Thursday 27 February 2014

Now Is The Time ... For A Game-Changer

Who'd Have Thought? There's no disputing that David Cunliffe's decision to appoint Matt McCarten as his Chief-of-Staff caught nearly everybody in New Zealand politics by surprise. The question now is whether the Left is capable of seizing the extraordinary opportunity it has been given.

“MATT McCARTEN? CHIEF OF STAFF! SERIOUSLY?” How many times have those words been spoken in the past 48 hours? Sometimes with barely suppressed excitement; other times in barely suppressed fury; but most of the time in a tone of utter disbelief that the speaker made no attempt to suppress at all.
The New Zealand Left suddenly finds itself in the position of the dog who caught the car. For years, slagging off the Labour Party as a bunch of neoliberal sell-outs has been one of the Left’s favourite pub and parlour games. But now, with one of this country’s most effective left-wing campaigners just one door down from the Leader of the Labour Opposition, the Left, like the bewildered pooch for whom the fun was always in the chase, has finally got what it wanted and must decide what to do with it.
That bewilderment had better not last too long. Because unless David Cunliffe and Matt McCarten start talking with unprecedented clarity about what’s wrong with New Zealand, what changes need to be made, and how Labour proposes to make them, then the Right’s political narrative – that Labour under Cunliffe has executed a lunatic lurch to the extreme Left – will be the story that sticks.
I would estimate that Cunliffe has a week – possibly a fortnight – to draft and deliver a speech which explains to “Middle New Zealand” that Labour has absolutely no intention of nationalising everything and shooting the buggers who complain. That there are no plans to replace the Southern Cross with the hammer and sickle on the New Zealand flag. That Labour wants nothing like that at all.
He needs to tell middle-class voters that the one objective he is absolutely determined to achieve, with the support of his caucus, his party, his chief-of-staff and every other progressive New Zealander, is the long-delayed re-balancing of this country’s economic and social settings. Labour wants New Zealanders to once again look upon the State as their friend: a powerful and trusted ally against the depredations of unregulated, free-market capitalism.
That speech has to be the best he has ever given. It needs to be filled with real and telling examples of what is happening out there to the two-thirds of Kiwis who earn less than the average wage. It needs to be chock full of great lines like “The only thing we have to fear – is fear itself”, but it also needs to be leavened with wit and humour.
Cunliffe can’t write a speech like that by himself – which is why he needs all the ideas, evidence, insights and jokes that progressive New Zealanders can send him. They need to help him paint a picture of a country in which the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders would like to live, and then to supply him with a convincing description of the steps needed to take them there.
And while the Left is helping Cunliffe find the words to convince Middle New Zealand that he means them no harm, McCarten needs to get busy reconnecting all the wires to all the levers on Labour’s bridge. The wires that lead to Labour’s Caucus, to its NZ Councillors, LEC’s and branches. To the Council of Trade Unions Executive, the affiliated unions, the churches and the voluntary sector. For far too long far too many of these wires have floated free. When McCarten reaches for a lever; to make things happen; he needs to know that the wire of influence he’s pulling is attached to something real.
And, once again, that means that every progressive person within these organisations needs to place themselves at the new chief-of-staff’s disposal. McCarten has trodden on a lot of toes and burned a lot of bridges over the course of his career (most tragically with the Lear-like Jim Anderton) but all of those insults must now be forgiven and forgotten.
Why? Because the Left has been given an extraordinary opportunity to prove that it still has something to offer New Zealand, but a desperately short period of time in which to do it. If old wounds, old grudges, old defeats (are you listening Jim?) are allowed to get in the way of making this unprecedented situation work to the advantage of ordinary New Zealanders, then it will end in failure.
And that failure won’t just be Cunliffe’s and McCarten’s, it will be the failure of the entire progressive movement. And it won’t just be for a triennium (or three) it will be for an entire generation.
If Cunliffe and McCarten are allowed to fail, the Right of the Labour Party and their fellow travellers in the broader labour movement (all the people who worked so hard to prevent Cunliffe rising to the leadership) will say:
“Well, you got your wish. You elected a leader pledged to take Labour to the Left. And just look what happened. Middle New Zealand ran screaming into the arms of John Key and Labour ended up with a Party Vote even more pitiful than National’s in 2002! So don’t you dare try peddling that ‘If we build a left-wing Labour Party they will come’ line ever again! You did – and they didn’t.”
Be in no doubt that this will happen – just as it did in the years after the British Labour Party’s crushing defeat in the general election of 1983. The Labour Right called Labour’s socialist manifesto “the longest suicide note in history” and the long-march towards Blairism and the re-writing of Clause Four began. (Never mind the impact of Maggie Thatcher’s unlikely victory in the South Atlantic, it was Michael Foot’s socialism wot won it for the Tories!)
These are the stakes the Left is playing for – and they could not be higher. If progressive New Zealand rallies to Cunliffe’s and McCarten’s bright-red banner and helps them convince Middle New Zealand that Labourism, far from being an alien and dangerous creed, actually stands for all that is best in this nation, then it will have won an historic and lasting victory. But if it fails to seize the opportunity it has been given, then all that is worth fighting for on the Left will go down to defeat and New Zealand will be National’s for the foreseeable future.
Now IS the time for all good comrades to come to the aid of the party. Because, whichever way it turns out, the appointment of Matt McCarten is bound to be a game-changer.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Putin's "Plan B"

Plan B: Did the thousands of Ukrainian revolutionaries who cheered her at the Maidan realise that Yulia Tymoshenko, no less than her great political rival, Victor Yanukovych, is a person the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, can "do business with". If Tymoshenko cannot be leveraged into a regime acceptable to both the EU and the Russian Federation, then the territorial integrity of Ukraine will become a live issue.

WHEN THE RIOT POLICE abandoned their posts and the protesters entered the hurriedly vacated offices of President Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine passed from mass protest to revolution. When the Ukrainian armed forces declared their unwillingness to defend its deposed government, revolution took a further critical step towards consolidation and success.
What happens next will depend on how Ukraine’s neighbours respond to the fast-moving situation the revolution has unleashed. The Russian Federation, which describes Ukraine as a “brother state” and “strategic partner” will be asking itself whether a virulently anti-Russian government in Kiev is tolerable. If the answer is “No”, then Moscow may have to swallow its pride and swing in behind a new Ukrainian leader – one both sides can live with.
The European Union, has a different problem. While achieving most of its short-term goals vis-à-vis removing the government of President Yanukovych, it must consider the long-term ramifications of being seen to endorse the violent overthrow of a democratically-elected government. (Ukraine was scheduled to go to the polls in March 2015.)
The EU also needs to consider the implications of its loud condemnation of President Yanukovych’s use of deadly force to defend his government from armed extremist groups intent upon its overthrow.
Confronted with anything like the same challenges, what would the leaders of Sweden, Poland and the United Kingdom, President Yanukovych’s harshest critics, have done?
Would the right-wing Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt, have denied himself the resources of the Swedish armed forces if far-Left extremists demanding his resignation had broken into regional Police armouries, seized firearms and started ferrying them to demonstrators attacking and killing police officers in the heart of Stockholm?
Would the spirit of the 1980s protest movement Solidarity have been strong enough to keep the Polish army in its barracks in the face of a violent attack upon the democratically-elected government of Donald Tusk?
Would the same David Cameron who, in 2011, demanded the ruthless repression of the youthful urban rioters in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and other British cities, have urged the Metropolitan Police to “pull back” in the face of shotgun-wielding demonstrators in Trafalgar Square? With the smoke of burning barricades wafting over the Houses of Parliament, would the same political system that gave us “Bloody Sunday” and Blair Peach have unilaterally foresworn all recourse to deadly force?
Certainly, Messrs Bildt, Tusk and Cameron seem unlikely converts to the revolutionary ideas of the Founding Fathers of the United States who, on 4 July 1776, put their signatures to Thomas Jefferson’s celebrated Declaration of Independence.
“[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations,” wrote Jefferson, “pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce [the people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Well, there’s no disputing the fact that Ukraine has provided herself with “new guards”, but whether her “future security” can safely be left to the young, hard-core nationalists of the far-right “Pravy Sektor” only time will tell.
The triumph of Pravy Sektor is perplexing. In just about any other jurisdiction the appearance on the barricades of such a heavily armed group would have been the signal for the declaration of a State of Emergency or, more likely, Martial Law. Why this didn’t happen in Ukraine, especially after the exhausted Riot Police started losing men to small arms fire, is baffling.
In the famous Sherlock Holmes case “Silver Blaze”, Inspector Gregory from Scotland Yard asks: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” Holmes replies: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” The puzzled Gregory retorts: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” Says Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
In danger of becoming lost in the kaleidoscopic tumble of events of the past few days was President Yanukovych’s dismissal of the Commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Col. General Zamana, and his replacement by the Naval Commander, Admiral Yuriy Ilyin. With hindsight this can be seen as the Ukrainian President’s last throw of the dice. That it failed is almost certainly due to the intervention of both the USA and the Russian Federation.
The Obama Administration had warned repeatedly that the use of the army against the protesters would escalate the crisis to a new and dangerous level. Vladimir Putin, clearly unwilling to raise the stakes that high, appears to have abandoned President Yanukovych in favour of a “Plan B”.
How brave and fragile she looked, wheelchair-bound and bundled against the cold, speaking tearfully of a New Ukraine born of the blood spilled in the “Maidan” – Kiev’s Independence Square.
How many of those cheering thousands understood that Yulia Tymoshenko is someone Vladimir Putin can do business with?
Pawns take Knight. Check. Queen takes pawns. Checkmate.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, February 25, 2014.

Friday 21 February 2014

A Labour Cell In TVNZ's Vast Castle

Stairway To Hell: Like the decrepit dynasty at the heart of Mervyn Peake's grotesque fantasy novel, Gormenghast, the "Heads" at TVNZ's Auckland sprawling headquarters lost track of what was going on within their immense domain.

GORMENGHAST is one novel of a hell. Imagine J.R.R. Tolkien on acid, C.S. Lewis on speed, and you’ll hardly have made a mental dent in Mervyn Peake’s grotesque trilogy. I won’t spoil the books by giving away the plot in detail. Suffice to say that Gormenghast is an immense castle. So immense that the decrepit dynasty of Groan, to whom it ostensibly belongs, cannot possibly keep track of everything that goes on within its walls.
Watching Patrick Gower unfold (with ever increasing glee) the activities of Shane Taurima and his colleagues at TVNZ headquarters in Auckland, I couldn’t help being reminded of Peake’s gothic fantasy.
Like Gormenghast Castle, the sprawling TVNZ site had somehow spawned a secret cell of resistance. How was that possible? Because, like the Groans, TVNZ’s bosses appear to have become preoccupied with “the obscure and esoteric tenets” of their governance functions.
For the most part this involves large numbers of middle managers running up and down the great staircase that dominates TVNZ’s Auckland headquarters, ducking into tiny offices, and exchanging information with other middle managers who undertake to pass it on to yet more middle managers. Only very occasionally (or by accident) does this information ever trickle down to the people who actually make the television programmes we see on air.
Only very rarely do all the various functionaries of TVNZ gather together. And when they do it is almost always to pay homage to something called “The Ratings”. These are collections of viewing data gathered according to specifications laid down at some point in the far distant past but which are now almost completely irrelevant to the way people use their television sets, Sky decoders, PCs and iPhones.
The grand interpreters of The Ratings are the “Heads” (Head of Programming, Head of Marketing, Head of Sport, Head of News and Current Affairs). Their job is to advise the CEO who, in his turn, advises “The Board”.
TVNZ HQ - The higher you climb the less you know.
It is widely acknowledged within the sprawling edifice of TVNZ that the higher you climb in the organisation, the less you know about television. At the level of the Board, for example, virtually nothing is known about the rights and duties of a state broadcaster.
The similarities between TVNZ’s top brass, the Groans of Gormenghast, and the peculiar determination of both elites to cling to the “obscure and esoteric tenets” of their respective institutions are quite uncanny.
Certainly, it is very difficult to fathom how else Shane Taurima and his colleagues could run what amounted to a Labour Party branch out of the Maori and Pacific Television Unit – practically under the noses of TVNZ’s senior executives – without employing something like the Gormenghast metaphor.
And, really, can you blame them? It has been years since TVNZ management demonstrated the slightest respect for the news and current affairs obligations of what is still, officially, the people’s television network. They are required to operate in a culture of contempt for the principles of public service television – an attitude epitomised by the TVNZ CEO who claimed Police Ten-Seven as an example of Maori programming by pointing to the large number of young Maori men and women arrested on the show!
The atmosphere broadcasters are required to inhale at TVNZ may not be party political, but it is unquestionably ideological. Since 1989, when Labour removed all references to the public good from the Broadcasting Act, TVNZ has understood that its real (albeit unwritten) charter mandates the relentless promotion to New Zealanders of the virtues of neoliberalism, while rigorously eliminating all those programming options capable of constructing an alternative worldview.
Mr Taurima’s and his Maori and Pacific Television Unit colleagues’ biggest mistake – apart from believing that they could ever get away with behaving in such a nakedly party political fashion – was to hang their hats on securing the election of a Labour-led Government.
In the nine years that Helen Clark’s Labour Party governed New Zealand no serious effort was made to root-out the pernicious operational culture at TVNZ or, indeed, to address the manifold defects of this country’s recklessly deregulated media industry.
Even had TV3’s Patrick Gower not exposed Shane “Steerpike” Taurima’s cell of resistance in the bowels of the TVNZ Gormenghast, a change of government would only have confirmed for him The Who’s immortal line:
“Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.”
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, 21 February 2014.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Rogering The Rogerers

SOMETHING for all you anti-capitalists in Nelson to enjoy from 7:00pm on Tuesday, 15 April 2014.

Be there at Lambretta's Café, 204 Hardy St, Nelson - or be labelled a Running Dog!

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Exquisite Hypocrisy: The West's Response To The Ukrainian Crisis

Dead Man Rioting: Try to imagine what US law enforcement would do to someone trying this in the National Mall, Washington DC. The West's exquisite hypocrisy over President Victor Yanukovych's response to what is unfolding in Ukraine is truly breath-taking.
KIEV IS BURNING. The democratically elected government of Ukraine is under attack from an armed, Western-backed minority. The extreme right-wing organisation, “Right Sector”, equipped with firearms, Molotov Cocktails, explosive devices, shields, iron bars and paving stones has shattered the painstakingly constructed peace agreement which only a few days ago seemed set to end the occupation of Kiev’s Independence Square and secure a general amnesty for all those protestors who had broken the law in their confrontation with the Ukrainian state.
This sudden escalation of violence has already cost the lives of 26 citizens – 10 of them police officers. In an even more ominous development, opponents of the government of President Yanukovych have raided police and security forces armouries in provincial Ukrainian cities and seized an unknown quantity of offensive weapons. The country teeters on the brink of Civil War.
It is worth reiterating that these deadly attacks are directed against a head of state and a government chosen by the Ukrainian people less than four years ago in free and fair elections. The ostensible cause of the protests – the Ukrainian President’s decision to look to the Russian Federation, rather than the European Union, for desperately needed economic aid – was a perfectly legitimate political decision, no different from the decision of the US Government to join NAFTA, or our own government’s decision to sign a free trade agreement with China.
Can you imagine the reaction of the US Government if in 1994 the opponents of NAFTA had marched into the heart of Washington DC carrying all manner of offensive weapons, occupied the Lincoln Memorial and demanded both the abrogation of the treaty and the resignation of President Clinton? What do you think would have happened if, as barricades went up around the National Mall and clouds of black smoke from burning tyres drifted over the White House, the FBI had then released evidence showing that a number of the protest leaders had taken part in training sessions organised and funded by an agency of the Russian Government? How do you think the US media would have reacted? Would Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, have insisted that, notwithstanding the multiple police fatalities, neither the US Army nor National Guardsmen from the adjoining states of Maryland and Virginia would be permitted to intervene?
Remember, this is the same Janet Reno who, on 19 April, 1993, ordered the militarised FBI assault on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, resulting in the deaths of 76 men, women and children.
With images of fiery revolt filling their television screens, how do you think the American people would react to calls from the Russian Foreign Minister that the US Government “avoid the use of excessive force” against civilians?
Not much imagination is required to envisage the response of the United States (or indeed any Western nation) to the sort of provocations the Ukrainian government has to endured for the past three months. At both the state and federal levels American authorities have never hesitated to resort to deadly force against those perceived to be challenging the forces of law and order.
The example inscribed forever on my memory took place at Kent State University in Ohio on 4 May 1970. That was the day Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on hundreds of unarmed students protesting the US invasion of Cambodia. The Canadian artist, Neil Young, immortalised the incident in his song Ohio:

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio
The exquisite hypocrisy of American politicians urging Ukrainian politicians to “pull back” the Riot Police so as to avoid civilian casualties is truly breath-taking.
More chilling, however, is the steady escalation of tension between the European Union and Ukraine. Robbed of its prized EU-Ukraine FTA by Yanukovych, the EU countries (with US connivance) have announced the imposition of “smart” sanctions against leading Ukrainian politicians. The response from Yanukovych's allies in the Russian Foreign Ministry has been swift:
“The Russian side demands that leaders of the [opposition] stop the bloodshed in their country, immediately resume dialogue with the lawful authorities without threats or ultimatums.
“Ukraine is a friendly brother state and a strategic partner, and we will use all our influence in order for peace and calm to reign.”
For the moment, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has refrained from personally adding fuel to Kiev’s raging fires. He is anxious not to jeopardise the success of the still proceeding Winter Olympics at Sochi – upon which his government has expended billions. In a few days, however, the Games will be over and Putin will be able to devote his full attention to restoring “peace and calm” to his country’s most important “brother state and strategic partner”.
At that point the West’s exquisite hypocrisy may end up ruling the fate of many.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

This Is What Clever Propaganda Looks Like

TAKE A LOOK at this video from the global charity organisation, Oxfam. Intended to push along moves already underway within the European Union to introduce a Financial Transactions Tax, the video employs the superb comedic talents of the British actor, Bill Nighy, to highlight the bankruptcy of the anti-FTT position. Viewers of the video are also encouraged to get involved in a practical way by signing an accompanying petition.


This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

The Sixteenth Point

Small Business Friendly: The manifesto of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) or "Nazis" promised fulsome state support for the small businessperson against the depredations of monopoly capitalism. Department stores, in particular, were singled out. Had they existed at the time, supermarkets would undoubtedly have been similarly targeted for their sins against the "little guys".

IT WAS THE SIXTEENTH POINT of the Nazi Party’s 25-point programme. Adolf Hitler and his comrades, in the interests of creating and conserving a “healthy middle class”, demanded “the immediate communalisation of the great warehouses” [today we’d call them department stores] “and their being leased at low cost to small firms”. Nor was the Nazi Party’s concern for the survival of small businesses limited to the forcible break-up of their largest competitors. Point 16 of the party programme also insisted that “the utmost consideration” be given to all small firms “in contracts with the State, county and municipality.”
All of which goes to show how mistaken Shane Jones was in his choice of historical metaphors when he described New Zealand’s supermarkets as: “the brown-shirts of the food industry”. There can be little doubt that had supermarkets existed in Weimar Germany, Hitler’s sturmabteilung (brown-shirts) would have been found on the outside picketing, not on the inside panicking.
Which is not to say that Mr Jones’ extraordinary attack on Progressive Enterprises is evidence of anything other than inspirationally populist political instincts. His superbly crafted attack, delivered under parliamentary privilege during last Wednesday’s “General Debate”, certainly ticked all the populist boxes.
First, it tugged at our nationalist heart-strings by pitting ruthless Australian supermarket owners against hard-pressed Kiwi suppliers. New Zealanders were already smarting from the two largest Australian supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths, decision to remove New Zealand products from their shelves as part of the “Buy Australian” campaign.
Mr Jones sensed that for his Kiwi audience this was just one more poke in the eye with a sharp stick. One more undeserved insult to add to all the others we’ve copped from our cobbers across the ditch.
No vote. No superannuation. No dole. Yeah, cheers mate!
And now we hear that these Aussie bastards are negotiating “robustly” with acutely vulnerable Kiwi battlers. To hell with that!
Second, Mr Jones’s speech was directed at the small-to-medium enterprise (SME) sector. The place where so many of Labour’s erstwhile working-class voters have ended up. There’s upwards of quarter-of-a-million going concerns in New Zealand and more than four-fifths of these are small-to-medium. Many are family-based businesses. Others owe their existence to a fat redundancy cheque and the working man’s long-cherished dream of becoming his own boss. All of them are fragile economic entities. None of them enjoy being squeezed.
But squeezed they have been – ever since the consolidation of capitalism in the fourth quarter of the Nineteenth Century. The period 1875-1900 was the age of Carnegie and Rockefeller in the United States; the age of octopus-like monopolies and price-fixing trusts; the age of cut-throat competition and conspicuous consumption; the age of capitalist “Robber Barons”. It was not the age of the small-to-medium business owner. As capitalism got bigger, being the owner of a small business got harder.
Hitler’s contempt for this sort of capitalism is clearly expressed in the pages of his autobiography, Mein Kampf:
“The various nations began to be more and more like private citizens who cut the ground from under one another’s feet, stealing each other’s customers and orders, trying in every way to get ahead of one another, and staging this whole act amid a hue and cry as loud as it is harmless.
This development seemed not only to endure but was expected in time (as was universally recommended) to remodel the whole world into one big department store in whose vestibules the busts of the shrewdest profiteers and the most lamblike administrative officials would be garnered for all eternity.”
That the Nazi leader’s preference was to remodel the whole world into one boundless slaughterhouse was, of course, the measure of his madness. But the passage quoted above does demonstrate the ease with which nationalist demagogues like Hitler could whip up animosity against big business. Nor should we forget how appealing was the vision they presented of the volksgemeinschaft – the people’s community. In a world from which all class distinctions had been eliminated and where the people’s welfare had become the greatest good, the depredations of big business would have no place.
That even as they prattled this pretty fairy tale to the German masses, the Nazis were accepting huge donations from some of Germany’s largest and most ruthless capitalist enterprises, indicates the futility of trying to halt the relentless advance of capitalism grown large.
Mr Jones undoubtedly struck a nerve with his attack upon Progressive Enterprises. But is he really suggesting that our supermarkets cease securing the lowest possible prices for their customers? Is he willing to promise their suppliers a minimum price for the produce on offer – effectively a pledge to subsidise the supermarkets’ profitability?
It is never wise to expose the blood on capitalism’s teeth and claws unless you are equally willing to pull them out.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 February 2014.

Friday 14 February 2014

Japanese Pride

Collision Course: Japanese pride demands nothing less than a “victory” over its Sea Shepherd foes. If one is not given to her, then she will simply take it and be damned. New Zealand and Australian diplomacy should, therefore, concentrate on what Japan is willing to give in return for the victory she demands.
ON 11 JULY 2012, the Japanese Prime Minister ordered an undisclosed number of naval vessels belonging to Japan’s Self-Defence Force to the Senkaku Islands. They were responding to the “violation” of Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by three naval vessels flying the flag of the People’s Republic of China. In short order, the Chinese vessels were met, followed and escorted out of Japan’s EEZ by SDF warships.
The sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands is hotly disputed by at least three jurisdictions: Japan, Taiwan and China. A glance at both the map and the history books, however, makes it clear that the nation with the best claim to the islands (situated in the midst of vast proven oil reserves) is the People’s Republic of China.
References to these tiny specks of land (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands) appear in Imperial Chinese documents dating back to the Sixteenth Century. It was only in the late Nineteenth Century that, like so many other chunks of East Asian real estate, they became the spoils of the Japanese war machine. All that now prevents the islands’ long-delayed repatriation to their rightful owner, is the United States determination to retain the strategic co-operation of its Japanese ally.
That the presence of three Chinese naval vessels in its EEZ was sufficient to activate such an aggressive naval response from the Japanese Government is something Kiwis should keep in the back of the minds as they attempt to make sense of Japan’s own wilful violation of New Zealand’s EEZ.
That violation came in spite of Wellington informing Tokyo that all vessels belonging to the Japanese “scientific whaling” fleet should remain outside the New Zealand EEZ. In other words Tokyo expressly authorised the Shonan Maru 2 to transform itself into a strong diplomatic message to the New Zealand Government.
In transmitting that message, the Shonan Maru 2 has been greatly assisted by a New Zealander. Glen Inwood is the official spokesman for the NZ Institute for Cetacean Research – a Japanese front organisation established to defend not only the Japanese Government’s “scientific whaling” programme, but also, at need, to serve as Tokyo’s unofficial mouthpiece.
Interviewed by Radio NZ’s Morning Report on Monday, Inwood made it very clear that, so long as New Zealand remained content for her harbours to be turned into safe havens for the re-provisioning and repair of the Sea Shepherds’ anti-whaling fleet (in this particular case, The Steve Irwin) then the Japanese would continue to exercise their right to pre-emptive self-defence in New Zealand’s EEZ.
The same chauvinist pride that prevents Japan from acknowledging that it took the Diaoyu Islands by force (along with Taiwan and Manchuria!) from its Chinese neighbours, has hardened its attitude towards the Sea Shepherd organisation. The Japanese Fisheries Agency’s new policy of pre-emptive self-defence reflects the anti-whaling fleet’s unprecedented success in protecting the pods of the Great Southern Ocean during the killing season of 2012/13.
But Japan’s aggressive tactics have had only limited success in the present season, and so long as the Sea Shepherds’ vessels can find safe haven in Australian and New Zealand waters, the Fishery Agency’s ability to meet its “research” targets will continue to be compromised.
If the Australian and New Zealand effort to have Japan’s “scientific” programme ruled illegal at the International Court of Justice succeed, then the possibility for a significant escalation of hostilities in the Great Southern Ocean will only increase.
In those circumstances the best option for Australian-New Zealand diplomacy might be to offer to facilitate one more year of Japanese cetacean “research” by closing our ports to the Sea Shepherd fleet. In return the Japanese Government would undertake to suspend its “scientific whaling” programme indefinitely.
Japanese pride demands nothing less than a “victory” over its Sea Shepherd foes. If that is not supplied to her, then she will take one anyway. And thanks to the debilitating defence policies of successive New Zealand governments, there’s nothing we can do to stop her.
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, 14 February 2014.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

The Banner Of Us All

Symbol of Sovereignty: The tino rangatiratanga flag has the virtue of emerging naturally out of our recent history. It flies over the Auckland harbour bridge on Waitangi Day and has become the symbol of that part of the New Zealand nation which yearns to put the dubious legacy of British imperialism behind them.

WHAT IS A FLAG? Like so many of the things that go into the making of a state, flags have their origins in war. Large swathes of cloth bearing simple, easily recognised devices, made it possible for an army’s identity to be determined from a considerable distance. Those who marched beneath these fluttering banners were, accordingly, bound to its fortunes. While their flag flew the soldiers knew there was reason to go on fighting; when it fell, or was hauled down, they knew the battle was lost.
The Prime Minister, John Key, has suggested that the time is right for New Zealanders to consider changing their flag. Mr Key appears to subscribe to the widely held belief that the current design lacks distinction and fails to identify New Zealand as a unique and independent nation of the South Pacific. On 29 January he raised the possibility of holding a referendum on the issue in which the current New Zealand flag is pitted against an alternative of the Government’s choosing. Mr Key’s preferred replacement is the silver fern flag so beloved of All Black supporters.
The first thing to note about the Prime Minister’s suggestion is its utter disdain for any kind of public participation. Mr Key proposes to give the voters just one alternative to the status quo, its design to be decided by himself and his colleagues. End of story.
This is clearly an unsatisfactory (not to say undemocratic) way of handling any change to such an indispensable symbol of our national identity. Indeed, the procedure is so clearly deficient that it raises questions about the amount of thought the Prime Minister has given the subject. The most famous and successful example of the flag-changing process, Canada’s 1965 adoption of its universally admired maple leaf flag, left the final decision to a multi-party parliamentary committee.
In terms of speed and simplicity the Canadian model has much to recommend it. But if New Zealanders are determined to have the final say, then I’d advise adopting the following three stage process. First Stage: a special multi-party parliamentary committee invites public submissions from which it produces a short-list of three alternative designs. Second Stage: a referendum is conducted asking New Zealanders to rank the three alternatives in order of preference. Third Stage: the most preferred design is “run off” against the present New Zealand flag in a final, binding, referendum.
Such a process would almost certainly produce the following three contenders: the tino rangatiratanga or Maori sovereignty flag; Kyle Lockwood’s graceful combination of the silver fern and the southern cross; and the “All Black” flag featuring the silver fern on a sable field.
If the silver fern flag emerged as the most preferred option, I would vote for the existing New Zealand flag. Black has always conferred a palpable sense of power and menace to our national rugby team, but making black the dominant colour of our national flag would be a singularly ill-omened decision. In war, flying a black flag warned one’s enemy that no prisoners would be taken. Much the same bloodthirsty intent became attached to the pirates’ skull and crossbones flag. As the international banner of Anarchism, the black flag is burdened with many negative historical associations. Across the world, black is also recognised as the colour of death and mourning.
Kyle Lockwood's New Zealand flag gracefully incorporates the familiar symbols of Silver Fern and Southern Cross with the red-white-and-blue of the existing New Zealand Ensign.
Combining as it does the two symbols most commonly associated with New Zealand, along with the red, white and blue of the existing flag, it is difficult to fault Kyle Lockwood’s much admired design. It compares very favourably with Canada’s maple leaf flag in terms of both elegance and simplicity and would quite probably gain the latter’s instant and near universal acceptance.
My own preference, however, would be for the tino rangatiratanga flag. As a design, it, too, is a masterful combination of simplicity and elegance. But looking good is by no means all it has going for it.
Designed by Hiraina Marsden, Jan Smith and Linda Munn in 1990, its adaptation of the traditional Maori koru motif and its use of Maoridom’s red, white and black colours has imbued this flag with a primal dynamism, a sense of somehow being “right”, that led to its instant adoption by most of Maoridom as well as many Pakeha.
The tino rangatiratanga flag also has the virtue of having emerged, naturally, out of our recent history. It now flies over the Auckland harbour bridge on Waitangi Day and has become the symbol of that part of the New Zealand nation which yearns to put the dubious legacy of British imperialism behind them.
It is difficult to imagine a more potent gesture of Pakeha goodwill, or of this nation’s determination to unequivocally proclaim its bi-cultural identity, than voting to adopt the flag of Maori sovereignty as the banner of us all.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, February 11, 2014.

Friday 7 February 2014

More Than The Usual Suspects

"Here's looking at you, kid." That Casablanca is Winston Peters favourite movie should surprise no one. His own ducking and weaving between National and Labour has always had more than a little in common with the jagged course Casablanca’s hero, Rick Blaine, steers between the forces of Vichy France and Nazi Germany.

THE MOST DISTASTEFUL ASPECT of contemporary political journalism is its utter disdain for politics and politicians. That political leaders deliberately lie to the voters is never disputed. That political parties rely exclusively upon focus groups to tell them what they stand for is deemed unremarkable and represented as sound politics. That politicians in general are, in roughly equal measure, both venal and stupid is regarded as axiomatic.
The journalist who attempted to argue that most political leaders actually strive to be honest; that political parties frequently cleave to principle even though it costs them votes; and that the majority of politicians are good people doing their best to make the world a better place; would be laughed out of the Press Gallery.
This prevailing disposition towards professional cynicism is dangerously corrosive, not only of good journalism but also of the entire political process. If politics is presented as a dirty business, with which no respectable person would seek the slightest association, then we should not be surprised when it starts attracting the very sort of people our journalists describe, doing exactly the sort of things they decry.
The great advantage of likening politics to a dodgy tramp steamer, under whose flags of political convenience whole cargoes of deceit, treachery and naked self-interest are regularly permitted to evade electoral duties, is that it excuses journalists from examining and explaining to their readers the ideas and ideals that really do motivate our politicians.
The New Zealand politician who has suffered the most at the hands of journalists who (to employ Oscar Wilde’s wonderful quip) “know the price of everything and the value of nothing” is Winston Peters.
For the best part of a quarter-of-a-century political journalists have sneered at, belittled and defamed this remarkable politician, whose career, when viewed from a less hostile perspective, is distinguished by innate political skill, indisputable personal courage and considerable programmatic success. Not every Maori boy born into rural poverty ends up on the speed dial of the American Secretary of State. Not every National Party politician is capable of successfully defying his party. Not every New Zealander possesses the ability and charisma to build a political movement strong enough to make its leader New Zealand’s first (and so far only) “Treasurer”.
Twenty years ago, I asked Mr Peters to assist the readers of NZ Political Review to understand more clearly what he (among other political leaders) meant when he defined his politics as ‘centrist’. He concluded his response with the following sentence:
“When one walks down the centre of the road, one foot falls slightly to the right, the other to the left, but the head and the heart remain in the centre.”
Mr Peters is by no means the first politician to turn the human body into a metaphor for the state – the fables of Aesop did something similar two thousand years ago. Its organic character does, however, contrast sharply with the crudely mechanistic political language of neoliberalism. His conception of politics is as something intrinsically human – with all the messy contradictions to which human flesh is prey. For Mr Peters, societies and economies are not the sort of instruments you wind up and set in motion – they are the sort of instruments you play.
It came as no surprise when I discovered in 2005 that Mr Peters’ favourite movie is Casablanca. That he sees the New Zealand Parliament as something akin to that contested wartime city cannot be doubted. Nor that he sees himself ducking and weaving between National and Labour in much the same way as Casablanca’s hero, Rick, steers his jagged course between the forces of Vichy France and Nazi Germany.
Casablanca’s theme, that in a dangerous and deeply flawed universe our hearts will almost always prove a better guide than our heads, and that sometimes (as both Rick and Mr Peters learned the hard way) playing by the rules is exactly the wrong thing to do. Especially if your enemies are writing them.

But who will Winston put on board the plane?
If New Zealand’s political journalists could only learn to see past their kneejerk tabloid moralising they would recognise in Mr Peters a politician of extraordinary complexity and powerful conviction. They would also understand that in resolving which political leader to put on board the plane to electoral victory, his heart will play no lesser role than his head.
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, 7 February 2014.

Thursday 6 February 2014

A Precise Moment In History: Pondering The Legacy Of Waitangi

Mixed Historical Motives: The simple clauses of the Treaty of Waitangi masterfully embraced the complex agendas of both its British and Maori signatories.
IT’S JANUARY 1840, two sailing vessels are fast approaching the North Island of New Zealand. His Majesty’s Ship Rattlesnake carries Captain William Hobson bearing instructions from the Colonial Office to organise the voluntary cession of the islands of New Zealand to the British Crown. The other ship, Aurora, carries settlers to the newly established settlement of Port Nicolson. It has been chartered by the privately owned and organised New Zealand Company.
Captain Hobson’s instructions are not unrelated to the purposes for which the Aurora and her passengers set sail. The islands of New Zealand, conveniently located in the temperate zone of the southern hemisphere, are large but sparsely populated (the indigenous Maori population numbers approximately 125,000). Not surprisingly, therefore, they have begun to loom large in the sights of European entrepreneurs, missionaries and imperialists.
Under pressure from the aristocratic backers of the New Zealand Company, and wary of the pretensions of competing powers – particularly the French – the Colonial Office in London is determined to regularise the confused situation then prevailing in Australasia. If the land titles being sold to settlers by the New Zealand Company are to be legally enforceable, the question of sovereignty must be settled – and quickly. By fair means or by foul, New Zealand is to be annexed to the British Crown.
The cheapest, the most politically expedient, and (in the face of the Missionary Society’s strenuous submissions) the most morally defensible means of securing possession of New Zealand is to persuade the indigenous Maori tribes to cede sovereignty to her Britannic majesty, Victoria, voluntarily.  Indeed, British agents and missionaries in New Zealand have been assiduously laying the groundwork for just such a solution since the mid-1830s. The British Resident, James Busby, has even secured a “Declaration of Independence” from his purpose-built “Confederation of Chiefs” so the Crown has something to sit down with when the time to negotiate a plausible treaty of cession finally arrives.
As HMS Rattlesnake drops anchor in the Bay of Islands in February 1840, this is exactly what Hobson and his confreres, Busby and Freeman, are preparing to do.

THE MAORI LEADERS gathered at Waitangi to korero with Captain Hobson have come with an equally clear set of priorities.
First and foremost, they are seeking protection.
From the early 1830s a rough “balance of terror” has prevailed among the indigenous people as more and more of them acquired firearms. Even so, the slaughter and dislocation of the so-called “Musket Wars” are still a very recent memory, and nobody’s ready to wager the lives of their whanau and hapu on the blood-letting never breaking out again. Information gleaned from Maori who’ve travelled to Australia – and further afield – suggests that the British Empire holds out the best hope of keeping the peace between the tribes.
They’re also keen for the British to keep the roughly 2,000 unruly Europeans who’ve settled amongst them to trade, hunt whales and seals, or simply to outrun the writ of whoever’s justice system is after them, under some semblance of control. There’s a lot of wealth to be had from these folk, but only if the tribes can enlist the aid of an entity with sufficient power to make sure they keep their side of any bargain – and pay up.
Having learned the hard way how skittish the Pakeha become when Maori exercise their own robust forms of tribal justice, they reckon it will make things a lot easier if their “guests” are forced to live under their own laws.
Among the shrewder Maori – including the wily Hone Heke – there is also a nagging fear that the ever-increasing inward flow of European settlers will not stop. They’ve learned that these new arrivals are different – not the usual traders, whoremasters, grog-sellers, whalers, sealers and fugitives that the tribes have grown used to accommodating.
More than anything else, the settlers arriving on the New Zealand Company ships desire land – Maori land. And as more and more of them arrive, that hunger for Maori land can only increase. That’s why the better educated and more travelled Maori are determined to secure their tribal possessions against settler pressure by placing them under the protection of the world’s most powerful nation – Great Britain.
Also at Waitangi are the Christian Maori – the products of more than twenty years of missionary effort. To these men and women the Pakeha have vouchsafed an entirely different understanding of the human condition. Christianity has conferred upon its native converts a new kind of power: a new mana.
They understand that the Pakeha’s morality, knowledge and technology offer their people a way-in to a world their ancestors could never have imagined. For them the future lies in a voluntary melding of their own and the newcomers’ cultures – and that melding cannot happen soon enough.

THE SIMPLE CLAUSES of the Treaty of Waitangi masterfully embraced the complex agendas of both its British and Maori signatories. It is, however, naïve in the extreme to characterise the document as a contract.
Treaties are not contracts: at least not in the sense that a mortgage or hire-purchase agreement is a contract. What a treaty actually amounts to is a description of the power relations existing between two peoples at a precise moment in history.
Almost always (and the Treaty of Waitangi is no exception) the relationship between the signatories is an unequal one (usually reflecting the stronger party’s military victory over the weaker). What makes the Treaty of Waitangi so interesting is that it was signed in anticipation of – and as a way of avoiding – the military clash which would have become inevitable if a voluntary cession of sovereignty to the British Crown had been refused.
But Maori did not emerge from the negotiations of February 1840 empty-handed. The quid pro quo, in return for making things easy for the Colonial Office, was the guarantee of what they had been seeking all along – the protection of the Crown. Protection against any return to the slaughter of the Musket Wars; protection against social disorder and commercial trickery; and protection against the Pakeha they were most afraid of: the ones who were coming to stay.
This was the real partnership enshrined in the Treaty: the partnership between the Maori tribes and the Colonial Office, or, to put it more precisely, with the executive arm of the British Government in London. This was the power the chiefs had aligned themselves with: a power which, in the person of the Governor, would stand between them and the predatory approach to land acquisition represented by the New Zealand Company and its growing body of imitators.
And there’s no question that the chiefs’ fears in regard to the settlers were entirely justified. Here, for example, is how one of the Governors of the New Zealand Company viewed the Treaty:
“We have always had very serious doubts whether the Treaty of Waitangi, made with naked savages by a consul invested with no plenipotentiary powers, without ratification by the Crown, could be treated by lawyers as anything but a praiseworthy devise for amusing and pacifying savages for the moment.”

THAT OMINOUS “for the moment” offers us a chilling reminder of just how historically contingent all treaties are. Certainly the Treaty of Waitangi – as a means of protecting the things Maori treasured – did not long survive the moment when the settler population reached a size sufficient to persuade London to grant it a measure of self-government (1852).
It was at that point that the Crown effectively ceased to be the protector of New Zealand’s indigenous inhabitants, and became, instead, the protector of the new settler state. In vain did the chiefs appeal to the Governor to uphold the Crown pre-emption clause of the Treaty. And when, in growing desperation, they crowned their own king and attempted to defend what remained of their tribal lands, the Settler Government promptly declared them rebels and traitors, and the British Government in London dispatched a vast army to crush the resistance of the nascent Maori state.
It is difficult to envisage any other outcome. The moment London acquiesced in the formation of a New Zealand State, they set in place an entity which could only grow and prosper at the expense of the country’s original inhabitants. Because, as the chiefs rightly apprehended back in February 1840, if the new breed of settlers came to stay – it could only be on Maori land.
TO SAY that the Treaty of Waitangi was breached is, therefore, an accurate but ultimately trivial historical observation. Had it not been breached, New Zealand – as a colonial society inextricably enmeshed in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the British Empire – wouldn’t have existed. For the Settler State to become real, the Treaty had to become, in Chief Justice Prendergast’s brutal phrase: “a simple nullity”.
Was that wrong? Should the undertakings given by Captain Hobson on 6 February 1840 have been honoured? Removed from its historical context, the question is easily answered in the affirmative. Except that those who go in search of such unencumbered moral judgements, do so without understanding that such questions can never be extracted from history.
To judge the dead may give some comfort to the living, but no matter how fervently the misdeeds of previous generations are condemned, they cannot be undone. Therefore, whatever justice we seek to do here and now, let it be to right the wrongs of the present – not the past.
We fair-skinned Polynesians are not – and can never be – “Europeans”. Just as contemporary Maori are not – and can never be again – the Maori who inhabited these islands before colonisation. Both of us are the victims of historical forces too vast for blame, to permanent for guilt.
And both of us have nowhere else to go.
This essay was originally published on the Bowalley Road blogsite on 12 May 2011.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Wearing Racism

What's Wrong With This Picture? In this cartoon from the Presidential Election Campaign of 1860, Black Americans in Victorian finery are depicted as a warning of what will happen to America if the Republican Party's candidate, Abraham Lincoln, becomes President. Clothing as a status marker carries with it a powerful political charge when the person wearing it is assumed to occupy an inferior social position.

THERE WAS A VICIOUSNESS about the United States presidential campaign of 1860 that, with hindsight, seems horribly portentous. No matter how many times the South’s politicians did the political math the result was always the same. The newly-formed Republican Party was going to win a majority in the Electoral College, and its anti-slavery candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was going to become the sixteenth President of the United States.
In desperation the slave-owning South and their Democratic Party allies in the northern states threw everything they could at “Honest Abe”. Given the hugely divisive issue at the heart of the campaign, racial slurs abounded. Plucking the most tightly-wound string of the American electorate’s fiddle, Lincoln’s opponents accused him of believing in racial equality, miscegenation and plotting secretly to turn America into a mongrel state.
Naturally, the pro-slavery parties’ cartoonists had a field day. One of their favourite visual taunts was to portray black men and women sashaying around beneath “Honest Abe’s” approving gaze in the clothing of the upper-classes.
To racially prejudiced Americans (which in 1860 constituted the overwhelming majority of US citizens) the image of a black person decked out in the lavish Victorian finery of the period was profoundly offensive. It implied that Blacks might one day disport themselves in exactly the same symbols of economic success and superior social status as Whites.
The anti-Republican cartoons were also intended to warn voters about the Abolitionists’ determination to not only free the slaves, but also to have them declared United States citizens with exactly the same civil and political rights as their White brothers.
It must also be noted, however, that in addition to making White Americans angry these images of “gussied-up niggers” also made them laugh. The whole idea was so preposterous, so outlandish – like an ape in evening dress – that it could not be taken seriously. Racial equality was thus revealed as a wild abolitionist fantasy – proof of just how far beyond the pale the Republicans and their candidate had positioned themselves.
One hundred and twenty years later, proof of American racism’s cultural tenacity was clearly evident in the presidential election campaign of 1980. The Republican Party’s candidate, Ronald Reagan (whose party had, in one of History’s most poignant ironies, become the preferred party of the old Confederacy) launched his campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, an annual event held on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964.
The White Man's Candidate: Resplendent in his white shirt-sleeves, Ronald Reagan launches his 1980 Presidential Campaign on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where, just 16 years earlier, three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. American racism has a remarkable cultural tenacity.
America’s racists grasped the dark symbolism of Reagan’s choice immediately. He was identifying himself proudly and unmistakably as the White voters’ candidate. Not that they needed much convincing. Four years earlier, in his first run at the Republican presidential nomination, Reagan had introduced America to the person he dubbed the “Welfare Queen” – a Black American woman living on the South Side of Chicago:
“She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”
Reagan’s words served a purpose identical to those 1860 cartoons’ depicting Black Americans dressed in upper-class attire. His Welfare Queen, with her “tax-free cash income” of over $150,000, played to exactly the same prejudices. The notion of a Black woman earning $150,000 was clearly preposterous: only the most egregious defrauding of the welfare system could possibly produce such a creature.
Reagan’s message was clear: Liberal America, by promoting racial equality and demanding that the equal rights of citizenship, won at such cost under Lincoln’s presidency, be enforced in every state of the union had created (at the ever-escalating expense of the long-suffering taxpayer) a feckless underclass of welfare cheats, drug addicts and gang-bangers. Reagan didn’t have to say that the people he was talking about were Black. The people who cheered him on knew that already.
Disreputable politics? Undoubtedly. But also highly effective – which is why so many politicians throughout the English-speaking world have tried so hard to emulate Reagan’s success.
Including some New Zealand politicians?
I would certainly like to think not. The idea that there might be some Pakeha politicians who, without resorting to the derogatory terms of our not-too-distant racist past, and almost certainly without reflecting on how their words were likely to be misinterpreted, might nevertheless call attention to the way a non-Pakeha person was dressed, and to how much money they might have spent on their ensemble – is a very troubling one.
To the minds of some undoubtedly oversensitive wee sausages those 1860 cartoons might be recalled, along with Ronald Reagan’s quip about welfare queens.
Just how would a racist politician say “gussied-up nigger” in 2014?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, February 04, 2014.