Thursday, 7 July 2022

How “New” Is Our Democracy?

A Living Democracy - But Not A Tyranny Of The Majority: Wellington voters gather outside The Evening Post newspaper offices to see the results of the 1931 General Election posted.

The face of New Zealand and democracy has changed dramatically in the past few years and we need to reflect New Zealand’s new identity and democracy in our main media entities.
Willie Jackson, NZ Herald, 5 July 2022.

HAS NEW ZEALAND’S DEMOCRACY really “changed dramatically” in the past few years? I suppose it all depends on how you define “democracy”, “dramatically” and “the past few years”. Let’s start from there, and then work on to explore the motivation behind such a bold political assertion.

There are very few countries in the world that can boast a continuous democracy as old as New Zealand’s. Our population became fully enfranchised in 1893 when the Liberal Government extended voting rights to women. The United States would not reach that democratic milestone until 1920, and women would not be fully enfranchised in the United Kingdom until 1930. If one of the key indicators of a democratic nation is the right of its people to vote in fair and regular elections, then New Zealand can hold its head high.

Another feature of a working democratic system is whether the will of the majority of voters is reflected in the character and composition of their government. In this regard, New Zealand’s record is less exemplary. Since the acquisition of self-government in 1852, New Zealand has experimented with a number of electoral systems.

The “Two Round System”, for example, pitted the two highest polling candidates of an initial open round of voting against each other in a second, run-off, ballot. It was designed to ensure that, ultimately, a Member of Parliament represented a true majority of the electors. It lasted from 1908 until 1914. Another, the so-called “Country Quota”, weighted the votes of electors living in rural areas more heavily than those of urban voters. This blatantly anti-socialist measure lasted from 1881 until 1945!

Underpinning both of these measures, however, was the electoral system known as “First-Past-The-Post (FPP). To win an FPP election it was necessary for a candidate to win more votes than any of his/her rivals. Not more than all the votes of his/her competitors combined, you understand, only a simple plurality. The candidate with the most votes (which may, or may not, have constituted a majority of the votes) won.

Obviously, FPP can easily lead to a situation in which the governing party is able to win a majority of parliamentary seats with considerably fewer than half of the votes cast. In an election where three or four parties of roughly equal strength are seeking the electors’ support, the outcome is not Majority Rule, but the rule of the most popular minority. Since it is clearly unhelpful, in terms of preserving political legitimacy, to have a clear majority of voters feeling unrepresented, the grim arithmetical logic of FPP drives the political class inexorably towards a rigid two-party system.

In the 1920s and early-1930s, New Zealand voters had three major parties to choose from: the Reform Party, the Liberal (later the United) Party, and the Labour Party. In no election between 1919 and 1938 did any single political party ever secure more than half the votes cast. FPP notwithstanding, however, New Zealand only boasted a genuine two-party system for five elections (1938, 1943, 1946, 1949, 1951) The Labour/National duopoly was broken in 1954 with the advent of the Social Credit Political League. It would take until 2020 for a single New Zealand political party to, once again, secure more than half of the popular vote.

The switch from FPP to Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) in 1996 was certainly the most dramatic change to New Zealand’s democratic machinery since the National Party abolished the Legislative Council – New Zealand’s unelected (and largely decorative) Upper House of Parliament – in 1950.

New Zealanders voted for MMP in response to what was widely perceived as a lack of democratic political agency. With Labour and National both committed to neoliberal economic and social policies, many New Zealanders felt politically disenfranchised. Voters dreamed of electing Parliaments in which heterogeneous assemblages of genuine representatives would enable the formation of governments much more closely attuned to the people’s will.

Their hopes were not fulfilled. MMP certainly allowed political parties to select candidates more reflective of the gender, ethnicity and sexual-preference makeup of the New Zealand population, but the House of Representatives continued to be dominated by National and Labour. Those smaller parties that did manage to make it into Parliament dutifully lined-up with one or other of the two major parties in coalitions that only very rarely produced anything even remotely challenging of the neoliberal status quo.

Regardless of the drama, or lack of it, it would seem that, over the course of the last 100 years, the more that New Zealand’s democratic rules have been changed, the more its fundamental political impulses have remained the same. It is, however, possible to make one important observation: the larger the winning party’s share of the popular vote (now known as the Party Vote) the more permanent its subsequent alterations to the country’s face tend to be.

The problem, of course, is that the most recent alterations have been executed without a mandate. The last time a political party sought, and got, a decisive electoral mandate to change the face of New Zealand it was 1972. (Some might say 1938!) Certainly, over the past 35 years, the biggest and most alarming instances of facial surgery (Rogernomics, Ruthanasia) have been accomplished without the patient’s informed consent – or an anaesthetist!

It is to be hoped that Willie Jackson’s use of the past tense when describing the dramatic changes to the face of New Zealand democracy is inadvertent. It is certainly difficult to make a case for the will of the majority of New Zealanders being any easier to impose today than it was 30 years ago. The “tyranny of the majority” that Willie complains of finds no confirmation in our political history: neither in the Pakeha world, nor Te Ao Māori.

The truly scary thought is that Willie sees the obstacles to achieving effective democratic majorities as a feature, not a bug, of our present system. If his idea of a new and improved New Zealand democracy is one in which, once again, the most determined minorities get to rule, then the change he is describing is not so much an uplifting electoral drama, as a political sucker-punch to the face.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 7 July 2022.

Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Willie Jackson's Problem.

On The Horns Of A Dilemma: The essence of Maori Development Minister Willie Jackson’s problem is that he can neither withdraw, nor water-down, the Draft Plan for implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples without exposing the Labour Government to the most withering political fire from Maori. His Pakeha colleagues face the same problem – in reverse. If the Labour Cabinet signs up to UNDRIP/He Puapua, then it can kiss the 2023 election good-bye.

WILLIE JACKSON HAS A PROBLEM – a big problem. Since 2017, he has led the charge to secure more resources for Māori and, by winning them, has assumed a pivotal political role in the quest for Tino Rangatiratanga. With Jackson’s successes, however, have come heightened expectations of more. Just how high Māori hopes have grown is manifested in the contents of the Draft Plan for implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) So alarming are the recommendations contained in this document, that the Māori Development Minister is refusing to present it to Cabinet.

Jackson’s refusal is highly significant. If the plan has a promoter of Māori economic and social development as stalwart as Jackson shaking his head, then the Draft Plan must be effectively indistinguishable from the He Puapua Report.

Therein lies Jackson’s problem. The moment the He Puapua Report entered the public arena it was too late to order it shredded. It had become a ticking political time-bomb that could only be defused with the co-operation of all sides of the Māori sovereignty debate. It’s only saving grace was that it was not – yet – an official government document. This was a godsend for Jackson and the Labour Government. They had been given a few crucial months to do whatever was needed to prevent a potentially fatal political explosion.

It explains why Jackson and his colleagues asked Maoridom to develop its response to the UNDRIP/He Puapua challenge first, ahead of Pakeha, and behind closed doors. They were hoping that, perceiving the revolutionary character of He Puapua, the good and the great of Maoridom would bend all their powers to reshaping its recommendations into something Jackson’s Labour colleagues – and the rest of New Zealand – could live with.

Unfortunately for Jackson and Labour, that is not what happened. After 70 hui, held across the country, the mood of Maoridom was made strikingly clear. UNDRIP was a hard-and-fast commitment. The radical vision of He Puapua was not to be to be finessed away with fine phrases. Rangatahi, the rising generation of young Māori nationalists, would accept nothing less than a full-on, Te Tiriti-driven, co-governed and bi-cultural Aotearoa.

How radical is the Draft Plan? It is revolutionary. How else to describe its call for one justice system for Pakeha and another for Māori? The late Moana Jackson would be proud of the document, because, essentially, it reflects his vision of the future. The softly-spoken revolutionary’s body may lie with his ancestors, but his spirit is strong among that part of Maoridom for whom Tino Rangatiratanga and Mana Motuhake have become non-negotiable components of Aotearoa’s future.

That “responsible Maoridom” decided not to come through for him, or Labour, must have hit Willie Jackson hard. So hard that he was forced back onto that most traditional of Labour precepts: the fundamental decency and common sense of the New Zealand working-class. Jackson’s interim solution to the Draft Plan’s ideological inflexibility is to divide the intellectuals and ideologues responsible for He Puapua from ordinary, hard-working, Māori New Zealanders:

I know what the average Māori will think and they’re not walking around every day thinking about the United Nations’ Declaration of Indigenous Peoples – they’re thinking about their housing, their health, their education.

This would sound a lot more convincing if Jackson’s Pakeha colleagues had not been aggressively selling the notion that Māori housing, health and education will only improve when the rest of New Zealand starts living up to Te Tiriti o Waitangi’s implicit promise of “partnership”. Generally-speaking, working-class people have more on their minds than politics. But, they aren’t deaf. Tell them that their future and politics are intimately entwined often enough, and loudly enough, and, eventually, they’ll start paying attention. Quite unintentionally, Labour may have kicked-off a revolution of rising expectations.

Such is the essence of Jackson’s problem: he can neither withdraw, nor water-down, the Draft Plan without exposing the Labour Government to the most withering political fire from Māori. His Pakeha colleagues face the same problem – in reverse. If the Labour Cabinet signs up to UNDRIP/He Puapua, then the party can kiss the 2023 election good-bye.

Jackson understands this completely:

You can imagine some of the wants or asks from [Māori], but as I remind them, it’s not just about them. It’s about what do we want to do as a government and how do we want to honour that declaration and how do we realistically go forward getting people to recognise there are indigenous obligations without them thinking we’re going to take their houses off them.

Which is, of course, why the revolutionary He Puapua Report should have been shredded the moment it passed from the hands of the Māori nationalist dreamers who wrote it, into the possession of those who do politics for a living.

Still, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody no good. Labour’s crisis is Te Pāti Māori’s red, white and black opportunity. Any watering-down, let alone withdrawal, of the Draft Plan will be seized upon by Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer as proof positive of Pakeha Labour’s perfidy. After five years of promising Māori the moon, after repeated pledges to institute co-governance, the Labour Government will have proved that, when push comes to shove, it is no more willing than any other coloniser to surrender its white privilege.

And to Jackson’s colleagues in Labour’s Māori caucus, Waititi and Ngarewa-Packer will jeer: “Fool me once, shame on you: fool me hundreds of times, and I must be a Māori Labour Party MP!”

Except, being roundly castigated by Te Pāti Māori is probably the best response Labour could hope for. Virtuously upholding democracy by rejecting the separatist recommendations of the Draft Plan is about the only way this Government can remain electorally competitive. It would certainly allow Jackson to sharpen his class-based critique of Māori society. (Which as a strategy, would be even more effective if he could just to point to tangible gains for working-class Māori in housing, health and education!)

Not that National and Act can afford to just sit back with a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the fun. If the Right/Left poll numbers remain relatively even, then the parliamentary support of an enlarged Te Pāti Māori – pumped-up by the protest votes of all those Māori outraged by a Labour betrayal even bigger than the Seabed and Foreshore, may prove critical to National and Act being able to form a government.

What price will Te Pāti Māori extract from National for its support on Confidence and Supply?

When John Key put that question to Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia in 2008, the answer turned out to include the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 5 July 2022.

Monday, 4 July 2022

Forwards And Backwards.

The Right In Action: Nothing in politics is ever settled. The hands of History’s clock can go backwards, as well as forwards.

IT REALLY WAS THE BEST OF TIMES. The brief recession of the late-1950s was over. The United States was led by a young, Harvard-educated war hero, with the dashing style and good-looks of a Hollywood movie star.

The Kennedy Administration had made idealism sexy, and politics heroic. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” John F. Kennedy had declared in his Inaugural Address of 20 January 1961, “ask what you can do for your country.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and its peaceful resolution, offered proof positive that “the best and the brightest” of the “Free World” were more than a match for the hard men of Soviet Communism. There was a confidence and purposefulness about the United States that not only lifted the spirits of Americans, but fuelled the hopes of people all over the world.

Even the great American scars of racism and poverty no longer seemed beyond remedy. Dr Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights movement was galvanising young Americans of all colours in ways not seen since the Civil War of the 1860s. It recalled the high idealism of the Abolitionists: that extraordinary fervour for racial justice reflected in the words of The Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to set men free.”

Kennedy had also invited Michael Harrington, democratic socialist and author of the 1962 best-seller, The Other America, to the White House for a briefing on those pockets of poverty Roosevelt’s “New Deal” had left in place, and how, finally, they might be eradicated.

Underlying all this optimism and idealism was a rising tide of Keynesian-inspired economic prosperity that had lifted all boats high enough for the usual hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth priorities of ordinary Americans to be temporarily set aside. If the United States was rich enough to contemplate putting a man on the moon by 1970, then perhaps the elimination of racial inequality and poverty could be overcome.

Paradoxically, Kennedy’s assassination only hardened the resolve of Americans to meet the challenges their fallen leader had set before them.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson pledged unreservedly to make good his predecessor’s promises. In January 1964, just weeks after the tragedy in Dallas, “LBJ” used his first State of the Union Address to declare an unconditional “war on poverty”. In November of that same year, Johnson handed Barry Goldwater, the presidential candidate of a Republican Party hi-jacked by its far-right lunatic fringe, a stunning and humiliating defeat.

In his most effective campaign ad’, Johnson said, simply: “Either we must love each other, or we must die.” Less than sixty years ago, an American President had secured a landslide victory on a platform of delivering racial justice, ending poverty, and keeping America at peace.

In the bitter aftermath of the US Supreme Court’s revocation of Roe v. Wade, the above history lesson should serve as a sharp reminder of just how tenuous, and temporary, political progress can be. In the space of just four tumultuous years, the United States had retreated so far from its progressive high-water mark, that Richard Nixon was able to re-take the White House for the Republican Party. Nothing in politics is ever “settled”. The hands of History’s clock can go backwards, as well as forwards.

Nor are such dramatic political reversals peculiar to the United States. In 1972, the New Zealand electorate swung sharply left, propelling the Labour Party into power with 48.4 percent of the popular vote and a whopping 23-seat majority. The professors and the pundits of the time were unanimous in their opinion that a majority of 23 could not be overturned in the space of a single term. Labour, they insisted, was good for at least six years.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. Between 1972 and 1975, the mood of the New Zealand electorate soured to the point where National’s right-wing populist leader, Rob Muldoon, was able to exactly reverse the 1972 election result. Politically and socially, New Zealand voters had swung as sharply to the right as, only 36 months before, they had swung to the left.

Fear was the key: fear and its associated need for reassurance and protection. Muldoon’s success was built on the sudden failure of the New Zealand economy. Rampant inflation, rocketing petrol prices, and the widespread conviction that something very serious had gone wrong with the stable (some might say smug) New Zealand so gently mocked in Austin Mitchell’s in/famous bestseller The Half-Gallon, Quarter-Acre, Pavlova Paradise.

Which is why, when professors and pundits glibly reassure us that there is no way New Zealanders could turn against a woman’s right to choose an abortion, we are entitled to a small snort of derision.

Four years ago, approximately 65-70 percent of New Zealanders were in favour of legalising cannabis. That’s roughly the same percentage of the population that supports the current abortion law. After 18-months-to-a-year of extremely sophisticated campaigning by the anti-cannabis lobby, however, the percentage of voters supporting marijuana law reform had plummeted to just under 50 percent – a fall sufficient to cost the reformers the 2020 referendum. Public opinion doesn’t just change, it can be made to change.

With most economists predicting an imminent recession, many New Zealanders will enter 2023 in fear of what lies in store for them, and resentful of a Labour Government they believe has let them down. If extra-parliamentary forces like the Family First organisation are able to associate Labour’s political leadership with an ideology that despises and derides the beliefs and values of ordinary people, linking their lack of empathy with New Zealanders’ declining economic fortunes, then the chances of them producing a dramatic shift in the electorate’s thinking are relatively high.

In a commentary-piece written for The Conversation, the Auckland academic Suze Wilson warns New Zealanders against placing too much stock in Opposition Leader, Christopher Luxon’s, reassurances that National would not pursue a change to this country’s abortion laws should it win government.

“Even if Luxon’s current assurance is sincerely intended,” writes Wilson, “it may not sustain should the broader political acceptability of his personal beliefs change. And on that front, there are grounds for concern.”

Wilson draws particular attention to the sharp rightward drift set in motion by the Covid-19 Pandemic and the measures adopted by Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led Government to protect New Zealanders from its worst effects. The early success of those measures, sufficient to secure Labour’s landslide victory in 2020, has not been maintained. Voters who, just 18 months ago looked upon “Jacinda” as a national hero, are daily falling prey to extreme right-wing conspiracy theories depicting her as a power-crazed tyrant.

“If these kinds of shifts in public opinion continue to gather steam, it may become more politically tenable for Luxon to shift gear regarding New Zealand’s abortion laws”, Wilson warns.

The same America that gave us JFK, also gave us Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. The same New Zealand that gave us Norman Kirk, also gave us Rob Muldoon. Except they weren’t really the same countries, were they? Because, when Prosperity leaves the building, Empathy is seldom very far behind.

Nothing in politics is ever settled.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 4 July 2022.

Sunday, 3 July 2022

Not Looking Truth In The Eye.

Picturesque Illusion: The early-Sixties’ picture-book tableau of cultural homogeneity wasn’t real. The values cherished by America’s and New Zealand’s fundamentalist Christians only appeared to be widely shared. Beneath the veneer of happy conformity, the trials and tribulations of ordinary men and women went on regardless. Occasionally their troubles were overcome by applying the teachings of Jesus, more commonly, though, by relying on the short-cuts and compromises called common-sense.

ST JOHN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH in Herbert, North Otago, has long since acquired the melancholy sobriquet of “Former”. Protected by the Historic Places Trust, the beautiful little building’s contemporary role is listed as “meeting place” and “museum”.

But, on the Sunday mornings of sixty years ago, its pews were filled with Herbertians of every station, augmented by the families from the surrounding farms. At the end of the service, the church’s broad green lawn would be occupied by stolid clumps of cockies discussing lamb sales; clutches of wives regaling each other with the exploits of their offspring; and kids of all ages chasing each other among the trees.

It is this bucolic image of a God-fearing, united, homogeneous rural community that New Zealanders should keep in mind when attempting to fathom the reasoning behind the Supreme Court of the United States’ revocation of Roe v. Wade. In spite of the fact that most Americans live in large cities, and that most of them no longer attend church regularly, the vision driving conservatives in that country – and ours – is one of upright men and women restoring a lost world of cultural and religious unity.

It matters little that the number of people who can actually remember this lost world grows smaller with every passing year. It lives on as a sort of ideological desideratum: presented to the younger generations as a world that once was, and will be again, if only the ungodly changes of the last sixty years can be expunged from the nation’s historical memory.

If those congregations of the early 1960s had been polled, argue the conservatives, there would have been something very close to unanimity on virtually all the big issues that have since divided the United States and culturally akin countries.

Virtually no one emerging from the picturesque Christian churches of yesteryear would have admitted to being in favour of abortion, or homosexuality, or sex before marriage, or women putting their career ahead of getting married and having children, or the idea that coloured peoples could aspire to anything more important than mastering the skills of European civilisation.

What baffles and enrages conservatives is how comprehensively these near-universal beliefs and attitudes were overturned – and how swiftly. The values that still governed the societies of sixty years ago had hardly changed in centuries. They were rooted in Judeo-Christian moral precepts to which all but a tiny minority of adult citizens happily subscribed. That such deeply-rooted notions could simply be yanked-out, like so many unwanted weeds, struck conservatives as proof of something truly diabolical at work.

Not to put too fine a point on it, conservatives see the cultural, moral, sexual and political transformations of the last sixty years as the Devil’s work. And the thing about the Devil is that he is not someone with whom you can, or should, compromise. The only thing to be done with the Devil is defeat him. And that is what America’s (and New Zealand’s) religious conservatives have been trying to do for sixty long years.

St John’s congregation began shrinking in 1967 when conservatives within the Presbyterian Church brought heresy charges against radical theologian, Lloyd Geering. Even among the supposedly conservative cockies of North Otago, the idea of trying a man for heresy in the Twentieth Century was an outrage. Some of them resolved to never darken the door of their little Oamaru-stone church again.

There was a lesson to be drawn from this sort of reaction to conservative extremism, if its practitioners had possessed the wit to learn it. The picture-book tableau of cultural homogeneity wasn’t real. The values cherished by America’s and New Zealand’s fundamentalist Christians only appeared to be widely shared. Beneath that early-sixties veneer of happy conformity, the trials and tribulations of ordinary men and women went on regardless. Occasionally their troubles were overcome by applying the teachings of Jesus, more commonly, though, by relying on the short-cuts and compromises called common-sense.

There is solace, of a sort, to be derived from pretending that the women and children of your community are not being beaten and abused; that vicious racism is not practised by churchgoers; that abortions, legal or not, happen every day.

The trick of conservatism is not to look Truth in the eye.

You might reconsecrate St John’s Presbyterian Church, but you couldn’t refill it.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 July 2022.

Friday, 1 July 2022

Look For The Light.

Metropolis  George Grosz  1918

A FEW HOURS AGO, I was sorting through a box of old papers when I came across these lyrics to a song I’d composed nearly fifty years ago, at the tender age of seventeen! I have decided to share it with the readers of Bowalley Road as proof that no matter what historical era one is born into, there is always, in the eyes of the young, considerable room for improvement.

Look For The Light.

Beneath the towering concrete thrones
The people creep and crawl,
You watch them through the oozing black
That’s seeping through your wall.
The darkness slithers like a snake
Between the halls of stone,
Your voice in echoes stabs the night:
“My God, am I alone!”

That’s when you look for the light,
Hope for the light,
Have faith in the light to come.

The stench of corpses chokes the air
And hangs the senses high,
While in their red-brick coffins
The split-level heroes lie.
You’re groping through an endless day
Towards an endless night,
While armies of well-oiled machines
March onward out of sight.

That’s when you look for the light,
Hope for the light,
Have faith in the light to come.

The bold blue warriors ignite
The fires they love to hate,
And crying “Law and Order!”,
Take another for the State.
The members of the Parliament
Are eating paper pies,
As sweat soaks through their collars,
They all doze as Justice dies.

That’s when you look for the light,
Hope for the light,
Have faith in the light to come.

You’re running faster every day
To catch the same old train,
With icy faces staring out
Of every window pane.
The streets are growing metal bars
To keep us in our place,
And every night the sirens wail,
Quickening the pace.

That’s when you look for the light,
Hope for the light,
Have faith in the light to come.

Chris Trotter 1973

This poem was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 1 July 2022.

Thursday, 30 June 2022

Let’s Not Make 2023 About Abortion.

No Common Ground: The destructive and punitive impulses aroused by the abortion issue make a rational, let alone a civil, debate virtually impossible. Indeed, the very idea that those on both sides of the abortion issue might be decent and caring individuals, whose opposing positions are based on reasonable and eminently defensible philosophical propositions, religious principles, medical facts and socio-economic realities, will be rejected as dangerous nonsense.

WHETHER OR NOT ABORTION emerges as a major issue following next year’s elections depends on National’s candidate selections. National lost 13 seats in 2020, and on current polling can be reasonably confident about reclaiming most of them in 2023. Much then depends on the beliefs – pro-choice or pro-life – of the candidates selected over the next few months. If National replenishes its caucus with pro-life MPs, and ACT emerges with a reasonable number of pro-lifers in its own, then the debate may, once again, be set alight.

The reignition of the Abortion Debate will become a dead certainty, however, if Brian Tamaki is successful at bringing together the fractious Far-Right political parties under a single banner. Should his new conservative coalition crest the 5 percent MMP threshold, the outbreak of an American-style culture war will be very hard to prevent. Moreover, if Labour and the Greens sustain significant losses in 2023, as current polling suggest they will, then that war will be very hard to win. Certainly, a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion will be among the first casualties.

This state of affairs will not be attributable entirely to the electoral success of the Far Right. In both Labour and the Greens a defeat of sufficient magnitude to bring the likes of Tamaki’s Christian soldiers into Parliament will likely generate a particularly vicious backlash against the social-radicalism which conservative leftists will be quick to blame for their party’s punishment at the polls.

After all, it’s not as if Labour’s te Tiriti-driven, feminist and LGBTQI factions will be able to point to a proud collection of policy successes in relation to poverty, housing, health and education – quite the reverse. Working-class party members (if any remain) will have every reason to demand a thorough-going purge of middle-class social-radicals from Labour’s ranks. A similar purge, mutatis mutandis, will sweep away the identarian Greens.

If such purges do not eventuate, and the two left-wing parties remain in the grip of identity politicians, social-radicals and ethno-nationalists, then it is difficult to see them making a swift recovery at the polls. At least initially, the voting public is likely to cast about for a political movement less alienating, and more encouraging, of “mainstream” electoral support. If the rightward tendencies within Labour and the Greens do not succeed in providing these conservative left-wing voters with such a vehicle, then they will call forth somebody better equipped to offer them a ride.

Historically, the damage inflicted by such right-wing re-settings of left-wing parties’ ideological compasses has been enormous. Convinced that a Labour Party as left-wing as Norman Kirk’s could never be re-elected, the rightward elements that would eventually give New Zealand “Rogernomics” spent fifteen years destroying Labour as a party of economic redistribution. After years of bitter factional strife, the party’s left-wingers were finally driven from its ranks. Labour only survived to reclaim the Treasury Benches in 1999 on account of being restrained from veering too far from its electoral base by the competitive presence of Jim Anderton’s Alliance and Jeanette Fitzsimons’ and Rod Donald’s Greens.

The New Zealand of the 2020s is not, however, the New Zealand of the 1990s. Our thoroughly digitalised society no longer possesses the human resources capable of creating new political parties dedicated to the nation-building and/or nation-restoring missions of the Alliance and NZ First. Corny though it may sound, at the heart of these two essentially patriotic electoral projects lay an undeniable love of country.

Thirty years on, the creation of political movements is driven much more by the voters’ intense hatred of what their enemies: neoliberals, colonisers, patriarchs, heterosexuals – take your pick – have done to Aotearoa-New Zealand. Where once the urge was to build and/or restore, today’s activists seek only to attack, punish and destroy.

In relation to the issue of abortion, these destructive and punitive impulses will make it virtually impossible for the debate to proceed on a rational, let alone a civil, basis. Indeed, the very idea that those on both sides of the abortion issue might be decent and caring individuals, whose opposing positions are based on reasonable and eminently defensible philosophical propositions, religious principles, medical facts and socio-economic realities, will be rejected as dangerous nonsense. Pro-lifers are no such thing, they are simply misogynistic religious bigots. Pro-choicers stand condemned as monsters for whom human life matters less than personal convenience.

In these circumstances, simply to raise the issue of abortion is to set up the conditions for the most reckless expressions of hatred and loathing. In the Age of Twitter, Tik-Tok and Instagram, which is to say, in the Age of Declarative Solipsism, extremism will always arrive on the battlefield firstest, with the mostest. Small wonder, then, that Christopher Luxon is so determined to make sure that the battle never takes place.

Sometimes, as the US Supreme Court may yet discover, doing nothing is the only sensible thing to do.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 30 June 2022.

See What Happens?

What Happened Next? After the Supreme Court of the United States, in 1954, overturned its earlier validation of “separate but equal” schools, hospitals, public washrooms, busses and trains for Blacks and Whites, and told the Topeka Board of Education that segregated education is in breach of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution? After US Marshalls and federalised National Guardsmen were required to enforce the Court’s ruling? 

SEE WHAT HAPPENS when you convince yourself that your principles are self-evident, true and universal? When all evidence to the contrary is simply pushed to one side and dismissed as aberrant or insignificant?

See what happens when you give up on the prospect of ever persuading Southern Whites to abandon Jim Crow? When your fear of the Klan overwhelms your determination to change the hearts and minds of your neighbours. When you turn, instead, to the civil rights lawyers and begin the long, painful ascent through state and federal, courts. When, in 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States overturns its earlier validation of “separate but equal” schools, hospitals, public washrooms, busses and trains for Blacks and Whites, and tells the Topeka Board of Education that segregated education is in breach of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. When US Marshalls and federalised National Guardsmen are required to enforce the Court’s ruling. When all that Southern Whites see are the ghosts of the Union soldiers who occupied the defeated Confederacy at the end of the Civil War.

Even then, we didn’t learn.

See what happens when Dr Martin Luther King’s extraordinary strategy of non-violence sears the consciences of not only the liberal North, but also the racist South, setting in motion a national change of heart, only to be condemned as too slow and insufficiently radical by his younger followers? When the ghettos erupt in violence, looting and arson. When the heavily-armed Black Panther Party scares the skin-deep liberalism right out of White America. When the FBI’s COINTEL programme is unleashed upon the Civil Rights Movement. When the final passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 seals the fate of the Democratic Party in the South and sets the Republican Party in pursuit of its racist “Southern Strategy”. When James Earl Ray guns down Dr King in Memphis.

Even then, we didn’t learn.

See what happens when the Supreme Court upholds a woman’s right to abortion? When seven (out of nine) unelected judges, strike down state laws that, for better or for worse, reflect the values and beliefs of the electors and their representatives in those states. When the opportunity offered to the Republican Party to drive a wedge between the “secular-humanist elites” of the big cities on both coasts, and the “God-fearing” working-class communities of the much smaller towns and cities of the “flyover” states, is simply too good to pass up. When the arguments between the “Pro-Life” and the “Pro-Choice” movements divide not only men, but women as well. When religious belief and political ideology find themselves on a collision course.

Even then, we didn’t learn.

See what happens when a charismatic conservative, Phyllis Schlafly, attracts more and more conservative/religious women to her cause, and powerful men shower her Eagle Forum with advice and money? When all the easy, liberal states are safely included in the feminists’ “Yes” column, but the hard ones in the South and the Mid-West show no signs of following suit. When the clock is running down on the Equal Rights Amendment, which had sailed so effortlessly through the Democratic Party-controlled Congress, but which now seems certain to fall victim to the United States’ arcane federal constitution. When – yet again – the clear will of the majority will be thwarted.

Even then, we didn’t learn.

See what happens when you tell White men, already alienated by the claims and counter-claims of the Black civil rights, women’s liberation, and anti-Vietnam War movements, that the liberals are coming for their guns? When centuries-old family traditions of hunting in the forests and mountains of America, and of acquiring the marksmanship needed to bring down game animals, is presented as some sort of political sickness. When the stark reality of a criminal fraternity accustomed to carrying and using handguns has rendered it only prudent for ordinary citizens to similarly arm themselves. When the social and economic conditions that unhinge the most damaged members of American society are routinely ignored, and their bloody rampages are, instead, blamed on the ready availability of firearms. When trust and confidence in the political process has reached such a low point that many Americans feel it necessary to arm themselves against their own government.

Even then, we didn’t learn.

See what happens to a nation when the core values that once encouraged its citizens to refer to themselves as “We, the People”, fracture and are rearranged into antagonistic belief systems? When long-established economic, sexual and racial hierarchies are challenged by those expected to endure their subordinate status in perpetuity? When the rights enjoyed by the privileged few are claimed by the disenfranchised many? When, in short, the purpose and distribution of social, economic and political power are subjected to unrelenting questioning – and there is no agreement as to the answers?

It is only then we learn that the rights we seek are never given. If we cannot summon sufficient strength to take them, and hold them, then we must resign ourselves to living without them.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 29 June 2022.