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.


Brendon Harre said...

Good one Chris. Freedom is a timeless battle....

jh said...

Interesting questions about private property and collective action, sometimes something has to give. A group from Canterbury University came up with the idea of bowling an older part of Chch (on TC1 land) and building an urban eco village which would have efficiently concentrated a lot of people in a new urbanist type setting. It could never happen (of course) unless the state (or a private party ) owned the land (we did have a freehold/ leasehold debate in the past).
The alternative is "self organisation" where strategies can induce flight to lower land prices for development.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Only their purpose is mad" Worth re-reading.

Brendon Harre said...

JH I could show 'subdivisions' of a dozen or so lifestyle blocks -4 hectares each, near Christchurch. Tai Tapu for example. Ultra low density housing for the rich -the blocks cost $400K, so the land cost is almost the average house price.

But if you were allowed to build an 'eco village' -passive energy housing, no environmental externalities, water, waste etc processed within the village and home to 10 times the number of rich lifestyle blockers -land costs would only be $40,000 and the whole development would be affordable.

Or you could do something similar with bike centric developments. No garages, central car park, paths only wide enough for emergency vehicles etc.

Is it so that the rich are free in NZ but the poor are not?

peterpeasant said...

Any real democracy trivots (yeah,ok , I made that word up.)on equality, freedom, fairness (as in justice).

How much of this can survive under a US based Wall street traders rule is highly questionable.

Key is a US puppet.

As was John Howard as is Tony Abbot.

There are several empirical ambitions at play. Shon key simply does what his Australian and USA bosses tell him to do.

The US regards The SW Pacific as quasi US states. Methinks that apart from the EU the rest of the world have very different perspectives.

This country once valued equality, freedom, justice equally.

Nowadays only freedom matters.

The business community can rape the country and drive the population into beggary.

Much thanks to John Key who thrived under a very different social system. I doubt he would have done well on the current system without outside help.

All the sideshow that Key raised about a new flag was about a a stars and stripes flag with a silver fern on black instead of a star.

Certainly there are obvious dictatorial supporters employed by the press (mostly male).

Yes, Chris you are right (sorry I meant correct)democracy in this country is under serious threat.

Jan said...

Yes, Guerilla Surgeon - some wise heads have seen this coming for a long time.
Chris, that was an inspirational and chilling piece of prose and deserves wider coverage than it's probably going to get, though you may have to paraphrase a little for the clever little sods who think a vote for the right is a vote for personal freedom - they're often not too bright as you know, I'm sure.

jh said...

@ Brendon.
When you build away from a center you are loosing the logic of the system? We assume we can do this because of the private motor car and it's necessary infrastructure(although driving isn't cheap) and/or we assume jobs will follow nodes.There is still an issue of fluidity (lack of. If the state owned the land on which homeowners sat there could be a timely redevelopment and a nice urban form which is so lacking in our neighborhoods? This is what they do in Singapore; it doesn't have to be like the old East Germany.

Anonymous said...

“The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it's profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.”

― Frank Zappa

Brendon Harre said...

JH go here for a full reply

by Brendon | 09 Apr 14, 6:14pm

I think Labour and the Greens should focus there Kiwi Build policy on where land is the cheapest, which currently is rural zoned land at rural prices. then they could easily achieve there goal of building a family home for $300K.....


Anonymous said...

Quote: "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."

Well, you know how to word it so well and nicely, Chris. It could be "entertaining" were it not so damned serious!

And yes, behind the scenes work powers that have lost all shame and scruples. They do not shy away from the most blatant breaches of previously respected rules, like to avoid or at least declare conflicts of interest.

Judith Collins is getting away (even with the assistance of the Speaker of Parliament) to pretend she can have a senior Chinese border official sit and dine with her and her business friends, when they have an interest in getting easier access to the Chinese market, all in the frame of a "private dinner".

We have indeed the Public Works Act being abused to assist private businesses to get access to land and resources, for their own gain, albeit some in "public" may gain from a project.

We have Steven Joyce defend this with absurd explanations. We have media take sides and ridicule Labour and Greens in opposition, and claim to be "neutral". We have a royal visit happen only a few months before a general election, and the Prime Minister gets prime time photo ops, and nobody dares to question. Those opposition leaders that do, get instantly rubbished and ridiculed.

We have a Prime Minister "act" on Campbell Live, to pretend he has a harmonious, friendly family situation, yet betraying his somewhat rude manners by pointing barbeque tongs towards people while he talks. He makes silly and insensitive jokes and comments and the Kiwi public love him as just one of them.

Polls get published now and then, and the way questions are asked to people (often ignoring mobile phone owning ones)bring results the dominant force can only love and enjoy.

The news are full of trivial bits, even twitter comments, and crime, celeb gossip, royal baby shows and sports and weather, real analysis of anything political or economic does no longer happen.

Yes, it is a theatre, and not much else, but the spectators are not as discerning and alert as they should be, rather sick of most, and choosing to distract themselves.

A country without informed citizens and residents is not a true, functioning democracy. Ignorance makes for poor voters, but then, that is actually wanted, is it not?

Welcome to the 2014 version of George Orwell's 1984!

Jan said...

Yes, Anonymous, it is what's wanted - nobody with a reflective mind thinks that National Standards were introduced to improve education - they're there to undermine an education curriculum designed to produce independent, thoughtful citizens.

Nick J said...

We fought the bastards (there are probably more appropriate barbed epithets for these scum) in the early 80s over water from the Rakaia. Ruth Richardson no less was planning on drying the river out, and adding more sheep to the plains, all by agency of the MOWD (remember them)? To add to the insult, Muldoon was paying SMPs to the farmers to produce more and more unsaleable stock.

How times have changed. We got a Conservation Order and for a while things went quiet as farmers adjusted to user pays and no SMPs. Saved by the market (seems ironic, but that really did make a short term difference). Now the irony is that Richardson and all the usual suspects flying the flag of unfettered free markets are at it again. Lets put this bluntly, what they intend is to gather the benefits of the "commons" (water and environment) at no cost to themselves, and concurrently "externalise" all costs (pollution etc), at the cost of all of us.

So to battle. One thing I can tell todays environmental warriors is that their policy must be "no retreat"! There is a simple reason: the exploiters will encourage you to compromise, be "fair" etc. You start with 100% and next you have lost 5%....soon it is 75% and all you started with is lost. Its a fools game. Thus far and never any further must be made plain.