Friday 30 November 2012

To Play The King

An Ass For A Lion? Always it is the lottery of succession that undoes the political efficacy of hereditary monarchy. Has the Kingitanga run up against the limits of its genetic inheritance?
WHAT IS A KING? If history is any guide he is the man other men follow. The man with the best explanation or, failing that, the best excuse. The sort of man who stands at the beginning of a tale: a carver of kingdoms; a founder of dynasties. Duke William of Normandy – William the Conqueror – stands as the prototype, the archetype, of this kind of king. The strong war leader, the dux bellorum, who transforms his sword into a sceptre.
But how are such men reproduced? How does the king/father guarantee his subjects a successor fit to rule them? Always it is the lottery of succession that undoes the political efficacy of monarchy. Or, as the Eighteenth Century writer and revolutionary, Thomas Paine, put it: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”
The creation of the Kingitanga (King Movement) is one of the greatest compliments Maori ever paid to Pakeha. By creating parallel political structures to those of the colonial administration, the beleaguered inland tribes of the North Island hoped to develop a political authority equal to that of the Settler Government. The distant British monarch and her local representatives would be required to deal with an indigenous king. It was an imitative gesture which alarmed every bit as much as it flattered the Pakeha politicians of the late-1850s.
The colonial government’s misgivings were unwarranted. The first Maori King, Potatau, was no Duke William. He was a man of prestigious lineage, rich in accumulated mana, but his kingship came to him via the nomination of his peers – not from victory on the battlefield. The Kingitanga itself was the product not of fighters but of thinkers; educated men like Wiremu Tamihana – known as “The Kingmaker”. From its very beginning, the Maori Kingdom served as both symbol and statement: a plea for racial equality, due process and an end to the illegal alienation of tribal lands.
Needless to say, it was roundly condemned by settler politicians as both a barrier and a threat to the colony’s advancement. It took 18,000 troops to break the Maori Kingdom, but break it the Settler Government did. That it survived at all – let alone into the Twenty-First Century – is explicable only in terms of its evolution from a parallel political system into a mystical hereditary taonga. For more than a century the Maori monarchs have passed through the walls of the Settler State with the ease of a phantom: holographic witnesses to the festering injustices of the past.
Such ethereal figures need to be very careful how they interact with the mundane world of pith and power. Like its British counterpart, the Maori Monarchy has taken special care to be in the world but not of it. Nothing’s been attempted which risked breaking the magic spell.
The reward, all $170 million of it, came in the form of the Waikato-Tainui Settlement – over whose determined negotiators the Maori Queen spread the feather-cloak of her carefully nurtured mana. Sadly, Waikato-Tainui’s settlement with the Crown of New Zealand has turned out to be at the expense of its own. The ill-considered choices of Dame Te Ātairangikaahu’s son and heir, King Tūheitia, are steadily proving the truth of Tom Paine’s assessment of hereditary monarchy. More and more it seems the Lioness has whelped an Ass.
Urged on by his courtiers and favourites, King Tūheitia shows every sign of an intention to rule as well as reign. Te Kauhanganui, the Kingitanga parliament, established by his predecessor, King Tawhiao, more than a century ago, has fought to secure the Waikato-Tainui people’s interest in the settlement’s millions only to witness its courageous leader, Tania Martin, brought low by palace intrigue and political ambush. Urged on by his counsellors, King Tūheitia, now seeks to become an absolute monarch: wielding full veto powers; free to summon and prorogue his parliament at will.
The Crown of New Zealand will not tolerate so blatant a pretender to its throne. If the Maori King aspires to be a politician then he must divest himself of the mystery and mana of his ancestors and endure the audit of democracy like any other citizen – Pakeha or Maori.
Kings do not carry wallets.
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, 30 November 2012.

Thursday 29 November 2012

Islands In The Mainstream

Keeping The Story Straight: But if a conflict arose between the mainstream media's version of events and the version presented by the citizen journalists of the blogosphere - what then? Even more alarming - what if the bloggers' version proved to be the more believable?

SOMEWHERE THERE’S GOT TO BE a focus-group report. Nothing else adequately explains the current behaviour of the “mainstream media” (MSM). Somewhere, somehow, someone has been incautious enough to ask a representative sample of MSM readers, listeners and viewers how often they visit, and what sort of credence they give to, the blogs. Their answers appear to have shocked some journalists into full-scale retaliation.
My guess is that the consumers of news and opinion are not abandoning the MSM altogether – not yet. Most probably it’s still just a case of people turning to the blogosphere for a second opinion. The big problems will only arise when the stories people read on the blogs begin to sharply contradict stories being printed in the newspapers and broadcast over radio and television. That’s when the MSM should really begin to worry.
But if the note of alarm that has crept into the MSM’s coverage of blogs – especially political blogs – over the past few weeks is anything to go by, some of that worrying has already begun. The final edition of The Nation, broadcast on TV3 last weekend, warned ominously of the potentially destabilising political influence of the left-leaning blog The Standard. Senior Parliamentary Press Gallery journalists have launched repeated attacks against “anonymous bloggers” with many eagerly accusing their blogs of playing a sinister role in David Cunliffe’s alleged “attempted leadership coup” at the Labour Party’s Annual Conference.
The tone of these attacks leaves little doubt that not only do these political journalists consider bloggers to be unwelcome and illegitimate contributors to the nation’s political discourse, but that nothing would make them happier than to see them tightly regulated and controlled. It’s an attitude that should send a shiver down every New Zealander’s spine. A genuine “Fourth Estate” would welcome the democratisation of the gathering and distribution of news which the Internet has made possible. That so many MSM journalists have greeted the competitive spur of the blogosphere with a mixture of self-serving patch-protection and outright authoritarianism is cause for considerable concern.
It also casts much of their recent reporting of political news in a new and worrying light. If the truth is indeed out there, then presumably it’s as readily accessible to bloggers as it is to members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery? If both are present at the same event, then their reports should be (making obvious allowance for nuance and emphasis) at least broadly similar? But what if they are not similar? What if the MSM’s coverage of Event X is radically at odds with both the experience of participants and the reportage of bloggers? Wouldn’t that raise some extremely disturbing questions about the credibility and trustworthiness of MSM journalism?
The recent Labour Party conference demonstrated in the most dramatic fashion the MSM’s capacity to misrepresent and mislead the NZ public. The political journalists covering the conference were either collaborators with, or the dupes of, a faction of the Labour Party Caucus which, fearing the consequences of radical changes to the party’s constitution, manufactured a leadership challenge to Opposition Leader, David Shearer, by his front-bench colleague, David Cunliffe.
That the rule changes endorsed by the rank-and-file offered Mr Cunliffe a route to the leadership of the party which allowed him to by-pass his Caucus enemies was obvious to anyone familiar with the agreed reforms. Quite legitimately (if somewhat maladroitly) the MP for New Lynn declined to rule-out taking advantage of these new constitutional opportunities at some point in the future. To translate this sequence of events into a full-scale leadership challenge, as TV3’s Patrick Gower did, lacked even the slightest evidential foundation. It did not prevent him, however, from telling Mr Shearer that Mr Cunliffe was “coming for you” and demanding to know what he was going to do about it.
The peculiar political-economy of news reporting from the Parliamentary Press Gallery ensured that Mr Gower’s conspiracy theory became the core of the MSM’s reporting. Effective Gallery reporting is based on easy access to the principal political newsmakers of both the Government and the Opposition. Once it becomes clear that those principals have agreed upon an interpretation of events it is extremely hazardous for any political journalist to offer an alternative view. It would risk not only an immediate denial of access to the principal players, but also the wrath of one’s editor. Any narrative at odds with the main media outlets’ agreed version of events has the potential to make the perpetrator appear both eccentric and/or ill-informed. These are not epithets with which most MSM editors feel comfortable. Multiple interpretations of the same event might also encourage the public to question the competence of the MSM’s journalistic staff. Much safer all round if the coverage remains consistent across all media.
But consistent is not the same as accurate. What happened at the Labour Party Conference, far from being an attempted leadership coup, bore all the signs of a pre-emptive strike against the man most likely to front a successful leadership challenge under the new rules. Political journalists who rejected the principal players version of events, could have spoken to conference delegates who witnessed incidents strongly suggestive of the attacks on Mr Cunliffe being carefully orchestrated well in advance of the actions which ostensibly provoked them. Persistent questioning would also have uncovered evidence that it was supporters of Grant Robertson, not Mr Cunliffe, who had been gauging the level of support for a leadership spill in the weeks leading up to the Conference. No hint of these alternative narratives appeared anywhere in the MSM.
They have, however, been appearing in both the postings and commentary threads of the political blogs. Is this the real explanation for the sudden spate of attacks on the anonymity of these citizen-journalists? Has a focus group warned the MSM that the stories it declines to tell – and which are now turning up in blogs – are being believed? Are more and more of the MSM’s readers, listeners and viewers coming to the conclusion that the Fourth Estate, far from speaking truth to power, has become its willing stenographer?
If this is true, then the decision by so many active participants in the blogosphere to remain anonymous or write under a pseudonym becomes entirely reasonable. Any system powerful and mendacious enough to suborn the one institution specifically charged with exposing its malfeasance is probably not the sort of system to be openly challenged or taunted by vulnerable individuals using their real names.
The day focus groups and their deliberations cease to be confidential is the day bloggers will gladly abandon their pseudonyms and the current “pandemic of anonymity” will be ended.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Welcome To Middle Earth

Re-imagining New Zealand: Forty years of official biculturalism and assertive indigeneity have failed to suppress the colonisers' desire to refashion their new world in the image of the old. In this regard, "Middle Earth" has proved to be a much more comfortable cultural fit than "Aotearoa".
ONE HUNDRED PERCENT Middle Earth. That’s how the tourism industry has decided to promote New Zealand. Our national airline has even contributed one of its airliners, emblazoned nose to tail with images from The Hobbit movie, to elevate the promotional cause. This flying billboard will wow those attending the film’s “red carpet” premiere with a low-level fly-past.
Asked by a local journalist for his response to Air New Zealand’s generosity, an executive from the movie’s maker, Warner Bros, didn’t know whether to laugh out loud or titter. His consternation is understandable. Very few countries have been as willing to abase themselves quite so completely to the “soft-power” of Hollywood as we poor deluded Kiwis.
Having successfully persuaded New Zealand’s government to re-word its labour and immigration laws to industry specifications, increase its financial incentives and provide Warner Bros with millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity, the Hollywood moguls should be blushing with shame. More likely they’re kicking themselves for not demanding more.
And considering what we’ve been willing to do unasked – who could blame them! A friend of mine, returning from a trip to the United States, told me of his cringing embarrassment upon discovering that Air New Zealand’s passenger safety instructional video now doubles as a trailer for The Hobbit (complete with the Gollum character crawling up the aisle in search of  his “Prescioussss” – presumably the nearest exit!)
Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why are we so quick to dismiss even the slightest criticism of the Middle Earth franchise? How has The Hobbit’s director, Sir Peter Jackson, acquired such a powerful grip upon the public’s imagination and affection, and thus upon the direction of Government policy? What has caused a little nation located in the South Pacific to expend so much time, energy and money transforming itself into a bucolic version of medieval England?
Perhaps, after nearly forty years of official decolonisation, Sir Peter’s masterful adaptation of Tolkien’s masterpieces has opened a long-locked door to the colonisers’ cultural storehouse. Most New Zealanders are, when all is said and done, English speakers and (as Maori have been telling us for nearly forty years) culture and language are inextricably linked.
Transported half way across the planet our ancestors lost little time in reshaping Aotearoa’s natural landscape with flora and fauna appropriate to their vocabulary. And alongside the oaks and elms, sheep and cattle they’d introduced, they also constructed churches, schools, town halls and railway stations designed to “age” their young colony. It’s why the centre of Christchurch used to, and the heart of Dunedin still does, look like it’s stood there for centuries.
Ageing The Colony: St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Auckland: "A baroque tower in Symonds Street that appears to have stood there since 1730." (Photo by Chris Harris)
Two great waves of cultural change have laid much of this “Better Britain” flat. The first was the wave of brutal modernist architecture which reduced the neo-classical and Gothic buildings of our Victorian forebears to rubble. And as modernism flattened New Zealand’s constructed landscape, so the second great wave: officially sanctioned bi-culturalism and assertive indigeneity; deconstructed its fondest cultural assumptions and undermined its intellectual confidence.
This great laying to waste of the West’s best stories, which goes by the name of Post-Modernism, is described by the social theorist, Frederic Jameson, as “the cultural logic of late-capitalism”. It’s most devastating characteristic is its power to dissolve boundaries. High and popular culture mingle promiscuously in the post-modern societies of the 21st Century; as do past and present, fact and fiction, science and religion.
Sir Peter Jackson floats freely in this post-modern world – as his mischievous 1995 faux documentary, Forgotten Silver, made very clear. Who better, then, to overlay Tolkien’s Middle Earth upon a New Zealand landscape already transformed by the ecological imperialism of its Victorian colonisers? The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and now The Hobbit, may “only” be movies, but that has not prevented them from turning Mt Ngaurahoe into “Mt Doom” and Matamata into “Hobbiton”.
Tolkein’s writings may be fictional but they possess a cultural power that is very real. And thanks to the cinematographic skills of Sir Peter Jackson and the digital magic of Weta Workshops, Pakeha New Zealanders have been given reference points that owe nothing to their country’s indigenous culture. In our post-modern world, where reality has taken on an alarmingly subjective quality, “Middle Earth” is a much more comfortable fit than “Aotearoa”.
More comfortable, too, for dwellers in a “West” beset with economic, political, environmental and cultural challenges. A West in whose eyes New Zealand stands as a refuge every bit as wholesome and protected as “The Shire”. New Zealanders’ desire for cultural reassurance and comfort is thus reinforced by an international audience desperate to escape the daunting challenges of multiculturalism and austerity.
No, the tourism industry and Air New Zealand should have little difficulty in filling those airliners. Not while Middle Earth is so much more enjoyable than the real one.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27th November 2012.

Friday 23 November 2012

David Cunliffe's Pride

Momentary Triumph: David Cunliffe beams as the Labour Party democratises itself over the concerted resistance of his parliamentary colleagues. Within hours he was being set up as the scapegoat for the Conference delegates' insubordination. (Photo by John Chapman)
“OUR PROBLEMS aren’t external – they’re internal.” Chris Hipkins has one of those eternally youthful countenances which argue strongly against such ominous utterances. It’s as if such old words couldn’t possibly slither between such young teeth. And yet there he was before me, speaking darkly about the enemy within.
Hardly surprising, perhaps, given the fall-out from Labour’s tumultuous annual conference?
Except that Mr Hipkins’ political paranoia was being carried into the hall well before the acrimonious constitutional debate which caught so many Labour MPs and political journalists by surprise last Saturday morning. Because it was Friday afternoon, not Saturday morning, that the Chief Opposition Whip vouchsafed to me his grim opinion on the inherent character of Labour’s “problems”.
No matter. From the moment the failure of David Shearer’s followers’ all-out effort to defeat a proposal requiring Labour’s leader, in the February following a general election, to secure the backing of more than 60 percent of his caucus, or face an election involving Labour MPs, party members and affiliated trade unions, became clear, Mr Hipkins and the rest of Mr Shearer’s faction worked tirelessly to paste David Cunliffe’s face all over Labour’s “internal” difficulties.
The narrow victory (264/237) of the new party rule was presented as proof that not only were “dark forces” (as one journalist colourfully described them) conspiring behind the scenes, but that a Cunliffe-inspired leadership coup was imminent.
The eagerness with which journalists accepted this version of events is, from a week’s perspective, rather puzzling. Had a leadership coup truly been unfolding, how likely is it that its purported leader, well short of the numbers, would kick it off by publicly over-exciting TV3’s irrepressible Patrick Gower with repeated and repeated and repeated refusals to declare his support for Mr Shearer’s leadership?
Ambition, as Mark Antony said of Julius Caesar, should be made of sterner (or at least more tactically adroit) stuff. A genuine plotter would have grinned broadly, and with a twinkle in his eye, pledged undying loyalty to his leader. Continuing the Shakespearian theme: he would have “smiled and smiled, yet been a villain”.
The one really intriguing question still awaiting a satisfactory answer is, therefore: “Why did he do it?” Why did Mr Cunliffe not tell Mr Gower that a leadership challenge was out of the question? He must have known that his refusal to do so would dominate the news media’s coverage of the conference; overshadow the Labour Party’s radical democratisation process; and draw public attention away from both his leader’s keynote address and the party’s new housing policy.
What was he thinking?
I can, of course, only speculate. But my best guess is that Mr Cunliffe’s behaviour was driven by a combination of high political excitement; a powerful sense of vindication; and simple, old-fashioned, personal pride.
In part, the constitutional victories achieved at last weekend’s conference were the product of the rank-and-file’s indignation at seeing Caucus over-ride their clear leadership preference last December. One could say, therefore, that the votes against Mr Shearer’s allies on the conference floor were votes for Mr Cunliffe. Bathed in the golden light of victory; savouring the sweet taste of vindication after nearly twelve months of unceasing vilification at the hands of Mr Hipkins and his ilk, Mr Cunliffe simply wasn’t prepared to even ritually tug his forelock in the direction of Mr Shearer. (And certainly not via the leering medium of Paddy Gower!)
It was pride, and a surfeit of amour propre, that led Mr Cunliffe to turn a considerable political triumph into what has turned out to be a colossal personal defeat.
And that, surely, is the point. No man possessed of a serious intention to unseat his leader could possibly have made such a huge and career-damaging blunder.
Because, in politics, blunders are almost never forgiven.
From his now much-reduced position in Labour’s hierarchy, Mr Cunliffe can, however, comfort himself with the thought that although he has not conquered – neither has he stooped.
And there’s always February.
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, 23 November 2012.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Revolution On The Conference Floor

Reclaiming The Party: "Today's the day we take our party back!" Len Richards challenges the Caucus's attempt to blunt the rank-and-file's campaign for democratisation at the 2012 Annual Conference of the Labour Party. (Photo by John Chapman)

HOW DO REVOLUTIONS BEGIN? With ordinary people discovering their power. When someone or something previously regarded as all-powerful is suddenly seen to falter and fall.
Is it over-the-top to call what happened last weekend at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Auckland a revolution? Do twenty-first century political parties even wield that sort of power anymore? Hasn’t “revolutionary party” become an oxymoron?
Maybe. But something is changing in the world of progressive politics and the radical changes ratified by the 622 delegates to last weekend’s Labour Party Conference have put New Zealand squarely into the vanguard of that change.
And that’s not just because Labour’s membership voted themselves a decisive role in choosing their party leader. After all, the British Labour Party did something very similar thirty years ago. Nor is it a matter of members having left their parliamentary wing very little in the way of wiggle room when it comes to implementing party policy. All of these changes were important, but a long way short of revolutionary.
No, the revolution really began when a number of senior members of Labour’s Parliamentary Caucus attempted to water-down the rank-and-file’s radical changes to the Party’s constitution.
Suddenly all the pent up frustrations of a membership long accustomed to being treated as little more than an enthusiastic applause-machine boiled-over into a bitter but utterly gripping floor-fight for the heart and soul of the Labour Party.
Those who had not made the minutiae of Labour Party politics their special study (which these days includes most of the Parliamentary Press Gallery) may not immediately have grasped the import of what was unfolding before their eyes last Saturday.
Historically-speaking, Labour’s traditionally restive rank-and-file have been ruthlessly whipped into line by a combination of Members of Parliament, Labour Electorate Committee (LEC) Chairs and/or trade union bosses. At the close of conference business, seated comfortably in the nearest pub, they may have groused to one another about remits they were “forced” to support or reject, but only very rarely did the membership make a fight of it. Victories for the rank-and-file were rarer still.
On Saturday, however, events unfolded very differently. At issue was the number of Labour MPs needed to “trigger” a leadership vote in which the whole party could participate. The percentage of the parliamentary caucus required to activate the party’s new Electoral College (comprising 40 percent MPs, 40 percent ordinary members, and 20 percent trade union affiliates) had originally been set at 66 percent. After loud protests this was amended to 55 percent and then reduced again by the conference delegates to 50 percent + one.
So far, so good.
The debate then shifted to the number required to precipitate a membership-wide vote after each general election. It was proposed that any party leader failing to secure the support of 60 percent of his or her caucus colleagues would have to fight it out in the Electoral College. In other words, the post-election trigger for a party-wide vote would be set at just 40 percent.
Many Labour MPs construed this as an attack directed at Labour leader, David Shearer, by his erstwhile rival, David Cunliffe. Not since the dark days of the 1980s and Rogernomics had an annual conference of the Labour Party echoed to such bitter thrusts and counter-thrusts.
But while the intense personal rivalries currently besetting Labour’s Caucus undoubtedly accounted for much of the vitriol flying back and forth last Saturday, rank-and-file resentment at being ignored and over-ruled by their parliamentary representatives was an even more important driver of dissent.
Ordinary members of the Labour Party knew their preferred candidate for party leader, David Cunliffe, had been passed over by the Caucus in favour of David Shearer. It was this decision, following years of being dictated to by the parliamentary leadership, that generated the great wave of constitutional reform which broke over last weekend’s conference.
But another factor was at work on the conference floor last weekend. In the minds of many delegates were the bitter memories of a Caucus which had not only over-ruled but betrayed the party membership: the caucus that unleashed Rogernomics.
When delegate Len Richards declared “Today’s the day we take our party back!” He was alluding to much more than last December’s leadership vote.
In the end, and despite all the arm-twisting and brow-beating by Mr Shearer’s surrogates, the 40 percent trigger – symbol of the rank-and-file’s newly-minted authority – was approved: 264 votes in favour, 237 against.
Pebbles rolling down a hillside, you may think. But landslides – and revolutions – have to begin somewhere.

David Shearer’s Sunday speech – full of bold, radical and unmistakably Labour rhetoric and policy – was his direct response to the party membership’s noisy determination to reclaim their party.
They received Mr Shearer’s speech with whoops and cheers because, in truth, they had written it themselves.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 November 2012.

Friday 16 November 2012

Reclaiming Labour

Perfect Harmony: How many Labour Party MPs (especially those in David Shearer's camp) look wistfully at the Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly congress, where all the delegates are hand-picked and the results of every ballot pre-determined?
AND STILL WE WAIT. The Eighteenth Congress of the Communist Party of China has been and gone and yet, at the time of writing, the world still doesn’t know the identities of the dozen or so men and women who will govern China for the next five years.
The manner of choosing the ruling “Standing Committee” of the CPC’s “Political Bureau” is nothing if not carefully managed. The Congress’s roughly two thousand delegates are more-or-less hand-picked by a special party commission. Its task made easier by the fact that these potentially unruly comrades are only summoned once every five years. That’s a long time between drinks to the Party’s unconquerable unity, but it does ensure that the outcome of just about every vote is known long before it is taken.
How many, I wonder, in Labour’s lacklustre caucus have gazed wistfully at the CPC’s meticulously stage-managed “democracy” and wondered how it might be imposed on their own increasingly restless rank-and-file?
Especially this weekend, when said rank-and-file show every sign of reclaiming their party from a caucus whose use-by date – collectively-speaking – expired a couple of elections ago.
Most New Zealanders will not be much bothered. Such media coverage as the event attracts will focus almost exclusively on the real or imagined threats to David Shearer’s leadership. If we are lucky it may also feature a few excerpts from the “make or break” speech he is scheduled to deliver on Sunday afternoon. The likely consensus of the assembled scribes? That “Shearer is safe” – at least until February 2013.
It was not always so. Forty years ago our single public broadcaster would park an outside broadcast van outside the Wellington Town Hall and deliver roughly twenty minutes of live interviews, commentaries, and recorded highlights of proceedings, each day the conference was in session. The usually three-day conferences of Labour and National would, therefore, receive an hour of television coverage.
That’s because, forty years ago, party conferences mattered. New Zealand boasted the highest level of political participation in the Western World. One in four of the population was enrolled in one of three major parties: Labour, National and Social Credit. National, under Rob Muldoon boasted a membership of close to a quarter-of-a-million. Labour in 1984 had a branch membership of 85,000.
Party conferences were, therefore, events of genuine democratic significance. The policy remits of rank-and-file members alerted the electorate to how a very large number of their friends and neighbours were thinking – and were seriously debated. Mass party memberships also made it extremely difficult for National and Labour MPs to stray very far from their party’s principles.
That is why the successful implementation of “Rogernomics” ultimately required Labour’s destruction as a mass political organisation. Had upwards of 60,000 members not voted with their feet between 1985 and 1990; and had the remaining dissidents not decamped with Jim Anderton to form the NewLabour Party; such a treacherous mix of economic and social policies could never have endured.
And it is here that we come to the nub of Labour’s present difficulties. If it expands and democratises itself, the party’s incomplete (and, therefore, insincere) repudiation of neoliberalism will not be permitted to stand.
Helen Clark understood this very well, which is why she imposed a level of discipline on Labour that would have made the CPC blanche. Ms Clark’s caucus removed the formation of policy from party hands. For the fifteen long years of her domination, most of the senior positions in the party were filled by “elections” that were effectively uncontested. In 2008, her reign over, she was permitted, in classic CPC style, to nominate and install her own successor.

Apres Moi, Le Deluge: Helen Clark preserved Labour as a political force, but only by imposing an iron discipline upon its members and eliminating as many opportunities for dissent as possible. 
This is the legacy that Labour’s rank-and-file members are gathering at Auckland’s Ellerslie Convention Centre this weekend to either decisively repudiate or, fatally, extend. If they seize the right to choose (and dismiss) their own party leader; to determine and enforce their own policy platform; and, by reaching out to their fellow citizens with genuine people-first-money-second policies, to rebuild a mass political organisation; then Labour will survive and prosper.
If they bow to the demands (no matter how silkily presented) of Labour’s parliamentary caucus, then the party’s long and increasingly dysfunctional descent into electoral disconnection and political irrelevance will continue.
The world has to wait for the CPC. New Zealand will not wait for Labour.
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, 16 November 2012.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Ms O'Sullivan's Curious Commentary

Not Stupid: Fran O'Sullivan is one of New Zealand's most experienced journalists. What, then, lies behind her rather odd analysis of David Shearer's political options at this weekend's Labour Party Conference?
LET’S BEGIN with the headline: “Shearer’s vision can unite Labour”. That’s what the Herald’s subs called this morning’s opinion piece by Fran O’Sullivan. It sounded hopeful, but it didn’t take me very long to realise that Ms O’Sullivan was actually urging Mr Shearer to do exactly the opposite:
“He should not be afraid to upset grassroot Labour Party members this weekend – particularly the anonymous bloggers who get far too much attention.
“Shearer should make it clear he has not resiled from the vision he put forward in Parliament soon after his colleagues voted him leader. That vision is more likely to capture middle-class votes than simply playing to ‘our people’.”
Now, I’ve known Ms O’Sullivan for many years, and one thing she isn’t is stupid. On the face of it, however, her column in this morning’s Herald was just that: stupid.
Why would any credible political commentator advise a party leader installed over the objections of his own rank-and-file to roll up to his first party conference and piss them off all over again? Why would she suggest that his policy announcements be directed not at “our people” (i.e. the party’s electoral base) but at middle-class voters whose most distinguishing political characteristic over the past four years has been their open contempt and hostility towards the poor and the marginalised?
What does Ms O’Sullivan know that we “anonymous bloggers” don’t? (And let me note here how surprised I was to learn that Duncan Garner, Gordon Campbell, Martyn Bradbury, Danyl McLachlan, Brian Edwards and Scott Yorke weren’t those bloggers’ real names!)
Does this veteran business journalist have some special insight into this country’s political machinations which allows her to confidently brush aside the rank-and-file of the Labour Party as irrelevant to the outcome of the next general election? In spite of the recent US presidential election demonstrating just how important an effective “ground game” has become to securing victory, Ms O’Sullivan feels able to reassure Mr Shearer that he can safely ignore the very people who make an effective “ground game” possible. Why is that?
Perhaps the answer lies in her prediction that playing to the prejudices of the middle-class rather than “our people” would “also yield good results for New Zealand’s economy and business”. Perhaps she envisages the business audiences (to which Mr Shearer – a “fiscal conservative” – is said to have so much appeal) digging deep into their pockets to finance a campaign that would allow the Leader of the Opposition to make an end-run around his own membership?
That would certainly seem to be the strategic thinking behind both Ms O’Sullivan’s and Mr Shearer’s references to the former Finnish prime minister, Esko Aho.
“[H]e thought it was more important to make a difference than to get re-elected”, Mr Shearer is quoted as saying. “I can tell you I have no interest in being a prime minister who just cautiously tinkers.”
And it is here, I believe, that we come to the heart of Ms O’Sullivan’s thinking about Mr Shearer and the sort of Labour Government he might lead. The template in use is, of course, the one bequeathed to us by the Fourth Labour Government.

The Labour Party that gave us “Rogernomics” will always enjoy the special affection of neoliberals like Ms O’Sullivan. Not only for implementing policies that a conservative government would have had to introduce at the point of a gun, but for destroying both the Labour Party and the labour movement in the process.
The Lange-Douglas government corrupted everything it touched – including the MPs and party officials who opted to remain inside the empty shell Labour had become after three-fourths of its members – including the best and brightest of its left-wing heart – had departed in disgust. Helen Clark and her enablers may not have been neoliberals, but nor were they prepared to confront or repudiate the neoliberalism which the Lange-Douglas partnership had made the default setting of “New Zealand’s economy and business”.
In the nine long years it took Labour (with Jim Anderton’s Alliance in support) to claw its way back to the treasury benches, the trade union movement, as an effective counterweight to corporate power, had been destroyed and the state bureaucracy purged of its civil service ethic. And yet, after nine long years of Labour rule, the countervailing democratic powers of these crucial institutions remained unrestored.
It is this seeming inability (or is it unwillingness?) to challenge the neoliberal establishment with something more robust and modern (Josie Pagani take note) than a reheated Blairism which lies at the root of the Labour Party’s (as opposed to the Labour Caucus’s) restiveness. It explains the party membership's endorsement, by a margin of two-to-one, of David Cunliffe's candidacy last December.

Alone among his caucus colleagues Mr Cunliffe grasps how profoundly the global financial crisis is changing the nature of the political-economic game. In response (and in marked contrast to his boss) he's increasingly willing to publicly challenge the dominant neoliberal paradigm. Mr Cunliffe’s popularity among rank-and-file Labour members reflects the wider societal hunger for a genuine alternative to what is clearly a failing system.
It is also, I suspect, why even Ms O’Sullivan (who, as I said, is not stupid) writes: “[I]t is abundantly clear that Cunliffe would make a much more compelling Opposition leader than Shearer. He is hard-headed. He has been politically blooded. He has Cabinet experience. He is in tune with Labour’s base.”
So it is Mr Cunliffe’s – not Mr Shearer’s – vision that can unite Labour. Isn’t that what Ms O’Sullivan’s column is really saying? And isn’t that why she and all her right-wing colleagues in the mainstream news media are so determined that he NOT replace the incumbent? Isn’t that why they are talking-up Ms Pagani? Isn’t that why they’re begging Labour’s members to give Mr Shearer “more time”?
A Labour-led Government headed by the man who takes inspiration from the right-wing Esko Aho; the man who has no interest in being a leader who “cautiously tinkers”; the man who thinks it’s “more important to make a difference than get re-elected”; would be a government hell-bent on repeating the devastating mistakes of the 1980s.
Not only that, it would be a government which left what’s left of the Left as demoralised and divided as the government which, in the six bitter years between 1984 and 1990, tore New Zealand’s social-democratic society to pieces.
A consummation devoutly to be wished – at least by Ms O’Sullivan.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Expendable: Unemployment - Past & Present

Fearful Memories: Recaptured here, for the New Zealand television drama, Life's a Riot, is one of the many anti-eviction protests that wracked Auckland during the 1930s. The Welfare State had been built to ensure such scenes were never repeated. Full employment, everyone knew, was the key to working-class security and dignity.

THE FIGURE STRUCK New Zealand like a bombshell. It had been thirty years since numbers like these had been published. Memories were stirred. Fearful memories of one’s own or one’s parents’ abject surrender to the pitiless forces of an economic system in extremis. It was October 1967 and the number of New Zealanders registered as unemployed had risen to 5,458. Worse was to come, by June the following year the number stood at 8,665.
New Zealanders’ horrified reaction to the economic recession of 1967-68 and the rapid rise in unemployment which accompanied it was entirely reasonable. Forty-five years ago people possessed a much clearer understanding of the essential elements underpinning the Welfare State. They knew that it could only be paid for by a workforce that was fully employed and in receipt of incomes sufficiently large to maintain a healthy demand for goods and services. Everyone accepted that any return to mass unemployment would first weaken and then destroy the foundations of the Welfare State.
Throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s the number of New Zealanders registered as unemployed seldom rose above three figures. People used to joke that the Prime Minister knew each unemployed citizen by name. Some economists even advanced the theory that New Zealand suffered from “over-full employment”; that skilled-labour shortages were hampering the country’s economic advancement.
Going Up? New Zealand economist Keith Rankin has produced this graph indicating the real levels of unemployment in New Zealand 1950-2000. His calculations factor-in the number of women who could not find a place in the workforce. Even with this important modification, New Zealand's success in keeping its people employed throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s is remarkable.
For ordinary wage and salary-earners, however, full employment stood for personal, family and social security. It also guaranteed a measure of working-class dignity. If an employer treated workers unfairly, or paid them too little, there were always plenty of other employers looking for staff. Bad bosses could be told to stick their jobs where the sun don’t shine, and with more than half of the workforce enrolled in trade unions there wasn’t a helluva lot he could do about it.
In rehearsing these facts we are also measuring how very far New Zealand has travelled since the 1960s and 70s. The history of the last thirty years is, in many respects, the history of the slow and deliberate dismantling of the economic and social settlement negotiated by the Labour Party in the 1930s and 40s, and preserved (at least in its essentials) by the National Party right up until the critical year, 1984.
In a week which saw the number of unemployed New Zealanders swell to more than 175,000, or 7.3 percent of the workforce, the moral gulf separating 1967 from 2012 appears vast. And yet, had the Government been able to announce that the number of unemployed had fallen to 125,000 it would have been loudly congratulated. To keep the all-important inflation rate within the desired range of 1-3 percent per anum, the unemployment rate needs to be pegged at around 6 percent. That’s how successive New Zealand governments have preferred to manage the economy since the late-1980s – and there’s precious little evidence of a change of heart.
Keeping more than 100,000 New Zealanders enlisted in this “Reserve Army of Labour” does, however, require a very considerable hardening of the heart. A political class which can watch with impassive detachment while individuals, families and whole communities are stretched and broken on the rack of enforced idleness is not one that answers to anything but the crudest utilitarianism.
The biggest problem these comptrollers of human suffering face are the altruistic impulses of the unemployed’s fellow citizens. The natural human urge to extend a helping hand to those in need (an urge once institutionally embodied in the Labour Party) must be constrained. With the cynicism only the truly emotionally dead are able to wield, the victims of neoliberal economics are transformed into vicious parasites and anti-social monsters: “baby-breeders” and “child abusers” – depraved criminals as unworthy of our pity as they are of our taxes.
Having recast these largely innocent victims of capitalist dysfunction as members of the feckless and undeserving poor, it requires cruelty of particular refinement to then order them, on pain of being deprived of life’s necessities, to enrol in a labour market already over-subscribed to the tune of 175,000 souls.
It was long ago (1972) and far away (Scotland) that the radical trade unionist, Jimmy Reid, addressed the students of Glasgow University – who had just elected him Rector:
“To appreciate fully the inhumanity of [unemployment] you have to see the hurt and despair in the eyes of a man suddenly told he is redundant without provision made for suitable alternative employment … Someone, somewhere has decided he is unwanted, unneeded, and is to be thrown on the industrial scrap heap. From the very depth of my being, I challenge the right of any man or any group of men, in business or in government, to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable.”
How very, very much we have forgotten in forty years.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 November 2012.

Friday 9 November 2012

Obama's Victory

Call To Arms: "America's never been about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government." - President Barack Obama

NO MATTER which way you read it Barack Obama’s victory is a progressive triumph. To have emerged the winner after four years of economic hardship, laced with the most toxic political poisons available to the modern communications industry, is nothing short of heroic. Remember all those MSM descriptions of the race as being “too close to call”? Wrong, wrong, wrong. As Nate Silver’s “Five-Thirty-Eight” blog always insisted, a Romney victory was never on the cards.
America moved decisively to the left in 2008 – and it stayed there. Everything we have seen since – especially the Tea-Party phenomenon – was the frenzied response of the Republican minority in denial. That frenzy wasn’t manufactured. It was real. But it was also amplified way beyond its actual significance by some of the most malign political forces America has had to contend with since the years immediately preceding the Civil War.
Why didn’t the MSM get it? Because it didn’t want to. Taking the leftward shift of the US population seriously would have meant trouble. Trouble with advertisers. Trouble with owners. Trouble with regulators. Rather than face these forces down, mainstream American journalism simply defaulted to the uncritical reporting of a “he said/she said” partisanship and called it “balance”. There were exceptions, of course, Fox News and MSNBC, but these openly partisan outlets only succeeded in pumping-up the volume in the political echo chambers.
Which left the Democratic Party, almost alone, as the only force in US politics which truly understood the extent of the shift that had occurred in 2008, and how to keep it. In the key “swing states” Obama’s people kept their offices open. In the backrooms their boffins refined and extended their capacity to mine the nation’s databases for political information the Democrats could use. The channels were kept open to the key components of Obama’s victory: Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, single women, professional men, university students, trade unionists, the LGBT community.
And the Pundits missed it. They believed the Tea Party spin. They interpreted the 2010 mid-term elections as a decisive swing to the Right. And they missed the real story – the strategic decision of the Democratic Party not to issue a mobilisation order against the far-Right’s reckless bid for power.
Was it simple caution that stayed their hand? Were they not yet confident that 2008 was anything more than an unrepeatable surge of hope after years of war and in the face of the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression? Was there insufficient money in the war-chest? Or, did they simply underestimate the sheer mendacity of the far-Right Republicans: unable to envisage the extent to which they would gerrymander congressional district boundaries and crank-up the machinery of voter intimidation?
Or maybe, just maybe, it was intentional. Maybe Obama and his Machiavellian Chicago Boys played out just enough rope for the Right to hang itself? Maybe they deliberately gave the emerging Democratic majority a chance to witness and absorb just how bonkers the Tea Party crazies really were? Because, in fairness, if they had simply told their followers that Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum were completely and utterly nuts – rather than letting them prove it by their own words and deeds – who would have believed them?
And if the Republicans really were lured into a political version of Muhammad Ali’s infamous “rope-a-dope” strategy, what will Obama do now? Safely returned to the White House, with evidence of the nation’s rejection of the Reagan Era’s social conservatism there for all to read in progressive referendum results from Maine and Maryland, Colorado and Washington, and (most radical of all) California – what’s his next move?
The answer was there in the speech he gave to 10,000 cheering supporters at Chicago’s McCormick Centre. Just about everyone who witnessed it remarked on how like the “old” Obama he sounded. On how his passion was back – along with his vision and outreach.
It was this passage that pointed the way forward:
Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual.
You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together. Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil. We've got more work to do.
But that doesn't mean your work is done. The role of citizens in our Democracy does not end with your vote. America's never been about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That's the principle we were founded on.
Some have interpreted these words as a step back by the President, I read them as a call to arms. Not overt – not yet. But I believe he is telling his followers to rest, yes, but not to disarm. Because the time is coming when the full weight of the majority he has attached to himself and his party will need to be brought to bear against those who would recklessly and with malice aforethought obstruct their will.
The new, progressive America has, as their leader warned them, “got more work to do”.
This call for his people to take up “the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government” will either be celebrated as the most audacious hope of his presidency, or vilified as Obama’s cruelest deception.
I cannot believe the USA’s first black president has led the Democratic Party to such a magnificent triumph on the field, only to pass the spoils of victory to his Republican opponents.
As President Obama told his supporters; the American people; and the world:
“The best is yet to come.”
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Blood On The Coal

A Disaster Waiting To Happen: Why was it that for nine years the party in power, a party with its roots in the coal mines of the West Coast, failed to introduce the "belt and braces" safety regulations so crucial to a modern mining industry? Why was Labour, of all parties, so slow to repair the deregulatory damage inflicted upon the industry by the National Party in the early 1990s?
IT WAS A SPARK igniting lethal levels of methane gas that killed the twenty-nine Pike River miners. But, as the grim report of the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy makes clear, the immediate cause of the disaster is of less interest than the manifold failures which allowed the spark and the gas to meet.
Other New Zealanders will write about the failure of the Pike River Coal Company to adequately care for its employees’ safety. Much will be said about the bureaucratic failings of the Department of Labour. There will be critical scrutiny of the National Government’s decision to disband the Mine Inspectorate.
But the name of this column is ‘From the Left’, so my focus will be on the party of the workers; the party whose founders came from the West Coast pits around Blackball; the party of the coal miners’ trade unions; the party which for nine long years did nothing to prevent the tragedy which, in such a criminally deregulated environment, was only ever a matter of time.
Labour took control of New Zealand’s state apparatus on 27 November 1999 and relinquished it on 8 November 2008. During that time three Labour MPs held the Labour portfolio: Margaret Wilson (1999-2004); Ruth Dyson (2005-07); and Trevor Mallard (2007-08).
All three of these politicians came into Parliament with strong left-wing credentials. And all of them, I’m sure, wanted to do only good things for the people they represented. How, then, are we to explain their inaction? Their failure to impose a state-of-the-art health-and-safety regulatory regime on New Zealand’s coal-mining industry?
Throughout the nineteenth century, the dangers facing workers underground, and the disasters which so regularly took their lives, provided a powerful moral impetus for labour movements all over the world – including New Zealand’s. In 2007 workers’ safety campaigner, Hazel Armstrong, wrote: “The 1890s’ West Coast coalfields have been evocatively described as a ‘slough of despond’. They were notoriously hazardous working environments: ‘There’s always blood on the coal’, miners said.” It’s why the story of Paddy Webb’s 1908 fight for the Blackball miners’ rights became as ingrained as coal-dust in the political memory of Labour Party people. How could three successive Labour Ministers have forgotten so much?
Roots: The Labour Party traces its origins to the bitter industrial struggles of West Coast coal miners in the early years of the 20th Century.
The late Bruce Jesson offers a plausible explanation in his 1999 book Only Their Purpose Is Mad: “Somehow or other, the politicians … had been persuaded that politics is an irrational and harmful activity. This followed from the firmly held Treasury belief that the marketplace is the source of rational behaviour ….. It is assumed that politicians will always bring an irrational influence to bear on events, not just because they are irrational, but simply because they come from outside the marketplace.”
This became an article of faith for the “Rogernomes” of the fourth Labour Government, and in spite of the many ideological and electoral challenges of the 1990s (not least from the Alliance and NZ First) it remained the core assumption of most members of Helen Clark’s cabinet. There was no appetite in the Clark-led Labour Government for a return to the so-called “heavy-handed” regulations of the past. As the source of rational behaviour, the market was still considered uniquely capable of regulating itself. Tragically, it has taken the Pike River disaster to expose the fatal falsity of that belief.
Following the Royal Commission Report’s release, Labour leader, David Shearer, was asked if he thought the deregulatory pendulum had swung too far. Mr Shearer responded by saying that “the government needs to be much more hands on than it has been”.
It is to be hoped that these words reflect a genuine change of heart on Labour’s part, and that the next time they’re in office, Labour politicians will not hesitate to prevent the private sector’s “drive for production” (and profits) from pushing workers’ rights to effective workplace protection off the agenda.
Because if there’s “blood on the coal” at Pike River – Labour helped to put it there.
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, 9 November 2012.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Norman Kirk - In His Own Words

Working-Class Boy: In a vivid essay, bashed out on a typewriter in June 1972, Norman Kirk recalled his early life in the working-class Christchurch suburb of Linwood during the 1930s.
IN MY LAST POST I made reference to the passage David Grant read out at The Kirk Legacy seminar. Composed by Norman Kirk himself it astonished the audience not only with its content but also for its literary quality. I have since discovered that Mr Grant gleaned this extraordinary insight into “Big Norm’s” character and world-view from Margaret Hayward’s Diary of the Kirk Years. According to Ms Hayward the piece had been typed out on “the other typewriter” in the Leader of the Opposition’s office in June of 1972. “He didn’t stop to think or even hesitate over a word. When he finished he glanced through the two pages of typescript, altered a few words with his pen, handed it to me, said ‘That’s the start of our book’ and went back to the House. A few days later Ms Hayward attempted to return the typescript to her boss: “Today I tried to give it back to him but he told me I must keep it. ‘Whatever happens, this is for you,’ he said.”

IT WAS A SHORT STREET. Short and drab. There was no beauty. The corrugated ribs of the road stuck out through its thin skin of stones. Weary rows of drooping poles clutched sagging and fraying wires in blackened finger-tips. A sulking ooze lay in the bottom of the gutters.
Smoke-grimed houses stared vacantly through the half-shut eyes of drawn shades. Here and there a small flower struggled for life, an abandoned orphan among the clods and weeds.
The footpaths were never walked for pleasure. They led to school, to the shop; or for the lucky to work. Only for children was the road a pleasure. They played there not because they liked it, but because it was forbidden. It was not a bad street. It was not a good street. It did not lead somewhere. It led nowhere.
It did not brood. It had no character. Instead it conformed. The people were drab. The street was drab. The people were poor. The street was poor. It was there because it had to be. It had nowhere else to go. Neither did the people. It did not inspire. It was a sponge. It soaked up hope. And at night it counted its people like a warder counts his prisoners.
As a street it was not exceptional. There were hundreds like it. They criss-crossed and cut into unimaginative rectangles that filing cabinet of humanity – the working-class suburb. Each street garnished with the name of a duke, a poet, a land speculator of earlier times, a city father, a publican or some other nobility, bestowed in a moment of parochial statesmanship by a body that found it easier to name than number.
It was here in such smothering, dulling and joyless circumstances the working men and their families lived.
In these streets they begat children, acquired mortgages, landlords, illnesses, fought among themselves and with others, saw their children grow to be a mirror of themselves, and then weary of it all slipped quietly away almost unnoticed. They came into the world unknowing, when they went out they went unsung. When a house was left empty it quickly filled. The names changed, the people remained the same.
Sons followed their fathers into industry. Daughters their mothers into matrimony. Their station in life was preordained. Time passed in weeks. Monday was for washing. Friday was pay-day – if you worked. Saturday afternoon was for the back garden or the pub. Sunday was for silence – partly because the religious liked it that way, but mainly because the thought of another week was enough to intimidate even the hardiest soul.

As the sapling is bent – so grows the tree.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Dead-End Streets

Big Norm: Haunted by memories of the material and spiritual poverty which characterised the dead-end streets of the working-class Christchurch suburb of Linwood, where he was raised during the 1930s, Norman Kirk devoted his life to breaking the chains of socio-economic deprivation in New Zealand.
DAVID GRANT is one of those dogged miners of the past whose unceasing efforts are occasionally rewarded with an historical gem. Last Saturday, at a Fabian Society seminar entitled “The Kirk Legacy”, he shared one of them with the world.
Asked to present a paper on the early life of the Labour Party leader and prime minister, Norman Kirk (whose government was elected forty years ago this month) Mr Grant read aloud a short passage Kirk had written for an unfinished autobiography.
The 150-strong Auckland audience was astonished. Not simply because Kirk’s stark prose bears comparison with Hemingway and Steinbeck, but also for the glimpse his words offered into the mind of a working-class New Zealander recalling life in the Christchurch suburb of Linwood during the lean years of the 1930s.
In Kirk’s description of the short street where he lived one hears not just compassion but also a barely suppressed anger at its inhabitants’ truncated lives. Obvious, too, is Kirk’s desperation to escape the limiting effects of its material and spiritual poverty.
For Kirk was a highly intelligent man with a rare hunger for knowledge of every kind. In later life he would refer to his favourite books as “my patient friends”. That drab Linwood street, which had swallowed the lives of so many of his neighbours, would not claim him. But, equally, Linwood would never relinquish its hold over his imagination. It’s no exaggeration to say his life was dedicated to breaking Labour’s people out of such working-class prisons.
Perhaps this is what working-class New Zealanders sensed and loved about the man. That here before them was an emancipator; someone who had seen the size and richness of the world from which they were excluded. A political leader determined to win them entry.
So many of the contemporary Left romanticise poverty, imbuing it with mysterious moral power. Kirk despised such nonsense. In the brief passage Mr Grant read out (sorry, but you’ll have to wait for his book) this son of the Great Depression makes it very clear that there is nothing noble or pure about the experience of poverty – quite the opposite, in fact. Poverty deadens. It lowers horizons and empties its victims’ lives of hope. Poverty is the thief of dreams; the robber of dignity; an affront to the conscience. For Kirk, to be poor was to be trapped and shackled: forced to live on a dead-end street.
Another important contributor to the “Kirk Legacy” seminar was the political journalist, Colin James. Describing Kirk as “a political pivot between two eras”, he painted him as the harbinger of the big changes that would follow the election of the fourth Labour government in 1984.
It is certainly possible to see in Kirk’s dispatch of the frigate HMNZS Otago to observe the French atmospheric nuclear tests at Mururoa, and in his cancellation of the 1973 Springbok Tour, clear anticipations of the tumultuous and nationally defining moments of the 1980s. But it is wrong, I believe, to mould his features into some sort of crude Janus mask: one half smiling benignly on what Mr James calls “the apogee of social democracy” in the early-1970s; the other staring with prophetic intensity towards the brave new world of open minds – and markets – just beyond the decade’s horizon.
As Margaret Hayward, Kirk’s private secretary (and another contributor to the day-long seminar) revealed in her invaluable book Diary of the Kirk Years “Mr K” feared laissez-faire capitalism more than any other ideology. In his last speech to the Labour Party conference, writes Hayward, he warned delegates against too much social liberalism.
The permissive society, he said, was “just another way of saying ‘I can do what I like’ That would include not just the right to use marijuana but the right to exploit, to speculate, to put monetary gain above social duty.
“Some customs and laws might well have become irrelevant through the passage of time, but the permissive society, carried to its logical end, meant there was no law. ‘And if there is no law, the freedom of the permissive society is a trap and a prison for the weak in society.’”
Those Linwood memories never left him.
The great irony of the past forty years, of course, is that as our personal lives have become increasingly unconfined, our political options have narrowed dramatically.
Saturday’s seminar rose as one to welcome Sir Owen Woodhouse – principle architect of New Zealand’s world-beating system of accident compensation. But what chance would such a socially progressive scheme have in 2012? Who, today, would dare promote Kirk’s “Ohu” – communes on Crown Land!
Norman Kirk was a pivot, yes, but the turn that followed his tragic death in 1974 was from expansiveness towards constriction; from equality towards inequality; from the light towards the darkness.
Down a dead-end street.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 November 2012.