Known principally for his weekly political columns and his commentaries on radio and television, Chris Trotter has spent most of his adult life either engaging in or writing about politics. He was the founding editor of The New Zealand Political Review (1992-2005) and in 2007 authored No Left Turn, a political history of New Zealand. Living in Auckland with his wife and daughter, Chris describes himself as an “Old New Zealander” – i.e. someone who remembers what the country was like before Rogernomics. He has created this blog as an archive for his published work and an outlet for his more elegiac musings. It takes its name from Bowalley Road, which runs past the North Otago farm where he spent the first nine years of his life. Enjoy.
The blogosphere tends to be a very noisy, and all-too-often a very abusive, place. I intend Bowalley Road to be a much quieter, and certainly a more respectful, place. So, if you wish your comments to survive the moderation process, you will have to follow the Bowalley Road Rules. These are based on two very simple principles: Courtesy and Respect. Comments which are defamatory, vituperative, snide or hurtful will be removed, and the commentators responsible permanently banned. Anonymous comments will not be published. Real names are preferred. If this is not possible, however, commentators are asked to use a consistent pseudonym. Comments which are thoughtful, witty, creative and stimulating will be most welcome, becoming a permanent part of the Bowalley Road discourse. However, I do add this warning. If the blog seems in danger of being over-run by the usual far-Right suspects, I reserve the right to simply disable the Comments function, and will keep it that way until the perpetrators find somewhere more appropriate to vent their collective spleen.
“A trader? No. Carpentry was my trade – although, some said I did better as a fisherman. As to what brings me south: that is easy. I came looking for a merchant: a merchant with a message. I have a great interest in messages.”
THEY ARRIVED amidst the snorting of camels and the loud
shouting of orders. The Carpenter watched the caravan unload. The sun-shimmer
on the dust-clouds kicked up by the dark-robed men made him squint. Where was
he – this merchant, this messenger, about whom the Carpenter had heard so much?
He took another sip of the strong red Arabian wine in his cup, and waited.
The Merchant took in the dimensions of the inn and calculated
roughly how much of his animals’ burdens he was likely to leave behind. But,
first things first. He needed to wash the desert from his face and feet and
hands. The prospect of a cool jug of water was almost as refreshing as the
water itself. Yes, he would introduce himself to the inn-keeper, perform his
ablutions, and then join that fellow he’d spotted as he crossed the threshold –
the one sipping wine in the shade. The one whose glance had stopped him in his
“Peace be with you, my friend”, said the Merchant, placing
his hand lightly upon his chest by way of greeting.
“And with you also”, replied the Carpenter, gesturing
towards the stool opposite. “You have travelled far and your beasts are heavy
laden, it is good to give them rest and take shelter from the relentless sun.”
“True words, my friend,” the Merchant replied, “even if they
are garnished with the accents of the distant north. You are a Galilean?”
The Carpenter smiled and nodded slowly. “Yes. A long time
ago. I was a Galilean.”
“What brings you so far south? Are you a trader?”
“A trader? No. Carpentry was my trade – although, some said
I did better as a fisherman. As to what brings me south: that is easy. I came
looking for a merchant: a merchant with a message. I have a great interest in
Though the sun was at its zenith, and the landscape all
around buckled and wavered in its heat, the Merchant felt a chill run through
him – as though a sword, sheathed in ice, had suddenly been driven into his
“Who are you, Carpenter?” The Merchant’s voice withered to a
whisper. “There is something in your eyes that I have seen before. Are you one
of His messengers?”
The Carpenter laughed, broke an unleavened loaf and refilled
his cup. “Won’t you join me? Whoever makes this wine surely knows his
“Thank you, no”, said the Merchant, struggling to regain his
composure, “I do not drink wine.”
“No? A pity. But then I hear your message is an austere one.
Can you reduce it to a single word?”
“Indeed, I can, Carpenter, and that word would be “Submit!”.
“Submit? Submission? Surrender? This is your message?
This is what you believe the One True God demands of his children?”
“No, of course not. The One True God is all Love and Mercy.
Submission is what I, the One True God’s chosen messenger, demand of men. The
human race is not fit to choose, it is too proud, too lustful and too greedy to
be left to make its own way to the One True God. If men are not shown a clear
path, then they will stray. If I ask them to obey, it is only fair that I leave
them the clearest set of instructions.”
“Instructions?” The Carpenter took a thoughtful sip of wine
and smiled, as if remembering an old joke. “Yes, I tried that once, standing on
a hill in Galilee. They were simple instructions – or so I thought at the time.
They didn’t take.”
“But, that’s just it! What use is there in a rule that is
not enforced? If men prove unwilling to follow the path, then we must shepherd
them with the sword!”
“The sword you say? I had a friend who tried to defend the
work of the One True God with a sword. I will say to you, Merchant, what I said
to him: ‘Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will
perish by the sword’.
Wonder and terror vied for control of the Merchant’s features.
With a wild cry, he fell to his knees.
When he looked up the Carpenter was gone. On the table,
scrawled in wine as red as blood, the Merchant found a single word.
This short story was originally
published in The Waikato Times, The
Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru
Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Thursday, 24 December 2015.
Thoughtful Workhorse: For doing most of this government's heavy lifting and for thinking about the half of the electorate who doesn’t vote for the National Party, my Politician of the Year for 2015 is – Bill English.
CHRISTMAS LOOMS, and political columnists – like everyone
else – are looking forward to enjoying another festive season in the sun.
Before we head off to the beaches and the barbecues, however, one last chore
remains. As the Old Year hobbles towards the wings of the political stage, our
own grandiloquently judgemental subset of the journalistic profession feels
obliged to nominate a Politician of the Year.
It’s tempting to award the prize – again – to John Key.
Because, pony-tails and off-colour stunts aside, our Prime Minister remains a
phenomenon. Eight years into his prime-ministership, Key’s extraordinary
popularity with the voters remains undiminished. This, alone, would be
sufficient to conjure-up words like unusual, uncanny and unprecedented. But,
when you add to the PM’s bullet-proof popularity, the enduring popularity of
his government, then words begin to fail even those of us who use them for a
Quite simply, this National Party-led Government has no peer
in post-war history. Not even the long, languid summer of the Holyoake Years
(1960-1972) can offer New Zealanders a valid comparison. In those
First-Past-The-Post days there was a fair bit of give in our electoral system.
In 1966, for example, National’s vote dropped 3.5 percentage points to an
historically low 43.6 percent, and yet “Kiwi Keith” retained power with a
majority of 8 seats.
A decline of that magnitude under MMP would, almost
certainly, be fatal. And yet, in spite of the Opposition parties’ fondest
hopes, ‘decline’ is not something that John Key’s numbers have, so far, been
willing to do.
He won office in 2008 with a very creditable 45 percent of
the Party Vote (the highest ever secured under MMP up until that time). In
2011, when all the pundits were expecting a falling away of popular support,
National’s Party Vote improbably rose to 47 percent.
Now, 47 percent would have been highly respectable result even
under FPP. In the context of New Zealand’s proportional electoral system, however,
it was utterly astounding. So when, on Election Night 2014, it looked as though
National may have lifted its Party Vote, again – this time to 48 percent! –
people began muttering about political witchcraft.
But it is not the Devil that John Key has made a pact with,
it is that part of the New Zealand electorate that enjoys secure and relatively
well-remunerated employment; a stable family environment (including a home
whose value continues to scale new heights of implausibility) and which, if
pressed, will admit to living a life of considerable material comfort.
“Winners” is such an ugly word, but that is how these folk
would, by and large, define themselves. And while they’d be reluctant to admit
that their success is attributable to anything but their own hard work and
talent, they’re more than willing to acknowledge that John Key and National have
done nothing to hinder their advancement.
To celebrate the absence of a negative is hardly the most
positive of political expressions. But, for as long as it delivers National around
50 percent of the Party Vote – they’ll take it.
What makes me reluctant to award the accolade of Politician
of the Year to John Key, however, is his apparent lack of interest in the lives
of the 50 percent of New Zealanders who don’t vote for the National Party, and
for whom John Key is not the Preferred Prime Minister. Call me old-fashioned,
but I believe that true political greatness is to be measured by what a
politician (and government) does: not only for the lucky and the strong, but also
for the weak and unfortunate.
Now, at this point you may be thinking that I’m about to
bestow the accolade upon someone from the Opposition’s ranks. You would,
however, be wrong. Because 2015 has not been a year in which anyone from the
Opposition parties has offered the weak and the unfortunate very much at all – not
even that most subversive of emotions: Hope.
No, the politician I have in mind is the one who labours
away in the engine-room of Key’s Government. The one who keeps the wheels of the
economy turning, and international investors smiling.
Solid achievements, both, but I am more disposed towards him
because, unlike his boss, he has been giving long and arduous thought to the
plight of the weak and unfortunate among us. More than this, he has been
thinking about them in a new and intellectually challenging fashion.
His approach has been called actuarial, because his calculations
are all about the risk and the cost – both individually and collectively – of
not making the weak stronger and their misfortunes less determinative; of not
organising the right sort of state intervention at the right time.
For thinking about the half of the electorate who doesn’t
vote for his party, my Politician of the Year for 2015 is – Bill English.
This essay was
originally published in The Press of
Tuesday, 22 December 2015.
Nixon's Southern Strategy: Persuading White, former Democratic Party voters to change sides and vote Republican in 1972 proved a relatively easy sell for President Richard Nixon in Southern US states forced to grant Black Americans their civil rights in the 1960s. In the mid-1970s, New Zealand's Rob Muldoon made an equally successful pitch for Labour voters alienated by what they saw as their party's capitulation to social liberalism. Wooing, winning and keeping this chunk of the electorate has also played a critical part in John Key's long-term political success.
IT WAS FORTY YEARS AGO on Saturday, 12 December, that Robert
Muldoon was sworn in as New Zealand’s thirty-first prime minister. His
extraordinary success in the 1975 General Election – where he turned a 23-seat
deficit into a 23-seat majority for the National Party – signalled the arrival
of something new and highly disruptive in New Zealand politics. Since 1975,
cultivating the support of a particular (but not especially progressive) type
of Labour voter has proved crucial to the electoral success of both major
Like so many of the other influences that have shaped New
Zealand society over the past 40 years, Muldoon’s political strategy and
tactics were borrowed from the United States.
The US Democratic Party’s support for black civil rights in the
1960s dislodged millions of hitherto rock-solid white voters in the southern
states of the USA. The Republican Party (the party of Abraham Lincoln!) lost
little time refashioning itself as the new political home for Dixie’s aggrieved
white supremacists. By 1972, these blue-collared “good ole boys” had been drawn
alongside the Republican Party’s traditional conservative base in what
President Richard Nixon called “the great silent majority” – which noisily
swept him back into the White House on a landslide.
The not unnatural assumption of the right-wing political
strategists who had engineered this stunning desertion of formerly “left-wing”
voters to the conservative cause, was that, on economic matters, conservative
leaders would need to tread very carefully.
Nowhere was this determination to preserve the economic
under-pinnings of the welfare state more in evidence than under the National
Government of Rob Muldoon. If Labour’s social liberalism – as evidenced by its
deeply unpopular cancellation of the 1973 Springbok Tour – had caused an
electorally crucial number of socially conservative blue-collar workers to
throw in their lot with “Rob’s Mob”, then, surely, it would be the purest folly
to give in to the “New Right’s” demands to curb the unions, free-up the markets
and dismantle the welfare state?
But Muldoon’s combination of highly divisive social
conservatism and aggressive state interventionism (Springbok Tours and
Wage & Price Controls!) was much too volatile a political mixture to be more
than a stop-gap solution to the deep structural problems confronting post-war
The New Right’s strategists were, accordingly, willing to
gamble that a full-scale assault on the key elements of the social-democratic
post-war economy (unions, nationalised industries and welfare) would so shatter
the political coherence of the Left that the victims of their assault –
especially poorly-educated white males – would remain susceptible to an
aggressively pitched, socially conservative, agenda.
This was certainly the political wager of Margaret Thatcher
and Ronald Reagan, whose domestic assaults on the post-war social-democratic
consensus, coupled with a ruinously expensive upping of the Cold War ante,
broke the Left comprehensively, both at home and in its nominal heartland – the
Soviet Empire. They were blows from which the Left has yet to recover. The
destruction was made even more complete in New Zealand by the Right’s
successful subversion of the parliamentary wing of the NZ Labour Party.
The introduction of Neoliberalism to New Zealand by Labour,
while enormously dislocating in economic and social terms, did mean that it was
social-liberalism, rather than social-conservatism, that set the political tone
throughout the 1990s and into the Twenty-First Century. This is especially true
of Maori-Pakeha relations and immigration policies across that period. In both
contexts, liberal policy settings have facilitated a number of profound
societal shifts and apparently irrevocable changes.
Certainly, when Dr Don Brash attempted to harness a mass
political following to an indisputably radical revision of race relations in
New Zealand, he was unable to duplicate the success of Rob Muldoon in 1975. His
in/famous “Orewa Speech” on nationhood was, however, to prove astonishingly
successful in uniting virtually the entire right-wing vote behind the National
Party. To the point where only a very small shift in the allegiances of Labour
voters would be sufficient to usher a National-led Government into office.
In the eighth year of John Key’s National-led Government,
his success in wooing back those National Party voters who had defected to
Labour under the “competent” governance of Helen Clark, as well as holding on
to those Labour defectors, for whom Clark’s progressive policy agenda –
especially during her third term – had become insupportable, is without
Key may not remember which side he was on during the
Springbok Tour, but he knows better than to engage in such divisive political
behaviour. Nor is his political survival predicated (as Muldoon’s was) on
making such ideologically aggressive gestures. Labour’s defectors are nothing
like the angry white males to whom Donald Trump is currently appealing in the
United States. Key’s winning strategy has been to convince the a-little-bit
racist, a-little-bit sexist, a-little-bit homophobic “Waitakere Man” that, on
his watch, nothing will be done to make him change sides.
This essay was
originally published in The Press of Tuesday,
15 December 2015.
“FOR THE FIRST YEARS of his solo career, the early 1940s,
Sinatra hadn’t recorded any material. There had been a strike called by the
Musicians Union fighting for residual payments for recordings played on the
radio. The strike lasted two years. Sinatra said, ‘I didn’t want to cross the
“The strike settled, he now recorded Saturday Night is the
Loneliest Night of the Week, I’ll be Seeing You, When Your Lover Has Gone,
These Foolish Things…
“The jazz magazine Downbeat wrote, ‘He said for the boys
what they wanted to say. He said for the girls what they wanted to hear.’
“It was in the midst of this success that Sinatra decided
openly to back Roosevelt and the Democrats in the 1944 Presidential election
and to throw himself into the struggle against racism.
“Sinatra joined the Political Action Committee set up by
the left-wing union federation, the Congress of Industrial Organisations, the
CIO. The CIO was in a way the successor to the old Industrial Workers of the
World, the Wobblies, who so influenced the revolutionary Red Federation of NZ
in the early years of the 20th century.
“He gave money to the Roosevelt campaign, spoke at huge
open-air rallies and broadcast pro-Roosevelt messages on the radio.
“The night Roosevelt won a fourth-term presidency, Sinatra
and Orson Welles toured the bars of Manhattan and ended up celebrating at the
headquarters of the clothing workers’ union, which shared the same building as
the Communist Party…”
Today Sinatra is remembered as an
entertainer who sided with Republican politicians like Nixon and Reagan, hung
out with mobsters and swaggered about Las Vegas with his cronies singing, “I
did it my way…”
But there was another side to
Sinatra, an early radical Frank.At the
height of his popularity, in the 1940s, he was branded a Red, a commo—ol’ pinko
He was one of the first major
stars of the era to stand shoulder to shoulder with the poor and the oppressed.
Asked by a reporter in 1946 what he considered the biggest problem America
faced in its post-war world he replied, “Poverty… Every kid in the world should
have his quart of milk a day.” The great bandleader Duke Ellington remembered
Sinatra in the 1940s as being the leader of the campaign against race hatred.
All of this, and all Sinatra’s
great songs, will be remembered at Bloomsday Productions’ December show at the
Thirsty Dog on Karangahape Road, Saturday night, December 12—the very day
Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, one hundred years ago in 1915.
A century later to the day, Linn
Lorkin, Justin Horn, Hershal Herscher, Dave Powell and Stuart Grimshaw—the Auckland
Frank Sinatra Big Band—will be celebrating Sinatra: “You Make Me Feel So
Young”… “Old Devil Moon” … “One For My Baby, And One More For The Road” … and the Popular Front, the United Auto
Workers’ sit-down strike in Michigan, the Westfield Freezing Workers’ stay-in
strike in south Auckland…
Frank Sinatra, born Dec. 12, 1915,
nine-time Grammy winner, died in 1998 at the age of 82.
The Crusher Returns: Judith Collins, a shrewd Auckland lawyer, is well aware of the widely-held belief that politics has become an almost entirely disreputable profession. She knows that those who enter it are greeted with a knowing cynicism – as if both the voter and the politician have entered into a secret agreement that nothing good will ever come from the latter’s intentions and achievements.
JUDITH COLLINS is to be congratulated. There are very few
western nations in which a parliamentarian hauling as much baggage as Ms
Collins would be given a second chance. When did ours become the country that
awards the average politician more lives than the average cat?
Is no one surprised that Ms Collin’s rehabilitation is so unsurprising. Is no one asking: why
wasn’t her treatment of Justice Binnie; her decision to allow Serco into the
New Zealand prison system; her fraught dealings with the Orivida company; and
her friendship with the highly controversial blogger, Cameron Slater, enough – more than enough! – to rule out a return
to the Cabinet Table?
The answer lies with, and in, us – the New Zealand
electorate. Our steady disengagement from the political process (in which we
were once amongst the world’s most enthusiastic participants) has been
accompanied, and justified, by the widely-held belief that politics has become
an almost entirely disreputable profession. Those who enter it are greeted with
a knowing cynicism – as if both the voter and the politician have entered into
a secret agreement that nothing good will ever come from the latter’s
intentions and achievements.
In practical terms, this means that it is the honest and
principled politicians who attract the most scathing condemnation. Such people
have clearly failed to understand their job description, which demands only a show of decency – and not even that if
the politician’s indecent objectives can be achieved swiftly, decisively – and
with ostentatious brutality.
As Freddy Gray wrote recently in the British magazine, The Spectator: “What strange people we
Brits are. We spend years moaning that our politicians are cynical opportunists
who don’t stand for anything. Then along comes an opposition leader who has
principles — and appears to stick by them even when it makes him unpopular —
and he is dismissed as a joke.”
Not that the Brits have “strange” all to themselves. When
David Cunliffe, having heard the statistics on domestic violence and met with
some of its victims at the Women’s Refuge charity’s annual conference, told his
audience that it made him “feel sorry for being a man” – a not unreasonable
admission in the circumstances – he was universally pilloried. The New Zealand
electorate doesn’t appreciate that sort of raw and unmediated political
Ms Collins, a shrewd Auckland lawyer, would never make such
a fundamental error. She knows what New Zealanders expect of their politicians
– and she gives it to them good and strong.
Critics accuse her of arrogance, but a heapin-helpin of
self-importance has been de rigueur
for National Party politicians ever since the days of “Piggy” Muldoon.
Others accuse Ms Collins of being unable to differentiate
private from public responsibilities. But those who believe that all
politicians are venal and self-serving remain completely unfazed by such
The same applies to the Serco contract. Sure, the company
has a less than stellar international reputation. Yes, it is determined to make
incarceration profitable. But – so what? That’s what Capitalism does, and it’s
unreasonable to ask capitalist politicians to do otherwise.
But, surely, it is the duty of the Prime Minister to uphold
the highest standards of behaviour in public office? Regardless of the low
esteem in which many citizens hold their political representatives, shouldn’t
the Prime Minister do everything within his power to elevate the public
expectations of his government?
John Key knows better than to attempt such a risky project.
Improving the average citizen’s opinion of politics and politicians must, of
necessity, involve reversing that secret agreement between the leaders and the
led. Instead of endorsing the public’s withering contempt for the political
process, Mr Key would be forced to contradict it. Instead of validating the
unspoken assumption that the system is rotten and immutable, he would have to
redefine politics as the best way of improving the lives of ordinary people.
In conveying these messages to the electorate, the Prime
Minister would, of course, also be asking them to assume responsibility for
holding him and his ministers to account. He would be inviting them to apply a
consistent moral code to the conduct of all politicians, and imposing the duty
of taking action to reprimand and/or punish all those who break that code. In
short, he’d be demanding they behave like virtuous citizens.
“Crusher” Collins would roll him before you could say
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, 11 December 2015.
Topping Out: The Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change is unlikely to produce any sort of useful agreement in Paris. Only the world’s scientists understand the width of the gulf between the extinction level event seriousness of anthropogenic global warming, and those whose will and resources are required to, at best, soften its impact.
PARIS IS ALREADY A FAILURE. The world has already exceeded
the target it’s leaders have gathered to enforce. Scientists estimate that the
amount of man-made heat already absorbed by the world’s oceans has locked-in a
global temperature rise of 3.5°C. That’s already 1.5°C higher than the Paris
target of 2.0°C.
Bad enough news, you might think, but it gets worse. All
around the Arctic Circle, but especially in the uppermost reaches of the
Russian Federation, rising temperatures are giving rise to massive burps of
methane. The recorded incidence of these emissions has soared over the last
five years. This is seriously alarming information, because methane is a much
more dangerous “greenhouse gas” than carbon-dioxide.
But, newswise, it gets worse still. The rising emissions of
methane from the rapidly warming Arctic Ocean are but the feeble harbingers of
the vast amounts of methane currently trapped in the planet’s permafrost.
Gigatons of the gas will be released into the atmosphere as Earth’s hitherto
frozen soil gives up its riches. (Strictly speaking, I should be using the
present tense here because, even as you read these words, the permafrost is steaming.)
The world faces “runaway” global warming of 5°C and upwards by the end of this
Fire In The Hole! Gigatons of methane will be released into the atmosphere as the world's permafrost begins to thaw.
A temperature rise of that rapidity and magnitude is not
survivable – not by a human population numbering in excess of 7 billion. Runaway
global warming will cause the Greenland and Antarctica ice-sheets to melt. When
that happens the seas and oceans will rise by metres, not centimetres,
profoundly reshaping the world’s landmasses. Civilisation, as we know it, will
Yes, whole cities will be drowned, but that’s not the half
of it. The real worry are the inevitable and profound changes in the world’s climate
that runaway global warming is bound to trigger. Regions which now produce a
large percentage of the planet’s food surpluses will become arid and infertile.
The glacial sources of many of the world’s great rivers will disappear. Very
quickly water will become more valuable than oil, and men will kill each other
with ever increasing ferocity to control it. Famine, Pestilence and War will
raise their reeking banners above a sweltering earth. Billions will perish.
Could we have prevented this? Was the current unfolding
climate catastrophe ever avoidable?
Probably not. The human animal is not very good at dealing
with slow-moving threats. The slightest tremor in the leaves, the faintest rustle
of crushed leaf-litter, and your average homo-sapiens is instantly alert,
chipped flint spearhead, or rifle, in hand. Humankind’s evolutionary
programming has equipped it superbly to handle immediate and short-term threats
to its survival. Long-term threats, however, are much harder to resist, not
least because the measures required to meet these less-than-imminent dangers
will, themselves, be perceived as immediate and/or short-term threats!
As a species, we have evolved the intelligence to perceive
long-term threats, but not the wisdom to come together and do what is necessary
to eliminate them.
Faced with the imminent danger of being overwhelmed by Nazi
Germany and Imperial Japan, the United States of America was prepared to direct
(or take over) private enterprises, impose strict controls on the operation of
the market, raise billions through higher taxes and the sale of war bonds, and
require its citizens to restrict dramatically their consumption of fossil
fuels. To free up resources for the war effort, neighbourhood “war gardens”
were promoted and radical recycling measures made mandatory.
If, from the moment the world’s scientists agreed that it
was real, the US Government had treated the threat of man-made global warming as
the “moral equivalent of war”, the planet might have been spared.
Better still, if the nations of the world had truly united
in the aftermath of World War II; if, instead of waging a Cold War against one
another, the USA and the USSR had jointly waged a war against want, ignorance
and disease; then maybe the peoples of the planet would have developed the wisdom
necessary to avoid the catastrophe being cooked-up by their industrial
civilisation’s relentless pursuit of economic growth and material consumption.
If, in exploring the solar system, the world’s peoples had grown accustomed to
thinking of their planet as a unique and fragile ark, carrying through the void
of space everything they hold dear, then perhaps, just perhaps, humanity could
have rung the changes necessary for its own survival.
Alas, it was not to be. The Conference of the Parties of the
United Nations Convention on Climate Change is unlikely to produce any sort of useful
agreement in Paris. Only the world’s scientists understand the width of the
gulf between the extinction level event seriousness of anthropogenic global
warming, and those whose will and resources are required to, at best, soften
That tremor in the leaves; rustling in the leaf-litter: it
This essay was
originally published in The Press of Tuesday,
8 December 2015.
Cometh The Hour ... Hilary Benn's speech in favour of bombing the Islamic State brought the House of Commons to its feet. Finally, the Blairites have someone to replace Jeremy Corbyn.
IT HAS BEEN HAILED as one of the best speeches delivered to
the House of Commons in 50 years. Having urged his fellow MPs to support the
Prime Minister’s motion in favour of bombing Syria, the Shadow Foreign
Secretary, Hilary Benn, resumed his seat to resounding cheers from both sides
of the aisle. The Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, his face a picture of both
puzzlement and exasperation, did not join in the applause. No one from the
Labour Party, himself included, had managed to deliver so passionate a speech
on behalf of peace.
The emotion missing from Corbyn’s countenance was fear. It
speaks well of the man that Benn’s noisy standing ovation did not frighten him.
Someone more steeped in the realities of politics would have heard, behind the
cheering of the Commons, the dull rattle of the tumbril. He should have known
that his opponents weren’t just applauding the impassioned speech of a
bellicose social imperialist, they were applauding the fact that, at last, they
had found the person to replace the despised Member for Islington North.
It’s been the biggest problem of the Blairites all along
that among their ranks there was no one who could hold a candle to Corbyn. When
set against the sincerity and plain-spokenness of the front-runner, the bland
contributions of the other three leadership contenders came across as utterly
unconvincing. Liz Kendall, the candidate most closely associated with the
Blairite rump, attracted just 5 percent support from the party membership.
What’s more, in the aftermath of the membership’s resounding endorsement of
Corbyn, the Labour Right’s petulant refusal to accept that Blairism had been
rejected only added to the new leader’s lustre.
Yes, Labour’s parliamentarians had the advantage of a
sympathetic press. United in their disdain for Corbyn the journalists and
columnists of the allegedly “left-wing” newspapers – The Guardian, The
Observer, and The New Statesman – never missed a chance to tell
their readers that Labour could not hope to win with Corbyn at the helm. But,
increasingly, the left-wing media’s hostility was being written off by the
Labour rank-and-file as yet further proof that the whole “mainstream” political
establishment was rotten to the core.
What they needed was a challenger untainted by all the
petulance and back-stabbing; someone who cleaved to his or her principles with
the same sincerity and passion as Corbyn himself. Someone who had served time
in the trade union movement. Someone unafraid to summon-up the ghosts of the
men and women of the International Brigade who died fighting Franco’s fascists
in Spain. Someone who was a teetotaller and a vegetarian. Someone who never
fiddled his parliamentary expenses claims,. Someone whose father was, for more
than 50 years, one of the towering figures of the Labour Left. Someone, in
short, called Hilary Benn.
That Benn the Younger had made a point of telling his
constituents that he was “a Benn – not a Bennite”, and had been an enthusiastic
supporter of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” from Day One, serving in the Cabinets of
both Blair and Gordon Brown, well, that only made it all the more delicious.
Not that the Blairites will be celebrating too loudly. The
more intelligent among them understand that Corbyn has shoved “Overton’s
Window” decisively to the left. Indeed, when History assesses the (now almost
certainly brief) leadership of Corbyn, breaking the neoliberal stranglehold on
the British Labour Party will be cited as his greatest achievement. If Benn
wants to be Prime Minister he will have to run on a clear anti-austerity
platform and to offer the voters policies that are recognisably
social-democratic in tone, content and purpose.
But if Paris, as Henry of Navarre is said to have quipped
“is worth a mass”, Number 10 Downing Street is worth the renationalisation of
British railways and a sharply more progressive tax system. Hilary Benn has
only to signal to Labour’s rank-and-file that Corbyn’s vision (minus the
pacifism and all that baggage from the 1980s) is safe in his hands, and the
incumbent’s already difficult position will become impossible.
As the Andrew Finney character (played by Ian McShane) says
in the TV series Ray Donovan: “If you see a man getting ready to take on
the world – bet on the world.” After weeks of relentless media and political
assault (not least from his own side) even Corbyn’s staunchest supporters know,
deep in their hearts, that the British Establishment is never going to allow
their hero to become Prime Minister. One way or the other, Corbyn is going to
be driven from the Labour Leadership.
But the United Kingdom is an old and devious state, and both
its public and not-so-public protectors know that if they are seen to have
taken out one Labour Leader, then it is not in their interest to be seen
putting too many restrictions on his replacement. In return for Trident, the
“Special Relationship” with the USA, and a light hand when it comes to
reforming the financial system (i.e. The City of London), the Left will be
given their moment in the sun. The protectors of Britain’s Deep State
understand that the Westminster System requires two parties of more-or-less
equal strength if it’s to go on working. Allow that myth to fail, and who knows
what the long-suffering British people might replace it with?
The King is dead (or soon will be). Long live the King!
This essay was posted
on The Daily Blog and Bowalley
Road on Saturday, 5 December 2015.
A Royal Flush: If only Andrew Little had these sort of cards to play with! Unfortunately, no matter how often he shuffles and cuts, cuts and shuffles, he's never going to deal himself a winning hand. Campaigning with the Greens, however, might just deliver the face cards Labour is lacking.
IT’S LIKE RESHUFFLING a deck of cards with all the face
cards missing. No matter how often Andrew Little shuffles and cuts, cuts and
shuffles, he’s never going to deal himself a winning hand. Labour’s failure to
develop a simple and democratic method of selecting electorate candidates and
drawing up its Party List has, finally, rendered it all but unelectable.
To become a Labour MP in 2015 one must first negotiate a
multitude of competing interest groups: Women, Maori, Unions, Youth, the
Rainbow Council. This is every bit as difficult as it sounds, with numerous
compromises and trade-offs to be made all along the way.
Getting through this labyrinth leaves Labour’s candidates
with an extremely detailed picture of the Left’s ideological landscape, but
only the sketchiest notion of the world in which 95 percent of New Zealanders
go about their daily lives.
It’s a process that also puts a lot of potentially excellent
Labour candidates off. Someone confident in their understanding of industry,
agriculture, science, or (God forbid!) running a business, rightly feels
affronted at the prospect of being figuratively pinched, poked and prodded by
people whose experience of the world is often extremely limited and narrow.
Not surprisingly, narrow and limited candidates have a head
Matters are not helped, of course, when these narrow and
limited individuals – now MPs – turn against an obviously talented and
successful colleague and conspire to bring him down. Andrew Little’s demotion
of David Cunliffe – one of Labour’s most experienced politicians – represents
the unwarranted triumph of spiteful Fives and Sixes over a much-maligned King
Nor is it helpful when these number cards are given royal
faces. Her regular appearances in the women’s magazines notwithstanding,
Jacinda Ardern has yet to impress as New Zealand’s Queen of Hearts. And no
matter how rapidly he is pushed up Labour’s pecking order, Kelvin Davis will
struggle to be recognised as the King of Clubs. Some chiefs may have started
out as warriors, but not all warriors become chiefs.
What, then, should Labour do? If it cannot choose candidates
with the same appeal to the voters as National’s selections. If it cannot break
its habit of penalising talent and promoting mediocrity. And, if it cannot even
persuade colleagues who have sat in Parliament for three decades that it might
be time to move aside for someone younger. How can it expect to win?
Helen Clark undoubtedly asked herself the same question in
1996. Having just led her party to its worst result since 1928 (28.19 percent)
she needed some means of lifting Labour’s numbers by at least ten percentage
points to have any chance of winning the 1999 General Election.
Three-quarters of these she secured almost immediately when
Winston Peters, against public expectations, opted to form a coalition with Jim
Bolger’s National Party. The remaining quarter came from Jim Anderton’s
Alliance, which, in one of the most generous gestures in New Zealand political
history, invited Clark to its annual conference and there agreed to give voters
the chance of ending the bitter civil war on the left of New Zealand politics
by electing a Labour-Alliance coalition government.
With Colin James’s “Poll of Polls” currently putting the
Labour Party just under 31 percent, Andrew Little faces an electoral conundrum
no less taxing than Helen Clark’s. Somehow, he has to find an additional ten
percentage points to become a credible contender for power.
The record shows that the Alliance’s embrace of its bitter
rival cost it nearly a quarter of its 1996 vote. From 10.10 percent, the
Alliance’s vote fell to just 7.74 percent. This two point drop, when combined
with the decline in the NZ First and National totals, was more than enough to
supply Labour with the ten-point boost it needed.
Will Andrew Little turn 2017 into a re-run of 1999? Will he
use the occasion of Labour’s 2016 centenary conference to invite James Shaw and
Metiria Turei to join him on the stage for a symbolic group hug? Will the three
of them then invite the New Zealand voter to bring centre-left politics into
the Twenty-First Century by electing a Labour-Green Coalition Government? The
“optics” – as the spin-doctors say – would be compelling.
And useful. Lacking Face Cards of his own, Andrew Little
could end up winning the 2017 election with a Royal Flush of Greens.
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, 4 December 2015.
Heterodox And Proud Of It: Professor Robert Wade is an economist who refuses to toe the accepted line. Someone with the courage to point out that the neoliberal economic emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.
LAILA HARRE saved the very best for last. The “Salon” lunch
with economist, Professor Robert Wade, provided one of those clarifying
political moments when, at last, the veil falls away and you are shown the real
state of affairs in all its terrifying clarity.
Wade is what his orthodox colleagues at the London School of
Economics would loftily dismiss as a “heterodox” economist. Someone who refuses
to toe the accepted line. Someone with the courage to point out that the
economic emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.
More than this, however, Wade exposes orthodox neoliberal
economics as a failure. Presenting itself as a scientific discipline, fully
capable of pronouncing definitively on the true nature of reality – the
profession was, nevertheless, unable to produce a single accurate prediction of
the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).
There was a very good reason for this. As Wade explained to
his mostly academic audience, the Dynamic, Stochastic, General Equilibrium
(DSGE) model used by orthodox economists all over the world – including the
OECD, the IMF, the World Bank and the Bank of England – does not factor-in the
influence of the financial sector on the economy, and flatly denies that
economies conforming to the DSGE model are susceptible to crises generated
endogenously (i.e. from within themselves).
Just think about that for a moment. An economic model that
makes no allowance for the most powerful force in the modern international
economy – finance capital. A model which, for that very reason, simply could
not see the Global Financial Crisis coming.
Now, you might think that a profession which had exposed its
shortcomings so dramatically might be feeling just a little bit chastened;
might be looking for a new economic model; might even be ready to admit that it
had got just about everything horribly wrong and apologise to the world for all
the extraordinary suffering its failure to read reality correctly has produced.
You would, however, be wrong.
Orthodox economists pride themselves on their positivism.
They are not swayed by their emotions, nor do they make value judgements. The
language of ethics and social responsibility is foreign to them. Their language
is mathematics. Numbers don’t lie – and they certainly don’t apologise!
But if Orthodox Economics pays no heed to the real world and
cannot predict an event as devastating as the GFC; if it scorns all those who
posit a different interpretation of the economic data; if it guards the tenets
of its economic faith as jealously as any member of the Roman curia, and
punishes heretics with equal severity; then what, exactly, is the orthodox
The answer lies in the word “faith”. Wade himself said that
there is a religious quality to the thinking of the men and women in economic
institutions like the NZ Treasury. And this, of course, is exactly what the
orthodox economics profession has become – a modern priesthood.
In terms of the social and political function it serves,
Orthodox Economics is no different from the Medieval Catholic Church. It exists
for one reason and one reason only: to justify the ways of the rich to the
poor, and to convince them there is no alternative to the inequality and
injustice of the existing order. As it was in the beginning, is now, and
ever more will be, world without end.
This brief review hardly does justice to Wade’s lecture.
There is much more that I wish I could recall: astonishing quotations from
these naked economic emperors that left his audience shaking their heads in
The vote of thanks was given by Laila’s dad, who first met
Wade when he was a young student of anthropology back in 1960s Auckland.
Indeed, he was able to produce a wonderful photograph of the young Robert Wade,
taken during an expedition to the islands of the South Pacific.
There he was, one of many rowers, hauling manfully on his
oar, in the midst of a vast and troubled sea.
Somehow, it seemed appropriate.
This essay was posted
on The Daily Blog and Bowalley
Road on Wednesday, 2 December 2015.
Playing By The Rules: Bill Clinton's overriding ambition was to become - and remain - a political player. When he was just 23 he wrote: “For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress. It is a life I still feel compelled to try to lead.” To do so, however, he had to maintain his "political viability within the system." It was this urge to remain viable within the system that would lead a whole generation of Centre Left politicians to dazzling political success and abject moral failure.
“THE DECISION not to be a resister, and the related
subsequent decisions, were the most difficult of my life. I decided to accept
the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political
viability within the system.”
Bill Clinton was only 23 years old when he wrote these
words. Colonel Eugene Holmes, head of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC)
at the University of Arkansas, had arranged for the young Rhodes Scholar to
join what we used to call the “Territorial Force” so that he might avoid being
drafted to fight in Vietnam. Clinton was writing to explain why, after much
thought, he had decided to reject the offer of ROTC training and take his
chances with the Draft.
“For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political
life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid
social progress”, Clinton explained to the Colonel. “It is a life I still feel
compelled to try to lead.”
Had Clinton not drawn a “lucky” number in the ballot, and
thus escaped service in Vietnam, his fledgling career might have been cut short
by a Viet-Cong bullet. As things turned out, however, the young Arkansas law
student’s “practical political ability” was enough to take him all the way to
the White House. So “viable” was Bill Clinton in the American political system
that, in 1993, he was sworn in as the 42nd President of the United States.
In office, Clinton proved that his decision to risk the
draft, rather than, at some point in the future, be labelleda “draft-dodger”, was in no sense aberrant. Because,
although Clinton’s concern for rapid social progress was very real, his desire
to maintain his political viability within the system was much, much stronger.
Throughout his career, whenever the two objectives came into conflict, Clinton
was almost always willing to sacrifice rapid social progress on the altar of his
own political viability.
Clinton was by no means alone in making the retention of
personal political viability his Number One priority. Two of his most fervent admirers
on the Centre Left, internationally, Tony Blair and Helen Clark, operated in
much the same way. Clark’s infamous quip: “I didn’t come this far to be burnt
out in a hail of gunfire”; demonstrated the importance she attached to remaining
viable. As did Tony Blair’s observation that: “Power without principle is
barren, but principle without power is futile.”
Some have characterised Clinton’s modus operandi – dignified by some as a “Third Way” between the Far
Left’s alleged lack of viability and the Far Right’s hostility to any form of
social progress – as entirely consistent with the Baby Boom generation’s determination
to have their cake and eat it too. While there is a generous measure of Baby
Boomer self-indulgence in Third Way politics, there is also a harder, frankly
self-protective, edge to Clinton’s “practical” political style.
The letter to Colonel Holmes was written towards the end of
1969. For ambitious leftists like Clinton, the previous two years had been
heart-breaking and terrifying in equal measure. In 1968 the two greatest hopes for
securing rapid social change in America – Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy
– had both been assassinated. And the inheritor of the darkness into which the
country had suddenly been hurled, Richard Nixon, left progressive America
feeling angry, isolated and afraid.
In their hit song, Long
Time Gone, Crosby Stills and Nash evoked these conflicting generational emotions
with heart-wrenching force:
Speak out you got to
speak out against the madness
You got to speak your mind if you dare
But don’t, no don’t, no, try to get yourself elected
If you do you had better cut your hair
The Centre Left’s predicament did not improve in the
following decades. Object lessons like Chile, Australia and Nicaragua proved that
left-wing governments could be shot down just as easily as left-wing
politicians. And with the last great challenge to free-market capitalism
blipping-off the screen in 1991, “it’s the economy stupid” took on a whole new
For Centre Left parties to remain viable within the system
it had become necessary for them to surrender practically every radical item on
their historic agenda. It was still possible to do good, but only if the rich
were allowed to do better. It was the likes of Clinton in the USA, Blair in the
UK, and Clark in New Zealand, who, finally, made the world safe for
Meaning that if, by some miracle, a genuine left-winger
(like Jeremy Corbyn) should find himself at the head of a modern, Centre Left
party, the Right will have no need to go looking for assassins – either real or
metaphorical. To remain viable within the system, his own colleagues – all of
them politicians of the most practical ability – will strike him down.
This essay was
originally published in The Press of Tuesday,
1 December 2015.