Tuesday 29 September 2009

Guest Posting No. 1: "A Tremendous Revolution Awaits Us"

Beyond Tomorrow: Unless the Greens recapture the visionary elan of their predecessor party, Values, the Greens - like the Alliance - are doomed to electoral oblivion.

I am delighted to introduce Bowalley Road’s first Guest Posting, penned by my good friend, Dr Chris Harris. In the light of the departure of Sue Bradford from Parliament, and hoping to expand and illuminate the debate about the Greens’ future it has sparked, Chris kindly agreed to contribute the following essay.

WHEN is playing it safe not safe? When you're a Green Party, it would seem.

In a poll conducted just before Sue Bradford's shock resignation, Colmar Brunton put the New Zealand Greens on 4.3 per cent. This is a dangerous number, less than the MMP threshold.
Sue Bradford was one of the most obviously radical of our nine Green MPs. She was certainly the stroppiest and will leave a big gap.

The Greens should be making hay at the expense of a climate-sceptic government and the clash of transport philosophies in Auckland. Yet clearly, they are not.

What is happening is that the Greens are suffering the same eclipse as other 'support parties' before them, such as the Progressives, New Zealand First and United Future.
It seems that Ms Bradford wanted the Greens to make more of a noise, to put more of a distance between themselves and the two main parties. But they have not seemed able to do this.
Thus, like our national brand 100% Pure New Zealand or the climate-threatened snows of Kilimanjaro, the Greens seem to be melting away.

The performance is even more tragic when we compare it with the outcome of the German elections, held within hours of Ms Bradford's resignation.
The German Greens, and even more so the Left Party—die Linke, an essentially Marxist organisation—set out to capture protest votes against the two main parties, which were actually in coalition with each other and not just similar on many issues, as they are in New Zealand.
The German Greens won 10.7 per cent of the vote and the Left Party a whopping 11.9 per cent.
Summing the two, a pair of parties that stood out from the crowd won 22.6 per cent. Whereas our Greens, in the shadow of the two main parties and invisible, score 4.3 or perhaps less this week.
WE COULD CALL the German outcome a protest vote. But such large protests herald change, in the same way that the 21 per cent vote for Bruce Beetham's Social Credit in 1981 probably helped to kick-start Rogernomics. (Beetham detested the Rogernomes, but as Karl Marx said, we make history in ways that are not always of our own choosing.)
That winds of change are blowing across all Europe, and not just Germany, has been sensed by the conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
In a rather uncharacteristic speech delivered on the 14th of September, M. Sarkozy declared that the current financial crisis was nothing less than the first act of a revolution:
"A tremendous revolution awaits us... Ladies and gentlemen, how can we not see that we’ve got a problem? All over the world, people think that they are being lied to, that the figures are false, that they are being manipulated… For years we told people whose lives were becoming more and more difficult that their living standards were rising. How could they not feel deceived? ... In 18 months something remarkable has been achieved. A collective debate has now been engaged. It will never stop.... The crisis isn’t just making us free to devise other models, another future and another world. It compels us to do so."

Why have Greens and Marxists done so well in Germany by standing outside a mainstream consensus?
Why does a conservative French President make a speech in which he sounds like a 1968 radical about to throw a petrol bomb? Or, like Mikhail Gorbachev announcing drastic changes to the Soviet Union?
At bottom, of course, the reason is the global financial crisis.
Here in New Zealand, we imagine that the crisis has been fixed, and that pretty soon it will be back to speculation as usual. But in Europe they are not so confident.
The banks have been propped up for now by taxpayer bailouts. Many bankers think that they will be allowed to keep the bailout money.

We read in our newspapers and in British ones that a generation of fiscal austerity must now follow. That is to say, ten years of austerity for the little people, who were not the architects of the crisis.
But European politicians know that on their continent, it is out of the political question that the bankers will be allowed to keep the bailouts; that further upheaval is to come once the schools, universities and fire brigades start to close, as they have been doing in California.
The very iconography of modern European states bears the imprint of generations of revolution and the threat of revolution.
The logo of the French government features a female revolutionary (the famous Marianne) and the motto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

Italy's features a red-rimmed star, a garland of leaves and a cogwheel, embodying Italy's constitutional status as a "democratic republic founded on labour."
Austria's features a black eagle wielding the hammer, sickle and mural crown, symbolising the liberation of the worker, the farmer and the citizen from Imperial forms of oppression (a broken chain was added after 1945).

As Mark Twain said, rumours of his death were exaggerated. So it is, in fact, with radicalism, socialism and even Marxism.
It's common in NZ to talk about "failed socialist experiments" without the least understanding of what socialists, of various sorts, have said over the generations, or why they said it.

Or, whether it is still relevant today.
In view of the financial crisis, and of Europe’s past, present and possible future, a quick review might be in order, so that we may have less heat and more light.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Figuring Out the Greens

Managing the message: The late Rod Donald's greatest political achievement was in keeping the various currents of Green Party thought - environmentalism, eco-socialism and eco-evangelism - flowing in the same direction. His premature death in 2006 allowed these competing currents to diverge, and the resulting intra-party power-plays have triggered the departure of their most articulate parliamentary representatives.

The exchange of comments between myself and Green Party member "Go Figure" over my 25 September posting "Sue Bradford Resigns" has raised a sufficiently large number of Green Party-related issues to warrant a separate posting of their own.

THE MOST ALARMING ASPECT of the Greens’ political style is the sheer number of heroic assumptions it makes about the world it is trying to save. Foremost among these is the assumption that by exposing the ecological dangers and social pathologies threatening human civilisation, Green Parties can, and will, secure the political changes required to eliminate them.

The social-change model at work here is straightforwardly educative. Since the self-destructive and ultimately unsustainable policies of current governments are (according to the Greens) based on an insufficient understanding of their ecological and social effects, all that is required to remedy the situation is for the evidence amassed by the world’s natural and social scientists to be placed before the world’s politicians, and the problems will be solved.

That’s what my statement: "At the heart of the Green ideology is a conviction that natural science is devoid of political content" means. It describes a world in which scientific evidence arrives without political baggage. And it explains why the Greens have been so spectacularly unsuccessful in translating the reality of global warming into a commanding electoral position.

They have proved singularly incapable of constructing an effective strategic (or even tactical) response to the brute political fact that, in spite of all the evidence amassed by the world’s leading climatologists’, their own country’s – and the world’s – political leaders refuse to act decisively. Their policy-making model: amass the evidence-present the evidence-effect the change; doesn’t work – and they simply don’t know what to do about it.

Another example is the Greens handling of the Genetic Engineering issue. They promoted and (thanks to the Alliance) eventually secured a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the controversy. Their assumption was that, once the Commissioners were presented with all the evidence of the dangers of GE , they’d adopt the precautionary principle and recommend that the Labour-led Government’s moratorium on GE activity outside the laboratory remain in place.

When this didn’t happen they had no real answer – other than to temporarily sever their relationship with the Labour Party. Not even when Nicky Hager’s book Seeds of Distrust revealed to them how effortlessly the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry had prevailed over the Prime Minister’s and her advisors’ initial determination to expose and rectify the accidental release of genetically modified corn, the Greens were unable to mount an effective political attack.

The dangers inherent in the Greens’ educative model are demonstrated in their policy on the Treaty of Waitangi. Though the signing of the Treaty, like all historical events, is the subject of multiple, and often sharply contradictory, interpretations, the Greens have adopted an unequivocal and quite inflexible interpretation of the Treaty’s meaning. So much so that when some of their own members, unconvinced by the official party line, openly questioned it’s accuracy, they were deemed ineligible to stand as Green candidates by the Party leadership.

That the dissidents’ views on the Treaty of Waitangi were actually more in tune with those of the majority of Pakeha New Zealanders was an "inconvenient truth" to be overcome by – yes, you guessed it – a taxpayer-funded traveling road-show which would take the "true" meaning of the Treaty directly to the ignorant Pakeha masses and educate them into full conformity with the Greens’ historical interpretation.

This authoritarian aspect of the Greens’ political style is nowhere more apparent than in their so-called "consensus-based decision-making" constitution. Described as a means of "seeking positions that the maximum number of people can support, rather than a simple majority", what these rules actually make possible is the ability of a tiny minority to over-rule and/or subvert the will of the majority.

In practical terms, it allows the leadership of the party, either directly or through their surrogates, to prevent the membership from directly challenging the Green Party caucus’s political strategy and tactics. Rather than promoting the open contest of conflicting political options, it fosters the cobbling together of compromises. Also, by imposing enormous emotional pressure on dissenters, it drives opposition below the surface of party affairs – a situation which, once again, privileges those in senior positions, and makes rank-and-file challenges to official party policy extremely difficult.

Offsetting these massive political liabilities, however, was the presence in the 1999-2008 Green Party caucus of eco-socialist politicians Sue Bradford and Keith Locke, and the eco-religious activist, Nandor Tanczos. The formers’ Marxist backgrounds provided them with a very different social-change model, one based upon the understanding that ideas – even scientific ideas – arise out of the political, economic and cultural context of social classes in unrelenting conflict, and that the only truly effective means of defending Planet Earth is by organising the victims of socio-economic and/or ecological violence against the economic and social forces responsible for inflicting it. In other words: without assembling the mass movements required to make those responsible for assaulting the planet and its peoples cease and desist, simply presenting governments with evidence of their ecological and social crimes is never going to be enough.

Eco-religious activism can be of enormous help in this regard. By adding a metaphysical gloss to the political exigencies of what remains, fundamentally, a class-based conflict, the existential aspects of the issues at stake can be brought into sharper focus. When all is said and done, the struggle is about nothing less than the long-term survival of our own, and countless other living species. It is a battle for the very possibility of a just and abundant human future.

More than any other Green Party leader, Rod Donald understood the critical importance of keeping all of these aspects of the Greens in play. A natural and highly effective political campaigner, he knew how important it was to have clout on the streets as well as in the House. He knew, too, the value of Nandor’s gentle eco-evangelism in a society increasingly bereft of religious and spiritual nourishment. In Sue and Keith, he recognised two potent links to New Zealand’s radical socialist traditions. And, in the environmental work of Jeanette Fitzsimons, he appreciated the value of a well-argued case, based upon solid empirical research. It was Rod’s great skill to keep all of these ideological currents flowing in the same direction. Tragically, his premature death allowed them to diverge, and the resulting intra-party power-shifts have led to the departure of their most articulate representatives.

Sue is merely the latest of these critical individuals to go.

Others will follow.

They will not be replaced.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Prime Suspects

A disaster without consequences? Can so much damage be inflicted on the global economy without leaving a trace?

THERE’S SOMETHING not quite right about this so-called "economic recovery". Something that simply doesn’t add up.

Apparently, it’s possible to inject trillions of dollars into the world’s major economies without setting off an inflationary firestorm. Supposedly, it’s possible for the world’s taxpayers to rescue a teetering financial system without their governments erecting even the flimsiest of safeguards to prevent the poor dupes from being forced to rescue it all over again. Theoretically, the restoration of consumer confidence will be enough to get business back on its feet – even though the endless supply of credit that kept consumers spending before the financial crisis shows little sign of being restored along with it.

What the economic experts seem to be saying is that all of the arguments that were rolled out against governments and families spending more money than they received simply cease to apply when the world’s largest banks, investment houses and insurance companies stand in need of a bail-out. These institutions, we’re told, are "too big to fail".

Sadly, the obverse contention: that the debts of low-income mortgage-holders and borrowers are "too small to worry about" doesn’t seem to carry the same weight. Indeed, there are many economists who argue that it was the big money-lenders’ disinclination to worry about the credit-worthiness of their small, "sub-prime" debtors that precipitated the whole sorry saga.

But why, you might well ask, would a banker lend money to someone who could never hope to pay it back? Whatever happened to the level-headed, no-nonsense manager of your trusty neighbourhood bank? The chap who, after many years spent weighing-up the ability of his customers to honour their obligations, knew, to a high degree of certainty, who he could take a punt on – and who he should refuse?

Gone – along with the sort of bank he used to manage.

Your mortgage may stretch out ahead of you for the next 15 to 20 years, but the financial institution which signed you up doesn’t measure its business in terms of years or decades, but in quarters.

No longer are bankers rewarded for their sober judgement and dependability, but according to how much debt they have sold in the last three months. The more they sell, the more they make. Not, as used to be the case, through steady increments in their annual salary, but by way of huge bonus payments.

At the upper levels of the world’s biggest banks, these bonus payments now far outstrip their recipients’ base salaries and, not surprisingly, such bonuses have become the prime focus of their careers.

But, where is the incentive to be cautious, or even sensible, when you are paid according to your contribution to an institution’s profits, and have no responsibility for its losses?

The world’s financial institutions are like the motorist so obsessed with increasing his speed that he devotes more and more of his attention to the speedometer, and less and less of it to steering the car.

Small wonder the global economy crashed.

The last time global capitalism got itself into such a parlous state was 80 years ago, and the financial institutions responsible paid for it politically. Indeed, the staid neighbourhood banker invoked earlier was the product of their democratic chastisement. A strict regulatory framework was thrown up around the finance sector, and for nearly 50 years capitalism kept its eyes on the road and its foot off the accelerator. As a result, the 30 years following World War II were the most prosperous in human history.

Sadly, while the leaves of human memory are prone to fall, human greed is evergreen. By the 1980s a toxic combination of inflationary war expenditures, reactionary politics and technological innovation had contrived to free finance from the restrictions imposed upon it by the Wall Street Crash.

Like a corrosive acid, the ethos of finance capital dissolved not only the regulatory chains that bound it fast, but also practically every other restraining device created by the democratic state for its own defence.

Which is why, though no one disputes their guilt, the international financial institutions responsible for the Crash of 2008 have proved more than a match for those who have, once again, attempted to chain them down.

Hence my scepticism concerning all this talk of "recovery".

The only "green shoots" I can see are in the bankers’ garden.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 25 September 2009.

Friday 25 September 2009

Sue Bradford Resigns

Former (as of 30th October 2009) Green Party MP, Sue Bradford.

THE SHOCK ANNOUNCEMENT of Sue Bradford’s resignation from Parliament raises a number of troubling questions about the political trajectory of the Green Party under its new leadership.

Referring to her failure to defeat Metiria Turei for the Greens’ co-leadership position, Bradford declared: "The Party made a clear and democratic decision, but of course it was personally disappointing and I’m ready for a change."

Clearly, there was a lot more to Bradford’s defeat than the party hierarchy was willing to admit at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the struggle for the female co-leadership role was merely a reflection of a much wider internal struggle over the Greens' long-term ideological direction.

During the 2008 election campaign, Bradford had spiked a major push by the then female co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons, and male co-leader, Russel Norman, to reposition the Greens as a fundamentally non-ideological political movement, capable of working with either of the major parties.

Bradford’s hard-line stance against entering into any kind of deal with National can now be seen for what it was: the last stand of the Green Left. Turei’s May 2009 victory was the Green Party rank-and-file’s emphatic response. The days of uncompromising eco-socialism are over.

Bradford’s defeat leaves the remaining representatives of the eco-socialist tradition, Keith Locke and Catherine Delahunty, in a dangerously exposed position.

Looking back at the Greens’ 2008 Party List in the light of Bradford's resignation, it is now possible to see how far the rank-and-file have moved away from the heady mixture of peace, pot and planetary justice that the Green Party of Rod Donald, Nandor Tanczos and Sue Bradford so colourfully represented in 1999. Of the Class of 2008, Kennedy Graham and Kevin Hague both have links to the National Party. Only Delahunty bears the slightest resemblance to the MPs of the Greens' glory days.

With the tragic death of Donald in 2006, and the burning-off of Tanczos, and now Bradford, the transformation of the New Zealand Greens (once hailed as the most radical Green Party in the world) into a thoroughly middle-class and politically moderate political movement, will gather speed.

Bradford’s Party List replacement, Dave Clendon, fits the new paradigm perfectly. As "a sustainable business advisor who is of Ngapuhi/Te Roroa and Pakeha heritage", he presents a very different ideological profile to Bradford’s hard-edged, class-based, street-level activism.

According to a Green Party media statement: "Bradford had the unique distinction of seeing three Members’ Bills passed into law in the last Parliament. Respectively, they lifted the youth minimum wage to adult rates, extended the length of time some mothers in prison can keep their babies with them, and amended s59 of the Crimes Act so that children receive the same legal protection from assault as adults".

That the party was willing to lose such an effective legislator, and so accomplished a parliamentarian, speaks volumes about how far the new-look Green Party wants to distance itself from Bradford's radical/revolutionary persona.

It will be very interesting, now, to watch the response of the New Zealand electorate. Will the next round of polls register a rise, or a fall, in the Greens' popularity? Will the departure of the politician who introduced the "anti-smacking bill" make "Middle New Zealand" look more - or less - favourably upon the Green MPs who remain?

If it's more, Locke and Delahunty should watch their backs.

Thursday 24 September 2009

A Social Democrat's Credo

In unity is strength: Social Democrats cannot countenance the arbitrary dispersal of the New Zealand people’s resources, nor the slow fragmentation and dilution of their rights.

Impressed by Jordan Carter’s admirably succinct summation of his social-democratic world-view over at Just Left, I decided to post my own attempt at formulating a social democrat’s credo. Jordan has heard it before – it formed part of my presentation to the Labour Party’s Summer School held on the Firth of Thames in January 2007 .

I BELIEVE that human societies arise out of need. The need for food and shelter, the need for intimacy, the need for nurturing, and the need for protection – both from natural dangers, and the aggression of our own species. To secure these needs, human beings must work, individually or collectively, but always with the ultimate goal of keeping strong those innumerable threads that bind our communities in a functioning wholeness.

The source of fulfillment of human needs is the natural bounty of the planet on which our species dwells. Human beings are but one of the countless life-forms which inhabit the Earth’s surface, and we share with them a fundamental dependency on the planet’s life-giving properties.

Alone among all the creatures of the Earth, humankind possesses the power to consciously alter the fragile environment of its home. Such power bears with it an awesome responsibility: our own future, and the future of all other living things, depends upon our willingness to accept that what is possible is not always desirable. To ensure its survival, the human species must recognise the limits of its power.

In New Zealand, two peoples co-exist in differing states of awareness of the essential collectivism and dependency of human communities. The indigenous people possess a clear and poignant vision of humanity’s place in these islands. But the colonising peoples would not rest until the ideas and institutions of their respective cultures had taken root in New Zealand. To the extent they succeeded, the conflicts and contradictions of their homelands were also transplanted here. Resolving these conflicts and contradictions, and discovering the best means of prospering together, is the historic task of the two peoples fated to share these islands – Maori and Pakeha.

As a social-democrat I am dedicated to furthering in all aspects of my country’s social, political and economic organisation the essential equality of human beings. Social-democracy defines equality in terms of the universality of human need. Old or young, male or female, Maori or Pakeha, we are all defined by the human and ecological relationships indispensable to our existence. None of us live but by the bounty of nature and the collective exertion of our fellow human beings.

That being so, we must reject all claims hostile to the reality of our interdependence. Individuals and groups who by superior strength or simple good fortune are endowed with wealth and influence, enjoy their advantages on the sufferance of that vast majority whose daily labours make possible a functioning society. Only so long as, in the judgement of the many, the possession by a fortunate few of social, political and economic privileges serves the community as a whole, will those privileges endure. Any attempt by a minority to transform the privileges granted to them by the majority into a system of permanent advantage cannot be deemed just.

As a social-democrat I look to the state, as the institutional expression of our interdependence, to secure for all citizens a healthy and abundant life. The provision of gainful employment, education, health, housing and protection against adversity are rights due to all New Zealanders. Political institutions are established to secure these rights, drawing their authority from the freely given consent of all responsible citizens. Those charged with governing our country, hold in trust the resources – both natural and social – that are the common property of all our people.

Being a social-democrat, I cannot countenance the arbitrary dispersal of the New Zealand people’s resources, nor the slow fragmentation and dilution of their rights. Neither will I surrender the sovereignty of my nation to the interests of foreigners. Though the fundamental kinship of all human beings is indisputable, New Zealand’s destiny, finally, must be the enterprise of New Zealanders alone. 

Go West Young Man

Dr Andrew West

"NO ONE over 25 should be allowed to run this place." Says Dr Andrew West, the Chair of Innovation Waikato Ltd. Why? Because the Baby Boomers and their parents have made such a complete hash of the job.

In a provocative PowerPoint presentation to the Australasian Research Management Society conference held in Christchurch last week, West fleshed out his thesis with slide after slide of graphs and statistics illustrating New Zealand’s steady descent across nearly all of the crucial international indices.

"My generation of New Zealanders and the one before it have presided over a gradual, interminable decline in relative prosperity at least since 1950; that represents 60 years of retreat", says West.

"If our generation had been the management team our Board of Directors would have sacked us by 1965 at the latest. Somehow we have disgracefully hung on for a further 45 years."

"The remedy is simple", says West.

"Firstly we must ensure that our investment environment is neutral and that it does not favour relatively unproductive assets – land and buildings. A capital gains tax or land tax would assist that. Secondly, we need to introduce compulsory superannuation and focus a reasonable percentage of those savings into productive enterprise onshore. Opening up some of our best companies to mum and dads’ equity investment would help secure this. Then we need to abolish use of the price of money to regulate the economy, or, at the very, very least find other tools to supplement it. Singapore varies the savings rate to superannuation in this regard and it’s a very successful economy. So should we; it’s your money to be spent later rather than today, it will be invested in creating better jobs and it doesn’t disappear into an offshore bank reducing the balance of payments and destabilising the exchange rate in the process."

West insists that "there is nothing radical here". Most of what he proposes is "routine overseas". Our fundamental problem, he argues, is a business culture that is "speculative, impatient, intra-generational and focused on the balance sheet." What’s needed is a culture that’s "sophisticated, patient, inter-generational and focused on the profit and loss statement, that is, on consumers offshore who will pay us a decent whack for a new generation of knowledge-intensive goods and services."

THE LATE BRUCE JESSON used to say that while the National Party might be very good at governing for capitalists, only Labour knew how to govern for Capitalism. New Zealand’s economic history amply confirms Jesson’s thesis. Before attempting to change the New Zealand economy, it has always been necessary for Labour Party politicians to gain a thorough understanding of the way it worked. It’s why deep-structural economic innovation is, at least historically, more usually associated with the Centre-Left than the Centre-Right.

And precisely because social-democratic political parties are parties of reform, rather than revolution, their leaders have always sought out business leaders willing to think new thoughts and use new methods. Just think of the Fletcher family’s long history of co-operation with the Labour Party. Or, more recently, of Helen Clark’s attempts to forge a similar relationship with business leaders who were persuaded, like West, that New Zealand’s future lies in catching the "knowledge wave" and innovating "a new generation of knowledge-intensive goods and services".

Clark’s great failure, of course, was her inability to persuade her Finance Minister to either accumulate or deploy the public venture-capital required to expedite the "economic transformation" she was constantly promising to deliver. Cullen proved a master at sucking vast amounts of money out of the New Zealand economy. Sadly, he never quite mastered the art of squeezing it back in.

Well might West and his fellow innovators say: "It only takes vision and courage." Unfortunately, saying it has always been a great deal easier than doing it.

WHAT STOPS NATIONAL from doing it? That’s easy: relationships. As Rhys Derby never tires of telling us on TV, New Zealanders are a closely connected lot. And the degrees of separation within the nation’s ruling elite are even closer. It is, therefore, quite impossible for National Governments to enter office unencumbered by all kinds of favours, deals and quid-pro-quos.

Enmeshed in this vast and sticky web of obligations, National Cabinet Ministers cannot help pursuing erratic, and at times wildly contradictory, policy paths. The gains of the major carbon-dioxide emitters are only exceeded by the losses of the major forest owners. Looking after the dairy industry means placing the tourist industry at risk. Lowering the onshore costs of exporters (i.e. cutting wages, lowering taxes and slashing public spending) does nothing to lift New Zealand’s multi-factor productivity.

As Jesson observed: This is governing for capitalists – not Capitalism. Labour’s lack of intimate connections with the business community, usually construed as one of Labour’s most glaring weaknesses, is actually one of its greatest strengths.

AT THE PARTY’S annual conference there were clear signs that the caution and conservatism of the Clark-Cullen Era is slowly being replaced by a more open and creative approach to economic policy formation. It is time, one veteran trade unionist observed, for the Party to dispense with the neo-liberal shibboleths of the past decade and adopt a broader view of the State’s role in wealth creation. In the key economic policy workshops, Labour’s finance spokesperson, David Cunliffe, was relaxed and receptive to such suggestions. Phil Goff even included some of them in his keynote address. A future Labour Government will likely take a much more active role in economic affairs.

My suspicion is that the more active role contemplated by Cunliffe and his party activists will bear a very close resemblance to the role mapped out in West’s presentation. Not, I hasten to add, because Andy West is some sort of social-democratic Manchurian Candidate, but because his ideas are shared by scores of other progressive New Zealand business leaders: men and women who are desperate for something resembling a coherent economic programme from their political counterparts.

As West expresses it: "I have three young kids and I want them to stay in New Zealand in the long term. That is what motivates me … If my generation doesn’t decide to do it, then it’s time to pass the baton onto those who are 25 years and younger – who definitely will. After all, who else is going to pay for our retirement?"

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 24 September 2009.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Ten Years Ago This Week: Under America's Shield

Forward defence: A New Zealand soldier on patrol in East Timor circa 1999. The collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998 created a security vacuum in the Indonesian archipelago. It was a sharp reminder to New Zealanders and Australians of their ultimate dependence on American power.

EAST TIMOR poses a fundamental challenge for New Zealand’s strategic thinkers. For the first time since the "year of living dangerously" – 1965 – Australia and New Zealand are confronted with the reality of large-scale organised violence in their immediate neighbourhood. The events of the past fortnight raise issues that go way beyond Fiji’s ethnic power-plays, or the primitive skirmishing on Bouganville and Guadacanal. Indonesia, the fourth most populous state on Earth, sits astride the sea-lanes linking East Asia’s economies with their vital supplies of Middle Eastern oil. For the past 35 years its military forces have provided the United States with a reliable strategic counterweight to the growing power of China. Instability in the Indonesian archipelago is not something the region – or the world – can afford to ignore.

While Indonesia prospered under Suharto, Australians and New Zealanders were able to convince themselves that their governments were free to pursue a "peaceful" foreign policy. The Asian economic crisis of 1997-98 changed all that. As the Indonesian stockmarket and currency went into free fall, General Suharto’s brutal military kleptocracy could no longer conceal its crimes behind a dazzling economic growth-rate, and the old man was driven from office. In the power vacuum created by Suharto’s departure, the global financial community was determined to install a more transparent, honest, and open market economy. But to eliminate "crony capitalism" it was first necessary to establish a viable civil society – one in which basic human and property rights were respected. It was this process of democratic transition which sparked the crisis in East Timor, and now threatens to destabilise the whole of Indonesia.

The status of East Timor became a critical issue the moment democracy entered the Indonesian political equation. Never regarded as an integral part of the Indonesian Republic – the former Portuguese colony is not even mentioned in the 1949 Indonesian constitution which defines the national territory – its acquisition by force in 1974 unleashed a torrent of human rights violations. It is now accepted that at least 200,000 people – more than a third of the East Timorese population – were slaughtered by Jakarta’s troops between 1975 and 1983. While the Cold War raged, the Western powers were prepared to overlook the Indonesian Armed Forces’ (TNI) genocidal conduct. But, in the wake of the 1991 Dili Massacre, Western governments were gradually persuaded to lend their voices to the international clamour for East Timor’s independence. Suharto’s successor, the much under-rated B.J. Habibie, was merely bowing to the inevitable when he announced that the East Timorese people would finally be permitted to decide their own future in a United Nations supervised plebiscite.

But if East Timor was to vote for independence – as Indonesian military intelligence undoubtedly knew that it would – what was to become of the quasi-feudal fiefdom established on its soil? The province’s coffee plantations, hotels, wholesale and retail outlets – were all, in one way or another, linked back to the TNI. Whether through direct ownership or kickbacks, East Timor was worth millions to its military rulers and the rag-tag collection of collaborators and entrepreneurs that fed off them. A sovereign East Timor would leave a dangerous chunk of the TNI seriously out of pocket, and, under the bizarre kleptocracy established by Suharto, their losses would have to be made good from elsewhere in the archipelago. Not surprisingly, few military provincial governors were anxious to make room in their own operations for the displaced officers of East Timor – let alone their battle-hardened troops! The ferocity of the Indonesian military’s anti-independence pogrom is attributable, in part, to its fear of what might happen when the province is finally evacuated. The "knock-on" effects are already plainly visible in West Timor.

The "worst case scenario" for the region’s strategic planners is that the "loss" of East Timor will precipitate an outbreak of warlordism throughout Indonesia’s far-flung provinces. If the generals become convinced that President Habibie’s successful assertion of civilian control is about to put an end to the TNI’s extremely lucrative private operations – the military-owned resort hotels of Bali, for example - then their willingness to go on "protecting" the Indonesian state will be sorely tested.

The United States has too much at stake in the archipelago to let that happen. Nike has its subcontractors to consider, Freeport McMoRan its mines, and it is doubtful whether Texaco, Chevron or Mobil would take kindly to the loss of their oil concessions. The United States must also be concerned that a "balkanised" Indonesian archipelago would constitute an open invitation for other world powers – most probably China - to set up shop in the region. Chinese power athwart the seal-lanes linking the Pacific and the Indian Oceans is not a strategic outcome Uncle Sam would contemplate with any serenity.

Neither should Australia and New Zealand. By dint of their extreme geographical isolation, both countries have had a tendency to consider themselves immune from the great geopolitical struggles of the world. This is folly, because the very same isolation which "protects" them, also defines their dependence on open sea-lanes and open markets. Australia and New Zealand both rely heavily upon the export of raw commodities to support their sophisticated "first world" economies. Today, nearly all of those exports are absorbed by the nations of the Pacific basin. Instability in Indonesia – either in the form of a military revolt, or an upsurge in extreme nationalism and economic protectionism - poses a direct threat to the national interest of both countries.

The Australians have recognised the strategic implications of the East Timor crisis a great deal faster than the New Zealanders. In much closer proximity to the killing than Wellington, Canberra took the lead in demanding action against the incipient warlordism engulfing East Timor. As the only member of the United Nations to recognise Indonesia’s annexation of the territory, Australia’s newfound commitment to protecting the rights of the East Timorese people was entirely fitting.

Though hesitant at first - it was only a few weeks ago that the American Defence Secretary, William Cohen, was informing the Indonesian Chief of Staff, General Wiranto, that the US was ready to carry out joint exercises with his forces – the United States has clearly resolved to persist with the democratisation of Indonesia. Its crucial backing of a United Nations intervention force – led by the Australians – represents a clear signal to the Indonesians, and their faint-hearted ASEAN allies, that there must be no going back to the bad old days of Suharto.

There could be no clearer demonstration of who is the real guarantor of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region. Without the pressure brought to bear upon their Indonesian persecutors by the United States, the people of East Timor would have ceased to exist. And, although it may take them sometime to accept the fact, American pressure is the Indonesian people’s best guarantee against a return to the rampant corruption of military rule.

As they prepare to dispatch their soldiers, sailors, and airmen to East Timor, to serve alongside Australian and American peace-making troops, a growing number of New Zealanders may begin to harbour second thoughts about their country’s self-imposed exile from the ANZUS alliance. By a curious historical irony, it was the despised Indonesian régime which provided the regional strategic shield under which New Zealanders – especially left-wing New Zealanders – acted out their dream of a peace-loving, and anti-nuclear, neutrality. Now that the Indonesian shield has rotted away, New Zealand finds itself standing where its culture, its values and its history has always placed it – shoulder to shoulder with the Aussies, under the larger - and infinitely stronger - shield of the Yanks.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of 22 September 1999.

Friday 18 September 2009

The Whiff of Testosterone

A Word in Your Ear, Nanny: The new language of masculinity which Phil Goff introduced at Labour's annual conference in Rotorua is absolutely crucial to regaining the attention, and then the loyalty, of the working-class male.

LABOUR’S 93rd ANNUAL CONFERENCE was about Phil Goff and the working-class male. After the stern, fifteen-year reign of Queen Helen I, how could it possibly have been about anything else?

And the whiff of testosterone that lingered over the Conference wasn’t simply the after-effects of Phil’s arrival outside Rotorua’s Energy Event Centre on Rick Barker’s Triumph. For the first time in a long time, the concerns, priorities and aspirations of working-class men were at the front of the policy queue. For these blokes, Labour’s 2008 defeat has been a sort of vindication: final proof that privileging a political discourse that either renders men invisible – or casts them as villains – comes with a very high electoral price-tag.

This new language of masculinity was clearly visible in the genuine and long-standing mateship between Phil Goff and the South Australian Labor Premier, Mike Rann. It was there in the blokey bonhomie of the Opposition leader’s new ideas man, the relentlessly positive John Pagani. You could read it in the solid union double-act of Andrew Little and Chris Flatt at the top-table. And you could hear it, at full-volume, in the deafening masculine roars unleashed by Phil and his retinue as they watched the Springboks hammer the All-Blacks, live, on an outsize TV screen at the Conference Dinner on Saturday night.

Most of all it was there in Phil’s keynote address to the Conference. His description of his widowed grandmother, a woman quite literally brought to her knees by the Great Depression, was telling: "She scrubbed floors for others to make ends meet for the family."

In that line we can still hear the caustic mixture of shame and rage experienced by working-class men and boys who could not rescue their wives and mothers from the humiliation of scrubbing the floors of their "betters".

In Phil’s words we also catch a glimpse of the Labour Party his grandparent’s generation voted for. It wasn’t a feminine construct. Blokes like Mickey Savage and Peter Fraser didn’t hazard their liberty for something as insufferably bourgeois as a "nanny".

No, the Labour Party of the 1930s and 40s was very much a masculine concept. In the eyes of its members and supporters, Labour was the working-class Leviathan: an unconquerable proletarian super-hero – sworn to secure the rights of the poor and downtrodden.

When Phil related how the Labour Party had "stood beside [his grandmother] when she needed it, and she never forgot that", the masculine symbolism was unmistakable. He’d presented the Party as defender and protector – the decent working-man who steps between the bully and his prey.

And the bullies of the 1930s were by no means exclusively male.

We are all familiar with the socialist caricatures of the oppressive boss and the rack-renting landlord, but few now remember that before the coming of the welfare state the "care of the poor" was routinely entrusted to organisations made up overwhelmingly of middle- and upper-class women.

All too often the wives of working men had to stand before the wives of their husbands’ employers and beg for assistance. Condescended to by the ladies of the hill, the women of the gullies had every reason to think of "charity" as something cold and judgmental.

Was the hostility directed against Labour’s "Nanny State" reforms by the party’s estranged working-class supporters a subconscious manifestation of these bitter class memories? Had Labour’s politicians become the "ladies on the hill" – talking down to their inferiors?

Flora Thompson, the British author whose books became the hit BBC television series Larkrise to Candleford, has her hero declare: "A man’s role is to conquer the world." To which her heroine archly responds: "Oh? And what is a woman’s role?" His instant (and grievously politically incorrect) reply is: "To love him for it."

In the 1930s – and again in the late-1960s and early 1970s – that became the dream of thousands of young and idealistic working-men. To conquer, if not the world, then at least the social evils which disfigure it. To protect and defend the weak and the oppressed – and to earn the love and respect of their female comrades in the process.

Can Phil Goff, who began his career as an hirsute red knight, astride a Norton Commando charger, persuade Labour to re-claim this heroic and very masculine tradition?

Can Labour, once again, become a party with balls?

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, 18 September 2009.

Thursday 17 September 2009

"Government 2.0" - Returning Power to the Community

Participatory Democracy: In Venezuela the government of Hugo Chavez has fostered the growth of Consejos Comunales - Communal Councils - in an attempt to bypass the formal, state-run bureaucratic structures responsible for administering (badly) the country's rudimentary welfare system. Western welfare systems might also benefit from the competitive challenge of democratic, community-organised service delivery.

FOR NEARLY THIRTY YEARS NOW, and in every country where it succeeded in constructing one, the Left has struggled to defend the Welfare State. For the most part Leftists have campaigned not for the Welfare State as it is, but for the Welfare State as they meant it to be. It’s been a losing strategy. There is simply no sense in battling for a dream, if it means ignoring an increasingly nightmarish reality. In the end, the urgency of ending the nightmare overwhelms the longing to save the dream.

Just how nightmarish the reality of the modern welfare state has become is clearly evident in the places that were intended to be its most potent and persuasive expression: public housing projects. In the sunny optimism of the early post-war era these municipal- and state-facilitated developments were envisaged as islands of rational planning and design in a sea of privately organised squalor.

In Britain’s "new towns", America’s "projects", and New Zealand’s state-house suburbs there was, to quote the rhapsodic rhetoric of New Zealand’s National Film Unit, "space for sunlight". Seventy years on, the reality is immeasurably darker. Where they still exist (many having been, quite literally, blown-up) these vast experiments in public housing have become by-words for appalling social dysfunction.

Built to free the poor from the rack-renting private landlord, social housing swiftly degenerated into a convenient spatial fix for the problem of how to keep the races and classes separate. By herding the lowest of the low into discrete geographical corrals, and maintaining them out of the public purse, the upwardly mobile sectors of post-war capitalist society (and their rising incomes) were made available to the private sector.

What the architects of the Welfare State had confidently predicted would become the benchmarks for rational and socially uplifting urban living, rapidly degenerated into their opposite. High-rise ghettos for the frail and impecunious; or sprawling internment camps for the immigrant labour which now performed the tasks that "white men" wouldn’t do; it made little difference: public housing was something to flee.

I see it every time I go for a walk around my neighbourhood.

The state-housing developments in the Auckland suburb of Three Kings were among the very first to be constructed, and in their day (the late-1930s) they far outstripped the low-cost efforts of private developers. By the 1960s and 70s, however, Three Kings was characterised colourfully by National Party canvassers as "Tiger Country": one of those places where geography and class combined to render middle-class proselytising next-to-impossible.

It’s a lot easier now. Thanks to National’s 1990s policy of selling-off a significant proportion of the nation’s public housing stock, Three Kings is being transformed. The bleak uniformity of the old publicly-owned subdivision is steadily giving way to the remodelled, repainted and tastefully landscaped effects of state-house gentrification. In the last election, for the first time, National’s Party Vote in the Mt Roskill electorate exceeded Labour’s.

Why did the state fail so spectacularly to live up to the expectations of those optimistic social-democrats (and socialists) who entrusted it with the citizenry’s welfare? The answer lies in what might be described as the "authoritarian personality" of state-run institutions – they are totally obsessed with the exercise of power and control.

This is hardly surprising – given that the state itself is, fundamentally, a coercive political instrument. Regardless of whether it directs the activities of a capitalist, socialist, or "mixed" economy, the state’s coercive instincts render it utterly unwilling to entrust the running of its institutions to the citizens they’re intended to serve. Public housing projects in the Soviet Bloc were as bleak and unresponsive to their tenants aspirations as any London "Council Estate" or New Zealand state-house suburb.

Tim O’Reilly, the founder and CEO of the computer book publisher O’Reilly Media, and the man who, in 2004, coined the expression "Web 2.0", would probably refer to the instrumental state – its basic functioning modelled on the machine – as "Government 1.0".

As he argues in "It’s All About The Platform", a guest posting on the TechCrunch website: "Too often, we think of government as a kind of vending machine. We put in our taxes, and get out services: roads, bridges, hospitals, fire brigades, police protection … And when the vending machine doesn’t give us what we want, we protest. Our idea of citizen engagement has somehow been reduced to shaking the vending machine."

While O’Reilly’s focus is predominantly on the IT aspects of government/citizen interaction, his deep understanding of the architecture of complex computer software has given him a new and very interesting perspective on the political architecture for the state.

"Imagine if the [state] were to re-imagine itself not as a vending machine but as an organising engine for civic action … Can we imagine a new compact between government and the public, in which government puts in place mechanisms for services that are delivered not by government, but by private citizens? In other words, can government become a platform?"

Could this "government-as-platform" idea constitute the kernel of a new left-wing dream? After all, it’s a reasonably straightforward matter these days to set up a commercial company on-line, so why not a community-based organisation dedicated to looking after the more vulnerable individuals and families in one’s neighbourhood – up to and including the construction of pensioner and other specialised housing stock?

The state would provide the basic resources (premises, plant and labour) but subject to the general organisational rules and auditing requirements laid-down by Parliament, the deployment of those resources would be undertaken locally and, most importantly, democratically.

Not surprisingly – when you consider who has been on the receiving end of the welfare nightmare these past fifty years – Maori New Zealanders are already leading the way with this mode of community-based service delivery, but there’s nothing to stop the rest of New Zealand society from joining them. The REACs (Regional Employment & Access Councils) of the late-1980s stand as a tentative (if disappointingly undemocratic) precedent.

Social welfare was supposed to free the citizen from the tutelage of private power, but ended up replacing the limited domination of the boss and the landlord with the absolute authority of the state. "Government 2.0" offers to restore the link between Liberty and Progress. If it was only willing to shake off the nightmare of the authoritarian state, what couldn’t a Libertarian Left dream into existence?

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 17 September 2009.

Friday 11 September 2009

Seize the Platform

Carpe Diem: Phil Goff must seize the opportunity provided by his first key-note speech to a Labour Party Conference as leader to re-set the course of New Zealand social-democracy.

THE LAST CONFERENCE Labour held in Rotorua was a raging success – and, frankly, I was flabbergasted. With Helen Clark’s government still struggling against the backwash of the "Pledge Card" scandal, many commentators were expecting to encounter a demoralised party organisation en route to certain electoral defeat.

Instead, they discovered a rank-and-file membership imbued with a steely determination to hurl their enemies’ taunts right back in their faces. Far from being demoralised, Labour’s workhorses were chomping at the bit – eager for the fray.

Responding to the defiant mood of her party, Ms Clark delivered what was, for my money, the best speech of her political career.

"Why shouldn’t New Zealand aim to be the first country which is truly sustainable", was the Prime Minister’s inspirational challenge to her delighted delegates. "We can now move to develop more renewable energy, biofuels, public transport alternatives … We could aim to be carbon neutral. I believe that sustainability will be a core value in 21st century social democracy."

Labour’s rank-and-file went wild.

Tragically, on the way back to Wellington from Rotorua, Ms Clark’s innate conservatism got the better of her rank-and-file-inspired defiance. What should have been the beginning of a new and exciting political conversation, very quickly reverted to the same old monologue.

In the end, Ms Clark’s impassioned speech to the 2006 Rotorua Conference turned out to be one of those inspired raves you sometimes hear a normally quite staid person deliver at a particularly good party (after one-too-many glasses of wine). Fantastic on the night – forgotten by the morning.

In Denis Welch’s excellent biography, Helen Clark: A Political Life, the former prime minister observes that: "Power doesn’t clarify – it blurs".

Is that why Ms Clark failed to follow through on the transformational challenge she’d laid before her delegates at Rotorua? Because no one on the Beehive’s Ninth Floor could maintain a clear view of New Zealand’s future?

If so, then we need look no further for the cause of Labour’s 2008 defeat.

Nobody votes for a blur.

And before Phil Goff objects that "a blur" is exactly what the country voted for last November, let me just say that, by the end of 2008, all Labour’s opponents expected John Key to be was Not-Helen-Clark: and very, very, clearly – he wasn’t.

So what does Mr Goff have to deliver – with maximum clarity – from the stage of Labour’s 92nd Annual Conference? What sort of challenges does he have to lay down before his Party’s rank-and-file to make them raise the roof of Rotorua’s Energy Events Centre?

I’m hoping – and I mean really hoping – that it isn’t a challenge to follow the lead of Mr Goff’s old mate, and one of the Conference’s keynote speakers, the Labor Premier of South Australia, Mike Rann.

Mr Rann, you’ll recall, leads a government which has outlawed gangs.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Mr Rann isn’t on to something with his anti-gang policy. All I’m saying is: any attempt by Mr Goff to portray himself, and the N.Z. Labour Party, as the political equivalents of the hard-line cops in Underbelly would be a disaster.

In any competition to out-tough the National and Act parties on law and order, Mr Goff will always come in third. Sure, threatening the gangs may help him boost his public image as (to quote Bette Midler) "a real man, a good man, a true man", but it will contribute nothing to meeting Labour’s most important challenge of the next two-and-a-half years: Re-defining the role of government in the 21st Century.

How do we set about transforming the clearly failing 20th Century State into what the American IT wizard, Tim O’Reilly (quoted earlier this week on the Labour-friendly blogsite, The Standard) calls "Government 2.0".

"Too often," writes O’Reilly, "we think of government as a kind of vending machine. We put in our taxes, and get out services: roads, bridges, hospitals, fire brigades, police protection ….. Imagine if the [state] were to re-imagine itself not as a vending machine but as an organising engine for civic action."

In other words: government as "platform".

If Mr Goff, in the tradition of "The Rotorua Challenge", were to ask Labour’s rank-and-file to help him clarify and develop O’Reilly’s 21st Century vision of the State, they’d likely cheer him as loudly as they cheered his predecessor.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 11 September 2009.

Death of a Nation?

Massacre in Katyn Forest: Seventy years ago the nations of Europe attempted to overwhelm each other by force. Today there are easier ways of getting the better of your neighbours.

IN THE SPRING of 1940, on the orders of Joseph Stalin and his secret police chief , Lavrentiy Beria, close to 22,000 of Poland’s best and brightest citizens were murdered by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs – the NKVD. We remember this crime as the "Katyn Massacre" – named after the Russian forest where the NKVD murdered approximately 3,000 Polish military officers. The mass grave containing the soldiers’ bodies was revealed to the world by the Nazi army of occupation in 1943.

Today, the Katyn Massacre is all-too-easily dismissed as just one more war crime among a host of much larger and more chilling war crimes committed during the Second World War (which began with the invasion of Poland exactly seventy years ago this month). And yet, possibly because it presents New Zealanders with a comprehensible number of victims – 22,000 is roughly the population of Timaru – Katyn may have more to tell us than the almost inconceivable horrors of the Holocaust.

Because the executions ordered by Stalin were not carried out in the name of some insane theory of racial purity. On the contrary, they were undertaken coldly and methodically, in order to more speedily facilitate Poland’s integration into the USSR.

Beria’s logic may have been murderous, but it was difficult to refute. He argued that, when one pares away all the rhetoric, a nation draws its existence from its most intelligent, creative and well-resourced citizens. Execute its senior military and police officers; kill its political and religious leaders; eliminate its intellectuals and artists; wipe out its scientists, engineers, doctors and teachers; get rid of its leading financiers, industrialists and entrepreneurs – and what do you have left? A body without a head. An ant-hill without a queen. A place that is yours for the taking.

Looking back over seventy years, it is Nazism’s twisted passions, and their genocidal consequences, that horrify and appal. With Stalin’s Communists, however, the opposite is true. What horrifies and appals isn’t their passion, but their cynical rationality. The dreadful power of political logic when released from all ethical restraint.

"When the triumph of the Communist International is two centuries old, and the world is at peace," says the NKVD officer, as he reloads his pistol. "Who will condemn, or even remember, what happened here, beneath these gloomy trees? When our great-great-great grandchildren are living the communist dream – who will dare to suggest that the Omelette of Social Justice wasn’t worth the breaking of a few Polish eggheads?"

I THOUGHT OF KATYN last week as I was reading a news item detailing the contents of the latest report from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER). According to NZIER economist, Shamubeel Eaqub, the biggest threat to a sustained economic recovery in New Zealand is the continuing exodus of its people to an economically resurgent Australia.

As I pondered the story, it occurred to me that the lure of a fatter pay-cheque, and the prospect of a more comfortable and secure life, could – if their effects were permitted to spiral out of control – do almost as much damage to a nation’s chances of survival as Beria’s death squads.

How many more years of economic deterioration has New Zealand got in it before a critical mass of her senior military and police officers; political and religious leaders; intellectuals and artists; scientists, engineers, doctors and teachers; leading financiers, industrialists and entrepreneurs all reluctantly conclude that, if it’s a better life for themselves and their families that they’re looking for, then the most likely place to find it isn’t here, in their homeland, but somewhere off-shore?

It’s very far from being an idle question. Because if nothing is done to stem the flow of the best and the brightest New Zealanders to countries where their talents are properly appreciated, and much more generously rewarded, then sooner or later we will arrive at that tipping-point where too few of the sort of people whose function it is too keep a nation functioning will be left to prevent New Zealand from mal-functioning.

When the day comes that too few doctors and nurses remain to keep our health system operational; when there are too few academics and teachers to maintain a First World education system; when the scientific talent simply isn’t here to warrant serious investment in research and development – what will happen? The grim answer, of course, is that all of the patriotic doctors, nurses, academics, teachers and scientists who have remained loyally at their posts, will also conclude that the time has come to leave New Zealand.

The only New Zealanders likely to welcome this failed state of affairs would be the tangata whenua. Statistically-speaking, Maori are over-represented in the unskilled and semi-skilled occupations. So, as more and more highly-skilled and professional Pakeha workers and their families depart these shores, the original New Zealanders will begin to look forward to reclaiming their patrimony. Paradoxically, the very prospect of an emerging Maori majority will become the single most important factor speeding its arrival.

It won’t happen, of course. Before Maori are in a position to proclaim the Kingdom of Aotearoa, one of two outcomes will occur. Either, what’s left of the Pakeha population will petition Australia to admit New Zealand as the Commonwealth’s eighth state. Or, the by now very sizeable ethnic Chinese population will join forces with embittered Pakeha and open the floodgates to immigrants from the People’s Republic.

The first outcome seems the more likely. The Australians are unlikely to relish the prospect of what’s left of Pakeha New Zealand seeking refuge across the Tasman, any more than they’d welcome a larger version of Fiji, or a burgeoning Chinese colony, on their geographical doorstep. Additional pressure for incorporation would come from Australia’s vast population of ex-patriot Kiwis. Who knows, it might even persuade some of them to return "home".

Pondering these possibilities, I got to thinking about John Key’s recent visit to Canberra, where he participated in the very first New Zealand-Australia "joint cabinet meeting". I recalled his enthusiasm for a single currency, and Kevin Rudd’s advocacy of an "ANZAC" ready-reaction force.

"Oh Comrade Beria," I chuckled to myself, "If you’d only known how easy it is to swallow a nation without firing a shot, you’d have told your NKVD troops to put away their pistols and save the ammunition."

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 10 September 2009.

Saturday 5 September 2009

Take Your Partners

Come Dancing: Labour entered its Third Term Electoral Ball on the arm of the poor, and then proceeded to dance with every other girl in the room. It didn't get invited to a fourth.

"DANCE with the one you came with." That’s what I told Helen Clark (via Radio New Zealand) the morning after the 2005 election. Labour had been saved by the votes of the poor: state house tenants, beneficiaries, low-paid workers of every colour and creed – but most particularly Pasifika and Maori New Zealanders living in South Auckland.

Helen Clark arrived at the Third Term Ball with the poor on her arm. It was their needs and their values that her government was, strategically speaking, bound to serve for the next three years. If Labour neglected the partner whose ticket had got them into their third electoral ball, it would not be attending a fourth.

But, as everybody knows, Labour couldn’t dump its date fast enough. No sooner was it safely through the door than the party was back among the same old crowd: free-traders, welfare incentivists, tax-cutters and anti-smackers.

The swingeing benefit cuts imposed by Ruth Richardson’s "Mother of All Budgets" remained in place – along with the desperate child poverty they’d institutionalised. Manufacturing industry, and the jobs it created, continued to be driven off-shore. The already parlous condition of the State’s housing stock was allowed to fall into headline-grabbing squalor. And then, to add one last, deeply resented, cultural insult to all these class injuries, Labour decided to back Sue Bradford’s "anti-smacking" bill.

Not only had Labour failed to dance with the girl it came with, the Party had forced her to sit and watch while it danced with every other girl in the room.

Three years later the Poor got their own back. Not by teaming up with someone new, but by refusing to buy Labour a ticket. In 2008, the impoverished voters from the other side of town – the social democrats’ perennial and shamelessly neglected date – simply stayed at home. It was the crucial abstention of these tens of thousands of disillusioned and angry New Zealanders that sealed Labour’s fate, and made possible a new government.

So, on whose ticket did John Key gain entry to the dance-hall? What sort of partner did the National Party bring to its first First Term Ball in eighteen years?

If we look at the election data for the 2005 general election, we find that National had rallied practically the whole of the traditional right-wing vote to its side. With one or two lonely exceptions, the provincial towns and cities voted solidly for National. Outside of the provinces, however, National’s pickings were slim. It’s 21 seat gain over the disaster of 2002 came largely at the expense of other right-wing parties. To win in 2008, National had to break Labour’s grip on the mixed metropolitan suburbs.

The voter escorting National to its First Term Ball turned out to be the sort of bloke who spends Saturday afternoon knocking-back a few beers on the deck he’d built himself, and Saturday evening watching footy with his mates on the massive flat-screen plasma-TV he’s still paying-off.

His missus works part-time to help out with the mortgage, and to keep their school-age offspring in cell-phones and computer games.

National’s partner – let’s call him Waitakere Man – has a trade certificate that earns him much more than most university degrees. He’s nothing but contempt for "smart-arse intellectual bastards spouting politically-correct bullshit".

What he owns, he’s earned – and means to keep.

"The best thing we could do for this country, apart from ditching that bitch in Wellington and making John Key prime-minister," he’d inform his drinking-buddies in the lead-up to the 2008 election "would be to police the liberals – and liberate the police."

Waitakere Man values highly those parts of the welfare state that he and his family use – like the public education and health systems – but has no time at all for "welfare bludgers".

"Get those lazy buggers off the benefit", he’s constantly telling his wife, "and the government would be able to give us a really decent tax-cut."

On racial issues he’s conflicted. Some of his best friends really are Maori – and he usually agrees with the things John Tamihere says on Radio Live. So long as the conversation stays on sport, property prices and fishing, he doesn’t really notice the colour of a bloke’s skin. It’s only when the discussion veers towards politics, and his Maori mates start teasing him about taking back the country, treaty settlement by treaty settlement, that his jaw tightens and he subsides into sullen silence. Though he didn’t say so openly at the time, he’d been thrilled by Don Brash’s Orewa Speech, and reckoned the Nats’ "Iwi-Kiwi" billboards were "bloody brilliant!"

Winning over Waitakere Man turned out to be a great "twofer" deal for the Right. To its immense satisfaction, the highly-skilled, upwardly-mobile working-class blokes who began trooping into National’s camp following the 2005 election were bringing their wives with them.

The "gender gap", which had for so long worked in Helen Clark’s favour, was closing. Where Brash’s unflinching neoliberal austerity had turned women off, Key’s boyish charm and his "aspirational", "Labour-lite" polices were turning them on.

National was getting two (or more) votes for the price of one. Sometimes Waitakere Man brought with him the votes of his mother, daughters, sisters, aunts and nieces as well. How had Clark forfeited the trust of Waitakere Woman?

Between 1999 and 2005 working-class women took pride in Clark’s political success, and responded positively to the introduction of Paid Parental Leave and Working for Families. They’d admired her decision to stay out of Iraq, and had, by-and-large, been relieved when she spurned the Greens for Peter Dunne.

What broke their connection with Clark was the anti-smacking legislation. They felt affronted – as if their parenting skills had been weighed in the balance of the Prime Minister’s conscience and found wanting. Clark, who had no children, was telling them how to raise their kids. She seemed to be passing judgement on their whole family – turning them into criminals. They felt betrayed.

Waitakere Woman’s sense of betrayal, combined with the ingrained misogyny and cultural diffidence of Waitakere Man, was what got National onto the dance floor in 2008. Key should read both Rodney Hide’s intransigence on Maori representation, and the recent Referendum’s unequivocal result, as timely reminders of the price of his party’s admission.

When the band begins to play, Waitakere Man and Waitakere Woman must not be left standing.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 3 September 2009.

Friday 4 September 2009

Treading On Their Patch

The Rule of Laws: By forcing gang-members to "surrender their colours", Laws' Law delivers a timely reminder of where power truly lies in a civilised society - with the State.

GANGS. Few words carry such menace. Just writing the word instantly conjures up a host of fearful images.

The biker gangs of the 1950s and 60s, cruising down the long straight highways of California astride their bellowing metallic steeds. The mechanised barbarian Huns of some denim-clad, post-war Attila.

Or, the Maori gangs of New Zealand. Black Power and the Mongrel Mob: distinguished by their blue and red bandannas; wrap-around "shades"; and steel-capped boots. In our mind’s eye we see them, standing shoulder-to-shoulder: twenty to thirty "brothers" advancing down the main street of some small North Island town in a terrifying slow amble, iron patu in their hands.

And surely, making us afraid is the whole point of the exercise. Whether it be the full-throated roar of twenty Harley-Davidsons; or the slow amble of thirty implacable brothers-in-arms; the purpose is the same: to terrify, to overawe and to intimidate all who encounter them.

And the icon of that terror; the object in which our fear finds its symbolic expression; is the gang "patch".

In essence the gang-member’s patch is no different from the eagle-topped standards borne into battle by Rome’s legions, or the regimental colours around which the Duke of Wellington’s Redcoats formed-up in protective squares on the field of Waterloo. Nothing is more important than these symbols of the group. They must never be surrendered. Men will fight – will kill – and, if needs be, will die, in defence of such symbols.

To capture a legion’s "eagle", or a regiment’s colours, or a gang-member’s patch, is to capture the vanquished’s honour, his manhood, his very soul. Anyone who has ever seen the film of the triumphant Red Army soldiers throwing down the captured regimental standards of Hitler’s legions in front of Lenin’s Tomb, while Stalin looks down from its summit with studied contempt, knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Or, perhaps, because the gang patch is such a personal symbol of power, a better comparison might be the commander of a defeated army surrendering his sword to the victorious General of the opposing side.

To give up one’s patch is, therefore, no small thing – as the history-graduate Mayor of Wanganui, Michael Laws, knows full well. And a law which requires every gang member to remove his patch before going into Mr Laws’ town – precisely because it mandates a very public demonstration of the gang-member’s acquiescence to the demands of the wider Wanganui community – is also no small thing. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more effective means of reminding the gangs about who, in the end, wields the power.

Perhaps Mr Laws, like me, is mindful that the only time the Nazi Party’s ability to intimidate the citizens of Weimar Germany was ever seriously curtailed was in 1932, when Chancellor Heinrich Bruning prohibited its "stormtroopers" from wearing their uniforms. Stripped of their brown shirts and swastika armbands, Hitler’s political enforcers could no longer be mistaken for anything other than the brutal street-thugs they’d always been.

By now you’ll have guessed that, unlike so many of my left-wing comrades, I’m not an opponent of Mr Laws’ Law. Quite the contrary, in fact. As far as I can determine, gangs are not so much manifestations of social need, as they are the straightforward expressions of personal greed. Young men don’t become gang-members because they’ve been badly treated, but because they’re willing to treat people bad.

Terror always has a purpose. In the case of the gangs, fear and intimidation are used to facilitate the commission of serious criminal offences. Each patched gang-member controls a platoon of eager apprentices, "prospects", who earn their own patch by "standing-over", stealing, and all-too-often killing to order. Once patched, the now fully-fledged gangster gains access to the extremely lucrative trade in illicit drugs such as "P" and Ecstasy – the Australasian value of which is said to exceed $5 billion per anum.

To put a dent in that trade – and all the human misery and waste that goes with it – I am willing to countenance the minimal curtailment of civil liberties which Mr Laws’ Law makes possible.

But Laws’ Law, alone, is not enough. With billions of dollars at stake, the gangs will not hesitate to jettison the fearsome symbols of their criminal infancy.

Treading on their patches is but one small step on a very long journey.

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 4 September 2009.

Browned Off

Len Brown: An ambitious, overconfident and woefully inexperienced political parvenu.

WHEN will Labour ever learn? A party whose membership now numbers less than 5,000 nationwide, and probably less than 1,000 north of Taupo, has decided – unilaterally – to select the Left’s mayoral candidate for the new Auckland "supercity".

"Cheek" is too small a word to describe this sort of behaviour. Why? Because, if we accept the well-established rule-of-thumb that only ten percent of any organisation’s paper membership should ever be considered active players, fewer than 100 people took it upon themselves to choose the person aiming to represent 1.4 million.

For the sheer, jaw-dropping arrogance of this pre-emptive strike against democratic procedure, Labour deserves a hefty political smack – to say nothing of the "good parental correction" required for putting its own, narrow, partisan interests ahead of Auckland’s future.

The creation of the new "supercity" offered the old political players of Left and Right a rare opportunity to come up with new ways of choosing their respective flag-bearers.

They could, for example, have adopted the "primary election" model operating in the United States. Surely, in the age of Facebook and Bebo, it’s not beyond the wit of Auckland’s political geeks to devise a secure system of on-line primary voting? And, for the voters who prefer to judge their political horseflesh up close, what stopped Citizens & Ratepayers and City Vision from organising a region-wide round of public meetings and straw-polls?

The answer, of course, is that there was nothing stopping either group from doing one, or even both, of these things – except the over-riding fear of having the choice of political flag-bearers taken out of their hands.

That the Right was reluctant to let its own supporters choose their candidate did not, I have to confess, surprise me. After all, the whole "supercity" plot was hatched by a cabal of right-wing Auckland businessmen intent on making the city’s "governance" much more efficient – and much less prone to interference from "interest groups" unsympathetic to market forces.

Of Labour (and City Vision, its front organisation) I did, however, expect something more imaginative (and democratic) than an old-fashioned "deal", hammered out in a variety of smoke-free rooms, between a clutch of anonymous party hacks and the Mayor of Manukau City.

Strategically commissioned opinion polls, notwithstanding, Mr Brown has long been the Auckland Right’s preferred opponent. He comes across as an evangelical social-worker, who, when he’s not mouthing bogus Pasifika street-slang, delivers earnest speeches in which the buzz-words "vision", "passion" and "community" are endlessly repeated. Up against a ruthless political veteran like John Banks, Mr Brown will be made to look exactly what he is: an ambitious, over-confident, and woefully inexperienced political parvenu.

I do, however, give Labour points for staking its claim so early and with such clarity. The other potential candidates: be he Waitakere City Mayor, Bob Harvey, or the Chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, Mike Lee; can now be intimidated into withdrawing from the race – on pain of "splitting the Left vote".

The truth, of course, is that the only splitters operating in the broader Auckland Left are Labour and its allies. By dividing the field of mayoral hopefuls into Mr Brown and "the rest", they have very foolishly, and selfishly, made the best candidate the enemy of the first.

How much better things would have looked – both ethically and strategically – had Labour held off throwing its weight behind any candidate until progressive Auckland had been given the opportunity to test all of the potential candidates in circumstances not too dissimilar from the conditions prevailing during the campaign proper.

In Mr Banks, the Right knows exactly what it’s getting: a successful business entrepreneur; a former National Party cabinet minister; and the twice-elected Mayor of Auckland City. They can be confident (because he has done it before) that Mr Banks possesses the political grit to drive through a radical right-wing agenda.

But, if the Left accepts Labour’s fait accompli, what will it be getting in Mr Brown? A Palangi lawyer from Manukau, with a very thin portfolio of municipal achievements (unlike his illustrious predecessor, Sir Barry Curtis) and a rather goofy grin.

At stake is the economic and cultural future of our largest city – a city well on its way to encompassing half New Zealand’s population.

Given the prize, I believe Auckland, and New Zealand, deserves a better choice than either Mr Banks – or Mr Brown. 

Thursday 3 September 2009

For "Pablo" - The Power of Speaking Truth

Public intellectualising: Cafe society in 1950s New York. It was harder in New Zealand. As James K. Baxter wrote: "The man who talks to the masters of Pig Island/About the love they dread/Plaits ropes of sand".

After reading "Pablo" at Kiwipolitico on the subject of public intellectuals, I was inspired to do two things. The first was to offer him this quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay "Self Reliance": "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines … Speak what you think in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today." The second was to locate and re-print the following review of Laurence Simmon’s Speaking Truth to Power – first published in The Independent of 21 March 2007.

"PUBLIC Intellectual" is not a title many New Zealanders would claim voluntarily. Principally because, in this country, being labelled an intellectual (of any sort) almost always results in a loss of credibility. Anyone openly embracing the term, therefore, tends to be dismissed as mad, bad – or both.

Associate Professor Laurence Simmons tests this proposition in Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand, and admits to being disconcerted at just how resistant Kiwis are to the whole idea of thinking critically in public. As he observes in his introduction:

"… very few at first, even some university professors, felt happy with, or wanted to accept, the label ‘intellectual’. So it appears that the idea of somehow acknowledging or saluting our intellectuals sits uncomfortably with the New Zealand sensibility. It disturbs our myths of self-reliance and headstrong individualism, our taciturn pragmatism and ability to get on with things with our heads down."

Undeterred by this apparently ingrained anti-intellectualism, Simmons eventually persuaded thirteen prominent New Zealand intellectuals to participate in his project. The result is a provocative collection of essays, interviews and roundtable discussion.

In part, the book is a response to what Simmons – who lectures in film, television and media studies at the University of Auckland – describes as the "growing concern" about the "threat to the democratic public sphere" posed by "a resurgent individualistic, neoconservative agenda, manifested in the closely interlocking interests of the New Right in politics, the media and think tanks". It is also intended to fill "the absence of any strongly articulated left-liberal alternative to these interests."

In many ways, however, the book is also a celebration of the intellectual life itself. In the interviews with such active thinkers and writers as Jane Kelsey, Lloyd Geering, Ian Wedde, Nicky Hager, James Belich and Marilyn Waring, one cannot help but be impressed – even moved – by the unwavering faith in the power of ideas which keeps these isolated (and often vilified and despised) individuals kicking against the pricks.

A recurring theme in Speaking Truth to Power is – to employ an archaic, but delicious, expression: la trahison des clercs. Or, to put it, more prosaically: the general failure of the university and its community of scholars to fulfil their statutory obligation to be the "critic and conscience" of society.

As retired Professor of Political Studies, Andrew Sharp, puts it in his essay on the late Bruce Jesson – one of New Zealand’s most perceptive public intellectuals:

"Before the Second World War, in his famous Treason of the Clerks, Julien Benda accused the intellectuals of his day of selling themselves to the state and mundane concerns … [and of betraying] their inheritance of speaking to the great matters of religion, morals and human character. Jesson’s charge against New Zealand’s intellectuals was even more serious. They gave their compatriots nothing at all: no idea of what the vibrant political life of a republic of equals could be; no respect for intellectual systems of any kind; above all no understanding of the economic relationships that made a life of republican equality so difficult and the triumph of free market dogma so easy. When the neo-liberal revolution arrived they were silent."

The investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, goes further – insisting that the values and aspirations of the neo-liberal revolution have not only become structurally embedded in our society, but that they have done so at the expense of all ideological competitors:

"I think, in terms of the legacy of those years, apart from the privatised assets or people in poverty, one of the most serious things that I think comes out is that you’ve got now a virtually twenty year period where certain sorts of people have been favoured, have been promoted into positions, have been role models of what’s right and how other people should act if they want to try to advance themselves and be treated as important persons in society; and you’ve got a whole other set of people doing what they believed in, saying what they believed in, who got squashed and pushed aside."

The most pernicious effect of this structural victory, says Hager, is in the realm of politics:

"Helen Clark is a classic example of this. She is an enlightened sort of person on the issues that I work on. I regard her as the person in Parliament whose thinking is most similar to mine on defence and foreign affairs, and yet a lot of the time she’s doing things which I despise and think stupid. I’m sure the reason she’s doing these things is because she’s making calculations about what she thinks is politically viable for her; and it’s not public opinion that causes this, it’s the ability to be dumped on by newspapers, the worst of our media and the undermining of our public service, which is very strong. So we have a government that could do good things but it’s cautious and visionless and nervous and going nowhere."

Another of Simmons’ public intellectuals, the economist Brian Easton, is similarly convinced that the across-the-board debasement of New Zealand intellectual life over the past twenty years should be laid at the door of the "rogernomes":

"Fundamentally, the rogernomes were anti-intellectual, evidenced by their treatment of the arts, of science research, of tertiary education (which they could not distinguish from training), of the National Library, the National Archives, and the National Museum and Art Gallery, of history, and of dissent."

Speaking Truth to Power thus paints a rather bleak picture of intellectual life in New Zealand. But is neo-liberalism really to blame? Hasn’t the Right always evinced a deep suspicion of the "republic of equals" which free intellectual inquiry inevitably encourages?

From the Palais-Royal, where Eighteenth Century Parisian intellectuals gathered to dream the French Republic into existence; to the night-clubs of Weimar Berlin, where Marxists like Brecht and Eisner put song into the revolution’s heart; to the coffee-bars of Greenwich Village, where Ginsberg’s poetry and Dylan’s lyrics made the youth of America howl; to the staff bar at Avalon Studios, where for the first (and last?) time New Zealand television learned to speak for itself; it has never been safe to let large numbers of intelligent and creative people get ideologically intoxicated in the same place. That totalitarian movements as diverse as the Jacobins and the Nazis moved swiftly to shut down such intellectual watering-holes, merely confirms that free-thinkers have always threatened those who like to keep all their mental ducks in a row – no matter what colour their uniforms.

Jesson attributed New Zealand’s fierce anti-intellectualism to its colonial status: "Like many frontier societies, New Zealand has not provided a friendly environment to culture or to thought." But this is only partly true. Prior to the fall of the Liberals in 1912, New Zealand enjoyed an international reputation as a highly literate and intellectually vigorous – almost experimental – culture. The "closing of the New Zealand mind" began with the crushing of organised labour by the Massey Government in 1912-1913, and the subsequent consolidation of rural-conservative power during the First World War and the 1920s – the period historian James Belich refers to as "The Great Tightening".

Massey’s "tightening" was repeated by the Holland Government following the defeat of the Labour Government in 1949. The Waterfront Lockout of 1951, enforced by the infamous "Emergency Regulations" ushered in a regime of censorship and political intimidation which remained in place until the early 1970s. (It should never be forgotten that Bill Pearson’s celebrated essay "Fretful Sleepers" was penned in the aftermath of the ’51 upheavals – a factor which undoubtedly accounts for most of his gloomier observations about New Zealanders’ hostility to intellectual pursuits.) The election of Rob Muldoon in 1975, in response to the political "loosening" of New Zealand life, provoked yet another round of tightening.

Viewed from this historical perspective, the actions of the neo-liberals in the late 1980s and 90s don’t look so "neo" at all. Rising union militancy, the Springbok Tour protests, second-wave feminism, and the burgeoning Maori "renaissance" had terrified the Right into once again reaching for the screws. Massey’s "Cossacks" and the "rogernomes" bore a strong family resemblance.

Anti-intellectualism – far from being an attitude deeply "ingrained" in New Zealanders – is actually a prejudice requiring constant maintenance and reinforcement. It’s because they encourage people to think critically that the Right goes to these extraordinary lengths to ensure that public intellectuals are feared and vilified. At all costs, the "critics and consciences" of society must be prevented from reminding New Zealanders that the "republic of equals" their forebears came so far to build remains unfinished, and that the happiness and fulfilment they seek can only be found in the physical and mental effort of its construction.