Tuesday 30 April 2013

Why Isn't The Left As Angry As The Right?

If You Want To Get Even - Get Mad! The Government's response to the Labour-Green Opposition's energy plan may not have been very rational, but it certainly conveyed the message to it's followers that their opponents had crossed a line and "there will be blood". What is it that prevents the Left from deploying the same kind of political rage?
“ECONOMIC SABOTAGE!” “North Korean Economics!” “Half-Baked Soviet Union-Style Nationalisation!” The right-wing rhetorical explosions that greeted the Opposition’s new energy policy were as entertaining as they were ludicrous.
But, they were also highly revealing.
When the Right’s economic and social achievements are threatened, its response is both immediate and dramatic. No accusation – no matter how absurd – is ruled out as a response. Its enemies are left in absolutely no doubt that they have crossed a line and that, rhetorically, at least, “there will be blood”.
The Left’s response to attacks on its own achievements, by contrast, is rather bloodless.
Had Labour and the Greens felt as strongly about defending workers’ rights as National and ACT clearly feel about the sanctity of markets, their response to the Government’s proposed changes to New Zealand’s employment laws would have been very different.
The amendments announced by Labour Minister, Simon Bridges, last Friday, rip the guts out of the Clark-Anderton Government’s mild-mannered Employment Relations Act (2000). If passed, the brutal regime set up by the Fourth National Government’s Employment Contracts Act will be restored. New Zealand’s formal commitment to international conventions guaranteeing the right of workers to bargain collectively – already tenuous – will be further diminished.
All in all, a pretty reasonable days’ work for Mr Bridges, who has clearly set out to impress his senior Cabinet colleagues as the ‘go-to-guy’ for all those unpleasant and unpopular jobs that have to be done quickly, efficiently and without flinching.
National’s big-business backers are always on the lookout for someone prepared to present their ideological butcher’s-bill to the voters. If the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, and Mr Bridges’ earlier, draconian, response to deep sea drilling protests are any indication, they may have found their man.
Indeed, this latest legislative flurry from Mr Bridges signals the arrival of an unusually bold and ruthless political operator. As someone once said of that other ‘Young Turk’ in a hurry, Sir Robert Muldoon: “This little man, he will bigger get.”
So, you might think that political and legislative threats on such a scale would see the Left unlimbering its heaviest rhetorical guns. In the spirit of National’s splenetic response to the release of the Opposition’s energy plans, you could forgive Labour and the Greens for going all-out with headline-grabbers like:
“National’s Anti-Union Bill Channels General Pinochet!” “Fascist-Style Legislation Will Hurt Kiwi Workers!” “Far-Right Thinking Inspires National’s Attack On Union Movement!”
Nothing of the sort appeared.
The Council of Trade Unions’ President, Helen Kelly, and Labour’s Employment Relations spokesperson, Darien Fenton, both defaulted immediately to Cassandra mode. All manner of dire consequences for working people were predicted should Mr Bridges’ legislation be passed. But, neither woman was prepared to engage in the kind of no-holds-barred, red-in-tooth-and-claw ideological warfare immediately reverted to by their right-wing opponents. 

Far from declaring all-out war on Mr Bridges and his right-wing business supporters, Ms Kelly asked, instead, for employer assistance:
“I don’t expect the national business organisations to do anything but support this. I hope some major employers will speak out against it as some did the youth rates. It is time for a better approach to work in this country – today is a giant step backwards.”
Ms Fenton’s media release didn’t go that far but it was deafeningly silent on what Labour’s response to Mr Bridges’ assault would be – apart, of course, from voting against it in Parliament:
“Labour will oppose this legislation. The New Zealand labour market needs hands-on policies that help create decent work and fairness, not this return to failed policies of the past.”
But a return to the policies of the past is, arguably, exactly what Labour should do! The prime targets of the Employment Contracts Act were: universal union membership; the system of national “awards” (collective contracts covering whole occupational groups); and the right to strike.
At the very least, trade unionists might expect “their” political party to give back what National and its employer allies went to such extreme lengths to take away!
How to explain this left-wing passivity? Why is even the trade union movement’s peak organisation, the CTU, so loath to defend its members with the commitment and aggression now so evident on the right?
Its behaviour points clearly to the existence, at the very heart of the New Zealand Left, of deep-seated ideological doubt: a profound degree of uncertainty which is influencing not only the level of confidence which the CTU and the Labour Party have in themselves, but also the confidence they are willing to place in their members and voters. Unlike their right-wing opponents, they no longer appear to be very sure what is the right thing to do, or which is the right way to go.
While this lack of conviction on the Left persists, the passionate intensity of the Right will go on winning.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 April 2013.

Friday 26 April 2013

The Living And The Dead (ANZAC Day 2013)

Mythos At Work: Collective memorialisation, or mythos, takes our basic values and attitudes and re-fashions them into the patterns of memory and meaning that re-present the past. ANZAC Day's cultural entrenchment is proof that the mythic transformation of this historical moment is almost complete. Waitangi Day, by contrast, remains a living issue whose meaning is yet to be settled.

THE LAST NOTES of The Last Post have faded into the dawn skies of ANZAC Day for another year. The words of Laurence Binyon’s poetic tribute, For the Fallen, have been intoned with due solemnity, and thousands of young New Zealanders, most of them blessedly untouched by war, have again repeated its final pledge: “We will remember them.”
Moments of sombre ceremony, in which old and young, past and present, are drawn together in the embrace of collective memorialisation, or mythos, are precious to all cultures. It is why, even in such a resolutely secular nation as New Zealand, christenings, marriages and funerals retain such enormous emotional power. And, almost certainly, it explains why sixty percent of New Zealanders say ANZAC Day means more to them than Waitangi Day.
But human memory is a most unreliable transmitter of truth. Indeed, what tends to get transmitted in ceremonies like the ones we engage in on ANZAC Day has almost nothing at all to do with historical reality.
Taken Binyon’s famous poem, for example.
Loaded upon that final, endlessly-quoted stanza of For the Fallen is all the consciousness of waste and horror that the peoples of the participating nations, ever since the guns fell silent in 1918, have brought to their assessment of World War One. The image conveyed in the words, “at the going down of the sun”, is not merely one of a descending star, but of something much closer to home: of countless fallen sons; a broken generation; the ending of an age.
And that is how mythos works. It takes our basic values and attitudes and re-fashions them into the patterns of memory and meaning that re-present the past.
Binyon’s poem, written in the thrilling weeks that followed the out-break of war in August 1914, and published a month later in The Times, was romantic nonsense.
Consider these lines:
Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal,
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation,
And a glory that shines upon her tears.
And then consider how all those thousands of young men, “straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow”, actually died. Choking on their own blood. Drowning in pools of stinking mud. Slowly, in agony, on the wire. The only music in no-man’s land was the staccato chatter of the machine-guns. Nothing there you’d call “august and royal”; no “glory that shines”; no one to dry the tears of eighteen year-old boys whose last word was almost always: “Mother.”
Binyon’s actual poem, written before World War One took on the hideous aspect that still appals us, bears no resemblance to the poem we recite on ANZAC Day. That poem was written by the men who came back, and by the mothers of the boys who didn’t. It was written by the old men who pondered the empty pews in the local church, the empty tables at the local pub, the empty positions in the local Rugby team.
Mythos wrote The Ode of Remembrance.
But mythos has not yet re-written Waitangi Day. Unlike ANZAC Day it has yet to congeal into ceremony and solemnity. Waitangi Day is still a living thing: it’s “truths” unsettled. As a nation, we are still working on the patterns of memory and meaning in which the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi will, eventually, be enmeshed.
In every community the grim obelisks stand, bearing the names of the fallen and registering the myriad futures that were never fulfilled. In the chill dawn of every ANZAC Day we have a duty to remember them. Not as the tragic, self-sacrificing heroes that mythos has turned them into, but as they really were: teenage boys who died far from home for old men’s dreams of empire and dominion.
And on the morning of Waitangi Day, filled as it always is with rancour and resentment, pride and protest, give thanks that New Zealand’s future is still ours to make.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 April 2013.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Live From Gallipoli

Raw Uncensored Images: How long could the slaughter of World War I have continued if the people back home had been able to see what was going on? Could Gallipoli happen today?
TRY TO IMAGINE the New Zealand public’s response to a Gallipoli campaign unfolding in the glare of modern communications technology, and being judged according to the Twenty-First Century citizen’s ideas about war, peace, and patriotism.
It’s dawn on Sunday 25 April 1915, and more than three thousand New Zealand soldiers are preparing to assault the precipitous flanks of the Gallipoli peninsula. Within 48 hours, 241 of them will be dead and 690 wounded.
The electronic media embedded with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force are prevented from broadcasting these facts by Bill Massey’s panic-stricken government. But, to the utter dismay of the Prime Minister, many of the soldiers have smuggled cell-phones ashore in their kit-bags. Almost instantly, vivid images of the carnage are being posted on the Internet.
Heart-wrenching messages sent to loved ones by young men dying of terrible wounds shock and horrify their friends and family. The nation reels in horror from the awful evidence of death and disfigurement.
All over the country, candle-lit vigils are organised to honour the fallen. Thousands gather in city parks and in front of Parliament. Angry speeches are made by the families and friends of those killed. People are demanding to know why so many New Zealanders are dying in someone else’s country.
Increasingly the question is raised: why did the leaders of Britain, France and Russia object to the Austrians’ attempt to shut down the terrorists operating under the protection of the Serbian Government? After all, wasn’t it the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire who was assassinated at Sarajevo last June? If the Prince of Wales had been killed by international terrorists, can anyone imagine the British Government giving up the opportunity to punish those responsible?
The television coverage coming in by satellite – though heavily censored – is sufficiently graphic to make clear the enormity of the blunders committed by the British High Command. Landed on the wrong beach. A lack of cover for the troops. The fatal under-estimation of the quality of the Turkish infantry and their German advisers. The pictures beamed back from Gallipoli make it very clear that our troops are trapped in the middle of a full-scale military disaster.
And every day more soldiers die. Within a fortnight of the landings, there’s hardly a family in New Zealand who doesn’t know someone who has lost a son or brother in Gallipoli’s twisting gullies, or on the bare, exposed ridges of its sun-baked hills.
Awkward questions are being asked. Why are we dying for the Tsar of Russia? Why are we attempting to break open the gates of Constantinople for a man who gunned down thousands of his own subjects in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg?
What role did the French Government play in the outbreak of war? The French President and his Foreign Minister were both in St Petersburg in the days immediately following the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination? What did they promise the Tsar? Before embarking for Paris did they secretly promise Russia France’s total support?
Was that why Nicholas II (a notoriously indecisive man) felt confident enough to order the mobilisation of his armed forces? And didn’t that require Germany to mobilise in defence of Austria?
Faced with a two front war what else could the German High Command be expected to do except attempt to defeat France quickly by attacking through Belgium?
Why didn’t Sir Edward Grey act more decisively to prevent the descent into war? Was it because the Foreign Office was determined to prevent Germany exploiting the oil fields of the Ottoman Empire? Were Anzacs killing Turks to prevent Germans building a railway from Berlin to Baghdad?
In 1915 no one asked such questions. It was a different world. Young soldiers marched off to die for King and Country, and the nation cheered them on. As the number killed at Gallipoli climbed to a staggering 2,721, and recruitment collapsed, Massey readied the country for conscription. And the stoical New Zealand public endured it all.
The idea that their sons were dying in a wrong cause was as inconceivable then, as it is probable now.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 27 April 2007.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

From Customers To Voters: Drawing The Line Against Energy Profiteers

Drawing The Line Against Misconduct: Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt (1858-1919) twenty-sixth President of the USA and champion of the progressive regulation of America's over-mighty corporations and their "robber baron" proprietors. The Labour-Green plan for regulating the New Zealand energy market falls squarely within the Rooseveltian tradition.
IN ITS BROADEST SENSE, socialism is about putting society’s needs ahead of the market’s choices. Indeed, socialism comes into being only when it makes more sense to be a voter than a customer: a citizen than a consumer. In this sense, at least, the Chief Executive of Mighty River Power, Doug Heffernan, is right: the Labour-Green policy package, Energising New Zealand, is “a socialist consumer model”.
But, the economic commentator, Bernard Hickey, is also right when he says:
“In the world of corporate and government relations there’s a vague concept referred to as a ‘licence to operate’. It means that large companies or departments know there’s only so far you can push the public and politicians before they react by, in effect, removing that licence to operate and regulating profits lower.”
That point has been reached many times before in history, and the result has always been the same: the large companies and departments lose.
The period of American history spanning 1890 to 1910 was known as the “Gilded Age”. The fruits of America’s break-neck industrialisation had been captured by an infinitesimally small percentage of the population. These “robber barons”, as they came to be called, flaunted their unprecedented wealth by constructing mansions and castles modelled on those of the European aristocracy. Names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie became synonymous not only with great fortunes, but with great power.
Too much power.
Curbing the power of the robber barons of the Gilded Age was the mission of the US political movement known as “Progressivism”. It’s most effective advocate was President Theodore Roosevelt. His summation of the Progressive Movement’s attitude to the great American corporations provides a useful, and eloquent, definition of the licence of operate:
“Our aim is not to do away with corporations; on the contrary, these big aggregations are an inevitable development of modern industrialism, and the effort to destroy them would be futile unless accomplished in ways that would work the utmost mischief to the entire body politic. We can do nothing of good in the way of regulating and supervising these corporations until we fix clearly in our minds that we are not attacking the corporations, but endeavouring to do away with any evil in them. We are not hostile to them; we are merely determined that they shall be so handled as to subserve the public good. We draw the line against misconduct, not against wealth.”
“[S]o handled as to subserve the public good.” It’s a line Labour and the Greens would do well to borrow and develop. Because the opposite of “subserve” is “subvert” – and to demonstrate the meaning of subversion in relation to electricity pricing, they need only describe what happened in California when its energy needs were left to the tender mercies of an over-mighty US corporation called Enron.
Enron was revealed to be a corporation in which “misconduct” bordering on “evil” was the surest route to promotion and profit. Inevitably, the people of the United States (and of California especially) “drew the line” and Enron’s licence to operate was withdrawn.
The system of electricity pricing operating in California today is strikingly similar to the system being proposed by Labour and the Greens.
There’s a very good reason for emulating the Californians. Our energy companies may not be as red in tooth and claw as Enron, but the quantum of “super-profits” which they have extracted from the long-suffering New Zealand consumer is truly staggering.
Research undertaken for the NZ Commerce Commission by American energy expert, Professor Frank Wolak, and published in 2009, concluded that “over a period of some six and a half years the generators have exercised their substantial market power to earn market rents estimated conservatively to be $4.3 billion.”
As trade union leader, Matt McCarten, put it: “That’s $1000 profit for every man, woman and child.”
Clearly, New Zealanders have lost themselves a great deal of money by submitting docilely to the roles of consumer and customer. Voices crying in the wilderness – most particularly those belonging to long-time energy campaigners Molly Mellish and Geoff Bertram – have been telling us for years to wake up and realise how much it’s been costing us to smell the coffee.
To the undoubted relief of Molly and Geoff, Labour and Green policy-makers have finally begun to listen and now we, the consumers and customers of wildly over-priced electricity, are being invited to put aside those passive identities and become, instead, active citizens and voters.
In 2014 the Opposition parties have invited the New Zealand electorate to revoke Mighty River Power’s, Genesis Energy’s, Meridian Energy’s and Contact Energy’s licence to operate as unfettered super-profiteers. As citizens and voters we’ll finally be empowered to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s advice: drawing a line against our energy generators’ social misconduct and subserving them to the public good.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 April 2013.

Friday 19 April 2013

Let Liberty Be Our Shield

How Much Love We Could Show: Norway's response to terrorism was to call for more openness, more democracy and, yes, more love. When it comes to the power of government, Thomas Jefferson warned, "the people themselves are its only safe respositories".
THE UNITED STATES Department of Homeland Security, dangerously overloaded with surveillance and interception powers, could not save the Boston Marathon. But, then, no one could have saved the Boston Marathon. Short of imposing a monitoring regime of Orwellian proportions – one which would utterly obliterate all civil rights and democratic freedoms – no state can promise its citizens absolute safety.
The world is a dangerous place.
Assailed by its dangers, the most important thing a government can do is make sure that by its actions it does not contribute to the world becoming a less free or a more oppressive place.
When New Zealand experienced its last terrorist attack – the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 – the first response of the David Lange-led Labour Government was not to bring down a series of draconian “security” measures. His instinct was to allow the NZ Police to get on with their job.
Note that: the NZ Police. Not the NZ Security Intelligence Service, and certainly not the Government Communications Security Bureau. Those agencies had proved completely worthless as protectors of New Zealand’s national security.
In spite of our membership of the UKUSA Agreement, and after years of loyal (some would say sycophantic) service to our Cold War “allies”, not one of them saw fit to warn us that a French “Black Ops” team was about to launch a deadly attack on a British registered vessel moored peacefully at an Auckland wharf.
A Deadly Blow: Neither the SIS, the GCSB, nor any of New Zealand's so-called "allies", provided the New Zealand government with the slightest warning that the French were planning to attack the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior when it docked in Auckland. The culprits were identified by the NZ Police - aided by the New Zealand people.
And the NZ Police – magnificently assisted by a host of Kiwi sticky-beaks – did a splendid job. Indeed, if our Aussie “mates” had held the French “getaway boat” in Norfolk Island (as the New Zealand authorities had requested) then we would have nabbed the whole gang.
Why were the Police so successful? Because New Zealanders trusted them. When the Police asked for help in apprehending the people who had done this (because, let’s not forget, French saboteurs’ bombs had taken the life of Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira) everyone who harboured even the slightest suspicion of “Swiss” newly-weds, or who’d noticed anything remotely out of the ordinary on the night of 10 July 1985, did not hesitate to call the cops.
No gang of terrorists can escape the surveillance of an entire nation. “National Security” only has meaning if we are all, collectively, determined to preserve it.
In 2011, the Norwegians gave the world additional proof. The response of Norway’s government to the shocking slaying of 77 of its citizens – many of them teenagers – by a right-wing racist terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, was very different from that of the United States Government in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
At a memorial service in Oslo Cathedral, the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, declared: “We must not allow this attack to hurt Norwegian democracy: the proper answer to such violence is more democracy, more openness … No one has said it better than the [young woman] who was interviewed by CNN: ‘If one man can show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together.’”
And stand together they did. In Oslo, on 25 July 2011, more than 200,000 people gathered to show their solidarity for the victims of Breivik’s savagery, and to demonstrate their commitment to Norway’s proud traditions of social and political democracy.
“Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone”, wrote the author of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. “The people themselves are its only safe depositories.”
How depressing that John Key, so strong an admirer of all things American in every other respect, should place so little value on the words of America’s most illustrious Founding Father.
How unfortunate that the example of his own country’s, and Norway’s, democratic response to terrorism has been lost on him.
How disappointing to see our liberties sacrificed to the Prime Minister’s reactionary notions of security.
And, how extraordinarily insulting to hear Mr Key justify empowering the GCSB to spy on his fellow citizens with some uncorroborated story about Weapons of Mass Destruction. (As if that alarmist excuse had not failed its deceitful fabricators’ once before!)
It was Benjamin Franklin who wrote: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Another American Founding Father we’d all do well to heed.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 April 2013.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Testing The Anglo-Saxons

Know Thy Enemies: China's Nineteenth Century history recommends a thorough process of getting to know exactly who and what you're dealing with. The Celestial Kingdom's disdain for "Foreign Barbarians" did not work out so well. New Zealand offers the Chinese Government a risk-free environment in which to master the idiosyncrasies of the Anglo-Saxon cultures challenged by its rising economic power.
THE PRIME MINISTER has given his recent trip to China a perfect score.
“They have really given us great access, they are totally committed to moving the relationship on, there has been a real opportunity to renew friendships and understandings with the new leadership team and we’ve announced things that will make a difference here.
“I think it’s a 10 out of 10.”
There can be no disputing the value which the People’s Republic places upon its relationship with New Zealand. What we offer our now pivotal trading partner is access to a fully developed, English-speaking, democratic, capitalist society. With our tiny population and strategic irrelevance, China can test and refine here the techniques it must perfect if its increasingly up-close-and-personal interactions with the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia are to bear diplomatic and commercial fruit.
More bluntly, China has chosen New Zealand as its testing-ground. Mistakes made here can simply be written-off to experience. New Zealand is too small (and too dependent on the Chinese demand for its dairy products) to impose any kind of effective sanctions on the Chinese state.
What we do have, however, is the ability to reveal the pitfalls awaiting China in jurisdictions large enough to inflict serious damage on both its government and economy. Though we may only be its smallest digit, New Zealand remains one of the five fingers of the Anglo-Saxon fist. And if the exponential growth of China’s productive capacity has reduced its economic power, the Anglo-Saxon Fist still packs an unanswerable military punch.
As a policy, pissing-off the Anglo-Saxon’s has not served the Chinese state well in the past, and is most unlikely to do so for the foreseeable future.
And that’s where we come in.
How will the citizens of the Anglo-Saxon states respond to large-scale land purchases by state-owned, or capitalised, Chinese corporations? That is something the big-wigs in Beijing should probably know before allowing their surrogates to buy up half of Herefordshire or Ohio.
And, thanks to New Zealand, they have been given a pretty good idea. Though far greater chunks of the New Zealand landscape had been hocked-off to Americans, Canadians, Indonesians and Israelis, the very idea that even a tiny amount of New Zealand farmland might end up in Chinese hands was enough to bring Kiwis out in a rash.
New Zealand’s bi-partisan commitment to keeping Sino-New Zealand relations harmonious was sufficient to prevent any large-scale political exploitation of that popular antagonism. Even so, China’s rulers had been given a taste of the sort of reaction likely to greet large-scale Chinese land purchases in English-speaking countries containing political classes less constrained by considerations of size and economic dependence. The far-right of the US Republican Party, for example. Or, the frankly xenophobic “backwoodsmen” of the British Conservative Party.
A recent news-story (published in The Sunday Star-Times of 14 April 2013) offers the Beijing authorities another opportunity to test the political and social reactions of Anglo-Saxons to Chinese ideas and aspirations.
Mr Easter Wu, a prominent figure in the New Zealand Chinese business community, has apparently been campaigning for the right to pay immigrant workers less than the statutory minimum wage. In advocating that his compatriots engage in what is a clear breach of New Zealand employment law, Mr Wu confined himself to Chinese-language media outlets.
Now that his comments: “How much you are worth is how much you get. You got an $8 skill, I pay you $8.”, have been translated into English, the response of ordinary New Zealanders is likely to be extremely hostile.
Not only has Mr Wu been using his high media profile in the expatriate Chinese community to suggest that Chinese employers should ignore the laws of the country in which they have been permitted to operate, but he has also, wittingly or unwittingly, raised up the spectre, in the minds of native-born New Zealanders, that Chinese business leaders are conspiring to undermine their wages and conditions. With New Zealand currently experiencing high levels of unemployment, such behaviour has the potential to produce an ugly and diplomatically unhelpful anti-Chinese backlash.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Mr Wu’s campaigning is that China’s diplomatic representatives in New Zealand appear to have made no attempt to rein-in their wayward compatriot. Within the Chinese Embassy there will certainly be officers tasked with the close monitoring of the local Chinese-language news media. It is very puzzling (to say the least) that the Embassy does not appear to have taken Mr Wu aside and warned him about the very serious consequences his campaigning risked unleashing.
Then again, it’s possible this unwillingness to intervene reflects the Chinese Government’s interest in discovering how Anglo-Saxons react to the idea that Chinese employers should be allowed to operate outside the law.
If so, we should let them know.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 April 2013.

Friday 12 April 2013

Staying The Course: The Legacy Of Margaret Thatcher

Thatcher's Legacy: Margaret Thatcher tested the British Left - and found it wanting. The most pernicious of all her legacies is the damage she inflicted upon the ideological integrity of the British Labour Party. Rather than repudiate Thatcherism, Tony Blair's "New" Labour Party accepted it as an irreversible historical reality.

DE MORTUIS nil nisi bonum – of the dead speak only good – is a compassionate maxim. I’m not sure Margaret Thatcher would have followed it, but in writing about the late British Prime Minister, I will do my best.
Perhaps the kindest (and certainly the truest) observation I can offer about Baroness Thatcher is that she tested the British Left and found it wanting.
So absolute has “Thatcherism’s” ideological triumph been that few now remember how little prospect of success the British Conservative Party’s new leader was granted – even by her colleagues.
The 1970s represented the high-water mark of the Left’s success in the English-speaking world. Even as late as 1979 – the year in which Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime-minister – the ideology we know today as neoliberalism was dismissed as extremist folly by practically all “serious” public intellectuals (including a number on the Right). If the Keynesian economic policies that had underpinned thirty years of post-war prosperity no longer seemed to be working, the cure was generally supposed to lie in a shift to the Left – not in a lurch rightwards to the laissez-faire precepts of the Victorian era.
In this context, the election of the Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative Government was interpreted not as some sort of ideological sea-change, but as the British working-class’s angry response to the multiple economic and political failures of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government.
Under the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the Conservatives had (as always) benefited from the large number of votes cast for the Liberal Party. But the size of the Conservatives’ majority in the House of Commons by no means reflected the party’s share of the popular vote. With 13.6 million votes (43.9 percent) the Conservatives enjoyed a clear plurality, but the party’s tally was still well below that of the 15.8 million votes cast for their opponents – Labour and the Liberals.
Baroness Thatcher’s admirers may be loathe to admit it, but at no time in her eleven year reign did the Conservative Party’s neoliberal programme ever attract more than the 43.9 percent it received in 1979.
What she was able to do, however, was unite the Right's plurality and bind it ever-more-tightly to the Conservative Party’s radical economic and social programme. The middle-class voters who, under the hapless Ted Heath, had all but given up hope that the “lower orders” would ever be put back in their proper place, were both inspired and invigorated by the Tories’ “Iron Lady”.
This unity on the Right was not, however, answered by unity on the Left. The right of the Labour Party simply wasn’t willing to follow Tony Benn into the radical territory dictated by the party’s socialist ideology. Egged on by the right-wing British media (which needed no assistance in recognising an opportunity to divide and conquer when it saw one) the 15-17 million British voters who opposed Thatcherism fruitlessly divvied up their support between Labour, the Liberal Party and the Labour Right’s breakaway Social Democratic Party.
In sociological terms this splitting of the Left reflected the professional middle-classes’ political refusal to surrender either their status (or their taxes!) to working-class people. When the chips were down (and Thatcherism made damn sure the chips were always down) even these ostensibly “conscience-driven” members of the British bourgeoisie refused to recognise working-class Britons as their social and intellectual equals.
As Margaret Thatcher set about defeating the organised working-class in the mines and factories, their middle-class "comrades" were waging a parallel campaign of class warfare inside the Labour Party.
Thatcherism’s ultimate triumph, therefore, is not represented in Britain’s pulverised trade unions and privatised industries (unions can be rebuilt, industries can be renationalised) but in the person of Tony Blair and his ideologically de-fanged “New” Labour Party.
“You turn if you want to.” Margaret Thatcher famously told the 1980 Conservative Party Conference. “The Lady’s not for turning!”
If only the British Left had been equally determined to stay the course.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News. The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 April 2013.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

We Know HOW Ian Fletcher Was Appointed, Now We Need To Know WHY

Corporate Protector: GCSB Director, Ian Fletcher. Our spies’ principal mission used to be the defence of the realm. Today’s GCSB is about the protection of corporate property.

ANDREA VANCE, political correspondent for The Sunday Star-Times, is probably right about “Fletchergate”. In her latest Sunday Politics column she predicts: “By the time Key returns from China, the Beltway will have moved on (as most of the rest of the public did days ago) until the auditor-general decides whether to investigate.”
If by “moved on” Ms Vance means “being diverted by something new”, few would disagree. We live in an age of twenty-four hour news cycles. Hour by fleeting hour, newsmakers and journalists alike are confronted with the ravening media beast’s unassuageable need to feed. Old news tends to get spat out in disgust.
But if by “moved on” she means “forgotten” or “lost interest” I think Ms Vance is mistaken. The peculiar story of the present Director of the Government Communications and Security Bureau’s (GCSB) Ian Fletcher’s, manner of appointment has left a deep impression not only on those whose job it is to follow politics (whom Ms Vance dismisses, rather contemptuously, as “the Beltway”) but also “the rest of the public”.
Indeed, the best summary of the whole affair I’ve heard was voiced last Friday by my hairdresser’s young assistant: “Got his friend the job and then pretended he hadn’t.” Sometimes I think our eyes and ears in the Parliamentary Press Gallery underestimate their own effectiveness as journalists!
The other observation I would make concerning Ms Vance’s world-weary prophesying about Fletchergate is that it runs the serious risk of being self-fulfilling. If the Press Gallery allows itself to be moved on – “nothing to see here, move along” – then the public will be left knowing quite a lot about the deficiencies of how Mr Fletcher ended up being appointed, but very little about why.
And given the nature of Mr Fletcher’s job, understanding why he was considered the only man for the job is of considerably more importance than whether the Prime Minister or the State Services Commissioner should have made the call that led to his appointment.
As John Key so colourfully summed up his view of Mr Fletcher’s suitability: “This isn’t some bunny we’ve pulled out of a hat!”
The Prime Minister’s quite correct. Mr Fletcher is very far from being a bunny. Indeed, the GCSB Director’s curriculum vitae makes for very interesting reading.
He is one of those Kiwis who, upon leaving our shores, sprouted wings and flew very high. Given the Prime Minister’s similar record of success, it is hardly surprising that, since taking office in 2008, he has done all he can to bring such high-flyers home.
But, to move the story forward to the “why” of Mr Fletcher’s appointment, what we need to know is which skills and experiences in particular – out of the many and varied talents Mr Fletcher clearly possesses – prompted Mr Key to pick up the phone?
To answer that question, we would need to know why the four individuals short-listed for interviews by the State Services Commission’s recruitment firm were deemed unsuitable. Obviously, that firm had been given a very clear idea of the GCSB Director’s job description and made its choices accordingly. But, equally obviously, there was another, undisclosed, description of the Director’s role for which none of the four candidates were suited.
It is, I believe, possible to infer from the public criticisms of the former GCSB Director, Sir Bruce Fergusson, that individuals suited for the GCSB that was (primarily a receiver and deliverer of military signals intelligence for the US National Security Agency) were not required by State Services Commissioner, Ian Rennie. The person appointed needed to be someone capable of forging a new GCSB – informed by a more contemporary intelligence-gathering culture.
The new world of espionage is no longer about intercepting Al Qaida’s latest plots. According to Stuart McMillian, writing in the National Business Review of 28/3/13: “it is the theft of intellectual property and commercial information that is causing concern”.
Intellectual property and commercial information feature prominently in Mr Fletcher’s career as a senior UK civil servant. They were also the primary drivers behind the Kim Dotcom extradition case.
Our spies’ principal mission used to be the defence of the realm. Today’s GCSB is about the protection of corporate property. As Mr McMillan noted a fortnight ago: “The government has established a group to protect major NZ infrastructure … This group is based within the Government Communications Security Bureau.”
Was Mr Fletcher ready for such a role?
Between 2002 and 2004 he was private-secretary to Sir Andrew Turnbull, the UK Cabinet Secretary. Historically, the Cabinet Secretary was the civil servant responsible for watching over the Security Forces – a responsibility Sir Andrew relinquished by delegation in the months preceding Tony Blair’s decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq.
I’d say Mr Fletcher was ready for today’s GCSB.
Definitely worth a prime-ministerial telephone call.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 April 2013.

Monday 8 April 2013

Not Debating The Constitution

The Sound of One hand Clapping: The taxpayer funded "Constitutional Conversation" has so far demonstrated little inclination to facilitate a genuine debate on the Treaty's already entrenched place in the legal, administrative and political life of New Zealand. This unwillingness to either recognise or supply a visible platform for the nay-sayers betrays the "Conversation's" essential artificiality. A manufactured consensus is no substitute for a bloody good argument.
I DON’T GET ANGRY very often. I’ve been around too long, seen history repeat itself too many times, for all that malarkey. Just occasionally, however, I stumble across something that truly infuriates me.
Like discussions billed as debates where everybody is actually on the same side.
No, I’m not talking about TV3’s “The Vote”. What’s got my dander up is a four-part series being hosted by the NZ Centre for Public Law (NZCPL) entitled “Debating the Constitution”. All four encounters to be broadcast subsequently on Radio NZ National.
And, yes, the series is indeed a response to the Constitutional Review which emerged from the horse-trading between the National and Maori parties following the 2008 General Election.
The same review that has been the occasion for more than a little teeth-gnashing among those Pakeha who have declared themselves perfectly happy with New Zealand’s present constitutional arrangements, thank you very much, and who have voiced deep suspicions of both the motives behind its creation and the outcomes intended by its protagonists.
Now, you might be thinking: Well there’s the opportunity for a genuine, rip-snorting debate! And I’d be the first to agree. There are a host of noisy individuals who would’ve leapt at the opportunity to voice their doubts and suspicions concerning the whole Constitutional Review initiative.
And that’s what has got me all hot under the collar.
I’ve examined the personnel invited to participate in this exercise by the NZCPL and can I find any of the names associated with the political movement that has sprung up to oppose the Constitutional Review?
No, I can’t.
And it’s not as though it would have been at all that difficult for the NZCPL to locate these folk. All it needed to do was send out invitations to the membership of the defiantly christened “Independent Constitutional Review Panel” – a ready-made Negative Team comprising Professors Martin Devlin and James Allan; Associate Professor, Elizabeth Rata; Law Lecturer, David Round; journalist and author, Mike Butler; and the former Act MP, Muriel Newman.
Well, I looked through the list of “Debating the Constitution” participants and not even one member of the Independent Constitutional Review Panel was included.
The names I did see surprised me not at all. Before my eyes was a veritable roll-call of the good and the great; the wise and the just; the righteously indigenous and the guilty descendants of the Maori people’s wicked colonial oppressors.
Here’s a sneak peek at just some of the NZCPL’s line-up: Dame Claudia Orange, Sir Geoffrey and Dr Matthew Palmer, Moana Jackson, Dr Maria Bargh, Professors Margaret Wilson, Elizabeth McLeay and Andrew Geddis, Jim Bolger and Colin James.
Now, don’t get me wrong, every one of these illustrious individuals is capable of contributing mightily to a polite “discussion” of our constitutional arrangements. More than a few of them could also say much that was useful about its origins and political ramifications. But, seriously, do any of them strike you as people likely to hoe into the Review with the passion of its self-identified opponents?
The NZCPL’s list of speakers is not going to generate a debate on this important topic. No, these folk are going to deliver an academic seminar on the exercise to an audience which will almost certainly be comprised of like and equally lofty minds.
It was only after my father was posted to Wellington in 1969 that I encountered the delicious word “twee”. From the moment I heard it used in a sentence I have cherished it. No other word in the English language captures the mixture of exclusivity and effeteness that twee so wonderfully expresses.
And twee is exactly the right word to describe this series of debates-that-aren’t-debates.
What could have been a down-and-dirty verbal slug-fest; a chance for these grand personages to endure a rare encounter with New Zealanders who most emphatically do not share their “sound” views on the Treaty of Waitangi, bi-culturalism and New Zealand history; an opportunity to squeeze all the poisons inflaming the open wound that is New Zealand race relations into public view – has been missed.
And that not only makes me angry, it also makes me sad.
As a people, we used to be more open and courageous than this. When Jack was a good as any snooty professor, and a debate was still a bloody good argument.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 April 2013.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

The Paradox Of The Free Market

Non-Market Player: A Greenpeace protester position's himself in the path of the Orient Explorer as part of the ultimately successful campaign to drive deep-sea oil prospector, Petrobras, out of the Raukumara Basin. The National Government now proposes to make such protests illegal. It is the great paradox of "free" markets that they require an ever-stronger state to keep them functioning.

AT THE HEART of the so-called “free market” is a puzzling paradox.
Around the world, the justification for implementing free market policies was said to be the damaging effects of state intervention on economic performance. In his inaugural address, that arch free-marketeer, President Ronald Reagan, warned his fellow Americans that “Government isn’t the solution … Government is the problem.”
For prosperity to be guaranteed, argued the free marketeers, the power of the state must be curtailed, and its interfering hands forcefully removed from the economic levers.
The paradox of the free market lies in the political implications of those two words: “curtailed” and “forcefully”.
To prevent non-market players from intervening in the economic life of society and increase the scope and freedom of market forces, the power of the state must not, under any circumstances, be “curtailed”. Quite the opposite, in fact: to protect the operations of the free market, the capacity of the State to act “forcefully” must be increased.
The latest proof of the free-market paradox comes in the form of an announcement from Energy and Resources Minister, Simon Bridges.
In his media statement of 31 March, Mr Bridges states:
“The Government is proposing stronger measures to protect offshore petroleum and minerals activity from unlawful interference”.
In a Supplementary Order Paper to the Crown Minerals (Permitting and Crown Land) Bill the Cabinet has provided for a firming up of the protection available to “lawful offshore petroleum and minerals activity”. The SOP, to be tabled in Parliament, also gives new enforcement powers to police and defence force personnel.
Explaining the Government’s decision, Mr Bridges points to recent attempts to “seriously disrupt lawful mining and related activities”. Such actions, says the Minister, “impose significant costs on companies carrying out legitimate activities under permits, and present very serious health hazards and safety risks”.
Those “recent activities” no doubt refer to the successful 2012 campaign by Greenpeace and a local Maori organisation, Te Whanau a Apanui, to disrupt and dissuade the giant, state-owned Brazilian energy company, Petrobras, from continuing its deep-sea oil prospecting in the Raukumara Basin off East Cape.
The most effective protest action of the Greenpeace/ Te Whanau a Apanui Campaign involved a small flotilla of seven boats sailing into Petrobras’s prospecting zone and taking up positions around its large survey vessel, the Orient Explorer.
When a local Maori fisherman, Elvis Teddy, steered his own vessel, the San Pietro, across the Orient Explorer’s path, dropping buoys and long-lines, the National-led Government authorised the Police and New Zealand Defence Force naval units to move in and arrest him.
Powerful Combination: Elvis Teddy's San Pietro sails towards its confrontation with the Orient Explorer. The pairing of Greenpeace and Te Whanau a Apanui proved to be a winning political formula in the campaign against deep-sea oil prospecting off East Cape.
To the Government’s dismay, the charges against Mr Teddy were later dropped. The Court declined jurisdiction because the protest action took place outside New Zealand’s twelve nautical miles territorial limit.
Earlier this year, on 13 January, Petrobras announced it was pulling out of New Zealand.
Minister Bridges “stronger measures” are designed to prevent any further protest interventions along the lines of those developed by Greenpeace/ Te Whanau A Apanui.
“The changes address a gap in the current legislation. They provide an effective deterrent, and readily workable operational powers, to act against unlawful interference with legitimate exploration and production activities.” Mr Bridges stated.
Future protest groups face jail sentences and massive fines if they violate a “notified minimum non-interference distance” of up to 500 metres.
What just happened here?
The National-led Government is keen to develop energy potential of the Raukumara Basin. Accordingly, it invites large multinational energy companies to acquire the necessary permits and begin prospecting.
Greenpeace, in alliance with Te Whanau a Apanui, oppose deep-sea oil drilling as an unacceptable threat to both the kai moana of local whanau and hapu, and the acutely vulnerable deep sea environment. They point to the devastating Deepwater Horizon disaster which spilled billions of litres of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Now, consider the State’s role in this classic stand-off.
From the outset it has given preference to market over non-market interests. In spite of the fact that New Zealand lacks both the technology and the financial resources to adequately respond to a deep-sea drilling malfunction on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon spill, it promotes and facilitates deep-sea prospecting in the Raukumara Basin.
Thwarted by the Court’s refusal to punish the behaviour of the protest flotilla, the National-led Government sets about equipping the State with new, quite draconian, powers to protect any future oil-prospecting multinational corporations from the physical obstruction (and attendant publicity) of Greenpeace’s “Stop Deep Sea Oil” protest campaign.
It will soon be perfectly lawful to deploy the New Zealand armed forces to protect and defend not the victims of war or natural disaster, but vast, privately-owned corporations whose profit-seeking activities threaten both the New Zealand environment and economy.
Whose freedom is the Government protecting here? The market’s, or our own?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 April 2013.