Thursday 29 February 2024

Tougher Love.

"Ullo, ullo, ullo, what's coming off here then?" Mark Mitchell’s Gang Laws are separating the Liberal Sheep from the Authoritarian Goats.  

THE INTENSIFYING POLITICAL CONTROVERSY over the Coalition Government’s policy on gangs promises to be one of those sheep-from-goats moments. While the Left will veer instinctively towards the sociological, the Right will opt to (paraphrasing one of the best lines from Pulp Fiction) “get medieval” on the gangs’ collective ass. Practical questions, such as “Can this policy possibly work?” will crash into angry ideological responses, “Are you saying gangs are above the law?” The sociological “sheep” who believe in a world unconstrained by the shackles of “human nature”, will face the “goats” of realism, who recognise the necessity of keeping human-beings’ potential for chaos and cruelty under strict control.

One could argue that the gangs (or, at least, the Mongrel Mob’s) biggest political misjudgement of the past 12 months was to go large on the opportunity provided by the funeral of a fallen comrade. In retrospect, it almost certainly would have been wiser for them to pay their last respects in mufti, and to have hired busses for the journey to Opotiki.

Where was Harry Tam when the Mob needed him? He could have outlined the risks, in an election year, of turning a fellow gang member’s tangi into a show of Mongrel Mob strength. Warning them that there’s not a conservative politician in New Zealand, or anywhere else, who could fail to register the extraordinary opportunity for making electoral capital out of the “gang takeover” of the little Bay of Plenty town.

Certainly, Mark Mitchell – former police officer, onetime gun-toting international security contractor, Member of Parliament and, in 2023, the National Party’s spokesperson for matters relating to Law & Order, can only have relished the scenes of hundreds of gang members, some on motorcycles, others piled onto the backs of utes, riding into Opotiki in much the same way as the Wehrmacht rode into Poland and France.

Mitchell knew, because he was one of them, exactly how conservative Pakeha males all over New Zealand would be responding to these scenes; was rolling the words around in his own mouth, even as they were spat out towards 100,000 screens: “Who the fuck is running this country!” Followed immediately by: “Where are the fucking cops!”

Cue the Left’s standard intervention. Gangs are what you get when the pathways to personal and communal prosperity are blocked by the exigencies of capitalist macroeconomics – always and ably assisted by the systemic and individualised racism endemic to all white settler states. When the traditional cultural mechanisms for managing and socially integrating the young are rendered ineffectual by rapid and massive urbanisation. When being young and Māori in a Pakeha town or city makes you guilty of whatever’s bugging the cops until your innocence is proven. When the only way to make it through the rite-of-passage of a prison sentence is by accepting the protection of people in exactly the same predicament as yourself.

All of which is true, but irrelevant. The how and the why of gangs cuts little ice when [insert small rural community’s name here] wastewater treatment plant is testing positive – very positive – for methamphetamine, and God knows what other drugs. Because, absent the criminality and the inevitable violence with which it is associated, a gang is nothing more than a club. One becomes a gangster by breaking the law. And one becomes a patched gangster by seriously breaking the law.

Which is why a gang patch is so intimidating. It tells you that the person wearing it is someone you had better not mess with – someone you would be wise to fear. No police officer operating alone, or even as one of a pair, is ever going to attempt to make a gang member remove his patch.

That Mark Mitchell and Paul Goldsmith are pledged to shepherding a bill through Parliament which will give police officers the legal right to require the removal of gang patch means nothing. Only with a hefty squad of armed police backing up the local constable/s will gang patches ever be removed from gang members’ shoulders and hung-up safely in the gang’s headquarters. And when the armed-up outsider cops have gone back to the big smoke, what then? What happens to the local cops the next time they’re out on patrol? What can they do when the gangs know where they live – where their families live?

Is it possible that Mitchell and Goldsmith are well aware that the laws they are committed to passing cannot possibly be effective unless and until there has been a profound change in the way New Zealand is policed. And is that what they are planning? To move New Zealand away from its present policy of “policing by consent”, to policing the citizenry by threatening and, with rising frequency, using armed force?

Because with the Coalition Government’s introduction of laws forbidding the wearing of gang patches in public; laws mandating the immediate dispersal of gang assemblies; laws prohibiting criminal association; it really wouldn’t take very much to set-off a bloody confrontation between the gangs and the Police. And if a police officer, or officers, were killed or seriously injured in that confrontation, how hard would it be to secure public support for arming the Police, and outlawing gang membership altogether?

For all the “goats” out there, the idea of arming the police is no great cause for concern. Indeed, they would demand to know of their “sheepish” compatriots how else the situation might be brought under control. When the number of gang members in New Zealand is roughly equivalent to the number of sworn police officers, they would argue, not arming the frontline enforcers of the law could easily be seen as criminally negligent.

The “sheep” out there would, naturally, be distraught at the loss of policing by consent. While it remains the firm policy of the New Zealand state, it is still possible to believe that the democratic impulse it embodies remains strong. That respect for basic human rights will, still, in the end, overrule the authoritarian impulses of those who see human nature as something dark, something to be controlled at all costs.

But, as the recommended responses to the Christchurch Mosque Massacres should have made clear to all our “sheep”, further state-sponsored curtailment of citizen’s rights, undertaken from the most noble of motives, of course, is only another deadly tragedy away.

The “goats”, meanwhile, can rest assured that once the liberals have been policed, and the police liberated, New Zealanders can anticipate tragedies in abundance.

This essay was originally posted by The Democracy Project on Monday, 26 February 2024.

The Clue Is In The Name.

Truth In Advertising? The Nats do best when they take the “National” part of their name seriously,

WHEN ITS FOUNDERS christened New Zealand’s newest anti-socialist party “National”, they had two objectives. The first was largely cosmetic. The second, and much more important objective, was ideological.

In 1936, the year in which the New Zealand National Party was formed, the “Mother Country” – as a great many New Zealanders still referred to Great Britain – was under its third “National Government”. Although dominated by his own Conservative Party, the new Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, saw no reason to dispense with the fiction that he was leading something very similar to the government of national unity that had been formed to fight the Great Depression in 1931.

Essentially a “grand coalition”, the first British National Government had contained a substantial chunk of the British Parliamentary Labour Party. Indeed, the first leader of Britain’s first National Government was the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald.

It isn’t difficult to understand why the men who drew together the defeated Reform and United Parties into a new and permanent coalition decided to call their creation “National”. By consciously referencing its British namesake, and the example it set of bringing together all “responsible” political actors for the sake of the nation; New Zealand’s conservatives hoped to borrow a little of its lustre.

But, more important by far than referencing the Mother Country was the deeper, ideological objective behind the “New Zealand National Party” name. Its founders were determined to differentiate the new party’s purpose and principles from the class-driven imperatives of the Labour Party.

Except for the most socialist of its followers, Labour’s name has always been a problem. It speaks unashamedly of the class conflict lying at the heart of New Zealand’s capitalist society, and of its founders’ avowed determination to put the interests of the working-class – Labour – ahead of those of the employing-class – Capital. Unsurprisingly, Labour’s enemies never tired of accusing Labour of sowing conflict and division. Years after the Great Depression, Labour leader Norman Kirk still fretted about the party’s name, confiding to his private secretary, Margaret Hayward, his wish to drop the word “labour” altogether, in favour, simply, of the “New Zealand Party”.

Had National’s founders been as recklessly honest about their political goals as Labour’s socialists, they would have called their new party “Capital”. Given the numerical paucity of the country’s capitalist elites, however, such forthrightness would have been ill-advised. In New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy, such ideological candour would have condemned the new party to permanent opposition.

Hence the bid to equate the interests of all those who belonged to, and/or voted for, the National Party with the national interest per se. In sharp contrast to the Labour Party, which it portrayed as sectarian, divisive, and disloyal, National presented itself as the great unifier, open to all New Zealanders, and dedicated to the nation’s continuing progress and prosperity.

In a strictly practical sense, the new party was correct – it did represent the preponderant interests of New Zealand. United under its moniker were the rural-based interests of the country’s principal income earners, the farmers; along with the principal generators of New Zealand’s economic activity, the owners of private enterprises large and small. The poet and broadcaster Gary McCormick spoke more truly than he knew when, many years ago, he quipped: “The National Party stands for all New Zealanders – farmers and businessmen alike!”

It is this curious, almost contradictory, combination of political motives: seeking to advance and unite the whole nation, while simultaneously protecting the private and special interests of its farmers and businesspeople; that has dogged National ever since its formation.

In times of prosperity, when farmers and businesspeople, along with the rest of the nation, are doing well, the National Party’s expansive and inclusive political rhetoric finds a ready audience. When times are hard, however, and a choice must be made between looking after everyone, and making the welfare of farmers and businesspeople the National Party’s No. 1 priority, then New Zealand politics can turn decidedly nasty.

Christopher Luxon, National’s ninth prime-minister, has assumed office in times that look set to grow increasingly hard. True to National Party form, he and his colleagues, egged on by their party’s coalition partners, Act and NZ First, are aggressively prioritising the claims of the farming and business communities over those of the rest of the New Zealand population – most particularly social-welfare beneficiaries. Under the rubric of “Tough Love”, Luxon is brazenly playing social and economic favourites.

Historically, this class oriented strategy has not turned out well for the National Party. The last time it turned nasty, during the first and third terms of the Fourth National Government (1990-1999) it set the scene for nine years of Labour-led governments. National only recovered power on the strength of John Key’s wink-wink, nudge-nudge, commitment to pick up where Helen Clark left off.

Luxon could do himself and his party a power of good by studying closely the strategy of National’s fourth prime minister, Rob Muldoon, who, in spite of holding the prime-ministership through some of New Zealand’s most challenging and tumultuous years, won three general elections on the trot. The secret to Muldoon’s electoral success lay in his decision to take the “national” part of National’s name seriously.

His 1975 slogan, “New Zealand the way YOU want it” indicated clearly the populist path Muldoon was determined to follow. Three years later he insisted that his government had pulled off an “economic miracle” and counselled against doing anything rash (like voting for Labour or, yikes, Social Credit!) that might undermine it.

In 1980 Muldoon refashioned the economic-nationalist policies formulated by the 1957-60 Labour Government – policies he had won his political spurs opposing back in 1960-61 – and presented them to the country as his own “Think Big” national development strategy. With these, and having demonstrated, with “batons and barbed wire”, his party’s unflinching commitment to New Zealand’s national game, Muldoon eked out a third consecutive electoral victory in 1981.

Critical to Muldoon’s destruction of Labour’s 23-seat majority in 1975 was his populist promise to outdo Labour’s contributory New Zealand Superannuation scheme. Seldom has so much been offered to so pivotal a voting bloc! Muldoon’s “National Superannuation” promised what amounted to a universal basic income, equivalent to 70 percent of the average wage, to every New Zealand citizen over the age of 60 years. The elderly would remain National Party loyalists – “Rob’s Mob” – for the best part of the next decade.

According to University of Auckland economics professor, Tim Hazledine, a similar opportunity exists today for a politician with imagination and daring to dramatically reconfigure the delivery of state support. Excluding the over-65s, there are more than 600,000 New Zealanders in receipt of transfer payments from the New Zealand state. Noting that many of the recipients of these benefits will remain dependent of the state’s charity for more than 10 years, Hazledine correctly observes that our social welfare system has morphed into something its creator, Labour’s Michael Joseph Savage, would struggle to recognise.

The Professor’s solution? Redirect the $10 billion currently being spent on state transfer payments into a non-means-tested Universal Basic Income of $300 per week for all citizens currently receiving state support.

“Yes, that is somewhat less than what beneficiaries get now,” writes Hazledine in his NZ Herald op-ed piece, “but not a lot less, and it would liberate the productive energies of several hundred thousand able-bodied citizens.”

It might also do for Christopher Luxon what New Zealand’s original UBI did for Rob Muldoon: demonstrate that National is, as it says on the tin, a party committed to the welfare of the whole nation; and, as an added bonus, cement-in the support of a hitherto unresponsive voting-bloc for the best part of the next decade.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 26 February 2024.

Friday 23 February 2024

Democracy Denied.

Political Intervention From Above: From the early-1970s on, lobbying firms and think-tanks have grown like Topsy all across the capitalist world. Had the progressive middle-class not drawn its teeth and clipped its claws, an angry working-class might have risen to meet the Robber Baron’s challenge as it did in the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1970s. Without the kratos of the unruly majority of the demos behind them, however, the paternalist strategies of the progressives were easily countered.

DEMOCRACY WILL ALWAYS BE HATED by the rich and powerful. This is a truth that should never be, but all-too-often is, forgotten. If the kratos (power) really does reside in the demos (people) then it cannot reside in the clubs and boardrooms of the corporate elites. The stronger the people become, the more determined the elites will grow to destroy the institutions through which popular power is expressed. Much has been made recently (not least by the Democracy Project) of the political influence of lobbyists and think-tanks, as if this was somehow a new and disturbing development. It is not. All that the growing power and influence of lobbyists and think-tanks reveals is the growing weakness of our democratic institutions.

Rather than devoting their energies to building up the strength of those institutions – by aggressively re-democratising the Labour Party and the trade union movement, both of which have long-since ceased to evince the slightest democratic energy – more and more leftists are avoiding the implications of their crushing political defeat by jumping down the rabbit hole of Mihingarangi Forbes’ Atlas Network conspiracy theory.

According to Forbes’ narrative, New Zealand’s political life is increasingly falling under the influence of unseen bad actors. These dark forces are unfairly resourced with all the talents and resources needed to shape and steer decisions critical to New Zealand’s future without the public’s knowledge.

If this all sounds like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, it’s because both Forbes and the author of The Da Vinci Code both deal in fiction. Forbes’ dark forces are, in fact, openly acknowledged and registered pressure groups, like the Taxpayers’ Union, which operate in the broad light of day and are constantly seeking to engage with the public via electronic newsletters, public meetings, and the media. Real conspirators do not behave like this. Prior to flying hijacked planes into the Twin Towers, Al Qaeda did not issue a press release!

What Forbes is attempting to paint as sinister and illegitimate is actually a very real tribute to the power of grass-roots organising. What makes the Taxpayers’ Union so effective is what made Halt All Racist Tours (HART) so effective: a popular cause; generous donors; dedicated leadership; powerful propaganda; and a bloody huge mailing-list. It is ironic that the organising model which the Left now attempts to pass-off as diabolical, is what made the left-wing pressure groups of the past so politically effective.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the New Zealand Right borrowing the tactics of the New Zealand Left is the New Zealand National Party. National’s founders were determined that their fledgling organisation should grow into a mass party – as large, if not larger, than the New Zealand Labour Party. How else could they hope to defeat it?

Just like Labour, National gave itself a branch structure which penetrated deeply into ideologically sympathetic communities. Membership fees were kept within the reach of the ordinary voter, and the members themselves were constitutionally empowered to choose parliamentary candidates and participate in the formation of National Party policy. The “divisional” structure of the party guaranteed a large measure of regional autonomy from the party’s central office.

In short, until Stephen Joyce transformed it into a self-perpetuating oligarchy in 2003, National was a thoroughly democratic organisation. Had it not been, the party would not have been able to dominate New Zealand’s post-war politics so emphatically. At its peak in the mid-1970s, National’s membership topped a quarter-of-a-million.

What Forbes and her fellow conspiracy-theorists fail to grasp about democratic success, is that the exercise of real political power by working-class people (as evidenced by Labour’s dramatic economic and social transformations of the 1930s and 40s) does not just alarm the corporate elites.

When confronted by a confident and increasingly insubordinate working-class, broad swathes of the middle-class grow fearful that their superior social status is about to be eroded. To resist the rise of the working-class, two strategic options present themselves. The first is to effect a middle-class alignment with the ruling elites. The second is for the middle-class, using its credentialled expertise, to overwhelm the organisations of the working-class, turning lions into lambs and effectively giving the bosses two parties to play with.

The New Zealand middle-class has chosen both options. It’s commercial and industrial half backs the corporate elites in National, while its professional and managerial half makes sure Labour remains the neoliberal party it helped it to become in the 1980s and 90s. Middle-class idealists may have migrated to the Alliance and the Greens, but their more “progressive” policies have not yet contributed, in any meaningful way, to the re-empowering of the working-class.

Historically, “progressivism” represented the educated American middle-class’s answer to the brutally democratic working-class solutions developed by immigrant communities living in the United States’ largest cities during the Nineteenth Century. Dubbed “machine politics” by middle-class reformers affronted by its ruthless majoritarianism and unabashed clientism (which the reformers called corruption) progressivism successfully tamed the unruly beast that was American democracy, and made sure that working-class Americans kept their red crayoning safely inside the lines.

But, just because the kratos has been relocated in the hands of the more respectable sort of demos doesn’t mean that the corporate elites were willing to leave the political stage to those who clearly saw themselves as stepping nimbly between the Scylla of an angry working-class, and the Charybdis of Robber Baron Capitalism. Progressivism (a.k.a social-democracy) needs working-class votes if it is to wield political power, so, at least some of its measures must be to the obvious advantage of the whole population.

Not acceptable. As the capitalist elites discovered in the 1970s, even the middle-class version of democracy has a nasty habit of eventually encroaching on those parts of the system which capitalism has ruled off-limits. Give people of colour, or women, or the environment, enforceable rights and the next thing you know the cheeky so-and-sos will be wanting to use them.

What to do? Easy. Raise several well-equipped ideological divisions and throw them into the battle of ideas. From the early-1970s on, lobbying firms and think-tanks have grown like Topsy all across the capitalist world. Had the progressive middle-class not drawn its teeth and clipped its claws, an angry working-class might have risen to meet the Robber Baron’s challenge as it did in the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1970s. But, without the kratos of the unruly majority of the demos behind them, the paternalist strategies of the progressives were easily countered.

When the corporate elites discovered how intensely the working-class hated the educated middle-class that had shut them out of power, they must have known they couldn’t lose.

And, that’s the problem with democracy, isn’t it? It’s indivisible. Deny it to some, and you end up allowing its enemies to deny it to all.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project of Monday, 19 February 2024.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Is Applying “Tough Love” To A “Fragile” Nation The Right Answer?

The Question Christopher Luxon Needs To Ask –  And Answer: How was it possible for a nation of barely three million citizens to create and maintain an infrastructure that functioned, schools and universities that turned out well-educated and enterprising citizens, a health system that kept its people healthy, and a workforce whose members could afford their own home and enjoy the weekend with their families? 

“THE STATE OF THE NATION IS FRAGILE.” Such was Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s sobering verdict on the state of the nation. It was delivered in an address to the National Party faithful that left many questions unanswered – and even more unasked.

How, for example, does one strengthen a state when those charged with administering it believe the elected government is guided entirely by the wrong beliefs? How is public morale to be lifted when the nation’s key influencers hold huge swathes of the population in contempt? How is New Zealand’s crumbling infrastructure to be remedied in the absence of the sort of publicly-owned design and construction agency that oversaw the creation of so much of New Zealand’s key infrastructure from the 1940s to the 1980s? How can the nation’s productivity be lifted without a wholesale reduction in the size and influence of the professional-managerial class across both the public and private sectors?

Christopher Luxon had distressingly little to say about these issues.

It is not as though he doesn’t recognise the hostility of the political class towards the Coalition Government’s plans, or the obstructions being raised against them, it is just that he is unwilling to say much more about this resistance than that his policies “won’t be popular with everyone – I get it.” Someone should tell the Prime Minister that allowing your programme to be defined by the objections of its critics is never a good idea.

It is all very well to describe the state of the nation as “fragile”, but if you don’t then explain why it’s fragile and how you intend to make it more resilient, then all you’ve achieved is a further demoralisation of the population. What the people of New Zealand need more than anything at this historical moment is inspiration. Telling them that their government’s policies won’t be popular will likely be judged as a pretty uninspiring prime-ministerial offering.

Most voters would agree that it is a good thing for an incoming government to carry out its election promises in a timely fashion, but the fortunes of a “fragile” state cannot be turned around in 100 days – or even 1,000 days. Indeed, as a figurative device, this focus on “The First 100 Days” has drifted a long way from its historical origins in the rush of remedial legislation that distinguished the first three months of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

These bills, many of them unread by members of congress, were passed in what was dangerously close to a state of panic. Roosevelt had delivered his inaugural address on a day when the doors of virtually every bank in the United States remained firmly closed to its distraught depositors. When FDR told his fellow Americans that: “The only thing we have to fear – is fear itself.”, he was not being rhetorical. There were many who believed that American capitalism stood on the brink of complete collapse, and that if the future didn’t belong to the communists, then it belonged to the fascists.

Roosevelt’s avalanche of legislation was not about ticking-off promises made during the presidential election campaign of 1932, it was about showing the American people that he would do just about anything to haul the American economy out of the hole into which it, and the millions of Americans it sustained, had fallen. Those action-packed “first one hundred days” were immortalised by America’s leading political columnist, Walter Lippman, after – not before – Roosevelt acted.

And action was the key. As Roosevelt declared: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

It is this commitment to “bold, persistent experimentation” that is missing from Luxon’s State of the Nation speech. Present in spades, however, is Luxon’s condemnation of his predecessor’s experiments, and his delight at being able to purge them from the nation’s statute books. But, public gratitude for an incoming government’s repeal of unpopular legislation, and for its termination of unpopular policies, has a very limited political shelf-life. Eventually, as Roosevelt so rightly said, a government has to “try something”.

What Roosevelt’s admonition does not envisage, however, is trying something that you and/or your party have tried before – many times – only to discover, each time, that it doesn’t work.

What is it about National that leads them, inexorably, to the poorest and most vulnerable people in New Zealand society? The beneficiaries to whom they then insist on delivering fatuous speeches about “welfare dependency”? Luxon was certainly playing true to his party’s form on Sunday (18/2/24) when he declared to his anything-but-dependent audience: “We’ll do everything we can to help people into work, but if they don’t play ball the free ride is over.”

Free ride? As if attempting to survive on a benefit in New Zealand is a matter of sitting back in your taxpayer-funded limousine, peeling-off $100 bills from your bankroll, and using them to light your fat Cuban cigars. That the constant deprivation, the acute humiliation, and the unrelenting stress of never having enough money to live on, is something beneficiaries actually enjoy; something they seek out; something they’ll do everything they can to prolong.

Has Luxon ever done what every prime minister of New Zealand should do – sit down with a group of unemployed New Zealanders for a day and just listen to their stories? The chances are high that he hasn’t. A poll of National Party members revealed that 70 percent of them knew no one who was living on a benefit. Presumably, this is why Luxon is able to describe National’s latest effort at punishing the poor as “tough love”. Well, the “tough” is certainly there, but where is the love?

The fragile state of our nation will not be strengthened by applying pressure to its weakest citizens. If New Zealanders really are the people Luxon describes: a people “big enough and smart enough to face reality when we need to”, then the questions he needs to put to them are pretty simple.

How was it possible for a nation of barely three million citizens to create and maintain an infrastructure that functioned, schools and universities that turned out well-educated and enterprising citizens, a health system that kept its people healthy, and a workforce whose members could afford their own home and enjoy the weekend with their families?

This is the nation that Luxon celebrates in his State of the Nation speech for splitting the atom and climbing Everest. The New Zealand that nurtured its citizens “from the cradle to the grave”, and where the Prime Minister knew the unemployed by name.

At their simplest, the questions Luxon needs to ask boil down to just two: What made that earlier New Zealand possible? And what will it take to make it possible again?

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 19 February 2024.

Monday 19 February 2024

Keynesian Wisdom.

When the facts change, I change my mind - what do you do, sir?
John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Friday 16 February 2024

Iron In Her Soul.

“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

TELEVISION NEW ZEALAND is to be congratulated for inviting Chloe Swarbrick onto its Q+A current affairs show. The Green MP for Auckland Central is the odds-on favourite to become the next co-leader of the Green Party, making her a vital player in the trio of left-wing parties (the other two being Labour and Te Pāti Māori) that together constitute our alternative government. Allowing the public to get to know Swarbrick a little better was a sensible editorial decision.

There will be many Green members and supporters, however, who, having watched Q+A’s Jack Tame interrogate Swarbrick, may be wondering whether accepting TVNZ’s invitation to be interviewed was as shrewd as issuing it.

Tame is an exceptionally talented broadcaster whose boyish good-looks mask a daunting interrogative talent. If there are weaknesses in any given political persona, Tame may be relied upon to find them. Last Sunday (11/2/24) he found Swarbrick’s – and goaded her into revealing them, live, on free-to-air public television.

The weakness Tame homed in on was Swarbrick’s political inflexibility – a flaw which has only grown as her time in Parliament has lengthened.

When she first burst upon the political scene, as an independent candidate for the Auckland mayoralty in the 2016 local body elections, the clarity of her thought and expression was Swarbrick’s greatest asset. Here was a young woman who was capable of presenting her ideas forcefully, without prevarication, and then supporting them with a truly intimidating army of facts and figures.

Swarbrick’s campaign may have been run on a shoestring, and mostly on social media, but it made sufficient political impact to leave her the third-highest-polling candidate for Mayor. Clearly, this diminutive, articulate and courageous young woman was destined for great things. That Labour and the Greens set out immediately to recruit her, surprised nobody.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to observe that Swarbrick’s choice of the Greens may not have been the best one. While, on paper, the Greens’ determination to arm their politics with the weaponry of reason and science made it a perfect fit for the serious, almost scholarly, Swarbrick, there were risks. The currents of unreason that were flowing with ever-increasing force beneath the surface of Green Party politics were bound to end up battering her core intellectual and political principles.

Swarbrick’s candidacy for the Greens’ co-leadership was prompted by the departure of James Shaw. In spite of an impressive record of political wins – most obviously the Zero Carbon Act – Shaw has found it increasingly difficult to make his colleagues understand that their electoral success depends on voters seeing them as the only party dedicated to combatting global warming effectively. Shaw’s implied warning: that a Green Party which cares less about climate change than it does about fighting the culture wars will end up bleeding away its support (a proposition confirmed by the latest Curia poll) went unheeded.

The politician who emerged from Tame’s interview with Swarbrick cannot replace the qualities the Greens are losing with Shaw. Her six years in Parliament appear to have diminished her faith in democracy as the most effective political system. Swarbrick has observed politicians of all colours tapping into the raw emotional power of ignorance and prejudice, and it appears to have hardened her and made her brittle. There no longer seems to be as much “give” in the Swarbrick of 2024, as there was in the Swarbrick who entered Parliament in 2017. Iron has entered her soul.

Swarbrick’s declining faith in representative democracy is reflected in her conviction that “the people” possess a power that overmatches the tawdry compromises of professional politicians. In her pitch to Green members Swarbrick hints that this power may be sufficient to bring the whole rotten, planet-destroying system crashing down. That, with the masses at their back, the Greens can build a new and better Aotearoa.

How many times has revolutionary zealotry offered this millenarian mirage to an angry and despairing world? How many times has it all gone horribly wrong? And how sad is it that a politician as talented as Chloe Swarbrick now finds herself wandering this arid trail?

Many have praised/condemned Jack Tame for identifying Swarbrick’s unflinching defence of the Palestinian cause as the most effective means of exposing her zealotry. But, to those who once saluted Swarbrick’s political promise, Tame’s uncompromising interview proved profoundly depressing.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 February 2024.

Thursday 15 February 2024

Shrugging-Off The Atlas Network.

Upholding The Status-Quo: The Left’s election defeat is not the work of the Atlas Network. It is not even the work of David Seymour and Act. It is the work of ordinary citizens who liked the Right’s stories better than they liked the Left’s. If the Right’s stories were made more convincing by a sympathetic think tank, then the Left should not be getting mad at their opponent’s effective apparatus, it should be getting mad at itself for not having one of its own.

THE ATLAS NETWORK has been trending lately – in the minds of the New Zealand Left. Devastated by the election result, and further demoralised by recent polling showing the Right increasing its grip on New Zealanders’ political imagination, the Atlas Network has provided the Left with what it most needs – an explanation for its failure.

It is important to state at the very start that the Atlas Network is not the Left equivalent of Q-Anon. It is a real organisation, founded in 1981, by Antony Fisher (1915-1988) devotee of the fanatical anti-collectivist, F.A. Hayek (1899-1992) and a tireless proponent of the monetarist and free-market ideas that ultimately found practical political expression in the government of Margaret Thatcher and the administration of Ronald Reagan.

Fisher’s objective in forming the Atlas Network was to encourage like-minded individuals and groups to do as he had done nearly thirty years earlier: set up “think tanks” dedicated to advancing free-market ideology. His own creation, the Institute of Economic Affairs, was founded in 1955 and played an important role in formulating what would become Thatcher’s economic programme. But, just as Che Guevara wanted “one, two, many Vietnams”, Fisher wanted one, two, many right-wing think tanks. He had witnessed at first-hand what could be achieved by a handful of people “thinking the unthinkable”. The more there were of these ideological handfuls, the faster the “New Right’s” ideas would spread.

None of this information is new, Fisher’s exploits are documented comprehensively in Richard Cockett’s book, “Thinking The Unthinkable: Think-tanks and the Economic Counter-revolution, 1931-83”, published in 1995.

Paying close attention to who is influencing whom behind the scenes is, however, something activists on the New Zealand Left engage in only intermittently. There was a brief flurry of left-wing journalists twitching back the curtains in the late-1980s. They were motivated, mainly, by the dramatic emergence of the Business Roundtable as the New Zealand free marketeers’ ideological powerhouse.

The fact that Roger Douglas, father of New Zealand’s neoliberal revolution, was a member of Hayek’s high altitude think tank, the “Mont Pelerin Society”, prompted even more left-wing interest in the influence of think tanks on New Zealand’s political life.

With the election of the Labour-Alliance coalition government in 1999, however, the power of the Business Roundtable began to wane, leading to a corresponding falling-off of interest in venturing behind-the-scenes by left-wing journalists. This decline was compounded by the death of the Left’s principal keeper-of-tabs on the machinations of the business-backed Right, the editor, author and journalist, Bruce Jesson (1944-1999).

The death of the Business Roundtable’s indefatigable Executive Director, Roger Kerr (1945-2011) was similarly demoralising for the Right. In 2012, having already merged with the New Zealand Institute, the Business Roundtable became a new, much sunnier, think tank, the New Zealand Initiative. Led by the ebullient Oliver Hartwich, the New Zealand Initiative has carefully avoided acquiring the sinister reputation of its big-business-backed predecessor.

Growing alongside the Business Roundtable for most of the 1990s was what began as the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (ACT). Founded in 1993 by Roger Douglas, the former National cabinet minister, Derek Quigley, and multi-millionaire, Craig Heatly, ACT was to serve as a vehicle for those classical liberal ideas no longer deemed acceptable by either Labour or National. In 1994, a year after New Zealand’s adoption of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, ACT became the Act Party. In the first MMP general election (1996) Act (now led by Douglas’s former henchman, Richard Prebble) secured 6.1 percent of the Party Vote.

The question being asked by left-wing journalists in 2024 is whether or not the Act Party has always been associated with right-wing organisations like the Atlas Network. Or, is the Network’s sole link with Act its present leader, David Seymour, who, prior to entering Parliament, was employed by two conservative Canadian think tanks, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the Manning Foundation, both of which were, at one time or another, members of the Atlas Network.

Neither of these questions make much sense.

To begin with, the Atlas Network has never made any secret of its existence (even if, after years of left-wing attention, it now keeps its membership list secret. It was not illegal to set up such an organisation in 1981, and it is not illegal now. Think tanks, and organisations dedicated to facilitating the establishment of think tanks, have been a feature of the global political landscape for decades – and that is as true of the Left as it is of the Right.

Indeed, the rise of right-wing think tanks in the 1970s and 80s was a direct response to what their big-business backers (including, entirely unsurprisingly, big oil and big tobacco) saw as the near conquest of their capitalist societies by left-wing ideas and left-leaning institutions.

The free-market fightback, pioneered by think tanks like Fisher’s Institute of Economic Affairs, represented UK and US capitalists’ last-ditch defence of their profits and power. They had witnessed the trade unions bring down a British government in 1973, and the liberal press force the resignation of an American president in 1974. These unprecedented defeats had struck them as harbingers of doom – their doom.

That the Right was smart enough to realise that the battle for the hearts and minds of voters living in democratic states would be a battle of ideas – ideas that those same voters could believe in and be inspired by – and against which the Left, still mired in the demonstrably inadequate economic doctrines of the past, could offer nothing remotely competitive, was hardly the Right’s fault.

Nor is it fair to blame a young man, inspired by the libertarian and free-market doctrines of the right-wing counter-revolution of the 1980s and 90s, for accepting offers of employment from conservative Canadian think tanks. Where else was he supposed to go looking for a “political” job – the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions? Greenpeace?

It is highly instructive that left-wing politicians with CVs that show them working for “progressive” organisations, NGOs, and yes, even left-wing think tanks with links to billionaire donors, are not portrayed as evil-doers by the mainstream media. Having a background in the trade unions, student organisations, environmental groups, etc, is seen as perfectly natural. Where else are left-wingers going to learn their trade? Exxon? British & American Tobacco? Pfizer?

David Seymour’s links to the Atlas Network do not make him a villain. Working for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy is not the same as working for Hamas. Morally-speaking, is taking money from oil companies really all that distinguishable from giving money to oil companies every time we fill up our petrol tank? Getting from A to B; winning the battle of ideas; the Devil clips our tickets either way.

The Left’s election defeat is not the work of the Atlas Network. It is not even the work of David Seymour and Act. It is the work of ordinary citizens who liked the Right’s stories better than they liked the Left’s. If the Right’s stories were made more convincing by a sympathetic think tank, or two, then the Left should not be getting mad at their opponent’s effective apparatus, it should be getting mad at itself for not having one of its own.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project of Monday, 12 February 2024.