Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Racing To The Bottom, Or Chasing Our Tails?

Always Playing Catch-Up: Throughout the 1970s, the purchasing power of the ordinary worker’s pay packet – the only meaningful measure of his or her wealth – was being eaten away every passing year by seemingly inexorable rises in the cost-of-living. Small wonder that New Zealand (and the rest of the Western world) was plagued by strike after strike, as the unions made increasingly desperate – and ultimately futile – efforts to catch-up. Neoliberalism has many faults, but encouraging inflation isn't one of them.

A NEW FRONT has opened up in an old battle. The New Zealand Initiative (NZI) a think tank funded by this country’s largest corporations, has come out swinging against this government’s proposed “Fair Pay Agreements” (FPA).

As the linear descendent of the Business Roundtable, of unhappy memory, this is hardly surprising. For the NZI’s principal funders, preserving the gains of the dramatic changes in employment law which rounded-off New Zealand’s neoliberal revolution remains a high priority.

In the ears of New Zealand’s biggest bosses, the FPAs sound too much like the old “Industrial Awards”, which, for nearly 100 years, underpinned the industrial relations system swept away by the Employment Contracts Act 1991 (ECA).

It has been an article of faith among trade unionists (and the Left generally) that the passage of the ECA led directly to a decisive shift in the balance-of-power in the workplace. Not only between the boss and the union, but also – and more generally – between wage and salary earners and shareholders. The ECA has caused the share of national wealth claimed by the workers to shrink, the Left insists, while growing the share claimed by the capitalists.

All the other arguments advanced by the labour movement: that the employment relationship, as modified by the ECA and its successors, has grown increasingly one-sided and unfair; is based upon this crucial statistic. If the size of the Capitalists’ slice of the national pie has, indeed, grown relative to the workers’ slice, then change is justified. If, however, the slices have remained more-or-less the same, or, if the workers’ slice is growing (albeit very slowly) then the Left’s case for change is weakened – perhaps fatally.

Hence the NZI’s latest offensive: a statistical dagger-thrust at the unions’ key argument that unjust employment laws are keeping the workers poor, weak and exploited. Here’s the point of the dagger:

“[I]t is claimed current labour market settings have seen a decline in the share of New Zealand’s gross domestic product (or “share of the pie”) going to workers. This concern is a myth. The share of GDP going to workers did decline in the late 20th century, but this fall largely occurred in the 1970s and 1980s (at a time when New Zealand had a system of industrial awards similar to the FPA arrangements proposed by the FPA[Working Group]). Since the 1991 reforms, the decline in workers’ share of GDP has been arrested and is now trending upwards.”

Could this possibly be true? Actually, the NZI just might be right.

A week or so ago, while researching another topic entirely, I had cause to refer to my late mother’s amazing collection of Encyclopaedia Britannica yearbooks. In the entry devoted to New Zealand in the year 1977, I read with astonishment that the rate of inflation recorded for 1976 was 15.6 percent. In March of 1977, however, the Wage Hearing Tribunal had awarded wage workers an across-the-board increase of just 6 percent. The unions had asked for 12.8 percent. In other words, the purchasing power of the ordinary worker’s real wage had shrunk by at least 6.8 percent – probably more.

No matter that union membership was compulsory in 1977. No matter that industrial awards mandated a minimum set of wages and conditions across entire occupational groupings. The purchasing power of the ordinary worker’s pay packet – the only meaningful measure of his or her wealth – was being eaten away every passing year by these seemingly inexorable rises in the cost-of-living. Small wonder that New Zealand (and the rest of the Western world) was plagued by strike after strike, as the unions made increasingly desperate – and ultimately futile – efforts to catch-up.

Clearly, there were more ways of killing the poor old worker’s cat than by hitting it over the head with the ECA.

The Council of Trade Unions may be right about the ECA and its workplace bargaining setting off a “race to the bottom”, whereby wages are constantly being suppressed by employers competing aggressively to reduce the size of their wage bill. But, the very same rigors of competitive neoliberal microeconomics are also preventing employers from simply passing on the wage rises secured through collective bargaining into the price of their goods and services.

While neoliberalism holds inflation in check – allowing workers’ real wages to rise – the trade unions will struggle for members – and relevance.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 July 2019.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Can Jacinda Give National The KISS Of Populist Death?

Let's Do Them! All Jacinda Ardern has to do to clinch the 2020 General Election is frighten the bejesus out of the electorate by describing in the most graphic terms imaginable what will happen to all the positive beginnings her government has made if National is returned to power. Paint Simon Bridges, or, Judith Collins (if National are silly enough to gift Labour “The Crusher”) as wanton toddlers, hell-bent on smashing-down what all the other children are striving to build.

AS THINGS NOW STAND, NZ First cannot surge. This is a serious problem for all the parties making up the Coalition Government. NZ First has come to rely upon the last-minute surge in popular support which its leader skilfully engenders, and which, again and again, has carried himself and his colleagues over the 5 percent MMP threshold. The problem facing the Coalition in 2020 is that, hitherto, Winston Peters’ target: the object fuelling the popular resentment behind the surge; has been the incumbent government. Peters can hardly set about organising a populist surge against himself!

Unfortunately, for the Coalition Government, it is living through what might be called “The Populist Moment”. All over the world, voters are deserting the parties of the centre-left and the centre-right for political leaders and parties eager to denounce the failed orthodoxy of the political establishment. The era of post-war optimism, founded on a rising tide of prosperity lasting thirty years, is well and truly over. All the promises to re-start the happiness machine have proved hollow. The new god of Neoliberalism, which replaced the failed god of Keynesianism, has turned out to have feet of clay. Nothing works anymore, and somebody must be to blame.

Ordinarily, it would be Peters and NZ First positioning themselves front-and-centre in the blame game. As we lurch towards election year, however, we encounter a howling void where New Zealand’s twenty-five-year-old populist party used to be. It’s not as if there’s any shortage of issues for the populists to take up: immigration, affordable housing, freedom of speech, social and cultural engineering; all are crying out for a champion.

And that’s the only question. Is there a politician out there tough enough to pick them up and run with them?

Act’s David Seymour would like to, but he simply doesn’t strike enough voters as the right sort of person for the job. National’s Simon Bridges can also see the gap in the political market which Peters’ decision to throw in his lot with Labour and the Greens has opened up. Unfortunately, he just can’t decide whether his colleagues are ready – or even willing – to hare off down the populist path. It’s that indecision, ultimately, which disqualifies him from following in the footsteps of this country’s most ruthless populist politician, Rob Muldoon.

No other New Zealand political leader has produced a surge like Muldoon’s. In just 18 months he exactly reversed Labour’s huge 23-seat majority. The only other National Party leader who’s come anywhere close is Don Brash, who took National from its worst defeat ever and turned it back into a credible contender for power. There’s no doubt that National can do populism: what else were Muldoon’s dancing Cossacks and Brash’s Iwi/Kiwi billboards? What is much more doubtful, is the National Caucus’s willingness give Judith Collins a crack at it.

Which just leaves one more contender: the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.

Is that even possible? Has an incumbent government ever successfully run a populist campaign?

The answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” All that’s required is an extremely popular leader (Check) and a poorly-led and vulnerable Opposition (Check). As Scott Morrison demonstrated across the Tasman: if these two prerequisites are in place; and if you have the self-discipline to stay on-message for the duration; then you can confound the pundits and snatch victory from the jaws of what everyone insisted was certain defeat.

All Jacinda has to do is frighten the bejesus out of the electorate by describing in the most graphic terms imaginable what will happen to all the positive beginnings her government has made if National is returned to power. Paint Simon Bridges, or, Judith Collins (if National are silly enough to gift Labour “The Crusher”) as wanton toddlers, hell-bent on smashing-down what all the other children are striving to build. Negative campaigning? Attack advertising? Of course! But in a noble and positive cause.

And the really exciting thing is that a huge part of the campaign need not be visible. If Labour in New Zealand is not too proud to copy the extraordinary social-media campaigning techniques perfected by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the recent European elections, then Jacinda should be able to avoid pretty much all of the blood-splatter.

If Labour can bear to eschew complexity, in favour of “Keep it simple, stupid!”, Jacinda will surge home.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 July 2019.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Goff And Tamihere Are Both Wrong. (But Bernard Hickey Is Right On The Money!)

Show Me The Money! The alternative to state funding of infrastructure is, of course, to fund it by taking on massive amounts of private debt. On this issue, at least, Auckland mayoral challenger, Tamihere, has some solid points to make. In his own colourful turn of phrase, the incumbent mayor, Phil Goff, and the Auckland Council, have “maxed-out the credit card”. If the City is to preserve its international credit rating of AA, then it simply cannot afford to take on any more debt.

NEITHER PHIL GOFF, nor John Tamihere, are telling Aucklanders the truth about their city, but Bernard Hickey has given it a pretty good shot. In a powerful and deeply insightful article, posted on the Newsroom website, Hickey not only explains why KiwiBuild failed, but why it could never have succeeded. In the process, he lays bare the fundamental failures of political and economic intelligence fuelling New Zealand’s conjoined national and local infrastructure crises. Goff and Tamihere are part of that intellectual failure, and that is why neither politician is giving Aucklanders meaningful answers to their most pressing questions.

Tamihere has proposed selling 49 percent of Watercare to either the Accident Compensation Corporation, or the Superannuation Fund, or both, and using the proceeds (estimated at around $5 billion) to fund Auckland’s urgent infrastructure needs. Goff, who, in his years as a member of the Fourth Labour Government, never once voted against the privatisation of state-owned monopolies, has come out as a staunch defender of the municipally-owned Watercare company. He is warning Aucklanders that Tamihere’s plan would increase the average Aucklander’s water bill by $200-400 per year – falling most heavily on the poorest Auckland families.

What does Hickey say about the funding of local government infrastructure?

“After the mid-1980s, the Government saw the private sector as the provider of housing and saw any infrastructure as a cost that needed to be borne by those building the new houses and local Government, not the wider taxpaying public. Even now, that thinking is infused through Treasury and into the minds of the current Labour leadership, going from Ardern through Finance Minister Grant Robertson to Twyford.”

In other words, the neoliberal principle of “user pays” has been extended well beyond its original target, the hapless individual consumer of government services, to encompass everyone: consumers, businesses, central and local government institutions; everyone. The contrast between the neoliberal approach and the nation-building approach, which, historically, has informed the policies of successive New Zealand governments, could hardly be starker.

As Hickey makes clear:

“[N]neither the National or Labour-led governments of the last 35 years have seen it as their role to pay for [housing’s] underlying infrastructure. Their instincts have been to get others to pay for it, unlike during the golden eras of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s and early 1970s when governments of both colours used the national balance sheet to build and subsidise that infrastructure through the Ministry of Works, State Advances Corp and various Group Building schemes and child benefit capitalisation policies.”

The alternative to state funding of infrastructure is, of course, to fund it by taking on massive amounts of private debt. On this issue, at least, Tamihere has some solid points to make. In his own colourful turn of phrase, Goff and the Auckland Council have “maxed-out the credit card”. If the City is to preserve its international credit rating of AA, then it simply cannot afford to take on any more debt. What’s more, the rest of the country cannot afford for Auckland to take on any more debt.

Hickey tells us why:

“The technical problem is the Auckland Council is almost at its debt-to-revenue limit ratio of 270 percent, which is the level specified by Standard and Poor’s for Auckland to keep its AA credit rating. This is important because taking on more debt would mean Auckland’s credit rating would be downgraded, which would increase the interest costs on existing debt and force up rates. But it would also breach the rules set by the Local Government Funding Agency [LGFA] about Auckland’s credit rating not falling more than one notch below the Government's AA+ rating. That’s important because Auckland’s rating essentially sets the base for all local government borrowing through the LGFA. It means there is enormous political pressure locally and financial pressure from other councils (and the LGFA) for Auckland not to borrow much more. Councils beyond the Bombays and north of Orewa would scream blue murder if their interest bills went up because the Auckland Council decided to solve a funding problem the central Government won’t solve.”

Unable to take on any more debt, Tamihere knows that the only way for Goff to fund infrastructure development in Auckland is by increasing rates, raising user-charges, and/or adding another 5-10 cents to the price of a litre of petrol. Tamihere is far from convinced that Goff (or anyone else) is willing to risk a ratepayers’ revolt by leading Auckland up that particular garden path, hence his plan to access five billion desperately needed dollars for urgent infrastructure development by selling 49 percent of Watercare.

The politics of this is quite clever, because, by the time ACC and/or the Superfund take the necessary steps to secure their standard rate-of-return from Watercare by taking it out of everybody’s water bill – Goff is quite right about that – Tamihere may have earned himself enough public good-will to be re-elected Mayor in 2022. (Assuming, of course, that this partial privatisation policy enables him to beat Goff in October 2019.) Five billion dollars builds a lot of infrastructure, so, who knows, Tamihere’s use of Peter’s central government funds, to pay for Paul’s local government needs, might just work. “The Mayor who rebuilt Auckland without plunging us all into deeper debt!” – has a rather nice political ring to it.

In the long run, however, Tamihere’s gambit can only be a bust. Liquidating and then spending Auckland’s capital assets can only end up dragging the city to the same point Goff has already reached. Namely, facing the politically unpalatable reality of requiring people to give up an increasing proportion of their income to the Council and/or its commercial arms. While the New Zealand political class – and that includes you, Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and James Shaw – remains incapable of thinking outside the neoliberal box, New Zealand’s crumbling infrastructure, not to mention the many large-scale public works projects that will be required to meet the challenges of the future, cannot be addressed.

Goff and Tamihere would be better advised to jointly demand, as the leading mayoral candidates, that the State once again steps up to the plate of nation-building. In a country whose entire population is smaller than that of a medium-sized global city, there never has been, and still isn’t, any other viable alternative to turning the state into New Zealand’s angel investor.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 4 July 2019.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Un-Friending The People.

The People's "Friend": In this masterpiece of revolutionary propaganda, the homicidal political psychopath, Jean-Paul Marat, has been transformed by Jacques-Louis David, the French Revolution's most accomplished artist, into a martyred hero of the ordinary people of Paris. Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, the ignorant and the angry no longer need a radical 'friend' with a printing press to amplify their voices. Today they can change the world with a fingertip.

BEN MORGAN IS RIGHT: “This is the first time in history that people with so little competence can so powerfully enter the civic discourse.” The consequences of this undeniable fact, for ourselves as citizens, and for our entire democratic political culture, are huge. When noise equals money, and ignorance has been given such a mighty amplifier as the Internet, then democracy, as a viable system of government, must come under enormous pressure.

The dangers of giving the angry and ignorant their own media outlet was demonstrated most powerfully in the early 1790s, just as the French Revolution was entering its “Reign of Terror”.

The radical political philosopher, physician and noted scientist, Jean-Paul Marat, recognising the rising power of the poorest people of Paris, founded a newspaper dedicated to both arousing and expressing their most extreme political passions. In a sinister anticipation of the very worst aspects of today’s social media, Marat’s Friend of The People turned rumour into fact and gave voice to the poverty-stricken masses most bloodthirsty impulses. To be denounced on the pages of Marat’s “fake news”-paper very quickly became the equivalent of a death sentence. That Marat, himself, was afflicted with an excruciating skin disease did nothing to calm his homicidal fury towards any person or group he judged to be an enemy of the people.

It was at Marat’s instigation that the revolutionary militia – known as the National Guard – carried out the infamous “September Massacres” of 1792. Over the course of a week National Guardsmen, their numbers augmented by the Paris poor, broke into the capital’s prisons and butchered more than a thousand prisoners. Marat had told his readers that the jails of Paris were full of aristocrats ready to assist the counter-revolutionary forces massing on France’s borders. To save the revolution, he declared, they must all be pre-emptively executed. Some of the victims were, indeed, political prisoners awaiting trial. Most, however, were common criminals. Even by the grisly standards of eighteenth century Europe, the grotesque horror of the September Massacres was profoundly shocking.

Marat’s next victims were the “Girondins”, a faction of the National Assembly whom he suspected of excessive moderation. The Friend of the People’s relentless campaigning convinced Marat’s readers that the Girondins were plotting against the Revolution. In short order, his allies in the National Assembly, the radical Jacobin faction, had the Girondins arrested, tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal, declared guilty, and guillotined.

Marat’s bloody reign was brought to an abrupt end by a young Girondin sympathiser called Charlotte Corday, who famously stabbed him to death in his medicinal bath, after gaining access to the “people’s friend” by passing herself off as an anti-Girondin informant. Secretly relieved to be rid of their dangerous journalistic demagogue, the Jacobins transformed Marat into the Revolution’s first great martyr. The painting entitled The Death of Marat, executed by the era’s most accomplished artist, Jacques-Louis David, is an acknowledged masterpiece of revolutionary propaganda.

This cautionary historical tale records only the consequences of a single radical intellectual’s decision to align himself wholeheartedly with the least educated and most desperate elements of a society gripped by revolutionary change. The important difference between Marat’s Friend of the People and Facebook is that, in order to work its malign political magic, the former still required the participation of a guiding editorial hand, a printers’ workshop, and a host of newspaper sellers. Contemporary social media has done away with all these intermediaries. Today, the people need no friend, they can speak for themselves.

These individual voices, algorithmically assembled into vast aggregations of the like-minded, now possess the power to dictate the editorial policies of the world’s newspapers and broadcasting networks. Dependent on the electronic devices of these volatile and easily bored consumers for their economic survival, the legacy media has all but given up on the notion that a newspaper, magazine, radio station or television network should lead and inform public opinion. This clear political goal, which Marat, himself, would have endorsed – albeit in relation to the Parisians’ most extreme opinions – has been supplemented by the media’s existential need to fashion itself into a politically agnostic parasite. The new media organism’s only hope of sustaining itself is to feast, with cynical efficiency, on the madness and mania of the masses, and then excrete it back to them.

With the ignorance and prejudices of the masses setting the social and political tone, the desperation and disdain of well-educated and culturally sophisticated managers and professionals – the people who actually keep a modern, technologically-driven society functioning – is easily imagined.

Gone are the days when these folk were able to filter out the masses’ mania and madness from the news media; when the political parties they largely controlled could aggregate a coherent policy agenda with which to guide an otherwise inchoate electorate. Confronted with such monumental stupidity in every sphere: politics, medicine, science; is it any wonder that the technocrats in charge have learned how to transform the self-same social media which has undermined the guided democracy of the past into the undisclosed vector of its destruction in the present?

The covert manipulation of elections by means of social media has now reached such a level of sophistication that those lacking the skills to participate are rendered utterly irrelevant to the electoral process – except as window-dressing. The impact of these techniques is already evident in the deep organic political crisis currently gripping the United Kingdom. Brexit, that great victory of the ignorant and the angry, has set the UK up for a revolution of its own. A similar fate looks set to overwhelm the United States in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential elections.

Will these revolts throw up their own versions of Jean-Paul Marat? Of course. Only this time the people will not see him. And he will not be their friend.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 2 July 2019.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Contracting Out Of Religious Freedom.

Going Upstairs: If we accept the LGBTQI+ community’s untrammelled right to advance their understanding of love, then we must also accept Israel Folau’s right to articulate his own simplistic and inadequate interpretation of the Christian religion.

ONE OF THE FIRST things I learned as a young trade union organiser was: “You cannot contract out of statute law.” What does that mean? It means that if you enjoy a statutory entitlement to three weeks paid holiday, then your boss cannot legally require you to sign a contract limiting your paid holiday to just two weeks. This prohibition stands as one of the most crucial protections of English Common Law. Without it, the rights guaranteed to citizens by statute would be routinely signed away on pain of their not securing – or retaining – paid employment.

Tell that to Israel Folau!

In spite of the fact that the Australian Constitution explicitly guarantees to each citizen the freedom of religion, Folau’s contract with the national Australian rugby team has been terminated on account of his religious beliefs concerning homosexuality.

No matter that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion must, logically, include the freedom to express one’s religious beliefs. No matter that the Australian High Court has ruled that the democratic character of the Australian Constitution implies the enforceable entitlement of all Australians to all the freedoms associated with the practice of democracy – most particularly, the freedom of expression. According to Folau’s employers, his statement regarding the ultimate fate of sinners (which they have branded homophobic) has brought Australian Rugby into disrepute – and his contract has been terminated.

That bit about bringing his employers into disrepute is crucial to the outcome of the legal challenge Folau is determined to mount against his termination.

One of the other things I learned very early on in my (brief) career as a trade union organiser is that our paid employment is still defined as a “master/servant” relationship. Under law, one of the many duties we, “servants”, owe our “masters” is the protection of their good reputation. Our employers have a legal right to expect that their employees refrain from doing anything which is likely to bring them into “disrepute”.

Clearly, this legally enforceable right of the masters to curtail the speech of their servants runs headlong into the right of servants – as citizens – to exercise their freedom of expression. The question thus becomes one of determining which takes precedence. The fact that servants have a legal obligation not to harm their master’s reputation. Or, the fact that masters, along with everybody else in a democratic society, have a legal obligation to recognise their fellow citizens’ right to speak freely about the things that matter to them?

For a conservative fundamentalist Christian, the ultimate fate of those who sin is eternal damnation in the fires of Hell. Fundamentalists would, therefore, argue that Christian love requires the faithful to do all that they can to rescue sinners from the torments of hellfire: by warning them of the fate that awaits them; and by imploring them to change their ways.

It cannot fall to a believer’s employer to determine what should, and should not, constitute a sin in any given religion. That would represent an entirely unwarranted arrogation of power over that worker’s spiritual and moral life. Nor can it be just that their employees’ constitutional right to freedom of religion, and their democratic right to freedom of expression, is set aside on account of some supposed obligation to protect their boss’s reputation – as s/he defines it – at no matter what cost to their conscience and their liberty.

It has been argued that Folau’s statement about homosexuality constitutes a genuine threat to the well-being of young, gay people. But, surely, that can only be the case if those affected accept, as fact, Folau’s claim that eternal damnation awaits unrepentant sinners? This, in turn, presupposes that young, gay people are not free to reject the rugby-player’s theologically unsophisticated and deeply conservative Christian faith. That their own beliefs about human love and solidarity are not infinitely stronger than those of Folau’s fundamentalist Christianity, which has lost sight completely of the boundless and unconditional love of its founder.

And if we accept the LGBTQI+ community’s untrammeled right to advance their own understanding of love, then we must also accept Israel Folau’s right to articulate his own simplistic and inadequate interpretation of the Christian religion.

As this story unfolds, it’s becoming increasingly clear the only statute Israel Folau has contracted out of is Christ’s unequivocal commandment to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 June 2019.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

That Seventies Show.

Compare And Contrast: One of the reasons so many powerful forces combined to oust the Third Labour Government was its obvious determination to move beyond progressive rhetoric and embrace progressive action. When assessing the behaviour of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her team, it so often appears that they believe progressive rhetoric and progressive action to be one and the same. That to say it, is to do it. If only politics were that simple!

JACINDA ARDERN HAILS her government as the most committed to delivering progressive change since the mid-1970s. In other words, since the Third Labour Government of Norman Kirk and Bill Rowling (1972-1975). Before assessing whether or not the Prime Minister’s claim is true, it is worth considering what on earth possessed her to make it. What would make the leader of this Labour caucus – so very different from the caucus Norman Kirk presided over in the heady days following the 1972 election – so eager to assert her government’s close kinship with the Labour Party of the early 1970s?

Part of the answer must surely lie in the deep political impression which the Third Labour Government left upon those who were there at the time. Among left-leaning Baby Boomers, in particular, Norman Kirk and his government still elicit strong emotions. After twelve long years of National Party rule, its palpable political energy jolted the country awake in a way that was entirely new to a generation which had almost given up on the idea that conventional politics could usher-in genuine change.

It makes sense for Labour’s campaign strategists to associate Ardern with Kirk. The Baby Boomers are conscientious voters. If they can be persuaded to see Jacinda as the re-incarnation of “Big Norm”, then those who remember the tragic fate of his government will want to do everything they can to ensure that hers does not share it. Kirk died in office, and Labour was thrown out after a single three-year term. Over the years, many members of the Baby Boom generation have asked themselves: How might New Zealand have fared if Kirk had lived and Labour had won a second term? Encouraging these voters to hope that, somehow, re-electing Jacinda will show them, isn’t a completely stupid idea.

The other, slightly scarier, explanation is that Jacinda and those around her actually believe they are presiding over a government every bit as progressive as Kirk’s and Rowling’s. With so few of her key advisers and most trusted colleagues being old enough to have experienced the Kirk years (such people would need to have been born around, or before, 1955, making them 60+) it will be difficult for them to grasp just how radical was the political disjuncture between the New Zealand that existed before 1972, and the New Zealand that came after.

One of the reasons so many powerful forces combined to oust the Third Labour Government was its obvious determination to move beyond progressive rhetoric and embrace progressive action. When assessing the behaviour of Jacinda and her team, it so often appears that they believe progressive rhetoric and progressive action to be one and the same. That to say it, is to do it. If only politics were that simple!

If Jacinda’s coalition government really was the progressive equal of Kirk’s, then it would have behaved very differently in the 100 days following its formation. Kirk, like his counterpart across the Tasman, Gough Whitlam, wasted no time in announcing a complete withdrawal of troops from Vietnam; abolishing compulsory military training; and recognising the People’s Republic of China. These were all commitments he had made while in opposition, and he lost no time fulfilling them in government. The equivalent moves by Jacinda would have been to withdraw New Zealand from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; order an immediate halt to all oil and gas exploration; and repatriate immediately all New Zealand military personnel serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Jacinda’s supporters will, of course, object that two out of three ain’t bad. Except, her government’s oil and gas announcement is a post-dated cheque, not a decision with immediate effect. Similarly, with Iraq and Afghanistan. In deference to our “very, very, very good friends” New Zealand’s withdrawal has been staggered over three years. The less said about the TPPA (sorry, the CPTPPA!) the better.

And this, of course, is the fundamental difference between the Kirk/Rowling Government and Jacinda’s. Such decisions as the PM and her colleagues have made all tend toward the tentative, small steps of the preternaturally cautious. Entirely lacking is the bold, unequivocal gestures that distinguished the Third Labour Government. Kirk’s decision to send a frigate to the French nuclear testing ground at Mururoa. His cancellation of the 1973 Springbok Tour. Labour’s bold steps in public broadcasting. It’s economy-transforming superannuation scheme. Bill Rowling’s green-lighting of Matt Rata’s revolutionary Waitangi Tribunal. Kirk’s Government didn’t have to call itself “transformational” – it simply got on with the job of transforming New Zealand.

Perhaps the greatest contrast between these two governments, however, lies in the field of housing. The Third Labour Government’s record here is outstanding. In just three years many thousands of houses were constructed and/or financed by the state. The housing shortage, which loomed as the 70s began, was answered by Kirk and his ministers as emphatically as Michael Joseph Savage and John A. Lee responded to the housing crisis of the 1930s. Kirk’s Government built houses for Kiwis. Jacinda’s has given them KiwiBuild – which is not quite the same thing.

In one respect, however, Jacinda’s government is comparable to Kirk's. Not in the policy sense, but in terms of its heterogenous political composition. The Labour Party of the 1970s was a very broad church, encompassing everyone from rabid anti-communists, to American-style liberals, to avowed socialists. Jacinda’s coalition encompasses a very similar political assortment. From the social conservatives and economic radicals in NZ First, to the social liberals in Labour and the Greens. (Direct descendants of the ground-breaking Values Party, also an artefact of 1972.)

And yet, even here, the comparison falters. Norman Kirk bestrode his party like a colossus. He kept a copy of Labour’s manifesto at his elbow in Cabinet meetings – and woe betide the minister who attempted to deviate from it. Jacinda does not command her government in anything like the same way. What she does is front it. Spectacularly well, it must be said, but only in the way that a ‘method’ actor is spectacularly good. She has the same instinct for the camera; the same ability to deliver her lines with gut-wrenching conviction.

“Big Norm” wrote his own.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 27 June 2019. 

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Confronting Racism In 1981 – And 2019

Turning Their Backs On Fear: The students of 38 years ago didn’t run to the nearest authority figure tearful and distraught: they padded-up, put on crash helmets, and went out onto the streets; risking pro-tour fists and police batons to do all that they could to end the genuinely and murderously white supremacist regime that was Apartheid South Africa. (Photo by Alan Cumming)

HOW VERY DIFFERENT the university campuses of 2019 are from the campuses of 1981. Thirty-eight years is a long time. There will be lecturers and tutors on campus today who weren’t even born in the year the Springboks came to tour. To those whose job it is to look back into the darker episodes of our past, New Zealand must seem like another country. Just how much that other country differed from the New Zealand of today was driven home to me while listening to RNZ journalist Katie Scotcher’s story on this morning’s (24/6/19) edition of Morning Report.

At the heart of that story were the feelings of shock, horror and disgust that gripped a University of Auckland staff member, and her class, when, just five days after the Christchurch Shootings, a young, Pakeha, male student gave voice to his profoundly racist beliefs. The staff member in question was outraged that the University authorities, upon receiving her complaint against the student’s behaviour, counselled her to say nothing more concerning the incident until the complaints process had been completed. This, she asserted, amounted to the university “silencing” a staff member who was attempting to confront the presence of “white supremacists” on the Auckland campus.

I couldn’t help wondering how that staff member would react if she was somehow transported back in time 38 years to the University of Otago campus of 1981.

Rough-and-ready polling conducted during that year’s Orientation Week had indicated that while roughly 60 percent of the student body opposed the forthcoming tour of the Springbok rugby team from Apartheid South Africa, at least a third of the student body supported the tour.

Determined to organise this large percentage of the student body, a young post-graduate history student and tutor by the name of Michael Laws (later to become a controversial National Party, then NZ First, Member of Parliament, and, later still, an even more controversial talk-back host and Mayor of Whanganui) formed what he called the “Students Civil Rights University Movement” (SCRUM). As the months went by, the membership of SCRUM increased to number hundreds of highly vocal student supporters of the Springbok Tour.

All-too-aware of the sizeable number of pro-tour students on campus, I felt obliged, as the editor of the Otago University Students Association’s newspaper, “Critic”, to invite Laws to submit a weekly opinion column. He accepted with alacrity, and “Dragonfly” was born. The subject matter of “Dragonfly” was by no means limited to the Tour, Laws was equally vociferous on a broad range of social issues – all of them approached from a decidedly (and, at times, outrageously) right-wing perspective.

Though many of my comrades urged me to do so, I never once considered what we would today call “de-platforming” Michael Laws. The student newspaper was paid for by the student body, and a significant part of that body were staunchly right-wing in their opinions. It was always my view that, in spite of my personal distaste for conservative students’ opinions, they had a right to see them represented on the pages of their newspaper. Certainly, they had no less a right to representation than those students who, like myself, viewed matters from a radically left-wing perspective.

I can only imagine how the staff member in Katie Scotcher’s story would have responded to Michael Laws. A champion New Zealand debater, he would, I suspect, have made a considerably more cogent case for his views than the rather unfortunate-sounding young man in her class. Indeed, she would have been required to do what my old history professor, John Omer-Cooper, did when, in the early months of 1981, he squared-off against Laws, his former student, in the Main Common Room, in a white-hot debate on whether the Springbok Tour should proceed.

Omer-Cooper, in front of hundreds of students, won that debate. Not by silencing Laws, but by simply out-arguing him. The professor had spent much of his life in southern Africa. He knew of what he spoke – and everybody in the MCR that day could see that he did.

I have never forgotten the professor’s response to Laws’ crowning accusation that he was abandoning the right thing for the expedient thing:

“Sometimes, Michael,” the professor said quietly, “the right thing, and the expedient thing, are the same thing.”

It seems to me, still, even after the passage of 38 years, that Professor John Omer-Cooper’s command of the evidence; his obvious moral commitment to the cause of racial equality; and his quiet dignity (in the face of all the rhetorical slings and arrows Laws could hurl at him) provided that student audience with a truly magnificent example of what a university was – and still should be – about.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Scotcher’s story was the staff member’s statement that after the confrontation with the young “white supremacist” a significant number of her students stopped coming to class. The contrast between these students’ response to overtly racist behaviour, and the response of Otago students to the provocations of SCRUM and the violence of the Police and the “Rugby Thugs” off-campus, is stark. The students of 38 years ago didn’t run to the nearest authority figure tearful and distraught: they padded-up, put on crash helmets, and went out onto the streets; risking pro-tour fists and police batons to do all that they could to end the genuinely and murderously white supremacist regime that was Apartheid South Africa.

What a pity that the staff member in Scotcher’s story didn’t present the infamous “Dawn Raids” against Pasifika immigrants (which triggered the young man’s outburst) as proof of how far this country has come since the days of Rob Muldoon and his ilk. She could have reminded her students that, even then, in the 1970s, there were thousands of horrified New Zealanders prepared to challenge the racist policies of their government.

Because that, in the end, is the point. By joining together in solidarity with the victims of imperialism and colonialism; by facing down both the personal and institutional racism that is its toxic legacy; we can bring it to an end. Public outrage halted the Dawn Raids. Apartheid South Africa is no more.

The evil of racism, again on the rise, will not be defeated by hiding from it and issuing complaints, but by confronting it openly and fearlessly – as tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders did in the aftermath of the Christchurch tragedy.

In the words of that pioneer of African-American civil rights, the freed slave, Frederick Douglass:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 25 June 2019.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Operation Burnham Inquiry Can Now Blame Civilian Deaths On “The Fog of War”.

Impaired Vision: Judging from the invaluable testimony obtained from two Taliban commanders by Jon  Stephenson, video evidence may exist of a US gunship firing at fleeing insurgents, as well as the Tirgiran villagers fleeing with them. Such a sequence would lend credence to the accounts of both the NZDF and the claims of the book Hit and Run. We may not get to see the video, but it is reasonable to anticipate such evidence playing a major role in shaping the official inquiry's final judgement of the tragedy that was Operation Burnham.

THIS MORNING [20/6/19] the Operation Burnham Inquiry (OBI) faced an oncoming avalanche of criticism which seemed certain to bury its final report in public disfavour. From the very beginning, the conduct of the Inquiry has been called into question, and the Inquiry heads, Sir Terrance Arnold and Sir Geoffrey Palmer, dismissed as the Crown’s diligent defenders.

In both journalistic and satirical mode, I, too, have joined in this blackguarding of the OBI. Like so many others on the Left, I was convinced that its secrecy-shrouded deliberations could not possibly be trusted to deliver a truthful rendering of Operation Burnham and its consequences.

That changed this morning, when one of the authors of Hit & Run, Jon Stephenson, in an article for Stuff, and again on RNZ’s Morning Report, informed New Zealand that he and his co-author, Nicky Hager, had erred in declaring that no Taliban insurgents were present in Naik, the village attacked by New Zealand SAS troopers, supported by US helicopter gunships, during Operation Burnham.

Two years of painstaking and highly dangerous research on the ground in Afghanistan had led Stephenson to at least two Taliban insurgents who had been taking refuge in one of the mountain villages targeted by the NZSAS. These fighters freely admitted that they had, as the NZ Defence Force always insisted, participated in the attack that killed the New Zealand infantry officer, Lieutenant Tim O’Connell, three weeks earlier.

This new information has the potential to dramatically shift the public’s perceptions of Operation Burnham. In essence, it admits into what has been a highly polarised public debate concerning the events of the night of 21-22 October 2010, a measure of the confusion and uncertainty that inevitably accompany all such military operations.

Those who insist that the raid killed 6 civilians and injured 15 more will not be moved; nor will those who are adamant that the NZDF killed 9 Taliban insurgents. But, for the vast majority of New Zealanders, who fall somewhere between these two extremes, Stephenson’s correction of his own, and Hager’s, original story will transform the whole event into something much more opaque. As of this morning, the black and white certainty of Hager, and the villagers’ lawyer, Deborah Manning, will be overwhelmed by fifty different shades of sceptical grey.

Stephenson’s refusal to condemn the OBI, its chiefs, Arnold and Palmer, or the investigative work its staff have undertaken, will also give a great many hitherto critical observers, like myself, serious pause. If a journalist of Stephenson’s standing feels comfortable in talking about the “mana” of the Inquiry, then perhaps there is hope that it will not present New Zealanders with the highly redacted “whitewash” its critics have consistently predicted.

Certainly, Stephenson’s latest revelations offer the OBI the opportunity to take up a position midway between the claims of the NZDF, and the account of the operation represented on the pages of Hit & Run. Clearly, the intelligence supplied to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in which the killers of Lieutenant O’Connell were said to be hiding in the Tirgiran Valley, was correct. It is also clear, from the testimony gathered by Stephenson, that these fighters were being sheltered in the village of Naik. On the other hand, it is equally clear that ISAF’s American helicopter gunships, in attempting to kill the Taliban insurgents, inadvertently killed and injured a number of Afghan civilians.

In answering the obvious question: Why didn’t the NZDF admit that these civilian deaths had occurred?; it seems highly probable that Arnold and Palmer will be obliged to deliver a judgement highly critical of the NZDF’s conduct subsequent to the Operation Burnham raid.

Even more uncomfortably, if the NZDF’s obfuscation turns out to have been inspired by American sensitivities regarding the part played by their helicopter gunship/s (and its/their supposedly defective gunsight/s) in killing Tirgiran villagers, then the painfully restored relationship between New Zealand and its “very, very, good” American friends will come under strain. If any sections of the OBI report end up being heavily redacted, it will be those relating to the interactions between the NZ forces on the ground in the Tirgiran Valley, and the US forces hovering above it.

Included in that redaction will, almost certainly, be the US helicopter’s on-board video recording of the action. Judging from the invaluable testimony obtained from the Taliban insurgents by Stephenson, that video may well include a sequence showing the gunship’s pursuit of the fleeing fighters, along with the gunning-down of the Tirgiran villagers fleeing with them. That sequence, by proving both sides correct, is crucial. We may not get to see it, but it is reasonable to anticipate that the withheld video will play a major part in shaping Arnold’s and Palmer’s final judgement of the tragedy that was Operation Burnham.

What they will have observed in the video is know as “the fog of war”: a phenomenon as old as human conflict itself. Its depiction of the confusion and lack of information that almost immediately overwhelms any military operation will communicate all that anyone can, or should, know about the NZDF’s honourable, but botched, attempt to avenge a fallen comrade; and the unintended civilian deaths and injuries for which some unknown NZSAS trooper/s, and airborne American machine-gunner/s, are responsible.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 21 June 2019.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Biculturalism Is A Lie.

Power Grab: With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to argue that the economic, administrative, social and cultural institutions mandated by New Zealand’s much-praised bicultural project were simultaneously a means of releasing political pressure and mechanisms for securing the control of Maori, by Maori.

WHAT DO WE do now? For more than forty years, the New Zealand State has embraced the idea of biculturalism and attempted to give it legal and administrative force. Beginning with the Waitangi Tribunal in the mid-1970s, and proceeding through the host of consequent bicultural building blocks, “official” New Zealand has doggedly claimed to be moving beyond its colonialist origins and towards the new hybrid, Pakeha/Maori, nation the biculturalists insisted was possible. Except that, more than forty years into the process, we are required to acknowledge that biculturalism is a lie.

The brute facts of the Pakeha/Maori relationship: a grim record of Maori disadvantage and marginalisation; have proved highly resistant to meaningful improvement. The official pursuit of the bicultural ideal may have created a Maori middle-class dedicated to its advancement, but only at considerable cost. As that Maori middle-class grew, the Maori working-class – once large, well-organised, and well-paid – shrank, and in its place there arose a sprawling Maori underclass. Imprisoned in poverty, and the multitude of social dysfunctions which economic deprivation spawns, the Maori underclass has become the prime generator of the most malign social statistics – and they are getting worse.

The great historical irony of this situation is that it mirrors almost exactly the fate of Maori in the aftermath of the first great assertion of the colonial state’s interests over those of the indigenous population. In the decades following the Land Wars of the 1860s, the overwhelming majority of Maori were reduced to a state of abject poverty and subjected to the most rigorous control by the triumphant settler state. A thin layer of Maori leaders mediated this grossly unjust relationship, brokering the survival of their people with the only indigenous asset the Pakeha had ever truly valued – their ever-dwindling stock of Maori land.

The only upside of this grim situation was that the country was so thinly populated that it was still possible for Maori – concentrated overwhelmingly in rural New Zealand – to sustain themselves as they had learned to do in pre-European centuries.

This ceased to be an option for the increasing number of Maori drawn into the cities by the steady advance of New Zealand’s secondary industries following the Second World War. This massive migration did, however, bring Maori into close contact with the Pakeha trade unions which were, in their turn, closely aligned with the Labour Party. Labour’s electoral pact with the millennial politico-religious movement created by Wiremu Ratana, forged in the mid-1930s, was powerfully reinforced by the steady growth of the Maori working-class.

For a period of roughly 30 years, Maori workers’ votes played a critical role in the struggle between Left and Right. Their economic importance within New Zealand’s import-substituting and meat-processing industries had made Maori politically influential in a way not seen since the 1840s and 50s.

It was not to last. By the late-1980s, globalisation and the neoliberal revolution it spawned was wiping out the industries upon which Maori communities, both urban and rural, had come to depend. Once again, it became necessary for the Settler State to both contain and control the indigenous victims of Pakeha capitalism’s “creative destruction”.

The New Zealand State’s quest for bicultural harmony takes on a very different character when viewed from this perspective. With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to argue that the economic, administrative, social and cultural institutions mandated by New Zealand’s much-praised bicultural project were simultaneously a means of releasing political pressure and mechanisms for securing the control of Maori, by Maori.

By indigenising at least some of the processes required to prevent the Maori underclass from exploding, the Settler State was once again able to rely upon a thin layer of Maori intermediaries to blunt the sting of racial and economic pain. The location of colonial oppression may have shifted from the devastated rohe of the defeated iwi, to the state-owned slums of New Zealand’s largest cities, but the time-honoured imperial policy of divide and rule remained the same.

And so we are treated to the awful spectacle of a terrified young Maori mother being confronted by a group of implacable Maori social-workers determined to ‘uplift’ her tiny child. And, just as happened all those years ago, it has required all the efforts of courageous Maori leaders to first defuse and then resolve the situation.

While “we” look on – appalled.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 June 2019.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

What Is A White Supremacist?

The Original White Supremacists: The current misuse of the term “white supremacy” is highly dangerous politically. By singling out this particular form of racism and misapplying it to famous figures from the past, as well as to people living in the present, the users of the term risk not only its rapid devaluation, but also the angry retaliation of those who feel both themselves and their beliefs to have been wrongly and unfairly condemned.

THE TERM “WHITE SUPREMACIST” is rapidly replacing the more straightforward “racist” in mainstream journalism. The term is also being used to describe the belief system of Philip Arps, the self-confessed Nazi who was sentenced earlier this week to 21 months imprisonment. On social media, especially Twitter, the term is being used, anachronistically, to characterise the ideas of explorers and colonialists living in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While it is not unusual to encounter such terminological misuse in the writings of radical post-modernists, it is worrying to see the mainstream media subsume so many different historical and ideological phenomena into this single, catch-all, expression.

The current misuse of the term “white supremacy” is also highly dangerous politically. By singling out this particular form of racism and misapplying it to famous figures from the past, as well as to people living in the present, the users of the term risk not only its rapid devaluation, but also the angry retaliation of those who feel both themselves and their beliefs to have been wrongly and unfairly condemned.

Because the number of New Zealanders subscribing to the beliefs journalists now describe as “white supremacist” is by no means a small one. Indeed, it is likely that a majority of older Pakeha New Zealanders still adhere, either wholly or in part, to the notion that the achievements of western civilisation – of white people – far outstrip those of any other. They may be careful about who they share these ideas with, but they hold them nonetheless.

It is certainly the case that this assumption of western superiority informed the response of practically all the western nations to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. When President George W. Bush explained the terrorists’ murderous attacks by saying: “they hate our freedoms, they hate our way of life”; very few white Americans, or whites living in any other western nation, failed to grasp his racially-charged sub-text: they are less than us.

The mainstream media, itself, is equally guilty of assigning considerably greater value to the lives of westerners than to human-beings living in other parts of the world. A cruise liner carrying wealthy Europeans runs into a Venice wharf, injuring half-a-dozen, and it’s headline news around the planet. An overcrowded ferry-boat collides with another vessel and sinks, drowning 200 Indians, and all it rates is a one-line mention three-quarters of the way down the news bulletin. What other message can we draw from that, other than – whites are more important?

So, racism is a hard habit for westerners to break. The use of the term “white supremacy”, however, should properly be restricted to the specific political actors and the particular historical context from which it emerged. It refers, primarily, to the political regimes which arose in the southern states of the USA in the years following the American Civil War – most particularly in the decades immediately following the withdrawal of federal troops from the states of the defeated Confederacy in 1877.

These regimes were built on the bedrock requirement that whites must in all conceivable circumstances: economic, social, cultural, legal and political; be placed ahead of and above blacks. The poorest and most ill-educated white farmer had to be able to count himself better off, both subjectively and objectively, than his black neighbours. White supremacy wasn’t just a matter of personal racial animus, it described a comprehensive and internally coherent system of race-based rule. A “white supremacist”, accordingly, is a person who not only subscribes to the principles underpinning the infamous “Jim Crow” system, but also – like the contemporary Ku Klux Klan – strives for its return. Obviously, the term may also be legitimately applied to the very similar systems of race-based rule erected in South Africa and Rhodesia between 1948 and 1992.

It is important to acknowledge that a political entity driven by the principles of genuine white supremacy will be very different from one in which the official goal is racial assimilation, as was formerly the case in New Zealand. It will also be quite distinct from a regime, such as Nazi Germany’s, whose official goal was the physical elimination of all races deemed to be a threat to the herrenvolk – the master race. This is because, in both the American South, and in Southern Africa, blacks were absolutely essential to the successful operation of the white-controlled economy. Without plentiful and criminally cheap black labour, the white supremacist regimes on both continents would not have been economically viable.

This is why it is so dangerous to conflate all economic, social and political systems in which racial prejudice and inequality thrive as “white supremacist” regimes. Simple racial chauvinism is very different from the conscious creation of a race-based economic and political system. If, however, the media persists in lumping together every Pakeha who takes pride in the achievements of western civilisation with avowed Nazis, like Philip Arps, or genocidal eco-fascists, like the Christchurch shooter, then not only will the charge lose all its definitional and moral force, but, sooner or later, those so lumped will come to the conclusion that they might as well be hung for sheep as lambs.

Those on the Left who are promoting the use of this term, presumably as a way of shaming Pakeha New Zealanders into acknowledging and renouncing their “white privilege”, may soon come to regret driving their boots so forcefully into such a large pack of sleeping dogs. Giving these mutts the bad name of “white supremacists” will in no way blunt, or shorten, their political teeth.

What happened at Orewa in January 2004, can happen again.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 20 June 2019.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

ReACTionary Politics.

Reaching Out For The Zeitgeist: Act Leader, David Seymour, and his neoliberal colleagues, have (perhaps unconsciously) grasped the multiple political implications of declaring ACT to be the “freedom party”. What they clearly have not grasped, however, is the fundamental incompatibility of neoliberalism with the right-wing populist zeitgeist they are so clearly hoping to exploit.

ACT, AND DAVID SEYMOUR, have foolishly mismanaged what could have been a highly effective party re-launch. I say “foolishly”, but that may be unfair. Act’s members and supporters are so fixated on the party’s low-tax, deregulatory, and anti-collectivist mission that the possibilities of the present political moment seem to have passed them by.

Yes, they appear to have grasped the potency of the Freedom of Expression issue; but their politically ham-fisted policies – scrapping the Human Rights Commission – have gifted their electoral enemies with an unmissable target. It is passing strange that the people who beamed in the increasingly frail Richard Prebble to open the “Re-Act” conference, proceeded to ignore his lessons on how to make a party like Act electable.

When Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley launched the ACT Party in 1994, they were convinced that if the New Zealand voters were given the chance to hear about its policies from the horse’s mouth, then they would embrace the party wholeheartedly and it would very quickly become the dominant force in New Zealand politics. To this end, Douglas called in his IOU’s from New Zealand’s big business-owners and got permission to address their employees directly.

Up and down the country went Douglas and Quigley, addressing large gatherings of both white and blue-collar workers. Underwritten by millionaire businessman, Craig Heatley, they ran dozens of newspaper ads and distributed hundreds-of-thousands of expensively produced pamphlets. All to no avail. Douglas and Quigley were peddling a political product that almost nobody wanted to buy. In spite of the more than one million dollars spent on introducing ACT to the New Zealand electorate, its support never climbed much above 1 percent in the polls.

Enter, Richard Prebble. If Roger Douglas was the “Rogernomics Revolution’s” Lenin, then Richard Prebble must surely be its Stalin. He understood, as Douglas did not, that ACT’s ideas would have to be brought into the New Zealand political landscape heavily disguised in the vestments of traditional right-wing populism.

That meant smuggling neoliberalism into the country in the same way that Springfield rifles were smuggled into the territory of the Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho: in the false bottom of a snake-oil salesman’s wagon, tricked-out with all manner of diversionary patent remedies and magic elixirs.

If the punters were unwilling to endorse lowering the wealthy’s taxes, then offer them the chance to get rid of the Treaty of Waitangi. Why bore them with lectures about the perils of heavy-handed regulation, when you could arouse their bloodlust with all manner of tales about out-of-control criminals and prisons run like holiday homes? How many laughs are there in policies designed to eliminate the welfare state? Nowhere near as many as there are in pillorying politically correct feminists and putting the boot into tree-hugging conservationists.

In 1996, with Prebble in charge, ACT easily cleared the 5 percent MMP threshold. Six years later, in the 2002 general election, the party peaked, with  7.1 percent of the Party Vote and 9 parliamentary seats. Then, in 2004, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, ACT lost Prebble and began its long, slow, slide towards electoral extinction. Rodney Hide fought a gallant rear-guard action until he, too, was eased out of the leadership. After that, ACT was transformed into a National Party plaything; gifted the seat of Epsom in the vain expectation that, one day, it might return something more than John Key’s original investment.

But, what goes around comes around. As the current ACT leader, David Seymour, has observed – albeit rather indistinctly – there is a growing market for a distinctly twenty-first century variety of right-wing populism. Could it be time to refurbish the wagon of Dr Prebble’s Travelling Medicine Show?

That’s a very dangerous question. As right-wing populist varieties go, this latest one is particularly toxic. Premised on the racial superiority of the European peoples, it is determined to drive from their midst the non-European immigrant communities it blames for the socio-economic decline of formerly dominant ethno-cultural groups – especially white males.

In order to proselytise effectively, this ideological concoction (essentially indistinguishable from fascism) relies for its protection on our Bill of Rights Act’s guarantee of freedom of expression. Seymour gets this. He sees the “new intolerant left” gearing up to fight the latest iteration of the fascist foe, and the classical liberal in him is, at once, appalled and intrigued by the possibilities which such a feral ideological encounter might throw up. Naturally, he and ACT are foreswearing fascism in favour of freedom. But, among this new breed of right-wing populists, Seymour’s party must surely realise that, with “race enemies” to be fought, these two “F-Words” have a way of bleeding into one another.

But, if Seymour and his colleagues have (perhaps unconsciously) grasped the multiple political implications of declaring ACT to be the “freedom party”, they have clearly not grasped the fundamental incompatibility of neoliberalism with the populist zeitgeist they are so clearly hoping to exploit.

Building mass support in 2019-20 is all about pitting oneself and one’s party against the “Elites” and the impermeable “Establishment” those elites are pledged to defend. Seymour appears to believe that he can offer the right-wing populists the protection they need from New Left “intolerance” while, in the same breath, promising “the big end of town” the gift of tax cuts and a permanent deregulatory crusade.

That simply will not fly. Neither will the spectacle of a populist “freedom party”, campaigning against the corrupt political compromises of the centre-left and the centre-right, relying for its parliamentary survival upon the grace-and-favour of the very elites it purports to condemn. Right-wing populists may be deplorable, but they are plenty smart enough to spot a phony when they see one.

Twerking looks sexy when Miley Cyrus does it. Not so much when the twerker is David Seymour. If the ACT leader intends to learn the moves of a right-wing populist, then he had better dismiss his National Party dance-instructors.

Or, more directly: If you are hoping to win the right-wing populist vote, David, then you’re going to have to reach out to new, more rigorous, and much less forgiving, teachers.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 18 June 2019.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Ripped Away From Their Parents

Just Following Orders: None of the awfulness associated with Family Court "Uplift" orders exposed by Melanie Reid and Newsroom would be possible without the active assistance and institutional protection afforded to Oranga Tamariki by the nation’s DHBs. These latter, through their security and communications staff, are, in almost every case, able to ensure that the tragedies unfolding within their walls are never reported beyond them.

IT IS DIFFICULT to know where to begin with Melanie Reid’s and Newsroom’s latest investigation into Oranga Tamariki. In the same way that David Lynch’s movie “Blue Velvet” begins with a single shocking discovery, which leads the hero deeper and deeper into a corrupt and violent world; Reid’s 45-minute video, “New Zealand’s Own ‘Taken Generation’”, exposes the viewer to aspects of life in this country that, until this week, have been quite deliberately, and ruthlessly, kept hidden from the public. That this collaborative act of concealment (involving, as it does, not only the child welfare services, but also the Family Court, the DHBs and the Police) has been so successful for so long is due, almost entirely, to the fact that its victims are members of the Maori underclass.

Reid estimates that the “uplift” of Maori children from their biological parents by child welfare social workers – often assisted by the Police – is occurring at least three times a week. The removal of these children, who range in age from just a few days to 14 years, is authorised by Family Court orders which, astonishingly, permit the use of “reasonable force” to separate parents from their children. That this regularly involves burly police officers carrying distraught and screaming children from their family home is a fact which Oranga Tamariki is very keen to keep from the public.

“Oranga Tamariki”: the name itself is proof of our deeply cynical state’s capacity for misrepresentation. In English, the words “child welfare” carry overtones that are far from positive. By giving this oft-criticised and disgraced government department a Maori name, the bureaucrat’s responsible clearly hoped to bury those negative connotations while, at the same time, conveying a “Maori friendly” message to impoverished Maori communities which had every reason to expect the opposite.

The cynicism doesn’t stop there, however. At the sharp end of Oranga Tamariki’s enforcement operations; especially, it would seem, child uplifts; it has become a case of Maori versus Maori. Acutely aware of how bad it would look to have middle-class Pakeha social workers ripping babies from the arms of their Maori birth mothers, the department has recruited Maori social workers to do the job for them.

Played out in Reid’s story is the bleak spectacle of Maori women in the employ of Oranga Tamariki confronting the angry and (in most circumstances) powerless whanau of the child about to be uplifted from its terrified mother. Throughout Reid’s harrowing video, the viewer is acutely aware that, if the recorded interactions had not been unfolding in the presence of an award-winning Pakeha journalist and a courageous pair of Maori midwives – linked by cell-phone to a seasoned lawyer – then the 19 year-old mum at the centre of the drama would have lost her second child to the same British couple who, with Oranga Tamariki’s help, had been entrusted with her first.

None of this awfulness would be possible, of course, without the active assistance and institutional protection afforded to Oranga Tamariki by the nation’s DHBs. These latter, through their security and communications staff, are, in almost every case, able to ensure that the tragedies unfolding within their walls are never reported beyond them. The clear priority of the DHBs is to ensure that the media “protocols” protecting the blissful ignorance of “Middle New Zealand” are strictly enforced. The sheer ruthlessness with which they go about facilitating these uplift operations is one of the most frightening of Reid’s revelations.

The men and women I feel most sorry for (apart, obviously, from the mother and child and their whanau) are the police officers brought in to enforce the Family Court’s uplift orders. I do not imagine that many of them signed-up to rip babies from their mother’s arms. Nor can it be easy to tell anguished whanau members that they will be arrested if they do not accept Oranga Tamariki’s faits accomplis. Moreover, these uplifts are, potentially, extremely dangerous situations. The police officers involved have every right to fear assault, or worse, when emotions are running so high. That they are being deliberately inserted into such highly-charged confrontations, at least three times a week across the country, is unconscionable.

This is the enormous virtue of Reid’s and Newsroom’s investigative journalism. It digs below the superficial stereotypes that allow so many of us to dismiss the anguish of “these people” as the inevitable outcome of their irresponsible lifestyles. That they are brown and say “yous”, instead of “you”, only makes it easier for middle-class Pakeha to ignore their pain. Oranga Tamariki, the Family Court, the DHBs and the Police have made it possible for those Kiwis who have made their peace with race-based social injustice to go about their lives without the slightest awareness of the tragedies unfolding, every night, in suburbs they will never visit.

Reid and Newsroom are, of course, already feeling the lash of official displeasure. Oranga Tamariki are attempting to force edits in Reid’s video. The Hawkes Bay DHB has chastised one of its board members for daring to speak out against the incident recorded by Reid and her camera-operator. The Minister for Children, Tracey Martin, is unapologetic: the uplifts, she says, will continue. The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is conflicted. Reid’s footage depicts a world a long, long way from the “politics of kindness”.

But, you know, Jacinda, this is what poverty looks like. This is what it does. This is what it requires. Our ignorance may have been blissful, but now we know, and that knowledge demands action – from all of us.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 12 June 2019.

Opinion Polling In 2019: More Art Than Science?

Conflicting Messages: With so few publicly available opinion polls being conducted in this country, we really do need to know how one reputable polling agency can put National on 46 percent, while the other puts it on 37 percent. Nine percentage points is a hell of a gap – well beyond the usual statistical tolerances. The public is entitled to know what happened – and which one of them got it right!

IT WAS ANDREW COOPER wot won it! Or so might the Brexiteers have crowed, paraphrasing the Sun’s famous headline of 1992, when its concerted assault on Neil Kinnock turned what looked like a dead cert for Labour into a surprise win for the Tories’ John Major.

Who is Andrew Cooper?  He was the chief pollster for the “Remain” campaign. The man whose assumptions, about how many Britons would turn out to vote in the European Union Membership Referendum of 23 June 2016, lulled Prime Minister David Cameron into a false sense of security. Allowing the “Leave” campaign’s chief wizard, Dominic Cummings, to steal a victory his enemies had, quite literally, not seen coming.

That’s the thing about polls. It’s not simply a matter of assembling the data: whether by calling landlines, mobile phones, or, acquiring people’s opinions online; it is also about how you go about interpreting the data. What are the assumptions you make about how the hundreds, or thousands, of people you have interviewed will behave when the time comes to cast their votes – or not.

That was Andrew Cooper’s big mistake. According to Tim Shipman, author of “All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sunk Britain’s Political Class”, Cooper assumed that the same percentage of Britons would sit out the 2016 Brexit Referendum as had sat out the General Election of the year before. Take these ‘can’t be arsed’ voters out of the equation, and – Bingo! – “Remain” emerges as the referendum winner every time.

He was, as well all know now, quite wrong in that assumption. The turnout for the Referendum was well up on the 2015 General Election. Cumming had successfully mobilised the forgotten, the marginalised, and the very-bloody-angry. The Britons who had given up voting, because, after Tony Blair, the largely indistinguishable politicians of the Tory and Labour parties always won. This time, however, said Cumming, their votes would count. This time, they could deliver an almighty “Fuck You!” to the entire British Establishment, and there would be nothing – absolutely nothing – they could do about it. “Take Back Control”, bellowed Cumming’s inspired slogan. And, they did.

It is something like this. Something in the interpretation of the raw data. Something about the assumptions they’re making, that explains how Reid Research and Colmar Brunton were able to come up with such wildly different descriptions of New Zealand’s current political landscape. And that ‘something’ is very important. With so few publicly available opinion polls being conducted in this country, we really do need to know how one reputable polling agency can put National on 46 percent, while the other puts it on 37 percent. Nine percentage points is a hell of a gap – well beyond the usual statistical tolerances. The public is entitled to know what happened – and which one of them got it right!

But, is that even possible anymore? Getting it right? After Brexit, Trump, the British snap-election of June 2017, and the Australian Federal Election of May 2019, can “The Polls” be trusted to tell us anything at all reliable about the voting intentions of the public?

Is it possible that opinion polling, like black-and-white television, was something peculiar to a particular historical era? To a time when everybody had a landline telephone; read the same newspapers; watched the same shows, at the same time, on television; and were limited to a choice between two very large and broad-based political parties?

Back then, when people still had a huge amount of faith in the political system, polling struck many people as a welcome, and highly scientific, addition to the process of determining their electoral preferences. When a pollster called, the person picking up the phone felt under a heavy obligation to co-operate fully. To refuse, was tantamount of declaring oneself a bad citizen. Answering the pollster’s questions honestly and comprehensively was the randomly chosen interviewee’s civic duty.

How things have changed. Fewer and fewer voters have landlines. As a consequence, the phonebook is no longer sufficient to the task of preparing a statistically valid survey. And, unfortunately, there is no handy, publicly available, register for cell-phone subscribers. Even if there was, the dutiful citizenry required to make the survey truly representative has largely disappeared.

Because, while the pollsters were learning every little quirk about the voting (and buying) public, the public was also learning a thing or two about polling. What it was for; how it was being used; and by whom. With painful slowness, more and more voters realised they were being used. That what they were participating in wasn’t a matter of civic duty. It was a marketing exercise, impure and simple. They were helping the politicians to manipulate the electorate – i.e. themselves. Clever “communications specialists” were persuading them to buy back their own opinions.

This is the reason why polling agencies have so much difficulty in persuading the people they contact to participate in their surveys. For every one person who agrees to be interviewed, there are dozens who refuse. So many, that in statistical terms, the participating subjects have become unusual in themselves, and their opinions have to be weighted accordingly. Then, there are the respondents who deliberately mislead their interviewers. The “rat-fuckees” who become “rat-fuckers”.

Confronted with these formidable obstacles, opinion polling is becoming less and less a science, and more and more of an art. The trick now lies in assessing how much of the sample to write-off as tricksters; how many as atypical political junkies; how many as persons who enjoy being asked for their opinions, but who will never make it off the sofa on election day. These questions cannot be answered scientifically, they can only be guessed at. Those guesses will be guided by experience; by ex post facto analyses; and, crucially, by intuition.

One pollster will say: “Oh sure, people love Jacinda – but will they turn that love into a bona fide ballot paper stuffed into a ballot-box? Young people may revel in Jacinda’s stardust, but its old people who vote. We need to be conservative in our assumptions about the relative weighting of these two groups.”

Another pollster might say: “Normally, I’d apply a pretty heavy discount to the under-25 preferences. But, you know what? I’m betting that, in 2020, the under-25 vote is going to spike. I’m looking at all those secondary-school kids on the street demanding action on climate change. I’m thinking about the influence they’re going to have on their big brothers and sisters. Heck! The effect they will have on their parents! That’s why I’m assuming a significantly higher turnout.”

The first pollster might predict a solid vote for National. The second, a game-changing surge towards Labour and the Greens. They both can’t be right – but I’m hoping that more than 50 percent of voters would like to see the second prediction proved correct.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 11 June 2019.