Friday 29 June 2012

This Is New Zealand: Anna Stretton

Don't Let Them Eat Cake: After reading Fran O'Sullivan's summary of fashion designer, Annah Stretton's, thinking on New Zealand's social policies, I sincerely hope that she never becomes Prime Minister - not even for a day.

WHAT WAS FRAN O’SULLIVAN THINKING when she devoted her Weekend Herald column to the political thoughts of “fashion maven” Annah Stretton? Did she honestly believe she was doing the woman a favour by publicising her controversial opinions? Did Ms O’Sullivan really believe New Zealanders would be better off if the sharp-edged social policies promoted by this designer of expensive ladies’ frocks were given practical effect?

Personally, I was more disposed to believe that the veteran journalist had inwardly been so appalled by Ms Stretton’s comments that she decided to share them with an audience much larger than the Ernst & Young-sponsored “Dress For Success” event at which they were delivered.

“Oh, Christopher, you’re so naïve”, came the immediate response from a (now former) wearer of Stretton’s creations. “In the circles Fran O’Sullivan moves in nobody regards Stretton’s ideas as in any way odious or vicious. On the contrary, most of Fran’s friends probably subscribe wholeheartedly to Annah Stretton’s views.”

I thought about this for a moment and realised, with a sinking feeling, that she was right. You don’t have to look very long or listen very hard to discover Ms Stretton’s catch-phrases: “culture of entitlement”; “family unit of care”; the “absurdity” of universal, un-means-tested, superannuation; tripping merrily off the tongues of “successful” business-women all over New Zealand – especially in the provinces.

These ideas have been repeated so often by the solid citizens of Tauranga, Napier, Ashburton and, of course, in Ms Stretton’s home town of Morrinsville, that they’ve become a sort of right-wing catechism – something to be recited at the drop of a designer hat (or an Ernst & Young invitation). In such sealed social environments these proud adherents to the conservative faith will seldom, if ever, hear anything to contradict their prejudices.

Ms Stretton is fêted in the fashion magazines for her charity work. For example, the “Dress for Success” organisation, at whose fundraiser she was speaking, aims to help disadvantaged women back into the workforce by clothing them in “professional attire”. As if the solution to structural unemployment involved nothing more than offering these unfortunate proletarian frumps a good zooshing-up. While handing out their second-hand frocks and fashion tips, I wonder if Ms Stretton and her colleagues ever take a moment to listen to the young women they’re dressing-up. It would be nice to think that, just occasionally, social reality took a stroll down the catwalk.

Sadly, the maven’s manifesto suggests that, amongst all that frilly condescension, reality failed to secure a back-stage pass. To argue that the DPB should be capped at two children; that there be no automatic entitlement to National Super; that ACC should be privatised; and that no one under the age of 20 should be able to collect an unemployment benefit (sorry, “Job Seekers Allowance”);  is to identify oneself as someone without the faintest conception of what the consequences of such policies might look like.

The kindest excuse is that in promoting such hard-line measures, Ms Stretton was simply disbursing the ideological currency of her class. Readily exchangeable in provincial towns like Morrinsville and throughout our leafier city suburbs, but worthless on the mean streets of Otara and St Kilda.

Or, perhaps, I am once again displaying my naivety? Maybe Ms Stretton, Ms O’Sullivan, and their ilk know only too well what the effects of their “PM for a Day” prescriptions would be on those required to swallow them.

Of course there must be pain. How can these people be expected to learn if it doesn’t hurt? Tough love is what they need – not bleeding hearts!

Such is the language of social inequality: the merciless diction of those who have mastered the obscene stage directions of Neoliberalism’s theatre of cruelty.

The Weekend Herald is to be congratulated for publishing this snap-shot of the successful business entrepreneur’s world view. Now we know how the 1 percent think of, and speak about, the 99 percent of New Zealanders who could never afford (and after Ms O’Sullivan’s extraordinary column, probably shouldn’t be found dead wearing) an Annah Stretton creation.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Islam And Democracy

Representative Of The People: Egypt's new President, Mohammed Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been hailed as that country's first democratically elected leader. But early Islamic history manifested a strong impetus towards political representation and equality within the community of the faithful. The great hope of the so-called "Arab Spring" is that these traditions will undergo a powerful revival.

IS MOHAMMED MORSI Egypt’s first democratically elected leader? Though many journalists are insisting he merits that distinction, it’s just possible the journalists may be wrong.

Among the first peoples to be conquered by the followers of the Prophet Mohammed, Seventh Century Egyptians discovered earlier than most that membership of the community of the faithful (the Ummah) conferred radical new rights. Among the most important of these was the right to elect representatives. These upright citizens (the Shura) were, in their turn, collectively charged with determining upon whose shoulders the responsibility for leading the peoples of Islam should fall.

The chosen one, known as the Caliph, was of necessity both a religious and political leader. Islam, unlike Christianity, draws no clear distinction between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belongs to God. The Caliphate, at least in its original form, was, therefore, a proto-democratic republic of faith, ruled over by a person in whose supreme office the powers of President and Pope were combined. It’s at least arguable that, fourteen hundred years ago, Mr Morsi had a predecessor.

Given the political traditions of the era, it is hardly surprising that the Caliphate became the prize of a succession of dynasties. Even so, the core religious-political principle of the fundamental equality of all believers made possible the dazzling and extraordinarily tolerant culture of Islam’s “Golden Age” (750-1250 AD).

The Great Mosque of Cordoba, in Spain. In the islamic Golden Age (750-1250 AD) the best scientific minds were to be found in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

Weakened by successive Christian assaults from the West (the Crusades) the Abbasid Caliphate was finally laid low in 1258 by the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan. The West, however, had reason to be grateful that before the beautiful cities, towering mosques and celebrated universities were destroyed, most of the scientific, mathematical, medical and philosophical achievements of Islamic civilisation had already, by fair means and foul, passed into the hands of Christendom.

Though the Caliphate would rise again under the Ottoman Turks, it would never again attain the extraordinary confidence and poise of Islam’s golden age. Hugely impressive (not to mention militarily dominant) though the Ottoman Caliphate may have been, there was something missing. That vital spark which had lit the fires of creation and inquiry for so long was, for some reason, no longer being struck.

Scholars of Islamic history called that missing spark ijtihad – the spirit of independent reasoning. Today, we’d call it critical thinking. The loss of confidence which followed the slaughter and devastation of the Mongols, combined with the authoritarian military-bureaucratic culture of the Ottomans, saw ijtihad replaced by taqlid – reliance on the tested, following established practice, deferring to the teachings of those who had come before.

At the same moment that the knowledge passed to Christendom began fostering the intellectual forces that would result in the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the Islamic world was beginning its slow but remorseless decline into insularity and orthodoxy.

The real question to be asked about the so-called “Arab Spring” is whether or not it signals a reaffirmation of the fundamental equality of all believers, and a rebirth of the democratic spirit of the shura? If so, then the world can hope that the spirit of independent thought, of ijtihad, will similarly be born again and the Islamic world will recapture the glories of its golden age.

But, if the revolts taking place across the Middle East end up being hijacked by the upholders of taqlid: if Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood are only interested in the re-establishment of orthodoxy and the extinguishing of freedom, then spring will become winter and the Ummah will, once again, be robbed of the summer they deserve.

As we watch these events unfold across the Islamic world, we should resist the temptation to celebrate our historical escape from the clutches of taqlid. The global financial crisis harrowing the West may not mirror the mayhem of the Mongols, but all around us there is evidence of a very similar loss of confidence and intellectual agility.

Looking at our own caliphs, are we struck by their ability to engage in independent reasoning and creative thinking? Or have they, too, fallen victim to the false promises of orthodoxy?

What now lies before the West: a golden light, or gathering darkness? In the words of the Fifteenth Century Syrian scholar, Ahmad ibn Arabshah: “If the future is hidden, yet you should guess it from the past.”

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, 29 June 2012.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Rio + 20

Fingers Not yet Burnt: Only when the global environmental crisis is perceived as a direct existential threat will humanity take the steps necessary to address it. By then, of course, it will be too late.

WHO NOW REMEMBERS the 1992 “Earth Summit” meeting in Rio? Am I right in recalling that Al Gore was present? And weren’t we represented by the National Party’s smartest-ever cabinet minister – Simon Upton? It was all very worthy, not to mention predictable: the rain forests were disappearing; indigenous peoples were threatened; more and more species were endangered. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the Summit’s “Climate Change Convention” warned humanity that fossil-fuel emissions were heating up the Earth’s atmosphere.

All very important and urgent, but New Zealanders had other things on their minds back then. The effects of Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets” and Jenny Shipley’s benefit cuts were all around them, and unemployment was only slowly coming off its 11 percent peak. For a great many people the survival of the planet came a poor second to the survival of themselves and their families.

Twenty years on and another Rio Summit is warning us that the condition of the planet’s wafer-thin biosphere, humanity’s incredibly delicate survival-suit, is deteriorating rapidly. And, again, the effects of a global economic crisis are dominating the headlines, banishing important environmental stories to the inside pages of our daily newspapers.

Do we care that global temperatures continue their relentless upward swing? Do we lament the extinction of entire species? Do we understand the dangers of out-of-control deforestation in the planet’s tropical zones? Of course we do. It’s just that we care about holding onto our jobs, paying our bills and looking after our kids a whole lot more.

As a species we are genetically programmed to recognise and repel immediate existential threats. The leopard in the long grass of the savannah; the firestorm swallowing up the forest; the cave bear rearing out of the darkness: these we can deal with. But the slow encroachment of the desert sands; the gradual decline in the river’s flow; the changing migration paths of woolly mammoths or caribou: these things proved more perplexing.

In the days before men drew lines on maps, people simply moved on to where the grass was greener, the rivers flowed more swiftly and the herds could be tracked and attacked in the same old ways. But today, one hundred millennia removed from our hunter-gatherer past, the human species numbers seven-thousand-millions, and moving on is not an option.

We must fight for our survival from where we are – and for most of us that means fighting in a city. It was only a few years ago that more than half of humanity ceased living in the countryside. If the planet is to be saved, it will be by people living in its urban environment.

The 2,400 representatives from Non-Governmental Organisations who attended the 1992 Rio Summit understood this very well. China and India were industrialising at break-neck speed and simply could not avoid drawing millions into the urban environments that manufacturing on a massive scale inevitably creates. They urged the developing countries’ governments to avoid the resource-depleting, pollution-generating automobile cultures of the West by prioritizing the provision of public transportation. Anyone attempting to navigate the streets of New Delhi or Shanghai will grasp how emphatically the world’s fastest-growing economies declined to heed their advice.

The determination of these economies to afford their consumers a Western life-style is entirely understandable, but it is also strip-mining Australia, Africa and South America of their natural resources, and sucking dry the world’s dwindling oil reserves. Unless the urban environment undergoes changes as dramatic as those which set this global environmental crisis in motion, its insatiable appetite, not only for minerals and fossil fuels, but simply for food and water, will crash the entire system of industrial civilisation.

The political representatives of late industrial capitalism seem incapable of understanding these existential threats. The only bears they’re willing to fight are those currently stalking Wall Street. It is to the representatives of enlightened humanity that we must, therefore, turn if the enemies of our common future are to be overcome: the Greens and those social-democratic parties still capable of stepping-up to the challenges of radical change.

Given New Zealand’s remoteness, and its relatively tiny population, the contribution we can make to saving the world will, necessarily, be limited. Perhaps the best gift we could offer our fellow human-beings is a positive example of the practical changes that need to be made.

The devastated city of Christchurch could play a vital role in this regard by modelling the sustainable urban environment the world needs to copy. There’d be a state-of-the-art public transportation system; ecologically intelligent architecture; urban gardens, self-sufficient small-scale energy generators connected to the national grid; water recycling schemes; and the conscious creation of resilient urban communities. (Hat-tip to Leanne Dalziel.)

The oft-quoted environmental slogan: “Think globally, act locally” could hardly be more relevant.

Let the future begin right here.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 June 2012.

Monday 25 June 2012

The Journey: A Political Memoir - Posting No. 10

Members For The Distribution Workers Federation: By 1986, Trade unionists Larry Sutherland, Sonja Davies and Graham Kelly were moving steadily towards their parliamentary objectives. Observing their progress, the author, like so many Labour activists before him, posed the question: Why not me? The answer, as always, turned on exactly how much of his integrity he was prepared to sacrifice.

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, 16 September 1986

ST PATRICK’S HALL is filling up with members of the Timaru Labour Party. I stand nervously at the entrance, trying to recognise the faces of those I have canvassed for support. Noelene Hanifin, Mike’s mother, is still locked up with the Timaru Labour Electorate Committee (LEC). Mike, Francesca and I cast worried glances at the door separating us from the meeting. We are all hoping that Alan Aldridge, the LEC Chairperson, will be able to head-off the supporters of the Timaru Labour Establishment and its redoubtable leader, Oliver Gavigan.

Timaru, long a Labour stronghold, fell to the National Party in the 1985 by-election. The meeting in St Patrick’s Hall has been called to select the Party’s candidate for the 1987 General Election. I have decided to seek the nomination.

My three-piece suit and trim haircut belie the feelings of hostility I now harbour towards the Government that I am, quite unrealistically, attempting to join. It was not always so.

*   *   *   *   *

SINCE THE BEGINNING of the year, a new expression has crept into Labour party conversation: “constructive engagement”. It began as a Sean Fleigner witticism. Constructive Engagement was the term coined by the Reagan Administration to describe the United States’ relationship with the South African apartheid regime. Sean drew the analogy with Fran Wilde’s insistence that the left-wing of Labour’s caucus must seek to work with the cabinet and attempt to guide them towards a more acceptable set of policies. I have used the expression in my contributions to the National Business Review. Now it has become respectable.

Other influences have been at work throughout 1986. Stan Rodger’s Labour relations Bill is in the process of being drafted and nervous trade unionists are working frantically behind the scenes to ensure that their traditional rights are not legislated out of existence.

Rob Campbell has floated the concept of an Australian-style “Accord” between the FOL and the Government.

Throughout the country, left-wing activists have been pouring their energies into local body elections. In Wellington and Dunedin (the most vociferous centres of anti-Government agitation) impressive gains will be made by the Labour Party in terms of representation on their city councils.

Everywhere, the energy and intensity of 1985 has been channelled into “constructive” party work. And at the controls of the machine sits Margaret Wilson and her coterie. The influence she exercises, by virtue of her impeccable credentials with the Women’s and Affiliates’ Councils (the two most influential bodies within the party) is impressive.

The secret of her success rests upon a chameleon-like gift for blending into her environment. In front of the Women’s Council she is the very image of a 1980s socialist feminist. Speaking to the Affiliates’, she takes on the guise of a concerned lecturer in industrial law, wrestling with the awesome difficulties of the Labour Relations Bill. At the regional conferences Margaret is full of encouragement. At Annual Conference, the stern guardian of the Government’s ratings. Wilson controls the party in a way Anderton never did. The party is hers and she is the Government’s greatest asset. Colin James, Editor of the National Business Review, will dub her “Politician of the Year”.

*   *   *   *   *

I HAVE EXPERIENCED her skill at close quarters. As an office-holder in Campbell’s Distribution Workers’ Federation, I have observed the manoeuvrings of Graham Kelly, Sonja Davies and Larry Sutherland (all of whom have close connections with the DWF) as they moved steadily towards their parliamentary objectives. Why not Chris Trotter MP? It is the lure that traps the most determined of dissidents. That siren-song of power. In the office of Tony Timms, the party’s general secretary, Margaret Wilson sizes me up:

“You seem presentable enough,” she laughs, “and possess no obvious vices.”

“Those Timaru bastards are all mad.” Timms leans forward across the desk. “They write to me at least once a week! We have to have a decent candidate.”

To those reaching towards the sunlight of political office, such talk is the purest of all fertilisers. On the Third Floor of Fraser House, in the heart of the nation’s capital, I am already beginning to succumb; pretty speeches about the compatibility of Rogernomics and social-democracy trip off my tongue. Timms and Wilson beam encouragement: candidates for selection have little to gain by writing embarrassing anti-government articles for the National Business Review.

*   *   *   *   *

NOW I HAD  a selection meeting to address. There was no earthly chance of me winning: in the end I simply could not stick to the script. One foray into the Timaru electorate, one evening of reciting the party line, had been enough. My friends looked at me askance; was this really Chris Trotter talking earnestly about the need for “realism”, about inflation “tracking down”? Francesca hardly recognised me. I hardly recognised myself.

A new script would have to be written. On August 25 a letter was distributed to 500 party members throughout the Timaru electorate. In the letter I accused the Labour caucus of “riding roughshod over practically every principle the Labour Party stands for.” A surprising number of Timaru people had welcomed this broadside from the Dunedin “democratic socialist”; the local party faithful, however, were appalled.

The outrage was not restricted to Timaru. News of my attack upon the Government had been carried in all the metropolitan newspapers. Labour MPs in marginal seats were furious. I was to confront some of them at the annual conference, held in Wellington between 29 August and 1 September 1986.

*   *   *   *   *

THE AFFILIATES’ COUNCIL met prior to the conference. Peter Cullen, secretary of the Wellington Hotel and Hospital Workers’ Union, drew me aside.

“Look Chris,” he said, “we’ve put you down as our third preference for Industrial Rep’. When our delegates read that bilge you wrote in the candidate’s biographies they just about threw up. We weren’t going to vote for you at all until we read about that letter you sent out in Timaru.”

“No worries, Peter,” I reassured him, “I didn’t deserve any better for that shit. I’m just glad I came to my senses in time.”

“If Rick barker makes it on to the Exec, our votes will go to you. If he doesn’t, it’ll be him and Kelly.”

It’s a tricky situation. Campbell has sanctioned my nomination for Industrial Representative on the New Zealand Council of the party in an attempt to block the election of Pat Kelly. (Campbell and Kelly have been at daggers drawn since the partial privatisation of the Bank of New Zealand, a move Campbell facilitated.)  In my “candidate days” I had looked like a safe bet, but now, unbeknown to Campbell, and in response to his conversion to Rogernomics, I have switched my allegiance to his arch-rival.

The decision is not difficult to make. I seek out Rick Barker (National Secretary of the Hotel and Hospital Workers Union) and convey to him my determination to withdraw in his favour if he fails in his bid for the Executive. By doing this I hope to swing my votes in Kelly’s direction.

*   *   *   *   *

THE WELLINGTON Hotel and Hospital Workers Union hall in Marion Street is overflowing with what the news media are describing as “The Broad Left’. I am a little sceptical. It seems that half the delegates to conference are packed into this great cavern of a room in the heart of Wellington’s red-light district. And from the ministerial LTDs parked outside, one must draw the conclusion that the “Broad Left” is a very loose definition indeed.

Peter Cullen chairs the meeting, flanked by Jim Anderton and  Pat Kelly. We are witnessing the birth of the Economic Policy Network – a loose coalition of Labour Party dissidents, trade unionists and left-wing economists. The atmosphere is boisterous and good-humoured. Even on the Left, it seems, the energy is now controlled and “constructively engaged”. The next general election is just twelve months away and the entire party is carefully tidying away the debris of past conflicts. The conference slogan: “The Future is Ours”, is obviously being interpreted in different ways.

Rob Campbell glowers darkly over the proceedings, keeping his own counsel. There will be precious few votes for him from the Left this year, his lobbying campaign will focus on the Centre and Right of Conference. A little further down the hall stands Phil Goff. Perhaps he is recalling the days when he, too, called himself a socialist?

The PSA’s economist, Peter Harris, launches into a lengthy lecture on the failings of the Government’s economic policies. The speeches that follow are passionate but unfocused. I find it difficult to concentrate. Someone asks me to sing The Red Flag. The audience struggles through the chorus, but the verses I sing alone. The “Broad Left” has yet to learn the words.

*   *   *   *   * 

BARKER’S BID falls just short of victory. The rumour mills of the Women’s Council have done their work well and Ruth Dyson pips him at the post. I am waiting in the queue of speakers at the front of the auditorium. Barker is just behind me. “You made a deal – now stick to it!” I tell myself.

I move across the stage to Tony Timms and inform him of my withdrawal. Wilson, seated next to him, swivels round in her chair and glares at me.

“Don’t tell me, tell the returning officer!” Timms snaps back.

“Why?” Is all Wilson allows herself by way of comment.

Burly Geoff Braybrooke, is clearly enjoying the drama. As he announces my withdrawal, all hell breaks loose among the delegates from the Distribution Workers’ Federation.

“Point of Order! Point of Order!” Larry Sutherland cannot believe what he has heard. “Chris Trotter is standing for Industrial Rep!”

“Not any more,” Braybrooke chuckles, “he’s just told me he’s withdrawn.”

Campbell lunges up the aisles to the DWF delegation.

“Where’s Trotter!”, he snarls.

Francesca, feigning innocence, waves airily in the direction of the exit. Campbell, dressed like a street-fighter in leather jacket and jeans, lopes off in pursuit. Down at the front of the hall, resuming my place in the queue, I breathe a large sigh of relief.

Kelly wins the election for Industrial rep by a mere 16 votes. Campbell is livid.

*   *   *   *   * 

IT IS the Labour Party’s seventieth anniversary. The social in the old Wellington Town Hall that evening is a celebration of the party’s longevity. The events of the day are beginning to take their toll. Sick at heart, I survey the revellers. Just what is the Labour Party in 1986? Certainly not the party that was formed in 1916. I feel estranged, forsaken, alone. My own union is barely speaking to me. Pat Kelly is strangely aloof. Annette King, MP for Horowhenua, bails me up and lambasts me for the Timaru letter. A deep sense of loathing congeals in the pit of my stomach. “At the Timaru selection”, I tell myself, “I will tell the truth about this party.”

*   *   *   *   * 

MINE WAS THE second-to-last speech of the evening: “Tonight,” I begin, “we will talk of what Labour was, and of what Labour has become. It is a tale of two cities: it is the story of Jerusalem, the City of Hope; and of Babylon, the City of despair.”

All nervousness falls away as I lift up the banner of dissent once more. I have passed the test, will remain myself: “I shall not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem … in New Zealand’s green and pleasant land.”

The nomination went to Gary Clarke, a local lawyer. He lost.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.  

Friday 22 June 2012

Baby Boomers Beware

Disputed Destination: New Zealand's world-beating, state-provided universal superannuation scheme offers unprincipled politicians and rapacious financial institutions a tempting target. The Baby Boom Generation (1946-1965) is fast becoming the preferred scapegoat of these "reformers".

THERE’S NOTHING NEW about Welfare Reform, it’s as old as the ideas advanced in its justification. Managing the poor and vulnerable is just one of those perennial problems with which governments of every stripe have to contend.

Mostly, politicians restrict themselves to tinkering, but every so often a government comes along which engages in the sort of ruthless, root-and-branch reform that leaves deep scars upon the body politic. Fortunately, the bitter historical memories handed down by its victims serve as a prophylactic against similar “reforms” for generations. But, eventually, popular memory fades, and when it does the threat of root-and-branch reform returns. And tragedy follows it.

New Zealand may soon be facing just such a threat and, curiously, it’s as likely to come from the Left as the Right. If that sounds improbable, then perhaps we should all remind ourselves that it was the supposedly left-leaning Labour Party which unleashed the “New Right” economic reforms of the late-1980s. And that it was no less a “liberal” than Bill Clinton who campaigned on a promise to “end welfare as we have come to know it” and who, in 1996, affixed his Presidential signature to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

President Bill Clinton signs the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, putting an end to "welfare as we have come to know it", August 22 1996.

But why would Labour do such a thing? How could attacking the poor and vulnerable possibly assist its reclamation of the Treasury benches?

Part of the answer lies in the “communitarian” beliefs evinced by followers of Labour’s “Third Way”. It’s a philosophy which asserts that too much emphasis has been placed on “rights” and not enough on “responsibilities” in the formulation of public policy. Society, they say, has a duty to see that one group of citizens’ rights are not upheld at their neighbours’ expense.

The implications of communitarianism for solo mums, the unemployed, the sick and the disabled are readily imagined. Indeed, they’d do well to remember that David Parker, Labour’s finance spokesperson, is a strong believer in communitarian principles.

The other reason Labour might opt for root-and-branch welfare reform involves the same reasoning that went into the National Party’s own root-and-branch solutions to the “problem” of “welfare dependency”: poor people don’t vote. Eight hundred thousand New Zealanders failed to cast a vote in the last election. Most of them were young, many of them were poor, and practically all of them didn’t give a stuff about politics.

Motivating such voters requires immense effort, and National has opted instead to appease its more conservative supporters by transforming the young and the poor (Maori and Pasifika especially) into handy targets.

Labour’s challenge is to find some way of mobilising the young without at the same time making itself a political hostage to the needs of the poor. One of the easier ways to do this might be to provide younger voters with a hate figure: a stereotype capable of igniting both their indignation and their fear. Fortunately for Labour, such a stereotype already exists: the Selfish Baby Boomer.

By encouraging Generations X and Y to blame the Baby Boomers for everything from the price of real estate to the rising cost of tertiary education, and enlisting their support for a “root-and-branch” reform of New Zealand’s “irresponsibly generous and fiscally unsustainable” system of universal superannuation, Labour could off-set its declining levels of support among older voters. By attributing New Zealand’s indebtedness to the “intergenerational theft” of Baby Boomers, this stripped-down, communitarian Labour Party could, at least in younger voters’ minds, transform “austerity” from a political swear-word into a righteous electoral virtue. In combination with the Greens’ bracing mantra of ecological restraint, they could be on to a winner.

In 1834 the newly enfranchised English middle-class shrugged-off its responsibilities to the poor and vulnerable by passing a new Poor Law. Its hated symbol, the workhouse, was immortalised by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist. The new Poor Law’s sponsor was not some Tory reactionary, but the liberal Whig, Lord Melbourne.

The Workhouse: The New Poor Law of 1834 brought these dreaded institutions into existence. They were explicitly required to offer conditions harsh enough to dissuade all but the most desperate (overwhelmingly, as the above photograph reveals, the elderly) from seeking sustenance within their walls. The legislation was the work not of Tory reactionaries, but of liberal Whigs.

Baby Boomers, be on your guard.

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, 22 June 2012.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Who Is "Everyone"? Some Thoughts On The Superannuation Debate

Tout le Monde? - C'est Moi! At the core of the current "debate" about the sustainability of NZ Superannuation are the same forces that have dismantled so much of the welfare state already: the forces of domestic and global finance. All the more curious, therefore, that Labour should be lining up behind them.

MY DAUGHTER AND I were driving back from the mall Saturday afternoon, listening to the news on the car radio. “Everyone” was saying that New Zealand’s superannuation scheme was in trouble. “Everyone” was similarly in agreement that the retirement age would have to be raised from 65 to 67 years. “Everyone” was also absolutely convinced that if this didn’t happen soon the whole scheme would become unsustainable.

I remember saying to my daughter: “Whenever you hear a news bulletin like that you should always ask yourself who this ‘Everyone’ is.”

“Everyone” certainly does not include a clear majority of New Zealand’s political parties.

The governing party, National, is resolutely opposed to making any changes at all to New Zealand Superannuation. NZ First is equally adamant that there should be no change – unless it involves lifting the percentage of the net average wage paid to superannuitants from 66 to 68 percent. The Green Party, likewise, opposes changing the scheme. Ditto for Mana and the Maori Party. (Indeed, given Maori New Zealanders’ lower life expectancy, they believe the eligibility-age should be lowered – not lifted!) United Future also supports keeping the age at 65, but proposes that citizens be encouraged to remain in the workforce a little longer, and uplift their super’ later at a higher rate. Or, retire earlier, but at a lower rate.

The only major party currently advocating increasing the age of eligibility (from 65 to 67) is the Labour Party. In this they are supported (albeit very quietly) by the tiny, far-right, Act Party.

Labour justifies its position by pointing out that in just a few years New Zealand will be spending as much on superannuation as it does on education. What a curious argument. Why would a social-democratic party be suggesting that the state should spend less on its older citizens than it does on the young? We can only hope that Labour’s strategists are not planning to turn the younger voters of Generations X and Y against the “selfish” Baby Boomers. David Shearer hasn’t quite accused this latter group of “intergenerational theft” – but that’s the electoral logic of his position.

Having established that “Everyone” does not include most of the country’s politicians, let’s take a look at who it does include. Perhaps the most significant member of the “Everyone” group is the Retirement Commissioner, Diana Crossan. Charged with providing the Government with “independent” advice on retirement issues, the Commissioner’s views should, on the face of it, be accorded considerable weight.

The only problem with being guided by the Retirement Commissioner is that her views on this crucial matter are starkly contradicted by a significant number of economists – including those working for the OECD. As these economists indicated in their recent survey of international retirement policies, New Zealand’s superannuation scheme compares extremely favourably with all those operating in the 34 “First World” countries it covers.

Right now, in 2012, our scheme absorbs less than 5 percent of New Zealand’s GDP – that’s about half the amount spent by the other OECD countries. Yes, it is going to rise as the “Baby Boom” generation reaches retirement age, but only to the percentage of GDP most wealthy countries are paying right now. New Zealanders should be very proud of their scheme, which is not only extremely cost effective, but also ensures that all our elder citizens are entitled to a level of income security unsurpassed anywhere else in the world.

So why is our Retirement Commissioner crying “Wolf!” on the cost and sustainability of the New Zealand scheme? Perhaps Ms Crossan’s views have been influenced by her former employer – the financial institution which started out as the Australian Mutual Provident Society – now known as AMP. This massive financial institution merged last year with AXA Asia and Pacific Holdings, and just under half its shares are held by HSBC, JP Morgan and Citigroup.

And that’s the scary thing. When you dig into the people and institutions making up “Everyone”, you discover that just about all of them, in one way or another, are bound up with vast financial corporations, all possessing a powerful vested interest in wrenching the provision of citizens’ basic retirement income out of the hands of the state and into their own, private, talons.

As is so often the case, these vast corporate bodies, working through their highly skilled and fearsomely resourced PR organisations, have contrived to create an apparently genuine consensus that change is both necessary and inevitable. So successful have they been that, in a recent TV3-Reid Research poll, nearly two-thirds of New Zealanders dutifully regurgitated the opinion, force-fed to them by the finance industry, that the eligibility-age for National Super should rise from 65 to 67.

“Everyone” does not believe superannuation is unsustainable, but repeat the lie often enough and everybody just might think it’s true.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 June 2012.

Friday 15 June 2012

Intergenerational Theft? - What The F**k! Guest Post by Jill Ovens

High Flyers? Students belonging to Generations X and Y accuse the Baby Boom generation of committing "intergenerational theft", but, as Jill Ovens points out in this guest posting, these students might benefit from a course in New Zealand's recent social history. For many of their parents, particularly those born into the working class, life in the 1970s and 80s was not as easy as they're being encouraged to believe.

THERE IS A LOT of idealised commentary on what it was like to be a university student in the 1970s compared with the lot of today’s students. This is leading young affluent university students to accuse “baby boomers” of stealing from the next generation.

It is a concept of affluent students because the kids of working-class parents don’t generally get to university. Those few who do make it know how much their parents struggled, working two or three jobs, night and day, to get them through school.

Working-class kids didn’t get to university in the 1970s either, unless they had a scholarship. University Entrance paid 9/10 of your fees, but that still meant a bill of $90.00 (the equivalent of two-and-a-half week's pay, or more than $1,000 in today’s terms). There were student allowances in the form of bursaries, but if your parents lived in a university town, you couldn’t get a boarding allowance.

There were no fast food restaurants to provide jobs throughout the year, so you had to earn enough to live on during the varsity holidays. That was okay for the guys as there were well paying jobs in the freezing works and car factories. For women students, it was very different.

Equal pay didn’t come in till 1972. That meant that if we did the same job, men and women were to be paid the same. But we weren’t given the opportunities to do the same jobs. They didn’t let women into McKechnie Brothers, the aluminium extrusion foundry where my boyfriend worked in the holidays (except in the canteen).

I packed peanuts at Eta Foods, screwed lids on Vick’s jars, sorted indescribably filthy linen in Christchurch Hospital laundry, and I earned $15.00 a week cleaning people’s houses for Nurse Maud, a district nursing association. But I could never earn enough to go flatting, so I spent my whole varsity life living with my parents.

When we graduated, the opportunities were very limited. I didn’t want to be a teacher, and the Bank of New Zealand said I’d make a good teller because I was good at maths. I turned them down.

We got paid a lot less than our male friends, and despite women’s liberation, there was a cultural expectation that we would soon produce babies (at least three of them).

We bought houses in huge Neil Housing subdivisions way out in Massey, Manuwera and Glenfield where there were no trees, no amenities (certainly no gym!), and no public transport.

I washed the nappies in a wringer washing machine and hung them on the clothes line. We ran an old VW between the two of us so I was stuck at home. The couch was Mum and dad’s hand-me-down and the bed was bought at a second-hand store.

There was no paid parental leave and limited childcare, so we women graduates had a big gap in our careers that made it difficult to come back into the job market. We had no superannuation as Muldoon scrapped the Kirk scheme.

If we got divorced, as many of us did, any equity we had in our house was divided up. And when our kids came out of high school in the 1990s, there were no jobs, so they stayed home for years, along with their girlfriends and eventually their kids.

Because our kids can’t afford to buy houses, we bought houses for them to live in using the equity from our house, and now all our money is tied up in mortgages. At the same time, we’re supporting our parents in their old age.

That’s how life is and always has been, for most of us. Our parents worked to give us a decent start in life, and we worked hard so our kids could have a fair go. We’re looking after our parents in their old age. We hope we’ll be looked after in our old age.

What about this is “intergenerational theft”?

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

In Praise Of Heresy

The Arch-Heretic of Twentieth Century Economics: John Maynard Keynes was one of those rare heretics whose ideas worked so well in practice that they became (for thirty extraordinary years) the new orthodoxy. His radical economic thinking inspired everyone from Adolf Hitler to Mickey Savage.

IS IT POSSIBLE to be both a politician and a heretic? With the times so out of joint it’s a question more and more voters around the world are asking. Observing the peculiar unanimity with which the international political class has responded to the global financial crisis, this voter scepticism appears entirely justified. In only a handful of countries (the most obvious being Greece) have politicians either voluntarily, or by the sheer force of public opinion, promoted policies unsanctioned by the global guardians of economic and political orthodoxy.

This was certainly not the case the last time the world was mired in economic catastrophe. One of the most intriguing historical aspects of the Great Depression of the 1930s is the willingness of contemporary political leaders to challenge the economic orthodoxy of their day.

On the Right, in Germany, Hitler tackled his country’s massive unemployment and stagnant industry by embarking on a programme of comprehensive rearmament – what later came to be known as “militarised Keynesianism”. On the Left, in the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin’s “Five Year Plans” mobilised the entire population behind a crash programme of industrialisation. Somewhere between these two extremes, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” put hundreds-of-thousands of Americans to work on bold public infrastructure projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Grand Coulee Dam.

Spend, FDR, Spend! The Grand Coulee Dam became one of the enduring symbols of the New Deal's massive investment in US infrastructure. When everyone else is broke, the state is both practically and morally obliged to stimulate the economy out of trouble.

What made these programmes so unorthodox was the way they were paid for. Herr Doktor Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s Minister of Economics, deployed his infamous “Mefo Bills” to pump-up the German arms industry. This financial device was somewhat akin to our first Labour government’s use of “Reserve Bank credit” to fund its state housing programme – only bigger. FDR was similarly persuaded to pay for his public works schemes by sending the United States’ budget into the red. By contrast, Stalin’s economic success was based on the super-exploitation of his own unfortunate people – especially the unpaid labour of the millions of political prisoners his secret police had poured into the “gulags” (Soviet concentration camps).

While Stalin followed the brutal methods adopted by Western capitalists in the early stages of the industrial revolution, and then throughout the wretched territories of their sprawling colonial empires during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (check out the history of the “Belgian” Congo for the most gruesome example of pre-Soviet super-exploitation) both Roosevelt and Hitler were inspired (either directly or indirectly) by the thinking of the greatest economic heretic of the twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes.

Defying his orthodox colleagues’ advocacy of austerity measures to bring their respective governments’ books into balance, Keynes argued that politicians must counter the “paradox of thrift” by borrowing and spending their way back to prosperity: “For Government borrowing of one kind or another is nature’s remedy, so to speak, for preventing business losses from being, in so severe a slump as the present one, so great as to bring production altogether to a standstill.” His 1933 book, The Means to Prosperity, was read with great enthusiasm by FDR’s “Brains Trust” of economic advisers. German economists read it too.

So effective were Keynes’ heretical ideas at relieving the misery of the Great Depression and financing the Allies’ victory in World War II that, by 1946, they had become the new economic orthodoxy. And, if the proof of his theoretical pudding was in the eating, then the extraordinary longevity of the post-war boom (1945-1975) provides ample evidence for the efficacy of Lord Keynes’ economic recipes. Indeed, one could argue that the concerted (and unfortunately successful) campaign by corporate capitalism’s intellectual apologists to convince the world that the classical economists’ 1930s critique of the Keynesian “heresy” was correct, lies at the root of all our present evils.

It is tempting to say that what the world needs is “another Keynes” to lead it out of its present economic woes. But that would be wrong and foolish. Keynes’ ideas are there on the bookshelves: just waiting for a politician with the will to use them. Our world’s predicament lies precisely in the fact that its self-serving and morally compromised political class is simply too gutless and too heartless to risk the accusation of heresy.

As Keynes himself observed, these peddlers of neo-classical orthodoxy “resemble Euclidean geometers in a non-Euclidean world who, discovering that in experience straight lines apparently parallel often meet, rebuke the lines for not keeping straight”.

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, 15 June 2012.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Despising The Working Class: A Reply To Josie Pagani

Farewell To The Working Class: Former Labour candidate, Josie Pagani, takes issue with Chris Trotter's Refugee Status posting. He responds by arguing that her urge to rid Labour of "outdated, misplaced dogma" only proves her inability to distinguish the winning of an election from successfully making history.

POOR JOSIE PAGANI, it’s just so unfair that politics won’t let her have her cake and eat it too. Apparently, it’s not enough to be told that your hubby’s strategies are working, and that the outcome both you and he desire most, a Labour victory in 2014, is looking more and more like a safe investment on iPredict. No, Labour victories have to be made of more than mere spin and gimmicks and tawdry compromises, they should come decked-out in all the finery of “genuine social democracy that is radical precisely because it stands beside working people who worry about their jobs and need more money in the weekly wage packet to pay the bills.”

The sort of victory that Labour won in 1938 – with 55 percent of the popular vote – and all the banners bravely flying: that’s what Josie wants. The pity of it is that everything Labour did back then, in the 1930s, to merit such a decisive electoral mandate involved the very policies that Josie now dismisses as being fit only for a “romanticised” and “pretend” Utopia.

What she wants are the sort of policies promoted by “successful, history-making social democratic leader[s] the world over”. Stand-out characters like Barack Obama (servant of Wall Street and master of the killer drones) and Gerhard Schroeder (whose policy of making Germany’s exports unfairly competitive, by suppressing German workers’ wage growth, lies at the heart of the Eurozone’s present crisis). These are the sort of blokes Josie’s looking for: social democrats who refuse to “indulge” the ideas of … um … social democrats.

Part of Josie’s problem is that she confuses “history-making” with success at the polls. It was precisely this confusion that Refugee Status – the posting Josie so vehemently denounces on her Facebook page – attempts to address.

Far from sneering at the notion of Labour winning back its former supporters by convincing them that Mr Shearer respects their values and admires their commitment to hard work and personal betterment, I recognise it as a potentially winning rhetorical gesture. What Josie doesn’t appear to understand, however, is that the statement is also a direct steal from the rhetoric of our political enemies; the sort of language you hear in the mouths of right-wing voters who “despise working people” and “look down on their values”; those very same “creatures from the barbecue pit and the sports bar” who brought down the government of Helen Clark in 2008.

As the American political psychologist, George Lakoff, constantly reminds us: using the rhetoric of our political enemies only becomes truly effective when we also embrace the values that their language expresses. That is the real historical lesson to be drawn from the careers of nominally social-democratic leaders like Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder and Barack Obama. Blair, in particular, became prime minister of the United Kingdom not by repudiating Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal, militaristic and authoritarian legacy, but by convincing the English middle-class that he was the only politician fit to inherit it. Only when Labour had ditched “Clause 4” and every other shred of “outdated, misplaced dogma”; only when Rupert Murdoch felt safe to let Blair’s party bask in the radiant glow of The Sun; would “New Labour” finally be permitted to come first past the winning post.

Let’s pause here for a short historical and psephological lesson for Josie. The British Labour Party wasn’t rendered unelectable by holding fast to its founding principles, it was kept out of office by the deliberate defection of its right-wing MPs. The party they formed: called, interestingly, the Social Democrat Party; was intended to (and did) exploit the inherent unfairness of the FPP system to prevent Labour winning the 1983, 1987 and 1992 UK general elections. Throughout the 1980s, the British Conservative Party never won more than 42.4 percent of the popular vote. Between them, the Labour Party and the SDP-Liberal Alliance regularly won more than 50 percent.

Rupert's Reward: Neil Kinnock's expulsion of the Militant Tendency notwithstanding, "it was The Sun wot won it" in 1992.

So you see, Josie, it’s a very moot point as to whether it was the Militant Tendency that kept Labour out of power in the 1980s, or the right-wing MPs that Militant was lining-up for de-selection – the ones who led the split. And, paradoxically, it was Josie’s hero, Neil Kinnock, who, by expelling Militant, opened the doors to Blair’s “modernisers”. (Kinnock’s reward, incidentally, was the infamous Sun headline of 1992: “Will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”)

It is also worth noting that the image of Labour that Josie grew up with: one of endless internecine squabbling and general left-wing lunacy; was a fiction carefully contrived and nurtured by the right-wing tabloid press – the power and reach of which (not to mention its moral delinquency) continues to be exposed at the Leveson Inquiry.

It is, perhaps, no accident that Josie’s take on Labour politics should have been imbibed from headlines in the Murdoch press, or that the fetid, the fatuous and the downright fake version of history and politics promoted in the “mainstream” news media should shine through practically every line of her Facebook posting. Josie is the sort of politician who, like the Prime Minister, John Key, really does believe that “perception is reality”.

Reality, however, is made of sterner stuff. Which is why the only social democrats who possess the slightest right to describe their time in office as “successful’ or “history-making” are those who left the society they presided over more equal, more free, better housed, better educated, in better health and working for higher wages in a union shop.

Mr Shearer may win in 2014, Josie, but if, when he finally leaves office, New Zealand is a less equal and a less free country, whose working people are still living in damp and over-crowded houses, and which is still failing to address the educational needs of Maori and Pasifika students, still making people pay to see the doctor, and still allowing workers to be bullied into signing individual employment agreements in non-unionised workplaces, then I ask again, as I asked in the posting which so upset you:

What will have been the point? And who will notice the difference?

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

It Was A Fair Cop, Hekia, And Treasury's To Blame

Suck It Up, Minister: Education Minister, Hekia Parata, was forced to reverse her government's own policy on class sizes in the face of massive public opposition. Had she possessed sufficient critical intelligence to challenge the policy's prime promoter, Treasury Secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf, she could have saved herself - and her government - a very large serving of very dead rat.

IN THE END, it all comes back to Treasury. Education Minister, Hekia Parata, like so many politicians before her, has taken the advice of Treasury’s ideologues, and paid the price. This willingness of right- and left-wing politicians to drag their careers over a cliff, by following the lead of an agency which has consistently failed to tender either reliable or useful advice to government, bears testimony to ideology’s uncanny knack for over-riding the urgings of electoral common sense.

The debacle over class sizes may be traced back to Treasury’s advice to the incoming Minister of Education following the 2011 General Election. Faced with an intensifying fiscal crisis, Treasury Secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf, saw an opportunity to attend to Treasury’s unfinished business with this country’s disconcertingly independent educationalists.

The proudly professional culture of New Zealand’s highly regarded education system (we rank sixth out of thirty-four OECD countries) continues to stand athwart Treasury’s relentless ideological advance.

It thus constitutes a standing rebuke to Treasury’s otherwise unassailable neoliberal mandarinate. Its collegial values and altruistic purposes sit most uncomfortably within the neoliberals’ highly individualistic and competitive reading of human nature. While achieving a large measure of success in the universities (attributable mostly to New Zealand academics’ timidity and lack of solidarity) Treasury’s neoliberal policies have been staunchly and successfully resisted in New Zealand’s primary and secondary schools. This is due, almost entirely, to the strength of New Zealand’s two main teacher unions – the NZEI and the PPTA.

Before New Zealand’s teaching profession can finally be “neoliberalised”, it will first be necessary to break these teacher unions. There are two ways of doing this. The first, and most brutal, is to do what Scott Walker, Governor of the US state of Wisconsin, did: pass legislation stripping state employees of their right to collective bargaining. The second, and much more effective, way to break a union is to undermine its members’ solidarity: to divide and conquer.

The classic method of decollectivising a workforce is the introduction of performance pay. Once workers’ remuneration ceases to be reckoned by the job to be done, and is set, instead, by the boss’s perception of how well each individual worker is doing the job, the ability of the workforce to maintain collective cohesion and purpose rapidly falls away.

New Zealand has, of course, already attempted a legislative “final solution” to the union problem. But, although the Employment Contracts Act (1991) proved highly successful at breaking the power of private sector unions; public employees – especially teachers – by sticking together and fighting back, have resisted every attempt to set one colleague against another, undermine the union, and hand the education sector over to Treasury (and its political handmaidens) for neoliberal “re-education”.

It is, therefore, very difficult not to read the Treasury Secretary’s advocacy for trading-off a few extra pupils in every class-room for a lift in the quality of the country’s teachers, as a way of admitting performance pay (and undermining the teacher unions) by the back door.

Prime Mover: The author of the "class-size-increase-for-improved-teacher-quality" trade-off, Treasury Secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf.

Citing the highly contestable figure of “one in three” school-leavers entering the New Zealand workforce as an educational failure, Mr Makhlouf argued strongly, and very publicly, that this scandalous “output” of the system could only be rectified by encouraging better teaching. By this he did not mean that we should embrace the Finnish policy of keeping a very high teacher-student ratio while, at the same time, ensuring that teaching remains one of that country’s best qualified and well-paid professions. No, what Mr Makhlouf wanted was an opportunity to pit teachers against one another in a quest to find “the best” teachers, and then, presumably, offer them individual employment contracts and higher pay. This competitive model would also have identified “the worst” teachers, allowing them to be purged from the system. School staff-rooms would thus become battle-grounds where “winners” prospered and “losers” lost their jobs. Collegial values, ill-adapted to Treasury’s new “survival of the fittest” environment, would be driven to extinction – followed closely by the teacher unions.

The triumph of the competitive market model within the teaching profession would, inevitably, see its operating principles installed in every class-room. The transmission of skills and knowledge, the system’s outputs, would be subjected to detailed empirical measurement. Every pupil would be “tested”, and every school’s resourcing determined by the results of those tests. New Zealand’s internationally admired education system would very quickly join the derelict systems of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Was Ms Parata really seeking this disintegration of New Zealand’s education system? Of course not! Why, then, couldn’t she decode Mr Makhlouf’s policy prescription? The answer is simple: to decipher neoliberal ideology one needs to adopt a critical perspective; and that presupposes ideological agnosticism.

Had Ms Parata felt equal to challenging Treasury’s ideologically-driven recommendations, she’d never have been required to undertake her embarrassing political “reversal”.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 June 2012. 

Monday 11 June 2012

Refugee Status: Or, Why The Polls Aren't Necessarily Good News For Labour.

Safe Haven: David Shearer has a great deal of experience working with refugees. He knows that the last thing people fleeing from war and oppression want to encounter is divisive political ideology. Voters migrating from National to Labour are much the same - and Mr Shearer seems only too happy to oblige them by transformimng Labour into a "politics-free zone".

NATIONAL DROPS four percentage points in the latest 3 News/Reid Research poll and Labour picks up almost exactly the same amount. What’s wrong with this picture?

Too small and too timid to go after the 800,000 New Zealanders who did not bother to vote in the 2011 General Election, Labour’s strategy for 2014 appears to involve transforming itself into a refugee camp for disillusioned, disaffected, or just plain disgusted National Party voters.

David Shearer knows a great deal about refugee camps, he did, after all, spend many years working for the United Nations. He knows, for example, that if they’re to function properly refugee camps must steer well clear of politics. All that people fleeing war zones and/or massive persecution are looking for is a place of safety: somewhere they can find food, shelter and, if they’re lucky, some semblance of human warmth and sympathy.

When former National Party voters abandon John Key’s government for Mr Shearer’s opposition, the last thing they want, upon arrival, is to be bombarded with radical left-wing propaganda. Ideologically-driven policy-making is what they are fleeing. If they discover they’ve only exchanged one bunch of gimlet-eyed apparatchiks for another, they’ll simply keep on moving. Some will push-on to the Greens, some to NZ First, while others may even travel as far as Colin Craig’s Conservative Party.

There is nothing homogeneous about this stream of refugees, it contains many political tribes. Former Labour supporters – the ones who abandoned the party in 2005 and 2008 – will be the easiest to assimilate. All Mr Shearer has to tell them is that the party has rediscovered its respect and admiration for their values - especially their commitment to hard work and personal betterment. It’s an assurance that will serve equally well for the dwindling tribe of National Party moderates. In Labour’s camp, Mr Shearer will tell them, they’re in capable and experienced hands. Here, they’ll encounter no promises to raise taxes or restore trade union rights. Here, their investments in the partially-privatised state assets will remain perfectly secure. Here, they will be safe.

And the Labour tribe itself – the people who stood loyal right through – how will they react to their leader offering such reassuring guarantees to turn-coats and Tories?

Some, as the 3 News/Reid Research poll indicates, will decamp to the Greens in disgust. Others – a smaller but much more dangerous number – will throw their support behind Mr Shearer’s rival, David Cunliffe (now registering for the first time in the preferred prime-minister stakes). But most, delighted by Labour’s steadily expanding claim upon the affections of the electorate, will think only of the prospect of defeating their traditional enemy, the National Party, and of laying low its infernally popular leader.

The option of going after National’s vote will also appeal to Labour’s mostly middle-class membership because it involves so little genuine political effort. No one will expect them to venture into the neighbourhoods of the poor, where vicious dogs wait to leap at their throats and hostile Maori and Pasifika voters ask embarrassing questions about jobs and housing and health care for their kids and how long Labour’s MPs would last on shit wages and inadequate welfare payments?

In their heart-of-hearts they know that to provide adequate answers to such questions Labour would have to develop policies that would instantly drive away all of those refugees from the Centre-Right. They know from bitter historical experience that putting people first and money second only earns Labour the unrelenting hostility of the mainstream media (not to mention putting-off potentially generous business donors). It’s just so much easier and less risky to rely on slick TV ads showing Mr Shearer playing his guitar to delighted classrooms of healthy Pakeha children. So much less hassle to distribute glossy, platitude-packed pamphlets in neighbourhoods where the residents don’t bite. And so much more satisfying erecting billboards featuring the rugged (but reliable) face of their “anti-political” leader, promising New Zealand “A Future That Works”.

Spare some sympathy, then, for the newly-elected Policy Council of the Labour Party: Jordan Carter, David Craig, Nigel Haworth, Leanne Dalziel and Michael Wood. Theirs is the unenviable task of pulling together an election platform that still has some kind of connection with the “democratic socialist” principles to which the Labour Party still officially subscribes, but to which the parliamentary caucus is still prepared to give its support. David Craig, for example, has fought for years to extend the same level of state support to mothers and children on the DPB as that extended to low-paid workers by Working For Families. The same policy that Josie Pagani decried as unhelpful to Labour’s candidates in 2011. Will that policy make it into Labour’s 2014 manifesto? Will any policies likely to upset the party’s new, conservative, supporters?

The radical Marxist scholar, Slavoj Zizek, writing in the London Review of Books about the imminent Greek elections, warns upholders of Europe’s political legacy that:

In his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is between heresy and non-belief – i.e., when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split. This is the position in Europe today. Only a new ‘heresy’ – represented at this moment by Syriza – can save what is worth saving of the European legacy: democracy, trust in people, egalitarian solidarity etc.

The sprawling political refugee camp that Labour is busily turning itself into will find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the “No Discussion of Beliefs Permitted” rule it is currently enforcing in order not to upset its National refugees, and a position which denies the importance of espousing coherent political beliefs altogether. Such a Labour Party, by extirpating the “heresy” of genuine social-democratic thought and allowing itself to become a safe haven for an ideologically inert and politically demobilised population could, paradoxically, win election after election.

But what would be the point? And who would notice the difference?

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.