Friday 31 May 2013

The Name Game

A Spectral Green: John Key (with apologies to Sir Arthur Conon Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles) has labelled the Labour-Green alternative government a "Devil Beast" of the "Far-Left". But the names our politicians attach to their opponents very seldom correspond to their actual position on the ideological spectrum.
A CHOICE BETWEEN the Centre-Right and the Far-Left. That’s how the Prime Minister and his National Party colleagues intend to frame next year’s General Election. It’s a shrewd strategy. Most Kiwis feel considerably more comfortable with “centre” than they do with “far”.
Nobody wants to be far away when they could be at the very centre of things. And who doesn’t enjoy being the centre of attention? Indeed, the discovery that we’re not in this happy position leaves most of us feeling very far from happy.
By attaching the word ‘centre’ to the word ‘right’ National is also adding a crucial political modifier. Very few New Zealanders will own to being unequivocally “Right” or “Left”. It smacks too much of the sort of ideological inflexibility they associate with places where peace tends to be as short-supplied as freedom.
“Right-wingers” and “left-wingers”, alike, are deemed to lack the easy-going temperament and the pragmatic approach to problem-solving that we Kiwis (and, apparently, the rest of the world) find so appealing. ‘Laconic’ has always suited us better than ‘histrionic’. If asked to choose a path between two extremes, most of us generally head for the middle of the road.
And then, of course, there’s History.
Invoke the Right and people immediately think of Adolf Hitler receiving the “Sieg Heil!” salute, as rank after rank of jack-booted Brownshirts goose-step their way towards the Holocaust under a forest of swastika banners. Mention the Left, and the mental image is of Joe Stalin smiling wolfishly from Lenin’s Tomb as a May Day parade of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles rumbles by and the Red Army Choir belts out the “Internationale”.
But how dramatically the picture changes when “right” and “left” are prefixed with “centre”.
Ask Kiwi baby-boomers to think of a “Centre-Right” politician and they’ll probably recall the ridiculously pompous – but essentially harmless – Sir Keith Holyoake. Ask a member of Generation-X, and five’ll getcha ten they think of John Key escorting Aroha to Waitangi, or swigging Steinlager from the bottle in the garden of Premier House.
Say “Centre Left” to the Boomers and they’ll recall David Lange informing a startled young American at the Oxford Union that he could “smell the uranium” on his breath. Gen-Xers will (hopefully) remember Helen Clark refusing to join George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
It’s wonderful political shorthand – but is it the truth? Apart from conjuring-up both positive and negative political images and memories, does the Prime Minister’s use of the terms “Centre-Right” and “Far-Left” truly correspond to the Government’s and the Opposition’s objective location on the ideological spectrum?
The answer must be an emphatic “No!” National and Labour both subscribe to the same basic tenets of neoliberal economic theory that have dominated the policy-making of the OECD countries for the past thirty years. The Greens, too, recognise the marketplace as the most effective means of allocating scarce resources. Their “Green Capitalism” might be “cleaner”, and turn out a more environmentally friendly range of products than the Smoke-Stack Capitalism of the past, but the social relations underpinning that production are just as dirty.
Mr Key lambasts the Green Party co-leader, Russel Norman’s, enthusiasm for “Quantitative Easing” – citing it as proof of his “Far-Left” lunacy. But this charge merely reveals the Prime Minister to be either economically ignorant or deeply cynical.
Quantitative Easing is the official policy not of North Korea, Cuba or Venezuela, but of the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. Mr Norman’s ideas about lowering the value of the currency by expanding the money supply are proof not of his revolutionary fervour – but of his economic orthodoxy.
Mr Key would be better advised to stick with his “Devil Beast” description of the Opposition parties. Using the term “Far Left” to characterise a Labour-Green coalition is intended to elicit exactly the same emotional response as likening it to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, but comes at much greater cost to the Prime Minister’s credibility.
The truly ironic aspect of this name game is that the New Zealand electorate is almost certainly well to the left of its political leaders and their parties. A visiting French journalist once described New Zealanders as “socialists without doctrines”. Talk to most Kiwis about the sort of country they’d like to live in and you’ll find that most of us still are.
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, 31 May 2013.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

A Place At The Table

Showtime! Winston Peters knows how to exploit New Zealanders' long-standing fear of all things Chinese. But he also knows better than to seriously threaten New Zealand's increasing reliance of the Chinese markets - or to undermine the thirty-year effort it has required to ensure this country's continued access to them.
IT’S “SHOWTIME!” for Winston Peters. Once again New Zealanders’ fears have found an obliging political impresario. In his latest speech, to a Grey Power audience on Auckland’s North Shore, Mr Peters has targeted New Zealand’s rapidly changing demographic profile – most particularly the burgeoning rate of Chinese immigration. For those accustomed to thinking of New Zealand as the “last, loneliest, loveliest” outpost of European civilisation, this dramatic change in the shape of their country’s population is confusing, alarming – even threatening.
Mr Peters’ critics have attempted to characterise his latest observations as “racist” and “xenophobic”. These are easy shots to take. Any immigration trend which suggests that the balance of ethnic power within the national community is shifting will inevitably inspire all manner of racially-inflected political discussions. To condemn such discussions as “racist” is tantamount to ruling all but positive assessments of New Zealand’s current population policy out-of-bounds.
There are plenty of Kiwis who would insist that such mandatory positivism is – and has been for years – the firm policy of New Zealand Governments. Regardless of their partisan composition, successive administrations have extolled the virtues of immigration policies that focus almost exclusively on the economic value of each new immigrant. Any consideration of the socio-cultural dislocations historically associated with such policies has always come well behind the professed priorities of reducing New Zealand’s skills deficit and stimulating domestic demand.
Which is not to say that there weren’t those within the Department of Immigration anxious to forestall any rebirth of the atavistic anti-Chinese sentiment that shaped the immigration policies of nineteenth and early-twentieth century New Zealand. And these efforts to supress all forms of Kiwi Sinophobia would have been strongly supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Preparing for the increasingly important role the People’s Republic of China was going to play in the New Zealand economy has been a central feature of this country’s foreign and trade policies for the last thirty years.
The final triumph of the Chinese Communist Party’s “capitalist roaders” over Mao Zedong’s “iron rice bowl” socialists in the late-1970s anticipated the emergence of the so-called “Washington Consensus” favouring neoliberal capitalism and globalisation in the 1980s. The British called it “Thatcherism”, the Americans “Reaganomics”, and New Zealanders dubbed it “Rogernomics”. At the heart of the new economic paradigm was a vision of the future in which capital, goods (and, ultimately, even labour) would flow freely across a borderless planet.
Ever since both of New Zealand’s major political parties accepted globalised neoliberalism as the fixed shape of the future, the policy mandarins at MFAT have worked tirelessly to ensure that New Zealand would have a place at the table of the economic behemoth China promised to become.
Viewed from this perspective, the vast influx of Chinese nationals to New Zealand makes perfect sense. Whether in the form of fee-paying students, highly-skilled workers, property speculators or financial investors, official New Zealand has consistently welcomed the people upon whose complex personal, business and political networks this country’s economic prosperity has, increasingly, come to depend.
Mr Peters’ North Shore Grey Power audience would undoubtedly receive this largely untold recent history of New Zealand with considerable alarm and dismay. But, tellingly, it’s not the story Mr Peters told. (Even though, as a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, he will know it inside out). Instead, the NZ First leader chose to scratch the familiar itches of Chinese property speculation and the involvement of a very small number of Chinese businessmen in the gambling and sex industries.
Mr Peters knows there are votes to be won from the older generations of New Zealanders (especially those living in Auckland) who are having a harder and harder time reconciling the New Zealand they grew up in with the New Zealand they see all around them today. No doubt he has studied recent political trends in the United States and recognised the huge electoral rewards that can flow to a political party willing to identify itself with those ageing, comfortably-situated, conservative whites who, in one form or another, are feeling the demographic pinch.
What has clearly been a failing strategy for the far-right-driven Republican Party in the United States (where there are now simply too few conservative whites to win the presidency without at least some ethnic allies) it promises to be a real winner for Mr Peters. NZ First is not in a two-party, FPP, fight to the finish. As the consummate MMP politician, Mr Peters will be perfectly content with anything between five and 10 percent of the Party Vote. A few more, carefully calibrated, appeals to “Old New Zealand’s” Sinophobia ought to do the trick.
But Mr Peters remains too much the steadfast patriot to seriously put at risk the place Labour and National have laid for New Zealand at the Chinese table.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 May 2013.

Friday 24 May 2013

Borderline Call (With Apologies To "Yes, Minister")

Nothing On Paper: “It seems that the Chinese customs people are having trouble recognising our new stationery.”
“AH, MINISTER, thank you for getting back to us so swiftly. We appear to be having a wee bit of a problem getting our sheep meat consignments across the Chinese border.”
“Oh? What sort of problem?”
“Well, it seems that the Chinese customs people are having trouble recognising our new stationery.”
“I’m sorry? Did you say stationery?”
“Yes, Minister. It seems they don’t recognise the forms and certificates issued by our new Ministry of Primary Industry.”
“Oh, for God’s sake! Our people in Beijing did advise them of the change – didn’t they?”
“Oh yes, Minister, of course – months ago.”
“Well, what’s the bloody problem then?”
“I can’t say for sure, Minister, but one or two of our people in Beijing – and one or two of us here in Wellington, for that matter – are of the view that the Chinese government may be sending us a little message.”
“Message? What on earth do you mean? What sort of message!”
“Well, you know the Chinese, Minister. Their messages can be very subtle – oblique even.”
“They’re not the only ones, mate! So, come on, that’s enough beating about the bush, what message are the Chinese trying to send – and to whom?”
“We think there may be a number of intended recipients, Minister. First and foremost there’s the Government. And, after the Government, we suspect there’s the whole primary production sector: dairying, meat and wool, kiwifruit – the whole shebang. And there may be a number of individuals. The Prime Minister, obviously, but also the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Minister for Trade Negotiations, and yourself, of course.”
“Bloody hell! Go on.”
“We are of the view, Minister, that the timing of the current difficulties with Chinese customs may have more than a little to do with the meeting of the US/NZ Partnership Forum in Washington. You’ll be aware, Minister, that there is growing unease in Beijing about the pressure the Obama Administration is applying to those involved in the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.”
“Yes. Obama wants it wrapped-up by October.”
“Er, yes, Minister. Quite. The President is noted for his optimism on these matters.”
“What? You think that deadline’s optimistic?”
“Suffice to say, Minister, that there’s about as much chance of a squadron of pig-shaped American drones flying over the Beehive in formation as there is of the TPPA being concluded by October. But that is by-the-by. It’s not President Obama’s enthusiasm for the TPPA that has the Chinese vexed, Minister, it’s ours.”
“What? But that’s ridiculous! The TPPA was our idea – of course we’re enthusiastic about it!”
“To be fair, Minister, what New Zealand had in mind, originally, was a small trade agreement involving a small number of small countries. What the TPPA has grown into, at least as far as the Chinese are concerned, is a large trading bloc, dominated by the United States, and pointed like a dagger at China’s export-dominated economy.”
“Yes, Minister, but not to the Chinese. In their eyes the People’s Republic conferred upon New Zealand the singular honour of being the recipient of its very first Free Trade Agreement with a modern capitalist economy. In very short order that agreement has made China New Zealand’s largest and most important trading partner. Laid before us are 250 million middle-class Chinese consumers, and the prospect of the People’s Republic becoming this country’s twenty-first century equivalent of the insatiable British market. Of Shanghai and Guangzhou becoming the oriental versions of Tooley Street and Smithfield.”
“So, perhaps, Minister, the Chinese are wondering if we really want a new Tooley Street and Smithfield. Perhaps, they hear Mr McCully waxing eloquent in Washington over the TPPA, and wonder if he’s convinced the USA’s about to offer us a much better FTA. Perhaps, Minister, the message China’s sending us is that if the Americans are now so willing to accept our agricultural exports, then China will happily leave them sitting on the docks for Uncle Sam to collect.”
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, 24 May 2013.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Child Poverty: The Manifestation Of Parental Sin?

Simple Message - Contradictory Response: In the minds of many conservative New Zealanders a battle rages between their instinctive urge to protect and defend our species’ most vulnerable members, and an equally powerful conviction that their children, as extensions of themselves, constitute a form of personal property – over whom the community and/or the state should exercise only a strictly limited authority.
WHEN IT COMES to children, the attitudes of New Zealanders are contradictory and hard to fathom. On the one hand, we respond with genuine anguish to media accounts of infants fallen victim to adult violence. On the other, we sign monster petitions demanding the right to administer corporal punishment to our own children. If asked, we will agree emphatically that “the needs of the child must always come first”. But, when welfare agencies and anti-poverty campaigners attempt to do just that, we attack them for undermining parental responsibility.
It’s as if, in the mind of every Kiwi, a battle rages between the instinctive urge to protect and defend our species’ most vulnerable members; and an equally powerful conviction that our children, as extensions of ourselves, constitute a form of personal property – over whom the community and/or the state should exercise only a strictly limited authority.
Nowhere are these contradictory impulses more clearly on display than in the current debate over whether or not our schools should provide their pupils with meals. Wrapped around this narrowly-focused proposal to “Feed the Kids” is a much wider debate about whether or not a substantial minority of New Zealand children (estimated at 270,000) are living in poverty.
Conservative New Zealanders take umbrage at the very suggestion that such a large number of their fellow citizens could be living in such conditions. They simply deny that child poverty exists. What they believe New Zealand is witnessing, in the children who arrive at school every morning hungry, unshod and ill-clothed, is evidence not of inadequate resources, but of poor parenting.
According to these conservative New Zealanders, thousands of Kiwi parents are making poor choices about their priorities. What’s more, the institutions of the welfare state, by failing to impose a more appropriate set of priorities and enforce more sensible parental choices, have ensured that the perfectly adequate resources allocated to welfare beneficiaries are both misapplied and misspent.
Underpinning this conservative view is what can only be described as an alarmingly eugenicist set of assumptions.
So many poor parental choices, the conservatives argue, is proof that a certain (and seemingly quite large) percentage of the population are simply not up to the role of parenting. The straightforward, and brutal, solution? Do not allow such people to breed – or, if they do, take away their children and place them with couples whose parental choices pass muster.
It was this sort of thinking that, in Australia, led to the “Stolen Generation”. Thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their parents and placed with God-fearing, upstanding, middle-class White Australians. The parental choices of the latter, it was assumed, would be far superior to those of Aboriginal Australians. The cycle of poverty and abuse which plagued indigenous communities could thus be broken, and in just a few generations the Aboriginal “problem” would disappear.
The colossal failure of imagination which the “Stolen Generation” policy represented; the singular lack of empathy which made its implementation such a shameful chapter in Australian history; similarly disfigures the analysis of New Zealand’s conservatives.
It is common to hear talkback callers and conservative commentators declare that no matter how hard family life has become and no matter how tough their financial circumstances, no parent should ever be excused for allowing their child to go to school hungry.
The mental, physical and moral disintegration afflicting individuals subjected to prolonged periods of social isolation and material deprivation is well-attested in the academic literature. The collapse of self-esteem; the recourse to alcohol and drugs as a means of deadening intense emotional distress; the increased propensity to explosive episodes of violence and self-harm: all of these symptoms – the entirely predictable consequences of poverty – are encountered by WINZ staff, police officers, social-workers, GPs, practice nurses and teachers every day of the week. They are not, however, encountered with any frequency by those who claim there is no excuse for sending a child to school hungry.
The conservatives have become intellectually immune to even the logical inconsistencies of their hard-line attitudes. They refuse to differentiate the weak and broken-spirited adults of their analysis from the innocent and suffering children. As mere extensions of the pathetic human-beings they were foolish enough to choose as their mothers and fathers, the children of poverty are clearly expected to go down with the parental ship.
The polarisation of New Zealand society into “comfortable” and “struggling” has been accompanied by a not unrelated polarisation of political convictions. Among the comfortably-off we are witnessing a wholesale rejection of the paternalism which characterised the politics of earlier conservative leaders like Gordon Coates and Keith Holyoake. In its place we find a new enthusiasm for the politics of exclusion, punishment and shame.
As if our children’s only role is to embody for posterity their parents’ blameless success or guilty failure.
This essay was originally published by The Press of Tuesday, 21 May 2013.

Friday 17 May 2013

The Lies That Bind: National's Attack On Parliamentary Sovereignty

No Higher Authority: The animating principle of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is that no parliament may bind another: that the popular will recognises no impediments. In spite of former National governments taking full advantage of that principle, the present government is seeking to lock -in its "dirty deal" with Sky City Casino for the next 35 years.
BILL ENGLISH has just delivered his fifth budget. No doubt he is proud of his achievement, even if, like any experienced parliamentarian, he knows that all political achievements are as grass: “In the morning it is green, and groweth up: but in the evening it is cut down, dried up, and withered.”
The budget decisions, law changes and back-room deals of one parliament are always at risk of being laid low by the next. This is so because the animating principle of parliamentary sovereignty is that no parliament may bind another. Were it not so, democracy would be a cruel sham, and the expression “electoral mandate” would have no meaning.
The Greens understand the principle of parliamentary sovereignty very well. Indeed, we saw it applied earlier this week, when they declared that, if elected, they will void the compensation agreement just negotiated between the present, National-dominated parliament and Sky City Casino.
The Greens have strong moral objections to what they are calling “this dirty deal”. They do not believe that it’s “okay” for a government to promise extra pokie machines, more gaming tables and a thirty-five year extension of the casino’s gambling licence in return for Sky City building Auckland a convention centre. Nor will they accept the National Government’s attempt to bind future parliaments to the deal by promising Sky City millions of taxpayer dollars if a future government decides to modify or cancel the agreement.
The outraged response from senior government figures to the Green’s announcement is more than a little worrying. None of them appear to understand the long-standing constitutional convention that one parliament cannot bind another. The Economic Development Minister, Steven Joyce, in particular, appears to believe that forcing future parliaments to honour present deals is simply good business practice. Something akin to taking out insurance against unforeseen disasters. (By which he presumably means the election of a Labour-Green Government!)
Ironically, the National Party has never demonstrated the slightest respect for deals done, contracts signed, or even civil rights conferred by previous parliaments. Perhaps the most egregious example of a National Party-dominated parliament simply tearing-up a contract negotiated and signed by its Labour Party-dominated predecessor occurred 52 years ago, in 1961.
The Second Labour Government (1957-60) had embarked on an ambitious programme of industrial development. One of the more significant elements of Labour’s plan was the construction of a large cotton mill outside Nelson. Tenders were called and a contract eventually signed with a British-based company by the New Zealand Government.
Before construction could get underway, however, the 1960 General Election produced a National Party majority in the House of Representatives. A group of newly-elected National MPs, led by the pugnacious young Member for Tamaki, Robert Muldoon, were bitterly opposed to the Nelson cotton mill and prevailed upon their caucus colleagues to call a halt to its construction. The signed legal contract with the British company was simply abrogated. Obviously, the British were miffed, but, being followers of the same Westminster traditions of representative government as New Zealanders, they also understood: one parliament cannot bind another.
Twenty-three years ago, in 1990, an incoming National Government again felt under no obligation to respect the legislated will of previous New Zealand parliaments. The Employment Contracts Act of 1991 stripped nearly a century’s-worth of accumulated legal rights from hundreds of thousands of New Zealand workers. Their hard-won contracts of employment, known as “national awards”, were simply legislated out of existence.
Of course, the National Party and its ideological allies will neither recognise, nor concede, the flagrant political hypocrisy involved in any attempt to prevent the Left from invoking the same, long-standing, constitutional conventions to which the Right has had repeated recourse over the past six decades.
The conservative notion that the social, economic and political status-quo represents not the transitory victory of a particular political party, but the natural order of the universe, has a long and disreputable pedigree. It explains why statements of principled intent, like the Greens’, are treated as proof not only of wilful stupidity - but downright wickedness - by the Right.
What such responses betray is the Right’s deep-seated unease with the whole idea of democracy. National’s insistence that its deal with Sky City – a deal many Kiwis revile as both improper and immoral – must remain sacrosanct, is, of itself, the best reason for breaking it.
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, 17 May 2013.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Getting What They've Paid For

The Business Of Learning: It is hard to imagine a structure more beset with perverse incentives for unethical behaviour than New Zealand’s tertiary education system. The wonder is not that instances of corruption are being exposed, but that it has taken so long for them to come to light.
ASSIGNMENTS FOR YOU – yes, you – the struggling overseas student with poor English. For just $270 you can have a respectable B-Grade. Straight-As are a little more expensive.
Many New Zealanders were shocked to learn that for at least five years professional “tutors” have been ghost-writing essays and assignments for Chinese tertiary students.
They should not have been.
It is hard to imagine a structure more beset with perverse incentives for unethical behaviour than New Zealand’s tertiary education system. The wonder is not that instances of corruption are being exposed, but that it has taken so long for them to come to light.
Driving this corruption, as always, is the inadequate funding of public institutions.
Reputable tertiary education systems do not come cheap. Lacking the numbers of extremely wealthy individuals, families and corporations that make possible the privately endowed universities of the United Kingdom and the United States, New Zealand’s institutions of higher learning are the product of massive amounts of public investment over many decades – most particularly the 1960s and 70s.
What Kiwis relied upon, in lieu of private wealth, was a social bargain that saw the nation’s most talented children provided with what was, in effect, a large educational subsidy while engaged in acquiring the knowledge and skills so essential to building a sophisticated modern economy.
That subsidy – what we used to call “free education” – was society’s half of the bargain. The tertiary educated citizen’s half was collected over the course of his or her working life by means of a sharply progressive income tax. Citizens with tertiary qualifications generally attracted the highest salaries, and, as their incomes rose, so, too, did their fiscal contribution to the state.
By the end of the university degree-holders’ working lives, they and the state were pretty much square. The truck-driver from Linwood may have helped to pay for the Fendalton lawyer’s son to go to varsity, but, over the course of his working life, the Fendalton lawyer’s son paid him back. What’s more, if the Linwood truck-driver’s daughter was bright, she could go to varsity for free – and even receive a bursary – courtesy of the Fendalton lawyer.
But this highly successful and socially equitable solution to the problem of providing young New Zealanders with expensive tertiary qualifications came to an abrupt halt in the 1980s. Rogernomics put an end to our steeply progressive income tax and with it the social-democratic tertiary education system it had funded. The universities and polytechnics were forced to look elsewhere for money.
Enter the wealthy overseas student in search of a reputable degree or diploma from an advanced, English-speaking, tertiary institution. Overnight, the full-fees paid by tens-of-thousands of foreign students would become an indispensable component of university and polytechnic budgets. Every university vice-chancellor was concerned to make his university as overseas-student-friendly as possible. Every registrar felt obliged to enrol as many of these overseas student cash-cows as could be squeezed into the institution’s by now overcrowded lecture theatres.
The best way to do this was to ensure that the overseas student received value for money. Having invested thousands of dollars in the process, the student (and his family) were unlikely to accept failing grades with equanimity. Even the suggestion that a university was flunking too many overseas students could prove fatal to its finances.
Tertiary institutions are filled with very intelligent people, so vice-chancellors didn’t need to send out a memo detailing the requirements of the new regime. The professors, lecturers and tutors had already grasped what was expected of them.
They knew that the well-researched, correctly referenced and clearly written essays handed in by overseas students who struggled to construct a coherent English sentence in tutorials, were almost certainly not their own work, but they marked them anyway. Because they also knew that assessing an overseas student’s work according to the standards applied to New Zealand-born students would be a colossal, career-terminating, error of judgement.
The corrosive effects of such hypocrisy are all-too-readily predictable. Leaving aside the malignant impact on the moral health of university staff, these false assessments cannot help raising the expectations of New Zealand-born students. Surely, as paying customers, they also deserve value for their fees? How long will it be before tertiary educators feel obliged to dole out passing grades to every single one of their student “customers”?
In the old Soviet Union, the hard-pressed workers were fond of saying: “So long as they pretend to pay us, we’ll pretend to work.” The joke brilliantly encapsulated the dishonesty that had corrupted the entire Soviet system.
Our once proud tertiary education system now stands in peril of embodying a similar level of systemic pretence. Indeed, its academic workers may already be muttering to one another: “So long as they pretend this place is a university, we’ll pretend its students have earned their degrees.”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 May 2013.

Friday 10 May 2013

Playing It Cool: Reflections On Aaron Gilmore's Fall From Gracelessness

Making It Look Easy: The essential attribute of the successful courtier, according to the Renaissance writer, Baldasarre Castiglione, was sprezzatura. It's a difficult word to translate: "effortless ease", " nonchalance", "careful negligence". What sets apart the political winner from the political loser is also captured in the word "cool". Hard to define - but you know it when you see it. (And you don't see it in Aaron Gilmore!)

THE BEHAVIOUR of National List MP, Aaron Gilmore, raises some interesting questions about the qualities required of a successful back-bencher.
Mr Gilmore, himself, has fulsomely apologised for the errant conduct which thrust him, battered and blinking-back tears, into the news media’s searing spotlight.
Has he done enough to rescue his political career? Probably not. The National Party’s ranking committee is unlikely to give the accident-prone Mr Gilmore a third chance.
What should he have done differently? Is there a clear path for ambitious and capable back-bench MPs to follow?
Sir Keith Holyoake’s advice to his new entrants was succinct: “Learn to breathe through your nose.” Which was the orotund National Prime Minister’s way of saying: “Keep your mouth shut.”
Strange advice, perhaps, for someone formally charged with representing the people of New Zealand.
Sound advice, however, for a back-bench MP keen to negotiate his way through the caucus hierarchy that dominates the real-world functioning of Parliament. 

Watching, listening, assessing and, when the time is right, forming durable political alliances, is the optimum path for new, back-bench MPs. And, while they’re keeping their eyes open and their mouths shut, undertaking cheerfully and effectively whatever tasks the Party Whips assign them.
The spirit in which back-bench MPs perform these often mind-numbingly boring parliamentary chores, plays a crucial role in how well, or badly, the newcomers’ colleagues rate them. Are they hard workers? Do they complain? Do they get the job done? Are they team-players?
Affirmative answers to these questions are the paving stones of the back-bencher’s path to success: to being trusted, promoted and, ultimately, given access to the levers of executive power.
But the successful back-bencher needs something more than a reputation for being a “good soldier” in the party’s army. Six centuries ago, an Italian Renaissance scholar and politician, Baldasarre Castiglione, gave that ‘something more’ a name.
In his famous Book of the Courtier, Castiglione called that special quality that separates the Aaron Gilmores from the Simon Bridges; the Jacqui Deans from the Amy Adams: sprezzatura.
Now, as is so often the case with such words, there is no adequate English translation of sprezzatura. Professor Emeritus of Cultural History at Cambridge University, Peter Burke, one of the world’s leading specialists on the early-modern period of European history, describes this crucial political quality as “nonchalance” and “careful negligence”. 

The successful sixteenth century courtier, writes Professor Burke in his 1996 book The Fortunes of the Courtier: “conceals art, and presents what is done and said as if it was done without effort and virtually without thought.”
Or, as we might say: “Today’s successful practitioner of the art of politics – makes it look easy.”
Alternatively, we could simply translate sprezzatura as “being very, very cool”.
Cool politicians earn that description by doing everything in style, effortlessly, and without the slightest suggestion of boastfulness or trying too hard. They’re as indefatigably polite and charming to the cab-driver and the hotel waiter as they are to Prime Ministers and Presidents. They are never afraid to make a joke at their own expense and know, instinctively, when it’s time to say and/or do nothing, and when it’s time to take a stand.
I’ve known a great many politicians in my time, but only a handful had Castiglione’s sprezzatura. On a good day, Richard Prebble could make politics look easy. So, too, could Rod Donald. And, if the extraordinary esteem in which he continues to be held by his fellow citizens is any guide, the Prime Minister, John Key, has sprezzatura in spades!
Indeed, a PR maven of my acquaintance reckons Mr Key has more “emotional intelligence” that any other politician he’s ever met.
And who, among the more recent intakes of New Zealand parliamentarians is demonstrating the “effortless ease” with which the game of politics should be played by twenty-first century courtiers?
Were I looking at National, I’d say Sam Lotu-Iiga; at Labour, Phil Twyford.
How NOT to play the game? 

Mr Gilmore – take a bow.
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, 10 May 2013.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Rumours Of Wars

Just A Little War: Bulgarian troops assault successfully the Ottoman lines at Kirklareli (European Turkey) during the First Balkan War 1912-1913. The manoeuvring of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires in response to the changing balance of power in South Eastern Europe brought Europe to the brink of war. A century later, the manoeuvring of New Zealand business leaders against a shift in the Left's economic thinking similarly risks the outbreak of a much wider conflict.

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, in the Balkans, there was a war. Just a little war, involving four little countries, and one large, rather elderly and far from healthy Empire. Surprisingly, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece won the war, and the Ottoman Empire, referred to by the Great Powers as “the sick old man of Europe” got sicker. 

Two of those great powers, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, both had a vital strategic interest in who controlled the Balkans. So vital, that while the Balkan War was raging, the Russian government thought it advisable to mass its troops on the Austrian border.
Now, massing troops on anybody’s borders is always a pretty provocative thing to do – and the Austrians, not unreasonably, began preparing for the full-scale mobilisation of their army. Unfortunately, when countries begin mobilising armies, all bets should be regarded as off.
In 1913, however, there was still sufficient common-sense at the highest political levels of the Russian Empire to prevent any further escalation from taking place. Soldiers on both sides of the border were ordered back to their barracks. Orders calling up reservists were never issued. As a consequence, the outbreak of a general European war was delayed for another year. 

But, in August 1914, the Russian stock of common sense ran out. And, just nine months after the Russian Tsar’s decision to mobilise his army had ignited World War I, thousands of New Zealand and Australian boys were fighting and dying for the Dardanelles – gateway to the Ottoman Empire.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how things work out?

LESS THAN A MONTH AGO, the Labour Party and the Greens jointly announced their decision to reform the New Zealand energy market. Using the drug-buying monopsony, Pharmac, as their model, the two opposition parties came up with NZ Power – a single, state-run buyer of all New Zealand’s electrical power. Energy generators would be paid a “fair price” for their product, based on the historic, rather than the marginal, cost of its production. The resulting savings, around $300 per household per year, would be passed onto consumers.
Well, the Labour-Green Opposition policy on energy has galvanised the New Zealand business community in much the same way as the Balkan League’s attack on the Ottoman Empire galvanised South-Eastern Europe back in 1913.
Senior business leaders, rightly characterising the Labour-Green policy as a decisive shift away from the neoliberal, “free-market” consensus which has underpinned the platforms of both the Labour and National parties since the mid-1980s, last week served notice that they would regard its implementation as a direct threat to their vital strategic interests.
In an open letter to Labour Leader, David Shearer, and the Greens’ Co-Leader, Russel Norman, and signed on behalf of some of New Zealand’s largest and most influential business organisations, including Business New Zealand, the NZ Chambers of Commerce, the Employers and Manufacturers Association, the Road Transport Forum and the Major Electricity Users Group, 10 chief executives called upon Labour and the Greens to: “withdraw these damaging policies”.
Massing His Troops: Business New Zealand's Phil O'Reilly reiterates the business community's opposition to the energy policies of Labour and the Greens on TVNZ's Q+A programme of 5 May 2013.
In military terms, this extraordinary démarche from the business community is the equivalent of their massing troops along the border. 

What the nation’s business leaders have delivered to Labour and the Greens is a threat. The fact that it is, for the moment, an unspoken threat does not in any way diminish its potency. They may begin their letter by saying: “We respect your right to announce new policy at any time.” But, its political content strongly suggests that the opposite is true.
Labour and the Greens are being told that unless they withdraw their policy the considerable resources of the New Zealand business community will be devoted to making sure that they are unsuccessful at the next election. And even if they do manage to win in 2014, they should expect neither the assistance nor the co-operation of New Zealand’s business leadership in managing the policy’s implementation.
Labour and the Greens thus find themselves in the same position as the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913. Russian troops are massing on the borders. Orders calling up reservists are being drafted. Doing nothing means abandoning all strategic interest in the Balkans. But mobilising its own forces could start a war.
Somebody has to blink.
In 2013, it must not be Labour and the Greens who blink. Because, if they capitulate to this crude political intimidation, and withdraw their policy, then the rest of us might just as well hang a “CLOSED” sign on the doors of New Zealand democracy.
Hopefully, as happened in 1913, cooler and wiser heads will prevail. To preserve the democratic peace, New Zealand’s business leaders need to back down and back off.
If they refuse, then Labour and the Greens, for democracy’s sake, need to warn them that, when the Left next comes to power, all bets are off.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 May 2013.

Friday 3 May 2013

Deep Waters And Broken Horizons

Pristine Coastline: The Government's plans to bring deep-sea oil exploration and exploitation to New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone threaten the unspoiled beauty of its coasts, the survival of its flora and fauna and the future of its fishing and tourism industries.
THE NORTH OTAGO COUNTRYSIDE descends in a series of broad terraces towards the sea. So, when I was a child, the journey home was all downhill. On the farm where I grew up, those smooth-topped hills came to an abrupt end, dropping suddenly to the flat paddocks and meandering creeks that ran out among the sea grass and sand dunes of Otago’s curving shoreline. 

Behind our homestead, all was high hills and distant mountains, but before it ran the ruled line of the Pacific’s far horizon. Well, it seemed far to me, but, in reality, it was only a few miles away. Even so, the world lay beyond it, infinitely far, and every night I’d fall asleep to the steady rhythm of the breakers whose soft whispers I could never quite decipher.
Fifty years later, those breakers' messages are suddenly intelligible: full of warning and fears for the future. Because, if Prime Minister Key and his gung-ho Energy Minister, Simon Bridges, get their way, then the unsullied line of the Pacific will be defiled. 

Rising between the horizon and the shore, gas stacks flaring in the wind like the banners of a feudal host, will be oil platforms. And everything I cherished as a child: the rush-lined creeks; the orange and white pebble beaches; the fishing grounds; the circling gulls; the little estuaries and wide river mouths; will be one accident away from destruction.
Of course, Mr Bridges will tell me exactly what he told the 600 oil prospectors and their enablers gathered at the Advantage New Zealand Conference in Auckland on Monday, that: “New Zealand has a world-class regulatory system that ensures the safety of its people and its environment, alongside greater resource development.”
I wish that was true. I wish that before any company was permitted to lower their drilling equipment more than a thousand metres to the bottom of the sea they had to have all the necessary salvage equipment ready and waiting, just hours away, in the event of something going wrong.
Because things do go wrong with deep sea oil wells. And Robert P. Daniels, Senior Vice President, International and Deepwater Exploration, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, a guest speaker at the Advantage New Zealand Conference, could’ve told Mr Bridges all about them.
Because the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation was there when something very serious went wrong on a deep sea oil platform. Anadarko owned 25 percent of the Deepwater Horizon when it exploded, killing eleven men, and unleashing, more than a mile below, the first of the 780,000 cubic metres of crude oil that devastated the unprotected Gulf of Mexico.
Disaster On The High Seas: The Deepwater Horizon tragedy took 87 days to contain - and that was in the Gulf of Mexico where salvage equipment was close by. A similar oil spill would take many more months to contain if it happened off the New Zealand coast.
It took 87 days to finally cap that oil gusher – and that was when the necessary (and eye-wateringly expensive) equipment required for the job was located only a few days sailing time from the scene of the disaster.
If something akin to the Deepwater Horizon disaster happened here in New Zealand, that equipment would take not days, but months, to arrive. While it was being assembled an environmental catastrophe beyond the imagination of most New Zealanders would be destroying our flora and fauna, fouling our coastline, and inflicting damage on our fishing and tourist industries that only decades could repair.
None of this information appears in Mr Bridges’ speech to the oil explorers. What he did say, after listing the vast strips of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone which the National Government has opened for exploration, was this:
“Many of you have actively engaged with the Government on the review of the Crown Minerals Act, the introduction of environmental legislation into the Exclusive Economic Zone and on new health and safety regulations for petroleum operations.
“I thank you for your tireless efforts to help make our laws and regulations world-class.”
In other words, Mr Bridges thanks the oil exploration companies for “actively engaging” in the task of drawing up the legislation intended to regulate the behaviour of … the oil exploration companies.
Included among the regulatory provisions of this “world-class” legislation are Mr Bridges’ clauses permitting the armed forces to be used against New Zealand citizens challenging the oil exploration companies. Any repetition of the actions that drove Petrobras out of the Raukumara Basin will see protesters facing massive fines and serious jail time.
Our country faces a sudden downhill journey – but we are not going home.
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, 3 May 2013.