Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Real Fascists Don't Use Swastikas.

Everyone Wants To Be Fuhrer: When fascist groups are discussed, the image conjured-up in the minds of most New Zealanders is one of pathetic misfits. This negative impression is reinforced by the latter’s idiotic embrace of the swastika. Even in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the baleful legacy of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich is more than powerful enough to consign those who embrace its iconography to the category of crank and/or criminal.

ONE OF THE MOST puzzling features of contemporary New Zealand fascism is its self-imposed failure. When fascist groups are discussed, the image conjured-up in the minds of most New Zealanders is one of pathetic misfits. This negative impression is reinforced by the latter’s idiotic embrace of the swastika. Even in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the baleful legacy of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich is more than powerful enough to consign those who embrace its iconography to the category of crank and/or criminal. When combined with the contemporary Kiwi fascists’ shaven heads and multiple tattoos, these wilful references to the defeated fascists of the past fundamentally compromise their entire political project.

Such self-destructive behaviour suggests that New Zealand fascists simply do not understand the nature of the ideology to which they have attached themselves. Above all else, fascists validate the national community. In the local context, this means embracing all the myths and symbols of the New Zealand nation state. No genuine New Zealand fascist would consider for a single moment marching down the street beneath the flag of their country’s World War II enemy!

Genuine fascists present themselves to their fellow citizens not as outsiders, but as the ultimate insiders: the ones whose attachment to the core values of the nation is stronger than any of their political rivals.

That Hitler’s stormtroopers wore uniforms did not strike the Germans of the 1920s as either odd or sinister. (As the wearing of uniforms outside the armed forces and the police most certainly strikes today’s New Zealanders as both odd and sinister.) Many groups in pre-World War I German society wore uniforms – student societies in particular. In most Germans’ eyes they simply betokened unity and collective purpose: positives – not negatives. The swastika, similarly, when adopted as the symbol of the Nazi Party, struck most Germans as intriguing rather than threatening. When it was explained to them that it was an ancient symbol, representing the power and purity of their “Aryan” origins, they were impressed – not repelled.

The equivalent in contemporary New Zealand society would be an ancient Maori symbol. A Kiwi fascist would present this as proof of his movement’s mystical connection with land and people.

The people who call themselves fascists while carrying around the swastika flag, understand nothing about the political iconography of radical nationalist movements. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anything more calculated to make the rest of the country regard them as an outside force that must be destroyed – rather than as a deeply patriotic group with privileged access to the inner wellsprings of their nation’s identity.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate what a New Zealand fascist movement might look like is to describe the rise and fall of the New Zealand Legion – the closest this country has ever come to a mass fascist organisation.

In essence, the Legion represented the outrage and distress of upper- and middle-class New Zealanders at the seemingly intractable problems thrown up by the Great Depression. While the incumbent United-Reform coalition government seemed incapable of effective action, the Labour Opposition struck members of the business and professional classes as a clear and present threat to their wealth and status.

Shaken by the riots of the unemployed in 1932, a group of “patriotic” businessmen, professionals, sheep-farmers, teachers and journalists came together, in February 1933, with the purpose of galvanising the respectable classes into action. Within a few months 20,000 people (mostly males over 40 who had served as officers in the First World War) had joined the NZ Legion – numbers rivalled only by the mass membership of the 1930s Labour Party.

On the card they were required to sign, intending members read:

“[R]ealising the present serious National emergency, and the necessity for all good citizens to subordinate private and political interests and to make any necessary personal sacrifice for the sake of the country, [I] agree to become a member of the New Zealand Legion and to further loyally, by every means in my power, by vote, example and personal influence, the objects of the Legion.

They further pledged to be “loyal to his majesty the King, the British Empire, and the New Zealand Constitution.”

In essence, the Legion sought to take politics out of politics by outlawing political parties. (Which was just a typically pusillanimous middle-class way of calling for the outlawing of the Labour Party!)

Politics, however, was what ultimately killed the Legion. Its leaders and members simply couldn’t agree on what it was, exactly, that patriotic New Zealanders needed to do. Unlike a genuine fascist movement, it lacked a charismatic leader capable of preventing such crippling internal debates by reserving all policy-making powers to himself.

By 1934, the legion was on the wane. A year later, the Labour Party, whose 50,000 members had some very clear ideas about what needed to be done, was elected to govern the country. The Legion was over.

Or was it?

According to the historians at the Ministry of Heritage and Culture:

“With the conservative parties being well and truly trounced by Labour at the 1935 election, the Legion was soon forgotten. Some of its members, though, became active in the new National Party formed in 1936. Eight former Legionnaires were selected as National candidates in the 1938 election, and the movement’s greatest success story, Sid Holland, went on to serve as National Prime Minister from 1949 to 1957.”

Contemporary Kiwi fascists would be wise to take heed of the lesson provided by Sid Holland and his fellow Legionnaires. The cause of radical nationalism is best served by aligning oneself and one’s followers with those individuals and groups possessing the power and resources necessary to advance it.

From the very beginning, Hitler’s Nazi Party (like Mussolini’s fascists) was able to call upon the resources of extremely wealthy and well-connected supporters. And you may be sure that when he called upon these supporters for financial and political assistance, Hitler arrived wearing a well-tailored suit and a silk tie – not a brown shirt. He certainly didn’t arrive carrying the Tricolour or wearing the steel helmet of a French infantryman!

Indeed, when he ran for the German presidency in 1932, Hitler presented himself as a decorated war hero who did not drink or smoke and who followed a strict vegetarian diet. Those newspapers sympathetic to his party’s cause told their readers that this former artist and front-line soldier, who had been awarded the Iron Cross (First Class) for his bravery under fire, loved cakes, dogs, children – and, above all else in the world, Germany.

All of these details were correct.

Of course, if the 37 percent of Germans who voted for Hitler in 1932 had known what he would do to their country, and the world, between 1933 and 1945, it is unlikely that quite so many of them would have given him their support!

But, that’s the terrifying thing about real fascists, they don’t come wearing warning signs, and they aren’t obliged to present us with x-rays of their souls.

That New Zealand’s tiny collection of self-proclaimed fascists choose to come before us bearing both of these identifying items, tells us two very important things. 1) They’re not really fascists. 2) If we want to identify those radical nationalists who are truly dangerous, then we need to look elsewhere than pathetic collections of wannabe führers.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 August 2019.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Paying For Your Party’s Promises.

Fully Informed? Labour’s 2017 promises raised expectations that were little short of revolutionary. Unfortunately, they were never adequately shaken through the fiscal sieve. The hard economic work was not done – and it shows. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s critics have long complained that her grasp of the way the New Zealand economy works is alarmingly weak.

“HOW ARE WE going to pay for it?” If you are in the business of “transformational” politics, that is the $64 billion question. It was a question aspiring transformers were always tasked with answering back in the days when the Alliance was a “thing”. A big thing, too. For a few intoxicating years in the early-1990s, the Alliance regularly outpolled the Labour Party.

It frightens me to think that there will be people voting in next year’s general election who weren’t actually born when the Alliance was going strong. Not for them the memories of a rampant Jim Anderton leading his rag-tag left-wing coalition to an 18 percent showing in the 1993 election. No memories at all of when the Greens were not a party in their own right, but a leading constituent party (alongside the socialist NewLabour Party) in Anderton’s merry throng.

It was one of the things that I most admired about Jim Anderton: his absolute commitment to showing the voters exactly how he planned to pay for his promises. Every year John Lepper and Petrus Simons, the two economists Anderton had retained to advise him, would get together with the young – and not so young – policy wonks that flocked to the Alliance’s colours and thrash out what Anderton called his “Alternative Budget”.

The Alliance never ran from the accusation that they were “tax and spend” socialists – they embraced it. Those Alternative Budgets were the proof. Anybody who cared to could calculate, with considerable precision, by how much their taxes would rise, and identify exactly on what the additional revenues would be spent.

Of course there were sceptics, both in and out of the Alliance, who questioned this approach. “Why would people vote for a party promising to raise their taxes?” – they demanded. The patient reply was perennially supplied by Professor James Flynn: “Because promising people progressive changes without first detailing how they are to be paid for is unethical.”

Flynn understood that real change could only come when the people offering it enjoyed the confidence of those who make change possible – the voters. If you hadn’t already convinced them that it should be done, then it wouldn’t be – couldn’t be – done.

The Alliance made a great many mistakes before it finally imploded in 2002, but its greatest mistake (or, more accurately, its leader’s greatest mistake) was to set aside Professor Flynn’s sage advice in the interests of consolidating a coalition agreement with Helen Clark’s Labour Party.

Labour, however, was promising too little to accomplish real change because it was unwilling to tax the voters too much. Even worse, it was point-blank refusing to roll back the “Rogernomics Revolution”. Given that rolling back Roger Douglas’s neoliberal revolution was the Alliance’s raison d’être, Anderton’s acceptance of Labour’s refusal to challenge the status quo amounted to political suicide.

But, surely, all this is the dead-and-buried politics of the unlamented twentieth century? What has the long-defunct Alliance got to do with today’s politics?

Two word answer: Jacinda Ardern. The Prime Minister’s performance at the lectern in the Beehive theatrette on Monday (12/8/19) was a sad and deeply frustrating vindication of both Jim Anderton and Jim Flynn. All those transformational chickens set loose by Jacinda in the election campaign of 2017 are now flocking home to roost.

Labour’s promises, raising little short of revolutionary expectations, were never adequately shaken through the fiscal sieve in the manner of the Alliance’s fully-coasted manifesto. The hard economic work was never done – and it shows. The Prime Minister’s grasp of the way the New Zealand economy works appears weaker than that of the humblest Alliance parliamentary candidate. The latter were thoroughly schooled in basic economics by Messrs Lepper and Simon. It was always the case with the Alliance that, from the very beginning, its leaders understood which questions they absolutely had to be able to answer.

It makes me wonder whether, in the gloom of all these gathering economic storm-clouds, Labour’s leaders ever wish that they had a Jim Flynn to remind them of the ethics of knowing how social and economic transformation will be paid for – before it is promised.

Probably not. Very little provokes the scorn of Labour MPs like a favourable reference to the Alliance. Hardly surprising, really, because the Alliance was always the party Labour could have been; should have been; but wasn’t.

This essay was originally published by The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 August 2019.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Upholding The Accused’s Right To Write.

To Limit Another's Rights Is To Limit One's Own: Is it too much to expect senior members of our Government to be capable of explaining that we protect the rights of human-beings precisely because not even the most depraved act can cancel-out the fact that its perpetrator is also a human-being, a possessor of rights – one of us?

THE SHOCK/HORROR expressed at the Christchurch Shooter’s letter from prison is unworthy of a grown-up nation. A bold assertion, to which the cynical will undoubtedly reply: “True – but this is New Zealand we’re talking about!” Beleaguered liberals will chuckle ruefully – and move on. Because who now believes that the shock/horror “deplorables” are in any way redeemable? And, who really cares?

Such defeatism is unworthy of us. Historically, New Zealanders have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of moral clarity. It was almost sixty years ago that the New Zealand Parliament voted to abolish the death penalty. Does anyone, today, seriously dispute that this legislative reform was carried out against the strong opposition of what was almost certainly a clear majority of the electorate? No. And yet, the politicians of 1961 did not surrender to the ignorance and cruelty of the “hang-‘em-high!” majority – they rose above it.

Our Parliament did the same in 1986 when deliberating the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. Those around at the time will recall the extraordinary rally of conservative Christians who gathered on Parliament’s forecourt to pile high the boxes containing the signatures of the 800,000 New Zealanders petitioning the House of Representatives to reject the Bill. This was, easily, the largest petition in New Zealand history. Did the majority of MPs favouring reform quail before this frightening demonstration of the Christian Right’s numbers? They did not. The Bill became law.

These battles were won because in both 1961 and 1986 liberal New Zealanders still had faith in the duty of reason to over-rule ignorance and cruelty. They refused to be swayed by mere numbers. That a majority of the population believed in the state-sanctioned killing of helpless individuals, or evinced a knee-jerk antipathy to homosexual acts, proved only how dangerous it was to determine what is and is not morally defensible by counting heads.

Even at the risk of someone crying “Godwin”, it is still worth asking if, in 1935, the infamous “Nuremburg Laws” discriminating against the Jews of Germany had been put to a referendum, and endorsed, would that have excused everything that followed? Of course not.

Democracy isn’t just about honouring the will of the majority, it is also – and perhaps more importantly – about protecting the rights of the minority. Precisely because they are human rights: inherent and unalienable; they are not susceptible to the vagaries of popular opinion. To suggest otherwise, which, shamefully, appears to be the position of the NZ First Party, is to invest the majority with the power to annihilate their enemies – and democracy along with them.

The Christchurch Shooter is a human-being charged with appalling crimes. Even so, and those alleged crimes notwithstanding, the outraged majority is not entitled to turn him into a thing without rights. As a prisoner of the state, he must be accorded all the rights and privileges guaranteed to him by law. Included among these is the right to communicate with the outside world: the right to write a letter.

Does this mean that he must be permitted to write to his racist followers, instructing them to make war upon innocent human-beings? Absolutely not. Anymore than we are obliged to permit a person to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. The letters of the Christchurch Shooter, by inspiring White Supremacists all around the world, have the power to inflict suffering and death on an horrific scale. As such, the prison authorities have both the right and the duty to prevent such communications being sent.

By the same token, however, those Ministers of the Crown with an interest in the trial of the Christchurch Shooter have a duty to uphold the international covenants guaranteeing the rights of prisoners to which New Zealand is signatory. Moreover, they should all possess the wit and will to patiently explain to the ignorant and the cruel why it is their duty to protect even an evildoer’s rights.

Is it too much to expect senior members of our Government to be capable of this? Surely, every politician should understand that we protect the rights of human-beings precisely because not even the most depraved act can cancel-out the fact that its perpetrator is also a human-being, a possessor of rights – one of us.

Herein lies the paradox. That the criminal’s attempted negation of our common humanity only serves to heighten its inherent and transcendent value. That is why, by honouring the Christchurch Shooter’s right to write, we are simultaneously acknowledging and honouring the humanity of the people who fell before his bullets. More importantly, by negating his negation, we are proudly proclaiming his utter moral defeat.

If New Zealand’s liberal politicians have forgotten these arguments, then, surely, it is time they relearned them.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 16 August 2019.

Simon Bridges Leads National Down Into The Dark.

Going Down? Once truth and propaganda become fused in the minds of one’s followers, debate and discussion become redundant. If one’s opponents are all outrageous liars, then engaging with them in any way is pointless. Rather than waste its time, a political party should, instead, target all its messages at those who have yet to grasp the full mendacity of the other side. Tell these “persuadables” the truth – your truth – before the other parties tell them theirs.

AND SO IT BEGINS, the National Party’s simultaneous descent and ascent. Downwards, into the dark territory of “whatever it takes”. Upwards, into the glare of electoral victory. It’s happening because the party’s present leader has convinced himself that it is only the first movement which makes possible the second.

Simon Bridges will, however, discover that conducting this double movement exacts a heavy toll. The National Party prime ministers we remember fondly: Sir Keith Holyoake, Jim Bolger, Sir John Key; all got to the top by taking a different route. National’s prime-ministerial villains: Sid Holland and Rob Muldoon; both chose the low road to power.

By the time Bridges gets to switch on the lights on the Beehive’s ninth floor, “whatever it takes” will have wrought its inevitable changes. The face that stares at him from the mirror of the prime-ministerial bathroom will be as unfamiliar as it is frightening.

Bridges’ journey into the heart of darkness began in Australia. His induction to the black political arts that secured the Australian Liberal leader, Scott Morrison’s, surprise election victory, is evident in the stinging social media campaign the National Opposition launched soon after his return.

The campaign’s effectiveness, like the Brexit, Trump and Morrison precedents from which it borrows so heavily, has nothing to do with the presentation of positive policy. It does not seek to inform but to inflame. It bypasses both the heart and the head and goes straight for the gut. It arouses not hope but hate. Its goal is not unity but division. And it’s working.

Emboldened by this success, Bridges has descended the next few steps of the dark staircase at a canter. Rather than seize upon the opportunity provided by the stand-off at Ihumatao to advance the Treaty relationship – as Jim Bolger and Doug Graham took advantage of the Maori Renaissance in the early 1990s – Bridges has taken his inspiration from Don Brash.

In the face of the protesters resistance, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been advised to “send them home”. Bridges knows that dismantling the Ihumatao campsite and moving its inhabitants on will be achieved only by the application of force majeure: concerted and forceful police and/or military action. He also knows that the use of state violence at Ihumatao will necessitate its further and escalating use in the large-scale protest action that is bound to follow. He does not care. Why should he, when his political objective is to keep the electorate divided, angry and on-edge?

As if Bridges’ turning away from a brokered solution at Ihumatao isn’t bad enough, he has taken advantage of the serious failings at Statistics New Zealand to descend even further down the dark staircase.

On this morning’s (14/8/19) Morning Report, Bridges deliberately sowed seeds of doubt about the reliability of whole swathes of state-provided data. How could we trust electoral boundaries drawn up on the basis of statistical information that may be false? How can we have any faith in the economic and fiscal reports released by the Government?

This is an especially dangerous game to play. From calling into question the reliability of official information it is but a short step to advancing the Trumpian claim that the public is being assailed by “fake news”, or, worse still, that the election is being rigged.

This is no small matter. Once truth and propaganda become fused in the minds of one’s followers, debate and discussion become redundant. If one’s opponents are all outrageous liars, then engaging with them in any way is pointless. Rather than waste its time, a political party should, instead, target all its messages at those who have yet to grasp the full mendacity of the other side. Tell these “persuadables” the truth – your truth – before the other parties tell them theirs.

A key factor in any National victory arrived at via the low road is shaping up to be the Sustainable NZ Party. The party’s founder, Vernon Tava, may be perfectly sincere in his quest for a less polarising expression of ecological wisdom – as may the 500-plus people he has already signed-up to secure his new party’s official registration. Sadly, the genuineness or otherwise of Tava and his moderate environmentalists is irrelevant to Bridges and his fellow-travellers in the dark.

All that Bridges and his strategists are hoping for is that Sustainable NZ will lure away just enough support from the Greens to cause them to fall below the 5 percent MMP threshold. All it will take is for a few thousand Green voters – many of them, perhaps, alarmed by some of the claims being made about Green Party MPs on social media – to defect to the Sustainable NZ Party, and Labour could find itself with insufficient parliamentary backing to continue in government. That neither the Greens, nor Sustainable NZ, will be in Parliament to fight for the environment is likely to be regarded by Bridges and his team as one of the more satisfying outcomes of the strategy.

A government elected as a result of such egregious bad faith is unlikely to be one of sweetness and light. If to bad faith we are required to add conscious lying, fake news, and the deliberate incitement of anger and division, then that government can only end up being bitter and dark.

“Whatever it takes” is really just another way of saying “the end justifies the means”. But, if history has taught us anything it is that the means we use, determine the ends we achieve. Bring National to power by dark methods, Simon Bridges, and you will soon find yourself and your government unable to accomplish anything but dark deeds.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 15 August 2019.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

We Have A Problem

Alone, Alone. All, All Alone: Will it be a good or a bad thing, when humanity’s bright blue spacecraft is stricken by the civilisation-destroying problem of Climate Change, that no Houston Control will be standing-by to rescue the crew?

“WE HAVE A PROBLEM, HOUSTON.” These were the words used by the Apollo 13 astronauts to announce their spacecraft’s stricken status. Miraculously, the astronauts and “Houston Control”, working together, managed to overcome the “problem”, and the crew of Apollo 13 were returned safely to Earth.

Forty years later, the inhabitants of “Spaceship Earth” also have a problem. Unfortunately, they do not have a Houston. This time the crew are going to have to sort things out by themselves.

What is the problem? Obviously, the biggest part of the answer is Climate Change. But it’s not the whole answer. Simply identifying Climate Change as the problem to be overcome does nothing to resolve the problem hidden inside the problem.

The problem within the problem arises out of the fact that 85 percent of the energy utilised by human-beings is derived from carbon (a finite resource) and the balance is provided by machines and structures manufactured and constructed using carbon-based processes (all of which must be regularly replaced). Put simply, the skeleton of the advanced technological civilisation we inhabit is made out of coal, oil and natural gas – plus the objects they allow us to make. Remove these things and our civilisation will collapse.

The use of coal, for example, is critical to rapidly developing nations such as China and India – just as it was to the industrialisation of Europe and North America. The massive coal-mining venture underway in Queensland is being undertaken by Indian capital on behalf of Indian energy generation and manufacturing. A similarly huge coal-burning exercise is underway in East Africa courtesy of the Chinese. The American coal industry, thanks to President Donald Trump, has resumed its decapitation of mountains to keep the furnaces fed.

These developments will pour gigatons of additional CO2 into the earth’s atmosphere – worsening the already dire consequences of anthropogenic global warming.

“Keep it in the ground!” Cry the young defenders of the planet. “Blockade the coal ships! Halt the coal trains!” Would that it were that simple.

Coal is not burnt simply to produce mechanical and electrical energy. Some of it is used to make steel. Try to imagine a world without steel. It’s not easy. So much of the infrastructure of the present depends upon an endless supply of high-quality steel.

The functioning of past civilisations was similarly dependent on implements made of iron. What’s needed to make iron? Charcoal – carbonised wood. The continuous burning of trees to make charcoal is one of the principal causes of the deforestation of Western Europe – an unqualified ecological disaster. And, when the trees were gone, our European ancestors moved on to digging up the petrified forests of the planet’s distant geological past – otherwise known as coal.

“We are stardust/ billion-year-old carbon/ we are golden/ caught in the devil’s bargain”, sang Joni Mitchell in her hit song “Woodstock”. And it’s true: humanity and carbon are inextricably bound together. In mastering the extraction of energy from carbon, human-beings were simultaneously mastering the planet.

Except, of course, we weren’t. The planet has its own means of mastery, and we are beginning to feel them. The scientists insist that the only way we can ensure our species long-term survival is to unwind its extraordinary relationship with carbon. We must solve the problem within the problem.

In practical terms that can only mean unwinding civilisation itself. Humans will cease to be a threat to themselves, and others, only when they give up using carbon-based products to smelt metals, manufacture cement and extrude plastics. Only when our species’ collective footprint is light enough to be blown away on an autumn wind, will the planet, and all the other species that dwell upon it, be able to breathe easy.

Such a footprint will never be left by a species numbering 9 billion.

Does humanity grasp this: the brutal, but inescapable, reality which lies at the heart of the problem within the problem of Climate Change? That to come through the next 100 years, the human species will, somehow, be required to reduce its present population by nine-tenths?

Think of the Holocaust. In 1939, there were approximately 9.7 million Jews living in Europe. By 1945 there were fewer than 4 million. Two-thirds of European Jewry had perished at the hands of the Nazis. The dismantling of our carbon-fueled civilisation would be accompanied by even more devastating depopulation: not two out of every three would vanish, but nine out of every ten. Will those billions of doomed souls go gently into Gaia’s good night? Or, will they rage, rage against the dying of human civilisation’s light?

Some young people in the West are openly talking about refusing to have children. Others speak hopefully of universalising the achievements of feminism. Such a victory would, if the experience of those countries in which women have won equality is any indication, gradually reduce the number of human-beings on the planet. Would this depopulation option occur at a pace and on a scale to avert planetary catastrophe? It seems unlikely. Especially when patriarchy in all its forms would have to be defeated first. That will not be easy!

How does one persuade the most privileged layers of the human population to surrender their power and status: their cars, their red meat, their dairy products – their guns? How do you make men understand the consequences of Climate Change, when the ongoing enjoyment of their many privileges depends upon them not understanding the consequences of Climate Change?

It’s not just men. Around the world, cities and even nation states are declaring “Climate Change Emergencies” in recognition of the diminishing amount of time humanity now possesses to stabilise the phenomenon of global warming. All well and good, but the truly chilling feature of such declarations is what happens after they are made. Which is, in nearly every case, nothing at all.

Perhaps, in the end, the planet – Gaia herself - will solve the problem. Perhaps a virus – as yet unencountered by any human-being – is already mutating away in the mountain rain-forests of equatorial Africa. Perhaps it will break free of the trees. Perhaps, like Ebola, its lethality will be in the vicinity of 90 percent.

Will it be a good or a bad thing, I wonder, when humanity’s bright blue spacecraft is stricken by this final problem, that no Houston will be standing-by to rescue the crew?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 13 August 2019.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Dining With A Long Spoon.

Divided Loyalties: Can the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, be relied upon? That’s what the boys and girls at Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon needed to be reassured about. Because, from the perspective of Washington, it’s looking more and more like Jacinda Ardern and her Labour Party comrades are getting ready to sell their souls for a pile of soybeans (or milk-powder!) and forgetting all about their duty to protect the interests of their “very, very, very good friends” – in the United States and Australia.

AT ROUGHLY the same time as the police presence at Ihumatao was suddenly and inexplicably boosted (5/8/19) New Zealand’s Deputy-Prime Minister, Winston Peters, was sitting down to dinner with the US Secretary of Defence, James Esper. This high-level diplomatic tête-à-tête took place at the Deputy-Prime Minister’s home in the swanky Auckland suburb of St Mary’s Bay. It’s a safe bet that Mr Peters’ American guest talked about mustering coercive forces far greater than those then arriving at Ihumatao.

That Secretary Esper was there at all is, in itself, remarkable. The US Senate’s stamp of approval has barely had time to dry and the politician charged with responsibility for the greatest aggregation of military might in the planet’s history is on his way to Australia and New Zealand. Not to the United Kingdom and Europe, it is worth noting, but to Australasia, the crucial pivot-point of the United States’ brand new “Indo-Pacific Strategy”.

The change of  nomenclature – from “Asia-Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific” is important. It betokens a critical shift in emphasis. From the straightforward projection of American power to the farthest reaches of the Pacific Ocean: a constant of US foreign and military policy since the heady days of Teddy Roosevelt and his “Great White Fleet”; to the vastly more ambitious goal of “containing” the growing power and influence of the Peoples Republic of China by asserting American hegemony over both the Pacific and the Indian Oceans.

To make this work, the United States requires the active support and cooperation of Japan, Australia and India. Together, these nations form what to Chinese eyes must look like a profoundly threatening arc of offensive military capability. Japan stands at the arc’s eastward extremity, India at its western end, while Australia, at the arc’s base, straddles the two great oceans that give the strategy its name. With these three powers holding the perimeter, the other powers of the region: the Philippines, Indo-China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma and Thailand have little option but to go along for the ride.

For the geopoliticians in Washington, New Zealand also has a role to play – albeit a negative one. If Australia is going to fulfil its strategic obligations to the north and west, then it cannot afford to have anyone but a friend protecting its crucial eastern and southern flanks. As far as Washington is concerned – that’s us. Under no circumstances can New Zealand be allowed to fall any further under the influence of China. In the memorable phrase of the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who travelled as far as Australia with Secretary Esper, the nations of the region could either “choose to sell their souls for a pile of soybeans, or protect their country.”

This, I strongly suspect, occupied a large part of the American agenda at St Mary’s Bay. Secretary Esper would have been anxious to know exactly where New Zealand’s loyalties lie: in Washington, or in Beijing?

Not that he entertained the slightest doubt about Mr Peters’ loyalties. His recent speeches, delivered on American soil, have made his feelings about Chinese influence in the South Pacific crystal clear. Nor had it escaped the notice of New Zealand’s ‘Five Eyes’ partners that Mr Peters had retired the outdated formulation “Asia-Pacific” in favour of “Indo-Pacific”. It was great to have New Zealand’s Deputy-Prime Minister and Foreign Minister on board and with the programme.

But what about New Zealand’s Prime Minister? Could she be relied upon? That’s what the boys and girls at Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon needed to be reassured about. Because Secretary Esper may well have suggested to Mr Peters that, from the perspective of Washington, it’s looking more and more like Jacinda Ardern and her Labour Party comrades are getting ready to sell their souls for a pile of soybeans (or milk-powder!) and forgetting all about their duty to protect the interests of their “very, very, very good friends” – in the United States and Australia.

As the desert plates were cleared away at St Mary’s Bay, and the whiskey liberally dispensed, did the US Defence Secretary seek to discover how the Leader of NZ First would react if push came to shove – in Hong Kong, for example – and his coalition partners declined to break-off relations with Beijing? Did the American remind Mr Peters’ that he, uniquely, enjoyed the political privilege of choosing his country’s bosses?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 August 2019.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Endgame: Will Winston Peters Blow Up The Coalition Over Ihumatao?

Blowing-Up The House: Is Winston Peters planning to put himself at the head of all those New Zealanders who refuse to countenance the Coalition Government caving-in to the Ihumatao protesters? The most effective way of doing this would be to issue Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with an ultimatum. If she refuses to uphold the legal agreement between the officially recognised mana whenua of Ihumatao and Fletchers, then NZ First will be obliged to withdraw from its coalition agreement with Labour.

IS WINSTON PETERS planning to blow up the Coalition Government over Ihumatao? Sean Plunket has been reporting and analysing New Zealand politics for a long time, and he thinks that Winston might be getting ready to do just that. Certainly, the last few days have witnessed Peters and NZ First’s prolix bovver-boy, Shane Jones, heaping plenty of disparagement upon the Ihumatao protesters. While his leader dismissed the protesters as “outsiders”, Jones drew the voters’ attention to their politically disqualifying “yoga pants”. These are not the sort of comments calculated to facilitate an equitable solution to the Ihumatao problem.

Why would Peters want to blow up the government he helped to forge? The bleedingly, bloody obvious answer is that NZ First’s ongoing participation in the Coalition is causing it to haemorrhage voter support. The party is already well below the 5 percent MMP threshold, and Labour has yet to gift NZ First an electorate seat lifeboat of the sort Act’s David Seymour received from National in Epsom.

Without that insurance policy against continuing sub-5 percent poll numbers, Peters and his party are acutely vulnerable. All Simon Bridges has to do is let the clock run out on the 2020 General Election and then announce that National has ruled-out NZ First as a potential coalition partner. What’s left of Peters support would instantly defect to Labour for fear of seeing their votes ending-up in National’s column. Game over.

Or, Peters could put himself at the head of all those New Zealanders who refuse to countenance the Coalition Government caving-in to the Ihumatao protesters. The most effective way of doing this would be to issue Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with an ultimatum. If she refuses to uphold the legal agreement between the officially recognised mana whenua of Ihumatao and Fletchers, then NZ First will be obliged to withdraw from its coalition agreement with Labour.

That would put Jacinda in a hell of a fix.

Accepting Peters’ uncompromising position on Ihumatao would require the Coalition to clear the occupation site of protesters. Undoubtedly, there would be an electoral upside to such an unequivocal demonstration of state power. NZ First would benefit enormously, quite possibly to the extent of drawing back some of those who defected from the party after Peters threw in his lot with Labour.

They would not be the only ones, however. Labour, too, would benefit: strengthening its grip on traditional Pakeha supporters – just as it did when Helen Clark overturned the Court of Appeal’s judgement on the ownership of the foreshore and seabed. Whether that would be enough to offset the almost certain loss of the Maori seats, and the absolutely certain defection of young, progressive voters to the Greens is much less certain.

All up, however, the Peters option would introduce a level of ideological tension into the Coalition that would render it even more dysfunctional than it is at present. It would also place Jacinda in the same prime-ministerial club as Bill Massey, Syd Holland and Rob Muldoon. Rather than her legacy being one of kindness and compassion, she would be remembered as the Labour Prime Minister who laid waste Ihumatao’s occupation camp and arrested its protectors. Like Massey’s Cossacks, the 1951 Lockout, Bastion Point and the 1981 Springbok Tour, the name “Ihumatao” would find its place in the New Zealand lexicon of political infamy – alongside “Ardern”.

Rather than accept such a grim legacy, Jacinda would, almost certainly, ask the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call a new election.

The sharp political polarisation that would, inevitably, follow such a dramatic move would leave little room for Peters and his party. Unless he was able to strike a deal with Simon Bridges and secure for himself, or Shane Jones, the seat of Northland, NZ First would be out of Parliament.

Labour’s survival would necessitate a decisive shift to the left. An electorate deal with the Greens in Wellington Central would also be required. Freed at last from NZ First’s right-wing shackles, Jacinda could go to the country with the promise of a genuinely progressive government. The slogan – “Let’s do this properly!” – springs to mind.

The outcome of the election would likely be decided by the size of the voter turnout. If Labour and the Greens were able to successfully cast the contest as a battle between the racism and selfishness of the old versus the diversity and generosity of the young – and then persuade the young to get out and vote – who knows, they just might win.

Or, as Sean Plunket would no doubt call the result: “Middle New Zealand” buries Jacinda and her woke army of “progressives” beneath a landslide of Te Riri Pakeha – the white man’s anger. In the final scene, Simon Bridges and Winston Peters (or is that Shane Jones?) appear in silhouette atop the wreckage: shaking hands as the sun sets on Labour’s, the Greens’ – and Ihumatao’s – shattered dreams.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 2 August 2019.

POSTSCRIPT: On the evening of Monday, 5 August 2019, at about the time a sudden influx of Police arrived at the Ihumatao protest site, Shane Jones appeared on TVNZ’s Q+A programme. His comments regarding the land occupation were nothing short of inflammatory. Had the protest leader, Pania Newton, not prevailed upon her followers to remain calm and honour their commitment to non-violence, the situation might have turned very ugly indeed. If Winston Peters does not want the perception that something very ugly is afoot within NZ First to grow, then he needs to attach a short, but very strong, chain to the collar of his principal attack-dog. Lest Shane Jones sink his teeth into persons much closer to home. – C.T.