Saturday, 13 October 2018

Donald Trump And The Art Of Populist Grotesque.

Empowered By His Contradictions: Trump is a populist demagogue, and like all such demagogues he is empowered by his contradictions. This very special kind of leader is required to dance not only with the people, but also with those individuals and institutions he has promised to protect the people from.


JANE KELSEY, in a recent post, identifies some of the more important challenges posed for the Left by Donald Trump. His peculiar mix of worker-friendly policies and corporate concessions. His willingness to advance protectionism – along with a host of other ideas long-declared “verboten” by neoliberal ideologues. His brazen rejection of globalism. His reaffirmation of the citizen’s indissoluble duty of loyalty to the nation state – and vice versa.

These contradictions are impossible to reconcile with either old-school socialism, or its “Third Way” bastard offspring. They are, however, entirely consistent with the logic of  populism. Trump is a populist demagogue, and like all such demagogues he is empowered by his contradictions. This very special kind of leader is required to dance not only with the people, but also with those individuals and institutions he has promised to protect the people from.

These populist politicians typically arise in circumstances of socio-political deadlock: reconciling in their own persons the irreconcilable differences of contending social forces – and classes. What these vast conglomerations of conflicting interests cannot achieve – having lost all opportunity for strategic and/or tactical manoeuvre – is achieved in the populist’s personality. A volatile mixture of ignorance and vanity which permits the demagogue to believe in, as Lewis Carrol so memorably put it, “five impossible things before breakfast” – and then tweet about them.

To rational men and women, the demagogic personality is a standing affront to the complex art of politics. What they fail to understand is that, under the conditions which give rise to populism, rationality has very little political utility. In the populist moment: which is itself the product of antagonistic social and political forces’ inability to compromise; it is irrationality that makes the “politically impossible” possible.

Because the average man or woman finds it relatively easy to hold two contradictory notions in their heads, believing in both, they are not in the least perturbed by a leader who is constantly demonstrating his ability to do the same. Indeed, they are likely to feel more comfortable living under such a leader than they are under someone who is constantly requiring them to choose one or the other.

This celebration of ignorance, along with the constant and wilful distortion of the truth, goes hand-in-hand with the demagogue’s acceptance and promotion of irreconcilable ideas. And, once again, he or she is rewarded for doing so by the endorsement of a significant minority of the electorate. Politicians who make voters aware of their intellectual shortcomings are seldom thanked for the experience. The demagogic ignoramus, on the other hand; the master of that new school of performance art “populist grotesque”; by demonstrating his or her solidarity with the average punter’s lack of knowledge, is rewarded with their undying loyalty and affection.

None of this should strike an old Marxist like Jane Kelsey as in any way surprising. In what is indisputably his greatest piece of political journalism, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx explains in riveting detail the way in which Napoleon’s nephew – a politician with more than a little in common with Donald Trump – set about seizing control of the French state:

“Historical tradition gave rise to the French peasants’ belief in the miracle that a man named Napoleon would bring all glory back to them. And there turned up an individual who claims to be that man because he bears the name Napoleon, in consequence of the Code Napoleon, which decrees: ‘inquiry into paternity is forbidden’ After a twenty-year vagabondage and a series of grotesque adventures the legend is consummated, and the man becomes Emperor of the French. The fixed idea of the nephew was realized because it coincided with the fixed idea of the most numerous class of the French people.”

Americans are not all that comfortable with historical tradition, but they are particularly admiring of the extremely wealthy and entertainers – both of whom they imbue with almost supernatural powers. In Donald Trump they were confronted with a wealthy entertainer who wanted to be President of the United States. In this “The Donald” went one better than “The Gipper”. Ronald Reagan was only a B-grade movie star, Trump is a billionaire. In his person the broken white American working-class glimpsed the possibility of recovery. Not simply because they judged his promise to run America the way he ran his business empire as unlikely to produce a worse result than the nightmare in which they were currently enmeshed, but because Trump held out the additional promise of telling their supposed “friends” in the Democratic Party, the despised liberal elites: “You’re fired!”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 12 October 2018.

Friday, 12 October 2018

The IPCC Report: All Of A Sudden - Nothing Happened.

Limited Vision: As a species, human-beings are superb at dealing with immediate dangers and short-to-medium term problems. Storing up food for the coming winter, setting aside enough grain for next year’s crops: thinking this way produced extraordinary human advancements. So many that, as a species, we never really saw the need, or acquired the knack, of thinking ten, twenty, a hundred years ahead.


ON TUESDAY MORNING the world should have awoken to financial chaos.* Stockmarkets around the planet should have been plummeting to levels not seen for a decade – or more.

For the markets to be in freefall, however, something truly shocking must have happened. Had the Saudi monarchy been overthrown? Had the President of the United States been assassinated?

The answer, of course, is: “No.” and “No.”

What had happened was that, on Monday afternoon, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had released its latest emissions report.

This sombre document speaks bluntly about the huge response required from the whole of humanity if the emissions targets set at Paris in 2015 are to be met. Massive and disruptive economic and social challenges loom ahead for the global community. The future of the human species (not to mention the survival of the millions of other species with which humanity shares the earth) now depends on those challenges being confronted and met.

But, as everyone reading this knows perfectly well, the world’s stockmarkets did not go into freefall on Tuesday. There were some jitters over the deepening rift between the United States and China – but these weren’t serious. Certainly, nothing approaching the financial Gotterdammerung of 2008-09 had unfolded – anywhere.

And that should tell us something about the problem of Climate Change.

Clearly, the “Masters of the Universe” – those expert buyers and sellers of financial derivatives, pork-belly futures and Apple shares – weren’t worried. The men (and they mostly are men) who drive the world’s markets up and down – had placed not the slightest weight on the IPCC’s pronouncements. They weren’t in the least bit bothered that the world’s leading climate scientists were telling them that by the 2050s (and maybe sooner) capitalism, as they understood it, would cease to be a viable system.

It’s not as if these economic movers and shakers are all Climate Change Denialists (although some of them undoubtedly are) or that they don’t believe in science. They do. In fact, market traders have a great deal in common with the climate scientists. Both groups spend their time developing models about the way the world works, and then using them to anticipate and shape future events. The big difference between the two, however, is that market traders base their predictions on the behaviour of human-beings, and climate scientists on the behaviour of the earth’s atmosphere.

The market traders know to a near certainty that nobody – or at least nobody that matters – is going to do a damn thing about the IPCC report. World leaders certainly aren’t about to hurl their respective peoples into a maelstrom of economic and social pain. The producers of coal, oil and natural gas are not going to stop sending their product to market – not while upwards of 90 percent of the world economy still runs on it. Those with money and status will continue to fly around the world to admire the scenery and soak up the cultures of faraway lands – regardless of the damage inflicted by their enormous carbon footprints.

“The American way of life is non-negotiable”, warned the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, in 2001. Seventeen years later, the rest of the world’s newly enriched citizens feel exactly the same way about the rising living standards to which they are rapidly becoming accustomed.

“But what about the rising seas!”, laments Greenpeace. “What about the extreme weather events? The floods? The forest fires? The hurricanes?”

To the world’s environmentalists, their fellow human-beings’ blank indifference to the looming catastrophe is both baffling and infuriating. As good ecologists, however, they should not be surprised.

As a species, human-beings are superb at dealing with immediate dangers and short-to-medium term problems. Storing up food for the coming winter, setting aside enough grain for next year’s crops: thinking this way produced extraordinary human advancements. So many that, as a species, we never really saw the need, or acquired the knack, of thinking ten, twenty, a hundred years ahead.

For the past ten-thousand years, humanity’s ability to master the planet’s creatures and plunder her natural resources has brought nothing but a longer and more bounteous life. In the desiccated remnants of that legacy, future generations will curse us for taking so long to identify our species’ suicidal trajectory, and wonder why we refused to get off it – until it was too late.

* In a wonderful example of Murphy's Law, two days after I filed this column the world's markets were in turmoil. Not, I hasten to add, in response to the IPCC's report, but still. - C.T.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 October 2018.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

A Change Of Plan.

“I’m over democracy”, she said quietly, her eyes fixed on the flames. “It’s failed. It will kill us all – if we let it.”

IT WAS LATE and the fire was dying. The wine bottle was definitely not half full. In the far corner a couple of vapers appeared to smoke. But up this end, nearest the fire, I was alone. Until she turned up.


I HAD MET HER a few months before. She’d arrived with a whole crowd of others. People from the university. Trade unionists. Journalists. Students. She didn’t look like any of them. Not much for talking. Or, at least, unwilling to break into the conversation of so many “brilliant” minds. When I asked her what she did, she tilted her head to one side, like a cat who had expected more.

“I paint.”

“You’re an artist?”

“A painter.”

“And what do you paint?”

“What I see.”


AND HERE SHE was again, bearing a dangerously full bottle of wine.

“Why don’t you build up that fire?”

“I wasn’t planning to be here much longer.” I waggled the nearly empty bottle in the firelight.

“Plans have a habit of changing”, she said, waggling hers.

I searched in the shadows for the management’s stack of firewood and returned with an armload of logs which I positioned carefully over the feathering embers.

My companion stared at the fireplace for a few minutes, watching the flames curl themselves hungrily around the dry timber. The shadows began to dance.

“I’m over democracy”, she said quietly, her eyes fixed on the flames. “It’s failed. It will kill us all – if we let it.”

“How’s that?”

“There are decisions that have to be made that won’t be made if majorities composed of selfish and ignorant people continue to dictate policy.”

“Such as?”

“Don’t you come over all Socratic with me, I’m not in the mood. You know full well what sort of decisions need to be made if the planet’s to survive. I read your stuff. You get it.”

“You’re talking about climate change.”

“Of course. But not just climate change. You and I both know that without a single global government, backed by sufficient armed force to quell any and all dissent, the human species, and most of the other species inhabiting this planet, are doomed. You also understand that such a government cannot possibly be democratic. Which is why I began this conversation by saying that I’m over democracy. Because, if it isn’t over, we are.”

I took a long sip of wine and set my glass down softly on the table.

“You realise that the only nation state with sufficient military power to overawe all the other nation-states on the planet is the United States of America. So, what you’re actually calling for is a Pax Americana.”

“Doesn’t have to be America. What if the Chinese wiped out the West with a deadly virus genetically-engineered to kill only kwailo – round eyes?”

“Leaving the planet to Asians and Africans?”

“Poetic justice – wouldn’t you say?”

“Maybe. But what happens when those Asians and Africans begin to assert their right to participate in this new planetary government? What do the masters of China’s new global empire do then?”

“What the Americans should have done at the end of World War II, when they alone possessed the atomic bomb. They simply inform the rest of the world that unless it submits entirely to their benign guidance, then their super-weapon will be deployed in a manner guaranteed to secure compliance. Chinese rule. Or, a virus genetically engineered just for you is released. That will be the choice.”

I stared into the bright conflagration filling the fireplace. The heat beat against both our faces. The wine was tepid on my tongue.

“You’re happy to have the Chinese in charge of the global conservation of wildlife?”

“Not entirely. No. But the USA had its chance to rule the planet; to become its enlightened global despot; and it let the moment pass. All the peoples it could have freed from hunger and superstition. All the corrupt feudal despots and obscurantist priests it could have deposed. All of the pent-up creative energy it could have released.

“A world of workers and teachers, artists and scientists. A world in which women were free and equal. A world in which skin colour was irrelevant.

“That was the only sort of world that could possibly have made the loss of 75 million human-beings in World War II meaningful. The only outcome that could have atoned for all that human smoke. But, was that the sort of world the Americans made? Like hell it was! All the Americans were interested in making was money!”

“So, you’d prefer to see the planet governed the way the Baathists governed Iraq? Free health care. Free and secular education – especially for women. Homes and jobs for everyone. But woe betide the brave soul who criticises the government. Or, even worse, Saddam!”

“Ah, yes, Iraq. Where everyone is so much better off for being able to stuff a piece of paper in a ballot-box. The free health care and education are gone. The housing projects are all burnt to the ground or blown to smithereens. Unemployment is rife. Women are second-class citizens. Gays are murdered. But, oh my goodness, who cares about the loss of all of those inconsequential things when you have been given the right to vote!”

She took an heroic gulp of wine and refilled both our glasses.

“To the death of democracy!”, she cried, raising her glass.

“Or, to more of it.”, I answered softly, raising my own glass reluctantly to hers.

We both drank deeply.

The blazing logs collapsed in on themselves with a shower of sparks. The stars shone fitfully through the woodsmoke billowing out of the squat concrete chimney. It reminded me of something, but I’m damned if I can remember what it was.

This short story was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 11 October 2018.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Petrol Pump Politics.

Unaffordable?  Labour supporters should brace themselves for a National Party-driven social media campaign built around the slogan: “At $2.40 a litre, we can’t afford Jacinda.” Re-cycled though this catch-phrase may be, for Kiwis on low incomes paying far too much for gas it’s likely to have a catchy ring to it. (And anyone on the Labour team thinking about telling these folk to “go electric” should, perhaps, recall the effect on the breadless masses of the thoughtless suggestion that they should consider eating cake!)

“AT A DOLLAR a gallon we can’t afford Rowling.” Given his latest media release (8/10/18)  “Government Pricing Kiwis Out Of Their Cars”, someone’s obviously been schooling up young Simon Bridges on the way Rob Muldoon smashed Labour in 1975.

[Bill Rowling, for all you millennials out there, was the Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand from September 1974 until December 1975, and a gallon (4.5 litres) was the unit of measure at the petrol pump. So, yes, you’re right, the motorists of 1975 paid roughly a tenth of what we pay today to fill up our tanks! – C.T.]

But even back when petrol was only a dollar a gallon, Kiwi motorists were hurting. Ever since the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, during which Egypt and Syria came within an ace of destroying the State of Israel, the price of oil had soared. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab oil-exporters had imposed an embargo on the USA and its allies for resupplying the Israelis with arms and ammunition. The resulting price-hikes delivered a stunning blow to the Western economy. The so-called “Oil Shocks” of 1973-79 marked the end of the Great Post-War Boom. Almost overnight, New Zealanders – along with just about everyone else in the Western World – lost confidence in the future. Even worse, they began casting about for someone to blame.

Hence, the National Party’s propaganda blaming soaring oil prices on Bill Rowling. Of course, anybody who had been following current affairs over the previous two years knew perfectly well that National was peddling what today we would call “fake news”. But, those weren’t the people Muldoon was after. The voters he was seeking to enlist alongside National’s habitual supporters were the disoriented, frustrated and just flat-out angry working-class Kiwis who were struggling to work out what had all-of-a-sudden gone wrong with their world.

Like the former Democratic Party supporters backing Trump in 2016, these bewildered Labour voters found it increasingly difficult to identify with “their” party. Labour was supposed to stand for “the working man” and his values, but now, following the tragic death of that quintessential working-class battler, “Big Norm” Kirk in August 1974, the party was led by a training-college lecturer. What’s more, he and his colleagues were advancing policies which seemed to have more in common with the demands of the long-haired hippies and protesters in the streets than they did with the “ordinary Kiwi joker” and his concerns. Not the least of these being the soaring price of petrol.

Muldoon and his campaign advisers were only too aware of the culture war that was brewing in the Labour Party and they couldn’t wait to exploit it.

Over the course of the 1960s and 70s, Labour’s membership had dwindled. The party branches were peopled predominantly by people who may have been young and radical in the 1930s and 40s but who were now very settled in their ways – and views – which tended towards the socially conservative. Many Labour stalwarts were Roman Catholics, Baptists and Salvation Army members. They bitterly resented the small but active groups of liberals and radicals who had begun drifting into Labour from 1969 onwards. They were seen as middle-class carpet-baggers without the slightest idea of what it meant to be a working-class Kiwi.

These were the people for whom National’s election slogan, “New Zealand the way YOU want it”, was created. The people who had begun to feel neglected, misunderstood and even a little bit despised by the people at the top of the Labour Party – and their intellectual friends. Some of the more prominent of these had banded together in the group called “Citizens for Rowling”. In the ears of a great many Kiwis, that sounded a lot more like “Citizens Against Muldoon”.

It was a huge strategic error on the part of Labour’s hifalutin supporters. Instead of turning people against the pugnacious National leader, it drew them towards him. Just as liberal America’s hatred of Trump only served to entrench his support among aggrieved Americans without college degrees or six-figure salaries, Labour’s near-obsession with Rob Muldoon proved to be one of the key factors in the growth of “Rob’s Mob”. This was the peculiar assemblage of “ordinary blokes and blokesses” for whom Muldoon felt more like a Labour leader than the thoroughly decent but doggedly uninspiring Rowling.

Forty years on, Labour supporters should brace themselves for a National Party-driven social media campaign built around the slogan: “At $2.40 a litre, we can’t afford Jacinda.” Second-hand though it may be, it’s bound to acquire some measure of political purchase. How could it not when, for Kiwis on low incomes, $2.40 a litre for gas is just one more burden for them to bear. (And anyone on the Labour team thinking about telling these folk to “go electric” should, perhaps, recall the effect on the breadless masses of the thoughtless suggestion that they should consider eating cake!)

National’s big problem is that Simon Bridges is not Rob Muldoon. Bridges simply does not possess Muldoon’s ability to inspire both confidence and hope, fear and dread. Nor is Jacinda Ardern even remotely like Bill Rowling. The latter always came across as the person for whom the saying “nice guys finish last” was invented. And although stardust was intermittently available to politicians back in 1975, the historical record makes it very clear that nobody ever got so much as a speck of it to Bill.

About the only thing Bridges has got going for him is that, unlike the 1973-79 oil shocks, the steady rise in the price of petrol over the period 2018-2021 cannot be sheeted home to greedy Arab oil magnates. This time, a large measure of it is Labour’s own work.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 9 October 2018.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

The Political Amnesia Of Winston Peters’ Critics

More Sinned Against Than Sinning: Even today, the man they cast as the villain of the piece; the person held responsible for the collapse of the National-NZ First Coalition in 1998; is the man most wronged by the whole sordid event – Winston Peters.

THE MOST CURIOUS FEATURE of the near universal criticism of NZ First’s waka-jumping legislation is its political amnesia. It’s as if New Zealand has never experienced a government held in place by the deliberate perversion of the proportionality upon which the entire MMP electoral system rests. A government conceived in treachery and kept in office by Members of Parliament willing to nullify the Party Votes of the electors who put them there. A government whose blatant betrayal of the new electoral system was quietly elided from the media narrative. A government whose principal victim was cast in the role of prime perpetrator. The Government of Jenny Shipley.

To hear the likes of The Listener and the NZ Herald tell the story, NZ First’s Electoral Integrity Bill represented a deadly thrust at the heart of what it means to be a Member of Parliament. Rather than acknowledge the role of the individual conscience in parliamentary affairs, they argued, the legislation would turn New Zealand’s MPs into mindless automatons; unalterably programmed to toe the party line. The historical fact that New Zealand has been governed by highly disciplined political parties for the past 80 years is simply not acknowledged by the legislation’s critics.

What these curiously ahistorical critics appeared to have in mind vis-à-vis the “right” of parliamentarians to arbitrarily dissolve all moral and contractual obligations to the political party whose endorsement was crucial to their electoral success, is the romantic figure of a lonely and tormented MP torn between loyalty to party and duty to conscience. All of them appeared blissfully unaware that the actual turncoats of New Zealand’s recent political history had, with the honourable exceptions of Winston Peters, Jim Anderton and Tariana Turia, been sitting MPs who had failed to secure re-selection from their party; become embroiled in scandal, like the ill-starred son of Norman Kirk; or, were straightforward political traitors. Hardly shining beacons of ethical responsibility!

Of those exceptions, only Jim Anderton failed to do what the framers of the Electoral Integrity legislation urged any MP unable to accept their party’s policies to do – resign and secure a new mandate. Interestingly, Anderton’s refusal to seek a mandate from the electors of Sydenham, following his bitter repudiation of the Labour Party, was roundly condemned at the time. His famous quip: “I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me” – so oft repeated by critics of the waka-jumping bill in 2018 – received scant acknowledgement and even less support from the right-wing pundits of 1989.

It is also interesting to note that when both Winston Peters and Tariana Turia resigned their seats and were triumphantly re-elected by their constituents, the news media responded with thinly disguised disdain. The refusal of the parties they had left to field candidates against them, far from being seen as a resounding vindication of their position, was used as a means of belittling both their courage and their success. The electors’ emphatic endorsement of Peters and Turia was given far less weight by the news media than the haughty condescension and vicious criticisms of the victors’ former colleagues.

Which brings us back to the government formed by Jenny Shipley in August 1998.

The crisis was triggered by the National Party’s decision, in contravention of the National-NZ First coalition agreement, to privatise its shareholding in Wellington Airport. When Peters responded by declaring the agreement void he discovered that no fewer than 8 of his 17 MPs had turned their coats and were proposing to remain part of Shipley’s new government.

The commitment of Tau Henare, Tuku Morgan, Rana Waitai, Jack Elder, Ann Batten, Tuariki Delamere, Deborah Morris and Peter McCardle to the voters who had sent them to Parliament, as well as to the party they had solemnly pledged to support, was forgotten. The 8 MPs of the far-right Act Party, which the deposed National Leader, Jim Bolger, had pledged to keep out of government were now crucial to the maintenance of Shipley’s majority – as was the bewildered ex-Alliance defector, Alamein Kopu. Shipley and her turncoat crew were guilty of a constitutional outrage: they had profoundly distorted the proportionality of the Parliament elected in 1996 and thus made possible a government which, had the choices of the electors been respected, could never have been formed.

That the Governor-General of the day, Sir Michael Hardie Boys, acquiesced in this distortion of the people’s will is only marginally less outrageous than the distortion itself. The proper course of action would have been to dissolve Parliament – thereby requiring Shipley and her supporters to secure a new mandate from the voters. Instead, New Zealanders were forced to wait another twelve months before passing judgement on Shipley’s “Turncoat Government”. Unsurprisingly, it was thrown out.

That the critics of NZ First’s waka-jumping legislation have forgotten these events is extremely telling. It betrays their profound diffidence towards the whole democratic process. Twenty years on, they are still unwilling to sheet the blame home where it belongs – with Jenny Shipley and her motley collection of chancers, zealots and defectors. Even today, the man they cast as the villain of the piece; the person held responsible for the collapse of the National-NZ First Coalition in 1998; is the man most wronged by the whole sordid event – Winston Peters.

Far from undermining our parliamentary democracy, the Electoral Integrity legislation, which NZ First insisted form a central part of this new coalition government’s programme, now stands as a solid protection against any repetition of the constitutional outrage of 1998. That blatant attack on MMP which Peters’ perennial critics either cannot, or will not, acknowledge.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 5 October 2018.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Revolutionary Principles, Reactionary Values.

The Revolutionary Trinity: The three constitutive principles upon which the French Republic was founded: Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. If ever a nation is entitled to boast about its core values: about the ideas deemed fundamental to its very existence; then that nation is France.

YOU WILL SEE them chiseled into the lintels of public buildings all over Paris. The three constitutive principles upon which the French Republic was founded: Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. If ever a nation is entitled to boast about its core values: about the ideas deemed fundamental to its very existence; then that nation is France.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (which preceded the French Revolution by 13 years) and his ringing affirmation that: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” undoubtedly proved inspirational. But, essentially, Jefferson was presenting an argument. Those three words: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; pronounced in an absolute monarchy; were unequivocally revolutionary.

Which is why, nearly 230 years after the storming of the Bastille, there remains a part of France which angrily denounces the revolutionary trinity of 1789. Thousands still living in France today, remember the very different trinity pronounced by Marshall Petain in June 1940. Not Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, but Work, Family, Fatherland.

Petain’s Vichy regime was but the culmination of the reactionary tendencies which had harried and fought the legacy of the Revolution ever since the restoration of the Bourbon Dynasty in 1815. Urged on by the Catholic Church; complicated by the personal ambitions of the Bonaparte family; poisoned by a virulent antisemitism; reactionary France, the France that sent Captain Dreyfus to Devil’s Island on trumped-up charges; the France that made peace with the Nazis; the France that even today swells the vote of the Front Nationale; has never gone away.

In the light of this centuries old quarrel about the meaning and purpose of La Belle France, Europe’s most enlightened nation state, what were the delegates to the NZ First Party’s annual conference thinking by voting for a remit legally requiring immigrants to New Zealand to swear allegiance to their adoptive country’s “core values”?

Almost certainly, they were not thinking of embroidering their nation’s banner with the French trinity of revolutionary principles.

Not that there haven’t been times in New Zealand’s own history when Liberty, Equality and Fraternity constituted the terse programme of home-grown revolutionaries. The “Red Feds” – those militant trade unionists whose exploits enlivened the years immediately prior to World War I – were not above letting-rip with a lusty rendition of La Marseillaise as they marched to do battle with “Massey’s Cossacks”. (Armed farmers on horseback, enlisted by Prime Minister Bill Massey to crush the “Red Feds”.)

Therein lies the problem, of course. From the moment New Zealand became a British colony in 1840, the tension between those who came here to build a better life in a better country than class-riven Britain; and those who came here for the sole purpose of making money to enhance their reputation and status; has been palpable.

NZ First’s conundrum has always been to decide which of these two conflicting impulses it should endorse. Like their leader, they are torn between the allure of socio-economic elevation, and the stirring egalitarian verses of Dick Seddon’s and Mickey Savage’s Hallelujah Song.

Even those two men, the tutelary patriarchs of socialist New Zealand, might struggle to agree on the precise nature of New Zealand’s core values. Seddon favoured a white nation, untainted by either the brown or the yellow peril. Savage, by contrast, had imbibed the magic of Wiremu Ratana and knew that whatever New Zealand might eventually become, it would always be Maori first.

From the recorded comments of the remit’s promoters, it seems pretty clear that NZ First tends more toward Seddon than Savage. The core values they are seeking to defend are those of the “Better Britons” which the New Zealanders of the late-nineteenth century believed themselves to be.

Far from the universal principles of the French Revolution and the undying political legacy of the European Enlightenment; the core values which NZ First hopes to enshrine in law are grounded in exclusion. Their purpose is to impress upon Muslim immigrants the entirely unacceptable character of their religious and ethnic traditions, and to make it clear that the price of New Zealand citizenship is the attenuation, or outright abandonment, of those traditions.

The trinity worshipped by NZ First is not the unabashed revolutionary’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; but the half-arsed reactionary’s threefold tribute to the Kiwi Way. Authority. Orthodoxy. Conformity.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 October 2018.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

National's Little-Boy-Lost.

Who Are You? About a politician who cannot seem to make the simplest of moral judgements there will always be an air of inauthenticity and impersonation. Bridges has been described (unkindly, but not entirely inaccurately) as a young boy dressed-up in his father’s suit. The jacket’s cuffs extend well beyond his fingertips and the legs of the trousers puddle around his Dad’s too-big shoes. It’s an image that invites ridicule – not respect.

IT MAKES YOU WONDER what it takes to be enrolled at Oxford University and appointed a Crown Prosecutor at 25. Simon Bridges’ CV includes both of these accomplishments, and yet, after ten years in Parliament, five years in Cabinet, and eight months as Leader of the Opposition, what impresses is just how unimpressive he is. Even more puzzling, after the lacklustre quality of Bridges’ performance, is what his caucus colleagues saw in him. Because, clearly, the rest of the country has yet to spot it.

The most worrying aspect of Bridges’ political persona is a complete absence of anything resembling originality. He does precisely what you would expect a young ambitious politician to do – nothing more, nothing less.

Never was this more apparent than in the early months of his Cabinet career when he was assigned – and eagerly carried out – the task of legislating away the right of environmental protesters to place themselves in the path of oil exploration vessels. Political journalists praised Bridges for proving to his boss, John Key, and the other heavy-hitters of the National Government, that he was a “good soldier”: someone who could be relied upon to obey orders and get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Those same political journalists would probably say that Bridges swift rise to the top of the National Party bears eloquent testimony to the importance of not rocking the boat. But, getting to the top of your party is not quite the same as being elected Prime Minister of your country. Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little all got to the top of their party. None of them, however, were able to secure the top job.

Though few New Zealanders are likely to devote much energy to thoroughly deconstructing Bridges’ political conduct, many have already decided that something important is missing. National’s pollsters have yet to detect a decisive upward swing in the public’s estimation of the Opposition Leader. He remains worryingly underwhelming. People comment on Bridges’ Brylcreemed hair and his appalling diction, but on very little else. There is a knee-jerk quality to his day-to-day political utterances which renders them predictable and forgettable in equal measure.

Bridges clearly has not spent a great deal of time studying the careers of successful National Party Leaders of the Opposition. Had he done so he would have realised the importance of establishing early a significant “point of difference” between himself and his colleagues. Rob Muldoon, for example, made a name for himself by opposing his own Prime Minister’s decision to proceed with the Second Labour Government’s (1957-1960) plans to build a cotton mill in Nelson. Though a callow back-bencher, Muldoon argued – successfully – that the cotton mill project took Labour’s “import substitution” policies too far. That the mill contract had already been signed proved to be no obstacle. The Holyoake Government, under pressure from Muldoon’s “Young Turks”, simply tore it up.

Imagine if Bridges, when asked to smooth the way for the oil prospectors, had refused to curb his fellow citizen’s political rights and resigned his portfolio. Immediately, he would have acquired the status of a principled maverick. A conservative politician who, nevertheless, could be relied upon to pay more than lip-service to New Zealand’s democratic traditions. Someone who was willing to stand up and be counted on civil liberties.

Just as Muldoon had very early on established his credentials as someone who could speak with authority about economic matters, Bridges could have put himself at the forefront of the debate about security versus freedom; surveillance versus privacy. Among the parliamentarians of his generation he would have stood out as a politician of real substance. A potential future leader: not only of his party, but also of the country.

Fortunately for Labour, this was not the Simon Bridges who made it to the top of National’s greasy pole. Even on issues which, for the leader of a liberal-conservative party like National, should require a minimum of serious cogitation, Bridges has slipped and slided all over the place. He came out very cautiously in favour of free speech for Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, but refused to boycott Massey University when it refused to allow the former leader of his own party, Don Brash, to address the Massey Politics Club. He compounded this failure by backing his colleague, Michael Woodhouse’s, call to deny the US whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, entry to New Zealand.

About a politician who cannot seem to make the simplest of moral judgements there will always be an air of inauthenticity and impersonation. Bridges has been described (unkindly, but not entirely inaccurately) as a young boy dressed-up in his father’s suit. The jacket’s cuffs extend well beyond his fingertips and the legs of the trousers puddle around his Dad’s too-big shoes. It’s an image that invites ridicule – not respect.

It is Bridges’ lack of authenticity: the impression he gives of playing politics by-the-numbers and without conviction; that makes the electorate so unwilling to take him seriously. He can frown, scowl, pout and shout his defiance of the Coalition Government and all its leaders do is laugh. Much as a gathering of youngsters would laugh if one of their number attempted to impersonate the responsible adult in the room.

In the 2018 “Mood of the Boardroom” survey, published in today’s (3/10/18) NZ Herald, one of the business leaders interviewed remarked of Bridges’ performance as leader: “We are all waiting for a real punch to land. Bridges’ best day since Labour got in was the in-house haggle on the floor of Parliament when they were trying to sort votes for the Speaker on day one. He hasn’t got close to that high-water mark since.”

But even that incident (which indisputably impressed his caucus colleagues) reflects poorly on Bridges’ ability to distinguish strategy from tactics. Yes, he succeeded in bluffing Labour’s less-than-stellar Leader of the House, but in doing so he marked himself and his party as ruthless, opportunistic and untrustworthy.

It is an indication of just how low the moral bar of our public life has been set that Bridges’ behaviour was widely interpreted by political journalists as evidence of his fitness to lead. Not so. The failure of Simon Bridges, National’s Little-Boy-Lost, to fire the imagination of the New Zealand electorate merely demonstrates how comprehensively the moral sensibilities of ordinary voters exceed those of the men and women who claim to represent them.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 4 October 2018.