist state would have nothing to fear.

Leaving aside the obvious rejoinders about Romanian orphanages and Soviet mental hospitals, the sunny optimism of socialist state-builders is predicated on an uncomplicated belief in “nurture” over “nature”. Human-beings are held to be infinitely malleable by the social structures in which they are enmeshed. Such innate drives as they do possess are natural, wholesome, and not the least bit problematic. Subject capitalist social structures to socialist change, and their human occupiers will also be changed – but only in a good way!

What else could socialists believe when their lives were dedicated entirely to restructuring, or even overthrowing, the capitalist state? The idea that “human nature” might be something more than a capitalist invention: something more than a fable fabricated to normalise the capitalist “virtues” of greed, selfishness and domination; would inevitably raise doubts about the feasibility of the entire socialist project. If the predatory, cruel and exploitative impulses within the human animal are as deeply ingrained as its capacity for nurturing, empathy and co-operation, then immediately the question arises: Will institutional change be enough?

The answers provided by history are not in the least reassuring. Institutions tend towards hierarchy, and hierarchy rewards certain kinds of behaviours while punishing others. Manipulation and deceit are especially effective means of advancing oneself up the institutional ladder. When augmented by narcissism and a general lack of empathy these self-propelling power-tools work even better. Institutions are far better suited to sociopaths than socialists. Certainly, the bloody history of revolutionary regimes makes that a difficult proposition to refute.

Even when launched with the best of intentions, programmes of radical transformation, and the new institutional structures needed to give them effect, are prone to generating truly ghastly – albeit unintended – outcomes. Consider the massive post-war migration of Maori from rural to urban New Zealand. Almost all of the mostly social-democratic policy-makers of the time conceived of this radical demographic shift as a very good thing. Instead of remaining a culturally isolated and economically marginalised people, Maori would be integrated into “modern” New Zealand society.

The social planners knew that such a dramatic social and economic upheaval was bound to cause problems for Maori families. The shift from rural to urban would inevitably be a wrench – especially for the young. Not all Maori parents, it was assumed, would prove equal to the task of managing the transition. To pick up the broken pieces of these new communities and stick them back together again, the Pakeha authorities began to construct a network of “children’s homes”, “special schools” and “mental hospitals” – places where those who were not “fitting-in” could have the rough edges sanded-off them.

Coercion, albeit well-intentioned, lay at the heart of these institutions. Force is not, however, conducive to the sort of positive outcomes socialists are so keen to produce. Violence, even when deemed necessary and unavoidable, tends to be kept hidden for fear of generating public outrage. Sadly, the moment an institution embraces secrecy and refuses to be held accountable for its “unattractive” behaviour, it begins to draw to it those whose predatory, cruel and exploitative impulses flourish under such conditions.

In this way, the institutional willingness to “be cruel to be kind” (in order to facilitate larger and loftier social goals) combines with the sadistic impulses of individuals to create a perfect institutional shit-storm. The resulting criminality makes secrecy even more imperative. It does not take long, however, for sociopaths and psychopaths to find out that in these irredeemably compromised institutions they can do their worst without fear of serious repercussions.

From these corrupted institutions, other, nominally healthy, state institutions cannot help becoming seriously infected. As the crimes pile up, so, too, do the questions: Who was responsible? Why weren’t they stopped? Who decided to cover it up? Somebody must have told someone – why weren’t they believed? What should we do?

Well, that one’s easy. What do bureaucrats always do when danger threatens? They cover their arses. Or, more precisely, Crown Law covers their arses for them.

The role played by Crown Law in this tragic story of good intentions gone wrong, crimes committed, and cover-ups executed, is, arguably, its most disturbing aspect. In defence of the New Zealand state and its errant institutions Crown lawyers behaved abominably. Victims of state abuse, who had come to the courts seeking justice, and some form of compensation for their appalling treatment at the hands of public servants charged with their care, were deliberately, ruthlessly and repeatedly re-traumatised by Crown Law. Briefed to protect the reputation and interests of the state, the Crown’s legal teams showed the plaintiffs no mercy. The unethical nature of these lawyers’ conduct was not considered relevant. Abuse victims were seen, simply, as threats to be neutralised. And they were.

What kind of state requires such service from its servants? And, what kind of state servant supplies it? An even more disturbing question, from the socialist’s point of view: “Is any other kind of state possible?”

The answer to that last question may very well be “No.” The complex componentry of civilisation, if it is to function effectively, requires a single locus of ultimate authority – along with the human and material resources necessary to enforce its will. What’s more, the state’s coercive powers cannot be shared: everywhere and always, the state must maintain a monopoly on the use of force. In the end, the state and violence are inseparable.

Immortal, irresistible and violent: is it any wonder that the state attract servants with “a very particular set of skills”? Not least, the skill that can keep the violence inherent in all state institutions hidden from public view. A skill which extends, necessarily, to protecting the perpetrators of state violence.

When those involved in meting out violence on behalf of the state are soldiers, police officers and prison guards, most citizens are willing to turn a blind eye. This is less true when the state servants involved are administrators, doctors, nurses, orderlies, teachers, foster-parents and priests. The public expects more of such people. What the state knows, however, is that, given power over others – especially children and young people drawn from the poorest and most powerless sections of society – a certain irreducible percentage of those to whom its authority is entrusted are bound to abuse it.

What matters – especially to the socialist – is the precise size of that percentage. If it’s one in a thousand, then a benign state remains a viable proposition. But, what if its one in a hundred? What is it’s one in ten? What if, as Professor Stanley Milgram’s grim experiment appeared to confirm more than 50 years ago, fewer than one in ten of us will refuse to inflict pain when instructed to do so by a person in authority?

In the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care’s interim report, released on Wednesday, 16 December 2020, the astounding figure of a quarter-of-a-million New Zealanders are estimated to have experienced abuse at the hands of their institutional carers between 1950 and 1999. That’s 5,000 persons per year, across a country which, for most of that time, had between two and four million inhabitants. When Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashed into Mt Erebus in 1979, killing all 257 people on board, it is said that just about every New Zealander had some connection with at least one of the victims. Imagine, then, how many people must have been aware that something very bad was going on in New Zealand’s state and private institutions dedicated to juvenile care.

What socialists need to ask themselves is this: “If that many people suffered, and so many people knew they were suffering, then why wasn’t it stopped?” If the best answer they can get turns out to be: “Because, in the end, citizens do not shape the state. In the end, the state shapes its citizens.” Then, perhaps, it is time, even for conservative leftists, to give anarchism a try.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 18 December 2020.

Friday, 18 December 2020

The Twelve Days Of (Jacinda's) Christmas.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

On the first day of Christmas Jacinda gave to me
A Covid-gifted House majority!

On the second day of Christmas Jacinda gave to me
Two working-groups
And a Covid-gifted House majority!

On the third day of Christmas Jacinda gave to me
Three canned plans
Two working-groups
And a Covid-gifted House majority!

On the fourth day of Christmas Jacinda gave to me
A new four-year term
Three canned plans
Two working-groups
And a Covid-gifted House majority!

On the fifth day of Christmas Jacinda gave to me
Five heartfelt sighs
A new four-year term
Three canned plans
Two working-groups
And a Covid-gifted House majority!

On the sixth day of Christmas Jacinda gave to me
Six journos braying
Five heartfelt sighs
A new four-year term
Three canned plans
Two working-groups
And a Covid-gifted House majority!

On the seventh day of Christmas Jacinda gave to me
Seven bigots spraying
Six journos braying
Five heartfelt sighs
A new four-year term
Three canned plans
Two working-groups
And a Covid-gifted House majority!

On the eighth day of Christmas Jacinda gave to me
Eight donors paying
Seven bigots spraying
Six journos braying
Five heartfelt sighs
A new four-year term
Three canned plans
Two working-groups
And a Covid-gifted House majority!

On the ninth day of Christmas Jacinda gave to me
Nine polls agreeing
Eight donors paying
Seven bigots spraying
Six journos braying
Five heartfelt sighs
A new four-year term
Three canned plans
Two working-groups
And a Covid-gifted House majority!

On the tenth day of Christmas Jacinda gave to me
Ten Tories wailing
Nine polls agreeing
Eight donors paying
Seven bigots spraying
Six journos braying
Five heartfelt sighs
A new four-year term
Three canned plans
Two working-groups
And a Covid-gifted House majority!

On the eleventh day of Christmas Jacinda gave to me
Eleven “sorrys” spoken
Ten Tories wailing
Nine polls agreeing
Eight donors paying
Seven bigots spraying
Six journos braying
Five heartfelt sighs
A new four-year term
Three canned plans
Two working-groups
And a Covid-gifted House majority!

On the twelfth day of Christmas Jacinda gave to me
Twelve pledges broken
Eleven “sorrys” spoken
Ten Tories wailing
Nine polls agreeing
Eight donors paying
Seven bigots spraying
Six journos braying
Five heartfelt sighs
A new four-year term
Three canned plans
Two working-groups
And a Covid-gifted House majority!

And a Merry Christmas to everyone!


This parody was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 December 2020.

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Be Careful What You Wish For.

This Is What Counter-Terrorism Looks Like: Has the New Zealand Left forgotten already the enormous fuss they made about the ill-fated “Operation Eight”. How appalled they all were when the Police and other elements of the security services moved against a group of left-wing activists observed training in the Urewera Ranges with semi-automatic weapons and Molotov cocktails? Have they forgotten their outrage at the illegal use of surveillance equipment? The interception of e-mails. The heavy-handed raid on Ruatoki?

THERE’S A CURIOUS disconnect between the Left’s support for the Muslim community and its deep-seated mistrust of the security services. On the one hand, they are demanding that white supremacists be hunted down and brought to justice – by any means necessary – while, on the other, they are wary of expanding the already extensive powers of the secret state. The problem, of course, is that it’s very difficult to achieve the former without promoting the latter. It is, however, far from certain that the Left understands this.

One of the most consistent themes to emerge from the Left’s response to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch Mosque Attacks is that of the authorities’ failure to identify and neutralise Brenton Tarrant’s terrorist operation. Unspoken in these critiques (most probably because those making them are unwilling to acknowledge the full implications of their own demands) is the expectation that, in order to guard against such a terrible crime ever happening again, the Ardern Government will oversee a significant expansion of the National Intelligence Community’s (NIC) counter-terrorist capabilities.

But what, exactly, would that look like? By what means could the activities of a Brenton Tarrant be detected? He had planned his operation with considerable care, always conscious of the need to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities. He understood the acute vulnerabilities of a democratic society and exploited them ruthlessly. Most particularly, he took advantage of our system’s fundamental assumption that people are motivated by good (or, at least, not illegal) intentions. By the time a society like our own realises that it is dealing with someone whose intentions are homicidally destructive – it is far too late.

To its credit, the Royal Commission recognised this core truth of the Christchurch Attacks: that only the intervention of pure chance could have prevented Tarrant from carrying out his deadly mission. The Left, however, remains unsatisfied. It refuses to accept that Tarrant was essentially unstoppable. With all its powers, surely the secret state could have intercepted Tarrant’s electronic communications? A proper network of spies and informants, buried deep in the white supremacist movement, would have had no difficulty in picking-up on this new member of the gun club; this obsessive body-builder at the gym; this traveller with the interesting collection of stamps in his passport.

But, what sort of society would that be? A society in which the state is permitted to eavesdrop on any and every communication without the benefit of a judicial warrant, would hardly merit the title of “democratic”. Likewise, any society in which every new face, every unguarded comment, is noted, recorded and reported to the security services by a vast secret network of spies and informants. A society, in short, bearing a striking family resemblance to the society of the (East) German Democratic Republic (GDR) and its state security (Stasi) protectors.

Is that really the direction in which the Left would like to see Aotearoa-New Zealand travel?

The scary thing is that it’s not entirely clear that such a society is not the Left’s ultimate goal. Not when its extreme antipathy to white supremacy and its determination to protect vulnerable groups from its “hate crimes” and “hate speech” are factored into the equation. After all, it was the Socialist Unity Party’s (as the GDR’s communists called themselves) fear of fascism, both within the GDR and across the border in the Federal Republic (West Germany) that led to the creation of the Stasi and the building of the Berlin Wall.

Is it really too fanciful to suggest that, just as the East German working-class sought protection from any resurgence of the recently defeated Nazis, so, too, does Aotearoa’s diverse multicultural society require protection from the hateful manifestations of white supremacy?

It is so very tempting to buy into the goals and methods of counter-terrorism when the terrorists are people you despise. Think back to the early 1960s, when the Black civil rights movement was being beaten, bombed and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Recall the enraging photographs, published in Life magazine, of lounging Southern sheriffs, obscenely confident that their murderous suppression of African-Americans would go unpunished by the all-white juries empanelled to determine their guilt or innocence. Remember the increasingly shrill demands from liberal Americans that the FBI must “do something” to shut the Klan down. The unspoken assurance being that, whatever the FBI's “something” amounted to, the federal government would turn a blind eye.

And it worked. Of course it worked! Paid informers, midnight abductions, threats of torture, infiltration, disinformation, fostering extreme paranoia, deliberately inciting factional strife: such tactics always work. And when the Ku Klux Klan began to eat itself and its members started ratting each other out to the Feds, well, liberal America just set its jaw, shook the FBI Special Agents’ hands, and murmured “Well done.”

It is, however, important to remember that although the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Programme (COINTELPRO) may have started with the Klan, it didn’t end there – no siree! Having shut down the southern white supremacists, the FBI turned its attention to the burgeoning left-wing movement against the war in Vietnam; the Black Panther Party; Students for a Democratic Society. Because, that’s the thing about counter-terrorism in a capitalist society: it may crack down on the Right out of a sense of duty; but destroying the Left is something it will always do happily – for the pure pleasure of watching it burn.

Has the New Zealand Left forgotten already the enormous fuss they made about the ill-fated “Operation Eight”. How appalled they all were when the Police and other elements of the security services moved against a group of left-wing activists observed training in the Urewera Ranges with semi-automatic weapons and Molotov cocktails? Have they forgotten their outrage at the illegal use of surveillance equipment? The interception of e-mails. The heavy-handed raid on Ruatoki? Their message to the National Intelligence Community, then, was admirably clear: “Stop trying to turn New Zealand into a police state!”

Ah, yes, but Operation Eight was directed against the Left’s friends and comrades – wasn’t it? Thirteen years on, what would the response be if the news media broke a story about a group of heavily armed white supremacists undergoing military training in a remote South Island pine forest? How many on the Left would complain, I wonder, when scores of heavily-armed and armoured police officers descended on the little Canterbury town of Geraldine to apprehend the fascists?

Hopefully, the outcry in defence of New Zealanders’ civil liberties would be just as loud in 2020 as it was in 2007. Hopefully, the insistence on the presumption of innocence would be just as great.

Every state possesses the means to keep its citizens under strict control. The democratic trick is to ensure that it receives no encouragement to use them. If governments are incited to believe the worst of their citizens, then those citizens will not be slow to live up to their masters’ expectations.

Be careful what you wish for.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 15 December 2020.

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Lessons From A “Legendary Teacher” Prof. James R. Flynn 1934 – 2020

A Truly Wise Man: For Flynn, the contest between truth and falsehood was never about “bad people” peddling “bad ideas”: it was only ever about inadequately supported propositions. And, the best way to demonstrate their inadequacy was to challenge them on their own terms, in public, with the evidence.

“A LEGENDARY TEACHER”, was how University of Otago Vice-Chancellor, Harlene Hayne, described Professor James R. Flynn (1934-2020). The thousands of first-year politics students who attended his lectures down the years will certainly attest to the accuracy of Haynes’ description. The stories that grew up around the often slipper-shod professor were as colourful as the man who inspired them. Following his death last Friday, at the age of 86, “Jim” Flynn’s former students will be recalling those stories with that tearful mixture of sadness and pride that distinguishes the passing of all truly outstanding individuals.

Flynn was not just a teacher of university students, however, but of two whole generations of New Zealand leftists. Born in Washington DC, Flynn was that rarest and most admirable of things – an American socialist. There are very few democratic nations in the world where it is harder to ply the socialist trade than the United States, and those who make the attempt require the most extraordinary fortitude.

The man after whom Flynn’ son is named, Eugene Victor Debs, spent years in a federal prison for the “crime” of opposing military conscription during the First World War. Flynn himself, although a prodigiously talented scholar, was repeatedly fired from his university posts on account of his membership of Debs’ Socialist Party of America. It didn’t help his career prospects that Flynn was also an active participant in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. Not when the colleges that hired (and then fired) him were located south of the Mason-Dixon Line!

The American South’s loss proved to be New Zealand’s gain, however, when Flynn and his wife, Emily, sought refuge in what was still regarded, in the late-1960s, as one of the world’s most successful social-democratic nations.

The politics department which Flynn brought into being at the University of Otago, and which he would lead for the next 30 years, largely eschewed the sterile empiricism of “political science”, offering its students, instead, a strong grasp of the philosophical and historical origins of political ideas. To do well in Flynn’s “political studies” department, students not only had to be able to count, they also had to be able to read. (Nothing so alarmed Flynn in the latter part of his career than the dramatic fall-off in ‘voluntary’ reading among under-graduates.)

Although the contemporary university is legally obligated to be the “critic and conscience” of society, it is an obligation more honoured in the breach than in the observance. That could never be said of Flynn, however, who threw himself into the political life of his adopted country with gusto. He had hardly unpacked his belongings before he was quietly advising the Leader of the Labour Opposition, Norman Kirk, on New Zealand’s foreign policy options. In Dunedin, he soon became one of the leading-lights in the Committee on Vietnam. Whether it be leading an anti-war march down George Street, or debating socialism with his students in the Captain Cook Tavern, the lanky figure of the bearded professor soon became a fixture of the academic left in Otago.

In New Zealand, as in the rest of the world, the “Red Seventies” were roughly shouldered aside by the Neoliberal Eighties and Nineties. For Flynn, one of the most egregious effects of the “free-market” counter-revolution was the re-emergence of “Scientific Racism” – especially the notion that the IQ of Blacks was inherently inferior to that of Whites.

To counter this old and pernicious heresy, Flynn immersed himself in, and mastered, the intricacies of psychology, statistical science and higher mathematics. The result: an empirical demonstration of the social malleability of intelligence “scores”, now known, universally, as the “Flynn Effect”, undercut decisively the arguments of the new “racial scientists” – most particularly, Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray.

It was a genuinely “classical” demonstration of the way in which propositions one believes to be without foundation should be countered. Not for Flynn the contemporary preference for naming and shaming one’s opponent’s on social media; “de-platforming” them from all university venues; and presenting them with the choice of either offering-up a humiliating recantation and apology, or, losing their jobs. Flynn simply went in search of the evidence. If it wasn’t there, then the propositions of one’s opponents could be exposed as academically unsustainable.

For Flynn it was never about “bad people” peddling “bad ideas”: it was only ever about inadequately supported propositions. And, the best way to demonstrate their inadequacy was to challenge them on their own terms, in public, with the evidence.

It is, without doubt, one of the most important intellectual lessons of this “legendary teacher”: that truth is the product of free and open debate; and that any university unwilling to stand up for free and open debate is, ultimately, unworthy of the name.

Arguably, Flynn’s most important political lesson is the principle he did so much to enshrine in both the NewLabour Party, and in its successor, the Alliance. Significantly, it is based on the same intellectual rigour that gave birth to the Flynn Effect.

Essentially, Flynn’s political argument was a simple one. It is ethically insupportable and, ultimately, electorally self-defeating, for a left-wing political party to make promises to the electorate which it cannot show to be fiscally sustainable. Left-wing political leaders, said Flynn, have a moral obligation to demonstrate, by drawing up a mathematically coherent Alternative Budget, how all the good things they are promising will be paid for.

Does this approach have a political cost? Of course it does! Voters don’t like to hear that their taxes will need to be raised and/or new taxes imposed. But, Flynn’s argument was that until the electorate can be persuaded that paying higher taxes is a necessary condition for living in a just society, then any electoral victories on the part of the Left will only ever be temporary. The mission of the true democratic socialist, argued Flynn, was not, primarily, to win votes in the short term, but to effect a long-term change of voters’ hearts and minds – by telling them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Idealistic? Quixotic? Na├»ve? Flynn was called all of those things in his time. At no point, however, did I hear anyone, from either the far- or the centre-left, demonstrate the fault in Flynn’s operating principles for a genuinely democratic socialism. As he proved in relation to race and intelligence, if the numbers do not stack-up, then neither does the argument.

Though a life-long atheist, Flynn was not above offering his classes and comrades the odd biblical quotation. One of his favourites was from the Book of Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun that – The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favour to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all.

I always thought of it as a curiously self-refuting quotation. For if time and chance determine all things, then the quest for truth and justice is vain and doomed to disappointment. But, perhaps, it is in that quote from Ecclesiastes that we find the true measure of James R. Flynn: philosopher, mathematician, socialist. That in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the pursuit of truth and justice remains the only accurate test of our determination to become fully human.


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 14 December 2020.

Friday, 11 December 2020

The Royal Commission’s Recommendations On Hate Speech Will Unite The Right.

Free Speech Coalition? There is no way in Hell that the National Party is going to let the free speech issue become the exclusive political property of the Act Party. Judith Collins is going to make damned sure that she, too, has her hands on the banner of freedom. Defending free speech is poised to become the unifying mission of the entire New Zealand Right.

THE BIG QUESTION now facing the National Party is whether to defend free speech or give that job to Act. If it is foolish enough to take the latter option, then its chances of rebuilding its electoral strength anytime soon must be considered slim. The banner of freedom is a potent electoral prop, once relinquished it is extremely difficult to reclaim.

How gratified Act must have been to read the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques on 15 March 2019’s recommendations relating to hate speech. David Seymour’s greatest worry must surely have been that the Royal Commissioners would resist the clamour for a clamp-down on New Zealanders’ freedom of expression.

A modest suggestion to extend the already existing legislation outlawing incitement of racial disharmony by including religious affiliation would, for example, have been considered unobjectionable by most New Zealanders. But, to what I am sure is Seymour’s immense relief, the Commissioners have gone much, much further than that.

To read the relevant part of the Report is to be presented with a plan for comprehensive social engineering that is as ambitious as it is frightening. The Commissioners are clearly determined to downgrade the right of citizens to express their opinions freely. Their justification for attacking this most sacred of democratic principles? Society’s supposed duty of care to those who might be offended by people giving vent to harsh or cruel opinions. Protecting people’s feelings from the insensitivity of their neighbours is seen as vital to building and maintaining “social cohesion” – the Commissioners’ over-riding desideratum.

If National Party MPs’ hackles are not rising at this point, then the condition of political liberalism in this country is a great deal worse than I dared imagine. Any subscriber to the principles of liberal democracy should stand aghast at the implications of the Commissioners’ arguments.

Society, it would seem, cannot be relied upon to do the right thing. Left to themselves, people will insist on behaving badly. To borrow a term from Hilary Clinton, far too many Kiwis hold opinions and harbour prejudices that are utterly “deplorable”. To make these bad Kiwis think twice before voicing opinions hurtful to their neighbours, the Commissioners are recommending that the Government raise the maximum penalty for inciting racial disharmony (“hate speech”) from three months to three years! That’s three years in prison for voicing or publishing the wrong opinions. In New Zealand.

At this point, you can see why David Seymour might be gleefully anticipating lifting up the banner of freedom and sallying forth to do battle with the Commissioners and their willing enablers in the Labour Government. (Oh yes, that’s right, the Prime Minister herself has promised that her government will give legislative effect to all the Royal Commissions’ recommendations.)

Equally easily imagined is Act’s nervousness that National might decide to abandon the bi-partisanship forged in the horrific circumstances of the 15 March 2019 attack. It was that bi-partisanship – especially on the need for gun control – that set Act on its path to 7 percent of the Party Vote and ten MPs. How keen they must be to see National lend its support to the Commissioners’ crusade to forge a richly diverse – but socially cohesive – New Zealand. Even if that involves police officers arresting comedians for failing to recognise the difference between edgy humour and hate speech!

By now, I would hope that it’s becoming crystal clear to the reader that there is no way in Hell that the National Party is going to let this issue become the exclusive political property of the Act Party. Judith Collins is going to make damned sure that she, too, has her hands on the banner of freedom. Defending free speech is poised to become the unifying mission of the entire New Zealand Right.

And it is in this respect that the Royal Commission has served New Zealanders – especially Muslim New Zealanders – very badly. What should have been a reaffirmation of unity and solidarity has instead been repurposed into an incitement to division and rancour. Pretty soon the only aspect of the Report that anyone recalls will be its attack upon New Zealanders’ freedom of speech – and, inescapably, upon the vitality of their democracy.

The Prime Minister’s inspired formulation, “They are Us” will be replaced by three much more dangerous words: “Us versus Them”.


This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 December 2020.

Thursday, 10 December 2020

The Royal Commission Report: Staying Safely Inside “The Norms” Of Our Neoliberal Society.

Keeping It Normal: If we are going define extremism in relation to a society’s “norms”, then we will discover very quickly that we have signed-up for an extremely moveable feast!

THERE’S SOMETHING a bit creepy about the Royal Commission’s report into the Christchurch attacks. That an agenda is at work throughout the document is incontrovertible – and it goes well beyond simply uncovering, describing and learning lessons from the actions that led to the tragedy of Friday,15 March 2019. It’s an agenda dedicated to the monitoring, management and eventual eradication of an entire way of thinking about the world. The “far-right extremist” way of thinking.

Now, I’m quite sure there a plenty of people on the Left who would say: “And what’s wrong with that?” They would point to the mountains of skulls piled up by the Far-Right over the past two centuries and demand to know why the world would not be a better place without these awful ideas and their political executors. But measuring the height of skull mountains is a mug’s game – especially when you’re on the Left. The bone-piles of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong put Adolf Hitler’s to shame!

To which many on the Left would respond by asserting that Stalin and Mao weren’t actually of the Left, they were totalitarians – a very different beast altogether. Possibly. I would argue that the argument, at its heart, is all about how tolerant you are of people whose ideas contradict your own in a fundamental way.

Even the Royal Commissioners got this: stating, in their definition of political extremism, that:

“Extremism is generally understood as a belief system underpinned by rigid and uncompromising beliefs outside the norm of a society. In the case of New Zealand this might be by rejecting democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Extremism can have different ideological underpinnings and manifest in a number of ways. Central to extremist belief systems is a desire to bring about change and overhaul the political, social or religious environment to conform to the person’s or group’s idealised vision of society.”

That unwillingness to compromise is critical. Rigidity, too, is a key aspect of the extremist personality. Certainly, it’s pretty hard to argue that Stalin, Mao and Hitler weren’t rigid and uncompromising political leaders. That said, there are elements of the Commissioners’ definition that are deeply problematic.

The most obvious of these is the phrase “outside the norm of a society”. What, precisely, do they mean by that rather extraordinary statement?

Society’s “norms” have a nasty habit of changing. In 2020, anyone advocating the incarceration of homosexuals, or their detention in a mental health facility, would be branded a homophobic extremist. A century ago, however, they would be guilty of nothing more than reiterating “the norm of a society”.

In 2020, a left-wing activist calling for the “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange” would be dismissed as an eccentric ideological throwback to a bygone era. Seventy years ago, however, such a person would have been viewed as a potential threat to national security.

If we are going define extremism in relation to a society’s “norms”, then we will discover very quickly that we have signed-up for an extremely moveable feast!

To illustrate the downright sneaky character of the Commission’s definition, let’s apply it to neoliberalism’s conquest of New Zealand in the mid-1980s. The policies introduced by Labour’s “free marketeers” were indisputably outside the norms of New Zealand society. Given the “top-down” manner of its imposition, one could even argue that “Rogernomics” amounted to a rejection of democracy, the rule of law and human-rights. Certainly, the true intentions of its proponents were not communicated to the electorate in the run-up to the 1984 general election. In 1987, Labour dispensed with a manifesto altogether!

It is also indisputable that neoliberalism’s advocates and defenders evinced a rigidity of mind and an unwillingness to compromise that was entirely consistent with the Commission’s definition of extremism. Also present in the neoliberal mindset was a very strong desire to bring about change and to overhaul their country’s economic, social and political environment in comformity with the neoliberal ideology’s “idealised vision of society”.

Thirty-five years on, however, the authors of the Royal Commission’s report would have utterly discredited themselves if they had described neoliberalism as an extremist ideology. If challenged on this point, they would simply argue that neoliberalism is now accepted as “the norm of [our] society”.

And therein lies the problem.

One hundred years ago, what the Commission now describes as “far-right extremism” was the norm of New Zealand society. White supremacy was in evidence across the entire face of the planet: indeed, it underpinned, both morally and politically, the grossly exploitative economic policies of the British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and American empires. New Zealand children educated in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were taught that Maori and Europeans were “brothers under the skin” – members-in-good-standing of the same Aryan race. Many of those children are still alive today. Over the course of a century they have gone from being perfectly “normal” New Zealand schoolchildren, to the hapless victims of far-right extremism.

This is the inconvenient truth the Royal Commission Report is so keen to consign to George Orwell’s “memory hole”. That the consciousness of constant historical change should encourage extreme caution when determining what is, and what is not, “extremism”. The consciousness that resists instinctively the totalitarian impulse to erase all memory of those moments in time when the current “norms” of society weren’t in the least bit normal. The impulse which seeks to eradicate all perspectives but the totalitarian’s own. An outcome that can only be successfully imposed by force and fear.

A wiser Royal Commission, rather than fetishizing the social and ideological milieu which spawned Brenton Tarrant, would have looked more closely at the historical causes of his crime. It would have recalled a New Zealand in which established working-class communities (especially Maori working-class communities) were torn to pieces by the ideology of free market fundamentalism. A country in which the social pathologies of poverty and marginalisation grew steadily worse. It would have counted the casualties.

A wiser Royal Commission would also have questioned the bi-partisan political commitment that took the bi-cultural Aotearoa which was just beginning to emerge in the 1980s, and turned it into a multicultural “Asian nation” (as Jim Bolger memorably characterised New Zealand) without the slightest attempt, on the part of either Labour or National, to secure a popular mandate for such a wrenching demographic transformation.

A wiser Royal Commission might have gone in search of the people who opened the nation’s borders – recklessly setting-up burgeoning communities of new immigrants as targets for populist wrath. The people who provided the “context” for Tarrant’s exterminationist hatred.

Ah, yes, but that sort of Royal Commission would have ended up training its sights on a very different kind of right-wing politics – wouldn’t it? A politics defended by extremists a whole lot better resourced and infinitely more powerful than a handful of bewildered ethno-nationalist malcontents.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 19 December 2020.

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Can Labour Serve Two Masters?

Sold! Is Labour capable of putting its ideological convictions to one side in the name of holding on to its electoral advantage? There is a price to be paid either way. So, which of Labour's two "masters" will pocket it? Pragmatism or Idealism?

THE QUESTION to be answered, one way or the other, before 2023 is pretty simple: Can Labour serve two masters? Will it hold to the course recommended by its professional advisers? Or, will the party be driven into the weeds by the convictions of its caucus? Put another way: is Labour capable of putting its ideological convictions to one side in the name of holding on to its electoral advantage? There is a price to be paid either way. So, which master will pocket it? Pragmatism or Idealism?

Before anyone gets too excited, the idealism in question is not the old-fashioned social-democratic kind. Virtually no one in Labour’s caucus favours pushing capitalism to the outer limits of its tolerance. This is not a caucus that is going to agitate for the reintroduction of universal union membership, or the unfettered right to strike. There’s no hardcore bunch of “Big Taxers” arguing for a top income tax rate of 90 percent on incomes over $200,000. Nor will a “Renationalisation Faction” emerge to threaten the Aussie banks. The Labour Party of 2020 doesn’t do that sort of idealism.

There is actually a greater chance of Labour’s pollsters and focus group moderators advancing these sort of ideas than Labour’s MPs. That’s because New Zealanders, like Americans, are surprisingly positive about making the rich pay their fair share and reclaiming their country’s economic sovereignty. Notwithstanding the electorate’s willingness to embrace such progressive policies, those same pollsters and focus group moderators would, nevertheless, hesitate to recommend their official adoption. Poke capitalism too hard and it will, most assuredly, poke you back – but much harder.

Labour’s professional advisers would also be acutely aware that a fair amount of the poking-back would come from the party’s parliamentarians. Considering the socio-economic strata from which nearly all Labour’s MPs have been recruited, such opposition would be entirely understandable and predictable. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

No, incipient socialism is not what Labour’s professional advisers fear. After all, it’s not as if there’s anything resembling a majority available for such a programme in the House of Representatives. Not even the Greens would feel comfortable advancing such a programme – not when they considered the reaction of their voters in the central city electorates, the ones on fat salaries, the ones among whom both their own party and Labour go looking for “good” candidates. New Zealanders may surprise opinion pollsters with their progressive policy preferences but, lacking a political party to take them forward, those preferences don’t amount to a hill of electoral beans.

What scares the bejesus out of Labour’s advisers, however, is the radical cultural agenda for which an alarming number of Labour and Green MPs would be prepared to die in a ditch. They are all-too-aware that this is not an agenda which enjoys broad electoral support. Even worse, they know that it is not an agenda which the parties of the Right (even in the unlikely event that a significant number of liberal Nats subscribed to it) could possibly allow to pass unchallenged. More bluntly, it’s an agenda which promotes division and dissension in ways that do not favour Labour’s re-election. The Government’s professional advisers will be urging the Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues to steer well clear.

But will they listen? Can Kris Faafoi be dissuaded from introducing legislation against “hate speech”. Can the Maori Caucus be turned aside from embracing the sort of constitutional radicalism that the Maori Party has already gone all the way with? How many women in Labour’s caucus are willing to wear the term “TERF” as a badge of honour? Will Nanaia Mahuta’s Cabinet colleagues counsel her against removing the right of electors to force local authorities to submit their proposals for Maori wards to a referendum? Is Chris Hipkins strong enough to resist the introduction of a compulsory New Zealand history curriculum in which greedy Pakeha settlers are invariably cast as the “baddies”, while noble indigenous Maori are consistently presented as the “goodies”? Will agreement at Ihumatao open-up all previous Treaty settlements for re-negotiation – even as it allows privately-owned land into the anti-colonial Poker game?

Labour MPs who would energetically resist being labelled “socialists” (in any other sense than endorsing the nostalgic veneration of Mickey Savage) might find it a great deal harder to deny their support for “decolonisation”, curbing hate speech, and facilitating early gender transitioning. Repudiating such key elements of the radical cultural agenda will be made even harder if they become the subject of private members bills. Will Jacinda Ardern risk a caucus revolt by ordering her parliamentary troops to ruthlessly vote all such legislation down? And, if she doesn’t, how does she propose to prevent such bills passing? Now that Winston’s handbrake is no longer there to give her plausible deniability on the pragmatism front?

The Prime Minister’s problem is positively Biblical in its moral complexity. It is, after all, in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus is recorded as saying: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

Unfortunately, it is Jacinda Ardern’s efforts to serve both masters that has so far distinguished her second term. Mammon, it must be said, has – so far – received the best service. Keeping the business community sweet, and not “the preferential option for the poor”, has been the order of the day. God must be wondering when it’s going to be his turn.

There is a way in which the Lord could be served that even the professionals might see some merit in exploring. If economic and cultural radicalism could be combined: if emancipating people from the grip of poverty could be undertaken at the same time as they were being encouraged to break free from the grip of racism, sexism and transphobia, then the prospects of success for each of these emancipatory projects would be greatly enhanced. History, certainly, leaves little room for doubt: if a revolution is not an all-embracing festival of freedom: economic, cultural, sexual and political; then, almost certainly, it is not a revolution at all.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 8 December 2020.

Friday, 4 December 2020

The Last Thing Working-Class New Zealanders Need Is “Stability And Certainty”.

Make Some Noise! The problem with keeping conditions stable and certain for the middle-class is that it more-or-less obliges the Government to refrain from implementing policies likely to produce significant improvements in the condition of the working-class. Most especially, it obliges Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues to do next-to-nothing for the poorest and most vulnerable members of the working-class. Improving their lives would simply be too costly. It would require precisely the sort of new taxes and tax increases that Labour has already ruled out of contention.

THERE IS SOMETHING quite seriously out-of-kilter with the universe when I find myself agreeing with Richard Prebble. Commenting in this morning’s (2/12/20) NZ Herald, Prebs states with unnerving accuracy: “Labour won the election but we elected a conservative government. Gone from the government programme announced in the speech from the throne is any promise of ‘transformational change’. Instead we have the false promise of every Tory, ‘stability and certainty’.

Many conservatives will disagree with Prebble’s analysis. In their eyes, Jacinda Ardern is still “a pretty communist”, and her party a collection of fire-breathing “Cultural Marxists” hell-bent on transforming New Zealand into the Venezuela of the South Pacific. [No, I’m not really sure what a “Cultural Marxist” is either – but the term is very big right now in right-wing circles!] The conservatives’ confusion is understandable, however, given how common it has become for radical ideas about culture and identity to be conflated with the ideology of the “Left” in general.

Prebble is not so easily distracted. He won his political spurs in the days when leftism was mostly about the economic, social and political consequences of being born into a particular social class. The Labour Party he grew up in took as its starting point the condition of the New Zealand working-class and how it could be improved. The point of Prebble’s admirably acidic column is that this “Labour” government has begun its second term from a very different starting-point: namely, the condition of the New Zealand middle-class and how it can be protected. Hence, its very public commitment to “stability and certainty”.

The problem, of course, is that keeping conditions stable and certain for the middle-class more-or-less obliges the Government to refrain from implementing policies likely to produce significant improvements in the condition of the working-class. Most especially, it obliges Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues to do next-to-nothing for the poorest and most vulnerable members of the working-class. Improving their lives would simply be too costly. It would require precisely the sort of new taxes and tax increases that Labour has already ruled out of contention.

Not that Prebble is the least bit interested in tax rises. His big worry is New Zealand’s woefully low levels of productivity. Like any good Rogernome, he sees the solution to this country’s poor productivity in terms of upping the rate of exploitation: i.e. making the nation’s employees work harder and longer for less. He’s all about further deregulating an already comprehensively de-regulated labour market. Yes, he would start by undoing Labour’s minimal improvements to paid leave and minimum wages, but it wouldn’t stop there.

The funny thing about Prebble and his ilk is that the solution to our low rate of productivity has always been staring them in the face. The fastest way to lift productivity is to force employers to substitute innovative technology for the absurdly cheap and indifferently-skilled human labour that has, since the 1990s, been permitted to take its place. By dramatically lifting wages and improving working conditions, a reforming government would require inefficient businesses to either find a way to work smarter or close down. The inevitable rise in unemployment would be met with a massive state programme of upskilling and employment creation.

Not that this government would dream of implementing such a solution. Not only would it outrage the small-business sector, but it would unnerve the professional and managerial classes. Those who work for salaries are extraordinarily sensitive to what we old trade unionists used to call “the relativities”. Put simply, any appreciable rise in the income of the “lower orders” unmatched by a corresponding upward movement in the income of their “betters” will be construed as a direct attack on their social prestige and position – which, of course, it is. Maintaining the yawning gap in the life experiences of wage workers and salaried professionals is one of those unspoken and unbreakable laws of capitalist society that “reformers” ignore at their peril. Fortunately for the class that dominates Labour’s caucus, Jacinda doesn’t do peril!

But, if the Sixth Labour Government is unwilling to follow either Prebble’s path, or the path of uplifting the working-class, then how can it hope to escape the latter’s anger and disillusionment when they realise that in spite of all her “kind” words, Jacinda is not going to help them? Tragically, my gut instinct tells me that she and her colleagues are going to try and distract them.

For quite a long time now it has been clear to those who make it their business to keep an eye on such things that most of this country’s blue collars are to be found around brown necks. So many of this country’s most poorly paid jobs are being done by Maori, Pasifika and immigrant workers. They make up the bulk of the “working poor” and they are represented disproportionately in the ranks of beneficiaries.

These are the people who struggle to pay the rent, or, far too often, struggle to find a landlord to pay rent to. Theirs are the schools that are failing. Theirs the hospitals that are underfunded. It is their mothers, daughters, sisters and wives who are abused for wearing the hijab. It is their fathers, sons, brothers and husbands who are pulled over by the cops. Most of all, they are the New Zealanders for whom the daily injuries of race are experienced much more directly and painfully than the injuries of class.

What could be easier than to portray racism as the root cause of their misery? Especially when it is so much cheaper, politically, to persuade people that their problems arise out of the personal failings and prejudices of their fellow citizens, rather than from the structures of economic exploitation and social subordination in which they are trapped. As an explanatory tool, race has the added advantage of being something we cannot do anything about. Those who are born poor, on the other hand, are not bound by their genetic inheritance to remain so. To make race the problem is to choose a war that can never be truly won. Healing the injuries of class, however, is something human-beings have done before – and can do again. What’s more, the great thing about combatting the injustices of class is the way it renders racial differences increasingly unimportant.

When an injury to one is treated as an injury to all, the only colour people tend to see is red. It’s a colour that has bugger-all to do with “stability and certainty”, but it used to have a whole lot to do with Labour. Even Richard Prebble knows that.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 3 December 2020.