Friday 30 December 2022

2022: Annus Horribilis.

Trauma: The catastrophic conclusion to the anti-vaccination mandate protest in Parliament Grounds on 2 March 2022 is seared in the minds of New Zealanders. Those dramatic scenes were, however, easily eclipsed by the planetary violence of Climate Change, the biological violence of Covid-19, the political violence of Three Waters, and the deadly military violence of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.

AS THIS TERRIBLE YEAR, this annus horribilis, draws to a close, we must all hope that 2023 brings us happier days.

As we watch the Chinese Government transition from its old, hardline, Covid-19 elimination strategy, characterised by long and uncompromising lockdowns, to a new, laissez-faire, wide open borders (and bugger the health system) strategy, uncannily like our own, we have confirmation that not even the totalitarian regime of Xi Jinping’s Communist Party can operate indefinitely without a social licence.

Not that our own government is returning the compliment by acknowledging the lack of genuine social licences for its own flagship policies – and changing them. There is more than a whiff of totalitarian indifference to public opinion in the Labour Caucus’s blunt refusal to change course on Nanaia Mahuta’s Three Waters project.

When the results of the local government elections made it painfully clear that whatever limited social licence central government might have claimed for Three Waters had been withdrawn, the Labour Government refused to flinch. The former National Party Cabinet Minister Nick Smith, now Nelson’s Mayor, implored the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, to back away from the project. Failure to do so, he suggested, would indicate that her government had a “death wish”.

Undeterred, Labour doubled-down. Constitutional conventions became confetti. The co-governance provisions of Three Waters became stronger and their likely impact on Māori-Pakeha relations even more divisive.

And this situation looks set to be made ten-times worse the moment the public cottons-on to the fact that the cost of borrowing the billions required to “fix” their drinking-, storm- and waste-water systems is to be extracted from the pockets of the poor schmucks who “own” – but do not control – the four vast “entities” at the heart of the Three Waters project. A bitter realisation, that will hit home about the time they open their new-fangled water bills.

The Labour Government’s intransigence on Three Waters was not, however, matched by its response to the ever-increasing clamour for decisive state action on global warming. Far from becoming this government of Gen-Xers’ “nuclear-free moment”, the Labour-Green tag-team on Climate Change has impressed New Zealanders only by its prodigious ability to dilly, dally and delay. If the New Zealand football team possessed this government’s talent for kicking the can down the road, they could have won the World Cup!

Maybe, if Labour possessed an environmental faction as strong as its Māori faction more progress might have been made on Climate Change. But, if the Government refuses to be guided by public opinion on the deeply unpopular policy of co-governance, it is acutely sensitive to the social and economic realities that continue to keep SUVs at the top of the list of motor-vehicles purchased in New Zealand. When pushbikes replace four-by-fours in Kiwi affections, it is then – and only then – that our carbon emissions will plummet.

Covid, Co-Governance and Climate-Change may have helped to shape the domestic politics of New Zealand in 2022, but they have done so in the shadow of something much larger and more terrible than anything we Kiwis could conjure-up.


Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine has dealt what looks like being the final death-blow to the “international rules-based order” overseen by the United Nations. What we deplored, then ignored, in Syria, has come home to the cursèd bloodlands of Eastern Europe.

The global economic system, already rendered dangerously fragile by the financial measures required to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, has received a vicious kick in the gonads from Russia’s combat boots. Rising inflation has ignited multiple cost-of-living crises – even in the world’s wealthiest countries – precipitating social and political conflicts not seen for nearly half-a-century.

But Vladimir Putin’s aggression has done something else. It has stimulated martial feelings long thought dead and buried in the materially abundant (but spiritually impoverished) societies of the West.

The Russo-Ukraine War has not produced a global peace movement – even under Putin’s constant threats of nuclear escalation. On the contrary, it has generated a “war movement”. Prior to 24 February 2022, Volodymyr Zelensky would not have struck most people as the man to revive the Latin verse: Dulce et decorum est pro Patria mori – Sweet it is and fitting to die for one’s country.

When the heroism and sacrifice of war seem preferable, and more honourable, than an enervated peace, it is, truly, a terrible year.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 December 2022.

Friday 23 December 2022

A Song For Christmas: The Coventry Carol.

The medieval Coventry Carol, based on Matthew 2:16-18, is performed here by the American acapella group "Pentatonix".

Video courtesy of  YouTube

This Christmas song was posted on Bowalley Road on Friday, 23 December 2022.

The Thirty-Third Child: A Christmas Story.

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:16-18

“A MOMENT SIR, just a moment of your time, that is all I ask.”

The teacher paused. His companions, fearing that, once again, he would be overwhelmed by the crowd, urged him on. So many people, all of them demanding a moment of his precious time.

“Hurry away, Teacher, there are too many, and we have far to travel before the sun sets.”

“Just one question, Sir. For the peace of mind of an old soldier. You, who have so many answers. I beg you, Sir, spare one for me.

A wind off the sea blew the thin whisps of what remained of old man’s of hair across the deep lines of his face. His had not been an easy life, that much was plain. And his eyes spoke of horrors they could not un-see.

“Go on, brothers, I will catch you up!”

The teacher drew the old man down a narrow alleyway between two houses, emerging from the gloom into the bright sunlight of a walled garden. The teacher motioned for the old man to be seated on a stone bench, positioned in the shadow of a lofty cypress.

“Ask me your question, brother.”

“Did I kill him? That is the question that has dogged my waking hours, and haunted my terrible dreams, for more than thirty years.”

“You do not know?”

“No, Sir, I do not. We killed so many. Mere babes they were, Sir, still at their mothers’ breasts most of them. And, oh, how those mothers pleaded for their sons’ lives. On their knees, their up-turned faces wet with tears, their eyes alive with fear. How they begged and begged, and screamed and screamed, as we stabbed and stabbed and stabbed. It was the King’s orders, Sir. We were to kill all the boys born since the arrival of three Parthian wizards. Journeying far from the East, they said, to pay homage to the new-born King of Israel. Herod was beside himself with rage. The prophecy must be defeated – there was no other way. Every male child born in and around Bethlehem since the arrival of these doom sayers was to be killed. That was the King’s dreadful order, and, God forgive me, Sir, I obeyed it.”

The teacher stood in the cypress’s shadow, motionless, a single finger pressed hard against his lips.

“How many did you kill, brother?”

“Thirty-two, Sir. Thirty-two innocent babes. Twenty-six in Bethlehem, six in the nearby farms and villages. Herod was satisfied. His crown and line were safe – or so he thought.”

“My father told me the tale of the slaughtered children when I was myself a child. It weighed heavily upon him, a great burden of guilt, all his life. That he did nothing to save them – even though he was forewarned of Herod’s murderous intentions. He fled with his wife, my mother, carrying me, their new-born son, south into Egypt – and safety. They sent no warning to the mothers of Bethlehem. Did not look back.”

The old soldier rose slowly to his feet, took three steps towards the teacher, and fell upon his knees. His gnarled fingers clutched wildly at the other man’s cloak, drawing it to his lips.

“Then I did not kill the King,” the old soldier whispered hoarsely, “for here he stands before me, alive beneath the sun. The thirty-third child.”

“It was not my father, alone, who bore the weight of guilt, my brother,” said the teacher, helping the old soldier to his feet. “All my life, I have carried with me the knowledge that to keep me safe, my parents did nothing to deliver those innocent children from Herod’s evil.”

The old soldier placed his hands on the teacher’s shoulders, his face grim as death itself.

“There was nothing you could have done, Sir. There was no hiding-place that my men and I would not have found eventually. And if you and your parents had not escaped south, in the very nick of time, then Israel would not have its saviour king – it’s Messiah.”

“But I am no Herod, brother. And no Messiah, neither. The kingdom I proclaim is not a place of thrones and swords and crimes. And all that it requires is one last sacrifice. One final gift of innocence to open the gates of paradise. The life of the thirty-third child.”

This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 December 2022.

Thursday 22 December 2022

Making All Kinds Of Assumptions.

Changing Assumptions: White supremacy, legitimated through the states’ racial segregation statutes, and enforced by the terror inspired by the Ku Klux Klan, constituted the “normal” state of affairs in the South, and most Southerners could not take seriously the idea of any other system muscling-in on the “Jim Crow” status quo. But, muscle-in it did. In the end Southern Whites were forced to acknowledge (if not entirely accept) a new set of racial assumptions.

ONE OF THE MOST DISTURBING ASPECTS of race-based politics is the difficulty many citizens have in taking racially-driven change seriously. This is particularly the case when the manner in which racial matters have been defined and discussed changes abruptly. Assumptions upon which people have come to rely are deemed mistaken, even dangerous, and they are required to embrace a whole new set of assumptions.

Unsurprisingly, the ethnic groups targeted by these new assumptions will be profoundly affected by such dramatic shifts in moral and political judgement. If it is an ethnic minority being singled-out, then many of its members will become fearful. But, if the assumptions of the majority are being challenged, then many of its members will become extremely angry. Most citizens, however, will struggle to take such shifts seriously. Those making them will be branded extremists, and dismissed accordingly.

For many Jews living in Germany at the time of the Nazi’s seizure of power in the early months of 1933, the idea that their entire ethnic community was about to be threatened by actions infinitely more serious than the familiar antisemitic attacks of Adolf Hitler and his followers seemed preposterous. Germans were, after all, a highly civilised people, and their rulers, beginning in the Eighteenth Century, had been among the first to recognise Jews as citizens. The idea that they could be stripped of their citizenship, excluded from all aspects of social and economic life, robbed of their property and, ultimately their very lives, and all under the lawful direction of the state, was bizarre, unbelievable, obscene. They were right, of course, it was all of those things, but that didn’t make it untrue.

Whites living in the southern states of the United States found it equally preposterous that their “separate but equal” racial regime was about to be dismantled by the federal courts and the United States Congress. White supremacy, legitimated through the states’ racial segregation statutes, and enforced by the terror inspired by the Ku Klux Klan, constituted the “normal” state of affairs in the South, and most Southerners could not take seriously the idea of any other system muscling-in on the “Jim Crow” status quo. But, muscle-in it did. Not all that quickly, and not without horrific violence being visited upon the Black civil rights movement and its leaders, but in the end Southern Whites were forced to acknowledge (if not entirely accept) a new set of racial assumptions.

The role of the federal courts, the Supreme Court in particular, in defining and imposing that new set of assumptions, and of the US Congress in translating them into effective legislation, should not be underestimated. A different Supreme Court, and a differently composed Congress, could very easily have turned back the Civil Rights Movements’ legal and political challenges – as had happened many times before. A less progressive news media might have declined to stir the conscience of northern liberals by suppressing the images of Bull Connor’s fire-hoses and Alsatian dogs.

As the recent judgements of the US Supreme Court have demonstrated, the progressive assumptions that brought down Jim Crow and ushered in a host of related social freedoms, were the products of a particular historical moment. When the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in 1954, the global struggle against the fanatical racism of the Nazis was less than a decade in the past. In 2022, however, the proposition that the liberal victories of the late-Twentieth and early-Twenty-First centuries will stand unchallenged and unchanged forever has clearly been disproved. The hands of History’s clock can move backwards as well as forwards.

The evolution of racial politics in New Zealand has arrived at its own moment of radically altered assumptions. The notion that the colonial state, and the institutions it bequeathed to the nation of New Zealand, are insulated from serious challenge, both by the passage of historical time, and the shared beliefs and values of Māori and Pakeha, is itself being challenged.

An elite coalition of Māori nationalists, backed by sympathetic Pakeha intellectuals located strategically in New Zealand’s judicial, state, academic and media apparatus, has launched an ambitious attempt to “decolonise” the thinking of its Pakeha population, and “indigenise” the cultural, educational, administrative, and economic institutions of “Aotearoa”. This revolutionary constitutional reconfiguration, like the deconstruction of Jim Crow in the American South, is to be carried out with the consent of the white population, if possible; or without it, if necessary.

The key question raised by this strategy is whether or not enough New Zealanders can be convinced of the need for revolutionary constitutional change to overwhelm – either democratically or physically – the objections of those determined to preserve the status quo.

That this is the crucial determinant of New Zealand’s future will not, however, become clear until New Zealanders recognise the prospect of revolutionary change as a serious possibility. At the moment most of the New Zealand population continues to work on the assumption that Māori and Pakeha see each other as equals not adversaries. If they think about co-governance at all, they assume that it is simply a matter of giving Māori a stronger voice in matters that matter to them. Very few Pakeha appreciate that being “decolonised” and “indigenised” is something that will be done to them, in order to change them. When they finally work that out, things could get ugly.

In large measure, the final triumph of the Black Civil Rights Movement was the work of its enemies. The violence inflicted on non-violent protesters. The bombing and burning of churches. The murder of civil rights workers. These were the bloody talismans of segregation and white supremacy that allowed President Lyndon Johnson to assemble his congressional majority for the Voting Rights Act. Dr Martin Luther King understood that only by forcing white racism to reveal itself, could the moral indignation necessary to supplant it be kindled.

A race-driven revolution in New Zealand will succeed only if those promoting it are committed, and seen to be committed, to building a future in which what you are is of less importance that who you are. In Nazi Germany and the American South, what you were, Jew or Aryan, White or Black, was all that mattered. If New Zealand is a nation in which the assumptions of racial equality still hold sway, then any attempt to privilege the ethnic origins of its citizens over their common humanity must end in failure. If, however, a decisive majority of New Zealanders reject racial equality, then the serious consequences of the revolutionary, race-based constitution that is sure to follow will not be slow in manifesting themselves.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 December 2022.

Wednesday 21 December 2022

A New Government, But No Change, In 2023.

A Distinction Without A Difference: Labour is likely to lose next year’s election because it has become little more than New Zealand’s alternate governing party. New Zealanders lucky enough to live in their nation’s comfort zones will turn to Labour when National appears to have exhausted itself, and to National when Labour fails to impress. The only task which mainstream voters set themselves is determining which of National or Labour is more likely to administer the status quo efficiently and effectively.

WITH THE END of the year racing towards us, the temptation is strong to review the twelve months just gone. Some political journalists even go as far as issuing awards for the best and the worst of the nation’s political players. Others channel their inner schoolmarm and award grades, or marks out of ten. Away with all such malarky! What most interests the politically aware is not the past, but the future. Never is this more true that when the new year fast approaching is an election year.

I would be remiss, however, not to reference to the most jarring political event experienced by New Zealanders in 2022 – the occupation of Parliament Grounds. The full significance of this episode has only become clear with the benefit of hindsight. It intensified a prejudice against ordinary New Zealanders that, already strong, has since become a badge-of-honour among a distressingly large percentage of the political class. Before the Occupation, ignoring the wishes of the Great Unwashed could still elicit feelings of unease among “progressive” MPs. After the Occupation it became a positive duty.

How else to explain the outpouring of official concern at the amount of misinformation and disinformation coursing through the veins of the body politic. So swollen had these “rivers of filth” become that the Security Intelligence Service was prevailed upon to issue a booklet identifying the tell-tale signs of potentially lethal radicalisation in the boy next door. Concerned citizens were even given a number to call. 0800-STASI perhaps? It was all of a piece, however, with the melodramatic “Fire and Fury” documentary produced by Stuff’s Paula Penfold. In it, the time-honoured traditions of journalistic balance were jettisoned in favour of journalism which travelled in (if not at) the direction of the Government.

Clearly, democracy – unguided by the morally superior members of the political and academic mandarinate – can degenerate very quickly into the terrifying mobocracy that unleashed arson and violence in Parliament Grounds. These feelings of personal vulnerability, aroused among parliamentarians and journalists by the Occupation’s fiery end, were both palpable and novel. For the first time in decades they had been made aware of just how destructive those excluded from the nation’s political discourse could become – if sufficiently provoked.

The historical precedent for this outrage and anguish can be found in the reaction of “respectable” politicians and journalists to the rioting and looting that broke out in New Zealand’s four main centres in the summer and autumn of 1932 – when the Great Depression was at its deepest. The NZ Herald’s cartoonist, Gordon Minhinnick, captured the disgust of the newspaper’s middle-class readers by depicting the rioters as rats erupting from the sewers. The governing conservative coalition responded to the violence by passing the draconian Public Safety Conservation Act. Unconstrained by entrenched electoral clauses, the Reform and United parties were also moved to postpone the general election scheduled for 1934 until 1935.

As the Labour Party confronts the New Year, it will not only struggle to move beyond its now visceral mistrust of the Occupiers, but also of the third of the country who believed their anti-vaccination mandate grievances worth worthy of a hearing. There will be some among Labour’s ranks who feel keenly the irony of a supposedly working-class party living in terror of the actually existing proletariat, but most of the party’s members and MPs will dismiss the whole notion that the people Trevor Mallard turned the sprinklers on are working-class.

Certainly, they were very different from the ageing, Pakeha, blue-collar trade union delegates who turn up to Labour Conferences, or the loyal Pasifika workers who sit beside them. What Labour has forgotten, however, is that barely 10 percent of private sector workers any longer belong to a trade union. The world that the Employment Contracts Act made in the 1990s – and which Labour has never seen fit to unmake – changed the New Zealand working-class no less thoroughly than Thatcherism and Reaganism changed the British and American working-classes. Driven from the political stage, they have wandered into strange pastures and swallowed strange fruits. The degree to which these abandoned and marginalised workers are able to surprise the contemporary parties of the centre-left can be summed up in just two words: ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’.

‘Idiot Savant’, the hard-working blogger behind “No Right Turn” asks rhetorically: “Why won’t Labour keep its promises?” His favoured explanation is that the party has become too beholden to the lobbyists and donors that keep it solvent. He’s right, of course, but there’s much more to the problem than that. Labour is vulnerable to lobbyists, and increasingly dependent on wealthy donors, for the very simple reason that it is deeply fearful of ever again becoming a mass party – most particularly, a mass party of today’s working-class.

Such a party would be economically radical and socially conservative – precisely the opposite of the entity Labour turned itself into by embracing the more-market ideas of the Reserve Bank and Treasury in the 1980s. A key aspect of that transformation was the catastrophic defection of the tens-of-thousands of Labour members who did not sign-up for Rogernomics. But the dramatic reduction in the size of the Labour Party was a feature, not a bug, of the neoliberal transformation. Having a lot of members is more-or-less a guarantee of having a lot of trouble.

It used to be the case that New Zealand’s political fault-line ran not between National and Labour, but squarely down the middle of the Labour Party itself. Up until 1984, the really big arguments concerning New Zealand’s economic and social future were those that took place between the right and left wings of the Labour Party. But, when Rogernomics caused Labour to split in 1989, it lost virtually all of its left-wing members to Jim Anderton’s NewLabour (later the Alliance). That was critically important, because although it has gone largely unnoticed and unreported by this country’s political journalists for the last 30 years, the transformations of 1984-1993 relocated the nation’s political fault-line to the left of both National and Labour where, ever since the demise of the Alliance and NZ First, there is only the swirling and inchoate rage of unrepresented rebels in search of a cause.

Labour is likely to lose next year’s election because it has become little more than New Zealand’s alternate governing party. New Zealanders lucky enough to live in their nation’s comfort zones will turn to Labour when National appears to have exhausted itself, and to National when Labour fails to impress. The only task which mainstream voters set themselves is determining which of National or Labour is more likely to administer the status quo efficiently and effectively. In the face of a Labour Government struggling to cope with record inflation, a cost-of-living crisis, and all the other side-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, National’s hopes of reclaiming the Treasury Benches are, justifiably, high.

And that swirling mass of unrepresented and cause-less rebels: unimpressed by National and Labour, or their respective outriggers, Act and the Greens; what will they do in 2023? In the absence of a truly charismatic populist leader (sorry Winston) most of them will abstain from the electoral process altogether. Overall turnout is likely to be well down in next year’s election. An abstention rate of 25 percent is not inconceivable.

Not that National or Labour will care all that much. They have seen what the Deplorables can do when they get angry. They have no desire to see what they could make of Aotearoa-New Zealand if they ever got organised.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Tuesday, 20 December 2022.

Friday 16 December 2022

Just Visiting.

Disputed Title: Regardless of whether you’re defending the USA from citizen-aliens; guarding Aotearoa against insufficiently Māori Māori; or upholding the “principles, traditions, and ideals” that define New Zealand as a nation; the one thing you absolutely must be sure of is that the people who are “just visiting” your country, cannot impose their will upon those whose treasure it has been all along.

THERE’S A MEMORABLE SCENE in “The Good Shepherd”, a movie about the early years of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson (a character modelled on the real-life counter-spy James Jesus Angleton) and he is talking to Joseph Palmi, a Mafioso (played by the inimitable Joe Pesci) who asks him an interesting question.

Joseph Palmi:
Let me ask you something ... we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the [Blacks], they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?

Edward Wilson: The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

Sixteen years ago, “The Good Shepherd’s” screenwriter, Eric Roth, had his hero, Edward Wilson, give voice to a political idea that has only grown stronger among the sort of people who founded, and largely staffed, the CIA in the 1940s and 50s. Not the hyphenated Americans alluded to by Joseph Palmi, but the descendants of the original English and Scots-Irish settlers of the thirteen British colonies which, eventually, became the United States of America.

But, if the open expression of this idea was confined to the better sort of Republican country-club for most of the post-war era, it has – thanks to Donald Trump – escaped. Virtually everything that distinguishes Trumpian populism may be traced back to those two crucial questions: Who is a real American?, and, Who is “just visiting”? All of the hatred directed at ethnic minorities, women, and the gender divergent is explicable only when set in the context of the historical and constitutional expansion of who can be an American citizen.

Moreover, if American political commentator, Brynn Tannehill, posting on the US website, Dame is to be believed, the Edward Wilson understanding of who “owns” America, may, in just a few decades, be the unabashed conventional wisdom of the American Right. Tannehill quotes Larry Ellmers of the ultra-conservative Claremont Institute – with chilling effect.

According to Ellmers, few Americans are willing to accept that:

[M]ost people living in the United States today – certainly more than half – are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term […..] They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.

Inasmuch as most of the political trends and tropes of American politics tend to end up on these shores eventually – and, thanks to social-media, rather sooner these days than later – it would seem sensible to anticipate similar ethno-nationalist sentiments becoming a feature of New Zealand politics.

Fuelling such attitudes will be the sort of statements that got Kelvin Davis into hot water a few weeks ago. Annoyed by the political stance taken by Act MP and Wahine Māori, Karen Chhour, Davis accused her of viewing the world through a “vanilla lens”. Like Edward Wilson, Davis gave every appearance of regarding all those who followed the original inhabitants of Aotearoa as “just visiting”.

(It is worth noting, at this point, that Wilson’s creator, Roth, made no mention of Native Americans, the people who really were the continent’s first arrivals!)

Should the idea become widely accepted that those who share Davis’s opinions of late arrivals “do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined [New Zealand] as a nation and as a people”, then the behaviour of ultra-conservative Pakeha will become every bit as provocative – and dangerous – as the behaviour of extreme Māori nationalists.

Because, of course, these otherwise antagonistic groups have two very important imperatives in common: both must be absolutely committed to gutting democracy and extinguishing liberty. How could they not be, when those who do not share their views of the world possess a great many more votes than they do?

Regardless of whether you’re defending the USA from citizen-aliens; guarding Aotearoa against insufficiently Māori Māori; or upholding the “principles, traditions, and ideals” that define New Zealand as a nation; the one thing you absolutely must be sure of is that the people who are “just visiting” your country, cannot impose their will upon those whose treasure it has been all along.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 December 2022.

Thursday 15 December 2022

Kaipara: A Struggle For Political Legitimacy And Cultural Power.

Contested Ground: There is a widely held view among Māori, and some Pakeha, that New Zealand’s liberal-democratic system is a relic of colonisation, rendering it both oppressive and morally repugnant. Accordingly, in the mainstream news media’s reporting of the Kaipara controversy the political weight of the protagonists has been determined, almost entirely, by their ethnicity.

THE QUESTION dividing Kaipara’s electors, and the rest of New Zealand, is one of political legitimacy and cultural power. Whose protocols should prevail: the standing orders of the local council; or, the tikanga of the local iwi?

In strictly legal terms, the standing orders of the Kaipara District Council, as interpreted by the elected head of the council – Mayor Craig Jepson – must prevail. The order of business, and the manner in which that business is conducted, is for him – and for him alone – to determine.

Except, in the rolling maul that is New Zealand’s racial politics, the letter of the law no longer counts for very much. As events in Kaipara have proved, it’s all about who can mobilise the most outrage – especially in the news media and online. On that score, the woman at the centre of the controversy, the woman representing the Te Moananui o Kaipara Māori Ward, Pera Paniora, is well ahead on points.

At the heart of the controversy lies Ms Paniora’s attempt to begin the first meeting of the newly-elected Kaipara District Council with a karakia, or prayer. According to standing orders, it is the Mayor who has the responsibility for opening the Council’s inaugural meeting. This he was attempting to do when Ms Paniora interrupted the proceedings with a request to recite a karakia, and upon being refused permission, protested, and had to be brought to order by the Mayor.

Ms Paniora justified her interruption of the proceedings by claiming that the Mayor was acting in defiance of tikanga (custom and practice). Mayor Jepson responded by taking a firm stand on the secular character of political authority in New Zealand – a doctrine derived from the liberal-democratic insistence upon the separation of Church and State:

This is a council that’s full of people who are non-religious, religious, of different ethnicities and I intend to run a secular council here which respects everybody and I will not be veering from that.

Given that New Zealand is one of the most secular nations on earth, with fewer than half the population evincing religious belief, the Mayor would appear to be on solid ground. Rather than privilege one councillor’s religion over everybody else’s, his solution, to have no prayers at all, struck many New Zealanders as eminently sensible.

In the ears of many Māori, however, Mayor Jepson’s words struck an unmistakably “racist” note. In their estimation, it is not for Pakeha, no matter what political office they may hold, to prevent a young Māori woman from upholding tikanga by initiating a hui (meeting) with a karakia seeking God’s blessing upon the proceedings. Jepson’s actions kindled an angry response from Māori (and not a few Pakeha) across the country. Who did he think he was?

Well, he probably thought he was the legally recognised leader of the Kaipara community. The 4,228 votes he received from the electors of the Kaipara District, representing 50.5 percent of the 8,366 votes cast, earned him the title, status, and powers of Mayor.

Once, that title would have merited the respect of the news media, but – no more. The mainstream news media remained steadfastly silent on the subject of Mayor Jepson’s political legitimacy, and his legal authority as Chair of the Council. It similarly refused to address the question posed by the Mayor concerning the appropriateness, or otherwise, of injecting religion into what are generally understood to be secular proceedings. All that seemed to matter was that he had silenced a young Māori ward councillor at her first meeting – an action which most of the news media’s reporting strongly implied was racist in both intent and effect.

Few, if any, reporters raised the question of who carried the most democratic weight in this argument. Ms Paniora had secured 246 out of the 535 votes cast by electors on the Māori Roll in the Te Moananui o Kaipara Māori Ward. At 45.9 percent, her support was impressive, but not as impressive as Mayor Jepson’s 50.5 percent. Also unremarked upon was the fact that just 246 votes were required to make Ms Paniora a Councillor, considerably fewer than the 4,228 votes required to make Mr Jepson a Mayor. Or that the General Roll turnout in Kaipara District was 50.4 percent, compared to the Maori Roll turnout of 29.4 percent.

That none of these numbers were taken all that seriously is attributable to the widely held view among Māori, and some Pakeha, that New Zealand’s liberal-democratic system is a relic of colonisation, rendering it both oppressive and morally repugnant. Accordingly, in the mainstream news media’s reporting of the Kaipara controversy the political weight of the protagonists has been determined, almost entirely, by their ethnicity. That Māori have taken offence at the behaviour of a Pakeha politician is deemed to be resolvable only by the latter’s more-or-less total capitulation to the former.

That Mayor Jepson has announced a compromise solution to the contretemps, whereby each councillor will, in turn, be given the opportunity, before the formal opening of Council meetings, to invite his or her fellow councillors to join them in a meditation, prayer, or incantation of their own choosing, has been represented as too little, too late. In matters of this sort only the most complete abasement before the tikanga of the mana whenua (local wielders of power) will do.

It is important to acknowledge what is happening here. What the country has been witnessing in Kaipara is a struggle for political legitimacy and cultural power. Intended, or not, Ms Paniora’s bid to recite a karakia in the opening seconds of the newly-elected council’s first meeting constituted a test to see whose ways would prevail in the Kaipara District. The ways of the inheritors of the Anglosphere’s liberal-democratic system of government, with its historical suspicion of social hierarchies and religious sentiments, and its secular faith in the egalitarian rules of orderly deliberation? Or, the ways of Te Ao Māori: imbued with spirituality, guided by tikanga, and executed by those with the mana to both convince, and to command?

It is difficult not to sympathise with Mayor Jepson, to whose aid and comfort so few people have sprung. Where were the electors of Kaipara District who, just a few weeks ago, thought this man Jepson worthy of their support? Is there really no one in the North willing to stand up for liberal-democracy? Certainly, the comparison with the hundreds of local Māori who were willing to come out on to the streets of Dargaville yesterday (14/12/22) in support of their representative is a telling one.

The game is far from over, but at the moment the score is definitely: Paniora 1, Jepson Nil.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 15 December 2022.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Fractured Realities.

How To Heal A Fractured Society: On March 27th 1939, Michael Joseph Savage opened the new Social Security building on Aotea Quay, Wellington, replacing, in just six weeks, the Aitken Street building destroyed by right-wing arsonists earlier that year. As the economic and social historian, Bill Sutch, later recalled: “The ceremony took place in the presence of thousands of people, in time to mark, five days later, the end of poverty.”

IT’S A PRETTY CONFRONTING VIDEO. Recorded in Starship Hospital, it shows “Baby Will” being taken from his protesting parents for pre-operative tests. Perhaps the most jarring aspect of the video is the father’s loud and repeated accusations that the Police officers present are acting illegally. As if the court case, which the father witnessed, was of no significance. As if the judge’s decision – which found in favour of the medical authorities seeking guardianship of the infant so that the life-saving surgery he needed so urgently could go ahead – was not binding. Clearly, the “reality” inhabited by the father differed radically from the reality inhabited by the Police officers, the medical staff, and the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders.

Kate Hannah, of the University of Auckland’s “Disinformation Project”, characterises the situation depicted in this disturbing video as “a split reality”. Human-beings in the same room, breathing the same air, and utilising the same light, nevertheless believed themselves to be engaged in entirely different activities. “Baby Will’s” parent believed their child was in imminent danger and were trying to protect him. The Police and Starship’s medical staff believed they were doing what was necessary to save a baby’s life. Tragically, the impasse could only be resolved physically – by the Police officers interposing their bodies between the child and its parents.

Much of the responsibility for the emergence of this split reality lies with the augmented powers of communication vouchsafed to “ordinary” people by the Internet and social-media. It is now relatively easy to pour false or misleading information into the minds of tens-of-thousands of citizens.

Ironically, these extravagant lies have the power to effectively inoculate their victims against the truth. If people can be persuaded that, as Donald Trump insists, “the whole system is rigged”, then all the officially-sanctioned expertise in the world becomes untrustworthy. The alienated masses’ response to ‘the facts’, echoing Mandy Rice-Davies’, becomes: “Well, they would say that – wouldn’t they?”

It would, however, be wrong to think that this triumph of misinformation and disinformation is a new thing. Technological innovation has empowered all sorts of communications over the centuries. The equivalent of a twenty-first century video, recorded on a smart phone, might be the anti-elite graffiti daubed on the walls of Ancient Rome; or the inflammatory religious pamphlets, illustrated with blood-curdling woodcuts, rolling-off the new-fangled Protestant printing-presses of the Sixteenth Century.

If ever there was a time of split-realities, it was during the Reformation. At stake in this great 100-year-long falling-out between Christians was nothing less than the individual’s immortal soul. The perceived existential threat, registered by Protestants and Catholics alike, wasn’t just to their well-being in this world, but to their long-term location in the next!

But, if religious disputes were bad, political conflicts proved to be even worse. In no other facet of human existence are split realities more common than in the hotly contested realm of political belief – and action.

Consider the following passage, drawn from an editorial published in The Dominion on election-day 1938:

Today you will exercise a free vote because you are under this established British form of government. If the socialist government is returned to power your vote today may be the last free individual vote you will ever be given the opportunity to exercise in New Zealand.

A level of paranoid hyperbole to rival even the most egregious National Party troll on Twitter!

Not that Labour Party voters took their lead from the Tory press – not in 1938. That was the election in which Labour received its greatest ever share of the popular vote, an astounding 55.8 percent. If reality was split in 1938, then Labour’s portion was a large one. Not even the united and venomous opposition of what we would today call the “mainstream” media could shake the loyalty of Labour’s voters.

The reality inhabited by working-class New Zealanders prompted an unequivocal endorsement of the government they had elected in 1935. Change had been promised, and change had been delivered. And “their” government wasn’t finished – not by a long shot. A vote for Labour in 1938 was also a vote for “Social Security”. The eponymous Act of Parliament, passed before the election, was due to come into force on 1 April 1939. If New Zealanders wanted a welfare state, then they knew what to do.

There are some interesting parallels between the elections of 1938 and 2020. Both came after a sustained period of crisis – seemingly overcome as the result of Labour’s inspirational leadership. The voters were grateful; they were keen for more; and they were willing to vote for it – even some National supporters. The big difference between 1938 and 2020, of course, is that Jacinda Ardern had nothing like Mickey Savage’s Social Security Act waiting for voters on the other side of the ballot-box.

Not everybody was on-side with Savage’s agenda. In the wake of Labour’s landslide victory, and with the Social Security Act’s coming-into-force date fast approaching, forces on the other side of the Thirties’ fractured reality struck back – torching the new Social Security Building that was rising on its Aitken Street building-site, barely a stone’s throw from Parliament. The smoke that swirled around Parliament in February/March 2022 was not without precedent.

Those ugly scenes in Starship Hospital this week are an echo of the unprecedented divisions that opened up in the months immediately following the 2020 Labour landslide. Future historians will sift through those months for explanations as to how and why the love for Labour and its leader was lost. Much will be said about vaccination mandates and extended lockdowns, but those, alone, will not be enough to explain the steady erosion of Labour’s position.

Perhaps, we should ask ourselves what would have happened to the mood of New Zealanders if, in the wake of the arson attack in Aitken Street, Savage had announced that, in the name of national unity, he was going to repeal the Social Security legislation. Imagine the sense of betrayal, the sense of loss. Imagine the level of animosity ordinary working-class voters would have directed towards the Labour Party. We can only speculate as to whether or not it would have exceeded the disappointment experienced by the New Zealand electorate in 2021/22 as kindness was cancelled, and the Team of Five Million disbanded. One outcome, however, is easily predicted – reality would have become even more dangerously fractured.

Except, of course, Mickey Savage did not do that. This is how I described his response to the arson in Aitken Street in No Left Turn, published in 2007:

“We have got to get the Social security Act working on April 1st and it’s going to work”, Savage told the country […..] and his government were as good as their word. “We are not going to weep,” said the irrepressible Minister of Public Works, Bob Semple. “It is a question of getting our backs into it, and getting the job done.” While firemen were still dampening down the smoking ruins on Aitken Street, Semple promised the construction of a replacement building within six weeks. The Public Works Department, Fletcher Construction, and the building firm of R.C. Love began work immediately on a site in Aotea Quay. James Fletcher admitted that this schedule would “necessitate the working of two 10-hour shifts, and it is anticipated that approximately 150 men will be required for each shift”. It is a measure of how vital the replacement of the building was seen to be that the normally obstreperous building trades unions agreed to work the site around the clock. Even more remarkable is the fact that the contractors agreed to take no profit!

On March 27th 1939, Savage opened the new building. As the economic and social historian, Bill Sutch, later recalled: “The ceremony took place in the presence of thousands of people, in time to mark, five days later, the end of poverty.”

That’s how you hold a country together.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 12 December 2022.

Saturday 10 December 2022

Willie Jackson’s New Network Will Go Fishing For a New Audience.

Train Wreck: Perhaps the easiest way to describe what Willie Jackson’s new public broadcaster will be like, is to set out clearly what it will not be like. It will not be fair. It will not be balanced. It will not perceive itself as a platform upon which all New Zealanders, espousing all manner of ideas and opinions, will be made to feel welcome. 

WHY CAN’T WILLIE JACKSON make a case for the merger of Radio NZ and TVNZ?

Last Sunday, on the Q+A current affairs show, he told his host, Jack Tame, that he wanted an “entity” to match Britain’s BBC and Australia’s ABC. Great! Were New Zealanders to be treated to a new public broadcaster modelled on the BBC and the ABC, the country would forever be in the Minister of Broadcasting’s debt.

Unfortunately, Jackson was just blowing smoke. The entity he is in the process of creating will not be the least bit like the BBC or ABC. So unlike them will it be, in fact, that it is actually safer for the Minister to give New Zealanders as few details as possible. Hence his unwillingness to make the case.

So, what will this “entity”: this Frankenstein broadcaster, cobbled together from the dead bodies of New Zealanders’ existing public radio and television networks; actually be like?

Perhaps the easiest way to describe what Jackson’s new public broadcaster will be like, is to set out clearly what it will not be like.

It will not be fair. It will not be balanced. It will not perceive itself as a platform upon which all New Zealanders, espousing all manner of ideas and opinions, will be made to feel welcome. That sort of public broadcaster – of which the BBC is undoubtedly the exemplar – strives to present itself as a mirror: an institution in whose productions the nation expects to see itself reflected – warts and all – and is not disappointed.

But surely, that must be what Jackson and his colleagues have in mind? One would hope so. But if that was indeed the sort of public broadcaster Labour is planning, then, just like the BBC and the ABC, it would be steadfastly non-commercial. More bluntly, it wouldn’t be supported in any way, shape, or form – by advertising.

From the very beginning, however, Labour’s made it plain that the merged entity will rely for a goodly chunk of its income on the sale of advertising. That decision, alone, shows that, regardless of the Minister’s protestations, the entity he has planned will be nothing like the BBC or the ABC – which rely upon a broadcasting licence fee, and direct state funding, respectively. Insert advertisers into the broadcasting equation, and pretty soon all your left with is a schedule dedicated to attracting the highest number of eyeballs, by catering to the lowest common cultural denominators.

That is why Radio NZ is the only real public broadcaster left in New Zealand. Its National and Concert Programmes are rigorously non-commercial – a status they enjoy by virtue of the fact that the entire network is funded by the taxpayer. It is this complete independence from advertisers and sponsors that makes Radio NZ’s diverse selection of programmes, catering to all manner of tastes, possible.

Television NZ, by way of contrast, is utterly dependent on the advertisers’ dollars. It’s programming is dictated by the ratings. If not enough people are watching, then advertisers demand a discount, and the network’s revenues fall. If more viewers are keen to watch FBoy Island than an historical drama, then it’s the reality TV show that gets the prime-time slot. Which is why there are so few historical dramas, and so many reality TV shows, on prime-time NZ television.

Forty years ago, New Zealand’s public television networks, heavily subsidised by a broadcasting licence-fee, and with the amount of advertising strictly regulated, was as dedicated to producing the broadest possible range of high-quality programmes as public radio still is today. The full commercialisation of TVNZ – yet another gift of the Rogernomics era – would undoubtedly have been Radio NZ’s fate had it not been for its huge, highly-educated, and politically-engaged audience’s ability to keep it out of the private sector’s withering grip.

Which brings us back to the original question: Why can’t Willie Jackson defend the merger of RNZ and TVNZ? The answer is brutally simple: Radio NZ currently broadcasts to the wrong demographic. It’s listeners are too old, too white, too well-educated, and insufficiently “woke” to be herded in the direction Labour favours.

That is why Willie Jackson is so determined to merge Radio NZ with TVNZ. He needs a new net with which to go fishing for a new audience.

He neither needs, nor wants, RNZ’s existing listeners.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 December 2022.

Friday 9 December 2022

Jacinda’s Manic Ministry.

Do you want the moon to play with? What was it that persuaded Jacinda Ardern to exactly reverse Helen Clark’s strategy of under-promising and over-delivering? Even with the winds of history at your back, over-promising the electorate is a silly thing to do. No government should ever attempt to defy Murphy’s Law, especially in circumstances where its supposed servants feel morally obliged to wreck any attempt to change the status-quo.

LOOKING BACK over the five years this government has been in office, it’s hard not to feel depressed. Given the mess the Baby Boomers made of New Zealand between 1984 and 1990, it was assumed that the first Generation X government would, at least, know what not to do. Having learned their trade at the feet of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins should have been immune to the allure of grand ideological schemes; and known better than to make promises they couldn’t keep.

“Under-promise, and over-deliver.” That was Helen Clark’s mantra for the 15 years she led (that is to say utterly dominated) the Labour Party. In a nation still enthralled to neoliberalism, the formula made perfect sense. Full-on social-democracy, as the Third Labour Government discovered, was verboten – even in the hey-day of Keynesianism. Thatcher and Reagan made social-democracy even harder.

In its essence, Rogernomics represented Labour’s complete capitulation to the new economic and political order. Henceforth, the best social-democrats would be able to offer were limited programmes which, while mostly making life easier for capitalists, occasionally scattered a few crumbs in the direction of the poor.

By under-promising and over-delivering, a Labour government could present itself as both sensible and competent. Not much might be on offer, but if you said you were going to deliver – and you did – then your voters weren’t just grateful, they were impressed. The days of big dreams might be over, but Clark’s clear-headed grasp of her own and her party’s limitations, made it possible for some of the people’s smaller dreams to come true.

What was it that persuaded Jacinda Ardern to exactly reverse Helen Clark’s formula? Even with the winds of history at your back, over-promising the electorate is a silly thing to do. No government should ever attempt to defy Murphy’s Law, especially in circumstances where its supposed servants feel morally obliged to wreck any attempt to change the status-quo. If anything can go wrong with an unorthodox left-wing government’s policy, its neoliberal public servants are bound to make damn sure it will.

It is astonishing that Ardern, Robertson and Hipkins never appreciated how many of the Fifth Labour Government’s achievements required only a modest reconfiguration of already existing administrative machinery. Clark and Cullen avoided, wherever possible, projects that required a major reshaping of the physical world. They would never have been so foolhardy as to promise the construction of 100,000 “affordable” houses. Who was going to build them? More to the point, who was going to pay for them? Neoliberalism had shut down the active state, it wasn’t about to start it up again.

And yet, Ardern and Robertson did nothing but raise expectations. New Zealand was going to be “transformed”. Kindness and wellbeing were going to replace neoliberalism’s watchwords of “effectiveness” and “efficiency”. Poverty, itself, was in the Prime Minister’s cross-hairs. After 30 years of the dismal science’s overcast skies, the sun was poised to break through. It was going to be a beautiful day! Labour’s whole front-bench seemed to be on Ecstasy.

But just as Labour’s big promises were on the point of being revealed as hollow, effectively scuppering the Government’s chances of re-election, big events intervened to restore its fortunes. It is hard to come up with a better example of ill winds blowing a floundering government so much good. Certainly, Ardern’s response to the Christchurch Terror Attacks, and then to the Covid-19 Pandemic, drove Labour’s failures from the public mind.

The Government’s performance was aided immeasurably by the neoliberal playbook being uncharacteristically thin on how to deal with terrorist horrors and killer viruses. In extremis, Ardern and her advisers fell back on ideas and responses inimical to the radical individualism of the neoliberal ideology. People were suddenly introduced to the spiritual and material benefits of collectivism and solidarity. “They are Us” proved mightier than the Aussie gunman’s semi-automatic. It felt good to be part of a “team of five million”.

Ardern, Robertson and Hipkins, with their colleagues holding on for dear life behind them, rode these mighty exogenous tidal-waves all the way to an absolute parliamentary majority – which turned out to be just about the worst thing that could have happened to them. Absent Winston Peters and his white-knuckle grip on the political hand-brake, Labour lost little time in showing the country just how important NZ First’s restraining influence had been. Over the next two years, convinced they were ten-feet-tall and bulletproof, Ardern’s government proved itself unsafe at any speed.

At the heart of Labour’s political delinquency was its conviction that the events of 2019 and 2020 had conferred upon the party’s leadership an unchallengeable moral authority. That the groups it was marginalising and (in their own eyes) persecuting: conservative Pakeha males; the militantly unvaccinated; traditional feminists; fundamentalist Christians; believers in freedom of expression; supporters of the National and Act parties; homeowning Baby Boomers; just might, together, add up to a majority of the electorate, did not slow them down.

Indeed, the refusal of these deplorables to acknowledge the Government’s moral superiority made its members very angry. Labour found the anti-vaxxer occupation of Parliament Grounds in February-March 2022 especially confronting. The naked hatred and contempt directed at them by some of the protesters left many parliamentarians convinced that such people needed to be silenced. The defenders of free speech were allowing crazed conspiracy theorists and the spreaders of misinformation and disinformation to poison the public wells. A line needed to be drawn.

More rational, but equally problematic, was Labour’s Māori Caucus’ determination to take advantage of the party’s parliamentary majority to quicken the pace of decolonisation and indigenisation. This was necessary, they told their Pakeha colleagues, if the party was serious about forging a credible partnership between Māori and the Crown. Unwilling to risk accusations of racism, most of Labour’s caucus acquiesced. Any misgivings they may have harboured about co-governance, Three Waters, He Puapua and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, remained unacknowledged and unvoiced.

Only Labour’s steady decline in the opinion polls offers the slightest hope that the almost manic quality of its parliamentarians’ behaviour might be recognised for what it so clearly is: electorally suicidal. If not, then Roger Hall’s description of the Labour Party in his 1977 stage play, Middle Age Spread, may yet be applied to the bizarre mixture of febrility and fortitude that characterised Jacinda Ardern’s manic ministry:

Honestly the Labour Party remind me of a documentary I saw on television about sleeping sickness. All these people who’d been half asleep for twenty years were given this new wonder drug and they all came alive and sang and danced around for a bit … and then the drug wore off and Zap! Back to sleep for another twenty years.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 8 December 2022.

Tuesday 6 December 2022

A Matter Of Trust.

Hard To Win, Easy To Lose: Trust cuts both ways. It is equally critical, in political terms, that a government trusts the people to at least the same extent as the people trust the government. Indeed, nothing erodes the voters’ trust faster than evidence their own government considers them untrustworthy.

TRUST. Nothing is more important to a government than the trust of the governed. With trust, there is very little that a government cannot accomplish. Without it, durable political accomplishments are much less likely. Jacinda Ardern’s government is currently teetering on the brink of forfeiting a crucial percentage of the electorate’s trust – more than enough to cost it the next election.

Trust, of course, cuts both ways. It is equally critical, in political terms, that a government trusts the people to at least the same extent as the people trust the government. Indeed, nothing erodes the voters’ trust faster than evidence their own government considers them untrustworthy.

At the heart of the political uncertainties enveloping the concept of co-governance is the Labour Government’s all-too-obvious lack of trust in the Pakeha majority. A lack of trust also displayed by the National Party. What other explanation could John Key possibly offer for sending the Māori Party’s co-leader, Pita Sharples, to New York, in conditions of virtual secrecy, to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).

Given that UNDRIP was largely authored by, and has become the crowning achievement of an indigenous New Zealander, Moana Jackson, a New Zealand government, untroubled by the public’s reaction, might have been expected to make more of the event than a diplomatic fait accompli. Likewise, with respect to the formation of a special working group tasked with identifying the cultural and constitutional changes required to give full effect to UNDRIP.

A government untroubled by the political ramifications of such an investigation would not have kept its existence hidden from its coalition partner. A government willing to trust the New Zealand electorate would not have kept the working group’s report – He Puapua – under wraps. On the contrary, it would have welcomed the lively political debate which the unedited Report’s voluntary release would undoubtedly have generated.

But, as we all know, trust was lacking. Not only was the re-elected Labour Government anxious to keep the document secret, but those Māori with a deep interest in constitutional reform – including Moana Jackson – similarly manifested a strong aversion to debating He Puapua’s recommendations openly in the public square.

Even when the full text of He Puapua was leaked to former Act MP Muriel Newman’s right-wing New Zealand Centre for Political Research, the reaction of the Labour Government was to downplay its significance and emphasise that it was not – repeat NOT – government policy. The Prime Minister went further: flatly ruling-out implementing one of the Report’s most controversial recommendations – the creation of an Upper House of Parliament, composed of an equal number of Māori and non-Māori members, and tasked with testing the legislation passed up to it by the Lower House against the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Jacinda Ardern’s reflexive rejection of the proposed Upper House was not only precipitate, it was also politically injudicious. There are many recommendations contained within the He Puapua report that are considerably more problematic than the creation of an Upper House. Indeed, if a government was anxious to demonstrate to voters the efficacy of the principle of co-governance, then a second chamber made up of 50 percent Māori and 50 percent Non-Māori, would be precisely the right place to start.

An Upper House constitutionally limited to reviewing, reporting-on, and – if necessary – returning, legislation to the House of Representatives for further consideration and/or revision, could play a powerfully educative role in preparing the population for other cultural and constitutional changes.

Critical to the Upper House fulfilling such an educative function would be the elimination, as far as practicable, of all the debilitating distractions of partisanship.

For the Māori half of the Chamber, this could be achieved by delegating the choice of representatives to an agreed-upon roll of collective Māori entities. The manner of identifying these entities’ representatives would be determined by the iwi and hapu involved. Some might opt for election, others for more traditional methods of identifying and anointing leaders.

For the Pakeha half of the Chamber, partisanship might be avoided by following the example of Seanad Éireann, the Irish Senate, members of which are appointed to represent Public Administrators, the Legal Profession, Employers, Farmers, Trade Unions, the Universities, and people prominent in the world of Arts and Letters.

Anxious to move beyond the murderous allegiances of the Irish Civil War (1922-23) the framers of the Irish Republic’s constitution strove to construct an upper house guided not by fierce party loyalties, but by a determination to meet the challenges of self-government by harnessing the wisdom of the whole nation.

Thus constituted, the proposed Upper House could play a crucial role in identifying, investigating, and debating to what extent each piece of legislation passed by the House of Representatives conformed to – or deviated from – the principles of the Treaty. Have the decisions of the lower house strengthened or weakened the partnership between the Crown and tangata whenua? Are its decisions justified? Or should the legislation be sent back to the House for further deliberation?

It is difficult to conceive of a more gentle or thoughtful way of demonstrating the value of co-governance as a method for devising policies and making laws which both Māori and Non-Māori can accept without reservation and/or resentment. An Upper House with strictly limited powers, but constituted in such a way that the worth of legislation driven by purely partisan considerations can be assessed by those beholden to very different principles, would fast become the respected educator of the nation.

The Prime Minister’s rejection of this key He Puapua recommendation – almost out of hand – is deeply regrettable. As a means of instilling and demonstrating trust in the capacity of Māori and Non-Māori to determine and advance their best mutual interests, an Upper House has a great deal more to recommend it than Labour’s (and the Greens’) increasingly divisive Three Waters project, which, right from the start, has communicated to all affected parties an almost total lack of trust.

That Māori have myriad reasons to withhold their trust from Pakeha is undisputed by those with even a rudimentary understanding of New Zealand history. To refuse trust as a matter of policy, however, cannot hope to bring Māori and Pakeha close enough to jointly determine a mutually rewarding future for Aotearoa-New Zealand. For that to happen, both peoples need to trust each other enough to embrace new and untried solutions.

The Prime Minister should withdraw her objection to the creation of a co-governed Upper House. Let New Zealanders witness in public the Treaty debates that, hitherto, have only taken place in private. If there is wisdom and generosity to be found in the processes of co-governance, then let their virtues be seen by Māori and Non-Māori alike.

Trust them, and New Zealanders will, almost always, make the right choice.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 5 December 2022.

Friday 2 December 2022

Parliament’s Collective Failure To Defend The Constitution.

Unbitten: It is one of the oddest and most worrying aspects of the events surrounding Green MP Eugenie Sage’s late-night attempt to re-write the constitutional convention on entrenched legislation while a weary House of Representatives was sitting under Urgency. Sherlock Holmes’ famous observation concerning the dog that did not bark, might be applied with equal justification to the Opposition that did not bite.

WHILE WE MAY be reasonably confident that the attack on New Zealand’s constitution will be repelled, it should never have happened. That it was legal scholars who sounded the alarm over the entrenchment of a section of the Three Waters legislation, should cause all 120 of our parliamentarians to hang their heads in shame. Their collective failure to grasp what Green MP Eugenie Sage was doing points to a woeful lack of political and constitutional awareness among those whose first and most important duty is to protect the integrity of our democratic system.

Had a similar effort to screw the constitutional scrum been attempted even ten years ago, the perpetrator would have been red-carded immediately. Not even Rob Muldoon, who was not above the odd instance of constitutional skulduggery, would ever have contemplated a stunt like Ms Sage’s. He would have known that his National Party colleagues would have intervened decisively to prevent him bringing their party into such disrepute.

It is one of the oddest and most worrying aspects of the events surrounding Ms Sage’s late-night introduction of her controversial SOP (Supplementary Order Paper) while a weary House of Representatives was sitting under Urgency. Sherlock Holmes’ famous observation concerning the dog that did not bark, might be applied with equal justification to the Opposition that did not bite.

Tired though National’s and Act’s MPs may have been, and eager to get home to their beds, Ms Sage’s SOP should have had the same effect upon them as a bucket of cold water. Members of the Opposition parties should have risen instantly to their feet, baying like bloodhounds for the Speaker to rule upon the constitutional propriety of the Green MP’s SOP. Expressions of anger and disgust should have been ringing off the Chamber’s walls like the echoes of heavy artillery.

Those Cabinet Ministers present in the House, and their colleagues listening to the proceedings with one ear back in their offices, would have known immediately that something was wrong. Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, would have hurried to the side of the Minister in charge of the Three Waters legislation, Nanaia Mahuta, seeking urgent clarification as to what the hell Eugenie Sage was playing at.

A fair question – even at this stage of the proceedings. What was Ms Sage playing at? More to the point, was Ms Mahuta aware of her game? Did the Green MP’s SOP come out of nowhere, or was the entrenchment of the section prohibiting the privatisation of any or all of the four water “entities” part of a long-planned attempt to distract the public from the co-governance provisions of the legislation, by making it practically impossible for the Opposition parties to sell off the people’s water to private interests? (That the Opposition parties had categorically ruled out the privatisation of water was deemed an insufficient barrier to its introduction.)

Journalistic inquiries have established that the entrenchment of prohibitions against privatisation was being recommended by supporters of Three Waters months ago. It has also emerged that the Crown’s legal advisers had warned those responsible for the legislation (Ms Mahuta presumably) that such a course of action would be constitutionally abhorrent. It is further suggested that Cabinet received the same advice.

All to no avail. Neither Crown Law, nor the Attorney-General, were able to dissuade the Prime Minister from writing to the Opposition leaders, seeking their support for adding anti-privatisation to the list of core democratic rights and freedoms entrenched in our electoral legislation.

That privatisation is so very clearly “one of these things [that] is not like the others” in no way dissuaded the three women of Three Waters from undermining the integrity of New Zealand’s sixty-six-year-old, unanimously enacted, entrenchment provisions – along with the parliamentary consensus that had rendered them sacrosanct for so long.

The beauty of this country’s unwritten constitution is its simplicity and flexibility. It is not beholden to unelected judges, and vouchsafes to all citizens the right to overturn with their votes what arrogant politicians have set up with their own. The only right our constitution sets in stone, is the right of citizens to participate in the government of their country. Those who seek to remove the power of the people’s representatives to amend and/or repeal the laws, are not their friends – they are their enemies.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 2 December 2022.

Wednesday 30 November 2022

Has Labour Become A Co-Governed Party?

The Power Of Two: It is possible that, formally or informally, the Labour caucus arrived at its own version of co-governance. What the Māori caucus decide upon as its priorities are not to be overridden or gainsaid by the broader Labour caucus’s Pakeha majority. An arrangement of this sort would certainly explain how Three Waters became such immoveable items on Labour’s legislative agenda.

THE MORE THE VOTERS DISCOVER about Labour’s Three Waters, the less they like it. No matter, this Government has clearly decided that, if it is to be destroyed, then Three Waters is the hill upon which it will die. That being the case – and the still-unfolding Entrenchment Crisis leaves little room for doubt – then the only real question to be answered is: Why? What is it about the Three Waters project that renders it impervious to rational reconsideration?

When a group of people refuse to accept they have made a poor choice – even as it threatens to destroy them – then it is a reasonably safe bet that they are in the grip of dangerously delusional thinking. Cult-like thinking, some might even suggest. But is it credible to suggest that a mainstream political party could fall victim to delusional thinking on such a scale? Is Labour really crazy enough to put its long-term survival at risk?

It is certainly possible. And those in need of convincing have only to consider the destructive impact of Brexit upon the British Conservative Party, and Donald Trump’s malign influence over the United States’ Republican Party. If a majority of Tory MPs could be persuaded that leaving the EU was a good idea; and House Republicans that the 2020 Presidential Election was actually won by the incumbent; then the idea that Labour is hellbent on trashing New Zealand’s unwritten constitution suddenly doesn’t sound crazy at all.

The British Tories were tortured by the fear that remaining in the EU was tantamount to conceding that the days of global hegemony and imperial splendour were finally beyond recall. For the Americans, the fear was remarkably similar: that their fate would be the same as the Brits’; being edged off the world stage by larger emerging powers. Brexit offered the opportunity to “Take Back Control”. Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. Big ideas. Crazy lies.

What idea is big enough to derange the Labour Party into courting electoral suicide? The answer would appear to involve a radical revision of New Zealand history. Something along the lines of the colonisation of Aotearoa being a heinous historical crime. In this narrative, the colonial state is identified as the institution most responsible for the criminal dispossession of Aotearoa’s indigenous Māori population. Labour’s big idea is to facilitate a revolutionary reconstitution of the New Zealand state.

Now, where would Labour get an idea like that? Putting to one side Labour’s Māori caucus, whose interest in such an historical project is entirely understandable, how could Labour’s Pakeha MPs have picked up such a self-destructive notion? Well, the university graduates in Labour’s caucus (which is to say nearly all of them) are highly likely to have come across arguments for “decolonisation” at some point in their studies. The lawyers among them would certainly have encountered and absorbed “the principles of the Treaty”. So, too, would those coming to the Labour Party from the state sector.

It would be interesting to know exactly how many members of Labour’s caucus have, at some point in their past, attended a “Treaty Workshop”. Over the course of the past 40 years these have become virtually compulsory for members of the professional and managerial middle-class. The version of New Zealand history conveyed to those attending these workshops is remarkably consistent: colonisers = baddies; the heroic Māori who resisted the colonisers’ ruthless predations = goodies. Only by giving full effect to te Tiriti o Waitangi can the wrongs of the past be righted: only then will equity and justice prevail.

Many of those attending Treaty workshops will have been invited to “check their privilege” and “confront their racism”. This can be a harrowing experience for many Pakeha, leaving them with a strong inclination to keep silent and step aside whenever those on the receiving end of “white privilege” are encouraged to step forward and speak out. In the most extreme cases, Pakeha are actively discouraged from sharing their opinions, lest their higher education and superior facility with the English language overawe and “silence” those denied such privileges.

When Labour’s Māori caucus (the largest ever after the 2020 general election) sought to take full advantage of the party’s absolute parliamentary majority to advance their Treaty-centric agenda, it is entirely possible they found themselves pushing on an open door.

It is even possible that, formally or informally, the Labour caucus arrived at its own version of co-governance.* What the Māori caucus decided upon as its priorities were not to be overridden or gainsaid by the broader Labour caucus’s Pakeha majority. An arrangement of this sort would certainly explain how the Māori Health Authority and Three Waters became such immoveable items on Labour’s legislative agenda, and why the rising unpopularity of Nanaia Mahuta’s Three Waters project has, so far, proved unable to shift the Prime Minister and her Cabinet from their position of unwavering support.

Labour’s been here before. In the 1980s, the “big idea” that seized the imagination of most of the Labour caucus was what was then called “free-market economics”. By the end of the Fourth Labour Government’s second term it was clear that the consequences of the Rogernomics “revolution” were going to be electorally fatal. Desperate to negotiate an economic policy U-turn, the Labour Party discovered that the Labour Government was, like Margaret Thatcher, “not for turning”. Indeed, many MPs proudly declared that they would rather lose their seats than repudiate the economic reforms they had helped to introduce.

In 1990, Rogernomics was the hill Labour decided to die on. And die it did – at least as a recognisably social-democratic party. The party’s left-wing departed with Jim Anderton to form NewLabour and the Alliance, leaving behind a curious mixture of neo- and social-liberals. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that Labour’s Māori caucus has found the party’s Pakeha majority so easy to cajole into backing what, from its perspective, is an entirely legitimate constitutional agenda. Led by Nanaia Mahuta and Willie Jackson, the Māori caucus has taken full advantage of the fact that their Pakeha colleagues’ lack of constitutional conviction has never been a match for their own passionate intensity.

Three Waters may be the hill Labour dies on, but when the victors survey the field of battle, the only corpses they’ll find will be Pakeha. Each one clutching the “Big Idea” for which their party has paid the ultimate price.

* Acknowledgement is due, here, to NZ Herald journalist Fran O'Sullivan, who first raised the possibility of Labour having become a co-governed party. - C.T.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 29 November 2022.

Hope Defeats Hate.

Third Time Winner: Daniel Andrews’ Victorian victory is of a piece with the general failure of the American Right to achieve the gains it was expecting in the recent mid-term elections. Generally speaking, voters not already addicted to the Right’s ideological Kool-Aid find very little to like about candidates who manifest the odd and at times frightening behaviour of ideological zealots and outlandish conspiracy theorists. As Simon Holmes-A’Court’s teal candidates have proved in two elections on the trot, moderation + warmth is a winning combination. 

IF JACINDA ARDERN wasn’t congratulating Victorian Labor’s Dan Andrews on Saturday evening, then she bloody well should’ve been. With a third successive Labor victory under his belt, Andrews is set to become the state’s longest-serving Labor premier. In addition to offering her own, and her party’s, hearty congratulations, the New Zealand prime minister must have been sorely tempted to add: “How the hell did you do it!”

It’s a question the whole of the Australian Right will be asking themselves. They were so confident of winning Victoria that they simply failed to notice just how profoundly the politics of the Lucky Country have changed. It simply did not occur to them that a clear majority of the population saw Andrews as something other than a cruel and capricious Covid tyrant who had locked Victorians down for weeks – and months – on end. They could not conceive a Labor premier, whose actions had unleashed street battles between trade unionists and state police, possibly retaining the loyalty of Labor voters.

As far as the Australian Right was concerned, Andrews and the Victorian Labor Party were dog-tucker. Their man, the Liberal Party leader, Matthew Guy, couldn’t lose. Victoria was about to be prized out of Labor’s cold dead hands. (The party has governed the state for all but 4 of the last 27 years.)

Those who ventured onto Twitter to impart the heretical information that there were signs Labor might win, were greeted with scorn, and tweeted with contempt. “Just you wait ‘til Saturday,” crowed the over-confident Right, “then you’ll see!”

Well, quite. And what they saw was a slight slippage in Labor’s support – understandable after 8 years in office – and a reasonably strong performance by the Liberal’s coalition partner, the National Party. But, there was nothing like the Liberal surge needed to topple Andrews’ government. Quite the contrary, in fact. In the innermost of Melbourne’s inner suburbs it was the Greens who racked up gains – taking at least 1 seat from Labor. At the same time, moderate millionaire Simon Holmes-A’Court, author of the “Teal Revolution” which unseated a clutch of Liberal party grandees in the federal election, was claiming victory in two out of the four seats contested by his Climate 200 movement.

What the Liberal Party, and the Australian Right in general, have yet to register and accept is that Australia’s centre of political gravity has shifted sharply to the left. Crucial to this crippling perceptual failure is the performance of the Australian media, the Murdoch press in particular, where right-wing sentiment has become so deeply entrenched that its editors, journalists and columnists no longer even try to understand the other side of the political divide.

Those not dismissed by right-wing “shock jocks” as “woke”, are branded “cultural Marxists”, or “critical race theorists”. It has become almost impossible to persuade the Right that the number of people who actually merit these ideological labels is nowhere near large enough to swing an election. Even more dangerously, the assumption remains (no matter how meagre the evidence) that the overwhelming majority of “ordinary people” share the Right’s rampant prejudices. It is only after the votes have been counted that their misperceptions stand exposed.

On both sides of the Tasman this sort of “bubble thinking” is apt to steer the principal parties of the Right in the wrong direction. No matter how unanimous social-media appears at times, its ideological homogeneity is much more the product of IT engineers’ algorithms than it is of some broad cultural consensus. Such consensus as still exists in the Anglosphere, is far more likely to be found clustering around the shibboleths of the Left than the Right.

Gender Equality, Climate Change, Indigenous Rights, Cultural Diversity: hard though it may be for many on the Right to accept, these causes attract vastly more followers than Racism, Sexism, Homophobia and Climate Change Denialism. Not that Murdoch’s columnists, nor Australian Sky TV’s pundits, will ever concede an inch to such ideological heresies.

Andrews’ Victorian victory is of a piece with the general failure of the American Right to achieve the gains it was expecting in the recent mid-term elections. Generally speaking, voters not already addicted to the Right’s ideological Kool-Aid find very little to like about candidates who manifest the odd and at times frightening behaviour of ideological zealots and outlandish conspiracy theorists. As Holmes-A’Court’s “teal” candidates have proved in two elections on the trot, moderation + warmth is a winning combination – even in traditionally conservative electorates.

What, then, can New Zealand’s Labour leader, Jacinda Ardern, learn from the experience of her Victorian counterpart?

Almost certainly, the most important lesson to be drawn from Saturday’s Victorian result is that it is very wrong to give too much credence to the Right’s predictions of inevitable – and crushing – victory. The political-economy of the mainstream news media makes it considerably easier to shape right-wing than left-wing political narratives. In spite of numerous studies confirming that a majority of journalists lean to the left, it is rare to encounter mainstream journalists willing to cast the conduct of their employer’s principal advertisers in a consistently unfavourable light.

Equally unwise, is the ingrained habit of far too many political journalists to speak with unwarranted confidence about the attitudes of “ordinary” people. All too frequently, such commentary is based on nothing more than the crudest stereotypes. Among the Professional and Managerial Class, in particular, there is a pernicious view of “ordinary” people as repositories of all manner of “deplorable” prejudices and predilections – as if they weren’t discussing human-beings at all, but orcs.

Jacinda Ardern should draw reassurance from both the American and Australian elections that holding fast to a moderate progressivism is very far from being a losing strategy. Refusing to engage in the mud-wrestling so beloved of populist politicians is also unlikely to cost her votes. Nor being willing to engage in a little public humility. People who make mistakes every day of their lives are surprisingly willing to forgive those politicians who admit to being human, all-too-human.

Perhaps the most important lesson our Prime Minister could learn from the Victorian Premier, however, is the one he delivered to his fellow Victorians on election night. Quoting the former Labor prime-minister of Australia, Paul Keating, Andrews told his cheering followers: “Leadership isn’t about doing what’s popular, it’s about doing what’s right.” Alluding to the trials of the Covid-19 Pandemic, he praised his fellow Victorians for maintaining their “faith in science, and their faith in each other”.

It was that sense of kindness, he said, that sense of all being in this together, that carried Victoria through a one-in-one-hundred-year crisis. “Friends,” he reassured his fellow Victorians, “hope always defeats hate.”

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 28 November 2022.