Wednesday, 31 May 2023

Luxon’s Lack Of Political “Muscle Memory”.

Slow Learner: Effective leaders develop a political “muscle memory” of their own. The National Party should get one.

SPEAKING IN PUBLIC tops most people’s list of fearful situations. There are some careers, however, for which public fluency is a non-negotiable pre-requisite. There’s little point in pursuing an acting career, for example, if you’re frightened of audiences. The same applies to anyone intending to pursue a career in politics. There’s a reason why the study of rhetoric was part-and-parcel of a young nobleman’s education for a thousand years. Those who wish to rule their fellow human-beings non-violently, must be able to speak to them persuasively.

It is not, however, an easy skill to master. One of the more important reasons for maintaining political parties is to allow the idealistic and the ambitious to perfect the art of public speaking in an environment that is not, in the strictest sense, public. Party meetings and conferences are realistically political, but what is said there is unlikely to inflict serious damage upon party fortunes. Seasoned observers know that most conference delegates are amateurs, and that their utterances are not to be taken all that seriously.

Which is not to say that a shrewd political journalist will not be rewarded for keeping a watchful eye on low-level party gatherings such as regional conferences. In among a great deal of rhetorical dross, attentive journalists do occasionally encounter a truly outstanding public speaker. One whose understanding of the subject under discussion, evocative language, and all-round command of both themselves and their audience positively screams: “One to watch!”

As the years pass, and one party conference follows another, these outstanding performers may be observed rising steadily through the ranks. Some, of course, will fall by the wayside – victims of their own inflated assessment of their political importance. But, those whose political instincts are sound – i.e. those who avoid rocking the boat too vigorously – are generally rewarded with their party’s nomination. Not for a winnable seat, at least, not first off, but in order to further hone their political skills – under live fire.

One of the most important skills a candidate can master in these preliminary electoral bouts is that of resisting the temptation of telling voters what they want to hear. At just about every election meeting there will be an opportunity for questions from the floor. By then, experienced candidates will have already “read the room”. They know their job is not to capitulate to the audience’s opinions, but to shape them. Pandering to people’s prejudices is the essence of demagoguery – not successful party politics.

By the time these “ones to watch” are selected as candidates for winnable, or, better still, safe parliamentary seats, their rhetorical ability, tactical instincts, and strategic skills are plainly evident. But, winning a seat is only the beginning. A whole new apprenticeship looms, during which they must master the art of being a Member of Parliament.

At this point, alert readers will already be shaking their heads. This steady progression towards a parliamentary career may well have been the way politicians played the game forty years ago, when New Zealand electoral politics was dominated by two mass parties operating under the first-past-the-post electoral system. But, it is very far from being the way the politically ambitious become Members of Parliament in 2023.

In a mass party, the competition for the role of party representative in Parliament is fierce, and “winning one’s spurs” in the cut-and-thrust of intra-party politics is both admired and expected. But, neither National nor Labour are any longer mass parties.

The era of MMP is also the era of the so-called “cadre” party. In the mass parties of the past, advancement depended on how successfully party members had mastered the art of winning over their party comrades and pinning-down their votes – the politics of democracy. In parties organised by and for societal elites, the impetus for representation comes not from below, but above. To advance in a cadre party (of which Labour and National are both now examples) one must master the circuitry of power and influence – the politics of the courtier.

Unfortunately, if selection for a winnable seat, or a high placement on a Party List, becomes a matter of not what you know, but who you know, then the winnowing process which served National and Labour so well in the past, and which prepared prospective parliamentarians so thoroughly for the career of people’s representative, is undermined. Parliamentary candidates appear – as if from nowhere – chosen by the high and mighty, known only to party insiders, and, all-too-often, pitifully lacking in even the basic skills of winning voter support.

This is the weakness that saddles the New Zealand voter with Members of Parliament who are not only lacking in rhetorical ability, tactical instinct, and strategic skill, but are also alarmingly ignorant of the experiences, aspirations and values of the ordinary Kiwi voter.

The men and women who transformed National and Labour from mass parties into cadre parties may have rid themselves of bottom-up, democratic, intra-party politics, with all its embarrassments and irritations, but in the process of making their parties lean, mean, elite-driven machines, they forgot that the game they are playing, electoral politics, is, by definition, bottom-up and democratic.

National and Labour are selecting All Blacks who have never played Rugby. How else to explain Sam Uffindell and Gaurav Sharma?

Or, for that matter, Christopher Luxon?

Experience in the management of large corporations is one thing, experience in the rough-and-tumble of democratic politics, quite another. National has not only saddled itself with a politician with zero experience of cutting and thrusting his way up the spiral staircases of the National Party, but it was also willing to anoint as Leader a man with barely 13 months’ experience as a Member of Parliament.

Put a person of Luxon’s political inexperience in front of a hall-full of conservative voters and he is almost guaranteed to make the beginner’s error of telling them what they want to hear. If that involves abandoning Medium Density Residential Standards, the bi-partisan plan National agreed with Labour allowing three-storey dwellings to be built on all residential land in the main cities, then so be it. What was he supposed to say to these angry NIMBY voters? No?

Athletes and musicians talk about developing “muscle memory” – the practically unconscious mastery of their occupations that only comes from thousands of hours of practice, and years of experience. Effective leaders develop a political muscle-memory of their own. In answering tricky questions from the media. In delivering a stump speech as if it is the first time the words have passed their lips. Of knowing exactly how to lure their opponents into a policy trap – and then spring it. Of instinctively veering away from the “creepiness” of AI-generated images.

That National can no longer lay its hands on such a leader, tells us something about the state of New Zealand politics four months out from the 2023 General Election.

It’s not encouraging.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 29 May 2023.

Sunday, 28 May 2023

The Persistence Of Racism: Is the Anti-Racist Cause Winning or Losing?

With Open Arms: Is it at all reasonable to suppose that a colonial society in which whites traditionally occupied all the upper rungs of the ethnic hierarchy, and where the colonised were relegated to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, will respond positively to a concerted indigenous push from below, or, to an extraordinary influx of non-white immigrants? Subject any settler state to these sorts of pressures, and something is going to break.

THE RACISM experienced by Australian writer Louisa Lim raises questions about the persistence of racism in Aotearoa-New Zealand. An invited speaker at the Auckland Writers’ Festival, Lim had to endure an anti-Asian rant when she visited a local noodle bar. When challenged by Lim, the person spewing the racist abuse redirected it at her. Lim shared this distressing experience with her festival audience, many of whom later expressed their anger and embarrassment at the emotional pain she had been forced to endure.

Incidents of this sort are difficult to categorise. Obviously, they are expressions of racism, but to what extent do they represent ingrained prejudices widely shared across the New Zealand population?

The stereotypical Kiwi racist is white, old and male. People like to talk about that embarrassing uncle that every family possesses, the one who feels no shame in vouchsafing racist opinions to his horrified kith and kin. Younger New Zealanders, we are confidently reassured, are much more relaxed about ethnic diversity. The unspoken assumption being that racism – along with the racists who spout it – will eventually die out. A more tolerant and welcoming Aotearoa is on the way. All we have to do is wait.

That is a comforting idea – but is it true?

To answer that question, it is necessary to ask another: What causes racism?

For racism to flourish, two things are necessary: 1) exploitation on the basis of ethnicity must be profitable; and 2) there must be a well-established ethnic hierarchy which explains and justifies that exploitation. Racism is incidental to the imposition of exploitation, but also to resisting it, because to overcome their exploitation those at the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy cannot avoid challenging and infuriating those above them. Racism flourishes because the exploiter has no choice but to kick down, and the exploited has no choice but to kick up.

Nothing intensifies racism more dramatically than the exploiters discovering racism is no longer profitable. At that point, the utility of the existing ethnic hierarchy is fundamentally compromised. It isn’t just a matter of those on the bottom getting out from under, it’s the disruptive impact their upward social mobility has on those positioned above them. The prospect of having to treat as equals persons whose condition of permanent subordination has constituted a defining element of one’s personal and civil identity is unlikely to be well received.

Those nearest the top of the hierarchy will experience the liberation of subordinate ethnicities with considerably more equanimity than those occupying the rungs immediately above them. The phenomenon of white, working-class racism is readily understood when one realises that the super-exploited, receiving less of everything that matters in the capitalist system – money, status, respect – are toiling away just one rung below. Equality feels good – but only when you’re moving up the ladder.

Is it at all reasonable to suppose that a colonial society in which whites traditionally occupied all the upper rungs of the ethnic hierarchy, and where the colonised were relegated to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, will respond positively to a concerted indigenous push from below, or, to an extraordinary influx of non-white immigrants? Moreover, if both challenges are being presented to the white majority simultaneously – making it difficult for them to order the rapidly changing ethnic hierarchy with any degree of confidence – what then? Subject any settler state to these sorts of pressures, and something is going to break.

Crucial to the integrity of New Zealand’s social infrastructure is the strength of its defining social narratives. If the pressures being brought to bear on New Zealand society are primarily ethnic in nature, then, at the heart of the story we tell ourselves about ourselves must be an abiding aversion to racism.

New Zealanders must be encouraged to regard racial prejudice as the worst of all sins. No accusation should be more hurtful to the ordinary New Zealander than the charge of racism. To that end, overt racism must always be condemned publicly – and in the strongest possible terms. It should be widely understood that a proven charge of racism is a career-killer. The desired outcome? A population willing to do just about anything to avoid the accusation – “Racist!”

That this outcome has largely been achieved is remarkable. Those responsible for instilling and policing Kiwi “anti-racism” should take a bow. The fear of being called a racist has kept most of the population dutifully silent as Māori nationalism has acquired a seemingly unstoppable momentum, and as the structure of the New Zealand population has been radically re-shaped by decades of mass immigration.

Certainly, the embarrassing old uncles continue to shock their friends, families and neighbours, but the political and cultural evolution of New Zealand has not been deranged by politicians vigorously condemned as racists (Winston Peters, Don Brash) taking control of the state – as happened elsewhere.

Most New Zealanders simply do not appreciate how close their country came to full-scale ethnic confrontation in 2005. The narrowness of the Don Brash-led National Party’s electoral defeat suggested strongly that the forces behind Kiwi anti-racism were nowhere near as powerful as its promoters had hoped. Labour’s victory obviated ideological introspection, however, and allowed the drive towards Māori sovereignty and multiculturalism to continue and gather strength.

National’s 2008 election victory did very little to hinder the anti-racist cause. Daunted, perhaps, by thoughts of what might have happened had Brash won, his successor, John Key, wooed and won the Māori Party as a supporter of his government. Key was also seized by the importance of New Zealand’s growing economic relationship with China. Key’s National Government encouraged the growth of multiculturalism every bit as assiduously as it enabled Māori nationalism. Accordingly, the anti-racist message, now amplified by large sections of the political class, academia and the news media, underwent a significant increase in volume.

The election of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led Government encouraged the anti-racist message to be broadcast even louder. The questions posed by its extraordinary salience, however, were difficult to answer. Were the increasingly jarring manifestations of Māori nationalist and multicultural assertiveness evidence of New Zealand society’s growing acceptance of diversity, or, proof of its opposite? Was ethnic tolerance expanding, or contracting?

The mass demonstrations of solidarity with the Muslim community following the 2019 Christchurch Mosque Massacres strongly suggest that tolerance is growing. The unabashed racism visible on social media, however, hints that, deep down, not much had changed since Brash’s near-victory in 2005.

That the promotion of the anti-racist message is now accompanied by openly expressed concerns regarding the dangers of “hate speech” and unregulated freedom of expression, testifies to the fragility of the anti-racist consensus. The political and cultural elites, to whom the prosecution of the anti-racist cause has been entrusted, are becoming increasingly defensive. Is it any longer sensible to be tolerant of intolerance?

The experience of Louisa Lim makes us wonder. Has racism really been driven into the furthest reaches of rural and provincial New Zealand? Are its promoters, safely corralled among the over-65s, really dying off? Or does it lurk, still, in the shadows of White New Zealand’s gothic psyche? Huge and silent, does it wait for a political leader to do what Don Brash came so close to doing eighteen years ago – give it a voice, and set it free?

Were the racists Lim encountered in that down-town Auckland noodle-bar over sixty-five – or under thirty?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 26 May 2023.

Friday, 26 May 2023

Our Maori Future.

Shocking The Pakeha: An entirely forgivable impulse, some might say, given how easily so many Pakeha are shocked. Merely to suggest that Te Tiriti o Waitangi should be taken seriously is sufficient to set some Pakeha off. Others are shocked by the inclusion of more than a word or two of Māori in a news item, or the reciting of a karakia. The temptation to startle these fragile colonial creatures must be hard to resist.

ÉPATER LA BOURGEOISIE, or, in English, “shocking the middle-class” was something the decadent poets of La Belle Epoque worked at. Louche, promiscuous, absinthe-soaked and opium-addled, there was nothing Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud enjoyed more (apart from the aforementioned vices) than sticking their artistic needles into the stuffed shirts of France.

I sometimes wonder if some secret cultural connection exists linking these French provocateurs with Te Ao Māori. More and more these days, Māori leaders seem impelled to Épater la Pakeha.

An entirely forgivable impulse, some might say, given how easily so many Pakeha are shocked. Merely to suggest that Te Tiriti o Waitangi should be taken seriously is sufficient to set some Pakeha off. Others are shocked by the inclusion of more than a word or two of Māori in a news item, or the reciting of a karakia. The temptation to startle these fragile colonial creatures must be hard to resist.

Certainly the creatives who came up with the latest ad campaign for Te Whanau Ora – “Our Future Is Māori” – didn’t put up much of a fight. According to Stuff: “The ‘Our Future is Māori’ message will be visible on billboards, bus stops and televisions throughout Aotearoa, asserting that Māori must take control of their future.”

“Their” future? “Our” future? Pronouns are such tricky things these days. How many Pakeha, do you suppose, will read these ads as something other than an exhortation for Māori to take advantage of Te Whanau Ora (and its big dollop of Budget funding) to shape their own and their family’s destinies?

“Quite a few!” would probably be understating the Pakeha reaction.

And, to be fair to the colonisers’ descendants, the content and structure of the television ad do rather lend themselves to misinterpretation. Not least because they are challenging. “We have been separated,” declares the voice-over, “tikanga pulled from our arms, torn away from the whenua.” Pakeha do not care to be reminded of these truths. Nor are they made comfortable by the potent image of a Māori war canoe being driven through the water by a score of muscular paddlers. It is a troubling image of unstoppable momentum. “We carve our own path,” intones the voice-over, “a path for Māori, by Māori.”

Watching the ad, it is difficult to avoid adding the words: “So, you Pakeha better get out of our way.”

But then the imagery shifts. We see Māori health workers carrying the Covid vaccine to the rescue of their people – doing for themselves what the Ministry of Health had not only taken too long to do, but against which it had also raised legal barriers. Unbelievable? No. The “By Māori, For Māori” kaupapa has always had a revolutionary edge.

The ad shows more. Māori kids enjoying themselves in total immersion Māori schools. Rangatahi, back on their marae, helping to feed the people when the skies opened and the waters rose over Tai Rawhiti.

And, behind these images, a Māori choir singing the anthemic ‘Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi’. A solemn version, this one, performed to the slow beat of a drum – its rhythms matched by the paddlers of that unstoppable waka.

As the ad draws to a close, all the Māori we have seen, the paddlers, the health workers, the rangatahi, the whole cast, stands tall – offering their steadfast gaze to the audience. Not aggressively, not exactly, but definitely not passively or defensively. The voice-over concludes the ad with the words: “There is strength in our whakapapa.”

Was this particular Pakeha shocked? I was, yes, watching the ad for the first time. It confronted me with words and images that made me uncomfortable. That was, I am sure, part of its intention. Pakeha have been telling Māori what to do, and how to do it, for more than a century – seldom to their collective advantage. Now Māori are telling Pakeha to get out of their way. Now they are carving their own path.

In the end, however, the ad is not for us, or about us. That some Pakeha will bristle with indignation when they drive past a billboard declaring “Our Future Is Māori” is certain. As certain as Talkback Radio crackling with anger at Māori presumption.

Épater la Pakeha? You betcha. We’ve had it coming for a long time.

But not as long as the whakapapa of tangata whenua.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 May 2023.

Monday, 22 May 2023

National Must Learn To Be Kind – Or Remain In Opposition.

Our sympathy for the poor and disadvantaged is this big. At need, New Zealanders will use their vote as a shield. From preference, they will use it as a tool. But, increasingly, they are refusing to use it as a weapon. Labour grasps the need to “be kind”. Until National does likewise, it will not be the government.

THE POLITICS OF KINDNESS may have left a deeper impression on the New Zealand electorate than is generally acknowledged. Though the nation has not quite arrived at the point of asking: “Jacinda who?”, the speed and thoroughness of the former prime minister’s political eclipse has been remarkable. The temptation, therefore, is to assume that the ideas that characterised her premiership have similarly faded into the background. That the “Politics of Kindness” no longer has electoral currency. But, in George Gershwin’s memorable formulation: “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Certainly, there are strong echoes of Ardernian kindness in Grant Robertson’s sixth budget. The extension of childcare subsidies to two-year-olds, allowing children to ride free on public transport, and, most importantly, the abolition of prescription charges – all point to a still-strong compassionate impulse animating Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ cabinet. Indeed, the Finance Minister’s strategic preference for borrowing over spending cuts stands athwart the Reserve Bank Governor’s recessionary pathway. In effect, Robertson is demanding to know whether the Governor counts himself among the kind – or the cruel.

Hipkins and Robertson are asking the same question (albeit considerably amplified) of their National Party counterparts. “What will it be, Christopher and Nicola? Responsible compassion, or unkind austerity?” The voters need to know.

Astonishingly, the National leadership replied to Labour’s question immediately, telling the voters that prescription charges would be reinstated by an incoming National Party-led government. Given that Labour’s policy of free prescriptions was the announcement received by the electorate most warmly, National’s pledge to nullify it struck most observers as nuts. It is explicable only if one assumes that Luxon and Willis are convinced that the electorate is counting on them to deliver policy medicine of the bitterest kind. Or, at least, every bit as bitter as Act’s.

Act is fast becoming the biggest single obstacle to National forming a government. It has enlarged its share of the Party Vote almost entirely at National’s expense by arguing that only the Act Party is prepared to manage the New Zealand economy with the rigor it requires. In doing so Act has corralled a significant percentage of those voters who like to use their votes as weapons – primarily against people they perceive as undeserving of the state largesse lavished upon them. They expect any incoming right-wing government to discipline and punish these “parasites”.

National’s problem, assuming it really is planning to get all medieval on the asses of the undeserving poor, is that the women-voters of all ages who deserted it for Labour in 2020, the voters it so desperately needs to win, may not be all that keen to take up their allotted seating in the National-Act Theatre of Cruelty. Contrariwise, if National shows the slightest sign of returning to the “Labour-Lite” days of John Key and Bill English – let alone to “Jacinda’s” Politics of Kindness – then they risk seeing even more of their voters deserting the National mother-ship for Act’s swashbuckling space-cruiser.

Presumably, it was to avoid such damaging descriptions that Luxon and Willis were so quick to announce their intention to restore prescription charges. But, their resolve to be right-wing pirates every bit as scary as David Seymour and his crew turned out to be less-than-adamantine. Within hours, National was walking back its hardline commitment to austerity. Perhaps the holders of Community Services Cards and superannuitants’ Gold Cards could be exempted from paying prescription charges. “Targeted assistance” – that’s what National stands for. That’s what it would be offering.

If only it was that simple. Unfortunately for Luxon and Willis, all that those crucial swing-voters will remember is that, first, National was against abolishing prescription charges, and then, the moment it registered the force of the public backlash, its leaders couldn’t backtrack fast enough. In other words: Luxon’s and Willis’s first response made them sound cruel, and their second made them look weak. Is their anything more pathetic in the world of Sado-politics than a “Dom” too squeamish to wield the whip?

Significantly, this backtrack over prescription charges is very far from being National’s first. Over the past year, Luxon, in particular, has appeared to stumble from one hastily-corrected policy misstatement to the next. The public is perplexed. Is it a case of Luxon having bold right-wing ideas which he simply cannot persuade his timid, more centrist, colleagues to accept? Or, is it simply the Leader of the Opposition talking off the top of his head about matters he is not equipped to discuss, and then having to walk his statements back in the face of unrelenting media questioning and caucus fury?

Regardless of the explanation, the cumulative effect of these gaffes is electorally sub-optimal. Luxon, a man with next-to-no serious parliamentary experience; a man, moreover, who spent a large chunk of the past 20 years living and working out of New Zealand; stands revealed as a man not so much out-of-touch as tellingly unfamiliar with the cues most Kiwis respond to without thinking. His performance is reminiscent of those German soldiers who, during the Battle of the Bulge, were apprehended wearing American uniforms. The GI’s tested these imposters by asking them questions that any genuine American could answer without hesitation. Those who failed the test were shot as spies.

It is Luxon’s ongoing struggle to present himself as an authentic politician that explains his failure to make the sort of steady gains in the preferred-prime-minister polling stakes that are the sure sign of a prime-minister-in-waiting. Even worse, Luxon shows every sign of lacking that “gut feel” for politics that distinguished Rob Muldoon, David Lange, Jim Bolger, Jim Anderton, Winston Peters, Helen Clark, John Key and Jacinda Ardern. Unlike those leaders, he has yet to come up with a political narrative in which not only dyed-in-the-wool Nats, but also a solid majority of ordinary New Zealanders, can see themselves.

Muldoon promised “New Zealand the way YOU want it.”, Bolger talked about restoring the “decent society” following the betrayals of Rogernomics, and John Key held out the promise of “a brighter future” as Labour’s lustre faded. An opposition’s narrative need not be one the whole country can agree with, but it must be one in which most New Zealanders can see themselves living – more-or-less happily.

Jacinda Ardern’s enduring political legacy is that fewer and fewer New Zealanders can see themselves living happily in a society where kindness no longer counts. There was time when Kiwis would vote for bullies – but that time has passed. At need, New Zealanders will use their vote as a shield. From preference, they will use it as a tool. But, increasingly, they are refusing to use it as a weapon. Labour grasps the need to “be kind”. Until National does likewise, it will not be the government.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 22 May 2023.

Friday, 19 May 2023

In The Lock-Up.

Not Enough: Why should the poorest New Zealanders be expected to suffer the heaviest casualty-count in the battle against inflation? Why should a handful of unelected Reserve Bank officials be able to blackmail a democratic government into austerity by threatening to throw the entire economy into recession? The welfare of the country’s most vulnerable citizens should be our government’s No. 1 priority. It is simply outrageous that families are being forced to choose between paying the rent and feeding their kids.

ERIC SHUFFLED BACK to the desk at which he had only just managed to wrangle a seat. God! How he hated these Budget lock-ups! It wasn’t just the security guards and the inevitable lanyards, it was the inescapable feeling that he was the stupidest person in the room. If it wasn’t the world-weary Gen-Xers, with their “God, I’m so bored.”, expressions, it was the eager-beaver Millennials, flipping their way through the chin-high piles of documents as if they actually knew what they were looking for – which most of them probably did. Eric didn’t even know where to start – had no idea why he was here.

“Don’t worry about the numbers,” his editor had cautioned him, “we’ve got others who can crunch those. What I’m wanting from you, Eric, is an assessment of Robertson himself. How convincing is his act? Does he come across as a man who knows more than he’s letting on, or, as a poor, exhausted schmuck, who’s just counting down the days until the agony of the Finance Portfolio becomes someone else’s problem?”

He had tried to explain to his 40-something boss that politicians like Robertson had become so good at putting up a front that it was almost impossible to see through it. But, it hadn’t done any good. His boss seemed to believe that, as a person in his late-60s, someone who could actually remember Rob Muldoon and the New Zealand that existed before Rogernomics, he possessed supernatural powers of political perception. He just couldn’t get it through to his boss that no matter how much he had seen of it, politics and politicians could still surprise him. If he could predict the future, then he sure as hell wouldn’t be earning his living tapping away interminably at a bloody keyboard!

If only they let you smoke in here! Reflexively, Eric reached for the last sausage roll left on the lunch platter – only to discover that the sauce bowl had been wiped clean. Damn! Now he was bound to send showers of flaky pastry all over the lapels of his crumpled sports jacket – again.

And right there, with impeccable timing, was Robertson, closely followed by Hipkins, taking their places behind twin lecterns. Chewing frantically, Eric, retrieved his notebook and pen, cleared a small space on the desktop, and waited for Robertson to speak.

“This has been a particularly difficult Budget to pull together”, he began. “On the one hand, I was determined to help wage and salary earners keep their heads above water in the face of a worsening cost-of-living crisis. On the other hand, I did not want to pump so much money into the economy that Adrian Orr, the Reserve Bank Governor, would feel obliged to raise interest rates to even more ruinous levels and plunge the economy into recession.”

As Eric swallowed the last of his cold and rather dry sausage roll, it occurred to him that the Finance Minister wasn’t actually talking like a Finance Minister. This was a level of honesty to which most politicians seldom rose. What was Robertson playing at?

“All the advice I was receiving urged me to offer up a few symbolic crumbs: extending ECE assistance payments to 2-year-olds; subsidising public transport fares; abolishing prescription charges. Just enough to reaffirm our identity as a Labour government. Crumbs aside, however, we should spend only what’s required to keep the machinery of state turning. A “No Frills Budget” that offers bugger-all bread and even less butter.”

Eric, enthralled, reached for his coffee. It would be cold by now, but he needed something to wash the sausage roll down.

“But then,” said Robertson, pausing for dramatic effect, “I thought – fuck it.”

Erics’s coffee sprayed heroically over the piles of budget documents in front of him. Were his ears deceiving him?

“Why should the poorest New Zealanders be expected to suffer the heaviest casualty-count in the battle against inflation? Why should a handful of unelected Reserve Bank officials be able to blackmail a democratic government into austerity by threatening to throw the entire economy into recession? The welfare of the country’s most vulnerable citizens has to be our priority. It is simply outrageous that families are being forced to choose between paying the rent and feeding their kids. They need more money and, by God, we’re going to give it to them!”

Eric’s eyes widened in disbelief. In 40 years of covering politics he had never heard a Finance Minister talk like this.”

“That’s why I have today written to the Reserve Bank Governor, formally instructing to cap the OCR at 5 percent until further notice.”

Jesus! Eric let out a low whistle. Robertson was breaking all the rules.

Then it was Hipkins’ turn.

“Thanks, Grant. It feels good to have those neoliberal shackles off our hands and feet, doesn’t it? But, it feels even better to announce that over the next three months the Government will be introducing a Wealth Tax, a Capital Gains Tax, and adding an additional step to the Income Tax. From 1 April 2024, all those earning over $250,000 per annum will be paying 60 cents in the dollar. Windfall taxes will also be levied on all foreign-owned banks, and upon the supermarket duopoly. Those New Zealanders who do not want their society to become more equitable and more just can, of course, attempt to vote Labour out of office. But, we’re betting the farm that a more equitable and just New Zealand is exactly what a majority of voters want – and, moreover, that they’ve been wanting it for the past 40 years!”

“Eric! Eric!”

The young journalist looked down at the dishevelled old hack, head nestled upon chest, crumpled jacket covered in pastry flakes, drooling slightly from the corner of his mouth, quietly snoring, fast asleep.

“Eric! Eric! Wake up, Robertson’s about to speak.”

Eric sat up with a start, automatically brushing the pastry flakes from his shirt-front. Fumbling inside his jacket for his pad and pen, he glanced up sheepishly at the young journalist and her indulgent smile.

“Sorry. Sorry, luv. I must’ve been dreaming.

This short story was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 19 May 2023.

Winston’s Last Shot At Redemption.

The Happy Warrior: In the five months remaining before the 2023 General Election, Winston Peters has to amass enough votes to once again seize the hand-brake. Even a quarter of New Zealand’s 980,000 Baby Boomers would be enough.

NZ FIRST is currently hovering around 3-4 percent in the opinion polls – not enough to make it back to Parliament. Looking back over New Zealand’s recent political history, however, a base of 3-4 percent has been enough to see NZ First crest the 5 percent MMP threshold on Election Day. In 2011, for example, few commentators rated NZ First’s chances of re-entering the House, but it made it back with 1.5 percentage points to spare. Winston Peters remains a formidable campaigner. But, even if he and his party once again re-enter Parliament, Peters faces some extremely difficult political choices.

The first and most important of these would be whether NZ First should enter into a formal coalition agreement with the National Party and Act. On the face of it, such an arrangement would constitute a repudiation of everything NZ First has stood for since its founding in 1993.

Act represents those New Zealanders who are not only convinced that Rogernomics and Ruthanasia were correct and necessary, but also that the neoliberal programme of the 1980s and 90s remains unfinished – a state of affairs that Act is determined to put right.

At his very first Cabinet meeting in 1990, Peters realised that the “decent society” National had promised New Zealanders was no longer on the agenda. So trenchant a critic was he of the Jim Bolger Government’s slash-and-burn policies that he was thrown out of Cabinet, eventually resigning his National Party membership altogether.

NZ First was Peters’ attempt to combine the best elements of the political doctrines espoused by National and Labour before both major parties were corrupted by free-market extremism. In the first MMP election, held in 1996, NZ First secured 13 percent of the Party Vote and 17 seats – a position of strength which allowed him to conclude a comprehensive (and remarkably progressive) coalition agreement with his “frenemy” Jim Bolger.

Unfortunately for Peters, the National host rejected NZ First. Though it meant deposing Bolger, and governing with the support of a malodorous collection of traitors and turncoats, National, no longer wedded to the values of New Zealand’s most prosperous years (1949-1984) made it clear that renouncing neoliberalism was not an option.

National Leader, Christopher Luxon, has said nothing which suggests that his party’s allegiance to the neoliberal ideology is wavering. He is not, however, as open in his endorsement of neoliberal principles as Act’s David Seymour. This ideological diffidence does not sit well with the Act Party. Accordingly, Seymour and his party seem determined to drag National kicking and screaming into the radical libertarian Right’s policy hothouse. Where it matters in 2023, moderation is out-of-fashion.

None of this will have escaped Peters’ eagle political eye. In the 30 years since he was a member, there has been not the slightest sign that the moderate, small-c conservative values that allowed National to rule for 29 of the 35 years between 1949 and 1984 are making a come-back. Even without Act, National might smile and smile at NZ First, and be a neoliberal villain, just waiting for the moment when, like Jenny Shipley, it can thrust a dagger deep into his back.

By contrast, Act, with refreshing honesty, is doing its best to stab NZ First in the front. By refusing point-blank to enter into any coalition affording aid and comfort to Peters’ allegedly antiquated and discredited economic and social ideas, it hopes to leave National with no option but to go into coalition with Act, or go back to the country for a second crack at putting things right.

But, if Peters cannot choose National, neither can he choose Labour. (Let alone Labour-Green-Te Pāti Māori!) It did not take him and NZ First very long to grasp that Labour’s values in 2017 were light-years away from Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s. Jacinda Ardern had promised “transformational” change and, when it came to entrenching radical identity politics, she delivered it. Not that when she invited New Zealand to “Let’s do this!”, voters had the faintest idea she’d do that.

What choice, then, does Peters and NZ First have? In the five months remaining before the election, he has to amass enough votes to once again seize the hand-brake. Even a quarter of New Zealand’s 980,000 Baby Boomers would be enough.

Talkin’ bout my generation’s, and Winston’s, last shot at redemption!

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 May 2023.

Wednesday, 17 May 2023

Secretive Constitutional Reform Is Political Kryptonite.

Dangerous Stuff: The moment it becomes clear to non-Māori New Zealanders just how violently Te Pāti Māori’s reforms would re-arrange the country’s constitutional furniture their reaction is likely to sink any chance of a centre-left victory. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, talk of serious constitutional reform has the effect of Kryptonite on most New Zealand politicians.

CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM is Kryptonite to our political leaders. New Zealand’s No. 8 wire constitution, largely unwritten and characteristically informal, has been deemed “rough enough” by the country’s two largest political parties. In both National and Labour, excessive interest in the topic is not career-enhancing – being taken as evidence of the political trainspotting to which most “ordinary” Kiwis are violently allergic.

This allergy has only gotten worse as the political salience of Te Tiriti o Waitangi has increased. The alacrity and energy with which National and Labour politicians kick Tiriti-based constitutional reform down the road is remarkable. That republican proposals regarding the monarchy are similarly postponed to some nebulous future time, merely confirms our politicians’ aversion to serious constitutional debate.

The politicians’ aversion to substantive constitutional reform is perfectly understandable when set against the New Zealand electorate’s strongly-held conviction that Parliament is – and should remain – supreme. Formalising our constitutional arrangements in writing would lead, inexorably, to the Judiciary adjudicating constitutional disputes. The idea of appointed judges having the final say over the actions of our democratically-elected House of Representatives has never gone down well in these parts.

Like it or not, however, the pressure to enshrine Te Tiriti at the heart of our constitutional structures continues to grow. “What to do about ‘The Treaty’?” is certain to be one of the key questions dominating the forthcoming election campaign. This is not because our political leaders have finally decided to bite the bullet on constitutional reform, it’s because Māori activists – both legal and political – have finally forced the issue onto New Zealand’s short-term political agenda.

Both of the major parties have been caught in a pincer-movement. From the left, Te Pāti Māori (TPM) has made it clear that constitutional reform must be part of any coalition and/or support agreement involving itself, Labour and the Greens. From the right, the Act Party is insisting that any conservative coalition government must commit itself to, first, defining te Tiriti’s meaning and scope, and then, confirming that definition by referendum.

The moment it becomes clear to non-Māori New Zealanders just how violently TPM’s reforms would re-arrange the country’s constitutional furniture their reaction is likely to sink any chance of a centre-left victory. By the same token, an affirmative referendum vote for a re-definition reducing Te Tiriti to a mere constitutional flourish would unleash racial conflict on a scale not seen since the land wars of the 1860s.

Presumably, it was thoughts of this sort that prompted the Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, to warn New Zealand’s minor parties against announcing bottom-lines that neither Labour nor National can accept without setting themselves up for a fatal electoral backlash. Hipkins’ (along with the Opposition Leader, Christopher Luxon’s) problem is that neither TPM nor Act can afford to be seen abandoning their principles for the baubles of office. Both parties’ electoral strength has been built upon their very public determination to stand firm even when all those around them are bowing to “mainstream” pressures.

The uncompromising positions adopted by those parties operating beyond the pale of political orthodoxy are what you get when orthodox politicians’ refuse to both sanction and participate in genuine constitutional debate. But if, by their refusal, those same orthodox politicians believe that serious constitutional debate can be stifled indefinitely, then they are wrong. If the non-Māori political establishment was unwilling to countenance constitutional reform, the Māori political establishment – in the guise of the Iwi Leaders Forum – were determined to set the wheels in motion.

It was in 2010, at a meeting of the Iwi Chairs’ Forum, that a proposal for Matike Mai Aotearoa, the Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation, was first laid upon the table. By 2012, Matike Mai, led by Margaret Mutu and the late Moana Jackson, was ready to begin developing and implementing “a model for an inclusive Constitution for Aotearoa based on tikanga and kawa, He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Niu Tireni of 1835, Te Tiriti o Waitangi of 1840, and other indigenous human rights instruments which enjoy a wide degree of international recognition.”

For more than four years, up and down New Zealand, Māori gathered to impart their ideas about constitutional transformation to Matike Mai. For the most part, Non-Māori New Zealanders remained unaware that such a process was underway. Certainly, only a very small number of Non-Māori understood the radical character of the undertaking. In the words of the Working Group’s final report:

The Terms of Reference did not ask the Working Group to consider such questions as ‘How might the Treaty fit within the current Westminster constitutional system’ but rather required it to seek advice on a different type of constitutionalism that is based upon He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti. For that reason this Report uses the term ‘constitutional transformation’ rather than ‘constitutional change’.

Mutu and Jackson clearly considered this approach to be optimal, but, from the perspective of those seeking constitutional reform proposals with significant buy-in from Māori and Non-Māori alike, Matike Mai was emphatically sub-optimal. Its recommendations, untested by the responses of Non-Māori, could hardly avoid becoming political Kryptonite. The moment the Non-Māori population became aware of what Matike Mai was proposing, things were going to get extremely messy.

The change of Government in 2017 hardly improved matters. Now vested with all the powers of the Executive, Labour’s Māori ministers opted to continue down the constitutional reform path unaccompanied by the Non-Maori Treaty partner. Commissioned by Nanaia Mahuta, the extraordinary He Puapua Report (kept under wraps until the 2020 general election was safely out of the way) rehearsed many of the radical constitutional ideas first mooted in Matike Mai. When, inevitably, the contents of He Puapua was leaked to the public, Jacinda Ardern and her Non-Māori colleagues could not back away from it fast enough.

And, as if Matike Mai and He Puapua weren’t enough, there was also a constitutional consultative process of extraordinary design moving inexorably towards its scheduled conclusion. This exercise was notable for its division into two separate stages.

The first stage was restricted to Māori. Only when their recommendations had been finalised would Non-Māori be asked to respond. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson received the Māori-generated constitutional proposals he refused to put them before Cabinet. He then (wisely) decided to halt the entire exercise until after the election.

In the light of this extraordinary history, it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that those charged with managing the discussion of New Zealand’s future constitutional arrangements have been guilty of appalling cowardice. Rather than insist that any and all discussion of the nation’s constitutional future takes place in the full view of its citizens, the representatives of both Treaty partners found it more expedient to do their talking separately and behind closed doors. Inevitably, this secretive process has given rise to profound misgivings, especially among the Non-Māori majority. The Labour Government’s shameful lack of transparency has allowed fear and doubt to grow about the motives and intentions of the Māori minority. This has contributed to an unnecessary and distressing deterioration in New Zealand’s race relations.

To prevent matters deteriorating further, Labour and National should both undertake to defer any significant constitutional change until there has been a opportunity for all New Zealanders – Māori and Non-Māori – to engage openly, and without fear of “cancellation”, in discussing and debating the full range of options for how their country might be governed. It is not in the least reasonable to assume that a durable constitution can be drafted in the absence of untrammelled popular participation.

Political Kryptonite can only be rendered harmless by exposing it to the remedial effects of direct democratic sunlight.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 15 May 2023.