Tuesday 28 June 2011

The Fish Of Maui Lashes Its Tail

Te Ika A Maui: The Fish of Maui is the Maori name for the North Island of New Zealand - the shape of which does indeed resemble a stingray. The stingray's tail - known today as Northland - encompasses the Maori electroate of Te Tai Tokerau. It was here, on Saturday, 25 June 2011, that Hone Harawira secured the new Mana Party's first parliamentary seat. With a lash of the Fish's tail, the voters of Te Tai Tokerau re-set the net of New Zealand politics.

SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT happened on Saturday night. For the first time in nearly a century, a revolutionary was elected to the New Zealand parliament. Hone Harawira’s politics, and the politics of those likely to enter Parliament alongside him in November, are not the politics of reform. The aims and objectives of Mr Harawira, and the Mana Party, are revolutionary in nature. 

What does that mean? Very simply it means that the changes being sought by the Mana Party cannot be accommodated within the present social, economic and political arrangements of New Zealand society.  

To give effect to Mana’s policies, those who currently enjoy the most privileged positions in New Zealand society will have to surrender a significant measure of their wealth and status. 

Conventional notions about the nature of, and the rights pertaining to, private property will have to change. 

And, if we are to accord full recognition to the rights of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people – a key Mana Party demand – then the meaning of democracy itself will need to be re-examined. 

Most New Zealanders will find the above propositions extremely challenging, and very likely upwards of 95 percent of the electorate will vote for something other than the Mana Party on November 26th. 

But, as the Act Party has demonstrated, it isn’t necessary for a political party to exceed the 5 percent Party Vote threshold to win parliamentary representation. Act received just 3.65 percent of the Party Vote in 2008, but because Rodney Hide was elected to represent Epsom (New Zealand’s wealthiest electorate) he was entitled to take four other MPs with him into the House of Representatives. Dr Don Brash will be hoping that John Banks performs the same political alchemy for Act in five months’ time. 

But, what’s sauce for the reactionary Act goose must, in all fairness, be sauce for the revolutionary Mana gander. If Mr Harawira is able to hold Te Tai Tokerau (New Zealand's poorest electorate) in November, and if the Mana Party proves equal to the task of attracting 3.65 percent of the Party Vote, they may prove as pivotal to the process of forming a governing coalition as the Act Party in 2008. 

Joining Mr Harawira in Parliament, we may see such well-known champions of the Maori nationalist and socialist causes as Annette Sykes, John Minto and Matt McCarten. Not since the election of such classical socialist leaders as Paddy Webb (1913) and Harry Holland (1918) will the House of Representatives have reverberated to so much revolutionary rhetoric. 

Phil Goff and his Labour Party colleagues should perhaps reflect on these historical precedents before launching any further attacks upon Mr Harawira and his party. As once they were, so Mana is now: a fledgling movement, overshadowed by a much larger political organisation. 

Back in 1913 that party was the Liberal Party – which had dominated centre-left politics in New Zealand since 1890. Within 20 years of its formation, however, Labour – the new kid on the block – had become the government. 

Of course, it did not do that by terrifying the electorate. Labour’s revolutionary reputation was steadily reduced as what were once perceived as radical left-wing ideas became generally accepted as fair and reasonable solutions to the nation’s problems. 

This is the path that Mr Harawira and the Mana Party must follow: the path of winning over the electorate to their social, economic, cultural and constitutional programme. 

And this may not be as difficult as many commentators seem to think. 

After all, Maoridom is blessed with a plethora of media outlets, including its own, fully-fledged television network and a multitude of independent radio stations. Winning Maori hearts and minds poses no insuperable difficulties to Mana. 

Winning the support of the Pakeha electorate will be a much harder task. It will require an unprecedented measure of ideological sophistication to persuade the non-Maori voter that the new, radically bi-cultural New Zealand, which Mana means to construct, has as much to offer the ordinary Pakeha wage- and salary-earner as it does the young unemployed Maori of Te Tai Tokerau. 

Like T.W. Ratana, Mr Harawira must convince disadvantaged and aggrieved Maori that it is only in alliance with equally marginalised and exploited Pakeha workers that the “children of the poor” – brown and white – can aspire to a better future. 

Central to the success of this alliance will be a cultural revolution in which the frankly supremacist assumptions of the old settler state give way before a recognition that New Zealand is a Pacific nation: a place in which the most generous and creative impulses of Maori and European culture may be harnessed to produce something new and exciting on the world stage. 

That the impetus for this revolution comes from the North is entirely fitting. 

When the fish of Maui lashes its tail, how can Aotearoa fail to move forward? 

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 June 2011.

Monday 27 June 2011

Same Old, Same Old (Kelvin Davis on Hone Harawira's Victory)

Sore Loser: Labour's Kelvin Davis won 41 percent to Hone Harawira's 48 percent in the Te Tai Tokerau by-election - and that was after Labour had thrown everything they had into the contest. No matter which way Davis and his colleagues attempt to spin it, they tried to strangle Mana in its cradle - and they failed.

WHEN WILL THEY EVER LEARN? Listening to Labour’s Kelvin Davis putting the boot into Hone Harawira and Mana on Radio New Zealand this morning, I was reminded of the petty viciousness that also attended the birth of the NewLabour Party in 1989.

It was all there: the same overweening arrogance; the same blithe assumption that only the Labour Party has anything to contribute to the development of progressive politics in New Zealand. And, worst of all, the same sneering, belittling, mocking and disparaging tone.

It was the tone Labour adopted 22 years ago to deride and undermine Jim Anderton. Now it was being deployed against Hone Harawira.

As I listened to this political popinjay parroting the lines prepared for him, I found myself wondering how anybody could possibly have described Davis as “a good guy”.

Good Guys surely aren’t so reckless with the truth. Good guys surely don’t indulge in such small-minded character assassination. If Kelvin Davis is a “good guy”, all I can is: I’d hate to meet a bad one!

The most infuriating aspect of Davis’s spin is his proud boast that the by-election result has opened up the possibility of Labour reclaiming the Maori seats of Te Tai Tonga, Waiariki and Tamaki Makaurau.

There is, of course, some truth to this statement, but what Davis overlooks, in his indefatigable arrogance, is that the possibility of Labour taking these seats has only arisen because of Hone Harawira and the Mana Party.

It is Hone Harawira and Mana, the same man and the same party Davis so enjoys disparaging, that have redrawn the political landscape. Without Mana’s intervention there is every chance the Maori Party would have been able to hold those now at-risk seats. In doing so they would have provided John Key with at least four reliable votes – and in all likelihood the numbers to keep the National Party in power.

The success of the Mana Party, in almost certainly depriving National of those four votes, has improved dramatically the likelihood of Labour being able to form a government.

So why did Labour go all-out to strangle the infant Mana Party in its cradle? Why seek the political death of a man who could, potentially, do it so much good?

The answer to this question, sadly, is the same as the answer to the question: “Why didn’t Helen Clark intervene to rescue the Alliance?”

Because Labour remains absolutely determined to have “no enemies to the left”.

Labour simply cannot afford to loosen its grip on the working-class vote – even at the cost of remaining in Opposition – because it knows the moment any other political party succeeds in winning over the electors of seats like Mangere, Manukau East, Manurewa and Mana, Labour’s days as the leader of progressive politics in New Zealand are numbered.

Labour fears that it will end up fading from the electoral scene in precisely the same way that an increasingly right-wing Liberal Party faded in the years following the organised working-class’s 1916 decision to extricate itself from the Liberals’ paternalistic, middle-class grip.

In the words used by an old comrade to describe the political instincts of the Moscow-aligned Socialist Unity Party (which had a similar horror of a politically independent working class):

“[Labour] would rather keep control of the losing side, than lose control of the winning side.”

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Trotter On Hone Harawira's Victory in Te Tai Tokerau

Last night I was interviewed by Miriama Kamo about the implications of Hone's win in the Te Tai Tokerau by-election for TVNZ7 News At 8.

This clip won't be available much beyond tonight's bulletin - so watch it while you can.

A written analysis will be posted soon.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday 24 June 2011

Poll Positioning

Principled Decision Or Dangerous Gamble? Hone Harawira's fate, and the future of his new Mana Party, will turn on the number of residual Maori Party voters in the Te Tai Tokerau seat who decide to vote strategically and cast their ballot for Labour's Kelvin Davis.

MAORI TELEVISION’S POLL must have landed like a turd on the carpet at Mana Party headquarters. Suddenly, the race for Te Tai Tokerau was too close to call.

The coronation that Hone Harawira and his Mana Party campaigners were expecting had unaccountably become a contest.

The initial reaction of the Mana camp to the MTV poll was denial.

It is now an article of faith among some sections of the Left that the methodology of New Zealand pollsters is irredeemably flawed. They argue that since more and more young, brown and/or poor Kiwis no longer use landlines, polling agencies which continue to rely on interviews with landline subscribers are bound to produce results significantly skewed towards the opinions of old, white and rich voters.

The Mana Party’s most vociferous media champion, Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury is so certain of this that he refers to the results of the leading polling agencies as “brain farts”.

According to Bomber, the findings of the MTV poll – showing Hone Harawira on 41 percent; Labour’s Kelvin Davis on 40 percent; and the Maori Party’s Solomon Tipene on 15 percent – may be safely disregarded.

A statistically significant percentage of Hone’s core vote, says Bomber, is made up of the young, the economically-marginalised and the angry – voters who communicate by cell-phone. Had Maori Television’s pollster contacted these people, the explosive Mr Bradbury declared, the results would have shown Hone heading for a landslide by-election victory.

IF HONE’S CAMPAIGN COMMITTEE had faith in Bomber’s gospel it certainly wasn’t reflected in their actions. No less than Team Kelvin, Team Hone was well-and-truly galvanised by the MTV poll.

Carloads of young Mana supporters, some from as far away as Rotorua, headed north to muscle-up their champion’s effort.

Labour, too, called every activist to the party’s colours. Morale soared – and not without reason. In a straightforward get-out-the-vote effort, Labour has few rivals.

Or, perhaps, for the sake of accuracy, that should be, in general seats Labour has few rivals. Quite what the disaffected Maori electors of Te Tai Tokerau made of Labour’s middle-class Pakeha activists is anyone’s guess.

ON THE GROUND, then, it appears to have been a pretty fair fight: Mana’s youthful energy versus Labour’s well-honed professionalism. Even so, the fact that he and his people have been fighting on their own turf probably hasn’t hurt Hone’s chances.

Add to this home-ground advantage the irrefutable argument that by electing Kelvin, the voters of Te Tai Tokerau will get Kelvin alone. But a vote for Hone will net them two MPs: Hone as Mana’s Electorate MP for Te Tai Tokerau; Kelvin as a Labour Party List MP.

Two Maori MPs with just one vote – you can’t say fairer than that!

THE VAGARIES of First-Past-The-Post electoral contests are not, however, even remotely fair.

Provided his opponents remain loyal to their respective party colours, an FPP candidate’s mission is relatively straight-forward: get more votes than your nearest rival. Where things get murky is when the candidate’s opponents’ are so utterly determined upon his political destruction that they temporarily set aside their differences and swing the entire opposition vote behind the party with the best chance of defeating him. When that happens a simple plurality of votes won’t do. Faced with a united opposition, a candidate has to win more than half of the votes cast.

Can Hone do that?

He did it in 2008: polling 58.7 percent of the Electorate Vote he was a daunting 6,308 votes ahead of his nearest rival.

The question upon which Hone’s future, and the Far Left’s hopes for a radical socialist alternative to Labour and the Greens, hinges, is a simple one.

“How large is the Maori Party’s “swing-able” vote in Te Tai Tokerau?”

If, as the MTV Poll suggests, it’s around 15 percent, then Mr Harawira is in trouble.

If it’s less than 8 percent, he’s in.

By nine o’clock tomorrow evening we should know if, once again, old-age and treachery have out-gunned youthful idealism.

Fingers crossed.

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, 24 June 2011.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Buying Back The Farm

On The Right Track: But Labour's embrace of public ownership owed less to the party's socialist ideology than it did to rescuing privately-owned infrastructural companies that were too important to fail. If Labour really is interested in "buying back the farm" there are many well-tested ways of going about it.

THERE WAS SOMETHING immensely reassuring about Dr Don Brash’s outrage. His angry media release, in which he railed against Trevor Mallard’s “wanton economic thuggery”, vividly illustrated the Right’s abject terror at even the threat of effective state intervention in the economy.

All it had taken was a warning from Mr Mallard and his colleague, Clare Curran, that a future Labour Government would review and, if necessary, revoke legislatively, any contract/s conferring monopoly wholesale powers on the company (or companies) chosen to roll-out ultra-fast broadband across New Zealand.

According to Dr Brash, such statements – even when uttered by Opposition MPs – amount to nothing less than “economic sabotage”,  and immediately render the political party responsible “unfit for the Treasury benches”.

Strategically-speaking, Dr Brash’s outrage was extremely unwise. One should never allow one’s enemies to identify the weak-points in your defensive edifice. But identify them he did: warning that: “The threats about retroactive increases in fines for breaches of requirements are especially insidious.  Mr Mallard may just as well have erected a sign at Wellington airport saying, ‘Invest here at your peril. If we get in, all bets are off.’”

In those two pithy sentences, Dr Brash revealed to Labour exactly how it could prevent the National-led Government’s planned privatisation of state assets. They also show how, if it was of a mind to do so, Labour might set about “buying back the farm”.

A simple statement from the Labour Party that any sale of publicly owned businesses would be overturned legislatively and the purchaser/s compensated with slow-maturing government bonds, would instantly send potential investors running (and quite probably screaming) in the opposite direction.

But, in the nine years it was out of power (1990-1999), the Labour Party refused to issue any such threat, a fact that speaks volumes about its true level of commitment to the maintenance and revitalisation of a mixed, social-democratic economy.

For a brief period during the early 1990s the Alliance and NZ First did that job for them, with both of the insurgent parties promising to take the privatised state assets back into public ownership. The exigencies of coalition government, however, proved incompatible with the Alliance’s and NZ First’s re-nationalisation programmes – to the point where, by 2001, the very mention of the idea was enough to send Jim Anderton into a towering rage.

One of the reasons for abandoning the policy was its enormous cost. If the purchasers of state assets were to be fully compensated for the loss of their property rights the state would have to come up with nearly $20 billion. That international lenders would stump up the cash for such an ideologically passé programme was highly unlikely. Nor was outright confiscation a realistic option. (Not if one wanted to continue sending expensive airliners around the world without having them impounded.)

There are, of course, many more ways to skin a privatised cat than by re-purchasing it at market price or confiscating it outright, but so long as Labour remained uninterested (except when required to rescue the key infrastructural companies Air NZ and Tranzrail from abject market failure) no one was very interested in discovering what these might be.

To facilitate this process of discovery, it is necessary to take a look at how revolutionary regimes have handled the task of moving from an economy dominated by the private sector to one controlled, at least at the level of its “commanding heights”, by the state.

In this respect, the People’s Republic of China offers some interesting models.

The final victory of Mao’s People’s Liberation Army in 1949 did not, as many right-wingers probably assume, lead to the immediate socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. In reality, the transition from capitalism to socialism took the best part of a decade.

The most successful technique for socialising private concerns involved a law requiring private and publicly-listed companies to issue shares to the state. Initially, this public shareholding was quite small – 5 to 10 percent – just enough to ensure that at least one of the company’s board of directors was an appointee of the government.

Not surprisingly, the passage of this law caused huge alarm among private investors, most of whom made haste to sell their shares to whoever was willing to buy them. With the price of publicly-listed companies’ shares plummeting, the opportunity naturally arose for the state to step in and acquire (at a huge discount) an even greater share of the nation’s leading businesses. [Labour Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, could have done the same with Tranzrail when their shares hit rock-bottom in 2003. His refusal to do so cost the taxpayers approximately $400 million!]

With the socialist writing now extremely clear on China’s wall, the remaining large-scale privately-owned Chinese businesses negotiated whatever deals they could with the Communist Government and exited the market. By 1960 the private-sector economy of China had all but ceased to exist.

China’s re-embrace of the market in the 1980s offers ample proof that the process is readily reversible (even if “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics” is a very different beast from the neo-liberal variety familiar to us in the West).

It should be clear, however, even from this brief description of the socialisation of the Chinese economy, how very right Dr Brash was to be alarmed at what he called the “political caprice and retrospective vandalism” of Mr Mallard. The financial spigot that prevents capitalism from becoming fatally dehydrated is, in practice, pathetically simple to shut off. Investors confronted with the prospect of even modest state interference at the microeconomic level will almost always cash-up and run.

And, of course, such microeconomic intervention is almost always complemented by a series of equally “persuasive” macroeconomic “reforms” – particularly in relation to taxation and the re-organisation of the labour market.

The deliberate undermining of investor confidence, combined with a concerted weakening of managerial prerogatives by the state and its legislatively empowered trade union allies, is all that a genuinely socialist government really needs to do to send the edifice of capitalism crashing to the ground.

Dr Brash gets it.

I wonder if Labour ever will?

This essay is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Who's In Charge And Where's The Plan?

Obviously Blind: The Earthquake Recovery Minister, Gerry Brownlee, to whom aggrieved Cantabrians have turned for information and assistance does not appear to perceive the degree to which he and the Government have failed to meet the reasonable expectations of the people of Christchurch - and New Zealand. What we need is the fullest exertion of national will. What we've got is National ineptitude.

WATCHING HELPLESSLY as Cantabrians stoically retrace their steps through the stations of their city’s seismic crucifixion, the rest of New Zealand is demanding to know: “Who’s in charge?” and “Where’s the plan?”

Gerry Brownlee is the Minister in Charge of Re-building Christchurch. Bob Parker is the Mayor of Christchurch. Roger Sutton is the CEO of the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) and Ian Simpson is head of the Earthquake Commission (EQC).

And onto a stage already crowded with people in charge, we note that the insurance and reinsurance companies; local and national politicians; the news media; and what remains of Canterbury civil society (employers, unions, heritage activists, architects, retailers, etc) have also invited themselves.

Viewed from a distance, Christchurch appears to be represented by a cross-talking, often bickering gaggle of increasingly irritable spokespeople. No one appears to have a plan, or, if they do, it’s a plan no one else is allowed to see.

Meanwhile, the quakes keep coming.

With mounting frustration, New Zealanders are watching their fellow citizens struggle through these bleak June days sans power, sans water, sans toilets – sans everything.

And you know what, Christchurch? The rest of New Zealand is getting bloody angry.

THE FIRST QUESTION we’d like answered is: “Is Christchurch caught up in one seismic event or many?”

It’s time the seismologists and earth-scientists came clean on this one. Because one thing is very clear: what’s happening in and around Christchurch is no ordinary seismic event.

If you doubt that, then just take a look at what’s happening in Japan. After experiencing one of the most devastating seismic shocks in recorded human history, Japan is well on the way to recovery. Sure, there have been aftershocks, but of lesser force, and they are dwindling.

That’s the typical seismic sequence after a major quake. But it does not appear to be what’s happening in Christchurch.

After millennia of stasis, the earth’s crust around Christchurch is on the move. Vast amounts of energy are being released as tectonic pressure realigns and redistributes itself. More than one seismologist has suggested that the process could take years, even decades. That may be a mere blink of the eye in geological time; but it’s an interminable wait for human-beings desperate to re-start their lives.

Surely it’s not beyond the resources of our government to summon this country’s own – and the world’s – leading seismologists to a scientific conference dedicated to making sense of what’s going on beneath Cantabrians’ feet? This country has some of the world’s best CGI animators; could they not be commissioned to represent graphically the best scientific consensus of what’s happening ten, twenty, thirty kilometres down?

All of us – but particularly the people of Christchurch – need to know what we’re living through.

THE SECOND QUESTION goes to the very heart of the dithering and inaction plaguing Christchurch’s recovery: “Has New Zealand forgotten how to exercise its national will?”

Are we no longer sufficiently generous as a nation to formulate a clear and resolute response to a disaster of this magnitude?

Have our leaders become too disdainful of their own people to ask them for the sort of courage and sacrifice the Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser asked of New Zealanders during the six long years of the Second World War?

Where are the swingeing increases in personal and corporate taxation that funded New Zealand’s war effort? Where are the drives for Christchurch Recovery Bonds? Where are the marshalled forces of the unemployed? The special training facilities dedicated to turning out carpenters, electricians, plumbers – all the trades required to rebuild a shattered city?

One of my very best friends is a richly qualified engineer and town- planner: why are his extraordinary skills un-needed; his visionary ideas un-heeded?

What in God’s name is wrong with our leaders?

Do they really believe that if they transgress against the “Holy Free Market” the ghost of Adam Smith (or, more appropriately, Ayn Rand) will strike them dead?

Do they not understand that the only “invisible hand” at work in New Zealand right now is the one that’s smashing Christchurch to pieces?

THE THIRD QUESTION follows naturally from the second: “Are we being held hostage by the institutions upon which our insurers’ reinsurers ultimately rely to meet their obligations – the international banks?”

Unwilling to ask their own people for the resources to rebuild the nation’s second city and, therefore, dependent upon the insurance industry (and its reinsurers) for the cash to commence Christchurch’s reconstruction, is the Government unwilling to release any recovery plans to which their finance-sector masters have not given prior approval?

BECAUSE if that really is the situation, then the Prime Minister would be better advised to organise a mass exodus of all quake-affected Cantabrians to Australia.

They’d be better paid, better housed, and altogether better off – across the Tasman.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 June 2011. 

Friday 17 June 2011

Why The Greens Should Watch Adam Curtis

Soul Destroying: The classical ecological paradigm regards a state of equilibrium as Nature's "default setting".  Adam Curtis's latest series of documentaries argues that our faith in "the balance of nature" is in fact a manifestation of our own inability to meaningfully disturb the equilibrium of the political and economic machinery in which we are enmeshed. Finding ourselves unable to beat the machines, we appear to be trying to join them.

ADAM CURTIS makes television programmes that challenge our understanding of the world. To call this puckish fifty-five-year-old’s productions documentaries scarcely does them justice. Curtis ransacks his BBC employers’ visual archives for his trademark rapid-fire imagery, and makes free with both classical and popular music for his films’ evocative soundtracks. Elucidated and enhanced by these sensory onslaughts, Curtis’ ideas strike hard and sink deep in the minds of his viewers.

His latest offering, a three-part series entitled All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace should be compulsory viewing for every member of the Greens’ caucus and party.

They won’t enjoy it, but I’m confident it would do them a world of good.

Because the second part of Curtis’s trilogy, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”, interrogates and then radically deconstructs one of the central tenets of the green belief system, that: left to themselves, all ecosystems tend towards a state of equilibrium.

It’s the idea which underpins the entire environmental movement. Stripped of the notion that some mysterious natural force somehow keeps all things in balance, the prospect of the human species abandoning its destructive behaviour – and thereby earning itself a “sustainable” niche in Mother Nature’s steady state – becomes a chimera.

Curtis’s challenge to the original ecological paradigm forms just one part of a much broader critique of the way in which men and women of the twentieth and twenty-First centuries have attempted to empty human behaviour of its moral and political dynamism by applying to it the soulless logic of mechanical systems.

At first blush, this would appear to have little or nothing to do with green ideology. Surely the logic of the machine is precisely what greens are fighting against?

What Curtis demonstrates, however, is that the stereotype of the “luddite” green is almost entirely mistaken. By a series of daring conceptual leaps, Curtis links the right-wing libertarianism and extreme individualism of the tea-partiers’ guru, Ayn Rand, with the “turn on, tune in and drop out” libertarianism of the Californian hippies.

The link? Cybernetics.

Cybernetics and systems theory gave rise to the notion that computers could not only free capitalism from the regulatory chains of the social-democratic herd, but that they would make possible a world in which human-beings and the natural world “did their own thing” in perfect harmony.

The curious title of Curtis’s series is taken from a poem by the celebrated 60’s poet, Richard Brautigan. He wrote of:

a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Curtis challenges the superficial radicalism of Brautigan’s hippie vision by drawing on the very real experiences of those who took the systems theory utopians like Buckminster Fuller at their word and established communes of networked, non-hierarchical, self-organising individuals held in equilibrium by the self-correcting influence of “feedback loops”.

What brought these communes to their bitter, often violent, ends was that their anti-political ethos, far from eliminating coercion and exploitation, actually ended up facilitating it. By forbidding majority decision-making and the formation of factions (evil manifestations of the despised practice of politics) all the communards had done was draft a bully’s charter.

Because all human (and natural) systems are dynamic and subject to constant challenge and response, the question of agency is inescapable. Moral and political decisions cannot be magically excised from our social and economic environment unless – and this is the whole point of Curtis’s series – we are willing to regard ourselves as nothing more than amoral bio-machines.

The conflict within the New Zealand Greens, which Sue Bradford has written about with considerable passion of late, carries alarming echoes of Curtis’s critique. The Greens’ prohibition against faction-forming, and their distaste for majority decision-making, sound remarkably similar to the rules of those dysfunctional Californian communes.

Add to this their newfound willingness to become just another “responsible” component in the political circuitry of capitalism, and Sue’s concerns are readily understood.

That’s why Russel Norman, Metiria Turei and their colleagues should invest three hours in watching Curtis’s remarkable trilogy.

It will remind them of what they once had – and are at mortal risk of losing.

The insight that it’s only our ability to make moral decisions that makes us human.

And that there’s absolutely nothing “natural” about it.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 June 2011.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Of Dragons & Taniwhas

Guardians For Good Or Ill: The European dragon - like its Maori counterpart, the taniwha - attaches itself to things we treasure ... or fear. The patronising response to the Central Auckland taniwha, Horotiu, reveals just how challenging the linguistic and cosmological metaphors of pre-scientific cultures have become for a great many Pakeha New Zealanders. 

HERE BE DRAGONS, wrote the old cartographers when their meagre store of facts about the world was finally exhausted. Here, at the frontiers of human knowledge, only myths, legends and the tall tales of travellers remained to fill up the blank spaces on their maps.

In the oral tradition of the Maori, the word to describe an elemental danger; the threat of the unknown; or that perception of brooding malignity which somehow attaches itself to a place – is taniwha.

It is interesting to compare Oriental and European dragon lore with taniwha lore, for it is immediately apparent that they have a great deal in common.

For the old map-makers the creature was mostly metaphor. “Here be dragons” simply meant, “here be things we know nothing about, but which are potentially extremely dangerous, so travellers should be on their guard.”

In Chinese mythology, the dragon symbolises elemental force: a creature to command air,  fire, earth and water. Chinese dragons are wise, and their interventions in the lives of men – be they for good or ill – are decisive. The Year of the Dragon is typically a year of dramatic change.

European dragons, as every reader of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien knows, are very different creatures. They are more cunning than wise, and if they are decisive it is almost always in a destructive sense.

The European dragon is besotted with riches of all kinds: gold, jewels, costly weapons and armour, magical objects of every description. Gathering them into a mighty hoard, usually deep inside a mountain or underground cavern, the dragon curls its vast bulk around its treasure and loses itself in dark dreams of avarice until, awakened by its insatiable lust for wealth, it slithers forth to wreak havoc upon the world of men.

As brooding, evil presences; keepers of secrets; and guardians of sacred places and/or magical objects; dragons and taniwha would appear to be close relations.

This is especially true of their power to draw to them the most courageous and/or foolhardy representatives of the human world. Whether it be Jason and his Argonauts; the Germanic hero, Siegfried, bathing in the blood of Fafnir; Tolkien’s plucky hobbit, Bilbo Baggins; or C.S. Lewis’ Eustace Scrubb: the hero’s encounter with the dragon is inevitably transformational.

It is no different in Maori mythology: no hero emerges from his or her encounter with the taniwha unscathed – or unchanged.

THE FURORE which erupted around a member of Auckland City’s Maori Advisory Board’s reference to the taniwha, Horotiu, is, perhaps, a measure of how detached we Europeans have become from the myths and legends which define our culture.

The angry denunciations of Maori superstition, and the snide racism that quickly manifested itself on talkback radio, the blogosphere and across the news media, revealed just how challenging the linguistic and cosmological metaphors of pre-scientific cultures have become for so many Pakeha New Zealanders.

Horotiu may guard something precious, or, he may control something dangerous. Whichever it is, the Maori people who lived alongside the stream he personified, clearly regarded him as something or someone you disrespected at your peril.

Engineers seeking the optimum route for Auckland’s underground rail loop should probably do the same. And the Auckland Council – ever anxious to save ratepayers’ funds – has nothing to lose and, potentially, much to gain by tapping the folk-wisdom of those who have lived on the porous volcanic crust of the Auckland isthmus for 700 years.

CELTIC FOLKLORE tells of a king, Vortigern, whose attempts to construct the city of Dinas Emrys were constantly thwarted by violent earthquakes which, every night, brought low his stonemasons’ efforts. It was the wizard, Merlin, who divined that the earthquakes were caused by the mortal struggle of two dragons fighting one another deep below the king’s feet. Only when these dragons ceased their nightly struggles, said Merlin, could the city be built.

Surely, here is a metaphor we New Zealanders could use to our advantage? For isn’t our own civic peace troubled by the fruitless and destructive conflict between the white dragon and his brown taniwha brother? And, wouldn’t the chances of building something fine and enduring here in Aotearoa-New Zealand be greatly improved if we were willing to release these cultural antagonists from the dark cavern of our national psyche and introduce them to the sun?

Who knows? By the light of day the dragon and the taniwha might look a lot less like enemies than they do allies. Or even friends.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 June 2011.

Friday 10 June 2011

The Gluckman Report: Acknowledging The Symptoms, Ignoring The Causes

The Morbid Relationship of Politics and Science: Professor Sir Peter Gluckman's report to the Prime Minister addresses the biological and psychological aspects of human maturation but fails to locate these in their socio-economic and political contexts. Twenty-percent of Kiwi adolescents aren't making the transition to adulthood easily, says the Professor. Did anyone ask if they were raised in the 15-20 percent of families whose incomes fall below the poverty line?

WHAT A SHAME. To hear the news media tell it, the story of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman’s report to the Prime Minister was one of disinterested science versus ill-informed populism. 

In a world dominated by sound-bites and focus-groups, John Key’s hand-picked scientific adviser was heroically making the case for evidence-based policies. 

“Social investment in New Zealand should take more account of the growing evidence that prevention and intervention strategies applied early in life are more effective in altering outcomes and reap more economic returns over the life course than do strategies applied later.” 

So says Professor Gluckman and his team – adding for good measure that: “This will require long-term commitment to appropriate policies and programmes.” 

For those in the policy-making community this must have been an “Alleluia Moment”. Could it be, that after years of denigration and marginalisation at the hands of the political class, experts and expertise were about to make a come-back? 

Well, I for one hope not. At least not these “experts” or this “expertise”. 

Because, reading through Improving the Transition: Reducing Social and Psychological Morbidly During Adolescence, it quickly becomes clear that this “science” is very “interested” indeed – and not in a good way.

THE HISTORY of scientific involvement in the formation of social policy is not a happy one. From the pernicious social theories of the 19th Century eugenicist Sir Francis Galton, to the authoritarian social-engineering offered up in the Trilateral Commission’s 1976 report Crisis of Democracy: On the Governability of Democracies, the interventions of “disinterested science” have almost always ended up arguing for an intensification of social controls and the consequent curtailment of individual liberty. 

The essence of Professor Gluckman’s argument is that, over the course of the last half-century, the human developmental phase known as “adolescence” has grown longer, and that the discoveries of biological science should be applied to the task of reducing the social and psychological “morbidity” of the “at least 20 % of young New Zealanders” who are failing to navigate this extended period of sub-adulthood successfully.

OH DEAR, oh dear, oh dear: there is just so much wrong with Professor Gluckman’s approach – it’s hard to know where to begin. 

For a start, his thesis is utterly ahistorical – a deficiency which renders most of the report redundant. It neglects to acknowledge that “adolescence” itself is much more of a social than a scientific construct. An ex post facto justification for the very political decision to keep children out of the industrial labour force. 

Prior to the rise of industrial capitalism, women and children had participated fully in the processes of production, and the family formation process was usually underway by the late teens. 

And even after the social reformers of the 19th Century had put an end to child labour, no legal impediment was raised to employing 12 to 15-year-olds on farms and in factories. 

Those of us over 50 will have little difficulty in remembering people who left high-school at 15, married at 19 or 20 and were parents long before they were 25. No one back then questioned their “social and psychological” fitness for these roles; they were adult citizens in good-standing; holding down jobs, paying off homes and raising families. 

It’s this historical data that Professor Gluckman and his team quite simply refused to confront. 

If there is social and psychological morbidly in New Zealand society, the explanation is not to be found in our genes, or the development of our brains, but in the political and economic decisions that have made the unnatural extension of “adolescence” inevitable. 

Reintroduce full employment and free tertiary education, Professor Gluckman, and watch the morbidity of “at least 20% of young New Zealanders” plummet. Restore State Advances housing loans and the universal Family Benefit, and be astounded at how much earlier those young New Zealanders take on the responsibilities of adulthood. 

To paraphrase Marx: The Scientists have only investigated the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it. 

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, 10 June 2011.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Compromised Integrity

Defining Moment: Non-violent Direct Action provokes overt state violence. It was Rob Muldoon's squandering of the State's moral authority which guaranteed the Anti-Apartheid Movement's ultimate victory. To conflate the alleged actions of the "Urewera 18" with those of the Springbok Tour protesters (as Valerie Morse and John Minto did last Sunday) is to compromise the historical integrity of one of New Zealand's pivotal political events.

THERE ARE EVENTS that stand alone in our history: the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915; the 1951 Waterfront Dispute; the 1981 Springbok Tour.

They’re the sort of events which helped to define us as a nation; events which exerted a profound influence on New Zealand society and helped to shape the perceptions and expectations of a generation. Such events merit our respect – and under no circumstances should they become the occasion for political mischief-making.

In seeking to preserve the integrity of these key historical moments we can, of course, only appeal to the innate decency of our fellow citizens.

The Supreme Court of New Zealand recently quashed the conviction of Valerie Morse – the young woman found guilty of disorderly behaviour in the lower courts for setting fire to the New Zealand flag at an ANZAC Day ceremony.

I salute that decision.

A great deal of the meaning we attach to ANZAC Day is bound up with the idea of democracy and the sacrifices New Zealanders have made in its defence.

Ms Morse’s behaviour may have been ill-judged, ill-mannered and emblematic of the infantile solipsism of the Far Left, but the Supreme Court acted correctly in upholding her right to free speech.

But, freedom of speech cuts both ways. Ms Morse may have been attempting to draw attention to New Zealand’s military engagement in Afghanistan by disrupting an ANZAC Day ceremony, but her actions achieved a great deal more than that.

In the eyes of most New Zealanders she’d demonstrated an extraordinary level of ignorance about the country whose good name she was, ostensibly, so determined to defend.

And that’s not all. Ms Morse’s behaviour also rendered the many thousands of Kiwis who shared her disquiet about New Zealand’s presence in Afghanistan guilty, by association, of desecrating their country’s flag.

By cynically exploiting the symbolic power of ANZAC Day, Ms Morse gave offense to thousands, alienated potential allies and deeply compromised the entire anti-war movement.

It is precisely this fear of being lumped in with the extremism of the Far Left that has prevented me from joining in all the ballyhoo surrounding the so-called “Urewera 18” – the individuals arrested, initially on terrorism charges  for allegedly participating in military-style training camps in the Urewera Ranges in 2006-2007. [Correction: While the Police intended to lay charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act, the required permission to do so was denied on the advice of the Solicitor-General. The defendants were actually arrested on charges relating to the Arms Act. C.T.]

In what can only be described as a triumph of their defence lawyers’ skills, these defendants (now facing firearms charges) have been transformed into the blameless victims of state oppression.

Within 72 hours of their arrest, they were already being presented as martyrs to freedom; harmless activists caught up in a world-wide, post-9/11, United States-directed campaign to stamp out political activism of all kinds.

As such they have become the cause de jour among that peculiar sub-culture of leftists who simply cannot conceive of anybody taking their ideals seriously enough to die – or kill – for.

“Tame Iti’s not a terrorist,” they declare, snorting derisively into their chardonnay “he’s an artist!”

These are the sort of people who turn out to special screenings of “Operation Eight” – the outrageously one-sided “documentary” about the 2007 “police terror raids”. Or, as they did on Sunday, to a Wellington art auction fronted by “key organiser of the 1981 Springbok Tour protests” (and prospective Mana Party candidate) John Minto, and one of the 18 accused – our old friend, Valerie Morse.

Well, it’s a free country. If Mr Minto and Ms Morse decide to host an art auction – it’s no skin off my nose.

Except that it is.

Because it wasn’t just an art auction that they were fronting, but an event to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Springbok Tour protests.

And I object to that in the strongest terms.

Because whatever was going down in the Urewera Ranges in 2006-2007 bears no comparison whatsoever with the mass protests of 1981.

Those demonstrations were a testament to the power of mass, non-violent protest.

The only training camps the anti-tour movement sponsored were set up to teach the principles of non-violent direct action; the same principles that animated Te Whiti O Rongomai, Ghandi and Dr Martin Luther King.

For Mr Minto and his “Concerned Citizen” sponsors to conflate the ideals and activities of the 1981 Anti-Tour Movement with the legal defence strategies of the 18 individuals arrested in relation to events alleged to have occurred in the Urewera Ranges in 2006-2007 is political legerdemain of the most cynical kind.

Those who broke the law in 1981 did so openly and proudly, and they wore their sentences as badges of honour. The witness they bore against Apartheid made a real difference and was ultimately morally vindicated by the peaceful political liberation of black South Africa.

Ms Morse has not only burned her country’s flag, with Mr Minto’s help she’s compromised the integrity of one of its great and defining moments.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 June 2011.

Friday 3 June 2011

Feedback (A Political Ghost Story)

Dreaming Reality: This was as far as I got, Phil ... But it was more than I ever dreamed I'd have, mate. Much more.

“THIS IS WEIRD,” muttered Phil Goff, as he headed up the narrow concrete path. “I thought I knew every state-house in this cul-de-sac, but this place looks brand new.”

The Labour leader looked back for the camera crews that had been following him around for most of the morning, but they were nowhere to be seen. His chief advisor was also missing.

“Gee-Jay! Where are you mate?”

His words were curiously muffled – as if he was speaking into a room full of cotton wool.

And the light was changing.

Before his disbelieving eyes the everyday colours of the street faded into the sharp black-and-white contrasts of an old National Film Unit newsreel.

“Come on in, Phil, I’ve been waiting for you.”

The Leader of the Opposition swung round to see a tall, rangy sort of bloke framed in the state-house’s front doorway. Something about the man reminded Phil of his father – or, at least, of his father’s generation. He had the same lean physique, the same pride of bearing that Phil had seen in the old newsreels of New Zealand soldiers marching down to the troopships in 1940.

“Jack’s the name”, said the stranger, extending an enormous calloused hand, “come in and have a brew.”

Phil cast a disbelieving eye over the spacious kitchen. He’d done plenty of canvassing in his day; been in plenty of houses where time appeared to have stood still; but this was uncanny. Nothing in the room could’ve been less than 70 years old – and yet, everything looked brand new.

Jack pushed a heavy china cup full of sweet tea in his direction.

“I haven’t been given very long, Phil”, he began, taking a long draw from the hand-rolled cigarette dangling at the corner of his mouth. “So I’d ask you to just keep shtoom for a few minutes while I say me piece.”

Phil nodded silently.

“This was as far as I got, Phil.” Jack indicated with a sweeping gesture the house they were sitting in, “Before the war started and I kept my appointment with a German bullet at Galatas, in Crete.

“But it was more than I ever dreamed I’d have, mate. Much more. And you know who gave it to me, don’t you, Phil? Because they gave it to your family too. It was Labour, Phil – the party you now lead.

“They were dreamers – the men who led Labour in the 20s and 30s. And their dreams were big. Really big.

“What happened to your dreams, Phil? Do you still see ahead of you the country that Mickey Savage and Jack Lee and Peter Fraser saw? The country they’d begun to explore? Because, mate, by the end of the Thirties, blokes like me, we were dreaming reality.

“I’m not sure you’re still dreaming the right dreams, Phil. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’ve forgotten how. All that stuff you did back in the 1980s. Mate, it’s muddied up the windows in your soul. You need to take a bucket and a rag and start wiping. Let some light in.

“And this prancing pony you’ve got for a Prime Minister, Phil. Just leave him be. Your job is to recall Labour’s people to themselves; to the fundamental goodness at the core of the Kiwi character. The goodness that built this house; that created my job; that gave birth to Mickey’s welfare state.

“The goodness I was happy to die for, Phil.

“And don’t be bound by those who tell you it can’t be done; unleash instead those who know it can be done – it must be done.

“Last day of my life, Phil. Battle of Galatas. We’re falling back before the Jerries – there’s panic in the ranks. You know what I heard? The voice of our commanding officer, Colonel Kippenberger. Over the din of the battle, we all heard him, calling out in a great voice: ‘Stand for New Zealand!  Stand every man who is a soldier! Stand for New Zealand!’

“That’s Labour’s job, Phil. It’s the job you’ve got to do. Before the old enemy sucks all the goodness out of it. Before its gone.

“Stand for New Zealand.”

Jack exhaled a great cloud of blinding smoke.

Phil Goff blinked.

“You okay Phil?”

The Labour Leader’s chief-of-staff peered quizzically into his boss’s ashen face.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

This short story was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 June 2011.