Saturday 30 June 2018

Employers On The Warpath.

Excellent! So blow you employer windbags: crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! Spew forth cataracts of media releases, unleash your Facebook hurricanoes. Spout your nonsense about the Seventies until the voters are drenched with lies and the public square awash with fake news.

WELL, THAT DIDN’T take very long, did it? Nine months into this government’s first term and employer organisations up and down the country are on the warpath. There are full-page adverts and billboards for all the old folks who still respond to the printed word and a digital campaign for everybody else. The message? Simple. The proposed reforms to the Employment Relations Act must be “fixed”. Not “fixed” as in repaired, you understand, but “fixed” as in “the fix is in” and “the fight is fixed”. Basically, the bosses’ reps are telling the Labour-NZF-Green government that their members are happy with the way things are in the workplace and that no changes are necessary. Got that? No changes!

Wait a minute! Are these the same employer groups who, just a few weeks ago, were announcing their determination to be “part of the solution”? Yep, they sure are. But, a lot can happen in a few weeks. For example, you can be bombarded with hundreds of angry e-mails (from the businesses large and small that fund these groups) saying: “What the fuck do you idiots think you’re doing!”

Seems that New Zealand’s employers are not about to let union officials onto their premises at any time of the day or night simply because they’ve received an anguished call for help from one of their members. And why should it only be the small employers with fewer than twenty staff who get to have all the fun of waiting until Day 89 to fire their naïve 90-day probationers? No. New Zealand’s employers have made it very clear that they’re not paying their subs to have a bunch of pinko politicians order them to go on negotiating with their employees in good faith until a settlement is reached. No way. If Simon Bridges could be persuaded let them walk away from the negotiating table whenever they decide there’s nothing more to say, then so can Iain Lees-Galloway.

He’s a weak link that Iain Lees-Galloway. Ever since he backed away from his party’s solemn promise to repeal the hated “Hobbit Law”, it’s been clear that the guy isn’t what you’d call a tower of union-backing strength. Word is that the MBIE bureaucrats had him house-trained in a matter of days. Hugh Watt he’s not. Nor Stan Rodger neither. [Ministers of Labour in the Kirk and Lange Labour Governments respectively – Ed.]

But, if Iain Lees-Galloway is a weak link, then the NZ First caucus is a frayed rope. The various employer groups saw what just one full-page ad from the Sensible Sentencing Trust could do to the populists’ reluctant agreement to repeal the Three Strikes legislation. How long is their willingness to sing “Solidarity Forever” with the unions likely to last once they’ve driven past a few 10-metre-long billboards encouraging them to “fix” the employment relations legislation?

The answer – as always when the question is NZ First – depends on Winston Peters. A decision to throw in the towel of workplace relations reform would be a decision to leave a legacy of gutlessness and surrender. Certainly, it would make a nonsense of his determination to give capitalism a human face. It would also render incomprehensible his post-Cabinet press conference remarks about workers seeing his coalition government as a friend willing to listen. Winston won’t turn his back on all that just yet. He’s not about to let the unions carve the single word “Scab” on his political tombstone.

The other reason why Winston is more likely than not to urge resistance to the employers’ campaign is because he, unlike so many of the youngsters writing National’s attack-lines, remembers very clearly what happened in the 1970s.

Rather than the grey Polish shipyard so beloved of neoliberal revisionist historians like Michael Bassett, Peters remembers a New Zealand in which a dirt-poor Maori family from Northland could send their talented son to Auckland University without going into debt. He will recall, too, an era when working people did not live in fear of the boss. Yes there were strikes, and they could be damned inconvenient. But, seeing what happened to New Zealand after 1984 and 1991, Peters – along with his old comrade Jim Bolger – has come to understand that it was precisely because working people had trade unions to defend them that they also had jobs that paid them a living wage, houses they could afford, and children who could, and did, expect their lives to be better than their parents’.

So blow you employer windbags: crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! Spew forth cataracts of media releases, unleash your Facebook hurricanoes. Spout your nonsense about the Seventies until the voters are drenched with lies and the public square awash with fake news.

Spit and rage all you want. This government is determined to put a human face upon New Zealand capitalism – regardless of its well-funded protests.

Not for the bosses’ sake – but for ours.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 29 June 2018.

Friday 29 June 2018

The Strike That Labour Fears Most.

What If The Bosses Went On Strike? “Under a laisser-faire system the level of employment depends to a great extent on the so-called state of confidence [...] This gives to the capitalists a powerful indirect control over Government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis.” - Michal Kalecki 1943

WHILE SIMON BRIDGES and his backroom number-crunchers are concocting bogus industrial relations statistics, a much more dangerous strike is looming. If you’re waiting to hear Bridges condemn this particular strike, however, you will wait in vain. This isn’t the sort of strike the National Party condemns; it’s the sort of strike it does everything in its power to provoke. What sort of strike are we talking about? An Investment Strike.

It was at the funeral of Jock Barnes, leader of the Waterside Workers Union in 1951, that I first encountered the term. The person who introduced me to it was Ross Wilson, President of the NZ Council of Trade Unions, who told me about a recent conversation he’d had with the Prime Minister, Helen Clark. She’d told him, bluntly, that the employers were threatening to put away their cheque-books. If her government refused to back away from its more radical policies – especially the proposed changes to the Employment Contracts Act – it would face an investment strike.

This was early-June 2000: the so-called “Winter of Discontent”.

There is much about the present situation that calls to mind those months back in 2000. Then – as now – the focus was on a series of surveys (most of them conducted on behalf of the banks) purporting to show a “loss of business confidence”. Just as they have been doing for the past nine months, the business-friendly commentators of eighteen years ago attributed this loss of confidence to the policies of the incoming Labour-led coalition government.

“Loss of business confidence” is an expression freighted with economic significance. One of the first to make the consequences of its loss explicit was the Polish economist Michal Kalecki. In “Political Aspects of Full Employment”, an article published in the Political Quarterly in 1943, he wrote:

“Under a laisser-faire system the level of employment depends to a great extent on the so-called state of confidence. If this deteriorates, private investment declines, which results in a fall of output and employment (both directly and through the secondary effect of the fall in incomes upon consumption and investment). This gives to the capitalists a powerful indirect control over Government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis.”

The kicker lies in those last seven words: “because it would cause an economic crisis”. If the four pillars upholding the economic order set in place by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson: non-inflationary monetary policy; fiscal discipline; openness of markets; labour market flexibility; were ever to be threatened with serious erosion, then, in the words of the neoliberal ideologue, Roger Kerr: “doubts about New Zealand’s outlook will mount”.

Falling business confidence is, of course, the winking warning-light on the capitalists’ dashboard. Not only does it indicate rising doubt about the reliability of the new regime, but it also signals that the politicians responsible need a sharp reminder about who it is that really runs the country.

Back in 2000 that took the form of some of the country’s leading business executives issuing thinly-veiled threats to the Prime Minister and her Finance Minister. That Helen Clark and Michael Cullen felt it necessary to publicly allay the fears of those whose cheque-books were about to be locked away in the top-drawer of their desks, showed how very seriously those threats were taken. Under no circumstances could investors be allowed to go on strike “because it would cause an economic crisis”.

In the moments following Ross Wilson’s revelations I remember wondering what Jock Barnes would have done. He knew that, ultimately, all strikes are a matter of bluff. The trick lies in persuading the other side that you are willing to do whatever it takes to win. In 1951 the National Party called Barnes’ bluff: wagering that the unions would blink before the state did.

The only question that really matters in 2018, therefore, is: “Are Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters willing to call the business community’s bluff?” Note that I have not included the Finance Minister in that question. Grant “Budget Responsibility Rules” Robertson has already made it clear where he stands.

While Jacinda thinks of the future and Winston remembers the past, the workers of New Zealand can only wait and hope that, as in 1951 (but not 2000!) the state blinks last.

This essay was originally published by The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 June 2018.

Thursday 28 June 2018

Father Of Nightmares.

Nightmare Scenario: The United States teeters precariously on a narrow ledge of sanity while POTUS, gargantuan and grinning, bids it step out into the abyss.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP is the Father of Nightmares. The logic of his administration is indistinguishable now from the logic of dreams: his White House minions prey to the same abrupt shifts of mood; the same lightning-fast transitions from elation to dread. America itself has become the prisoner of its President’s vagrant fancies: a place where trust and treachery grapple like celebrity wrestlers in front of a television audience of millions. The whole country teeters precariously on a narrow ledge of sanity while POTUS, gargantuan and grinning, bids it step out into the abyss.

Unwitting and unprepared, America and the world have been propelled back through time to the era of kings and emperors. Accustomed to living in a world from which the habits of obedience and obeisance have long been banished, the realisation that they are now as frightened and vulnerable as any of the inhabitants of those luckless nations on the margins of civilisation has come as quite a shock. Presidential pique can now upend lives as easily as presidential beneficence can redeem them. The world’s leaders have been reduced to mere courtiers in the planet-sized Versailles the USA has built for them.

How to respond when American foreign policy is driven by presidential whim? When international trade is reduced to a pile of chips in a testosterone-fuelled game of Texas hold-em? What to do when old allies are treated like the hired help and brutal dictators are treated to “The Donald’s” best real-estate advice? When the 400-year-old Westphalian System of sovereign states pursuing their national self-interest rationally and predictably is impatiently tossed aside? When did it become okay for the leader of the world’s “indispensable” nation to behave like a Mafia don?

It’s worse for those ordinary Americans who have yet to succumb to the fever-dream that is Trumpism. Americans with college degrees and what were once considered to be good manners. Americans who believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution and regard the Bible as a collection of moral metaphors. Americans who won’t have handguns anywhere near their children. Americans who read. For these Americans every heavy footfall in the public square sounds as close as their front door. They would call the Police if they weren’t so terrified that it’s the thud of policemen’s boots that woke them.

The true horror of Trump’s nightmares is that the people in them, the people doing the most monstrous things, don’t even know they’re monsters. Those Texas cops and border guards carrying the children away from their parents. Those minimum-wage workers in the camp canteens, dishing out the detainees’ food with friendly smiles. If asked, they would swear on a stack of Bibles that they are the good guys in their President’s movie. Except that it doesn’t pay to ask that sort of question, does it? Not unless the questioner wants to see the look of easy familiarity disappear from their eyes. Not unless he or she wants to see it replaced in an instant with the cold, gun-metal glare of hostility that Trump’s supporters reserve for his enemies.

That’s when the panic sets in. Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, is asked to leave the Little Red Hen restaurant in Virginia and liberal America cheers. But then the awful thought strikes them. What if Trump’s supporters decide to do something similar?

“How hard is it to imagine,” asks the Washington Post’s editorial writer, “people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families?” And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Knowing that whatever peaceful little protest the sort of Americans who watch The Handmaid’s Tale might make against Trump can be answered in an instant by bearded men with bulging beer-guts toting pump-action shotguns and wearing “Make America Great Again” baseball caps to hide their male pattern baldness.

The Father of Nightmares has sired too many nightmarish children.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 28 June 2018.

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Does The National Party Know Anything About Genuine Conservatism?

Radio Hogwaller: Unfortunately for the National Party, Simon Bridges is no John Key. His Radio Hauraki hosts, Matt Heath and Jeremy Wells, led him by the nose into a slime-filled pit and encouraged him to wallow in it. In the immortal words of Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Bridges doesn’t know what he can’t do.

IF THE NATIONAL PARTY was a genuine conservative party, Simon Bridges would no longer be its leader. In a genuine conservative party, the outcry against his performance on Radio Hauraki last Friday (22/6/18) would have extracted his resignation within 24 hours. A great many voices would have joined the outcry against Bridges’ boorish denigration of the prime minister and her family, and for a great many reasons. Let’s examine just a few of them.

Genuine conservatism upholds the traditional values of society. The extending of courtesy to all human-beings, regardless of their station in life, is one of the oldest expectations of civilised society. Indeed, the ability to remain courteous at all times is held to be one of the surest signs of true nobility. It is the acknowledgement which those fortunate enough to wield power make to those who lack it entirely.

Bridges discourtesy towards Jacinda Ardern, Clarke Gayford and their baby not only demonstrated his ignorance of the way someone in his position is expected to behave, but was also proof that he is sorely lacking in the qualities associated with a true political leader. He showed himself to be a man without grace, generosity or sensitivity.

More importantly, he showed himself to be a man without judgement. To handle the shock-jocks of commercial radio requires the ability to think clearly and remain in complete control under pressure. Matt Heath and Jeremy Wells are, after all, entertainers who specialise in embarrassing their guests. John Key had a flair for this shock-jock vulgarity and generally handled such encounters with aplomb. Unfortunately for the National Party, Bridges is no Key. His Hauraki hosts led him by the nose into a slime-filled pit and encouraged him to wallow in it. In the immortal words of Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Bridges doesn’t know what he can’t do.

Bridges conduct also revealed a disturbing lack of moral strength. When one of his hosts demanded to know whether he hated Jacinda’s baby, there was only one correct answer: “No, of course I don’t! What a question!” What we heard, instead, was the weak-kneed equivocation: “Hate is a pretty strong word.” As if a less emphatic – but no less negative – characterisation of his feelings towards the child might be acceptable.

It was that same moral fragility which led Bridges’ into the other traps laid for him by his hosts. Trigger expressions, such as “gender-fluid”, elicited responses that showed him to be a person trapped in the rigid moral binaries of his Baptist upbringing. The kindest description of Bridges’ attitudes towards the LGBTI community is that they demonstrate a profound lack of both empathy and understanding. There are many less generous interpretations that could be offered for his willingness to find humour in the crudest of stereotypes.

Bridges was quick to reach for the excuse of humour when the full awfulness of his Hauraki performance became known. His comments were, he said, “light-hearted”. It is an interesting turn of phrase. Anyone who can make discriminatory comments about his fellow citizens with a light heart may not be the best qualified person to lead his country. Making trans-phobic comments with a light heart does not make them any less objectionable. A genuine conservative might even recall the old saying: ‘Many a true word spoken in jest.’

The most decisive voice raised against Bridges’ behaviour, however, would be the one that decried his lack of gravitas. Only political bomb-throwers like Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy made use of crude demagogic terms like “pinkos” – and that was nearly seventy years ago!

And what is a genuine conservative to make of a person who holds at least two university degrees, and has studied at Oxford, publicly accusing the prime minister of picking up “funny ideas” at university? Such a knee-jerk reversion to the anti-intellectualism of the National Party’s least attractive supporters indicates a deeply conflicted individual who is, at the very least, unwilling to acknowledge his own indebtedness to the power of higher education to expand the possibilities of a young man raised in modest circumstances.

If Simon Bridges was blessed with gravitas – behaviour indicating a serious and dignified personality – the idea of depicting higher education as something dubious or subversive, would be utterly abhorrent. Equally repugnant to him would be the idea of espousing one set of ideas and attitudes to one group of voters and a second, diametrically opposed, set to another. Such dishonesty; such cynicism would be anathema to a genuine conservative.

The ideas and attitudes to which genuine conservative politicians proclaim their allegiance do not change with the audience they are addressing. The serious business of governing one’s fellow human-beings requires honesty, consistency and a full measure of that solemn passion which should distinguish the political life.

If Simon Bridges was such a politician he would never have agreed to appear on Radio Hauraki. If he still aspires to become one, he will never do so again.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 25 June 2018.

Monday 25 June 2018

Emotion, Not Reason, Is Driving New Zealanders’ Attitudes Towards Crime And Punishment.

Who Do You Love? The battle over crime and punishment is largely determined by who emerges from the debate as the primary recipients of New Zealanders' empathy. Do we focus our emotions on the victims of crime, or on rescuing the perpetrators from the circumstances that led them to commit the offences which put them behind bars?

TRYING TO TALK with New Zealanders about crime and punishment is never easy. In our highly punitive culture, people who break the law generally receive very little sympathy from their fellow citizens. For most Kiwis the blunt formula: “you do the crime, you do the time”; is sufficient.

Asking New Zealanders why some people “do the crime” usually elicits an equally blunt explanation. Criminals are “bad bastards” – pure and simple. In vain do reformers point to the offenders’ dysfunctional upbringings: to the violence and abuse that more often than not has surrounded them since birth. The stock rejoinder thrown back in these “do-gooders” faces is: “Look, I know plenty of people who had difficult childhoods, but none of them ever stabbed a dairy-owner or raped and murdered a teenage girl.”

The reformers’ job is made even harder by the ordinary New Zealander’s genuine empathy for the victims of crime. Nothing inflames New Zealand’s “sleepy hobbits” like the handing down of a prison-sentence deemed manifestly inadequate to the severity of the offence.

The name “Sensible Sentencing” captures this phenomenon brilliantly. Conjured-up is the negative image of an over-educated liberal judge who has clearly paid far more attention to the report of some away-with-the-fairies psychiatrist than he has to the impact statements of the victim and/or her family. In the eyes of these citizens, a “sensible” sentence invariably involves locking-up the perpetrator and throwing away the key.

It does no good to point out that putting a bad person in prison almost never results in a better person coming out. “We don’t put them in prison to make them better”, say the sensible sentencers. “We put them inside to give their victims some justice and to keep the rest of us safe.”

Most of the people who say this sort of thing have absolutely no idea what a real prison is like – never having spent so much as a single hour locked-up in a concrete cell. They’ve never experienced the loss of personal liberty. Never been caged. Never faced an endless procession of grey, featureless days punctuated only by shattering displays of human cruelty. Never had to endure emotional and physical pain without the slightest prospect of care or solace.

Ensuring that most people never find out what prison is really like is one of the key objectives of those who seek to profit out of the incarceration of human-beings. For the big corporations behind private prisons, keeping the focus on the victims of crime is crucial.

All parents at one time or another fear for their children’s safety – imagining the very worst when they don’t come home on time. That’s why it’s so easy for them to empathise with those whose loved ones really have been injured or killed. Directing the fear and anger generated by violent crime against its perpetrators and those who defend them is a lot easier than trying to make the public understand what gave rise to the offending in the first place. The very last thing the private prisons lobby want people to say about the person in the dock is: “There, but for the grace of God, goes my son or daughter.” Or, even worse: “That could have been me.”

Keeping the focus away from the grim realities of incarceration also serves those with a vested interest in downplaying the whole question of the rights of accused persons. If people knew what being locked-up was like, then they’d be very careful to ensure that the presumption of innocence was respected and upheld.

It was the famous English jurist, Sir William Blackstone, who said: It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. It is perhaps the greatest achievement of New Zealand’s Sensible Sentencing Trust that the present reality of dozens of innocent persons spending months in remand cells for offences they will later be acquitted of does not enrage the New Zealand public. Their motto would appear to be: “It is better that ten innocent people remain locked-up than that one guilty person re-offends on bail.”

In a social climate such as this it is quite pointless to simply enjoin the government of the day to “do the right thing” and empty out the remand prisons, or, to bring forward the parole eligibility for those prisoners convicted of non-violent offences. Were the government to respond positively to such appeals its political opponents would have a field-day. “Look at them!”, the conservative politicians would scream. “They’re letting these criminals walk free!” The inevitable political backlash would almost certainly be fatal.

What’s required is a well-considered and well-funded campaign to bring home the realities of crime and punishment: the conditions that breed offending and the circumstances in which convicted offenders are expected to rehabilitate themselves. Such a campaign should aim to recruit not just lawyers and criminologists, but journalists, novelists, playwrights and screenwriters. Rousing human empathy is as much a mission for the arts as it is for the sciences – maybe even more so.

Watching movies like Twelve Angry Men, Dead Man Walking and The Shawshank Redemption will likely win more converts to the cause of improving our criminal justice system and the prisons it fills than reading lengthy learned articles in academic journals. On the vexed question of New Zealanders’ attitudes towards crime and punishment, reason, unaided by emotion, will never be enough.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 22 June 2018.

Revolution And Bureaucracy.

Going Forward: "Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy." - Franz Kafka. Painting by Bosc d'Anjou

EVERY REVOLUTION is both rescued and undone by the bureaucrats required to keep it alive. Sweeping away the old order is the easy part. The hard part is establishing a new order that will not fall apart at the first hint of political, economic and/or social trouble. A revolutionary bureaucracy must be more than resilient, however. It also needs to create the organisational architecture favourable to its long-term survival and growth. Unfortunately, these bureaucratic structures have a tendency to ossify. Imperceptibly, the new order becomes the old order and a new generation of revolutionaries begins to stir.

The dramatic economic reforms introduced by the Fourth Labour Government and its Finance Minister, Roger Douglas, were described by the political journalist, Colin James, as  “The Quiet Revolution”. In quick succession, New Zealand floated its currency, opened its borders and eliminated the subsidies which kept so much of its economy afloat. The Labour Government then proceeded to “corporatize” New Zealand’s publicly-owned industries: a process which saw tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders lose their jobs.

In the space of just a few months, the old economic and social order which National’s Rob Muldoon had struggled so hard to preserve was swept away. Not the least remarkable aspect of the “Rogernomics Revolution” was that it was accomplished without recourse to state-initiated violence.

Realising that what was being attempted in New Zealand was a carbon-copy of the economic programme imposed upon 1970s Chile by General Pinochet, one senior trade unionist warned the Labour Government that to carry through such radical reforms it would have to put troops on the streets. He was wrong. And the reason he was wrong was the breakneck speed with which the bureaucratic structures required to make the “free-market” revolution work were erected.

The explanation for the revolution’s rapid implementation lay in the fact that it was conceived by a tightly-knit group of senior bureaucrats located principally in the Reserve Bank and Treasury. Detailed blueprints for the new economic order they were seeking had already been drawn up. All these revolutionary bureaucrats lacked were the politicians needed to build it. In David Lange, Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Michael Bassett and Mike Moore they realised they had found them.

Only one significant obstacle to the revolution’s success remained in place – the public service ethos of the old bureaucracy that was being dismantled. A full and successful transition to the revolutionaries’ new economic system, driven by the imperatives of the free-market, would not be possible until the ingrained values of the old state-interventionist system it was replacing had been destroyed.

The State Sector Act 1988 was designed to do just that. Modelled on the administrative principles of the private sector, the new, free-market bureaucracy was led by Chief Executives on lucrative five-year contracts. Working on the assumption that the production of policy advice was no different from the production of baked beans, these new state-sector bosses could be recruited without risk from the private as well as the public sector. That being the case, it was considered prudent to source the new public sector mandarinate from those countries in which the free-market revolution had already triumphed.

Unofficially, it was also considered vital that these new free-market bureaucrats be strong enough to forestall the one eventuality that could undermine the new regime – the election of a left-wing government determined to roll back the free-market revolution of 1984-1993.

In the past, the “politicisation” of the public service had been about politicians “persuading” their bureaucratic advisors to do the government’s bidding. Under the new regime, this was turned on its head. The trick, now, was to “persuade” any cabinet ministers still foolishly clinging-on to left-wing ideas that their careers couldn’t possibly flourish until they finally accepted that the free-market revolution was irreversible.

If history teaches us anything, however, it is that nothing is irreversible. Mounting evidence of free-market capitalism’s failure has stimulated new economic thinking both here in New Zealand and around the world. The successors of those bureaucrats who facilitated the free-market revolution of the 1980s and 90s are now being asked to oversee its dramatic deconstruction. The eventuality they most feared, the election of a left-wing government determined to return the market to its proper place, has come to pass.

State Services Minister, Chris Hipkins, is demanding wholesale “transformation” of the public sector.

Vive la revolution

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 June 2018.

Thursday 21 June 2018

New Zealand's Very Own Pinkertons.

The All-Seeing (Private) Eye: When it comes to protecting private property the trick lies in learning how to undermine the legal protections guaranteed to those attempting to modify property relations, while taking full advantage of the protections guaranteed to property owners. The ideal mechanism for giving effect to these contradictory objectives is the private detective agency.

THE POLITICAL SCANDAL swirling around the private detective agency Thompson & Clark Investigations Ltd (TCIL) lays bare capitalism’s rawest nerves.

The core function of the modern state is the facilitation of private wealth-creation. The so-called “rule of law” is critical to this function. In the absence of a reliable legal system the protection of private property reduces swiftly to the application of brute force – a most unreliable servant and an even worse master.

Making the rule of law one of capitalism’s central talismans, however, means extending the law’s equal protection to the system’s enemies as well as its friends. When it comes to protecting private property, therefore, the trick lies in learning how to undermine the legal protections guaranteed to those attempting to modify property relations, while taking full advantage of the protections guaranteed to property owners.

The private detective agency is the ideal mechanism for giving effect to these contradictory objectives. It is no accident that the first and most famous of these, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, was founded in the United States in 1855. The big industrial capitalists of the era were only just becoming aware of their need to be protected from their own employees, who were, similarly, just becoming aware of the need to protect themselves in trade unions.

Allan Pinkerton, a Scotsman, offered his services to these captains of industry. His spies would provide them with intelligence about who their employees were listening to and what was being planned. If worse came to worst and a strike broke out, Pinkerton also offered to organise strike-breakers and provide them with armed protection.

As the Pinkerton agency grew in size and strength it found itself providing intelligence and muscle not just to private industry, but also to the federal government of the United States. In 1860 the “Pinks” as they were called, foiled a plot to assassinate the President-Elect Abraham Lincoln and were immediately hired as his bodyguards for the duration of the Civil War.

For the next 50 years, the Pinkertons would occupy that shadowy territory between the lawful and the unlawful. Their principal value lay in their ability to do what was necessary in such a fashion that their actions could not be attributed directly to either big business or the state. In carrying out their employers’ dirty-work, however, the Pinkertons were forced to descend deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld. It was in no one’s interests to ask too closely how the trade union organiser fell into the ravine, or who was responsible for beating the muck-raking journalist senseless.

As the federal government expanded, the work formerly contracted out to the Pinkertons was taken in-house. The “Pinks” were replaced by the “G-men” of the FBI, the Secret Service and the CIA. The need for “the work”, however, never ceased. Keeping left-wing dissidents and activists under surveillance; intercepting and reading their mail; sowing suspicion and discord in their organisations – such services were always in high demand.

As the rapidly emerging picture of TCIL’s activities in New Zealand makes clear, when the official organs of law enforcement and national security find themselves lacking the human and material resources (not to mention the legal authority) required to carry out “the work”, being able to contract the private sector to assist the public sector in fulfilling its core function of keeping the country safe for private wealth-creators is extraordinarily helpful.

Like the Pinkertons of old, TCIL has parlayed its ability to move with confidence in the shadowy territory between what is lawful and unlawful; ethical and the unethical; into a highly lucrative business. There has always been, and will always be, a lot of money to be made out of letting capitalism’s friends know, in some detail, what their enemies are up to.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 21 June 2018.

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Can The Nurses Win On Their Own?

The First Of Many? If the CTU pledged itself to ensuring that the Nurses fight does not turn into a solitary struggle. If frontline health professionals could be presented as merely the first of many workers ready to embrace the tactics necessary to win substantial improvements in their wages and conditions, then trade unionism in New Zealand could have a new birth of freedom.

NEW ZEALAND’S NURSES are about to discover whether their store of public good-will is big enough to see them through a strike. New Zealanders with experience of this country’s public health system almost always speak very highly of its staff. Nurses in particular draw the public’s praise and respect. In our overburdened and understaffed hospitals they display the weary-but-unflinching professionalism of workers required to operate in an environment of more-or-less permanent crisis.

No one knows better that this country’s frontline health professionals how potentially dangerous this situation can become. New Zealand needs more nurses – lots more nurses. But to keep the staff it already has – let alone attract new recruits – nurses insist they must be paid more. Lots more.

But, how much more? That is the question. In an economy where roughly half the paid workforce have not had a pay-rise for close to two years, will the NZ Nurses’ Organisation’s demand for an immediate, across the board, 11 percent increase strike the average Kiwi as “about right” or “too much”. With an experienced registered nurse’s salary set to rise from $66,755 to $77,386 by December next year under the present offer, will the two-thirds of workers who earn considerably less than that sum (in 2016 the median NZ income was just $48,800) regard the union’s proposed strike action as reasonable – or unreasonable?

The offer on the table also guarantees that an additional 500 nurses will be recruited to the national health-sector workforce. This is clever. The single most important contributing factor to the crisis in the nation’s hospital wards is chronic understaffing. More than anything else it is the personal toll extracted by the excessive workloads caused by understaffing that is fuelling nurses’ anger and impatience with the District Health Boards’ management. It would be interesting to know whether the 9 percent offer on the table would be deemed enough if nurses could be convinced that their workloads were about to be reduced very rapidly to more bearable levels.

The DHB negotiators have also been clever in advancing the figure of half-a-billion dollars as the all-up cost of the settlement on the table. Many New Zealanders will see this as an extraordinarily generous sum – especially when the money on offer has been drawn from their taxes. In rejecting the offer, the Nurses’ union runs the risk of being dismissed as either unrealistic or greedy – or both.

The best way to avoid this perception taking hold would be for the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) to present the Nurses’ claim as the first of many. After nearly a decade of both public- and private-sector wage restraint, the unions should argue, the time has come for working people to make up the lost ground. The CTU should also emphasise the fact that Nurses are not the only workers in New Zealand who have been expected to work harder and longer for no appreciable improvement in their overall living standards. Nurses are, however, the first occupational group to vote in favour of doing something about it.

If the CTU pledged itself to ensuring that the Nurses fight does not turn into a solitary struggle. If frontline health professionals could be presented as merely the first of many workers ready to embrace the tactics necessary to win substantial improvements in their wages and conditions, then trade unionism in New Zealand could have a new birth of freedom.

If the nurses are left to fight this battle on their own, however, then, sadly, there is a better than even chance that the politics of envy and resentment will prevail over the politics of solidarity.

A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 19 June 2018.

Saturday 16 June 2018

If Labour Wants Fewer Prisoners, Then It Needs To Create More Prison Space – Not Less.

He Should Be Locked Up: To hear Kelvin Davis acknowledge that it may soon be necessary to put prisoners on mattresses on the floor was sickening. That a Labour cabinet minister is willing to countenance the New Zealand prison system becoming indistinguishable from the Third World hellholes visited by Ross Kemp’s “Extreme World” TV show, marks a new low for what is already a sadly compromised party.

STUPIDITY ON STILTS. How else should the decision-making on Waikeria Prison be characterised. From practically every perspective, the Labour-led government’s determination not to proceed with the construction of a new 3,000-bed “mega-prison” was flawed. Most particularly (and most worryingly) it demonstrated the Cabinet’s inability to think politically. And, when your business is politics-at-the-highest-level, that’s a very serious flaw indeed.

Let’s begin from where we are right now. New Zealand’s current prison muster has never been higher. In a nation of just 4.7 million it has topped 10,000 – making New Zealanders one of the most incarcerated peoples in the OECD.

The consequences of this rapid rise in prisoner numbers is that the country’s existing prisons are already dangerously over-crowded. The acute lack of space has already led to the introduction of double-bunking (thank you Judith Collins) and to prisoners being locked in their cells for extended periods. Not surprisingly, these conditions have led to an increase in the number of prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-guard assaults, as well as to a sharp spike in the number of prisoner suicides.

If there’s one thing that would really help New Zealand’s prisoners; its prison guards; and, ultimately, it’s people as a whole; it would be to increase the amount of prison space dramatically. It is only after the Department of Corrections takes possession of enough state-of-the-art “correctional facilities” to humanely house not only its current, but also its projected muster, that any kind of serious discussion about prisoner rehabilitation can begin.

While prisoners are being double-bunked, locked in their cells 22 hours a day, and denied access to the sort of medical, educational and vocational services most of them need, all talk of rehabilitation is not only meaningless – it’s mendacious.

To hear Kelvin Davis acknowledge that it may soon be necessary to put prisoners on mattresses on the floor was sickening. That a Labour cabinet minister is willing to countenance the New Zealand prison system becoming indistinguishable from the Third World hellholes visited by Ross Kemp’s “Extreme World” TV show, marks a new low for what is already a sadly compromised party.

But, what else could he say? The botched compromise he’d just announced: a new 500-bed prison at Waikeria incorporating a 100-bed mental health facility; will not admit its first inmate until 2022. By which time the muster is unlikely to have fallen appreciably and chronic overcrowding will still be making bad men worse.

That’s why it is so dishonest of the Labour-led government to talk about its long-term (15 years!) goal of reducing New Zealand’s prison muster by 30 percent. The last political party to be in power continuously for 15 years was “King Dick” Seddon’s Liberals. Back in the days when politicians wore top-hats and spats.

The only way a political party can talk about a 15-year-plan for reducing prisoner numbers by 30 percent with any semblance of credibility is after it has already succeeded in forging a broad bi-partisan consensus on all the major issues relating to crime and punishment. While Labour remains unmoved by the electorate’s strong emotional attachment to the arguments of the Sensible Sentencing Trust: i.e. that the perpetrators of horrendous crimes must be kept as far away from society as possible, for as long as possible; no such consensus is possible.

A good first-step for Labour would be an open acknowledgement that in all societies there is an irreducible number of bad bastards who must be caught, convicted and locked away. In matters of crime and punishment it is also important to acknowledge that the government’s highest priority should always be the safety of the public. Prisons may represent, as Bill English noted, both a fiscal and a moral failure, but this side of the Second Coming they are failures that cannot be avoided.

It is only after the public has been convinced of a party’s commitment to their safety that the conversation about crime and punishment can be extended to embrace the broader questions of rehabilitation and crime prevention. Advances in both these areas stand a much better chance of being achieved when the effort is concentrated within the prison system itself. Creating the necessary settings for such activity will, paradoxically, require the creation of more correctional space – not less.

In other words, if Labour’s long-term goal is to reduce the size of the New Zealand prison system, then its short-term priority must be to expand it.

New Zealanders will only believe in rehabilitation when they are presented with irrefutable evidence of its success. When prisoners’ physical and mental health problems are treated professionally and effectively. When they are taught to read, write and count well enough to pass the written driving test. When the people released from this country’s prisons stay released.

Only then will the prison muster fall and the resulting savings be seen to exceed the money spent on providing the space and services needed to reduce New Zealand’s appalling incarceration rate.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 June 2018.

The Symptom … And The Cure?

The Art Of The Deal: “[T]he old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles, but we have overcome them and we are here today.” North Korea's Kim Jong Un responds to President Donald Trump's introductory remarks at their historic summit-meeting in Singapore on Tuesday, 12 June 2018.

THE NOTE OF SURPRISE in the voices of the talking heads on CNN was unmistakable. How could this be happening? How could these two men – both of them routinely ridiculed by those claiming expertise in international relations – have gotten even this far? The leaders of USA and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, meeting in Singapore on Tuesday, 12 June 2018 and exchanging warm handshakes across the table. The eccentrically-coiffed and generously-fleshed scion of the redoubtable Kim dynasty, Kim Jong Un, offering up to the world the amazing soundbite:  “the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles, but we have overcome them and we are here today”. How was any of this possible?

One might as well ask – how was the 1972 meeting between Mao Zedong and President Richard Nixon possible? American GIs and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had been in a shooting war barely 20 years before that historic summit in Beijing. For quarter-of-a-century the US Pacific Fleet had shielded the Nationalist regime on Taiwan from the People’s Republic’s wrath. And yet, it happened.

In Oliver Stone’s movie “Nixon” there is a memorable scene in which Chairman Mao, through his interpreter, asks Nixon: “Is peace all you are interested in? The real war is in us. History is a symptom of our disease.” The dialogue is, of course, the work of the film’s screenwriters: Stephen J. Rivelle, Christopher Wilkinson and Stone himself; but it succinctly captures an essential truth about such extraordinary political figures as Mao Zedong, Kim Jong Un, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.

Some political leaders are content to be guided by their advisers – like George “Dubbya” Bush. For others, it is the events in which they are caught up that provide the opportunities for extraordinary displays of leadership. Think Winston Churchill in World War II, or, Lyndon Johnson and the struggle for Black civil rights 1964-65.

Then there are the leaders who, for a whole host of reasons, become the authors of events to which all these other, lesser, statesmen must respond. Grandiloquent and narcissistic, often paranoid, they are prey to deep existential fears and driven by inner-demons of unrelenting ferocity. This kind of leader has the power to project the turmoil and tumult of their own psyches onto the world around them. The ability to, in Stone’s memorable formulation, make History a symptom of their disease.

The rest of humanity has every reason to fear such individuals. Who in their right mind would cast themselves as a plaything in someone else’s paranoid fantasy? Democracies, in particular, should reject such individuals, in whose character there is much more of the emperor and dictator than there is the citizens’ humble representative.

Except, of course, History has a way of infecting individuals with the diseases whose morbid symptoms they will subsequently cause it to display. A nation rent by anxieties and resentments can hardly avoid throwing up the exceptional individual in whom those anxieties and resentments have not only been distilled to an uncommon purity, but who is also able to express them with extraordinary clarity and force.

Democracies in decay are particularly vulnerable to such individuals. The causes of a nation’s inner corruption, when given individual political expression, become accentuated and the process of decomposition is speeded-up. A malign feedback loop emerges by which the neuroses of the nation are both fed by – and feed – the person it has made its own. Be it Julius Caesar, Adolf Hitler or Donald Trump, the people’s “drummer” renders a double service: he is both the person who beats – and the person who is beaten.

Is it really so unbelievable, then, that the America which has grown so deeply resentful and untrusting of its political elites should be willing-on the President who has so openly defied them? That the more the experts deplore Trump’s ignorance and denounce his unwillingness to be guided, the more his supporters thrill to his insouciance.

“It’s about attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done”, declared the President, who went on to claim that he would know within the first minute of their meeting whether Kim Jong Un was serious about reaching a deal. When asked how, he replied simply: “My touch, my feel – that’s what I do.”

Encountering this phenomenon, it is hardly surprising that Kim, a genuine emperor, could believe that all the old prejudices, practices and obstacles might – just – be overcome.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 June 2018.

Thursday 14 June 2018

What’s Wrong With The Progressive Movement’s Bloody Ships?

Something's Gone Wrong: The thing that’s gone wrong with the progressive movement's bloody ships is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded that protest’s only value is as a means of expressing our purely personal discontent with the status quo. This is, of course, bullshit. The purpose of protest is to apply pressure in order to achieve change. To force the wielders of effective political power into making a favourable response.

ABOUT THE TIME the second of Britain’s battle cruisers exploded, Vice-Admiral Beatty famously remarked: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” Trying to make sense of the political passivity of New Zealanders in the twenty-first century, I am often minded of Beatty’s words at the Battle of Jutland. Throughout the vicious class warfare of the past 35 years there does, indeed, seem to be something “wrong” with the progressive movement’s bloody ships!

God knows, it’s not as if there’s been a shortage of issues for people to mobilise against! Low wages; unaffordable housing; the appalling treatment of beneficiaries and state house tenants; the collapse of our mental health service; neoliberalism’s subjugation of the universities: the list is a long one.

The roll-call of resistance is, however, depressingly short. After 1991, protest activity on the streets fell away quite sharply. Campus-based protests against rising tuition fees flared in the early 1990s only to fade away almost completely by the turn of the century.

Environmental causes could still draw middle-class New Zealanders onto the streets in large numbers, however. The biggest of these protests: the anti-GE marches and the 50,000-strong Auckland protest against mining in national parks; were even able to persuade the government of the day to take action.

The most calamitous decline in popular resistance, however, occurred in the New Zealand working-class. Strike action, the most reliable measure of the willingness of working people to stand up and defend their interests, fell away almost completely. Prior to the passage of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, the number of strikes recorded in a single year plummeted from dozens to single figures. So punitive was the new industrial relations law that neither the unions’ paid officials, nor their members, were willing to test it.

That had not been the case in the period between the introduction of the Employment Contracts Bill in 1990 and the legislation being signed into law in May 1991. In April 1991 an estimated 100,000 workers marched against the Bill and mass rallies attended by thousands of rank-and-file unionists voted in favour of a general strike to “Kill the Bill”.

The blank refusal of the leaders of the largest unions to countenance a general strike struck the labour movement a mortal blow from which it has never recovered. Since 1991 the Council of Trade Unions and its affiliates have never been able to muster more than 5,000 unionists in one place. Workers had been ready to fight in 1991 but their so-called “leaders” had not.

The 2012 Ports of Auckland dispute, led by the late Helen Kelly, offered a glimpse of what working people might achieve if given half a chance – and courageous leadership. So, too, did Matt McCarten’s “Unite” union of low-paid security guards and fast-food workers. Sadly, these proved to be the exceptions – not the rule.

Then there were the great “one-offs”: protests that surged and exploded into genuine demonstrations of “people power” only to be sucked into the swamp of parliamentary politics and drowned.

The first of these was the hugely impressive 2004 hikoi against the controversial Foreshore and Seabed legislation. After setting forth from the Far North, the hikoi grew in strength until it arrived in the capital numbering somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 protesters. The Maori Party was born out of this impressive mobilisation of New Zealand’s indigenous people. Sadly, the huge hopes invested in the party ended up producing only the most meagre of political dividends.

The second big one-off protest was the February 2016 demonstration against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. It wasn’t just the number of protesters (somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000) but their palpable anger and energy that startled the political class. Alas, as happened with the hikoi, the anti-TPPA movement allowed itself to be skilfully finessed by the parliamentary opposition. The Labour Party, in particular, encouraged the protesters to believe that, once elected, it would keep New Zealand out of the TPPA’s trans-national corporate clutches.

The energy and anger of February 2016 soon dissipated and could not be reactivated when, 20 months later, the new Labour-NZF-Government proudly attached its signature to something called the “Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership”.

At the Battle of Jutland, the thing that was wrong with Beatty’s “bloody ships” was that the necessary precautions against enemy shells penetrating the battle cruisers’ magazines had not been taken. In effect, it was Beatty’s negligent approach to safety that sank his ships.

What, then, has gone wrong with New Zealand’s progressive ships?

In the simplest possible terms, the link between protest and political action has been broken.

For most of the post-war period, widespread protest activity almost always brought forth an answering political response. People marched and petitioned to “Save Manapouri!” – and Manapouri was saved. Thousands protested New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War – and NZ troops were withdrawn. For 56 days in 1981 the country was convulsed by the Springbok Tour – NZ’s sporting contact with Apartheid South Africa ceased. Most importantly, workers went on strike to improve their pay and conditions – and their pay and conditions were improved. Direct action worked.

It was one of the core objectives of the neoliberal counter-revolution that this relationship between popular agitation and the democratic political process be destroyed. Most especially in matters relating to the economy. The idea that ordinary people might influence the way in which wealth was created and distributed had to be discouraged.

The thing that’s gone wrong with our bloody ships is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded that protest’s only value is as a means of expressing our purely personal discontent with the status quo. This is, of course, bullshit. The purpose of protest is to apply pressure in order to achieve change. To force the wielders of effective political power into making a favourable response.

If those with the power refuse to respond to our protests, then the correct reaction is not to give up and go quiet. It is to protest louder and harder and longer until the powers-that-be give up – and give in.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 14 June 2018.

Tuesday 12 June 2018

What They Do In The Shadows: Winston Saves Labour From Itself.

They Want It Darker: Peters knows exactly what is going on in the minds of the dark, rock-solid mass of National Party voters – there was a time when he stood in the shadows with them. Aware that Laura Norder was getting ready to let loose one of her full-throated screams, Peters moved swiftly to save Labour from itself. Andrew Little will just have to wait.

THANK GOD FOR WINSTON PETERS! The decision of the NZ First Party to torpedo the Labour Party justice minister’s proposal to scrap the “Three Strikes” legislation came in the very nick of time. Andrew Little may be a good man, and Sir Peter Gluckman a powerful advocate for evidence-based decision-making, but neither of them would appear to possess Peters’ gut instinct for what is – and is not – possible politically.

The leader of NZ First is looking at the dark and rock-solid mass of National Party support ranged against the Labour-NZF-Green government, and he is drawing some pretty gloomy conclusions.

The first and most obvious of these is that the Nats smell blood. At both the parliamentary and grass-roots level of the National “movement” (for want of a better description) the frequently voiced opinion whatever else this government may do it is most unlikely to win a second term is rapidly solidifying into a right-wing conviction.

The second is that Jacinda’s “stardust” only works on the “woke”. If you’re young and following the right people on Twitter and Instagram; if you’re middle-class and well-credentialed; if you’re a working couple living in your own home and raising a young family; well then, Jacinda’s bloody marvellous. In the grim ghettoes of deprivation and despair, however, Labour’s promises of kindness and transformation have yet to evoke a measurable political response.

Peters knows exactly what that means in electoral terms. Labour is failing to grow its vote out of anything other than the support bases of its own partners. The non-voting poor and marginalised – who should be their target – have yet to hear anything from Jacinda and her team compelling enough to distract them from the grim business of day-to-day survival.

For a few magical moments in 2017, Metiria Turei caused a number of them to lift up their heads – just in time to witness her brutal political destruction. But who’s giving hope to beneficiaries and the working-poor in 2018? Certainly not Carmel Sepuloni!

The third – and the gloomiest – conclusion Peters is likely to have drawn is that this is not an era of political sunshine. He is old enough to remember the early 1960s when, for a few brief years, both here in New Zealand and around the Western World, there was a public willingness to embrace social policies founded in compassion, bolstered by science and delivered by political parties temporarily freed from the encumbering baggage of traditional conservatism.

Full-employment and steadily rising living-standards had emptied communities of the fears and anxieties to which, throughout history, they had been prey. The sunshine of empathy shone into places usually cast in the shade of envy and prejudice. To an electorally significant number of citizens the world seemed to be getting better and better and they were willing to vote for politicians who promised to make it better still. Social-democracy and progressive liberalism made common cause against all manner of social evils: prisons built to punish not rehabilitate; birching and flogging; the death penalty.

Peters is also old enough to remember the Third Labour Government and how its sunniest ministers – the most outstanding of which was the Justice Minister, Dr Martyn Findlay – attempted to press ahead with ever more liberal and progressive reforms. He’d remember, too, the souring of the New Zealand electorate in the wake of the hugely inflationary oil-shocks and Kirk’s tragic death.

Peters will recall how fear and anxiety returned to the nation’s communities as unemployment rose and living-standards began to fall. Watching all this, that much younger Winston Peters observed how easily National’s leader, Rob Muldoon, turned it all to his advantage. How traditional conservatism – momentarily outshone – once again cast its pall over the electorate. How Dr Martyn Findlay and his liberal reforms were unceremoniously cast aside - along with the rest of the Labour Government.

Peters knows exactly what is going on in the minds of that dark, rock-solid mass of National Party voters – there was a time when he stood in the shadows with them. Aware that Laura Norder was getting ready to let loose one of her full-throated screams, Peters moved swiftly to save Labour from itself. Andrew Little will just have to wait.

A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 June 2018.

Monday 11 June 2018

It’s Time To Stop Subsidising New Zealand’s Least Efficient Employers.

The Biggest Subsidy Of All: Rather than force inefficient businesses – and businessmen – out of the economy, the National Government of Jim Bolger, Ruth Richardson, Jenny Shipley and Bill Birch opted to keep inefficient businesses afloat by allowing them to consistently reduce their wages bill.

NEW ZEALAND has a major problem with the way its bosses do business. In simple terms, the problem boils down to this: Kiwi employers expect Kiwi workers to subsidise their profits.

It has been this way since 1991 when the Employment Contracts Act effectively eliminated the institutions principally responsible for ensuring a fair distribution of businesses’ surpluses between shareholders and employees – the trade unions.

The elimination of state-sanctioned and state-facilitated collective bargaining was intended to depress wages and boost profits. On both counts it was extremely successful.

In the years immediate following the passage of the Employment Contracts Act, profits rose spectacularly and union density fell precipitately. In the 1980s, more than half the private-sector workforce were unionised; today, fewer than one-in-ten private-sector workers belong to a trade union. Without unions, Kiwi workers’ share of the wealth they’d helped create began a steady decline which has yet to cease. In 2018, the purchasing power of their wage packets is not much higher than it was in the 1970s.

The comparison with Australia – where collective bargaining enjoys far greater protection – is as bleak as it is alluring. The wages paid to Australian workers are, on average, a full third higher than the wages paid to workers doing the same jobs in New Zealand. Small wonder that so many skilled New Zealanders have “crossed the ditch”.

Bad though this situation has been for New Zealand’s workers, their subsidisation of the nation’s businesses has had an even more malign impact on the New Zealand economy as a whole.

In theory, capitalist enterprises grow more profitable by becoming more efficient – more productive. Fewer – but better – workers is the goal. A firm’s investment in better machines and more highly-skilled (and highly-paid) staff may be expensive in the short term, but the long-term improvement in its performance will not only increase its profitability, but also cause it to become more resilient and competitive.

This was precisely the conclusion arrived at by government, employer and union representatives in Sweden in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Together, they embarked upon a project to “compress” wages – i.e. reduce the gap between the lowest and the highest paid workers – by means of what the Swedish unions called “solidaristic wage bargaining”. Highly-skilled and highly-paid paid workers in the most efficient industries moderated their wage demands, while the unions representing Sweden’s low-paid workers demanded more.

Did this force some firms to go out of business? Yes it did – that was the whole idea. Wage compression forced Swedish employers to either become more efficient – or go under. The improvement in Swedish productivity and the stimulatory effect of higher wages easily absorbed the workers laid-off by the businesses forced to close. Firms whose proprietors probably shouldn’t have been in business in the first place.

New Zealand’s solution was the exact opposite of Sweden’s. Rather than force inefficient businesses – and businessmen – out of the economy, the National Government of Jim Bolger, Ruth Richardson, Jenny Shipley and Bill Birch opted to keep inefficient businesses afloat by allowing them to consistently reduce their wages bill.

Slashing the basic level of social-welfare assistance by 25 percent was the indispensable companion-policy to National’s low-wage strategy. No matter how low wages fell, it was absolutely vital that benefits fell lower. Being in work had to be preferable to being on the dole.

Regrettably, the Labour-led government of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen failed to reverse National’s low-wage strategy. Not only did they decline to restore the trade unions to anything like their former strength, but they augmented National’s low-wage strategy by introducing “Working For Families” which was nothing more nor less than a massive wage-subsidy to New Zealand’s worst employers, and yet another structural impediment to New Zealand capitalism improving its overall efficiency and productivity.

The question to be answered now is whether or not the present Labour-NZF-Green Government is willing to take the steps necessary to purge the New Zealand economy of its least efficient employers and force the rest of them to lift their game? Neither John Key nor Bill English were willing to put an end to the rank injustice of a system that kept bad bosses afloat by constantly shrinking their workers’ slice of the pie.

Could Iain Lees-Galloway’s lifting of the minimum wage to $20.00 by 2020 be interpreted as a first step towards solidaristic wage-bargaining?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 June 2018.

Forget the 1970s, Labour’s Fair Pay Agreements will take New Zealand back to the 1890s!

Poacher Turned Gamekeeper? Will Jim Bolger, the one-time master-poacher of worker’s rights, be able to transform himself, over the course of the coming months, into the incorruptible game-keeper of their interests?

“FAIR PAY AGREEMENTS” (FPA) are the final proof that Labour is evolving backwards into the Liberal Party. Predictably, National’s ignorance of its own country’s history has rendered it incapable of placing this latest example of Labour milksoppery into its proper context. Scott Simpson can witter-on all he likes about Jim Bolger (of whom more later) taking New Zealand back to the 1970s. A much more accurate historical invocation would be the 1890s. Or, if we’re being precise, 1894. That was the year the Liberal Government of Richard John Seddon passed the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act (ICAA) – the true inspiration for Iain Lees-Galloway’s FPAs.

The ICCA empowered the state to bring employers and workers together for the purpose of establishing minimum rates-of-pay and working conditions across whole industries and occupations. If these could not be arrived at by negotiation, then binding arbitration was available from a special Arbitration Court. Crucially, unions and employer associations who submitted their disputes to the Court were forbidden from engaging in strikes or lockouts. These “awards” of the Arbitration Court spelled out the minimum standards workers could expect and prevented the employers’ competitors from initiating a ‘race to the bottom’ on wages and conditions.

The parallels with Labour’s proposed FPAs are obvious. What has yet to be established, however, is whether or not the advisory group headed by Bolger will incorporate a twenty-first century equivalent of the Arbitration Court into the new FPA machinery. Without such a mechanism, the negotiation of anything resembling a useful FPA will be next-to-impossible. Strikes and lockouts have already been ruled out of the process, so in the absence of a binding arbitration mechanism, negotiations between employers and unions could be prolonged indefinitely. Or, at the very least, until the National Party is re-elected and the legislation enabling FPAs repealed.

This will be the true test of whether Bolger’s ‘road to Damascus’ conversion: from hard-line anti-union promoter of the Employment Contract’s Act, to conscience-stricken repudiator of neoliberalism and all its works; is genuine. With National’s workplace relations spokesperson, Scott Simpson, on record as promising to repeal all FPA-related legislation, any hopes Labour may have entertained of Bolger inspiring an outbreak of constructive bi-partisanship have already been dashed.

The best the Left can hope for now is that the one-time master-poacher of worker’s rights will, over the course of the coming months, transform himself into the incorruptible game-keeper of their interests.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 6 June 2018.

Monday 4 June 2018

Generating Our Own Momentum.

Radical Millennial: As one of the most articulate and progressive representatives of “Roger’s Children” – those young New Zealanders who have grown up knowing nothing but neoliberalism –– Max Harris (above) is constantly searching for the raw materials with which to launch in his own homeland the same sort of fightback made possible by Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum in the UK.

CAN A “MOMENTUM” be built in New Zealand? This, in essence, was the question posed by millennial political scholar extraordinaire, Max Harris, to the sixty-or-so leftists who showed up at the Kai Pasifika restaurant on Wednesday night (30/5/18) for the welcome return of Laila Harré’s political “salon”.

The question is important because, as Harris made clear, it is the 30,000-strong Momentum movement which can claim most of the credit for consolidating Jeremy Corbyn's grip on the leadership of the British Labour Party, and most certainly it is Momentum which is keeping him there. Harris, himself, seemed less than optimistic that such a movement could get off the ground in this country, citing the profound depoliticization wrought by 30 years of extreme neoliberalism. Not helped, he might have added, by the New Zealand Labour Party (NZLP) hierarchy’s ingrained hostility to “Corbynism” and all forms of “bottom-up” organisation.

The reason for that hostility may be traced back directly to the 1989 split in the NZLP, when hundreds of left-wing activists followed the late Jim Anderton out of the organisation to form the NewLabour Party (NLP) – later to become a dominant force in the Alliance. The centrists who remained in the NZLP never forgave their erstwhile left-wing comrades for leaving them alone with the Rogernomes (who themselves decamped to form the Act Party in 1994). The key consequence of these centrists’ political traumas was that, throughout the 1990s and well into the 2000s, the NZLP’s default ideological setting was a rather bloodless version of Tony Blair’s “Third Way-ism”.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had the NZLP not split. Would the enormous energy and imagination that went into the formation of the NLP, and then the Alliance, have been devoted instead to hurling the neoliberal cuckoos out of Labour’s nest? Could New Zealand have given birth to its own intra-party generator of left-wing organisation and power a good twenty years before the British Labour Party generated its own Momentum?

The answer is – probably not. The extraordinary fact remains that it was the NZLP which accepted the task of introducing neoliberalism to New Zealand. In so doing it denied itself the historic role of leading the fight against it. The contrast with the British Labour Party, whose members waged a long and bitter struggle against Thatcherism, is a stark one. After eighteen years in the wilderness, Tony Blair may have been able to overlay his Third Way message on the British Labour Party, but its deep-in-the-bone hatred of the Thatcherite project was ineradicable. Had it not been, Momentum and Corbyn (who, almost alone, kept the flame of Labour’s core values burning for more than thirty years) would have had nothing to work with.

Even with British Labour’s proud history of resisting Thatcherism, Blair’s capture of the party’s “commanding heights” in the mid-1990s allowed him to populate Labour’s parliamentary contingent with careerist clones of their master and his minions. Corbyn undoubtedly faces powerful opponents in the all the usual bastions of the British establishment, but his bitterest enemies continue to be seated behind him on the Opposition benches.

Had Anderton and the Labour Left stayed put in 1989, and then flexed their muscles in the aftermath of the fourth Labour government’s inevitable defeat in 1990, the party would still have split. A good proportion of the caucus and much of the organisational hierarchy would have refused to accept a left-dominated NZLP. The legal battle over who had the right to call themselves the Labour Party would have raged on for months – possibly years. There would have been no winners.

The depoliticization of New Zealand society which Harris noted in his address was inescapable either way. It is simply not possible for a party of the Left to oversee the imposition of policies which the Right could only have introduced with the assistance of policemen’s truncheons without fundamentally deranging the entire political system for at least a generation.

As one of the most articulate and progressive representatives of “Roger’s Children” – those young New Zealanders who have grown up knowing nothing but neoliberalism –– Harris is constantly searching for the raw materials with which to launch in his own homeland the same sort of fightback made possible by Corbyn and Momentum. With the Alliance dead by its own hand, however, and with the NZLP allergic to “Corbynism” in all its forms (who was the one person Jacinda didn’t exchange public kisses with on her triumphant European tour?) the chances of building a Kiwi Momentum here are heartbreakingly slim.

Harris’s “politics of love” will require a very different vector. One which, given the history of Aotearoa-New Zealand, is most unlikely to have anything British about it at all.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 1 May 2018.