Tuesday 17 December 2013

Laughing-Stock City?

Testing Times: Auckland's Mayor, Len Brown, not only faces the certainty of being formally censured by his Council, but will also have to contend with a concerted effort by councillors to pare down the considerable executive powers granted to the "super-city's" leader by its principal political architect, the then Local Government Minister, Rodney Hide.
IS AUCKLAND about to join Toronto? A city with a mayor some would dearly like to be rid of but cannot sack?
Auckland’s Len Brown may not have smoked crack cocaine or clean-bowled an elderly councillor in the council chamber, like the rampaging Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, but he is fast engendering a very similar sort of cringe factor.
Like Toronto, Auckland is its country’s commercial heart. Politically, it plays a similarly pivotal role. Who leads a city like Toronto or Auckland matters. Getting stuck with a laughing-stock mayor would be but a short step away from becoming a laughing-stock city.
That Auckland could finds itself contemplating that possibility is due to a peculiar constitutional anomaly.
At the national and regional levels of government in New Zealand our leaders are chosen from representatives elected by the people. The prime minister serves at the pleasure of a parliamentary majority. Regional chairs are similarly answerable to a majority of their fellow councillors.
 At the level of our districts, towns and cities, however, the position of mayor is filled by direct election. It is a very curious constitutional arrangement, because, with the exception of Auckland City, the people elected to lead our local bodies are vested with no special executive powers, do not control their council’s budget and may not even enjoy the support of a majority of their fellow councillors.
Quite how New Zealand ended up with these popularly elected but essentially powerless mayors is a bit of a mystery. We certainly didn’t inherit the practice from our colonial forebears. In the United Kingdom – and Australia – the mayoral chain goes around the neck of the council’s majority leader (or his or her nominee).
Certainly, the British and Australian practice makes for a much more powerful and coherent style of local government. Mayors chosen in this fashion know, from the very beginning of their terms, that the numbers are there around the council table to carry forward the plans they announced during their election campaigns. Majority support also protects them from having the council’s budget wrested from their control.
Most importantly, if they suddenly start behaving bizarrely – like smoking crack cocaine – or embark on an orgy of unauthorised spending, then their fellow councillors can simply bust them back to the ranks and elect a new mayor.
The new Auckland “super city” was intended to be something else entirely. Its principal political architect, former local government minister Rodney Hide, wanted a city that could get things done swiftly and efficiently. That ruled out the parliamentary model of the UK and Australia which, being dominated by local political parties, was prone to pork-barrelling and horse-trading. Not being a conspicuous fan of either pork-barrelling or horse-trading, Hide opted instead for a lean, mean governance machine presided over by a mayor equipped with unprecedented executive powers.
No doubt the sort of figure Hide had in mind as the first mayor of his new super-city was a charismatic business tycoon; someone who could transform the Office of the Mayor into the workplace of a tough-minded, no-nonsense political CEO.
But that was not what he got.
Auckland’s first “super mayor” turned out to be a rather daffy family lawyer from South Auckland. A great emoter and prone to random outbursts of song, Mayor Len Brown did not, in my view, appear to be either tough-minded or no-nonsense. He was, however, possessed of a keen legal mind and very quickly appreciated the possibilities inherent in the “executive mayoralty” Hide had bequeathed him.
Using the super mayor’s budgetary independence and patronage powers, Brown very rapidly constructed what I believe was a well-nigh impregnable political position within the governance structures of Auckland City. So much so that he could, without the slightest trace of irony, instruct his councillors to “leave their politics at the [council chamber] door”.
One of the greatest dangers confronting politicians who, like Brown, have been successful in protecting themselves from just about every kind of political attack, is to mistake impregnability for invulnerability. Those who believe themselves safe from their enemies’ attacks are all-too-often un-done by their own personal weaknesses.
So it proved with Toronto’s Rob Ford, and, in a very different way, I believe Auckland’s Len Brown has suffered the same fate.
In both cases, it is their council and their city that is being forced to pay the price.
So eager was Hide to set up his new and streamlined governance structure for the super-sized Auckland City that he neglected to include in its constitutional design any mechanisms for bringing a wayward super mayor to heel.
Even the president of the United States is subject to impeachment. But, short of being convicted of a serious crime, adjudged a bankrupt or declared insane, the mayors of Toronto and Auckland are effectively unsackable.
A bad mayor could, potentially, do a lot of damage in three years. The people of Toronto and Auckland deserve better mechanisms for keeping their elected Mayors on the straight and narrow.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 December 2013.

Friday 13 December 2013

The Wrong Side Of History?

Which Side Were You On? The Prime Minister's decision not to include a representative of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the New Zealand delegation to Nelson Mandela's memorial service in Johannesburg revealed how very close to the surface the memories and passions of the 1981 Springbok Tour still lie. The words and gestures of the racists may have moved in a progressive direction, but their hearts and minds have not followed. (Photo and superimposed text by John Miller)
DO PEOPLE REALLY CHANGE?  Do political parties? It’s a question that many people have been asking this past week.
Well, I say “people”, but the one’s I’m actually thinking of are those who are old enough to remember the days when Apartheid was a living system, and Nelson Mandela’s jailers still called him “Prisoner 46664”.
We were all 32 years younger back in 1981 – most of us just kids in our late teens and early twenties – but that didn’t mean we couldn’t tell the difference between right and wrong.
Because, seriously, how difficult was it to identify South Africa’s racially segregated society as a vicious affront to human dignity? After 1976 and the wanton killing of hundreds of protesting high-school kids in Soweto, you didn’t need to be a moral philosopher to know that Apartheid was wrong.
And yet, there were hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders (and millions more around the world) who just couldn’t or wouldn’t make that judgement. When they saw the images of black school-children doubled over by 12-guage shotgun shells, their sympathies were with the man holding the shotgun. They had no problem imagining themselves into these horrific scenes but, invariably, it was alongside the white slayers – never with the black slain.
They hated us – the opponents of Apartheid – with an intensity that was frightening to behold. We just wouldn’t stop telling them that they were wrong to back a tour by Apartheid’s most effective sporting ambassadors; kept on insisting that only bad people could possibly defend such a self-evidently evil political system.
It made them furious.
Because they couldn’t admit that what they were doing was wrong: their indefatigable racism simply wouldn’t let them. White was right, and anyone who said different was a treacherous commie stirrer. And they weren’t the only ones saying so: the National Party Government said exactly the same thing. The Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon himself, had accused Hart and Care of actions “bordering on treason”.
And the New Zealand prime minister wasn’t alone. When the US Congress passed the Anti-Apartheid Act, mandating economic sanctions against the South African regime, the Republican President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, vetoed it. As late as 1987 the UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was still telling the House of Commons: “The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”
Her Conservative Party colleagues were blunter: “How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist? asked Terry Dicks. “Nelson Mandela should be shot.” declared Teddy Taylor.
Seven years later Nelson Mandela and the ANC were running the South African government.
The racists and the haters had backed the wrong horse. History was spitting in their faces. Reluctantly, and seething internally, they found themselves nodding and smiling as the world celebrated the end of Apartheid. How sorry they were, the smarter ones confessed, that they hadn’t seen it earlier, because, clearly, Nelson Mandela is the Black Messiah: Jesus with a Xhosa accent.
And Mandela, bless him, forgave them their trespasses. He simply declined to notice that his former persecutors (and the multitude who had apologised for their crimes) still had blood on their hands. And when the White World finally acknowledged Black South Africans’ formal political equality it was only after the saintly “Madiba” had conceded his people’s continuing economic servitude.
How confusing it must be for the racists and haters: how complex and mutable the language and mechanisms of oppression. The man who was once branded a terrorist is now hailed as a statesman. Segregation, once as blatant as “Blankes”, “Nie Blankes”, is now achieved by the promise that black and white, alike, are free to live wherever they can afford the deposit.
But the racists’ visceral hatred of the ones who called Apartheid and its supporters by their true names has not diminished. The same Prime Minister who professes no memory of his opinion of the 1981 Tour has somehow remembered enough of his National Party contemporaries’ hatred of John Minto to deny the anti-Apartheid leader a place in the delegation to Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg.

"Where black is the colour, and none is the number" - Bob Dylan
But, perhaps, John Key’s instincts are correct. Where black remains the colour, and their number is still zero.
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, 13 December 2013.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

A Hero For The Ages?

Property Of The Ages? President Obama borrowed Abraham Lincoln's famous epitaph to honour the passing of Nelson Mandela. But was Prisoner 46664's ultimate contribution to the fate of Black South Africa entirely benign? Who benefited the most from the bargain he struck with South Africa's last White President, F.W. de Klerk? Will the Ages judge Mandela as kindly as they received Lincoln?
AS ABRAHAM LINCOLN breathed his last in a fetid boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre, his friend, the Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, declared: “Now he belongs to the ages.”
President Barack Obama borrowed Stanton’s magnificent epitaph to honour the passing of Nelson Mandela – the man who, throughout Obama’s political career, had served as the living exemplar of political heroism.
The American President is merely the mightiest of world leaders to pay tribute to this remarkable man. The fortitude he demonstrated through 27 long years of imprisonment, and the readiness with which he forgave his former enemies, greatly eased South Africa’s transition from racial oppression to multi-racial democracy, and made Nelson Mandela a statesman for all seasons.
But how will the ages, to which President Obama has now dispatched him, judge Nelson Mandela?
The Apartheid-era judges who sentenced Mandela to life imprisonment on that tiny speck of offshore rock called Robben Island knew what they were doing. Martyrs are politically useful only to their own side, but an imprisoned leader may one day be of service to both. This is especially true when, as the duration of his captivity lengthens, that leader’s reputation, unblemished by the inevitable compromises and crimes of politics and war, is permitted to grow to almost mythic proportions.
Hundreds of anti-Apartheid fighters (most infamously Steve Biko) were murdered in police custody. Why Nelson Mandela did not share their fate is one of those important political questions that contemporaries consistently deemed it better not to ask.
But we may be sure that, alone in his cell on Robben Island, Prisoner 46664 asked himself: “Why am I still alive? Why haven’t they killed me? What role do the Whites expect me to play in South Africa’s future?”
The answer, of course, and if you’ll pardon the rather cruel pun, is that Nelson Mandela was the Apartheid regime’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card. If repression failed; if the opportunity to preserve the property of White South Africans – even at the expense of surrendering their political dominance – presented itself; then Prisoner 46664, beloved by his people, the world’s most celebrated political prisoner, would be there to avert the fire and the blood that a Just Providence held in store for the architects and beneficiaries of the hated Apartheid system.
But Mandela was not White South Africa’s only saviour.
In the early 1980s the prospect of a Soviet-backed African National Congress replicating the triumphant national liberation struggles of Angola, Mozambique and Namibia seemed entirely plausible. With a continent-wide front of socialist enemies to the north and their backs to the sea, White South Africa’s future looked bleak.
By the end of the 1980s, however, Soviet power was collapsing. In 1991, its European empire gone, and its world-wide network of national liberation regimes scrabbling for more reliable sponsors, the Soviet Union, itself, simply blipped-off History’s screen. And with it went any chance of securing Black majority-rule in South Africa by outside force. Democracy would arrive there in one of only two possible ways: either blood-soaked and fatally compromised by a racial holocaust of historic proportions; or peacefully, via the ballot-box.
The White leaders of South Africa, understandably, opted for the latter. In February 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the last White President of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, authorised the release of Prisoner 46664. Nelson Mandela got out of jail.
But he was not free. Like Abraham Lincoln, to whom he is so often compared, Mandela found himself caught up in political and economic currents beyond his control and in whose grip he struggled to keep the frail craft of South Africa’s hopes afloat. If he was not to bequeath his people an economy stripped of all essential expertise, materiel and capital, then the socialist elements of the ANC programme would have to be abandoned.
It was no accident that Mandela’s new offices were located in Shell House. Without the endorsement of transnational capital, South African democracy would be a poor and ragged thing. But Mandela’s parallel guarantee to protect the farms and businesses of the hated Afrikaners also meant that the poor and the ragged of South Africa would remain black.
Will the Ages welcome Nelson Mandela with the same solemnity that they received Abraham Lincoln? Surely the avoidance of a racial bloodbath and the likely fracturing of South Africa along tribal lines – not to mention the introduction of a working multiracial democracy – is a legacy worthy of posterity’s approbation? It has certainly merited the applause of the Present Day.
And yet, in the story of Nelson Mandela there remains a nagging sense of saintliness too readily and too easily bestowed. Great victories are not won except at great price. Abraham Lincoln paid for his at Ford’s Theatre. Nelson Mandela died in his bed.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 December 2013.

Friday 6 December 2013

The South African National Anthem

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela 1918 - 2013

Nelson Mandela (Tata Madiba) outside St Matthews Church, Hobson St, Auckland, New Zealand, during CHOGM, in 1995. Photo by John Miller.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
1918 - 2013
Anti-Apartheid Revolutionary
Father of Free South Africa

I Think Continually Of Those Who Were Truly Great

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

Stephen Spender

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

It Takes A Village

Just Passing Through: But would the social and economic problems confronting contemporary New Zealand have reached their current levels of urgency if the country had retained its former intimate character? If we really were what Statistics New Zealand, in presenting the 2013 Census results, asks us to imagine: a village of 100 people?

MANY NEW ZEALANDERS JOKE about the size of their population. “Forget about six degrees of separation,” they chortle, “in this country you’re lucky to make it as far as two!” The general consensus seems to be that if the rest of the world is a collection of big cities, then New Zealand is a village – and a pretty small one at that!
But if New Zealand’s a village – what sort of village is it?
A curious question? Not if you’re Statistics New Zealand and you’re looking for a simple way to present the results of the 2013 Census. Visit their website and you’ll be asked to think of “New Zealand as a village of 100 people”.
The first thing you’ll notice about the village is how much it has grown. Thirty-two years ago there were just 74 inhabitants – most of them of European and Maori origin. It was also a much younger village. In 1981 half the population was under the age of 28. In 2013 the median age of the village has climbed to 38 years.
The other thing you’ll notice is how many people living in the village are now of Asian ancestry. Since 2001 the number of Asian inhabitants has doubled. Where once there were 5 there are now 11 villagers of Asian origin.
If the growth in the village’s Asian population is not slowed appreciably, then the 14 villagers identifying themselves as Maori will soon be displaced as the second-largest ethnic group. Already, in 2013, as many villagers speak Hindi as Samoan.
What really stands out about the village in 2013, however, is its seriously lopsided socio-economic structure. Only ten villagers of working age earn in excess of $70,000 per annum. There are 25 working-age villagers earning between $30,000 and $70,000, and 38 whose incomes are less than $30,000. Over half of the village’s workers earn less than $28,500 per annum.
The disparity between the earnings of male and female villagers is ever starker. Over half the working-men in the village earn more than $36,500, while half of its working-women earn less than $23,100.
The village’s poverty is also on display in the fact that only 2 out of every 3 inhabitants own their own home. In 2013, more than a third of the village’s residents live in rented accommodation. Thirty years ago nearly 3 out of 4 villagers owned their own home.
Of course, for the 10 percent of working New Zealanders earning a comfortable income it is extremely fortunate that they are not living cheek-by-jowl with the 50 percent earning less than $28,500 – and that the people renting their second, third or fourth property live 30 miles across town and not just across the village street. Social-economic disparities are a great deal easier to manage, and to bear, when the community’s social-geography encompasses more than the few square kilometres required to support 100 souls.
The 10 percent of the workforce categorised as “professionals” are only able to enjoy their well-remunerated and relatively untroubled lives because they do not have to eyeball on a daily basis the young women struggling in quiet desperation to raise families on less than $25,000 per annum. Would they really be able to pass them by on the other side of a village street? Would they really find it so easy to brand them the “undeserving” poor?
And would those struggling to survive on $25,000 really find it as easy to sink into apathy and anomie if those living in the big houses and earning the big bucks were to be found not in leafy suburbs they will never visit, but just a stone’s throw away at the top of the hill.
If, as Hannibal Lecter so chillingly explained, we covet what we see every day, then it would not be wise to be too wealthy in a village.
Maybe that’s why, for a long time in New Zealand, the distance between the rich and the poor remained so narrow.
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, 6 December 2013.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Surviving Their Advisors: What Happens After Labour Wins?

CHEERS! With Christchurch East in the bag, David Cunliffe needs to give increasing attention not only to winning in 2014, but also to how his government intends to establish a "Leftward and interventionist" administration in the teeth of extreme neoliberal opposition from an ideologically hostile civil service.
LABOUR PARTY MEMBERS and supporters are still celebrating Saturday’s decisive by-election victory in Christchurch East. With more than 60 percent of the votes cast, Poto Williams well-and-truly dispelled the nagging fear that National’s 2011 Party Vote advantage might preface a morale-sapping defeat.
For avoiding this outcome fulsome tribute must be paid to Ms William’s campaign manager, Jim Anderton. Few political operators can match Mr Anderton’s fighting skills in the trench warfare that is electorate politics. Among the most important of these is the ability to pre-identify your party’s supporters and make sure they cast a vote. Mr Anderton and his team did this with a thoroughness that National clearly could not match. Not even the low turnout (roughly 13,000 compared to 28,524 in 2011) could upset Mr Anderton’s calculations – indeed, the decisive result points to just how successfully his campaign team was able to mobilise the Labour vote.
If Labour is wise it will attempt to replicate Saturday’s mobilisation effort in Christchurch East across the entire country in 2014. In next year’s big battle, however, the prize will not be electorate seats (though they will be welcome!) but a clear plurality of the all-important Party Vote.
To that end, Labour’s leader, David Cunliffe, must assemble a policy package of sufficient power to dislodge the hundreds of thousands of disillusioned and/or despairing Non-Voters and propel them towards the polling booths. Psephological analysis of the 2011 General Election’s record-breaking abstention rate indicates that approximately 70 percent of the Non-Vote was drawn from demographic categories most likely to vote Labour.
To paraphrase Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams: “Build it [an authentic Labour manifesto] – and they will come [out and vote for it].”
And that, clearly, was the message Mr Cunliffe took from his party’s emphatic by-election victory. Ms Williams, he said, had formed  “a genuine connection” with the electorate’s voters. But, there was something more: “Our grassroots campaign in Christchurch East was run and won on the issues facing the city. On housing, insurance and standing up for people in the rebuild.”
According to Fairfax Media’s political correspondent, Vernon Small: “It all suggests Labour under Cunliffe see the by-election as a sign the party should press on even more strongly in the Leftward and interventionist direction it has taken so far.”
Brave intentions! But one of the biggest challenges facing a political leader striving to make the transition from Opposition Leader to Prime Minister is not only to be thinking constantly about how to win power, but also about how he is going to wield it once victory is achieved.
Sixty or so MPs, seated in the House of Representatives, may have the power to change the laws of the land, but the drafting and execution of those laws falls to a vast and highly complex bureaucracy which has, for the past 30 years, administered the state, managed the economy and generally guided society according to the widely accepted principles and practices of neoliberalism.
Over-riding these, of course, is the convention that civil servants must carry out the instructions of their political masters to the very best of their ability. That is not to say, however, that they will (or should) meekly receive those instructions without venturing an opinion concerning the desirability of the course of action proposed. Civil servants have a duty to provide their ministers with “free and frank” advice. A Labour-led Government determined to radically redirect the New Zealand state along “Leftward and interventionist” lines would be wise to anticipate a fair amount of “free and frank” resistance.
Mr Cunliffe, rejoicing in the democratic wind filling his sails following Saturday’s bracing victory, should be asking himself how many of the men and women likely to form his Cabinet possess the ideological confidence to stare down officials whose unanimous advice will almost certainly be that their party’s policy amounts to the purest folly, which, if implemented, will lead ineluctably to economic, fiscal and/or social disaster.
It’s an important question. Mounting a confident defence of “Leftward and interventionist” policies in the face of voluminous and coherently argued objections from one’s most senior policy advisers is no easy task. Mr Cunliffe should know that only a handful of Labour and Green MPs are even remotely capable of out-arguing neoliberalism. In New Zealand, the number of left-wing politicians with the foresight to cultivate and maintain strong relationships with policy specialists external to and independent of our neoliberal civil service is depressingly small.
With Christchurch East behind him, it will be interesting to see how aggressively Mr Cunliffe sets about developing and releasing the core policies of the next Labour-led Government. It’s a task that brooks no delay because if Labour and the Greens do not set their own policies before the election, then, most assuredly, their officials will do it for them afterwards.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 December 2013.