Saturday 29 February 2020

Changing The Climate – One RNZ Broadcast At A Time.

Wise Words: “To retain its taxpayer-guaranteed revenue, RNZ must also retain its most precious commodity: public respect and support. That can be imperilled by poorly thought out judgements, including assuming that it should set the political climate.” - Pamela Stirling, Editor, NZ Listener.

THE LISTENER LONG AGO ceased to be a cultural talisman for progressive New Zealanders. Ever since the apparently indestructible Pamela Stirling took charge and transformed the magazine she’d once denounced as “the house journal of the Alliance” into the house journal of the National Party. Recently, however, a couple of sentences from “The sound and the fury”, the Listener editorial team’s assessment of the RNZ Concert debacle (22 February 2020) struck me as unusually perceptive.

“To retain its taxpayer-guaranteed revenue, RNZ must also retain its most precious commodity: public respect and support. That can be imperilled by poorly thought out judgements, including assuming that it should set the political climate.”

That climate-setting quip should have prompted a double-take from RNZ’s bosses. Its clear intention was to alert them (gently) to the fact that some of its key producers’ and editors’ more recent judgements have raised a few important eyebrows – and not in a good way. There is a growing feeling among those whose education was vouchsafed to them in the years before our universities became customer-driven businesses, that RNZ has taken up an ideological position at some distance beyond either its listeners’, or the general public’s, comfort zones.

A telling example of RNZ’s determination to set the political climate was broadcast on the public broadcaster’s Checkpoint programme of Wednesday, 26 February 2020, in which RNZ reporter, Nita Blake-Persen, secured prime placement for her story “NZ Super costs up as NZ retirees on $100k passes 30,000”.

It is difficult to assign any other motive for producing this sort of story than a desire to fan the flames of intergenerational warfare. Singling out high income-earners over 65 (whose annual contribution to the IRD, based on a minimum salary of $100,000 is a bracing $23,920!) was certainly inflammatory. Ms Blake-Persen’s analysis also hints strongly that the abandonment of the universalist principles underpinning NZ Superannuation may have to be accepted as unavoidable collateral damage in the aforesaid war between the generations.

More disconcerting, is what appears to be a lack of sensible editorial oversight of Ms Blake-Persen’s story. Having read her copy, did Checkpoint’s editors, Pip Keane and Catherine Walbridge, not warn Ms Blake-Persen to calculate the total tax contribution of the 31,048 New Zealand superannuitants earning more than $100,000, and then compare that figure to the $608 million paid out to them by way of NZ Superannuation? A pretty sensible precaution, I would have thought, given that if the 31,048 older Kiwis so provocatively singled-out by Ms Blake-Persen proved to be net contributors to the state’s coffers, then her whole story falls flat on its face.

Which is exactly what we discover when we subtract NZ Super payments totalling $608,000,000 from Income Tax payments of $717,600,000 (31,048 x $23,920). Far from being greedy Boomer leeches bleeding their hapless GenX offspring dry, these workers are contributing a net $134,668,160 annually to the public purse!

All of which raises some disconcerting questions about RNZ’s overall ideological agenda, and on whose behalf it is being run? Did Ms Blake-Persen’s highly tendentious story make it on to the airwaves simply because nobody thought to check it? Or, is it evidence of a broader RNZ agenda to shame and blame the older generation for having the temerity to be born a couple of decades before its younger reporters and presenters? It would be tempting to dismiss this suggestion as Boomer paranoia had the RNZ Board and its CEO not demonstrated so unequivocally their readiness to sacrifice older listeners for a “younger demographic” in relation to RNZ Concert.

One of the economists quoted in Ms Blake-Persen’s story is Shamubeel Eaqub. According to this participant in the management consultancy firm Sense.Partners:

“The reality is that we don’t want to penalise people for working into old age and neither do we want to penalise people for accumulating wealth, but we have to be consistent in our understanding that actually when we look out to the next 20 to 30 years, our system of taxation and our systems of supporting old age and superannuitants probably isn’t sustainable.”

Oh, what a multitude of sins can be concealed beneath a little qualifier like “probably”! Even Ms Blake-Persen felt obliged (maybe there was a smidgen of editorial input after all?) to mention the apple-cart-upsetting finding of the Interim Retirement Commissioner, Peter Cordtz, that “the current cost [of NZ Superannuation] was sustainable for the next 30 years”. You pays your money and you makes your choice, apparently: the management consultant who has a problem with our current tax and pension systems; or, the guy who told us the former is more than equal to supporting the latter.

It will be interesting, BTW, to see whether the newly appointed Retirement Commissioner, Jane Wrightson, upholds Cordtz’s finding on the sustainability of NZ Superannuation. It is to be hoped that his pronouncements weren’t inspired by the, sadly, not unreasonable fear, that the new boss would soon be touting the same “we can’t afford it” nonsense as the old boss.

In the meantime we can only sit back and admire Ms Blake-Persen’s propaganda skills. Imagine the outrage among that “younger demographic” when they discover that a body of overpaid Boomers, equal in number to the entire city of Blenheim, is living high on the hog while they sweat away in the salt mines of Neoliberalism! Imagine their fear and loathing when presented with such doom-laden factoids as: “Last year, NZ Super cost $14.5 billion and that cost is increasing by more than $1b each year. By 2024 it's predicted to cost the country nearly $20b a year.” (A figure, BTW, that places us well below the current pension costs of many European states when measured as a percentage of GDP.) Or that – Quelle horreur! – “Inland Revenue figures showed 2500 people were getting Super payments while on incomes of more than $300,000”.

Just imagine it! $300K a year!

Once again, however, there is no mention of the Income Tax paid annually on that sum to the IRD: a trifling $89,920! Which is more than four times the $21,380 paid annually to an individual New Zealander aged 65+ and living alone.

What a pity Ms Blake-Persen didn’t round out her story by seeking comment from an old-fashioned democratic-socialist who has campaigned for years to see those earning $300K p.a. socked with a much more progressive rate of income tax. He or she could have explained how steepening the progressivity of New Zealand’s Income Tax would once again make possible all the things the members of Ms Blake-Persen’s generation missed out on.

Then we could all have agreed that it’s not the year you were born in that counts, but the responsibility of every generation to so organise society that young and old, alike, are able to receive their fair share of its bounty. That would be a political climate worth setting – and definitely preferable to the ideological climate RNZ’s bosses seem hell-bent on heating-up.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 28 February 2020.

Friday 28 February 2020

Is Racism Irrational?

Method In Our Madness? When a liberal-democratic society encounters racism its first impulse is to shut it down – not interrogate it. But, is this wise? Is it reasonable to assume that a phenomenon as powerful, pernicious and persistent as racism is entirely without purpose? Surely, there must be, as Shakespeare puts it: “method in [this] madness”?

IS IT TRUTHFUL and, more importantly, is it helpful, to describe racism as irrational? Intellectually speaking, isn’t characterising this form of human behaviour as irrational just a sneaky way of letting ourselves off the hook? When somebody is being irrational we tell them to calm down and come back to their senses. Our own senses being safely accounted for, we seldom think to question our own assumptions. Similarly, when a liberal-democratic society encounters racism its first impulse is to shut it down – not interrogate it. But, is this wise? Is it reasonable to assume that a phenomenon as powerful, pernicious and persistent as racism is entirely without purpose? Surely, there must be, as Shakespeare puts it: “method in [this] madness”?

Certainly there is an extremely powerful evolutionary “method” in our response to human-beings with whom we are unfamiliar. Our “reptilian” brains kick into action immediately upon encountering anyone who looks and sounds different to our own family/clan/tribe. It does this without bothering to consult the more ruminative parts of our brain. In the dangerous world of our distant human ancestors there simply wasn’t time to ruminate. Fight or flight is the only decision to be made when one’s survival is at stake, and it must to be made in a nanosecond.

This instinctive wariness of the “Other” can, of course, be socially reinforced. If a tribe has, historically, been subjected to the constant attacks of another tribe, then its children will be taught from an early age to recognise the members of that tribe and to treat them with the greatest circumspection. If circumstances permit, these enemies of the tribe may be attacked, tortured and killed. If not, then they should be fled from with all speed and the alarm raised.

Consider, though, where we now find ourselves. Already we have conceded that there are circumstances in which the Other may be viewed, quite legitimately – and perfectly rationally – in a negative light. To discriminate (i.e. to distinguish one thing from another) is no sin. Not when your life may depend on how skilled you are at distinguishing enemies from friends.

You can see where this is going – can’t you? The more complex the society, the more complicated the process of distinguishing enemies from friends becomes. The enemy formerly recognisable by the weapons he carried and/or the decoration of his body, is now to be distinguished by the house of worship he attends, or the books he keeps in his bookcase.

Such complexity is multiplied considerably when the wealth and power of one’s own people has come to depend upon the labour power and/or resources taken forcibly from people in other parts of the world. To enslave someone is to make them your enemy – if not forever, then, at the very least, until the moment you set them free.

In such fraught circumstances, is it rationality – or something else – that identifies the advantages of enslaving people who are as readily distinguishable from their masters as day is from night, and black is from white? Moreover, wouldn’t rationality also argue in favour of fearing the people you have for so long oppressed? If the tables were turned, wouldn’t you be ravenous for revenge? Wouldn’t you do everything you could to seize all the wealth and power made possible by your blood, sweat and tears? It may, or may not, be rational to hate what we fear – but it is very common.

And, in the context of our own history, wasn’t it rational for the British colonisers to first weaken the indigenous Maori (by selling them grog and muskets) then to lull them into a false sense of security (by promising to recognise the authority of their chiefs) and then to dispossess them (by unleashing war upon New Zealand’s tangata whenua the moment the Crown had built up the population and infrastructure necessary to defeat them)? And isn’t it equally rational, more than a century-and-a-half later, for the tangata whenua to seek to reverse their dispossession by challenging the Pakeha descendants of those settlers/thieves to make good the enduring harms and injustices inflicted by the colonisation process?

To describe racism as madness is to fundamentally misunderstand its method. To be a racist is to be either the protector of your people; or, the ruthless defender of everything your people has taken from others.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 February 2020.

Thursday 27 February 2020

Wake Up Call.

Will She, Or Won't She?  Jacinda’s white vestments may look impressive on the cover of the international edition of TIME magazine, but every day Labour’s relationship with Winston Peters and NZ First continues, her ability to go on wearing them back home in New Zealand – without exciting derision – diminishes.

IT WAS SUCH a comforting dream. The idea that Jacinda Ardern had somehow inspired a new and vigorously hybrid political faith contained so much hope. That, NZ First, a wholesome manifestation of New Zealand’s best conservative traditions, could reliably anchor a Labour-Green government determined to reanimate the reformist traditions of “King Dick” Seddon and Mickey Savage. As if, by some special historical dispensation, Jacinda and the rest of us – the “democratic public” of New Zealand – could enjoy the best of both worlds.

And then I woke up.

NZ First, as presented to the electorate by its redoubtable leader, Winston Peters, is, indeed, the embodiment of the best of this country’s conservative traditions. We are encouraged to believe that it will always be fiercely protective of New Zealand’s British inheritance: Representative Democracy and the Rule of Law. Equally, however, NZ First declares its unwavering allegiance to the achievements of New Zealanders themselves: the creation of a robust capitalist economy and, out of the wreckage of the Great Depression, a just and caring society.

If only.

Behind Peters’ masterfully patriotic sales-pitch, it would seem that there has always existed a hidden but unbreakable connection to a very different New Zealand. This New Zealand, the one in which NZ First conducts its practical political business, is the New Zealand of the quid pro quo. A nation of mutual back-scratchers. A country whose heraldic device depicts a golden coin encompassed by two open palms. A deeply corrupt New Zealand, which endures only because New Zealanders have trained themselves not to recognise corruption – not  even when it’s staring them in the face. (Which is, of course, why we’re known as the least corrupt nation on earth – because, so great is our discipline, that we report less corruption than any other nation on earth!)

That he has been able to operate so successfully and for so long in this other New Zealand strongly suggests that Peters is a politician without illusions. Over a parliamentary career spanning more than 40 years, he has come to see more clearly than most of his colleagues how the country really works. He understands that New Zealand capitalism has never been strong enough to function effectively without massive state support. That this dependence inevitably gave rise to a political culture of unabashed favour-seeking, cronyism and special pleading. That rampant corruption flourished in New Zealand because the country’s trade unions were willing to look the other way in return for state protection, and because its news media understood, without having to be told, what could be reported, and what could not. (Peters’ furious outbursts against the news media have generally been triggered by the latter’s refusal to stick to the agreed script in relation to himself and his party.)

Peters’ defection from National and his subsequent creation of NZ First was prompted by the massive disruption of “old” New Zealand’s deeply ingrained (if unacknowledged) culture of corruption by the neoliberal economic and social reforms of the 1980s and 90s. Peters was enraged by what he correctly perceived to be the cynical denunciation and deliberate destruction of the protected national economy by the local shills for global, free-market capitalism. He hated the way these “Quislings” sold their country off to the highest foreign bidder. His exposure of Neoliberalism’s new rules of engagement via the “Winebox Scandal” was motivated primarily by his determination to demonstrate the deeply compromised character of the new regime and its defenders – and they have never forgiven him for it.

The fatal flaw in Peters’ thinking – and therefore in the political conduct of NZ First – is that he has always sought to rescue his country’s fortunes by restoring the status quo ante. This meant re-creating a state-supported economy made up of importunate capitalist clients ready to offer Cabinet Ministers (and/or their parties) whatever it took to secure – and keep – their indispensable political patronage.

Peters and his colleagues perfected the art of appearing to be the foes of neoliberal capitalism while keeping hidden from the electorate their determination to restore the crony capitalism of the pre-Rogernomics era. His intention was always to attract the support of sufficient National Party and Labour Party politicians to secure his own, and his party’s, re-entry to the places where the deals – and the prices of the deals – were struck. He was convinced that New Zealand’s neoliberal revolution, like all revolutions, would ultimately prove unable to resist the tendency of fundamental economic and political realities to reassert themselves.

The fundamental fact remains: New Zealand capitalism cannot prosper without the active support of New Zealand’s politicians. Peters and NZ First have always been determined to prosper from that fact.

But, if NZ First sought to prosper from the re-establishment of crony capitalism, Labour and the Greens could hardly do so – not without fatally compromising their “transformative” ambitions. No matter how imminent a three-part rendition of the Hallelujah Song might appear, Jacinda’s broad new political faith has always been more apparent than real. The longer the present coalition government endures, the more opportunities for clientelism to become entrenched will present themselves. NZ First has never made a conspicuous display of resisting the temptation to exact a price for making things happen, or not happen. And with every stalled initiative and thwarted policy commitment, the Labour leader’s broad political faith takes on more and more of the appearance of a tawdry religious huckster’s travelling road-show.

Jacinda’s white vestments may look impressive on the cover of the international edition of Time magazine, but every day Labour’s relationship with Winston Peters and NZ First continues, her ability to go on wearing them back home in New Zealand – without exciting derision – diminishes.

It is time for the Prime Minister to wake up.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday 25 February 2020.

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 exposĂ©, 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 cafĂ© 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.


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.