Monday, 8 March 2021

Get In The People Who Get Things Done.

Those Who Can Do: Rob Campbell, Chair of Tourism Holdings, the Summerset Group, Sky City Entertainment, Chancellor of Auckland University of Technology - and former trade union leader. Whether it be defeating the fascist disease, or eliminating the Coronavirus; History teaches us that not all capitalists are bad.

IN 1940, the deadly threat confronting Great Britain was not a biological virus, but the deadly political disease of fascism. To defeat this disease, Britain needed aircraft: most particularly the Supermarine Spitfire; arguably the best fighter aircraft then in operation.

Knowing this, the newly appointed prime minister, Winston Churchill, did not turn to the men of Whitehall, whose bureaucratic inertia had already very nearly cost Britain the war, but to business leaders with a proven record of getting the job done.

Accordingly, the newly created position of Minister of Aircraft Production went to Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook. Proprietor of the right-leaning Daily Express, the Canadian-born Beaverbrook had a fearsome reputation as a string-pulling go-getter, par excellence. It was this ability to make things happen that recommended him most strongly to Churchill.

Beaverbrook did not disappoint. During the Battle of Britain, when the fate of the British Empire hung in the balance, Beaverbrook’s success in increasing aircraft production was crucial. Lord Dowding, the leader of Fighter Command during the battle, later wrote:

“We had the organization, we had the men, we had the spirit which could bring us victory in the air but we had not the supply of machines necessary to withstand the drain of continuous battle. Lord Beaverbrook gave us those machines, and I do not believe that I exaggerate when I say that no other man in England could have done so.”

The great virtue of a working historical memory is its capacity to draw out of the past situations and identities capable of inspiring those grappling with the challenges of the present. It certainly explains why, when a group of New Zealand’s leading businesspersons last Tuesday (2/3/21) asked the Government to allow the business community to do more to help it defeat Covid-19, Churchill’s appointment of Beaverbrook instantly sprang to mind.

The historical parallel is very far from being exact. Had Jacinda Ardern been channelling the spirit of Britain’s “finest hour”, then she would, like Churchill, have drawn the New Zealand business community more directly into the fight much sooner. Certainly, Rob Fyfe was invited – and responded instantly – when asked to facilitate the utmost co-operation between government and business during the crisis. From a PR perspective, the “optics” of Fyfe’s appointment were excellent. Unfortunately, the level of co-operation was much less than he and the business community were expecting.

The instinct of the Ministry of Health (as well as the DHBs it relied upon to deliver on the ground) was to hold onto power at all costs. Certainly, it seemed extraordinarily reluctant to allow any outside players into the game.

Nowhere was this dog-in-the-manger attitude more evident than in the Ministry’s refusal to allow the roll-out of the “smart” Covid Card developed by Trade Me founder, Sam Morgan, and the talented team of digital wizards he had assembled. Obstacle after bureaucratic obstacle was placed in front of these experts from the private sector until Morgan, his patience exhausted, simply threw up his hands in frustration and walked away.

One of the reasons for the Ministry’s bureaucratic obstruction was its acute sensitivity to the “privacy issues” raised by the Card’s capacity to track-and-trace the movements of the people carrying it in real time. No need for voluntary QR scanning with the Covid Card. The authorities would be able to track the cardholder’s every move.

The Ministry’s sensitivity wasn’t just a question of whether or not the proposed Covid Card breached the Privacy Act, it was also a vexing political problem. There was a strong feeling among the bureaucrats’ that their political masters would never permit such an invasive piece of technology to be imposed upon the general population.

In this they were, almost certainly, correct. In the early days of Covid, Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues were acutely wary of “losing” the co-operation of the general public. The Prime Minister’s success in, by turns, inspiring, cajoling and convincing the “Team of Five Million” to be “kind” and “Unite Against Covid-19” persuaded her closest colleagues – and the health bureaucrats surrounding them – that Sam Morgan’s Taiwanese-style tracker-card was just too risky a proposition.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to argue that both the Ministry’s and the Government’s fears on this matter were unjustified. If the Year of Covid has taught us anything, it is that New Zealanders are prepared to surrender all manner of “freedoms” to keep themselves and their loved-ones safe. Ever-practical Kiwis would probably have welcomed the convenience of a device that freed them from the irksome responsibility of holding their cellphones up to shop windows and/or signing a register.

The Ministry of Health and the Government had another, even more compelling, reason for declining to involve the business community too closely in the fight against Covid-19. Almost from the very beginning, some business elements took very strong exception to the Labour-led Government’s “Elimination Strategy”.

The notorious “Plan-B” group was widely perceived as a “front” for those industries most likely to be damaged by the Government putting the country into “Lockdown”. The quest for the chimera of “Herd Immunity” – exemplified most powerfully by the Swedish Government’s ultimately calamitous response to the pandemic – was regarded by many as proof of neoliberal capitalism’s callous (not to mention “ageist”) disregard for human life. Trump’s America confirmed these perceptions with decisions as bizarre as they were terrifying.

The problem confronting Rob Campbell, Joan Withers, Patrick Strange, Prue Flacks, Scott St John, and other business leaders, is that the Ministry of Health’s refusal to share power was not validated by its growing operational effectiveness as the nation’s principal defender. Multiple Ministry and DHB failures, from the unavailability of PPE, to failings at the border, and serious deficiencies in communicating clear and accurate information to the public, have all contributed to the feeling that New Zealand’s indisputable success at beating the virus has, all-too-often, been more a matter of good luck than good management.

But, if we have already passed through our equivalent of the Battle of Britain – without the assistance of a Beaverbrook – the war against Covid-19 is very far from being won. The quiet, but forceful, advocacy of Rob Campbell – so impressively on display in his Q+A interview with Jack Tame – makes it clear that there is a very large reservoir of expertise and good-will among the overwhelming majority of business leaders who were never persuaded by the arguments of the Plan-B special-pleaders.

As the big German corporations are already demonstrating, and our own are ready to confirm, the private sector can, at the very least, offer decisive logistical assistance to the huge task of vaccinating the whole population.

The “group of business leaders” argument: that the more experience and expertise which can be gathered around the national decision-making table, the safer and swifter our path out of Covid will be, and the more secure and prosperous New Zealand’s post-Covid future; is very hard to gainsay. New Zealand’s leading businesspersons are not claiming a monopoly on wisdom, merely that getting things done is what they’re good at – and they’re all keen to get started.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 8 March 2021.

Friday, 5 March 2021

The Revolution All Around Us.

Revolutionary Formula: "A new Aotearoa is on the rise. Tangata Whenua (Māori) + Tangata Tiriti (all other ethnicities who are committed to a tiriti centric Aotearoa) = the Aotearoa I believe in fighting for." - Rawiri Waititi, Co-Leader of the Maori Party.

NEW ZEALAND is in the early stages of a revolution. No, not one of those revolutions. The streets are not overflowing with revolutionary crowds. The factories have not been taken over by the workers. The old constitutional order has not been cast aside. The nation’s historical time-line has not been reset to Year Zero. But, make no mistake, a revolution is underway.

At the heart of this revolution is an evolving understanding of what sort of country we live in – and would like to live in. The clearest description of this revolution and its ultimate objectives that I have read so far is contained in a tweet posted in the name of Maori Party co-leader, Rawiri Waititi. To describe the tweet as jarring would be something of an understatement:

The cau casity of Caucasian’s and their ‘active assimilation agenda’. Pay them no attention, their archaic species is becoming more extinct as new Aotearoa is on the rise. Tangata Whenua + Tangata Tiriti = Aotearoa > Tangata Whenua + Pakeha = Old Zealand.

Waititi was quick to distance himself from this message, describing it as the work of someone in his office who acted without his authority. Setting to one side the obvious question: “What kind of office is Waititi running?”, the tweet’s content offers New Zealanders a raw and unmediated synopsis of the Maori Party’s revolutionary agenda. “Transformative” barely covers it!

The first element to note is the highly charged racial vocabulary. “Caucasian” is being used, rather than Pakeha, in much the same way as the latter once referred to Maori as “Polynesians”, and for the same purpose. To subsume a geographically and culturally specific identity into a much larger and more general racial category.

Very clearly, it is not a nice category. In the exercise of their “caucacity”, Caucasians are accused of pursuing an “active assimilation agenda”.

This is a curious charge. Historically, “assimilation” was very much on the agenda of the New Zealand state. In the years after World War II, as Maori began migrating from the countryside to the big cities in large numbers, doing everything possible to turn them into “ordinary” New Zealanders was generally regarded as the most “progressive” policy response available to the authorities. Think of it as an early iteration of the “They are Us” formulation.

The intention was to create a “colour-blind” society. The key category was “citizen” – with all that implied about equality of access to gainful employment, housing, health and education. An excessive focus on racial identity was seen as unhelpful in this regard. The objective was a nation in which the terms “Maori” and “Pakeha” counted for much less than “New Zealander”. It is to the policy of assimilation that the members of “Hobson’s Pledge” pay homage with their insistence that we must all become “one people”.

What makes the tweet’s claim that an “active assimilation policy” is still part of the New Zealand state’s agenda so odd, is that the term “assimilation” long ago became a very dirty word in the corridors of power. From the 1980s onwards the clear policy of successive governments has been to support and strengthen the unique features of te ao Maori. From the Treaty of Waitangi Act of 1975 to the establishment of Kohanga Reo and the recognition of Maori as an official language, the direction of travel has been all one way: from mono-culturalism to bi-culturalism.

It was Donna Awatere, author of the seminal series of Broadsheet articles entitled “Maori Sovereignty”, who rejected this new goal of a bi-cultural New Zealand as insufficiently ambitious. Inspired by the irredentist national strategy of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, she argued for a sovereign Maori nation, freed from the constitutional, economic, political and cultural hegemony of the colonial culture which had, through the judicious application of force and guile, supplanted her own.

Following the Palestinians, Awatere argued for a strategy which is best described as “reverse colonisation”. On the one hand, delegitimise the colonisers’ occupation of lands that were never theirs; on the other, offer them the opportunity of assimilating themselves into Aotearoa, the sovereign Maori state that would slowly, surely, and non-violently, replace the colonial relic known as New Zealand. (Those with long memories will recall that for as long as it remained a revolutionary socialist organisation, the creation of a unitary, secular, Palestinian state, continued to be the PLO’s ultimate goal.)

Although Awatere’s personal evolution took her further and further away from the revolutionary vision that inspired “Maori Sovereignty”, her ideas and perspectives were taken up and developed by Maori nationalists across the country.

Perhaps the best way to get an idea of the revolutionary processes at work in this country, is to conduct a thought experiment involving another one.

Imagine that the Palestinians living in the occupied territories, rather than descending ever deeper into terrorism and religious zealotry, had adopted the non-violent civil-disobedience tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Further imagine that the progressive Israeli political parties, urged on by the Americans, had responded by negotiating seriously with the PLO.

Consider the speed with which the whole situation in Israel/Palestine might have been transformed; the exciting possibility that young Jews and Arabs, together, might have mapped out a future in which the land of Israel/Palestine was deemed to have physical and cultural space enough for both peoples. Who knows, they may even have persuaded their political leaders to set up a permanent tribunal to hear and settle the many grievances arising out of the excesses of Zionist colonisation.

Gradually, thanks in no small part to the state education system and state media, the fearless elucidation of Zionism’s manifest injustices might have persuaded a critical mass of young Israelis to abandon their country’s name altogether. Slowly, surely, non-violently, “Israel” might have come to be known, once again, as “Palestine”.

Impossible? Certainly, Israel/Palestine has a great many more obstacles to overcome than New Zealand/Aotearoa. Still, if Jew and Arab had stopped firing bullets at each other way back in the 1870s and started marrying each other in great numbers – who knows where that unfortunate land might be today?

Which brings us back to that interesting tweet: and to what is undoubtedly its most objectionable sentence: “Pay them no attention, their archaic species is becoming more extinct as new Aotearoa is on the rise.”

Now, viewed from the perspective of those whose ancestors were, at the turn of the 19th Century, confidently expected to become “die out”, this sort of gloating racism is, perhaps, forgivable. From the perspective of the descendants of the colonisers, however, it sounds unnervingly like a direct challenge – an existential threat.

That sentiments like these could so easily put the chant of the White Supremacists at Charlottesville: “You will not replace us!”; into the mouths of angry Pakeha, clearly never occurred to whoever sent out the tweet in Rawiri Waititi’s name. Or (and this is a much more distressing thought) maybe it did?

Waititi is, therefore, to be commended for the speed with which he moved to defuse this political IED. Within a few hours, he had re-written the tweet, and clarified his own position on the slow revolution unfolding all around us:

A new Aotearoa is on the rise. Tangata Whenua (Māori) + Tangata Tiriti (all other ethnicities who are committed to a tiriti centric Aotearoa) = the Aotearoa I believe in fighting for.

Strewth! When you put it like that, Rawiri, so do I.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 5 March 2021

Atavistic Urges.

Mob Psychology: Deep down inside us dwell all manner of dark and violent impulses. In times of social stress and/or crisis, these “atavistic” urges have a nasty habit of rising to the surface like an insufficiently weighted corpse – and unleashing mayhem.

ARE WE AS SAVAGE as our forebears? Would we still gather in our thousands to witness the public execution of a notorious felon? I’d like to think not, but something tells me that if the opportunity presented itself, far too many of us would be unable to resist the temptation to go and gawk at horror.

The word for this impulse is atavism. Deep down inside us dwell all manner of dark and violent impulses. In times of social stress and/or crisis, these “atavistic” urges have a nasty habit of rising to the surface like an insufficiently weighted corpse – and unleashing mayhem.

Our forebears understood this deep-seated human need to see horror answered with horror; pain with pain. In the crude mathematics of vengeance, it was necessary to balance the outrageousness of the crime with an appropriately severe degree of public retribution.

In this regard, the ancient authors of the Old Testament who demanded an eye for an eye understood their audience a lot better than the impossibly gentle Jesus. To love one’s enemies is the counsel of perfection. Human-beings just aren’t that good at being “kind” – especially to those who don’t deserve it.

Atavism was on my mind this past week, as the public’s fury with the persons responsible for returning Auckland to Covid-19 Alert Level 3 and the rest of New Zealand to Level 2 rose to a level where even Queen Jacinda the Kind felt obliged to echo it.

The gospel of Jesus just wasn’t cutting it anymore: New Zealanders had had enough of their Prime Minister’s kindness; what they wanted to know now was whether she also knew how to be cruel.

No problem.

Jacinda’s fury is the opposite of a raging fire. It’s a cold front straight from the Antarctic. When she enunciates the word “frustrated” it has the sound of an icicle being snapped into little pieces. Her controlled rage is thrilling, but it’s not enough. The Team of Five Million wants more.

A year ago, when the Global Pandemic was just getting its eye in, we huddled together around the bright fire of Jacinda’s leadership like Cro-Magnon hunter-gatherers. In times of crisis, there are few atavistic urges more compelling than the terrified tribe’s desire to surrender its will to a strong and trusted chief. Jacinda’s call for “kindness” answered to perfection the nation’s hunger for unity and reassurance. Social divisions dissolved; ideological quarrels ceased; we were all in this together: of course we could be kind!

And how we rewarded her! There was a point on Election Night 2020 (right about the time Rangitata fell to Labour) when I just threw back my head and laughed. The deep roar of that massive red wave sweeping the country was compounded of pride in the tribe, fears overcome, and that huge surge of relief that comes from dodging a bullet. “We” had done it! Kindness Rules!

Or, does it?

Human-beings are good in a crisis – even a long one. Just think of our parents and grandparents, bearing-up under six years of total war. What we’re less good at, however, is going in and out of crises. What Judith Collins, with uncharacteristic verbal felicity, calls “yo-yoing”.

Our rational faculties tell us that with Covid-19 still raging across the planet, and the poor Americans burying more than half-a-million victims; the virus’s occasional leakage into our own communities has to be expected and accepted. Every time we go back into Lockdown, however, our capacity for kindness diminishes.

And when we discover that through either stupidity, sheer selfishness, or both, a member, or members, of the Team of Five Million have upended the lives of their fellow citizens and cost the country hundreds-of-millions of dollars by not following the rules of the game, well, our kindness evaporates altogether.

In those circumstances, the atavistic impulses rising from our psychic depths will be especially dark and dangerous. Having established that somebody has broken faith with the tribe, the tribe will seek retribution – public retribution. It will need to be satisfied that the guilty party’s transgression has received the appropriate punishment.

If we still had stocks, then these malefactors would be in them.

Should the transgressions of these fools lead to unnecessary deaths, however, just watch the public mood turn even darker.

The atavistic cry, then, will be: String the bastards up!

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 March 2021.

Thursday, 4 March 2021

When It Comes to Covid, the “Little People” Cast a Big Shadow.

All Out Of Kindness: At her post-Cabinet media conference on Monday, the Prime Minister demonstrated conclusively that she could be cruel as well as kind. Those revealed to have breached the self-isolation protocols felt the full force of Jacinda Ardern’s displeasure – and the nation lapped it up.

JACINDA ARDERN KNOWS what she’s doing. Never mind all the “Ardern is faltering” wishful thinking on display from the Right. Ignore all the carping of the journalists, commentators, posters and tweeters. New Zealand is still, overwhelmingly, with the Prime Minister.

Would she be pushing back so hard against the claims of the KFC worker if she didn’t know that a very large chunk of the country wasn’t saying: “Give her a smack from me while you’re at it, Jacinda!”?

You only have to register the change in the Prime Minister’s tone between Saturday night and Monday afternoon. In the course of just 72 hours it was made very clear to Jacinda that “kindness” just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Kiwis were pissed-off – really pissed-off – and they expected the country’s leader to acknowledge and endorse their rage.

Jacinda received their message loud and clear. At her post-Cabinet media conference on Monday, the Prime Minister demonstrated conclusively that she could be cruel as well as kind. Those revealed to have breached the self-isolation protocols felt the full force of Jacinda’s displeasure – and the nation lapped it up.

Not the journalists in the Press Gallery, of course, and certainly not the keyboard warriors on Twitter and Facebook. They knew too much about the messaging shemozzle that had caused the young KFC worker to believe that she was allowed to go to work. Clearly, there had been a major communications failure between the Ministry of Health’s frontline staff and decision-makers all the way up the chain-of-command. Prime Ministers are only as well-informed as the advice they receive, and, in the case of the KFC worker, at least, the advice she received was bad.

Not that it matters. What they’d heard from them during the first Lockdown, left most New Zealanders with a very sour opinion of journalists. Or, should that be – an opinion even sourer than usual? As for Twitter: well, the opinions and judgements available on Twitter matter tremendously to the people who tweet them, and the atypical New Zealanders who read them. Neither of these groups is very large, however: certainly not large enough to make the Government do anything it has already set its face against. That the journos and the Twitterati all knew there had been a serious communications balls-up didn’t really count.

Why? because New Zealanders weren’t remotely interested in the minutiae of who said what to whom and when. What they were saying to themselves was something along the lines of:

“ Jesus! What rock was this girl living under that she didn’t know Covid was loose in her community, and, because Covid was loose in her community, she should stay the fuck at home? All her friends at Papatoetoe High School were being tested and told to self-isolate. It was all over the news. How could she not get it?”

And when it came to the guy who got tested and then went to the gym? Well, you can just hear Middle New Zealand’s explosion of rage, can’t you?

“For fuck’s sake! Who the hell could be that bloody selfish? Surely there’s got to be some sort of punishment for rule-breaking on this sort of scale? Come on Jacinda – you can’t be kind to pricks like that!”

These are the messages that Jacinda was giving heed to – not the whining of the Twitterati. The huge surge of outrage that followed the public’s discovery of the reasons why they were being ordered back into Covid-19 Alert Levels 2 and 3 was not something any sensible politician could ignore – and Jacinda didn’t.

There will, of course, be many (but not that many) who will seize upon the circumstances surrounding the latest Lockdown and spin them into a cloak of shame for the Prime Minister and her government. They will do this because they simply cannot believe that anybody is any longer “fooled” by Queen Jacinda the Kind; because they fail completely to comprehend that people who think like them represent an insignificant minority of the population; because they just can’t fathom why their advice on how to handle the Covid-19 Pandemic has been routinely ignored for so long.

For nearly 40 years these characters have grown accustomed to the opinions and interests of the majority being treated with something pretty close to contempt. Little people were expected to do as they were told, and to accept that the big people telling them would always know much better than they ever could what was good for them. These elitists found it hard enough to endure the nearly-nine-year reign of John Key – who displayed an altogether unhealthy regard for public opinion. Under Jacinda, however, everything has gone from bad to worse. She actually seems to care – really care – what little people think. It’s simply outrageous!

What the elitists want is for New Zealanders to “learn to live with the virus”. In their view, all this “yo-yoing” in and out of Lockdown is wrecking the economy. Pursuing an “elimination strategy” is, therefore, unsustainable in the long term. The country just has to harden-up and wait for the steady roll-out of the vaccine to deliver the “herd immunity” required to set the world free. As far as they’re concerned, all this is self-evident. The Government must see it – and act accordingly.

Except that what the “little people” want looks nothing like the “big people’s” preferred strategy. Far from believing that things should be loosened-up, most New Zealanders favour an across-the-board tightening of the whole anti-Covid apparatus. The Elimination Strategy, so derided by the elites, has served them, and their country, amazingly well. Just how well is made clear to them every time they hear, see, or read about what’s happening in the USA, the UK, and just about everywhere else on the planet. What they want is to be kept safe: to see the borders made so tight that the “tricky” Covid virus is permanently kept at bay. Yes, they feel sorry for the tourism and hospitality industries, but not sorry enough to risk the virus running amok because Jacinda and her government stopped listening to “us” and started paying heed to “them”.

Most of all they want the Team of Five Million to stay solid: to play by the rules; and to make sure that those who flout the rules pay dearly for their lack of solidarity. While kindness can be shown to work, they’ll be kind. But, the moment kindness stops working, the world will be amazed at how cruel ordinary New Zealanders can be. And how cruel Jacinda can be – in their name.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 4 March 2021.

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

The Long March From The Bottom To The Top.

Revolution From Below: The original “Long March” was, of course, undertaken by Mao Zedong and what was left of his communist military forces. They did not, however, head off for the nearest school or university, government office or medical clinic. Their goal was not to infiltrate the institutions of capitalism, but to overthrow them.

THE POLITICAL ENGINEERING required to transform social-democratic New Zealand into a global poster-child for the free-market was considerable. Most New Zealanders under 50 years of age have accepted a description of the process which is four-fifths propaganda and one-fifth half-truths. The late Bruce Jesson, one of this country’s most astute political writers, characterised the events of 1984-1990 as a “bureaucratic coup d’état”.

Jesson’s description was, however, very far from being the general understanding of “Rogernomics” at the time of its introduction. Most New Zealanders greeted the economic transformation unleashed by the Fourth Labour Government as a welcome liberation from “Muldoonism”. More than three decades after its fall, “Muldoonism” continues to be the preferred shorthand for all the evils David Lange and his Labour Government were obliged to confront.

Muldoonism – and all its wicked works – served an ideological purpose over-and-above providing a never-ending series of anecdotes about the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the state-dominated economy which the National Party leader and Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, worked so hard to prop-up and protect. His regime was presented as being so practically and morally dysfunctional that the extraordinary measures employed to bring it down were entirely justified.

Lange, Roger Douglas, and all the other key “Rogernomes”, were presented to the New Zealand public as patriotic heroes – something akin to the Roman senators who assassinated Julius Caesar. Drastic illnesses, ran the argument of the bureaucratic “experts” guiding the Labour leadership, require drastic remedies. Sometimes the people have to be protected from the consequences of saying “No.” Sometimes the best thing you can do is not give them the chance.

Of all the many malign legacies of Rogernomics, this rejection of the democratic mandate – the principle that major changes to the status-quo should not be enacted without first obtaining the explicit consent of the electorate – is unquestionably the most pernicious. It is rendered even more dangerous by the need of its advocates to manufacture a political environment in which the setting aside of democratic norms can be presented as both reasonable and necessary.

The massive devaluation of the New Zealand Dollar of July 1984, followed a few months later by the crucial government decision to abandon the fixed exchange-rate policies of the previous thirty years, only became politically feasible in the context of a run on the New Zealand dollar – a crisis engineered by the very same people who now insisted that no viable alternatives to their preferred policies existed.

That this manufactured financial crisis led directly (and predictably) to a constitutional crisis, from which Muldoon emerged with his reputation even more blackened, bears testimony to the extraordinary skill of the string-pullers behind the scenes. Years later, when one of the Treasury officials most deeply involved in these events was asked whether or not the New Zealand business community of the time possessed either the talent or the will to have initiated the Rogernomics Revolution, he replied: “If we’d waited for them to do it, we’d be waiting still.”

It is hardly surprising that the men and women involved in what might best be described as the “heroic phase” of the neoliberal transformation of New Zealand, allowed their experiences to go to their heads. A small band of highly educated and (by their own lights) highly principled individuals had, through a judicious mixture of intelligence, audacity and raw courage, set an entire country on a radically different course.

They did not permit the near certainty that a clear majority of the population did not favour their new course slow them down for a second. As far as they were concerned, ordinary voters had no understanding of the profound issues confronting their country and were, therefore, undeserving of the veto power accorded them by classical democratic theory. The bureaucratic and political clique responsible for the revolutionary changes of Rogernomics were neoliberal Leninists who, like Lenin himself, had no intention of letting democracy get in the way of what had to be done.

As an effective method of securing radical change, “revolution from above” had much to commend it. That the Right embraced the new way of getting things done was hardly surprising, given its historical disdain for the dangerous distempers of democracy. For the Left, however, the embrace of elitism requires a more fulsome explanation. The most obvious being that elitism offered it a way out of the conundrum of an exploited working-class that consistently refused to abandon its reactionary social views and was altogether more receptive to the siren-song of radical nationalism than radical socialism.

When the Marxist student radical of the 1960s, Rudi Dutschke, came up with the idea of “a long march through the institutions”, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, consciously or unconsciously, he was substituting the acquisition of institutional power within capitalism for the creation of a mass working-class movement capable of confronting capitalism? His vision was of thousands of secret revolutionaries embedded in the professions, the civil service and the universities; all of them just waiting for the moment to transform capitalism’s institutions from within – so that capitalist society could be dissolved from above.

But, this optimistic vision reckoned without the power of capitalism’s institutional cultures to subvert the principles of even the most dedicated revolutionary. Dutschke failed to anticipate the risk that his Long Marchers might end up in a place where their radical social and cultural reforms, imposed on the masses from above, would end up strengthening capitalism rather than bringing it down.

Old-time revolutionaries might, themselves, have wondered about the apparent contradiction in Dutschke’s slogan. The original “Long March” was, of course, undertaken by Mao Zedong and what was left of his communist military forces. They did not, however, head off for the nearest school or university, government office or medical clinic. Their destination was the Chinese interior where they planned to regroup and refill their depleted ranks. Mao’s goal, at least until he was safely ensconced in power, was revolution from below – not above. That came later, in the form of the catastrophic “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”.

How then should the “Left” respond to the radical programme of social and cultural reforms about to be imposed upon the population from above by institutions of the New Zealand state? It is at least arguable that the changes planned by the Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Education are analogous to the economic reforms formulated by Treasury and Reserve Bank officials in the early-1980s. As with those measures, there is next to no evidence of ordinary voters clamouring for the changes proposed. In 2021, those calling for restrictions on free speech, or compulsory “Unmake Racism” courses for schoolchildren, are as few and far between as working-class voters calling on Labour to embrace Thatcherism in 1984.

Real left-wingers, today, emulating the real left-wingers of the 1980s, would require those advocating top-down revolution to first obtain a bottom-up mandate.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 2 March 2021.

Monday, 1 March 2021

Sunday Services.

Faith In The Essentials: Fenced-in, almost literally, by motorways. Located, seemingly permanently, at the bottom of politicians’ priority-lists. Heaped with praise for their cultural vibrancy, but not rewarded for it by the presence of white pupils in their public schools, South Aucklanders (like people of colour everywhere) provide their paler compatriots with all manner of “essential services” – at bargain basement rates.

IT APPEARED in my Post Office Box last week: a 48-page, text-heavy, publication calling itself “The Real News”. With Auckland once again at Alert Level 3 and the rest of New Zealand at Level 2, this publication should probably be classed as “Objectionable” by the Chief Censor. It is certainly dangerous enough. Filled with just about every conspiracy and anti-vaccination theory currently circulating about the Covid-19 Pandemic, The Real News comes as close to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre as I have encountered in a lifetime of defending free speech.

Just how dangerous efforts like The Real News can be was made clear by the Auckland City Councillor, Efeso Collins. Speaking to Jack Tame on TVNZ’s Q+A current affairs programme on Sunday morning – just three hours into the lockdown – Collins repeatedly warned the viewing audience that a significant number of the Pasifika people he represents believe in one or more of the many conspiracy theories currently circulating in South Auckland.

He warned of the difficulties that lay ahead in convincing his constituents to accept vaccination against Covid-19 – let alone comply with the rules of lockdown. Just a few hours after appearing on Q+A, Collins tweeted that he had received a number of messages urging him to “repent”, and calling upon “the church” to excommunicate him, for supporting a vaccine roll-out in South Auckland. Publications like The Real News, and the people who peddle their lies on social media, have a lot to answer for.

The comment that struck me most forcefully in Collins’ interview with Tame, however, was his almost throwaway statement that there were whole streets in South Auckland where English – as opposed to Samoan, Tongan or Hindi – was a foreign language. In other words, quite literally, the official messages concerning Covid-19 – and the citizen’s role in combatting it – are not being absorbed by a significant percentage of what is, almost certainly, the most volatile epidemiological environment in New Zealand.

South Auckland isn’t just the location of this country’s largest and most important airport. It is also the place where the goods that arrive in the country’s largest city from all over the world are warehoused. Though not many of Auckland’s better-off citizens often do, one can drive for kilometre after kilometre past these vast structures, out of whose high doors pass the big rigs loaded with everything New Zealand no longer makes.

It was the factories these warehouses have largely replaced that provided the original impetus for the Pacific Island migration that in the 1960s and 70s transformed Auckland into the largest Polynesian city on Earth. Though the car-assembly plants have long-since closed down, the Pasifika workforce remains.

Every night, from the suburbs of Otara, Mangere, East Tamaki, Papatoetoe and Manukau thousands of Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island, Maori and South Asian workers head into the heart of Auckland City to clean the offices of its business enterprises large and small. They perform the same role in its schools and universities, its hospitals, and – crucially – its old people’s homes. Yes, that’s right, the frail elderly – Covid’s favourite victims – are increasingly being cared for by members of the crowded migrant communities who reside, out of sight and (until now) out of mind, south of the Auckland isthmus, between the Tamaki River and Manukau Harbour.

Fenced-in, almost literally, by motorways. Located, seemingly permanently, at the bottom of politicians’ priority-lists. Heaped with praise for their cultural vibrancy, but not rewarded for it by the presence of white pupils in their public schools, South Aucklanders (like people of colour everywhere) provide their paler compatriots with all manner of “essential services” – at bargain basement rates.

The American sociologist, Mike Davis, has written a great deal about this phenomenon, most eloquently in his seminal study of Los Angeles, “City of Quartz”. More recently, however, his gaze has been drawn away from the spatial segregation of the races within the great cities of the United States and towards the sprawling super-cities of the Third World. Long before Covid, Davis recognised the terrifying potential of these vast, densely-populated communities to become the Petri-dishes for epidemiological disaster. In his terrifying 2006 study, “Planet of Slums”, Davis writes: “today’s megaslums are unprecedented incubators of new and reemergent diseases that can now travel across the world at the speed of a passenger jet.”

Touching down in South Auckland.

It stretches the imagination to believe that the people of South Auckland are unaware of the roles assigned to them by the dominant culture. Young Pasifika, Maori and South Asians, in particular, eager to participate in the excitement of twenty-first century urban life will feel keenly the limitations of opportunity implicit in their subordinate socio-economic situation. Unless delivered with extreme sensitivity, by people they trust, the messages of the New Zealand State are likely to be received with (at best) scepticism or (at worst) outright hostility. The stark contrast between what the dominant culture says – and what it does – ensures that such resistance is more-or-less baked-in.

If European New Zealanders – “Palangi” – are generally perceived as deficient in their understanding of, and respect for, the distinct and extremely proud cultures of the South Pacific, their receptiveness to suggestions that the pronouncements of politicians and public servants should not to be taken as the last word on reality is understandable.

Among the intensely pious communities of faith in South Auckland this unwillingness to be swayed by the ideas of godless scientists is very strong – as the “excommunication” demands alluded to in Efeso Collins’ tweet attest. Throw the Covid-related social media explosions of racist bullying into the mix, and the ease with which the pedlars of claims that Covid-19 is a hoax – or even a plot – are able to attract followers is readily explained.

If the growing Palangi consensus in favour of making the vaccination of South Aucklanders a priority is not to be perceived by its intended beneficiaries as confirmation of their status as essential – but unreliable – cogs in the big white machine, then Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues are going to have to radically re-jig their communications strategy.

Such an exercise would not only need to address meaningfully the many cultures of South Auckland, but also the easy assumptions and prejudices of the dominant culture itself. It will take more than words, to break through the resentment and suspicion of people who have been treated for far too long as means rather than ends. Deeds will be needed – as proof of the Government’s good faith. A sharp lift in wages and benefits might be a good start.

Without such gestures of good will, Full Court Press, publisher of The Real News, can be assured of a receptive audience for its new magazine. That cannot possibly be in the national interest. The same might also be said about the attitude of the woman I encountered in my local park, just a few hours after Alert Level 3 came into effect.

“I don’t mean to be judgemental, but …”, she growled, glaring balefully at the state house from which the unmistakeable harmonies of Pasifika hymn-singing were rising. For this Epsom matron, the music was evidence that a very clear violation of the Level 3 rules was in progress. I drew two rather different conclusions: that faith could never be dictated to by science – no matter how incontrovertible; and that this problem – if problem it was – had just moved a lot closer to home.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 1 March 2021.

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Suffer The Little Children: Neoliberalism’s Attack On Local Democracy Intensifies.

Under The Influence Of The "Governance" Kool-Aid: The furore surrounding Mayor Andy Foster's "review" of the Wellington City Council's "governance" is but the latest example of the quite conscious delegitimization, and sinister re-framing, of spirited political opposition and debate as irresponsible, immature and “dysfunctional”. It shows how very far from the processes of freedom and democracy New Zealand’s neoliberal political class, and their bureaucratic enablers, are determined to take us.

MAYOR ANDY FOSTER’S surprise attack on local democracy in Wellington left half his Council feeling dazed and confused – as intended. The authoritarian flourish of getting all those around the council table to indicate their support for his “review”, by rising to their feet, was creepy in the extreme. Nothing could have demonstrated more clearly the cult-like quality of neoliberalism’s faith in “governance”.

This latest example of the quite conscious delegitimization, and sinister re-framing, of spirited political opposition and debate as irresponsible, immature and “dysfunctional” shows how very far from the processes of freedom and democracy New Zealand’s neoliberal political class, and their bureaucratic enablers, are determined to take us.

The governance virus is not confined to Wellington. While Foster was springing his surprise in the capital, the Invercargill City Council was being enjoined to endorse a code of conduct vis-à-vis the news media which would have reduced the representatives of Invercargill’s 56,000 residents to a bunch of happy-clappy good-news-dispensers, with nary a harsh word for anyone or anything associated with the running of New Zealand’s southern-most city.

Councillors were warned off saying anything that might damage Invercargill’s “brand” in the eyes of its customers (otherwise known as citizens). Those wishing to say anything in public were encouraged to first run it past the Council’s (unelected) communications team. It was very clear, however, that the Council bureaucracy viewed councillors as naughty little children who should be seen as infrequently as possible – and heard from not at all.

We can all take solace from the fact that once the elected representatives of the people had recovered from these gratuitous assaults on their rights and duties, and recovered the power of speech, a goodly number of them told the governance cultists to stand back and stand down.

Invercargill’s Mayor, the redoubtable Tim Shadbolt, made it clear that the proposed code-of-conduct was both ultra vires (i.e. beyond the legal authority of its proponents to either impose or enforce) and an unconscionable attempt to prevent councillors from fulfilling their democratic duties to the electors. Many of his fellow councillors indicated their strong agreement. They would not be bound by this thoroughly undemocratic attempt to limit their freedom of speech.

In Wellington, the left-wing Labour and Green councillors who had been kept “out of the loop” by the Mayor and his cronies, soon bounced back into action. They pointed to the fact that the Mayor had informed some councillors of his intention to launch a review of the city’s governance – but not others – as symptomatic of his decision-making-by-surprise political style.

Rather than leading his fellow councillors towards consensus by means of genuine consultation and open debate, Foster appears to see his role as doing everything within his power to give effect to policies favoured by Council staff. Even though introducing proposals, unseen by councillors deemed uncooperative, at the very last moment of the decision-making process, is hardly conducive to the maintenance of political civility around the Council Table!

It is, however, emblematic of the whole governance ethos. Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between ‘governance’ and ‘government’ is to recognise governance as a noun and government as a verb.

Governance is the name given to the entire suite of neoliberal decision-making processes: the whole professional, credentialed, expert hierarchy of policy-advisers; people who consider themselves “best qualified to know” what must be done.

Government is what those whose duty it is to make decisions actually do. And that is determined not only by their personal judgement, but also by their understanding of what the people who made them decision-makers need and want.

Bringing those needs and wants into some sort of rough harmony is what democratic politics is all about. It cannot happen without spirited and open debate, and spirited and open debate cannot happen unless the people’s elected representatives are free to speak their minds.

But this is precisely what neoliberalism fears the most: the intrusion of popular needs and wants into a capitalist system which depends for its proper functioning on human needs and wants manifesting themselves exclusively in the purchases of consumers. When politicians allow the decisions of an elected body to over-ride market signals, then the proper functioning of free-market capitalism must inevitably be deranged. One collection of interests will find itself in a position to dominate another – to the ultimate disadvantage of all interests. As far as the neoliberals are concerned, democracy and capitalism are incompatible.

This explains why words like “dysfunctional” and “irresponsible” get thrown about the moment the political noise rises above the low murmur of dignified agreement. When a councillor stands up and defies the comfortable owners of Edwardian villas on behalf of rack-rented citizens in need of large-scale social housing developments. Or, when a veteran of the sixties youth rebellion openly manoeuvres for his city’s largest employer to be kept going – regardless of all the market signals flashing red.

In the ears of the neoliberals, passionate policy debates register as little more than the whooping and chest-beating of Chimpanzees: mindless status displays; idiotic battles for recognition and dominance. Uncontrolled democracy drowns out the signals of the marketplace, making it impossible for the advice of those with the expertise needed to decode its messages to be heard.

That is why, for the past 35 years, neoliberals have been moving as much of the machinery of government as far out of the reach of all these posturing political apes as possible. It’s why the Local Government Act is no longer about making sure that the interests of residents and ratepayers are faithfully represented, but about reducing the opportunities for those same residents and ratepayers to defend themselves from the decisions of “The Council”. It’s why councillors are paid so much money. Why departments called “Democracy Services” are there to tell them what they can and cannot do. Why Codes-of-Conduct are drawn up to make sure that they behave with all the strict decorum of timorous maiden aunts.

The scariest aspect of this whole shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’ is that it’s working. “Politicians” – especially local government politicians – are derided and despised. Their “antics” are reported unfavourably in the news media. When questioned by reporters in the street, people dutifully urge their representatives to stop behaving like little children and get on with running the city properly. Newspaper editors write condescendingly about the need to get some adults in the room. In short, of the need to keep politics out of politics.

I will, therefore, be very surprised if Mayor Andy Foster’s “review” doesn’t uncover an urgent need to do all these things. I would, therefore, ask you to forgive me if, at some point in the future, when Wellingtonians are complaining loudly about their much beloved library being replaced by Amazon, I give in to temptation – and tell them to stop behaving like little children.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 26 February 2021.