Wednesday 31 March 2021

Hiding In Plain Sight.

Massey's Cossacks: New Zealand's employer class didn't need the services of a Pinkerton Detective Agency – strike-breakers par excellence in the service of US industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Not when the strapping sons of Waikato and Wairarapa cockies could be quietly trained and organised by army officers to serve as New Zealand capitalism’s reserve militia against the Reds. 

THE RELUCTANCE of many left-wingers to accept that the Christchurch Shooter could not have been stopped is instructive. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the motivation driving “Lone Wolf” terrorists. The perpetrators of the sort of mass killings for which Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant were convicted conceive of their actions as grotesquely “inspirational” consciousness-raising “statements”.

Precisely because these individuals operate alone; and because they accept the near certainty of being either killed or captured by the authorities; they are extremely difficult to stop. Their missions are “one-offs”. In this regard, their outrages are very different from those planned and executed by organised groups coolly intent upon securing specific political objectives through intimidation and/or terror.

In a mature democracy, like Norway or New Zealand, it is difficult to conceive of any other kind of terrorism except Lone Wolf terrorism. In the absence of deliberate violent oppression, of the sort currently on display in Myanmar, the chances of any ideological current forging a military unit of sufficient fanaticism and operational coherence to carry out a deadly terrorist attack are vanishingly small.

The nearest New Zealand has come to such a unit was the group of left-wing activists observed “training” in the Urewera Ranges more than a decade ago. It is, however, extremely unlikely that the individuals involved in these exercises could have been prevailed upon to initiate the use deadly force. It is possible that fatalities might have been inflicted inadvertently: the result of some jittery young activist transporting firearms being stopped by the Police and panicking. This is, after all, how the Baader-Meinhof/Red Army Faction’s terrorist killing began, back in the 1970s. Even so, in the context of a government presided over by Helen Clark, the Urewera “guerrillas” struck most New Zealanders as tending more towards the farcical than the tragic.

It is the sheer implausibility of organised left-wing violence that has steered New Zealand socialists toward party political alternatives. Even in the midst of the Great Strike of 1913, when armed “Red Fed” strikers exchanged shots with the “Special Constables” summoned from farming districts by the Reform Party Prime Minister, William Massey, trade union leaders understood that the vast majority of New Zealanders were on the side of law and order. This awareness of the futility of raising the red flag of revolution in a nation as red-white-and-blue conservative as New Zealand has always undermined the efforts of novelists and film-makers to persuade us that an armed left-wing guerrilla force would last longer than five minutes against the NZDF.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way around. The very same conservatism that made revolution so unlikely, has, throughout this country’s history, been more-than-willing to assist the dominant groups in New Zealand society maintain their hegemony against all-comers: Maori, Red Feds, Watersiders, Anti-Apartheid protesters. In practically every instance, however, the form of that assistance has been officially sanctioned and organised.

New Zealand had no need of a secretive racist terror-group like the Ku Klux Klan – not when an armed constabulary of land-grabbing Pakeha could be readied for action against defiant tangata whenua under the watchful eye of Settler Government ministers.

Nor did its employer class need the services of a Pinkerton Detective Agency – strike-breakers par excellence in the service of US industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Not when the strapping sons of Waikato and Wairarapa cockies could be quietly trained and organised by army officers to serve as New Zealand capitalism’s reserve militia against the Reds – i.e. the Special Constables known forever after as “Massey’s Cossacks”. Those farmers on horseback were called out again following the Depression hunger riots of 1932.

The use of Special Constables (recruited this time from the nation’s Rugby clubs!) was also contemplated during the 151-Day Waterfront Lockout of 1951. But, thanks to the National Party Prime Minister’s, Sid Holland’s, fascistic “Emergency Regulations” (which made it illegal to feed a striker’s family) and the sterling work of the NZ Police in enforcing them, the swearing-in en masse of New Zealand’s Rugby players was not required.

Only once has the existence of a shadowy group of “unofficial” right-wing extremists, ready and willing to do whatever was necessary to preserve the capitalist status quo, come to the attention of New Zealand journalists and historians. Between 1972 and 1975, when the government of, first, Norman Kirk, and then Bill Rowling, were engaged in what was indeed a “transformation” of New Zealand society, a group of junior army officers, working secretly with elements of the SIS and the right-wing news media, began using the “C” word.

The mid-1970s was a time of threatened and actual coups against left-wing governments. In 1973, the democratically-elected socialist government of Chile was overthrown by the Chilean armed forces, and the country’s Marxist president, Salvador Allende, gunned down in his presidential palace. In 1974, Norman Kirk, obviously unwell, died alone and unattended in a second-rate Wellington hospital. His successor, Bill Rowling, was intercepted at Wellington airport by a person claiming to have documents indicating secret machinations against the Labour Government. The following year, the Australian Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, was deposed by his own Governor-General in a bloodless coup d’état.

That something similar did not happen here was due largely to the extraordinarily successful populist campaign waged against the Rowling Government by National’s Rob Muldoon. With a 23-seat majority, it was not considered possible for the government to be defeated. Had the political scientists been proved correct, and had Labour won a second term, who knows what those junior officers might have set in motion.

It is worth recalling that 1974 also marked the high-water mark of trade union power in New Zealand. The fear instilled in the employer class by the 10,000-strong march of workers up Queen Street to secure the release of the Moscow-aligned communist union leader, Bill Andersen – jailed for contempt of court – was palpable.

Nor should we forget that only 4 years earlier, following Allende’s 1970 victory, the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had told his shadowy secret operations group, the “Forty Committee”, that: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”

There was a hard core of far-Right activists living in mid-1970s New Zealand: some in the army; some in the SIS; some in the news media; who endorsed Kissinger’s sentiments 100 percent. Thanks to Rob Muldoon, they weren’t needed.

Those on the left of contemporary New Zealand politics, horrified by the Christchurch Mosques Attack, continue to agitate for the country’s national security apparatus to upgrade its surveillance of far-right, white supremacist, extremists. They are convinced that there is a serious threat of coordinated right-wing terrorist activity once again being unleashed against innocent New Zealanders. More preventative effort from the SIS and the GCSB is being demanded.

Unfortunately, the ability of our security agencies to thwart the attack of another Christchurch Shooter is limited. With a modicum of caution, Lone Wolf attackers can avoid detection and interception – until it is far too late.

As for an organised far-right terrorist movement unleashing horror and death in New Zealand – all of our history points to it being unlikely. Only a government with both the numbers and the will to openly challenge the capitalist system could summon forth such a movement. And when it struck, it would, almost certainly, be acting on intelligence supplied by the SIS, and wearing the uniforms of the New Zealand Defence Forces and the Police.

Our far-right terrorists have always hidden in plain sight.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 30 March 2021.

Monday 29 March 2021

Has Labour Embraced "Muldoonism"?

The Spectre Haunting The New Zealand Initiative: “The worst of Muldoonism is back in New Zealand politics. It is a morass of ad hoc interventions and spiralling public debt. We know how that ended last time.” The New Zealand Initiative – like the Business Roundtable, from whose forehead it burst fully-formed in 2012 – is marching as to war in defence of Neoliberal orthodoxy, determined to strike down what it clearly regards as this Labour Government's economic and political heresy.

“WITH NO PUBLIC CONSULTATION, a truncated Parliamentary process – and, as it turns out, without much consideration of Treasury and Inland Revenue’s advice.” These three, rather terse observations, offered by the New Zealand Initiative’s Executive Director, Dr Oliver Hartwich, on Friday, 26 March 2021, make it clear that he is not a happy-chappie. Commenting further on the mechanics of the Labour Government’s Housing Package release, Hartwich noted, drily: “This is not how OECD countries are usually run.”

A short sentence, but one freighted with political significance. For many years New Zealand has been held up as the shining example of how an OECD country should be run. Orthodox in its economic thinking; predictable in its politics: when it comes to welcoming business investment, New Zealand has long been feted as one of the world’s most hospitable countries. That same world will, accordingly, raise a metaphorical eyebrow when a body representative of New Zealand’s largest businesses comes out swinging.

“The worst of Muldoonism is back in New Zealand politics. It is a morass of ad hoc interventions and spiralling public debt. We know how that ended last time.” These are hardly words of conciliation! The New Zealand Initiative – like the Business Roundtable, from whose forehead it burst fully-formed in 2012 – is marching as to war in defence of Neoliberal orthodoxy, determined to strike down what it clearly regards as economic and political heresy.

Significantly, the wrath of the New Zealand Initiative echoes the reported anger and confusion of senior government officials struggling to come to terms with the Labour Government’s intentions in the days immediately preceding the Housing Package’s public release. With a firm resolve, unprecedented in decades, Labour politicians were insisting that their bureaucratic advisers implement their policies. Not advise them as to whether their policies can, or should, be implemented, but simply do as they were bid.

Small wonder Hartwich felt compelled to invoke the spectre of Sir Robert Muldoon. In New Zealand neoliberal mythology, “Muldoonism” has come to represent everything that was wrong with the “old” New Zealand. The New Zealand where a jumped-up accountant, advised by God-knows-what sorts of friends and cronies, felt entitled to over-rule the advice of experts who could buy and sell him intellectually before breakfast. The New Zealand where colossal debts were incurred in pursuit of “Think Big” projects whose primary purpose was to secure a handful of electorally vital “marginal seats”. The New Zealand that Labour’s Roger Douglas put to the sword in 1984. The New Zealand that people like Hartwich, Dr Eric Crampton, and that veteran of the free-market revolution of the 1980s, Dr Bryce Wilkinson, thought was dead and buried.

The discomfort, bordering on panic, among the government’s official advisers in the days leading up to the Housing Package’s release is, therefore, understandable. Most of us would struggle to remain calm if the dead started coming back to life, and then began pounding on the doors of the Beehive’s fifth floor!

Fear. You can read it between every line of this paragraph from a New Zealand Initiative “Policy Point” entitled “A Risky Place To Do Business”, released by Drs Crampton and Wilkinson on 26 March:

The normal routes for assessing such issues are being circumvented through haste. The bureaus have been unable to provide advice, and those outside of Parliament who might normally work through the implications of complex legislation have thus far been shut out entirely. We can hope that the eventual legislation will not be passed under urgency, but even a normal select committee process will have difficulty grappling with this issue.

While the detail of the Labour Government’s Housing Package has been sufficient to unleash the very worst impulses of New Zealand’s landlord class – whose screams of rage and wild threats of social vengeance have pretty much confirmed the rest of New Zealand society’s worst fears concerning “property investors” – it is the rank insubordination of the nation’s elected leaders which most rankles Neoliberalism’s true believers.

The level of official paranoia was admirably reflected in Jack Tame’s dogged insistence that Grant Robertson disclose the identity of his advisers. Tame, perhaps revealing the views of the “experts” briefing him, seemed convinced that the Cabinet had somehow latched on to an alternate (and worryingly heterodox) set of advisers, who were now driving Government policy. The notion that, as Robertson rather testily pointed out, he and his colleagues were democratically elected to lead the country, appeared to cut little ice with the Q+A host.

Had Tame bothered to register the large portrait of Prime Minister Peter Fraser hanging on the wall of Robertson’s office, he might have had less difficulty in believing that a Cabinet made up of MPs elected to drive through transformational change have always possessed the latent executive power to do exactly that.

Those who are now quaking in their shiny leather shoes at the spectacle of a cabinet flexing muscles made weak through years of underuse, should be grateful that this Labour Government did not take advantage of the Covid-19 emergency to do what Peter Fraser did to ensure his government had the powers necessary to manage New Zealand’s fragile post-war economy. The Economic Stabilisation Act 1948 gave Cabinet the power to control wages, prices and rents by means of Parliament-circumventing Orders-in-Council. Without it, “Muldoonism” would not have been possible. The repeal of the Act in 1987 thus constituted one of the neoliberal revolutionaries’ most symbolic victories.

What the boys and girls at the New Zealand Initiative have failed to understand, however, is that the world of 2021 is a very different place from the world of 1984. A country grown impatient with Rob Muldoon’s idiosyncratic and high-handed management of the New Zealand economy was more than ready for a few years of bridled executive power. Three decades on, however, swapping politicians subject to a triennial electors’ veto, for “market forces” seemingly answerable to nobody, no longer has the feel of a game-winning substitution.

The worldwide populist surge suggests that strong executive powers, harnessed in the people’s interest, are no longer regarded as unequivocal evils. Only the most hardened veterans of the Rogernomics Revolution continue to insist that New Zealanders should trust “the market” to resolve a housing crisis ripping apart their country’s weakest and most vulnerable communities. With the polling resources at their disposable, it is inconceivable that the Labour Party and the Labour Cabinet have not detected a sizeable groundswell of voter opinion that “something must be done” about housing. And, if what we have witnessed over the past week is any guide, they are going to do it.

Dr Hartwich and his colleagues need to think very carefully about their response to this tectonic political shift. Sending out signals to international investors that New Zealand has become “a risky place to do business” is unlikely to be interpreted by many Kiwis as the action of a patriotic group of capitalists. On the contrary, it may speedily give rise to calls for those businesses no longer willing to identify themselves as loyal members of the Team of Five Million, to be given a taste of what life is like outside it.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 29 March 2021.

Saturday 27 March 2021

Unbalanced Compulsory NZ History Curriculum Lacks Humanity. Special Guest Post by ROGER PARTRIDGE*

Contested Ground: The “foundational” histories of the new nation that emerged from the signing of the Treaty are the meeting and blending of two histories: those of Māori and the British Crown. Both histories have rich tapestries, with their own mythologies, customs and culture. And both histories have chequered pasts, including injustice, warfare, and slavery.

EIGHTEEN MONTHS AGO, the Government announced a curriculum change making it compulsory for all schools to teach “key aspects” of New Zealand history. The Ministry of Education was tasked with creating a new curriculum to “span the full range of New Zealanders’ experiences… with contemporary issues directly linked to major events of the past.”

Asking the Ministry of Education to draft a compulsory New Zealand History curriculum for school children was always fraught with risk. The Ministry has disavowed knowledge-based curricula – to the extent that the much-vaunted National Curriculum fits on a scanty 64 A4 pages. It covers the entire social sciences for years 1-13 in a single page.

As educationalist Briar Lipson revealed in her 2020 book, New Zealand’s Education Delusion: How bad ideas ruined a once world-leading school system, overwhelming evidence suggests the Ministry’s anti-knowledge stance is behind the decline in Kiwi students’ educational outcomes over the last two decades. Consequently, the shift to a knowledge-based curriculum at least for teaching New Zealand history is a welcome development.

But how would the Ministry cope with designing a curriculum that does justice to New Zealand’s rich history?

Not well, is the answer. As everyone knows, there are many sides to history. Yet few would have predicted the Ministry could have produced such a loaded, myopic and politicised account of New Zealand’s past as the draft curriculum released for consultation in January.

To be fair, Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories in the New Zealand Curriculum is not all bad. Its ultimate goal is enabling students to “make an informed ethical judgement about people’s actions in the past, giving careful consideration to the complex predicaments they faced, the attitudes and values of the time, and [students’] own values and attitudes.” No one would quarrel with this aim. Surely that is precisely the goal of studying history.

“The” or “a”?

Yet, despite the draft curriculum’s reference to plural “histories,” the curriculum’s first of three “big ideas” that all students are expected to understand prescribes a much narrower learning outcome. After 10 years of compulsory study all students are expected to understand that “Māori history is the foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa New Zealand.”

Precisely what the words “foundational and continuous” mean is not clear. The pages of most New Zealand history books stretch back millions of years before any human foot stepped on Aotearoa’s shores.

Indeed, humanity arrived late to New Zealand – by most accounts, a little under a thousand years ago – more than 50,000 years after Aborigines settled in Australia and more than 200,000 years after the first human footprints in Africa. In the absence of human and other mammalian predators, New Zealand developed its unique bird-dominated fauna, including the wondrous Moa (not to mention the humble Kiwi).

Māori history is undoubtedly the first human history of Aotearoa. But the country has a rich history before settlement by homo sapiens.

But even ignoring the country’s pre-human history, the “first big idea” is loaded with a second problem: Māori history is not simply “a” foundational history; it is claimed to be “the” foundational (and continuous) history.

Yet surely the history of a country formed by a treaty signed between two peoples is founded on two histories? Indeed, until the arrival of British settlers in the early 1800s, there was no “Aotearoa New Zealand.” Māori were tribal, rather than organised as a nation state.

The “foundational” histories of the new nation that emerged from the signing of the Treaty are the meeting and blending of two histories: those of Māori and the British Crown. Both histories have rich tapestries, with their own mythologies, customs and culture. And both histories have chequered pasts, including injustice, warfare, and slavery.

Since the birth of New Zealand, the country has added its own history to the histories it inherited. For good and for bad. A history of civil war during the 1860s, followed by unjust confiscations by the state from Māori. Of leading the world with the grant of voting rights to woman. Of triumph on the sporting field and in the laboratory. Of creating one of the world’s first welfare states (and thereby providing the blueprint for “mother” Britain’s National Health Service). Of consistently ranking in the top echelon of countries for human development, prosperity, economic freedom and freedom from corruption. And of bi-partisan support for settling historical grievances from past injustices to the nation’s first settlers. Along the way, New Zealand’s initial history of biculturalism has been supplemented with a modern history of tolerant multiculturalism.

Māori history is foundational to New Zealand history. But teaching children in 21st century New Zealand that it is “the” foundational history of the nation is simply wrong.

Colonialism and power

The second and third “big ideas” all children are expected to understand from their 10 years of compulsory history study are also erroneous – or at least exaggerated. The other two ideas are that:

·         Colonisation and its consequences have been central to our history for the past 200 years and continue to influence all aspects of New Zealand life (emphasis added); and

·         The course of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history has been shaped by the exercise and effects of power.

It is true that colonisation is central to New Zealand’s history. That New Zealand is predominantly English-speaking, has a Westminster-style democracy, and a legal system based on English common law is a direct consequence of the treaty signed by Māori chiefs with the British Crown in 1840.

It is also true that colonisation has seen a litany of injustices to Māori. And not just the confiscations of tribal lands. Who could have conceived, for example, that the Crown would assert the right to make planning decisions over iwi landholdings?

All Kiwi children should learn about the confiscation of taonga, harm to iwi institutions and consequential loss of mana these injustices involved.

Yet the notion that “colonisation and its consequences continue to influence “all aspects” of New Zealand society is exaggerated.

There are many aspects of New Zealand society that owe little or nothing to colonisation and everything to human nature and human enterprise: familial love, romantic relationships, the enjoyment of art and culture, friendship, recreation, industry and trade, and even everyday work.

The idea that the struggle for power (above all else) have shaped New Zealand history, with power-wielding “victors” and powerless “victims,” is also flawed. This view is predicated on Marxist notions of class warfare. Of different individuals, groups and organisations engaging in a perpetual contest to decide who gets the biggest share of the spoils.

At critical times in New Zealand’s history, power structures have had a profound effect on social justice and social outcomes. And never has this been more true than during the New Zealand Wars and their aftermath.

But New Zealand’s history is much more complex than can be explained by the exercise and expression of power.  It involves a spirit of community and shared values, reinforced by our small size and geographic isolation. It has been shaped by both bold and foolhardy political leadership. It has been buffed and buffeted by world events, including two world wars and periodic global financial shocks. It has been forged on the sports field, in the science lab and elsewhere by great New Zealanders performing on the global stage. And it has been enriched by immigration and multiculturalism.

At significant times, relations between Māori and Pākehā have involved a profound struggle for power. But for all its chequered past, New Zealand’s history has been shaped not just by conflict but by consensus and by a sense of common humanity.

Sadly, the drafters of the New Zealand Curriculum seem to have misplaced theirs.

*Roger Partridge is chairman and a co-founder of The New Zealand Initiative and is a senior member of its research team. He led law firm Bell Gully as executive chairman from 2007 to 2014, after 16 years as a commercial litigation partner. Roger was executive director of the Legal Research Foundation, a charitable foundation associated with the University of Auckland, from 2001 to 2009, and was a member of the Council of the New Zealand Law Society, the governing body of the legal profession in New Zealand, from 2011 to 2015. He is a chartered member of the Institute of Directors, a member of the University of Auckland Business School advisory board, and a member of the editorial board of the New Zealand Law Review.

This essay is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Friday 26 March 2021

Why We (Don't) Fight.

The Grand Narrative Of Progressivism: Touchstone of post-war progressivism was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly in December 1948. Though the nations of the Soviet bloc (along with Saudi Arabia and South Africa) abstained from voting to ratify the Declaration, they did not, significantly, vote against it. In the baleful afterglow of the terrible events of the Second World War, no country dared set its face against the principles of human equality and human rights for which so many millions had given their lives. 

LIKE THE CELEBRATED DOG that didn’t bark, the New Zealand Left is proving itself a poor protector of the exploited. A housing crisis on the present scale, occurring fifty years ago, would have generated massive resistance. The trade unions would have been on their hind legs. The churches would have been on their hind legs. The students’ associations would have been on their hind legs. The Maori Council would have been on its hind legs. Consumer groups would have been on their hind legs. Hell – even the Labour Party would have been on its hind legs! Of those groups, only the mainstream churches (the Salvation Army in particular) continue to fight the good fight. What has happened to “progressive” New Zealand? Why don’t we fight?

The most obvious answer is that, fifty years ago, progressive New Zealand agreed about a great deal more than it does today. And what it disagreed about was not permitted to get in the way of putting wrongs to right. Liberal Christians were most unlikely to have much in common with the ideological precepts of the Moscow-aligned communists of the Socialist Unity Party, but that didn’t prevent them from fighting the good fight alongside them in the struggle against the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa, and atmospheric nuclear testing. With hindsight, it is easy to see that it was progressive New Zealand’s willingness to agree to disagree over issues peripheral to the specific issues in play that made the creation of mass protest movements possible.

What was it, then, that progressive New Zealand agreed about? In its essence, the moral consensus within which Liberal Christians and Moscow-aligned communists were able to make common cause found its most eloquent expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly in December 1948. Though the nations of the Soviet bloc (along with Saudi Arabia and South Africa) abstained from voting to ratify the Declaration, they did not, significantly, vote against it. In the baleful afterglow of the terrible events of the Second World War, no country dared set its face against the principles of human equality and human rights for which so many millions had given their lives.

Seven years after the adoption of the Declaration, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organised a ground-breaking photographic exhibition, later turned into a book, entitled The Family of Man. This astounding collection of images, and the quotations accompanying them, made clear the fundamental kinship of all human-beings. In his prologue to the 1955 exhibition, the poet Carl Sandburg wrote:

To the question, “What will the story be of the Family of Man across the near or far future?” some would reply, “For the answers read if you can the strange and baffling eyes of youth.”

        There is only one man in the world
        and his name is All Men.
        There is only one woman in the world
        and her name is All Women.
        There is only one child in the world
        and the child’s name is All Children.

In the face of napalm-engulfed Vietnamese villages, the racist-inspired massacre at Sharpeville and the deadly radioactive fallout of atmospheric nuclear testing, these were the ideals which progressive New Zealanders did everything within their power to advance and defend.

By the early 1980s, however, the broad progressive unity of the immediate post-war period was dissolving rapidly. The principal solvent came in the form of the “new social movements” – most particularly the movements born out of the struggle for racial and sexual equality. If “mankind” was a single family of equals, then certain members of that family – most obviously, white, male, heterosexuals – were clearly more equal than others. Increasingly, human emancipation came to be seen as a zero-sum game. If oppressed identities (blacks, females, gays) were to win their rights, then those responsible for their oppression (whites, males, heterosexuals) were going to have to give up some of (most of?) their privileges.

Was it just one of those remarkable historical coincidences that “identity politics” and “neoliberalism” advanced together on the global political stage? It is certainly the case that the advance of one almost always hastened the advance of the other. The crushing of the post-war Keynesian economic order and the destruction of the institutional infrastructure it had spawned – most particularly the suppression of organised labour – cleared the field for the advance of identity politics. For the best part of four decades, identity politics has occupied the ideological space cleared by neoliberal capitalism’s undermining of the progressive “grand narrative” which inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights possible, and turned The Family of Man into an international best-seller.

Never to be re-issued. At least, that’s how it appeared when neoliberal capitalism’s global system faltered and nearly fell in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09. The Occupy Wall Street protests, which the GFC spawned, soon morphed into the worldwide Occupy movement. By creating the revolutionary dichotomy of the “One Percent” versus the “Ninety-Nine Percent”, Occupy opened up the possibility of building an international mass movement for radical change.

As events unfolded, it soon became clear that what was possible, and what was actually unfolding on the ground, were at serious odds with one another. The fractious tribes of identity politics simply could not agree to disagree. In practice, their “big idea” – intersectionality – turned out to be one enormous intersection at which ideological traffic, arriving from every direction, snarled and snarled itself into gridlocked ineffectuality. Idealistic kids, inspired by the 1/99% meme, and eager to join the revolution, were confronted with a paralysing Discordia. Not only did it seem that they were being asked to give up their “privilege/s”, but also their sanity. They left the Occupy encampments as disgusted as they were disillusioned. The forces of neoliberal order swatted away what was left like so many buzzing flies.

In the aftermath of the Occupy debacle, many have been moved to pose one of those diabolical questions that we should probably never ask – let alone answer: “If the powers-that-be had set out to create an ideological system designed to render the progressive mass movements of the past utterly unrepeatable; while ensuring that any attempt to confront neoliberal capitalism with a Corbynesque “For the Many, Not the Few” electoral agenda, is instantly paralysed by bitter and protracted factional strife; could they ever have come up with a political poison as effective as identity politics?”

If the progressive dog refuses any longer to bark – even at a moral crisis as profound as the housing poverty which is tearing the New Zealand working-class apart – it is only because so many identities have been telling him for so long to keep his privileged mouth shut.

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

Her House. (With Apologies to Crosby, Stills and Nash.)

Her House is a very, very, very fine house.

I’ll see to Neve
While you go and cook the Snapper
That you caught today

Staring at the screen
For hours and hours, I wish that people
understood the problems
… difficulties

If only they could wear my shoes
for just five minutes, then they’d know how hard it is to
please everyone

I know they all need homes, and if there was
A silver bullet don’t you think I would have fired it?
So they could avoid the hardships
… difficulties

Our house really is a bloody nice house
We bought it just in time
You’d think that was a crime
But given my job, what was I to do?
What’s more …

Blah-blah, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah
Blah-blah-blah-blah, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah
Blah-blah …

Chris Trotter.

This parody was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 25 March 2021.

Weapons Of War.

Severe Human Rights Abuses: A New Zealand mounted rifleman razes a civilian farmhouse during the Boer War of 1899-1902. New Zealanders should be very clear that the Chinese Government is very far from being the first to crush an insurgency by adopting the methods of collective punishment.

I NEVER KNEW my maternal grandfather, but I grew up with his weapons. One of these, an 1896 Mod Mauser rifle, was taken as a trophy during the Boer War of 1899-1902. Captain William Marshall served two “tours” in South Africa with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles. His second tour coinciding with the most brutal phase of the war, during which the British commander, Lord Kitchener, invented the concentration camp.

These camps, in which 26,000 Boer women and children died from all the predictable diseases associated with poor nutrition and overcrowding, were constructed to house a belligerent population which would otherwise have given aid and comfort the Boer guerrilla fighters who were then inflicting such serious casualties upon the Imperial British forces.

As a grown man, I sometimes wonder whether Van Rijn, the previous owner of that German-made rifle (one of thousands sent secretly to the Boer republics by Kaiser Wilhelm II) had a wife and children in one of those British concentration camps. On the day his deadly-accurate weapon acquired a new owner, was he fighting to free them, or avenge them? In a curious way, that name, “Van Rijn”, carved into the rifle’s stock, still haunts me.

More than a century after New Zealand’s mounted infantry gave their support to the inventor of the concentration camp, New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, and Senator the Hon Marise Payne, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, have appended their signatures to a statement reiterating their “grave concerns about the growing number of credible reports of severe human rights abuses against ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In particular, there is clear evidence of severe human rights abuses that include restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance, large-scale extra-judicial detentions, as well as forced labour and forced birth control, including sterilisation.”

That “pre-emptive counter-terrorist measures” are in force in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is undisputed. That these measures may have given rise to “severe human rights abuses” is, moreover, an entirely credible claim. Counter-terrorist measures, whether undertaken in Bloemfontein, Abu Ghraib, or Xinjiang, usually do. Missing from Minister Mahuta’s statement, however, is any explanation as to why the Chinese Government remains willing to endure the criticism of other nations for its actions in the XUAR.

Most New Zealanders would struggle to locate Xinjiang on a map of the world. That’s a pity, since the XUAR’s geographical location speaks eloquently to the reasons for Beijing’s concerns. Strung along Xinjiang’s western border are no fewer than five predominantly Muslim states: Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Were a Uyghur independence movement in search of allies – and arms – it would not have to look very far.

Most New Zealanders are equally unfamiliar with the history of Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang. According to the 2002 article written by Assistant-Professor Chien-peng Chung, of Singapore’s Institute of Defence & Strategic Studies, published in Foreign Affairs, Uyghur separatists were responsible for 200 attacks against Chinese targets between 1990 and 2001. These attacks killed 162 people and injured 440 others. In 1997, in the town of Ili, more than 100 people, most of them Han Chinese, were murdered in an abortive Uyghur uprising.

Between the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the present crackdown on the Uyghur population which began in 2018, Chinese Intelligence struggled to keep on top of jihadist agitation and infiltration inspired by terrorist organisations in South-East Asia and the Middle East.

The Chinese Government’s shift of focus, from individual to collective punishment, was inspired by exactly the same considerations as Lord Kitchener’s: to deny the separatists the aid and comfort of sympathetic compatriots. In this respect, China’s collective repression differs little from the CIA’s notorious “Phoenix Program” of 1968-71. Designed to assist the South Vietnamese Government’s “pacification” of villages known to be sympathetic to the Viet Cong, the Program is estimated to have killed in excess of 26,000 persons – many of them victims of the most brutal torture.

To explain the strategy and tactics of a ruthless regime is to risk being accused of justifying them. Such is certainly not my intention. All I am attempting to make clear is that the Chinese Government is very far from being the first to crush an insurgency by adopting the methods of collective punishment.

As, no doubt, Minheer Van Rijn would testify.

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

Tuesday 23 March 2021

In Harm's Way.

What It's Not About: The harms suffered by those on the receiving end of Free Speech will always be less than the harms unleashed upon the rest of society by any attempt to suppress it. The experience of suffering is part of the human condition. Nothing throughout history has given rise to more damage, injury and hurt than the attempts by ideologues of all persuasions to create a world in which nobody comes to harm.

WHAT IS “HARM”? On how this word is defined will turn a number of critical political debates. The meaning of Freedom of Expression and the definition of Terrorism are only the most important of these pending societal conversations. “Harm”, and what it is deemed to encompass, may precipitate profound legal and cultural consequences. Define the term too widely and many of the civil liberties we take for granted as citizens of a democratic state may disappear. Clearly, what we’re talking about here is “some pretty serious shit”.

Let’s begin with the generally accepted definition of “harm”. In plain language, to harm someone is to “damage, injure or hurt” them. In a legal context, harm may be inflicted by damaging, injuring or hurting a person’s body, mind, property and/or reputation. Thus, one’s standing in the community can be harmed by slander and defamation. One can also be harmed indirectly by being forced to witness hurt and injury being inflicted upon others. Intention is crucial to the definition of harm. In the absence of clear evidence that the alleged harm was inflicted intentionally, guilt is difficult to establish.

Over the next few months we are likely to see the concept of harm deployed in the name of further limiting Freedom of Expression. Our legal system already prohibits speech that is intended to – and likely to – inflict physical and/or emotional harm on persons on account of their ethnicity.

In the wake of the Christchurch Mosque Shootings, however, pressure has been building for a significant expansion of the legal meaning of harm. In addition to banning speech inciting physical violence and contempt against persons on account of their ethnicity, it is proposed to also ban criticism and/or vilification of the cultural and religious practices and beliefs of individuals, groups and “communities”. In effect the idea that a person’s reputation (and, hence, their well-being) can be harmed by untruthful words, spoken and/or written with malicious intent, is being extended to include entire ethnicities and faith communities.

If successful, this expansion of the definition of harm will make it legally hazardous to criticise too vigorously a religious faith and its adherents. These legal reforms may even extend to banning the expression of ideologies asserting the existence of an ethnic and/or cultural hierarchy in which people of colour are degraded and the “white races” exalted as supreme. Such restrictions would be justified by characterising such speech as a form of defamation: harming not only the collective reputation of the ethnic group under attack, but also inflicting serious emotional damage on the individuals targeted by such speech, and thereby materially damaging their ability to live full and happy lives.

If harm is construed in this way it will become possible for the definition of terrorism to be changed in the manner suggested by both Paul Spoonley and Paul Buchanan on this morning’s edition of RNZ’s Morning Report.

The old definition of terrorism spoke of “actual or threatened violence deployed by individuals or groups in pursuit of a specific political objective, or set of objectives”. But if harm is taken to include emotional as well as physical injury, then violence, too, can be redefined. Taking a leaf out of the family law textbooks, the concept of violence may be stretched to include the “collateral damage” inflicted upon those forced to witness the spectacle of others being hurt.

A terrorist could, thus, be any individual or group which, by seeking political changes based on the suppression of certain ethnic, religious and/or cultural communities, is guilty of inflicting emotional violence on other, supposedly non-targeted, individuals and groups. Merely by giving voice to hateful ideological precepts, it could be argued, these miscreants are applying direct political pressure to the nation’s democratic institutions – and thereby identifying themselves as terrorists.

Both Spoonley and Buchanan seemed keen for the creation of just such a regime. By freezing the assets of citizens designated as terrorists by the Prime Minister, they could be “calmed down” and brought into line. At which point, presumably, their property would be returned to them and, just like the drugged-up dissidents released from Soviet mental asylums in the 1970s, they could re-enter society as model citizens.

To a great many New Zealanders the redefinition of “harm” and “terrorism” in the manner described above will be greeted with dismay and suspicion. Extending the state’s legal powers in the ways suggested would weaken quite significantly the rights guaranteed to New Zealanders by the Bill of Rights Act 1990. Where once there had been general agreement on what could and couldn’t be said in relation to one’s fellow citizens, changes of this nature will open up deep rifts in New Zealand society. Such measures will be widely interpreted as an attempt to police people’s thoughts and beliefs by criminalising opinions with which the authors of the legislation disagree.

Far from calming people down and persuading them to come into line with the official view, laws seen as protecting specific ethnicities and cultures by limiting what other ethnicities and cultures are permitted to publicly endorse will undoubtedly embitter and inflame a dangerously large number of those so constrained. Convinced that they are being unjustly criminalised on account of their beliefs, a hard core of the targeted group will embrace the very hate-filled terrorist tactics such laws are intended to control and punish.

Buchanan would categorise such behaviour as evidence of the Right’s lack of consciousness of the consequences of their ideological convictions and utterances. He would argue that, since the taking of offence is justifiable only among those who have been offended, it is up to them – and them alone – to determine what is, and is not, offensive. That only those harmed can define what is harmful. Or, to put it more plainly, the right-wing assholes on the receiving end of these new definitions of harm and violence will just have to suck it up.

The glaring fault in this reasoning is that in attempting to rectify the Right’s lack of consciousness of the political consequences of its actions, the Left will have opened itself up to exactly the same charge – and the political consequences of its failure to be mindful of the future will be no less serious.

The only viable way out of this conundrum is to inculcate in both the Left and the Right the notion that the harms suffered by those on the receiving end of Free Speech will always be less than the harms unleashed upon the rest of society by any attempt to suppress it. The experience of suffering is part of the human condition. Nothing throughout history has given rise to more damage, injury and hurt than the attempts by ideologues of all persuasions to create a world in which nobody comes to harm.

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

Monday 22 March 2021

Something Big.

Lange versus Douglas Round Two? Rumours of a prime-ministerial resignation may be intended to head-off something considerably more dramatic on the policy front.

THERE ARE ALL KINDS of political rumours, but they don’t get much bigger than: “The PM is about to resign.” When that rumour was relayed to me on Friday morning, my initial reaction was “Bullshit!” Wellington is a very intimate capital city, so the idea that such an important story could somehow be kept from the Parliamentary Press Gallery, struck me as fanciful. Were it not for the fact that my informant was “a usually reliable source”, I would have given the matter no more than a dismissive shake of the head. Instead, I decided to make some calls.

As I suspected, nothing remotely resembling a resignation rumour had been picked up by the Press Gallery. What I did hear, however, were concerns about “Jacinda”. The Prime Minister, I was told, was “out of sorts”, “morose”, “not her usual self”. Among female journalists, I discovered, there was much speculation about whether or not the PM was pregnant. Scuttlebutt, I thought to myself. Although, I had to concede, the PM’s sunny disposition has, of late, given every appearance of having fallen under a cloud. Even to the casual observer, Jacinda seems distracted.

It is doubtful whether her overall mood was uplifted by the latest poll results. Though Labour still hovers around its Election Night 50 percent, the TV1-Colmar Brunton survey showed Ardern falling a statistically significant 15 percentage points in the Preferred-Prime-Minister stakes.

It is likely that these latest numbers only accentuated the PM’s dissatisfaction with the way she and her government are being represented in the newspaper columns and across social media. This dissatisfaction turned out to be one of the most consistent themes of my Friday-morning soundings. The PM, it is alleged, has been stung by the sharp criticisms of her administration which have been growing in intensity since Labour’s landslide victory last October. At the heart of these critiques lie two inter-related questions: “Why the preternatural caution, Jacinda. What, or who, is stopping you?”

While New Zealanders understood the role played by Winston Peters and NZ First in reining-in the PM’s “transformational” aspirations (and were, accordingly, prepared to forgive Labour’s less-than-stellar record of achievement on the big issues of homelessness and child poverty) after 17 October 2020 that excuse was no longer available. Not when Labour, the Greens and Te Paati Maori between them command 77 seats in New Zealand’s 120-seat House of Representatives.

Labour’s caution and timidity were attributed (often none-too-kindly) to the party’s determination to hold on to the huge swag of former National Party voters who had defected to Labour in recognition of the PM’s outstanding handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Commentators mused that “Jacinda” was little more than a brand; and that, for all her talk about “the politics of kindness”, Ardern was just another party leader with one over-riding priority – winning the next election. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came from one of Ardern’s most reliable supporters on social media. Martyn Bradbury, Editor of The Daily Blog. Playing on the left-wing swearword “Neoliberalism”, Bradbury described the PM as a media-savvy purveyor of “Neo-kindness”.

The message coming back to me throughout Friday was that these accusations had hurt. That the PM was feeling keenly the lack of faith in her bona fides – especially from those who are regarded as being (and who certainly see themselves as being) on the Left. I was told that over the summer Ardern’s determination to keep her promises to the homeless, the poor, and the planet had grown ever-stronger. That she refused to go down in history as an instinctively empathic crisis-manager. That someone who could pull off an electoral rout on the scale of 17 October required an altogether more substantial legacy. The word began to spread through Wellington’s labyrinthine corridors of power that “something big” could be expected on the policy front by the middle of the year.

Hearing this, I wondered how much attention Ardern and her closest advisers had paid to the words of the veteran left-wing trade-union leader, Robert Reid. Barely 48 hours had passed since the Red Tide had ripped the infamous “handbrake” from NZ First’s hands, but Reid was already tweeting out a warning to the new Labour majority government:

“No one mentions that every government is a coalition between the elected governing party(s) and the senior bureaucrats.

“The bureaucracy acts as more of a handbrake than NZ First ever did.

“But most 'ruling' parties continue to let it dictate policy.”

What would happen, I asked myself, if the PM made it clear to her Cabinet colleagues that she was no longer willing to play it safe; that, having made promises to the New Zealand people, and been rewarded with an absolute majority, she was now absolutely determined to keep them?

The most obvious starting point for the PM would be the housing crisis. A major initiative here would not only boost the well-being of New Zealanders considerably, it would also make a huge impression on the level of child poverty. Killing two birds with one stone has always been an attractive political proposition. But, to be at all effective, such an effort would have to be on a scale unprecedented since the 1970s – entailing an eye-wateringly large amount of expenditure.

Alternatively, the PM may have decided to give effect to the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s recommendations on social development – including a massive increase in core benefit levels. This, too, would provoke genuine horror in Treasury. Effectively eliminating child poverty at a stroke does not come cheap.

And, it is here, perhaps, that the rumour about a prime-ministerial resignation may have had its genesis. Faced with ever-higher levels of government borrowing, Treasury officials would undoubtedly have attempted to pressure the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, into dissuading his friend and ally that what she was proposing was as irresponsible as it was unlikely to succeed.

In normal circumstances, this might have worked. But, from what I have discovered over the past 72 hours, these are not normal circumstances. Only last week, Robertson’s friend and mentor, Sir Michael Cullen, a man stoically succumbing to terminal lung cancer, is reported to have told a select gathering of Labour Party notables that: “It is not enough simply to win – you have to DO something.” Aware of how determined the PM is to “do” as Sir Michael advises; seized also, as his boss is said to be, by intimations of mortality, Robertson, “the reluctant radical” seems ready, for once, to throw caution to the wind.

From all sides, now, comes word of the imminence of “something big” being announced. The Labour caucus is said to be both “nervous” and “excited”.

Writing in The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury (whose connections with the Labour caucus are numerous and strong) sums up the situation like this:

“Jacinda has taken the time over the Summer to decide being kind has to mean something, desperate rumours spread by Wellington bureaucratic elites that there is a split between Jacinda and Grant are designed to create a rift not report on one.”

If Prime Minister Ardern’s big policy gamble fails, then her resignation will, indeed, have to be handed to the Governor-General. But, everything I have learned over the last 72 hours convinces me that “Jacinda” is no longer content merely to win: she means to DO something.

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

Friday 19 March 2021

Messages Received: Mark McGowan's Landslide in WA Makes Jacinda's Win Look Modest.

A Crushing Victory: On Election Night in Perth, Western Australia, the provisional count gave Mark McGowan's Labor Party an impressive 60 percent of the popular vote. The Liberal’s received just 21.6 percent.

IF YOU THOUGHT Jacinda Ardern had a good election in 2020, just take a look at Mark McGowan’s landslide. Last Saturday, 13 March 2021, the West Australian elections saw McGowan’s Labor government win 51 seats in the 59-seat Legislative Assembly. The Liberal Party, including its young leader, Zak Kirkup, suffered an unprecedented electoral catastrophe. The Party was reduced to just 2 assembly seats, and Kirkup was defeated in his own electorate, Dawseville, by Labor’s Lisa Munday. So decisive was Labor’s victory that the ABC was able to call the result a mere 42 minutes after the polls closed.

The emphatic nature of McGowan’s win was attributed by all reputable political journalists and commentators to his handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic. With fewer than 1,000 cases and just 9 deaths recorded across the state, the Premier there, like the Prime Minister here, was rewarded with an astonishing surge of support from across the political spectrum. Prior to election day, the polls predicted catastrophe. Labor was shown nudging 70 percent. McGowan’s approval rating was a stratospheric 88 percent!

In the face of Labor’s looming electoral tsunami, the Liberals simply lost it. Sixteen weeks out from the election they chose as their new Opposition Leader an ambitious 34-year-old policy analyst. (The card he pressed into the hand of former Liberal Leader, John Howard, while still a teenager, read simply: “Zak Kirkup, Future Prime Minister”.)

Just 16 days out from polling day, in an unforgivable display of political honesty, Kirkup conceded to startled journalists that there was no way his party could win the election. As if this wasn’t enough a big enough incentive for traditional Liberal voters to desert their party, Kirkup’s Finance Spokesperson presided over a complete train-wreck of a media conference called to mark the release of the party’s economic policy. This anorexically-thin document turned out to contain almost no reliable information as to how its contents would be funded.

On the night, the provisional count gave Labor an impressive 60 percent of the popular vote. The Liberal’s received just 21.6 percent.

The Western Australian Liberal Party’s stunning defeat is reminiscent of the equally disastrous performance of the Canadian Progressive Conservative Party (I know, I know, it’s an oxymoronic name!) in the General Election of 1993.

Over the course of the previous nine years, the PCP Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, had ruthlessly imposed a hard-core programme of neoliberal “reform” upon the Canadian people. Their response was to slash the PCP’s share of the popular vote from a very respectable 43 percent in 1988, to a terminal 16 percent in 1993.

Under Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system the result was a death sentence. From 169 seats in Canada’s House of Commons, the PCP was reduced to just two. Within a few years the PCP was swallowed up by a new right-wing coalition and disappeared from Canadian history forever. Mulroney, himself, only escaped utter humiliation by stepping away from the PCP’s leadership before the electoral axe fell.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened to the New Zealand Labour Party in the general election of 1990 had its caucus not had the wit, just eight weeks before polling day, to hand over leadership of the party to working-class battler Mike Moore.

Prior to the departure of Moore’s prime ministerial predecessor, the professorial Geoffrey Palmer, internal party polling showed Labour heading for an unsurvivable result in the mid-to-high teens. Had not the Deputy-PM, Helen Clark, and Moore prevailed upon Palmer to step down, Labour may well have anticipated the PCP’s fate by three years by winning only three or four seats in the House of Representatives. As things turned out, however, Moore was able to do what Kirkup couldn’t: “save the furniture”. Labour’s vote in 1990 was an eminently survivable 35 percent of the popular vote.

Had it not been for New Zealanders voting for the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system in 1993, the New Zealand National Party may have suffered a disaster very similar to the WA Liberals in 2002. Under the old First-Past-the-Post electoral system, Bill English’s record low 2002 result of 20.9 percent would, similarly, have slashed the National Party’s parliamentary representation to low single figures. By the same token, a popular vote of 50 percent under FPP would have delivered Labour a huge parliamentary majority.

The existence of MMP renders a debacle of West Australian proportions most unlikely. The voters know that the death-zone for unpopular parties is 5 percent not 20 percent. In sharp contrast to the much smaller NZ First, there’s a lot of ruin in a political party the size of National. Even so, Judith Collins cannot afford to let her party languish in the mid-to-high 20s indefinitely. As she, herself, noted, only a few years ago, the National leader who allows its Party Vote to fall below 35 percent should not anticipate a lengthy tenure in the top job.

The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is no doubt also taking stock of where she and her party stand currently. The latest TV1-Colmar Brunton shows Labour’s level of support pretty much unchanged from Election Night, but her own unprecedently high ranking in the preferred-prime-minister stakes has taken a tumble. (Although, even after shedding 15 percentage points, that still puts Jacinda 35 points ahead of her nearest rival!)

In both instances, Covid-19 continues to call the shots. While the country as a whole still relishes its good fortune vis-à-vis a Covid-raged world; the yo-yoing in and out of Lockdown has left many voters in a grumpy frame of mind. Clearly, Jacinda is being told that, good though she undoubtedly is, she has done – and could do – better.

Zak Kirkup would tell her that there are much worse messages an electorate can send you. While Covid-19 continues going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down in it, Jacinda should not expect to receive the sort of judgement pronounced upon the West Australian Liberals. When the Coronavirus is finally defeated, however, Jacinda will need to find new evils to vanquish, and with an equal measure of success, or she, too, will pay the inevitable electoral price of failure.

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

Looking At Syria Through Ten-Year-Old Lenses.

Familiar Images: Through our carefully fashioned Western lenses all we have ever seen of the Syrian civil war are a succession of skilfully contrived horrors attributed to the “vicious Syrian regime and its Russian allies” by a complacent (and complicit) Western media.

EARLIER THIS WEEK I visited the optometrist. Making the appointment, I was stunned to discover that it had been ten years since my last appointment. That’s a long time for my eyesight to be corrected by a single set of lenses. When I finally made it to the clinic, the receptionist was surprised to learn that I was still wearing the same glasses. “Usually,” he told me, shaking his head, “people go through three or four pairs in ten years. They either lose them or break them. You must be a very careful person.”

No more than the country I live in. This week also marked the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of a vicious civil war in Syria. Through that whole grim decade of conflict, however, New Zealand’s view of events has not changed. My country, no less than myself, has been careful to protect the lenses through which it views the terrible tragedies of the Middle East.

The moment we put on our new Syrian eyeglasses ten years ago, our perception of that country’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, was profoundly changed. Prior to the escalation of the widespread protest activity of 2011 into full-scale military conflict, New Zealand, like the rest of the West, had been fêting Assad and his glamorous British wife as encouraging emblems of those tightly wound Middle Eastern regimes that were slowly but unmistakably unwinding into something looser – something which, in time, might even be described as democratic.

But then came the clamorous upheavals of the so-called “Arab Spring” (2010 – 2012). Reacting with the opportunistic and predatory instincts common to all successful imperialists, the United States, Britain and France immediately abandoned the slow and uncertain processes of diplomacy and seized upon the turmoil in Middle Eastern streets to effect some long overdue regime changes and settle some old scores.

If Hosni Mubarak and Muhammar Ghaddafi could be brought down by the Arab “Street”, then why not Bashar al-Assad?

Contacts were made. Meetings were arranged. Crateloads of weapons were loaded on to trucks. Satellites were repositioned. All the talk was about the “democratic Syrian opposition”, but that was just window-dressing. Democrats, especially those with the welfare of their people at heart, cannot be relied upon to perpetrate the sort of mayhem demanded by the boys and girls at Langley, Virginia. The idealistic students and genuinely “moderate” patriots of the “democratic Syrian opposition” proved easy meat for the highly-trained and battle-hardened jihadists the CIA were actually backing.

The problem was, Assad’s army – unlike Mubarak’s – was not ready to overthrow him. The complex religious and ethnic equations out of which the modern nation of Syria had emerged in the 1930s had left its armed forces vulnerable to the Sunni majority. Unwilling to put their faith in the forgiving instincts of their compatriots, Assad’s soldiers fought back and, to the fury of the West, Syria’s long-time allies, the Russians, fought alongside them. What should (and could) have been a peaceful evolution towards democracy, was transformed by Western cynicism and impatience into a bloody civil war.

Not that we here in New Zealand ever saw it that way. Through our carefully fashioned Western lenses all we saw were a succession of skilfully contrived horrors attributed to the “vicious Syrian regime and its Russian allies” by a complacent (and complicit) Western media.

We recoiled in disgust from alleged “poison gas attacks” and other “war crimes” inflicted on “innocent Syrian civilians”. Images of their broken bodies and frothing mouths, captured for maximum propaganda effect by white-helmeted videographers, broke our hearts.

Deemed unfit for Western consumption was news of the thousands of adults and children condemned to slow, painful, and needless deaths by Western sanctions. Not even life-saving pharmaceuticals were excluded from these blunt instruments of coercion – directed at the Assad Government, but whose principal victims were, overwhelmingly, “innocent Syrian civilians”.

Presumably, the US Secretary of State for the first two years of the civil war, Hillary Clinton, was convinced, like her predecessor, Madelaine Albright (another Democrat) that the tragically high human cost of these interventions “was worth it”. Presumably, it’s also why President Joe Biden, determined, like his own predecessor, Donald Trump, to “protect” Syria’s US-occupied oil-fields, recently authorised air-strikes against targets operating on Syria’s sovereign territory?

Maybe I’m not the only short-sighted observer in need of a new pair of glasses?

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

Thursday 18 March 2021

Voting Without Fear, With Open Eyes.

All Those In Favour: To raise your hand, more or less alone, in opposition to a forest of hands raised in favour, requires considerable courage. Going against the will of the majority in public risks incurring its wrath, and in the workplace that can be rough – very rough. That’s why calling for a show of hands is the preferred method of those anxious to secure a quick and favourable outcome - especially when careful, private, consideration might easily produce the “wrong” answer. It’s the tactic of demagogues, not democrats.

IT’S ONE OF THOSE STORIES that illustrates vividly the robust working-class culture of the trade union movement that was. An “all-up” stop-work meeting has been called to decide whether or not to take strike action. The union secretary makes it pretty clear that without strike action the members’ demands have bugger-all chance of success. The more militant members line up to support the secretary’s recommendation – treating their workmates to that old-time “shed oratory” that is so very rare today. After all their fiery rhetoric is spent, the call goes out for speakers against the motion. Silence. The union president prepares to put the motion. A hand goes up. “Yes?”, responds the president, eyebrows raised. “Um, I was just wondering,” came the hesitant reply from the mild-mannered union member on his feet, “Will this be a secret ballot?” The union secretary, famous for his uncompromising temperament, leaps to his feet and snarls: “If you want a fucking secret ballot, close your fucking eyes!”

It’s easy to laugh at the story, and hard not to secretly admire the brutally effective politics of the union decision-making process. It is also important, however, to acknowledge the anti-democratic tactics at work. The secret ballot effaces the essentially collective character of a strike. Writing “Yes” or “No” privately, on an anonymous piece of paper, allows you to put your interests above those of your fellow workers without fear of discovery. It’s an individual – not a collective act.

To raise your hand, more or less alone, in opposition to a forest of hands raised in favour, requires considerable courage. Going against the will of the majority in public risks incurring its wrath, and in the workplace that can be rough – very rough. That’s why calling for a show of hands is the preferred method of those anxious to secure a quick and favourable outcome - especially when careful, private, consideration might easily produce the “wrong” answer. It’s the tactic of demagogues, not democrats.

We take the secret ballot so much for granted, at least in the context of electing our parliamentary and local government representatives, that imagining any other way of voting is difficult. Many are astonished to discover that the introduction of the secret ballot dates back only to 1870 in New Zealand, and 1872 in the United Kingdom. In the United States where such matters are left to the individual states, the secret ballot only became universal when finally adopted by South Carolina in 1950! Interestingly, the secret ballot was originally referred to as the “Australian Ballot” on account of Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania being the first jurisdictions in the English-speaking world to legislate for secret voting, in 1856. On this democratic reform, at least, the Aussies beat us to it.

In a world where challenging official orthodoxy is, increasingly, considered career-limiting, the opportunity to register one’s opinion away from the basilisk glare of the ideologically overbearing not only de-stresses the decision-making process, it also allows the true feelings of the majority to be revealed.

The free-speech battle waged last year at Cambridge University in the UK bears out the virtues of voting in secret. Outraged by the University Council’s attempt to limit its staff and students freedom of expression, philosophy scholar, Arif Ahmed, proposed a number of amendments to the proposed regulations – all of which the Council rejected. To overturn their decision a positive vote by the Regent House (composed of all the Cambridge “dons”) was required. To trigger a meeting of the Regent House, Arif and his supporters had first to secure the votes of 25 of its members.

This was easier said than done, as Arif recalls:

In March 2020, when the University first proposed this policy, I couldn’t find anyone willing to challenge it in public. Not because they all had other things to think about (though of course at that time everyone did) but because they feared the consequences.

The same thing happened when I and a few colleagues tried to gather signatures to force a vote. You would have thought 25 signatures would not be difficult to extract from more than 4000 dons; but again, I asked probably 50 people who said that they supported me in private but felt afraid to do so in public. They had just applied for promotion, or for a grant, or their head of department might be hostile, or their colleagues might ostracize them…

You see it in meetings too. Everyone here knows what I mean. Some meddlesome but trendy reform gets proposed by the departmental ideologues; it is tiresome nonsense; everyone knows that it is nonsense; everyone knows that everyone knows that it is nonsense … and yet nobody speaks or votes against it, it goes through, and the darkness thickens. Why don’t you speak or vote against it? – because you are afraid that nobody else will, and you will end up isolated, and you are on a temporary contract… If you had left Cambridge as a student in, say, 2011 and returned to academic life here today, you would be astonished and depressed at the rapidity with which, and the extent to which, fear has now penetrated people’s minds.

Thanks to the secret ballot conducted by the Regent House, Arif’s story had a happy ending. The Cambridge dons, unobserved (and, hence, unintimidated) by their “departmental ideologues” voted 4:1 in favour of Arif’s amendments – thereby preserving academic freedom at Cambridge and encouraging like-minded scholars in other universities to stand up and defend their rights.

In addition to upholding academic independence, the battle for free speech at Cambridge University revealed something else. It showed just how precariously the “Woke’s” political control is held. Put to a fair democratic test: where screaming crowds of protesters and collegial witch-hunters cannot influence the outcome; the pronouncements of “departmental ideologues” are shown to have derisory levels of support.

One is moved to wonder what the result would have been, right here in New Zealand, if our Parliamentarians had been permitted to vote privately on the recent legislation regulating the creation of Maori Wards. Indeed, it is fascinating to speculate upon which bills would and wouldn’t get passed if, instead of casting their votes in public, Members of Parliament were able to avail themselves of a secret ballot.

One can only assume that the reason they are forbidden from doing so is exactly the same as that of the apocryphal union secretary who made damn sure he got the decision he was looking for – by a show of hands.

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

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Sticks And Stones - And Bullets.

They're Only Words: New Zealanders are not angels, and they should not be expected to behave like angels. In the hours and days after the Christchurch Mosque Attacks, what mattered most was the swiftness with which the Prime Minister (unlike some of her left-wing fellow-travellers) moved to reassure her fellow citizens that they were not devils. That designation belonged to the terrorist alone. Words did not kill 51 innocent human-beings on 15 March 2019 – bullets did.

AT THE SERVICE marking the second anniversary of the Christchurch Mosque Attacks, New Zealand’s Prime Minister spoke of resilience.

“Many of us will remember, or indeed have seen children being taught from a very young age to be stoic.” Jacinda Ardern declared. “That if they face the harsh words of others they should adopt a stiff upper lip. Perhaps it has been our way of teaching children resilience in the face of those who might intend to cause harm.”

She’s right, that is the way New Zealanders used to bring up their children. Subjected to hurtful speech, those on the receiving end were taught to sing: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

The Prime Minister was not convinced.

“Of course we want our children to be resilient,” she said, “but surely no more than we want our children to be kind?

“And so we have to ask ourselves, what does it take to create a generation that is empathetic but strong. That is kind, but fair. That is knowledgeable but curious. That knows the power of words, and uses them to challenge, defend, and empower.”

Jacinda’s question was rhetorical, but it deserves an answer.

What it takes is a society comprised of something other than human-beings – angels, perhaps.

Certainly, empathy confers a kind of strength: Jacinda proved that in the way she conducted herself in the hours and days after the massacres at Al Noor and Linwood. New Zealand was unquestionably strengthened diplomatically by the raw emotional power of its Prime Minister’s empathic response.

Jacinda’s empathy ran out, however, when confronted with the enormity of Brenton Tarrant’s crime. So unequivocal was her condemnation of its perpetrator that she vowed never to speak his name. Nor has she demonstrated the slightest curiosity concerning Tarrant’s motivation. On that matter, at least, she just doesn’t want to know.

But, how can words have power: how can they “challenge, defend and empower” if they are not imbued with the knowledge born of asking “Why?”

The Prime Minister’s own words notwithstanding, there is scant evidence that anyone in this government; the state bureaucracy; or the mainstream news media; has the slightest curiosity, or in-depth knowledge, of the forces that drive individuals like Tarrant. Indeed, within 72 hours of the massacre, New Zealand’s Chief Censor had declared his manifesto “objectionable” – thereby making its mere possession an offence punishable by imprisonment.

New Zealand has not been challenged to do anything about the Christchurch Mosque Attacks except condemn them.

And, of course, they should be condemned. They were cruel and wicked and utterly devastating of the lives of scores of innocent people. But, the overwhelming horror and disgust which such wanton savagery naturally elicits is all too easily harnessed to serve the interests of political causes that are neither kind, nor fair, nor innocent. Causes that have no interest whatsoever in encouraging the free exchange of words to “challenge, defend and empower” their fellow citizens. Causes whose purpose is, rather, to condemn, attack and weaken all those who refuse to endorse their ideology wholeheartedly and without reservation. Causes determined to silence all speech that does not echo their own.

In this regard, there is cause for New Zealanders to wonder exactly where their Prime Ministers stands on how free their use of words should be. What should we make, for example, of this rather oblique passage from her memorial address?

“We all own and hold the power of words. We use them, we hear them, we respond to them. How we choose to use this most powerful of tools is our choice.”

Is it drawing too long a bow to say that there is something vaguely threatening in the construction of those sentences? Something along the lines of: “Yes, of course you have freedom of speech – just be careful how you use it.”

The sense of menace is not dispelled in the sentences which follow:

“There will be an unquestionable legacy from March 15. Much of it will be heart breaking. But it’s never too early or too late for the legacy to be a more inclusive nation, one that stands proud of our diversity, embraces it, and if called to, defends it staunchly.”

Whenever political leaders begin to declare their intention to defend staunchly the ideas for which they stand – and for which they blithely assume the rest of the nation also stands – it is time to worry.

Stripped of its rhetorical finery, Jacinda’s speech boils down to this: If hateful words are directed at vulnerable groups, then legal sticks and stones will be deployed to silence those who utter them.

Jacinda wound up her speech by implicitly inviting her followers to be ready to respond, as she vowed to be ready, when empathy proves unequal to the darkness that dwells in the human heart:

“And [at] those moments, may I never, and may we never – be at a loss for words.”

The effectiveness of those words, however, will largely be determined by the strength of the person speaking them and the resilience of the society hearing them. Jacinda’s inspired words of 15 March 2019 – “they are us” – spoke much more to her strength than to her empathy. She imposed an explanatory framework on a society that was tough enough to carry it and make it work.

New Zealanders are not angels, and they should not be expected to behave like angels. In the hours and days after Tarrant’s attack, what mattered most was the swiftness with which the Prime Minister (unlike some of her left-wing fellow-travellers) moved to reassure her fellow citizens that they were not devils. That designation belonged to the terrorist alone.

Words didn’t kill 51 innocent human-beings on 15 March 2019 – bullets did.

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

Playing By The New Rules Of The Game.

The Auckland That Never Was: Preliminary architectural drawing, commissioned by Ministry of Works planners in 1946 for its proposed Tamaki Housing Area. The National Party's political survival in the twenty-first century may depend upon its willingness to not only adopt Labour's policies - but anticipate them.

, the National Party is going to realise that the rules of the game have changed. If the party’s history is any guide, such a realisation is likely to come later rather than sooner. That same history, however, suggests that National will get there in the end – and that, when it does, its lease on government is likely to be a long one.

The global rule-change, economically and politically, was precipitated by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008-2009. Prior to the near collapse of the world’s financial system, the accepted wisdom was unequivocal that “market forces” were the best regulators of globalised capitalism. Better, certainly, than politicians and bureaucrats. As the GFC unfolded, however, it soon became clear that if the resolution of the crisis was left to “market forces”, then the global economic system would grind to a catastrophic halt – setting-off a second Great Depression.

Newsweek magazine celebrated the dramatic re-entry of the nation-state into the political-economic drama with a cover proclaiming: “We Are All Socialists Now”. This was very far from wry journalistic hyperbole. Not when the new US President, Barack Obama, had just nationalised General Motors. Banks, investment houses, insurance companies and automobile manufacturers, had all been designated (to employ the catch-phrase of the hour) “too big to fail”.

The rule-book had been re-written.

The problem was that acknowledging the eclipse of free-market capitalism was very difficult to do, without resurrecting all the social-democratic and socialist nostrums the free-market revolutionaries of the 1980s had worked so hard to extirpate. The upshot was that practically all of the economic dogmas discredited by the GFC continued to enjoy a kind of bizarre post-apocalyptic afterlife. Neoliberals had become the walking-dead; dull-eyed transmitters of “zombie economics”.

And then the Covid-19 Pandemic struck.

Now it was entire national economies that were being designated as too big to fail. If Keynesianism’s first appearance in history had been in response to the multiple tragedies of the 1930s; it second appearance has taken on the qualities of farce.

The US Congress has just passed a “rescue package” of $US1.9 trillion. Yes, that’s right “trillion” – twelve zeroes! And this latest money-gusher is only the latest in a succession of equally gigantic monetary geysers.

Government spending hasn’t so much spun out-of-control as it has taken on the quality of an out-of-body experience. The United States, and the rest of the big capitalist players, hover above themselves in the economic operating theatre, looking down at the pale, prone, patient on the operating table and wondering, with curious detachment, if they’re going to make it.

In this political-economic environment, allegiance to the old rulebook simply makes no sense. When the central banks of the major capitalist economies have more-or-less agreed to keep the global system functioning by taking in each other’s financial washing, a political party like National has absolutely nothing to gain by clinging-on for dear life to the moribund principles of fiscal rectitude.

If money really is no object, then the only sensible political strategy to adopt is the one which best fulfils the electorate’s most urgent needs. Such a strategy makes even more sense in the face of a government seemingly enslaved to the “zombie economics” of its neoliberal advisers. Labour is currently relying on men and women who do not appear to have had an alive-and-kicking idea since July 1984. The only thing that makes the Government’s behaviour look even slightly rational, is that National is, itself, beholden to the same zombies.

Why is there no one in the senior ranks of either of the two major parties with the cut-through intelligence of the young, conservative political commentator, Liam Hehir. He, at least, “gets” that the current housing crisis cannot be solved by tightening-up LVRs, further weaponising the “bright line test”, or, God save us, introducing a Capital Gains Tax. Such “marginal” measures are not for him. Responding to Jack Tame’s questions on TVNZ’s current affairs show, Q+A, Hehir ruthlessly dismissed the “Lost Generation” of aspiring home-owners as being beyond effective help. Better, he argued, to engage in a root-and-branch reform of New Zealand’s tenancy laws. What works so well in Western Europe and the Nordic countries, must be made to work here.

He’s right, of course. To house, within a politically acceptable time-frame, the tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders in need of well-designed, well-constructed, affordable and securely held accommodation, the Government and the private sector have to build apartment blocks – lots of apartment blocks. Not the “vertical slums” of the 1960s and 70s, but the progressively conceived and architecturally impressive projects presented to the First Labour Government in the late-1940s.

These plans, discovered over ten years ago by Dr Chris Harris (in the form of appendices to the 1946 Hansard) constituted the foundation of an Auckland that never was. As tragic as it is uncanny, this comprehensive effort by leading Ministry of Works planners, addressed nearly all of the problems which came to bedevil Auckland over succeeding decades. Everything from cycle-ways to light-rail; ring-roads to intensive public housing: all are there in those state-developed plans which National, beholden to property developers, roading contractors and the automobile lobby, could not abandon fast enough following its 1949 election victory.

Therein lies the true tragedy. After 14 years in power (six of which were years of war) the Labour team of 1949 was old and tired. Their failure to grasp the possibilities of the plans placed before them is, if viewed in a generous spirit, forgivable. Much harder to forgive, however, is a government peopled with young, idealistic and highly-educated politicians, well set up for their second term with a solid parliamentary majority.

Suitably updated, those radically social-democratic plans from the late-1940s could, with just a little political imagination, form the basis of a comprehensive response to New Zealand’s steadily worsening housing crisis. Of course Jacinda Ardern’s and Grant Robertson’s bureaucratic advisers are going to tell them that nothing like the old MoW’s plan is any longer desirable or doable – before eating what’s left of their brains.

It would be strangely fitting if National – albeit eight decades too late – embraced the MoW’s urban development blueprint. After all, it took them more than a decade to grasp the fact that the rules of the game – as understood in the 1920s – had changed. It was only when the party pledged to keep in place the core of Labour’s social reforms, that National became a viable electoral proposition. Its political survival in the twenty-first century could just as easily depend upon National not only adopting Labour’s policies – but anticipating them.

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