Sunday 31 May 2015

Bearing Honest Witness

An Honourable Dick: In the week of Campbell Live’s demise, Richard Harman’s (above) career-long refusal to “have” the politicians [by becoming a spin-doctor] should, surely, be taken as a vote of confidence in honest witnesses (i.e. good journalists) everywhere.
ANDREW DEAN, the twenty-something author of Roger, Ruth and Me, offered a particularly acute response to the TVNZ reporter who asked him if he intended to go into politics. Dean, who subtitled his book about growing up under the influence of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, “Debts and Legacies”, thought about the question for a few moments and then replied: “I don’t think politics would have me.”
How right he was – and is. There are some people whose approach to the great issues of the day is so heterodox, so untethered to the usual ideological suspects, that in the unlikely event of them ever finding their way into “mainstream” politics, they would very quickly be chewed up and spat out. Sometimes the best you can hope to be is an honest witness.
Author of Roger, Ruth and Me, Andrew Dean: "I don't think politics would have me." 
In a week when memories of the events in Dean’s book (like Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets”) have been at the top of many aging journalists’ minds, it was astonishing how little of substance the Leader of the Opposition had to say in response to Bill English’s effort.
Much of the blame for Labour’s woeful performance belongs to Andrew Little himself, but it is also true to say that he was not well served by his advisers. The people in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office should not have been taken by surprise by English’s token gestures towards child poverty. The parliamentary complex is a veritable vortex of rumour and gossip, and the capital city outside rustles with secrets like a hedgehog among autumn leaves. Opposition staffers should never be surprised by anything a government does – not if they (and their spies) are doing their job!
It’s difficult to imagine Helen Clark and her Chief-of-Staff, Heather Simpson, being surprised by the contents of a National Party Budget. Both women boasted extensive networks of friends, allies and informants, and seldom found themselves without a number to call. And, if the worst happened, and their networks couldn’t supply the needed information, they could always rely upon Clark’s excellent Press Secretary, the highly-experienced Press Gallery journalist, Mike Munro, to fill in the gaps.
About three weeks ago, another highly-experienced journalist, Richard Harman, was delivering a speech to the NZ Fabian Society on the importance of effective political communication to electoral success. Like Mike Munro, Richard Harman was one of the Parliamentary Press Gallery’s “bigfeet”, a now dwindling breed of journalists who knew everyone and could find out just about anything. Indeed, the Labour Prime Minister, David Lange, included Harman among the “Three Dicks” (Richard Griffin of Radio New Zealand, Richard Long of The Dominion and Richard Harman of TVNZ) without whose cooperation no political message could be guaranteed to make it through to the voters. It would be interesting to know how many staff from the Leader of the Opposition’s Office turned out to hear Harman speak.
Harman, you can be sure, would never have left Andrew Little flicking over blank pages as he struggled to find anything remotely sensible to say in response to the Budget speech with which Bill English had just ambushed him. Interestingly, Harman, now back in the Gallery for his “Politik” blog, was one of the very few journalists to flag the possibility of English doing something interesting with social assistance in the Budget.
All of which raises the rather obvious question: “Why didn’t Little invite Harman to be Labour’s Communications Director?” After all, with his production company “Front Page” no longer producing The Nation, Harman was at something of a loose end.
The answer, probably, is that Labour knew Harman wouldn’t accept the position. The former TVNZ Political Editor is very much “old school” when it comes to crossing the line from journalism to spin-doctoring; arguing that by agreeing to spin for a political party, a journalist instantly devalues everything he or she has ever written on the subject of politics.
Which is, in its way, reassuring (even if Harman would easily have equalled Munro in terms of effectiveness!) It also takes us right back to the beginning of this discussion; to Andrew Dean’s shrewd observation that “I don't think politics would have me”.
In the week of Campbell Live’s demise, Richard Harman’s career-long refusal to “have” the politicians should, surely, be taken as a vote of confidence in honest witnesses (i.e. good journalists) everywhere.
A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 27 May 2015.

Saturday 30 May 2015

Re/Defining Neoliberalism

The March Of Neoliberalism: Not a coherent economic philosophy, but a fearsomely coherent political project. Its purpose: to use the coercive power of the state to thwart and/or reverse any and all attempts to empower the many at the expense of the few. Those who try to pass neoliberalism off as the crackpot economic "religion" of a handful of Act supporters, are simply attempting (like Tony Blair) to carve out a political space for themselves within the Neoliberal Settlement.
THE DEBATE which Matthew Hooton kicked off in earnest on Radio New Zealand this week is hotting-up. In dispute is that much-used, but imperfectly understood, political term: “Neoliberalism”.
Some, including economist, Brian Easton; former Finance Minister, Sir Michael Cullen; and Wellington blogger, Danyl McLauchlan; have claimed that John Key, and the government he leads, no longer fits the neoliberal description. They have not, however, moved as far down the revisionist road as Mr Hooton. His claim is that the Key Government has not only moved on from neoliberalism, but that it has also crossed the line into the full-blown leftism of that arch-socialist, Rob Muldoon.
Wellington-based academic, Jack Vowles, joined the fray a couple of days ago - posing the question: “Neoliberalism: Half-Full or Half-Empty?”
As Professor of Comparative Politics at Victoria, Jack’s purpose in entering this debate appears to be the rather dubious one of muddying the waters about what neoliberalism is – and is not. In its turn, this obfuscation seemed to be aimed at keeping open the political space currently occupied by what he calls “market pragmatists” – those particularly pusillanimous neoliberals known as Blairites.
Vowles’s case: that neoliberalism is a kind of economic religion, adhered to by a tiny number of extreme Hayekian economists, and only ever imperfectly applied in New Zealand, is, like most erroneous conclusions, based upon an erroneous premise.
Neoliberalism as never been, and is not, a coherent set of economic principles, the presence or absence of which in any given policy prescription determines the strength or weakness of its ideological credentials. Indeed, neoliberalism, far from being some sort of neo-classical economic crusade, is what it has always been: the fearsomely coherent political project of global capitalism’s ruling elites.
Its anti-state/free market propaganda notwithstanding, neoliberalism’s purpose has always been to use the coercive power of the state to thwart and/or reverse any and all attempts to empower the many at the expense of the few.
As Professor David Harvey notes in his A Brief History of Neoliberalism:
“Redistributive effects and increasing social inequality have in fact been such a persistent feature of neoliberalisation as to be regarded as structural to the whole project. Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, after careful reconstruction of the data, have concluded that neoliberalisation was from the very beginning a project to achieve the restoration of class power.”
It is no accident that neoliberalism’s origins, as a politically effective force, may be traced to the economic, social and political upheavals of the 1970s. This was, after all, the decade in which the power of the capitalist ruling classes came under maximum pressure: the decade in which both individual capitalists and the principal organs of capitalist power (especially in the USA and the UK) commenced their still-advancing counter-offensive against the unnerving encroachments of social-democratic redistribution and reform.
It also explains why, in practical terms, neoliberalism has always been a more-or-less constant set of political and economic objectives rather than a coherent philosophy. The whole point of neoliberalism is to have the coercive powers of the state deployed to the exclusive advantage of the elites. This may be seen not only in the largely successful campaigns to reduce the influence of organised labour, but also in the ongoing efforts of neoliberal regimes to decouple the regulatory and administrative powers of the state from those sectors of the economy that the forces of social-democracy had once been powerful enough to wrench from private hands.
Vowles’s plaintive cry, that not all of the defining features of a neoliberal regime are in and of themselves bad, misses the point entirely. Of course trade liberalisation can be seen “a good thing” – but not when it’s used to gut the domestic manufacturing sector and eliminate the social milieu out of which strong social-democratic values grow. Relieving the pressure on income tax to meet all of the state’s fiscal needs may, similarly, be a good thing, but not when a deeply regressive goods and services tax is imposed on the working-class to fill the fiscal hole created by easing the “burden” of progressive taxation on the wealthy.
Why is Vowles unable to see this? Primarily, because he is desperate to avoid acknowledging both the Neoliberal Revolution, and the Neoliberal Settlement which it enabled, as the central political (and, increasingly, cultural) realities of our time. Were he ever to accept that neoliberalism will manoeuvre swiftly and decisively (principally through its enablers in the news media) to thwart “the alternatives that do exist to promote [a] more inclusive and egalitarian society”, then all his talk of “responsible economic management” and of not taxing and spending “without any apparent constraints” would stand revealed for what it is: mealy-mouthed Blairite blather.
It is, however, in the midst of all his Third Way apologetics that Vowles let’s slip the very insight he’s trying so hard to pretend he has not had. It’s when he declares: “The implicit alternative to neoliberalism implied by many on the left is simply not feasible in the 21st century.”
This is the crucial admission, and the crucial explanation for why Vowles and his Blairite comrades are so keen to reduce neoliberalism to something only a handful of Act supporters take seriously. What Vowles is really saying is that the Left’s alternatives are not feasible while the Neoliberal Settlement endures. And if that is true, then the only possible programme for a genuine left-wing party is the one committed to challenging that settlement head-on and reclaiming the coercive powers of the state for the many, from the few. (The sort of coercive powers that John Key’s indisputably neoliberal National Party refuses to deploy even in the name of ensuring that working people are not seriously injured or killed on the job!)
I have followed Jack Volwes’s highly successful career in political science for more than quarter of a century. His scholarship in dissecting the crucial general elections of the 1990s – not to mention the arrival of MMP – always possessed the reassuring feel of work undertaken by a man comfortable in his own radical skin.
What happened, I wonder, to the Jack Vowles who seemed to see, in the epic struggle between Labour and the Alliance, the acting out of the urgent mission to make left-wing policies “feasible in the 21st century”? When did it become okay for the Professor to put down the opponents of neoliberalism as inhabitants of a political ghetto, communicators of despair, weakeners of their own cause?
Was it about the same time, Jack, that you decided that if neoliberalism could not be beaten, then it could, God forgive you, be joined?
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Saturday, 30 May 2015.

Friday 29 May 2015

Making Connections: Why, Instead Of Looking Tired, Labour Needs To Get Emotional.

Fifth Time Lucky? After trying, and failing, four times to make an emotional connection with the electorate, perhaps Labour should look for a leader who got himself re-elected to Parliament the old-fashioned way - by raising heaps of cash and then persuading "mainstream" New Zealanders to vote for him. Napier MP, Stuart Nash (above) addresses a provincial business audience.
THE LATEST ROY MORGAN POLL has cast a deep pall of gloom over all three Opposition parties. Among Labour supporters, however, a growing sense of utter futility is palpable. Support for the party has crashed back to the abysmal figures of Election Night. Barely a quarter of the adult population is willing to identify Labour as their first electoral choice.
The corollary to Opposition gloom is, of course, Government elation. And, with the Roy Morgan poll showing National on 54 percent, who can blame its MPs and supporters for breaking out the bubbly? Remember, this latest poll was conducted when Amanda Bailey’s ponytail was dominating the headlines. Did it damage the Prime Minister’s reputation? (As so many of John Key’s enemies were hoping.) Not appreciably. “Teflon John” continues to shine.
At around the same time as Roy Morgan’s callers were working the phones, Sir Michael Cullen and the NZ Fabian Society were attempting to rally Labour’s dejected troops with a presentation entitled, rather hopefully, “Destination: Next Progressive Majority.” Arriving at that destination, says Sir Michael, will depend on whether Labour is able to re-present itself as the party of Choice, Aspiration, Responsibility and National Pride.
For that re-presentation to work, Sir Michael stresses, Labour must re-connect emotionally with the electorate. “Policies can be a means to this”, says the former Labour Finance Minister, “but rarely the most important means.” In saying this, Sir Michael is echoing the  advice of Lynton Crosby – the man who, earlier this month, won the UK General Election for the Conservative Party. Policy matters, says Crosby, only inasmuch as it expresses the less tangible and more visceral reasons for supporting one political party over another.
“This is Key’s huge strength”, Sir Michael observes, “he has enormous emotional connection with voters. The sloppy language we like to make fun of is the language most people speak, not like University lecturers like Helen, Steve and I. The casualness to turn things aside, not important, at the end of the day.”
It is National’s huge strength, as well, because there is no other politician in the Government’s ranks who connects with the ordinary Kiwi voter in the manner of John Key.
And it is here, on the question of leadership, that Sir Michael’s otherwise sober and sensible analysis falters.
In order to sell a Labour Party based on Choice, Aspiration, Responsibility and National Pride; a credible, likeable (and because, historically, Labour is coming off such a low base) a frankly inspirational leader is required. Someone with a personality powerful enough to rekindle the love Labour lost in the 1980s and 90s – and only fleetingly recovered in the early noughties. Someone capable of sparking-up the old flame. And, more than this, someone fresh and fascinating enough to attract and hold the attention of Generations X, Y and Z. Someone to warrant a selfie – and a vote.
Does this sound like Andrew Little? Does it sound like anyone in Labour’s post-2014 caucus? If the answer is “No”, then, even with Sir Michael’s sage advice, the party’s in a pretty pickle. It has tried, four times, to pick a winner: twice by the judgement of the Caucus alone; twice according to the judgement of the whole party. Every single one of them failed to fire. And whoever heard of fifth time lucky?
Something has to be done, however, or, like Sir Keith Holyoake, the New Zealand political leader he so closely resembles, the Prime Minister will lead his party to its fourth consecutive election victory.
To prevent that from happening, Labour is going to have to take a leaf out of the campaign maestro’s, Lynton Crosby’s, playbook. It is going to have to learn to listen to its pollsters and heed their focus groups. Not to discover what the public wants, and then give it back to them as Labour Party policy; but to learn which lines of argument work, and which don’t. Democratic politics is not about giving the people what they want, it’s about persuading the people that they want what you want. “When in doubt”, says Lynton Crosby, “stand for something!” And then, he might have added, convince a majority of voters to stand with you.
If Labour can’t find a leader to do that for them, then, for God’s sake, let them hire a campaign manager who can!
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, 29 May 2015.

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Tricky Customer: Why Is Matthew Hooton Accusing John Key’s Government Of Lurching To The Left?

Trickster-in-Chief? Right-wing PR maven, Matthew Hooton, pushes the line that National is lurching leftwards, because he wants Labour to "trump National to the right".
MATTHEW HOOTON is a very tricky customer. To hear him tell it, Bill English’s seventh Budget represents a decisive break with the policies of Roger and Ruth. Effectively, the end of the neoliberal settlement. It’s nonsense, of course. But that only makes me wonder why he’s saying it.
There are only two probable explanations for Matthew’s latest foray into the realms of make-believe. The first is that he actually believes what he is saying. The second is that he is saying it for effect.
To hear for himself just how silly he sounds, he has only to answer the following questions about Bill English’s Budget.
1. Did the Budget foreshadow the repeal of the Reserve Bank Act?
2. Did Bill English signal his government’s intention to resuscitate organised labour?
3. Did he announce New Zealand’s imminent return to trade protectionism?
4. Did he raise the top marginal rates of income tax?
5. Did he abandon his goal of returning the Government’s accounts to surplus?
The answer to every one of these questions is, of course, a resounding “No.” There is absolutely no question of this National Government abandoning the neoliberal settlement of the past 30 years. For Matthew’s benefit, however, let us briefly enumerate the key features of that “broad policy consensus”:
1. Price Stability.
2. Labour Market Flexibility.
3. An Open Competitive Economy.
4. Broad-based, Low-Tax Structure.
5. Government Surpluses and Debt Repayment.
To strengthen those key features, successive neoliberal governments (both National and Labour) have pursued at least one – sometimes all – of the following policy goals:
1. The legislative curtailment of trade union rights - especially the right to strike.
2. The steady elimination of progressive taxation – to the advantage of the wealthy.
3. Permanent downward pressure on both the size and scope of the public sector.
4. Continued privatisation of state assets.
5. Creating incentives for beneficiaries to move off benefits and into training and/or work.
The very most that Matthew could say, in terms of Bill English’s Budget moving away from the Neoliberal Settlement, is that his decision to increase some benefits by up to $25.00 per week (after 1 April 2016) represented a marginal reduction in the incentive to transit from welfare into work. That said, however, and given the fact that even that bastion of neoliberal rectitude, The Treasury, was prepared to acknowledge that the gap between benefits and wages had grown so wide that tens-of-thousands of children were suffering actual hardship, one can only wonder what Matthew would rather Bill English had done.
Should the Finance Minister simply have ignored all those children careless enough to have been born into poor families? Should the cumulative long-term effects of childhood poverty have been similarly disregarded by this present generation of politicians – leaving the butcher’s bill for all its entirely predictable social pathologies to be paid by the taxpayers of the future? Matthew doesn’t say.
Let us, then, turn to the second probable explanation for Matthew’s curious obituary for the Neoliberal Settlement: that he is saying it for effect. What effect could that be?
The most likely effect which Matthew is striving to produce is the general public acceptance of his proposition that the National Party, under John Key and Bill English, has moved sharply to the left. So dramatic has this shift been, Matthew told Radio New Zealand–National’s Kathryn Ryan, that National “is well to the left of the Clark Government, and well to the left of the Greens.”
Now, why on earth would a radical conservative like Matthew want to persuade ordinary centrist voters that John Key was slowly-but-surely turning the National Party into a socialist outfit more radical than either Labour or the Greens? Let’s allow the man, himself, to answer the question. This is what he said to Kathryn Ryan on Monday, 25 May 2015:
“I think that [Labour is] in the most terrible trouble – perhaps in their history ….. Look, [these] are their choices: John Key is chasing them to the left, there is no doubt about that. As I said, Helen Clark didn’t do anything this radical. They have to accept what’s happening here. If they think that moving left is going to help them, then John Key is just going to chase them. So, I think they’re going to have to – and I don’t know how they’ll manage this – but they’re going to have to trump National to the right, somehow.”
Kathryn Ryan asks Matthew if he’s suggesting that Labour do what it did in the 1980s.
“Well, exactly! That was forced upon Labour, wasn’t it? When you had Muldoon going so far to the left, in that third term, in particular, the incoming Labour government had no alternative – because there was no position or place in the political spectrum for it.”
Stripped of all its fanciful historical analogies and preposterous ideological comparisons, Hooton’s analysis reduces down to this bleak electoral proposition.
National can only hope to continue in office by conceding more and more ideological ground to the Left. In terms of internal National Party politics, the scope for many more such concessions is rapidly narrowing. The only hope of holding the neoliberal line, therefore, is to persuade the Labour Party to embrace the very principles that National has already identified as electoral poison.
Why would Labour do that? – As opposed to endorsing, and then extending, the left-wing political gestures upon which National has pinned its hopes of re-election? What could possibly persuade Labour to refrain from forcing an electorally fatal split in National’s ranks, in order to adopt a suite of policies guaranteed to re-open the bitterest divisions within its own?
Sadly these are not rhetorical questions. Labour’s caucus already contains within its ranks a number of MPs to whom neoliberalism still presents itself as the solution – not the problem. Strengthen the hand of these individuals by orchestrating the same sort of media about-face that sank the National Government of Rob Muldoon. Heap praise upon Andrew Little for having the courage to “think the unthinkable” (and let him know that he can expect strong media backing for silencing the Labour Left) and History could very easily be persuaded to repeat herself.
And if/when she does, you can bet that Matthew Hooton’s PR firm will be writing her media releases.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 25 May 2015.

Right Objectives - Wrong Network

Quixotic Mission? From its very inception TV3 has tried to fulfil the role of a creative and independent public broadcaster - largely because TVNZ declined to accept that role for itself. But commercial and public broadcasting are two, very different, things. In the end, if funds expended exceed funds received, a private sector corporation has to act. Campbell Live's supporters are attacking the wrong network.
JOHN CAMPBELL’S FRIENDS – and he has many – are attacking the wrong television network. Mediaworks is not the problem – and never has been. Nor is it the solution – though, from its very inception, nearly 30 years ago, it has (rather Quixotically, in my opinion) tried to be. If I may borrow that marvellous line from George Lucas’s Star Wars: Privately-owned, commercially-driven television, “are not the droids you are looking for”. The network John Campbell’s imperial stormtroopers should be pursuing, plasma rifles and light-sabres held high, is the one they already own – Television New Zealand.
It is one of the great ironies of New Zealand’s (relatively) recent cultural history that the impetus towards free and open airways has, to a startling degree, come from freewheeling cultural entrepreneurs like Colin Scrimgeour, Gordon Dryden, George Andrews, Marcia Russell and Rod Pedersen. Not forgetting that madcap piratical quartet who, in 1966, launched Radio Hauraki.
By and large, these were not individuals who cared a great deal about making a profit. What they did care about, however, was innovative, creative, challenging and, most of all, exciting broadcasting. Whether it was Colin Scrimgeour’s subversive “Friendly Road”; Gordon Dryden’s experiments in “talkback” on Radio Pacific; or Rod Pedersen’s anarchic “Nightline” programme on TV3; the point was always to fashion something as far removed from the dull fare of officially-sanctioned broadcasting as possible – and then beam it, with unapologetic glee, into the living rooms of the unsuspecting public.
One of the strangest aspects of New Zealand’s deeply conformist society is the way it drives so many of its non-conforming citizens into the private sector. Not, it must be said, in the spirit of avarice that makes true capitalists rich, but because it seemed to them about the only place where it was possible to set up an institution capable of saying “Yes”.
What many of them failed to grasp, however, was that although New Zealand’s state and local government bureaucrats were among the greatest nay-sayers in the world, the marketplace also possesses some pretty inflexible rules of its own. The greatest of these being the rule that insists money has to flow both ways. No matter what the enterprise, if funds expended are not exceeded by funds received, then: “Houston, we have a problem.”
Getting the money to flow both ways has always been TV3’s greatest challenge. Only intermittedly have the funds it received exceeded the funds it expended. Indeed, the mavericks and dreamers who founded the network had hardly begun broadcasting before they found their beloved creation placed in receivership. Throughout its relatively short life, TV3 has always, like poor Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire, “depended on the kindness of strangers”.
Regardless, its extraordinarily talented staff (especially Head of News and Current Affairs, Mark Jennings) have done everything they could to stay true to TV3’s kaupapa. Running a network dedicated to producing the sort of creative and challenging television that the state broadcaster (with the important exception of a few, golden, years in the 1970s and 80s) either couldn’t or wouldn’t commit to the airwaves.
Those “golden” years bear closer scrutiny. For the first time, either before or since, television executives were encouraged to say “Yes”. Television One and South Pacific Television (both state-owned) were persuaded to give the green light to programmes designed not only to entertain, but also educate, and, in a handful of rare and very special cases, elevate their audiences.
What made it all possible was the Broadcasting License Fee. This relatively modest tax, levied on all television users, allowed public television to remain at least partially sheltered from the ratings-driven influences of commercial television. The problem was, people hated paying their Broadcasting License Fee. Viewers who, today, happily fork out $100 per month for Sky TV, thought a fee of less than $100 per year was far too much to pay for a creative, innovative and challenging television network run by – and for – New Zealanders.
TV3 – Mediaworks – have broadcast Campbell Live for as long as they could (and, arguably, a little bit longer than they should). Sometimes strangers have to be cruel to be kind. To expect a commercial network to ignore the most basic rules of private enterprise, in order to satisfy an audience that has yet to demonstrate an equal degree of militancy when it comes to demanding that Television New Zealand meet its responsibilities, isn’t just unfair – it’s entirely misguided!
As New Zealanders, shouldn’t we at least try to summon up the courage to imagine public institutions in which the creative, the challenging, and – yes – even the mavericks can find a place? And, isn’t it long past time that we encouraged the growth of a private sector dedicated to the dynamically dull, but indisputably important, business of making a buck?
Honestly, wouldn’t that be bloody marvellous!
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 May 2015.

Sunday 24 May 2015

Going Backwards: Table Talk 2 At Ika Seafood Bar and Grill, Tuesday, 19 May 2015.

Generation Why? While the next generation confronts History's camera, a young woman studies the programme of the last United Women's Convention to be held in New Zealand. (Hamilton, 1979) Thirty-six years later, the revolutionary fervour of Feminism's second wave seems impossibly remote - especially when viewed from the Neoliberal culture of contemporary New Zealand society. (Photo by Marti Friedlander)
“BUT WE’RE GOING BACKWARDS!” Came the anguished cry from the table in the corner. Amidst all the sororal warmth generated by Amanda Bailey’s pulled ponytail, the speaker’s uncompromising judgement arrived like a blast of cold air from the world outside. A necessary corrective to the perky inclusiveness of the many Third and Fourth Wave feminists in the audience. The women seated at the corner table had been present at the birth of Second Wave feminism in New Zealand. It lent their intervention a special force.
As a bloke, I did not consider it my place to enter into the public phase of “Beneath the Ponytail: Women. Work. Progress?” – the second of Ika Seafood Bar and Grill’s “Table Talks”. No matter how many times the panel (Human Rights EEO Commissioner, Dr Jackie Blue; Senior Lecturer at University of Auckland, Dr Michelle Dickinson; First Union Secretary, Maxine Gay; and Labour Party List MP, Jacinda Ardern) reiterated the view that men-can-be-feminists-too, I still recall Second Wave feminists arguing that the best thing men can contribute to discussions about feminism is their silence.
Effective political memories (with the obvious exception of those gathered around the table in the corner) were in rather short supply on Tuesday night (19/5/15). Poor Jackie Blue admitted to being a young university student at the time of “Women’s Liberation” and missing the whole thing! (Although, to her credit, she is rapidly making up the lost time.) Maxine Gay, by contrast, who has been a fighter on the feminist barricades since the 1970s and 80s, was for some reason reluctant to acquaint the twenty-somethings present with the often brutal history of liberal versus socialist versus lesbian separatist versus cultural feminism. Inclusiveness was not a conspicuous virtue of the Second Wave.
Dr Michelle Dickinson’s (aka “Nanogirl”) contribution commenced with the bleak news that although the numbers of young women entering the sciences has been rising, the number who actually make use of their scientific training (especially in Dr Dickinson’s own field of engineering) remains worryingly small.
Significantly, the only viable route out of this situation was deemed to be through the good offices of sympathetic business leaders – most of whom are, predictably, men. A number of these individuals were mentioned, and it would be churlish to disparage their efforts in any way. But the fact remains that it is now only in the business world; only in the place where the values of the marketplace reign supreme; that womankind’s quest for full sexual equality is being realistically contextualised. Grasp that, and the full extent of feminism’s retreat is made apparent.
It took the Labour List MP, Jacinda Ardern, to spell out the consequences of this depressing reversal. Paired with National’s Nicky Kaye in what was called “The Battle of the Babes” for Auckland Central, Ardern was faced with a hard choice. Either, take offence at the blatantly sexist framing of the contest and forever afterwards be stereotyped as a humourless feminist harridan. Or, by taking it in good part, risk being dismissed as Labour’s bimbo. Quite rightly, she reasoned that the latter stereotype would be more easily overcome than the former and played along. More than 30 years after Helen Clark poured out her heart to a female journalist about the extreme sexism she’d encountered in the male-dominated Parliament of the 1980s, Ardern’s testimony made me wonder exactly how much has really changed.
Indeed the whole evening’s discussion – ably chaired by TV3’s Lisa Owen – had about it a decidedly self-referential quality. Just as it had on the occasion of the first “Table Talk” – about the beleaguered (now cancelled) Campbell Live – the Ika Seafood Bar and Grill had turned into a large left-wing echo-chamber. I got the strong impression that only the women at the corner table understood that the evening’s discussion – for all its undoubted passion and sincerity – was taking place in the belly of the beast: a monster whose ideological victory was as complete as it was unacknowledged.
As the Australian sociologist and feminist Professor Raewyn Connell puts it in her paper “Understanding Neoliberalism”:
“With a few exceptions neoliberal leadership is composed of men. It’s treasured figure, ‘the entrepreneur,’ is culturally coded masculine. Its assault on the welfare state redistributes income from women to men and imposes more unpaid work on women as carers for the young, the old, and the sick. Its attack on ‘political correctness’ and its rollback of affirmative action specifically undermine the gains of feminism. In such ways, neoliberalism from the 1980s on offered middle-class men an indirect but effective solution to the delegitimation of patriarchy and the threat of real gender equality.”
The young women who joined in “Beneath the Ponytail: Women. Work. Progress?”, so inclusive in their definitions of feminism, but, at the same time, so concerned to escape the shaming label of “feminazi” that men of all generations are so quick to pin upon them, seemed to bear out Professor Connell’s bleak observation.
Was that what the Second Wavers at the corner table sensed also? That the push-back had somehow been reversed? That the enormous sense of empowerment, of emancipatory élan, that had characterised the feminist revolution of the 1970s and 80s, had, without anyone really noticing, been subsumed in something much, much larger?
It’s not as if the many gains of the Second Wave have been rolled back – not at all – but rather that, in some ill-defined way, they no longer matter. As if all the changes that were extracted with so much pain and effort could only ever have worked in a more caring, just and equitable world – the world which a triumphantly masculine Neoliberal Revolution long ago destroyed.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday 23 May 2015.

Saturday 23 May 2015

If The SIS Director Wants To Tell Us The Truth, She Should Commission Fiction.

Memorable Presentation: Rebecca Kitteridge, the first woman Director of the SIS, laments the fact that the necessarily secret work of her agents cannot become the subject of a reality TV series - as it has for Police and Custom Officers. For shame, Ms Kitteridge! If you would tell the truth - write fiction! Just think Spooks.

REBECCA KITTERIDGE is like no Director of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) New Zealand has ever seen. There was a time when the identities of such national security bureaucrats were, if not secret, then, at the very least, invisible to the general public. In recent decades, an SIS Director’s name might have been slid into the public record, but he (and before Ms Kitteridge they were all “he”) was seldom heard and almost never seen.
How things have changed. Like her British equivalent, Dame Stella Rimington, Ms Kitteridge has, as the Service’s first female Director, allowed a Force 10 gale to blow through the stuffy corridors of her publicity-shy corner of the secret state. What Dame Stella did for MI5, Ms Kitteridge hopes to do for the SIS.
Her latest foray into the public sphere occurred earlier this week at the 2015 Privacy and Identity Conference in Wellington. Having heard Ms Kitteridge’s frank address, New Zealand’s Privacy Commissioner, John Edwards, vouchsafed to his audience that he “could not remember such a presentation from an intelligence director”.
Perhaps the most intriguing offering from Ms Kitteridge concerned the Service’s limited options for improving its public image. The sort of PR opportunities that were open to other state agencies – most notably the Police and Customs Officers – were simply not available to the SIS. It would be difficult, she suggested to make a reality show out of a state agency that was required to “do everything behind locked doors.”
For shame, Ms Kitteridge! Reality shows are not the only vehicles for showcasing the day-to-day activities of state operatives. Indeed, there’s an old saying among those who have made it their business to report the activities of the secret state: “If you want to tell the truth – write fiction.”
If Ms Kitteridge wants to improve the public’s image and understanding of the SIS, she has only to persuade NZ on Air to fund a television drama series about its activities.
Was it no more than coincidence that in the years immediately following Dame Stella’s stint at MI5 the BBC began airing the hit series Spooks? The show’s creator, Jane Featherstone, told The Daily Mail that: “At first the intelligence services were resistant, and they let that be known through former members who acted as technical advisers on Spooks.” But, eventually, says Featherstone, the real spooks came around. “They even used the first series to help with their [recruitment] campaign.”
Prime Recruiter? The British television series Spooks boosted the numbers of people seeking to join MI5.
And it’s not as if there isn’t plenty of experienced writing talent close at hand. The British-born television writer, Neil Cross, who wrote multiple episodes of Spooks, as well as the memorable detective thriller, Luther, has lived in Wellington for many years.
The story-lines for such a series (working title “The Service”) would no doubt include many of the issues raised in Ms Kitteridge’s speech. Imagine the possibilities of a story-line based upon Islamic State’s use of social media. Or about tracking-down the member of the public who tipped the SIS off about a plot to contaminate New Zealand’s dairy exports. More controversially, there could be an episode about a terrorist cell undergoing military training in the bush.
If Ms Kitteridge is really serious about letting the public know just how difficult her job can be, she could advise the series writers on how an SIS Director might respond to an attempt to use the SIS for political purposes. What does the Director do when someone from the Prime Minister’s Office approaches her with a request to blacken the name of a political opponent? Or when one of her agents discovers that the Israeli Embassy has recruited a prominent blogger to blacken the reputations of pro-Palestinian activists?
And, just imagine the dramatic possibilities of a “Black Hat” hacker, recruited to turn the tables on Chinese cyber-criminals who have succeeded in penetrating the defences of one of New Zealand’s most innovative companies. Should the Director use her hacker’s talents independently, or share him with the Government Communications Security Bureau’s own team of “Computer Network Operations Specialists”? And how should she fend off the furious intervention of a Foreign Minister desperate to keep New Zealand’s relationship with the Chinese Government on an even keel?
If Ms Kitteridge cannot give us the facts about the SIS, she could at least try to tell us the truth – by commissioning fiction.
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, 22 May 2015.

Let Them Eat Scraps: Bill English's Budget Outflanks The Left By Mollifying The Conscience-Stricken Centre.

Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Love! Bill English's seventh Budget may be weak in terms of economic effectiveness, but politically it's a genuine sand-kicker. Labour's Andrew Little is still rubbing his eyes.
IT’S BEEN 43 YEARS since a National Party finance minister rose to deliver a Budget in which real increases to social welfare benefits were announced. In 1972, the then finance minister, Rob Muldoon, increased government spending by a whopping 16.2 percent – and much of it went to beneficiaries. Of course, the level of welfare spending in 1972 was considerably less than today’s. The unemployment rate, for example, was well below 1 percent and there was no Domestic Purposes Benefit. New Zealand’s generous superannuation scheme still lay in the future. Even so, 1972’s was a particularly generous budget. “That’s it,” Muldoon cheekily informed his non-plussed Labour opponents, “I’ve spent the lot!”
Muldoon’s cheery admission should alert us to just how different the world was 43 years ago. Economic thinking was still dominated by the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, and, as Muldoon would later quip: “Most New Zealanders wouldn’t recognise a deficit if they tripped over one in the street.” Forty-three years later, the National Party Finance Minister, Bill English, has, with considerable reluctance, increased government spending by 2.5 percent – not quite enough to keep pace with the projected rate of inflation and population growth. New Zealand’s economic performance may be one of the best in the OECD, but nobody in 2015 would dream of increasing state spending by 16.2 percent!
All of which gives the lie to those who, like former finance minister, Sir Michael Cullen, insist that John Key does not preside over a neoliberal administration. Because, what Bill English has given with one hand he has ruthlessly snatched back with the other. In 11 months’ time, the poorest New Zealanders will receive a $25.00 per week increase in their benefits – just enough to keep them from the clutches of utter destitution. But, as of 2:00pm on Thursday, 21 May 2015, the Government’s $1,000 kick-start grants to new Kiwi-Saver accounts ceased.
Which is not to say that this budget isn’t a highly successful exercise in political mollification and repositioning. In the run-up to last year’s general election, pollsters were reporting that one of the few questions registering a strong lead for Labour was about which party had the best response to the problem of child poverty. Even among National Party voters there was a clear and rising level of concern over the number of Kiwi kids living in need, and the Government’s response was generally acknowledged to be inadequate. Bill English’s budget measures will, almost certainly, have mollified these conscience-stricken voters of the Centre. At the same time they have blocked-off one of the very few remaining avenues into National territory. Labour will now have to find another way of reaching what it still insists are “soft” National voters.
But how “soft” are these voters, really? Bill English may have surprised the commentariat by increasing benefit levels, but he was careful to ring his $25.00 bounty with new and tougher obligations on sole parents. From the age of just 3 years, beneficiaries’ children are expected to be enrolled in early childhood educational institutions, while their parents go out to work for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Nothing “soft” about that!
Indeed, it was to avoid the charge that they had gone “soft on beneficiaries” (as in “soft on communism”) that Labour, for nine long years, steadfastly refused to restore benefit payments to the levels they were at in July 1991, when Ruth Richardson, in her “Mother of All Budgets”, slashed them by the equivalent of $43.00 in today’s money. No matter how many statistics the academic husband and wife team of David and Liz Craig assembled and presented; no matter how dire the evidence of real and growing hardship among beneficiary families; or even of the alarming spikes in poverty-related diseases recorded by the nation’s public hospitals; the Labour-led government of Helen Clark remained unmoved. It’s neoliberal advisers in Treasury and the Ministry of Social Development insisted that the “incentivising” gap between benefits and wages be maintained – and it was.
By 2015, however, the size of that gap had grown to such proportions that even Treasury was prepared to acknowledge that it might be time to relent – just a little. And, God knows! $25.00 per week is not a lot! Still, no one should be under any illusions that English’s minimal adjustments will do anything to loosen the bars of the cruel poverty trap in which as many as a quarter-of-a-million New Zealand children remain imprisoned.
Many years ago now, at a swanky Auckland restaurant, I found myself seated next to a well-known right-wing journalist. Not surprisingly, we ended up arguing about Rogernomics and Ruthanasia. I asked her this question: “What would you do if you were told that in order to go on receiving all the good things you currently enjoy, you would first have to consent to a person being chained up in a dungeon and fed your scraps?” Well, she hummed and hawed for a while, and then offered me this quite extraordinary reply. It would be alright, she said, because, as she became richer, she’d make sure the prisoner received more food, and that his chains were loosened, “so he could move about a bit”.
If you can be reconciled to that way of thinking, then you will have no difficulty whatsoever in both understanding and endorsing Bill English’s 2015 Budget.
This essay was jointly posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites of Saturday, 23 May 2015.

Tuesday 19 May 2015

The Least They Could Do

Tinkerer-in-Chief: John Key announces changes to the law relating to property speculation. Many of John Key's opponents, and some journalists, accused him of executing a U-turn on the issue of Capital Gains Tax. Labour's Andrew Little disagreed, tweeting that Key's announcement was nothing of the sort. The Prime Minister, said Little, was merely "tinkering with the housing market".
IT WAS THE LEAST THEY COULD DO. Indeed, had they done anything less it might have been mistaken for doing nothing at all. Still, the measures announced to the Lower North Island Regional Conference of the National Party on Sunday by John Key and Bill English were better than nothing. It’s always encouraging to see a government taking law enforcement seriously. Providing the IRD with the resources it needs to enforce already existing legislation against property speculation (including speculation by foreigners!) may even help to slow down Auckland’s runaway housing market. No, seriously, it might!
The government’s announcement is being represented by some Labour and Green MPs (and some of the news media) as a major U-turn. National’s hitherto staunch opposition to the introduction of a Capital Gains Tax (CGT) has, according to this reading, simply melted away.
Labour’s Jacinda Ardern, for example, tweeted archly that she had received the news at a Labour regional conference “otherwise known as the place we come up with ideas that National dismisses and then adopts.”
In a media release, the Greens’ co-leader, Metira Turei, echoed Ardern’s sentiments, saying: “This is a welcome U-turn from the Government. Only last week they were saying that capital gains taxes don’t work, so it is great they have changed their mind so quickly.”
The jibes of its opponents notwithstanding, the term “Capital Gains Tax” appears nowhere in the National Government’s media releases. On the contrary, the measures announced are all couched in terms of making the existing property tax regime more effective.
Interestingly, this is also the way that the Labour Party leader, Andrew Little, chose to characterise the Prime Minister’s announcement: “National is tinkering with the housing market”, opined Mr Little, whose preference for ditching Labour’s pledge to introduce a CGT is well known. He described National’s moves as “tentative and incremental”, and accused the Prime Minister of “creating a massive loop hole with his new ‘bright line’ test which will exempt speculators who hold onto their properties for longer than two years.”
Perhaps Mr Little was recalling the fate of the Third Labour Government’s Property Speculation Tax, introduced to Parliament in 1973 by Norman Kirk’s Finance Minister, Bill Rowling. Ironically, this measure was aimed at curbing a similarly rampant Auckland property market, and it, too, exempted speculators who held onto their properties for longer than two years.
The response of the targeted speculators is well described in a 2010 piece by Fairfax NZ’s business columnist, Bruce Shepherd:
“This tax did alter behaviour, in that those who held real estate held on to it for the requisite period and were gratified to do so as the market rose even faster. Simple, really, with hindsight: if you want to reduce property prices, pretty dumb to compress supply.”
Pretty dumb? Well, yes, it is pretty difficult to argue that the speculators of 2015 will be any less quick to spot the “massive loop hole” in the two-year rule than the speculators of the mid-1970s.
“But, hold on!”, National’s supporters will object. “Isn’t the government putting its thumb on the supply side of the housing crisis scales by bringing more and more residential-zoned land onto the market?”
Yes, they are. Although, it’s also fair to say that the measures adopted to date in no way compel land-bankers to relinquish their property at a rate sufficient to achieve the sudden and appreciable drop in the price of sections that first home buyers are so desperately seeking.
These sorts of voluntary, private sector-driven half-measures will never satisfy the supply side of the Auckland housing market. The National Party is quite simply incapable, for all the obvious ideological reasons, from launching the measures that will deflate Auckland’s swelling speculative bubble.
That task can only fall to a party with an ideological preference for state and municipal intervention in the housing market. Such intervention would necessarily entail the formation of a state-owned design and construction force along the lines of the highly innovative and creative Ministry of Works that grew out of the massive state house construction programme of the 1930s and 40s.
Complementing all its actual house construction, however, a future centre-left government would also need to undertake a thorough-going reform of New Zealand’s antiquated and deeply unjust tenancy laws and regulations. Genuine and long-term security of tenure, of the sort enjoyed by the municipal apartment dwellers of Germany and Scandinavia, would drive the shift in accommodation expectations so urgently needed in New Zealand’s major cities.
The demographic structure of New Zealand is changing very rapidly and it is increasingly clear that nothing short of a revolution in housing policy will allow our planners, developers and builders to keep pace.
Sunday’s housing policy announcements were about the very least the National Government could do. But so much more remains to be done.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 May 2015.

Monday 18 May 2015

Music Will Save The World: Mandolin Orange - "Wake Me" (2014)

BEGINNING an occasional series of musical treats under the heading "Music Will Save The World" - the hopeful claim attributed to the great Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals (1876-1973).

Our first offering is from my favourite Alt-Country/Americana duo, Andrew Marlin (mandolin, guitar) and Emily Frantz (violin, guitar) who together comprise Mandolin Orange. "Wake Me", recorded live last August at Pendarvis Farm, Happy Valley, Oregon, is their usual mixture of loss and discovery, rapture and despair, all picked out sharply on Andrew's mandolin and Emily's guitar. As bracingly sweet as a glass of freshly-squeezed OJ on a bright summer's morning. Enjoy.

Video courtesy of YouTube.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Sunday 17 May 2015

A Gangster's Charter: Bill English's "Social Investment" Budget.

A Gangster's Charter: Just think about everything that lay behind Tony Soprano’s cynical description of himself as a “waste management consultant”, and you’ll have a pretty good grip on what Bill English's 2015 Budget is all about.
NEXT THURSDAY, 21 May, is Budget Day. No, don’t yawn, because if the veteran political journalist, Richard Harmon, is right, then “next week will be a defining moment in the third term of this government and a critical point in its campaign to retain power in 2017.”
That “defining moment” will mark the commencement of the next great campaign in Neoliberalism’s thirty years war against collectivism and the public sphere.
Some will call it privatisation but that’s not really what this next phase is all about. If John Key and Bill English really wanted to privatise the provision of social welfare they would simply shut down the Ministry of Social Development, close all the Work and Income offices, and sell off every one of the country’s 60,000 State Houses to the highest bidder. The public schools and hospitals would suffer a similar fate.
No doubt most of the Decile 10 schools would be snapped-up at a good price. The big public hospitals in the main centres would, similarly, attract plenty of interest. But all those Decile 1 schools? Who would want to pour good money into them? And provincial hospitals? Not much scope for profit there.
No, what Bill English is planning is something very different from a straightforward reversion to the “night-watchmen state” so beloved by the followers of Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.
In any case, it’s doubtful that such a radical step would save the government all that much in the way of expenditure. Casting adrift the poor on such a massive scale would necessitate huge increases in Vote Defence, Vote Police, Vote Courts and Vote Corrections. Much of the money saved by shutting down the welfare state would end up being spent defending whatever replaced it from the ravages of tens-of-thousands of desperate citizens with nothing left to lose.
The “Better Public Services Programme” that Bill English launches on Thursday (almost certainly under a new and catchier name) won’t be about relinquishing all state responsibility for the poor, the sick and the young, it will be about funding private entities to provide the services which, hitherto, have been provided by public servants.
In English’s own words to the Institute of Public Administration on 19 February 2015: “Testing for spending effectiveness will be core to this process. If we can’t measure effectiveness, it won’t be funded through social investment. We’ll be systematically reprioritising funding to providers that get results.”
To anyone who’s been following the commissioning of the new privately-run prison at Wiri, south of Auckland, all this talk of “social investment” and “providers” will sound very familiar. The taxpayers have spent millions on the construction of the Wiri facility, and the Government has just announced the laying-off of close to 200 prison officers from around the country in order to supply it with a core of highly-trained staff, but the actual running of the prison has been contracted-out to the multinational firm, Serco. For the next quarter-of-a-century a private entity will be permitted to extract a substantial profit for the provision of “services” for which the state has, quite rightly, accepted responsibility (without seeking a profit) for the past 200 years.
How has it come to this? Why is the National Government preparing to pay (with our money!) the private sector for taking over the provision of services the public sector is still perfectly capable of providing? In essence, the answer is: because in mature capitalist economies like New Zealand there’s bugger-all new profit-making opportunities available to the private sector. Hence its growing interest in “social investment”, a new kind of venture which promises to pay the private shareholder a handsome dividend without the necessity of massive capital outlays for plant and machinery – all of which is supplied up-front by the generous taxpayer.
This isn’t capitalism in any accepted sense of the word. It is, however, instantly recognisable to any enterprising gangster as an officially sanctioned opportunity for skimming-off-the-top.
A public body contracts a private institution to supply a much needed social service. The latter offers a price – which includes a hefty chunk of cash for its trouble – and then proceeds to utilise every possible means of cutting corners and short-changing its “customers” so that it can (in the unlikely event of being asked) present the public with a passable facsimile of the service it undertook to provide.
Just think about everything that lay behind Tony Soprano’s cynical description of himself as a “waste management consultant”, and you’ll have a pretty good grip on what Bill English and his government’s “defining moment” is all about.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 16 May 2015.

Linking Benefits To Votes: What's Labour Up To?

Why Link Votes and Benefits? It’s possible that the Labour Party is simply attempting to put some legislative flesh on the bones of its new “communitarian” ideology. At the heart of communitarianism lies the assertion that for every “inalienable right” enjoyed by the citizen, there is a corresponding, and equally inalienable, responsibility.

WHO IS PETER GOODFELLOW? Most New Zealanders wouldn’t have a clue. And that’s as it should be. Generally speaking, people only recognise the name of a political party’s president when that party is in trouble. Or, as was the case with National’s Sir George Chapman, when they’ve played a decisive role in their party’s political victories. National’s current president, the aforementioned Mr Goodfellow, enjoys the well-earned anonymity of success.
Alas, the same cannot be said of the Labour Party’s governing body, which last week presented a submission to Parliament’s Justice and Electoral select committee raising the possibility of “making enrolment to vote a pre-condition to receipt of various forms of state support”. In other words: if you’re not enrolled, you won’t get your benefit. There are, Labour submitted, “advantages and potential disadvantages to the approach” and, since it had already been adopted in other countries, “it is incumbent on us to examine all options to see if they are feasible in our context.”
Where to begin with this curious proposal? Perhaps by pointing out that s.82 of The Electoral Act 1993 already provides for the compulsory registration of electors – on pain of a $100.00 fine for the first conviction, and a $200.00 fine for the second and any subsequent convictions.
If the NZ Council of the Labour Party was unaware of this, then it should not have been. And if it was aware, then why did it consider some further inducement to enrolment necessary?
It’s possible that the Labour Party is simply attempting to put some legislative flesh on the bones of its new “communitarian” ideology. At the heart of communitarianism lies the assertion that for every “inalienable right” enjoyed by the citizen, there is a corresponding, and equally inalienable, responsibility.
Much of Labour’s current policy platform is permeated with communitarian ideas – especially in the area of social welfare. Beneficiaries in receipt of public support are expected to reciprocate by doing all within their power to return to the workforce. If they have entitlements, Labour argues, then so does society.
By what right does any citizen not enrolled to vote lay claim to the support of his or her fellow citizens? If such people refuse to fulfil what is both a legal requirement and a civic duty, then isn’t society entitled to withhold its duty of care until those responsibilities are met? Putting it bluntly: without the pro quo, nobody gets a quid.
The other explanation for Labour’s curious submission is considerably less lofty.
Despite enormous effort by scores of tireless volunteers, tens-of-thousands of likely Labour voters failed to enrol in time for last year’s election. Though technically in breach of the Electoral Act, these citizens will probably not be prosecuted. Receiving no disincentive to repeating the offence, there’s every chance their names will not appear on the roll again in 2017.
If, however, tens-of-thousands of social welfare beneficiaries: people who, most experts agree, are much more inclined to vote for political parties of the Left than the Right; were required (ably assisted by Work and Income staff) to fulfil their legal obligations as electors before receiving their benefits, then the Labour Party would be saved a huge amount of hard political slog.
Getting people to the polling booths is one thing, but if they are there discovered to be not on the roll, then the bureaucratic hurdles placed before them can be formidable. Frequently, the sheer volume of paperwork proves too daunting for these often poorly educated and/or non-English-speaking citizens to attempt, and the potential Labour vote is lost.
When viewed from this perspective, Labour’s submission not only appears organisationally self-serving, but it could also be construed as a subtle thrust against the emerging strategic preference (among Andrew Little’s principal advisers) for Labour’s effort to be directed at “soft” National Party voters. Many on the left of the Labour Party are convinced that the tens-of-thousands of unregistered voters constitute a more wholesome electoral target than some twenty-first century version of “Rob’s Mob”.
That Labour’s submission ended up attracting so much (presumably unwanted) media attention more than bears out the observation with which this discussion began. That one of the best ways of telling whether or not things are going well for a political party is how invisible its organisational wing is willing to become, and how anonymous its leadership.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 May 2015.

Thursday 14 May 2015

Hearts And Souls: When People And Parties Make History.

Scots Wha Hae! SNP Leader, Nicola Sturgeon, pumps the air alongside her elated Scottish National Party followers as the scale of their victory over Labour becomes clear.
“I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”
Margaret Thatcher 1981

WALK INTO the Opposition Leader’s Office with ideas about changing the heart and soul of the nation and see how long you last. Andrew Little’s advisers don’t really do souls. And the average punter’s heart doesn’t exactly lend itself to metrical capture. Try to run either of them through a computer and things are liable to get messy. No, Little’s advisers prefer polls and focus groups, and the joys of regressive analysis. They’re much more fun.
Much more fun, but, apparently, not much use – as the events of 7 May in the United Kingdom have just proved. South of the River Tweed, metrics proved to be one of the UK Election Day’s biggest losers. The pollsters, statisticians and data-crunchers, in which the British Labour Party had invested so much, got it wrong. Turns out that the heart and soul of a nation can’t be measured – it can only be felt.
North of the River Tweed, the politics of hearts and souls (as opposed to stats and polls) had triumphed in truly historic fashion. As the results were posted, it soon became clear that the Scottish National Party (SNP) had wiped the Labour Party off Scotland’s electoral map.
Throughout the campaign, Labour had equated the national fervour stirred up by the SNP with the worst kind of nationalism. Former Labour supporters were accused of succumbing to the SNP’s “rapture” – as if they were a bunch of slack-jawed American fundamentalists. It didn’t work. No matter how many times Labour demonstrated that the SNP’s promises could not possibly be paid for, the voters blithely ignored them. Their hearts and their souls were elsewhere.
Meanwhile, south of the border, the right-wing parties were only too happy to present themselves as the staunch defenders of England’s heart and soul. The UK Independence Party, UKIP, implored voters to stop the EU, and the mass influx of foreigners its rules continued to sanction, from destroying what it meant to be British. It was a message that resonated just as loudly on the Left as it did on the Right. UKIP wasn’t a threat to the Tories alone; in Labour’s heartland UKIP candidates were moving, ominously, into second place.
The Tories themselves needed no lessons in the politics of hearts and souls. England, they warned, was about to be squeezed. Labour, that great defender of the EU, was about to enter into an unholy alliance with the SNP. The English people risked being caught between Labour’s socialist internationalism and the demands of the independence-seeking Scots. The country was in danger!
Against these nationalistic battering-rams, the gates of Labour could not hold. It had asked the voters to stand with the poor and the underpaid; it had asked them to make the wealthiest 1 percent pay their fair share of tax; and it had pledged to defend the NHS. But, what it had not been able to do was convince those who were neither very poor, nor very rich, that Labour had the faintest idea what was going on in their hearts, or cared very much at all about what was happening to their souls.
Margaret Thatcher knew that true political success would only come when the Conservatives’ explanation of what it meant to be British proved to be more compelling than Labour’s.
“What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years”, she told The Sunday Times on 3 May 1981, “is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter?”
Thatcher’s emphatic answer was: “Yes – you do!” To all those hundreds-of-thousands of “personal societies”, inhabited by the families and friends of the individual voter, the Conservative Party proclaimed the unequivocal message: “You do count! You do matter!”
You do count! You do matter! Margaret Thatcher campaigning in 1979.
Browbeaten by the boss; burdened by mortgages they could only just afford; resentful of strikers in the factories; frightened by unemployed youngsters on the streets: these Britons turned gratefully towards the one party that reassured them they were, and always had been, the heart and soul of the nation.
The great irony, of course, was that just 36 years earlier, in 1945, exactly the same message had been taken into every home by Labour. After 10 years of economic depression, and six years of war: when it had grown easier and easier to believe that individuals were no more than the dust ground out between the massive cogs and wheels of the economic machine; or, nameless soldier-ants, fighting in defence of the nest; Labour came into the lives of millions of fragile families and said: “You do count! You do matter!” And their hearts were warmed, and their souls soothed, and for more than 30 years the Tories dared not dismantle what the socialists had built in England’s green and pleasant land.
Scottish Labour may scorn its former supporters for succumbing to the rapture of the SNP, but New Zealand Labour could learn a lot from the Scottish experience. The amazing collapse of Labour’s vote in Scotland was about much more than the SNP. Somehow, out of the thwarted referendum and its aftermath, a majority of Scots came to the collective conclusion that the heart and soul of their nation, for so long forsworn, was theirs to save.
As with the British people in 1945 (and the New Zealand people in 1935) such historically charged moments are capable of transforming a political party into a vehicle for both national salvation and cultural renewal. And the reason why so many voters are willing to climb on board is that from some place deep within, unreachable by polls, focus groups or data crunchers, the conviction arises that, together, they and their party have come to represent, if only for one brief breath of history, the heart and soul of the nation.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 May 2015.