Wednesday 31 May 2017

No Place For White, Middle-Class Men?

But, Honestly, I had No Idea! Was Rohan Lord being serious last week on RNZ's "Morning Report"? Was he actually asking us to accept that being male and middle-class is an impediment to advancing through Labour’s ranks? That, in a party where all of the key decision-making positions are currently occupied by men, being a bloke will limit your future prospects?
DISCRIMINATION on the basis of race, gender and social class. Gosh! Imagine that! Should be a law against it!
And, of course, there is – sort of. It is, indeed, illegal to discriminate against one’s fellow citizens on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, religion, and even their personal political beliefs. But the Bill of Rights Act has absolutely nothing to say about discrimination based on social class.
This is hardly surprising. A Bill of Rights Act that outlawed discrimination based on social class would be utterly revolutionary – both in intent and effect. It would outlaw capitalism. It would undermine hierarchy. It would – not to put too fine a point upon it – change the world.
Which is why the Bill of Rights Act will, until the final victory of the Revolution, remain deathly silent on the subject of class. Our economic system is quite capable of coping with the abolition of sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, religious intolerance and political witch-hunting. What it cannot abolish, however, is social class: that “homicidal bitchin’/ that goes down in every kitchen/ to determine who shall serve and who shall eat.” (Leonard Cohen) Because, as another great Jewish writer explained: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
All of which is by way of contextualising the comments of Rohan Lord, former Labour Party candidate for the seat of East Coast Bays and erstwhile holder of the seventy-second slot on Labour’s Party List.
On Tuesday morning Rohan told Radio New Zealand that while he was very appreciative of Labour’s consideration, and although he fully supported the party’s policy platform, his list-ranking had led him to the conclusion that he wasn’t really the sort of candidate they were looking for.
“Wrapping it all up really, there’s probably limited future prospects’, he told RNZ’s Morning Report. “I’m white, middle class, male, I couldn’t really see a long term future.”
Seriously, Rohan? You’re actually asking us to accept that being middle-class is an impediment to advancing through Labour’s ranks? That, in a party where all of the key decision-making positions are currently occupied by men, being a bloke will limit your future prospects?
Mate, if you’re sincere in these observations, then you haven’t been paying attention – for about thirty years!
Oh yes, I know, the party was dominated by Helen Clark for fifteen of those thirty years. But, in neither the Labour Party, nor in New Zealand society generally, has gender been the primary determinant of our recent history.
The crucial change of the past thirty years has been the destruction of working-class power. The crippling of the trade union movement offers the most glaring confirmation of that historic defeat. If the political wing of the labour movement had not already been taken over by lawyers, university teachers and civil servants, however, then driving the working-class from the national stage would not have been so easy. The middle-class capture of the Labour Party in the early 1980s was crucial to the demobilisation of the labour movement as a decisive economic, social and political force in the 1990s.
So, Rohan, it was neither your gender nor your class origins that limited your future prospects, it was your ignorance of the way things are done – not just in Labour, but in all political parties.
To rise in any political organisation it is necessary to prove that you have what it takes to be a politician. Can you organise yourself into a safe seat – like Helen Clark and John Key? Can you keep your mouth shut in the interests of party discipline? Can you be relied upon to remain staunch in the face of disappointment and defeat? Can your comrades trust you not to publicly spit the dummy when the decisions of the party bosses don’t go the way you expected?
Well, Rohan, I think you know the answers to all those questions. And, I agree, when it comes to the people in charge of the Labour Party – middle-class to a man – you are most definitely, “probably not for them”.
Don’t feel too bad about it though. Be comforted by the fact that Kris Faafoi, Labour’s Shadow Minister of Tourism, when called upon to condemn the thoroughly bourgeois practice of tipping (a no-brainer for any genuine socialist!) happily pleaded guilty to tipping the odd worker himself.
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, 26 May 2017.

Wednesday 24 May 2017

Will the TPP Spell National’s Doom?

"John Frum, He Come." The National Government's stubborn promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been likened to the post-World War II Melanesian "Cargo Cults" whose followers constructed their own "runways" and "aircraft" to entice the recently departed GIs "John From America" (John Frum) to return bearing the miraculous "cargo" that had so suddenly enriched their lives.
IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST EXTREME REACTIONS to a speech that I have ever witnessed. I had written it for the newly-elected Mayor of Dunedin, Sukhi Turner, and she had made it her own. Delivering it with her trademark forthrightness, she set the Dunedin Establishment ablaze. The offending paragraph had been the one in which she accused the Dunedin business community of having a “cargo cult” mentality.
The anthropological term, “cargo cult”, arose from the responses of a number of isolated Melanesian populations whose subsistence communities had been overwhelmed during World War II: first by soldiers; then with all the things that soldiers need. When the war ended, and the soldiers and their “cargo” departed (as suddenly and mysteriously as they had arrived) the islanders were distraught. Desperate for the return of these bringers-of-all-good things, they laid out jungle runways and fashioned crude facsimiles of aircraft. “John Frum [John from America] he come”, they intoned to the heavens. “John Frum, he come.”
The point I was making in the speech, and which Sukhi embraced, was that our own local (and national) business elites were behaving very similarly to those Melanesian islanders. They also believed that if they laid out the equivalent of jungle runways (financial inducements, deregulated markets) then John Frum’s precious “cargo” – in the form of big, one-off, economy-rescuing, foreign-investment projects – would follow.
The firestorm created by the speech took a great deal of hosing down. (Unsurprisingly, I wrote no more incendiary mayoral speeches!) It did, however, teach me a couple of very valuable lessons. First. What are presented as highly sophisticated economic arguments in favour of globalisation are driven by some very unsophisticated (some might even say primal) human impulses. Second. The people advancing such arguments do not take at all kindly to being labelled cargo cultists!
That being the case, the veteran journalist, Gordon Campbell, should probably watch his back. Because, in his latest analysis of the Bill English-led National Government’s peculiar obsession with keeping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) alive, Campbell writes:
“New Zealand – and other nations – made concessions and spent their political capital in order to meet American corporate demands. The likes of English are still promising to observe these commitments to the letter, even though the Americans won’t be there to keep their side of the bargain. The TPP has literally become a cargo cult ritual that’s being performed in the hope that someday, one day, the Americans will return, bearing gifts.”
No surprise, then, that the National-led Government is so keen to enrol the Labour Party in this, to date, fruitless ritual. Labour’s return to the Free Trade fold would represent a much-needed infusion of political capital to the project. Without it, the New Zealand political class’s considerable reputational investment in TPP stands to be lost.
Exactly why Labour would offer its company to all this pro-TPP misery is far from clear. Such an about-face would not only alienate its prospective coalition partners in the Greens (whose opposition to the TPP remains staunch) but also enrage the September election’s likely arbiter, Winston Peters – whose adamant opposition to such agreements is well known on both sides of the parliamentary aisle.
Accordingly, by far the most fruitful course of action for Labour would be to make common-cause with the Greens and NZ First against any and all attempts to revive the TPP in its current, unamended, form.
Such an alliance would constitute a stern warning to the political class that its participation in such absurd cargo cult rituals must end. It would also signal that the days of electoral politics being a “heads we win, tails you lose” proposition for New Zealand’s “permanent interests” are over.
The National Party (which certainly likes to think of itself as the spokesperson for those permanent interests) should recall the fury of the tangata whenua at the sovereignty-threatening clauses of the TPP – especially the Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions. Is its relationship with the Maori Party strong enough to withstand such a test of loyalties?
The three (possibly four) parties currently positioned to bring National’s nine-year-reign to an end could hardly have wished for a better issue around which to gather the forces seeking a change of government. It offers the Left a rare opportunity to bestow upon its parliamentary representatives the benediction of mass political action: the chance to allow Labour, the Greens and NZ First to be carried all the way to the Beehive’s Ninth Floor on a vast wave of popular discontent.
All of which poses the question: Why would English and his allies (both inside and outside of Parliament) willingly hang the weighty carcass of the deeply unpopular TPP around their collective neck? Do they really intend their final words, as the rising tide of change closes over their heads, to be: “John Frum, he come”?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 May 2017.

Friday 19 May 2017

"Insensitiveness To Administrative Delicacies": National's Barbarians Are Well Beyond The Gates.

Not Just At The Gates - Within The Walls! Dr J.C. Beaglehole, writing in 1961, recorded with considerable disdain: “The naïve, the almost childish brutality, with which the chiefs of the National Party fell upon power may seem quite surprising, until one remembers how famished for power they were, and with what an innocency of experience they faced the world about them ..... [Their] insensitiveness to administrative delicacies was quite appalling.”
I’M NOT GOING TO GIVE YOU HER NAME because, to her credit, she later repented of her bad behaviour. Given her status as a newly-elected National Party MP, that was just as well. I’m only sorry that Alfred Ngaro (a Christian pastor!) was not persuaded to make a similar act of contrition following his recent, spectacularly public, deviation from the paths of political righteousness.
The 2008 General Election was only just behind us when I encountered this particular National MP. To say she was in a mood of heedless triumphalism would be to seriously understate her disposition. In spite of the fact that she was the dinner guest of a respectable NGO, and oblivious to the fact that she was surrounded by a host of witnesses (one of whom was a newspaper columnist) this provincial MP gave voice to the most incautious observations.
In summary, she declared to all and sundry that the views of the newly-elected National Government’s opponents were not worth the effort of a single act of fornication. (To be honest, she put it a little more succinctly than that!) John Key’s government, she said, would not be diverted from its course by lefties, greenies, bureaucrats – or any other variety of pointy-headed, politically-correct enemies of “Middle New Zealand”. Her loud and utterly unapologetic pronouncements made Michael Cullen’s infamous taunt: “We won. You lost. Eat that!”, sound wimpish by comparison.
Over the course of the evening it became increasingly clear to me that, for our voluble dining companion and other members of the National Party, the past nine years of Labour-led government had been the purest torture. To be ruled by the likes of Helen Clark, Michael Cullen, Margaret Wilson and Steve Maharey represented an inexplicable upending of the natural order of things. For a few agonising years, it really did seem as though government of farmers and businessmen, by farmers and businessmen, for farmers and businessmen – was about to perish from the earth.
This keen sensitivity to the travails of powerlessness was nothing new for the National Party. As Dr J.C. Beaglehole, writing in 1961, recorded with considerable disdain: “The naïve, the almost childish brutality, with which the chiefs of the National Party fell upon power may seem quite surprising, until one remembers how famished for power they were, and with what an innocency of experience they faced the world about them.”
While refusing to dismiss the entire National caucus as a horde of barbarians, Beaglehole was unsparing in his criticism of Prime Minister Sid Holland’s government. Its “insensitiveness to administrative delicacies” he said, “was quite appalling.”
“Insensitiveness to administrative delicacies” – what a lovely phrase! And how very applicable to Alfred Ngaro’s outrageous speech to the National Party’s Northern Regional Conference, in which he not-so-subtly warned state-funded NGOs against criticising government policy.
“We are not happy about people taking with one hand and throwing with the other,” the Minister for the Voluntary Sector told his fellow delegates. “Do not play politics with us. If you get up on the campaign trail and start bagging us, then all the things you are doing are off the table. They will not happen.”
Though he did not use Beaglehole’s words, the Prime Minister, Bill English, made it clear that he had only refrained from demanding Ngaro’s resignation on account of the junior minister’s “innocency of experience”.
The question remains, however, as to what sort of experience Ngaro is innocent of? Recalling the post-election behaviour of my voluble provincial MP, I would guess it to be the experience of exercising some discipline over one’s tongue when journalists are within earshot. Ngaro’s threats to punish critics of the National Government were, I am quite sure, well received by his fellow delegates. Less welcome, however, was the public outrage they occasioned.
When I encountered her a year after she had so recklessly displayed her contempt for the norms of democratic discourse, my former dinner companion was quick to disavow her errant behaviour. Obviously, some older and wiser political hand had drawn her aside after a similar episode and warned her against such expletive-laden frankness. An altogether smoother political operator, she was now very clearly headed for bigger and better things.
The doors to the Cabinet Room beckon this reformed backwoods Boadicea. What views she’ll give voice to behind them, I shudder to think.
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, 19 May 2017.

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Digitally Together - Politically Alone

You Had To Be There: National's Rob Muldoon campaigning in the 1970s. Digital political communication will feature hugely in this year's general election. But can the solitary experience of on-line politics ever match the powerful feelings of solidarity generated by the mass events of an active and participatory democracy?
THIS YEAR’S ELECTION will be won and lost in private. People seated in front of PCs, or, more likely, caressing their smart phones, will be the ones who decide between National and Labour. On both sides of the great political divide some very smart people are already working on ways to bring their followers together – alone.
What a contrast with the campaigning methods of the past. Right up until that most pivotal of election years, 1984, the opening of an election campaign was an unequivocally public event. Political parties typically hired the largest covered venues available – town halls, theatres, opera houses – from the stages of which their leaders addressed audiences of one-to-two thousand energised supporters.
And some determined opponents’, too. Because this was the era in which the noble art of heckling still boasted many proud exponents.
When Rob Muldoon kicked-off National’s official campaign in Hamilton’s Founders Theatre in 1975,  a clutch of seasoned Labour hecklers were lying in wait. As the pugnacious Opposition Leader was working his way towards his oratorical climax, one of those hecklers cried out in a voice that echoed around the auditorium: “Who stabbed Jack in the back!?” [Jack Marshall had been deposed as National’s leader by Muldoon barely twelve months earlier.] It took the great counter-puncher more than a few beats to recover his composure.
All good fun! With the entire spectacle broadcast live on the state-owned radio and television networks. Political leaders truly earned the right to rule us in those far-off days before auto-cues, headset microphones and carefully screened audiences waving pre-printed party placards in front of the cameras.
None more so that the revered Labour leader, Michael Joseph Savage, who barnstormed the country in 1938. Diagnosed with colon cancer, Savage disregarded the advice of his doctors to conserve his strength, and hit the campaign trail. Faced with near-universal press hostility, he knew he would have to sell his party’s ground-breaking Social Security legislation face-to-face. Town halls could not contain the crowds that gathered to hear him. Labour stalwarts in Dunedin recalled wonderingly the rain-swept afternoon that Savage spoke to an audience of 20,000 at Carisbrook. It wasn’t even his largest.
The mandatory broadcasting of campaign openings was a legacy of Savage’s prime-ministership. Like the social-media of the twenty-first century, these live broadcasts allowed political leaders to execute an end-run around the conservative gatekeepers of the privately-owned media.
The live broadcasting of Parliament was instituted for exactly the same reason. Working-class families gathered around their radio sets were able to hear Savage describe Labour’s Social Security legislation as “applied Christianity” – as he said it. They were also able to hear National’s leader, Adam Hamilton, dismissing it with a sneer as “applied lunacy”.
Paradoxically, the generation raised on Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter, will find more to respond to in this celebrated Labour legend than their Baby Boomer parents. Millennials need no instruction in the galvanising effect of instantaneity: the extraordinary privilege of being able to monitor events as they happen. A single tweet can reach 20,000 people in a millisecond – and none of its recipients are required to stand for hours in the freezing Dunedin rain to receive it.
Hence the sustained effort of all the major parties to craft their messages to the specifications of our digital age. Tweets, text messages, Facebook postings, YouTube videos, and personally addressed e-mails will increasingly complement the old technology of snail-mail-shots, robo-calls, pamphlets, posters, TV/radio/print ads and, of course, all those bloody billboards.
Parliament itself has bowed before these new digital imperatives. The mandatory broadcasting of the political parties’ opening and closing election statements has been discontinued. State subsidisation of party-political communications will continue, but now it’s to be applied across all platforms.
New Zealanders should, therefore, prepare themselves for an onslaught of algorithmic politics. Messages pitched with unnerving precision at our entire demographic profile: gender and ethnicity; marital status and family composition; level of educational attainment; occupation and work history; income-bracket – all the stuff Facebook and Google know already – will arrive, unbidden, in vast numbers.
Will they work? You bet your life! You’ll be blown away by their sky-high production values and will thrill to the uncanny resonance of their messages. What’s more, you will feel caught-up in something much bigger than yourself: a movement for change; a people’s crusade! Your determination to cast your vote on 23 September (or before!) will grow ever stronger.
But will it be the same as standing in a rain-swept stadium listening to a frail and desperately ill old man asking you to vote for applied Christianity? Will the sound-track in your ear-pods produce the same reaction as 2,000 people chanting Mul-doon! Mul-doon! Mul-doon!? Will your computer screen meet your eye with a flash of solidarity, or join with you in wild applause?
Can citizens truly be together – alone?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 May 2017.

Friday 12 May 2017

The Price Of Crushed Hopes And Unheeded Hurts.

The Spring Of Hope: In 1848 the peoples of Europe rose in their millions to revivify the revolutionary demands of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The crushing of this "European Spring" set in motion the self-destructive philosophical and political movements which culminated, 85 years later, in the appointment of Adolf Hitler as German Chancellor. We must hope that the convulsions of 2016-17 do not signal the beginnings of another such catastrophe.
TWO YEARS: 1848 and 1933; are linked by the consequences of political disillusionment and despair. In Germany, the “Year of Revolutions” – 1848 – ended in failure. The fervent hopes of German youth for a unified, liberal and democratic nation were dashed. In the years that followed they would be told that: “Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.”
Eighty-five years after “the great mistake” of believing in “speeches and majority decisions” had curdled the German intelligentsia’s faith in the rational values of the Enlightenment, the grandson of their disillusionment and despair, Adolf Hitler, was appointed Chancellor of Germany. On 30 January 1933, “iron and blood” ceased to be the effective means of achieving specific national ends, and became ends in themselves. Abandoning the voices of reason for the fiery counsel of political dragons has only one ending – and it is neither happy nor civilised.
The year separating June 2016 from June 2017 may yet be similarly identified as the starting-point of a catastrophe every bit as terrible as the one which kicked-off in 1933.
It has been a year of incoherency and incomprehension: of primal political screams and contemptuous dismissals. A year in which everything has been demanded and nothing has been conceded. A year of brute force and sophisticated manipulation, in which the champions of both political approaches remained committed only to exploiting the divisions they had created.
There will be those who advance the election of Emmanuel Macron as evidence that reason has finally triumphed over passion. That the madness which began with Brexit and descended into the delirium of Trump has, at last, been tranquilised: appropriately, in the home of the Enlightenment – France.
But this would be to confuse the shrewdness of Charles De Gaulle, the father of the Fifth French Republic, with a genuinely democratic solution to the still very real problem of organised political irrationality. The run-off presidential election was devised by De Gaulle as the last line of defence against both the residual evil of Vichy fascism and the growing menace of France’s Moscow-oriented Communist Party. A prophylactic against extremism – not a cure.
And against the daughter of Vichy, Marine Le Pen, De Gaulle’s constitution has held the line. But that in no way makes Monsieur Macron the positive choice of the French people. He has become their President not on account of the man he is, but on account of the woman he is not. Nor should we be dazzled by the 66%-34% result. Madame Le Pen’s father, in his 2002 run-off against Jacques Chirac, secured barely a fifth of the votes cast. His daughter has lifted that fraction to more than a third. The National Front now calls itself the largest single political force in France.
A similar number of Frenchmen either abstained or left their ballot papers blank. Macron owes his “victory” to the votes of two-thirds of two thirds of France. If the supporters of this former investment banker attempt to claim the run-off result as a positive mandate for the neoliberal programme his “En Marche” movement is advancing, then the partisans of irrationality and brute force will advance their own claims – on the nation’s streets.
Macron’s task, now, is not to strip French workers of their rights by presidential decree, but to make sure that 2017 does not become the year of unheeded hurts, in the same way that 1848 became the year of crushed hopes. He assured his cheering supporters outside the Louvre that his greatest wish is to bring the French people together. Now that would be a real victory!
Because hurts unheeded and hopes crushed do not disappear, they fester and weep, poisoning the blood of a nation’s politics, raising its temperature to fever heat, spawning the hallucinations and delirious ravings of demagogues for whom hurt and hope are meat and drink.
We do not know what sort of Europe might have emerged had the “Year of Revolutions” not ended in despair and disillusionment. Had her best and brightest children not, over the next 85 years, convinced themselves that it was possible to go “beyond good and evil” and return unscathed.
But the Europe which actually emerged from 1848’s crushed hopes – that we do know.
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, 12 May 2017.

Wednesday 10 May 2017

Unconvincing: Labour Appeals To Its South Auckland Base.

"We can't do it on our own." Andrew Little appeals to the voters of South Auckland to, once again, push Labour over the line to victory.
SOUTH AUCKLAND is another country. The country New Zealand could have been, had colonisation unfolded differently. The country New Zealand may yet become, if current immigration policies are abandoned.
South Auckland is a Pacific country: where the faces are brown; the neighbourhoods are poor; and the churches – of which there are a great many – are full of worshippers.
South Auckland is also Labour country – and that is not something one can say about many other places in New Zealand. In 2005 it was the voters of South Auckland that saved Helen Clark’s Labour-led Government and sent her back for a third term as their Prime Minister.
If Labour is saved again: if it avoids a fourth consecutive defeat at the hands of the National Party; then it will be the people of South Auckland that Andrew Little and his party have to thank.
No surprises, then, that the place Labour chose to launch its Community Action Network (CAN) was in the spacious hall of the Otara Mormon Church.
A sprawling state-house suburb, Otara bends itself around the Tamaki River and Otara Creek. It has the dull topography of a former swamp: low-lying, flat and featureless. Trees are few and far-between, but power pylons bestride the land like H.G. Well’s Martian fighting machines. The streets are full of bright-eyed kids riding bicycles. White faces are rare.
The Otara Mormon Church is itself a sprawling complex set in the middle of an even larger car park. It’s sheer size confirms the central role of religious observance in the communities of South Auckland. As the venue for Saturday afternoon’s launch, however, it also drew into sharp focus the huge cultural gulf separating Labour’s parliamentary leadership from its most loyal South Auckland supporters.
To be sure, the Labour MPs from that part of the world: Jenny Salesa (Manukau East) Su’a William Sio (Mangere) Louisa Wall (Manurewa) and Peeni Henare (Tamaki Makaurau) all offer a comfortable ethnic fit with the communities they represent – and all of them were present in the hall, but none of these politicians are members of Labour Leader Andrew Little’s inner circle of confidants and advisers. That group remains an overwhelmingly Palangi affair.
CAN itself is something of a paradox. It’s prime organiser, Keiran O’Halloran, is an import from Ireland via the British Labour Party.  Now, someone who grew up under the government of Tony Blair, and has the accent to prove it, might not strike every observer as the ideal pick to organise the South Auckland Vote. Yet, there he was on Saturday, belting out slogans which may have resonated in the London boroughs, but which left this “Southside” audience visibly underwhelmed.
As an organisation dedicated to recruiting and training hundreds of local volunteers to get out Labour’s South Auckland’s Party Vote, CAN boasts a rather confusing name. A cynic might say that CAN’s gloriously non-partisan moniker testifies to the dwindling potency of the party’s brand. “Volunteers For Labour” would have been a more accurate description of the project: but if that was its name – would they have come?
In introducing Andrew Little, his new deputy, Jacinda Ardern, talked about Labour being “the people’s party”. Its National opponents may have a lot of money, she told the 300-strong audience, but we have people. Engaging those people in a genuine conversation was critical, she argued: “ordinary people talking to ordinary people”.
Little, himself, reiterated Ardern’s sentiments: telling his listeners that: “We win with the love and conviction and passion of ordinary New Zealanders”, admitting, almost plaintively, “we can’t do it on our own”. Exactly why Labour merited Southside’s help remained frustratingly frothy. The audience’s response, as befitted its overwhelmingly Pacific composition, was warm and polite. It was not, however, the sort of speech that inspires young volunteers to form queues at the recruitment trestles. (As they did for Barack Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016.)
Had Donald Trump been in attendance he would undoubtedly have described Little’s performance as “Low Energy”. Given the week Labour had just been through, its leader’s lack of fire was, perhaps, understandable. It was not, however, forgivable. Not in front of that audience.
Because the stand-out moments of Saturday’s launch came not from Labour’s politicians and apparatchiks, but from the South Auckland people themselves. Such energy as was on display all flowed from them. From the child soloists, the traditional dancers, the little Mormon choir and, most especially, from the Pacific audience, when it lifted up its collective voice in song.
That richness of sound; those effortless harmonies; spoke of faith, passion and conviction beyond the reach of Labour’s current repertoire. It spoke of communities forged out of enduring values widely shared - values which Labour was challenged to embrace not only tactically, but emotionally. It commanded them to stop talking – and start listening.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 May 2017.

Friday 5 May 2017

Telling The Story Of Labour’s List Differently.

All Good: As a result of Little’s recruitment of Jackson, Labour’s ability to attract Maori support has been enhanced. And, thanks to Labour’s List Moderating Committee, New Zealand will soon be appreciating the contributions of Priyanca Radhakrishnan, Jan Tinetti, Willow-Jean Prime and Kiri Allan.
WHERE IS IT WRITTEN that everything the Labour Party does must be interpreted exclusively in terms of dysfunction and disaster? This is, after all, the party that pretty much invented modern New Zealand. Most of the state institutions and services we take for granted: public health and education; welfare payments for the unemployed, the sick, the disabled, solo mums, and the elderly; state houses (what’s left of them) the Waitangi Tribunal; we owe to the New Zealand Labour Party. Not bad for an outfit which, if you pay attention to the pronouncements of the punditocracy, has become a synonym for ‘absolutely bloody useless’.
Certainly, the release of Labour’s Party List for the 2017 General Election has been presented as an omnishambles of no mean proportions. Willie Jackson (No. 21 on Labour’s List) has been presented as something akin to an untamed force of nature – against whose windy objections the House of Labour was very nearly blown over.
By just about every account, the man responsible for this untidy state of affairs is Labour’s Leader, Andrew Little. In the matter of Jackson’s list-ranking, he stands accused of over-promising and under-delivering. Such political ineptitude, his many critics imply, bodes very ill for Labour’s chances of emerging at the head of a new government following the General Election of 23 September.
The other big feature of Labour’s 2017 Party List – the prominent places allotted to women candidates – is, similarly, presented as, if not actually an inappropriate process, then as something quirky and eccentric. The clear impression conveyed is of a predetermined female quota system not being something with which a professional, mainstream political party would willingly have encumbered itself.
The story of Labour’s 2017 Party List could, of course, have been told very differently. In a country where the vital historical contributions of social-democracy were not only recognised but celebrated, Little’s recruitment of Jackson and the deliberate elevation of progressive women candidates would be achievements worthy of hearty applause.
Far from political ineptitude, Little’s eleventh-hour interception of the prominent and influential Maori leader, Willie Jackson, before he could declare his allegiance to Labour’s rivals in the Maori Party, would’ve been presented as an act of inspired political improvisation.
It was no secret that Jackson was considering a run against Labour’s Peeni Henare for the Tamaki Makaurau seat. Nor was it a secret that a great many people in Maoridom expected Jackson to win. Little’s successful appeal to Jackson’s trade union heritage – not to mention his left-wing credentials as a former Alliance MP – not only averted the loss of an important seat, but it also deprived the Maori Party of a person who would have been a powerful champion of their cause.
Did Little take care to sweeten the deal by promising Jackson an above-the-line position on Labour’s Party List? Of course he did. These men were playing politics – not tiddlywinks. Jackson’s ability to make a successful pitch for Labour in the electorally crucial working-class Maori communities of South and West Auckland would hardly have been enhanced by allocating him a list position that blared: “We’re happy to use this guy, but we’re not willing to have him in our caucus!”
But if Little demonstrated considerable skill in negotiating Jackson out of the Maori Party’s clutches, then he showed even more in keeping his promise to place him in a winnable position on Labour’s List without subverting his Party’s determination to have a gender-balanced caucus after the 2017 election.
Labour’s List Moderating Committee was well aware of the deal Little had struck and needed no instruction in the political dangers of making their leader a liar. But, they were equally seized of their constitutional duty to increase the number of progressive women in Parliament. As social-democrats they could do no less – and Little didn’t expect them to.
As a result of Little’s recruitment of Jackson, Labour’s ability to attract Maori support has been enhanced. And, thanks to Labour’s List Moderating Committee, New Zealand will soon be appreciating the contributions of Priyanca Radhakrishnan, Jan Tinetti, Willow-Jean Prime and Kiri Allan. What’s more, if Labour lifts its Party Vote to 35 percent – as it must do to form the next government – then Speaker Trevor Mallard will be asking even more Labour MPs to make their maiden speeches in political circumstances that are neither dysfunctional nor disastrous.
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, 5 May 2017.

Wednesday 3 May 2017

Not Dead Yet: A Response to Rachel Stewart’s Musings on Democracy.

The Falcon And The Falconer: Rachel Stewart today (3/5/17) took very public exception to my critique (reprinted below) of her column in last Wednesday's NZ Herald. Her unrelentingly ad hominem response (which, rather surprisingly for someone of Stewart's politics, mixes racism, sexism and ageism in equal measure) fails to address any of the criticisms levelled at her Death Notice for Democracy. I invite the readers of Bowalley Road to read all three documents and draw their own conclusions. [For those who are interested, here is the link to Professor Jack Vowles critique of Stewart's original column. - C.T.]
I’M A BIG FAN of Rachel Stewart’s writing. Her column in the NZ Herald has quickly become one of those “must-read” contributions to the national conversation. She’s to be admired for her courage, too. Anyone who takes on Big Dairy in this country knows exactly what to expect – and it usually arrives. This morning’s contribution, however, on the subject of democracy, was not one of her best.
Even when undertaken with the best of intentions (as I’m sure this particular column was) dissing democracy is never, ever, a good idea. It stands among the most extraordinary – and fragile – of human achievements. Its cost, in terms of human suffering, has been huge, and most of its victories have been tragically temporary. The historical default setting for state conduct is authoritarian (descending all-too-frequently into brutal tyranny). When it comes to political systems, democracies remain the precious exception – not the rule.
Which is not to say that the practice of democracy is always entirely edifying. It was the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, who quipped that: “Laws are like sausages – it is best not to see them being made.”
That’s a sentiment with which Rachel clearly has some sympathy.
“If society feels less moral reverence to the democracy ideal, who can honestly blame them? Having listened to Clinton and Trump battle it out for a year before the unthinkable became real, I get it.”
Obviously, last year’s US presidential election still rankles. But it is always a mistake to confuse outcome with process. Rachel may have been disappointed that Bernie Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton, but to suggest that the Democratic Party “fiddled with the dials and switches to ensure Bernie Sanders never got the nod” is just plain wrong. Bernie lost because he got fewer votes than Hillary – pure and simple. He made the cardinal error of not competing hard and early in the American South – the very same mistake that cost Hillary the nomination back in 2008.
Rachel is also scornful of the US Electoral College’s contribution to democracy: “Then there’s Trump. Astonishingly elected, but by fewer than three million votes than his rival. Only in America. Land of the seriously deficient electoral system.”
Except, of course, the whole point of the Electoral College is to ensure that the rights of the smaller American states are not completely obliterated by the superior numbers of the larger ones. The United States is, after all, a federation. What benefit would the citizens of Wyoming or Rhode Island derive from belonging to the Union if they were forever being outvoted by the citizens of California, New York and Texas? If Hillary had spent less time in those three states and more time in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania she would now be the second President Clinton.
More worrying still, is Rachel’s evident lack of understanding of her own country’s democratic system.
“Here at home we find we're stuck with the lack-lustre Mr English as Prime Minister, and not of our choosing. He was the pre-ordained prefect left to us by Key when he exited stage right. Yeah, the Nats held an internal mock election but, that’s all it was. The appearance of democracy when you're not really having it.”
Umm, no, the Nats didn’t. Caucus elections frequently fail to come to an actual vote, for the very simple (and obvious) reason that if there’s one thing democratic politicians know how to do really, really well – it’s count. When a candidate realises that he or she doesn’t have the numbers to win, they simply withdraw from the race. Why stand if you’re certain to lose? There’s always next time!
And besides, under our Westminster System of parliamentary democracy, voters NEVER get to elect the Prime Minister. That job goes to the Member of Parliament who convinces the Governor-General that he or she commands a majority of the House of Representatives – the politicians we DO get to elect.
Political parties makes this job a great deal easier and ensure that the person who emerges as Prime Minister gets to remain in office for a sensible period of time. That’s why we have them. And if they often seem rather cautious and overly influenced by special interests, then there’s a very simple way to remedy that deficiency – become a member and turn them into something worth voting for!
Danyl Mclauchlan makes the case for practical, get-down-and-dirty politics much better than I ever could in his excellent review of Max Harris’s “The New Zealand Project”:
“Politics is technocratic because modern societies are complex: many things could be better, but almost everything could be much, much worse, and all the high-minded values in the world are worthless if you can’t keep the lights on. It is compromised because pluralism – the challenge of different groups in society holding different and conflicting but reasonable and valid views – is the central problem in politics, and cannot be fixed by re-educating everyone. Political reform should be cautious, because outcomes are uncertain and overconfidence bias is real, especially among groups of intelligent experts who reinforce each other’s assumptions – a dynamic that often leads to catastrophic failure despite the best of intentions.”
So, Rachel. Is democracy having a rough time at the moment? Yes, it is. But that only reinforces the need to get stuck in and organise it back into robust good health. Do money and backroom wheeling and dealing sully the search for “pro bono publico” – the public good? Of course they do – but not to anything like the extent you might expect. And even when they do get out of hand, and the plutocrats begin menacing the democrats: a corrupt democracy is always – always – better than a virtuous tyranny. (As Carrie Mathison discovers in the final episode of the sixth series of “Homeland”.)
Because, to quote the pithy summation of that old rogue Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 28 April 2017.

Tuesday 2 May 2017

Our Path To The Future Is Blocked By The Past.

And The Truth Shall Set You Free: Moving beyond the thirty-year-old neoliberal order in New Zealand can only be achieved by confronting and disproving its explanations and excuses for the inequality, poverty and powerlessness it perpetuates.

LET’S ASSUME, for the sake of argument, that there’s a change of government in September. Some combination of Labour, the Greens and NZ First (or, perhaps, since Winston’s on a roll, Labour and NZ First alone) cobbles together the necessary parliamentary support to form a government. What will confront them?

The simple answer is: The Past. A government elected on the strength of public misgivings about rampant homelessness and the lack of affordable housing; out-of-control immigration; and a despoiled natural environment; will be presented with thirty-year-old government machinery designed specifically to make effective state intervention as difficult as possible.

Any attempt to deploy this machinery in pursuit of social and economic objectives for which it was not designed is highly likely to end in failure – and, quite possibly, disaster. Arrayed against a government in which only a handful of ministers possess Cabinet experience will be a bristling phalanx of public servants, National Party appointees, corporate and special interest lobbyists and public relations firms – all of whom have a vested interest in preserving the status quo.

Not only will these groups warn the incoming government that their election promises cannot be delivered, but they will make sure that their advice somehow falls into the hands of the news media. The new government will, accordingly, find itself squeezed in a vice. From one side will come the pressure of their officials. From the other, a relentless barrage of media questions demanding to know why they are refusing to heed official advice.

The question to be asked, then, is whether or not Andrew Little and Grant Robertson, Winston Peters and Shane Jones, James Shaw and Julie Anne Genter are sure enough of their convictions, not only about what must be done, but also about how it is to be achieved, to convincingly out-argue both their officials and the news media?

When, after staggering into their minister’s offices under the weight of multiple reports, studies and surveys, the representatives of Treasury, MFAT, MBIE and MPI advise the new progressive government that its programme will wreck the economy and/or bankrupt the nation, how will Labour, NZ First and the Greens respond? Will they be able to offer their own stack of reports, studies and surveys in rebuttal?

The short answer is: “No, they won’t.”

What’s more, there will be a number of ministers in the new government (hopefully a minority!) who wouldn’t rebut their officials even if they could. For these politicians, simply becoming a Cabinet Minister will be enough. The fat ministerial salary; the chauffer-driven limousine; the deferential chorus of “yes, Minister”, “no, Minister”, “of course, Minister!”: these are the only attributes of power that really matter. Give these careerists a rubber stamp and they can be relied upon to use it diligently and without asking awkward questions.

If New Zealand was able to boast a selection of well-funded and professionally-run left-of-centre think tanks: outfits resembling the Washington-based Brookings Institution, or Demos in the UK; then a reforming government would be able to enter office bearing policy weapons of equivalent firepower to those wielded by public and private sector play-makers. Unfortunately, New Zealand lacks a George Soros-type benefactor of progressive organisations. Such effective think-tanks as do exist in this country are wholly owned and operated by the Right.

What, then, is a progressive government to do? How are the Past’s elite regiments of defenders to be disarmed and demobilised?

One possible answer is to offer the voters a three-year inquiry – or, series of inquiries – into how we got ourselves into our current predicament, and how we should set about getting ourselves out of it. Crucially, this mega-inquiry would prioritise the evidence of ordinary New Zealanders. It would solicit especially the stories of those who found themselves at the sharp end of thirty-years-worth of economic and social “reforms”. The inquiry would also make a point of investigating and exposing the prime beneficiaries of those changes. Not only would Kiwis finally get to discover who the winners were, but also how they won, and what sort of institutional arrangements must be kept in place if they’re to go on winning.

What’s being proposed here is a variant on the Truth and Reconciliation exercise undertaken by the Nelson Mandela-led government of post-Apartheid South Africa. There was, of course, no disputing the suffering that black South Africans had endured at the hands of their white racist overlords. New Zealanders, however, lack such a clear-cut cast of villains upon whom to focus a people’s inquiry. For us, it is more a case of discovering whether thirty-years-worth of answers about the way this country should be run have been truthful; and whether the excuses for thirty-years-worth of inaction on accumulating socio-economic injustices are valid.

Having interrogated the Past, such a government would be uniquely well positioned to confront the future.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 May 2017.