Friday, 22 October 2021

Jacinda’s Choice: “Freedom Day”, Or Failure.

Lining Up With The Right: Though Jacinda Ardern hasn’t endorsed the John Key-Act-National preference for 1 December as Auckland's “Freedom Day” in as many words, that is clearly the timeline she is working to. The Prime Minister of New Zealand cannot assure 1.6 million Aucklanders that they will be free to visit their families at Christmas – wherever they may be located in New Zealand – and then renege on her promise. Not without all hell breaking loose.

The following commentary was written on the afternoon of Thursday, 21 October – about 18 hours prior to the Government’s latest Covid-19 announcements. For those interested in my take on the Announcements themselves, please read the appended postscript. – Chris Trotter.


THE AUCKLAND BUSINESS COMMUNITY has told the Labour Government that it expects 1 December to be “Freedom Day”. Since the Labour Party has consistently done the Auckland Business Community’s bidding for more than 30 years, putting a decent sum on 1 December as the day all double-vaccinated Aucklanders get to fly away would seem like a pretty safe bet.

If 1 December does not turn out to be “Freedom Day”, then you can put a big blue ring around Election Day 2023.

It is certainly no coincidence that 1 December was the day chosen by Sir John Key in his in/famous op-ed intervention; by the Act Party; and, finally, by the National Party itself. For those unaccustomed to reading the political runes, this is the New Zealand Right presenting the Labour Government with a united front. If Labour fails to take the hint, then every gun in the Right’s possession will commence firing at it, and they will not stop until the right-wing parties are in a position to form a government.

It has happened before. As soon as it became clear the Labour had won the 2005 General Election by spending money that wasn’t, strictly speaking, its own, the New Zealand Right declared total war on Helen Clark’s Government. There was no respite. The attacks came from everywhere. From National and Act, obviously, but also from the mainstream news media and high-ranking civil servants. Labour also faced the slings and arrows of blogs and websites run by persons whose political connections ran into some very interesting places, and linked them up with some very important people.

This war was as unrelenting as it was successful. In 2008 Helen Clark and her party were cast out of office like an errant puppy that has just been caught widdling on the carpet. John Key didn’t need to say: “And don’t come back until you know how to behave!” Labour had been given the message loud and clear. It would take the Party nine long years to find someone who could open the door and lead Labour back inside the House of Power.

That’s why it would be a political miracle if Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues did not meekly line up alongside the Right and announce 1 December as “Freedom Day”. Auckland is, after all, New Zealand’s largest city and its most crucial political marketplace. Without a fair old swag of the 1.6 million Aucklanders in tow, electorally speaking, a political party’s chances of winning the next General Election are pretty slim.

Keeping Auckland in tow electorally, and keeping its citizens locked-down until Christmas and beyond, don’t really add up as a winning political formula. Especially when a good 70-75 percent of Aucklanders have dutifully presented themselves for their double-dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The idea that they must remain confined within their city’s boundaries, while the unvaccinated of Auckland – and the rest of New Zealand – are wooed and cossetted in what is beginning to look like a futile attempt to persuade them to do the decent thing, is becoming less-and-less saleable as a political proposition.

As a politician with an instinctive flair for political marketing, it is very hard to envisage Jacinda attempting to make that sale. Far easier to see her joining with all the other “serious” parties (and, yes, you’re right, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori are not included in that group) by making the date of “Freedom Day” a matter of partisan agreement.

The Greens and Te Pāti Māori will, of course, complain that by joining with the right-wing parties Labour is effectively abandoning Māori to the ravages of the Delta variant of Covid-19. The Government, and the parties of the Right, will likely respond with Judith Collins’ argument that delaying the opening-up of Auckland, and the rest of New Zealand, solely on account of the low rate of Māori vaccination would only expose Māori to all manner of racist abuse. It would make them the scapegoats of every Aucklander with a failing business; a job hanging in the balance; and/or a family member whose mental health is faltering.

Te Pāti Māori will protest that “Freedom Day” will amount to “Genocide Day” for tangata whenua. To which a great many of their fellow citizens will reply: “Not if you use the next four weeks to get vaccinated!”

There will also be many Kiwis who angrily lament the fact that making 1 December “Freedom Day” flies in the face of “The Science”. They may well be right, but, sadly, that boat has sailed. It sailed the day the Labour Government decided, against the advice of its medical scientists, to move out of Level 4 and down to level 3. After that crucial decision, “The Science” no longer entered into it. After that, the decision-making became, first and last, political.

Inevitably, the business community, the right-wing parties, and the right-wing news media have coalesced around a political solution that would leave the Labour Government with just two choices: Stand firm – and lose. Or, join the consensus – and at least retain the chance of winning in 2023.

Not quite Sophie’s Choice, but definitely Jacinda’s.

POSTSCRIPT:

THE FIRST THING to note about the Government announcements of Friday, 22 October 2021 was the staging. Clearly, the dimly lit Beehive Theatrette is no longer considered an appropriate setting for the Prime Minister’s communications. Accordingly, proceedings were moved to the Beehive Banqueting Hall. (The change may have been dictated by the sheer number of journalists clamouring to attend, but still.)

The second change was in the cast. Where was Ashley Bloomfield, the Director-General of Health? Today’s drama featured no experts. As noted above, our Covid universe now rests on politicians – all the way down.

As for the script, well, the date of 1 December may not have been mentioned, but it was there nonetheless. With Auckland declared to be about a day-and-a-half away from topping 90 percent of Aucklanders with one jab, it follows that the city is less than a month away from 90 percent being double-jabbed. That’s the cue for New Zealand’s largest city being set free from its Level 3 Lockdown, on, or just after, 1 December. When asked if that meant Aucklanders can join their families for Christmas, the Prime Minister said Yes – although travelling beyond the city will require a Vaccination Certificate (according to Chris Hipkins, empowering legislation is on the way for employers keen to enforce vaccination mandates) and quite possibly a negative Covid-19 test.

So far, so Key-Act-National.

Likewise with relation to the announcements of Finance Minister Grant Robertson. The appropriate quote here would appear to be: “Mo money! Mo money! Mo money!”; for another month, at least.

And Māori? Ah, yes, that’s where the fancy-footwork really got going. The nationwide goal of double-vaccinating 90 percent of the adult population, and then transitioning to the new “traffic-light” system of managing the virus, makes no mention of the Māori vaccination rates also topping 90 percent. That’s a significant omission. Like Judith Collins, Jacinda Ardern is clearly unwilling to have the whole country “held hostage” to Māori vaccine hesitancy – let alone refusal.

The Government has masked this by opting to tick-off the 90 percent vaccination target DHB by DHB. This will allow Māori leaders to identify where the extra $120 million for the double-jabbing of their people might best be spent. But that’s about as far as the Government is prepared to go.

That Peeni Henare’s Banquet Hall contribution gave every appearance of having been brutally truncated – by someone – may indicate that Labour’s Māori Caucus is less than happy with the Labour Cabinet’s decision. Notwithstanding their objections, however, the Key-Act-National position on Māori vaccination rates also seems to have been embraced by the Labour Government.

Colonisation’s roots are very deep and exceptionally strong.

As for the PM herself, Jacinda Ardern seemed more comfortable and on top of her game than she has been for weeks. Though she hasn’t announced 1 December as “Freedom Day” in as many words, that is clearly the timeline she is working to. The Prime Minister of New Zealand cannot assure 1.6 million Aucklanders that they will be free to visit their families at Christmas – wherever they may be located in new Zealand – and then renege on her promise.

Not without all hell breaking loose.


- Chris Trotter, Friday, 22 October 2021.


This essay and its postscript were originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 22 October 2021.

Rendering Unto Caesar: In Labour, "L’état c’est Jacinda".

Thank You Very Much For All The Powers: The present Labour Leader was not elected by the Party rank-and-file, Jacinda Ardern stepped into the job in extraordinary circumstances. And although no one would dispute that the members of the Labour Party love Jacinda – and would elect her in a heartbeat if asked – she is also the one who has, oh-so kindly, and oh-so gently, ushered them out of the spaces where important decisions are made.

WELL, WELL, WELL, former Labour Party President Nigel Haworth no longer believes Labour’s leaders should be elected by the membership. Yesterday (19/10/21) on Facebook, Haworth called for “a return to the pre-2012 constitutional arrangement in relation to the Party leadership (that is, leave the parliamentary leadership to a caucus decision).” His (rather bizarre) argument was that having the Leader of the Party elected by the grass-roots membership and trade union affiliates – as well as, it should not be forgotten, Caucus members – “had the perverse effect of weakening the Party in relation to Caucus”. This was, he claimed, “a most unfortunate outcome”.

Leaving aside the historical fact that the weakening of the Party in relation to Caucus happened more than 90 years ago, and that the constitutional reforms of 2012 represented (and were understood by most Labour MPs as) a deliberate attempt to strengthen the Party in relation to Caucus, the question arises: Why now? Why has Haworth taken to Facebook with such a controversial suggestion at this moment? Is it merely the rumination of a retired professor? Or is there more to it? And if he is testing the waters, then on whose behalf?

To say that Haworth’s suggestion was greeted with alarm by many Labour members would be an understatement. Indeed, so voluble was the opposition that, barely 24 hours after his first post on the subject, Haworth felt obliged to “explain my thinking” in another.

It didn’t help.

In its essence, Haworth’s key argument is grounded in the most uncompromising realpolitik. While “well motivated”, he conceded, making the election of the Leader of the Labour Party a “broadly-based democratic arrangement” failed to take sufficient account of “the reality of power.” Curiously, he then chose to expand upon this steely observation with a biblical reference. Caucus’s selection of the Party Leader was, he said, “a version of ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’” Then, as if quoting Jesus wasn’t peculiar enough, he availed himself of what he claimed to be a Chinese saying: “Leaders come, leaders go, but the Party goes on forever.” Given that the “Party” in question could only be the Chinese Communist Party, Haworth’s thinking appeared to be transitioning rapidly from bad to just plain weird.

Was he presenting the Labour Party as a beatific collection of seekers after truth to whom the grubby realities of power could only offer the most dangerous distraction? Certainly, the biblical quotation he uses lends itself to that conclusion. Because, of course, Haworth only quotes half of Jesus’s famous response to the Pharisees who were trying to trap him into saying something against his Roman overlords. The full quote from Matthew 22, reads: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

What that means in the context of the New Zealand Labour Party is an intriguing question. Could the quotation be reformulated to read: “Render therefore unto Caucus the things which are Caucus’s; and unto Democracy, the things that are Democracy’s” Hardly, since the thrust of Haworth’s argument seems to be in the opposite direction. In the good professor’s mind the role of God seems to have been taken on by the Party itself. Certainly, Haworth, like the Chinese communists, sees the Party as eternal. A living thing that must, at all costs, be protected from the potentially fatal consequences of its political leaders’ actions.

But a living thing that has no other purpose but to go on living, would strike most people as a pretty poor model for an effective political party. It is certainly not how the Labour Party, in those moments when it was able to play a significant political role in the life of New Zealand, would have described itself. At the time of its formation, during the First World War, during the years of the Great Depression, and again in the late-1970s and early-1980s, the Party was a vibrant, self-aware political force, resolute in its determination to change New Zealand for the better.

This was the Labour Party that Margaret Wilson (President of the Party 1984-87) fought to save as the Labour Caucus rolled out Rogernomics. The Party which split. The Party, much weaker now, which guided by the calculating hand of Helen Clark, was able, with a final burst of strength, to strip the leadership from Mike Moore and his fellow Rogernomes. The Party which, having expended the last of its political resources, found itself “linked hip and knee” to a Labour Caucus presided over by Helen Clark and filled with her hand-picked allies. But this Labour Party was not the vitally independent entity of Haworth’s ahistorical imagination. It did not exercise “necessary oversight” over its parliamentary representatives. This Labour Party was the handmaiden of Helen Clark – nothing more, nothing less.

And when Helen Clark departed for New York, it was this Party which slowly and painfully began to re-gather the democratic threads of self-government into its members’ hands. First in the area of Party Policy and then – to the utter fury of many of the people who now occupy the most senior positions in Cabinet – by way of a constitutional struggle to give the people who make the Party: ordinary members and trade union affiliates; a decisive role in choosing the person who will lead them. Or, to put it another way: the Party which demanded the very thing that Nigel Haworth believes Labour’s organisational wing should prize the most: power.

Haworth does not mention Jacinda Ardern, but it is her political star that lights the path of his argument. The present Labour Leader was not elected by the Party rank-and-file, she stepped into the job in extraordinary circumstances. But, it was not those circumstances which made her extraordinary. Ardern represents the forces within the Labour Caucus that (with a huge amount of help from the man himself) destroyed the leadership of David Cunliffe. Her closest allies led the fight against constitutional reform on the floor of the 2012 Annual Conference. And although no one would dispute that the members of the Labour Party love Jacinda – and would elect her in a heartbeat if asked – she is also the one who has, oh-so kindly, and oh-so gently, ushered them out of the spaces where important decisions are made.

Labour has already rendered everything unto Caesar – and Nigel Haworth does not appear to have noticed that, in the process, the Party has rendered itself powerless.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 21 October 2021.

The Power Of "No".

Irrational Resistance: With the Delta variant of Covid-19 raging through their communities and pumping up the number of community cases to new and frightening levels, it’s beginning to dawn on the ill-treated and excluded that, for once in their lives, they have the power. If the System is so desperate for them to get “the jab”; then refusing to get vaccinated constitutes a powerful political statement. How often, in the past, has anybody listened when they said “No.” Well, they’re listening now!

BREXIT STILL PUZZLES many Britons, especially those in possession of a good education and an impressive Curriculum Vitae. The “better sort of persons”, those with a genuine “stake” in the nation, still cannot understand why so many of their fellow citizens voted “against their own interests”. It seemed like utter madness.

Those who supported the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union denounced this “Remain” response for displaying both a lamentable ignorance of the issues involved and a disgraceful measure of condescension towards more than half the British population.

All true, but the Remainers were on to something, nonetheless.

One of the reasons the Remain campaign was so shocked by the result of the Brexit referendum was that their pollster (allegedly the best in the business) was assuring them, right up until the last minute, that the “Leave” campaign would fall short by two or three percentage points. What he and his clients had failed to factor-in to the Brexit equation was just how irrational people can be when they feel ill-treated by and excluded from “mainstream” society.

Those on the left of the political spectrum like to pin the blame for this unlooked-for eruption of political irrationality on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. But, they didn’t create the ill-treated and the excluded, that was the work of decades – of centuries. All they did was find these people and allow the Leavers to talk to them.

The fatal assumption of the Remainers was that people this alienated from the “System” simply didn’t vote. Their pollster shaped his raw data with the assumption that the Britons who didn’t vote in the General Election of 2015 would also sit out the Referendum in 2016. That’s why his predictions consistently overestimated Remain’s support. He simply had no idea that the Leavers were in contact with three million potential voters that almost no one knew anything about.

And what did the Leave campaign tell these voters? Simple. It told them that, for just this one time, they had the power. All those high-and-mighty people who always ended up winning – regardless of which party was in power. The rich and the powerful with all the good things in life – the things they’d never have. These, the so-called “elites”, wanted to remain – needed to remain – in the EU. Losing the referendum was, quite literally, inconceivable. Impossible.

But, it wasn’t impossible. If, just this one time, they got up off the couch and voted, the Leave campaigners told the ill-treated and the excluded, they could throw a gigantic spanner into the System’s works. “Take Back Control” they whispered across the wilderness of social-media. Just this once – make the bastards weep!

New Zealanders are not Britons. But, like the United Kingdom, this country also has a large – albeit largely invisible – population of the ill-treated and excluded.

Most of the time their ill-treatment and exclusion isn’t that much of a problem. Oh sure, they cost the taxpayer a lot of money in benefits, police officers, courts and prisons – but not as much as it would cost the System to bring them out of the shadow and into the light. Which is why they are left to rot in damp and unhealthy houses, in decaying suburbs without amenities – or hope. Places where a career in crime offers one of the few proven exits from poverty and misery – at least for a while.

The ill-treated and the excluded know very well that they’re being ground-down by the System, they have just despaired of ever making the Powers-That-Be listen to them.

Until now.

With the Delta variant of Covid-19 raging through their communities and pumping up the number of community cases to new and frightening levels, it’s beginning to dawn on the ill-treated and excluded that, for once in their lives, they have the power. If the System is so desperate; dammit, if all those nice, comfortable people, in all those nice leafy suburbs they’ll never visit are so desperate for them to get “the jab”; then refusing to get vaccinated is flat-out certain to drive them nuts. How often, in the past, has anybody listened when they said “No.” Well, they’re listening now!

Irrational? Yes. Immoral? Yes, again. But, if we offer our poorest citizens nothing but physical and spiritual blows, then should we really be surprised when they strike us back?


This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 October 2021.

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Moving To The Right.

Eyes On The Right Prize: In the key electoral real estate of Auckland, Act has already overtaken the National Party. The same is true of rural New Zealand and the small provincial towns that serve it. A torch-passing moment may be at hand: the historical supplanting of the dominant right-wing party by its tightly disciplined and pitch-perfect challenger.

CURIA RESEARCH’S (i.e. David Farrar’s) latest poll for the Taxpayers’ Union bodes very ill for the Left. Although Labour retains a commanding lead with nearly 45 percent of the Party Vote, and in spite of the fact that National still languishes in the low 20s, the gap between the parties of the Left and the parties of the Right has shrunk from nearly 20 percent to 12 percent. The direction of travel in New Zealand politics is no longer towards the Left. Unmistakeably, political sentiment is shifting rightward.

Let’s begin with the Greens. Historically, this has been considered the most left-wing political party in the New Zealand Parliament. Debatable from the outset, this characterisation has become increasingly difficult to sustain. Certainly, the departure of such recognisably left-wing Greens as Sue Bradford and Keith Locke made the designation tenuous – at best. Such ideological positioning that the Greens have undertaken since they re-entered government in 2017 has caused many observers to locate the party at the extreme end of radical Identity Politics.

Not that observers any longer have much opportunity to observe the workings of the Green Party up close and unmolested by its official gatekeepers. In its early days, under Rod Donald’s and Jeanette Fitzsimons’ leadership, the party made a positive fetish out of its openness to the news media and interested members of the public. Over the course of the last decade, however, this openness has decreased to the point where, at the party’s latest AGM, no part of the proceedings (apart from set-piece speeches from the co-leaders and a final media conference) were open to the news media.

Green supporters would, of course, object that the conferences of the main parties have for many years been similarly restricted. While that objection is true of Labour, it is less so of National. Besides, such a bare-faced defence of public exclusion sits very uneasily with a party calling itself Green. Clearly, the ultra-democratic, libertarian principles of the early Green movement have long since been replaced with … less friendly … concepts.

Perhaps it is this sense that the Greens have changed, that they are not what they were, that lies behind their 3-point loss of support. Alternatively, it could be the increasing difficulty in distinguishing the political style and content of the Green Party from that of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party which explains the shift of support from the former to the latter. Whatever the explanation, Labour will be feeling both relieved and concerned at the transfer of allegiance.

Without the influx of former Green support, Labour’s numbers would not have looked anything like so solid. The Green defectors masked the exodus of yet more of Jacinda’s 2020 supporters in a generally rightward direction. Without them, Labour’s strategists would have been fielding questions about what the mainstream news media would have delighted in calling “a precipitate loss of support”.

Being spared that headline, while gratifying, would, however, have been of only limited consolation to those same Labour strategists. The last thing they need is a Green Party hovering over the 5 percent MMP threshold, while Labour is struggling to hold a position in the mid-40s. Happiness and security is Labour at 45 percent and the Greens at 10. (Labour at 50.1 percent would, of course, be better, but elections like 2020 are once-in-a-lifetime events.)

Labour’s woes, however, must seem like the purest joy to a National Party spiralling down towards electoral destruction. One can only imagine how devastating it must have been for its strategic leadership to observe the approaching throng of former National supporters: the mostly female supporters who deserted Judith Collins for Jacinda almost exactly one year ago; pass National by and just keep right on marching to the beat of David Seymour’s Act-ivist drum. Naturally, some of them returned to the National fold, but nowhere near enough. National’s upward tick of support was well within the margin of error. Set against the roughly equal amount of support that had bled out to Winston Peters and NZ First, there really was very little to celebrate.

Only in Act were the champagne corks popping. Seymour and his team must be wondering where, exactly, the upward curve on the graph is going to stop. Could it really keep climbing all the way up to and beyond 20 percent – the figure at which surpassing National becomes practically an arithmetical certainty?

Curia Research has only hopeful things to tell them in this respect. In the key electoral real estate of Auckland, Act has already overtaken the National Party. The same is true of rural New Zealand and the small provincial towns that serve it. A torch-passing moment may be at hand: the historical supplanting of the dominant right-wing party by its tightly disciplined and pitch-perfect challenger.

It is important not to let the imagination run too wild at such moments. Older voters who backed the late Jim Anderton’s Alliance in the early 1990s will recall the days when its poll numbers soared past Labour’s, driving its centre-Left rival down to a humiliating 15 percent. But Labour, led by the steadfast Helen Clark, surged back into contention and, eventually, into the role of senior partner in the Labour-Alliance Coalition Government of 1999-2002.

National, too, can climb its way out of the hole it has dug for itself since the departure of John Key and Bill English. A fair amount of metaphorical blood will have to be shed to aid that ascent. But that is unlikely to prove an insuperable obstacle. National has never been averse to spilling a little claret.

Ironically, a fight to the finish between National and Act for the right to rule the Right may prove to a an electoral winner. Providing National chooses a personable and intelligent leader: someone capable of building a coherent and productive team. And if that team is equal to developing a policy platform which “Middle New Zealand” finds credible. Then, allowing a battle of right-wing ideas to rage between themselves and their equally engaging rivals in Act may actually end-up building the overall strength of the Right. Such an ideological struggle would certainly signal where all the intellectual and political action was.

If the Greens were still the party of Donald and Fitzsimons, it is possible they could goad Jacinda’s Labour into a similar battle of ideas. God knows, she and her party badly need to re-learn the art of arguing from first principles. Sadly, neither the Greens, nor Labour, any longer seem equipped to generate the collective excitement and individual commitment that keep the voters coming back for more.

When the smoke of the battle against Covid-19 finally clears, what additional achievements will the parties of the Left have to set before the voters – and what plans?


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 19 October 2021.

Monday, 18 October 2021

Too Much Say, Not Enough Do.

When The Green Party Co-Leader Speaks, Does He Make Any Sound? James Shaw must know that neither New Zealanders, nor the rest of humanity, will ever take the urgent and transformative action that Science now deems necessary to stave-off climate catastrophe.


POOR JAMES SHAW: He’s the man this government sends out to tell us that the news is still bad. Worse still, he’s the man whose job it is to bring us, if not exactly good news, then at least some reassurance that it’s not getting worse. Notwithstanding the fact that he is New Zealand’s Climate Change Minister, however, poor James Shaw can’t even do that.

Do his colleagues from the Labour Party care? Not enough, apparently, to make the Climate Change Minister a full member of Cabinet. That decision, alone, strongly suggests that not only does Labour not care about the public credibility of the male co-leader of the Greens, but also that it doesn’t really care about Climate Change – full stop.

Why else would they be sending him off to Glasgow with next-to-nothing to show the world from New Zealand? Could it be because they know that whatever the major contributors to Climate Change may say, they’re not intending to actually  very much either? In spite of the Queen’s “irritation” at “too much say, not enough do” from world leaders. In spite of Greta Thunberg’s caustic refrain of “blah, blah, blah”. Our leaders know that the world’s leading nations cannot afford anything more expensive than “blah, blah, blah” without crippling their economies and/or (if they’re democracies) being thrown out of office – and neither can New Zealand’s.

So, off James will go with nothing in his attaché case but promises to do better – which neither he, nor the Labour Government, are in any position to keep.

Will anybody, apart from the environmental NGOs and a few Climate Change swots, pay much attention to New Zealand’s dereliction? Well, the mainstream news media will certainly huff and puff for a few days. They’ll run Greenpeace’s media releases. They’ll commission plenty of op-ed commentary from the usual suspects. Then they’ll go back to publishing advertisements for SUVs and double-cab utes, and agitating for the “smug hermit kingdom” to re-join the world – especially by air.

“Will nobody think of the planet?!” For those deeply involved in the science of Climate Change, elevated anxiety levels will more than match the rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature. Their concern, however, is not really for the planet, it is for their own benighted species, and its apparent inability to recognise the enormous dangers bearing down upon it.

As scientists, they know “The Planet” has absolutely no thoughts on the matter.

Among under-graduates, the tree falling in the forest conundrum has always been a favourite. Everyone of a philosophical bent has heard it: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

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

A tall tree falling through the air and striking the ground with considerable force will indeed produce the physical effects that the human ear delivers to the human brain as “sound”. And not only the human ear and brain. A timber wolf, whose hearing is vastly more sensitive than any human’s, will similarly register the tree’s fall.

The point, however, is that (as far as we know) only the human brain is capable of formulating the original question. Moreover, only the human brain is remotely interested in the answer.

Planet Earth, which is, of course, our creation – since a ball of rock whirling around its star lacks the self-awareness required to name itself – has undergone numerous and massive changes in its four billion year history. Science tells us that the planet was at one time covered with ice from pole to pole. At other times it had a surface temperature equal to that of the hottest of hothouses, with an atmosphere so full of oxygen that dragonflies were able to grow as big as seagulls, and lizards larger than a double-decker bus. And, when an asteroid the size of Manhattan struck its surface – leaving a crater as deep as Mt Everest is tall – killing-off the dominant dinosaur species (along with just about every other species of animal life) the ball of rock was shaken, but not stirred. It had withstood bigger blows. There had been other extinctions. Life always found its way back.

Which is where we, the clever apes, enter the story. Or, rather, where the clever apes come up with the peculiar idea – unique to themselves – that they, other creatures, and even the material world in which they find themselves, have a story to tell.

An evolutionary adaptation of enormous utility, it would seem, this ability to insert oneself into an ongoing narrative. The past experiences of one’s long-dead ancestors become preservable – and, therefore, recallable – to the evident benefit of those living in the present. Did the human-beings who lived through the last ice age, when ice-sheets more than a kilometre high extended past the Canadian border, comfort themselves with the inherited memory of a warmer world? Did they pray for climate change?

Did Ice-Age humans pray for climate change?

Telling stories about the future, however, suffers from the considerable disadvantage that, unlike stories concerning the past, no one can be entirely certain how – or even if – they will turn out. Human-beings are capable of being motivated by promises of better things to come. They are less prone, however, to invest too much emotional energy in stories foretelling doom and gloom. The phenomenon of confirmation bias leads us to suppose that human-beings believe more readily in stories that have a happy ending.

Unfortunately, climate scientists seem less and less inclined to predict such an ending to the Climate Change story. This is, of course, a problem, since evolution has only equipped human-beings to respond to imminent threats that are within their power to meet and defeat. The howling of wolves will draw the hunters to the perimeter of the firelight. Hitler’s depredations will set the arms factories humming. Far-off threats, decades distant, are much harder to get people excited about.

In the dark watches of the night, James Shaw must know that this baked-in human weakness is more than likely to overwhelm all his plans. That neither New Zealanders, nor the rest of humanity, will ever take the urgent and transformative action Science now deems necessary to stave-off climate catastrophe. Perhaps he comforts himself with thoughts of some last-minute technological fix. Or, perhaps, he simply imagines the last surviving human-being looking up into a night sky awash with stars, and weeping, because, in his absence, the whirling ball of rock will not know, or care, how beautiful human eyes had made it.

Or how silently the trees will fall – when he has gone.


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website of Monday, 18 October 2021.

Friday, 15 October 2021

Invasion Of The (Covid) Body Snatchers.

It's Here! They're Here! We're Here! Help! It’s as if we’re all living through a Covid version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What has become of Jacinda? Where have they taken her closest Cabinet colleagues? The people on the stage of the Beehive Theatrette look the same, but they no longer feel the same. As he rejects the advice of his scientific advisers, telling us that there will be no return to Level 4, Chris Hipkin’s boyish grin looks more and more like a contemptuous Wellington smirk.

AM I THE ONLY AUCKLANDER feeling let down today? (14/10/21) Seventy-one new community cases detected – with that number set to double in the next fortnight. The prospect looms of New Zealand’s largest city being awash with the Delta Variant of Covid-19 by Christmas.

In a few months’ time we are being told to expect up to 5,000 new cases per week. When interviewed, those on the Covid frontline sound like the commanders of a beleaguered army, just waiting for the enemy’s vastly superior formations to come marching over the hill.

To be honest, it’s bloody frightening.

Like so many other Aucklanders, I’ve been waiting to hear the Government’s rescue plan. Unfortunately, they don’t appear to have one – other than sealing Auckland’s borders and letting 1.6 million New Zealanders stew in their own Covid juices until the virus burns itself out.

This is not the Labour Government that New Zealanders flocked to support exactly one year ago this Sunday. That government would never have dreamed of abandoning Auckland to its fate. That Jacinda Ardern told all of us to be kind to one another and gave us her promise to stamp the virus out. She kept her word, and Labour was rewarded with 50.1 percent of the Party Vote.

Where has that Prime Minister gone?

It’s as if we’re all living through a Covid version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What has become of the Jacinda who built the Team of Five Million? Where have they taken her closest Cabinet colleagues? Grant Robertson, who kept the economy going? Chris Hipkins, who reassured us that New Zealand was at the front of the queue for the Pfizer vaccine? The people on the stage of the Beehive Theatrette look the same, but they no longer feel the same. As he rejects the advice of his scientific advisers, telling us that there will be no return to Level 4, Chippy’s boyish grin looks more and more like a contemptuous Wellington smirk.

The Body Snatchers have been busy here in Auckland, too. Many of the Aucklanders who had borne the earlier lockdowns stoically and with good humour also seem to have been replaced. They, too, look the same, but their behaviour during the Delta Lockdown has been very different.

These Aucklanders are more reckless of the rules, and more contemptuous of those who follow them. Reference to Jacinda’s Team of Five Million provokes only scorn and derision. If they think they can get away with it, these Aucklanders will happily break all the Level 4 and Level 3 rules.

It’s enough to make you believe that the Anti-Vaxxers might be on to something: that the Pfizer vaccine just might contain a virulent social toxin capable of transforming hitherto kind and compassionate citizens into vicious, self-centred arseholes. Anti-socials, whose meagre stocks of care and concern might just extend to their families and friends, show scant social solidarity for their fellow Aucklanders – especially those trapped in communities where the vaccination rates are low.

In the Asian and Pakeha communities, where vaccination rates are high, the scope for a racially-charged absence of empathy is considerable. Such indifference is made all the easier by the careless conceptual conflation of the unvaccinated, Maori and Pasifika, drug addicts and the criminal gangs who supply them. Eugenicist quips, laced with racism, such as “Let Darwin take care of the problem!”, show just how busy the Body Snatchers have been in Auckland’s leafy suburbs.

By the same token, the blank refusal of the woman who carried Covid into Northland to co-operate with the authorities, forcing the entire region into Level 3 Lockdown, strongly suggests that the viciously anti-social behaviour of the Snatchers’ substitutions crosses all boundaries of class, race and gender.

As the hero of the original 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dr Miles Bennell, observes:

“In my practice, I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind... All of us – a little bit – we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.”

Well, it’s not happening slowly here. In Auckland it is happening all at once. Far too many people in this city – and in Wellington! – are allowing their humanity to drain away. Exactly what it is that has hardened the hearts of our political leaders – most especially our Queen of Hearts – and caused so many Aucklanders to become callous rule-breakers is hard to determine.

If you can think of something alien and heartless; something determined to stamp out those precious qualities that make us human; something that’s been here for a while, never missing an opportunity to swell the ranks of its robotic army of unfeeling followers; then could you please drop me a line.

Before the rest of us are snatched away.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 October 2021.

Missing From The Anti-Covid Action.

The Invisible Man: Where has the NZ Council of Trade Unions been during the Covid-19 Pandemic? Why hasn’t its current president, Richard Wagstaff (above) become a household name during the pandemic? Up there with Ashley Bloomfield, Michael Baker, Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles? 

WHERE HAVE THE UNIONS BEEN during the Covid-19 Pandemic? That the question can even be posed suggests that something is very wrong with the New Zealand labour movement. After all, the answer should be all around us.

At its high-point, under the late, and sorely missed, Helen Kelly, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU) liked to present itself as the largest democratic organisation in New Zealand. With upwards of 300,000 affiliated members, that claim was no idle boast. As Kelly proved, the CTU has always possessed the potential to do an enormous amount of good.

So, where has it been? Why hasn’t its current president, Richard Wagstaff, become a household name during the pandemic? Up there with Ashley Bloomfield, Michael Baker, Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles? Where was the tireless advocacy for essential workers: the people who stood at the check-out counters, drove the trucks and operated the warehouses? When supermarket workers came under attack from the stupid and the selfish, why were they defended with more passion by their bosses, than by the CTU?

Which is not to imply that, down at the coalface, union organisers have not been fighting the good fight for their members. The “sergeants” and “corporals” of the movement have, indeed, been working tirelessly. Some of them have even managed to attract the attention of the news media. Unions like FIRST and Unite – affiliates of the CTU – have stood loyal right through this pandemic: speaking-up and fighting-back; making it very clear to anyone with ears to hear, exactly which side they are on.

But these are the “grunts”, the frontline fighters, the ones who, when the question arises: “Who ya gonna call?”, answer: “Us. You call us. You call your union.” There just aren’t enough hours in the day for these battlers to meet even half the need that’s out there. They certainly don’t have the time or the resources to plan and fund nationwide campaigns; issue media releases; and appear on programmes like AM, Breakfast, Newshub Nation and Q+A. That’s why they send money, collected from thousands of ordinary working people, to the CTU in Wellington.

This is where you might expect to find the “generals” and the “colonels” of the labour movement. The men and women who run the unions’ union. This is where you might expect to hear the national voice of organised labour in New Zealand – speaking up loud and proud for this country’s working-class.

So why haven’t we heard anything remotely like this coming from the CTU? All that money: taken from the pockets of ordinary working men and women so their voices can be heard and their interests defended; what has it been spent on?

This country has been subjected to a veritable blizzard of propaganda from those whose profits have been put at risk. The lobbying of the tourism and hospitality industries was so unrelenting they were gifted their precious Trans-Tasman Bubble – and workers ended up with the Delta variant.

Workers might have expected the CTU to lead the charge for “No Jab. No Job”. Because how else can employees be protected from the enormous risk posed by the stupid and the selfish? The great union motto has always been: “An injury to one is an injury to all!” Not, “The injury of all – by one.” What greater priority could the labour movement have than throwing its entire weight behind the drive for universal inoculation against Covid-19?

Well, according to the veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, the priority of the CTU has been ever-so-slightly different:

“Businesses are caught in a legal tangle if they try to enforce ‘no jab no job’ policies. Up until yesterday, business leaders were convinced the Government would not move on “no jab no job”, in part because it is opposed by the Combined Trade Unions.”

Yep, that’s what he said: “because it is opposed” by the CTU. Opposed!

Rather than defend the health of ordinary working people, the CTU has been slowing the vaccination roll-out by defending the “rights” of the stupid and the selfish. Permitting the injury of all – by anti-vaxxers.

How wonderful that, at last, Jacinda Ardern and her Labour colleagues have finally seen sense and set the “No Jab. No Job” ball rolling. But, how ironic, that they had to do it over the objections of the CTU.


This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 October 2021.