Friday 28 August 2009

The Last Hotel (A Song from 1980)

The Captain Cook Tavern, North Dunedin.

The Captain Cook Tavern is an icon of the North Dunedin student quarter. The hotel itself has stood on the corner of Albany and Great King Streets for nearly 150 years. The passing decades have seen many changes to "The Cook". Today’s quintessential "student bar" is certainly very different from the pub I patronised back in the 1970s and 80s, when Garry Reddington’s name was over the door. In those pre-Staff Club days there were many university tutors, lecturers (and even some professors) who sat around the tables of the Corner Bar. It was also a place of poets, painters, musicians, drug dealers, prostitutes, construction-workers, trade union officials and university students, where, in between trips to the bar, and games on the pool table, ideas of all kinds were discussed and debated. When the supply of chairs ran out, people simply grabbed a beer crate from "out the back" and squeezed in next to their mates. At 48 cents a jug, Gary's patrons could get drunk for less than two bucks. It was a fantastic place – and well worth a song.
The Last Hotel
For Garry Reddington

Moon rolling over the top of the hill
Looks as lonesome as me (but with less time to kill)
He’s a journey to make and it takes him all night
But my journey’s over – my refuge in sight.

It’s old and it’s dirty
But it casts such a spell
And I’m drinking tonight at
The Last Hotel

The Pool-player sights down the length of his cue
His eyes on the orange ball, fears on the blue
If he plays this shot right then it's sure to roll back
Hope rides on the white ball – sinks with the black

It’s old and it’s dirty
But it casts such a spell
And there’s more games that one in
The Last Hotel

In hand-me-down finery, flashing bright smiles
The ladies of fashion relax for a while
Rubbing shoulders with sin – getting stoned on the thrill
Rhapsodising Bohemia to the tune of the till

It’s old and it’s dirty
But it casts such a spell
When the rich meet the poor in
The Last Hotel

The thin poet glides to his seat by the door
Throws his arms in the air and his coat on the floor
Well he’s talking of Baxter and the sad Baudelaire
With unsteady hands he writes verse in the air

It’s old and it’s dirty
But it casts such a spell
And the poetry’s free in
The Last Hotel

I sit in the corner just taking things slow
For the price of a beer it’s a pretty good show
‘Til the barman collects all the bottles and calls
"Time now folks, please, we’re closing the doors!"

It’s old and it’s dirty
But it casts such a spell
And I’ll be drinking tomorrow in
The Last Hotel.
Chris Trotter

National's Altered Course

Heading for disaster? Key's decision to abandon National's neoliberal moderation and embrace Act's hard-line neoconservatism over the question of Maori representation on the Auckland "supercity" council
signals a major - and quite possibly disastrous - change of course by his government.

JOHN KEY’S decision to appease both ACT and the far-right of his own party by refusing to make provision for Maori representation on the new Auckland "supercity" council will be remembered as the moment his government turned away from neoliberalism and embraced neoconservatism.

It’s an embrace the Prime Minister will live to regret, because in surrendering to the most conservative political elements of his party’s vastly expanded constituency, he has set in motion the processes of electoral decay which National and its leader, until this week, had so spectacularly defied.

Elderly New Zealanders, and those living on farms and in provincial cities and towns have been prioritised over younger voters, and those living in the major metropolitan centres. The values and, more importantly, the anxieties which shaped our past have been accorded greater political weight than the beliefs and aspirations of those who will build New Zealand’s future.

Most importantly, a government which, up until now, had been guided by a coherent set of political principles – the principles of neoliberalism – and which had held steady to that course, has been wracked by sharp divisions over the administration’s proper course. The lessons of the past, which National’s new captain appeared to have learned, are now in the process of being unlearned. That being the case, the political mistakes made by Jenny Shipley, Bill English and Don Brash will, almost certainly, be repeated.

The historical reality Mr Key is most at risk of unlearning is that the great shifts in political sentiment and expectation which convulsed New Zealand in the 1980s and 90s were driven by two very powerful forces. One was the society-wide move away from collectivism and towards individualism. And the other was the rise of broadly-based citizens’ movements against ethnic-, gender-, and sexuality-based discrimination.

In responding to these two powerful trends, Labour discovered it was relatively easy to adapt its pitch to accommodate the demands of the new social movements. Satisfying the expectations of the anti-collectivist "free-marketeers", however, could be achieved only at the cost of splitting the party.

National’s conservative members faced precisely the opposite problem. They found the policies of economic liberalism broadly acceptable (at least in the short term) but rejected utterly the powerfully disintegrative influence social liberalism exerted on traditional moral values.

What made Neoliberalism, as an ideology, so peculiarly suited to the temper of the times: it’s "point of difference" if-you-will; was that it could quite happily, and without serious philosophical contradiction, accommodate the expectations of both economic and social liberalism. The electoral landscape was thus transformed.

On the face of it, therefore, the support agreements which Mr Key forged with Act and the Maori Party following the 2008 election looked set to deliver a super-charged neoliberal government. The Act leader, Rodney Hide, enjoyed the reputation of being not merely a staunch economic liberal, but also a libertarian – someone for whom racial, gender and sexual discrimination was totally unacceptable. What’s more, the Maori Party leadership, for whom ending anti-Maori discrimination was non-negotiable, also showed encouraging signs of embracing the "aspirational" values of the National Party’s individualist philosophy.

What neither Key, nor the electorate, grasped, however, was that in spite of its radical neoliberal rhetoric on matters economic, Act is very far from being a neoliberal party. In spite of the best efforts of its founder Sir Roger Douglas, Act remains what its first leader, Richard Prebble, made of it – a neoconservative party.

Act attracts votes not on the basis of its neoliberal economic dogma, but on the strength of its deeply conservative social policies. It is, in fact, profoundly illiberal on such issues as crime and punishment, war and peace, indigenous rights, and more latterly, the right to inflict "good" parental correction. Rodney Hide, in spite of his personal preferences, must embody these policies or forfeit the leadership of his party.

A positive libertarian (one who construes liberty as empowering the individual, rather than disempowering the state, and who, in constitutional terms, preserves the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority) would’ve had no difficulty accepting the Royal Commission’s recommendations regarding Maori representation.

Had Mr Key required Act to live up to its boast of being "the liberal party" on 3 June, Mr Hide’s bluff would’ve been called. Instead, by giving-in to neoconservative pressure, he’s diverted National from its winning course.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 28 August 2009.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Not too much fun

Vote "Yes" to say "No": This pro-Prohibition poster from early 20th Century Australia recalls the strongly puritanical streak running through social-democratic parties for most of the past 150 years. But while ordinary people continue to define the Left as being about "banning things", its chances of regaining power will remain negligible.

IS it too much to hope that the resounding victory of the "Noes" in last week’s "Anti-anti-smacking" referendum has taught the Labour Party a lesson? Or will the utterly predictable victory of "Middle New Zealand" merely intensify the political paralysis already gripping Her Majesty’s Opposition?

Labour’s sense of alienation from the political mainstream is now so acute that even when one of their number comes up with a comment guaranteed to elicit a collective nod of approval – as Trevor Mallard did last week, with his observation that if the deadly exorcists of Wainuiomata had been Pakeha they’d have been jailed – it’s couched in terms so limited, and ringed with so many caveats, that any political efficacy is swiftly dissipated.

Someone should tell Mallard (and his caucus colleagues) that if you’re going to dog-whistle, it’s important to do so with a clearly thought-out purpose.

For a start, it is long past time that Labour came to a firm decision on the Maori Party. Friend or Enemy? Which is it to be? If it’s the former, then Mallard’s remarks were politically counterproductive. If it’s the latter, they didn’t go anything like far enough.

A series of troubling incidents – from the seizure and unauthorised burial of a deceased Cantabrian, to the unlawful occupation of a Kaikohe warehouse, the disruption of the High Court trial of Phillip Field, and the blocking of a public highway in the Bay of Plenty – have raised a number of quite disturbing questions about the willingness of our police force and judiciary to uphold the rule of law, and enforce individual property rights, where Maori misconduct is involved.

What prevented Labour from initiating a serious public discussion about the constitutional implications of these events? Why not demand to know exactly how long the relevant authorities plan to appease Maori nationalist challenges to the legitimacy of the New Zealand State – before they cry "Enough!"?

A co-ordinated attack along these lines would’ve left the Government facing a lose/lose situation. Decline to respond (or, worse still, defend the authorities’ policy of appeasement) and National alienates its conservative Pakeha base. Confront the Maori nationalist challenge head-on, and the Government’s cosy relationship with the Maori Party is threatened.

The answer, of course, is that Labour is ideologically incapable of abandoning the liberal bicultural dream of the 1970s, and lives in constant fear of being branded "racist". Most of its MPs lack anything resembling Helen Clark’s ability to ruthlessly calculate the political costs and benefits of embracing the cause of tino rangatiratanga. Indeed, most of the Labour caucus remains deeply embarrassed by their former leader’s infamous "haters and wreckers" description of the huge hikoi against the Foreshore & Seabed Bill – and that she was willing to greet "Shrek" the Merino wether on the parliamentary forecourt, but not the hikoi leaders.

It’s why Labour is now so openly contrite about its handling of the Foreshore & Seabed issue altogether – to the point of signalling its willingness to vote for the legislation’s repeal. The idea that it might place itself in the vanguard of the inevitable Pakeha backlash, or leverage off the issue to set the agenda for the ill-defined, but potentially explosive deliberations of the "Constitutional Panel" foreshadowed in the Maori Party’s support agreement with National, seems to be beyond their collective imagination.

Instead, they vacillate between openly attacking the Maori Party, and trying to placate it. Like Barack Obama, they believe it is possible to arrive at a principled consensus with their sworn enemies, and are genuinely surprised to discover themselves despised by all sides for their political naiveté. Which is why, when Mallard directed a rare and potentially quite effective overture to Labour’s wayward constituency, his leader and caucus colleagues simply could not forebear from drowning him out with a cacophony of equivocations.

Why do they do it? What prevents Labour from "thinking the unthinkable" in the manner of the bureaucrats and politicians who unleashed the neoliberal counter-revolution of the 1980s and 90s?

In "The State is Back", an article published in Foreign Control Watchdog, the former British Labour politician, Bryan Gould, hazards an explanation: "A government supposedly of the Left that feels unable to challenge market outcomes can have nothing to say – however it is dressed up, whatever cosmetics are applied – to those who look to it for social justice and a more integrated society."

Rather than accept Gould’s bleak, and essentially Marxist prognosis: that only by first addressing people’s material needs can you hope to transform their social nature: Labour’s politicians, over the nine years they held office, followed precisely the opposite course. They insisted that by passing legislation requiring people to change their social attitudes and behaviours, their material circumstances could also be altered.

Instead of attempting to re-engineer the economy directly – which only made big business cross – why not attempt to re-engineer the individual? By requiring people to be less racist, less sexist and less homophobic, by making it illegal for parents to smack their kids, and by forcing consumers to use natural resources more sustainably, you’ll end up creating a very different kind of citizen, who will, in turn, demand a very different kind of economy.

The problem with this "Change the Person – Change the System" strategy was that instead of making big business cross, it made ordinary people furious. And since there are many more ordinary people than there are big businesses, and all of these ordinary (and now furious) people have a vote, the only things Labour’s strategy ended up creating were the preconditions for electoral catastrophe.

As Otago University-based political scientist, Bryce Edwards, recently told a Dunedin left-wing audience:

"I talk to students … to find out what they know about the Left and what they associate with Left politics. Most don’t have any idea what it means. But those who do … [say] it means the following: social liberalism, gender politics, Maori radicalism, regulating personal behaviour, anti-progress, anti-technology, anti-science, high taxes and high government expenditure, and bans on things."

In many ways, therefore, "smacking" was the last thing Friday’s emphatic referendum result was about. Fuelling the backlash was not only "Middle New Zealand’s" fury at being "re-engineered" but – at a deeper level – their desire for an alternative government that stands for something more inspiring than, in Edward’s words: "telling people not to have too much fun".

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 27 August 2009.

Saturday 22 August 2009

Deafening Echo

Political reverberations: The question now, 87.6 percent of the voting public having said "No", is whether the "anti-anti-smacking" groups behind the referendum will succeed in persuading the Key Government to repeal Sue Bradford's legislation.

YESTERDAY EVENING, the Chief Returning Officer announced the results of the so-called "Anti-Anti-Smacking" Citizens Initiated Referendum. The count showed that nearly nine-tenths of the voting population responded to the question: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"; by voting "No".

What does that result tell us about those New Zealanders?

Does it tell us that 87.6 percent of us are inveterate child-beaters: cruel and unusual punishers, who see their children as some sort of personal possession; mere extensions of their own, all-too-fragile, egos – rather than as vulnerable little human-beings, with the same right to be protected from common assault as any adult?

Has it, if only for the brief moment it took to draw the heavy curtains of silence and denial more closely together, afforded us a glimpse of the ugly dysfunctionality at the heart of the New Zealand family?

Has it alerted the 11.8 percent of us who voted "Yes" that all around us children are living in a state of deep emotional confusion: never knowing from one moment to the next whether the adults they love and trust most in the world are going to suddenly lash out and whack them?

To hear the defenders of the "Anti-Smacking" legislation tell the story, that’s exactly what the result of the referendum has told us.

Are they right?

The answer, of course, is "No."

The truth of the matter is that most of the young New Zealanders currently raising children long ago stopped using the "smack" as part of "good parental correction". If they hit their kids at all, it’s only in the extenuating circumstances already contained in the current legislation – which basically sanctions the use of parental force to prevent a child from either inflicting or experiencing greater harm.

These parents are part of the great virtuous circle of childrearing which traces its origins back to the dramatic cultural shifts of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. With each passing generation, this circle will widen until, in a relatively short space of historical time, the use of corrective violence will almost entirely disappear from New Zealand society.

Sue Bradford’s "Anti-Smacking" law reinforces this trend – but it did not create it. And, regardless of whether the law survives this referendum result, the trend will continue.

So why have these young New Zealanders (along with their non-smacking parents and grandparents) voted "No." instead of "Yes."

The answer, I believe, is because, intuitively, they perceived the legislation repealing Section 59 of the Crimes Act to be a product of an extreme, left-wing ideology, which locates the source of most of modern capitalist society’s social pathologies in the "bourgeois" nuclear family.

Other examples of social legislation – specifically those implicitly critical of conventional sexuality and the institution of marriage as traditionally defined – were widely perceived as being inspired by the same ideology. But, because they impinged upon the lives of such a small number of their fellow citizens, most "ordinary" New Zealanders were willing to let them pass more-or-less unchallenged.

But, the "Anti-Smacking" legislation was a different kettle-of-fish altogether. It implicitly criticised both the conduct and the ethics of the overwhelming majority’s immediate – and extended – families. The law repealing Section 59 hit people directly where they lived.

And they weren’t having a bar of it.

Certainly, the Christian Right placed itself in the forefront of the backlash against Sue Bradford’s Bill: and that was only to be expected. As the polar opposite of the ideology informing the last Labour-led Government’s social legislation, they were better placed than any other group in society to discern its logical political terminus: a society in which the broader community – rather than the child-citizens’ natural parents – would become the agency primarily responsible for their upbringing.

And you don’t have to be a fundamentalist Christian to recoil in horror from that "Brave New World".

Poor old Labour. Having stripped away all of its traditional economic and political radicalism in the name of the "free market", the only truly revolutionary programme its post-millennial caucus had left was the one that effectively spat upon the values and traditions of 87.6 percent of its core constituency.

The 2009 triumph of the "Noes" is, therefore, no more than the deafening echo of Labour’s 2008 defeat.

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, 21 August 2009.

Friday 21 August 2009

Labour's nightmarish road trip: From "Broad Church" to "Shopping Mall"

Now that's what I call a road trip! Hip novelist and chemico-political entrepreneur, Ken Kesey, and his busload of "Merry Pranksters" took the Gospel of LSD on the road in the late 1960s. Their mission? To put a new generation of American pilgrims to the "acid test". The Beatles picked up the vibe with their "Magical Mystery Tour", as did Bruno Lawrence, right here in Godzone, when he borrowed the bus motif to launch BLERTA. All of them, in one way or another, were selling liberation from the "repressive tolerance" of consumer-driven capitalism. What were Labour's intrepid road-trippers selling? Greatest Hits of the Seventies?

WHAT’S the matter with Labour? Why is it making so little impression on even its hard-core supporters? And can anyone explain why Labour’s strategists still believe it’s intelligent politics to have their MPs recorded, singing songs, on a bus, in the Tory-blue heart of Taranaki?

Because, while the whole "Baby Boomers on a Bus" schtick definitely worked for Bill Clinton and Al Gore back in 1992 – when Baby-Boomers running for the planet’s top-job really was new and exciting – it’s now 2009, and, after 17 years in the saddle, the Boomers’ generation is rapidly running out of puff.

Even so, you would think that any political party planning a "Regional Road-Trip" might do just a little bit of "advance" work. Like sending someone to have a chat with Davey Hughes, the telegenic proprietor of the Swazi clothing factory in Levin. It’s really quite important to know how someone like Hughes is going to respond before your Leader, in front of a pack of amused reporters, asks him what he would like Labour to do for small business – and discovers it involves ripping the guts out of the Employment Relations Act.

After all, how hard would it have been for the Labour Whip, Darren Hughes, to quietly sound out his Uncle Davey on the subject?

Come to think of it, why would you put Old Wooden-Top up against the charismatic owner of the Swazi brand in the first place? Phil Goff was only ever going to look and sound lame by comparison. (Especially during the long moment of embarrassing silence that followed Davey’s musings on collective bargaining.)

And while the newly-elected MP for Mt Albert, David Shearer, plays a mean guitar, what on earth were his colleagues thinking of singing Take Me Home, Country Roads and Hotel California? I mean – John Denver and The Eagles! Could they have possibly screamed "Hey everybody - we come from the 1970s!" any louder?

It could have been worse, I suppose. They could have been recorded singing Kumbaya and If I had a Hammer.

LABOUR used to describe itself, proudly, as a "broad church" – a term which harks back to the days when most Labour MPs, if they weren’t practising Christians, nevertheless remained fiercely loyal to the Labour Party’s Christian Socialist heritage.

At a time when most New Zealanders still went to church on Sundays, and in a political movement embracing Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and a host of other denominations, a welcoming ecumenism was absolutely essential to the maintenance of party unity and harmony.

The expression "broad church" also encompassed the wide range of political philosophies adhered to by Labour’s diverse membership – extending all the way from 19th Century Liberalism on the Right, to Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism on the Left.

The dramatic influx of young, university-educated followers of the "new social movements" (pacifism, anti-racism, feminism, environmentalism, gay-rights) in the late-1960s, and throughout the 1970s, fundamentally altered the social, religious and ideological composition of the Labour Party.

Secular and essentially libertarian, rather than Christian and/or socialist, in outlook, these newcomers waged an unceasing, and ultimately successful, series of "culture wars" against the deeply-entrenched social and religious conservatism of Labour’s traditional (and increasingly elderly) membership.

Only the trade union affiliates and the Ratana-aligned Maori were able to withstand the ideological and organisational onslaught of these young firebrands. (Helen Clark and Phil Goff among them.) By the early-1980s, the formerly powerful Christian conservatives (especially the Catholics) were in full retreat. On the litmus-test issues of abortion and homosexual law reform they had been decisively defeated.

The coming of Rogernomics in 1983-84, did not unsettle these newcomers as much as might have been expected. As David Harvey writes in A Brief History of Neoliberalism: "Neoliberal rhetoric, with its foundational emphasis upon individual freedoms, has the power to split off libertarianism, identity politics, multiculturalism, and eventually narcissistic consumerism from the social forces ranged in pursuit of social justice through the conquest of state power."

Rather than a "broad church", Labour now resembled a shopping mall, and by the time the 1987 General Election rolled ‘round, a new kind of party member was being welcomed through its gleaming, neoliberal portals, and invited to sample the merchandise on offer in its many boutique establishments.

If you were female there was "Women’s Council", where Margaret Shields sold equal employment opportunities and reproductive freedom. Gays and lesbians crowded into Fran Wilde’s hugely successful "Change the Law" café. "Labour Youth" sold Nuclear-Free NZ T-shirts by the score. Environmentalists shopped at "Sustainability", Maori at "Treaty Rights".

Among all this 80s glitz and glamour, and with Dave Dobbyn and Dire Straits blasting through the Mall’s sound-system, Labour’s traditional working-class supporters continued to wheel their shopping-trolleys through the "Compulsory Union" supermarket. They couldn’t help noticing, however, just how little of the original Labour Party building had been left standing.

Even so, in 1987 Labour won 48 percent of the popular vote – it’s best performance since Norman Kirk’s landslide victory in 1972. It would be the last time, however, that the Party, by itself, came anywhere near attracting 50 percent support.

AND that’s the problem, really. As the years have passed, Labour’s Mall, once so new and exciting, has become old and tatty. Its Eighties’ architecture, all mirror-glass and chrome, has dated horribly, and the shops inside just haven’t kept pace with the new trends in political retailing.

What was politically fashionable in 1987 is now more than 20 years out-of-date. The bright young things who stood behind the counters when Roger Douglas was turning New Zealand upside-down, have become middle-aged and frumpy. Nobody wants Nuclear-Free NZ T-shirts anymore. The vibrant rainbow banner above Fran’s "Change the Law" café has frayed and faded. "Women’s Council" spent a small fortune on a product called "Section 59" – and nobody bought it.

It’s 2009, and Labour’s share of the political foot-traffic has fallen to historically low levels. The only shop that’s still attracting customers is "Sustainability".

So why on earth did the Labour Caucus agree to install one of the Mall’s original managers as Leader of the Opposition? It’s a mystery as baffling as their "new" MPs belting out John Denver and The Eagles on the bus to Taranaki.

Perhaps the Neoliberal Mall, like the nightmarish Hotel California, has become an ideological location from which its MPs can check-out any time they like – but Labour can never leave.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 20 August 2009.

Friday 14 August 2009

Are you being served?

Edmund Burke: His "Address to the Electors of Bristol", delivered on 3 November 1774, still stands as one of the greatest statements of the Member of Parliament's civic, and moral, responsibilities.

BILL ENGLISH may have decided to pay back the extra $12,000 he arranged for himself to be paid since becoming the Minister of Finance, but who, in all honesty, can blame him for extracting every possible advantage from the arcane system of calculating ministerial allowances? He is still a relatively young man, has a large family, and is in a volatile and uncertain occupation. An opportunity presented itself. He took it. Wouldn’t we all?

And doesn’t the same apply – mutatis mutandis – to every other Member of Parliament?

Throughout this furore over parliamentary and ministerial allowances, haven’t we all been looking in the wrong place, at the wrong things? Instead of encouraging us to focus on MPs with their "snouts in the trough", why wasn’t the news media demanding to know: "Is being a Member of Parliament a ‘job’ (with all the benefits and allowances associated with a modern employment "package") or is it, a ‘civic vocation’ – undertaken not for the money, but for the people.

If politics is a vocation, then the expression "political career" should only be used in retrospect – after a politician has retired. On the other hand, if a "political career" is something ambitious citizens can aspire to; prepare for; and, having acquired the requisite skills, join as a fully-qualified practitioner, then being an MP is just a job – no different from medicine, law or accountancy.

But, if that’s true, then we should simply shut-up about the rights and wrongs of the various allowances available to parliamentarians. They are no more our business than the allowances and per diems employers pay other workers for out-of-town work.

And, before you object that "we" are the politicians’ employers, I’d advise you to think again. Because the venerable notion that an MP is beholden to his or her constituents is one which belongs alongside the equally old-fashioned idea that representing one’s fellow citizens is a not "just a job"– but a civic vocation.

The idea of representation being an honourable calling dates back to the time when the purpose of a parliament, or, as the French wrote it, parlement – a place where people talk – was to convey the thoughts (and usually the money) of the people to the King. When it pleased His Majesty to consult his subjects, the cities and towns of the realm elected an accomplished and articulate citizen to speak on their behalf. (Under no circumstances should these representatives of the "commons" be confused with the King’s "peers", his fellow aristocrats, who, much like our own Business Roundtable, enjoyed more direct access to the King’s ear.)

Representing one’s fellow citizens was a solemn civic responsibility – not to be undertaken lightly. In his justly celebrated "Address to the Electors of Bristol", the 18th Century English political philosopher and parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, set forth the duties of a parliamentary representative with considerable eloquence:

"Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

What resemblance (if any) does the contemporary New Zealand MP bear to this splendid Georgian character?

The most obvious similarity is their equal eagerness to give reassurance that the electors’ interests are in a safe pair of hands. The most obvious difference goes directly to the heart of the current controversy. Burke, unlike his Kiwi equivalent, clearly conceives of himself as a free agent – one whose "unbiassed opinion", "mature judgement" and "enlightened conscience" will never be sacrificed to that all-powerful "set of men" – the political party.

It is the political party – that restless "spirit of faction" so derided by the political thinkers of the 18th Century – that has insinuated itself between the contemporary New Zealand MP and his constituents. And it is to the political party – the body which selects him as its candidate, positions him on its List, and at whose "pleasure" he rises or falls – that the New Zealand MP gives his true allegiance. The party’s interests, "above all, ever, and in all cases", will be preferred to his own, and except on those rare occasions when a "conscience vote" is permitted, his judgement will be sacrificed unhesitatingly to his party’s opinion.

The original justification for the formation of political parties: the need to advance, roll back, or protect some great and fundamental revision of society’s rules; no longer strictly applies to the dominant parties of the 21st Century English-speaking world.

The original party stand-off: Whigs versus Tories, traced its origins to the political divisions thrown up during the English Revolution of the 17th Century.

In the 19th and 20th Centuries the stand-off between the promoters of socialism and the defenders of capitalism laid the foundations of (in our case) the Labour and National parties.

But, in the 21st Century, at Francis Fukuyama’s "end of history", our party system has been reduced to facilitating, in the rather deflating words of Wellington political scientist, Jon Johansson: "the peaceful circulation of elites".

In other words: "just a job".

Sir Geoffrey Palmer set the scene for this transformation back in the 1980s when, as Justice Minister, he transformed the tradition-encrusted Member of Parliament into a thoroughly up-to-date and hard-working "legislator". MPs were provided with state-funded electorate-offices and secretarial staff. The sitting times of Parliament were regularised. Party Whips became the Chamber’s effective and efficient "middle managers".

Not only had the job of "legislator" become a viable career choice, it was now an increasingly well-remunerated one.

The big question to be asked of today’s democratic polity, therefore, is not: "What do our representatives get?" but "Who do they serve?"

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 13 August 2009.

What are we fighting for?

"We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky": Afghanistan has laid low the hubris of conquerors for two-and-a-half thousand years - and still they come.

THE detonation of the IED rattled off the walls of the narrow mountain pass in ever-diminishing echoes. Alerted by the blast, SAS snipers hidden among the crags knew immediately that their comrades were under attack.

None of them moved a muscle.

The deadly chatter of small-arms fire rose fitfully from the road, interrupted every now and then by the thwack and thump of rocket-propelled grenade-launchers.

Like the grey rocks they resembled, the snipers remained motionless.

A few minutes later the low drone of an American gunship filled the valley, followed by the murderous roar of its Gatling-guns. As the Lockheed AC130 banked and flew away, a grim silence settled over the landscape.

For what seemed like an age, the snipers heard only the hiss and rattle of the wind threading its way through the rocky outcrops and sprawling scree. Then, faintly at first, but growing louder and stronger as the aircraft neared the site of the ambush, they heard the familiar thudda-thudda-thudda of helicopter rotor-blades. If any of the marksmen’s support team were left alive, medical attention was now at hand. If not, at least the bodies of their comrades would be laid to rest in the soil of their homeland.

At daybreak, a small column of the same Taleban irregulars whose deadly improvised explosive device had killed three New Zealanders just eighteen hours earlier, attempted to escort one of Afghanistan’s leading opium-growers over the pass. In the glare of the morning sunlight none of them noticed the tell-tale dots of the snipers’ laser gunsights playing over their bodies.

Not one of them made it out of the valley.

ONLY a fool would question the courage or competency of the New Zealand Special Air Service. It’s high reputation among the world’s special-forces is well deserved and has been dearly bought. Nor should anyone doubt the Service’s capacity to inflict serious damage on the Taleban – our men always make a difference.

But, that’s not the point. In the light of John Key’s decision to once again commit New Zealand combat forces to the Afghan War, the question we must ask ourselves isn’t: "Can we make a difference?" But: "Is it a difference worth making?" When, inevitably, some of our finest soldiers find themselves in situations like the imagined incident described above, and more and more of them start arriving back home in body-bags, will it have been worth it?

Mr Key’s argument for re-engagement derives its force from the counterfactual proposition: "What will befall the world – and New Zealand – if the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) cuts and runs, and the Taleban are once again permitted to take over Afghanistan? His answer is brutally simple: If the ISAF’s mission to bring security and stability to Afghanistan is allowed to fail, then sooner or later this country will be attacked by terrorists.

In other words: Let’s get them, before they get us.

Is this a credible argument? Is there any evidence that countries which attack terrorist-harbouring "rogue states", make themselves less vulnerable to terrorist attack?

The answer, of course, is: "No."

In fact recent history suggests that the opposite is true.

Just look at the pattern of terrorist attacks since 2001. Australian citizens became the prime targets of the Bali Bombers after their government openly supported the US invasion of Afghanistan. British citizens were targeted on the London Underground after Tony Blair and George W. Bush illegally invaded Iraq. In Spain, another "Crusader State", two hundred people lost their lives to Islamic terrorism. Countries guilty of attacking Muslim states actually appear to make their citizens more – not less – vulnerable to terrorist attack.

But if we don’t go, aren’t we guilty of selfishly allowing other mothers’ sons to die for Afghanistan’s freedom?

That would be true if the conflict in Afghanistan was a genuine war of liberation. But, it’s not. An enraged United States, backed by its allies, invaded and occupied that unfortunate land. But, as the Soviet Union discovered (to its great cost) any attempt to impose one’s core ideological precepts from a helicopter gunship is doomed to fail.

The evolution of freedom and equality in any given society is a process only the members of that society can (or should) determine.

The brave men of the SAS cannot deliver security and stability to Afghanistan.

Only the Afghan people can do that.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 14 August 2009.

Sunday 9 August 2009

The Politics of Envy

Sinful Longing: To maintain the economic, social and political hierarchies of structurally unequal societies, envy is cast as a deadly political sin.

"THE politics of envy". Seldom has so much social disdain been packed, by so many privileged people, into so few words.

As working families compare their daily struggle to pay the mortgage with the hefty taxpayer allowances currently subsidising Cabinet Ministers’ accommodation costs, apologists for inequality reach instinctively for the Politics of Envy argument.

Devote a few moments to unpacking the term, however, and the self-serving maliciousness of the expression’s theological, ethical and political assumptions stand revealed.

Theological? Yes. Because "envy" is one of the Seven Deadly Sins – though biblical authority for the inclusion of this particular human frailty is difficult to locate. The nearest approximation is the Tenth Commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour."

But to covet something is not quite the same as envying it. Covetousness involves lusting after a specific individual or object, as well as planning to satiate that lust. Envy, on the other hand, is all about drawing unfavourable comparisons between one’s own condition and the condition of others.

To the rich and powerful such comparisons have always been "odious". Which is why the Church Fathers, with one eye on their need to retain the patronage and protection of society’s rulers, deliberately conflated the meanings of covetousness and envy. Only by linking envy with the behaviour described in the Tenth Commandment could the property of the powerful, and the tranquillity of the state, be safeguarded against the righteous anger of the poor and oppressed. Christ may have blessed the meek, and told them they would inherit the earth, but the religion bearing his name moved swiftly to make sure it never happened. For Christianity to thrive as an official state religion, it was vital that the lower orders defined "meekness" not only as the uncomplaining acceptance of their lot in life, but also as resisting the temptation to compare their own wretched condition with the exalted status of their rulers.

Never mind that the entire moral force of both the Old and New Testaments is drawn from the prophetic comparison between what God wills and Man does. And just ignore Jesus’ numerous warnings about money’s power to corrupt both those who possess it, and those who lack it. To maintain the economic, social and political hierarchies of the societies in which the Christian Church established itself – envy had to remain a deadly sin.

But the Politics of Envy accusation is not only theologically suspect: its ethically bankrupt character remains clear, even when viewed from a secular perspective. Wealth and status are inevitably presented by their defenders as the products of entrepreneurial talent, scrupulous honestly and unstinting toil. The probability that, as Balzac shrewdly declared: "behind every great fortune there is a great crime" is never acknowledged – though any study of ancient, feudal or capitalist history amply confirms the French novelist’s observation. All too often, the documents of provenance offered up as proof of the rich and powerful’s right to rule turn out to be a thieves’ charter.

Almost inevitably, therefore, the accusation that someone is practicing the Politics of Envy will be as self-serving as it is self-protective. Because, in the eyes of the powers-that-be, the only sin more blameworthy than envying your betters, is organising politically to challenge their privileged position. No matter how outrageous the comparison between what the ordinary citizen is expected to bear unaided, and the lashings of taxpayer support lavished upon the businessmen and politicians who set the terms of his existence, it is deemed unacceptable to employ the democratic process to alter the balance between wealth and poverty; privilege and disadvantage; strength and weakness.

Do those of us earning a modest income envy those whose taxpayer allowances amount to more than we earn in a week? Of course we do. The sense of safety and security that must come from owning several freehold rental properties, and earning close to quarter-of-a-million dollars a year, is something most of us can only dream about. And, is it really a sin to compare our own take-home pay with the salary package of a Cabinet Minister? No, it isn’t.

Those who ride on the backs of their fellow citizens, and over-eat, must anticipate the occasional crash-diet.

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, 7 August 2009.

Friday 7 August 2009

Idiot Savant? Well, he's half right.

Just pawns in their game: Ukrainie's "Orange" revolutionaries march through Kiev to the beat of drums and drummers manufactured in and trained by the USA. So-called "people's power" is seldom what it seems. Calls by the Niuean premier and blogger Idiot Savant for the Fijian people to "rise up", if not part of a similar deception instigated by Canberra and Wellington, are likely to end in tragedy.

RESPONDING to the call by the Niuean premier, Toke Talagi, that the people of Fiji should "rise up" against the government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, Idiot Savant of the "No Right Turn" blogsite writes:

"[I]t’s a good idea. From the Philippines to Serbia to the Ukraine, mass non-violent public protest has been a very successful tactic in evicting undemocratic, dictatorial regimes. If Fijians want their democracy back, taking to the streets and refusing to move is probably the best way to do it."


If Idiot Savant had taken the time to properly investigate the examples of "people power" cited in his posting, he would have discovered that what the world thought was happening – ordinary people heroically "rising up" against a hated regime – was very different from what was actually taking place.

In every case, the events on the street masked a much more subtle political game being played out by individuals and groups either directly, or indirectly, beholden to the United States.

While the Philippines president, Ferdinand Marcos, remained a valued "asset" of the US military, the CIA and the State Department, no amount of "people power" would have been permitted to dislodge him. Following the very public assassination of Ninoy Aquino, however, the US (Aquino’s protector) decided that Marcos's usefulness had come to an end, and that US interests would be best served by replacing him with someone possessing a more credible claim to democratic legitimacy. Accordingly, the word was spread – through the Filipino security forces, the Catholic Church, the US-aligned trade unions and the news media – that Marcos would have to go.

In an attempt to hold on to power, Marcos called a snap presidential election, which he then, very clumsily, attempted to steal. Cory Aquino, Ninoy’s widow, backed by the Americans, was told that she had lost the election. Her response was to call upon the people to demonstrate their support. When Marcos attempted to suppress the demonstrations, key military commanders based in or near the capital mutinied. As it became clear that the police, the army, and the notorious death squads responsible for the murder of hundreds of Marcos’s opponents, were not going to stop them, millions of people poured onto the streets of Manila in a mass outpouring of opposition to the detested regime. Inevitably, Marcos was forced to "concede" the election to Aquino.

The more-or-less bloodless "regime-change" effected in the Philippines became the template for other US interventions – most notably in Serbia, the Ukraine and Georgia. In the case of the "colour revolutions" (so called because the demonstrators took to wearing a single, identifying colour: "Rose" in Georgia, "Orange" in the Ukraine) what appeared to be spontaneous popular uprisings were in fact carefully planned and flawlessly executed political mobilisations engineered by individuals and groups expertly trained and lavishly funded by the United States.

The artificiality and hollowness of these colour revolts is exposed by the fact that none of them produced the sort of significant and broadly uplifting social and economic changes that would have indicated a genuine revolution, but merely a reshuffling of the political elites at the summit of the state – elites who turned out to be, in every case, strong supporters of US policy, and Western interests generally.

Which is not to say that the individuals brought down by these US-inspired uprisings didn’t deserve to be toppled from power. Nor that by acting corruptly, attempting to steal elections and even asassinating (or, in the case of the Ukraine, trying to assassinate) their political rivals, they didn’t themselves contribute the final straws that broke the camel’s back. All I’m suggesting is that the people who poured onto the streets turned out to be pawns in a game they did not control, and whose ultimate instigators were never revealed.

Now it is just possible that something akin to the US colour revolutions is either being planned by the Australian and New Zealand governments, or has already been set in motion. Like the Filipino military commanders, senior Fijian military and police officers may already be preparing to lead a mutiny against Commodore Bainimarama. The harassed and harried Fijian news media may already be primed to provide their readers, listeners and viewers with helpful insurrectionary instructions. The Great Council of Chiefs may already have been bought and sold and bought and sold. And the sexist, racist and homophobic Fijian Methodist Church may already be poised to give yet another coup-d’étât its blessing. If so, "taking to the streets" will prove to be a surprisingly effective tactic – but not a revolution.

Nor, almost certainly, will it be good news for the Indo-Fijians still living in Fiji. On the basis of historical precedent, they can expect to be beaten up, raped – even murdered – and to see their homes and businesses broken into, looted and torched by out-of-control gangs of "revolutionary" indigenous Fijians.

On the other hand, Kevin Rudd and John Key may be genuine in their expressions of alarm at the Niuean premier’s suggestion. And they are absolutely right to be worried. Because, if there is no fake revolution planned, and the police and soldiers haven’t been suborned, and the long-suffering Fijians do follow Talagi’s and Idiot Savant’s advice and "take to the streets", the Commodore’s men will crush them like bugs.

But then, those who cry "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!", are almost never the ones who have to live among the ruins.

Idiot Savant? Well, he’s half right. 

Thursday 6 August 2009

This Week Ten Years Ago: "Survival of the Fittest"

Capitalism for beginners: Social Darwinism, the pseudo-scientific justification for 19th Century laissez-faire capitalism, has been superceded by its 21st Century offspring - Sociobiology.

PERHAPS you’ve been wondering how it is that so many of this country’s high-flying chief executives can get things so incredibly wrong. Why they can’t seem to predict the negative public response to such triumphs of managerial excellence as Electricorp’s decision to transport a string quartet half way up a mountainside for the entertainment of its champagne-swilling clients, or WINZ’s folly in flying 100 senior executives on chartered jets to a luxury resort outside Taupo? Most of us would react against such profligacy instinctively. A string quartet for a daughter’s wedding – maybe. A weekend at a luxury resort to celebrate your 10th wedding anniversary – sure. These are luxuries; special treats to be paid for out of our own pockets - not somebody else’s!

The explanation for the reckless behaviour of the business and public service élite is, I regret to say, a profoundly depressing - and very dangerous - one. Since the rise of what might be called "yuppie culture" in the 1980s, there has been an extraordinary resurgence of Social Darwinism throughout the upper echelons of Western society – especially in the English-speaking countries. Except that these days it isn’t called Social Darwinism, these days it goes by the name of "socio-" or even "evolutionary-" "biology". Books like Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene postulate a world in which aggression and competitiveness are hardwired into our brain stems. Where the relationships between men and men, men and women, and adults and children, are calculating, exploitative, and profoundly unequal. A universe in which only losers bleat on about justice, compassion, and social solidarity.

These pernicious sociological falsehoods have percolated through all the layers of advanced capitalist societies - to the point of influencing popular culture. How often, for example, have you heard a man joking about wanting to "share his genes" with some particularly shapely young woman? Or read articles in the glossy women’s magazines extolling the "natural" attractiveness of "rich and successful" males?

The political purpose of sociobiology is as plain as that of the equally self-serving theory of the divine right of kings – to re-cast the predatory impulses of the ruling class as innocent manifestations of the "natural order of things". Just as the "Robber Barons" of late 19th century America explained the squalor and privation of their employees as the result of "natural selection", the sociobiologists accept the widening gulf between rich and poor as an inescapable by-product of the relentless pursuit of superior genetic material. It may sound like science, but its effect is purely political. Racism, sexism, homophobia, all the social evils we thought we had conquered, at least in the realm of the intellect, sneak quietly through the back door of sociobiological theory.

Now imagine the psychological effect of this theory on those who find themselves at the top of our economic, administrative and political institutions. In a world governed by the logic of tooth and claw (not to mention the ability to attract the patronage of "alpha males") they have fought their way to the summit. Their genes have triumphed over all their rivals in the cut-throat competition of the evolutionary playground. The men and women beneath them are not merely unlucky – they are inferior. To be a Chief Executive is not simply a matter of being first among equals – you’re the MAN! The victor! And to the victors go the spoils.

So you see, to the élite there is nothing really wrong with pigging out at the public’s expense. After all, what is "the public" but the discarded residue of the struggle for dominance, the worthless detritus of repeated genetic collisions? To the élite, "the public" is just another euphemism for "the losers".

This essay was originally published in The Dominion of Friday, 13 August 1999.

Backroom Boy

Re-framing the new political environment: Murray McCully, like his fellow neo-conservative, Dick Cheney, knows that the best deals are done when nobody is looking.

IT’S A CHILLING image. In the foreground we see the face of the former US President, George W. Bush, wearing that wide-eyed, open-mouthed, slightly goofy expression so beloved by the world’s caricaturists. Behind Bush, his features ever-so-slightly out-of-focus, hunches Vice-president Dick Cheney. While the President looks towards the camera, the Vice-president’s eyes remain fixed, proprietarily, upon his boss. Points of light reflect off his steel-rimmed glasses. His mouth is forming into just the faintest hint of a smirk.

Small wonder TIME magazine chose this photograph to illustrate their special report on "The Final Days of Bush & Cheney". A thousand words could hardly match its deeply creepy depiction of the relationship between Cheney and his hapless Texan protégé.

Has a New Zealand photographer to captured a similar "moment" between our own Prime Minister, John Key, and his Foreign Minister, Murray McCully? It wouldn’t require much effort, because there is definitely something in McCully’s political relationship with Key that recalls the sorcerer’s apprentice aspects of the Cheney-Bush combination.

Perhaps it’s the boyish and disarmingly ingenuous demeanour of the New Zealand Prime Minister that makes one think of Bush, or the talent both men possess for inflicting grievous bodily harm upon the English language. More seriously, it could be the uneasy feeling one gets when watching the public performances of Bush and Key that their grasp of public policy is only as strong as their last verbal briefing. In this respect, the sharpness of the contrast between Key and his predecessor, Helen Clark, is only exceeded by that of the man who succeeded Bush, Barack Obama.

The parallels are also there between Cheney and McCully.

In terms of the recent political histories of their respective nations, both men have been around forever. Cheney (like his close ally, the former Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld) began his career in the days of Richard Nixon (1968-74). He was elected to the House of Representatives five times during the Reagan era, and, before becoming George W, Bush’s running-mate in 2000, served in George Bush Snr’s administration (1988-1992) as Secretary of Defence.

McCully was first elected to Parliament 22 years ago, in 1987, but his career as a National Party insider stretches all the way back to 1973 when, at the age of 20, he was elected President of the Young Nationals. Those 36 years in the trenches have fashioned McCully into the ultimate political insider. Few within his party (perhaps Michelle Boag?) could match the intricacy or extent of his political networks, or challenge his encyclopaedic knowledge of who did what to whom, when, and why. It is taken as an article of faith in National Party circles that, since 1987, no leadership coup has proceeded without McCully’s blessing.

All of which suggests that Key is in McCully’s political debt, and is, therefore, bound to take the MP for East Coast Bays’ ideas on both domestic and foreign policy extremely seriously. TIME magazine writes of Cheney that: "Both by habit and by design, he cultivated a relationship that suited Bush’s view of their roles: the President as the ‘decider’ and Cheney as the éminence grise who counselled him. In reality, by wiring the bureaucracy and being the last person Bush spoke with on many key decisions, Cheney became [as his biographer Barton Gellman put it] a ‘sounding board for advice he originated himself’." It’s a description that could, with only a small amount of editing, be used to describe McCully’s relationship with Key.

McCully’s influence over National’s conduct of domestic policy is more apparent in the present Government’s evolving "tone", than in any specific policy.

It should not be forgotten that, as National’s Communications Director in the late-1970s, McCully observed at close hand the crudely authoritarian and deeply divisive style of Sir Robert Muldoon, and how effective it was at driving wedges into Labour’s traditional support-base. That the raw meat of "Laura Norder" and beneficiary-bashing has become the staple diet of Labour’s disillusioned deserters, is in no small measure attributable to McCully’s strategic insight.

McCully understands, in a way that Key almost certainly does not, the critical importance of keeping the deep-seated social resentments of the New Zealand working-class bubbling merrily away. Certainly, MSD Minister Paula Bennett’s release of the income details of two politically active domestic purposes beneficiaries recalls the very worst excesses of Muldoon’s right-wing populism.

McCully’s influence is, however, most pronounced in matters relating to diplomacy, trade and defence. It is in these fields that the impact of the neo-conservative ideology he shares with Cheney is clearest.

The Foreign Affairs portfolio, McCully’s reward for giving Key the nod, allows him to pursue (well away from the prying eyes of the news media) his long-held objective of restoring New Zealand to its proper place in the Anglo-Saxon fold. His impatience with the diplomacy of grand moral gestures – epitomised by Kirk’s despatch of a frigate to the French nuclear testing-ground at Mururoa Atoll; Lange’s Nuclear-free legislation; and Clark’s refusal to join the invasion of Iraq – underpins his determination to re-couple New Zealand to the train of its traditional allies.

Working in Cheney-like secrecy with the Defence Minister, Wayne Mapp, and Trade Minister, Tim Groser, McCully has spent the last nine months radically reorienting New Zealand diplomacy. The days of New Zealand lecturing the world from a lofty ethical perch, held together by the diplomatic equivalent of No. 8 Wire, are over. Foreign policy under McCully is guided by the more conservative thinkers of Canberra, Washington and London – just as it was in the days of Sir Keith Holyoake and Muldoon.

Almost without them noticing, McCully has enlisted New Zealanders as eager participants in the War on Terror; foot-draggers in the campaign against climate change; and mini-imperialists in the economic re-conquest of the South Pacific.

McCully is also pressing Key to send the SAS back to Afghanistan in a combat role. If the blood of Kiwi soldiers is the price New Zealand must pay to convince her erstwhile allies that she is once again ready to play her part as the fifth finger of the Anglo-Saxon "fist", then he will not demur.

Like Cheney, McCully is perfectly content to let his protégé claim personal ownership of "advice he originated himself". Thirty-six years of political skulduggery have taught this backroom boy that the best deals are done when no one’s looking.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 6 August 2009.