Friday 28 November 2008

Kondratiev Comes Full-Cycle

TO hear the business reporters tell it, this "credit crunch", while serious, is not beyond the wit of the world’s economists to fix. With just a few billion – or trillion – more dollars, the financial markets will begin to free-up, and then, quite quickly, life will return to normal.

Our own Treasury officials confidently predict that New Zealand’s current recession will be shallow and short.

By 2010 – 2011 at the latest – we should all be out of the woods.

Let’s hope so.

Personally, I’m not quite so optimistic.

Why? Because earlier today I was reading about an economist who discovered the secret to predicting the economic future. And I’m not referring here to the immediate future – what’s going to happen to the stockmarket next week, or next month. No. I’m referencing a guy who was able to accurately predict what the global economy would look like ten, fifty, even a hundred years into the future.

His name was Nikolai Kondratiev.

In a saner, less bloodthirsty 20th Century, Kondratiev would have been celebrated as one of the Soviet Union’s greatest economists, and hailed throughout the world as the scholar who first discerned the long waves of economic expansion and contraction that periodicize the history of capitalism.

In the 20th century that actually happened, Kondratiev enjoyed only a few years of productive endeavour before falling victim to the political pathologies of Stalinism, dying in 1938, at the age of just 46, in front of an NKVD firing-squad.

His immediate offence was being too closely associated with the "New Economic Policy" (NEP) – an essentially social-democratic response to the abject failure of Lenin’s "war communism", which had brought the Soviet economy to its knees. Kondratiev believed that the development of heavy industry in the Soviet Union should only be attempted after the successful modernisation of its agriculture. Only when all Russians had enough to eat, and only upon the base of a thriving light industrial sector, producing agricultural equipment and consumer goods, should the growth of heavy industries be encouraged. Such thinking was anathema to Stalin and his henchmen, and Kondratiev was driven from his post as head of the Institute of Conjuncture and hauled off to the gulag.

His real crime, however, was to call into question the whole notion that economies could be made to perform according to the conscious interventions of human planners.

In his studies of capitalism he had discerned patterns of development that contradicted the linear notions of economic growth then favoured by his Soviet colleagues. Rather than progressing in a straight line, the evolution of the global capitalist economy appeared to describe a regular wave pattern, with a cycle of approximately fifty years.

For a detailed description of Kondratiev’s theories, follow the links here and here. Suffice to say that he and his followers, which included the great Czech-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, broke down the development of the global capitalist economy into five distinct waves of development.

The first wave, beginning in the late 18th Century was generated by the invention of the steam engine and the growth of factory-spun textiles.

The second wave commenced in the 1830s with the worldwide expansion of steam-powered transportation – especially railways.

The third wave got underway in the 1880s, driven by the growth of the steel, electricity, chemical and heavy-engineering industries.

The fourth wave witnessed the rise of the petrochemical, automobile manufacturing, and other mass production industries, which gathered momentum in the years immediately prior to World War I.

The fifth wave (our present) began in the 1970s with the revolution in telecommunications and information technology – giving birth to the age of the personal computer, cellphones, and the Internet.

Kondratiev’s waves have four distinct phases: Improvement – when the new inventions revolutionise the way people work and live. Prosperity – when the new technology has had time to bed-in and the wealth it is generating flows in all directions. Recession – when innovation slows and growth begins to falter. Depression – when wealth generation ceases and the economy collapses.

Kondratiev’s seminal work, The Major Economic Cycles, was published in 1925 – at the height of the Roaring Twenties – but working from his basic premises he was able to predict the Great Depression a full five years before it happened.

And Kondratiev’s foresight didn’t end with his prediction of the Slump. By plotting his fifty-year cycles along an axis divided into years, his disciples were confident of another steep slide into recession and depression in the late-1970s and 80s, and yet another big crash, timed for, yes, you guessed it, the start of the second decade of the 21st Century.

Historically, the contractionary phase of the Kondratiev Cycle tends to last not just for one or two years, but for anything from ten to fifteen years.

Kondratiev’s theory would suggest that times are about to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Hence my pessimism.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Adios Agenda

AND the beat goes on. One by one the last vestiges of intelligent, democratically-engaged public broadcasting are driven off the air.

The latest casualty, Richard Harman’s excellent current affairs programme, Agenda, was the last long-format political interview show on New Zealand television. Even more importantly, it was the last current affairs show dedicated to the democratic objective of holding our political leaders to account, and to exploring in depth the major issues confronting the electorate.

Harman’s company Front Page Limited, which produced Agenda, also acted as a training-ground where young journalists could learn the essence of current affairs broadcasting from one of its acknowledged masters.

It was David Lange who memorably quipped that to carry any idea in the New Zealand of the 1980s you first had to carry the "Three Dicks" – Richard Harman (TVNZ’s political editor) Richard Griffin (Radio NZ’s political editor) and Richard Long (editor of The Dominion).

These were men who revelled in unravelling the intricacies of our daily politics, and who understood that the political journalist plays a role in the democratic process which is absolutely essential to the preservation of an informed and engaged citizenry.

TVNZ is reported as saying it wants to take the production of Agenda’s ultimate replacement in-house. We can only imagine what this might mean.

My money is on a half-hour format, once-over-lightly, personality- (rather than policy-) focused programme, with an emphasis on the "human aspects" of our political life, and where the mood is light-hearted, "ironic", and aimed (like everything else produced at TVNZ) at entertaining 20-30 year-olds.

It means that Agenda’s replacement will end up being Generation X’s revenge upon the ageing Baby-Boom generation. Where the Harmans and the Griffins and the Longs strove to reflect the importance of political decisions to the daily lives of their fellow New Zealanders, their more youthful successors will paint a picture of New Zealand politics that entertainingly confirms all the worst prejudices of a cynical and increasingly dumbed-down electorate. Where Agenda sought to engage, expose and explain, its Gen-X-produced replacement will seek to decode, deflate and deconstruct.

From the modernist imperative, which sought to subject the world to the critical analysis of a teleologically-driven everyman, we will be required to endure the ironic detachment and ideological disengagement of post-modern political dilettantism.

Old New Zealanders will at least have a memory of what real current affairs journalism looks and sounds like (think Brian Edwards, Ian Fraser, Lindsay Perigo, Kim Hill). In a very few years New New Zealanders won’t even be able to explain the concept.

Because, when all is said and done, you don’t know what you don’t know – and that’s obviously the way TVNZ intends to keep it.

Monday 24 November 2008

Mulholland's Answer Answered

I HAVE to confess to being a little disappointed by the response to my column (‘Them & Us’, Sunday Star-Times, 16/11/08) attacking the Maori Party’s decision to throw in its lot with John Key and the National Party.

By branding the Maori Party kupapa (collaborators) I’d hoped to draw some of the leading Maori nationalist theorists and writers into the debate. It was not to be. As usual, those who manufacture the ideological ammunition used by Tariana Turia, Pita Sharples and Hone Harawira – thinkers like Moana Jackson, Eddie Durie and Maria Bargh – prefer to operate quietly behind the walls of the academy, popping-up only occasionally to cast the odd, oracular, contribution into the public sphere.

Instead, I had to make do with someone called Malcolm Mulholland, from the Maori Studies Department of Massey University.

Mr Mulholland alleges that my column "provoked such a reaction among Maori communities, some believed it would be best to write this column to set the record straight."

A worthy objective, but unfortunately, not one Mr Mulholland was capable of achieving.

Let us begin with the uncomfortable historical reality of the kupapa Maori themselves: the undeniable fact that some hapu and iwi opted to ally themselves with the Pakeha colonialists, and against other Maori. This behaviour not only signals a considerably more complex political equation at work in mid-19th Century New Zealand than a simple reading of our history might suggest; but it also undermines the romantic Maori nationalist scenario of a beleaguered – but united – people heroically resisting the onward rush of British imperialism.

That the term kupapa retains its capacity to inflict pain is precisely because it touches upon matters that threaten to expose the most sensitive political realities of the Maori/Pakeha relationship.

I touch upon the nature of this deeply ambivalent relationship in the second chapter of my book No Left Turn:

The coming of the Pakeha had opened the way to a new world of undreamed of opportunity and abundance. For the bold and the intelligent, immersion in the ways of the newcomers promised a new life in which the traditional considerations of lineage and rank counted for very little. Imagination and effort brought rewards that were far beyond the generosity of chiefs – or the maledictions of wizards – to constrain. All that was required to escape the nexus of aristocratic politics and priestly magic was Pakeha gold. Money was the solvent that dissolved the age-old ties linking family, clan and tribe: money the tool with which the individual could carve himself a new identity. And the fastest way to acquire money, and all the transformations it wrought, was to sell land.

A deep and abiding cleavage was opening up in Maori society between those who believed that it was possible to have the best of both worlds – and those who did not. The modernisers believed the traditional collectivism of the tribe could be preserved – even as Pakeha religion, science and technology freed its members from the social and economic constraints of a culture grounded in scarcity. For the traditionalists, however, the best of both worlds was an unachievable mirage. When it came to tikanga Pakeha, Maori did not have the luxury of picking and choosing. The British were a proud people, who equated the technological inferiority of Maori as proof of their inadequacy in every other aspect of human achievement. As far as the British settlers were concerned, "natives" had only two choices: become like them, or be swallowed by them. They did not believe in two worlds: Maori would either acknowledge the superiority of European civilisation, or it would sweep them away.

Mr Mulholland was either unable, or unwilling, to engage in the deeper issues underpinning Maori development in the post-colonial era, preferring instead to concentrate on the party political manoeuvrings of the last four years. But, even here, his analysis is, to put it kindly, feeble.

The Labour Government’s passage of the Foreshore & Seabed Act was accomplished with maximum dispatch for one very simple reason: to forestall the growing Pakeha backlash against not simply one iwi’s victory in the Court of Appeal, but against the whole Maori renaissance. What on earth does Mr Mulholland think lay behind the unprecedented 17 percentage point jump in National Party support that followed Don Brash’s Orewa Speech?

The sleeping dogs of Pakeha racism, having been kicked into snarling wakefulness by the Court of Appeal decision and National, had to be lulled back to sleep. That was Labour’s paramount concern, and, steadfastly supported by all but one of its Maori MPs, that is what it achieved.

Has Mr Mulholland ever given a moment’s thought to the counterfactual? That Labour backed the Court of Appeal decision, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with iwi who asserted their customary rights? What does he think would have happened? Does he not believe that National’s "Iwi/Kiwi" Pakeha nationalist dichotomy would’ve swept it to an historic election victory? Does he not understand that such a government, elected with a frankly racist mandate, would have moved decisively to remove all the remaining constraints upon National’s assimilationist project: the Waitangi Tribunal; the Maori Seats; Maori broadcasting; all the institutions of Maori education in te reo; the Treaty of Waitangi itself?

Mr Mulholland’s superficial nationalism, uninformed by even the smallest amount of structural analysis, is simply not equal to the task of grasping the crucial significance of Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana’s key prophetic insight. That only by linking the fortunes of the dispossessed of both the Maori and Pakeha communities, and joining them in an unbreakable political alliance, could the quest for equity and equality, common to both peoples, be achieved. Only an alliance based upon class could ever amass the political force required to negate the colossal racial advantage enjoyed by the inheritors of Britain’s imperial victory.

It was that alliance, with all its faults, disappointments and betrayals, which kept the promise of the Treaty of Waitangi alive. And only that alliance – or something like it – can hope to secure the Treaty’s ultimate fulfilment.

Tariana Turia and her colleagues will soon discover what all the hapu and iwi who turned kupapa discovered: that fighting on the Pakeha’s terms, and for the Pakeha’s objectives, only ever brings the briefest of respites.

Because, when all is said and done, once you have helped the men of power destroy all the centres of resistance to their rule, who shall you summon to defend the paltry rewards your collaboration has won?

Now that the new colonialists have mastered "divide" – can "conquer" be far behind?

Saturday 22 November 2008

Comrades, Quo Vadis?

He who would sup with the Devil must needs have a long spoon. – Old Proverb

IN the penultimate issue of the NZ Political Review, published in the spring of 2004, I published an article by Dr Elizabeth Rata entitled "Trading on the Treaty" in which she wrote prophetically of the way in which the Maori nationalist slogan tino rangatiratanga was being remorselessly co-opted by ethnic elites espousing the "neotraditionalist" ideology of "neotribal capitalism" and practising what she called "brokerage politics". (Unfortunately I cannot provide a link to the NZPR article, but this link should take you to a very similar piece of writing by Dr Rata from 2005.)

Summing up her case in the NZPR, Dr Rata wrote:

It is likely that governance will be promoted as a relationship between two complex political systems based upon an idealised politics that bypasses the material realities of how people actually work, live and interact …

… Neotribal capitalism, however, [operates] in the real world, a world where ownership and control over economic resources acquired through the Treaty settlements leads to real material advantages that enable some people to take up opportunities, to overcome limitations and to live without the real hardships of poverty, while others remain excluded.

The motivating force of the bicultural project which led to the Treaty settlements was to improve the material conditions of real people struggling to overcome marginalisation and the social and economic consequences of New Zealand’s colonial past.

The issue remains today what it was three decades ago. The specific socio-economic realities of affordable housing, educational opportunities of a standard enjoyed by the rest of society, and the chance to earn a reasonable livelihood, are the essence of politics in New Zealand society today, as [they are in] any society.

It is the political regulation of this reality that provides the opportunities for improved life chances or for permanent inequalities.

Regulation by brokerage politics leads away from the more just society promised by pluralist politics, and, in the New Zealand example, the society promised by biculturalism. By institutionalising the influence of the neotraditionalist ideology, it leads towards the permanent capture of economic resources and political power by a privileged ethnic elite.

It isn’t often that reality confirms a writer’s theoretical speculations quite so fulsomely, but the deal stitched together between the National Party and the Maori Party provides more than ample proof of Dr Rata’s thesis.

Nowhere was this better illustrated than at a gathering to which my old friend and comrade Matt McCarten was invited earlier this week.

According to Matt, it was a function that brought together the Business Roundtable and the Maori "Brown Table". Here, amidst the self-congratulation and barely concealed political triumphalism, Dr Rata’s worst fears were made flesh. The leaders of Maori businesses, Maori tribal authorities, and the providers of Maori welfare services shook hands with the leading players and ideological commissars of New Zealand capitalism. The unstated cause of the celebration was, of course, that the power-brokers of the new regime were men and women who accepted and embraced the tenets and institutions of the settler-capitalist state. The capitalists’ worst fear, that the "political regulation" of "improved life chances" for the majority of Maori would take place under the auspices of parties and individuals hostile to capitalist ideology, had – thanks to the Maori Party leadership’s decision to throw in their lot with National, ACT and United Future – been dispelled.

Quite what Matt was doing there I cannot say: perhaps he had been summoned to witness to the final defeat of one of the Left’s fondest political dreams.

There were other witnesses to that defeat.

A young comrade of mine told me of her feelings of utter dismay upon hearing the leader of the National Distribution Union, and former Alliance cabinet minister, Laila HarrĂ©, addressing a group of workers protesting the Farmers department stores owners’ risible pay offer. Laila urged these workers to throw their support behind the Maori Party, United Future (?!) and (almost as an afterthought) the Greens. Only by supporting these parties (especially the ones in league with National) she said, could they hope to see the Minimum Wage raised to $15.00 per hour.

Some hope!

There is an apocryphal tale, hailing from the early days of the Christian Church, in which St Peter, warned that the authorities propose to unleash yet another wave of persecution against his co-religionists, flees the city of Rome. Alone on the road, not far from the city walls, Peter encounters his master, Jesus. "Lord," asks Peter,"quo vadis?" (Whither goest thou?) And, Jesus answers him: "To Rome, to be crucified." Instantly, Peter realises that he must return to the city; understanding, at last, that the road to salvation leads towards pain and persecution – not away from it.

Hearing about the recent deeds of Matt and Laila, I feel like asking them the question Peter put to Jesus: "Comrades, quo vadis?"

"Where are you going?"

Four years ago, in my penultimate editorial for the NZPR, I wrote:

"My own view, after reading Dr Rata’s research, is that the Maori Party will become the new face of brokerage politics. Post-Orewa, the cosy back-room relationships between Maori power-brokers and the Crown have become less and less sustainable. Neotribal capitalism, in need of a new brokerage strategy, appears to have decided to test the viability of the electoral option. [Tariana] Turia’s flat refusal to rule out forming a parliamentary coalition with the National and ACT parties certainly points in that direction.

Whatever the Maori Party leadership’s ultimate intentions, by its very existence it has brought the New Zealand Left to a fork in the road. Some, out of historical guilt or a misplaced sense of solidarity, will take the path of the tangata whenua – hoping like mad that by doing so they can exert a progressive influence on the content of the Maori Party’s election manifesto. Others, all too aware of the fearsome historical consequences of ethnic chauvinism and religious obscurantism, will stick with the values of the European Enlightenment, and keep to the narrow path of old-fashioned social-democracy.

If I may paraphrase the early 20th Century German social-democrat, August Bebel’s, memorable judgement upon the anti-Semitic illusions of the European working-class:

Neotraditionalism is the socialism of fools.

There is, however, one bright aspect to all these dismal events. At least, I now know what to buy Matt and Laila for Christmas.

A pair of very, very, very long spoons.

Friday 21 November 2008

Phil Goff's Manly Mission

Originally published in The Independent of 20 November 2008

Phil Goff’s part in Labour’s redemption song must be to offer the angry and frustrated blokes who voted Helen Clark’s government out of office an alternative vision of what it means to be a man in the 21st Century.

THE effortless transition from Helen Clark to Phil Goff makes you wonder why it took so long.

As far back as January, Goff’s supporters were testing the waters for a possible leadership challenge. As far as I know, I was the only journalist to raise the prospect seriously.

No one else believed a change of leadership from Clark to Goff would make the slightest difference to Labour’s chances of re-election.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that their lofty dismissal of a Goff-led Labour Party was mistaken.

For a very large number of New Zealand voters, the only major point of difference between Key’s National Opposition and Clark’s Labour Government boiled down to the fact that Key wasn’t Clark. Apart from this rather obvious distinction, the electorate found it increasingly difficult to separate the two major parties.

Which suggests that Labour came to grief on the same jagged reefs of anguished masculinity which sank the campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis in the United States.

The "Angry White Males" who ushered in the conservative revolution in America in the 1980s, and to whom Key owes his party’s success on 8 November 2008, interpret practically any manifestation of social-liberalism, and especially the successful enactment of social-liberal legislation, as a direct attack upon their beleaguered manhood.

In the United States it was the "judge-made law" which led to the desegregation of public education, and affirmed a woman’s right to choose an abortion, along with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the introduction of affirmative action programmes in higher education and employment, that gave rise to the "Reagan Democrats".

In New Zealand the issues were different.

The decriminalisation of prostitution dramatically reversed the power polarities in the sex-for-money nexus. The introduction of Civil Unions for gay couples was construed by many heterosexual men (and women) as a grotesque parody of the traditional, religiously sanctified, marriage ceremony. And the repeal of s59 of the Crimes Act struck at the very heart of the social-conservative’s understanding of how fathers and mothers should discipline and punish their children.

Labour’s social-liberal workplace reforms: paid parental leave, 4-weeks annual leave, strict protection against unfair and illegal dismissal, the notion of "work-life balance"; were similarly seen as undermining the small proprietor’s ability to manage his own business according to his own best judgement – his "right" to be a boss.

The frustration and anger of this fraction of the male electorate, growing steadily since 2002, had, by the beginning of 2007, metastasised into a single, malignant tumour of rancorous hatred towards both the government and the person of Helen Clark.

The NZ Herald’s political cartoonists, Emmerson and Brody, captured this malevolent misogyny to perfection, their caricatures of Clark becoming increasing hideous and deformed with every passing week.

How easy it would have been to short-circuit this dangerous political wiring by simply replacing Clark with Goff. For thousands of angry and disaffected Labour "men" – voters who shared John Tamihere’s aversion to left-wing, lesbian, "front-bums" – Clark’s removal would have represented, to paraphrase Barack Obama, "the change they needed".

Denied that change, they turned to the only electable bloke on offer – John Key.

That Goff didn’t push for an early transition from sheila to bloke, and that the Labour caucus would almost certainly not have backed him had he tried, is, however, a testimony to the moral wisdom of both.

Replacing Goff with Clark might have worked, but it would also have been the wrong thing to do.
Because appeasing evil is never the right thing to do. And make no mistake, by the beginning of 2008 the anti-Clark movement had become a very evil thing indeed.

Besides, Labour had already tried appeasement in 2004: responding to Don Brash’s extraordinary Orewa speech with a wholesale retreat on the tangata whenua front.

And what did it bring them? The Maori Party, and no viable post-2005-election options except a continuing lurch to the Right with Peter Dunne and Winston Peters.

Those two factors, alone, wreaked havoc upon Labour’s political integrity. Further retreat, in the face of the ugly mob that was baying for Clark’s blood may well have secured Labour a fourth term – but at the price of the party’s political soul.

As things have turned out, it is the Clark-hating male electorate – and not the Labour caucus – which must now bear the burden of its political choices and, hopefully, try for a shot at redemption by voting for the Goff-led Labour Party in 2011.

Labour’s part in this redemption song must be to offer these angry and frustrated men an alternative vision of what it means to be a man in the 21st Century.

And that, in an world increasingly hostile to the core values of manhood, will be no easy task.
It is, nevertheless, a task which Labour must undertake. Because the way out of dead-end, dumbed-down, muscled-up antipodean machismo, is also the way forward for New Zealand as a whole.

We must learn to celebrate intelligence and creativity.

We need to cultivate the non-conformist and the unorthodox.

We should prize critical thinking and the courage to say "No, you’re wrong."

We have to confront the root causes of male anger and frustration – and stop rewarding their cultural symptoms.

The essence of masculinity is the instinct to protect – an impulse inextricably bound up with the heroic qualities of defiance and self-sacrifice. To protect and to serve are the defining qualities of all our most enduring cultural icons – from King Arthur to Winston Churchill; Te Whiti O Rongomai to Mickey Savage; Ed Hillary to Peter Blake. The aggression and violence we so easily and so often equate with masculinity can only ever be justified in defence of the weak and the vulnerable. It must never be used against them.

If the Goff-led Labour Party can embody these, the genuine attributes of masculinity, then it will become more than competitive in 2011.

Because, in the end, the values of the National and Act parties are the doomed values of Arthur Miller’s stricken fantasist, Willy Loman – the self-deluding hero of Death of a Salesman, who sacrifices his manhood and, eventually, his sanity to the dog-eat-dog ethics of the marketplace, and then wonders why his most cherished dreams continue to elude him.

It is in the demonstration of generosity, courage and compassion that men become their true selves.

Solidarity makes heroes of us all.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Protect Our Public Services

THANK God for journalists like Gordon Campbell! Without his latest post, John Key's extraordinary concession to Act over the Taxpayers Bill of Rights would have completely passed me by.

I had, of course, given the Confidence & Supply Agreement between National and Act a quick skim-read and had noted the reference to the TBOR. What I failed to notice, however, was the fact that National has agreed not only to ensure the Bill is referred to the Finance & Expenditure Select Committee, but that it will be treated as a Government measure.

This is what the document states:

Support, within six months, the referral of ACT’s Taxpayer Rights Bill to the Finance and Expenditure Committee of Parliament as a government measure with the aim of passing into law a cap on the growth of core Crown expenses.

So, there you have it - an unequivocal committment to underwrite an extremist neoliberal measure within six months of taking office. As Gordon says, time to batten down the hatches:

Once again, New Zealanders are going to be used as the lab rats in a nutcase libertarian experiement. To summarise, from the Bell Policy Center report, the problems with this tool are: services can't keep pace with growth in the economy. Temporary budget cuts become permanent. Multiple limits restrict flexibility and force false choices. Saving and planning are made very difficult. Yes, that sounds like a good idea to introduce in New Zealand.

In Old New Zealand, I know how the Left would have responded to such a revelation.

A meeting would have been called in Wellington to which representatitives of the Federation of Labour, the Labour Party, the various socialist and communist organisations to the left of Labour, NZUSA, the NZ Council of Churches, and other interested NGOs would have been invited.

Out of this meeting a new organisation, with a catchy acronym would have been announced. Something to rival HART (Halt All Racist Tours) or CARP (Campaign Against Rising Prices). Protect Our Public Services - POPS - perhaps?

Before long there would have been a POPS organisation in every major centre and a national co-ordinating committee would've announced the first of a series of public demonstrations. In the build- up to the first big march there would have been a concerted campaign of letter-writing, pamphleteering, and neighbourhood meetings.

In Old New Zealand The Listener would have run a major investigative feature on TBOR in Colorado. Television NZ would have produced a one hour documentary on the controversy to be screened in prime time. And the irrepressible Wolfgang Rosenberg would have published another of his little booklets: What every citizen should know about: The Taxpayers Bill of Rights.

But, of course, in Old New Zealand, knowing all these things would happen, no government of the Right would ever have contemplated introducing a piece of legislation so hostile to the interests of its citizens.

What will happen in New New Zealand? I guess we'll find out in the next six months.

Monday 17 November 2008

Circulated Out of Power

I'M finding it really difficult to adjust to the reality of being on the losing side of the recent electoral battle.

The Wellington political scientist, Jon Johanson, talks approvingly about "the peaceful circulation of elites" (and I'm certainly not decrying this aspect of our democratic system) but it is definitely a lot less enjoyable being part of an elite that has just been "circulated out" of power, than it is being part of one that's just been "circulated in". For the past nine years, no matter how insufferable right-wing politicians and commentators became, the Left could always cheer itself up by mentally repeating Michael Cullen's immortal quip: "We won, you lost - eat that!"

Well, they've won, we've lost, and now we're just going to have to get used to the taste of it.

Some will say, like good little democrats, that "the people are always right", and that, since we lost their confidence, we must have been doing something wrong.

To which I say: "Well of course we did things wrong! We're human-beings!"

What did we do wrong? Quite a lot. We got horribly disconnected from our base. We became arrogant and intolerant towards those who didn't sign-up to our point of view right away. We were too timid - too unwilling to upset a few apple-carts. But, most importantly, we were far too sanguine about the readiness of the news media to go on reporting politics in a fair and balanced fashion after we'd forced the Electoral Finance Act down the New Zealand electorate's collective throat.

In short, Labour forgot it was the representative of the people who, in order to get their fair share of what this country has to offer, are obliged to take it from those who have a great deal more than their fair share, and who acquired it at the expense of others and the natural environment.

Redistribution is, ultimately, a zero-sum game. And if our side is winning, it is only because in real, or relative, terms the other side is losing. And they don't like to lose - especially not for three elections in a row.

We'd been in power so long that we thought we had an entitlement to it: that, somehow, it belonged to us by right. We'd forgotten what it was like to be on the outside looking in, always unable to effect the changes we believed were so important.

Labour liked to think of itself as a government of "competent managers", and was supremely confident that "the people" would remember all the things it had done for them, and that, with hard economic times coming, the voters would show little enthusiasm for changing horses in mid-stream.

But, in making all these self-serving assumptions, we on the Left were forgetting that the people are not necessarily the rational beings we believe them to be.

Oh, to be sure, over most human beings you will indeed find a veneer of rationality, but it is periously thin. Scratch the surface of the average citizen and you'll uncover a seething cauldron of drives and passions, hatreds and resentments. Unleash the atavism of the masses, and you can reduce the most competent of governments to a smoking ruin in just three years.

When you're out of power you know this.

When you've been in power for nine years - you forget.

Saturday 15 November 2008

What is an "Old New Zealander"?

PUTTING to one side its ominous Orwellian overtones, 1984 represents a sort of "Year Zero" for older New Zealanders.

Were I a science-fiction writer, I might describe it in terms of a portal - one of those cosmic anomalies which permit the hero to pass from one universe to another. Think of the popular television series Stargate and you'll have a fair idea of what I'm trying to describe.

On one side of the portal lies the New Zealand of the here and now, and on the other the New Zealand which the 1958 edition of the Richards Topical Encyclopaedia called "The World's 'Model Nation'". The sub-heading of that entry is worth quoting in full: "How little New Zealand, starting her career amid wars and many money problems, built up for herself a government so sound and humane that she came to be called the best-governed nation in the world."

That was the way we were encouraged to think of ourselves - as the best. A country that had never been afraid to address the besetting problems of its times with solutions that were as bold as they were innovative. From the Industrial Conciliation & Arbitration Act of 1894 to the Accident Compensation Commission of the early 1970s, New Zealand was never afraid to lead the world. In fact, we rather expected to.

It was an attitude which bred civic engagement on a truly massive scale. Mass unionisation had created a working-class that not only expected to play a significant role in society, but did - frequently leading the debate on economic, social and international affairs. Our middle-class was no less involved in the life of the nation. Not for nothing were we described as the world's most avid committee-formers.

The contemporary notion that "ordinary" people cannot bring about meaningful change would have been laughed to scorn in "old" New Zealand. One in four of us belonged to a political party, and voter turnout seldom dropped below 89 percent. Indeed, in that fatal year, 1984, it reached a never-to-be-repeated peak of 93.7 percent.

It is fashionable now to deride the New Zealand that existed before 1984. We hear about its creaking bureaucratic inefficiencies, its featherbedded public enterprises, its subsidised agriculture, and its over-regulated and protected industrial sector. Horror tales are told about unbridled union power, and how you had to fill in a form to order an overseas publication. Foreign exchange was limited, the bars closed early, and it was simply impossible to get a good cup of coffee.

But, as anyone who grew up in the decades before 1984, and the election that ushered in Roger Douglas's neo-liberal "revolution", knows only too well, these are just the stories the creators of the "new" New Zealand have concocted, and endlessly reiterated, to justify their ruthless destruction of the "old".

Those of us with still-functioning memories, and no political sins to answer for, remember a nation very different from the one we inhabit today. It was a more robust, a more resilient, a more rebellious and an altogether more rambunctious nation. Its inhabitants were both more secure in their lives and more generous with their time, their money and their opinions. Back then you were as likely to discover a philosopher in the factory smoko room as the university common room.

All gone now, of course. Dead and buried. "Old" New Zealand exists only in the film and newspaper archives; in the sound libraries; and in the neural wiring of those of us who once lived in it.

And we are, in the language of the high-priests of New New Zealand - the economists - a "wasting asset". With each passing year, the number of us still susceptible to the moral gravitational pull of the world's "model nation" grow fewer and fewer, and one day - 40 or 50 years hence - there will be none of us left at all.

Then we will be nothing more than random photons captured on photographic film when someone, long ago, snapped a camera-shutter. Vague and fading references to a moment in time when the flesh and blood behind the images thrilled to the sunshine of a New Zealand summer's day, or wept at the tragedy of a passenger train swept away, a ferry foundering in a storm.

These are the "old" New Zealanders. Strangers in a strange land. Figures out of step, and out of sorts, with the temper of our times.

And what I hope to do with this blog is provide a running commentary on the continuities and disjunctions between the Old New Zealand in which I was born, and the New New Zealand in which, like a forlorn exile, I shall be buried.

The greatest poet - and prophet - of Old New Zealand, James K. Baxter, as always, saw it clearly:

The man who talks to the masters of Pig Island
About the love they dread
Plaits ropes of sand, yet I was born among them
And will lie some day with their dead.