Tuesday 31 October 2017

Who Is Craig Renney, And What Is He Advising Grant Robertson To Do?

Back Room Player: Craig Renney, the person behind the person controlling New Zealand’s purse-strings:

VERY FEW NEW ZEALANDERS would have the slightest idea who Doug Andrew was or is. And yet, in his role as an economic advisor to the then Leader of the Opposition, David Lange, Andrew was one of the people who helped prepare the way for “Rogernomics” – the introduction of neoliberalism to New Zealand. Seconded in the early 1980s from Treasury – then a hotbed of “Chicago School” free market economics – Andrew was one of the principal conduits through which the economic ideas animating the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan found their way into the policy-making forums of the New Zealand Labour Party.

Thirty-four years later, another economist, also with a Treasury (and Reserve Bank!) background, is proffering policy advice to another Labour Finance Minister. Craig Renney, identified by Stuff’s Vernon Small as one of the key “back room players” in Jacinda Ardern’s new Labour-NZ First-Green Government, has become Grant Robertson’s “economics adviser”; “the man who did the grunt-work on the Alternative Budget – and disproved National’s claim of a ‘fiscal hole’.”

And, that’s it. To find out any more about the person behind the person controlling New Zealand’s purse-strings, it is necessary to go hunting in the forests of the Internet.

Fortunately, Mr Renney is a pretty easy quarry to track down.

He appears to be a citizen of the United Kingdom, aged in his late 30s, who embarked on his professional career by enrolling in the University of Stirling as a student of Economics and Politics in 1997. After an intriguing stint in Prague (2000-2001) Renney undertook post-graduate study at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, from which he received a Masters in Urban Policy and Sustainable Regeneration, and another, in Public Administration.

Upon leaving university, Renney worked, variously, in local government, the UK Audit Commission, and as a public-sector consultant. In 2012 he emigrated to New Zealand to take up an analyst’s position in the NZ Treasury. Between 2014 and 2016 he was a Senior Policy Adviser in Steven Joyce’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – from whence he was seconded to the Reserve Bank. In January of last year, he took on the job of Senior Economic Advisor in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition.

It’s an impressive CV. But, it tells us virtually nothing about the political leanings of its subject. The north-east of England, where Renney spent his university years, is generally regarded as the British Labour Party’s heartland. So, it is tempting to paint the advisor to our new Minister of Finance as a Geordie with traditional Labour sympathies. Certainly, the work he undertook for local governments in the north-east has the whiff of progressivism about it. On the other hand, Renney’s student years coincide with those of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” Government. So, it’s just as easy to see him as an eager follower of Anthony Gidden’s “Third Way” economic and social project.

The point is, we don’t know anything like enough about Craig Renney, let alone the direction in which he is steering our new Minister of Finance. And, dammit, we should know! Thirty-four years ago, advice was being tended to Roger Douglas that led directly to the radical restructuring of the entire economy and society of New Zealand – and we knew nothing about it!

This is what the New Zealand historian, Hugh Oliver, had to say about what was happening to Roger Douglas all those years ago:

Clearly an enormous shift had taken place in Douglas’s positions on economic policy and it appears that most of this shift occurred in the latter half of 1983. It is also apparent that the shift was towards the kind of free market economics that were espoused by the Treasury. It cannot be proved that the shift in ideas resulted from the influence of Treasury officials; however, it can be shown that it coincided in time with the presence in the Opposition Leader’s Office of Doug Andrew, a Treasury adviser with whom Douglas developed close links … During his time with the Labour Opposition Andrew produced papers on a range of economic policy topics and debated with existing opinions in the Caucus Economic Committee. Andrew argued for lower levels of trade protection as the key economic policy instrument. He argued for floating the currency as a matter of course.

Similarly, it is possible to show that Labour’s adoption of its radically self-limiting “Budget Responsibility Rules” coincided in time with the presence in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office of an economic adviser from the UK called Craig Renney. The same Craig Renney identified by Vernon Small as the person who did the “grunt work” on Labour’s Alternative Budget.

But what, exactly, does that mean? Is Craig merely putting flesh on the bones of Grant’s, and the Labour Policy Council’s, ideas? Or, are Grant and Labour merely repeating ideas and policy positions fed to them by Craig? And, if it’s the latter, then what are the ideas and policies our new government is being asked to swallow?

It is a question that has always intrigued me: “Who is more powerful? The person with a loaded rifle? Or the person who supplies the ammunition, places the rifle in another’s hands – and tells them who to shoot?”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 31 October 2017.

Passing The TPP Test.

Test Mission: The way in which Prime Minister Ardern and Trade Minister Parker conduct themselves at the TPP-11 discussions in Danang, Vietnam, will have a major bearing on how the new Labour-NZ First-Green Government is perceived by its supporters. To sign the TPP, without first fixing it, would be to "Fail" the first major test of the Coalition's political resolve.

IN JUST NINE DAYS, Prime Minister Ardern, and her Trade Minister, David Parker, will be in Vietnam. At a side-bar gathering to the Apec Conference that summons them, they will meet with the remaining 11 signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). At that gathering, the New Zealand government will attempt to negotiate a number of minor modifications to the agreement.

Essentially, the Prime Minister and Trade Minister will be asserting their country’s right to prevent foreign speculators from purchasing urban property and farmland within its borders. A right the previous National government, for reasons it never adequately explained, failed to assert. A right reserved by just about every other signatory to the TPP agreement.

The Prime Minister and Trade Minister will also assert New Zealand’s right to renegotiate its predecessors’ acceptance of the Investor/State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) procedures of the TPP. These are the procedures which grant foreign corporations the power to sue the New Zealand Government for legislating in what it believes to be the best interests of its own people. Such litigation will take place in corporate-controlled tribunals, without reference to the New Zealand judiciary. Once again, the previous National government’s failure to defend this, the most fundamental duty of any sovereign state, awaits a convincing explanation.

Presented in this fashion, the mission of the Prime Minister and Trade Minister is not only an important, but also a necessary, act of remediation. In its present form, the TPP should never have been signed by the former National Government. Accordingly, any failure on the part of the remaining 11 signatories to accede to the Labour-NZ First-Green Government’s entirely reasonable requests for minor, country-specific, modifications (President Donald Trump has already pulled the United States out of what he dismissed as “a very bad deal”) should trigger New Zealand’s immediate withdrawal from the agreement.

What a pity, then, that the Prime Minister’s and Trade Minister’s mission is not being presented in this fashion. Ms Ardern and Mr Parker will depart for Danang shrouded in the same obfuscating clouds of free-trade rhetoric that have prevented the New Zealand public from ever being vouchsafed a clear understanding of the TPP agreement.

Rather than allowing an open and informed debate on the pros and cons of the TPP, the free-trade lobby is presenting Ms Ardern’s trip to Apec as a crucial test of her political and economic maturity. Any outcome other than New Zealand’s unequivocal ratification of TPP-11 will be publicly represented as a significant failure.

Even if the Prime Minister and Trade Minister manage to secure their desired modifications to the TPP text, the free-trade fanatics will still insist that the Labour-NZ First-Green Government has fallen at its first hurdle. By displaying hostility to globalism in general, and foreign investment in particular, the new government will be accused of endangering New Zealand’s economic security.

As if that wasn’t reason enough for Ms Ardern and Mr Parker to feel nervous, the opponents of an unmodified TPP are as likely to turn her trip to Vietnam into a critical test of her government’s intentions as its supporters.

The fight to turn Labour away from what its “free-trade-right-or-wrong” position under Helen Clark has been as gruelling as it was long. For those engaged in this fight, persuading the Labour caucus to take a firm position on the critical question of national sovereignty constituted a pivotal victory. Without it, Labour’s relationships with NZ First and the Green Party would have come under enormous strain. Indeed, had Labour not refused to sign-on to the TPP, as negotiated by the National Government, it is difficult to see the formation of a Labour-NZ First-Green government ever becoming a realistic possibility.

Labour’s opposition to TPP was also an important factor in deescalating the vociferous protest movement which reached its crescendo in February 2016. Had all the parties committed to changing the government not been more-or-less on the same page in relation to the inadequacy of the National Party’s TPP, it is debateable whether or not the massive protest demonstrations it was beginning to inspire would have proved so easy to wind down.

To the New Zealanders who feared that TPP would bring with it a permanent loss of their nation’s sovereignty, the following words from Labour were a source of considerable reassurance:

“The TPPA will have ramifications for generations of New Zealanders. For their sake, we should not so lightly enter into an agreement which may exacerbate long-term challenges for our economy, workforce, and society.”

The votes that made the Labour-NZ First-Green government possible were inspired by many factors. That the three parties’ common opposition to the TPP was one of then cannot be disputed.

As Ms Ardern and Mr Parker wing their way to Vietnam, they should consider very carefully whose test of free-trade principles they most wish to pass.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 October 2017.

Saturday 28 October 2017

Socialism and Populism: The Party is Just Beginning!

Let's Do This! Back here in God’s Own Country, though, I’ll go on looking at the clips of Prime Minister Ardern being welcomed back from Government House by thousands of delighted New Zealanders. I’ll listen again, as she promises to lead “a government of kindness”, and I’ll wish her – and the 72-year-old patriot who gave progressive New Zealand the votes it needed to govern – all the success that “socialism and populism” can bring.

ZACH CASTLES is sitting, gutted, in a café overlooking the Thames. The former “National ministerial adviser”, no longer having any National ministers to advise, has clearly relocated himself to a more promising political marketplace. Even so, our brave young capitalist has taken the time to share his thoughts with The Spinoff. (Who else!) And, oh, comrades, what thoughts they are!

He begins by imploring National to defend capitalism from “the coalition of socialists and populists” who are attempting (apparently Jacinda hasn’t quite got the hang of this yet) to unleash class war across New Zealand’s green and pleasant land. Poor Zach, it’s the sheer ingratitude of the Left that upsets him the most. Don’t these ingrates realise that “nearly one billion people over the last 20 years [have] been lifted out of poverty because of it.”

Really, Zach? The dragooning of millions of subsistence farmers and their children into the factories, warehouses and shops of China, India and Brazil. The super-exploitation perpetrated by the burgeoning bourgeoisie of these countries. The impossible working conditions. The relentless speed-ups. The graft and corruption upon which so much of their “economic growth” depends. The unbelievable environmental despoliation left in its wake. This is what you call being “lifted out of poverty”? This is what you are asking National to defend?

It sure is. In fact, according to Zach: “the very ‘neoliberalism’ the incoming prime minister criticises, and yet refuses to define [Oh, for God’s sake, just look it up on Wikipedia, man!] has helped many Kiwis out of a life of welfare dependence and into the dignity of a job.”

Ah, but there’s a big difference, isn’t there, Zach, between the sort of job you’re heading for in London and the jobs which beneficiaries are forced to accept, or face being sanctioned into abject poverty. Pumping gas for the minimum wage. Or being paid $17.00 an hour to stand all day behind a till while your feet swell and your calves cramp-up. That’s not the sort of job you’re about to take up – is it Zach? And those are most certainly not the sort of wages you’re anticipating from whatever right-wing political party or think-tank you’re about to be snapped-up by. It just wouldn’t be dignified. Not for a man of your talents. Would it Zach?

But, then, Zach isn’t accustomed to thinking about such matters. If he was, then he simply couldn’t write a paragraph like this:

“The return of the left to government now means everything that makes New Zealand such a role model, at a time of supposed global despair, now hangs in the balance. We were meant to be the poster child for globalism, free trade and ambition; now we are being set up as the test flight for a return to the 1970s. A world Jacinda Ardern’s own voters have never actually known.”

“Never actually known”? Really, Zach? I’m well aware that most Kiwis over 55 voted for your lot, but most is not the same thing as all. (Just as receiving most of the votes cast is not the same as receiving a majority of the votes cast!) I was very much alive and kicking in the 1970s, and let me tell you, those were great years to be young.

There were jobs for everyone – at good, union-negotiated, wages. The state loaned young couples money, at 3 percent interest, to buy their own home. All mothers received a generous Family Benefit. Tertiary education was as close to free as makes no difference. Ah, Zach, the manifold evils of socialism and populism!

Zach claims the National Party subscribes to the ideas of Edmund Burke, but this attempt to drape the clothing of a respectable political philosophy over National’s naked worship of power, simply will not wash. Burke understood the critical importance of tradition, and the wisdom it was able to impart to generations raised in its embrace. But National has never been a respecter of tradition – at least not of the core New Zealand traditions of fairness and decency. Indeed, the party was founded with the express purpose of thwarting the organised political expression of fairness and decency.

Presumably, that is why Zach can hail the “radicalism” of Ruth Richardson; and why he speaks glowingly of his party’s role in “leading transformative social and economic change”. Transformative, eh? Well, yes, as someone who remembers a New Zealand in which everyone worked, was comfortably housed, and could look forward with confidence to their children living in a happier more prosperous world than the one in which they’d been raised, I’d have to say that “transformation” is exactly the right word. What I’m much less certain about, however, is whether Kiwis sleeping in cars, while their children go hungry, was the change most New Zealanders were looking for.

So, you go on looking out over the Thames, Zach. And, by all means, urge your National Party comrades to seize this wonderful opportunity to “make capitalism cool again”. Back here in God’s Own Country, though, I’ll go on looking at the clips of Prime Minister Ardern being welcomed back from Government House by thousands of delighted New Zealanders. I’ll listen again, as she promises to lead “a government of kindness”, and I’ll wish her – and the 72-year-old patriot who gave progressive New Zealand the votes it needed to govern – all the success that “socialism and populism” can bring.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 28 October 2017.

Friday 27 October 2017

Can Jacinda Ride “Hirschman’s Cycle” Without Falling Off?

Good Will Receiving: If New Zealanders are in a mood to promote the public good, then there is every chance that the Ardern-led government will succeed. If they are more concerned with promoting their own, private, welfare, then the resistance to the new government’s redistributive ambitions is likely to be very fierce indeed.

WILL THIS NEW GOVERNMENT SUCCEED? Across the political spectrum, that is the question. Will Jacinda Ardern and her NZ First and Green Party allies find their fellow New Zealanders broadly accommodating of, or fiercely resistant to, her government of change?

If New Zealanders are in a mood to promote the public good, then there is every chance that the Ardern-led government will succeed. If they are more concerned with promoting their own, private, welfare, then the resistance to the new government’s redistributive ambitions is likely to be very fierce indeed.

A sociologist might attempt an answer to this question by asking where New Zealand currently stands in the “Hirschman Cycle”.

Named after the much-admired American sociologist, Albert Hirschman, the Cycle describes those recurring historical transitions from periods in which society is predominantly concerned with maximising private consumption and individual well-being; to periods characterised by a general willingness to accommodate public programmes aimed at uplifting those in need and dedicated to reaffirming the nation’s core values and aspirations.

The period of US history most proximate to Hirschman’s research was the period known as “The Great Society”. After nearly two decades of rapidly rising incomes and growing affluence, Americans entered the 1960s more willing to embrace public policies of uplift and altruism than at any time since the “New Deal” of the 1930s.

The architect of The Great Society, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, attempted to sketch out his administration’s response to inequality – especially racial inequality – in his famous “To Fulfil These Rights” speech to Howard University’s commencement class on 4 June 1965:

“There is no single easy answer to all of these problems”, the President told his audience of mostly African-American students. “Jobs are part of the answer. They bring the income which permits a man to provide for his family. Decent homes in decent surroundings and a chance to learn – an equal chance to learn – are part of the answer. Welfare and social programs better designed to hold families together are part of the answer. Care for the sick is part of the answer. An understanding heart by all Americans is another big part of the answer. And to all of these fronts – and a dozen more – I will dedicate the expanding efforts of the Johnson administration.”

This, the high-water mark of social-democratic liberalism in the United States, is made even more luminous by the darkness currently enveloping Trump’s America. Born out of one of V.O. Key’s, “permissive” political consensuses, Johnson’s “Great Society” would not survive the public’s rapidly declining faith in Washington-based solutions. The race-riots of the mid-60s, a steadily escalating war in Vietnam, and the fast-deteriorating US domestic economy soon ushered America into the selfish phase of Hirschman’s Cycle.

The question Jacinda and her colleagues have to ask themselves, therefore, is whether or not such a “permissive” political consensus exists in New Zealand. Is her “administration” entering office at a point in the Hirschman Cycle roughly analogous to where the US was when President Johnson was inaugurated in January 1965?

The answer, sadly, is: “No.” Far from being swept into office on an historic landslide, Jacinda’s victory is both electorally narrow and politically controversial. If a US precedent is being sought, it isn’t to be found in the Johnson Administration, but in the politically and economically fraught administration of President Jimmy Carter.

Massive problems have grown up during the nine-year period of National Party rule. Escalating social inequality has fuelled poverty and homelessness: leading to rising levels of mental illness, suicide, violent crime and a record number of incarcerated citizens. The social and economic climate is, therefore, very different to that which prevailed when Norman Kirk was swept to victory in the golden year of 1972.

Like the Johnson Administration, the Kirk Government inherited a “permissive” political consensus of unprecedented scope. Jacinda’s political environment, by contrast, has all the room for manoeuvre of Jimmy Carter’s and Helen Clark’s. Hirschman’s Cycle-wise, New Zealand remains deeply mired in its individualistic/private consumption phase. Moreover, as Winston Peters soberly observed, there is little prospect of the country enjoying, anytime soon, the expansive economic and social conditions capable of persuading an electorate to embrace a government committed to the public good.

And yet, out-of-phase though New Zealand may be, Hirschman Cycle-wise, Jacinda and the public good have no choice but to deliver each other.

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 October 2017.

Thursday 26 October 2017

Strategies Of Right-Wing Resistance: It CAN Happen Here.

Mass Resistance To A Left-Wing Government: Women bang pots and pans in protest at the shortages arising out of the right-wing strategies of resistance directed against the left-wing government of Chilean President Salvador Allende 1970-73.

CAN WE REALLY DO THIS? As the euphoria of victory wears off, and the sheer enormity of the challenge confronting progressive New Zealand reveals itself, it would be foolish not to feel just a little bit daunted. We face an economic system without the slightest idea how to solve the problems created by its discredited policies and practices. Nevertheless, the Neoliberal Establishment remains very strong, and just as soon as it settles upon an effective strategy of resistance, the fightback will begin.

Two principle lines of attack present themselves. The first, sketched out in this morning’s NZ Herald editorial, is to paint the new Labour-led coalition as little more than a pink-tinted continuation of Bill English’s National Government.

The Herald’s leader-writer dismisses any notion that the new regime represents some sort of sharp break with Neoliberalism. He is at pains to point out that all the key elements of the “Open Economy” remain firmly entrenched. All we are hearing from Labour, he says, is the rhetoric of change. But, even the most cursory examination of the Labour-NZ First-Green Government’s priorities, argues the Herald’s leader-writer, reveals them to be little changed from those of the Clark-Cullen years: priorities to which both John Key and Bill English were more than happy to subscribe for 9 years.

This is a subtle strategy, directed principally at the new government’s most ideologically-committed supporters. Its purpose is to demoralise, antagonise, and inflame suspicion. At its heart stands the figure of Grant Robertson: Finance Minister and close friend of Prime Minister Ardern. As the prime-mover of the Labour-Greens’ self-limiting “Budget Responsibility Rules”, Robertson has already positioned himself as New Zealand Capitalism’s first line of defence against left-wing fiscal recklessness. By praising Robertson’s political moderation and economic orthodoxy, the Herald’s mouthpiece intends to divide and conquer the Neoliberal Establishment’s most coherent progressive critics.

The most obvious deficiency with this “demoralisation” strategy is that it leaves the Opposition with very little room in which to manoeuvre politically. If the Labour-NZ First-Green Government is really just a slightly pinker version of its pale-blue predecessor, then how can National attack it with any credibility – or success? To raise a political storm violent enough to reclaim the Treasury Benches requires the red-hot passion of the fanatic – not the lofty sneers of the neoliberal intellectual who recognises kindred economic spirits when he sees them.

That Richard Prebble recognised this in an instant is unsurprising. Few living New Zealand politicians can claim a better rapport with the dark animal spirits needed to rouse this country’s right-wing voters. It was Prebble who recognised the futility of Act attempting to sell pure free-market policies to an electorate that wasn’t buying them. It was only when he identified the party with law and order, crime and punishment, environmental scepticism, and the deep anti-Maori prejudices of rural and provincial New Zealand that Act was able to lift itself up and over the 5 percent MMP threshold. Like Rob Muldoon before him, Prebble understands that to make right-wing Kiwis angry enough to destroy the Left, you first have to frighten them out of their wits.

Hence Prebble’s outrageous claim that Winston Peters is guilty of mounting a coup d’etat against Kiwi democracy. It is not his purpose, and neither, I suspect, does he believe it should be National’s, to convince New Zealanders that they have nothing to fear from what, in all likelihood, will prove to be a pretty mild and responsible Labour-led Government. His aim, and almost certainly the aim of most of the National Party caucus (and their surrogates in the mainstream news media) is to splash as much red paint over Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters and James Shaw as is humanly possible.

The Labour-NZ First-Green Government will be presented by these hard-line rightists as an illegitimate and dangerously anti-capitalist regime. Its anti-business and anti-farming policies, they will argue, are not only incompatible with genuine Kiwi democracy, but also constitute a direct attack on the sanctity of private property. As such, it will not be enough to merely oppose this far-left government; it will be necessary to fight it head-on.

Interviewed on RNZ’s “morning Report” this morning, Ken Shirley, CEO of the Road Transport Forum (and former right-wing comrade-in-arms with Richard Prebble and Roger Douglas in both the Labour and Act parties) reminded listeners of the massive truck-owners protest in the dying days of Helen Clark’s government. If Jacinda’s government went ahead with its plans to use the Road User Charges collected from the RTF’s members for purposes other than the maintenance and construction of roads, then similar protests could be expected.

Prior to the coup that toppled the left-wing “Popular Unity” government of Salvador Allende in 1973, the country’s economy had been made to “scream” by a nationwide strike organised by the right-wing truckers’ union and supported by the bosses of Chile’s biggest trucking companies. The ensuing shortages brought thousands of angry, middle- and working-class women onto the streets, banging their pots and pans in protest. The right-wing newspapers maintained a relentless barrage of criticism against the “anti-democratic” and “incompetent” government of Chile’s self-proclaimed Marxist president. Calls for Allende’s forcible removal grew louder and more frequent until, on 11 September 1973, General Pinochet was obliged to overthrow the “communist dictator”.

A very similar project of economic destabilisation and political mobilisation was set in train by the right-wing opponents of the left-wing Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, in 2002.

As a strategy of right-wing resistance, it has proved successful in a distressingly large number of countries. Progressive New Zealanders would be most unwise to believe, even for a moment, that it cannot happen here.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 26 October 2017.

Unfriendly Capitalism's Bodyguard Of "Expert Lies".

Making Neoliberalism's Bodyguard Of "Expert Lies" Redundant: That New Zealand was experiencing its very own “Brexit” moment became clear when Winston Peters declared that he and his party had rejected the option of facilitating a “modified status quo” with the National Party, in favour of empowering “real change” with Labour and the Greens.

CRUCIAL TO THE SUCCESS of the “Unfriendly Capitalism” indicted by Winston Peters has been its stalwart bodyguard of “expert lies”. Ever since 1984, when its unfriendliness began gathering pace, a seemingly endless procession of “experts” has been summoned to represent this new “unfriendly” capitalism’s cruelty as kindness. Some of these so-called “experts” were paid for by the big corporations. Others were commissioned by government agencies to prepare the way for changes destined to place an ever-increasing number of New Zealanders at the mercy of private economic power.

None of the core institutions of the New Zealand State were exempted from this “restructuring” process. Health, education, social welfare, the trade union movement, the universities, local government: all fell victim to the “gleichschaltung” (co-ordination) demanded by an increasingly foe-like capitalist system. And, in each case, these government “reforms” were presented to the public as the only rational response to what was, after all, “expert” opinion.

In a tiny number of cases, the tendered “expert advice” was so extreme that the government of the day simply balked at introducing reforms that seemed so patently politically unsaleable. For the most part, however, the experts’ findings were accepted and implemented.

That these arguments, for what can only be described as dramatic and socially-wrenching change, were received uncritically, and then promoted enthusiastically, by the news media was a crucial factor in their success. It encouraged the view that economic management had become such a complex business that “ordinary people” could not, realistically, be expected to play any useful role in the formulation of economic policy.

It required the system-threatening shock of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 to set off a world-wide revolt against what we now call “neoliberal” economic orthodoxy – and the “experts” who have for so long expounded and defended its “principles”.

This revolt has come late to New Zealand because, through the worst years of the Global Financial Crisis, the Chinese economy’s absorption of so many of this country’s exports shielded it from the high levels of unemployment and the swingeing austerity programmes which have unsettled so many larger western nations.

On 20 October 2017, however, the NZ First leader, Winston Peters, from the stage of the Beehive Theatrette, told New Zealand that:

“Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe. And they are not all wrong. That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its responsible – its human face. That perception has influenced our negotiations.”

In that moment, it was clear that the revolt against neoliberal economic orthodoxy and the lies of its “experts” had finally reached New Zealand’s shores. That, in his declaration for a Labour-NZ First-Green Government, New Zealand was experiencing its very own “Brexit” moment, would become even clearer when Mr Peters declared that he and his party had rejected the option of a “modified status quo” in favour of “real change”.

Just how much “real change” Jacinda Ardern’s government is willing to countenance will be revealed in the people she chooses to advise her.

At the APEC summit in Vietnam in early November, where she is hoping to persuade the remaining 11 signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership to allow New Zealand to renegotiate the Investor State Dispute Settlement provisions of the agreement, who will Jacinda include among her expert advisers? A Prime Minister whose ambitions extended no further than slightly modifying the status quo would limit her APEC entourage to all the usual MFAT and private sector suspects. A Prime Minister determined to signal her commitment to “real change”, however, would invite Professor Jane Kelsey to join her in Danang.

A “Real Change” Government, determined to reverse the draconian policies adopted by a Ministry of Social development advised by neoliberal “experts”, would call upon the experience and expertise of Sue Bradford and Metiria Turei. Those who find themselves astonished and/or offended by the thought of two such bitter opponents of this country’s actuarially inspired and excessively punitive welfare system being asked to advise Jacinda’s government on its root-and-branch reform should, perhaps, pause and consider just how radical (albeit from the opposite end of the political spectrum) was the “expert” advice that created it.

In his review of four recent books addressing the worldwide “rage against the elites”, Professor Helmut K. Anheier, of Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance, writes:

“It is well within elites’ power to make decisions that benefit all of society, rather than narrow interests. Elites have surely failed in this regard over the last quarter-century, but they need not continue to fail in the future.”

But, is it reasonable to expect “real change” advice from the same neoliberal elites whose ideologically-driven recommendations created the very problems our new government is pledged to solve?

Capitalism with a “human face” has no need of a bodyguard.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 October 2017.

Sunday 22 October 2017

Dark Transactions: Winston Peters' Decision To “Go Left” Has Already Set His Enemies In Motion.

Navigator Of The Dark Side: Winston Peters, the man who broke the Winebox Scandal; wheeled and dealed with the big fishing companies; wined and dined the princes of New Zealand’s bloodstock industry; and took private calls on secluded New Zealand beaches from the US Secretary of State; knows better than just about any other New Zealander how the business of this world gets done.

IN ALL ECONOMIES, and in every political system, there are roped-off areas of shadow and hidden places swathed in deliberate darkness. In these light-starved locations all kinds of disreputable economic and political transactions take place.

If there’s one politician in New Zealand who is familiar, to the point of intimacy, with this unmapped and unacknowledged territory, it’s Winston Peters. The man who broke the Winebox Scandal; wheeled and dealed with the big fishing companies; wined and dined the princes of New Zealand’s bloodstock industry; and took private calls on secluded New Zealand beaches from the US Secretary of State; knows better than just about any other New Zealander how the business of this world gets done.

That Peters, with bitter personal experience of just how dark our politics can get, nevertheless persuaded NZ First to throw in its lot with Labour and the Greens, is astonishing. He must have known that the formation of a government unwilling to settle for “a modified status quo” but determined to usher in “real change”, would instantly mobilise all the initiators and beneficiaries of New Zealand’s neoliberal revolution against him.

Like Franklin Roosevelt before him, however, Peters appeared not to fear the enmity of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful individuals and institutions, but to welcome it. Without the slightest hesitation, he lifted up the banner of resistance to the red-in-tooth-and-claw Capitalism that, since 1984, New Zealanders have grown to fear and detest:

“Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe. And they are not all wrong. That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its responsible – its human face. That perception has influenced our negotiations.”

Such an open declaration of war against the neoliberal establishment was bound to draw an equally belligerent response. And who better to lead the charge than one of the prime movers of the neoliberal revolution, Richard Prebble. Never one to mince words, Prebble began his opinion piece to the NZ Herald with the following, extraordinary, accusation:

“Let’s not beat about the bush: There has been a coup.

“The political scientists can tell us it’s legal but the fact remains - it is undemocratic. For the first time in our history who governs us is not the result of an election but the decision of one man.”

That there is not a word of truth in any of this (as Prebble, an experienced lawyer and politician must surely realise) matters much less than the deep emotional impression such an inflammatory charge is likely to make on all those New Zealanders bitterly disappointed to see the National Party denied the parliamentary majority it needed to remain in government.

What Prebble is setting up here is a politico-historical narrative alarmingly akin to the Dolchstosslegende – the “stab-in-the-back” legend concocted by far-right German nationalists to explain the Fatherland’s defeat in World War I. According to this “Big Lie”, the German army wasn’t defeated on the field of battle, but by the treachery of the “November Criminals” – Jews and Socialists – who signed, first, the armistice that ended the war, and then, the hated Treaty of Versailles, which imposed a Carthaginian peace on the German nation.

Prebble is nothing if not inventive – embellishing his delegitimising narrative with a vivid political metaphor drawn from Japanese history:

“New Zealand is now a Shogunate. In Japan the Emperor had the title and the Shogun had all the power.

“Jacinda has Premier House and Shogun Peters sets the policies.”

This is highly sophisticated political writing. Not only is Peters cast as the new government’s eminence grise, the power behind the throne, but the status of Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s new Prime Minister, is also reduced to that of a naïve puppet. It is “Shogun Peters” who gets to wield the real power.

As if Prebble’s historical musings weren’t insulting enough in themselves, they are heavy with an additional, if unspoken, menace. Those familiar with modern Japanese history know that in 1868 the Shogunate was overthrown by forces determined to restore the power of the Emperor by making him Japan’s ruler in fact as well as in name. In other words, although Peters is in no way guilty of staging a coup, Prebble, himself, is implying that should the new Labour-NZ First-Green Government be successful in installing an anti-neoliberal “shogunate”, a restorative coup-d’etat may be in order.

Prebble is quite explicit about how such coup might begin:

“I predict bureaucratic opposition to this government will be significant. It will start leaking from day one. Everyone knows this coalition of losers has no mandate to implement Winston Peters’ interventionist policies.”

None of this will come as any surprise to Peters. He has had to weather similar attacks many times before in his political career. To Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw, however, such reckless mendacity is likely to be received with a mixture of alarm and dismay. Both leaders are going to need Peters hard-won knowledge of how New Zealand’s “Deep State” operates if they are to mount an effective defence against the Neoliberal Establishment’s dark transactions.

And not only Peters’ protection will be needed. Every progressive New Zealander who understands the magnitude of the fight which Peters’, Ardern’s and Shaw’s decision to pursue “real change” has made inevitable, must be prepared to come to the aid of the three parties – Labour, NZ First and the Greens – which have committed themselves to fulfilling the hopes and dreams of the 50.4 percent of the New Zealand electorate who voted for them.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 21 October 2017.

Friday 20 October 2017

Sounds Good Doesn't It?

Now, all of us, every progressive New Zealander, must help Jacinda and her Labour-NZ First-Green Government to do this!

Image courtesy of Young Labour.

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

We Have A New Progressive Government!

So tonight I'm going to party like it's 1999!

Video Courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Thursday 19 October 2017

Winston’s Dream Can Only Be Realised By Putting New Zealand Second.

Zealandia Redux? What Winston Peters and his party now have to decide, is whether transforming their homeland into an economic, political and cultural colony of the People’s Republic of China was what they meant when they promised to put New Zealand first.

WHAT DOES NZ FIRST WANT? More than anything else, NZ First and its leader, Winston Peters, would like to reconstruct the New Zealand economy of the 1950s and 60s. These were years of extraordinary economic and social progress, during which more and more New Zealanders were lifted into relative affluence. The country’s infrastructure (especially its hydro-electric energy generation capacity) was similarly enhanced. NZ First’s desire to replicate this success is, therefore, commendable. But, is it possible? In a world so very different from the one that emerged from World War II, is it reasonable to suppose that the remedies of ‘Then’ are applicable – or even available – ‘Now’?

At the end of World War II the United States of America stood completely unchallenged: militarily, economically and culturally it was without peer. The American mainland remained untouched by the fascist enemy; its factories were geared to levels of production without parallel in human history; and the sophistication of its science, which had bequeathed to the world both cheap antibiotics and the atomic bomb, promised a future of unbounded promise – and unprecedented peril.

Accounting for half the world’s production and nearly two-thirds of its wealth, the United States nevertheless faced a problem. If the rest of humanity was not to slide into the most wretched poverty and, once again, fall prey to the purveyors of extreme political ideologies, then it would have to be given the wherewithal to lift itself up into prosperity. Except that, when the Americans spoke of humanity, they were not really thinking of the human-beings who lived in the Soviet Union, or civil-war-ravaged China, or in the vast continent of Africa. It was in the rehabilitation of the peoples of Europe, South America and Australasia that the USA was most interested.

New Zealand, also materially unscathed by the ravages of war, was ideally positioned to benefit from the Americans’ self-interested altruism. The United Kingdom constituted an insatiable market for this country’s agricultural products, and the United States made sure its enfeebled British ally received sufficient cash to go on buying (among other things) all the butter, cheese, lamb and wool New Zealand could send it. It was an arrangement which very quickly transformed New Zealand into one of the wealthiest nations on earth.

Sixty-five years on from the fat 1950s, however, the world is a very different place. Europe and Japan rebuilt themselves, and the USA’s effortless hegemony became harder and harder to sustain. In lifting its own people, and much of the rest of the world, out of poverty, American capitalism had facilitated the rise of powerful working-classes in all the major Western nation-states. They had created increasingly self-conscious and militant labour movements which, if not tamed, would soon be in a position to transition their societies out of capitalism and into a new, post-capitalist, form of economic and social organisation.

The world currently inhabited by New Zealanders reflects the self-defensive policies set in motion by the ruling classes of the leading capitalist nations in the mid-to-late 1970s – the period of Capitalism’s maximum danger. Perhaps the most important of these policies involved the integration of the populations of the Soviet Union and China into what was intended to become, as soon as they were brought safely under its influence, a truly global capitalist economy. Against such a massive expansion in the supply of cheap labour, the working-classes of the West stood no chance. The golden age of post-war social-democracy – the age which Winston Peters and NZ First would so like to re-create – was at an end.

Or was it? The Chinese Communist Party’s embrace of “Socialism – with Chinese  characteristics” (a.k.a State Capitalism) following the death of Mao Zedong, not only assisted China’s integration into the global capitalist economy, but unleashed pent-up forces of commercial dynamism which, in the space of just 40 years, transformed China into an economic behemoth. It is now China which offers New Zealand an insatiable market for its agricultural products. Indeed, so constant is Chinese demand for New Zealand exports that the same level of state-sponsored economic and social uplift which characterised this country in the 1950s and 60s is, once again, becoming a possibility. But only under Chinese hegemony.

What Winston Peters and his party now have to decide, is whether transforming their homeland into an economic, political and cultural colony of the People’s Republic of China was what they meant when they promised to put New Zealand first.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 19 October 2017.

Wednesday 18 October 2017

5 Percent Of The Population, 100 Percent Of The Power.

The Special Relationship: Uncle Sam and Britannia, weapons in hand and accompanied by their heraldic national beasts, stand atop the world. The image neatly captures the racial assumptions of global power, but it errs in its inclusion of the feminine. It is the 5 percent of the human population that is White and Male who wield 100 percent of the power-that-matters on Planet Earth.

HOW DOES A TINY MINORITY control an overwhelming majority? As a young history student, it was a question that continued to intrigue me.

How, for example, did Great Britain, a nation of less than 15 million in 1850, manage to control the more than 190 million Indians? More specifically, how was a ridiculously small occupying force of British businessmen, bureaucrats and soldiers able to subordinate the interests of the entire Indian subcontinent to those of their British homeland?

The answer, it emerged, was that, at its heart, the whole imperial enterprise was nothing more than a gigantic bluff. The British ruled India for more than a century because they could. Or, more precisely, because the Indian people believed they could. The moment Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian National Congress persuaded them to stop believing in the imperial might of the British Raj, its days were numbered.

With imperialism (at least of the pith helmet variety) safely interred in history’s graveyard, it was tempting to believe that the whole notion of a tiny minority controlling all the peoples of the planet had been buried with it. New Zealanders still look back with pride at the role their country played in the abolition of minority rule in Apartheid South Africa.

These were, as Paul Simon told us in his 1986 album Graceland, “the days of miracles and wonders”, and, to many, the fall of Soviet Communism and the triumphant progress of democracy across so much of the Earth, seemed the most wondrous miracle of them all.

So far, so smug: so safely and conventionally liberal.

And then, just the other day, my attention was drawn to the existence of a tiny minority whose power exceeds that of all the nineteenth century imperialists combined. In spite of the fact that they comprise just five percent of the world’s population, White Males control the planet.

I was stunned. In fact, I was in denial. Could White Males – the minority among whom I must include myself – truly represent such a tiny fraction of global humanity? I would have to check.

Not such an easy thing to do.

Since the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, the entire concept of “race” – of “whiteness” and “blackness”, “Übermensch” (Supermen) and “Untermensch” (Subhuman) – has been declared dangerously unscientific and politically disreputable. As a consequence, the agencies of the United Nations neither collect, nor publish, data on the “racial” composition of the human family.

In order to pursue this question further, therefore, it was necessary to descend into the underworld of what is today referred to, euphemistically, as the “Alt-Right”. For the advocates of “White Supremacy”, the ratio of “Caucasians” (Whites) to the rest of humanity is a very important statistic indeed.

The world of the White Supremacist is not a nice place to visit. It is enveloped in a thick and choking atmosphere of unabashed racism. The fetishization of ethnicity that constituted not only the essence of Nazism, but also of the ideology of “Scientific Racism” (which, alongside the imperialist era it did so much to justify, reached its apogee at the turn of the nineteenth century) certainly did not die with Hitler. On the Internet it is alive and kicking.

From the Georgia-based National Policy Institute (the least sulphurous of the American websites visited) I learned that the “White Race”, which constituted 35 percent of humankind in 1900, had, by 1950, shrunk to just under 28 percent, and was projected to collapse to just 10 percent of the global population by 2060. The present-day figure, calculated at 6-8 percent by the only slightly more respectable CIA World Fact Book, makes the NPI’s projection look wildly optimistic.

In hard numbers, the total of “White” human-beings is generally agreed, by White Supremacists, to be 750 million. With the current human population estimated at 7.5 billion, the “White Race” thus tops-out at 10 percent of the total. Divide that figure by two, and “White Males” are, indeed, representative of exactly one twentieth of the human species.

Such a tiny number, and yet, in every sphere: be it the global financial system; the global media; or, the ability to project decisive military force anywhere on the planet; the power lies preponderantly, and indisputably, in the hands of White Males.

So, how does Donald Trump’s and Harvey Weinstein’s tiny sliver of humanity get away with it? Because we can. Because the rest of humanity lets us.

“You will not replace us!”, chanted the White Supremacists marching through Charlottesville on 11 August 2017.

Yes, my brothers, they will – just as soon as they find their Gandhi.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 October 2017.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

The Maker Of “Men” – Masculinity and its Origins

The God Above: It is in the indistinct depths of prehistory that the first and most profound revolution in human affairs; the overthrow of the servants of the Earth Mother, by the worshippers of the Sky Father; took place. At the heart of this masculinist revolt lay a deep-seated fear and resentment of all things female – and a burning desire to master them.

WHO MAKES “MEN”? With the behaviour of movie magnate, Harvey Weinstein, dominating the headlines, the nature and origins of masculinity have become a hot topic. At issue is whether all expressions of masculinity are to a greater-or-lesser extent “toxic” – or only some? And, whether the ultimate liberation of womankind is contingent upon the unequivocal elimination of the culturally constructed beings we call “men”?

In many ways the battle for control over the construction and meaning of gender is the greatest revolutionary struggle of them all. Indeed, it is possible to argue that until this critical issue has been resolved, all of those historical upheavals to which the term “revolution” has been applied have been mischaracterised.

The key question to ask in relation to these historic transitions is whether or not, after the power relationship between master and slave, lord and serf, capitalist and proletarian shifted, the relationship between men and women; between the masculine realm and the feminine realm; was similarly changed? Or, was it still very much a matter of, in Leonard Cohen’s words, “that homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.”? After the “revolution”, did masculinity (like “whiteness”) continue to confer a huge societal advantage upon all who fell within its definitional boundaries – regardless of their personal beliefs and/or inclinations?

But perhaps “revolution” is the wrong word to describe the longed-for dethronement of masculinity? Perhaps the near universal institution of patriarchy (rule by the fathers) is actually the product of the first great social revolution in human history. Perhaps what feminist women are seeking to achieve isn’t a revolution – but a restoration?

And here we must step out of the hard-copy world of recorded history and enter into the much less solid realm of pre-history and mythology. Because it is here, in the indistinct depths of time, that the first and most profound transition in human affairs; the overthrow of the servants of the Earth Mother, by the worshippers of the Sky Father; took place. At the heart of this masculinist revolt lay a deep-seated fear and resentment of all things female – and a burning desire to master them.

Rule by the mothers – Matriarchy – drew its justification from the self-evident need for all living things to submit to the implacable statutes of Mother Earth. Hers was the endless cycle of birth, death and re-birth from which no living creature escaped. And the vessels within which all living things are nurtured, and out of which all new life emerges into the world, are female. Such was the deep magic of generation and fruition which flowed from the timeless creator of all things: The Goddess.

But the sons of the Goddess were lesser beings than their sisters. Helpmeets and protectors, certainly; seed carriers also; but from the deep magic of the mothers they were perforce excluded. Men were the takers of life: the killers of beasts and other men – their brothers. This, too, was a dark and powerful magic, but dangerous and destructive of the settled order. It was a force which the Mothers were careful to keep in check.

It is easy to guess where this story is going.

Men looked skyward, away from the Earth. They observed the gathering darkness in the heavens and heard the deep rumble of the sky’s anger. They witnessed the brilliant spears of light that stabbed the Earth, their mother. In awe they watched her burn, powerless beneath the thrusts of a deity who owed nothing to the slow cycles of growth and decay. Here was a magic to surpass the impenetrable secrets of femininity. Here, in light and fire, they found the power of beginnings: the shock and disruption of all that was new. Not the circles of the Earth Mother, but the straight lines of the Sky Father – the Maker of “Men”.

Masculinity is the world’s disease, and civilisation is its symptom. Patriarchy is the product of the first, and the only true, revolution in human history – and endures as its most malignant legacy.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 16 October 2017.

Monday 16 October 2017

Dainties and Chains: Progressive MPs And The “Wellington Bubble”

To Rove Free, Or Bark In Another's Interest? Aesop's ancient fable concerning the House Dog and the Wolf offers a moral every bit as relevant to today's political realities as it was to those in Classical Greece. Once inside the "Wellington Bubble" is it only a matter of time before our progressive wolves become "great favourites" of the House?

EVEN IF WINSTON VEERS LEFT, the progressive New Zealand community still has a problem. Their new political representatives: the people upon whom so many progressive voters have pinned their hopes for meaningful change; will soon discover that the speed at which they, themselves, are being transformed is far outstripping any changes in the wider world. Indeed, it will not be long before their elevated status leads them to begin questioning the wisdom of the many economic and social changes they are expected to make.

Even the lowliest Labour or Green backbench MP, on a salary of at least $160,000, now finds themselves among the top 5 percent of income-earners. It will require considerable willpower on their part to resist the lifestyle choices made possible by such a generous income. An even greater effort will be needed to prevent the blandishments of their fellow movers-and-shakers (who will be drawn to them like bees to honey) from turning their heads. As fully-paid-up members of the New Zealand political class, they will be expected to play by its rules. The most important of these: “Insiders do not talk to Outsiders!”, is intended to render meaningful economic and social change all-but-impossible.

It will only take a few weeks for these MPs to pass over from the world inhabited by their friends and constituents, into the “Wellington Bubble”. Once inside, they will find it very difficult to leave. Only when they are inside the bubble will the true character of events be revealed to them – nothing of which may be communicated to those living outside. They will soon come to accept that the power to solve problems is only ever made available to those who understand the importance of working inside the bubble. Trying to effect change from the outside will only bring home to them how powerless outsiders truly are.

These lessons will force our newly-minted progressive MPs to make some hard choices among their friends and comrades. They will have to decide who has what it takes to become an Insider, and who will forever be counted among the outsiders.

Once inducted into the rules of “Insiderdom’, these people will become the MP’s most trusted advisers and helpers. Regardless of what office they hold (if any) within the wider party, these will be the ones who, working alongside the MP, are permitted to wield the real power. Perhaps their most important role is to supply outsiders with explanations and excuses for why so many of the party’s promises for real and meaningful change cannot – at this time – be fulfilled.

As a means of protecting the world of the Insiders, this current arrangement is vastly more sophisticated than those of the past. Summer warmth is always more likely to encourage a relaxation of vigilance than the icy blasts of winter.

When the Labour Party was in its infancy, back in the 1920s and 30s, the salary paid to ordinary MPs was derisory – less than the wage of a skilled tradesman. Traditionally, the role of legislator was deemed one for which only “gentlemen” were socially, professionally and financially equipped. The rough-hewn working-men and women who entered the hallowed halls of Parliament were, therefore, met by a veritable force-field of class prejudice and scorn. Labour was the party of Outsiders – and the Insiders weren’t the least bit shy about letting Labour’s MPs know it.

While this state of affairs undoubtedly gave the enemies of progressivism considerable satisfaction, it was, politically-speaking, dangerously counter-productive. In terms of their lifestyle, working-class Labour MPs remained largely indistinguishable from their constituents. The complex apparatus erected around present-day electorate MPs by Parliamentary Services, was non-existent. When people came to a Labour MP seeking assistance, they were met more often than not by their spouse, who acted as the MP’s unpaid electorate secretary. There are countless stories about Labour MPs – especially during the Great Depression – reaching into their own, near-empty, pockets to prevent their constituents from going hungry. These were gestures that bred a party loyalty strong enough to bridge generations of voters. As Outsiders living among outsiders, the fires of progressive fervour that distinguished Labour’s team of parliamentarians were never in any danger of going out. No bubbles of wealth and privilege surrounded them to shut out the cries of the angry poor who were Labour’s nation.

In the words of Aesop’s fable – The House Dog And The Wolf

THE MOON WAS SHINING very bright one night when a lean, half-starved wolf, whose ribs were almost sticking through his skin, chanced to meet a plump, well-fed house dog. After the first compliments had been passed between them, the wolf inquired:

“How is it cousin dog, that you look so sleek and contented? Try as I may I can barely find enough food to keep me from starvation.”

“Alas, cousin wolf,” said the house dog, “you lead too irregular a life. Why do you not work steadily as I do?”

“I would gladly work steadily if I could only get a place,” said the wolf.

“That’s easy,” replied the dog. “Come with me to my master’s house and help me keep the thieves away at night.”

“Gladly,” said the wolf, “for as I am living in the woods I am having a sorry time of it. There is nothing like having a roof over one’s head and a bellyful of victuals always at hand.”

“Follow me,” said the dog.

While they were trotting along together the wolf spied a mark on the dog’s neck. Out of curiosity he could not forbear asking what had caused it.

“Oh, that’s nothing much,” replied the dog. “perhaps my collar was a little tight, the collar to which my chain is fastened – ”

“Chain!” cried the wolf in surprise. “You don’t mean to tell me that you are not free to rove where you please?”

“Why, not exactly,” said the dog, somewhat shamefacedly. “You see, my master thinks I am a bit fierce, and ties me up in the daytime. But he lets me run free at night. It really is very convenient for everybody. I get plenty of sleep during the day so that I can watch better at night. I really am a great favourite at the house. The master feeds me off his own plate, and the servants are continually offering me handouts from the kitchen. But wait, where are you going?”

As the wolf started back towards the forest he said:

“Good night to you, my poor friend, you are welcome to your dainties – and your chains. As for me, I prefer lean freedom to fat slavery.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 14 October 2017.

Saturday 14 October 2017

An Expression Of Democratic Interest.

People Power: "Politics without romance" was how the extreme right-wing "public choice" theorist, James Buchanan, described the substitution of market forces for Democracy’s “expressive interests”. If the 2017 election was about anything, it was about turning that around.

REGARDLESS of NZ First’s ultimate decision, Writ Day, 12 October 2017, was a day for celebration. The 2017 General Election, now completed, will, eventually, deliver a government which has been shaped by the will of the New Zealand people – in full accordance with democratic principle. The tragedies and injustices that impelled the electorate's judgement will carve-out for themselves a substantial and urgent claim upon the new ministry’s programme. The priorities of government will change, for the very simple reason that we, the people, have changed them. Any politician who believes it possible to simply pick up where he or she left off before the voting started, is in for a rude awakening.

Not that our elected representatives need to be told this. Those who live and die by the democratic sword require no lessons in the keenness of its blade. Of much more concern to us should be the people in our community who wield delegated authority. Those employees of central and local government whose daily decisions influence people’s lives so dramatically. The class of persons who used to be called “public servants”, but who are, increasingly, taking on the appearance of our masters.

It’s a process which has been underway for the best part of thirty years; set in motion, as you would expect, by the radical “reforms” of the Rogernomics era. The idea of public service was, of course, anathema to the devotees of the so-called “free” market. The ideas of the latter only made sense if human-beings were driven entirely by self-interest. That thousands of people willingly, and for only modest financial reward, were daily devoting themselves to the welfare of their fellow citizens, flatly contradicted the free-market ideology of the “reformers”.

That these free-marketeers seized upon the “public choice” theories of the American economist, James Buchanan, is unsurprising. A Nobel laureate, Buchanan was feted by the Right for his “insights” into the behaviour of public institutions. These he characterised as classically self-interested entities, whose actions, more often than not, turned out to be economically and politically sub-optimal.

It was only after Buchanan’s death that researchers uncovered his life-long links to the most extreme anti-democratic elements of the American Right. Buchanan’s concern, like that of his wealthy backers, was that the stark contrast between private selfishness and public altruism would, in the long term, prove politically unsustainable. Only by forcing the public sector to become as vicious and unaccountable as the private sector could the dangerous example of collective caring be negated.

The recent furore about the level of remuneration paid to the upper-echelons of New Zealand’s largest local government bureaucracies points to the “success” of the public choice theorist’s reforms. The old local bureaucracies, presided over by executive officers known, quaintly, as “Town Clerks”, exerted minimal pressure upon the public purse. The new bureaucracies, however, modelled as they are upon the ruthless rapaciousness of the private sector, are presided over by CEOs who clearly draw their inspiration from the obscene bonuses paid out to their corporate counterparts. Such unaccountable looting of the public treasury is, of course, music to the free-marketeers’ ears. Collective unaccountability and excess being infinitely preferable, as an example of public sector conduct, to collective responsiveness and restraint.

If our new government is serious about wanting to bring public spending under control, it could do a lot worse than to start by reversing the perverse reforms of Buchanan’s “public choice” disciples. After all, if there is one group these free-market theorists hate more than responsible and caring public servants, it is responsive and caring politicians.

It is a measure of the free-marketeers’ success in undermining the credibility of anyone claiming to serve the public good, that merely suggesting a politician might be responsive and caring is enough to invite instant incredulity and derision.

Buchanan and his ilk’s hostility to democracy arises precisely out of its ability to create public institutions capable of responding positively to the expressed interests of ordinary citizens. Democracy also makes it possible for ordinary citizens to redirect economic effort away from purely private purposes and towards more publicly beneficial endeavors. In other words, the expressed will of the people is able to override the “logic” of the market.

“Politics without romance” was how Buchanan described the substitution of market forces for Democracy’s “expressive interests”. If the 2017 election was about anything, it was about turning that around.

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, 13 October 2017.

Friday 13 October 2017

Talkin' 'Bout A Revolution - Or Not?

An Unlikely Revolutionary Banner? A well-organised campaign to root out neoliberalism from all of our economic and social institutions would signal that Peters was serious about changing the way this country is run. And for all those who pretend not to know what the term neoliberalism means, let me spell it out. I am talking about the deliberate intrusion and entrenchment of the logic and values of the marketplace into every aspect of human existence.

“THESE TALKS ARE ABOUT A CHANGE in the way this country is run. Both economically and socially.” That is how Winston Peters characterised the government formation negotiations currently drawing to a close in Wellington. But, what could his words possibly mean, in practical terms?

If seriously intentioned, Peters’ call for economic and social change would have to encompass the thorough-going “de-neoliberalisation” of New Zealand. And, yes, the obvious reference to the “denazification” of post-war Germany is quite deliberate. Between 1945 and 1947 (when a resurgent American Right began insisting that Soviet communism posed a far greater threat than the tens-of-thousands of National Socialists who were quietly re-entering German society) the Allied occupation forces undertook a serious attempt to identify and exclude all those who had facilitated and/or participated in the most appalling crimes in human history.

A well-organised campaign to root out neoliberalism from all of our economic and social institutions would signal that Peters was serious about changing the way this country is run. And for all those who pretend not to know what the term neoliberalism means, let me spell it out. I am talking about the deliberate intrusion and entrenchment of the logic and values of the marketplace into every aspect of human existence.

Neoliberals have been hard at work in New Zealand society since 1984 and the damage they have inflicted upon practically all of its institutions is enormous. So, how would a Labour-Green-NZ First government that was serious about redefining good government in New Zealand begin? Well, it could start by inviting the two Maxes, Rashbrooke and Harris, to undertake a root-and-branch reform of the State Sector Act. The two Bryans. Easton and Gould, could be asked to revise the Reserve Bank Act. Matt McCarten, Robert Reid and Maxine Gay could be given the job of beefing-up the Employment Relations Act. Claudia Orange, Annette Sykes and Moana Jackson could be tasked with fully integrating the Treaty of Waitangi into the New Zealand Constitution being drafted by Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Geddis. Metiria Turei and Sue Bradford could be issued with blowtorches and sent into the Ministry of Social Development.

It’s only when you start thinking in these terms that the awful implausibility of Peters’ statement strikes home. Putting to one side the ingrained provincial conservatism of NZ First’s electoral base, there is simply no possibility of anyone in the senior ranks of the Labour Party endorsing even a pale imitation of this “de-neoliberalisation” agenda. Willie Jackson and a handful of his Maori and Pasifica colleagues might be keen, but no one else. Only the Greens could advocate with an credibility for this sort of root-and-branch reform – which almost certainly explains why there were no Green Party negotiators seated at the table with Winston and Jacinda!

But, if New Zealand is not going to be de-neoliberalised in any meaningful way. If neither NZ First nor Labour would entertain for a moment any of the individuals mentioned above, in any of the roles mentioned above, then what of any lasting worth could a Labour-Green-NZ First government achieve?

More importantly, perhaps, what would be in it for the Greens? If Peters’ very public characterisation of the Greens as a powerless appendage of the Labour Party, with no role at all in the government formation talks, is an accurate reflection of his attitude towards the party, then not only do the Greens have no way of influencing the shape and policies of any new centre-left government, but they will also have no place within it. As Newshub’s Lloyd Burr so succinctly put it, they are being “shafted”.

It is possible, of course, that Peters is talking-up his disdain for the Greens in order to avoid spooking his core supporters in the countryside; and that, privately, he is right behind the eco-socialists’ radical policy agenda. Except, if that is the case, then he must surely be bitterly disappointed by Labour’s extreme policy timidity. Is the sort of party that invites Sir Michael Cullen and Annette King to join its young leader at the negotiating table, really the sort of party that is getting ready to throw its weight wholeheartedly behind “a change in the way this country is run. Economically and socially”?

By this time next week, Winston willing, we’ll have an answer.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 12 October 2017.

Thursday 12 October 2017

Play It Again, Winston: An Article Written 12 Years Ago For "The Independent".

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine. 
- Humphrey Bogart (as Rick Blaine) in Casablanca 

WINSTON PETERS may have thought he could sit out the looming years of parliamentary conflict on the cross benches. Like Rick Blaine, the flawed hero of Warner Brothers’ classic movie Casablanca, he figured on doing as little harm and as much good as he could, as far away from the action as he could possibly get. But just because you don’t go looking for trouble, doesn’t mean trouble won’t come looking for you. Now trouble has found Winston Peters. Trouble in the shape of a lanky brunette with a bad haircut and a crooked smile. “Here’s looking at you kid.”

Like one of those affairs that seem inevitable to everyone except the participants, Labour and NZ First were bound to get together sooner or later. There’s just too much of the old Labour spirit in Winston. That cussed determination to set an independent course for the New Zealand economy – the vision that drove Coates and Sutch and Kirk - has always been central to NZ First’s philosophy. In much the same way, Winston’s instinctive mistrust of big business, and his realisation that only the state is strong enough to challenge its power, used to be central to Labour’s philosophy.

Most of the men Helen works with aren’t like that. Today’s Labour men tend to resemble the Victor Laszlo character in Casablanca – high-minded types who grasp the theory, but struggle to master the practice. Above all else, Winston is a practical man.

And so, in ways that Winston has yet to appreciate, are the Greens. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty of practical politics, he may find that he and Rod Donald are not so far apart. Sustainability, for example, may turn out to have a great deal in common with forging a multi-party consensus on the optimum size and composition of New Zealand’s population.

The Greens opposition to Free Trade Agreements, their call to “Buy NZ Made”, and their policy of keeping New Zealand land in New Zealand hands, slot easily into Winston’s campaign for economic sovereignty. Both parties also decry the fact that 25 percent of New Zealand children live in poverty, and both have called for the Minimum Wage to be raised to $12 per hour.

Give the deal a year, and Winston may even end up repeating to Rod and Jeanette Rick’s famous line to the Vichy French police captain at the very end of Casablanca: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

An even closer alliance stands ready to be forged between Winston’s team and the beleaguered remnants of Labour’s right-wing faction.

Right-wing Labour MPs like Phil Goff, Clayton Cosgrove and Damien O’Connor will find ready-made allies in the likes of Ron Mark, Peter Brown and Doug Wollerton. These are men who can be relied upon to hold the line against the Labour Left and the Greens’ obsession with unpopular causes.

It may even have occurred to the wily Mr Peters that his current core constituency of elderly New Zealanders isn’t getting any younger. If it is to grow and prosper in the 21st Century, NZ First needs to expand its electoral base beyond white-haired old women and grumpy old men. This is especially pertinent given Winston’s surprise defeat in Tauranga.

In Labour’s socially conservative, blue-collar voters there lies a vast reservoir of potential NZ First support. Fed up with “political correctness”, sick of the Treaty, opposed to mass immigration, punitive when it comes to drugs and crime, instinctively protectionist and proudly patriotic, these voters used to regard the incautious Mr Tamihere as their spokesman. Now that he’s no longer in Parliament, they may be in the market for a new champion.

It’s not a silly idea. Jim Anderton and Matt Robson have spent the last three years trying to persuade Labour’s blue-collar battlers to switch over to the Progressive Party. Unfortunately for Jim and Matt – especially Matt - the fledgling party was sending out too many mixed messages. On the one hand there was the Progressive Party’s popular stance on drugs and the drinking age; on the other, its decidedly unpopular championing of Ahmed Zaoui and the rights of refugees.

Winston Peters and his team are in no danger of getting their messages mixed. No one is likely to mistake Ron Mark for a bleeding-heart liberal.

On some issues, however, Winston and his colleagues will have to tread carefully. Granting confidence and supply to a Labour-Progressive minority government presupposes a willingness on NZ First’s part to engage both more frequently and more effectively with organised labour. The same social conservatives who applaud Peter’s stance on Ahmed Zaoui, will look askance at any attempt to undermine workers’ rights in the workplace.

Once again, NZ First and its leader may discover they have allies in the unlikeliest places. Winning a $2.50 increase in the Minimum Wage is not the worst way to kick off a closer relationship with the Council of Trade Unions. And Winston Peters’ distinct lack of enthusiasm for Labour’s proposed Free Trade Agreement with China is unlikely to get him off on the wrong foot with CTU economist, Peter Conway, or the Engineers Union boss, Andrew Little.

Nearly ten years ago, in the April/May 1996 issue of NZ Political Review, Bruce Jesson attempted to define the phenomenon that was Winston Peters. Jesson felt aggrieved that his fellow political journalists were always so quick to brand him as both a racist and a populist:

“I personally think that they have consistently misjudged Peters as a politician. His strength as a politician is that he has the ability to cause a sensation, but that does not make him simply a sensationalist. He has the ability to tap popular feeling, but that does not of itself make him a populist (whatever that means in the New Zealand context).”

Jesson took a kinder and more measured view of his subject:

“Perhaps the truth is that Peters is a sensationalist with an element of sincerity? Who knows? Probably not even Peters. It doesn’t matter anyway because Peters’ importance is his role not his motives. His role is indicated by the name he has chosen for his party: New Zealand First. And it is indicated by the things he campaigns about, because there is a consistent thread running through them. He is as fiercely opposed to foreign investment as he is to the government’s immigration policies. Peters is a rarity in New Zealand, he is a nationalist – probably our only serious nationalist politician since Norman Kirk, or perhaps even John A. Lee.”

It is significant, I think, that both of the politicians to whom Peters is compared by Jesson were from Labour.

At this point in its history, New Zealand stands in need just such a nationalist politician. Already, in the private seminars and political briefings paid for by the big corporations, there is talk about the changes our association with the burgeoning economies of Asia is bound to bring. Hints that our Enlightenment faith in individual liberty and the Rights of Man may have to be modified if we are not to antagonise our new “partners”.

Winston Churchill heard similar whispers in the early months of 1940 – and rejected them. Britain, he knew, was more than a collection of islands, it was a collection of ideas. Ideas too valuable to surrender for the paltry “rewards” of a dictated “peace”. Ideas worth fighting for.

It’s that same determination to stand and fight that lifts the movie Casablanca so far above the ordinary Hollywood fare. The unlooked for appearance of the idealistic Ilsa, draws forth a kindred response from the world-weary Rick. In the end we discover that the hero’s dead-pan, wise-cracking persona hides something altogether more admirable - more noble.

So play it Winston. Play it one more time.

You know what we want to hear.

You played it for Bolger, now play it for Clark.

If he could stand it, so can she.

Play it.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Wednesday, 19 October 2005.