Tuesday 31 March 2009

Where have all the grown-ups gone?

ARE there no grown-ups left in this country? No one capable of grasping the full significance of the multiple crises through which New Zealand is passing? Not one person with the authority to ‘round up all the spoilt and noisy children currently playing at being responsible adults – and send them to their rooms?

Rodney Hide, for example, is in dire need of some "time out". Confronted with expert advice from the Ministry of Health that up to 20 percent of New Zealanders are at risk of catching something nasty from their drinking water, what does our Minister for Local Government do?

Does he pound the Finance Minister’s, Bill English’s, desk – demanding a budget allocation sufficient to secure for the entire population that most fundamental of civic amenities: a secure supply of potable water?

No, he doesn’t. He demands that the Ministry of Health’s findings be "urgently reviewed".

Now every civil servant knows exactly what "urgently reviewed" means: it’s politician-speak for "take this report away and come back with a set of policy recommendations more in line with the Minister’s views".

Whether or not the Ministry of Health bows to Mr Hide’s astonishing temper tantrum over water quality standards will be a measure of just how grown-up a nation we truly are.

Either the water supplied to citizens by New Zealand’s local authorities is safe, or it is not. If it is unsafe, then a grown-up government initiates the processes required to make it safe. Only a child attempts to wish away the obstacles reality places in his path, and adult behaviour enabling such "magic thinking" is not only very wrong, it is also extremely dangerous.

Mr Hide is, of course, an enthusiastic convert to the ideology of neo-liberalism – an infantile conceptual system especially prone to magic thinking. At it’s core lies a childlike faith in the omniscience and omnipotence of "free markets". Central to this faith is the na├»ve conviction that, left to its own devices, the market is capable of fulfilling all of humanity’s needs.

Not surprisingly, nothing enrages the neo-liberal child more than being presented with evidence of market failure.

Anyone who identifies circumstances in which the disciplines of the marketplace simply don’t apply (as in the provision of such basic civic amenities as clean water, hygienic sewerage disposal and street-lighting) should expect a very short shrift.

It is no accident that Mr Hide holds the portfolio of Local Government. Because at no other point in the complex edifice of the State is neo-liberalism’s capacity for magical cogitation and wishful thinking more urgently required than at this crucial intersection of theory and reality.

The economists may refer to the destructive and unaccounted-for effects of market interactions as "externalities", but you and I experience them as pollution.

Allow the market for dairy products to operate freely, without effective regulation, and what do you get? Filthy streams, rivers, lakes and estuaries; exhausted acquifers; and constantly rising levels of expenditure for keeping New Zealand’s water supplies – especially those in rural areas – uncontaminated by harmful bacteria.

It simple enough. You’d think even a child could grasp it.

Not that infantile behaviour is restricted to the politicians.

Only last week I was reading about the judge who put away a gang of Chinese "P" (pure methamphetamine) dealers. They’d been running a sophisticated importation and distribution business out of the VIP Room at the Sky City Casino. So alarmed had the judge become at the scale of the operation (millions of dollars-worth of "P" had been traded) that he insisted on sending his sentencing notes to the Sky City Casino’s CEO.

So far, so grown-up.

Then I read about a group of media and sporting celebrities who’ve banded together to combat the use of "P" in the New Zealand community – reportedly the highest per capita in the world.
Rather appropriately, this star-studded bunch have come together under the auspices of the Stellar Trust.

To get the fund-raising ball rolling, the group has decided to "celebrity roast" the veteran broadcaster, Paul Holmes. At just over $3,000 for a table of ten, it promises to be a real red-carpet event.

Then I discover where the fundraiser is being held.

Yep, you guessed it: at the Sky City Casino.

Would the last grown-up leaving New Zealand please remember to switch off the lights in the VIP Room.

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

POST-SCRIPT: Right on cue, the day this column appeared, the host of TVNZ’s Breakfast show, Paul Henry, provoked consternation and outrage by reading out an e-mail commenting unfavourably on one of his female guest’s facial hair.

The saddest aspect of Henry’s gratuitous discourtesy is not so much that the host of a supposedly serious news and current affairs programme sees nothing wrong in insulting his guests on air, but the deafening silence from TVNZ management.

Many (perhaps most) television "personalities" suffer from a grossly inflated opinion of their own significance – it sort of goes with the territory. And that’s why shows like Breakfast have producers – to keep the egos of their "talent" in check.

The lack of grown-up behaviour on the set of Breakfast is unfortunate – if unsurprising. But its absence in the control-room, and, it would seem, the ranks of TVNZ management, is unforgivable.

Saturday 28 March 2009

A Serious Case of Mislabelling

THERE’S nothing quite as dangerous as a mislabeled bottle of medicine. Swallowing a couple of tablets of cyanide mislabeled as aspirin would, quite literally, be the last thing any of us would do.

In matters ideological and political it is also very important to call things by their proper names.

Imagine the confusion that would ensue if a political party, wedded to the far-right ideology of neo-liberalism, successfully marketed itself to the electorate as "pragmatic", "centrist", or even "Labour-lite".

Depending on how clever it was at maintaining such an illusion, the discombobulation of the voting public might take several months to wear off.

Well, the National Party, and its leader, John Key, have proved to be exceptionally talented at discombobulating the voting public. The Prime Minister, in particular, has demonstrated a capacity for rhetorical promiscuity that is truly remarkable. One minute he is preaching 1970s-style tri-partitism to the Council of Trade Unions, and the next he’s reaffirming National’s neo-liberal credentials to the Wall Street Journal. With the insouciant optimism that only a man with $50 million dollars in the bank can project, Key has spent the last four months leaping and pirouetting all over the political stage. The New Zealand public has been entranced, and, if the opinion polls are to be believed, enthralled. Very few voters have been sharp-eyed enough to notice that while Key has been demonstrating his talent for misdirection, the more conventionally conservative of his colleagues have been getting on with the job of trashing Labour’s legacy.

They’re not the only ones.

In a peculiar posting on his Against the Current website, Steve Cowan has also been indulging in a little Labour Party-trashing.

"I’ve got an idea for a comedy drama with a political twist", writes Steve. "It’s all about this group of Labour MPs, most of them former university lecturers, teachers, lawyers and the like, who head off to the working-class communities of the West Coast – the region that gave birth to the labour movement many decades ago."

Steve invites us to "imagine the comedic tension as the Labour MPs try to explain themselves" to empty halls and unwelcoming shoppers. "Imagine the political poignancy", says Steve, of Labour returning "home", only to discover "they’re about as welcome as a dose of diarrhoea".

Steve frames his satirical polemic with the claim that the Coasters’ disdain for Labour’s MPs is readily explicable in terms of the Labour Party’s anti-West Coast policies. The local working-class with which Labour is attempting to re-connect, insists Steve, is made up of "the very same people they bashed with their economic policies while they were in government."

Well, no, actually. Labour’s problems on the West Coast stem not from the Coasters having been "bashed" by Labour’s economic policies – which boosted employment, lifted wage levels, improved living standards, reduced the flow of outward migration, and increased the overall rate of economic growth throughout the West Coast region – but from their reaction to its environmental and social policies.

Steve’s anti-Labour Coasters never saw a native forest they didn’t think would look better being fed through a sawmill, and never found a coal seam they didn’t want to hack out of the ground and ship-off to China. Legislation intended to protect the rights and/or bodies of prostitutes, gay couples and children was received by these horny-handed sons (and daughters) of toil as ‘political correctness gone mad’, or as yet more evidence of the unwarranted intrusion of Labour’s "Nanny State" into the lives of "ordinary Kiwis".

These West Coast-Tasman electors didn’t reject Labour because it had abandoned its progressive roots, it rejected Labour because it had lived up to them. If the West Coast working-class really was the gallant band of red-blooded progressive socialists Steve seems to think they are, then surely they would have elected the Greens’ Kevin Hague as their MP – not the National Party’s Chris Auchinvole.

Alternatively, one could argue that, since Labour’s Damien O’Connor and Kevin Hague between them polled 16,975 votes to Auchinvole’s 15,844, then Steve’s framing contention: that the ideas and actions of the Labour Party and its Green allies fuelled the rejection of the Centre-Left across West Coast-Tasman in 2008; has no factual basis whatsoever.

Either the West Coast working-class are a bunch of feral (to use Helen Clark’s unfortunate expression) political troglodytes – in which case Labour should wear their rejection as a badge of honour: or, their support for Labour and its allies remains as staunch as ever. Whichever option one chooses, it would seem that, in the case of Steve’s putative comedy – the joke’s on him!

Not content with merely putting his misguided boot into Phil Goff and his caucus, however, Steve proceeds to pour scorn over what he describes as the "intellectually and politically dishonest" bloggers at The Standard and Tumeke. Their crime? Remaining silent in the face of "the sterility of Labour’s politics".

Steve then draws a bead on some of my recent political commentary: "Chris so desperately wants there to be a real difference between National and Labour he’s making things up now. When did Labour turn into a ‘social democratic party’. I don’t recall Phil Goff rejecting free market economics. Chris seems to be suggesting that social democracy can be anything he wants it to be, so there!"

Let me first reassure Steve that my reasons for calling Labour a social-democratic party are not based upon either my desperation to distinguish it from the National Party, nor on mere personal whimsy. On the contrary, my principal reason for referring to Labour as a social-democratic party is, very simply, because that is what it calls itself. Helen Clark, Labour’s longest serving leader, along with Dr Michael Cullen and Steve Maharey – two of its most impressive intellectuals – have consistently referred to themselves as social-democrats, and, on the basis of my own understanding of left-wing thought, I believe they are perfectly entitled to do so.

What distinguishes the social-democrat from the socialist revolutionary is the belief that the social, economic and political changes required to emancipate humanity from its "capitalist integument" (to use Marx’s phraseology) are all achievable peacefully, without recourse to insurrectionary coups d’etat and/or murderous civil wars, through the institutions of representative parliamentary democracy.

As a consequence, social-democratic parties are strategically precluded from indulging in the sort of uncompromising political praxis of bona fide revolutionary movements. In order to attract and hold mass electoral support, parties like the NZ Labour Party must be very careful to, in the memorable phrase of Jim Anderton, "build their footpaths where the people walk". While capitalist ideology retains its hegemonic grip on the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the population, the only thing that crude anti-capitalist sloganeering will bring about is the instant loss of social-democracy’s mass support.

When capitalist hegemony falters, however, and the population’s faith in its institutions is undermined – as is occurring at present, thanks to the global financial crisis – social-democratic parties are able to present their respective electorates with much more radical policy manifestos and, upon attaining office, drive through programmes of change which, cumulatively, can lead to a revolutionary transformation of their societies.

Such was the achievement of New Zealand’s first Labour government (1935-1949). The Governor-General and his family may not have been murdered in the basement of Government House, nor the cream of the New Zealand working-class wiped out in a vicious civil war, but Mickey Savage’s humane social-democracy certainly did succeed in transforming this country fundamentally – and for the better.

So, if anyone is indulging in personal whimsy (or is it blatant dishonesty?) when it comes to accurately labelling New Zealand’s political actors and movements it would appear to be Steve himself. To pass muster as a social-democrat, Steve insists that Phil Goff "reject free market economics" – not just in his heart (which, in itself, I would regard as a fairly big ask) but publicly. Of course, were Phil to commit such a strategic blunder, he would be signalling his intention to vacate the arena of serious electoral politics altogether. Within a fortnight, the right-wing news media and his National and Act opponents would have forced him to resign as Leader of the Opposition, and driven him into the political wilderness – where he would, no doubt, be welcomed by Steve.

Only then would Phil know that he had swallowed the wrong ideological medicine.

Only then would he realise that his new mate, Steve, had secretly peeled-off the original label identifying the contents of the bottle correctly as "Revolutionary Socialism", and replaced it with a new label, falsely describing the medicine inside (along with all its fatal side-effects) as "Social Democracy".

Only then would Phil begin to understand why he was feeling so discombobulated.

Monday 23 March 2009

Not A Gentle Species

Strange Fruit: A Florida lynch-mob of the 1920s admire their handiwork. Human-beings exhibit a deep fascination with the public infliction of pain and violence.

I HEARD Cindy Kiro being interviewed on the radio the other day. The Children’s Commissioner was talking about bullying in schools. Towards the end of the interview, she said something which struck me as very funny: "Schools should prepare us for life", Ms Kiro declared.

I burst out laughing.

If schools really were about preparing us for life, they’d not only teach us how to endure bullies, they’d teach us how to become one.

What is a bully, after all, but a person who has embraced the basic principles of social organisation more ruthlessly than his or her peers?

Bullies intuitively grasp the brutal, but essential, truth that all human communities are held together by the threat, or, where the threat fails, by the actuality of violence. Experience has also taught them that when the weak are being bullied by the strong, most people will do absolutely nothing to protect them.

Indeed, history shows that human-beings exhibit a deep fascination for the public infliction of pain and violence.

Just examine the photographic record of the scores of lynchings which took place in the southern United States during the first three decades of the 20th Century, and you will be stunned by the participants’ expressions. Though they have just witnessed the torture, emasculation and incineration of a fellow human-being, you will find no traces of horror, fear or disgust upon their faces. On the contrary, they’re smiling broadly for the camera, and their eyes glitter with excitement. Even the faces of the children (some might say especially the faces of the children) wear expressions of fierce triumph and frank pleasure.

We are not a gentle species.

Millennia have taught us that when the powerful start exercising their power the smartest thing for those not involved to do is stand well clear. Those brave (or foolish) individuals who, in ages past, displayed their empathy too openly, or recklessly intervened on behalf of the victim, were clearly placing themselves at an evolutionary disadvantage. Incurring the wrath of the dominant individual, or group, is probably not the most effective method for ensuring one’s genes get passed on to the next generation.

Endorsing the bullies’ choice of victim may not rate highly in terms of ethics, but it’s an excellent survival strategy.

And it is this, the brutal logic of evolutionary advantage, which lies behind the behaviour of so many school principals when confronted with evidence of bullying. Punishing the strong, on behalf of the weak, makes absolutely no evolutionary sense.

Almost unconsciously, the people in charge of our schools – its dominant individuals – will align themselves (emotionally, if not formally) with the bully rather than the victim. In their heart-of-hearts they know that, in the world beyond the school gates, it’s the bullies who go places. They will be the managers, the bosses, the sergeant-majors and – yes – even the headmasters in the workplaces our children will enter upon leaving school. Punish the bully and, by implication, you condemn the intricate system of multiple hierarchies upon which our entire, unforgiving society depends.

So, you see why I laughed – not unkindly, but ironically – at Cindy Kiro and her stalwart ally, Rosslyn Noonan, the Chief Human Rights Commissioner. If they have their way (and in the face of the less-than-sympathetic Education Minister, Anne Tolley, I’m pretty sure they won’t) our schools will be transformed into islands of empathy, decency and justice in a vast sea of social brutality and indifference.

I can’t see it, myself. The fact that the bully’s right to an education is so clearly spelt out by the Education Ministry, while nothing at all is said about the rights of the victim should tell our idealistic Commissioners something about the State’s real priorities. It would certainly explain why, nine-times-out-of-ten, it’s the victims who are forced to leave the school in which they were attacked, and the bullies who remain.

Dear Ms Kiro! Brave Ms Noonan! They’d have us all behave in the "real" world, as they’d like to think our children behave at school. And, of course, the Commissioners are right: we should defend the weak from persecution and injustice; we should empathise with the laughed-at, the picked-on, the excluded and the "other". That should be the nature of the world into which our children sally forth.

Why shouldn’t they have something to teach us?

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

Thursday 19 March 2009

Something Is Happening Here

Why has the National Party suddenly reverted to type? And where has "that nice Mr Key" got to?

SOMETHING has happened. You can hear it in the talkback callers’ sudden change of tone. You can see it in the faces of the people who, in 2008, broke the habit of a lifetime and voted National. They’re not ready to admit to having made a huge mistake – not yet. But their extreme defensiveness at even the slightest criticism of John Key and his government speaks volumes.

The intricate latticework of National’s electoral support, laboriously assembled over the past five years, is no longer green and yielding. It has become brittle, and its ability to withstand the shocks and stresses of conventional governance is diminishing with every passing day.

The turn will take several more months to appear in the polling data. It is only very rarely that quarter-of-a-million voters change direction all at once. Don Brash achieved such a shift with a single, seminal speech. And, in the blissful dawn of this present government’s term, Key was able to lift his party’s popularity to unheard of levels of around 60 percent. But just as Brash’s quarter-of-a-million new voters slowly drifted back to their natural political habitats, so too will Key’s king tide of public affection ebb away. Indeed, it may already have turned. Why? Because something has happened.

It may be something as banal as National’s outstanding political bills being presented for payment. More than any other kind of political party, a party of and for businessmen knows that, in this world, nobody gets something for nothing. Some pretty big cheques have changed hands since Don Brash wrenched the National Party leadership from Bill English’s unwilling hands back in 2003. For five years the people who signed those cheques have been very patient, but now, with National securely in power, and an economic cyclone bearing down on their bottom lines, the time for excuses has passed: payment is due.

Payment to whom? Well, I have no idea how much – if any – money was donated to the National Party by Australian insurance companies. But there can be no disputing the fact that in July of 2008 there was considerable excitement across the Tasman at the prospect of New Zealand’s "casualty insurance market" being opened up to the private sector.

"Publicly, as best we can identify, and contrary to the statements made by several insurers we have met with in New Zealand," wrote analyst Andrew Kearnan of the now defunct investment bank, Merrill Lynch, "the National Party has made no formal statement on its plans for the ACC. Informally, however, we understand the National Party has been very clear in saying it will privatise the ACC."

In the same report Kearnan notes: "The National Party has highlighted a lack of public confidence in ACC … It is clear that [satisfaction] levels are generally quite low (only marginally above 50%) although it’s clear that the trend is improving."

Perhaps it is that improving trend which, almost from the moment it assumed office, has fuelled the National Government’s ruthless campaign to undermine the New Zealand voter’s confidence in what is still universally hailed as the world’s best provider of cost-effective, no-fault, accident insurance.

Of course, ACC is by no means the only target of the National Government’s disfavour. The Emissions Trading Scheme – loathed in equal measure by such large-scale consumers of electricity as Rio Tinto’s aluminium smelter at Bluff, and climate-change-denying dairy farmers all over the country – was another early casualty. More recently, it has been the Environment Ministry itself, where policy development on "carbon neutrality" and "sustainability" has come to a shuddering halt.

Payment due? It is always so difficult to tell in New Zealand, where the identity of large party donors can be legally shielded from public scrutiny by purpose-built trusts. What can be said for certain, however, is regardless of whether the policy changes relating to ACC, the ETS, or, even more recently, private prison management, relate to substantial contributions of money, or, more prosaically, to substantial contributions of votes – payment is being made.

On the other hand, what "happened" may simply prove to be the outward expression of National’s innermost drives. Conservatives and neo-liberals can pretend to be social-democrats (or even, if the front page of Newsweek is to be believed, "socialists") for a little while – but not indefinitely. In the end, their ideological DNA rebels at the prospect of "Labour-lite" compromises threatening such litmus-test issues as the (re)distribution of wealth, and the proper exercise of power. No matter how popular such social-democratic policies might prove, National’s political genes just won’t let the state grow at the expense of the private sector, or allow workers to feel sufficiently secure in their jobs to take on the boss.

Hence the Government’s point-blank refusal to abandon its promised tax-cuts, and the indecent haste with which it introduced, debated and voted into law the so-called "Fire at Will" bill. Not even the looming economic recession was sufficiently daunting for Key to retract his promises to lighten the fiscal burden of his electoral base. Nor, it seems, was the acute vulnerability of the desperate-jobless to the demands of unscrupulous and exploitative employers real enough to deter National from rushing through the 90-day legislation under urgency.

For sheer reactionary folly, however, the reintroduction of the British titles "Sir" and "Dame" cannot be surpassed. Here, in all its wrinkled nakedness, the National Party’s ineradicable distaste for democracy’s egalitarian principles stands revealed. Exposing not only the Tories’ cringing sycophancy towards everything British, but also (and much more alarmingly) their abiding allegiance to the aristocratic tenets of social hierarchy and inherited inequality.

Ignoring for one moment the virtuosity of his performance as "a new kind of National Party prime minister", we should also, perhaps, ask ourselves whether the "something" that has happened, is simply that Key has grown tired of the act.

Certainly, last Wednesday’s announcement of the counter-recessionary nine-day fortnight initiative was made by an uncharacteristically unenthusiastic Prime Minister, clearly unimpressed with the whole, rather underwhelming, exercise. Key’s critics have long maintained that beneath his cheery smile and demotic turn-of-phrase, there lurks a deeply conservative individual. Maybe they’re right.

Perhaps, as a sympathetic outsider, the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Kissel saw clearly what our press gallery has trained itself so rigorously not to see: a politician irrevocably wedded to "market-based approaches"; and the leader of a country in which "big government" is, once again, "coming under the gun".

This article was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 19 March 2009.

Friday 13 March 2009

The Takeover

To secure a florishing private prison system, it is first necessary to secure an ever-increasing supply of prisoners. Fortunately, this isn't difficult.

LET me share with you some ideas I’ve been working on for a political thriller, its working title: "The Takeover".

The plot kicks-off in the United States, back in the early 1980s, with a private security firm, staffed by a volatile collection of former FBI and CIA agents, deciding to cash-in on the Reagan Administration’s privatisation programme.

With contacts in Washington, and friends in the Republican Party, they have little difficulty gaining ground-floor entry to the brand new business of designing, building and running private prisons.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and we discover that what started out as a little firm providing security for sensitive military installations and nuclear power plants, has morphed into a global corporation managing private custodial facilities all over the world – including New Zealand.

Now it’s the end of the 1990s, and this big American corporation – let’s call it CON-International – is on the point of signing a multi-million dollar contract with New Zealand’s conservative government, when a general election tumbles a raucous combination of social-democrats, democratic socialists and greens into office.

Overnight, CON-International’s plans are thrown into complete disarray. The new Corrections Minister, a former Trotskyite socialist, turns out to be an implacable foe of private prisons. Within months of taking office, the new left-wing government has passed legislation making the private operation of custodial facilities illegal.

Now, this is where the plot really gets going. Because CON-International isn’t all that bothered by the political turn of events. Its sojourn in New Zealand, though relatively brief, has convinced its bosses that making a profit out of the country’s tiny prison system will be, to say the least, challenging.

What CON-International needs to succeed is more prisoners. Increase the muster of inmates and you generate an irrefutable case for increasing the number of jails. CON-International’s interim mission, while waiting for its conservative friends to be returned to power, is to generate new inmates for the new jails it will, sooner or later, be contracted to design, build and run.

Now, when it comes to generating new inmates for new prisons, nobody does it better than CON-International’s man in Washington – "Alec". This veteran K-Street fixer specialises in setting up grass-roots organisations dedicated to scaring the public into "getting tough" on crime.

Once established, Alec supplies these "grass-roots" bodies with ready-made and field-tested campaign initiatives like "Truth in Sentencing" and "Three Strikes & You’re Inside For Life".

The aim, of course, is to induce moral panic – always easy when "If it bleeds – It leads" is the news editor’s rule-of-thumb. Once generated, this mass public anxiety places irresistible pressures on the main political parties to lengthen sentences, eliminate parole, limit bail, and increase the number of offences punishable by imprisonment.

With the need for new prisons thus established, Alec’s work is done. All that remains is for CON-International to submit its bid for the new federal contracts.

Alec flies to New Zealand to get a feel for what sort of grass-roots organisation is best suited to the task of inducing the requisite moral panic over here. After travelling the country, and talking to all the leading conservative opinion-formers, he presents CON-International with a memorandum:

The momentum for a tougher line on law and order will come from the "heartland" of rural and provincial New Zealand. The ideal person to lead such a group would, therefore, be a person who epitomises "heartland" values. My suggestion would be to pick an elderly farmer. He should come across very obviously as a graduate of the "University of Life", and look like everybody’s favourite uncle. There is already an abundance of political, media and financial resources available for such an organisation and its leader. For obvious reasons, however, these should be kept hidden from public view.

Alec’s plans are put into effect, and the ensuing moral panic plays a significant role in driving the left-wing government from office. Everything seems set for a CON-International takeover of New Zealand’s prison system – whose inmate population is about to explode.

Trouble is, I can’t decide how to end the story.

Should I go for an heroic, Frank Capra-type ending, where the people see through CON-International’s manufactured moral panic?

Or, should I go for a bleak, Coen Brothers ending, where the conservative government awards CON-International the contract and everyone cheers them on?

Which ending would you choose?

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

Monday 9 March 2009

The New Worker

Welcome to my air-conditioned, computer keyboard nightmare!

A SPECTRE is haunting the factories, shops and offices of the 21st Century. It is the spectre of the "New Worker". That, at least, is what "Xchequer", writing at his new blogsite, ‘NZ Home Office’, would have us believe.

Is he right? Has a new generation of workers, raised entirely under the economic, industrial and cultural sway of Neo-Liberal Capitalism, been irreversibly inoculated against the ideological viruses of the 19th and 20th Centuries? Is the rising generation of "New Workers" therefore "immune" to all kinds of left-wing industrial and political organising?

In defence of his thesis, Xchequer provides a vivid description of his 14-year-old niece – a member of what is now being called "Gen-Y Neo" – whose cellphone "appears to be hardwired to her fingers". Xchequer’s young relative is said to live in a world where "the Ipod is king, consumerism is rampant and communication is on a scale never seen before."

"We are", he says, "moving to a more knowledge-based economy that means more and more people are moving from the factory floor or the waterfront to the air-conditioned office and the computer keyboard."

Xchequer’s argument: that there is now "little room for the old stereotype of the militant socialist – or even the vociferous one" is, as any student of modern politics knows, very far from being original. Indeed, it has been asserted many times in the half-century which has elapsed since the end of World War II. The most famous example being the American sociologist’s, Daniel Bell’s, singularly ill-timed book The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties – which was published in 1960, just in time for one of the most tumultuous and politically engaged decades of the 20th Century.

It is one of the abiding dreams of the middle-class "progressive" – epitomised by such figures as H.G. Wells and James Burnham – that technology will rescue society from the class struggle, and that, ultimately, a new class of wise and ideologically disinterested scientists and technocrats will obviate the need for the grubby business of politics altogether.

Xchequer is, however, on much firmer ground when he argues that dramatic changes in the composition of the NZ workforce have had a profound impact on trade union organisation.

Unionisation was a relatively straight-forward proposition for the hundreds of unskilled and semi-skilled workers concentrated in the freezing works and import substitution manufacturing plants that characterised the industrial landscape of New Zealand from the 1930s to the early 1980s. For a generation whose experience of military regimentation, and the intense emotions associated with wartime solidarity and sacrifice had been formative, the mass-membership, intensely masculine, top-down unionisation of the 50s and 60s seemed perfectly natural. And while Xchequer’s "say-with-my-fists-what-my-mouth-can’t" is an entirely ahistorical slur on the highly articulate and intellectually rigorous NZ Watersider Workers Union, it is, nevertheless, true to say that a generation of men who had lived through the organised violence of total war, would likely find the prospect of organising resistance against the forces of the State a lot less intimidating than the unionists of today.

The generation which moved into the NZ workforce from the mid-1960s to the mid-80s – the "Baby-Boom Generation" – turned out to be much less comfortable with the organisational style of the trade unions their fathers and grandfathers had built. Thanks to the full-employment economy mandated by Keynesian economics, and Peter Fraser’s education reforms of the 30s and 40s, it was a much less regimented and increasingly adventurous working-class that began to fill the nation’s freezing works and factories. A generation which, as Otago political scientist, Brian Roper’s, research attests, in the 20-year period between 1966 and 1986, racked-up the greatest number of man-hours lost to strikes in New Zealand history. More self-actualising than their father’s generation, these men (and it was mainly men) chafed under what they saw as the timid, Cold War-influenced leadership of the trade union movement. Had the political trajectory of this new breed of working-class trade union activist not been interrupted, the shape of the 1980s and 90s might have been very different.

But, it was interrupted – decisively – by the Neo-Liberal Counter-Revolution of the mid-1980s. The "reforming" of the trade unions was led, significantly, by a former president of the PSA, the Labour Minister, Stan Rodger, who was ably assisted by a bevy of middle-class university graduates in the Department of Labour. Under the guise of "professionalisation", New Zealand’s unions were significantly enlarged and restructured along the lines of the new managerialism – whose hard-nosed apostles were at that time transforming working environments across the nation. The culmination of Rodger’s programme came when the Federation of Labour (FOL) – based on a fiercely independent and democratic network of trades councils – was merged with the Combined State-Sector Unions to form the dangerously oligarchic Council of Trade Unions (CTU).

The influx of tens-of-thousands of middle-class state-sector workers (most of them female) which the creation of the CTU made possible, decisively diluted and demobilised the militant (mostly male) unions which had driven the FOL's "wage-push" of the 1970s and early-80s. This feminisation of the union movement was, of course, no more than a reflection of the feminisation of the wider workforce. Thanks to the "stagflation" of the 1970s, the wages of a "working man" were no longer sufficient to support a nuclear family, and tens-of-thousands of women were required to take up part-time or full-time employment. Statistically much less likely than men to participate in a trade union, let-alone engage in industrial action, women, by entering the paid workforce in such large numbers, constituted a huge boon to an employing class under pressure.

The demobilising effect of growing female participation in the paid workforce was intensified by the aggressively anti-male character of neo-liberal economic restructuring. Overwhelmingly, it was in the male-dominated sectors of the economy that "Rogernomics" wreaked the most havoc: the railways, the forest service, the freezing industry, the car-assembly plants and across the whole import-substitution sector, scores-of-thousands of male, blue-collar workers were laid-off. Where alternative employment opportunities existed at all for these adult job-seekers, it was mostly concentrated in the service sector, where unionisation was weak and their prime competitors were young people and women.

Bill Birch’s Employment Contracts Act placed the seal upon the destruction of the male-dominated, blue-collar, private-sector trade unions. Though ready and willing to fight Birch, what remained of the militant union movement was over-ruled by an unbeatable combination of middle-class, public-sector, highly-paid, trade union officials wielding the "card votes" of hundreds-of-thousands of unconsulted members.

It was a debacle from which trade unionism in New Zealand has never recovered. Throughout the 1990s less than 10 percent of the private-sector workforce retained their membership of a trade union. Huge numbers of white working-class, Maori and Pasifika males, stripped of the dignity of paid employment, and the pride that comes with the ability to provide for one’s family, sank into a morass of alcohol, drugs, petty-crime and criminal gangs. Their abandoned offspring, raised in deep poverty by their similarly abandoned mothers, have ensured that the tragedies of the 1980s and 90s are now intergenerational.

Its ingrained antipathy, and the key role it played in undermining working-class autonomy notwithstanding, the middle-class, itself, did not escape unscathed from the Neo-Liberal Counter-Revolution. The introduction of user-pays tertiary education enmeshed the Baby-Boomers’ children in a nexus of debt and enforced adolescence that reduced them to the status of glorified indentured servants for up to half of their adult working lives. New Zealand’s once internationally highly-regarded universities were, of course, corrupted in the process. What little academic rigor remains after a decade-long trend toward qualification inflation, is now being slowly eaten away by the need to keep the professors’ paying customers satisfied.

And so we return to the "New Worker": that unfortunate creation of the Baby Boom Generation - and principal victim of its failure to successfully confront and beat back the Neo-Liberal Counter-Revolution.

For those who fail to make it through the turnstiles of our tertiary education institutions, the fast-food kitchens, shop-counters, and call-centres of the service sector lie in wait. While for those who do manage to secure a tertiary qualification (and its related debt-burden) there are the "air-conditioned offices" (a.k.a "feeding stalls") and "computer keyboards" of the vast public and private sector bureaucracies that Xchequer so enthusiastically extols.

Ninety-percent of them will remain non-union-members all their working lives: miserably unaware that they are putting in longer hours for less money (in real terms) than their parents earned at the same age; and that the many support services and institutions which made sure their mums and dads were decently housed, and properly protected from the vicissitudes of ill-health and economic dislocation, have either been, or are in the process of being, stripped away from them.

Beguiled by the technological glitter of Ipods, text-messaging, Bebo and Twitter, and reassured by their bosses that they are History’s most "connected" generation, they've been persuaded that – somehow – all of these gadgets add up to a better life. But they do not know what they do not know: that they have been cheated, ripped-off, short-changed and dumbed-down to the point where they no longer have a secure purchase on what constitutes ethical conduct, and the very integrity of their innermost selves is being digitally eroded. Knowing nothing of the past, they cannot even begin to guess what is rising up ahead of them as their future. A vast tsunami of economic devastation, followed by a sequence of global climate changes that will leave them, and their bewildered children, reeling.

Only socialism can save them. Unfortunately, 99 percent of them don't even know what the word means.

Friday 6 March 2009

Labour: Political Party or Cosy Club?

National Secretary of the EPMU - and now Labour Party President - Andrew Little.

IS Labour still a political party or has it become some sort of cosy club for parliamentary aspirants? I only ask because the announcement earlier this week that the positions of party president and vice-president had both been filled unopposed (thereby relieving the organisation of that grubby and disruptive business known as a contested election) gave me pause to wonder.

And that absence of competition; that pervading sense of some back-room deal having being done; has delivered a Labour president who’s about as exciting as a wet week in August.

Because the lugubrious Andrew Little doesn’t really come across as one of the downtrodden and dispossessed’s most inspiring champions. But, perhaps that doesn’t matter. Of more importance in these cash-strapped times may be the fact that Andrew is well liked by the business community.

Which, on the face of it, is a bit strange, because, in addition to being Labour’s new president, Andrew is also the National Secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU).

Call me old fashioned, but a union leader who receives loud plaudits from the business community makes me nervous.

Either they’re being really good sports; as in: "By God that Andrew Little’s a tough negotiator, isn’t he? We were determined to limit our pay offer to the rate of inflation, but somehow he screwed a ten percent increase out of us. I tell you, that guy makes Matt McCarten look like a big fluffy pussycat!"

Or, they’re doing their best to hold onto the good thing they’ve got; as in: "I can’t believe we got away with it - again! I was positive that this year the EPMU would be demanding at least a ten percent wage rise. But, no, they settled for their usual cost-of-living adjustment. I can’t begin to tell you what a positive influence Andrew Little has had on the company’s bottom line. Seriously, the guy’s worth his weight in gold!"

"Militant union swashbuckler", or "responsible partner in the quest for improved productivity"? Hmmm? I’m pretty sure Andrew’s not a swashbuckler.

And that, unfortunately, is the problem.

Labour, defeated at the polls and denuded of funds, is in desperate need of a swashbuckler – someone to breathe not only life, but passion and enthusiasm into a movement at serious risk of imploding under the weight of its own extraordinary timidity.

Just consider the sequence of crucial leadership changes in the Labour Party since the General Election. There have been no elections, no contests, no debates – just a series of "orderly transitions".

It would seem that power is no longer won in the New Zealand Labour Party, it is bestowed – for good behaviour. Providing you’re willing to keep your nose clean, follow the rules, never rock the boat, and wait patiently until it’s your turn: power will come to you on a plate.

Contrast this democracy-free-zone with the fervent, fractious – but indisputably living thing that Labour used to be. A party in which hundreds of registered delegates could metaphorically slug it out on the floor of their annual conference to decide whether Jim Anderton or Ruth Dyson would lead them into the 1990 election.

That Labour Party was alive with ideas, and roiling with policies as vociferously challenged as they were passionately defended. A party whose members, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, still believed they could make a difference.

Sadly, that party no longer exists.

So, when people ask: "Do you think Phil Goff is the right person to lead Labour?", I always reply: "No. But, at the moment, nobody else is either."

I’d probably say the same of Andrew Little if required to comment on the Labour presidency.

It’s a grim admission: made even grimmer by the probability that in New Zealand’s prime political market of Auckland – home to 1.3 million people – Labour can boast fewer than 2,000 paid-up party members.

That’s the challenge Andrew Little must face, but frankly, I think Davey Hughes, the extraordinarily charismatic boss of Swazi Apparel, would stand a better chance of rebuilding Labour’s grass roots support than the boss of the EPMU.

On the bright side, however, if Andrew Little manages Labour’s recovery in the same sober fashion as he’s managed New Zealand’s largest private sector union, I think it’s safe to say that his popularity among the nation’s capitalists will remain undiminished.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 6th March 2009.

TVNZ to be bled white

National is sucking the life-blood out of public broadcasting.

THERE can be little doubt, now, that the National-led government intends to bleed Television New Zealand white. By refusing to relieve the Crown-Owned Company of its obligation to hand over 70 percent of its profits to the Consolidated Fund, the Broadcasting Minister, Jonathan Coleman, is, in effect, condemning scores of TVNZ’s employees to the ranks of the unemployed. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he is making it even more difficult (some would say next-to-impossible) for the network to produce the sort of public service broadcasting viewers in other countries take for granted.

Coleman’s justification for refusing to suspend TVNZ’s dividend payments to the State: that it would set a dangerous precedent, and encourage other businesses to come running to the Government in search of similar assistance; is entirely specious.

For a start, TVNZ is no longer a State Owned Enterprise, which means that it is no longer legally obliged to be run as if it were a private sector business. The last Labour Government quite deliberately ditched the network’s SOE status and reconstituted it as a Crown Owned Company, so that the requirement to subordinate everything to the profit motive would no longer prevent it from fulfilling its proper, public service, obligations under the TVNZ Charter.

TVNZ’s legal status has not changed simply because there has been an election, nor have its legal obligations under the Charter. So, there is simply no way that Coleman can argue that he would be establishing some sort of dangerous commercial precedent by allowing TVNZ to use the tens of millions of dollars earmarked for the dividend to offset the dramatic fall in its advertising revenue. All he would really be doing by granting this relief is his job as Minister of Broadcasting: upholding TVNZ’s status as a chartered public broadcaster.

Of course, had Labour done what it should have done, when it should have done it, TVNZ would be far better protected from the depredations of a political party whose primary loyalty has always been to the private sector – in this case to the Sky Television network.

When Labour came to office in 1999 one of its first priorities should have been to reduce dramatically TVNZ’s financial dependence on advertising revenue. A commitment to waive the dividend, and to fund even a third of the network’s running costs out of general taxation, would have struck a deadly blow to the commercial culture which had been slowly corrupting TVNZ ever since the publicly-owned corporation became an SOE back in 1989. In particular, it would have permitted the restoration of a properly directed and adequately resourced news and current affairs division of the network. Not only would this have improved the overall coverage of political, economic and social affairs on the state broadcaster, but it would also have established bench-marks for journalistic quality across the entire news media. Instead of leading the charge in dumbing us all down, TVNZ could have made sure the rest of the media joined it in smartening us up.

Tragically, Labour never understood the key role a well-funded and independent public broadcasting service plays in the life of a fully-functioning democracy. On the contrary, when it came to broadcasting, the Finance Minister Michael Cullen allowed himself to be (mis)guided by Treasury. Not only was the normal (by OECD standards) level of subsidisation ruled out completely, but the network was also denied the right to plough its profits back into making non-commercial programmes. Like Coleman, Cullen was adamant that TVNZ must continue to pay a dividend to the State.

This refusal to properly fund TVNZ meant that the culture of commercialism, and the right-wing ideology which underpinned it, became ever more deeply entrenched in the public broadcaster. Marian Hobbs and Steve Maharey might waffle-on about public service broadcasting values, and devise a fine charter for it to live by, but so long as TVNZ remained dependent on the private sector for 90 percent of its revenue, so long would its worship of Mammon continue to deepen and grow.

And that’s how it is now.

A TVNZ management genuinely committed to public broadcasting would have tendered their resignations rather than allow Coleman to force a decimation of the network’s workforce. But that’s not the way TVNZ’s bosses think. In their minds they are businessmen – pure and simple. If the shareholders want a dividend then a dividend they shall get, and if that means firing 50-100 staff, then that’s what they’ll do. If it means slashing back on news and current affairs, drama and documentary production – then they will slash away. If it means turning out programmes that are all dumbed-down pieces of trash, pitched at the level of the lowest common denominator, then get ready for endless variations on "Dancing with the Stars".

Neo-liberalism cannot thrive in a cultural environment which honours intelligence and rewards critical thinking. Social Democracy, on the other hand, can only develop where those qualities are prized and nurtured. Norman Kirk understood that, and acted accordingly. Helen Clark didn’t, and we are all paying the price.

TVNZ has become the cultural equivalent of China’s coal-fired factories, pumping out tonne-upon-tonne of climate-changing ideological gas, polluting New Zealand’s political environment to the point where the maladapted Left is slowly, but unmistakably, being suffocated to death.