Saturday 28 February 2009

Remembering 1951

Police confront Watersider's protest march. Wellington, 1951.

This curious little posting over at The Standard caught my eye. In it "Irish Bill" rather piously informs his readers that the infamous Waterfront Lockout (which began on 27 February 1951) and even the Great Strike of 1913, are events which he "unlike other commentators on the Left" prefers to "commemorate" rather than "celebrate" because "in both cases working people suffered greatly for little gain".

Sadly, this rather sniffy attitude towards the two great industrial struggles of New Zealand history is all too typical of a certain kind of Labour Party member/supporter. To me, it betokens a disdainful attitude towards working-class independence in general, and militant trade unionism in particular. (The very best exponent of the mindset, even back when he was still a member of the NZLP, was Dr Michael Bassett, whose book, Confrontation ‘51 positively reeks of middle class superciliousness.)

Needless to say, I consider Irish Bill’s comments regarding the Lockout to be dead wrong. As Jock Barnes, himself, said in his foreword to Dick Scott’s celebrated 151 Days:

"As surely as night follows day, an offensive by the Holland Government against the workers of New Zealand was inevitable. And years of inspired press propaganda had made it clear that the New Zealand Waterside Workers Union would be objective number one. Its record of progressive thought and militant policy, not only for its own members but for the working class as a whole, had made that certain ….. But the intended blitzkrieg developed into a long and costly offensive. While thousands of workers, their wives and children, suffered dearly, money power took some mighty blows. It is still licking its wounds. The boss is always the worker’s greatest organiser, and [in 1951] he educated tens of thousands of workers in the fundamentals of capitalist economy. From that education the people will inevitably collect a rich dividend ….. The working class can thank those who fought [in 1951] for the conditions they still enjoy. Every day suffered by a miner’s wife and children, every further day that a freezing worker, watersider or seaman stood and fought back, reduced the chances of a general offensive."

In my book No Left Turn, I interogate Barnes's claims, but from a very different perspective to that of Irish Bill’s:

"Was [Barnes] right? Were the people of New Zealand, in ways which, for more than five decades, they have been actively discouraged from investigating, the genuine beneficiaries of the bitter industrial struggle that racked their little nation from 15 February until 15 July 1951? A swift survey of the principal historical judges of this event: Keith Sinclair, Bill Sutch, Michael Bassett, Bert Roth and James Belich; would suggest not. As far as New Zealand historiography is concerned "1951" was, at best, an heroic – if ultimately futile – reprise of 1913; further proof that the trade unions could not "take on the State and win". At worst, it was simply an avoidable and unmitigated disaster. But, as we shall see, 1951 marked not a sudden and irrational recrudescence of the insurrectionist impulses of 1908-1913, but the ruthless reimposition of the corporatist compromise between capital, labour and the state that was first broached in the depths of the Great Depression, and then consolidated through daily application during the Second World War. Adapting the union movement to the political and economic realities of Corporatism emerged as the prime political mission of the men who have emerged as the villains of the 1951 tragedy: Walsh and Young, Fraser and Nash. Their unacknowledged and unappreciated role? To keep the milk of Labour’s social and economic reforms, by separating out – and ruthlessly sacrificing – the cream of the labour movement."

For the next forty years, from 1951 to 1991, working people in New Zealand enjoyed the protection of the unqualified preference clause and national awards. Why? Because Sid Holland was really the worker’s friend? No. It was because Jock Barnes and the 20,000 trade unionists who held out against the Emergency Regulations for 151 days, taught the National Party a bitter lesson in the dangers of attempting to crush working class organisations by force majeure; just as Fintan Patrick Walsh and the moderate leaders of the Federation of Labour demonstrated to Holland and his successors the wisdom of maintaining a corporatist approach to industrial relations.

In this respect "1951" was not a defeat but a victory for the NZ working class. Their greatest defeat, in 1991, was visited upon them not at the hands of the traditional enemy, the National Party (although it did its best!) but from the hands of its own trade union leaders. Tragically, the CTU was led by men and women who, like Irish Bill, saw only defeat and failure in the great moments of working class resistance, and who forgot that, so long as you’re willing to fight, you can never truly lose. Because the example you provide for the generations to come of resistance to injustice, and self-sacrifice in a noble cause, is always in and of itself a triumph of the human spirit.

Cheerleading the cuts

The Government is cutting civil service jobs - and John Armstrong doesn't seem to care.

John Armstrong’s political column in today’s NZ Herald makes for depressing reading. Not simply on account of the grim news it contains for this country’s civil servants, but because of the way Armstrong conveys it.

The whole column positively vibrates with the writer’s barely suppressed disdain for the civil service. The Government’s retrenchment plans are assessed quite uncritically by Armstrong, who is clearly working from the assumption that National’s characterisation of the "problem", as well as its preferred "solution", are both indisputable.

There is an almost gleeful quality to Armstrong’s reporting of the sneaky way the Government is going about putting his fellow New Zealanders out of work. This utter lack of sympathy is, of course, assisted by his constant objectification (or is it demonisation?) of civil servants as "bureaucrats".

Nowhere in his piece does Armstrong question the accuracy of the Government’s rhetorical division of the civil service into heroic "front-line" deliverers, dispensing much needed public services, and evil "back-room" bureaucrats, apparently hell-bent flushing taxpayer dollars down the toilet.

After decades of down-sizing and cost-cutting, is it really credible to suggest that the State Service chiefs are happy to acquiesce in this wanton waste of scarce public resources? Isn’t it more credible to suggest that the real drain on public resources has been from government departments and ministries into the pockets of private contractors? Wasn’t that what lay behind the Labour-led Government’s decision to expand the capacity of the core civil service in the first place? To staunch the outflow of funds from the public to the private sector?

None of these questions are examined by Armstrong. Instead he praises the State Services Minister, Tony Ryall, for sacking Richard Thompson from the Chair of the Otago District Health Board.

This was quite despicable journalism. I have known Thompson for many years, and a more honest and upright individual you would go a long way to find. Ryall’s decision to sack Thompson was made in the face of the latter’s strenuous – and successful – efforts to bring the perpetrators of the $17 million fraud against the Otago DHB to justice. Even Thompson’s hand-picked successor has publicly admitted that, faced with the same set of circumstances as Thompson, he would have behaved in exactly the same way. The alternative explanation for Ryall’s decision to sack Thompson – that the Minister was determined to remove a highly effective and popular Labour Party member from one of Dunedin’s most important public posts – was not even mentioned in Armstrong’s article.

This sort of journalism: uncritical, intellectually lazy, and morally inert; is what undermines the public’s faith in the Fourth Estate. John Armstrong used to be (and I’m pretty sure still is) a much better political journalist than this latest piece (and a distressingly large percentage of his more recent writing) would suggest.

Here’s hoping that the old John Armstrong makes a hasty return to duty.

Friday 27 February 2009

What's in a name?

"Wanganui" or "Whanganui"? History has dropped the "h".

I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t allow this posting by Lew over at Kiwipolitico to pass without comment.

Waxing eloquent on the perfidy of Wanganui’s "grasping settler" community, and its refusal to change the name of their city to "Whanganui", Lew has this to say:

They live here, and they grasp, but generally they make few and feeble attempts to engage with tangata whenua, seeing them as outsiders, as enemies, and as competitors because on some level there is a recognition that they retain a moral claim to resources, discourse and authority. The settlers, despite this recognition, consider that it is their land, and their river and their town, and any arguments or evidence to the contrary are met with hostility and the rhetoric of assimilation.

Mayor Michael Laws:

"Wanganui is not a Maori name. It has assumed an identity, a heritage, a history and a mana of its own."

You’ll go far to find a more convenient statement of revisionist ignorance in NZ identity politics. This forms the sole and entire argument in principle against the name change; it’s been that way for ages, so the word no longer means what it once meant – or more plainly, it’s an old mistake so it’s no longer a mistake. If this were to hold everywhere, then the mis-transliteration or misspelling of any word would necessarily destroy any connection to the original in every case: a patently idiotic idea.

But is it?

Take the name of this blog as a case in point.

The proper noun "Bowalley" is a corruption of another proper noun, "Bewley", which is itself a corruption of the French adjective "beaulieu" meaning "beautiful view", which was transformed into a proper noun by Charles Suisted, the Swedish settler who, having acquired that part of the North Otago coast lying to the north of the Waianakarua River and east of Mt Charles in the 1850s, bestowed this name upon it. When, nearly a century later, the property was purchased by my father, "Beaulieu" was still its name.

By that time, however, the locals, who struggled with the correct French pronunciation of "beaulieu", had taken to referring to the property as either "Bewley" or "Bowalley" (the name given to the road that leads past the farm). Another variant of "Beaulieu" was "Baldie" – which eventually became "The Baldie", signifying the little creek which runs through the property, and empties, via a marshy delta, into the Pacific Ocean at the end of Bowalley Road.

The English-speaking peoples are notorious for this sort of linguistic mutation, it’s what lends such richness and colour to the landscapes in which they settle.

Lew castigates the people of Wanganui for daring to express a preference for the name their forefathers bestowed upon the town. But Michael Laws is right: history has normalised the spelling; "Wanganui" has become the name of the settlement. And yes, of course, we all know it's a corruption of the Maori whanganui – just as "Bewley" is a corruption of Suisted’s "Beaulieu" – but that’s just the way language works, and the way a culture evolves.

What’s more, Ken Mair’s demand that the pre-colonial appellation be restored is, I strongly suspect, part-and-parcel of a much more ambitious plan to reclaim his people’s sovereignty over the entire region. To do that, however, Ken and his people would have to fight the colonial wars of conquest all over again – this time emerging as the winners.

So perhaps the "grasping settlers" Lew condemns are smarter than he is willing to admit. Perhaps they see right through Ken’s seemingly harmless demand that the spelling of the city’s name be changed. Perhaps, by resisting this little challenge today, the Wanganui District Council and its Mayor can avoid resisting much more dangerous challenges tomorrow.

New Zealand not ready for Irish anger - yet

One hundred thousand strong: The protest demonstration against the retrenchment policies of Ireland's Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, was one of the largest in recent Irish history.

THEY marched through the streets of Dublin in their tens-of-thousands last Saturday: public servants mostly, angry at their government’s decision to divert an additional 3-10 percent of their earnings into Ireland’s state-run superannuation fund.

At least that was the ostensible reason for the massive protest demonstration. I suspect there was a little more to it than that.

For years the Irish people have reveled in their nation’s "Celtic Tiger" sobriquet. A decade of turbo-charged economic growth, fueled by massive injections of foreign capital, transformed Ireland from a dwindling European backwater, whose children were forever taking wing for foreign parts, into a brash and confident poster-child for neo-liberal economic "reform".

For ten glittering years, Dublin skipped down the same primrose path as Auckland in the late-1980s: rampant speculation leading to boom-time opulence; crass conspicuous consumption masking pervasive moral squalor.

All gone now.

The speculative bubble has burst. Paper fortunes have evaporated. Property prices have tanked. Where once Ireland could boast of having Europe’s highest rate of economic growth, it must now content itself with the EU’s highest rate of unemployment: 9 percent – and rising.

But, as if all this bad news weren’t enough, the Irish middle- and working-classes have also had to endure the sordid spectacle of their country’s political leadership bailing-out the very same wide-boys whose recklessness and greed is responsible for turning the Celtic tiger back into an Irish kitty.

No wonder they’re angry.

THIS AFTERNOON, our own Prime Minister, John Key, emerging from Manukau City’s splendid Pacific Events Centre, where he has been hosting his much-anticipated "Jobs Summit", will also encounter a demonstration. But whereas an impressive 100,000 demonstrators marched through Dublin’s fair city to vent their anger at the centre-right, Fianna Fail-led coalition government of Brian Cowen, Mr Key’s reception committee will be lucky to muster more than a hundred.

This is because Mr Key, instead of being burned in effigy like his unfortunate Irish counterpart, continues to ride the most extraordinary wave of public support and affection. Like the characters in that old television advertisement for a new brand of fruit juice: the ones who, upon taking a sip of their rival’s product, exclaim "Oh … it’s good!" – even those New Zealanders who voted against Mr Key have been pleasantly surprised at how well their new leader is performing.

There is simply no traction – yet – for the Manukau protesters’ argument that the Prime Minister and his government are responsible for the current economic recession. Though it riles the Grinchs of the Far Left to admit it, most New Zealanders do indeed believe that if the Jobs Summit can instil a sense of "national purpose" into the recovery process, it will be a very good thing. That’s because, when it comes to dealing with the global economic crisis, the slogan "We are all in this boat together", corresponds much more accurately with the mood of the New Zealand electorate than the European Left’s defiant "We won’t pay for your crisis!"

That mood of defiance, anger and rejection may come (most likely when our own unemployment rate reaches the same menacing heights as Ireland’s) but, outside the fractious ghettos of the Far Left, it has not arrived here yet.

To most New Zealanders, Mr Key appears to be doing his best. And, if that rather goofy smile of his doesn’t quite translate to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s "the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself", it’s effect on the public mood has been almost as reassuring. The Prime Minister oozes positivity, and in times of crisis, positivity trumps carping criticism every time.

Which is why Phil Goff, instead of complaining about being excluded from Mr Key’s Summit, would have been much wiser to organise his own. New Zealand contains a host of progressive men and women, whose contributions to the current debate would have been well worth hearing: Brian Easton, Robert Wade, Bryan Gould, Susan St John, Marilyn Waring, Jane Kelsey, Matt McCarten, Jim Flynn, Tim Hazledine, Jonathan Boston, James Belich – the list goes on.

I’d have offered pretty good odds that the recommendations of such a conference would compare more than favourably with those of the 200 businessmen, bureaucrats, union officials and community leaders meeting today in Manukau.

A good idea almost always achieves more than a shouted slogan or marching feet – even 200,000 of them.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 27 February 2009.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Not A Priority

Prime communicator of the modern age: The coming of television raised two critical questions: "Who owns the airwaves, and who (if anyone) should regulate what they carry to the citizen?"

"No one comes and talks to me in my electorate office about broadcasting regulations. It’s not a priority for the public."

Well, no, probably not. And our new Broadcasting Minister, Dr Jonathan Coleman, is undoubtedly correct when he says the only people getting exercised about the issue are "people in the industry and politicians". But even on Auckland’s intellectually arid North Shore, I’d be surprised to learn that every single one of Dr Coleman’s Northcote constituents is relaxed and happy about the current state of New Zealand television.

Democratic to a fault, free-to-air television has successfully adapted to a broadcasting environment in which every viewer has the right to vote with their remote. Over-riding every other consideration for our television schedulers, therefore, is the need to keep the viewers’ fingers off the channel-changer, and their eyeballs firmly fixed on the advertisements that pay the network’s bills. Anything which challenges, offends, or even contributes to a vague feeling of discomfort and/or unease in the collective mind of the viewing audience must be ruthlessly expunged from the schedule.

Now, it’s important to understand that, when 90-100 percent of your revenue is derived from advertising, catering to the lowest common denominator in this way isn’t a reflection of the programme scheduler’s incompetence – it’s an absolute economic necessity. Reality TV shows about fat people competing to lose the most weight, or wannabe super-models trying to be the bitchiest bimbo on the set, may not compare aesthetically with BBC adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels, but they keep people watching – and that’s all that matters.

One wonders, however, whether the ratings for reality TV would be so high if Sky Television wasn’t there to cater for those who fail to find anything remotely entertaining in "Survivor- Gabon" or "The Biggest Loser". If the more culturally sophisticated elements of the population were suddenly prevented from paying $100 per month to watch UKTV, the History Channel, National Geographic, and the Arts Channel – along with Sky movies and the global news networks, and were instead restricted to watching only free-to-air television, I’m pretty sure Dr Coleman would find his electorate office besieged by people wanting to talk about broadcasting regulations.

And herein lies the injustice of New Zealand’s current broadcasting regime. If you are well-educated and wealthy, and can afford the subscription, Sky Television offers you a generous choice of interesting, high-quality programmes. But if your household is unable to afford anything more than Sky movies and sport, or is entirely restricted to free-to-air TV, your chances of consuming anything more than the televisual equivalent of junk-food are not very high.

It was to bring some measure of cultural equity back to broadcasting that the last Labour Government introduced the TVNZ Charter. On the publicly-owned network, at least, New Zealanders were to be provided with a high-quality, intellectually challenging, culturally diverse, and – above all else – uniquely New Zealand programme schedule. Work was also started on developing a regulatory framework capable of delivering Charter-based programming in the brave new world of digital transmission.

What doomed the Charter from its very inception was the Labour Government’s point-blank refusal to provide TVNZ with the funding necessary to make a Charter-based schedule even remotely financially viable. To give all New Zealanders the same viewing opportunities as Sky subscribers – but with a distinctive Kiwi flavour – the state would need to spend approximately $300 million (funded by a broadcasting licence-fee).

Rightly believing that the Charter was nothing more than a confused collection of bureaucratic good intentions, and equally unwilling to spend the money to make it work, the National Party promised to ditch the Charter and halt Labour’s Sky-threatening regulatory review. TVNZ would revert to being an honest commercial broadcaster.

So, those who are unable to afford a Sky subscription will continue, like the Roman masses, to be distracted by the bread and circuses of lowest common denominator television, while the cultured classes will go on enjoying UKTV and the Rialto Channel. Nowhere in this mix, however, will anyone find the local cultural production, or the critical and democratically indispensable news and current affairs programmes of a truly independent public broadcaster.

New Zealand will be poorer for this lack, but Dr Coleman’s constituents are unlikely to complain. Which network’s going to risk its ratings by informing its viewers that, this time, they’re the biggest losers?

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 20 February 2009.

Monday 16 February 2009

Taking Your Time

Pt Chevalier 1964: This superb photograph by Ans Westra captures the carefree spirit of New Zealand's post-war, youth-oriented, culture.

Two extremely pertinent postings on the deep-seated social malaise undermining our democratic political culture – the first here, by Bryce Edwards, and the second here, by Kiwipolitico’s "Pablo" – have prompted me to post this speech, delivered to the New Zealand University Students Association’s bi-annual conference on 12 July 2003. It’s rather long, but does, I think, helpfully address and expand upon the themes so powerfully introduced by Bryce and "Pablo".

IT HAS BEEN more years than I care to remember since I last addressed a meeting of NZUSA, so long ago, in fact, that many of you in this theatre would not have been born.

In one sense that is very good news for NZUSA. It shows that your national organisation has become a permanent fixture in the array of interest groups with which the New Zealand State must negotiate.

Yes, that’s right, you are up there with Federated Farmers and the Plunket Society.

From my own perspective, however, that gap of 22 years covers a period in New Zealand history during which much of what made this country a uniquely positive place in which to live has disappeared, or changed beyond all recognition.

What I say to you today is, therefore, being communicated across a great abyss of experience and expectation. For you are, indeed, the children of the Rogernomics Revolution, and I am an overweight and ageing survivor of the ancien regime.

Let me describe a little of the country I lived in when last I spoke to NZUSA – not merely for nostalgia’s sake – but because I believe it will help to place in context the challenges that face the present generation of student politicians; challenges which, rest assured, constitute the substance of my address to you today.

In 1981 tertiary education was almost entirely subsidised by the state. Sure, there were a number of token payments at the commencement of every year, the largest of which, I seem to recall, was my studass fees, but, by and large, my tuition costs – and a respectably large chunk of my living expenses – were paid for by the State.

The State itself was much larger then - employing between a quarter and a third of the entire workforce. It owned two of the country’s largest banks, all of its telecommunications network, its airlines, its railways, its biggest bus service, a shipping line, its entire electricity generation system, its largest construction force, most of its forests, a chain of tourist hotels, all of its television networks, nearly all of its radio stations, a weekly newsmagazine, thousands of rental properties, and a host of other services which I have forgotten. Capitalism existed in New Zealand, but only on terms established by the New Zealand people in the wake of a protracted global depression and a genocidal world war.

But the thing that I remember most vividly about the world before Rogernomics is that people had much more time.

New Zealanders back then did not live to work, they worked to live. Unless you were employed by an emergency service – or the corner dairy – you had the weekend off.

For two whole days every week the entire economy virtually shut down. And if the Boss wanted you to work more than eight hours in a single day during the week – Boy, did the trade unions make him pay. Time-and-a-half, double-time, and on public holidays – triple time.

If you were lucky enough to get a holiday job in a hospital over Christmas-New Year, you could earn a normal week’s wages in less than 16 hours.

And if you grew tired of your job, if you got bored with the routines of office or factory, you simply jacked it in. Full employment meant that you could step out of the workforce whenever you felt like it – take time out to go fishing, or tramping, or go in search of the big OE in Australia, London or Kathmandu. It was a wonderful time and a wonderful country in which to be young. There was time to grow up, time to learn, time to become a real human being.
And that’s what I miss most about the world that passed away in the 1980s and 90s – the automatic assumption that, as New Zealanders, we had all the time in the world.

It was an assumption that could only be made in a workers’ – not a bosses’ - world. The ability to limit the amount of time individuals are able to devote to themselves and their families is the true measure of Capitalism’s social, political and economic power. The more time you are forced to spend working for the money you need to survive, the more dependent you are on your employer, and the less freedom you have to tell him to get stuffed.

Have you ever noticed how angry politicians and business people get about unemployed people on the dole "going surfing"? Even if the capitalists cannot find a job for you, they and their minions in the State apparatus still expect you to devote all of your time to looking for work, or acquiring skills, or visiting your case worker at WINZ. In societies like ours, Time and Liberty are very closely related.

So, how much time do you have in 2003 – and are any of the principal political parties proposing to offer you more of it?

This is not so abstract a question as you might think. One of the earliest demands of organised labour – dating back over a century – was for a limitation of working hours. And one of the first things the First Labour Government did in 1936 was to reduce the length of the normal working week from 48 to 40 hours.

In a very real sense the entire socialist programme was about how to disengage the individual from the tyranny of the employer’s clock. What, after all, is profit, if it is not the time you spend working for the capitalist rather than for yourself? Public ownership, by doing away with the need for profit, was supposed to reduce the amount of time required to keep society functioning – thereby making more time available for individuals and families.

Let’s begin with Labour. How much time are they offering you?

Not a great deal, I’m afraid. Even though the Labour Party itself is in favour of legislating for an extra week of annual leave, the Labour Government has announced that it will not be happening before the next election.

There is, however, a real possibility that paid parental leave may be extended from 12 to 14 weeks – a small but very welcome donation of time to mothers and their babies.

Michael Cullen’s "Super Fund" – into which so much of the State’s income is now being poured, may - and I emphasise "may" - be enough to prevent future governments from extending the time we have to spend working for a living – which is good. Not as good as Rob Muldoon’s reduction of the age of retirement from 65 to 60 in 1976, but better than nothing.

For students, however, no time seems to be available. Labour still expects you to compress the years it takes to acquire the necessary tertiary qualifications to the absolute minimum consistent with retaining your sanity.

The idea of pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, which still had some purchase on reality in my days as a student, has no place in Steve Maharey’s brave new lecture theatres of the future.
If you want to study classical literature, when the Tertiary Education Council wants you to study biotechnology, then you’ll have to pay the full tuition costs of a classical education out of your own pocket.

Steve and his mates want graduates who can earn – not citizens who can think.

Of course with a $30,000 student debt hanging over your head, you will want to earn too – as much and as often as possible. There won’t be a lot of time for anything else.

Those student loans – by the way – are a lot more dangerous than even NZUSA has let on. In fact, they are proving to be sociological and demographic time-bombs.

A healthy democracy requires a large and relatively secure middle class, and if that democracy is to be long-lived, it needs a middle class which is ready, willing and able to reproduce itself.
Massive student debt is making middle class reproduction extremely difficult. Not only is it causing young adults to postpone marriage, but it is turning home ownership into a distant dream.

Most middle class people will not contemplate starting a family until they have a home of their own, so parenthood is being pushed further and further into the future. That means much smaller families. The norm for my parents was three or four children. The norm for the parents of the 21st Century – that’s you - will be one or two.

The rapidly expanding middle class that characterised the period of the post-war boom is a thing of the past. Today the middle class is shrinking, and with it the tax base that makes a decent and democratic society possible.

New Zealand society used to be shaped like a rugby ball, now it resembles a Balinese stupa – a broad flat base with a narrow spike of obscene wealth and privilege rising up out of the middle.
So, are the other parties any better? Well, if our criteria is time, the answer – with the exception of the Greens, which I shall come to presently – is an emphatic "No."

In fact, National, ACT, NZ First and United Future are all committed to increasing the amount of time people have to spend working for the capitalists. They opposed paid parental leave, they are adamantly opposed to increasing the amount of annual leave, they see no alternative to raising the age of retirement to 67 - or beyond - and they are determined to restore "flexibility" to the labour market.

New Zealand’s flexible labour market is, of course, the National Party’s greatest contribution to the new economic order. The Employment Contracts Act effectively destroyed private sector unionism in New Zealand, and with it all the numerous restrictions workers had imposed on their employers’ ability to control the speed, intensity and duration of paid work.

Given that most of our adult lives revolve around the workplace – it is, after all, where we spend the bulk of our waking hours – the destruction of the New Zealand trade union movement and the introduction of authoritarian managerial models to the workplace was the New Right’s single most effective blow against the rights and freedoms of New Zealand citizens.

National and ACT are also really keen on "Welfare Reform" – otherwise known as "working for the dole". It is hard to imagine a better illustration of the way in which capitalism seeks to monopolise the time of even those who cannot find regular employment.

The reasoning behind the Right’s obsession with welfare reform is, however, perfectly logical. By reducing the state-provided income of the unemployed to subsistence level, and then requiring them to work for it, they are immediately transformed into a vast army of wage reducers and work intensifiers.

And that means that the workers in paid employment are constantly looking over their shoulders and wondering what it will take to keep the boss from replacing them with someone cheaper.

"Longer hours? – Sure Boss." "Work faster? – Yes Sir." "Can I come in weekends? – No problem." "Am I asking for a wage rise? – Hell no!" "Unions? – Never heard of them."

Ever wondered why ecstasy and methamphetamine are the drugs of choice for your generation, when marijuana and LSD were the drugs of choice for mine? Well, it’s simple, grass slows everything down, while speed – as its name suggests – allows you to do more with less (less sleep, less food, less morals). LSD suggests that the workaday world is only one of many realities, while E makes the realities of the workaday world temporarily bearable. Our escape was into time, your escape is out of it.

Small historical footnote: Both Russian and German troops at Stalingrad were fed vast quantities of amphetamines – it was the only way their officers could keep them killing each other. That should tell you something.

It should also give you a hint as to why Nandor Tanczos and the Greens are in favour of decriminalising cannabis.

The Greens grew out of the Values Party – which laid claim to being the first "post-materialist" political party in the world. I wasn’t old enough to vote in 1972, when Values was launched, but I well remember the impact it had on young people all over New Zealand.

Here was a party that looked forward to a world where there was less work and more leisure.
I remember Mike Ward from Nelson – now a Green MP – telling his television audience that Values was about giving us more time to do the things that really mattered - like making love and playing with our children.

That was not the sort of political campaigning we were used to hearing in New Zealand: – Vote Values for more sex and play.

Even the Left found it disconcerting. Did you ever hear Jim Anderton say - Vote Alliance for more sex and play? Can you imagine Helen Clark distributing a little card promising that - "under Labour New Zealanders will be free to play around?"

The Greens – as far as I can see – are the only political party which truly understands that social progress is about reducing the amount of time required from every citizen for providing the necessities of a civilised existence, and the expansion of the amount of time available to every citizen for personal growth and development.

No one else gets it – not even Labour. For Helen Clark and Michael Cullen and Steve Maharey government is all about the quantity of life, not the quality of life.

They sincerely want us to be better qualified, better paid, and more productive as a nation. And, to achieve those goals, they have been willing to strap us into what the New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, calls the "golden straightjacket" of free markets and free trade.
They desperately want us to accept what that guru of the Third Way - Anthony Giddens – insists is "the fact" of globalisation. But what they cannot seem to understand is that the economic and social order created by free markets and free trade is absolutely incompatible with the existence of free citizens.

As Freidman is so fond of saying: "The purpose of the new capitalism is to shoot the wounded."
The "new" capitalism is also, I might add, incompatible with a living planet - which means that the choice we have to make is not simply between – as Rosa Luxembourg wrote – "socialism and barbarism" (that choice, I fear, has already been made) but between a living planet and a dead one.

So, you see, the stakes we are playing for have gotten very high.

Too high for the Greens, alone, to win.

The challenge facing all progressive New Zealanders is to how to translate their analysis of what is wrong with the world, into political action capable of putting it right.

There are those who argue that the world can be saved only by building an alternative culture in the nooks and crannies 21st Century capitalism has yet to colonise. That the pursuit of power is a project doomed to failure, because power has no location – it is always in the next room, or on the next floor up.

I do not agree. In fact, I violently disagree.

Let me tell you why.

Twenty-two years ago, in 1981, I was part of the Dunedin organising group against the Springbok Tour. A week or so before the Springboks arrived in Otago, we decided to organise a training run up to Carisbrook. About 500 of us gathered on the motorway, linked arms, and began marching towards the ground. After a few steps we started chanting: "Amandla! Amandla! Amandla Ngewhetu! Power to the people."

I’ll never forget the way the chanting, and the marching, and the linked arms transformed that group of ordinary New Zealanders. It was as if an electric charge was flowing through them and around them. Their eyes shone and their faces glowed. For the first time in my life I understood the awesome and unstoppable power of solidarity; of people united in a common cause.
Change can only come through mass political action.

Just as the only source of profit is human labour, the only source of political power is human organisation. The capitalists are organised to a degree that beggars belief, but working people, young people, progressive people seem to have lost their way.

How the Dick Cheneys and Donald Rumsfelts of this world must laugh at the progressive movement’s cumbersome consensus-based decision-making, and its "affinity groups". How puny they must appear alongside their aircraft carriers and Abrams tanks.

But how much more dangerous progressivism would seem if it was organised into a single, disciplined, political party - with roots extending into every city, every suburb and every street of the nation.

Oh, how their laughter would cease when a party like that started rising in the opinion polls. And, oh, how quickly their power would crumble when that party became linked to a militant trade union movement, with members in every factory, in every shop, in every office, and – yes – in every university.

"Don’t mourn", said the great American union leader, Joe Hill, as they led him out to be executed, "organise!" And he was right.

It can be done. It has been done – right here in New Zealand. The Labour Party, in its socialist phase, had all of the attributes that I have listed above, and it used them to transform New Zealand.

It is one of the great ironies – and the great tragedies - of our history, that it was Labour which, fifty years after the election of Mickey Savage’s Government, set about destroying its socialist legacy.

But what they could not destroy was the shining lesson of that transformative moment. And it remains the duty of each one of us to take the time to learn that lesson all over again.

My time for learning it came on a Dunedin motorway, one winter afternoon in July.

When and where you will learn it, I cannot predict: - perhaps it will be while fighting the lifting of the GE moratorium; or for the right to strike; or for a new covenant between Maori and Pakeha; or even in your long and principled struggle for free education.

But whenever and wherever your time for learning comes, you will be amazed at the lesson’s simplicity.

In Spanish it goes like this: Los pueblos, unido, jamas sera vincido!

The people, united, can never be defeated.

Saturday 14 February 2009

A Badge of Honour

Keith Locke and the guilty agents of state repression

THERE are times when the antics of Green MP Keith Locke make me want to scream.

"Radio Keith" – the unreconstructed voice of Sixties radicalism – is as predictable as those dreadful evangelical Christian radio stations. No matter what time of the day or night you tune in, the message is always the same: personal salvation through right-wing bigotry.

Now, it would be most unfair to label Keith a left-wing bigot, but it is fair to say that there is precious little acknowledgement of the complexities (let alone the ambiguities) of human motivation in his political pronouncements.

If a policeman guns down a citizen, Keith is always on the side of the citizen. Is this because, through revolutionary eyes, all police officers look like "pigs"? Brutal, unthinking animals in the pay of the capitalist "Establishment"?

If so, what, to Keith eyes, do their invariably black and/or poor victims look like? To hear him tell it, they’re the helpless by-products of poverty and discrimination – innocent by definition.

Guilty-as-charged, however, are the economic criminals: the political and business leaders who allow social dysfunction to flourish rather than reduce the rate of return on shareholders’ funds. If anyone should be left to the tender mercies of the Taser and the Glock, say the revolutionaries, it should be them.

Where this revolutionary "logic" falls down, of course, is in the attribution of individual agency (and hence responsibility) to the servants of the system – but not to its victims. If the unemployed Maori teenager, high on "P", who guns down the proprietor of a liquor store is the guiltless by-product of poverty and discrimination, then the police marksman who shoots him dead is equally innocent of mendacity – being no more than the brainwashed by-product of a society in which the citizen’s right to be secure in both person and property is sacrosanct.

But, a world in which individuals are generally acknowledged to be helpless puppets, whose volitionless limbs are moved by forces over which they exercise no control, would also be a world in which "politics", as we know it, could not exist. And this would be especially true of revolutionary politics. Because, at its heart, the revolutionary credo holds out the promise that human-beings, by an act of collective will, can reconfigure fundamentally the social and economic structures in which they are enmeshed.

And this is what puzzles me about Keith’s outrage at the contents of his recently acquired SIS file. All his adult life he has advocated the revolutionary transformation of New Zealand society: initially as a Trotskyite Marxist; and, more latterly, as a libertarian eco-socialist. Both these ideologies offer a direct, revolutionary challenge to the sanctity of private property – and hence to the current configurations of power in New Zealand’s capitalist society.

Now, Keith has made much of the fact that his file contains no evidence of any criminal activity (with the exception of minor civil disobedience during the Springbok Tour). But, does this mean that Keith’s revolutionary activity has been entirely harmless? Only if he is willing to argue that the radical ideas he’s espoused – and continues to espouse – possess no power to impel his fellow citizens to action. (And if that is the case one wonders why he bothers!)

But, if he concedes that his ideas are, indeed, motivational, can he then legitimately suggest that the State, confronted with a revolutionary challenge to its core institutions, should, nevertheless, deny itself the right to monitor the actions of the challenger?

Surely not.

Arousing Keith’s genuine ire, however, is the revelation that the SIS continued to monitor his actions even after he was elected a Green Member of Parliament in 1999. For some reason Keith believes that a "libertarian eco-socialist", located at the very heart of democratic power, should be considered less of a risk to the security of the capitalist State than some poor mug struggling ineffectually in an isolated Trotskyite sect. Not even an MP’s decision to involve himself with the Tamil Tigers – inventors of the suicide bomber – would prompt Keith to authorise SIS surveillance of that politician’s contacts.

Just this once, I wish Keith had done something unpredictable – like accepting his SIS file as a badge of honour. After all, for more than fifty years the New Zealand State has paid him the ultimate tribute of taking his revolutionary rhetoric seriously.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 13th February 2009.

Friday 13 February 2009

That Loving Feeling

A new historic compromise? Just as the post-World War II "historic compromise" between capital and labour ushered in a 30-year period of working-class growth and consolidation, the new relationship between the Pakeha and Maori capitalist elites (symbolised here by Tariana Turia and John Key) looks set to transform New Zealand's economic, cultural and political environment - and not, in this case, to the Left's advantage.

WAITANGI was a love-in this year. We must put to one side the assault on the Prime Minister by two Northland Maori protesting the National-Maori Party alliance. Their action was small, uncoordinated and aggressive precisely because it did not enjoy the support (much less reflect the generally positive mood) of the Maori people. For the first time in a long time there were no angry denunciations of colonial treachery, no argy-bargy with the Police, and no ambushes in the wharenui. Indeed, recalling the dramatic events of past Waitangi Days, this year’s love-in seemed positively unpatriotic.

What has happened in the five years since Don Brash’s notorious Orewa Speech inspired genuine mud-slinging and abuse? How is it possible that John Key can be welcomed onto our national marae with the same genuine warmth Norman Kirk received way back in 1973? What lies behind this extraordinary rapprochement between Maori and Pakeha?

At the root of all these changes lies the succession of Treaty settlements negotiated by both the National and Labour parties since the late-1980s. Though representing only a fraction of the value of the lands, forests and fisheries alienated from Maori control by the 19th Century colonial authorities, the capital base provided by the settlement process is, nevertheless, slowly transforming iwi corporates into key players in the New Zealand economy.

In less than a decade it is likely that the big iwi corporations will constitute this country’s largest domestically-owned business enterprises. Their holdings in the tourism, forestry and fishing industries will generate a growing proportion of our national income, and, even more significantly, as the legislation controlling the use of Maori land-holdings is made increasingly facilitative of Maori commercial development, the iwi corporates will be exerting a growing influence over New Zealand’s core primary production industries – dairying, meat and wool.

The explanation for this revolution in economic and, inevitably, political power is simple. The nature of iwi corporate structures renders them immune to takeover by foreign interests. The owners of the Maori corporations will always define themselves as tangata whenua before they define themselves as financial stakeholders in a commercial enterprise. That being so, they would no more countenance losing control of the tribe’s assets – its taonga – than they would countenance the loss of their people’s mana – which, in the world of the Maori, amounts to much the same thing.

Remarkably, it was the Right which first recognised the true significance of the Treaty settlement process: that tribal capitalism was destined to become the critical guarantor of capitalist relations generally in New Zealand.

National and Labour’s attempts to roll back the Treaty-settlement process – whether it be Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s effective re-nationalisation of the foreshore and seabed, or Don Brash’s swingeing attack on Maori "privilege" – represented what was almost certainly the last, concerted effort on the part of the traditional, European elites to re-colonise the Maori-Pakeha relationship.

Maoridom’s response: the massive hikoi which descended on Parliament in May 2004, along with the simultaneous formation of the Maori Party; demonstrated the futility of this strategy. Wiser political heads, most notably in the Business Roundtable, realised that a more intelligent strategy, one based on the carefully managed assimilation of Maoridom’s economic and political elites into a broader, bi-cultural Aotearoa-New Zealand ruling class, has become Kiwi capitalism’s most urgent priority.

The skill with which Don Brash’s successor, John Key, has managed this recalibration of the Right’s relationship with Maori has been considerable. Not only has he been able to replicate the close ties National enjoyed with the Maori aristocracy throughout the 1950s and 60s, but by his assiduous courtship of the Maori Party MPs, he has also been able to harness the goodwill of the Maori Party’s supporters to National’s new deal in New Zealand race relations.

In doing so he has almost effortlessly parted the Labour Party from one of its most reliable bases of electoral support. The respect Maori culture bestows upon leaders, along with its infatuation with prestige, means that the Maori-National alliance has every chance of enduring well into the future. Underlying the new relationship will be the expanding amount of ideological common ground shared by Maori and Pakeha capitalists.

It is, indeed, a new day for the Maori people, not because, at the level of the typical working-class Maori family, life has got materially better, but because for the first time in a long time they feel that the colonial victors want (and need) more from them as a people than their sullen acquiescence at being last hired, first fired.

For that, John Key will win not only their support, he’ll claim their love.

The above is a slightly modified version of an essay which first appeared in the Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star on Friday 6th February 2009.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Development's Evil Twin

The Suburban Idyll. Dad, Mum, the kids and the dog pose before the key talismans of individual and familial success in the 1950s and 60s: a new home in the suburbs, a new car, and that prized symbol of the homeowner's annual escape from the suburban dream - a boat. But rich as suburbia's citizens believed themselves to be, they were nowhere near as wealthy as the private speculators who'd invented, constructed and profited so hugely from the new suburban "lifestyle".

WHEN I was a lad of nine or ten, my parents shifted the family to Invercargill. From the big ranch-slider doors of our brand new house on the northern fringe of the city, I looked out on to empty sections, and, beyond these ready-made playgrounds of cocksfoot and broom, to the rolling farmland of rural Southland. Rushing around the neighbourhood, I never paused to wonder who owned all these vacant lots, and it certainly never occurred to me that someone, somewhere, was becoming very rich by virtue of the fact that New Zealand was a healthy, prosperous nation in the midst of a baby boom.

Property speculation has always been the evil twin of New Zealand’s growth and development. Wherever people have settled; wherever the bush has been felled and the swamps drained; wherever, with back-breaking labour, fences have been erected, bridges built, and roads and railways laid down; there also, lurking in the shadows, have been the property speculators, ready to pocket the "unearned increment" that naturally accrues from mankind’s "improvement" of the natural environment.

The essential parasitism of the property speculator was much more apparent to the early settlers of New Zealand than it is to us today. The people who built our villages, towns and cities were only too aware of what they had collectively contributed and achieved, and they were loathe to permit anyone who hadn’t borne their fair share of the effort to walk away with the lion’s share of the profits.

It is the reason why, even today, business premises still pay a higher rate than personal dwellings. Without human-beings there can be no market for the goods and services local merchants provide, and without the natural increase in population their enterprises cannot grow. The differential rating system is a form of tax on the commercial benefits which any expanding urban centre naturally confers upon its business sector. When returned to the local inhabitants in the form of improved public amenities, this unearned increment not only enhances the quality of their lives, but also makes their towns and cities more attractive places in which to settle, thereby creating an environment even more conducive to doing business.

All this was plain to our grandparents and great-grandparents, but, tragically, it is much less obvious to us. To the generations born since the great, post-war suburban sprawl, our towns and cities are no longer seen as things human-beings have imposed upon the landscape – they have simply become the landscape.

This indifference to the realities of urban growth and development has allowed the property speculators to make millions of untaxed dollars while imposing higher and higher costs upon the nation’s ratepayers and taxpayers.

Auckland, our largest city, lies at the very heart of this speculative empire. And the fact that some of the most powerful formative elements of the right-wing coalition that eventually became the National Party were concentrated in Auckland, and its encircling rural hinterland, explains a great deal of New Zealand’s post-war history.

The Los Angeles-style sprawl which typified Auckland’s expansion in the 1950s, 60s and 70s not only made a great many of the National Party’s financial backers extremely wealthy men, but it also pioneered the growth of the deeply conservative and materialistic suburban culture which has had such a deleterious effect on our national character.

Had Labour, and not National, entrenched itself as the dominant political force in Auckland, the shape of the city, and of New Zealand politics in general, would have been very different. As Auckland fares – so fares the nation.

It was Auckland, after all, which ignited the housing boom that eventually engulfed the rest of the country. The rapid enrichment of the upper classes which Rogernomics and Ruthanasia made possible, coupled with the vast influx of Asian capital in the 1990s, dramatically extended the purview of property speculation. Almost overnight, the richest five percent of the population has become the landlord of the poorest 20 percent.

National’s housing minister, Phil Heatley, has reassured this privileged twentieth of New Zealanders that their rents are safe. There will be no Capital Gains Tax (to socialise the unearned increment) and, for the really big-time speculators, he and local government minister, Rodney Hide, have promised to lift restrictive zoning regulations and gut the Resource Management Act.

The evil twin has come into his inheritance.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star on Friday 30 January 2009.