Tuesday 31 March 2015

At The Centre Of Attention

Help Is On Its Way: Winston Peters storms home in Northland, but his historic by-election victory has raised a whole new flurry of political questions.
IT WAS WINSTON’S FINEST HOUR. The sheer scale of his Northland by-election victory had the commentariat scrabbling for superlatives. Even old enemies got into the act. In a generous tribute to the NZ First leader he betrayed, Tau Henare told TV3’s The Nation that Winston Peters must now be ranked as “the greatest Maori politician since Apirana Ngata”.
In answering all the questions about whether or not it could be done, however, Mr Peters’ historic by-election victory has raised a host of new concerns. Let us examine three of the more important questions his win has posed.
To hold Northland will NZ First be required to veer to the Right – thereby alienating the thousands of Labour supporters whose votes provided the foundation for Mr Peters’ upset win?
Will the National Government, looking ahead to 2017 and beyond, begin to re-position itself as NZ First’s future coalition partner?
How will Mr Peters’ Northland victory influence Labour’s political positioning – especially its relationship with the Greens?
Labour, if it is wise, will seize the opportunity provided by Mr Peters’ victory to put even more distance between itself and the Greens. In his continuing effort to “re-connect” Labour with its traditional constituencies, Andrew Little must already have marked the numerous ideological affinities that draw non-National provincial voters towards one another. These are conservative people, whose personal morals and political values often place them at odds with the more “progressive” voters of metropolitan New Zealand.
The extent to which Labour’s Northland voters defected to Mr Peters indicates that, at the very least, the NZ First leader’s political values presented no insurmountable barrier to Labour’s people following their own leader’s tactical advice. Indeed, just about all the insurmountable barriers to the re-connections Labour must make if it is to regain the status of a “40 percent party” have been raised in the cities – not the provinces.
Even in the cities these obstacles persist. Labour’s traditional urban working-class supporters have more in common with their provincial brothers and sisters than many Labour Party activists are willing to admit.
Shunting-off their social revolutionaries to the Greens might decimate the ranks of Labour’s membership, but it could, equally, swell the ranks of those willing to vote for the party in 2017. Shorn of its radical fringe, Labour not only becomes a much more comfortable fit for NZ First – but also for working-class New Zealanders generally.
National’s strategists will not have overlooked this potentially decisive strategic opening for the Centre Left. So long as the voters continue to bracket Labour and the Greens as indispensable components of any future alternative government, National’s dominant position on the political chess-board will remain unchecked. There are simply too many voters ready to believe that a Labour-Green Government must involve a ruinously radical shift to the left. A re-positioning towards NZ First would, however, allow Labour to present itself as an eminently electable party of the moderate centre.
To forestall such an eventuality, National’s strategists would also have to give serious consideration to re-positioning their party towards the moderate centre. Prime Minister John Key’s highly successful strategy of “radical incrementalism” (as close advisers, Crosby|Textor call it) would have to become a lot less radical and considerably more incremental, but the party would, almost certainly, regard slowing down the pace of economic and social reform as an option to be preferred well ahead of losing the Treasury benches altogether.
Mr Peters, meanwhile, describes the Northland result as a “seismic shift” in New Zealand politics. In the light of everything he has just achieved, we would be wise to take him at his word. But a shift to what? That is the crucial question.
Mr Peters would no doubt describe his prescription as “common sense”. And if by that he means offering solutions based not on ideological assumptions, but on the pragmatic assessment of what needs to be done, and who, or what, is best placed to do it, then he is almost certainly on to something.
All over the world, from Greece to Queensland, voters are growing tired of being told, usually by the very politicians they elected to help them, that they cannot be helped. That forces over which mere politicians neither can, nor should, exercise the slightest control have already determined their fate, and that there’s nothing anyone can do.
Mr Peters great insight is that what human-beings have made, they can also unmake: that change is possible; and that New Zealanders, more than anything else, yearn to meet one another halfway, between the extremes of Right and Left.
Twenty-one years ago, Winston Peters wrote: “When one walks down the centre of the road one foot falls slightly to the right, the other to the left, but the head and the heart remain in the centre. So it is with New Zealand First.”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 March 2015.

Monday 30 March 2015

The Common Affairs Of The Whole: Why The National Party Is So Bad For New Zealand Capitalism.

Capitalist Cronies: Prime Minister, John Key, and his Finance Minister, Bill English. There’s an enormous difference between managing the affairs of the employing class as a whole, and arranging sweet deals for your mates.
[T]he bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.
Karl Marx & Friedrich EngelsThe Communist Manifesto (1848)

IF JOHN KEY’S GOVERNMENT is a committee, tasked with “managing the common affairs” of the whole employing class”, how’s it doing? Would it earn a pass mark from Charlie Marx and Fred Engels? Or, would they condemn Key for his failure to comprehend the whole meaning of the word “common”?
There’s an enormous difference between managing the affairs of the employing class as a whole, and arranging sweet deals for your mates. Indeed, it’s possible to argue that the difference between a “modern” state, and a state which merely aspires to that condition, is how successfully its political leaders have extricated themselves from the webs of personal, familial, and tribal obligations that characterise pre-modern societies.
The late Bruce Jesson shrewdly observed of New Zealand’s two major political parties that, although the National Party knew how to govern for capitalists, only the Labour Party had mastered the art of governing for capitalism.
Just think of the Sky City Casino deal. Or, the irrigator-driven dismissal of the Canterbury Regional Council. Consider the exclusion of the agricultural sector from the Emissions Trading Scheme. Or, the Government’s plans to make the Resource Management Act more developer-friendly. Think about Bill English’s plans to privatise social housing.
All of these policies are designed to serve the interests of either individual businesses, or favoured sectors of the economy. But none of them meet the Manifesto’s test for “managing the common affairs” of the employing class as a whole.
Bill English’s disastrous intrusion into the social housing scene is a telling instance of this government’s failure to comprehend the general good.
The provision of social housing in New Zealand will forever be associated with the First Labour Government’s massive state house construction programmes of the 1930s and 40s. State houses are, however, a little older than Mickey Savage and Jack Lee. It was the Reform Party leader, Gordon Coates who first authorised the building of “state” houses for the employees of the publicly-owned railway network. As a way of giving these workers’ a powerful “stake” in their employment it was a highly successful project.
Labour’s programme expanded the scope of worker housing tremendously. Moreover, by laying a floor of high-quality and affordable accommodation beneath the feet of the working-class, Labour’s “socialists” also conferred a huge benefit on the whole of the employing class.
Thanks to Labour’s state housing scheme, the health of workers and their families improved dramatically – lifting their productivity and reducing the economic burden of disease and chronic illness. Fixing the share of workers’ income expended on accommodation at around 25 percent similarly assisted the employers. By curbing property speculation and rack-renting, Labour’s state housing scheme kept prices stable across the entire housing market. Affordable housing meant that the incidence of workers attempting to offset rapidly rising accommodation costs by ratchetting-up the price of their labour, was reduced. Money not spent on accommodation could be spent on other things. In all these respects, state housing acted as a significant wage subsidy.
Which was just as well, because workers now needed to spend as much money as possible. Mass consumption was fast becoming the indispensable corollary to mass production. And, for mass consumption to continue, wages not only needed to rise – they had to keep on rising.
As the American inventor of modern mass-production techniques, Henry Ford, put it: “if you don’t pay your own employees enough that they can afford to buy your products, sooner or later, you’re going to go broke.”
Ford’s vision was clear – but narrow. He could see the advantage of paying his workers enough to purchase the Model-Ts they were putting together on his production lines, but he never made the next conceptual step: the one that would have allowed him to conceive of a society in which the working-class was paid enough, collectively, to consume its own production.
This was capitalism’s equivalent of a perpetual motion machine (assuming, of course, that capitalism had somehow discovered a way to exempt itself from the laws of planetary thermodynamics). The only downside (from the capitalists’ point of view) was that the full-employment and steadily rising living standards generated by the machine were bound to precipitate a concomitant decline in the political, social and economic power of the employing class.
The fatal paradox of capitalism’s perpetual motion machine (which actually operated throughout the West from 1950-1980) was that the more efficient it became at the equitable distribution of mass-produced goods and services, the more precarious the position of the capitalist system’s owners became.
With the efficient generation of surpluses ceasing to be an occasion for the obscene enrichment of a privileged few; and becoming, instead, the chief mechanism for ensuring better lives for everybody; those we now call “The One Percent” very quickly apprehended that economic inefficiency – even crises – were infinitely preferable to social equality. Even at the price of driving a large proportion of the employing class to the wall, the One Percent’s urgent mission became the election of “executive committees” dedicated to protecting the interests of only the most powerful capitalists – i.e. themselves. The rest of the bourgeoisie could go and join the proletariat in Hell.
The funny thing about Bill English is that 15 years ago he gave every appearance of understanding the crucial distinction between governing for capitalism as a whole, and governing for a handful of National Party cronies and Federated Farmers. His famous speech to the Balclutha Branch of the National Party in 2000 marked him out as a good, Disraelian, “One Nation” conservative. Even today, under Pope Francis, English, as a good Catholic, is obligated to take “the preferential option for the poor”. Why, then, has he allowed himself to become tangled up in a social housing policy that has been widely condemned as a “property developers charter”?
Could it be that Mr English, in his heart-of-hearts, knows that, in new Zealand, any Finance Minister who is serious about making capitalism work effectively and efficiently is much more likely to belong to the Labour Party than the National Party? That “One Nation” conservatism and moderate Social Democracy are, in practical political terms, indistinguishable. Could all the floundering around and making it up as he goes along be evidence of Mr English coming to terms with the fact that he has more in common with Winston Peters than John Key? Or, even more heretically, that in working out what “managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” truly entails, Mr English has come to realise just how far National’s “executive committee” has fallen short of Marx and Engel’s prescription?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 28 March 2015.

Saturday 28 March 2015

Congratulations, Winston! (Fittingly, "Bowalley Road"'s 1,000th Post!)

Congratulations, Winston!

A remarkable victory.

Winston Peters (NZ First): 15,359
Mark Osborne (National): 11,347
Willow-Jean Prime (Labour): 1,315

Winston Peters' Majority: 4,012

Turnout: 79.9% of Northland's 2014 Total Vote

The Little River Band can say the rest.

Video courtesy of YouTube

The posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday 27 March 2015

High Noon In Petersville.

Help Is On Its Way: Win or lose tomorrow night, Marshall Peters has already saved his home town. (Screen-shot from Jeremy Jones' Animation Nation on TV3's The Nation)
WINSTON PETERS has already won the Northland By-Election. Success in tomorrow’s ballot will merely pin the prized tin star upon Marshall Peters' waistcoat. A sudden spike in the value of NZ First’s political stock is sure to follow. Proof that, when he has to, their old dog can produce an abundance of new tricks.
So much raw political energy has been poured into Northland by the National Party, and so much precious political capital expended there, that even if National’s candidate, Mark Osborne, somehow manages to pull off a surprise, come-from-behind victory, most pundits will dismiss it as Pyrrhic.
A governing party, polling in the high 40s, should not have to pull out all the campaigning stops to hold the ground it took more-or-less effortlessly at the preceding seven elections. When fleets of ministerial cars are forced to cruise the backroads of a safe National seat, disgorging dripping barrels of reeking political pork at every stop, just to beat back a man on the cusp of turning 70, then something’s gone very seriously wrong.
The most obvious “something” that went wrong was National’s choice of candidate. The animator, Jeremy Jones, commissioned by TV3’s The Nation, cast the hapless Mark Osborne as “Hoss” – the largest (and dimmest) member of the Cartwright family in the 1960s television series Bonanza. It was a shrewd choice. Hoss, like National in Northland, was big and strong – but he wasn’t exactly the brightest kerosene lantern hanging from the Ponderosa’s front porch. Pitting this foolishly grinning cowboy against a gimlet-eyed gunfighter like Winston Peters wasn’t just wrong – it was cruel.
Foolishly Grinning Cowboy: Mark Osborne as Hoss Cartwright (Montage by Jeremy Jones)
Because, even if Mr Osborne wins, everyone will know it was in spite of, not because of, the qualities he brought to the fight. If Mr Peters goes down it won’t have much to do with Mr Osborne’s wobbly six-shooter. The man from NZ First is much more likely to be taken out by Steven Joyce’s Winchester rifle, sniping from the roof of the Saloon. Or, shot in the back by the little Derringer pistol that HdJ-Crosby|Textor’s Jo de Joux keeps in her purse.
And if Mr Osborne loses, well that’s it. He’ll go down in National Party history as the man who lost Northland. The last time anybody belonging to the National Party did that was in 1966, when L. F. Sloane, the MP for Hobson, allowed himself to be defeated by Vern Cracknell, leader of the Social Credit Political League. Amazingly, Mr Sloane was given a chance to redeem himself – which he duly did by reclaiming the seat for National in the General Election of 1969. Something tells me Mr Osborne will not be so lucky. Mr Sloane was a returned serviceman who’d fought in Italy. His were more forgiving times.
And the Labour Party? Will Labour be forgiven if, on the night, it turns out that just enough of its supporters have stayed loyal right through to deny Mr Peters the seat? Not by the supporters of NZ First one suspects. Not when they were expecting Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime to take on the role of Amy Kane in Fred Zinnemann’s classic western, High Noon. With Mr Peters playing the part of Marshall Will Kane, NZ First supporters have been counting on Willow-Jean to distract Mr Osborne at the crucial moment – preferably by laying Labour’s 2014 vote at their hero’s feet.
But even if Labour’s Northland voters do not forsake NZ First’s darling, and Mr Peters wins the seat, it’s hard to see Labour coming out of the by-election unscathed.
Politics thrives on drama, and drama must have heroes. Unfortunately for Labour, Andrew Little is no match for Mr Peters. At least, not with Mr Peters in Gary Cooper mode. The NZ First leader’s intuitive grasp of how to infuse a campaign with all the elements of high drama is unequalled in New Zealand politics.
The big silver bus kicking up dust clouds all over the North. That slogan: “Send them a message!” The inspired choice of the Little River Band’s “Help Is On Its Way” for the campaign’s theme-song. Mr Peters, as the director of his own production, had only to shout: “Lights! Camera! Action!” Instinctively aware that, in this sort of movie, gravitas and honesty beats expensive promises and cheap abuse.
Win or lose tomorrow night, Marshall Peters has already saved his home town.
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, 27 March 2015.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

A Song For Mr Surkov: "The Man Who Sold The World".


WITH PUTIN'S PUPPET-MASTER IN MIND, I thought the readers of Bowalley Road might enjoy this classic number by David Bowie. It's the title track off his 1970-71 album The Man Who Sold The World. Enjoy.
Video courtesy of YouTube.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Very Different Personages: Vladislav Surkov - Putin's Puppet-Master.

The Kremlin Demiurge: "[Vladislav] Surkov is the real genius of the Putin era. Understand him and you understand not only contemporary Russia but a new type of power politics, a breed of authoritarianism far subtler than the 20th-century strains.” - Peter Pomerantsev
ADAM CURTIS is a documentary-maker whose work has a way of making the world look and feel completely different. The secret to the success of series as varied as Century of the Self (2002), The Power of Nightmares (2004), and his most recent work, BitterLake (2015), is Curtis’s ability to bring what’s been hidden in History’s shadows into the light.
The nineteenth century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, remarked that: “The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.” Curtis not only takes us behind the scenes, he introduces us to the personages.
The latest personage to whom Curtis’s viewers have been introduced is Vladislav Surkov – Vladimir Putin’s political impresario. In the words of Peter Pomerantsev, writing in The London Review of Books: “Surkov is the real genius of the Putin era. Understand him and you understand not only contemporary Russia but a new type of power politics, a breed of authoritarianism far subtler than the 20th-century strains.”
Surkov’s great insight into the character of the post-Soviet era was that it would be an epoch devoid of ideological conviction. A society in which all of the grand narratives of the 20th Century (from Absolutism to Socialism to Capitalism) have been tried and found wanting. A place where cynicism and irony will ride shotgun for an amoral authoritarianism whose twinned priorities of self-enrichment and self-aggrandisement recognise no limits.
It is a world that fosters in its hapless citizens feeling of vertiginous disorientation. According to Pomerantsev’s chilling description:
“[T]he stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away. Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”
If all this is beginning to sound unsettlingly familiar, Pomerantsev has more. Surkov, he says, has perfected what he calls “sovereign democracy”, a new form of governance “in which democratic institutions are maintained without any democratic freedoms”. Surkov was also “the man who [turned] television into a kitsch Putin-worshipping propaganda machine”.
If you think that’s coming uncomfortably close to a description of New Zealand television (substituting “Key” for “Putin”) then you’re not alone.
Obviously, New Zealanders are not ruled over by a political beast as big or as dangerous as Putin, but Pomerantsev’s depiction of a political environment subject to continuous and disorienting shifts of perspective; of leaders performing on a revolving stage whose sets and props are constantly changing; rings more than a few Kiwi bells.
Certainly it is Curtis’s view that the curiously “post-modern” style of politics that has distinguished the UK under David Cameron and George Osborne owes a great deal to the political ideas and methods of Vladislav Surkov. (Curtis illustrates his point by advancing video images of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and then rolling them backward – providing a potent visual representation of Osborne’s black is white, 2 + 2 = 5 political style.)
Our own Prime Minister and Finance Minister display a similar, loose, relationship with reality. John Key, in particular, seems able to shift his shape almost at will. From the saccharine family man ordering in Saturday night pizza; to the jokey-blokey sports-lover trading wisecracks with commercial radio shock-jocks; to the dead-eyed critic of Nicky Hager’s latest revelations daring the Press Gallery to contradict him; our own post-modern performance artist makes it easy to see from whence his fine-arts student daughter draws her inspiration.
Pomerantsev offers us a frightening glimpse of the sort of world to which Surkovian politics is leading us:
“In Soviet Russia you would have been forced to give up any notion of artistic freedom if you wanted a slice of the pie. In today’s Russia, if you’re talented and clever, you can have both. This makes for a unique fusion of primitive feudal poses and arch, postmodern irony. A property ad displayed all over central Moscow earlier this year [2011] captured the mood perfectly. Got up in the style of a Nazi poster, it showed two Germanic-looking youths against a glorious alpine mountain over the slogan ‘Life Is Getting Better’. It would be wrong to say the ad is humorous, but it’s not quite serious either. It’s sort of both. It’s saying this is the society we live in (a dictatorship), but we’re just playing at it (we can make jokes about it), but playing in a serious way (we’re making money playing it and won’t let anyone subvert its rules). A few months ago there was a huge ‘Putin party’ at Moscow’s most glamorous club. Strippers writhed around poles chanting: ‘I want you, prime minister.’ It’s the same logic. The sucking-up to the master is completely genuine, but as we’re all liberated 21st-century people who enjoy Coen brothers films, we’ll do our sucking up with an ironic grin while acknowledging that if we were ever to cross you we would quite quickly be dead.”
To which, as Adam Curtis rightly observes, we can only say: “Oh Dear.”
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Tuesday, 24 March 2015.

Shaken - But Not Stirred: Canterbury Is Denied Democracy For The Third Time.

Water and Grass: The economic value of productive pastures is deemed by the National Government to be more important than popular political control over the water that keeps them green. In Canterbury this has led to a third delay in the return of full democracy to the region.
THE GREAT CANTABRIAN RIGHTS ROBBERY continues. With six of the thirteen Regional councillors set to be appointed, until at least 2019, by the Environment Minister, Dr Nick Smith, Canterbury’s long-promised return to democracy has, once again, been delayed.
And still the streets are empty.
That the people of Christchurch have been a little preoccupied since 2010 is acknowledged. But the same high-handedness that prompted the elimination of Cantabrians’ regional democracy has also been a frustrating feature of their city’s rebuild.
And still the streets are silent.
Large sums of money continue to be extracted from the people of Canterbury by “Commissioners” for whom no one has voted. Practically without a murmur, the oldest principle of democratic governance – that taxes may only be levied by representatives chosen by the people themselves – has been cast aside.
“No taxation without representation!”: the principle for which seventeenth century Englishmen were ready to execute their King, and in the name of which eighteenth century Americans proclaimed a revolution; has stirred New Zealanders hardly at all.
Where are our John Hampdens? Our John Pyms? Why have we yet to produce an Antipodean version of John Adams? John Hancock? Thomas Jefferson? All of these champions of representative government – the farmers, merchants and lawyers who challenged King Charles I and King George III – were men of substance. They dared to win, even though to lose meant death. But New Zealand’s men of substance; our farmers, merchants and lawyers; what have they dared?
Precious little has been risked by those whose screams would, undoubtedly, be among the loudest were Cantabrians rights being abrogated by a left-wing government. Indeed, one could argue that the destruction of regional democracy in Canterbury was undertaken at the behest of farmers, merchants and lawyers. For isn’t it these latter groups that have the gained the most from the elimination of their fellow citizens’ democratic rights? While ordinary Cantabrians retained the capacity to thwart their grand plans for Canterbury’s precious water, how could the region’s farmers, merchants and lawyers possibly have attracted the level of investment required to bring them to fruition?
Dr Smith dismisses all such claims as cynical. Rather than a case of careful political engineering, erected in the interests of the farmers, merchants and lawyers who vote National, the destruction of Canterbury’s regional democracy is presented by the Minister as some sort of glorified water conservation measure. Any return to normal democratic governance, argues Dr Smith, would inflict irreparable damage on a process which he clearly believes to be beyond the capabilities of elected citizens.
“The fear would be that you’ve got this population divide pretty even between rural and urban, and rather than those commissioners being able to look for the middle way through, that you end up where we were – a highly polarised council not making any progress on these very important issues.”
Dr Smith refuses to accept that, by silencing the voice of urban conservationists, he has, in effect, facilitated the water exploitation schemes of rural Cantabrians. His justification hinges on what he considers to be the superiority of technocratic over democratic decision-making.
But this justification works equally well for any and all attempts to limit the scope of democratic decision-making. The notion that society would be morally and materially improved if all the important decisions were left to a self-replenishing caste of “philosopher kings” is as old as Plato’s Republic. That every attempt to put Plato’s ideas into practice has very quickly resulted in the decisions of the wise becoming practically indistinguishable from the interests of the wealthy, has always been one of the strongest arguments in favour of democracy.
Nor is it reasonable to suppose that Dr Smith’s technocratic problem-solving will remain quarantined in Canterbury. In October 2016 it is likely that the balance of power on the Hawkes Bay Regional Council will shift decisively against the proposed Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme. But, after what happened in Canterbury, the region’s voters are surely justified in wondering whether their democratic judgement will simply be over-ruled by Dr Smith, and a group of Commissioners installed to make certain that “progress on these very important issues” continues.
Would this be enough to see the people’s pitchforks lifted up and their flaming torches lit? One hopes so, but all the evidence so far suggests otherwise. New Zealanders definition of democracy appears to embrace a sort of plebiscitary oligarchy, under which a group of politicians are given the right to govern exactly as they please – subject only to a triennial vote of confidence.
But this definition of democracy condemns us all to live under an elected dictatorship where politicians are free to impose decisions of ever-increasing mendacity: ceasing only when a decision of such outrageous awfulness pushes the population beyond its collective pain threshold; and the people remember that they have rights.
This essay was originally published by The Press of Tuesday, 24 March 2015.

Saturday 21 March 2015

Basic Tenets: The Police, The Roastbusters, And New Zealand's Masculine Culture.

Scathing Criticism: Sir David Carruthers, Chair of the Independent Police Complaints Authority, criticised the officers assigned to the Roastbusters' case for having "failed to adhere to the basic tenets of any form of criminal investigation."
WHEN A FORMER  High Court Judge decides that a group of Police officers couldn’t pass “Policing 101”, it’s worrying. But, when he goes on to say that the officers tasked with investigating the notorious Roastbuster abusers of underage girls “failed to adhere to the basic tenets of any form of criminal investigation”, it’s time to get angry – very angry. Because what Sir David Carruthers, Chair of the Independent Police Complaints Authority (IPCA) is telling New Zealanders, is that their Police Force cannot be trusted to do its job.
But Sir David’s scathing commentary is only the most explicit message emerging from the Roastbusters inquiry. A close reading of the IPCA’s report reveals a reality much darker than mere incompetence. Deep within the Police, an apparently ineradicable culture of misogyny continues to thwart every attempt to improve the Force’s handling of rape and sexual abuse cases.
What is it that prevents these misogynists from being exposed and rooted out? Because, Lord knows, the official Police policy on rape and sexual abuse could not be clearer. Senior officers are constantly being brought up to speed on the issue at seminars and conferences. The protocols and procedures are equally clear. But still, only one out of every 99 rapes reported to the Police ends with the rapist being convicted and imprisoned. Clearly, the policy is not being enforced. Why?
Part of the answer may be found in this morning’s (20/3/15) NZ Herald. Columnist Paul Thomas suggests that, in both Britain and New Zealand, society is, increasingly, separating itself into two groups: “The divide is between what might be called enlightened metropolitan opinion (EMO), aka the chattering classes, aka the forces of political correctness, and popular opinion (PO), aka the silent majority, aka the great unwashed.”
Thomas clearly locates himself in the camp of PO. Right alongside John Key. The Prime Minister’s political success, opines Thomas, is attributable to his being “someone who speaks our language, the voice of bluff, non-PC common sense.”
A Distinct Minority: Early New Zealand was an overwhelmingly masculine society. One whose members were never entirely sure where women fitted in. Contemporary New Zealand's staunchly masculine culture still struggles to create spaces in which women feel comfortable.
This description of society as an endless battle between the forces of urban vice and rural virtue has a very lengthy pedigree in New Zealand. In spite of the fact that ours has been an overwhelmingly urban society for well over a century, New Zealanders (especially male New Zealanders) still like to think of themselves as worthy descendants of the sturdy settlers who tamed the wilderness with axe and plough.
Though most of them live in the country’s largest cities, they nevertheless think of themselves as self-sufficient men; rugged individualists who prize practical knowledge over “book-learning”. They want the country to be run by sensible blokes like themselves. Blokes who can be relied upon to use their common-sense and not be influenced by intellectuals and so-called “experts” who would like nothing better than to tie up the whole world in politically-correct knots.
The great problem with this “sturdy settler” (Southern Man?) role model is that it was forged in a world without women. Or, at least, a world in which women were for a long time a distinct minority.
The overwhelmingly masculine culture it produced is one in which physical prowess counts for much more than intellectual or creative endeavour. Sport, and the barely suppressed violence that sport redirects and absorbs, is its most pervasive artefact. It’s an authoritarian culture that expects to be obeyed and which finds it next-to-impossible to tolerate dissent and debate.
It is also a culture which has never quite worked out where women fit into it. The Kiwi bloke’s hackneyed lament: that he can’t live with the female of the species, but also can’t live without her – is hardly a sentiment to put Kiwi women at their ease. Especially when it leads New Zealand’s good keen men to look upon “the little woman” as simply another piece of gear to be stashed in the back of the ute, along with the footy-boots, fishing rods, and a few dozen cold ones. By this reckoning, women become mere adjuncts to otherwise masculine pursuits: something to make the evening go better – like beer.
The Police Force – so overwhelmingly male, and so demonstrably steeped in New Zealand’s rigidly masculine culture – in large part still sees itself as an institution dedicated to upholding and defending Thomas’s “popular opinion”. The policies of “enlightened metropolitan opinion” foisted upon them by left-wing politicians and radical feminists, may require them to pay lip service to the goal of eliminating New Zealand’s “Rape Culture”; but the “common sense” of real men, good men, strong men reassures them that “boys will be boys” – and that girls like it that way.
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Saturday, 21 March 2015.

"Damn the Dam" - John Hanlon (1973)


WHILE WE’RE DEBATING the economic competence, or otherwise, of the four candidates vying to become the male co-leader of the Greens, here’s a blast from the past from John Hanlon.
Damn the Dam was released in 1973, and tunefully encapsulates just about all of the sentiments that propelled the Values Party into the forefront of progressive New Zealand’s imagination during the General Election campaign of 1972.
The Values Party can lay a pretty solid claim to being the world’s first “green” party. (Which is why I found it so odd that only Gareth Hughes was willing to cite one of its earliest members, Jeanette Fitzsimons, as his personal political hero!) But, as Hanlon’s song clearly illustrates, it carried within it, almost from the moment of its birth, the inherent contradiction between the needs of the natural and the human worlds.
As my wife puts it (rather brutally I’m afraid): “I’d rather have cheap power than the bloody fantail!”
Even within the ranks of the late (and, by some, lamented) NewLabour Party, the comrades rapidly sorted themselves into the “Red-Green” and “Smokestack” factions.
In the end, just about all political struggles boil down to a set of arguments based upon giving “power” – however narrowly or widely defined, to “the people” – however narrowly or widely defined. “Tiny animals, little birds as well” don’t get much of a look-in. Which is why Russel Norman was so emphatic in his insistence that the Greens must learn to speak the language of human priorities, aka “Economics”.
Still, it’s a lovely song.
Video courtesy of YouTube.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday 20 March 2015

The Greens' "Economic Cred": Hard Won - Easily Lost.

Little Feet: Candidates vying to succeed Dr Russel Norman as the Green Party's Male Co-Leader. From Left: Gareth Hughes MP, Kevin Hague MP, James Shaw MP and Vernon Tava. When tasked by The Nation's Lisa Owen with supplying the answer to a simple economic question, three out of the four candidates failed dismally. His successor will have to work very hard to reclaim even a little of Dr Norman's hard won economic credibility.
IT WAS IMPRESSIVE – but it wasn’t real. The Greens’ apparent mastery of economics turned out to be just one man’s – Dr Russel Norman’s – achievement. Hopefully, Dr Norman’s successor will attain an equal level of economic literacy.
Because most commentators agree that, throughout John Key’s second term as Prime Minister, the Greens’ co-leader, Dr Norman, easily outstripped his centre-left rivals as the best informed and most articulate economic spokesperson on the Opposition benches.
With rare political discipline, Dr Norman acquired a good working knowledge of economics and spoke its language as fluently as Finance Minister, Bill English. Perhaps more so.
Quite rightly, Dr Norman had identified the Greens’ unfamiliarity with mainstream economics as a serious weakness. Why should the voters take them seriously if they cannot talk convincingly about the exchange rate’s impact on manufacturing; the effectiveness of the Reserve Bank’s handling of monetary policy; or whether employers are responding adequately to rising levels of worker productivity?
It was all very well to talk about a future based on “Green Growth” and “Green Jobs”, but voters living in the here-and-now needed to feel confident that the Green Party understood what was happening in New Zealand’s economy – to their jobs.
To become a great artist, it is said, the art student must first learn all the rules and master all the techniques of painting. Only then will he be ready to break all the rules and develop new techniques of his own. Dr Norman clearly believed that the same applied to economics. Only after familiarising themselves with the “dismal science” of classical economics would the Greens be ready to preach the more joyful gospel of sustainability and self-sufficiency.
Dr Russel Norman: Big shoes to fill.
Dr Norman’s efforts in this all-important sphere of politics did not go unnoticed. Mr Key’s second term had hardly begun when the Parliamentary Press Gallery began referring to Dr Norman as “the real Leader of the Opposition”. This wasn’t solely due to the fact that the Labour caucus’s internal feuding was wreaking havoc upon the Party’s political credibility. It was also about the way Dr Norman, as the Greens’ economic spokesperson, was going head-to-head with the Finance Minister in the House – and not losing.
Did all this praise go to Dr Norman’s head? Is that why he raised the possibility that, in a future Labour-Green coalition government, the Finance portfolio might well end up in his own hands? (The very idea was enough to cause serious conniptions in Labour’s ranks!) Was Dr Norman’s much derided suggestion that New Zealand embark on a limited degree of quantitative easing all the evidence his critics needed to prove that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing?
Actually, neither of these accusations stack up. Subsequent events were to reinforce Labour’s serious lack of talent in matters economic. And the journalists, so quick to pour scorn upon Mr Norman’s QE proposals, revealed much more about their own, and their government briefers’, ignorance of economics than they did about the Green co-leader’s.
In spite of the fact that Labour’s policies on superannuation and capital gains had been in place for more than three years, neither the party’s leader, nor its finance spokesperson, proved equal to the task of selling them to the electorate. A Labour-Green coalition could have done a lot worse than making Dr Norman its Minister of Finance.
Not that any of this matters now: not after last week’s edition of The Nation on TV3. In the course of introducing the four candidates competing for the co-leader’s job Dr Norman is stepping away from (Gareth Hughes, Kevin Hague, James Shaw and Vernon Tava) the show’s co-host, Lisa Owen, asked each man to answer a quick-fire question on the economy. What’s the unemployment rate? The inflation rate? The Reserve Bank’s official cash-rate? The economic growth rate?
Only one of the candidates, Mr Shaw, even came close to supplying the correct answer. In less than five minutes, Dr Norman’s hard graft over more than three years: his gift of (as Ms Owen put it) “economic cred’”; was needlessly thrown away.
None of the questions were difficult. A few seconds on the Statistics New Zealand website was all that they required. That none of the candidates had devoted even this much time to acquiring the answers, makes Dr Norman’s economic literacy an even more singular achievement.
Some very hard yards await his successor.
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, 20 March 2015.

Thursday 19 March 2015

The Unions Are Finished: Neoliberalism's Most Important Lie.

Alive And Kicking: In spite of having to function in one of the most hostile legal environments in the OECD, New Zealand's trade unions continue to represent more than 360,000 Kiwi workers. Were its legal shackles to be struck off by a "true Left Wing government", that number would increase dramatically.
ORGANISED LABOUR lost its influence for two reasons, both of which are global in nature and unstoppable:

Firstly, automation vastly improved industrial efficiency and reduced the need for manual labour. This process continues unabated and will impact generations to come.

Secondly, when China opened up its economy it added 50% to the global workforce, undermining labour rates across the western world.

So if you're hoping for a change in local politics to halt the demise of union power, you’re deluding yourself. Even if we voted in a true Left Wing government tomorrow, any attempt by it to return to the golden days of union power would snap the economy like a twig. In short order we would become the Albania of the South Pacific.
The above comment came in anonymously (don’t they always!) but I thought it worth quoting at length. Only rarely are the precepts of neoliberalism advanced so succinctly, so eloquently, or, with such superficial plausibility.
That the comment homes-in on the condition of organised labour is no accident. Stripped of all its fine ideological plumage, Neoliberalism has always been about smashing unions.
No other institution has done as much to advance the interests of ordinary people than the trade union. Without the power of organised labour, the historic shifts in political and economic power which characterised the 1930s and 40s could not have happened.
It was the union movement which, by redirecting business profits from the shareholders’ dividends to the employees’ wage-packets, lifted the living-standards of the working-class across the post-war world. Wherever unions became a force to be reckoned with, the power and prestige of the ruling-class (or the “1 Percent”, as we prefer to call them these days) dwindled. The recovery of that lost power and prestige could not begin until the unions were first tamed – and then destroyed.
A Clear Correlation: This graph, from the NZ Council of Trade Unions, illustrates in the most dramatic fashion the inverse relationship between union strength and the economic power of the top 1 percent of income earners.
Look back over the history of neoliberalism – especially at the years in which its key elements were being set in place – and you will encounter a series of epic industrial struggles. All of these were deliberately fomented by neoliberal politicians, and all of them had but one objective: the disarming of the new regime’s most dangerous enemies. The crushing of PATCO by the newly-elected Reagan Administration. The defeat of the National Union of Miners by Margaret Thatcher. These set-piece confrontations were intended to – and did – overawe and demoralise the forces of organised labour.
With the unions safely shackled by draconian anti-union legislation, the neoliberals were free to proceed to the next stage of their programme: the destruction of the unions’ greatest achievement – the Welfare State. Everything that followed; from the privatisation of public assets; to the introduction of student loans; to the sell-off of social housing. The whole sad saga of the 1 Percent’s triumphant resurrection of the injustices and inequalities of a Gilded Age the Left believed to be long dead and buried, was predicated on the destruction of the trade unions.
And so, of course, the neoliberals’ over-riding mission, following the restoration of plutocratic power, was to convince succeeding generations that trade unionism’s demise was not the work of a ruling class whose authority it had challenged, but simply the result of  forces that were “global in nature and unstoppable”.
Our anonymous commentator singles out automation and the opening of China to capitalist investment as the two principal reasons for organised labour’s loss of influence. But, a moment’s historical reflection reveals both of these arguments to be false.
The entire Industrial Revolution was about little else but automation – the replacement of human energy and dexterity by machines. Far from reducing the total number of jobs, the wealth generated by mechanisation not only led very rapidly to the creation of more jobs but also new jobs – indeed, to whole new industries. This vast expansion in the demand for labour was what drove millions to emigrate from the impoverished agrarian societies of Southern and Eastern Europe to the Americas and Australasia. It was out of these new immigrant communities that the mass industrial unionism of the 20th Century emerged to challenge the overweening power of capital.
Far from being branded the gravediggers of organised labour, the latest wave of automation and the proletarianisation of the Chinese peasantry should be seen the harbingers of the next great surge of progressivism across the planet.
Of course, such an outcome is, quite literally, inconceivable to our anonymous commentator. In his eyes, any attempt to restore a modicum of justice and decency to the workplace, or pay working people a living wage, can only end in disaster:
Even if we voted in a true Left Wing government tomorrow, any attempt by it to return to the golden days of union power would snap the economy like a twig. In short order we would become the Albania of the South Pacific.
In progressive ears, however, those words sound very differently:
Only when we vote in a true Left Wing government, and the golden days of union power return, will the power of the 1 Percent be broken and ordinary working people recover the confidence to snap neoliberalism’s unjust and unequal society like a twig. In short order we will become again the Utopia of the South Pacific – and the envy of the World.
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Thursday, 19 March 2015.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Empire Games: How Nicky Hager's Revelations Are Re-Shaping The Nationhood Debate.

The Anglo-Saxon Empire: As World War II ended the imperial baton passed from the United Kingdom to the United States. Bounding to Uncle Sam's side were the old empire's eager puppies - Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The current debate about the "Five Eyes" espionage network is in the process of morphing into a much broader debate about who New Zealanders are - and whom they should serve.
“I’M SENTIMENTAL – if you know what I mean – I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.” So sings Leonard Cohen in the final verse of his grand 1992 anthem “Democracy”. The country he’s singing about is, of course, the United States of America, and his conflicting feelings about the place are shared by millions of people around the world. There is a great deal to love about America and Americans, but there is, equally, a great deal that rest of the world, like Cohen, cannot stand.
The tragic human cost of US “diplomacy”. The vast powers wielded by what President Dwight Eisenhower dubbed the “military-industrial complex”. The evident inability of the “special interests” which now control the US Congress to any longer even recognise, let alone serve, America’s national interests. All of these political afflictions, combined, have created a “scene” to which no sane person (or nation) would pledge allegiance.
And yet that is exactly what the tight little political and journalistic clique clustering around John Key (like the doomed 300 at Thermopylae?) is demanding of New Zealanders. We are being told that, in spite of its manifest failings, the United States remains the last, best, hope of humanity, and that any person, or group, who dares to question the NZ-US relationship is guilty of something very close to treason.
Nicky Hager: Patriot.
The prime target of this latest thrust against the Key Government’s critics is Nicky Hager. No other journalist has so consistently – and accurately – mapped the moral fault-lines running through the NZ-US relationship. Whether it be the exposure of our own Government Communications Security Bureau’s unacknowledged participation in the US National Security Agency’s Echelon spy system in Secret Power (1996) or the NZ Defence Force’s unmandated determination to range itself alongside America in Other People’s Wars (2011) Hager’s investigative journalism has for the best part of 20 years undermined successive New Zealand governments’ attempts to remain a member in good standing of the Anglo-Saxon “club”.
It is worth taking a moment to consider what New Zealand, as a member of this 70-year-old club (the USA, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) has signed-up to.
Though these five states represent less than 7 percent of the world’s population, the USA and its four closest allies constitute the Earth’s most powerful military, economic and diplomatic combination. English-speaking, and still predominantly white, the Anglo-Saxon club holds the rest of humanity (overwhelmingly non-English-speaking and non-white) in its grip. The global reach of the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence gathering apparatus is but one aspect of the Anglo-Saxons’ “full-spectrum dominance” of the planet and its peoples.
When we consider the extent to which these powers dominate the world’s key resources – especially oil, coal and iron-ore; when we add up the number of nations that, in one way or another, are beholden to them; when we recall that the US Dollar remains the world’s fiat currency; and when the five Anglo-Saxon nations’ ability to project decisive military resources to any point on the Earth’s surface is taken into account; are we not justified in discarding the word “club” and replacing it with the much more appropriate “empire”?
No one likes to hear it called that, of course. The world is supposed to have rid itself of empires in the years immediately following World War II. Ours is a democratic age, and as every good historian knows, imperialism and democracy don’t mix. And yet, the behaviour of the five Anglo-Saxon powers, in the 70 years since the end of World War II, is difficult to characterise as anything other than imperialistic. If the “club” looks like an empire, speaks like an empire, and acts like an empire, then, chances are, it’s an empire.
Anglo-Saxon Imperialism: If it looks like an empire, speaks like an empire, and acts like an empire, then, chances are, it’s an empire. (Magnum photo by Philip Jones Griffiths)
The Prime Minister’s media defenders condemn Hager as “anti-American” because he has been able to correlate directly the strength of New Zealand’s military and intelligence ties to the United States with New Zealand’s loss of diplomatic independence. This would be dangerous enough in itself, but Hager’s revelations also help to remind New Zealanders of those occasions when their leaders had the courage to stand apart from the American-led Anglo-Saxon Empire. That Hager was an active player in the events that led to New Zealand declaring itself nuclear-free in the mid-1980s only sharpens the Right’s determination to blacken his reputation.
Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that New Zealand’s most senior and effective right-wing journalists are engaged in an attempt to fundamentally re-shape New Zealanders’ perceptions of the anti-nuclear movement. Rather than an expression of our growing sense of nationhood, they intend to re-cast it as the unfortunate result of a left-wing conspiracy to extricate New Zealand from the “Western Alliance” (also known as the Anglo-Saxon Empire). According to this revised history of the past 30 years, Kiwis have been duped by leftist radicals like Hager (and Helen Clark?) whose ultimate objective is to thrust New Zealand naked and alone into an increasingly dangerous world.
And to whom should this duped and defenceless New Zealand turn for protection? Why, Uncle Sam, of course! Hager’s revelations have upped the ante of the national independence debate and, in Poker parlance, the Right has opted to “see him” and “raise him”. The debate about New Zealand’s involvement in the Five Eyes alliance is, accordingly, being broadened out to embrace the much more vital questions of who we are and whom we should serve. Will New Zealand continue striving to become an independent South Pacific nation, or will it opt to remain a far-flung, but intensely loyal, province of the Anglo-Saxon Empire?
For those who love this country, but can’t stand the political scene, the stakes have never been higher.
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Tuesday, 17 March 2015.

Inflation Is Defeated - But At Whose Expense?

Inflation Buster: As Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand from 1988 until 2002, Dr Don Brash oversaw the anti-inflation programme of the new neoliberal order he had played such a vital role in unleashing upon New Zealand. The financial sector and the ticket-clipping classes were delighted by his success, workers and borrowers paid with stagnating real wages and diminished expectations. And now, an even more frightening spectre looms: Deflation.
THE PROSPECT of zero inflation is difficult for many New Zealanders to grasp. Those of us over fifty will recall the years when the annual inflation rate was this country’s most contentious political issue. Hardly surprising, when rates of up to 18 percent were recorded. A nation experiencing that sort of monetary pressure has reason to be concerned.
But, persistent high inflation affects different groups in different ways. Like most human creations, it produces both winners and losers.
In a country where most wage-workers belonged to a trade union, and there were powerful political incentives for the annual round of wage negotiations to produce results roughly reflective of increases in the cost of living, inflation was more of an irritant than a danger. If a worker’s union was strong, he and his family could keep ahead of inflation. The members of the weaker unions, however, were forever playing catch-up.
If those workers were the recipient of a 3 percent (!) State Advances loan, however, inflation was their friend. Every year that high inflation persisted, young couples could pay off the mortgage on their first home with dollars that were, in real terms, worth less than when the debt was originally incurred. Persistent levels of high inflation were a huge boon to borrowers.
Between 1965 and 1985, governments of both the left and the right were content to see inflation lift tens-of-thousands of young baby-boomers onto the lower rungs of the property ladder. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the creation and maintenance of National’s “property-owning democracy” would have been all-but-impossible without a persistently high rate of inflation.
Persistent high inflation was also of crucial assistance to running an effective welfare state. Thanks to the phenomenon known as “fiscal drag”, inflation-driven increases in wages and salaries were constantly lifting workers into higher tax-brackets, allowing the government’s own revenue needs to be met without recourse to more regular, explicit, and, therefore, politically unpopular, tax adjustments.
Persistent high inflation’s biggest losers, obviously, were those whose loans were being repaid at a fixed rate of interest in devalued dollars, along with people attempting to live on incomes that could not easily be adjusted for the effects of inflation. Returns on investment; the real value of private pensions, annuities and legacies; all tended to fall in circumstances of persistent high inflation.
It is never a good idea for politicians to antagonise those who control their nation’s financial system. Equally unwise is a government that even looks like it is prepared to beggar the social class most dependent on legacies, annuities, private pensions and the income generated from investments. That persistent high inflation, with its beneficial impacts on workers, borrowers and social-democratic politicians, would, by the end of the 1970s, convince bankers, rentiers, and other sundry members of the ticket-clipping classes that some pretty major reforms were long overdue, was entirely predictable.
That a constant theme, running through all of the dramatic economic changes of the next 30 years, would be “driving inflation out of the economy”, was equally foreseeable. Nor should we be surprised that these reforms neatly reversed the position of winners and losers. That the banks and the ticket-clipping classes would benefit disproportionately from their anti-inflationary crusade was really the whole point of the exercise.
And who, now, can say that inflation isn’t beaten? With the inflation rate hovering tantalisingly above zero - nobody. The costs, however, have been substantial.
The radical reduction of trade union power by the Employment Contracts Act shattered the mechanisms that had allowed workers and their families to keep pace with inflation. Despite improvements in workforce productivity, the purchasing power of New Zealand workers’ wages has stagnated or declined.
Politicians, too, lost their ability to turn monetary policy to the advantage of workers and borrowers. The moment controlling inflation became the Reserve Bank’s first (and some would say only) priority, the old social-democratic goals of full-employment, home ownership for all, and a generous welfare state funded through progressive taxation, became inoperative.
There’s a paradox here. As New Zealand’s inflation rate declines towards zero, the Reserve Bank must confront the possibility of deflation. But, persistently declining prices are a reflection of declining demand, which is, in its turn, a reflection of oversupply and a market that cannot clear itself except by selling below cost. Deflation is, therefore, the sign of an economy that’s slowing down. It is the harbinger of busts, slumps, recessions and (God forbid!) another Great Depression.
Some economists argue that inflation allowed the Free World to pay-off World War II in record time. Others affirm that it underpinned the great post-war boom. Is it pure coincidence then, that at the peak of the boom, inflation was suddenly branded Public Enemy No. 1?
If zero inflation is a triumph, then perhaps we should ask: “For whom?”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 March 2015.

Friday 13 March 2015

Not Understood.

Mixed Signals: The Prime Minister’s claim: “I don’t know what ‘mass collection’ even means”, when filtered through the ears of someone who agrees with Mr Key’s portrayal of Nicky Hager as “a screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist”, becomes: “These journalists think they know something about the ‘Five Eyes’ operation, but they don’t. All of this stuff about ‘mass collection’ is just rubbish. I don’t have to respond to the likes of Nicky Hager, Glen Greenwald or Edward Snowden – and neither do you.”

THE PRIME MINISTER doesn’t know what “mass collection” means. This is surprising – given that the Prime Minister has spoken English all his life. And since the phrase has been used repeatedly with reference to the Government Communications Security Bureau’s (GCSB) acknowledged interception of individual and diplomatic metadata on an industrial scale, the Prime Minister’s professed ignorance is rather hard to accept.
What makes the Prime Minister’s unawareness even more puzzling is that he was the Minister in charge of the GCSB in 2009, when its facilities were, at the behest of and with considerable assistance from the US Government, being up-graded to “full-take” capability. It is inconceivable that the Prime Minister was not fully briefed on these expanded intelligence-gathering powers by the then Head of the GCSB, Sir Bruce Fergusson.
It is, accordingly, very difficult to believe that the Prime Minister does not know what “mass collection” entails. So, why claim ignorance? Perhaps it’s because “mass collection” sounds a little too much like “mass surveillance” – an activity which, if proven to have taken place, would require our Prime Minister, by his own solemn undertaking, to resign his office.
Certainly, the prospect of having to relinquish his office is a powerful motive for the Prime Minister to create as much confusion as possible around the activities of his security agencies. And if that is, indeed, the Prime Minister’s intention, then professing ignorance of what “mass collection” means is actually a very clever psychological gambit.
It’s roughly equivalent to a meteorologist claiming not to know what “rain” is. The statement is so preposterous that it leaves the questioner feeling utterly flummoxed. How can one have a sensible conversation about the weather with a weather expert who denies any knowledge of rain? Of course a meteorologist can be challenged. He can be ridiculed. He can even be branded an out-and-out liar. Meteorologists capacity for serious reprisal is limited.
Prime Ministers, on the other hand, have the power to make people’s lives extremely uncomfortable. Insulting a meteorologist is unlikely to prove a career-terminating act. But, publicly challenging and ridiculing the Prime Minister? Calling him a liar? That is not a course of action likely to recommend itself to any journalist who values the good opinion of his or her employer.
Publicly claiming not to know the meaning of “mass collection” delivers further benefits to Mr Key. Not only does it effectively shut down a potentially dangerous line of questioning, but it also suggests a potent line of defence to his political supporters.
The sub-textual message contained in the Prime Minister’s claim is one of impatience and denial. “I don’t know what ‘mass collection’ even means”, when filtered through the ears of someone who agrees with Mr Key’s portrayal of Nicky Hager as “a screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist”, becomes: “These journalists think they know something about the ‘Five Eyes’ operation, but they don’t. All of this stuff about ‘mass collection’ is just rubbish. I don’t have to respond to the likes of Nicky Hager, Glen Greenwald or Edward Snowden – and neither do you.”
This, too, is a tactic of considerable psychological subtlety. It builds on the silencing effect of the Prime Minister’s denial by simultaneously priming his followers to reject the evidence-derived premise of the original question.
All the revelations of Snowden, Greenwald and Hager: “Fallowhaunt”, “Darkquest”, “Legalreptile”, “Venusaffect”, “Xkeyscore”. The whole terrifying lexicon of the Five Eyes system of global mass surveillance is transformed from objective fact into mere subjective accusations. The sort of charges a large section of the community has been carefully schooled to reject as the work of “screaming left-wing conspiracy theorists”.
Of course the Prime Minister understands what “mass collection” means. Just as he is fully aware that all New Zealanders are, indeed, under surveillance by the Five Eyes panopticon. His brilliance as a politician (if “brilliance” is the right word for so sinister a talent) lies in the way he has transformed the Truths and Untruths of the controversy into brutal binary equations of partisan allegiance. To paraphrase President George W. Bush: “Every citizen now has a decision to make. Either you are with the Prime Minister, or you are with the “screaming left-wing conspiracy theorists”.
Whatever John Key may understand, or not understand, about “mass collection”, his mastery of the dark arts of “mass deception” is beyond dispute.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 March 2015.