Monday, 24 February 2020

Little's Hate Speech Laws Will Destroy This Government.

High Risk Call: Insensitive though it may seem to even pose the question: how will the electorate respond to what the Prime Minister’s opponents will undoubtedly characterise as an attack on New Zealanders’ freedom of speech? At more than twelve month’s remove from the terrible events of 15 March 2019, will Jacinda’s inspired “They Are Us” formula be enough to turn aside the free speech defenders’ counterattack?

ANDREW LITTLE has confirmed that the Coalition Government will announce changes to New Zealand’s free speech laws before the election. Clearly, Jacinda Ardern has not been able to persuade her Justice Minister that introducing “hate speech” laws is a sure-fire election loser. Or, perhaps the Prime Minister also believes that attacking freedom of speech is an election-winning strategy.

The timing of Little’s announcement is interesting. It points to a dramatic weakening in the position of Labour’s coalition partner, NZ First. For the first time since the Coalition’s formation in October 2017, Winston Peters finds himself and his party dependant on the good will and protection of the Prime Minister.

The Serious Fraud Office’s decision to launch an investigation into the NZ First Foundation has prompted multiple demands for Jacinda to stand Peters down for the duration. She has been called “weak” for refusing to discipline her Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and he is very aware of the political rewards that would flow to the Prime Minister if she decided to give in to his critics’ demands.

If she did give in, Peters knows that any threat to “pull the plug” on the Coalition in retaliation would be met with a cool “go on then”. Being seen to have forced a snap election over the SFO investigation would seal NZ First’s fate. The electorate would punish Peters and his party mercilessly. Jacinda and the Greens, on the other hand, could present themselves to the country as the principled and courageous defenders of “clean” politics. What would undoubtedly be suicide for Peters and NZ First could end up being the making of his erstwhile coalition partners.

All of which adds up to a radically changed power dynamic on the Beehive’s Ninth Floor. From here on out, what Jacinda and her “progressive” colleagues want, Jacinda and her “progressive” colleagues are going to get. Three weeks ago Peters would have shaken his head coldly at the very thought of introducing anti-hate speech legislation prior to the election. Today, he has bowed his head meekly and walked away. The Coalition’s “handbrake” has been released.

Returning to my earlier speculation about Jacinda’s actual position on hate speech, I can’t help recalling how strongly she reacted to the pain and suffering of Christchurch’s Muslim community. I am minded, also, of her passionate advocacy for her own “Christchurch Call”. In the bitter aftermath of the Christchurch Massacre, the Prime Minister promised New Zealand’s immigrant communities her protection. Tougher gun laws were Step One. A ban on hate speech could very easily be Step Two.

Insensitive though it may seem to even pose the question: how will the electorate respond to what the Prime Minister’s opponents will undoubtedly characterise as an attack on New Zealanders’ freedom of speech? At more than twelve month’s remove from the terrible events of 15 March 2019, will Jacinda’s inspired “They Are Us” formula be enough to turn aside the free speech defenders’ counterattack?

Those in the Prime Minister’s professional and personal entourages will be adamant in their insistence that being seen to move against hate speech is not only the right thing to do, but that it will also reap Labour a rich harvest of votes – not least from New Zealand’s 57,000 Muslims. The brutal question which must be asked, however, is whether or not winning the support of the 1 percent of New Zealanders who subscribe to the Muslim faith can sensibly be counted as an unqualified addition to Labour’s overall Party Vote; or whether it will be more than offset by the defection of those New Zealanders opposed to Labour’s restriction of free speech? The next, equally brutal question is: “Where will those votes go?”

The obvious, and worrying, answer is: “They will go to the Right.”

It is one of the greatest tragedies of contemporary “left-wing” politics: that its practitioners have allowed themselves to become identified, irretrievably, with the suppression of free speech. Most particularly, with the suppression of the free speech of persons identified as “right wing”, or, more ludicrously, as “Nazis” and “fascists”. Worse still, they have secured this “de-platforming” by threatening to unleash violence and disorder if these individuals are permitted to speak. They have thus supplied local government, university and corporate leaders with the “health and safety” justification for shutting these speakers down. Free speech advocates refer to this tactic as “The Thug’s Veto”.

Little’s reaffirmed commitment to introducing legislation aimed at curbing hate speech will, therefore, be received by right-wing New Zealanders as a direct assault upon their personal liberties. Labour and its Green allies will be accused of using the power of the state to demonise and silence their political opponents.

The Right will not take this lying down.

It is, however, doubtful whether Little has given much thought to what making bitter enemies of the entire Right might lead to. While National and Act – especially Act – will be content to fight the issue at the level of abstract principle, those further along the right-wing spectrum will not hesitate to link Little’s hate speech legislation with those it is intended to protect. The very white supremacists the Left has vowed to extirpate will present Little’s laws as proof positive of the Labour/Greens’ surrender to the demands of multiculturalism in general – and of Islam in particular. Such linkages can only pose a grave threat to the safety of all New Zealand’s immigrant communities. The very ugliness that hate speech laws are intended to hide will be even more openly and defiantly displayed.

And this, sadly, is the problem which the advocates of hate speech legislation all fail to appreciate. That people cannot be forced into abandoning their erroneous, hurtful and/or dangerous opinions. They can only be argued out of them.

Does Andrew Little truly believe that hate speech laws would have stopped Brenton Tarrant? His murderous rampage was inspired not by the rantings of some fool on 4Chan, but by his close study of the centuries-long struggle between Islam and Christianity in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Are the hate speech laws to be set wide enough to capture the wrongful interpretation of history? Will they extend to banning trips to the European battlefields where the Ottoman armies were checked by Christian knights? And if they are, how will that help to persuade people that what Little is proposing is anything more than the thin edge of the wedge of totalitarianism?

Our current laws forbid the incitement of actual physical harm, and will punish those who wilfully defame their fellow citizens. Attempting to pass laws against the giving of offence, however, is a fool’s errand. Far from eliminating offensiveness, such laws will only encourage and intensify it. Harm cannot be prevented, but it can be healed. Building trust and amity between peoples is achieved by starting conversations – not by shutting them down.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 21 February 2020.

Friday, 21 February 2020

China Immune To The Infection Of Democracy.

The Democracy Virus: China’s authoritarian political system enables a level of social surveillance and control that liberal democratic societies cannot match. The Chinese Government makes full use of the latest digital technology to both punish – and reward – its citizens. The plans it formulates cannot be challenged, or hindered. Where else could a million human-beings be “re-educated” into sullen obedience? Where else can whole cultures be rendered invisible? (ABC Image)

“A MINOR RELIGIOUS INFECTION”, no statement captures more succinctly China’s problem with world – or the world’s problem with China. The words themselves appear in a leaked document setting forth in grim detail the reasons for the detention of 300 Uighurs and other Muslims in China’s benighted Xinjiang province. Other justifications for incarcerating an estimated one million Uighurs in China’s very own “Vocational and Educational” archipelago include: “used to wear a long beard”; and, “used to wear a veil”. Tellingly, not even the past tense can save you in Xinjiang.

Does the Chinese Communist Party leadership in Beijing understand how poorly the idea that religious belief constitutes a form of “infection” is likely to be received by the overwhelming majority of human-beings belonging to one or the other of the world’s great faith communities? Reading these words in the context of China’s ongoing struggle against the COVID-19 viral epidemic is certain to amplify global displeasure.

When people of faith around the world discover that the Chinese authorities regard the guiding principles of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam as dangerous diseases, whose followers must be isolated from the uninfected population, restored to ideological health, and only then released; they will be dumbfounded. But, not for long. This news will generate rage and resentment on a scale no rational political regime would willingly countenance.

And yet, the Chinese Government remains adamant that its Uighur policy is not only fully justified, but also politically effective. It will not hear a word spoken against its Xinjiang strategy – or, at least, not by those whose opinions it is in a position to monitor – and contain. That this refusal to respond to world opinion might threaten such cherished Chinese initiatives as One Belt, One Road, does not appear to have occurred to those in charge of the Uighur policy. Nor has the mounting evidence of attitudes towards China hardening, all across the world, been sufficient to prompt a regime change of heart.

What is it, exactly, that Beijing fears? What is of more concern to them than the world’s increasingly negative opinion of the Chinese Government? The answer is brutally simple: what the Chinese Government fears most; and certainly much more than global public opinion; is losing control.

China has witnessed the extraordinary derangement of American politics which was set in motion by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Accordingly, it is determined to dry up the waters of religious extremism in which terrorist organisations like Al Qaida and ISIS floated.

They have also observed, in the EU countries and Britain, the dangerous socio-political pressures produced by mass immigration, along with the divisive multicultural policies it generates. In the People’s Republic, it is the Han Chinese who migrate en masse to the territories of their nation’s ethnic minorities – not the other way around. Cultural homogeneity is both the short and long term objective of the Chinese Government. China’s future is envisaged as monocultural, not multicultural. It is national unity that the Chinese Communist Party seeks – not cultural diversity.

These goals, like the Party’s militant and uncompromising atheism, sit uncomfortably with the expectations of Western elites. It was, for many years, their fond expectation that free trade and free-markets would set up the conditions in which China’s transition to liberal democracy became inevitable. Few now believe that such a transition is imminent. The Chinese looked on grimly as the former Soviet Union was stripped and humiliated by the West. If these were the consequences of embracing liberal democracy, then the West could keep it.

In truth, the Chinese Communist Party has made a high-stakes historical wager. It’s betting everything China has achieved since 1949 that liberal democratic excess will undermine the social, political and cultural cohesion of Western Capitalism long before it overturns “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”.

This is not as risky a wager as Westerners might think. China’s authoritarian political system enables a level of social surveillance and control that liberal democratic societies cannot match. The Chinese Government makes full use of the latest digital technology to both punish – and reward – its citizens. The plans it formulates cannot be challenged, or hindered. Where else could a million human-beings be “re-educated” into sullen obedience? Where else can whole cultures be rendered invisible?

Yes, all these policies put China off-side with the rest of the world. The thing is: China doesn’t care.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 February 2020.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

RNZ Must Have No Dogs In The September Fight.

Stand Clear! Winston Peters is encouraging voters to think of RNZ as belonging to “The Media Party”. He wants them to see it as a politically partisan institution with its own, vicious attack-dogs in the electoral fight. If he succeeds, it will be, and probably should be, the end of public radio in New Zealand.

RADIO NEW ZEALAND needs to reflect very carefully about the position in which it now finds itself. If it fails to alter its present course, there is a real possibility it will find itself accused of serious political bias. As a public broadcaster, RNZ simply cannot afford to be seen to have its own dog in the September 19 fight. Fair and balanced reporting is of huge importance when your radio network is funded by the taxpayer. In an election year, moreover, fairness and balance are absolutely critical to the maintenance of public confidence.  

For the moment, nearly all of the accusations of bias are coming from Winston Peters and the NZ First Party. This is only to be expected, given that RNZ’s reporting has inflicted serious damage on Peters and his colleagues. Lending credence to the latter’s accusations, however, is a photograph of Guyon Espiner, one of RNZ’s senior journalists, chatting amiably with Lester Gray, a former president of the NZ First Party. Looking at the photograph, it is very difficult not to identify Gray as the source of Espiner’s damaging revelations about the NZ First Foundation.

The release of this photograph – taken, according to Peters, by a member or supporter of NZ First – to The BFD (successor to the Whaleoil blog) has not only alarmed RNZ, it has put it on the defensive. The idea that a journalist and his source may themselves come under scrutiny is being widely interpreted as a thoroughly sinister development.

The mainstream news media has had much less to say about the failure of a supposedly experienced political journalist to protect his source. Tauranga is pretty much “ground zero” when it comes to NZ First’s historical support base. Why, then, would a former television journalist, with a very familiar face, choose to wander about in full public view with a former NZ First president and candidate? Why not meet privately, indoors, safe from prying eyes – and cellphones?

As for casting the whole episode as sinister, well, that particular charge is simply without merit. It is well-established in law that the taking of a person’s photograph in a public place, with or without their knowledge and/or consent, is not a criminal offence. If you are foolish enough to parade your connections in a Tauranga shopping centre’s carpark, then you should not act all hurt and surprised when that fact is recorded.

Nor should the mainstream news media be at all surprised that the photograph ended up on The BFD blog. Cameron Slater, of Dirty Politics fame, has publicly acknowledged his legal and personal connections with the lawyer Brian Henry. One of Winston Peters oldest and most trusted legal advisers, Henry also stood by Slater. Is this the explanation for what appears to be a decisive shift in the political allegiances of Slater and his colleagues from the National Party (which couldn’t distance itself fast enough from its favoured blogger following the publication of Nicky Hager’s book) to NZ First?

Such a shift would go a long way to explaining the rumours that NZ First is being assisted by one of Slater’s closest political allies from the Whaleoil years, Simon Lusk. A hard-bitten political operator, Lusk would have needed no instruction when it came to gathering intelligence on the two journalists responsible for revealing the closely-guarded secrets of the NZ First Foundation. The involvement of somebody like Lusk would certainly explain The BFD’s photograph of Stuff Reporter, Matt Shand. Recognising Espiner and Gray would not have been difficult. In that location, however, Shand was unlikely to be recognised by anyone not closely associated with the NZ First Foundation story.

That Tauranga shopping centre appears to have had more shooters in it than Dallas’s Dealey Plaza!

The demonisation of The BFD is yet another problematic aspect of RNZ’s coverage. Conservative blogs have every bit as much right to present their ideas to voters as liberal and left-wing blogs. In my time as a political commentator, I have contributed material to daily newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, and a weekly business publication edited by a devotee of Ayn Rand. So, when Cameron Slater invited me – along with a clutch of other non-right commentators – to contribute to a new pay-walled section of Whaleoil, I did not refuse. Similarly, when The BFD was launched, I agreed to contribute to its pay-walled “Insight” section. Nothing builds up one’s understanding of the Right like writing for their publications! And, although I have always been scrupulous to submit material I would happily see posted on The Daily Blog, or my own Bowalley Road, I’ve never once been censored.

In an environment where the idea that there might be two sides to every story, and that even those with whom you profoundly disagree have a story to tell, is dismissed as giving fascists a free-pass, it is not easy to make a stand for fairness and balance in journalism. It is vital, however, that RNZ tries.

On its “Mediawatch” programme, broadcast last Sunday morning (16/2/20) RNZ featured an interview with Ollie Wards from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Triple-J” youth-oriented radio station. Among many other observations, Wards ventured the opinion that “holding the government to account” was a vital aspect of the public broadcaster’s remit. There would appear to be a great many RNZ journalists who agree wholeheartedly with Wards’ characterisation of their role. That does not, however, make it right.

In a parliamentary democracy, it is not the news media which is entrusted with the role of holding the government to account, but the Opposition. They are the people elected to scrutinize the executive and ensure that government ministers are doing their jobs. They do this on behalf of the voters – the people charged, every three years, with the ultimate responsibility for holding governments to account. Nobody elected Guyon Espiner or Matt Shand to hold their government to account. Indeed, those gentlemen are not accountable in any meaningful political sense for the potentially decisive influence they are so well-positioned to exert on the electoral process.

The role of the news media (especially the publicly owned news media) is to assist the voters in the critical task of holding their representatives to account – not to do the job for them. That means doing everything within its power to give voters the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It means unearthing the facts, as many as possible, and then contextualising them in a fair and balanced way. It does not mean extracting only those facts that serve an individual journalist’s purposes, and using them to manipulate the voters’ understanding of what a party has, or hasn’t, done.

Winston Peters is encouraging voters to think of RNZ as belonging to “The Media Party”. He wants them to see it as a politically partisan institution with its own, vicious attack-dogs in the electoral fight. If he succeeds, it will be, and probably should be, the end of public radio in New Zealand.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 20 February 2020.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Burning Down The House: Will The Greens Be The Death Of The Left?

Collateral Damage: For the Green Phoenix to be reborn, the funeral pyre so patiently assembled by its identity politicians over the course of many fractious years – but with growing intensity over the past three – first has to be ignited. The terrible probability, of course, is that, in setting themselves on fire, the Greens will end up immolating the hopes and aspirations of the whole progressive movement.

CAN THE GREENS get themselves back on track? Once a political party has made the decisive turn towards identity politics is there anything short of electoral disaster capable of inducing a change of direction? There are two problems here. The first relates to ideology, and is at least theoretically fixable. The second is about the political praxis of identity politics – how Greens actually perform politics. Sadly, to fix that you’d need a neutron bomb. [A particularly nasty kind of nuclear device that kills people, but leaves structures standing. – C.T.]

Tom Walker is a British comedian whose alter-ego, Johnathan Pie, has gained a worldwide audience by addressing the follies of – well – just about the whole cast of characters encompassed by the United Kingdom’s manifold political catastrophes. One of Walker’s latest offerings depicts the dire consequences for Pie (supposedly a journalist covering politics for one of the big television networks) that flow from his innocently allowing a participant in a pro-Brexit rally to take a selfie with him. It is a chillingly funny piece of satire – as applicable to the New Zealand Green Party as it is to the increasingly “woke” workplaces of the UK media.

The toxic culture satirised in Walker’s vignette is the inevitable result of interpreting events through the severely distorting prism of identity. Once embarked upon, this journey proceeds towards its inevitable denouement in utter organisational disintegration and failure.

One of the very first local instances of organisational collapse brought on by identity politics was the New Zealand University Students Association (NZUSA). Beginning in the late 1970s, the student movement’s activist minority persuaded NZUSA to restructure itself to reflect the growing strength of the so-called “New Social Movements” – especially Feminism, Anti-Racism and Gay Liberation.

NZUSA “Vice-Presidents” proliferated accordingly, and the May and August meetings of the organisation became ideological battlegrounds where the identarians fought to wrest control of the student movement from the Marxist Left. With every passing year, NZUSA drifted further and further away from its core functions until, in the early-1990s, the entire “politically correct” (originally a left-wing term) structure was demolished by the champions of “ordinary” (i.e. conservative) students.

A very similar fate awaited the highly successful aid organisation, CORSO, which was taken over by Maori nationalists and transformed into an instrument for promoting the early-1980s movement for “Maori Sovereignty”. Unsurprisingly, the tens-of-thousands of Pakeha donors who had built CORSO weren’t having a bar of it. They voted with the feet – and, more importantly, with their chequebooks. CORSO’s new managers received these defections as proof positive of the pervasiveness of Pakeha racism – even on the political Left. They may well have been right, but being politically correct wasn’t enough to save CORSO.

Similar challenges assailed the trade union movement, but the entrenched power of the traditional Left was more than equal to the task of stopping the identarians in their tracks. It took Bill Birch and the National Party to destroy what identity politics couldn’t dent. Interestingly, by the time the Employment Contracts Bill became law in 1991, a great many of those engaged in identity politics had already made their peace with the hegemonic ambitions of the neoliberal economic and political order. The latter was only too happy to see the activist energy formerly devoted to smashing capitalism diverted into building iwi corporations, placing upper-middle-class women on the boards of New Zealand’s biggest companies, and seizing the commercial opportunities of the pink dollar.

What is truly surprising about the Greens is how long a party more-or-less constructed out of the new social movements of the 1960s and 70s was able to resist the centrifugal forces inherent in identity politics. So long as the battle to save the global environment remained the central focus of the party, and so long as in fighting for the environment the Greens were willing to pit themselves against its deadliest foe – Global Capitalism – then the other social movements, while important, were unwilling to dilute the political potency of the party’s prime directive: Save the Planet!

In this respect, they were assisted immensely by the charismatic leadership of individuals like Rod Donald, Jeanette Fitzsimons, Sue Bradford, Keith Locke, Sue Kedgely and Nandor Tanczos. These individuals could not, however, hold at bay forever the claims advanced on behalf of Te Tiriti, gender equality and the rainbow agenda. Neither was it possible to drown out forever the siren song of parliamentary power, nor the ideological compromises necessary for its acquisition. If the Tangata Whenua, Third Wave Feminism and the Rainbow Community could make their peace with the realities of neoliberal globalism, then why not Green Environmentalism?

Could the Greens be argued out of their present, deeply compromised, political orientation? Theoretically, yes. Never before in human history has the need to resist environmental despoliation been more urgent or self-evident. If Capitalism is not defeated, then the fate of humankind is sealed. The evidence admits of no other conclusion: uncompromising resistance to the capitalists’ wilful destruction of the biosphere is the only rational political choice. A strong leader would have little difficulty in making out this case in a movement whose prime directive is – Save the Planet!

And, therein, lies the problem. Organisations which have fallen victim to the self-consuming logic of identity politics become viciously intolerant of anything even remotely hinting of strong leadership. Nothing twists together the component strands of identarian culture faster than the prospect of a single individual taking back control of the political narrative. And, almost always, those strands end up being twisted around the offending individual’s neck. What this process fosters is not leadership, but the very worst sort of “palace politics”. All trust is lost; every back becomes a target; nothing strong or inspirational is permitted to survive; and the hard-won wisdom of experience is dismissed with a snappy “Okay, Boomer!”

For the Green Phoenix to be reborn, the funeral pyre so patiently assembled by its identity politicians over the course of many fractious years – but with growing intensity over the past three – first has to be ignited. The terrible probability, of course, is that, in setting themselves on fire, the Greens will end up immolating the hopes and aspirations of the whole progressive movement.

And with the time remaining to save the planet so very short, that would be a crime.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 18 February 2020.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Winston Peters’ Conduct Is Neither Smart, Nor Wise.

Sprung! Former NZ First president, Lester Gray, chats with RNZ's Guyon Espiner in the carpark of a Tauranga shopping centre. (Photo supplied anonymously to NZ First and The BFD.)

IT’S CLEAR THAT an important aspect of Jacinda Ardern’s political success is her willingness to seek – and take – advice. This is a much more important quality than people might think. The number of political leaders who neither seek, nor take, advice is distressingly high. Admittedly, a large part of successful leadership is learning to trust one’s own judgement. But, as Socrates so wisely pointed out more than 2,000 years ago: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Asking for advice isn’t a sign of weakness – it’s a source of strength.

Sadly, at Jacinda’s right hand sits a man who does not know that he does not know. Winston Peters has climbed very high by trusting his own judgement. As many political observers have noted over the years, he likes to keep his cards very close to his chest. Rather than advisers, Peters relies upon cronies: old mates whom he trusts. Indeed, the only people Peters truly trusts are his oldest and dearest mates. Unfortunately, one does not appear to endear oneself to, or remain a mate of, the NZ First leader by telling him things he doesn’t want to hear. Which is, of course, the explanation for Peters repeated falls from grace.

Take this latest brouhaha concerning Lester Gray being photographed alongside journalist Guyon Espiner in the carpark of a Tauranga shopping centre. If, as Peters insists, the photograph was taken by a NZ First supporter who recognised both the party’s former president and the former television journalist, and was pretty confident the NZ First Party leadership would be interested to learn who was talking to who; then why didn’t he simply release the image to the media immediately? Why arrange for the photograph and its accompanying commentary to be posted on The BFD – a website deemed ideologically radioactive and off-limits by a substantial chunk of the journalistic profession? And why, having agreed to release the information under a fancifully false name, did Peters then admit to MagicTalk Radio’s Peter Williams: “We took those photographs.”?

Had Peters simply released the photograph, which any halfway competent media adviser would have recommended he do in the strongest possible terms, then he would have been well-placed to ask Espiner and his RNZ bosses some very direct questions.

Were they aware that they were in possession of confidential financial and personal information obtained in contravention of the Privacy Act?

Is the way in which this illegally obtained information is being drip-fed to the public inspired by journalistic, or political, considerations?

If the story is being driven forward for political purposes, then on whose behalf?

Questions such as these could have materially influenced the direction and impact of Espiner’s story.

Very similar questions were asked of Nicky Hager by the National Party, when a similar cache of private information, also obtained illegally, became the basis for his 2014 exposé, Dirty Politics. To be fair to Hager, however, he did not drip-feed his material strategically, to carefully selected journalists and media outlets, over many weeks and months, in order to achieve a predetermined political outcome. Instead, he released his story – entire and whole – in book form, and let the public make up its own mind.

Observing Espiner’s body-language on RNZ’s Checkpoint programme, as he was interviewed about Peters’ photograph by his friend and colleague, Lisa Owen, his extreme discomfort and embarrassment was painfully clear. Also obvious, was just how furious the biters were at being bit. Apparently, there is nothing at all wrong with using illegally obtained information, clearly capable of materially influencing the outcome of a general election, when such behaviour is being undertaken in the public interest. But, let the object of the news media’s “investigative journalism” just once display the temerity to show the public exactly how its journalistic sausages are made, and see how explosively  the noble Fourth Estate erupts in outrage!

It is most unlikely that the New Zealand news media appreciates just how bitterly the members of NZ First resented the way politicians and journalists conspired to drive Winston Peters and his party out of Parliament in 2008. That bitterness was well merited. Only rarely has such unabashed collaboration been displayed so brazenly. That none of the formal charges against Peters were ever upheld counted for nothing. He had been convicted by “the powerful Privileges Committee” of Parliament – and that was enough. One might equally observe that Donald Trump was acquitted by the unbiased and disinterested United States Senate!

Expressed another way, elements of the New Zealand news media, no more than a handful of journalists, publishers and broadcasters, used its power to effectively disempower the 95,356 New Zealanders – 4.07 percent of registered voters – who supported NZ First in the 2008 General Election. It is most unlikely that John Key’s decision to rule out any coalition with NZ First would have secured that party’s departure from Parliament without the unceasing and vicious journalistic assaults inflicted on Peters – and the Labour-led government – by their no-holds-barred enemies in the House of Representatives and the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Should we really be surprised that the tens-of-thousands of NZ First supporters who remember the events of 2008 might be especially sensitive to what looks like another assault by the “Media Party” in 2020? Is it any wonder that, when a person sympathetic to NZ First looked out the window of a café in Tauranga and saw Lester Gray chatting away amicably to Guyon Espiner, he or she pressed “Record” and captured the scene for posterity?

The great shame, at least from the perspective of NZ First’s electoral base, is that their party’s leader proved to be so ham-fisted in his use of the photographic evidence he was sent. Peters’ obsession with keeping things secret; his over-hasty recourse to denial and/or evasion; has served him and his supporters very ill – not only in this matter, but also in relation to the whole fraught business of political fundraising. To have lost one election by mishandling a donation might be forgiven as an accident. Risking the loss of a second, for the same offence, goes well beyond carelessness.

Presented with a similar evidential gift, Jacinda would have been wise enough to ask for professional advice. What’s more, she would’ve been smart enough to take it.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 14 February 2020.

Friday, 14 February 2020

The Strange Case of RNZ Concert.

What Were They Thinking? RNZ's CEO Paul Thompson (left) and Jim Mather, Chairman of the RNZ Board of Governors, attempt to justify the debacle arising out of their attempt to downgrade RNZ Concert to the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Select Committee at Parliament on Thursday, 13 February 2020.

WHAT IS RNZ trying to do? Across New Zealand, this is the question mystifying both its listeners and non-listeners. The follow-up question is no less perplexing: Why is it doing it now?

It is tempting to answer to both questions by observing that RNZ is doing its very best to annoy the Government.

First off, RNZ’s CEO, Paul Thompson, and its Board of Governors have launched a full scale assault on RNZ Concert, a radio station beloved by its 176,000 listeners. (That audience, by the way, represents 4 percent of New Zealanders over the age of 10 years – a metric most commercial radio stations would kill for!) No matter, Concert’s highly experienced staff are to be made redundant and the station transformed into a purveyor of pre-programmed elevator music.

To say that RNZ Concert’s listeners are outraged is to understate the case by several orders of magnitude. Alienating so many people so needlessly would be a bad idea regardless of who those people were. But, to do so when they include so many of “the Good and the Great” – people with the ear of the Prime Minister – moves this imbroglio way beyond the scope of a bad idea. Not to put too fine a point upon it, this is the sort of idea that gets people sacked!

Which brings us to the second question: Why is RNZ doing this now? Why announce a fundamental restructuring of the state’s radio network a mere 48 hours before the Minister of Broadcasting was set to announce an official feasibility study into the merger of RNZ and TVNZ? If ever there was a time to politely suggest to your CEO that it might be prudent to taihoa – at least until the future lie of the land becomes clearer – then this was it!

Is Paul Thompson really such a thrill-seeker as to set these changes in motion on his own initiative? Frankly, that seems unlikely. His plans for RNZ Concert, along with those for appropriating its FM frequency for a new radio station aimed at 18-35 year-olds, were almost certainly approved by RNZ’s Board of Governors before being conveyed to RNZ Concert’s stunned staff and an appalled New Zealand public.

But, if that’s true, then we are led to the highly disturbing conclusion that RNZ’s Board of Governors knowingly set itself on a collision course with Jacinda Ardern’s government. That, heedless of her Labour Party’s rock-solid commitment to RNZ Concert, the Board was willing to gut it in broad daylight, and embark upon a highly risky (and, presumably, highly expensive) quest for a whole new demographic of listeners.

What sort of board rolls those sort of dice?

The answer appears to be, a board stacked with a combination of determined bi-culturalists and risk-taking entrepreneurs. A board possessing only two individuals who could reliably be characterised as broadcasters. A board collectively inclined to make RNZ’s listenership less white, less old, and less middle-class. A board which, looking at itself, came to the not unreasonable conclusion that a browner, younger, poorer RNZ audience was precisely the objective which this government had appointed it to achieve.

If so, then the events of the past 10 days constitute a wonderful example of: “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it!”

Except, to be fair to the Government, it’s unlikely that they intended their carefully selected board to build a new RNZ audience on the ruins of the old one! As Jacinda Ardern has made very clear over the past week, what she and her Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi, are expecting is a solution based on “both/and” – not “either/or”.

It is also fair to speculate that this government was not anticipating any radical changes to RNZ’s organisational structure, or audience profile, before the shape and scope of the proposed new state broadcasting entity had been determined.

Perhaps, in the end, that’s what the RNZ Board and its CEO were doing. Perhaps they were seizing what could very easily be their final opportunity to reshape and repurpose RNZ before it is swallowed up by something much bigger and uglier in the public broadcasting space.

If that is the explanation, then the RNZ Board should resign. Living institutions, especially those dedicated to the public good, like RNZ, should be encouraged to grow and develop – not hacked to pieces.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 February 2020.

 POST-SCRIPT: Well, common-sense (or should that be the wrath of a government caught off-guard?) has prevailed, and a “both/and” solution accepted as the best outcome for the RNZ Concert debacle. The questions raised in this essay, however, remain unanswered. It is also important to note that the CEO, Paul Thompson, hasn’t entirely backed away from his plans for RNZ Concert. Neither has the RNZ Board of Governors backed away from their CEO. They have bowed to the force majeure of public opinion and their shareholder ministers – that is all. The bitch that bore this awful idea is still in heat. – C.T.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Defining Issues

Courtroom Drama: There is no off-switch in a courtroom. Neither is it possible to turn the page in disgust. Ill-formed and ill-defended opinions will be exposed ruthlessly and unapologetically. As Shakespeare put it: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.” Sometimes the best course of action is to take no action at all.

UNFOLDING, IN A WELLINGTON COURTROOM, is a drama which speaks directly to the defining issues of our time. What is racism? How central is racial discrimination to the moral deficiencies of our society? What is Hate Speech? More importantly, what is the relationship between Hate Speech and Free Speech? And, lastly, what sanctions – if any – should be imposed upon those whose opinions give widespread offence?

It is, of course, forbidden to comment upon the rights and wrongs of a trial in progress. My apologies, then, to all those anticipating a right royal roasting of either the plaintiff, or the defendant, or both, in the matter of Sir Robert Jones versus Renae Maihi.

What can be observed of defamation cases in general, however, is that it is possible to be too protective of one’s good name. A court of law is a fearsome and dangerous place for those unaccustomed to having their ideas and opinions publicly scrutinised and dissected by persons whose ability to marshal and present contrary evidence has been honed by years of legal training and experience. There is no off-switch in a courtroom. Neither is it possible to turn the page in disgust. Ill-formed and ill-defended opinions will be exposed ruthlessly and unapologetically. As Shakespeare put it: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.” Sometimes the best course of action is to take no action at all.

Let us then turn, then, to the broader issues at play in that Wellington courtroom: Racism, Hate Speech, Free Speech, and the most effective response to willful offensiveness.

Increasingly, in this country, as in other countries dominated by Europeans, racism is being viewed as the fundamental driver of social, economic and political injustice. Fifty years ago this was not the case. For most of the Twentieth Century, unequal class relations were deemed to be the primary cause of injustice. With the demise of actually existing socialism, however, and the global triumph of neoliberal capitalism, class inequality has become, to paraphrase Lord Alfred Douglas: the lack of love that dare not speak its name.

The neoliberal ruling-class, with considerable political finesse, has tapped into the energy once devoted to uplifting the working-class (within whose ranks are many, many people of colour) and diverted it into identifying and demanding atonement for the sins of slavery and colonisation committed by the ancestors of contemporary Europeans. The process of elevating racism to the status of the West’s original and abiding sin was greatly assisted by the inspirational examples of Martin Luther King’s non-violent campaign for African-American civil rights, and the African National Congress’s four-decades-long struggle against Apartheid. The impact of these historical struggles on the indigenous victims of European colonialism was direct and enduring.

The development of Maori nationalism in New Zealand offers an excellent example of the process. As the neoliberal experiment gathered momentum in Aotearoa, the formerly close ties between Maori, the traditional left and the trade unions were broken. By the early 1990s, what Dr Elizabeth Rata has dubbed “neo-tribal capitalism” was rapidly transforming Maori nationalism into a vital political adjunct to the all-conquering neoliberal project. The nightmare of working-class Maori and Pakeha making common cause against what was fast becoming a strategically bi-cultural ruling-class faded away, to be replaced by the new and rapidly expanding Maori middle-class’s scorn for the irredeemably racist redneckery of the Pakeha proletariat.

In this context, any unabashed expression of white ethnic chauvinism is almost always construed by Pakeha intellectuals as an unforgivable affront to the state’s steadily evolving anti-racist and decolonisation projects. For those Maori deeply embedded in these processes, however, such reiterations of white supremacist ideology are a godsend. Every such outburst reinforces the anti-racist and decolonisation critique and highlights the baked-in character of the colonisers’ prejudices.

Why then condemn such racially charged outbursts as “Hate Speech” and seek to punish its purveyors? Surely, by constantly exposing their racism, white supremacists provide ongoing and invaluable confirmation of the colonisers’ moral deficiencies? This may well be true, but it’s also irrelevant. The decolonisation process can only be advanced in an environment of hair-trigger outrage and demonstrable indigenous distress. Racism must, therefore, be confronted and condemned whenever and wherever it raises its ugly head, and the offending and offensive racists held accountable for the harm they have inflicted.

It is, accordingly, entirely unsurprising that the liberal-democrats’ passionate defence of the citizen’s right to freedom of expression is viewed as a serious obstacle to the success of the anti-racist and decolonisation projects. At the core of the free speech argument is the proposition that every citizen is obliged to uphold the right of every other citizen – even those whose views fundamentally contradict their own most cherished beliefs – to express their opinions freely and without the fear of any retribution beyond their opponents’ vigorous refutation.

The problems begin when the vigorous refutation of offensive speech is no longer considered sufficient. When the paucity of intellect and the absence of evidence so obvious in the arguments put forward by the racially prejudiced cease to be the best reason for fair-minded people to reject not only the content of those arguments, but also the morally dubious claims of the people making them. When the citizenry, in their confusing and contradictory entirety, are deemed inadequate to the task of determining the proper shape of their society and its future. When the responsibilities of government are entrusted exclusively to those powerful enough to determine which opinions are “correct”. And when those who deviate from such opinions are subjected to the full rigors of the law. At that point, it is possible to give these problems a name.

Totalitarianism.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 13 February 2020.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Both RNZ Concert and Youth Radio – Not Either/Or.

Under Attack: By sacking not only RNZ Concert’s presenters, but also its producers and librarians, and reducing the station to an automated purveyor of classical music in-between parliamentary broadcasts, RNZ’s CEO, Paul Thompson, wasn’t simply announcing an operational shake-up, he was declaring war on one of the most important guardians of New Zealand’s cultural traditions.

MARTYN BRADBURY believes in radio. He’s been an advocate of an FM frequency dedicated to 18-35-year-old New Zealanders since at least the 1990s. That he should welcome RNZ’s announcement that a new, state-funded, youth radio station has been green-lighted is only to be expected. Equally to be anticipated, however, is the outcry from listeners and supporters of RNZ Concert. What else did RNZ’s Paul Thompson expect when he rejected the ‘both/and’ approach in favour of ‘either/or’?

By sacking not only RNZ Concert’s presenters, but also its producers and librarians, and reducing the station to an automated purveyor of classical music in-between parliamentary broadcasts, RNZ’s CEO, Paul Thompson, wasn’t simply announcing an operational shake-up, he was declaring war on one of the most important guardians of New Zealand’s cultural traditions.

There can be no doubt that he knew what he was doing. The ice-cold way in which he and his co-conspirator, RNZ’s Music Content Director, Willy Macalister, are said to have delivered the news to the stunned staff of RNZ Concert, strongly suggests that they were all-too-aware of the serious consequences of their decision. That they would come under instantaneous and heavy fire from the artistic community and its political defenders must have been anticipated. Which suggests strongly that crossing swords with the likes of Helen Clark, Chris Finlayson, Sir Michael Cullen, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Sam Neil had already been accepted as the necessary cost of doing business.

But, accepted by whom? The RNZ Board? The Minister of Broadcasting, Kris Faafoi? The Minister of Arts & Heritage – and Prime Minister – Jacinda Ardern? Were all of these people really on-board with Thompson’s and Macalister’s decision? Had they all been fully informed of RNZ’s senior managers’ intention to gut RNZ Concert? Were they all as keyed-up as the leading protagonists for the inevitable backlash? Were all of them truly willing accessories-before-the-fact to what Sir Michael Cullen described as  “cultural vandalism”?

It would seem not.

On this morning’s edition of RNZ’s Morning Report, the Prime Minister coolly set forth her understanding of what had taken place. It seems that her Broadcasting Minister, upon being informed of Thompson and Macalister’s plans, reacted unenthusiastically. All-too-aware of the likely consequences of establishing a youth-oriented station at RNZ Concert’s expense, he cautioned RNZ’s CEO against proceeding too hastily. He asked Thompson for time to come up with a ‘both/and’ solution – specifically, by sorting out an additional FM frequency. In her interview with Morning Report co-host Corin Dann (which Dann appeared to be doing his best to frame in terms of intergenerational warfare and cultural elitism) the Prime Minister made it icily clear that Thompson, by opting not to delay his announcement, had undermined Faafoi’s efforts to come up with an acceptable compromise.

Thompson must, surely, understand that, by setting forth the sequence of events in the way she did, the Prime Minister was telling him that he was now on his own. The Government had offered to help him craft a solution and he had denied them the time needed to make it happen. Is that really where Thompson intended to place himself? At odds with RNZ Concert’s listeners? At odds with the New Zealand artistic community? At odds with present and former Ministers of Arts & Heritage? (Jacinda made it very clear to RNZ’s listeners this morning that she, too, is looking for a ‘both/and’ resolution to this problem.) Does he really think that his position is strengthened by causing a former prime minister to get in the ear of a present prime minister? Did he not hear the implicit threat in Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s comment that he and his Cabinet colleagues would be investigating the matter further? Was he simply not aware that the Labour Party 2017 manifesto includes a rock-solid commitment to the preservation of RNZ Concert?

It certainly makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Why RNZ’s CEO would choose this precise moment to unleash such a shitstorm upon his own head? After all, the RNZ Concert announcement was made just 48 hours before the Broadcasting Minister formally announced his plans for a possible merger of RNZ and TVNZ into a single state-owned broadcasting entity. Pending the outcome of the necessarily lengthy feasibility study Faafoi has ordered, it would surely have made more sense to hold off on a decision as sensitive and consequential as gutting RNZ Concert?

Was Thompson fearful that in any future merger his position would disappear? (A virtual certainty now!) Was he hoping the proposed 18-35 youth station would serve as a lasting personal legacy, and the destruction of the Baby Boomer elite’s RNZ Concert (a feat which others have attempted, and failed, to accomplish) his greatest managerial triumph? It is to be hoped not.

Because how much more impressive it would have been for Thompson and Macalister to have set in motion a steady process of renovation and reconstruction in RNZ Concert, while simultaneously investigating the best way to attract a new and younger listenership to RNZ. The promoters of New Zealand popular music have been struggling for the best part of 30 years to expand the state broadcaster’s cultural horizons and thereby fulfil more generously the aims and objectives of its charter. Preserving both the invaluable contribution of RNZ Concert to New Zealand’s classical musical traditions, and developing a new and vibrant platform for this country’s young cultural producers: now that would have been a legacy worth having.

Indeed, the way the politics of this debacle are unfolding, something like the above will be its ultimate legacy. It just won’t be Paul Thompson’s or Willy Macalister’s legacy.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 11 February 2020.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Jacinda’s Political Faith Broader Than Any Church.

Keeping The Faith: This Government’s broad, new, heavily moderated, progressive faith does not require a prime minister with the powers of a medieval pope. Jacinda’s regime has no need of subterranean torture chambers to ensure compliance. A gift for diplomacy and the ability to inspire her fellow human-beings is all the prime minister requires, and fortunately she had both of those qualities – in spades! Call it “The Incredible Lightness of Being Jacinda”.

AS ELECTION-YEAR GAME-PLANS go, it’s a good one. Why bother to reconstruct Labour as a “broad church” when the same effect can be achieved by creating a broad political “faith” out of three separate parties? Broad churches were mandated by the first-past-the-post electoral system; proportional representation allows a broad faith to have “many mansions” – and even more voters.

Jacinda Ardern was quick to see the possibilities. Many people marvelled at how well she and Winston Peters hit it off during the crucial days of negotiation following the 2017 election. One explanation had Peters intuiting that Labour’s new leader just might be willing to sing the same “Hallelujah Song” he’d been humming quietly since 1993. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is equally plausible to argue that Jacinda saw in Peters and NZ First precisely the sort of social-conservative hand-brake she and her government needed to protect itself from Labour’s policy enthusiasts and the chronically “woke” Greens.

What emerged was an extraordinarily shrewd division of labour among the three parties making up the Government’s parliamentary majority. In the past, such a division had to be accomplished within a single political formation. For every warm and fuzzy Cabinet Minister offering peace, love and mung beans, there had to be a hard-faced conservative bastard preaching hellfire and brimstone. Preventing these clearly contradictory political tendencies from dividing the party membership into angry and antagonistic factions required a pretty brutal set of leadership skills and a determination to keep intra-party democracy on a very tight leash.

What Peters was offering Jacinda was a conservative faction positioned safely beyond the reach of her liberal and radical allies. The Labour and Green parties’ rank-and-file could come up with as many wild and woolly schemes as they liked: capital gains taxes; lowering the voting age to sixteen; a swingeing Carbon Tax; a radically down-sized dairy herd. But, while Winston and his team remained on watch, no such measures would ever make it through Cabinet. The same, of course, applied, in reverse, if ever NZ First’s hellfire and brimstone got too smelly.

Best of all, this broad, heavily moderated, progressive faith did not require a prime minister with the powers of a medieval pope. Jacinda’s regime had no need of subterranean torture chambers to ensure compliance. A gift for diplomacy and the ability to inspire her fellow human-beings was all the new prime minister required, and she had both of those qualities – in spades! Call it “The Incredible Lightness of Being Jacinda”.

There is, naturally, a weakness in this new arrangement. And, oh, how Jacinda must have hoped and prayed that her potential political nemesis, Simon Bridges, didn’t spot it. That weakness arises out of NZ First’s capacity to form alliances with the party to its right as well as to its left. Press Peters and his people too hard, or, even worse, deny them their heart’s desire, and they’ll start packing-up their suitcases and ordering an Uber. Robbed of its conservative brake, Jacinda’s government would find itself required to say “No” all on its own. Dark clouds would soon overtake the Prime Minister’s sunny disposition. Recrimination and division would weaken Labour and the Green in ways that would be as hard to hide as they were to heal.

The first question Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have asked whenever a senior officer was recommended for promotion was: “Is he lucky?” Can it be doubted that Jacinda would have climbed very high in Napoleon’s Grand Armee? Has New Zealand ever had such a lucky prime minister? And has a New Zealand Leader of the Opposition ever provided his principal political rival with such a valuable gift?

By unequivocally ruling out NZ First as a possible coalition partner for National, Bridges has bolted Jacinda’s conservative handbrake firmly in place. Some might argue that this can only weaken Peters’ position. Surely, Bridges’ decision means that calling an Uber is no longer an option for NZ First? After all, where’s Winston gonna go? The problem with this argument is that the parliamentary arithmetic only changes once every three years. After the votes have been counted, the numbers remain the numbers until the next election. And right there is where things get tricky.

With her right flank secured, Jacinda can now re-orient her government decisively towards the moderate centre. If her more radical supporters don’t like the idea of Labour building National’s roads, well, they can always bugger-off to the Greens. A move about which Jacinda, recalling her days on Tony Blair’s Third Way, can remain “intensely relaxed”. Because it just doesn’t matter whether the “woke” voters stay with Labour, or decamp to the Greens. Their voices continue to swell the progressive choir in either location.

But wait – there’s more. As Labour bulks up its vote by adopting policies dear to the heart of the moderate centre, and the Greens’ support is enlarged by Labour’s disgruntled progressive defectors, the awful prospect arises (from the perspective of moderate conservatives) of New Zealand electing its first, genuine Red-Green government. Better, surely, to head-off the possibility of an uninhibited left-wing government casting aside the clothing of common sense and getting all jiggy with the capitalist status quo, by making very sure they’re accompanied by a conservative NZ First chaperone!

Such is the delicious flexibility of this broad, new, ideologically ecumenical, political faith. The broad political churches of yesteryear were never able to be so accommodating!

One can only imagine Bridges’ dismay when he is finally forced to acknowledge that ruling out any kind of deal with NZ First was a very, very big mistake. When he realises that, in this country, both the Right and the Left only ever get to the seat of power by finding themselves a clear path to the Centre.

Jim Bolger, bless him, understood this – which is why he saved his prime-ministership by reaching out to Winston, on his left. Helen Clark understood it, too – which is why she was willing to break Rod Donald’s left-wing heart by making centrist Winston Peters’ day. Jacinda is a natural when it comes to inclusion – which is why she lost no time in learning how to sing Winston’s Hallelujah Song.

Simon Bridges, by making sure National remains a narrow political faith, has allowed Jacinda to further broaden her government’s ecumenical appeal.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 7 February 2020.

Friday, 24 January 2020

The Thoughtful Mr Parker.

Stunningly Wrong-Headed: So blinded are the “left-wing” believers in free markets and free trade (like Trade Minister, David Parker) that even when they are staring directly at the wreckage of the lives and communities which these “unconscionable freedoms” (to borrow Marx’s telling phrase) have left in their wake, they cannot see it.

DAVID PARKER is among the more thoughtful members of Labour’s caucus. On his Politik website, the veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, describes him as someone with “an unerring ability to get up the noses of his many critics”, a talent I have long taken as proof positive of serious cogitation. But, as Harman goes on to say, Parker is also “a sober-suited Dunedin lawyer who was a close associate of the buccaneering entrepreneur, the late Howard Patterson”. He is, therefore, a man to whom it is reasonable to attribute a solid working knowledge of free-market capitalism, and profound ignorance of the tenets of democratic socialism.

Like so many of Labour’s neoliberal-capitalism’s-about-as-good-as-it-gets brigade, Parker is no fan of populism. Truth to tell, it frightens him. Fear is, however, an important step up from scorn – which has, for some time, been the default setting for all those “centre-left” politicians who still regard Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as “pretty straight-up guys”. The sort of people who actually believe that Hillary Clinton was defeated by the Russians, rather than weighed in the balance and found wanting by her fellow citizens.

One of the reasons why Hillary was found wanting was her notorious description of opponent Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”. It is actually quite hard to think of a description more calculated to enrage those working-class voters from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan who had twice pulled the lever for Barack Obama, yet remained unconvinced that the First Lady who’d been such a strong supporter of her husband’s North America Free Trade Agreement was the sort of Democrat to put the interests of American workers ahead of American bosses. (Their doubts in this regard were, by the way, entirely justified!)

I sense that Parker struggles just as hard to see those who oppose “free trade” as anything other than deplorably ill-informed. Thinking about it, however, he has come to the conclusion that the populist push for protectionism is, in reality, a symptom of what he calls “middle-class insecurity”.

What has prompted these feelings of middle-class insecurity? Well, as Parker told last year’s Otago Foreign Policy School, the causes are “pretty easy” to identify:

 “[E]normous rises in inequality, with so much wealth going to the one per cent, not just overseas, but also in New Zealand, which is exemplified by dropping homeownership rates and a sense amongst the public that trade agreements have been made for the benefit of multinationals rather than small businesses.”

Parker’s analysis is stunning in its wrong-headedness. In concentrating upon the feelings of the middle-class, it fails to identify the central core of populism’s attraction for the working-class voters who opted for Trump over Clinton and Boris Johnson over Jeremy Corbyn. Namely, their deep-seated loathing of precisely the sort of middle-class people who dismiss them as deplorable losers in the game of life they are so obviously winning.

So bitterly do working-class people resent the disdain in which the professional middle-class enablers of the One Percent’s excesses hold them, that they are willing to vote for a narcissistic billionaire, a tousle-haired toff, and all the other killer-clowns shrewd enough to recognize their pain – and not blame them for it.

That recognition is both the key to populism’s success and the explanation for the steady collapse of social-democratic and labour parties around the world. So blinded are the “left-wing” believers in free markets and free trade, that even when they are staring directly at the wreckage of the lives and communities which these “unconscionable freedoms” (to borrow Marx’s telling phrase) have left in their wake, the Parkers of this world cannot see it. Almost unbelievably, they’ve convinced themselves that its “middle-class insecurity” that’s jeopardising their political fortunes; utterly unaware that the real cause of their parties’ electoral disintegration is old-fashioned working-class rage.

It takes a special kind of political operative to grasp this reality: someone whose driving motivation is to tear the whole rotten edifice down and begin again; someone like Trump’s Steve Bannon or Johnson’s Dominic Cummings; Neos who haven’t swallowed the Blue Pill.

Fortunately – or unfortunately – that’s not David Parker. A thinker he may be, but his thoughts never seem to stray towards the unconventional. Rather than learning his politics at the feet of a capitalist buccaneer, he’d have done better to find himself an anarchist.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 January 2020.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Revolution in New Zealand? Not Even Close!

No Fires Thanks, We're Kiwis: For the moment, in those close-to-home places where revolutions are born, there may be tetchiness and resentment, frustration and complaint, but nowhere is anybody uttering the cry that will bring a New Zealand revolution into being: “We have found the way to make tomorrow better than today!”

WHERE DO REVOLUTIONS begin? The answer, invariably, is “close to home”. Where demonstrable public need meets unresponsive public authority. Where collective outrage invites violent repression. Where injustice spawns indignation and indignation demands action. Where popular action generates governmental reaction. That’s where revolutions are born.

Once begun, what makes a revolution successful? It is tempting to respond with the purely historical observation that revolutions succeed where they are able to muster sufficient armed force to overwhelm those dedicated to their failure. People with guns allow revolutions to succeed. But is mere armed force enough? Surely, before people are willing to wage war on the Revolution’s behalf, they must first believe its objectives to be both desirable and achievable.

The need for guns, and the willingness to use them, almost always arises when the authorities announce their intention to thwart the people’s intentions. When real change, desperately needed, and now within the people’s grasp, is suddenly faced with the prospect of being halted and/or reversed by forces loyal to the status-quo. That is when people start looking for the means to preserve the imminence of change.

Historically, the people’s determination to preserve the imminence of change is soon extended to ensure the preservation of those who have made them believe that change is imminent. Fearing that the authorities are coming for their leaders, people typically resolve to impede their progress: peacefully if possible; by force if necessary. The leaders themselves, realising that the revolution’s failure will more than likely lead to their demise, are left with little choice but to keep pushing it forward as hard and as far as they can. The revolution’s survival, and their own, become welded together.

The French Revolution of 1789, for example, was kicked-off by the fear that the King’s troops were about to visit retribution upon the revolutionary crowds of Paris. The latter rushed to the Bastille, hated symbol of royal power, because they were convinced that within the fortress-prison’s walls they would find the muskets, cannons and gunpowder they needed to resist the King’s soldiers.

The storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789.

In the Russian capital, Petrograd, in February-March 1917, the soldiers who had refused to fire on the crowds of women demanding bread for their starving families knew that the Czar would immediately dispatch troops to disarm and punish them as mutineers. If their revolt was not extended, then many of them would die. Accordingly, they reached out to radical left-wing politicians and to their working-class supporters in the factories. By joining forces with the political enemies of the hated Czarist regime, and offering them the protection of their rifles and machine-guns, they helped to turn what had started-out as a protest against bread shortages into a full-scale revolution.

But, the events in Petrograd unfolded more than a hundred years ago. Is there a plausible scenario for revolution in New Zealand in 2020? The short answer is “No.” Nothing has occurred for decades in New Zealand that matches in any way the cultural, intellectual, and political preparations that preceded the French and Russian revolutions.

In Eighteenth Century Europe, for example, the cultural supremacy of the Catholic Church and the political doctrine of Absolute Monarchy had been profoundly weakened by what came to be known as “The Enlightenment” or “The Age of Reason”. Breakthroughs in moral and political philosophy, together with the rapid expansion of science, called into question the existence of the Judeo-Christian God and, thus, the “divine right of kings”. Within the ruling classes doubt grew, and from these doubts ordinary people drew confidence that their own ideas and priorities were as worthy of serious consideration as their lords’ and masters’.

Crucially, in the shape of an elected parliamentary assembly, the people had also identified a mechanism capable of supplanting the autocratic rule of the monarch. The self-evidently desirable objectives of “liberty, equality fraternity” were thus made achievable. In the people’s “deputies”, gathered together in the revolutionary “National Constituent Assembly”, the people’s will had finally found its political vector.

In Petrograd, 128 years later, the critical political vector of the “nation” had been replaced by Karl Marx’s “proletariat”. Likewise, the revolutionary mechanism ceased to be a parliament filled with elected representatives, and became, instead, a multitude of workers’ councils (soviets) filled with instantly recallable delegates elected in the factories and regiments. Replacing the Enlightenment and its philosophers was the revolutionary Marxist party – whose ruthless and highly disciplined “cadres” were determined to inspire and guide the soviets of workers and soldiers.

Other determinants of success were also at work in 1789 and 1917.

Bankrupt of both the ideas and the funds required to address the multiple crises afflicting his subjects, the French king, Louis XVI, set in motion a massive, kingdom-wide effort to identify and collate the grievances of the French people. These Cahiers de doléances provided the core agenda of the Estates General – the feudal body charged with advising the Crown, which had not been called together for 175 years! Thus equipped, the people’s representatives possessed a clear idea of what they had to do.

In 1917, also, the Russian people’s priorities were clear. Czar Nicolas II had led them into a disastrous war with the Austro-Hungarian and German empires. Millions of conscripted peasant-soldiers had been killed, the Russian economy was in ruins, and the Russian people were starving. Their lords and masters had failed utterly to protect them and were either unable or unwilling to feed them. When the leader of the revolutionary workers’ party, Vladimir Lenin, arrived at Petrograd’s Finland Station, his speech to the workers’ and soldiers’ delegates was short and to the point: “Peace! Bread! Land! All power to the soviets!” With these simple but highly effective promises, Lenin’s party ruthlessly blew away the political fog engulfing the ineffectual Russian parliament and set in motion the world’s first socialist revolution.

Lenin promises "Peace! Bread! Land!" at the Finland Station, Petrograd 1917.

It should be clear by now that New Zealand’s cultural, economic and political situation bears no comparison with the two great Western revolutions. Neither Maori nor Pakeha culture offers anything to compare with the devastating ideological critiques which the Enlightenment and Marxism brought to bear on the political regimes of France and Russia. Animism with corporate clip-ons is no more a revolutionary doctrine than post-modernism incongruously blended with the politics of identity.

Nor is New Zealand trapped in the sort of intractable economic and military crises that brought down the Bourbon and Romanov dynasties. In fact, it presents itself as a highly successful neoliberal capitalist economy. Which is not to say that poverty has been eliminated, or homelessness overcome, merely that the levels of inequality and social injustice which beset all but a handful of western states is not dramatically worse in New Zealand than it is in other comparable countries. Certainly, the grave challenge of Climate Change looms over New Zealand’s future but, once again, that is a problem to which the entire world has yet to find a workable solution.

Most importantly, the New Zealand ruling-class retains sufficient faith in its ability to manage the nation’s affairs to render any challenge to its dominance ineffective. No mass movement with a practical programme of revolutionary change exists in this country. Nor does it contain a disciplined revolutionary party dedicated to creating one. Those who proclaim themselves champions of change and fighters against injustice are currently more willing to go to war with each other than with neoliberal capitalism. Indeed, it is possible to argue that identity politics, far from being a revolutionary phenomenon, has become the paradoxical vector for neoliberal consolidation. The ever-more-strident calls to recognise every new construction thrown up by the social kaleidoscope have a way of drowning out the truly revolutionary demands for a radical redistribution of the economic pie.

For the moment, in those close-to-home places where revolutions are born, there may be tetchiness and resentment, frustration and complaint, but nowhere is anybody uttering the cry that will bring a New Zealand revolution into being:

“We have found the way to make tomorrow better than today!”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 21 January 2020.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Still Waiting For American Democracy.

Unfinished Republic: Though the United States' crimes against democracy are legion, most Americans are blissfully unaware of them. The brutal realities of American life: the officially sanctioned violence; the refusal to hold racists accountable for their actions; the seemingly endless tragedy of African-American suffering; of which White America is the ever-resourceful author; are routinely disremembered. While the democratic ambitions of Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson remain the stuff of school-children’s class projects to this day. (Image by Filip Bunkens.)

“IT’S COMING TO America first, the cradle of the best and the worst.” Writes Leonard Cohen in his classic 1992 anthem Democracy. As is so often the case with Cohen’s lyrics, Democracy is jam-packed with meaning. That he writes about democracy as something that has yet to happen is only the first of the song’s many challenges. The second – and certainly the most contentious – is that when (or should that be “if”?) the people do finally seize power, it will be on American soil.

Most Americans would, of course, take strong exception to the claim that the United States has been anything other than a democracy since 4 July 1776, when Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence avowed that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Those who, not unreasonably, object that the Declaration’s “all men” excluded women, slaves, and the continent’s indigenous peoples, will be invited to consider another great document of American democracy, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”. Especially its concluding pledge that “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

So enamoured were enfranchised Americans with their “government of the people” that just 53 years after Lincoln’s famous speech, his successor in the White House, President Woodrow Wilson, was urging his fellow citizens to enter the First World War to “make the world safe for democracy”.

It is one of History’s many ironies that the same president who proclaimed America’s determination to establish democracy abroad, unleashed an unrelenting assault on American citizen’s civil liberties at home. Reducing the Bill of Rights to confetti, the Sedition and Espionage Acts made it a crime to oppose – or even question – the USA’s participation in the War.

The job of “selling” that war to the American people fell to a young “progressive” journalist, George Creel. His formidable “Committee on Public Information” pioneered propaganda and public relations techniques that would become increasingly familiar to humanity as the Twentieth Century unfolded. To the delight of America’s ruling elites, the CPI demonstrated just how easily “the people’s” consent could be manufactured.

The most glaring and tragic discrepancy between America’s loftily proclaimed ideals and the actual beliefs and behaviour of her citizens was revealed in the dreadful “Red Summer” of 1919.

Hoping that their commitment to the cause of establishing democracy abroad would finally secure for them the long-promised blessings of democracy at home, African-Americans signed-up in their thousands for military service in France. Returning home after the Armistice, however, in the winter and spring of 1918-19, these Black soldiers became instant targets for angry mobs of White Americans, outraged and terrified in equal measure by the very thought of Black Americans in arms. Between June and August 1919, murderous race riots flared in 25 American cities, leaving hundreds of African-Americans dead and many thousands homeless.

Of the awful deeds of his fellow citizens: the beatings, shootings, lynchings, and destruction by fire of unprotected Black neighbourhoods, churches and businesses; the eloquent and visionary President Wilson, hailed by millions as the world’s saviour when he arrived in Paris for the peace talks, said not one word.

Though these horrors occurred barely 100 years ago in the United States, most Americans are blissfully unaware of them. The brutal realities of American life: the officially sanctioned violence; the refusal to hold racists accountable for their actions; the seemingly endless tragedy of African-American suffering; of which White America is the ever-resourceful author; are routinely disremembered. While the democratic ambitions of Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson remain the stuff of school-children’s class projects to this day.

Small wonder, then, that Cohen celebrates America’s contradictions by admitting that “I love the country, but can’t stand the scene”. In Democracy’s final lines, Cohen – ever the prophet – even anticipates the emergence of those disillusioned working-class Americans who, no longer identifying with either the Left or the Right, immure themselves in an increasingly decrepit domesticity, desperate for a saviour to emerge from “that hopeless little screen”.

Never quitting, because “like those garbage bags that time cannot decay” they’re stubborn. Choked with tears, but refusing to let go of the hope that, one day:

“Democracy is coming to the U. S. A.”

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 January 2020.