Saturday 30 October 2021

Three Waters: What’s Not To Like?

Zero Choices: The Sixth Labour Government’s plan: to seize the entire drinking, storm and waste water infrastructure of the nation, wrap it up in layer upon layer of legal Kevlar, and then, with the cheapest money taxpayers’ money can borrow, implement the sort of upgrades that generation after generation of cowardly local politicians have considered it more expedient to defer. What’s not to like?

WHERE ARE THE HEADS of Labour’s Caucus at? What was going through them when Nanaia Mahuta brought her “Three Waters” plan to them for ratification? What’s that you say? Nanaia didn’t bring Three Waters before Labour’s Caucus for ratification.

What a perfectly marvellous pre-1984 concept: Caucus Power!

No, this massive reform programme was just as likely to have been a Cabinet decision pure and simple. And, if The Daily Blog’s esteemed editor is to be believed, Three Waters wasn’t even Nanaia Mahuta’s idea – not really.

Apparently, the whole thing was dreamt up by David Parker, the Sixth Labour Government’s scary éminence grise. He sold his monstrous plan to Nanaia as the long-sought solution to the vexed issue of Māori and Water. A delighted Nanaia then sold it to her Māori colleagues, who, desperate for any sort of policy win (the latter being rather thin on the ground) seized it with both hands.

Which means that even if the Three Waters plan was brought in front of Labour’s Caucus for ratification, what Pakeha Labour MP in his or her right mind was going to incur the odium of raising “colonialist” objections to the fulfilment of the Crown’s te Tiriti obligations? Nobody – that’s who.

So, assuming that it was indeed the Talented Mr Parker who came up with this plan: to seize the entire drinking, storm and waste water infrastructure of the nation, wrap it up in layer upon layer of legal Kevlar, and then, with the cheapest money taxpayers’ money can borrow, implement the sort of upgrades that generation after generation of cowardly local politicians have considered it more expedient to defer; where’s the problem?

Surely it makes the very best kind of sense to nationalise the whole shebang? Surely, Mr Parker’s four “Entities”, all of them operating under “professional governance”, will manage the three waters for the benefit of the whole community – not just in the interests of the farmers, developers and industrialists who, for more than a century, have run local government as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kiwi Capitalism Incorporated? Surely, what Mr Parker is offering us is Socialism? So, come on Comrades – what’s not to like?

One word, six syllables: Sub-sid-i-ar-it-y.

Never heard of it? Well, yeah, that’s because most of us grew up in New Zealand, not Europe. Subsidiarity is a well understood and respected concept in the nations of the European Union.

Terrific. What does it mean?

According to Wikipedia: “Subsidiarity is an organizing principle [which holds] that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.”

It does not require a Professor of Political Studies to point out the synergies between Subsidiarity and Democracy. If all politics is, ultimately, local, then all democratic politics must have a local component.

Who do you call if your rubbish isn’t collected? The Council.

Who lays on the bus service? The Council.

Who makes sure clean water comes out when you turn the tap? The Council – oh – wait a minute.

Yes, yes, yes, I know: when people turned on their taps in Havelock North the water that came out wasn’t clean. Four people died. Thousands became ill. The locals were enraged. They demanded answers – and clean water. And, guess what: they got both. Subsidiarity and Democracy worked.

If “The Council” hadn’t cleaned up Havelock North’s water, then the voters of Havelock North would have elected themselves another. That’s what Democracy is all about: accountability from the governors because, ultimately, they derive their “just powers” from “the consent of the governed”.

Now, ask yourself, how accountable will these Parker/Mahuta “Entities” be to the people who turn on their taps? Because, let’s be very clear here, no ordinary person gets to vote for any of the people providing “professional governance” for the Three Waters “Entities”. Indeed, the entire system is designed to keep the ordinary person as far away from the people making the decisions as possible.

As currently designed the system works like this: Your vote contributes to the formation of a Council. Your Council’s vote contributes to the formation of a group of people whose job it is to appoint the people who will appoint the people who will run the “Entity”.

So, if there’s a problem with your water, who do you call? Not your Council – that’s for sure. While it may technically “own” the “entity” (or, at least, a part of it) it does not control it. There’s no point in calling the bodies which appoint the people who run the “entity” either, their job is done.

So, where’s the problem? You just call the “Entity”.

Yep, you can do that. It may be headquartered in a city 200 kilometres away. The person at the other end of the phone may never have so much as driven through your town. Complaints may be coming into the call centre you’ve reached every few seconds. So – good luck with that.

What featherbrained bunch of bureaucrats dreamed up this complicated and unaccountable system? The answer, sadly, is bureaucrats who wanted the new Three Waters “Entities” to be able to borrow the billions needed to upgrade our drinking, storm and waste water systems as cheaply as possible. To achieve this, they rang Standard & Poors – the credit-rating agency – and asked them what they needed to do – structure-wise – to get the best deal. The ratings agency (surprise, surprise) told them that the “Entities” had to be sealed-off, hermetically, from the influence and interference of interested parties – i.e. you and me. In the jargon: the Councils and the “Entities” had to have “separate balance sheets”.

Please don’t tell me you’re surprised. That’s how Neoliberalism works. It does all it can to insulate the key economic and social decision-makers from the influence and interference of politicians elected by the people on the receiving-end of those same decision-makers’ resolutions. On the Neoliberal balance sheet, Subsidiarity and Democracy simply do not add up.

Whatever else his Caucus colleagues may discover on the Talented Mr Parker’s “To Do” list, they will not find any plans to introduce Socialism via the water supply.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 29 October 2021.

Friday 29 October 2021

The Majority Is Always Wrong.

“No Minister”: Sir Humphrey Appleby’s working proposition was that government was far too important to be left to politicians – let alone the ordinary person in the street. To the silver-tongued Oxbridge mandarin, the top-down neoliberal revolutionary, and the uncompromising social-liberal public servant of 2021, majority rule will always be a dangerous proposition. 

THERE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN public servants who looked upon democracy as a dangerous innovation. The writers of the classic British television comedy Yes Minister captured this sort of public servant brilliantly in the character of Sir Humphrey Appleby. Sir Humphrey’s working proposition, that government was far too important to be left to politicians – let alone the ordinary person in the street – was a legacy of the aristocratic mode of government. A tradition which endured longer in Great Britain than just about anywhere else.

The creators of Yes Minister, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, partisans of the political philosophy that would come to be known as “Thatcherism”, were fierce opponents of this aristocratic style – believing it to be one of the most significant causes of Britain’s national decline. Like Margaret Thatcher herself, they saw the ordinary man and woman in the street as an infinitely safer repository of political authority than any silver-tongued Oxbridge mandarin. Clear away the detritus of aristocratic snobbery (about which Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter, knew a great deal) and doctrinaire socialism, these “radical Tories” insisted, and all would be well.

New Zealand’s experience vis-à-vis its public service has been somewhat different. Here, the senior ranks of the nation’s public servants were profoundly mistrusted by the militant missionaries of neoliberalism. Not because their instincts were aristocratic (like Sir Humphrey’s) but because, thanks to New Zealand’s interesting political history, their instincts were high-mindedly social-democratic.

Throughout New Zealand history the most positive and long-lasting reforms and innovations have been initiated and administered by partisans of the state. To the men (and they were very nearly all men) who masterminded the bureaucratic coup d’état which gave this country “Rogernomics” and “Ruthanasia”, the idea of an activist state was anathema.

That the people of New Zealand might prefer their country to be run that way: that its positive freedoms gave them life chances they were loath to surrender; mattered not at all to these bureaucratic revolutionaries. In their eyes, the superiority of neoliberalism was self-evident. The idea of validating it at the ballot box was as nonsensical as voting gravity up, or down.

This disdain for, and outright hostility towards, the idea of popular sovereignty: manifested (at least initially) by the elite guardians of the neoliberal flame; was to have profound consequences for the future of democracy in New Zealand.

In terms of practical politics, the imposition of neoliberalism in New Zealand was hugely assisted by the legacy of the right-wing populist National Government of Sir Robert Muldoon. Shrewdly, the Labour politicians tasked with the imposition of policies utterly at odds with their party’s principles enlisted the aid of Baby Boomer activists from the new social movements: anti-racists, environmentalists, feminists, gays and lesbians; whose causes Muldoon had for so long frustrated. They were the social activists who largely replaced Labour’s democratic socialists and trade union advocates. With the anti-neoliberal resistance driven out of the party, these “social liberals” inherited what was left of Labour.

Unlike the “Old Left”, however, this “New Left” was profoundly suspicious of the ordinary man and woman in the street. In their struggles for women’s rights, Māori rights, gay rights and the “rights” of the natural environment, the new social movements often found themselves outnumbered – sometimes by as much as ten-to-one – by the conservative majority.

For many social liberals, therefore, democracy was not the solution, it was the problem. If majorities were allowed to rule, then genuine social progress would be reduced to a snail’s pace. At all costs, social liberal reforms must remain the preserve of political elites. Conscience votes cast by individual MPs were acceptable. Binding referenda, which gave the final say on radical economic and social reforms to the people themselves, were not.

A generation after Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, New Zealand has thus been ushered into the worst of all possible worlds. A political class, generally, and a public service, especially, in which democracy is viewed with hostility and suspicion; and majority rule derided as a right-wing mechanism for allowing racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and transphobic prejudices to run riot.

Given the opportunity, this benighted Kiwi majority will vote in favour of treating every citizen equally, or, even worse, proudly uphold the principle of freedom of expression. Given a chance, this majority will vote for social-democracy over neoliberalism.

“And that, Minister, would be a disaster!

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

Thursday 28 October 2021

Counter-Cultural Counter-Revolutionaries.

The Political Economy Of "Hippyness": Small businesses selling “whole-foods”, pottery, furniture, or (if the small business was bad) a little home-grown weed, swallowed up the hippy “movement”, leaving only a peculiar social sub-set devoted to “doing their own thing”. Refugees from the dominant culture: suspicious of, if not downright hostile to, the demands of “Society” and “The Man”. Easy meat for the Anti-Vaxxers.

“NEVER LET A GOOD CRISIS go to waste” has become something of a cliché in contemporary political writing. The thing about clichés, however, is that they become clichés by describing real situations succinctly and effectively. The current Covid-19 crisis, for example, has aroused the ire of those who reject the idea that enjoying the benefits of human society incurs a reciprocal obligation to preserve its wellbeing. Often associated with the Left, this rights-based, libertarian impulse actually sits more comfortably with the Right. Certainly, the Far Right has shamelessly exploited the Covid-19 crisis to pull a depressingly large number of confused libertarian leftists down goodness knows how many phantasmagorical rabbit-holes.

To clarify this proposition, it helps to recall the curious phenomenon conjured-up by the word “hippy”. Conservatives loathed and detested “hippies” on account of their rejection of the buttoned-down world of the early-1960s. The era which the makers of the television series Mad Men evoked so powerfully. With their long-hair, beads, headbands, free-love, drugs, crash-pads and communes, the radically non-conformist hippies appeared to be rejecting the American Dream in toto. But were they really the counter-cultural revolutionaries the mainstream news media proclaimed?

Consider the classic hippy formula, “Turn on. Tune in. Drop out” – attributed to the guru of LSD, Dr Timothy Leary.

Rejectionist though it most certainly was, Leary’s formula was utterly inadequate to the challenge of building something enduring to replace the “rat-race” that was capitalist America. Like the Romantic Movement of the early nineteenth century, from which the hippies drew so much inspiration, the Counter-Culture of the 1960s and 70s was a reaction to the transformational impact of rapid technological change. Rationalism and science were in the driver’s seat, and there no longer seemed to be any social space for spontaneity, creativity, intuition – or fun.

But fun has its limits, and capitalism doesn’t. Dropping out, when it didn’t end in addiction and criminality (like Charles Manson’s murderous “Family”) almost always saw the hippies take one of two roads: either back into the rat-race, or, off into what Karl Marx would have called the petit-bourgeoisie. Small businesses selling “whole-foods”, pottery, furniture, or (if the small business was bad) a little home-grown weed, swallowed up the hippy “movement”, leaving only a peculiar social sub-set devoted to “doing their own thing”. Refugees from the dominant culture: suspicious of, if not downright hostile to, the demands of “Society” and “The Man”.

Old hippies could be relied upon to react antagonistically to the demands of collectivities of all kinds. Not only to the collectivism represented by the state and its institutions, but also the collectivism of the working-class. These small business people were no friends of the Tax Man, but they also distrusted the trade unions. The communities inhabited by ex-hippies were, first and foremost, collections of individuals. Places where “characters” could enjoy their freedom from the demands of society, living “close to nature” without interference.

Now, if this summary of the ageing hippy’s convictions strikes you as having a lot in common with the young libertarian capitalist in his high-rise apartment, then that may not be entirely accidental. At the root of both ideologies lies the deep-seated fear of being swallowed up by the inescapable expectations and obligations of social existence. That both thought-systems represent an infantile and potentially dangerous refusal to recognise the claims of other human-beings, in no way lessens their appeal. For such individuals, the attraction of negative liberty – the absence of constraint – has always been irresistible.

For the libertarian capitalist, the opportunities for evading social constraints are, understandably, considerable. (What else are lawyers and accountants for?) For the ageing hippy, however, the enjoyment of negative liberty often entails rejecting the claims of reason and science, along with the social and political expectations derived from them. It is but a small step from “leave me alone” to “you can’t tell me what to do”. In normal circumstances, these evasions of responsibility, while corrosive, are not critically so. In times of crisis, however, when both the problem and its solution are rooted in collective activity, any rejection of social obligation is fraught with danger.

The libertarian capitalist, pulling all the levers at his disposal to secure the freeing of the economy from Covid-19 restrictions, will make allies wherever he can. The ageing hippies, with their lifelong hostility towards the horrors of Big Science, and the dangerous concoctions of Big Pharma, fit the bill nicely. With their preference for living “close to nature”, the state’s public health demands for mask-wearing, social-distancing and mass vaccination are all-too-easily construed as evidence of the iron fist of tyrannical government they have spent their entire lives trying to escape.

Snugly ensconced in their on-line communities, where individual obsessions all-too-easily become comforting prejudices, these sad old hippies are easily recruited to the libertarian capitalists’ invaluable fifth column – the Anti-Vaxxers. Negative liberty, thus weaponised, is translated into the language of “rights” and “choice”.

That the true definition of humanity: creatures born with individual rights and social obligations; would be forgotten in this rabbit-warren of selfishness was as inevitable as it is tragic.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 28 October 2021.

Tuesday 26 October 2021

Putting On The Armour Of Covid Righteousness.

Moral Authority? To those who complain that the Prime Minister is unnecessarily and unethically stigmatising the vaccine hesitant and resistant, there is only one genuinely ethical retort: They have stigmatised themselves.

ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES facing New Zealanders over the next few weeks will be Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy and resistance. Not the least of these will be the challenge of understanding what makes so many people so unwilling to do what the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens are asking them to do. To reach such an understanding will require an effort of the imagination that a rapidly decreasing number of New Zealanders – especially those living in Auckland – are willing to make. For these Kiwis, the Covid proposition is fast resolving itself into a very simple binary: Get vaccinated for society, or, get excluded from society.

That, essentially, was the Prime Minister’s message from the podium on Friday, 22 October 2021:

Vaccinations are our armour. They help keep us safe.

So my message to the New Zealanders who have not yet had their first dose – if you want summer, if you want to go to bars and restaurants. Get vaccinated. If you want to get a haircut. Get vaccinated. If you want to go to a concert, or a festival – get vaccinated. If you want to go to a gym, or a sports events, get vaccinated. If you are not vaccinated, there will be everyday things you will miss out on.

And if you are vaccinated you can be assured that in the new framework, you will get to enjoy the things you love, secure in the knowledge that the people around you, and the environment you are in, is as safe as possible in a COVID world. If you have done the right thing to keep yourself and others safe, to look after one another, you should feel safe. You should be protected from those who haven’t made that choice.

But, is it fair to declare that the vaccine hesitant have made a genuine “choice”? The answer to that question turns upon the degree to which those falling into this category have heard and understood the messages directed towards them concerning the Pfizer vaccine.

Is it still a tenable proposition to suggest that after so many weeks of unrelenting messaging, from a vast array of sources, delivered from, and to, every conceivable platform, there are still people out there who have not heard that the Pfizer vaccine is tested, efficacious, safe, and absolutely crucial to New Zealand re-emerging into something approximating normality?

It beggars belief to argue that more than a tiny number of such individuals exist.

But, if the message has been received and understood by the yet-to-be-vaccinated, then only one conclusion can reasonably be drawn. The so-called “vaccine hesitant” aren’t really hesitant at all. Though they may lack the courage to come right out and admit to being vaccine resisters, they have, nevertheless, made that choice.

The Labour Government’s professional advisors seem reluctant to accept that this is, indeed, the case. It is possible that their reluctance stems from a deeply ingrained disinclination to hold the ill-treated and excluded members of our society accountable. The proposition that the experience of being ill-treated and excluded makes a human-being more – not less – likely to behave selfishly and, all-too-often, brutally towards others, is quite simply unacceptable. In the eyes of the relevant professionals, such people are victims of circumstances beyond their control. As such, they cannot be held morally accountable. As the French put it: Tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner. To understand all, is to forgive all.

All very well for the sociologists and medical ethicists, but not at all helpful to a Government struggling with the problem of what to do with citizens who refuse to acknowledge either the validity of “The Science”, or their obligations to the collective welfare of the society in which they live.

After all, the proudly vaccine resistant – the so-called “anti-vaxxers” – cannot even point to a brutalised upbringing in poverty as the explanation for their selfishness. In the avowed and proud anti-vaxxer, the state is confronted with the sort of reckless solipsism that it is actually dangerous to ignore. The sort of people who make fake bookings at a vaccination centre in a deliberate attempt to sabotage the system should not be forgiven – they should be punished.

In resolving these dilemmas, the Vaccination Certificate emerges as the only viable vector for the virtues of both the Carrot and the Stick. Without it, the Government’s goal of getting 90 percent of the population double-jabbed simply will not be reached before the patience of the already vaccinated expires. If that is allowed to happen (and in Auckland it is not far away) then the authorities will find themselves confronted with even more pressing challenges to New Zealand’s well-being.

Vaccination Certificates promise to be highly efficacious in hurrying along the huge number of young people who have yet to get around to getting themselves vaccinated. The idea of not being able to go to pubs and clubs without “the passport” should be a powerful incentive for this group. Youth is nothing if not highly social. It is also acutely fearful of missing out on the fun its friends are having. If all it takes is a couple of more-or-less painless shots in the arm to gain admission to the footy and the most fashionable music festivals, then WTFN?

For older New Zealanders the looming possibility of “No Jab. No Job” should also hurry along the stragglers. Though pointedly left out of the Prime Minister’s Friday speech, “No Jab. No Job” is only a fast-tracked parliamentary bill away from further arming the authorities against the uncooperative minority.

To those who object that the state is arming itself with a sledgehammer to crush a handful of nuts, the Prime Minister and her colleagues need only cite their duty, as the people’s representatives, to do the greatest good by the greatest number. They have a whole raft of concerns over and above the paranoid fantasies of anti-vaxxers to consider. There are people whose mental fragility is fast becoming critical. Small business owners, in particular, who cannot be expected to see their life’s work ruined because their government pays more heed to the relentless selfishness of a handful of solipsists and anomic lumpenproletarians than it does to those who have done everything the state has asked of them.

It is not fashionable these days to bracket politicians and morals in the same sentence. Nevertheless, our democratically-elected government has both the right and the duty to protect the New Zealand people from harm. Indeed, the safety of the people is its supreme duty. Those whose conduct threatens the safety of the people cannot be located anywhere else but in the wrong.

No reasonable person can deny that Jacinda Ardern’s Government has deployed a whole fieldful of carrots in an attempt to persuade those who remain unvaccinated to do the right thing by their fellow citizens. That she is now reaching – however tentatively – for “The Stick” is incontrovertibly the correct moral choice.

To those who complain that she is unnecessarily dividing “The Team of Five Million” by unethically stigmatising the vaccine hesitant and resistant, there is only one genuinely ethical retort:

They have stigmatised themselves.

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

Friday 22 October 2021

Jacinda’s Choice: “Freedom Day”, Or Failure.

Lining Up With The Right: Though Jacinda Ardern hasn’t endorsed the John Key-Act-National preference for 1 December as Auckland's “Freedom Day” in as many words, that is clearly the timeline she is working to. The Prime Minister of New Zealand cannot assure 1.6 million Aucklanders that they will be free to visit their families at Christmas – wherever they may be located in New Zealand – and then renege on her promise. Not without all hell breaking loose.

The following commentary was written on the afternoon of Thursday, 21 October – about 18 hours prior to the Government’s latest Covid-19 announcements. For those interested in my take on the Announcements themselves, please read the appended postscript. – Chris Trotter.

THE AUCKLAND BUSINESS COMMUNITY has told the Labour Government that it expects 1 December to be “Freedom Day”. Since the Labour Party has consistently done the Auckland Business Community’s bidding for more than 30 years, putting a decent sum on 1 December as the day all double-vaccinated Aucklanders get to fly away would seem like a pretty safe bet.

If 1 December does not turn out to be “Freedom Day”, then you can put a big blue ring around Election Day 2023.

It is certainly no coincidence that 1 December was the day chosen by Sir John Key in his in/famous op-ed intervention; by the Act Party; and, finally, by the National Party itself. For those unaccustomed to reading the political runes, this is the New Zealand Right presenting the Labour Government with a united front. If Labour fails to take the hint, then every gun in the Right’s possession will commence firing at it, and they will not stop until the right-wing parties are in a position to form a government.

It has happened before. As soon as it became clear the Labour had won the 2005 General Election by spending money that wasn’t, strictly speaking, its own, the New Zealand Right declared total war on Helen Clark’s Government. There was no respite. The attacks came from everywhere. From National and Act, obviously, but also from the mainstream news media and high-ranking civil servants. Labour also faced the slings and arrows of blogs and websites run by persons whose political connections ran into some very interesting places, and linked them up with some very important people.

This war was as unrelenting as it was successful. In 2008 Helen Clark and her party were cast out of office like an errant puppy that has just been caught widdling on the carpet. John Key didn’t need to say: “And don’t come back until you know how to behave!” Labour had been given the message loud and clear. It would take the Party nine long years to find someone who could open the door and lead Labour back inside the House of Power.

That’s why it would be a political miracle if Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues did not meekly line up alongside the Right and announce 1 December as “Freedom Day”. Auckland is, after all, New Zealand’s largest city and its most crucial political marketplace. Without a fair old swag of the 1.6 million Aucklanders in tow, electorally speaking, a political party’s chances of winning the next General Election are pretty slim.

Keeping Auckland in tow electorally, and keeping its citizens locked-down until Christmas and beyond, don’t really add up as a winning political formula. Especially when a good 70-75 percent of Aucklanders have dutifully presented themselves for their double-dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The idea that they must remain confined within their city’s boundaries, while the unvaccinated of Auckland – and the rest of New Zealand – are wooed and cossetted in what is beginning to look like a futile attempt to persuade them to do the decent thing, is becoming less-and-less saleable as a political proposition.

As a politician with an instinctive flair for political marketing, it is very hard to envisage Jacinda attempting to make that sale. Far easier to see her joining with all the other “serious” parties (and, yes, you’re right, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori are not included in that group) by making the date of “Freedom Day” a matter of partisan agreement.

The Greens and Te Pāti Māori will, of course, complain that by joining with the right-wing parties Labour is effectively abandoning Māori to the ravages of the Delta variant of Covid-19. The Government, and the parties of the Right, will likely respond with Judith Collins’ argument that delaying the opening-up of Auckland, and the rest of New Zealand, solely on account of the low rate of Māori vaccination would only expose Māori to all manner of racist abuse. It would make them the scapegoats of every Aucklander with a failing business; a job hanging in the balance; and/or a family member whose mental health is faltering.

Te Pāti Māori will protest that “Freedom Day” will amount to “Genocide Day” for tangata whenua. To which a great many of their fellow citizens will reply: “Not if you use the next four weeks to get vaccinated!”

There will also be many Kiwis who angrily lament the fact that making 1 December “Freedom Day” flies in the face of “The Science”. They may well be right, but, sadly, that boat has sailed. It sailed the day the Labour Government decided, against the advice of its medical scientists, to move out of Level 4 and down to level 3. After that crucial decision, “The Science” no longer entered into it. After that, the decision-making became, first and last, political.

Inevitably, the business community, the right-wing parties, and the right-wing news media have coalesced around a political solution that would leave the Labour Government with just two choices: Stand firm – and lose. Or, join the consensus – and at least retain the chance of winning in 2023.

Not quite Sophie’s Choice, but definitely Jacinda’s.


THE FIRST THING to note about the Government announcements of Friday, 22 October 2021 was the staging. Clearly, the dimly lit Beehive Theatrette is no longer considered an appropriate setting for the Prime Minister’s communications. Accordingly, proceedings were moved to the Beehive Banqueting Hall. (The change may have been dictated by the sheer number of journalists clamouring to attend, but still.)

The second change was in the cast. Where was Ashley Bloomfield, the Director-General of Health? Today’s drama featured no experts. As noted above, our Covid universe now rests on politicians – all the way down.

As for the script, well, the date of 1 December may not have been mentioned, but it was there nonetheless. With Auckland declared to be about a day-and-a-half away from topping 90 percent of Aucklanders with one jab, it follows that the city is less than a month away from 90 percent being double-jabbed. That’s the cue for New Zealand’s largest city being set free from its Level 3 Lockdown, on, or just after, 1 December. When asked if that meant Aucklanders can join their families for Christmas, the Prime Minister said Yes – although travelling beyond the city will require a Vaccination Certificate (according to Chris Hipkins, empowering legislation is on the way for employers keen to enforce vaccination mandates) and quite possibly a negative Covid-19 test.

So far, so Key-Act-National.

Likewise with relation to the announcements of Finance Minister Grant Robertson. The appropriate quote here would appear to be: “Mo money! Mo money! Mo money!”; for another month, at least.

And Māori? Ah, yes, that’s where the fancy-footwork really got going. The nationwide goal of double-vaccinating 90 percent of the adult population, and then transitioning to the new “traffic-light” system of managing the virus, makes no mention of the Māori vaccination rates also topping 90 percent. That’s a significant omission. Like Judith Collins, Jacinda Ardern is clearly unwilling to have the whole country “held hostage” to Māori vaccine hesitancy – let alone refusal.

The Government has masked this by opting to tick-off the 90 percent vaccination target DHB by DHB. This will allow Māori leaders to identify where the extra $120 million for the double-jabbing of their people might best be spent. But that’s about as far as the Government is prepared to go.

That Peeni Henare’s Banquet Hall contribution gave every appearance of having been brutally truncated – by someone – may indicate that Labour’s Māori Caucus is less than happy with the Labour Cabinet’s decision. Notwithstanding their objections, however, the Key-Act-National position on Māori vaccination rates also seems to have been embraced by the Labour Government.

Colonisation’s roots are very deep and exceptionally strong.

As for the PM herself, Jacinda Ardern seemed more comfortable and on top of her game than she has been for weeks. Though she hasn’t announced 1 December as “Freedom Day” in as many words, that is clearly the timeline she is working to. The Prime Minister of New Zealand cannot assure 1.6 million Aucklanders that they will be free to visit their families at Christmas – wherever they may be located in new Zealand – and then renege on her promise.

Not without all hell breaking loose.

- Chris Trotter, Friday, 22 October 2021.

This essay and its postscript were originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 22 October 2021.

Rendering Unto Caesar: In Labour, "L’état c’est Jacinda".

Thank You Very Much For All The Powers: The present Labour Leader was not elected by the Party rank-and-file, Jacinda Ardern stepped into the job in extraordinary circumstances. And although no one would dispute that the members of the Labour Party love Jacinda – and would elect her in a heartbeat if asked – she is also the one who has, oh-so kindly, and oh-so gently, ushered them out of the spaces where important decisions are made.

WELL, WELL, WELL, former Labour Party President Nigel Haworth no longer believes Labour’s leaders should be elected by the membership. Yesterday (19/10/21) on Facebook, Haworth called for “a return to the pre-2012 constitutional arrangement in relation to the Party leadership (that is, leave the parliamentary leadership to a caucus decision).” His (rather bizarre) argument was that having the Leader of the Party elected by the grass-roots membership and trade union affiliates – as well as, it should not be forgotten, Caucus members – “had the perverse effect of weakening the Party in relation to Caucus”. This was, he claimed, “a most unfortunate outcome”.

Leaving aside the historical fact that the weakening of the Party in relation to Caucus happened more than 90 years ago, and that the constitutional reforms of 2012 represented (and were understood by most Labour MPs as) a deliberate attempt to strengthen the Party in relation to Caucus, the question arises: Why now? Why has Haworth taken to Facebook with such a controversial suggestion at this moment? Is it merely the rumination of a retired professor? Or is there more to it? And if he is testing the waters, then on whose behalf?

To say that Haworth’s suggestion was greeted with alarm by many Labour members would be an understatement. Indeed, so voluble was the opposition that, barely 24 hours after his first post on the subject, Haworth felt obliged to “explain my thinking” in another.

It didn’t help.

In its essence, Haworth’s key argument is grounded in the most uncompromising realpolitik. While “well motivated”, he conceded, making the election of the Leader of the Labour Party a “broadly-based democratic arrangement” failed to take sufficient account of “the reality of power.” Curiously, he then chose to expand upon this steely observation with a biblical reference. Caucus’s selection of the Party Leader was, he said, “a version of ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’” Then, as if quoting Jesus wasn’t peculiar enough, he availed himself of what he claimed to be a Chinese saying: “Leaders come, leaders go, but the Party goes on forever.” Given that the “Party” in question could only be the Chinese Communist Party, Haworth’s thinking appeared to be transitioning rapidly from bad to just plain weird.

Was he presenting the Labour Party as a beatific collection of seekers after truth to whom the grubby realities of power could only offer the most dangerous distraction? Certainly, the biblical quotation he uses lends itself to that conclusion. Because, of course, Haworth only quotes half of Jesus’s famous response to the Pharisees who were trying to trap him into saying something against his Roman overlords. The full quote from Matthew 22, reads: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

What that means in the context of the New Zealand Labour Party is an intriguing question. Could the quotation be reformulated to read: “Render therefore unto Caucus the things which are Caucus’s; and unto Democracy, the things that are Democracy’s” Hardly, since the thrust of Haworth’s argument seems to be in the opposite direction. In the good professor’s mind the role of God seems to have been taken on by the Party itself. Certainly, Haworth, like the Chinese communists, sees the Party as eternal. A living thing that must, at all costs, be protected from the potentially fatal consequences of its political leaders’ actions.

But a living thing that has no other purpose but to go on living, would strike most people as a pretty poor model for an effective political party. It is certainly not how the Labour Party, in those moments when it was able to play a significant political role in the life of New Zealand, would have described itself. At the time of its formation, during the First World War, during the years of the Great Depression, and again in the late-1970s and early-1980s, the Party was a vibrant, self-aware political force, resolute in its determination to change New Zealand for the better.

This was the Labour Party that Margaret Wilson (President of the Party 1984-87) fought to save as the Labour Caucus rolled out Rogernomics. The Party which split. The Party, much weaker now, which guided by the calculating hand of Helen Clark, was able, with a final burst of strength, to strip the leadership from Mike Moore and his fellow Rogernomes. The Party which, having expended the last of its political resources, found itself “linked hip and knee” to a Labour Caucus presided over by Helen Clark and filled with her hand-picked allies. But this Labour Party was not the vitally independent entity of Haworth’s ahistorical imagination. It did not exercise “necessary oversight” over its parliamentary representatives. This Labour Party was the handmaiden of Helen Clark – nothing more, nothing less.

And when Helen Clark departed for New York, it was this Party which slowly and painfully began to re-gather the democratic threads of self-government into its members’ hands. First in the area of Party Policy and then – to the utter fury of many of the people who now occupy the most senior positions in Cabinet – by way of a constitutional struggle to give the people who make the Party: ordinary members and trade union affiliates; a decisive role in choosing the person who will lead them. Or, to put it another way: the Party which demanded the very thing that Nigel Haworth believes Labour’s organisational wing should prize the most: power.

Haworth does not mention Jacinda Ardern, but it is her political star that lights the path of his argument. The present Labour Leader was not elected by the Party rank-and-file, she stepped into the job in extraordinary circumstances. But, it was not those circumstances which made her extraordinary. Ardern represents the forces within the Labour Caucus that (with a huge amount of help from the man himself) destroyed the leadership of David Cunliffe. Her closest allies led the fight against constitutional reform on the floor of the 2012 Annual Conference. And although no one would dispute that the members of the Labour Party love Jacinda – and would elect her in a heartbeat if asked – she is also the one who has, oh-so kindly, and oh-so gently, ushered them out of the spaces where important decisions are made.

Labour has already rendered everything unto Caesar – and Nigel Haworth does not appear to have noticed that, in the process, the Party has rendered itself powerless.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 21 October 2021.

The Power Of "No".

Irrational Resistance: With the Delta variant of Covid-19 raging through their communities and pumping up the number of community cases to new and frightening levels, it’s beginning to dawn on the ill-treated and excluded that, for once in their lives, they have the power. If the System is so desperate for them to get “the jab”; then refusing to get vaccinated constitutes a powerful political statement. How often, in the past, has anybody listened when they said “No.” Well, they’re listening now!

BREXIT STILL PUZZLES many Britons, especially those in possession of a good education and an impressive Curriculum Vitae. The “better sort of persons”, those with a genuine “stake” in the nation, still cannot understand why so many of their fellow citizens voted “against their own interests”. It seemed like utter madness.

Those who supported the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union denounced this “Remain” response for displaying both a lamentable ignorance of the issues involved and a disgraceful measure of condescension towards more than half the British population.

All true, but the Remainers were on to something, nonetheless.

One of the reasons the Remain campaign was so shocked by the result of the Brexit referendum was that their pollster (allegedly the best in the business) was assuring them, right up until the last minute, that the “Leave” campaign would fall short by two or three percentage points. What he and his clients had failed to factor-in to the Brexit equation was just how irrational people can be when they feel ill-treated by and excluded from “mainstream” society.

Those on the left of the political spectrum like to pin the blame for this unlooked-for eruption of political irrationality on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. But, they didn’t create the ill-treated and the excluded, that was the work of decades – of centuries. All they did was find these people and allow the Leavers to talk to them.

The fatal assumption of the Remainers was that people this alienated from the “System” simply didn’t vote. Their pollster shaped his raw data with the assumption that the Britons who didn’t vote in the General Election of 2015 would also sit out the Referendum in 2016. That’s why his predictions consistently overestimated Remain’s support. He simply had no idea that the Leavers were in contact with three million potential voters that almost no one knew anything about.

And what did the Leave campaign tell these voters? Simple. It told them that, for just this one time, they had the power. All those high-and-mighty people who always ended up winning – regardless of which party was in power. The rich and the powerful with all the good things in life – the things they’d never have. These, the so-called “elites”, wanted to remain – needed to remain – in the EU. Losing the referendum was, quite literally, inconceivable. Impossible.

But, it wasn’t impossible. If, just this one time, they got up off the couch and voted, the Leave campaigners told the ill-treated and the excluded, they could throw a gigantic spanner into the System’s works. “Take Back Control” they whispered across the wilderness of social-media. Just this once – make the bastards weep!

New Zealanders are not Britons. But, like the United Kingdom, this country also has a large – albeit largely invisible – population of the ill-treated and excluded.

Most of the time their ill-treatment and exclusion isn’t that much of a problem. Oh sure, they cost the taxpayer a lot of money in benefits, police officers, courts and prisons – but not as much as it would cost the System to bring them out of the shadow and into the light. Which is why they are left to rot in damp and unhealthy houses, in decaying suburbs without amenities – or hope. Places where a career in crime offers one of the few proven exits from poverty and misery – at least for a while.

The ill-treated and the excluded know very well that they’re being ground-down by the System, they have just despaired of ever making the Powers-That-Be listen to them.

Until now.

With the Delta variant of Covid-19 raging through their communities and pumping up the number of community cases to new and frightening levels, it’s beginning to dawn on the ill-treated and excluded that, for once in their lives, they have the power. If the System is so desperate; dammit, if all those nice, comfortable people, in all those nice leafy suburbs they’ll never visit are so desperate for them to get “the jab”; then refusing to get vaccinated is flat-out certain to drive them nuts. How often, in the past, has anybody listened when they said “No.” Well, they’re listening now!

Irrational? Yes. Immoral? Yes, again. But, if we offer our poorest citizens nothing but physical and spiritual blows, then should we really be surprised when they strike us back?

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

Thursday 21 October 2021

Moving To The Right.

Eyes On The Right Prize: In the key electoral real estate of Auckland, Act has already overtaken the National Party. The same is true of rural New Zealand and the small provincial towns that serve it. A torch-passing moment may be at hand: the historical supplanting of the dominant right-wing party by its tightly disciplined and pitch-perfect challenger.

CURIA RESEARCH’S (i.e. David Farrar’s) latest poll for the Taxpayers’ Union bodes very ill for the Left. Although Labour retains a commanding lead with nearly 45 percent of the Party Vote, and in spite of the fact that National still languishes in the low 20s, the gap between the parties of the Left and the parties of the Right has shrunk from nearly 20 percent to 12 percent. The direction of travel in New Zealand politics is no longer towards the Left. Unmistakeably, political sentiment is shifting rightward.

Let’s begin with the Greens. Historically, this has been considered the most left-wing political party in the New Zealand Parliament. Debatable from the outset, this characterisation has become increasingly difficult to sustain. Certainly, the departure of such recognisably left-wing Greens as Sue Bradford and Keith Locke made the designation tenuous – at best. Such ideological positioning that the Greens have undertaken since they re-entered government in 2017 has caused many observers to locate the party at the extreme end of radical Identity Politics.

Not that observers any longer have much opportunity to observe the workings of the Green Party up close and unmolested by its official gatekeepers. In its early days, under Rod Donald’s and Jeanette Fitzsimons’ leadership, the party made a positive fetish out of its openness to the news media and interested members of the public. Over the course of the last decade, however, this openness has decreased to the point where, at the party’s latest AGM, no part of the proceedings (apart from set-piece speeches from the co-leaders and a final media conference) were open to the news media.

Green supporters would, of course, object that the conferences of the main parties have for many years been similarly restricted. While that objection is true of Labour, it is less so of National. Besides, such a bare-faced defence of public exclusion sits very uneasily with a party calling itself Green. Clearly, the ultra-democratic, libertarian principles of the early Green movement have long since been replaced with … less friendly … concepts.

Perhaps it is this sense that the Greens have changed, that they are not what they were, that lies behind their 3-point loss of support. Alternatively, it could be the increasing difficulty in distinguishing the political style and content of the Green Party from that of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party which explains the shift of support from the former to the latter. Whatever the explanation, Labour will be feeling both relieved and concerned at the transfer of allegiance.

Without the influx of former Green support, Labour’s numbers would not have looked anything like so solid. The Green defectors masked the exodus of yet more of Jacinda’s 2020 supporters in a generally rightward direction. Without them, Labour’s strategists would have been fielding questions about what the mainstream news media would have delighted in calling “a precipitate loss of support”.

Being spared that headline, while gratifying, would, however, have been of only limited consolation to those same Labour strategists. The last thing they need is a Green Party hovering over the 5 percent MMP threshold, while Labour is struggling to hold a position in the mid-40s. Happiness and security is Labour at 45 percent and the Greens at 10. (Labour at 50.1 percent would, of course, be better, but elections like 2020 are once-in-a-lifetime events.)

Labour’s woes, however, must seem like the purest joy to a National Party spiralling down towards electoral destruction. One can only imagine how devastating it must have been for its strategic leadership to observe the approaching throng of former National supporters: the mostly female supporters who deserted Judith Collins for Jacinda almost exactly one year ago; pass National by and just keep right on marching to the beat of David Seymour’s Act-ivist drum. Naturally, some of them returned to the National fold, but nowhere near enough. National’s upward tick of support was well within the margin of error. Set against the roughly equal amount of support that had bled out to Winston Peters and NZ First, there really was very little to celebrate.

Only in Act were the champagne corks popping. Seymour and his team must be wondering where, exactly, the upward curve on the graph is going to stop. Could it really keep climbing all the way up to and beyond 20 percent – the figure at which surpassing National becomes practically an arithmetical certainty?

Curia Research has only hopeful things to tell them in this respect. In the key electoral real estate of Auckland, Act has already overtaken the National Party. The same is true of rural New Zealand and the small provincial towns that serve it. A torch-passing moment may be at hand: the historical supplanting of the dominant right-wing party by its tightly disciplined and pitch-perfect challenger.

It is important not to let the imagination run too wild at such moments. Older voters who backed the late Jim Anderton’s Alliance in the early 1990s will recall the days when its poll numbers soared past Labour’s, driving its centre-Left rival down to a humiliating 15 percent. But Labour, led by the steadfast Helen Clark, surged back into contention and, eventually, into the role of senior partner in the Labour-Alliance Coalition Government of 1999-2002.

National, too, can climb its way out of the hole it has dug for itself since the departure of John Key and Bill English. A fair amount of metaphorical blood will have to be shed to aid that ascent. But that is unlikely to prove an insuperable obstacle. National has never been averse to spilling a little claret.

Ironically, a fight to the finish between National and Act for the right to rule the Right may prove to a an electoral winner. Providing National chooses a personable and intelligent leader: someone capable of building a coherent and productive team. And if that team is equal to developing a policy platform which “Middle New Zealand” finds credible. Then, allowing a battle of right-wing ideas to rage between themselves and their equally engaging rivals in Act may actually end-up building the overall strength of the Right. Such an ideological struggle would certainly signal where all the intellectual and political action was.

If the Greens were still the party of Donald and Fitzsimons, it is possible they could goad Jacinda’s Labour into a similar battle of ideas. God knows, she and her party badly need to re-learn the art of arguing from first principles. Sadly, neither the Greens, nor Labour, any longer seem equipped to generate the collective excitement and individual commitment that keep the voters coming back for more.

When the smoke of the battle against Covid-19 finally clears, what additional achievements will the parties of the Left have to set before the voters – and what plans?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 19 October 2021.

Monday 18 October 2021

Too Much Say, Not Enough Do.

When The Green Party Co-Leader Speaks, Does He Make Any Sound? James Shaw must know that neither New Zealanders, nor the rest of humanity, will ever take the urgent and transformative action that Science now deems necessary to stave-off climate catastrophe.

POOR JAMES SHAW: He’s the man this government sends out to tell us that the news is still bad. Worse still, he’s the man whose job it is to bring us, if not exactly good news, then at least some reassurance that it’s not getting worse. Notwithstanding the fact that he is New Zealand’s Climate Change Minister, however, poor James Shaw can’t even do that.

Do his colleagues from the Labour Party care? Not enough, apparently, to make the Climate Change Minister a full member of Cabinet. That decision, alone, strongly suggests that not only does Labour not care about the public credibility of the male co-leader of the Greens, but also that it doesn’t really care about Climate Change – full stop.

Why else would they be sending him off to Glasgow with next-to-nothing to show the world from New Zealand? Could it be because they know that whatever the major contributors to Climate Change may say, they’re not intending to actually  very much either? In spite of the Queen’s “irritation” at “too much say, not enough do” from world leaders. In spite of Greta Thunberg’s caustic refrain of “blah, blah, blah”. Our leaders know that the world’s leading nations cannot afford anything more expensive than “blah, blah, blah” without crippling their economies and/or (if they’re democracies) being thrown out of office – and neither can New Zealand’s.

So, off James will go with nothing in his attaché case but promises to do better – which neither he, nor the Labour Government, are in any position to keep.

Will anybody, apart from the environmental NGOs and a few Climate Change swots, pay much attention to New Zealand’s dereliction? Well, the mainstream news media will certainly huff and puff for a few days. They’ll run Greenpeace’s media releases. They’ll commission plenty of op-ed commentary from the usual suspects. Then they’ll go back to publishing advertisements for SUVs and double-cab utes, and agitating for the “smug hermit kingdom” to re-join the world – especially by air.

“Will nobody think of the planet?!” For those deeply involved in the science of Climate Change, elevated anxiety levels will more than match the rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature. Their concern, however, is not really for the planet, it is for their own benighted species, and its apparent inability to recognise the enormous dangers bearing down upon it.

As scientists, they know “The Planet” has absolutely no thoughts on the matter.

Among under-graduates, the tree falling in the forest conundrum has always been a favourite. Everyone of a philosophical bent has heard it: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The answer, of course, is “Yes” and “No”.

A tall tree falling through the air and striking the ground with considerable force will indeed produce the physical effects that the human ear delivers to the human brain as “sound”. And not only the human ear and brain. A timber wolf, whose hearing is vastly more sensitive than any human’s, will similarly register the tree’s fall.

The point, however, is that (as far as we know) only the human brain is capable of formulating the original question. Moreover, only the human brain is remotely interested in the answer.

Planet Earth, which is, of course, our creation – since a ball of rock whirling around its star lacks the self-awareness required to name itself – has undergone numerous and massive changes in its four billion year history. Science tells us that the planet was at one time covered with ice from pole to pole. At other times it had a surface temperature equal to that of the hottest of hothouses, with an atmosphere so full of oxygen that dragonflies were able to grow as big as seagulls, and lizards larger than a double-decker bus. And, when an asteroid the size of Manhattan struck its surface – leaving a crater as deep as Mt Everest is tall – killing-off the dominant dinosaur species (along with just about every other species of animal life) the ball of rock was shaken, but not stirred. It had withstood bigger blows. There had been other extinctions. Life always found its way back.

Which is where we, the clever apes, enter the story. Or, rather, where the clever apes come up with the peculiar idea – unique to themselves – that they, other creatures, and even the material world in which they find themselves, have a story to tell.

An evolutionary adaptation of enormous utility, it would seem, this ability to insert oneself into an ongoing narrative. The past experiences of one’s long-dead ancestors become preservable – and, therefore, recallable – to the evident benefit of those living in the present. Did the human-beings who lived through the last ice age, when ice-sheets more than a kilometre high extended past the Canadian border, comfort themselves with the inherited memory of a warmer world? Did they pray for climate change?

Did Ice-Age humans pray for climate change?

Telling stories about the future, however, suffers from the considerable disadvantage that, unlike stories concerning the past, no one can be entirely certain how – or even if – they will turn out. Human-beings are capable of being motivated by promises of better things to come. They are less prone, however, to invest too much emotional energy in stories foretelling doom and gloom. The phenomenon of confirmation bias leads us to suppose that human-beings believe more readily in stories that have a happy ending.

Unfortunately, climate scientists seem less and less inclined to predict such an ending to the Climate Change story. This is, of course, a problem, since evolution has only equipped human-beings to respond to imminent threats that are within their power to meet and defeat. The howling of wolves will draw the hunters to the perimeter of the firelight. Hitler’s depredations will set the arms factories humming. Far-off threats, decades distant, are much harder to get people excited about.

In the dark watches of the night, James Shaw must know that this baked-in human weakness is more than likely to overwhelm all his plans. That neither New Zealanders, nor the rest of humanity, will ever take the urgent and transformative action Science now deems necessary to stave-off climate catastrophe. Perhaps he comforts himself with thoughts of some last-minute technological fix. Or, perhaps, he simply imagines the last surviving human-being looking up into a night sky awash with stars, and weeping, because, in his absence, the whirling ball of rock will not know, or care, how beautiful human eyes had made it.

Or how silently the trees will fall – when he has gone.

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

Friday 15 October 2021

Invasion Of The (Covid) Body Snatchers.

It's Here! They're Here! We're Here! Help! It’s as if we’re all living through a Covid version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What has become of Jacinda? Where have they taken her closest Cabinet colleagues? The people on the stage of the Beehive Theatrette look the same, but they no longer feel the same. As he rejects the advice of his scientific advisers, telling us that there will be no return to Level 4, Chris Hipkin’s boyish grin looks more and more like a contemptuous Wellington smirk.

AM I THE ONLY AUCKLANDER feeling let down today? (14/10/21) Seventy-one new community cases detected – with that number set to double in the next fortnight. The prospect looms of New Zealand’s largest city being awash with the Delta Variant of Covid-19 by Christmas.

In a few months’ time we are being told to expect up to 5,000 new cases per week. When interviewed, those on the Covid frontline sound like the commanders of a beleaguered army, just waiting for the enemy’s vastly superior formations to come marching over the hill.

To be honest, it’s bloody frightening.

Like so many other Aucklanders, I’ve been waiting to hear the Government’s rescue plan. Unfortunately, they don’t appear to have one – other than sealing Auckland’s borders and letting 1.6 million New Zealanders stew in their own Covid juices until the virus burns itself out.

This is not the Labour Government that New Zealanders flocked to support exactly one year ago this Sunday. That government would never have dreamed of abandoning Auckland to its fate. That Jacinda Ardern told all of us to be kind to one another and gave us her promise to stamp the virus out. She kept her word, and Labour was rewarded with 50.1 percent of the Party Vote.

Where has that Prime Minister gone?

It’s as if we’re all living through a Covid version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What has become of the Jacinda who built the Team of Five Million? Where have they taken her closest Cabinet colleagues? Grant Robertson, who kept the economy going? Chris Hipkins, who reassured us that New Zealand was at the front of the queue for the Pfizer vaccine? The people on the stage of the Beehive Theatrette look the same, but they no longer feel the same. As he rejects the advice of his scientific advisers, telling us that there will be no return to Level 4, Chippy’s boyish grin looks more and more like a contemptuous Wellington smirk.

The Body Snatchers have been busy here in Auckland, too. Many of the Aucklanders who had borne the earlier lockdowns stoically and with good humour also seem to have been replaced. They, too, look the same, but their behaviour during the Delta Lockdown has been very different.

These Aucklanders are more reckless of the rules, and more contemptuous of those who follow them. Reference to Jacinda’s Team of Five Million provokes only scorn and derision. If they think they can get away with it, these Aucklanders will happily break all the Level 4 and Level 3 rules.

It’s enough to make you believe that the Anti-Vaxxers might be on to something: that the Pfizer vaccine just might contain a virulent social toxin capable of transforming hitherto kind and compassionate citizens into vicious, self-centred arseholes. Anti-socials, whose meagre stocks of care and concern might just extend to their families and friends, show scant social solidarity for their fellow Aucklanders – especially those trapped in communities where the vaccination rates are low.

In the Asian and Pakeha communities, where vaccination rates are high, the scope for a racially-charged absence of empathy is considerable. Such indifference is made all the easier by the careless conceptual conflation of the unvaccinated, Maori and Pasifika, drug addicts and the criminal gangs who supply them. Eugenicist quips, laced with racism, such as “Let Darwin take care of the problem!”, show just how busy the Body Snatchers have been in Auckland’s leafy suburbs.

By the same token, the blank refusal of the woman who carried Covid into Northland to co-operate with the authorities, forcing the entire region into Level 3 Lockdown, strongly suggests that the viciously anti-social behaviour of the Snatchers’ substitutions crosses all boundaries of class, race and gender.

As the hero of the original 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dr Miles Bennell, observes:

“In my practice, I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind... All of us – a little bit – we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.”

Well, it’s not happening slowly here. In Auckland it is happening all at once. Far too many people in this city – and in Wellington! – are allowing their humanity to drain away. Exactly what it is that has hardened the hearts of our political leaders – most especially our Queen of Hearts – and caused so many Aucklanders to become callous rule-breakers is hard to determine.

If you can think of something alien and heartless; something determined to stamp out those precious qualities that make us human; something that’s been here for a while, never missing an opportunity to swell the ranks of its robotic army of unfeeling followers; then could you please drop me a line.

Before the rest of us are snatched away.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 October 2021.

Missing From The Anti-Covid Action.

The Invisible Man: Where has the NZ Council of Trade Unions been during the Covid-19 Pandemic? Why hasn’t its current president, Richard Wagstaff (above) become a household name during the pandemic? Up there with Ashley Bloomfield, Michael Baker, Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles? 

WHERE HAVE THE UNIONS BEEN during the Covid-19 Pandemic? That the question can even be posed suggests that something is very wrong with the New Zealand labour movement. After all, the answer should be all around us.

At its high-point, under the late, and sorely missed, Helen Kelly, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU) liked to present itself as the largest democratic organisation in New Zealand. With upwards of 300,000 affiliated members, that claim was no idle boast. As Kelly proved, the CTU has always possessed the potential to do an enormous amount of good.

So, where has it been? Why hasn’t its current president, Richard Wagstaff, become a household name during the pandemic? Up there with Ashley Bloomfield, Michael Baker, Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles? Where was the tireless advocacy for essential workers: the people who stood at the check-out counters, drove the trucks and operated the warehouses? When supermarket workers came under attack from the stupid and the selfish, why were they defended with more passion by their bosses, than by the CTU?

Which is not to imply that, down at the coalface, union organisers have not been fighting the good fight for their members. The “sergeants” and “corporals” of the movement have, indeed, been working tirelessly. Some of them have even managed to attract the attention of the news media. Unions like FIRST and Unite – affiliates of the CTU – have stood loyal right through this pandemic: speaking-up and fighting-back; making it very clear to anyone with ears to hear, exactly which side they are on.

But these are the “grunts”, the frontline fighters, the ones who, when the question arises: “Who ya gonna call?”, answer: “Us. You call us. You call your union.” There just aren’t enough hours in the day for these battlers to meet even half the need that’s out there. They certainly don’t have the time or the resources to plan and fund nationwide campaigns; issue media releases; and appear on programmes like AM, Breakfast, Newshub Nation and Q+A. That’s why they send money, collected from thousands of ordinary working people, to the CTU in Wellington.

This is where you might expect to find the “generals” and the “colonels” of the labour movement. The men and women who run the unions’ union. This is where you might expect to hear the national voice of organised labour in New Zealand – speaking up loud and proud for this country’s working-class.

So why haven’t we heard anything remotely like this coming from the CTU? All that money: taken from the pockets of ordinary working men and women so their voices can be heard and their interests defended; what has it been spent on?

This country has been subjected to a veritable blizzard of propaganda from those whose profits have been put at risk. The lobbying of the tourism and hospitality industries was so unrelenting they were gifted their precious Trans-Tasman Bubble – and workers ended up with the Delta variant.

Workers might have expected the CTU to lead the charge for “No Jab. No Job”. Because how else can employees be protected from the enormous risk posed by the stupid and the selfish? The great union motto has always been: “An injury to one is an injury to all!” Not, “The injury of all – by one.” What greater priority could the labour movement have than throwing its entire weight behind the drive for universal inoculation against Covid-19?

Well, according to the veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, the priority of the CTU has been ever-so-slightly different:

“Businesses are caught in a legal tangle if they try to enforce ‘no jab no job’ policies. Up until yesterday, business leaders were convinced the Government would not move on “no jab no job”, in part because it is opposed by the Combined Trade Unions.”

Yep, that’s what he said: “because it is opposed” by the CTU. Opposed!

Rather than defend the health of ordinary working people, the CTU has been slowing the vaccination roll-out by defending the “rights” of the stupid and the selfish. Permitting the injury of all – by anti-vaxxers.

How wonderful that, at last, Jacinda Ardern and her Labour colleagues have finally seen sense and set the “No Jab. No Job” ball rolling. But, how ironic, that they had to do it over the objections of the CTU.

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

Thursday 14 October 2021

Don't Blame James.

Emissions Impossible! So, don’t be too hard on poor James Shaw. His pathetic little To-Do list is, indeed, totally inadequate to the crisis. But, you know what? He’ll be lucky to get half of the items ticked-off. There’s just too many entrenched interests – not the least of whom are consumers like you and me – standing in the way.

TO SAY that environmentalists are underwhelmed by James Shaw’s latest Climate Change announcements, would understate their feelings considerably. With every policy release, Shaw takes another downward step into the shadowland of political ignominy. Pretty soon we won’t be able to see or hear him at all.

In all fairness, to the Minister for Climate Change, he can’t do much else – except, maybe, resign. Even if this government were not so utterly distracted by the deepening Covid-19 crisis, it would have no inclination to take Climate Change seriously.

Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson, Chris Hipkins, Andrew Little, David Parker and Megan Woods are not heterodox thinkers. When it comes to running the country, they all adhere pretty faithfully to economic and political orthodoxy. Such skills as they do possess are mostly devoted to giving their very conventional views just enough spin to render them electorally palatable. It is dawning on them only slowly that this strategy has a limited lifespan. If you promise to do something, then – eventually – you have to do something.

They certainly do not appear to have fully grasped the reason for their extraordinary electoral success in 2020. In a nutshell, Labour was rewarded for actually doing something about Covid-19. Nobody was really sure if the Elimination Strategy would work. The idea of locking-down an entire country was certainly not an orthodox solution – as a great many business leaders and neoliberal ideologues nervously/furiously pointed out. The thing was, the Government didn’t really have time to think about whether or not their chosen course of action conformed to the rule-book. They had to do something – right now! So, they closed their eyes and pulled the lever. And, wonder-of-wonders, it worked.

But Climate Change isn’t like Covid-19. The need to take urgent action is unquestionably the same, but the consequences of this, or any, government not taking urgent action are unlikely to show up as corpses in a matter of days and weeks. Not following the science (the reason why Auckland is rapidly descending into the same Delta Disaster as New South Wales and Victoria) is definitely going to end badly, but not tomorrow, or next week, or even in a few months, or years. And something that is going to end badly in a few years, doesn’t really leave a very deep impression on a politician’s mind. A few years equals forever in electoral time.

Besides, the sort of changes a government would have to make, to produce the slightest difference to this country’s greenhouse gas emissions are so huge, would inflict so much economic damage, that the resulting political resistance simply could not be withstood.

Just recall the relentless fightback against the Government’s Elimination Strategy. “Plan B”, and the unceasing cacophony of voices demanding the creation of the Trans-Tasman Bubble. Not even the Strategy’s outstanding success: in saving lives; in recovering the economy; was enough to shut up the doubters and nay-sayers.

And they won, didn’t they? It’s important to keep that in mind. Jacinda couldn’t do it twice. Even with the number of cases in steady decline, the Big End of Town bounced our orthodox Prime Minister out of Level 4. Two people have already died of this Delta Outbreak – many more (most of them Māori and Pasifika) will follow.

With the power of the Big End of Town in mind, try to imagine the sheer ferocity of the opposition to measures requiring the owners of SUVs and double-cab utes to take their vehicles off the road. Contemplate the size of the “Groundswell” in response to the compulsory slaughter of a quarter of this country’s dairy herd. Or, the seizure of factories found to be greenhouse-gassing in defiance of cease-and-desist orders.

Is our Police Force – heck, is our Army! – large enough and reliable enough to force New Zealanders to kick the emissions habit? If Jacinda and her colleagues were persuaded that remaining at Level 4 could lead to serious civil unrest, then how hard do you think it would be for their officials to convince them that any meaningful – i.e. radical – action to meet our Climate Change commitments would spark a civil war?

Democracy is not really equipped to deal with a crisis on the global scale of Climate Change. But then, neither is the sort of authoritarian regime we see in China. Xi Jinping is one of the few world leaders taking Climate Change seriously, but just look where that has got him – and the globalised capitalist system.

Xi decreed that China must begin transitioning away from coal-fired power stations by shutting-down the dirtiest coal mines and most polluting power plants. Great! That’s the way to save the world! Umm, no, not really. As you read these words, millions of Chinese shiver in the dark and cold of electricity black-outs. Worse still, the great factories upon which the whole world now depends for its “just-in-time” manufacturing and distribution systems have also gone dark. Supply-chain snarl-ups are rapidly becoming a fact of twenty-first century life – and they’re only going to get worse. Those gaps in the supermarket shelves are not going away.

So, don’t be too hard on poor James Shaw. His pathetic little To-Do list is, indeed, totally inadequate to the crisis. But, you know what? He’ll be lucky to get half of the items ticked-off. There’s just too many entrenched interests – not the least of whom are consumers like you and me – standing in the way.

You don’t believe me? Well, consider this. For New Zealand to escape the clutches of the Delta Variant of Covid-19, all its citizens have to do is roll up their sleeves and accept a couple of jabs of Pfizer vaccine. Pretty simple, huh? And yet, upwards of 10 percent of the population, more than enough to keep Auckland in Lockdown for months, refuse to take two for the Team of Five Million.

So, ask yourself, if people can’t see clearly enough to grasp freedom via vaccination, is it reasonable to suppose that they will willingly wave good-bye to their fossil-fuelled lifestyles?

In the immortal words of Walt Kelly’s cartoon hero, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 14 October 2021.

Tuesday 12 October 2021

Looking Forward To 2022.

Future Tense? Okay, so that’s where we are in 2022. Living in a New Zealand where all the usual rules of politics once again apply. And, guess what? Jacinda’s government, once again, isn’t doing very well – not very well at all.

LET’S PLAY A GAME. Let’s pretend we’re half-way through 2022. Covid-19 isn’t exactly a memory, people still get it, but hardly anyone ends up in hospital and almost nobody dies. So politics has returned to all the normal settings. The Government is no longer being judged on how well it kept us all safe from Covid. Now it’s all about what it’s doing; how well it’s doing it; and whether it should be doing it at all.

Now, those of us with good memories, will recall that this is exactly where the Labour-NZ First-Green Government was at in the weeks before the global pandemic swept politics-as-usual from the stage. Back when Simon Bridges was leading National, and National was leading Labour in the polls. Back when Jacinda Ardern had Winston Peters to protect her and Labour from their worst woke instincts. Back when, Winston’s presence notwithstanding, things weren’t looking so good for the Left.

Okay, so that’s where we are in 2022. Living in a New Zealand where all the usual rules of politics once again apply. And, guess what? Jacinda’s government, once again, isn’t doing very well – not very well at all.

What is the cause of the Government’s worrying slide in the polls? Most people would agree that it is Nanaia Mahuta’s “Three Waters” programme. With the local government elections fast approaching, a nationwide political movement is taking shape dedicated to rolling back what is now being quite openly presented as a Māori power grab for the nation’s water. Tickets are being organised all over the country of candidates pledged to resist the state’s confiscation of municipally owned water resources and infrastructure. Already ratepayer groups are pledging to engage in civil disobedience to prevent the Three Waters programme going ahead.

Why haven’t Jacinda and her colleagues simply cancelled the programme and gone back to the drawing-board? The answer lies in the disproportionate death-toll of Māori Covid victims. When the Delta outbreak turned deadly in the last few weeks of 2021, it was in unvaccinated Māori communities that it really went to work.

The anguish and anger of Māori is easily imagined, and almost all of it was directed at the Labour Party. It was, after all, Labour which had presented itself as the Māori people’s best friend back in 2017. And it was Jacinda Ardern who went to Waitangi in 2018 and asked Māori to hold her and her Government accountable for their actions. In vain did reasonable people point out that it was Covid-19 that had killed Māori – not Labour. But, after the trauma of 2021, Māori weren’t in a very reasonable frame of mind.

So, the Labour leadership felt obliged to back their own Māori caucus’s agenda without reservation. Anticipating the massive resistance Nanaia’s Three Waters programme was bound to inspire, they steeled themselves for the inevitable racist backlash and told them to press on regardless – the Government had their back.

This was why Labour had forced through the Three Waters reforms, legislating right over the top of an overwhelming majority of local authorities’ objections. And why, faced with the prospect of a clean right-wing sweep through the nation’s district, city and regional councils, the Government was seriously considering using its Covid Emergency Powers to postpone the local government elections for at least another year.

To say this idea was going down like a cup of cold sick with a majority of the electorate was to understate the position considerably. Following his generous settlement with Harry Tam, Winston Peters was now roaring back into electoral contention on the back of the racist beast unleashed by the Three Waters reforms. The votes that weren’t surging towards NZ First were being gratefully received by National and Act. Small wonder Labour was shedding support.

Although, not that much support. Thanks to the sterling efforts of the mainstream news media in explaining/justifying Mahuta’s scheme, a crucial chunk of the Pakeha population was refusing to jump on the anti-Three Waters bandwagon. Educated voters were sticking with Labour, even as principled conservatives, disgusted by the overtly racist narrative of the right-wing parties, were gritting their teeth and shifting their support to the Left.

Labour was looking at the fast-growing support for the Māori Party, calculating that the Greens would remain above the 5 percent threshold, and factoring-in the likely consequences of making it easier for Māori voters to switch from the General to the Māori Roll – coupled with lowering the voting age to sixteen. With the election still a year away, there just might be a narrow – very narrow – pathway to power.

Covid or no Covid, in this political game, there was still everything to play for.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 October 2021.

Monday 11 October 2021

Delta’s Week Of Doom.

Classic Shot: Are the Prime Minister’s formidable communication skills equal to the task of getting her government’s anti-Covid campaign back on track?

IF JACINDA ARDERN thought last week was bad, the week ahead promises to be even worse. Sixty community cases of Covid-19, one of the highest daily totals so far recorded in this Delta outbreak, certainly made for a grim beginning.

Making everything worse, is the extraordinary tangle into which the Government has gotten itself. Gone are the days of simple, but inspired, messaging: “Go hard. Go early.” “Stay home. Stay safe.” “Stamp out the virus.” In “To pee or not to pee: A full timeline of the confusing level three bathroom rule”, The Spinoff’s Madeleine Chapman makes excruciating fun of the Government’s messaging disasters.

People hating a government is one thing. What some people hate, other people are almost certain to love. But people laughing derisively at a government, that is something else entirely. Politically, it’s very hard to come back from derisive laughter.

But what other option, apart from derisive laughter, is left for New Zealanders? Except, perhaps, angry tears? And how did it get to this point? From OECD poster-child, to international laughing stock? What was it that caused this Government’s stunning reversal-of-fortune?

The easy answer is, of course, The Delta Variant. Jacinda Ardern’s government was well-armed against the Covid-19 virus of 2020. New Zealand had beaten it back in spectacular fashion, suffering only a tiny fraction of the casualties experienced in other countries. Sadly, the Elimination Strategy, this government’s very own Maginot Line, could not stop the Panzer divisions of Delta. The strategy of the first Covid war, proved inadequate to the second.

Also inadequate, was the administrative rigidity of New Zealand’s state apparatus. This country’s people are famous for their “No. 8 Wire”, can-do improvisation, and for their willingness to give anything a decent try – and to hell with the hierarchies! Indeed, we are told it is precisely this attitude that makes Kiwis so highly-prized by foreign employers. But, if such attitudes were ever acceptable to New Zealand’s public servants, they are pure Kryptonite to the current generation of bureaucratic mandarins.

Highly centralised, intolerant of independent thought, fearful of error (and, therefore, of experimentation) the state bureaucracy very early-on convinced the Prime Minister and her closest confidants that they were going to have to carry much of the performative burden on their own shoulders. The key decision-making circle was, accordingly, drawn very tight around the Prime Minister. The bureaucratic hierarchy most relied upon being neither the Ministry of Health nor MBIE, but the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

That this tight circle of decision-making got so much right in the first phase of the Pandemic encouraged an unfortunate surfeit of self-confidence among the Prime Minister’s principal advisers. Spectacular success isn’t always a blessing. “We got this!” can be a dangerous motto.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is very clear that, if the bureaucracy could not be relied upon to act with speed and imagination, then the Labour leadership’s most sensible response was not to try and do it all themselves, but to appeal over the heads of the public servants to the public itself. As we have seen, DHBs, businesses, iwi authorities, non-profits, unions, and community groups can come to the aid of a government with impressive amounts of energy and flexibility.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the tortuous roll-out of the official vaccination effort. Cumbersome, time-consuming, inefficient and ineffective, the official process generated enormous public frustration. If the People themselves had not taken the task in hand, New Zealand’s vaccination rates would be even worse than they are. Only when anxious communities swung into action alongside their GPs and other local health providers did the numbers getting the jab rise to something approaching an acceptable level. Vaccination busses with names like “Shot, Bro” and “Jabba the Hutt” exemplified the tremendous energy and creativity obtainable from the nation’s flax-roots.

Also with hindsight, it is possible to recognise how unwise it was of the Labour Government to allow the impression to grow that the “We” in “We got this!” did not include the business community. In a capitalist society, it is never a good idea to let the Devil find work for idle businesspersons’ hands. Those who own the world, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to think they should also play a significant part in running it.

Seeking to establish some sort of timetable for “re-opening New Zealand to the world” was by no means an unreasonable boon for the business community to ask of the Government. Especially if the business in question was a small one, and its owner was watching it die. No matter how attentive the Prime Minister and her colleagues may have been to some business leaders behind the scenes, the front-of-house optics were not encouraging. To many businesspeople, the spectacle of “Queen Jacinda” and “Saint Ashley” standing behind their “powerful podiums of truth” had a decidedly anti-business aspect. What did politicians and public servants know about running a profitable business?

Experienced and knowledgeable business leaders also understood that Delta was different. The swift elimination of Covid-19, leading to a swift return to business as usual, made lockdowns irksome, but bearable – especially with the government wage subsidy. If lockdowns proved unequal to the challenge of the Delta variant, however, only near-universal vaccination would suffice. If the Government wasn’t prepared to make “opening up” and mass immunisation amount to the same thing, then “the big end of town” would. John Key’s op-ed intervention made good the threat.

These, then, were the components of the “perfect storm” which engulfed the Prime Minister and her government: first and foremost, there was the Delta variant itself; then, an arrogant, secretive, unimaginative and intolerably sluggish state bureaucracy; not forgetting the “We got this!” hubris of the PM’s tight decision-making circle; leading to the government’s tardiness in encouraging a “bottom up” roll-out of the Pfizer vaccine; and finally to its failure to prevent the business community, and its compliant news media, operating as a subversive “fifth column” in the Covid war.

Are the Prime Minister’s formidable communication skills equal to the task of getting her government’s anti-Covid campaign back on track? Is her health bureaucracy nimble enough to encircle the rampaging Panzer divisions of the Delta variant? Is there enough heart still left in her “Team of Five Million” for them to reassure their captain: “Don’t worry, Jacinda, we got this!” Is the business community willing to go head-to-head with the Team of Five Million if they rally to the PM’s side? Is the criminal underworld (making a late appearance in this drama) sufficiently patriotic to stay safe at home? Is the daily total of Covid community cases about to go exponential?

A lot of questions, demanding a lot of answers. And not a lot of time to provide them. Still, as Harold Wilson wryly observed, and Jacinda Ardern is only too aware: “A week is a long time in politics.”

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