Monday 30 April 2012

Seventies Nostalgia: Song From 1974

We offered arrogance the virtues of the flower

The Faithful And The True

On the streets of sublimation
Where the scholars make their home,
We came in search of bread
But they left us with a stone.
Engaged in argument of
Pointless points of view,
They offered nothing to
The Faithful and the True.

In the suburbs of the affluent,
In the gardens of the good,
We sang of love and life
But no one understood.
The sirens of the squad-cars
Were the only songs they knew.
They issued warrants for
The Faithful and the True.

In the fortresses of influence,
In the corridors of power,
We offered arrogance
The virtues of the flower.
But the judge's fatal verdict
Sent the soldiers clad in blue
To carry out the sentence on
The Faithful and the True.

On the sidewalks of oblivion,
In the ghettoes of despair,
The few of us who had survived
pretended not to care.
Just litter in the gutter
On the crowded avenue,
And no one there has time to care for
The Faithful and the True.

Chris Trotter

The Journey: A Political Memoir - Posting No. 3

The Voice Of Outraged Reasonableness: Labour Leader, Bill Rowling, opened his party's 1978 election campaign with a speech that both delighted and surprised his electoral base. The man property-tycoon, Bob Jones, called "The Mouse", had roared.

It was supposed to be a book about the birth of the NewLabour Party, but somewhere along the way it became the story of what led me into, and out of, the old Labour Party. In hopes of providing future political studies students with a glimpse of what it was like to be a left-wing Labour activist in the days of David Lange and Roger Douglas I am publishing The Journey on Bowalley Road as a series of occasional postings. L.P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” May these memoirs, written in 1989, serve, however poorly, as my personal passport.

Tuesday, 31 October 1978

WE WERE ALL VETERANS of one sort or another. Three years of Muldoon had seen to that. Gathered together in that weatherboard slum, we talked of little else but politics. The ordinary Otago students who flatted with us laughed at our intensity – by the late 70s radical politics were on the verge of becoming unfashionable.

Dunedin, hugging its windswept hills, was giving birth to new diversions. Wild enragés like Chris Knox and The Enemy spoke to a generation grown wary of promises. Life was moving to machine-gun rhythms. There were precious few jobs and precious little enthusiasm for brave new worlds. Old and young alike responded to the maniacal Knox’s chorus: “Pull down the shades!”

We were gathered around a black-and-white set; nervously awaiting the televised opening of Labour’s election campaign. I was sceptical about Bill Rowling’s ability to rouse any enthusiasm for a party that had spent the best part of three years stabbing each other between the shoulder blades. My mind went back to the Moyle Affair, the O’Brien Debacle. Could he do it? I was doubtful.

And then Rowling began to speak. The room fell silent. The veterans of anti-apartheid protests, anti-SIS protests, anti-nuclear protests were listening. The little man grasped the podium with both hands, staring calmly out over the heads of his huge and enthusiastic audience. Rowling’s was a serious passion: he spoke with the voice of outraged reasonableness. I recalled his concession speech three years before. “New Zealand will have need of Labour again, and when she does Labour will be ready.”

Somehow he had reached that part of us that still believed in New Zealand. He argued convincingly that what we had all experienced since 1975 represented the worst and not the best of our national character. Labour was the guardian of the best of our political traditions: the tradition of egalitarianism; the tradition of compassion; the tradition of co-operation; the tradition of peace and justice for all humanity.

“There has never been a time in the history of this country when we have been so divided with bitterness and sourness,” declaimed Rowling, “when New Zealander has been turned against New Zealander, when each person tries to keep his place by kicking the other fellow down … the path to recovery will not be easy, but I pledge to you that tomorrow will be brighter … Together, we can make it. Together, New Zealand can make it.” The audience was delighted. The man property-tycoon Bob Jones called “The Mouse”, had roared.

The following day I made my way down to the Labour Party’s North Dunedin office. A chain-smoking young woman, wrapped up against the chill, pushed a membership book in my direction. As I emerged from the office, into the pale spring sunlight, I chuckled to myself. In my hand was a tiny slip of yellow cardboard telling me that I was now a member of the New Zealand Labour Party. I stuffed the card into my wallet and walked on down the street.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday 27 April 2012

The Unfortunate Experiment

The Unfortunate Experiment: David Shearer is an immensely likeable bloke, and his work at the UN was truly inspirational, but he ain't anybody's kind of leader.

CONFESSION, THEY SAY, is good for the soul, so I have a confession to make. I was wrong about David Shearer. I made the mistake of believing that a politician with a brilliant back-story couldn’t fail to give us an equally brilliant front-story. Well, as Sportin’ Life tells the true believers in Porgy & Bess:

“It ain’t necessarily so.”

And, now I (and I suspect you) know it ain’t so. David Shearer is a thoroughly likeable, thoroughly decent bloke, and his record at the United Nations is truly inspirational, but, come on, let’s face it: he ain’t anybody’s kind of leader.

David Shearer, like David Lange, is a creature of the factional and personal animosities dividing the Labour caucus. Bluntly: he was put there by an unholy alliance of right- and left-wing MPs to prevent the Labour Party’s choice, David Cunliffe, from taking the top job.

David Lange, however, had one thing going for him that David Shearer does not – a gift for oratory. When David Lange opened his mouth the words flowed out in gorgeous, highly ornamented and persuasive profusion. His soaring rhetoric had the power to transport entire audiences to the vivid world of the Langean imagination. “I see a country”, he would say, and within a few inspirational sentences, we could see it too.

David Shearer, by contrast, can barely string ten words together. And, when he says “I see a country”, he means Finland.

In a funny sort of way, this is a good thing. The problem with David Lange’s remarkable gift for public speaking was that it masked the fact that he was actually the creature of Roger Douglas, Michael Bassett and Mike Moore – the right-wing “Fish & Chip Brigade”. He was just so damned good at painting word pictures that people never stopped to ask themselves how firmly he was attached to the values and traditions of the Labour Party. Or, how well-versed he was in economics. We were all so entranced, so delighted that at long last Labour had someone who could beat Rob Muldoon, that we never bothered to track down the answers to those awkward, but vital, questions ... until it was too late.

David Shearer’s singular lack of political leadership skills has spared us that fate. If the first David’s story was a tragedy, the second’s is pure farce, and everybody can see it. In certain Labour circles his elevation to the leadership was hailed as “the experiment”. In those same circles, it is now being described as “the unfortunate experiment”.

That kind of vicious, stiletto thrust might have been avoided if David Shearer had made up for what he lacked as a speaker with what he offered as a thinker. If only, in his two, much ballyhooed, “direction-setting” speeches he had given the country some juicy, red, ideological meat to chew on. If only he had been able to plainly set forth an over-arching philosophical framework from which later, more specific, Labour policies could be hung, then none of the muttering and stuttering would have mattered.

But those two speeches showed not the slightest trace of “big picture” thinking. On the contrary, they showed every sign of having been inspired by an Auckland-based focus-group, and composed by a Wellington-based committee. The only picture they painted was one that revealed Labour’s deficiencies. That not only did the party lack leadership, but it also lacked ideas. Oh, that Labour possessed speechwriters like The West Wing’s Toby Zeigler and Sam Seaborne. (Oh, that it possessed a President Jed Bartlett!)

So, what have we learned from this debacle? What has Labour learned?

If by “Labour” you mean its caucus, I would say absolutely nothing. If you’re talking about the party itself, nothing it didn’t know already: that Caucus picked the wrong guy.

It’s time for the Labour Caucus to put an end to “the unfortunate experiment” and begin a new one. They could call it “democracy” – and stop taking their party for Grant-ed.

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, 27 April 2012.

Thursday 26 April 2012

The Journey: A Political Memoir. Posting No. 2

In One Hand He's A Golden Coin: Before audiences of thousands, Muldoon cast himself in the role of economic saviour. To the anxious inhabitants of suburbia he promised "New Zealand the way YOU want it" - and on Saturday, 29 November 1975 "Rob's Mob" dutifully swept Bill Rowling's government from power - exactly reversing the Labour landslide of 1972.

It was supposed to be a book about the birth of the NewLabour Party, but somewhere along the way it became the story of what led me into, and out of, the old Labour Party. In hopes of providing future political studies students with a glimpse of what it was like to be a left-wing Labour activist in the days of David Lange and Roger Douglas I am publishing The Journey on Bowalley Road as a series of occasional postings. L.P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” May these memoirs, written in 1989, serve, however poorly, as my personal passport.

Saturday, 29 November 1975

MY DRINKING COMPANIONS were all old mates from school. Barry and Peter sat with me in my parent’s spacious living room drinking beer and watching the results flash up on the television screen. Labour was being murdered before our eyes and we simply couldn’t believe it.

I stepped out into the fresh air, reeling from a combination of shock and too much beer. Barton Avenue was its usual polite self. I turned and glared at the house next door. National Party president, George Chapman, and his family were not at home that night. I knew where they were. At the National Party headquarters it was already bedlam: Champagne, cheers and kisses all round – I had seen them on TV. I turned and looked towards the house on the right. No doubt Tom Maling, Deputy-Director of the SIS, was quietly celebrating, in a manner befitting an ex-colonial officer, the demise of Bill Rowling’s administration. His friends at the United States’ embassy would be very, very pleased.

How could it have happened? Just hours before, in bright sunshine I had walked with my family to the polling booth at Brentwood School. It was my first vote. Behind the screen I stared down at the ballot paper. One by one I crossed out every name except that of Ron Bailey, Labour’s candidate for Heretaunga. A pang of guilt had run through me as I scored out the name of the Values candidate. But then I remembered Norman Kirk: the cancellation of the Springbok Tour; the HMNZS Otago on its way to Mururoa; the face of Rob Muldoon as he preached to his cheering followers in the Upper Hutt mall. I remembered the ring around the moon. It had to be Labour.

Feelings of foreboding had shadowed me ever since Kirk’s death. Some months before the Election I had attempted to write a campaign song for the Labour Party; what emerged had frightened me:

Oh you who turn your faces
From the poet and the priest,
You are lost amongst the neon
Bloated by the feast.
And the man who shouts the loudest
Is bound to win the strife,
In one hand he’s a golden coin,
The other wields a knife.

And the Sons of Cain are howling
Like wolves beneath the moon.
“Oh when will it be time?”, they cry.
Their master answers: “Soon.”

At the home of the poet Alistair Campbell, just weeks before the election, Barry and I talked with the cream of Wellington’s intelligentsia about the political future of New Zealand. Lauris Edmond, Michael Volkerling, and a host of others talked quietly and authoritatively about the unacceptability of the little man from Tamaki.

Perched high on the Paekakariki cliffs, with the surf crashing relentlessly below and a fresh breeze blowing across Cook Strait off the distant peaks of the South Island, it all seemed so plausible. Seated uncomfortably on the floor of that crowded room I listened and hoped; and hoped and listened. Trevor Edmond, who had been the principal of my old secondary school, Heretaunga College, spoke to me reassuringly: “Don’t worry Chris”, he smiled, “a man like Muldoon is far too far to the right for the majority of New Zealanders. Labour will win.” My fears had subsided.

I returned to the living room. Bill Rowling was on the screen, speaking to a scrum of journalists on the steps of his Election Night headquarters. “New Zealand will have need of Labour again”, he said quietly, “and when she does, Labour will be ready.”

With tears in my eyes I picked up Barry’s guitar and sang the final chorus of my song:

The Sons of Cain are marching,
Before the dawn they bow.
“Oh when will it be time?”, they cry.
Their master answers: “Now!”

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

No Ifs, No Buts, No Maybes - Be There!

IF YOU THINK you have even the slightest whiff of the progressive about you, then put your feet on the street this Saturday. The only outcome that could make John Key and Steven Joyce smile more broadly than a new convention centre on Hobson Street is a low turnout this Saturday on Queen Street.

So, no ifs, no buts, no maybes - be there!

Assemble at Britomart. March begins at 3:00pm

New Zealand is NOT FOR SALE!

This is a progressive public service announcement from the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

A Huge Exercise In National Denial

We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here: These words, sung to the tune of 'Auld Lang Syne' captured the futility of the exercise in industrial scale bloodletting that was the First World War. It would serve as a much more fitting tribute to the slaughtered sons of New Zealand than 'I Vow To Thee My Country'.

“WE’RE here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here …”  This tongue-in-cheek anthem to utter futility was sung with gusto all along the Western Front during World War I. The tune – an adaptation of Auld Lang Syne – was entirely appropriate. Between a third and a half of the men who sang it at the “sharp end” of that pointless conflict never returned to celebrate the fifty New Year’s Eves that were their due.

Sadly, we do not sing “We’re Here” at dawn services on ANZAC Day. It’s lugubrious nihilism would sit uncomfortably alongside the youthful heroism with which the day is still infused. The 18,000 dead of World War I must be shielded from the muck and stink of the killing fields to which they were consigned. For more than ninety years we have bathed their memories in the radiant colours of idealism and self-sacrifice: singing hymns to the “love that never falters, the love that stands the test/That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best.”

But how many of us realise, as we sing the stirring verses of “I Vow To Thee My Country”, that the God who claimed our dearest and our best was not the Christian Yahweh, but Moloch – the insatiable pagan deity into whose fiery bowels the ancient Carthaginians were forced to consign their own precious children?

To sing “We’re Here” would be to acknowledge that between 1914 and 1918 twenty percent of our military age population – some 58,000 young men - were needlessly and pointlessly maimed and slaughtered. More importantly, it would be to identify the commission of a vast and unforgivable crime by the Imperial and Dominion Governments of the day. But that is something which the New Zealand state – and the New Zealand people – will not do. Even after the passage of nine decades, the huge exercise in national denial that is ANZAC Day continues.

It is young New Zealanders I feel most sorry for. Every ANZAC Day they throng to the cenotaphs and memorials, yearning for some sort of mystical communion with the boys who “will not grow old – as we who are left grow old”, and never quite finding it.

When questioned by breathless young reporters, they speak about the soldiers who “fought for peace”, and “died so we could be free”. Freedom? Peace! The invasion of Turkey was intended to open the sea lanes to the Russian Empire. Yes – that’s right – the Russian Empire. Nearly 3,000 young Kiwis died at Gallipoli for the Tsar of Russia – a ruthless autocrat whose Cossacks, just nine years earlier, had massacred hundreds of his own subjects on “Bloody Sunday”. It modern terms, it would be like asking 3,000 young New Zealanders to die for the Chinese politicians who ordered the troops into Tiananmen Square.

Not that the men who volunteered in 1914 objected to invading Turkey. Far from it. Many of them had acquired a taste for action less than a year earlier when they mounted up and rode into Auckland and Wellington to crush the General Strike of 1913. To read the contents of these “special” policemen’s newspaper – “The Camp Gazette” – is to discover the mindset that would later become familiar to the world as fascism. Oh yes, those boys on the slopes of Gallipoli fought for their King and their Country all right: but for “our” freedom? – I think not.

Of course the working class lads whose heads were split open by “Massey’s Cossacks” in 1913, died in considerably greater numbers than the ANZACs of 1915. But the 50,000 casualties of the New Zealand Division didn’t suffer in the mud of Flanders for Peace and Freedom, they suffered because, as conscripts, they were given little choice.

Bill Massey, New Zealand’s ferociously conservative Prime Minister, introduced conscription in 1916. This bigoted Ulsterman fervently believed that the British were descended from the Israelites, and ordained by God to rule the world. The Labour Party was born out of the struggle to make his hideous sacrifice of a whole generation mean something.

“We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here…” the Diggers sang. If we are to celebrate anything on ANZAC Day, let us celebrate the grim gallows humour of men who in the face of political criminality, unspeakable horror, and an overwhelming sense of the utter futility of their conduct, could still go “over the top” with a song on their lips.

They will not grow old. But it is long past time that those of us who are left grew up.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 28 April 2006.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Beating The House

Lucky For Some: Sky Casino and the National-led Government are cutting a deal on pokie machines - but only because we, the voters, continue to tolerate the gambling industry. If we really cared about the harm gambling causes, we'd shut the casions down and smash the pokies to smithereens.

IT’S ONE of the more memorable scenes in Godfather II. As Michael Corleone scrambles to flee Havana, Castro’s revolutionaries invade the Mob’s casinos and begin hurling one-armed bandits (a.k.a pokie machines) on to the street.

The poor have no difficulty in identifying the things that make their lives harder and more miserable: and pokie machines, neighbourhood liquor outlets and loan-sharks are all up there at the top of the list.

It’s why Hone Harawira’s Mana Party is so unequivocal on the issues of gambling, substance abuse (including alcohol and tobacco) and loan-sharking. It’s also why Stephen Joyce is absolutely right when he argues that if Labour and the Greens had the courage of their convictions they would announce that any future government in which they served would simply cancel all current casino licences – even at the cost of thousands of jobs.

There’s a reason why organised crime has always been involved in gambling: it’s because the House never loses. Owning a casino is like owning your very own mint. It’s a licence to print money.

And don’t be fooled by all those James Bond movies, in which gambling is presented as the glamorous pastime of the obscenely wealthy. It’s not. The profits of gambling do not come from the wealthiest, but from the poorest, members of our society.

The gambling industry feeds upon the desperation of those who have run out of options; on the dreams of those condemned to wade through the sewage at the base of our social pyramid. It fastens itself upon those communities foolish enough to offer themselves up as hosts, deposits it deadly seeds, and then, like the creature from Alien, explodes from its incubator in the form of alcoholism, fraud, theft, domestic violence, child neglect and suicide.

These are the true costs of the deal currently being negotiated between the Ministry of Economic Development and Auckland’s Sky City Casino. The latter may not be demanding a monetary subsidy from the Government, but, implicit in its offer is an understanding that we, the taxpayers, will carry the social costs arising from the additional 350-500 extra pokie machines the casino is demanding.

And we, the taxpayers, get this – even if Messrs Key and Joyce do not. We understand that this is not just a normal commercial deal. We know that along with the money, misery is changing hands. Like the slave merchants of old Savannah, we are exchanging gold for human flesh and blood; gold for human suffering. And that is wrong.

And because it’s wrong; because we’re not quite ready to characterise the Government’s actions (which, in a functioning democracy, means our own actions) in such stark and morally unambiguous terms; we (in the form of the Opposition parties) are casting about for some other way to express our outrage at the proposed Sky City deal.

It’s why we’re hearing so much about the “selling of New Zealand law” and how destructive that’s going to be of our legislature’s integrity. Poppycock! To make things happen on the economic development front New Zealand’s Parliament has never hesitated to pass enabling legislation. What, pray tell, was the Clyde Dam Empowering Act (1982) if not enabling legislation? Special bills for special people is an aspect of the Westminster parliamentary tradition that goes all the way back to the Enclosure Acts of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

No, that line of argument will not do. The reason why nearly three-quarters of New Zealanders (according to TV3’s polling) don’t like the Sky City deal is because, deep down, we know that the legalisation of casinos and the introduction of pokie machines (the “crack cocaine” of gambling addiction) was a Faustian bargain that imperilled our very souls.

Because the Devil is nothing if not clever. He sweetened (and continues to sweeten) the deal with honeyed talk of “assisting the community” with the “proceeds” of gambling. He invites us to consider what would become of our philanthropic organisations without the support of Pub Charity? What would become of our sports teams?

“Just imagine,” he says, with furrowed brow and glittering eye, “how much extra tax we’d all have to pay without the pokies!”

And we, feeling that twinge in our hip-pocket nerve, hang our heads and sign on the dotted line of Mephistopheles’s smouldering parchment.

It will take genuine moral courage from the leadership of the Labour Party, and true guts from the Greens, to join with Hone Harawira and Mana in saying that some jobs aren’t worth having. Closing the casinos and banning pokies would be an upending act – a revolutionary decision to send the sewage flowing upwards, for a change.

And the poor would cheer to see the gambling bosses scuttling for the airport in their black limousines. The sound of thousands of shattering pokie machines ringing in their ears.

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

Monday 23 April 2012

Seventies Nostalgia: A Song From 1979

Heading For The Coast

Headlights on the highway,
Coming down off the freeway,
Night falls at the end of the day
And we were headed out of town.
In the factories hammers pounded,
And in the distance sirens sounded
Like the cries of someone hounded
In a palace - or a jail.

And we were
Heading for the Coast
Heading for the Coast
Heading for the Coast
Where the Sun goes down.

There was a full moon shining,
And a black dog whining.
He was chained up and pining
For the open fields of Night.
In the small hours of the morning,
When the owls cry out a warning,
We took shelter under the awning
Of a ruined hotel.

And we were
Heading for the Coast
Heading for the Coast
Heading for the Coast
Where the Sun goes down.

Sunlight in a small town,
Waiting for the West-bound,
Catching looks from all the house-bound
And laughter from the children heading off to school.
With our eyes on the dividers,
The mountains waiting for the riders,
Of the big rigs - the providers
Climbing slowly up the Pass.

And we were
Heading for the Coast
Heading for the Coast
Heading for the Coast
Where the Sun goes down.

Well, the Sun went down before us,
And the lights went out behind us,
And the Old World couldn't find us
With the mountains in between.
Then the Sun dropped to the ocean,
Down below we felt the motion
Deep underground - we got a notion
We'd be seeing him again.

And He'd be
Heading for the Coast
Heading for the Coast
Heading for the Coast
When the Sun goes down.

Chris Trotter

The Journey: A Political Memoir. Posting No. 1

A Ring Around The Moon: Saturday, 31 August 1974. The day New Zealand's luck ran out.

It was supposed to be a book about the birth of the NewLabour Party, but somewhere along the way it became the story of what led me into, and out of, the old Labour Party. With one eye on posterity, I have decided to publish The Journey: A Political Memoir on Bowalley Road as a series of occasional postings. My hope is that it will provide my readers and future political studies students with a glimpse of what it was like to be a left-wing Labour activist in the days of David Lange and Roger Douglas. L.P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” May these memoirs, written in 1989, serve, however poorly, as my personal passport to the New Zealand of thirty years ago.

Saturday, 31 August 1974

ON THE NIGHT of 31 August 1974 my brother and I were on the final stretch of a long journey to Motueka, a small coastal town on the north-west corner of the South Island of New Zealand. As we flashed into the headlights of the motorists who sped past on that narrow stretch of country road we must have presented the classic hitch-hiker stereotype. Long-haired and jean-clad; carrying heavy packs and the indispensable guitars; Hippies on the road to some far-flung commune; and light-years beyond the ken of these hard-bitten cockies in their dusty Holdens and Ford utilities.

I was just eighteen and the world was a beautiful place. Life was easy in the early Seventies. Wages were good and jobs were everywhere. It seems inconceivable now, from the perspective of a decade-and-a-half of rising unemployment, but all that thousands of young people like me had to do was buy a newspaper, pick up a phone, and there was a job for as long as you wanted it. We would work for a few weeks in factory, warehouse or office, until the bank balance recovered, or the boredom began to get to us, and then leave – just like that. It must have driven the employers crazy, but it was heaven for the young.

My brother and I had talked of many things as we wound our way up the South Island from Dunedin. The possibilities offered by the future seemed endless. Just days before, Richard Nixon, the bête noire of radical students and itinerant songwriters (as I liked to think of myself) had been forced to resign his office. Nothing seemed impossible. There was magic in the air; a Labour Government in Wellington; Bob Dylan’s Desire on the stereo: what could possibly go wrong?

The weather over our journey had been fitful. All along the West Coast we had seen rainstorms ahead of us, blown out of the moist air currents that swept eastward from the Tasman Sea to condense upon the heights of the Southern Alps, but somehow we had remained dry. Just when we thought the dark curtains of water were about to sweep over us, the wind would blow them somewhere to the north or south of our position. We began to think we were protected by a special providence, that we were untouchable.

As the number of passing cars dwindled and the night thickened around us, we began to walk. The surrounding countryside was silent and our voices carried far into the fields and windbreaks that flanked the road. A little way ahead of me my brother halted; staring skyward. Above us, shimmering balefully around the moon, was a perfect circle of light. My brother, a student of anthropology at the University of Otago, was intensely interested in Amerindian folklore.

“It’s an omen”, he said.

“But of what?”, I replied.

“Something bad.”

The cars had stopped completely now and it was clear that we would not reach Motueka that night. Reluctantly, we pitched our tent under the pines and settled down to sleep. At nine o’clock precisely it began to rain. Our luck had run out.

One hundred miles to the north, in the capital city’s Mater Hospital, at nine o’clock precisely, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Norman Kirk, was pronounced dead.

Our luck had run out indeed.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday 20 April 2012

Protecting The Winning Ticket

Life's Lottery: How far would you go to protect the ticket that guaranteed you vast amounts of wealth and power? What wouldn't you do to protect your winning position?

IT’S TIME FOR THE RICH to come clean. We’ve given them the benefit of the doubt for far too long. We’ve assumed that, fundamentally, they’re not really all that different from the rest of us – just wealthier. We’ve taken at face value their protestations that the policies they promote are for everybody’s benefit.

None of it is true. Never has been. Never will be.

You’re sceptical, I understand that. And it’s good that you are, because it proves you’re a decent person. It shows that you’re uncomfortable with attributing evil motives to people you don’t know; and that, generally speaking, you prefer to look for the good in people.

Fair enough, you need to be convinced.

Okay, here’s a little story from the news. It’s about a couple, living in the Red Zone in Christchurch, who won Lotto. The prize was $5 million, and they had the winning ticket. But, they were living in Christchurch. At any time there could be another big earthquake. The ticket could get lost. What did they do? Well, according to the news reports, they put the winning ticket in a Ziploc bag and they tacked it to their bedpost – just in case.

It’s a charming story, and we all congratulate the lucky couple (especially since they’ve been doing it hard since the big quakes struck). But it is also a very illustrative story. It shows to what lengths people will go to make sure they do not lose their winning ticket.

Most of us protect our tickets by working hard, paying our taxes, paying the mortgage, paying our insurance premiums, obeying the law, and trying to be good friends and neighbours. But, that’s about it, because, given the size of our prize, our ticket just isn’t worth any extra protection.

But, just imagine your ticket is worth not five million, but fifty million dollars. What would you do to protect that winning ticket? Hell, what wouldn’t you do!

You certainly wouldn’t be in favour of a capital gains tax, or death duties, or a highly progressive income tax. And you certainly wouldn’t support any political party, or social movement, that promised to impose them. To be truthful, you’d probably have a pretty jaundiced view of the entire democratic process. After all, there are a great many more voters who don’t have $50 million than there are voters who do. What’s to stop them from simply using their votes to accomplish the transfer of your wealth to their pockets?

And speaking of transferring wealth: what about trade unions? Obviously, they’d be for the chop. Nobody stays wealthy for very long by sharing the profits of their enterprises with the people who actually work in them. These are, after all, businesses they running - not charities!

Let’s recap. You’re rich, and you want to stay that way. So, to protect your ticket; to safeguard your $50 million prize; you need to find a way to eliminate, or at least minimise, the threats posed by taxes, unions, and democracy. What’s your strategy?

Essentially, there’s only one winning strategy. It requires you to convince all those who are not wealthy that whatever status and security they do enjoy is the result of your own superior imagination, risk-taking and skill. You have to paint yourself and your fellow millionaires and billionaires as a “wealth creators” and, more importantly, “job creators”. You have to convince your fellow citizens that any attempt to restrict or redistribute your wealth will not only put their jobs at risk, but that society as a whole will become poorer.

If you can convince people of these things, then they will, perfectly democratically, eliminate wealth taxes, truncate workers’ rights, and reconfigure their entire political system to favour the tiny minority fortunate enough to hold the multi-million-dollar winning tickets.

But wait, there’s more. Because, as The Spirit Level shows, grossly unequal societies are beset with all manner of social pathologies. And, because these pathologies encourage political debate about the fairness and sustainability of economic inequality, there’s one more thing the wealthy must do. They must convince us that, if we’re losers, it’s our own fault. We’re just too stupid and/or lazy to be winners.

It’s what the Rich will never come clean and admit: that they’ve turned us into the Ziploc bags that keep their winning tickets safe.

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, 20 April 2012.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

From Bad To Worse - And Beyond

Pontius Brownlee: The Press's Al Nisbet's trenchant view of Christchurch Recovery Minister, Gerry Brownlee's, lofty denial of the city's acute rental crisis epitomises the growing sense of disconnection between the Government, its bureaucratic Czars, and the people of Christchurch.

IF POLITICS is mostly about perception, then, looking at Christchurch, this Government’s in big trouble. Because, perception-wise, this Government’s handling of the rebuilding of New Zealand’s second city hasn’t just gone from Bad to Worse; Worse is sending Gerry Brownlee post-cards.

The “reality” of the situation may be very different from people’s perceptions – it usually is. But the very fact that Cantabrians are having immense difficulty translating the reality of their everyday lives into anything remotely resembling the Government’s spin is a problem in itself. If disaster management isn’t grounded in telling disaster victims the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then it isn’t management – it’s mismanagement.

And that’s the problem this Government’s faces: an awful lot of people living in Christchurch appear to have stopped believing that they’re being told even a fraction of the whole truth. And, once truth walks out the door, can trust be far behind? Is it possible to rebuild a great city without truth or trust? Is the Government conducting an experiment?

What are these bad perceptions? What is Worse describing to Gerry Brownlee on those post-cards?

The worst perception: the one from which so many other bad perceptions flow; is that the politicians were either never in charge, or, at some early stage, lost control of the rebuild. That somewhere; shielded from the media, invisible to the public; are the individuals and institutions who are really calling the shots on Christchurch’s future.

If you were to ask Cantabrians who these people/institutions were, most would give you a simple, three word, answer: The Insurance Companies.

Two-thirds of the cost of the Christchurch rebuild is expected to come from the insurance and reinsurance industry. That’s what the Government has said, publicly and repeatedly. They’re certainly not keen to extend their responsibilities very far beyond those associated with the EQC. The reconstruction of Christchurch is intended to be a market-driven affair. State intervention – beyond what’s already been signalled – is not on the Government’s agenda.

Big mistake.

By letting the big insurance companies know that the pace and scope of the Christchurch rebuild are in their hands, the Government has effectively walked away from the table – or that, at least, is the perception.

It’s why everything is seen to be moving with such glacial slowness. The insurers and reinsurers naturally want to minimise their exposure. They know if they wait, the pressure on the reconstruction agencies will grow, and, before long, concessions will start to flow. In this context, what possible incentive could the insurance industry have for speeding things up? The longer it delays, the more concessions flow its way. The more concessions that flow its way, the more money it saves.

It’s hardly rocket science.

But, it is grossly unfair. Because the money saved by the insurance industry is money that would otherwise have gone into the pockets of Cantabrians. It’s the money they would have used to move on, to strike down new roots in new parts of Christchurch, to get the builders actually building.

Without that money, rebuilding becomes impossible. And so they are forced to seek temporary accommodation – along with everybody else. Tradespeople and their families, moving en masse to Christchurch to rebuild devastated homes and infrastructure, are forced to compete with thousands of Cantabrians who cannot live in their red-stickered homes, yet lack the resources to rebuild them. Add to this, the demands of university students, and the normal flow of young people from family nest to independent living, and suddenly, you’ve got a major rental housing crisis.

Except that you don’t – at least, not according to the Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee. The Mayor, Bob Parker, disagrees, but his objections count for very little these days. The Christchurch City Council – the only democratically elected representative body still operating in the city – is about to lose all say over the future shape of its CBD. In place of an elected Mayor and councillors, Cantabrians will see responsibility for re-constituting Christchurch’s shattered heart handed over to an appointed Czar.

“Yes, let’s give a big, warm, Canterbury welcome to the man who gave Auckland its ‘super-city’. Ladies and Gentlemen – Mr Maaarrrrk Ford!”

It’s hard to imagine an appointment more likely to strengthen the perception that the last people to be asked anything, told anything, or given anything, are the people of Christchurch themselves. Their Government has relinquished its responsibilities to foreign financial giants. Their regional and city councils have already been, or are about to be, politically emasculated. And their day-to-day-lives have been reduced to mere administrative Lego in the hands of over-paid, over-powered, unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats.

At least, such are Cantabrians’ perceptions.

If the reality is something different, then, respectfully, Mr Brownlee, Mr Parker, Mr Sutton and Mr Ford: tell the people of Christchurch what it is.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 April 2012.

Friday 13 April 2012

Woo Them, Or Lose Them.

Your Target Audience, Or Your Audience's Target? "Politics", if it means anything at all to the tens-of-thousands of young electoral abstainers, is generally construed as the sum of all their fears, and politicians, far from being regarded as the people they elect to do things for them, are seen as the people others elect to do things to them.

THE MANNER IN WHICH the Right took control of the Auckland University Students Association (AUSA) is really quite instructive.

From the late-1960s until the late-1980s, with some notable exceptions (the Green MP, Kevin Hague, being one of them) AUSA presidents, newspaper editors and executive members tended to hail from the Left. Then, as successive governments encouraged more and more foreign students to enrol at New Zealand’s universities, things began to change.

Given the New Zealand’s Left’s infatuation with all things “international”, one might assume that its candidates would be the first to reach out to this new and growing student constituency. But, one would be wrong. Their reputation for beer-swilling racist redneckery notwithstanding, the first student politicians to think of printing posters and pamphlets in the native tongues of Auckland’s foreign students hailed from the Right. In return for this rare gesture of welcome and recognition, foreign students consistently rewarded the Right’s candidates with a winning margin of votes.

The moral of this story is clear: “Never allow a new and growing political constituency to go unwooed. Because if you don’t woo ‘em, somebody else is bound to.”

IN THE LAST ELECTION just over three-and-a-quarter million New Zealanders were eligible to vote. On the day, however, only just over two-and-a-quarter million Kiwis actually made it to the polling booths. Or, to put it more precisely, only 69.6 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2011 General Election – one of the lowest turnouts on record.

Now, there will always be a hard-core of the more feckless sort of citizen who’ll just never be bothered taking their civic responsibilities seriously (a statistician friend of mine reckons the figure hovers somewhere around the six percent mark). There’s another group, however, whose refusal to enter the polling booth is a conscious political statement. These abstainers, and their  number has been growing steadily since the mid-1980s, have a blunt message for the political parties: “You don’t know me. You won’t help me. You don’t understand me. You can’t even speak my language.” A significant minority add: “You betrayed me.”

Overwhelmingly, these abstainers are young (18-25 years) poorly-educated and unskilled workers and beneficiaries, and most of them reside in electorates that, historically, have been Labour strongholds. “Politics”, if it means anything at all to these youngsters, is generally construed as the sum of all their fears, and “politicians”, far from being regarded as people they elect to do things for them, are seen as the people others elect to do things to them. They couldn’t tell you how they know, but they do know, and deep in their gut the knowledge festers like a malignant tumour: they are the ones who are being blamed; they are the ones who are being punished; for economic and social sins they can barely pronounce.

THESE YOUNGSTERS should be the apples of Labour’s eye. The ones for whom “Seddon and Savage”, James K. Baxter’s “Socialist Father”, returns in the poem Crossing Cook Strait. For, surely, these are “the angry poor” who are his nation? And surely it is their suffering, and the social and economic injustice which engenders it, that defines Labour’s “peril and purpose”?

They should be Labour’s people, but they are not. Indeed, it is the children of these young folk that Labour once again proposes to abandon by jettisoning its policy of increasing the incomes of beneficiary families.

That amounts to the purest political folly, because, given half a chance, this scapegoat generation, these angry thousands, possess the power to carry not only Labour, but this whole country into the future. The story of New Zealand’s tomorrow will be the story of how well, or how badly, Labour responds to the challenge of uplifting these alienated abstainers. Of how, or whether, a future left-wing government provides them with the education; the training; the housing; and, ultimately, the responsibility to keep our society whole.

And if the Left refuses to woo them? Then, be warned – somebody else will.

"Our Last Hope: Hitler" Nazi Party election poster from the early 1930s. In 1932 six million Germans were out of work. In that same year electoral support for the Nazis peaked at 37.2 percent .

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, 13 April 2012.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Putting the Public In Their (Private) Place

Puffed-Up Political Popinjay: Associate Minister of Education, Craig Foss. The Member for Tukituki epitomises the National Party's almost reflexive antagonism towards urban culture and the free life of the mind which it promotes. Mr Foss's neoliberal ventriloquists are determined to dismantle the democratic and egalitarian education system set in place by the First Labour Government.

SEVEN YEARS AGO Craig Foss made his living manipulating money for Credit Suisse Financial Products. Before that he had, like his leader, John Key, been a currency trader. In 2005, after heaving Labour’s Rick Barker out of the provincial Hawke’s Bay electorate of Tukituki, he became a National Party MP. National had been odds-on favourite to take the seat, but everyone agrees Mr Foss worked tirelessly to make it a certainty.

He was perfectly cast for the role. The election of 2005 marked the first surge of the king conservative tide which would sweep away practically all Labour’s representation in the provinces and seriously erode much of its urban base. To the conservative voters of Tukituki Mr Foss’s jutting chin, porcine squint, and querulous pout communicated the confidence of the self-made man who understands the value of Pounds, Dollars and Euros – but very little else.

This lack of cultural depth was anything but a handicap in Tukituki, where the Clark Government’s intelligent social liberalism had long since outworn its welcome. Mr Foss may have spent much of his working life in the world's financial hubs, but his values remain firmly rooted in the socially conservative Hutt Valley suburbs of the 1960s and 70s, where he was raised.

BEING A TORY in the Hutt Valley of that era can't have been easy. Surrounded by one of the largest concentrations of industrial workers in New Zealand, the besieged defenders of free enterprise who triennially defied the Labour-voting hordes must have felt like political refugees. Their true home wasn’t the Hutt, seething with socialists, but out there – in the Heartland. In all those decent, hard-working provincial towns. In all those leafy city suburbs. That’s where “real Kiwis” lived, well-fenced against trouble-making trade-unionists, subversive secondary-school teachers and condescending academics.

It’s this almost reflexive antagonism to urban culture that turns most National Governments into dreary re-runs of The Heartland’s Revenge: a dull-witted drama punctuated by repeated acts of petty social vengeance. Think Murray McCully’s dismantling of MFAT; Paula Bennett’s axing of the Tertiary Assistance Grant; Steven Joyce’s sabotage of public transport; and Bill English’s pogrom against public servants. Most of all, think of the entire National Caucus’s hatred of education.

Nothing epitomises the Tory mind-set more completely than its attitude to learning. The essence of conservatism is its love of boundaries. People are supposed to stay where they are put: the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. Workers, Maori, women, children: each must remain in their allotted social space. The only legitimate vector of social mobility is wealth. Work, by itself, will not set you free: but work attached to bundles of cash just might. Of course, money is not the only source of freedom. The human mind, liberated from ignorance, prejudice and superstition, bestows upon its owner a very different sort of wealth. Education has the power to dissolve boundaries – which is why conservatives hate it with such passion.

Why else would National have withdrawn the funding that allowed schools and polytechnics to offer night classes? Why else would they, against the advice of their own experts, have introduced “National Standards”? Why else are they underfunding our universities and attempting to turn them into purely vocational degree factories? What else could explain their extraordinary contempt for public service broadcasting? Their enthusiasm for dumbed-down, commercially-driven programming? The free life of the mind is anathema to the National Party, and everything which contributes to that freedom must be destroyed.

But, how to end the free dissemination of knowledge without, at the same time, crippling the ability of the rich man in his castle to govern effectively? The answer is simple: ensure that only the wealthy get a good education. This will, of course, entail the destruction of the public education system put in place by the First Labour Government, whose 1939 “mission-statement”, penned by the then Secretary of Education, C.E. Beeby, at the behest of his Minister, Peter Fraser, required:

[T]hat every person, whatever the level of his academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers.

The swiftest and most effective means of destroying such a system is simply to place it in the hands of private, profit-seeking businesses. Identifying the system’s weakest performers by using NCEA pass-rates and National Standards test results will allow private-sector investors to pinpoint the prime locations for National’s new, taxpayer-funded “Charter Schools”. The construction of these new institutions will offer further opportunity for private profit in the form of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs).

WHICH BRINGS US BACK to Mr Foss. At the end of last year John Key made the Member for Tukituki Minister of Commerce, Minister of Broadcasting, Associate Minister for ACC, and Associate Minister of Education. In was in this latter role that Mr Foss, on Tuesday 10 April, proudly announced the education sector’s first PPP.

Over the next 25 years, a private consortium called Learning Infrastructure Partners will construct, administer and maintain Hobsonville Point Primary School and Hobsonville Point College. At what cost to the taxpayer, and at what rate-of-return to Learning Infrastructure Partners, we are not being told. Such information, according to Mr Foss, is “commercially sensitive”.

Listening to Mr Foss being interviewed by Mary Wilson on Checkpoint and by Simon Mercep on Morning Report, I was moved to wonder by what measure the Associate Minister was deemed worthy of his $257,800 (excluding allowances) salary. So fatuous were his answers; so completely pre-scripted were his lines; that not even he could deliver them without a suppressed giggle. Over and over again, reading from the page of talking-points which no doubt lay on the desk in front of him, Mr Foss told Radio New Zealand’s listeners that this was:

A good deal all ‘round for the taxpayers, for the Government, for teachers, for boards of governors, for the pupils themselves.

Boards of “governors”? Surely that should have been “trustees”. New Zealand schools haven’t had boards of governors for more than a quarter-century. That our new Associate Minister of Education was so ignorant of his portfolio that he failed to correct the error did not surprise me. But who, in the Ministry of Education, could possibly have made such a slip? Could it have been someone who’d only just arrived from a place where schools still have boards of governors? Someone whose last job was managing her country’s education infrastructure and funding? Surely, the Minister’s talking points were drafted by that proud promoter of Charter Schools and PPPs; Sheffield’s own ambitious lass; and New Zealand’s brand new Secretary of Education: Lesley Longstone?

Ms Longstone is what’s known as a “change manager”. Her appointment is all the proof we need to convict this National Government of planning to dismantle New Zealand’s democratic and egalitarian system of public education – a system internationally acclaimed for its outstanding pedagogical successes.

Assisted by Treasury Secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf, Ms Longstone will continue to put the words of the neoliberal ideologues who still run this country into the mouths of puffed-up political popinjays like Mr Foss. Who will, in turn, continue to receive six times the median income for putting young New Zealanders in their place.

The place from which C.E. Beeby and Peter Fraser freed them, more than three-quarters-of-a-century ago.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

To Play The Queen

A Bold Move: The Green's appointment of Laila Harre as its Auckland-based Issues Director signals its intention to resist the tidal drag of Labour's rightward drift. It's an ideological flanking manoeuvre David Shearer will ignore at his peril.

THE APPOINTMENT OF LAILA HARRÉ as the Green Party’s Auckland-based Issues Director should be sending shivers down David Shearer’s spine. Henceforth, hundreds-of-thousands of former Alliance Party voters will no longer have to hum-and-haw about which left-wing party to support. Ms Harré, a former Alliance leader, is one of the Left’s most intelligent and articulate spokespeople. The clarity and radicalism of her thinking has been evident since her maiden speech to Parliament in 1996:

A government cannot both embrace the full force of globalisation and retain sovereignty over key economic decisions. A government cannot deliver a first class health and education service accessible to all regardless of wealth without a substantially more progressive income tax system. A government cannot deal with fundamental issues of biosecurity and ecological diversity by adopting a market model which will by definition subsume these needs to the perceived interests of foreign investors ….. These fundamental issues of difference between the Alliance and Labour must be resolved, and not simply disguised by clever packaging.

That the issues identified by Ms Harré sixteen years ago remain at the heart of contemporary political debate on the Left is proof of her analytical perspicacity. They certainly constitute the “fundamental issues of difference” that Labour and the Greens have yet to resolve.

Which brings us back to the shivers that should be running up Mr Shearer’s spine. Because, in just about every particular of Ms Harré’s 1996 challenge, the gap between Labour’s position and the Greens’ isn’t narrowing, it’s growing wider. Rather than increasing the progressivity of our income tax system, Mr Shearer intends to decrease it. And, far from attempting to free himself from the “embrace” of globalisation, Mr Shearer remains as committed as his predecessors to “free-trade” and “productive foreign investment”.

Mr Shearer’s principal policy advisers: His chief-of-staff, Stuart Nash; his policy consultant, John Pagani; and the Labour Right’s faction-leader, Trevor Mallard; would appear to have no intention of permitting either the Caucus, or the wider Labour Party organisation, to address these fundamental policy differences. Which can only mean that they intend to mask the ideological gulf separating Labour and the Greens with “clever packaging”.

The Greens are having none of it. Ms Harré’s appointment makes that clear. If Mr Shearer and his minions are signalling their intention to take Labour to the right; the Greens, by appointing a radical social-democrat as their Issues Director, have communicated their party’s strong disinclination to follow suit. More than this, the Greens are warning Labour that if it is no longer interested in the votes of the Auckland working-class, then they will gladly take them off their hands.

Ms Harré is not only a former Alliance leader and MP, but also a highly successful trade-union organiser. She masterminded the “Nurses Are Worth More” campaign of 2003-04, and was for four years the General Secretary of the National Distribution Union. In Auckland, where Labour’s organisation is weak (and where Mr Shearer and his allies have thrown their support behind organisational “reforms” which threaten to keep it that way) the Greens have installed a woman of proven organisational and motivational talent.

What we are witnessing is a fascinating historical reversal. Labour conquered power by first organising the working-class vote, and only then extending its reach into the educated middle-class and small proprietors. The Greens are expanding in the opposite direction: from their core base of support among the educated middle-class; to the small proprietor; to the working-class; and potentially to the much-despised “underclass” of beneficiaries and alienated youth.

Mr Shearer and his allies are, therefore, pursuing a potentially fatal strategy. By leading the party to the right they risk losing their working-class base, which, following the last election, is all that remains to them. The Labour leadership do not seem to appreciate that the Greens have already made off with the educated middle-class vote, and have won over a significant number of small proprietors. To leave their Auckland working-class flank exposed to Ms Harré’s organisational flair risks replicating here what has already occurred in Germany: the Greens supplanting Labour as the dominant left-wing party.

Labour members who would rather not see their party pushed into second place need to act swiftly and decisively. Not simply on the question of: “Who should be leading the party?” But on the more important question of: “How should the party be led?”

A crucial aspect of the Greens’ success as a political movement has been the open and transparent nature of its decision-making processes. In short, it’s commitment to democracy. If Labour’s membership wishes to make progress on those “fundamental issues of difference” between their party and the Greens, they must demonstrate an equally vigorous commitment to democratic values.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 April 2012.

Friday 6 April 2012

Guard Duty: An Easter Story

The Tomb Was Empty

“THAT’S QUITE A STORY, Marcus Petronius.”

My sergeant was a big bear of a man in his early 40s. He’d been soldiering for more than fifteen years and still had ten to go. He was a true Roman; the son of a butcher from the Transtiberium district. It was a lineage he used to good advantage with raw recruits. “Never been afraid of blood and guts!”, he’d bellow. “Been around them all my life. So long as it’s not yours, you’ve nothing to fear from the contents of a man’s belly!”

That was Antonius Caedere – whom some called “The Rock”. Because he was a rock. The sort Rome’s enemies broke on. A man to put your back against when things got ugly. Solid, dependable: a real soldier.

“How did you come to be guarding a Jewish corpse in the first place? Last I heard you were on crucifixion duty.”

“That’s right, Sergeant. Up on Golgotha. Two thieves and a political – nothing special.”

“So, what happened?”

“Well, it’s hard to say. The Governor’s guard had beaten the political pretty bad. Some wag had even woven him a crown of thorns – called him “King of the Jews”.”

“Risky title, I would have thought.”

“Yes. I think it’s what got him killed. Some Jewish legend about the coming of a mighty king – the ‘Messiah’. You know what these people are like. Anyway, their High Priest, Caiaphas, thought it safer to be rid of him and handed him over to Pilate as an enemy of the Emperor.”

“An even more risky title. Did he die well?”

“He died quickly, I can tell you that. Cried out for his father, which was a little odd, because usually all they want are their mothers. Still, the two thieves were very much alive, so our job was far from done. The hours passed, the day was wearing away, when this wealthy Jewish fellow bustles up with a message from Pontius Pilate, no less. The duty officer reads the message, frowns, reads it again, and then orders Cassius and me to cut the dead political down and hand him over to this Jew for burial. When we’ve done this, the officer reads the message over again and orders us to go with the body and stand watch over the burial tomb until relieved.”

“You were absent without leave for two nights, Marcus Petronius. You and Cassius Gaius. Guarding the corpse of a dead Jewish political? Two nights, and no one relieved you?”

“Well now, that’s the thing. Someone did relieve us. An officer.”


“I didn’t recognise him, Sergeant. Neither did Cassius. Strange. I thought I knew all the officers in the Jerusalem garrison. Not this fellow, though. He was very tall, wore a white cloak that seemed to shimmer in the dark, and spoke so softly we could hardly hear him.”

“And he relieved you? An officer relieved a couple of privates?”

“It’s hard to explain, Sergeant. He didn’t seem to be alone. Both Cassius and I got the impression that there were others present, in the shadows. Though we couldn’t really see them – it was so dark.”

“And what did this ‘officer’ say?”

“He just said they had come for the one who was in the tomb. He smiled at us. It was the uncanniest thing. I remember exchanging glances with Cassius – and the rest is just a blur. Cassius said there was a blinding light, but I think it was just the rising sun shining through the leaves. Because it was morning, Sergeant, and the great round stone that we’d rolled into its slot at the mouth of the tomb was lying in pieces on the ground – like a broken egg. And the tomb gaped wide – like an open wound. And Sergeant, it was empty.”

“Like I said, quite a story. And you know I’d have the hide off you both if I hadn’t heard a very similar story not two hours ago from a member of the Sanhedrin. He left me gold in return for my – for our – silence in this matter. So, we’ll say no more about it – ever. And if anyone asks what happened to the political, you tell them that his followers came in the night and stole his body away. Is that clear Marcus Petronius?”

“As the risen sun, Sergeant.”

This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Thursday, 5 March 2012.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Clifton's Notes

John Key's Bodyguard? Jane Clifton's latest Listener column uses this week's One News/Colmar-Brunton poll to paint a picture of an electorate grown weary of big ideas and convinced that, in a world of economic woe, life under the National-led Government is about as good as it gets. Especially since none of the other parties could do any better. As spin goes - it's pretty good.

JANE CLIFTON’S ANALYSIS of the latest One News/Colmar-Brunton poll (The Listener, April 14-20, 2012, pp. 12-13) makes fascinating reading. Like me, The Listener’s political columnist is astonished that the National Government appears to have sustained no damage:

It’s as if the whole of this year, with its unending stream of mini-scandals and unpopular announcements, never happened.

But, rather than question the credibility of the poll, Ms Clifton questions us – the people.

The poll’s lack of responsiveness to such carry-on is a total mystery – unless you consider that people might be beginning to have a different relationship with both politicians and the media. As in, perhaps they are just filtering out the argy-bargy, and the strongest, bossiest prognostications, because they no longer trust any sort of absolutism.

Who would have thought that Jane (Wot, me an intellectual? Geddaway wif ya!) Clifton would end up putting such a smooth, post-modernist spin on her analysis? This is nothing less than Jean Francois Lyotard’s “incredulity towards meta-narratives” translated into Wadestown dinner-party-speak.

Thrown in for good measure is an impressive little riff on the political impact of globalisation:

[V]oters may now be viewing domestic political noise in the light of wider global realities, and this could be making them more sanguine about the brush fires.

Only a few years ago we were gazing longingly at Ireland’s economic prowess, and now we see the Celtic Tiger declawed and practically auctioning its stripes to stay afloat. That has to have an impact on how we view stringencies here.

Ms Clifton’s voter is nothing if not sophisticated. Grown incredulous of “absolutist” meta-narratives, she is reassessing her expectations of politics and politicians in the light of dramatically re-ordered global realities. This paragon of civic responsibility understands that:

Not just now, but for the foreseeable future, our normal economic reckoning has had to change, and perhaps it’s political noises about that stuff that we’re listening for, while screening out the rhetoric and theatre.

John Key is blessed indeed to have such a journalistic bodyguard. Because, if we carefully dig into Ms Clifton’s analysis, what we find is a core proposition of confidence and satisfaction. Apparently, Mr Key’s National Party-led administration is about as good as it gets these days:

Do we really think Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First would be able to govern without making similar or equivalent cuts and trade-offs?

Austerity, lowered expectations, a default cynicism towards anything smacking of “rhetoric and theatre”: this, according to Ms Clifton, is the new black of political discourse. Get used to it.

Democracy itself: the whole notion of an engaged citizenry holding their rulers to account, dissolves before our eyes in Ms Clifton’s clever prose:

It’s possible a lot of people now see politicians’ squabbles rather in the way they view Kim Kardashian’s bottom – as something to contemplate to pass the time in a supermarket checkout queue, but not as any useful pointer to character or competence.

Guy Debord, who gave us “The Society of the Spectacle” would no doubt feel vindicated by Ms Clifton’s description of the vacuity of contemporary political life. Way back in 1967 he observed: “The spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. Its sole message is: ‘What appears is good; what is good appears.’ The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply.”

And isn’t that the entire purpose behind Ms Clifton’s treatment of the One News/Colmar-Brunton poll? Our unquestioning acceptance of its findings is secured by making us collaborators in our own compliance. In the world Ms Clifton has constructed, Kiwis are no longer interested in big explanations or big solutions; because it’s a jungle out there, economically, and we’re doing better than most; and, anyway, nobody could run things any better; because all political parties are really the same; and that’s why more than half of us are sticking with the devil we know.

But let’s just examine that One News/Colmar-Brunton poll for a moment. As presented on people’s screens it is already a highly misleading document. For a start, where is the information about how many people were contacted by the pollster, and of those how many consented to being questioned? It’s not there. Nor is the number of respondents who said they didn’t know, or were uncertain, about who to vote for. Or, those who declared they wouldn’t vote at all. What we see on our screens are the rounded-up levels of support for each party after the “Undecideds” and “Won’t Votes” are dropped out.

We are told by Colmar-Brunton that their raw data is massaged to ensure it accurately reflects the gender, ethnic and residential contours of the population – presumably based on Census data that is now at least 6 years out-of-date. What we are not told is that Colmar-Brunton makes no allowance for the distribution of household income in New Zealand.

Turnout for the 2011 General Election, at 74.21 percent of registered voters, and 69.6 percent of eligible voters, was one of the lowest on record. Did Colmar-Brunton ever draw our attention to the possibility that between 25-30 percent of New Zealand voters might abstain from voting altogether? Did they draw any conclusions as to the likely impact of such a high abstention rate on the final result? No, they didn’t. And, apparently, TVNZ didn’t ask.

Only in the last line of her column does Ms Clifton draw attention to the fact that the polls are not always accurate predictors of electoral outcomes:

Or, as Jim Bolger said in 1993 when he unexpectedly almost lost the election. ‘Bugger the pollsters’.

And even here, she gives herself away. Because for those of us on the Left of New Zealand politics; those who’d been involved with the Alliance; those who’d watched the growth of New Zealand First; there was nothing unexpected about the closeness of the 1993 result. Indeed we were absolutely gobsmacked that any prime minister, after presiding over swingeing budget-cuts and spiralling unemployment figures, could possibly have given credence to opinion polls telling him he was going to win at a canter.

Far from existing in the best of all possible post-modernist worlds, New Zealand in 2012 is seething with anger and frustration. And by no means all of it is directed at John Key’s government. Many voters are just as fed up with the Labour Party and its seeming incapacity to either understand their aspirations, or articulate their rage. If any group has a 51 percent share at the moment it is surely the group that's crying: “A plague on all your houses!”

Ms Clifton will have none of that, however. And really, how could she? When was she last locked-out of her workplace? When did the bank last foreclose on her home? When was the last time she went hungry so her children could eat?

When the pollsters and the networks start asking those questions, Jane, write us another column. And, when you can answer them yourself, perhaps you’ll understand why so many of us remain sceptical of their “snap-shots”.

Not everybody lives in Wadestown.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.