Friday 14 June 2024

The Illusion of Power: How Local Government Bureaucrats Overawe Democratically-Elected Councillors..

The Democratic Façade Of Local Government: Our district and city councillors are democratically elected to govern their communities on one very strict condition – that they never, ever, under any circumstances, attempt to do so.

A DISINTEGRATION OF LOYALTIES on the Wellington City Council has left Mayor Tory Whanau without a reliable majority. The cause of this disintegration has been identified by those whose loyalty has been tested to destruction as Council Staff. Not only do WCC employees and consultants stand accused of pushing aggressively for the sale of the Council’s shares in Wellington Airport, but also of intimidating and threatening Councillors opposed to the proposed divestment. If these accusations are proved, then serious questions will need to be raised concerning the authenticity of local democracy right across New Zealand.

But what could possibly persuade a councillor that he or she was not free to vote as they pleased? These men and women are the citizens’ elected representatives, so, surely, the opinions of the Council’s employees may be heeded, or rejected, according to the best judgement of the politicians it is their function to serve. Bluntly, Council staff and their expertise should be on tap – not on top!

Certainly, that is the way it used to be – back in the days when the elected councillors were served by a Town Clerk, assisted by a small but highly competent staff. Back then, no Town Clerk worthy of the name would have dreamed of intimidating or threatening the citizens’ representatives. The very idea would have left the Mayor with little choice but to send his Town Clerk packing. Indeed, any failure to punish such an open affront to local democracy would have left the electors with little choice but to send the Mayor packing at the next election.

Today, however, elected councillors are served by a bureaucracy over which, in practical terms, they exercise no effective control. Theoretically, the Chief Executive of the Council is obliged to give effect to the broad policy objectives identified by the citizen’s representatives. In reality, however, councillors are strongly discouraged from interfering directly with the CEO’s interpretation of his or her received policy priorities. “Operational” matters are the CEO’s preserve – and councillors are legally forbidden from adopting a “hands-on” approach to the governance of their city. Indeed, most councils employ a “Democracy Manager” to make damn sure that the councillors keep their hands off!

No longer can an aggrieved citizen pick up the phone to her local councillor and complain long and loud about the dirty great pothole at the entrance to her street. Neither is it possible for the Councillor to pick up the phone to the foreman of the road gang that fills in the potholes on the aggrieved citizen’s side of town. Were he to be so bold, he would receive a decidedly icy call from the Council’s Democracy Manager. In the course of this “discussion” he would be forcefully reminded that he is legally prohibited from involving himself in “operational matters”. And the pothole? Ah, well, its repair would be added to the extremely long list of potholes that a privately-owned company, contracted to the Council, has been tasked with filling. Best guess? Sometime before the century’s end.

So, right from the get-go, elected representatives are encouraged to see themselves as people who not only should, but must, keep themselves well above the fray of day-to-day administration. What’s more, as they are earnestly contemplating staying above the fray, the Democracy Manager will be introducing them to a document called the “Councillors’ Code of Conduct”. At the heart of this code is a strict series of prohibitions against saying anything unpleasant or critical about the Mayor, their fellow councillors, the electors, or – and this is emphasised strongly – the Council Staff.

Less emphasised is the fact that such documents are not legally enforceable, and that it is not compulsory to sign them. What the unwary councillor will likely fall prey to, in such circumstances, is the irresistible moral suasion that inevitably engulfs anyone who is being “asked” to sign a document that everybody else is signing.

After all, what reason would a councillor have for not signing a document intended to ensure that council meetings proceed amicably and without rancour? A refusal to sign the Code of Conduct will be construed as proof of the noncompliant councillor’s intention to cause trouble. And, being branded a troublemaker in the first week of one’s three year term is unlikely to strike most local government politicians as a good start.

To re-cap: the votes have hardly been counted before the elected councillors are being told that while they are perfectly entitled to talk about policy, they must, on no account, attempt to implement it. And, while they’re talking about policy, or receiving the reports of those who are empowered to implement it (which usually detail how little implementation has actually been accomplished) these same councillors are not allowed to get angry, call each other names, compare colleagues unfavourably with lickspittles and cowards, or – and this cannot be emphasised too strongly – in any way criticise or abuse Council Staff.

The message is crystal clear: As a city councillor you have no real power and should not pretend, to anyone, that you do. It’s the Council staff that really run things. They’re the ones who keep things operating smoothly. They know what’s going on and what needs to be done. Some staff members have PhDs, others have worked successfully in the private sector. How many councillors can boast such expertise? Not many – if any. So, what should they do? That’s right, they should keep their ears open and their mouths shut. If you want to get along as a city councillor, then you’ve got to learn to go along.

And, if none of this works? If there are still a handful of councillors who still feel obliged to heed their own best judgement about where the interests of the city’s residents lie, and to follow the dictates of their conscience. What do Council staff do then?

Well, then, the Council’s lawyers corner the unruly councillors and proceed to spell out for them what they insist is their precarious legal position. Declaring one’s opposition to a plan to sell down the Council’s shares in public utilities, for example, and voting accordingly, could easily result in commercial interests suing them for failing to act impartially. Any proposition brought before the Council, these lawyers will insist, must be judged on its objective merits. Those who have declared their position prior to the Council’s official deliberation cannot possibly expect to cast a vote. They must, instead, recuse themselves of any involvement in the decision. In fact, it would be most improper if they were even seated at the Council Table when discussion is taking place – lest they unduly influence the outcome.

In other words, our district and city councillors are democratically elected to govern their communities on one very strict condition – that they never, ever, under any circumstances, attempt to do so.

The three young progressive councillors who have announced their unwillingness to continue getting along by going along with Mayor Whanau should be hailed as heroes. Against all the odds, they have retained sufficient self-respect to say “This far, Tory, but no further!”

What’s more, if their colleagues in Central Government really wanted to help conscientious and courageous councillors across New Zealand, then they would legislate to outlaw any and all attempts by local government bureaucrats and/or contractors to intimidate, threaten, or by any other means overawe, those elected to serve the public interest, and enforce the people’s will.

But, don’t hold your breath.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project substack page on Thursday, 13 June 2024.

Monday 10 June 2024

Numbers Game.

Respect Existence, Or Expect Resistance? There may well have been 50,000 pairs of feet “Marching For Nature” down Auckland’s Queen Street on Saturday afternoon, but the figure that impresses the Coalition Government is the 1,450,000 pairs of Auckland feet that were somewhere else.

IN THE ERA OF DRONES and Artificial Intelligence, how hard can it be to provide an accurate count of protesters? Knowing how many Aucklanders were willing to make the effort and join the Greenpeace-organised “March For Nature” on Saturday afternoon (8/6/24) would make the calculation of its significance so much easier. If the figure of 20,000 offered by some participants is correct, then the turnout was good, but not spectacular. But, if the old rule-of-thumb which reckons that if Queen Street is tightly-packed with protesters, from Aotea Square to Britomart, then you’re looking at turnout well in excess of 30,000 citizens – then that would be an excellent result.

In earlier times, reports of Britomart filling-up as Aotea Square was still emptying-out would have sparked estimates of 50,000 protesters – a monster march. Certainly, some of the photos taken on Saturday have that look about them. Either way, Greenpeace deserves a solid pat on the back for its ability to mobilise its supporters.

But, does any of it matter? Because even a march of 50,000 protesters, out of an Auckland population of 1.5 million, would struggle to satisfy the definition of a “revolutionary crowd”. To get some idea of what that looks like, check out the huge demonstrations overwhelming the Hungarian capital, Budapest, in the run-up to the EU parliamentary elections. (6-9/6/24) It’s been a while since New Zealanders turned out in those sort of numbers for a political cause – although the School Strike 4 Climate demonstrations of 2019 came close.

The answer to the question “Does any of it matter?” delivered by Resources Minister, Shane Jones, less than 24 hours after 20,000-50,000 protesters marched down Queen Street, was brutal: “Government to reverse oil-exploration ban.”

The decision to cease oil and gas prospecting, announced by Jacinda Ardern and Megan Woods in 2018, ranks as one of Greenpeace New Zealand’s proudest achievements. By reversing that decision, almost before the paint on the “March For Nature” placards was dry, Jones and his Coalition colleagues were telling Norman, Greenpeace, the Greens, and all the putative defenders of “Freddie the Frog”, that they could stick their placards where the sun don’t shine. The only slogan registering with “Matua Shane”, for the foreseeable future, will be Sarah Palin’s fossil-fuel classic: “Drill, baby, drill!”

“Natural gas is critical to keeping our lights on and our economy running, especially during peak electricity demand and when generation dips because of more intermittent sources like wind, solar and hydro,” said the Minister. “I want a considered discussion about how we use our natural resources to improve the security and affordability of energy and resources supplies, stimulate regional economic development opportunities, and increase New Zealand’s self-sufficiency to protect against volatile international markets.”

But, “considered discussion” isn’t really on anybody’s agenda at the moment. Jones has a long-standing and deep-seated contempt for the people he dismisses as “greenies”. In 2014 he told the NZ Herald’s Claire Trevett that “he once told Labour’s leadership he would not be a minister if he was ‘second fiddle’ to [then] Green co-leader Russel Norman as deputy prime minister or in a senior economic role.”

That contempt continues to be passionately reciprocated by virtually the entire environmental movement. Unsurprisingly, the response from Greenpeace to Jones’s media release was blunt:

“Shane Jones is dreaming. The oil exploration industry won’t risk coming back to Aotearoa because they know that it’s not worth coming all this way to fail again”, sneered its spokesperson (and seasoned exploration disrupter) Niamh O’Flynn. “For nearly a decade under the Key Government, together with iwi and hapū the length of Aotearoa, we fought tirelessly to push oil company after oil company out of the country and we succeeded. Oil and gas won’t win in Aotearoa.”

The political parties responsible for the original ban, Labour and the Greens were no less direct:

“Minister Jones is hell-bent on ignoring options of energy that are future-proofed and up to global standards,” said the co-imposer of the 2018 ban, Labour’s Megan Woods.

“This is a manufactured crisis. We know there are reliable and cost-effective energy sources available to New Zealand that can be used without destroying the country. New Zealand is being taken backwards. This government is being cruel to future generations, this will take decades to undo – if the damage can be undone at all.”

Green Party co-leader, Chloe Swarbrick, was equally uncompromising:

“The science is clear that fossil fuels must stay in the ground to limit global warming within 1.5 degrees of warming. This Government’s actions are anti-science and show a flagrant disregard for international climate commitments which could lead to huge costs down the line.”

Swarbrick also had words for the Prime Minister, Christopher Luxon:

“The climate crisis is the defining issue of our time. If Christopher Luxon is unwilling to look in the mirror and deal with the gap between his rhetoric and the reality of his government’s actions, the least he could do is face up to the New Zealanders he’s selling down the river.”

What, then, is the explanation for the Coalition Government’s confidence that neither the environmentalists’ political rhetoric, nor their feet on the street, pose a serious threat to the Coalition’s electoral chances? The answer is bound-up with Jones’s conspicuous reference to “keeping the lights on”.

National, Act and NZ First have convinced themselves (or allowed pollsters and focus groups to do the job for them) that a very large number of voters have a great deal in common with those raised-in-the-faith Catholics who genuflect reflexively before the holy imagery of their religion without giving the gesture much, if any, thought. Like conservatives the world over, New Zealand’s Coalition Government is of the view that although, if asked, most ordinary voters will happily mouth environmental slogans, considerably fewer are willing to freeze in the dark for them.

Minister Jones’s wager is that if it’s a choice between watching Netflix, powering-up their cellphones, and snuggling-up in front of the heater, or, keeping the fossil fuels that power our extraordinary civilisation “in the ground”, so that Freddie the Frog’s habitat can remain pristine and unmolested, then their response will be the same as the Minister’s: “Bye, bye Freddie!” No matter what people may say; no matter how superficially sincere their genuflections to the “crisis” of Climate Change; when the lights go out, all they really want is for them to come back on again. Crises far away, and crises in the future, cannot compete with crises at home – right here, right now.

The Transport Minister, Simeon Brown, knows how this works. Everyone supports public transport and cycle-ways, right up until the moment their holiday journey slows to a snail’s pace among endless lines of road cones, or a huge pothole wrecks their new car’s suspension.

Idealism versus realism: that’s the way the parties of the Right frame this issue; and they are betting their electoral future on the assumption that the realists outnumber the idealists. There may well have been 50,000 pairs of feet “Marching For Nature” down Auckland’s Queen Street on Saturday afternoon, but the figure that impresses the Coalition Government is the 1,450,000 pairs of Auckland feet that were somewhere else.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 10 June 2024.

Friday 7 June 2024

Māori Cannot Re-Write New Zealand’s Constitution By Stealth.

The Kotahitanga Parliament 1897: A Māori Parliament – at least in the guise of a large and representative body dedicated to describing the shape of New Zealand’s future from a Māori perspective – would be a very good idea.

THE DEMAND for a “Māori Parliament” needs to be carefully unpicked. Some Pakeha, thoroughly alarmed by the incendiary rhetoric surrounding the proposition have taken to muttering darkly about “sedition” and “treason”. This is not a helpful line of reasoning to pursue since a threat, if it is to be counted real, requires a credible means of delivery, and, as far as we know, Te Pāti Māori has little to put in the field beyond the thousands of peaceful protesters it has already deployed. But, if the proposition is not to topple New Zealand’s present political system and replace it with one more reflective of Māori tikanga, then what, exactly, do these Māori constitutional architects have in mind?

Crucially, given the fundamental importance of the issues under review, that remains far from clear – at least to most Pakeha. This is not accidental. Indeed, the Māori reticence to openly discuss constitutional reforms with Non-Māori is entirely deliberate. Although constitutional discussions have been taking place within Te Ao Māori for decades, and in spite of the fact that the discussions and debates of the past five years have brought at least the scaffolding of an “Aotearoan” constitution into much sharper focus, Māori are extremely reluctant to discuss their constitutional ideas with the rest of New Zealand.

Their unwillingness is entirely understandable. Most New Zealanders’ understanding of the constitutional instruments by which they are governed is pretty hazy. They know that their country is a monarchy, although an alarming number of them do not appear to appreciate that it is a constitutional monarchy. Many are convinced that the King retains the power to – and should – intervene directly in the nation’s political affairs. They will similarly affirm that their country is a democracy, even if far more of them than is good for any democracy utterly despise the politicians they elect, and would happily reduce their numbers by half. Most Kiwis are confident that they “know their rights”, but are not at all sure it is wise to make them available to everybody.

The sheer scale of this constitutional ignorance, on full display during the occupation of Parliament Grounds in 2022, is frightening. The capacity of New Zealanders to transform themselves, from groovy anarchist collective to howling lynch mob, in no more time than it takes to shout “Hold the Line!”, was daunting enough for educated middle-class Pakeha. For those seeking to advance the cause of New Zealand’s indigenous minority, it can only have been profoundly discouraging.

The question they’ll be asking themselves and their fellow reformers is a brutal one: If Maori cast their constitutional pearls before these pig-ignorant Pakeha, would they have even the faintest notion of what Māori were on about? Assuming that, among those pearls, were the concepts roughed-out in the He Puapua Report, and the institutions sketched by the late Moana Jackson in his Matike Mai paper, the answer would be an emphatic “No!” A new constitution, predicated on the twin principles of Decolonisation and Indigenisation, or, as most Pakeha would instantly rephrase the proposition: a constitution based on race; simply will not fly.

That the mainstream news media seem equally uneasy about spelling-out the ramifications of the sort of reforms favoured by Māori intellectuals is strongly suggestive that editors, too, fear the reaction of “Boomer Cracker Settlers”. Though younger political journalists will eagerly affirm that Pakeha New Zealand has moved on from the sentiments of Don Brash and the Iwi vs Kiwi election of 2005, their bosses seem remarkably skittish about in putting the Millennials’ confidence to the test.

Considering the huge response non-mainstream media outlets, websites and bloggers almost always receive whenever they publish, broadcast or post on the Treaty of Waitangi, decolonisation and/or indigenisation issues, the reticence of mainstream journalists makes a kind of sense.

If, for example, the big media outlets had opted to present the developing story concerning the Waipareira Trust, Te Pāti Māori, and the alleged use of Te Whatu Ora and Census data in the 2023 General Election, in the same way mainstream journalists reported Māori issues twenty years ago, then the public response would likely be crushingly negative. All the more reason to exercise discretion, the journalists of today would argue. If you can’t write something positive about the tangata whenua, then don’t write anything at all.

But this simply will not do. New Zealanders dwindling faith in the mainstream news media will not be restored by such stratagems – especially when so few other New Zealanders are afforded such lavish media protection.

Nor is it possible to bring about significant constitutional change whilst refusing to engage with the overwhelming majority of those who will, ultimately, be required to live with it. And yet, some Māori radicals are already warning that the movement towards an indigenous constitution is being “infiltrated” by “Kūpapa [Crown supporting] Māori”, and celebrating the fact that most of the gritty constitutional discussion is taking place in Te Reo. Such attitudes are certain to prove counter-productive. An already wary Pakeha population will simply become further convinced that Māori are keeping vital information from them.

Certainly, the conduct of the Labour Government between 2020 and 2023 convinced many conservative Pakeha that, in acknowledgement of the fact that consent from the Pakeha majority was unlikely to be forthcoming, significant constitutional change was going to be imposed, piecemeal, from the top down. Lots of little changes, introduced by legislation, would, by 2040 (the bicentenary of Te Tiriti o Waitangi) have added up to really big change – and all of it secured without having to put a conventional constitutional document to the people for ratification by means of a binding referendum.

That’s not the way to change the minds of your fellow citizens. Māori cannot re-write New Zealand’s constitution by stealth. Change will only happen by Māori being open and honest about what they are hoping to achieve, and by giving Non-Māori plenty of good reasons to help them. In this regard, a Māori Parliament – at least in the guise of a large and representative body dedicated to describing the shape of New Zealand’s future from a Māori perspective – would be a very good idea.

Who knows, after observing the way it contributed to building a more understanding and inclusive society, New Zealanders might even vote to incorporate it into what their children are already calling the bi-cultural constitution of Aotearoa-New Zealand.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project's substack page on Friday, 7 June 2024.

Nobody Move: Ageing Boomers, Laurie & Les, Talk Politics.

So long as we live in a democracy, economic policy can never be anything other than social-democratic.

“HEH!”, snorted Laurie, as he waved his debit card over the EFTPOS machine. “Same price as last week. I guess budgets aren’t what they used to be.”

“I wouldn’t know,” replied the young barman, wearily, “my memories don’t go back that far.”

“Heh!”, Laurie snorted again. “I keep forgetting that half the world’s younger than I am.”

Depositing the two brimming glasses of ale on the table in the corner, Laurie seats himself, smiles wanly at his drinking companion, Les, and sighs.

“Remember when Budgets were announced at 7:30 at night, after all the shops had shut, so that people couldn’t rush out as stock up on booze and cigarettes before Parliament raised the excise taxes?”

“I certainly do,” Les replied, “and in those days nobody pretended to be doing it for the nation’s health. The nation’s soul, perhaps, since drinking and smoking were still regarded as sinful by a goodly chunk of the population. But the nation’s health? Nah! Finance ministers just needed the revenue.”

“Anyway, the price of this ale hasn’t changed since last week. So Nicola Willis’s budget can’t be all bad.”

“Even if the excise tax has gone up, Laurie, I doubt if this place can afford to pass it on to its customers. You must have noticed that this old pub ain’t exactly bursting at the seams anymore, not the way it was before Covid. Time was, patrons were three deep at the bar. Now the bar staff are all standing idle, face down, fiddling with their phones.”

“So, what did you make of Nicola’s budget? What would you give it out of ten?”

“I’d give it a flat five, Laurie. Not because it was mediocre, but because, when push comes to shove, finance ministers don’t have a lot of choices about what they include in a budget. Truth is, mate, I’d give the same mark out of ten to every budget since Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets” in 1991.”

“Crikey! That’s not the answer I was expecting – not at all. What would you have given Richardson’s effort, then?”

“Ten out of ten.”

“Aww, come on, Les, an old socialist like you? You’re pulling my leg.”

“Not at all. I’ve given that mark to Richardson because at least she tried to break the mould. She made a genuine attempt to reset the New Zealand government’s spending priorities. Was it a harsh budget? Yes, it was. Was it a cruel budget? Indisputably – to a degree not seen since the 1930s. But, she was determined to change the game, and, for a little while, she did.”

“As I recall, Les, all hell broke loose after the Mother of All Budgets. Voter trust in the two main parties plummeted. Jim Anderton and Winston Peters powered ahead in the polls.”

“That wasn’t the half of it, Laurie. National won the 1993 election by the skin of its teeth with just 35 percent of the vote. Jim Bolger’s government clung-on thanks to the vagaries of first-past-the-post – which was, of course, voted out of existence in favour of MMP. Bolger had no choice except to sack Richardson – a blood sacrifice to appease an incandescent electorate. Not surprisingly, no finance minister since has dared to reprioritise the state’s obligations.”

“So it would seem. Nicola’s spending and borrowing more than Grant Robertson – hardly the best of starts for a right-wing coalition government.”

“And that’s the whole story in a nutshell, Laurie. So long as we live in a democracy, economic policy can never be anything other than social-democratic. Oh, sure, it may be a penny-pinching social democracy when the Right is in power, and a free-spending social-democracy when the Left’s seated on the Treasury Benches. But, the party, or coalition of parties, that attempts to starve the poor, or make us pay for health care, or our kid’s education, will be voted out of office before you can chant “What’s the story filthy Tory? – Out! Out! Out!”

“And the really big problems? Like New Zealand’s lousy productivity, its huge infrastructure deficit, its economy that’s far too dependent on what comes out of cows’ udders? Are they untouchable, too?”

“Did you ever see that old ‘Counting Crows’ video? The one with the woman carrying the sign that read: ‘Nobody move and nobody gets hurt.’? That’s us, Laurie. Nobody’s moving.”

“And everybody’s getting hurt.”

This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 June 2024.

In Search Of Unity.

Kotahitanga: New Zealand’s future belongs to those who do not fear a nation carved out of unity and solidarity, and are willing to trust the carvers. Some New Zealanders will be required to step up, and others, perhaps for the first time in their lives, will be expected to step back.

BUDGET WEEK has thrown up two very different examples of political representation. In the House of Representatives what we have witnessed is the intentionally divisive squaring-off of Government and Opposition. Unity is not a realistic possibility under our system of representative democracy.

On the streets, however, New Zealanders have witnessed something very different. On the streets, the call from one of the largest indigenous minorities on earth (approximately 20 percent of the population) has been for “Kotahitanga” – unity. What’s more, among those for whom indigeneity constitutes the core of their identity, that unity is not only possible – it is likely.

What is it that causes peoples raised in the traditions of representative democracy to accept disunity? The most optimistic answer is that what many critics condemn as disunity isn’t disunity at all. The debates in Parliament, according to the optimists, are intended to improve the legislative process by requiring the governing majority to test its policies against the objections and/or proposed alternatives of the minority. What some perceive as petty squabbles are, by this reckoning, vital contributors to a much broader and more important unity – that of the citizenry’s faith and trust in the democratic system.

That’s the theory, anyway. But it is by no means certain that a majority of citizens are disposed to accept it. Many people find representative democracy’s angry parliamentary exchanges unedifying – to the point of being disgraceful. Many blame the party system for fostering and perpetuating socio-political divisions. They find it difficult to believe that ordinary, decent, citizens would not, given half-a-chance, coalesce naturally around a programme dedicated to the public good. Their instincts tell them that a political system which deliberately divides the nation is a liability, not an asset.

In the context of New Zealand’s democratic traditions, a cynic might point to the fact that between the mid-1850s and the mid-1870s – the period when the spirit of party and faction was suppressed by a franchise limited to Pakeha male property-owners (joined, after 1867, by four Māori Members of Parliament) – the spirit of unity was much more in evidence. Property-owners do, after all, share a unifying inclination to protect what they own from any political movement disposed to redistribute it among those who own next-to-nothing.

By the 1870s, the gravest threat posed to the “private” property of Pakeha New Zealanders was from dispossessed hapu and iwi. Indeed, nothing is more likely to create unity among Pakeha than the prospect of Māori coming together, under the aegis of the Treaty of Waitangi, to reclaim the collective property which the Pakeha, largely by virtue of controlling the Legislature, had empowered themselves to seize. It is no accident that the class antagonisms that would shape New Zealand for the next 100 years did not emerge as a significant historical driver until the Māori had been stripped of the power to defend their resources.

So, if our political system is, fundamentally, a process driven by the see-sawing struggle between those who own a disproportionate amount of property, and those who seek an equitable portion of the life-chances such ownership confers, then is the realisation of social and political unity a goal restricted to soft-headed idealists and hard-hearted revolutionaries?

As is her wont, the Goddess of History offers no easy or comforting answers. She will tell you that social and political unity is possible, but only when a nation is threatened with subjugation and/or annihilation. When an enemy threatens to destroy all that a people holds dear, then all other quarrels are momentarily, at least, set aside.

To the crowd assembled outside his royal palace on 1 August 1914, as war loomed over Europe, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, declared:

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the expression of your loyalty and your esteem. When it comes to war, all parties cease and we are all brothers.”

In New Zealand, too, the unity generated by the outbreak of the First World War brought Government and Opposition together in a coalition that would last until 1919. Something very similar happened at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. And, although the global Covid-19 Pandemic did not inspire a coalition government, it certainly produced a high level of political co-operation between all the political parties. Economic measures that would normally have engendered bitter opposition were introduced quickly, and largely without rancour.

How far away that crisis-induced unity seemed on Thursday, 30 May 2024 when Nicola Willis delivered her first budget to the House of Representatives. Those controlling a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth would have been well-satisfied with the economic and social policies of the conservative coalition government. Those whose life-chances were being limited by those same policies looked to the opposition parties for succour. Very soon, all the ideological binaries were on display.

When it came to solving New Zealand’s problems, division and rancour were more in evidence on the floor of the House than unity and solidarity.

Not so on the streets, or in Parliament Grounds. There it was all unity and solidarity. Under the aegis of Te Tiriti, Māori from all over Aotearoa had gathered in defence of everything they hold dear: their language, their mana, and the rights guaranteed to them 184 years ago at Waitangi. In the eyes of those thousands of marchers, the Pakeha colonisers are, once again, making war on their people, and, once again, the spirit of Kotahitanga is breathing upon the flames in the flax-roots.

On display across New Zealand on Thursday, 30 May 2024 was an indigenous people that still has faith in itself, and continues to believe that its hopes are not vain.

How different is the picture inside the Pakeha nation. There, the National Party, Act, and NZ First have thrown up a defensive palisade around the interests that elected them. Labour, the Greens and Te Pati Māori, far from walking forth gladly to find, in the words of James K. Baxter, “the angry poor who are my nation”, keep faith only with the thin social strata that long ago reconciled itself to the administration of a system it does not control, and will never own.

New Zealand’s future belongs to those who do not fear a nation carved out of unity and solidarity, and are willing to trust the carvers. Some New Zealanders will be required to step up, and others, perhaps for the first time in their lives, will be expected to step back.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 3 June 2024.

Friday 31 May 2024

The Disease That Didn't Spread.

Not Wanted: What is truly astonishing about Pukekohe is that it was the only place in New Zealand where the vicious racism endemic to the other Anglo-states took hold with sufficient force to construct a permanent system of overt racial oppression and humiliation. At a moment in history when Western racial hierarchies were being endorsed as fact by “racial scientists” the world over, and the “science” of Eugenics was sterilising thousands of “substandard human stock”, it is actually quite remarkable that the Pukekohe disease did not spread.

TELEVISION NEW ZEALAND’s re-screening of the documentaries it commissioned from Kindred Films in 2022 continues. Last night (26/5/24) it was “No Māori Allowed”, the bitter story of the racist South Auckland town of Pukekohe. Co-produced by Megan Jones and Reikura Kahi, and directed by Corinna Hunziker, the documentary was awarded the Best Documentary prize at the 2022 New Zealand Television Awards.

Only the most churlish and, dare I say it, racist, of viewers would refuse to acknowledge “No Māori Allowed” as anything other than a deeply moving documentary. Important, too, not merely for describing the profoundly shameful state of affairs that prevailed in Pukekohe, a town less than an hour’s drive from New Zealand’s largest city, for the best part of a century; but also for making clear the challenges facing those determined to write New Zealand’s history.

As the documentary makes clear, history is not to be found in the official archives alone; nor does it dwell exclusively in newspaper cuttings and old photographs. History also resides in the minds and bodies of human-beings. Bitter memories of awful events, some in the minds of the living, some inherited from the dead, also count as history. They are triggers of pain and suffering from which the men, women and children who experienced them have a right to be protected. Good reason for those with no personal or familial investment in the pain and suffering exposed by their historical researches to tread extremely carefully.

But if the results of historical research can evoke powerful responses from those on the receiving end of past injustices, that is all the more reason to be cautious and respectful in unfolding the historical record. Painting Pukekohe’s racism as a dark and dirty secret, which the rest of New Zealand was only too willing to keep under wraps, is a grossly unfair distortion of the truth which the makers of “No Māori Allowed” should not have encouraged.

The Pukekohe “colour bar” was known right across New Zealand: not only while it was in operation, but also following its demise in the early-1960s. It was the subject of newspaper articles and sermons, most of which were sharply critical of Pukekohe’s Pakeha townsfolk and their market-gardening neighbours. This criticism only became more acute as the civil rights movements in both the southern states of the USA and South Africa began to make headlines around the world in the 1950s and 60s.

The disgust most New Zealanders felt at Pukekohe’s overt racial prejudice was prompted in no small part by the then widely shared belief that New Zealand’s race relations were the best in the world. That Pukekohe’s Pakeha were benighted enough to have borrowed the obnoxious social-engineering of Mississippi and South Africa in a country where inter-racial marriage was commonplace, and expressions of racial solidarity had become the stuff of legend, was regarded as offensively perverse.

Had Pukekohe not heard of the Manners Street Riot of 1943? Did they not know that it was precipitated by American Marines who attempted to ban Māori servicemen from the Wellington Services Club? The response of both the Māori and Pakeha present was to tell the Americans to stick their Jim Crow expectations where the sun don’t shine. When the Marines started taking off their service belts, preparatory to teaching these uppity Kiwis some old-fashioned Southern manners, all hell broke loose. At its peak as many as a thousand soldiers and hundreds of civilians were brawling up and down Manners and surrounding streets. Only with considerable difficulty did the Military Police of both sides bring the bruising conflict under control.

Not that the Pakeha of the first half of the Twentieth Century were “progressives” in the modern sense. Many of them had grown up believing in the essential equality of Māori and Pakeha for the very simple reason that, according to “science”, both peoples belonged to the “Aryan” race.

In a book entitled “The Aryan Māori”, Edward Tregear, a leading civil servant, argued that, far back in the mists of time, the Māori and European peoples shared a common Aryan ancestor. For decades this “noble lie” (as Plato would probably have called it) was taught to New Zealand school-children as anthropological fact. Inter-marriage on a scale that would have scandalised any other settler population in the British Empire was accepted here because Tregear had reassured New Zealanders that Māori and Pakeha were brothers under the skin.

It is almost certainly on account of Tregear’s little book (described by New Zealand historian, Prof. James Belich, as second only to the Treaty of Waitangi when it comes to documents that shaped New Zealand history) that Pukekohe remained so singular. It required a very special combination of historical, economic, and cultural circumstances, to turn what in nearly every other respect was an ordinary Kiwi town into a cesspit of aggressive racial discrimination that endured from shortly after the Land Wars of the mid-1860s to the early-1960s.

Sadly, none of this background information forms any part of Professor Jenny Bol Jun Lee Morgan’s historical contribution to “No Māori Allowed”. Indeed, she is at pains to paint the New Zealand of 1863-1963 as a place in which the state consistently legislated against the cultural independence of Māori. She even repeats the myth that the Tohunga Suppression Act was a Pakeha attack upon Māori tikanga, ignoring the historical fact that the legislation was the initiative of Māori Members of Parliament determined to improve the health of their people.

What is truly astonishing about Pukekohe is that it was the only place in New Zealand where the vicious racism endemic to the other Anglo-states took hold with sufficient force to construct a permanent system of overt racial oppression and humiliation. At a moment in history when Western racial hierarchies were being endorsed as fact by “racial scientists” the world over, and the “science” of Eugenics was sterilising thousands of “substandard human stock”, it is actually quite remarkable that the Pukekohe disease did not spread.

Yes, the arrival of D. W. Griffith’s 1916 movie, “Birth of a Nation”, a feature-length hymn to White Supremacy, did inspire a flurry of Kiwi Ku Klux Klan wannabes in the early-1920s (involving upwards of a thousand at its peak) and there were at least two societies devoted to ensuring New Zealand remained “a white man’s paradise” – one of them, predictably, headquartered in Pukekohe – but the inescapable truth remains that, in spite of the fact that White Supremacy was the default setting of Europeans from Ballarat to Bloemfontein, Boston to Berlin, Pakeha New Zealanders, with the exception of those living in Pukekohe, escaped the worst of the racist viruses then sweeping the world.

“No Māori Allowed” deserves all the acclaim it has received for revealing just how malignant systematically applied racial prejudice can be. How it lingers in the bodies of its victims like a radiological shadow across the heart. Defying the passage of the years.

The equally important message to take away from the documentary, however, is that the virulent racist cancer did not spread. Working together, Māori and Pakeha relegated Pukekohe’s colour bar to the dustbin of history – where it must remain.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project substack page on Monday, 27 May 2024.

Thursday 30 May 2024

Communication Breakdown.

Inadequately Equipped: Forget the loud-hailers Minister, what you need is TikTok. Shane Jones marches into Blackball preaching the gospel of “Mine, Baby, Mine!” the old-fashioned way.

IT ALMOST WORKED. “Matua Shane”, local supporters in tow, advanced down the main street of Blackball. Had the Minister for Resources, Shane Jones, been supplied with a full-sized loud-hailer to amplify his pro-mining slogans, then the photo-op would have been an unqualified success. Unfortunately, the Minister’s loud-hailer was not full-sized, truth-to-tell it was comically under-sized, and the “optics” of that were not great – not great at all.

What that tiny loud-hailer, that mini-megaphone, signalled to the world was that the Minister’s message was similarly under-sized. Worse, in a world grown accustomed to the demonisation of fossil-fuels, where young people, in particular, are encouraged to respond to “climate-change deniers” with undisguised contempt, Jones’s inadequate amplification equipment completed the picture of a politician deliberately placing himself in that most dangerous of places – the wrong side of history.

Worse still, the unintended symbolism of the mini-megaphone, had alerted viewers of the One News item to other tell-tale signs and omens. The greatest of these was the age-gap between Jones’s “Mine, Baby, Mine!” enthusiasts, and the Forest & Bird-led environmentalists lined-up behind their banner.

“How many of you are even from the West Coast?” A rheumy-eyed old-timer who appeared to have seen too many West Coast winters, demanded of the protesters.

It was an old trick, which worked well thirty years ago when those who came to “save” the West Coast’s rain forests were, indeed, the sort of people acutely vulnerable to the accusation of being “outside agitators”. In 2024, however, about half the crowd of young-to-middle-aged protesters raised their hands. The old-timer was momentarily non-plussed.

“Bugger all.”, he eventually muttered, inaccurately, before making his way into the community hall where upwards of two hundred miners, granted a day-off by their employers, were helping to swell the Resource Minister’s audience.

That so many of the protesters were residents of the West Coast indicated how dramatically attitudes have changed in 30 years. Back in the 1990s, angry – event violent – clashes between “Locals” and “Greenies” were not uncommon. Those were the bad old days when, in many parts of New Zealand (usually a long way from the cities) environmentalism was still, very much, a minority sport.

Certainly, some of the tales told of those times carried with them more than a hint of the American Deep South in the 60s. When, in the event of “trouble” with the locals, it could take more than an hour for the Police to arrive, it was very easy to feel paranoid. Not least because, if you were a long-haired Greenie from Christchurch or, even worse, the Coromandel, many of the locals really were out to get you – including the local cop!

Those “Easy Rider” vibes were recalled on Saturday (25/5/24) when, with the Minister safely installed in the hall, a Police officer barred Suzanne Hill, the West Coast convenor of Forest & Bird, from joining her fellow locals in the audience. Not even her official ticket to the Minister’s announcement of the Coalition Government’s Draft Minerals Strategy could get her past the constable. By the time the matter was sorted out, Newsroom’s Lois Williams later reported, “they’d locked the door from the inside”.

The symbolism, seemingly, was in no hurry to call it a day.

So, is Jones being Quixotic, or shrewd? Is the “Mine, Baby, Mine!” faction actually a great deal bigger than the environmentalists have led themselves to believe?

Part of the answer to that question will be provided on Saturday, 8 June, when Forest & Bird, Greenpeace, Communities Against Fast Track (CAFT), Coromandel Watchdog, WWF-New Zealand, and Kiwis Against Seabed Mining will lead a protest “March For Nature” down Auckland’s Queen Street. It may be confidently predicted that the Resources Minister, and a great many other people, will be watching extremely closely to see how many people follow them.

If similar environmental protests (against genetic engineering, against West Coast coal-mining) offer any guide, then well in excess of 30,000 marchers may be expected. By the time the large number of communities and interest-groups aggrieved by the Coalition Government’s policies are factored into the turn-out calculation, the number of demonstrators could quite easily rise to in excess of 50,000.

In addition to the banners and placards of the environmental groups, a forest of Tino Rangatiratanga and Palestinian flags are certain to be in evidence, along with trade union banners and the colours of the left-wing political parties. As the first potentially huge political protest to be organised since the Coalition Government took office, the “March For Nature” offers National’s, Act’s, and NZ First’s growing list of opponents a welcome opportunity to make themselves heard. What must not be forgotten, however, should the numbers turning-out to be truly spectacular, is that it is the environmental cause that provides these occasions with the critical mass of bodies on the street.

Which is not to say that the Minister of Resources does not have an argument when it comes to the mining of gold, coal, and rare earths on the Conservation Estate. What cash-strapped government in its right mind is going to refuse the royalties accruing from a precious metal that sells for in excess of $2,000 per ounce? Nor should it be forgotten that the coking-coal from New Zealand’s West Coast is highly prized by steel-makers around the world. Why? Because high-quality steel, like oil, is critical to the survival of industrial civilisation. Similarly, with the so-called “rare earths”. They are vital to humanity’s ‘green energy’ future – not to mention the world’s billions of smart-phones.

But, these arguments cannot be successfully sold to younger generations except as part of a future in which mineral resources are regarded as necessary evils, tolerable only for as long as they remain critical to humanity’s transition from a civilisation powered by fossil fuels to one powered by the sun, the wind and the rain, augmented by safe nuclear power-plants and, eventually, the clean and limitless power of cold fusion.

This is the story that “Matua Shane” must learn to tell to young New Zealanders. That any future predicated on a great leap backward into a technological context indistinguishable from the Middle Ages will only provide for an existence that is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short”. Humanity’s modern rights and freedoms simply will not survive transplantation into a pre-modern setting.

New Zealand may offer superb locations for making movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantastic tales, but any plans to transform the country into a Middle Earth of hand-looms and water-mills should be stoutly resisted. It is the technological magic of the Twenty-First Century science that offers the best hope of human survival.

Forget the loud-hailers Minister, what you need is TikTok.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 27 May 2024.