Thursday 26 June 2014

Cramped And Conventional: Labour's Alternative Budget Fails To Impress.

Labour Apologist? David Parker's Fiscal Plan is cautious in conception, orthodox in construction and singularly lacking in political inspiration. It's as if Parker felt the need to apologise for being a member of the Labour Party by constantly reassuring his readers that when it comes to controlling expenditure his plan is as fiscally responsible as the Finance Minister’s.

CONGRATULATIONS to the Labour Party for releasing an Alternative Budget well ahead of the General Election. Allowing the voters to quite literally get the measure of Labour’s economic ambitions is an entirely praiseworthy gesture which will, hopefully, be emulated by all the other parliamentary parties.
The document itself is less deserving of praise. What David Parker has produced is a Fiscal Plan that is cautious in conception, orthodox in construction and singularly lacking in political inspiration. If the document can be said to reveal any sort of vision at all it is of the most cramped and conventional kind – as if Parker felt the need to apologise for being a member of the Labour Party by constantly reassuring his readers that when it comes to controlling expenditure his plan is as fiscally responsible as the Finance Minister’s.
Responding to Labour’s Alternative Budget, BusinessNZ Chief Executive, Phil O’Reilly, noted that its costings and commitment to frugal spending would likely be welcomed by the business community. But Parker’s centrepiece – an increase in the top personal tax rate and trust rate to 36 percent – was unlikely to aid competitiveness and would penalise those who tended to invest most.
“Higher income and trust tax along with a new capital gains tax are not good signals for anyone wanting to invest in New Zealand’s growth.” Said O’Reilly.
But this rote rejection of higher taxes on the wealthy is of much less importance that the generally positive noises that preceded it. Clearly, Parker’s Budget is one that offers very little with which New Zealand capitalism could take serious issue. Indeed, the risible addition of 3 cents to the top tax-rate almost certainly occasioned a massive sigh of relief on the part of New Zealand’s top 2 percent of income earners.
On the afternoon he announced his candidacy for Labour’s leadership, David Cunliffe’s response to the inevitable question: ‘Do you believe in higher taxes?’ had been an unequivocal “You betcha!” Ever since, New Zealand’s wealthiest citizens have almost certainly been anticipating an aggressively redistributive fiscal strategy from the Cunliffe-led Labour Party. The announced top rate of 36 percent – 9 percentage points lower than Australia’s – must have them shaking their heads in disbelief. Their party was not so sparing of New Zealand’s poorest citizens.
Parker’s refusal to give effect to the confiscatory fiscal impulses of Labour’s membership is emblematic of everything that has gone awry with Cunliffe’s leadership. Elected on the promise of restoring the Labour Party to its core, democratic socialist, values (and being rewarded with a 37 percent poll rating by an electorate hungry for political substance) Cunliffe has failed utterly to build on the ideological momentum of his historic victory.
It is now clear than in the months following his win Cunliffe spent most of his time attempting to pacify his caucus colleagues. Rather than using the inevitability of constructing a left-wing coalition government to bring obstructive Cabinet aspirants to heel, the new leader attempted to construct some form of policy consensus. Parker’s Alternative Budget is proof of just how successful his caucus colleagues have been in forcing Cunliffe to abandon his democratic socialist promises.
The brutal fact of the matter is that Labour will go into the 2014 election with an economic policy package considerably to the right of its 2011 manifesto. In trying to unite his caucus “team”, Cunliffe has abandoned the very principles that had caused the Labour Left to embrace him as their champion. If Parker’s warmed-over “Third Way” social-democracy (with neoliberal characteristics) fails to inspire the voters, and Cunliffe leads Labour to defeat, it is likely the membership will punish their erstwhile champion’s apostasy with much more severity than the ABC faction’s admirable consistency.
Parker is at pains to paint his deeply conservative economic policies as a progressive “Economic Upgrade”. It is, he tells us in his introduction, “an ambitious set of goals” which, sadly, have required some “tough choices”. Among these, presumably, is the tough choice to compulsorily acquire a portion of a worker’s meagre wages and place it at the disposal of private investment companies until that worker turns 65. Or should that be 67? Tough, too, must have been the choice to build the 100,000 highly subsidised private dwellings the middle-class wants, rather than the 100,000 affordable state houses the working-class so desperately needs.
In the dreary tone of a latter-day version of the British Labour Party’s infamous Depression-era  Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Snowden, Parker informs us that “not all the policies we would like to do can be funded”. The priority, as always, must be “getting the government’s books in order” and “getting the economy growing” after six years of National Party rule. Hardly the sort of message to get the masses flocking to the polling booths!
Cramped and Conventional: Philip Snowden (1864-1937) was Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer at the onset of the Great Depression. Unable to think outside the box of laissez-faire capitalist orthodoxy, this Labour politician oversaw a programme of retrenchment and austerity which succeeded only in making the economic crisis worse.
What’s missing from this Alternative Budget is any hint of a political movement determined to change the overall direction of national policy. There is no plan to bring the ideas and aspirations of working-class people back to the centre of the political stage. No pledge to repair the damage inflicted upon the poorest and most marginalised New Zealanders by successive governments (including the last Labour Government).
There is not even an attempt to make good on the promise at the heart of Labour’s 2011 election campaign: the pledge to “Save Our Assets”. For Labour’s parsimonious finance spokesperson, the notion of “buying back the farm” clearly comes a poor second to “getting the government’s books in order”.
And yet there exist vast capital reserves that a bold and radical Labour-led Government could devote to housing the people and putting the unemployed to work. ACC does not need to be a fully-funded scheme. Were it to return to the pay-as-you-go scheme it was originally intended to be, then the $20 billion taken from levy-payers to transform ACC into an insurance company fit for privatisation would steadily become available for the improvement of New Zealand society.
It is the manifest lack of imagination, the stunted ambition, the absence of excitement and inspiration that makes Labour’s Alternative Budget so disappointing. The wealthy and the powerful will praise it – remarking on Labour’s surprisingly responsible approach to economic management. But for those who look to Labour for the opportunities that helped their parents and grandparents enjoy a more abundant life, Mr Parker’s Fiscal Plan risks being seen as just another reason to stay at home on 20 September.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 26 June 2014.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

"Give Them Hell, David!"

Trust The People: Labour Leader, David Cunliffe, needs to grasp the difficult truth that the news media has written him off and is refusing to carry his messages fairly. He must now find the courage to go around them, addressing himself directly to that one incorruptible source of democratic power – the people themselves.

HARRY WAS A GONER. Nothing could save him. All the polls said so – the pundits too. He may have risen to the job by accident, they opined, but his dismissal would be deliberate. Harry was going to lose. You could bet on it. Everybody agreed.
Except Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third President of the United States. At the 1948 Democratic Party Convention Truman rounded on what he called the “do-nothing [Republican Party controlled] Congress”. Not only would he defeat his opponents, avowed the plucky little Missourian, but he’d “make these Republicans like it”.
Truman decided to take the Democratic Party’s progressive platform to the American voters directly – by train – on what would become his famous, 35,000 kilometre, “Whistle-Stop Tour”. The train would roll into a small American town, Truman would deliver a rousing speech, and then, after a few words with local reporters, the train would move on to its next stop.
During one of these tub-thumping speeches a man in the crowd cried out: “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” To which Truman replied. “I don’t give them hell, I just tell them the truth – and they think it’s hell!”
The 1948 presidential election was notable not simply for the vigour of Truman’s campaigning but for the fact that practically all the opinion polls pointed to a decisive Republican victory. So convinced were the “experts”, that one newspaper, The Chicago Daily Tribune, actually called the election for Truman’s rival, Thomas Dewey, on its front page.
In one of the most famous photographs of American political history, the real victor, Truman, triumphantly holds the Tribune aloft. It’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline reversed by the only poll that ever truly matters.

Bad Call: The Chicago Daily Tribune speaks too soon. President Harry S Truman celebrates winning the only poll that matters. 
Only after the election did the pollsters realise that their sampling methodology was connecting them exclusively to Americans wealthy enough to own a telephone. Overwhelmingly, they had been questioning Republican voters.
Harry Truman’s come-from-behind 1948 victory offers an important strategic lesson to the beleaguered leader of the New Zealand Labour Party. At the heart of the lesson is one very simple precept: trust the people.
And how is trust established? By meeting the people face-to-face. By letting the magic of the stump – the raw energy that arcs between speaker and audience – do its work. By grasping the difficult truth that if the news media has written you off and is refusing to carry your messages fairly, then you must find the courage to go around them, addressing yourself directly to that one incorruptible source of democratic power – the voters themselves.
Of course the “experts” will sigh and tell David Cunliffe that this is 2014 – not 1948 – and that times have changed. And, of course, ‘times’ have. But the fundamentals of politics have not.
Strategically, Mr Cunliffe has locked himself into a political process which, at the end of every week, is leaving him weaker, not stronger. Political journalists have already stamped the word “Loser” on his forehead and are treating him accordingly. As a communications strategy, relying on the news media to transmit Labour’s policy ideas to the voters has failed. It’s time for a new one.
If Mr Cunliffe was to take a leaf out of Harry Truman’s playbook he would organise and publicise a nationwide “whistle-stop” tour. Starting out softly in the halls of small-town New Zealand and building slowly to a resounding crescendo in the major centres’ town halls.
And, because this is 2014, every meeting, small and large, should be broadcast live on the Internet (brickbats, bouquets and hecklers included) and uploaded to YouTube the following day.
Can’t be done? Actually, it can. In July last year I watched young Martyn Bradbury and his anti-GCSB team fill the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall with 500 people. And then, three weeks later, pack the Auckland Town Hall with more than three times that number. On both occasions the meetings were broadcast live, to thousands more, on the Internet.
It Can be Done: Anti-GCSB Amendment Bill organisers fill the Auckland Town Hall, 19 August 2013.
Mr Cunliffe boasts that his Labour Party has doubled its membership in the space of a year. Let him prove it by making sure every one of the “whistle-stops” on his nationwide tour is Standing Room Only.
And what message should Mr Cunliffe deliver to these audiences? The same message he delivered to the audiences that elected him Labour Leader last year. The message that lifted Labour to 37 percent in the polls.
Or, as business columnist, Fran O’Sullivan, advised Cunliffe:
“Put aside the ‘Gotcha’ politics that both you and John Key have been indulging in. Instead, get out and sell Labour's defining policies – something which you are exceptionally skilled at when you take a disciplined approach.”
Stand and deliver Mr Cunliffe. Take Labour’s “defining policies” directly to the people who need them most. Tell the truth, David – and make National like it. Give 'em hell!
A version of this essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 June 2014.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Progressive Politics Is Not A Game: Chris Trotter Responds To Rob Salmond

The Prize: The Labour Party of Savage, Fraser and Nash, Nordmeyer, Kirk and Rowling did not need to master the dark arts of smearing their opponents. They did battle with the National Party on the sunlit field of policy.

“ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE” says Shakespeare in As You Like It, “and all the men and women merely players”. Life as a play: as the mischievous scribblings of some amoral dramaturgical deity; is a metaphor as old as the theatre itself.
Closely related, and just as old, is the metaphor of life as a game. Taken as a whole, or broken up into its most vivid elements, the human experience is reduced to something as artificial and essentially meaningless as the turn of a card, the muscular efficiency of a horse or the physics of a rolling pair of dice.
What lies behind both of these metaphors is the desperate need of those who make use of them to empty their personal conduct of all moral agency. Actors do not write the lines they are obliged to read, nor do they control the way their scenes unfold. The shape of the plot is somebody else’s responsibility – not theirs. It’s much the same for game players. They didn’t make the rules, but having opted to play the game they’re obliged to follow them. “Love ‘em or hate ‘em,” say the players, “the rules are the rules.” Or, in the words of a recent blog posting: “The game is the game.”
The “game” referred to in that posting is the “game” of politics and its author, Rob Salmond, is commenting on the skill (or lack of it) displayed by the National Party in its attempted smearing of David Cunliffe.
“National certainly knew about it well before anyone else, and were gloating about it on online forums over the past weekend. I’m betting National also had a hand in cajoling reporters to ask very particular questions of Cunliffe just hours before the incriminating OIA would be released.
“And, to be blunt, there’s nothing really wrong with that.”
And right there – in Salmond’s bland sentence – lies the source of all Labour’s woe.
Implicit in Salmond’s exoneration of National is the notion that politics is a game in which deception, entrapment and public humiliation are all well within the rules. A game for players without scruple or regret. Players to be judged not according to any moral code, but simply according to how adroitly they wield the officially sanctioned weapons of the game.
Salmond admits as much when he upbraids National for bungling the job:
“If you are going to orchestrate a smear against your opponent, but hope to fade into the background while the smear unfolds, it really pays to have your cover-up stories straight.”
He then goes on to gloat about how much better Labour is at smearing its opponents:
“Did you ever hear about Labour’s role in forcing [redacted] of the [redacted] party to resign back in [redacted]? No, I bet you didn’t.”
Presumably Salmond expects his readers to offer up a professional chuckle at this little gem. In much the same way that a Mafia hit-man would acknowledge a fellow assassin’s description of how he dispatched his latest victim. After all, when “the game is the game” there’s simply no room for the squeamish. Indeed, Salmond and his fellow professionals have a name for those who feel nauseated by such behaviour. They call them ‘losers’.
The real loser, of course, is the noble calling of progressive politics. The sort of politics that Labour’s Mickey Savage, eighty years ago, was quite unembarrassed to describe as “applied Christianity”. Unembarrassed, because Savage wasn’t a “professional” politician in any sense that Salmond might recognise. Born into poverty, largely self-educated, quietly spoken and diminutive of stature, Savage did not conceive of politics as a “game”. For him it was the only means by which ordinary, decent working people could secure the prerequisites of an abundant life for themselves and their children.
The Labour Party of Savage, Fraser and Nash, Nordmeyer, Kirk and Rowling did not need to master the dark arts of smearing their opponents. They did battle with the National Party on the sunlit field of policy. The only thing their conservative opponents were “forced” to do was to tell the voters why Labour’s policies of social uplift and collective progress could not possibly be implemented. The basements and back alleys of deception and entrapment remained the natural environment of blackmailers and pimps: the immoral milieu into which such criminal elements have always faded.
But that all changed in the 1980s when Labour’s caucus embraced the politics of “professional” neoliberal governance and abandoned the New Zealand working-class to its fate. It was then that the practice of progressive democratic politics ceased to be the open-ended process of collective emancipation that it had been from the 30s to the 70s. With both Labour and National now irreversibly committed to upholding the rules of neoliberalism, politics ceased to be about turning progressive and emancipatory ideas into reality, and became instead a contest designed to identify which team of politicians was most adept at playing the neoliberal game.
And what else but the skills of deception, entrapment and public humiliation would such politicians seek to master? When “the game is the game” what can politics be apart from an unceasing effort to beset and belittle the men and women of the opposing teams? An endless conspiracy to make your opponents look like losers.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 20 June 2014.

Friday 20 June 2014

Blair's Bilious Bloviating. Or, Jeez Tony, Haven't You Done Enough Damage?

Purveyor of Hot Air Since 1997: Tony Blair's latest essay on the Middle East was so bad that even London's Tory mayor, Boris Johnson, told him to "put a sock in it". The terms "self-deluding" and "self-serving" are barely adequate to describe Blair's bilious bloviating.

FOR NEARLY A WEEK the world has been retching over Tony Blair’s essay on Iraq. Having read it, even London’s Tory Mayor, Boris Johnson, curtly instructed him to “put a sock in it”.

This global revulsion is not solely attributable to the fact that Mr Blair, the second-most-culpable person associated with the bloody Iraqi omnishambles, is still presuming to tell the world how to fix it – though that would be reason enough. It’s because his recipe for peace and progress in the Middle East is exactly the same as it was back in 2003. Invasion, occupation and the imposition of Western values.
The formula that worked so tremendously well the first time!
According to Mr Blair, the Islamic world, being “inherently unstable”, cannot actually be damaged by anything “we” (by which he presumably means the Anglo-American imperium and its assorted hangers-on) do to it. Iraq, Libya, Syria: they’d all have gone bad regardless of “our” actions. None of it is down to “us”.
“The problems of the Middle East are the product of bad systems of politics mixed with a bad abuse of religion going back over a long time. Poor governance, weak institutions, oppressive rule and a failure within parts of Islam to work out a sensible relationship between religion and Government have combined to create countries which are simply unprepared for the modern world. Put into that mix, young populations with no effective job opportunities and education systems that do not correspond to the requirements of the future economy, and you have a toxic, inherently unstable matrix of factors that was always – repeat always - going to lead to a revolution.”
So, you see, the “international community” has nothing to reproach itself for when it comes to the Middle East. Those fine fellows, Sykes and Picot, drawing lines all over the maps of the dying Ottoman Empire back in 1916, were entirely blameless. War, after all, is war. And if you’re foolish enough to thrown in with the losing side, then you can hardly complain when your territory is carved up like a (ahem) Turkey.
Yes, yes, yes – alright! His Majesty’s Government may have encouraged Colonel T.E. Lawrence to stir up the Arabs against the Turks by promising them their own independent kingdom if they threw in with the winning side. But that was a wartime promise – and everyone knows (or should know) what a wartime promise is worth.
And, no, on balance, Mr Blair clearly does not agree that the Royal Air Force’s deployment of poison gas bombs against rebellious Iraqi tribespeople in the 1920s and 30s is in any way evidence of “poor governance” or “oppressive rule” on the part of the British Empire. Any more than the 1918 Balfour Declaration, which, by promising the Jewish people their own homeland in Palestine laid the foundations for the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, could be described as the product of “bad systems of politics mixed with a bad abuse of religion”.
Mr Blair’s essay is not burdened with such irrelevant historical detail. “We have to put aside the differences of the past”, he warns, “and act now to save the future.”
Brave words. And yet, among the 2,833 words of Mr Blair’s bilious essay two very important words are missing – Saudi Arabia.
Which is really rather odd, because it is the Wahhabism of the Saudis, coupled with the Kingdom’s extraordinary oil wealth, which is inspiring, resourcing and providing diplomatic cover for terrorist militia all over the Middle East.
A Caliphate of the Righteous? Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadists pose for the cameras. While Western Imperialism continues to dictate the fate of the Middle East, ISIS will never want for recruits.
If “saving the future” does not involve imposing UN sanctions upon the Saudis. If it does not include the “international community” stepping away from the feudal potentates and military dictators it has been pleased to call “moderate Arab opinion”. If it is not about openly sponsoring comprehensive democratic reforms. Then, Mr Blair’s self-righteous and self-serving exhortations notwithstanding, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its shimmering mirage of a borderless caliphate of the righteous, will never lack for followers.
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, June 20, 2014.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Why David Cunliffe Must Not Resign

Under Pressure: Eleven year old letters and rogue polls notwithstanding, David Cunliffe must soldier on through this well co-ordinated attempt to thwart the will of his party and throw the 2014 General Election to National.
DAVID CUNLIFFE MUST NOT RESIGN. A trap has been sprung upon the Leader of the Opposition but no matter how painful the pressure he must not give in. He must wait until the jaws of the trap can be forced apart – in this case by reiterating the simple truth – and only when he is free should he find out who set it.
Before investigating that matter, however, let us reiterate the simple truth.
Eleven years ago, in 2003, when David Cunliffe was a very junior minister in Helen Clark’s government, his electorate office was contacted by a constituent interested in speeding up his immigration application. A letter was drafted detailing the case of Mr Donghua Liu and seeking information on the progress of his paperwork. It was passed on to Mr Cunliffe who signed it, along with scores of similar letters, and then forgot all about it.
This was not a letter designed to do anything more than respond to the request of a constituent. It contains no special pleading. It is addressed to no minister. And it was not followed up by private meetings, or dinners, or any other form of lobbying.
That is the simple truth.
Now, let us return to who set the trap.
The most obvious person to have done so is the journalist who broke the story, Jared Savage. Except there’s a problem. Savage’s newspaper, the NZ Herald, has been running stories about Liu’s associations with the Labour Party since Monday (16 June) but according to Savage the “incriminating” documentation sought under the Official Information Act (OIA) was only released to him today (Wednesday 18 June).
What I’d like to know is whether or not the earlier stories involving former Labour cabinet minister, Rick Barker’s relationship with Liu, were similarly the product of OIA responses, or whether they were derived from other sources. It would also be useful to know if Savage was advised by those “other sources” to seek out Cunliffe’s letter specifically, or whether the latter just turned up as a result of Savage requesting every official document relating to Donghua Liu. And, if it was the latter, how swiftly did Immigration NZ respond to Savage’s OIA request?
Occam’s Razor would suggest that the story unfolded “naturally”. One piece of information leading to the next. One OIA request prompting another and then another until Mr Cunliffe’s name entered the frame.
But there is an alternative, much more worrying, explanation for the appearance of this 11-year-old letter.
What if someone, somewhere, was in a position to gather every piece of official information on Donghua Liu, and out of that pile of files and electronic data was able to extract information damaging to both Barker and Cunliffe? What if that person then leaked this information to the NZ Herald in such a way that in the course of the news media’s subsequent questioning of Cunliffe about Barker a number of unequivocal statements were made which the 2003 letter could be construed as contradicting? Wouldn’t that leave Mr Cunliffe in a very embarrassing – not to say vulnerable – position?
One does not have to be as avid a fan of the TV series House of Cards as I am to know that there are all sorts of ways sensitive political information can make its way into the public domain and that it arrives there for all sorts of reasons – some of them good, some of them decidedly not good.
So, if Jared Savage is playing the role of Zoe Barnes, who is playing the role of Francis Underwood?
The most obvious candidate would seem to be someone on the Government side of the House. Someone with access (illegal but deniable) to Donghua Liu’s file and the records of Rick Barker’s movements in China. That would make this a standard National Party “black op” designed to inflict maximum possible damage upon Labour generally and upon Cunliffe in particular. The Herald might like to think through the ethics of co-operating with this sort of deliberate political destabilisation so close to a general election. But, then again, it might just say: “Ethics-schmethics – a story is a story!”
Or, maybe, the Francis Underwood character at the bottom of this whole incident isn’t in the National Party at all. Maybe the whole story about Barker, Liu’s donations, the 1,800 mile side-trip to Chongqing, was fed to Jared Savage with only one purpose in mind – to catch David Cunliffe out in a lie and force him to resign.
And what good would that do? The last thing Labour needs this close to an election is another leadership contest. Ah, but this is where it gets really, really interesting in a decidedly House of Cards kind of way. If a vacancy occurs in the leadership of the Labour Party within three months of a General Election, the choice of a new leader is left to the Labour Caucus – and only the Labour caucus.
Here’s the exact wording of the rule:
B12 Should a vacancy in the leadership occur in the 3 months prior to the announced date of a general election (where known) or in the absence of an announced date the statutory date (calculated according to the date on which the election is triggered or, in the case of a caucus vote, a meeting or special meeting is requested), a new Leader will be elected by Caucus majority vote. The new Leader will then be subject to confirmation within three months after the election, pursuant to the Party constitution (i.e. they would need to be endorsed by 60%+1 of the new Caucus, or a full leadership contest would be triggered).
And why did I go to the trouble of tracking down this obscure rule? Because the Herald’s Claire Trevett made reference to it last week (12 June) in her regular Thursday column. Under the headline NZ Game of Thrones – Does Cunliffe Dare To Play? Trevett’s piece raises the possibility of a leadership challenge that only the Caucus can play:
“But Cunliffe can't afford to ignore [ … ] his caucus. He is about to head into his own danger zone. From June 20, Labour's caucus has a three-month window to change the leader without having to go through the party's new primary-style process giving its membership a vote.”
This is, of course, an entirely mistaken reading of Rule B12, whose first 20 words “Should a vacancy in the leadership occur in the 3 months prior to the announced date of a general election” condition the subsequent provisions relating to election by Caucus majority. Even so, it was the fact that Trevett was even aware of the Rule that furrowed my brow. Only someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Labour Party’s administrative machinery could have alerted her to B12’s existence. Who? and Why?
We don’t know – yet – but today’s events do make an awful kind of sense when viewed in the baleful light of Rule B12. If Cunliffe could be forced to step down – thereby creating a vacancy – then the Anybody But Cunliffe faction of the Caucus would find themselves ideally positioned to extract an unholy and extraordinarily destructive vengeance.
Which is why I say again: David Cunliffe must not resign.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 19 June 2014.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

The Devil's Advocate

Advocatus Diaboli: The Nation's Lisa Owen takes on the role of Promoter of the Neoliberal Faith in her interview with Dr Russell Wills, a Promoter of the Cause of ending child poverty in New Zealand.

IT IS VERY DIFFICULT sometimes to identify exactly where a journalist is coming from. This is especially true of those journalists tasked with interviewing politicians on radio and television. To elicit information from the interviewee it is often necessary for the interviewer to adopt an adversarial – sometimes even a prosecutorial – stance. To become, in effect, the “Devil’s Advocate”.
The origins of the advocatus diaboli may be traced back to the Catholic Church of the  Renaissance. Known officially as the “Promoter of the Faith”, this officer’s role was to subject the claims of those wishing to create a new saint to the closest scrutiny. Acting on behalf of the Church, his job was to pick holes and expose discrepancies in the prospective saint’s case, as set forth by the “Promoter of the Cause” – the Devil’s Advocate’s opposite number.
The metaphor as applied to broadcast journalism is, therefore, very apt. The latter’s role, like that of the Promoter of the Faith’s, is to act on behalf of the viewers and listeners by subjecting the claims of all kinds of causes promoters – most especially politicians – to the closest scrutiny. Requiring them to demonstrate that their case is a sound one.
For this to happen, however, the interviewer must first allow the promoter of the cause to state their case. If this is not permitted, then viewers and listeners will have no clear idea of what the interview is about. When this occurs what follows is little more than a verbal brawl generating considerably more heat than light.
Of even less use to viewers and listeners is the interviewer who plunges into the interview brandishing a whole series of assumptions about the causes, effects and solutions to the problem under discussion and then attempts to extract some form of concurrence from the hapless interviewee.
A disturbing example of this interviewing style was evident in last Saturday’s edition of The Nation on TV3. The interviewer, Lisa Owen, had been tasked with interviewing the Children’s Commissioner, Dr Russell Wills, on the subject of child poverty.
Rather than allow Dr Wills to make his case, Ms Owen proceeded to make her own. The problem, as she saw it, was that New Zealand’s elderly citizens currently had it too good, and that, in the zero sum game she clearly assumed social resource allocation to be, the amelioration of child poverty could only be effected by transferring resources from the old to the young. Or, to use Ms Owen’s own grim formulation, by the elderly being required to “take a hit”.
Fortunately, and in spite of Ms Owen’s clear intention of cornering him into calling for a wholesale shift of resources away from the very old to the very young, Dr Wills proved sufficiently well-informed, quick-witted and forthright to seize control of the discussion and make out the case for additional public spending on behalf of New Zealand’s poorest children.
And what a bold case it was.
“We need to decide as a society what an adequate standard of living is for children. Not just to be fed, but to participate, particularly for our youngest kids because that’s when they’re most vulnerable. So what the science tells us is it’s about where it was when I was delivering Dad’s scripts around the poor part of Maraenui, back in the late 80s and 90s. So that’s roughly half as much again as it is now. So let’s restore it back to where it was when we were kids. I don’t think that’s unachievable.”
Yes, the Children’s Commissioner was proposing a 50 percent-plus increase in payments for our most deprived children, and proposing it be paid for by increasing taxes on the wealthy. Or, as Dr Wills explained it, gesturing to include the clearly sceptical Ms Owen: “People like us.” What’s more, he challenged the National and Labour parties to reach a consensus on the elimination of child poverty – just as they had on maintaining the living standards of the elderly.
Thinking about the interview afterwards I kept coming back to Ms Owen’s line of questioning. To her strenuous attempts to frame the argument as one between the needs of the young and the needs of the old. About why she tried to trap the Children’s Commissioner into becoming the Elderly’s persecutor?
Ms Owen was someone’s advocate last Saturday – an unmistakeable “Promoter of the Faith”. The question is: Whose faith? Most certainly not the faith of Pope Francis who has made himself the advocate for the world’s poor and the hungry. And not the faith of egalitarian New Zealand which remembers proudly its world leadership in social welfare provision.
Sadly, the “faith” Ms Owen seemed to be promoting was the belief system known as Neoliberalism: the reigning religion among those for whom charity is a zero-sum game.
The Devil’s advocate indeed.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 June 2014.

Friday 13 June 2014

Gut Reactions

Horizontal Revolution: Labour's (and Labor's) inspirational leaders of the 1960s and 70s, Norman Kirk and Gough Whitlam, both grasped the decisive electoral potential of suburban voters who longed to escape the relentless sameness of their days. The votes of the women who lived in the "Hill's Hoist suburbs" around Sydney were crucial to Whitlam's 1972 victory.
GETTING ELECTED has always been the Number One priority of parliamentary democracy. It follows, therefore, that the role of a parliamentary leader is to identify and remove every obstacle to his or her party becoming the government. Partly, that’s a matter of opinion polls, focus groups and communication strategies but, mostly, it’s about a leader’s instinctive feel for the hopes and aspirations, the gripes and disappointments, of the people who have the power to make him or her Prime Minister.
It’s John Key’s indisputable ability to divine what’s eating the average New Zealand voter that makes him such a formidable political figure. Yes, he may slip up from time-to-time, say foolish (or downright offensive) things, but always the needle of his political compass recovers the location of electoral North and he’s back on track.
Much as I hate to admit it, David Cunliffe simply does not have Key’s knack for staying on course. The Labour leader has many intelligent advisers, a good polling agency, pages and pages of Focus Group reports and (allegedly) a speechwriter. What he doesn’t have, however, is Key’s feel for where the voters’ heads are at; that unerring ability to find true electoral North.
What makes me even more depressed is I don’t believe that ability can be instilled. You either have it, or you don’t.
Consider the case of Norman Kirk and what he understood about the lives of the people who could make him Prime Minister. Read these lines from the first chapter of the autobiography he began but never finished. The place described is the street in working-class Linwood, in Christchurch, where he grew up.
It did not brood. It had no character. Instead it conformed. The people were drab. The street was drab. The people were poor. The street was poor. It was there because it had to be. It had nowhere else to go. Neither did the people. It did not inspire. It was a sponge. It soaked up hope. And at night it counted its people like a warder counts his prisoners.
Kirk understood that there were hundreds of thousands of Kiwis who’d been raised on identical streets and, like him, yearned to escape the confinement of such hope-consuming suburbs. In these lines you’ll find no romantic celebration of working-class existence, only a visceral longing for something better; for somewhere else to go.
Kirk’s contemporary, Gough Whitlam, understood a very different kind of suburb. The bare, amenity-starved, post-war subdivisions that had sprung up on the outskirts of Sydney in the 1950s and 60s. They were a step-up from the inner-city tenements of the 1930s but the people who lived in them felt almost as constrained as they had in Sydney’s slums. Even in the years of Menzies and the Great Boom there was still so much that was denied to them.
Whitlam, alone of all his colleagues in the near-moribund Australian Labor Party, grasped the progressive political potential of the “Hill’s Hoist” suburbs.
But first he had to clear all the obstacles to getting elected, and in the Australia of the late-1960s that included the proudly proletarian and staunchly left-wing Victorian Labor Party. On the 9 June 1967, as the ALP’s new leader, Whitlam bearded these socialist lions in their den. In what many Aussie historians consider the best speech of his career, Whitlam addressed directly the defeatist political mindset that had produced eight consecutive Labor defeats.
We construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly, the impotent are pure. This party was not conceived in failure, brought forth by failure or consecrated to failure. Let us have none of this nonsense that defeat is in some way more moral than victory.
That killer line: “Certainly, the impotent are pure”, provoked an uproar – but it was a necessary uproar. Because, as Whitlam reminded them: “We are in the business to serve and preserve democracy. Parliamentary democracy.”
Kirk and Whitlam understood instinctively the intense dissatisfaction building up beneath the National/Liberal status quo. Both men’s political intestines told them that the Hill’s Hoist generation – and their increasingly restive children – would not remain prisoners of their own streets forever.
So, Mr Cunliffe, which obstacles to “getting elected” will you remove? What is your gut telling you to do?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 June 2014.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Favourable Reference: Why John Key's Worst Enemy Is The Left's Best Friend.

My Enemy's Enemy: The Right's hysterical response to Kim Dotcom's involvement in the Internet-Mana Party suggests two things. 1) They believe he has been "turned". 2) They will do anything to destroy him. This should be enough to persuade the Left that the man and his money are there to be engaged, if not to their own advantage, then, at the very least, to their enemies’ disadvantage.
“IF HITLER INVADED HELL I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Winston Churchill’s famous quip, directed at the hard-line anti-communist MPs of his own Conservative Party, followed Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Churchill recognised immediately the urgent strategic need for Britain to range itself unequivocally alongside Stalin. If the Soviets could hold off Hitler’s blitzkrieg until the Russian winter, then his Nazi regime would face an intensifying war on two fronts – Germany’s worst strategic nightmare. The invasion wasn’t quite as good news as the USA entering the war (that would follow in December) but it was close.
Inevitably, however, there were rumblings from the extreme Tory Right. A number of Churchill’s critics had been involved in the British intervention of 1919-21, during which British troops and British spies (including one Sidney Reilly) did their best to bring down the Bolshevik government of V.I. Lenin.
If the hard-liners had their way, Britain would have made peace with Hitler and backed his assault on the communist enemy. Churchill’s brilliant quip was an imaginative repackaging of the old adage “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Not only was it intended to silence the mutterings of the Tory ultras, but also to remind the British people that one thing, and only one thing, mattered: the complete and utter destruction of Hitler and the Nazi regime.
I’m drawing on this timely (last Friday was D-Day) anecdote because it illustrates the importance of strategic clarity – a quality severely lacking in the left-wing critics of Kim Dotcom, the Internet-Mana Party alliance, and their media supporters.
The Right’s unrelenting assault on Kim Dotcom should have alerted the whole of the Left to the possibility that the man and his money could be engaged, if not to their own advantage, then, at the very least, to their enemies’ disadvantage. Those who took the trouble to observe Dotcom’s performance during the anti-GCSB protests of 2013 witnessed a thoughtful and extremely shrewd individual whose devil-may-care lifestyle had been shattered by the US-sponsored Police raid on his home in January 2012. In the terminology of the intelligence agencies, here was a man who, if he hadn’t already been “turned” by his experiences, was very obviously ready for “turning”.
The Right recognised this possibility far sooner than the Left – which is why their blackguarding of the man became so vicious and unrelenting. Thwarted in their attempts to get him out of the country quickly and quietly, and severely embarrassed by his exposure of the GCSB’s illegal involvement in his surveillance, it was vital that Kim Dotcom be transformed into a hate figure from whom all decent New Zealanders should run a mile.
For those on the Left with a keen historical sense, the demonization of Dotcom should have raised a whole forest of warning flags. Individuals and institutions are only demonized in this fashion after they’ve been identified as clear and present dangers to the Right’s political hegemony.
The National Party and its media surrogates went after Kim Dotcom in exactly the same way that the US Right went after left-wing artists, intellectuals and trade unionists in the late-1940s and early-1950s. Their antipathy towards the large-living German IT entrepreneur was not based upon the fact that he had a criminal record (they knew that when they granted him permanent residency) but because their botched attempt to have him extradited to the US had transformed him (and his fortune) into a folk hero – and potential ally of the Left.
The Internet Party was proof that the potentiality of an alliance with the Left was on the cusp of becoming a reality. Accordingly, the Right set about strangling the infant political organisation in its cradle. But, in doing so they could not hide the fact that Dotcom’s American and New Zealand persecutors were still hard at work. Clearly, he remained under close surveillance in his Coatesville mansion, and, equally clearly, international law enforcement agencies were still assembling and releasing whatever they could lay their hands on that would contribute to the blackening of Dotcom’s character, the destruction of his credibility, or both.
He was accused of having Nazi sympathies (why else would he possess a signed copy of Mein Kampf?) and the details of his wife’s, Mona’s, past as a Filipino glamour girl, were posted on the Internet. The Right complained loudly about the way he treated his former business associates and employees – even as they pumped these same individuals for incriminating information concerning Dotcom’s colourful past.
And still the amiable giant – like a Germanic version of Jonah Lomu – rolled over the top of his enemies; moving steadily across the field from Right to Left.
It was at this point that Hone Harawira, demonstrating all the strategic and tactical fighting skills of his Ngapuhi ancestors, reached out to Dotcom with an offer that neither party could refuse. Availing themselves of the same sections of the Electoral Act that validated the Alliance’s participation in the 1996, 1999 and 2002 General Elections, Dotcom and Harawira brought their parties together in a way that significantly boosted their chances of becoming critical players in the post-20 September period of political bargaining.
Just how gravely this development was viewed by the National Government is demonstrated by what happened next. Firstly, and most predictably, a cacophony of party political and media condemnation was unleashed against all of those participating in the newly-formed Internet-Mana Party.
Secondly, the country was suddenly invaded by high-powered legal teams representing the US movie-making and recording industries. They’d come to prevent the “disbursement” of Dotcom’s considerable assets. Not only would this materially hamper Dotcom’s ability to mount an effective defence, but it would also prevent him from donating large sums to his favourite political parties. They arrived too late to prevent the latter (Dotcom had already donated upwards of $3 million to the Internet Party). Whether or not they secure the former lies in the hands of the New Zealand courts.
That Holywood’s finest were here at all, quipped the cynics, suggested that, even in Los Angeles, one good turn (The Hobbit) continues to deserve another.
For the moment, the third indication of how gravely the emergence of an unprecedentedly well-resourced electoral force dedicated to the utter destruction of John Key’s government is being viewed by both its electoral and ideological enemies remains hidden in the darkest recesses of the Right’s domain. All that can be heard at present are whispers. Rumours of something huge and terrible waiting in the wings. Something that the IT entrepreneur’s enemies have uncovered, the revelation of which will destroy the Dotcom phenomenon once and for all. Allies and associates are being warned to distance themselves from “The German” lest they be sucked down with him in a scandal of career-destroying power.
Pinning down these rumours is extremely difficult, The best guess as to their content, for the moment, is that Dotcom’s enemies have “discovered” a cache of incriminating files that he had “hidden” on the so-called “Deep Web”. If this turns out to be the case, the Left would do well to remember that the only agencies with the resources to plumb the depths of the Deep Web are the very same law enforcement agencies involved in Dotcom’s arrest and arraignment. Nor should it be forgotten that there is a world of difference between “discovering” evidence and planting it.
That rumours of this sort are being circulated – not least for the purposes of silencing all actual and potential supporters of Dotcom – indicates how very seriously his intervention in the 2014 election is being taken by the New Zealand Right. It also suggests that the latter are now convinced that Dotcom has indeed been “turned” by his experiences with the US and New Zealand “national security” regimes, and that his alliance with the New Zealand Left is genuine.
If that is so, and since armed police, aided (illegally) by the GCSB and acting on behalf of the FBI with the approval of the New Zealand Government, have already invaded his Coatesville mansion, shouldn’t the Left make at least a favourable reference to Kim Dotcom in the battle for control of the House of Representatives?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog on Monday, 9 June 2014.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Labour's Caucus Still In Charge

Caucus Takes Charge: Newly elected Prime Minister, David Lange, surrounded by his Cabinet, 1984. Paradoxically, electoral victory often signals defeat for a political party. When Caucus becomes Government the ability of the party organisation to hold its parliamentary representatives to account is fatally weakened.

DOES THE CASTLE STREET BRANCH of the Labour Party still exist? Back in the 80s it boasted over 400 paid-up members – many of them academic staff from the University of Otago. The British political scientist, author and broadcaster, Austin Mitchell, had founded the branch in the early 1960s. Like its counterpart at the University of Auckland, the much more famous Princes Street branch, Castle Street saw its role as trailblazing progressive (sometimes radical) policy suggestions well ahead of public opinion: Labour’s future manifestoes.
Back then progressive/radical reform was synonymous with social reform: liberalising the laws forbidding abortion and homosexuality; cutting off contact with Apartheid South Africa, declaring New Zealand nuclear-free and even decriminalising cannabis. Given the makeup of the branch’s activist base, discussion of these issues tended to focus not on whether such changes should be made, but how far they should go.
Then came Rogernomics – and consensus went out the window. A narrow majority of the active branch members opposed Roger Douglas’s neoliberal reforms, while a determined and well-connected minority supported them staunchly. The discussions ceased and the debates that replaced them were bitter and hard fought affairs. And while the left may have had the numbers in Castle Street and the wider party, in the only institution that truly mattered, Labour’s parliamentary caucus, Roger Douglas and his allies continued to hold sway.
Just how absolutely Labour’s future lay in the hands of its MPs was driven home to me the night David Butcher put in a guest appearance at the Castle Street Branch. Naturally, the left-wing members of the branch were giving the MP for Hastings a very hard time. Most of all they wanted to know whether he and his colleagues would abide by the party’s firm stance against the privatisation of state assets.
Butcher’s response chilled me to my bones. The Government, he said, was implementing the policies the country needed. He would rather lose his seat than support policies detrimental to New Zealand’s interests.
I knew then that, as a genuine social-democratic party, Labour was finished.
The only political leverage that the ordinary members of any party have over their MPs is the threat of deselection. But here, in front of us, David Butcher was affirming proudly his readiness to lose his parliamentary seat rather than reverse Roger Douglas’s reforms. We all knew then that Rogernomics was set to roll on – no matter what the party said or did.
We also knew that division within Labour’s ranks meant certain defeat. Defeat, in turn, meant National. And by the late 1980s National was as committed to pushing ahead with neoliberalism as Roger Douglas and David Butcher. For the Labour Left it was a Lose/Lose scenario. For the Rogernomes, however, it was Lose/Win. While they might fall as loyal soldiers in the battle, Neoliberalism itself would triumph.
What has all this, the minutiae of branch life in the Labour Party of 25 years ago, got to do with the political dynamics of 2014?
As it turns out, quite a lot.
Like the Castle Street Branch of the 1980s, the Labour Party of 2014 boasts a narrow left-wing majority. That majority, after changing the party rules, elected David Cunliffe as its leader and is in the process of constructing a binding policy platform for the next Labour Government. At first glance, then, the lessons of the 1980s appear to have been learned.
All but one – and that the most important of them all. Majorities mean nothing outside the only Labour Party institution that truly matters: the parliamentary caucus. If you cannot control the caucus, then you simply cannot reassure the party that its best efforts will not be rendered worthless through the calculated insubordination of a clique of rebellious caucus members.
This is especially problematic when these insubordinate rebels (most of whom are securely ensconced in safe Labour seats) believe it will be easier for like-minded politicians to protect “the policies this country needs” if David Cunliffe and all that he represents loses the forthcoming general election.
Butcher’s gambit is as powerful today as it was 25 years ago.
What are Cunliffe’s options? Obviously the option of splitting the Labour Party and forming “NewLabour” – the Labour Left’s choice in 1989 – is not available to the party leader. Which leaves the other option put forward by Matt McCarten back in 1988.
“It seems obvious to me now that the right-wing MPs have put their hands up and threatened the party”, Matt told Labour’s president, Rex Jones. “So we should call a special conference of the party and expel them … The Labour Party made a mistake selecting these people so sack them. Throw them out and let them stand against us. They’ll lose and the Labour Party can rebuild itself.”
 “You mad little fucker!” Rex replied.
Maybe. Maybe not.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 June 2014.

Saturday 7 June 2014

The Right Divide

A Left Wing Party? You Must Be Joking! With the election of the Fourth Labour Government in July 1984 it became increasingly evident that the ideological dividing line in New Zealand ran not between National and Labour but between the Right of the Labour Party and an increasingly diverse and variegated Left.
THERE’S A REASON Labour finds the presence of political parties to its left so uncomfortable. It’s the same reason an ageing actor feels so uncomfortable sharing the stage with a more dynamic and younger rising star. The ability to compare and contrast is deeply subversive of undeserved reputations.
Labour’s uneasiness with political diversity also largely explains its apparent inability to abandon First-Past-The-Post thinking. From Labour’s point of view, FPP is the ideal electoral system. It virtually guarantees that a nation’s politics will be dominated and defined by two parties: one representing “The Left” and the other “The Right”.
The choices for electors are thus radically simplified. In much the same way that Radio NZ still grossly oversimplifies the discussion of New Zealand politics by subsuming the myriad subtleties and complexities of Right and Left in the orthodox political commentary of Matthew Hooton and Mike Williams.
From the perspective of Labour’s parliamentary caucus, the great advantage of reducing New Zealand’s politics to this essentially binary formation is that it allows them to pretend that the ideological dividing-line separating right-wing from left-wing New Zealanders runs between the National and Labour parties.
The maintenance of this plausible, but mistaken, perception has become critical to the preservation of New Zealand’s enviable reputation for political stability. The two major parties have devoted tremendous effort to promulgating the pernicious fiction that the extraordinary upheavals of the 1980s left the fundamental structure of New Zealand politics essentially unchanged.
The validity of the historically indisputable Left/Labour–Right/National dichotomy had been subject to academic challenge since the late 1950s, but with the election of the Fourth Labour Government in July 1984 it became increasingly evident that the ideological dividing line in New Zealand ran not between National and Labour but between the Right of the Labour Party and an increasingly diverse and variegated Left.
The proof of this lay in the fact that switching National for Labour, or Labour for National, made no significant difference to the way the country was run. The dominant right-wing faction of Labour’s caucus ensured that the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s would undergo no significant alteration by any government over which they held sway.
It was this effective neutralising of democracy which more-or-less guaranteed the introduction of MMP. The latter’s arrival should also have exposed the fiction that Labour MPs, simply by virtue of their Labour Party membership status, could be excluded from the ranks of those who opposed a radical revision of New Zealand politics. Unfortunately, the binary thinking so deeply-ingrained in our political system encouraged left-of-Labour parties like the Alliance and the Greens to persist with the pretence that National and its allies constitute the primary political target.
Ironically, David Cunliffe’s election as Labour leader, by the left-wing majority of his party, has made the perpetuation of this pretence easier, not harder. The right of Labour’s caucus which viciously opposed Cunliffe’s candidacy were, nevertheless, permitted to survive his victory, remaining well-positioned to thwart any attempt to match their new leader’s left-wing rhetoric with an equally left-wing strategy of outreach and accommodation with parties to Labour’s left.
Accordingly, these past two months have witnessed the Labour Right plotting in plain sight to exclude the Greens from any meaningful role in a Cunliffe-led Labour Government. Their “the more things change, the more they’ll stay the same” strategy has, however, been thrown into disarray by the intervention of Kim Dotcom’s money and Hone Harawira’s strategic dexterity. The lavishly funded and potentially decisive force now assembling to the left of the Greens under Hone Harawira and Laila Harré has forced the Labour Right onto the offensive.
Keep it up, guys! Long may the radio interviews, tweets and Facebook postings of Kelvin Davis, Phil Goff, Chris Hipkins, Trevor Mallard and Stuart Nash reverberate through cyberspace. New Zealanders have suffered for far too long from the Labour Right’s masterful misdirection. It’s time we realised that the paths they urge us to avoid are the paths to follow.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 June 2014.

Thursday 5 June 2014

Keep Calm And Carry On: Why The Left Should Ignore The Next Round Of Poll Results.

Good Advice: The Left should think of the next round of polls as the Right’s all-or-nothing artillery barrage – something to panic them into a headlong retreat. But, as the shells loaded with appalling results burst over the heads, they should simply tighten their helmet-straps and hold tight. The Internet-Mana Party has not yet begun to fight.

BRACE YOURSELVES, COMRADES, for some horrendous poll results. The next round of surveys from Colmar Brunton, Reid Research, DigiPoll, Ipsos and Roy Morgan will almost certainly register a major slump in the Centre Left’s support and a concomitant rise in National’s numbers – quite possibly to 55 percent-plus. Labour and the Greens will both take nasty hits and the Internet-Mana Party (IMP) will be very lucky to make it above 1 percent. Apart from John Key, the only other person likely to be smiling is Winston Peters.
The polls will be bad because the framing of Kim Dotcom’s latest intervention in New Zealand politics has been so near-universally and overwhelmingly negative. From the Right (and Sue Bradford) has come the steady drumbeat that Hone Harawira and the Mana Party have done a “dirty deal” with Kim Dotcom and, in the process, “sold out their principles” for cash.
Amplifying this message, TV3’s political editor, Patrick Gower, has characterised the IMP strategy as “a rort” (a term which normally denotes morally questionable if not downright illegal manipulation) even though what the Mana and Internet parties are proposing is well within the rules and has been a feature of every election campaign since MMP came into force in 1996. Gower’s destructive message has, however, been repeated, ad nauseum, by an endless succession of editorial writers, talkback hosts, columnists and bloggers.
The presence of former Alliance Party politicians and staffers in the IMP – most notably the Internet Party’s choice for leader, Laila Harré – has only reinforced the public’s perception that Dotcom has unleashed upon New Zealand a fiercely left-wing coalition that may yet play a decisive role in determining whether or not John Key continues to be New Zealand’s prime minister.
Labour and the Greens, simply by sharing the left of the ideological spectrum with the IMP, will be judged guilty by association with the controversial German entrepreneur. Accordingly, a broad swathe of moderate and centrist voters, when contacted by the pollsters, will register their knee-jerk objections to Dotcom, Harawira, Harré and the IMP by rededicating themselves unhesitatingly to John Key and the National Party. Or, if that is too big a leap, by making positive noises about Winston Peters and NZ First.
The ill-considered outbursts from a number of right-wing Labour MPs over Queen’s Birthday weekend reflected conservative Labour’s instinctive reaction to this sudden and controversial eruption of a new, well-resourced political force to its left. Precisely because they are conservatives, their gut reaction told them that the voting public’s first response to the circumstances of the IMP’s birth would be to punish the entire Left indiscriminately. Their broadcast statements, tweets, and Facebook postings were crude (and ultimately self-defeating) attempts to persuade centrist voters that they should spare Labour from their righteous wrath.
It’s a pity these Labour MPs were so unwilling to hold their nerve and work their way through the emerging situation calmly and logically. Had they done so, their fears would have subsided as swiftly as they had flared.
The Right has been taking free shots against the IMP and its putative allies on the Left because they know this is the last chance they will get to land unanswered blows before Dotcom’s millions begin to take effect. (And rest assured, they will take effect.)
The Right’s principal movers and shakers know – even if their media minions do not – just how much difference a huge campaign war-chest can make to an election’s outcome. They caught a glimpse of what IMP is capable of in the razzmatazz of Harré’s introduction. They have also heard the rumours about whole floors of brilliant IT-geeks all beavering away; unheard of political applications; unprecedented polling capability. It’s why they’re hoping against hope that the beating currently being administered to the IMP during this period of “Phoney War” will be sufficiently savage to obviate any chance of its recovery. And a big part of that hope is that the more conservative elements of the Left will help them out by getting in a few kicks of their own.
Hopefully, the more courageous elements within the Labour and Green camps will prevent this from happening. The best thing they can do as the Right strikes out blindly at the IMP is to strongly and confidently articulate their own party’s core messages to the electorate.
They should think of the next round of polls as the Right’s all-or-nothing artillery barrage – something to panic them into a headlong retreat. But, as the shells loaded with appalling results burst over the heads, they should simply tighten their helmet-straps and hold tight.
Behind them the IMP is marshalling its troops, stockpiling ammunition and gasoline, and unloading its tanks from their transporters. The Left has only to keep calm, carry on, and remember that blitzkrieg is a German word.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 4 June 2014.