Sunday 28 February 2021

Suffer The Little Children: Neoliberalism’s Attack On Local Democracy Intensifies.

Under The Influence Of The "Governance" Kool-Aid: The furore surrounding Mayor Andy Foster's "review" of the Wellington City Council's "governance" is but the latest example of the quite conscious delegitimization, and sinister re-framing, of spirited political opposition and debate as irresponsible, immature and “dysfunctional”. It shows how very far from the processes of freedom and democracy New Zealand’s neoliberal political class, and their bureaucratic enablers, are determined to take us.

MAYOR ANDY FOSTER’S surprise attack on local democracy in Wellington left half his Council feeling dazed and confused – as intended. The authoritarian flourish of getting all those around the council table to indicate their support for his “review”, by rising to their feet, was creepy in the extreme. Nothing could have demonstrated more clearly the cult-like quality of neoliberalism’s faith in “governance”.

This latest example of the quite conscious delegitimization, and sinister re-framing, of spirited political opposition and debate as irresponsible, immature and “dysfunctional” shows how very far from the processes of freedom and democracy New Zealand’s neoliberal political class, and their bureaucratic enablers, are determined to take us.

The governance virus is not confined to Wellington. While Foster was springing his surprise in the capital, the Invercargill City Council was being enjoined to endorse a code of conduct vis-à-vis the news media which would have reduced the representatives of Invercargill’s 56,000 residents to a bunch of happy-clappy good-news-dispensers, with nary a harsh word for anyone or anything associated with the running of New Zealand’s southern-most city.

Councillors were warned off saying anything that might damage Invercargill’s “brand” in the eyes of its customers (otherwise known as citizens). Those wishing to say anything in public were encouraged to first run it past the Council’s (unelected) communications team. It was very clear, however, that the Council bureaucracy viewed councillors as naughty little children who should be seen as infrequently as possible – and heard from not at all.

We can all take solace from the fact that once the elected representatives of the people had recovered from these gratuitous assaults on their rights and duties, and recovered the power of speech, a goodly number of them told the governance cultists to stand back and stand down.

Invercargill’s Mayor, the redoubtable Tim Shadbolt, made it clear that the proposed code-of-conduct was both ultra vires (i.e. beyond the legal authority of its proponents to either impose or enforce) and an unconscionable attempt to prevent councillors from fulfilling their democratic duties to the electors. Many of his fellow councillors indicated their strong agreement. They would not be bound by this thoroughly undemocratic attempt to limit their freedom of speech.

In Wellington, the left-wing Labour and Green councillors who had been kept “out of the loop” by the Mayor and his cronies, soon bounced back into action. They pointed to the fact that the Mayor had informed some councillors of his intention to launch a review of the city’s governance – but not others – as symptomatic of his decision-making-by-surprise political style.

Rather than leading his fellow councillors towards consensus by means of genuine consultation and open debate, Foster appears to see his role as doing everything within his power to give effect to policies favoured by Council staff. Even though introducing proposals, unseen by councillors deemed uncooperative, at the very last moment of the decision-making process, is hardly conducive to the maintenance of political civility around the Council Table!

It is, however, emblematic of the whole governance ethos. Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between ‘governance’ and ‘government’ is to recognise governance as a noun and government as a verb.

Governance is the name given to the entire suite of neoliberal decision-making processes: the whole professional, credentialed, expert hierarchy of policy-advisers; people who consider themselves “best qualified to know” what must be done.

Government is what those whose duty it is to make decisions actually do. And that is determined not only by their personal judgement, but also by their understanding of what the people who made them decision-makers need and want.

Bringing those needs and wants into some sort of rough harmony is what democratic politics is all about. It cannot happen without spirited and open debate, and spirited and open debate cannot happen unless the people’s elected representatives are free to speak their minds.

But this is precisely what neoliberalism fears the most: the intrusion of popular needs and wants into a capitalist system which depends for its proper functioning on human needs and wants manifesting themselves exclusively in the purchases of consumers. When politicians allow the decisions of an elected body to over-ride market signals, then the proper functioning of free-market capitalism must inevitably be deranged. One collection of interests will find itself in a position to dominate another – to the ultimate disadvantage of all interests. As far as the neoliberals are concerned, democracy and capitalism are incompatible.

This explains why words like “dysfunctional” and “irresponsible” get thrown about the moment the political noise rises above the low murmur of dignified agreement. When a councillor stands up and defies the comfortable owners of Edwardian villas on behalf of rack-rented citizens in need of large-scale social housing developments. Or, when a veteran of the sixties youth rebellion openly manoeuvres for his city’s largest employer to be kept going – regardless of all the market signals flashing red.

In the ears of the neoliberals, passionate policy debates register as little more than the whooping and chest-beating of Chimpanzees: mindless status displays; idiotic battles for recognition and dominance. Uncontrolled democracy drowns out the signals of the marketplace, making it impossible for the advice of those with the expertise needed to decode its messages to be heard.

That is why, for the past 35 years, neoliberals have been moving as much of the machinery of government as far out of the reach of all these posturing political apes as possible. It’s why the Local Government Act is no longer about making sure that the interests of residents and ratepayers are faithfully represented, but about reducing the opportunities for those same residents and ratepayers to defend themselves from the decisions of “The Council”. It’s why councillors are paid so much money. Why departments called “Democracy Services” are there to tell them what they can and cannot do. Why Codes-of-Conduct are drawn up to make sure that they behave with all the strict decorum of timorous maiden aunts.

The scariest aspect of this whole shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’ is that it’s working. “Politicians” – especially local government politicians – are derided and despised. Their “antics” are reported unfavourably in the news media. When questioned by reporters in the street, people dutifully urge their representatives to stop behaving like little children and get on with running the city properly. Newspaper editors write condescendingly about the need to get some adults in the room. In short, of the need to keep politics out of politics.

I will, therefore, be very surprised if Mayor Andy Foster’s “review” doesn’t uncover an urgent need to do all these things. I would, therefore, ask you to forgive me if, at some point in the future, when Wellingtonians are complaining loudly about their much beloved library being replaced by Amazon, I give in to temptation – and tell them to stop behaving like little children.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 26 February 2021.

Thursday 25 February 2021

Correcting Corrections - And Its Minister.

My Department Right Or Wrong: Far from “politicians involving themselves in some Corrections matters” being a bad thing, their involvement – along with that of the Ombudsman – constitutes a necessary check upon the unreasonable and unlawful exercise of authority over prison inmates by prison staff. A Corrections Minister who lets it be known that he has his prison officers’ backs – no matter what they do, or have done – makes the correction of Corrections well-nigh impossible.

KELVIN DAVIS is a deeply conservative Minister of Corrections. His response to the Waikeria Prison Riot was one of cold fury, and if his behaviour in the House earlier this week is any guide, that fury has not subsided.

During Question Time on Tuesday, Davis arranged for a “patsy question” to be put to him concerning a pamphlet distributed among prisoners by People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA). The group’s February newsletter praised the Waikeria rioters for “reforming the prison to the ground” and its authors quoted approvingly the Maori Party co-leader, Rawiri Waititi, for insisting that: “When injustice becomes law, defiance becomes duty.”

Davis’s parliamentary reply constituted a cutting reproof of Waititi’s words and actions: “I said from the beginning that politicians involving themselves in some Corrections matters would only serve to embolden and encourage more events that endanger the lives of prisoners and staff.”

There was more to the Minister’s reaction than mere rhetoric. Concerned that the content of the PAPA pamphlet was sufficiently inflammatory to “incite a riot”, the Department of Corrections passed it on to the Police.

This could prove embarrassing if the matter ever comes to court. The words attributed to Waititi were, as he himself acknowledged, very far from being his own. The quotation, “when injustice becomes law, defiance becomes duty”, is usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, and was often to be found in the statements and speeches of the Black Civil Rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King. In his own words, Dr King also observed that “rioting is the language of the unheard”.

None of which cut any ice with Davis. Even after Rawiri Waititi had negotiated the peaceful surrender of the 17 prison rioters back in January, and personally led them to safety, the Minister of Corrections pointedly refused to acknowledge the role played by Te Paati Māori in bringing the six-day stand-off to an end. As he has done so often during his time as Minister, Davis very publicly aligned himself with the Department of Corrections and its staff, heaping praise upon their professionalism and backing their response to the uprising.

Davis’s deep-seated conservatism has undoubtedly contributed to this “my department right or wrong” approach to the fraught issues of crime and punishment. It is not, however, the correct ministerial response.

The real and constant danger of those charged with running our prisons behaving badly is recognised by the fact that all Members of Parliament are legally empowered to respond to the complaints of prisoners and must be given access to them. These powers would not have been conferred upon the people’s representatives, by the people’s representatives, if they had not recognised the potential for cruel and unusual punishments being inflicted behind high walls and razor-wire – where few sympathetic eyes are watching, and help is very far away.

Far from “politicians involving themselves in some Corrections matters” being a bad thing, their involvement – along with that of the Ombudsman – constitutes a necessary check upon the unreasonable and unlawful exercise of authority over prison inmates by prison staff. A Corrections Minister who lets it be known that he has his prison officers’ backs – no matter what they do, or have done – makes the correction of Corrections well-nigh impossible.

Just how far Davis has strayed from the path of impartial ministerial oversight was revealed in his response to a recent judicial finding that Corrections staff at Auckland Women’s Prison had treated inmates in a “cruel, degrading and inhumane manner”. (Note well, this is the judgement of a New Zealand court, formulated after hearing and weighing the evidence of both sides, and that it has the force of law.)

The Minister’s response to the judgement was shocking. Rather than holding the persons responsible to account and insisting that such behaviour must never happen again, the Minister instead opted to treat the judge’s findings as mere “allegations” and asked Corrections to provide him with “their side of the story”.

With the possible exception of the Ministry of Justice itself, no other agency of the state has more cause to respect and uphold the Rule of Law than the Department of Corrections. If Kelvin Davis cannot accept that prison staff, as well as inmates, must conduct themselves lawfully, then he should resign.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 February 2021.

Tuesday 23 February 2021

How Powerful Is Labour's Maori Caucus?

You're Move: What would a genuinely powerful Maori Caucus do? What policies would it insist upon? More to the point, since the single most important question in politics is always “Or you’ll what?”, does the Maori Caucus possess the wherewithal to enforce its demands?

THAT LABOUR’S MAORI CAUCUS is potentially powerful cannot be doubted. It is large, has a strong leader in Willie Jackson, and is surrounded by well-meaning Pakeha progressives who struggle to say “No” to its demands. For Maori, it is difficult to imagine a more encouraging political environment.

The key metric, however, will be what the Maori Caucus is able to deliver. Creating Maori wards is not the same as creating jobs. Building support for profound constitutional change in Aotearoa-New Zealand is not the same as building houses. Labour  reclaimed the Maori seats in 2017 by re-presenting itself as the party that cared about the basics: jobs, homes, education and health. In 2020 it started losing them again for not caring enough.

What, then, would a genuinely powerful Maori Caucus do? What policies would it insist upon? More to the point, since the single most important question in politics is always “Or you’ll what?”: does the Maori Caucus possess the wherewithal to enforce its demands?

In case you’re wondering what sort of threats a powerful Labour Party faction might make get its own way, here’s a story from Labour’s past.

Way back in 1988, when it began to look as though the Labour Left had acquired sufficient clout within the party organisation to start de-selecting the leading lights of the “Rogernomics” faction – starting with Richard Prebble in Auckland Central – the reaction was swift and brutal. According to Matt McCarten, upwards of 17 “Rogernomes” told the leadership of the party organisation that, faced with de-selections, they would quit the party altogether and collapse the government. The leaders of the trade unions were cowed by a different threat. They were told that unless they “persuaded” their younger activists (like Matt McCarten) to pull their heads in, then the crucial protection of compulsory membership would be legislated away. Not to be outdone, Prebble himself obtained a court injunction against the NZ Council of his own party which, essentially, secured the status-quo in the Auckland Central seat. Needless to say, the party caved-in to every one of the “Rogernomics” faction’s demands.

That’s what a powerful faction looks like – that is what it can do.

Which raises the obvious questions: “Is the Maori Caucus that powerful?”, and, “Is it willing to go that far?”

On the evidence to date, the answer to both of those questions is “No.”

Were the Maori Caucus as absolutely determined to see their policies enacted as those ruthless Rogernomes, they would long ago have issued a démarche to Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson on the vexed questions of welfare and housing – issues of critical significance to Maori, and precisely the sort of issues that Labour candidates in the Maori seats had promised to address hard and early. They would have pointed out to their Pakeha colleagues the huge risks attached to not making progress quickly in both areas. Their people were suffering and Labour would be judged by how quickly and how comprehensively it tackled the closely related problems of poverty and homelessness.

Had any of their colleagues been foolhardy enough to put the question: “Or you’ll what?” The cold political logic of their position dictates a very obvious reply. “Or we’ll abandon the Labour Party and offer ourselves to the Maori Party. From a relatively powerless two MPs, the Maori Party’s parliamentary strength will swell to 15 MPs – without whose votes Jacinda’s government will hang by a thread – held by Marama Davidson.”

If Labour fails to deliver for Maori, then the Maori Party will be the prime beneficiary of the Maori Caucus’s inability to secure the assistance of their Pakeha colleagues. Labour’s Maori MPs will, accordingly, be replaced by politicians much more willing to exercise the leverage made possible by their party’s possession of the Maori seats. If the Maori Caucus can’t follow this logic, and if it is unwilling to act on it, then how powerful is it, really?

Sadly, the fact that none of the recommendations of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) have been fully implemented; and that the necessary mobilisation of state resources required to get on top of a waiting-list for social housing which now exceeds 22,000 has not been ordered; strongly suggests that, when it comes to delivering the basics, the members of the Maori Caucus have proved to be no more effective than the Maori Party MPs who opted to throw in their lot with John Key’s National Party.

This conclusion is only strengthened when the Maori Caucus’s policy victories are analysed. Such budgetary successes as they have been able to rustle-up were modest: the sort of sums that will keep a programme or two going for a couple of years; nothing more. Unable to unlock the funds necessary for genuine transformation, Labour’s Maori MPs – just like the Maori Party MPs before them – have opted to settle for fiscally undemanding victories on the cultural front. The most obvious of these being the new, compulsory history curriculum, and the legislative facilitation of Maori wards in local government.

While these cultural “wins” may not be all that costly, fiscally-speaking, they have the potential to unleash an electorally expensive political backlash from aggrieved Pakeha voters. The tumult surrounding the foreshore and seabed legislation generated an electoral response that came perilously close to delivering power to a National Party leader pledged to diminish the Treaty of Waitangi, quash the whole notion of a Treaty “partnership” and abolish the Maori seats. That was a very big bullet for Maori to have dodged. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that conservative Pakeha are going to keep on missing.

If the Maori Caucus has set its sights on bringing forward some, or all, of the constitutional changes arising out of the consultation exercise headed-up by Moana Jackson, then it is likely to encounter the same polite refusals that John Key offered to Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. Progressive Pakeha MPs are known to talk a good game when it comes to the Treaty and Te Reo, but they are also acutely aware that this is still the Crown’s country – and the Crown does not share power. Neither is a Labour government which owes its absolute parliamentary majority to the votes of “Middle New Zealand” – i.e. Middle-Class Pakeha New Zealanders – likely to embrace policies radical enough to frighten them back to National.

Back in 1988, the Rogernomes were so convinced that their policies were what New Zealand needed that they were willing to abandon their party and destroy their government rather than see their achievements watered down or rolled back. How convinced is the Maori Caucus that its policies are what their people need? And how far are they willing to go to make sure that the bi-cultural future they’re seeking is not, once again, put on hold?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 23 February 2021.

Monday 22 February 2021

The French Connection.

Anti-Philosopher President?  Emmanuel Macron and his party’s reaction to the terrorist atrocities committed on French soil targets the very same philosophical movements excited and emboldened by New Zealand’s own terrifying tragedy.

IT IS NOT the sort of thought experiment New Zealanders are encouraged to conduct in these culturally sensitive times. Even so, let’s imagine that the 2019 massacre which seared itself across New Zealand’s collective memory had not been of peaceful Muslim worshippers by a white nationalist extremist. Let’s imagine, rather, that as practically the whole of this country’s national security apparatus was anticipating, the massacre had been of Christian worshippers by an Islamic jihadist extremist.

Overnight, the ideological climate in this country would have become exceedingly hostile to the forces of progressivism. A bitter mood of “we told you so” would have settled over the nation: a mood as far removed from Jacinda Ardern’s inspired “they are us” formulation as it is possible to imagine.

Responding to the angry clamour of public opinion, the security services would have cracked down hard on the Muslim community, activating the multitude of surveillance and control measures already thoroughly tested (and strongly recommended) by their Five Eyes partners. Attacks on Muslims and their places of worship would have skyrocketed. Tragically, most New Zealanders would have struggled to summon-up much in the way of sympathy.

Certainly, the Green Party leadership would have had to think twice about exploiting the emotional turmoil arising from the massacre to launch an all-out assault of white supremacy and colonisation. The actual behaviour of Marama Davidson and Golriz Ghahraman in 2019 did the Greens few enough favours. Had an identical strategy been attempted in the circumstances of a jihadist attack, the consequences would have been politically suicidal.

The personal impact on Jacinda Ardern of a jihadist attack would, similarly, have provided a stark contrast with her actual response to the Christchurch tragedy. Rather than the empathic woman in the hijab, it is likely the Prime Minister would have adopted the persona of the stern shield-maiden of the nation. Unleashing without hesitation the terrible swift sword of national retribution, she would have become New Zealanders’ avenging angel. Not so much “they are us” as “they will pay”.

In this jihadist scenario, the deep and enduring bond between the Prime Minister and New Zealand’s Muslim community following the white nationalist attack could not have been forged. Consequently, her strong personal commitment to restricting Islamophobic “hate speech” would not be there. Equally absent would be the Ardern government’s determination to rid New Zealand of automatic weapons. Indeed, this government’s unusual receptiveness towards ideas and policies aimed at suppressing right-wing extremism and curbing white privilege would not be in evidence anywhere.

Over and above its devastating impact on the faith community directly involved, the Christchurch mosque massacre also acted as the catalyst for a sharp shift towards the ideological left in New Zealand. The very opposite to what is currently unfolding in France.

Since the year 2000, France has lost more than 250 of its citizens to jihadist violence, precipitating a pronounced political repositioning within the French electorate. Repulsed by the actions of Islamic fanatics, French politicians have reasserted their nation’s strong traditions of secularism and egalitarianism. Just last week, the French National Assembly passed a law which, in addition to proscribing “Islamicism”, also requires every citizen to indicate active support for the classic republican virtues of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

Aware of the opening which this reconstitution of political forces has provided for the Radical Right, ministers in the government of President Emmanuel Macron are indicating a wish to go further. Leading the charge is France’s Minister for Higher Education, Frédérique Vidal. In a recent television interview, she announced an investigation into “the totality of research underway in our country”. Firmly in her sights was what she calls “Islamo-leftism”.

According to Vidal, “Islamo-leftism corrupts all of society and universities are not impervious.” Unsurprisingly, French academics reacted with fury – not least because Vidal went on to accuse those involved in race and gender studies of “always looking at everything through the prism of their will to divide, to fracture, to pinpoint the enemy.” In response to this, the National Centre for Scientific Research, came out swinging, condemning in particular “attempts to delegitimise different fields of research, like post-colonial studies, intersectional studies and research on race.”

In a nation like France, however, with such a long and strong imperial tradition, these fields of study are precisely those from which the political right stands to derive the most electoral advantage. Hence Macron’s haste in heading-off his principal rival in next year’s presidential elections, the far-right nationalist, Marine Le Pen, at the ideological pass. Both candidates are determined to not to be found wanting by those French voters who still take patriotic pride in their nation’s past glories.

Ironically, the same “intersectional” academic disciplines under attack in France are also responsible for inspiring the New Zealand government’s new and compulsory history curriculum designed to rectify New Zealanders’ woeful understanding of their country’s long and (allegedly) ignoble record of conquest and expropriation. That such a radical policy (along with kindred initiatives on Maori wards, hate speech, and limiting the rights of defendants in rape trials) could have advanced so far is inconceivable without the tremendous political impetus provided by the Christchurch mosque massacres. More, and even bolder, advances will be hazarded – most especially in relation to constitutional issues – if Labour’s current initiatives are concluded successfully.

That the success of Labour’s radical programme appears imminent is not only explicable in terms of the Christchurch attack, but also on account of the National Party’s all-too-evident ideological confusion. Some in National seem quite relaxed about intersectionalism and its policy implications, while others seem bitterly opposed. Should the former faction emerge triumphant, their party risks electoral marginalisation. At present there seems barely enough room on the New Zealand electoral stage for two “woke” parties – let alone a third in two minds on the subject! A win for the conservative faction would, therefore, seem the most likely outcome – especially since, thanks to Macron and his ministers, there is now a growing body of coherent ideological opposition to Islamo-leftism and its kindred political faiths for them to call on.

National will have to be quick, though, if Act is not to occupy the ground opened-up by the French Right first. Ideologically-speaking, David Seymour and Emmanuel Macron have much in common. Both are confident technocratic liberals, perfectly at ease in their defence of “Enlightenment values”, even as they unashamedly promote the arguments and interests of free-market capitalism. Both men, and their parties, also possess the philosophical clarity of mind to confront the intersectional and post-colonial theorists head-on. Unless they’re keeping their light especially well-hidden under a bushel, the person in National with that capability has yet to be elected to Parliament.

One final point needs to be made here. Macron and his ministers have been quick to blame the intellectual disorientation of its best and its brightest on what The New York Times describes as “destabilising influences on US campuses”, with Macron himself denouncing “certain social-science theories entirely imported from the United States.” Now, that is a particularly cheeky gallic accusation! Because, when it comes to the destabilising influence of the philosophical movement generally referred to as “Post-Modernism”, just about all of its leading intellectual lights – past and present – declaimed at length upon the death of meaning in strong French accents.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 22 February 2021.

Saturday 20 February 2021

The Strange (And Sad) Demise of Radio New Zealand.

A Friend In Need: I have grown up, and grown old, within earshot of New Zealand’s public broadcaster. Through times of peace and plenty, through days of tumult and recrimination, it has been a constant and reliable presence. The calm and authoritative voices of Radio New Zealand kept their fellow citizens up to speed: the nearest approximation of the truth they could hope to hear. Trustworthy. Indispensable. No more.

IT WAS THERE in the darkness, more reassuring than a loaded gun, my old Philips portable radio. Three o’clock in the morning on Spaxington Landing, 500 miles from home, with no one beside me. Lonely? Not at all. Through that old radio came the reassuring voices of National Radio and the timeless music of the Concert Programme. The public broadcaster as friend and comforter: informative, uplifting, entertaining and – just often enough – challenging.

If asked to choose between a good book and a good radio station, I’d be stumped. A book can transport you magically through time and space – but it can’t play your favourite song. Nor can it bring you the news.

I have grown up, and grown old, within earshot of New Zealand’s public broadcaster. Through times of peace and plenty, through days of tumult and recrimination, it has been a constant and reliable presence. The calm and authoritative voices of Radio New Zealand kept their fellow citizens up to speed: the nearest approximation of the truth they could hope to hear. Trustworthy. Indispensable.

No more.

About the best you can say for the RNZ network today is that it’s better than all the others. When you consider the quality of all the others, however, that’s not saying very much. Moreover, when the clear objective of the public broadcaster’s management is to make its “product” as much like all the others as possible, then the days of RNZ’s journalistic and cultural superiority would appear to be numbered.

What we’re witnessing is a work of destruction in progress. Like the proverbial oil tanker, however, a public broadcaster of RNZ’s quality takes a great deal of energy and a surprising amount of time to turn around. There are traditions that have to be denigrated and dispensed with; experienced professionals who have to be eased out; a multitude of distinctive voices that has to be reduced to a single, overpowering chorus. Turns out you can’t wreck a world-renowned radio network overnight – it takes a while.

Those responsible for the steady deterioration of RNZ will, naturally, object that they have no such intentions. They will point to the network’s ageing audience; to its narrow social base; and to the younger generation’s general unwillingness to tune their dials to anything as stodgy and old-fashioned as “boomer radio”. They will demand to know what’s likely to happen two or three decades hence, when RNZ’s current audience of over-55s begins to die out in large numbers. A public broadcaster incapable of attracting and holding Generations X, Y and Z, is, surely, a public broadcaster without a future.

All of which is true. The argument is not about the need to attract the loyalty of a new generation of listeners, but how that might best be done. Should RNZ build its footpaths where the younger generations already walk? Or, should it construct a road that leads them somewhere new – somewhere they’ve never been before?

RNZ’s management answered that question quite definitively with its proposal to effectively kill off RNZ Concert and replace it with a youth radio network modelled on the black radio stations of New York. Think BfM meets OMC – but without the culturally eccentric ethnic charm. No, Helen Clark may have rescued RNZ Concert, but RNZ’s bosses’ direction of travel remains the same: down, down, down towards the fashionably dumb; not up, up, up towards the intelligently creative. The network’s barkers are already rehearsing their lines: “Come on in and join us, kids! You’ll encounter nothing here that you haven’t heard before. Relax! Enjoy!”

How to explain such wilful cultural vandalism? What drives RNZ’s Generation X bosses to tear down the public broadcaster’s proud tower with such venomous spite?

The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that they are the tragic heirs of Rogernomics. The kids who were educated at school and university to despise the New Zealand that pre-dated the neoliberal revolution of 1984-1993 – most especially its faith in the superiority of public service over private enterprise. What more compelling symbol of that faith could there be than the public radio network? What target more deserving of the rage and resentment of those who never received the public goods Baby Boomers took for granted than New Zealand’s post-war social-democratic flagship – RNZ?

It was through the speaker of my trusty Philips portable radio, way back in 1975, that I heard the first “Morning Report”, the programme which instantly set the news agenda for the rest of the day – for the whole country. Broadcasters like Joe Coté and Geoff Robinson, effortless conveyers of warmth and authority, were a joy to listen to. They, and those who came after them, set the journalistic bar very high. Forty-five years on from that first broadcast, the present hosts of “Morning Report” struggle, and regularly fail, to clear it.

More generally, RNZ’s “product” reflects the network’s reckless abandonment of the middle way. The sensible notion that, as a public broadcaster, RNZ should do its best to reflect the public, has been set aside, and in its place a regime of extreme cultural didacticism has arisen. National Radio is no longer a station where the broadest possible range of New Zealanders’ ideas and opinions is broadcast for their fellow citizens to hear and judge. The views of those who remain unconvinced by the new orthodoxies of identity politics have been rigorously filtered out, and those espousing them “de-platformed” with extreme prejudice.

A friend of mine has coined a phrase for this ideological cleansing of the public airways: he calls it “the Mulliganisation of Radio New Zealand”. The reference is to the afternoon offerings of that quintessential Gen-Xer, Jessie Mulligan: a broadcaster who proves, five days out of every seven, that a little knowledge, and a lot of ideology, are very dangerous things indeed!

Fittingly, Mulligan’s afternoon stint is followed by Wallace Chapman’s “The Panel”. This show (with which it is only fair I acknowledge a long association) was formerly hosted by Mulligan’s highly professional predecessor, Jim Mora. Justly renowned for the “robust” debates between its left-wing and right-wing guests, “The Panel” gave RNZ’s listeners a ringside seat to the political, economic and cultural arguments in which the whole nation was collectively embroiled. No more. Chapman, like Mulligan, specialises in turning down the heat and dimming the lights. Breathlessly inoffensive, punctiliously politically correct, “The Panel” has made the penitential journey from seditious to soporific – and kept on going.

The great tragedy of RNZ is that it has squandered the opportunity to interrogate intelligently the hopes and aspirations, the triumphs and challenges, of the generation that followed my own. Not every New Zealander born between 1966 and 1986 subscribes to the extreme “wokeism” that is currently masquerading as the default ideology of RNZ’s listeners. Most of them would, however, be glad to hear its contentious propositions debated. Such as the wisdom, or not, of passing laws against “hate speech”. Or, of introducing a radically Maori nationalist version of New Zealand history into the nation’s classrooms.

Some listeners would even welcome, in addition to RNZ’s programmes about rural New Zealand, and its regular updates on the antics of the markets, a strong and constant commitment to covering the issues arising out of everyday working-class life in this country. An RNZ that acknowledged New Zealand (not “Aotearoa”) as a house of many rooms, many windows, and many mirrors. A multicultural society with a great many more than one ideological story to tell.

An RNZ which refuses to acknowledge the full diversity of belief and aspiration in New Zealand runs a terrible risk. When the mood of the nation inevitably shifts, the worst possible position in which the public broadcaster could find itself is so far out on an ideological limb that its enemies feel completely safe in sawing off the branch altogether. An RNZ so bereft of friends and allies that no effective defence is any longer possible.

There is a very good reason why the public broadcaster should do everything within its power to be the citizens’ friend and comforter. It’s so those same citizens will always have a reason to be the friends and comforters of public broadcasting – when its enemies come a-calling.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 19 February 2021.

Friday 19 February 2021

Strength That Does Not Fail.

Sweet Surrender: By 1933, Adolf Hitler was the last political leader left standing, and his Nazis the only party Germany had yet to try. It was ever thus. Dictators and dictatorships succeed by being the only medicine a desperately sick nation hasn’t swallowed; the only strength that hasn’t failed.

NOT ALL DICTATORSHIPS look like Burma. When the troops are out on the streets firing rubber bullets at high-school students and shutting down the Internet for the second day in a row, what are you looking at? Effectively, you’re watching a dictatorship that is failing. No matter how you measure it: economically, socially or politically; the price of ruling by terror is enormous and irrecoverable. Which is why a truly successful dictatorship doesn’t look anything like a dictatorship – until you cross it.

Knowing how the fascist story ended, it is very hard to grasp how many people came away from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany full of admiration. Before the invasions, before the Holocaust, when Germany’s economy was booming and Italy’s trains were running on time, it seemed to many people – Winston Churchill, Henry Ford and King Edward VIII among them – that the fascists had much to teach the world about the best ways to go about restoring economic prosperity and fostering national unity.

Hitler’s regime, in particular, left a great many of the world’s politicians and journalists ideologically mystified. Germany, after all, had boasted the largest and most energetic communist movement in Europe. It’s Social Democratic Party was similarly imposing. How, then, had Hitler and his Nazi Party subdued both parties so quickly and so easily? By 1935, two years into the Nazi regime, it was as if Germany’s fifty years of continuous left-wing progress had been an historical mirage. Could it really be true that, as Hitler had argued all along (and as the name of his party emphatically confirmed) socialism would always come second to nationalism?

The explanation for Hitler’s success begins and ends with the Great Depression. That global economic catastrophe hit Germany harder than any of the other major industrial powers. With millions of men and women out of work, the burden of popular expectations fell upon the parties of the left and their powerful trade union allies. These were the politicians who would rescue the fatherland. Except, they didn’t. Indeed, the Left proved singularly unequal to the task of saving Germany. This historic failure left the socialists’ working-class supporters feeling bitterly disillusioned and betrayed – many beyond recall.

Which left Hitler as the last man standing, and his Nazis as the only party Germany had yet to try. It was ever thus. Dictators and dictatorships succeed by being the only medicine a desperately sick nation hasn’t swallowed; the only strength that hasn’t failed.

Later this year (maybe) the world’s athletes will gather in Tokyo for the XXXII Olympiad. Once again the world will thrill to the potent symbolism of the Olympic torchbearer running up the steps of the grand stadium to ignite the Olympic flame. Thousands of doves will be released in the name of international peace and amity. The world will cheer.

That every one of those “traditions” emerged from the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Hitler’s Berlin, is a deeply troubling historical detail. That the world’s admiration for Nazi Germany peaked that same year owes much to the huge success of the Nazis’ Olympic spectacle. Nor can there be much doubt that if Hitler had been assassinated in the months between the unification of Germany and Austria in March of 1938, and the onset of the Munich Crisis in September, then he would have been remembered as one of Germany’s greatest leaders.

Those observers around the world celebrating the political demise of Donald Trump would do well to contemplate the extraordinary contingencies of history. That so many Americans still believe in his star bears witness to the enduring power of the last-possible-saviour myth.

Nor should Trump’s opponents assume that the events of the past twelve months have discredited Trump. Hard though it may be to accept, the former President’s red-capped followers read these events through a radically different lens. What they believe they saw was their hero ambushed by a global pandemic cooked up by America’s enemies abroad, and then robbed of his presidency by the corrupt machinations of America’s enemies within.

If Americans are not to elect their own dictator to power in 2024, then Joe Biden and his Democrats will have to do what the German Left so tragically failed to do in 1932. They will have to give America a medicine that works – and a strength that does not fail.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 February 2021.

Thursday 18 February 2021

In The Know: Making Sense Of Labour’s Inaction.

"I know what you're not thinking!" Thanks to their polling agency and the participants in its focus-groups, the Labour leadership possesses a great deal more information about the Kiwis clamouring for action on the housing and inequality fronts than most journalists and lobbyists.

ACCORDING TO PEOPLE “in the know”, Labour is awash with more cash than its seen in a very long time. Apparently, Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis didn’t just net her party an unprecedented number of votes, it brought in tons of funds. While this happy situation endures, Labour is said to be polling and focus-grouping like there’s no tomorrow. The PM doesn’t just have her finger on the pulse of the nation, she’s reading its ECGs.

This insight – if that is what it is – goes a long way towards explaining what a great many journalists and commentators have found immensely perplexing. Why, with an absolute majority in the House of Representatives, is this government so reluctant to use it for anything other than legislatively facilitating Maori wards, and (apparently) making it easier to convict men accused of rape? Why, with inequality increasing, and the housing crisis becoming more acute with every passing week, have Jacinda and her Cabinet stubbornly refused to direct anything more substantial than pious rhetoric at either issue?

Towards the end of last year, for example, the government found itself on the receiving end of a growing cacophony of calls for action on the housing front. Those calls came from across the political spectrum. On TVNZ One’s Q+A show, Laila Harré on the left, and Fran O’Sullivan on the right, were united in their demand for action. The push came from employers, unions, churches and NGOs. National and Act swelled the chorus. It was as near to a show of public political unanimity as New Zealand had seen in decades.

Twenty years ago, the political pressure generated by such a powerful display of public concern would have been irresistible. Indeed, liberal-democratic theory holds that no government can resist such pressure without registering a significant fall-off in popular support. Was Jacinda moved? Was Grant Robertson? Not one bit. The rhetoric of Labour leaders’ may have edged up slightly on the piety scale. Jacinda’s look of concern may have grown even more compelling. But, nothing was done.

What on earth had happened to the “politics of kindness”? Why was Labour being so bloody-minded – not to mention so bloody mean? Why, when everybody was saying “Yes please!”, was the Labour Government saying “No thank you!”

The answer, of course, is because “everybody” wasn’t saying it. Thanks to their polling agency and the participants in its focus-groups, the Labour leadership possesses a great deal more information about the Kiwis clamouring for action on the housing front than most journalists and lobbyists.

Confronted with a simple “Are you concerned about the lack of affordable housing?”, most New Zealanders will respond in the affirmative. But, ask them whether they favour addressing the housing problem by means of a Capital Gains Tax, and their agreement will evaporate instantly, like spilt beer on the barbie.

Allow a randomly selected group of focus-group participants to range widely over the big issues of the day, and the comments and expressions captured by the organisers’ microphones and cameras will reveal just how divided our society has become. Between rich Kiwis and poor Kiwis; Boomers and Millennials; people of colour and the white majority: the chances are high these recordings will confirm that, in the New Zealand of 2021, unanimity is in very short supply.

Just how dispiriting this must be for Labour’s new MPs is readily imagined. Fresh from mixing with family and friends over the Christmas break they will roll up to their first big caucus meeting of the year brim-full of the opinions and criticisms they have been given. How hard it must be for them to discover that what they have been told in no way reflects what is actually happening out there in the electorate.

Among the sort of folk who know and like Labour MPs, the level of concern for the homeless, renters, and first home buyers, is unquestionably real and urgent. The same is probably true of the mostly young journalists writing and broadcasting about these issues. They, however, are not the only people with concerns; attitudes; and (most importantly) interests. What Labour’s new MPs think they know; and the knowledge which Labour’s pollsters have gleaned from the hard data of their surveys; are unlikely to be all that similar.

The New Zealand middle-class, like its counterparts in other western societies, will defend its advantages tenaciously. Sitting back and allowing the government to appropriate and redistribute its wealth – especially among those it dismisses as the “undeserving poor” – is not an option it is likely to greet with the slightest degree of enthusiasm.

Just how unenthusiastically such notions are received soon becomes very clear to those tasked with watching and listening to the reactions of focus-groups. These can be hair-raisingly racist and sexist – more than enough to demoralise even the most idealistic supporters of the Labour and Green parties. That such brutal prejudices against the poor and marginalised are often reiterated with even greater vehemence by upwardly-mobile members of the working-class, makes them no easier to hear!

Their vested interests and shared prejudices notwithstanding, these two groups nevertheless contributed enormously to Labour’s electoral success in 2020. Keeping them on-side is, therefore, this government’s No. 1 political priority. It explains the PM’s point-blank refusal to countenance anything other than a general flattening of New Zealand property prices. Certainly, no policy measure threatening to weaken the “wealth effect” produced by inflated house prices will be countenanced. The good-will of the fortunate 15 percent of voters who shifted from National to Labour at last year’s general election must, at all costs, be retained.

Less clear, is whether Labour’s willingness to embrace the “woke” agenda represents a similar reflection of the data emerging from its opinion surveys and focus-groups. In return for the government leaving their wealth intact, have the middle- and upwardly-mobile working-classes suddenly become willing to tolerate the Labour-Green agenda on race, gender and sexuality? Are we looking at yet another of the Faustian pacts entered into by the Baby Boom generation? Something along the lines of: “You let us enjoy our tax-free capital gains, and we’ll tolerate your cultural revolution.”

Or, is it, rather, a case of not asking the sort of questions that could lead to the cancellation of a pollster’s contract. Requiring progressive MPs earning in excess of $140,000 p.a. to accept a moratorium on tax hikes is one thing. Asking them to tolerate the racism, sexism and homophobia of the voters who placed them on the Treasury benches is another.

There are some answers a political party is better off not hearing.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 18 February 2021.

Tuesday 16 February 2021

The Words Of The Prophets.

And the sign said, "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls"

Paul Simon, The Sound of Silence, 1963-64

BOMBER’S RIGHT about Adam Curtis’s latest offering, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, it is brilliant. You can tell it’s a work of genius by the way it leaves you looking at the world through its maker’s eyes. Just as I can never see at a sunflower without thinking of Vincent Van Gough, or take in a mega-city by night without recalling the first scene of Bladerunner, I will never again be able to see a couple dancing cheek-to-cheek without thinking of Adam Curtis.

And like Adam Curtis. This morning, for example, out with my family for a leisurely Level 3 Lockdown promenade, I encountered an unfamiliar tag, spray-painted on just about every available flat surface between my front door and the park.


What did it mean? Why was it there? Who was its audience?

These questions were certainly not unanswerable. For a start, tags don’t have to “mean” anything. When we see a dog cock his hind leg and urinate on a power pole, we are not inclined to question the meaning of his behaviour. We understand immediately that the animal is simultaneously identifying itself and registering its presence to all the other dogs in the area. It has no more meaning than the nod of recognition I just gave to the couple passing our little group on the footpath. Just a simple mammalian gesture signalling “nothing to fear from us”.

Where does Adam Curtis come into all this? He intrudes by prompting the sort of questions that make his documentaries so riveting. What has led so many mostly young human-beings to mimic the behaviour of dogs? A tag may not have a unique olfactory signature, but its distinctive visual shape and style is intended to convey exactly the same messages: “I was here” and “I am here”.

Now, readers of a certain age will immediately recall the “Kilroy was here” graffito which first began to appear on the walls of European cities during and immediately after World War II. An Anglo-American meme, by all accounts, the image of the lugubrious observer started popping-up wherever American military personnel ventured. From the soon-to-be-vaporised infrastructure of the Bikini Atoll A-Bomb test-site, to the blasted walls of Vietnam, “Kilroy” bore silent witness to the tragedy and absurdity of human conflict.

Solidaristic Meme: Allied soldiers of World War II allowed "Kilroy" to bear witness to the tragedy and absurdity of war on their behalf.

The difference between the “Kilroy was here” meme and the tagger’s message is, of course, that the latter has absolutely no interest in communicating anything beyond the existence of its creator. Kilroy, by contrast, was a shared identity: one available to everyone who had participated in the overwhelming experiences of combat. For many World War II veterans, talking about what they had seen and done was often extremely difficult. But, Kilroy knew what had happened. He had seen it all. Kilroy had been there.

What, then, is signified by this contemporary retreat from genuine communication? How and why was the mass audience for graffiti shrunk down to these tiny communities of taggers? To handfuls of practitioners who, alone, are capable of recognising the signatures of their fellow scribblers. When did graffiti cease to be a proclamation aimed at anyone who could read, and become instead an arcane collection of secret symbols, intelligible only to the cognoscenti of the spray-can and the magic marker?

In Curtis’s documentary, the older style of graffiti figures prominently. Those who wrote on walls in the decades following World War II were generally communicating messages the “mainstream media” of the day would point-blank refuse to print or broadcast. By slapping up their slogans for all-and-sundry to read they were announcing the existence of alternative interpretations of social, economic and political reality. What their paintbrushes and spray-cans were saying was very simple: the official version is not the only version.

Alternative Messages: What the old-school graffitists were saying with their paintbrushes and spray cans was very simple: the official version is not the only version.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Daft old Boomer. Hasn’t he heard of the Internet? Why would anyone risk being done for wilful damage when they can say everything they want to say on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook without recourse to messy paintbrushes and spray-cans? Who needs “Kilroy” when far more powerful memes are just a few judicious keystrokes and mouse-clicks away? Time and technology have passed these old slogan-daubers by. Wake up Grandpa!”

Fair enough! But questions remain.

Isn’t there a difference between posting and painting? The taggers certainly think so. Risking one’s life and limb (not to mention one’s liberty) to make one’s mark on a surface visible to the whole ‘hood speaks volumes about the courage and resourcefulness of the tagger.

Asserting individual identity by spraying one’s tag all over an inner-city billboard may not carry the political cred’ attached to spray-painting “Stop the Tour” across a motorway overbridge, but it remains an impressive achievement nonetheless. Preaching to the Twitter choir about this, that and the other, just isn’t the same. No one is surprised. No one is challenged. So many posts – my own included – strike me as little more than long-winded tags.

Adam Curtis would introduce a talking head about here: someone to draw out the all-too-obvious moral of the tale. That our world is increasingly driven by an intense hunger for individual recognition and acclaim. In a deeply dispiriting way “speaking truth to power” has become a harmless ritual. Not least because power is, almost certainly, not listening. Tweets, Instagram captions, Facebook posts – all have become mere snowflakes in the “blizzard of the world” that the late Leonard Cohen warned us, way back in 1992, was threatening to cross our thresholds and “overturn the order of the soul”.

Daubing up graffiti was an act of faith in the power of collective understanding. When the old man who lived in the narrow brick house on Dunedin’s Great King Street painted the words “Free Latvia!” on his traffic-facing wall, he was not only appealing for the drivers’ political support, he was also announcing his own faith in his homeland’s future. Back in the 1970s, when I was a student, hardly anyone knew what or where Latvia was. We took in the graffiti with youthful bemusement. But the old man’s faith was not misplaced. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Latvia did indeed become free. And those of us who remembered the old man’s impassioned graffiti, smiled.

The last time I was in Dunedin, I noticed how much the paint had faded. I also noted the crude palimpsest of tags which was crawling up the bricks like so much dayglo ivy.

I had no idea what any of it meant.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 16 February 2021.

Money And Morality: Oil And Water.

Familiar Excuses: Those wondering why our Prime Minister was so willing to countenance a reputationally damaging breaking of Air New Zealand's contract with the Saudi Arabian navy should wonder no longer. Pieces are in motion on the Middle East chessboard. The interests of the majority shareholder in Air New Zealand are, accordingly, in flux. Jacinda Ardern has sniffed the wind and smelled Joe Biden’s aftershave.

CAPITALISM IS CHANGING. Twenty years ago, the sole obligation of a capitalist enterprise (other than abiding by the laws of the states in which it operated) was to generate a return on its shareholders’ investment. So entrenched was this notion that it was specifically referenced in the legislation giving effect to the free-market reforms of the 1980s and 90s. Not anymore. In today’s climate, the interests of shareholders are expected to give way to the moral convictions and/or objections of journalists and politicians. The pursuit of profit now comes second to the quest for ethical perfection.

The current furore engulfing Air New Zealand’s commercial relationship with the Saudi Arabian Navy illustrates the many problems associated with mixing money and morality.

A quick Google search established that, in the words of the Sanctions Scanner website, “there are no formal international sanctions implemented against Saudi Arabia”. Following the gruesome assassination of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in 2018, the US Congress briefly considered imposing unilateral sanctions, but nothing came of it. (In matters relating to “The Kingdom” nothing usually does.) Put simply, there was and is no legal impediment to Air New Zealand entering into a commercial relationship with the Saudis. The company saw an opportunity to make money for its shareholders – and took it.

Yes, but, the Saudi navy is blockading the war-torn nation of Yemen, a country constantly teetering on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe. Refurbishing the gas turbine engines of its warships places the national carrier in the invidious position of at least appearing to be aiding and abetting the perpetrators of acts which some critics of the Saudi regime have alleged to be war crimes.

Some critics? Therein lies the problem. Yemen finds itself in the unfortunate position of being caught up in the struggle for regional supremacy between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. By means of its naval blockade, and intermittent bombing sorties, the Saudi regime has been able to prevent Iran’s proxies – the rebel Houthi militias – from over-running completely what remains of the Saudi-friendly forces associated with the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Saudis’ extremely restricted military options in this ferociously complex civil war leave them acutely vulnerable to accusations of war crimes. To date, however, international opprobrium has been deemed preferable to an Iranian ally controlling the geopolitically critical entrance to the Red Sea.

Not that the most vocal critics of Air New Zealand’s association with the Saudis have much to say about geopolitics. For the Greens’ Golriz Ghahraman, the fact that people (many of them children) die in wars is sufficient reason for New Zealand to have nothing to do with them. For Valerie Morse, one of the most outspoken critics of New Zealand’s small but innovative arms industry, there can be no excuse for even the most peripheral involvement of Kiwi companies in the production or refurbishment of military equipment – especially a company whose majority shareholder is the New Zealand state.

All very noble and principled of this outspoken duo, whose political stance, in addition to being high-minded, is also (dare we say it?) guaranteed to attract massive support on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Less ethically lustrous, perhaps, is the consideration owed to Air New Zealand’s highly skilled engineering workforce. With their usual flow of contracts stemmed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Saudi refurbishment job was likely seen as a godsend. That nobody asked too many questions about what these refurbished engines might be powering is entirely understandable. Air New Zealand’s engineering capabilities are an important contributor to its international success. Management had every right to assume that, as the company’s majority shareholder, the New Zealand state has a vested interest in keeping one of its airline’s most efficient operations economically viable.

It would have been equally understandable if those involved in, and associated with, the contract saw the whole exercise as part of a much bigger picture. New Zealand is, when all is said and done, still a member of what John Key called the Five Eyes “club”. With the two biggest exporters of arms to the Saudi kingdom being fellow Five Eyes members the United States and the United Kingdom, and with the Aussies revving-up their own arms industry in sympathy, New Zealand pitching-in to the geopolitical working-bee may well have been seen as the shrewdest move – diplomatically-speaking.

The Iranians already possess the capability of closing the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Allowing them to close-off the entrance to the Red Sea would be greeted with alarm and dismay by all those nations dependent on the oil and natural gas reserves of the Arabian peninsula. That’s not just us, by the way, but also our biggest trading partners China and Australia.

To Ms Ghahraman and her Green colleagues, the prospect of so dramatically exposing the world’s dependence on fossil fuels was, no doubt, an alluring one. Unfortunately, the global economy is nowhere near being able to do without coal, oil and natural gas. For many years to come, the strategic criticality of Middle East oil will drive the decision-making of nations much larger and more ruthless than New Zealand.

That the very existence of the Air New Zealand-Saudi relationship came to light at all may be related very closely to the recent political shifts in the biggest and most ruthless nation of them all – the United States of America. On 4 February 2021, America’s new president, Joe Biden, delivered a foreign-policy speech in which he signalled the USA’s unwillingness to let the bloody stalemate in Yemen continue.

“This war has to end,” said Biden. “And to underscore our commitment, we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales.”

Those words should not be interpreted as an indication of the USA’s willingness to let the Iranians claim victory – far from it. What Biden’s announcement portends is Washington’s impatience with the Saudi regime’s military inadequacies. Donald Trump may have taken its Crown Prince’s assurances that his armed forces were more than a match for Houthi militiamen, but Biden is much more willing than his predecessor to believe the evidence of his military and diplomatic experts on the ground. Uncle Sam is getting ready to butt some intransigent heads together. Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitions will be put on ice, while the Iranians will be offered an end to crippling US sanctions if they undertake to help broker a lasting peace in Yemen.

Those wondering why our Prime Minister was so willing to countenance a reputationally damaging breaking of the gas turbine contract should wonder no longer. Pieces are in motion on the Middle East chessboard. The interests of the majority shareholder in Air New Zealand are, accordingly, in flux. Jacinda Ardern has sniffed the wind and smelled Joe Biden’s aftershave.

Maybe capitalism hasn’t changed that much after all?

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 15 February 2021.

Friday 12 February 2021

Recalling The Past - And Its Ghosts.

Raising The Dead: There is a reason why so many of the signposts to old battle sites are weathered and overgrown; why lichen has been allowed to obliterate the names of those who fell. Sleeping ghosts, like sleeping dogs, should never be needlessly awakened.

THE NATIONAL PARTY started this. Back in 2016, when the clamour for a more fulsome historical accounting of Maori-Pakeha relations was rewarded with an official day for commemorating the dead of the New Zealand Wars.

No less a personage than National’s Deputy-Prime Minister, Bill English, declared that the moment had come “to recognise our own conflict, our own war, our own fallen, because there is no doubt at [the Battle of] Rangiriri ordinary people lost their lives fighting for principle in just the same way as New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives fighting on battlefields on the other side of the world.”

To which I responded with a heartfelt “uh-oh!”

Or, in the words of a slightly more coherent response, penned shortly after English’s woefully ill-judged observation:

“Of one thing we can be certain […] the dead who have slept for one-and-a-half centuries beneath the disputed soil of Aotearoa will have a very different story to tell. There is a reason why so many of the signposts to old battle sites are weathered and overgrown; why lichen has been allowed to obliterate the names of those who fell. Sleeping ghosts, like sleeping dogs, should never be needlessly awakened.”

Pish-tosh! The government of Jacinda Ardern is having none of that self-serving colonialist amnesia. The recently announced Aotearoa NZ history curriculum – compulsory, no less – is all about issuing our kids with scrapers, cleaning agents and scrubbing brushes, and setting them to cleaning up all those lichen-covered monuments.

During his famous “Long March”, the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong and his followers were required to traverse the same mountain pass where an earlier revolutionary army had been wiped-out. “Fear no ghosts!”, Mao reassured his superstitious peasant soldiers: “The past does not return!”

But, Mao’s confidence was misplaced. If you ask it to return often enough, the past, just like the murderous ghost in the horror film, Candyman, is only too happy to oblige. The results are seldom pretty.

Reading between the lines of the government’s draft history curriculum the full extent of its revisionist ambitions soon become clear. Rather than the history of the colony-cum-nation-state that the world knows (pro-tem?) as New Zealand, the next generation of young New Zealanders will learn that the history of these islands actually began somewhere between a thousand and eight hundred years ago. In other words our national narrative must be understood as a Maori – not a Pakeha – story.

Indeed, the role assigned to the Pakeha in this narrative is almost entirely negative. At best, they might be described as disruptors. At worst, they will be painted as destroyers and appropriators: agents of an alien power that imposed its will unjustly on Aotearoa’s original inhabitants. If the history of this country is envisaged as a Hollywood western, then the Pakeha are wearing the black hats – they’re the baddies.

The logic of this new, profoundly revisionist, historiography is inescapable. If the story of Aotearoa is a Maori story, then the Pakeha intervention can only be understood as something temporary. Colonialism, and all the damage it inflicted on Aotearoa’s natural environment, and the culture of its indigenous population, will be presented as an historical phase through which it is passing. The direction of travel is clear: from a Maori past, towards a Maori future. And the Pakeha? Well, the Pakeha are tauiwi: strangers, outsiders, foreigners – just visiting. For them, the message could hardly be clearer: When in Aotearoa, behave like an Aotearoan – not a Roman.

All this is a far cry from the idea that Aotearoa-New Zealand is the creation of historical forces too vast for blame, too permanent for guilt, colliding in time. The achievements of the diminutive nation-state emerging from that historical collision once astounded the world.

In the 1958 edition of the Richards Topical Encyclopaedia, New Zealand’s entry is headed: “The World’s ‘Model Nation’”. The sub-heading is worth quoting in full:

“How little New Zealand, starting her career amid wars and many money problems, built up for herself a government so sound and humane that she came to be called the best-governed nation in the world.”

I like that story much better than the one embedded in the new curriculum. It’s an historical narrative in which all this country’s inhabitants once took enormous pride, and could again – if only the dead are allowed to sleep.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 February 2021.

Monday 8 February 2021

The Political Economy Of Shock-Jockery.

Silenced: MediaWorks’ decision to take veteran journalist Sean Plunket off the air raises some very disturbing questions about the survival of political diversity in New Zealand.

LAST WEEK, Sean Plunket was awarded the DCM. Mere days after John Banks, standing-in for his fellow right-wing broadcaster, Peter Williams, was driven from Magic Talk Radio’s microphones, Plunket was abruptly advised that his services as the station’s “Magic Afternoons” host were no longer required. Magic Talk’s decision was made amidst the furore created by Banks’ failure to fight on-air racism with sufficient zeal, and the subsequent threats from its major advertisers to withdraw their support. Did the prospect of the right-wing contrarian’s imminent return prompt at least one of those major advertisers to issue Magic Talk’s proprietor, MediaWorks, with an ultimatum? Something along the lines of: “If Plunket stays, we go”?

Plunket’s position at Magic Talk was already somewhat precarious. In December of last year, the Broadcasting Standards Authority found against the veteran broadcaster for what it deemed to be his “offensive and harmful” comments to a spokesperson from Te Whānau ā Apanui – the Maori iwi manning Covid-19 check-points in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. Magic Talk was reprimanded and fined $3,000 for Plunket’s breach of broadcasting standards. Already acutely sensitive to accusations of racism, their top shock-jock’s outspokenness was, almost certainly, top-of-mind among the station’s bosses – and advertisers.

MediaWorks’ decision to take Plunket off the air, if it stands, raises some very disturbing questions.

On the face of it, his fate appears to have been determined by the opinions he holds, which, if established, would constitute a clear case of discrimination on the grounds of political belief. If upheld by the Human Rights Commission, such a violation of a New Zealand citizen’s rights and freedoms, as set out in the Bill of Rights Act 1990, could end up costing his employer a great deal more than $3,000.

Presumably, a broadcaster in Plunket’s position, would argue that he was hired because of, not in spite of, his right-wing political beliefs. Having failed to enlarge its listenership by delivering a programme-mix tailored to the prejudices of centrist and left-leaning New Zealanders, MediaWorks (via Magic Talk) would be accused of re-orienting itself towards a much more conservative demographic. In this regard, Plunket’s right-wing contrarian style would have been exactly what they were looking for: a feature, not a bug. To take a person off-air for doing exactly what his employers’ business-plan required of him, seems just a tad unfair.

In its current form, however, it is difficult to imagine the Human Rights Commission wanting anything less than the responsibility for determining whether or not the rights and freedoms of a citizen in Plunket’s situation have been violated. Indeed, it is hard to avoid forming the impression that the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990 has become a source of considerable embarrassment to the Human Rights Commissioners responsible for its enforcement. In the current “woke” climate, the key sections of the Act are inconveniently uncompromising.

Section 13 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990, for example, guarantees to all New Zealanders freedom of thought: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference.” Even more inconveniently, Section 14 grants them the freedom to express those opinions: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”

In the past, radio stations and television networks have guarded these rights and freedoms jealously. Indeed, there was a very strong tradition in both public and private broadcasting that “news and current-affairs” and “advertising” – like matter and anti-matter – should never be allowed to meet.

This tradition was about more than the broadcasters’ attachment to liberal-democratic principles. Radio and television, no less than newspapers and magazines, pitch their product at different socio-economic segments of the media market. Among the many factors contributing to the profile of these “demographics” is ideological predisposition. Newstalk-ZB, for example, makes its profits out of an older, whiter, less credentialled, and generally more conservative demographic of listeners. Advertisers buy air-time for products and services tailored to fit this demographic profile. They want Mike Hosking’s audience: and, until very recently, that required them to, at the very least, tolerate Mike Hosking’s listeners’ less-than-woke political views.

It is very hard to believe that MediaWorks’ advertisers were unaware that Magic Talk Radio had pivoted right, away from RNZ National’s demographic and towards Newstalk-ZB’s. It is equally hard to credit that Sean Plunket and Peter Williams were not presented to them as powerful magnets for the folk who were missing Newstalk’s arch-conservative host, Leighton Smith. Surely, they would have understood what sort of political discussions their ad-breaks would be interrupting?

What are we looking at, then, when we see corporations threatening to pull their ads from programmes whose listeners come from the very demographics they are targeting? Are we witnessing an intra-corporate triumph of woke PR mavens over hard-working marketing grunts?

The answer is, almost certainly, “Yes”. Overwhelmingly, the graduates pouring out of this country’s “communications studies” courses and into corporate PR are young women who, for years, have been schooled in the uncompromising dogma of social radicalism – especially feminism and anti-racism. When they learn (via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) the awful truth about the latest shock-jock’s racist outrage, their first instinct is the get their employers’ brand as far away from the perpetrators’ “toxicity” as possible. Failure to “get ahead of the problem”, their bosses are cautioned, will lead directly to consumer boycotts. The “Roastbusters” precedent will be cited. To date, their bosses have demonstrated little need for further persuasion.

This is politics – albeit of a particularly bizarre kind. Attempting to homogenise ideologically an irreducibly diverse market makes as little sense for capitalists as it does for political parties. Imagine what would happen to the National Party if it produced a policy programme that matched Labour’s in every respect. How would conservative voters respond? Either, they would pressure National MPs to force the abandonment of their party’s new centre-left orientation, or, if that proved impossible, they would begin casting about for a new party to champion their values and beliefs.

At some point in the near future, it will occur to senior corporate executives that what’s sauce for the woke goose might also be sauce for the aggressively right-wing gander. Take too many conservative voices off the air and eventually their fans will band together and announce a boycott of their own. At that point, corporate CEOs are going to have to do what politicians have always done: learn to count: “What is the volume of sales that we are likely to lose if the woke boycott us? Is it larger or smaller than the volume we will lose if conservative Kiwis stop buying our products?”

Similarly, how long will it be before one or more local (or overseas) capitalists grasp the possibilities of establishing a Fox News-type media entity right here in New Zealand, and using it to seize more-or-less the entire conservative demographic? How biddable will corporate leaders be if the size of its right-wing audience turns out to represent a clear plurality of the New Zealand population? Whose threats of boycott will count for more then: the Woke’s or the Right’s?

If the New Zealand news media persists in the folly of “cancelling” all those listeners, viewers and readers who fail to pass ideological muster, then we will see the emergence of our own version of Fox News – with all that entails for the health of our country and its democratic institutions. Who would lead it? Do we have a Hannity, or a Tucker Carlson, waiting out there in the wings? Where to start looking for a talented right-wing contrarian, boasting years of professional broadcasting experience, who is currently between jobs?

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 8 February 2021.

Friday 5 February 2021

The Woke Supremacy.

Sowing The Wind: The backlash against wokeism will be made much more aggressive by the difficulties its opponents encounter in making their voices heard. The mainstream news media – and especially the state-owned media – have become increasingly intolerant of ideas and opinions which directly, or indirectly, challenge the wokeists’ view of the world. 

IT IS DIFFICULT to attach a name to the ideology currently guiding the actions of the New Zealand ruling-class. For the past twenty years the Left has been content to call it neoliberalism, but in the third decade of the twenty-first century that term has less and less purchase on reality. The new ideology which has emerged, let’s call it “wokeism”, is a radical fusion of neoliberalism, environmentalism and identity politics – and its powerful enough to disrupt profoundly the political, social and economic institutions of New Zealand society.

That wokeism will generate massive resistance is certain. Its assault on the traditional order will leave more and more people feeling unmoored and vulnerable. Inevitably, a political movement will arise to contest the wokeists’ claims and policies. This movement will not, however, be driven by the traditional Left, it will be the creation of an angry and radically populist Right. What’s more, the transformational ambitions of wokeism will provoke its opponents into advancing an equally comprehensive programme of revocation and reconstitution. The result will be a deeply divided society, with tolerance and empathy in short supply.

The backlash against wokeism will be made much more aggressive by the difficulties its opponents encounter in making their voices heard. The mainstream news media – and especially the state-owned media – have become increasingly intolerant of ideas and opinions which directly, or indirectly, challenge the wokeists’ view of the world. Stuff, the largest newspaper publisher in the country has embraced wokeism wholeheartedly and set its face resolutely against the errors of “racist” New Zealanders. Even more significantly, citizens determined to spread “unacceptable” ideas can no longer rely upon the major social media platforms for their dissemination. Increasingly, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are “de-platforming” individuals and groups (including a former President of the United States!) whose beliefs have been anathematised by the woke.

This de-platforming of dissenters by the woke media – often facilitated by threats from major corporate advertisers to withdraw their financial support – will complicate the mobilisation of wokeism’s opponents, but it will not prevent it. Inevitably, the sheer number of New Zealanders shut out of the wokeist discourse will persuade conservative investors to offer them a Fox News-like outlet for traditional views and values. As Rupert Murdoch knows well, there are big profits to be made out of alienation and anger. Those corporates hitherto persuaded to embrace (and enforce) wokeism may experience second thoughts when the enormous size of the traditionalist audience is revealed.

Right-wing political parties will likewise be forced to decide whether or not the game of accommodating themselves to the demands of wokeism is, in the long term, worth playing. If they decide not to place themselves at the head of a movement fuelled by rising anger and resentment and strongly supported by a major media outlet devoted to its cause, then, most assuredly, someone else will. National and Act will not be slow to understand that if they do not get on board the radical right-wing populist bandwagon, then it will roll right over the top of them. As with the Republican Party in the United States: they may not like it, but they will not fight it. Their biggest challenge will be to find a Trump-like politician to front it.

The key insight of the world’s most successful populist leaders is that the voters will not punish a politician for farting in the wokeist church: who simply refuses to be daunted by charges of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, or any of the many other “thought crimes” promulgated by the woke. The politician who responds to all such accusations with a straightforward “Yes, I am. And if you expect me to apologise for it, you’re going to be bitterly disappointed!” That sort of politician: Trump, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Orban; receives as many cheers as jeers – probably more. Yes, liberal Americans were horrified when Trump branded Mexican border-crossers drug-dealers, rapists and thieves; but conservative Americans were delighted to have finally encountered someone willing to “tell it like it is”.

The other key insight of the right-wing populists is that most people really don’t like the news media. The politician who viciously attacks reporters: who accuses them of manufacturing “fake news”; who bans them from his press conferences and brands the newspapers and networks they work for “enemies of the people”; will emerge from the conflict stronger – not weaker. So long as they have their own equivalent of Fox News to carry their message to their “base”, it simply does not matter if wokeist media outlets rebuke and revile them as right-wing “fanatics”. Indeed, such charges will only succeed in further burnishing their reputations as champions of the “deplorables”. CNN didn’t bring Donald Trump down. What defeated him was his own woefully inadequate response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Couldn’t happen in New Zealand. How often has that “argument” been advanced by those whose salaries depend upon it being true? If these political Pollyannas had the slightest familiarity with the history of their own country, they would know that it already has.

Much of the populist National Party prime minister Rob Muldoon’s popularity was generated by his heated exchanges with journalists. Long before Donald Trump crossed swords with CNN’s White House correspondents, Muldoon was ordering the removal of the Listener’s parliamentary reporter, Tom Scott, from the Beehive theatrette. When the TV news showed the prime minister ordering his aides to “take him away”, liberal New Zealand was horrified. For “Rob’s Mob” of conservative New Zealanders, however, is was thrilling proof of their leader’s strength. The media had it coming!

Muldoon’s most apt pupil in the dangerous game of right-wing populist politics was Winston Peters. Openly challenging the news media and arguing aggressively with journalists live on television became a key component of his enduring electoral appeal. Once again, liberal New Zealanders were perplexed: what could Peters possibly hope to gain by such vulgar displays of political truculence?

What Peters understood, and his well-educated and refined critics tended to forget, was that half the population falls on the wrong side of the bell-curve. Instinctively, the vulgar masses recoil from the lofty condescension of professional middle-class journalists. By attacking the news media, and its “sickly white liberal” assumptions, Peters, like Trump, secured the votes of the “poorly educated”.

All of which raises the critical question: Who will take on the right-wing populist mantle of Muldoon and Peters? Certainly, National’s Judith Collins and Act’s David Seymour would like to, but are they temperamentally suited to the role? Do they have the necessary slivers of ice-cold steel driven deep enough into their souls? Are they able to deploy the sort of cruel humour that lacerates their opponents’ self-confidence? Can they make people laugh at their vicious jokes in spite of themselves? It is certainly very difficult to imagine either Collins or Seymour successfully delivering Muldoon’s brutally funny quip: “I have seen the shivers running around Bill Rowling’s back, looking for a spine to crawl up!”

There is no shortage of applicants for the job of radical right-wing populism’s “drummer”: the leader who will make the hearts of the angry and the marginalised beat faster. The rabble-rouser who will cause them to clench their fists and clutch at their grievances more tightly. The messiah who will inspire them to set aside their ingrained sense of inferiority and their deep fear of being laughed at and/or condemned, and demand their own version of paradise. The demagogue who will impel the unmoored and vulnerable towards the clamour of ideological battle with the relentless and pitiless beating of his rhetorical drum. Oh yes, we’ve seen Billy Te Kahika, Jami-Lee Ross, even Hannah Lee Tamaki, make their pitches. But – no sale. The next drummer has yet to step out upon the national stage.

While New Zealand waits for that perilous person to appear, the woke supremacy will continue. Hate speech will be outlawed. The nation’s history will be re-written. Even the country’s name will be driven relentlessly towards the memory hole. Were these assaults upon tradition to be offset by decisive governmental action making rents and homes affordable, forcing the rich to pay their fair share of tax, and restoring a rough balance of power in the workplace, then they might be forgiven. If the democratic rights of New Zealand citizens were being beefed-up – instead of being whittled away – then wokeism might have a future. But, they aren’t, and it doesn’t.

Only when the drum-beat of right-wing populism starts to shake New Zealand’s windows and rattle its walls, will wokeism’s fondness for silencing its enemies finally begin to make a kind of desperate sense.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 4 February 2021.