Wednesday 29 February 2012

Equal and Opposite

Naive: Auckland Mayor, Len Brown, must surely have understood that his action in demanding a doubling of the Port of Auckland's return on capital would produce an equal and opposite reaction from the Maritime Unions. Those behind the current employer onslaught should be under no illusion that if they go on pushing workers - workers will push back.

THE AFFCO CEO, Hamish Simpson, said it all: “It’s a fundamental test of the right to manage.”

What we see unfolding in North Island freezing works and on the Auckland wharves is a naked bid for unbridled employer power. The Ports of Auckland and AFFCO have made it clear, they will settle for nothing less than the full restoration of managerial prerogatives. They’re demanding the “right to manage” without let or hindrance; and that goal can only be achieved by the complete emasculation – or outright destruction – of their on-site unions.

AFFCO’s use of the lockout is the most brutal manifestation, to date, of the current employer onslaught. The contempt it displays for the company’s workers and their families is breath-taking. These are seasonal labourers, many of whom rely upon the money earned over a few months to carry themselves and their families through the rest of the year. Smoothed-out over twelve months, their pay is not spectacular. By denying its employees a weekly pay-check, AFFCO is openly declaring its intention to drive these families into poverty and starve them into submission.

It’s class war – pure and simple. It will not, however, be presented as such. Just switch on any radio and you will hear the soft, soapy sound of middle-class journalists washing their hands of all responsibility for calling these events by their true name. To hear them talk, the AFFCO bosses are only trying to advance their shareholders’ interests.

According to the bourgeois journalist’s view of economic relationships, your job doesn’t really belong to you, it belongs to the boss – and it is what he says it is. If you don’t like it – quit. Put simply, workers don’t own their jobs: either individually or collectively. The claim that workers – through their unions – are striking “in defence” of their jobs cuts little ice with this sort of journalist. How can somebody “defend” something that was never theirs?

What the bourgeois journalist cannot deny, however, is that workers still own their own labour. Brain and muscle power are still up for sale, and the boss is buying. Naturally, he’s anxious to purchase workers’ labour power on terms most favourable to himself. This he achieves by requiring workers to bargain with him one at a time. That way he can tell individual job-seekers to either take it, or leave it.

Collective bargaining, by contrast, sets out to establish a common price for a specific kind of labour. When successful it gives workers a significant measure of control over the jobs their bosses need them to do. Through collective bargaining they can determine both the job’s price and the conditions under which it is performed. By forming a union they give themselves the power to grab a share of the business’s profits that would otherwise be distributed among the shareholders, and distribute it among themselves.

Small wonder, then, that capitalists hate unions. By lifting workers’ wages above bare subsistence level (as the Maritime Unions have done on the Auckland wharves) the trade union reduces the size of the shareholders’ dividend. And since maximising the return to shareholders is the prime function of every business, it is hardly surprising that keeping unions out of the workplace ranks high on most boss’s list of priorities.

And if the shareholders have instructed the boss to double the business’s return on capital? What then? If we’re talking about a unionised business, then the boss’s most obvious course of action is surely to drive the union out. This is is exactly what POAL Boss, Tony Gibson, is attempting to do. The Auckland City Council (led by the allegedly left-leaning, Len Brown) has demanded that POAL double its rate of return on capital from 6 to 12 percent. If not in the wage-packets of its workers, where does Mayor Brown suggest POAL go looking for such an impossibly high rate of return? In demanding 12 percent, the City Council has effectively mandated the deunionisation of Auckland’s wharves.

Left-wing voters would do well to remember this next year when the so-called “Independent”, Len Brown, asks them for a second term. Or, perhaps they'll decide to run their own candidate in 2013? Maybe the wharfie’s son, Mike Lee?

It would serve Len Brown right for being so naïve. For seriously believing that the action of attacking the Maritime Unions would not generate an equal and opposite reaction.

Because Newton’s Law doesn’t just apply to physics, it applies to politics as well. Working people have never willingly submitted to wage slavery and there is no reason to believe that this generation is one whit more inclined than its predecessors to let employers drive down their incomes to subsistence levels.

Let the bosses and their parties take heed. If their temporary possession of the Treasury benches encourages them to re-draw the law to their own advantage, then what is to stop a party dedicated to the workers’ interest from doing the same? Push working people too hard and they will push back. Rewrite the employment laws for the purposes of restoring an uncontested “right to manage”, and a time will come when those same laws will be rewritten to restore the workers’ right to union protection.

Indeed, the more generously this government empowers the employers; the more openly it incites its friends to take-on the unions; the easier it will be for the next government to introduce legislation providing for universal union membership, compulsory arbitration and national awards.

An employment relations regime based on those three institutions remained intact from 1937 until 1991 – more than fifty years. How long the next regime lasts is entirely in the bosses’ hands. An equal and opposite reaction to the sort of things they’re doing now will give working people the upper hand for a very long time indeed.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Sitting Ducks?

Temporary Focus: Mr Shearer is a man who likes to get all his ducks in a row before he takes decisive action. He'd better hope that his ducks, when finally brought into line, turn out to be high-flyers. Because, should his long-awaited policy announcements prove to be ideological canards, the Labour Party has other leadership options.

DAVID SHEARER is the sort of man who likes to get all his ducks in a row before taking decisive action. Presumably, that’s what he’s doing now – lining them up. The trouble is, Labour’s ducks are cantankerous fowls. Persuading even one of them to stay put can be mightily time-consuming. And time is something Mr Shearer doesn’t have – at least not in great quantities.

Mr Shearer’s successful leadership bid was a naked assertion of the power Labour’s Caucus continues to wield over its own Party. Had the rank-and-file’s wishes been the deciding factor, there isn’t the slightest doubt that David Cunliffe would’ve been elected leader. But, Caucus reckoned it knew better and imposed its own choice on the party organisation.

Over-riding the will of one’s own party is always a very risky proposition, as many of Labour’s older MPs know only too well. Phil Goff, Annette King and Trevor Mallard were all members of the fourth Labour government, which began life in 1984 with a party numbering 85,000 members and came to an end six years later with a membership of less than 10,000. Confronted with a caucus that consistently over-ruled the wishes of its party organisation, the overwhelming majority of Labour members simply voted with their feet.

If the Old Guard who threw their weight behind Mr Shearer last December think they can get away with that sort of exercise a second time, then they should think again. Labour’s current membership sits somewhere between five and ten thousand. Attrition on the scale of 1984-1990 is not an option.

The task Labour’s Old Guard has set Mr Shearer is to prove to the party’s rank-and-file that he has more to offer than their beloved Mr Cunliffe. He can do this by letting the public opinion polls demonstrate the wisdom of the caucus’s choice. Or, by assuming the role of radical reformer within the Labour Party. If Mr Shearer were to place himself at the head of a strong internal movement for constitutional, organisational and policy “modernisation”, the rank-and-file would have good reason to reconsider their allegiances.

My suspicion, however, is that Mr Shearer has already opted for the first option. His knowledge of and affection for the Labour Party is weak, and his experience as a UN administrator suggests a preference for working behind the scenes with a small group of trusted advisers to get all his “ducks in a row”, and then moving swiftly and decisively to tick-off a series of agreed objectives.

Among Mr Shearer’s principal advisers are his Chief-of-Staff, Stuart Nash, and policy-consultant, John Pagani. Neither of these men have a great deal of patience for the Labour Party which Helen Clark fashioned over the fifteen years she spent at the top. On the contrary, they believe that by 2008 Ms Clark’s Labour Party had driven a fatally large number of former Labour supporters into the arms of its electoral rivals – including the National Party.

Team Shearer’s principal target – among these defectors – are the people who, forty years ago, would have been found working in New Zealand’s import substitution industries and swelling the (compulsorily assembled) ranks of her powerful trade unions. Forty years on, in 2012, such people are to be found swelling the ranks of independent contractors, small business owners and the self-employed. The sort of people which Mr Shearer, in a speech delivered to Grey Power last Friday, pictured “at the kitchen table filling in GST returns”.

Any successful pitch to these voters is almost certain to be couched in terms that are both economically and socially conservative. At risk are Labour’s current policy commitments to remove GST from fruit and vegetables, increase income taxes, and extend increased financial assistance to the unemployed, solo parents – and (more importantly) their children.

It’s a major gamble on the part of Mr Shearer and his advisers. Their bet, essentially, is that the sort of New Zealander who still votes is much more likely to back a “responsible” and “moderate” Labour Party. If they’re right, then the polls will reflect the truth of their assumptions and Labour’s left-wing membership will be bludgeoned into silence by the irrefutable cudgels of success.

Perhaps this explains Mr Shearer’s reluctance to move too swiftly to establish his electoral credentials. If he can time his conquest of the polling heights to coincide with the anniversary of his election as Labour’s leader, and stay there for six months, then his rivals will have no option to abandon all thoughts of a leadership change until after the 2014 general election.

When it comes to deposing kings, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is right: “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.

And Mr Shearer had better also be right. Because if his conservative ducks refuse to fly, then Labour’s radicals will serve them up on a platter – alongside Mr Shearer’s head.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 February 2012.

Monday 27 February 2012

Proceed With Asset Sales At Your Peril, Mr Key.

Transformer: From the benign Prime Minister of National's first term, to the dangerous Prime Minister of it second, John Key has startled those New Zealanders who'd convinced themselves they'd elected a new kind of conservative leader. Three months out from the 2011 election, and with long-forgotten numbers blasting out from the Treasury's juke-box, many New Zealanders are looking at Mr Key through new, less trusting, eyes.

NATIONAL'S MANDATE to sell state assets is indisputable. If a government goes into an election promising to sell up to 49 per cent of the state-owned energy companies' shares to private investors, and then wins more votes than its political opponents combined, well, it's hard to argue that it doesn't have a mandate.

The National Government's problem is that its mandate to "partially" privatise state assets is unusable. Prime Minister John Key may have earned the right to dilute the state's ownership of its energy companies, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that in exercising that right he would inflict so much political damage upon himself and his party that the project would become self-defeating.

The opposition to asset sales extends across the political spectrum, across all social classes, age groups and both sexes. National's election win has not changed the all-encompassing nature of this opposition. Clearly, Kiwis re-elected Mr Key's government in spite of – not because of – its policy on asset sales.

In his heart, I believe Mr Key knows this. His pollsters will certainly have registered a subtle but unmistakable shift in the electorate's mood. Like the low growl of a watchdog at the approach of an intruder, voters are signalling their displeasure at National's ideological belligerence. They hear long-forgotten tunes coming out of the Treasury's juke-box and are reminded of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson: people and policies they would rather forget.

New Zealanders warmed to Mr Key in his incarnation as "King Log" – the relaxed, ideologically-inert leader, who for three years floated inoffensively across the antipodean frog-pond. They are considerably less enthusiastic about Mr Key's new role as "King Stork". The last thing an electorate of frogs wants is a swift-striding leader with a murderous, spearing beak.

And Mr Key himself would do well to study the history of privatisation in New Zealand. It has never been popular, and governments which have taken advantage of their temporary possession of a parliamentary majority to strip the nation of its most valuable assets have paid a high electoral price.

When told that 90 per cent of the electorate had opposed the fourth Labour government's sale of Telecom, Richard Prebble is said to have remarked that New Zealanders should be grateful they had a government willing to resist such a large and vocal pressure-group.

That sort of arrogance is neither forgotten nor forgiven by Kiwi voters. Mr Prebble and his colleagues were thrown out of office for their disdain of democracy. And, when their National Party successors proceeded to repeat Labour's policy offences, the voters not only threw up two insurgent political parties to restrain them (the Alliance and NZ First), but they then for good measure, and as an insurance policy against future chicanery, changed New Zealand's electoral system.

Most New Zealanders, as Mr Key apparently warned the Americans in a "Wiki-leaked" diplomatic cable, are socialists at heart. Their political instincts tell them that certain industries and services should never be placed in private hands. National voters, however, should perhaps be reminded of the four great justifications for nationalisation.

One: Placing healthcare, education, energy, mass communications and transportation, and the provision of key financial services in private hands only, confers on their owners an unwarranted and potentially hazardous degree of economic, social – and so political – power.

Two: It redirects the vast revenues of these vital industries from their former private owners into the public accounts.

Three: It disperses these new revenues to the public good, especially to the protection of a natural environment despoiled by the ruthless quest for private profit.

Four: It establishes and extends the rights of employees to play a significant role in the development and management of all enterprises – public and private.

Privatisation, by reversing the direction of these progressive objectives, can only augment the wealth and power of private owners, diminish the public treasury, impede the public good, and suppress the rights of working people. It is risible to claim that your aim is to achieve these ends only "partially". Once private interests are recognised in the administration of state assets, the power to assert the public good, and defend the rights of indigenous peoples, is relinquished.

Proceed at your peril, Mr Key.

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, 24 February 2012.

Keeping Justice's Blindfold In Place

Blind Justice: The blindfold Lady Justice traditionally wears is to deny her the opportunity to be moved by either partiality or pity. Under our system of Justice only evidence brought before the courts can convict the accused. But the Sensible Sentencing Trust-sponsored "Christie's Law" would allow the suffering of victims to unbalance Justice's scales - fundamentally prejudicing the right of accused persons to a fair trial.

GARTH McVICAR is using the tragic death of Christie Marceau to secure a further erosion of New Zealanders’ legal rights.

In November of 2011 Miss Marceau was stabbed to death in her North Shore home and died in her mother’s arms. The man accused of attacking her had earlier been charged with her kidnapping. Over the strenuous objections of the Police, he had been remanded on bail to a house less than a kilometre from the Marceau home.

Mr McVicar’s Sensible Sentencing Trust (SST), with the full support of Miss Marceau’s parents, is now promoting what it is calling “Christie’s Law”: a series of measures which will make it much more difficult for judges to grant bail to people accused of serious crimes.

That Miss Marceau’s parents should want to prevent other families from enduring the horror and heartbreak which they have been forced to endure is entirely understandable. That Mr McVicar’s trust has fastened upon their grief in order to advance its private political agenda is despicable.

For there can be no disputing the SST’s radical right-wing politics. A brief perusal of “Christie’s Law” reveals that Mr McVicar and his supporters, by making the decisions of judges subject to a police veto, are attempting to undermine the independence of the New Zealand judiciary. They are also attempting to overturn what is arguably the most important of our legal rights – the presumption of innocence.

The presumption of innocence requires the state to prove the guilt of an accused person “beyond reasonable doubt”. And until such time as his or her guilt is proven, that person remains (and must be considered) innocent of the crime/s of which s/he is charged.

It is the presumption of innocence that makes the right to be granted bail so important. Without it, merely being charged with an offence could see the accused deprived of their liberty for days, weeks, months – even years. Time which, in the event of their eventual acquittal, can never be returned. The unreasonable denial of bail is, quite simply, an open invitation to serious injustice.

Of course, an absolute adherence to the logic of presumed innocence would be as dangerous as its persistent and unreasonable denial. To release accused persons whose actions, mental stability, and/or past history of offending render them a credible and serious threat to the safety of the public would be very wrong. Accordingly, we have given our judges the authority to refuse bail when, by granting it, people’s lives and property would be recklessly endangered.

In the overwhelming majority of cases that come before them our judges exercise this discretion wisely. But judges, like the rest of us, are fallible human-beings. In a tiny handful of cases they make a decision which, with hindsight, turns out to have been reckless and foolhardy. The decision to grant bail to the person accused of Miss Marceau’s murder clearly falls into this category.

The truly evil aspect of the SST’s promotion of “Christie’s Law” is that it pretends that the fallibility of our justice system is fixable. That if you threaten judges with sufficiently dire sanctions, and give police the power of veto over bail decisions, then the number of tragic mistakes will be lessened. What they leave unsaid, of course, is that in attempting to eliminate one kind of mistake “Christie’s Law” would almost certainly give rise to a host of others. Intimidated judges and over-zealous policemen would very soon begin to deny bail to anyone and everyone charged with serious crimes. The presumption of innocence would be turned on its head. Gross injustices, far from being reduced, would multiply.

New Zealanders should reject not only the measures contained in “Christie’s Law” but the very idea of attaching the victim of a fatal stabbing to such overt politicking. There is a reason why the prosecution of serious crime became the exclusive preserve of the state, and the SST’s posturing throws it into stark relief.

The administration of justice cannot be conducted impartially, or according to the dictates of reason, if it is in any way drawn into the emotionally charged environment of grief and anger to which the victims of crime, through no fault of their own, are remanded. It’s why Justice is always pictured wearing a blindfold. It is to prevent her from seeing the grief and anger of crime’s victims – lest, out of pity for their plight, she negates the rights of the accused.

No sentence which is driven by the raw emotions of crime’s victims can ever be “sensible”. Justice is not vengeance, and must never be allowed to become so. In using Miss Marceau’s name to achieve their political objectives, Mr McVicar and the SST are attempting to circumvent the duty we all share to keep Justice’s blindfold in place, and her scales in balance.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 February 2012.

Friday 17 February 2012

A Modern Mark Anthony?

All Honourable Men: Is Paul Holmes playing Mark Anthony to John Key's Julius Caesar? In response to Maoridom's attack on the Government's "partial" privatisation programme did he decide to let slip the dogs of Pakeha racism? Is it possible he wrote his grossly offensive Weekend Herald column not to praise, but bury, Clause 9 of the State Owned Enterprises Act?

“CRY ‘HAVOC!’ and let slip the dogs of war!” These are the incendiary words that Mark Anthony puts into the mouth of Julius Caesar’s ghost as he surveys the bloody work of his assassins. Though Mark Anthony insists he’s come “to bury Caesar – not to praise him”, his true purpose is to turn Rome’s citizens against the “honourable men” who have slain his – and Rome’s – best friend.

How would a modern Mark Anthony provoke revolution?

A few years ago, Wellington’s Circa Theatre staged a “modernised” version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which Mark Anthony’s speech is beamed into a Roman pub. Its motley collection of patrons are at first barely interested in the live television broadcast from Caesar’s funeral, but gradually, word by word, they get drawn into Mark Anthony’s superbly constructed speech until, thoroughly “ruffled up”, they pour onto the streets in “rage and mutiny”.

Equally, a modern Mark Anthony might avail himself of talk-back radio, or the columns of a mass-circulation newspaper, to capture the attention of his countrymen, ruffle up their spirits, and “put a tongue” into every one of their wounds and grievances.

Were he in a position to do so, a modern Mark Anthony might cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war across the whole media: television, radio, Internet and press.

But to what purpose? Mark Anthony had two: to revenge Caesar death, and to deal a death-blow to the tottering Roman Republic. How better to achieve these aims than by setting the Roman mob against Brutus: Caesar’s assassin and the Republic’s staunchest defender?

If we translate the Shakespearian drama into a contemporary New Zealand context, who best fits the description of Mark Anthony? Who has stepped forward to defend Caesar and attack his enemies? Who took advantage of a solemn civic occasion to shout in the ears of the sleeping dogs of war? Who, with carefully chosen words, has ruffled up the spirits of his countrymen to rage and mutiny?

Who else but Mr Paul Holmes?

From the “bully pulpit” of his column in the weekend edition of the NZ Herald, was it not Mr Holmes who unleashed a storm of criticism against the whole of Maoridom? Did he not call for Waitangi Day – “a bullshit day”, “a day of lies” – to be abandoned, and for the Treaty itself to be cast aside? Was it not Mr Holmes who, in his rhetorical fury at Waitangi Day protest, suggested that every person of Maori descent was guilty of “bashing their babies”? Did he not say that if the ghosts of family members who fought and died at Gallipoli, El Alamein and Casino were somehow able to witness the event, none could be persuaded that Waitangi Day was “anything but filth”?

In unleashing this vicious and indiscriminate attack against Waitangi Day, the Treaty, and all things Maori, Mr Holmes must have known that he was striking at the very heart of the relationship which binds the Maori Party to the National Party. Nor would it have escaped him that, by rousing the sleeping dogs of Pakeha racism, he was putting that relationship in danger. Given the precarious balance of political forces in the House of Representatives, why would he want to do any of these things?

Unless, Mark Anthony-like, his purpose was to assist his beleaguered friend, the Prime Minister, by toppling something that, already fatally weakened, was about to fall?

The Maori Party’s concern at the damage even the partial sale of state assets could inflict upon the Treaty Partnership, and its threat to withdraw from its Confidence & Supply Agreement with the Government, have clearly been interpreted as an attack on John Key. A case of “E tu Tariana?” Has he voiced in private, what he cannot publicly declare: that the judicially-defined “Treaty Partnership” has outlived its usefulness?

Is that why Mr Holmes cried ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of Pakeha racism? Not to praise Clause 9 – but to bury it?

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, 17 February 2012.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

In Praise Of Romance (On St Valentine's Day)

Kissing Cousins: Lady Mary Crawley embraces Matthew Crawley at the conclusion of the immensely popular television series Downton Abbey's Christmas Special. But, while millions still thrill to the fantasy of romantic love, does it continue to fulfil its original purpose of transforming men into beings fit for feminine company?

IT WAS ONE of those television moments when millions of viewers across the world exhaled a heartfelt sigh of satisfaction. There, in the portico of Downton Abbey, the two, star-crossed lovers: Lady Mary Crawley, and her father’s third cousin (once removed) Mr Matthew Crawley, finally plighted their troth. She standing, he on one knee, as the pure white snow-flakes swirled about them.

The immense audience for Julian Fellowes high-rating Downton Abbey is proof of the enduring power of romantic love. Whether it be the upstairs romance of Mary and Matthew; the downstairs romance of Anna and Mr Bates; or the combination of both in the romance between Lady Sybil and the Earl’s chauffer, the age-old tale of bliss attained through trial and peril continues to move us – even in the Twenty-First Century.

It is fitting then, on this day dedicated to romantic love, to interrogate the tradition. What does romance look like in the Twenty-First Century? Does it still possess the power to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary? To turn prose into poetry? And, most importantly, does romance still perform its original and most significant function: that of imbuing the relationship between the sexes with something more than lust and greed?

Venturing forth into the streets of our largest cities on a Friday or Saturday night one finds scant evidence that romantic love still has any devotees. The behaviour taking place in pubs and clubs at the end of the working week more closely resembles the bacchanalia of ancient Rome. These are unabashed festivals of the flesh, where intoxication fuels passion – and vice versa. Not so much a case of two souls intermingling, as two bodies – for versatile vice.

Is romance anywhere present among these drunken midnight games of musical beds?

In the case of far too many young (and not-so-young) men I fear the answer is ‘no’. After all, how many young men today have even the slightest acquaintance with the romantic tradition? I grew up on Malory’s medieval tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and Tennyson’s rendition of them into romantic Victorian verse:

He rode between the barley sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A redcross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield.
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.

The callow swain of 2012, if he is acquainted with King Arthur at all, knows him not via Tennyson and Malory, but via the HBO television-series Camelot in which swords, sorcery and sex are intertwined in ways that would make Tennyson blush. Suffice to say that these ‘New Arthurians’ all evince decidedly Twenty-First Century morals, and viewer discretion is advised.

And what of today’s young woman? Has ‘Mr Right’ really been replaced by ‘Mr Right-Now’? When the sun’s come up, the last-man-standing has departed, and the hangover’s at full strength, is she still in need of a “redcross knight” – or just the Red Cross?

The man she’s waiting for is surely the same man that the whole idyll of courtly love, and the tradition of romantic courtship, was intended to create: a good man.

Romance is a conspiracy: a fascinating combination of sensuality and spirituality originally woven together by itinerant medieval troubadours and their aristocratic patronesses for the purposes of transforming the feudal brutes that were their husbands into someone they could talk to when the sex was over. From Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to Aretha Franklin; all women have ever wanted from men is a little “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”.

Romance is about changing men. About teaching them to listen to that part of themselves that rejects the never-ending battle of “all against all”; that ceaseless struggle for ‘honour’ and precedence to which masculinity, unmediated by feminine power, inevitably descends. The thwarted, stunted version of masculinity that spawns the horror of “honour killings” in those parts of the world where the traditions of feudal patriarchy still hold sway.

And surely, it was a world free of such murderous patriarchs that even the staunchly un-romantic feminists were seeking? Their argument was that by climbing down from the pedestal upon which chivalrous men had placed them, and mixing-it with their brothers as equals, the revolutionary social changes they were seeking would be hastened. Has the strategy worked? Which sex do you think has become more like the other? Male, or female?

Romance, chivalry, courtly love: these have always been revolutionary ideals. Their power to transform our ordinary, workaday world is undeniable – and overwhelming. Lust is transient and greed’s disfiguring, but romantic love can turn the humblest suburban doorstep into Downton’s stately portico; every man into a redcross knight; and every woman into a lady – at whose feet a changed man at last surrenders the power he no longer needs.

This essay was originally published in The Press on St Valentine’s Day (Tuesday, 14 February) 2012.

Friday 10 February 2012

Is Labour Beyond Labour Reform?

Taking A Lead: The CTU's Helen Kelly has made repeated attempts to lure the Labour Party towards meaningful labour relations reforms - with very limited success. The CTU's, and the broader labour movement's, proposals need to get a lot bigger and bolder. The restoration of universal union membership and the return of national awards would do more to reduce social and economic inequality than any other single measure of labour reform .

ACROSS THE WORLD political parties of the centre-left struggle for relevance. Those in power compete with their centre-right opponents for the title of “The Biggest Loser” vis-a-vis deficit reduction. Those in opposition, including our own Labour Party, adopt right-wing policies as proof of their “realism”.

Outside of Latin America there doesn’t seem to be a single centre-left leader who conceives of his/her mission as anything more than “administering capitalism” more successfully than “the other lot”. The notion that contemporary free-market capitalism has failed, and ought to be replaced, receives short shrift from all but the most radical of social democratic leaders. Advocates of overtly left-wing economic and social policies find themselves ridiculed and ignored; driven into that friendless no-man’s-land which separates the centre- from the far-left.

The only certain outcome of this kind of politics is that the ideological battleground is moved further and further to the right.

What lies at the heart of this abdication from principle? Is it the steady perfection of the science of opinion sampling? Is the professional pollster’s superior grasp of the electorate’s collective mind responsible for strangling the politician’s infant principles in their cradle? Does the judgement of the omnipotent Focus Group stop all radical policy in its tracks?

Certainly, the opinion polls play their part. But could they really prevent a politician convinced of the rightness of his/her cause from marching without flinching into a hail of unfriendly ballots?

We already know the answer to that question. Were the members of Helen Clark’s caucus listening to pollsters and focus groups when they backed her decision to give Labour’s full support to Sue Bradford’s “anti-smacking” bill? On that issue they were willing to defy the wishes of more than 70 percent of the electorate.

Clearly, then, there are some principles which the centre-left will uphold – even if 99 percent of the electors are arrayed in opposition. How many Labour members, do you suppose, would back the re-criminalisation of abortion – or homosexuality?

But, can the same be said of the centre-left when it comes to legislation held dear by the wealthiest 1 percent of the electorate? The Employment Contracts Act, for example? Judging by how much of the latter’s repressive intent somehow found its way into its pallid successor, the Employment Relations Act, the answer can only be “No.”

This is curious because more and more evidence is emerging that a healthy trade union movement is one of the prime guarantors of effective wealth redistribution. Statistics published recently in the Guardian newspaper show unequivocally that the point at which the top 1 percent of income earners in the UK controlled the smallest amount of national wealth was in the mid-to-late 1970s – the exact same moment when the number of British trade unionists reached its zenith. A CTU analysis of the same statistics here in New Zealand has confirmed the UK experience. Universal union membership, coupled with national awards, acted as a brake on the growth of inequality for nearly fifty years.

For any Labour Party worth its salt this evidence should be conclusive. Not simply because the maintenance of social equality is one of the centre-left’s traditional objectives, but also because rampant inequality manifests itself in a host of other social indicators relating to the general health and well-being of the population. More than any other single reform, the restoration of effective trade unionism in New Zealand would halt, and then narrow, the gap between rich and poor. The consequent improvements in the health and educational attainment of New Zealand’s most deprived citizens should make radical labour law reform even more of a no-brainer for social-democratic policy-makers.

Even those Labour leaders, like David Shearer, who speak eloquently about lifting the game of New Zealand’s manufacturing industries should embrace radical labour law reform. By raising wage levels across-the-board such measures would winnow out the lazy and inefficient managers of New Zealand businesses. The long-term effects on productivity of restoring powerful and progressive trade unions are positive – not negative.

Why, then, do centre-left parties run a mile from such policies? Why will they die in a ditch for gay marriage – but not an empowered workforce? Why defend a woman’s right to choose – but not a worker’s right to effective representation on the job?

In politics we are defined most accurately by the policies we refuse to promote.

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, 10 February 2012.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

A New Alliance To Reclaim Aotearoa

The Second Wave: National's connivance in the re-colonisation of Aotearoa-New Zealand has set in place the objective conditions for a powerful alliance of non-elite Maori and Pakeha.

THE EBB AND FLOW of Maori-Pakeha relations: from guilt-ridden patronage to populist recrimination; is as old as the Waitangi Treaty. Economically driven, the relationship’s ups and downs are easily mapped against the booms and busts of colonial development. On the way up Pakeha dismissed indigenous objections as inimical to progress. On the way down Maori were criticised for competing directly (and thus illegitimately) for Pakeha resources, and their needs were given the lowest possible priority. Only when the threat of concerted Maori resistance became too real to ignore did the authorities, with much show of pious benevolence, deign to intervene.

Viewed from this perspective, the political equation determining Maori-Pakeha relations has, for most of the 172 years since 6 February 1840, been relentlessly zero-sum. While productive Maori resources remained to be transferred to Pakeha settler possession, New Zealand’s race relations remained tense and recriminatory. Few people gave much thought to how the Maori-Pakeha relationship might change if New Zealand’s developmental “fortress” economy was ever opened up to the rest of the world.

How would Pakeha fare if their country was to fall victim to a second great wave of colonisation? How would Pakeha react when they realised that, just like the Nineteenth Century Maori, their most prized possessions: farms, forests, public utilities and locally-owned industries; were being taken over by foreigners? What would happen to the Pakeha ruling elites when ordinary Kiwis finally twigged that, far from defending the nation’s “treasures”, their political masters were actively conniving in their alienation?

At that point, and with that realisation, the objective basis for an unbreakable alliance between non-elite Maori and Pakeha would spring into existence. Like the Maori of the 1850s and 60s who demanded that not one more acre of Maori land be sold to a settler regime that was clearly unwilling to uphold the promises of the Treaty, Maori and Pakeha could demand that not one more state-owned asset, not one more hectare of productive farmland, be sold to overseas investors. Especially when those investors were informing the political elites that any legal reference to the Treaty must constitute a serious disincentive to off-shore participation.

That the Treaty might act as an impediment to foreign direct investment in New Zealand assets was understood by the NZ Treasury from the very outset of the neoliberal “revolution” in the mid-1980s. Indeed, had it not been for the intervention of the Maori Council and the subsequent validation of its position by the New Zealand Court of Appeal, the complete alienation of New Zealand’s key assets would almost certainly have occurred.

The now familiar and broadly accepted characterisation of the Treaty relationship as a “partnership” between Maori and Pakeha is a crucial legacy of that historic legal contest. For the best part of two decades it has tranquilised the inherent conflict between the global neoliberal project and the Court’s partnership-based model of Maori-Pakeha relations. The nascent political alliance between the two peoples has been similarly retarded by the compromise enshrined in Section Nine of the State Owned Enterprises Act.

The substantive Treaty Settlements which Section Nine’s existence encouraged the Crown to negotiate may also be seen as devices to obscure and delay the formation of a political alliance between non-elite Maori and Pakeha. Indeed, by fostering the growth of tribal elites and supplying them with the resources necessary to co-opt their most trenchant critics the Treaty Settlement process has effectively demobilised a great deal of Maori activism. At the same time the multi-million dollar financial settlements have generated considerable Pakeha resentment towards “Treaty troughers” and the Iwi “gravy train”.

The Court of Appeal’s decision on the foreshore and seabed further exacerbated Pakeha resentments and set in motion the political processes that led to the formation of the Maori Party.

The National Party under Dr Don Brash came within an ace of fanning these resentments into an open rift between the Treaty partners and thereby igniting significant racial conflict. Under his successor, John Key, National abandoned this strategy of tension in favour of the much less inflammatory strategy of transforming the Maori Party into a mouthpiece for the aspirations of tribal elites.

The result is Hone Harawira’s Mana Party. For the first time in New Zealand history a political party has been formed which takes as its starting point the natural alliance of non-elite Maori and Pakeha.

As National sloughs off the ideological camouflage of its first term, and its second term’s neoliberal programme acquires a sharper focus, the consequences of a reactivated recolonisation of New Zealand are emerging with equal clarity.

The reaction to the Crafar Farms sale is only the beginning of a long and potentially bitter struggle to reclaim Aotearoa-New Zealand for its native sons and daughters: Tangata Whenua, the People of the Land, and Tangata Tiriti, the People of the Treaty.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 February 2012.

Friday 3 February 2012

Most Favoured Nation?

Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The signing of the China-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement was hailed as the Clark-led Labour Government's crowning foreign policy and trade achievement. It is simply inconceivable that the Labour Party has forgotten that agreement's "Most Favoured Nation" clause guarantees China the same rights as our other trading partners - including the right to purchase New Zealand farmland.

AT THE RISK of being branded a “traitor”, I’m declaring my support for the Crafar Farms sale. Not because I like seeing productive New Zealand farmland pass into the hands of foreigners, I don’t. The reason I’m in favour of the sale is because I believe New Zealanders should keep their promises and fulfil their undertakings.

In 2008 this country ratified a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Peoples’ Republic of China. That agreement was hailed as the most important foreign policy and trade achievement of the Helen Clark-led government of 1999-2008. Not only was it the first such agreement to be signed between China and a western-style democracy, but it also offered New Zealand businesses immense economic opportunities.

Those opportunities were, of course, reciprocal. The Chinese have been merchants and traders for the best part of three thousand years. They needed no reminding that in this world you don’t get something without giving something in return. And what we gave China was “Most Favoured Nation” (MFN) status.

In the context of the Crafar Farms Sale, MFN means: “If it’s okay to sell New Zealand farmland to Americans, Englishmen, Germans and Indonesians, then it must also be okay to sell farmland to the Chinese.” Under the terms of the NZ-China FTA, the Peoples’ Republic is legally entitled to no lesser consideration than that shown to the most favoured of our trading partners.

That’s what Prime Minister John Key meant when he said “our hands are tied”. It’s what New Zealand’s leading critic of the NZ-China FTA, Professor Jane Kelsey, meant when she stated:

If the New Zealand government had declined the Shanghai Pengxin purchase of the Crafar farm it could have faced an international law suit for breaching its free trade agreement with China […] The government cannot treat applications from Chinese investors differently from similar applications from other countries’ investors under what is known as the ‘most-favoured-nation’ or MFN rule.”

And that’s not all. Had the application from Shanghai Pengxin been declined by the Overseas Investment Office that decision would almost certainly have been challenged in a New Zealand court. And rightly so. We’d have broken our own rules.

It was all the more perplexing, then, to hear Opposition Leader, David Shearer, declaring his and the Labour Party’s opposition to the Crafar Farms sale. It’s simply inconceivable that Mr Shearer is unaware of the MFN prohibition against denying China the same right to purchase land as the nations that purchased upwards of 650,000 hectares of our national patrimony exercised when Helen Clark was Prime Minister, and Mr Shearer’s friend (and former boss) Phil Goff was the Minister of Trade.

To avoid the inevitable charges of rank hypocrisy and populist opportunism, Mr Shearer needed to accompany his statement opposing the sale with an announcement that Labour was committed, immediately upon regaining office, to repudiating the NZ-China FTA and tightening-up the legislation regulating overseas investment.

I’m still waiting for those other shoes to drop. And, frankly, I think I’ll go on waiting. Why? Because I simply don’t believe Labour is about to abandon its long-standing commitment to free-trade. Nor am I confident that Mr Shearer is any more willing to court the fury and retaliatory trade restrictions of the Chinese Government than Mr Key. Both men are well aware that this country’s future prosperity is inextricably bound up with China’s.

If foreign ownership of New Zealand land was something successive New Zealand governments wished to restrict, then they should have legislated against it before they embraced the doctrine of free-trade. And if we, the people, were serious about preserving our patrimony, then a majority of us would’ve voted for the political parties – the Alliance, NZ First, the Greens, Mana – which promised to do exactly that. But, the closest the New Zealand electorate’s come to voting against free-trade (27 percent) was the election of 1993. In 2011 the anti-free-trade vote was just 19 percent.

It’s a little late, now, to shout: “Stop!”

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, 3 February 2012.