Tuesday 31 January 2012

Christchurch City Council Needs Choristers - Not Soloists

A Dangerous Duet: The failure of leadership on the part of the Christchurch City Council's CEO, Tony Marryatt (Left) and its Mayor, Bob Parker (Right) has plunged the city's sole remaining local democratic institution into crisis. The appointment of a Government "Observer" to "advise" Cantabrians' democratically elected representatives has only added to their humiliation.

CANTABRIANS DESERVED BETTER from the Christchurch City Council. Thanks to the inability of their elected representatives to fulfil their civic responsibilities, the citizens of Christchurch may lose their right to local democratic representation.

The humiliation of a government-appointed “observer” has already been visited upon the Council, and the threat of outright dissolution, though unspoken, is very real. Political gridlock in the face of critical decisions that cannot wait was the excuse for shutting down the Canterbury Regional Council. It’s a daunting precedent.

The tragic aspect of Christchurch’s local government crisis is that it comes at a time when the need for effective democratic representation has never been greater. The huge destruction wrought by a succession of earthquakes has spawned an equally huge array of public and private remedial bureaucracies. Equipped with formidable powers, these bureaucracies march to the mechanical drum-beat of hierarchy and administrative fiat – not democratic accountability. The men and women elected to the Christchurch City Council constitute the only effective local check upon the power of these institutions. To be the voice of the quake-stricken people of Christchurch, they must cease acting as soloists and become choristers.

But to meld a council of strong-willed and opinionated individuals into a united team of citizens’ advocates requires leadership of the highest order. Unfortunately, this has not been forthcoming. Neither the Mayor, Bob Parker, nor the Council CEO, Tony Marryatt, appear to have grasped the urgency of transforming the Council into the principal advocate of – and for – Christchurch’s battered citizens. On the contrary, both men seem to have scant regard for the three principles indispensable to the construction of unity: transparency; consultation; and accountability.

Local democracy is not about gathering together a bare majority of compliant cronies whose sole contribution to local government is to rubber-stamp the joint recommendations of the Mayor and his CEO. And it is certainly not about the Mayor’s cronies, puffed-up with pride at their insider status, heaping scorn upon those councillors denied admission to the magic circle of power. Indeed, nothing is more calculated to breed disunity, disaffection and defensiveness: the very feelings that cause politicians to resort to that time-honoured response to secrecy and exclusion – the leak.

Of all the many sins capable of arousing the fury of administrative authoritarians the leaking of privileged information is the most egregious. Their invariable response is to double-down on the secrecy while setting in motion a witch-hunt for the person or persons responsible. The “Us versus Them” mentality is thus transferred from the council table to the council bureaucracy. In consequence, the political and administrative dysfunction, far from being reduced, intensifies.

Administrative Authoritarianism thus lies at the heart of Christchurch’s local government crisis. In a nutshell, the administrative authoritarian regards the elected representative as an ill-informed, unprofessional irritant to the “effective and efficient” operation of whatever institution they have been hired (usually on an exorbitant salary) to administer.

A CEO in the grip of administrative authoritarianism has a vested interest in surrounding himself with vainglorious but intellectually vacuous politicians; persons easily persuaded to stand in the glare of the media’s spotlights and “sell” policies they had no hand in fashioning, and about which they have little to contribute beyond the talking-points handed to them by the CEO’s public relations “experts”.

Two manifestations of administrative authoritarianism deserve special attention. The so far unsuccessful attempts by local government officials to impose legal restraints on the degree to which elected representatives can participate in contentious debates. And, the Local Government Commission’s on-going campaign to reduce the number of elected representatives on city councils and with them the ratio of councillors to citizens.

In 1993, Christchurch – which then boasted a council of twenty-four elected representatives – won the coveted Carl Bertelsmann Prize for “Best Governed City in the World”. A decade later the Local Government Commission reduced the number of Christchurch City Councillors to twelve. Where once the Mayor and CEO of Christchurch City had to round-up twelve to thirteen compliant councillors, they now needed to corral only six or seven.

The subordination of active democratic participation to “effective and efficient” management is a dangerous development at the best of times, but in the face of natural disasters on the scale of the Christchurch earthquakes it is nothing less than catastrophic.

Citizens desperate to “get things done” all-too-easily fall prey to the hard-edged promptings of administrative authoritarians – handing over powers that should never be surrendered to those who dismiss democracy as an unwelcome hindrance to “good governance”.

Disasters bring with them remedial institutions guided by – at best – a ruthless utilitarianism. Which is why, amidst impassive bureaucracies dedicated to “the greatest good for the greatest number” there must remain a united and democratic Christchurch City Council, jealously guarding its power to protect and serve that most vulnerable, but important, of persons: the individual citizen.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31st January 2012.

Friday 27 January 2012

To: Occupy Auckland. From: A Vacillating Leftist.

Who Should I Fight? The Police clear Auckland's Aotea Square, inciting anger and frustration. In the end, however, revolutions are not made out of testosterone or adrenalin, but from ideas people are ready to follow. Occupy Auckland identified the problem, but was less than successful in identifying solutions.

I’VE BEEN THERE you know. In that place where you are now. The place where frustration and anger overwhelm reason and the only questions are “How did it happen?” and “Why did it happen?” and “Who should I fight?”

The thing is, you can’t stay there. Frustration and anger are the flames of a mental fire that will consume you – if you let it. And when there’s nothing left to burn: when, politically speaking, you’ve been reduced to embers and ash; what good are you then? To the movement? To your comrades? To yourself?

Where do you think the expression “burned out” comes from?

It’s time to stop now. Time to take stock. Time to think about those questions.

How did it happen? That’s easy. You didn’t have a plan. Occupying Aotea Square wasn’t a plan, it was a beginning: a means to an end; a way of starting a conversation with the people of Auckland. But to have a conversation you’ve got to be ready to do two things: talk, and listen.

You had to be prepared to talk to everyone. Not just to the people who joined you in the Square, but to those who never came anywhere near the Square. And you needed to listen to everyone – including your opponents. How many of you tuned-in to the talkback shows? How many of you rang in? How many wrote letters to the Editor of the Herald? Or contacted Close Up and Campbell Live? How many got on blogs like this one to argue Occupy Auckland’s case?

And what, come to think of it, was Occupy Auckland’s case? That Capitalism is harmful to small furry animals, children, and other living things? That inequality sucks?

Gee! Who knew?

You must have known that simply naming your enemy is never enough. At some point you’ve got to decide how to fight him. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person in Auckland who struggled to understand how erecting a dozen-or-so tents could ever achieve anything more than drawing people’s attention to the issues of poverty and inequality.

Did you ever think about inviting the Mayor to address one of your General Assembly meetings? Or the Prime Minister? Or the Leader of the Opposition? Did you ever consider asking CTU President, Helen Kelly, what her solutions to poverty or inequality might be? Or the Child Poverty Action Group’s? Or the Maori Women’s Welfare League’s? Or Plunket’s?

Did anyone ever consider asking the Mayor if he and his staff could identify any wasteland in the city that could serve as a camp ground? Or if there were areas that could be turned into community gardens? Did anyone ever think of asking Aucklanders to help Occupy Auckland grow food for families who were struggling to feed their kids? There are lots of good conversations to be had while making a garden.

How did Occupy Auckland end so badly? Easy. Not enough talking, and nowhere near enough listening.

The answer to “Why did it happen?” is even more straight forward.

Public bodies cannot tolerate a permanent challenge to their authority. Eventually they will take measures to demonstrate that they still have the power. You all knew that. I suspect there were some of you who were even looking forward to the City Council proving that it – and not you – had the power. Why? Because then you would have an answer to the third question: “Who should I fight?”

But revolutions are not made with testosterone or adrenalin. They are made by people with an idea so attractive, so compelling, so all-embracing that other people – thousands of other people – will pour into the streets to affirm it. Like they did in Tahrir Square – for Liberty. Like they did in Wall Street – for Equality. As they might have done in Aotea Square – for Fraternity.

If there had been anyone there who understood what it meant – or how to make it.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Labour's Kodachrome Moment

The Nice Bright Colours: Eastman-Kodak has been forced to close its doors because it failed to grasp that the business it was in was the business of preserving people's memories - not making colour film. The Labour Party makes a similar mistake. It thinks it's in the vote-gathering business when, in reality, it's in the business of selling a more secure today and a more exciting tomorrow.

KODACHROME’s gifts, according to Paul Simon’s 1973 hit single, were the “nice bright colours”, the “greens of summer” and a magical ability to make all the world “a sunny day”. The Eastman-Kodak corporation’s eponymous product, for which Simon’s snappy little ditty acted as a world-wide advertisement, was indisputably one of the hottest technological properties of its day.

Sad to learn, then, that in January 2012, America’s colour-film colossus is finally closing its doors. The nice bright colours and the greens of summer no longer require a Nikon camera loaded with 36 of Eastman-Kodak’s exposures. Unlike the songwriter, the world’s great pioneer of popular photography failed to read “the writing on the wall”. It wasn’t Mamma, but the instant images of the new digital technology that took Rhymin’ Simon’s Kodachrome away.

My friend, the photographer and artist, Barry Thomas, reckons the manufacturers of Kodachrome and the New Zealand Labour Party have a lot in common. Both were once at the cutting edge. Both had something to sell which masses of people were happy to buy. And both, by failing to keep pace with a rapidly changing world, have seen the power of their “brand” dwindle and fade.

Eastman-Kodak believed it was in the business of manufacturing photographic film, when it was actually in the business of preserving ordinary people’s memories. When film was no longer required to capture those special moments, the makers of Kodachrome should have been there with the digital technology that was fast replacing the photographic process. Nikon, Nokia, Samsung and Apple made the transition. Eastman-Kodak didn’t.

The Labour Party believes that it’s in the business of attracting electoral support. But the vote a person casts for a political party is only the last in a long series of decisions and commitments he or she has already made to its “brand”.

When Paul Simon considered Kodachrome what was in his mind? A tube of tightly-rolled, unexposed film in a chrome yellow box? No. What he saw were the “nice bright colours” and the “greens of summer”. When a voter thinks about Labour his or her mind should be flooded with similar positive images.

It was once. Mention Labour to the voters of the 1930s and 40s and the image of Bob Semple driving a bulldozer over the picks and shovels of the hated work schemes would spring to mind. Or a row of brand new state houses gleaming in the summer sun. Or smiling children clutching their bottles of state-provided milk. They’d recall pictures of hydro-electric dams, and the friendly faces of Labour’s leaders opening yet another school, hospital or factory.

Reassurance, Security, Optimism: When people thought of Labour in the 1930s and 40s it was an image like this, of Mickey Savage carrying furniture into the first State House, which sprang to mind. What is the image of Labour in 2012?

Back then Labour understood that its core business was offering New Zealanders reassurance, security and an optimistic vision of the future. Once people were persuaded that these were the things Labour stood for, collecting their votes became a mere formality.

But speak the word Labour to a voter in 2012 and what – if any – images spring to mind? Architectural drawings of the new housing estates Labour is committed to building? No. The Labour leader arguing about how best to put an end to inequality with Occupy protesters? Hardly. Standing in solidarity with the Maritime Unions? Perish the thought! Unveiling a graph indicating how quickly Labour’s new tax policy will reduce the share of New Zealand’s income currently claimed by its wealthiest one percent. Never. Announcing Labour’s “Grow New Zealand” scheme for putting unemployed Kiwis to work. Nope.

Mention Labour in 2012 and most New Zealanders will struggle to conjure-up any images at all, apart from a succession of vaguely recognisable faces and a sorry string of embarrassing headlines.

The Labour Party Opposition should be in the business of displaying courage, thinking the unthinkable, searching for the root causes of the nation’s problems and coming up with solutions that require the voters to discard their prejudices, step away from past failures, and take the risk of committing themselves to something new.

A successful Opposition doesn’t waste time attacking the Government, it devotes itself to enlisting the electorate in a great adventure.

If a vote for Labour is anything less than a decision to join that great adventure then the party will share the fate of Eastman-Kodak. It neglected its core business: preserving people’s memories. Labour’s core business, in 2012, must be stimulating New Zealanders’ imagination.

Using digital, colour, and, if necessary, black-and-white.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 January 2012.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

The 2012 US Presidential Election: One Nation Under God.

Instrument Of Redemption? Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina was constructed out of the still raw historical memories of the American Civil War and the uncompromising political evangelism which continues to divide the US population into saints and sinners.

ONE HUNDRED and seventy-eight years ago, in the little Massachusetts town of Charlestown, a mob of Protestant evangelicals attacked and burned to the ground a Roman Catholic convent and school. In spite of incontrovertible evidence of their guilt, twelve of the thirteen men charged with instigating and participating in the riot were acquitted. Recommendations that the state recompense the Archdiocese of Boston for its loss were repeatedly voted down in the Massachusetts legislature.

I re-tell this long-forgotten tale of religious bigotry and violence for two reasons. First, it is a useful corrective to the very common belief that this sort of behaviour is confined, historically, to the states of the American South – the so-called “Bible Belt”. Second, it reveals the crucial role evangelical Protestantism has played, and continues to play, in the history of the United States.

As the 1834 Convent Riot shows, the volatile mixture of politics and religion that so baffles foreign observers of the United States is nothing new; indeed, in the opinion of at least one American historian, David Goldfield, it has been one of its principal drivers. As he writes of the United States in the middle of the Nineteenth Century:

“[E]vangelical Christianity’s influence was everywhere in the political arena, in discussions about the West, about Roman Catholics, and especially about slavery. What was troubling about this religious immersion was the blindness of its self-righteousness, its certitude, and its lack of humility to understand that those who disagree are not mortal sinners and those who subscribe to your views are not saints.”

Goldfield’s observations resonate powerfully with the present condition of American political life. And if the most virulent expressions of religious intolerance have their present geographical location in the states of the old Confederacy, that is only because the creation of the Confederacy, and its ultimate defeat by Abraham Lincoln and the Union armies, was a product of the Northern evangelicals’ holy crusade against the “sin of slavery”.

One has only to read the words of Julia Ward Howe’s The Battle Hymn of the Republic to gain some understanding of the extraordinary moral fervour pervading the Union armies – especially following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on!

Religious fervour of this intensity inevitably incited an equal and opposite fervour among its intended victims. Messianic Methodists from the North were met by belligerent Baptists from the South, and their watchword was “redemption”. As Goldfield notes:

“Confederates talked of ‘redeeming’ their states from Union control during the Civil War. After the wall, the term usually implied a two-step process. Redemption would cleanse southern sins and therefore restore the Lord’s blessing on the South … it would also remove ‘the yoke of Yankee and negro rule’. Redemption, therefore, would secure for white southerners the victory denied to them in the Civil War.”

The clash of these historical convictions, in the shape of the civil rights movement, is still within the living memory of many New Zealanders. That struggle to make good Lincoln’s pledge was initiated and sustained within the context of Dr Martin Luther King’s evangelical Christian pacifism. It’s street-based expression stirred the conscience of the Yankee North, whose liberal protestant creed had been both tempered and extended through its association with progressive Judaism, the social gospel of Vatican II, and the secular humanism of “official” America’s science-based modernity.

It is by no means clear that the legislative victories of the civil rights movement betokened a genuine change of heart among Southern evangelicals. Certainly, the still-glowing embers of Southern Baptist redemptionism were stirred to life by the election of an African-American as President of the United States. Once again the racial, religious and cultural demarcations of American society are traced in lines of fire across the republic’s face.

Newt Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina (the first state to secede from the Union in 1861) offers proof of how brightly these fires can burn. His sudden surge in popularity in the run-up to last Sunday’s primary was almost entirely due to his thinly disguised attack on African-Americans. His depiction of Barack Obama as “the food-stamps President” harked back to the South’s rejection of “Yankee and negro rule”. He didn’t quite brandish the Confederate flag – but he came dangerously close.

It is a sobering experience to witness how readily the United States falls victim to its past. Sobering, yet strangely inspiring, that the political mandate of the Almighty continues to be so highly prized, and so bitterly contested.

For Americans, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all” will always be much more than a slogan.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 January 2012.

Friday 20 January 2012

Whatever It Takes

Don't Do It, Josie! Frustrated at Labour's failure to connect with the electors in 2011, Labour's highly talented candidate, Josie Pagani, penned an article for the NZ Herald in which she hints that if abandoning New Zealand's poorest families will help Labour regain the Treasury benches, then that is what it should do. But if electoral victory means embracing the prejudices of your political enemies, then what, exactly, have you won?

“ALL POWER CORRUPTS”, wrote Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But the risk of political degeneracy exists not only in the proximity of power, but is also present in its absence. If winning is the politician’s sole objective, then seeing victory slip through her fingers over and over again surely renders her equally vulnerable to corrupt counsels?

The most persuasive of these siren songs is the one that begins: “One day in Government is worth a thousand years in Opposition.” Meaning: genuine political achievement is available only to those with access to the levers of power. Once this precept is accepted, the idea that serious politicians must be willing to do “whatever it takes” to win office becomes dangerously easy to sell.

And the moment it is purchased, the politician is lost. The means we adopt inevitably shape and determine the ends we arrive at. Being prepared to do “whatever it takes” means being willing to enlist evil in the cause of right; and in that encounter it is not evil which is changed.

Like all stories peddled by the corrupt, the notion that political achievement is restricted to those with access to the levers of power is a lie. The greatest movers of human events are ideas and the moral force they generate. And a person does not need to be in government – or even in Parliament – to advance an idea or exert moral force.

It would be most unfortunate, therefore, if Josie Pagani, the young, compassionate and very talented Labour Party candidate for the blue-ribbon seat of Rangitikei in last year’s election, and all the other progressive candidates who failed to enter Parliament, succumbed to the twin fallacies that only those who sit on the Treasury Benches wield genuine political power; and that parties should, therefore, do “whatever it takes” to get there. Unfortunately, a close reading of her recently published assessment of Labour’s unsuccessful 2011 campaign indicates that she’s at risk of doing just that.

“We lost because [we] were seen as looking backwards, not forwards” says Ms Pagani. “We didn’t sound aspirational, we sounded miserable. We were turning up on people’s doorsteps telling them their lives were gloomy. And anyone who has ever been poor knows the last thing you want is someone telling you your life is crap.”

Well, if Ms Pagani was standing on people’s doorsteps telling them their lives were crap it’s hardly surprising that she lost! And if the perceptions she describes were as widespread in the electorate as she claims, I’m not entirely sure it’s fair to lay the blame exclusively at Labour’s door. Isn’t it more likely that the voters’ negative perceptions of Labour are simply evidence of the superiority of National’s propaganda? Labour had a story to tell in 2011: it lost because it didn’t tell it well enough.

Much more disquieting, however, is Ms Pagani’s statement that: “The hardest week to door-knock was when we were telling people - who had just come home from a day’s work earning the minimum wage - that it was a great idea to extend their Working for Families tax credit to beneficiaries.”

This comment represents a calculated slap in the face to the many Labour members who have struggled ceaselessly for nearly a decade to force the Labour caucus to acknowledge the enormous social damage their policy of denying beneficiaries the economic relief of Working for Families was inflicting on the children of the poor. That Annette King and Phil Goff finally allowed themselves to be persuaded by the irrefutable evidence of the harm this policy was causing represented a genuine moral triumph for them and their party.

To abandon Labour’s new position, as a gesture of appeasement to the ill-informed prejudices of working-class National voters – because that is what it takes – would signal a willingness to march into office over the backs of impoverished families.

It’s hard to conceive of a Labour victory more corrupting – or less worth winning.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 January 2012.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

The Auckland Ports Dispute: An Open Letter To David Shearer

A Spurious and Culpable Neutrality? To stand to one side and do nothing while injustice is taking place before your eyes is to participate in that injustice. David Shearer and Labour must speak out against the Port sof Auckland management's plan to sack its entire workforce - or share their guilt.

WHY SO SILENT, Mr Shearer? Why has the Labour Party not voiced its solidarity with the Maritime Unions of New Zealand? Why have you not spoken out against the Ports of Auckland CEO’s outrageous threat to sack his entire workforce? What’s the matter with you, man?

The white sands and Pohutukawa blooms of Northland are beautiful at this time of year, and God knows you’ve earned a break, but you must know a politician is never truly on holiday. Time and the twenty-four-hour news cycle wait for no man.

The story unfolding on the Auckland waterfront has political implications far beyond the winning and losing of a single industrial dispute. Ultimately, it’s about whether or not the Labour Party stands for something more than an alternative set of political managers. And, if it does, then what, in the Twenty-First Century, is that “something more” about?

You are fond of telling us, Mr Shearer, about that transformative moment in the Sudan when you looked over the side of the truck you were travelling in and witnessed half-starved children scrabbling in the dust for the scraps of food you had casually tossed away. It’s an arresting image: redolent with all the sub-texts of injustice, wealth and poverty, and the inevitable conflicts to which scarcity gives rise. And the clear implication of your story is that not only did you perceive the intrinsic moral squalor of the scene being enacted in the fly-blown Sudan dust, but that you decided then and there to do something about it.

It’s why you’re the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shearer. Your United Nations “back-story” of “doing something” about poverty, war and injustice is what inspired your colleagues to make you, rather than David Cunliffe, leader of the Labour Party. An essential element of that back-story, in case you need reminding, was your celebrated Kiwi approach; your ability to get alongside all the parties involved in a conflict and help them identify the common-ground. It’s what you’re supposed to be good at.

So, I ask again: Why so silent on the Ports of Auckland dispute?

Is it because you’ve been listening to Trevor Mallard, Mr Shearer? I sincerely hope not. Because Mr Mallard and his ilk are the very last people you should be listening to at the moment. They are, when all is said and done, the people who devised the campaign strategy which culminated in Labour’s worst election result in more than 80 years. The people whose political counsel is dictated by opinion polls and focus-groups. The sort of people who purport to lead by following. The people who would have asked those Sudanese children scrabbling in the dust which variety of scraps were their favourite.

Or, perhaps you’re recalling the example of “Side-line Stan” Rodger – Minister of Labour during the darkest days of Rogernomics. Mr Rodger made a virtue out of staying on the side-lines of industrial relations and refusing to involve the Government in settling strikes and lockouts.

St Paul would have recognised the tactic. He recalled the time, before his encounter on the Road to Damascus, when he had held the cloaks of those involved in the hot work of stoning a Christian martyr. But, after Damascus (and the Sudan?) St Paul and you both understood that to stand on the side-lines while injustice is taking place is to participate in that injustice. If you opt to “hold the cloaks” of the Ports of Auckland management while they stone their own employees – then, damn you Mr Shearer, you’re as guilty as they are.

Which brings us back to the central question: Is Labour something more than an alternative set of political managers? And, if it is, what is that something more about?

Ultimately, isn’t it about answering the question: “Who is strong enough to stop the stone-throwers?” The men and women who formed the Labour Party in 1916 decided that the answer to that question was the State. If the State could be made to stop working for those who already exercised power, and began instead to work for those who were powerless, then a political party seeking to put an end to poverty, war and injustice would have a fighting chance.

Labour was formed to create a State that wasn’t neutral; a state that never stood on the side-lines when working people were being threatened and abused. Labour was about intervention: constant, massive, intelligent and creative intervention on behalf of the weak and against the strong.

It’s time to bid farewell to the white sands and the Pohutukawa blossoms, Mr Shearer, and come on down to the Auckland wharves. It’s time to cast aside the gathered cloaks of a spurious and culpable “neutrality” and place yourself and your party between the stone-throwers and their victims. It’s time to end the silence.

This letter  was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 January 2012.

Friday 13 January 2012

The Auckland Ports Dispute: An Injury To All

Together We Stand: If the New Zealand Left fails to launch a counter-offensive against the, to date, highly successful campaign by the Right to break the Maritime Union and set the scene for the privatisation of the Ports of Auckland, then it will sustain a significant, perhaps historic, strategic defeat. There is much more at stake on the Auckland wharves than the wages and conditions of 300 waterside workers.

THE LOOMING CONFRONTATION on Auckland’s wharves will be a test for the whole of the New Zealand Left. If the clear pattern of escalation by the Ports of Auckland Ltd’s (POAL) Board of Directors is not answered by a broad counter-mobilisation from the Left, then not only POAL, but the entire New Zealand Right, will score a significant – perhaps historic – victory. As they were in 1913 and 1951, Auckland’s wharves have once again become the crucible of class conflict in New Zealand.

It is hardly a coincidence that this dispute flared within days of National’s election victory. Hard-liners in the Auckland business community know that if POAL can take down the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ), one of the very few New Zealand trade unions with sufficient strength to protect the living standards and working conditions of its members, then Prime Minister Key and his Labour Minister, Kate Wilkinson, will feel free to introduce a further round of swingeing workplace “reforms”.

And it is not simply at the level of central government that a management victory on the Auckland wharves would free the hands of the Right. If the highly popular, left-leaning Mayor of Auckland, Len Brown, can be manoeuvred into a position where he is seen to be acting against the interests of working people, then there is every possibility that his electoral base in the south of the city will desert him in next year’s local government elections. This would open the way for a right-wing council and mayor to take power on a programme of privatising the city’s assets – including POAL.

Clearly, there is a lot more at stake on the Auckland wharves than the wages and conditions of MUNZ’s members. The defeat of MUNZ in Auckland will open the way for a further and rapid erosion of trade union rights across the rest of New Zealand, as well as providing additional fuel for the Right’s campaign to privatise what remains of New Zealand’s public estate.

What, then, should the Left be doing?

There is already a measure of co-operation between MUNZ and the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU). Together these bodies have released a fact-sheet on the dispute which puts paid to most of POAL’s half-truths and misrepresentations of the union’s position. But much more than this needs to done. MUNZ should consider seriously “handing over” the dispute to the CTU in the way unions enmeshed in serious disputes in the 1960s and 70s “handed them over” to the National Executive of the old Federation of Labour.

By involving all of New Zealand’s trade unions in the dispute’s resolution, MUNZ would be saying to the POAL management: “This fight is now a national issue.” It would empower the CTU President, Helen Kelly, to speak out nationally on the issues at stake and, as workers’ awareness grew, the CTU’s affiliates could be advised to prepare for large-scale solidarity actions in support of MUNZ’s members.

Because New Zealand’s draconian employment laws outlaw sympathy and protest strikes the CTU’s response (at least initially) would have to be confined to organising demonstrations and raising funds to support striking workers’ families. What the CTU could also do, however, if POAL refuses to negotiate with MUNZ in good faith, is call upon young unemployed workers and students to take a leaf out of California’s “Occupy Oakland” play-book and prepare to occupy the wharves.

Makes more sense than sitting in a pup-tent in Auckland’s Aotea Square.

The CTU and the Occupy Movement should not, however, be expected to fight POAL alone. Mayor Brown, rather than allow himself to be alienated from his South Auckland base, should announce immediately his intention of organising a series of rallies throughout Auckland’s working-class suburbs where he will declare his support for trade union rights, pledge to keep the Ports of Auckland in public hands and ask for Aucklanders’ support in dismissing the POAL Board of Directors should a settlement of the dispute not be effected quickly.

Nor should the Leader of the Opposition, David Shearer, be allowed to repeat the error of his predecessor, Walter Nash, by attempting to keep the Labour Party neutral in this dispute. Here, before him, lies his “Orewa moment”: a chance to demonstrate to Labour’s electoral base that the Left is far from vanquished.

That “an injury to one” remains “an injury to all”.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 December 2012.

Thursday 12 January 2012

Facing Fearful Odds: A Reply To John Pagani

"You Turn If You Want To": But Margaret Thatcher, Britain's "Iron Lady", was not for turning. And that is the lesson John Pagani has failed to draw from her career. Powerful ideas, coherently organised and ruthlessly implemented, are extraordinarily difficult to resist. Only when the Left evinces the confidence in its principles that Mrs Thatcher had in hers, will the Right be decisively defeated.

JOHN PAGANI’s intriguing riff on Thatcherism and the importance of being on the right side of history has got me worried. It’s not that I think he’s wrong – there is much to be learned from Margaret Thatcher’s career. What worries me is that he’s learned the wrong lessons.

Mr Pagani characterises Thatcher as a politician of principle who was able to achieve great things for her country because, having set her course, she could rely upon the surge of History’s tide to carry her forward. Of course he’s only able to say such things because he knows how the story ends, which, from an historian’s point of view, is cheating. In 1979, when Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister, the ‘surge of History’s tide’, far from favouring the Right, was assumed to flowing, with ever-growing force, to the Left.

For many Conservatives the image which best summed up the mission Margaret Thatcher had assigned herself was that of Horatius on the bridge. She was willing to be the “Last Tory”, just as Horatius was willing to be the “Last Roman”, denying passage to the implacable enemies of a great, if faltering, empire and averring, by her readiness to stand and fight, the power of Lord Macaulay’s oft-quoted lines:

And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods

When Mrs Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition in 1975 the British nation was in crisis. It’s working-class was pushing hard against the crumbling structures of tradition and privilege in hopes of building a more rational and humane society. Twelve million strong, the trade unions had already seen off the Conservative Government of Edward Heath and had imposed upon a startled Labour Party a manifesto openly calling for the nationalisation of the “commanding heights” of the British economy and the introduction of “industrial democracy”. More than a few on the right of British politics feared that just one more king hit from the Left would see British Capitalism go down for the count.

But if Britain’s manufacturers were resigned to the state relieving them of their responsibilities, and her middle-classes already half-way convinced that the manifold absurdities of their existence (so brilliantly satirised in the BBC’s 1976-79 series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) had rendered them unfit to rule, there was still one, rock-solid bastion of British capitalism that was not willing to go gentle into that good night of socialism – the City of London.

The financiers of the City of London constituted the Imperial Guard of British Capitalism. It was extractive and parasitic, and cared not one whit for the vast workforces employed in Britain’s industrial heartlands. The City of London had not just grown alongside the British Empire, it had, in a very real sense created it. And the tribute of that empire, in the form of dividends and interest, continued to pile up in its vaults.

And the men of the City did not lack for resources. Above all else, the City was a vast and complex network – and its reach was long. It extended into Fleet Street and Oxbridge and the Civil Service. The younger brothers of City men could be found in the upper echelons of the armed forces, and, more disturbingly, in the ranks of MI5 and MI6. Descendants of Duke William’s knights, and of Henry VIII’s “new men”, the ones who ended up with Catholicism’s English acres; the families who ran the City of London had always known what to take – and how to keep it.

As Richard Crockett shows in his book Thinking The Unthinkable: Think-Tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution, 1931-1983, it was men of the City who bank-rolled the so-called “New Right” and underwrote its ideological factories. And it was from these that the “new” ideas flowed: to the news media; to the universities; and to the Conservative Party faction, led by the cadaverous Sir Keith Joseph and his ambitious young protégée, Margaret Thatcher, which was determined to prevent the Left from delivering British Capitalism's coup de grace.

But, of course, they were not new ideas at all. Mr Pagani, having pumped himself full of Thatcherism's anabolic steroids, waxes eloquent about the “paleolithic”political tactics advocated by “left reactionaries” – all the time forgetting that the ideas Mrs Thatcher championed and the social order she constructed had already been tested to destruction in the hundred years between 1830 and 1930. Like the US officer in Vietnam,who was willing to “destroy the village in order to save it”, Mrs Thatcher was prepared to let Britain’s productive industrial base go under rather than see the City of London subjected to effective regulation.

And that refusal continues to exact its toll on British society. The consequences of the City’s unregulated greed are today as clear to Britons as Wall Street’s recklessness is to Americans. Mrs Thatcher’s historic achievement was not to show how far one can travel when History is pushing you forward, but how long History’s progress can be impeded by someone relentlessly pushing back. In the 33 years since Mrs Thatcher was elected, British society has not become more rational or more humane – quite the reverse. The breakthrough that so nearly occurred in the 1970s remains to be made, and only the Left can make it.

And that’s the lesson Mr Pagani failed to draw from his cinematic sojourn with Meryl-as-Maggie. The extraordinary power of ideas, and how far a politician and her party can go when those ideas are marshalled into a coherent set of economic, social and political objectives.

Far from advising New Zealand's Labour leader, David Shearer, to shun the looming battle on the Auckland Waterfront, Mr Pagani should be urging him to strap on his armour and unsheath his sword. Mrs Thatcher never ran away from a fight, which is why she was able to win over and over and over again. Nor did she have the slightest patience for those who advocated poll-driven ideological U-turns.

“You turn if you want to,” she famously told the Conservative Party’s doubters and worriers, “the Lady’s not for turning.”

Oh that David Shearer should prove as willing to go into battle for the long-delayed advance of socialism, as Britain’s “Iron Lady” did for the sterile ashes of her capitalist fathers and the high-rise temples of their greedy London gods.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

The Auckland Ports Dispute: Pace Setters

Overcapitalised: In the anarchic context of free market capitalism, businesses like the Ports of Auckland Ltd attempt to steal a march on their competitors by investing in plant and machienery they can, ultimately, only afford by downgrading the pay and conditions of their workforce. A real union will prevent them - but only at the cost of sparking a major confrontation.

THE MACHINERY of a modern port dwarfs the men who work it. Vast sums of capital are bound up in each gantry crane and reach stacker, requiring their human operators to move the waiting cargo with speed and efficiency. These are solid, reliable men: worth every cent of their generous wage package.

The 300 waterside workers employed by the Ports of Auckland Ltd (POAL) know exactly what they are worth, and with a tradition of unionisation extending back well over a century they know how to defend the wages and conditions the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) and its predecessors have won. They also know the dangers inherent in deunionisation; the risk that is posed to every worker when the work rhythms and safety measures enforced by the union’s collective contract are undermined by “self-employed” contractors.

It is in defence of their self-determined pace and rhythm of work and its critical importance to the health and safety of workers on and off the job that the members of MUNZ employed by POAL have struck. The bitter experience of other workers across New Zealand has taught them that the moment the union’s central role in determining the working conditions of its members is surrendered, then it ceases to be a union. It may still collect dues and celebrate May Day, but by facilitating the full restoration of managerial prerogatives on the “shop floor” it has become the employer’s creature – not the workers’.

The unimpeded exercise of managerial prerogative is what lies at the heart of all great industrial disputes. “Flexibility” is the watchword – meaning the ability of the employer to call workers in and send them home, as required, without incurring penalty rates of pay. “Flexibility” empowers the employer to hire and fire at will; to raise or lower employees’ wages according to the dictates of the market and without reference to the actual living expenses of individual workers and their families. “Flexibility” imposes on every worker an inescapable obligation to “give”, while conferring upon every employer an unchallengeable right to “take”.

That’s why every union that takes root in a business enterprise and wins the recognition of its owners is, in its own small way, a revolution. At stake is the fate of that business’s profits: the proportion allotted to the shareholders, and the proportion returned to the workforce in the form of higher wages and/or improved conditions. It’s class war at its most basic, its most dynamic, level. The unavoidable by-product of, to quote Leonard Cohen’s magnificent song Democracy: “the homicidal bitchin’/ that goes down in every kitchen/ to determine who will serve and who will eat.”

And when all of those tiny revolutions are joined together the result can very easily add up to a big revolution. Data gathered by the UK’s Office of National Statistics reveals in the starkest terms how Britain’s Top 1 Percent’s share of total income declined as trade union membership rose. When expressed graphically, one almost becomes the mirror-image of the other. In 1978, when the wealthiest Britons’ share of total income reached its nadir, the number of Britons belonging to a trade union attained its peak. Significantly, Mrs Thatcher’s neo-liberal counter-revolution set about reversing the process less than a year later. Five years on, New Zealand’s data undoubtedly reveals a very similar story.

The whirlwind of abuse unleashed against MUNZ’s Port of Auckland members reveals how acutely sensitive the employing class still is to even the slightest stirrings of union power. The employers understand perfectly what is at stake and are furious at MUNZ for flexing its muscles so publicly.

Winning concessions in private is one thing, but by making the benefits of solidarity so obvious, and demonstrating the limits of managerial prerogative – at least on Auckland’s publicly-owned waterfront – MUNZ has crossed a line. A victory for the union at this point in the dispute could only be interpreted as a victory for all unionised workers.

And that’s how revolutions begin.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 January 2012.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Occupy New Zealand: Less Than Beloved

The Casual Brutality Of The State: This astounding image of a Californian campus policeman casually pepper-spraying passive student occupiers quickly became a symbol of the US authorities' fear-driven hostility towards the ideas of the Occupy Movement. Old-timers recalled earlier struggles for human rights, and the solidarity of the protesters grew. The New Zealand Occupy Movement seemed tame and non-threatening by comparison. By the end of 2011 it had all but fizzled out.

“THE BELOVED COMMUNITY” was how Dr Martin Luther King described the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. The relationships forged between participants in that brutal, often deadly, struggle were intense and enduring. Like war buddies, the lunch-counter desegregators, protest marchers and freedom riders look back on their experiences as both the worst and the best moments of their lives.

It is significant, therefore, to hear participants in the American Occupy Movement describe themselves as something akin to Dr King’s “beloved community”. Clearly, they see the occupations playing a role analogous to those first, defiant acts of passive resistance against the “separate but equal”, “Jim Crow” regimes of the Old South. Equally clearly, the Occupy Movement seeks to align itself with progressive America’s proud tradition of moral and physical resistance to injustice and oppression.

Can New Zealand’s Occupy Movement lay claim to such lofty credentials? Have our occupiers even come close to forming themselves into a “beloved community”?

Sadly, the answer must be: “No.”

There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious is the vast experiential gulf between those at the sharp end of inequality in the United States, and the New Zealand poor. Even in the 1950s and 60s, at the height of the post-war boom, the living standards and quality of life of the average American were much more precarious than those of the average Kiwi. The USA was able to construct only the rudiments of a functioning welfare state. New Zealand’s welfare provision, by contrast, was second only to the Scandinavians’. When the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) struck the USA in 2008, such safety nets as still remained beneath the ordinary American family were threadbare and full of holes. When put to the same test, our own proved to be in a much better state of repair.

It is also true that New Zealand’s “one-percenters” have a lot less to answer for than the one percent of Americans who control more than 20 percent of that country’s wealth. In particular, our (Australian controlled) financial system – most crucially its banks – weathered the GFC without the need for colossal bail-outs from the public purse. The spectacle most responsible for sharpening the social divisions of the USA was that of a reckless and bloated Wall Street being rescued from its own greed and folly, while an innocent and suffering Main Street was left to go to the Devil.

The contrast, captured for posterity by (of all networks) Russian Television, of New York City’s financial elite, on a balcony high above Wall Street, sipping Champagne from crystal flutes and peering down with amused condescension at the ragged “occupiers” waving their hand-lettered cardboard signs on the pavement, many floors below, could hardly have been more incendiary.

Rather than this gilded social contempt, New Zealand’s experience in 2011 was one of social solidarity and collective exhilaration. The devastating Christchurch earthquake which killed 181 people on 22 February 2011 drew New Zealanders much closer together and mobilised the very best qualities of the Kiwi character. While the sheer joy than enveloped the country when the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup made it especially hard for those hoping to expose the nation’s shortcomings to win a hearing.

In this context, the Occupy Movement’s New Zealand off-shoots never really managed to rise above their one-off novelty value, nor to overcome the unflattering comparisons between their own tatterdemalion derivativeness and the heroism of the American original. While the Kiwi occupiers did battle in provincial courtrooms with bemused and increasingly frustrated mayors, Occupy Oakland was laid waste by multiple police agencies hurling stun grenades and firing tear gas canisters into the terrified protesters tents.

And nowhere, among the Kiwi Occupiers’ interminable “General Assembly” attempts to reach an ontologically impossible “consensus” between anarchism and socialism, was there ever a mobilising image to match that of the burly University of California campus cop nonchalantly pepper-spraying the faces of kneeling, non-violent student occupiers.

New Zealand’s Occupy Movement has fizzled for all of the above reasons, and more, but its single greatest failure has been its refusal to transform its manifestly untrue claim to represent 99 percent of the New Zealand public into anything resembling reality. When even New Zealand’s conservative prime minister confesses that most Kiwis are socialists at heart, an appeal for greater equality should have been the easiest of sells. But aside from the excitement of the initial occupations, and the potent resonances of the borrowed American slogans, this never eventuated. Afraid of soiling their ideological purity through contact with the unenlightened majority, the New Zealand occupiers, like a collection of Antipodean Achilles, refused to come out of their tents.

Beloved communities arise out of the open and collective struggle for a better world, not from muddy encampments, or the ineffectual fluttering of consensual hands.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 January 2012.

Sunday 1 January 2012

Anno Domini 2012

Happy New Year!

A Happy New Year to all Bowalley Road readers!

May the next twelve months be fruitful, prosperous and, above all, happy ones for you, me, and everyone who visits this site.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.