Friday 28 March 2014

People Like Me

People Like Me: In the English-speaking world the Welfare State was born out of two vast historic events, the Great Depression and World War II. The sense of social solidarity engendered by these all-embracing experiences extended the definition of "community" to include everyone who had lived through them - right up to the British Royal Family.
IS IT POSSIBLE to renew our social contract without a sense of community?
Heather McGhee, who heads up the Washington Office of the UK-based research and advocacy group, Demos, calls it “the great question of our time”.
According to the 33-year-old graduate of Yale and the Berkeley Law School, this is because “if you look at all this hostility and anxiety around public solutions, at its root is the anxiety about who the public is. And I think that’s happened because of the real explosion in diversity.”
McGhee is not alone in identifying diversity as one of the most potent solvents of the social contract that underpins our Welfare State. But, as a young African-American, she has a better appreciation than most of how all those “hostilities and anxieties” play out in a non-academic context.
Because no matter how earnestly we are encouraged (by people like Ms McGhee) to think otherwise, the ordinary person’s understanding of “community” is generally reducible to just three words: “people like me”.
In the English-speaking countries the welfare state was born out of two world-shattering events: Economic Depression and Total War. In both situations it proved virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to remain unaffected by the great happenings in which they found themselves entangled, and these common experiences fostered powerful feelings of social solidarity. Everyone could see they were “all in this together” and relying upon one another to make it through to the “broad sunlit uplands” promised by Winston Churchill in the finest hour of that darkest of years – 1940.
So pervasive was the impact of the Great Depression that the experiences of poverty and marginalisation began to lose much of their social stigma. Working-class and middle-class citizens alike were winnowed by the near collapse of the capitalist order, and even those whose material well-being remained unaffected – like the Prince of Wales – could see that “something must be done”.
And later, when the bombs were falling, that sense of solidarity only grew stronger. In spite of pleas to remove themselves to safety in Canada, the Royal Family refused to leave the capital. When Buckingham Palace was hit during the Blitz, Queen Elizabeth told the press: “Now, at least, I can look the East End in the eye.”
On the battlefields, where men of every rank and station quite literally rubbed shoulders, the essential equality of all human-beings was daily demonstrated. The roughest working-class battler could prove himself a bloody hero and the bloodlines of a thousand years produce nothing more than a craven coward. Nobility came not from class or money but from character. In war, only deeds mattered.
This, then, was the historical forge in which the welfare state was fashioned. When people used the word ‘community’; when they thought of people like themselves; the picture included everyone from the King and Queen to the local “night-soil” collector. Everyone who had been through the fire together – and come out the other side.
To live for longer than that single generation, however, the social contract that had been fashioned in “blood, toil, tears and sweat” would need to be sent to the forge again. A new generation would need to feel the hammer blows of history.
Some did.
On union picket-lines. Registering voters in the Deep South. Opposing the obscenity of war. Demanding entry for all those who were not “like me”. Envisioning a more diverse and democratic definition of ‘community’.
A More Diverse Definition of Community: America answers Amerika. The Pentagon, 21 October 1967.
Too few.
The moment the social contract was deemed to include people with darker skins and different gods; the moment people’s taxes were doled out to those whose behaviour flouted the values and conventions of the ‘community’; that was when the solidarities born of depression and war began to fade and wither. The mental picture of who was – and was not – “people like me” narrowed radically. Class and money regained their lost prestige and all the old stigmas attached to poverty and marginalisation returned.
A social contract is never for “people like them”.
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, 28 March 2014.

Thursday 27 March 2014

More Than A Maori Problem

Fronting For Dysfunction: The finger of blame has been pointed at Hekia Parata for her mishandling of the investigation into the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust Board. But is the blame hers alone? According to the young Maori blogger, Morgan Godfery: "The behaviour of the board and its subsidiary has been dreadful. Perhaps it’s the predictable effect of lifetime appointments. But I think it goes deeper. There’s a rot in Maori governance. From poor governance at Maori TV to the Kohanga Reo board, Maori aren’t being served."
THERE IS A STRONG TEMPTATION to dismiss the Te Kohanga Reo Trust scandal as something for Maori to sort out. Strong because there is currently a real reluctance on the part of Pakeha journalists to intrude upon Maori disputes. Charges of colonialist insensitivity, even outright racism, are easily levelled, and not so easily refuted.
The person who has paid the highest price for this reticence, over the past week, is the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata. Digging deeper into the Kohanga story; attempting to tease-out its broader political ramifications, entails cross-cultural risk. A Cabinet Minister’s political fumblings, on the other hand, is a much more familiar and, therefore, safer story.
What is it that underlies both the scandal itself and the news media’s less-than-thorough presentation of it?
The answer, I believe, lies in the series of critical changes in the generational, cultural, economic and political propellants of Maori development.
Forty years ago the future of the Maori language was in doubt. A generation of Maori had thought it wiser for their offspring to immerse themselves in and acquire the skills of the dominant Pakeha culture. Mastering English and learning how to operate and succeed in Pakeha institutions (especially its education system) was central to the survival strategy of those Maori who migrated from rural Aotearoa to urban New Zealand in the two decades following World War II.
It was this, the “Assimilation Generation”, that laid the foundations for what was to become the Maori middle-class. And it was their offspring – the first generation of Maori to enter tertiary education in any numbers – who constituted the political core of the “Maori Renaissance” – a movement of uncompromising cultural assertion which would, between 1975 and 2005, radically alter the expectations and aspirations of tangata whenua.
Te Kohanga Reo, the pre-school Maori language “nests”, and Kura Kaupapa, the Maori immersion schools, are both products of those three decades of Maori revitalisation and rebirth. And those who were instrumental in their creation have grown old alongside the institutions they brought into existence.
Pressure from this new, young, well-educated and politically assertive generation of Maori activists was also responsible for transforming the Waitangi Tribunal into an historically responsive instrument for the redress of Maori grievances. Between 1990 and the present, the Tribunal was to supply not only the moral and legal rationale for the establishment of Maori broadcasting, but would also set in motion the Crown’s ambitious Treaty-settlement process. These settlements, in their turn, provided the financial base for the rise of neo-tribal capitalist corporations.
The Maori cultural renaissance was thus transformed into a political and economic revolution. Institutional opportunities have been created which offer Maori (or, at least their middle-class leaders) a secure position in the future governance and development of New Zealand society and economy.
Like all revolutions, however, its consolidation phase has required a series of compromises and accommodations to be made between the old and the new way of doing things. The hierarchical, deferential and familial aspects of traditional Maori governance structures have, therefore, been grandfathered into the new. The results have become a source of both anger and embarrassment to the sons and daughters of both the renaissance and the revolution.
In the words of the young Maori blogger, Morgan Godfery:
“The behaviour of the [Te Kohanga Reo Trust] board and its subsidiary has been dreadful. Perhaps it’s the predictable effect of lifetime appointments. But I think it goes deeper. There’s a rot in Maori governance. From poor governance at Maori TV to the Kohanga Reo board, Maori aren’t being served.
“Would a rational and skilled [Maori Television] board re-attempt to appoint Paora Maxwell after the staff revolt? Clearly the board didn’t consider rudimentary factors like workplace culture and staff satisfaction. Would a rational and skilled board sanction a $50,000 koha to a board member? That’s more than triple the median income for Maori. I’ll tell you what kind of board would – one that isn’t fit for the job.”
Godfery’s harsh judgement of the governance compromises agreed to by his parents’ generation in order to consolidate the gains made in the 1980s and 90s identifies the nature of the next big challenge facing Maori. Either the gains of renaissance and revolution will be captured by an increasingly authoritarian and self-protective Maori middle-class, or they will be extended to all Maori people – especially those young Maori trapped in the poverty-racked and crime-ridden ghettoes of New Zealand’s major cities.
The Kohanga Reo scandal (itself the result of young Maori journalists from Maori Television’s Native Affairs refusing to be intimidated by the trust board’s networks of patronage and protection) is, therefore, much more than an issue for Maori to sort out on their own.
The fruits of renaissance and revolution in Aotearoa-New Zealand cannot be secured for Maori in the face of Pakeha indifference.
This essay was originally published by The Press of Tuesday, 25 March 2014.

Friday 21 March 2014

Rapt In History

The Mill House, Waianakarua: Constructed in 1879 by a German immigrant, Ernst Diehl, the massive building is now an accommodation-restaurant complex. Born amidst treachery and tragedy, the mill stands as a symbol of both continuity and change in the Herbert-Waianakarua District.

THERE ARE PLACES where history wraps around us like a warm blanket – or a winding sheet. Sometimes, like both at once. The Mill House, located 25 kilometres south of Oamaru on State Highway One, is one such place.
Originally a flour mill, it was constructed in 1879 by a German-born immigrant named Ernst Diehl – and it was built to last. According to a contemporary report in the North Otago Times: “The foundation is laid on solid rock, and is 9 feet in depth, the walls being 3ft 3in in thickness.”
Alas for Herr Diehl, his mighty structure had hardly been standing a year when it was beset by treachery and tragedy.
In the words of local historian, Dorothy McKenzie: “A considerable amount of money was held in the mill safe over the summer, so that farmers could be paid out as they delivered their bags of grain. At the height of the first season of operations, the mill was burnt out and as the local story has it [Diehl’s business partner] Davidson had disappeared, leaving an empty safe behind him.”
The Mill may have been burnt out but it was not burned down. Under the management of the appropriately named Phoenix Milling Co., the refurbished mill continued to grind flour for another 60 years, finally closing its doors in 1939.
Growing up in the neighbouring village of Herbert in the 1950s and 60s, I remember the mill as a mysterious industrial ruin. Massive and seemingly indestructible it guarded the graceful span of the Waianakarua stone bridge like some misplaced medieval castle. Its blank windows shedding less and less light on a story that fewer and fewer people could remember.
Now an “accommodation-restaurant complex” the Mill House wraps its 3ft 3in walls around visitors from all over the world. New stories are daily being added to the old.
For me, also, this past week has been a mixture of new and old stories. One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, on 15 March 1864, the contemporaries of Ernst Diehl founded Otepopo (Herbert) School. Aging adults, who, when last I saw them were children, came from as far away as Sydney, to greet the geographic, architectural and human strongholds of their youth.
From them I learned how many of the farms of the original settler families had already passed – or were passing – into the hands of faceless foreign corporations. “Bewley”, the property my father farmed, I was told, had gone with them.
The great forest that the State had spread over the hills above Herbert in the 1930s is now in the hands of an American forestry firm.
Herbert’s beautiful Presbyterian church, St John’s, stands forlorn, its future uncertain. Spiders’ webs seal its padlocked wooden doors.
This is not, of course, a tale familiar to North Otago only. All across New Zealand the solid signposts of the past are being dismantled. The family farm, which for 150 years has given this nation a foundation as solid as the Mill House’s, is rapidly fading away.
Only a handful of the children I attended Otepopo School with remained in the district. Most were scattered, like gulls blown on a boisterous wind, to Sydney, London, the North Sea, Wyoming. Or simply to places in New Zealand with more to offer than a sleepy North Otago township.
But those children did not leave Herbert empty-handed. The values imparted by the teachers of Otepopo School and the ministers of St John Presbyterian Church went with them.
And not just with them; because the same values were also imparted to successive generations of New Zealand children by thousands of equally caring rural teachers and clergymen, farmers and farriers; railwaymen and road workers; shopkeepers and country GPs.
And now those New Zealanders, rural no longer, are imparting to their own offspring a core of values not so very different from the ones they learned in little places like Herbert up and down the long length of Aotearoa.
Thus does history wrap us warm in its blanket, and bind us tight in our winding-sheet.
And thus did my thoughts run as I looked down from a window set in the Mill House’s 3ft 3in walls. Listening to the Waianakarua River chuckling in its sun-dappled bed, and the bell-birds tolling the hours.
Thinking about where New Zealand has come from – and where it is going.
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 March 2014.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

The Ecology Of Poverty

The Ecology Of Poverty: The range of common experiences between the comfortably off New Zealander and the struggling beneficiary has narrowed dramatically. The days of "getting out the vote" may be over.
THERE’S A STORY I like to tell about “getting out the vote”. I’m sharing it with you today because unless Labour is able to substantially increase the number of New Zealanders participating in the electoral process its chances of becoming the next government are negligible. The story is also important because I’m not that confident it could be repeated. And if it isn’t repeatable, then the whole character of electoral politics in New Zealand has already changed – irrevocably.
But first – the story. I have changed the name of the woman at the centre of this true tale because it happened a long time ago and she has since gone on to carve out a highly successful career in a major New Zealand company.
But, back in the day, Mary was living in one of those provincial centres where the city fathers (and mothers) like to keep all the unemployed, solo mums, invalids and sickness beneficiaries in one shabby suburb so that the authorities can keep an eye on them. Just about everybody rented: either from the state or from the folks who lived in the nicer parts of town. The houses had mostly seen better days, even if the people inside them hadn’t much hope of doing the same.
Mary and her little boy subsisted on the DPB and whatever extra help her (proudly left-wing) family could provide. Survival, under the tender legacy of Christine Rankin’s WINZ, was a full-time job for most beneficiaries. Very few of them had any time for politics or politicians. And, if we’re being honest, most politicians didn’t have that much time for them.
Though Mary lived in a Labour-held electorate, her MP really wasn’t much cop – at least not as far as the people who lived on Mary’s street were concerned. She had made her way up through the mostly middle-class Women’s Network of the Labour Party which meant that her working knowledge of the working-class was, to put it kindly, somewhat limited.
But, as I said, Mary came from an intensely political working-class family. Both her parents and two of her siblings were left-wing party activists and Mary had acquired the ability to formulate a better-than-average political analysis practically by osmosis. Unlike most of her neighbours, she saw a General Election looming. And just like the city’s shrewder party bosses, she was pretty sure her local MP was in trouble.
Sure enough, the polling booths had only been open a few hours on Election Day when Labour’s scrutineers noticed a frightening trend. If the hundreds of “natural” Labour supporters in Mary’s suburb continued to stay at home (as they were doing in droves) the incumbent MP was going to lose. Somehow word was got to Mary: “Can you get your neighbours out? If Labour doesn’t maintain its vote at your local booth, the Nats will win.”
Now Mary may not have cared much for the Labour Party but she cared for the National Party a whole lot less. So, as the day wore on, Mary wore her knuckles raw on the doors of her friends and neighbours.
She knew them and they knew her. More importantly, they trusted her. So when she told them: “You gotta get down to the school and vote. Yep, right now. Coz if all of us living round here don’t vote Labour, the Nats will win.”
And it worked. Mary’s neighbours squeezed their babies into their strollers, and their voting papers into the ballot box – and Labour held the seat.
I told this story to my brother last Christmas, and he shook his head. He’s been a social worker for 40 years and he told me, sadly, that “the ecology of poverty” (as he memorably described the social relations of deprivation) has undergone a dramatic change since he first ventured into those hard-scrabble suburbs back in the late-1970s. He’s not so sure that the species of citizen to which Mary belonged – already on the edge of extinction 20 years ago – exists anymore.
Had he been dropped into Mary’s social ecosystem 20 years ago, he said, finding a path to survival, though difficult, would still have been possible. The poor still had enough in common with “Middle New Zealand” for a reasonable measure of mutual comprehension. Today, he said, it would be much harder. The range of common experiences between the comfortably off New Zealander and the struggling beneficiary has narrowed dramatically.
“I don’t think I could do it.”
And, believe me, if he couldn’t do it, and if the sort of well-read, politically-aware, working-class families that made Mary possible no longer exist, then the mission of “getting out the Labour vote” has become a fool’s errand.
Twenty years ago the ecology of poverty still possessed a sufficiently political dimension to preserve Labour’s honour. Twenty years later – it’s gone.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 March 2014.

A Snap Election (In Slow Motion)

Are You Ready? Why are we going to the polls 70 days early? The answer is as simple and straightforward as it is brutal and self-serving: because holding the election two months early offers National a huge political advantage.
LET’S GET ONE THING STRAIGHT: John Key has just called a snap-election – albeit in slow motion. The Prime Minister’s threadbare excuses notwithstanding, there is absolutely no valid constitutional reason why New Zealanders should be trooping to the polling booths 70 days early.
There have been no defections from the National Party’s coalition: the Government is in no danger of losing its majority on the floor of the House of Representatives. Neither has Mr Key’s caucus dissolved in bitter acrimony. Nor has a vital component of the Government’s legislative programme been defeated in a parliamentary vote.
So, why aren’t we going to the polls on the last Saturday in November – as we have done for most of this country’s post-war history?
The answer is as simple and straightforward as it is brutal and self-serving: because holding the election two months early offers National a huge political advantage.
Mr Key has examined the political entrails and determined that the longer he delays the election the higher the probability that the parties of the Left will attain sufficient political momentum to unseat his government.
By bringing the election forward he is hoping to deny Labour and the Greens the full electoral effect of rising mortgage interest rates and electricity prices. Labour-Green policy on both issues offers the voters considerable relief. The less time people are given to work that out the better it is for the Government.
Mr Key and his strategists were also aware that Labour was pinning its hopes for victory on persuading a quarter of the 800,000 people who abstained from voting in 2011 to cast a vote in 2014. Logistically-speaking, that was a huge ask – especially for a political party woefully short of both experienced election workers and the funds required to make them effective.
National’s strategy team clearly decided to deprive their opponents of two months’ worth of crucial training and fundraising time. Viewed realistically, the scale of this curtailment has almost certainly torpedoed Labour’s main election strategy. If there’s a Plan B at the back of Matt McCarten’s cupboard, now would be a very good time to dust it off.
The other tactical advantage of going two months early is the hugely disruptive effect Mr Key’s announcement is bound to inflict on Labour’s campaign timetable. Budgets will have to be redrawn, advertising space and air-time reconsidered, policy finalised faster, travel schedules re-worked, fundraising efforts intensified.
While this is unlikely to produce panic in Labour’s ranks, it will bring down what soldiers call “the fog of war” and all its attendant evils: inadequate information; impaired decision-making; unnecessary and morale-sapping losses and defeats.
These would be big enough problems in a tightly run and fiercely united political party, but in a party riven by the most bitter factional infighting they’ll likely prove catastrophic. Public disunity in the midst of an election campaign (and that’s precisely where we all are) would not only make a Labour victory inconceivable but, by making a National victory seem inevitable, it could also have a devastating effect on turnout.
It is here that the sheer mendacity of National’s strategy shines forth in all its Machiavellian brilliance.
If Labour’s voters, seeing no hope of victory, decide to stay at home, and the participation rate of eligible voters drops even further than it did in the record low turnout of 2011, then with just a few thousand more votes than they received last time it is entirely feasible for National to win an outright (i.e. 50 percent + 1) election victory.
This is where the slow-motion aspect of National’s snap-election strategy kicks in. The more frenetic, disorganised and disunited Labour appears; the cooler, calmer and more collected the National Government is bound to appear by contrast.
To win, Mr Key has only to appear pleasantly prime-ministerial. Making the most of his photo opportunities and taking great care project the image of a leader who knows exactly what he’s doing.
Smiling, waving – and winning – in slow motion.
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 March 2014.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

All Over Bar The Counting

House Of Winning Cards? A perfect psephological storm threatens Labour with electoral humiliation and offers National the prospect of an unparalleled and crushing victory.

UNLESS SOMETHING HUGELY DRAMATIC HAPPENS between now and polling day, 20 September, the General Election of 2014 is all but over. The National-led government of Prime Minister, John Key, looks set to be returned for a third term by a margin that may surprise many of those currently insisting that the result will be very close. What may also surprise is the sheer scale and comprehensiveness of the Left’s (especially Labour’s) electoral humiliation.
By which dark paths must one travel to reach these gloomy (for the Left!) conclusions? Simply stated, one has only to follow the basic precepts of psephology (the study of elections and electors).
No matter whether you approach the forthcoming election from the perspective of the socio-economic context of the contest; contrasting styles of political leadership; the policies of the major players; the parties’ organisational heft and their respective financial resources; or the many factors influencing turnout; the advantage lies decisively with the National Party.
Let’s examine each of these factors in turn.
With most opinion pollsters recording three-fifths to two-thirds of voters saying the country is “heading in the right direction” it is clear that the run of generally positive news stories about the New Zealand economy are rebounding to National’s advantage. To those with secure paid employment and/or comfortable incomes, these reports offer no compelling reason for a change of government.
Yes, of course, there are 285,000 children living in poverty and 150,000 people out of work, but by and large these are the most socially marginalised and politically inert members of New Zealand society. They are consequently also the most likely to stay at home on election day. In the absence of the “hugely dramatic” intervention alluded to above – something big enough to propel them back into the electoral process – poor Kiwis simply won’t be counted.
In terms of political leadership, National is especially blessed. Most New Zealanders like John Key. In spite of his enormous wealth, he strikes a staggeringly large number of voters as an “ordinary bloke” who shares their values and understands their aspirations. His stand-up comedian’s ability to use humour as both sword and shield generally frees him from the onerous duties of detailed explanation and justification.
Labour’s leadership problems are the mirror-image of National’s. David Cunliffe is not yet understood or, sadly, much liked by the electorate. He simply doesn’t come across as an ordinary bloke – quite the reverse in fact – and the pollsters have yet to detect the sort of wholesale buy-in to the Opposition leader’s values and aspirations that presages a decisive shift in ideological allegiances. Neither is Cunliffe helped by his bizarre propensity to withhold politically relevant information from the public. Nothing arouses a journalist’s fury faster than a politician’s failure to supply the whole story.
Labour’s policy manifesto has yet to make the critical transition from sea-anchor to mainsail. Among its core supporters there are significant doubts surrounding its proposals to lift the age of eligibility for superannuation; impose a Capital Gains Tax and support (at least in principle) the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Its radical plans for curbing rising electricity prices may produce a surge in popularity as higher tariffs advance in step with Winter’s chill. The risk is that it will be too little and too late.
National’s policy stance, by contrast, is presented as nothing more than the small but necessary course corrections that all governments are required to make. Mr Key’s strategy of making haste slowly on these little things while seeking an electoral mandate for the big things (like partial privatisation) goes a long way to explaining his government’s enduring lead in the opinion polls.
That lead has cemented-in National’s easy relationship with the news media – a rapport which can only now be undermined by a blinding succession of Government own-goals and an equally impressive run of Labour successes. Failing these, not even Labour’s superior on-the-ground campaigning skills can hope to upset a National Campaign Manager of Steven Joyce’s experience. Matt McCarten is a wily battlefield commander, but logistically-speaking Labour is in a parlous state. Money isn’t everything when it comes to winning elections – but it sure helps.
All of which brings us down to the day itself.
Month after month of favourable polls; a leader careful to build his footpaths where people walk; policies which voters either hardly notice or readily endorse; and a war-chest more than equal to the challenge of exploiting all these substantial advantages will not only have National’s supporters in a triumphant temper, but they will also have induced a profound demoralisation among their opponents.
Election Day 2014 – barring that big surprise – will, therefore, likely see National’s supporters marching proudly, as to a political coronation, while Labour and Green supporters, convinced they’ve already lost, deliver John Key an unparalleled National victory and the psephologists a record low turnout.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 March 2014.

Friday 7 March 2014

Parcels Of Rogues

All The King's Men: Redcoats await the onslaught of Bonnie Prince Charlie's clansmen, 1745. The future of Scotland has never been a casual matter for England - just as the future of the Ukraine has never been a casual matter for Russia.
IT’S OVER 300 YEARS since a “parcel of rogues” signed away Scotland’s status as an independent nation. The Act of Union of 1707 created the “united” kingdom of “Great Britain”. Two crowns are one crown too many, said the English, and the Scots were “persuaded” to agree.
According to the distinguished British historian, Simon Schama: “What began as a hostile merger, would end in a full partnership in the most powerful going concern in the world ... it was one of the most astonishing transformations in European history.”
 “[H]ostile merger”? Why were the English so determined to put an end to Scottish independence?
To understand England’s motives we need look no further than the situation currently unfolding in the Crimea and Ukraine. When you share a border with a nation unnervingly sympathetic to powers than wish you no good, “independence” can very quickly become a dirty word.
In 1707 the Catholic monarchy of France was still offering sanctuary to the descendants of James Stuart, the deposed king of England and Scotland. While Scottish independence persisted there was always a risk that England would wake up one morning and find King James VIII of Scotland, backed by French bayonets, camped along its northern border.
England was willing to spend a lot of money to dispel that strategic nightmare.
As Robbie Burns so succinctly put it:
We were bought and sold
For English gold
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation
And, when English gold was no longer enough, England was more than willing to spill Scottish blood. In 1715, and again, most famously, in 1745, when James Stuart’s grandson, “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, raised the clans against its German-speaking Hanoverian king, George II, England’s answer was swift and brutal. Scotland had been bought fair and square – and, By God! She was going to stay bought!
It’s highly likely the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, experienced very similar feelings as he watched the government of bought-and-paid-for Viktor Yanukovych cut a disgraceful deal with, and then run from, the far-right nationalist protesters occupying Kiev’s Independence Square. If Ukrainian “independence” meant waking up one morning to find the European Union, backed by NATO bayonets, camped along his southern border, then, from President Putin’s perspective, the word “independence” needed some … redefinition.
The rag-tag regime installed by the Kiev protesters may not like President Putin’s idea of Ukrainian independence, but they can hardly have been surprised by it. Russia was born in the Ukraine. The ancient cities of Novgorod and Kiev providing the economic and administrative hubs around which the Russia state took form. Ukrainian independence – at least in its post-Soviet guise – is an accident of history.
The more thoughtful sort of American (which unfortunately excludes nearly all of its political leaders) understands the essential fragility of Ukrainian “independence” very well. Here’s how the leading US strategic forecasting agency, Stratfor, sums up the situation:
“Ukraine is as important to Russian national security as Scotland is to England or Texas is to the United States. In the hands of an enemy, these places would pose an existential threat to all three countries … And given that, the future of Ukraine is never a casual matter for them.”

"Russia has only two friends in the world - its army and its navy."
Just as the future of Scotland can never be a casual matter for England.
Or the future of the entire Western Hemisphere can ever be a casual matter for the United States.
It was President James Monroe who, in 1823, gave voice to the strategic doctrine that would forever after bear his name. Addressing Europe’s imperial powers on behalf of the American people, Monroe declared:
“[W]e should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”
In May 1962, it was the Monroe Doctrine which underpinned the Kennedy Administration’s demand that the Russians remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba. In the 1980s, with much less justification, President Ronald Reagan invoked it against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
The United States friends and allies maintained a respectful silence as it went about securing its “near abroad”. The Russian Federation, by all appearances, has not been so fortunate.
“Russia has only two friends in the world,” said Tsar Alexander III, “its army and its navy.”
If history is any guide – two is all she needs.
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 March 2014.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

A Lurch To Sanity

Reaching For The Red Pill: David Cunliffe and Labour have a rapidly dwindling period of time in which to convince "Middle New Zealand" that its programme represents not a lurch to the left - but a lurch to sanity.

BOLDNESS IN POLITICS is rare. Major political moves are routinely pre-tested in focus groups and opinion polls before being announced. The untested, out-of-left-field appointment of Matt McCarten as David Cunliffe’s new chief-of-staff consequently caught New Zealand’s political class almost completely off-guard.
Nowhere was this more embarrassingly apparent than in the reaction of Helen Kelly, President of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU). Asked to comment on the rumour that McCarten was in line to replace Wendy Brandon as Cunliffe’s CoS, Kelly retorted that such an appointment was “highly unlikely”. (A spectacular demonstration of out-of-the-loop-ness which should dispel, if only for a moment, the right-wing notion that the Labour Party takes its marching orders from the CTU!)
Like all genuine coups (and make no mistake, McCarten’s appointment was very much an Independence Square moment for the Labour Opposition) Cunliffe’s decision has hit the fast-forward button on Labour’s internal politics. Just as well, really, because until last Wednesday it appeared to be operating in slow-motion.
Exactly how long McCarten’s galvanising influence will last, however, rests entirely in Cunliffe’s hands. The boldness of inviting this country’s leading left-winger to occupy the office next to the Leader of the Opposition’s does require some explanation.
Not, of course, to the Labour voters who sat out the 2011 election on the grounds that the party’s parliamentary team really didn’t seem to have their hearts in the fight. They will have “got” McCarten’s appointment instantaneously and it will have cheered them up no end.
Can the same be said of the middle-class professional or the small business owner?
It is Middle New Zealand that needs to hear the reasons why the appointment of the “hard left” McCarten is not, in the words of political journalist, John Armstrong: “confirmation that Labour is shifting markedly and permanently to the left under Cunliffe's leadership”. And, if it is, why they should not be feeling afraid – very afraid?
In framing an answer to that question, Cunliffe could do a lot worse than let himself be guided by McCarten’s own response to the Prime Minister’s insinuation that his appointment represents a lunatic lurch to the Left.
“I’m bemused that the Prime Minister calls my appointment in a non-policy-making role a lurch to the left […] When did it become so outrageous to call for the hourly minimum wage to be raised to $15, or argue that the breadwinners of a family deserve a living wage for a decent day’s work? When does affordable housing for all, a decent job and support for families to support children get a good start in life become so unreasonable?”
For practically the whole of its democratic history, New Zealand has been the home of what one French visitor called “socialism without doctrines”. Beginning with the Liberal Party in the 1890s, most New Zealand politicians (including a number of right-wing leaders like the Reform Party’s Gordon Coates and National’s Keith Holyoake) have looked to the state – as the only reliable possessor of the resources and expertise required to develop a very lightly populated country – to take the lead in nation-building.
New Zealand’s relatively tiny population probably also explains its inhabitants’ longstanding hostility to entrenched economic inequality and the social injustices that follow in its wake. New Zealanders insist that every citizen be given a “fair go” and that their access to education, health-care and a decent place to live should not be determined by the size of their bank balance. The ravages of the Great Depression added a job, a living wage and the maintenance of a social welfare safety-net to this list of things that every Kiwi has to have.
In many countries default policy-settings of such collective generosity would be condemned as  “socialist”, and fiercely resisted. But, between 1890 and 1984 large-scale state involvement in the New Zealand economy and the provision of universal social services became the equivalent of our political wallpaper.
Cunliffe’s challenge is to make middle-class New Zealanders understand that it is not the policy package of a Labour Party determined to return to roots that they have to fear, but the extreme policy prescriptions of the neoliberal Right. He needs to explain that between 1983 and 2013, the policies which caused the number of Kiwi kids living below the poverty line to nearly double were not the policies of Richard Seddon, Mickey Savage or even Rob Muldoon, but of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson.
It was the policies of the latter (and, yes, Cunliffe needs to acknowledge that one of them was a Labour finance minister) that were “outrageous”. That it was the sudden and utterly unmandated lurch towards neoliberalism that unleashed the economic and social madness of the last thirty years.
To win, Cunliffe must convince voters that Labour’s “lurch to the Left” is actually a long-delayed lurch to sanity.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 4 March 2014.

Sunday 2 March 2014

Coup d'état By Crowd

Same Scene, Different Flag: No, it's not Kiev's Independence Square. This "revolutionary" crowd gathered in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in 2003. Another of the so-called "Colour Revolutions", Georgia's "Rose Revolution" unfolded in a manner remarkably similar to the overthrow the Serbian government in 2000. The same elements were also present in the "Orange Revolution" which convulsed Kiev a year later in 2004 - and again, in 2014.
WHAT HAVE WE JUST SEEN? A revolution? It certainly looked like one. There were crowds, vast crowds, singing patriotic songs in Kiev’s Independence Square, their collective breath rising up like smoke in the freezing winter air. There were Riot Police, too, naturally. Hundreds of them – looking for all the world like Roman Legionaries lost in time and space. There were even barricades – just like in Les Miserables.
And did we hear the Ukrainian people sing? You bet we did!
At least, that is what we thought we heard – and saw.
We have such short memories now. Last year is already so last year. Expecting us to remember what happened 14 years ago, in Serbia, would be completely unreasonable. You might as well ask us to remember what happened a thousand years ago in Serbia.
It’s useful, this collective historical amnesia. Not to us, but to the sort of people who stage-manage revolutions. If you’re that sort of person, a fully-functioning historical memory is an extremely dangerous thing.
A fully-functioning historical memory would instantly recall what happened in Serbia in 2000: the vast crowds; the riot police; the barricades; the fall of the dictator; the flowering of democracy. It would also remember what happened in Georgia three years later: the vast crowds; the riot police; the barricades; the fall of the dictator; the flowering of democracy. Heck! It would remember what happened in Ukraine itself, just ten years ago: the vast crowds; the riot police; the barricades; the fall of the dictator; the flowering of democracy.
If you’re noticing a pattern here – well done! And, if you were wondering what to call it, try “coup d’état by crowd”.
Blows against the state were once delivered with a mailed fist. In the Cold War period the iconography of “regime change” was very different from what we have just witnessed in Ukraine.
A fully-functioning historical memory would recall vividly the day General Pinochet unleashed the Chilean military against the democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende. On 11 September 1973 the world looked on helplessly as Skyhawk jets bombed the Presidential Palace, tanks rumbled through the streets of Santiago and the national football stadium filled up with bruised and broken political detainees.
It wasn’t pretty, but Uncle Sam recalled the Soviet tanks that had rumbled through the streets of Prague just five years earlier and laid claim to a rough-and-ready moral equivalence. “When it’s up against a regime like that,” argued Uncle Sam, “only dictatorship can save democracy.”
Regime Change Cold War-style: When only dictatorship could save democracy, the USA was happy to see its enemies deposed by military force. Chile, 1973.
But, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the old excuses no longer washed. At what Francis Fukuyama dubbed “the end of history” all the great geo-political conundrums were resolvable only by free-market capitalism and liberal democracy. If Uncle Sam wanted regimes to change in Christian lands he’d have to come up with a solution that left a lot less mess than strike aircraft, tanks and mass executions. (In the Islamic world, effecting regime change is still a blood sport.)
Enter the “Colour Revolutions” of 2000-2005: regime changes utilising methods that fell somewhere between a soft and a hard application of American power.
But, like the proverbial iceberg, “revolutions” of the sort we have just witnessed in Ukraine hide much, much more than they ever let us see.
Long before the first student protester’s boot hits the streets of the targeted capital, Uncle Sam has been busy for months. He’s seeded the media with sympathetic journalists; bought and paid for reliable polling agencies; stuffed sympathetic NGO’s bank accounts with cash; and “advised” the armed forces high command (most of them trained in the US) to keep the Government’s troops in their barracks.
Only then do the protest leaders, fresh from their “civil resistance” training programmes, fully equipped with state-of-the-art IT and communications equipment and chaperoned by the best and the brightest the CIA can spare, step out to accomplish the fall of the dictator and the flowering of democracy.
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, 28 February 2014.