Tuesday 29 April 2014

A Reason To Vote

The Great Includer: David Cunliffe's speech to the Young Labour Conference argued that politics-as-usual has failed. A prosperous future, he warned them, cannot now be built the same way as the past. It’s no longer enough “to work for our people”, said Cunliffe, “we have to work with them.”

DAVID CUNLIFFE’S SPEECH to the Young Labour Conference on Saturday ended what’s been a hellish week for the Opposition on a surprisingly defiant note.
“I believe that our people are a community, not a commodity. I believe that when the least fortunate of us does better, we all do better. I believe that in this great country no-one should be left out or left behind.”
Cunliffe is a disconcertingly happy warrior. An exile on the back benches, with the insults of his enemies still ringing in his ears, the man’s confidence that he would come back and win the leadership of his party was indomitable. Even now, in the wake of Shane Jones’s deeply damaging defection, and amidst rumours that Labour is polling in the low 20s, Cunliffe’s confidence remains undiminished.
A large part of that confidence is based on what might be called the “technological” aspects of contemporary political campaigning. Labour appears to have got its hands on something similar to the computer software that proved so crucial to both the Obama presidential campaigns. The team around Cunliffe is adamant that with this new technology they will be able to identify precisely the groups most likely to vote for Labour.
This technological fix will not, however, be enough, on its own, to secure a Labour victory. A major reason for Cunliffe’s presence at the Young Labour Conference (the largest since the late-1980s) was to reinforce the importance of the role they will play in “getting out the vote”.
The Obama Campaign’s success was not only about putting in the technological fix, but also about how efficiently the mountains of data it was crunching could be conveyed and practically applied on voter doorsteps by the tens-of-thousands of volunteers that made up its hugely effective “on-the-ground” organisation.
“Change is not a spectator sport”, Cunliffe told his youthful audience. “Our opponents are counting on young people like you, your classmates, friends and flatmates to stay home in September. They are betting on the apathy of young people like you. They are counting on your silence. We need to prove them wrong.”
Aware of their imminent dispatch onto the streets of Wellington and the Hutt Valley for an afternoon of door-knocking and political proselytising, the Labour leader told his young listeners: “The conversations you will have today are part of hundreds and thousands of personal contacts we are having all around the country.”
Data-mining plus feet on the ground.
“That is how we are going to win this election”, Cunliffe assured them. By building “a grassroots movement for change”.
Cunliffe’s confidence – symbolised by his permanently fixed cat-who’s-got-the-cream grin – strongly suggests that he’s been convinced that, on election day, this combination of improved technology and inspired grassroots organisation, which Labour intends to operate below the news media’s radar, will leave all the doom-saying pundits struggling – like the hapless Karl Rove on Fox News in 2012 – to explain why the impossible keeps happening right before their eyes.
But is the Opposition Leader’s confidence justified? If the rumours concerning poll results in the 20-25 percent range are borne out, how will Labour’s campaign maintain the high level of morale and personal commitment necessary to keep an effective get-out-the-vote operation in play?
At an even more basic level, how do Cunliffe and his advisers ensure that the demographic groups deemed “most likely” to vote Labour actually place two ticks on the ballot papers?
Recent research undertaken in the United States strongly suggests that electoral success comes to the party whose policies adhere most closely to the preferences of its political base. The progressive American writer, Dave Johnson, argues provocatively that “there is no swing block of voters between the parties”. “The lesson to learn”, he says, is that: “There are not voters who ‘swing’, there are left voters and right voters who either show up and vote or do not show up and vote. If Democrats don’t give regular, working people – the Democratic base – a reason to vote, then many of them won’t.”
What Cunliffe must decide, and quickly, is whether offsetting the introduction of a Capital Gains Tax; raising the age of eligibility for NZ Superannuation to 67; supporting the free-trade principles of the TPPA; and tinkering with the Reserve Bank Act against his party’s “Kiwibuild” housing scheme; the proposed single-buyer of electricity, New Zealand Power; and the “Best Start” support payment policy for infants; will be enough to give Labour’s base “a reason to vote”.
“I believe that politics-as-usual has failed New Zealanders”, Cunliffe told Young Labour. A prosperous future, he warned them, cannot now be built the same way as the past. It’s no longer enough “to work for our people”, said Cunliffe, “we have to work with them.”
Properly developed, that concept could give much more than Labour’s base a reason to vote.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 April 2014.

Friday 25 April 2014

Three Songs For ANZAC Day


Eric Bogle:  And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda
Eric Bogle: No Man's Land (The Green Fields Of France)
Redgum: I Was Only Nineteen
They tell us that at Gallipoli New Zealand came of age as a nation. Well, if that's true, why is it that in all the years since 25 April 1915 no Kiwi has ever penned a song to match even one of these three? It seems to me that the Brits and the Aussies have processed the tragedy and futility of their countries' wars far better than we have.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Solemn Falsehoods: ANZAC Day, 2014

Worthy Sons? Every ANZAC Day we tell ourselves that the blood sacrifice of Gallipoli marked the birth of New Zealand nationhood. But as the above poster attests, it was not our independence that George, the King Emperor, acknowledged but our fatal subservience to Britain's imperial interests.
THE DEEP SOLEMNITY with which ANZAC Day is commemorated in New Zealand is entirely appropriate. Never before have the people of this country been required to cope with the violent death of so many of their fellow citizens. For New Zealand’s political and military leadership the public’s response to the unprecedented length of the casualty lists was a matter of critical significance.
A military disaster on the scale of the Gallipoli campaign can be responded to in one of two ways. Either, the nation recoils in anger and disgust at the unforgiveable failure of both the armed forces and the government to protect its sons; or, it transforms the sordid waste of young lives into an occasion for patriotic and ultimately spiritual exaltation.
For the deeply conservative government of the day it, therefore, became a matter of some urgency that the Gallipoli defeat, and its horrific losses, be reconfigured into a blood-sanctified rite of national passage. Having laid upon the altar the “dearest and the best” they had to offer, New Zealanders still at home were told that they had all, by some mysterious patriotic alchemy, been ennobled. Those hundreds of dead Kiwi boys had “stood the test”, and now it was the duty of all those for whom they had made “the final sacrifice” to do the same.
This transformation of the botched Dardanelles campaign into a symbol of emergent nationhood was, thus, a stunning example of the most malign and cynical statecraft. By re-presenting the ANZAC defeat as New Zealand’s bloody “coming of age”, the Reform Party Prime Minister, Bill Massey, made certain that the disaster of Gallipoli would never be seriously questioned or criticised. To do so would be tantamount to questioning and criticising “the glorious dead” – and that soon became unthinkable.
And so it has continued, down through the ten decades since those ANZAC soldiers first planted their boots on Turkish soil. And in every one of those decades the political and military leadership of New Zealand have reiterated the solemn falsehoods upon which the commemoration of ANZAC Day is founded.
That the soldiers died for freedom and democracy.
That the battle marked the true birth of the New Zealand nation.
That had it been left to the Kiwis and the Aussies, the Gallipoli peninsula could have been secured.
The men who died on the unforgiving slopes of Gallipoli were volunteers, brim-full of imperial pride and ready to give their all for their King-Emperor and his empire. Freedom and democracy didn’t come into it. In 1914 Great Britain itself was only barely democratic. Most of the 800,000 British dead gave their lives for a state which did not allow them to vote. New Zealand was a truly democratic state, but the progressive forces which had made it so harboured serious reservations about the war. Conscription was required to keep the blood tribute flowing and the government which oversaw it was brutally authoritarian.
Far from marking the birth of the New Zealand nation, the Gallipoli campaign and the subsequent battles in Flanders retarded the development of an independent New Zealand identity. Only in the Second World War could it be truthfully said that New Zealand’s citizen soldiers were consciously fighting for freedom and democracy – along with the job-rich, union-protected, welfare state their votes had brought into being.
That the losses in the Second World War were so much less than the First owed a great deal to the lessons drawn from that earlier conflict. Sending farm boys to take the Gallipoli peninsula was always a fool’s errand. The Turks knew it and so did their German advisers. Yes, we took Chunuk Bair, but we couldn’t hold it. Nobody could.
Next year we’ll solemnly mark the hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. I hold little hope that we will do so honestly. Age may not weary those dear, best boys, but while we continue to tell ourselves lies about why they died – they will never rest.
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, 25 April 2014.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

The Greens Stand Alone

Earth's Last Champion: The history of the twenty-first century will be shaped by an increasingly bitter struggle between the two great remaining “metanarratives” – Neoliberalism and Ecologism. If the Greens did not exist as a political option we would have been forced to invent them.
IT’S NOT EASY being Green. But, then, if it was easy, the Green’s wouldn’t need to exist. If all the other political parties grasped the sheer size of the paradigm shift needed to deal with global warming, resource depletion and the unrelenting despoliation of the natural environment, then a political movement dedicated to the practical application of ecological wisdom would be unnecessary.
The great tragedy of our times is that the politics of ecological denial boasts some extremely powerful backers. This should not surprise us. The history of the twenty-first century will be shaped by an increasingly bitter struggle between the two great remaining “metanarratives” – Neoliberalism and Ecologism. The fundamental logic of the former repudiates the inter-relatedness of all living things in the name of the sovereign individual. Ecologism’s fundamental insight rejects entirely the logic of individualism in the name of the interdependent whole. In short: “I” gives way to “We”.
New Zealand is still very much in the grip of Neoliberal ideology. Indeed, all of our political parties – with the exception of the Greens – are dedicated in one way or another to strengthening and/or repairing the core market mechanisms that make individualism a practical social proposition.
National and Act are committed to purifying and intensifying the competitiveness of our market system. NZ First and the Conservatives favour a measured restoration of social cohesion by means of a slight relaxation in market rigor. Labour’s self-contradictory remit combines an improvement in the efficiency of the market mechanism with an attenuation of its worst socially disintegrative effects.
Only the Greens have grasped the need to turn the mechanisms of the market to new, environmentally sustainable and socially integrative purposes. In the spirit of Isaiah, their mission is to beat the market’s swords into ploughshares and its spears into pruning hooks.
That being the case we should not be surprised at the constant and increasingly aggressive misrepresentation of the Greens’ political project. Wittingly or unwittingly, the existing order’s guardians are positioning the Greens at the centre of a narrative of exclusion.
To Act and National, Ecologism is merely the most recent mask of their oldest foe, Communism. To NZ First and the Conservatives, not only are the Greens leftists, they are loony-leftists – an unfathomable eruption from beyond the borders of order and reason. To Labour, the Greens are more readily understood and, therefore, more feared. Deep within Labour’s historical memory the Green message calls forth echoes of a time when Labour, too, was about the transition from “I” to “We”. It’s a recollection they’d rather forget.
There is a growing awareness, among politicians and journalists alike, that the only person standing between the Greens and truly effective political power is the NZ First Party’s leader, Winston Peters. This will likely see the old campaigner restored to his role as “Kingmaker”. Labour’s decision to reject the Greens’ offer to campaign jointly under the banner of a “Labour/Greens Government” makes this even more probable. The Neoliberal Establishment may not care for NZ First and its eccentric boss but, if he is ready to bar the Cabinet Room door to Russel Norman and Metira Turei, they will tolerate him.
The pundits are confident that Mr Peters’ presence at the centre of the current political equation has the Greens beaten. Regardless of which major party he decides to back, the Greens will play no part in the resulting coalition government. Yes, they may end up wielding an indispensable number of votes, but these will avail them nothing because, in the end, they will not dare use them to force a new election.
Will they not? At some point the Greens are going to have to step away from the adjunct status they have, for far too long now, been willing to accept. If they are, indeed, the sole standard-bearer for the only coherent alternative to the planet-consuming greed of financial capitalism, then a day must come when the voters are presented with a clear and unequivocal choice between Neoliberalism and Ecologism.
If Labour is unwilling to fight alongside the Greens, then they will have no choice but to position Labour alongside the defenders of Neoliberalism. They may not emerge victorious from this first stark encounter but, be assured, Labour will be destroyed by it. Just as Labour supplanted the discredited Liberal Party, the Greens will consign Labour to the dustbin of history. In the grim, dualistic struggle between Neoliberalism and Ecologism there is no “Third Way”.
In their hearts, Labour’s members and supporters know this. That’s why, when polled, close to two-thirds of them indicate a preference for a Labour/Green coalition. The Greens need not shrink from a new election.  Labour’s leadership really need to believe that.
It’s not easy being the Greens. But if they did not exist, then the twenty-first century’s voters would be forced to invent them.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 April 2014.

Friday 18 April 2014

Barabbas - An Easter Story

"All I know is that he died and I live. Maybe it’s what lies at the heart of that day."
“YOU’RE A HARD MAN TO FIND!”, exclaimed the sharp-featured young fellow, setting a jug of wine upon the table. “I’ve had no end of trouble tracking you down! Some said you were dead, others that you had been sold into slavery. But I said ‘No, the people who each played a part in Our Teacher’s last hours upon this earth must surely enjoy the Lord’s protection’, and here you are, safe and sound, in Alexandria!”
“Safe and sound, you say? Can a Jew ever be truly so? Still, there are many of us here, safe among the Greeks – if not the Romans. So, tell me, boy, what has brought you all the way from Judea – no, don’t look so surprised, your Greek is good, but I’d recognise that accent anywhere – what do you want with this old grey head?
“I want the memories inside it, Yeshua Bar Abbas. You were there the day he died. While they still live, I am recording the testimony of all who witnessed the events of that day.”
“The day who died, boy? I have seen many men die – and I have to warn you, I do not remember very much about any of them.”
“You will remember this man, Yeshua Bar Abbas. Even though it happened thirty years ago. He was called Yeshua, too. A Galilean. From Nazareth. A teacher and a healer who preached the coming of the Kingdom. He was put to death by Pontius Pilate. You were involved in some way.”
“Yeshua of Nazareth? Oh, yes, I remember him.”
“You met him? You knew Our Teacher? Tell me what happened.”
“The truth is, I don’t know. We were both being held in Pilate’s prison. I’d already been condemned as a rebel – was scheduled to be crucified in a few hours. I do remember that I was feeling pretty sorry for myself – pretty low. Then they brought him in. The guards laughed when they heard his name, insisted on introducing me to my namesake. They told me I should bow, because this fellow was the King of the Jews.”
“Did he speak to you?”
“He smiled. Shook his head. Spoke softly. ‘I am no king’, he said. We talked for a long time. He seemed to know a lot about me. About my attacks on the Roman columns protecting the tax collectors. About the plot to cut down the Emperor’s standard above the Temple. I asked him if he was one of us – one of the Zealots. He shrugged his shoulders. Told me that there would always be Caesars of one sort or another. The trick, he said, is to recognise what can safely be surrendered to earthly authority, and what cannot. Doing what you’re told, he said, is much less important than doing what is right. I remember snorting with derision at this meek little man and wondering what on earth he was doing among the real revolutionaries.”
“What happened then?”
“A Centurion came and took him up to meet Pilate. He wasn’t gone long. Then a message came down from the Governor to release the man called Yeshua. I wasn’t surprised – at least, not until someone hauled me up and struck-off my chains. The guard had changed, you see. I was the only Yeshua they recognised. I couldn’t believe my luck! But then I recalled the Galilean’s words about rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and unto God what was God’s. I hesitated, was about to speak, but he was standing right in front of me, telling me with his eyes to remain silent. He leaned forward and whispered: “Go in peace, Barabbas. Some things belong both to Caesar and to God.”
“What? You’re telling me Our Teacher’s death was a mistake!”
“No. I don’t think it was a mistake. I don’t think that anything about Yeshua was mistaken. There was something unfolding in that prison, something beyond my understanding. All I know is that he died and I live. Maybe it’s what lies at the heart of that day. What’s your name, son?
But the young fellow was already gathering up his tablets and stylus. He looked angry.
“My name is Marcus, and I’m sorry I found you Yeshua Bar Abbas. The story you’ve told me cannot possibly be true. I pray the Lord sends me a better one.”
This posting is one of a series of representations of the Christian story carried on the Bowalley Road blogsite every Easter and Christmas.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

A Matter of Time: Reflections Of A Waning Republican

Time Lords: The historical transition of the Monarchy: from that which rules, to those who reign, was a remarkable constitutional innovation. Neither a true monarchy, nor yet a full republic, Britain’s constitutional monarchy offered its subjects something unique. "[A] constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.”
I’M A REPUBLICAN. At least, I used to be. Now, I’m not so sure. And, yes, this reassessment is, indeed, the result of the just completed visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George.
So, what has changed? What’s become of that young university debater who, way back in 1981, when the royalist team called for “Three cheers for Her Majesty, the Queen!” leapt to his feet and called for “Three cheers for Oliver Cromwell!”?
The answer, I’m afraid, is “Time”.
Two years on from that fiery debate in the Otago University Union, the Prince and Princess of Wales were seated on the lawn at Old Government House and their little son, William, was hot in pursuit of a Buzzy Bee.
And now, impossibly, that little boy has a little boy of his own. Through all the happy and farcical, inspiring and tragic events that have shaped both his life and my own over the  intervening 30 years, a connection – something more than mere sentiment – has grown. It was not there in my republican youth, but it has sprouted as my youth faded: watered by the storms of experience; growing stronger with each circuit of the sun.
And now, impossibly, that little boy has a little boy of his own.
I understand now what I could only smile at in my youth – my late mother’s undying affection for the Queen. I realise now that she, too, had memories to measure her own life by. Of a serious little girl staring warily at the newsreel cameras in the last years of peace before the outbreak of the Second World War. Of that little girl, grown now into a young woman, on the arm of her new husband. Of that same young woman, now a mother, proudly displaying her first-born son to the world.
That connection again: through war and marriage and motherhood; always there, always growing and subtly binding this super-family – half German, half Scot – to that vast commonwealth of families who, growing older, had learned to recognise the signposts of their own maturity in the unfolding history of this strange and exalted reflection of themselves.
The Royal Family - a strange and exalted reflection of our own.
Time has also taught me to recognise the true identity of the forces I railed against in my youth. In opposing monarchy I was, in fact, opposing the exercise of unelected and unaccountable authority: the arbitrary and violent intervention of state power into the lives of the powerless and the innocent.
But if that is the measure, then the government of Oliver Cromwell does not merit even one cheer. He and his “plain, russet-coated troopers” were nothing less than Christian mujahedeen. England during the Interregnum became a ruthless military theocracy. Cromwell’s New Model Army, for a brief moment the crucible of democratic debate, would emerge, finally, as the Taliban in breastplates.
And was the Monarchy really so politically unaccountable? When the Cromwellian regime collapsed, and the Stuart dynasty was restored in 1660, the executed King Charles I’s son landed at Dover. And all the way to London, a distance of 75 miles, the road was lined with his cheering subjects. Had it been put to a vote, Charles II would have been elected in a landslide.
What Cromwell did do, however, was prove that monarchs could not rule, indefinitely, without the people’s consent. This radical notion was reconfirmed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Henceforth kings and queens would reign – but they would not rule. Our monarchs thus ceased to be creatures of politics and became creatures of time. For what else is a “reign” but the temporal measure of the monarch’s tenure on the throne?
This historical transition of the Monarchy: from that which rules, to those who reign, was a remarkable constitutional innovation. Neither a true monarchy, nor yet a full republic, Britain’s constitutional monarchy offered its subjects something unique. In the words of the man who understood the innovation best, Edmund Burke:
“[I]t is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.”
And this, of course, is the great distinction, between a royal family and an individual head-of-state elected for a short term of office. A family embodies a relationship with time that is quite distinct from that of the individual. The hereditary principle itself is meaningless without the reality of those who have come before – and those who will come after.
And that is what we see when William and Kate and George step off the plane. Not just themselves, but all who have come before them, and all who shall succeed them. It is an image embodying not just the Royal Family, but our own.
And that is something we shall never be able to elect.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 April 2014.

Friday 11 April 2014

Poster Boy

Mixed Message: The potency of this poster from the Toothfish agitprop collective lies in its symbolic confusion. At first glance it appears to be an example of Nazi Party propaganda from the 1930s, only upon closer inspection do we understand that the image is a comment about National and Neoliberalism - not Nazism. Ironically, the Nazis were fierce critics of laissez-faire capitalism, an historical detail that further complicates the image.

THE POWER OF ART and its uncanny ability to evade the censors of our conscious mind is never more obvious than when it gate-crashes party politics. Poster art, in particular, possesses a special potency. In 1981, the year of the infamous Springbok Tour, the number of households in which the “It’s pronounced Apart-Hate.” poster could be found, proudly displayed, was astounding. Hard on the anti-apartheid movement’s heels came Nuclear-Free New Zealand posters. These were, if possible, even more ubiquitous.
Since the mid-80s, however, there’s been a dearth of truly great political posters. The West’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, unlike the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, passed us by without leaving very much in the way of enduring cultural markers. Certainly, the first few years of the twenty-first century have produced nothing to match the powerful posters of the twentieth.
Neoliberalism, and its cultural corollary, post-modernism, have created too arid an environment for genuinely affective posters. The collective passions from which political art draws its energy have long-since collapsed into a desiccated individualism out of which almost nothing grows with sufficient strength to prick our consciences.
Until now.
For John Key, April is indeed the cruellest month, because the poster which began appearing on Wellington streets a few days ago cannot be easy for the son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi barbarity to bear.
At first glance it appears to be an example of Nazi Party propaganda from the 1930s. The dominant colours are the red, white and black of the swastika flag, and its human subject is decked out in the uniform of a Nazi stormtrooper. On closer inspection, however, we discover that the symbol in the centre of the circle is not a swastika but a dollar sign. The monetary symbol is repeated on the stormtrooper’s armband and a red dollar sign is pinned to his chest. The stormtrooper himself is, quite clearly, the National Party leader, John Key.
What impresses about this poster is its painterly qualities. Not for its creator the easy cut-and-paste of computer-generated graphic art. This is not a photo-shopped version of John Key but a striking portrait executed in gouache on a matte board. More than anything else, it is this painterliness that tricks our eyes into believing we are looking at something from the 1930s.
The work of an anonymous, environmentally-driven political collective calling itself “Toothfish”, the poster’s purpose is set forth on the outfit’s website:
“Let's be clear - the poster is talking about capitalism, control and the increasing privatization of government. The image suggests that the naked pursuit of money is akin to an extremist doctrine. One in which human lives and the environment are being sacrificed on the altar of expediency for the profit of our ruling elites.
“The poster is NOT saying John Key is a Nazi.”
This latter disclaimer strikes me as just a little disingenuous. The poster only works because our eye processes its message much faster than our mind is able to decode its content. And what our eye sees is John Key dressed as a Nazi.
In an unintended way, the artist’s resort to the iconography of Nazism is also a statement about the enormous difficulty in visually discussing the totalitarian nature of the neoliberal ideology.
The all-encompassing ambition of Neoliberalism marches under no banners, wears no symbols, swears fealty to no fuehrer, and needs no uniformed militia to enforce its will. Like Yahweh and Allah, the neoliberal deity forebears to be represented by anything other than words and numbers. Also like them, Neoliberalism is a jealous god who suffers no rivals. How does one represent in poster form an ideology that makes a desert – and calls it prosperity?
The poster’s final irony is that the Nazis, far from being its kindred spirits, would have fought Neoliberalism with as much vigour as the Toothfish collective. By this reading, John Key emerges not as the dollar sign’s political avatar, but in the uniform of one of its most aggressive historical opponents.
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, 11 April 2014.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Noises-Off Democracy's Stage

Noises Off: The pretty play of democracy is being slowly but unmistakably overwhelmed by an altogether darker script whose authors - hitherto operating behind the scenes - are increasingly moving their undemocratic action front-of-stage.
THE PRETTY PLAY OF DEMOCRACY goes on as usual. The familiar characters make their entrances and exits, delivering their lines with more or less conviction, and the plot, with one or two obligatory surprises, unfolds in the time-honoured way. Occasionally, the writers experience a moment of sheer collective inspiration and the audience thrills to the antics of a wholly original character – this season’s undoubted hit being the inspired and ebullient Kim Dotcom.
Lately, though, the audience has been distracted by loud noises off-stage. This is most unusual – and not a little alarming. Because, say what you like about the script, the production itself has always been first rate. The actors, costumes, props, backdrops, lighting and sound-effects have (so far) never failed to enthral. Which is hardly surprising. With the plot being so familiar, all the other components of a credible theatrical performance are required to maintain the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.
But the volume and frequency of all these off-stage interruptions is making the suspension of disbelief increasingly difficult. The strong impression of persons moving about; snatches of disconcerting dialogue; strange silhouettes, and the unmistakeable sound of scenery being dragged into position has many in the audience convinced that, behind the scenes, another play is in progress – one they cannot see.
This rival play, unfolding simultaneously (albeit invisibly) behind the traditional performance is not in the least bit pretty. Indeed, its themes and characters offer a stark contrast to those we see on-stage.
The official production celebrates democracy and its characters recall the great politicians of the past. Crucially, the climax of the official play never varies: the sovereign people declare their preferences and the democratic process is the winner on the night.
The unofficial play has no place for such political candy-floss and self-delusion. When its leading characters talk about democracy they do so with a curled lip and a raised eyebrow – as if only the intellectually bereft and ideologically deluded could possibly take such an absurd notion seriously. The themes of the unofficial play are all about power and greed and individual self-assertion. The only role played by the people is that of a gigantic ATM. They are presented as an unfailing and inexhaustible spigot of public wealth for private gain: sovereign only in their ill-directed generosity and incorrigible gullibility.
In the unofficial play, a sinister combination of politician-bureaucrats and businessmen-farmers have already met and divvied-up the nation between them. All are in agreement that their  respective futures depend on controlling the use of and access to New Zealand’s water. Slowly and methodically, they are re-writing the nation’s laws to exclude all but their hand-picked allies from the decision-making processes relating to this crucial resource. Slowly, but very deliberately, they are shielding their decision-makers from public and media scrutiny. Where resistance has been encountered they have not hesitated to act – indeed, they have already replaced an entire, democratically-elected regulatory body with appointed commissioners.
Where resistance has been encountered they have not hesitated to act: The National Government introduces Canterbury Regional Council's unelected commissioners.
In the official play, nothing is more crucial to the survival of individual liberty and the health of democracy than the sanctity of private property and the rule of law. In the unofficial play, however, the leading characters laugh uproariously at these twinned principles. If someone’s private property stands in the way of one of the many privately-owned, profit-driven irrigation schemes they have planned for the New Zealand countryside, then they simply invoke the provisions of the Public Works Act and relieve the owners of their titles.
To loud objections that the Public Works Act was never meant to be the handmaiden of private investors, the anti-heroes of the unofficial drama do their best to assume the appearance of sage and disinterested legislators. “Yes,” they say, “it is tragic that a handful of homes and farms must be drowned, but it is also necessary to the long-term economic welfare of the country as a whole. We must act in the national interest.”
It is precisely this sort of dialogue, breaking through the reassuring lines of the official political play that is making more and more members of the audience uneasy – even restive. Through questioning eyes they have begun to notice how threadbare the official production is looking. What has become of the play’s familiar props? Have those costumes faded? Why do the actors seem to be just going through the motions? What’s happened to the lighting – and the sound? Why can we hear more and more of the other play – and why is the dialogue so frightening?
The pretty political play of democracy may be a familiar one, but it has never been made weaker by reiteration. Yes, it’s imperfect, even naïve, but unless it is performed – and  believed – then the dark shadow-players who have always acted behind the scenes will grow in power and confidence.
The noises off-stage will become the play itself.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 April 2014.

Friday 4 April 2014

Old Battles - Fought Unequivocally

Let's Do The Time Warp Again! Labour has been accused of "re-fighting too many old battles", but history suggests that it is precisely this willingness to stoutly defend traditional political values that explains the phenomenal success of politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It is equivocation that turns voters off - not conviction. So, come on Labour: "It's just a jump to the Left!" 
IN A RECENT COLUMN the veteran political correspondent, John Armstrong, accuses the Labour Party of “fighting too many old battles”. The perennial socialist causes, for which Labour’s politicians should still feel duty-bound to draw their swords, declares Armstrong, “have long been lost or are no longer relevant to most voter’s daily existence”.
By way of example, Armstrong draws attention to Labour finance spokesperson, David Parker’s, snappish criticism of Treasury’s “Investment Statement”.
This latter document, released nearly a fortnight ago, was responsible for raising considerably more than Parker’s eyebrows by suggesting that public ownership of health and education services, “should not be seen as the default setting”.
Labour’s finance spokesperson was having none of it and came out swinging. The Department, he said was “out of touch” with New Zealanders and accused it of promoting privately-owned “McSchools” and “McHospitals” instead of publicly-owned (and, therefore, accountable) education and health facilities.
“I can be completely clear”, thundered Parker, “Labour rejects that philosophy. Public ownership of public schools and public hospitals is essential to provide opportunity and protection for all New Zealanders. This is what people pay their taxes for.”
Borrowing a line from his predecessor in the finance role, Dr Michael Cullen, he characterised the Treasury’s highly contentious statement as yet another example of its unnerving predilection for unleashing random “ideological burps”.
Parker concluded his media release by challenging the Prime Minister and Finance Minister to combat Treasury’s rebarbative ideological offerings with the same antacid remedy as Dr Cullen.
That neither John key nor Bill English accepted Parker’s challenge, Armstrong argued, is attributable to the National Party’s belief that Labour is trapped in an “ideological time-warp”. The clear implication being that when it comes to the traditional Left/Right squabbles over Private versus Public ownership – the average voter no longer cares.
Armstrong’s concluding paragraph is bleak:
“National argues that if Labour could not prompt a voter backlash against the partial floats of the remaining state-owned electricity generators, it will struggle to stop the growing trend for private provision worldwide. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Labour has little hope of stuffing it back in.”
That the Right struggled very successfully to stop the growing trend toward public provision worldwide, and found it surprisingly simple to stuff the socialist genie responsible back in his bottle, seems to have escaped Armstrong.
And if he were to recall that, in New Zealand, the whole privatisation process was initiated by Labour, then the public’s unwillingness to be convinced by their re-conversion to the virtues of public ownership might look less like indifference and more like once-bitten-twice-shy caution. And who can blame them – given Labour’s repeated refusal to commit unequivocally to the repurchase of the privatised shareholdings?
Parker’s stout defence of public health and education speaks eloquently of Labour’s determination not to be caught equivocating on the last remaining bastions of collectivism in New Zealand society. Were the Right to be successful in privatising our schools and hospitals (and finally taming the education- and health-sector unions) there would be little left for Labour to defend.
The key strategic question Labour has yet to answer, however, is: when will it finally make the transition from defence to offence?
When the Right finally realised (in the mid-1970s) that the last great bastions of private enterprise – those the British Labour firebrand, Tony Benn, described as the “commanding heights of the economy” – were about to come under full-scale assault by the forces of the Left, its more far-sighted and aggressive advocates realised that defensive tactics were losing them the battle. Tory hardliners like Sir Keith Joseph, Airey Neave and Margaret Thatcher didn’t bleat on about it being too late to stuff the socialist genie back in its bottle – they made stuffing the socialists their No. 1 priority.
The greatest enemy any ideology – Left or Right – will ever face is not indifference but equivocation. The achievements of the Liberal Government of 1890-1912 and of successive Labour Governments up to 1984 were not laid low for want of voters willing to defend them, but by politicians unwilling to re-state – unequivocally – the reasons why socialists must never for a moment cease “re-fighting old battles”.
Margaret Thatcher always referred to her country as “Great” Britain, because reclaiming Britain’s greatness was her whole manifesto.
What will Mr Cunliffe ride forth to battle to re-claim?
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, 4 April 2014.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Protest Futile In The Absence Of Consensus Politics

Who's Listening? Protests remain effective only while the political and economic consensus that governments should respond to their citizens' grievances persists. New Zealand's neoliberal revolution of the 1980s and 90s overturned that consensus. All that protests do now is convince neoliberal politicians that their policies are producing the intended effects.

RELIABLE ESTIMATES of the size of the weekend protests against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) put the number of participants at a modest 2,500. Martyn Bradbury, colourful editor of The Daily Blog, speaking to more than 1,000 “It’s Our Future” protesters in Auckland, said:
“I think that it really shows that economic sovereignty issues are actually quite central to New Zealanders’ concept about who they are and how they see themselves and losing that kind of sovereignty is a major concern — it’s no longer just a fringe issue.”
Bradbury later described the nationwide protest effort as “an incredible turnout for the esoteric intricacies of free trade deals”.
Placed alongside the great protests of the past, a nationwide turnout of 2,500 in defence of New Zealand’s “economic sovereignty” is indeed “incredible” – but perhaps not in the way Martyn meant!
But even if the “It’s Our Future” protests against the TPPA had reached the 50,000 benchmark figure established by Greenpeace’s highly effective protest against mining in national parks, it is highly debatable whether it would have been sufficient to make this government reconsider it iron-clad commitment to free trade.
The presence of large numbers of protesters on the streets no longer seems to give governments pause. Evidence of widespread public dissent long ago ceased to be politically decisive because policy-makers are no longer driven by the need to preserve a broad political consensus. Opposition is generally anticipated by today’s politicians, and provided it does not come from those economic and social actors deemed critical to their re-election, it is also generally ignored.
One has only to think of the hundreds-of-thousands of “indignacios” (indignant ones) who poured onto the streets of Spain during the worst months of the Global Financial Crisis. Or, recall the grim street-battles between police and protesters outside the Greek parliament in Athens as that impoverished country’s legislators voted to accept the European Union’s rescue package – along with the vicious austerity measures that constituted its political price.
What was it, then, that made the maintenance of a broad political consensus so important in the past and why is that no longer the case?
In the three decades following World War II – a period sometimes referred to as “The Age of Consensus” – the maintenance of social peace and prosperity remained the No. 1 political objective of both the centre-left and the centre-right. The “historic compromise” between capital and labour (big business and the trade unions) which had given birth to the Welfare State required both sides to restrain their radical extremes and cleave to the middle way. With memories of the Great Depression and the War still fresh in the minds of most citizens, any other course of action would have been most unwise.
Throughout this period, any manifestation of widespread social and/or political dissent was, accordingly, regarded as a direct threat to the prevailing bipartisan consensus. Prime-ministers and Leaders of the Opposition, alike, responded quickly (and often favourably) to the protesters’ demands.
The socially levelling effects of consensus politics could not, however, endure beyond the point where they began to undermine the power and persuasiveness of capitalism itself. The extraordinary success of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan is largely explained by their willingness to challenge the core elements of the Age of Consensus by attacking the unions, abandoning progressive taxation and reducing the responsiveness of the state. The neoliberal revolution which Thatcher and Reagan unleashed was thus predicated on the assumption that if the minority who mattered in capitalist society were to go on mattering, then the majority was going to have to learn to be disappointed.
Hence the dwindling impact and effectiveness of protest. Far from spurring Governments to reconsider their policies, mass protests actually provided them with evidence that the contested policies were correct. The 300,000 workers who protested against the National Government’s Employment Contracts Bill during the first fortnight of April 1991, far from constituting proof of the Bill’s inequity, merely confirmed for the Right the urgent necessity of its passage.
But if protest no longer works how are we to explain Greenpeace’s success? Or, for that matter – Ukraine’s?
In the former case it was not Greenpeace’s mobilisation efforts alone that made the difference. Tens of thousands of National Party members and voters had directly communicated their outrage to National’s MPs through letters, e-mails and phone-calls. These were the government’s core supporters in rebellion. They counted.
The protesters who overthrew the Ukrainian Government possessed an advantage that all the protesters described above lacked: the covert support of the armed forces. They knew that violence against the police would not be answered by violence from the army. What happened in Kiev’s Independence Square wasn’t a protest – it was a coup d’état by crowd.
Strip the state of its armed protection and mass protest rapidly escalates into full-scale revolt.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 April 2014.