Tuesday 30 March 2010

As Auckland Goes - So Goes the Country

The Reichstag Fire 1933

In the light of today’s decision by the National-led Government to dismiss the democratically-elected Canterbury Regional Council and replace it with a panel of commissioners, I thought Bowalley Road visitors might be interested in reading the speech I delivered yesterday (29 March) to the Auckland Rotary Club.
ON THE 27 JANUARY 1932, some 650 members of the Dusseldorf Industry Club gathered together in the grand ballroom of Dusseldorf’s Park Hotel to hear an address by the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party – Herr Adolf Hitler.

Most of the industrialists seated in that glittering ballroom viewed Hitler and his National Socialists with considerable scepticism, and not a small number regarded the man as a dangerous radical.

They were, after all, meeting in the very depths of a worldwide economic crisis. Six million Germans were unemployed. The Communists "Red Front" and the Nazi’s "Stormtroopers" were daily battling one another for control of the nation’s streets. And to many of the businessmen in that room, the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the one was virtually indistinguishable from the other.

Adolf Hitler, dressed conservatively in a dark blue pin-stripe suit, knew that the speech he was about to give was crucial to his own and his party’s future. The Nazi’s were running out of money, and the men in the ballroom of the Park Hotel were the only people left in Germany with the funds to finance him and his Nazi Party to victory.

As he so often did, Hitler rose to the challenge. His speech to the Dusseldorf Industry Club marked a turning point in Nazi Party fortunes. From that day forward, Germany’s leading industrialists were satisfied that the Nazi Leader was a politician they could (as Margaret Thatcher would later say of Mikhail Gorbachev) "do business with".

My job today is the opposite of Adolf Hitler’s. Where he sought to allay the fears of the nation’s business leaders, I am seeking to inflame them.

Where he was at pains to stress what we would today call the "synergy" of his own extreme right-wing politics with the gathered industrialist’s commitment to private property and private enterprise, I have come to warn you that the Auckland business community’s historical propensity for using extreme right-wing ideologies and politicians to advance their own commercial interests has been bad for the city; bad for the country; and, ultimately, bad for themselves.

Let’s begin with the city.

Auckland has always been the odd one out among the four metropolitan centres of New Zealand. Both Wellington and Christchurch were planned, Wakefield settlements, while Dunedin was the creation of an heroic band of Scots Presbyterian dissidents.

Nothing about Auckland has ever been planned – at least not in the 19th Century positivist sense that New Zealand’s other major cities were planned. It is truer, perhaps, to say that Auckland was "schemed"; that it was "plotted" – even "conspired". But, planned? Never.

Let’s begin with Thomas Russell, the man whose ruthless merging of business and politics transformed Auckland from a hemmed-in colonial port to one of the great cities of the British Empire. Lawyer, banker, land speculator, industrialist and Cabinet Minister, Russell was the man who drove the young colony of New Zealand into a full-scale war with its indigenous inhabitants – a war from which he and his crony-capitalist associates reaped a bountiful commercial harvest.

It is not in the least bit surprising that, having seen what Auckland businessmen were capable of when they donned the politician’s frock-coat and top-hat, the parliamentarians representing the rest of New Zealand moved with almost indecent haste to re-locate the nation’s capital several hundred miles to the South.

Auckland, however, has never forgotten the lessons Russell taught her. Ever since the early 1860s, when a well-connected Auckland burgher could move freely and easily within the potent political triangle connecting Queen Street, the Legislature and the Governor’s Residence, casually swapping hats as he passed from one to the other, Auckland businessmen have dreamed of the day when that seamless web of influence and advantage would be restored.

In the meantime, if the capital could not be restored to Auckland, then, at the very least, Auckland could be sent to the capital.

Bill Massey, from Mangere, was the first of Auckland’s truly significant Prime Ministers, but he was by no means the last. In him, the pattern of radical conservative extremism which the Auckland business community has, over and over again, inflicted upon the rest of the country, was first fixed.

This was the man, after all, who, in the service of Mr Russell and his highly profitable gold-mine, organised the political-cleansing of the little mining town of Waihi. That the price of crushing the Waihi Miners Union turned out to be Fred Evan’s life, gave Massey and his brutal Police Commissioner, John Cullen, not the slightest pause.

And in less than a year, that same brutality was visible in the very heart of Auckland city. "Massey’s Cossacks" they called them – and rightly so. Because these Northland and Waikato farm-boys were the farmers and the Auckland employers very own private army: stormtroopers before the fact; New Zealand’s very own fascist squadristi – a whole eight years before Benito Mussolini pulled on his first pair of jackboots.

Ah yes, the Auckland business community had much to thank Bill Massey for – not least its instinct for the baton and the boot when challenged.

But Massey, like all of us, was mortal, and thought had to be given to who his successor should be – especially in the baleful light of the Labour Party’s growing political strength. In the ten years since the desperately close General Election of 1914, the Left’s electoral strength had grown from a manageable 5 to a threatening 17 Members of Parliament.

Enter one of the most fascinating – and little known – figures in New Zealand political history. Bert Davy was the Auckland business community’s "Mr Fix-it"; their "back-room boy"; their "political wizard".

Long before Nicky Hager started collecting National Party e-mails, Bert Davy had mastered the art of emptying the political process of all integrity. Trained in the United States, Davy knew how easy it was to scoop out the substance of democracy, leaving only a glittering shell. He was the original "hollow man".

Yes, but he was good – very good – at what he did.

Massey’s chosen successor was the Northland farmer and First World War hero, Gordon Coates. As Diana Beaglehole puts it in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography:

Employing the latest advertising techniques for the first time at a New Zealand election, he focused attention not on the party or its candidates, but on the leader, Prime Minister Gordon Coates. New Zealanders were urged to take ‘Coats off with Coates’, ‘the man who gets things done’, to vote for ‘Coates and Confidence’, ‘Coates and Certainties’. Appeals were made to patriotism, women voters were targeted, and the business community was promised ‘more business in Government, less Government in business’. Nothing was left to chance, ‘Coates’ candidates’ and their committees were issued with booklets, briefing them on how to best run their campaigns. The electorate responded by giving Reform its greatest victory and Davy gained a reputation as a superb political organiser.

"More business in government, less government in business" – ahh, how those words have echoed down the years. So much more congenial to the ears of your average businessman that Abraham Lincoln’s "government of the people, by the people, for the people". Davy’s great gift, of course, was his knack for putting the "right people" in government.

Except that Coates (the first New Zealand Prime Minister to be born in New Zealand) turned out to be nothing like "right" enough. In fact, he thoroughly alarmed Davy and his backers by proving to be something of a closet socialist. This was not at all what Auckland’s business leaders were expecting – and it certainly wasn’t what they had paid for.

Since Bert Davy had made this mess – Bert Davy would have to clean it up.

Enter one J.W.S. McArthur – a wealthy Auckland timber merchant. McArthur gave Davy £1,300 (about $200,000 in today’s money) to "organise nationally against the government". This Davy did, bringing off one of the most extraordinary political reversals in New Zealand electoral history. Reform went down to Davy’s purpose-built United Party and the inconvenient Mr Coates was dispatched to the Opposition benches.

Davy’s influence was again brought to bear in 1931, when he was instrumental in bringing the two right-wing parties – Reform and United – into a defensive electoral coalition against a resurgent Labour Party.

Unfortunately, this brought the dangerous Mr Coates back into play and, once again, Auckland’s right-wing business leaders decided to intervene.

The man with the money this time was William Goodfellow, the founder and former managing director of the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company, and the moving force behind Empire Dairies – the huge, privately-owned sales operation responsible for off-loading the lion’s share of New Zealand’s dairy exports on the London docks.

Goodfellow had taken fright at Coates’ willingness to embrace a much greater level of state involvement in the marketing of primary exports, and was willing to pay Davy £1,250 for three years to construct a new anti-socialist party with which he planned to take just enough seats to hold the balance of power between the Right and the Left. Davy accepted, and by October he was ready to announce the formation of the Democrat Party.

In 1935, however, Davy’s magic deserted him. Driven by his hatred of Coates, the "political wizard" exceeded Goodfellow’s careful brief and organised a serious bid for power. Predictably, his efforts resulted not in another victory for the Right, but a triumph for Mickey Savage’s Labour Party. Davy had split the conservative vote – and the Left was in.

I’ve devoted some time to the exploits of Davy because his little-known career speaks volumes about the aims and methods of Auckland’s ruling elite.

New Zealand’s whole history since the First World War was, in a very real sense, distorted by the secret machinations of Auckland’s politicised businessmen. And that distortion didn’t stop with the downfall of A.E. Davy in 1935 – it continues to this very day.

Just substitute Heatley and Gibbs for McArthur and Goodfellow and, well, I’m sure you get the picture.

Oh, and a small reminder of how small the world of New Zealand politics truly is, William Goodfellow’s grandson, Peter Goodfellow, was last year elected President of the National Party.

Let us now move forward to 1945, to the end of the Second World War.

Tens of thousands of demobbed Kiwi servicemen were pouring off the troopships on to the Auckland wharves. More than a few of them, having seen the great cities of Britain, Europe and North America, were none to keen on returning to Levin or Geraldine.

The sparkling waters of the Waitemata and the bright lights of Queen Street spoke to them of a future much more in tune with their post-war expectations. Auckland was poised on the threshold of a sixty-year period of expansion that would see her transformed from being merely the first among equals of New Zealand’s larger cities, to this country’s indisputably dominant urban conurbation.

The planners at the Ministry of Works in Wellington were well aware that Auckland’s population was set to explode – and they were ready. An appendix to the 1946 edition of Hansard contains a remarkable draft plan for what might be called "The Auckland That Never Was".

The city’s anticipated population explosion was to be accommodated by a correspondingly dramatic expansion in state housing – planned communities built around a comprehensive system of public transportation modelled on the electrified railway network of the Hutt Valley.

Had the Labour Government’s vision for Auckland been realised, we would now be living in a city not unlike the elegant cities of north-west Europe. The architectural drafts for the public housing estates prepared by the distinguished Austrian architect Ernst Plischke make it clear that Auckland would have been no dreary replica of East Berlin, but an internationally celebrated model of sophisticated urban design.

But, of course, Labour’s vision was never realised. Auckland became not the Stockholm – but the Los Angeles – of the South Seas. Instead of public housing and public transport, Aucklanders got sprawling private suburbs, accessed by private automobiles travelling along a meandering network of hugely expensive motorways.

The Auckland That Never Was, with its collective lifestyle centred around sturdy, rent-controlled public apartments, and its efficient, publicly-owned rapid-rail networks, would have had a very different political and cultural complexion. Essentially, it would have been a social-democratic city.

The Auckland we’ve ended up with is a city of individuals who travel by car. It’s a city based on the tried and true formula: "real-estate equals roads – roads equal real-estate". This is what I call the "Auckland Racket", and it underpins the city’s speculative economy, its nouveau-riche property-developers’ culture and, most importantly, its far-right neoliberal politics.

If you’re looking for a neat summary of this thesis, just remember: trains and buses vote Labour; cars vote National.

Those responsible for designing the new Auckland "Super-city’s" constitutional architecture know this only too well. What we have been given is a developer’s and a roading contractor’s charter. A democracy-proof array of "Council Controlled Organisations", staffed by the "right" people, and dedicated to keeping the "Auckland Racket" alive and well for at least another generation.

What we are witnessing is the ultimate fulfilment of Bert Davy’s 1925 promise to ensure "more business in government, less government in business". That this means abandoning the subsidiarity principle of local government: the organising principle which holds that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority, and that all such authorities should be democratically elected and controlled; does not appear to concern Auckland’s elites.

Democracy, it seems, is over-rated.

And, as Auckland goes – so goes the country.

But the cost of abandoning democracy will be very high. And here I am not talking about the effects of its abandonment on Auckland’s ordinary citizens – those about to be stripped of effective representation, even as their local taxes (in whatever guise) are set to rise.

No, what I am talking about here is the moral cost of turning politics into a business.

To shut ordinary people out of the decision-making process, first requires a belief on the part of those responsible that they are in some way extraordinary – and in some important sense superior to their fellow citizens. Because, surely, a "super-city", led by a "super-mayor", requires not just men – but "supermen".

The man who addressed the Dusseldorf Industry Club on 27 January 1932 put it this way:

I am bound to say that private property can be morally and ethically justified only if I admit that men's achievements are different.

Only on that basis can I assert: since men's achievements are different, the results of those achievements are also different.

But if the results of those achievements are different, then it is reasonable to leave to men the administration of those results to a corresponding degree. It would not be logical to entrust the administration of the result of an achievement which was bound up with a personality either to the next best but less capable person or to a community which, through the mere fact that it had not performed the achievement, has proved that it is not capable of administering the result of that achievement.

Thus it must be admitted that in the economic sphere, from the start, in all branches men are not of equal value or of equal importance. And once this is admitted it is madness to say: in the economic sphere there are undoubtedly differences in value, but that is not true in the political sphere.

It is absurd to build up economic life on the conceptions of achievement, of the value of personality, and therefore in practice on the authority of personality, but in the political sphere to deny the authority of personality and to thrust into its place the law of the greater number - Democracy.

This is the political logic underpinning the constitution of the Auckland "supercity".

A government of supermen, by supermen, for supermen.

As Auckland goes, so goes the country.

God help us.

Sunday 28 March 2010

Whose Gemstones?

The Paranoid Style in American Politics: Ralph Steadman's illustration captures perfectly The Gemstone File's fear and loathing of corporate America. The National Government's mining policies have reawakened fears, first voiced in the 1980s, that New Zealand politics is being driven by a very similar cabal of secret corporate manipulators.

ON TUESDAY MORNING I got a call from an old friend of mine. "This plan to mine our national parks," he said, "doesn’t it all sound a bit like a real-life version of The Gemstone File?"

I laughed out loud. Because he was right – it does.

The Gemstone File???

"Tell me what it is, dear editors, before I get into it" runs the first sentence of a collection of papers sent to the Otago University Students Association way back in the mid-1970s.

"My dear, it’s heavy. What is its history? It’s an anonymous manifestation mailed from Tucson, Arizona to a fanatical friend of the Fanatic, who insisted it should be published for the good of the North Indies – that radiated land improperly referred to by trivialists as America. What does it mean? It’s mean. It names names, and pushes punches right back where they came from."

Today, in the Age of the Internet, we’d have no difficulty in recognising the conspiratorial style – and dismiss it accordingly. But, back then, in the Age of Nixon and Watergate, it all sounded ominously plausible.

At the heart of The Gemstone File lay its anonymous author’s deep paranoia about corporate America and what he saw as its gangster-politicians. As the file unfolds, the reader is inducted into a vast, parapolitical history of the forty-two years 1932-1974. A history which "exposes" the generally accepted narrative of those four decades as an elaborate fiction concocted to mask and/or explain-away the dark crimes of the men who helped to shape them.

Heady stuff for the student activists and journalists of the mid-70s – not so remarkable now.

But wait … there’s more.

In the early 1980s a new document, now referred to as The Kiwi Gemstone, began circulating in left-wing and trade union circles.

Like its American counterpart, The Kiwi Gemstone fundamentally recast our recent history as a grisly narrative of unseen and unpunished crimes. At the heart of which, among the file’s tangle of intricate and interlocking conspiracies, lay a mighty secret: a discovery which could transform New Zealand:

"18th May 1967: Texas oil billionaire [Name Deleted] using a sophisticated satellite technique to detect global deposits, discovers a huge oil source near Aotearoa in the Great South Basin.

"12th October 1968: [Names Deleted] announce confirmation of new oil source comparable to the Alaskan North Slope – gas reserves estimated at 150 times larger than Kapuni Field."

And now, thirty years after The Kiwi Gemstone’s startling "revelations", we discover that beneath New Zealand’s national parks lie quantities of what Resources Minister, Gerry Brownlee, describes as "Rare Earth Elements", potentially worth billions of dollars.

One of these rare metals, "Neodymium" is used in the manufacture of hybrid cars (there’s a kilogram of Neodymium in every Toyota Prius, for example). Other "Rare Earths" feature in the production of high-temperature superconductors – a technology pioneered by Kiwi engineers.

As my old friend put it to me: "So the Rare Earths could be central to a New Zealand clean technology industry that could turn this country completely around, the ‘Nokia’ we’ve been looking for, or, alternatively, we could export them to the USA so that they don't have to go cap-in-hand to China. What will National do? What Comalco [style] deal are they about to sign?"

Hence, his reference to The Gemstone File.

It's an apt comparison, because beneath the wild conspiratorial fiction that fills both the American and Kiwi versions of Gemstone, there lies a common, indisputable, truth. The history of the past eighty years: the slow but relentless appropriation of public goods for private profit; has been one vast swindle. And larceny on such a scale does require "gangster politicians": ruthless men dedicated to keeping the public in the dark, and willing to destroy anyone who threatens their conspiracies with the "disinfectant of sunlight".

"To mine, or not to mine?" That will be the question New Zealand debates between now and 3 May.

But if we do decide to find out what lies beneath our national parks, we should also take care to decide something else: "Cui bono?" – Who benefits?

Us, or Them?

Because, in the words of The Gemstone File:

"If this planet’s a corporation – it’s a corpse."

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 26 March 2010.

Friday 26 March 2010

A Brief Item of News

Te Rongomai o Te Karaka - as it was. On the morning of Wednesday, 10 March 2010, this massive stone outcropping above the Marokopa River in the King Country was blown to pieces by Clearwater Hydro Ltd to make way for a road. To the members of the Ngati Peehi, Te Kanawa and Kinohaku hapu Te Rongomai o Te Karaka was wahi tapu - sacred. Its destruction passed almost unnoticed by the mainstream news media.

IT WAS ONLY a brief item on the TVNZ news bulletin of 10 March. If you ducked out to put the jug on, chances are you missed it. (I certainly missed it, and without Scott Hamilton’s excellent blog "Reading the Maps", the story would’ve passed me by entirely.)

There was a lot packed into that one minute, fifty-three second news-item though: almost as much as James Cameron’s interminable Avatar; and the story-line was pretty much the same.

An indigenous people have something of great value – something they’re willing to go to great lengths to protect. Opposing them is a business – a business seeking to harness the latent energy of their unspoiled world.

So far, so Avatar.

But reality is a much harsher storyteller than Hollywood.

The tiny Te Anga Marae lies in the rugged valley of the Marokopa River, about 30 kilometres, as the magpie flies, from the King Country town of Te Kuiti.

A couple of years back it played host to Clearwater Hydro – a company specialising in the construction of small-scale hydro power generation. A dam on the Marokopa would supply cheap energy to the scattered farms and settlements of the valley. The Iwi was all for it, said the company. And, there was money in it. Surplus power could be fed back into the grid – at a profit. Everyone could win.

Except Te Rongomai o Te Karaka. Standing sentinel above the Marokopa, this distinctive, two-storey high outcropping of rock, had for centuries been revered by the local Ngati Maniapoto sub-tribes – Ngati Peehi, Te Kanawa and Kinohaku – as a place of power. Healing plants grew in its crevices. Tribal gatherings convened in its shadow. For warriors it was a rallying point. In short, Te Rongomai o Te Karaka was wahi tapu: sacred.

When the locals discovered that Clearwater Hydro’s scheme involved the destruction of Te Rongomai o Te Karaka they were appalled. A temporary court injunction was secured and appeals were launched for its preservation.

All to no avail. On the evening of Tuesday, 9 March, police officers forcibly removed the thirty-five locals whose bodies had replaced the now-expired court injunction as Te Rongomai o Te Karaka’s last line of defence.

The following morning, Clearwater Hydro’s demolition experts charged the outcrop with dynamite, and to the horror of the hapu, blew Te Rongomai o Te Karaka into a thousand pieces. An eye-witness, Natasha Willison-Reardon, told TVNZ’s Te Karare programme that, as the dust-cloud settled over the ruins of Te Rongomai o Te Karaka, a cheer went up from the company managers and local landowners who’d observed the explosion from a nearby hilltop.

"We heard a cheer from them, and basically they opened up their beer to celebrate."

That’s how real-world confrontations usually end. No blue-skinned N’avi swooping down to save the day. No conscience-stricken human avatars turning their masters’ weapons to nobler purposes. In the valley of the Marokopa there were only the cheers of developers, the high keening of the kuia, and the rattle and clank of diggers and trucks as they hauled away the broken body of Te Rongomai o Te Karaka.

As well she might, the local Maori MP, Tariana Turia, strongly protested this "act of vandalism" carried out "under cover of darkness".

But Mrs Turia’s angry response is ultimately inadequate to the complex play of forces surrounding the destruction of Te Rongomai o Te Karaka. Maori and Pakeha were represented on both sides of this back-blocks confrontation. At dawn, on the banks of the Marokopa, "baddies" and "goodies" were much harder to sort out than the heroes and villains of Avatar.

That’s because in this small, largely unreported incident (it seems only TVNZ reporter, Heta Gardiner, was at the scene) we can see clearly how few, if any, of the grim futures we must choose between have happy endings.

Do we save what is sacred in this land? Or, in the name of progress and prosperity, do we dam it, dig it up, blow it to pieces?

Perhaps I’m worrying too much about an outcrop of rock. Don’t New Zealanders have more to worry about than a small stand-off among the (once) peaceful hills of the Marokopa Valley?

Indeed they do. And yet, the words of poet Gary McCormick keep coming back to me:

How often small things pass
Unnoticed in the larger death.

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, 19 March 2010. 

Saturday 20 March 2010

Outrageous Choices

Waitakere Woman: To take the seat of Waitakere off Paula Bennett, Labour needed to select someone who could match her in street cred' and shit talk. (Think Outrageous Fortune meets Erin Brocovitch.) Carmel Sepuloni, bless her, just aint that gal.

UNBELIEVABLE! The Labour Party has just offered the NZ electorate further proof (if any more was needed) of its accelerating political infirmity.

It has just selected Carmel Sepuloni as it Waitakere candidate.

In making this decision it has not only chosen wrongly, but it has also dealt what may prove to be a fatal blow to the career of one of its more talented MPs, Phil Twyford.

"Waitakere Man/Woman" is the key to Labour’s recovery. Who is he/she?

I attempted a thumbnail sketch of the key demographic which crossed over from Labour to National at the last election in The Independent of 3 September 2009:

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.

Carmel Sepuloni’s going to win back those voters?

Yeah, right.

The truly sad aspect of today’s selection is what it tells us about the paucity of talent in Labour’s ranks.

For God’s sake! Two of the four candidates standing were sitting MPs! And dear old Hamish McCracken is a bloody political studies lecturer – just the sort of bloke Waitakere Man and his missus are desperate to sit down and have a drink with at the pub.

The clear goal facing Labour in Waitakere was to choose a candidate who can beat Paula Bennett. That candidate needed to be: female, have a solid working-class background (to which, at some point, she had added a tertiary qualification) be either Pakeha or Maori (or, ideally, a mixture of both) and, most importantly, be capable of "talking shit" with the same cheeky facility as the incumbent. Think Outrageous Fortune meets Erin Brocovitch.

A healthy Labour Party would have women like that lining up for the Waitakere seat. That it has ended up selecting a candidate who would, quite frankly, have been much more usefully matched against National’s Sam Lotu-liga in Maungakiekie (where I also happen to think Labour has made a wrong choice) speaks volumes.

And none of those volumes contain very much in the way of good news.

Friday 19 March 2010

Plus ça change …

The two faces of National: The National Party's first Prime Minister, Sid Holland (standing, appropriately, on the right) dominated New Zealand society from 1949 until 1957 by unleashing the most brutal instincts of New Zealand conservatism. Keith Holyoake, by contrast, ruled New Zealand from 1960 until 1972 by adroitly deflecting the worst impulses of his own his party.

The naïve, the almost childish brutality, with which the chiefs of the National Party fell upon power may seem quite surprising, until one remembers how famished for power they were, and with what innocency of experience they faced the world about them … One does not mean that Mr Holland and his subordinates (lieutenants? – most of them looked like subordinates) went down personally to Government Buildings and kicked the bodies of public servants. Some of them were obviously not as bad as their leader ... Yet the insensitiveness to administrative delicacies, the conviction … that all you had to do with exchange controls was to end them, that all you had to do to make the pound go "further" was to take your hands off it, that the main thing needed in education was to insult the Education Department, was quite appalling.

Dr J.C. Beaglehole, 1961. (Describing the conduct of the first National government, 1949-1957.)

THE MORE things change, say the French, the more they stay the same. Ten years into the 21st Century, it is sobering to read the words of the eminent New Zealand historian, Dr John Beaglehole, and realise how very closely the events of sixty years ago are mirrored in the events of today.

Sobering, but not surprising, since similar causes tend to produce similar effects. By 1949, the New Zealand Right had been out of power for fourteen years, and most historians agree that it would have remained so indefinitely had Sid Holland, the National Party’s pugnacious leader, not reassured the electorate that Labour’s "cradle to grave" welfare state would not be dismantled by an incoming conservative government.

John Key came to power on a similar promise. His party had drawn the appropriate lessons from its narrow defeat in the 2005 General Election. New Zealanders had demonstrated that they were reasonably comfortable with Labour’s softened version of the neoliberal economic order, and would deny office to National for as long as the party threatened to "harden it up".

Don Brash’s flinty countenance was duly exchanged for Key’s fresh face – and the new National leader’s attractive combination of youth and openness swiftly convinced the electorate that his party’s pledge to preserve Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s "kinder, gentler" version of the market economy could be trusted.

Even so, the experience of being out of office for a decade or more cannot help but leave its mark upon a party. Contrary to Lord Acton’s famous observation, it is the prolonged denial of power, rather than its too ample possession, which is most likely to corrupt a political movement.

Being forced to watch, in impotent rage, as one’s most cherished beliefs, and the institutions erected to give them force, are derided and dismantled will drive an iron spike into the tenderest soul. How this alienation manifests itself is one of those endlessly fascinating aspects of political behaviour.

The Labour Party provides vivid examples of the two most common responses: reaffirmation and rejection.

Kept out of office for twelve years by the imperturbable Keith Holyoake, Labour’s Norman Kirk saw his party’s landslide victory of 1972 as an opportunity to rush into law all the cherished policies he and his colleagues had developed during their political exile.

How different was David Lange’s response to the Labour Party victory of 1984. Repeated electoral rejection had soured him on Labour’s traditional offerings, and he entered office determined to implement the radical new political and economic agenda of his finance minister, Roger Douglas.

John Key’s government, by contrast, seems incapable of either reaffirming the Right’s traditional agenda, or rejecting it in favour of a new one.

The opportunity was certainly there at the end of 2008 for Key to "do a Lange", and dramatically steer his own party in a radical new direction. In essence, this would have necessitated the sort of social volte-face that Labour pulled-off in the late-1980s, when it all but deserted its electoral base to embrace that fraction of the New Zealand business community determined to move the country on from what it saw as a decrepit and discredited Keynesianism.

The Global Financial Crisis offered Key the perfect opportunity to effect what anti-capitalist author, Naomi Klein, calls "The Shock Doctrine" (and, for a moment, his "Jobs Summit" did teeter intriguingly on the edge of that precipice). It would have meant pouring money into the universities and the CRIs; strengthening the civil service and the state-owned media; and enlisting the co-operation of the Council of Trade Unions (which would certainly have been given) – all with the aim of introducing to New Zealand the sort of state-driven mode of economic development perfected by Singapore.

Key could have complemented and softened this "New Zealand Incorporated" approach by encouraging a generous and humanitarian social policy – drawing on the reforming legacy of liberal National politicians like Ralph Hanan, Les Gandar and Doug Graham.

Sadly, the Prime Minister proved unequal to this Kleinian moment. Having spurned the opportunity for "rejection", Key has instead presided over his deeply conservative caucus’s determination to "reaffirm" National’s traditional aims and objectives.

All the childishness, naiveté and political brutality described by Beaglehole in his 1961 essay has returned, proving that this National Government – like the Bourbon dynasty restored to power following Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 – has "learned nothing and forgotten nothing". Intelligent, and (in Opposition, at least) thoughtful politicians like Simon Power, Judith Collins and Chris Finlayson have been forced to scramble aboard the same sort of obnoxious political juggernaut that clattered and clanked its way out of National’s provincial and suburban heartlands in 1949, 1975 and 1990.

Except, that all those members of National’s caucus who have, in the past week, cheered Education Minister, Anne Tolley’s, downsizing of the Ministry of Education, and applauded Stephen Joyce’s disastrous assault on university standards, are forgetting something of vital importance: their leader’s promise to maintain Labour’s "kinder, gentler" neoliberal state.

National’s backwoodsmen may see nothing wrong with "kicking the bodies of public servants" and ruthlessly reaffirming the policy objectives of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, but those few wise heads that still remain in the National Party would do well to remind these backwoods Bourbons that the voters have firmly rejected them.

The Prime Minister’s winning smile cannot forever be relied upon to distract voters’ attention from the mounting casualties of National’s noxious nostalgia.

This essay was first published in The Independent of Thursday, 18 March 2010.

Thursday 18 March 2010

Ten Years Ago This Week (The First 100 Days)

The Helen & Jim Show: The signing of the Labour-Alliance coalition agreement (above) ushered in a period of frenetic promise-keeping by the new government. Not everyone, however, was impressed. By the winter of 2000 the business community was threatening Clark and Anderton with a full-scale investment strike.

MEMO TO: Heather Simpson – Dept. of Prime Minister & Cabinet
FROM: Prolewatch Public Relations
RE: The Government’s First 100 Days

Gidday Heather,

Here’s the cut-down version of our assessment of the Government’s first 100 days that you asked for.

So far so good, we reckon. Even Phil Goff’s mob admits that Helen’s doing brilliantly, and as for the bleeding heart liberals and the arty-farty types – well – who needs Ecstasy when you’ve got a progressive woman Prime Minister! No, as far as the mood on the street’s concerned, you can tell Helen that Labour’s got it sussed.

We’re a bit worried about Jim though. What the hell was all that BS on Holmes about! Jeez, he made that Aussie journo sound intelligent – and that’s not an easy thing to do! Old Jimbo’s going to have to watch himself. Rhetoric’s fine in opposition, but when you’re in government people expect you to know the answers.

To be fair though, it’s not just Jim who’s got people worried, the whole Alliance has a big question mark hanging over it these days. People are saying: "What’s the point of having two left-wing parties? Why doesn’t the Alliance just get back together with Labour?" It’s a fair question. We foresee all kinds of difficulties for Jim and his team as the next election rolls around. Who should they compete with – your lot or the Greens? Jim’s a shrewd bugger, but he might have met his match with this problem.

Still, it’s an ill-wind etc. If Jim has led the Alliance into a dead-end, Laila Harré might be just the gal to lead them out of it. She’s young, smart, politically very savvy – and people are beginning to notice.

Her work with Margaret Wilson on the Employment Relations Bill got all the union heavies into a right old tizzy. Seems she actually forced them to do some thinking – not a pretty sight!

The bosses have noticed her too. They keep asking Matt McCarten: "Is she really as Hard-Left as people say?" To which Matt replies: "Well, she’s hard, and she’s left – and that’s a much more dangerous combination!"

Speaking of the bosses, you’re going to have to keep an eye on them over the next few months. Our spies in the Employers Federation tell us that they’ve never seen their members so rarked up. Re-nationalising ACC was bad enough, but Margaret and Laila’s Employment Relations Bill has driven them into a cold fury.

Don’t underestimate them, Heather. Labour, the Alliance, and the Greens might command a majority in Parliament, but the bosses still rule in the workplace, and all those pen-pushers in the bureaucracy sing from the New Right’s song-sheet – not yours.

And whatever else you do, never mistake silence for compliance. Plots are being hatched and plans are being laid, and none of them are designed to do Helen and Jim any good.

Check out One Network News - you’ll catch our drift. Coverage of the Employment Relations Bill is inter-spliced with scary footage of scuffles on the picket lines and monster trade union marches. Michael Cullen’s Super Scheme is trashed by a couple of workers from a roading gang.

Helen might have picked a fight with the wrong people when she let fly at TVNZ. Getting rid of Roseanne Meo was all very well, but Marian Hobbs will have to take a few more scalps before that lot settles down.

Still, they’ll keep. Right now Kiwis are just enjoying the novelty of a Government that actually keeps its promises. Enjoy what remains of the honeymoon – but don’t forget: it’ll be the Coalition’s last 100 days – not its first - that keeps it in power.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion of Friday, 17 March 2000.

Saturday 13 March 2010


Don't tread on me! If Rogernomics represented neoliberalism's all-out assault on the institutions of social democracy, Rogerpolitics reflects a sinister shift of focus by the radical Right. The targets now are the core institutions of the bourgeois-democratic state itself. In the face of the new Auckland "supercity"'s corporate tyranny, the time has come to sound again the battle cry of the world's first bourgeois-democratic revolution "No taxation without representation!"

"ROGERPOLITICS" is Mike Lee’s, the Auckland Regional Council Chairman’s, evocative description of what’s happening to New Zealand’s largest city.

If "Rogernomics" represented the triumph of private over public interests in economic matters, "Rogerpolitics" stands for the elevation of private over public decision-making in the political sphere.

What’s happening in Auckland: the anti-democratic character of its new "super-city" council’s constitution, and the democracy-proof structures of its new "Council Controlled Organisations" (CCO) are developments the rest of New Zealand should be following closely – very closely.

Because, if what is being set in place in Auckland is allowed to stand, it will be tried elsewhere. City by city, region by region, the Auckland Right’s mutant political virus will spread, and in all too short a time, "Rogerpolitics" will be ready to leap the species barrier from local to central government.

When that happens, our entire system of responsible government will fall under its shadow, and the future of democracy itself will be imperilled.

Just consider the facts.

At the moment, the citizens of Auckland’s four big cities: Auckland, Manukau, North Shore and Waitakere; are represented by a total of 75 councillors (roughly one councillor for every 15,000 residents). The new super-city, into which the four present cities, plus the smaller, semi-rural, peripheral districts of Rodney and Franklin are being subsumed, will have just 20 councillors (one for every 70,000 residents). In other words, the democratic efficacy of the ordinary Aucklander’s vote is being reduced by more than 75 percent!

"How in the blue-blazes", you may well be asking yourself , "is a city councillor supposed to adequately represent 70,000 residents?"

Believe me, Aucklanders are asking themselves the same question.

Some were hoping against hope that the answer would be provided in the form of beefed-up community boards. But they must now be feeling cruelly disappointed. The constitutional powers and duties of the 19 community boards (handed down to Aucklanders by the unelected Auckland Transition Agency) offer not the slightest prospect of either effective democratic participation or representation. Their members have the power to suggest, to enquire and to complain, but they cannot require the Auckland City Council to do anything at all.

So, the democratic deficit of the Auckland supercity’s council and community boards is a large one. But it fades into insignificance when compared to the wholesale elimination of citizens’ rights entailed in the new city’s seven CCOs.

As Phil Twyford, Labour’s spokesperson on Auckland issues and a member of the parliamentary select committee currently scrutinising the legislation setting up the super-city, puts it: "They are wrapping 90% of Council operations up into commercial entities with their own boards of directors and CEOs. These commercial entities can meet in secret and won’t have to publish agendas, minutes, or subject themselves to members of the public asking pesky questions."

This takes us to the heart of what "Rogerpolitics" is attempting to foist upon Aucklanders – and, ultimately, upon all New Zealanders.

Just about everything your local authority does: supplying you with water, taking away your waste, constructing your streets and roads, running your public transportation system and civic amenities; will be bundled-up and vested in commercial institutions beyond the control of even your councillors. In this way the "Rogerpoliticians" intend to privatise the public sphere.

We will be given the shadow of democracy – but not the substance. There will still be local government elections, but those we elect to public office will have nothing to do. No, that’s not quite right. Those we elect will be able to do nothing.

A mayoral candidate, or slate of candidates, may promise to change this, or reform that, but once inside the Council Chamber they will discover that all the wires attached to the levers of power have been cut. All the important decisions affecting the lives of their constituents will be in the hands of unelected CCO directors. These government-appointed business-people will get 90 percent of citizens’ rates – but citizens will get zero percent say in the way their money is spent.

And what’ll soon be true for Aucklanders’ rates, will eventually be true of all our taxes.

Which is why we must tell the "Rogerpoliticians" what the American revolutionaries told King George III: "No taxation without representation!" Emblazoning on our banners the same tightly coiled serpent – and beneath it the same insurrectionary slogan:

"Don’t tread on me!"

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 12 March 2010.

Friday 12 March 2010

The Tribunes

The Gracchi: Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, the brothers who invented socialism. As tribunes of the plebeians - the common people of Rome - the Gracchi attempted to redistribute the wealth of the patricians - the Roman ruling class - among the city's landless citizens. Both brothers were assassinated for their pains. This poem was written in response to the lively exchange between a poet calling himself "Gaius" and the poet/critic, Scott Hamilton, which can be found here.

The Tribunes

My brother, Tiberius, knew them:
seated in the tavern corners,
ostentatious in their borrowed poverty.
(They were all from good families.)

Down among the plebes,
not to talk and argue like free men,
but to observe – at a distance.
Consuming the common man’s dusty world
with the same fastidiousness
as they drained their cups
of cheap wine.

Leaving their tables
just before dawn.
Brushing from stained tunics
the last greasy crumbs of their
symposium populare.

I recall their shadows
stumbling across graffiti-covered walls.
Nervously eyeing the toughs.
(Though they had little to fear from them
– possessing nothing any honest thief
would want to steal!)

Until, safe at last
in their hilltop villas,
nostrils purged of plebeian sweat,
and still tumescent
in the afterglow of danger;
they’d scratch out
their condescending
‘Poems to the People’.


Their cudgels rose and fell
alongside the rest
when the Senate’s fury
felled Tiberius for
daring to distribute
their patrician fathers'
bloated patrimonies
among the wretched
subjects of their

Chris Trotter
12 March 2010 

Grievance Mode

Kate Wilkinson, Minister of Labour.

KATE WILKINSON’S cautious dismantling of the Employment Relations Act continues. Her latest move, a review of the Personal Grievance (PG) provisions of the Act, would seem to confirm the Council of Trade Unions’ suspicions that the National-led Government intends to implement its employer-driven agenda incrementally – rather than with an Employment Contracts Act (ECA) style "king-hit".

It’s a short-sighted policy. Wilkinson and the employers’ representatives both appear to have forgotten the crucial role which universal PG mediation played in bedding the ECA in and making it work.

In most workplaces the tone of industrial relations is set by just two or three employees. Back in 1991, the ECA reassured these – the most assertive and self-reliant members of the workforce – that PG mediation would always be there to protect them against unjustified dismissal. If it hadn’t, they almost certainly would’ve stuck with the unions. And to give this union-based "insurance" teeth, they’d have made damn sure all their workmates did too.

The universal availability of PG mediation thus played a vital role in the de-unionisation of the New Zealand workforce. First, it persuaded the more individualistic and self-confident workers that they didn’t need to join a union to be protected against an incompetent and/or vindictive boss – thereby robbing the union movement of its most effective recruiters. Second, it gave employers a powerful financial incentive to behave decently towards their employees – thereby denying the unions’ the steady stream of horror stories required to keep union members paying their dues. As Jock Barnes, the militant hero/villain of the 1951 Waterfront Dispute, was fond of saying: "The boss is always the worker’s greatest organiser."

Viewed objectively, the employers’ demands to weaken the legislative guarantees surrounding PG mediation would appear to be self-defeating. Perhaps Bill Birch, the author of the ECA, should take Alastair Thompson of the Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association, and Business New Zealand’s Phil O’Rielly to one side and remind them why clauses mandating a 90-day probationary period for new employees, and the elimination of PG mediation, were never included in the original legislation.

After all, it’s not as if Birch was under any pressure from the trade union movement to step away from such extreme measures. While the legislation was still making its way through Parliament in the summer of 1991, the then President of the CTU, Ken Douglas, made it crystal clear to New Zealand’s trade unionists that he would neither counsel, nor lead, any form of mass struggle against the Bill’s passage.

This supine response from the country’s most prominent communist caught the National Government off-balance. They’d anticipated a major stoush over the bill and had been ready to offer concessions. As it turned out, they got everything they wanted – and could have got a lot more. But, as explained above, there were at least two very good reasons for not pushing their luck.

That the CEO of Business New Zealand, twenty years after the passage of the ECA, feels able to assert, without fear of serious professional embarrassment, that the elimination of what few legal protections remain for New Zealand’s workers will lead to an improvement in the country’s overall economic performance – is deeply troubling.

It suggests the business community has learned absolutely nothing from the experience of the ECA, and that many still believe that boosting profitability by slashing labour costs (especially the costs of hiring and firing) is the only way to go.

Where are the calls for more spending on research and development? For upgrading plant and equipment? For upskilling the workforce? They’re there. You’ll hear them in the employers’ submissions to parliamentary select committees and special taskforces. They’re in nearly all of Business NZ’s glossy reports. But, where you won’t hear them is at cocktail parties attended by Ms Wilkinson.

There, the talk is all about how dishonest and litigious their employees have become. How unfair it is that the law allows workers to punish poor employment practice with significant financial penalties. There, the Minister will be informed (anecdotally) how crucial it is (for New Zealand’s economic recovery) that those legal powers be taken from them.

That’s the employers’ preferred solution to this country’s sluggish productivity growth.

The employers’ attack on PG mediation also suggests something else – something much more disturbing than an inability to learn from their previous mistakes. It suggests that within the business community there exists a group of people perfectly willing, in the name of private and personal gain, to deprive their fellow citizens of their rights.

Viewed from a psychological perspective, this willingness to strip human-beings of their legal protections indicates, at best, an authoritarian and exploitative character-structure. At worst, it betokens an individual utterly incapable of experiencing empathy. Such people are called sociopaths: individuals who relate to other human-beings in exclusively instrumental terms – treating them as mere means to an end. In the eyes of these sociopathic employers, a worker is just something to be used up and then thrown away.

Does the National Party really want to become the political enabler for this ugly species of social pyschopathology? Is this the legacy John Key is content to leave behind him? And does the Minister of Labour actually believe this is the best way to boost New Zealand’s productivity?

If that is her conviction, then she’s badly advised. New Zealand’s labour productivity growth is broadly comparable with the growth levels of other mature economies in the OECD. Placed alongside the productivity statistics of countries like Sweden and France our own results simply reinforce the inherent difficulties in dramatically lifting productivity levels in already highly productive economies.

Short-term gains can certainly be made by making workers toil harder and longer for less, but an economic regime based on exerting continuous downward pressure on wages and conditions is unlikely to contribute positively to the present government’s stated objective of bringing New Zealand’s pay-rates into parity with Australia’s by 2025.

Besides, New Zealand already has one of the hardest-working workforces in the OECD. We are also blessed with a regulatory regime that, by international standards, is extraordinarily business-friendly.

What we are not blessed with, however, is a well-educated, dynamic and self-confident business class. If we had one, our Minister of Labour would not find herself constantly assailed by professionally inadequate employers hell-bent on freeing themselves from the costs of their own mismanagement.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 11 March 2010.

Sunday 7 March 2010

Seventies Pessimism: (Song from 1975)

Written in the months leading up to the General Election of 1975, The Sons of Cain was an attempt to put into words my feelings of deepening dread as the mood of the country swung inexorably to the right and all the bright hopes kindled by the election of the Third Labour Government in 1972 flickered and went out. The image is taken from the scene in Fritz Lang's Metropolis where the capitalist revellers welcome in the Whore of Babylon.

The Sons of Cain

We’ve traveled from the borderlands
Where few men dare to go.
We’ve scaled the heights of innocence,
Been blinded by the snow.
And now we cast a warning
Into your crowded stream.
For smoke drifts from the altars
And the silver sabres gleam.

And the Sons of Cain are howling
Like wolves beneath the moon
"Oh, when will it be time?", they cry
Their Master answers, "Soon."

Oh you who turn your faces
From the poet and the priest.
You are lost amongst the neon,
Bloated by the feast.
And the man who shouts the loudest
Is bound to win the strife.
In one hand he’s a golden coin,
The other wields a knife.

And the Sons of Cain are howling
Like wolves beneath the moon
"Oh, when will it be time?", they cry
Their Master answers, "Soon."

We hear the wailing of the damned
Imprisoned in the cells.
And we see the slaughter of the young
Below the broken bells.
Oh you who turn your faces,
You children of the dust;
If your living proves so tedious
Then die – die if you must.

For the Sons of Cain are marching,
Before the dawn they bow.
"Oh, when will it be time?", they cry
Their Master answers, "Now!"

Chris Trotter

Friday 5 March 2010

Gut Feelings

George Clooney meets Vin Diesel: For ten years Mark Ames (above) entertained Muscovites with The eXile - a magazine in the anarchic and outrageously brutal satirical tradition of Hunter S. Thompson. Forced to flee the Russian Federation in 2008, Ames returned to the United States with an even sharper satirical eye and a much heavier journalistic heart.

MARK AMES is an unusual man. When he decided to set up a satirical magazine in Moscow, in the late 1990s, most of his American compatriots regarded him as more than a little eccentric. But using his magazine to publish withering satirical attacks on the Russian Government? Most of his Moscow readers regarded that as certifiably insane.

But "that" is exactly what Mr Ames did. For ten outrageous years his dangerously provocative publication The eXile gave Muscovites a glimpse of what a genuinely free press might look like. The eXile featured the sort of fearless journalism that only a citizen of the United States, believing in the efficacy of his First Amendment rights, knows how to produce.

But not even Mr Ames could withstand the sort of pressures brought to bear on The eXile by Russia’s authoritarian President/Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. Since 2008, when he and his colleagues were forced to flee the Russian Federation, The eXile has become an online-only media phenomenon.

Russia’s loss has been the USA’s (and everybody else’s) gain. The same searing honesty and excoriating wit which once skewered Moscow’s vicious and vapid kleptocracy has now been turned on America’s own dysfunctional society – and its even more dysfunctional political system.

Just last week, Mr Ames’ s lashed the liberal establishment – represented in this case by the eminent American economist, Paul Krugman – for its apparent inability to understand the true nature of the Republican Right.

"In just a few short paragraphs," he wrote, "Krugman unintentionally reveals why liberals are still getting their asses handed to them in every serious battle with the Republican Right: the liberal establishment is still convinced it’s competing in a middle-school civics class debate."

The liberals’ fatal mistake, according to Mr Ames, is that they refuse to let go of the myth that all the American people want from their politicians is the Truth.

"But what if the Truth is that Americans don’t want to know the Truth? What if Americans consciously choose lies over truth when given the chance—and not even very interesting lies, but rather the blandest, dumbest and meanest lies? ….. If I’m an obese 40-something white male living in Ohio or Nevada, locked into a permanent struggle with foreclosure, child support payments and outsourcing threats, then I’m going to vote for the guy who delivers a big greasy portion of misery to the [liberal elite’s] dining room table, then brags about it on FoxNews. Even if it means hurting myself in the process."

It’s the last line that stings the most. Because, as Mr Ames so rightly puts it: "The left’s wires short circuit when confronted with this awful possibility."

Indeed they do, because, for all its faults, the socialist left, remains a child of the 18th Century European Enlightenment. Just like neoliberals, socialists are convinced that people are not only hard-wired to recognise their own interests, but also to pursue them rationally. Socialism and neoliberalism, as coherent ideological systems, depend upon this being true.

But what if Mr Ames is right? What if most people don’t think with their brain but with their gut?

In other words, what if most people are emotional, rather than analytical thinkers: responding to issues not on the basis of fact and logical thought, but according to the feelings those issues arouse? What if, far from being convinced by individuals with the facts at their fingertips, most people react in the same way as the American fundamentalist preacher who, in the midst of his church’s campaign to supplant Darwinism with "creation science" at the local high school, uttered this oft-quoted cri de coeur : "We feel as if we’re under attack from the educated and intelligent sector of our culture."

Wouldn’t that explain why it’s proving so difficult for Labour and the Greens to get any political traction on issues like National Standards, Climate Change, Tax Reform and Crime & Punishment?

Certainly, the Russia Mark Ames spent ten years satirising offers scant encouragement to those who put their faith in rational self-interest. For ten years Russians sampled the wares of liberal democracy – Mr Ames’ magazine among them. In the end, however, they preferred Vladimir Putin’s version of democracy: one party rule, a state-controlled media, and the ruthless repression of dissent.

When asked to nominate Russia’s greatest hero, they invariably vote for Joseph Stalin.

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, 5 March 2010.

Labour Needs A Plan

Not another bus tour! Political battles are won with ideas - ideas organised into programmes. Phil Goff needs to reach back into Labour's history, back to the days when it felt confident enough in its own ideas and programmes to publish a pamphlet entitled "Labour Has A Plan". Labour Party photo.

SURVEYING THE LATEST BATCH of lack-lustre poll results, Phil Goff must be asking himself: "What must Labour do to win?"

His answer, pro-tem, is a nationwide bus-tour opposing the proposed rise in GST. Is it the right answer? Probably not.

For a start, the last GST increase (in 1988) came from a Labour Government in which Phil Goff was a minister – and it arrived without compensation.

The other problem he’s got is that those responsible for introducing GST did much too good a job of selling it. Unlike Australia, where GST sparked genuine political resistance, New Zealand has always patted itself on the back for the tax’s smooth and almost trouble-free introduction.

The only real success the New Zealand opponents of GST ever had was in convincing the electorate that consumption taxes are regressive, and that low income Kiwis must be adequately compensated for any increase. The latest batch of polls confirms this conviction is still strongly held by most voters. Opposition to an uncompensated rise in GST is high, but falls away sharply when compensation is guaranteed.

So, given that the Prime Minister has already promised that low income Kiwis will be compensated for the estimated 2.22 percent rise in living costs which an increase in the GST rate from 12.5 to 15 percent will produce, what does Goff hope to gain by embarking on yet another Magical Mystery Tour?

Perhaps he’s hoping to expose the rather strange logic behind the claim that a rise in GST is necessary for the Government to recoup the revenue lost by reducing the top tax rate of the 8 percent of New Zealanders earning more than $70,000 per anum. Does Telecom’s Paul Reynolds really need (or deserve!) an extra $6,000 per week?

But even on this issue the polls are against Labour’s leader. Fully three-quarters of the electorate support a reduction in the top tax rate – proof positive that Key’s "aspirational" message still resonates strongly with voters across the political spectrum.

As a commentator on this blogsite put it last week:

"I grew up working-class in a working-class street in a working-class town. What truly united people was the urge to stop being working-class as soon as possible. The only ones who wanted everyone to remain among the noble poor of the working-class were the ‘Left’."

Goff is the living embodiment of that perennial working-class determination to "better" oneself. The son of a skilled factory-worker, he took advantage of the opportunities created by the First Labour Government’s welfare state to climb out of the working-class and into the ranks of the educated middle-class.

From the mean streets of Mt Roskill to a ten-acre-block in genteel Clevedon is precisely the social trajectory that thousands of working-class Kiwis aspire to. (And remember, it’s not only Goff’s trajectory, it's Key’s as well.)

The First Labour Government gave New Zealanders a genuine (as opposed to purely rhetorical) "step change" by moving an entire generation up two whole levels of Abraham Maslow’s "hierarchy of needs" – from the basic physiological need for food and shelter, through the need for security and safety, to the level where psychological needs begin to take precedence.

Labour was voted out of office in 1949 because, for a majority of voters, safety was no longer enough. By making them secure in their jobs and in their homes, Labour had freed New Zealanders to pursue more individualistic goals. Labour’s collectivism no longer satisfied voters – as it had in the depths of depression and war. Men and women were hungry, not for the basic necessities of life, but for the feelings of accomplishment, respect and recognition that come from achieving private and personal ambitions. National’s promise to let hard-working New Zealanders "get ahead" was exactly what they wanted to hear.

Something very similar occurred in 2008. The insecurities and hardships of the 1980s and 90s had been banished. Labour, once again, had brought a majority of New Zealanders to the point where they no longer felt the need for the protection of "Nanny State". They were ready to fly solo, and John Key promised to let them try.

By focusing his party’s attention on the minority of New Zealanders who remain trapped on the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, Goff is condemning Labour to a lengthy period in opposition. Only if the perceived "recovery" turns out to be a mirage, and a collapsing economy sends thousands of Kiwis tumbling down to join their poorest fellow citizens on the unemployment lines, can Goff win power via this route.

And even then, the classic colonial structure of New Zealand’s population militates against a Labour victory. Most of the poor are not only socio-economically but racially separated from the rest of the New Zealand electorate. For Labour to win it must somehow persuade its "aspirational" Pakeha voters to make common cause (and share their wealth) with a marginalised Maori, Pasifika and immigrant lumpenproletariat – the people Key refers to as the "underclass".

But, as this latest recession has amply demonstrated, the experience of deprivation in a globalised economy is by no means a generalised phenomenon. For most well-educated and/or highly skilled Pakeha, the Global Financial Crisis was something they read about (and for a few worrying months, feared) but is was not something they lived. Overwhelmingly, it was the young, the brown and the male who felt the full impact of the recession’s blows.

Labour’s only hope of drawing these under- and over-classes together, electorally, is by devising a policy framework which not only guarantees Maslow’s "basics" – food, shelter and safety – to the poor, but which also, and at the same time, provides the aspirant layers of the population with the opportunities they crave for recognition, respect and self-actualisation.

More than anything else, this requires Goff and his colleagues to come up with an innovative, coherent and – most importantly - believable economic plan. A plan which, unlike the programme of the present government, is neither fiscally reckless, nor ecologically unsustainable. A plan which enlists, democratically, the huge and shamefully under-utilised talents of all the New Zealand people.

To win in 2011, Labour must step-up to the job which, historically-speaking, it has always done better than anybody else. National may know how to offer special favours to New Zealand’s capitalists – but it takes a Labour Government to re-structure and re-energise New Zealand Capitalism.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 4 March 2010.