Friday 29 January 2021

Judith Collins’ State Of The Nation Speech Fails To Comfort – Or Connect.

Nothing New: State-of-the-Nation speeches are opportunities for those charged with their delivery to demonstrate renewed political credibility. Those hoping that Collins’ SOTN address to the Auckland Rotary Club on Tuesday, 26 January would constitute a significant step towards restoring her credibility must be feeling disappointed.

JUDITH COLLINS, remember her? She’s the woman who led the National Party to its second-worst defeat in 85-years. In a normal political party, leadership of that quality would have left the politician responsible with only one option: resignation. But, National hasn’t been a normal party for quite some time. Not since the departure of its last credible leader, Bill English, in 2018.

State-of-the-Nation speeches are opportunities for those charged with their delivery to demonstrate renewed political credibility. Those hoping that Collins’ SOTN address to the Auckland Rotary Club on Tuesday, 26 January would constitute a significant step towards restoring her credibility must be feeling disappointed. Certainly, National’s normality hasn’t been reclaimed.

A political party trounced as badly as National in 2020 owes the electorate two gestures – at the very least. The first is an apology to the voters for so egregiously misreading their mood and intent. The second is a promise to move beyond its clearly inadequate diagnosis of the nation’s ills and towards a whole new suite of remedies.

Collins’ speech did neither of these things. For the most part it was content to rehash the promises made to the electorate last October. The balance consisted of all the usual bromides of lazy conservatism.

The worst of these was Collins’ reflexive rejection of the Government’s plan to lift the minimum wage:

“Labour’s intentions are laudable but they are focused on alleviating the symptoms of stretched working families struggling to make ends meet rather than on the root causes of prosperity – supporting businesses to be more productive, investing in new capital, taking on new staff and lifting wages.”

We have heard it all before. The only way to lift wages is not to lift wages.

What would really make New Zealanders sit up and pay attention is an admission from National that it is precisely its own and the business community’s ingrained opposition to lifting wages that keeps New Zealand’s productivity so low. Recognition by Collins that only by winnowing-out our weakest businesses – i.e. removing the crutch of low wages – will this country’s long-delayed investment in skills, innovation and new technology become unavoidable. A brave declaration that low-wage economies are low-productivity economies. Now, that would have shaken the nation out of its Covid fever-dreams!

Another of those lazy conservative bromides holds that households and economies are subject to exactly the same constraints. That living beyond one’s means is as disastrous for countries as it is for individuals. Save all we can, reduce our debts as quickly as possible, keep the government’s nose out of our businesses’ business: these are National’s new remedies – same as the old remedies.

For the homeless, the solution is equally traditional – and facile. Make a bonfire of as many regulations as possible. Collins has promised her party’s support for emergency legislation designed to strip away what’s left of New Zealand’s social and physical environmental protections. It would be open-slather for property investors and developers.

“We need to reform our planning and RMA processes with one goal: freeing up land and getting more houses built”, Collins told the Rotarians. “And if councils won’t do it, we will do it for them.” (Some forms of state intervention, it would seem, cannot be done without.)

So far, so “same-old, same-old” from the Collins-led National Party. That familiar conflating of the particular interests of farmers and businessmen with the general interest of the whole nation.

“[W]e had a strong sense of community”, confided Collins, recalling her childhood in the Waikato. “We were surrounded by farming families who got stuck in and helped each other out, particularly when times were tough. It wasn’t something to be remarked on or exclaimed over, it was just the way things were – as a Collins, as a farmer, as a Kiwi.”

As if working-class families, a layer of New Zealand society considerably more familiar with tough times than Collins’ comfortable cockies, wouldn’t know how to get stuck in and help their neighbours.

It has always been there: National’s profoundly objectionable assumption that the only real Kiwis are people like themselves. That the rest of the nation are either parasites or problems. Probably both.

Collins has yet to learn the lessons of Holyoake, Bolger, Key and English. That National only regains credibility electorally by opening its arms wider – not to crush voters, but to comfort them.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 January 2021.

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Community Or Chaos: Chris Trotter Talks To Marvin Hubbard.

MARVIN HUBBARD, US citizen by birth, New Zealand citizen by choice, Quaker and left-wing activist, has been broadcasting his show, "Community or Chaos", on Otago Access Radio for the best part of 30 years. On 24 November last year, I spoke with him about the outcome of the 2020 General Election. The podcast may be accessed here. (Just scroll down the list until your reach 24/11/20.)

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Monday 25 January 2021

The Winds Of Change.

Yesterday's Gone: Cold shivers are running up and down the spines of conservatives everywhere. Donald Trump may have gone, but all the signs point to there being something much more momentous in the wind-shift than a simple return to the status quo ante. A change is gonna come.

ONE COULD ALMOST feel sorry for them. Until, that is, their propositions are subjected to robust interrogation. All around the world, conservatives are feeling the fresh winds blowing out of Washington – and they are shivering. They fear that ideas hitherto denied the full imprimatur of state power have been issued arms and are on the march. In short, today’s conservatives are feeling what old-fashioned Labourites and social democrats felt in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was sworn-in as the fortieth President of the United States.

President Joe Biden is 78 years old. He has trod the floor of the Capitol Building for nigh on 40 years, trimming his sails to the prevailing winds as all successful politicians learn to do. All those years of experience are speaking to him now: warning him that the mighty gale currently filling the sails of the American ship of state cannot be tacked against, only run before. This will not be a “trimming” presidency: the Biden years will be a time of surging forward.

As one recent comment on The Daily Kos put it: “This isn’t Biden 2008. Something in the last 12 years has broadened his horizon and pushed him to centre-left territory. He put RFK’s bust in his office along with Caesar Chavez. If that’s where he’s looking for inspiration, I’m happy.”

Which explains the cold shivers running up and down the spines of conservatives everywhere. Donald Trump may have gone, but all the signs point to there being something much more momentous in the wind-shift than a simple return to the status quo ante.

Biden’s victory was built on the votes of America’s youth, America’s women, and, most triumphantly, on the votes of America’s people of colour. “Sleepy Joe” knows that his campaign was dead in the water until the veteran black congressman from South Carolina, James Clyburn, rallied his people behind the former Vice-President and pushed him all the way to the White House. As a long-time mover-and-shaker in the US Senate, Biden also knows that without the astonishing efforts of black activist Stacey Abrams in Georgia, neither he nor his party could have uplifted the legislative tools of change.

Someone else who knows this is the forty-third President of the United States, George W. Bush. Encountering James Clyburn in the Capitol Building on Inauguration Day, ‘Dubbya’ told the veteran congressman that he was America’s “saviour”. Without his intervention, said Bush, the only politician who could have beaten Trump would not have won the nomination.

Most certainly it was no accident that the person who ended up stealing the show on Inauguration Day was young, female and black. Rightly celebrated for the power of “The Hill We Climb”, her poem in honour of the new President, Amanda Gorman was also a flesh and blood celebration of the new America that is rising. Clearly, it is not going to be an America dominated by the values of conservative white males. Equally clearly, that message has been received loud and clear by conservative white males everywhere.

Fourteen thousand kilometres to the south, the Weekend Herald’s columnist, John Roughan, offered words of advice on the best way to reach out to Trump’s defeated army of followers. He addressed his remarks not only to the US Democratic Party, but also the American news media:

“If American Democrats and the country’s respected newspapers and television networks really would like to bridge their country’s cultural divides, rather than simply saying they do, they need to come halfway over the bridge. They need to overcome their aversion to certain views and respect the fact that a lot of people, about half the population, think that way.”

Wrapped up in those two sentences is pretty much the whole of the world view that conservatives believe to be threatened and which they are moving heaven and earth to protect. Under no circumstances should “respected” media outlets give extensive access (and, by implication, validation) to the voices of those on the receiving end of these “certain views” held by “about half the population”. Rather, it is the duty of the mainstream news media to “overcome their aversion” to such views.

Another way of saying this might be to invite responsible journalists to come halfway across the bridge (Selma Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, perhaps?) to meet the racism, sexism, climate change denial and white supremacist thinking that has allegedly enthralled half their fellow citizens – along with every other ideological defence of inequality the political right sees fit to advance.

Failure to display such tolerance will have consequences. “If the world is not to suffer more populist disasters,” warns the author of hundreds of NZ Herald leader articles, “possibly even an encore for Donald Trump, news media have to find an open mind again.”

Or, it might have to narrow its mind somewhat.

“Many journalists have had a tertiary education in liberal arts and it shows”, writes Roughan. “Some of their news angles reflect the values and explanations of a social science seminar where nobody’s misfortune can be attributable to poor personal decisions, society is always to blame, if an ethnic minority is underperforming it is evidence of ‘systemic’ racism.”

Is Roughan accusing the graduates of New Zealand’s universities and journalism schools of disseminating “fake news”? Or, is he merely giving credence to Kellyanne Conway’s classic Trumpian assertion that it is perfectly acceptable, when debating politics, to advance “alternative facts”?

Then again, if we are not to trust the evidence of social scientists: or, if we are being asked not to rely upon evidence at all; then in who and in what should we repose our trust? In the scepticism of those whose world views cannot survive the introduction of contradictory evidence? In the ‘reckons’ of people who believe democracy consists of one’s own ignorance being regarded in every respect as the equal of others’ knowledge? Or, are we simply being invited to accept that, politically-speaking, everything goes more smoothly when educated citizens agree to meet ignorance and prejudice half way?

John Roughan argues that Joe Biden struck a series of “clanging notes” when he used his inaugural address to call out “political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism . . . anger, hatred, extremism . . . racism, nativism, fear . . . facts that are manipulated, even manufactured”. What the Weekend Herald columnist did not explain, however, is how the new President could possibly have kept faith with the eighty million Americans whose votes put him in the White House if he had refused to strike the Liberty Bell so forcefully.

The consequences of heeding Roughan’s advice are there in American history for all to see. In the decades following the Civil War, politicians and newspaper editors from North and South insisted with ever-increasing fervour that it was time for the people of the United States to put the rancour of those bloody years behind them. Increasingly, it was asserted that far from being about the abolition of slavery and “a new birth of freedom” for the American republic, the war had only been about its noble antagonists’ differing definitions of freedom. Before long, the veterans of Blue and Gray were warmly embracing each other like long lost brothers.

Thus was racism reprieved in the United States. As white men’s willingness to meet each other half way condemned African-Americans to a life that offered them no way at all to the full and equal enjoyment of their constitutional rights.

Amanda Gorman’s poem spells out the moral obligation this historical failure places upon her fellow citizens:

because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

New Zealanders should learn from America’s experience. Truth owes nothing to falsehood. Knowledge owes nothing to ignorance. Tolerance owes nothing to prejudice. Equality owes nothing to racism. Justice owes nothing to injustice. And anyone who suggests otherwise is most definitely offering you fake news.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 25 January 2021.

Friday 22 January 2021

The Economic Consequences Of Mr Hickey.

"Come The Revolution!" The key objective of Bernard Hickey’s revolutionary solution to the housing crisis is a 50 percent reduction in the price of the average family home. This will be achieved by the introduction of Capital Gains, Land, and Wealth taxes, and by the opening up of currently RMA-protected real-estate. As revolutionary programmes go, it’s admirably succinct. But, what else would Mr Hickey’s deflationary property revolution bring?
JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES, whose economic ideas are enjoying a modest revival in this time of Covid, was a formidable communicator. He shot to global prominence in 1919, following the signing of the disastrous Versailles peace treaty. His hastily written pamphlet, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, prophesied with considerable accuracy Versailles’ fatal economic impact upon victors and vanquished alike. Six years later, leveraging linguistically off his first great success, Keynes published another pamphlet – The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill – in which he set forth with equal prescience the price Great Britain would pay for its Chancellor of the Exchequer’s pig-headed decision to resurrect the Gold Standard.

The tragedy enshrouding both of Keynes’ Economic Consequences pamphlets is that their author had been powerless to prevent the disasters whose outcomes he so clearly foresaw. How much better the world would have fared had Keynes’ advice been heeded – both the Great Depression and The Second World War would likely have been avoided. Against entrenched viciousness and ignorance, however, even intellectuals as prodigiously gifted as Keynes find it impossible to make headway. In a battle between reason and passion the smart money has always favoured the emotionally incontinent.

Right now, in New Zealand, for example, feelings are running high on the vexed questions of homelessness and housing affordability. Perhaps the most passionate spokesperson for those currently struggling to house themselves securely is the financial journalist, Bernard Hickey. His call-to-arms on the housing issue has, of late, acquired a decidedly revolutionary tone. Behind his indisputably cogent expositions of the problem, one senses a rising anger, and what can only be described as a ruthless determination to sweep aside what he unabashedly identifies as the economic, social and political forces barring the path to homes for all New Zealanders.

The radicalism of his analysis is certainly not diminishing. In a recent opinion piece he lamented the absence of a clear bipartisan consensus on the measures needed to solve the housing crisis:

“National and Labour aren’t there on a bipartisan approach yet: not even close. They combined in the late 1980s and early 1990s to wage war on double-digit consumer price inflation by giving the Reserve Bank independence and setting a formal target of keeping inflation around 2 per cent. That involved passing acts of Parliament and essentially promising voters they would stick to that 2 per cent. It worked. Expectations changed.”

They did indeed, but only after New Zealanders were required to shoulder the enormous social costs of the economic revolution driven through with unparalleled ruthlessness by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. Was that the sort of transformation Mr Hickey had in mind when he warned listeners to RNZ’s Sunday Morning Show late last year: “Come the Revolution”?

Certainly, Mr Hickey, following the historical precedent of Douglas and Richardson, has already picked out the enemies of the people upon whose necks his revolutionary blade is intended to fall. In the case of Rogernomics and Ruthansia the targets of the economic Jacobins were all those Kiwis too firmly attached to the State’s munificent teats. In Mr Hickey’s case, Madame Guillotine’s guests will be the generation of New Zealanders born between 1946 and 1965 – the notorious “Baby Boomers”. (You know them – they’re the ones with all the houses!)

The key objective of Mr Hickey’s revolutionary programme is a 50 percent reduction in the price of the average family home. This will be achieved by the introduction of Capital Gains, Land, and Wealth taxes, and by the opening up of currently RMA-protected real-estate. As revolutionary programmes go, it’s admirably succinct. But, what else would Mr Hickey’s deflationary property revolution bring?

The answer is, of course, social, economic and political mayhem. Thousands of ordinary middle-class New Zealanders would be ruined. The country’s leading banks would teeter on the brink of failure. Credit would dry up overnight. New Zealand would be plunged headlong into a deep recession. Thousands of “millennial” Kiwis would lose their jobs, closely followed by thousands of redundant Gen-Xers. Poverty would surge upwards to engulf layers of society untouched by deprivation for more than eighty years. In short order, shock and disbelief would give way to unrelenting political rage – and a lust for inter-generational vengeance.

House prices would, however, be halved. By that measure, at least, the economic consequences of Mr Hickey might be adjudged as entirely positive.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 January 2021.

Monday 18 January 2021

Trump's Surprisingly Large Army Of New Zealand Supporters.

The Sincerest Form Of Flattery: As anybody with the intestinal fortitude to brave the commentary threads of local news-sites, large and small, will attest, the number of Trump-supporting New Zealanders is really quite astounding. 

IT’S SO DIFFICULT to resist the temptation to be smug. From the distant perspective of New Zealand, the United States is fast becoming incomprehensible. We greet the information that there are now more US troops in Washington DC than there are in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria combined with a dumfounded shake of the head. As we witness National Guardsmen and women securing the streets of the United States capital city against car bombs and IEDs, we struggle to accept that the terrorists against whom these extraordinary measures are directed are not from foreign parts – they’re home-grown.

“Thank God we live in New Zealand!”, has become a common refrain wherever people gather to discuss the images of insurrection and political violence filling our screens. As if the God of Nations has given us some sort of free-pass through the unending vicissitudes of history.

As if …

Bryan Gould who, had the dice rolled differently, might have ended up leading the British Labour Party, has an interesting tale to tell about the political tensions simmering just beneath the surface of New Zealand. Astonishingly, this Oxford graduate and former Vice-Chancellor of Waikato University had a column submitted to his local newspaper rejected. In Gould’s own words:

“In a recent column I wrote for local newspapers, I ventured to suggest that Donald Trump – in addition to being a liar and a cheat, and sexist and racist – was a fascist in the making and would probably try, if he were to lose the election, to defy the democratic will of the people. The column was deemed to be too extreme by my editor who declined to publish it on the ground that it would offend some of his Trump-supporting readers who might write letters to him to complain. So much for a free and courageous press! Our failure to agree on the issue led to my no longer writing my column for his paper.”

Now Gould is very far from being the first person to have his editor reject a contribution. Editorial discretion and press freedom cannot be separated without abandoning both principles. What is remarkable about Gould’s account, however, is the editor’s reference to his “Trump-supporting readers” and their potential to make sufficient epistolary mischief to give him pause.

Now, granted, all this happened well before what CNN delights in calling “The Trump Insurrection”. This event has, presumably, reduced the number of Gould’s editor’s Trump-supporting readers considerably. Nevertheless, as anybody with the intestinal fortitude to brave the commentary threads of local news-sites, large and small, will attest, the number of Trump-supporting New Zealanders is really quite astounding. There are certainly enough of them to raise the question: If a truly Trumpian figure were to emerge from our own political environment, would he or she attract a level of support comparable to the original?

The question isn’t quite as hypothetical as it might at first appear. In the general election of 2005, the Don Brash-led National Party came within 46,000 votes of winning a plurality of the Party Vote. With the support of Act and NZ First, Brash could very easily have become prime minister. And what a prime minister he would have been! The National leader and his party were committed to returning the Treaty of Waitangi to history’s glass case. The Maori seats were marked down for abolition, and all race-based references were to be expunged from the statute books. In the parlance of present-day “progressives”, Brash’s would have been a “ neo-colonialist”, “white supremacist” government.

Not to put too fine a point upon it, all hell would have broken loose.

It does not require too large a slice of the Devil’s imagination to envisage Brash and his allies being left with little alternative but to mobilise their “silent majority” of supporters against the fury his policies had unleashed in the streets. Protest action that resulted in serious property damage or, even worse, to loss of life, would have left him with even fewer choices. Calling-in the military to support the civil power would likely have become necessary quite quickly – with all-too-predictable results. A snap election, called to provide ex-post-facto validation for the emergency powers taken by the government to quell the unrest (as happened following the 1951 Waterfront Dispute) would, almost certainly, have delivered National a stunning victory. New Zealanders would have struggled to recognise the angry mess their country had become.

It didn’t happen, of course, because, as happened recently in Georgia’s run-off Senate elections, people of colour resident in a handful of crucial suburbs came through at the eleventh hour with enough votes to save the day. South Auckland’s Maori and Pasifika voters give Labour’s Helen Clark the leverage she needed to persuade Winston Peters to keep the National Party off the Treasury Benches. (Even though NZ First had actively campaigned on an anti-Treaty manifesto no less radical than Brash’s.)

The other thing that happened over the course of the three years following the 2005 election was exactly what all moderate Republicans must be praying for in the post-Trump era. A young, charismatic and, most importantly, moderate leader of the dominant centre-right party emerged to challenge the incumbent centre-left government.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of John Key’s decade-long reign of moderate conservatism to the political and cultural evolution of contemporary New Zealand. It protected National from the creeping madness which has slowly but surely overtaken the centre-right parties of the USA, UK and Australia. In the fifteen years that have elapsed since Don Brash set his lance against the elites’ decolonisation project, the implacable grind of human mortality has eliminated a huge chunk of the electoral support for Brash’s “Iwi/Kiwi” dichotomy of 2005.

Racist nostalgia for the carefully camouflaged white supremacist New Zealand that endured from the end of the Land Wars in the mid-1860s until the defeat of Rob Muldoon in the mid-1980s still exists, of course, and four years of Trump’s shameless racism have given his Kiwi admirers’ renewed hopes of a National Party committed to making (white) New Zealand great again.

Their hopes are unlikely to be realised. A frankly white supremacist government in power – even if it had only ruled New Zealand for three or four years – could not have failed to extend its electoral base well into younger demographic cohorts. But Brash’s failure and Key’s success have limited significantly the political space available for Trumpism in New Zealand.

They’re here, of course, but not in the numbers needed to generate a politically decisive right-wing populist pulse. Gould’s editor really had no need to worry. The Baby Boomer voting bloc grew up with Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Hell! A fair number of them wore HART badges and exchanged blows with “Rob’s Mob” on the streets. When the owners of the Steinlager brand start celebrating anti-nuclear protesters as heroes, then you’d have to say that Trumpism’s chances of doing to New Zealand what it has so tragically done to the United States are pretty slim.

Even so, it never pays to give smugness too much room at the table. While there’s precious little scope for right-wing populism gaining significant political purchase here in Aotearoa-New Zealand, the prospects for left-wing populism are looking surprisingly good. What’s more, if this government doesn’t deign to put in an appearance sometime very soon, then that left-wing pulse is only likely to grow stronger.

It might pay to strengthen Parliament’s front doors – you never know these days who’s going to come a-calling.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 18 January 2021.

Friday 15 January 2021

Will New Zealand’s Body-Politic Be Snatched By Trumpism?

“They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next!”

WHO CAN FORGET the penultimate scene of the 1956 movie classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers? The wild-eyed doctor, stumbling down the highway, trying desperately to warn his fellow citizens: “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next!”

Ostensibly science-fiction, the movie shuddered with political unease. Something had taken over the American body-politic. People had begun to question whether their neighbours were still their neighbours: people to eat, drink, talk and argue with; recognisably loyal Americans. Had something really turned them into something else? Something alien?

The crisis currently gripping the United States is far from over. Within 72 hours, it is possible that catastrophic violence will have broken out in all 50 state capitols – as well as in Washington DC. The fanatical followers of President Donald J. Trump have called a million of their far-right comrades onto the streets – with their guns. If even half that number show up, armed to the teeth, the US authorities will face the greatest challenge to the constitutional integrity of the republic since 1861.

Hyperbole? Not really. There are growing fears at the highest levels of the federal government that a so-far-undetermined percentage of law enforcement officers and military personnel may have secretly repudiated their oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”.

They are concerned that Americans may encounter at the state level the same curious reluctance on the part of law enforcement to confront and challenge what was clearly an insurrectionary mob hellbent on preventing the Congress from certifying President-Elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College majority.

A number of congressmen and women have reported to the American documentary film-maker, Michael Moore, that when they parked their cars outside the Capitol Building on the morning of Wednesday, 6 January, they were struck by how much it felt like a Saturday. Where were the Capitol Police? Why was the place so quiet? Asking around, Moore learned that out of the more than 2,000 Capitol Police personnel available, barely a fifth had been rostered-on for duty that fateful Wednesday.

This was in spite of the fact that the hostile intentions of the tens-of-thousands of angry Americans summoned to Washington by President Trump had been flagged for days. To the congress-persons and their jittery staff-members, the situation must have seemed eerily reminiscent of the scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone arrives at the hospital in which is father lies gravely wounded, only to find the place more-or-less deserted, his Police guard withdrawn, and the imminence of a second “hit” palpable.

The hit came in Washington, claiming five lives, and avoiding perhaps hundreds more only by virtue of the bravery and quick-wittedness of such loyal Capitol Police officers as were willing to do their duty. That, and a fair measure of dumb luck saw the insurrection – the coup d’état – thwarted.

Whether America’s luck will hold until 12:01pm on Wednesday, 20 January 2021, when Joe Biden assumes the powers of the USA’s Commander-in-Chief, remains to be seen. With Donald Trump still in possession of the awesome weaponry of the presidency right up until mid-day on the twentieth, the survival of American democracy must be considered an open question.

It’s easy, so far from these daunting events, to feel smug. New Zealanders, we are confident, could never disgrace themselves so completely as Trump’s lumpen stormtroopers. Such confidence is, however, misplaced. New Zealand’s political system may differ considerably from that of the United States, but culturally we are blood brothers. The same racial neuroses, born of the same historical transgressions, afflict both peoples.

Americans and New Zealanders, and in this context those terms refer to the descendants of the European immigrants who subjugated the indigenous populations of both countries and built upon their confiscated territories what they anticipated proudly would become a shining (white) city on a hill, have much in common. Both peoples were raised in the deadly coils of Nineteenth Century capitalism and the blood-soaked imperial networks that kept it fed. Slavery and its successor institutions may have made the culture of the United States more vicious, but the racism that exonerated both peoples’ colonial excesses is embedded no less deeply.

As the Twenty-First Century gathers momentum, and the moral compromises of the Twentieth begin to fray, New Zealanders must accept that the makings of “Trumpism” are here already.

We are next.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 January 2021.

Monday 11 January 2021

The Trump Insurrection: Primal Urges And Transgressive Images.

Ringing A Clear Historical Bell: The extraordinary images captured in and around the US Capitol Building on 6 January 2021 mirror some of the worst images of America's past.


THERE IS A SCENE in the 1982 movie Missing which has remained with me for nearly 40 years. Directed by the Greek-French movie-maker, Costa-Gavras, Missing chronicles the efforts made to discover the fate of Charles Horman, a young American journalist caught up in the Chilean coup d’état of September 1973. The scene in question depicts the wild celebration of the coup’s success by a seething crowd of upper-class men and women in a down-town Santiago hotel. Raucously and raunchily the crowd are yelling along to Chuck Berry’s suggestive 1972 novelty hit “My Ding-a-Ling”.

What prompted my recall this scene was Julian Borger’s Guardian article “Insurrection Day: When White-Supremacist Terror Came To The US Capitol”. This is how he described Team Trumps’ reaction to the televised assault on the Capitol Building:

A smartphone video of Donald Trump Jr filmed inside the marquee backstage showed him and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, giddy with excitement. Guilfoyle breaks into a hip-thrusting dance and then shouts into the camera: “Have the courage to do the right thing! Fight!

It was Borger’s reference to Guilfoyle’s “hip-thrusting dance” that sealed the connection with Costa-Gavras. That almost obscene combination of raw sex and raw power which both the movie and the video evoke and capture. Sigmund Freud discoursed at length on the phenomenon: this palpable psychic link between Eros and Thanatos – Desire and Death. His disciple, Eric Fromm, in his grim study The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness extends the connection to the excesses of extremist politics: noting the ecstatic battle-cry of General Franco’s murderous fascist militiamen: “Long Live Death!”

It wasn’t just the associations evoked by the memory of Costa-Gavras’ scene from Missing, and Borger’s description of Team Trump’s right-wing raunchiness that had me reviewing – and then reviewing again – the extraordinary images captured by photo-journalists and videographers in and around the US Capitol Building on 6 January 2021. There was something about the way the protesters conducted themselves; something in the expressions on their faces; that rang a very distinct historical bell. I’d seen that look, that stance, somewhere before – but where?

And then, with a sickening jolt, it dawned on me. I was referencing the terrible photographs taken of crowds gathered to observe the all-too-frequent lynchings of African-Americans in the 1920s and 30s.

Killing In Plain Sight: Lynch mob and victims, Marion, Indiana, 7 August 1930.

There are scores of these photographs because, as the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) points out on their website: “Photographs of the brutal lynching, featuring members of the crowd proudly posed beneath the hanging corpses, were widely shared, but local authorities claimed no one could be identified.” The brutal lynching referred to took place in Marion, Indiana, on 7 August 1930. A mob stormed the Grant County Jail and seized Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two young African-Americans accused of raping a white woman and murdering a white man. In the words of the EJI:

The brutalized bodies of Mr. Shipp and Mr. Smith were hung from trees in the courthouse yard and kept there for hours as a crowd of white men, women, and children grew by the thousands. Public spectacle lynchings, in which large crowds of white people, often numbering in the thousands, gathered to witness and participate in pre-planned heinous killings that featured prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment and/or burning of the victim, were common during this time. When the sheriff eventually cut the ropes off the corpses, the crowd rushed forward to take parts of the men’s bodies as souvenirs.

It is this willingness to be photographed in circumstances of extreme violence and depraved criminality that links the lynching photographs with the images gathered during last week’s storming of the Capitol Building.

People around the world have shaken their heads in disbelief at the evident stupidity of the insurrectionists: “Why would they allow themselves to be photographed like that?”, they ask. Why, like the good ole boy from Arkansas who posed for the camera with his work boot firmly planted on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk, would anyone engage in an act of such definitive self-incrimination?

The chilling answer? Because the insurrectionists, like the men and women snapped beneath the suspended bodies of Shipp and Smith in 1930, found it near-impossible to grasp that what they were doing was wrong. In their faces there is no shame, no pity, and certainly no fear of being held accountable. Rather, there is a disturbing combination of excitement and pride. Or, even more alarming, a complete absence of affect – a blankness. As though standing just inches away from two mutilated bodies was the most normal thing in the world.

It takes an enormous amount of ideological effort to produce this aura of invulnerability. The sense of entitlement: whether it be to take the lives of two 19-year-old boys; or to smash your way into the citadel of American democracy; has to be huge. Likewise, the certitude (so clearly evident in the faces of both historical groups) that, first, they are in the right; and second, that they are engaged in delivering a much-needed message about the power of white supremacy.

Crucial to the success of the latter was (and is) the belief that the official guardians of the law will not hinder the delivery of such “messages”. Shipp and Smith could be dragged from their jail cells and murdered in front of thousands of witnesses – many of whom, as we have seen, allowed themselves to be photographed – because it was simply understood that no one in authority would lift a finger to either stop or punish the perpetrators. (Significantly, in light of our earlier Freudian references, the vast majority of “message lynchings” were motivated by White Americans’ deep-seated neuroses about inter-racial sex.)

It is not difficult to understand how the tens-of-thousands of white supremacists who invaded the Capitol might have been gripped by a similar sense of invulnerability. They had, when all is said and done, been sent on their way with the blessings of the President of the United States! Their confidence could only have been boosted by the absurdly lax security measures taken to protect the Capitol complex. If the federal authorities had wanted to stop them, then surely they would have deployed the same sort of massive force that the mere rumour of a Black Lives Matter assault was able to mobilise. How difficult it must have been for Trump’s stormtroopers to interpret the absence of such force as anything other than an open invitation for them to smash their way in – as well as a rock-solid guarantee that they would suffer no serious legal consequences for doing so.

Just how shocked the protesters were by the rank-and-file Capitol Police officers’ valiant defence of House of Representatives and the Senate is readily apparent from the tone of shock and incredulity in the voice of a woman tear-gassed by the building’s defenders. “They maced me!”, she cries indignantly, “They maced me!” It was as if the lynch-mob that broke into the Grant County Jail had been cut down by a volley of deputy-sheriffs’ bullets.

Perhaps, if that had been the fate of those white supremacists on 7 August 1930, then the astonishing events of 6 January 2021 would never have taken place.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 11 January 2021.

Sunday 10 January 2021

Evening On The Land (For The United States of America)

The Capitol Building, Washington DC, Wednesday, 6 January 2021.


Oh come, my little one, come.
The day is almost done.
Be at my side, behold the sight
Of evening on the land.

The life, my love, is hard
And heavy is my heart.
How should I live if you should leave
And we should be apart?

Come, let me hold you tight
Upon the edge of night.
The shadow falls and darkness calls,
The sun has sunk from sight.

The world hangs by a thread
And all the heroes fled.
Like weathered stone, we stand alone
And watch the east in dread.

Be with me in the storm
When angry gods are born.
When flesh is rent and love is spent
And bloody is the dawn.

Oh, come, my little one, come.
The day is almost done.
Be at my side, behold the sight
Of evening on the land.

Chris Trotter

This poem is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Friday 8 January 2021

On Prisons.

"Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here." Prisons are places of unceasing emotional and physical violence, unrelieved despair and unforgivable human waste.

IT WAS NATIONAL’S Bill English who accurately described New Zealand’s prisons as “fiscal and moral failures”. On the same subject, Labour’s Dr Martyn Findlay memorably suggested that no prison should be “escape proof”. Such an institution, he said, would crush all hope, and with it the inmate’s soul. English’s and Findlay’s words are important. They show that, on both sides of the political divide, there have always been politicians who understood the sheer awfulness of prisons. They are places of unceasing emotional and physical violence, unrelieved despair and unforgivable human waste.

And yet, New Zealanders cannot seem to get enough of these places. Politically, it is extremely dangerous to follow the lead of English and Findlay. Voters will punish those who speak up on behalf of prisoners with an eagerness matched only by their readiness to torment the prisoners themselves. Like so many of the English-speaking peoples, New Zealanders are a brutally punitive bunch. Their parliamentary representatives might pay lip-service to the idea of rehabilitation, but the vicious legislation they have passed testifies strongly against the sincerity of such protestations. What the people want, the people get: and what the people want is for convicted felons to be punished – long and hard.

Other nations with which we like to compare ourselves approach the whole question of crime and punishment from a very different perspective. In Scandinavia, particularly, people seem to have little difficulty grasping the fact that the number of people who constitute a constant, clear and unacceptable danger to society is actually extremely small. That these individuals must be kept away from their fellow human-beings in secure facilities is accepted as an inescapable, if regrettable, social reality. But, aside from this hardcore of incorrigible sociopaths and psychopaths, most criminals are regarded as victims of circumstances over which they have never exercised very much control. These are people to be healed – not further harmed.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when New Zealanders stopped understanding that the bad things that people do to one another cannot be undone. Restitution can be made, compensation can be paid, but time cannot be put into reverse.

We cannot unmake the misery inflicted upon us by our fellow human-beings. All we can hope to do is gain some understanding of why such deeds were done, and to do our utmost to ensure that they are not repeated – especially by the same offender/s.

A thousand years ago, much of Anglo-Saxon justice was devoted to assessing the proper quantum of “Wergild” – the amount to be paid out in compensation for a man’s life. Certainly, our ancestors believed that truly terrible crimes merited truly terrible punishments – usually violent death. But crimes of passion, crimes of pride, unpremeditated and instantly regretted: these were treated with much greater understanding. (It helped that those meting out justice had grown up alongside the accused.)

In contemporary New Zealand, however, there is a worrying and growing incapacity on the part of ordinary Kiwis to come to terms with the sad, bad, deeds of their fellow citizens. How can we “come to terms” with what the media insists on describing as the “evil” of the offender/s? If the victims of crime must endure “a life sentence” then so, too, must the perpetrator/s. Anything less can only result in the guilty “getting away with it”. Better by far to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key”.

Except, of course, locking them up and throwing away the key leads inevitability to the disgraceful situation at Waikato’s Waikeria Prison. With New Zealanders demanding better treatment for this country’s chickens and pigs than they demand for its prison inmates, is it really any wonder that human-beings, locked-up in fetid, filthy cells, and denied even a shred of dignity by guards no less persuaded than the rest of the community that their charges are “evil”, will, if they still possess an ounce of self-respect, rise up in protest?

And what does it say about the ubiquity of the very “evil” we claim to be locking away, that those responsible for bringing the Waikeria crisis to an end deliberately denied the protesting inmates fresh water – as the most effective means of forcing a “resolution”?

When will we all, like the British poet’s, W. H. Auden’s, schoolchildren, finally learn:

Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 January 2021.

Monday 4 January 2021

A Powerful Political Metaphor.

Lost Opportunity: The powerful political metaphor of the Maori Party leading the despised and marginalised from danger to safety, is one Labour could have pre-empted by taking the uprising at Waikeria Prison much more seriously.

Rawiri Waititi’s successful intervention in the Waikeria Prison stand-off spreads, the Maori Party’s mana will grow significantly. It is difficult to think of a better metaphor with which to illustrate the party’s political mission than its co-leader, under the disdainful gaze of the authorities, leading 16 parched, burned, bleeding but unbroken prisoners out of danger and into safety. Surely, somewhere in New Zealand, a young Maori musician is already composing a song to celebrate Waititi’s success. He’s earned one.

It is difficult to imagine anyone bothering to write a song for the Corrections Minister, Kelvin Davis. Throughout the six days of the crisis at Waikeria, the Minister maintained an obdurate silence. The resolution of this crisis, New Zealanders were given to understand, was an “operational matter” – something best left to the public servants and corrections officers on the spot. The very same public servants and corrections officers whose actions – and failure to take action – were responsible for sparking the uprising in the first place.

The Ombudsman’s report of August 2020 made it very clear that conditions at Waikeria Prison left a great deal to be desired. Had the authorities responded to that report swiftly and decisively, then it is highly unlikely the uprising would have occurred.

It is very difficult for those who know nothing of life behind bars to fathom the degree of degradation required to make prisoners risk an extension of their sentences by violating the rules of their confinement. When you’re in jail, all you want to be is out. You’ll suffer an awful lot in silence before raising your voice in protest. That’s why any form of prison protest is a sure and certain sign that something very rotten is festering within its walls.

How rotten may, perhaps, be gleaned from the following passage, taken from the media release sent out by the protesting prisoners’ to (among others) Action Station and Hone Harawira:

Our drinking water in prison is brown. We have used our towels for three straight weeks now. Some of us have not had our bedding changed in five months. We have not received clean uniforms to wear for three months – we wear the same dirty clothes day in and day out. We have to wash our clothes in our dirty shower water and dry them on the concrete floor. We have no toilet seats: we eat our kai out of paper bags right next to our open, shared toilets.

If even half of these complaints are true, then New Zealand should hang its head in shame. Conditions such as these are what we associate with the hellholes of Central and South America – prisons wracked by riots, uprisings and mass escapes, and quelled by tear-gas, rubber bullets and (all too frequently) live rounds.

The pall of black smoke which, at the time of writing, still hung above Waikeria is a signal. A signal that we’re not doing it right. That we’ve got it wrong. That we have to stop listening to the people who have presided over these institutional failures for far too long. Most of all, however, it is signalling the importance of ceasing to react to the vicious messaging from our nation’s amygdala.

Crime and punishment are not issues that can be resolved successfully by our instinctive “flight or fight” reaction. They are matters for the national cerebellum, the seat of reason in the human brain. We must not leave them to the violent reptilian lunges of the Kiwi limbic system.

At times like these, however, the first political responders are almost always reptilian. Why are the authorities waiting? Where are the Police? Why aren’t we seeing the deployment of armed tactical units? Is there no pepper spray? No tear gas? No long batons? Are there no automatic weapons?

When a human-being is convicted of a crime, he or she does not cease to be a human-being. Imprisonment does not, contrary to the punitive expectations of many New Zealanders, permit the extinguishment of all the rights to which human-beings are entitled. This country is a signatory to a raft of international treaties and covenants affirming the fundamental human right to be treated decently.

These documents should have made it unthinkable for servants of the New Zealand state (which, presumably, includes the authorities at Waikeria Prison!) to refuse water and food to protesting inmates. If our soldiers refused to give prisoners water they would be guilty of a war crime.

What does it say about us as a people, that we are willing to treat the soldiers of a foreign foe with more respect than our own citizens? What does it say about our Minister of Corrections that he did not publicly repudiate the inhumane tactics of the Waikeria authorities?

More importantly, what does it say about the government of Jacinda Ardern? Why is her Cabinet so unaware, seemingly, of the acutely dangerous politics of the Waikeria Prison uprising? Yes, it’s holiday-time. And yes, Kiwis are taking full advantage of their success in defeating Covid-19. Very few people (including most of the mainstream news media) are paying much attention to events at Waikeria. But that does not excuse the Prime Minister for not noticing just how big a “win” her government has gifted the Maori Party.

Because that metaphor: the Maori Party leading the victims of the system out of danger and into safety; will speak with great force to the thousands of New Zealanders who cannot afford an expensive holiday in Queenstown. Those paying extortionate rent for substandard accommodation. Those parents working two jobs but still not making enough to keep their families fit and healthy. The New Zealanders who hear their leader talking about “kindness” and a “Team of Five Million”, but who just can’t see any evidence of it at work in their lives and neighbourhoods.

Dylan Asafo, a lecturer at Auckland Law School, put it like this:

Contrary to popular belief, the ‘centre’ isn’t a place for reasonable, measured minds who can see valid points on both sides and find a just and fair compromise. The ‘centre’ doesn’t actually exist. It’s an imagined safe space for people who are deeply invested in inequality in a settler-colonial, capitalist state but still want to be perceived as kind and decent people.

A left-wing Labour government would have reacted very differently to the uprising at Waikeria. It would have reassured all those members of the Maori working-class with fathers, brothers and sons locked away in hellholes like Waikeria, that Labour was committed unequivocally to their fair and humane treatment. Under a left-wing Labour government, it would have been the Corrections Minister leading those prisoners out of danger and into safety – and making sure every one of the Ombudsman’s recommendations was implemented.

By preferring to put their faith in an illusory political centre, Labour has ceded a crucial swathe of electoral territory to a Maori Party unafraid of placing itself at the head of an uprising much bigger than the one Rawiri Waititi just helped to end at Waikeria.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 4 January 2021

Friday 1 January 2021

Happy New Year?

But Will She Keep Smiling? Kindness is as kindness does. And the one thing kindness cannot do is force people to be kind. Understanding that was the single most important factor in the Prime Minister’s success at stamping out the Coronavirus. She took New Zealanders with her; she encouraged them to “Unite Against Covid-19” for their own good. Now, in 2021, she must encourage them to do the same against poverty and homelessness.

WELL, IT’S GONE! The 2,020th year of the Common Era. The year of the global Covid-19 pandemic. The year of bubbles and lockdowns and Zoom. The year Donald Trump lost – badly. The year Jacinda Ardern won – bigly. Gone. But, we’re still here, celebrating the first day of the first month of 2021. A good time, traditionally, to hazard some guesses as to what the next 364 days may bring.

My most confident prediction is that Covid-19 will feature as prominently in the next twelve months as it did in the last.

By the time most New Zealanders begin to see the effects of the mass vaccination campaign against Covid-19 more than half of 2021 will already be behind them. Over the months remaining, those same New Zealanders will become increasingly impatient with the sizeable anti-vaxxer movement and its profoundly anti-social delusions.

Pressure will grow for the Government to make vaccination against Covid-19 mandatory. Should compulsion fail to move the hardliners, then the ugly punitiveness which lies just below the easy-going exterior of the average Kiwi is likely to erupt in spectacular fashion. Refusing to be vaccinated may be classed as a form of criminal assault, and denying the benefits of vaccination to one’s children may see the offending parents prosecuted as abusers.

If we’re very unlucky, the outrage of the anti-vaxxers will merge with the rising stridency of the “Free Speech Union” and the undiminished frustration of the country’s gun-owners, into a single, very angry, “Freedom Coalition”.

Jacinda Ardern’s government will be portrayed by this group as dangerously dictatorial: a collection of woke virtue-signallers prepared to unleash the full powers of the state against any individual citizen who refuses to acknowledge their obligation to serve the greater good.

The strength of the Government’s position on the issues of Covid-19 vaccination, curbing hate speech, and comprehensive gun-control should be sufficient to marginalise these critics. What could weaken its position, however, is the Ardern Administration’s apparent unwillingness to acknowledge its own obligation to serve the greater good.

Sharp rises in the number of families living in poverty, and the intractability of the housing crisis, could well see the Government facing serious charges of hypocrisy. In the name of “kindness” citizens are expected to swallow their objections to enforced inoculation, watch their language, self-censor their opinions, and submit their firearms to state regulation and control. That same state, however, acknowledges no obligation to show kindness to the tens-of-thousands of beneficiary families living in poverty: no duty to advance the collective wellbeing of the nation by redistributing wealth and intervening directly in the “free” market.

Both the Act Party and (if it can summon sufficient intellectual energy) the National Party will seek to exploit the issues arising out of vaccinations against Covid-19, hate speech and gun control. From the other end of the political spectrum, the Greens and the Maori Party will chime in against poverty and homelessness.

A self-confidently “centrist” government, assailed from both the right and the left, has little to fear. With most voters happy to position themselves somewhere in the “middle”, support for the Government is unlikely to be shaken by attacks launched from the political extremes.

Of much more concern to Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues would be the emergence of a political force willing to combine the arguments of both the right and the left into a single devastating critique of the Government’s policies.

For most of the period between 1993-96 this was precisely the strategy adopted by Winston Peters and his NZ First Party. While that particular soufflé may not rise a second (or should that be a third?) time, the option remains open for anyone with sufficient charisma to launch a radical populist party.

A “Freedom Coalition” committed not only to the individual’s “freedom to”, but also to securing people’s “freedom from” poverty, homelessness, discrimination and exploitation, could attract the sort of double-digit support that gives incumbent governments nightmares.

Kindness is as kindness does. And the one thing kindness cannot do is force people to be kind. Understanding that was the single most important factor in the Prime Minister’s success at stamping out the Coronavirus. She took New Zealanders with her; she encouraged them to “Unite Against Covid-19” for their own good.

Now, in 2021, she must encourage them to do the same against poverty and homelessness.

This essay was originally published in the Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 January 2021.