Friday 29 October 2010

Mean Things

Our work here is done: John Key and his allies have haggled over the price, but the world has been left in no doubt as to what New Zealand has become: a country willing to prostitute its national sovereignty for the privilege of watching a thin-skinned cinematographer make a children's movie.

AND SO IT ENDED – as we all knew it would. With a few million more for the studios; a big slop of salve for Sir Peter Jackson’s wounded pride; and an entirely gratuitous and opportunistic raid on the rights of New Zealand film workers.

That latter outcome – the changes to our employment law – could also be seen as part of Sir Peter’s pacification. After all, it was a contract drawn up by Sir Peter’s own company that the Supreme Court ruled against in the case (Bryson v Three Foot Six) which has inspired the Government’s Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Act.

One should never overlook the role which pure spite can play in human affairs.

But, by far the most tragic outcome of The Hobbit debacle, is what it has revealed about 21st Century New Zealanders.

How have so many Kiwis lost the capacity for critical thought? When did they lose their historical memory? Who stole their moral compass?

The answers to those questions are located, to a degree that shames us all, in New Zealand’s so-called "mainstream" news media. Critical thinking and historical awareness, informed by a strong moral purpose, have for long been the hallmark of truly effective journalism. Without them the news media inevitably falls prey to either crude sensationalism or calculating partisanship – sometimes both.

Throughout The Hobbit saga, with one or two notable exceptions (take a bow Gordon Campbell) the reportage of the New Zealand media was woeful. Print and electronic journalists alike displayed an alarming unwillingness to critically examine the claims of any individuals or groups other than the trade unions and their spokespeople. Sir Peter Jackson’s accusations were treated by far too many reporters (and, to their shame, editors) as Holy Writ. There was almost no attempt to place what was happening in some sort of historical context (other than rote references to "the days of the Cook Strait ferry stoppages"). The only discernible moral purpose on display was the public punishment and humiliation of anyone foolhardy enough to challenge the version of events handed down from on high by Sir Peter.

This kind of reporting is fast becoming the norm in the United States, but it was profoundly disturbing to witness the "Fox-News-ing" of our own media. The relentless appeal to the audience’s emotions; the refusal to critically examine the protagonists’ claims; the general contempt for "fair and balanced" news coverage; and the sense that the newspapers, radio talkback hosts and television networks were all attempting to goad their audiences into taking some sort of action – "Save The Hobbit" – was truly frightening.

Right-wing bloggers made much of the "peaceful" march by Sir Richard Taylor’s technicians. But to describe a column of people who headed into downtown Wellington with the intention of intimidating – and quite possibly invading – an Actors Equity meeting as "peaceful" is disingenuous. Nor was I the only one to find the querulous, passive-aggressive video harassment of Simon Whipp, Frances Walsh and Robyn Malcolm as they attempted to return to their hotel from Wellington’s Matterhorn Restaurant late on the night of 20 October, deeply, deeply creepy.

This is what happens when the news media is permitted to use its enormous power to whip up public antagonism against a designated "enemy". That it ended in death-threats against Whipp and Walsh, and the verbal intimidation and harassment of the other Equity representatives was entirely predictable.

And where were the voices of restraint? Where was the appeal for tolerance from the Minister of Labour – the calm reaffirmation of the rights of workers to bargain collectively? Ms Wilkinson was invisible. What we saw, instead, was the Attorney-General, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Economic Development openly siding with film industry employers and, at times, even joining in the abuse of the actors. The anti-trade union witch-hunt was given its very own Government seal-of-approval.

Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was no better. As I have stated elsewhere, the Labour Party simply couldn’t summon up the courage to defend the actors against Sir Peter. Even when the anti-union backlash caught the CTU’s Helen Kelly with the back of its hand. Even when it had morphed into an ideological and political assault upon the entire labour movement, Phil Goff (no doubt channelling the spirit of Sir Walter Nash) maintained a shameful "neither for nor against" neutrality.

The news media, the politicians – all are guilty. But if they are guilty, then so are we. When Paul Henry vilified non-white New Zealanders, the response was instantaneous and unequivocal. Not so with the vilification of Actors Equity. Overwhelmingly, New Zealanders were happy to howl for the blood of Robyn Malcolm and Helen Kelly. Overwhelmingly, we were willing to endorse the demonisation of Simon Whipp.

And what had these unionist done? No more than unions have been doing since the 1880s. They had asked for a show of international solidarity on behalf of their members’ campaign for basic improvements in wages and conditions.

A nation whose children had been taught about the Great Maritime Strike of 1890 would have found nothing at all remarkable in New Zealand and Australian workers co-operating in this way. A nation capable of remembering that its most beloved prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage (and a third of his cabinet) was born in Australia would have laughed at Sir Peter’s crude xenophobia. A nation with even the slightest understanding of the meaning of Labour Day would have scorned the transparently anti-union "Save the Hobbit" rallies.

But we didn’t. And that is the extent of the intellectual and moral corruption which a quarter-of-a-century of neoliberalism has wrought upon the New Zealand character. And it is the young who have fared the worst – for they have nothing against which they can compare the society of selfishness into which they’ve been cast adrift. The spokespersons for their "wired" generation, utterly enthralled to the cult of individualism, had nothing to tell them.

But Ian Mune did. Hunched on the Breakfast programme's sofa, this rumpled ambassador from "Old" New Zealand delivered what was easily the best, the most eloquent, and the most quintessentially Kiwi defence of his fellow actors – and of working people in all walks of life – that we had so far heard. God bless him!

All that remains to be done now is for the Governor-General to give the Royal Assent to the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Act. John Key has shown the world exactly what New Zealand has become. He has haggled about the price with Warner Bros., but what we are is now beyond dispute. We’re a country that’s willing to hand across its citizens’ taxes and trample all over its workers rights for the privilege of watching a thin-skinned cinematographer make a children’s movie.

And those few of us who have raised our voices against this travesty; this tragedy; this gross prostitution of our nationhood and sovereignty; we have been taught a lesson.

It’s the lesson the powerful have taught the powerless for centuries uncounted. In his novel The Given Day, the American writer, Denis Lehane, spells out the nature of the lesson with brutal succinctness:

What he’d found out, lying there in the dirt while those fists and feet rained down on him, was that if you bucked certain things – the mean things – they didn’t just buck back. No, no, that wasn’t enough. They crushed you and kept crushing and the only way you escaped alive was through pure luck, nothing else. The mean things of this world had only one lesson – we are meaner than you’d ever imagine.

Critical Failure

Put your money where your mouth is, Phil: The Labour Leader's failure to come out swinging on 20 October in defence of the labour movement in general, and NZ Actors Equity in particular, ceded the political advantage to Sir Peter Jackson, Warner Bros. and their National Party allies. To guarantee its long-term credibility, Labour must rediscover the courage to endure short-term unpopularity.

SIR PETER JACKSON surely deserves another academy award for his masterful direction of The Making of The Hobbit. Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens similarly merit an Oscar for their superb script. And, of course, Sir Richard Taylor and his team at Weta Workshops must be honoured for their amazing special effects. (The "protest march" down Lambton Quay and the "rally" in Civic Square were both superb examples of the PR illusionist’s art.

Less impressive, however, has been the labour movement’s critical response to Sir Peter Jackson’s production.

Coming straight off a remarkably successful Labour Party conference and into a week where the core values of the New Zealand labour movement were about to be given mass reaffirmation at CTU-organised "Fairness at Work" rallies across the country, Phil Goff should have been champing at the rhetorical bit.

Because, let’s face it, if the Leader of the Opposition can’t persuade the rest of New Zealand to join Labour and the CTU in reaffirming the values of fairness, solidarity and egalitarianism. Well then, he’s not going to be elected Prime Minister – is he?

Now, to be fair to Phil, I don’t think he could have anticipated everything that took place on the day of the CTU rallies.

For a start, his contacts in the CTU would almost certainly have let him know that the industrial relations problems afflicting The Hobbit had been all but resolved. And only the most cynical of union negotiators could have anticipated the DHB bosses’ self-defeating decision to publicly trash all chance of a settlement in their dispute with the medical radiographers and hospital lab technicians.

Even so, Sir Peter’s dire warnings about the imminent fate of The Hobbit on the morning of Wednesday, 20 October, followed up a couple of hours later by Fran Walsh’s and Phillipa Boyens’ utterances on Radio NZ’s Nine-to-Noon programme, should have alerted the Leader of the Opposition’s Office that something potentially very damaging was afoot.

Clearly, a whole new drama was being overlaid across the drama of thousands of trade unionists turning out to demand "Fairness at Work". If all of the sweat and effort that had gone into mobilising so many union members was not to be utterly wasted, both wings of the labour movement needed to reposition themselves – and quickly – to meet their opponents’ surprise attack.

This they did not do.

Though the agreement she thought she’d negotiated in good faith between NZ Actors Equity, Sir Peter, SPADA and the studio bosses was clearly being shredded before her eyes, the CTU President, Helen Kelly, nobly attempted to stick the pieces back together.

Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition’s Office, like a possum caught in the headlights of an oncoming Mack truck, made no visible attempt to avoid the looming collision. Terrified at the prospect of having to attack a national "icon" like Sir Peter, they simply closed their eyes and hoped that the fearsome anti-union juggernaut now bearing down on the entire labour movement would somehow miss them.

Then Sir Richard unleashed his special effects – with devastating results.

At this point it should have been clear to both labour leaders that their forces were sustaining enormous losses. Constrained by the legal and moral undertakings pursuant to her agreement with the Hollywood moguls, Ms Kelly’s options were limited. But with Parliament in session, Mr Goff could have made full use of parliamentary privilege to launch a devastating counterattack against Sir Peter and his growing chorus of anti-union acolytes.

By refusing to fight back, the Opposition transformed what was rapidly escalating into a full-scale, Government-led attack on the entire union movement into a complete rout. In the absence of unassailable Labour counter-arguments, the mainstream news media stuck slavishly to Sir Peter’s anti-union script.

The week, which had begun with such high hopes for organised labour’s triumph, ended with its total, ignominious and unnecessary defeat.

If The Hobbit offers its audiences even half as much white-knuckle excitement, its box office takings will be huge.

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, 29 October 2010.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

The Greatest Story Ever Told?

Of Angels and Demons: Is it really possible that a small group of individuals can get together and manufacture a national controversy? If the tale being spun involves 'angelic' national icons and 'demonic' trade unionists? You betcha! (Drawing by M.C. Escher)

WHAT JUST HAPPENED? How did a tiny union’s attempt to improve the lot of its members end up convulsing the entire nation?

What NZ Actor’s Equity tried to do here would scarcely have rated a mention in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland or Australia. Actors, film technicians, specialists of every kind in those countries negotiate with the big film studios all the time.

Only recently, Irish film-makers successfully concluded an industry-wide collective agreement. Ireland, you’ll recall, was identified by Sir Peter Jackson’s people as one of the places to which location shooting for The Hobbit might be shifted.


Why would you shift location filming to a country that already has an industry-wide collective agreement because workers in your own country were attempting to negotiate something very similar for themselves?

It doesn’t make sense.

Unless the entire controversy has been manufactured: unless all that we have witnessed since 28th September, when Sir Peter Jackson launched a very public broadside against the actors’ union, is a cleverly spun fiction. A tale replete with noble hero (Sir Peter) and evil villains (the unions) designed to exculpate its authors from any and all blame for taking The Hobbit offshore.

Can people really do that? Is it really possible for a small group of individuals to sit down and plan a whole series of actions designed to secure a predetermined set of outcomes? How on earth could they be sure that something wouldn’t go wrong: that they wouldn’t be found out? Wouldn’t the certain and catastrophic costs of having such a conspiracy unmasked vastly outweigh the potential benefits from its successful execution?

In most cases that would be the case, but The Hobbit is not "most cases" – far from it.

For a start, the principal player in this drama is an internationally acclaimed movie maestro, a national hero and a knight of the realm.

As citizens of a tiny nation located at the bottom of the world, New Zealanders are fiercely protective of such folk, and the news media, more than ever anxious to reflect the likes and dislikes of its readers, listeners and viewers, is not about to contradict them by criticising an "iconic" figure like Sir Peter.

For another thing, the designated villains of this drama – NZ Actors Equity and the Council of Trade Unions – are tailor-made for the role of "patsy".

Less than a month from now, on November 12th, trade unionists will commemorate the 98th anniversary of the murder of striker Fred Evans by a gang of scabs and thugs in the little mining town of Waihi. Ever since that bloody day in 1912 the New Zealand trade union movement has been subjected to an unending campaign of vilification and persecution by a combination of extremely powerful economic and political interests.

Farmers, business leaders, conservative politicians, right-wing editors and journalists, and (almost reflexively) a considerable portion of the New Zealand middle-class have never had a good word to say about trade unions. In any stand-off between capital and labour (and especially if capital is represented by a national hero) those in the strongest position to influence public opinion can be relied upon absolutely to blame the unions.

This extraordinary anti-union bias was on display as recently as last Sunday when viewers of the Q+A current affairs programme on TV One saw the show’s host, Paul Holmes, hector, browbeat, talk-over, interrupt and generally bully CTU president, Helen Kelly, as she stoically attempted to explain the union’s position on The Hobbit.

Small wonder, then, that 87 percent of respondents to a poll on the Stuff website blamed the unions for The Hobbit’s woes.

From this practically unassailable position, Sir Peter and the American studios putting up the money for The Hobbit, are well-placed to dictate the terms and conditions upon which the production remains in New Zealand.

If the Prime Minister and his Cabinet refuse to increase the subsidies on offer to match those available overseas, Sir Peter and Warner Bros. can depart these shores with their reputations unsullied – confident that it’s the "bloody unions" who will cop all the flak.

If the Government accedes to their demands, not only will Sir Peter be able to bask in the warm approbation of a grateful nation, but so, too, will John Key. New Zealand’s reputation as an effectively "non-union" filming location will be restored – along with generous state subsidies.

Also happy will be that permanent combination of anti-union interests. Thanks to The Hobbit controversy, the CTU’s "Fairness at Work" campaign lies dead in the water.

I especially enjoyed the irony of Sir Richard Taylor’s Weta Workshops-organised "Save The Hobbit" rallies on – of all days – Labour Day.

From beginning to end, it’s been a marvellous tale, masterfully told.

Perhaps, one day, Sir Peter will turn it all into an award-winning film.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 October 2010. 

Saturday 23 October 2010

The Disintegrating Consensus

Bringing Down the Neoliberal Temple?: In moving his party sharply to the left, Phil Goff has placed Labour outside what the political commentator, Colin James, once described as the "fragile consensus of the elites" responsible for upholding neoliberalism in New Zealand. By doing so, Goff has immediately made himself and the broader labour movement, Public Enemy No. 1.

"A ROAD TO STALIN EXPERIENCE." That’s how the Prime Minister described the Leader of the Opposition’s dramatic re-conversion to Labour’s old-time political religion.

It’s a good line – and it won’t be the last. In the months ahead many more such jibes – and worse – will be aimed at Phil Goff.


For the Labour leader to have the slightest chance of winning next year’s election he needs to know that every possible piece of right-wing artillery is aimed in his direction.

For there to be a genuine fight for New Zealand’s future there must be two sides.

Mr Goff has chosen the side of economic sovereignty. The side committed to, in the words of his Finance Spokesperson, David Cunliffe: "owning our own future".

Mr Key has been left holding on for dear life to the rapidly disintegrating and comprehensively discredited "Neoliberal Consensus".

In the baleful light of the continuing, and in many countries worsening, global financial crisis, the Prime Minister and his Act and United Future allies are now saddled with the unenviable task of explaining to the rest of us why we should continue to put our faith in the operations of the "free market".

Why doing nothing is better than doing something.

The bi-partisan approach to economic management is over. From now on it will be up to National to explain why New Zealand’s hard-pressed clothing manufacturers are not being given the contract to supply this country’s 3,400 Correction Officers with new uniforms?

Why, with thousands of New Zealanders out of work, the Corrections Minister, Judith Collins, won’t be the least bothered if her Department’s lucrative contract goes offshore – along with any successful foreign bidder’s profits?

Many, many years ago the political commentator, Colin James, described how this country’s ongoing commitment to neoliberal economic orthodoxy was dependent on "a fragile consensus of the elites". Easily the most crucial of those elites were the upper echelons of the two main political parties.

So long as Labour and National were prepared to defend the central pillars of the new economic order established by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, all was well. The other members of the consensus: the public service elite, the news media elite, the trade union elite, the corporate elite; all had their parts to play, but the political elites were crucial.

Prime-Ministerial quips about "Road to Stalin Experiences" notwithstanding, I do not yet get the sense that the defenders of the Neoliberal Consensus understand just how significant an ideological and political shift took place at last weekend’s Labour Party Conference.

The 25,000 members of the Labour Party, backed by the 300,000 union members affiliated to the CTU – by far the largest political force in the country – have turned their backs on "the fragile consensus". Rather than shoring it up, Labour and the CTU are now enjoining their members and supporters to dismantle it.

This represents a sea-change in New Zealand politics.

But Mr Goff and CTU President, Helen Kelly, need to be on their guard. By walking away from the Neoliberal Consensus they have dramatically increased its fragility. Not since the early 1990s, when populist movements led by Jim Anderton and Winston Peters momentarily threatened its complete destruction, has the Neoliberal order felt so threatened. And as Helen Clark and Michael Cullen discovered to their cost in the Winter of 2000, when the elites feel themselves being backed into a corner, they can become extremely vicious.

In 2000, Ms Clark and Dr Cullen responded to the discontent of the business elites by staging a fighting retreat from the more radical policy initiatives of their Alliance coalition partner. While willing to soften the sharper edges of the Neoliberal Consensus, neither politician was willing to seriously challenge its essentials.

That is no longer the case.

Of course, by moving out of the consensus Mr Goff and Labour have instantly united the remaining elites against them. The public service chiefs, the media bosses, the business community, the parties of the Right: all now have but one enemy.

Leaving the Labour Party and the CTU with but one strategy: to take their message of economic sovereignty directly to the electors.

Mr Goff needs to rediscover the thrill of the mass political meeting and the whistle-stop tour.

The Left needs to get out on the road. Not to Stalin – but to the people.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 22 October 2010.

Friday 22 October 2010

A Public Appeal to "Public Address"

Official Warning: This celebrated adaptation of a NZ Department of Health warning sticker against "Industrial Disease" was distributed by the Waterside Workers Union and their allies during the 1951 Waterfront Dispute.

Jackson's Wounded Pride

"Now listen here you bloody orcs!" Nothing is more wounding to the charismatic leader than the perceived "disloyalty" of those given the privilege of serving him. For Sir Peter Jackson, NZ Actors Equity are nothing but a brood of ungrateful extortionists. Is he about to punish them by taking The Hobbit offshore?

IT’S BEEN UGLY. The news media has been calling it an "industrial dispute", but more and more evidence is emerging that the furor over the production of The Hobbit has been almost entirely of Sir Peter Jackson’s own making.

The CTU President, Helen Kelly, summed up the feelings of those most closely involved in the controversy when she accused Jackson of behaving "like a spoiled brat".

Like so many egotistical and paternalistic business tycoons before him (Andrew Carnegie springs to mind) Jackson has been willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent his employees from either joining or forming a union. (That’s right, I said "employees", because no matter what the film industry bosses say, that’s exactly what actors and technicians working on a long-term project like The Hobbit are.)

Men like Jackson demonstrate what the founder of sociology, Max Weber, called "charismatic leadership". At the heart of this, the most ancient form of leadership, is the concept of loyalty.

For the charismatic leader the intense bond of personal fealty is all-important. Those who follow the charismatic leader do so because he has demonstrated extraordinary ability. He is a superior being, and that not only gives him the right to lead, but also imposes a moral obligation on all "lesser beings" to follow.

The trade union is thus the mortal enemy of the charismatic leader – even though it recognises, albeit tacitly, his singular power and authority. Against this "one", argues the union, we must counterpose the "many".

The union is thus – in Weberian terms – a manifestation of the most modern, "rational-legal", form of authority. It is a collective method of goal-setting and decision-making, based on rules and processes set in place not at the whim of a single individual, but through the democratic deliberation of the group. In place of the intense emotional bond linking the charismatic leader to his followers, the trade union substitutes the even stronger bonds of solidarity.

It is surely no accident that Jackson made his reputation translating the work of J.R.R. Tolkien to the big screen. For what is Tolkien’s great trilogy if not a marvelous, magical, but essentially anachronistic evocation of the charismatic and traditional forms of leadership which, even in Tolkien’s childhood, were fast disappearing from the Western world?

In his own eyes, Jackson is a Gandalf, an Aragorn, a Boromir figure: a person full of intrinsic power. By challenging that power: by telling him that such "lesser beings" as actors possess an equal right to shape the world in which they live and work; Actor’s Equity has struck a blow at the very heart of Jackson’s self-perception – and he is fighting back.

He’s not alone. Around Jackson’s banner have gathered every solipsistic libertarian geek, every Ayn Rand devotee, and every National and Act Party voter yet to fathom that while it is often the charismatic entrepreneur who begins the great tales of capitalism, it is the rational-legal or "bureaucratic" modern corporation that finishes them.

No wonder, then, that Actors Equity is being assailed by the Weta Workshop technicians. There is a world of difference between the clever boys and girls who work alone in front of a computer screen, and those quintessential collectivists –actors. The English language has for centuries possessed a collective noun for "a troupe" of actors. It has yet to find one for CGI wizards.

The deep prejudices that so many New Zealanders harbour against trade unions speak eloquently of the "rugged individualism" so intrinsic to the Anglo-Saxon settler cultures. For these folk, New Zealand was the place in which their "extraordinariness" was bound to be seen more plainly than in the overcrowded homeland. It was to be the place where little men became big.

The idea that a man only reaches the heights by climbing on to the backs of other men simply didn't occur to them.

This country will never reach its full potential until it finally enters the modern age and accepts that the corporation and the union – both of which are founded on the principle of rational-legal authority – are brothers under the skin. The most progressive elements in our society have always known this. As the late Bruce Jesson shrewdly observed: "National knows how to govern for capitalists, but only Labour knows how to govern for capitalism."

I fear that day is a long way off. Listening this morning to Radio New Zealand’s Geoff Robinson, with all the treakly sanctimony of a reactionary Anglican parson, bestow his blessing upon a breakaway "union" of scab actors, was a truly dispiriting experience. It reminded me that when Sid Holland’s National Government brought in the 1951 Emergency Regulations suspending (among many other rights and liberties) the freedom of the press, not one of the editors of the 170 newspapers then published in New Zealand was willing to risk jail by challenging the State’s right to censor the news media.

Radio New Zealand is to be congratulated, however, for broadcasting the interview with Steve Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times. Zeitchik’s answers to Patrick O'Meara's questions concerning the fate of The Hobbit strongly suggested that in releasing a statement confirming last-minute doubts about the film’s ultimate location, Warner Brothers were simply humouring their temperamental, tantrum-throwing Kiwi producer.

It is now very clear that if the production of The Hobbit does go offshore, it will be entirely the decision of the charismatic Sir Peter Jackson’s wounded pride.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Misdirection (How "The Hobbit" Buried "Fairness at Work")

Misdirection: The furore reignited by Sir Peter Jackson and his minions over the production of "The Hobbit" occurred on the same day as 22,000 workers protested the National Government's plans to curtail workers rights. This fortunate "coincidence" (along with a vicious anti-union outburst from the country's DHBs) drove the issues relating to "Fairness at Work" clean off the nation's front pages.

THEY CAME HOWLING through the streets of Wellington like an army of bloodthirsty orcs. And striding at the head of this rabble of hysterical computer geeks, dull-witted gaffers and troll-like grips was the wizard of Weta Workshops, Sir Richard Taylor, energetically playing the role of Saruman to Sir Peter Jackson’s Sauron.

Meanwhile, the Black Gates of Mordor (a.k.a The Wairarapa) opened – spewing forth those two spiteful Nazgul, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens. Raising high their Dark Lord’s banner, they made a beeline for the White City (a.k.a the studios of Radio New Zealand).

Barring the way, their bright red banners glowing in the morning sunlight, stood a tiny army of elves and men (a.k.a. NZ Actors Equity and the CTU). At its head, awaiting the onset of Mordor and Isengard with drawn swords, were Robyn Malcolm and Helen Kelly.

And over all, untouched by the media lights in its multi-million-dollar fortress, the Eye of Jackson cast its baleful glare. Safe behind his impenetrable walls, Sir Peter will only ride forth when the final battle has been won and the last contract signed – the wheels of his midnight SUV rolling heedlessly over the corpses of slain actors and eviscerated unions.

* * * * *

AND WHAT A COINCIDENCE (if coincidence it was) that Jackson’s vicious display of anti-union fury should occur within 24 hours of 22,000 workers turning out to demonstrate their opposition to the National Government’s Employment Relations Amendment Bill.

And, of course, Jackson wasn’t alone. The DHB’s also chose 20 October to launch a full-scale assault upon the unions representing medical radiographers and laboratory technicians.

How convenient, because, who knows, without the scurrilous, unsubstantiated and completely self-defeating claims scattered around by the DHBs; without Taylor’s mob and Jackson’s scaremongering letter; the New Zealand public might have been able to concentrate their minds on the issues being raised at the CTU’s "Fairness at Work" rallies.

Without these spectacular employer provocations inflaming their passions and diverting their attention, decent New Zealanders might even have felt a twinge of sympathy – even empathy – for the plight of the invisible hundreds-of-thousands of working-class people who, day-after-day, keep this society functioning.

And don’t tell me that there is no such thing as "the working-class" any more. Don’t pretend that we are all, in John Lennon’s words: "so clever and classless and free". Because, if you had been sitting where I was sitting yesterday afternoon you would know what a dangerous and self-serving lie that is.

Seated in the Telstra Clear Event Centre in Manukau yesterday, watching the thousands of union members as they slowly filled up the vast space in front of me, it was as though I had been transported to a wholly different New Zealand.

This wasn’t the bright, white world of the television ads: the world where everyone is beautiful and everything is new. Nor was it the world of Ken and Barbie news presenters, breathlessly relating the details of the latest celebrity scandal. The faces of the men and women in front of me were lined by care and etched with hardship. Many of them were wearing the livery of their masters – like the servants of 18th Century aristocrats. Others came straight from the factory floor in boots and overalls.

And, overwhelmingly, the working people in front of me were brown-skinned. Maori and Pasifika, Asian, Middle Eastern and African. Represented on that rapidly filling floor were scores of languages and dozens of cultures. It was another New Zealand altogether, and upon its collective back, every day, the New Zealand of the rich and the comfortable does its business.

Whether the rich and the comfortable allow themselves to be carried in wilful ignorance, or callous indifference, matters much less than the fact that the people upon whose backs they ride have become invisible to them.

The hopes and fears, struggles and triumphs of working people simply don’t matter to this rich and comfortable New Zealand. It never drives through their neighbourhoods, it doesn’t drink in their pubs, it knows nothing of the great rows of factories, warehouses and shops where they work. The people who drive the trucks, who unload the ships, who keep the water flowing through the taps and the electricity flowing down the wires are seen as mere appendages to the machines they operate. They are not people – they are services, servants, things.

And things are not supposed to talk back, complain, ask for more, demand a say: things are supposed to work when they’re switched on, and to shut-down when they’re switched off.

I wish the rich and the comfortable – the New Zealand that switches human-beings on and off – had been in that hall yesterday. I wish they could have heard the great shout that went up when Robert Reid, Secretary of the National Distribution Union, cried out:

We will defeat this bill, nothing is surer! If not today, we will defeat it tomorrow; if not tomorrow, we will defeat it on the streets, we will defeat it in the workplaces, we will defeat it next year when we throw this anti-union Government out! We defeated John Banks and got Len Brown in ... We can win, we will win, we will throw this bill and this Government into the dustbin of history!

That’s what rich and comfortable New Zealand has forgotten, you see: that these "things" they switch on and off have votes – and are learning how to use them.

The sword that was broken is being reforged.

The Dark Lord hasn’t won yet.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

A Change Gonna Come (Labour Abandons Neoliberalism)

A New Day Dawns: At it's Annual Conference in Auckland last weekend (15-17 October) the NZ Labour Party finally and decisively abandoned its 26-year experiment with Neoliberalism.

IT BEGAN, as so many things do, with words on a page. Seated in the sprawling foyer of Auckland’s Aotea Centre, I was flicking through the pages of the Labour Party’s "Policy Framework" document, when suddenly it struck me. These weren’t words of continuity – these were words of change.

As a former trade unionist, the first section I always turn to in any Labour policy document is the section dealing with industrial relations.

Now, about the best one can say of the employment reforms enacted by Helen Clark’s government was that they were a cautious improvement on the infamously harsh Employment Contracts Act. But the policy I was reading in the foyer of the Aotea Centre last Friday evening was anything but cautious. Dammit – this stuff was radical.

What Labour is proposing is nothing less than restoring to the many thousands of workers currently lacking an active voice in their workplace the right to engage in collective bargaining. Across entire industries minimum pay-rates and conditions will again apply. State-facilitated and binding arbitration will again be made available to both employers and employees. For nearly quarter-of-a-century, New Zealanders rights in the workplace have been unconscionably abridged, Labour is promising to restore them.

My fellow journalists hadn’t missed these proposed changes. Eyebrows were raised. Clearly, this Labour Conference was going to be different.

They weren’t wrong. In the bars and cafes of the Auckland CBD, where many of the 600 registered delegates gathered that night to catch up and compare notes since last year’s conference in Rotorua, there was a palpable sense of excitement. Those who had been most closely involved in the drafting of the new policy framework all wore the same expression of quiet satisfaction. I half expected them to break into Sam Cooke’s haunting anthem: "It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come."

By Saturday lunchtime it was becoming clear just how dramatically things were changing. Policies which had once been the preserve of a handful of persistent dissidents were now being forcefully promoted from the top-table.

In one session, I witnessed what I thought I’d never see: left-wing unionists and staunch Labour members enthusiastically applauding businessmen and economists. The combined message of Selwyn Pellett, John Walley and Ganesh Nana: that the neoliberal experiment had failed, and that it was time to reclaim New Zealand’s economic sovereignty by helping the export sector repay New Zealand’s mountainous debt; was fast becoming the theme of the conference.

The raw emotion of business journalist and commentator, Bernard Hickey’s, address to conference delegates brought tears to more than one hardened observer’s eyes. His potent mixture of dire economic prophecy and unashamed patriotism moved even Labour’s usually irrepressible finance spokesman, David Cunliffe, to tell Hickey’s audience, in choked tones: "You will remember this day."

Perhaps it was simply the fact that this was the conference of a party in opposition that contributed so forcefully to the impression of an organisation vigorously exercising its limbs – and mind – after a dangerously long period of enforced restraint. Personally, I think there was more to it than that. Personally, I think what I witnessed over the weekend was the long-awaited lifting of Helen Clark’s shadow from the New Zealand Labour Party.

No one has ever dominated Labour so thoroughly or for so long as Helen Clark. Her great historical achievement was to keep it together after the bitter divisions of the Rogernomics Era and the defection of its left and right wings. But, like all great achievements, hers came at a high cost: the surrender of the Party’s freedom to the leadership.

This was the conference where the Party won it back.

But it did not win it back at the expense of its current leadership – it won it back with the leadership's active and eloquent support.

In the course of just 22 months Andrew Little has transformed himself from dour union boss into a party president capable of both passion and (who knew?) humour. In contrast to last year’s rather wooden presidential address, Mr Little this year gave voice to genuine political oratory.

But, it was left to Phil Goff to set the capstone on the edifice of change which, by Sunday morning, Labour’s 2010 conference had become – and he did not disappoint. In what was undoubtedly the best Labour speech in thirty years the Leader of the Opposition finally and with considerable eloquence announced the end of Labour’s 26-year long neoliberal experiment.

Recalling the New Zealand of his youth where "the rungs of the ladder reached down to where everybody grew up" Labour’s leader pledged to make "a place at the table" for every New Zealander.

"I believe this", he said, as his party rose to its feet. "We can do this!"

It was a long time coming, but change had come at last.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 October 2010.

Sunday 17 October 2010

"All Politics Is Local"

Winning hearts and minds doorstep by doorstep: Phil Goff must reconnect with Labour's base if he is to have any chance of winning next year's election.

WHAT’S GOING ON? At the local government level voters execute a sudden lurch to the Left, while nationwide opinion polls show them simultaneously clinging to the Right. As the Lost in Space robot used to say: "That does not compute."

Let’s try to make it add up.

The former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Phillip ‘Tip’ O’Neill, said that "All politics is local."

In other words, unless there is a real connection between politicians and voters: in the places where they live, and at the level of their day-to-day lives; electoral success will likely prove elusive.

It’s not enough to simply offer the public what they want, they’ve got to be convinced you can deliver it. Nor is it sufficient to simply reflect the voters’ concerns, you have to make them believe that you share them. That you, in the words of the ‘great empathiser’, President Bill Clinton, "feel their pain".

As Labour Party members gather together in Auckland for their annual conference, it is sobering to reflect that while the city’s newly-elected Mayor, Len Brown, ticks all of Tip O’Neill’s boxes, Labour’s leader, Phil Goff, does not.

What’s lies behind Phil’s lack of connection with the voters?

His working-class background and his obvious political competence should both argue strongly in his favour. And yet there are doubts – and an obvious reticence on the electorate’s part to invest emotionally in the Labour leader’s quest for the top job.

As an historian, my instinct is to explain the present by looking into the past.

Phil’s past is very instructive.

He’s one of a whole generation of young Labour politicians (including Mike Moore, Richard Prebble and Roger Douglas) who took away from Labour’s disastrous 1975 election defeat some very painful lessons about the acute political vulnerability of radical governments.

One of the most important of those lessons was the need for economic credibility. The fate of both Bill Rowling and Gough Whitlam convinced Labour’s ‘Young Turks’ that if the leading elements of the business community, the civil service and the news media remain unconvinced by your government’s economic policies they have the power to undermine and, ultimately, destroy it.

The faction to which Phil Goff attached himself in the early 1980s was absolutely determined that the very same forces which had stood in front of the Third Labour Government would be standing behind the Fourth. Nothing which he has said and done so far as Leader of the Opposition suggests to me that Phil has abandoned this objective.

He has had no "Greenspan Moment". No dramatic public admission (as there was by the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve) that the economic policies he and his colleagues adopted to secure the backing of big business, Treasury and the nation’s editors have now been tested to destruction.

On the contrary, Phil still believes that: "a well-functioning market system is the most effective and efficient way of organising an economy".

For those on the left of New Zealand politics, indeed for all those who’ve voted Alliance, NZ First or The Greens because they simply could not bring themselves to vote for the party of Rogernomics, this is profoundly disappointing.

More importantly, it’s disconnecting.

On Saturday afternoon, the CTU president, Helen Kelly, will come to Labour’s Conference bearing the trade union movement’s Alternative Economic Strategy – a document based on the principles of Fairness, Security and Participation.

Assuming Phil comprehends the importance of atoning for the sins of his neoliberal past, he could use his own keynote speech to Labour’s Annual Conference to reassure his base that the distilled ideas and aspirations of organised labour will once again constitute the bedrock upon which the Labour Party assembles its policy platform.

The CTU’s strategy contains a host of fresh solutions to meet all those "simple, mundane and everyday concerns" that Tip O’Neill understood to be the prime drivers of politics.

Re-connect with the local, Phil, and by Christmas next year you’ll be Prime Minister.

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, 15 October 2010.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Grandfather's Sword (Reflections on the Te Papa Controversy)

Respecting Family Treasures - and Maori Taonga: My Grandfather's sword (just visible below his elbow) now rests in the Oamaru Museum, where I trust it will continue to be accorded the same deep respect it always demanded - and received - from my family. Photograph of Captain William Marshall, Otago Mounted Rifles, courtesy of Margaret E. Trotter (nee Marshall).

CAN WEAPONS OF WAR inflict harm – even when they’re not in use? When displayed in a glass case in a museum, are greenstone mere and taiaha to be classified simply as "inanimate objects" – archaeological "artefacts"? Or are they something more than that? Something quite capable of harming any pregnant or menstruating woman who draws near?

Do weapons have a life of their own? That is the essense of the controversy currently swirling around the Museum of New Zealand - Te Papa. (See here and here.)

According to Maori cosmology the answer is a most emphatic "Yes." Any weapon that has shed blood, taken life, is imbued with tremendous spiritual force. It partakes not only of the life force of the person it was used against, but also of the spirit of the warrior who wielded it and of the craftsman who fashioned it. In the Maori world, weapons are objects of power. Touching them – even approaching them – is fraught with danger.

It is for this reason that pregnant and menstruating women are enjoined to remain at a safe distance from these potentially harmful objects. An instrument of death: shaped for violence, guided by anger, steeped in pain and suffering; should not be permitted to come anywhere near the bearers of life – or the sacred blood that nourishes it.

Those who embrace the scientific method will bridle at such notions. Things of stone and wood become dangerous only when manipulated by the hand and brain of Homo Sapiens. When not under conscious human direction mere and taiaha are harmless lumps of matter: nothing more, nothing less.

To those who subscribe to the core values of secular humanism, Te Papa’s tacit endorsement of Maori cosmology must also seem outrageous.

In the modern secular state, religious belief and practice is relegated strictly to the private sphere. In the public sphere reason alone is supposed to prevail. And reason dictates that differences of gender and ethnicity must in no way detract from the democratic rights and duties of free and equal citizens. To allow animist superstition to in any way prevent women – regardless of their reproductive condition – from exercising their civil rights is the nearest thing to a "sin" that secular humanism will allow.

All right and proper, I suppose, but it is very … well … thin.

We should never forget that the triumph of 18th Century Enlightenment values was challenged almost immediately by the much more visceral cultural impulses of Romanticism. Reason and science may have released us from the grip of religious obscurantism and superstition, but it also cast us adrift in a world stripped bare of meaning and mystery.

Very few human-beings are able to thrive in such a barren emotional environment, which is why so many people respond to and take comfort in what Science would undoubtedly reject as the irrational manifestations of fear and awe.

Like the mysterious power of weapons.

My Grandfather was an officer in the Otago Mounted Rifles who fought in the Boer War.

On the wall above our beds, as we were growing up, my brother and I could see the Mauser rifle Captain William Marshall had brought back with him from South Africa. It was a splendid example of German precision engineering – long and heavy and absolutely deadly. On the rifle’s stock its original owner had carved his name: "Van Rijn".

I can’t tell you how often I stared at that weapon, wondering about the man from whom my Grandfather took it as a trophy of war. Was it someone he had killed with his own hands? Or, did he prise it from Herr Van Rijn’s lifeless fingers in the aftermath of some forgotten skirmish on the High Veldt?

The spirits of both men seemed to me to linger in that rifle.

Invariably, whenever I lifted the weapon down from the wall, the hairs would rise on the back of my neck.

For true power, however, nothing came close to my Grandfather’s sword. It was kept in a special sheath of oilskin and only taken out on special occasions. The mixture of fear and awe that I experienced as a small boy as the long blade emerged from its leather scabbard is easily imagined.

For it was a thing of both beauty and power. Its greased blade was engraved with the most intricate filigree and just below the hilt a brass Star of David was inset. The initials of the King-Emperor, Edward VII, took pride of place on the finely-wrought guard to show at whose pleasure my Grandfather served.

It was a treasured heirloom of my family – a taonga filled with potent magic.

It rests now in the Oamaru Museum – where I hope it is accorded the same deep respect it always demanded – and received – from me. 

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Making Connections

Big-ups to the new Super-Mayor: Len Brown’s mayoral campaign provides a text-book example of "the politics of connection".

HAD THE EARTH not moved on 4 September, it’s highly likely New Zealanders would have woken up on 10 October to find four new mayors in the four main centres.

The devastating earthquake which struck Canterbury, and Mayor Bob Parker’s response to the crisis it created, dramatically changed the electoral equation in Christchurch City.

In Mr Parker’s own words: "During the earthquake enough people saw something in me that they thought was worthy of their support. The community had a chance to see me experiencing all of the same trauma and getting on with the job, just like they had to, and I’m sure that did me no harm."

Few would dispute that assessment, and in a curious way Mr Parker’s explanation of why Cantabrians flocked to the incumbent’s mayoral banner also explains why in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin so many voters deserted theirs.

Right across the country there is a growing sense of disconnection between ordinary citizens and the people who govern them.

For democracy to work, voters need to feel that their communities and their country are being run by people committed to serving their interests. More importantly, they strongly believe that big changes – the sort that have a real impact on their day-to-day lives – should never be made without their prior consent.

Before the earthquake, most Cantabrians were of the view that Mayor Parker had shown insufficient deference to the wishes of Christchurch voters, and that too many important Council obligations were being undertaken (or set aside) behind closed doors.

Mr Parker’s challenger, Jim Anderton, tapped into this vein of popular discontent with considerable success: the one big poll conducted prior to the earthquake placed him well ahead of his opponent.

It was only when Christchurch voters were able to see with their own eyes that their Mayor was experiencing the same intense emotions as themselves; that he, too, was worried about his family, his home, his neighbours and his city; only when their shared suffering had transformed him into one of them could Mr Parker be reconnected to the democratic power-grid.

And the moment that reconnection was made, Mr Anderton’s cause was lost.

In Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, however, there was no natural disaster to reconnect the rulers with the ruled. In these cities (and many others besides) the voters’ growing disaffection with unaccountable politicians and bureaucrats was given dramatic political expression.

In Auckland, particularly, Len Brown’s mayoral campaign provides a text-book example of "the politics of connection".

From the get-go he aligned himself with the majority of Aucklanders who were either opposed to or uneasy about the way the amalgamation of Auckland’s eight local authorities into a single "super-city" was being managed.

Many people feared the new entity would become a political vehicle for the sort of far-right economic policies associated with the Act Party leader (and Minister for Local Government) Rodney Hide. They were angry that the new structures of local governance were being imposed on them without a clear democratic mandate.

Mr Brown became their champion. He promised to make the new super-city work for everyone – not just a wealthy few.

It would be futile to deny that there was a left-wing flavour to Mr Brown’s rhetoric, but what mattered much more was the strong connection which existed between the Manukau Mayor and Manukau’s voters.

In many ways Mr Brown is the antithesis of a modern-day leftist. He is a devout Christian who evinces what the Americans like to call "traditional family values", and he’s old-fashioned enough to use expressions like "for the love of the people" when explaining his political motivation.

Mr Brown’s traditional values are, however, the reason why so many Pasifika and Maori voters living in South Auckland look upon him as one of their own. It’s why so many Samoan ministers and Tongan pastors stood up in their churches and urged their congregations to go home and vote for the Palangi lawyer who – more than any other Mayoral candidate – makes a genuine connection with their people.

Some commentators are characterising the victories of Len Brown, Dunedin’s Dave Cull and (possibly) Wellington’s Celia Wade-Brown as harbingers of a 2011 Labour victory.

I’ve yet to be convinced.

The question that must be answered before predicting a change of government in 2011 is whether or not Labour, and its leader, Phil Goff, are making the sort of vital connections with their electoral base that swept Mr Parker and Mr Brown to victory.

The pollsters suggest that Labour’s not there yet. More importantly, they’re saying that the Prime Minister, John Key, still is.

Unless and until Labour and Phil Goff (or some fresher face) can bring about a seismic shift equal in magnitude to the real one of 4 September, any connection between the voting behaviour of 2010 and 2011 must remain moot.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 October 2010.

Friday 8 October 2010

Driving In Illiberal Circles

However did he win? Rob Muldoon addresses a National Party-organised campaign rally in the Upper Hutt Mall, 1981. Our eyes are drawn immediately to the placards carried by the Labour-supporting rubber workers, but it was the voting strength of all those undemonstrative electors listening attentively to "Mr Muldoon" which counted on election day. Disgraced Breakfast host, Paul Henry, may have many more supporters out there than Liberal New Zealand likes to think.

LIBERAL KIWIS said it so often that conservative comedians turned it into a joke: "I don’t know how Rob Muldoon got elected – nobody I know voted for him!"

You’d be surprised how many liberals struggled to see the humour in that sentence. Conservatives, on the other hand, got the joke straight-away.

They, at least, understood that liberal New Zealand constituted a small, self-referential elite that was ideologically, culturally and socially cut off from the overwhelming majority of the population.

And that, of course, was the whole point of the joke.

In the isolated liberal communities of academia, the artistic community, the news media and whatever passed for bohemia in the 1970s hardly anyone ever voted for the National Party.

Hence liberal New Zealand’s profound sense of shock and dislocation when the rest of the population turned away from Bill Rowling’s Labour Government in 1975.

I well recall the day, a few weeks before the 1975 General Election, when I found myself in a room chock-full of the Wellington cultural elite. In one corner sat the acting head of the Arts Council, a couple of nationally renowned poets occupied the sofa, and the rest of the space was filled up with writers, film-makers, academics and art students.

I had not long returned from a hitch-hiking tour of the South Island, during which I’d exchanged ideas with all sorts of New Zealanders. Mile after mile of these conversations had left me harbouring serious doubts about the longevity of Bill Rowling’s Labour Government.

Norman Kirk, it seemed, had been a man like themselves. But Bill Rowling? (Not to mention all those "intellectuals" surrounding him!) Well, he was a different matter.

Though they struggled to put it into words, many of the motorists who picked me up clearly believed the country was slowly slipping from their grasp. There were too many people like me, they said. Too many footloose, restless and unanchored youngsters. Too many long-haired hippies willing to challenge the ideas and institutions upon which they had built their lives.

"Rob Muldoon will sort your lot out", they would say, grinning widely. But I couldn’t help noticing that in their eyes there wasn’t the slightest trace of mirth.

Among the gaggle of liberal worthies I’d joined that day was the headmaster of my old secondary school – a wise, tolerant and generous man I greatly admired. I told him what I’d heard on my travels and asked for his thoughts on the imminent election.

"Don’t worry, Chris," he reassured me, "New Zealand will never vote for a man as far to the right as Muldoon."

Certainly, no one in that room did.

Thirty-five years later, with Breakfast host, Paul Henry, offering-up yet another gobbet of reactionary tripe to his television audience, I couldn’t help recalling those 1975 conversations.

They helped me resist the temptation to add yet another liberal voice to the cacophony of outraged protest.

That the redoubtable Joris de Bres, acting on behalf of left-thinking liberals everywhere, would bring to bear the full weight of the Race Relations Conciliator’s office, I hadn’t the slightest doubt. Just as I was certain that every left-wing blogger capable of spelling "bigot" and "redneck" would be reaching for the nearest keyboard.

Recalling those thirty-five-year-old conversations, I was equally certain that there wouldn’t be a single liberal commentator who didn’t consider Mr Henry’s comments regarding the identity of Governor-General Anand Satyanand to be both adolescent and unforgivable.

There’d be no votes for Mr Henry in liberal circles.

But what about out on the road?

What would New Zealanders living outside the charmed circles of Kiwi liberalism have to say about Mr Henry’s outburst?

"For crying out loud, mate, he was only saying what right-wing buggers like me are thinking. That Governor-Generals are supposed to be like everybody’s grand-dad – stuffed shirts with heads of white hair and plums in their mouths. At least they were when I was a kid.

"This guy we’ve got now, Satyanand or-whatever-his-name-is. Wasn’t he one of Aunty Helen’s appointments? Someone who ticked all the politically-correct boxes?

"That’s all Henry was trying to say for God’s sake. That Satyanand only got the job because the Labour Government needed to shore up its vote in the immigrant community. It’s hardly bloody rocket science – is it?"

To which I’d have to reply: "No, mate, it isn’t."

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 8 October 2010.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Executive Obligations

The service of their swords: For your average medieval knight the essence of the feudal deal was pretty simple: the land was yours, but only for as long as you were willing and able to protect it - along with all those who lived on it and off it. It's taken far too long, but finally our National Party lordlings have realised that if they cannot defend New Zealand's farmland their political tenure will soon be forfeit.

THERE WAS A TIME when the ruling elites had to put their money where their mouths were. More to the point, if they wanted to go on ruling (let alone remain one of the elite) they had to put their lives where their money was.

Back in the Middle Ages, if you weren’t willing to defend your own and your dependents’ lands, then in the eyes of your fellow aristocrats, your men-at-arms, your tenants and most especially your serfs, you weren’t fit to hold them.

That’s because the protection of land – the resource upon which everyone ultimately depends for survival – was the very essence of the feudal system. The serfs, who made up most of the population and supplied all the food, owed many kinds of services to their lord. But their lord, by the same feudal token, also owed services to them.

This reciprocity had a name: noblesse oblige. The obligations of nobility.

And the most important of these was the obligation to defend the demesne: the lands apportioned to lords by their master – the King. Above and beyond all other services, a feudal aristocrat owed his liege-lord (from whom he received the property and people entrusted to his care) the service of his sword.

Even today, defending the source of the people’s wealth and welfare is the sine qua non of executive responsibility. A lord who refuses to defend his demesne is traitor to both his King and his people.

How pleasing, then, that our own "feudal lords" – John Key and Bill English – have finally rendered us the service of their regulatory swords. What remains of this country’s productive farmland: the demesne apportioned to them by their liege-lord and sovereign – the New Zealand people – will not, now, be permitted to fall into foreign hands.

Not that we serfs should forget how much urging it took to recall these lordlings to the obligations of their democratic ennoblement. Nor should we overlook the startling fact that under the stewardship of those wearing Labour’s livery the Overseas Investment Office permitted foreigners to purchase an astonishing 650,000 hectares of the people’s demesne.

The Wearers of Red, who today criticise the Wearers of Blue for their tardiness in addressing the problem of strategic resource alienation, had nine years to redraft the legislation governing the scale and scope of foreign investment in New Zealand – and did little more than tinker around the edges.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hasty in condemning our political masters. Considering the multitude of evil counsellors whispering in their ears, it’s surprising we have any land left at all.

What advice do you suppose the foreign moneylenders are offering them? What demands are being made by our desperately indebted farmers? How many of them can afford to refuse the foreigners’ proffered gold?

And what about the mad monks of Treasury – and their even more ascetic brothers in the Business Roundtable? Having compelled us all to wear the hair-shirt of deregulation and the flesh-biting cilice of free trade, they are still urging our leaders to surrender what’s left of New Zealand’s patrimony to the Holy Church of Globalisation.

That the Prime Minister and his Minister of Finance refused to be swayed by such evil counsels is cause for celebration. But, while we are praising our lords for the service of their democratic swords, let us also offer up a word or two of thanks to the Crafar family.

Had their debt-laden farms not come so close to passing forever into foreign hands, it is very doubtful whether we inattentive serfs or our indifferent lords would ever have become sufficiently roused to rise in defence of our beleaguered demesne.

Having lifted not one finger to save the 650,000 hectares that disappeared into foreign ownership over the past decade, the pledge of every citizen, and every political party must now be: New Zealand for New Zealanders!

Whoever seeks to purchase New Zealand farmland must agree to live on it – or look elsewhere.

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, 1 October 2010.