Wednesday 29 April 2015

From Foreign Correspondent To Folk Singer: Cameron Bennett Plays The Ika Seafood Bar And Grill

"I'm Cameron Bennett": Singing songs that blend the intensely personal with the robustly political.
FOR YEARS he filled our television screens with the images of a troubled world. "I'm Cameron Bennett", he'd say, by way of introducing himself, and then whisk us off to wherever people were bleeding. This was back in the days when the term "public service broadcasting" still meant something to the state-owned broadcaster. A time when, if the crisis was serious enough, Bennett's bosses would fly him to where it was happening. And there he'd stand, his lanky frame clad in the dusty, desert-toned safari jacket that became his trademark, and remind us all how lucky we were to live in New Zealand.
That Cameron Bennett might be a pretty solid left-winger never once occurred to me. Fairness and balance were the professional watchwords of TVNZ, even in the 1980s and 90s, and Bennett was careful to keep his personal opinions behind the camera. Only friends and workmates got to know the man who sang and played the guitar so engagingly; the folksinger who said in song all the things he could not say on screen.
It was, therefore, a delightful surprise to encounter Cameron Bennett, folksinger, at the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill on Tuesday night (28 April). Yes, the very same Ika Seafood Bar & Grill that, just a fortnight ago, hosted a "Table Talk" discussion about the fate of Campbell Live. Laila Harre (Ika's owner and manager) had organised that event in collaboration with the Campaign For Better Broadcasting and The Daily Blog, but Tuesday night's entertainment fell under the heading of "Ika Salon" - Harre's own monthly offering of intellectual (as opposed to purely culinary) sustenance.
And what a fine repast it was! Bennett's hour-long set was a mixture of the intensely personal and the robustly political.
Certainly, tackling the two great tragedies of the last six years, Pike River and the Christchurch Earthquakes, struck me as a brave thing to do. Such grim events, so close to the surface of our collective memory, often elude the songwriter's craft. But in Pike 29 and Jerusalem Road, Bennett offers a more than adequate response to these landmark events. The former is the more traditional of the two, harking back to the bleak mine disaster ballads of Appalachia. Jerusalem Road, however, takes a very different route. Working into his spare lyrics the imagery and religious references of Colin McCahon's paintings, Bennett has crafted a sombre but very powerful song.
Bennett's repertoire encompassed everything from the exploits of the West Coast mass-murderer, Stanley Graham, to the experiences of a grandfather wounded in the Great War and the closure of Dunedin's Hillside Workshops. For a Dunedin man, this latter song was especially moving.
We're flesh and blood, flesh and blood,
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the Carisbrook mud.
But who will stand for us?
The two songs that really struck home, however, were Bennett's very personal recollections of the community in which he grew up. If anyone had asked me whether it was possible to write a great song about the Auckland suburb of Howick, I would have laughed them out of the room. But in his bitter-sweet The Place That I Come From, Bennett captures the enforced innocence of New Zealand suburbia in the 1970s. The references to Picton Street and Stockade Hill pins the location down geographically, but the jagged recollections of disruption and distance are universal.
Then there was True Believers - the song that, even as I made my way out onto Mt Eden Road, I was still humming softly. A hymn to the sense of infinite possibility that was the special possession of the Baby Boom generation, True Believers tells the story of all those young men who responded to the challenge of being masculine in a new way in the uptight New Zealand of the 1960s and 70s:
Letting our hair grow curled
Believing we could change the world
In a grown-up country, the song-writing and musical talents of a man like Cameron Bennett would find a much wider audience than a café-full of Laila's friends and comrades. If New Zealand had been able to keep its public service broadcasting intact - as the citizens of Australia and Europe have done - there would be space in the schedule for showcasing this little country's extraordinary artistry. Not in the amped-up fashion of The X-Factor, but gently, sensitively, intelligently.  
In the manner of Cameron Bennett.
This review was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Wednesday, 29 April 2015.

Would John Key Have Pulled A Right-Wing Ponytail?

Set And Setting: Was the Prime Minister's harassment of waitress, Amanda Bailey, a form of political punishment? The behaviour of right-wingers when confronted with left-wingers in "places where they don't belong" is often both punitive and confrontational.
DID THE PRIME MINISTER pull Amanda Bailey’s pony-tail because her “strong political  points of view” conflicted with his own? (We know that Ms Bailey holds strong political views because that information was passed on to the NZ Herald’s gossip columnist, Rachel Glucina, by her employers.)
Now, many New Zealanders will object that a waitress’s political views cannot be used to justify prime-ministerial hair-pulling. They’re right, of course, but I hope they’ll bear with me a little longer, because an examination of the way powerful right-wingers behave in the presence of left-wingers promises to recast John Key’s acknowledged misconduct in a new and very interesting light.
Let me give you an example of the phenomena I’m describing from my own experience. Some years ago, I was the guest of the French Ambassador at his official residence in Thorndon. An hour or so after my arrival, the Ambassador and his guests were joined by the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jim Bolger. Spying me, Mr Bolger called out in a very loud voice: “Good God, Trotter, when did they let you out of jail!”
"Good God, Trotter, when did they let you out of jail!" - Jim Bolger.
I took his “jest” in good part and joined in the rather startled laughter of the other guests. But I did wonder how the former Prime Minister would have responded had our positions been reversed. Would Mr Bolger have openly challenged the misbehaviour of a person holding such elevated political rank? Or would he, like me and Ms Bailey, have let the indiscretion (or, in the case of the Parnell waitress, the first of many indiscretions) pass?
Jim Bolger, the blunt King Country cocky and son of impoverished Irish settlers, may well have returned fire without inhibition, I simply don’t know. What did intrigue me, however, was the former National Party leader’s motivation. Quite simply, I believe it was shock. Encountering a well-known left-winger in what, to Mr Bolger, must have seemed the most unlikely of settings, can only have been profoundly surprising.
And, perhaps, just a little affronting. Because the presence of a person holding views so radically at odds with his own was likely received by Mr Bolger in the same way as a soldier on neutral ground would respond to the presence of a soldier from an enemy army. One can no longer speak freely, for fear of giving away important secrets. One’s behaviour, too, must be carefully controlled – lest the enemy be given an opportunity for ridicule or reproof.
Was this how Ms Bailey’s presence at Rosie’s Café, in upmarket Parnell, was perceived by the Prime Minister and his right-wing supporters from the neighbourhood? Did they fear that their “fun and games” and “horseplay” were being silently judged by this left-wing waitress? Had she overheard them saying things that might – if taken out of context – have sounded just a little bit racist, sexist or homophobic? And wasn’t that just a little bit unfair? That John Key, his wife Bronagh, and their friends and neighbours, couldn’t let their hair down and speak freely without every word and action being recorded and used as evidence by this young thought-policewoman?
It may not even have been conscious on Mr Key’s part. His fondness for dangling tresses is now well attested in the photographic and video record. But it’s also possible that the urge to tug Ms Bailey’s ponytail was driven by the same feelings that prompted Mr Bolger to put me so firmly in my place at the French ambassador’s residence.
The New Zealand Right has always had huge difficulty in accepting the Left’s socio-political legitimacy (and it’s by no means alone in this). Throughout the Cold War, self-identifying as a left-winger was tantamount to acknowledging high treason in the eyes of many National supporters. Trade unionists, particularly, were received with venomous hostility by National, which “made its bones” as a conservative political party by brutally enforcing the great Waterfront Lockout of 1951.
But the Cold War isn’t the sole explanation. The New Zealand Right’s hatred of the Left predates the onset of the Cold War by several decades – extending all the way back to the strike-breaking actions of the Reform Party government of William Massey. It has also survived the Right’s victory in the Cold War. To declare oneself a person of the Left, even in the twenty-first century, is to define oneself as not-quite-fit for polite company: “Good God, Trotter, when did they let you out of jail!”
With each tug of Ms Bailey’s “tantalising” pony-tail, was the Prime Minister sending a very similar message of “light-hearted” political disapproval? Was he telling her: ‘You really shouldn’t be here, but, since you are, it’s only fair that you join in (even unwillingly) all the “horseplay”, all the “fun-and-games”, in which the other wait-staff at Rosie’s Café happily engage.’?
What’s the matter, Amanda? Can’t you take a joke?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 April 2015.

Sunday 26 April 2015

Weep, Zealandia, Weep!

Cry The Beloved Country: Is this really where we are, 100 years after Gallipoli? Is this how far we’ve come? From a bigoted British Israelite and union-buster;  to a “relaxed” golfing partner of the US president and a “playful” hair-fetishist? From dispatching troops to Gallipoli in the name of the King-Emperor; to dispatching troops to Iraq in the name of the “Five Eyes Club”?
THERE ARE TIMES when it’s heart-breaking being a New Zealander. This past week has been one of those times.
The week began with the deafening drumbeat of ANZAC-related patriotism. Having already alienated a huge number of Australians, the almost obsessive memorialisation of the First World War is beginning to do the same to a growing number of New Zealanders.
Among all the individuals responsible for planning the centennial “celebrations” of the ANZAC landings, there was, apparently, no one whose job it was to make sure, one hundred years on, that New Zealanders had a clear idea of the political and economic motives that drove so many human lambs to the slaughter.
The historical context out of which some young men volunteered for “the adventure of a lifetime” and some did not (let’s not forget that by 1916 it had become necessary to start conscripting replacement soldiers) has been almost completely elided from the official narrative. Likewise the extraordinary curtailment of civil and political rights that followed almost immediately upon New Zealand entering the conflict.
To hear someone like Lieutenant-General Tim Keating, Chief of Defence Staff, couch New Zealand’s participation in the First World War in terms of standing up for the right and the good (just like today in Iraq!) was quite sickening. More than 18,000 young New Zealanders died on the battlefields of that terrible war – not for the right and the good, but for the greater glory and profit of the British Empire and its principal investors.
I wonder if Lt-General Keating even knows that William F. Massey, the unelected Prime-Minister of New Zealand in August 1914 (his Reform Party had won a No-Confidence vote against the Liberal’s in 1912) was a member of the British Israelites.
This bizarre sect was a curious mixture of religious and patriotic enthusiasm which believed that the British race was descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel, and that the British royal family’s bloodline extended all the way back to King David and King Solomon. The British Israelites were adamant that the English-speaking peoples were divinely ordained to rule the entire world.
Born in Ulster, Massey was also a member of the Orange Order, whose compatriots back in Northern Ireland, even as Gavrilo Princip was assassinating the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, were actively plotting mutiny and rebellion against the pro-Irish Home Rule Liberal Government of Herbert Asquith.
Massey’s religious and political bigotry would be drawn into sharper focus as the war drew towards its end and the Reform Party linked up with the newly-formed Protestant Political Association to mobilise voters against the large number of Irish Catholics who had swung in behind the nascent Labour Party.
Massey’s hostility to organised labour was prodigious. The crushing of the Waihi Miners’ Strike in 1912, and of the Great Strike in 1913, were among Massey’s first and most enduring contributions to New Zealand’s political history. Working-class Kiwis didn’t call the mounted special constables (drafted in from the countryside to smash the unionists of the “Red” Federation  of Labour) “Massey’s Cossacks” for nothing.
I could go on, but hopefully you’ll have some idea already of how little that was “good” or “right” lay behind New Zealand’s participation in the First World War. Indeed, it was only after the outbreak of revolution in Russia in 1917 (and the mutiny of the French army in the same year) that the imperial establishment decided it might be wise to shift its rhetorical emphasis from protecting innocent women and children from the bestial Hun to “defending freedom” and “making the world safe for democracy”.
So many lies – and how old they’ve grown! It is nothing less than shameful that so little of the history of the period leading up to the First World War is known to the young New Zealanders who turn out in their thousands to honour the sacrifice of those who they naively believe “died for our freedom”.
And what, I physically cringe to think, do those same young New Zealanders now make of their 53-year-old Prime Minister, who has admitted to repeatedly tugging on the ponytail of a 26-year-old waitress?
Is this really where we are, 100 years after Gallipoli? Is this how far we’ve come? From a bigoted British Israelite and union-buster;  to a “relaxed” golfing partner of the US president and a “playful” hair-fetishist? From dispatching troops to Gallipoli in the name of the King-Emperor; to dispatching troops to Iraq in the name of the “Five Eyes Club”?
And what about the likes of your humble correspondent? That endangered species known as the “Fourth Estate”? Are New Zealand’s journalists, commentators, newspaper columnists and bloggers to be guided now, in the fulfilment of their professional ethical obligations, by the shining example of Rachel Glucina?
As I said: These are heart-breaking times.
Weep, Zealandia, weep!
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 24 April 2015.

Friday 24 April 2015

Before ANZAC Day: How It Really Was.

The Good Old Flag: Strike-breakers pose proudly under the Union Jack, Waihi, 1912. In the two years immediately preceding World War I, the “good old flag” had become an emblem of bitter class warfare. Undaunted, it was the Union Jack that 2,779 "sons of the empire" ended up dying for at Gallipoli in 1915.

TELLING PEOPLE “how it really was” is the historian’s first and, some would say, only duty. On the eve of the hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings it’s a duty that weighs very heavily. So much has been spoken and written about the events of 25 April 1915, and what they mean to New Zealand, that anyone attempting to tell people truthfully “how it really was” risks extinguishing the roseate glow of our national mythology in the cold white light of the historian’s flash-bulb.
Let’s begin with “the good old flag” under which so many volunteers marched off to war in 1914. Not their own New Zealand Ensign, but the Mother Country’s Union Jack.
In the two years immediately preceding 1914, that “good old flag” had become an emblem of bitter class warfare. Nowhere was this more vividly displayed than in the mining town of Waihi.
Only rarely can the Union Jack have been borne aloft by a more disreputable bunch of flag-wavers. Answering to such outlandish names as the “Snake Charmer” and “Harvey the Pug”, the strike-breakers brought to Waihi by the owners of the Waihi Gold Mine advertised their officially sanctioned status by rolling into town on a horse-brake draped with “the good old flag”.

Strike-breakers arrive in Waihi, 1912: The "Snake Charmer" is second from left in the bowler hat. "Harvey the Pug" stands in the middle wearing a white scarf.
The message could not have been clearer: the red flag of the “Red” Federation of Labour (to which the striking Waihi miners proudly belonged) had met its match.
Pretty soon the residents of Waihi were encountering crudely scrawled representations of the Union Jack on the walls of their houses and public buildings – usually accompanied by the words “God Save the King!”
Emboldened by the presence of the Police Commissioner, John Cullen, Harvey the Pug and his mates paraded brazenly up Waihi’s main street bellowing out their own, revised, version of “The Red Flag”:
We’ll work the mines and never fear,
We’ll drive the Red Flag out from here.
The Socialists we cannot stand,
We’ll drive them out from Maoriland.
Snake Charmer, Harvey the Pug, and the other strike-breakers (backed up by Commissioner Cullen’s 80 Police Constables) were as good as their word. On 12 November 1912, “Black Tuesday”, Waihi was “politically cleansed” of “Red Fed” miners and their families. They boarded the trains and ferries to Auckland in fear of their lives. The strike-breakers had besieged the Miners Union Hall, and one of the socialists they could not stand, Fred Evans, who’d tried to stop them, was beaten to death.
Exactly one year later, in the midst of what came to be known as “The Great Strike of 1913”, thousands of Auckland unionists marched in memory of Fred Evans. His former comrades carried a banner declaring: “If blood be the price of your cursed wealth, Good God we have bought it fair.” There were no Union Jacks.
"If blood be the price of your cursed wealth, Good God we have bought it fair": "Red Fed" supporters commemorate the anniversary of Fred Evans' murder. Auckland, 12 November 1913.
A mile across town, hundreds of “Special Constables” and their horses, known forever after as “Massey’s Cossacks” (after the then Prime Minister, William F. Massey) were encamped on the Auckland Domain. They had come from Northland and the Waikato to break the waterside workers’ picket-lines and open the Auckland wharves. In Wellington, identical contingents of “Specials”, this time from the Wairarapa, had arrived to battle the capital’s striking wharfies.
Massey's Cossacks: Mounted Specials arrive in Wellington, 1913.
The formation of these special police units had been recommended by Colonel Edward Heard, acting commandant of New Zealand’s military forces. Rather than have his soldiers take over the role of the Police on the streets of the major cities, as Prime Minister Massey, his Attorney-General, Alexander Herdman, and Commissioner Cullen were urging, Colonel Heard, in the strictest secrecy, undertook to instruct his senior officers to raise a force of special constables to break the Red-Feds” rapidly escalating strike.
One year later, in November 1914, many of these same special constables were on their way to a very different kind of war. From “Massey’s Cossacks” they had graduated to the Auckland and Wellington Mounted Rifles, now combined, with troopers from Canterbury, into the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade.
From Mounted Specials To Mounted Rifles: The NZ Mounted Rifles Brigade, Cairo 1914.
They were young and brave and bigoted patriots, ready to smite the King-Emperor’s enemies anytime, anywhere – including outside the gates of the Auckland and Wellington wharves. They fought like demons for Chunuk Bair and we must honour their courage. Even if “the good old flag” they fought for was not their own.
That’s how it really was.
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, 24 April 2015.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Upbraided, But Not Undone: John Key Will Survive "Tailgate".

Child's Play: Tugging a girl’s pony-tail – what male hasn’t? Not many, it’s true, but most of them were under twelve years-of-age – and almost none were their country's prime minister!
IN AMERICAN JOURNALISM there’s an expression: “The story was too good to check!” And every journalist knows what it means. A story so compelling; so freighted with significance; so certain to sell newspapers (or generate page-views) that you don’t want to go through the usual processes of verification – in case it turns out to be untrue.
You can imagine, then, how Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury felt when he heard the story about the Prime Minister and the pony-tail. A journalist can work in the industry for forty years and stumble onto something like this maybe once or twice – if he or she is lucky.
There’s a temptation to rush such a story into print, or post it immediately on the web, but in the age of Dirty Politics that is the last thing you should do. A story as big as this one could be a VRWC set-up: a complete fabrication designed to entrap the unwary blogger and explode his credibility forever. The watchword in such circumstances is always: caution.
And Bomber was as good as his watchword. He checked and double-checked. He sought advice. He pondered the consequences of getting it wrong. But in the end, he did what all journalists do. Having checked the story, he checked his gut. Did he trust his informant? Did her story ring true? If the answer to both of those questions was “Yes.”, then he had to publish. And publish he did.
No one now can say that Bomber’s trust was misplaced. Barely an hour up on The Daily Blog and the pony-tailed waitress’s story was being read by thousands. Twitter thrummed with comments and questions. Other blogs linked to it. And by mid-day the mainstream news media’s reporters had forced a clearly spooked Prime Minister to get off his plane at LA International Airport and deliver a public admission and apology to the young woman he’d repeatedly pestered in a Parnell café.
Even before his admission and apology, however, John Key’s friends and allies were leaping to his defence. The PM was only being playful, they insisted. It wasn’t as if he’d touched her breasts or backside. Tugging a girl’s pony-tail – what male hasn’t? (Not many, it’s true, but most of them were under twelve years-of-age!) There was nothing sexual in it. For God’s sake – the man’s wife was present! Seriously, who could object to a little friendly fun?
Well, the young woman did – as was her right – and she let him know by shooting him a filthy look. Did he stop? No he didn’t. She tried to avoid him. He crept up behind her. She told her boss, who told the PM. He kept on tugging. Finally, exasperated, the waitress summoned up all her courage (and if you are a young woman, and the man pulling your pony-tail is the Prime Minister, a great deal of courage is required) and told him to his face to cut it out. Even then, the prime-ministerial banter and teasing continued. Finally, someone – his wife Bronagh, one of his security detail, a neighbour who dines at the same café – managed to convince him that his behaviour was unwanted, unacceptable and must cease. He returned to the café, bearing two bottles of his own wine as a peace-offering. Turns out it was too little, too late.
Too Little, Too Late: John Key's peace offering - two bottles of "JK" wine.
Will the PM’s prompt admission and apology put this story to bed as swiftly as his spin-doctors are clearly hoping? Probably. By chance, the story broke when the PM was out of the country, en route to the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. That sombre event will, in all likelihood banish “tailgate” from the nation’s front-pages.
But, it makes you wonder.
According to Bomber’s informant, the hair-pulling antics of the PM began in September of 2014, during the election campaign. So let me leave you with this little thought experiment. Had the man doing the pony-tail pulling not been John Key, but the Leader of the Opposition, David Cunliffe, and the story had broken before election day (let us say, for the sake of argument, on the Whale Oil blog) how do you think the mainstream news media would have responded? Would David Cunliffe have been permitted to get away with an admission and an apology? Would his political opponents have conceded that he was guilty only of a little playfulness, a little friendly fun?
Of course not! Every honest New Zealander knows that if it had been David Cunliffe who’d repeatedly pulled a waitress's pony-tail, and been found out, then the story could only have ended one way – with his resignation.
What does it say about John Key and his relationship with both the news media and the wider New Zealand electorate that, public admission and apology delivered, he will almost certainly walk away from this scot free?
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Wednesday, 22 April 2015.

What Were The ANZACs Fighting For?

The Lion's Share: As the hapless Ottoman Sultan looks on, the major imperial powers openly bid for huge chunks of his empire. New Zealanders died in their thousands so that John Bull (him with the scissors) could keep the Royal Navy supplied from its Middle-Eastern oil-wells. The very same oil-wells that the German Kaiser (him with the shears) was so keen to get his hands on.

DIPLOMACY AND WAR have always been uneasy bedfellows. Uneasy because, when diplomacy fails it is usually war that triumphs. Sometimes, however, the baton is passed on quite deliberately. In those cases: when diplomacy is allowed to fail; the uneasiness arises out of war’s wild contingency. It is upon the bodies of warring states that the Law of Unintended Consequences inflicts its most dreadful wounds.
On 25 April, Australians and New Zealanders will mark the hundredth anniversary of a catastrophic military defeat. Close to 3,000 young New Zealanders died in the Gallipoli campaign and many thousands more were wounded. These shattering losses (New Zealand’s population in 1915 was barely 1 million) provided but a foretaste of the bitter repast that awaited New Zealanders in Flanders and Picardy. From a very little country, diplomacy and war were about to extract a very high price.
This would have been tragic enough if the diplomatic and military decisions that sent so many young New Zealand men to their deaths had been made by New Zealanders themselves. That they died as a result of the deliberate failure of British diplomacy, in a war intended to enrich and enlarge the British Empire, renders their sacrifices even more absurd and obscene.
Such, however, are the hard, cold facts of the matter. The Dominions of Australia and New Zealand entered the First World War at precisely the same moment as Great Britain (11:00am 4 August 1914) because constitutionally, diplomatically and militarily they were appendages of the British Crown. Where Britain stood, we stood. Her enemies were our enemies. Where she led – we followed.
That we ended up following Great Britain on to the territory of the Ottoman Empire was only partially accidental. One of the most important reasons British diplomacy did so little to prevent the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 was the British Empire’s rising concern at the Germans’ lengthening strategic reach. British policy makers were especially wary of Germany’s rapidly expanding diplomatic, military and economic ties with the Ottoman Empire. The British had observed the dramatic benefits of French investment in the Russian Empire and were fearful that Germany’s administration of a similar tonic to the tottering Ottomans could compromise Britain’s strategic future.
It was Winston Churchill who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, made the decision (just one year out from the First World War) to power the Royal Navy with oil rather than coal. With Churchill’s primary source of oil being the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (whose wells were perilously close to the Ottoman border) Germany’s “peaceful” expansion into the oil-fields of the Middle-East loomed instantly as a major strategic threat.
The decision to invade the Ottoman Empire, which swept the hapless ANZAC’s into the doomed assault on Gallipoli, was first and foremost Churchill’s. Ostensibly an attempt to come at the Central Powers from a new direction, its true purpose was to secure for the British Empire and its French allies the strategic oil reserves located in Ottoman territory. Britain’s other ally, Tsarist Russia, would receive Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and control of the crucial straits linking the Black and Mediterranean Seas.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement: In complete secrecy, the British and French negotiators (Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot) carved up the Ottoman Empire to their respective governments' satisfaction. The peoples who actually lived there were never consulted. Had the Bolsheviks not published its contents (Britain and France had thoughtfully provided their Tsarist Russian ally with a copy) the Arabs would never have known what they were fighting for - and neither would we! Modern-day borders are overlaid.
The first of these strategic objectives were confirmed in the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which the Ottoman provinces of Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) were divvied up between the British and French Empires. The top-secret deal was to be delivered militarily not only by British arms, but also by the Ottoman Empire’s Arab subjects (inspired to revolt by T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia”) with additional assistance from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and the Australian Light Horse.
The New Zealand Mounted Rifles
The second objective – Russian control of Constantinople and the Bosphorus – was thwarted only by the intervention of the Russian people, who overthrew the Romanov dynasty in 1917.
Undaunted, the British simply revised their plans. Just how inimical these would have proved to the people of modern-day Turkey was revealed in the extraordinary Treaty of Sèvres. Had the latter been allowed to stand, virtually the entire empire of the Ottomans would have been parcelled out between the British, French, Italians and Greeks.
That this did not happen was due to the efforts of a man not unknown to the ANZAC’s – one Mustapha Kemal. The man who had held the heights at Gallipoli rallied the Turkish people behind him, drove out the Greek invaders, forced the Allied occupiers of Istanbul to withdraw, and established the Turkish Republic – where Saturday’s ANZAC centennial commemorations will unfold.
On TVNZ’s Q+A programme (19/4/15) Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, declared that New Zealand entered World War I to fight “a great evil”. Presumably, he was referring to Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. History refutes him. The First World War was a war between rival empires. The “great evil” was Imperialism. And New Zealand’s sons were fighting for it – not against it.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 April 2015.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

“Prepared To Make Any Sacrifice” – How New Zealand Went To War in 1914.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered - I'm Yours! The Governor of New Zealand, the Earl of Liverpool, prepares to read the message from the King-Emperor, George V, which officially signalled this country's participation in the First World War. A conflict that would, ultimately, claim the lives of 18,000 young New Zealanders.
HOW DO YOU THINK New Zealand went to war in August 1914? No, this is not an operational question about military units, points of embarkation and troop carriers. What’s being asked here is a constitutional question. Essentially, by what process were New Zealanders impelled into a state of war?
Did Parliament declare war on Germany? Were the ties of empire invoked? Was the German Emperor’s dismissal of Belgium’s 1839 Treaty of Neutrality as a mere “scrap of paper” held up by the then Prime Minister, Bill Massey, as an indisputable casus belli – cause for war? Were the Members of New Zealand’s Legislative Council and House of Representatives enjoined to stand by their King-Emperor and commit the Dominion’s armed forces to helping Britannia put Germany’s upstart Kaiser back in his box?
Massey’s conservative Reform Party would certainly have voted for war. But what about the Opposition? Would the Liberal Party leader, Joseph Ward, have dared oppose Britain, France and Russia’s war with Germany? Not likely. With an election looming in December, Ward would, almost certainly, have thought it better to play the “national unity” card.
After all, the Liberal Party had not been defeated at the ballot-box. Bill Massey was Prime Minister only because, two years earlier, he had managed to carry a Vote of No Confidence against Ward’s predecessor. Reform was desperate for a popular mandate – especially after the divisive events of 1912-13.
Which is why, on the question of whether or not to join Mr Asquith’s War, Ward would undoubtedly have thought it best to allow no daylight at all between his own party’s position and the Government’s. (And it very nearly worked: the 1914 General Election, which Massey won, was one of the closest in New Zealand’s political history.)
But the Liberals were not the only occupants of the Opposition Benches in August 1914. Alfred Hindmarsh’s United Labour Party had two votes to cast – as did the new, more left-wing, Social Democrats. What would Paddy Webb, the firebrand socialist from the West Coast seat of Grey, have to say about New Zealand joining an imperialist war? And James McCombs, the SDP Member for Lyttelton? Why would a left-wing intellectual, and the newly-elected representative of Lyttelton’s working-class, vote for a war between Kings and Kaisers?
The truth is, we shall never know how the New Zealand Parliament would have voted on the question of whether to join Great Britain, the French Republic and the Russian Empire in a war against Germany and Austria-Hungary – for the very simple reason that all the key decisions that led New Zealand into the First World War were made in London – not Wellington.
The Governor: Arthur William de Brito Savile Foljambe, Fifth Earl of Liverpool.

New Zealanders officially learned that they were at war Germany and Austria-Hungary only when, on 5 August 1914, the Governor of New Zealand, one Arthur William de Brito Savile Foljambe, fifth Earl of Liverpool, stood upon the steps of Parliament, in front of a crowd of 15,000 Wellingtonians, and read the following missive from the King-Emperor, George V.
“I desire to express to my people of the Overseas Dominions with what appreciation and pride I have received the messages from their respective Governments during the last few days. These spontaneous assurances of their fullest support recall to me the generous self-sacrificing help given by them in the past to the Mother Country. I shall be strengthened in the discharge of the great responsibilities which rest upon me by the confident belief in this time of trial my Empire will stand united, calm, resolute, trusting in God.”
To which the Governor, Liverpool, responded:
“New Zealand desires me to acknowledge Your Majesty’s gracious message, and to say that come good or ill she, in company with the other dominions and dependencies of the Crown, is prepared to make any sacrifice to maintain her heritage and her birthright.”
And that was that. Flanked by the Speakers of the Legislative Council and the House of Representatives, and with the Judges of the Supreme Court and an assortment of MPs providing him with a fine patriotic backdrop, the Governor acknowledged the cheers of the King-Emperor’s subjects and returned to Government House.
Liverpool’s words were very far from being empty. In the years ahead, and in the company of “the other dominions and dependencies of the Crown”, New Zealand would send nearly a tenth of her population – 100,000 young men – to “maintain her heritage and her birthright” as a member in good standing of the British Empire. Fully 18,000 of that terrible tithe of New Zealand’s population would lose their lives in the service of King-Emperor, and a further 41,000 would be wounded.
Exactly how Liverpool, the man who in October 1913 – less than a year earlier – had authorised the deployment of military and naval personnel - "Massey's Cossacks" - to suppress what came to be known as the “Great Strike”, was in any position to know what “New Zealand” thought about sending her sons to war is difficult to discern. There had been no debate by those “New Zealand” had elected to represent her. Nor is it clear by whose leave Liverpool authorised the making of “any sacrifice” in the name of victory. Not a single vote had been taken.
Amidst all the commemorations, and all the tearful invocations of the 18,000 young men who did not “grow old, as we that are left grow old”, it is as well to remember that it is not in the monarchical tradition to ask the King’s (or the Queen’s) subjects if they want to – let alone whether they should! – go to war. It remains a matter for the “Executive” alone.
This is as true today, as a much smaller force of New Zealand soldiers prepares to depart for the Middle East, as it was in 1914, when thousands of volunteers embarked for their fateful rendezvous with terror, disfigurement and death on the sheer slopes of Gallipoli.
A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 20 April 2015.

Friday 17 April 2015

A Prudent Restraint: The Fate Of Liberal Media In Conservative Societies.

Police Riot, Chicago, 28 August 1968: Leading members of the liberal media establishment telegrammed Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley, condemning the way his Police Department repeatedly singled out and deliberately beat newsmen, allegedly to "prevent reporting of an important confrontation between police and demonstrators which the American public as a whole has a right to know." The American public backed Dick Daley and his cops.

FOR THE LIBERAL US NEWS MEDIA,  28 August 1968 was “the day the music died”. That was the day Chicago’s finest unleashed what a later inquiry would describe as a “Police Riot”. In full view of the TV networks’ cameras, the Chicago Police Department fired canister after canister of tear gas, sprayed gallons of mace into people’s faces at point-blank range, and rained down torrents of billy-club blows on unarmed anti-war protesters, delegates to the Democratic Party’s National Convention, and – horror of horrors – working journalists. CBS News’s Dan Rather was roughed up as the cameras rolled, prompting his colleague, Walter Cronkite, to declare live, on nationwide television: “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.”
It was shocking stuff, and the newspaper publishers, their editors, and the network bosses weren’t afraid to say so. Confident that they spoke for the overwhelming majority of decent, civic-minded American citizens, the owners of America’s largest and most liberal media institutions roundly rebuked the behaviour of the Chicago Police Department and their brutal boss, Mayor Richard Daley.
Imagine, then, the liberal establishment’s profound shock and dismay when the overwhelming majority of decent, civic-minded Americans backed Mayor Daley and his rioting policemen. In the fortnight following the riot, the Chicago Mayor’s Office received 74,000 letters supporting his response to the anti-war protests. Fewer than 8,000 were critical of the way the Mayor and his Police Department had handled the situation. The nation’s pollsters confirmed these correspondents’ sentiments. Political pundits would later say that Richard Nixon did not win the 1968 presidential election on 2 November; he won it on 28 August.
The American public’s response to the Chicago Police Riot had a noticeably chastening effect on the liberal US media. Writing just a week after the event, the widely syndicated US columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner, Joseph Kraft, drew attention to the deep class divisions that liberal journalism at once reflected and exacerbated:
“On the one hand there are highly educated upper-income whites sure of themselves and brimming with ideas for doing things differently. On the other hand, there is Middle America, the large majority of low income whites, traditional in their values and on the defensive against innovators.”
“In the circumstances,” Kraft concluded, “it seems to me that those of us in the media need to make a special effort to understand Middle America. Equally it seems wise to exercise a certain caution, a prudent restraint, in pressing a claim for a plenary indulgence to be in all places at all times the agent of the sovereign public.”
Thirteen years later, and 13,000 kilometres south-west of Chicago, the “sovereign public’s” view of the news media was strikingly similar. In 1981: The Tour, his history of the 1981 Springbok Tour, Geoff Chapple describes an encounter between a crowd of Hamilton rugby patrons denied their match with the South African team, and a 25-year-old Radio New Zealand reporter from Auckland:
“He was slung around with radio-telephone gear, and he was a target too. The rugby crowd shouted at him: ‘You caused all this to happen, you bastards!’”
If one listens carefully, amidst all the clamour of protest at the possible cancellation of TV3’s liberal news and current affairs programme, Campbell Live, there is an unmistakeable echo of the same outrage that gripped the champions of a free press in Chicago and Hamilton. It is also a pretty safe bet that most of it is coming from “highly educated upper-income whites sure of themselves and brimming with ideas for doing things differently”.
In his famous post-Chicago column, Kraft invoked the medieval Catholic Church’s concept of “plenary indulgence” (the wholesale forgiveness of sins) to convey some sense of the invincible moral confidence that afflicts so many liberal journalists. That the judgements flowing from such confidence might be construed (by those required to live in circumstances of considerably less moral clarity) as a species of reproof never enters their heads.
Also absent from their calculations is the uncomfortable fact that, in a robust secular democracy, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are what the majority say they are. Nothing makes the majority madder than being preached at by those who came second.
If as many New Zealanders voted for Campbell Live with their remotes as currently watch Seven Sharp, its future would be assured.
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, 17 April 2015.

Thursday 16 April 2015

Alright, Alright! Here's The Original!


THE INCOMPARABLE JOEL GREY (Emcee) sings "Willkommen" - the creepy/raunchy overture to Bob Fosse's magnificent 1972 movie, Cabaret. The sceptics who questioned whether Christopher Isherwood meets Broadway meets Hollywood couldn't possibly work needn't have worried. John Kander's score and Fred Ebb's libretto didn't just ensure that Fosse's movie was a smash hit, they also delivered a disturbing warning about what can happen when people attempt to "leave their troubles outside" by shutting the door on political reality and loosing themselves in a hedonistic, make-believe world where "even the orchestra is beautiful".

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Willkommen Im Cabaret: "Table Talk" At Ika Restaurant, Tuesday, 14 April 2015.

Welcome To Cabaret! Glücklich zu sehen, Je suis enchanté, Happy to see you, Bleibe, reste, stay.
RIDICULOUS I KNOW, but I just couldn’t help it. As I looked around Laila Harré’s Ika restaurant on Tuesday night, I kept thinking: Weimar Germany, 1932.
Perhaps it was the cause. In collaboration with the Coalition for Better Broadcasting, The Daily Blog, and her own (and husband Barry Gribben’s) latest venture, Harré had called together a panel discussion on the future of Campbell Live. Looking around the restaurant I momentarily entertained the gruesome thought that one well-placed bomb would wipe out the cream of the Auckland Left (plus Bill Ralston and Fran O’Sullivan!)
Not that it’s come to bombs – not yet. Not like the poor doomed Weimar Republic. Even so, there’s the same worrying feeling that the forces of the Right are openly manoeuvring; striking ever more provocative poses; showing less and less regard for appearances. To wit, the impending demise of Campbell Live.
The thing about a good puppet show is that you either can’t see, or are artfully distracted from noticing, the strings. It’s only when the strings themselves become more interesting than the puppets they’re attached to that the audience should start to worry.
And that time has come.
Which is why, as I sat there in Ika (formerly the Neapolitan eatery Sarracino, formerly the chapel of Tongue’s the undertakers!) watching present and former MPs, trade unionists and entrepreneurs, left-wing and right-wing journalists shake hands and exchange gossip, my gloomy thoughts led me to the Kit-Kat Club and Bob Fosse’s classic movie, Cabaret.
Up on the stage, playing the role made famous by Joel Grey was our Emcee, Wallace Chapman. And the floor-show, Ika’s Cabaret Band, if you will, were (from neoliberal right to post-modern left) Fran O’Sullivan, Bill Ralston, Simon Wilson and Phoebe Fletcher.

"I am your host!" - Wallace Chapman plays Emcee at Ika's "Table-Talk" about the future of Campbell Live.
Together, they discussed and dissected the decision to dangle the sword of Damocles above the marvellous Mr Campbell’s current-affairs half-hour. All good stuff, and the punters lapped it up. (Along with their whole gurnards and snappers, expertly seasoned, and laid out on a bed of the most fashionable vegetables.)
But outside in the dark, where the unseasonable weather was turning Mt Eden Road into an icy wind-tunnel, a very different New Zealand was settling in for a very different bill of fare. The languid musings of TVNZ’s Mike Hoskings, perhaps? Or TV3’s X-Factor? Maybe The Bachelor, or NCIS, or How To Get Away With Murder, or any of a host of other shows beamed into their living rooms by Sky TV’s bounteous satellite. Their thoughts and feelings so far from the worries of these left-wing luvvies that they might as well be living on another planet.
Hence the ominous analogy with the tragic Weimar Republic. In the nite-clubs of Berlin’s demi-monde the clever and artistic lamented what was happening in the streets outside. The running battles between Left and Right. The strategic re-positioning of big business as the economy tanked and politics turned sour. And, most of all, the looming presence of a man who seemed almost umbilically joined to all the little people living in all the little rooms where democracy was fast becoming a dirty word.
Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome. Im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret!”
A version of this essay was first posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 15 April 2015.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

Have Iwi Leaders Crossed A Line On Water Rights?

Free Flowing No Longer? How has God’s rain become the “Iwi Leadership Group’s” private property? And how do the latter propose to finesse the Prime Minister's, John Key's, repeated and emphatic assertion that "nobody can own the water"?
WHAT IF THE TREATY SETTLEMENT PROCESS had begun in the 1960s, instead of the 1990s? What would New Zealand look like? Historical questions beginning with “What if?” are always fun, even when the factors working against history unfolding in any other way are insurmountable.
Supposing, for example, that the highly influential Hunn Report of 1961 had recommended the establishment of a Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal and the negotiation of multi-million pound “Treaty settlements” in recognition of the injustices suffered by Maori since 1840 – rather than the policy of “racial integration” that it did recommend. Would the National Party government of the day have taken it seriously? Absolutely not.
The government of National’s Keith Holyoake, like the government of Labour’s Walter Nash which preceded it, was deeply apprehensive of the social consequences of the rapid pace of Maori urbanisation. In 1931, thirty years before the Hunn Report was published, barely 15 percent of Maori lived in urban areas, by 1961, however, that percentage had soared to well over 50 percent. Just a quarter-of-a-century later, in 1986, close to 80 percent of Maori lived in New Zealand’s towns and cities. New Zealand’s politicians and bureaucrats (who were overwhelmingly Pakeha) were concerned that such breakneck social and cultural change might spark serious racial unrest.
The Hunn Report rejected both wholesale assimilation and forced segregation as solutions to the “problem” of rapid Maori urbanisation. His great hope was that through intermarriage, the strategic use of public housing and, most importantly, through the homogenising influence of public education, Maori would peacefully integrate with the dominant, Pakeha, society.
It’s important to remember that, in 1961, there were clear alternatives to the policy of racial integration already operating in the English-speaking world. In South Africa and the southern states of the USA segregation was mandatory and the very notion of “racial mixing” considered dangerously provocative. With the violent excesses of Jim Crow and Apartheid before them, liberal Pakeha hailed Jack Hunn’s recommendations as being both courageous and progressive.

Jack Hunn: Neither wholesale assimilation nor forced segregation, but peaceful racial integration, was Hunn's vision for the future of Maori-Pakeha relations.
Conservative Pakeha were by no means convinced. In 1961 there were still many New Zealand communities in which informal racial segregation remained the norm. Pukekohe infamously separated the races at the town’s barber shop, cinema and pub. Such citizens condemned the Hunn Report as a dangerously radical document. Their deeply entrenched racism would smoulder on in both provincial and metropolitan New Zealand, flaring into angry firestorms whenever racial issues achieved political salience – most particularly in 1981 and 2004.
So, even if the sort of radicalism that was later to produce the Waitangi Tribunal and the Treaty Settlement Process had been present in the minds of any interested party – Maori or Pakeha – back in 1961 (which is highly doubtful) it would have been rejected out-of-hand by just about everybody.
But what if New Zealand had been ready for such solutions in 1961? How would they have played out?
The short answer is: they would have played out social-democratically. The institutional expression of the politics of reconciliation and redress would have rebuffed the politics of hierarchy and commercialism in favour of participation and collectivism. It would have done so not only because that was the shape of the increasingly urbanised Maori society that was emerging, but also because, thirty years after the ravages of the Great Depression, and just 15 years since the end of World War II, that was the shape of New Zealand society as a whole.
The formation of such institutions would, therefore, have reinforced and strengthened the social-democratic temper of the times – with incalculable (but likely quite profound) effects on the development of the Labour Party, the trade union movement, local government and the broader New Zealand economy.
That the Tribunal (empowered to hear claims from 1840 onwards) and the Treaty Settlements Process were created between 1985-1995 meant that the institutions which emerged to implement these changes reflected a very different set of priorities. The 1980s and 90s were the period in which New Zealand’s social-democratic society was systematically taken apart. In its place arose the neoliberal society of today: a market-driven economic system in which the rich rule and the poor go under.
Successive neoliberal governments took care to ensure that the energy of the Maori Renaissance was channelled into elite-brokered, ostensibly Iwi-based, “neo-tribal capitalist” corporations: institutions functionally indistinguishable from the foreign- and Pakeha-owned corporations in whose interests New Zealand politics is now transacted. These neo-tribal capitalists have grown exceptionally skilled at masking the commercial imperatives that are their true raison d’être behind the rhetoric of reparation and redress.
How else could God’s rain have become the “Iwi Leadership Group’s” private property?
But, what if Jack Hunn’s philosophy of integration is as far as Pakeha New Zealanders are willing to go? What if there’s a line they will not see crossed? What if this is it?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 April 2015.

Monday 13 April 2015

Rhetoric From An Empty Stage: Sir Michael Cullen Offers Labour Some Suitable Synonyms For Socialist Terms.

A Practical Utopian? Sir Michael Cullen advises Labour to recast its rhetorical appeal to voters in terms more acceptable to twenty-first century ears. The four watchwords he proposes for the 2017 election campaign are: Choice, Aspiration, Responsibility and National Pride. He is, however, eloquently silent on the question of how the New Zealand working class are to be re-admitted to the country's political stage.

THERE ARE FEW NEW ZEALANDERS better placed to speak knowledgeably about their country’s political future than Sir Michael Cullen. Finance Minister in Helen Clark’s ministry (1999-2008) he wrestled with New Zealand capitalism up-close and personal for nine years  and is generally acknowledged to have emerged from the experience, if not unbeaten, then, at the very least, unbowed. The surpluses amassed under his stewardship armoured the New Zealand economy against the raking fire of the Global Financial Crisis; a barrage which could easily have sunk as less well-protected vessel. John Key and Bill English owe Cullen a lot.

Retiring from the hurly-burly of parliamentary politics in April 2009 to take up the Chair of New Zealand Post Ltd, Cullen has maintained a discreet public silence on both the new National Government’s conduct of political and economic affairs, and, more importantly perhaps, on the internal turmoil debilitating the Labour Party he joined 40 years ago.
Which is not to suggest that Cullen lost interest in his party, merely that he was wise enough to restrict his interventions to below-the-radar discussions with trusted friends and allies. When it came to the long-running feud between the supporters of David Cunliffe and the “Anyone But Cunliffe” (ABC) faction of the Labour caucus, Cullen came down firmly on the side of Mr Cunliffe’s opponents. He was an early supporter of David Shearer and, in the latest leadership contest, of Grant Robertson.
Cullen’s endorsement of Grant Robertson was the former Finance Minister’s first public intervention in the politics of the Left for many years – and he paid dearly for it. Widely tipped to lead the committee charged with reviewing Labour’s disastrous performance in the 2014 general election (the worst in 92 years!) Cullen was very publicly snubbed by Labour’s NZ Council, who gave the job to the more overtly left-wing party elder, Bryan Gould.
That rather petty decision to exclude one of Labour’s most experienced and intelligent kaumatua has now been remedied by Cullen’s recent co-optation on to the review panel. Whether the decision to rehabilitate Cullen was made before or after his delivery of a speech entitled “Labour: whither or wither?” is unclear. What cannot be denied, however, is that this 5,000+ word analysis of where Labour finds itself in 2015, and where it needs to be by 2017, more than justifies his inclusion.
The mission Cullen proposes for Labour is nothing less than to instil in the New Zealand electorate what the American political philosopher, John Rawls, calls the “reasonable hope” of living in a “practical utopia”.
It is difficult to conceive of a phrase which better sums up the historical aspirations of the New Zealand Labour Party. In a country that has never had much time for grand ideological systems, the notion of a down-to-earth, do-it-yourself, No.8-wire utopia; a practical utopia designed to meet the reasonable hopes and dreams of ordinary Kiwis, is as near to a perfect recapitulation of Labour’s mission as it gets.
And the need to recapitulate Labour’s mission in a twenty-first century context; deploying words and concepts acceptable to a twenty-first century audience; is central to Cullen’s argument. He uses his own family history to demonstrate how, in the space of just a single century, the solidaristic working-class culture out of which both the British and New Zealand Labour Parties were born, has been broken up and dissolved – not least by the comprehensive social and economic reforms Labour struggled so hard to introduce.
As was famously said of those Labour governments, writes Cullen: “success in improving the lot of working people began to move many of them into the camp of those who at least believed, or could be persuaded, that they had more to lose than gain from further change. And, associated with that, the centre-right began a long process of capturing the language of politics – for example, by talking of a property-owning democracy.”
These are the voters Cullen urges Labour to woo and win in the run-up to 2017. “To form a strong, stable progressive government Labour still needs to aim to get around 40%  of the vote.” For those party comrades who argue that the gap between Labour’s 2014 result and Cullen’s target can be made up by mobilising the non-vote, Cullen has nothing but scorn:
“The missing 15% is not going to come primarily from non-voting socialist fundamentalists as some in recent time seemed to believe. We certainly need to motivate as much of the non-vote as we can to vote for us. But the bulk of the increase has got to come from recapturing votes from National, as they did from us in 2008.”
The Labour Party capable of reclaiming these lost sheep, Cullen argues, will have “a clear philosophy, an intelligent strategy, appealing and relevant policies, effective and coherent leadership, and, above all, better emotional connection with a majority of the population.”
To secure that connection, Cullen suggests “capturing the ownership of some emotionally resonant words and concepts which we have all too easily allowed our opponents to expropriate.” He lists these words and concepts as: Choice, Aspiration, Responsibility and National Pride.
These concepts, says Cullen, need to be “associated with and to suffuse our more traditional ones of fairness, equality, opportunity and (more recently) sustainability.”
Easier said than done, one might reasonably object. Because, on the face of it, the concepts Cullen is promoting all possess a distinctly conservative flavour.
It is all very well to argue, as Cullen does, that “Choice” can be re-translated to mean “a form of democratisation but only where it is available, as far as possible, to all.” But, for most voters under 40, the word will continue to mean “what I want”.
The concept of “Aspiration” faces similar difficulties. Can it really be redefined to mean “opportunity for all”? For most New Zealanders, aspiration is what John Key’s life-story embodies. It’s all about a little boy raised in a state house by his widowed mum, who went on to make $50 million and become New Zealand’s prime minister.
The concepts of “Responsibility” and “National Pride” are likely to prove even more resistant to redefinition. Cullen, himself, concedes that” “there is a tendency on the left to think that this is just a cover for beneficiary bashing or some other kind of judgemental approach to life.” Well, yes, there is, and with very good reason!
But Cullen indisputably has a point when he says: “At the very heart of social democracy surely lies the notion that we have responsibilities to each other. That is, that we are social beings who wish to pursue the common good – again the idea of a practical utopia. We reject the idea of atomised individuals perpetually striving to climb over each other, that what matters above all is where we end up within a hierarchical society (in essence, alas, a practical dystopia).”
Cullen is equally eloquent when it comes to the concept of “National Pride”: “In brief, we need to own a new national pride around our identity as a proudly diverse nation, around what we can do to create a better world, and around a focus on independent, morally-based action in a dangerous world that we cannot opt out of.”
When he speaks like this, Cullen recalls his younger self. As a history-lecturer at the University of Otago in the 1970s he thrilled his students with lectures on the English radical tradition; of a world turned upside down. Clearly, it is a tradition that Cullen is reluctant to disown.
“The notion of inherent equality allied with the common good stretches far back into the English radical tradition which, at least for some of us, is part of our heritage. As far back, indeed, as 1381 when John Ball posed the searching question “When Adam delf (i.e. dug) and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” (A reproduction of the woodcut by the great Victorian socialist artist, Walter Crane, asking exactly that question, once held pride of place in Cullen’s university office.)
Or the Knight, for that matter?
But if the sort of world in which “what matters above all is where we end up within a hierarchical society” is one deplored by Cullen as dystopian, then why did he allow himself to be made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit? Being lectured to about the central tenets of social democracy by someone called “Sir Michael” is just a little disconcerting.
Equally unsettling is Cullen’s studious avoidance of the central role played by the trade unions in the development of both British and New Zealand social democracy. Only twice in his paper does Cullen make reference to trade unionism.
The first reference is to the New Zealand worker’s supposed lack of faith in unions – as evidenced by National’s decisive victory in the snap-election of 1951:
“Increasingly, sections of the working class began to see at least trade unions other than their own as inimical to their interests. The public reaction to the 1951 waterfront dispute typified that development.”
The second reference occurs as part of Cullen’s explanation for the Clark-led Labour Government’s failure to roll back the neo-liberal revolution:
“But the neo-liberal revolution was central to intensifying trends that were already clear. In terms of legislation, the most important and decisive was the Employment Contracts Act which decimated the trade union movement, at least in the private sector. And so profound was the success of the Act in completing a long term change in public sentiment that it was impossible to fully reverse its effects after 1999.” [My emphasis.]
Given that the destruction of organised labour has always been, and continues to be, the key objective of neoliberalism: the one great “reform”, out of which all other neoliberal “reforms” flow and endure; Cullen’s flawed historical observations, and his failure to address the future of organised labour in his recent lecture, are absolutely critical omissions.
What they confirm is that, in spite of his sage and often persuasive advice concerning Labour’s electoral rhetoric, Cullen, and the faction of the party he represents, is not yet ready to challenge the singular foundational achievement of the neoliberal era: the expulsion of the New Zealand working-class from the nation’s political stage.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday 11 April 2015.