Tuesday 30 September 2014

Changing Leaders Will Not Be Enough

Trial By Ordeal: The techniques of the Seventeenth Century Witchfinders-General might be preferable to the process Labour has adopted to uncover the reasons for its woeful performance in the 2014 General Election. It's a pity the Party has not allowed itself to be guided by the National Party's response to its own, even worse, debacle back in 2002.
WHY DOES LABOUR do this to itself? Yes, they have just suffered an unprecedented (post-1922) election defeat, but that’s only because the 2014 General Election was itself unprecedented (post-1951).
And, besides, I’m tempted to say ‘so what?’ In 2002 the National Party suffered an even more embarrassing result when Bill English led his party to its worst defeat ever. National’s Party Vote plunged from a bad 30.5 percent in 1999, to an even worse 20.9 percent in 2002. (A whopping percentage point slide of 9.6, compared to David Cunliffe’s 2.8.)
The interesting thing about that debacle, however, is not what the National Party did in response, but what it didn’t do.
For a start, it didn’t change its leader. National understood (as Labour apparently does not) that a debacle on the scale of 2002 has many more contributing factors than simply a poor performance by the party leader. Defeat on such a scale is clear evidence of systemic – as well as personal – failures. Which is why the first priority of National’s hard-headed businessmen and farmers was to give the party organisation a very solid kick in the bum – not to sack Bill English. (He would keep.)
In the months following its 2002 defeat National thoroughly renovated itself: achieving for the Right what Jim Anderton, between 1979 and 1984, had achieved for the Left. Namely, the transformation of an ageing party into a vehicle more appropriately aligned to the economic, social and political context in which it operated.
Crucial to the success of such operations is the concentration of decision-making power in the hands of those best equipped to wield it. Under MMP, one of the most important functions to  streamline is the formation of the Party List. National has achieved this by means of an all-powerful board of directors; the Greens by giving the job to their party members. For Labour, however, the list formation process remains the Party’s Achilles’ heel.
Bluntly, party list formation in the Labour Party is a colossal rort; a travesty of democratic principle on the scale of the “rotten boroughs” that once allowed the British aristocracy to control the composition of the House of Commons. More horse-trading takes place during this dangerously opaque process than at an Irish county fair – with considerably worse outcomes.
It’s ironic really, because Labour once boasted the most ruthless and centralised mechanism for selecting candidates of all the political parties. Seventy years ago it was the selector representatives of the all-powerful Labour Party Executive who called the shots – and they seldom missed. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then National, when renovating its structures, post-2002, paid Labour the most fulsome of compliments.
The tide of democratisation which has swept over Labour since the departure of Helen Clark (a “Red Tsar” if ever there was one!) rules out any return to the days of Peter Fraser’s politburo. The next logical step, therefore, is to follow the Green Party’s example by passing over the responsibility for drawing up Labour’s List to the whole membership.
Applying the principle of one-person, one-vote, would necessitate another important reform of Labour’s rules: the identification of every member of an affiliated trade union wishing to be associated with the Labour Party. This would mean that the opinions of trade unionists would be registered individually, by secret ballot, not collectively, in public. It would also end forever the frankly corrupt practice of trade union general secretaries cogitating alone in their Wellington offices, and then voting “on behalf” of their unasked and voiceless membership.
Those New Zealanders who have been puzzled by the glaring discrepancy between the votes cast for Labour’s electorate candidates and Labour’s share of the Party Vote, have yet to grasp the level of distortion the Party’s list selection processes have wrought upon the public’s perception of what Labour has become. There are Labour MPs and candidates (Stuart Nash take a bow) who are both well-known and well-liked in their electorates. And then there’s the Labour Party itself, an institution which, to an increasing number of New Zealanders, is neither well-understood nor well-liked.
If Labour learns anything from its latest drubbing at the polls, then it should be this. Electoral success must no longer be left to the vagaries of candidate and list selection processes which owe more to ideological obsessions and sectoral horse-trading than to the needs of Labour’s electoral base. Labour’s great failing is that its representatives, with a handful of worthy exceptions (mostly Maori and Pasifika) have gradually ceased to resemble the people whose Party Votes it demands.
The National Party, upon being sternly reprimanded by the voters for similar political failings, quietly and efficiently set about making sure that their players matched their supporters. The results were spectacular. If Labour accomplishes a similar transformation, then it can expect the same.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 September 2014.

Sunday 28 September 2014

The Left Triumphant! A Counterfactual History Of The Last Twelve Months.

Looking Like A Winner? David Cunliffe had everything to play for - and lost. Had he played differently, Saturday 20 September, rather than a debacle, could have been a triumph.
DID IT REALLY HAVE TO END LIKE THIS? Reading through the commentary threads of the left-wing blogs it is impossible to not feel the anger; the sense of betrayal; the impression of having had something vital ripped from their grasp that many left-wing voters are still experiencing. Political parties are supposedly the vessels in which the hopes and dreams of whole classes of people are carried to power. How did the parties of the Left fail so spectacularly? Could it possibly have ended differently?
Of course it could. The debacle of 20 September 2014 was anything but inevitable. Different choices could very easily have produced spectacularly different results.
Let us begin with David Cunliffe’s victory of 15 September 2013. Not only was this a democratic triumph for the ordinary members and union affiliates of the Labour Party, it was also a revitalising tonic for Labour supporters and voters across the country.
For two weeks New Zealanders had been reminded of what Labour was all about – or, at least, what it was supposed to be about. They responded by sending Labour soaring to 37 percent in the polls. Given that the Helen Clark-led Labour Party had won power in 1999 with just 38 percent of the vote, Cunliffe and his team were poised upon the threshold of an election year from which they had every chance of emerging triumphant.
What happened in the three months following that historic vote set the scene for the disaster the Left has just experienced.
What happened? Well, that’s the whole point isn’t it? Nothing happened. Spring turned into summer and Cunliffe did very little to build upon his September victory. The Labour Party’s annual conference was allowed to come and go without the slightest attempt to demonstrate to a waiting New Zealand in what way the new Labour leader was in any politically obvious respect different from the old one.
So consider, instead, this counterfactual history of the past twelve months.
*  *  *  *  *

CUNLIFFE ANNOUNCES the appointment of Matt McCarten as his Chief-of-Staff not in February 2014, but in September 2013. The new Leader of the Opposition’s Office is thus galvanised into action immediately – not five months later.
In his speech to CTU's biennial conference in October, Cunliffe announces his intention – as both Prime Minister and Minister of Labour – to establish a comprehensive commission of inquiry into workplace conditions and employee aspirations. It will be the biggest and most thorough exercise in public consultation ever attempted in New Zealand, and at the end of the process the country will have a blueprint for workplace relations that the people themselves have drafted. At the 2017 election New Zealanders will have the opportunity to vote this blueprint up or down. If they vote it up, then working-class New Zealanders, and the new institutions they have brought into being, will find themselves – for the first time in a long time – at the centre of the political stage.
In November, with the reverberations of his workplace policy still echoing around the country, Cunliffe flies into Wigram for his party’s annual conference. Instead of the damp squib this gathering turned out to be (full of backstairs arm-twisting to shut down the debate on lifting the age of retirement and blunt the growing union opposition to the TPPA) the conference offers the clearest possible signal that Labour and the Greens will be fighting the 2014 election as partners – not antagonists.
On the Sunday afternoon, Cunliffe is joined on stage by Russel Norman and Metiria Turei, and, to tumultuous applause, the three politicians jointly announce their common policies on Climate Change and Ending Child Poverty. Like the 1998 Alliance Conference in Albany, the Wigram Conference gives New Zealanders an abiding and highly persuasive image of unity and common purpose.
To conclude his first 100 days as Labour leader, Cunliffe celebrates the festive season by launching his autobiography. The book, published by Craig Potton, and begun when Cunliffe was banished by David Shearer to the back-benches, sets out not only the story of Cunliffe’s life, but also his vision for New Zealand’s future. In an instant, the problem of what to give every Labour Party member and supporter for Christmas is solved. The Press Gallery, too, has something to read at the beach.
Early in the new year, with Cunliffe’s, the Greens' and Mana leader, Hone Harawira’s blessing, Matt McCarten sets up a very secret meeting with Kim Dotcom. “We all share a common goal,” Matt grins, “we all want to get rid of the Key Government. Perhaps you might like to assist the three left-wing Opposition parties with a substantial financial donation?
“To many New Zealanders,” he tells the big German, “you have become a sort of folk hero. So they’ll forgive you for donating money to John Key’s opponents. What they will not forgive, however, is any attempt to intervene directly in the country’s politics. By sponsoring a new political party, for example. If you want someone other than Judith Collins to be the Minister of Justice after 2014, then what Labour, the Greens and Mana are proposing is by far the best option.”
Cunliffe’s next call, early in 2014, is to his publisher, Craig Potton. With the 2002 precedent of Nicky Hager’s Seeds of Distrust firmly in his mind, he asks Potton to think very carefully before publishing another of Nicky’s books in the middle of an election campaign. “If such a publishing venture is planned,” he says, “could you and Nicky, at the very least, keep all the Opposition leaders in the loop? A Labour-Green-Mana victory may well hinge on how you manage the release of another one of Nicky’s exposés.”
In the very depths of the winter of 2014, Cunliffe and McCarten, working with Helen Kelly of the CTU, organise a mass union meeting in the Telstra Events Centre in Manukau. Before an audience of 8,000 workers, Cunliffe, Norman, Turei and Harawira jointly announce their “Fairer Taxes For A Fairer New Zealand” package. “The 1 percent,” Cunliffe thunders, “will make a contribution to New Zealand’s future commensurate with their obscene wealth!” “The polluters will be made to pay”, the Greens promise. “We will feed the kids!” Hone bellows – to a crowd already on its feet and cheering.
In the final fortnight of the election campaign the “New Tomorrow Road Trip” makes its way from Kaitaia in the North to Invercargill in the South. A gleaming cavalcade of busses (paid for by Dotcom’s millions) snakes its way through New Zealand’s green and pleasant land carrying the Labour, Green and Mana leaders into every major city in the country.
It ends in the Auckland Town Hall on the Thursday before the election. Packed to the Gods the audience listens intently as Cunliffe speaks about his upbringing as a preacher’s son. "I have always believed that there is something bigger in this world than the individual," he tells the hushed hall, "and that there are things more valuable than money." His words echo across Aotea Square, where thousands more are also listening. "The men and women who inspire humanity do not look back, at the past; or down, on their opponents; they look forward, to the challenges that lie ahead; and, if we are very lucky, up, towards the mountains we have yet to climb. There are men and women who fit that description with me on this stage tonight, and, God willing, they will be with me in Government on Sunday morning."
*  *  *  *  *
HISTORY is about the choices men and women make. Had better choices been made over the past 12 months, then the unemployed, beneficiaries, the working poor, young New Zealanders trying to buy their first home, university students burdened down by debt, all those in need of caritas – the love that so terrifies the Right – might now be celebrating the beginning of a new chapter in the history of New Zealand progressivism.
For their sake, as well as our own, we must do better next time.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 26 September 2014.

Friday 26 September 2014

Where Has The Election Left The Left?

Not Waving, Drowning: Herein lies the problem. Labour must change. Labour will change. Labour cannot change. Not even under the blows of an electoral sledgehammer called Twenty-Four Percent.
WHERE HAS LABOUR’S worst defeat in 92 years, left the Left? Before answering that question, it might be helpful to offer a few suggestions as to where National’s stunning electoral victory has not left it.
The wailing and gnashing of teeth from some left-wing tweeters and bloggers notwithstanding, the Left is not in some antipodean approximation of Nazi Germany, or even Fascist Italy. Nor has it been deposited, overnight, in the Kiwi equivalent of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 America. John Key is not der Fuhrer, or even il Duce. And Steven Joyce is not Dick Cheney, waiting to be whisked away to “an undisclosed location”.
No. The Left, along with everybody else, is still right here in staunchly democratic New Zealand: still in full possession of all the rights and privileges required to mount another assault on the Treasury Benches in 2017.
And Labour is also here. The largest of New Zealand’s left-wing parties can be found sitting dejectedly amongst the wreckage of a pretty comprehensive election defeat. But that’s alright, because Labour’s been there before, and, if history is any guide, will be there again – although, hopefully, with a decent series of election victories in between!
But before it can raise its arms above its head in triumph, Labour has a very long vale of tears to pass through.
It will be a bitter and painful journey for many within the party. There are groups and factions which have waxed powerful in what used to be Labour’s big tent – not noticing that, as they grew larger, the number of ordinary party members who were ready and willing to remain inside the tent with them was growing smaller and smaller and smaller.
What these groups also fail to acknowledge is that no matter how big and powerful they may have grown within the Labour Party, in the world outside their size and influence is considerably less.
The unions, for example, remain one of the key components of Labour’s institutional architecture, but in the much broader context of New Zealand society as a whole union density has fallen from roughly 50 percent of the workforce to just under 20 percent. (In the private sector it is even worse, with barely one in ten workers belonging to a trade union.)
Similarly, in a country where so many young women still feel the need to preface any discussion of gender relations with the disclaimer “I’m not a feminist …” just how sensible was it to require gender quotas to be written into Labour’s constitution? Or to speak out loud and long in defence of a “man ban”?
Perhaps the Women’s Council of the Labour Party should draw a lesson from the fate of Sweden’s “Feminist Initiative”. Founded in 2005, this left-wing feminist political party has consistently failed to breach Sweden’s 4 percent electoral threshold. In the Swedish general election of 14 September, the Feminist Initiative polled just 3.1 percent of the vote.
Labour women might also ponder the significance of a recent poll showing fewer than one New Zealand male in five being willing to cast a Party Vote for Labour.
Of course, anyone attempting to make this case within the Labour Party will be howled down as a right-wing misogynist stooge of the employing class.
And therein lies the problem. Labour must change. Labour will change. Labour cannot change. Not even under the blows of an electoral sledgehammer called Twenty-Four Percent.
Resolving this conundrum will require some exceptionally canny political management.
One solution might be to commission two external reviews of Labour’s values and structures: one from the democratic-socialist Left, the other from the social-democratic Right. And since it is pretty clear that Labour’s caucus is spoiling for a fight, let the contenders declare their preference for one or the other. That way the inevitable Leadership Contest can double as a party-wide plebiscite on which ideological and organisational future the membership feels most inclined to follow.
If the membership opt to go Left they will be voting to turn Labour into a niche party without the slightest hope of ever again receiving 40 percent of the Party Vote. But, if they turn Right, Labour will lose 40 percent of its members.
As Jim Anderton advised me 34 years ago; so would I advise them now: “Build your footpaths where the people walk.”
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, 26 September 2014.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Uncomplicated Loyalties: Why Cunliffe and the Labour Left Cannot Win

Unequal To The Task: In the twelve months he has been leader of the Labour Party, David Cunliffe has made plenty of mistakes of his own, but these should not in any way detract from the mistakes that were made for him. The political and business establishment had even more to fear from a Cunliffe-led Labour Party forming a government in 2014 than the ABC faction of his own caucus.

THE STORY of David Cunliffe’s leadership of the Labour Party has been one of missed opportunities and unforced errors. That he was the only choice available to those who wanted to rid the Labour Party of its neoliberal cuckoos is indisputable. Equally indisputable, however, is that he has proved unequal to the task.
It is worth recalling the observations I made back in February following the announcement that Matt McCarten had been appointed as Cunliffe’s Chief-of-Staff:
[T]he Left has been given an extraordinary opportunity to prove that it still has something to offer New Zealand ….. If Cunliffe and McCarten are allowed to fail, the Right of the Labour Party and their fellow travellers in the broader labour movement (all the people who worked so hard to prevent Cunliffe rising to the leadership) will say:
“Well, you got your wish. You elected a leader pledged to take Labour to the Left. And just look what happened. Middle New Zealand ran screaming into the arms of John Key and Labour ended up with a [pitiful] Party Vote … So don’t you dare try peddling that ‘If we build a left-wing Labour Party they will come’ line ever again! You did – and they didn’t.”
Be in no doubt that this will happen – just as it did in the years after the British Labour Party’s crushing defeat in the general election of 1983. The Labour Right called Labour’s socialist manifesto “the longest suicide note in history” and the long-march towards Blairism … began.
The cuckoos (a.k.a the “ABCs”) are now poised to reclaim control of the Labour Party caucus and organisation to a degree not seen since the departure of Helen Clark. Not only will they purge the Leader of the Opposition’s Office of Cunliffe and his immediate entourage, but they will also ensure that the current party President, Moira Coatsworth, and the General Secretary, Tim Barnett, are eased out of their positions. A concerted effort will also be made to rid the party’s NZ Council of all those known to be sympathetic to Cunliffe and his vision. Within the trade union movement there will be a strong push for “left unity” and the choice and management of affiliate delegates to and at regional and annual conferences will be given much closer attention.
By the time the 2015 annual conference of the Labour Party convenes in Palmerston North, delegates will be welcoming a new leader, electing a new president and general secretary, and contemplating a NZ Council already shorn of most of its left-wing radicals. The delegates, too, will likely be a very different bunch. At the level of the Labour Electorate Committees there will be a concerted effort to provide delegate credentials only to those “approved” by the dominant caucus faction. The names of people not wanted at the conference will be discreetly circulated to the new leader’s most reliable supporters. Challenges to dissidents should be expected.
Right down to the lowest levels of the Labour Party, politics is about to get very ugly.
Is there no way back for Cunliffe and the Left? No way at all?
No, there is not.
To understand why one needs to understand the average Labour activist. While a minority of active members are driven by ideology, the vast majority are driven by a mixture of sentiment and loyalty. These emotions have either been programmed into them by their upbringing – as in “I remember Norman Kirk” – or through a longstanding personal relationship with their local Labour MP. The strength of these emotions means that when push comes to shove the Labour Party’s activist base will almost always defer to the wishes of the parliamentary caucus, or, if that fails, to appeals by the party hierarchy to rally in Labour’s defence.
That these traditional appeals to sentiment and loyalty failed to keep the membership quiescent for the six years after 2008 bears testimony to the iron grip in which Helen Clark held the party organisation for an unprecedented 15 years. Pressures for a more democratic Labour Party had been building for some time under Clark (especially during her final term as PM) and they burst forth in the form of constitutional and policy innovations following her departure. The effective coronation of Phil Goff as party leader in 2008, followed by the caucus’s refusal to acknowledge Cunliffe as the membership’s choice in 2011, gave the rank-and-file’s reforms an even sharper edge.
The high tide of the democratisation process coincided with the election of Cunliffe over the objections of the parliamentary caucus in September 2013. Cunliffe himself was only too aware of the momentous potential for change which his election signified. A left-wing party strong enough to dictate the composition and policy direction of its parliamentary representatives constituted a clear and present danger to New Zealand’s 30 year-old bipartisan consensus in favour of neoliberalism. Cunliffe’s efforts to reassure his colleagues that he had no intention of availing himself of that potential proved unsuccessful. There were simply too many Labour MPs with personal and political fortunes that could not survive the subordination of the Labour Caucus to the Labour Party.
The wider political and business establishment had even more to fear from a Cunliffe-led Labour Party forming a government in 2014. Cunliffe made plenty of mistakes on his own, but these do not in any way detract from the mistakes that were made for him.
And now the Labour Party membership and affiliates find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They must decide between engaging in a long and bitter internal struggle for ideological and organisational supremacy with their own MPs; or, by rediscovering their former, uncomplicated loyalties to party hierarchy and parliamentary caucus, avert the bloody consequences of a civil war from which neither side would likely emerge as a viable political force.
All my experience of the Labour Party tells me that it will capitulate to its parliamentary wing. Rank-and-file and affiliate union members know that their MPs are full-time political professionals who, in this sort of battle, can count on the support of virtually the entire New Zealand establishment. The news media, in particular, can be relied upon to portray the caucus as reasonable and responsible, while painting Cunliffe and the party as a bunch of loony lefties dangerously out-of-touch with “Middle New Zealand”. That being so, and with such wise old Labour Party heads as its former General Secretary, Mike Smith, and its current Policy Council sage, Professor Nigel Haworth, counselling moderation and caution, the membership will, once again, like Orwell’s “Boxer” in Animal Farm, allow the pigs to harness them to the plough.
This essay was posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog on Wednesday, 24 September 2014.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

"Something Hugely Dramatic": The 2014 General Election

Three In A Row! Defying political gravity, Prime Minister John Key wins a third term with a higher percentage of the votes cast than he received in 2008 and 2011. In the words of Martyn 'Bomber' Bradbury, National now enjoys "full spectrum dominance" of the New Zealand political environment. And Labour? Labour seems unaware that its wounds are fatal. That it is dying on its feet.

IT SEEMS such a long time ago, now, but it was only back in March. Looking ahead to the General Election, I wrote: “Unless something hugely dramatic happens between now and polling day, 20 September, the General Election of 2014 is all but over. The National-led government of Prime Minister, John Key, looks set to be returned for a third term by a margin that may surprise many of those currently insisting that the result will be very close. What may also surprise is the sheer scale and comprehensiveness of the Left’s (especially Labour’s) electoral humiliation.”
Well, “something hugely dramatic” pretty much sums up the 2014 election campaign. But “unless” turned out to be an utterly redundant qualifier. Mr Key and his National Party-led government faced one “hugely dramatic” event after another: everything from Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics to Kim Dotcom’s Moment of Truth to Edward Snowden’s XKeyscore. But, not only did these events fail to slow Mr Key’s progress, they actually appear to have accelerated his march to an historic victory.
In achieving the seemingly impossible: securing an outright parliamentary majority under a system of proportional representation; Mr Key proclaims his complete mastery of the New Zealand political landscape. A friend of mine, borrowing the terminology of the US military, describes National’s present situation as “full spectrum dominance”. It’s a hard judgement to refute.
In just about every facet of the political process: leadership, communications, polling, strategic judgement, fund-raising and on-the-ground campaigning, National is (quite literally) streets ahead of its rivals. John Key’s private retention of the Australian-based Crosby-Textor political consultancy, coupled with the constant flow of data from David Farrar’s polling agency, Curia Research, permitted National’s seasoned campaign manager, Steven Joyce, to micro-refine National’s electoral pitch not simply day-to-day, but practically hour-by-hour. The tone and volume of the Government’s propaganda effort (Eminem’s angry copyright protests notwithstanding) was similarly effective. With New Zealand’s rowing teams dominating the sport, the rowing-eight image proved to be a potent political metaphor for coordinated effort and national success.
In describing the efficiency of its machine, I do not mean to suggest that the National Party’s victory was effortless – far from it. The release of Nicky Hager’s book inflicted real damage on National’s campaign – forcing the Prime Minister onto the back foot and sending the party’s poll numbers south. The critical point here, however, is that National’s campaign team was able to monitor the effects of Dirty Politics practically as they unfolded, and to test the efficacy of possible responses. It was this that allowed them to identify the Justice Minister, Judith Collins, as the figure most prejudicial to National’s re-election chances. Her resignation cauterised National’s wounds almost immediately – just as its pollsters knew it would.
And through it all, John Key manifested an uncompromising combativeness which first steadied his supporters and then reassured them that the charges levelled against him were groundless. It also afforded New Zealanders a rare glimpse of the steel beneath John Key’s velveteen exterior. Far from being repelled (as his opponent’s no doubt hoped) the Prime Minister’s supporters were delighted. Mr Key’s smiles and waves are appreciated, but so, too, is the force of his counter-punches.
Overall, the image presented to the electorate was one of John Key as the embattled matador. Alone in the arena, he faced charge after charge from a seemingly never-ending succession of bulls. But with every twirl of his cape and flash of his sword the pile of dispatched cattle-beasts grew higher. The crowd cheered. The roses rained down. “Bravo!” shouted 48 percent of New Zealand. “Three more years!”
As the dust of combat settles, the identity of the Matador’s defeated attackers is revealed. Among them is the political corpse of the redoubtable Hone Harawira, his thick hide pierced by multiple lances. And sprawled alongside this mighty bull of the North, his blundering sponsor, the massive German beast called Kim Dotcom. Some distance apart lies the slim political carcase of the brave little steer known as Colin Craig – his wide-eyes still staring imploringly up at the crowd. (Missing from the pile are the bodies of those bulls whose horns actually drew the Matador’s blood: Nicky Hager, Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden.)
But in all that vast arena, the most pitiful sight is that of the old bull called Labour. Its ancient hide is pierced and bleeding; around its mouth a bloody froth. The Matador’s sword has penetrated the unfortunate animal’s lungs and heart, but the poor creature still stands there, defiant. Panting noisily, quivering legs about to fold beneath its battered body, Labour seems unaware that its wounds are fatal. That it is dying on its feet.
Only two bulls continue to circle the Matador – albeit at a safe distance. Snorting derisively, New Zealand First and the Green Party promise to go on fighting the good fight.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 September 2014.

Sunday 21 September 2014


Triumphant! John Key leads National to its greatest victory since 1951, routing the forces of the Left in the process.
Progressive New Zealanders,
we have some very serious
thinking to do.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Another Song For Election Day (As Requested By "Kat")


NOT DARK YET: Bob Dylan's haunting hymn to the failing day and the advancing night.
I was born here and I'll die here
against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin'
but I'm standin' still
Every nerve in my body
is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was
I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.
Video courtesy of YouTube.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Such A Parcel Of Rogues In A Nation (For All Those True Scots Who Voted "Yes")


SUCH A PARCEL OF ROGUES IN A NATION: British folk-rock group, Steeleye Span, captures the bleak bitterness of Burn's 1791 poem in their superb 1973 rendition of the traditional Scottish folk song.

Farewell now to our Scottish fame
Farewell our ancient glory;
Farewell even to the Scottish name,
So famed in martial story.
Now Sark runs over Solway sands,
And Tweed runs to the ocean,
To mark where England's province stands -
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

What force or guile could not subdue,
Through many warlike ages,
Is wrought now by a coward few,
For hireling traitor's wages.
The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour's station;
But English gold has been our bane -
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

O would, before I'd seen the day
That Treason thus could sell us,
My old grey head had lain in clay,
With Bruce and loyal Wallace! 
But pith and power, 'til my last hour
I'll make this declaration;
We were bought and sold for English gold -
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

Video courtesy of YouTube
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite

Friday 19 September 2014

A Song For Election Day.


THINGS HAVE CHANGED: One of Bob Dylan's more enigmatic expeditions, it captures to perfection the wayward impulses and bland excuses of twenty-first century life.

People are crazy and times are strange
I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range
I used to care, but things have changed
Video courtesy of YouTube
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

What Is This Election About?

Vox Populi, Vox Dei: The Voice of the people, is the voice of God - or the Devil. It depends in the end on what sort of people we are, or have become.
THIS ELECTION is about us – the people of New Zealand.
No surprises there, you might say. In a democracy, aren’t elections always about what the people want?
Pretty much: and the modern politician’s dependence on polls and focus groups only accentuates the voters’ ability to determine the shape and complexion of their next government.
How else to explain John Key’s wholesale purloining of what used to be considered good left-wing policies – like free doctor’s visits for children under 13 and the extension of paid parental leave?
But if this election is about us, then why hasn’t Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, put a bigger dent in TeamKey’s support? Have 30 years of devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism, supplemented by a steady diet of winning-is-everything, it-pays-to-be-selfish reality television made dirty tricks acceptable? Have fairness and decency become yesterday’s news?
Is that why Labour polls so poorly among blokes? Because good Kiwi jokers no longer do compassion? Is the Greens’ and Internet-Mana’s focus on poverty seen by the boys in the barbecue-pit and the sports-bar as rewarding the losers with their own, the winners’, bitterly resented taxes?
Because if that is the sort of people we’ve become, then, sadly, that’s what this election is about.
This essay was originally published in The Sunday Star-Times of Sunday, 7 September 2014.

2014 General Election: Chris Trotter's Prediction

Your vote is your voice  - use it and be heard!
National: 43.5%
Labour: 27.4%
Greens: 13.5%
NZ First: 8.0%
Conservative Party 4.0%
Maori Party: 1.0%
Internet-Mana: 1.0%
Act Party: 0.5%
United Future: 0.1%
Others: 1.0%

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Getting The Message: Chris Trotter's 'From The Left' Column, Election Eve, 2014.

Moments For Truth: In 2014 some of the biggest turnouts have been for journalists – not politicians.The extraordinary public response to these messengers and their messages tells us a great deal about the electorate’s hunger for the kind of journalism that offers more than the usual “He said/She said” style of reporting the news; something more than political spin. Above all else, voters want to hear the truth. (Photo by John Miller)
THIS HAS BEEN AN ELECTION like no other I have experienced. Oh, sure, I have been in town halls that were packed before. And I have heard people arguing the toss over policy before. But, in the past, those town halls had been packed by people who had come to hear their political leaders. Those arguments had been over the content of the various party manifestos.
Not this time. In 2014 some of the biggest turnouts have been for journalists – not politicians.

Nicky Hager, the author of Dirty Politics has filled halls from Auckland to Dunedin. I was present at the meeting he held in the Mt Eden War Memorial Hall. The big auditorium was filled to capacity, with people standing around the walls and in the foyer. That was impressive enough, but when the former Court of Appeal Judge, Sir Edward Thomas, led Mr Hager onto the stage, the whole audience rose as one to give him a standing ovation. I’ve been told that his Dunedin audience responded in exactly the same way.
I attended another big public meeting on Monday. Billed as “The Moment of Truth” by that merry political prankster, Kim Dotcom, it was supposed to prove once and for all that the Prime Minister, John Key, knew all about the big German’s situation long before being briefed about the combined NZ Police/FBI raid on the Dotcom mansion in January 2012.
When I arrived shortly before six o’clock on Monday evening, the queue of people waiting to get into the Auckland Town Hall was already over a block long. In my considerable experience of political meetings this was without precedent. Officially, the Auckland Town Hall auditorium can seat 1,673 persons and last Monday it was chock-a-block (with a further 800 people said to have been turned away). As I watched the venue fill up, I couldn’t help thinking how pleased John Key and David Cunliffe would be to see the public turning out in such numbers to hear them on a chilly Spring evening.
In all honesty, however, those two-and-a-half-thousand Aucklanders had not turned out to hear Kim Dotcom, alone. Most of them were there to hear the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Glenn Greenwald, and the fugitive whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, talk to them about what our Prime Minister knew about the GCSB’s plans to undertake the mass surveillance of New Zealanders – and when did he know it.
The extraordinary public response to these messengers and their messages tells us a great deal about the electorate’s hunger for the kind of journalism that offers more than the usual “He said/She said” style of reporting the news; something more than political spin.
Above all else, voters want to hear the truth.
Or, at least, they say they do.
There are times when my fellow New Zealanders remind me of the man who lived in a town by a flood-prone river. One day the Weather Office issued a serious flood warning and advised the town’s residents to evacuate their homes immediately. But the man said, “I’m a godly person. God loves me. God will save me.” The rain poured down and the river flooded. From a passing rowboat a civil defence volunteer hailed the man. “The town’s flooding! Let me take you to safety!” “No thanks,” the man shouted back, “God loves me. God will save me!” The river rose higher. A helicopter appeared. The rescue-team’s loudhailer crackled: “Mate, you’re in danger! Let us winch you to safety!” But the man shouted back that God loved him and that God would rescue him. About an hour later, the man drowned. Arriving at the Pearly Gates, the man’s bedraggled ghost complained bitterly to St Peter: “I loved God. I prayed to Him for help. How could he let me drown?” St Peter sighed. “God sent you a weather report, a rowboat, and a helicopter. What the hell are you doing here?”
Well, in the run-up to Election Day, the voters of New Zealand have been given the opportunity to read the investigative journalism of Nicky Hager and Glenn Greenwald, and to hear the direct personal testimony of Edward Snowden.
The truth about the sort of society we’re becoming has been very clearly explained.
So, what the hell are we waiting for? How much more rescuing do the voters of New Zealand need!
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, 19 September 2014.

Thursday 18 September 2014

'Kratos' To The 'Demos': Chris Trotter's 'From The Left' Column, Election Eve, 2008.

Paradise Delayed: Thousands gather in Wellington's Willis Street in 1931 to watch the election results posted by The Evening Post newspaper. The Labour Party victory anticipated by so many working-class New Zealanders failed to eventuate. The next four years were to be the most desperate in the country's history.

THE PEACEFUL CIRCULATION of elites – that’s how the political scientists describe democracy. But if that’s all voting is about, I’d favour The Who’s much pithier version of the process: “Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.”
The problem I have with the political scientist’s view of democracy is that it takes us – the citizens – right out of the picture. We, the people, are reduced to a passive agglomeration of individuals; a great big witless lump of humanity to be pummelled and pushed by advertisers, marketers and pollsters, into giving our votes to the “elites” with the best campaign team.
And this unholy gaggle of professional “communication specialists” – spawned by the political scientists, sociologists and psychologists who came up with the theories that guide them – have an even more instrumental view of the democratic voter. In the hands of these arch manipulators, the nation’s citizens are transformed into what honest con-artists call “marks”, but who, to the political fixers, are known as “the punters out there in punterland”.
It gets worse. Because the views of these “communication specialists” are transmitted via polytech and university courses into the minds of hundreds of eager journalism students. They, too, are encouraged to view voters as passive consumers of sophisticated “messages”; people whose views can be shaped and re-shaped – practically at will – by the all-enveloping communications media of the 21st Century.
These young people are taught that “perceptions” trump reality – and that perceptions are easily manufactured and/or manipulated.
The handful of journalism students who, every year, rebel against this pernicious, post-modern doctrine that reality is a “social construct” and that there is no such thing as “the truth”, are condescended to and pitied as the intellectual relics of a bygone age.
As for the rest, the Guyon Espiners and Duncan Garners of tomorrow, what lesson can they be expected to draw from their lecturer’s teachings other than the blindingly obvious one that, in the 21st Century, “the news” is being steadily reduced to the status of a commodity?
Increasingly, journalism is no longer what gets placed between the ads: it has become just another means – perhaps the prime means – of  “delivering eyeballs to advertisers”.
And if “reality-based” journalism upsets those advertisers – or drives too many “eyeballs” to another channel? What then?
I was talking to a parliamentary candidate from one of the major parties a few days ago, and he told me something very interesting.
He said the subject most talked about on the doorsteps of his electorate was the appalling news media coverage of this year’s General Election.
People lamented the sparse media coverage of local electorate contests; wondered why there were so few in-depth articles about the big election issues; and decried the way in which the newspapers and the airwaves were being turned over to “journalists” with clear partisan objectives.
What they were really saying was that they wanted to be treated as citizens – not as “marks”, or “punters”.
They did not consider democracy to be a con job, or a game, or matter of re-cycling elites, but of discovering the popular will: and delivering – as the original Greek words demos and kratos suggest – “power to the people”.
At a recent Labour Party conference I enjoyed a long discussion with a veteran activist who shared with me his boyhood recollections of the 1931 General Election.
In the depression-stricken working-class neighbourhood where he and his family lived, there were high hopes that the Labour Party would be elected to tackle the deepening economic and social crisis.
He remembered the vast crowd gathered outside the local newspaper offices to watch the results come in, and the slumped shoulders and bowed heads of the working-class voters as they trudged back home in the silence of bitter disappointment and dreams deferred.
For a Labour victory was not to be. In 1931 a combination of right-wing parties was elected, and my storyteller and his family, along with their friends and neighbours, were forced to endure the bleakest and most harrowing years of their lives.
Seventy-seven years later, I am desperately hoping that a new generation of democratic citizens will use tomorrow’s election to avert the sort of catastrophe that overwhelmed their great-grandparents.
In the words of The Who:
Just like yesterday
Get down on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 7 November 2008.

The Kowhai And The Birch: Chris Trotter's 'From The Left' Column, Election Eve, 2005.

A Plea For Tolerance: On the eve of the 2005 General Election - an election which threatened to plunge New Zealand into bitter racial conflict, I penned the following column.

YESTERDAY morning, as I turned into the driveway of my daughter’s school, a shaft of sunlight broke through the fog, and the first flowers of the Kowhai tree standing by the gate blazed forth like fiery flakes of gold. A stand of Silver Birches framed the forward Kowhai, their white trunks tapering into a fine filigree of bare branches. It is too soon in the season for their buds to burst.
It was a pretty sight and, it occurred to me, a highly symbolic one. The indigenous Kowhai, with its lustrous flowers, holds much in common with the exotic Birch. They are both trees, after all. But the Kowhai and the Birch are also very different. The indigenous tree remains much closer to the earth than its exotic neighbour, spreading its soft brown arms wide across the forest floor. The Birch, by contrast, is a questing tree – its graceful limbs forever raised towards the sun.
But the gardener at my daughter’s school has made room for both of them at this gateway to learning: the hugger and the reacher; the brown limbed and the white.
And so it has been in the larger garden that is our homeland. In the vast forests that greeted the Maori stood the mighty children of Tane – the Kauri, and Kahikatea – silent and strong, rich with years, and only to be felled with the greatest of reverence and ceremony. But to those who came after the Maori, Tane’s children were for many years no more than things to be used. The vast indigenous forests were felled and out of their dismembered bodies arose a nation.
Far from their northern homes, the new citizens of this nation sought to soothe the pain of distance by surrounding themselves with the familiar foliage of childhood gardens. The Oak, the Elm, the Poplar and the Birch: old friends from a forsaken hemisphere – but strange and unfamiliar company for the Kowhai and Pohutukawa.
As indigenous gave way to exotic, the ancient wisdom of the trees was lost. And soon a grey-green army of ramrod-straight, fast-growing California Pines was marching across every plain and up every hillside. In place of wild diversity we raised a featureless monoculture, laid out in straight lines, sown and reaped without ceremony, leaving nothing to memory and threatening to turn the sacred wilderness of Tane into a vast factory of indistinguishable timber.
But, as the indigenous forests retreated into the fastnesses of the Ureweras and the Southern Alps, something strange began to happen in the suburban gardens of the nation. More and more New Zealanders began to question the wisdom of their grandparents who had filled the parks and reserves of their towns and cities with the flora of Mother England. In more and more gardens people began planting indigenous flowers and trees.
Perhaps it was because the seed of the Maori and the Pakeha were becoming as intermingled as the seeds of the Kowhai flowers and the catkins of the Birch: blown together in the great storms of change that were remaking the nation of New Zealand.
For now the call was to halt the advance of the grey-green army and to preserve what was left of the family of Tane. The time had come for the descendants of homesick settlers to learn, at last, the true names and the long lineage of their homeland’s native trees.
Because here, at the end of the Earth, exotic flora and fauna are prone to dangerous explosions. Freed from the natural constraints of their true homes, they burgeon forth with terrifying enthusiasm. Gorse, rabbits, possums: the list is carved into the bones of this country, and the lessons of their depredations must never be forgotten.
Because what is true of our ecology is also true of our ideology. We New Zealanders have a dangerous habit of letting our imported ideas get as out of control as our imported plants and animals.
We must be much more careful about what seeds we plant – and where. A monocultural empire of Pinus Radiata is as unacceptable as the pristine forests of Tane are unrecoverable.
Tomorrow, then, as you go into the polling booth, remember the wise practice of the gardener at my daughter’s school. And remember, too, the wise words of the poet Kahil Gibran, who cautioned us to stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
And neither, I think, do the Kowhai and the Birch.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 16 September 2005.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

A Working Majority

Constitutional Guardian: Only the person who can assure the Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae, that he or she commands a majority on the floor of the House of Representatives has the right to assume the office of Prime Minister. If John Key cannot give the Governor-General such an assurance then David Cunliffe must be given the opportunity to do so.

PUTTING A GOVERNMENT TOGETHER after Saturday may prove to be a more than usually difficult task. Minor – actually very minor – shifts in voter support could open up multiple configurations capable of delivering the statement which, constitutionally, the Governor-General needs to hear: that a solid, working majority exists for either John Key or David Cunliffe on the floor of the House of Representatives.
It is this, and this alone, which confers upon a political leader the right (and the ability) to govern New Zealand.
We need to be very clear about this. The right to govern is NOT about which political party wins the most votes. National could be 15 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival in the Party Vote, but if it cannot assemble a clear, working majority in the House of Representatives it will not be entitled to form a government.
Let’s make that even clearer. Let’s suppose that on Saturday night National receives 45 percent of the Party Vote, and that the combined vote of the Labour and Green parties comes to 40 percent. The remaining 15 percent is divided up between NZ First, Internet-Mana, the Maori Party, Act and United Future. Crucially, Colin Craig’s Conservative Party fails – but only just – to clear the 5 percent threshold. In these circumstances, it will be the smaller parties which determine the identity of New Zealand’s next Prime Minister.
Ideally, this process of coalition-building should not extend beyond a few days – at the most. At that point, their negotiations complete, the victorious combination of parties will announce themselves to the public. Upon hearing the news, the Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae, can then pick up the phone and invite the new majority leader to Government House where, upon declaring to the Queen’s representative that he does indeed command a working majority on the floor of the House, he will be sworn in as Prime Minister.
But what happens if the period of negotiation is extended? What if the outcome of the 2014 General Election hinges on the choice of just one minor party – NZ First, for example?
This question was put to the Prime Minister over the weekend and John Key’s response was – not to put too fine a point upon it – just a little bit worrying.
The Prime Minister clearly believes that, following the counting of Saturday’s ballots, his own party, National, will end up controlling the largest number of seats. He is also clearly of the view that any “Kingmaker” must give him the first opportunity to negotiate the formation of a new government.
All well and good – although, constitutionally speaking, the party with the largest number of votes does NOT have first dibs on coalition discussions. That’s just the way it has played out in New Zealand since the first MMP election back in 1996. Even so, the NZ First leader, Winston Peters, has signalled his intention to talk to the largest party “in the first instance”.
But this is where things could get a little hairy. Mr Key told TV3’s The Nation on Saturday morning that if he felt that Mr Peters was mucking him around, he’d advise the Governor-general to summon the new Parliament. He also signalled his intention to continue governing as a sort of pro tempore Prime Minister until defeated by a motion of No-Confidence – at which point he would advise the Governor-General to dissolve the House and call a new General Election. Faced with the prospect of being punished by the voters for forcing them into an unnecessary and unwanted snap election, Mr Key clearly believes that Mr Peters would blink first and get in behind a National-led Government.
Such an outcome would, however, constitute a clear breach of New Zealand’s constitutional conventions and come very close to being a coup d’état. If Mr Key cannot negotiate an agreement with Mr Peters, then the proper course for the Governor-General is to invite the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Cunliffe, to have a go at assembling the requisite majority in the House of Representatives.
Only in the event of both Mr Key and Mr Cunliffe being unable to assemble a majority would the Governor-General be entitled to convene the House and test its members’ willingness to do so. Should that prove unattainable, then – and only then – would the Governor-General be obliged to dissolve the Parliament and ask us – the voters – to elect a new one.
Mr Key’s reference to the Canadian constitutional crisis of 2008 is deeply worrying. The Canadian PM’s claim to possess a “moral mandate” to continue governing without a parliamentary majority was accepted only because the Canadian Governor-General unconstitutionally allowed herself to be guided by a Prime Minister whose right to govern she refused to put to the test.
We must hope that Sir Jerry is made of sterner stuff.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 September 2014.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Something To Listen To As We Head For "The Moment Of Truth"

ALREADY, the arrival of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Glenn Greenwald (a.k.a. "Kim Dotcom's little henchman") has afforded New Zealanders another disturbing glimpse of the man behind the Prime-Ministerial mask.
 Even more will be revealed tomorrow at the Auckland Town Hall.
Doors open at 6:00pm.
In the meantime, and in anticipation of Mr Greenwald's reporting on New Zealand's role in the "Five Eyes" global surveillance programme exposed by Edward Snowden, I've put up The Police's classic 1983 hit 'Every Breath You Take'.
Video courtesy of YouTube.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday 12 September 2014

Have We Got The Right Horse For The Course - Or Is A Mid-Stream Change In Order?

“Horses For Courses”: It's an expression you often hear in the mouths of old politicos. What they mean is that some elections are better suited to demon politicians than angelic statesmen.
WITH JUST OVER A WEEK TO GO, the core issue of this election is at last coming into focus. It is difficult to recall a political contest so fraught with diversions and divisions as this one. Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, has told us very forcefully what politics shouldn’t be about, but it’s been nowhere near so helpful at informing the better angels of our nature. What Mr Hager has managed to do, however, with characteristic prescience, is place the issue of trust at the heart of the choices we must make in eight days’ time.
But trust, in politics, is not a simple thing. Like love, it is apt to be bestowed upon the most unlikely and undeserving of individuals, institutions and nations. That’s because trust is about a great deal more than simply keeping promises. Indeed, the people we trust most are often those who’ve proved that, sometimes, promises must be broken. Given a choice between an angel and a demon for prime minister, it is by no means axiomatic that a desperate electorate will always vote for the heavenly creature.
“Horses for courses” is the expression you often hear in the mouths of old politicos. By which they mean that there are some tasks better suited to demons than angels.
In the course of a lengthy political career, Winston Churchill earned the enmity of just about every section of British society. In 1904 he betrayed the aristocracy by abandoning the Conservative Party and joining the Liberals. In 1926 he helped defeat the Trade Union Congress’s General Strike. Throughout the pacifist Thirties he constantly urged his countrymen to prepare for war. And, as the arch-imperialist of his generation, he did all he could to deny the people of the Indian sub-continent their independence. In short, Churchill was a reckless egotist, an avowed racist and an inveterate warmonger: anyone searching for the angelic in his character faced a daunting challenge.
And yet, when the shadow of a much darker demon fell over Britain in 1940, it was to Churchill that the British people turned. Given the fateful course that lay before them, only a warhorse would do.
Five years later it was a different story. The “Spirit of ‘45” wanted nothing more to do with warhorses. Winning the peace could not be accomplished by harnessing the same demonic forces that had won the war. It was one of those rare occasions when, given a choice between the devil they knew, and the angels they didn’t, people voted for the angels.
Now, John Key is no Winston Churchill, and yet there’s no disputing that for most New Zealanders he’s been the right horse to carry them through the course of a global financial crisis. In a world teetering on the brink of economic disaster, who better than a millionaire currency trader? True, currency traders are not known for being angels. They are quick and ruthless and shamelessly opportunistic. But, for the last six years most New Zealanders haven’t cared. They’ve trusted National’s demon to take them where Labour’s angels feared to tread.
The questions New Zealanders must ask and answer before 7:00pm on 20 September is whether or not New Zealand is still on the same critical course as 2008 and 2011, and whether John Key is still the right horse to carry them through?
Labour has put up a challenger who, frankly, calls to mind Clarence, the wingless Angel in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. David Cunliffe is gentle, well-meaning and, like Clarence, just a little accident prone. He’s urging us to do the right thing by our communities: warning us against letting the country’s problems get too big to fix. But Cunliffe’s and Labour’s big problem is that New Zealanders aren’t yet sure if it’s the right time to start trusting accident prone angels. The economic recovery is, at best, precarious; at worst, over. If things, again, turn pear-shaped, is David Cunliffe really the right horse for the course?
Then again, just how far to the dark side has John Key already taken us? Nicky Hager has posed the question, but a disturbingly large number of New Zealanders seem too frightened to hear the answer.
And that’s always the trick with the demonic horses we mount in times of danger: knowing when, and how, to get off.
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, 12 September 2014.