Tuesday 31 May 2011

In Perilous Times

In No Hurry To Change Horses: No more than in 2002, when, in the perilous times ushered in by 9/11, New Zealand voters opted to stick with the diplomatically savvy Helen Clark; the voters of 2011 are in no mood to abandon their commercially savvy Prime Minister, John Key.

SIX OUT OF TEN New Zealanders say they’re willing to back John Key’s bid for a second term. Four out of ten say they’d prefer some other combination of parties and politicians running the country.

We haven’t seen a gap that wide since 2002.

Back then, of course, the ideological boot was on the other foot. In the early months of 2002, just before the Alliance began the serious business of tearing itself into bloody little chunks, and well before Nicky Hager’s book, Seeds of Distrust, spawned the word “Corngate”, the Centre-Left gave every appearance of having taken out a mortgage on the treasury benches.

Could it be that Mr Key’s soaring popularity is being driven by forces very similar to those that persuaded Kiwis to again repose their political trust and confidence in Helen Clark? The forces erupting out of the tragic events of 9/11.

What happened on that fateful September morning changed everything.

It transformed an unpopular American president, shoe-horned into office by the US Supreme Court, into the symbolic leader of an embattled West. And behind George Bush, their briefcases bulging with geopolitical prescriptions of the most radical kind, crept a shadowy cabal of neo-conservative ideologues determined to pitch America into a state of permanent war.

New Zealand’s leader was also transformed by the events of 9/11. In a suddenly perilous world: where countries were either with the United States – or they were with the terrorists; New Zealanders quietly rejoiced in the fact that their Prime Minister was a woman whose whole adult life had been devoted to the study of international politics.

If anybody could bring New Zealand safely through the turmoil and travail of the “War on Terror” – it was Helen Clark.

Fast-forward six years to the general election of 2008.

Once again the world was convulsed. Not, this time, by Islamic terrorists, but by a collossal financial collapse that threatened to plunge the global economy into a second Great Depression.

And, once again, the New Zealand electorate counted its lucky stars that history had raised up an alternative prime-minister whose whole adult life had been devoted to mastering the ebb and flow of global financial markets.

John Key: raised in a state-house by his widowed mum; currency trader extraordinaire; self-made millionaire; married to his high-school sweetheart; father of two teenage children.

In the dangerously leveraged suburbs, where the governments of developed nations are made and broken, it was hard to imagine a politician better suited to the temper of his times. Truly, John Key was, as one waggish journalist noted, “the candidate from Central Casting”.

And he was lucky.

Though he and his party received scant thanks from the voters, Labour’s Minister of Finance, Dr Michael Cullen, had bequeathed the incoming National Government one of the healthiest sets of government accounts in the Western World. Dr Cullen’s surpluses enabled Mr Key and his Finance Minister, Bill English, to cushion New Zealanders from the worst effects of the global financial crisis.

Mr Key’s success cannot, however, be entirely attributed to extraneous influences and events. Politicians tend to be judged by their choices, and like his predecessor, Mr Key has chosen well.

Helen Clark faced the choice of joining, or staying out of, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. By fearing to tread where George Bush and Tony Blair rushed in, she amply confirmed the New Zealand voters’ faith in her political and moral judgement. Watching the unfolding nightmare of Iraq on the news, they quietly congratulated themselves for sticking with Labour.

The strategic choice which has defined Mr Key’s first term as prime minister is whether to embrace the radical neo-liberal policies urged upon him by his Far Right critics in 2009 and 2010; or, to hold fast to the policies of political and economic moderation which have secured his 2008 election victory. To his credit, Mr Key has steadfastly refused to abandon his moderate stance. Stratospheric poll results have been his reward.

In schweren Zeiten – in perilous times – the political trajectory of electorates is almost always towards the safety of the known and the reassurance of proven competence. Riders only change horses in mid-stream when they’re terrified their present mount will pitch them into the torrent.

In the perilous year of 2002, the voters were happy to let Helen Clark guide them safely out of the geopolitical flood. But, in the equally perilous year of 2008 they were only too happy to exchange Ms Clark’s tired red mare for Mr Key’s fresh blue stallion.

Much can happen in six months, but all the polls suggest that New Zealanders retain sufficient confidence in their National steed to dig in their heels and urge it forward to the farther shore.

It may cost them a few treasured possessions, but they’re not yet ready to mount anyone else’s.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 May 2011.

Friday 27 May 2011

Full Disclosure

Let Justice Be Done - Though The Heavens Fall: In Chris Mullin's political thriller, A Very British Coup, the left-wing Labour Prime Minister, Harry Perkins, attempts to subvert the Establishment by adopting a policy of full disclosure of official information. Founded on secrecy and the manipulation of information, the Establishment (especially the Tory press) organises Perkin's removal. New Zealand's own Harry Perkins, Michael Joseph Savage, attempted something similar by mandating the live broadcasting of Parliament in 1936.

HARRY PERKINS, the hero of Chris Mullin’s brilliant political thriller, A Very British Coup, rides to office on a promise of open government.

To help him demystify the business of day-to-day politics, the newly-elected left-wing Labour prime minister recruits Fred Thompson, a top-flight investigative reporter. Together, the Prime Minister and his Press Secretary pursue a radical policy of full-disclosure.

Daily press conferences provide the news media with unprecedented access to Harry and his ministers. Cabinet papers are released automatically. The machinations of senior civil servants are no longer shielded from public scrutiny. What the government sees, the voters see too.

Pure fiction, of course, but Mullin (editor of the left-wing British weekly The Tribune when he wrote the novel in 1982) makes a very interesting point. What would happen to the news media’s power to shape public perceptions in an environment where rumour, speculation and tendentious political analysis loses all currency?

In circumstances of full disclosure, where there were no official secrets or confidential reports, the dark arts of the spin-doctor would no longer be required. Journalists who only told half the story would be laughed out of the Press Gallery. Speculation about ministerial motives, when the minister was ready and willing to answer all the journalists’ questions and make available the official advice upon which his or her decisions were based, would be pointless.

In such an open, information-rich, political environment, the analysis of the average political journalist would very soon be no more insightful or compelling than the ordinary citizen’s.

FOR A BRIEF PERIOD in the 1930s, New Zealand had a prime minister whose media instincts were remarkably similar to those of the fictional Harry Perkins.

In the two years he spent as Leader of the Opposition (1933-1935) Michael Joseph Savage gave considerable thought to Labour’s fraught relationship with the New Zealand news media.

With the exception of the union-supported Grey River Argus, the daily press was unrelentingly hostile to Labour’s political ambitions. The new medium of radio, however, offered a means of circumventing this near universal editorial hostility towards the Left.

In the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” to the American people had proved extraordinarily effective at “cutting out the middle man”. And even in New Zealand, Colin Scrimgeour’s (Uncle Scrim’s) “Friendly Road” broadcasts on 1ZB offered ordinary citizens access to a much less jaundiced view of Labour and its ideas. (So much so that in the run-up to the 1935 general election the conservative National government jammed Uncle Scrim’s Sunday evening broadcast.)

More than ever, Mickey Savage was convinced that radio held the key to curbing the private presses’ power to shape political perceptions.

Prime Minister Savage’s first and most enduring media reform was to arrange for the live broadcasting of Parliament. The daily press had been highly selective in its reporting of parliamentary debates, but now ordinary citizens could tune into Parliament and hear their representatives explaining the new Labour Government’s policies directly to them.

Overnight, the highly partisan filters of conservative journalism became redundant. With the people able to hear for themselves what the Labour government was doing – and why – the daily newspapers had no option but to report the business of the House of Representatives honestly and impartially.

CHRIS MULLIN’S hero goes much further than Mickey Savage ever dared in opening up the business of government to public scrutiny – and pays a heavy personal price for his radical democratisation of official information.

But in having the British Establishment overthrow Harry Perkins’ government, Mullin is being no more than honest. Secrecy is indispensible to the sort of power that British – and New Zealand – politicians are accustomed to exercising. Just as the strict rationing of information is fundamental to the modern news media’s relationship with the wielders of political authority.

If knowledge is power, then the widest possible dissemination of knowledge must be the surest means of setting us free.

First and foremost, Mullin’s “very British coup” is a blow against the truth.

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, 27 May 2011.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Lowered Expectations: Labour Party Congress 2011

All Together Now: Like the prospect of a hanging in the morning, a looming election concentrates the mind wonderfully. The brief interregnum between Helen Clark's departure and the bedding-in of Phil Goff's leadership, during which the rank-and-file's influence over Labour policy dramatically increased, appears to be over, and once again the parliamentary and organisational wings of the party are marching in lock-step.
“EXCLUDING THE MEDIA might be okay if you were 20 points ahead in the polls”, mused the senior political journalist seated at the end of the table, “but when your 20 points behind? Where’s the sense in having journalists hanging out in coffee shops?”

His colleagues, sipping their espressos, lattes and flat whites at Felix’s on Wakefield Street – just across the street from the Wellington Town Hall where the Labour Party was busy conducting its election-year congress behind closed doors – could only nod their heads in agreement.

The “tradition” (if a practice dating back to 1993 warrants such a term) of excluding the news media from all but the four or five set speeches at Labour’s election-year get-togethers was born of the paranoia that gripped the Helen Clark-led party in the aftermath of the fratricidal blood-letting of the 1980s.

Veterans of the Rogernomics era vividly recalled the 1987 Labour Party Conference where delegates actually booed and hissed the architects of the first two-term Labour Government since the war.

It was precisely this sort of carry-on that led the Labour MPs of that era (including Helen Clark) to view the party organisation as an ungrateful and dangerously unpredictable beast which, at the drop of a contentious policy remit, was perfectly willing to admonish and embarrass its parliamentary representatives while the news media gleefully reported every rhetorical slap and symbolic head-butt.

The decision to uphold the tradition of keeping the media out of Labour’s policy workshops in election year – in spite of the party’s parlous position in the polls – speaks eloquently of both the parliamentary and the organisational leaderships’ determination to lower rank-and-file expectations of exactly how far and how fast the party can be steered to the left.

The contrast with the 2010 conference could hardly have been starker. The buzz that greeted journalists as they entered Auckland’s Aotea Centre last October was unmistakeable. The excited talk back then was all about the party being ready, finally, to take itself out of the neoliberal consensus. Former Alliance members, now back in the Labour fold, grinned smugly and whispered behind their hands that, at long last, the likes of Phil Goff, Annette King and Trevor Mallard had seen the light.

Seven months later the mood of the Labour rank-and-file is much more subdued.

The vicious public backlash against the attempt to improve the wages and conditions of Actors Equity’s members – alluded to triumphantly by the Prime Minister, John Key, only last week in his castigation of Labour as “Hobbit Haters” – caught the labour movement almost entirely off-guard.

The message: that the electorate was nowhere near as ready to embrace radical gestures as the party rank-and-file; was not lost on the more conservative elements of Labour’s caucus.

The result has been a much more engaged caucus when it comes to defining the parameters of Labour’s election policy.

The decision of this year’s Congress organisers to invite 2010 New Zealander of the Year, Professor Sir Paul Callaghan, to deliver the keynote address was a clear signal that Labour’s economic policy was veering back towards the sort of thinking that first hit the headlines at the Helen Clark-sponsored 2001 Knowledge Wave Conference.

Sir Paul’s prescription: that New Zealand can only catch up with Australia by fostering the sort of high-end, high-tech manufacturing represented by exporting firms such as Rakon and Fisher & Paykel Healthcare; indicated, perhaps, that reports of the death of Labour’s “Third Way” had been greatly exaggerated.

This notion was reinforced by Phil Goff’s announcement that Labour would be offering manufacturers $800 million worth of tax credits for Research and Development (paid for by the agricultural sector entering the Emissions Trading Scheme two years earlier than planned) and lifting the minimum wage to $15.00 (a brutal but effective way of weaning New Zealand employers off the teat of cheap labour and forcing them to tool-up and innovate their way towards profitability).

Annette King’s policy announcement: that Labour will be “investing in and supporting people who are willing to raise children” was less impressive. Her proud boast that the next Labour Government would “eradicate child poverty in New Zealand” rang tragically hollow in the absence of any firm commitment to restore the purchasing power of the Domestic Purposes Benefit to pre-1991 levels.

While 225,000 children are being raised on the demonstrably inadequate post-Jenny Shipley DPB, child poverty can only endure.

Labour’s 2011 Congress marked the end of the heady period of radical policy innovation that followed the departure of “The Boss” to UN headquarters in New York. Like the prospect of a hanging in the morning, elections tend to concentrate the mind wonderfully. That the responsibility for determining policy and strategy would be reclaimed by Labour’s parliamentary wing was inevitable.

And, like artists, MPs know that you never show children – or journalists – unfinished things.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 May 2011.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Budget 2011: Front Line Casualty

Registered In Flesh and Blood: If Bill English could see what his numbers added up to, I wonder: would his calculations be different?

BUDGETS ARE WRITTEN for the sake of abstract nouns: Prosperity; Stability; Productivity. But they are experienced by people who are all-too-real. And, if the decisions of our Finance Minister are expressed in numbers, their effects are registered in flesh and blood. If Mr English could see what his numbers added up to; I wonder: would his calculations be different?

THE POLICE CONSTABLE stared at the blank page of his notebook and took a deep breath.

“Can you tell me why your father took his own life?”

The young woman seated opposite him lifted her head slowly, as if the knowledge inside it was too heavy for her body to bear.

“He’d lost everything that meant anything to him. His wife, his home, his job, his self-respect. I think he looked ahead and saw nothing but uselessness and loneliness. In the end, I reckon he just didn’t see any point in going on.”

“He was an educational consultant?”

The young woman snorted.

“That’s what he called himself after he’d been made redundant in that first round of cuts. Used nearly all his redundancy money setting himself up in business. God, he was so keen. But there were no contracts – not one. His whole life had been devoted to research. He picked the eyes out of other countries’ education policies and fed them into the Department. But no one wants ‘back-office bureaucrats’ any more. These days everything’s for the ‘workers on the front line’. He went bust.

“And your mother?”

The young woman smiled wanly.

“She tried – she really did. But the mortgage was just too big for one salary to service. They got behind. The bank was pressuring them to sell. Dad blamed himself. He got more and more depressed – started drinking. There were arguments – fights. In all my life, I’d never seen Dad raise a hand to anyone. But one night I got a call from Mum – she was crying. Dad had hit her. I told her to get out: ‘Go to Women’s Refuge’, I said. Mum just laughed. ‘You’re behind the times over there in Australia’, she told me. ‘The Government’s stopped funding the refuges, most of them have shut up shop.’ I told her I would fly back as soon as I could get a flight, but she told me to stay where I was. ‘They’ll be after you for that student loan of yours’, she told me. ‘You save your money. Your father and I will be all right’.”

“But they weren’t.”

“No. Dad thought he’d go back to varsity – do a law degree. But the Government had stopped lending to mature students – reckoned the over fifty-fives would never pay them back. Seemed like everywhere he turned someone slammed a door in his face. Mum says he just spiralled down and down. His GP referred him to a private psychotherapist, but they couldn’t afford the fees. The public mental health service was no bloody use – just filled him full of lithium. Mum said he was like a zombie. He’d just sit and sit and sit. She couldn’t bear to watch. The house was sold. Mum set Dad up in a little flat – arranged for him to go on the Sickness Benefit. What a joke that was! All he got were endless hassles from the MSD. Told him that if he wasn’t actively seeking work they’d stand him down. A Master’s degree in Education and they had him sweeping floors at the local primary school.

“And that’s where they found him?”

“Yes, that’s where they found him. He’d hanged himself from a metal beam in the school’s reception area.”

The young constable closed his notebook.

“I’m very sorry for your loss.”

The young woman looked out the window at the grey winter sky and blinked.

“You know what Mum said?”

The constable shook his head.

“She said: ‘Dad gave his whole adult life to the back office – but that wasn’t enough to save it from the bottom line’.”

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, 20 May 2011.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Budget 2011: A Moderately Good Hand

Raising The Stakes - But Not Too High: John Key knows that if he's to keep on winning the electorate must be persuaded to keep on playing. That's why Bill English will not risk the voters betting everything on a change of government.

NEW ZEALAND should count itself fortunate in having a governing political party located in the centre of the political spectrum. In trying economic times the peddlers of extreme solutions are never without an audience. It takes genuine courage to embrace moderation when the political rewards for extremism can be so high.

For nearly three years now, John Key and Bill English have resisted the advice of extremists and kept the New Zealand economy right-side up. Reading the signals ahead of this week’s Budget, it’s clear they’ve no intention of turning it upside-down anytime soon.

As far as possible – without attracting the unwanted attentions of the international credit rating agencies – Bill English will strive to maintain the purchasing power of the voting public. He cannot avoid making some gestures in the direction of reining-in Government expenditure, but such cuts as there are in the Budget will not be felt universally (as happened with the GST increase) or even immediately.

Mr Key’s announcement of a “Zero Budget” in conditions of relatively strong inflation actually signals a 2-3 percent reduction in the real level of Government expenditure.

Government departments and agencies may receive the same appropriation as last year, but in dollars that are worth less. Maintaining the same level of services to the public in these circumstances will be a struggle. Civil servants will find it equally difficult to preserve (let alone increase) their incomes. Indeed, the value of their wages and salaries will almost certainly decline in real terms.

So, its name notwithstanding, there will be quite substantial public spending cuts in Thursday’s “Zero Budget”. It’s just that by being restricted to the public sector, and because they’ll be happening in slow-motion, most of the electorate won’t notice them.

Private sector savers, families with children, and tertiary students will, however, find it difficult not to notice the Government’s plans to cut-back the State’s contribution to Kiwisaver; tighten-up the eligibility for “Working For Families”; and take a more aggressive approach to the recovery of outstanding student loans.

But, even here, Mr Key and Mr English have made moderation their watchword. Very wisely they have ignored the advice of the business community’s more feral elements – which was to squander a huge chunk of the Prime Minister’s personal political popularity by rushing through these austerity measures under Urgency. Instead, Mr Key and his Finance Minister have chosen the impeccably democratic option of post-dating the reform of Kiwisaver, Working For Families and the recovery of student loans until after the General Election.

In effect, the Prime Minister is daring the electorate to abandon his government for an Opposition in varying degrees of disarray. “Back me or sack me!” is his cry – leaving the average voter in the agonising position of the poker player holding a weak hand who must decide whether or not to pony up his last dollar to discover if his opponent is bluffing.

John Key is asking voters to look at the Opposition parties, assign them playing cards according to their worth, and then decide whether or not their hand is stronger than the Government’s.

If they decide the Oppositions’ cards are too low, then they should give the Government what’s on the table. But, if they honestly believe the combination of Phil Goff (King?), Metiria Turei (Queen?), Winston Peters (Joker?) and Hone Harawira (Knave?) constitutes a winning hand, then, by all means, they should push all their chips forward. Lose a little or win a lot: that’s the wager. And it’s only their own, their children’s and their country’s future that’s at stake.

It’s high risk politics for Mr Key and his government, but the genius of the Prime Minister’s proposition lies in how little he has actually put on the table.

If he had followed the advice of the Business Roundtable, or Dr Don Brash, or the right-wing commentariat, Mr Key would have pushed everything into the centre of the table. All of the state assets; interest-free student loans; Working For Families in its entirety; Paula Rebstock’s welfare reforms; the whole kit and caboodle of neoliberal obsessions would have gone into the pot.

Had he done that, then the voters might have been willing to risk everything – even on the poor hand the Opposition parties have dealt them. The wager would have been a terrifying zero-sum choice: win it all or lose it all. Folding wouldn’t have been an option.

But John Key, the successful currency trader; the self-made millionaire; the high-stakes riverboat gambler; has made throwing-in our hand a reasonable option. The Key-English version of moderate-conservative poker may set the table limit low, but by reassuring the punters that they’re not engaged in an all-or-nothing gamble, it keeps them at the table.

And so long as they keep on playing, the Prime Minister knows he can keep on winning.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 May 2011.

Blogger Malfunction Has Put "Bowalley Road" Out Of Action. Readers Have My Sincere Apologies. Normal Service Will Be Resumed As Soon As The System Is Restored - Chris Trotter

Thursday 12 May 2011

Talking Past Each Other

In search of protection: The true partnership that was sealed on 6 February 1840 was between the Maori leadership and the British government in London. The chiefs hoped that a London-appointed Governor would stand between their lands, forests and fisheries and the Pakeha they feared the most - the settlers who were coming to stay.

This posting is a response to the lively debate currently raging on the Kiwipolitico blogsite.

IT’S JANUARY 1840, two sailing vessels are fast approaching the North Island of New Zealand. His Majesty’s Ship Herald carries Captain William Hobson bearing instructions from the Colonial Office to organise the voluntary cession of the islands of New Zealand to the British Crown. The other ship, Aurora, carries settlers to the newly established settlement of Port Nicholson. It has been chartered by the privately owned and organised New Zealand Company.

Captain Hobson’s instructions are not unrelated to the purposes for which the Aurora and her passengers set sail. The islands of New Zealand, conveniently located in the temperate zone of the southern hemisphere, are large but sparsely populated (the indigenous Maori population numbers approximately 125,000). Unsurprisingly, they have begun to loom large in the sights of European entrepreneurs, missionaries and imperialists.

Under pressure from the aristocratic backers of the New Zealand Company, and wary of the pretensions of competing powers – particularly the French – the Colonial Office in London is determined to regularise the confused jurisdictions of Australasia. If the land titles being sold to settlers by the New Zealand Company are to be legally enforceable, the question of sovereignty must be settled – and quickly. By fair means or by foul, New Zealand is to be annexed to the British Crown.

The cheapest, the most politically expedient, and (in the face of the Missionary Society’s strenuous submissions) the most morally defensible means of securing possession of New Zealand is to persuade the indigenous Maori tribes to cede sovereignty to her Britannic majesty, Victoria, voluntarily. Indeed, British agents and missionaries in New Zealand have been assiduously laying the groundwork for just such a solution since the mid-1830s. The British Resident, James Busby, has even secured a “Declaration of Independence” from his purpose-built “Confederation of Chiefs” so the Crown has something to sit down with when the time to negotiate a plausible treaty of cession finally arrives.

As HMS Herald drops anchor in the Bay of Islands on 29 January1840, this is exactly what Hobson and his confreres, Busby and James Freeman, prepare to do.

THE MAORI LEADERS gathered at Waitangi to korero with Captain Hobson have come with an equally clear set of priorities.

First and foremost, they are seeking protection.

From the early 1830s, a rough “balance of terror” has prevailed among the combative Maori tribes as more and more of them acquired firearms. Even so, the slaughter and dislocation of the so-called “Musket Wars” are still a searing memory, and nobody’s ready to wager the lives of their whanau and hapu on the blood-letting not breaking out anew. Information gleaned from Maori who’ve travelled to Australia – and further afield – suggests that the British Empire holds out the best hope of keeping the peace between the tribes.

They’re also keen for the British to keep the roughly 2,000 unruly Europeans who’ve settled amongst them to trade, hunt whales and seals, or simply to outrun the writ of whoever’s justice system is after them, under some semblance of control. There’s a lot of wealth to be had from these folk, but only if the tribes can enlist the aid of an entity with sufficient power to make sure they keep their side of any bargain – and pay up.

Having learned the hard way how skittish the Pakeha become when Maori exercise their own robust forms of tribal justice, they reckon it will make things a lot easier if their “guests” are forced to live under their own laws.

Among the shrewder Maori – including the wily Hone Heke – there is also a nagging fear that the ever-increasing inward flow of European settlers will not stop. They’ve learned that these new arrivals are different – not the usual traders, whoremasters, grog-sellers, whalers, sealers and fugitives that the tribes have grown used to accommodating.

More than anything else, the settlers arriving on the New Zealand Company ships desire land – Maori land. And, as more and more of them arrive, that hunger for Maori land will only increase. It's why the better educated and more travelled Maori are determined to secure their tribal possessions against settler pressure by placing them under the protection of the world’s most powerful nation – Great Britain.

Also at Waitangi are the Christian Maori – the products of more than twenty years of missionary effort. To these men and women the Pakeha have vouchsafed an entirely different understanding of the human condition. Christianity has conferred upon its native converts a new kind of power: a new mana.

They understand that the Pakeha’s morality, knowledge and technology offer their people a way-in to a world their ancestors could never have imagined. For them the future lies in a voluntary melding of their own and the newcomers’ cultures – and that melding cannot happen soon enough.

THE SIMPLE CLAUSES of the Treaty of Waitangi masterfully embraced the complex agendas of both its British and Maori signatories. It is, however, naïve in the extreme to characterise the document as a contract.

Treaties are not contracts: at least not in the sense that a mortgage or hire-purchase agreement is a contract. What a treaty actually amounts to is a description of the power relations existing between two peoples at a precise moment in history.

Almost always (and the Treaty of Waitangi is no exception) the relationship between the signatories is an unequal one (usually reflecting the stronger party’s military victory over the weaker). What makes the Treaty of Waitangi so interesting is that it was signed in anticipation of – and as a way of avoiding – the military clash which would have become inevitable if a voluntary cession of sovereignty to the British Crown had been refused.

But Maori did not emerge from the negotiations of February 1840 empty-handed. The quid pro quo, in return for making things easy for the Colonial Office, was the guarantee of what they had been seeking all along – the protection of the Crown. Protection against any return to the slaughter of the Musket Wars; protection against social disorder and commercial trickery; and protection against the Pakeha they were most afraid of: the ones who were coming to stay.

This was the real partnership enshrined in the Treaty: the partnership between the Maori tribes and the Colonial Office, or, to put it more precisely, with the executive arm of the British Government in London. This was the power the chiefs had aligned themselves with: a power which, in the person of the Governor, would stand between them and the predatory approach to land acquisition represented by the New Zealand Company and its growing body of imitators.

And there’s no question that the chiefs’ fears in regard to the settlers were entirely justified. Here, for example, is how one of the Governors of the New Zealand Company viewed the Treaty:

“We have always had very serious doubts whether the Treaty of Waitangi, made with naked savages by a consul invested with no plenipotentiary powers, without ratification by the Crown, could be treated by lawyers as anything but a praiseworthy devise for amusing and pacifying savages for the moment.”

THAT OMINOUS “for the moment” offers us a chilling reminder of just how historically contingent all treaties are. Certainly the Treaty of Waitangi – as a means of protecting the things Maori treasured – did not long survive the moment when the settler population reached a size sufficient to persuade London to grant it a measure of self-government (1852).

It was at that point that the Crown effectively ceased to be the protector of New Zealand’s indigenous inhabitants, and became, instead, the protector of the new settler state. In vain did the chiefs appeal to the Governor to uphold the Crown pre-emption clause of the Treaty. And when, in growing desperation, they crowned their own king and attempted to defend what remained of their tribal lands, the Settler Government promptly declared them rebels and traitors, and the British Government in London dispatched a vast army to crush the resistance of their nascent Maori state.

It is difficult to envisage any other outcome. The moment London acquiesced in the formation of a self-governing New Zealand colony, they set in place an entity which could only grow and prosper at the expense of the country’s original inhabitants. Because, as the chiefs rightly apprehended back in February 1840, if the new breed of settlers came to stay – it could only be on Maori land.

TO SAY that the Treaty of Waitangi was breached is, therefore, an accurate but ultimately trivial historical observation. Had it not been breached, New Zealand – as a colonial society inextricably enmeshed in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the British Empire – wouldn’t have existed. For the Settler State to become real, the Treaty had to become, in Chief Justice Prendergast’s brutal phrase: “a simple nullity”.

Was that wrong? Should the undertakings given by Captain Hobson on 6 February 1840 have been honoured? Removed from its historical context, the question is easily answered in the affirmative. Except that those who go in search of such unencumbered moral judgements, do so without understanding that such questions can never be extracted from history.

To judge the dead may give some comfort to the living, but no matter how fervently the misdeeds of previous generations are condemned, they cannot be undone. Therefore, whatever justice we seek to do here and now, let it be done to right the wrongs of the present – not the past.

We fair-skinned Polynesians are not – and can never be – “Europeans”. Just as contemporary Maori are not – and can never be again – the Maori who inhabited these islands before colonisation. Both of us are the victims of historical forces too vast for blame, to permanent for guilt.

And both of us have nowhere else to go.

This essay is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Civilised Expectations (A Meditation On The Killing Of Osama Bin Laden)

"Leave to live by no man's leave, underneath the law": U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson addresses the Nuremberg Tribunal on the expectations of civilisation, 21 November 1945. In executing the unarmed Osama Bin Laden without trial has the United States deviated from the very principles it purports to be defending: the universal right to life and liberty, and the Rule of Law itself?

“BASTARDS!” That’s what I always ended up screaming at the television set every time I watched a documentary about 9/11.

As United Airlines Flight 175 made its final, fatal turn towards the South Tower of the World Trade Centre, I imagined the terror of its passengers.

Hearing the details of how the hijackers seized control of United Airlines Flight 93 made me physically sick.

And, up until last Monday, I’d only to witness again the terrible events of 9/11 for every fibre of my being to cry out in blood-red fury for vengeance.

Vengeance for the butchered hostesses; for the 2,752 men and women who died in the twin towers; for the American people, ashen-faced with shock; for a world that stood, transfixed, by the horrors of that day.

And I’d fantasize about standing before the man who made it happen, Osama Bin Laden, gun in hand, and squeezing-off round after round until he crumpled in a bleeding ruin - just like the proud towers brought low by his command that bright September morning.

But last Monday, when I learned that a commando unit of US Navy Seals had done just that, there was nothing. The sense of exhilaration I’d expected to feel just wasn’t there. Instead, I experienced a very different sensation: a feeling of emptiness; of moral vacuity; of a world going under for the final time … in a sea of blood.

And I realised with a dead feeling that Osama Bin Laden had won.

“HAVE A CARE when fighting monsters”, warned the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, “lest ye become a monster yourself.”

As I watched the crowd outside the White House wave their flags in the darkness, and listened to the guttural chanting of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, I recalled the images of joyous Palestinians chanting “Allahu Akbar!”, “God is great!”, and passing out sweets, as news of Bin Laden’s successful attack swept along the Arab “street”.

I heard the American Right demand that President Barack Obama release photographs of Bin Laden’s dead body, and I recalled the “proof of death” videos released by Islamic terrorist groups – the ones where they cut off their prisoners’ heads.

I read the columns of respected New Zealand journalists; columns in which Bin Laden’s death is celebrated in gory, gloating detail: “They blew half his face off.” Columns in which the most splendid achievement of Western Civilisation – the Rule of Law – is casually cast aside: “There are certain people to whom the rules of law and life do not apply. There are certain people who simply have to be killed and thrown to the sharks”. Columns in which President Obama is told he had “a duty to kill”; to make it “final and tidy, no civil rights, no due process”.

I read these columns, and more than ever I was seized by the completeness of Bin Laden’s victory. By the way in which his 9/11mission had succeeded in overthrowing all of the religious and civic traditions which had, over the course of twenty bloody centuries, ceded to the West the unprecedented role of global moral arbiter.

Because it wasn’t the Wahhabist tradition of Islam that outlawed slavery, or gave the world the Geneva Conventions, or the United Nations Charter, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It wasn’t Oriental despotism which outlawed the use of torture, or declared that all human-beings – even convicted criminals and prisoners-of-war – possess an absolute right to be treated with dignity.

These were the hard-won achievements of Christian conscience and Enlightenment reason. They were what made us different. They were what made us better than our enemies: better than our own base selves. They were the fruits of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” – and they were the most precious things we had.

And Osama Bin Laden made us throw them all away.

WE WEREN’T ALWAYS SO CARELESS. As World War II was coming to an end the “Big Three” – Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill – debated what to do with the defeated regime. Momentarily they toyed with the idea of summarily executing the Nazi leadership. Given the enormity of their crimes, few would have condemned them.

But they knew better.

The Nazi leaders were arrested – and put on trial.

The American prosecutor, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, in his opening address to the Nuremberg Tribunal, told us why:

“[Civilisation] does not expect that you can make war impossible. It does expect that your juridical action will put the forces of International Law, its precepts, its prohibitions and, most of all, its sanctions, on the side of peace, so that men and women of good will in all countries may have ‘leave to live by no man’s leave, underneath the law’.”

This is what we’ve surrendered to Osama Bin Laden: the expectation of civilised behaviour.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 May 2011.

Friday 6 May 2011

Going Up Together (Most New Zealanders, Meet The Mana Party)

Not-Young, Not-Poor, Not-Maori: The Mana Party may not need the votes of most New Zealanders to capture a parliamentary foothold, but unless it offers a compelling - and inclusive - political vision to the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens who are not-young, not-poor and not-Maori, its chances of achieving very much at all are pretty slim.

HERE IS SOMETHING for all those leftists currently celebrating the birth of Hone Harawira’s Mana Party to think about.

Most New Zealanders are not-young, not-poor and not-Maori.

And, even by the most optimistic count, only about one-in-twenty of them are “Left”.

Now, to hear some of Mr Harawira’s champions tell the story, none of this matters. The Mana Party, they say, isn’t seeking the support of “most New Zealanders”.

With as little as 1.6 percent of the Party Vote, Mana’s spin-doctors tell us, the MP for Te Tai Tokerau (assuming he retains his Maori electorate seat after November’s election) will be able to walk back into Parliament with the veteran Maori nationalist, activist and lawyer, Annette Sykes, on his arm.

With just 3.5 percent of the Party Vote, Mr Harawira could be cantering up the parliamentary steps alongside four new Mana Party MPs.

To do what?

Socialise the local supermarket and replace GST with a “Hone Heke Tax” apparently.


Well, no – not really.

To implement its policies of taking monopolies and duopolies into public ownership and replacing GST with a Financial Transactions Tax, the Mana Party would have to become the dominant partner in a coalition commanding more than half the seats in the House of Representatives. And to do that it would have to win a great deal more than 3.5 percent of the Party Vote.

Which brings us right back to the stubborn, undeniable (and I’m sure Mr Harawira’s supporters would add “counter-revolutionary”) fact that most New Zealanders are not-young, not-poor and not-Maori.

How to reach middle-aged and elderly New Zealanders; average-income earners; the 85-90 percent of electors who are Pakeha, Pasifika or Asian: this is the stuff of serious electoral politics – and it cannot be accomplished with a megaphone. Most of the compromises that make for effective political action are knitted together. Some are hammered out. With others a dog-whistle is required.

Mr Harawira and his supporters have made a virtue out of their unwillingness to compromise and have rejected what they call the “politics of fear”.

All very inspiring, I’m sure. But, if the immediate and all-too-genuine fears of their fellow citizens are to be addressed – let alone allayed – more than fine words and uncompromising stands will be needed.

And what are those fears?

The greatest fear gripping New Zealanders at present is that they may be living in a society which can no longer guarantee their children and grandchildren a life as secure and prosperous as their own.

It was Winston Churchill who promised “The Greatest Generation” that Hitler’s defeat would see the life of the world move into “broad, sunlit uplands”. For the thirty years between 1945 and 1975 that promise was kept. But since the mid-1980s the skies have darkened. Cold winds now sweep our narrowed and no longer sunlit uplands.

New Zealand’s political future belongs to the party (or parties) which offer voters the most effective and comprehensive shelter from the storm.

And if our society is not to turn on itself in a Hobbesian struggle of “all against all”, that shelter must be built by, and for, as many New Zealanders as possible.

The task of the genuine left-wing party, therefore, is not simply to target enough voters to win a handful of parliamentary seats, but to construct a programme capable of commanding enduring majority support.

Campaigning for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 1968, Bobby Kennedy confided to a handful of trusted journalists that what his daily encounters with real America had taught him was that: “It’s class, not colour. What everyone wants is a job and some hope.”

Mr Harawira needs to understand that the not-young, not-poor, not-Maori core of the New Zealand electorate will punish severely any party that writes it off as a collection of racist, rednecked, colonialist motherf***ers. [And any leader who praises Osama Bin Laden, one suspects!]

The Mana Party’s proud refusal to compromise its principles should not be cited as justification for refusing to seek, or driving away, potential allies. No party has a right to the voters’ automatic support. People are entitled to ask: “What’s in it for me?”

As the Democratic Party populist politician, Fred Harris, noted in the early 1970s: “The blue-collar worker will be progressive as long as it is not progress for everyone but himself.”

We move into those “broad, sunlit uplands” together – or not at all.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 May 2011.

POSTSCRIPT: The TVNZ Close-Up phone-in poll of 40,000 viewers on 5/5/11 which showed 81 percent of respondents disagreeing with the proposition that “Maori have a special place in New Zealand” confirms the enormity of the attitudinal obstacles confronting the Mana Party and its supporters.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

History Makers?

Making history - but not just as he pleases: Hone Harawira launches his new Mana Party with the borrowed language of that other great rebel MP - John A Lee. Promising uplift to "the children of the poor", Mana - like the new, Don Brash-led Act - cannot avoid defining its political mission against the most important historical legacy of New Zealand's progressive egalitarian tradition - the welfare state.

“MEN MAKE THEIR OWN HISTORY,” wrote Karl Marx, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”

This week two New Zealanders, Don Brash and Hone Harawira, offered dramatic proof of the first part of Marx’s typically contradictory formula.

By seizing the levers of electoral representation and yanking them hard (Don to the right, Hone to the left) both men have changed the direction of New Zealand politics. What was beginning to look like a done deal for Prime Minister John Key has suddenly become a much more complicated and uncertain electoral proposition.

That Dr Brash and Mr Harawira have made their own history cannot be denied. What we will now spend seven months discovering is whether or not they can make it do just as they please.

Because, as Marx warned his readers more than a century-and-a-half ago, human-beings do not operate in a vacuum. Today’s politician doesn’t construct the stage upon which he struts and frets – he inherits it. Or, to quote Marx’s macabre metaphor: “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brain of the living.”

And the tradition which weighs most heavily upon the brains of both Dr Brash and Mr Harawira? The “circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” with which both men must grapple?

New Zealand’s welfare state.

For Dr Brash, the welfare state represents the Left’s most deadly thrust at the core principles of free-market capitalism. By promoting full-employment, state-subsidised housing, publicly provided education and health services – along with progressive taxation, compulsory union membership and a host of other policies designed to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor – the welfare state undermined the authority of the boss and made workers much less afraid of being sacked.

That is why men of Dr Brash’s ideological ilk have been trying so hard, for the best part of twenty-five years, to dismantle the welfare state. They know that until the welfare state and its associated institutions have been eliminated, the “incentives” of free-market capitalism simply cannot work as they should.

For Mr Harawira the welfare state represents a very different (although related) historical inheritance.

The very rapid expansion of employment opportunities following World War II emptied the New Zealand countryside of young Maori workers. They took up their places on the production-lines of New Zealand’s import substitution industries, and hired out their brain and muscle to the builders of the country’s burgeoning infrastructure.

Housed by the state, educated by the state, and cared for by the state, the ties binding these new urban Maori to the traditional culture of their marae were weakened. New Zealand’s egalitarian ethos, widespread inter-marriage and the powerfully integrative influence of unions, churches and sporting clubs all served to strengthen the official post-war doctrine of assimilation – and made it work. The welfare state was rapidly transforming Maori into brown-skinned Pakeha.

This was the world in which Hone Harawira grew up – and he learned to hate it. Not the working-class traditions of solidarity and mutual assistance, but the smug assumption of official Pakeha culture that the crimes of New Zealand’s colonial past could be hidden away in history books; and that Maori language and culture would very soon be reduced to mere museum exhibits.

But the same decade that witnessed the so-called “Maori Renaissance” (in which Mr Harawira and his family wrote their own robust chapter) also witnessed the first great assault by Dr Brash and his cohorts upon the welfare state – the social-democratic institutions of which had nurtured and educated the very same young rebels who were now leading the charge for tino rangatiratanga.

From fully-employed and properly paid workers with homes and families, Maori found themselves suddenly drafted into what Marx called “the reserve army of labour”. Once proud communities have become ghettoes of poverty and dysfunction.

Mr Harawira has come to realise that Maori culture cannot be preserved, nor their lost lands recovered, in a socio-economic vacuum. That defending Maori and defending the welfare state are not two separate battles – but a single, bi-cultural, struggle.

These are the moments, wrote Marx: just when the revolutionaries seem on the point of creating something entirely new; that they “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service”.

And so we hear Mr Harawira, channelling the spirit of Labour’s long-dead rebel MP, John A. Lee, speak movingly about “the children of the poor”; presenting his new Mana Party to voters in the time-honoured disguise of New Zealand’s egalitarian past.

While Dr Brash, in the borrowed language of the assimilationist welfare state, calls for a society based on “one law for all”.

Making history? Yes. But not just as they please.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday 3 May 2011.

Sunday 1 May 2011

Code Red

"You can't handle the truth!" Colonel Jessep defends the darkness behind the wire in Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men. When it comes to the SAS in Afghanistan it would seem that the few good men are all in the field and that our military and political leaders share Colonel Jessep's view of the public's ability to deal with the realities of New Zealand's involvement in a brutal, dirty and illegal war.

TO MAKE a political lie work, writes American historian, Rick Perlstein, you need only two things: “A powerful person or institution willing to utter it, and another set of powerful institutions to amplify it.”

No institution is more powerful than the State, so when statesmen decide to lie they’ve always got a head-start on the truth.

And the sheer size of the State means they can lie on a grand scale.

It was Adolf Hitler who penned the infamous sentence: “When you lie, tell big lies.”

Most of us only dare to “tell small lies in little matters”. Judging people by our own timorous moral standards, we have real difficulty believing others can “fabricate colossal untruths”.

Hence Hitler’s confidence that: “The grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down.”

The State also enjoys another – and arguably even greater – advantage over its citizens: its legitimacy.

For a society to function, ordinary people must retain at least a modicum of trust and confidence in its core institutions. Each one of those institutions, therefore, has a strong interest in reinforcing and protecting the others.

This places the second most powerful institution in our society – the news media – in a thoroughly invidious position.

To retain the trust and confidence of its audiences the news media must tell them the truth without fear or favour. But, if it tells “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” about government, big business, the military, the police, the judiciary and all the other “powerful institutions” out of which our social fabric is woven, it risks unravelling it altogether.

According to Rick Perlstein, this is what began to happen in the 1970s when: “The investigative reporter became a sexy new kind of hero. A shaggy-haired loner, too inquisitive for his own good, played by Warren Beatty, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.”

It was the decade of Watergate and the Church Committee’s inquiry into the CIA and the FBI. An era of whistle-blowers like Daniel Ellsberg – who leaked ‘The Pentagon Papers’ to The New York Times. The period when consumer advocate, Ralph Nader, warned Americans that corporate capitalism might be “unsafe at any speed”.

“The truth hurt”, says Rick Perlstein, “but the incredible thing was the citizenry seemed willing to bear the pain.”

Perhaps. But the “powerful institutions” of American society – what the baby-boom generation called “The Establishment” – wasn’t.

Rick Perlstein argues that the counter-attack began when Ronald Reagan was elected US President in 1980. This, he says, was the moment when telling the truth ceased to be an act of patriotism and, almost overnight, became an act of treachery against God, Justice and the American Way. The shaggy-haired investigative journalist, with his subversive curiosity, ceased to be sexy and became, instead, a professional bore.

If the State lies, intone the ladies and gentlemen of today’s press, it no doubt has very good reasons for doing so – reasons that are in no way the business of the news media to challenge. A journalist’s job isn’t to hold the powers-that-be to account. On the contrary, the journalist’s first responsibility is to preserve societal cohesion by reinforcing and protecting its core institutions.

If you doubt this grim assessment, go out and buy the latest issue of Metro magazine and read Jon Stephenson’s article “Eyes Wide Shut”. Jon’s not exactly what you’d call “shaggy-haired”, but he’s cut from exactly the same cloth as those investigative journalists of the 1970s.

Jon’s story is about the conduct of New Zealand troops in Afghanistan – what they’ve done, and what they’re still doing.

I defy any fair-minded person to read this story and arrive at any other conclusion than that our military and political leaders have lied to us.

“I want the truth!” yells Lieutenant Kaffee in A Few Good Men, to which Colonel Jessep scornfully replies: “You can’t handle the truth!”

That’s what all political liars believe to be true.

It’s time we opened their eyes.

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, 29 April 2011.