Wednesday 30 June 2010

Russel's Tussle

An Entirely Predictable Confrontation: The news media's insatiable appetite for conflict is redefining the meaning of both protest and free speech. The alleged "right to offend" one's fellow citizens (and their guests) threatens to obscure the original justification for free speech: i.e. the benefits that accrue to the whole of society when citizens are able to challenge state-defined "reality" without losing their lives, liberty or property.

RUSSEL’S TUSSLE with Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping’s security detail raises some very interesting questions about the meaning of protest. It also shows how the news media’s insatiable appetite for conflict is fundamentally re-defining the nature of protest action.

Before going any further, however, we’ll need a working definition of both the noun and the verb. What is "a protest"? And, what does it mean "to protest"?

Put simply, protest is about registering your objection to and/or expressing your disapproval of someone or something. A protest can be individual, or it can be collective, but essentially the protester is saying: "I don’t like this."

Protest can take a wide variety of forms. From the formal, carefully argued diplomatic protest delivered by an ambassador, to the angry torching of a foreign embassy by a frenzied crowd.

The news media, however, is redefining protest. Rather than use the term in relation to objection and disapproval, it prefers to present protest in terms of provocation, confrontation and agitation.

From being a statement or demonstration of disagreement, protest is now regarded as something very close to an act of aggression.

This dangerous new definition of protest encourages the notion that any individual or group which sets up a confrontation between themselves and their opponents is guilty of nothing more than exercising their "freedom of speech". Even when it is clear that the confrontation has been carefully engineered to provoke its targets into doing something they will later regret, the protagonists insouciantly argue that this, too, is the protesters’ "right".

But the conflation of the right to free speech with confrontational and provocative political behaviour allows those responsible for what would normally be regarded as profoundly unethical acts (such as burning down an embassy) to escape all moral sanction. Basically, if you’re "making a protest" – you can do whatever the hell you like.

This position is morally indefensible. It is simply untenable to argue that political acts can be conveniently separated from their consequences. With rights come responsibilities: the right to free speech doesn’t include the freedom to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre.

Protest always occurs within a political context: a unique set of circumstances that the ethical protester is obliged to consider when deciding upon the nature of the protest he or she wishes to make.

What were the major elements of the political context in which Dr Russel Norman’s tussle took place?

Most obvious were the deepening economic and cultural ties between New Zealand and the Peoples Republic of China. That Mr Xi, one of the most powerful men on the planet was here, on New Zealand soil, is a sign of how large this nation now looms in China’s diplomatic calculations. The very real benefits for New Zealand’s economic welfare already flowing from this relationship are considerable.

Against these benefits Dr Norman entered the claims of the "Free Tibet" movement. Highly contentious, politically dubious, and hotly disputed by Chinese historians, these claims counted for more – in the minds of the Greens’ leadership – than increasing the good-will already fostered between the New Zealand and Chinese peoples by successive governments.

Well, that was their choice to make – as was the manner in which they drew attention to those claims. Dr Norman, as a parliamentarian, could have made a speech in the House of Representatives. He could have written an article protesting the treatment of Tibetan dissidents for the op-ed pages of the daily newspapers. He could even have done what his predecessor, Rod Donald, did and stand at a respectful distance from his country’s guests, holding aloft the Tibetan flag in a silent and dignified gesture of disapproval and solidarity.

But that is not what Dr Norman chose to do. Instead, he enthusiastically bought into the news media’s definition of protest and took up a position which any sensible person could have predicted would provoke a strong reaction from the Chinese Vice-president’s security guards and which would, almost certainly, lead to a physical confrontation.

Dr Norman has justified his actions in terms of defending democracy against totalitarianism.

I don’t buy it.

All I saw were the actions of an ambitious politician, whose shrewd judgement that confrontation wins more screen time than reasoned dialogue persuaded him to provoke the Chinese into giving him the wall-to-wall coverage he was seeking.

Russel’s tussle wasn't a protest, it was a media event.

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, 25 June 2010.

Monday 28 June 2010

For the Love of the People

More than a rhetorical flourish: Harry Holland, the left-wing journalist who led the NZ Labour Party from 1919 until his death in 1933, demonstrated what "for the love of the people" meant to the first generation of Labour leaders by giving away much of his meagre parliamentary salary to his poverty-stricken constituents.

"FOR THE LOVE of the People." Who says that sort of thing anymore? Surely not a politician!

Though some might object to including the words "Len Brown" and "politician" in the same sentence, it was indeed the Mayor of Manukau City, and front-runner in the race for the new Auckland "supercity" mayoralty, who declared his love for the voters.

Responding to criticism that he had misused his mayoral credit card, Brown asked a special meeting of the Manukau City Council:

"Do you think I got off that bloody bed and came back here because I was worried I could spend some more money on the credit card?

"You know why I came back here. You saw me when I walked back into this place, I was a bloody skeleton. I came back here for the love of the people and you know that’s damn right."

Brown’s near-death experience following a massive heart attack, his determined recuperation, and his triumphant return to office, are all key elements of his personal political narrative. And according to his friend, the popular broadcaster and talk-back host, Willie Jackson, the people of South Auckland reciprocate Brown’s love, and admire his gritty dedication to their service.

"Len Brown is an honest man," Jackson told TV3’s Campbell Live, "people know that."

A clear majority of Manukau’s city councillors agreed. After four hours of what the NZ Herald described as "testy" debate, and a powerfully emotional appeal from Brown, his apology for misusing the credit card was accepted and all the relevant documentation (or lack of it) passed on – at Brown’s insistence – to the office of the Auditor-General for final judgement.

"If I survive this savaging, and end up in another mayoral chair," Brown reassured the meeting, "I can assure you I have learned from this experience."

There is something endearingly goofy and sentimental about Brown that makes all his talk about getting into politics "for the love of the people" and of having "learned his lesson" entirely believable. Careless to a fault he may have been, but only his most venomous political opponents are willing to argue that his actions were inspired by simple venality.

Was there poor judgement? Yes. Was there an excess of naïve enthusiasm and insufficient attention to detail? Absolutely. But, now that he’s been called to such public account, few are willing to predict that Brown will make the same mistakes twice.

The same almost certainly applies to past, present and future ministers of the Crown. Like Brown, cabinet ministers from the Clark era – and even a few from the present government – have been forced to suffer the ignominy of having their errors of judgement exposed and held up to public scrutiny.

Some, like the former Building & Construction Minister, Shane Jones, have accepted the resulting public opprobrium with disarming frankness and humility. Others, like the former Conservation Minister, Chris Carter, have recklessly challenged the public’s judgement with, in Carter’s case, entirely predictable and disastrous consequences – as far as his political future is concerned.

But none of the politicians who’ve been subjected to the disinfecting sunlight of public exposure over the past fortnight have responded with words even remotely akin to Brown’s "for the love of the people". And very few, if any, voters would have believed them if they had.

It was not always so.

As Dr Bryce Edwards, of the University of Otago’s Political Studies Department, pointed out on his "Liberation" blogsite on 11 June, Labour’s first prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage, was extraordinarily sensitive to the expectations of the working-class voters who had carried his Labour Party to victory.

"Being a representative of workers to him meant that he shouldn’t just take on the material comforts of the ruling class once he was elected to represent those workers. The extravagance and luxuries of office were to him associated with the interests of right-wing politicians. Hence he refused to live in Premier House on Tinakori Road, near Parliament."

According to Edwards, Savage regarded such a "mansion" as "inappropriate for any politician, let alone one representing the proletariat". Instead, he purchased a modest bungalow in the Wellington suburb of Northland.

Premier House itself was converted into a large dental clinic as part of the Labour Government’s public health programme. (Helen Clark’s aunt later trained there.)

It required the election of a very different kind of Labour Government in the 1980s before the prime-ministerial residence was finally restored to its former opulence – at a cost to the taxpayer of $1.8 million.

And Savage was by no means the only Labour hero to abjure all the trappings and perquisites of office. His predecessor as party leader, Harry Holland, gave away a large portion of his meagre parliamentary salary to needy constituents. "For the love of the people" was more than a mere rhetorical flourish in the 1920s and 30s.

It is, perhaps, no accident that the first Labour Prime Minister to occupy Premier House was Sir Geoffrey Palmer – the politician largely responsible for modernising and professionalising what had formerly been the vocation of politics. When Palmer got through with it, the role of the people’s representative had become indistinguishable from that of any other highly-paid civil servant. Small wonder that talk-back hosts began referring to MPs as "our employees in Wellington".

Except, of course, they’re not our employees, they’re our representatives: a very important difference. Ideally, the bond between Members of Parliament and their constituents should go much deeper, and be infinitely stronger, than the relationship between a master and his servants.

Besides, if we, the people, are sufficiently competent to look upon parliamentarians as mere employees, it raises the question of why bother with them at all? Why not heed the urgings of the anarchists and libertarians and do away with the state and its minions altogether? Why not cut out the middlemen and rule ourselves?

We all know the answer to that.

In the end, only the rich and powerful possess the effrontery to treat politicians as their hirelings, and wherever that occurs the rights and needs of the poor and the weak must inevitably suffer.

We value democracy so highly because it is the only system that allows men and women to serve not merely for the love of money, but also – if we’re lucky – "for the love of the people".

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 24 June 2010.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Rod Donald 1957-2005

A Dignified Protest: Rod Donald draws attention to the plight of the Tibetan people on the steps of Parliament during the visit to New Zealand by Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Chinese National People’s Congress, Thursday, 26 May 2005.

The following obituary was written for, but never published in, the New Zealand Political Review. With the media spotlight focused on the behaviour of the current Green Co-leader, Dr Russel Norman, I have decided to share these thoughts concerning Rod Donald’s political legacy with the readers of Bowalley Road.

DEATH is not always our enemy. In politics, especially, sudden death can bestow a sanctifying aura upon the person who has been so suddenly and so inexplicably stolen away. The fallen leader is caught in freeze frame – often in youth or middle age – with so many things left undone. It is this sense of having the future wrenched from our grasp that makes the loss of significant political figures so poignant and so hard to bear. And yet, we must also acknowledge that while premature Death robs the politician of his potential victories, it also allows him to avoid his inevitable defeats.

Rod Donald died just as the New Zealand Green Party was poised to enter a period of considerable soul-searching. Having been left standing at the coalition altar by Labour for the third time in a row, the Greens had some very hard thinking to do about their future. As by far the most pragmatic, media savvy and politically astute politician in the Green caucus, Donald was readying himself to play a crucial role in determining the party’s future direction. His sudden death has robbed it of a shrewd and experienced pathfinder.

Much of that shrewdness was attributable to Donald’s unique ability to blend the idealism of environmental and left-wing politics with the sort of down-to-earth practicality that actually gets things done. In this respect he was quintessentially Kiwi: largely uneducated when it came to the finer points of theory, but without equal when it came to the hands-on business of turning theory into practice. He was, if the truth be known, that rarest of animals – a left-wing entrepreneur. Someone willing to risk his entire stock of political capital in order to make it grow.

And grow it he did. From his first foray into re-cycling as a fifteen-year-old student at St Andrews College in Christchurch, to his transformation of the Trade-Aid movement from a well-meaning but loss-making charity, to a thriving business network, Donald had a way of working around the objections of the talkers and enlisting the enthusiasm of the doers. His intervention in the campaign to secure a "Yes" vote for MMP in the 1993 referendum demonstrated the full range of Donald’s entrepreneurial flair. Without it, the enemies of MMP would almost certainly have triumphed. For that achievement alone, Donald's place in New Zealand’s political history is assured.

In 1994, having secured the means of making a career in politics possible for representatives of the radical left, Donald lost little time in multiplying his enlarged political capital yet again by joining the Greens. With assistance from Jeanette Fitzsimons and her extensive networks of friends and allies within the environmental movement and the old Values Party, the hero of MMP rapidly rose to become the Greens co-leader.

The pairing of Donald and Fitzsimons was one of the most remarkable in New Zealand political history. Only rarely is a party blessed with such extraordinary complementarity. Where Fitzsimons was cerebral and serene, Donald was enthusiastic and practical. And where Fitzsimons knew exactly how to appeal to the Greens’ constituency, Donald was untiring in his courtship of the news media.

He understood the key role which the media plays in modern democracies, and cultivated political journalists with the same care and attention that other Greens devoted to cultivating organic fruit and vegetables. He also recognised the tremendous importance of image. His trademark white shirt and brightly-coloured braces made him instantly recognisable to the voting public. It is difficult to imagine a less frightening, more infectiously amiable promoter of the Green "brand".

This familiarity with the values of the contemporary New Zealand – and global – marketplace, while a source of suspicion and sometimes friction within the Greens’ own ranks, was also critical to the party’s long-term future. Donald was no Marxist, nor a socialist. In the 19th century they would have called him a Radical (with a capital "R"). One who believes that the rights of property should not be allowed to run roughshod over the rights of human beings. Being a 20th Century environmentalist, Donald would, of course, have extended that definition to include the natural world. He celebrated responsible capitalism – especially in its entrepreneurial, small-business manifestation. His reaching out to the business community in the days after the 2005 election was as genuine as it was courageous. Those who rejected his overtures may yet come to rue his passing.

Because the Greens stand at a political cross-roads – and Donald knew it. They can go on being Labour's loyal supporters (and receive their by now familiar reward) or they can reposition themselves as a force outside and above the classical Left-Right divide. I believe that Donald’s thinking was steadily shifting in favour of the latter option. It would not have been an easy course to steer. The 2005 New Zealand Green Party is among the most left-wing in the world, and re-orienting it after the fashion of the German Greens will not be accomplished without a great deal of bitterness and conflict.

Donald was not the sort of man to relish such a fight. He was a gentle and fun-loving person, as his partner of 20 years, Nicola Shirlaw, and his three daughters Holly, Emma, and Zoe will attest. And yet, I believe that Donald, as he had done so often in his career, would have been willing to give it a go; staking all his political capital on a fundamental reorientation of Green politics in New Zealand.

For better or for worse, Death has spared him the odium and abuse that such exercises inevitably entail. He will be remembered now, and always, as a tireless fighter for environmental sanity and social justice: a decent man struck down in the prime of his life and at the peak of his powers; a true Green politician who never once compromised his principles.

My abiding memory of this remarkable man – my friend – Rod Donald, will be of him standing alone at the foot of the parliamentary steps, his face a mixture of sadness and defiance, holding up the forbidden Tibetan flag. It was a noble protest - and all the more effective for being conducted not by some raggle-taggle band of New Age anarchists, but by a senior Member of Parliament and party leader, dressed proudly and patriotically in his best, New Zealand-made, suit. 

Saturday 19 June 2010

Putting Us In Our Places

No Friend of Dissent: Like many Pakeha politicians who have embraced the Maori Nationalist cause, Attorney General, and Treaty Negotiations Minister, Chris Finlayson, reserves his most deadly venom for those who dare to question the State's race relations policies.

AM I THE ONLY New Zealander feeling less than a respected citizen today? Or that the full and equal protection of the laws no longer applies to me? Am I alone in suspecting that, constitutionally-speaking, something important is about to take place – without the nation’s consent?

What set me to pondering these questions was an extraordinary interview broadcast by Radio New Zealand on Tuesday morning.

Morning Report’s Geoff Robinson was talking to Treaty Negotiations Minister, Chris Finlayson, about the agreement secured between National and the Maori Party over the repeal of the Foreshore & Seabed Act.

Preceding the interview listeners had heard reactions to that agreement from Dr Grant Morris, a law lecturer at Victoria University. Michael Barnett, CEO of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. And Hugh Barr, spokesperson for the Coastal Coalition – a group devoted to preserving public access to New Zealand’s beaches.

All of these men had expressed critical views of the National-Maori Party deal and Finlayson had been asked to respond to their remarks.

What followed was extraordinary.

Rather than address the trio’s arguments, the Treaty Negotiations Minister immediately launched into a series of aggressive put-downs of his critics.

"I didn’t know that Grant Morris knew anything about this subject," sneered the Minister, "I thought his specialty was legal systems or feminist legal studies." Michael Barnett, according to Finlayson was "just sounding off because it’s Tuesday morning". Hugh Barr received a ministerial tongue-lashing for "writing some crummy article in The Dominion Post which contradicted everything I had told him."

Huffed Finlayson: "I can’t be bothered wasting my time with him."

But, oh, what a difference a change of ethnicity produced in the Minister. When Morning Report asked for his reaction to the Maori MP, Hone Harawira’s, charge that the whole consultation exercise surrounding the Foreshore & Seabed issue had been "bullshit", the Minister couldn’t have been sweeter:

"I’m a bit disappointed in Hone," crooned Finlayson, "because in my opinion he’s a first class chap, and he’s a fantastic MP for the Far North, with John Carter. But one of the things I picked up, from his rohe [tribal territory] actually, was the idea that folk didn’t want to have to go to court, or negotiate, to prove their mana. And I thought that was a fair enough point. So, we’ve added in the universal recognition order as a result of that. So, I think Hone’s a little unfair, with the greatest of respect to him, because I was listening and I was the one who was up on the road hearing what people were saying."

The contrast: in the Minister’s tone; in his careful choice of words; and most particularly in the extreme care he took not to give offence; was, to say the least, instructive.

The Minister’s Pakeha critics: the CEO of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce (an institution not noted for its hostility to National governments); a university lecturer whose comments were measured and utterly lacking in any kind of personal animus; and a champion of New Zealanders’ right to recreate themselves amidst this country’s spectacular natural beauty; were all the recipients of Finlayson’s disdain, and he expended no serious effort responding to their arguments or questions.

How different it was for the Te Tai Tokerau MP. The man who infamously referred to his fellow New Zealanders as "White Motherf***ers" was responded to with "the greatest of respect" because, in the assessment of the Treaty Negotiations Minister, he is "a first class chap" and, like his colleague, John Carter (the National MP who once impersonated a Maori dole-bludger on John Banks’ Radio Pacific talk-back show) is "a fantastic MP for the Far North".

The Minister’s Pakeha critics had dared to suggest that the interests of thousands of New Zealanders had been sidelined in the Government’s rush to reach an agreement with the Maori Party.

As Mr Barnett observed: "We still don‘t know what contact has been made with the recreational and conservation interests, the business interests, the local government interests. But we do know that Government has been dealing with Maori, and that it doesn’t seem to be the so-called ‘balanced’ conversation that they suggested that they were going to have."

Mr Harawira colourfully described this one-sided process as "pandering to the rednecks".

Would that it were so.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 18 June 2010.

Friday 18 June 2010

Brown & Dirty

Not waving, but drowning? With John Banks lagging well behind Len Brown, the Left’s candidate for the Auckland Super-City mayoralty (above), the Auckland Right has only one viable strategy for victory: Get Len Brown! Go negative!

THE AUCKLAND ‘SUPER-CITY’ is a prize worth fighting for. It is also, as the strategic exposure of Mayoral front-runner, Len Brown’s, personal spending problems confirms, a prize worth fighting dirty for. The next five months will reveal exactly how dirty.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The story of Auckland’s unification was supposed to end with the triumphant coronation of the region’s commercial, administrative and political elites. The people who knew what needed to be done, and the people who knew how to do it, were about to take their rightful places around the Super-City’s council table.

The age of puffed-up mayoral popinjays, ponderous city councillors, and tiresome community-board busybodies was over. Replacing the cacophony of competing municipal voices would be the soft susurrus of murmured expertise and the quiet assurance of accumulated wealth. Finally, power would be the hands of those who merited it.

Auckland would be ruled by a twenty-strong board of directors – one for every 71,000 residents. The board chairman – still rather quaintly referred to as The Mayor – would preside over the board’s deliberations and be the city’s principal spokesperson. The role of the Board itself would be limited to receiving and approving the reports of seven "Council Controlled Organisations" (CCOs).

To all intents and purposes these CCOs would operate as independent, stand-alone businesses dedicated to the efficient provision of core municipal services. They would be governed by experienced business leaders who, having gone through the motions of public "consultation" and endured whatever slings and arrows the news media contrived to cast in their direction, would be free to make operational decisions in an environment that was, essentially, "democracy-proof".

The fiction that the new ‘Supercity’ offered its residents genuine "local representation" would be maintained by a score of powerless "Local Boards" whose unenviable duty would be to convey the demands of the hapless citizenry to the all-powerful and constitutionally imperturbable Council, which, like all good boards of directors, would respond to the cavilling of its small shareholders with a judicious mixture of condescension and contempt.

The venerable promise of "More Business in Government, less Government in Business" would, at last, be fulfilled.

That was the Plan.

But, from the very start, things started going wrong.

The natural enemies of the Plan, the Left, were supposed to have been neutralised – they weren’t.

Because it was the Labour Government of Helen Clark which had set up the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance it was simply assumed that the standard neoliberal prescription presented by its carefully selected members would be endorsed without demur by the Labour Opposition. And yet, somehow, and without actually repudiating the Royal Commission’s fundamental principles, Phil Goff’s Labour Party managed to position itself as the defender of local democracy against the ruthless "Gauleiter of Auckland" – Local Government Minister, Rodney Hide.

That was unfortunate, but even more unsettling was the fact that the Left – against all expectations and precedent – threw its weight behind a single candidate. The Citizens & Ratepayers (C&R) group were confident that at least two, and possibly as many as three, left-wing candidates would emerge to contest the mayoralty and split the progressive vote.

The best qualified was Mike Lee, Chair of the Auckland Regional Council. Lee was the darling of the old Alliance Left, and for that reason alone was bound to be challenged by the Manukau Mayor – and Labour Party flagbearer – Len Brown. There was even a chance that the former Green MP, Sue Bradford, might throw her hat into the ring.

With the Left’s votes going all over the place, the C&R choice, Auckland Mayor John Banks, would romp home.

Only slowly did it dawn on C&R that the Left had more-or-less amicably decided upon Brown as its candidate and that Lee had no intention of breaking ranks. Bradford, unloved and unwanted by the Greens, backed away too. For the first time in a long time the Auckland Left was demonstrating some old-fashioned political discipline.

It was rewarded with a string of poll results that showed just how well this unified approach was being received. Backed by a small but strong campaign team, Brown had opened up a healthy lead on Banks – the most recent UMR survey placing him 14 points ahead of his right-wing opponent.

Labour’s assault on National’s and Act’s handling of the Super-City (brilliantly led by the Party List MP, Phil Twyford) melded seamlessly into Brown’s campaign, making it the preferred vehicle for all those voters in the Auckland region who either opposed outright, or had serious problems with the implementation of, the Right’s Super-City Plan.

Far from securing a council of commercially-savvy philosopher kings to preside over the long-awaited neoliberal transformation of the Auckland region, the C&R Group is faced with the terrifying possibility that the whole, immensely powerful political instrument which John Key’s government had created for them will fall into the hands of people with a very different social and economic agenda.

What’s left for the Right to do – except resort to dirty politics ? Even if C&R had a better alternative (which they do not) it is now far too late to ditch their candidate. Their neoliberal vision is not saleable in anything remotely resembling a mass political market but they can offer Auckland voters only minor alterations to the grand Super-City blueprints. When it comes to devising a winning strategy, digging the dirt on Brown is the only play they can make.

Will it work? The answer lies in Brown’s hands. If he borrows from Bill Clinton’s 1992 playbook and sets up a high-speed response unit, staffed with hard-hitting counter-punchers, then C&R’s blows will probably not connect with sufficient nerve and tissue to secure a knock-out.

But, if he behaves like the Democrat’s 2004 presidential candidate, John Kerry, and gifts his opponents the time and space required to negatively frame him, then not only will he lose, but so will the Left. For Labour and City Vision to win control of the first Super-City Council, Len Brown's going to need some very long coat-tails.

So, hold onto your hats, because the race for the Auckland Super-City is about to get down – and very dirty.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 17 July 2010.

Monday 14 June 2010

The Maori Party Caves

The foreshore and seabed remains the property of all New Zealanders. What belongs to nobody, belongs to everybody.

WELL, there you go. As so many on the Left of New Zealand politics have been insisting for more than eighteen months, the Maori Party’s association with the National Party could only end in disappointment, confusion and betrayal.

John Key has conceded nothing of importance in relation to the proposed Foreshore & Seabed repeal legislation presented to the Maori Party. Both sides are looking for an alternative expression to "Public Domain", but apart from that, all the essentials of National’s "solution" to the current Act remain unchanged.

The problems raised by Mark Solomon on TVNZ’s Q+A programme have not been addressed. Those lucky enough to hold title in fee-simple to sea-front property will suffer no diminution of their rights. Tribes which, through the arbitrary exigencies of history, can present no evidence of continuous "ownership" of coastal territory remain excluded from the pursuit of customary title through the courts.

And no matter what the Crown and the Maori Party end up calling the foreshore and seabed, its residual title-holder (since someone must, ultimately, have the final say) will be the Crown in Parliament.

It is a fundamental principle of the Westminster System that what a Parliament confers, a Parliament can also withdraw. Present legislators cannot bind future legislators.

Reading the Prime Minister’s statement, I’m reminded of the infamous words of Rob Muldoon – uttered following the negotiation of a deal with Social Credit over the Clyde Dam enabling legislation back in 1982.

Responding to a journalist’s question about the nature of the horse-trading that had just gone on behind the closed doors of the Prime minister’s office, Muldoon quipped:

"Horse-trading? Heh! I’ve still got all my horses!"

Sunday 13 June 2010

Stroking The Cat

Dressed for Success: NewGen Green co-leaders Metiria Turei and Russel Norman are keen to present a "credible" (i.e. non-threatening) face to the "mainstream" New Zealand electorate. But, is it possible to appease the prejudices of one group of voters without offending the principles of another?

RUSSEL NORMAN’S right about one thing – the way you dress is important.

I remember very clearly my first encounter with the Dunedin Labour Party back in the early-80s. Young people were conspicuous at local party gatherings: not only by virtue of their rarity, but also because of their sartorial indifference.

Jeans, T-shirts and long-hair might have been de riguer on the university campus, but to the middle-aged and elderly working-class members of the Labour Party they constituted a cultural affront. Politics for these folk was a serious business – with a dress-code to match.

It wasn’t quite a case of wearing your Sunday-best – but it was close. Youngsters who stood up to speak looking like they’d just spent six months on a hippie commune were not kindly received.

So, my wardrobe changed. My long hair was clipped. The jeans and T-shirts were replaced with pressed pants, clean shirts and a sports jacket.

The response was dramatic. The older members knew that my change of attire was both an acknowledgement of and a concession to the rules they lived by. I had demonstrated my respect – and they reciprocated by giving me a more than fair hearing.

But that was the Labour Party in the early-1980s.

At the time of the Springbok Tour it was still the case that an influx of young people to just about any New Zealand institution – but especially the institutions of the Left – meant radicalisation.

Young people challenged the verities of New Zealand’s buttoned-down society: raising difficult and often painful questions about the role and rights of women, the treatment of Maori, and the criminalisation of homosexuality. They demanded a radical shift in New Zealand’s foreign and aid policies; they were inspired by the defiant solidarity of the militant trade unions; and they were deeply worried about the degradation of the natural environment.

Their elders, many of them deeply religious, were shocked. And even those who were sympathetic to the youngsters’ idealism could draw on a wealth of personal/political experience that argued strongly against mistaking Labour Youth’s most radical and militant ideas for the best policy options.

So, what about the Greens of 2010?

Is it still the case that "young person" equals "radical"? Do the headlines from last weekend’s Green Party Conference, such as "Red is dead as guard changes", signal the arrival of a generation with more – or less – revolutionary ambition than their parents and grandparents?

And to whom, exactly, is Russel’s suit and tie intended to show respect? The radically dishevelled "alternative" culture out of which the Values and Green parties sprang? The culture of Rod Donald, Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford? Or is Russel’s wearing of a suit and tie both a cynical gesture of acknowledgement – or even a potentially fatal concession – to the planet-destroying corporate culture that Green parties everywhere were established to challenge and destroy?

Listening to Russel on Radio New Zealand, and reading the Green MPs’ speeches to the Conference, it struck me that this younger generation who’ve taken over the Green Party haven’t made it more radical – they’ve made it more conservative.

The inspired amateurism and anarchic flair that made the entry of the Greens into the NZ Parliament resemble (to use the author of the seminal Making of A Counter-Culture, Theodore Rosack’s, wonderful phrase) "an invasion of centaurs" has gone.

Russel and his co-leader, Metiria Turei, along with their coterie of Gen-X and Gen-Y advisors, are no longer dreadlocked outsiders prophesying in the name of Gaia and demanding a fundamental shift in the suicidal economic paradigm of limitless consumption. Rather than cut out the neoliberal cancer that is eating the planet, the objective of this new, well-groomed generation of Greens is to zap it into remission with the "sustainable", "environmentally-friendly" capitalism of the "Green New Deal".

Their goal is to win at least 10 percent of the Party Vote in 2011 – and, who knows, they may well succeed. A snappy suit, a slick advertising agency and a swag of non-threatening policies might be all that’s needed to secure the support of a generation whose formative political influences were Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson.

It’s a generation which has learned – on pain of penury – that it is wisest in this life to stroke the cat from its head to its tail.

The truly radical question, of course, is: Which cat?

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, 11 June 2010.

Friday 11 June 2010

Going Early

Pretext For Action: National's most emphatic electoral victory came in 1951 when the National Prime Minister, Sid Holland, called an early election to secure an ex post facto justification for his use of Emergency Powers against the Waterside Workers Union. In 2010, it would most likely be the demands of Maori nationalists - rather than the enfeebled trade unions - which provided a conservative government with the pretext for declaring a State of Emergency.

AN ELECTION before Christmas? What are the chances? More to the point, what are the advantages in John Key and the National Party waiting until 26 November 2011 to renew their mandate, when they could go to the country a year early and almost certainly be re-elected in their own right?

An immediate objection to this scenario is that the New Zealand electorate does not respond well to being bounced into general elections before they are due. Political scientists point to the disastrous consequences that flowed from Sir Robert Muldoon’s alcohol-assisted decision to go to the polls early in 1984. It is also argued that Helen Clark’s spurious use of the Alliance’s internal squabbles to call an early general election in July 2002 cost her the opportunity to govern in her own right.

It is certainly the case that had Clark not gone early in 2002, Nicky Hager’s book Seeds of Distrust would have ended up being published four months before – rather than during – that year’s election campaign. Given the devastating blow which the so-called "Corngate" scandal delivered to the Prime Minister’s reputation in July, it is interesting to speculate about the degree of influence Seeds of Distrust’s revelations would still have been exerting in November.

What the pundits often neglect to mention, however, is that the National Party received it greatest mandate ever by calling an early general election. The "Snap Election" of 1951, called to allow the electorate to pass judgement on Prime Minister Sid Holland’s handling of the 151-day Waterfront Dispute, saw his government returned to office with an impressive 54 percent of the popular vote – the most emphatic electoral victory of the post-war era.

So, calling an early election isn’t always a bad idea. What the voters resent – and will punish – is the slightest suggestion that the Government’s reasons for going early are in any way either trivial or contrived. If, however, the circumstances necessitating an early election have been forced upon the government by the actions of others, then there is every chance that the electorate – far from punishing the government – will go out of its way to reward and strengthen it.

What then are the chances of "others" forcing the Key-led Government into an early election? The answer, rather unsurprisingly, is that the chances are negligible.

There are just two ways it could happen. The first, and most likely, is that the rising tensions between National and its partners in power, Act and the Maori Party, could end in the abrogation of either one, or both, of the confidence and supply agreements that allow John Key to govern.

The second, less likely – though potentially much more serious – way in which Key’s hand could be forced is if an outbreak of serious and widespread civil disorder required the declaration of a State of Emergency and the imposition of harsh repressive measures to restore law and order to the country. Basically, the 1951 situation.

Let’s examine the latter scenario. A serious outbreak of civil disorder is met with harsh State countermeasures; this "repression" then leads to the defection of one, or both, of the Government’s support parties. The Government decides to seek a new mandate from the electorate.

The crisis begins with the erection of checkpoints on all the roads leading into Tuhoe Country. Motorists are confronted by masked gunmen who order them to turn their vehicles around.

On the same day communiqués arrive at all the major media outlets declaring the establishment of "The Independent Tuhoe Nation". Representatives of the "Settler State" are warned that any attempt to re-establish the Crown’s authority will be met by "deadly force".

Armed Police move against the road-blocks and are fired upon. The Police return fire and at least one of the Tuhoe "border guards" is killed. That evening several farm properties are set alight. Pakeha families flee the area.

The following morning the Prime Minister asks the Governor General to declare a State of Emergency. The New Zealand Defence Force is formally requested to "assist the Civil Power". Over the next few days Army and Police units restore order in Tuhoe Country. Eighteen people lose their lives.

Responding to a massive outpouring of anger from Maoridom, the Maori Party tears up its confidence and supply agreement with the National Party. On the same day, the Act Party declares the violence of the preceding days to be the "inevitable consequence of twenty years of racial appeasement" and informs Key that the price of its continuing support will be the abolition of the Waitangi Tribunal and the Maori Seats.

A few hours later, after visiting the Governor-General, Key announces an early election. "More than anything else," he declares solemnly, "New Zealand needs Peace, Reconciliation and Stability."

Five weeks later Key is returned to office on a landslide. National receives a staggering 58 percent of the Party Vote.

It’s an interesting commentary on the state of New Zealand that to devise a crisis scenario equivalent to the "1951 situation" it is no longer credible to cast militant trade unionists in the role of the rebels. In 2010 that honour can only go to militant Maori nationalists.

It would not, of course, require a crisis of such magnitude to precipitate a breakdown in the Government’s parliamentary support arrangements. If it continues, Act’s reckless incitement of Federated Farmers over the ETS will eventually undermine its relationship with National. The same applies to the Maori Party should there be any more decisive Prime Ministerial interventions in all-but-completed Treaty negotiations.

The fundamental point is this: with such a volatile brace of supply and confidence partners, the possibility that, for an ever-expanding number of reasons, either one – or both – of them might withdraw their support can never be very far from National’s thoughts.

But if Act and the Maori Party are only a policy-shift away from spitting the dummy, then surely the smartest thing for Key to do is anticipate the event that sets the dummies’ owners expectorating.

To bolster his support among moderate voters, all Key has to do is annoy Act. To shore up his conservative Pakeha backers he has only to alienate the Maori Party. And if he can somehow contrive to do both – before the All Blacks once again fail to win the Rugby World Cup – then National’s second term is guaranteed.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 3 June 2010.

Friday 4 June 2010

What Profit It A Nation?

One Man's Promise: Moses forged a collection of refugees into a nation on the promise of a home, and Joshua won it for them at the point of a sword. The State of Israel has grown true to its seed: born of longing, delivered by dispossession, held by violence.

"THIS LAND IS MINE." In that single, opening line of the Exodus theme-song, all the triumph and tragedy of Israel’s history is compressed into a single, defiant claim.

From the original, biblical exodus, in which Moses leads the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt; to the historical exodus, in which the Holocaust survivors begged, borrowed and stole their way out of post-war Europe; the mountains, valleys and rivers of Israel have beckoned, beguiled and ultimately betrayed the Jewish people.

This latest tragedy – Israel’s interdiction of the so-called "Freedom Flotilla" off the coast of the Gaza Strip – is but the latest vicious instalment in a tale of blood and conquest that spans 3,000 years.

Strip away the Christian gloss from the first books of the Old Testament and we are presented with a tale of unmitigated horror. Moses emerges from the secularised text as a bloodthirsty forerunner of Jim Jones and David Koresh – a fanatical cult leader who does not hesitate to butcher any individual or group who demonstrates the slightest deviation from the strictures of the new Mosaic order.

Moses chosen successor, Joshua, takes up the story where his bloodthirsty predecessor leaves off, falling upon the hapless peoples of the Jordan Valley with a ferocity that would not disgrace the Israeli Defence Force of today.

If the history of a nation is foreshadowed in the deeds of its makers, then Israel, born of innocent blood and raised on the ruins of broken cities, has grown true to its seed.

Never has this been more true than at the time of Israel’s refoundation in 1948, when, once again, a Jewish nation was erected upon the ruined properties and ravaged lives of the people it dispossessed.

And as the state of Israel has grown, so too has the evil that defined its birth. That first act of dispossession has been multiplied and refined through three generations – to the point where Israelis now stand guard over an imprisoned people even Pharaoh would have pitied.

"Let my people go!" Words that inspired countless oppressed nations down through the centuries have now become, in a paradox worthy of Israel’s tortured history, the cry not of the Chosen People – but of the Palestinians.

"Thou shalt have no other Gods before me!" cried Jehovah, but the Children of Modern Israel defy the Lord their God. For they have made of the land of Israel, from the peaks of its fortified mountains, to the polluted trickle that was once the holy River Jordan, a graven idol which they worship and feed with blood.

They have forgotten – or choose not to remember – that it was only when the Jewish people were conquered and scattered; persecuted and enslaved; that they came at last to understand that Israel is not a place, but a practice; that Jerusalem is not city, but an aspiration.

Their prophets understood – castigating Israel’s kings for allowing indifference, cruelty and selfishness to hold sway. They knew that the true Israel lived in men’s souls, and that it was compassionate and steadfast. They knew, too, that the true character of a man’s relationship with God will always be mirrored in his relationships with his fellow man.

"Do you know what I want?", cried the Prophet Amos. " I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want."

And this is the tragedy of the Freedom Flotilla: that it looked so like the little flotilla of ships that defied the British blockade of Palestine in 1946; ships carrying Jewish refugees from the Nazi death-camps. They also carried banners. One, in particular, caught the world’s eye:

"We suffered Hitler", it read, "Death is no stranger to us. Nothing will keep us from our Jewish homeland. The blood be upon your head if you fire on this unarmed ship."

The even greater tragedy is that where the British stayed their hand, the children of those refugees did not.

A Jewish rabbi, born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth and executed outside the walls of Jerusalem – the man called by some The Messiah, told his followers that: "The Kingdom of God is not of this world."

In seizing Israel by force and making its continued possession a more important goal than justice, Israelis have not only lost their way – they have lost their souls.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 4 June 2010.