Friday 27 August 2010

Scapegoating The Young For Alcohol's Harm

Have you all got a note from your parents? Eighteen to twenty-year-old New Zealanders are being scapegoated for their society's problems with alcohol - allowing the real culprits to escape the sort of regulation that would make a real difference.

THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE DEBATE on "What should we do about our drinking problem?" one very important issue has been consistently overlooked.

The constitutional, political and moral objections to "down-sizing" the rights of 18 to 20-year-olds.

Though the Age of Majority Act (1970) sets 20 years as the age at which a New Zealander acquires all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, over the course of the past four decades Parliament has effectively lowered the Age of Majority to 18 years.

Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds have the right to vote in local and general elections, perform jury service, join the armed forces, make a will, sign a contract, and purchase alcohol. About the only important thing 18 and 19-year-olds can’t do is marry each other without parental consent.

When it comes to the other rights, responsibilities and duties of citizenship, however, 18 and 19-year-old New Zealanders are legally recognised as responsible adults.

This raises a couple of very serious question. Having admitted 18 and 19-year-olds to the ranks of adult New Zealanders, is it constitutionally, politically and morally justifiable to cast them back into the ranks of non-adults when it comes to purchasing alcohol?

How can prohibiting their participation in a social activity in which all other New Zealand adults are free to engage without legal sanction possibly be right?

I would argue that it is neither right nor justifiable. Once specific political and social rights (like the right to vote or the right to purchase alcohol) have been given to a group of citizens they cannot be taken back without placing the rights of every other citizen in jeopardy.

Were the White Americans living in the Deep South justified in stripping their Black neighbours of their civil and political rights in the latter half of the 19th Century? Did the Nazi Government of Germany have the right to strip German Jews of their citizenship in the 1930s?

Both of these cases involved the persecution of a politically friendless minority whose morals, capabilities and behaviour were openly despised and derided by the majority.

It is surely no accident that the alleged failings of young people loom large in the alcohol debate, or that an aggressive rolling-back of their rights is being advanced as the best means of solving the problem. They, too, constitute a vulnerable minority. They, too, have the dubious historical distinction of being their society’s whipping-boy. They, too, have enormous difficulty in mounting an audible defence.

Never mind the glaring absence of hard statistical evidence suggesting that young people are disproportionately responsible for the problems caused by alcohol. And let’s just forget the fact that alcoholism and the damage it causes New Zealand society is a phenomenon more commonly associated with people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

If the Justice Minister, Simon Power, had been guided by the facts he would have been obliged to fashion an alcohol reform package that struck not at the young and the vulnerable but at the rich and the powerful.

Had Mr Power really wanted to "reduce harm" he’d have gone after the Booze Barons, who market "Ready-to-Drink" lolly-water directly to young women in their late teens and early 20s; the advertisers, whose deadly equation "alcohol = fun" leads so many youngsters astray; and the supermarket owners, whose heavily discounted bottles of plonk are used to "loss-lead" their shoppers into the more profitable aisles.

Raising the excise duty, banning alcohol advertising, restricting the number of outlets and lowering the permissible blood-alcohol level for drivers would have produced an immediate and dramatic reduction in the harm alcohol causes.

But a package which stripped businesses of their economic power would only embroil the National-led Government in a politically counter-productive struggle with its own supporters. As a solution, turning young people into scapegoats has so much more to recommend it.

After all, blacks stay black, and Jews remain Jews, but young people eventually turn into old people who, in their turn, can be persuaded to project all the failings of their own generation on to the next.

That’s why making young people the focus of the alcohol debate is so important. Like all campaigns to restrict the rights of a vulnerable minority, its purpose is to hide the much greater harm done to all of us by an invulnerable minority.

The people who profit by it.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star on Friday, 27 August 2010.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

"Act Two"

Location, location, location: If Act could reposition itself in a spot more congenial to the New Zealand voter, it might just have a chance of surviving its present identity crisis.

HAS ACT lost its soul – as political scientist Bryce Edwards suggests? Or can its present troubles be traced to a series of major strategic blunders dating all the way back to the formation of the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers in the early 1990s?

If it’s the former, then there’s no hope of recovery, and Act will soon be joining what’s left of the Alliance in Oblivion’s waiting-room.

But, if it’s the latter, then there is still a chance (a very small one, admittedly) that the Act Party can recover.

Strategic errors tend to be cumulative, with every mistake driving you closer to the brink of disaster. But, so long as there is a way of escaping the worst effects of your errors, and the possibility of rebuilding your strength, catastrophe can be avoided.

Just think of Mao Zedong and his Communist comrades in the grim autumn of 1934. A lengthy series of disastrous political decisions and military blunders had left them confronting what appeared to be certain disaster. The Nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-shek were closing in on their positions and the general consensus among foreign observers (even the Russians) was that the Reds were finished in China.

But then Mao set out on his famous "Long March" – leading his troops out of the trap the Nationalists’ had set and embarking on an epic trek of many thousands of miles to a new base in the north-west of the country. It was here, in the city of Yan'an, in Shaanxi Province, that the Communist Party reconstituted itself as a new, peasant-based movement, and Mao's exhausted troops became the core of a new People’s Liberation Army – the unstoppable peasant force which finally defeated Chiang’s Nationalists in 1949.

Act’s original strategic error, the one from which it has never truly recovered, and which led inexorably to all the other errors, was allowing its political enemies to cast it as an ideological party of the far-right. The moment that identity was pinned on its back it was doomed to remain on the fringe of New Zealand politics.

Most New Zealanders simply will not vote for parties they perceive as being either far-left or far-right.

Sir Roger Douglas, as a former Labour Party minister, understood this. It’s why he spent so much time in the early days of Act visiting factories and talking to workers. He was desperate to convince them that his economic ideas were actually far more emancipatory than those of the Left. Unfortunately, his own political persona was already inextricably bound up with the pain and privation of the "reforms" which bore his name. The workers were having none of it.

Richard Prebble, a less ideologically driven (and much more Machiavellian) politician than Douglas, took his cue from the American Right, which was then engaged in fighting the bitter "Culture Wars" of the Clinton Era. He targeted the angry and alienated denizens of rural, provincial and suburban New Zealand, using the classic wedge issues of race and crime to break-up traditional political allegiances.

Prebble’s strategy was successful to the extent that it secured Act just enough of the Party Vote to become (and remain) a parliamentary player. But, in terms of opening the way to an expanded share of the Party Vote it was a failure. The issues Prebble campaigned on were far-right issues, and that doomed Act to playing politics in the shadow of the National Party, its much larger and more moderate right-wing competitor. Denied access to the centre-ground of politics, it was (like the Alliance) confined to its own rather narrow and politically eccentric demographic.

Sir Roger Douglas’s faction of the party understood this and was forever trying to break Act out of the cul-de-sac into which Prebble’s strategy had steered it. With the election of Rodney Hide as the party’s new leader in 2004 they finally got the chance.

In his heart-of-hearts Hide is a libertarian, and if he'd been able to prevail upon his colleagues to recalibrate Act’s political pitch to that part of the population receptive to libertarian ideals, then the party’s future might have been very different.

The model Hide should have followed is Sir Robert Jones’ New Zealand Party. On economic issues, Sir Robert was very much a part of what was then called "The New Right". But – and it is a vitally important "but" – on other issues he was well to the left of the Labour Party.

To the consternation of his business colleagues, Jones not only declared himself a supporter of a Nuclear-Free New Zealand, but he also called for an end to the ANZUS Treaty and the abolition of the armed forces.

This radical pacifist stance seriously messed with the voters’ heads. It was very hard to pin a "far-right" label on a man whose defence policies stood to the left of the Values Party! The 12 percent of the popular vote which Jones’ NZ Party attracted in the snap-election of 1984 included a much broader cross-section of the electorate than Act has ever been able to attract. Jones’ political iconoclasm was pure electoral gold.

So, if Act really wants to break out of the authoritarian cul-de-sac in which it finds itself, it needs to come up with some radical and head-messing policies. An across-the-board decriminalisation of all drugs would be a good start – supported by a comprehensive drug-education programme in schools and generous drug-treatment and rehabilitation schemes for addicts.

And that would only be the beginning.

What's to stop Act from going on to announce a campaign to restore all the traditional rights and freedoms of free-born citizens by rolling back all those so-called "reforms" of the legal and penal systems which have empowered the State at the expense of the "sovereign individual"? Or, coming out in support of a woman's right to choose and gay marriage?

Overnight, Act would lose its creepy followers from the Sensible Sentencing Trust and Family First. In their place it would attract a much larger – and younger – slice of the electorate: a slice that is socially-liberal, economically "dry" and temperamentally hostile to the claims of large and authoritarian institutions – especially the State.

The party would still be a bastion of neoliberal thought, but by taking such a radical libertarian stand on issues like drugs, law and order and the power of the State, Act would finally be able to detach the "far-right" label from its back.

Is it too late for Hide to rediscover his "Inner Libertarian" and jettison Act's far-right authoritarian baggage?


But it’s just possible that Sir Roger Douglas and Heather Roy, having suffered so cruelly at the hands of the creepies in "Act One", could redeem both themselves and their battered party by striking-out on a long march of their own towards "Act Two". 

Tuesday 24 August 2010

The Politics Of Negativity

The Wages of Timidity: A hung Australian Parliament has become the outward manifestation of Julia Gillard's (above) and Tony Abbott's negative approach to political leadership.

TONY ABBOTT’S rapturous reception by hundreds of delighted supporters last Sunday morning was more than merited. The leader of the Australian Liberal Party had done what only a few weeks ago the pundits were telling us was impossible: he’d stripped Julia Gillard’s Labor Government of its majority.

Eighteen Labor seats fell in last weekend’s Australian elections, nine of them in Queensland, home state of the man Ms Gillard deposed, Kevin Rudd. For the first time since 1931, a first-term government had been, if not quite thrown out, then at the very least firmly escorted to the front door.

The Australian election result has much to tell us about modern democratic politics.

The first and the most important lesson to be drawn from Labor’s debacle is the ominous power of negative politics.

The Australian Labor Government’s unique success in bringing the country through the global economic crisis virtually unscathed should have been enough to see it returned to office with an increased majority. Astonishingly, Mr Abbott was able to persuade the Australian electorate that – far from being a triumph – Labour’s handling of the economy had been an untidy and extravagant botch-up.

Mr Abbott also successfully re-ignited (and then ruthlessly re-exploited) the fears of many Australians that their country was being "over-run" by sea-borne refugees. With great skill he persuaded his countrymen that Labor had "gone soft" on these so-called "boat people" – a charge which slyly invited voters to question Labor’s membership of "Middle Australia".

The sudden "rolling" of Prime Minister Rudd in a brutal, faction-driven coup spectacularly confirmed Mr Abbott’s characterisation of Labor as a collection of reckless, ruthless and boorishly arrogant ambition-heads, who wouldn’t recognise a political principle if it jumped up and bit them on their over-upholstered rear-ends.

Unfortunately for Ms Gillard, Mr Abbott’s crude caricature of Labor as inept, disloyal and unprincipled had just enough truth in it to stick.

Less than three years ago, Mr Rudd was describing Climate Change as "the great moral issue of our time". One of his first actions as Australia’s new Prime Minister was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. With the enthusiastic support of most Australians he set about devising an Emissions Trading Scheme.

Absolutely predictably, the Labor Government’s Climate Change policies ran into a hailstorm of right-wing opposition. At that point, Mr Rudd’s job was to stand firm and make the case for change. This he did not do. Rather than face down his Climate Change-denying opponents, Mr Rudd cut and ran. Australians were appalled. Labor’s poll-ratings plummeted.

This sudden voter disaffection reflects another, deeply troubling aspect of negative politics. It’s not just about the unkind accusations an opposition levels against a government; it’s also about the unkind impressions a government leaves in the minds of its own supporters. The political dynamic to be avoided at all costs is the one that sees a government assailed with renewed energy by its enemies, even as it is being deserted by its friends.

Finding herself in this unenviable position, Ms Gillard’s winning strategy was clear: carry the fight to Mr Abbott and the Liberal-National Coalition; and rebuild trust and faith in Labor’s mission among her wavering and/or outright rebellious supporters.

This Ms Gillard did not do. Rather than repudiate Mr Rudd’s timidity, she endorsed it and, to the utter dismay of her followers, took it further.

"The great moral issue of our time" was unceremoniously booted into touch by the new prime-minister. Then, in a craven closed-door-deal, Mr Rudd’s one genuinely radical economic policy, taxing the super-profits of the mining companies, was watered down. Ms Gillard was even willing to resurrect the Coalition’s internationally decried "Pacific [or, in her case ‘Timor Sea’] Solution" to the sea-borne refugee "crisis". Anything, to thrust Mr Abbott’s attack-dogs back inside their kennels.

Of course the new prime minister’s strategy of appeasement instantly vitiated whatever moral justification Labor’s fractious barons may have advanced for deposing Mr Rudd.

Mr Abbott’s critique of Labour as an unprincipled band of ruthless opportunists had been vindicated. The Coalition, scenting blood, redoubled its attack. Left-wing voters, disgusted, struck-out for the Greens.

Taking stock of the 2010 Australian election I am reminded of the Muldoon-led National Party’s ruthless demolition of Bill Rowling’s Labour Government back in 1975. That, too, was a relentlessly negative campaign, conducted by a man the pundits insisted could not win, against a Labour Party curiously oblivious to the size and ferocity of the political monsters massing around it.

If, over the next few days, Ms Gillard succeeds in cobbling together a Labor-led minority government, it’s hard to see it representing anything other than the timidity, lack of principle and cynical opportunism which gave it birth.

Australians seem fated to endure either Mr Abbott’s passionate intensity, or Ms Gillard’s lack of conviction.

The politics of negativity come at a high price.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 August 2010.

Friday 20 August 2010

Riders of the Storm

Life-affirming: Barry Thomas plants his first seedling in "The Cabbage Patch" (1978) More than a political, or even a social, revolution, the upheavals of the late-1960s and 70s reflected a revolution of the spirit – almost, one could say, of the soul. And, like all internal human experiences, it tended to manifest itself through art.

I REMEMBER with almost cinematic clarity the day I first heard The Doors’ hypnotic/psychedelic track, "Riders on the Storm".

I was comfortably ensconced in a corner of Wellington’s Resistance Bookshop flicking through the pages of a dense little volume entitled Marxism and Alienation. The rich aroma of burning incense (and quite possibly less acceptable resinous substances) was drifting up the narrow staircase from The Merchant Adventurers of Narnia shop below. Through the windows of the bookshop I watched storm clouds massing in sympathy with the sound-effects of Jim Morrison’s song.

Across Upper Willis Street, the Wellington Settlement bustled with its usual collection of hippies, university students and bored bohemian housewives - all in search of strong coffee, hand-made leather goods, tie-dyed T-shirts and "underground" posters.

Beneath Morrison’s portentous lyrics: "Into this house we’re born/Into this world we’re thrown"; the insinuating hiss of the cymbals merged seamlessly with the patter of falling rain. Entranced, I allowed the moment to imprint itself on my memory. Never again would the counter-culture of the 1970s leave such a deep impression.

The counter-cultural "moment" was, of course, more than personal. With its surging enthusiasms and portentous "alternative" philosophies, the world-wide rebellion against the monolithic uniformities of the post-war "affluent society" entranced millions of young people.

It is recalled now mostly through clichéd media images of swaying, blissed-out hippies and angry student demonstrators – but it was so much more than that. More than a political, or even a social, revolution, the upheavals of the late-1960s and 70s reflected a revolution of the spirit – almost, one could say, of the soul. And, like all internal human experiences, it tended to manifest itself through art.

Those with a yearning to "feel the vibe" of those revolutionary times through the work of some of this country’s politically active artists should pay a visit to the "Artists as Activists: Environment" exhibition which opens today in the galleries of the NZ Academy of Fine Arts, located in Shed No. 1 on Wellington’s Queen’s Wharf.

Featuring the work of Don Binney, Dean Buchanan, Nick Dryden, Ian Hamlin, Sam Mahon, Euan McDougal, Rosemary Mortimer, Michael O’Donnell, Michael Smither, Graham Sydney, Barry Thomas, Brian Turner and Jane Zusters, the exhibition presents an array of "protest art" loosely gathered around the theme of transformation/conservation. It ends on 12 September.

Sam Mahon has this to say about the ultimate fate of the counter-cultural impulse:

Art is no longer seen as a medium for change. Along with all other revolutionaries it has been captured, branded and turned into wallpaper. The dealers and city art galleries and the public art advisory groups do not ask any more what art has to say; they inform art just as a captain of industry informs the shop floor. It seems that the safest place for art these days is the street.

To which Mahon’s fellow exhibitor, Barry Thomas, would undoubtedly say "Amen!". Since the 1970s he has driven art like a sharpened stake into the heart of the corporate/political beast.

There’s a lovely image taken of Barry in 1978, squatting bearded and bare-chested like an Antipodean Cat Stevens in the dust of a Wellington vacant lot - his hands cupped protectively around a fragile cabbage plant.

Thomas’s "Cabbage Patch" – a conceptual artistic statement against the life-negating conservatism of the Muldoon years – quite literally "grew" into a life-affirming (and edible) challenge to Wellington’s bureaucratic soul.

Like so many of the other exhibitors’ work in the show, Thomas’s forces us to focus on the deadening shadow which falls, as T.S. Elliot says in The Hollow Men: between the "idea and the reality"; the "motion and the act"; the "emotion and the response".

"There’s a killer on the road", warned Jim Morrison all those years ago. He was right. The counter-culture proved as vulnerable and short-lived as Barry’s cabbages.

Thankfully, however, New Zealand’s activist artists proved equal to the task of not only riding the storm – but recording it.

Go take a look.

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, 20 August 2010.

Thursday 19 August 2010

Fighting Them On The Beaches

Effective propaganda: Is it fair to condemn the Coastal Coalition for having the wit to recruit master propagandist, John Ansell, to the cause of keeping New Zealand's beaches in public ownership?

KIWIPOLITICO’s "LEW" has challenged me to denounce John Ansell’s billboards and the Coastal Coalition’s campaign against the Government’s plans to repeal the Foreshore & Seabed Act (FSA).

Were I to do as he suggests, I would be guilty of the most appalling hypocrisy. From the moment the Maori Party’s hand-picked review panel released their findings on the FSA in 2009, I have very publicly opposed the repeal of the 2004 legislation.

Why would I denounce a group of citizens for expressing views which everyone who's taken an interest in this issue knows I support?

I suppose Lew would say that it is the presence of John Ansell (author of National’s notorious Iwi/Kiwi billboards for the 2005 General Election) that renders the Coastal Coalition ideologically toxic.

I disagree.

Mr Ansell may be a formidable practitioner of the dark arts of agit-prop, but that, surely, is an irrelevant objection. The Coastal Coalition has a case to make, and Mr Ansell's assistance will ensure that it's persuasive.

Few people in New Zealand have a more acute understanding of the power of the well-conceived political image than Mr Ansell. His depiction of the Prime Minister, clad in a ceremonial Maori feather-cloak and waving a little Maori sovereignty flag, is a powerful example of his technique.

In that single image a host of National Party voters will see all their worst fears about the Government’s relationship with the Maori Party brought startlingly to life.

Persuading the Government that the repeal the FSA will cost them the support of hitherto loyal voters is, I presume, one of the Coastal Coalition’s prime objectives. Is it fair to criticise them for being lucky (or shrewd) enough to recruit someone capable of scaring the bejesus out of the Nats?

It seems to me that Lew and all the others who have thrown up their hands in horror at the Coastal Coalition’s campaign are only doing so because they're mortally afraid it will work.

Up until the appearance of Mr Ansell’s billboards, supporters of a restoration of Maori customary rights have been relying on the presence of a cross-party parliamentary consensus in favour of the FSA's repeal to starve their opponents of what Margaret Thatcher called "the oxygen of publicity".

There is, however, something rather off-putting (even sinister) about this strategy. Though a very large number (Mr Ansell cites a Stuff poll putting it at 74 percent) of New Zealanders oppose the Government’s plans to give Maori customary title to the foreshore and seabed, this informal cross-party consensus means that within the House of Representatives only a handful of MPs are willing to voice their concerns.

The frustration of FSA supporters is intensified by the fact that both major parties have reneged on their earlier, pre-election, pledges that the foreshore and seabed would remain in public ownership. No wonder the Coastal Coalition is making its appeal directly to the people.

Faced with the prospect of their parliamentary allies no longer being able to marginalise the debate, and with the appearance of the Coastal Coalition and its master propagandist, Mr Ansell, Lew and his colleagues are left with little option but to try and intimidate their opponents into silence by branding them racists.

That certainly won’t work with me, nor Mr Ansell, nor (I hope) with the Coastal Coalition. Indeed, the spectacle of so-called "21st Century liberals" attempting to silence citizens exercising their democratic right to free expression is only likely to increase the Coalition’s public support, and give its campaign to keep New Zealand’s beaches in the hands of all New Zealanders a very welcome boost.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Blood Brothers

In the beginning was the word: According to Professor James Belich, Edward Tregear's 1885 book, The Aryan Maori, by inducting the Maori into the same "Indo-European" racial family as the Pakeha: "arguably ranks with the Treaty of Waitangi as a key text of Maori-Pakeha relations."

IT ALL BEGAN with a seemingly innocuous question.

"How would Hone Harawira feel", NZ Herald journalist, Derek Cheng, inquired, "if one of his seven children came home with a Pakeha partner?"

It was a gift of a question really, and no doubt Mr Cheng expected Mr Harawira come back with a statement celebrating racial tolerance. But, he was in for a big surprise.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable", Mr Harawira replied. "Like all Pakehas would be happy with their daughters coming home with a Maori boy – and the answer is they wouldn't.

"That's just the reality of the world. Let’s not cry about it. Let’s just live with it and move on."

But the "reality of the world" is very far from being what the MP for Te Tai Tokerau believes it to be. As they have so often done since he entered Parliament in 2005, Mr Harawira’s pronouncements betray a deep misunderstanding of this country’s present, and a worrying lack of knowledge about its past.

One of the curiosities of New Zealand history is the degree to which Maori and Pakeha intermarried. Indeed the free-and-easy co-mingling of the races in this part of the world would have scandalised the Anglo-Saxon settlers of Australia and North America – especially in the last quarter of the 19th Century.

It was during this period – the Age of Imperialism – when the European powers were "scrambling" for colonial possessions in Africa and Asia, that the by no means unrelated ideology of "Scientific Racism" began colonising the European and American mind.

Fuelled by Charles Darwin’s ideas about "the survival of the fittest" a vast and spurious hierarchy of races was constructed by American and European "scientists" to both explain and justify the Aryan (or Caucasian) race’s position at the very top of the human evolutionary tree, and why the "lesser races" were restricted to its lower branches.

To maintain the "purity" of the Aryan race, they insisted that there be absolutely no "miscegenation" (literally, "race-mixing"). In the former slave-owning states of the American South, this prohibition was to be given the force of law.

Not that white Americans living in the South were always willing to let their own race-based laws take their course. Between 1882 and 1968 some 3,446 black Americans were lynched – most commonly on spurious charges of "defiling" white women.

The Americans were not, of course, alone in mandating racial segregation. Miscegenation was almost equally taboo throughout the British Empire.

What made New Zealand so different?

The answer, quite simply, is: a book.

According to the leading NZ historian, James Belich, The Aryan Maori, written by Edward Tregear, and published in 1885, "arguably ranks with the Treaty of Waitangi as a key text of Maori-Pakeha relations."

Tregear had the soul of a tortured romantic. He was simultaneously bewitched and repelled by the wildness and isolation of New Zealand and its indigenous people. Having spent many years living with the Maori, and learning their language, he yearned to integrate the rapidly growing colony’s competing cultures into a harmonious whole. But how could he? Weren’t his "Aryan" brothers and sisters forbidden from "mixing their blood" with the "natives"?

But what if he could prove that the Maori were Aryans too? If he could demonstrate that their "land of ultimate origin was probably in South-Central Asia, but it may have been in Lithuania, or by the shores of the Caspian Sea; wherever it ‘may have been’ it was, as I believe, in that locality wherein those branches of the Indo-European family now occupying North-western Europe had their birth".

Tregear’s thesis (long since discredited) found an astonishingly receptive audience among Pakeha New Zealanders and was swiftly incorporated into the "official" history of the young colony. The Maori’s heroic resistance to colonisation; their rapid adoption of European religion, culture and technology; all was explained.

Pakeha and Maori were now free to "co-mingle" with the Scientific Racists’ blessing. Though separated by vast reaches of time and space, the two peoples were fellow "Indo-Europeans" – blood brothers.

The strength of the bonds forged by Tregear’s Aryan Maori theory was demonstrated in the "Battle of Manners Street" of 1943. When White Americans from the Deep South objected to sharing the Allied Services Club with Maori soldiers, they and their Pakeha compatriots invited these "allies" outside. For four hours thousands of Yanks and Kiwis traded blows in the streets of the Capital – two Americans died.

Isn’t it, therefore, richly ironic that, more than a century after the publication of The Aryan Maori, it is Mr Harawira, who finds himself discomforted by long-discredited 19th Century ideas concerning race-mixing?

And Edward Tregear? While wrong about the specifics of the Maori people’s origins, he was, in a larger sense, quite right. Maori and Pakeha are kin: not because we’re fellow Aryans; but simply because we’re fellow human-beings.

This essay was originally published in The Press on Tuesday, 17 August 2010.

Saturday 14 August 2010

Scrooge's Ghosts

"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" The heartless cry of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol was intended to expose the moral vacuum at the heart of laissez-faire capitalism. The same "airless quality" is present in the first report of the Welfare Working Group. The Painting is Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward by Luke Fildes, 1874. Food and shelter in the "Casual Ward" of the parish workhouse were made available to all comers - but only for a single night.

GORDON CAMPBELL described the report as having a "peculiarly airless quality". It’s authors, hermetically sealed in their ideological cocoon, could have been writing "at any time over the past four decades".

The veteran journalist is right. The report of the Government’s Welfare Working Group (WWG) makes not the slightest attempt to interrogate the flesh and blood world of contemporary unemployment, sole parenting, chronic illness and invalidism. But, then, why would it – when it already knows all the answers?

In the WWG’s own words:

"We have come to the view that the scale and consequences of long-term benefit receipt are deeply concerning and that the system is not achieving what New Zealanders could reasonably expect. It is not sustainable, it does not provide equal and fair opportunities for those people on different benefit types and it is associated with poor social outcomes."

Let’s unpack that extraordinarily dangerous statement.

To begin with, who are the people identified by the WWG Chair, economist Paula Rebstock, as being in "long-term benefit receipt". Overwhelmingly, they are those on sickness, invalids, and domestic purposes benefits: people who can’t work; people whose physical or mental disability makes ordinary paid work impossible; and people engaged in the raising of babies and small children.

What on earth is so "deeply concerning" about providing long-term support to such people? If you’re suffering from a temporary or chronic affliction; if you lack the resources required to look after a young family; then to whom should you appeal for assistance – if not your fellow citizens?

What would be "deeply concerning" is a society which defined sickness, invalidism and sole parenthood as self-inflicted conditions – sins which can only be expiated through the pain of social humiliation and the self-redeeming qualities of unrelenting toil.

The grim workhouses of Victorian England were erected on the flint-hard foundation of these vicious bourgeois prejudices. Deliberately constructed to terrify the poor into righteousness, they were known colloquially as "Bastilles" – after the grim Parisian fortress. So harsh were the regimes within these institutions that many risked death, rather than enter their prison-like gates.

In his celebrated 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, Dickens parodies the harshness of laissez-faire capitalism in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. Listen to the exchange which a request for a donation to assist the poor provokes:

‘Are there no prisons?’ asked Scrooge.
‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are they still in operation?’
‘They are. Still,’ returned the gentleman, ‘I wish I could say they were not.’
‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?’ said Scrooge.
‘Both very busy, sir.’
‘Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’

When pressed, Scrooge’s parsimony turns deadly:

‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge. ‘Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.’
‘Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.’
‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’

There it is again, that airless quality, which Dickens’s storytelling makes explicit by enveloping Scrooge’s counting house in a dismal and noxious fog.

In the 167 years since A Christmas Carol’s first appearance, the world appears to have turned full circle. By the 1970s the Welfare State, which Mickey Savage described as "applied Christianity," had consigned the workhouse and the treadmill to history’s dustbin. But in the ensuing four decades, as Mr Campbell rightly observes, the noxious fog of laissez-faire capitalism has returned – along with the prejudices of epochs past.

And who will melt the hearts of these modern-day Scrooges?

For all their squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching and covetousness, the Victorians still knew themselves to be sinners, and were thus receptive to Dickens’s marvellous parable of Christian redemption.

In 2010, when only the spirits of Gain and Greed are admitted to Society’s feast, who will risk the WWG’s censure by insisting that we can afford to – and should – "make idle people merry"?

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 13 August 2010.

Thursday 12 August 2010

I am NOT a "Trotterite"!

The Joys of Caricature: I am not now - nor have I ever been - a "Trotterite". Drawing by Murray Webb.

IT’S ALWAYS PUZZLED ME that a man of "Idiot Savant’s" dogmatic certitude should be such a wuss.

With the Comments function of his No Right Turn blog safely switched off, Mr Savant hurls down rhetorical thunderbolts upon the heads of his enemies without the slightest fear of contradiction.

Those of us with a little more respect for the rules of open debate leave our Comments function switched on and are thus required to defend our postings mano a mano.

Clearly, being held accountable for his own words is not something Mr Savant relishes – and that’s a pity, because it forces the people he attacks to come back at him directly (and very publicly) on their own blogs.

Right, now that I've got that off my chest, the first thing I’m going to say about this recent, highly tendentious posting by Mr Savant is that, in the fine tradition of Karl Marx disclaiming the title Marxist: "I am NOT a Trotterite!"

By "Trotterite" Mr Savant appears to mean any person who opposes "social engineering" – which he defines as "any moves to ensure equality for anyone who isn’t a white male".

This is, of course, very far from the more usual definition of social engineering as: "The practical application of sociological principles to particular social problems." Or, less benignly: "The manipulation of the social position and function of individuals in order to manage change in a society." (The Free Online Dictionary).

The other defining characteristic of the Trotterite, according to Mr Savant, is that he or she is passionately of the view that the NZ Labour Party should "throw women, Maori, children and gays under a bus in a quest for the votes of its traditional base" which he supposes to be "racist, sexist and bigoted" working-class males.

Obviously, we would be very foolish to take Mr Savant’s definition literally. No one I know (or have ever known) in the Labour Party has ever advocated the murder of women, Maori, children or gays. And I suspect any Labour politician who bowled up to a canteen-full of working-class males and told them how glad he was to meet so many racist, sexist, bigots, would very soon be departing in an ambulance!

So, what is it about the ideas of these so-called Trotterites that Mr Savant really finds so objectionable? Essentially, it is their refusal to regard identity politics as an unequivocally progressive and unproblematic phenomenon.

For Mr Savant the goals of identity politics are indistinguishable from those of classical liberalism.

In his own words: "[W]hen you get down to it, the core idea running through the heart of the left … is a demand for equality for all. That equality has never just been economic, but also political and social … to be who we are, not what some stuck-up ‘lord’ wants us to be … Either you stand for the equality of all, or you’re supporting lords and peasants again. There is no middle ground on fundamental rights."

The first and most obvious riposte I would offer to this curiously naïve statement is that Mr Savant fundamentally misunderstands what the Left is all about.

For the Left, the quest for equality is not an end in itself but the means to achieving its ultimate objective – a just distribution of social and economic power.

Since Mr Savant mentions the Peasants Revolt of 1381 in his posting, let's take a look at its celebrated slogan: "When Adam delved and Eve span – who was then the gentleman?" In this revolutionary challenge to the social relations of the English countryside the rebel priest, John Ball, is asking (in the language of the Bible): How did we get from a world in which men and women worked for themselves, to a world in which they work for a master?

Why is the question revolutionary? Because it implicitly calls for the creation of a new social order in England. Not a social order in which the serf is equal to the lord, but an order in which there are no lords – or peasants.

This is what Mr Savant doesn’t "get" about the Left. That it is not simply about "the equality of all", but about transforming society to the point where power and wealth are so justly distributed that the word "equality" merely describes the way human-beings interact with one another.

What Mr Savant is doing is what the Marxists (whom he also profoundly misunderstands) call "fetishising" equality. It’s why he reacts so vituperatively when the claims of his beloved identity politicians are challenged.

He simply cannot see that it matters not one whit whether the person sacking you is male, female, Maori or gay: what matters is that they are wielding power over you – power which the social and economic system has vested in them in spite of not because of their gender, ethnicity or sexuality.

Mr Savant wrongly believes "identity" to be an entirely unproblematic concept and that anyone who attempts to clarify its relationships with the distribution of social and economic power is some sort of feudal throwback.

What he’s forgetting, of course, is that the over-riding importance assigned to one’s identity - whether you were a "lord" or a "peasant" - pretty much defined the medieval mindset.

Identity and Equality – far from being indistinguishable – are antithetical.

What the Left seeks is justice.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

The Leader Labour Needs To Win?

Future Tense: Articulate, good-humoured, open to new ideas and smart enough to turn them into credible policy, Cunliffe looks every inch the leader Labour needs to win.

IS IT POSSIBLE that Chris Carter is right? Would Labour have a better chance of winning the next election under a new leader? Is Phil Goff really the best, or even, as most political commentators emphatically insist, the only option available? And if, as those same commentators contend, Labour cannot win under Mr Goff’s leadership, does that mean Labour cannot win – full stop?

A few days ago I would have conceded (albeit reluctantly) that those commentators were more likely to be proved right than wrong. And I use the word "reluctant" advisedly, because I count myself among Mr Goff’s long-time supporters.

As far back as February 2008 I was urging the Labour caucus to persuade Helen Clark to step aside in favour of her Defence Minister. It was clear to me then that the ties binding the Labour-led Government to its core supporters were becoming dangerously frayed, and that only by installing a new leader more in tune with the values and attitudes of traditional Labour voters could the election be won.

But, Labour did then what it shows every sign of doing now: it dug in and hoped for the best. And, as so many of the Government’s supporters feared, their "best" was nowhere near good enough. That Ms Clark relinquished the party leadership on election night, and then organised Mr Goff’s effective coronation as her successor, can only be read as a tacit admission that the "out-of-tune with Labour’s core supporters" argument was correct.

Swift and efficient though it undoubtedly was, Mr Goff’s unchallenged accession to Labour’s leadership did the party very little good. Centre-Left political organisations don’t generally opt to transfer power in the fashion of a feudal monarchy. "The Queen is dead. Long live the King!" is a curious approach for a party whose constitution still proudly upholds to the principles of "Democratic Socialism".

In an ideal world, Ms Clark would have remained in place for the six months following her election defeat and used the time to muse very publicly about the love Labour lost. She’d have offered apologies to all and sundry and generally encouraged the broader labour movement to engage in a wide-ranging debate on the party’s future direction. Only then would she have signalled her departure, and invited Labour’s most talented parliamentarians to slug it out.

At least that way the voting public would have been able to tell which of Labour’s long-dormant factions "had the numbers". Would it be Clark’s social-liberal faction? Or would the defection (and abstention) of so many of Labour’s traditional voters persuade the Caucus to throw its weight behind a more socially conservative candidate?

Waging this fight out in the open may have been embarrassing for the Party, but, when it was over one faction, after a long and very lively debate, would have emerged victorious with a clear mandate. More importantly, the new leader would’ve been free to strike out in a new direction without having to worry about being white-anted by the losing side.

As it is, the factional in-fighting continues to seethe – just not where the voting public can see it. At best, we have caught brief glimpses of the main dividing-lines.

When Mr Goff attempted to harness growing public concern over the National-led Government’s handling of Maori-Pakeha relations, for example, the social-liberals in his caucus very publicly over-ruled him. And when he indicated that he wasn’t all that fussed about workers voluntarily trading away the fourth week of their annual leave, the former trade unionists in his caucus laid about his head with great force.

Everything we have seen since the 2008 election points to a deadlocked Labour caucus in which no one faction possesses the numbers – or leadership – to give either the party, or the country, the clear new direction it so desperately needs.

There are only two ways that Labour’s factions can resolve this impasse: the first is to wage a long and bitter war of attrition (as the Australian Labor factions did between 1996 and 2006) and be left with whoever is the last man (or woman) standing; or, to swallow their pride and, ignoring faction, elect the person best equipped both intellectually and presentationally to lead them to victory in 2008.

Last Saturday morning, on TV3’s The Nation, David Cunliffe demonstrated conclusively that he is that person. Articulate, good-humoured, open to new ideas and smart enough to turn them into credible policy, Cunliffe looked every inch the leader Labour needs to win.

The conventionally wise insist that he lacks sufficient allies to mount a successful challenge. But, from the perspective of Labour’s deadlocked caucus, Mr Cunliffe’s absence of factional baggage may yet prove to be his most telling political advantage.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 August 2010. 

Friday 6 August 2010

Blood Sacrifice

Theatre of War: Lake Waikaremoana, in the territory of the Tuhoe people, where the terrorist/freedom-fighter, Te Kooti, based his forces in the early months of 1869. The Crown's pursuit of the warrior-prophet, following the Mohaka Massacre of 10 April 1869, extracted a heavy price from his Tuhoe protectors.

AN ARMED BAND of about 150 terrorists enters an isolated village in a country torn by civil war.

The men defending the village, accepting the terrorist leader’s assurances that they will not be harmed, surrender their weapons. One man refuses, telling the terrorist leader: "If I hand over my gun you will kill me." Shots are exchanged, the man falls.

The terrorists then start slaughtering the defenceless villagers – mostly women and children. Forty are killed – many hacked to death with bayonets and axes. Meanwhile, outside the village, local farming families are also being attacked and killed. About a dozen men, women and children are murdered: some bayoneted; some shot in the back as they fled. Their homesteads are looted and set alight.

Having completed their grisly raid, the terrorists take refuge in the nearby mountains.

What would be your best guess as to what happens next? If you said a small army made up of professional soldiers and local volunteers headed into the mountains in pursuit of the terrorists, you would, of course, be correct.

And if the commanders of that small army discovered that the local inhabitants of the mountainous region into which the terrorists had fled were providing them with food, shelter, ammunition and new recruits? What would your best guess be as to their next move? If you said they’d probably "unleash hell" on the local inhabitants, then, once again, you’d be quite right.

Now, when and where did this terrorist raid take place? Last week in the mountainous border region separating Afghanistan from Pakistan? Not even close.

The incidents I’ve just described took place in and around what is now the Urewera National Park in April 1869. The "terrorists" were Te Kooti’s "Hau Haus". The village was Mohaka. The local tribe which gave Te Kooti and his men shelter was Tuhoe.

The Waitangi Tribunal has so far released over a thousand pages of historical research into the Tuhoe people’s claim to Te Urewera. But you’ll not find anything on those thousand pages remotely resembling the Mohaka Massacre as I have described it.

There is a peculiar reticence on the part of the Tribunal’s historians to acknowledge that the war which spilled over into the Tuhoe people’s territory in the 1860s and 70s was a civil war. Few New Zealanders understand that more Maori died at the hands of other Maori during the so-called Land Wars than at the hands of Pakeha. At Mohaka, for example, two-thirds of the victims were Maori women and children.

Instead, we get statements like this, from the AUT History Professor, Paul Moon, speaking to Radio New Zealand - National’s "Morning Report" host, Geoff Robinson, on Tuesday:

"Well the parts of the Waitangi Tribunal Report that have been released in the last few days show that Tuhoe suffered in a very different way from other tribes. Other tribes were involved in wars and had their lands confiscated, but in parts of Tuhoe the Crown enacted almost a scorched earth policy. They burnt crops, shot people, shot children. They burnt houses, destroyed livestock. They shifted entire communities off their land. So the scale of the suffering and the effect it’s had on the community has been different from just about any other tribe in the country."

And, of course, Professor Moon is right, the Crown did all of those things. What he (and the Waitangi Tribunal historians) neglect to do, of course, is set those dreadful deeds in the context of the equally dreadful deeds that preceded them.

Tuhoe picked the wrong side in the war to decide what sort of country New Zealand would become: a modern, technologically sophisticated, socially progressive and politically democratic state.

So modern and democratic, in fact, that in order to bind up the wounds of the losers, its liberal elite is willing to traduce the historical record and besmirch the reputations of the courageous men and women – Maori and Pakeha – whose blood sacrifice made New Zealand possible.

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, 6 August 2010.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

The Price

Blood on Our Hands: Is the price of New Zealand’s re-admission to the Anglo-Saxon club now to be measured in the blood of her children?

IT’S THE OVERPRESSURE WAVE that poses the most immediate threat.

The detonation of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) compresses the surrounding air and blows it outward in a deadly shockwave. The speed at which this shockwave travels is measured in milliseconds and the resulting high-energy pulse can cause serious damage to the human body’s "hollow organ systems" – that’s your ears, lungs and abdominal cavity.

An overpressure pulse of just 4 psi is powerful enough to kill any human-beings located in the immediate vicinity of the blast. At 10 psi human bodies simply disintegrate.

The shockwave is followed by the fragmentation effect. The enormous heat and pressure generated by the explosion disintegrates all but the most solid adjacent objects - sending superheated fragments flying outwards at supersonic speed.

Following the detonation of an IED, the metal container in which the explosive mixture is packed is instantly transformed into hundreds of lethal shards called "shrapnel". Depending on the sophistication of the bomb, the shrapnel may simply disperse in all directions, or be "shaped" to discharge in a single direction, like a shotgun blast.

The effect of a sudden large explosion is extremely disorientating. The flash, the overpressure pulse, the fragmentation effect and the deafening noise simply overwhelm the senses and render the individual acutely vulnerable for at least several seconds.

This is why the detonation of IEDs is such an effective military tactic. Deployed in conjunction with carefully positioned machine-guns and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, they give the attacking force a deadly window of opportunity to pour fire into an enemy who is, at least momentarily, incapable of fighting back.

That the twelve person unit of New Zealand infantry ambushed this morning (4/8/10) in Afghanistan’s Bamyan Province, by a so-far unidentified insurgent unit utilising a combination of IED and small-arms fire, emerged from the engagement with only one fatality is remarkable. It speaks volumes about the superb training of the New Zealand foot-soldier.

As the independent NZ war correspondent, Jon Stephenson, observed on Radio New Zealand – National’s "Nine to Noon" show, if an ambush is properly organised there should be no one left to walk away. And yet we are informed that the Kiwis were able to return fire, and in spite of the misty conditions (which prevented effective air-support and the swift evacuation of the wounded) held off the insurgents until the arrival of a relief force.

Even so, the casualty rate of this engagement was a sobering 25 percent (not counting the Afghan interpreter who was one of the three persons wounded in the attack). New Zealanders should, therefore, take the opportunity provided by this deadly encounter to consider the wisdom of their country’s continuing participation in the Afghanistan conflict.

Our participation in the Bamyan Provincial Reconstruction Team had been blessedly casualty-free up until today. Bamyan, we were told, was a "safe" and "friendly" province where the winning of hearts and minds by the Kiwis was proceeding apace. Clearly this is no longer the case.

Though the local Hazara population may be the historical enemies of the largely Pashtun Taliban militiamen, this has not prevented the insurgent forces from repeatedly infiltrating the province. Today’s attack suggests that those forces are now moving backwards and forwards across the mountainous terrain with increased freedom and enhanced military effectiveness. If New Zealand’s soldiers remain in Bamyan more casualties are unavoidable.

The Prime Minister, John Key, has declared that, in spite of this morning’s fatal attack, it is not New Zealand’s intention to "cut and run". Viewing the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, however, "cutting and running" seems like an eminently sensible suggestion.

If Bamyan is no longer safe (and the failure of locals to pass on their usual warnings to the Kiwi patrol is as worrying as it is significant) then nowhere in the whole war-torn country is safe.

More and more of the participants in the ISAF are declaring the battle for the Afghans’ hearts and minds to be lost, and that the US counter-insurgency strategy has failed. The government in Kabul is simply too venal, too corrupt, too ineffectual and too compromised by its relationship with the occupying NATO forces to command the loyalty of the Afghan people. They simply will not send their sons to die for Hamid Karzai and his drug-running mates.

And if the Afghan people themselves are not willing to die for the discredited and dysfunctional Afghan State – a regime installed, funded and protected by the armies of the West – then why should young New Zealand soldiers?

Is the price of New Zealand’s re-admission to the Anglo-Saxon club now to be measured in the blood of her children? If so, then the price is too high. We must not allow the bravery of our soldiers to be harnessed to the folly of our politicians.

It’s time to go. 

Tuesday 3 August 2010

The Pitch

Right[s] on the Button! The campaign of the Australian Council of Trade Unions against John Howard's WorkChoice Australia attack on workers' rights was crucial to his government's 2007 defeat.

THE GRUEN TRANSFER, is a fine example of what a real state broadcaster, dedicated to genuine public interest television, can achieve. Produced by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) this half-hour television show takes a light-hearted weekly swipe at the global advertising industry.

One of the most enjoyable segments of the show is called "The Pitch" – in which "Creatives" from competing agencies are given an outrageous/impossible brief (in a recent episode they were asked sell ice to Eskimos) and told to come up with a 30-second TV spot.

Perhaps the most famous of these briefs involved making the case for an Australian invasion of New Zealand. "100% Pure NZ", runs the opening line of the winning entry. "0 air force", it continues. "100 percent there for the taking", gloats the penultimate caption as Aussie jet fighters streak across New Zealand’s undefended skies firing missiles on the helpless inhabitants below. The triumphant ending: "100% Ours".

Pondering the enormous difficulties currently confronting the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) as it attempts to mobilise public opinion against the National Party’s employment law "reforms", it struck me that "Create a favourable public perception of the New Zealand trade union movement.", would definitely qualify as a future brief for "The Pitch".

And before you shake your head and tell me "it can’t be done", let me tell you about a programme I recall from the days when New Zealand, too, had a "real state broadcaster dedicated to producing genuine public interest television".

It was called the Dean/Edwards Show (after its eponymous hosts Michael Dean and Brian Edwards) and was broadcast in front of a live audience from the Avalon television complex in the Hutt Valley. Dean/Edwards came under the rubric of Television One’s News and Current Affairs and was, to put it mildly, politically challenging.

The programme in question had taken advertising as its theme and its producers had approached a local agency to demonstrate the awesome powers of the industry. They were to come up with a positive ad’ for the most loathed trade unionists in the country at that time – the infamous Cooks & Stewards Union. These were the workers responsible for looking after passengers on the Cook Straight ferries, and they were notorious for timing their industrial disputes to coincide with public holidays.

The 60-second ad the agency produced featured the theatrical skills of the actor Ian Mune, and more than met the Dean/Edwards Show’s producers’ expectations. It was, quite simply, a little masterpiece. In just one minute the villainous Cooks & Stewards were transformed into no-nonsense working-class heroes.

So, you see, it can be done.

And if you need any further convincing, just take a look at the series of ads the Aussie unions ran in 2007 against the Liberal Party’s detested "WorkChoice" legislation. According to most Australian political commentators, these ads played a crucial role in defeating John Howard’s government.

There’s no doubting our own CTU has the resources to fund such a campaign, but do they have access to the sort of skills that turned the Cooks and Stewards into heroes? And, even if they secured the services of a top-flight agency, would the major networks agree to air their product?

When it comes to getting controversial ads broadcast, New Zealand unions have had some very bad experiences. For some reason the Advertising Standards Authority has found it extraordinarily difficult to affix its seal of approval to union-produced television advertisements. Somehow they’re always deemed to be in breach of the Authority’s strict rules.

Even so, were I in CTU President, Helen Kelly’s, shoes I’d be thinking long and hard about commissioning a series of ads designed to change the public’s perception of what unions – and unionists – are about. And I wouldn’t just be looking to the big ad agencies for ideas. In this age of the Internet and cheap computer software, I’d be appealing to every young digital designer, every student-flat Fellini, to send me their ideas as well. And if the ASA stood in the way, well, there’s always You-Tube.

As Forest & Bird and Greenpeace know only too well, there’s a whole new arsenal of weapons available to political activists in the 21st Century that simply weren’t available to the trade unionists of 1890, 1913 and 1951. Policemen can shut down and confiscate a printing-press, but they can’t seize every PC or shut-down the Internet – not unless they want a real fight on their hands.

What Helen Kelly and the CTU needs is the equivalent of Greenpeace’s "Sexy Coal" video clip – and the power of celebrities like Robyn Malcolm and Lucy Lawless to sell it. Below the radar of the despised "MSM", that one clip did more to put 40,000 anti-mining marchers on the street than any other piece of propaganda.

The Pitch is "Union Power". Any takers?

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 August 2010.