Friday 29 April 2011

Hostile Takeover

Ubermensch: In a bravura display of what can only be described as a Nietzschean will to power, Don Brash has seized control of a political party to which he did not belong, from outside Parliament - and all in plain sight.

EXTRAORDINARY! That’s the only word that properly fits the events of the past few days. Don Brash’s almost effortless takeover of Act, a party he had yet to join, must rank as one New Zealand politics’ bravura moments.

Though I’m shaking my head as I write this – so preposterous does it seem – the 70-year-old Brash achieved this unlikely victory through a display of political ruthlessness that would have done Nietzsche’s ubermensch proud.

And we helped him. Oh yes, even those of us on the Left, who abhor everything Act and Dr Brash stand for. We wanted him to succeed and so, secretly, we willed him to win. Partly this was because he was offering to take out Rodney Hide, but mostly because Dr Brash, unlike those timorous little beasties in the Labour caucus, actually had the balls to do what all the “experts” said could not be done: he organised and executed a leadership coup in plain sight.

We should not, however, be too surprised. Dr Brash’s takeover of the National Party had been accomplished in a very similar fashion. He told Bill English that he wanted his job. He told the country why he should have Bill’s job. He asked his caucus colleagues to give him Bill’s job. He let the full force of the resulting media storm lash their faces for a day or two. And then, in contravention of every known rule of contemporary politics, he took Bill’s job.

I can’t identify the nerve that Don Brash touches in conservative New Zealanders, but it isn’t at all difficult to identify its effects. The most startling of these was the way he took a National Party languishing in the low-20s in the opinion polls and hauled it up into the high 30s.

What is his secret?

Perhaps it’s the unaffected Presbyterian rectitude he’s inherited from his clergyman father. Perhaps it’s the reputation he forged in his former calling as High Economic Warlock of the Reserve Bank where, as the master of arcane monetary forces beyond the ken of ordinary mortals, he taught the economic indicators how to dance.

Or, maybe, his appeal comes from the same curious transparency that made him Leader of the National Party – and now of Act. Don Brash comes across as a politician almost entirely lacking in guile. Which is to say – he does not come across as a politician at all.

Consider his infamous “Nationhood” speech to the Orewa Rotary Club. Most politicians would have sent such a speech back to its author/s with a sharp note to “Get real!”. But not Brash; not the “anti-politician”. He is driven by what I’m sure his advisers regard as an alarming and unpredictable honesty. Orewa was what he thought – so why shouldn’t he say it? If he was wrong, the electorate would punish him. If he was right, they would reward him.

He was rewarded.

Will he do it again? Can he rescue Act from the doldrums and direct a fresh new breeze into its tattered sails?

I believe he can.

The Anglo-Saxon states are in a fey mood these days, and I believe New Zealand's conservatives are more than ready to embrace the reckless policy options Dr Brash will offer them.

The United States is already lost to this fey recklessness. Reaching back to the puritan rigidity of the men and women of the Mayflower, Americans seem hell-bent on mortifying the nation’s economic flesh until it bleeds.

In vain do Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Robert Reich assail the Obama Administration with dire Keynesian warnings. Because, lately, even the community organiser from Chicago has contracted the austerity virus. “Yes we can!” has become “No we can’t!”. It’s as though the Great Depression, and the grim lessons it taught the world, never happened. As if Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was just a dream.

The very word “economics”, derived from the Greek word for “household”, works against the Left and in the neoliberal economists’ favour. When Dr Brash tells us that the Government is borrowing $300 million every week and that “you wouldn’t run your household like that” it resonates in the conservative citizen’s mind in ways the counter-intuitive prescriptions of Keynesian economics do not.

Dr Brash will hand conservative New Zealanders the whip of austerity and they will flog themselves raw.

But that’s not all he will hand them.

A rage has been building in the conservative New Zealander's breast for the best part of two years. It's the same rage that saw thousands of Imperial troops pour into the Waikato in 1863; the same rage that razed Parihaka in 1881 and Bastion Point in 1978. It's the rage of the settler nation against New Zealand's first inhabitants. Te Riri Pakeha – the White Man’s Anger – unleashed whenever Maori have the temerity to assert their rights.

And it is upon the heads of these, the tangata whenua, that Dr Brash – like some latter-day Moses – will unleash the wrath of his jealous colonial god.

Tariana Turia and Chris Finlayson have kicked the sleeping dogs of Pakeha racism into a low and growling wakefulness. Don Brash will cry “Havoc!” and let their leashes slip.

John Key now casts a dark shadow.

This essay is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Thursday 28 April 2011

Hone's Mana Party - My Hat's Not On The Menu Yet, Bomber.

"Sorry, Bomber, Hat's Off."

MARTYN “BOMBER” BRADBURY has inquired politely if I’ll be eating my hat with or without tomato sauce? So he’ll no doubt be disappointed to learn that my head-gear is in no danger of imminent consumption. The independent MP for Te Tai Tokerau, Hone Harawira, may be about to launch a political organisation called “Mana”, but I’m quietly confident this Maori-driven initiative will turn out to be something very different from the “new left-wing party” Martyn has been prophesying.

Not even the presence of Sue Bradford on the platform will convince me that the political vehicle about to be unveiled will have much to offer the Pakeha Left. Indeed, Sue’s presence would represent nothing so much as the triumph of hope over experience. Her time in the unemployed workers rights movement of the 1980s and 90s should have taught her how difficult it is to keep Maori and Pakeha activists marching in the same direction, and what a steep emotional toll such an effort extracts. Quite why she would put herself through that experience all over again I simply cannot imagine.

Hone and his comrades will certainly not have forgotten the cultural and political difficulties attendant upon Pakeha involving themselves in Maori causes. If their effort is not to be fatally compromised by the brute arithmetic of New Zealand’s population statistics they will need to create an emotional environment which strongly discourages Pakeha self-assertion. This may sound like racism but without some way of limiting Pakeha participation it is difficult to see how the new organisation can avoid being taken over and turned to purposes quite different from those envisaged by its founders.

The ham-fisted attempt by the Unite Union’s Mike Treen to enlist "all unionists and fighters for equality and social justice" in the Mana Party project should be all the warning Hone and his comrades need about the Pakeha Left’s intentions. I would have thought the days when Marxist-Leninists and Trotskyists could piggy-back on Maori struggles – as they did so effectively during the occupation of Bastion Point – were well behind us. But, you never know.

Clearly, I am far from convinced that the Mana Party will be “left-wing” in any meaningful sense at all - and certainly not in the classical democratic-socialist sense of promoting the emancipatory struggle for full and universal human equality.

As far as I can determine, the party’s genesis lies in the long-standing quarrel within Maoridom over the most effective way to secure the reconstitution of the indigenous patrimony. Viewed through Pakeha eyes this may look like class struggle, but it is actually a much more subtle conflict over how best to apply the traditional precepts of Maori political-economy in a modern, post-colonial context.

The so-called “Corporate Iwi” have harnessed the power of contemporary capitalist organisation to the neo-traditional structures of tribal leadership and the Maori Party – a process which, increasingly, substitutes the fluid energy of Pakeha capital for the fixed resources located in the alienated and/or expropriated landholdings of the hapu.

The Mana Party will undoubtedly reject this collaborationist strategy as fatal to the interests of ordinary Maori. Hone and his comrades will seek instead the full restitution of what was taken by the Settler State, arguing that it is only through the collective and undisturbed possession of their lands, forests and fisheries – as promised by the Treaty of Waitangi – that tangata whenua can both preserve their culture and gain access to a fair and proper share of Aotearoa’s resources.

It’s a cause that is likely to rally considerable Maori electoral support in Te Tai Tokerau and those parts of the country subjected to the biggest land confiscations of the 1860s (which also just happen to be the sites of contemporary New Zealand’s most crippling Maori poverty). But, the Mana Party's cause is also likely to be interpreted as a direct threat to the Pakeha ascendancy which those raupatu (and subsequent confiscations) made possible.

Far from fostering the class conflict which is so central to the Left's project, the Mana Party will encourage Pakeha of all classes to close ranks in racial solidarity. The more effectively to protect their own irreplaceable historical inheritance – New Zealand itself.

So, Mana will be a radical Maori nationalist movement – not a  "new left-wing party".

But if such a thing should emerge before November’s election, Martyn, rest assured, I will eat my hat gladly – and without condiments.

This essay is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Forgotten Lessons

Cry Havoc: To hand over prisoners to mistreatment and torture is a clear breach of the Geneva Conventions - but this is what New Zealand SAS troopers serving in Afghanistan have been required to do. Those responsible for placing New Zealand servicemen in this situation must be held to account.

YESTERDAY was ANZAC Day. For most of us, 25 April 2011 was simply a day of remembrance: a day for recalling the 25,000 New Zealanders who, in the 97 years since the outbreak of World War I, have lost their lives on active military service.

For New Zealanders with some knowledge of their country’s history, however, ANZAC Day is about a lot more than remembrance.

It’s about the dangers of blindly committing ourselves to objectives we had no part in setting.

It’s about the folly of believing that any country, other than New Zealand, has the interests of New Zealanders at heart.

It’s about how easy it is to send young men to kill and be killed in far off lands – especially when those responsible for sending them are seldom, if ever, required to witness the killing or the dying.

When the casualty-lists ran into the tens-of-thousands we used to think that dying was the worst part of war. We look at all those names, weathered to near illegibility on a thousand memorial plaques, and we ask ourselves: “Why?”

Time passes and the answers change. Once we told ourselves it was for King & Country. More latterly, we’ve reassured ourselves our servicemen and women died for Freedom and Democracy. As New Zealanders, we’re willing to fight and die only for causes that are just and good.

Because what happens to a country when it finds itself on the wrong side of war’s moral ledger? When it’s no longer a matter of dying but “killing in the name of”? What happens when it’s no longer fighting to put an end to the torture and killing of innocent civilians – but alongside the torturers and killers?

Specifically, what happened in the little Afghan village of Band-e-Timur?

If the international award-winning investigative journalist Jon Stephenson’s account of this engagement, published in the latest edition of Metro magazine, is accurate, then New Zealand’s finest troops, the troopers of the Special Air Service (SAS) were ordered to involve themselves in something wrong and shameful.

According to Mr Stephenson, SAS troopers led the assault on Band-e-Timur in May 2002. During the raid, in which the village headman was shot and killed and a tiny six-year-old girl, fleeing in terror, tumbled into a well and was drowned, the SAS took scores of prisoners – including men as old as 70 and a boy as young as twelve. These prisoners were entrusted to the “care” of Americans – who then proceeded to abuse, terrorise and torture them.

This was not what the troopers signed up for – and they said as much to their commanding officer. We wouldn’t expect Kiwi servicemen to do anything less.

But what about their military and political bosses?

Sadly, they do not appear to have learned the bloody lessons of the Gallipoli Campaign.

New Zealand’s decision to participate in the Afghan conflict, like its decision to participate in World War I, was an act of imperial solidarity.

The United States had been attacked and we had no intention of staying out of the fight. After 16 years of cool-to-frigid relations with the world’s sole remaining super-power (not to mention the frowns and finger-wagging of all the other members of the Anglo-Saxon Club) here, at last, was an opportunity to once again become a member in good-standing. Or, as the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, put it: “Very, very, very good friends.”

Except the America we opted to march alongside in 2001 was not the America of Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt. Twenty-first Century America was an altogether darker and more dangerous beast.

The America of President George W. Bush decided to ignore the Geneva Conventions. His war in Afghanistan would be fought according to an entirely new rule book: one in which the abuse, humiliation, terrorising and torture of prisoners would become a routine aspect of battlefield practice.

“You are either with us”, President Bush admonished an astonished world, “or you are with the terrorists”.

If New Zealand wanted to fight alongside the Americans, it would be according to rules no decent New Zealand soldier – or citizen – could possibly, in good conscience, accept.

At this point our government should have withdrawn New Zealand service personnel from Afghanistan altogether. But it did not. Instead, politicians, civil servants and the military’s top-brass contrived a form of words which they believed would protect our servicemen and women from charges of complicity in the torture and murder of suspected Afghan fighters.

But it doesn’t, it hasn’t, and it won’t. International law on this matter is unequivocal. Everyone involved in the arrest and detention of persons – of whatever status – has a legal obligation to protect them from harm.

In 1915 blind colonial subservience cost us 2,700 young lives. In 2011 we stand to lose something even more precious.

Our national honour.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 April 2011.

Friday 22 April 2011

The Arrest

"Whom seek ye?"

I AM an old man, now, but still they pester me for the tale. Every Passover it is the same. “Malchus”, they cry, “tell us the story again. Tell us what happened in Gethsemane.”

It’s thirty years and more since that night. And the truth of the matter is, I’ve told and re-told the story so often, I’m not entirely sure which parts of it actually happened, and which are the sort of embellishments contrived by all storytellers to satisfy the clamouring of children and, more lately, grandchildren.

But the bones of the experience are strong enough – even now. Though mine are bent and brittle, the story’s limbs stand straight and true. How could they not? It was a night to remember.

It began with the unceasing chatter of Judas, my informant. Honestly, the man never stopped talking – though whether it was to me, to himself, to his master, or to God, I was never quite sure. An impassioned monologue nonetheless; as if he was summing up a case in the courts of law: marshalling his facts; setting forth his arguments; drawing his conclusions. And every few moments he would turn to me, his eyes wide and wild, and clutching at my cloak he’d say: “You understand, Malchus, don’t you? You must understand. He left me with no other choice!”

Oh yes, I understood alright. I recognised an uneasy conscience when I heard one. And I wanted to tell him: “Judas, we always have a choice.” But he was in such obvious pain that I bit my tongue.

Our destination was Gethsemane, the garden of a wealthy merchant. By the light of the waning moon I identified olives and cypresses, myrtles and bay trees. The air was rich with the scent of herbs. A path of flagstones took us into the shadows. All around me I could hear men adjusting their harness, loosening swords in scabbards; tightening their grip on the truncheons of spears.

The path ended in a circular clearing ringed by tall cypresses. Mute beneath the stars, they seemed to be standing guard over a tangle of cloak-swathed sleepers. Even the tongue of my loquacious companion was stilled. The silence welled up out of that clearing like a mist. I hardly dared to breathe.

“Whom seek ye?”

The speaker had emerged from the shadows directly opposite us on the other side of the clearing. His white robes glowed in the moonlight like dull fire.

“Jesus of Nazareth”, I replied, though my voice seemed strangely altered – hoarse and harsh like the rattle of gravel.

“I am he.”

At this point everything becomes confused. I remember Judas striding across the clearing followed by the Sanhedrin’s soldiers. The Nazarene met him halfway and the two men kissed. But, before the arrest could be made, a big burly fellow, one of the sleepers, had leapt up brandishing a lethal-looking sword. I rushed forward and the whole right side of my face was suddenly engulfed in pain. A hot flood of blood gushed down my cheek.

Then the man, Jesus, was speaking: “Put it away, Peter. Have I not said that all who live by the sword shall die by the sword? Sheath it now. My Father has filled this cup and I must empty it.”

Then his eyes fell upon my wound and he lifted his hand.

I felt as though I had fallen into a swollen river and was being carried fast by currents I could not resist. I thought I saw a great curtain rent in two and the Temple shaken to its foundations. The river itself seemed to be made of blood and fire, and with a roar to wake the myriad dead it crashed against the gates of Hell itself and they burst asunder.

When I opened my eyes the pain and the blood were gone. The Nazarene’s face was close to mine and he was smiling. With a surgeon’s eye he surveyed my ear and nodded in satisfaction.

“Guard me well, Malchus” he said, throwing a strong carpenter’s arm around my shoulders. “My Father’s cup must not be allowed to fall.”

Who led whom out of the Valley of Kidron, I cannot rightly say. All the way back to Jerusalem, though, his eyes were fixed upon the Eastern sky where, fast and bright, the sun was rising.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Thursday, 21 April 2011.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Perfect Information?

If Only It Was That Easy: Free-market theory only works if individuals have access to the kind of "perfect information" which allows them to rationally maximise their self-interest. Without perfect information individual decisions will be, at best, sub-optimal, and, at worst, self-destructive. That's why, in a society genuinely dedicated to the idea of the free-market, every effort would be devoted to ensuring that the citizen has easy access to the best information available. An economic and/or political system in which information is deliberately suppressed, distorted and/or falsified cannot lay claim to being a free-market society. 

THE IDEA that individuals base their decisions on “perfect information” may seem a little odd, but without it the theory of “individual choice” is rendered absurd. Choices made in ignorance, from prejudice, or on the basis of insufficient and false information, will lack the rationality so crucial to the whole notion of free individuals making free choices in a free marketplace of commodities and ideas.

One of the reasons we prize an open and independent judiciary is because a justice system which regularly supressed information critical to the calculation of rational self-interest would soon become dangerously compromised. How is the personal and financial security of the citizen to be protected if the courts make informed decision-making impossible?

If, for example, a businessman was able to rely upon the courts to suppress all evidence of his poor financial judgement, how could potential investors in his enterprises be expected to make informed and rational choices about where to put their money? How could they be protected from the influence of cleverly constructed television advertisements, fronted by one of the most trusted men in the country, informing them that their money would be professionally and prudently managed?

Had the courts allowed them to know that the businessman in question had recently lost hundreds of thousands of his own dollars to obvious fraudsters would they have entrusted him with their life’s savings? Probably not.

And what of the news media: the institutions we rely upon to collect, collate and convey the facts and figures we need to make informed and rational economic and political decisions? Are they doing their job? Or, are they – like the judiciary – occasionally guilty of not giving us the whole story?

On economic matters, for instance, where do they turn for advice?

More often than they should, the privately owned news media turns for advice and analysis to economists employed by the major trading banks.

Is this the best way of acquiring “perfect information”? Wouldn’t an economist employed by a bank have a very powerful personal and institutional interest in only supplying information likely to contribute to the profits of his or her employers? How plausible is it to suppose that a bank economist would deliver to the general public a dispassionate account of the deficiencies of modern banking, or the central role they played in the global economic crisis from which the world is only slowly recovering?

And isn’t it equally improbable to expect a television news bulletin “brought to you by the ABC Bank” to broadcast a highly critical analysis of the behaviour of the global finance industry? Isn’t such a bulletin more likely to feature a brief daily exchange with some grinning currency-trader brim-full of optimism and shop-worn economic platitudes?

Isn’t that what we’ve got?

Perhaps, but haven’t we also got publicly-owned television and radio networks? Isn’t it their job to provide the dispassionate and critical information so essential to a healthy democracy and properly functioning free market?

Well, yes, it is their job – but are they doing it?

Certainly not in the case of Television New Zealand. The transformation of TVNZ into a State Owned Enterprise in the late-1980s effectively extinguished the powerful public service culture of its earlier incarnation. Very rapidly TVNZ developed a new and aggressive commercial culture hostile to the very notion of public service broadcasting.

Helen Clark’s Labour Government made a number of half-hearted attempts to revitalise the public service ethic in TVNZ – but to no avail. By forcing the network to return a profit to the state and by denying it the indispensible protection of substantial taxpayer funding Labour succeeded only in strengthening TVNZ’s commercial ethos.

Radio NZ fared slightly better under Labour, but, once again, insufficient funding did little to encourage the adventurous and staunchly independent journalistic culture public broadcasting needs if it’s to do its duty by the public. (For example, Radio NZ, to its shame, also relies on bank economists for economic advice and analysis.)

But if Labour was half-hearted in its facilitation of “perfect information”, the present National Government appears to have rejected the entire concept.

This is puzzling. As a party dedicated to the free market, one might have expected the National Party to spend unstintingly to ensure New Zealanders’ information is as “perfect” as possible.

Far from denying funding to that last vestige of public service television – TVNZ7 – a government genuinely supportive of the free market would have boosted its resources. Far from stacking the Radio NZ Board with political cronies hell-bent on commercialising its operations, the National Government would have given them the resources to place itself and its business backers under even closer scrutiny.

That this is about the last thing our masters would do suggests that “perfect information”, “individual choice” and “free markets” have no existence outside the world of right-wing theory.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 April 2011.

Monday 18 April 2011

Selfish Bastards!

All Smiles: The failure of Labour's caucus to address the fatal disconnection between themselves and their traditional supporters threatens to drag the entire centre-left to an historic electoral defeat. Reid Research has Labour support at just 27.1 percent - a level not seen since 1996. And still they smile.

LABOUR IS DRAGGING the whole of the centre-left to an historic defeat and the selfish bastards don’t give a damn.

The latest Reid Research Poll, commissioned by TV3, puts Labour at 27.1 percent – its worst performance since 1996.

Fifteen years ago, however, Labour’s parlous polling didn’t matter so much because, overall, the centre-left was on a roll. With Jim Anderton’s Alliance and Winston Peters’ NZ First regularly polling between 15 and 20 percent apiece, the combined vote of the Opposition parties hovered around 60 percent of the electorate. In 1996, with the first MMP election looming, Jim Bolger’s National Government was staring down the barrel of a humiliating defeat.

That is most emphatically not the case now. Seven months out from the 2011 General Election it is the parties of the Right that can count on 60 percent-plus of the electorate’s support. And, as Kiwiblog’s David Farrar points out, the combined Labour-Green vote has fallen to a derisory 35 percent. Even if you throw in the 2.8 percent of centrist voters who support NZ First, the result falls well short of 40 percent.

What this means is that the centre-left is heading for an electoral catastrophe even worse than the disaster which befell it in 1990. (And before you all remind me that the 4th Labour Government wasn’t a centre-left government, for the purposes of this argument it’s enough that upwards of a third of the electorate still considered Labour to be a centre-left party.)

If you look at the popular vote figures for 1990, you’ll find that when the votes of the Labour Party, the NewLabour Party and the Greens are combined, the result – 47.15 percent – is just 0.67 percentage points behind National’s winning tally of 47.82 percent. This is almost exactly the same difference which separated the combined Labour-Values vote from Rob Muldoon’s winning tally of 47.6 percent in 1975.

I’m presenting these figures merely to reinforce the severity of the crisis which looms ahead of the entire centre-left. Labour’s pathetic performance as the largest opposition party has not, so far, sent the voters flocking to its electoral competitors – the Greens and NZ First. On the contrary, Labour’s failure to articulate a clear and persuasive alternative to the National-led Government’s policies seems to have been interpreted by voters as proof that there isn’t one.

The conclusion of nearly two-thirds of the electorate that “there is no alternative” (or, at least, no acceptable and/or believable alternative) to John Key’s policies constitutes a potentially devastating political judgement – not only upon the leadership of the Labour Party, but also upon the leadership of the Greens and (to a lesser extent) NZ First. If nothing changes between now and November 26, the centre-left will sustain its worst electoral defeat in New Zealand political history.

WHAT HAS BROUGHT US to this parlous state? Surely, in the midst of a recession, with high unemployment, falling real wages and constantly rising prices the messages of the centre-left should be falling upon ears that are more than usually receptive? As the old Stalinists used to say: New Zealanders are “objectively” ready for a change of government.

But what the Stalinists never quite grasped (until Hitler’s armies were battering at the gates of Moscow) is that human-beings are almost never motivated by what is objectively in their best interests. Politics is driven by how people respond subjectively to the options placed in front of them.

And the brutal truth about New Zealand politics at the moment is that, subjectively, the voting public is drawn – overwhelmingly – to John Key and his National Party colleagues. Whether the centre-left commentariat likes it or not, these guys strike a chord with roughly two out of every three voters – to such an extent that they are willing to overlook the real-world consequences of National Party rule for themselves and their families.

Now, John Key, Stephen Joyce and Gerry Brownlee are all pretty likeable guys – but they’re not that likeable. For roughly 15 percentage points of electoral support to have vacated the centre-left camp something else has to be going on. Much as we hate to admit it, what seems to be happening here is not so much a case of people running to something, as it is of people running from something.

And what they are running from, comrades, is us – the centre-left.

They don’t like us and they don’t trust us. Why? Because long, long ago they got the very strong impression that we don’t like them.

We don’t like their values. We don’t approve of their culture. And we’re so infuriatingly certain that we know – so much better than they do themselves – what’s good for them.

We call them racists if they resist our bicultural programmes. We call them homophobes if they’re less than 100 percent supportive of queer culture. We call them sexist if they energetically celebrate all the delightful differences between men and women. We want their votes – you bet. But we would really rather do without the voters themselves.

Then, amazingly, we’re surprised and hurt when they turn away from us. In truth, what we should really be surprised about is how many ordinary Kiwis, in spite of our insufferable arrogance and condescension, still decide to stick with us!

And if you want to know why Phil Goff has become electoral poison it’s because he let these people down. For a moment there they thought he was going to turn Labour away from its effete social liberalism and back towards the robust proletarianism of yesteryear. But he didn’t. At the first sign of resistance from the social liberals in his caucus, he retreated. When push came to shove, Phil just didn’t have the balls.

In working-class New Zealand, if you step up for a fight, then you bloody-well-better throw a punch.

Of course, it’s not just Phil. In the whole damned caucus there doesn’t seem to be one person willing to address the problems I’ve outlined here. The selfish bastards are more concerned with clambering all over each other as they ascend the greasy pole, than they are with looking after the ordinary working-class Kiwis who’re going to be hammered flat if (as now seems certain) National wins a second term.

Bitter? Too bloody right I am!

Let me leave you, then, with this link to a wickedly clever little country song by Alan Jackson called “It’s Alright To Be A Redneck”.

As you watch and listen, think about the demographic the music video is aimed at, and ask yourself: “Aren’t these the sort of people who used to vote for our political parties?”

Then ask: “Why the fuck would they vote for us now?”

This essay is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Mislaid Narratives

Black Riders, Dark Heroes: Roger Kerr, mouthpiece for the Neoliberal Nazgul of the Business Roundtable, deserves our admiration for his unceasing promotion of the capitalist narrative. Oh that the Left had such a fearsome ideological warrior.

WHAT CAN I SAY about Roger Kerr? Advised that the CEO of the Business Roundtable is the subject of The Nation’s investigative endeavours this Saturday (16 April) I’ve been wracking my brains (as one of The Nation’s panellists) for something intelligent to say, about the man.

Most Leftists wouldn’t bother. After Sir Roger Douglas, Roger Kerr is probably the most readily identifiable representative of the entire Rogernomics era. And his Business Roundtable, comprised of the CEOs of New Zealand’s leading businesses, plays the role of Tolkien’s Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings: the most potent instrument of an ancient evil men believed they had overcome but which has risen anew to plague this Middle Earth.

But even if Roger Kerr is regarded as a villain by the Left, he is – like most literary villains – a character who fascinates every bit as much as he repels.

When interviewed on television, and even more so in the flesh, his eyes are alive with what can only be described as merriment. On the occasions I have met him I could not help feeling that he had already anticipated every objection I could possibly muster to his line of argument and was quietly amused at their lack of force. Like a thoroughly prepped witness, he has a cogent and alarmingly persuasive response to any and every question his left-wing prosecutors might throw at him.

And it’s this imperviousness to cross-examination that sums up the real damage Roger Kerr and the Business Roundtable have done to political discourse in New Zealand. By treating the determination of national policy as a zero-sum game: a life-and-death struggle in which any neoliberal objective not won must be considered lost; Kerr and his big business backers have rendered open and intelligent debate impossible. Developing the military metaphor a little further, 21st Century political discourse resembles two armies firing bullets of a different calibre at each other. The enemy’s ammunition cannot be used in your weapons – and your own ammunition cannot be used in theirs.

The contrast between the neoliberal approach to managing the economy and society and the approach that prevailed from the end of World War II until the end of the 1970s could hardly be starker. The so-called “mixed economy” of the post-war era blended a great deal more than simply publicly- and privately-owned enterprises. By recognising that the workers’ and the bosses’ ideological narratives both contributed important insights to the processes of production, Keynesian economics encouraged a pluralism that drew all of the important “players” into the game.

For the thirty years between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s, the primary objective had not been to “win the game”, but to come up with solutions that were acceptable to as many of the players as possible. It was an approach which required a willingness to give as well as to take: which more or less mandated a search for consensus; and which gave great heed to empirical expertise.

The neoliberal paradigm, which Roger Kerr so effectively embodies, rejects the quest for consensus utterly and harnesses empiricism for purely instrumental ends. The utility of an argument lies not in how close it comes to reflecting the truth, but in how effective it is at undermining the arguments of those who threaten neoliberalism's objectives. For neoliberals, facts are like clubs – useful things for beating your opponents to death.

Nowhere is neoliberalism’s essential hostility to empiricism more overtly on display that in the so-called “debate” over climate change. Because accepting the empirical data of anthropogenic global warming would require neoliberalism to surrender a great many of its most cherished ideological assumptions about the ineluctable beneficence of capitalism, it has enlisted scores of compliant scientists to manufacture arguments sufficiently club-like to secure, if not outright victory, then at least a planet-endangering stalemate.

What should I say, then, about Roger Kerr? I guess I’d have to say that I admire him – but only in the way I admire the Wehrmacht or the Waffen-SS. When viewed as a ferociously well-organised, well-equipped and highly-motivated fighting force, Roger Kerr and the Business Roundtable – like the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS – evoke feelings of awe and fear. But asked to judge whether they constitute a contribution to, or a subtraction from, the sum total of human happiness, I'd have to say that the only good thing they have ever done is to expose the howling ideological void where a strong and competitive left-wing opposition should be.

A few days ago, in her magisterial summation of The Hobbit Dispute, Helen Kelly wrote persuasively about the extraordinary success of the neoliberal establishment in implanting a narrative highly beneficial to the interests of the employing class in the minds of the New Zealand population:

“Basically the story runs like this – and I am simplifying it. Work is a benefit, business is the benefactor and workers are merely the beneficiaries. Workers should be grateful for a job; a job is a privilege; employers should be lauded for the contribution they make to growing economic wealth.”

Kelly’s problem, as President of the CTU, and the problem facing the entire Left, is that they have yet to adjust to the fact that the employing class has walked away from the consensus-based politics of the Keynesian Era.

The Left’s current narrative is all about "co-operation" with the employers; bargaining in “good faith”; strengthening “social partnerships” and “building consensus”. What they have forgotten is that the historic compromise thrashed out between Capital and Labour in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the global war against fascism featured not only the old laissez-faire description of the master-servant relationship (which Kelly so accurately summarises above) but the classic Marxist description of the capitalist as the last in a long line of overlords who've unjustly appropriated the ‘surplus value’ created by working people’s labour.

This working-class narrative is summed-up neatly in the 1916 lyrics of Ralph Chaplin’s union anthem Solidarity Forever:

They have hoarded untold millions
That they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle
Not a single wheel can turn

It’s a narrative that seizes the moral high ground for the worker and casts the employer as thief and parasite. The capitalists are a criminal class which is only able to preserve its expropriated wealth because it controls the police, courts, schools, news media, legislature and, when push finally comes to shove, the armed forces.

According to this story, the liberation of the working-class can only be achieved when the contradictory forces shaping and reshaping capitalist society finally resolve into a general, revolutionary crisis: when, in Marx’s ominously clanking sentences:

“Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. Thus integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”

This is the narrative Helen Kelly and the Left generally have mislaid. The narrative which, right up until the 1980s, continued to haunt the capitalist imagination. The German poet, Heinrich Heine, writing in the 1840s described their nightmare like this:

“Communism is the secret name of the dread antagonist setting proletarian rule with all its consequences against the present bourgeois regime. It will be a frightful duel. How will it end? No one knows but gods and goddesses acquainted with the future. We know only this much: Communism, though little discussed now and loitering in hidden garrets on miserable straw pallets, is the dark hero destined for a great, if temporary, role in the modern tragedy …”

Roger Kerr – and all he represents – have persuaded themselves that the “Dark Hero’s” moment in the "modern tragedy" has come and gone. The task of Helen Kelly – and all who march on the Left – is to convince Roger and his friends that what they have so far witnessed is only the First Act.

This essay is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday 15 April 2011

A True Representative

A Different World: The New Zealand which long-forgotten North Dunedin MP, Bob Walls, represented was a place most of us would struggle to recognise. A country where politics and politicians were embedded in their communities in ways that made the selection of parliamentary candidates considerably easier than it is today. (The painting Tahunanui, Nelson was painted by Doris Lusk in 1947.)

YOU’VE PROBABLY NEVER HEARD of Bob Walls. He wasn’t the sort of man to leave too many ripples in History’s pond. For Bob, “sufficient unto the day” seems to have been both his personal and political credo.


Oh yes, Mr Robert Walls was a politician and, given his humble working-class origins, a highly successful one.

When Bob died in 1953, aged sixty-six, the prime minister of the day, Sid Holland, paid tribute to a fellow parliamentarian. “The late Mr Walls was a most friendly and likeable man and everyone in this House held him in the highest regard and esteem. He was a quiet, thoughtful man and when he spoke he commanded the respect of members of both sides of the House.”

Bob’s Labour Party colleague, the Reverend Clyde Carr from Timaru recalled that: “Mr Walls began his association with the labour movement as a trade unionist and he was, as one would expect, an excellent trade unionist. He was loyal and thorough in his service and deeply interested in the welfare of his fellow workers. Later, from a small beginning, he built up a very prosperous business, known from one end of the country to the other as McCracken & Walls.”

If you’re thinking this fellow sounds rather dull – think again. Because Bob Walls’ business was at the cutting-edge of the new technologies of communication which were, in the 1920s and 30s, transforming the way people understood the world.

McCracken & Walls sold radio receivers and gramophones, records, musical instruments and sheet music. And that wasn’t all. Bob was also instrumental in setting up one of New Zealand’s earliest private radio stations, Dunedin’s Radio 4ZM.

It was from Bob’s radio station that the Methodist minister, Leslie Neale, broadcast his Radio Church of the Helping Hand. The message beamed out to the tens of thousands of working-class Dunedin citizens who were unemployed, hungry and losing hope was very similar in tone and content to the message broadcast by that other great Depression era Methodist broadcaster, Colin Scrimgeour – “Uncle Scrim” – whose Church of the Friendly Road based itself at Auckland’s Radio IZB. Neale, like Scrimgeour, preached the Christian Socialist “message of the Carpenter” – and Bob shared his sermons with the whole city.

In a week of considerable controversy concerning the composition of Labour’s Party List, perhaps it is worth reflecting on Bob Walls’ career.

For he was a man deeply embedded in his community. From his youth as a trade unionist, to his later career as a retailer and broadcaster, Bob Walls immersed himself in the life of his city. People knew him, liked him, respected him and, most importantly of all, trusted him. As one of his fellow Dunedin MPs (and a future mayor of that city) J.G. Barnes, put it: “Mr Walls was one of Dunedin’s finest citizens, an able man of quiet manner. Those attributes, coupled with his kindliness and friendliness, carried him through many an election, municipal as well as parliamentary.”

Jim Barnes did not exaggerate. Prior to entering Parliament, Bob Walls had also served on the Dunedin City Council, the Otago Harbour Board and the Otago Hospital Board. When the MP for North Dunedin, J.W. Munro, died in office in 1945 the choice of Bob Walls as Labour’s candidate in the by-election was, as we would say today, a “no brainer”.

Yes, I know, it was a different world back then. But I can’t help comparing the by now long-forgotten Bob Walls with the Labour candidates of today. How many of them can bring to the table the extraordinary record of self-improvement and public service that he laid before the North Dunedin Labour Electorate Committee in 1945?

Bob Walls was a true representative of his Dunedin constituents, claiming their support not in recognition of the hand nature had dealt him – but for the way he had risen above it: for the man he had made of himself.

Not a gaggle or a self-server in sight.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 April 2011.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

The Smartest Guy In The Room

The Centre of Attention: Trade Negotiations Minister, Tim Groser (third left) may be the smartest guy in the National Party caucus room, but in this country that doesn't count for very much. In New Zealand a reputation for intellectual brilliance and creativity is almost impossible to live down - especially if you're a politician.

TIM GROSER is certainly the smartest guy in the National Party caucus-room – and I suspect he knows it. That his colleagues know it too is his singular political misfortune – and ours.

New Zealanders have a deep suspicion of cleverness and seldom promote those who display even a whiff of intellectual brilliance or creativity. About the only professionals we’re willing to forgive for being utterly brilliant are doctors – and that’s for the most obvious and selfish of reasons.

In the profession of politics a reputation for intelligence is almost impossible to live down. Who’s going to trust a smart politician?

Perhaps it’s this belief that such a “clever bastard” could never pose a serious threat to their positions which explains Mr Groser’s senior colleagues’ general indifference to his public utterances. After all, who would bother to wade through all that stuff?

It’s a pity that more politicians and journalists don’t give it a go. Because Mr Groser’s speeches (which I strongly suspect he writes himself) are a joy to read. They are packed with pertinent and compelling facts – along with interpretations of those facts that are even more pertinent and compelling. Mr Groser is always ready to embark on potentially dangerous intellectual journeys and is refreshingly unafraid of arriving at a conclusion.

These are, of course, exactly the attributes one would hope to find in a Minister for Trade Negotiations. Indeed the complexity of his portfolio: it’s need for a minister capable of “big picture” thinking; is probably Mr Groser’s greatest political protection.

Thankful that it’s not their brains that are being asked to absorb the reams of detail concerning multilateral and bi-lateral trade deals, Mr Groser’s colleagues appear to have happily designated the whole of trade policy as “Tim’s department”.

What does it say about us – and about our government – that this should be the case? New Zealand is pre-eminently a trading nation. Our prosperity depends on continued access to world markets. The terms of that access are central to New Zealand’s well-being. So, why are they not also central to its economic and political debates? Is it wise to simply toss the trade negotiations job to the smartest guy in the room – and then forget about it.

Speaking to the NZ Dairy Business Conference in Rotorua on 5 April, Mr Groser addressed the subject of this country’s export strategy:

“The choice is not between different types of exports but exports versus non-exports. Commodity trading, carried out by NZ’s hugely efficient agriculture companies, can be enormously profitable just as so-called ‘high value added’ products can add more cost than value. I have no doubt this will be accompanied by continual progress in innovative dairy products, food ingredients. That will, I hope, be matched by continuing success in the non-agriculture export sector. The choice is not between agriculture and non-agriculture exports. It is an ‘and’ proposition; not an ‘either/or’ proposition. Our trade policy will, I assure you, enthusiastically support all exporters of goods and services.”

Very few New Zealanders would find much to object to in Mr Groser’s comments. New Zealand’s economic health has always been, and will continue to be determined by the health of its export sector.

What distinguishes Mr Groser’s speech to the Dairy Business Conference from his colleagues speeches, however, is the way it injects a real-world, real-time urgency to the task of putting practical flesh on what remain distressingly bare policy bones.

A viable export strategy is not something that would be “nice to have” it’s an absolute necessity.

As Mr Groser noted, the Republic of Belarus in Eastern Europe is rapidly expanding its dairy industry and will soon be producing as much butter as Australia. Boosting production of our key commodity exports and diversifying the range of goods we send overseas is not something we can afford to dawdle over any longer.

But that is precisely what this government is doing. And every day the chorus of business protest at its lack of a clear economic direction grows louder. Mr Key and Mr English, by weakening the country’s fiscal base through unnecessary and socially inequitable tax cuts, have wilfully deprived themselves of the resources required to fund not only the reconstruction of Christchurch, but also the comprehensive economic development plan New Zealand so desperately needs.

I suspect that Mr Groser, were he given the opportunity, would produce an economic action plan equal to the times we live in. Alone among his colleagues he seems to discern clearly the emerging contours of the future and grasps the urgent necessity for change.

Because he is an intelligent and creative politician, Mr Groser would act radically to ensure New Zealand takes full economic advantage of the vast geopolitical transitions currently re-ordering the globe.

But precisely because he’s an intelligent and creative politician – he’ll never be given the chance.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 April 2011.

Friday 8 April 2011

Baden-Wurttemberg's Brave New World

Definitely NOT a Hippy!: The new Governor of Germany's third-largest state is the Green Party's Winfried Kretschmann. For the first time - anywhere - the Greens have come second in a significant electoral contest. In the recent Baden-Wurttemberg elections Kretschmann's party won more votes than the left-leaning Social Democrats (who now become the junior partner in a Green-Red coalition) and shattered the 50-year dominance of the conservative Christian Democrats. Russel Norman's suits and ties suddenly make a lot more sense.

BADEN-WURTTEMBERG is one of those curious names that only students of European history and geography – and frequent flyers – recognise. Located in the south-western corner of the Federal Republic of Germany, it is both geographically and by population (10.7 million) that country’s third largest state.

The only reason Baden-Wurttemberg is in the headlines (at least internationally) is because, for the first time in a state election, anywhere, a green party came in second. By giving Die Grunen more support than its social-democratic coalition partner, the eight million voters of Baden-Wurttemberg ensured that their next governor will not be the usual Christian Democrat, or even a member of the left-leaning Social Democrats. For the first time – ever – he’ll be a Green: Winfried Kretschmann.

Now, New Zealand is a very long way from Baden-Wurttemberg, and what happens in Germany doesn’t necessarily happen here. But the surprise victory of the Green-Social Democrat coalition in Baden-Wurttemberg – a German state which has returned nothing but conservative Christian Democratic governments since the 1950s – bears more than a little antipodean scrutiny.

What could make a deeply conservative state like Baden-Wurttemberg – the home of Mercedes and Porsche – abandon its traditional allegiances and embrace a party which the good burghers of Stuttgart, Heidelberg and Ulm, only a few years ago, would’ve dismissed as irresponsible hippies?

If I wanted to be glib and superficial, I’d offer you just one word: “Fukushima”. The Japanese catastrophe occurred slap-bang-in-the-middle of the election campaign – throwing into sharp focus the voters’ hitherto ill-defined fears about the Christian Democrat-led Federal Government’s renewed commitment to Germany’s nuclear energy programme.

But, of course, the real reasons go much deeper than that.

The defection of so many conservative voters to The Greens reflects a political malaise that has already “gone global”. All over the world the social, economic and environmental status-quo is being challenged. This political distemper is exhibited not only in the so-called “developed countries”, but also, and with increasing ferocity, in the countries of what used to be called the Third World – especially the Middle East.

It is born, I believe, from the indifference and self-imposed isolation of the economic elites. These “One Percenters” rely upon a compliant media to filter out and/or distort the electorate’s cries for change. Failing that, they use their colossal wealth to manufacture bogus “grass-roots” movements” (such as the US “Tea Party”) whose duped participants will embrace as their own an economic, social and environmental agenda designed to make their masters even richer and more powerful.

The more sophisticated sort of Green politicians responds to this grim political malaise by making themselves as appealing as possible not to the down-trodden and oppressed worker and/or beneficiary (who have their own political party) but to the status-anxious, politically-disconnected (but still compassionate) members of the educated middle class.

A wise old television journalist once told me that the typical Green voter in Wellington was the wife of the local university lecturer, doctor, architect, engineer or senior civil-servant. If this is true, then the most obvious method of doubling the Greens electoral support would be to choose candidates these women’s husbands could conceivably vote for as well.

That appears to be what happened in Baden-Wurttemberg and, judging by the New Zealand Greens’ preliminary Party List, it also appears to be the strategic objective of their coolly cerebral co-leader, Dr Russel Norman.

Just compare the fourteenth-ranked candidate, James Shaw, with sixteenth-ranked Steffan Browning.

James styles himself a Green entrepreneur and is an energetic promoter of the Green technological fix. Steffan is a delver and digger-out of environmentally hazardous corporate secrets. James sees science providing pure and politically unencumbered solutions to the planet’s problems. Steffan recognises that science, like every other human endeavour, has a paymaster, and that the purposes of our paymasters are not always planet-friendly.

In the best of all possible worlds, James and Steffan would both get into Parliament. But, in the brave new world of political possibilities ushered in by Baden-Wurttemberg, it’ll be candidates like James who “sophisticated Greens” feel more inclined to push up the List.

As Green Party members throughout New Zealand turn to the task of ranking the definitive Green Party List, my hope is that they’ll weigh with equal care the political contributions of those who envision the world as it might be, and those who grapple with the world as it is.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 April 2011.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Filling The Vacuum

Taking Our Votes Elsewhere: As Labour gives every appearance of conceding the 2011 election to John Key's National-led Government by default, left-leaning voters are already considering shifting their allegiance to its potential coalition partners - just as they did when Labour worshiped neoliberalism in the 1980s and 90s.

NATURE ABHORS a vacuum – and so does politics. With Labour’s front bench and the Party’s ruling council both declining to deal decisively with Phil Goff’s inadequate political leadership, left-leaning voters have been given a powerful incentive to look elsewhere for progressive representation this November.

Not since the early 1990s has Labour provided its competitors with such a huge opportunity to enlarge their electoral support base.

Twenty years ago tens-of-thousands of left-leaning voters deserted Labour for Jim Anderton’s Alliance and Winston Peter’s NZ First parties. And who could blame them? With unrepentant Rogernome, Mike Moore, at Labour’s helm; and the betrayals of the Rogernomics era still very bitter in their mouths?

That mass disillusionment with Labour produced some spectacular electoral outcomes. In 1993, for example, the combined support of the two “insurgent” parties topped out at 26.4 percent – just 8 percentage points behind Labour’s tally.

It wasn’t until August 1998 that Labour was finally persuaded to make the necessary political and policy adjustments to return to office. And they did not do it alone. In order to become prime minister, Helen Clark had first to make her peace with Jim Anderton and the Alliance.

I reiterate this recent political history only because Phil Goff and his colleagues appear to have forgotten it. That government, under New Zealand’s proportional system, is a shared responsibility – involving not just one, but several, political parties.

Labour will not receive sufficient votes in the forthcoming general election to govern alone. Before it can take office it will require, at the very least, the support of the Greens and quite possibly the votes of a successful NZ First Party as well.

So long as Labour demonstrates both an appetite for power and the means to attain it, a solid majority of left-leaning voters will remain in its camp. In such circumstances, Labour’s potential allies, the Greens and NZ First, must be content to trawl for votes at the political margins – scrabbling for the 10-15 percent of the electorate whose electoral needs Labour cannot, or will not, meet.

But the events of the past fortnight suggest that Labour possesses neither the appetite nor the means for winning power. On the contrary, its caucus and council appear quite blind to their party’s growing leadership deficit. With electoral defeat now regarded as inevitable, the No. 1 priority of Labour’s front bench is how to emerge from the post-election blood-letting at the head of the pack.

This growing leadership deficit recalls the fatal ideological deficit which plagued the Labour Party throughout the 1990s. Impervious to both internal and external criticism, Labour then, and now, somehow convinces itself that a decision to abandon its core constituency to the lash of neoliberal extremism carries with it no serious electoral consequences.

But if Labour’s front bench, trapped inside the opaque bubble of its own ambition, believes that defaulting the 2011 general election will do no lasting damage to its electoral fortunes, then it seriously misjudges the moral temper of its left-leaning supporters.

A healthy Labour Party generally attracts four-fifths of the Left’s support, or around 40 percent of the Party Vote, leaving its ideological allies to squabble and fight over the remaining fifth. But a Labour Party so self-absorbed it’s ready to abandon tens-of-thousands of its core supporters to the “discipline” of the marketplace must expect its share of the Party Vote to fall below 35 percent. (In 1996 it fell to just 28 percent.)

This is mostly because disgruntled left-leaning voters will attempt to off-set Labour’s self-inflicted weakness by strengthening the hands of its potential coalition partners. But even conservative voters may toss a vote the insurgent parties’ way if they feel the National Party lacks effective opposition.

If, over the next seven months, the Greens and NZ First are able to present coherent, practical alternatives to the left-leaning half of the New Zealand electorate, I’m convinced Labour’s share of the Party Vote will plummet. Increasingly the election will become a contest between a nascent coalition of parties offering a radical left alternative to the Government’s bleak neoliberal austerity, and a National Party hell-bent on securing 50 percent-plus-one of the Party Vote.

This will not be a healthy development.

A country dominated electorally by two large and reassuringly pragmatic political parties can anticipate a high degree of ideological, economic and social stability. A country which finds itself locked in an all-or-nothing struggle between two intensely antagonistic ideological blocs should expect none of these things.

This is the true measure of Labour’s failure as an Opposition. It has encouraged the most extreme elements in the National Party and Government to believe they can pursue their radical economic and social agendas without fear of adverse electoral consequences.

There is no law of nature – or politics – which requires a vacuum to be filled by pleasant things.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 April 2011.

Friday 1 April 2011

Looking For A Hero

David Parker: He doesn't look very heroic. I doubt he owns a motorbike. But I believe, given the opportunity, he could make a real contest of the 2011 General Election

IS IT A BIRD? Is it a plane? No, it’s Super-Politician!

Perhaps it’s the lingering legacies of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy that keep us looking for political super-heroes. Larger than life figures who speak to our inner monarchist: to that fatal human predilection for handing off the big decisions to the strongest, the smoothest-talking and the most confident alpha male in the tribe.

It’s what persuaded the scholarly Don Brash to wear a racing-driver’s outfit and attempt to squeeze his angular frame into a go-cart many sizes too small. It’s what led Phil Goff to roll up to his party conference astride an implausibly potent motorbike. The political advisers of both men were determined to show the voters that their employers were “real” men. If people still rode horses, you can bet that any supplied to Don and Phil would’ve been large and white.

But the people we think we’d like to have in charge very seldom resemble the people we actually elect to govern us.

Only once have New Zealanders elected a politician who in any way resembled that “man on a white horse” for whom we’re all supposed to be yearning. His name was Gordon Coates and he was a decorated hero of the First World War. Tall, good-looking, compassionate, possessed of the common-touch, Coates was this country’s first New Zealand-born prime minister. For all these attributes, however, he held office for barely three years.

By contrast, our most beloved prime minister, the grandfatherly Michael Joseph Savage, looked anything but heroic. He was small of stature, physically frail and had a weak speaking voice. The very idea of Mickey Savage on a white horse is absurd.

And yet he was a hero. Diagnosed as suffering from colon cancer, Savage was urged to step away from the office of prime minister – or risk dying in it. He refused. The legislation establishing New Zealand’s welfare state was due to come into force only after the 1938 general election, and Savage was (rightly) convinced that without him Labour’s re-election could not be assured. He threw himself into a campaign that extended from one end of the country to the other. His audiences numbered in the tens-of-thousands, and on polling-day he was rewarded with the most unequivocal mandate ever delivered by the New Zealand electorate.

Eighteen months later he was dead.

True heroes are distinguished as much for their moral courage as their physical bravery. Indeed, on the battlefields of politics it is the exercise of moral authority that separates the truly strong leader from his or her merely tough and/or clever rivals.

It is precisely in this regard: in the exercise of sound ethical judgement and the unflinching demonstration of the Leader of the Opposition’s moral authority; that Phil Goff has so consistently fallen short throughout the Darren Hughes controversy.

The experience of Opposition is there for aspiring prime ministers to demonstrate to the electorate that they have the right stuff to do the job. That, faced with the choice between being loyal to a friend and faithful to the principles of sound political management, they possess the courage to choose ethics over friendship. For leadership is a lonely calling, and since only one head at a time may wear the crown, a leader’s head should be both good and wise.

Is there a head on Labour’s front bench better and wiser than Mr Goff’s? Is there someone who has felt the hot blast of scandal on his face and possessed the moral courage to take the Westminster tradition of ministerial responsibility seriously? Someone willing to stand alongside the ordinary New Zealanders who are Labour’s core constituency? Someone with the guts and the smarts to come up with policies that will give them a fighting chance?

Yes, there is.

He doesn’t look very heroic. I doubt he owns a motorbike. But I believe, given the opportunity, he could make a real contest of this election.

His name is David Parker.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 April 2011.