Friday 29 May 2020

Poisonous Legacy: Why George Floyd Could Be Choked While The Whole World Watched.

"I can't breathe, Mama. I'm dying." - Last words of George Floyd.

LOOK HARD at this image. Think about what it depicts. Ask yourself how one human-being could behave so brutally when so many eye-witnesses – and very soon millions of people online around the world – were there to watch him do it. Then ask yourself why he didn’t care.

In this photograph, lifted from a video taken at the scene, the Minneapolis police officer whose knee is choking the life out of George Floyd, registers the presence of witnesses with a mixture of surprise and annoyance. The fact that he is looking directly into the lens of the cellphone recording his actions – strongly suggests that he is aware of what is happening.

Most people, caught in a similarly compromising position would respond by removing their knee from the suspect’s neck. The man was in handcuffs. He posed no threat to the officer or anybody else. The witnesses present could hear the man protesting that he couldn’t breathe. So, presumably, could the officer. So, why didn’t he remove his knee? Why didn’t he stop?

Part of the answer lies in the culture of American law enforcement. In all but the smallest communities, US police officers are encouraged to view their fellow citizens as the enemy. This is true even of white citizens, who will be shown scant respect unless the socio-political context of their encounter with law enforcement, and/or their possession of all the accessories of high social status, indicate a more deferential demeanour might be in order. In the absence of these warning markers, however, blank indifference to the rights and opinions of their fellow citizens is considered mandatory. Anything less would convey an impression of softness and weakness: displays of which could quickly lead to a potentially fatal loss of police authority.

With African-Americans, the need for maximum rigor on the part of law enforcement has always been a given. On the central question of equal treatment under the law, all of American history conspires against people of colour. Their role in the development of American capitalism – and of capitalism globally – may have been crucial. One cannot picture the cotton mills of Lancashire without also picturing the cotton fields of Mississippi! But, the great tragedy of African-American history is that it is equally difficult to explain the global dominance of American capitalism without acknowledging the racial segmentation of the American working-class. With racial prejudice forever forestalling working-class unity, anti-capitalism has never found any enduring purchase on the soil of the United States.

As long ago as the 1830s it was apparent to dispassionate observers of the American Republic that “free” white American males (the only people then vested with political power) were bound to the idea of the United States with chains every bit as strong as those which burdened its black slaves. The loyalty of the poorest white farmer and/or factory worker was in large measure guaranteed by his understanding that at least two categories of human-being would always occupy a more degraded position than himself in the socio-economic hierarchy: women and blacks.

Nowhere is this crucial political understanding more clearly spelled out than in the 1857 judgement of the Chief Justice of the United States, Roger Taney, who ruled against the legal attempt by the freed slave, Dred Scott, to secure equality of treatment under the Constitution of the United States.

According to Taney:

“The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all of the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen?”

The Chief Justice’s answer was an unequivocal “No”.

“We think... that [black people] are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time [of America's founding] considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.”

Taney’s (along with six more of the nine Supreme Court justices’) judgement stated more honestly than anything written before, or since, White America’s true feelings towards Black America:

“It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted.... They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order...; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

It could hardly be stated more plainly: African-Americans have no rights which the white man is bound to respect. In very large measure the American Civil War was fought to nullify Chief Justice Taney’s (himself a slaveowner) crushing judgement. And though, by the victory of the Union armies, the slaves were freed, recognised as citizens of the United States, and guaranteed the equal protection of the laws, their victory was short-lived. Barely a decade after the war’s end, the relentless roll-back of African-American rights had begun. On the ground, where it counted, most white Americans found it more expedient to enshrine the prejudices of Roger Taney than to give heed to Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels”.

It required terror, of course, this denial of African-American rights: terror and the connivance of local law enforcement. Between them, the Ku Klux Klan, the local sheriff and the officials down at the county courthouse reduced those African-Americans still living within the borders of the defeated Confederacy to a new form of servitude. It would be another 100 years before the civil rights won in the Civil War were again afforded the meaningful protection of federal authority.

Perhaps predictably, the spectacle of African-Americans reaching out to reclaim their lost political, social and economic rights struck fear into white Americans. Across the whole of America this time, the prospect of giving up their privileged status – even if its surrender would greatly enhance the ability of all Americans to pursue happiness more successfully – was enough to drive working-class whites into the arms of, first, George Wallace, then Richard Nixon, and ultimately Ronald Reagan.

Is it drawing too long a bow to suggest that in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Struggle (1954-1980) the terroristic role formerly assigned to the Ku Klux Klan was assumed by local law enforcement? The Black Lives Matter movement would not say so. If he had not been silenced forever by a Minneapolis cop, it is likely that George Floyd would not say so. Not when practically every day in the United States police officers pay deadly tribute to Chief Justice Taney’s poisonous legacy.

Demonstrably, it is the opinion of American law enforcement that African-Americans are indeed members of an inferior order. So far inferior, that they have no rights which any white police officer is bound to respect; and that African-Americans might justly and lawfully be put to death – even when the whole world is watching.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 29 May 2020.

Holding The Centre.

"You call that a conservative? Nah, this is a conservative!" New Zealanders are in the market for a quiet and reassuring small-c conservative political centrist. The critical question, however, is which politician is currently playing that role? Who has mastered the art of relaxed, informal and intimate political communication? Who will soon announce her intention to mobilise the expertise of New Zealand’s most practical and successful businessmen and women? Who, like so many “ordinary” people has a toddler with a future to protect? Is it Todd Muller - or Jacinda Ardern?

THE PROBLEM WITH CENTRISTS is that, practically by definition, they shy away from extremes. It’s the quality that most encourages voters to trust them. The quality that makes people feel safe. Unfortunately, it is also the quality most likely to bore people rigid. If a politician wishes to promote safe policies, then it is absolutely vital that he does so in an interesting and engaging way. If your brand of politics is boring, then you have to be anything but. So far, Todd Muller has come across as every bit as uninspiring as his politics. Not a good start.

In fact, compared to Jacinda Ardern’s first few days as leader of the Labour Opposition, Muller’s gaffe-prone performances have constituted an excruciating tutorial in how not to play the game of politics.

Who could forget the day Jacinda emerged from the Opposition caucus-room as Labour’s new leader to greet the assembled media. Hers was a performance so faultless, so accomplished, so crackling with energy and sheer, draw-dropping competence that seasoned professionals were reduced to stunned silence. Not, however, before offering brief, two-word responses to her performance like: “holy shit!”, “fucking hell!”, and “bloody unbelievable!” That some political commentators have uttered exactly the same words in response to Muller’s performances should not be considered a good thing. In Jacinda’s case the journalists were responding to how astonishingly good she was; in Todd’s they were registering precisely the opposite!

Muller’s problem is that he lacks Jacinda’s ability to make moderation come alive. Ardern understands that most people are drawn to traditional values and common sense ideas. Far from seeing this as a sign of their intellectual weakness, however, she treats it as proof of their ethical strength. It’s an insight which allows her to infuse the great rounded hump of the bell-curve with heroic purpose. By characterising people’s conventional reactions as the only serious, morally-defensible options available, Jacinda makes the ordinary extraordinary.

Just think of her inspired “They are Us” comment following the dreadful events in Christchurch. It resonated so powerfully because it expressed to perfection the instant identification with the unjustly attacked that is hard-wired into the human animal. Ardern understands the enormous power of common human emotions. Her ability to unleash them; to in effect mobilise the ordinary; is what makes her such a formidable politician. Ardern’s description of herself as a “pragmatic idealist”, and her commitment to being “relentlessly positive”, encapsulate perfectly her determination to not only make Labour’s middle-of-the-road brand of social-democratic politics interesting and exciting, but also to make it honourable.

If Muller is to have the slightest hope of becoming competitive in this election, then he has to get his head around all this – and quickly. Conservatism, in its proper sense of reflecting the organic social bonds linking the past (our parents) the present (ourselves) and the future (our children) will always enjoy a pronounced advantage over those political movements dedicated to altering the status quo. In politics, no less than in physics, inertia is a difficult state to overcome. And when, for whatever reason, it is overcome; when things are changing way faster than most people like; then offering to make them stop will, almost always, be the winning offer.

What does that mean in practical political terms? That Muller doesn’t appear to know should be scaring the bejesus out of his promoters. That he didn’t immediately reassure voters, calmly and with fatherly conviction, that he understood fully the need – without in any way endangering New Zealanders’ extraordinary victory over the Covid-19 virus – to do everything required to bring New Zealand’s perilous economic situation under control, is problematic – to say the least. Above all else, Muller’s approach to the electorate needs to be relaxed and informal – intimate even. As an avid reader of American political history, he should have no difficulty recalling the way Franklin Roosevelt communicated with the American people during the Great Depression. What could be more relaxed, informal and intimate than a “fireside chat”?

Muller doesn’t need to attack Jacinda or her government directly, he merely has to present the electorate with a credible plan for economic recovery. He doesn’t have to point to Phil Twyford’s, David Clark’s and Kelvin Davis’s failures, he simply has to draw people’s attention to how much still remains to be done. And all the time, in the finest small-c conservative tradition, he has to subtly remind voters of how well the country has fared under past National governments; of the expertise he and his colleagues can bring to bear immediately; of the historically reliable instincts of practical and successful businessmen and women and how vital these will be in securing a prosperous future for New Zealand’s children.

None of those objectives will be achieved by standing in an empty Legislative Chamber, booming out trite phrases to Q+A’s Jack Tame, and gesticulating wildly to thousands of startled New Zealanders sipping tea in their living-rooms.

It is debateable whether Muller and his advisers understand the danger they and the National Party are in. Yes, this is a moment for the quiet and reassuring counsel of a small-c conservative political centrist. The critical question, however, is which politician is currently playing that role? Who has mastered the art of relaxed, informal and intimate political communication? Who will soon announce her intention to mobilise the expertise of New Zealand’s most practical and successful businessmen and women? Who, like so many “ordinary” people has a toddler with a future to protect?

Is it Todd Muller – or Jacinda Ardern?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 28 May 2020.

The Limits Of Kindness.

Race-Based Geography: All the old Marxists out there (all seventeen of them!) will object that the bureaucratic discrimination embodied in the new two-tier benefit system is not based on race, but on social class. To say that, though, is to miss the salient fact of the socio-economic changes of the past 35 years. Namely, that the poorest and most marginalised people in our society have become steadily less white.

I’VE OFTEN WONDERED if South African immigrants passing through towns like Kerikeri and Kaikohe ever wonder how we do it. In their homeland, through the bitter years of Apartheid, keeping the races segregated required pass laws, Alsatian dogs, tear gas, rubber bullets and, all-too-often, live rounds. Not here. Not in Godzone. Here, the “brown towns” are readily distinguished by their boarded-up shops, bottle stores and WINZ offices. The “white towns”, by their main streets’ homage to conspicuous consumption: all those funky cafes and swanky boutiques. No Sharpevilles required. No Sowetos. Quite a trick.

They must also scratch their heads at New Zealand’s segregated schools. How were the rolls so effortlessly sorted? In one school (usually in the poorest part of town) the roll will be upwards of 85 percent Maori and Pasifika. In another (ten miles from the first, where the pupils’ warm dry houses are surrounded by mature trees and carefully tended gardens) the roll will be 85 percent Pakeha and Chinese.

In Boston, Massachusetts, it took school-busses and billy-clubs to enforce desegregation. No political party in New Zealand has ever been willing to wear the backlash. And because we lack a supreme court with the power to strike down legislation which violates a written constitution (which we also lack) no one has ever forced them to.

Parliamentary supremacy, coupled with a free-wheeling Executive Branch unburdened by serious judicial restraint, has produced a political system in which racism has not only been institutionalised but also rendered electorally invisible. To argue otherwise is to ignore the evidence of Tuesday’s newspaper headlines – or (at the very least) wilfully misinterpret them.

Monday’s announcement, under the names of Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, and Social Development Minister, Carmel Sepuloni, of what they have dubbed the Covid-19 Income Relief Payment – CIRP (but which would rather more honestly have been called the Middle-Class Pakeha Income Relief Payment) was a shocker. Seldom has a government acknowledged the yawning gulf between the rich and the poor – the white and the brown – with such gobsmacking insouciance. Or, it must be said, with such rock-solid confidence that its blatant policy of racial discrimination will be accepted by the voting public with barely a flicker of concern or guilt.

What is it, after all, that separates a young Maori bartender made redundant on 29 February 2020, from a middle-aged Pakeha marketing manager let go on 25 May? It’s a question with many answers. But after all the superficial demarcators have been acknowledged, the explanation always circles back to one thing: the size of the fuss you can make. The marketing manager from Remuera has the means to make a great deal more fuss than the out-of-work bartender from Mangere. Give a marketing manager a look of withering contempt and he’ll ask to see your supervisor. Give a bartender the same look and he’ll turn away from the counter with a burning knot of rage and shame in his guts.

Oh, and the other thing that separates these two New Zealanders is the fact that the bartender on his Jobseeker Allowance will receive $250 from the taxpayer, while the marketing manager on his CIRP will receive $490.

All the old Marxists out there (all seventeen of them!) will object that this bureaucratic discrimination is not based on race, but on social class. To say that, though, is to miss the salient fact of the socio-economic changes of the past 35 years. Namely, that the poorest and most marginalised people in our society have become steadily less white.

The effectively monocultural social landscape of the 30 years after World War II played a crucial role in preserving the political acceptability of the Welfare State. The more “bi-cultural” and then “multicultural” we became, however, the less redeemable our cradle-to-grave promissory notes became. Social generosity and cultural homogeneity are intimately related. When the majority of blue collars (or should that be Hi-Viz vests?) begin to be worn around brown necks, then the socialist party tends to get cancelled.

This government has decided (very sensibly in a strictly political sense) that it would be electorally counter-productive to have a growing number of middle-class Pakeha New Zealanders discovering exactly how many humiliating hoops working-class Maori, Pasifika and immigrant New Zealanders have to jump through to get their hands on a lousy $250.

Clearly, kindness has its limits.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 May 2020.

Tuesday 26 May 2020

National's Army Is On The Move.

Let's Roll! The easy victory over a Bridges-led National Party which the Left had every cause to anticipate just a few days ago is no longer in the offing. Our enemy’s position has changed. His numbers are swelling. A rapid thrust to the left, followed by an audacious outflanking manoeuvre can now be expected. Slap in a fresh clip, comrades. We have a fight on our hands.

THE TRICK IN POLITICS, as in war, is to know where your enemy is today – not where he was yesterday. An even more useful trick is knowing where he will be tomorrow. The Daily Blog’s editor, Martyn Bradbury, is certain that the Jacinda Ardern-led Government’s current political position is unassailable. In justification, he points to the most recent state-of-the-parties polling and (with even more emphasis) to Ipsos’s just-released polling on “the issues”. All of these surveys show Labour in a commanding political position vis-à-vis their National Party opponent. Were the General Election to be held this week, Labour would be returned by a landslide.

Unfortunately, the General Election is 120 days away.

The National Party’s new leader, Todd Muller, is similarly perceived by Martyn as representing no serious threat to Jacinda’s dominant political position. His inspired meme equating Muller’s “desperate” leadership coup with Gollum’s last-minute acquisition of “The Precious” above the all-consuming fires of Mount Doom, speaks to his conviction that regardless of who its leader might be, National’s defeat has become inevitable.

The question I would put to Martyn is simple: If defeat is inevitable, then why not let Simon Bridges carry the can? Why would the National Party caucus, along with the National Party Board, risk a player as highly regarded as Muller by committing him to a fight he cannot hope to win? Surely, if Muller represents the best interests of his party – ideologically as well as electorally – then the smart move would be to hold him in reserve for the process of rebuilding, which defeat on the scale anticipated by Martyn would necessarily entail?

Martyn may well respond that Muller’s job in 2020 is the same as Mike Moore’s in 1990: to “save the furniture” – i.e. to forestall the utter collapse of his party’s vote and keep it at least vaguely competitive for future political contests. This is not an implausible explanation, but I believe the true answer lies elsewhere. What the “save the furniture” explanation misses is the seriousness of the danger posed to National’s long-term future by Simon Bridges’ leadership.

Over the course of the 27 months Bridges led the National Opposition, the sense of unease among both party members and supporters regarding its direction of travel was palpable. Moderate conservatives across the country became convinced that the Simon Bridges-Paula Bennett-led National Party was veering further and further to the right. Concern that a far-right faction, drawing its inspiration from Donald Trump’s Republican Party, was growing in strength led first to murmurings, then to outright plotting. Reclaiming control of National became an urgent priority for those convinced that a sudden lurch towards Trumpism would make the party unelectable. Far from seeing Todd Muller as some sort of Gollum figure, National Party centrists began looking forward to his elevation as the return of the king.

The centrists win would have come a lot sooner had they not had to contend with the lingering and very sour aftertaste of 2017. Winston Peters decision – against all precedent – to spurn the party holding the largest number of parliamentary seats in favour of a “coalition of the losers” left a great many National Party members and voters feeling bitter and vengeful. They were looking for someone to inflict serious harm on Labour; someone to make Jacinda Ardern suffer; someone to drive a stake through Winston Peters’ heart. Simon Bridges was that someone and, who knows, had the Covid-19 Pandemic not come along, he might have delivered.

What the Covid-19 crisis made increasingly clear to National members and supporters, however, was that a win by Simon Bridges and his backers would deliver a lot more than the humiliation of Jacinda and her Labour Party. There was something else lurking at the back of Bridges’ policy positions – something unpleasant. The National Party he led wasn’t asking people to use their votes as tools, he was urging them to use their votes as weapons.

As the implications of this shift began to sink in, National’s numbers began to collapse. Simon Bridges was seen as hopelessly out of step with the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders’ support for Jacinda’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. With each of his tone-deaf utterances more-and-more former National voters began to contemplate the unthinkable prospect of actually voting Labour.

Which is how the electoral battlefield looked immediately prior to Todd Muller’s coup. It would be most unwise, however, to assume that it will look the same in 120 days’ time.

A week or so ago I wrote emotionally about Labour “coming home”. Grant Robertson’s Budget Speech made it clear that his party had moved beyond the neoliberal economic and social settings which have guided it since 1984. No matter how great the imaginative effort required, it behoves the Left to put itself in the shoes of the ordinary, decent National Party voter now that Simon’s gone and Todd is in charge. For a great many of them it will also seem as if their party, the party of Keith Holyoake, Jim Bolger, John Key and Bill English, has “come home” to its core values.

The chances of tens-of-thousands of erstwhile National supporters also "coming home" over the next 120 days are very high. The easy victory over a Bridges-led National Party which Martyn and the rest of the Left had every cause to anticipate just a few days ago is no longer in the offing. Our enemy’s position has changed. His numbers are swelling. A rapid thrust to the left followed by an audacious outflanking manoeuvre can now be expected.

Slap in a fresh clip, comrades. We have a fight on our hands.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 26 May 2020.

Friday 22 May 2020

Leaders Without Power

The Illusions Of Power: Does Jacinda Ardern, like Abraham Lincoln, wake in the dark watches of the night still enveloped in the terrors of life-and-death decision-making? Maybe – maybe not. She’s a twenty-first century prime minister, not so susceptible, perhaps, to the deep religious feeling and romanticism that was such a feature of nineteenth century life. But she is also human and therefore prey to what dreams may come, unbidden, to the sleeping mind.

THE PRESIDENT’S DREAM was always the same. It was dark, barely enough light for him to see that he was in the middle of a mighty river. The boat he was standing in had no oars, no sail and no rudder. It was borne forward by the power of the river’s fearsome currents. The President had no means of determining his craft’s course. The banks on either side were dim shapes in the darkness. He was alone – at the river’s mercy.

Abraham Lincoln related this recurring dream to his closest confidants on more than one occasion. It would come to him at those moments in his presidency (1860-1865) when events were driving the United States inexorably towards a crucial moment of decision. Since he was president during the blood-soaked years of the American Civil War, these usually took the form of great and decisive battles. The dream, he said, came to him in the summer of 1863 – just days before the tide-turning Battle of Gettysburg.

Lincoln’s recurring dream is a powerful evocation of the political leader’s lonely and at times terrifying responsibility. Those of us who are spared the agonies of life-and-death decision-making all-too-easily assume that the people in charge are just that – in charge. We imagine them issuing their commands and reality dutifully complying. How else could we think it right and proper to blame our politicians when things go wrong? They told us they would fix the problems by which our world is beset, and yet the problems remain. Who else should we blame?

The true experience of leadership, however, as Lincoln’s dream makes clear, could not be further from the average voter’s fanciful notions of command and control. So many things are happening at once that forming a clear picture of where you are and what you should be doing is impossible. If you ever possessed the means of driving and steering the situation you are in they have long since been lost. All you can feel beneath you is the sheer, ungovernable power of the events carrying you forward. All you can do is peer blindly into the failing light and do your best to remain upright.

The Coalition Government’s “document dump” of two Fridays ago bears out the metaphorical truth of Lincoln’s recurring dream. Contained within its more than 2,000 pages is the story of how New Zealand’s Prime Minister, her senior Cabinet colleagues and the country’s leading civil servants grappled with the smoke and fog of the unfolding Covid-19 Pandemic.

The picture that emerges is one of confusion bordering on panic; decision-making undertaken in extreme haste and with nothing like enough reliable information. It depicts a system that barely coped and institutions that came perilously close to failing.

But it is also a story of unflagging human dedication and prodigious energy. A case-study of the curious magic that emerges from sustained collective effort on others’ behalf. Most of all, however, it’s the story of a handful of people who absolutely had to keep their footing and who did not fall. Almost as if the impersonal currents propelling them forward sensed their courage and kept the boat steady.

Does Jacinda Ardern, like Abraham Lincoln, wake in the dark watches of the night still enveloped in the terrors of life-and-death decision-making? Maybe – maybe not. She’s a twenty-first century prime minister, not so susceptible, perhaps, to the deep religious feeling and romanticism that was such a feature of nineteenth century life. But she is also human and therefore prey to what dreams may come, unbidden, to the sleeping mind.

Like Lincoln’s last dream. To his wife, Mary, he described being alone in a White House grown uncharacteristically still and quiet. He moved through the mansion’s brightly-lit but empty rooms towards the sound of distant sobbing. Finally, in the East Room, he came upon a corpse, lying upon a catafalque and guarded by Union soldiers. Lincoln heard himself asking: “Who is dead in the White House?” One of soldiers made reply: “The President – killed by an assassin!” A heart-wrenching wail of sorrow rose from the gathered mourners.

In the days that remained before his visit to Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln would be killed by an assassin, the President was haunted by this grim presentiment of his death. He could not, however, avoid his fate. Leaders never can.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 May 2020.

Thursday 21 May 2020

Does National Still Need A Street-Fighting Man?

Eyes Left! On the face of it, the election of Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye is a no-brainer. New Zealanders are clearly in no mood for a “dirty little street-fighter” and, if the polls are any indication, resent strongly Bridges’ implication that they are. To be at all competitive with Labour, National needs a radical change of faces.

WHO WILL EMERGE from Friday’s emergency meeting of National caucus as the party’s No.1 and No. 2? Will it be the incumbents: Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett? Or will the election of Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye signal National’s return to a kinder, gentler conservatism? Does Judith “Crusher” Collins’ very public renunciation of her leadership ambitions indicate her intention to swing her support behind Bridges and Bennett? Or, is she backing Muller and Kaye in return for the crucial Finance portfolio? Are Collins’ supporters even numerous enough to swing this contest, or will Mark Mitchell’s handful of votes be required to nudge the eventual winners over the line? If so, what will Mitchell’s price be?

On the face of it, the election of Muller and Kaye is a no-brainer. New Zealanders are clearly in no mood for a “dirty little street-fighter” and, if the polls are any indication, resent strongly Bridges’ implication that they are. To be at all competitive with Labour, National needs a radical change of faces. Beating Jacinda’s “Kindness” will require of the Right a credible presentation of “Kindness+”. In the best of all possible contests that “plus” would be “Wisdom”. In its present mood, however, the best “plus” the Right is likely to offer the voters is “Competence”.

Like everything in electoral politics it will all come down to numbers. Who has them and who doesn’t. In the February 2018 caucus contest that gave New Zealand the Bridges/Bennett combination it seemed pretty clear that the liberal wing of the party backing Amy Adams didn’t have the numbers. The question to be answered now is whether or not the 27 months under Bridges/Bennett have convinced enough of National’s hard-liners that dirty street-fighting is not going to win them back the treasury benches. If the polls have sufficiently spooked them, then they may be persuaded to reluctantly shuffle left. Unspooked, they will keep their nerve and wait for Covid-19’s economic shit to hit the fan.

Empirically, the hardliners can point to the impressive solidity of National’s public support across all but a few of those 27 months (the big exception being the period following the Christchurch Mosque Shootings). They might also cite the salutary impact of Bridges’ dirty social media street-fighting on Labour’s popularity. Unbuttressed by crisis and calamity, they can fairly argue, Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues are sitting ducks. Thinking of political feather-brains like Phil Twyford, David Clark and Kelvin Davis it’s hard not to agree!

Those hardline Nats with a bent for military history might compare National’s position with that of the Germans at the Battle of the Somme. The Covid-19 health crisis, like the British artillery’s horrendous opening barrage, has indisputably shaken the defenders’ confidence – but has it been destroyed? When the whistles blew and the poor Tommies rose out of their trenches and began moving steadily across no man’s land towards what they had been assured was a pulverised enemy, the German machine-gunners mowed them down like corn. Substitute utter economic carnage for those German machine-gunners and the analogy becomes strikingly clear.

The problem with political hardliners of every stripe is that they lack the flexibility of mind to put themselves in the position of their opponents. Not being able to imagine – and hence anticipate – what their enemy might do to thwart their plans, they are rendered incapable of adapting fixed strategies and tactics. The National Right has convinced itself that the Coalition Government lacks the experience and talent required to steer New Zealand safely through the Covid-19 induced recession. Confronted with ever-increasing numbers of failed businesses and unemployed workers, they see Jacinda and her colleagues freezing in the headlights of the Right’s oncoming truck. As far as National’s hardliners are concerned, all they have to do to win is make sure those headlights are kept on full-beam.

What they have singularly failed to grasp is that, as Laila Harré observed on Q+A on Monday night, the Covid-19 emergency has elevated Jacinda well above the plane of a mere party leader or prime minister. It has transformed her into New Zealand’s leader: the woman credited with doing the right thing to defend her people by an astonishing 92 percent of Reid Research’s respondents. A political dynamic is operating here that goes way beyond mere partisanship. Jacinda has not only changed the way her people look at her, she has changed the way she looks at herself. You cannot bring down such leaders, you can only wait for them to fall.

Jacinda does not have to do anything more between now and 19 September than urge New Zealanders to endure the pain. Like Winston Churchill in 1940, she need offer them nothing more in the immediate term than “blood, toil, tears and sweat”. But, if they can hold out in these fortunate islands; if they are willing to give her and Labour the votes they need to finish the job of rebuilding and recovery; ah well, then, in Churchill’s wonderfully evocative words: “the life of the world can move forward into broad sunlit uplands”. This is the new reality that the National Opposition has to grasp: that Labour does not need to win the battle of the present, if it has already won the battle of the future.

Which is not to suggest that Jacinda and her government are incapable of slipping and falling. Unanticipated obstacles, new disasters, may yet send dark clouds scudding across those sunlit uplands. If they do, then who is better placed to comfort and inspire their dispirited compatriots: Simon Bridges and Paula Bennet, or Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye?

There have been times in New Zealand’s political history when its more conservative citizens have been in the market for “a dirty little street-fighter”. One thinks of Sid Holland, who tamed the militant unions in 1951. Or Rob Muldoon in 1975, promising conservatives New Zealand the way they (not the Left) wanted it. In 2005, it was Don Brash who asserted the rights of “Kiwi” over “Iwi”. These were the leaders chosen by National for times of “Us” versus “Them”.

These are not such times. The Covid-19 global pandemic of 2020 has brought the New Zealand people closer together. They are not looking for a National Opposition determined to drive them apart.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 21 May 2020.

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Conceding Nothing – To The Undemanding Non-Voter.

Missing From The Electoral Action: The radical Left's last forlorn hope, the "Missing Million", is generally despised by mainstream New Zealand and mistrusted by the respectable members of their own communities. They have moved well beyond the reach of conventional electoral politics.

TO SAY the Left’s reaction to Grant Robertson’s “Recovery Budget” has been mixed would be a considerable understatement. Everyone from Mike Treen and John Minto to Susan St John and Gordon Campbell have criticised the Coalition Government for failing to piggy-back a socialist programme on its economic response to the Covid-19 recession. To which I feel obliged to call: Bullshit!

Had Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson followed the advice of those who are now so loud in their condemnation of the Budget, their 26 percentage-point poll advantage would have evaporated practically overnight. Why? Because the additional 10-15 percent of popular support Labour appears to have attracted over the past two months can only have come from former National supporters. How long, I wonder, do Labour’s critics on the Left suppose these people would have stuck around had Jacinda decided to go all Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders on them? That is not a trick question. The answer is – not long at all.

The bad news wouldn’t have stopped there, however, it would just be getting started. Can Jacinda’s and Grant’s critics not imagine how right-wing commentators like Mike Hosking and Matthew Hooton would have seized upon the Government’s sudden lurch to the left as proof of its fundamental dishonesty. Oh yes, they may have pretended to be responsible managers of the New Zealand economy, but when the crisis/opportunity came – in the form of a critical public health emergency, for God’s sake! – they fell upon it cynically to implement a radical agenda – the content of which they had concealed from the electorate.

And what about that NZ First, eh? What about Winston Peters! The sly old fox had been a radical socialist all along. Forget about the Manchurian Candidate – this guy was the original Moscow Sleeper! And the rest of his caucus – what consummate actors! Ron Mark a socialist – who knew? I mean, the Greens never made the slightest effort to hide their radical credentials – and didn’t NZ First give them stick for it. That decision, back in 2005, to keep the Greens out of government: what a masterstroke! Put everyone off their guard. Talk about your long-term, far-left agenda.

Yes, I’m being facetious, but only to remind this government’s left-wing critics that it is a coalition; and that one of the constituent parties of that coalition was formed by a former National Party cabinet minister. Which is just another way of saying that even if Jacinda and Grant had been foolish enough to try and drive through the measures demanded by the radical Left, Winston would have vetoed them. Would that have broken up the coalition? Yes. Would Winston and NZ first have suffered for pulling the emergency hand-brake? No. Would Labour and the Greens have been punished electorally? Yes. Would Simon Bridges have become New Zealand’s next prime minister? Of course.

Now, I’ve been around long enough to know exactly how the radical and revolutionary Left would answer these arguments. They would say that driving all those cross-over Nats back into Simon’s waiting arms wouldn’t matter, because the political consequences of a radical left-wing response to the Covid-19 induced recession would, on balance, be favourable to the Government. All those beneficiaries whose lives would have been improved immeasurably by its decision to implement the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s recommendations, for example, would have turned out in their droves to re-elect Jacinda and her colleagues.

This is yet another iteration of the “Missing Million” argument: a political proposition that the Left has been kicking around for at least the last three general elections. Give the poor and marginalised something to vote for and they will reward their political benefactors at the ballot-box.

Except they won’t.

Increasingly, electoral politics is an activity restricted to those whose lives are still buoyant enough to warrant engagement with “mainstream” New Zealand institutions. Unionised workers; church members in good standing; newly-minted professionals who have scraped and clawed their way out of the immigrant communities into which they were born. By-and-large, these are not people with a revolutionary mindset. On the contrary, many of them have little or no respect for those who, as they see it, have given up the struggle to make a better life for themselves and their children. That’s why the Missing Million is generally despised by mainstream New Zealand and mistrusted by the respectable members of their own communities. They have moved well beyond the reach of conventional electoral politics.

Whenever the Missing Million argument is used by left-wingers seeking to reconcile electoral politics with revolutionary aspirations, I think of Len Richards in Mangere. Len, a staunch and thoroughly engaging socialist, stood for the NewLabour Party against David Lange in 1990. He ran a very good campaign, winning 11.79 percent of the votes cast – more than twice the NLP’s 5.16 percent of the popular vote nationally. And yet, even after everything the Labour Party had done to the working people of the Mangere electorate; even after six years of Rogernomics; even with unemployment skyrocketing; David Lange romped home with 51.1 percent of the votes cast.

The most fundamental problem confronting the radical Left has never really been about the people who don’t vote. It’s always been about the political parties supported by the people who do. New Zealanders will vote for parties positioned to Labour’s left – sometimes in impressive numbers – but only when those parties are offering policies demanded by a significant percentage of the electorate, and which Labour, for reasons best known to itself, refuses to endorse.

Clearly, this is not the situation in 2020. In this year’s election there will be only one viable party to Labour’s left, the Greens, and the policy differences between the two are now marginal – at best. On its current standing in the Newshub-Reid Research poll (56 percent) Labour will be looking to retain office with the support of former right-wing voters – not radical leftists. It’s not a situation which any democratic-socialist activist enjoys, but one that cannot be avoided without giving up the game of electoral politics altogether.

Grant Robertson’s Budget is offering what most New Zealanders are hoping for – economic recovery. More importantly, it’s offering what the New Zealanders who actually vote are demanding. Is that the same as offering what so many poor and marginalised New Zealanders desperately need? No, it’s not. But if people’s economic and social needs are not translated into serious political demands, then they are unlikely to be fulfilled in any serious way. In the immortal words of the Black abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand – it never has and it never will.”

When the wretched of the earth – and that includes the people of Mangere and Porirua – organise themselves to the point of convincing mainstream politicians that there is more to be gained by acceding to their demands than ignoring them, then their lives will improve immeasurably. Put enough community organisers in New Zealand’s most deprived suburbs and all the exclusions of the 2020 Budget, which have so upset the radical Left, will very rapidly become inclusions.

Until then, Labour – riding so very high in the polls – will go on listening to and meeting the demands of those who know how to make themselves heard where it counts – in the ballot-box.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 19 May 2020.

Friday 15 May 2020

Is the New Zealand State Equal To Covid-19’s Economic Challenge?

Sufficient Leverage? Years of underfunding and down-scaling, and countless restructurings, have routinely wiped away decades of institutional memory. Grant Robertson's 2020 Budget has engaged the levers of government action - but do they still work?

THE FINANCE MINISTER would appear to have pulled hard on every economic lever he could find. The 2020 Budget is breath-taking in the sheer scale of its ambition. What we are all about to discover now, however, is how many of those levers are still attached to machinery that works. Can the Government’s orders be carried out, or, like Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker in April 1945, is it urging forward armies that no longer exist?

Think about the early stages of the fightback against Covid-19. How long it took for meaningful interventions against the virus to kick in. In the minimum possible time, the Ministry of Health was required to reach maximum effectiveness – and all from a standing start. Years of underfunding and down-scaling; countless restructurings during which decades of institutional memory had been routinely wiped away: all of these ideologically-inspired weaknesses had to be overcome not in months and years – but in days and weeks. They were, but the effort required from Ashley Bloomfield and his team to make sure everything worked was nothing short of heroic.

If the entire population of the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta could be awarded the George Cross for their stoicism and bravery under relentless German bombing in 1942, then I cannot see why our entire health service should not be similarly acknowledged in the next Honours List.

Now we shall see how well the other major ministries of the state meet the economic challenges of Covid-19. Impelled by the same sense of urgency; required to respond across a similar number of critical fronts; how will they perform? Will the massive amounts of financial and practical assistance that our failing businesses and vulnerable employees need arrive in time? Will the strategies required to haul the New Zealand economy out of the deep hole into which it has fallen be forthcoming? More importantly, will they – like the Ministry of Health’s responses – be subjected to the same searching examination and ruthless critique?

Frankly, I am sceptical of the chances of either of these crucial objectives being achieved. In the key state ministries: Treasury, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment; the Ministry of Social Development, the Ministry of Primary Industry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the record to date has been one of lethargy, procrastination and imaginative failure. Certainly, all of them have been subjected to the same spending cuts as the Ministry of Health (thankfully now remedied by Grant Robertson’s Budget) but the malaise in these ministries goes much deeper than a mere dearth of funds.

Since at least the fundamental reorganisation of the public sector in the late 1980s, the record of every successful state-sector CEO has demonstrated not how much he or she could make their ministry do, but how much he or she could make it do without. Under New Zealand’s all-conquering neoliberal ideology, the state is an institution whose ineffectiveness is accepted a priori: the less there is of it, the more efficiently our economy is predicted to perform. It was the far-right American ideologue, Grover Norquist, who recommended shrinking the state to the point where it could be drowned in a bathtub. For more than 30 years, New Zealand’s state-sector’s CEO’s (and the Ministers they advise) have made it their business to keep it on a crash diet.

The Ministers of the present government have learned to their political cost just how weak the New Zealand state’s starvation diet has left it. The unfortunate Phil Twyford tried pulling levers at Housing only to discover that, methodically, under governments of every hue, the wires connecting the political will to give New Zealanders affordable houses with the bureaucratic machinery needed of get them built had been cut. No matter how hard Twyford pulled Housing’s levers – nothing happened.

Yesterday, the Minister of Finance rolled out his blueprint for Responding, Recovering and Rebuilding New Zealand’s crisis-stricken economy. He is borrowing and spending billions to make it happen. Of necessity, a very large part of the work that lies ahead will be undertaken by the state. It is, however, far from certain that New Zealand’s core economic ministries will rise to the Covid-19 challenge as effectively as its Health Ministry.

There is, you see, a huge difference between the action mandated by science, and the inaction dictated by ideology. 

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 May 2020.

The Day Labour Came Home.

Home Boy: "We can also draw the lessons of the past as to what not to do in response to a major economic shock. In this case Mr Speaker I can draw on the experiences of my own life. As the economic carnage of the 1980s and 1990s wreaked havoc in our communities, I saw that up close. It was based on a tired set of ideas that the market would save us, that if government sat on the sidelines all would be well. Well, it didn’t work out that way and lives and livelihoods were lost." - Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Budget Speech, 14 May 2020.

THIS WAS THE DAY my old comrades Bruce Jesson and Gerry Hill never got to see. Grant Robertson’s reaffirmation of Labour’s democratic-socialist principles, the Budget Speech they never got to hear. That I have lived long enough to see this day and hear that speech is something for which I am truly thankful.

What am I talking about? This is what I’m talking about:

“We can draw on the lessons of the past as to how to deal with [the challenges of the Covid-19-generated economic crisis]. The answers lie in the great traditions of the First Labour Government who rebuilt New Zealand after the Great Depression. It was a time when they understood a genuine partnership between government and the people. That each and every person in this country deserved the right to take up the chances afforded by being lucky enough to live in, as my predecessor Peter Fraser called it, this green and pleasant land. They built houses, rail and roads, they created the welfare state and a strong public health system, and they backed shopkeepers and manufacturers. We are taking those principles into the modern era.

“We can also draw the lessons of the past as to what not to do in response to a major economic shock. In this case Mr Speaker I can draw on the experiences of my own life. As the economic carnage of the 1980s and 1990s wreaked havoc in our communities, I saw that up close. It was based on a tired set of ideas that the market would save us, that if government sat on the sidelines all would be well. Well, it didn’t work out that way and lives and livelihoods were lost.

“That will not happen again, not on the watch of this government. We know that we must work in partnership with iwi, business, unions, community groups, every one of the team of five million to make sure we all not only get through this, but that we thrive on the other side.”

Nearly forty years ago, I was present to hear my old history professor, John Omer-Cooper, debate the ethics of the 1981 Springbok Tour with one of his post-graduate students, a young fellow by the name of Michael Laws. For a good part of his life Omer-Cooper had lived in Africa – an advantage he put to good use against Laws who grew increasingly exasperated as the mild-mannered professor methodically dismantled his arguments. The pro-Tour firebrand’s final shot was to accuse his opponent of attempting to pass off expediency as morality. Omer-Cooper’s reply, calmly but firmly delivered, I have never forgotten: “There are occasions, Michael, when the expedient thing to do, and the moral thing to do, are the same thing.”

I would offer Omer-Cooper’s observation to all those who dismiss Robertson’s remarks as boiler-plate Budget Day rhetoric. “Words are cheap!”, they object – which is certainly true. The point I would make in response to such cynicism, however, is that in the 35 years since Roger Douglas delivered his paradigm-shifting 1985 Budget Speech, no other Labour Finance Minister has felt either willing or able to speak such words. Until today.

Are Robertson and the Prime Minister referencing Labour’s democratic-socialist traditions because in the absence of such a transformative vision the numbers quoted in today’s Budget Speech will crush all hope of their government’s re-election? Of course they are. And doesn’t that constitute sheer expediency on their part? No, not “sheer” expediency: not when their joint repudiation of Rogernomics is genuine. Not when the idea of making the most vulnerable members of our society bear the burden of economic misfortune is one they sincerely consider objectionable. To seek to inspire New Zealanders with hope for a better future on the other side of this once-in-a-century crisis may well be the expedient thing to do in the run-up to a general election, but it is also the right thing to do.

All of which leaves us with a decision of our own to make. How should we respond to the extraordinary words spoken by Jacinda and Grant over the course of the last 48 hours? For what it’s worth, my personal opinion is we should take their words at face value. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we simply overlook the clear deficiencies of the 2020 Budget: the absence of tax increases for the wealthy; its lack of further financial assistance for beneficiaries; but neither should we allow the best possible budget to become the enemy of a bloody good one. In a nation that has suffered 35 years of relentless neoliberal sloganeering, discretion just has to be the better part of political valour.

What’s more, if Bruce Jesson and Gerry Hill had been here to witness the day Labour came home to itself; had they, too, heard Robertson repudiate Rogernomics; then I’m pretty damn sure that they – and every one of our dear departed democratic-socialist comrades – would say the same.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 May 2020.

Thursday 14 May 2020

Go Hard, Jacinda. More Importantly, Go Early!

Jacinda's "Simple Proposition": No prime minister in the past 65 years has placed such an opportunity before the New Zealand people. We cannot afford to let it slip through our fingers. Jacinda’s offer must be taken up: by every union, every charity, every NGO, every church, and every citizen with a reason to want the New Zealand which emerges from this crisis to be better than the New Zealand that went into it.

JACINDA ARDERN’S Covid-19 formula: “Go hard, go early” has proved a resounding success – at least in public health terms. Success on the economic front will not be so easy. The number of foes arrayed against her is formidable – all of them doing everything they can to erode the admiration she has won both at home and abroad for her handling of the crisis. That being the case, might it not be time for the Prime Minister to consider whether the slogan “Go hard, go early” has more than one application?

Waiting until 19 September to go to the polls, while constitutionally admirable, invites political disaster. Certainly, the National Opposition is convinced that electoral victory has become a simple waiting game. Waiting for the unemployment numbers to swell beyond anything experienced by any New Zealander under the age of 90. Waiting for upwards of a third of New Zealand’s small businesses to fail. Waiting for the levels of fear, anguish, resentment and despair to rise beyond the ability of even the most empathic of prime ministers to assuage.

And, while National is waiting, the mainstream news media will be doing everything it can to magnify the voters’ sorrow and incite their rage. The business community, still eager for every bit of assistance the Ardern-led government can be bullied into offering, will nevertheless damn it with faint praise: strongly suggesting that a considerably more competent alternative government is ready and waiting to put things (or should that be move things) right.

In a powerful pre-Budget speech from the Beehive Theatrette, Jacinda told her compatriots: “New Zealand is about to enter a very tough winter.” The challenge she faces, politically as well as economically, is how to navigate the next four months so that they do not become “the winter of our discontent.”

The Prime Minister’s plan, as set out in her speech, is to pivot from health to economics without losing her “team of 5 million”.

First and foremost her government’s intention is to keep New Zealanders working. That, says Jacinda, cannot and will not mean embracing the grim doctrines of austerity: “[T]he notion that at this time of need we would make cuts to the essential services so many New Zealanders need more than ever is not only immoral, it is economically wrong.” These words offer not only reassurance to New Zealand’s most vulnerable citizens, but they also deliver a stinging slap to the faces of National and Act.

In her own words:

“Now more than ever we need our schools and hospitals, our public houses and roads and railways. We need our police and our nurses, and we need our welfare safety net. We will not let our team of 5 million fall when the times get tough, instead we will strengthen the blanket of support the Government can provide. We are rebuilding together, not apart.”

Stirring sentiments! But, as they say in the Ginsu ads: “Wait, there’s more!” The Prime Minister was not content to leave the electorate with nothing more than the standard government promises to single-handedly rescue the nation from its woes.

“In the coming month the Government will launch a comprehensive engagement programme that will pose a simple proposition – look what our team of 5 million achieved together in beating the virus, now what can we do together to get our economy moving again, to look after our people, and rebuild in a way that make things better than they were before. That will of course include the business community, but it will be broader too.

“If anything,” Jacinda continued, “the last few months have shown that united we are a formidable force. When we channel our energies into a goal collectively we are stronger for it. Prior to the virus we faced serious long term challenges – persistent inequality and poverty, the threat of climate change, the need to diversify the economy, low productivity, limited domestic manufacturing and an abundance of low paid jobs. Do we return to those settings or is now the time to find a better way?”

It is difficult to overstate the radicalism of the Prime Minister’s “simple proposition”. In effect, what she is saying is that the way out of the Covid-19-induced economic crisis must be determined by more that the usual business suspects. She is inviting everyone: from the corporate CEO to the hero on the supermarket check-out; from the bank economist to the welfare beneficiary; to have their say about the shape and purpose of their country’s “new normal”.

No prime minister in my lifetime has ever placed such an opportunity before the New Zealand people. We cannot afford to let it slip through our fingers. Jacinda’s offer must be taken up: by every union, every charity, every NGO, every church, and every citizen with a reason to want the New Zealand which emerges from this crisis to be better than the New Zealand that went into it. The Beehive needs to be bombarded with the submissions of the “democratic public” – that great choir of New Zealand’s better angels to which the nascent Labour Party first appealed for support more than a century ago.

And we need to do it fast – as fast as we possibly can – so that Labour can compile the “people’s manifesto” with maximum speed. We must make sure that Jacinda and her colleagues can not only “go hard” for the progressive electorate’s support, but also, and much more importantly, “go early”.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 14 May 2020.

Tuesday 12 May 2020

The Crowd That Booed.

Social Distancing: Student protesters make their way carefully around the working class. Dunedin 1994. Photo Otago Daily Times.

IT WAS THE LARGEST CROWD I had ever addressed – and it booed me. In 1990 the Labour Government of Geoffrey Palmer (look him up!) announced that university tuition fees would rise from $129.00 to $1,250.00 per year – an eye-watering 969% increase! Unsurprisingly, the news was not well-received by New Zealand’s 100,000 university students. When Labour's policy was first floated the year before, the then Education Minister, Phil Goff, was mobbed by hundreds of angry students at Victoria University who followed him all the way down Wellington's Terrace hurling abuse. In Dunedin, students from the University of Otago turned out to protest Labour’s fee increase in unprecedented numbers. I was one of a large number of people invited to address them.

Why? Because only a matter of months before Goff's announcement the Labour Party had split. Jim Anderton, followed by thousands of others, had abandoned the party of Rogernomics to form the NewLabour Party. The students’ association wanted to know NewLabour’s policy on user-pays education – and I – naïve fool that I was – told them.

It started well. There were cheers when I told them that the NewLabour Party was committed to providing a free tertiary education to every young New Zealander who wanted one: that Goff’s hated $1,250.00 fee would be scrapped. A more sensible aspiring politician would have stopped right there. For better or for worse, however, I did not fall into that category. Promising to abolish tuition fees was only part of the story, I told the assembled thousands. In order to fund free tertiary education for all, New Zealand would have to re-introduce the sharply progressive income tax which the Fourth Labour Government had dismantled. To make the first promise without making voters aware of the second would be dishonest. Zero student fees could only be paid for by higher taxes.

That’s when the booing started. I quit while I was behind – a sadder but a wiser man.

I was 34 years-old in 1990 – roughly fifteen years senior to the crowd in front of me. People were just beginning to refer to these youngsters as “Generation X” – Jacinda Ardern’s and Grant Robertson’s generation. Many of these kids would fight the good fight against user-pays education with energy and dedication right through the 1990s. Grant, himself, was elected President of the Otago University Students Association in 1993 and would go on to co-lead the national student organisation three years later. That said, I couldn’t forget those Gen-Xers’ cheers for free education, nor their boos for higher taxes. Neither, it would appear, could Grant.

Few economists and even fewer political journalists are predicting that Thursday’s Budget will feature a sharp rise in taxes. Envisaged instead is a massive increase in Government borrowing. Some younger commentators have worked out that the burden of repaying the enormous foreign debt this government is racking-up will be borne by them and their children – and they’re not happy about it. There is talk about extracting at least some of the repayment from older New Zealanders. After all, they argue, all of this uniting against Covid-19 has been for their benefit. The least they can do is give something up for the generations who will bear the brunt of the economic crisis which combatting the virus has precipitated. One of the Aussie bank economists has even, in the finest Shock Doctrine style, called for drastic action on superannuation, the retirement age, and untaxed capital gains.

Not wanting to provoke the election-compromising boos that such measures would elicit – not least from New Zealand’s most assiduous voters, the Over-60s – Grant is most unlikely to do any of those things. He, at least, is not so naïve as to waste all the election-victory-enhancing cheers which his Thursday promises to spend whatever it takes to get New Zealand out of trouble are certain to produce, by idiotically going on to explain how he intends to pay for them! Instead, he will reassure us of just how much scope for borrowing his prudent fiscal management of the New Zealand economy has provided. And there’s plenty of money on offer! In the immortal words of John Clarke (aka Fred Dagg) “If we stand in the queue with our hats on, we can borrow a few million more.” Verily, we don’t know how lucky we are to have such a government.

Few New Zealanders see as clearly as John Minto what will be sacrificed to pay the vastly expanded mortgage that Grant is negotiating with overseas lenders. All the fine ideas about overcoming child poverty, humanising the welfare system, building state houses, tackling mental illness and doing something real about global warming will, to use Grant’s own words: “be put on ice”. If politics is the language of priorities, then almost without exception it speaks with a middle-class accent.

Because, in the subsequent hours and days – and years – in which I relived the humiliation of that booing crowd, I was finally blessed with the consoling insight that, big as it was, it represented only a very narrow slice of the New Zealand population. Moreover, it was not a slice that was ever going to welcome the news that its parents and, eventually, itself, would be called upon to pay, and pay handsomely, for the maintenance of the sort of society that offered all its young people a free tertiary education. That consolation came when I remembered that I was not the only speaker to be booed that day. The young Maori woman who spoke of the needs of her people, and of their just historical claims upon the resources of the Pakeha nation – they booed her, too.

The bourgeoisie, you see, has always been extremely keen on getting into heaven; but it’s damned if it’s ever been willing to die to get there. Always, that’s been somebody else’s job – somebody poor.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 May 2020.

Friday 8 May 2020

The Safety Of The People Shall Be The Highest Law.

Salus populi suprema lex
The safety of the people shall be the highest law.
- Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) Roman Jurist and Statesman

SIMON BRIDGES and his supporters (witting and unwitting) aren’t quite chanting “Lock her up!” Not yet anyway. But they’re headed in that general direction. Faced with a prime ministerial performance that the rest of the world, and most of her own compatriots, have judged to be outstanding, the Right, in desperation, is attempting to criminalise Jacinda Ardern’s “Go Early – Go Hard” strategy against the Covid-19 Pandemic. Shown the way by a couple of liberal professors, Bridges and his media allies are now demanding to know the legal basis for locking down New Zealand. If the Cabinet’s decision, made in haste under extreme conditions, is deemed to be ultra vires (beyond its powers) the way will be opened to endless and politically vexatious litigation.

What these legal purists and panic-stricken politicians do not appear to understand is that if it is the people who are ultimately the fount of all legal authority, then those same people must also possess the power, in extremis, and in the interests of keeping themselves and their loved ones safe, to elevate that existential imperative above all other legal and juridical considerations. With an election looming, any political party foolish enough to attempt to punish Jacinda Ardern and her team for keeping New Zealanders safe will be punished severely at the ballot box. And, if the people are not the ultimate source of all legal authority, well then, who is? Law professors? Lobbyists? The National Party!

The declaration of a State of Emergency is, by its very nature, an exceptional occurrence. Among the most extreme of all the powers wielded by executive authority, it is reserved for those moments when the normal appurtenances of state power are no longer deemed sufficient to maintain public safety. That only those constitutionally sanctioned to do so can declare a State of Emergency is less important than whether or not the persons so empowered believe that such a declaration will be effective. The declaration of a State of Emergency which does not enjoy broad popular support is, in effect, a declaration of war by the state upon its own citizens. Or, to put it another way: the safety of the people can only be maintained by exceptional legal means if the people themselves feel sufficiently threatened to abandon legal norms.

But who, in these situations, falls within the definition of “the people”? Clearly, not everyone can be included if the threat is located within the borders of the state. A nation under foreign attack; responding to a natural disaster; or facing down a global pandemic; will have no difficulty in accepting emergency regulations. Declaring a State of Emergency in the context of a political and/or economic challenge to the smooth functioning of society, however, is a much riskier proposition. Interfering with the free movement of individuals and/or the free disposition of their property in such circumstances can only be made effective by excluding the challenger/s from the usual definition of “the people”. For emergency measures to succeed, such individuals or groups they must first be transformed into “the enemy within”.

This what happened during the last great extended State of Emergency in New Zealand history: the 1951 Waterfront Dispute. The National Party Prime Minister of the day, Sid Holland and his uncompromising Minister of Labour, William “Big Bill” Sullivan, were able to brand the Waterside Workers Union “wreckers” and curtail their rights because the dispute arose in a context that made the demonization of the watersiders and their allies considerably easier than it would have been at just about any other time.

The Cold War had just turned “hot” in Korea. The militant trade unions had walked out of the Federation of Labour and viciously attacked its leaders: a situation which played into the hands of the FOL’s Machiavellian “boss”, Fintain Patrick Walsh. Between 1946 and 1949, the Labour Party, itself, had quite deliberately isolated, vilified and, in at least one instance, deregistered, militant, communist-led trade unions. This vilification, especially of the Waterside Workers Union, had continued on the pages of the country’s newspapers (most effectively through Gordon Minhinnick’s cartoons in The NZ Herald). Holland and Sullivan could, therefore, rely upon Walsh, the FOL and the daily press to back any attack on the WWU. They could also, crucially, be relatively confident that the Labour Party would remain neutral in the ensuing industrial war.

Because it controlled one of the economy’s crucial choke-points, the wharfies’ union had always been vulnerable to a government determined to destroy its power. Any lengthy period of industrial action could be successfully portrayed as constituting a clear and present danger, not only to the country’s exporters and importers, but to the whole community. This was due to the fact that in the 1950s vast quantities of everyday items were still distributed around the country by ship. Holland was able to argue that shutting down New Zealand’s ports constituted a very real threat to the public safety. As a consequence, his invocation of the draconian Public Safety Conservation Act (1932) was held to be justifiable.

It was enough – just – for the majority of New Zealanders to accept the National Government’s comprehensive restriction of their civil liberties, and the harsh persecution of their fellow citizens, that Holland’s quasi-fascist Emergency Regulations permitted. Had the Korean War not been raging; had the FOL not been split; had Labour been less hostile to the trade union left; and had the public been less vulnerable to a protracted shut-down of New Zealand’s ports; then the National Government probably wouldn’t have risked declaring a State of Emergency. But, with all these factors working in its favour, and with its decisive victory in the Snap Election which Holland called to secure the electorate’s ex post facto endorsement of his treatment of the watersiders, the National Party was given ample proof that, for most Kiwis, the famous maxim of the Roman statesman, Cicero: Salus populi suprema lex; the safety of the people shall be the highest law; was indisputable

In the light of New Zealanders’ conscientious adherence to the “Unite Against Covid-19” rules, Cicero’s maxim continues to meet with their approval. Kiwi acceptance of draconian emergency measures cannot be guaranteed, however, in the absence of two crucial provisos: 1) An overwhelming majority of the people must believe that the threat to their safety is real. 2) They must also be convinced that only the imposition of extreme measures will avert a national catastrophe.

Neither of these provisos applied to the political crisis confronting New Zealand in 1981. Invoking the provisions of the Public Safety Conservation Act was a move the Rob Muldoon-led National Government was unwilling to make in relation to that year’s highly controversial Springbok Tour. It knew that there was insufficient support across the whole country for hard-line emergency measures to be enforced without the use of deadly force. Such was the temper of the country in 1981 that the killing of protesters by police or soldiers would only have made the disorder on the nation’s streets ten times worse.

New Zealand history thus confirms that its people are, indeed, the best judges of their own political security, and will make an exception to the rule of law only when they believe their own and their loved ones’ safety is genuinely imperilled.

The Jacinda Ardern-led Coalition Government is the first since 1951 which, confronted with a clear and present danger to the public’s safety, has felt confident enough of their broad support to promulgate and enforce a stringent emergency regime of indefinite duration. The New Zealand people’s subsequent willingness to “Unite Against Covid-19” constitutes a ringing endorsement of both the Ardern-led Government and Cicero’s militant-democratic slogan.

As their own constitutional guardians, the people are uniquely positioned to recognise those (thankfully rare) moments when the only effective means of keeping themselves safe is by allowing their leaders to operate (temporarily) outside the black letters of the law. And woe betide anyone who tries to stop them!

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 8 May 2020.

A Creative Solution To Tourism’s Demise.

Paradise Lost: The millions of tourists who collectively constituted New Zealand’s largest single source of overseas funds will not be returning to these shores any time soon. For the foreseeable future, tourism and the multitude of businesses that serviced its voracious appetites, will be – to use a technical term – buggered.

LET’S BE HONEST, most sectors of the New Zealand economy will recover relatively quickly from the Covid-19 Pandemic. Our primary production sector and all the businesses that support it will bounce back. Our secondary industries will, in large measure, do the same. Indeed, pressures are already building for our industrial sector to step up to the challenge of increasing New Zealand’s economic resilience. Winston Peters is far from being the only person who regards the virtual elimination of this country’s import substitution capability in the 1980s and 90s as a singularly unwise policy.

But, the millions of tourists who collectively constituted New Zealand’s largest single source of overseas funds will not be returning to these shores any time soon. For the foreseeable future, tourism and the multitude of businesses that serviced its voracious appetites, will be – to use a technical term – buggered.

There simply aren’t enough New Zealanders with enough time and money to fill the tourist void. For the past twenty years we have struggled to keep pace with the demands of our international visitors. For every hotel we built; every new adventure we devised; every taste-bud-titillating restaurant we opened; there were always more and more customers to satisfy.

They came on vast cruise ships – floating towns that disgorged virtually their entire populations to spend, spend, spend for hours – sometimes days – at a time. All the cruise liners in the world, however, could not compete with the unending stream of airliners touching down at our international airports. Most of them packed full of passengers eager to enjoy their very own New Zealand experience.

Future historians will look back with wonder at the age of hyper-tourism. They will observe how cost-cutting innovations in aviation technology combined with the exploding numbers of newly enriched middle-class citizens from countries hitherto priced out of international travel to produce a surge in tourist numbers so great that the attractions they travelled thousands of miles to enjoy threatened to collapse under the sheer weight to their numbers. In the late twentieth century the New Zealand tourist industry looked forward to welcoming a million visitors a year. By 2020 it was gearing up to entertain five times that number.

But the Covid-19 Pandemic arrived instead and now this country finds itself with more tourist-oriented enterprises than can possibly be sustained by its tiny population.

The first and most obvious victim of the pandemic was the national carrier, Air New Zealand. Practically overnight, the airline lost 80 percent of its business. Of necessity the Government bailed it out. Located as they are at the bottom of the world, New Zealanders simply cannot do without their own airline. What other carrier, in the prolonged absence of the tourist hordes, would come so far, and at such cost, except Air New Zealand?

Sadly, not every carrier has a state to bail it out. From the hundreds of airlines traversing the skies in the age of hyper-tourism, the post-pandemic world will likely be serviced by no more than a few dozen. Fares will sky-rocket and the number of international tourists will plummet. The days of the golden tourist weather will be well and truly gone.

And what of the cruise ships? After the horrors of the Diamond and Ruby Princesses, the world may have to wait many years for the return of those floating towns and their wealthy pensioner passengers. Indeed, History may record the cruise ship craze as the last hurrah of the death-defying Baby Boom Generation. The cost of insuring themselves against involuntary quarantine should, alone, be more than enough to put off their children and grand-children!

The urgent problem remains, however, of how New Zealand fills the tourist void. What can possibly take the place of those millions of international travellers and their oh-so-precious hard currency? An expanded “bubble” encompassing the whole of Australia? It’s a nice thought, but hardly a practical one. Making it work – without reigniting Covid-19 – poses a truly daunting number of questions. What’s needed is a product the world is willing to buy: a product unique to New Zealand.

If the world can no longer come here by ship or plane, then why not invite it to tour the landscape of our imagination? Let’s invest in movies, television series, plays, music, novels, computer games. Encourage the world to partake of New Zealand’s unique creativity.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 May 2020.