Friday 29 March 2013

A Revolutionary Song For Easter

So place no trust in saviours
Judas said, for everyone
Must be to his or her own self a sun

STAND UP FOR JUDAS. Scottish fok-singer, Dick Gaughan, sings English song-writer, Leon Rosselson's, fierce denunciation of Jesus's other-worldly teachings. Stand Up For Judas celebrates instead what Rosselson interprets as Judas Iscariot's call for salvation in the here and now - offering a revolutionary twist to the Easter Story.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

The Penitent - An Easter Story

"Remember me when you come into your kingdom."
IT WAS so hard to watch, but I did not turn away.
I wanted to share these last moments with him – the man I loved – no matter how painful.
So I kept my ears and my eyes open –– even though they were filled with horrors.
I saw them drive the nails into his wrists. Heard him scream. Watched, as they hauled his cross into position.
I missed nothing.
Everyone told me I was a fool to love him.
“Don’t you know what he does?” They scolded. “Don’t you know how badly the authorities want to get their hands on him?”
My women friends shook their heads, clucked their tongues.
“He’s a vagabond!”, they’d say. “A criminal! There’s no future for you there. Why don’t you find yourself a decent man, a steady man? Someone from a good family. The longer you stay with him, the harder it will be for you to put your life back together when it all goes wrong – and be warned, woman, it will go wrong!”
And, they were right. It did go wrong. Horribly wrong.
I told him over and over again: don’t go into Jerusalem at Passover. There are too many unfamiliar faces; too many eyes; too many soldiers. But he would go.
“Pass up an opportunity like this?’, he laughed, holding me at arm’s length, looking into my eyes. “Not likely!”
And, he went.
It’s grown cold on this hill-top. The sun’s disappeared and the wind is rising. Two more crosses have gone up. Two more tortured bodies. Two more screaming mouths. I don’t recognise the man in the middle, but the other is Dumachus.
Him I know.
He is a bad bastard. Cruel. Violent.
“Dead men tell no tales!”
That was Dumachus’s motto. Out there on the desert road. The robbed and beaten travellers begging for mercy through broken teeth. Mercy? Hah! Dumachus had none.
My man tried to save them. He pleaded for their lives. Dumachus just laughed. He enjoyed killing – it gave him pleasure.
Listen to him now! Taunting the stranger.
“Hey, Rabbi! They say you’re the Messiah. God’s son! So how about giving us a bit of help? Come on, get us down from here. Save yourself. And if you can’t do that then, Hell! At least save me and my friend!”
Messiah? Son of God? What in Heaven’s name is Dumachus talking about?
I squint against the darkening sky. The soldiers have nailed some sort of notice above the stranger’s head, and – Oh Dear Lord! I thought it was his hair – but it’s a woven circlet of thorns. The soldiers have pushed it over his forehead like a crown. The blood has flowed down, covering his eyes.
His eyes.
My man, Dismas, is speaking into the wind.
“Shut your mouth, Dumachus! Show some respect. You know how we got here – and why. You killed all those people for no good reason – and I, God forgive me, I didn’t stop you. What they’ve done to us here is no more than we deserve. But this man: this man has done nothing. Nothing that warrants this. Leave him be!”
The stranger inclines his head towards Dismas, and smiles.
I can read what the soldiers have written now. “Jesus of Nazareth. King of the Jews”
Dismas is speaking again. Speaking to this Jesus.
“Remember me,” he’s saying, “when you come into your kingdom.”
Those eyes, again. Staring out through the blood and suffering of our broken world. No pain in them, no anger. Just a gaze of boundless forgiveness and infinite love.
“It will be so”, he says, so softly I can hardly hear him. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Dismas nods weakly. Tries to smile. There’s no more strength in his arms.
I cannot bear this. I cannot.
But Dismas is looking down at me. He’s struggling to speak.
“Did you hear that, my love?”, he gasps through gritted teeth, fighting now for every breath.
“In Paradise.”
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times of Thursday, 28 March 2013.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

National's Two-Fingered Gesture

Sending A Message: Justice Minister, Judith Collins, has responded to criticism of her appointment of Dame Susan Devoy as Race Relations Commissioner with the highly revealling comment: “The far left does not have a monopoly on caring about race relations.” History suggests, however, that if the Left doesn't have a monopoly on, then the Right isn't even in the market for, improved race relations.

DAME SUSAN DEVOY’s appointment as Race relations Commissioner sends a very clear message. But about what? And to whom?
An answer may be found in Justice Minister Judith Collins’ observation that: “The far left does not have a monopoly on caring about race relations”.
Ms Collins packs a great deal of political information into this typically belligerent statement.
It speaks powerfully and directly to the Right’s long-standing resentment at finding itself, again and again, on the morally indefensible side of history.
From the mid-1970s, the National Party positioned itself, politically, as the defender of the Pakeha majority against any and all charges of racism that the Maori minority, and others, were increasingly levelling against them.
According to National, race relations in New Zealand were extremely healthy, and it was an affront to this country’s internationally celebrated reputation for fairness and tolerance to suggest otherwise.
This position became increasingly untenable as, over the course of the 70s, 80s and 90s, a new generation of historians systematically demolished New Zealand’s great foundational myths: the version of history which the inheritors of colonialism had so assiduously constructed since the wars and confiscations of the Nineteenth Century.
The most important to be taken apart was the Myth of the Moriori.
For decades, New Zealand schoolchildren were taught that their country’s first inhabitants, the Moriori, had been wiped out by the Maori – the warlike, culturally superior race of settlers who supplanted them.
For the Europeans who had replaced Maori as the dominant racial group in New Zealand, the Moriori Myth was morally indispensable. By establishing an historical narrative based on successive waves of settlers, each one stronger and better fitted for survival than the last, the European conquest and despoliation of the Maori could be painted as part of a “natural” progression.
“We” (the Pakeha) were no worse than “they” (the Maori) when it came to asserting the right of the stronger to overpower the weaker. We were, however, “better” than they were – because rather than wipe out the people who’d stood in our way, we “advanced” Europeans were willing to share with the vanquished all the “benefits” of Western Civilisation.
That the Maori had not fared as appallingly as Australian Aborigines or the Native Americans spoke eloquently of New Zealand’s “progressive” record of race relations.
The true and tragic story of the Moriori people (of the Chatham Islands) offered as little to Pakeha as it did to Maori. (Which probably explains why both races were content to connive in its extraordinary distortion.)
The myth was , however, of such critical importance to Pakeha self-perception that, even today, you still find many New Zealanders clinging tenaciously to its reassuring message of moral equivalence.
Conservative New Zealanders remained highly resistant to the unpalatable truths emerging from their nation’s colonial past. Rather than let the new historical research bring about a re-evaluation of their previous assumptions concerning race, they and their National Party representatives became even more determined to uphold all the old shibboleths.
National’s defence of the Springbok Rugby Tour of 1981 not only made it a target for the entire New Zealand Left (from Labour to the Workers’ Communist League) but, as events steadily vindicated the arguments of the protesters, it also helped to foster a deep-seated sense of right-wing grievance.
Nelson Mandela Free: The National Party has found it very difficult to accept that on the question of Apartheid - as on so many other racial questions - the Left has been vindicated, and the Right condemned, by History.
The Left had accused the Right of being on the wrong side of history, and History had been unkind enough to concur. Politically, National had no option but to accept the enhanced role of the Treaty of Waitangi (and its tribunal) and celebrate the victory of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (once described as “terrorists” by Sir Robert Muldoon) but it rankled.
Oh yes, it rankled.
And as those historical victories were transmuted into a framework of human rights recognition and protection (building on the more liberal Sir Keith Holyoake-led National Party’s Office of the Race Relations Conciliator, and the Labour Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s, Bill of Rights Act) the Right’s sense of grievance – of being put-upon by what it labelled “political correctness” – grew and festered in the body politic.
Just how large this cancer had grown was revealed in 2004 when National Party Leader, Dr Don Brash’s, “Nationhood” speech, at Orewa, saw his party’s position in the Colmar-Brunton opinion poll advance by a record 17 percentage points.
National’s narrow defeat in 2005, and Dr Brash’s successor, John Key’s, tactical alliance with the Maori Party, both muted and diverted the Right’s angry rejection of the Left’s “political correctness”. Anti-Maori prejudice was channelled into hard-line welfare and law-and-order “reforms” – measures guaranteed to hit Maori New Zealanders the hardest.
Dame Susan’s appointment is emblematic of National’s continuing denial of its historical moral delinquency. With her controversial announcement, Ms Collins simultaneously delivers reassurance to an aggrieved Right, and an obscene, two-fingered gesture to “the far left”.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 March 2013.

Friday 22 March 2013

Learning From Cyprus

A Prophetic Voice: It is difficult to imagine a more profound breach of trust between the State and its citizens than for it to reach into their bank accounts and steal their savings. The political and financial crisis gripping Cyprus, precipitated by the IMF and the European Central Bank, will have a profound effect on ordinary peoples' political expectations all around the world.

THE CYPRIOT MATRIARCH who hid her life savings under the mattress doesn’t look quite so silly now – does she?
It’s difficult to conceive of a bigger betrayal of trust than the one unfolding before our eyes on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
We are told as children that the safest place for our money is in the bank. More than that, the building up of personal savings is encouraged by politicians and bankers as the mature and responsible course that all good citizens should follow.
Imagine the consternation, then, when the Cypriot Government announced that it was about to reach into the savings accounts of its citizens and commandeer a portion of them to meet the demands of the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.
Failure to oblige these all-powerful financial institutions will see the multi-billion-Euro loan Cyprus so desperately needs to stave off bankruptcy withheld.
Upon hearing this incredible news, Cypriots immediately rushed to the nearest ATM to empty their accounts – only to discover that the banks had shut the machines down.
The Cypriot Government then poured even more fuel onto its citizens already blazing fury by announcing a “bank holiday” until the Cypriot Parliament – called into emergency session – was ready to pass legislation legitimising the IMF/ECB-sponsored bank heist.
Astoundingly, the European Union Summit, held in Brussels just days before the crisis broke, was so sanguine about the outcome of the Cyprus bail-out negotiations that it hadn’t even included them on the main agenda. According to a Bloomberg report, they would be dealt with “at a separate meeting of euro-area Finance Ministers.”
As news of the Cyprus bank raid spread across other debt-stricken European nations, and stock markets around the world registered the shock, the arrogant unwisdom of assuming innocent citizens would supinely acquiesce in their government’s garnishing of their life savings quickly became evident.
Apparently not one of the European leaders gathered at Brussels had thought to review the last occasion that ATMs were switched off and a government informed the world that it was messing with its citizens own money.
Argentina in 2001 experienced a similar debt and banking crisis. The outcome was the largest default ($US132 billion) on a sovereign debt in modern history – the very nightmare that European Union leaders most fear.
Not that Cyprus is large enough, in either political or economic terms, to bring the EU to its knees all by itself. But what those Finance Ministers apparently did not consider was the demonstration effect of the IMF/ECB-sanctioned Cypriot raid on the citizens of those EU nations also facing debt and banking difficulties.
A Spaniard, or an Italian, or a Portuguese, with his or her life savings deposited one of their country’s leading banks will now be asking themselves: “What if the situation turns critical here? What if the IMF and the ECB demand something similar from our own government? Doesn’t it make more sense for me to put my money somewhere else? Somewhere safe? Somewhere my government can’t get its hands on it?
The Cypriot bail-out “deal” was as ill-considered as it was high-handed. God knows what the “end-game” is.
And, just before you mentally congratulate yourself on being born a New Zealander, take a look at what Finance Minister, Bill English, and the Reserve Bank Governor, Graeme Wheeler, are cooking-up.
It’s something called Open Bank Resolution (OPR) and the National-led Government reckons it’s the best solution on offer to a major bank failure.
Under OPR, if a bank fails, all its depositors will have their savings reduced to fund the institution’s financial recovery. In other words, if the men and women who run the major New Zealand banks decide to follow the example set by American and European financial institutions, and sail themselves into waters they can’t sail out of, you and I will be on the hook to bail them out.
And, according to Bill English, we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves. Apparently, it’s up to us to scrutinise the performance of the banks in which we have money deposited – and act accordingly. Never mind that, as the Greens’ Russel Norman objected in his press release: “Not even sophisticated investors like Merrill Lynch saw the global financial crisis coming.”
That’s true. But the world has seen what’s coming to the people of Cyprus.
We have been warned.
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, 22 March 2013.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

In Praise Of Dinosaurs

Evolutionary Success Story: Dinosaurs dominated the Earth for 135 million years. The way we're going, we Homo Sapiens will be lucky to celebrate our millionth birthday! So, the next time someone accuses you of being a dinosaur - take it as a compliment.

IT’S POSSIBLE the human species will dominate Planet Earth for longer than the dinosaurs – but I wouldn’t bet on it. The reign of these massive reptiles lasted 135 million years and was only ended by the ultimate, exogenous, extinction level event: an asteroid strike.
Homo-sapiens, by contrast, is barely a thousand centuries old, and well on the way to perfecting its own endogenous, extinction-level catastrophes. (Nuclear war, global warming, rogue bio-tech, take your pick.)
If we make it to our millionth birthday, we’ll be doing very well indeed.
The dinosaurs undeniable evolutionary success, and their blameless demise, has not, however, prevented human-beings from applying the term “dinosaur” to any institution or person who refuses to be convinced by, or bow to, the forces of “progressive” change.
In spite of the devastating asteroid strike’s role in the extinction of the dinosaurs being understood for more than thirty years, it would seem that earlier explanations for the dinosaurs’ disappearance die hard. Until 1980 it was a given that the dinosaurs had simply “failed to adapt” to a changing environment.
Hence the insult. Anybody deemed deficient or incapable of adapting to a changing world must ipso facto be “a dinosaur”.
Over a lifetime of advocating for ideas and institutions deemed inconvenient by those determined to “reform” society to their own advantage, I have been branded a “dinosaur” many times.
As if change of any description can only ever be “a good thing”, and resistance to change “a bad thing”.
My first serious encounter with the dinosaur insult came with the introduction of what we now call “Rogernomics”. Among the most forthright opponents of the onrush of the Fourth Labour Government’s “reforms” were, not surprisingly, the party’s trade union affiliates.
Predictably, the Labour Cabinet, and a fair chunk of the Labour Caucus, were infuriated by the unions show of resistance. If there was, as Roger Douglas and his Treasury advisers asserted, “no alternative” to the “free market” (as they insisted on calling the market-rigging ideology of neoliberalism) then the unions’ refusal to accept the Government’s changes was evidence not only of their economic ignorance but also of their wilful refusal to evolve.
They were “dinosaurs” – and we all know what happened to dinosaurs!
So, you see, the label wasn’t just a term of abuse. Wrapped up inside the insult was an implied, but unmistakeable, threat.
Those who stood in the way of change risked disappearing from the scene altogether.
It is hardly surprising, then, that anyone ambitious to rise in their chosen field will go to considerable lengths to avoid being branded a dinosaur. Regardless of their misgivings about any proposed course of action, and irrespective of the cogency or force of any arguments mounted against it, those in search of the “change agents’” approbation will raise no objections. Indeed, to ingratiate themselves with the people in charge, and more-or-less guarantee their patronage, the ambitious climber will dismiss all the critics of their plans as “dinosaurs”.
Giving voice to the insult is, therefore, another way of saying: “I’m with the programme – one hundred percent. Come what may, you can rely on me. Because, unlike our opponents, I ‘get it’.”
Of all potentially fatal evolutionary strategies this is the most effective. To supress all one’s doubts, and reject all contrary evidence, for reasons of personal ambition is to place one’s institution on the royal road to extinction.
It is, therefore, of some concern to discover that the dinosaur epithet is again being tossed about in Labour Party circles.
Nothing could signal more forcefully the return of the same debilitating factional strife which tore Labour apart in the late-1980s and early 90s than this renewed willingness to characterise one’s political opponents as lumbering behemoths of maladaptation lacking the simple decency to shuffle off the evolutionary stage.
Of even more concern is the news that even in the trade union movement one can now hear the dinosaur epithet.
So convinced is the senior leadership of the trade union movement that they – and they alone – possess all the answers to working people’s problems, that anyone expressing doubts about the movement’s current strategies and campaigns, or, worse still, advocating policies which the trades unions’ friends in the Labour Party have already rejected as “naive” and “stupid”, can only be creatures deserving of, and destined for, extinction.
With the benefit of historical hindsight it is now very clear that it was a similar refusal to engage with its critics and encourage open debate that left the leadership of the New Zealand trade union movement so utterly unprepared for that Everest-sized asteroid called the Employment Contracts Act which brought it so close to extinction in 1991.
Those labelled dinosaurs may simply be the first ones to have spotted that bright object in the night sky – the one heading straight for us.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 March 2013.

Friday 15 March 2013

Outsourcing Moral Leadership

Unusual Circumstances and Decisions: Somehow the Auditor General's finding that Shane Jones did not act improperly in granting citizenship to Labour Party donor Bill Liu has been taken to mean that he did not act unwisely. The decision to return Mr Jones to the Opposition front bench raises serious questions about the efficacy of Labour leader David Shearer's moral compass.
HERE’S A QUESTION for Labour. When confronted with evidence raising serious questions about the judgement of a senior caucus member, what should its leader do?
Should he measure the member’s actions against his own beliefs about what constitutes right and proper conduct in someone holding a ministerial warrant?  Examining the facts of the case, should he ask himself how he would have acted differently? Should he take moral stock of the environment in which the member’s actions occurred? Paying special attention to the actions of the member’s staff, should he ask himself whether he would have felt comfortable working alongside them? Would he have trusted their advice?
Or, should he simply outsource the whole job to the Auditor General?
On Tuesday afternoon Auditor General, Lyn Provost, announced that her office had found “no evidence there was any improper motive, collusion, or political interference” in the decision of Immigration Minister, Shane Jones, to authorise New Zealand citizenship for the mysterious Chinese businessman, Mr Yang (“Bill”) Liu.
Ms Provost did admit to there being a “combination of unusual circumstances and decisions” associated with the case, and that it was “not surprising” that people had started asking questions.
“We found reason to criticise most of those involved in different aspects of the decision-making process” Ms Provost reported. “In the public sector, decisions not only have to be right, they have to be seen to be right.”
No sooner had the Auditor General’s report been released than the Labour Leader, David Shearer, announced that Mr Jones would be returning to the Opposition front bench.
Disregarding the chain of “unusual circumstances and decisions” and the Auditor-General’s criticism of “most of those involved”, Mr Shearer decided that the absence of any conclusive evidence of serious impropriety was the sole criterion Mr Jones needed to satisfy to ensure his complete rehabilitation.
And this, lest we forget, was after Mr Jones, as Associate Minister of Immigration, had refused to accept the advice of Immigration Department officials that Mr Liu, a man under investigation in New Zealand, on suspicion of organising multiple identities, and wanted for questioning by the Chinese authorities concerning allegations of fraud, be denied New Zealand citizenship.
In spite of his officials’ doubts, and aware that the only reason he was handling the case was because the Minister of Immigration, Rick Barker, had recused himself on the grounds that he was personally acquainted with Mr Liu (as was at least one other member of the Labour caucus) Mr Jones approved Mr Liu’s application for citizenship.
We are told that Mr Jones was warned by one of his staff that if Mr Liu was repatriated to China he would likely face execution by the Chinese authorities – who would then harvest his internal organs for use as transplants. This information apparently weighed heavily in Mr Jones’s decision to reject his officials’ advice.
Mr Liu’s relationship with at least one Labour Cabinet Minister and one Labour MP does not, however, appear to have ever placed his application at serious risk of failing the political “sniff test”.
Mr Shearer, alone, knows why the decision-making surrounding Mr Liu’s application for citizenship offers no impediment to Mr Jones playing a key role in a future Labour-led Government.
The New Zealand public, on the other hand, can easily be forgiven for wondering how the Auditor General’s finding that Mr Jones did not act improperly has somehow been construed to mean that Mr Jones did not act unwisely. Is he truly innocent of any failures of judgement that a Labour leader keen to run a tight ethical ship might see as good reasons for keeping him away from ministerial decision-making in the future?
The Liu Report was always going to be as much a test of Mr Shearer’s ethical standards as it was of Mr Jones’s handling of Mr Liu’s citizenship application. The Auditor General has given Mr Jones a pass. Can we say the same for the efficacy of Mr Shearer’s moral compass?
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, 15 March 2013.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

An Accumulation Of Scandals

A Queen's Ransom: Star of The Affair of the Necklace, Hillary Swank, wears a replica of the ruinously expensive necklace which, in 1785, engulfed the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, in scandal. The Affair proved to be the tipping point for the French people's tolerance of monarchy. If the scandal over Solid Energy's ruin isn't enough to tip the New Zealand people into open rebellion against the excesses of its elites - what will?
THE AFFAIR of the Necklace was a sensation. Four years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, this extraordinary story of royal profligacy, political intrigue and criminal fraud at first mesmerised, then outraged, the French people.
The centuries-old bond between the French Crown and its subjects (already frayed by years of famine and excessive taxation) was broken. Ears that had been closed to the arguments of those advocating radical change were suddenly open. The magic of monarchy had been exposed as a charlatan’s trick – nothing more than political sleight-of-hand.
Today, the Affair of the Necklace would probably be described as a “tipping point”: that moment when an accumulation of events, each of themselves too insignificant to call into question the viability of a social or political system, suddenly acquires the necessary weight to bring it crashing down.
Last week’s revelations concerning Dr Don Elder, the former boss of Solid Energy, set me to wondering whether New Zealand might be close to experiencing its own Affair of the Necklace – and what such a scandal might mean for John Key’s government.
Could the revelations relating to Dr Elder’s sudden departure from Solid Energy be compared to the Affair of the Necklace?  They have certainly provided New Zealanders with a rare glimpse of the world in which New Zealand’s wealthiest and most powerful men and women go about their business.
And the parallels with pre-revolutionary France are startling.
Solid Energy’s corporate headquarters (dubbed “The Palace” by its detractors) neatly fills the role of Louis XVI’s sprawling Palace of Versailles. Behind its glittering fa├žade, Dr Elder surrounded himself with an astonishing four hundred employee “aristocrats” on salaries in excess of $100,000. Dr Elder himself, over a decade of service to Solid Energy, was paid the kingly sum of $10 million.
And yet, in spite of these extraordinary rewards (not to mention the millions paid out as executive bonuses) we are told that Solid Energy, with debts approaching $400 million, is teetering on the brink of insolvency. Unsurprisingly, both Dr Elder’s and the Solid Energy Board of Directors’ stewardship of what was once a highly profitable state-owned enterprise has come in for swingeing criticism.
Hence the public’s shocked disbelief at the news that Dr Elder, though no longer in charge of Solid Energy, is still receiving a salary of $27,000 per week. Last Thursday, the company’s interim Chairman, Mark Ford, informed Parliament’s equally disbelieving Commerce Select Committee that the former CEO’s unique knowledge and understanding of Solid Energy, considered vital to the company achieving a smooth leadership transition, required Dr Elder to be kept on the payroll.
A Kingly Salary: In spite of the fact that he no longer runs Solid Energy, Don Elder continues to be paid $675.00 per hour, or $27,000 per week.
Given the fact that Dr Elder was continuing to be paid $675 per hour by the taxpayer-owned SOE, the Opposition members of the Commerce Select Committee argued they had as much right to hear Dr Elder’s insights into what went wrong at Solid Energy as Mr Ford and his board. With very few opportunities available for the public scrutiny of the SOEs’ performance, the Opposition insisted that their select committee appearances be models of transparency.
Alas, Dr Elder – like Miss Otis in the song – could only present his “regrets”. And Mr Ford was not disposed to mandate his employee’s appearance before the Committee. Accordingly, the people’s representatives – in marked contrast to the interim Chairman and his corporate colleagues – were not entrusted with the reasons for Solid Energy’s sudden reversal of fortune.
The demise of Solid Energy and Dr Elder’s fall from grace is a salutary tale, but it is not, I would hazard, the tipping point which the Affair of the Necklace became.
It was, after all, the innocent (but deeply unpopular) Queen Marie Antoinette who ended up wearing the blame for the loss of her father-in-law’s ruinously expensive piece of bling. That was important, because in Marie Antoinette the scandal acquired a target more-or-less guaranteed to generate the kind of visceral reactions that shift public consciousness.
These are the scandals that threaten governments.
The Solid Energy debacle remains, however, a significant contribution to the accumulation of scandals already weighing down the National-led Government’s scales.
That it has not provoked a response as damaging to our Prime Minister as the Affair of the Necklace proved to King Louis XVI and his queen, is probably because Dr Elder remains a largely abstract symbol of the vast gulf that now yawns between the elites who run New Zealand and mass of the people who must bear the cost of their delinquency.
The New Zealand public was alarmed and affronted by the Solid Energy story, but it was not enraged. Mr Key and his government should give thanks for a lucky escape.
They should also move quickly to reduce their vulnerability to the depredations of elites who seem to have forgotten how quickly the status quo can become the ancien regime.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 March 2013.

Saturday 9 March 2013

To The Memory of Hugo Chavez: Pete Seeger Sings "Guantanamera"

Con los pobres de la tierra
Quiero yo mi suerte echar
El arroyo de la sierra 
Me complace mas que el mar. 
With the poor people of this earth I want to share my fate. The stream of the mountain pleases me more than the sea.

- Jose Marti.
Hugo Chavez  1954 - 2013

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday 8 March 2013

Surprise Moves

Insanity We Trust: Trace Hodgson's cartoon from the 1980s captures brilliantly our ANZUS "allies" gangster-like certainty that on matters of nuclear policy the USA and Australia were in a position to make New Zealand an offer it couldn't refuse. They were in for a big surprise.

WHAT A SURPRISE New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation must have been to the Americans. For decades the folks in Washington had (rightly) assumed that the “peace and disarmament” policies of the world’s Labour parties were merely the sort of promises left-wing politicians always made in opposition – and then abandoned in government.
The British Labour Party had once voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The Australian Labor Party used to favour a uranium export ban. In 1984 the New Zealand Labour Party was committed to a nuclear-free New Zealand. No worries. The diplomats at the State Department and the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon remained calm and carried on. They knew that when push came to shove, such policies had a habit of changing.
The US Secretary of State, George Shultz, was introduced to New Zealand’s Prime Minister-elect, David Lange, as the rain poured down on the roof of a leaking hangar at Wellington Airport in July 1984. It was a brief (and soggy) encounter, but he came away convinced that this new Labour leader would work the same political magic as Bob Hawke across the Tasman. He would go before his party conference and make its embarrassing peace and disarmament remits disappear.
This time, however, the policy didn’t change. And the United States, lacking a “Plan B”, did what the United States always does when people and/or countries refuse to live down to its expectations and/or give in to its demands. It raged, it fumed, it retaliated and then it sulked – for more than twenty years.
And New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy endured. Initially, the National Party promised to fulfil its historical role as Uncle Sam’s little helper and restore the status quo ante. It took the wise old head of National Party leader Jim Bolger to understand that putting things back the way they were wasn’t a winning political option. That the only correct answer to Labour’s nuclear-free New Zealand was: “Me too!”
The Nuclear-free New Zealand policy is, therefore, not only a lesson in moral leadership – but in leadership per se. It demonstrates that the need to constantly reposition one’s party’s policies in conformity with the prejudices of “centrist voters” is very far from being axiomatic. Centrist opinion in the New Zealand of the mid-1980s was very firmly in favour of remaining in the ANZUS alliance. Labour’s adoption of the nuclear-free New Zealand policy forced centrists to choose between what were, in effect, mutually exclusive options.
On this issue (but, alas, on very few others) centrist voters were forced to the Left. And, when they discovered that the sun still rose every morning in the east, and water still ran downhill, they stayed there.
The future of politics in New Zealand belongs to the political party which first draws the lessons from Labour’s adoption of – and persistence with – the Nuclear-free option.
Just as, by the mid-1980s, the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD!) strategy of the Cold War had led humanity to the very brink of annihilation, so, too, are the macro and micro strategies of neoliberal economics leading the peoples of the western nations to the very edge of a  social abyss.
The first political party to devise a way back from the edge: to unmask neoliberalism as the most dangerous ideology to grip the Western mind since the equally totalitarian creeds of fascism and communism; will be able to write its own political cheques for the next quarter-century.
It could be Labour or National. (Both, to a greater or lesser extent, are neoliberal parties.)
Whichever it turns out to be, the first sign that things are moving in the right direction will be when one of them finally abandons the shibboleths of free trade and takes a stand for New Zealand’s economic sovereignty.
The second sign will be a bold diplomatic out-reach to the growing number of countries looking for a global trading system undistorted by the selfish, socially and environmentally destructive economic demands of the giant American corporations.
MFAT officials were in Singapore this week for the latest Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. The Prime Minister has been visiting Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Chile.
The TPP, as currently drafted, unfairly advantages American corporations. The countries the PM is visiting are anxious to confound the United States’ imperial expectations and demands.
We could help with that. After all, we’ve done it before.
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, 8 March 2013.

Thursday 7 March 2013

After Chavez

Hugo Chavez 1954-2013: Con los pobres de la tierra / Quiero yo mi suerte echar / El arroyo de la sierra / Me complace mas que el mar.  (With the poor people of this earth I want to share my fate. The stream of the mountain pleases me more than the sea.) - Jose Marti.
THE REVOLUTION Will Not Be Televised is a remarkable documentary. It was made by a crew of Irish filmmakers who were, fortuitously, already filming in Venezuela in 2002 when the upper and middle-class opponents of President Hugo Chavez, with covert backing from the US Government, staged an abortive coup d’etat.
TRWNBT captures with remarkable immediacy the authenticity and power of Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution.
One of the most interesting aspects of their documentary, for me, was the contrast it revealed between the courage and confidence of Chavez’s most fervent supporters – the Chavistas from the Caracas slums – and the indecision and timidity of his Cabinet colleagues. Had Chavez relied solely upon these university-educated, mostly social-democratic professional politicians to defeat his opponents, the coup would almost certainly have succeeded.
Chavez’s story, and the course of the Venezuelan Revolution itself, bears vivid testimony to the crucial political relationship between a radical policy programme and popular mobilisation. Above all else, Chavismo proves that you cannot have one without the other.
The other thing a radical/revolutionary government cannot do without is the active support of a significant fraction of the armed forces.
Watching TRWNBT closely reveals that, although the mass mobilisation of the Chavistas and their non-violent siege of the Presidential Palace were crucial to the moral invalidation of the coup, it was the presence of the Presidential Guard (and their lethal weaponry) on the Palace grounds that forced the plotters to capitulate.
The Guard itself was only willing to act against the new regime because the military officers who had captured Chavez had not felt secure enough to assassinate him as soon as the coup got underway. Clearly the Officer Corps harboured serious doubts about the loyalty of the rank-and-file. If the coup was ultimately defeated, no one wanted to be fingered as the man who gave the order to shoot Chavez!
The loyalty of the Venezuelan armed forces, both to Commandante Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, makes it the single most important political force in contemporary Venezuelan society. With Chavez gone, its future disposition towards his nominated successor, Nicolas Maduro, will be crucial.
There was a time when Chavez’s point-man in the military, Diosdado Cabello, was looked upon as the Commandante’s ultimate successor, but Maduro, a former bus driver and union organiser, has proved to be the more adept (and certainly the more popular) politician. Cabello (now president of the National Assembly) has pledged his loyalty to Maduro – but there is much that could test it in the months ahead.
The fatal weakness of the right-wing Venezuelan elites was their historical failure to completely transform the country’s armed forces into unthinking enforcers of their will (as their counterparts had done so successfully in Brazil, Argentina and Chile). They will now be calculating how long Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution can survive without its military strongman.
In testing the military’s loyalty to Maduro, the Right will be able to rely on most of the privately-owned Venezuelan news media. TRWNBT brilliantly investigates and exposes the role of the private media in laying the groundwork for, and actively assisting, the 2002 coup.
Recall the New Zealand news media’s dramatic falling-out-of-love with the Clark-led Labour Government of 2005-2008, then multiply it by ten, and you will have some idea of the level of bias directed against the Chavez government. Better still, imagine the mainstream private news media serving up the hate-filled commentary threads of Kiwiblog as “news” and “current affairs”. Now you’re close.
The very fact that Chavez was able to flourish in this overheated political environment, winning election after election, is, in my opinion, his greatest political legacy. In spite of everything his opponents threw at him he never lost his natural ebullience, his political passion, or his earthy sense of humour.
Watching him sniff the air above the podium in the UN General Assembly, the day after George W Bush’s speech, and tell the world he could still smell the sulphur. Priceless!
Could we ever produce a Chavez-type radical populist here in New Zealand?
It certainly wouldn’t be easy.
Imagine Hone Harawira blended into Willie Apiata, with the ideological fervour of Jane Kelsey and Annette Sykes. Now make him a colonel, rather than a corporal, with a regiment of fiercely loyal soldiers, all imbued with notions of revolutionary social, economic and political change and just waiting for the word “to overturn the cities and the rivers/and split the house like a rotten totara log”. Send him into South and West Auckland on a mission to build a movement capable of smashing the neoliberal order in New Zealand. See him spread his revolutionary Aotearoan Socialist “circles” across the entire country. Watch him win the next election, and the next one, and the next one.
That was Hugo Chavez.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Lovers And Haters: Further Thoughts On The Hobbit Dispute

Enforcing Difference: In the American South, during the "Jim Crow" era, it was as vital for whites to engage in discrimination as it was for blacks to suffer it. In New Zealand, during the Hobbit Controversy, it was vital that most Kiwis be seen to be backing Sir Peter Jackson and his anti-union allies. "Hobbit Hater!" - like "Nigger Lover!" - is an insult designed to both discipline and isolate the dissenting minority from the assenting majority.

“NIGGER LOVER!” No accusation was more feared by white citizens of the old American South. Upon its recipients’ shoulders descended – with the sting of an overseer’s stock-whip – the entire, obdurate and unyielding expectations of Dixie’s racially-defined culture.
Following the withdrawal of the federal government’s army of occupation in 1877, a “Nigger Lover” was any Southern white who dared to deviate from the brutal racist consensus which,  vote by vote, law by law, lynching by lynching, was rebuilding white supremacy in the states of the shattered Confederacy.
It is a fact easily forgotten that the “Jim Crow” segregationist regimes of the South were as dependent on the willingness of whites to enforce their will, as they were on the legally engineered incapacity of blacks to defy them.
Securing the full co-operation of Southern whites in the grim business of exploiting Southern blacks, required constant and unrelenting ideological effort. The beneficiaries of segregation had to be reassured that the racist rules of their society represented not simply the most practical answer to the “race question”, but also constituted its best, self-evidently moral, resolution.
To ignore or openly defy the Jim Crow Laws of the South, by reaching out to one’s black neighbours, workmates or employees was, in effect, to engage in an act of brazen subversion. To treat African-Americans as equals was to concede their full constitutional status, both as human-beings and citizens, and thus to acknowledge their right to all the opportunities and services denied by segregation.
“Nigger Lover!”, therefore, wasn’t merely a declaration of racist scorn, it was a reminder – a very sharp reminder – of the white individual’s obligation to maintain solidarity with every other beneficiary of racist bigotry. The whole socio-economic and political order of the South, and their status within it, required whites (either passively or actively, as the situation dictated) to hate and oppress their black neighbours.

THESE MUSINGS on the most devastating disciplinary insult of the Old South were prompted by the past week’s recapitulation of the so-called “Hobbit Crisis” of October 2010.
The release by both the National-led Government and the Council of Trade Unions of hitherto withheld documents and e-mails has confirmed the reportage of that very small number of journalists who refused to accept the “official version” of events which so inflamed New Zealanders at the time. (Again, I raise my hat to Radio New Zealand’s Brent Edwards and Scoop’s Gordon Campbell.)
We know now that the “official version” of events, the version scripted by Sir Peter Jackson and the National Government, and relayed almost verbatim to the public by a distressingly large section of the news media, bore very little relation to what was actually happening.
Being wrong, however, in no way reduced the “official version’s” effectiveness. Sir Peter is a master story-teller and the tale he wove around the hapless Actors Equity Union was one from which it could not escape.
Hobbit Lovers: Even children were enrolled in the campaign to prevent the New Zealand film industry from being unionised.
Because Actors Equity wasn’t simply the villain of Sir Peter’s particular story. His admirers were encouraged to see it as something more: a generic enemy which threatened not only The Hobbit and the local film industry to which it was so important, but also the whole way of doing business in Twenty-First Century New Zealand.
It is important to recall the context in which the Hobbit Crisis took place. The world remained in the grip of the Global Financial Crisis, the Labour Party was moving to the left, and the trade union movement had just held a series of mass rallies around the country. On the right of politics there was a sense of unease – a feeling that, after thirty years of steady advance, its ideology was in retreat.
Sir Peter’s genius allowed him to transform the question of whether The Hobbit would be filmed in New Zealand, and under what sort of labour relations regime, into a litmus test of people’s allegiance to the social, economic and political realities of the “new” New Zealand.
The actual provenance of the epithet used by those opposing the efforts of Actors Equity and the CTU to unionise the New Zealand film industry is unclear. What cannot be disputed, however, is its impact. “Hobbit Hater” – like “Nigger Lover” – branded the recipient as someone hostile to the objectives of national revitalisation. Someone who still saw ordinary workers – even actors – as people with a legal right to bargain collectively for higher wages and improved conditions.
“Hobbit Haters” were the sort of people who wanted to return New Zealand to the bad old days of unbridled union power. “Hobbit Haters” had no respect for Weta Workshop’s Sir Richard Taylor or his army of “independent contractors”. “Hobbit Haters” were people who stood in the way of jobs and prosperity – like Labour and the Greens.
“Hobbit Haters”, like “Nigger Lovers”, refused to recognise what was good for them.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 March 2013.

Saturday 2 March 2013

Chris Trotter - Shearer Supporter!

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a year makes! In this "Politics Chat", recorded in the television studio of the University of Otago's impressive Media Centre, political studies lecturer (and compiler of NZ Politics Daily) Bryce Edwards, while discussing many other subjects, quizzed me on the state of Labour and the New Zealand Left generally.

As you will see, in late February 2012, I was still publicly backing David Shearer's leadership of the party (my endorsement comes about 30 minutes into the interview). Although, I think it's fair to say that, even then, a few hair-line cracks in my allegiance were beginning to show.


This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday 1 March 2013

Running Dogs

In Full Cry: In a perverse political version of the blood initiation, members of the Shearer and Robertson factions have guaranteed themselves higher rankings in the Labour Caucus by running down the followers of David Cunliffe.
I’M TOLD there were six of them, and that they hunted as a pack. Their prey?
Delegates who had voted the wrong way.
Moving through the excited crowds at the Ellerslie Conference Centre last November an angry group of Labour MPs was seen taking dissidents aside and telling them, in no uncertain terms, which way was up.
Leading the pack was Labour’s employment relations spokesperson, Darien Fenton, and her grim lieutenant, the Dunedin South MP, Clare Curran. No surprises there. Ms Fenton and Ms Curran were among the Caucus members most alarmed by the Labour Party rank-and-file's sudden outbreak of democratic distemper.
The other members of the pack, however, came as a surprise. I had never thought of Jacinda Ardern, Megan Woods, Kris Faafoi or Phil Twyford as attack dogs, but my sources assure me that they were there – chewing people out.
So what? Such brutal vignettes are the stock-and-trade of party conferences.
Certainly “The Pack” was far from being the only example of Caucus aggression at the Ellerslie Conference.
It was Chris Hipkins who drew me aside long before the dramatic conference floor-fight to murmur conspiratorially  “Our problems aren’t external – they’re internal.” And Andrew Little who first characterised the rank-and-file's bid to democratise their party as a statement of “anxiety” about the leader, David Shearer.
Even from the Media Table, the animosity directed  towards caucus members who spoke in favour of the rank-and-file’s resolutions (the most effective of whom, by far, was Lianne Dalziel) was unmistakeable. Mr Hipkins youthful countenance became an ugly mask of rage as he railed against the proposition that, to avoid a contest in Labour’s new electoral college, the party leader must be endorsed by sixty percent-plus-one of his caucus colleagues.
The underlying cause of all this angst was, of course, simple political arithmetic. The first thing all politicians learn to do is count, and the people backing Mr Shearer were fearful that a democratised party (with sufficient support in Caucus) might decide to wrest the power of choosing the party leader from their hands. They were terrified that the new Electoral College would saddle them with the rank-and-file's choice of December 2011: David Cunliffe.
And it wasn’t Mr Shearer’s faction, alone, who were counting heads. Labour’s Deputy Leader, Grant Robertson, had as much to fear from the leadership question being decided early, by the party, as his boss.
Now was the time for all who were not for Mr Cunliffe to unite against him. MPs from both factions fanned out across the conference venue to dampen down and/or extinguish the dissident hot-spots.
The Parliamentary Press Gallery were encouraged to interpret the rank-and-file’s attempt to “take back our party” as a leadership bid by Mr Shearer’s rival. The roving pack made up of Shearer and Robertson MPs would be joined by an even more vicious media pack led by TV3’s Patrick Gower.
The rest is history.
20 November 2012: Mr Cunliffe is demoted and his faction isolated.
4 February 2013: Mr Shearer manages – just – to secure the backing of sixty percent-plus-one of his caucus colleagues.
19 February 2013: Six days before Mr Shearer’s long-awaited shadow cabinet re-shuffle, Charles Chauvel, a supporter of Mr Cunliffe, quits Parliament.
25 February 2013: Mr Shearer’s new line-up is announced.
The Pack are well rewarded. Ms Fenton and Ms Curran both rise two places in the pecking order, while Mr Twyford goes up three to take a seat on the front bench. Megan Woods enters the top twenty – a back-bencher no longer. Andrew Little rises with her. Mr Shearer’s chief swordsman, Chris Hipkins, climbs five places to claim the shadow portfolio of Education from Mr Cunliffe’s running-mate, Nanaia Mahuta.
Ms Dalziel’s eloquence on behalf of rank-and-file democracy is rewarded with demotion to the back benches.
Mr Cunliffe remains outside the magic circle.
In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express all the suspects are shown to have wielded the fatal knife. Labour’s MPs seem equally impressed by the advantages of collectivised bloodletting.
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, 1 March 2013.