Tuesday 29 January 2013

The Greens Reach Out To Reach Up

Reaching Out To The 'New Majority': The Green's Metiria Turei is hoping that by inviting idealistic New Zealanders to join her party in advancing progressive causes they will, through the osmosis of engagement, be ready to assist the Greens in next year's election. Labour, by contrast, has circled the wagons against everyone except those belonging to what one Shearer advisor calls "The Real Labour Party".
THE REAL FIGHT is now on the Left. John Key’s government has begun descending the long slope that leads to electoral destruction – which only the most extraordinary events (think 9/11) can interrupt. Once political gravity has a government in its grip, the location of the really significant political battles shifts immediately to the territory of its opponents. This is what we see happening right now in the respective strategies of Labour and the Greens.
So far, the Greens are winning.
On Sunday, the Green Party co-leader, Metiria Turei, delivered her “State of the Planet” speech to picnickers gathered in the Tahaki Reserve on the slopes of Auckland’s Maungawhau/Mt Eden. At roughly the same time, 600 kilometres to the South, Labour’s David Shearer was addressing his party’s Summer School in Wainuiomata.
The overwhelming focus of Ms Turei’s speech was what she called “the new majority” and how the Green Party proposes to harness its decisive electoral power. This new initiative, “I’m in – for the future”, seeks to replicate in a New Zealand context the extraordinarily successful ‘get-out-the-vote’ initiatives perfected by Barack Obama’s campaign organisations in both 2008 and 2012.
One need not be a member of the Greens to participate in this new organising initiative. Road-tested in the campaign to secure a Citizens Initiated Referendum on the partial sale of the state’s energy generators, the goal of “I’m in – for the future” is to enlist activists around specific progressive issues and causes (like affordable housing) trusting that the Green Party message will be absorbed through the osmosis of engagement. Over three thousand “Asset Savers” – only 60 percent of whom were Green Party members when they signed on – have already been identified in this fashion.
The Greens hope to call on this newly-recruited activist base in 2014. By building up their numbers “on-the-ground”, the gap between the Greens’ nominal support (as measured by the pollsters) and the support actually received in the polling booths should be narrowed significantly. Even if “I’m in – for the future” only delivers a 1-2 percent boost in the Greens’ Party Vote, its overall impact on the outcome of the 2014 General Election could prove decisive.
Labour’s ability to “get-out-the-vote” – once the subject of political legend – is now a pallid shadow of its former prodigious grunt. With a steadily declining share of the Party Vote, Labour, too, must find a way of plugging into the energy of the New Majority. (Defined by Ms Turei as “the new consciousness of environmental issues, human rights, fairness and the need for good change.”)
Unfortunately for the people Labour purports to represent, the current disposition of political forces within the Labour Party makes this impossible. Ignoring the radically democratic message from delegates attending last year’s annual conference, David Shearer has circled the wagons against not only his own activist rank-and-file, but also the expectations of the broader labour movement.
The Labour Leader’s inner circle of advisors is distinguished neither by intellectual creativity nor operational dynamism. Far from reaching-out to activists and supporters outside the party’s structures, most of the Shearer Camp’s energies appear to be devoted to finding new ways of insulting and excluding them from policy-making. Like the unlamented Stalinists of the old Socialist Unity Party, Mr Shearer’s backers would rather keep control of the losing side – than lose control of the winning side.
State Of The Nation: David Shearer's speech to Labour's Summer School was a leaden rehearsal of policy announcements already months old.
Mr Shearer’s speech to the Labour Party Summer School at Wainuiomata show-cased every one of these weaknesses. A leaden rehearsal of policy announcements already months old, written in exactly the same unconvincing and uninspiring style as every other speech he has delivered since becoming leader (at the very least you’d think Mr Shearer might have found a better speech-writer!) the address possessed only one notable line:
“A tide for change is building.”
These words, at least, ring true. The tragedy, however, is that Labour’s response to this tide's surge and pull is a cautious collection of technocratic adjustments to the status quo. A Capital Gains Tax. Raising the age of eligibility for NZ Super. Employer subsidies and youth training schemes. Fussing about with the Reserve Bank Act. Even Labour’s policy centrepiece – the KiwiBuild scheme – is little more than a gigantic PPP scheme targeted at the restive children of the middle class. It took the Greens to come up with a housing policy specifically designed for Kiwis without homes.
Given their head, the Labour Party’s rank-and-file would give the Greens a serious run for their money in the progressive policy stakes. Unfortunately, the only interest Mr Shearer has in his rank-and-file’s head is in it being presented to him on a platter. And if the cautious coterie of centrists advising Mr Shearer have little time for their own members, they have none at all for progressives outside the party.
The Greens, by reaching-out, are reaching-up.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 January 2013.

Friday 25 January 2013

Doing Something: Obama's Second Inaugural Address

"We, The People": Unburdened by the compromising calculations of re-election, President Barack Obama, in his second inaugural address, challenged his fellow American's to fully realise the clear democratic purpose of those first three words of the United States' Constitution.
“WHY DON’T you guys do something?” Those were the words that sparked the Gay Liberation Movement.
It was the summer of 1969 and in New York City’s Greenwich Village there was, to quote Bob Dylan, “music in the caf├ęs at night and revolution in the air”. When the New York Police Department raided the mafia-owned Stonewall Inn, a favourite haunt of the Village’s gay community, on Saturday 28 June, trouble was not expected – and yet, trouble came.
A young lesbian woman, beaten and manhandled by the NYPD’s finest, challenged the swelling crowd of gay street kids and transvestites to “do something” and all their pent-up frustration and rage at the petty humiliations routinely inflicted by the authorities spontaneously erupted into a series of riotous protests that were not finally brought under control until nearly 72 hours later.
It is a measure of the sea-change in American politics that, on Tuesday morning, the re-elected President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, included the Stonewall Riots among the seminal moments in the history of the struggle for gender, racial and sexual equality in America.
To the nearly one million people gathered in the Washington Mall to witness the second inauguration of America’s first black president, Mr Obama declared:
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
Many gay Americans must have wondered if their ears deceived them. Could their President really be saying that the Stonewall riots belonged alongside the world’s first women’s convention, held in the little upstate New York town of Seneca Falls on 19-20 July 1848? The gathering which gave the world a ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ signalling the birth of Feminism and the long struggle for women’s rights? Yes he was. Nor were the billy-clubs that battered the patrons of the Stonewall Inn to be in any way distinguished from the billy-clubs that battered Dr Martin Luther King and the hundreds of black civil-rights marchers he led into Selma, Alabama, on 7 March 1965. They were all instruments of oppression: instruments to be overcome.
Could the man standing on the Capitol steps really have said such things? Yes he could. And he said more – much more:
“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
"Why Don't You Guys Do Something?" The gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn confront the New York City Police. Greenwich Village, NY, NY. Saturday, 28 June 1969.
In the same week that the head of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, Garth McVicar, asserted that Gay Marriage would lead to an increase in New Zealand’s crime-rate, President Obama’s words are not only timely, but inspirational.
They give notice to all those who, like Mr McVicar, regard the great struggles for human equality and freedom not as markers of humanity’s progress towards the unconditional love Christ commanded, but as harbingers of Western Society’s imminent collapse, that the crippling social conservatism of the past thirty years is at an end.
The “Rainbow Coalition” that Mr Obama has woven out of Blacks, Hispanics, Working Women, Trade Unionists, Gays and Youth: those Americans whom the Republican Right has worked so hard to marginalise and exclude; now have a President who is not only ready but eager to imbue those first three words of the United States’ Constitution – “We, the People” – with all the democratic purpose America’s Founding Fathers intended.
Radio New Zealand–National’s Morning Report characterised President Obama’s second inaugural address as a call for unity in a bitterly divided America. It is far from being that. In his own way, President Obama is also asking: “Why don’t you guys do something?”
The American Revolution, begun in “a spare Philadelphia hall”, continues.
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, 25 January 2013.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Party-Wide Vote No Guarantee Of Shearer (Or Cunliffe) Victory

Reading The Signs: An early leadership vote in Labour's new Electoral College poses as many political risks for David Shearer as it does for David Cunliffe. It would be cruelly ironic if the two leading contenders were to beat themselves to death for the benefit of a third - Grant Robertson.
AS FEBRUARY’S scheduled leadership ballot looms, Labour Leader, David Shearer, and his rival, David Cunliffe, have some tough strategic decisions to make.
Since last November’s Annual Conference and its controversial aftermath many Labour members have demanded that the February vote be transferred from Caucus to the party’s newly-established Electoral College. Only in this way, they argue, can the sins of David Shearer and his minions be washed away. The unspoken assumption behind these dissidents’ demands is that the Electoral College will return not Mr Shearer but Mr Cunliffe as Labour’s leader.
Now we learn from the pseudonymous “Eddie”, writing at “The Standard” – New Zealand’s third-largest and Labour-leaning blogsite – that Mr Shearer may be preparing to call Mr Cunliffe’s supporters’ bluff by giving them the Electoral College vote they’ve been clamouring for.
Though indisputably a bold and potentially game-changing move, Mr Shearer cannot be unaware of the many and serious strategic and tactical risks associated with this course of action.
The most obvious risk is that once an Electoral College vote is arranged the likelihood of the contest being limited to just two candidates is extremely remote. Once the process is set in motion, Mr Shearer’s supporters have no way of preventing Grant Robertson or Andrew Little from adding their names to the ballot paper. Should that happen the political calculations immediately become much more complex.
Labour’s new Electoral College is required to tally the votes cast by the Parliamentary Caucus, Ordinary Members and Trade Union Affiliates and then re-calculate the results so that the votes of the Caucus account for 40 percent of the total, Ordinary Members 40 percent, and Affiliates 20 percent. Whether the contest will be decided on the basis of a simple plurality of the votes cast, or according to some form of preferential voting system, is not yet clear.
If it’s the former, then the margin separating Mr Shearer and Mr Cunliffe is likely to be very narrow. But if some form of preferential system is employed, then neither Mr Shearer nor Mr Cunliffe is assured of victory. Supporters of the principal contenders are most unlikely to put their candidate’s rival anywhere but last on their list of preferences. Mr Shearer and Mr Cunliffe could thus face early elimination, leaving the field to Mr Robertson and Mr Little. The smart money in that fight would be on Mr Robertson.
Demanding the leadership question be decided by the Electoral College in February 2013 is, therefore, the worst possible move Mr Cunliffe’s supporters could make. Because even if he emerged victorious from the calculations of the Electoral College, Mr Cunliffe’s problems would be far from over.
His greatest challenge would lie in persuading those colleagues who have repeatedly demonstrated a quite irrational animosity towards the New Lynn MP’s leadership ambitions to swing in behind the Electoral College’s choice. If their past actions are any guide, the “Anybody But Cunliffe” faction would immediately set about undermining Mr Cunliffe’s position. Secret caucus debates would be repeated verbatim to favoured members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and senior Labour MPs would not shrink from vicious public criticism of their leader’s favoured policies.
Such a public display of political disunity would very quickly reduce Labour to a laughing-stock. Subjected to unrelenting media criticism and with its poll numbers collapsing the Cunliffe-led Opposition would be judged to have very little to offer the electorate.
Labour’s leadership, secured too early, is, therefore, much more likely to destroy, rather than enhance, Mr Cunliffe’s chances of becoming Prime Minister. The gift they are most anxious to bestow is, paradoxically, the gift Mr Cunliffe’s followers should, for the time being at least, withhold.
Mr Shearer, too, should think very carefully before confirming “Eddie’s” rumour. It was, after all, the same pseudonymous writer who kicked off all the discussion about Mr Shearer’s leadership deficiencies immediately prior to last year’s Conference. That discussion, which suddenly (and without justification) morphed into the media-driven accusation that Mr Cunliffe was mounting a leadership challenge led, in turn, to his savage relegation to the back-benches.
I have learned that at about the same time as “Eddie” was mounting his first assault against Mr Shearer, a representative of at least one of the trade union affiliates was sounding-out fellow unionists’ opinions of a Robertson candidacy. (It is important to note here that Mr Robertson emphatically denies any involvement in, or knowledge of, such soundings.)
Now “Eddie” is at it again. Were Mr Shearer to allow himself to be goaded into an early vote in the Electoral College it is possible – indeed it is quite likely – that both he and his most serious rival, Mr Cunliffe, could find themselves manoeuvred out of contention.
It would be cruelly ironic if Mr Shearer and Mr Cunliffe were to beat each other to death – for the benefit of Mr Robertson.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 January 2013.

Friday 18 January 2013

Australia's Coolies

Second-Class Non-Citizens: Australia's and New Zealand's Nineteenth Century immigration policies discriminated viciously against the Chinese, denying them the same political, economic and social rights as those enjoyed by their workmates and neighbours. In the Twenty-First Century, Kiwis seem to have replaced the Chinese as Australia's second-class non-citizens - to the ultimate advantage of New Zealand's employing class.

WE HAVE BECOME Australia’s coolies. Openly discriminated against by state and federal authorities, New Zealanders and their children are officially denied the same social and political rights as their Australian neighbours and workmates. Nearly half-a-million Kiwis living in Australia are subjected to taxation without representation – the same injustice against which Americans rose in revolt in 1776. But so downtrodden and spiritless have we become that every year more than 40,000 of us voluntarily submit to the same sort of racist restrictions our government once imposed on Chinese immigrants.
Why are so many New Zealanders willing to endure such naked discrimination? And why has their government been so abject, so supine, so utterly useless at defending their rights?
The answers have much to do with the relative strength of the New Zealand and Australian economies. Overwhelmingly, those boarding the airliners for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth are economic migrants. Australian wages are between thirty and fifty percent higher than those paid for similar work in New Zealand – in some trades and professions twice as high. For scores of thousands of under-employed and under-paid Kiwis, the lure of a decent pay-packet is simply irresistible.
But economics is not the whole explanation for the huge numbers emigrating to Australia. People do not abandon their homelands lightly. To leave behind family, friends, colleagues and all the familiar and reassuring geography of hearth and home one must be driven by factors of equal or even greater emotional force. Fear, shame, resentment, greed and lust will drive people across borders; but so, too, will the conviction that their homeland is not only unable to offer them and their loved ones a life worth living, but also that, really, it doesn’t care.
The creation of such a deadly malaise is never attributable solely to the failings of those in authority. Our rulers remain in place because we are content to leave them there. So, while governments may be the immediate cause of the deep disillusionment that drives citizens from their shores, there must also be a significant portion of the population which is, if not gratified, then at least untroubled, by their departure.
In New Zealand’s case the culprits are not hard to find. One has only to identify the class of citizens who have gained the most from the economic and social settings driving so many of their compatriots across the Tasman. Overwhelmingly, it is the employing class which is most untroubled – even gratified – by the level of emigration.
Changes to employment law dating back to 1991 began the uncoupling of New Zealand and Australian wage rates. The steady reduction of the social wage paid to New Zealanders in the form of state-funded health, education and housing services, which had begun ten years earlier with tax and spending cuts, was thus rendered even more destructive. Other economic “reforms” led to the wholesale deindustrialisation of New Zealand and a dramatic rise in structural unemployment. The social and political consequences of these changes were devastating, but without the safety-valve of emigration to Australia they would also have been unsustainable.
Had Kiwis not been able to escape across the ditch, unemployment levels in New Zealand would have generated an electoral backlash of sufficient force to undo the neoliberal “reforms” from which employers had gained so much economic, social and political power. But, with neither of the major political parties willing to incur the wrath of the employing class (just a little of whose power the Clark-led Labour-Alliance Government experienced in the  “Winter of Discontent” of 2000) the changes required to convince New Zealanders that their government was, indeed, committed to helping them make a better life for themselves were never introduced.
And so the exodus continues. To paraphrase King Richard II’s contemptuous response to the defeated remnants of the Peasants Revolt of 1381: “Coolies we are, and coolies we shall remain.”*
Until such time as we find the courage to build again a nation worth loving – not leaving.

* When the vanquished rebels enquired of their King whether his promise to abolish villeinage (serfdom) still held, he replied: "Villeins ye are still, and villeins ye shall remain."
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, 18 January 2013.

Tuesday 15 January 2013


"Government of the people, by the people, for the people." : Saviour of the Union; Emanicpator of the Slaves; and tutelary deity of the American Republic: Abraham Lincoln.

LINCOLN WILL BE HERE in eleven days. Already over twenty million Americans have seen Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed movie. Critics report audiences rendered mute by a combination of reverence and awe. Amidst all the tribulations occasioned by a faltering economy and an increasingly rancorous society, Americans are taking time out to be reminded that the American republic still stands as humanity’s most remarkable experiment.
The rest of the world may laugh at America’s excess and sneer at her lack of sophistication but the truth remains that the American republic is an enterprise imbued with the highest moral purpose. Abraham Lincoln understood this better than any other American President.
On his way to dedicate the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg on 19 November 1863, Lincoln jotted down the 271 words that still stand as not only his greatest speech but also the most succinct encapsulation of the democratic impulse ever penned. Resonant with the rhetorical power of Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible (large tracts of which Lincoln had committed to memory) his Gettysburg Address effortlessly mixes the universal and particular aspects of the struggle in which Americans were then engaged.
He begins by directly linking the conflict whose victims they had gathered to commemorate with the ideals of the American Revolution of 1776.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
With characteristic humility, Lincoln then turns to the men whose deaths have transformed that purely speculative test into something approaching a blood pact: not only with those who began the American enterprise, but also with those future generations of Americans whose task it would be to preserve and extend it.
In what must surely rank as one of the great perorations of American oratory, Lincoln then concluded his address with these simple, but unforgettable, words:
“[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
It is easy to forget that when Lincoln’s revolutionary formula was proclaimed over Gettysburg’s blood-soaked battlefield, the United States of America stood alone as the only nation among all the empires and kingdoms of the Earth that was even rhetorically committed to the democratic ideal. The aristocratic oligarchy which ruled Britain (and would have recognised the slave-owning Confederacy had the Battle of Gettysburg gone the other way) had, under great political pressure, consented to enfranchise its middle class in 1832. Full manhood suffrage would not be achieved in the United Kingdom until 1918. In Democracy’s second home, France, Napoleon’s nephew had proclaimed an authoritarian “Second Empire”.
Lincoln understood that a Confederate victory would re-admit British and French imperialism (Napoleon III was already eyeing Mexico) to the North American continent. How long a savagely truncated USA, hemmed in by unfriendly competitors to the north and south, could have preserved its democratic institutions is one of history’s imponderables. One cannot, however, escape the conclusion that the sentiments expressed by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address were those of a man who understood that what was a stake in the American Civil War was nothing less than the completion of the American Revolution or, if the Union’s arms failed, its eventual repudiation.

 Heroic Role: Daniel Day Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg's acclaimed movie.
Spielberg’s movie takes as its subject the final months of Lincoln’s presidency, during which he cajoles, inveigles and just plain threatens Congress into embracing a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. It’s a brutal but ultimately inspiring depiction of politics as it is played by politicians who still believe that great things are possible when men are encouraged to heed what Lincoln called “the better angels” of their nature.
Perhaps this explains the peculiarly serious mood in which Americans are viewing Spielberg’s vivid recreation of Lincoln’s presidency. As if the cinematic amplification of America’s revolutionary history and its revelation of the scale of the moral objectives pursued by its protagonists has provided welcome confirmation that human-beings, flawed though they be, may yet contrive to realise in their earthly institutions the uncompromising injunctions of Heaven.
Those revolutionary echoes were always going to be strengthened by Barack Obama’s presidency, and his re-election has only given them an additional boost in volume. Slavery and inequality were ever the serpent in America’s Eden. Lincoln knew it and by the sheer force of his will and the prodigious quality of his political talent he inspired his fellow Americans to ensure that neither would find permanent refuge in the garden of the Great Republic.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 January 2013.

Monday 14 January 2013

Indisputable Mandate

Key Policy: In 2011 Labour made opposition to a partial sale of the state's energy assets the centerpiece of its election campaign. National's long-signalled privatisation plans were thus thrown into sharp electoral focus. Significantly, the final result put Labour 20 percentage points behind National. With nearly 50 percent of the votes cast, Mr Key's Government not surprisingly claimed a strong mandate to proceed with its sales programme.

THE TARGET of 310,000 signatures has been reached – or so we are told. The coalition of interest groups and political parties seeking a Citizens’ Initiated Referendum (CIR) on the National Government’s plans to partially privatise the state-owned energy generators has yet to submit its petition to the Clerk of the House for checking. But even if this final hurdle is cleared, the petitioners will still have to find their way around a much more daunting obstacle: the Government’s mandate.
That the Government has a mandate to sell-off 49 percent of Mighty River Power, Genesis, Meridian and Solid Energy is hotly contested by the four organisations petitioning for a CIR. Grey Power, The NZ Council of Trade Unions, The Labour Party and The Greens all deny the legitimacy of the Government claiming a specific electoral mandate for its partial privatisation programme. According to the petitioners’, the voters have (at best) given the National-led Government a general mandate. To claim a specific mandate, they say, it must first ask the electorate a specific question – hence the need for a referendum.
This argument would carry more weight if the National Party’s principal challenger in the 2011 General Election – the Labour Party – hadn’t itself specified National’s privatisation plans as the best reason for voting it out of office. “Stop Asset Sales” was the Labour Party’s most coherent slogan in 2011. That only 27.4 percent of the voters were prepared to back its flagship policy with their ballots strongly suggests that privatisation was not the electoral game-changer Labour’s focus-groups had suggested.
The Greens’ were much less willing than Labour to give the privatisation issue such critical electoral salience. They promised New Zealanders “a richer future” of which the retention of state assets was certainly an important (but not an essential) feature. How, then, can the Greens argue that National’s claim to a specific electoral mandate is illegitimate when their own policy pitch was so general? If National isn’t entitled to claim a specific mandate for asset sales, then, by the same logic, the Greens cannot claim one against them.
The same applies to all the other political parties offering manifestoes in which, inter alia, the Government’s plans to partially privatise the State’s energy companies were opposed. It’s simply not fair to aggregate the Greens 11.6 percent, NZ First’s 6.5 percent, the Maori Party’s 1.4 percent, Mana’s 1.0 and the Conservative Party’s 2.6 percent of the Party Vote with Labour’s 27.4 percent to claim a minimum anti-asset sales bloc of 50.5 percent. Opposition to asset sales was not deemed important enough to preclude a confidence and supply agreement between National and the Maori Party. Nor would it have been had the Conservatives managed to cross the 5 percent threshold.
National, of course, has no need to aggregate percentages for its partial privatisation programme as desperately as its opponents. With 47.3 percent of the Party Vote, the governing party came within an ace of securing an absolute majority of the votes cast. It would have been an outstanding tally even under the old First-Past-the-Post electoral system, but coming within 2.8 percent of an outright majority under our Mixed-Member-Proportional system was close to miraculous. Any political party racking up such a total is entitled to claim a very strong electoral mandate for all its policies.
National’s claim to a specific mandate for its asset sales programme is, accordingly, very strong. The policy was announced nearly a year prior to the election and was subjected to the intense scrutiny of not only the parliamentary opposition, but also the news media and a broad cross-section of civil society. The 2011 election was no 1980s or 1990s exercise in duplicity and fraud: the public understood that a vote for National was a vote to privatise 49 percent of Solid Energy, Meridian, Genesis and Mighty River Power. Nearly half of them voted for the Government anyway. If Prime Minister John Key’s government doesn’t have a mandate to proceed with its privatisation policy, then the word no longer has any political meaning.
New Zealand’s representative system of government entrusts the administration of the nation to the political party, or parties, which alone, or in combination, command a majority in the House of Representatives. National and its allies played by these rules – and won. Their performance referendum is scheduled for 2014 – and it’s binding.
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, 11 January 2013.

Thursday 10 January 2013

Behind The Mask: Who's Backing David Shearer - And Why?

What Lies Beneath? The most plausible explanation for David Shearer's incoherence as a political leader is that he is masking his true - neoliberal - beliefs. The right-wing character of his political and media support only reinforces this disturbing conclusion.
READ A FEW PARAGRAPHS of David Shearer’s Foreign Affairs article “Outsourcing War” aloud, then ask yourself this question: “How could the man who currently leads the New Zealand Labour Party possibly have written that?”
I’d only been reading the article for a few minutes when I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise in alarm. I put the journal down and took a deep breath. Could the article’s author really be the same man I’d shared a few beers with in a Kingsland pub earlier in the year? Whoever had written that article possessed a flair for clear and compelling language and a solid grasp of world history. Most of all, the author of “Outsourcing War” was a skilled advocate who could, and was, making a strong case for the use of private armies.
The man I’d been drinking with in that Kingsland pub did not appear to possess any of those talents. He came across as a typical, inarticulate Kiwi bloke for whom clear and compelling English would always be a second language. His grasp of the history of his own party (let alone the wider world) was weak; his powers of persuasion negligible.
Most of us will readily identify the man in the Kingsland pub as David Shearer. The questions only begin to pile up when we try to match New Zealand’s inarticulate and essentially unpersuasive Leader of the Opposition with the writer who’d successfully tackled what was, in 1998, one of the most controversial propositions in international relations: That private security contractors had a better chance of ending low intensity conflicts than the regular military forces of nation states.
Now it is true that some people can write a great deal more persuasively than they can speak. The late Bruce Jesson was a poor orator but an outstanding writer. No matter how badly he mumbled it from the lectern his political analysis was formidable. What, then, prevents Shearer’s speeches (even his well-rehearsed and teleprompted address to the Labour Party Conference) achieving the power of “Outsourcing War”?
What has become of the audacity and passion of the international aid administrator who penned that extraordinary article? The person who wrote “Outsourcing War” was a policy innovator; a seeker after radical solutions; an iconoclast willing to take a sledgehammer to prevailing orthodoxies. More than this, he was someone who meticulously marshalled his evidence and then buttressed it with rigorous political and economic analysis.
But very little of this radicalism and even less of the rigorous analysis has been evident in David Shearer’s parliamentary career. Indeed, it is hard to recall a more docile back-bencher. As Leader of the Opposition, however, Shearer has not been able to avoid giving the New Zealand public at least an introductory glimpse of the sort of politics he admires. Hence the Esko Aho speech of 15 March 2012, in which he drew New Zealanders attention to the controversial career of the former Finnish prime minister.
The former Finnish Prime Minister, Esko Aho, largely untested, came into office in 1991. He was almost immediately faced with a banking crisis. Jobs were disappearing. Its stock market was tanking. Its future was hugely doubtful. Aho’s message to the Finnish people was blunt and honest: They had big problems. No-one else was going to fix them.
For New Zealanders, meeting big challenges with big solutions is a familiar political meme. And those of us who lived through it tend to have pretty strong views on what political journalist, Colin James, described as the “Big Change” of David Lange’s fourth Labour government. Shearer, however, has maintained a dogged silence on the economic transformations of the mid-1980s. His admiration of Aho suggests that this reticence regarding Rogernomics is because, back in the 80s, David Shearer was a fan of Roger Douglas – not a foe.
His celebration of the Finnish PMs career is, in this context, highly significant. Aho, like Douglas, conforms in nearly every respect to what the political scientist, Geoffrey Debnam, calls a “policy aggressor”.
Policy Aggressor Par Excellance: Roger Douglas realised that the risks of introducing radical change had, by the mid-1980s, become less than those associated with attempting to maintain a failing system.
Well-placed within the ranks of a disciplined party, the policy aggressor is “prepared to act decisively and is strategically located to have a significant impact on public policy.” In Aho’s case the opportunity for an aggressive restructuring of the Finnish economy came with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union – Finland’s largest trading partner. At the cost of severe domestic dislocation, and against the wishes of his own party and its rural support-base, Aho led Finland into the European Union.
As Shearer, himself, noted in his speech:
Aho made bold decisions. He was, I need to say, voted out at the next election. He thought it was more important to make a difference than to get re-elected. Though our prescription might differ, we could all take a lesson from that.
According to Debnam, “only those least likely to be rewarded under normal party conditions will risk the possibility of party collapse. It is, thus, extremists who are given a tactical advantage because these are the people who are least likely to pay the cost of conflict.” This is a pretty accurate description of Douglas who was only prevented from abandoning the Labour Party by Lange’s promise to make him Finance Minister.
In his 1990 paper  “Adversary Politics in New Zealand: Climate of Stress and Policy Aggressors” published in The Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics (Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, March 1990) Debnam sets forth the preconditions for successful policy aggression.
The process begins when a lengthy period of economic buoyancy comes to a close in conditions of significant economic dislocation, initiating what the pioneering political scientist, Samuel Finer, dubbed a “climate of stress”. Initially, political parties respond to the developing crisis by applying traditional formulae. But, as recourse to tried and true methods of restoring economic stability bring ever-diminishing returns, the electorate increasingly moves towards new and untried ideologies and/or parties. The resulting political instability only intensifies the crisis.
“Eventually”, writes Debnam, “one party will decide that the risks associated with advocating radical change are less than those in maintaining a failing system. A distinctive image will be pursued via ideological or visionary appeals. If that is successful, a new stability may be achieved around a new set of values that will form the basis of a new consensus.”
Debnam was, of course, describing the sequence of political events which led up to the unleashing of “Rogernomics” in the mid-1980s. It is, however, possible to discern in the 2008-09 collapse of global prosperity amidst multiple and linked financial crises the initiation of a new climate of stress leading inevitably to yet another period of radical political, economic and social change.
David Shearer clearly sees himself as New Zealand’s next big policy aggressor: the “anti-politician” who considers it more important to make a difference than to get re-elected. In this respect, at least, the current Labour leader and the author of “Outsourcing War” evince an unmistakeable congruence of character.
Why then is Shearer so woefully tongue-tied when it comes to making the necessary “ideological or visionary appeal”. Why don’t his speeches resonate with the boldness and iconoclasm of “Outsourcing War”?
The only sensible answer is: “Because his ‘solutions’ to the crisis are merely crude reiterations of the same tried and true methods which, in the hands of the incumbent government, have already demonstrably failed to bring the crisis to an end.”
Introducing the efficiencies of the marketplace to the business of international peace-making undoubtedly had a radical ring to it in the mid-1990s, but in 2013 it just sounds like more of the same old market madness. There is, moreover, a world of difference between penning articles for the International Institute for Strategic Studies and drafting a party manifesto. Were Shearer to openly declare his intention of becoming a “hands on” neoliberal policy aggressor, eager to deploy all the powers of the state to bulldoze new pathways for advancing market power, the Labour Party membership would rise up in angry revolt. Small wonder, then, that Shearer stumbles and mumbles: all of his mental energy is devoted to masking rather than revealing his true intentions.
Ideological mummery is also the key distinguishing feature of Shearer’s principal backers in the Labour Caucus. Phil Goff, Annette King and Trevor Mallard all dipped their paper cups into the neoliberal Kool-Aid in the 80s and none of them have ever publicly recanted (let alone repented) their supporting roles in Roger Douglas’s Economic Salvation Show. They no longer defend (at least not publicly) Rogernomics’ legacy, but behind their hands they dismiss its critics as “paleosocialists” who simply don’t understand how the world works.
What all of them fail to grasp, however, is that the current climate of stress is being generated by the failure of neoliberal ideology (just as the climate of stress of the late-1970s and early-80s was caused by the failure of Keynesianism). To talk about a neoliberal policy aggressor in 2013 is, therefore, oxymoronic. The next genuine policy aggressor will be a politician possessing both the courage and the imagination to go beyond the maintenance of a discredited orthodoxy – someone willing to forge a new political, economic and social consensus.
Policy Aggression From The Left: David Cunliffe is seen by many people inside and outside of the Labour Party as the politican best placed to forge a new political, economic and social consensus.
That David Cunliffe is seen by many both inside and outside the Labour Party as the politician most capable of forging such a consensus largely explains the extreme viciousness of his recent treatment. That left-wing policy aggressors are greeted with much more hostility than their right-wing counterparts is, however, to be expected. The latter’s intention is to shore up the defences of capitalism, while the former hopes to rescue and empower its victims. The arbiters of political acceptability in the business community, the state bureaucracy and the corporate news media will thus move decisively to forestall even the slightest hint of policy aggression from the Left.
Hence the near unanimous hatred directed at Cunliffe by the mouthpieces of the neoliberal establishment. Fran O’Sullivan, Jane Clifton and Matthew Hooton have gone to extraordinary lengths to besmirch Cunliffe’s character and ridicule his ideas. In a pincer movement with Shearer’s caucus allies they have attempted to cast the Member for New Lynn as a sly, egomaniacal (if ultimately inept) Cassius, plotting constantly to bring down Labour’s sensible Caesar.
At least the motives of these Shearer supporters are clear. Should the National Party be voted out of office, they are now reasonably confident that his replacement will not only leave the neoliberal settlement intact, but that he may also, with Esko Aho’s example set firmly before him, seek to extend it into the spheres of welfare, health, housing and education. It will not have escaped their attention that Labour’s “Affordable Housing Plan” is really just a glorified PPP on behalf of the professional middle-class.
Much harder to fathom is the self-defeating hostility of Labour MPs who were, until last year’s party conference, considered to be on the left of the caucus. One might have thought that Phil Twyford, Clare Curran, Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little would have welcomed the opportunity to travel in the slip-stream of an ambitious left-wing policy aggressor. After all, the best chance a left-wing Labour MP has of “making a difference” is surely when the massive tensions built up under a climate of stress are suddenly released in a torrent of radical reform.
But the scope for far-reaching change in a government dominated by Shearer and his neoliberal allies will only be extended to the Right. That being the case, the prognosis for those who entered Parliament with honest left-wing intentions is grim. Promotion to Cabinet will depend not only on making ritual obeisance to Shearer and his clique, but also, following the tragic precedent of the Rogernomics Era, on abandoning their former social-democratic ideals. Such self-inflicted injuries to the soul do not heal quickly.
That so many people who consider themselves left-wingers cannot see where a Shearer-led Labour Party will take New Zealand is baffling. “Outsourcing War”, alone, should warn them just how far to the right Shearer is content to position himself when his behaviour is not constrained by the role of Labour’s leader. His hero-worship of Esko Aho; the quips about beneficiaries and teachers; his rejection of the Left/Right political divide; the half-hearted support he offered to the Maritime Union during the Ports of Auckland dispute: all of these signs point in one direction only. And yet, even the trade unions continue to back what they obviously (and cynically?) believe to be the winning team. It is only after the votes have been counted, and David Shearer’s performance-hindering disguises are triumphantly cast aside, that they will realise, exactly, what they have “won”.
To paraphrase Murray Ball’s superb quip about the backers of the old FPP electoral system: If you want a good reason for opposing David Shearer – just take a look at the people supporting him.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Spooks In The Spotlight

Permanent Interests: Elected politicians come and go; political parties move backwards and forwards between the Treasury and the Opposition benches; the news media reports, critiques and, very occasionally, exposes the actions of the powerful; but the Permanent Government endures - and its servants are almost never held accountable for their actions.
WILL THE GOVERNMENT Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) end up in the dock? Is it really possible that senior GCSB officers will be required to give evidence in the Kim Dotcom Case? The answer is: “probably not.” The maintenance of state security is arguably the most important function a government has. It is, therefore, extremely unlikely that anyone will sanction publicly exposing the blurred lines of authority, legality and accountability so basic to effective state security.
Though it is nowhere clearly spelt out, it is nevertheless firmly believed by those who inhabit them that the vital institutions of a fully-functional modern state: the professional civil service; the Armed Forces and Police; the Judiciary; senior local government officials; constitute the “Permanent Government” of the Realm.
Elected politicians come and go; political parties move backwards and forwards between the Treasury and the Opposition benches; the news media reports, critiques and, very occasionally, exposes the actions of the powerful; but the Permanent Government endures. Over the centuries, it has been forced to concede a number of important roles to the people’s elected representatives, but obstructing the duties of the Permanent Government isn’t one of them.
The Kim Dotcom Case is unusual because the conduct of the Permanent Government is being disrupted by one of its own – the Judiciary. While there are many examples of politicians frustrated by the actions of a security apparatus only notionally under their control, it is rare to see the “spooks” brought to heel by lawyers and judges. So rare, in fact, that it raises the possibility that Kim Dotcom and his legal team have unleashed some kind of rogue judicial energy. It has already seriously embarrassed the Prime Minister and his National Party Government, and now threatens to compromise the operational reliability of the GCSB.
This is no small matter. New Zealand’s signals intelligence operation is inextricably bound up with those of the four other Anglo-Saxon powers: the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia. It is barely conceivable that the global security reach of these “Five Eyes” might be compromised by some arcane dispute over the intellectual property rights of the American film and music industries.
Even more unlikely is the prospect that the FBI – a principal player in the Dotcom Saga – will meekly submit to the orders of a New Zealand High Court Judge (or even our Supreme Court). The FBI may include the entire planet in its jurisdiction, and consider every Western police force to be an extension of the already very long arm of American law enforcement, but, when it comes to external scrutiny of its own investigations, the FBI answers solely to the Attorney-General of the United States.
The most likely outcome of the Dotcom Saga, therefore,  is that, somehow, the case will be made to disappear. Somewhere – both here in New Zealand and (hopefully) in the United States – a collection of wise old heads will be reviewing the succession of public relations, political and security disasters which followed the spectacular arrest of Mr Dotcom in January 2012 and asking how many more disasters it’s going to take before someone in authority locates the “Off” switch.
The whole extraordinary story calls to mind a knitted jersey with a loose thread. The garment which once comfortably covered the naked power of the Permanent Government has, thanks to Mr Dotcom’s legal team, unravelled to the point where all manner of formerly hidden things are now on clear display.
Before the arrest of Mr Dotcom how many New Zealanders were aware that the GCSB regularly co-operated with the New Zealand Police by intercepting the cell-phone and e-mail messages of their fellow citizens?
Who among us was aware that it was within the power of our Prime Minister to sign a document suppressing any and all references to the GCSB in a New Zealand court of law? When was that extraordinarily undemocratic and dangerous power conferred upon a politician?
Did anyone suspect that the FBI in Washington had only to pick up the phone to the New Zealand Commissioner of Police to set in motion a full-scale armed assault on the property of a man accused of nothing more sinister than copyright violation?
And, how many Americans would have believed that a handful of irritated movie moguls and record producers could activate the enormously complex and expensive machinery of the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA and the FBI for no better purpose than to scratch a longstanding commercial itch?
Is it really all that likely that this litany of embarrassing revelations is going to be lengthened by the FBI handing over its evidence to Mr Dotcom’s lawyers? Or that one of this country’s most distinguished Queen’s Counsels is going to be unleashed on our top spooks?
I don’t think so.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 January 2013.

Friday 4 January 2013

A Short-Lived Illusion: Assessing The Impact Of The Maori Party

Sometime A Great Notion: The fate of the Maori Party offers stark confirmation that ethnic identity, alone, offers an insufficient foundation for enduring electoral success.

THE SWING VOTE. With the formation of the Maori Party in 2004 many Maori looked forward to wielding a permanent “balance of power” over New Zealand politics. With the Maori birth-rate considerably higher than the Pakeha, the wisdom of enrolling on the Maori Roll was thought to be obvious: a demographic guarantee of many more Maori seats. The Maori Vote, overwhelmingly loyal to the Maori Party, would thus become the decisive factor. Neither National nor Labour would be able to govern without its support. The potential for advancing Maori interests seemed limitless.
Eight years later, the political prospects for Maori have significantly diminished. The Maori Party is a dwindling political force, riven by personal jealousies and ideological confusion, and likely to lose at least two (and quite possibly all) of the three Maori Seats it currently holds in 2014.
The two parties most likely to pick up the seats of Te Tai Hauauru, Tamaki Makaurau and Waiariki: Labour and Mana; are both positioned on the left of the political spectrum, making them ideological non-starters as potential National Party allies. The Maori Party vision of constituting a permanent, ideologically agnostic, component within all future coalition governments has vanished. The Maori Swing Vote, it turns out, was a short-lived illusion. Why?
The answer lies in the misapprehension that ethnic identity alone is an unqualified determinant of political allegiance. The founders of the Maori Party: Tariana Turia, Pita Sharples and Professor Whatarangi Winiata all appeared to believe that simply placing the word “Maori” in front of the word “Party” was enough. Regardless of which social class they belonged to or how much education they’d received, and putting aside all personal experiences and aspirations, the Maori voters’ “natural” cultural affinities would make them unwaveringly loyal Maori Party supporters.
For a few years it looked as though the Maori Party leadership’s assumptions were substantially correct. By 2008 the party held all but two of the Maori Seats and the prospects seemed good for capturing all seven. But the cultural glasses through which the party insisted on observing the Maori electorate had failed to register the brute political facts of their situation.
In the quarter-century since the breakthrough Court of Appeal decision establishing the notion that the Treaty of Waitangi establishes a “partnership” between the Pakeha State and Maori, cultural considerations have increasingly been deployed to mask the embarrassing social gulf which has opened up between the elite wielders of tribally-based, Treaty-settlement-funded corporate power; the narrow layer of well-educated and well-remunerated functionaries who service that power; and the expanding mass of urban and rural Maori who eke out a marginal existence within a New Zealand economy that, increasingly, has little to offer them.
It was the Maori Party’s misfortune to enter into a confidence-and-supply agreement with the National Party just as the Global Financial Crisis was hurling tens-of-thousands of young Maori into joblessness and under-employment. Foolishly, Mrs Turia and Dr Sharples had allowed the overwhelmingly working-class Maori electorate’s eighty-year association with Labour and the New Zealand Left to slip their minds. Of the five Maori Party MPs, only Hone Harawira seemed to appreciate the tremendous damage their association with National was inflicting on the notion of permanent Maori participation in government.
The result was the Mana Party, whose pursuit of the bi-cultural ideals of the 1970s is predicated on first meeting the material needs of Maori and Pakeha working-class New Zealanders. Only when the marginalised, exploited and excluded of both communities have ready access to good jobs, warm and dry homes, and well-resourced hospitals and schools will Mana’s decolonising policies attract the mass support necessary for their success.
The Maori Party’s ambition of exercising a permanent swing vote over New Zealand politics was as short-sighted as it was undemocratic. Throughout human history the universal cry for justice has always attracted more followers than the mystical whisperings of blood and soil. In the end, it isn’t our ethnic origins that determine our electoral choices – it’s our all-too-material interests.
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, 4 January 2013.

Tuesday 1 January 2013

The Lazarus Option

"Lazarus, Come Forth!" In politics it is possible to be killed many times. Coming back from the dead is, therefore, somewhat more common than one might expect. Having entombed intra-party democracy along with his principal rival, the present leader of the Labour Party should not be surprised if some of his colleagues are pondering the Lazarus Option.

“POLITICS IS ALMOST as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.” This pithy Churchillian aphorism should be framed and prominently displayed in every politician’s office. It wouldn’t hurt if one or two political journalists did the same. We might then, perhaps, read fewer political obituaries of Members of Parliament who, having suffered a temporary set-back, are declared officially, politically dead.
Churchill himself suffered this fate – many times. So, too, did Australia’s John Howard and our very own Winston Peters. In every case these politicians demonstrated a Lazarus-like talent for emerging very much alive from their political tombs.
This ability to be “killed” many times is probably the most important – yet underrated – aspect of democratic politics. The chances of the chief minister of an absolute monarch or the consigliere of a Mafia boss bouncing back after making a serious mistake were slim. Thomas Cromwell oversold Anne of Cleves to Henry VIII and lost his head. Those who gave Lucky Luciano “a bum steer” ended up sleeping with the fishes.
Journalistic metaphors about political executions and assassinations notwithstanding, political leaders operating in democratic societies do not really enjoy the luxury of “killing” their opponents once and for all. They can demote them, even exile them to the back-benches but, generally speaking, that’s about the worst they can do.
Taking the next step: expelling one’s opponent from the parliamentary caucus, or even from the party itself; is fraught with much more political danger. The expelled politician may no longer be a member of caucus, but he remains a Member of Parliament – a position from which he can inflict considerable political damage upon his persecutors. And if the expelled politician enjoys widespread support throughout the party organisation, expulsion carries the additional risk of being countermanded by the rank-and-file. Only a very brave, or very foolish, party leader would risk such humiliation.
In 2010 Phil Goff and his parliamentary colleagues felt sufficiently confident that the errant MP for Te Atatu, Chris Carter, having exhausted the patience of both the Labour Caucus and the wider party organisation, could be expelled from both with impunity. David Shearer, on the other hand, had to be much more circumspect when dealing with his rival, David Cunliffe. In the absence of even the slightest evidence of wrongdoing, any attempt to expel Mr Cunliffe from the Caucus would have been staunchly resisted. Demanding his further expulsion from the party would almost certainly have provoked a rank-and-file revolt – with potentially disastrous results.
The wounds inflicted upon Mr Cunliffe by Mr Shearer and his allies are, therefore, readily survivable. The Parliamentary Press Gallery – so easily stampeded by Mr Shearer’s backers at the Labour Party Conference in November – are slowly and shame-facedly backing away from their earlier, supremely confident, assertions of an imminent Cunliffe-led leadership coup. But, if there was no “plot” to unseat Mr Shearer, then for what “crime” – exactly – was Mr Cunliffe demoted? The answer appears to be: “For refusing to rule out the possibility of a leadership challenge at some point in the future.”
Mr Shearer confirmed this at the media conference announcing the reallocation of Mr Cunliffe’s shadow portfolios and his demotion to the back-benches. His colleague’s “repeated failure to quell speculation about the leadership,” said Mr Shearer, “means that I no longer have confidence in him. He has lost my trust.”
It is worth unpacking this statement because it betrays an attitude to the rights and responsibilities of political leadership which is quite at odds with New Zealand’s democratic traditions.
Mr Shearer seems to believe that having once been elected to the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party he is entitled to hold that position until he decides to relinquish it. In other words, Labour’s new constitutional procedures for confirming or changing the parliamentary leadership must now be set aside. Mr Shearer has signalled that any caucus member who even thinks (let alone suggests) that someone else might do a better job of leading the Opposition will be publicly disparaged and demoted.
Such authoritarian notions should be anathema to all political parties – especially social-democratic ones. Labour parties should be proud republics in which, as Napoleon quipped: “Every French soldier carries a marshal’s baton in his knapsack”. Places where those who demonstrate political courage and resourcefulness have every right to expect rapid political promotion.
The attitudes evinced by Mr Shearer and his backers have no place in such a democratic political organisation. They belong in princes’ courts: spawning courtiers not comrades; factionalism not solidarity.
Can a majority of Labour’s caucus honestly attest that this is the sort of party they entered Parliament to serve? Shouldn’t they be asking themselves whether, under a leader who has effectively entombed intra-party democracy, it might be time to consider the Lazarus Option?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 January 2013.