Tuesday 30 December 2014

Defining Dirty Politics

Permanent Interests: If the "Intelligence Community" ever came to the conclusion that an actual, or potential, prime minister is implementing, or, intends to implement, policies inimical to the general and permanent interests of the Crown, then their reaction might very well be to designate the Prime Minister/Leader of the Opposition a “threat to national security” and act accordingly.
LOOKING BACK over the most tumultuous election year in our recent history, one phrase in particular stands out: “dirty politics”. Yes, it was the name of another of Nicky Hager’s journalistic interventions, but it quickly became something more than that. For close to half the voting public, “dirty politics” became shorthand for everything that’s gone wrong with New Zealand’s political life.
But what actually constitutes “dirty politics”? Are we talking about the normal cut-and-thrust of political existence? The wrong-footing of opponents? The strategic shifts of internal support that mark the rise and fall of party leaders? The calculated exploitation of one’s opponents’ personal weaknesses to demonstrate their unfitness to hold political office? The private, off-the-record and entirely unattributable briefings of journalists to effect any or all of the above? Or, are we talking about something else? And, if so – what?
I believe that Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, was written to highlight something more than the normal cut-and-thrust of political life. In my view, Mr Hager’s intention was to draw the public’s attention to the deliberate use by an incumbent Government of its institutional and bureaucratic power to thwart, mislead and, if necessary, disrupt and discredit its political opponents.
The politicisation of our supposedly neutral civil service would be a grave development under any circumstances, but the gravity of such behaviour would increase exponentially should the institutions so politicised turn out to be the armed forces, the security services and/or the police.
It is especially important that those state institutions whose fundamental remit is the maintenance and protection of “national security” remain utterly aloof from party politics. Precisely because such institutions have privileged access to extremely sensitive and confidential information, any pursuit of their own or somebody else’s private political agenda could easily result in constitutional catastrophe. Those targeted for destruction would be most unlikely to see it coming and, after the event, would have next to no chance of discovering (let alone proving) from whence it came.
The constitutional dangers notwithstanding, there is considerable historical evidence that the national security apparatus of the State is particularly prone to developing and following its own political agenda. In the United Kingdom and its former “Dominions” (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) this propensity to politicisation may be traced back to the relationship of the “Crown” to the elected government of the day. The interests of the latter are particular and transitory, while those of the Crown are general and permanent.
What’s more, because the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are “realms”, ruled (at least nominally) by the same royal family, the relationship between those pledged to maintain and protect the general and permanent interests of the Crown isn’t simply constitutional – it’s personal. Governors-general, military commanders, directors of intelligence agencies and commissioners of police all swear to “bear true allegiance”  not to the Prime Minister of the day, his or her government, or even to the people of New Zealand – but “to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors”.
That may appear to be a purely formal constitutional distinction, but should the protectors of national security come to the conclusion that an actual, or potential, prime minister is implementing, or, intends to implement, policies inimical to the general and permanent interests of the Crown, then their reaction might very well be to designate the Prime Minister/Leader of the Opposition a “threat to national security” and act accordingly.
“Dirty politics”, in the form of a series of “dirty tricks” conceived and carried out by the security services and/or their agents and “assets” would be the result.
In practical terms, this “top-down” variety of dirty politics would entail the security services feeding their own highly disruptive and reputationally destructive material into the normal processes of party-political competition. “Politics-as-usual” is, of course, the perfect cover for such extraordinary interventions. Those who object are easily dismissed as naïve, or even hypocritical. “All politics is dirty politics”, becomes the stock reply: “Everybody’s at it.”
Ideologically speaking, such top-down interventions are, almost without exception, the work of the Right, and their principal target is almost always the Left, or those disposed to offer the Left meaningful support. These latter targets may include trade unions; a minor political party willing to enter into a coalition with the dominant left-wing party; a newspaper or broadcasting network commissioning investigative journalism to the Left’s advantage; as well, of course, as the unionists, journalists and/or whistleblowers causing all the trouble.
From the Zinoviev Letter to Watergate; from Norman Kirk’s “sinister scheme” to the former SIS Director, Warren Tucker’s, 2011 lapse of judgement; dirty tricks have a way of influencing political outcomes.
Dirty politics is more than “politics as usual”. Its true purpose is to make sure that ordinary politics is never seriously threatened by the success of extraordinary politics – or politicians.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 December 2014.

Saturday 27 December 2014

Special Effects: A Christmas Satire

Star Quality: "Seriously, Nuriel, that was a really clever special effect. The mortals will still be talking about your 'Star' two thousand years from now."
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS DIRECTORATE of Paradise was located several blocks from the actual Throne of God. Its angelic executives did not enjoy the status of the Heavenly City’s heavy-hitters, Gabriel and Michael, but their spectacular contributions to his Mysterious Way had earned them plenty of commendations from the Boss. Why only this morning the Directorate had received an effusive memo from the Throne praising their dazzling contributions to the night before.
Uriel, the Directorate’s CEO, handed the memo to his Creative Director, Nuriel, with one of his famous smiles.
“Another job well done, brother. The Boss is over the moon!”
Nuriel scanned the memo’s contents and chuckled.
“I knew the Choir Effect would do the trick. Always a massive logistical effort, but nothing beats the Heavenly Host singing ‘Hallelujah!’”
“So true, Nuriel, so true. Those poor shepherds couldn’t believe their eyes!”
“The sudden intrusion of celestial power into the corporeal world will do that”, Uriel laughed. “My personal favourite, however, was the Star. That was a masterstroke. Do you remember how stumped we were when we first got this brief? How in Heaven were we supposed to persuade three Parthian wizards to travel all the way from Saba to Bethlehem without a direct summons?’ It’s a very long way to come without one of Gabriel’s special ‘invitations’.”
“True enough, but then we realised that those inveterate star-gazers would not be able to resist the lure of a new light in the sky. Once spotted it was only a matter of time before they unearthed all those “ancient” prophecies we’d taken care to deposit in the Saba library. The moment they realised that the Star portended the birth of their long-awaited ‘Messenger’, they couldn’t saddle-up the camels fast enough.”
“Yes, but it was the way you made it travel ahead of them that really brought everything together. Solved the problem of how to ensure that everyone got to the same place at the same time. Seriously, Nuriel, that was a really clever special effect. The mortals will still be talking about your “Star” two thousand years from now.”
“Not quite as clever as the Boss’s baby though – eh Uriel?”
“Shhhh, Nuriel! You know that matter’s strictly classified. Gabriel will have our wings if we start asking the wrong sort of questions about the new-born ‘Son of God’. Our brief was to handle the special effects aspects of his birth. The Hows and the Whys are well-above our pay grade!”
“Sure, sure, Uriel – don’t worry. It’s just that I’m puzzled as to why the Boss would want to manifest himself in something as fragile as a mortal human-being? I mean they’re nowhere near as spectacular as a Burning Bush, the Ten Plagues of Egypt, or a Pillar of Fire in the desert. No mortal could mistake the Boss’s messages when embedded in effects like that.”
“Not to mention the Parting of the Red Sea! Now that’s what I call a special effect!”
Nuriel smiled proudly at the memory.
“The thing is, Nuriel, the Boss is entering a new phase in his relationship with these strange creations of his. The last time we talked, He warned me that the day would come when the Special Effects Directorate would no longer be needed. That we’d be reassigned to new and altogether more complex duties.”
Nuriel frowned. “When is the Boss planning to do this?”
“Oh, don’t worry, brother, we still have plenty of work ahead of us. I tell you, when this baby grows up the Directorate will have its hands full, special effects wise. Indeed, the Boss is expecting our very best work. Water into Wine, Walking on Water, Loaves and Fishes: there’s plenty yet for us to do!”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Yes, but as the centuries pass the Boss will call upon our services less and less. That’s this little fellow’s job, apparently. To demonstrate a way to access the Divine without the need for heavenly hosts, travelling stars, or miracles of any kind.”
“Really? How does this ‘Jesus’ plan to do that?”
“I’m sorry, Nuriel, but that’s classified too. All I know is that his death is destined to be as mysterious as his birth. I pressed the Boss for an answer, but all he said was that it is going to require one last, very special, effect of his own.”
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 December 2014.

Thursday 25 December 2014

Merry Christmas Everyone!


Wishing all the readers of Bowalley Road a joyous Christmas Day and a happy and prosperous New Year.

Videos courtesy of You Tube.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

A Song For Christmas Eve


Over By Christmas: This sequence from Oh, What A Lovely War re-enacts the informal Christmas truce of 1914. The generals had said that the conflict that became the First World War would be over by Christmas - and if it had been left to the ordinary men in the trenches, it would have been.

IN THE FROSTY EVENING AIR of Northern France, on 24 December 1914, British troops, hunkered down in their trenches, heard their German enemies' voices raised in song. Peering across No Man's Land they saw lights twinkling from the branches of scores of Christmas trees raised high above the German parapets.

After several tentative approaches, soldiers from both sides met in the middle of No Man's Land where they exchanged cigarettes and shared a swig or two of liquor from proffered bottles.

For close to a week, an informal truce kept Death at bay along miles of the Western Front. "Hey Fritz!" cried the English Tommies, "Merry Christmas!" Out of the mist came the reply: "English soldier! English soldier! Happy Christmas!"

The song the men were singing on both sides of the line that special Christmas Eve was the hauntingly beautiful "Silent Night".

In the spirit of that miraculous moment, 100 years ago, may I wish all the readers of Bowalley Road a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Video courtesy of You Tube

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Name Recognition

Slave Driver! Sixty-five years ago the name Simon Legree was synonymous with a cruel and tyrannical individual. Harriet Beecher Stowe's slave driving villain was familiar to all who had read Uncle Tom's Cabin - or heard about him in church sermons or at the local union hall. Are we loosing purchase on a cultural repertoire familiar to our grandparents' generation but virtually unknown to their great grandchildren?

WHO IS SIMON LEGREE? Sixty-five years ago just about everybody had heard the name of Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s villainous slave-owner. Nearly a hundred years may have passed since the publication of her celebrated anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but people were still reading it.
To summon up the image of a tyrannical slave-driver one had only to invoke Simon Legree’s infamous name. Which is why the vast crowd rallying in support of locked-out Auckland carpenters in February 1949 was so quick to roar its approval when the trade union leader, Jock Barnes, thundered: “We will not bend the knee to the Auckland Employers’ Federation – these upstart Simon Legrees!”

Jock Barnes could have invoked the names of any number of historical and fictional characters in front of that working-class crowd and been entirely confident of their recognition. He could have quoted from Shakespeare or Dickens; made reference to Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte; and his audience would not have wondered who or what he was talking about.
Most of all, however, he could have quoted the Bible – the book everybody knew. Had he invoked the characters of Moses and Pharaoh, and called upon the Auckland employers to “Let my people go!”, his listeners would have responded every bit as lustily.
On Christmas Day, 1814, above the bright Bay of Island’s beach of Oihi, the Reverend Samuel Marsden conducted the first ever Christian service on New Zealand soil. More than any other import from the European-dominated world, Christianity has defined the cultural evolution of New Zealand society.
It was the Christian faith which ensured that Maori and Pakeha would, eventually, come to espouse a set of common moral purposes. Its complex web of insights and values was powerful enough to restrain both the colonisers and the colonised; tempering the inevitable conflicts associated with colonisation and speeding-up the processes of reconciliation afterwards. Indeed, in the Bible’s Book of Exodus Maori prophets found a source of both inspiration and hope that, ultimately, the Pakeha Pharaoh might also be prevailed upon to “Let my people go!”
Samuel Marsden was an Anglican missionary, and his Church of England was to play a decisive historical role in Christianity’s spread throughout the North Island. The gospel of peace did not, however, spread as rapidly as the military impact of the musket. Indeed throughout the 1820s and 30s the missionaries and the musket-bearers seemed to be involved in a grim competition to discover who could reap the larger harvest.
Historians put the toll of death and displacement arising out of the Musket Wars at between twenty and thirty thousand (out of a Maori population of, at most, 150,000). By the late 1830s, as more and more tribes acquired firearms, the slaughter was slowed by the emergence of a rough balance of terror. Equally important to the cessation of hostilities, however, was the power of the Christian message of love and forgiveness. Conversion lifted the traditional burden of utu (reciprocity and restitution) from Maori shoulders. Had the tribes not converted it is difficult to say when, or even if, the killing would have stopped.
The intimate historical relationship between Maori and the Anglican Church continues into the present day in the form of the Church’s unique constitution. Inspired by the provisions of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Anglicans have accorded Maori a decisive role in the governance of their Church. Some, like Professor Whatarangi Winiata, have argued that the Church’s constitutional innovations should become the model for a reconstitution of the entire New Zealand State.
Were the whole of New Zealand as seized of Christian principles as the Anglican Church and all the other denominations, such a prospect would not sound so politically far-fetched. Since the 1970s, however, Christianity in New Zealand has been in steep decline – to the point where, in the last census, less than half the population was willing to identify as such.
Now, it might be objected that although only 49 percent of New Zealanders currently identify themselves as Christians, a much larger percentage of the population continues to subscribe to Christian values. But, in the face of what might best be described as New Zealand’s “moral restructuring” can such an optimistic view be sustained?
Between 1984 and the present, the prevailing Neoliberal ideology has waged an unceasing war against the Christian values of compassion, forgiveness, solidarity and redistribution. The New Testament’s rejection of wealth and power sits very uneasily with a system whose values are best displayed in the moral squalor of “reality television”.
In 1949 New Zealanders could still be roused to moral indignation by a reference to Simon Legree. Their easy familiarity with their society’s religious and literary traditions made them powerfully responsive to moral appeals.
Is that still true in 2014?
Sixty-five years from now, how will Kiwis answer: “Who is Jesus Christ?”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 December 2014.

Friday 19 December 2014

Walking With Each Other

Into The Arms Of  Safety: But what kind of safety? And what manner of arms? How shall this world be healed when the innocent run from the arms of one gunman
 into the arms of another? (AP Photo)
IT IS A PICTURE of grief and relief. The fleeing hostage’s pale hands clutch franticly at the arm of the man who is swinging her behind him. The inclination of her body and the agitation of her flailing tresses convey vividly the desperate momentum of her flight. Eyes squeezed shut against the horrors at her back; the first of many gut-wrenching sobs escaping from her mouth, the young woman collapses, weeping, into the arms of safety.
But what kind of safety? And what manner of arms? Because the hostage’s rescuer is barely recognisable as a human being. Like the distraught waitress from the besieged Lindt Chocolat Café, he, too, is clad in black. But there the similarities end. The entity into whose arms the fleeing hostage has fallen might best be described as a weaponised biped.
If the young woman is the symbol of unprotected vulnerability, her rescuer represents the exact opposite. Every inch of him bristles with armour, weaponry and communications gear. And when he lowers the visor of his helmet what little remains of this two-legged tank’s humanity disappears altogether behind tinted Perspex.
Is this what the State has become? A blank and pitiless cyborg bulked up with Kevlar, strapped tight with Velcro and armed to the teeth? Is this really what we, as citizens, have demanded from those set in authority over us? Presented with a threat like the armed hostage-taker, Haron Monis, would we be outraged if the State defended us with anything less?
But if these weaponised human beings are indeed our representatives, then shouldn’t we give some thought to how the rest of the world might interpret what they – and we – truly stand for?
When we allow our politicians to pass laws that tightly circumscribe the limits of dissent and restrict people’s right to cross borders to uphold what they believe to be freedom and justice (as thousands of men did in the late-1930s to defend the Spanish Republic against its fascist enemies) what kind of values are we proclaiming?
And when even more fearsome variants of the weaponised men we send into our streets are deployed abroad to unleash fire and death upon people who have never lifted a hand against them, what should we expect from their families, friends and co-religionists in return?
History suggests that human beings generally respond as they are responded to.
Monday, 15 December 2014 will long be remembered in Australia for the crimes of Haron Monis. But among Australia’s Muslim community it will be remembered for something else. Hashtag I’ll Ride With you.
The Twitter account arose from an incident on a train where a young Muslim woman was observed removing her head-scarf in fear of retaliation for what was unfolding in Martin Place. A non-Muslim Australian citizen, seeing this, followed the young woman and implored her to replace her headscarf. “Don’t worry”, she said, “I’ll walk with you.” This extraordinary display of human solidarity, relayed through social media, saw the creation of #Illridewithyou and very soon tens of thousands of Australians were offering to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their Muslim fellow citizens.
Which was the better emblem of Australia? The Kevlar-encased, heavily-armed policemen who thrust a terrified young waitress behind him to safety? Or, the citizen upon whose shoulder a young Muslim woman sobbed her gratitude? Which message offers the better hope of peace and goodwill? The Australian fighter-bombers unleashing fire and death upon the battered remains of Iraq and Syria? Or, #Illridewithyou?
In just six days’ time we celebrate the birth of a Middle-Eastern prophet who instructed his followers to do more than repay like with like.
On a hillside in Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth told them:
You have heard it said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
For how shall this world be healed when the innocent run from the arms of one gunman into the arms of another? If we would be truly safe, then we must all learn to say: “Don’t worry, I’ll walk with you.”
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 December 2014.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Sitting On Our Hands

"We Nailed It!" New Zealand's representative to the United Nations, Jim McClay, takes a moment as his country's election to the UN Security Council is announced. Prime Minister Key told reporters that New Zealand got there on the strength of its reputation for being "someone that stands up for what's right". Why then did we, just a few weeks later, refuse to support a resolution condemning neo-Nazism?
NEW ZEALANDERS experienced a justifiable surge of national pride when their country was elected to the United Nations Security Council. New Zealand’s UN ambassador (and former Deputy Prime Minister) Jim McClay buried his face in his hands with heartfelt relief. Our foreign minister, Murray McCully, exclaimed “We nailed it!”
Speaking outside his Parnell residence, a clearly delighted Prime Minister told reporters that: “It’s a very good result. There’s a lot of responsibility over the next two years. I think it will be quite a challenging time to be on the Security Council. There are some very big issues – as we see in the Middle East at the moment – and it will be a demanding time for New Zealand.
Commenting on the outstanding success of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s six-year-long campaign, Mr Key observed: “We put on display the credentials of New Zealand. Which is seen as an honest broker. Someone who stands up for what’s right.”
That’s certainly how most Kiwis regard their country. From the very beginnings of the United Nations, New Zealand has stood up for the rights of smaller countries. We made ourselves their champion in the unsuccessful fight to locate the international organisation’s ultimate authority in the General Assembly.
In the aftermath of the most destructive war in human history, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, argued passionately (but unavailingly) against vesting veto power in the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. He had more success in ensuring that economic and social rights were included alongside civil and political rights in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Why then did New Zealand, the “honest broker”; the country which always “stands up for what’s right”; fail to support a resolution sponsored by the Russian Federation condemning the “glorification of Nazism” and declaring the “inadmissibility of certain practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”?
If ever there was a “no brainer” for New Zealand diplomacy – this was it. Who on earth, apart from the extremist political hoodlums it identifies, could fail to support such a resolution?
Well, apparently, we could. When the Russian Federation’s resolution was put to the General Assembly’s Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee on 26 November 2014, New Zealand, along with 56 other UN members, abstained. Included among the abstainers were every member of the European Union (EU). Not even Germany, Nazism’s birthplace and the nation state responsible for the most horrific manifestations of race hatred in human history, was prepared to join the 120 other UN members who voted in favour of the resolution.
Only three UN members could be found among neither the supporters nor the abstainers. Canada, Ukraine and the United States of America had voted against the resolution.
Why? What could possibly persuade the democratic nations of Europe, North America and Australasia to refrain from declaring their alarm at “the spread in many parts of the world of various extremist political parties, movements and groups, including neo-Nazis and skinhead groups, as well as similar extremist ideological movements”? Or, for that matter, from expressing deep concern at “all recent manifestations of violence and terrorism incited by violent nationalism, racism, xenophobia and related intolerance”?
Beating The Tin Drum: Members of the Patriot of the Ukraine party marching to the beat of a neo-Nazi revival in Eastern Europe that New Zealand refuses to condemn.
The answer, of course, is to be found in the well-documented involvement of the US State Department and the governments of the EU in the February 2014 overthrow, by armed neo-Nazi demonstrators, of the democratically-elected government of Ukraine. That both the USA and the EU were prepared to recognise, for the first time since World War II, a European government which included openly fascist and neo-Nazi politicians, rendered support for the Russian Federation’s resolution diplomatically implausible.
Accordingly, the Western democracies argued strongly that supporting the Russian Federation’s resolution would be tantamount to endorsing the latter’s annexation of Crimea, and ignoring its ongoing military and economic support for the breakaway Russian-speaking provinces of Eastern Ukraine.
Utter foolishness.
President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is prey to the very same fascistic and neo-Nazi forces that its UN anti-racist resolution condemns. The uncomplicated endorsement of its content would, therefore, have allowed the democratic countries to serve notice on both the Russian Federation and Ukraine that violent racist xenophobia remains totally unacceptable to the United Nations’ membership.
Sadly, the United States refused to tolerate even implied criticism of its hard-won Ukrainian protectorate. Canada cravenly concurred. And the EU, rather than alienate the Americans, abstained.
As an “honest broker” who “always stands up for what’s right”, New Zealand was gifted an early opportunity to show the 145 UN members who voted for her that their support had not been misplaced. Reminding the world of Nazism’s 20 million Russian victims, and reconfirming its unalterably evil nature would, surely, have done more for international understanding – and our reputation – than sitting on our hands?
This essay was originally published by The Press of Tuesday, 16 December 2014.

Saturday 13 December 2014

Wisdom's Mirror: Can Grant Robertson Slay The Neoliberal Gorgon?

Reflected Gory: The Greek hero, Perseus, used Athena's bright shield to defeat Medusa. If Grant Robertson means to slay the neoliberal Gorgon he should, like Perseus, be guided by what he sees in Wisdom's Mirror. Neoliberalism can only be slain by the thing it set out to negate: the political economy of solidarity and generosity.
HOW TO ELIMINATE one’s rival without getting one’s hands dirty? It’s a problem with a prodigious political pedigree. King David’s lust for Bathsheba drove him to order, Uriah, her unfortunate husband, placed in the front line of battle – where he was promptly and conveniently slain. King Henry II, thwarted in his ambition to dominate the English Church by his old friend, Thomas Becket (whom he’d foolishly made Archbishop of Canterbury) cried out: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” Whereupon four of his knights immediately took it upon themselves to terminate the Archbishop’s turbulence with extreme prejudice. In neither case, however, did matters end well for these errant kings. God was watching David, and Henry had a Pope to placate.
Then again, there’s the legend of Perseus. If they’d had opinion polls on the Greek island of Serifos back in the days of King Polydectes, then the hero, Perseus, would have been the people’s preferred monarch. To protect his throne (and get his lustful paws on Perseus’ beautiful mother, Danae) Polydectes tricked the hero into promising to bring him any gift he cared to name. Without missing a beat, the King ordered Perseus to bring him the head of Medusa – the monstrous Gorgon who had only to look upon a man and he was instantly turned to stone.
Now in the ordinary run of things, Perseus would have been a goner. But, of course, as Zeus’s son, he had friends in the highest of places. And so, with the help of the gods Hermes and Athena, he was able to cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone. Returning to Serifos, Perseus bore the monster’s head to Polydectes who was, predictably, petrified.
Now, it strikes me that Andrew Little was born too late to have been enthralled (as I was) by the Children’s World Record Club’s magnificent rendering of the legend of Perseus and Medusa. [It’s how middle-class Kiwi parents entertained their children in the years before television!] Nevertheless, there is more than a hint of Polydectes deadly errand in Mr Little’s decision to confer the Finance Spokesperson role upon his most formidable political rival, Grant Robertson.

"Slay what?" Labour's Finance Spokesperson, Grant Robertson. 
The confident predictions of right-wing political commentators notwithstanding, Mr Little is expecting a great deal more from his Finance Spokesperson than yet another recitation of the neoliberal catechism. Mr Robertson has been given twelve months to come up with something new in the way of economic policy. Something that moves the Labour Party on from its 30 year infatuation with neoliberal dogma and introduces it to a practical and progressive set of economic alternatives.
Polydectes would be proud. Because Mr Robertson’s quest is full of perils. If ever there was a menagerie of solid rock, it is that vast collection of economic ideas upon which the neoliberal Gorgon has cast her petrifying gaze. Mr Robertson would not be the first social democrat to have his career turned to stone for the capital crime of embracing heterodox political economy. Just consider the fates of the US Democratic Party’s Walter Mondale, or the German SPD’s Oskar Lafontaine.
But perhaps the very myth that exemplifies Mr Robertson’s predicament also points the way to its solution.
According to story, Perseus was gifted with several crucial items by Hermes and Athena. From the god he received winged sandals, upon which he could fly; Zeus’s sword, that cut through brass and iron; and Hades’ helmet, which made him invisible. From the goddess he received a mighty shield in whose polished surface he could safely view Medusa’s harmless reflection. It was Athena’s – the Goddess of Wisdom’s – gift that guided his sword-arm at the critical moment.
What, then, is the mirror image of neoliberalism? To learn the answer, Mr Robertson need look no further than this morning’s (12/12/14) NZ Herald editorial. Responding to the recent OECD report in which New Zealand is singled out for the size of the gulf separating its richest and poorest citizens, the leader writer wrote:
“In one sense this is not a surprise. New Zealand was a highly protected economy until the mid-1980s with a strongly unionised labour force, high taxation and universal benefits. It had removed these arrangements rapidly by the mid-1990s, conscious that it was opening itself to world markets later than most and with trade disadvantages of distance and scale.”
It would seem that Mr Robertson’s search for an alternative to the iniquitous neoliberal prescription should begin with the things that neoliberalism was intended to replace: policies that enable New Zealand-based businesses to grow and prosper; laws that ensure the rights of employees are protected and that their remuneration is both fair and adequate; and finally, the overarching determination that (as the OECD’s report itself recommends) the nation’s wealth be redistributed in ways that permit all of its citizens to aspire to full, productive and happy lives.
An economic policy elaborating these three themes would, indeed, be a mighty sword in the hands of a Labour Finance Minister – especially one who had taught himself to see, in Wisdom’s mirror, exactly where to strike.
Reviewing the tasks Mr Little has set Mr Robertson, it is possible that I have done him a disservice in comparing him to the evil King Polydectes. If the Labour leader’s true purpose had been to send his rival upon a quest he could not complete, would he have put him in charge of Labour’s broad-ranging inquiry into the future of work? Is it not more likely that, by giving Mr Robertson this responsibility, Mr Little has indicated the direction in which he wishes Labour and its finance spokesperson to march? To a New Zealand where the rights of citizens and their prosperity are inextricably bound together, and where the true purpose of political economy is to ensure the continuance of both.
Sometimes the best way to eliminate a rival is not to turn him to stone, but to allow him to blossom and bear fruit. The Gods, they say, help those who help themselves – and each other.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Saturday, 13 December 2014.

Friday 12 December 2014

Andrew Little: Wanted And Wondered At

Here Comes The Sun: Andrew Little's political career has prospered in no small way by the care he has taken to mask both his ambition and his talent until the most propitious moment. Like Shakespeare's Prince Hal he has imitated the sun; hiding his brilliance behind "base contagious clouds" until the moment "when he please again to be himself" so that "being wanted, he may be more wondered at".
HAS THERE EVER BEEN a leader who commanded absolute loyalty? A king, a party boss, a prime minister so blessed with the attributes of leadership that not even one of his barons, ward-heelers or cabinet ministers ever felt moved to ask the question: “Why not me?”
Even in the court of King Arthur, Mordred plotted murder and ruin. The “one brief shining moment” that was the Kennedy White House shivered in the shadow of Lyndon Johnson’s unappeasable ambition. On the plane-ride back from Norman Kirk’s Waimate funeral his colleagues lobbied furiously for the numbers to succeed him.
The acid of political power dissolves all friendships, all pacts, all solemn pledges of loyalty. All leaders knows this and conduct themselves accordingly. On the battlefield, they bring victory. At the ballot box, more votes than their opponents. On the Government Benches, favourable polls and reliable majorities.
The moment a leader fails to furnish the victories, votes and validation promised to his followers, challenges – and challengers – are inevitable.
Power belongs to those with courage to take it – and the skill to wield it.
Which is why the initial conclusions of Labour’s election review panel made me chuckle. One of the reasons the party performed so poorly, reported the four wise heads appointed to identify where Labour went wrong in 2014, is that its parliamentary caucus failed to unite around the leadership of David Cunliffe.
Well, duh!
David Cunliffe knew that he faced a caucus full of enemies when he put his name forward for the Labour leadership. What he did not appear to understand was how urgently he needed to neutralise that enmity.
In this respect, the behaviour of Mr Cunliffe’s successor is instructive.
To begin at the beginning: Andrew Little’s whole parliamentary career appears to have been inspired by Prince Hal’s soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun, 
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds 
To smother up his beauty from the world, 
That, when he please again to be himself, 
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at, 
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists 
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him
There are times when one’s leadership ambitions are better served by keeping them hidden than by openly parading them before one’s colleagues and the world. Like Prince Hal, Mr Little was at pains to smother up his leadership qualities until such time as his party had most need of them.

Prince Hal In Glasses? Labour's Andrew Little.
And what a masterful job he made of it! As far as most of the political class was concerned there was very little to be hoped for from Mr Little’s wafer-thin victory over Grant Robertson. Commentators almost gloated that Labour’s new leader was everybody’s second choice; had never won a seat; carried neither his caucus nor the party membership; and almost didn’t make it into Parliament at all! Needless to say, the wider electorate’s expectations were similarly modest.
But Mr Little, like Prince Hal, understood that:
By how much better than my word I am, 
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes.
Far from being “a modest little man, with much to be modest about” – as Winston Churchill famously described his nemesis, Clement Atlee – Mr Little burst out of Labour’s corner with his dander well-and-truly up, landing punches on a Prime Minister whose reaction to this new leader’s wholly unexpected onslaught was almost as disbelieving as the Press Gallery’s.
For the first time in a long time the whole of the Labour Party experienced that surge of energy and hope that comes from seeing one’s champion lay low the enemy’s best fighter. MPs, party grandees, union bosses and ordinary members alike heard Mr Little tell the Prime Minister to “cut the crap” and knew that Labour had, at long last, a leader worthy of the name.
Mr Cunliffe failed dismally to unite his caucus for the very simple reason that nothing he did gave his enemies cause to cease questioning his right to lead them. Like a medieval king defeated on the field of battle, Mr Cunliffe was forced to endure, through the whole duration of his long retreat, the contemptuous scorn and open hostility of his embarrassed barons.
Mr Little, by contrast, having demonstrated the requisite courage and skill, can now present that surest proof of leadership.
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 December 2014.

Tuesday 9 December 2014


Suffocating Justice: The New York Daily News's cartoonist, Bill Bramhall, captures the shock and dismay of liberal America at the frightening implications of a New York Grand Jury's refusal to indict those responsible for the homicide of Eric Garner.
“I CAN’T BREATHE!” Who could hear those words and not respond? What sort of police officer, effecting the arrest of an unarmed black man by placing him in an illegal chokehold, could hear that anguished cry and refuse to lessen his grip?
The first part of the answer is, quite simply: a person who has never learned how to look at a black person and see a human-being. The second: a police officer who understands that, if the deceased is a black man, then his arresting officer/s will never be made accountable for his death.
Racism, and the informal legal protection afforded to racist police officers by America’s Grand Jury system, is what makes the deaths of unarmed African-Americans, like Eric Garner, inevitable. In spite of the fact that the NYPD officer responsible for Mr Garner’s death had a record of “racial bias”; and regardless of the fact that the whole outrageous incident was recorded on a witness’s cellphone; a Grand Jury composed of “ordinary” New Yorkers declined to press charges.
The widespread protests that followed the Grand Jury’s decision have made headlines around the world. Less visible, however, was the counter-protest of a group of female primary school teachers against their union’s condemnation of Mr Garner’s death. These women, all of them white and all wearing an “I support the NYPD” t-shirt, took a photograph of themselves and posted it on Facebook. They were all employees of a public school with African-American and Hispanic children on the student roll.

Racist to the Core: Teachers from Public School 220, Queens, New York, indicate the value they place on the life of a Black father of six.
What shocked liberal Americans was not only the nature of the counter-protesters’ profession – these were teachers, for God’s sake! – but also their absolute and deeply disturbing ordinariness.
Presented to the public gaze were not the angular, lock-jawed matriarchs of some 1960s Mississippi backwater staring malevolently into the lens of a photojournalist from Life magazine. No, these were “Soccer Moms” from Queens. Gals next door. The sort of friendly, fresh-faced suburbanites Americans bump into every day at the super-market. The “lovely women” encountered several times a year at parent-teacher evenings. The trained professionals who teach their kids!
Racists to the core.
The teachers’ Facebook posting produced the same jarring effect as photographs taken at lynchings during the 1920s and 30s. Surrounding the charred remains of the lynch-mob’s Black victims were, typically, scores of perfectly “normal” white people (and their children!) who had turned out to watch the “fun”. The bland, smiling faces of the female staff of New York City Public School No. 220 offered a visual echo of those dreadful images from 90 years ago. They bear grim testimony to a white community every bit as oblivious to its complicity in racial injustice and exemplary violence.

Faces At A Lynching: "Ordinary" people utterly oblivious to their complicity in racial injustice and exemplary violence.
The example of New York’s, Eric Garner, like the example of Ferguson, Missouri’s Michael Brown, and countless others before them, has exposed the extent to which African-Americans remain the despised “Other” of United States’ Society. Many other ethnicities have had to endure the scorn of America’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite. But, while the Irish, Italians, Poles and Jews eventually found their hyphenated niche within the American Dream, African-Americans remain, overwhelmingly, on the outside looking in.
Can anyone honestly say that the extreme animus directed towards the presidency of Barack Obama owes nothing to his colour? That the Tea Party’s extraordinary political traction among elderly white Americans has nothing to do with a Black President’s determination to admit African-American and Hispanic citizens into full membership of the national family? That the relentless arithmetic of demographic change, which points to White Americans falling below 50 percent of the population within the lifetimes of children living today, has not reignited the same primal fears that spawned the intractable racial violence of the Deep South?
Those of us who remember the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s also recall the central role Southern law enforcement played in the enforcement of racial segregation and the maintenance of white power. Southern county sheriffs and local police departments had always provided the front-line troops of Dixie’s racial war. On the rare occasions Southern police officers were charged with offences against African-Americans, Southern juries inevitably voted for acquittal.
The fate of Eric Garner points to the “Dixiefication” of the whole of the United States. The same racialization of poverty and powerlessness that characterised the Deep South has migrated both North and West. The same fetishisation of skin pigmentation as the crucial determinant of one’s place in the social hierarchy now infects even that last, great bastion of liberal influence, the teaching profession. And, finally, the near universal contracting-out of the practical business of racial oppression to local law enforcement is leading thoughtful Americans to the grim conclusion that, in the long-run, it is the South that won the Civil War.
America, herself, will soon be gasping: “I can’t breathe!”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 December 2014.

Friday 5 December 2014

What's In A Name? Let The Anzacs Rest In Peace, Mr Key.

Imperial Folly: If the Anzac legend is about anything at all, it is about young Australian and New Zealand men transcending the idiocy and mendacity of their leaders and the hopelessness of their situation to assert a set of values and qualities unique to the places they called home.
IF ANYTHING can still be considered “sacred” in New Zealand it’s Anzac Day. For Pakeha New Zealanders, in particular, the commemoration of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 holds a visceral significance which Waitangi Day has never achieved. That the day has survived the passing of all those who were actually there bears testimony to its status as one of the most potent symbols of our national identity.
In her nine years as Prime Minister, Helen Clark devoted considerable energy (and a not insignificant amount of taxpayer cash) to enhancing the power and reach of Anzac Day. Ms Clark’s purpose was to underscore the military tragedy’s role in nudging New Zealanders forward from their reflexive identification with the British Empire towards the first, tentative, notion that they might, one day, become something more than mere “loyal subjects” of the King-Emperor.
You might, therefore, think that Ms Clark’s successor, contemplating the hundredth  anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, would be anxious to ensure that nothing happened to besmirch or cheapen the solemn character of this major historical commemoration. But, in this matter, as in so many other matters of late, our current prime minister, John Key, is full of surprises.
At his post-Cabinet media conference on Monday, Mr Key announced that: “it’s not impossible that they [the training components of Australian and New Zealand military contingents poised to join the international effort against Islamic State] could be badged as an Anzac unit.”
Mr Key and his Australian counterpart, Tony Abbott, have clearly been mulling over the possibility of resurrecting the Anzac “badge” ever since the two politicians teamed-up in the West Australian port of Albany to jointly preside over commemorations of the original Anzacs’ embarkation for Egypt on 1 November 1914.
It is difficult to know where to begin the list of reasons why the Prime Ministers’ suggestion should be dismissed out of hand.
Perhaps we should start by reviewing why the original Gallipoli Campaign proved to be such a disaster.
In April 1915 New Zealand was ordered into a hastily improvised invasion of the Ottoman Empire with no clear understanding of what we were being asked to do – or even if we could do it. If the Anzac legend is about anything at all, it is about young Australian and New Zealand men transcending the idiocy and mendacity of their leaders and the hopelessness of their situation to assert a set of values and qualities unique to the places they called home.
We honour the 2,779 young Kiwis who fell in that fight not simply for their tremendous courage, but also for the terrible lesson which their utterly needless deaths have, hopefully, inscribed upon our national memory. That it is terribly wrong for our leaders to send young New Zealand men and women to right wrongs that we, as New Zealanders, did not commit and which we cannot hope to end.
Mr Key has stated that he has no intention of “doing something that’s disrespectful”. But allowing us to be drawn into a joint role with the Australians under some sort of sentimental throwback to the Anzacs is, as Labour’s Andrew Little noted: “pretty cynical”.
Especially since it would be a joint mission without clear objectives; lacking any reliable metric for success; and which will likely end with New Zealand’s soldiers being hastily withdrawn amidst recrimination and disgust.
Dry Run? US Marines and New Zealand soldiers conduct joint military exercises, "Dawn Blitz", at Camp Pendleton, California, in 2013.
Iraq is a failed state riven with corruption and religious enmity. Its standing army is a standing joke. Nine tenths of the men we’d be “training” have no wish to either kill or die for a regime they neither respect nor trust. The remaining tenth will gladly put themselves and their weapons at the disposal of Islamic State. Nowhere in Iraq is “behind the wire”. The whole country is a combat zone.
If the “strategic studies” departments of our universities were worthy of the name they would be condemning the madness of sending foreign troops to Iraq in order to crush a movement brought into being by the presence of foreign troops in Iraq. With Australian planes strafing IS positions and its special forces readying themselves for combat, nothing could endanger New Zealand’s “home front” more than publicly joining our name with that of the United States’ gung-ho “Deputy Sheriff”.
Imperial folly has claimed enough New Zealand lives. No more.
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, 5 December 2014.

Murder And The Media: The Relentless Pursuit Of Pain And Pathos.

Alternative Sources Of Pain And Pathos: With the end of capital punishment, the news media entered into a new relationship with the ill-fated “cast” of the standard homicide case.
VERY FEW PEOPLE under the age of seventy will remember Caryl Chessman. His execution in the San Quentin gas chamber on 2 May 1960 was the occasion for an international outpouring of condemnation and disgust. The good and the great of the United States (from Aldous Huxley and Norman Mailer to the former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt) had appealed for clemency, but the State of California killed him anyway. Not for murder, mind, but for robbery, kidnapping and rape. The Supreme Court of the State of California had confirmed Chessman as the notorious “Red Light Bandit”. He’d managed to keep the cyanide out of the hole for 11 long years through numerous appeals and stays of execution, but California got him in the end.
The execution of Chessman unleashed a wave of popular revulsion against the death penalty in the United States. Over the course of the succeeding decade-and-a-half, state after state either abolished sentences of death altogether, or operated as if they had by commuting them to life imprisonment.
Not in the Deep South, of course, where the death penalty operated as an unacknowledged form of judicial terrorism against the black population of the old Confederacy. So extreme was the sexual psycho-pathology of the Southern Baptist male that Black American men were as frequently put to death for rape as they were for murder. The alleged “defilement” of a white woman by a black man drove Southern juries (and lynch mobs) into murderous frenzies.
With debate still raging in the lengthening shadow of Chessman’s execution, New Zealand finally rid itself of the death penalty in 1961. The legislation was made the subject of a conscience vote because in the years since 1949, when the First National Government had restored the death penalty (Labour having abolished it in 1941) a growing number of National Party members and MPs had found themselves conscientiously opposed to its retention. Interestingly, the liberal National Party Justice Minister, Ralph Hanan’s, majority for repeal included the new back-bench MP for Tamaki, Robert Muldoon.
The news media’s progressive role in the abolition of the death penalty might seem strange to a generation raised on the vicarious cruelty of reality television. Perhaps it was because journalists, as proxies for the crowds that once gathered to watch these grim events, were required to witness executions.
Only a pathological sadist could derive any pleasure from watching a defenceless man, often crying uncontrollably and begging for mercy, being frogmarched to the centre of a platform, where a canvas hood is thrust over his head, a noose tightened around his neck, and, at a signal from the Sheriff, dropped through a trap-door to his (hopefully) instant death. Seasoned reporters dreaded the execution assignment and their stories tended to be terse and generally sparing of the readers’ feelings.
There were exceptions. The relentlessly factual and highly detailed description of the February 1957 hanging of wife-murderer, Walter James Bolton, so horrified the public that it ended up being the last execution ever carried out in New Zealand.
With the end of capital punishment, however, the news media entered into a new relationship with the ill-fated “cast” of the standard homicide case.
The victims of deadly violence have always supplied reporters with sensational copy, but, in the days of the death penalty, the apprehension and conviction of the murderer naturally shifted the focus away from the dead to the one about to die. Often, the public found themselves caught up in the defence lawyers’ appeals for mercy on behalf of perpetrators who frequently turned out to be as much sinned against as sinning.
But when the worst that could happen to a murderer was being locked in a prison cell for a couple of decades (at most) journalists began to look elsewhere for the sort of pain and pathos that sells newspapers. The murder victims were, of course, beyond the reporter’s reach, but their family and friends were still very much alive. What’s more, the new, humane, Justice System often left the murder victim’s family and friends feeling cheated of the revenge they so desperately wished to see exacted upon the body of the person who had robbed them of their loved one.
Thus began the inexorable rise of “the victim’s family” as an unassailable source of commentary on the whys and wherefores, rights and wrongs, of contemporary crime and punishment. It was from distraught parents, heartbroken husbands and wives, and bereft children that journalists sought definitive judgements on the conduct of the accused’s trial and the appropriateness of any sentence. From the intense pain and suffering of these stricken human-beings the news media was happy to mine bitter attacks on the rights of accused persons, the leniency of judges and the manifest inadequacies of the nation’s laws.
Not surprisingly, politicians of every hue have been quick to attach themselves to the public outrage whipped up by this sort of journalism. The consequent electoral auction has seen an alarming narrowing of the crucial distance which jurists, over many centuries, have laboriously imposed between the raw grief of the victim’s family and the need for justice to be dispensed dispassionately, without fear or favour. The whole purpose of the Crown making itself the aggrieved party – as opposed to the victim’s relatives – along with the state’s insistence on being the only agency legally entitled to exact retribution for proven offences, is at risk of being forgotten.
It all raises a very uncomfortable question. Which is worse: the death penalty, or what happens to society’s understanding of justice when capital punishment is abolished?
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 3 December 2014.

Government By (Some) Of The People.

Unanimity Not Required: Democracy, properly defined, is that system of government which allows those issues which perennially divide a people to be resolved by the will of (at best) a majority, or (at worst) a simple plurality of the responsible adult population.
“GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE, by the people, for the people”. Abraham Lincoln’s supremely succinct definition of democracy has been repeated so often it has become a political cliché. And yet, even as he spoke it, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of Thursday, 19 November 1863, his formulation was political humbug.
The American “people”, in whose name the battlefield at Gettysburg was being consecrated, was then engaged in a titanic civil war over what it meant to be an American. The democratic system of government enshrined in the US Constitution had grappled with this question for 87 years and it had failed. The “people” had been unable to agree, and so now the future of the American Republic was being decided by blood and iron.
Most nations are only held together by sentiment. A unifying national mythology; a common language and history; familiar and beloved institutions; the reflected glory of an all-conquering sports team: these are the things that bind a people together.
But there are many forces that tear a people apart. Class prejudice; religious bigotry; the inequitable distribution of wealth and resources; racism; overbearing courts and tribunals; brutal law enforcement; exactly who should, and who shouldn’t, be defined as the “peoples’” friends and enemies. Nations have gone to war with themselves over such matters.
Democracy, properly defined, is that system of government which allows those issues which perennially divide a people to be resolved by the will of (at best) a majority, or (at worst) a simple plurality of the responsible adult population. Obviously, the stronger the sentimental glue which binds a people together, the more willing those who find themselves in the minority will be to abide by the decisions of the majority. Equally obvious, however, is the need for democratic governments to honour the minority’s forbearance. No democracy can survive an elected government’s attempt to transform its transitory political dominance into a system of permanent rule. The composition of the majority must be permitted to change – or democracy has no meaning.
These musings upon the nature of democracy are inspired by a week of quite alarming revelations. New Zealanders have learned that, at the highest levels of their government,  there is evidence of an abiding scorn for the traditions and institutions that make for a cohesive society and functioning democracy.
The Report of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security into the release of SIS information to Cameron Slater; Justice Chisholm’s Report into the conduct of the Minister of Justice, Judith Collins; the introduction, under urgency, of the Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill; taken together, all of these developments suggest a potentially dangerous loosening of the struts and ties that prevent our democracy from flying apart.
The impression conveyed is of a political class that sets little, if any, stock by the whole notion of democratic restraint. In some very high places, the idea that the minority’s forbearance should be honoured, or that linking the minority’s interests with the majority’s remains a crucial objective of democratic government, elicits only derisive guffaws. In its place has arisen an attitude towards the Government’s opponents which borders on the sociopathic. They are no longer regarded as fellow citizens with rights and opinions to be respected, but as enemies who must be destroyed.
That such short-sighted conduct leads only to destruction, both morally and practically, should be obvious to the meanest political intelligence. One need not be a biblical scholar to grasp the meaning of the verse: “For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” The democratic politician understands that he, his party, and all those his party represents, will not be in power forever; and that it is, therefore, prudent to use only those political tactics that one’s own side could tolerate being used against itself.
But what if this tradition of democratic self-limitation were abandoned? What if a politician and/or a political party, refusing to accept that what comes around goes around, adopted a morally reckless, winning-is-everything strategy? Wouldn’t that mean that, very soon, political defeat entailed such monumental personal and institutional risk that it had to be prevented at any cost – including democracy itself?

Abraham Lincoln: His Gettysburg Address offered Americans "a new birth of freedom".
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was not, in the end, about defining democracy, but about redefining the purpose of the United States in a way that gave the conflict’s appalling losses meaning and prevented another civil war from breaking out. It was about giving Americans a sense of citizenship so vast and inspiring it could dissolve the lure of self-interest and drown out the rancour of partisanship. A “new birth of freedom” is what Lincoln promised the American people – North and South.
Perhaps it is time that we New Zealanders “highly resolve” that our own nation should have the same.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 November 2014.

Sunday 30 November 2014

The Deep State Surfaces

Forced To The Surface: One of the most significant effects of the Neoliberal revolution has been the radical shortening of the distance between the surface of the State and its hitherto "deep" foundations.
IT IS EIGHTEEN YEARS since education lecturer, Denis Small, surprised two Security Intelligence Service (SIS) agents attempting to break into the home of the anti-free trade activist, Aziz Choudry. The SIS was to pay dearly (quite literally as it turned out) for that spectacular cock-up. Legislative change was required to settle the feathers of liberal opinion which, as always, professed outrage at the very idea of a state that was willing to break into the homes of its citizens. The bitter truth, of course, is that the agents and agencies of the “Deep State” have never hesitated to do whatever the hell they liked in citizens’ homes and workplaces.
Before the responsibility for defending “national security” was handed over to stand-alone agencies like the SIS it had been divided between the Police (Special Branch) and the Armed Forces (Military and Naval Intelligence).
Sometimes, as in the Waihi Miners’ Strike of 1912, the Police worked hand-in-glove with the government of the day to bring agitators and subversives under control. On other occasions – as in the  early years of the First Labour Government – the Police kept tabs on their political masters without their knowledge. (What other choice did they have when the agitators and subversives had become the Government!)
This is, of course, the defining characteristic of that nexus of defence, control and administrative institutions we call the Deep State: that it feels perfectly comfortable determining what is and isn’t in the “national interest”; and that it carries out this function without paying too much attention to the democratic niceties. The people’s elected representatives might be consulted if they are the right sort of representatives (with the emphasis on “right”). “Left” representatives, on the other hand, don’t “need to know” and should not be told too much about the Deep State’s activities.
In Margaret Hayward’s Diary of the Kirk Years she makes it plain that Norman Kirk was not only the subject of more-or-less constant SIS surveillance from the moment he became Leader of the Opposition, but that even as Prime Minister he could not count on his spooks keeping him in the loop of their surveillance activities.
As a young, fairly radical back-bench Labour MP, Helen Clark made no secret of her belief that her phone-calls were being monitored by the SIS. Given Clark’s long association with such dangerous beasts as the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and East Timor’s FRETILIN freedom-fighters, the SIS was probably the least of Helen’s worries. The Americans cannot have been happy with her appointment to the Chair of Parliament’s Peace and Disarmament Select Committee – especially when it became clear that David Lange (his solemn promises to US Secretary of State, George Shultz, notwithstanding) was about to take his party’s anti-nuclear policies seriously.
Had the Fourth Labour Government not been equally keen on implementing a radical series of neoliberal reforms, the Deep State would almost certainly have set in motion the same kinds of “defensive” measures that led to the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s errant Labour Government back in 1975.
In 1984, however, a major power-shift was underway within our Deep State apparatus. From being just one of a number of important government institutions, the Treasury was moving to assert a decisive role in the governance of New Zealand.
All over the capitalist world power was migrating from the military to the economic sphere. The money men were beginning to count for more than the men in uniform. With the fall of the Berlin Wall this shift became complete. The Soviet Union did not fall to generals driving tanks, it was broken up by economists wielding lap-tops.
Francis Fukuyama called it the “end of history” and in a way he was right. If history is understood to mean the steady pressure of the masses to throw open the closed institutions of the elites, then the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the social-democratic institutions that made possible the post-war boom did, indeed, mark the terminus of the “progressive” historical experiment.
The most significant effect of this massive disempowerment of the Western working-classes is the radical reduction in the distance between the surface of the State and its foundations. For the neoliberal victors of the ideological struggle, only the institutions of the Deep State are deemed worthy of preservation. The Courts, the Police, the Prisons, the Armed Forces, the Security Services: all are needed to manage the consequences of the free-market revolution. In Fukuyama’s “liberal capitalist democracies” the only remaining legitimate role for elected politicians is to keep the agencies of repression and social control adequately funded and fit for purpose.
To justify this “night-watchman” role, the modern politician is required to manufacture a menagerie of enemies frightening enough to keep a majority of the voting public clamouring for safety and security. Democratic politics is thus reduced to a combination of cheap vaudeville routines and spectacular conjuring tricks. The electoral “audience” is first persuaded to identify and bond with their political impresarios, and then impelled to seek protection from the succession of scary monsters which their masters periodically summon to the stage.
This sort of politics cannot succeed without the active participation of the news media. Even more than the traditional agencies of social control and repression, the media has become integral to the Deep State’s protection of the neoliberal revolution. For the “Politics of the Spectacle” to work its magic of misdirection and distraction, the media must be fully engaged in the process. This not only requires the transformation of politicians into media “talent”, but also the Deep State’s active collaboration in fuelling and maintaining the media’s evolving political narratives.
Back in 1996 David Small’s surprising of two SIS agents at Aziz Choudry’s residence spelled political disaster for the Service. Eighteen years later, the Director of the SIS, Rebecca Kitteridge, fronts-up to the television cameras and openly argues for a “temporary” curtailment of civil liberties. Her predecessor in the job, Warren Tucker, is shown to have willingly inserted himself into the machinery of a media smear operation run out of the Prime Minister’s Office.
The Deep State has surfaced.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 20 November 2014.