Monday, 23 May 2022

Out! Morrison Is Bowled.

From Public Housing To The Lodge: Anthony Albanese wins the Australian Federal Election, bringing the career of Scott Morrison and his boofhead Coalition government to an end. The defeat of the boofheads was the victory Australia had to have.

CRIKEY! Those Aussies are pissed-off. To appreciate just how pissed-off they are it is instructive to look back at the last time Kiwis moved against their two major parties so aggressively. In 1996, National and Labour, between them, accounted for just 62 percent of the Party Votes cast. Taken together, NZ First, the Alliance, Act, United Future and the Christian Coalition accounted for 34.76 percent. The comparison with Saturday’s vote, of which the centre-right coalition of the Liberal and National parties attracted just 35.4 percent, Labor 32.8 percent, and their challengers 31.8 percent of the Primary Vote, is compelling.

The 1996 General Election in New Zealand was the first to be conducted under the new MMP electoral system, offering electors the novel opportunity to have their political choices much more accurately reflected in the final tally of seats. The 2022 Australian federal election, by contrast, was conducted under the well-established (if complex) Compulsory Preferential Vote system. The electoral havoc wrought across the Tasman is, therefore, even more telling. Angry Australians have dealt a massive blow to the two main political groupings, along with the political culture of bullshitters and boofheads in general.

These latter accretions to the Australian political system have multiplied alarmingly over the last 25 years – and not just in the Liberal and National parties. Some of the blame undoubtedly must be sheeted home to the One Nation Party, whose founding figurehead, Pauline Hanson, somehow succeeded in transforming ignorance into a political virtue. Like her fellow populist, Donald Trump, Hanson and her minders love the poorly educated – who reciprocate that love with unnerving passion.

The conservative coalition of Liberal Party toffs and National Party country bumpkins could not ignore Hanson’s vulgar intrusion into the hitherto settled politics of the Right. The Boofhead Vote was notoriously ill-disciplined, being as likely to award its second preferences to Labor as its more respectable conservative fellow-travellers. If Hanson couldn’t be beaten (and John Howard gave that option his best shot) then the only other alternative was to join her boofhead crusade.

But those second preferences came at a price. Yes, it was an unlooked-for blessing to witness the defection of that part of the Australian working-class which balked at embracing the socially-liberal supporters of feminism, multiculturalism, Aboriginal rights, sexual diversity and environmentalism who were becoming more-and-more entrenched in the Labor Party. But, how to transform Hanson’s party into a reliable electoral way-station for the Right? Part of the answer involved hitherto decent and responsible conservatives forcing themselves to pretend that these new recruits were not dyed-in-the-wool racists, sexists, homophobes and xenophobes who’d never met a lump of coal they didn’t like.

The ethical corrosion which these new electoral calculations inflicted on both the Centre-Right and the Centre-Left was devastating. By requiring their more sophisticated followers to hold their noses and adapt themselves to the needs of the Boofhead Vote, both parties had opened a pathway to power for their most ambitious and unscrupulous opportunists. Parliamentary politics, never all that refined in Australia, was coarsened still further.

Making matters worse, especially for the Liberals, was the vicious class politics at work on the Right. The upwardly-mobile working-class, and the middle-class suburban “battlers” who idolised “Little Johnny Howard”, felt keenly the lofty condescension bestowed upon them by the Liberal Party’s aristocratic grandees. Safe in their leafy, blue-ribbon redoubts (or sprawling squatter estates) these worthies felt more keenly than ever the pull of noblesse oblige. Boofhead votes were all very welcome, naturally. But, you couldn’t have boofheads running the party, or, God forbid! – occupying The Lodge!

To which the boofheads (Tony Abbot, Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison) responded: “Well see about that, mate. You just watch us.”

But, the boofheads could never have succeeded, or at least, not so completely, had it not been for Climate Change. With Australian coal fuelling the furnaces of China, and Australian iron and copper holding up and connecting much of the world, the inconvenient scientific truths of global warming prompted Australia’s richest and most conservative industrialists to go in search of politicians who could be relied upon to make damn sure that nothing of any significance was ever done to curb it.

To the many boofhead prejudices already injected into Australia’s political bloodstream was added the manifold dangers of Climate Change Denial. It was an affectation adopted without hesitation by a worrying number of the well-paid workers in Australia’s mining industry. The latter’s powerful trade unions made the formulation of a science-driven Climate Change policy extremely difficult for Labor. Meanwhile, on the right, the unholy boofhead alliance of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, evangelical Christianity and rank opportunism had destroyed the career of the leafy-suburbs’ Liberal standard-bearer, Malcom Turnbull.

The 2019 Federal Election, was won by Scott Morrison who succeeded in mobilising every available boofhead vote where it most mattered. (Which was not, as Labour and most of the pundits assumed, in the left-leaning cities.) Unfortunately for the Coalition, 2019 also marked the moment of Peak Bullshit. In the years that followed, the all-too-real impacts of global warming – in the form of devastating bush-fires and floods – left the denialists with an ever-decreasing audience among intelligent Australians.

Labour’s equivocation on the Climate Change issue had already fuelled the rise and rise of the Greens, threatening the party’s left flank and forcing it further and further away from Boofheadism. This became easier, and much less costly electorally, as even the dimmest working-class boofhead began to realise that having his prejudices tickled by Scotty From Marketing did nothing to halt the rapidly rising cost of living.

But if the Greens were challenging Labor for the support of young, non-boofhead Australians, the Liberal Party was about to fall victim to what might best be called “The Revenge of the Grandees”. The good and the great of the leafy suburbs had had enough of watching highly-intelligent and accomplished Liberal moderates whipped into line by the likes of boorish National Party leader, Barnaby Joyce. It was time to strike back against the corrupt political meddling of the Mining Industry and its refusal to accept the reality of Climate Change.

With what might be called “progressive capitalist” backing, a team of first-rate female “independents” was enlisted to destroy the Liberal’s moderate wing in its blue-ribbon seats - thereby making it impossible for the Morrison-led Government to win re-election. This rich admixture of regal blue and environmentalist green produced what, on the night, proved to be a “Teal Revolution”.

The Liberal-National Coalition now faces an historic fork in the road: either abandon Boofheadism and keep the Centre-Right in play; or, double-down on the failed politics of ignorance and prejudice. Dwindling to a vague political memory in the cities, and dying, unloved and unlamented, in some dusty bush electorate.

The editorial published on election day in the Melbourne-based small-l liberal weekly The Saturday Paper, said this of Australia’s boofhead PM:

Morrison, this cruel and bilious man, now asks for a fourth term. He says he’s just getting started. He plans to be different. He looks out at the carnage behind him, all of it the result of his ineffectiveness and ineptitude, and says he is a bulldozer. There is no crisis that doesn’t begin and end with him imagining himself as a small boy playing with a toy truck.

Yes, the Aussies are an angry people. Too pissed-off to give Anthony Albanese and his Labor Party a ringing endorsement, they have grudgingly made him their ‘lesser evil’ prime minister. What they enthusiastically made certain, however, was that Scott Morrison and the Coalition did not win.

The defeat of the boofheads is the victory Australia had to have.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 23 May 2022.

Saturday, 21 May 2022

An Exercise In Basic Accountancy.

Hoopla And Razzamatazz: Putting the country into debt allows a Minister of Finance to keep the lights on and the ATMs working without raising taxes. That option may become unavoidable at some future time, for some future government, but that is not the present government’s concern – not in the context of a three year electoral cycle. The politician’s motto is simple: “Always put off until tomorrow what is likely to cost you votes today.”

WHY HAS MAKING such a ridiculously big deal out of the whole Budget exercise persisted? The very notion that the government of the day possesses the foresight and skill to successfully diagnose and treat the nation’s economic ills in ways that have not been tried a hundred times before is fanciful. The smart move would be to treat the entire process as an exercise in basic accountancy. Because that’s all it is.

In essence, the budgetary process is about whether or not present state expenditures should persist (with appropriate adjustments for inflation) or be discontinued. Since most state expenditure is committed to activities that cannot be discontinued without throwing society into chaos, practically all of the Minister of Finance’s decisions are made for him. The sick must continue to be treated. The young must continue to be taught. The poor must continue to be housed and fed. The elderly must continue to be supported in their old age. Just attending to these “Musts” consumes practically all of the State’s annual revenue.

Of course a wise Minister of Finance will also keep a weather-eye on the condition of the global economy. Not because he can do anything about it, but because the impact of exogenous economic events – especially negative events – cannot help but affect the condition of the domestic economy. A reduction in the amount of money people spend and/or invest has consequences for the health of the nation’s businesses, the number of its citizens in work, and, most importantly, the quantum of revenue collected by the state.

In a rational society, any shortfall in state revenue would be made up by a corresponding increase in taxation. Unfortunately, democratic states are seldom governed rationally. Governments elected by the people are reluctant to court the wrath of their electors by increasing their taxes, preferring instead to allow the nation’s cultural and physical infrastructure to decay. Or, if the deferral of crucial maintenance fails to produce the savings necessary to keep the “Musts” operational, borrowing to make good the shortfall.

Government borrowing poses all manner of potential problems for the nation, but not immediately. In a democracy, this delay between the act and its consequences is precious. Putting the country into debt allows a Minister of Finance to keep the lights on and the ATMs working without raising taxes. That option may become unavoidable at some future time, for some future government, but that is not the present government’s concern – not in the context of a three year electoral cycle. The politician’s motto is simple: “Always put off until tomorrow what is likely to cost you votes today.”

The problem with days of reckoning is that they always come. It was Rob Muldoon who found himself without a chair to sit on when the music stopped playing in 1984. When the game resumed, David Lange, and his Finance Minister, Roger Douglas, found themselves without fiscal options. Something dramatic had to happen to the way New Zealand was run, or the lights would indeed go out and the ATMs stop working. (In 1984 they very nearly did!)

As we all know, something dramatic did happen – “Rogernomics”.

Prior to Rogernomics, Budgets had been newsworthy largely because they were the occasion for rises in government taxes on petrol, tobacco and alcohol. Less frequently they made news on account of minor adjustments to Income Tax. Roger Douglas put paid to all of that.

After 1984, Budgets became part of the grand theatre of economic reform. Not even the “Musts” escaped the attention of the reformers. The National Party Finance Minister, Ruth Richardson, confronted with another day of fiscal reckoning in 1991, produced what she called “The Mother of All Budgets”. (A reference to Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein’s promised “Mother of All Battles” during the First Gulf War, which should have warned New Zealanders what Richardson had in store!) It was TMOAB that slashed the incomes of beneficiaries by 25 percent – impoverishing thousands. For some Kiwis, Budgets were now events to be feared.

In spite of the best efforts of the political marketing experts, there has not been a Budget to match Ruth Richardson’s TMOAB for more than 30 years. Yes, there have been years in which Bill English (another National Finance Minister) felt obliged to cut back sharply on what he memorably described as the “Nice To Haves”. (Government projects that made life easier, happier, more fulfilling.) But the “Musts” have limped on from one Jerry-built Budget to the next. But, not for much longer. Those dark clouds gathering on the horizon speak gloomily of another day of reckoning that is fast approaching.

It will not be an ordinary day. Crowded into its 24 hours will be climate change, global financial fragility, the weakening and breaking of supply chains, rising geopolitical tensions, rampant inflation, and the ongoing effects of a global pandemic. To keep the lights on and the ATMs working in the face of these challenges, governments all around the world have been forced to borrow and spend like there was no tomorrow. (Which, with the hooves of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse thundering across the planet, may not be an unreasonable prediction!)

The current Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, has about as much chance of holding these grim arrivals at the border as King Canute had of keeping the incoming tide at bay. The budget Robertson delivered today, like most budgets, is a holding operation. If he’s lucky, he will get the chance to borrow and spend all over again in 2023, in a final bid to retain control of the Treasury Benches.

If, however, Robertson is unlucky and/or unsuccessful, then he is unlikely to be too distraught. Indeed, he may feel extremely relieved that he does not have to write the 2024 Budget. And if his assumed successor, Nicola Willis, has a lick of sense she will persuade her boss, Christopher Luxon, to hand-off the job of dealing with the Mother of All Days of Reckoning to Act’s David Seymour. After all, he’s the man with the machete.

Rather than search for a Budget title to top Ruth Richardson’s, Seymour should dispense altogether with the hoopla and razzamatazz surrounding the Budget performance. Since the document he hopes to present will be nothing more – nor less – than an exercise in basic accountancy, that’s the description he should use.

That the phrase ‘an exercise in basic accountancy’ will forever after strike fear into the hearts of New Zealanders is, sadly, as unavoidable as death and taxes.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 20 May 2022.

Blah Blah Blah – Is That All There Is?

Speaking Truth To Power: Greta Thunberg argues that the fine sounding phrases of well-meaning politicians changes nothing. The promises made, the targets set – and then re-set – are all too familiar to the younger generations she has encouraged to pay attention. They have heard it all before. Accordingly, she angrily disdains to respond in detail to the carefully-crafted speeches of world leaders. As far as she, and the millions she speaks for are concerned, it is all just – “Blah Blah Blah.”

SOME STORIES stretch our credulity. Surely, we object, someone is pulling our legs? Nobody could be that dumb. The sort of stories for which my friend, the war correspondent, Jon Stephenson, habitually reserves his pithy quip: “You just couldn’t make this shit up!”

Like the story that came out earlier this week from the Ministry of the Environment. In preparation for the Labour Government’s long-awaited announcements on Climate Change mitigation, some poor soul had drafted a new addition to the Ministry’s webpage headed: “Here are some the actions currently being taken by New Zealand to mitigate against climate change.”

Alongside the bullet points, inserted in anticipation of the Government’s initiatives, this same poor soul had written “Blah Blah Blah”. I say “poor soul” because my assumption is that when he or she inserted “Blah Blah Blah” it was an act of naïve innocence.

The alternative explanation is that the person responsible for this extraordinary blooper was only too aware that “Blah Blah Blah” was the scornful riposte delivered to the assembled representatives of the world’s nation states by the young Swedish founder of School Strike For Climate, Greta Thunberg.

Her point was that the fine sounding phrases of these well-meaning people changed nothing. The promises made, the targets set – and then re-set – were all too familiar to the younger generations she had encouraged to pay attention. They had heard it all before. Accordingly, she angrily disdained to respond in detail to the carefully-crafted speeches of the politicians. As far as she, and the millions she spoke for, and to, were concerned, it was all just – “Blah Blah Blah.”

Meaning that if the Ministry of the Environment employee responsible for this priceless story was aware of Greta’s rhetorical trope, then he or she is in possession of a satirical talent that would, almost certainly, be better appreciated elsewhere. (Unless, of course, the Ministry itself has become as frustrated as Greta – and who could blame it!)

Whatever led to the error (long since expunged from the Ministry’s website) it anticipated to perfection the reaction of most environmentalists to the Government’s “Emissions Reduction Plan” – abbreviated to the rather dyspeptic-sounding “ERP”.

Certainly, its incremental steps and irresponsibly optimistic expectations, left those scientists aware of the urgency now required of not just this government, but all governments, to avoid runaway global warming, fighting off feelings of anger and disappointment. Like the inimitable chanteuse, Peggy Lee, they were left asking, plaintively: “Is That All There Is?”

Is That All There Is? - The inimitable Peggy Lee.

And, sadly, the answer is “Yes.” Because, how could it be anything else? Ours is a democratically elected government, all-too-aware that those who endorsed it so emphatically in 2020 are now ill-disposed to repeat the favour in eighteen months’ time.

Minister for Climate Change, James Shaw, knows how to interpret an opinion poll and read a focus-group report. If you ask the voters if they want effective action on Climate Change, they will answer “Yes!” But ask them if they are willing to support the drastic actions required to make a serious difference, and their answer will be an equally emphatic “No!”

Ditto, his colleague. Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s Budget, delivered yesterday afternoon, reflected a very similar reliance on incrementalism, hopeful expectation, and strategic forbearance. Certainly, there was little of sufficient muscularity to grapple with the multiple challenges currently besetting the New Zealand economy. Lifting the burden of debt repayment from the shoulders of the most vulnerable by overseeing a fiercely redistributive reformation of this country’s tax system, may be the most obvious and the most ethical response to the nation’s fiscal crisis, but it is also a response that will collapse what’s left of the Government’s electoral support.

The public’s attitude to death, taxes and Climate Change is remarkably consistent. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die, pay more, or give up their SUV.

The trick of successful democratic government in times of global warming, pestilence, war – and rampant inflation – is to convey the impression of doing something while actually doing very little at all. The job of the politician, when you boil it right down, is to keep the lights on and the ATMs working. If not forever, then until well past the next election.

So, yes, “Blah Blah Blah” is pretty much all that there is. Pretty much all that there’s ever been.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 May 2022.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Budget Morning.

No Jesus Here.

She rises, unrested, and steps
Onto the narrow balcony
To find the day. To greet
The Sunday God she sings to.
But this morning His face is clouded.
Grey and wet as a corpse
Washed by tears.

Behind her, in the tangled bedding,
the children bicker and whine.
Worrying the cheap furniture
Like hungry puppies.
They clutch at her threadbare gown
with hands as insistent and
unforgiving as the clock’s.

She wishes she could dream.
Finding in the darkness
A life unaided by
The office lights’ bleak florescence,
The whining of the vacuum cleaner,
The endless emptying and
Refilling of rubbish bins.

Last night she paused, panting.
Held captive by a single word
‘Wellbeing’. A selfish word.
Comfortable and sated.
A word accustomed
To feeling well and being safe.
A word with a working lock.

Budgeting was something
They made her do at WINZ.
Recalling the Miracle of
The Loaves and Fishes.
Jesus feeding five thousand.
She’d settle for food to feed
Five hungry children.

Was that happening today?
A budgeting miracle?
Housing found? Children fed?
The man from the adjoining unit,
Heading for the bus-stop,
Eyes her narrowly.
No Jesus here.

Chris Trotter
19 May 2022

This poem was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 19 May 2022.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Describing The Katipo.

Poisonous! From a very early age New Zealanders are warned to give small black spiders with a red blotch on their abdomens a wide berth. The Katipo, we are told, is venomous: and while its bite may not kill you, it can make you very unwell. That said, isn’t the Acting Chief Censor’s decision to suppress absolutely mass killers manifestoes a bit like a parent telling his child that, yes, New Zealand does have a venomous spider, but, no, he is not going to give her any information about what it looks like and where it is most likely to be found?

THE ACTING CHIEF CENSOR’S decision to ban the “manifesto” of the latest hate criminal doubles-down on his predecessor’s error. Putting to one side the universal tendency of all forbidden things to stimulate popular interest purely on account of being banned, keeping the deranged, hate-filled ravings of Brenton Tarrant – and now Payton Gendron – out of New Zealanders’ hands has once again robbed us of the opportunity to gain some understanding of the tortured and fantastical world these individuals inhabit.

Since the ideas of these mass killers are extremely dangerous, and potentially fatal, it is surely in the interest of society to be provided with the means of recognising them when encountered. When a family member or friend starts spouting forth the sort of racist ideas that motivated Tarrant and Gendron, that is presumably a strong indication that all is not well. But, with the ideas of both men kept out of the reach of the public, how are those closest to potential offenders supposed to know what they’re looking for?

From a very early age New Zealanders are warned to give small black spiders with a red blotch on their abdomens a wide berth. The Katipo, we are told, is venomous: and while its bite may not kill you, it can make you very unwell. That said, isn’t Mr Rupert Ablett-Hampson’s decision to suppress absolutely Gendron’s manifesto a bit like a parent telling his child that, yes, New Zealand does have a venomous spider, but, no, he is not going to give her any information about what it looks like and where it is most likely to be found?

Ablett-Hampson’s news release justifies his decision to declare Gendron’s manifesto “objectionable” – thereby making it a serious offence to possess and/or disseminate its content – by referencing the harm it could do if accessed by the wrong sort of person:

We understand most people in Aotearoa reading such publications would not be supportive of these hateful messages but these kind of publications are not intended for most people. We have seen how they can impact individuals who are on the pathway to violence.

It is, however, extremely doubtful if declaring such documents “objectionable” will have the effect Ablett-Hampson intends. Those disposed to the arguments of white supremacy, for example, need only search for the topic on YouTube to activate the algorithms that will supply them with a great deal more information than is good for anyone’s mental digestion.

Moreover, if our white supremacist is persistent he will soon be in a position to move well beyond the material available on YouTube. There are places on the web where the red meat of murderous racism is served up blood raw and dripping. In these infernal regions of the Internet, the Acting Chief Censor’s writ simply does not run.

Another place the Acting Chief Censor’s writ does not run (at least, I hope it doesn’t!) is the past. History, sadly, is one long chronicle of human cruelty and suffering. The acts of injustice committed by our ancestors cannot be undone by the simple expedient of declaring them “objectionable”.

One could try, I suppose, but it would mean banning all material relating to the Knights Templar (who inspired the Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik) and the Ottoman Conquest of South-East Europe (which played an important part in the formation of Brenton Tarrant’s worldview). All literature and films relating to the Ku Klux Klan (To Kill A Mockingbird, Mississippi Burning) would have to be proscribed, along with all histories of the Third Reich, and, of course, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. A similar fate would, presumably, lie in store for the writings of the eugenicists and “scientific racists” of the early Twentieth Century. The thoughts of H.G. Wells, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, Winston Churchill – all would have to be declared objectionable.

The list of things one could be sent to jail for possessing and disseminating grows long!

And then there are the everyday conversations and personal rantings of ordinary New Zealand citizens. A fair proportion of these are bound to contain all manner of objectionable ideas and claims. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia are to be found everywhere. Misinformation and disinformation are not restricted to social media, they constitute the daily subject matter of our national discourse. It is still possible to sit on a bus and hear the person seated in front of you regale his companion with the long discredited myth that the Māori, upon arriving in these islands, encountered the culturally less sophisticated Moriori people, and exterminated them.

Objectionable? Of course it is. But what is the best way to finally put this white supremacist myth to rest? By jailing everyone who repeats it? – A solution which would require all of us to become government spies ready and willing to dob in our neighbours, relations, friends, lovers? Or, for New Zealand society to use its considerable educational and media resources to set forth clearly the anthropological and historical evidence revealing what actually happened – thereby equipping our children to move beyond the myth and embrace the truth?

Would there still be some, diehard racists all of them, who still peddled the Moriori myth? Yes, there would. The point, however, is that when we heard them spout their racism we would be well placed to assess whether or not we were listening to nothing more alarming than a bore in a bar, or, to an individual “on the pathway to violence”.

Hate speech is jarring, distressing, and potentially indicative of murderous intent. After the Christchurch Mosque Attacks it was completely understandable that many of us made the leap from the terrible events of 15 March 2019, to the terrible idea that another such event might be prevented by banning the expression of objectionable ideas – on pain of imprisonment.

But, the actions of the Acting Chief Censor notwithstanding, we cannot incarcerate our way to virtue, we can only arm our fellow citizens with a reasonable description of vice. So that, when they encounter it in the street, the pub, on the bus, or at a dodgy Coastal Otago gun-club, they will recognise it and contact the appropriate authorities – who will do something about it.

Like the blood red blotch of the Katipo, the manifestoes of mass killers must be allowed to acquaint us with the offensive smell and the bitter taste of ideological poison.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 17 May 2022.

The Truth Prevails.

“The truth prevails, but it’s a chore.” – Jan Masaryk: The intensification of ideological pressures is bearable for only so-long before ordinary men and women reassert the virtues of tolerance and common sense.

ON 10 MARCH 1948, Jan Masaryk, the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, was found dead below his bathroom window. His death was ruled a suicide, but very few Czechs believed the official story. Everyone knew that Masaryk, son of the country’s first president, Thomas Masaryk, had for months been a thorn in the side of the Communist-dominated government of Czechoslovakia. While he remained in office, it was still possible for liberals and conservatives to believe that the democratic state over which his father had presided still breathed. Jan Masaryk’s murder and the murder of democracy in Czechoslovakia occurred at precisely the same moment, at the hands of the same Soviet assassins.

Six months after Masaryk’s assassination, the Berlin Airlift was in full swing. Determined to drive the Western allies out of the Soviet Zone of Eastern Germany, Joseph Stalin had ordered the city’s land corridors to the west blocked-off. Without the food and fuel delivered to West Berlin by road and rail, the city would be forced to capitulate, and another thorn in the side of the new Soviet masters of Eastern Europe would be removed. What Stalin hadn’t counted on was American airpower. After nearly a year of Berliners being supplied by US aeroplanes, the Soviets threw in the towel. West Berlin remained a free city.

These brief historical snapshots from the late-1940s reveal exactly why the governments of the Western states, soon to be grouped under the aegis of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) had grown increasingly alarmed at the behaviour of their former wartime ally. Why, within the security services and across the government departments of the Western democracies, anti-communist attitudes began to harden, and serious questions began to be asked about the loyalty of individuals known to be sympathetic to the Left in general and to the Soviet Union in particular.

With the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949, and the subsequent exposure of the extent to which Soviet espionage had made it possible, Western suspicion of the Left metastasised into full-blown political paranoia. The years that followed, known as the McCarthy Era (after the Wisconsin Senator who put himself at the head of the Red Scare) were notorious for the “witch-hunts” that saw people turned out of their jobs, imprisoned, and even executed for the “crime” of being a communist. Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Association counted for little in the Cold War battle against the “Global Communist Conspiracy”.

Seventy years later, the word “McCarthyism” is again on people’s lips. Politicians and journalists point to the current persecution of individuals whose ideas do not sit comfortably with the “Powers That Be”, and attempt to construct an argument of equivalence.

It isn’t that hard. Once again, persons expressing unpopular opinions are risking their employment. Once again lists of required beliefs are being drawn up to weed out politically unacceptable aspirants to government funding and/or government jobs. People who once spoke freely to mass audiences are being “de-platformed” – lest their evil notions attract followers.

There is, however, a huge difference between the persecution of communists that took place in the decade following World War II, and the attacks on those giving voice to heterodox opinions in the early years of the Twenty-First Century.

The first and most obvious difference is that the Soviet Union was a brutal, totalitarian, nuclear power whose leaders openly boasted that their Marxist-Leninist ideology would “bury” capitalism. The Soviets did operate a global network of spies – some of whom, like Kim Philby, rose to the highest echelons of the Western security apparatus. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics thus constituted a real threat to the freedom and security of the capitalist West. While the state authorities, egged-on by an aggressive news media, may have caught up far too many innocent citizens in their anti-communist witch-hunts, no one can say, truthfully, that their fear and their zealotry were without at least some justification.

Identifying the equivalent of the Soviet Union behind the persecution of today’s conservatives and liberals poses real difficulties for contemporary political analysts. What, exactly, is the source – or sources – of the fear and antagonism currently coursing through the public service, academia and the mainstream news media? What is it that reduces hitherto voluble civil servants, professors and journalists to wary silence? What sets an entire government off on a quest to extirpate “Hate Speech” from all public discourse – even at the cost of putting a match to the Bill of Rights Act?

There are those on the Right who are adamant that what they call the “woke” are nothing more nor less that the children and grandchildren of the Marxists who commenced what they called “the long march through the institutions” way back in the 1960s and 70s, and who have now risen to positions of power and influence in the public service, academia and the mainstream news media.

From these “commanding heights” of our society and culture, argues the Right, these “woke commissars” are overseeing the deliberate dismantling of our liberal-democratic capitalist institutions. Like a grim spectre, the Communism which most people in the West thought dead and buried has risen from the grave to exact a terrible revenge.

A slightly less paranoid explanation identifies “wokeism” as the ideological terminus of the so-called “new social movements” of the 1960s and 70s: anti-racism, feminism, gay liberation and environmentalism. With the economic, social and political doctrines of actually existing socialism buried beneath the triumph of liberal capitalism in the 1990s, these new movements, often grouped under the heading “identity politics”, became the only “left-wing” game in town.

Backed, as they are, by the Centre-Left parties of the major Western powers: the Democratic Party of the USA; the Labour, Social-Democratic and Green parties of Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; the politics of identity can boast sponsors every bit as powerful as the Communist International (Comintern) of the 1920s and 30s.

If it was Stalin’s murderous totalitarianism that terrified the nations of the West in the years after World War II, igniting the Cold War, and causing them to lash-out at anyone considered a “fellow traveller” of the people who murdered Jan Masaryk and blockaded Berlin, then we can only assume that it is the West’s alleged racism, sexism, homophobia, and hatred of the natural world, that has mobilised the identity politicians behind the woke witch-hunts.

Putting his own eccentric spin on this explanation, the prominent English historian, David Starkey, has posited “wokeism” as a Twenty-First Century echo of the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth. He likens the social-media of today to the cutting-edge communications technology of the printing-press back in the days of Martin Luther. A technology which spread Protestantism’s revolutionary credo across Europe with unprecedented speed. Starkey’s entertaining “The Woke Reformations: Historical Parallels” is available on You Tube.

Whatever it is that drives the persecution of old-fashioned liberals and conservatives in the Twenty-First century West: Marxism Redux; Identity Politics; or the social-mediated, quasi-religious fervour identified by Starkey; its promoters would be wise to ponder the common fate of History’s witch-hunters. The intensification of ideological pressures are bearable for only so-long before ordinary men and women reassert the virtues of tolerance and common sense.

The Enlightenment robbed religious extremism of its political heft. McCarthy was censured by the US Senate. The Soviet Union fell. The Czechs are once again a free people. Wokeism, with all its militant intolerance of debate, will also fail.

As Jan Masaryk said, paraphrasing the motto of the Czechoslovak state: Pravda vítězí, ale dá to fušku. – “The truth prevails, but it’s a chore.”

This essay was originally posted on the of Monday, 16 May 2022.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

History Lessons.

That’s a C- for History, Kelvin! While it is certainly understandable that Māori-Crown Relations Minister Kelvin Davis was not anxious to castigate every Pakeha member of the House of Representatives for the crimes committed against his people by their ancestors; crimes from which his Labour colleagues continue to draw enormous benefits; the direction of his prosecutorial rhetoric at National and Act MPs exclusively was historically indefensible and morally obnoxious.

I SURE HOPE Kelvin Davis wasn’t a history teacher before he became a principal and then Te Tai Tokerau’s MP. Why? Because his grasp of what happened in this country between the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and today isn’t just wrong, it also has the potential to create great mischief.

The speech he delivered to the House of Representatives on Wednesday (11/5/22) is a particularly grim example of the Minister for Māori-Crown Relations historical ignorance. In it he appeared to equate the Opposition parties with the entire Pakeha population – past and present. This was more than just racially inflammatory, it represents a dangerous distortion of reality.

Addressing the Opposition Benches, Davis declared: “They conveniently overlook the fact that their wealth, their privilege and their authority was built off the backs of other people’s misery and entrenched inequality across generations.”

This is interesting. National’s leader, Christopher Luxon, was born in 1970, and the Act leader, David Seymour, in 1983. At the ages of 52 and 39 respectively, that doesn’t leave them many generations across which to have inflicted misery and entrenched inequality! He would have been on slightly firmer ground if he had been addressing his remarks to Labour’s Roger Douglas – whose policies did indeed inflict misery and inequality. Perhaps not across generations, but certainly since 1984. Except, of course, Labour MPs don’t like to draw attention to those policies – mostly on account of the fact that their party has done so little over nearly 40 years to reverse them.

Davis did considerably better, historically, when he described to the House the fate of his ancestors at the hands of Nineteenth Century colonial authorities. The gradual consolidation of the colonial state, its laws and regulations, effectively dispossessed Davis’s forebears, leaving them destitute and demoralised.

What Davis failed to mention, however, is that the Nineteenth Century dispossession of the Māori was Crown policy. More importantly, it was a process cheered to the echo by the overwhelming majority of the burgeoning Pakeha population. Rich and poor alike understood that their future prosperity was contingent upon the immiseration of the “native” population. Meaning that it wasn’t just the ancestors of the present Opposition MPs who built their wealth and privilege off the backs of his tupuna, but also the present crop of Pakeha Labour MPs seated alongside him.

While it is certainly understandable that Davis was not anxious to castigate every Pakeha member of the House of Representatives for the crimes committed against his people by their ancestors; crimes from which they continue, as a people, to draw enormous benefits; the direction of his prosecutorial rhetoric at National and Act MPs exclusively was historically indefensible and morally obnoxious.

If Davis is unaware that the single most devastating economic and social assault upon Māori of the last 50 years occurred on the Fourth Labour Government’s watch, then he has no business being an MP – let alone the Minister of Māori-Crown Relations. Certainly he cannot have forgotten that it was the Fifth Labour Government which oversaw the passage of the Seabed and Foreshore legislation. Or, that it was a Labour Prime Minister, Helen Clark, who described the leading opponents of that legislation as “haters and wreckers” – preferring to meet with an excessively woolly ram than with the tangata whenua her proposed law had so enraged.

Maybe the reckless willingness of the Sixth Labour Government to embrace the co-governance agenda of its Māori caucus is a delayed reaction to the actions of the Fourth and the Fifth. If so, then it is a very foolish reaction. Had Helen Clark and her Attorney-General not moved with speed to reverse the Court of Appeal’s overturning of what had been considered settled law, then Don Brash would, almost certainly, have won the 2005 General Election. Given that a National victory in 2005 would have meant the effective re-nullification of the Treaty and the abolition of the Māori Seats – thereby provoking civil war – Māori and Pakeha both owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude.

The depressing thing about the politics of the moment is the apparent historical amnesia of just about all its practitioners. The Settler Nation responsible for extinguishing the Treaty in the 1860s is simply not prepared to see it reinstated as New Zealand’s de facto constitution in the 2020s. The way Davis chose to deliver his thoughts to the House of Representatives: in the form of an attack on the Opposition; shows just how impossible it is to construct an argument about our history that does not inevitably boil down to the equivalent of Sir Michael Cullen’s memorable taunt: “We won. You lost. Eat that!”

The most frightening aspect of Davis’s performance is that it showed no signs that the Minister of Māori-Crown relations has the slightest idea of what will happen to that relationship if co-governance is forced upon an unwilling Pakeha nation.

Davis’s colleague, Willie Jackson, has labelled the Act leader a “useless Māori” and “a dangerous man”. But David Seymour is no more or less “useless” than those Māori iwi and hapu that saw which way the wind was blowing in the 1850s and 60s and ended up fighting alongside General Cameron’s imperial troops. As for being a dangerous man. Well, Jackson’s description can only be proven if Seymour and his party attract sufficient support to enforce the implementation of Act’s radical policies. He will be a dangerous man only because his fellow New Zealanders have made him one – by voting for him.

It’s not Seymour that poses a danger to you and your people, Willie, it’s democracy. But, then, you already knew that, didn’t you?

By the same token, it’s not the Opposition that has somehow cornered all the privilege, Kelvin, nor is it the exclusive property of the 63 percent of the New Zealand population known as Pakeha. These fair-skinned Polynesians are not – and never will be – “Europeans”. Just as contemporary Māori are not – and never will be again – the Māori who inhabited these islands before colonisation. Both peoples are the victims of historical forces too vast for blame, too permanent for guilt.

It is high time we stopped using History as a weapon, and started relying upon it as a guide.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 13 May 2022.

Friday, 13 May 2022

Struggling Upwards For America’s Soul.

Justice Denied: At the heart of the “Pro-Life” cause was something much darker than conservative religious dogma, or even the oppressive designs of “The Patriarchy”. The enduring motivation – which dares not declare itself openly – is the paranoid conviction of male white supremacists that if “their” women are given personal control of their wombs, then white Americans will soon be “outbred” by Blacks and Hispanics.

THIS IS WHERE it was always bound to end: at the base, not the summit, of the political pyramid. The acceptance of racial equality. The recognition of a woman’s right to choose. These are battles that have to be won on the ground and in the ballot boxes, not at the Supreme Court Of The United States.

Dr Martin Luther King understood this necessity better than most of his white supporters. The whole point of his campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience was to produce not only political but spiritual transformation.

Nonviolence certainly ennobles those who practice it, but of equal importance is the impact on those who resist its objectives. Against the hardened shells of unrepentant racists the disciplined sacrifice of the civil rights activists make no impression. But these lost souls are fewer in number than many reformers suppose.

What many knee-jerk racists saw happening in the streets and at lunch counters across the South gave them pause. It made them think. And when they learned about the children killed in the Birmingham bombing, it made them ashamed.

This was precisely the response Dr King was hoping to evoke. The fight he was engaged in was for the souls of the whites who had been raised to see African-Americans as something less than truly human. He knew the battle for racial equality would never be won until his movement had made the process of dehumanisation morally repugnant – not only to decent America, but also to its indecent bigots. Only when these ‘good ole boys’ no longer had the stomach for repression would the Civil War finally be over.

The great tragedy of the Civil Rights Movement was that it required a measure of patience and forbearance beyond the reach of all but a handful of very special human-beings. The race-riots of the mid-Sixties: in Watts, Detroit and Newark; were catastrophic to Dr King’s cause. “Burn, baby, burn!” let White America off the hook. The violence and destruction, no matter how egregiously provoked by racist police officers, reconfirmed all the old racial prejudices.

Ultimately, Dr King’s moral struggle failed. Supreme Court rulings might compel racism to adapt, but they could not kill it.

Something very similar happened in relation to the struggle for the right of women to control their own fertility. The protagonists for abortion never truly plumbed the depths of their opponents’ determination to overturn the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision, referred to simply as “Roe v. Wade”, which decriminalised terminations in the first trimester of a woman’s pregnancy.

At the heart of the “Pro-Life” cause was something much darker than conservative religious dogma, or even the oppressive designs of “The Patriarchy”. The enduring motivation – which dares not declare itself openly – is the paranoid conviction of male white supremacists that if “their” women are given personal control of their wombs, then white Americans will soon be “outbred” by Blacks and Hispanics.

The family size of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants has been steadily shrinking for generations. The United States of America, which these “WASPs” regard as their own, could not be permitted to fall under the sway of ethnicities typically producing larger families. Not for nothing did the Far-Right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, greet Black, Hispanic and Jewish counter-demonstrators with chants of: “You will not replace us!”

It is surely instructive that the legal grounds for protecting American women’s right to abortion is located in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Passed by Congress in 1866, this amendment guaranteed the bodily liberty of America’s former slaves, along with the “equal protection of the laws”.

The Supreme Court has found that without individual privacy, individual liberty is rendered legally unintelligible. Private decisions about what we do with our bodies, and who we choose to perform those acts with, cannot be the proper business of federal and state legislators.

To revoke Roe v. Wade not only strikes at the heart of women’s freedom, but at the bodily freedom of all Americans.

To “breed” slaves it was necessary to impose a tyranny of terrifying intimacy. Neither the womb, nor the child that issued from it, belonged to the female slave. White Supremacy’s need for this intimate tyranny endures, extending now to the wombs of all American women. With the Supreme Court under its sway, the struggle for America’s soul must toil upwards.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 May 2022.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Getting On With Co-Governance – Without Debate.

Who’s Missing From This Picture? The re-birth of the co-governance concept cannot be attributed to the institutions of Pakeha rule, at least, not in the sense that the massive constitutional revisions it entails have been presented to and endorsed by the House of Representatives, and then ratified by the citizens of New Zealand in a democratic referendum. It is, rather, the work of Cabinet Ministers and Judges; of New Zealand’s permanent executive; of the body that slowly emerged to replace the tutelary power and influence of the British state. The force that now calls itself “The Crown”.

CO-GOVERNANCE, and what it means for New Zealand, is predicted to feature prominently in next year’s general election. Passions are already running high on both sides of this issue. All the more reason, one would think, for this country’s public broadcasters to facilitate a reasoned debate between those holding opposing views. Alas, in 2022, the publicly-owned radio network, RNZ, appears to have either forgotten how to conduct reasoned debate, or repudiated the whole idea.

On the morning of Wednesday, 11 May 2022, RNZ Contract Producer Sharon Brettkelly began promoting her latest contribution to “The Detail” series of podcasts. Entitled “Co-Governance: Time To Get On With It?”, Brettkelly’s piece featured just two participants.

These were Chris Finlayson, former National Party Minister for Treaty Settlements, and Traci Houpapa, Chair of the Federation of Māori Authorities, both of whom were, indisputably, well-qualified to speak on the podcast’s subject. Unfortunately, they were also very strong supporters of co-governance. Brettkelly had not thought it necessary to balance her journalism by including the opinions of equally strong and well-qualified opponents of co-governance.

Now, there will be those who object immediately that “balanced reporting” does not require the arguments for and against any given proposition to be included in the same broadcast. For balance to be maintained, it is sufficient that the views of antagonists and protagonists are presented to the audience fairly, and with equal potential impact, within roughly the same timeframe. So long as Brettkelly, or some other RNZ Contract Producer, created a podcast featuring two well-qualified and forceful opponents of co-governance, all would be well.

Sadly, given the current ideological climate in which RNZ’s journalists are required to operate, the chances of such a podcast being made are extremely slim. To broadcast such a production would be considered a breach of RNZ’s obligations under te Tiriti o Waitangi. It would also very likely be denounced by at least some of RNZ employees as a threat to their own and other New Zealanders’ well-being.

After all, we have it on the authority of no less of an expert than Chris Finlayson himself, that only the “Sour Right” and other “losers” oppose co-governance. What possible benefit could there be in providing a publicly-owned platform from which the views of people who “don’t like tangata whenua” and who “dream of a world that never was and never could be”, are spewed forth?

As the title of Brettkelly’s podcast suggests, the question is not whether co-governance represents a fundamental and unmandated break with New Zealand’s constitutional norms; or even if it is a politically feasible objective; but whether or not it is time to just get on with the job. Or, to quote Finlayson, addressing those who might still be entertaining doubts: “Go with the flow”. Clearly, among the people Brettkelly and her ilk deem worthy of a RNZ platform, there is no debate about co-governance. Or, at least, no debate in which representatives of iwi, or the Crown, should allow themselves to become involved.

Listening to Brettkelly’s podcast, it becomes increasingly clear that “The Crown” is a player in the co-governance drama meriting much closer scrutiny.

Most of us, when we hear someone refer to The Crown, rather naively (it turns out) assume the term is being used to describe the Government – the body which we, as citizens of New Zealand, elect to manage the country on our behalf.

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

When iwi representatives and Cabinet ministers talk about The Crown they have something else in mind altogether. For these folk, The Crown represents the permanent and supreme executive power. It encompasses all the decisive institutions of the New Zealand state: the Executive Council (a.k.a the Cabinet); the senior echelons of the public service; the armed forces and the Police; the national security apparatus; and – most important of all – the Judiciary.

Why does this matter? Because the Treaty of Waitangi was presented to the representatives of the indigenous people of these islands by a representative of the British Crown. It was a take-it-or-leave-it deal, that was offered to Māori: not by the British people, who, in 1840, had bugger-all say in the treaties negotiated by their betters (and still don’t) but by agents of the British state. Māori took the deal precisely because, at that time, the British state was the most powerful executive authority on Earth.

What undermined the Treaty was the steady devolution of authority (kawanatanga) from the executive power back in London (and from its local representative, the Governor) to the representative institutions of the Pakeha settlers – whose numbers had grown from a couple of thousand to something equal to or greater than the indigenous population.

In the eyes of these settler governments, the Treaty was not an agreement in which they had played any part, and most certainly was not a document they had the slightest intention of honouring. In the early 1860s, they demanded from London – and got – the overwhelming military force they needed to bury the Treaty and, along with it, the very idea of co-governance.

The re-birth of the co-governance concept cannot be attributed to the institutions of Pakeha rule, at least, not in the sense that the massive constitutional revisions it entails have been presented to and endorsed by the House of Representatives, and then ratified by the citizens of New Zealand in a democratic referendum. It is, rather, the work of Cabinet Ministers and Judges; of New Zealand’s permanent executive; of the body that slowly emerged to replace the tutelary power and influence of the British state. The force that now calls itself “The Crown”.

This is what lies behind the tangata whenua’s fear of representative democracy or, as they prefer to call it, “the tyranny of the majority”, and their preference for working with The Crown alone. They understand perfectly what most Pakeha have yet to grasp: that representative democracy was the means of their dispossession. They know that New Zealand can have democracy, or it can have co-governance, but it can’t have both.

Fair enough. But how are the citizens of New Zealand to explain the scorn and disdain in which The Crown so clearly holds them? Is it simply because The Crown knows that the measures required to keep the peace between Māori and Pakeha will never receive the imprimatur of a freely and fairly elected New Zealand Parliament? That only under a constitutional arrangement in which iwi and The Crown between them wield sufficient power to over-rule the will of “The [Pakeha] People” can the instruments of peace be created?

Because iwi and The Crown both know that co-governance will never be forged by free and fair debate, or free and fair elections, but only by “getting on with it”.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 12 May 2022.

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Staying Inside The Lines.

Unfinished: Always, gnawing away at this government’s confidence and empathy, is the dictum that seriously challenging the economic and social status-quo is the surest route to electoral death. Labour’s colouring-in book, and National’s, have to look the same. All that matters is which party is better at staying inside the lines.

DOES THIS GOVERNMENT have the gumption to go on the offensive against its National and Act opponents? The evidence, to date, suggests not. All we have seen from Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues since National eclipsed Labour in the polls is the risible politics of “anything you can do I can do better”. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but, in electoral politics, flattering your enemies is not a winning formula.

At the core of the Government’s supine response to National’s reflexive policy kicks: tax-cuts, reduced spending, fuelling moral panics on education and youth offending, getting tough on gangs, racist dog-whistling at He Puapua and co-governance; is the Centre-Left’s besetting fear that fighting-back against the Right will cost it votes.

Teasing out this core anxiety, it soon becomes clear that the Centre-Left’s fear arises from its conviction that the overwhelming majority of the electorate is susceptible to the ideological arguments of the Right. That being the case, it only makes sense for them to inoculate themselves against the Right’s attacks by saying “Me, too!”

But, if the electorate is susceptible to the Right’s policy pitches, then it is only because it has been years since they heard the Left come to them with anything remotely resembling a passionately argued case for radical change. One would have to go all the way back to the general election of 1993: to the Alliance’s left-wing manifesto (which attracted 18.3 percent of the popular vote) to hear a political party ask for the electorate’s help in upending the status-quo.

It is difficult to understand the Left’s reticence on matters of policy. Certainly the Labour Party’s history argues strongly in favour of implementing radical change without apology and defending the gains made against all comers. After governing for 14 years, Labour had the satisfaction of losing power to a National Party which had only become electorally competitive by pledging to keep the core economic and social reforms of the First Labour Government in place.

It is possible to argue that Labour repeated that feat with Rogernomics, which, following a half-hearted attempt to rally its supporters against the Lange Government’s “more market” reforms in 1987, the National Party embraced with frightening enthusiasm in the days and weeks immediately following the 1990 general election.

To make this case, however, it is necessary to argue that Labour found it impossible to grasp the ideological and electoral implications of National’s wholesale conversion to neoliberalism. Following the Mother of All Budgets and the Employment Contracts Act, Labour’s continued adherence to the core elements of the neoliberal economic order left it stranded in exactly the same position as National between 1950 and 1984. By refusing to abandon Rogernomics, Labour began its long, slow decline into an attenuated version of its principal electoral rival. A party equally committed to maintaining the neoliberal status quo. National Lite.

All attempts by Labour’s rank-and-file membership – especially following the Alliance’s demise in 2002 – to put an end the Parliamentary Labour Party’s love affair with neoliberalism ended in failure. Unfortunately, Helen Clark’s successor, the enthusiastic Rogernome, Phil Goff, was not a remotely credible salesman for the refreshingly social-democratic programme forced upon him by the likes of Helen Kelly, Marion Hobbs and Michael Wood. Labour’s dismal Party Vote of 2011 – just 28 percent – was taken by the Labour Right as proof that stepping away from the status-quo could only end in disaster.

Undaunted, the Labour Left continued to agitate for a final repudiation of neoliberalism, even managing to elect the only mildly apostatic David Cunliffe as the Party’s leader. Outraged at this rank insubordination, a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party – spearheaded by MPs who are now senior Cabinet Ministers – made it clear that Cunliffe’s support within the Caucus was weak, vulnerable and unequal – intellectually, emotionally and politically – to the task it had set itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the 2014 general election Labour crashed to an even worse defeat – just 25 percent of the Party Vote.

The Party was now in the unenviable position of being unable to go either forward or back. With a clear majority of Labour MPs vehemently opposed to abandoning neoliberalism, and their minions in the party organisation conducting a ruthless purge of all those who had promoted and supported Cunliffe, the leadership of Andrew Little was characterised by a steady retreat from the progressive economic policy positions won between 2008 and 2014. Unsurprisingly, that retreat was matched by a relentless decline in the voting public’s enthusiasm. Had Jacinda Ardern not stepped into the breach, it is likely that Labour’s Party Vote would have continued to decline – quite possibly into the teens.

Ardern’s great achievement in the 2017 general election was to allow her own natural ebullience and rhetorical energy to generate an impression of political rejuvenation. Though she never actually said as much, “Jacinda” did not go out of her way to correct the widespread misconception that Labour had, finally, freed itself from ideological captivity. When she said “Let’s do this!”, a great many people construed her words to mean: “Let’s move beyond Rogernomics!”

Certainly, Winston Peters and NZ First understood the public’s eagerness for a break with the old order. Indeed, so caught up was he in the currents of history that the old campaigner felt moved to have a crack at capitalism itself – a rhetorical blast only half-heartedly echoed by Ardern.

But “kindness” and social-democracy, although closely related, are not identical twins. Had Covid-19 not intervened, the growing gap between the Ardern Government’s rhetoric and its performance would almost certainly have seen it thrown out in 2020. As it was, the country enthusiastically rewarded “Jacinda” for six astonishing months of political heroism. She had faced down the let-it-rippers of the corporate Right and welded the “Team of Five Million” into a remarkable political community. Only someone very special can deliver Ilam and Rangitata to the Labour Party!

But, even with an absolute parliamentary majority, a move away from neoliberalism has proved to be beyond the Parliamentary Labour Party’s imagination. The sixth Labour government’s radicalism on matters relating to ethnicity and gender has not been matched by those relating to taxation, government regulation, poverty and housing. Even on Labour no-brainers like health and education, the government cannot seem to get it right.

Always, gnawing away at its confidence and empathy, is the dictum that seriously challenging the economic and social status-quo is the surest route to electoral death. Labour’s colouring-in book, and National’s, have to be the same. All that matters is which party is better at staying inside the lines.

And so, we can only imagine a Labour Government willing and able to take the fight to Christopher Luxon and his largely talentless caucus. We can only dream of a Prime Minister with the steel to, for example, call out Luxon for inviting George Osborne to address his caucus. Saying something like this:

After all, what is Osborne famous for? (Apart from tipping the Brexit vote in favour of ‘Leave’ by threatening the electorate with economic torture if it voted the wrong way.) That’s right, he’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer who bailed-out Britain’s biggest banks and corporations and then paid for it by imposing years of bitter austerity on its working-class. Yep, he’s the one who ran down the NHS to a point where Covid-19 was able to kill hundreds-of-thousands of his fellow citizens. This is the politician Luxon would like the National caucus to learn from. What does that tell us about the sort of government he intends to run?

Multiply attacks like this a thousand times between now and election day 2023, and how much that was electorally useful would remain of the National Party and its leader? Reinforced by Labour’s unequivocal and irrevocable repudiation of its neoliberal past, and a policy platform dedicated to repairing the damage of the last 35 years, the Prime Minister and her Cabinet might be pleasantly surprised at how enthusiastically a majority of ordinary Kiwis availed themselves of the ballot box.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 10 May 2022.

The First Rule Of Radicalism.

Radical As: Māori healers recall a time when “words had power”. The words that give substance to ideas, no matter how radical, still do. If our representatives rediscover the courage to speak them out loud.

THERE ARE RULES for radicalism. Or, at least, there are rules for the presentation of radical ideas intended to become a part of our daily lives. The most important of these rules requires radical ideas to be explained and justified. Failure to make clear why radical solutions should be embraced and implemented will only ensure their rejection by a decisive majority of the population. Radical ideas and policies are only ever adopted when that same majority has been convinced that refusing to adopt them will only make matters worse.

It is difficult to imagine a more radical idea than the abolition of prisons. And yet, along with a proposal to establish a Māori Education Authority, the abolition of the New Zealand prison system is one of the key recommendations of the iwi-based group charged by the Labour Government with responding to the controversial He Puapua Report on the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Asked by Q+A’s Jack Tame whether they supported the call for prisons to be abolished, the co-leaders of Te Pāti Māori, Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, both replied “absolutely”. The question now, having signalled their support for this radical policy, is whether Waititi and Ngarewa-Packer are prepared to explain and justify it to the voters of New Zealand.

On the answer to that last question will turn the broader electorate’s view of Te Pāti Māori. With the last three public opinion polls indicating that the party could well end up holding the balance of power after the 2023 general election, its ability to spell out clearly what it expects to receive in return for its support on confidence-and-supply motions – and why – has become a matter of acute political interest.

A serious response will likely generate increased support from angry and alienated tangata whenua – quite possibly at Labour’s expense. But a flippant, “we’re more radical than you are” response risks cementing in the voter’s mind an image of Te Pāti Māori as a collection of vainglorious political flakes, who should be kept as far away from power as possible.

Te Pāti Māori’s public support for the abolition of prisons cannot now avoid becoming part of the right-wing parties’ argument for giving the potential “Red-Green-Brown” coalition the widest of berths. With so many of National’s and Act’s supporters alarmed at what they see as a sharp rise in violent crime – due largely to the growth of gangs – the very idea that a party in Parliament is willing to countenance radical reforms that would see the Māori perpetrators of serious crimes escape incarceration, leaves the Right with no option but to go on the offensive against the entire He Puapua prescription.

This, in turn, will inspire all manner of fears and doubts within the ranks of Labour and the Greens. While neither party will be anxious to alienate Te Pāti Māori, the so-called “Centre-Left” will, nevertheless, be extremely loathe to endorse a policy as radical as the abolition of prisons. For most Labour and Green candidates the whole concept will appear so outlandish as to be dismissed out-of-hand as “nuts”. For Te Pāti Māori, however, such a reaction would only confirm the “colonialist” mindset of their putative partners – making the formation of a stable coalition even more problematic.

All of which makes clear why it is never enough to simply announce one’s support for a radical policy. Indeed, what the above considerations reveal is the huge potential for an electorally fatal backlash against such radical protestations.

That is not to say that radicalism should be avoided at all costs. As Simon Bridges told Parliament only last week in his valedictory address, there is little point in seeking a political career if the only forces driving you are focus groups and opinion polls. Members of Parliament should come to Wellington on the wings of ambition – not the plodding feet of caution. What the above considerations should reinforce, however, is the crucial importance of the rule about explaining and justifying radical change.

The template for successful radical reform is there for all to see in the unceasing explanations and justifications for the radical economic changes proposed by the “Free Marketeers” of the 1970s and 80s. When these latter “policy aggressors” first emerged on the scene, they, too, had to endure hearing their ideas dismissed as “extreme” and/or “nuts”.

Were they discouraged? Not a bit! As the 70s wore on, and the economic situation deteriorated across the Western World, “Free Market” explanations acquired an ever-expanding audience, and its justifications for a fundamental rearrangement of the way modern industrial economies are run began to sound increasingly reasonable.

The way forward for Te Pāti Māori is clear. It has to demonstrate that the regime of crime and punishment that has grown up in New Zealand over the past 180 years is no longer fit for purpose. The recidivism rate, alone, offers proof that the experience of incarceration is anything but rehabilitating. Similarly, the disproportionate number of Māori behind bars points to there being a great many more factors at work in our justice and corrections systems than straightforward criminality. All of the scientific evidence confirms the proposition that criminals are made not born.

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer observed to Jack Tame that there were no prisons in pre-colonial Aotearoa. A cheap point, some might say, but one worth following up. Obviously, in the centuries prior to European settlement, Māori who offended against the customs and practices of their tribal and sub-tribal communities were required to atone and/or make recompense for their “crimes”. Explaining to Pakeha how that worked would be a good place for Te Pāti Māori to start in its quest to reform fundamentally this country’s treatment of offenders.

Those Pakeha convinced that Te Pāti Māori’s support for the abolition of prisons confirms it as being “soft on crime” might be very surprised to discover the fate of those who breached the norms of Māori society before the arrival of the Europeans. The concept of “utu” – the making of proper restitution for harms done – was manifested in many ways. “Soft” wasn’t one of them!

A more courageous Labour Party might also feel inspired by Te Pāti Māori’s advocacy for fundamental penal reform to interrogate its own history.

There was a time when Labour leaders were not unacquainted with the interiors of prison cells. When the working-class people whose votes they solicited did not universally condemn such familiarity. On the contrary, it made Labour’s claims to represent them all the more authentic. When Jack Lee wrote Children of the Poor, he was speaking from bitter personal experience.

There were times, too, when a Labour Shadow Attorney-General, all-too-well-acquainted with the bleak and soulless quality of Her majesty’s prisons argued that no jail should be escape-proof. The urge to be free, said Dr Martyn Finlay, was what made us human. To render that urge impossible of fulfilment was, accordingly, to make the state complicit in the crushing of the human spirit.

Māori healers recall a time when “words had power”. The words that give substance to ideas, no matter how radical, still do.

If our representatives rediscover the courage to speak them out loud.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 9 May 2022.

Sunday, 8 May 2022

The Makers Of Gilead.

Enforced Fertility: The imminent overturning of Roe versus Wade by the US Supreme Court is certain to raise echoes here that are no less evocative of the dystopia envisioned by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale. Gilead can happen here.

WITH THE UNITED STATES seemingly on the brink of becoming “Gilead”, the obvious question is: Could it happen here? The glib answer is: “Of course not! New Zealand is not America.” But that simply will not do. People said the same when Ronald Reagan’s New Right “revolution” swept across the United States. And yet, within a single decade, virtually all the institutions New Zealanders believed to be deeply entrenched features of their society and politics had been swept away – replaced by ideas stamped “Made in the USA”.

A better question, therefore, might be: “What made it happen there?” How was the nation that finally afforded African-Americans the rights promised to them in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution recaptured by the unabashed promoters of White Supremacy? How was the Equal Rights Amendment defeated? How could the same country that gave the world Jack Kennedy and Barack Obama, produce Richard Nixon and Donald Trump?

Part of the explanation lies in a single word: “Sputnik”. The Soviet Union’s launching into space of the world’s first satellite profoundly shocked the American Government. The generals realised immediately that the rockets that could boost Sputnik into space could also boost nuclear warheads. The rapid advance of Soviet science had made the USA acutely vulnerable. Not only that, it had made America look intellectually weak: a country prey to the absurd fallacies of fundamentalist Christianity, and deeply suspicious of “cleverness” in all its forms.

Thanks to Sputnik, the national security of the United States now required a profound change in America’s cultural style. Science had to be advanced to the forefront of American life – and quickly. Congress would have to fund it, and the anti-intellectual elements, most especially the fundamentalist Christian churches, would have to keep their mouths firmly shut – on pain of been labelled “Un-American”. Overnight, scientists and engineers became the go-to-guys for all matters relating to America’s future.

The problem for red-in-tooth-and-claw American capitalism was that something happens to societies where Science becomes the final arbiter of national policy. Before the forces of conservatism know it, traditional values and prejudices are being asked to justify themselves with tangible evidence. What cannot be rationally defended begins to fall by the cultural and political waysides. Religious faith begins to look antiquated and, in its worst expressions, socially harmful. The educational curriculum soon comes to reflect the new scientific orthodoxy. Bigotry finds itself, to use today’s terminology, de-platformed.

But bigotry is crucial to the health of capitalism. Bigotry obscures the social and economic truths that would otherwise free people from the beliefs that keep them stupid and angry. Bigotry allows ethnic, sexual, and religious communities to be pitted against one another, making working-class unity and solidarity impossible. Bigotry encourages people to mistrust science and fear intellectuals – on the not altogether incorrect grounds that science and socialism are joined at the hip. As the progressives of our own time say: “Science has a left-wing bias.”

Where science reigns, so, too, does social-democracy. Having seen what bigotry produced, the nations of Western Europe – Scandinavia in particular – opted enthusiastically for social and economic policies that sought to provide the greatest amount of “good” things – universal healthcare, free education, affordable and secure accommodation, a rational electoral system – to the greatest number. President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programmes of the middle-1960s, building upon President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programmes of the 1930s, strongly suggested that, with science in the saddle, the USA was headed, irreversibly, in the same direction.

America’s most ruthless and aggressive capitalists were having none of it. To head-off the possibility of a science-driven, social-democratic United States (in which the power of capitalism would inevitably begin to wane) they adopted a dual strategy of resistance.

First of all, they made it possible for capitalism to advance its own “science” against the “left-wing” (i.e. genuine) science that was inflicting so much damage upon their cause. By endowing university departments and setting up their own think-tanks and research journals, the capitalist string-pullers were soon equipped to take the fight to the scientific enemy.

American capitalism’s second line of attack was to do everything possible to encourage irrationality and anti-scientific prejudice – most particularly among working-class Americans. By funding and encouraging the revival of fundamentalist Christianity it was able to unleash the so-called “culture wars”. Religious faith was pitted against scientific knowledge. Creationism confronted Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in school boards across the United States. Before long scientists began to be regarded as the evil agents of Satan.

Kicking-off in the 1970s, American capitalism’s fightback against science had, by the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, forced uncorrupted scientists onto the defensive. From the deadly effects of tobacco and sugar, to the looming catastrophe of Global Warming, the capitalists’ “scientists” had denied and delayed effective remedial action to devastating effect. On the irrational front, things were going equally well. By the year 2020 more than half of all Americans preferred the Bible’s creation story to Darwin’s.

Indeed, so successful was American capitalism’s crusade against science that when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, roughly half of the American population declined to follow the scientific advice of the Centre for Disease Control. The Coronavirus has now killed more Americans than all the wars they have fought in their far-from-peaceful history.

What does this depressing historical narrative have to tell New Zealanders. The most obvious lesson is, surely, that we are no less the victims of the bogus “science” of American capitalism’s propaganda machine than the people of the USA themselves. In the decade between the fall of the Third Labour Government and the election of the Fourth, the neoliberal ideology was injected slowly – and largely invisibly – into the bloodstream of the New Zealand establishment.

What proved more difficult to replicate here was the resurrection of irrationalism, bigotry and religious extremism that had proved so crucial to the rescue of American capitalism. New Zealand Christianity, at least as a mass phenomenon, crashed in the early 1970s (thanks largely to our free, secular, and science-driven public education system) and in spite of the best efforts of the evangelical churches, it has failed to rise again.

But, where the miracle-workers of right-wing Kiwi Christianity have failed, the miracle-workers of Silicon Valley have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. In this country, the rise and rise of social-media has opened the door to all kinds of irrational beliefs and conspiracy theories – greatly facilitating the undermining of scientific authority – especially medical science. This attack on science has been greatly assisted by the Covid-19 Pandemic which has acted as the vector for the rapid spread of American-sourced social pathologies across the New Zealand population.

The consequences of this other pandemic are likely to be severe. We have already witnessed the response of New Zealand capitalism to a government willing to be guided by “the science”. We have also noted the capitalists’ near complete success in reasserting the priorities of commerce over public welfare.

In the cultural context, however, the single-minded campaigning of the business community is largely absent. What New Zealand faces instead is a potentially devastating collision of irrationalities. The quasi-religious certainties of the so-called “woke” – especially those relating to race and gender – are already crashing head-on into right-wing groups angered and frightened by the radical transformation of New Zealand which the Woke propose. What threatens is a perfect storm of competing bigotries: ideological antagonists united only in their determination to shout down and shut out the voices of reason.

The imminent overturning of Roe versus Wade by the US Supreme Court is certain to raise echoes here that are no less evocative of the dystopia envisioned by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Gilead can happen here.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 6 May 2022.


Not Wanted On Grounds Of Political Rejuvenation: Winston Peters did nothing more than visit the protest encampment erected by anti-vaxxers on the parliamentary lawn. A great many New Zealanders applauded him for meeting with the protesters and wondered why the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition could not do the same.

THE DECISION by Parliament’s Speaker, Trevor Mallard, to trespass Winston Peters from Parliament Grounds is outrageous. For New Zealand’s former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to be treated in this fashion raises so many questions that I cannot help thinking that, by the time you read these words, the decision will have been reversed.

After all, Mr Peters did nothing more than visit the protest encampment erected by anti-vaxxers on the parliamentary lawn. A great many New Zealanders applauded him for meeting with the protesters and wondered why the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition could not do the same.

It is probably helpful, at this point, to rehearse the actions that the Speaker took in relation to the occupation of Parliament Grounds.

Once again, we are confronted with the word “trespass”.

It has been argued that, by deeming the protesters to be trespassers and calling upon the Police to evict them from the parliamentary precincts, the Speaker heightened the tensions already developing between the protesters and the authorities; setting up an unhelpful “Us” versus “Them” binary that could only make matters worse.

Then, to the consternation of a very large number of New Zealanders, the Speaker authorised the persistent broadcast – at uncomfortable volume – of music considered likely to drive the protesters from their tents. More seriously, he caused the grounds’ sprinkler system to be turned on, soaking the protesters and transforming Parliament’s green lawns into a muddy morass.

To say that these actions did not improve the chances of a peaceful resolution to the protest would be a considerable understatement. Indeed, they raised serious concerns about the Speaker’s judgement.

And now, Speaker Mallard is advising former members of Parliament that they may not enter the parliamentary precincts for two years. That Matt King (the former National MP for Northland) and Winston Peters are both leaders of political parties preparing to contest the 2023 General Election only renders the Speaker’s actions all the more contentious. Neither of these gentlemen have been found guilty of any crime. They remain citizens of New Zealand in good standing, whose only offence appears to have been participating in a political event of which Speaker Mallard disapproved.

At the time of writing, political commentators of every political hue are either scratching their heads, or pulling out their hair, at Speaker Mallard’s actions. On one thing, however, they are in broad agreement: these trespass notices represent a stupid and dangerous escalation of the political conflict between “the elites” and “the people”.

Which makes me wonder why the Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues have not already intervened to forestall the right-wing populist eruption which the Speaker’s actions seem calculated to transform, from a clear and present danger into a stone-cold certainty. Perhaps, as I write these words, they are doing exactly that – intervening.

The $64,000 question, of course, is: will it do any good? The Speaker, once elected by the House of Representatives, cannot be removed from his office by any other entity. If Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern suggested quietly that it might be time for Mr Mallard to step aside, and he refused, her only recourse (other than quietly stepping away) would be to enlist the support of the other parliamentary parties in the embarrassing process of forcing him from the Speaker’s Chair. On the basis of the behaviour we have seen so far, it cannot be confidently predicted that Mr Mallard would go quietly.

The other, even more disturbing, possibility is that neither the Prime Minister, nor her colleagues, want to replace the Speaker. They may well consider his exploits against the noose-waving mob outside ‘The People’s Place’ to be nothing short of heroic. Their collective judgement may be that Messers King and Peters are getting exactly what they deserve. By choosing to align themselves with the “Far-Right extremists” behind the occupation, the former parliamentarians have made their beds – and now they must lie in them.

If this is, indeed, their judgement, then the Speaker’s future is secure. The same cannot be said, however, of this government’s future. With every passing day, the impression grows that Ms Ardern’s party sees less and less to like and admire in the people whose votes elected it. We seem to have become a huge source of disappointment for them.

Democratic trespassers.

Turn on the sprinklers!

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 May 2022.