Saturday 30 May 2009

Blue Collars, Brown Necks

Blue collars, brown and white necks: Bill Andersen leads 10,000 workers up Queen Street in protest at the use of injunctions in industrial disputes. In 1974, the perceived interests of Maori and Pakeha workers had yet to significantly diverge.

WHEN did the working-class turn brown? When did it stop being made up, overwhelmingly, of white people? Was it in the 1970s, 80s or 90s? And, how did we miss it? How did the poorest New Zealanders’ ethnicity end up masking the burdens of their class?

Marching up Queen Street on Monday, my ears ringing with the haka and the chanting and the insinuating bellow of the Maori trumpets, I was bothered by a sense of déjà vu. Row upon row of brown faces, all of them bearing the moko of hard living on slim pickings, called forth a half-forgotten image from another march up Queen Street where, again, the faces were mostly brown.

Then, I remembered. It was a photograph published in the NZ Herald of 3 July 1974. Bill Andersen was on his way to court, and the cream of the Auckland working-class was going with him. Ten-thousand strong they marched that day – and even then the majority of the marchers were brown.

I’m looking at the picture now: Bill and his union executive (all white) are in the front row, but behind him bob the distinctive "afro" haircuts of his Maori and Pasifika members – thousands of them, marching in defence of their union and its boss, and for their right to a place in the South Pacific sun.

The Maori renaissance was in its infancy then: the divisive effects of what would later be called "identity politics" not yet strong enough to separate Maori and Pasifika workers from their Pakeha brothers.

When the National Government of Rob Muldoon gave the order to end the Ngati Whatua people’s re-occupation of Bastion Point on 25 May 1978, it set in motion one of the largest police operations in New Zealand history. As news of the massive eviction exercise spread, trade unionists on worksites all over Auckland walked off their jobs in protest, and the Auckland Trades Council (taking a leaf out of the NSW Builders & Labourers play-book) placed a "Green Ban" on the site – effectively stymieing the Government’s "redevelopment" plans.

The divisions came later, in the years following the 1981 Springbok Tour, when a disillusioned Bill Andersen was obliged to chuck an extreme Maori nationalist group out of the Auckland Trade Union Centre.

Ever since, race has trumped class in New Zealand left-wing politics. Liberal Pakeha have simply trained themselves to ignore the glaringly obvious fact that nearly all the jobs requiring a strong arm, and an even stronger back, have fewer and fewer white faces associated with them. Look at the building sites; the road gangs; in the factories and warehouses; behind the check-out counters – and you’ll see what I mean. As my friend, Matt McCarten puts it: "In today’s workforce you’ll find that almost every blue collar is worn around a brown neck."

And with only a tiny fraction of the private-sector workforce now unionised (last count 7 percent!) those blue-collars have had to look elsewhere for the strength that collectivism provides. Certainly, since 1991, the white, middle-class membership of the mostly public-sector organisations that make up the Council of Trade Unions have not displayed a noticeable willingness to defend anyone other than their own kind. Abandoned to their own devices, the young, unorganised, brown working-class has turned to the marae, the kura, the wananga and the churches for the cultural, spiritual, and – most importantly – the political leadership their parents formerly received from the class-oriented leaders of the old labour movement.

And so, Monday’s hikoi up Queen Street was all about special Maori representation on the new Auckland "super-city". Except, of course, no one asked the obvious next question: "If John Key relents, and gives us the three seats promised by the Royal Commission, who will sit in them?

Will it be men and women from the suburbs of the working poor? People who understand the importance of public transport, local parks, free libraries, youth centres and swimming-pools? Or will they be filled by media celebrities, business entrepreneurs, and slick corporate lawyers wearing thousand-dollar suits and hefty pounamu pendants?

The Maori Party has already answered that question: hongi-ing furiously with Iwi fat cats and right-wing Pakeha politicians; leading their people up the chute and into the works.

It was moving – hearing ten thousand voices chanting "Ka mate, ka mate!"

But Solidarity Forever is a better song.

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 29 May 2009.

Fee for Parts. (A Poem from 1943)

The following poem was written by my uncle, William D. Trotter (1922-2001) while he was studying medicine at the University of Otago. It was published in the 1943 number of the Medical Digest. The subject of the poem – what remains of our humanity after death – is one which, I imagine, taxes all medical students when they first undertake the dissection of cadavers. The structure of the human body was a subject that continued to fascinate and absorb my uncle for all of his professional life, culminating in his appointment as Professor of Anatomy at the Otago Medical School. His family has found no other evidence of his talent for poetry, which, as the poem below demonstrates, was considerable. A great pity.

Fee for Parts

And when you died
There was no one,
No one who could say
To red-eyed daughters, tight-lipped sons
That you had tried
Had done your best
Had been a friend, a grand old man:
No one, when they tiptoe in and lift the shroud
To say, how beautiful
You are, with face unfevered, brow unlined,
At rest.

Yet the mystery just lately
From your cells departed
Is the same that leaves all others’ cells
Masterless, and inco-ordinate.
And we with knives and weighty tomes
Would probe, examine and dissect
This lump of clay.
Vainglorious we try to understand
Your mystery
Unpenetrated and

There were
No flowers for you, nor psalms,
Nor cool green earth;
But integers metallic; ribaldry
And young irreverence.
Injustice? Still they say:
‘No sparrow for a farthing sells
But God the Father …
And of your head each hair the Angels number.’
But even then
I wonder.


Thursday 28 May 2009

The Budget of Fear

Bill English's Budget in four words: "Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt."

FEAR. That’s what Bill English’s first Budget is all about. Fear of the electorate to which John Key presented National as a reformed and reliable party of caring conservatives just seven months ago. Fear of what will happen to the Government’s popularity (and electability) if the people who so emphatically voted it into office, begin to suspect that they have been deceived.

That is why so little has been done – why so little could be done – in this Budget. English had to protect his boss, the man who, more than any other person in the National team, secured the Treasury benches for the Right. If John Key is transformed from a figure of lightness and hope, into a symbol of heavy-handed fiscal discipline and despair, the National Government won’t make it past 2011.

So, English has been forced to keep all of the safety-nets in good condition. Nothing off the pension. Nothing off Working for Families. Nothing off the unemployment and welfare entitlements. Good Lord! They didn’t even reactivate the interest payments on student loans! English offered up a believable inflation/population adjustment for health, and a not-quite-so-believable adjustment for education. There was even a feel-good (and, let’s be fair, a real-good) gesture towards home insulation.

As Key almost said, New Zealanders can sleep easy in their beds tonight – because, in the face of the worst economic conditions since 1930, all their entitlements are still in place.

But for how long? And at what cost?

The tax cuts have gone – and good riddance. But a ten-year suspension of payments to the Superannuation Fund? That undermines the expectations of the aging Baby Boom Generation, and sets up a truly vicious social conflict in the decades ahead. Because surely Generation X and Y will balk at supporting their elders with a pension that, in all likelihood, they will not be in a position to pay themselves?

And that's the real problem with Budget 2009, by allowing the voters to lie easy in their beds this year, English and Key have merely pushed out the day when something more than maintaining the status-quo will be demanded of them.

Treasury’s forecasts make it clear that New Zealand’s economic fortunes are not going to improve anytime soon. The number of people out of work is predicted to rise to 8 percent – and that’s the hopeful estimate. The nation’s indebtedness will continue to rise inexorably (the price of maintaining all those entitlements without increasing taxes) and with it the expectation of New Zealand’s creditors that, somehow, this country is going to come up with a plan for paying it back.

Aye, and there’s the rub. Where is the money in this Budget for R&D, for skills training, for apprenticeships? Where’s the "greenprint" for a revived and renovated New Zealand economy? The push for a more creative approach to marrying infrastructure development with export growth? Where’s the incentive for this country’s employers to come up with a better way of securing their profits than simply slashing the real wages of their workers?

The truth is, this Government lacks the imagination to answer any of those questions. Consequently, Bill English’s Budget can be distilled into four words: "Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt."

Still, he’s bought his boss some time – and his boss knows it.

Watching poor Phil Goff perspiring manfully at full volume, and then watching Key, relaxed and informal, cracking jokes, and beaming reassurance to the voters at full wattage: it was painful. When the networks’ news editors are through repackaging this afternoon’s verbal jousting for the 6 O’clock News, New Zealanders will be in no doubt as to which leader remained in the saddle.

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof – you might say. But, the question that will be gnawing away at Key and English in the dark watches of the next 365 nights is as inescapable as it is terrifying:

What the hell do we do next?


Susan Boyle. Unlike the Beatles' tragic Eleanor Rigby, this "beetle-browed virgin from Blackburn" will not be "buried, along with her name".

IT’S the ordinariness of Blackburn, West Lothian, that strikes you. Its rows upon rows of non-descript houses, all set back the standard thirty feet from miles upon miles of non-descript streets. It’s not an ugly town exactly, but neither is it a pretty one. It’s just ordinary. The sort of ordinary that can bury lives and smother souls.

Susan Boyle grew up in this little town. Her stock, two-storied house, grey roughcast like her neighbours’, stands in a block of dreary repetitions. Windows, doors, roofs: straight and level as a town planner’s ruler. And endless asphalt: grey and heavy as West Lothian’s leaden skies.

The people of Blackburn, too, have a sameness. They’re squat and solid like their houses, with square florid faces chafed raw by the North Wind’s relentless friction. Like their little town, they’re not exactly ugly, but neither are they pretty. You’d pass them in the street without noticing. Default-setting human shapes: ordinary and unremarkable.

You’d be wrong about Susan Boyle though, as she clumped past you on her way to the Fauldhouse Miners Welfare Club. But then, how could you possibly know that this dumpy woman, strutting fiercely up the street, with her head down, her arms swinging and her fists clenched, had a voice to match Elaine Paige’s? Or that five times before she’d entered the Club’s annual singing contest, made it to the finals, but failed to clinch first prize? Or that this, her sixth and last attempt, will end exactly the same way?

Unless, of course, you came from Blackburn, or Bathgate, or Armadale. In which case you would know that Susan Boyle was just one of many outstanding singers living in the grey sub-divisions of West Lothian.

"Britain’s Got Talent" is the name of the show, and it’s well-named. The neglected streets of Britain’s towns and cities are awash with talent: singers, musicians, songwriters, dancers, painters, novelists, poets, preachers, teachers, political leaders. More talent than any production company could ever cram into a commercial hour of television – or would want to.

Because, when the producers of "Britain’s Got Talent" received Susan Boyle’s application, and looked at her photograph, and heard her sing, "talent" would have been the last thing on their minds. And when they learned of her mother’s dying wish that Susan "do something with her life", it wasn’t the remorseful words of a mother whose lingering illness had utterly consumed her daughter’s youth that they heard, it was the promise of "fantastic television".

The very idea that a "beetle-browed virgin from Blackburn" might actually be able to sing was so preposterous, so absurd, that the producers were supremely confident that no "Britain’s Got Talent" audience would believe it. They knew that people’s eyes would roll; that they would exchange knowing glances with their neighbours; that the auditorium would be filled with guffaws and titters; and that, in millions of sitting rooms across Britain, the show’s viewers would be doing the same – right up until the moment Susan opened her mouth.

And then, of course, the audience, and the viewers, and (thanks to You-Tube) the whole world, gasped in wonder.

Because, into Fantine’s aria from Les Miserables, Susan Boyle poured out all of her 47 years of loneliness, lovelessness, and longing. With an inspiring, and at the same time truly thrilling singleness of purpose, this thwarted flower had struggled out of the darkness and into the light. And as her voice rose to meet the song’s crescendo, her audience, too, was carried upward. No longer sniggering, no longer colluding in the vicious lie that only the beautiful, the wealthy, and the powerful have a right to feel the sunlight of fulfilment and success upon their faces.

And all around the world people wept. Not just in response to the poignancy and precision of Susan’s performance. Not simply with relief that she had escaped the cruel theatricality of her contrived circumstances. But because, for a few transcendent seconds, this woman from West Lothian had become a symbol of the equality so many of us have stopped believing in. By her triumph, our faith in the worth of the common people of this earth was emphatically reaffirmed.

There are no dreams that cannot be, no storms we cannot weather, so long as we, like Susan, understand that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 24 April 2009.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Truly Dickensian

After Housing Minister, Phil Heatley's, new "prior permission" rule for state house tenants, one is tempted to ask: 'What's next - workhouses?!"

THE performance of Housing New Zealand’s Chief Operating Officer, Stephen McArthur, on this morning’s edition of Morning Report was deeply disturbing. Defending HNZ’s new policy of requiring state house tenants to acquire prior permission from their landlord before offering shelter to a person, or persons, released on bail, he managed to sound both cruel and condescending.

Access to state housing is supposed to be determined strictly on the basis of need, but McArthur and his masters – presumably with the full sanction of Housing Minister, Phil Heatly – have decided to insert this entirely new contractual obligation in HNZ’s standard tenancy agreement.

The effect is to introduce into the State’s landlord-tenant relationship a truly Dickensian level of paternalism. It was quite clear from McArthur’s tone that he regards state tenants as a lesser-breed of human-being.

These unfortunates, along with their wayward friends and family, cannot be relied upon to act responsibly towards their neighbours. So, unlike other adult members of the community, their decision-making must be augmented and refined by the altogether more responsible and informed judgement of HNZ staff. And, while "normal" home-owners are perfectly at liberty to designate their own homes as places to which family-members and/or friends in trouble with the authorities may be bailed, state tenants must apply for and receive their landlord’s "permission" before offering such refuge.

Leaving aside HNZ’s rejection of the long-established common-law principle that a person is deemed innocent until proven guilty, this new "prior permission" rule cannot help but dangerously stigmatise state house tenants. Whenever citizens are required to divest themselves of rights enjoyed by other members of the community – in this case the right to offer safe haven for a person or persons in distress – they are diminished as citizens, and demeaned as human-beings.

HNZ’s new rule, by undermining the equality of all citizens, strikes at the very heart of New Zealand’s egalitarian traditions. It is objectionable from virtually every reasonable perspective, but most particularly because it constitutes a form of "prior restraint".

What HNZ – and the National-led Government – are saying with this new rule is that state tenants are essentially children, whose judgement cannot be relied upon, and whose rights and freedoms must be rigorously circumscribed in the name of protecting the rights and freedoms of their neighbours and the local community.

It's a telling insight into the ethics of this Government, that it sees HNZ’s new rule as being both fair and reasonable. What in God’s name is fair and reasonable about requiring parents to secure the prior permission of some faceless bureaucrat before they’re allowed to bring their son or daughter, niece or nephew, home from the Police lock-up?

What’s next: workhouses?

Monday 25 May 2009

We Can't Make it Here Anymore

While Bill English submits his first Budget to the international credit-rating agencies for their approval, here's an oldie-but-a-goodie about the joys of globalisation from American singer-songwriter, James McMurtry.

Making the Protest Count

Auckland's last really big political demonstration, the 2003 protest against the Iraq War. The march stretched the full length of lower Queen Street, and was estimated at 20-25,000 strong. Today's hikoi (no pics available as yet) was the same size - but the mainstream news media put its strength at between 2,000 and 7,000. Why?

I’VE JUST RETURNED from the Auckland hikoi to discover that the mainstream news media are downplaying the significance of the demonstration by citing absurdly low estimates of the turnout.

Radio New Zealand is the worst offender, running for the past two hours with a figure of 2,000 (barely enough people to fill a city block).

The NZ Herald at least quotes a police officer, whose (wildly inaccurate) estimate was 5,000-7,000 marchers.

Now, let’s get real.

The march extended the full length of lower Queen Street – i.e. from the assembly-point in QEII Square to the Town Hall.

Just so we’re clear: that means that as the front ranks were arriving at the Town Hall, the last ranks were leaving the Square.

What’s more, the marchers occupied the full width of the carriageway – i.e. they stretched right across the road, from pavement to pavement.

This makes the calculation of the demonstration’s size very simple – if you know your history.

Since the late-1960s there have been several demonstrations that occupied the whole of lower Queen Street. There was the 1971 "Mobe" (mobilisation) against the Vietnam War. Ten years later there was the May 1st "Mobilsation Against the Tour" march up Queen Street. In 1983 there was a big union protest against Muldoon’s Wage-Price Freeze. In 1991 there was an even bigger union protest against the Employment Contracts Bill. In 2002 there was the Anti-GE March, and in 2003, Auckland’s last really big demonstration – until today – against the Iraq War.

Contemporary media cited those protests at between 20,000 and 30,000 strong.

Have human-beings doubled or tripled in size since 2003? Of course not! So where do these absurd figures of 2,000, 5,000 and 7,000 come from?

Is it because the reporters on the spot (and the policemen) have so little experience of large political demonstrations that they simply have no idea how to estimate their true size? I hope so, because the alternative – that reporters and the Police are deliberately underestimating the size of the protest for political/ideological reasons – is just too upsetting to contemplate.

Something historic happened on the streets of Auckland today. It would be nice if the news media could report it accurately.

FOOTNOTE: If we assume lower Queen Street to be roughly a kilometre in length and about 30 metres wide we get an area of 30,000 square metres. Now, if every protester is assumed to occupy just one square metre of space as he or she moves up Queen Street – that’s a maximum of 30,000 protesters, or, allowing for the odd gap, a minimum of 20,000. Basic arithmetic, really. What’s the matter with all our journalists!

National's Roads to Victory

The post-war multiplication of roads, cars and suburbs secured (and continues to secure) the National Party’s political success.

LABOUR voters from New Zealand’s towns and cities often marveled at the quality of rural roads.

Miles from anywhere, they would suddenly find themselves travelling on a brand-new, tar-sealed carriageway in a better state of repair than the cracked and pot-holed city streets where they lived.

This was, of course, in the 1950s and 60s, when the New Zealand economy was booming, and the politically dominant National Party could afford to indulge in a little harmless pork-barrelling.

It was, after all, along these fine new roads that the sheep and cattle trucks, the lorries piled high with wool bales, and the gleaming, stainless-steel milk-tankers made their way to the freezing-works, wool-stores and dairy factories that processed the nation’s primary exports.

Cockies were the backbone of the country – didn’t they deserve good roads?

The political economy of roading in New Zealand embraces a great deal more, however, than a few examples of old-fashioned pork-barrelling in the back-blocks. Urban voters might not have been able to miss the signs of National’s love affair with roads and trucks in the countryside, but for most of the past 50 years they’ve been blind to its larger and much more expensive manifestations in the metropolitan centres – especially Auckland. The central role which the National Party has played in the politics and economics of transportation has similarly been overlooked (For an excellent article on this subject by Dr Chris Harris try here.)

Primarily a private-sector activity, albeit one financed out of national and/or local taxation, the road-building business is particularly susceptible to political patronage (and, it must be said, corruption). The distinction to be made with railway construction and maintenance – especially in New Zealand – is very important in this respect. For most of its history this country’s railways have been state-owned enterprises, guarded by powerful trade unions, and offering correspondingly fewer opportunities for rewarding one’s private sector mates. Not surprisingly, New Zealand’s right-wing parties have tended to favour road over rail.

Of course there’s no point in building roads if there are no cars, trucks, motorbikes and busses to use them. If you’re the state sponsor of, or a private contractor in, the road-building industry, there’s nothing more expensive, or embarrassing, than an empty highway. So, once again, genuine competition from an inherently cheaper and more efficient rail network has always been a major problem for road builders. If the myriad opportunities for profit opened up by the invention of the internal combustion engine were to be successfully exploited, people had to be persuaded that it made more sense to transport themselves, and their goods, by road, in a motor vehicle, than by rail, on a train.

To activate the political economy of roading, however, one more component was required: an urban geography that made the building of roads and the acquisition of motor vehicles a matter of necessity rather than choice. The post-war suburban sub-division, located on the periphery of New Zealand’s big cities and unconnected (except in the case of Wellington and the Hutt Valley) to their key economic hubs by effective commuter rail services, became the perfect excuse for the National Party to sink millions into the construction of roads and motorways. In Auckland, National’s right-wing allies on the city council made certain of this commitment by canning the First Labour Government’s blueprint for a much more compact city based on an extensive, state-owned commuter rail network, and then tearing up the tracks of the heavily patronised trams.

The political economy of roads, cars and subdivisions inevitably produced a host of societal side effects – many of which proved to be of huge political advantage to the National Party.

The political genius of the post-war "car culture" lay in its ability to draw a critical percentage of the working-class (invariably the white percentage) into the atomised, deeply conformist, consumption-based communities of the post-war era. Once inside the magic circle of home and car ownership, the collectivist spirit of the 1930s and 40s began to fade, and workers’ political priorities changed. Safely ensconced in his new suburban bungalow, surrounded by people just like himself, and driving to work in his prized late-model automobile, the average white wage and salary earner wanted nothing more from "politics" than a rock-solid guarantee that what he had acquired, he would be allowed to keep.

By the turn of the century, those workers (overwhelmingly black) who remained materially dependent of public provision; whether in the form of state housing or public transport; soon realised that entry into "first-class", as opposed to "second-class", citizenship was only granted to those who owned a private car and a suburban home.

Urban liberals in 2009, hearing the comments of National’s candidate for the Mt Albert by-election, Melissa Lee: that the controversial extension of SH20 would "keep South Auckland criminals away from Mt Albert" angrily dismissed them as racist stereotyping. But to the electorate’s status-conscious Pakeha and Asian voters, Lee’s comments carried a very different message.

Both Lee and her aspirational audiences recognise something about Auckland’s motorways that her liberal critics prefer not to acknowledge: that they are both escape-routes and boundary-fences. The Waterview Diversion will carry South Auckland’s dark-skinned underclass safely past Mt Albert in exactly the same way as the Southern Motorway carries the smug burghers of Papakura past the mean streets of Mangere, Otara and Manurewa.

National’s Transport Minister, Stephen Joyce, understands this symbolic language. Perhaps not consciously, but deep in his conservative gut, he knows that a motorway hidden in a tunnel is a motorway stripped of its most important political benefits.

The Auckland that Peter Fraser’s government was planning to build, had it won the 1949 general election, would have housed the city’s residents in state-owned apartment blocks, built next to parks, and connected by cycle-ways. And every working day they would have been carried to and from work in electric railway units. The few motorways that were planned would have gone around Auckland, not through it. And, of course, these publicly housed and transported Aucklanders, just like their comrades in the Hutt Valley, would have voted overwhelmingly for Labour.

If pork-barrel-politics is taken to mean the money which politicians and political parties spend locally in order to secure their re-election, then the massive concrete sinews, which for 50 years have bound Auckland’s voters to the National Party’s dream of a million right-minded commuters, all driving down the motorway in their own cars, towards the hard-won security of their suburban firesides, must surely rank as its most effective application.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 21 May 2009.

Dangerous Winners

Tens of thousands of Wellingtonians celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany in the streets below Parliament, 9 May 1945. But what would have happened to the Anglo-Saxon powers if they had failed what British military historian, Correlli Barnett, calls "the audit of war"?

THERE’S a price to be paid for always being on the winning side. States and peoples who have been found wanting by the twin audits of war and revolution are forced to learn from their mistakes. The victors are under no such obligation.

New Zealand has been on the winning side of practically every war it has ever fought. Alongside the other fingers of the Anglo-Saxon fist: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia; New Zealand has never had to endure the ignominy of military occupation, nor the harrowing rigors of that other handmaiden of defeat – social revolution. On the contrary, our armed forces and our political institutions have emerged from the storm and stress of successive wars not only intact – but wreathed in the laurels of victory.

In the face of such incontrovertible evidence of success, even the most muted and respectful attempts at criticism tend to sound like crankiness – or worse.

But, just imagine that the First World War had been won by Germany, and that, in defeat, New Zealand, along with the other Anglo-Saxon powers, had undergone a series of debilitating economic and social upheavals, culminating in the establishment of a cruel and arbitrary dictatorship.

Upon finally emerging from this nightmare of repression, would we not, as a people, be extremely wary of the instruments of coercive state power: the Army, the Police, the Courts, and the Penal System? And wouldn’t we also place a much higher value on the traditional protections against such arbitrary and undemocratic regimes: the public administration of justice; the presumption of innocence; and the right to be tried by a jury of our peers?

I’d like to think so.

But, of course, the Anglo-Saxon fist has yet to meet its historical match. And that, I suspect, is why so many of us still put so much faith in the coercive instruments of the New Zealand State. They have, after all, never let us down. It would certainly explain why so many thousands of Kiwis flock to ANZAC Day parades, and why the funerals of slain policemen take on the character of state-funerals – replete with honour-guards, pipers and aerial salutes.

It might also explain why so many New Zealanders’ prefer retributive – as opposed to rehabilitative or restorative - justice. The outrage talk-back callers routinely express at the very idea that prison-cells might be constructed with under-floor heating, or that inmates might occasionally be permitted to watch a flat-screen television set, says a great deal about this darker side of the Kiwi character.

If they, or their loved ones, had ever spent time in a dank prison cell, reeking with the stink of their own excrement, I wonder if these talk-back callers would, like the Dutch, Danes and Norwegians (whose homelands were all occupied by the Nazis) begin to take a more humane view of crime and punishment?

It would certainly help them to understand why Maori, whose armies were defeated, whose society was forced to undergo a wrenching series of economic and social upheavals, and whose homeland has been occupied for more than one-and-a-half centuries, look upon the Police, the Courts and the Penal System of the New Zealand State through very different eyes.

Or, if that’s too big an empathetic ask, they could simply carry out this little thought experiment.

Imagine you’re living under a Government which has removed the right to elect trial by jury for offences punishable by less than three years imprisonment. Then imagine that, in spite of a referendum indicating the contrary, this same government has refused to repeal the law eliminating the defence of "reasonable force" for hitting one’s kids. Now imagine a Crimes Act which mandates a maximum of two years imprisonment for common assault (which includes smacking).

What does it all mean? It means that if you’re arrested by the Police, charged with assaulting your child, and you enter a plea of Not Guilty, you will no longer have the right to be judged by a jury of your peers. Instead, your case may end up being heard by a female District Court judge, with a law degree from Waikato University, who just happens to believe that Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking legislation is the bees-knees.

You see now how foolish it is to assume that the never-defeated, all-powerful, Anglo-Saxon state is always your protector?

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 22 May 2009.

Friday 22 May 2009

Ten Years Ago This Week: Bill Birch's Last Budget

Jenny Shipley's Treasurer (remember them?) - Bill Birch.

THIS YEAR’S BUDGET harks back to an earlier, much simpler, period of New Zealand history; to another election year and another attempt to convince the electorate that National stands for a youthful and progressive alternative.

Flicking through the pages of Brian Edward’s Right Out: Labour Victory 1972 – The Inside Story, it is impossible not to be struck by the parallels between 1972 and 1999.

Then – as now – National was trying to "bed in" a new leader. Jack Marshall had taken over from Sir Keith Holyoake, - a "consensus politician" whose rather pompous style no longer seemed appropriate to the times. But the curious mixture of conservatism and liberalism, which Jack Marshall brought to the top job, made it difficult for him to settle on a consistent political persona. One minute he was "Gentleman Jack" promising to "put people first", and the next, a tough-guy with a "steel core", declaring National to be "Man for man, the strongest team". Marshall’s identity crisis was not helped by the all-too-obvious leadership ambitions of his Finance Minister. Where Marshall oozed uncertainty and confusion, Rob Muldoon radiated conviction and a powerful sense of purpose.

The public mood was profoundly hostile to this leadership combination. National had been in power for nearly twelve years and there was a widespread feeling that it was "time for a change". The prevailing Keynesian economic orthodoxy looked increasingly threadbare as inflation ate away ordinary consumers’ purchasing power, and pushed "the good things of life" further and further into the future.

Jack Marshall attempted to counter this sense of drift by swearing in a younger and more dynamic group of ministers, and by committing National to a raft of legislative initiatives in the area of social policy. His Finance Minister complemented the Government’s new burst of liberalism by dramatically increasing public spending.

Mrs Shipley and her Treasurer must be experiencing a strong sense of déja vu as they set the scene for the 1999 General Election. Like their predecessors, they are determined to "re-brand" their ministry as progressive and forward-looking. The opening lines of Bill Birch’s Budget Speech are, accordingly, filled with millennial promises of a new age. "The 1999 Budget", he says, "is about preparing the nation’s children for success in the 21st century, improving the capability for that task of all New Zealand working families, and giving disadvantaged families and children a much fairer shot at a good life in the future."

Unfortunately for the National Government, the headline items of this year’s Budget are too tentative, too constrained, too tightly targeted, and too obviously pitched at their richest supporters, for the "progressive" and "family friendly" label to stick. Its "Parental Tax Credit" cannot compete with Laila Harré’s Parental Leave legislation (less than half of all new borns will qualify!) and the promise to abolish the Broadcasting Fee (but only after the election) is immediately offset by a $47.00 rise in the motor vehicle registration fee. Verily, the Treasurer giveth, and the Treasurer taketh away.

Likewise, National’s Clintonesque emphasis on education, R&D and the role of information technology in the new millennium, has not been backed with anything like the appropriate levels of funding. A similar penny-pinching approach is evident in Maori policy. Tau Henare and his colleagues must be bitterly disappointed.

The abolition of stamp and death duties will, of course, be of most benefit to the already wealthy – as will the promised tax cuts. It just won’t wash. Such New Right orthodoxy has already become as threadbare as 1970s Keynesianism. Too many people now know that cutting taxes only leads to reduced public services. The formula – like the Government – has grown tired.

Time for a change.

This ‘From the Left’ column was originally published in The Dominion of Friday, 21 May 1999.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Seventies Pessimism: Polemical Poetics 1978

This poem was submitted to the Otago University student newspaper Critic in lieu of the usual candidate’s "blurb" for election to the OUSA Executive. It conveys something of the oppressive political climate then prevailing under the authoritarian and deeply polarising National Government led by Rob Muldoon. The reference to Bert Walker and Frank Gill is to the two most reactionary members of Muldoon’s cabinet.

From a Blade of Grass the Lawn-Mower Missed


What can possibly be said in a space such as this?

The eyes of six-and-a-half thousand
Skimming through pages laid-out by half-a-dozen.

What can possibly be said by yet another student politician
Gold-fishing in the universal yawn?
Staining these pages with bitter union coffee,
Half an eye on the clock,
What can you possibly expect me to say
Students of Otago?

That I will kindle crimson fires
In the hearts and minds of Medical Students
Dissecting flesh as cold as the Leith’s winter stream?
Set ablaze the brows of English Majors
As they struggle through yet another
Of Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnets’?
Lay to rest the ghost of Machiavelli
Gibbering glibly in the boardroom upstairs?
What can I possibly say?


In the midst of Muldoon’s frigid reign
All policy is corrupt.
Who would be foolish enough
To make you promises?

In the land of Bert Walker and Frank Gill
All promises are best read as threats.

Suffice to say that we find shelter here:
Freed at last from Home and School,
Not yet incarcerated in the social zoo.
I seek to serve the cerebral few
Boxed in by the dumb ignorance
Of an aging Protestant town.

My fight is with the creeping tide of lies
That flows across Cook Strait,
That oozes from every pen
Scribbling for Internal Assessment,
That dribbles from every mouth
Urging acquiescence to the eyeless men
Whose hands still drip with the blood
of Africans, Chileans, Timorese.


Can I possibly have said all this;
Polemical poetics on a Tuesday afternoon
Half-an-hour before the next lecture?

Can he possibly have said it!

For reading this far you have my thanks.
If my words have found faint echoes among you
Deliver come election day
Politics into the hands of poetry.

Chris Trotter

Friday 15 May 2009

Pup Tents in the Bush

The Age of Stupid

It’s like looking through binoculars, observing people on a far off beach, running around in circles, fixated on the small area of sand under their feet, as a tsunami races towards the shore.

- Pete Postlethwaite in the movie The Age of Stupid

NEXT month The Age of Stupid begins its run in New Zealand cinemas. Produced by New Zealander, Lizzie Gillett, directed by Franny Armstrong of McLibel fame, and starring the veteran English actor and Oscar nominee, Pete Postlethwaite, this powerful docudrama about climate change is set in 2055 and features a doomed archivist searching and re-searching the record of the early 21st Century for something which might explain his species’ imminent extinction.

"We wouldn’t be the first life form to wipe itself out," muses Postlethwaite’s character, "but what would be unique about us is that we did it knowingly. I mean, what does that say about us? The question I’ve been asking, is why didn’t we save ourselves when we had the chance? Is the answer because, on some level, we weren’t sure if we were worth saving?"

Armstrong’s movie is but one aspect of a much wider campaign of global consciousness-raising leading up to the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. Screenings of the film in the UK are being used to generate a heightened sense of urgency on the climate change issue, and to enrol a much broader cross-section of the public in the sort of protest and advocacy activities usually restricted to the more marginal (and marginalised) activist groups of the ecological vanguard.

In the vanguard of the vanguard, so to speak, is the "Climate Camp UK" movement, a sort of alternative-camping-trip-encounters-anarchist-teach-in-turns-into-non-violent-protest-outfit which began with a "gathering" outside Britain’s largest coal-fired power station at Drax in West Yorkshire in 2006. A year later in was making world headlines by erecting a protest camp only metres away from Heathrow Airport. And, just last month, during the G-20 summit, Britain’s Climate-Campers were again in the news for attempting to set up their pup-tents in the heart of London.

Clearly inspired by Britain’s hippy-campers, a small group of local eco-anarchists calling themselves "Climate Camp Aotearoa" (CCA) chose Anzac Day weekend to organise their own "gathering" at the historic Taranaki Maori settlement of Parihaka.

In the search for "climate justice", CCA insists that: "change comes from the grassroots". Citing the "Save Happy Valley" anti-coal campaigners as "a wonderful example of a campaign targeting the root causes of the problem by by-passing the political circus of climate politics and aiming at keeping fossil fuels in the ground where they belong", the organisers of the gathering identified nine potential targets for "non-violent direct action".

They are: the proposed gas-fired power station at Kaukapakapa in the Rodney district; the Central Plains Water scheme in Canterbury; the proposed new cement works at Weston in North Otago; the Transmission Gully project north of Wellington; the Huntly power station; the proposed pylon-carried electricity transmission line between the Waikato and Auckland; the planned expansion of Auckland Airport; Solid Energy’s "Happy Valley" coal mine on the West Coast; and corporate dairy farming all over New Zealand.

"As this new movement takes shape," CCA declares, "we will need to come together across lines of race, class, education, culture and geography; we will need to meet each other, listen to each other, and exercise our power together in the streets."

Inspiring sentiments, and yet, I can’t help thinking that setting up one’s pup tents on the Parihaka marae, miles from anywhere, and expecting participants to accept without question the rather arcane (and to most folks just plain weird) "rules" of "self management" and "conducting collective meetings and discussions", is a pretty odd way of reaching out to the masses.

If you really want people to come together "in the streets", why not hold your gatherings in the main centres – where most New Zealanders live? Why set up a decision-making process in which just one person’s objections can stymie the wishes of an overwhelming majority. Why tell people that they mustn’t applaud the contributions of their fellow participants, insisting, instead, that they use "silent hand-clapping" – a technique which apparently involves "waving your hands when you agree".

Isolating people in the bush; requiring them to renounce conventional forms of human interaction in favour of a range of imposed and unfamiliar behavioural routines; getting them to participate in a succession of pre-arranged and highly tendentious "games": I’m sorry, but it all sounds uncomfortably like the behaviour of a self-selecting political cult – not a mass movement. What's truly depressing about CCA’s dotty organisational style, however, is that I’ve seen it all before, more than twenty-five years ago, just as the anti-nuclear movement was reaching its crescendo in the early 1980s. Writing about a group styling itself Peace Movement New Zealand (PMNZ) for the magazine New Outlook in 1983, I was particularly intrigued by the group’s ingrained hostility towards the methods of mass politics:

"The preferred method of operation … is the slow building of a network of kindred spirits and affinity groups. This cannot happen if the movement is swamped with people anxious to join up: large numbers of people inevitably have differences of opinion too stark to be resolved by consensus."

When I asked one of PMNZ’s non-violent activists if she believed her peace group would ever achieve the same degree of co-ordination and public impact as the anti-apartheid movement, she replied: "Oh no, we’re very different from HART. HART is a very hierarchical, top-heavy organisation."

It’s enough to turn you into a conspiracy theorist. Here’s poor old Planet Earth getting hotter and hotter, and the people who claim to be her best friends all evince a pronounced disinclination to organise humanity in ways that just might get the heat turned down. Perhaps, as Pete Postlethwaite says in The Age of Stupid, at some level, the CCA activists don’t actually believe the human race is worth saving.

Which is why, rather than the hippy-campers of CCA, it’s one of New Zealand capitalism’s most effective champions – Gareth Morgan – who deserves the silent handclapping of Gaia and her multitudinous brood.

Morgan’s courageous endorsement of the science behind anthropogenic climate change in The Listener and The Herald on Sunday has done more to advance the cause of reducing global warming than any number of "self-managed" pup-tents in the bush.

This commentary was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 14 May 2009.

National's Sinful Blunder

Christine Rankin: Utterly unfit for the job.

"THE naïve, the almost childish brutality, with which the chiefs of the National Party fell upon power may seem quite surprising, until one remembers how famished for power they were, and with what an innocency of experience they faced the world about them."

That was how the New Zealand historian, Dr J.C. Beaglehole, writing twelve years after the event, in 1961, described the transition from Labour to National in 1949.

Nine impotent years in opposition – the longest stretch since the 1940s – coupled with last year’s emphatic election win, has inspired in today’s National Party a similar desire to make a bonfire of their predecessors’ most detested policies.

This time, however, the Tories’ auto da fé of Labourism is taking a little longer to get going.

The Right has been in no position to indulge in the wholesale destruction of Labour’s policies for the very simple reason that National only secured its electoral success by guaranteeing in advance a large chunk of the Clark-Cullen legacy.

Certainly, there have been examples of Tory pettiness – Anne Tully’s cancellation of Labour’s healthy schools programme springs to mind, as does Tony Ryall’s unjustified dismissal of Otago DHB Chair, Richard Thompson.

In general terms, however, the first few months of John Key’s reign have seen the sage (if cynical) advice of the Party’s Australian advisors, Crosby/Textor, continue to hold sway. Mr Key won the trust of New Zealanders by presenting National as the non-threatening alternative to a tired and discredited government. Forfeit that trust, and his government’s lease on power will be short.

Mr Key, at least, required little in the way of prompting. His sensitivity to the electorate’s longing for national unity, and to their need for reassurance in the face of globalised economic calamity, has been impressive. Especially well received has been his successful outreach to the Maori Party, and the inclusive spirit of the Jobs Summit. The Government’s unprecedented popularity is due almost entirely to the political adroitness of these prime-ministerial touches.

But, National’s stratospheric poll-ratings may yet turn out to be Mr Key’s undoing. They have imbued his cabinet colleagues with a partisan triumphalism bordering on insolence, and encouraged the very dangerous belief that the Key-led Government is politically unassailable. Jonathan Coleman’s lofty indifference to the plight of public broadcasting is but one example this heedlessness. Murray McCully’s roughing-up of MFAT, and his wilful demoralisation of NZAid, another.

National’s right-wing coalition partner, Act, is similarly interpreting the Government’s 50 percent-plus poll-rating as an endorsement of its own far-right policy initiatives. As Minister of Local Government, the Act leader, Rodney Hide, appears determined to drive through his own version of the Auckland "super-city" – spurning genuine consultation with the people of the region, and heedless of the proposal’s growing unpopularity.

With each passing day, Crosby/Textor’s advice: to safeguard the people’s trust in Key’s leadership; and to maintain the Government’s non-threatening stance vis-à-vis the average punter for as long as possible; grows fainter and fainter.

To be fair to National, the sheer weight and volume of the decisions that must be made in a faltering economy, and the necessity of preserving the good opinion of the international credit-rating agencies, cannot help but over-ride the purely electoral considerations of even the most astute of the Government’s political advisers. It is the fate of every administration that, sooner or later, good governance and good politics will come to a parting of the ways.

What Mr Key needs to keep in mind is that most thinking voters understand this, and are generally reluctant to punish a government for doing the right thing – even when it is manifestly to the electorate’s short-term disadvantage. What the intelligent voter will not forgive, however, are political decisions that owe nothing to the irresistible force of economic necessity, nor the dictates of good governance, but which are simply and crassly partisan.

The appointment of Christine Rankin to the Families Commission falls squarely into this category. Ms Rankin, by aligning herself with some of New Zealand’s most reactionary individuals and organisations, and by adding her voice to those insisting that children be denied the same legal protection against physical assault as adults, has rendered herself utterly unfit for the job.

By offering this sop to the Far Right, Mr Key has diminished both himself and his government.

Worse than a sin – it’s a blunder.

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, 15 May 2009.

Monday 11 May 2009

The Selling (Out?) of the Greens

"You're not on Waiheke Island now, Dr Norman."

THEY say one picture is worth a thousand words. Well, cast your eyes over the above billboard and ask yourself: What are the Greens trying to say about Russel Norman and their party?

Both the image and the slogan are intended to convey strength and reliability.

This young man, the billboard says, can be relied upon to get things done. What’s more, just by looking at him, you can tell he’s not a weirdo or a revolutionary. His hair is nicely styled (no dreadlocks!) and he wears an expensive suit (no tie, though, because Russel is a relaxed, informal kind of guy– not a stuffed shirt).

Even more interesting is what the Greens are telling us about themselves.

Look at us, says their advertising, see how we’ve changed. No longer are we the sort of people you might suspect of carrying a joint in their pockets, or having strange dietary habits. This is a very different party from the one that used to tear up GE crops and campaign for the decriminalisation of marijuana. Nowadays we’re just like you. We’re out to save the planet – but in a way that doesn’t pose a direct challenge to the system. Relax, it says, the Greens are no threat to your way of life.

I remember having a cup of coffee with Nandor Tanczos in the weeks after Rod Donald’s death, and him asking me how I thought he should approach his return to Parliament (he was, you’ll recall, next on the List).

I said to him: "If I were Mephistopheles, I’d advise you to pay a visit (accompanied, of course, by photographers from The Woman’s Weekly) to one of New Zealand’s foremost hair-stylists, where your dreadlocks would be removed and your remaining hair styled. Then I’d pay a visit to Politiks, the trendy menswear store (accompanied this time by photographers from FHM Magazine) and kit myself out in the latest executive fashions. And, when I returned to Parliament, I’d give a speech about the importance of Green businesses to New Zealand’s economic future."

If I remember rightly, Nandor quoted scripture: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul."

What indeed?

Sunday 10 May 2009

Revolutionising the News

BOB McCHESNEY is one of those progressive American scholars who repay the closest attention. Interviewed this morning on Radio New Zealand – National, he confidently laid out a series of radical measures that he believes will halt, and hopefully reverse, the precipitate slide in the quality of news gathering and reporting in the US and across the globe.

This is a – and quite possibly the – critical issue confronting the Left in developed western countries. But sadly, in New Zealand left-wing circles, media policy tends to be treated as an afterthought, at best, and at worst, a joke.

Now, I’m not suggesting there are no New Zealanders researching news media issues from a progressive perspective, because there are. Scholars like Peter Thompson, Wayne Hope and Martin Hirst are making an outstanding contribution. The problem is, we hardly ever get to hear from them.

Certainly, they’re much too hot for the ever-cautious Chris Laidlaw to handle. His idea of putting two cutting-edge commentators on the air is to rope-in the venerable Jim Tucker from the Whitireia School of Journalism, and Julie Starr, whose main claim to fame seems to be designing a website for Britain’s deeply conservative newspaper, The Daily Telegraph.

Now I’ve heard enough from Jim Tucker over the years to know that his heart is fundamentally in the right place. In a more open and secure political and economic environment, when people in his position weren’t required to choose their words quite so carefully, I'm pretty sure that he would be a strong supporter of McChesney’s plans to socialise the news media.

Starr, however, is a very different kettle of fish. Having visited her website, and read her little posting on "The Future of Journalism", I have no confidence whatsoever that she even understands the problems McChesney is attempting to address. News is not about something as easy and comfortable and non-threatening as "information" – it’s about giving people access to that most dangerous of all commodities – the truth.

What chance is there that Labour and the Greens will latch-on to McChesney’s ideas? Are they up to the job of formulating a media policy for the 2011 election radical enough to transform our understanding of "press freedom" in the 21st Century? Honestly, I’d have to say the chances are pretty slim. I have yet to hear anyone, from either party, speak out in favour of doing something as basic as lifting the level of state subsidy for TVNZ to match even the OECD average – let alone the levels of support given to public broadcasting in Denmark and Finland.

So, if Labour's spokesperson on media policy, Brendan Burns, were to come out with a suite of reforms based on McChesney’s ideas: free postage for publications with less than 25 percent advertising; a $200 tax write-off for a subscription to a not-for-profit newspaper; massive increases in the level of state support for public broadcasting - I'd be delighted. Unfortunately, I get no sense that the Goff-led Labour Party is ready to sanction such radical changes.

If that is the case, then Labour’s new entrants (especially the brave souls who have just launched the blog Red Alert) should think about these questions:

How are they going to communicate with the tens of thousands of voters who either abstained, or voted against them, in 2008?

What do they think will be left of our public broadcasting service after Jonathan Coleman and his friends at the Sky Network have had their wicked way with the future structure of New Zealand's electronic media?

What hope do they have that a newspaper like The NZ Herald is going to give the Labour Opposition a fair suck of the sav’ when it comes to framing "key" election issues in two years time?

Do Labour – or the Greens – possess the strength of numbers, the economic resources, or even the creative imagination and political courage, to make a successful end-run around the hegemonic edifice of the major media conglomerates?

I think not.

And yet, without that imagination and that courage Labour’s chances of holding National to a single term seem very bleak. And if John Key gets a second mandate – one which includes privatisation, radical deregulation, and dangerously regressive tax reforms – then, by the time 2014 rolls around, it will be too late for Labour - the future of the Left will have become the responsibility of a more authentic group of electoral custodians.

So, here’s a suggestion for all you Labour Party policy mavens. Why not invite Bob McChesney to address the Labour Party conference? Why not get his ideas talked about by voters as serious possibilities. Why not serve notice on Sky, and its dark master, Rupert Murdoch, that any investments they were thinking of making in the New Zealand media industry may turn out to be not quite as secure as they’ve been led to believe?

Labour, if it’s to have the slightest chance of rebuilding its electoral fortunes, has got to get the electorate thinking about new things in a new way. Revolutionising media ownership in this country is just one of the many radical steps the party should be contemplating.

My greatest fear, however, is that without the ideological space afforded by a vibrant, publicly owned, and truly independent news media, getting to those next steps may be impossible.

Saturday 9 May 2009

Fighting to Win?

Lieutenant Russel Norman demonstrates for Labour the Green Party's latest tactic of "looking for areas of common ground where we can work together" in the Mt Albert by-election.

IN contesting the Mt Albert by-election, the Greens are running a very grave risk.

They might win.

"Oh yes," I hear you say, "and Aunt Sally ‘might’ win the next Lotto draw!" How likely is it, really, that the Greens will be able to pump their vote high enough to win the seat?

Well, according to the calculations of the man behind "Kiwiblog", David Farrar, it could happen. Okay, okay, we all know that Mr Farrar is a man of the Right, so there’s a strong temptation to mutter: "Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?" And I’d agree, if it wasn’t for the fact that David’s best prediction for Mt Albert is a Labour win by 3,000 votes. This time, I think it’s fair to say he’s doing nothing more than the math.

How, then, does the Kiwiblogster see the Greens’ co-leader, Russel Norman, taking the seat?


"If a poll shows National and Labour neck and neck, and Greens well back, then the Green vote may collapse to [the Labour candidate, David] Shearer. But likewise if a poll shows the Greens at over 15%, maybe even 20% - then they could make a strong play for Labour voters to vote Greens to give Labour a guaranteed future coalition partner (Labour can probably never govern again without the Greens)."

Now I just happen to know (through a particularly well placed source) that pollsters operating in the Mt Albert electorate have discovered that Labour and National are running neck-and-neck. (Mr Farrar, owner of Curia Market Research, may even be one of them!)

The complicating factor, according to my source, is that these same polls also show the Greens support is well up on their election night total of 11 percent – to something approaching, or maybe just a little ahead of, 15 percent.

This would explain why the Greens’ Mt Albert candidate, Russel Norman, has come out swinging against Labour’s Mr Shearer. According to the Greens’ co-leader, the former United Nation’s aid administrator is a "grey machine man" – hand-picked by Labour leader, Phil Goff, to bolster the strength of the Labour’s right-wing faction. Aghast at revelations that Mr Shearer is on record as being willing to contemplate the use of mercenaries in international peace-keeping, Mr Norman is now promoting himself as the only "progressive" horse in the Mt Albert race.

If the Green Party’s campaign organisers are serious about driving a wedge between Mr Shearer and Mt Albert’s progressive voters, they’ll organise a team of crew-cut, clean-shaven, black-clad and combat-booted "mercenaries", wearing forage caps and dark glasses, to march into every election meeting carrying "Private Contractors for Shearer" signs. Mr Farrar’s fellow right-wing blogger, "Whaleoil", has already produced a poster depicting Mr Shearer as "The Haliburton Candidate". (Endorsed, presumably, by Dick Cheney!)

Beyond the pale? A few months ago I would have said "of course!" and probably added something about the Greens not being that sort of political party. Today, I’m not so sure.

A few months ago, if the Greens had opted to stand a candidate at all (and with National polling so strongly across the country, they may well have decided the risk of splitting the "progressive" vote was too great to justify such a strategy) they would have chosen an unknown local enthusiast to fly the party flag, and left it at that.

What they’ve actually decided to do is parachute in Mr Norman, the Greens’ top-gun, along with his newly-acquired coven of media wizards, to use the opportunity provided by the Mt Albert by-election to build and enhance "Brand Green".

Of course, politics being a zero-sum game, building "Brand Green" can only be accomplished by the deconstruction of "Brand Labour". And that could see National’s Melissa Lee do what no Government candidate has done in 70 years – win an Opposition-held seat in a by-election. But, it could also see Mr Norman collapse Labour’s increasingly fragile support-base, unite the "progressive" vote, and pull off an historic victory.

Will it happen that way? Probably not. Mr Farrar’s best guess – that Labour will win with 3,000 votes to spare – remains the most likely outcome. But, in a way, that’s not the point. Simply by standing Mr Norman, and waging an aggressive campaign, the Greens are signalling that all is not what it was on the Centre-Left.

The children have left home.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 8 may 2009.

Thursday 7 May 2009

Grave Issues For The Greens

Greens co-leader (male) contenders: Russel Norman and Nandor Tanczos

ROD DONALD’S grave, on Bank’s Peninsula, overlooks a little valley of extraordinary beauty. Directed to the tiny cemetery a couple of years back by a friend, I sat there for a long time, looking down on the valley and recalling the man whose resting-place this was.

I thought about his funeral service in Christchurch Cathedral, and the way the chords of Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond echoed among the stone and stained glass. I remembered, too, the stricken features of Helen Clark as she followed his plain pine coffin down the cathedral aisle and out into the blazing Canterbury sunshine.

People still insist that Rod died of a broken heart. If so, it was Clark who broke it.

And Labour has paid a high price for betraying the Greens and their ebullient co-leader. Had Clark remained staunch and honoured the relationship which Donald, more than any of his companions, had worked so hard to build with her party, many of the mistakes which ultimately brought her government to grief might have been avoided.

Winston Peters would never have brought a Labour-Green Government down – not if it meant installing a Don Brash-led National Government. A much less bumpy ride than the one she was ultimately required to endure awaited Clark, if only she’d been brave enough to keep NZ First’s parliamentary contingent safely ensconced on the cross benches, and their leader mercifully unencumbered by ministerial baubles, big-donor bangles and industry lobbyists’ beads.

But let’s not pursue that counterfactual history too far. Suffice to say that Labour’s treachery and Donald’s death opened up a deep chasm of mistrust between the Greens and their erstwhile Labour allies. Somehow, the party’s surviving co-leader, the redoubtable Jeanette Fitzsimons, managed to string a rickety bridge across the gap (meeting Clark more than half-way on climate change) but, with both sides unwilling to trust too much weight to this fragile structure, inter-party relations remained strained. By 2008, the best the Greens could say about Labour was that it was marginally more environment-friendly than National.

The party’s new co-leader, Russel Norman, who’d cut his rhetorical teeth by calling Labour and National "Mother Coke and Father Pepsi", found even this minimal concession to Labour’s virtues onerous. Small wonder, then, that in the aftermath of National’s stunning election victory, and with Fitzsimons announcing her retirement as co-leader, Norman seized his chance to re-position the Greens as a party that could swing both ways.

Norman’s decision to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Party-led Government helped to close the widening gap between the left faction of the Greens (in which he, along with Sue Bradford, Keith Locke and Catherine Delahunty, have long been included) and the more "organic" grouping represented by his principal rival for the co-leadership position, Nandor Tanczos.

On 12 January, Tanczos had used his new Waikato Times column to set out the case for change:

"It is the Green Party's job to influence governments on the issues that count [but] why would National listen to them? The Greens made it very clear in the election campaign that they were not interested in talking to National.

"I thought at the time that it was an extraordinarily stupid thing to do, to fasten your lifeboat to a sinking ship. Greens do best when there is an outgoing Labour Government, but this election the results were disappointing. The Green Party might well have won their biggest caucus yet, if they had been prepared to stop licking Labour's hand."

The obvious danger in such a strategy is that once they are seen licking National’s hand, the Greens risk losing their caucus altogether. That risk is heightened if the Right, cornered by vast exogenous crises, like a global recession or an influenza pandemic, reverts to type and starts slashing and burning its way through political territory dear to Green hearts.

Up ‘til now, the Greens’ "brand" has remained unsullied - global events and trends bearing-out their boast that they are neither left nor right – but in front. Their enemies have sneered at their "always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride" political history, but to their supporters this unwillingness to compromise on core principles goes to the heart of what it means to be green.

As the political journalist (and former Greens media-man) Gordon Campbell recently noted on the Scoop website:

"The Greens will have only themselves to blame if they do muddy their brand. What can look like smart, hard-nosed politics for other parties can cause lasting damage to a party that has based its identity on a reputation for virtue. Virtue-based parties just can’t afford to fool around. One has only to look across the Tasman at the terrible fate of the Australian Democrats who - in a spirit of realpolitik collaboration with the Howard government – supported a GST tax that the party rank and file opposed, to see what havoc a dose of political horse trading can do to a party that markets itself as being above such things."

In this respect, the speed with which John Key has turned his hand from trading currencies to trading horseflesh must be worrying politicians across the spectrum. Accused of trading horses with Social Credit over the Clyde Dam enabling legislation back in 1982, Rob Muldoon famously replied: "Horse trading? Heh! I’ve still got all my horses." But Key’s performances to date outshine even the old master’s. It takes a rare talent to go into negotiations with no horses, and come out leading a whole string. Bamboozling the Maori Party was one thing. But repeating the same trick with the Greens? Scary!

Whether they recognise it or not, by signing the Memorandum of Understanding with National, the Greens have set themselves upon the same downward path as the Progressives, NZ First and United Future. If someone doesn’t rescue them – and soon – they, too, will degenerate into a demographically marginal, politically opportunistic "niche" party, with no higher aspiration than to become an adjunct (or ornament) to someone else’s government.

That’s exactly where the German and Irish Greens now find themselves. But it’s certainly not where Tanczos, temporarily parked (like his new house-bus) in the political wop-wops, wants New Zealand’s Greens to end up. For the moment, however, the wilderness has its attractions. Sometimes, to win something back, you first have to give it away.

Rod Donald, meanwhile, must be tossing and turning in his picturesque grave.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday 7 May 2009.

Monday 4 May 2009

None so blind ...

The Wests of Outrageous Fortune - not a class for itself, but a disaggregated collection of individuals out for themselves.

STEVE Cowan has a problem. Somehow, as a revolutionary Marxist, he must preserve the illusion that the New Zealand working class is still a "class for itself". This requires him to depict Kiwi workers as both ideologically conscious: able to distinguish their friends from their enemies; and politically conscious: capable of formulating coherent strategic and tactical responses to the daily ebb and flow of domestic and international events.

He has no choice in the matter - not if he wants to go on insisting that the working class perceives no ideological, strategic or tactical advantages in backing the Labour Party over the National Party. And Steve does insist upon this, as his latest posting on "Against the Current" shows.

I take strong issue with the idea that the New Zealand working-class is any longer a "class for itself" in the classic Marxist sense. My reasoning is straightforward. A class for itself would have maintained an effective set of economic, social and political institutions tasked with both protecting and advancing its interests. These would include a trade union movement to which a clear majority of working people belonged; economic entities such as co-operatives, friendly societies and credit unions in every working-class community; and, most important of all, a political party based in, and aggressively representing the needs and aspirations of, working-class people.

But, on his blog, "Against the Current", Steve is constantly lamenting the fact that none of these institutions exist anymore. He rails against the NZ Council of Trade Unions and the EPMU for their failure to adequately protect and advance the interests of workers. He laments the fact that workers are being forced to pay the price of the latest capitalist crisis. And, again and again, he condemns the Labour Party for being just another cog in the neo-liberal machine.

How can Steve go on insisting that workers remain a class for themselves while constantly posting evidence to the contrary?

I’m buggered if I know.

My argument – fully expounded in my book No Left Turn – is that the New Zealand working-class used to be a "class for itself", but is one no longer. The dramatic economic and social changes of the past 30 years at first disoriented, then fragmented, and finally, almost entirely atomised New Zealand’s working-class communities. As a result, the institutions they created to defend themselves have been hollowed out and/or taken over by other, more powerful, socio-economic groups. The trade unions by white-collar professionals; the co-ops and friendly societies by larger and more competitive capitalist enterprises; and the Labour Party by social-liberal, middle-class careerists.

Steve should not be in the least surprised by these observations. You’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind to think that today’s Labour Party, in particular, bears the slightest resemblance to the political party of Harry Holland, Mickey Savage and Peter Fraser. Or that Helen Kelly, the President of the NZCTU, offers exactly the same kind of trade union leadership as her father, Pat Kelly.

From the perspective of the capitalist class, this 30-year exercise in disorientation, destruction and subordination has been extraordinarily successful, and the gains thereby acquired must be defended constantly. It accomplishes this, for the most part, by maintaining a ruthless cultural hegemony over working-class New Zealand. Crucial to its hegemonic project has been the relentless "dumbing-down" of those prime conveyor-belts of culture – the education system and the media.

For the past 30 years our schools and universities have been simultaneously steeped in neo-liberal orthodoxy and starved of critical pedagogy. The commodification of the educational experience has meant that, more than ever, heterodox thought is regarded as both politically dangerous and personally counter-productive.

The cultural devastation wreaked upon New Zealand’s media is best illustrated by comparing two local television dramas set in the working-class: Moynihan and Outrageous Fortune. The former was centred on the activities of a trade union secretary, played by Ian Mune, and pitted the hero’s moral and professional resources against those of his members, their employers, and the State. Outrageous Fortune features a West Auckland family, the Wests, who rely for their survival not upon the protective institutions of the working class, but upon the criminal ingenuity of the family’s individual members. Moynihan ran from 1976 to 1977. Outrageous Fortune is the most successful locally-produced drama of the early- 2000s. It is hard to imagine a better illustration of what 30 years of neo-liberal hegemony has done to the New Zealand working-class’s perceptions of itself.

Because, the most important thing to note about Outrageous Fortune is that the drama is outrageously popular – not least among the working-class New Zealanders who make up the bulk of its viewing audience. The bizarre mixture of sex, violence, criminality, anti-authority individualism and family solidarity that constitutes the West’s cultural milieu certainly does not noticably jarr with the experiences of the people who tune in to watch. Outrageous Fortune depicts not a "class for itself", but a socially disaggregated collection of individuals out for themselves.

Precisely the sort of working-class New Zealanders who deserted Helen Clark’s Labour Government for John Key’s National Party. In them, the traditions of solidarity and struggle which distinguished the culture of their parents and grandparents run very thin indeed. More obvious are the "aspirational" values of Key – the state-house boy made good. Money, status, power: these are what drive them.

Little that turned out to be any good has ever emerged from such folk. Here is Marx’s description of them - from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

"Alongside decayed roués with doubtful means of subsistence and of doubtful origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jail-birds, escaped galley-slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel-keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, rag-pickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars, in short the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass thrown hither and thither, which the French term la Bohème".

For all its many and glaring faults, the Labour Party does not yet rely for its electoral success upon the votes of such lumpenproletarians, but upon the support of those whose memories and values remain rooted in the balance of class forces which produced Moynihan – not Outrageous Fortune.

The values of the Wests will never produce a socialist revolution – but they are absolutely critical to the success of fascism.

If Steve Cowan doesn’t know this by now – he damn well should!

Friday 1 May 2009

May Day 2009

This homage to Walter Crane's famous woodcut was commissioned from leading New Zealand graphic novelist, Dylan Horrocks, by New Zealand Political Review in 1997.

TODAY is May Day. As the sun sets this evening, a dedicated handful of left-wing activists will make their annual excursion up Auckland’s Queen Street. Above their ranks, red flags will flutter and brightly-coloured banners will proclaim the time-honoured slogans of international labour solidarity. Upon reaching the Town Hall, speeches will be delivered, and words like "revolution" and "workers’ power" will float out over Aotea Square.

From the thousands of working-class Aucklanders hurrying to catch their trains and busses out of the central city, this dwindling collection of communists, socialists and anarchists will receive only the briefest of puzzled glances. The big questions preoccupying the Proletariat on its way home this May Day will be: What shall I cook the family for tea? And, what’s worth watching on TV tonight? Winning a world, by losing their chains, probably won’t get a look-in.

In Paris, the former premier, Dominique de Villepin talks fearfully of May Day turning into revolution. In Wellington, Prime Minister John Key is all smiles.

And why not? The latest 3News/Reid Research poll places the Labour Party 26 percentage points behind National. The Green Party, which should be well into double-figures, continues to stagger along the edge of the sub-five-percent MMP precipice. And the rest of the vote-seeking Left: the Alliance, RAM and the Workers’ Party; together, would barley muster one tenth of one percent.

As if this burden of electoral unpopularity wasn’t enough to bear, there’s another poll showing more than two-thirds of Kiwi voters are content with their country’s current course. According to the Australian-based polling agency, Roy Morgan, our Government Confidence Rating is "at the highest recorded, 151.5 (up 8.5 points) with 68.5% (up 3.5%) of New Zealanders saying New Zealand is ‘heading in the right direction’, compared to just 17% (down 5%) that say New Zealand is ‘heading in the wrong direction’."

Given what is actually happening in New Zealand and around the world, those numbers are truly astounding.

Our own Treasury (whose dire economic predictions are constantly being trumped by reality) told us nearly six months ago to expect 10 percent unemployment by the end of the year. While every reputable economist not employed by a bank (and even some of them) is warning that: a.) things are going to get a lot worse before they get better; and b.) John Key and Bill English have no viable policy options other than slashing government spending.

And still, 68.5 percent of us think John Key’s leading us into the "broad sunlit uplands" of peace and prosperity.

Okay, a lot of the blame for this has to be laid at the feet of this country’s most listened-to commentators, nearly all of whom are vehement right-wing talkback hosts who’ve spent the last three years campaigning quite unashamedly for a change of government, and who are so generously remunerated that, to their ears, all this gloomy chatter about "the most serious economic crisis in 70 years" sounds utterly bizarre.

On Sunday, one of these right-wing divas, fresh from the glittering emporiums of London’s Oxford Street, even went so far as to reassure her adoring public that she saw no evidence of a recession in the United Kingdom. The IMF, currently predicting a disastrous 4.1 percent contraction in the UK’s economy, would probably beg to differ.

But even were the entire commentariat channelling this sort of economic denial, it would not, of itself, be enough to explain that 68.5 percent confidence rating. For self-delusion on this scale, a lot more than the "there is no depression in New Zealand" mantra of National-friendly media personalities is required. To generate such a response, a huge amount of denial must be present in the electorate as well.

But what are the voters denying? Easy. They’re denying they need anybody’s help to survive and prosper; they’re denying that their social and economic security’s got anything to do with Labour, or the working-class traditions of solidarity and struggle it stands for. They’re also denying the all-too-visible signs that "nice Mr Key" and his right-wing mates are preparing to rip the guts out of what’s left of the welfare state.

Why are they denying these things? Because if two-thirds of them didn’t believe New Zealand was "heading in the right direction", they’d have no excuse for not heading up Queen Street with the Left.

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, 1 May 2009.