Friday 30 July 2010

Songs Of Our Fathers

The Power of Song: A young Bob Dylan joins voices with veteran protest singer, Pete Seeger. "There is no life without song,’" said the Czech resistance fighter, Julius Fuchik, "as there is no life without the sun."

On Wednesday, 28 July 2010 I delivered the following speech to approximately 120 workers and students attending the "Fightback" rally organised by Unite on Campus (Auckland) in Basement Lecture Theatre B28 of the University of Auckland Library. Other speakers included The EPMU’s Bill Newson, the NDU’s Karl Andersen, Former Green Party MP, Sue Bradford and Unite General Secretary, Matt McCarten. The rally was chaired by Unite organiser, Joe Carolan.

WHEN JOE INVITED me to address this "Unite on Campus" protest rally last week, I must confess to feeling a pang or two of trepidation. It’s been many years since I stood in front of a room full of workers and students with clear rhetorical intent.

What could I possibly tell you about trade unionism or student activism that is even remotely relevant to your situation? The world has changed dramatically since I was last a trade unionist – let alone a student activist!

You don’t need me to tell you that back in the 1970s and 80s, when I was in my early 20s, it was so much easier to be both.

But the organisers of tonight’s rally have reassured me that a backward glance or two might actually be helpful in the battle to halt this Government’s attack on workers’ rights. And, as an historian, I can hardly disagree.

So I’ve asked myself: "What’s the easiest way to convey the sentiments of Activists Past to Activists Present?"

My answer is – their songs.

Protest songs were the You-Tube clips of their day: cheap to produce, easy to access, and if they were any good they could be passed on to tens of thousands of people in an astonishingly short period of time.

So I hauled out my copy of Kiwi Youth Sings – a songbook put together in 1951 by the Student Labour Federation and the Progressive Youth League. The songbook’s editors, Conrad Bollinger and Neil Grange, were in no doubt concerning the importance of political song.

"Locked in the dungeons of the Gestapo the Czech resistance fighter Julius Fuchik could not be stopped from singing", they told their youthful readers. ‘"There is no life without song,’" said Fuchik, "as there is no life without the sun."

The first song in "Kiwi Youth Sings" is, very appropriately, "The Internationale". Just listen to the anger and red-hot determination of its opening lines:

Arise ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise ye wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world is now in birth.
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us!
Arise ye slaves no more in thrall!
The earth shall stand on new foundations,
We have been nought – we shall be all!

Stirring stuff!

But not all the songs rely on the rhythms and language of the Bible.

"It’s My Union", an Australian ditty, is much more colloquial:

They can call me agitator,
They can even call me traitor,
They can tell me that my brain is off the track.
But I’m smart enough to see
What the union’s done for me
So, I’m rolling up my sleeves and fighting back.

From England came the poignant "People’s Anthem" – the most popular song of that first great mobilisation of working-class people, the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 40s.

Rather than ask God to save the Queen, the song’s author, Ebenezer Elliot, implores the Almighty to save the people.

Shall crime bring crime forever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, O Father,
That Man should toil for wrong?
No! say thy mountains, No! thy skies:
Man’s clouded sun shall brightly rise,
And songs be heard instead of sighs.
God save the People!

And, of course, we could not walk among England’s poor without acknowledging William Blake’s mysterious incantation of a poem "Jerusalem":

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon these clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Nor could we leave them without at least quoting the chorus of what Bollinger and Grange called "the great hymn of the British Labour Movement:

Then raise the scarlet standard high!
Within its shade we’ll live or die!
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the red flag flying here!

Years later, I’m reliably informed, Conrad Bollinger penned a wicked parody of "The People’s Flag":

O Labour’s flag is deep magenta
It flies on high – just right of centre!

Interestingly, on the night of 5 July 1945, when it became clear that the British Labour Party had won the General Election, the vast crowd of working-class Londoners which had gathered outside Transport House to welcome in the Red Dawn didn’t celebrate their victory by singing "The People’s Flag". The song they sang that night, to usher in Britain’s new welfare state was much older. It was William Blake’s "Jerusalem".

I shall not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Til we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land

But nowhere, in the English-speaking world has the battle for workers’ rights been harder – or bloodier – than in the United States.

Small wonder, then, that it is from the USA that we have inherited what is, perhaps, the greatest union anthem of all – "Solidarity Forever!".

Just listen to the enormous confidence that rings out in the song’s verses: the absolute conviction that workers’ power can not only defeat the bosses, but transform the world:

They have hoarded untold millions
That they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle
Not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power,
Win our freedom when we learn -
That the union makes us strong

In our hands we hold a power
Greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the strength of armies
Multiplied a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world
From the ashes of the old -
When the union makes us strong!

The author of "Solidarity Forever!", Ralph Chaplin, was writing in the optimistic early years of the 20th Century – when it seemed that the long-awaited "Commonwealth of Toil" could not be long-delayed.

But the First World War, and coming of the Great Depression drove iron into the soul of the American Labour Movement.

Listen to the bare language and stark choices laid down by Florence Reece, who battled alongside her husband for miner’s rights in the Kentucky coal-fields during the 1930s. She wrote down these words on the back of a calendar after a gang of strike-breakers crashed into her home and attacked her family.

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

And that’s a sentiment, Comrades, that never changes. To every human-being, be they old or young, black or white, man or woman, rich or poor, a moment always comes when the choice that changes lives must be made, and an answer given.

Which side are you on? 

Chris Carter: Q+A

Suicide Bomber? Te Atatu MP, Chris Carter.

CHRIS CARTER’S extraordinary self-immolation will prompt many questions. What follows is my first, best guess at the answer to the most obvious.

Why did he do it?

Up until 2008, Carter’s entire parliamentary career had been spent in the Helen Clark-led Labour Party. It was an environment in which a gay MP could feel that he was valued and to a certain extent protected from the less tolerant elements within Labour’s ranks. Clark liked Carter and welcomed him into her inner circle of friends and confidants. Her sudden departure following the 2008 defeat, and the installation of Phil Goff, from the party’s more conservative faction, as Leader of the Opposition must have been hugely upsetting for Carter. No longer in the inner circle, and aware of the unmistakable shift away from his former patron’s social-liberal priorities, he became a politician adrift, and no amount of text-messaging from New York could get him back on course.

This made Carter especially vulnerable to feelings of persecution and rejection when the Ministerial Expenses Scandal broke. Rather than see Goff’s moves for what they really were – sops thrown to a ravenous media Cerberus – Carter interpreted his leader’s pro forma reprimands as deliberate personal slights. His paranoia levels climbed to new heights when Goff seemed to side with his media persecutors by forcing him to publicly apologise for sins he considered himself entirely innocent of committing.

He no longer felt comfortable in the party, and Goff was the man he held responsible for what he now saw as his inexorable marginalisation. In the weeks since his public humiliation and demotion he has obviously come to the unalterable conclusion that his own and the party’s restoration can only be achieved by Goff’s political destruction.

In his own mind, he is the only member of the party willing to say out loud what everybody else is whispering; the only member of the Labour caucus ready to sacrifice his own political future for the sake of the party.

Carter has put on the white robes of the martyr. Goff is his target, and he’s not about to let anyone prevent him from blowing Labour’s leader to Kingdom Come. He has become the political equivalent of a suicide bomber.

Thursday 29 July 2010

The "Why?" of Superannuation More Important That The "What?"

Offering Solutions? Dr Don Brash has never shied away from posing - or attempting to answer - the difficult questions.

NO ONE can fairly accuse Dr Don Brash of shying away from the difficult and the divisive. In stark contrast to his successor, Dr Brash’s preference has always been to confront contentious issues head-on: to offer solutions – not evasions.

It’s the quality I most admire in him.

Last week Dr Brash did it again. In a speech to the Asset Allocation Summit, meeting in Auckland’s swanky Hilton Hotel, he offered up a solution to the fiscal problems posed by the imminent retirement of the Baby Boomers (the first of whom turn 65 next year).

What Dr Brash is proposing is disarmingly simple. The longer you put off retirement – the bigger your pension. Or, in the good doctor’s own, rather dry, econo-speak:

"In my own view, raising the age of eligibility could be made more politically acceptable if we were to allow a degree of flexibility regarding when the pension is actually taken. If the age of eligibility were 67, for example, under a policy allowing flexibility regarding the age at which it could be drawn somebody might choose to take the pension at, say, 65. At that younger age, the amount received would be actuarially adjusted downwards, and would remain at that lower level (with regular upward adjustments with wages of course) until death. Conversely, if somebody chose to defer drawing the pension until, say 69 or 70, the amount received would be actuarially adjusted upwards."

This is by no means a silly idea – especially if one accepts the demographic and fiscal assumptions it seeks to address.

To hear both the National and Labour Party leaders dismiss Dr Brash’s proposal out-of-hand was, therefore, extremely disappointing. Only a fool would suggest that the vast expansion of our over-65 population will require no adjustments whatsoever to the current delivery mechanisms. But, given the knee-jerk reaction of the two main parties, it’s difficult to conclude that they are led by anything else. Change of some sort to the way we manage and/or pay for New Zealand Superannuation is – as Dr Brash rightly asserts – "inevitable", and political leaders who refuse to face the inevitable are fools indeed.

Dr Brash is similarly right on the money when he urges us to deal with this problem sooner rather than later. Young New Zealanders – the so-called Generations "X" and "Y" – should not be expected to wait until the brute facts of fiscal reality force some future government to implement an equally brutal series of last-minute solutions.

As a trained economist, Dr Brash is, of course, basing his ideas on a number of important assumptions. It’s one of the least understood aspects of economics – this assumption thing – and if more people realised on what a truly heroic scale the profession assumes all manner of things about the world, I suspect it would be taken a lot less seriously.

For example, Dr Brash is assuming that the Treasury’s "projections" about the shape of New Zealand society in 2050 are correct. But, of course, a "projection" assumes that everything that is happening now will go on happening in exactly the same way for (in this case) the next 40 years.

Just think about that for a moment. Cast your mind back (if you’re a Baby-Boomer) to the New Zealand of 40 years ago. Who, in the year 1970, would have accurately predicted where New Zealand would end up? Who could have foreseen "Rogernomics"? The fall of the Berlin Wall? China transforming itself into a capitalist powerhouse? A black American president?

How close would the picture of New Zealand 40 years in the future, projected by Treasury in 1970, have come to the reality of 2010?

Attempting to predict the future is like trying to freeze your own shadow. With every decision we take in the here-and-now, the shape of the future changes. That is why it’s always safer for a government to base its policies on solid and enduring principles. Heroic assumptions are best left to economists.

NZ Superannuation works because it embodies its beneficiaries’ clear expectations about what the state should provide and what the citizen should contribute. It’s universal availability acknowledges the right of every person to be supported in their old age. It is financed out of general tax revenues because every citizen has a duty to be his brother’s – and his sister’s – keeper.

Be guided by those principles, and Treasury’s doom-laden projections can be dismissed for what they nearly always are – "ideological burps".

A society dedicated to the support of its most vulnerable members – be they the very old or the very young – will do what it takes to meet its commitments. That may mean higher taxes. It may mean increased immigration. It may even mean adopting Dr Brash’s suggestion.

Ultimately, what we decide to do matters much less than why we decide to do it.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 July 2010.

Monday 26 July 2010

Generation Games

Divide and Conquer: Who benefits from setting Generations X & Y and the Baby-Boomers at each other's throats?

WHEN DID IT BEGIN – this war between the Baby-Boomers and Generations X & Y? When did it become something more than the normal bickering between those who wish they still were, and those who (infuriatingly) still are – young? And how did I become so sensitised to these anti-Baby-Boomer attitudes that I’m now posting on the subject?

The proximate cause – as the forensic scientists would say – was a story by Tim Watkin on the Pundit blogsite. According to Tim, the Baby-Boomers were "locusts" –poised like a pestilence to devour what little remains of New Zealand’s patrimony:

"The baby-boomers start retiring now", wailed Tim, "which means the first locusts are already landing on our crops, and behind them comes the swarm ready to devour our welfare budget. Yet our politicians are sitting there like the monkeys with their hands over their eyes, ears and mouth."

For the first time in a long time I experienced that awful feeling of being condemned not for anything I had done, but because of my membership in a particular group. Like every other New Zealander born between the years 1946 and 1966, I did not choose my birth date – and yet, there I was, squarely in Tim’s gunsights.

I cannot say my mood was improved upon reading, a little further down, that: "[The Baby-Boomers] have given themselves generous and repeated tax cuts, meaning fewer services and assets for the generation coming behind. I used the locust metaphor because the baby-boomers (not all, of course, and in a broad, generational sense) have simply gorged themselves without thinking about what they leave behind."

Tim’s rather mealy-mouthed qualification notwithstanding, this accusation really flicked my angry switch. So this was how the younger generations saw us? As selfish insects who "gorged themselves" without the slightest thought for future generations?

I recalled the Baby-Boomers who had raised the banner of ecological sustainability; the Baby-Boomers who had fought tooth-and-nail against the onslaught of Rogernomics; men and women with no other thoughts in their minds except to preserve the planet and keep safe the ideals of fairness and social justice for future generations.

I thought about the vast cultural and political transformations wrought by young middle-class students of the 1960s and 70s: in civil rights, women’s rights, Maori rights, gay rights. I remembered the struggles waged against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, sporting contacts with South Africa, and for a woman’s right to choose. Two decades of unceasing agitation against the cultural and political institutions of the rigid post-war consensus: militant anti-communism; fast-frozen gender- and race-relations; a stultifying cultural conservatism – all made palatable by an ever-rising standard of living and expanding material wealth.

And, finally, I thought of the tens of thousands of young New Zealand workers who’d unleashed the most protracted period of strike action in New Zealand history. Because, yes, it was the working-class Baby-Boomers who made the 1970s and 80s rock-n-roll with militant union power: working on the chain at the freezing works, driving trucks, building dams, manning the production-lines in the big import-substitution factories of Auckland, Porirua and the Hutt Valley.

Not that I imagine young Tim ever gave much thought to where all those fifteen-year-olds ruthlessly drafted-out of secondary education by the School Certificate examination eventually ended up.

Just as it never occurred to Tim that the tax-cuts he so casually attributes to the greed of the Baby-Boomers couldn’t possibly have been their doing. It was, after all, Rob Muldoon who began cutting income taxes back in the early 1980s. Roger Douglas and Bill Birch (neither of whom are Baby-Boomers) kept on cutting – but not for the sake of young New Zealanders in their 20s and 30s.

The reduction in the top rate of income tax was for the benefit of those in the top income brackets, and in the normal course of events such people tend to be older rather than younger. The men and women (they were mostly men) entering their prime earning years in the 1980s and 90s weren’t Baby-Boomers, they were of Roger Douglas’s and Bill Birch’s generation – New Zealanders born in the 1930s and 40s – not the 1950s and 60s.

A moment’s more thought would have reminded Tim that the real "Baby-Boomer Government" led by Labour’s Helen Clark (b. 1950) – didn’t cut taxes, it raised them.

And it’s about here, of course, that we come to the ultimate cause of this nasty little war between the Baby-Boomers and Generations X & Y - historical amnesia.

Having the generations who were its primary victims at each others’ throats is exactly what the neoliberal architects of Rogernomics require. Those responsible for the changes which transformed New Zealand society from one of the most equal (in terms of income share) to one of the most unequal in the OECD have no interest whatsoever in New Zealanders accurately recalling "whodunnit".

And, of course, Generations X & Y either weren’t old enough to appreciate what was going on between 1984-93 – or had yet to be born. All they know about what happened in the 1980s and 90s is what other people tell them. And that’s the trick, you see. To make them believe that the reason they have to pay student fees; the reason they can’t afford a house; the reason they have to keep putting off getting married and starting a family: it’s all down to those greedy bloody Baby-Boomers!

And we Boomers: affronted and hurt by the false accusations of Generations X and Y; and not a little confused ourselves about how everything turned so comprehensively to shit over the past quarter-century; we get all angry and defensive.

"Who do these little bastards think they are?" we say. "We haven’t noticed them marching down the street for peace, justice and equality – like we did. We haven’t seen them taking part in strike action. Shut up in their rooms: with their PCs and iPods and cell-phones; downloading, texting, face-booking and tweeting their lives away; who the fuck are they to point their fingers at us!"

Divide et Impera. Divide and Conquer. It almost never fails.

While the victims of the neoliberal counter-revolution scratch and tear at each other for a share of the social-services cake which, with every passing budget, emerges from the oven just a little bit smaller than the year before, the men and women who bake it refill their glasses and offer up a votive prayer to Pluto – the God of Death and Money – that those whose lives they've so comprehensively constrained never grasp the simple and unchanging truth. That greed is ageless.

Saturday 24 July 2010

The CTU Cannot Survive A farce

"Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." - Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

IT COMFORTS ME, sometimes, to recall that when he wasn’t bludging off his wealthy mate Fred Engels, Karl Marx earned his living by writing political commentaries. His most celebrated journalistic effort is the lengthy article he penned during the winter of 1851-52 for a New York German-American magazine called The Revolution. Entitled "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" the article examines the combination of social and economic forces giving rise to the political phenomenon later known as fascism.

The article is well worth reading for its own sake – Marx was a brilliant stylist – but is principally remembered for the oft-quoted observation: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."

Marx’s wry aside was constantly running through my head last Sunday morning as 300-400 trade unionists and their supporters gathered under Auckland’s soaring Skytower to protest the package of employment law "reforms" Prime Minister John Key was scheduled to announce to the National Party Conference (meeting fifty metres up the street at the Sky City Convention Centre) at 11 o’clock.

Certainly, there’s no disputing the fact that the National Party’s first great package of employment law "reforms" – The Employment Contracts Act – was an unmitigated tragedy for the New Zealand trade union movement.

In 1991, when the ECA came into force, there were roughly 675,000 unionised workers out of a labour force of just under 1.5 million – a union density rate of 45 percent. Significantly, most of those unionists worked in the private sector. Two decades on, union density has fallen to about 20 percent, most of it concentrated in the public sector. In the private sector, barely one in ten workers remain unionised.

But the dramatic fall in union density is only half the tragedy of 1991. The other half was the catastrophic failure of union leadership. To the utter consternation of the National Government, its draconian anti-worker legislation – modelled on the union-smashing laws of the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet - was fastened around the neck of the New Zealand working-class without a fight.

The CTU’s leaders, backed by their public sector allies, bluntly refused to organise (let alone lead) the general strike demanded by an overwhelming majority of the private sector unions. Essentially, if a worker wasn’t lucky enough to have the state as his or her employer, or to work on a large, well-organised site, then he or she was just plain out of luck.

The CTU’s refusal to organise effective resistance to the ECA represents the most tragic and unconscionable failure of leadership in New Zealand trade union history. Hundreds of thousands of private sector workers were simply abandoned to the tender mercies of an employing class that could hardly believe its luck.

I think that’s why there were so many ex-unionists and activists at the Auckland rally on Sunday. We’d all lived through the tragedy of 1991, and now we were in need of some reassurance that the CTU’s 2010 response to National’s second great attack on workers’ rights wasn’t about to play out as farce.

We needn’t have worried.

The swing vote in the 1991 CTU "debate" on whether or not to call a general strike against the ECA had been cast by the Engineers Union. Twenty years later, the Engineers Union’s successor organisation, the EPMU, was among the first to lay down a challenge to the bosses.

Standing on the back of the radical Unite union’s flatbed truck, EPMU official, Bill Newson, declared: "If employers in this country want chaos – we can do chaos."

CTU President, Helen Kelly, reassured the protesters that she’d be seeing them all again soon – "on the streets".

John Key had done what all the militants couldn’t do: he’d left moderate leaders like Mr Newson and Ms Kelly with no other strategy except full-on resistance.

As I enveloped the startled CTU President in a congratulatory bear-hug, I recalled another great quote from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please ….. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living."

The CTU only just managed to survive its self-inflicted tragedy – it cannot survive a self-inflicted farce.

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, 23 July 2010. 

Friday 23 July 2010

Memorandum No. 2

"Forward, and remember, what our strength always was and shall be! In famine and in plenty, forward, and remember, it's solidarity!" - Solidarity Song by Bertolt Brecht

FROM: Chris Trotter
TO: The CTU National Council
RE: Your decision to fight back
DATE: Friday, 23 July 2010

CONGRATULATIONS and thank-you to all the affiliates of the CTU for your unanimous decision to organise a broad-ranging fight-back against the National Government’s assault on workers’ rights.

There will be many other decisions that you will have to make in the months ahead, but this – the first – was the most crucial. The decision to fight – as all trade unionists know – is always the most fraught with risk. A wrong choice at this point precludes so many others.

I hope you will forgive me for listening to the fear-driven rumours – now proved to be false – that the public sector unions’ hearts were not in this fight. I allowed the dark shadows of the past to unnerve me, and for that I offer you my sincere and deservedly embarrassed apologies.

In the bright sunlight of a new day, let’s remember the words of Bertolt Brecht:

Forward, and remember
What our strength always was and shall be!
In famine and in plenty
Forward, and remember
It’s solidarity!


Wednesday 21 July 2010

Memorandum No. 1

Never again!

FROM: Chris Trotter
TO: The CTU National Council
RE: The Future of the CTU
DATE: Wednesday, 21 July 2010
FEW INDIVIDUALS or institutions are given the opportunity to put right a great wrong. Tomorrow the CTU National Council has that opportunity.

The CTU’s failure of leadership in 1991 condemned hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders to a working life without effective union protection. Its refusal to heed the clear call of its own affiliated membership – which was to take direct action against the National Government – allowed Bill Birch to pass the most draconian piece of anti-worker legislation in the democratic world. The result was a catastrophic fall in union density – especially in the private sector.

The union leaders most responsible for the CTU’s failure in 1991 were those "representing" public sector workers. Over the past 48 hours rumours have begun circulating throughout the wider labour movement that, two decades later, the leadership of the public sector unions are again attempting to preserve their own positions by selling-out their brothers and sisters in the private sector.

If these rumours prove to be correct, the CTU will strip itself of whatever residual moral authority it possesses. In such circumstances there would be no ethical, tactical or strategic justifications for any private sector union remaining within its ranks.

If the public sector union leaders once again refuse to stand in solidarity with the workers of the private sector; and if behind-the-scenes machinations are set in motion to blunt the fightback against the National and Act parties' renewed attack on workers’ rights; then the only ethical alternative available to the leaders of the private sector unions will be to get up and walk out.

The President of the CTU, Helen Kelly, along with the national and regional leaders of the EPMU, the SFWU, the NDU, MUNZ, AWUNZ, the dairy workers, meat workers, railway workers, building trades workers, Finsec and Unite must make the consequences of cowardice and obstruction crystal clear to the leaders of the PSA, the NZEI, the PPTA and the Nurses Organisation:

"Refuse to fight again – and the CTU is finished."


Monday 19 July 2010

Pushing Past the Illusions

Capitalism unmasks itself: John Key's most serious blunder is allowing us to glimpse the brutal reality beneath the benign illusions of his administration.

RUSSELL BROWN has written an excellent summary of the Department of Labour research paper on the impact of the 90-day "Fire at Will" legislation. His entirely justifiable indignation at the skewed nature of the investigation will no doubt be shared by most of his readers. How is it possible, they will ask, that a supposedly responsible state agency could embark on such a study without consulting the New Zealand citizens most directly affected?

Meanwhile, over at Red Alert, the Labour MP for Wellington Central, Grant Robertson, has posed another vexing question about the study. How was it that copies of a highly contentious departmental report were being openly circulated at a political party conference hours before its official public release?

Partisans of blogosphere journalism would no doubt add that if CTU President, Helen Kelly’s, sources were sufficiently well-placed to tip her off about the paper’s unauthorised release, then why weren’t the mainstream media similarly well-informed? Why was it left to Grant Robertson to alert the public to a flagrant breach of State Services protocols? Why was it Russell Brown at Public Address, rather than the New Zealand Herald’s John Armstrong, who crunched the report’s numbers on our behalf?

It’s only when we start to ask questions like these that the true character of society’s core institutions begins to emerge from the veils of illusion in which they are normally shrouded. And we only feel impelled to push past them when it’s clear that the citizens they're supposed to protect are not being adequately defended. At such moments we learn to our astonishment that the illusions of neutrality, even-handedness and rationality which these institutions have so assiduously nurtured can be jettisoned in an instant if the interests of the dominant social classes require it.

In feudal societies these latter would be the landed aristocracy, the senior clergy and the wealthiest city merchants. In capitalist societies like our own the dominant social classes are made up of employers, financiers and managers, senior civil servants, and that modern equivalent of the medieval church hierarchy – the corporate news media.

When these dominant groups decide to strengthen their collective hold over subordinate social groups (such as workers and/or beneficiaries) and intensify the overall rate of their economic exploitation, they do not hesitate to enlist the aid of society’s core institutions. The Department of Labour will be tasked with seeking out the views of employers – but not of workers. The news media will frame an overt attack on the rights of employees as a benign attempt to get marginalised workers into jobs. Journalists and commentators will vigorously condemn a little harmless pushing and shoving outside the National Party Conference venue, but ignore entirely the much more damaging economic violence inflicted upon working people who have first been stripped of all legal protection and then arbitrarily deprived of their livelihoods.

When class conflict on this scale is unleashed it is vitally important that as many citizens as possible push past the illusions of neutrality, even-handedness and rationality created by our core institutions and find the courage to describe what is actually taking place.

In this regard the lawyer, Max Whitehead, deserves our special commendation. His statement that the extension of the "Fire at Will" legislation to cover all new employees means that "workers have fewer right than murderers under the 90-day trial period" clearly irked the Prime Minister, who described Mr Whitehead’s claim as "ridiculous".

But the employment lawyer’s statement is very far from being ridiculous. In fact, Mr Whitehead’s claim is quite correct.

A citizen accused of murder is entitled to the presumption of innocence and the Crown is required to advance sufficient prima facie evidence of the charge to warrant the accused being sent to trial. If brought before a court the Crown must prove the accused’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt – or set him free.

Workers accused by their employers of not being up to the job, or of being party to an employment relationship that "just isn’t working" have virtually no rights. They are presumed to be guilty of the failings attributed to them by their employers, who are not obliged to advance the smallest piece of evidence for their claims. The dismissed workers are denied access to any kind of impartial tribunal, their employer being, in effect, their prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner.

Mr Whitehead’s stark comparison is disconcerting and alarming precisely because it tears the veils of illusion surrounding the National Government’s defenders to shreds. We find it deeply shocking – almost unbelievable – that working people can be treated in this way because in normal circumstances these veils of illusion shield us from the harsh realities of our class-divided society.

And this, ultimately, may prove to be Mr Key’s most serious blunder. He has allowed us to catch a glimpse of reality, and reality is always deeply, deeply subversive of our masters’ most cherished illusions.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Defeat Is Not An Option

The mask falls away: In announcing its employment law "reforms", the National Party has revealed to the CTU what it truly is: an entity which, like the killer cyborg in The Terminator, "can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."

"IF EMPLOYERS in this country want chaos – we can do chaos." The EPMU’s Bill Newson isn’t noted for making threats he can’t keep. So, if he's standing on the back of the radical Unite Union’s flatbed truck and threatening to unleash chaos in New Zealand’s factories – that's probably something the National Government should think about.

And while they’re at it, they might also like to ponder the words of the National Secretary of the Dairy Workers Union, James Ritchie:

"If this 90-day rule is used against any of our members, I can tell you that there will be a stop-work meeting called immediately to decide what action the site should take in response."

Ritchie’s dairy workers keep New Zealand’s milk-processing plants operating – it’s hard to think of another group of workers with more strategic economic clout.

There were many more impassioned attacks on the National-led Government’s proposed employment law "reforms" delivered from the back of Unite’s flatbed truck this morning (Sunday, 18 July 2010).

The NDU’s Maxine Gaye spoke about the National Party’s hatred and contempt for working people. Garry Parsloe, from the Maritime Unions, wondered aloud whether those who had voted for John Key because it was "time for a change" were expecting "this sort of change?" Unite Union organiser, Joe Carolan, asked the 200-300 unionists present to see Key’s attack on the union movement as "our silver lining": a chance to mobilise the New Zealand working-class against the grim legacy of the Employment Contracts Act.

But, for me, the most important words spoken at the rally came from CTU President, Helen Kelly. Thanking all those present for turning up at such short notice on a Sunday morning, she wound up the protest by telling them that the CTU’s National Council would be meeting on Thursday, 22 July, and that she was sure they’d all be joining the CTU again very soon – "on the streets".

"If you only knew how long I have waited to hear a CTU president utter the words ‘on the streets’!" I said to the startled union leader as I enveloped her in a congratulatory bear-hug.

I seriously doubt whether John Key and his colleagues have the slightest idea what they have done in driving the likes of Helen Kelly, Bill Newson and James Ritchie "to the streets". These union leaders are not cut from the same cloth as firebrands like Joe Carolan or John Minto – the rally’s superb Master of Ceremonies. Their preference has always been to, as far as possible without surrender, work with the employers and the government – not throw rocks at them. Kelly, in particular, put her credibility on the line by taking an active role in the Prime Minister’s "Jobs Summit". She and the CTU were willing to wear the scorn of the militants if it meant establishing a sensible working relationship with Key and his cabinet.

This is the thanks they got.

The combined effect of the measures announced to the National Party Conference by the Prime Minister and his Labour Minister, Kate Wilkinson, will be to gut the much-diminished New Zealand union movement of whatever limited effectiveness it still possesses. Kelly and the other moderate union leaders now have no choice but to launch an all-out fight for the very survival of their organisations.

With Key’s address to the Conference, the last wisps of illusion have been blown away and the last vestiges of good faith and trust shredded. Kelly and her colleagues now know that a National Party unrestrained by an organised working-class – like the ominous mass of the old FOL under Fintain Patrick Walsh – is simply incapable of treating the trade unions with even the faintest semblance of decency or respect.

The urge to grind working-class New Zealanders’ faces into the dirt is obviously hard-wired into the rudimentary mental machinery of the reactionary rural bigots and smug suburban fascists that make up the National Party’s rank-and-file.

As I said to the Labour MP, Carol Beaumont, who was present at the rally, the National Party has shown itself to be just like the killer cyborg in the movie The Terminator. As the movie's hero, Kyle Reese tells the heroine, Sarah Connor:

"Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."

And in this sense, at least, Joe Carolan is right – National’s attack on workers’ rights should be seen as our silver lining. Because now, at last, we know what we’re up against – and why defeat is not an option.

Friday 16 July 2010

The Arrogant Left

It's for your own good, Mr McMurphy: The ice-cold "charity" of Ken Kesey's Nurse Ratched brilliantly exemplifies the key political functions of the managerial-professional class: infantilising the working-class and marginalising their representatives on the traditional Left.

FOR SOMEONE WRITING from a left-wing perspective, Rob Salmond’s "Poll of Polls" makes dismal reading. Reinstated, after a lengthy hiatus, on the "Pundit" blogsite, Rob’s scientific homogenisation of the findings of the four major media polls (Colmar Brunton, Reid Research, Roy Morgan and DigiPoll) illustrates all-too-graphically just how vast the ideological gulf between Right and Left has become.

Something, or someone, must be responsible for this widening gap: something or someone so objectionable that the majority, rather than be counted among the Left’s supporters, is prepared to overlook the lengthening list of right-wing policy failures. That willingness to turn a blind eye is now so pronounced that just under two-thirds of those most recently questioned by Roy Morgan’s pollsters agreed that the country was "headed in the right direction".

This is an extraordinary figure. New Zealand is only slowly hauling itself out of a deep recession. Job insecurity is rife; mortgagee sales are rising; the cost of living keeps going up and up – and yet, all of these difficulties notwithstanding, 65 percent of Roy Morgan’s respondents think we’re on the right track.

What is it about the Left’s beliefs, behaviour and overall policy prescription that has driven it below the 40 percent line on Rob Salmond’s Poll of Polls graph? And what is Labour doing (or not doing) that keeps it trailing behind National by a morale-sapping 21.1 percentage points?

At the heart of all these questions, I believe, lies the problem of left-wing arrogance. It’s the problem that has kept me firmly on the outside of the Left’s inner-circles for the best part of forty years. Even as a teenager (when, supposedly, I was most susceptible to the allure of the Left’s grand, all-encompassing theories) I found the superior attitude of left-wingers intolerable.

Like Plato’s ring of invisibility, Marxist-Leninist ideology seemed to grant its adepts the power to sin with impunity. The rest of humanity were regarded as mere raw material – objects upon which they were free to work without ethical restraint. The crimes of their enemies were shrilly condemned, while those committed by their friends and allies were passed over in silence.

This superior attitude was by no means restricted to the multitude of communist sects. If anything, it was even more pronounced among the radical followers of the so-called New Social Movements: Anti-Racism, Environmentalism, Feminism, Gay Rights. Like the heroes of the 1969 cult-movie Easy Rider, these "new" leftists saw themselves as an enlightened but despised minority trying to do right in a world populated overwhelmingly by the ignorant and hostile.

Even today, this deep contempt for the majority remains clearly evident in the Left’s language. To question the ideology of Maori nationalism is to reveal oneself as a racist "redneck". Working-class communities attempting to defend their jobs from the demands of environmentalists are dismissed as "feral" or "white trash". The slightest challenge to the sacred precepts of Orthodox Feminism will provoke torrents of vitriolic abuse.

Traditional Labour politics was very different. The premise here was that a working-class party can only be the political vehicle for working-class needs and aspirations. Labour politicians, if they were worth a damn, saw themselves as nothing more than the frothy margins of the popular tide: markers of the masses’ reach. For these sort of leftists the will of the majority was sacred.

It was only when Labour ceased believing in the wisdom and decency of the majority that its hold on popular affection began to weaken. It broke altogether when, in the mid-1980s, the brute arrogance of Roger Douglas and his fellow neoliberals made common cause with the smug superiority of the managerial-professional New Leftists who had taken over the party.

Labour only rebuilt its relationship with voters by aligning itself with the vast anti-neoliberal majority of the 1990s. Once in power, however, the parliamentary party’s distaste for the values and beliefs of its own supporters grew more obvious with every passing year. By the end of its term Labour’s distaste had matured into open contempt.

In 2008 many Labour voters happily returned the complement.

Nearly two years on and Labour may talk about polices for "the many – not the few" but it’s the few, not the many, who are writing them.

The Left’s poll-results will only start improving when it stops trying to lead the people – and starts following them.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 16 July 2010. 

Thursday 15 July 2010

Pro Patria

"China has stood up!": Mao Zedong's revolutionary nationalism (masquerading as Marxism) empowered the Chinese people to shrug-off both the European and Japanese imperialists who had subjugated and exploited their country for more than a century. They must find New Zealanders' willingness to sell their most valuable economic resources to foreigners deeply perplexing.

HAS NEW ZEALAND become a "creepily nationalistic" country? Is xenophobia running rampant in the heartland? At what point, exactly, does love of country become a disease?

It’s always struck me as odd that both the extreme Left and the extreme Right have no love of borders. Whether it be Karl Marx’s ringing exhortation for "workers of all lands" to "unite!"; or the proud boast of free marketeers that globalisation has made the nation state "redundant"; poor old Patria has been getting it in the neck for the best part of 150 years.

Fortunately Patria – literally, "the land of our fathers" – has a pretty tough neck.

The Socialist International, in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War One, worked hard to ensure that if the worst happened, and war did break out between the Great Powers, proletarian internationalism would trump the nationalist’s call to arms. "The bayonet", cried the socialists, "is a weapon with a worker at both ends."

But in August 1914, when the mobilisation orders were posted, workers of all lands rushed not to the barricades, but to the railway stations and the recruitment offices. The International’s call to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the workers across the borders was drowned out by the cries of: "La Patrie en danger!"

The bayonet turned out to be what it had always been: a weapon with "Us" at one end – and "Them" at the other.

The clarion call to internationalism rang out once again in August 1991, when actually existing socialism "in one country" (and its satellites) suddenly withered away.

The disintegration of the Soviet Empire, boasted the American neoliberal scholar, Francis Fukuyama, signalled not only "the end of history", but the inevitability of globalisation. The triumph of free market capitalism and liberal democracy, he predicted, would set humanity on course for a borderless world.

Ten years later, nineteen young men – apparently unconvinced by Mr Fukuyama’s thesis – demonstrated that history wasn’t quite dead by flying their hijacked airliners into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

America’s response was instructive. Less than a month after 9/11 the US Congress passed the Patriot Act, and President George W. Bush established the Department of Homeland Security.

Turns out borders mattered after all.

So, is nationalism really as "creepy" as the Auckland business community’s glamorous correspondent, Deborah Hill Cone, suggests? Or, is Patria’s claim to our love and loyalty as strong and as natural as that of our own parents’? And, is being "Pro Patria", or, to set this whole discussion in its proper context, taking a lively interest in who is, and isn’t, permitted to purchase large tracts of New Zealand farmland, really the same as xenophobia?

The short answer, according to Property Council New Zealand’s Chief Executive, Connal Townsend, is "Yes."

Interviewed by Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint programme, Mr Townsend said that "there’s a real danger in pandering to a kind of ignorant, racist and xenophobic anti-foreigner feeling in this country, and not actually thinking sensibly about what’s actually best for our nation."

Ms Hill-Cone is even more explicit: "On the chattering classes dinner party circuit it is acceptable to be downright racist against Chinese interests buying land here".

I suspect the Chinese themselves would greet such statements with a degree of wry amusement – and be genuinely puzzled as to why those who sought to protect New Zealand’s vital economic interests are being pilloried in this way. No Chinese citizen would seriously contend that foreigners be permitted to venture into the heart of their homeland and secure exclusive control of its key resources.

Most Westerners simply don’t appreciate the Chinese people’s intense shame at being humiliated and exploited by European and Japanese imperialism. The Chinese State’s history stretches back through two-and-a-half millennia and no people could be prouder of their nation’s achievements.

When Mao Zedong created the Peoples Republic in 1949, he declared to the world: "China has stood up" – a statement whose full import could only be appreciated by a people who, for more than a century, had been forced to bow their heads to foreign invaders.

No, there’s little New Zealanders could teach the Chinese people about the love of country.

What Ms Hill Cone and Mr Townsend are teaching us, however, is how little they understand the people whose investment in New Zealand they are promoting. The Chinese may be tough negotiators – hard bargainers – but they will not be "put off" by those whose patriotism requires them to fiercely protect their nation’s resources. They would do no less – and they expect the same from their economic partners.

Indeed, I’m confident the only behaviour Chinese citizens would find "creepy" is the willingness of some New Zealanders to sell their country to strangers. Mao’s revolutionary nationalists called such people "compradors" – native-born agents for foreign businesses.

Those who did not flee to Formosa were shot.

This essay was originally published in The Press on Tuesday, 13 July 2010.

Friday 9 July 2010

Bitter Fruits

Re-igniting the War? Barbara Kruger's iconic "Your Body is a Battleground" reflects the extreme levels of social, religious and political conflict occasioned by the issue of abortion. New Zealand's Contraception, Sterilisation & Abortion Act (1977) is a legislative compromise, cobbled together by the exhausted antagonists after seven years of increasingly bitter struggle. Is it really time to re-start the fighting?

THE FIRST QUESTION I’d like to ask the Labour List MP, Steve Chadwick, is: "Why now?"

What’s convinced her that the time is right to re-open the abortion debate? What ill-omened denizen of the current political environment has told her that this is the moment to introduce a private member’s bill permitting abortion-on-demand up to the 24th week of pregnancy? I would really, really like to know who it was. Because, try as I may, I’m finding it really difficult to make the cost/benefit analysis come out in Ms Chadwick’s, her party’s, or even her gender’s favour.

Her decision might, of course, be driven entirely by ideological considerations: by an unwavering conviction that every woman has an incontestable right to do whatever she pleases with, and to, her own body. That would make a sort of sense – providing, of course, she’s willing to accept the consequences of making ideology the battleground upon which this issue is decided. What’s sauce for the ideological goose must also be sauce for the ideological gander.

Clearly, Ms Chadwick’s proposed private members bill has got me genuinely perplexed. I simply cannot see what difference – in practical terms – changing the current legislation would make.

According to statistics supplied by the Abortion Supervisory Committee, there were 18,382 abortions carried out in New Zealand in 2007. That’s 12,437 more than were carried out in 1980 – barely two years after the Contraception, Sterilisation & Abortion Act came into force on 1 April 1978.

Does Ms Chadwick not believe that 18,382 abortions are enough? Does she think there should be more? Has the existing legislation created an unfulfilled demand for abortion which her proposed private members bill seeks to satisfy?

That seems unlikely – given New Zealand’s undoubted competitiveness in the international abortion stakes. Among a selection of twelve of the world’s low-fertility countries we jostle with Australia, Sweden and the USA for the honour of recording the highest abortion rate. We’re consistently well ahead of countries where abortion-on-demand is already legally enshrined.

Could it be that Ms Chadwick is hoping to bring down New Zealand’s gold-medal-winning abortion rate?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve no desire to make it more difficult for New Zealand women to access abortion. My position on this issue was decided many years ago when I asked myself whether, given the responsibility, I was prepared to require a woman to give birth to a child she didn’t want – and decided I was not. Nor, I realised, was I prepared to delegate the power of decision to anyone other than the woman herself.

When push came to shove – and throughout the 1970s and 80s there was lots of pushing and shoving – I had to come down on the side of those who said that abortion was a choice only the human-being most directly involved had any claim to make.

But there were hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who did not agree with me: decent, well-meaning people who could not get past the fact that something human always dies when an abortion is performed. Their passionate contention was, and remains, that there is more than one individual involved in the decision to terminate a pregnancy, and that every human-being is morally obligated to speak up for those who have yet to attain a voice.

This is the "icky" factor that Ms Chadwick’s feminist supporters urge their sisters to ignore. It simply does not help to think too much about the messy mechanics of the abortion procedure itself – let alone what it destroys. In the words of one blogger calling herself the Queen of Thorns: "Dear anti-choicers: go get yourself a fucking tapeworm already and sit down to a marathon of the Alien quadrilogy and then whinge to me about ‘it’s no big deal, just wait X months’."

With friends like these, Ms Chadwick has no need of enemies.

But enemies she will have if this is the tone of those who carry her spears.

And it is here that my misgivings are at their greatest. How numerous have the enemies of abortion become? The fervent Baby Boomers who marched and petitioned for "A Woman’s Right to Choose" have had thirty years to savour the fruits of the war-weary political truce our parliamentarians fashioned into the Contraception, Sterilisation & Abortion Act.

Very few of them have been sweet.

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, 9 July 2010.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Stemming the Flow

Trotters Creek, North Otago.

WHEN IT COMES to Trotters Creek, I have to admit, I’m biased. My family has farmed that part of North Otago since the 1840s. So, if the arc of rolling hill country between Aorere Point and Shag Point isn’t "home" – then I guess I don’t have one.

The Trotters are not alone in feeling a powerful attachment to the little river that tumbles down out of the Horse Range, through the spectacular limestone gorge that also bears the family’s name, and finally empties into the Pacific Ocean in the shadow of the Moeraki Peninsula at Katiki Beach. Fly-fishermen like the poet, Brian Turner, also know and love Trotters Creek. Hardly surprising when, in the remarkably poetic language of the Otago Regional Council’s own pamphlet: "The river runs with large slow, deep pools combined with shallow riffles." In the words of one local, the creek’s "a little gem at our back door".

But the world around Trotters Creek is changing. When I was growing up the hills and paddocks of North Otago were the colour of a lion’s hide. The constant easterly blowing inland off the sea kept them dry and brown through most of the year. It was mixed farming country: wheat and barely on the flats; sheep on the hills.

Not any more.

The last time I travelled along the coast road between Oamaru and Waianakarua I was astounded to see the countryside had changed colour. Its once tawny coat was now a vivid green. The sheep were gone and everywhere I looked I saw cows, cows, cows.

More shocks were in store. Before settling into the converted flour-mill where we planned to spend the night, I led my family down through the lodge’s garden to splash our feet in the sun-dappled waters of the Waianakarua. But where was the rushing river I had dived into as a boy? Could this flat and shallow trickle really be the Waianakarua of old?

What had happened to the water?

Now I understood the dramatic change in North Otago’s colour. Dairying, like a verdant blush, has swept over the landscape’s hills and valleys. The "White Gold Rush" it’s been called, and just like the real thing this new wealth cannot be extracted from the earth without using water – lots and lots of water.

Not even Trotters Creek has escaped the irrigator’s insatiable thirst. It was around this time a year ago that the Otago Regional Council proposed increasing the amount of water "abstracted" for irrigation by reducing the river’s minimum summertime flow-rate to just 10 litres per second – the Trotters, unsuccessfully, bid for 20 litres per second. An appeal was lodged with the Environment Commissioner back in March – but I’m not holding my breath.

Rumours are rife in the community that the Otago Regional Council is running scared of the law-suits that suddenly materialise whenever an extended water-right is denied. Not all the dairy farmers participating in the White Gold Rush are individuals, or even families of dairy farmers. More and more of them are "persons" only in the legal sense that a body corporate can be a person – and they do not lack for money.

That Coastal River Communities and the Waianakarua River Community Users group threw themselves on the mercy of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, rather than try the Environment Court, is because they lacked the funds necessary to present an effective case. That, and the risk of being required to pay the defendant’s legal costs if they lost.

There’s an uneasy feeling abroad in rural New Zealand these days that a coalition of wealthy, publicity-shy, but very well-connected "developers" are hell-bent on constructing a new kind of countryside – and they’re not the sort of people you want to cross.

This climate of fear is something new. Time was, when the local community got together and presented a solid case to their district and/or regional councillors, there was every chance of the community’s wishes being respected. Now it’s different. Now things aren’t so much changing as being changed – and there’s precious little the locals can do about it.

Just one generation ago the cry would have been "Vote the rascals out!" But it’s not that simple anymore. If there’s any real prospect of old-fashioned democratic controls being imposed on these "developers", then, as the people of Canterbury have discovered, democracy itself can be left to lie fallow for a few years.

In 1889 The Temuka Leader denounced an arrogant rural oligarchy: "Born in the lap of luxury, brought up in exclusive social circles, educated to regard themselves as superior beings". Are grasping landowners with bulging bank balances and big-city law-firms about to reclaim their lost ascendancy?

Is the family farm destined to become an endangered species – along with all those little rivers bearing family names?

This essay was originally published in The Press on Tuesday, 6 July 2010.

Monday 5 July 2010

Got a smoke, mate?

The solipsism of smoke. The ritual of smoking (and who did it better than Humphrey Bogart?) restores the smoker to the calm centre of his self. With a cigarette in his hand, even the most battered and broken criminal once again becomes the hero of his own story. It is this restorative power that Corrections Minister, Judith Collins (channelling Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) is so determined to stub out.

NOTHING PROTECTS like a cigarette.

It’s why we gave them away by the carton to young soldiers heading for the front-lines.

It’s why two-thirds of prison inmates smoke.

There’s something immensely comforting about the smoking ritual: tap out the cigarette from the pack; seize the dry filter-tip between your lips; snap a flame from match or lighter; suck back that first stream of nicotine-laden smoke and let it go deep into your lungs; feel the body’s instant response to the drug.

Lighting-up is something you do: not the guy sitting next to you; not the girl waiting outside; but you. Over all the pain, anger and confusion tearing your guts to shreds, the cigarette has the power to calm, to focus, to reassure. At the heart of this totally screwed-up scene there is still a hero: and that hero is you … having a smoke.

It’s why lighting-up a cigarette is still such an effective punctuation device in the making of a movie. Forget all about the indisputable scientific evidence of cigarette-smoking’s fatal effects. That Promethean moment, when the human mastery of fire and smoke is demonstrated for all to see, cannot help but signal and reinforce the smoker’s heroic status.

And that, of course, is why we want to ban cigarette-smoking in our prisons. It’s got nothing to do with the dangers of second-hand smoke (though dangers there are) and even less to do with the health and safety of prisoners and guards (though both would be better off without cigarettes). We, in the person of the Minister of Corrections, Judith Collins, are banning cigarettes from prisons because, deep down, we know that in depriving inmates of this last display of individual autonomy; this last precious means of remaining the hero of their own stories; we’re going to really hurt them.

Our need to hurt the criminal classes is as potent as their craving for nicotine, alcohol and other drugs. Two hundred years of humanitarian reform have unreasonably deprived us of the pleasure and we mean to make up for lost time.

We’ve had enough of all the scientific explanations of criminal offending. Why? Because, somehow, the research always seems to come back to us. Somehow, the social scientists always contrive to locate the causes of criminality in the wider society. It’s the way we respond to poverty and its effects, they say. It’s about how we apportion social praise and blame. Material and/or cultural wealth, and the way we distribute it, insist the experts, lies at the root of criminal behaviour.

We’re sick to death of hearing this sort of stuff. How can the hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens of this country possibly be to blame for the actions of its criminal class? We don’t rob dairies at the point of a gun. We don’t break into our neighbours’ houses and steal their property? We don’t abduct and rape young women on their way home from work. We don’t shake our toddlers to death.

No, we don’t. But neither are we willing to vote for a political party which promises to spend the money required to address the problems of the people who do. We’re not ready to pay the taxes necessary to solve the housing crisis afflicting poor communities. We’re unwilling to properly resource the mental health sector, or fund the groups looking after drug addicts. And when a Minister of Corrections presents blueprints for new prisons: designs which acknowledge the best practice of correctional facilities overseas; we mutter darkly about "five-star hotels".

We’re always ready to get tough of crime; but we balk at getting tough on the causes of crime.

A psychiatrist would recognise this country’s punitive corrections policy for what it is: a massive exercise in projection. To keep our own moral complexion spotless we are driven to make the criminal’s ever more hideous.

The cheapest and most politically expedient way of doing this is by incarcerating offenders in grim establishments more or less guaranteed to produce ugly behaviour. Herd them into overcrowded and understaffed prisons – and when these inevitably overflow – shove the surplus criminal population into converted shipping containers.

Our prison system has become the institutional equivalent of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray: a monstrous proxy representation of New Zealanders’ collective refusal to confront their own selfishness and cruelty.

Got a smoke, mate?

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 2 July 2010.

Sunday 4 July 2010

The Independent: 1992 - 2010

Goodbye to all that: Jenni McManus (above) co-founder of The Independent with Warren Berryman and Tony Timpson in 1992, remains a firm believer in Berryman's vision of a publication dedicated to "the free marketplace of ideas". But, in a world where shareholders value regular dividends over critical journalism, Berryman's and McManus's dream could not be sustained.

I WAS THIRTY-SIX when the first issue of The Independent hit the news-stands, and fifty-four when the last paper rolled off the presses. A child born in the same year as the feisty business weekly launched by Warren Berryman, Jenni McManus and Tony Timpson will be eligible to vote in the next general election. What expectations will that eighteen year-old citizen carry with her as she enters the polling booth for the first time?

As a young New Zealand woman, born in 1992, she will expect to be treated as the equal of the young man entering the polling booth alongside her.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this expectation. In only a handful of countries are such hopes even remotely realistic. Most of the world’s women remain serially subservient to their fathers, brothers, husbands and bosses.

In Guatemala or Somalia the quasi-official Kiwi feminist slogan: "Girls can do anything!" would ring decidedly hollow in young women’s ears. But that is not the case here. New Zealand’s women and girls may have a long way to travel before achieving perfect equality, but already our eighteen year-old voter has come a lot further than her sisters overseas – and she expects to go farther still.

The young man casting his first vote in the adjoining booth is likely to be much less confident of his place in 21st Century New Zealand society.

The jobs that once defined the classic Kiwi male: farmer, shearer, fisherman, soldier, miner, labourer, freezing-worker, tradesman; are nowhere near as numerous as they were in the first 150 years of New Zealand’s history. The occupations that await today’s young school-leavers are not the sort that work up a sweat. Nor are they likely to inculcate the values of rugged independence, mateship and solidarity that once epitomised the "ordinary Kiwi joker".

Eighteen year-old Kiwi males have spent their entire lives under the neoliberal order of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. Competing with every other participant in the labour market for the good things in life is what they expect. And everywhere they look – in textbooks, computer games, movies and reality TV shows – the message is the same: "winning" is both its own reward and its own justification. No one wants to be a "loser".

The individual which emerges from this dog-eat-dog environment is a very different beast from the "good Kiwi bloke" of yesteryear. In place of rugged individualism we find a virulent strain of adolescent narcissism. "Mates" have been replaced by carefully assembled audiences of "friends" – some real, some in cyberspace. Solidarity, when it manifests itself at all, is the solidarity of winners against losers: the solidarity of America’s Top Model and Survivor.

Combine the expectations of eighteen year-old Kiwi males and females and the result is unlikely to fill most fifty-four year-old New Zealanders’ hearts with confidence. Self-obsessed, overconfident, ruthless and hungry for all the material trappings of success, these first-time voters are perhaps the least reliable custodians of the traditional New Zealand values of egalitarianism and fair-play that their elders could imagine.

For someone like myself, a left-wing Baby-Boomer who has spent the past eighteen years writing columns dedicated to preserving those old-fashioned values, the kids who have grown up alongside The Independent are the living proof of my utter failure. The market for the social-democratic ideals and institutions that made my own generation the most fortunate in human history has steadily shrunk.

When The Independent first saw the light of day New Zealand politics was being driven by two newly-formed insurgent parties – the Alliance, led by Jim Anderton, and NZ First, led by Winston Peters. Between them, these two attracted more than a quarter of all the votes cast in the 1993 General Election. Looking back, however, it is clear that their electoral success represented the final cri de coeur from an "Old New Zealand" that was, quite literally, passing away.

The leaders of the insurgency, Peters and Anderton, both got their chance to radically alter the nation’s course and return to the status quo ante. Both failed.

Neither politician was able to match the sheer brute strength of the status quo; and in a surprisingly short space of time the two major parties, National and Labour, had reclaimed – if not in body, then most certainly in spirit – their prodigal sons.

Not that the major parties had any more luck than the Alliance or NZ First in gaining control of the nation’s steering mechanisms. New Zealand continued to follow the neoliberal course set by Douglas and Richardson and no party or politician seemed to possess either the strength, or the will, to change it.

Half of The Independent’s life was spent under a Labour Government led by Helen Clark and Michael Cullen – both of whom in their youth boasted radical political leanings. Once in power, however, Clark and Cullen were able to make only the most marginal of social and economic changes.

The tiller was not for turning.

But if people could not, or would not, change the policies of the neoliberal state then, in a grotesque vindication of Newton’s third law of motion, the neoliberal state’s policies would start changing the people.

If history was indeed over, as Francis Fukuyama’s best-selling book (published in the same year as The Independent’s launch) insisted, then what was the point of attempting to master – either conceptually or politically – the swirling clouds of instant information blowing out of that other great artefact of the early-90s – the Internet.

The free and open marketplace of ideas that Warren Berryman had dreamed of – and which The Independent at its best came so close to creating – was attracting fewer and fewer browsers. The new consumers, in the new century, were increasingly drawn to outlets stocked with products – ideological as well as material – they already knew they wanted. The world-wide-web made it easy.

Neoliberalism and its technological homologues, the PC, the cellphone, the Internet, have radically changed what it means to be a citizen – and what’s required of a newspaper.

Democracy was once a game that all the people played, and it was newspapers that taught them the rules. Today, "politics" has become a spectator sport, which the media allows them to watch.

The Independent is closing its doors because, after eighteen years, it has simply run out of people to teach.

This essay was originally published in the final issue of The Independent on Thursday, 1 July 2010.