Thursday 30 September 2021

Blame Games.

The Pathologies Of Poverty: And all this must have been known. In the ministries of Social Development, Health, Education and Corrections. In the Police. Politicians must have known about it, too. How could they not? When, every day, the victims of their “Look markets – no hands!” policies were beating a desperate pathway to their electorate office doors? But knowing something, and doing something aren’t always the closest of neighbours. Often they’re as far apart as Devonport is from Otara, and Remuera from Otahuhu.

AND SO, at last, we understand what building your house on someone else’s home means. It means living on top of those who were here before you. It means doing everything within your power to prevent them from getting out from under your crushing weight – and standing upright. It means always having someone to blame.

It means packing your poorest, your most desperate citizens, into a handful of ramshackle South Auckland suburbs. Requiring them to send their kids to substandard schools. Providing them with hospitals that start falling apart even before they are finished. Denying them an effective system of public transport. Paying them the minimum wage. Crowding them into sub-standard accommodation. Policing them harshly. Imprisoning them in shamefully disproportionate numbers. Offering them little, if any, rehabilitation when they are in jail.

And now, as if all this beneficence wasn’t enough, it means expecting them to co-operate fully with the authorities in the fight against the Delta variant of Covid-19.

And amazingly (given their treatment) most of the Māori and Pasifika residents of South Auckland are doing exactly that – co-operating fully. In spite of being shut in behind a complex motorway system that might almost have been designed for the purpose of keeping South Auckland out of sight and out of mind. In spite of all the evidence indicating that when Covid arrives it heads straight for the poorest part of town. In spite of Māori and Pasifika community workers warning those charged with managing the Covid-19 pandemic that the official messaging was all wrong for their people. In spite of everything the Pakeha powers-that-be did, or, more accurately, failed to do, the Māori and Pasifika residents of South Auckland are getting tested – and vaccinated – in their tens-of-thousands.

And inevitably, it isn’t enough.

Maybe, if successive governments had spent the last thirty years building the sort of state housing that the soon-to-be-dismantled Housing Corporation was perfecting in the early 1980s, then the people of South Auckland would have been sheltered from the Coronavirus in decent, publicly-owned and properly maintained homes.

Maybe, if those same governments had worked co-operatively with South Auckland not-for-profits and cultural institutions to design and support a system of health delivery attuned to the needs and preferences of Māori and Pasifika families, then, when Covid-19 arrived, those same families would not have fallen prey to misinformers and conspiracy theorists.

Maybe, if both National and Labour had entertained the truly radical notion that entrusting local communities with the power and the resources to teach their children in a way that made them proud of their successes, rather than ashamed of their failures, then the talent and entrepreneurial spirit abounding in those same communities might have been invested in something more personally and socially rewarding than criminal gangs.

But, because those past governments didn’t, our present government is continuing the practice of crowding individuals and families into motels and boarding-houses. It is difficult to imagine an environment better suited to the spread of a virus – especially one as infectious as the Delta variant of Covid-19. (Concentrating so many of the gangs’ actual and potential clients in these places must also be acknowledged as extremely helpful – although not to public health, or personal security.)

And all this must have been known. In the ministries of Social Development, Health, Education and Corrections. In the Police. Politicians must have known about it, too. How could they not? When, every day, the victims of their “Look markets – no hands!” policies were beating a desperate pathway to their electorate office doors? But knowing something, and doing something aren’t always the closest of neighbours. Often they’re as far apart as Devonport is from Otara, and Remuera from Otahuhu.

And, truth to tell, all of us living in the House of Middle-Class Pakeha know that our wealth and comfort comes with a hefty price-tag. It’s just that we’ve learnt how to defer calculating the cost by keeping the decaying communities of the poor, rank with the stench of deprivation and discarded dreams, as far away from our leafy suburbs as possible. Out of sight, out of mind, works every bit as well for the “boguns” and the “boofheads” of the Pakeha working-class as it does for Māori and Pasifika communities – better, in a way, since working-class Pakeha lack the conscience-tugging combination of ethnicity and indigeneity.

But, guilty consciences are difficult to live with. Especially when it becomes clear that all the te Reo speaking and name-changing that guilt-ridden Pakeha can be bullied into accepting will not make one South Auckland family richer or better housed. Unfortunately, where consciences turn sour, prejudices tend to flourish. Once the idea takes root that leafy Auckland is being kept from its pleasures by homeless Māori and Pasifika, the demands will not be slow in coming for South Auckland to be locked-down, ring-fenced, and left to stew in its own Covid juices.

It is then we will discover just how securely the House of Pakeha has been built on the home of Māori. How willing tangata whenua truly are to go on carrying its weight – and accepting its blame.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 30 September 2021.

Wednesday 29 September 2021

It Was Twenty Years Ago: "Infinite Justice".

A Promise Of Justice? I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people - and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!
President George W. Bush, 14 September 2001.

WHEN AN EVENT as large and resonant as the terror attacks of 11 September imprint themselves on the memories of millions, journalism is momentarily rendered speechless. The sheer enormity of the destruction of the World Trade Centre exposed what has been called “a poverty of eloquence” on the part of those whose job it was to describe reality.

Not only were the wordsmiths lost for words, but they were also bereft of explanations. Nowhere was this more evident than on the American television networks, where stunned anchor-people struggled, in real time, to interpret what their fellow citizens, with mounting horror and disbelief, were witnessing through a hundred million television sets.

The only people who seemed equal to the task of putting words to the images were politicians. Almost instantaneously, the US political and security establishment found the phrases that have subsequently come to frame the issue.

The terrorist attacks were described as the opening salvo of a global war between Good and Evil, a war which the United States would prosecute with the utmost severity - no matter what the cost. Those responsible for this outrage, and any who gave them shelter or support, would be pursued to the very ends of the earth. Within days, this cosmic struggle had a code-name: it was called “Infinite Justice”.

But now journalism is beginning to respond to the Bush Administration’s rhetoric. Upon the unreflective surface of the mainstream media monolith, hairline cracks of doubt and disagreement are appearing. Above the patriotic clamour for vengeance, dissenting voices are beginning to be heard.

Sometimes they come from the most unlikely sources. Stephen Schwartz writing in the right-wing weekly magazine, The Spectator, points an accusing finger not simply at Osama bin Laden, but also at the fanatical Islamic sect known as the Wahhabis (of which bin Laden is a follower). “Not all Muslims are suicide bombers,” observes Schwartz, “but all suicide bombers are Wahhabis.”

Founded in the 18th Century by the Arabian cleric Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the sect’s teachings were taken up by the founder of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia – Ibn Saud – who cleverly exploited its austere puritanism in his World War I struggle against what he regarded (encouraged by T.E. Lawrence – “Lawrence of Arabia”) as the decadence of his Turkish overlords.

As Schwartz notes, Wahhabism remains the official creed of the Saudi royal family: “One major question is never asked in American discussions of Arab terrorism: what is the role of Saudi Arabia? The question cannot be asked because American companies depend too much on the continued flow of Saudi oil, while American politicians have become too cosy with the Saudi rulers.”

Just how cosy, is revealed by John Mecklin, a US investigative reporter formerly based in Houston, Texas. Back in the late 1980s, Mecklin was running down leads on the connections between prominent Texans and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International – an institution later implicated in money laundering, arms dealing and, tangentially, in the Iran-Contra ‘arms-for-hostages’ scandal that rocked the Reagan White House.

One of the key figures at the Texas end of Mecklin’s BCCI investigation was businessman James R. Bath. Among Mr Bath’s clients were a number of wealthy Saudi Arabians – including one Salim bin Laden, heir to a vast construction fortune and half-brother to Osama. According to a Time magazine report, James Bath also had a 5% stake in two limited partnerships, Arbusto 79 and Arbusto 80, both controlled by his old Air National Guard buddy, George - eldest son of a former CIA Chief. (Arbusto is Spanish for ‘bush’.)

That son is now President of the United States – and the mortal foe of Osama bin Laden.

Infinite justice indeed.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion of Friday, 28 September 2001.

Monday 27 September 2021


Not Helpful: It is no small thing when a former leader steps forward to criticise the present leadership’s handling of a national crisis. Far from generating unity, such interventions can only intensify divisions – especially when the former leader concerned hails from the Opposition party. On top of the fears arising directly out of crisis, such interventions heap the bitterness of partisanship and conflict. Only in the face of the most imminent danger; only in response to the most abject failure; could such an intervention be justified.

IT IS NO SMALL THING when a former prime minister speaks publicly during a time of national crisis. At such times, the words of former leaders, spoken in support of present leaders, can have a powerfully unifying effect. Indeed, there are few gestures capable of generating such positive results. When support is received from across the party-political divide, the message is simple. In this time of crisis, what unites us is of vastly greater importance than what divides us.

By the same token, it is no small thing when a former leader steps forward to criticise the present leadership’s handling of a national crisis. Far from generating unity, such interventions can only intensify divisions – especially when the former leader concerned hails from the Opposition party. On top of the fears arising directly out of crisis, such interventions heap the bitterness of partisanship and conflict. Only in the face of the most imminent danger; only in response to the most abject failure; could such an intervention be justified.

That the former National Party prime minister, Sir John Key, makes no attempt to convince his fellow New Zealanders that the policies of their government pose either an imminent threat to public safety, or represent an abject failure of political leadership, casts his very public intervention in the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in a deeply troubling light. To present an alternative strategy to that of the Government: a strategy unsupported by scientific evidence, but laced with highly contentious invective; raises serious questions as to motivation.

Not the least of these questions is why Key chose to make his intervention in splendid isolation from the present leader of the National Party, Judith Collins? The most obvious riposte: to give Collins plausible deniability; simply will not wash. Key’s article, published in competing newspapers, on the same day (26/9/21) comes at a time when Collins’ leadership is under constant fire from forces both inside and outside her party. It would, therefore, be entirely understandable if Key’s opinion-piece was construed by many National Party supporters as a “For God’s sake, woman, stand aside and let me show you how it’s done!” moment.

If Key’s article constituted a magisterial review of Jacinda Ardern’s government’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic, such an unflattering construction might have been avoided. Had it been full of carefully marshalled scientific evidence and practical solutions to well-established problems, suspicions of intra-party dog-fighting could have been cast aside. Especially if it had been rounded-out with a measured, above-the-fray call for bi-partisan co-operation in the national interest. Sadly, Key’s article does not fit this description.

Even Key’s choice of metaphor – the ill-fated mission of Apollo 13 – fails to fire. Key presents Apollo 13 as the classic example of imaginative adaptation:

“In a crisis, humans can be creative and inventive. Faced with the growing acceptance that Covid-19 and its variants may be with us indefinitely, the New Zealand Government and public health officials, like Nasa in 1970, rapidly need to change their thinking to adapt to the new challenge.”

Except that Key’s understanding of Apollo 13 is fundamentally flawed. Nasa didn’t change their thinking, they were simply forced to do more of it. Most importantly, they had to think about how to get the astronauts home safely using only what they had on the spacecraft. That was the critical challenge: to accept that no one was going to save Apollo 13 except the men on Apollo 13. All Houston had to offer them was advice. To get home, the Apollo 13 astronauts had to “follow the science”.

It is highly instructive that this interpretation of Apollo 13 never occurred to Key. Hardly surprising, of course, since by this reading, Jacinda Ardern, her Government, and “the team of five million” behaved exactly like the astronauts. They sealed themselves in and sat tight in their tiny, acutely vulnerable country. They consulted their scientists, heeded their advice, and with maximum care, and minimum destruction, brought New Zealand safely home.

It is telling that Key looks upon the this extraordinary success-story and can come up with no better descriptions than “smug hermit kingdom” and “North Korean option”. In the midst of this country’s ongoing, much more desperate, and yet to be won struggle against the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus, New Zealand’s former prime minister decries what he sees as the Ardern Government’s lack of urgency:

“The only urgency we’ve seen for months is an enthusiasm to lock down our country, lock up our people and lock out our citizens who are overseas.”

This not the sort of language one expects to hear from someone who is trying to help. Frankly, it is more akin to the sort of language one encounters on Facebook. A cartoonist who shared Key’s opinions would undoubtedly depict Jacinda Ardern as a madly cackling queen enthroned atop a pile of prostrate Kiwi prisoners.

Not content with describing his country as a gigantic jailhouse, however, Key goes on to characterise the Government’s expert scientific advisers as fearmongers:

“Public health experts and politicians have done a good job of making the public fearful, and therefore willing to accept multiple restrictions on their civil liberties which are disproportionate to the risk of them contracting Covid.”

Says who? A former prime minister whose professional expertise lies in currency trading – an occupation with no obvious connections to the science of epidemiology. One hesitates to ask which overseas model Key would wish to see promoted by the New Zealand Government: Sweden’s, Ireland’s, Singapore’s, the United Kingdom’s, the United States’?

One wonders, too, how Key must have greeted the news that the latest polling by Research New Zealand shows upwards of 70 percent of New Zealanders wholly or partly supportive of the “multiple restrictions on their civil liberties” that “Lockdown” entails. His dismay at discovering how very few New Zealanders favoured dropping all restrictions – “masks, quarantine and the lot” – just 7 percent, is easily imagined.

Key’s 5-point plan, for what? “Freedom Day”? is a curious mixture of carrot and stick. The more reasonable suggestions are already being investigated by the Government, the Ministry of Health, and the business community. At the core of his appeal, however, is Key’s deep-seated frustration (shared by the not inconsiderable number of powerful individuals and organisations for whom he is speaking) with the Government’s all-too-evident success in persuading a substantial majority of the population that the measures it has adopted to keep New Zealanders safe are both necessary and effective.

How do they explain their own failure to persuade New Zealanders that getting rid of lockdowns and throwing open the borders is the best way forward for the country? The insulting answer, sadly, is because, as far as Key is concerned, they are too scared to think for themselves. In short, they have been frightened into compliance. “Stop ruling by fear.” Key bluntly demands of Ardern’s government.

It is as well Key declined to govern New Zealand with the ham-fistedness on display in this opinion-piece. Had he done so, it is doubtful his time in office would have lasted eight years. With the considerable political finesse he demonstrated as prime minister, Key could have achieved so much more. An essay clearly intended to be constructive, filled with the agreeable optimism that made New Zealanders vote for him again and again, would likely have prompted a grateful phone-call from the Prime Minister – maybe even an invitation to toss some ideas around. The effort carried in yesterday’s newspapers, however, merited no more than it received – a good hard slap from Covid Response Minister, Chris Hipkins.

It turned out to be a small thing after all.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 27 September 2021.

Friday 24 September 2021

Daily Blog Branded Upper-Middle-Class, Pseudo-Left, Imperialists! Who Knew?

Pythonesque: No more than the wokest of the Woke, is the Marxist Left happy to join their efforts with those of other leftists in a spirit of solidarity and comradeship. Nor are they content to let their classic interpretation of the socialist project speak for itself – winning followers by the sheer strength of its arguments and insights. Nope. Just like the Woke, they insist that their way is the only way. Dissenters aren’t just wrong, they’re bad. Exactly how bad? How much time have you got?

THERE’S A LOT TO LIKE about the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). Anyone anxious to refresh their understanding of the tone and style of unreconstructed Trotskyism is only ever a mouse-click away from the revolutionary rhetoric of the Fourth International.

That sounds catty, I know, so let me hasten to add that Trotskyism stands at the terminus of the great red river that has its beginnings in the highlands of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, flows down through the productive fields of Luxemburg and Lenin, and ends with the brilliant strategic and tactical reconsiderations of that best of Bolsheviks, Leon Trotsky.

What Trotsky would have made of the post-war world, and the Soviet Union’s emergence as a global superpower, we shall never know. A Stalinist ice-pick split open his skull in Mexico City in 1940. Undaunted, Trotsky’s disciples continue to preach the one true socialist faith. Not for them the heretical meanderings of the Frankfurt School and its incomprehensible French disciples. There’s absolutely nothing “woke” about the WSWS. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

Before you get too excited, however, I feel it’s only fair to warn you that the members of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) – which runs the WSWS – are afflicted to a truly remarkable degree by the besetting sin of the Marxist Left – sectarianism. No more than the wokest of the Woke, is the SEP and its stable of WSWS writers happy to join their efforts with those of other leftists in a spirit of solidarity and comradeship. Nor are they content to let their Trotskyist interpretation of the socialist project speak for itself – winning followers by the sheer strength of its arguments and insights. Nope. Just like the Woke, they insist that their way is the only way. Dissenters aren’t just wrong, they’re bad. Exactly how bad? How much time have you got?

Based in the United States, but with correspondents all over the world, the WSWS’s ability to sniff out heresy is impressive. Their man in Wellington, Tom Peters, has certainly never shied away from putting the boot into myself, The Daily Blog, and its editor, Martyn Bradbury – we’re heretics from way back

Returning to the question of tone and style, I have to say, Peters is a true pro. Reading his stately invective I was transported – positively transported – all the way back to the Soviet Show Trials of 1937!

Despite the militarist record of all parties in parliament, and Ardern’s statement welcoming AUKUS, Labour’s pseudo-left supporters are promoting the illusion that the government will stay out of the escalating preparations for war. Writing on the trade union-backed Daily Blog, columnist Chris Trotter said the government ‘will happily stay as far away from this lunacy [AUKUS] as possible.”

Pseudo-left? Pseudo-left! Honestly, Tom, I really don’t think the boys and girls down at Labour Party HQ in Wellington would accept the term “left” in relation to myself – not even with the “pseudo” prefix. They’d dismiss me as a treacherous, patriarchal, heteronormative, white supremacist, who knows nothing of what it means to be a leftist in the twenty-first century.

Oh, and unless I’m very much mistaken, Tom, The Daily Blog’s trade union “backers” pulled their dollars out a very long time ago. The site was just too spicy for their unadventurous political palettes! So, you know, consider yourself fact-checked.

But wait – there’s more. Pseudo-left was nothing. Tom was just getting warmed-up. Try this judgement from the Revolutionary Tribunal on for size:

Notwithstanding its anti-American demagogy, the Daily Blog has repeatedly echoed US propaganda against China—including the lie that the coronavirus pandemic originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The blog also depicts China as a threat to both New Zealand and the Pacific region.

“No one should be fooled by Bradbury’s claim that he wants a purely “defensive” military “independent” of the US alliance. The blog represents a layer of the upper middle class that has embraced New Zealand imperialism in the Pacific; and maintaining these neo-colonial interests depends on support from the United States and Australia.

Damn! I had no idea TDB was a front for United States propaganda! That sneaky Bradbury has obviously been squirreling away the CIA’s Bitcoin down the back of his computer! I guess that’s why Tom includes TDB’s Editor in the upper-middle-class. All Martyn’s talk about being a member of the propertyless generation – nothing but a cover-story! In reality, he owns a five-bedroom, two-bathroom villa in Remuera and a tidy little holiday home in Taupo. (That’s where he keeps his deep-laid plans for the expansion of New Zealand imperialism. En garde Samoa! En garde Tonga!)

You get the picture. It’s always the same with WSWS stories. Excellent analysis right up until the last few paragraphs, where the writers are presumably instructed by their editors to go and spoil it all by spewing needless (if unintentionally hilarious) invective all over their ideological foes.

To be fair, at least the WSWS writers keep their critiques political – I’m thinking of getting a T-shirt that says: “Genuine Pseudo-Leftist”. It’s definitely a step-up from the relentless Woke vituperation found on Twitter. Even so, I always come away from the WSWS wishing that the defenders of Leon Trotsky’s legacy would finally dispense with the self-destructive self-indulgence of sectarianism.

Just imagine how far the revolution could be advanced if the Marxist Left confined itself to spreading the word that there are still chains to be lost – still a world to win.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 24 September 2021.

Is This What We Want?

Heavy Hands: Over the past few days, the centre of Melbourne has witnessed some of the worst political violence in a generation. Police officers have been hospitalised. Rubber bullets have been fired. Hundreds have been arrested. And all because the state government of Victoria is insisting that all construction workers present evidence of vaccination before being allowed onto their building sites.

“YOU NEED TO GIVE PEOPLE what they want. Not what you want to give them. Or they’ll get it from someone else.” The whole trick of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic effectively has been to convince a solid majority of the population that they actually want what the experts reckon they should have.

Jacinda Ardern has done this better than any other leader on earth. Her “Team of Five Million” rhetoric galvanising New Zealanders like no other people on earth. She made us believe we were all in this together, and her Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, reassured us that she – and we – were right. New Zealanders had no need to get what they wanted from someone else – they already had it.

This week, however, the formula fell apart. This week Jacinda Ardern and her Cabinet had to choose between what the experts reckoned New Zealanders should have, and what New Zealanders – or, at least, the third of them living in Auckland – actually wanted. Crucially, they had ceased to be the same.

Most of the epidemiologists and “modellers” upon whom New Zealanders have come to rely for reassurance that Jacinda and her Team of Five Million are doing all the right things, would have preferred Auckland to remain in Level 4 Lockdown for at least another week. Politically, however, that had ceased to be a viable proposition. What Aucklanders had been led to expect, and what they really, really wanted, was a move down to Level 3. So, that is what they got.

The epidemiologists and modellers described the Prime Minister’s decision (politely) as a “calculated risk”. Others, with less civility, called it a “gamble”. These doubters looked around the world and noted how little success anybody has had, anywhere, at “stamping out” the Delta Variant of Covid-19. Their intuition told them that the extraordinary success of this country’s “Elimination Strategy” – which, far from turning New Zealand into a “Hermit Kingdom”, had transformed it into a passable imitation of Shangri La – had finally met its match in Delta. The nature of the game is changing.

The Prime Minister is now being called upon to pivot away from her highly successful Elimination Strategy, and convince New Zealanders that what they want now, more than anything, is for 90 percent-plus of the population over the age of 12 to be fully vaccinated by Christmas. With upwards of 90 percent of teenage and adult New Zealanders “double-jabbed”, say the rules of this new Covid game, New Zealand will be well-positioned to “live with” the Coronavirus. Managed properly, life in a fully-vaccinated New Zealand could return – almost – to normal.

Which would be fine, if every New Zealander could be relied upon to bring a rational and reasonable frame of mind to the idea of near-universal vaccination being the only way to bring their country safely out from under Covid-19. But, that is a very big ask – quite possibly too big. Polling has revealed upwards of a quarter of the population either seriously hesitant about, or downright resistant to, receiving the Pfizer vaccine. In other words, relying upon the good sense of our fellow citizens might not be enough to get us through the Delta challenge.

Okay, that’s disappointing, but nil desperandum! If too many people are either hesitant or resistant, then the next obvious step is to issue Vaccination Passports to all those who have done their civic duty. Flourish one of these and the world will open to you. Fail to present one, and, sorry, but you can’t come in. No Jab, No Job! Or anything else.

No one’s proposing to strap the anti-vaxxers to a table and stick ‘em with a syringe-full of Pfizer. It’s their right to refuse the jab. But, by the same token, its society’s right to exact a price for that refusal.

Except that’s a dreadfully risky course to take. Over the past few days, the centre of Melbourne has witnessed some of the worst political violence in a generation. Police officers have been hospitalised. Rubber bullets have been fired. Hundreds have been arrested. And all because the state government of Victoria is insisting that all construction workers present evidence of vaccination before being allowed onto their building sites.

Stamping out Covid-19 by stomping on the heads of our fellow citizens? Is that really what New Zealand wants?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 September 2021.

Thursday 23 September 2021

Hi-Viz Vengeance On Melbourne’s Streets.

Fuck The Jab! Are all these protesting Melbourne construction workers right? No, of course not. Covid-19 is not a figment of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ imagination. Nor can one help speculating, just a little, that mixed-in with all this working-class fury there might also be a pretty large dose of toxic Aussie masculinity. What is absolutely indisputable, however, is that the ignorance and aggression on display in Melbourne has not materialised overnight, out of thin air.

THE LAST PLACE a young, well-educated, socially-liberal, mask-wearing Melburnian should be found today (22/9/21) is on the streets of downtown Melbourne. All morning, squads of increasingly angry and frustrated riot police have been clashing with groups of even angrier and more frustrated young men – most of them construction workers – protesting furiously against mandatory Covid-19 vaccination, and Labor Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews’ decision to shut down Melbourne’s construction sites for a further two weeks. Anyone looking like a supporter of mandatory vaccination, Andrews, or even the “sell out” CFMEU (the construction workers’ union) who fell into these protesters’ hands would be in for a very hard time indeed.

It is most unlikely that Andrews and his advisers anticipated the explosion of anger that has followed their decision to make vaccination mandatory for construction workers. Pandemic decision-making is driven by the data – which showed a very low vaccination rate among this group of workers. Superficially, their reasoning was sound. By making the jab mandatory, unvaccinated tradies, desperate to get back to work, would be quick to comply. Where was the advantage in resistance?

Unfortunately, reason had nothing to do with it.

In the minds of an alarming number of the young, fit, Aussie males who dominate the Victorian construction industry, the so-called “Covid-19 Pandemic” was a crock of shit: nothing but a smokescreen laid down by the “elites”, whose unholy intention has always been to crush the spirit of hard-working working-class men by robbing them of their freedom. Why else did these high-viz demonstrators make a bee-line for the CFMEU’s headquarters as the protests kicked-off? Because if there’s one institution guaranteed to stand up for a working man’s freedom, then it’s his union. Right?


The CFMEU bosses, also acting reasonably, wanted to get their guys back to work as soon as possible. The building sites had been far too quiet for far too long. The members were running out of money. If the price of getting the construction industry up-and-running again was not objecting to a compulsory jab for all the lazy bastards who’d failed to get one during the weeks of lockdown, then the CFMEU would keep its mouth firmly shut. After all, which freedom was more important? The freedom to be a bloody idiot? Or, the freedom to get out and get earning again? It shouldn’t have been that hard a choice to make!

But it was.

And by the time the union bosses realised that way more blokes than they ever expected were not only refusing to get jabbed, but also blaming the union for not defending their right to say No, it was too late. There were hundreds of them right outside their front door. In vain did they demand the right to be heard. These anti-vax unionists were in no mood for explanations. First they hurled insults, then bottles, then rocks. Pretty soon all the CFMEU officials could hear was the chant every union boss dreads: “You sold us out! You sold us out! You sold us out!”

Sensibly, they retreated. This was something for the cops to sort out.

Well, yeah, usually. But these guys are very different from the middle-class sons and daughters that Melbourne’s finest are usually called upon to police during protests. Very few of those kids are willing to mix it up with the coppers – even if they were capable of such non-verbal communication. Young construction workers on the other hand: blokes who know how to handle themselves; they are a whole different story. What’s more, they’re Australians. Mixing it up with the coppers is as old as Ned Kelly – and practically an obligation. No red-blooded, working-class Aussie is going to run away from the Police – until the shooting starts.

And that’s the problem – isn’t it? The last thing Premier Andrews needs right now are half-a-dozen young construction workers bleeding-out on Flinders Street. What’s more, the protesters know it. The Riot Squad can squirt all the pepper spray, and fire all the rubber bullets it likes, but so long as their numbers hold-up, these protesters aren’t going anywhere. Hell, they’ve even drawn up a batshit crazy list of demands – just like the miners at the Eureka Stockade. And if the cops actually do start shooting? Well, who’s for an irrational revolution?

So, where the bloody hell does that leave the political leadership of Victoria and Australia? Where has all this batshit craziness come from? Best guess? It’s come from nearly forty years of working-class blokes being looked straight through – as if they weren’t there. It’s been born out of the yawning chasm between the people who get the respectful nods, and the people on the receiving end of the contemptuous sneers. Between the classy types who talk knowledgably about good wine and boutique breweries, and the guys who drink the same brand of beer as their dads’. If you shove a whole class out of sight, and make it crystal clear that nobody who matters gives a rat’s arse what they think about anything, then winning their trust when it really, really matters, is bound to be a struggle.

After all, the bosses have been telling them for forty years that all these bad things that keep happening to them cannot be helped. Yes they may be painful, but they are also necessary. And besides, there are no alternatives. That was shit forty years ago, and it’s still shit. So, when the working-class hears the people in charge spewing out the same old rhetoric about painful but necessary adjustments – for the good of all – is it any wonder that the first response of a fair old chunk of them is scepticism?

Especially when there are YouTube videos and Facebook posts telling them that this whole Covid thing is a hoax – just another trick by billionaire vampires to deprive them of what little freedom they have left.

Especially when the “nice” people get to work from home on full pay, while the gates to the city’s building sites remain firmly padlocked.

Are all these protesting construction workers right, then? No, of course not. Covid-19 is not a figment of Daniel Andrews’ imagination. Nor can one help speculating, just a little, that mixed-in with all this working-class fury there might also be a pretty large dose of toxic Aussie masculinity. What is absolutely indisputable, however, is that the ignorance and aggression on display on the streets of Melbourne has not materialised overnight, out of thin air.

As W.H. Auden wrote on the eve of the Second World War:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 23 September 2021.

Wednesday 22 September 2021

Outdated Views? Andrea Vance On Sean Plunket.

Re-Platforming: In the eyes of senior Stuff journalist, Andrea Vance, Sean Plunket’s “dalliances with controversy make it easy to paint him as a two-dimensional character: a right-wing, shock-jock with outdated views on privilege and race.” Dear me! The scorn dripping from those words could fill a large spittoon! Regardless, Plunket’s new media product “The Platform” will soon be going head-to-head with his woke detractors.

IT’S ONE OF THOSE throwaway lines which, precisely because so little conscious thought was given to it, tells us so much. The author, Andrea Vance, is an experienced political journalist working for Stuff. The subject of Vance’s throwaway line, Sean Plunket, is an equally experienced journalist. It was in her recent story about Plunket’s soon-to-be-launched online media product “The Platform”, that Vance wrote: “Plunket’s dalliances with controversy make it easy to paint him as a two-dimensional character: a right-wing, shock-jock with outdated views on privilege and race.”

It’s hard to get past those first four words. The picture Vance is painting is of a dilettante: someone who flits from one inconsequential pursuit to another, taking nothing seriously. And, of course, the use of the word “dalliances” only compounds this impression. To “dally” with somebody it to treat them casually, offhandedly – almost as a plaything. Accordingly, a “dalliance” should be seen as the very opposite of a genuine commitment. It smacks of self-indulgence. A cure, perhaps, for boredom?

To dally with controversy, therefore, is to betray a thoroughly feckless character. Controversies are all about passion and commitment. Controversies are taken seriously. Indeed, a controversy is usefully defined as a dispute taken seriously by all sides. And yet, according to Vance, Plunket has only been playing with controversy: trifling with it, as a seducer trifles with the affections of an innocent maid.

In Vance’s eyes, this indifference to matters of genuine and serious concern distinguishes Plunket as a “two-dimensional character”. It reduces him to a cardboard cut-out, a promotional poster, a thing of printer’s ink and pixels – insubstantial. Or, which clearly amounts to the same thing as far as Vance is concerned: “a right-wing, shock-jock with outdated views on privilege and race.” Dear me! The scorn dripping from those words could fill a large spittoon!

As if the holding of right-wing views somehow renders a person less than three-dimensional. As if conservative thinkers from Aristotle to Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke to Carl Schmidt haven’t contributed enormously to Western political thought. As if Keith Holyoake, Jim Bolger and Bill English aren’t respected by New Zealanders of all political persuasions for their rough-hewn dignity and love of country. To hold right-wing views isn’t a sickness, It doesn’t make you a bad person. It merely denotes a preference for the familiar; a wariness of the new; and a deep-seated fear of sudden and unmandated change.

As for “shock-jocks”: well, that is the sort of broadcasting talent commercial radio producers are constantly searching for. People of energy and enthusiasm, with a way of communicating both qualities to the radio station’s listeners. And if they also have a talent for decoding the zeitgeist on air: for tapping into the audience’s anger and frustration; and giving voice to their hopes and their fears? Well, then they are worth their weight in gold – and usually get it. The more people a “shock-jock” glues to the station’s frequency, the more the advertisers are prepared to pay. That’s the business.

Perhaps Vance should have a word with the people who pay her salary: perhaps they could explain where all that money comes from.

The most important words, however, Vance saves for last. What really confirms Plunket’s lack of three dimensions are his “outdated views on privilege and race”. It is with these six words that Vance betrays both herself and her newspaper.

Who says Plunket’s views on privilege and race are “outdated”? According to whose measure? After all, his views on privilege and race correspond closely with those of Dr Martin Luther King. Is Vance asserting that Dr King’s view that people should not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character, is outdated? Is she suggesting that a poor white man has more in the way of privilege than Oprah Winfrey? Or that the privileges which flow from superior economic power and social status count for less than those attached to race, gender and sexuality?

The answer is Yes. Those who declare such views to be “outdated” are, indeed, making all of the claims listed above. This locates them among a relatively narrow section of the population: highly educated; paid well above the average; more than adequately housed; and enjoying all the “privileges” accruing to those who manage the bodies and shape the minds of their fellow citizens.

Andrea Vance is a member of this truly privileged group, and so, at one time, was Sean Plunket. So, why the sneering condescension? Why the scorn? The answer is to be found in the new priorities of the truly privileged; the people who actually run this society. They have determined that their interests are better served by fostering division and bitterness. Rather than see people promote a view of human-beings that unites them in a common quest for justice and equality, they would rather Blacks assailed Whites, women assailed men, gays assailed straights, trans assailed TERFS – and vice versa. In short, the “One Percent” have decided that their interests are better protected by corporations, universities and the mainstream news media all promoting the ideology of identity politics.

By setting his face against this new “Woke” establishment, Sean Plunket the conservative poses as large a threat to the status quo as Martyn Bradbury the radical. On the one hand stand those who question the necessity and morality of changes now deemed essential by persons no one elected. On the other, those who insist that such divisive policies will produce results diametrically opposed to their promoters’ intentions. Right and Left, joined in an “outdated” search for the common ground that makes rational politics possible. The place where both sides are willing to acknowledge and agree that, in the words of John F. Kennedy:

[I]n the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 21 September 2021.

Monday 20 September 2021

A Coalition Of The Waning.

The Sunset Of Anglo-Saxon Imperialism: To join this “Coalition of the Waning”: this AUKUS pact composed of the three military aggressors of the Iraq War; would not only be folly – it would be criminal folly.

THE FORMATION OF AUKUS, the new military pact linking Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, is a mirage. It’s most important element, the arming of the Australian Navy with 8-12 nuclear-powered attack submarines, will almost certainly never happen. The Chinese Government, against which the agreement is aimed, will not be daunted. Indeed, in a shrewd diplomatic manoeuvre, Beijing has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) from which the USA remains self-excluded, and of which New Zealand remains the “secretary”. What other word except “mirage” is fit to describe this latest, rather desperate, fantasy of Anglo-Saxon imperialism? Long-term strategic decline cannot be wished away by dreaming up a new acronym.

Not that New Zealand’s foreign affairs and defence “establishment” (FADE) will understand AUKUS in such terms. To the contrary, it is already mounting a full-court press to convince New Zealanders that their country has been slighted and snubbed, and its long-term national security imperilled, because their government has not sung along lustily enough in the new “Indo-Pacific” chorus-line. Over the next few weeks and months FADE will attempt to apply maximum pressure on Jacinda Ardern’s government by wheeling out every academic expert, former military officer, US-aligned politician and journalist at its disposal.

The first of what promises to be a great many of these AUKUS promoters appeared on the Q+A current affairs programme just yesterday morning (19/9/21). Former New Zealand Deputy-Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, with the sparkling waters of the Bay of Islands as his backdrop, was interviewed with uncharacteristic deference by the programme’s presenter, Jack Tame. Absent entirely from this encounter was the hectoring tone usually reserved for the NZ First leader by mainstream journalists. What viewers saw was a senior New Zealand statesman invited to shed light on New Zealand’s disturbing exclusion from this new and important security agreement.

Peters, naturally, did not disappoint. Indeed his performance was excellent – full of gravitas and more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger exasperation at the failings of his former Labour colleagues. He didn’t quite say Si vis pacem, para bellum (he who desires peace, should prepare for war) but that was clearly the message delivered by this antipodean Cincinnatus. Peters also made it plain that words have consequences: a not-so-subtle reminder that while his speeches as Foreign Minister only strengthened this country’s relationship with the United States, the speeches of Nanaia Mahuta have produced the opposite effect.

With the National Party locked in what Matthew Hooton calls a “death spiral”, and Act out of contention as a coalition partner for Labour, NZ First presents the Americans with a tempting prize. Subject to proper nurturing, and the right kind of advice, Peters’ party could once again find itself in a position to dangle the keys to the kingdom in front of a desperate Labour caucus. As the price of opening the castle gates, Peters could demand – and would, almost certainly, be given – both the Foreign Affairs and Defence portfolios. The chances are high that, very soon thereafter, the doors to AUKUS would also swing open.

The next New Zealand General Election is, however, still two years away, and much can change in two years. Beijing has just handed Wellington an extraordinary opportunity to place itself at the head of those Indo-Pacific nations that would much rather expand the opportunities for economic co-operation and trade, than join in ratchetting-up the tensions of a new Cold War. Imagine the diplomatic awkwardness for Canberra if Washington made it clear to “the fella down-under” that he was expected to blackball China from membership in the CPTPP. A China seeking to increase economic opportunities across the Indo-Pacific region would have been frozen-out by an Australian government more interested in the prospects of war than the benefits of peace. The contrast between the policies of Wellington and Canberra could not be rendered more starkly: to New Zealand’s Pacific neighbours, her trading partners, and, not least, to Beijing.

It is also quite possible that, by 2023, the United States will be embroiled in domestic strife bordering on civil-war. By fair means or foul the Republican Party appears poised to seize back control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in next year’s mid-term elections. With both the Congress and the Supreme Court under their effective control, the possibility exists that the Republicans will attempt to depose President Biden and replace him with Donald Trump. The Trump-dominated Republican Party is certainly crazy enough to try. The real question, then, will be: who, in a constitutionally compromised United States, possesses both the means – and the will – to stop them? Is the American military prepared to destroy the American republic in order to save it? If it is, then AUKUS will be the last thing on its mind!

As for those nuclear-powered submarines the Americans have promised their Australian “mates”. To employ a popular Australianism: “Tell ‘em they’re dreaming!” The six diesel-powered Collins-class subs the Aussies already possess have been one long pain in the Australian Navy’s arse. Plagued by repeated breakdowns and difficulties in accessing spare parts, the Australian submarine fleet is almost never fully functional.

When it is ready for action, however, the Collins-class submarine is considerably nimbler and harder to detect than its larger, nuclear-powered, counterparts. Having only just learned how to get the best out of their current fleet, the idea that their incredibly hard to recruit submariners will have to master an infinitely more complex boat must be seriously depressing Australia’s naval commanders.

And that’s not even factoring-in the white-hot fury of the French – who have just been stiffed out of $93 billion!

All of which suggests that, upon hearing the news about AUKUS, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Canada’s Justin Trudeau would have both breathed huge sighs of relief. There is something ever-so-slightly bonkers about this supposedly “new” security arrangement. For a start, what, exactly, is new about cobbling together military alliances against surging nation-states threatening to up-end the status quo? Isn’t that the sort of carry-on that led to World War I?

More to the point, how is anyone supposed to take Boris Johnson and his brand new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth II, seriously? A man so enamoured with the life and times of Winston Churchill surely cannot have forgotten the fate of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse – sunk, almost casually, by Japanese bombers in December 1941? Surely, someone has told him about China’s hypersonic, carrier-killing missiles?

And what are the Chinese supposed to make of British warships in the South China Sea? Johnson may have forgotten all about the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century, but Xi Jinping has not.

Surely, it is time for New Zealand to break free of the imperial project in which it has been enmeshed for the past 181 years? Surely, as an independent nation, it is in our long-term interests to recognise Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States for what they are? The three countries which, in March 2003, and in blatant contravention of international law and the United Nations Charter, attacked and invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq. In planning and unleashing aggressive war upon a country which had not attacked them, the leaders of the US, the UK and Australia were guilty of the same war crimes for which the leaders of Nazi Germany were tried and convicted at Nuremburg in 1946. To join this “Coalition of the Waning”: this pact composed of the three military aggressors of the Iraq War; would not only be folly – it would be criminal folly.

The shimmering vision of Imperial Hegemony Regained: the mirage which leads Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison deeper and deeper into a waterless diplomatic desert; will be the ruin of them all.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 20 September 2021.

“No Debate!” Means No Democracy.

To The Lamp-Post With Them! Revolutionaries, along with the counter-revolutionaries they inevitably call into existence, are not disposed to engage in rational political discussion with their opponents. Their objective is not to change minds, but to crush bodies. Tragically, those who rule out the possibility of debate, almost always end up ruling out the possibility of democracy as well.

WHAT DOES A POLICY of “No Debate!” produce? What is the nature of the politics that emerges from such a context? When at least one side of a contentious issue acknowledges absolutely nothing in the arguments of its opponents that is worthy of any other response but vituperation and violence – what happens?

As is so often the case, the Weimar Republic offers us some grim lessons. Its very name tells a story. Born in 1918 amidst the chaos that followed Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the recently proclaimed republic drew up its new constitution in the ancient Thuringian city of Weimar. Why? Because in the German capital, Berlin, running street battles between the Left and the Right made it an unsuitable locale for rational debate.

Extremism also stalked the streets of Bavaria’s largest city, Munich. Students of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich will recognise Munich as the “home” of National Socialism: the city where the Nazi Party’s “Brownshirts” brawled in the beerhalls and roughed up socialists in the streets. Less understood, however, are the political dynamics that made the formation of the Sturmabteilung (Stormtroopers) necessary.

Before it became a bastion of the extreme German Right, Munich had, briefly, been in the hands of the extreme German Left. The city was polarised in ways most New Zealanders living in the twenty-first century would struggle to imagine. Those of us old enough to remember the tensions of the 1981 Springbok Tour might have some inkling but, given that no one was killed in those disturbances, not enough. In short, Munich was a city in which “No Debate!” was the rule – on both sides of the barricades.

It was in response to the standard communist tactic of breaking-up the meetings of their ideological opponents that Hitler and his right-hand man, Ernst Rohm (a former soldier and military adventurer with close ties to the upper echelons of the German Army) took steps to recruit young war veterans to guard Nazi venues and beat-off left-wing attackers. (Their trade-mark brown shirts were purchased as a job-lot by Rohm when Germany, having lost its African colonies, found itself in possession of a warehouse full of useless colonial uniforms.)

As the Nazi Party grew in strength, and the Stormtroopers in number, the tables were turned on Munich’s left-wing extremists. Now it was the Brownshirts who were breaking-up the meetings of communists and social-democrats, or gathering outside left-wing venues to menace and harass anyone foolhardy enough to attempt entry. The extreme Left, which had pioneered the “No Debate!” tactic against “reactionaries”, now found their earlier disruptions repaid, with interest, by the pistol-packing bully-boys of the extreme Right.

Weimar’s judgement on the extremist policy of permitting “No Debate!” with ideological opponents is a harsh one. It drives political groups further and further apart, and makes any kind of resolution of political differences impossible. Deployed against one side, it will be taken up with vengeful alacrity by the other. Political polarisation deepens, and the civil political discourse upon which democracy depends retreats ever further from the public square. Moreover, as the fate of the Weimar Republic makes tragically clear: what the Left starts, the Right is happy to finish.

And the point of this history lesson is – what?

Simply, that the current policy of trans-gender activists to countenance “No Debate!” with feminists apprehensive about how the proposed amendments to the Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Act might impact on the rights of women and girls, has generated an astonishing level of political vituperation – up to and including repeated efforts to deny their opponents both the freedom of expression and the freedom to assemble peacefully.

Just how vicious this “No Debate” fight has become was illustrated when the Otago Daily Times published an advertisement submitted by the Stand Up For Women group. By agreeing to carry SUFW’s message – the dictionary definition of “woman” – the newspaper exposed itself to bitter and sustained attack from trans-gender activists on social media. By allowing their enemies (for that is how “trans-exclusionary” feminists are perceived) to define the meaning of woman, the ODT was accused of taking up position on the wrong side of history.

By upholding freedom of speech and facilitating civil democratic debate, however, the ODT has shown its understanding of history’s “wrong side” to be both deeper and stronger than its critics’.

This essay was originally published in the Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 September 2021.

Friday 17 September 2021

Keep New Zealand Nuclear-Free – Stay Out of AUKUS!

Playing With The Big Boys' Toys: The US faces an array of enemies it is no longer certain it can beat – not without destroying itself at the same time. Equipping the Aussies with nuclear submarines (and other things) represents the moment in the Western movie when the grizzled old wagon-master reluctantly places a six-gun in the eager hands of a twelve-year-old. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t think of it, but there are “Injuns” out there, and the wagon train needs every gun it’s got.

THANK GOD New Zealand is not a member of the new “AUKUS” alliance. Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have joined forces in a military pact that has only one purpose: the intimidation and restraint of China. The price of admission to this latest demonstration of Anglo-Saxon hegemony is a willingness to “go nuclear”. Not a problem for the US and the UK, both of which have possessed nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered vessels for decades. It is, however, a very big, and potentially disastrous, step for Australia, which once boasted a nuclear-free movement every bit as noisy (remember Midnight Oil?) as New Zealand’s.

Indeed, had the Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, not been a highly valued CIA asset of long-standing, it is possible – even likely – that both Australia and New Zealand would have ended up declaring themselves “Nuclear Free”.

The consequences of such a double declaration would have been profound. Not to be outdone by these far-flung antipodeans, the Nordic countries may well have followed suit. In time, the whole of the Southern Hemisphere may have rejected the madness of “mutual and assured destruction”. Seeing Reds, the Americans would certainly have had several pink fits. Not enough, though, to prevent the world from taking a slightly different course.

An intriguing counterfactual history, to be sure. What actually happened, of course, is that the Americans, having failed to “secure” David Lange as they had secured Bob Hawke, were taken completely off guard when the New Zealand Labour Party followed the breadcrumbs of sanity out of the nuclear forest. Washington was mightily pissed-off, naturally, but hey – at least it wasn’t Australia!

Certainly, Australia has never wavered in its determination to be the United States “Deputy-Sheriff” in what is now called the “Indo-Pacific” region. Ever since Japanese bombers, in about the same time it took them to get their bomb-bays open, sank HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales – and with them all the illusions of an overstretched British Empire – Canberra has tossed all its diplomatic and military chips into Washington’s pot. It does not intend to be caught out ever again as it was in December 1941. Henceforth, Australia would be right there in the room when the strategic decisions were being made – not 12,000 miles away. When your enemies are close, says Canberra, keep your friends closer.

The only alternative to taking up residence in Uncle Sam’s rectum, as far as the national security boffins and senior military brass were concerned, was for Australia to develop its own atomic bomb. Nuts? Maybe, but for a much longer period than one might have thought possible (1961-1973) the Australian right-wing governments of Robert Menzies and his successors were willing to give it a go. That they never quite managed to build an Aussie bomb was due largely to the refusal of the Brits and the Yanks to supply them with the wherewithal to do so. Anglo-Saxon imperialism may have been pretty crazy, but it wasn’t that crazy!

Fifty years on, and how things have changed. Washington is now willing to lease a dozen or more Los-Angeles-class nuclear-powered submarines to the Australian Navy. Why? Because, almost certainly, the secret protocols of the AUKUS Pact make it clear that, along with the nuclear-powered attack submarines, Australia will be given access to the “technology” it has always craved. Finally, Canberra will have what it takes to wipe the smirks off the faces of the Generals of the Peoples Liberation Army. Very soon America’s Deputy-Sheriff will be packing nuclear pistols.

If all this sounds like one of those paranoid Aussie television series, then it only goes to show that if you want to tell the truth – write fiction. AUKUS is proof positive that the Anglo-Saxon world has lost its nerve. It is the twenty-first century equivalent of circling the wagons against the Native Americans. The US faces an array of enemies it is no longer certain it can beat – not without destroying itself at the same time. Equipping the Aussies with nuclear submarines (and other things) represents the moment in the Western movie when the grizzled old wagon-master reluctantly places a six-gun in the eager hands of a twelve-year-old. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t think of it, but there are “Injuns” out there, and the wagon train needs every gun it’s got.

The New Zealand Government, its Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs especially, will happily stay as far away from this lunacy as possible – and the country’s anti-nuclear legislation gives them the perfect excuse. Moreover, with its paltry team of five million and its disturbing unwillingness to beat the war drum as enthusiastically as its much larger and more co-operative neighbour, New Zealand is dispensable. For the moment, Washington is perfectly happy to have the Kiwis cooling their heels outside the room where the big strategic decisions are being made.

All of New Zealand’s recent history, however, suggests that not being in the room is a situation which the New Zealand Defence Force will deem intolerable. It is also highly likely that a significant number of senior bureaucrats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade will be equally disturbed by our “no show” at the AUKUS party. They will be worried that Beijing, observing these developments from afar, will see a gap just large enough to accommodate a big, fat Chinese diplomatic lever. The “Deep State” (the military, key players in the state bureaucracy, and the national security apparatus) is unlikely to tolerate New Zealand being separated from its “traditional allies” for too long.

New Zealand’s prime minister, and her nuclear-free team of five million, should fasten their seat-belts: the next few months look set to give them all a very bumpy ride. As if fighting Covid-19 wasn’t enough, Jacinda should prepare for her very own anti-nuclear moment.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 17 September 2021.

Thursday 16 September 2021

The Indiscreet Charmlessness Of Upper-Class Rule-Breakers.

Rules Are For Little People: Those who claim that all human-beings are equal have obviously never encountered a man on horseback when they are travelling on foot!

THE UPPER-CLASS ABSCONDERS from Auckland’s Level 4 Lockdown have done the rest of New Zealand a favour. They have exposed, in the most dramatic terms, the true extent of the social gulf separating the wealthiest New Zealanders from the poorest.

Just for a moment, the “average Kiwi” has been given a glimpse of how the upper-class lives. In this world of thoroughbred horses, bucolic rural estates, powers-that-be parents, and million-dollar holiday homes, the triumphs and tragedies of ordinary people simply do not register.

What has registered with ordinary people, however, is that the importance of following “The Rules” depends entirely on one’s position in the social hierarchy. Rule-following is crucial to the management of the wayward masses, but, for the people in whom the system reposes its greatest trust, playing by the rules is, clearly, optional.

I shall never forget the moment when my confidence in the notion that New Zealand was a country without great extremes of wealth was profoundly shaken. I was on my way north to Christchurch with some Dunedin friends, and we were passing through the North Otago countryside where I grew up. Quite how the subject of “Cosy Dell” came up, I can’t remember, but somehow I persuaded our driver to make a quick detour off Highway One so that we could all view this picturesque holiday spot perched on the banks of the Waianakarua River. When we got there, however, what I had prepared them to see bore no resemblance to the reality that awaited us.

You see, when I was a little lad, Cosy Dell had the sort of holiday homes familiar to all New Zealanders. Scattered amongst the native bush were the modest “cribs” (as South Islanders insist on calling baches) that families had built as more effective protection against the elements than canvass. Off the beaten track, land was purchasable by all but the most indigent souls. And the building codes? Well, they were as ramshackle as the holiday homes themselves. The first five decades of the twentieth century, in New Zealand, were freer and easier times. It was the quaint evidence of these far-off decades that I expected to see. What I actually saw was the 1980s.

Perched on the bush-covered hillsides of Cosy Dell were mansions masquerading as holiday homes. Architect-designed houses that would have graced the fanciest streets of Remuera, Khandallah, Fendalton and Māori Hill. And they were empty! Hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars-worth of real estate just sitting there among the trees – unoccupied. Everyone in the car stared at these “cribs” open-mouthed.

Scarcely believing my eyes, I exited the vehicle and walked along the road, looking around despondently for the holiday homes of yesteryear. My friends joined me, taking in the rattle of the swift little river and the tinkling calls of bellbirds in the branches. Eventually, we spotted what was left of a genuine crib – looking like a tramp at the Ritz. Shaking our heads in disbelief, we got back in the car, and re-joined the highway to Christchurch.

That was when I first grasped what was happening to New Zealand. Even before the sweeping changes of Rogernomics, the gap between the rich and the poor was widening. I knew all about Wanaka and Lake Hayes, the places where Dunedin’s wealthiest citizens spend their summers. I’d heard the stories about swimming pools, private tennis courts and palatial retreats. But all that was no more than I expected. Elites discreetly showing off to members of their own class, in the places where their class went to show off. That sort of conspicuous consumption was as old as Pompeii. But Cosy Dell! Who the hell had enough money to build a mansion in Cosy Dell? Who was going to see it?

I suppose I should have been grateful that the upper-class still felt it advisable to exercise discretion when it came to displaying their wealth. It was only out of the purest nostalgia that I had returned to Cosy Dell. That this tiny, virtually unheard of, holiday resort had, in the 16 years I had been away, become a place of astonishing opulence, took me completely by surprise . Most travellers drove straight past the turn-off without a second glance, blissfully unaware of its existence.

That was all about to change, of course. All that upper-class discretion, which hid the family pile behind high walls and mature trees. After 1984, it lasted about as long as an asset-rich private company in the sights of Brierley Investments. By the late-1980s the cry of the nouveau riche was: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it! Fuck the poor!”

And they did – royally.

And they still are, it seems, and not just the poor, but the middle-classes as well! Indeed, it’s hard to know who was more pissed-off with the Auckland Absconders – the very poor or the moderately well-off? Historically, at least, it is the furious ambivalence of the middle-classes which those at the very top of the social pyramid should fear the most. The petit-bourgeoisie believes in nothing so much as following the rules, so it is dangerous in the extreme for the upper-class to laugh at their self-righteous obedience. Even more dangerous, however, is setting up a situation in which the story of Anacharsis and his web strikes a raw nerve.

The Web of Anacharsis? Why, I thought you’d never ask!

“Your laws are like cobwebs,” declared the Scythian prince, Anacharsis, to the celebrated Athenian lawgiver, Solon, more than two-and-a-half millennia ago: “for if any trifling or powerless thing falls into them, they hold it fast, but if a thing of any size falls into them it breaks the mesh and escapes.”

Or should that be “absconds”?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 16 September 2021.

Tuesday 14 September 2021

Not Understood: Chris Trotter Replies To Susan St John.

Wishful Thinker: While the people from the “leafy suburbs’” salaries, house-prices, social-status and children’s futures depend upon them not understanding either the economic disadvantages of unequal wealth distribution, or the sheer dehumanising agony of grinding poverty, then they will go on not understanding it. Do you not understand, Susan, even after 30 years? They don’t want to know! Their ignorance is blissful.

I HAVE BEEN an admirer of Susan St John and her work for the best part of 30 years. So much so that in 1992 I put her picture on the cover of my magazine, New Zealand Political Review. In a country where the number of progressive public intellectuals is shrinking alarmingly, Susan stands out as a forthright champion of social justice for New Zealand’s most vulnerable citizens.

It is sobering, therefore, to find myself branded a cynic by this tireless campaigner against child poverty – not to mention being called out for my patronising and dismissive attitude towards Labour-voting women! Had the case Susan presented in rebuttal of my Daily Blog post “Staying Focused: Why Labour Still Won’t Help The Poor” been strong one, I would have breathed a heavy sigh of contrition and retired hurt.

But, Susan’s case was not strong, it was weak. The old saying, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride”, sprang to mind. Or, perhaps more accurately: “If expressions of support for the poor were more than empty rhetoric, then beggars would no longer be found sleeping on our streets.”

Because what Susan read in my posting wasn’t cynicism, it was realism (albeit expressed with a fair measure of sarcasm). That the reality described is grim I would not for one minute dispute. That I would be a great deal happier if this government’s conduct of social policy showed more evidence of empathy and courage is, similarly, indisputable. But wishing something was so, doesn’t make it so. The grim realities of poverty in New Zealand must be faced squarely – and so must this Labour Government’s consistent failure to adopt the policies required to reduce it.

According to Susan: “Two things drive the ‘don’t do anything about the poor’ group attitude. The first is naked self-interest, the second is ignorance.” I agree. Unfortunately, Susan declines to properly interrogate the former, and spends far too much time speculating about the latter.

“Naked self-interest” is a fearsome beast – with a truly terrifying ability to prevent us from hearing any argument calculated to weaken its grip on our priorities. It was the American journalist and social reformer, Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) who expressed this aspect of self-interest best. “It is very difficult to make a man understand something,” wrote Sinclair, “when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”

Knowing this to be true from bitter personal experience, I could only shake my head sadly as Susan waxed eloquent about Jacinda Ardern re-dedicating herself to the task of making “a more equal society” by providing “the leadership she’s so good at, to get the neoliberal left to re-envision the future.” How did she propose to do this? “In a sentence: appeal to their self-interest and challenge their ignorance.”

And off Susan went, in her best imitation of Don Quixote, tilting at the same windmills against which she has been setting her lance these past 30 years: The counterproductive under-investment in Māori and Pasifika communities upon which New Zealand’s economic future will increasingly depend. The dangerous stigmatisation of the poor, which our increasing reliance on private philanthropy only intensifies. (There’s a reason why people talk about something being “as cold as charity”.) The self-evident benefit to the whole of society of providing jobs, housing, health and education to all citizens. The fundamental moral obligation on the part of all human-beings to prevent children from suffering in circumstances of acute material deprivation.

But, Dear God, Susan! If this worked, it would have worked already. It would have worked 30 years ago when Jim Anderton, Sandra Lee and Jeanette Fitzsimons offered every single one of those policies to the New Zealand electorate and saw the Alliance’s vote drop from 18.3 percent to just 7.74 percent in the space of three consecutive elections. (Only to disappear altogether from the New Zealand Parliament three years later.)

While the people from the “leafy suburbs’” salaries, house-prices, social-status and children’s futures depend upon them not understanding either the economic disadvantages of unequal wealth distribution, or the sheer dehumanising agony of grinding poverty, then they will go on not understanding it. Do you not understand, Susan, even after 30 years? They don’t want to know! Their ignorance is blissful.

It is also disappointing to hear the same wishful thinking that plagued the politics of middle-class suffragettes more than 100 years ago, repeated in the twenty-first century. The highly contentious notion that enfranchising women would, somehow, “tame” society. That women were beings in possession of a higher moral sensibility that mere brute males. That a society in which women enjoyed equal rights with men would ipso facto be a kinder, gentler society.

Do you really suppose, Susan, that all these “kind Labour women” have only to “flex their muscles” and their “deep-felt concern for the unconscionable struggles of families and women doing the undervalued social care in society” will be translated instantly into the sort of “transformational” change that will bring capitalism, that unceasing generator of inequality and social injustice, to heel? There are many adjectives that could be applied to this sort of magical thinking: “patronising” and “dismissive” are two of them. Just one name, however, is sufficient to dispel it altogether: Margaret Thatcher.

With the Iron Lady firmly in mind, just think about the sort of policies which those 400,000 former National Party voters (the majority of them, if we are to believe the pollsters, women) who gave Jacinda’s Labour Party its crushing parliamentary majority, had been happy to vote for when John Key was New Zealand’s prime minister. Where was their “deep-felt concern” for the poor and exploited then?

Perhaps, Susan, that’s why you and your fellow philanthropists created the Child Poverty Action Group? Because it is much easier to extract charitable donations from the wealthy when the recipients of their generosity are blameless infants – not improvident parents. Had you called it the Poverty Action Group, it would have been a great deal harder to prise open those wallets from the leafy suburbs. Action against poverty requires action against wealth; action against privilege; action against racism and sexism. In a sentence: action against naked self-interest and ignorance. And that, as you know full well, Susan, is a much harder sell.

Seemingly, there are plenty of opportunities for cynicism in the fight against poverty. More than enough for realists and idealists.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 14 September 2021.

Monday 13 September 2021

Passport To Covid Safety.

The Badge Of Good Citizenship: Why are foreign governments insisting that people wishing to enter their country must present proof of vaccination and non-infection? Because they are committed to keeping their people safe. Why will our own government soon be requiring us to present a vaccination passport before entering a pub or a restaurant? The answer is exactly the same. Because it, too, is committed to keeping its citizens safe.

THE BEATING OF THE DELTA VARIANT of Covid-19 and the issuing of “vaccination passports” are about to become mutually reinforcing. Leastways, that is how the proposition will be framed by the Government and its expert advisers. How will it go down with the voters? Like a treat! New Zealanders want out of their Covid nightmare. Accordingly, there will be precious little tolerance for any person or group perceived to be obstructing the exit.

The practical necessity for a vaccination passport has already been recognised by the airlines. As the world gradually opens up to international travel, purchase of air-tickets will be conditional on presenting proof of both vaccination and non-infection. Nobody expects to get on a plane without a government-issued Passport. Nobody should expect to get on a plane without a vaccination passport.

After all, tourists travelling to parts of the world where dangerous diseases are endemic are required to produce evidence of vaccination. Without such evidence they are simply not permitted to fly. International travellers have accepted these rules without demur for decades. That a vocal minority are now making a fuss over an identical requirement to present proof of vaccination against Covid-19 – condemning it as an unconscionable infringement of their personal liberty – demonstrates just how weirdly Covid is making some people think and act.

Others, even more out of sync with logic and ethics, are shrugging-off the international “No Jab-No Fly” rules, but objecting fiercely to the idea of having to present a vaccination passport domestically. The idea that citizens unable to present a valid vaccination passport might be refused entry to shops and offices, factories and sports stadia, strikes these Covid dissidents as entirely unacceptable.

That the introduction of domestic vaccination passports poses challenges is indisputable, but the suggestion that the rationales for mandating the vaccination of international travellers, and ordinary citizens, differ in any substantial way, is risible. Why are foreign governments insisting that people wishing to enter their country must present proof of vaccination and non-infection? Because they are committed to keeping their people safe. Why will your own government soon be requiring you to present a vaccination passport before entering a pub or a restaurant? The answer is exactly the same. Because it, too, is committed to keeping its citizens safe.

What these Covid dissidents should be required to explain is why they refuse to be vaccinated. Epidemiologists are united in their advice that the larger the percentage of vaccinated persons becomes, the greater the probability that, even in the unlikely event of becoming infected, a vaccinated person’s chances of becoming seriously ill are extremely low. What credible explanation for not being vaccinated could they possible offer?

They certainly cannot advance the idea that the vaccine (especially the Pfizer vaccine used in New Zealand) is unsafe. Tens-of-millions of doses have been administered worldwide without incident. The number of adverse reactions is so tiny that the English language struggles to produce the right word. Infinitesimal is a good start, but a better way to put it is to say that a person is much more likely to be struck several times by lightening than they are to experience serious negative side-effects from a Covid-19 jab.

At this point Covid dissidents could start mumbling about microchips, 5G and Bill Gates’ diabolical plans for world domination – thereby ruling themselves out of contention as persons whose objections warrant serious consideration. Or, they could simply assert their rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (1990). Section 11 of the Act clearly states that: “Everyone has the right to refuse to undergo any medical treatment.”

This is an important human right and the New Zealand Government is bound to uphold it. The problem for the Covid dissidents, however, is that no one – least of all the Government – is proposing to seize them by force, strap them to a chair, and inject them with a double-dose of the Pfizer vaccine. By issuing vaccination passports the state is merely declaring that if an individual asserts his or her right to refuse to accept this particular form of medical treatment, then the community will be empowered to assert its right to protect itself from those who refuse to take the fight against Covid-19 seriously.

On a personal note, and as someone heavily invested ideologically in the NZ Bill of Rights Act – most particularly its guarantees of freedom of thought and freedom of expression – my stance on vaccination passports stands open to challenge. By way of rejoinder, I would argue that no human right is absolute. As the familiar adage goes: “Freedom of Speech does not give one the right to cry ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre.” Those who refuse to be vaccinated in the midst of a global pandemic may, in my opinion, reasonably be accused of behaving with the same reckless disregard for the welfare (and rights) of others as the reprobate who shouts ‘Fire!’

It is possible, of course, that Covid dissidents may also have heavy ideological investments. Given that New Zealand is in the grip of an epidemiological crisis which can be ameliorated to a considerable degree by as many people as possible being vaccinated, it is difficult to conceive of any ethical ideological argument that could be mounted against vaccination. The only ideological system which fits the bill is Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” – the extreme libertarian doctrine which repudiates entirely the notion that human-beings are obligated to help one another. Perhaps the most that can be said for these Objectivist objections is that although Rand’s followers are free to think such thoughts, the rest of humanity is equally free to protect themselves from their practical expression.

The only serious objection offered against the introduction of vaccination passports is that it could lead to a dangerous worsening in race relations. While Māori vaccination rates (particularly those of young Māori) lag behind the rest of the New Zealand population, the situation could easily arise of a big majority of the population happily flashing their vaccination passports at their places of work (“No Jab, No Job!”) and recreation – not to mention pharmacies and supermarkets – while young, unvaccinated Māori, lacking passports, are denied entry. That would be a recipe for real injustice – and big trouble.

A concerted effort must, therefore, be made by the Government, the Ministry of Health and Iwi service organisations of all kinds, to lift the rate of Māori vaccination as swiftly as possible. Indeed, one could reasonably argue that until this huge potential difficulty has been resolved – along with the problem of finding an effective means of addressing the needs of those with medical conditions that preclude vaccination – the roll out of vaccination passports should be delayed.

But, any delay cannot afford to be a long one. New Zealanders won’t stand for it. The Delta variant of Covid-19 has thrown the country’s hitherto highly effective “Elimination Strategy” into doubt. Aucklanders are wearying rapidly of Level 4 Lockdown. More and more, Kiwis are looking to vaccination for salvation. Realistically, that means 90-95 percent of the adult population (at the very least) getting the double (or triple) jab.

Moreover, once they’ve got it, and the vaccination passport to prove it, they will not want to see free-riders making a mockery of their public-spirited contribution to the general welfare. Aotearoa-New Zealand has never been a libertarian nation. Politically, Kiwis are much more likely to echo the words of the Roman statesman, Cicero, who famously declared:

Salus populi suprema lex esto

The safety of the people shall be the highest law.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 13 September 2021.

Friday 10 September 2021

Strange And Disturbing Times 2.0

Strange And Disturbing: If we are not living through revolutionary times, then what sort of times are we living through? Is there another great historical era that bears comparison with our present period of intellectual and moral ferment? While finding an exact historic parallel is, obviously, an impossibility – no two periods of history are exactly alike – there is an era that rings more than a few bells: The Protestant Reformation.

I’VE BEEN RACKING my brains for an historical parallel to the strange and disturbing times we’re all passing through. Because these are strange and disturbing times. Beliefs and expectations once considered rock solid melt into air (to borrow Karl Marx’s magnificent phrase) and new beliefs and expectations, emerging with dizzying speed to replace the old ones, are promoted and defended with a frightening fanaticism. When was the last time human-beings went through such a period? More importantly, how did it end?

The first place to go looking for an historical parallel is, obviously, among the great revolutions of the modern era: the French, the Russian and the Chinese. Almost by definition, these were periods of tremendous turmoil during which a significant portion of the entire population was swept up and into a vast national movement demanding decisive and fundamental change.

In the first instance, these revolutionary movements were dedicated to the removal of present evils, and to the overthrow of the political and economic forces deemed responsible. Once achieved, however, the question of what should replace the old order swiftly undermined the people’s unanimity and, in circumstances of mounting horror, the Revolution began to devour its own children.

Tempting though it was to append the word “revolutionary” to the period we are living through, I felt obliged to reject it. After all, New Zealand is not being rocked by tremendous turmoil from below. Those on the receiving end of the policies responsible for homelessness, child poverty, precarious employment and crippling indebtedness are not rioting in the streets. Nor do we see political firebrands urging them on to storm New Zealand’s equivalent of the Bastille. (The local WINZ office, perhaps?) Though revolutions are, more often than not, led by “declassed” intellectuals, they are always and everywhere massive eruptions from the social depths. Intellectuals may lead revolutions (and, more often than not, bury them) but they are made by “the people”.

If we are not living through revolutionary times, then what sort of times are we living through? Is there another great historical era that bears comparison with our present period of intellectual and moral ferment? While finding an exact historic parallel is, obviously, an impossibility – no two periods of history are exactly alike – there is an era that rings more than a few bells: The Protestant Reformation.

Generally agreed to extend from 1517, the year in which Martin Luther protested (hence the term “Protestant”) the abuses of the Catholic Church; to 1648, the year in which the Treaty of Westphalia brought the catastrophic Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants to an end; the Reformation marked a crucial turning-point in the spiritual, political, social and economic history of Europe.

The medieval concept of “Christendom” – the united community of Christian believers presided over and guided by the Catholic Church – did not survive the Reformation. In the countries of North-Western Europe, where it triumphed, Protestantism ushered in the individualistic mindset which was to prove so crucial to the development of capitalism and the evolution of modernity.

What the intellectual stresses and strains of our own time have in common with the Reformation period is that they both originated in what might be called crises of confidence in the moral underpinnings of the established order. Intellectuals, almost all of whom would today be called “academics” (but who, in their own time, were concentrated in the institutions of the Church) were losing faith in the “official” version of the Christianity handed down from above, and began conceptualising a radically new, deeply personal, relationship with God, founded on scripture and unmediated by the spiritual agents of the Church.

It was Martin Luther, and the followers he inspired, who gave this radical movement coherent vernacular expression and, by using the “new technology” of the printing press, were able to communicate the new protestant doctrine to educated middle-class audiences across Europe with unprecedented speed.

If this was a revolution, then like the radical intellectual movements of our own time, it was a revolution of the mind. Incidental to the protestant reformulation of the spiritual, moral and political Christian narratives, were deeply personal religious insights and emotions. Experiences that were in no way subject to secular compromise. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, individuals conceptualised these powerful feelings as emanations of their “soul” – the survival of which overrode all other considerations. To save their souls, protestants were prepared to both endure – and inflict – persecution and martyrdom.

Today, these powerful emotional experiences and insights are said to constitute the individual’s “personal identity” – a concept which, like the soul, our twenty-first century metaphysical reformers will go to extreme lengths to preserve, protect and defend.

Moreover, and just like their protestant predecessors, these identarians are socially and institutionally positioned to ensure that their new “truths” are entrenched in the legal and institutional frameworks of the nation state. Racial and sexual identity issues encompass both the personal and the political. The salvation of the self and the salvation of society cannot be separated. Heresy and heretics are deemed intolerable. They must be silenced.

Unquestionably, the differences between the identarians of today and the protestants of 500 years ago vastly outnumber the similarities. Nevertheless, like our own time, it was a period of extraordinary intellectual stress and strain. At stake were ideas and expectations about which people were simply unwilling to compromise. How could they, when at stake was the very essence of what they believed themselves to be, and the creation of a world in which that essence could survive and thrive?

How did it end? Badly, I’m afraid. The wars that were sparked by the Protestant Reformation, and the inevitable “Counter-Reformation” of the Catholic Church, killed millions. The German territories, which supplied the principal battlegrounds for this vicious religious conflict, are estimated to have lost a third of their inhabitants. Ultimately, Protestants and Catholics agreed to differ. Strange and disturbing times seldom end any other way.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 10 September 2021.