Tuesday 30 July 2013

The Contagion Of Evil

The Black Prison: The United States new detention facility on Bagram Airbase a few kilometres north of Kabul in Afghanistan. Recent revelations concerning the behaviour of the NZDF in that country - most particularly its use of US surveillance facilities to monitor the activities of freelance war correspondent, Jon Stephenson, raise real fears that the evil represented by Bagram's torture chambers is on the point of infecting New Zealand.
THE BAGRAM DETENTION FACILITY was a dark lake of evil, its opaque depths constantly replenished by a thousand tributaries of officially-sanctioned moral depravity. Behind the razor-wire and watch-towers; beyond the foot patrols and guard-dogs; far away from the searchlight-beams and the constantly turning CCTV cameras; deeds were done in the name of our “very, very, very good friends” that only the sickest kind of sadist could observe with equanimity.
To the people of Afghanistan, the innocent as well as the guilty, Bagram became a byword for terror, torture, and the exercise of all the other brutal forms of utterly unaccountable American power.
In March of this year the Bagram Detention Facility, located within the sprawling American airbase of the same name, was handed over to the Afghan Government. It is now known as the Afghan National Detention Facility – proof – according to the American commander of the International Security Assistance Force, General Joseph Dunford, of ISAF’s success in building “an increasingly confident, capable and sovereign Afghanistan.”
Shortly before the formal handover, however, an undisclosed number of prisoners were allegedly moved to a new US-controlled facility – still located within the perimeter wire of the airbase – and known simply as the “Black Prison”. Former detainees also report that US personnel continue to have “access” to the prisoners (or what’s left of them) being held under Afghanistan’s putative authority.
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) still has military intelligence personnel stationed at Bagram Airbase. A former NZDF resident describes it in terms of a small American town uplifted in its entirety and relocated within sight of the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush. She did not reveal the purpose of her posting.
But now, thanks to the extraordinary investigative journalism of Nicky Hager, we all know what at least one of New Zealand’s military and intelligence personnel was doing at Bagram Airbase. He or she was spying on another of this country’s extraordinary investigative journalists (and our only war correspondent worthy of the name) Jon Stephenson.
Jon’s stories from Afghanistan, stripped of all their incidental detail, have been about only one thing: the contagion of evil.
Over and over again he has revealed how sending good-hearted New Zealand soldiers to Afghanistan, a war that was, most probably, initiated illegally, and which has, most certainly, been conducted immorally, was bound to result in their slow but certain corruption.
The most vivid confirmation of evil’s contagious effect came in Jon’s award-winning Metro magazine article, “Eyes Wide Shut”, in which he detailed how New Zealand’s troops had repeatedly been obliged to hand over prisoners to US and Afghan authorities, in whose custody, the Kiwis were reasonably sure, they would be subjected to assault and torture.
It was through the increasingly desperate attempts of the NZDF to deny that these events ever happened, and then to discredit the journalist whose detailed and highly accurate reportage constantly undermined those efforts, that some of Bagram’s evil began flowing into the bloodstream of the New Zealand body politic.
Nicky Hager’s story reveals an NZDF so rattled by Jon Stephenson’s investigative reporting that its own security manual included “certain investigative journalists” among its most dangerous antagonists. Or, in Mr Hager’s own words, putting probing journalists up there “on the same list as the KGB and al Qaeda.”
Both affronted and alarmed by Jon Stephenson’s unrelenting reportage, the NZDF turned to the Americans’ vast intelligence-gathering operation for assistance. They also enlisted the aid of New Zealand’s principal security and intelligence gathering agency, the SIS, to root out the journalist’s contacts and sources.
To the NZDF, Stephenson was no longer simply a conscientious journalist attempting to inform his fellow citizens of their government’s actions and hold it to account. He was now regarded as a “subversive”: someone determined to “weaken the military, economic or political strength of a nation by undermining the morale, loyalty or reliability of its citizens.”
Here we see the contagion of evil in all its chilling menace.
Telling the truth has become a subversive act. Informing the public that their soldiers are at risk of becoming embroiled in acts contrary to international law – to war crimes – is now tantamount to aiding the enemy: to treason.
And so, drop by drop, the Bagram poison enters our system. Our Government, determined to avoid further embarrassment by “certain investigative journalists” intends to empower our own Government Communications Security Bureau to assist the NZDF in tracking-down and identifying their sources.
As they did in Afghanistan, they will use the latest intelligence-gathering technology to acquire “metadata” – landline and cellphone logs, e-mail and text traffic - to identify the likes of Jon Stephenson’s and Nicky Hager’s friends and associates; contacts and sources.
Among them will be my own name and telephone numbers.
Bagram will have come home. The contagion of evil will be at my door.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 July 2013.

Friday 26 July 2013

Mr Jones Goes To Taranaki

Defanging Misapprehensions: Labour List MP, Shane Jones', recent foray into Taranaki served as a forceful reminder of Labour's role as the party which, in order to serve its electoral base, must govern for capitalism as a whole - unlike its National Party rival which can and does govern narrowly for favoured capitalists - like Sky City Casinos and Warner Bros.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN the two main parties,” said the late Bruce Jesson, “is that National governs for capitalists, and Labour governs for Capitalism.”
In the course of a provocative foray into the energy-rich province of Taranaki, earlier this week, the Labour List MP, Shane Jones’, offered a neat demonstration of Bruce’s point.
“I am keen to defang these misapprehensions that are abounding that somehow industry has disappeared from our purview”, he told Fairfax NZ News.
“Nothing could be further from the truth and if my visit provides the opportunity to reinforce the centrality of jobs, the importance of industry and the need for a future Labour-led government to assuage whatever anxieties might be there in the minds of employers or future investors then I am up for the task.”
A great deal of very important information is packed into Mr Jones’ typically pithy statement.
First and foremost, Taranaki’s business leaders are being assured that, so long as he retains the Regional Development spokesperson’s role, they have nothing to fear from a future Labour-led government.
Mr Jones’ decision to offer that assurance in the form of a personal commitment: “I am up for the task”; was not, however, accidental. He was warning the Taranaki business community that, in Labour’s bitterly factionalised caucus, very few others are able to say as much.
Further decoded, Mr Jones’ message to the business leaders of Taranaki (most especially its powerful energy sector) may be read as an appeal for their support against those within his own party who have become reconciled to the centre-left vote being forever split between Labour and the Greens.
When Mr Jones talks about “the centrality of jobs” and “the importance of industry”, he is inviting his business audience to mentally complete the sentence Labour cannot utter for fear of alienating its most likely coalition partner.
“Labour wishes to reinforce the centrality of jobs and the importance of industry … ahead of the environment.”
The business community would be wise to take Mr Jones’ assurances very seriously.
When the National Party attempts to justify its current assault on the environment by talking up the likely expansion of employment opportunities, they are much less likely to be believed than when Labour talks about “the centrality of jobs”.
Voters look at the Government’s pokies-for-a-convention-centre deal with Sky City Casinos and all their prejudices about National governing on behalf of its “rich mates” are confirmed.
With Labour it’s different. The voters know that the bulk of the party’s electoral support is drawn from New Zealand’s wage and salary earners. Only a Labour Party whose priorities are “jobs, jobs, jobs” has the slightest chance of mobilising and sustaining that support.
This is what Bruce Jesson meant when he said Labour governs for Capitalism – rather than capitalists. To go on winning elections the party needs to foster job creation on a system-wide scale. It’s why Labour’s economic development policies have always been geared to promoting growth across entire industries – rather than just assisting individual firms like Sky City Casinos or Warner Bros.
When Helen Clark stated over and over again: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”, she wasn’t simply talking about the workers’ wages, she was also referring to the profitability of the bosses’ enterprises!
Unlike a great many of his colleagues, Mr Jones is far from convinced that, when it comes to promoting employment and protecting the environment, Labour can have its cake and eat it too. His response to the Greens plans for a new, “sustainable”, economic system: a variant they’re calling “Green Capitalism”; is brutal:
“Sustainability is as much about sustaining the livelihood of people as it is about guarding the ecological habitat of the Hochstetter’s frog. As long as I am in politics as a Maori politician I am going to be unambiguous in standing up for jobs and people.”
It’s difficult to think of a sharper contrast between Labour’s view of the environment and the Greens’. When Mr Jones’ uses the word he is not thinking of the unspoilt sands of the East Coast or the dense bush of Northland. In his mind he sees the bleak urban environments of Tamaki Makaurau and Porirua: a world without decent housing; without steady employment; without hope.
Labour makes capitalism work not in the interests of capitalists – but for the sake of their victims.
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, 26 July 2013.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Utopian Dreams and Schemes

The Virtues Of A Simpler Life: Two members of the 1970s Wilderland commune attempt to persuade their workhorse to regurgitate their clothes. Though it is hard to believe in 2013, in 1974 the Kirk-led Labour Government announced its support for state-subsidised communes ("Ohu") on Crown land.

JUST TRY TO IMAGINE THIS. A New Zealand government which announces a scheme designed to, among other things: “assist people in becoming self-sufficient from the land”; “give people a chance to develop alternative social models”; “promote the virtues of a simpler life”; and “provide a place of healing for participants as well as for society as a whole”.
Impossible? No – it happened!
Forty years on, the Kirk Labour Government’s “Ohu Scheme” (state-subsidised, self-sufficient communes on Crown land) still possesses the power to shock and surprise. Taking their name from the Maori word for “working together”, and their inspiration from the Israeli kibbutzim, Kirk’s communes represent what is indisputably the high-point of utopian policy formation in New Zealand.
The inspirational role played by the kibbutzim (radically egalitarian and self-supporting communities established by Jewish settlers in Palestine from the early twentieth century) reflected the very close links that had grown up between the Israeli and New Zealand Labour Parties since the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. By the 1960s, spending a few weeks or months on a kibbutz had become a rite of passage for many young Kiwi socialists. The kibbutzim’s role in entrenching the ideals of solidarity and cooperation within Israeli society was openly admired by Labour activists.
The 60s and 70s were also the decades in which powerful intellectual challenges were mounted against the individualism and materialism of what the American economist, J.K. Galbraith, called the “Affluent Society”. All over the Western World, young people were questioning the values of consumerism and loudly contesting the moral legitimacy of any “Establishment” willing to overlook the horrors of the Vietnam War.
The desire to withdraw from this brutally acquisitive society, and experiment with new forms of social organisation, was strong. Culturally, this longing manifested itself in the “hippy” movement, whose followers were invited to: “Turn on, tune in and drop out.”
It was the confluence of these two intellectual streams: the powerful political model of the kibbutzim; and the so-called “counter-cultural” impulses of the hippies; that gave the Ohu Scheme’s promoters a fighting chance of success.
Even so, it is unlikely that such a utopian project would have been given the go-ahead had New Zealand not, in the early 1970s, been caught up and swept along on a great wave of progressive activity.
In 1972, the Royal Commission on Social Security recommended that: “The community [be] responsible for giving dependent people a standard of living consistent with human dignity and approaching that enjoyed by the majority, irrespective of the cause of dependency.” The Kirk Government responded by introducing the Domestic Purposes Benefit.
In 1974 – the same year that the Ohu Scheme was officially launched – New Zealand’s ground-breaking and world-beating Accident Compensation Corporation was given legislative life.
Kirk’s Attorney-General, the erudite and highly principled Dr Martyn Finlay, shocked conservative New Zealanders by observing that no prison should be made so secure that it destroyed all hope of escape in the minds of its inmates. An “escape-proof” prison, he seemed to be suggesting, was an affront to the indomitability of the human spirit.
Like the Ohu Scheme itself, Dr Finlay’s comment simply does not compute in the grim context of the twenty-first century’s second decade. Can anyone imagine John Key’s Attorney General, the coldly acerbic Chris Finlayson, suggesting that Her Majesty’s prisons be deliberately designed to protect the indomitability of the human spirit? And what awful punishment would the Justice Minister, Judith Collins, visit upon him if he did!
It would, of course, be very wrong to suggest that the whole of New Zealand suddenly turned into left-wing hippies in the 1970s. Because that simply isn’t true.
I vividly recall the day Prime Minister Kirk announced the cancellation of the 1974 Springbok Tour.
I was walking down Fergusson Drive in Upper Hutt when an old fellow wearing an RSA badge accosted me – presumably for the offence of being young and having long hair – and berated me for several minutes on the undemocratic character of the PM’s decision. Noticing the plethora of badges attached to my waistcoat (it was 1973!) he scrutinised them carefully for the emblems of New Zealand’s traitorous anti-Apartheid movement. Finding none, he grumpily sent me on my way. (He did not know how close I came that morning to pinning on my Halt All Racist Tours badge!)
But, if the progressivism and utopianism of the early 1970s was by no means universal, it was, nevertheless, entirely real. New Zealand warships were dispatched to the waters around the French nuclear testing-site at Mururoa. Racist rugby tours were cancelled. Pristine southern lakes were placed in the hands of environmental “guardians”. And, the government was prepared to set up rural communes.
We approach our utopias only by daring to dream. In disavowing their existence, we forget how to do even that.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, July 23, 2013.

Friday 19 July 2013

Booking Beneficiaries Into Rehab

It's For Their Own Good: Equating beneficiaries with drug addicts has long been one of the Right's most potent rhetorical strategies against the welfare state. It has now been given the official imprimatur of the Ministry of Social Development's senior medical advisor. What's next: "Arbeit Macht Frei" ?
THE EVIDENCE is said to be compelling: “for most individuals, working improves health and wellbeing and reduces psychological distress.” In fact, so convinced of the health benefits of employment is the Ministry of Social Development’s (MSD) senior health advisor, Dr David Bratt, that he equates putting patients on “welfare” with putting them on “an addictive debilitating drug with significant adverse effects to both the patient and their family (whanau) not dissimilar to smoking.”
Just think about that for a moment. The MSD’s senior health advisor is telling his fellow doctors that helping their patients access the state assistance to which, as citizens, they are legally entitled, is the same as “putting them on” methamphetamine, heroin or some other kind of “addictive debilitating drug”.
The Right’s decades-long rhetorical effort to associate being on a benefit with being hooked on drugs has thus been given the imprimatur of settled medical science. Henceforth, going to the MSD will be the equivalent of checking yourself into rehab. Everything that happens to you there will be about getting you off your welfare addiction and back into the healthy lifestyle of paid employment.
Of course, as medically verified drug addicts, the “welfare dependent” citizens themselves have no opinions worth considering. Everybody knows that junkies lie, cheat, steal – even prostitute themselves – to feed their habit. It is, therefore, vital that they not be mollycoddled by their case workers at the MSD. What is required, and what will, from now on, be meted out to these “addicts” is the “tough love” they so desperately need – and which the failed policies of “welfare entitlement” have for so long denied them.
And, just in case there are people out there in the community who object to this characterisation of New Zealand’s pioneering Welfare State as nothing more than a government sponsored tinnie house, the Ministry of Social Development has instituted a regime involving compulsory drug testing for “jobseekers”; tough sanctions for those with outstanding arrest warrants; and mandatory attendance at classes devoted to imparting parenting skills.
Which is as clear a way of delivering the message: “these people are all drug-taking criminals who persistently neglect and abuse their children”; as the MSD’s bureaucratic masters are willing to venture.
The National Party-led Government’s dramatic reform of New Zealand’s social welfare system marks an ominous turning-point in the country’s history. Never before has the state been willing to satisfy so completely the most punitive, the cruellest and the most nakedly sociopathic impulses of its wealthiest citizens.
The people behind these reforms know that there are simply not enough jobs to socially integrate the tens-of-thousands of “jobseekers” currently registered on the MSD’s books. And yet, they have no intention of following the example set by previous New Zealand Governments, in which the state itself provided the jobs so necessary to people’s health and wellbeing.
What they propose to do, instead, is force as many jobseekers as possible off the MSD’s books. They will achieve this objective by turning the experience of being on the MSD’s books into a nightmare of bureaucratic harassment and social stigmatisation.
Before the rest of New Zealand could accept such callous brutalisation, however, the National Party-led Government had first to transform welfare beneficiaries into useless and undeserving sub-humans. Their poverty had to be presented as the consequence of their own lack of application and self-discipline. They had to become idle ingrates: drug addicts and criminals; totally unworthy of decent people’s respect or compassion.
And now, because it is not made up of monsters, and for the sake of their hapless children, the Government is insisting that these creatures somehow be “persuaded” to turn their lives around. This time, however, the persuasion is not going to involve the use of carrots. This time the MSD is going to use a stick.
And, just as they were in Germany 75 years ago, the doctors are being asked to help. We must hope that Kiwi physicians turn out to be less enthusiastic social-engineers.
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, 19 July 2013.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Coups, And Rumours Of Coups

Tweet Surrender: Paradoxically, Duncan Garner's use of Twitter to announce a move against the leadership of David Shearer may, by alerting his supporters, have caused its organisers to hastily abort whatever it was they were trying to achieve. Or, the former TV3 political editor may simply have been played.
DUNCAN GARNER has been roundly criticised this week for falsely predicting the imminent resignation of Labour leader, David Shearer. Comparisons have been drawn between Mr Garner’s infamous “tweet” and the media tactics used to bring down the Australian Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Questions are now being raised about the ethics of journalists and commentators becoming players in a game they’re only supposed to watch.
All of which is the purest humbug. Politicians and journalists have always lived out of each other’s pockets. This is because politics isn’t just about the use of power; it’s also about how the use of power is explained and justified.
The truly effective politician leaves as little of that task to journalists as possible. There wasn’t a lot more that a journalist could have added to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or Winston Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech. Nor could Kiwi scribes much improve upon David Lange’s crushing dismissal of Sir Robert Muldoon’s interventionism: “You can’t run a country like a Polish shipyard!”
Not all politicians are, however, blessed with such memorable rhetorical skills. For those who struggle to explain and/or justify their political actions, a measure of journalistic assistance is usually required.
We have learned to call these people “spin doctors”. It’s an evocative title, recalling those legendary spin bowlers who could turn a cricket ball in whatever direction they pleased. The reality, however, is that nearly all spin doctors have, at one time or another, been senior political journalists.
As such, they have a fairly shrewd idea of who it is among their former colleagues that should be called in for an interview – and who should be kept as far away from their bosses as possible. As skilled journalists they can also spot the weaknesses and strengths in the stories that are written about their employers.
Tony Blair’s formidable spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, certainly wasn’t shy about letting errant journalists know exactly what he thought of their work – and them.
The environment in which politicians and journalists move is, therefore, one of both familiarity and contempt. Only the very best performers, on either side, have no need for the back-scratching of the other.
Stories are leaked. Rumours are started. Judgements are made – or encouraged. Politicians and journalists constantly use each other – not only to build themselves up, but also to tear down their colleagues (who are more often than not their competitors and rivals).
Which brings us back to Mr Garner and his tweet.
Labour MPs have accused Mr Garner of “making up” his story about a coup being underway against Mr Shearer. But only a moment’s thought is required to expose this accusation for the nonsense it is.
Mr Garner has confirmed that his informant was a member of the Labour Party Caucus. Presumably, he or she was someone who had vouchsafed information to Mr Garner in the past – information which had proved to be reliable.
The maelstrom of criticism into which Mr Garner has been unceremoniously pitched, since his predictions of last Thursday night were proved wrong, provides the strongest argument as to why he would not have tweeted without feeling extremely confident about the rumour’s veracity. (Just to make sure, however, he sought and received confirmation from a second Labour Party source.)
That Mr Garner was given what the Americans call “a bum steer” should tell him (and us) that the atmosphere in Labour’s Caucus is becoming increasingly toxic. And, as Julia Gillard would no doubt confirm, such a poisoned political environment makes rumours of an imminent leadership spill both inevitable and believable.
So, why did Mr Garner’s coup rumour fail to stack up? Let’s go through the explanatory options.
1) Some sort of leadership coup was on, but Mr Garner’s tweet alerted Mr Shearer’s supporters and the organisers were forced to abort. (Despairing Labour MPs may simply have been gathering sufficient signatures to persuade their leader to go gracefully and preserve the party from a debilitating civil war.)
2) No coup was imminent, but Mr Garner’s source considered it vital that Mr Shearer be forced to endure yet another destabilising round of media speculation concerning the viability of his leadership. (So vital that they were willing to abuse and lose Mr Garner’s trust.)
3) For reasons of their own, Mr Shearer’s backers decided to undermine Mr Garner’s journalistic credibility by deliberately misinforming him that a coup was underway.
Each of these explanations offers a slightly different take on the dire state of affairs within the Labour Caucus. Underlying all of them, however, is the undeniable fact of a leader (and the faction backing that leader) under extraordinary and unremitting pressure.
Mr Garner’s prediction may have failed to materialise, but it did, at least, remind us of Bismarck’s famous quip: “Never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied.”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 July 2013.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Being Seen Being "Done".

Mixed Messages: Labour promises the woman of the 1940s (and her children) a "place in the sun". That message, updated for the twenty-first century, embraced full equality of representation for women in the Labour Party - right up until Labour's 2013 parliamentary caucus insisted that it didn't.
NO! NO! NO! Not like that! Is there no one in Labour’s caucus who retains even the slightest vestige of political finesse?
To deal successfully with a blunder like the “Man Ban”, one needs to invert the old maxim about justice. For justice to be done, they say, it must be seen to be done. But, for problems arising out of the fraught relationship between the organisational and parliamentary wings of the Labour Party, the opposite is true. Whatever (or whoever) gets ‘done’ to re-make the peace, it (or they) must never be seen being ‘done’.
Besides, the Caucus can’t just demand that the New Zealand Council “withdraw” a proposed amendment to the Party’s constitution. Why? Because as every bush lawyer in the Labour Party (and there are many!) will tell you (usually at great length) such a move would be absolutely and positively unconstitutional.
It was the Labour Party Conference of 2012 which asked a working party to turn the raw proposals for ensuring gender equality into a workable proposition for the 2013 Conference to debate. This is the document that was e-mailed – with the weighty imprimatur of Labour’s New Zealand Council – to party members in early July.
As a proposed amendment to the Labour Party Constitution, the Man Ban’s fate can only be determined this November, in Christchurch, at the 2013 Annual Conference. Rightly or wrongly, the decision to withdraw, ratify or reject the amendment belongs to Conference – not Caucus.
Of course, a caucus made up of MPs who understood and respected their party would never have asked it to break its own rules. Just as no genuine Labour Leader would ever dream of publicly forcing his party, its president and its governing body into performing such a humiliating and unconstitutional back-down.
In fact, the last time a Caucus member behaved with such naked aggression towards the organisational wing of the Labour Party was in 1988 when Richard Prebble injuncted the entire New Zealand Council to prevent it from ruling that his Auckland Central Labour Electorate Committee had not been elected in accordance with the rules.
But then, a genuine Labour Leader would never have been caught off-guard by something like the Man Ban in the first place. Drawing up the rules by which parliamentary candidates are selected is not the sort of task a genuine Labour Leader would delegate to just anybody. He or she would make sure that a trusted lieutenant was in at the drafting stage. Any potentially controversial or embarrassing proposals would be communicated to the Leader’s Office long before they ended up in the hands of National Party bloggers.
The problem so cruelly exposed by the Man Ban blunder is that David Shearer isn’t any kind of Labour Leader at all. Two hours in a Kingsland pub with the guy, way back in February 2012, was enough to convince me that this man with the brilliant back-story knew next-to-nothing about his party’s history, it’s values, it’s members, or even its policies.
Now, thanks to his own and his right-wing parliamentary colleagues’ contemptuous treatment of the party organisation, the whole country can see how little understanding David Shearer has of Labour and everything it stands for.
Unable to calm the media storm with a few well-chosen words about Labour’s proud history of pushing out the boundaries of progressive politics, and the importance of encouraging democratic debate, he has, instead, allowed his ideological opponents to drive him towards a “solution” that shames both himself and the political movement he purports to lead.
Appallingly advised by people who know as little about the Labour Party as he does, he concluded that macho bombast and the public humiliation of female colleagues was preferable to having a quiet word with the right people at Conference, so that, stoically, and with unobserved degrees of reluctance, delegates could reject the Man Ban.
As things now stand, the Labour Party must either ratify the Man Ban or surrender unconditionally to David Shearer.
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, 12 July 2013.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Winning Women's Equality - With Men's Weapons

The Price of Power: To secure selection as the candidate for a major political party requires the surrender of all those qualities generally associated with femininity. To survive as an MP, women must develop an impenetrable outer-skin which, as it thickens, leaves less and less space for the things it is supposed to protect.
I’M NOT PROUD of what I did. In fact, recalling those events, I recoil in dismay from the memory of my former self. Why did I do it? Because experience had taught me a very simple and brutal truth: in politics you either master the art of destroying your opponents – or you are destroyed by them.
The media storm whipped up by Labour’s plan for ensuring gender equality in its caucus – the so-called “Man Ban” – has concentrated all its force on the merit-based selection versus party-mandated quotas debate. There has been next to no attention paid to the more important question: why do fewer women than men make it through the candidate selection process?
The whole purpose of a quota system is to even up a contest which, from the very outset, is stacked against women. Or, perhaps, that should read: a game which, from the very outset, is stacked against those who demonstrate the characteristics our culture generally associates with women.
Can you stand up at a party branch meeting and respond to anyone foolish enough to oppose your plans with such cold ferocity and unflinching personal cruelty that not only do they shut up for the rest of the meeting, but they never attend another? Are you willing to spend hours on the phone lining up supporters for, and running down the opponents of, party movers-and-shakers whose backing you need to succeed? Can you cross off the names of former friends, allies – even lovers – from the “ticket” your faction is running at Annual Conference? Are you prepared to assure a pivotal party “fixer” that although you were once a fervent supporter of a cause he or she opposed, you have now seen the error of your ways?
These are the “skills” the aspiring parliamentary candidate needs to acquire in order to stand a reasonable chance of selection. Not to beat about the bush, they are the skills of a sociopath: the ability to lie convincingly; the ability to manipulate and exploit; the ability to impress and overawe; and, most vital of all, the ability to hurt and betray other human-beings not only without compunction – but without the slightest guilt or remorse.
Culturally-speaking, these sociopathic qualities are overwhelmingly associated with masculinity. And, no matter how loudly we may condemn the men who display such immoral behaviour, when we encounter them in the flesh it’s a very different story.
Almost against our will, we are seduced by these ruthless individuals. Some ancient species memory kicks-in to subdue our moral qualms – reminding us that these are the qualities that work. It reassures us that the family, tribe or nation that places itself under the protection of such men stands the best chance of survival. Extraordinary moral strength is required to avoid falling under their spell.
The most pernicious aspect of modern, democratic politics is that it cannot explicitly acknowledge any of these arcane truths. No political party is going place an ad’ saying: “Parliamentary Candidates Needed. Must be prepared to discard all conviction and compassion in the name of victory. Sociopaths Preferred.”
On the contrary, the qualities “officially” sought after by political parties (especially those of the Left) indicate the exact opposite. Fidelity, commitment, diligence and a high level of emotional intelligence (traditionally, the defining attributes of femininity) are the qualities demanded of a modern politician. Significantly, these were precisely the qualities which the pioneers of women’s suffrage promised their sex would bring to the corrupt and cut-throat world of male politics.
It was all a lie. The women who took such blandishments at face value and put their names forward for selection soon discovered that sweetness and light were no match for bitterness and the night. Those with no stomach for the vicious battles that clearly awaited women candidates and parliamentarians, withdrew from the arena. The ones who stayed had no option but to acquire both the weapons and the armour for competitive combat. Masculine weapons. Masculine armour.
It was seldom a comfortable fit. Certainly not for women, and not for an encouragingly large number of men. New Zealand’s most successful woman politician, Helen Clark, reported being physically sick after some meetings of the Labour caucus – so toxic were the tactics of her male colleagues. By the time she became Prime Minister, however, her armour was as hard as dragon’s hide and her swords and stilettoes honed exceptionally sharp.
The great danger, of course, is that those who develop such an impenetrable outer-skin leave less and less space for the things it was supposed to protect. Likewise, those who master the skills of the sociopath too often forget that they were ever anything else.
I was lucky to escape that fate.
What disquiets me is not how few women make it through candidate selection – it is the number who succeed.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 July 2013.

Friday 5 July 2013

A Study In Exhaustion

A Hard Act To Follow: Dr Pita Sharples' contribution to what success the Maori Party has enjoyed is difficult to over-estimate. Compared to the mature Totara he is replacing, Te Ururoa Flavell, is a political sapling.
THE MAN LOOKED EXHAUSTED. Hardly surprising really – given the drama of the preceding days. In was November 2008: the Labour-led Government had fallen; Winston Peters was no longer a Member of Parliament; and the Maori Party had just won five of the seven Maori Seats. Slumped on a chair in the corridors of Parliament Buildings, Dr Pita Sharples was looking every one of his 68 years.
Perhaps it was my imagination, but as I sat across the corridor from him, waiting to take my turn on Maori Television’s live broadcast from the Maori Affairs Committee Room, I couldn’t help speculating that there was something more to be gleaned from Dr Sharples’ expression that mere physical fatigue. The thought crossed my mind that I was looking at a man who had fought a long battle with himself – and lost.
And that could only mean one thing: that Tariana Turia had prevailed, and that the Maori Party would be signing a coalition agreement with the victorious National Party.
“Don’t settle for anything less than a seat at the Cabinet Table”, I volunteered. “Make sure you’re where the decisions are being made.”
He smiled wanly, knowing already that this was beyond his own, Ms Turia’s, and the whole of the Maori Party’s power. They would receive portfolios, yes, even the highly symbolic title of Minister of Maori Affairs, but in terms of real power they would, like so many of their people, remain outside the door. The Maori Party may have talked its way into the room where the spoils of victory were being divvied up, but Dr Sharples knew already that they would not be offered a seat at the table – not by the Nats.
I would like to think that had the choice to collaborate (or not) with the National Party been Dr Sharples’ decision to make, then he would have held the Maori Party aloof.
But, it was not his decision.
That the whole of Maoridom has become entangled in Ms Turia’s utu upon the Labour Party is a tragedy only New Zealand politics could produce. Those who diminish the role of individuals in moving our history forward – or backwards – would do well to consider Ms Turia’s career.
These fierce old kuia, wreathed in the mysteries of their people’s blood and soil, emerge from time-to-time to trouble the deliberations of men. Advised by voices no one else can hear; protected by guardians no one else can see; they are not to be gainsaid or refused. And, when their work is done, they fade back into the mist and silence of the rivers and mountains that made them.
Yet, for all of Ms Turia’s formidable strength, it was Dr Sharples’ straightforwardness – his infectious good-humour and grandfatherly wisdom – that allowed the Maori Party to accomplish such good deeds as are worthy of being remembered.
Ms Turia may have been Maoridom’s frightening sybil, but it was Dr Sharples who re-built the relationship between Maori and Pakeha, which Labour’s Foreshore & Seabed Act and National’s Orewa speech had so badly damaged.
It was Dr Sharples who accustomed Pakeha to the idea that a Maori-based political party could participate in the affairs of government without igniting a civil war. And, in the Iwi Leadership Group, it was Dr Sharples who introduced his people to an alternative model for influencing the colonisers: one that did not involve loud-hailers or hurled fistfuls of Waitangi mud.
And now, for his trouble, Dr Sharples has been shown the door by Te Ururoa Flavell. Gone will be the kaumatua’s openness; his refreshing disposition to speak the truth freely, rather than waste everybody’s time by laboriously constructing a lie. In place of the avuncular smiles and chuckles, we shall all have to get used to Mr Flavell’s gloomy monotone.
The perfect symbol of the Maori Party in decline: Te Ururoa Flavell
Has anyone ever seen Mr Flavell smile?
No matter. The Waiariki MP’s passive aggression: his cultural conservatism; make him the perfect symbol of the Maori Party in decline.
A study in exhaustion.
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, 5 July 2013.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Missed Opportunities In Ikaroa-Rawhiti

There Can Be Only One: The ingredients were all there for a major political upset. Just under 60 percent of the voters of Ikaroa-Rawhiti supported somebody other than the by-election's eventual winner, Meka Whaitiri (Right). Had the voters thrown their weight behind the Mana Party candidate, Te Hamua Nikora (Second from Right) they could have sent a powerful message not only to the Maori Party (which has received the message that was sent loud and clear!) but also to the Labour Party (which, arguably, needs it the most).
IMAGINE A BILLIONAIRE with an interest in psephology (the academic study of elections and electoral behaviour). It’s by no means a far-fetched notion. The billionaire Koch brothers in the USA have invested millions in their quest to master the American electoral system. The billionaire currency speculator, George Soros, has similarly poured huge sums into US organisations dedicated to “getting out the vote”. So long as our leaders are elected, wealthy individuals will always have an interest in learning as much as possible about how democracy works.
Watching the Ikaroa-Rawhiti results come in on Saturday night, it occurred to me that with a little help from a friendly billionaire it would be possible to interview every person who participated in the by-election and ask them to explain their choice.
Ikaroa-Rawhiti is, of course, a Maori seat and is prone, like all Maori seats, to low voter turnout. Last Saturday’s by-election proved to be no exception, with only 10,519 of the approximately 33,000 registered electors participating in the ballot. Assuming one had the funding, 10,519 individuals is a small enough sample for a well-resourced team of professional researchers to interview in its entirety.
It would be a fascinating exercise. Most of us have, at one time or another, looked at an election result and scratched our heads. Why do people vote the way they do? What makes them support candidates representing parties with such a poor record of defending their interests? Why don’t more voters use their ballot strategically to secure effective representation – or simply to deliver a shock to the political system as a whole?
Last weekend it was within the power of the Ikaroa-Rawhiti electors to really upset New Zealand’s political apple cart. By shifting their support away from the Labour Party they could have delivered a stinging – perhaps fatal – rebuke to the Party’s lacklustre leader, David Shearer. At the very least, a rejection of Labour’s candidate would have precipitated a period of intense soul-searching within both the caucus and the wider party organisation. Labour’s entire approach to the Maori vote would have been up for review.
Wouldn’t that have been a more useful result for the people of Ikaroa-Rawhiti?
The voters of Ikaroa-Rawhiti also had the chance to deliver a sharp rejoinder to the Maori Party’s endless internal dogfighting. The leadership tussle between Dr Pita Sharples and the Waiariki MP, Te Ururoa Flavell, has weakened the Maori Party to the point where the likelihood of it retaining even the seats it holds currently is now in question. Had the electors put to one side the obvious personal qualities of the Maori Party candidate, Na Raihania (the strongest, individually, of all the contenders) and collapsed the Maori Party vote, the message to Dr Sharples and his colleagues would have been unmistakeable: “Get your act together – or this will be your fate!”
To be fair to the electors of Ikaroa-Rawhiti, they sort of sent a message to the Maori Party by demoting it from second-place-getter in 2011, to third-place-getter on Saturday. It was not, however, a very compelling message. Mr Raihania’s strong campaigning held his party’s vote together sufficiently well to limit his rival’s, the Mana Party’s Te Hamua Nikora’s, lead to just 500 votes.
Had the 2,104 Maori Party Voters, and the 1,118 electors who gave their vote to the Greens’ Marama Davidson, thrown their support behind Mr Nikora’s Mana Party, then the combined tally of votes (5,899) would’ve been more than enough to defeat the Labour candidate, Meka Whaitiri’s, winning total of 4,368.
Yes, they would have been taking a rather large punt on the colourful Mr Nikora, but it would only have been for 18 months. Had his performance as a Member of Parliament not been up to scratch they could easily have replaced him at the end of next year. In the meantime, the powerful messages his election would have sent – both to the Labour and Maori parties – would have benefited not just the people of Ikaroa-Rawhiti but the whole of New Zealand.
Sadly, that was not what happened. Rather than upset the apple cart, the electors of Ikaroa-Rawhiti (or, rather, just over a third of them) collectively kept it trundling along.
In electing a worthy, but pretty colourless, bureaucrat-cum-manager to represent them, Ikaroa-Rawhiti’s voters have bolstered the position of Mr Shearer and his supporters. Ms Whaitiri’s “respectable” win will allow the party to stumble on for another couple of months – or until the next disaster. By giving so many votes to Mr Raihania they have muted the message that a decisive shift of support to Mana would have sent to the Maori Party. It, too, has been permitted to stumble on.
So, if any public-spirited billionaires happen to read this – please get in touch.
We’d all benefit by discovering why democracy is so hard to master.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 July 2013.