Tuesday 30 October 2012

Because They Can

Beyond The Law: A mother embraces all that remains of her son - murdered by the Serbs at Sebrinecia. When the possibility of being held to account disappears, so too do all the "normal" and "decent" restraints of civilised living. If the State breaks the law, then there is no law - and no one is safe.
THEY HAD LIVED next door to one another for years. Their children went to the same schools. The men worked in the same fields. Everyone drank the same water, breathed the same air.
So what caused one neighbour to fall upon the other so savagely? Shoot to death the father and the sons in their own garden? Rape the mother and daughter in their own kitchen?
The world watched, horrified, as the people of what had been Yugoslavia tore their country, and themselves, to pieces in the early 1990s.
The bleak lesson of those dreadful times is clear. When there is no possibility of being held to account for their actions, perfectly “normal” and “decent” people become willing participants in the most horrendous crimes.
Because they can.
Because no one will punish them for doing so.
Thinking about such things makes us uncomfortable. It makes us question the meaning of “normal” and “decent”. It makes us wonder if those who speak about “original sin” might have a point. And if the veneer of civilisation might be no more substantial than a bloodstain – and just as easily wiped away.
It should make us value all the more the protocols of law and justice. But most of all it should make us acutely sensitive to the words and actions of those in authority over us. Because it is from these figures that the cues invariably come. Stark or subtle, it is their messages that prime us, alert us, incite us and reassure us that from some groups in society the protection of the law has been withdrawn; that they are now fair game; we can do what we like to them. No one will come to punish us. No one will be held to account.
And so, to Justice Simon France, we all owe a huge debt of gratitude. This week he placed himself athwart the road that leads to the death of accountability, social safety and personal liberty and said “No further!”
The New Zealand Police, or at least the Organised Financial Crime Authority of New Zealand (Ofcanz), had decided that for one particular group of citizens, in this case members of the Red Devils Motorcycle Club, the law could be broken with impunity. To convict men they’d already adjudged guilty and considered enemies of all “normal” and “decent” people, Ofcanz officers believed it right and proper that the Executive and Judicial arms of the state should join forces. That secretly, and in conscious manipulation of the law, they should help a Police undercover agent bring these enemies of the people (organised criminals! drug-dealers!) to “justice”.
When I read about Justice France’s decision to stay the prosecution of the Red Devils Motorcycle Club, and was then forced to listen to the outraged response of the Police Association’s Greg O’Connor, I was reminded of the line spoken by the eponymous hero of the hit 1971 counter-culture movie, Billy Jack.
Warned that the blatantly illegal actions of a wealthy rancher were sanctioned by the presence of a corrupt local deputy sheriff, Billy Jack says: “When policemen break the law, then there isn’t any law – just a struggle for survival.”
Why couldn’t Greg O’Connor have said that? Why couldn’t he have stood up for every honest police officer? Why wasn’t he the first to say that such behaviour was unacceptable and that those responsible must be called to account?
More importantly, why wasn’t the Minister of Police, Anne Tolley, willing to say it? Why wasn’t the Prime Minister?
Our political leaders are supposed to be the guardians of our rights and liberties. They are supposed to understand and uphold the doctrine of the separation of powers. They are supposed to have sufficient grasp of basic ethical principles to know that “the end justifies the means” is always the first, irrevocable step down the road to perdition.
That they appear not to understand these responsibilities to their fellow citizens should make us feel uncomfortable – very uncomfortable. Their public statements – which can hardly be interpreted as anything other than a vote of confidence in the behaviour of the police officers whose actions were so roundly condemned by a senior member of the judiciary – are equally discomforting.
Because they are cues; not-so-subtle hints that this is the direction in which we can expect government policy to go. And in no time at all columnists and commentators of like mind were picking-up on their cues; expanding and amplifying their hints.
Who are these judges? Why aren’t they lending the Police a hand, instead of protecting these criminals? Who cares about the rights of these “terrorists”? What about the rights of the “good people of Nelson”?
No doubt the “good people” of all those Yugoslavian villages heard their leaders asking very similar questions.
Right before they butchered their neighbours.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 October 2012.

Friday 26 October 2012

"The Newsroom" - The Ideal And The Real

Journalistic Passion: Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom presents television news and current affairs as it should be. But Sorkin, like all artists, draws his inspiration from reality. The fictional Will McAvoy's (above right) exploits follow very real historical precedents, and there are heroes every bit as idealistic in our own newsrooms.
THE FIRST SEASON of US screen-writer, Aaron Sorkin’s, The Newsroom has just ended. Like its predecessor, The West Wing, Mr Sorkin’s latest offering shows America as it should be by taking for its subject matter America as it is.
The question Mr Sorkin expect his viewers to ask at the end of every show is: “Why can’t real life be like this?”
Why, for example, can’t the producers of our nightly current affairs shows provide us with the sort of searing interrogation of newsmakers that the fictional viewers of News Night regularly witness?
Why have Television New Zealand and TV3 been unable to find an anchor-man like Will McAvoy, the strongly principled, fearsomely intelligent (yet politically conservative) journalist who heroically refuses to “dumb down” his show for the sake of the ratings?
Why, Mr Sorkin wants us to ask, are our own news-rooms not populated with the sort of young journalists who set News Night’s news-room afire with their idealism and an absolute determination to uncover and broadcast “the truth”?
And what about the characters Mr Sorkin places further up the hierarchy of his fictional Atlantis Cable News? What about Charlie Skinner, the president of ACN’s news division, or Leona Lansing, the CEO of the network’s parent corporation, Atlantis World Media? Without the backing of these two, neither Will McAvoy’s journalistic integrity, nor the crusading zeal of his “EP” (Executive Producer) McKenzie McHale, would ever make it to air. What about them?
It’s a formidable skill Mr Sorkin possesses; this ability to hold up the real against the ideal and make us rue how little the former resembles the latter. Why weren’t the all-too-real Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama more like Mr Sorkin’s fictional President, Jed Bartlett? Why can’t real journalists be as enthralling as News Night’s?
Well, as McKenzie McHale tells Will McAvoy in the pilot episode: “We could be”; “We were once”. Mr Sorkin’s hard-drinking, bow-tie wearing Charlie Skinner and the hard-nosed  Leona Lansing closely resemble the two pivotal characters in that greatest of all American news stories - Watergate. Not the two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke the story, but The Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee, and the Post’s proprietor, Katie Graham. They were the ones who gave Woodward and Bernstein the time, the resources, and (most important of all) the backing, to tell the Watergate story.
Real Life Heroes: Carl Bernstein, Katherine Graham and Bob Woodward discuss the Watergate expose in the newsroom of The Washington Post.
The sort of journalism Mr Sorkin champions in The Newsroom is possible. It has happened. It’s history.
Nor is it fanciful to claim that high principle, fearsome intelligence and conservative politics can be combined in a single news-man. I know they can, because I used to work for just such a person. His name was Warren Berryman and he was the founding editor of the weekly business newspaper, The Independent.
Warren loved free-market capitalism and he was the implacable foe of anyone who brought it into disrepute. What’s more, if you had “a good yarn”, Warren didn’t give a damn what your political leanings were. It was the story that mattered.
And though he may not always deliver the scintillating dialogue which Mr Sorkin puts into the mouth of Will McAvoy, our own John Campbell regularly presents TV3’s viewers with the sort of fearless advocacy journalism that makes The Newsroom such compelling viewing. Not forgetting Pip Keane, Campbell Live’s McKenzie McHale, or TV3’s very own Charlie Skinner: that indefatigable champion of his network’s news and current affairs; Mark Jennings.
It might be stretching a point to call them “young”, but the very real New Zealand investigative journalists, Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, are every bit as committed to uncovering the truth as News Night's idealistic staffers.
Elaborating the ideal; revealing its meaning and presence in our daily lives; this has always been the duty of the artist. But we should never forget the crucial role reality plays in shaping the artist’s vision of a better world.
Truth is not only stranger than fiction – it’s more inspiring.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 October 2012.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Memo. To: Greg O'Connor From: Billy Jack

"When policemen break the law, then there isn't any law - just a fight for survival."

-  Billy Jack*

*Hero of the 1971 movie Billy Jack, which became a counter-culture hit all over the English-speaking world. Billy was part Native American and all Green Beret (until he quit the special forces in disgust at what was happening in Vietnam and returned stateside to get in touch with his indigenous heritage). Billy's mastery of the martial arts, combined with his radical political views, not only made him "right-on" but also right handy when a wealthy rancher, his redneck bully of a son and the corrupt local deputy-sheriff started making life difficult for the troubled kids up at the "Freedom School" on the nearby reservation. The movie's theme-song, One Tin Soldier, may be listened to here.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Mr Shearer's Selective Patriotism

Last Refuge? David Shearer's repreated use of the word "patriotism" would be less worrying if it was more inclusive. Unfortunately, the "NZ Inc." approach, rather than advancing policies designed to benefit wage and salary earners across the board, almost always involves extending the state's support to a select group of employers.

“BLOODY IMMIGRANTS, taking our jobs, shouldn’t be allowed!” That’s how conservative working-class voters, sharing a jug at the Hornby Working Men’s Club, might’ve put it. But their analysis, for all its pith and honesty, would’ve been wrong. Immigrants have become an indispensable component of the New Zealand labour market. Without them our economy would stall. It was David Shearer’s duty to explain that. As leader of the Labour Party his role is to counter ignorance with facts, and prejudice with values. In Christchurch last week he did neither.
In his speech to the Hornby Working Men’s Club last Thursday, Mr Shearer quite rightly stated that: “We need to avoid being locked into a downward spiral where our skilled people go to Australia for better wages, where those people are replaced by migrants who are paid less, which in turn sends more of our skilled workers to Australia.”
In that single sentence the Labour leader encapsulated the grim dynamic of New Zealand’s labour market. This country’s ability to hold onto its skilled workers has been very seriously weakened by the power of what is, in effect, a single Australasian market for skilled labour.
In this context New Zealand operates not as a sovereign state, but as an entity indistinguishable from a state of Australia. The 35 percent-plus premium Australian employers are willing to pay skilled Kiwis for crossing the Tasman leaves New Zealand’s government with no option but to replace them with skilled immigrants for whom New Zealand wages and salaries exercise a similar magnetic effect.
Mr Shearer appears to think that limiting the influx of immigrant labour will somehow slow the exodus of skilled New Zealand workers to Australia. But it won’t. Australia’s borders remain open, and so long as that remains the case the cleverest and most talented Kiwis will continue to fly.
And if the efforts of the New Zealand government to meet the rising demand for skilled labour (driven in large measure by the Christchurch re-build) are to be scaled back, and the inflow of immigrants choked-off, then the economy will also suffocate.
At the core of the problems Mr Shearer identifies in his speech is the depressed levels of New Zealand wages and salaries. One way to address this would be to simply prohibit the emigration of skilled New Zealand workers. That would, of course, require New Zealand to become a totalitarian state – a solution most of us would reject out-of-hand. The other alternative is to substantially lift New Zealanders’ incomes.
The interesting question, therefore, is why Mr Shearer offered his staunchly Labour audience so little in the way of concrete measures for lifting wages and salaries. A careful reading of his speech reveals that increased incomes have been relegated to mere aspirations: something Labour would like to see; expects to see; but will do nothing beyond a modest increase in the minimum wage to achieve.
This means that any Labour Government led by Mr Shearer is likely to shy away from direct interventions in the labour market. It will not pass legislation designed to reverse the flow of wealth from wage and salary earners to owners and shareholders. It will not, by substantially lifting the minimum wage, engineer a wholesale winnowing-out of New Zealand’s most inefficient businesses. It will not pass legislation restoring universal union membership or the national award system. It will not use the Government’s ability to set wages and salaries in the public sector to provide both a guide and a goad for private sector employers. In short, it will not do any of the things required to raise the incomes of New Zealand’s wage and salary-earners.
What Mr Shearer did do, however, was promise all kinds of direct aid and assistance to New Zealand Incorporated. “It’s time we got proud”, he said, “time we got patriotic. It’s time we backed New Zealand, instead of taking our hands off the wheel.”
But Mr Shearer’s patriotism is selective. State assistance goes only to exporters. Direct intervention in the labour market extends only as far as limiting the inflow of immigrants. And Labour’s promise of improved living standards, by way of “high-skill, high wage” jobs, continues to follow the example of the White Queen’s employment contract in Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There: “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.”
What the audience gathered at the Hornby Working Men’s Club deserved to hear from Mr Shearer was an acknowledgement that Labour’s challenges are specific and immediate. To raise incomes by re-empowering working people and redistributing wealth. To make New Zealand a place where the diversity of its population is a source of strength and pride, not an opportunity for mistrust and division. To create a community of values, where loyalty is owed not to flags – but principles.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 October 2012.

Monday 22 October 2012

A Thought For Labour Day

Apologies for the Spelling! But this cartoon from the US Christian Science Monitor neatly encapsulates my thinking on Labour Day 2012.

FOR TWENTY-FIVE YEARS now we have been conducting a social experiment on the consequences for New Zealand workers of voluntary unionism and enterprise-based employment contracts. The results are in - and they are crystal clear.

The steady growth in workers incomes that characterised the 40 years following WWII came to a definitive end with the Employment Contracts Act in 1991. The widening gulf between NZ and Australian wage-rates dates from then, as does the explosive growth in social inequality.

To a social-democrat it should be axiomatic that this experiment be brought to an end. The true measure of neoliberal ideological hegemony, however, may be discerned in the inability of not only the NZLP but the CTU itself to recognise the necessity of rebuilding a mass labour movement.

Everything the unions have tried to overcome the structural obstacles placed before the trade union movement by the neoliberal authors of NZ's labour relations legislation has failed. Union density in the private sector now stands at less than 10 percent. And still union officials and Labour MPs will roll their eyes in scorn the moment a return to universal union membership or a national award system is suggested.

Nothing I know of could better illustrate neoliberalism's almost total victory over the Left than hearing union leaders argue against the interests of their own members in the language of their oppressors.

Something to think about on Labour Day.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday 19 October 2012

White Knights, Dark Arts.

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself: What would a true master of the dark arts of politics have made of the actions of the Ira Bailey and Keith Ng, who told the MSD about the acute vulnerability of its IT systems? Or of David Shearer, whose bungled handling of leaked information about John Key's visit to GCSB headquarters snatched ridicule from the jaws of embarrassment?
A MASTER of the dark arts of politics would shake his head in disbelief. A former staffer in the Prime Minister’s office and a radical environmental activist discover a “hole” in the Ministry of Social Development’s IT network – and they immediately inform the Ministry, the Privacy Commissioner and the public.
The first question our black political magician would ask is: “Why?”
Because it wasn’t a little hole that IT specialist, Ira Bailey, and investigative journalist, Keith Ng, discovered. No. It was a vast portal; a royal road to virtually every piece of information the MSD possessed.
“Did it never occur to either of you that this discovery invested you with extraordinary political power?”
The tone of incredulity in the Political Wizard’s voice is easily imagined.
“Have you any idea what even an absolutely useless Opposition politician could have done with this information? Can you not imagine the havoc it might have created? Paula Bennett would have been beside herself. The paranoia levels in the MSD would have gone off the scale. Properly managed, this discovery could have seriously destabilised John Key’s government. At the very least it would have destroyed the Minister’s career.
“But what did you two upright citizens do? You told the MSD about their IT vulnerability. You told them! At least you, Mr Bailey, had the wit to enquire about an incentive. But you, Mr Ng, did not. Presented with an extraordinary opportunity to do real political damage you acted pro bono publico – for the public good. Honestly, words fail me!”
Could there be a better testimonial to the basic honesty of ordinary, decent New Zealanders than this extraordinary incident? Because our Master of the Dark Arts, in identifying the huge opportunity for political mischief-making Mr Bailey’s and Mr Ng’s discovery represented, is not mistaken. All of us, with a little thought, will be able to think of at least one politician who would have exploited the MSD’s massive failure without hesitation - or mercy.
We should be proud of Mr Bailey and Mr Ng. Their public-spirited behaviour was so very different from the sort of behaviour exposed during the Leveson Inquiry. Would a journalist working for The News of the World have handed such a treasure-trove of confidential and potentially damaging information over to the UK Privacy Commissioner? Would Julian Assange have contacted the US Department of Defence and offered to identify a potentially devastating security breach?
What do you think?
The Bailey/Ng revelations weren’t the only example of less-than-perfect state security to enliven the past week. It would seem that the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) has more than its fair share of “disgruntled former employees” – and maybe even one or two still on staff.
Once again, however, the recipients’ exploitation of covertly acquired information was enough to make our Master of the Dark Arts throw up his hands in horror.
“This is, quite simply, unbelievable!”
We must imagine at this point a shame-faced David Shearer shifting uneasily in his office chair.
“It’s Political Destabilisation 1-0-1, Mr Shearer. Page One of The Beginners Guide to Political Scandals. Evidence first. Evidence second. Evidence above all else. You never – and I mean never – launch a political scandal unless you are in possession of all the evidence required to prove it. Do you know what I’m talking about, Mr Shearer? No? Then, let me spell it out for you.
“If you claim the Prime Minister joked about Kim Dotcom’s arrest, in a cafeteria full of GCSB operatives, and there’s video evidence to prove it, what do you absolutely, positively, have to have in your possession, Mr Shearer? That’s right, you have to have the bloody video!
Did you have the video, Mr Shearer? Did you have any evidence to back up your claim? No, Mr Shearer, you did not. You walked out to confront the most popular Prime Minister in New Zealand’s history holding nothing but an accusation. By the battlements of Barad-Dur, Mr Shearer, what were you thinking!”
To which those past masters of the dark arts of politics: Michael Laws, Richard Prebble, Pete Hodgson and Rodney Hide would undoubtedly add: “Amen”
An idealist might argue that Mr Shearer’s ineptitude in these arcane matters is rather endearing.
A realist would simply conclude that the next victim of the dark arts is likely to be Mr Shearer himself.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 October 2012.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Making Plans

In Stormy Seas: Green Party co-leader, Russel Norman addresses the EPMU's "Jobs Crisis Summit" on Friday, 12 October 2012. The joint decision of NZ First, the Greens and Labour to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the condition of the manufacturing sector was one of the few hopeful outcomes of the union-organised gathering.

THEY CAME TOGETHER in an atmosphere of near panic. Factories were closing their gates and thousands of laid-off workers were joining the ranks of the unemployed.  In the face of global financial catastrophe the political party ostensibly devoted to protecting the interests of working people was in the grip of a peculiar immobilism – unable or unwilling to take resolute action.
A special “Crisis Congress” was convened by the largest of the country’s trade unions to debate a recovery plan devised by three of the labour movement’s leading economists. Entitled “Restructuring the Economy” it called for direct and massive government intervention to mobilise idle resources and get the nation back to work.
To the utter dismay of the trade unions the leading economic spokesperson of the largest left-wing party refused to back the plan.
A few months later that same party suffered a crushing electoral defeat.
This could be a description of recent political developments in just about any country of the developed world. But the story isn’t recent. It happened over eighty years ago in Weimar Germany. The metalworkers’ union’s “Crisis Congress”, at which its radical restructuring plan was presented, took  place in April 1931. Two years later Adolf Hitler’s National-Socialists were in power. By 1938 the Nazi’s own (very similar) programme of “massive government intervention” had practically eliminated unemployment and confirmed Hitler as Germany’s saviour.
LAST FRIDAY, Trevor Bolderson, a coal-miner from the West Coast, rose to his feet and asked: “What are you going to do for my little town of Greymouth?” His question was directed at Winston Peters from NZ First, Russel Norman from The Greens and Labour’s finance spokesperson, David Parker. The venue was the “Jobs Crisis Summit” organised by Mr Bolderson’s trade union, the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU). Like the German workers of eighty years ago, he too was looking for salvation.
All he got were evasions and promises.
The assembled politicians would only tell him what he and his workmates already knew. That the lay-offs of Solid Energy’s administrative and mining employees must be understood in the context of the Government’s plans to partially privatise the state-owned energy sector.
No one was willing to give Mr Bolderson an unequivocal commitment to re-opening the Spring Creek Mine. No one spoke of state ownership offering employees and their unions a greater role in managing New Zealand’s energy resources. No one denounced the madness of mothballing a highly productive coal mine and laying-off its highly skilled workers when international demand for its top-grade product is certain to recover as China’s stock-piles dwindle.
That the Greens might be wary of promoting coal-mining is understandable (although someone should ask them if they’re also happy to do without the high-grade steel Spring Creek’s coal makes possible). NZ First could also be forgiven for not being the loudest promoter of state-ownership. But Labour, the party to which Mr Bolderson’s EPMU is affiliated, should have been able to offer something more hopeful than Mr Parker’s declaration that he “could not promise that every mine could be kept open”.
Returning to the West Coast, Mr Bolderson will be able to tell his EPMU brothers and sisters that the three parties represented at the Jobs Crisis Summit have undertaken to conduct a parliamentary inquiry into the manufacturing sector’s problems.
“The crisis in manufacturing is hammering communities from South Auckland to Bluff, from Kawerau to Greymouth”, Labour’s leader, David Shearer, stated in a media release distributed after the Summit. “The future of our country depends on a modern manufacturing sector that creates better jobs and higher wages to keep Kiwis in New Zealand.” This could only be achieved, he suggested, if political parties worked together.
Certainly, the sight of the leaders of the three major Opposition parties all lined up behind the same table is a hopeful sign for New Zealand’s beleaguered working- and middle-class voters. Mr Bolderson, along with the men and women who used to do the forty thousand jobs that the manufacturing sector has shed since 2008, can only benefit from more political co-operation among the National-led Governments’ opponents.
Not so hopeful, however, are the extraordinarily modest demands being advanced by the EPMU. The Union’s national secretary, Bill Newson, listed these as: action to bring down the high New Zealand dollar; a government procurement policy which favours domestic producers; and direct Government support for manufacturing enterprises facing imminent down-sizing or closure. As an experienced union negotiator, Mr Newson must know that modest demands elicit modest responses.
If New Zealand’s labour movement is to fare better than its German counterpart of eighty years ago, then not only must it formulate an equally radical plan for “massive state intervention” and democratic restructuring of our economy, but also ensure that Labour, the peoples party, commits itself, body and soul, to making it happen.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 October 2012.

Friday 12 October 2012

Parker's Stance on QE Bodes Ill for Labour-Green Coalition

Deal Breaker: Labour's finance spokesperson, David Parker's, public re-statement of his party's allegiance to core neoliberal convictions - like the political "independence" of the Reserve Bank - means that any coalition agreement with a weaker Green Party is bound to end in tears.
THE MOST DEPRESSING CONTRIBUTION, so far, to the debate over Quantitative Easing (QE) belongs to Labour’s finance spokesperson, David Parker. Responding to the Greens’ call for two billion dollars’ worth of QE, to bring down the value of the Kiwi Dollar, Mr Parker stated: “I’m not in the camp that says the Government should direct the Reserve Bank as to what monetary policy tool it uses, whether it should be lower interest rates, or loan to valuation ratios or some sort of levy on capital inflows or quantitative easing”.
This is the old economic orthodoxy speaking, and proof of Labour’s inability to free itself from the neoliberal ideology of the 1980s. It also gives the lie to all those who have taken comfort from Mr Parkers’ much publicised “conversations” with internationally renowned economists like Joseph Stiglitz.
Had Mr Parker been genuinely influenced by the likes of Mr Stiglitz and his colleague, Paul Krugman, he would have been willing to challenge the notion that interfering politicians’ hands must be kept away from the big economic levers. But, by pointedly distancing himself from those who are willing to direct the Reserve Bank to use its monetary tools for the public good, Mr Parker has proved that Labour, like Louis XVIII, has “learned nothing and forgotten nothing”.
He has also provided an alarming glimpse of what is likely to happen if National’s increasingly inept economic management leads to a change of government in 2014. Should a David Shearer-led Labour Party emerge from that election with the largest share of the Left Vote, and with Mr Parker as its preferred Finance Minister, it’s clear that the Greens’ much more radical, people-first, approach to economic management will be over-ruled.
New Zealand will experience again what it was forced to endure between 1996 and 1998: a coalition government at odds with itself; seething with intrigue; and prone to sudden and destabilising political lurches. In this scenario, Russel Norman will play the role of Winston Peters to Mr Shearer’s Jenny Shipley and Mr Parker’s Bill Birch. And, just as the National-NZ First coalition government, riven by ideological differences, fell apart after less than two years, so too will any Labour-Green coalition in which the primacy of politics is not the activating principle of both parties.
Presented with Mr Parker’s proof of Labour’s unreconstructed neoliberalism, what should the Greens do? Mr Peters’ experience as New Zealand’s one and only “Treasurer” should warn them that the smaller party in a coalition government cannot expect to exercise more than a token amount of economic influence. Treasury, as the most powerful ministry, will always end up in the hands of the most powerful coalition partner.
But denied effective control of the next government’s overall economic direction, what hope have the Greens of avoiding the fate of every other small party which has nailed its colours to the mast of a much larger vessel? While Labour remains a neoliberal party what chance has it of effectively addressing problems caused by neoliberal policies? And what chance have the Greens of avoiding being cast as part of the problem, instead of what they have always claimed to be: the beginning of the solution?
Mr Norman’s advocacy of QE and his championing of New Zealand’s exporters and manufacturers is not only politically courageous – but very shrewd. By promising to take the QE lever of economic power into their own hand the Greens have forced Labour to reveal its own.
Mr Parker, backed by his leader, has signalled Labour’s unwillingness to abandon that creaking foundation of neoliberal statecraft, the “independent” (i.e. subservient to the financial sector) Central Bank. In doing so, he has confirmed Labour’s unwillingness to do any more than administer New Zealand’s economic decline.
The Greens’ path forward is as challenging as it is clear. Mr Norman should announce that a coalition with the Labour Party will only be contemplated from a position of strength. Only if the Greens are the Left’s largest party.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 October 2012.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Would You Like A Free Daily Newspaper With Your Free Lunch?

The Power Of One: Sheldon Adelson's personal fortune of $US20 billion allows him to subsidise the distribution of a free daily newspaper throughout Israel. Unable to compete with their far-right rival, Israel's left-wing newspapers face ruin. What would happen to New Zealand's mostly Australian-owned print media if the world's richest woman, Gina Rinehart, attempted to do something similar across the Tasman?
A FREE DAILY NEWSPAPER. Just imagine being able to walk into your local dairy and pick up a big, fat, all-sections, all-subjects daily newspaper without paying a cent. Imagine that newspaper being delivered free-of-charge to your front door. Imagine its impact on newspaper publishers who still expected you to pay for their product.
Impossible, you say. Sure, we have give-away newspapers now, but they only arrive in our letter-box once or twice a week, and because they’re paid for by advertising sales the editorial content is pretty thin. A genuine daily newspaper, with all the editorial content that term implies, simply couldn’t be financed from advertising alone. The revenue from advertising would have to be augmented by over-the-counter-sales and subscriptions. So, a “free” daily newspaper must remain a pipe dream.
Not necessarily. If you were on the streets of Tel Aviv today you could pick up a copy of Israel Hayom for free. The paper was launched five years ago as a five-days-a-week publication, and in November 2009 added what it describes as “an expansive weekend edition”. A free daily newspaper already exists.
But how? What’s the Israelis’ secret? How can such a publication possibly break even? Is Israel’s economy really so buoyant that it can sustain a daily newspaper funded exclusively from advertising sales?
Well, no, it isn’t. Israel’s economy, like every other country’s, is feeling the squeeze of the global financial crisis. Not surprisingly, Israel Hayom runs at a substantial loss.
But who on earth has so much money that he can afford to run a large daily newspaper at a loss? He’d have to be a billionaire.
Indeed he would, and that’s exactly what Sheldon Adelson, the man behind Israel Hayom, is – twenty times over. Mr Adelson made his fortune in the casino business and now he’s using it to support his favourite right-wing politicians. Over the past three or four months he has donated $US10 million to “Restore Our Future” – a political action committee backing the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. At home, through Israel Hayom, his money is being used to promote the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party.
All a little unsettling. But, in a free country, doesn’t Mr Adelson have every right to set up and run his own newspaper – even at a loss? Well, possibly. Perhaps a more pertinent question might be: Does Mr Adelson, by so ruthlessly under-cutting his competitors, have the right to drive them out of business?
Israel, like the United Kingdom, is a country where most of the daily newspapers take an openly partisan position. Mr Adelson, by under-writing Israel Hayom’s losses is putting this politically diverse media environment at risk. Slowly but surely, the daily newspapers representing the Left of Israeli politics are being driven towards insolvency.
According to McClatchy Newspapers’ Sheera Frenkel:
Haaretz, Israel’s most prominent left-wing daily, didn’t publish a print edition [last] Thursday for the first time in three decades as layoffs threatened much of the staff. Maariv, one of the country’s largest newspapers, has announced that it might switch soon to Web-only distribution with a weekend print version; the alternative, the paper has said, is closing.”
All very sad. But Israel and its newspapers are a long way from New Zealand. Our media environment is quite different. Surely, nothing like Israel Hayom could happen here?
Not here – not yet. But what about across the Tasman? In Australia (where most of New Zealand’s daily newspaper publishers are based) another billionaire, the mining magnate Gina Rinehart, is locked in a very public dispute with one of her country’s largest media corporations, Fairfax Media. Ms Rinehart, currently a major Fairfax shareholder, is unhappy with the corporation’s political and business coverage and is accused by her critics of seeking to influence its newspapers’ editorial direction.
What would happen to Australia’s print media environment if Ms Rinehart decided to adopt Mr Adelson’s strategy? How long could the already financially fragile Aussie media survive the competition of a free daily newspaper, subsidised out of the extremely deep pockets of the world’s richest woman?
And if the Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Mercury and Rupert Murdoch’s Australian were to suffer the same fate that appears to be awaiting Haaretz and Maariv, how would that impact the future of the Australian-owned mastheads dominating New Zealand’s print media?
If the future of the print media belongs to those with the deepest pockets, then perhaps it is time to start thinking about the creation of a publicly-funded, editorially neutral (and that neutrality would need to be guaranteed by statute) national (with a small “n”!) newspaper? Democracy requires a well-informed electorate, which, in turn, requires a truly independent news media.
New Zealand democracy is far too important to be entrusted to newspapers wholly owned and influenced by right-wing billionaires.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 October 2012.

Friday 5 October 2012

A Red Tory/Blue Socialist Coalition?

Red Tory: NZ First has always won more support by tacking to the Left than it has from backing the Right. Sensible conservatives, like sensible social democrats, understand the need to keep Capitalism on a tight leash. That makes Winston Peters' natural ally Labour - not John Key's National Party.
NEW ZEALAND FIRST has some serious thinking to do. As the National Party’s electoral support continues to erode (to 43 percent in the latest Roy Morgan poll) Winston Peters’ political options become decisive.  Only NZ First is positioned to pivot between Labour and National in 2014. The Greens’ abhorrence of National’s second-term policies has shackled them to the Left in ways which Labour is beginning to find unnerving. No less than John Key, David Shearer must be calculating the price of securing NZ First’s support in two years’ time.
But, if Mr Peters is guided by experience, the choice between Labour and National will be simple. Mr Key’s second-term government is an unashamedly neoliberal affair and a very uncomfortable fit with NZ First’s nationalistic populism. To win mass support, NZ First must tack to the left – not the right.
That a turn to the Left is the best choice he could make may not be immediately apparent to a classical conservative like Mr Peters. The National Party was where he won his political spurs and, like a young man’s first love, will always enjoy a special place in his heart. But, as Mr Peters is fond of pointing out, the National Party of John Key is not the party of Sir Keith Holyoake or Sir Robert Muldoon.
They were what social historian, Dr Chris Harris, calls “Red Tories”: conservative politicians who fear the social division and disintegration which unfettered capitalism inevitably produces.
Because working-class men and women have scant reason to support an economic system that lashes them for being poor, the Red Tory believes it’s in capitalism’s long-term interests to guarantee every citizen a reasonable standard of comfort. Like Mr Peters himself, they subscribe to the “One Nation” conservatism of the nineteenth century British statesman, Benjamin Disraeli, striving to bring all classes together in the tight embrace of an all-inclusive nationalism.
But, if Mr Peters is serious about putting capitalism on a leash, he must acknowledge the primacy of politics over economics. Yet that is something his potential allies in Mr Key’s National Party will never tolerate. The Prime Minister and his colleagues are all free-market men: “Blue Tories” who put economics first, and whose unwavering belief in an unfettered capitalism leaves no room at all for the Red Tories’ heavy-handed regulation and protectionism. Any coalition agreement which made provision for such economic heresies would, like the National-NZ First coalition agreement of 1996, be broken almost as soon as it was signed.
Labour offers NZ First much better prospects.
Reading the speeches of Davids Shearer, Parker and Cunliffe; it is clear that Labour still favours a “New Zealand Incorporated” approach to economic management. Equally clearly, however, they’re unwilling to admit that such a policy would also necessitate putting politics ahead of economics. As a concept, NZ Inc. presupposes that it is possible for all the factors of production to be brought together for the purposes of generating a healthy national dividend – payable to every citizen. That this would involve some form of economic planning, and some sort of mechanism for ensuring everybody stuck to the plan, smacks too much of socialism for today’s Labour politicians’ comfort.
They’d prefer New Zealand’s capitalists to simply fall-in with Labour’s plans voluntarily, because they represent sound economic sense. Since this is about as likely as Paula Bennett authorising a Christmas Bonus for solo mums, Labour’s “Blue Socialists” and NZ First’s Red Tories should be encouraged to embrace the primacy of politics together.
Mr Peters and his colleagues will have to lead the way, because only by demonstrating the Red Tory populists’ power to mobilise the non-vote will Labour be persuaded to step out of its “No, no, we’re responsible economic managers” comfort zone and take the fight to the Blue Tory defenders of free-market economic orthodoxy.
The beauty of a Labour-NZ First coalition for those capitalists capable of taking the long view is that it asks nothing more of them than a willingness to admit that they, too, are a part of the nation, and that, like every other citizen, they have responsibilities as well as rights.
It’s a simple proposition: For capitalism to function effectively in New Zealand it must acknowledge that there will be times when, to preserve social cohesion and deliver social justice, people must come first and money second.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 October 2012.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

The Kiss Of Fealty

The Kiss Of Fealty: In return for their protection, we place ourselves in the thrall of those powerful enough to provide it. Their enemies become our enemies, and when they ask for "a service", or "make us an offer", we dare not refuse. No matter whether the powerful be kings, gangsters or nation states, the relationship is always the same.
NEW ZEALAND is a vassal state: always has been; probably always will be. We are a small and vulnerable country whose security remains the obligation of much stronger powers. For a quarter-century, while the rest of the world re-arranged itself after the Cold War, we have enjoyed the illusion of independence. Now, thanks to Kim Dotcom, the age of illusion is over.
“Nuclear-Free New Zealand” may have ruffled the feathers of the American eagle and turned the ANZUS Treaty into a dead letter, but it did not amputate the New Zealand pinky finger from the Anglo-Saxon fist. Our membership of the UKUSA Agreement linking the intelligence agencies of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand remained intact throughout.
The United States may have excluded the New Zealand Defence Force from its military and naval exercises and blanked our diplomats at Washington cocktail parties, but its National Security Agency (NSA) never shut down the continuous feed of signals intelligence (SIGINT) from our Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).
Labour and National Governments may come and go, but “Echelon”, the NSA’s global SIGINT collection and analysis network, is forever – as are the GCSB’s electronic eavesdroppers at the Tangimoana and Waihopai “listening posts”.
It’s what vassals do: they pay their dues.
Medieval lords held their lands from the king and within the boundaries of those lands their word was law. In return, the king’s vassals were obliged to take the king’s part in all quarrels, pay his taxes and send men and supplies to fight in his wars. Those who served a medieval vassal needed two good eyes. One to watch over their lord’s needs and the other to look out for the interests of their king.
It did not suit the United States to make too much of their vassal state’s breach of fealty in the late-1980s. It’s anti-nuclear policy may have posed “the threat of a good example” (to use Noam Chomsky’s trenchant phrase) but for the makers of the Washington Consensus that threat was more than off-set by the Lange Government’s radical example of free-market economics. So long as New Zealand remained a part of the Echelon network, a few relatively gentle diplomatic slaps would suffice as punishment.
Had David Lange and his ministers got serious about severing New Zealand’s military and intelligence connections to the US, and attempted to pull the plug at Tangimoana and Waihopai, then the reaction of the Reagan Administration would have been very different – and much more painful.
The full force of American retribution was, however, avoided because the servants of the New Zealand state all had two good eyes. While Treasury kept Washington’s good-will by persuading the Lange government to implement the most radical structural adjustment programme ever attempted in the OECD, the New Zealand foreign affairs, defence and intelligence communities quietly reassured their American counterparts that a bi-partisan policy of incremental reconnection to the United States was the New Zealand (if not the Labour) government’s Number One priority.
The king was thus reassured by his errant vassal’s own servants and men-at-arms that their lord’s lapse of loyalty was purely temporary and that his successors would doubtless prove considerably more obliging.
And so it has proved. The smiling face of Mr Leon Panetta, the US Secretary of Defence, and his good news about New Zealand’s warships’ re-admittance to America’s naval facilities, was startling vindication of our foreign affairs and defence establishment’s patient diplomacy. The king’s favour has been restored: the kiss of fealty given and received.
Fitting, too, that just days after receiving our liege lord’s blessing, New Zealand’s Prime Minister and his deputy were forced to reveal its price. Remembering always that a king’s enemies are his vassal’s enemies also. And Mr Dotcom is, without doubt, the United States’ enemy.
Those New Zealanders who were surprised and alarmed by the extreme light-handedness of the political oversight of our security and intelligence services are still trapped in the illusion of independence. Our political leaders learned long ago what lapses in loyalty can mean for a vassal state. Much better to leave these matters to the permanent guardians of our own – and our masters’ – interests.
How else to explain Bill English’s casual admission that, were he given it all to do again, he wouldn’t hesitate to re-order the suppression of all evidence relating to the activities of the GCSB. Why else would John Key refuse a comprehensive and transparent inquiry into the illegal surveillance of Mr Dotcom? And be backed in his refusal by a former Labour Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer?
 “You can’t have an open inquiry like a commission of inquiry with evidence in public about that,” Sir Geoffrey told TV3’s The Nation, “because these agencies will cease to be any use if their secrecy is not preserved”.
Of use to whom?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 October 2012.