Monday 27 April 2009

The Gumping of New Zealand

Tom Hanks plays Forrest Gump in Robert Zemeckis' award-winning movie.

With the latest Roy Morgan and 3News/Reid Research polls reconfirming the extraordinary popularity of John Key’s National-led Government, it is time for the Left to stand back and confront some very hard truths about the New Zealand electorate. For a start, we simply have to resign ourselves to the fact that a very large number of former Labour voters are now convinced that the Right has more to offer them than the Left. How did that happen? And what (if anything) can/should progressive New Zealanders do about it?

NEW ZEALAND is being Forrest Gumped. Like the character in the Tom Hanks movie, the heroes of John Key’s new political order are simple men and women. Confused by complexity and irritated by conflict, they mostly experience politics as a series of random and largely inexplicable events. For them, if I may paraphrase Forrest Gump: "Political life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get."

International recession, environmental crisis, tax cuts, job losses: the content of the daily news blows in, blows out, like a summer squall. When it rains our Kiwi Forrest Gumps pull on their coats and pull in their heads. When it shines, they shake their coats dry and smile.

Ideas don’t count for much in this new political order. What matters most is the relationship voters form with their leaders. To succeed in today’s electoral environment, a politician must be likeable. The more voters like you, the more they trust you. Labour lost in 2008 because, sometime shortly after the election of 2005, a solid majority of the electorate simply stopped liking and trusting Helen Clark.

Key, on the other hand, has always come across – and continues to present himself – as a thoroughly likeable bloke. People trust him. So much so that, in David Farrar’s latest poll-of-polls, National commands 53.6 percent support, to Labour’s 29.9 percent.

Like I said, we live in simple times.

And hasn’t it always been thus? Haven’t half of humanity always found themselves on the wrong side of life’s great bell curve? We can’t all be blessed with Albert Einstein’s brains, Picasso’s creativity, or Nelson Mandela’s greatness of heart. Harnessing heredity’s meagre legacy to the hard business of making a life for themselves and their loved ones is as much as most folk dare aspire to. And more than a few make a mess of even that.

Were I writing these words in Eighteenth Century England, the mathematical certainty of human mediocrity wouldn’t be a problem. Three hundred years ago, what the "common people" did was a matter of supreme indifference to their rulers.

As Thomas Gray put it, in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way

In our post-modern, consumer-driven, liberal-democratic, capitalist society, however, mediocrity is a very big problem. Why? Because the simplest citizen’s vote carries exactly the same political weight as the most intelligent citizen’s. And the dollars they spend count for just as much, if not more, as the dollars spent by the rich. Modern economies can withstand a cessation of spending by the wealthy few. But, when the numberless, anonymous families who inhabit our suburbs start cutting back, things can go very wrong, very quickly.

And that’s the most terrifying aspect of the 21st Century’s "madding crowd" – the vital role that "ordinary" people’s "self-esteem" now plays in just about everything we do. The moment that post-modern citizens begin to suspect they’re being cheated – or, even worse, condescended to – advanced capitalist societies become highly unstable. Just recall the wrenching political realignment occasioned by Don Brash’s charge that Maori were receiving special privileges. Or what happened when working-class Kiwi parents became convinced that a bunch of childless left-wing politicians was telling them how to raise their kids.

The political empowerment of mediocrity requires that the ideas of the average person, no matter how ill-informed, be accorded exactly the same respect as the ideas of the most learned doctors, scientists and professors. More even. Because why should anybody take seriously the opinions of people who believe they’re smarter and better than everybody else?

While political parties remained strong enough to filter-out the demands of the ignorant and prejudiced, capitalism and progress marched together. The mass parties of the Left were especially important in this regard. As the inheritors of the Enlightenment’s rational scepticism, they kept their poorly paid, poorly housed and poorly educated followers in step with the steady advance of the physical and social sciences.

By the mid-20th Century, however, it had become clear to the political defenders of capitalism that the rational application of science to society’s ills could only end in some form of socialism. Their solution was to turn the latent ignorance and prejudice of the Left’s mass following against both itself and its "elitist", "liberal" and "intellectual" leaders. The Right’s weapons of choice were Race and Religion.

As the American political scientist, Joseph E. Lowndes, argues in his excellent From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism, by breaking up the social-democratic majority which had emerged from the Great Depression and World War II, and then electorally corralling it – first under the rubric of the "Forgotten Americans", then the "Silent Majority", and finally "Middle America" – the Right was able to install ignorance and prejudice as the prime drivers of contemporary political life.

All of the above terms, says Lowndes, were intended to: "describe a people under attack by an invasive federal government, threatened by crime and social disorder, discriminated against by affirmative action, and compromised by moral and cultural degradation."

The rise of reality television; the full scale assault by creationists and climate-change deniers on settled science; the dumbing-down of practically all forms of journalism and entertainment; and the unceasing disparagement of "academics" and "intellectuals"; all point to the Right’s cynical enthronement of the simple and the stupid as the ultimate arbiters of what is – and what is not – politically possible.

Which is, of course, the central theme of Robert Zemeckis’ hugely popular film. By the light and magic of Hollywood, Forrest Gump, the wise fool, gets to participate in all the seminal moments of recent American history. The film-maker not only ensures the meek inherit the earth, he allows them to utterly falsify and remake it.

Where the American Right has led, our home-grown conservatives have followed. A nation once celebrated for its unparalleled levels of political participation has been taught to scorn the very term. The birthplace of Rutherford has become the spiritual home of climate change denial. The country where progressive ideas once came to be born, has become the place where reactionary ideas go to die.

Proof, perhaps, that when Forrest Gump said "stupid is as stupid does", he knew what he was talking about.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of 23 April 2009.

Saturday 25 April 2009

The Shrine (ANZAC Day 2009)

Children at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.

CROSSING the Yarra River at Prince’s Bridge it’s impossible to miss. Set at the top of a gentle slope it looms above the road to St Kilda like something from another age. In its physical dimensions Victoria’s war memorial – The Shrine of Remembrance - is huge, but its spiritual dimensions are larger still. Modelled on the tomb of Mausolos – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – it’s design dwarfs the visitor, deliberately reducing his transient individuality to that of a mere speck before the vast collective sacrifice of "The Fallen". And lest he be in any doubt, letters of bronze, set into the flagstones of the Shrine’s vast forecourt, inform him that THIS IS HOLY GROUND.

They come to this forecourt every year on 25 April to remember the event that did so much to make the nation of Australia. More and more as the years have passed, so that the crowds of today begin to rival the crowds that gathered in the years immediately after the Great War, when the wrench and twist of grief was still new, and the tears for the sixty-two thousand young Australians who fell for "King and Country" had yet to dry.

The buttresses of the mausoleum, vast arrays of granite statuary, identify the young state’s tutelary deities: PATRIOTISM, SACRIFICE, JUSTICE, PEACE & PROSPERITY. Carried upon chariots, drawn by lions, these sixty-foot civic goddesses gaze down upon the city of Melbourne through eyes of stone, unblinking in the bitter Autumn wind. Brown leaves from the adjacent King’s Domain swirl and flutter like unquiet souls around the shrine’s battlements, collecting in anonymous drifts, to be trampled beneath the feet of passing tourists.

And in the very heart of the shrine, set beneath the level of the flagstones so that all who read the words engraved upon it must bow their heads, lies the Remembrance Stone itself. So placed that upon the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month – the moment in 1918 when all the guns fell silent – a single shaft of sunlight falls upon the stone. The words chiselled into its surface - "greater love hath no man" - are taken from John 15:13, and recall Christ’s words to his disciples: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" On the morning of Remembrance Day it is the word "love" that the solitary sunbeam sets ablaze.

The weight of sorrow and the depth of loss that could build such a structure as Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance is difficult for someone of my generation to comprehend. Constructed in the depths of the Great Depression, when every penny was precious, the funds for the Shrine were nevertheless extracted from Victoria’s impoverished citizens in less than six months. Three hundred thousand people attended the opening ceremony in 1934.

But, my most poignant memory of the Shrine is not of the vast mausoleum itself, but of the Cenotaph. Standing in a corner of the Shrine’s forecourt, this stark memorial to the dead of the Second World War seems to mock the vast structure in whose shadow it stands - testifying to the unbearable fact that all the sacrifices of 1914-18 were offered up in vain.

As a New Zealander, it was impossible not to be moved by this sense of the futility of it all, and not to share in pathos of this extraordinary memorial. Impossible, too, not to feel proud of the fact that out of all the blood and pain and slaughter, the "Lion’s cubs" forged a new identity – catching from Lone Pine Ridge and the summit of Chunuk Bair a glimpse of that morning when the encumbering cultural armour of imperial loyalty could finally be laid aside.

Perhaps it is because we were the smaller cub, that we shrugged off the need for Imperial patronage a decade or so earlier than our larger Australian brother. But, if the words of Mark Latham, the Australian Labor leader, can be believed, the day is fast approaching when both of the nations joined by the word ANZAC will feel free to march to the beat of their own drummers. For what New Zealand learned decisively in Vietnam, Australia is only now absorbing in Iraq: that all empires – American as well as British – have an insatiable appetite for blood.

And, when that independence day arrives, we ANZACs will need no shrine but the tawny flanks of Australia’s fruitful valleys, and the deep green pastures of our little southern land.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 23 April 2004.

In memory of the fallen of all wars, and in recognition of the ultimate futility of all forms of collective violence, I urge you, this ANZAC Day, to let the following three links take you to what are, in my opinion, the three finest songs about war ever written.

And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda – Eric Bogle

The Green Fields of France – Eric Bogle

And then, this final link to:

Friday 24 April 2009

The University (Fragment of a letter from November 1976)

The University of Otago, Dunedin.

I came to this place four years ago, young and eager to learn: to be awakened, stimulated, and to participate in the growth of man’s awareness of himself and his relationship to the other aspects of our existence.

What has happened to that young man?

He has learned that one is paid, by way of grading etc, not to think for himself.

He has learned that it is a battle against the university to maintain the spark of creativity and imagination – that is the price they want.

So much is involved beyond the essence of learning that education has taken second place in these institutions. They are just one more component of the Consuming Society in which we all live; processing plants that cunningly subvert people with the power to do far more, into doing far less.

These exams I’m about to sit are a great risk, not because exams are important in themselves, but because they are a symbol of something much more malevolent ….. There are always two communications implicit in what is said or done. Outwardly, universities give, but in reality they survive by burning up youthful energy, imagination, initiative. In return they give us a status – but this status is only viable so long as we remain within the boundaries the system has laid out for us.

Status, like words, defines things, limits them, and cuts them off from their true selves. The essence of wisdom is the dissolving of all definitions – this the Buddha may have agreed with. And isn’t it interesting that Christ chose fishermen to follow him? Only men such as these would have had the power to see what he represented. The power to see beyond the artificial cocoon that most of us spend our waking hours immersed in – especially here.

Yet, it is almost paradoxical, for this is what university has taught me.

I could not have learnt it anywhere else.

Size Matters!

Christchurch's futuristic Art Gallery: In 1993 Christchurch won the Carl Bertelsmann Prize, and was declared "The Best Run City in the World". That was when it had a ratio of 1 city councillor to every 13,000 citizens. In 2004 the Local Government Commission decided to increase that ratio to 1 councillor per 20,000 citizens. Five years on, and the "People's Republic of Christchurch" has degenerated into "Sideshow Bob" Parker's Tory Circus. Look upon Christchurch, Aucklanders - and despair!

THE rest of New Zealand’s mirth at the Auckland’s mayors’ bitchy reaction to the National-Act-Maori Party Government’s plans for an Auckland "super-city" is easily imagined. To non-Auckland eyes the region’s civic leaders must come across like six little boys in a sandpit arguing over who gets to play with the digger.

As a shrewd Cantabrian, the Local Government Minister, Rodney Hide, knows how impatient the rest of New Zealand gets with this sort of bickering. Residing in much smaller local authorities, most Kiwis simply don’t understand how different North Shore City is from Manukau, or grasp the sheer size of the cultural gulf separating John Bank’s Remuera from Bob Harvey’s Henderson. By casting himself as the sensible adult: someone willing to confiscate the digger and frog-march the squabbling mayoral urchins out of the Auckland sandpit; Mr Hide knows he can only go up in the rest of the country’s political estimation.

But, I suspect the rest of the country would think much less kindly of the Local Government Minister if he announced his decision to merge Invercargill with Dunedin; Oamaru with Timaru; Ashburton with Christchurch; or New Plymouth with Wellington. And, I don’t think their citizens would find anything funny in a plan to reduce the number of councillors elected to represent them by more than two-thirds. They might laugh at the idea of their towns and cities being broken up into dozens of neighbourhood "boards", responsible for bottle-stores, brothels, graffiti and dog-catching, but it would be the sort of laugh people give when their car breaks down miles from nowhere – and it starts to rain.

Southerners should be very thankful that the brute facts of geography militate against their suffering Auckland’s fate. The 200-plus kilometres separating Dunedin’s and Invercargill’s citizens will always be their best guarantee of political independence. Auckland’s curse is that communities which were once a day’s ride from one another are now (on a good day) less than an hour’s drive away. Auckland – in a conceptual sense – is an accident of technology. Trains, trams, busses and cars have encouraged civic amnesia, and the unique histories of Auckland’s villages, towns and cities are largely forgotten.

"Well, that’s progress", I hear all you southerners say – and maybe you’re right. But if we must all be bound to the wheel that draw us together, then let us at least ensure that it is supported by many spokes.

The designers of the Auckland super-city placed good governance ahead of good government: the power to make decisions affecting people’s lives, before a lively people’s decision-making power.

Members of the American school of local government architecture, they have worked from the elitist principle of "fewer but better" elected representatives. By "better", incidentally, they generally mean businessmen.

Like Tucson, Arizona, USA, whose 525,529 citizens are represented by just six city councillors – a ratio of 1:87,588. I suppose we should be thankful Mr Hide settled on a ratio of 1:65,000.

Comparison with European local government is instructive. Not-surprisingly, nations with a recent history of tyranny tend to place a much higher value on representative institutions. The Berlin City Council, for example, has 149 members – a ratio of 1:23,000. While the City Council of Paris – as befits the cradle of revolutionary democracy – boasts 163 councillors: a ratio of 1:13,300 – lower than Waitakere’s!

The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance, or Mr Hide, could have given Auckland an equally generous example of democratic architecture. Simply by deciding to preserve the current ratio of councillors to citizens, they would have created a Greater Auckland Assembly of 70 members. Sheffield – half Greater Auckland’s size – has 84. Glasgow, a city of 580,690 has 79 councillors (1:7,350)

Berlin, Paris, Sheffield, Glasgow: these are among of the most progressive and best governed cities in the world. Yes, their councils are large, but it's their size that gives them the edge over cities organised on the American model of "fewer but better".

And, if you’re riposte to these figures is: "Ah, but those are all overseas examples. This is New Zealand." Think about this.

Christchurch, a city of 316,221 used to have a city council of 24 (A councillor to citizen ratio of 1:13,175 – about the same as Paris.) In 1993, that high level of democratic representation, and the progressive policies which flowed from it – especially the increased efficiency of communal services in competition with private enterprise – had earned Christchurch the coveted Carl Bertelsmann Prize, and the title of "Best Run City in the World. Tragically, in 2004, the Local Government Commission, egged on by Canterbury businessmen, and, once again following the American model of local government, slashed the number of Christchurch City Councillors to just 16 (1:20,000).

Since then, the city has lost its democratic edge. The Council is now thoroughly dominated by its pro-privatisation bureaucracy, and ruled by a right-wing populist celebrity mayor. The "People’s Republic of Christchurch" has degenerated into "Sideshow Bob" Parker’s Tory Circus.

Look upon Christchurch, Aucklanders – and despair.

The above is a slightly modified version of the essay which appeared in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, and The Greymouth Evening Star on Friday, 17 April 2009.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Pilgering the 2008 Election

John Pilger

TO fully appreciate this posting you need to imagine that you’re watching a documentary by John Pilger. Recall to your mind’s ear the film-maker’s mellifluous vocal delivery: his dramatic rises, his dying falls. Most of all, recall the tone of angry pity with which Pilger animates his narration. The way he uses his voice to signal that what you’re about to see and hear is both serious and sad.

The documentary opens with Pilger standing on a Thorndon hillside. Behind him loom the skyscrapers of Wellington and its stunning harbour.

The story you are about to hear would come as no surprise to a citizen of Chile or Argentina or Bolivia or Venezuela. In the Third World it’s an old story.

But this story didn’t happen in the Third World, it happened here, in this country, New Zealand.

This little nation of four million people, located 2,000 kilometres to the east of Australia, used to be known as "the social laboratory of the world’. For close to a century-and-a-half, New Zealand has enjoyed an enviable reputation as the home of good government and progressive reform. Its political scientists boast that their country has one of the longest histories of uninterrupted democratic rule on the planet.

But this documentary isn’t about social progress or good government, it’s about a meticulously organised and highly successful political campaign, bought and paid for by a handful of unelected men and women, to bring down what most international observers agree was the most progressive social-democratic government in the Western World.

Over the course of the next ninety minutes you will see how the rules governing the funding of election campaigns in New Zealand were cleverly manipulated by a group of wealthy, right-wing religious fanatics to run a covert campaign, valued at more than a million dollars, to help the conservative National Party opposition win the 2005 general election. And how, when the unexpected winner of that election, the New Zealand Labour Party, attempted to reform the electoral finance laws that very nearly allowed the 2005 election to be subverted, the country’s news media ran a relentless crusade to discredit the new legislation - and its sponsors.

You will also see how the Labour Party, over a period of just three years, was forced by New Zealand’s Auditor General to raise a sum equivalent to the cost of three election campaigns, and transfer nearly a million dollars of that money to the State. An unprecedented penalty, whose legal justification was forcefully disputed, at the time, by the Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament.

It’s a story, in the end, about the ultimate inability of elected governments to counter the private, and essentially unaccountable, power of those who control the modern news media. About how money, and the media influence it confers, can turn the rights and freedoms granted to publishers, editors and journalists against the very democratic processes they are supposed to protect.

It’s one of the great ironies of this story that the attempt by a progressive government to limit the influence of money over the electoral process was characterised by those opposed to such limitations as "Democracy under attack!".

I’ve seen and heard headlines like that before. Most particularly in Venezuela, when I was filming
The War on Democracy.

In the course of making that documentary, I realised that the coup against the democratically elected leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, had been masterminded not by the Venezuelan armed forces, nor even by Washington, but by the owners and operators of the privately owned, right-wing Venezuelan news media. Indeed, they openly boasted about how they had done it.

What saved President Chavez, was the existence of a single, publicly-owned television station, which was willing to tell the Venezuelan people the truth.

The tragedy of the story you are about to hear is that it has no such happy ending. Not only was there no major media outlet willing to stand up and tell the people of New Zealand the truth about what was happening in their country between 2005 and 2008, but New Zealand’s voters, denied access to that truth, had no means of knowing they were being lied to.

You can imagine the rest. Pilger interviews the Exclusive Brethren, Kevin Brady, Margaret Wilson, Nicky Hager, Don Brash, business leaders, newspaper editors, television and radio producers, dissident journalists, critical academics, Labour and National Party politicians, trade unionists, Winston Peters, Owen Glenn.

It would be an absolutely explosive documentary.

Unfortunately, the chances of such a programme being made and screened in this country are about as slim as John Pilger reading this posting.

Still, you never know, the managers of Jonathan Coleman’s new "Platinum Fund" might be willing to stump-up the cash.

Then again, maybe not.

Ten Years Ago This Week: "Forever Blue"

Jenny Shipley

THE NATIONAL PARTY’S decision to revisit MMP is remarkable from at least two aspects. First, because it places an unnecessary strain on the political relationship between National and its parliamentary allies. ACT New Zealand, Mauri Pacific, and the United Party would all cease to exist as viable electoral options if proportional representation was abolished. Second, because it exposes the extraordinary mindset of the typical National Party member. Your average Nat simply cannot accept that anyone other than farmers and businessmen have a legitimate role to play in the governance of New Zealand.

The cool response from the other right-wing parties raises serious doubt about the long-term survival prospects of National’s proposals. In the unlikely event of a right-wing victory in November, who really believes that ACT New Zealand, Mauri Pacific and the United Party will readily connive in their own extinction by signing on to a campaign against MMP? A much more realistic scenario would have National’s parliamentary allies extracting a promise to quietly abandon the proposed referenda in return for their support on all matters of confidence and supply.

It is hard to believe that among National’s top strategists there is anything other than complete agreement that their whole electoral reform policy is a gigantic hoax, a cynical ploy to attract the support of those voters stupid enough to believe that MMP is at the root of all their troubles.

It is not in the least surprising that National should be targeting this group of voters. As Mrs Margaret Robertson proved with her inane petition to reduce the size of Parliament, they number in the tens of thousands. What’s more, they all seem to suffer from what might be called ‘Political Alzheimer’s Disease’ – an affliction which prevents them from recalling past abuses. For example, they cannot remember the 1978 General Election, when the Labour Party received more votes than National but "lost" the election. Or 1981, when Social Credit received 21 percent of the popular vote, but "won" just two seats. Or 1993, when National claimed "victory" after receiving barely a third of the votes cast. These poor, benighted citizens appear to believe that Parliament was somehow more "representative" when women, Maori, Pacific Islanders, and other members of the New Zealand community were all grossly under-represented; those "good old days" when the word "majority" meant not "50 percent + 1" but "more votes than the other guy".

Which brings us back to the second aspect of the National Party’s desire to rid the country of MMP. Deep down, your average Nat knows that he or she is really on the losing side – numbers wise. That the nasty, brutish world beyond the suburban boundary fence and the family farm gate contains a disturbingly large number of enfranchised citizens. The old FPP system, by bottling them up in state house ghettos like Mangere and Porirua and Sydenham and Pinehill, reduced their potency. But MMP, by turning the whole country into a single, vast electorate, has unleashed the awesome voting strength of the great unwashed - and the National Party just can’t stand it. Heck! Even Winston Peters was too uncouth for them!

Mrs Shipley talks about the fear MMP inspires in foreign investors. But it’s not MMP that worries them, its the left-wing governments MMP may bring to office. What the Prime Minister and her foreign friends want is a New Zealand that’s "forever blue". A New Zealand governed by the "RIGHT people", elected under the "RIGHT electoral system", and implementing the "RIGHT policies".

For National Party voters, and the sufferers from Political Alzheimer’s, that probably sounds like heaven; for the rest of us, however, MMP remains the Much More Progressive option.

Originally published in The Dominion of 30 April 1999.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Freedom (Fragment of a letter)

Freedom is something we lose before we realise we have it. Freedom is something we give away before we know what to do with it. Once lost it can only be regained at the price of suffering – for Freedom has an awareness of itself, and its price is high. Freedom is won by very few. It is a state of mind which is beyond self. It cannot exist in the selfish. It does not rest in the soul of the mercenary. Freedom is beyond price. It is neither bought nor sold, neither is it given or taken. Few ever find it, but some, whose sufferings bring compassion and understanding, may catch a glimpse.

Dian Garrett
Art Teacher and Friend
October 1974

Monday 20 April 2009

An Old Tale From An Old Book (For Tony Veitch)

I’VE seen her before – this huddled heap of terrified humanity, ringed now by so many angry faces. I’ve seen her many times: striding down the narrow streets like a princess; those long dark tresses framing a pair of even darker eyes.

But those tresses are twisted now, like a leash, around the right hand of her furious husband. And those eyes? They’re blackened and swollen from the beating he’s already given her. He keeps tugging at her hair for emphasis, jerking her face upwards as he unfolds the oldest of tales.

The planned departure, the unplanned return, the unwanted surprise.

Her lover, being stronger, escapes the jealous husband’s hungry blade. Plates and pitchers tumble and shatter as he hurls his guilty body through the narrow window, and lands, unscathed, in the street below.

He’ll be well away by now, high up among the rocks and the thorn-trees, chortling his good fortune to the indifferent goats.

But there is no escape for the woman. Her fear-widened eyes, frantically search each face in the rapidly growing crowd for a defender, but they are met with stares as cold and hard as the stones in its hands; as harsh and unforgiving as its Law.

I, too, am looking at these faces. Most of them are familiar to me – though none of them, I’d wager, would recognise my own.

After all, why should they? A cripple and a beggar, I am invisible to them – except when I thrust one of my crooked limbs into their distracted faces and cry for alms. Even then, I’m as likely to receive the back of their hands as the coins I call out for.

Look at them now: their eyes already glowing with the prospect of the sport that lies ahead.

Ezra, that bloated publican from the inn down the street, how many times has he cheated on his poor long-suffering wife? A list as long as the endless succession of pretty serving-girls passing through his establishment.

And Mark, the lawyer, so upright and pure. Ha! As if the poor souls he fleeces don’t curse his flint-hard heart. Look at him standing there – why, Jehovah on the Day of Judgement would be hard pressed to look so holy.

And Matthew, the Zealot. I might have known he’d be here. How many Roman soldiers has his sword severed from this world? Men with families back in Italy or Gaul, serving out their time in this curious little land. Well, they’re ours now, for they’ll not be leaving the shallow graves that Barabas and his heroes have tossed them into. No, if there’s blood-letting to be done – even of our own – the Zealots may be relied upon to do their share – and more.

But what’s this murmur that ripples, like the breezes among the willows at the lake’s edge? Who dares to break the town’s tight little circle of hatred and retribution?

Ahhh – I might have known. The Gallilean. See how they make way – as if it was Herod himself come among us. But I know why they shrink from him. When he reached out and blessed me – up there on the Mount of Olives – it was like ice water in a parched throat.

Look at him now. See how he holds each man’s eye, as if it is a window through which he can read the full tally of their crimes. He crouches down – to be at the same level as the woman. What is it he writes in the dust? Does he name her sins, or those of her judges?

Matthew tosses him a stone. It lands with a thump at has feet.

"She must die!", he barks. "It is the Law!"

The Gallilean turns his gaze upon Matthew.

"Yes," he says softly, "it is the Law. So, let he that is without sin among you cast the first stone."

He turns his back to them, kneeling beside the woman, gently untangling her hair from the weeping husband’s inert fingers.

All around them stones thud softly into the sand: dropping like ripened fruit from the hands that held them. Soon he and the woman are alone in the street. From my vantage point in the alleyway, above the sound of her sobs, I hear him say.

"Go, and sin no more."

This short story was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 18 July 2008.

Outrageous Good Fortune

One City, One Mayor, One Council, One Plan: "One ring to rule them all."

NATIONAL’S revised plans for the governance of Auckland have handed Labour and its allies the next general election. As it has so often done in the past, the political ineptitude and unbounded arrogance of the Auckland business community is bringing ruin to its friends – and rescue to its enemies.

There was only one sensible course of action for John Key’s government to follow and that was to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission’s Report on Auckland Governance to the letter.

The Royal Commission was a Labour initiative. That was the one, crucial fact Key had to bear in mind. Having set the inquiry in motion, the Labour caucus – even in the absence of its former leaders Helen Clark and Michael Cullen – would find it extremely difficult to criticise, let alone reject, the Commission’s findings. The report was the work of Labour’s appointees, undertaken according to Labour’s terms of reference. Whatever emerged from the Royal Commission’s deliberations, Labour was stuck with it.

Goff’s initial silence on the political efficacy of the Commission’s work spoke volumes. That he declined to shower the report with praise should have indicated to Key that Labour’s leadership foresaw huge political problems arising from its implementation.

By stripping North, West and South Auckland of their political power, and designing a representational regime practically certain to deliver control over Auckland’s future to the electors of Remuera and Epsom, the commissioners had set up a massive political struggle that could only further alienate key elements of Labour’s electoral base in the Auckland region.

That is why Goff curled himself up into a tight little ball and said nothing. His best – indeed, his only – hope was that Key, egged on by Rodney Hide, would make a mistake.

Having got 80 percent of what they wanted, National and ACT should have been content. But Goff was betting that the triumphalist mindset currently clouding the judgement of the entire New Zealand Right would lead it to try for 100 percent – and disaster.

It was a good bet.

By effectively junking Labour’s Royal Commission Report and replacing it with its own scheme, National has freed Labour to oppose the proposed changes with all the energy it can muster.

Alongside its allies in the South and West – Len Brown and Bob Harvey – both of whom have come out in open rebellion against National’s revised plan, Labour is now free to lead the fight for the democratic rights of the Pasifika and immigrant communities of Manukau and Waitakere. The ties that have traditionally bound these communities to Labour were stretched to breaking point in the 2008 General Election, when a large number of Pasifika and immigrant voters stayed at home rather than vote for a party many believed had betrayed them. Now those links can be reforged. It is difficult to imagine a better rallying cry for the brown faces of South and West Auckland than the one which casts the white, rich faces of Remuera and Epsom in the role of racist appropriators of the brown working-class’s hard-won resources.

The kids of the wealthy don’t need free swimming pools and neighbourhood recreation centres, but the children of the poor most certainly do. And, while the smug burghers of Remuera, with a swag of "super-councillors" living in the neighbourhood, may have nothing to fear from the developers’ chainsaws and bulldozers, the feisty residents of Avondale and Titirangi have plenty to be frightened about.

Westies, or Boyz from da ‘Hood? Labour’s political cadres will be spoiled for choice as they muster their legions for the assault.

But, when it comes to giving Labour a mighty taiaha to wield against their Tory opponents, nothing comes close to National’s decision to scrap the Royal Commission’s recommendation to provide for two elected and one appointed Maori super-councillors.

Here, if any more was needed, was the final proof that, for all its fine talk, National remains the deeply racist party it has always been.

"Not if I found it on the highway would I take it", said Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to Frodo and Sam, hobbits of the Shire, in Tolkien’s great tale.

Would National’s Captain Key prove so steadfast?

For truly, if chance has not placed Tolkien’s "One Ring to rule them all" within his grasp, it has certainly delivered into Key’s hands the One Mayor, One Council, and One Plan to rule all Auckland.

And all he had to do to secure these "precious" things was betray his noble Maori Party allies for the orcs of ACT.

Did he pass the test? Did Captain Key, like Captain Faramir, "show his quality" by refusing to abandon the tangata whenua of the Queen City to the Black Riders of Queen Street?

Like hell he did.

With a suitable candidate, Labour now has a better-than-even chance of toppling the Maori Party co-leader, Pita Sharples, from his Tamaki-Makaurau seat. Though hopelessly compromised by National’s decision, Sharples and his caucus have, unaccountably, opted to remain loyal to the man who has just stabbed them, and their party’s political future, in the back.

Labour, quite naturally, can hardly believe its outrageous good fortune. Since the mid-1930s the political ground it has fought on most successfully has been the ground of race and class. Nine years in office had eroded huge chunks of that fruitful territory – most of it towards National.

Occupation of the Treasury Benches for a second term – the most crucial element of National’s long-term strategy – depended absolutely on preventing Labour from re-engaging with the politics of class and race.

In the pivotal political market of Greater Auckland that meant keeping the voracious appetites of the roading contractors, property developers, builders’ suppliers, retailers, real estate agents, and their ACT mouthpieces, under control. Consolidating National’s 2008 gains among Maori, Pasifika and immigrant voters would take time – and constant demonstrations of the Right’s good faith.

All National had to do, vis-à-vis Auckland, was shelter behind the recommendations of Labour’s Royal Commission. Key would then have been able to cast the disempowering of the North, South and West of Auckland as an exercise in bi-partisan political riguer – harsh perhaps, but necessary to secure the region’s long-term future.

By trashing the Royal Commission’s plan, National has released its discredited Labour foes from a cage of their own making, and allowed Goff to re-cast Labour as Greater Auckland’s democratic champion.

If it is true that: "As Auckland goes – so goes the country", then National has just set the New Zealand Left on the road to victory in 2011.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 16 April 2009.

Friday 17 April 2009

The Real "Guardians".

Harold Wilson addresses a May Day rally in Hyde Park.

More evidence that the 1970s were the historical pivot upon which the fortunes of 20th Century social democracy turned. Proof, too, of just how clear-sighted and brave a social-democratic leader must be to face down the real "guardians" of the capitalist state.

By March 1976, a month before his planned resignation, Wilson knew that there were serious plots against him. He had the evidence of his own eyes and ears – the deluge of smears and gossip that had accompanied the 1974 Government: the ‘private armies’ episode; rumours of coups; a number of known tip-offs, discussed above; others we must reasonably presume we have not heard of. He had received confirmation from Oldfield and Hanley that MI5 were involved and had already sent a message via Weindenfeld to the CIA; and on the next day, 11 February, he had heard of the 1968 Cecil King ‘coup plot’ from Lord Zuckerman. At this point, Wilson was the man in the William Burroughs aphorism, the paranoid who really was the only one who knew what was going on. More, he had a problem: what could he actually do about it? The people who should investigate such things for the PM, MI5, were at the centre of the plots …..

….. Wilson embodied the radical end of the wartime social contract, which not only saw that a dynamic mixed economy demanded a producers’ alliance, but also saw that such an alliance could not succeed with an ascendant City of London. The extraordinary hatred that Wilson provoked on the British right was not irrational: Wilson was a serious threat; he knew who the 'enemy within' actually was. And they knew he knew; ‘they’ – the banker in the City with the elder brother in MI6 and a cousin in the Army – ‘they’ knew that Wilson, virtually alone among Labour leaders of his generation, had pulled aside the whisps of mystification which hid the British Establishment and seen the power of finance capital at its heart.

Excerpts from Smear! Wilson & the Secret State by Stephen Dorril & Robin Ramsay. Published in Great Britain in 1991 by Fourth Estate Limited.*

* Long out of print, I obtained my copy of this excellent piece of left-wing research courtesy of the Inverclyde Libraries, from whose collection, a large stamp rather ominously informed me, the book had been WITHDRAWN.

Seventies Pessimism (Fragment of a letter from December 1977)

LATE Thursday evening, approaching midnight, though Fergusson Drive still crowded with cars. This island never sleeps. Full moon giving the sky an unnatural brightness. Not a breath of wind.

This street on the right side of the road. Heretaunga, twenty miles out of Wellington. Old, established, oozing money and self-satisfaction. Home of businessmen industrialists and their whores, the lawyers and accountants.

Been here now for over a month. A lonely bird in a gilded cage. Miss the old town and the faces in it. Aching for A.

Writing to you now. Doesn’t do to neglect old friends. Caught up in the ego-race last year – kinda lost touch. We all make mistakes.

Your ideas are old-fashioned, definitely not hep, but sorta admirable in the burned out remains of our culture. Time for a prophet, no doubt. Someone to throw the money-changers out of the temple. Sure. But whose got that sort of magic up his sleeve these days?

We are dealing with forces beyond our comprehension.

The Lord of the Night has spread his cloak wide and the Sun itself is on the defensive. Black holes sucking the light out of the universe. The Powers of Darkness definitely on the offensive. Arab/Japanese cloak-and-dagger deals behind closed doors. Baader-Meinhoff unleashing fire and slaughter, even as they die.

Bad magic W. Powerful spells.

The Wizard must know – but what are we to do?

Back in the dark days of 1940 the witches and wizards of England met in the New Forest and raised the Cone of Power to repel the German invaders. The spell succeeded, but in casting it the Keepers of the Power destroyed themselves.

For, you see, there is no contest between Good and Evil. Evil has all the cards in his hands. To throw back the Nazis, English wizardry had to use its entire strength. Now the power of England is broken. Those that protected and fed the English flame for so long are spent, and the continent of Europe has finally retrieved her wayward islanders. Long live the EEC and German social-democracy!

You catch glimpses of it sometimes. The Plan. Unfolding itself with all the inevitably of Death, the Grim Reaper, striding heaven-high between clouds, and laughing like a thunder-storm.

On the journey North I travelled by night across the Canterbury Plains. And all along the spine of the island, flashing off the faces of the Alps, burned wildfire - leaping and flickering from mountain-top to mountain-top, shattering the darkness in glaring white bursts.


Sent me back to my childhood in North Otago. Past and present running together. A living continuum.

And me, watching this awesome display, my nose pressed to the window of a Datsun 120Y. (Japanese car, Arab oil!) On my way North in the middle of the night. Heading for what is now my past. Towards this letter which will travel the path I followed backwards to you.

All linked W.


Nothing done in isolation.

We’re all assigned our role. All play our parts.

And the Plan unfolds.

Thursday 16 April 2009

The Guardians

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guardians?

IT’S strange, the things we remember. For me, it’s the formative influence of an obscure television series, produced in 1971 by London Weekend Television for the private British broadcaster, ITV, and screened here a few years later by the NZBC. The name of the series was The Guardians.

Described by Mark Duguid of the British Film Institute as:

"A product of the new pessimism of the early 1970s, and reflecting that decade's key concerns - mass unemployment, spiralling inflation, chronic industrial unrest - The Guardians (ITV, 1971) is now largely forgotten, perhaps because relatively few viewers had the patience to see this lengthy, talky drama to its conclusion. For all its faults, however, the series is fascinating for its insights into the political ferment of its times, and for what now appears an unusual and bold attempt to present a drama of moral philosophy for a mainstream television audience."

The BFI website offers the following synopsis of the series’ plot:

"In a near-future Britain, the far-right government has declared a state of emergency and suspended elections. The Queen has fled in protest, while the defence of the state is in the hands of the Guardians, a paramilitary force with absolute power and a ruthless determination to stamp out resistance."

What made The Guardians so special for me, were the very attributes that rendered it so commercially unsuccessful. It was, indeed, very long and very "talky". More particularly, however, this "bold attempt to present a drama of moral philosophy", was a powerful study in the application of political ethics in extremis.

One scene in the drama remains forever seared into my memory.

The anti-government terrorist organisation, "Quarmby", has captured a young and idealistic member of the paramilitary "Guardians". Asked by his captors to put on record his reasons for joining the Guardians, the young man delivers a brutally eloquent speech in which he reaffirms the far-right government’s view that "democracy is a form of group suicide", and celebrates the opportunity provided by the state of emergency to force through long-delayed change – especially in relation to the environment. "At long last", he declares, "people are having to clean up their own shit!" At that moment, with the tape still running, and the young man still declaiming, one of the terrorists takes out a pistol and shoots him in the back of the head.

A couple of years ago I was invited by Sue Bradford to address a meeting of the North Shore Greens. In the Q&A session afterwards I was somehow reminded of that shocking scene from The Guardians – most likely in response to a comment about the almost insurmountable barriers to effecting urgent environmental change in a democratic political context.

With my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek, I recalled the 1970s television series and suggested that perhaps what the world needed was a force of "Green Guardians" – a paramilitary organisation comprised of "partisans of the planet"; people with sufficient coercive power to quite literally force individuals and corporations to "clean up their own shit". To my astonishment (and alarm) I saw many respectable North Shore heads nodding in agreement. One woman later rose to her feet and declared that she really liked the idea: "Green Guardians are exactly what we need!"

Green fascism? Is there a case to be made?

In the Great Britain of the early 1970s a rising sense of political unease pervaded the nation’s governing circles. Many believed the country was on the brink of ungovernability. Northern Ireland had already become an open wound, where all manner of extreme political solutions were being tested in the fight against terrorist violence. Of even greater concern to business leaders and the permanent civil service, however, was the seemingly unstoppable (at least by democratic means) power of the trade unions.

The Guardians ran from July until October 1971. In the ensuing eight years many of its plot-lines took on the appearance of prophecy. In 1973, faced with a crippling coal-miners strike, the Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, asked the country to decide "Who governs?" – Parliament or the Unions? The answer came back: "The Unions!" People in high places began to contemplate a Guardians-style coup d’etat (Lord Louis Mountbatten was rumoured to be involved). In 1976, the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, resigned suddenly, amidst rumours of an MI5 plot. The decade ended with Margaret Thatcher ushering-in 11 years of extreme right-wing rule.

Desperate times had called forth desperate measures.

The NZ Greens (and green parties all over the world) are similarly convinced that what happens – or fails to happen – in the next five-to-ten years will determine the fate of civilised existence on this planet. As those years tick by, tremendous internal frustration will grow at the inability of the democratic process to address in any meaningful sense the global ecological crisis. The fear will be that by the time the effects of global warming and peak oil are serious enough to prompt a majority of the global electorate to swing its support behind green solutions, it will be much too late for them to have any effect.

Every passing election makes it increasingly clear that, with only 4-12 percent of the popular vote internationally, the greens can never be anything more than attractive window dressing for the non-ecological parties of the Left and the Right. Accordingly, the global green movement is faced with two, equally daunting, prospects. Green activists will either become disillusioned with politics altogether, and drift away into personal redemption and/or survivalism, or, they will embrace new and undemocratic means of forcing the ecological issue.

The friendly, all-things-to-all-people brand of "Green" may end up being replaced by a starker and more menacing brand, "Survive!" – a movement ready and willing to tap into the deeply embedded millenarian and apocalyptic mythos of the Judeo-Christian tradition – most probably by appropriating and/or adapting the excluding and annihilationist rhetoric of the far-right evangelical churches: "He who is not for me is against me".

With a global economic meltdown now overlaying the global ecological crisis, the number of voters willing to trade their personal freedom for collective security – democracy for survival – is only going to increase. As burgeoning rates of unemployment are echoed by rising sea-levels, and an increasing number of countries succumb to the economic equivalent of the advancing desert sands, the grimly prophetic words of The Guardians team of writers: "democracy is a form of group suicide" may come to sound more and more like political – and ethical – common sense.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 9 April 2009.

Wednesday 15 April 2009


SOME of you may be wondering what became of the posting "Fiji Agonistes" which I posted on Easter Sunday. Tim Selwyn over at Tumeke has even written an angry post querying its disappearance.
The answer, of course, is that I deleted it.
Because I wrote the posting in anger. Because I wrote it badly. Because it was unfair to Lew over at Kiwipolitico. And because, politically speaking, it was crap.
Bowalley Road is not a diary - it's a portfolio. What's more, it's my portfolio. If I post something which later strikes me as being of poor quality, or unfair, or politically misguided, I reserve the right to get rid of it.
If that offends the sensibilities of some blogosphere purists, then I'm sorry. But, for me, a blog is a creative enterprise, and, like all creative enterprises, subject to redaction.
Here endeth the lesson.

Saturday 11 April 2009

Simon the Cyrenian (An Easter Song)

And as they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus. - Luke 23:26

I said to my friend sitting on the step
"Can you see anything?"
"There's far too many people", he said,
"I can't see a thing."

We moved to the kerb and waited there
Hoping for a better view.
"Oh, it's just another of the rebels", he said,
"This is nothing new."

"Did you see the look in his eyes?", I said,
"As he passed us by?
"How could someone look that way
When he knows he's about to die?"

"I'm going to give him some help", I said
To my friend. "I am resolved."
"Oh don't be such a fool!", he cried.
"Don't you get involved!"

But I gave him my hand and we made our way
Slowly up the hill.
The city below seemed far away.
The air was very still.

They were waiting for him, and I moved away
From the steel so cold and bright.
For though it was the middle of the day,
The sky grew dark as night.

I stood like stone as they hung him there
Up against the sky.
Turning to leave when, somewhere near,
A woman began to cry.

The streets of the city seemed smaller somehow
That they had when I'd come away.
"He must be almost dead by now",
I said, as I knelt to pray.

A flurry of wings at the window
And I turned to see a dove,
White as the flakes of winter snow
Coming down from the sky above.

And in the Bird's eye I recognised
The look that I had seen
On the face of the man they crucified -
Jesus, the Nazarene.

Friday 10 April 2009

The Choice (An Easter Story)

Ecce Homo. (Behold, the man.) Painting by Antonio Ciseri (1821-1891).

THE most frightening scene in the Bible isn’t to be found in the Book of Revelations, but in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It’s the scene where Pontius Pilate asks the people of Jerusalem to choose between Barabas and Jesus.

The gospel writers paint a vivid picture.

There, on the balcony of the Governor’s palace stands Pontius Pilate. In the open space below a vast crowd seethes and churns, their faces uplifted: hungry, expectant.

Pilate holds up his hand. The Roman legionaries lining the palace courtyard snap to attention, spear truncheons slamming against shields with a deafening crash. The crowd falls silent, standing there motionless in the sweltering mid-day heat, waiting for the Governor to speak.

Pilate motions to the Centurion guarding the prisoner, Jesus. The man pushes the preacher forward. A low murmur sweeps through the crowd as he steps into view.

"I have spoken at length to this man", says Pilate, "and can find no fault in him. He has certainly done nothing to merit a death sentence. He will be flogged and released."

This is not what the servants of the Sanhedrin, Israel’s religious high court, want to hear. Jesus has challenged its authority. His teachings leave little place for the strict hierarchy and expensive religious observances which have for centuries underpinned its social and economic power. Pilate’s job is to kill the man – not set him free.

Their leader begins chanting: "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Scattered through the crowd, his men take up the chant. "Crucify him! Crucify him!"

Pilate is momentarily distracted. A servant passes him a message from his wife.

"Don’t have anything to do with the holy man Jesus. He has appeared in my dreams – such terrible dreams. My husband, I am frightened. Don’t get involved."

Like all Romans, Pilate is deeply superstitious. He turns towards Jesus and their eyes meet. There is understanding in the preacher’s eyes, and compassion. Is that the hint of a smile upon his cracked and swollen lips? Pilate looks away.

"Think man, think!" he upbraids himself. "There must be some way out of this."

The Passover Pardon! The Roman Governor smiles. It has become the practice of Rome’s chief representative in Judea to every year release one condemned local prisoner to honour the Jewish people’s most sacred feast. He had planned to release Barabas, one of the band of religious terrorists known as Zealots. But these sectarian fanatics kill as many Jews as they do Romans. If he asks the crowd to choose between Barabas and Jesus, surely they’ll choose Jesus? Pilate motions for the prisoner Barabas to be brought forward.

"Which of the two do you want me to release to you?", he shouts above the ragged chanting of the Sanhedrin’s agents. "Jesus or Barabas?"

What Pilate does not know is that amongst the crowd are scattered not only agents of the Sanhedrin, but Zealots. They have heard a whisper that Barabas may be offered for release, and they have gathered to make sure it happens.

The chant goes up: "Barabas! Barabas!"

Pilate is stunned. "But this man Jesus has done nothing wrong!"

"Crucify him! Crucify him!", shout the men from the Sanhedrin.

The Zealots pick up the chant. "Crucify him! Crucify him!"

Momentarily forgetting who and where he is, Pilate berates the crowd. "A week ago you were calling this vagabond your king! Would you crucify your king!"

The leader of the Sanhedrin’s men seizes his chance: "We have no king but Caesar!"

Pilate recoils as if struck. "What am I doing? Haggling with a mob. As good as recognising the Gallilean’s claims! If this gets back to Rome I’ll be finished!"

He calls for a servant to bring him a bowl of water.

Once again he lifts up his hand for silence.

"This man’s blood will not be on my hands!", he cries, ostentatiously washing them before the crowd. "You want Barabas? – then have him and be damned! But remember, the choice was yours."

He turns towards the preacher, the water still dripping from his hands.

"Is this the kingdom you would rule, Jesus of Nazareth?" he whispers. "Is that the love that sets men free?"

The preacher says nothing, but his gaze shifts from the Governor’s tormented eyes to the drops of water falling around his feet.

And they are crimson.