Tuesday 31 May 2016

Never Let A Crisis Go To Waste.

Greenfields: Minister of Building and Housing, Dr Nick Smith, has argued consistently that Auckland needs to grow out as well as up. He has just acquired a powerful ally in Prime Minister Key, who has hinted that if Auckland Council doesn't delete the Urban Growth Boundary from its forthcoming Unitary Plan, then it may suffer the same fate as "Ecan" - the Canterbury Regional Council - whose elected councillors were sacked by Dr Smith and replaced with his hand-picked commissioners.
OUR PRIME MINISTER has not ruled out denying local democratic representation to nearly a third of New Zealand’s population. If the Auckland Council’s forthcoming Unitary Plan retains the city’s much-maligned Urban Growth Boundary, John Key is threatening to replace them with Commissioners.
Once again, councillors’ strongly held opinions about highly complex planning issues are being used to justify a significant curtailment of democracy. Aucklanders have been put on notice that if a majority of their elected representatives refuse to vote for a resumption of urban sprawl, then the Council’s “Governing Body” will be sacked and replaced by a group of unelected “experts” appointed by Cabinet.
Cantabrians know better than to doubt the Prime Minister’s resolve in this matter. Since 2010 their right to a say in how their regional taxes are spent has been suspended. After six years of no regional democracy, they are now being invited to participate in a hybrid system featuring both elected and unelected councillors. The full restoration of democratic regional government in Canterbury will not take place until 2019.
The present government justified its suspension of democracy in Canterbury on the grounds that, in its deadlocked state, “Ecan” was incapable of making a number of extremely important – and long delayed – decisions about regional water allocation. At the time, National was under enormous pressure from Federated Farmers to break the deadlock and green-light the irrigation schemes farmers needed to make dairying feasible on the dry Canterbury Plains.
Government ministers argued that, economically, New Zealand could not afford the interminable wrangling between urban and rural interests. If the only people standing between Canterbury’s farmers and an irrigation-assisted boost to New Zealand’s dairy exports were a bunch of intransigent regional councillors, then the temporary suspension of democratic norms was a small price to pay for their removal.
That the deadlock between the representatives of farmers, and the representatives of those who valued water for cultural, environmental and recreational reasons, might signal the presence of a genuine policy dilemma, does not seem to have occurred to the National Government. Clearly, the deterioration in the flow and water quality of Canterbury’s rivers and streams was also a small price to pay for economic growth.
Equally clear, however (at least from the National Government’s perspective) is that most Cantabrians and, quite possibly, most New Zealanders, did not – and do not – consider a nine-year suspension of regional democracy to be all that big a deal. Regional government, unlike local government, has never really engaged the emotions of its electors. (Unless, as happened in Canterbury, a vocal minority of voters came to the view that it was thwarting their commercial ambitions.)
The question raised by Mr Key’s threats to the Auckland Council, therefore, is whether or not the suspension of local (as opposed to regional) democracy will be met with Cantabrian levels of voter indifference. In the years since the constitution and ancillary economic institutions of the “Super-City” were imposed on the citizens of Auckland, has it inspired sufficient loyalty and affection to render it invulnerable to such naked central government aggression?
Not without a crisis big enough to justify such heavy-handed interference.
Fortuitously, in the absurd escalation in Auckland house prices; and in the related, socially catastrophic, shortage of affordable housing for first-home-buyers and the poor; a crisis is exactly what the Prime Minister has got.
Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s cynical chief-of-staff, infamously affirmed that: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
So, what is it that John Key believes the current Auckland housing crisis will let him do – that he could not do before?
The Prime Minister’s defenders will say that it offers him a virtually politically costless opportunity to rid Auckland of the irksome Urban Growth Boundary which so many politicians believe is responsible for its eye-wateringly high land prices. The only problem with this response is that Key and his government, as legislators, can abolish the Urban Growth Boundary any time they like.
So, what else will Auckland’s very real housing crisis let National do?
Helen Kelly put her finger on it during Saturday’s broadcast of TV3’s The Nation. Key’s threats, she insisted, mark the beginning of his party’s campaign to seize control of the Auckland Council.
Against all of the Right’s expectations, the first and second elections for the Auckland Council did not deliver it into the hands of the hard-line neoliberals for whom it was intended. Nor have the recent efforts of the Auckland National Party to assemble a winning team borne much in the way of palatable political fruit.
Enter the professionals.
Auckland’s housing crisis is entirely the Council’s fault. Therefore, vote out the guilty councillors. Then, give the Government a council it can work with.
Or else.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 May 2016.

Saturday 28 May 2016

Budget 2016: What Bill English Didn’t Say In His Speech.

Fundamental Changes, Incrementally Advanced: Bill English delivers his eighth budget. The Finance Minister understands very well the degree to which Labour’s room for political manoeuvre has been circumscribed by the events of the past 30 years. It is what gives him the confidence to contemplate policies – such as his “social investment” programme – that will alter fundamentally the way the poor and disadvantaged are managed by the New Zealand State.
BILL ENGLISH’S LATEST BUDGET is a masterful exercise in deception. He has done everything he can to mask the effects of the most rapid expansion in New Zealand’s population since the 1970s. The monies allocated to the core centres of state expenditure – Welfare, Health and Education – barely match the rising numbers they are expected to serve. Faced with an intensifying housing crisis, English’s response has been wholly inadequate. Determined to preserve the vital political dividend of rapidly rising Auckland property prices, English and his colleagues have steadfastly refused to address the supply-side of the housing equation. The crash programme of state house construction that would end the crisis must wait for a change of government.
All governments take care to tax and spend with an eye to their re-election. It is a rare political party that will sabotage its own chances of remaining in office by threatening the status and wealth of their core constituencies. In the case of the National Party, self-preservation means doing as much as is politically feasible to advance the interests of farmers, businesspeople, managers and professionals. In the case of the Labour Party, it means looking after public sector workers, low-to-middle-income private sector employees, beneficiaries and those elderly New Zealanders more-or-less reliant on NZ Superannuation.
English has clearly decided that the best way he can help National’s core constituencies is to retire as much public debt as possible and reduce the New Zealand state to approximately three-quarters of its present size. Dismissing these goals as “purely ideological”, while true, largely misses the point. It is simply what must be done to give National’s supporters what they most want from “their” government: lower taxes for themselves, and higher stress levels for everyone else.
This latter goal is a crucial aspect of right-wing politics. Only by consistently reducing the political competency of their electoral rivals’ core supporters can the Right be sure of not only making the gains they seek – but keeping them. Simply maintaining the economic and social status quo is never enough. To keep – let alone advance – the interests of their electoral base, right-wing parties must seize every opportunity to reduce the electoral heft of the Left’s.
This right-wing aggression presents social-democratic parties like Labour with a massive dilemma. To advance the interests of their electoral base it is necessary to advance the interests of New Zealand as a whole. Investing heavily in upgrading the nation’s infrastructure; stimulating employment growth; boosting Health and Education; building thousands of state houses and subsidizing private sector house construction: such measures benefit not only Labour’s voters, but also, thanks to their expansionary economic effects, National’s. The balance of political forces is not materially affected.
The only way for Labour to consolidate and increase its political advantage is by becoming as aggressive as its right-wing opponents. Providing decisive legislative support for the trade unions and intensifying the progressivity of the taxation system are the traditional methods for boosting the power of the lowest socio-economic groups. Unfortunately, any Labour Government attempting to implement such a programme in today’s political environment would instantly be identified as not only a deadly enemy of the National Party and its supporters, but also of the entire capitalist system.
Every weapon in the Right’s extensive arsenal would be deployed against such a government, leaving it with just two choices: submission, or revolution. Our present crop of Labour politicians made that choice a long time ago. Whatever else they may be, Labour’s Caucus are not revolutionaries!
English understands very well the degree to which Labour’s room for political manoeuvre has been circumscribed by the events of the past 30 years. It is what gives him the confidence to contemplate policies – such as his “social investment” programme – that will alter fundamentally the way the poor and disadvantaged are managed by the New Zealand State. That the Finance Minister’s changes are being made incrementally will in no way diminish their long-term impact.
English and his colleagues are also well aware of the impact their policies are having on the lowest socio-economic groups propensity to participate in the electoral process. Slashing and burning the lives of the poor has not, so far, caused them to mobilise politically (let alone electorally). On the contrary, the increasingly desperate character of their existence has made them easy prey for the three “A’s” of social dysfunction: Alienation, Apathy and Anomie.
None of this is acknowledged in English’s Budget Speech, nor, for the most part, in the analyses of the mainstream news media. The Finance Minister’s deception has, once again, proved highly successful. What’s more, his ruthless reduction in the real value of state spending over the past 8 years has, finally, provided him with a series of substantial budget surpluses. These are projected to be of sufficient size for English and Prime Minister Key to offer their core supporters meaningful tax cuts in 2018-19. Any ethical misgivings National’s supporters might be experiencing currently, about the condition of the poor, are unlikely to survive their Finance Minister’s election year munificence.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 27 May 2016.

Friday 27 May 2016

Fewer Is Not Better

Good Human Material? Viewed from the outside, Labour offers less-and-less to anyone not already comfortable with the injunctions of political correctness. Lacking the “bullshit detectors” of ordinary men and women, progressive parties begin to mistake the technocratic prattle of “experts” for genuine political wisdom. The logical terminus of this trend is when party leaders start nodding approvingly at Lenin’s historic assertion that what the organisation needs are “fewer, but better” members.
HOW MANY MEMBERS does the Labour Party have in its centenary year? According to the veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, the answer is – not a lot.
Writing in his “Politik” blog on Monday, 23 May, Harman noted:
“Politik has learned that the party’s membership is now probably below that of the Greens, which would place it below 5000, possibly less than half that.”
If true, that is shocking news – and it’s only fair to point out that within 24 hours the Labour Party’s new General Secretary, Andrew Kirton, was assuring Harman that it was not true. “We are far, far higher than 5,000 and therefore well above the Greens.”
In spite of reassuring his readers that the contested information came from “a usually reliable source”, Harman was willing – as of Tuesday morning – to take Kirton at his word.
A more cynical person, upon being told by Labour’s General Secretary that the membership figure is “far, far higher than 5,000”, might offer, by way of response, the words of the infamous call-girl, Mandy Rice-Davies, who, when told that an Establishment big-wig had denied all knowledge of her, shot back the immortal line: “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”
Certainly, it would be remarkable if a political party with fewer than 5,000 members entertained any serious hopes of becoming the Government. Though its current membership comes nowhere near the quarter-of-a-million figure bruited about in the 1970s, the National Party can still lay claim to being – by a wide margin – New Zealand’s largest political organisation. From its present muster of approximately 25,000, National’s goal is a paid-up membership of 35,000. It’s a measure of the party’s rude health that no one considers that figure to be beyond its reach.
Five thousand members, by contrast, is a perilously fragile base from which to launch a bid for state power. Divided by 64 (the number of General Electorates) 5,000 produces an average of just 78 members per electorate! Except that Labour in 2016, to a degree not seen since its formation in 1916, is a party of metropolitan New Zealand – meaning that in National’s provincial heartland its principal electoral opponent has next to no presence at all.
But the values of metropolitan New Zealand are not the values of provincial New Zealand – not by a long shot. And even in metropolitan New Zealand there is an important distinction to be made between the values of chic enclaves like Grey Lynn and Wadestown, and the vast suburban tracts that sprawl away from the centres of New Zealand’s largest cities. In the ‘‘burbs’, provincial values have a very familiar ring.
If Donald Trump wins the US Presidential Election in November it will be because the Democratic Party long ago lost all contact – and sympathy – with the ordinary voters of the suburbs and the “flyover” states. That “God and Guns” America to which Barack Obama condescended so loftily in 2008.
It is difficult to avoid making similar judgements about the New Zealand Labour Party. Too small, and too narrowly recruited, Labour’s membership hasn’t had to do battle with genuine conservatives for the best part of three decades. Progressivism is not improved by being unchallenged. Uncontested, its precepts all-too-easily harden into dogmatic certainties, against which no arguments are permitted to prevail. Lacking the ballast of conservative values, the organisation becomes increasingly vulnerable to erratic helmsmen.
Viewed from the outside, Labour offers less-and-less to anyone not already comfortable with the injunctions of political correctness. Lacking the “bullshit detectors” of ordinary men and women, progressive parties begin to mistake the technocratic prattle of “experts” for genuine political wisdom. The logical terminus of this trend is when party leaders start nodding approvingly at Lenin’s historic assertion that what the organisation needs are “fewer, but better” members.
Perhaps that is why Richard Harman was so willing to believe General Secretary Kirton’s assertion that Labour’s numbers are “far, far higher than 5,000”. Because to believe that 5,000 (let alone “less than half that”) is the true figure, is to more-or-less concede that New Zealand no longer possesses an Opposition worthy of the name.
Harman, like myself, is long enough in the tooth to remember what Labour looked like in the early 1980s, when it had 85,000 paid-up members. Unlike today’s shrunken entity, it looked like a Government-in-waiting.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 May 2016.

Wednesday 25 May 2016

Dying For Latvia?

Preparing For War: Nato forces in the former Soviet republic of Latvia as part of the 2014 "Silver Arrow" military exercises in the Baltic states. Such naked demonstrations of Nato's extended reach - right up to the borders of the Russian Federation - risk plunging the world into a full-scale nuclear war. Which poses the question: Is Western Civilisation really prepared to incinerate itself for ... Latvia?
A WEEK AGO, in London, the United Kingdom moved a step closer to war with the Russian Federation. Launching his book, 2017: War With Russia, General Sir Richard Shirreff (Retd) exhorted the Nato powers to dramatically increase their military presence along Russia’s borders – or risk its opportunistic invasion of the tiny Baltic state of Latvia. Shirreff’s dire predictions, informed by his time as Nato’s deputy-commander, are intended to be taken seriously.
We would be wise to do so: not for the reasons Shirreff is putting forward, but because the appearance of literature such as 2017: War With Russia has a very worrying precedent. In the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, the British people were assailed by a deluge of newspaper and magazine articles identifying Germany as Great Britain’s imminent assailant. The virulently anti-German publisher, Alfred Harmsworth, even went so far as to commission anti-German novels. The title of the most popular example, The Invasion of 1910, even bears an unhealthily close resemblance to Shirreff’s novel.
The motivation behind this sort of war propaganda – past and present – arises out of concerns in elite circles that military spending has fallen to levels inconsistent with the maintenance of national security. Published in 1906, The Invasion of 1910 was credited by the authors of the 2001 study, Dressing Up For War, with “inducing an atmosphere of paranoia, mass hysteria and Germanophobia that would climax in the Naval Scare of 1908–09”. This latter event, also whipped-up by the British press, precipitated a full-scale (and extremely profitable) arms race with the German Empire.
As Deputy-Commander of Nato, Shirreff aroused the ire of the British Secretary of Defence, Phillip Hammond, by publicly declaring the Cameron Government’s cutbacks in military spending to be a “dangerous gamble”. The retired General was not alone. His fear, that inadequate funding will lead to an anaemic Nato, is shared by many other military leaders across Europe.
Their greatest fear, however, is irrelevance. That Nato may no longer possess a legitimate purpose has haunted its commanders ever since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. US Presidential hopeful, Donald Trump’s, publicly voiced scepticism about Nato’s continued relevance will not have allayed their fear. (It is, surely, no accident that the US President who rides to Europe’s rescue in Shirreff’s novel is a woman!)
Of course, the disbanding of Nato would not be a nightmare for its generals only. It would also be a disaster for British, European and American arms manufacturers. In both cases, the prospect of a demilitarised central and eastern Europe could only have been extremely alarming. And yet, this was precisely the undertaking which the last Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, believed he had extracted from US President George H. W. Bush, in return for terminating the Warsaw Pact and allowing a reunified Germany to remain a Nato member.
That the Nato alliance has, since 1991, been extended all the way to the borders of the Russian Federation, even incorporating the EU puppet-states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania (tiny “countries” which spring into existence during periods of Russian weakness, only to be reabsorbed into the territory of their giant neighbour the moment that weakness passes) is, therefore, strategically highly significant. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a more chilling demonstration of the enduring power of what US President Dwight Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex” – and its European subsidiaries.
That Russia remains deeply aggrieved by what it regards (with some justification) as Nato’s anti-Russian expansionism is entirely unsurprising. Neither have its grievances with the West been in any way diminished by what it sees as the Nato powers’ donkey-deep involvement in the so-called “colour revolutions” which overthrew the Russia-friendly regimes of Georgia and Ukraine. In the latter case, Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, felt sufficiently threatened by the prospect of an openly fascist EU and Nato member on his country’s doorstep, that he first annexed the strategically vital Crimean peninsula, and then extended his nation’s military protection to the Russian-speakers of Ukraine’s breakaway eastern provinces.
Clearly Shirreff and his fellow Nato generals felt unmanned by their Russian counterparts’ resolute military action. In provoking Russia’s robust response, however, they did achieve Nato’s over-riding political objective: the reinstatement of Russia as Europe’s (and the World’s?) bogeyman.
With the successful precedent of the build-up to the First World War before them, the Nato “war party” is now attempting to leverage public anxiety about Putin’s intentions into the stationing of beefed-up and battle-ready Nato forces on Russia’s borders, provisioned by an EU-wide increase in military spending.
After Shirreff’s book, therefore, the question which the peoples of the United States and Europe need to ask themselves is existentially clear: “Are we willing to see ourselves, and the rest of the world, undergo nuclear incineration – for the sake of Latvia?”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 May 2016.

Friday 20 May 2016

Homes Are Where The Votes Are.

Working Class Voters' Ballot Papers At Work: A massive programme of state house construction; a graduated Land Tax; a radical and comprehensive overhaul of New Zealand’s tenancy legislation along European lines: each of these measures would lower the cost of housing dramatically. All those suffering from the worst effects of the current housing crisis, the young and the poor, have to do is vote for them.
NEW ZEALAND’S HOUSING SITUATION grows daily more perplexing.
In the country’s largest city, Auckland, the price of residential housing surges from one scarcely believable peak to the next. Neighbour’s stand open-mouthed as the sale-price of the property across the street is communicated to them in hushed tones and wide-eyed disbelief. Like the purchaser of a Lotto ticket, Auckland homeowners are mentally spending the hundreds-of-thousands of additional dollars they’re absolutely certain to win.
Woe betide the politician who tramples on those dreams.
Meanwhile, as the amount of the required deposit leaps impossibly far ahead of their ability to save such a sum, younger New Zealanders attempting to purchase their first residential property are growing increasingly desperate.
Woe betide the politician who tramples on those dreams.
The news media is calling it a housing crisis. But the advocates for state house tenants are crying foul. “How can there be a crisis,” they demand, “when hundreds of Housing NZ properties are standing empty?”
What’s going on?
The brutally simple answer is that those New Zealanders sufficiently motivated to participate in large numbers in general elections are ruthlessly enriching themselves.
With sufficient political will, New Zealand’s housing problems could be resolved quite quickly. To say this, however, is to beg the question of how that political will might best be summoned. A question which, in its turn, raises the perennial and deeply subversive issue of social class – and the bitter conflicts spawned when the interests of social classes clash.
For an excellent example of how these class conflicts get played out politically, we have only to look at the final days of the 2005 General Election Campaign.
The incumbent Labour Government was on the ropes, and the Don Brash-led National Party Opposition had the scent of victory in its nostrils. It was then that Labour’s campaign manager (and party president) Mike Williams sent out a last-minute letter to state house tenants. The letter warned them that, if Labour lost the election, the new National Government’s housing policies would see many of them evicted from their homes.
The letter had the desired effect. As Election Night 2005 drew to its close, and the counting of the ballots cast in the polling booths of the nation’s sprawling state house suburbs was completed, Labour’s tally of Party Votes surged triumphantly past National’s to secure for Helen Clark her final and most dramatic electoral victory.
Had those same state house tenants turned out to vote in the same numbers at the 2008, 2011 and 2014 General Elections, then John Key may never have become New Zealand’s prime minister. But they didn’t – and because they didn’t (at least in part) the policies of John Key’s National-led Government have, for the past eight years, exacted a very heavy toll on the nation’s state house tenant’s.
The same could be said of the nation’s younger citizens.
In 2005, Helen Clark (egged on by former student president, Grant Robertson) announced that Labour would be introducing interest-free student loans. With this prospect before them, scores-of-thousands of young New Zealanders made the journey to the polling-booths on Election Day to vote for the thousands-of-dollars-worth of savings Labour was promising. A significant number of their parents did the same thing – and for much the same reason! They, too, had a role to play in pushing the red line above the blue line.
In the 2014 General Election, however, only 49 percent of the 743,200 New Zealanders aged 18-29 years bothered to cast a vote. Of the 864,100 New Zealanders aged 60 years and over (they’re the ones with the houses) the participation rate was 87 percent! The young people struggling to buy their first home in 2016 should, perhaps, consider how much more attention politicians would pay to their housing needs after 2017, if 87 percent of them turned out to vote.
At the moment, middle-class Kiwis (especially those living in Auckland) are doing amazingly well out of John Key’s government’s housing policies. With the thumb of unprecedented immigration numbers pressing down on the demand side of the scales, and the supply side embarrassingly light on available residential properties, existing home-owners are laughing all the way to the banks – who are only too happy to lend them the money for a second, third or fourth house.
It’s not difficult to guess which party these folks will be voting for next year.
Nor should it be difficult for Labour, the Greens and NZ First to work out what they need to offer young and poor voters in 2017.
A massive programme of state house construction; a graduated Land Tax; a radical and comprehensive overhaul of New Zealand’s tenancy legislation along European lines: each of these measures would lower the cost of housing dramatically.
All the young and the poor have to do is vote for them.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 May 2016.

Thursday 19 May 2016

The Space To Make Dreams Come True: Why Labour’s Latest Move On Housing Could Be A Ground-Breaker.

Back To The Future: By sanctioning green-field (as opposed to brown-field) housing development, Phil Twyford and his colleagues are now free to draw forth from Labour’s honourable past the sort of planning ideas which, had they been implemented at the time they were developed (the late-1940s) would have made Auckland a much easier city in which to live and move around.
PHIL TWYFORD has urged the National Government to rule Auckland’s contentious Urban Growth Boundary out of the city’s Unitary Plan. This is a major policy announcement from Labour’s housing spokesperson. By embracing the virtues of expansion over intensification, the party has repositioned itself as a defender of Auckland’s characteristic urban sprawl – and everything that goes with it. That Twyford’s announcement prompted congratulatory media releases from the National Party, Business New Zealand and the Taxpayer’s Union is a measure of just how big a concession Labour has made.
Labour should not, however, be condemned simply because in some respects (and only in some) its housing policies are similar to the Right’s. Politically-speaking, the policy of urban intensification was as impractical as it was controversial. Homeowners were always going to balk at the prospect of multi-storeyed apartment buildings sprouting up in their leafy streets. Overruling those objections would have required a degree of heavy-handedness quite foreign to the New Zealand scene. Those deemed responsible – be they local or national politicians – would have paid a heavy price.
Policy-wise, Labour now has room to breathe. It also, quite literally, has the space to display some progressive creativity. By sanctioning green-field (as opposed to brown-field) housing development, Twyford and his colleagues are now free to draw forth from Labour’s honourable past the sort of planning ideas which, had they been implemented at the time they were developed (the late-1940s) would have made Auckland a much easier city in which to live and move around.
Seventy years on, however, with the population of Auckland approaching two million, the size of the planning canvass has expanded considerably. Looking forward, we must now envisage an urban corridor extending all the way from Hamilton to Whangarei.
A conurbation of this size cannot be serviced efficiently by the automobile. Crucial to its success would be the creation of a state-of-the-art rapid-rail network capable of whisking commuters from Hamilton to Downtown Auckland in 30 minutes. (If that seems impossible, just have a word with the French and the Chinese!) The huge enabling power of such a network would be more than sufficient to underwrite the many housing developments along its length.
Rather than leave the design and construction of these new communities to the private sector, Labour should promote the creation of a public design and construction entity dedicated to building homes, apartments and community facilities equal to anything currently on display in Germany and Scandinavia.
This massive public construction programme (which would not only encompass the building of houses and apartment buildings, but also the new rapid-rail network) would need to be accompanied by a radical reform of New Zealand’s tenancy laws. Only by, once again, making the State the nation’s pre-eminent – and most accommodating – landlord will New Zealanders enjoy access to well-designed and healthy homes, with full security of tenure, at an affordable rent.
On RNZ’s “Morning Report”, this morning (18/5/16) Max Rashbrooke and James Crow spoke to Guyon Espiner about the urgent need for 20,000 new homes – just to meet the needs of this country’s homeless families. Many of these families reside in Auckland, and neither their needs, nor the needs of the tens-of-thousands of New Zealand and immigrant families who intend to make the Auckland Region their home, will ever be adequately met by the existing, market-driven, system – which daily demonstrates its incapacity.
By abandoning the Urban Growth Boundary, Labour has given itself both the physical and intellectual space in which to prove that it still knows how to make New Zealanders dreams come true.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of 18 May 2016.

Wednesday 18 May 2016

An Opposition Worthy Of The Name?

A Government In Waiting? Labour's embrace of neoliberalism in the mid-1980s left the party with the political equivalent of syphilis. Sadly, every one of the many attempts to administer the Penicillin of genuine progressivism was rejected. Consequently, Labour’s bones have crumbled and its brain has rotted.
IT IS ONLY NOW, thirty years after the event, that the full effects of Labour’s 1984-1990 betrayals have become visible. The party’s inability to respond coherently to John Key’s National-led government has allowed the latter to escape, Scot-free, from economic and social policy failures that daily grow more intractable. All over New Zealand, voters shake their heads in frank disbelief at National’s extraordinary run of political good luck. Everywhere their cry is the same: “If only we had an Opposition worthy of the name!” How right they are.
The signal achievement of National’s nine years in opposition was the unification of the Right. With ruthless efficiency, Don Brash and John Key rolled up National’s electoral competitors, leaving only the vestiges of parties that had once attracted, between them, more than 10 percent of the popular vote. By the time National assumed the Treasury Benches in 2008, United Future and Act had become mere grace-and-favour parties, entirely dependent on Key’s goodwill for their survival.
It is a feat which Labour has singularly failed to replicate. A point which the latest Roy Morgan poll drives home with particular force. In the pollster’s latest survey, the party accounts for less than half of the combined Opposition Vote (Labour 26%, Greens 14.5%, NZ First 12.5%). Sadly, the electorate’s imagination simply isn’t equal to the task of transforming these three distinct political entities into a governing coalition it would feel comfortable supporting. In spite of the fact that Labour, the Greens and NZ First jointly command 53 percent of the popular vote, their chances of unseating National are slim.
Were Labour able to move as easily along its half of the political spectrum as National, then things might be different. Its four post-Helen Clark leaders notwithstanding, Labour's been unable to replicate Brash’s ruthless consolidation of National’s ideological base. No one was prepared to believe in Phil Goff as a champion of the Hard Left. Indeed, since the departure of Jim Anderton in 1989 there’s been no one in Labour’s caucus capable of assuming that role. David Cunliffe tried – and failed.
It was Helen Clark’s great good fortune to have Anderton and his Alliance available for coalescence. Their eventual partnership brought together the Hard Left and the Soft Centre in a fashion which Key, nine years later, was only too happy to imitate – drawing away tens-of-thousands of former Labour supporters in the process. That the parliamentary numbers never allowed Prime Minister Clark to replace the Alliance with the Green Party – thereby acquainting the electorate with the Greens as responsible and creative Cabinet Ministers – has proved extremely costly for the New Zealand Left.
The bitter truth is that if a beneficent angel were to uplift the best politicians from Labour, the Alliance (before it disappeared) the Greens and the Mana Party, and drop them into a divinely crafted political entity that might – or might not – continue to exploit the still potent Labour brand, then the Government of John Key would be in real trouble. The current Labour Party bleats on (and on, and on) about being a “Broad Church”, but the sad truth remains that its reservoir for recruitment has never been shallower.
A genuinely “broad church” party of the Left would balance off  Andrew Little with Hone Harawira, Jacinda Ardern with Laila Harré, Stuart Nash with John Minto, Kelvin Davis with Annette Sykes, Grant Robertson with Julie Anne Genter and Annette King with Metira Turei. The whole spectrum of alternative power: from Soft Centrists to Hard Leftists; would be covered.
That Labour’s fatal apostasy [the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief or principle] has made such a caucus impossible is the besetting tragedy of progressive New Zealand politics. Its embrace of neoliberalism in the mid-1980s left Labour with the political equivalent of syphilis. Sadly, every one of the many attempts to administer the Penicillin of genuine progressivism (God bless you Jim, Rod, Laila!) was rejected. Consequently, Labour’s bones have crumbled and its brain has rotted. Small wonder that the other opposition parties are reluctant to get too close!
It might almost be funny, if the only people laughing, all the way to the ballot-box, weren’t John Key and Winston Peters.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of 27 April 2016.

Saturday 14 May 2016

Paul Henry Interviews Chris Trotter On The Panama Papers - 9/5/16

FOLLOW THE LINK to last Monday's televised interview involving myself, PWC tax expert, Geoff Nightingale, and Mediaworks' Paul Henry. Though the best efforts of Nicky Hager, RNZ News and One News were brought to bear on the documents, and the results broadcast 24 hours before the worldwide release of the Panama Papers in toto, the revelations fell well short of the "smoking gun" needed to inflict genuine political damage on John Key and his government. As I would write for The Daily Blog later in the week:

The Panama Papers, they say,
Had Key worried for almost a day.
Yet, in spite of the press,
And Labour's best guess,
They had little of interest to say.

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road of 14 May 2016.

Tuesday 10 May 2016

The Number Of The Beast: The New Zealand Left's Abiding Obsession With John Key.

The Left's Burdensome Beast: The New Zealand Left’s animosity towards John Key is curiously reminiscent of the early Christian Church’s animosity towards the Roman Emperor, Nero. Both leaders found themselves assailed by a self-righteous minority whose lurid accusations repeatedly failed to stick. To date, not even the notorious "Panama Papers" have yielded sufficient ammunition for the New Zealand Left to bring down its beastly nemesis.
BRINGING DOWN JOHN KEY has become an abiding obsession of the New Zealand Left. As if all of New Zealand’s problems have their origins in the actions of a single individual. As if the Prime Minister hasn’t been shaped by the people he governs every bit as much as they have been shaped by him. As if Key’s uncanny ability to extricate himself from scandal after scandal hasn’t been made possible by the electorate’s willingness to look the other way while he does it.
All of which suggests that the Left’s obsession with bringing down Key isn’t about the National Party Leader at all, but about its own inability to attract and hold the same level of popular support that keeps him in power. All of which raises the possibility that the Left’s real problem isn’t with Key at all – but with the democratic process itself.
Over the past fortnight, for example, the Left has been outraged by revelations contained in the so-called “Panama Papers”. These have been seized upon as conclusive proof of John Key’s determination to transform New Zealand into a tax haven.
That the New Zealand-related documents contained in the Panama Papers might be interpreted as the legal firm at the centre of the controversy, Mossack Fonseca’s,  back-handed tribute to this country’s reputation for honesty and fair-dealing does not appear to have occurred to the implacable prosecutors of the Left.
Similarly failing to register with them is the indisputable fact that the formation of trusts (both foreign and domestic) is a perfectly legal activity engaged in not only by dubious South American businessmen, but also by thousands of ordinary New Zealand families. The purposes of these legal instruments is much the same in both instances: to shield the assets of their beneficiaries from the fiscal and/or administrative exactions of the state.
That is why John Key is not about to get on his high moral horse about trusts. Not when to do so would put him offside with tens-of-thousands of his most loyal supporters!
The Left constantly fails to register the brute realities of living in a society driven by the neoliberal imperatives of twenty-first century capitalism. In a world where the interests of the successful individual trump everybody else’s, avoiding and/or evading tax has become an industry in its own right.
Whether these sovereign individuals are the heirs to old family fortunes, or the lumpenproletarian leaders of methamphetamine-distributing street gangs, makes little difference. Large piles of cash must first be sanitised, and then they must be protected. If the Panama Papers prove nothing else, it’s that law firms dedicated to providing such services are not confined to the pages of John Grisham novels!
It takes a touching degree of innocence, not to say naiveté, to assume that the whole nation will rise up as one against the spectacle of extremely wealthy individuals and families setting up trusts in foreign lands to avoid paying tax at home. The Left clearly does not grasp the huge number of people who, aspiring to become extremely wealthy individuals themselves, observe the depredations of the One Percent with feelings more akin to admiration than disgust.
The New Zealand Left’s animosity towards John Key is, thus, curiously reminiscent of the early Christian Church’s animosity towards the Roman Emperor, Nero. In both cases we are presented with a minority utterly convinced of its moral righteousness, and absolutely unwilling to compromise its principles. Unsurprisingly, such stiff-necked insistence on their own rectitude, asserted aggressively in the midst of an avaricious and morally undemanding society, not only got these groups offside with their neighbours, but also with the authorities. Finding themselves under political pressure, it is hard to blame either Nero, or John Key, for making scapegoats of their unpopular critics.
Not that John Key has gone so far as to transform his left-wing opponents into human torches! Like Nero, however, he has boosted his own popularity at their expense – and they hate him for it.
The Early Christians worked Nero’s name into their identification of the Beast of the Book of Revelation: “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.”
The New Zealand Left is equally obsessed with numbers – even if, in the case of John Key, they are the numbers hidden in the spreadsheets of the Panama Papers.
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Tuesday, 10 May 2016.

Friday 6 May 2016


Action Man: Andrew Little with Lt-Gen Tim Keating at Camp Taji, Iraq. Brought face-to-face with Kiwi men and women in uniform, no Leader of the Opposition is going to do anything but praise their courage and dedication. Such praise, however, is all-too-easily perceived by the ordinary New Zealand voter as a vindication of the Government’s decision to send them into harm’s way. That perception was not in any way dispelled by images of Little wearing a flak jacket and walking at the Chief of Defence Force's side.
READING JOHN KEY’s 3 May speech to the NZ Institute of International Affairs, I found myself longing for an effective Opposition. The Prime Minister’s bland recapitulation of the tired old neoliberal narrative: the twenty-first century equivalent of the God, King and Empire speeches of a century ago; offered nothing even remotely comparable to the uplifting oratory of Norman Kirk and David Lange.
Labour’s leaders were once renowned for their ability to convince the world that New Zealand is a lot bigger than it looks. Their unique blend of idealism and pragmatism; courage and caginess; attracted considerable international attention. Kiwis were not only admired – they were liked.
Mr Key’s vision of New Zealand sees us as a vast South Pacific shopping-mall, set in an even larger tourist resort, and serviced by a polyglot community of free-trade worshipping buyers and sellers, entrepreneurs and tour-guides, from all over the world. A sort of Singapore with ski-fields.
Does any of it matter?
There’s a school of political thought which answers “No – not at all!” It plays down the notion that voters are ever motivated primarily by foreign policy issues. Such thinkers are fond of quoting the famous aide memoire attributed to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign managers, Paul Bergala and James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
But political campaigns do not live by bread and butter alone. Those who insist that economic issues must always come first have clearly forgotten the extraordinary role played by the Vietnam War, Apartheid Sport and Nuclear Weapons in the political history of late-twentieth century New Zealand.
By challenging the voting public to make difficult and often unpopular moral choices, the mass movements spawned by these international issues ennobled public life. Politics became something more than the rather sordid “what’s in it for me?” electoral auctioneering so dear to the hearts of the bread-and-butter brigade.
Perhaps it’s his many years as a staunch bread-and-butter trade unionist that explains Andrew Little’s failure to grasp the important role foreign policy issues play in lifting Labour up and into power. It is certainly difficult to imagine Norman Kirk, David Lange or Helen Clark allowing themselves to be so easily outmanoeuvred and compromised on an important foreign policy issue as the current Labour Leader was recently in Iraq.
What on earth possessed Little to tag along with Defence Minister, Gerry Brownlee, on the latter’s visit the Kiwi troops at Camp Taji? Labour’s position on New Zealand’s Iraqi commitment was admirably clear. It saw no benefit, and considerable risk, in this country once again involving itself in the conflicts besetting the Middle East.
According to Labour, the Iraqi regime was riven with corruption and its armed forces, as a result of that corruption, lacked both the will and the means to mount an effective counter-offensive against the forces of the Islamic State. While Labour did not doubt the ability of New Zealand Defence Force personnel to ready Iraqi soldiers for battle, it had absolutely no confidence that, once removed from Camp Taji and their Kiwi instructors, they would stay ready.
These were all good, practical objections to New Zealand’s involvement in Iraq – and every one of them was undermined by Little’s presence. Brought face-to-face with Kiwi men and women in uniform, no Leader of the Opposition is going to do anything but praise their courage and dedication. Such praise, however, is all-too-easily perceived by the ordinary New Zealand voter as a vindication of the Government’s decision to send them into harm’s way. That perception was not in any way dispelled by images of Little wearing a flak jacket and walking at Brownlee’s side.
The journalists accompanying Brownlee and Little reported that it looked as though Labour was preparing to re-establish bi-partisanship of matters relating to foreign policy and defence – and they were right.
The only defensible position for Labour on the Middle East is the one that demands the disengagement and withdrawal of all Western forces – including our own – from the entire region. Its intractable conflicts are the malign legacy of  British, French and American imperialism, and they will not be ended by the intervention of the very same entities that gave them birth.
No National Party Prime Minister could adopt such a policy. That a potential Labour Prime Minister allowed his party’s principled foreign policy stance to be so easily compromised is deeply depressing.
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, 6 May 2016.

Monday 2 May 2016

A Very Good Reason To Keep Friday Afternoon Free.

Nick Dyer-Witheford
will deliver a public lecture entitled
"The Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex"
Friday, 6 May
WG404, Sir Paul Reeves Building
AUT City Campus
3:00pm - 4:00pm

DYER-WITHEFORD argues that the combination of automation, logistical command and financialization enabled by information technology raises to a new intensity a fundamental dynamic of capitalism – its drive to simultaneously induct populations into waged labour and expel them as un- or under-employed superfluous to its increasingly machinic systems. Digitization has accelerated this moving contradiction, creating a cyclonic process that on the one hand, envelops the globe in networked supply chains and agile production systems, making labour available to capital on a planetary scale, and, on the other, drives development of adept automata and algorithmic software that renders such labour redundant. In this whirlwind, the traditional, Euro-centrically conceived, stereotypically male "working class" of the global north-west is disintegrating into, one the one hand, a strata of technology professionals, tending to identification with digital capital, though shot through with hacker proclivities and, on the other, a vast pool of un-, under- and vulnerably employed labour; transnational and feminized. They live in the shadowlands between work and worklessness that has always defined the proletarian condition. Divided across border-policed wage-zones of a world-market, the fractions of this global proletariat are frequently in tension with one another, even as they are subject to common exploitation by capital. Thus, though the technical composition of class is apparent, its composition is rife with political contradictions.
This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.