Monday, 26 September 2022

Old Prejudices In New Packages.

Charisma. Style. Fascism? The rest of Europe is looking on aghast at Italy’s electoral behaviour. Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party traces its ideological lineage all the way back to Mussolini’s fascists. Indeed, she has been known to proclaim the original fascists’ slogan: “God, Country, Family”; at her party’s rallies. Officially, the Brothers have repudiated Italy’s fascist past. Unofficially … who knows?

ITALY HAS BEEN VOTING, and, as you read these words, may already have elected its first female prime minister. According to the pollsters, Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) is the most likely winner of this snap election. Founded in 2012, Brothers of Italy is currently the most popular of the right-wing parties vying for power.

The rest of Europe, well aware of the Brothers’ antecedents, is looking on aghast at Italy’s electoral behaviour. Meloni’s party traces its ideological lineage all the way back to Mussolini’s fascists. Indeed, she has been known to proclaim the original fascists’ slogan: “God, Country, Family”; at her party’s rallies. Officially, the Brothers of Italy have repudiated Italy’s fascist past. Unofficially … who knows?

The rise of parties like Brothers of Italy in countries with a long tradition of left-wing electoral strength is one of the most puzzling aspects of twenty-first century electoral politics. The surge to the right in Italian politics follows an equally dramatic electoral swing in Sweden, where, earlier this month, the Social Democratic government fell victim to a voter surge towards the far-right Sweden Democrats.

Like the Brothers, the Sweden Democrats’ ideological roots are also problematic. They, too, extend all the way back to the 1930s and 40s when Sweden boasted a large number of Nazi sympathisers – especially among the country’s military, cultural and commercial elites. Stieg Larsson, author of the extraordinarily popular series of novels built around the characters of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, spent much of his professional life researching the persistence, and growing strength, of fascist ideas and organisations in Swedish society.

How is it then that in Italy, where whole cities have stood as electoral redoubts of communist and socialist strength; and in Sweden, where the Social Democratic Party enjoyed fifty years of back-to-back electoral victories; political scientists are now recording startling reversals of ideological loyalties. The former communist stronghold of Sesto San Giovanni, in Milan, is poised to fall to the Brothers of Italy. The Swedish Trade Union Federation stands evenly divided between the Social Democrats and the Swedish Democrats.

It gets worse. According to Lily Lynch writing in the New Left Review: “[I]f only men [had] voted in 2022, then right-wing and nationalist parties would have gotten nearly 60% [of the popular vote] and the Sweden Democrats would be the largest party.”

That gender gap is equally evident in New Zealand polling, with support for the right-wing National and Act parties disproportionately concentrated among males, and female voters skewing dramatically towards Labour/Green/Māori Party. Clearly, cultural drivers are at work here in New Zealand that bear close comparison with those influencing the outcomes of elections in Europe. What is not replicated here, however, is the formation and growth of parties rooted in the fascist right.

Not that there isn’t an ongoing effort on the part of the academic left to elevate the threat of white supremacist and Nazi-inspired political groups operating in New Zealand. In spite of the fact that the largest, and allegedly most fearsome, of these groups, Action Zealandia, would be lucky to muster 20 active members (most of whom live in fear of public exposure and job loss) considerable energy continues to be devoted to building New Zealand’s tiny far-right community into a terrifying bogeyman.

Similar concerns are voiced about the clutch of tiny right-wing parties that have either already stood, or intend to stand, in New Zealand general elections. Even when taken together, it is rare for these parties’ electoral support to crest the 5 percent MMP threshold.

Also absent from the far-right scene in New Zealand are the sort of individuals who end up fronting parties like the Brothers of Italy and the Sweden Democrats. New Zealand has no one on the right of its politics to match Giorgia Meloni. Impeccably turned out, passionate in her delivery, Meloni doesn’t just have charisma – she has style.

The only political figure in New Zealand politics who has come anywhere close to Meloni in terms of charisma and style is, of course, Winston Peters. Indeed, for the past 30 years, Peters has offered what amounts to a master-class in the prosecution of populist electoral politics. Long before Meloni and the Sweden Democrats leader, Jimmie Akesson, began making headlines, Peters’ astute mixture of right- and left-wing ideological themes has, on no fewer than four occasions, lifted him up to the coveted position of king – and queen – maker.

The issue of race lies at the heart of all right-wing populist movements, and in this respect Peters’ party, NZ First, is no exception. As a “successful” Māori himself, the NZ First leader, has turned to his political advantage the desire of many Māori to be accepted as full and equal citizens of New Zealand. This “we are all one people” theme was a twofer, simultaneously attracting the support of Pakeha voters alarmed at the radical demands of so-called Māori “separatists”. Peters also exploited the deep-seated historical hostility towards Chinese and Indian immigration which has long been a feature of New Zealand’s racial politics.

Such has been Peters’ ability to play upon the sensitivities of the electorate that he has been able – like Meloni and Akesson – to attract significant financial support from the business community. In Italy and Sweden, it is the negative consequences of immigration that have loosened the donors’ purses. That said, however, it would be foolish not to factor-in the many opportunities for extracting political concessions that proportional representation provides. If the votes of your party are crucial to the construction of a working parliamentary majority, then your leverage is considerable.

While Peters, now 77, remains a runner in the populist stakes, it is unlikely that any other serious contenders for the prize money will emerge. The key to the success of the Brothers of Italy and the Sweden Democrats has been the abject failure, in both countries, of the formerly dominant Left. The vacuum thus created has seen the rise and fall of many far-right experiments aimed at rounding-up voters who feel betrayed and abandoned by their erstwhile leftist protectors. In Meloni and Akesson the formula would appear to have been perfected. In Peters, however, the populist soufflé appears to be running out of puff.


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 26 September 2022.

Friday, 23 September 2022

The Magic Of Monarchy

Grief is the price we pay for love.”  –  Queen Elizabeth II 

IT WAS HEART-BREAKING. It was heart-warming. It was as contemporary as a smartphone. It was as old as the Middle Ages. It was the antithesis of democracy. It was what the people wanted.

The Queen, at 96, has passed away, but what remains is older still. And what remains is the deep, deep magic of monarchy.

So many people, when asked by reporters why they had come to pay their last respects to Elizabeth II, confessed to being baffled. Some even owned up to being republicans, and yet, here they were, waiting in a queue for nine hours, for just a few seconds in front of the catafalque.

Anyone who has witnessed a hypnotist’s on-stage performance would immediately have recognised their condition. Quite simply, monarchy had mesmerised them. They were under its spell.

How else to explain the numerous heads-of-government and heads-of-state who consented to being driven by bus to Westminster Abbey to pay their last respects to this doughty woman – a curious mixture of primness and joy – who, wholly enthralled to the ideal of service, had redefined the meaning of leadership. Constitutionally powerless, Elizabeth II was also astonishingly powerful. Would so many world leaders have turned out to offer the tribute of their presence to a woman who wasn’t?

No leftists worthy of the name would concede any of these points. They would argue that all rational persons long ago abandoned the intellectually bankrupt notion of hereditary rule. Nations committed to democracy, they’d say, cannot in good conscience accept even a constitutional monarchy – not if they are genuinely committed to the idea that all human-beings are born equal in rights and dignity. Monarchy is the conceptual and political enemy of equality, and democracy is equality in action.

Understanding how the Left came by its aversion to hereditary rule isn’t difficult. It was no fun being a commoner in an aristocratic society. You were stuck at the bottom of the heap in a world constructed to keep you there. If you spoke up, you were slapped down. If you lifted a hand against the established order, you were hanged by the neck until you were dead. Short of rebellion, there was no way of improving the lot of people like yourself. Political power could not be earned, it could only be inherited. “Born to rule” wasn’t just a cheap political jibe, it was an accurate description of the constitution.

At the end of the American Civil War, emancipated slaves liked to tease the soldiers of the defeated Confederacy by shouting out: “Bottom rail on top!” Human-beings who had been treated as beasts of burden, were now citizens with rights. The racist world of the American South had been turned upside down.

But this triumph of equality and democracy: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”; was short-lived. Abraham Lincoln’s famous summation of democracy overlooks the inescapable fact that “the people” are not a homogeneous mass. Some of the people want one thing, and some of the people want something else. You can count votes to determine who gets what, but you can’t make the losers like the final result.

Democracy works well when the stakes are low. But raise the stakes and watch democracy come apart at the seams. One way or another, the head-of-state of a republic takes office through a process of election. Chose a president when the political stakes are dangerously high, and the legitimacy of the winner will, inevitably, be questioned by the loser – and his followers. We have seen it happen with Donald Trump, we will likely see it again if Jair Bolsonaro loses the Brazilian presidential election.

Watching the final moments of the Queen’s funeral, it was impossible not to marvel at the complex simplicity of constitutional monarchy. With the line of succession decided, there was no argument about who would replace Elizabeth II. Nobody had to stand for the office of monarch. No party had to lick its wounds and mutter darkly about a “rigged” election. The transfer of power from Mother to Son was instantaneous and seamless. Moreover, the power transferred was of an apolitical nature.

As the Lord Chamberlain broke in twain his wand, and a lone piper skirled his lament through the lofty majesty of St George’s Chapel, it was clear that magic – and monarchy – had prevailed.


This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 September 2022.

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Two Kings, One Country.

A Meeting Of Minds On The Treaty: The ultimate irony of a radical Māori nationalist push for a republic would be an answering surge towards monarchical institutions. A Māori-Pakeha alliance forged between members of the Professional-Managerial Class in pursuit of a radically identarian republic may yet find itself opposed by a Māori-Pakeha alliance embracing all social classes and dedicated to installing not one, but two, monarchs over New Zealand.

IT MUST BE TWENTY YEARS since a bunch of well-meaning Pakeha attempted to hold a serious constitutional conference. Republicanism, a topic making a comeback following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, was on this long-ago gathering’s agenda, but so, too, was the Treaty of Waitangi.

That was the problem.

Once the Māori nationalists had laid down the wero of incorporating the Māori version of the Treaty into a reformed New Zealand constitution, the conference was over. As arranged, the good and the great delivered their thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of New Zealand’s ramshackle constitution, but nobody was really listening. Everybody understood that te Tiriti o Waitangi, if accepted as the true constitutional blueprint of New Zealand, would act like the most powerful acid on the institutions and principles of the colonial state.

Those attending the conference also understood that the Māori nationalist position was effectively non-negotiable. All future deviations from the constitutional status-quo would be in the direction indicated by the Māori nationalists and their Pakeha enablers in the judiciary, academia, the public service, the major political parties, and – now – the mainstream media.

In their heart-of-hearts, the Pakeha conference organisers understood that, henceforth, constitutional reform in New Zealand could only be a matter of the slow and incremental advance of te Tiriti to the heart of the New Zealand state. This transformation would be accomplished without the widespread popular debate, or validating public referenda, generally considered essential to the making of new constitutions. Indeed, it was clear that any te Tiriti-based transformation could only be accomplished by stealth, and only forestalled by force.

For all but the most naïve republicans, therefore, the Queen’s death was an event to be feared: inevitable, but fraught with danger.

The Māori Party’s recent ideological shift from monarchism to republicanism signalled the growing confidence of the Māori nationalist cause. Among the radicals, the Crown has lost its magic. The cosy relationship between the House of Windsor and the Kingitanga – which the Prime Minister was at pains to shore up by taking King Tuheitia with her to the Queen’s funeral – is as unlikely to withstand the drive towards a radical decolonisation of New Zealand as the “Settler State” itself.

With their Green Party enablers adding their voices to the Māori Party’s call for the indigenisation of the New Zealand constitution – a process which would begin with the repudiation of the name “New Zealand” in favour of “Aotearoa” – and Labour’s Māori Caucus determined not to be outflanked on the left by their Māori Party challengers, the Labour Party will find it increasingly difficult to maintain the position that the republican “conversation” can be put off to a later date.

That said, the radical agenda of the Māori nationalists will not be without its opponents. Quite how the Kingitanga is supposed to retain any vestige of ideological credibility in an Aotearoa shaped by the requirements of comprehensive decolonisation is a question bound to create serious division. Without the presence of the British Crown, the Māori Crown may strike the radicals as an embarrassing exercise in colonial emulation. The Māori King and his subjects are unlikely to take kindly to such an insulting characterisation.

The Iwi Leaders Group may, similarly, respond with growing alarm to the radicalism inherent in the Māori and Green parties’ decolonisation and indigenisation agenda. The curious blending of aristocracy and capitalism that has grown up under the auspices of the Crown makes precious few concessions to the poverty-stricken Māori masses living in the major cities.

Indeed, the blending of traditional Māori leadership with corporate capitalism, was the Crown’s inspired solution to the dangerous political potential of the uprooted urban Māori population. (Those with a working knowledge of Scottish history will recognise the origins of the model in the transformation of traditional clan chiefs into modern capitalist landlords that followed the final defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1745.)

The Māori Party, the Greens, and the Labour Māori Caucus may soon find their radical constitutional plans opposed by an alliance of Māori and Pakeha forces that traverses Left and Right. Included in the opposition, the tertiary-educated and largely middle-class Māori and Pakeha radicals may find not only those Māori who identify primarily as New Zealanders (the nearly half of Maoridom who opt to go on the General Electoral Roll) but also the very poorest and most marginalised Māori.

Young Māori, tertiary qualified, fluent in te reo, and earning a six-figure salary from a government agency, may find that they are not received all that warmly by Māori who are crammed into motels, micro-managed by MSD, forced to work for the minimum wage at jobs that don’t pay the rent, and then made to feel worthless on account of their inability to speak their own language, feed their families, or make sure their children attend school. Race and nationality are powerful markers of identity – but so, too, is socio-economic status. So is class.

The ultimate irony of a radical Māori nationalist push for a republic would be an answering surge towards monarchical institutions. A Māori-Pakeha alliance forged between members of the Professional-Managerial Class in pursuit of a radically identarian republic may yet find itself opposed by a Māori-Pakeha alliance embracing all social classes and dedicated to installing not one, but two, monarchs over New Zealand. Their unifying slogan, harking all the way back to the formation of the Kingitanga in the 1850s, could well be: “King Charles III in his place, King Tuheitia in his, and the Treaty of Waitangi over them both.”

It is not difficult to imagine the said King Charles, and King Tuheitia, at Turangawaewae, jointly signing a new covenant, in which the common rights and privileges of all New Zealanders, and the resources and treasures of both its peoples, are reaffirmed, protected and guaranteed by the two Crowns, and the democratically elected bi-cameral parliament, of the dual monarchy of Aotearoa-New Zealand.

The radical, Māori nationalist drive towards a te Tiriti-driven, identarian republican constitution, written to advance the interests of both the Māori and the Pakeha members of the Professional-Managerial Class, may end up driving the traditional defenders of capitalism, liberal democracy, and the rights and aspirations of working people, into a set of constitutional arrangements as odd as they are innovative.

Radical, identarian republicanism may yet make royalists of us all.


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

Tuesday, 20 September 2022

A Song Of Iron And Blood.

Unequivocal: Blood and iron, ah yes, the solution that does not equivocate. The power that is won with bullets – not ballots. The combination that ended the “speeches and majority decisions” of 1848 and the Arab Spring. And even now, on the broad plains of Ukraine, the grim drama of blood and iron is being played out. For what other answer is there to those who speak only the language of blood and iron, but iron and blood in equal measure?

THE YEAR OF REVOLUTIONS – that was how the year 1848 came to be known. Clear across Europe: from Hungary in the East to France in the West; massive eruptions of popular discontent, harnessed by mostly young liberal intellectuals, brought the reactionary regimes re-established following the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1815, very close to collapse.

Weeks went by, idealists gathered, constitutions were proposed and debated, but nothing truly revolutionary happened. Slowly at first, and then with gathering speed, the emperors, kings and aristocrats picked themselves up out of the dust, straightened their tunics, and set about putting their noble houses in order. By 1849 it was all over. As things turned out, 1848 had been a year of revolts – not revolutions.

If the story sounds familiar, it’s because something very similar happened roughly ten years ago. Clear across the Arab World, from Tunisia in the West to Egypt and Syria in the East, mostly young liberal intellectuals, using social media, sparked massive eruptions of popular discontent. Months went by. Idealists gathered. Elections were held. New names had to be learned. New faces won recognition. But, nothing truly revolutionary happened.

As Mao Zedong cynically observed: “All political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” By 2013, the men with guns were either back in power or applying the lessons of the deposed military leaders they were replacing. The Arab Spring was fast becoming the Arab Winter.

Imagine how they felt: all those young liberal intellectuals; all those angry workers and peasants. Imagine city squares seething with masses of hopeful people. The extraordinary combination of elation and relief when the regime’s soldiers refused to fire on “the people”. Those great arcs of political electricity illuminating the social darkness when word came of similar uprisings taking place in neighbouring states. It must truly have seemed to the “revolutionaries” that they were witnessing the birth of a new heaven and a new earth.

Now imagine the despair: the sheer, soul-destroying anguish of seeing it all fade and wither and turn to dust on the fickle winds of history. Imagine the dashing of hopes, the detention of friends, the execution of leaders. Imagine the clatter of boot heels on stone, the ringing of sharpened steel, the crackle of rifle fire, the chatter of machine-guns, the roar of artillery. Imagine the death of a million common dreams.

What do people do when their revolution fails? When their Spring of Hope turns to a Winter of Despair? Where do they go?

We know that many refugees from the failed 1848 revolution in Germany made their way to the United States. In the USA, at least, the idea of popular sovereignty had been able to send down roots and acquire a measure of solidity. In America there were no kings and queens, no aristocrats. The Americans, like the French, had made a republic.

But even in Eden, serpents gathered. The German immigrants were shocked to witness black men and women being abducted in broad daylight by the agents of Southern plantation owners – all of them operating perfectly legally under the Fugitive Slave Act. Here was something even more depraved than the dark pretensions of monarchs. Abraham Lincoln warned that an America “half-slave and half-free” could not endure.

Twelve years after the failure of German liberalism, the Union Army was welcoming former Prussian officers into its ranks. Slavery was an evil that simply had to be rooted out. Lustily they sang the new Battle Hymn of the Republic:

In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom
That transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy,
Let us die to make men free;
While God is marching on.

It was splendid, but it was bloody. Could freedom and justice ever be established with the sword? Maybe – maybe not. But nations could. As the American Civil War was raging, so, too, were the wars of German unification. In 1862, the great architect of German unity (but not German democracy) Count Otto von Bismarck, with the example of the failed German revolution set firmly before his eyes, delivered his most memorable speech:

The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power [...] Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favourable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood.

Blood and iron, ah yes, the solution that does not equivocate. The power that is won with bullets – not ballots. The combination that ended the “speeches and majority decisions” of 1848 and the Arab Spring. And even now, on the broad plains of Ukraine, the grim drama of blood and iron is being played out. For what other answer is there to those who speak only the language of blood and iron, but iron and blood in equal measure?

Do not pretend that it does not thrill you – this open recourse to force. Not when all the tweets on Twitter cannot match the effectiveness of a single artillery shell exploding in the right place at the right time. Not when you see how swiftly all the petty squabbles of the identarians disappear in the all-embracing shadow of a nation’s battle flag.

Denis Diderot: French philosopher, atheist, and republican; quipped that “Mankind will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

What, then, should we make of the fact that 174 years after the Year of Revolutions, an astonishing number of human-beings around the planet are mourning the death of a queen and welcoming a king to his throne? Against the pomp of Charles III, and the heroism of Volodymyr Zelensky, where are we to set the “speeches and majority decisions” of democracy?

Who does not welcome the comity of blood? Who does not hunger for the reassurance of iron?


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

Monday, 19 September 2022

Elegy For A Queen.



Elegy For A Queen


The media beast that must be fed
On human fodder hour-by-hour,
Just for one second, checks its power.
Elizabeth, the Queen, is dead.

That this is news no one can doubt.
The airwaves hum, the presses roll.
And cellphones buzz from pole to pole
To get the information out.

We see, we hear, the words strike deep,
And tears unbidden trickle down.
As if we could this knowledge drown
In the blissful ignorance of sleep.

But this is news we can’t unlearn,
News to punctuate an age.
News writ deep on a history-page
The grieving world is loath to turn.

So many living have not known
Another to compare her to.
She wore the only crown they knew,
Soft as a mother, hard as stone.

They came to say their last goodbyes,
From Deeside to the River Thames.
Most precious of the royal gems:
Tears for a Queen in her subjects’ eyes.

The Guardsman stands with lowered head,
And vigil keeps as mourners throng.
The ancient stones join the slow song:
Elizabeth, the Queen, is dead.


Chris Trotter
15 September 2022


This poem was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 16 September 2022.

The Languages Of Sovereignty And Democracy.

Leviathan: Reaching all the way back to the writings of the Sixteenth Century jurist and political philosopher, Jean Bodin, constitutional transformer Moana Jackson argues that the European concept of sovereignty is one of “the most high and perpetual power over citizens”. He would have done better to study Hobbes and Locke and their notion of the social contract – something in the nature of a partnership.

AT THE CONCLUSION of every Māori Language Week I’m always left pondering how little I know about Aotearoa-New Zealand. It is not simply a matter of being unable to speak more than a few words of te reo Māori. Not understanding, not speaking, a language makes it exceptionally difficult to grasp the cultural essence of the people who made/make it. To dramatically improve the relationship between Māori and Pakeha, it seems sensible (at least to me) for the teaching of Māori to be made mandatory in all New Zealand primary and secondary schools. Only when the whole nation has achieved a measure of fluency in Māori will the full potential of New Zealand’s bi-cultural heritage be realised.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard the Minister of Defence, and Whanau Ora, Peeni Henare, tell Newshub Nation (17/9/22) that he was strongly opposed to making the teaching of Māori mandatory in schools. Not because he feared a Pakeha backlash, but because he was convinced that if all New Zealanders became proficient in Māori, then the spiritual power of the language would be fatally diminished. He did not appear to oppose individual Pakeha learning te reo – presumably because the manner in which the knowledge was transferred would remain under Māori control.

That would certainly not be the case were the teaching of Māori to become compulsory. Not only would there need to be a huge expansion in the number of Māori language teachers, but there would, inevitably, be a standardisation of both the content and instructional methodologies of the learning process. Textbooks would have to be written and examinations set, the whole paraphernalia of pedagogy would descend upon the Māori language – just as it does upon the teaching of French, German and Mandarin. Most alarming of all, from the perspective of Māori traditionalists, more and more non-Māori would necessarily become involved in the teaching of te reo.

Unsurprisingly, Te Taura Whiri i te reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission, takes a slightly different stance on te reo to Peeni Henare’s. Their aspiration is to, eventually, have all those living in Aotearoa-New Zealand proficient in the language – a million of them by 2040!

The Commission does not, however, advocate the mandatory teaching of the Māori language. Its stated goals vis-a-vis the Ministry of Education encompass only having more children and young people learning te reo Māori; more people progressing beyond basic knowledge of te reo Māori; and more people highly proficient in te reo Māori. Indeed, Commission CEO, Ngahiwi Apanui, cautions aspiring speakers that Māori is a challenging language to learn. Even the Commission’s goal of a million te reo speakers by 2040, encompasses only the projected Māori share of New Zealand’s population. So, yes, in practical terms, the differences between the Minister and the Commission are not very great at all.

Another idea in need of revision is the claim that learning to speak another language is the fastest and most effective way of grasping the essence of its native speakers’ culture. There are very few Māori living in New Zealand who are not fluent English speakers. Accordingly, my expectation has been that the core values of the English-speaking peoples would be well understood by Māori. Even more so, I assumed, in the case of Māori academics engaged in the fraught business of “constitutional transformation”. Disturbingly, this was not the case.

Matike Mai Aotearoa is the title of the investigative exercise, commissioned by the Iwi Leaders’ Group in 2010, to identify the challenges associated with transforming the constitutional framework of Aotearoa-New Zealand. Overseen and mostly written by Moana Jackson, Matike Mai represents the activist/scholar’s last great contribution to the struggle for indigenous peoples’ rights that defined and absorbed most of his adult life. Read alongside the document it clearly inspired, the He Puapua report, Matike Mai reveals clearly the revolutionary direction in which the quest for tino rangatiratanga has now begun to travel.

It is a feature common to all documents calling for revolutionary change: to paint the motivations and practices of the ancien régime in the darkest possible hues. It is vital that the ideals and institutions of the new order offer the starkest and most favourable contrast possible with everything that came before. Even so, Jackson’s explanation of how the English-speaking peoples comprehend “sovereignty” was outrageous.

Reaching all the way back to the writings of the Sixteenth Century jurist, political philosopher, and enthusiastic witch-burner, Jean Bodin, Jackson argues that the European concept of sovereignty is one of “the most high and perpetual power over citizens”. Aware, perhaps, that citing a French demonologist might raise eyebrows when debating political ideas current at the time of the Treaty of Waitangi’s composition, Jackson modifies his absolutist definition by referencing the Westminster formulation of sovereign power as “the monarch in Parliament”.

Passed over entirely in Jackson’s discussion of sovereignty is what it took, in blood and suffering, to shift the Crown from its “most high and perpetual” throne, to the chamber in which the people’s elected representatives are “in Parliament assembled”. No mention, either, by Jackson, of the fundamental principle of our constitutional monarchy: that the monarch cannot act except upon the “advice and consent” of Parliament, and of the Cabinet appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister – who must, in turn, command a majority of Parliament’s members.

Jackson thus allows all the pomp and ceremony of the Westminster system to obscure the raw historical-political fact that, in the English-speaking Commonwealth, sovereignty resides not in the “most high and perpetual” but in living, breathing, human-beings.

Tellingly, Jackson also overlooks the fact that less than ten years prior to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Great Britain had teetered on the brink of revolution over precisely this question: Who are the people? The answer, according to the Great Reform Act of 1832, was – the better-off sections of the population. But, the answer kept changing – faster here in New Zealand that in the Motherland – right up until the full enfranchisement of adult British women in 1928.

Also missing from Jackson’s treatment of the concept of sovereignty, is the even more dramatic assertion of democratic ideals in North America and across Europe in the centuries since Jean Bodin was beseeching magistrates to show no mercy to witches. Indeed, the only serious reference to democracy in Matike Mai proves just how little Jackson regarded and/or understood the concept. In his brief discussion of Athenian Democracy, he wrongly asserts that the lower classes – “the mob” – were barred from participating in political life. Nope. What made Athens different was precisely the innovation that all free citizens (i.e. all unenslaved males born in Athens) had a role to play in the life of the state.

That democracy gets such a bad rap in Matike Mai is, however, understandable. While Māori remain a minority in their own land, majority rule will always look suspiciously like tyranny. (Should Māori ever overtake Pakeha demographically, it will be interesting to see whether democracy undergoes a swift rehabilitation!)

As things now stand, however, it is this refusal on the part of Māori to acknowledge the strength of Pakeha belief in parliamentary democracy, and in the absolute sovereignty of “The People’s House”, that will render all attempts at constitutional transformation moot – in te reo Māori – or English.

To paraphrase the anarchist Emma Goldman: “If you have the revolution, and there’s no voting, I’m not coming.”

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 19 September 2022.

Friday, 16 September 2022

A King’s Grasp.

Worst Case Scenario? Mike Bartlett’s teleplay, King Charles III, teases out the consequences of a constitutional monarch who makes the mistake of attempting to defend the rights of his subjects.

WHILE MANY OF US pretended that Queen Elizabeth II would, somehow, live forever, others among us knew better. One of those who knew these days of mourning – and celebration – would come, and gave thought to what they might portend, was the British playwright, Mike Bartlett. His thoughts turned to the man who would succeed the Queen, and the times into which the reign of Charles III would be launched, and he wrote a play. Like all wordsmiths, Mr Bartlett understood that if one truly wishes to tell the truth, then one had best write fiction.

Bartlett’s play – later turned into a BBC 2 television drama starring the late Tim Pigott-Smith – was called, simply, King Charles III. Described by The Daily Telegraph critic, Jasper Rees, as “pure televisual gelignite”, the BBC 2 adaptation places before royalists and republicans the two most dangerous questions that have always lain, unasked and unanswered, at the heart of constitutional monarchy.

The First: Is there any act of Parliament so injurious to the common good that no monarch, in good conscience, could be expected to give it the royal assent?

The Second: What is likely to unfold if the royal assent is withheld from such an act?


The legislation Bartlett invents for the purposes of his dramatic thought experiment seeks to restrict the freedom of the press. For centuries, this tradition has protected the people from those who would oppress them. Bartlett’s fictitious Charles, aware that the bill has passed through both Houses of Parliament, knows that he now constitutes the sole remaining barrier to the destruction of a fundamental freedom.

According to the Nineteenth Century constitutional writer, Walter Bagehot, there are three crucial rights available to a British constitutional monarch. These are: The right to be consulted. The right to encourage. The right to warn. Having swiftly exhausted all three, the fictional Charles must decide upon his next move.

The real King Charles III will soon face a series of equally portentous choices.

The government of the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, is committed to passing legislation inimical to the survival of British civil liberties. She has filled the upper echelons of her Cabinet with individuals who are well to the right of most Tory MPs. The 80-seat majority bequeathed to her by Boris Johnson is almost certainly large enough to withstand any last-minute pangs of Conservative Party conscience. Only if the King withholds his royal assent, will the ancient rights of “freeborn Englishmen” be preserved.

Having pledged to both houses of the British Parliament that he will follow the example of his mother on matters constitutional, the smart money would have to be on the real King Charles III behaving very differently from the fictional King Charles III.

In the months ahead, the British Isles look set to be rocked by civil discord and state-sanctioned violence. In the looming contest, the British people may win, or, the British state may win. Either way, the British Crown will certainly lose.

If the British people are trampled beneath the boots of the Police. If their most inspiring leaders, like the trade union leader Mick Lynch, are imprisoned. And if, throughout it all, their king maintains a constitutionally-sanctioned silence. Then, whatever system of government emerges from the crisis, its head-of-state won’t wear a crown.

A bloody, bold and resolute monarch, however, might fare better than even the fertile imagination of Mike Bartlett has compassed.

A recent survey of British voters aged 18-34-years-old indicated that around 60 percent of them believe their country should be ruled by a strong leader with the power to make decisions for the good of the country – without being constrained by Parliament.

Is it stretching too long a bow to suggest that Bartlett has perceived in the personality of the real Charles precisely the character traits that make his fictional King Charles so compelling? Having waited 70 years to exercise sovereignty, will he really be content to follow dutifully in his mother’s outsized footsteps?

The multiple crises which loom ahead of the United Kingdom are of sufficient severity to cause it to come apart at its historic seams. The corrupt system that threw up Liz Truss may no longer be capable of saving it.

If a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, then, surely, so should a king’s. Or what’s a kingdom for?


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

Wednesday, 14 September 2022

The Bad Guys Are Winning.

Our Dark Future:  It’s a class war, masquerading as an intergenerational struggle, dressed up as a battle for the poor folks living in cars and motels. A class war fuelled by envy and rage.

THERE WAS A TIME when property developers were very definitely the bad guys. Back in the 1980s, especially, when they came to stand for all that was wrong with the brash new society Roger Douglas was letting them build. They had friends in the council bureaucracy, friends in the media, friends in the government. Yeah, property developers had it made – easy for them.

Which is why the first most people heard about their “developments” was when the lovely old villa next door was bulldozed flat and some ghastly excuse for a human dwelling took its place. No more weatherboard. No more eaves, No more window-sills. Just flat planes of beige. Hideous.

The walls surrounding these monstrosities were apt symbols of the property developer’s “art”. They looked solid, But they were hollow. Nothing but cheap cladding, made to look like solid stucco. Within a very few years they, just like the houses they surrounded, were leaking, rotting, disintegrating. Not that the property developers cared. They were long gone. Laughing all the way to the bank – or bankruptcy.

Definitely the bad guys.

Not anymore. To read Hayden Donnell’s “The Character Protection Racket” (Metro No. 435 Winter 2022) is to be introduced to the Property Developer as urban super-hero. A sort of caped-crusader swooping in to level the “character housing” suburbs that are all that now remains of what used to be one of the most beautiful cities in Australasia. What the developers’ wrecking-balls did to the magnificent public and commercial buildings of Auckland in the 1980s, their children’s bulldozers will soon be doing to the century-plus-old homes that the people responsible for all that style and beauty built and lived in.

Suburb-smashers as super-heroes? Doesn’t that sound just the teeniest bit upside-down and back-to-front? Not at all. Because, you see, out of all that Kauri and stained-glass ruin, will rise the multi-storied, can’t-swing-a-cat-in-‘em – but affordable – apartments that Donnell and his generation have been longing for ever since the “FIRE” (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) brigade drove the humble Kiwi bungalow out of the entitled precariat’s price-range.

It’s a class war, masquerading as an intergenerational struggle, dressed up as a battle for the poor folks living in cars and motels. A class war fuelled by envy and rage.

Since the homes of the inner-city suburbs are gracious and spacious, shaded by leafy exotics, and superbly situated among sweeping, well-manicured lawns, it should come as no real surprise that only the very rich can afford them. What’s more, in a country with no Capital Gains Tax and no Inheritance Tax, these homes can be kept “in the family”. Deferred gratification not being the millennial generations’ strong suit, it would seem that they have decided that if they can’t have the sort of homes depicted in Peter Stillwell’s paintings (which, with exquisite irony, Metro chose to illustrate Donnell’s article) then nobody can. Bowl the lot!

Apparently, like Milton’s Lucifer, Donnell’s generation prefers to rule in architectural Hell, than serve in Auckland’s leafy Heaven. The same people who weep for a natural environment fast succumbing to climate change, haven’t the slightest compunction in laying waste the fragile urban ecologies that preserve cities as both living places and liveable spaces. The cityscape bequeathed to us by these hell-raisers will look nothing like Stillwell’s paintings. It will resemble the dark urban jungles of Japanese manga comics. A world run by ruthless corporations, corrupt politicians, and gangsters – with the blank, angular, and essentially soulless architecture to match.

Which, if one is able to put aside the sick horror of the image, is actually a perfect reflection of the forces driving the demolition of Old Auckland. Remember the description of the 1980s property developer as someone with friends in the council bureaucracy, friends in the media, friends in the government? Well, isn’t that a pretty good description of the people who are out to destroy the “character protection racket”?

Donnell’s allies aren’t the members of grass-roots pressure groups (the pressure-groups are all fighting to preserve the inner suburbs!) they are ambitious council bureaucrats, journalists employed by a mainstream media utterly dependent upon the advertising of the FIRE brigade, and members of a Labour Government eerily possessed by the spirit of the Eighties. A neoliberal decade that laid waste one of the most decent societies on earth – a society whose only tangible legacy are the homes its people used to be able to afford.

How strange that this is where we’ve ended up. With a government of property developers, by property developers, for property developers. A government which has actually made it illegal to protect character housing.

Not because this Labour Government wants to build the sort of Auckland envisaged 80 years ago by the Housing Division of the Ministry of Works. An Auckland of public housing for the poor, and the young, and families saving for a home of their own. No.

When the character housing suburbs Donnell so despises are flattened, what rises from the ruins will not be for the poor, it will be for the ten-percent. The professionals and managers whose mission it is to keep the world safe for the one-percent. The super-rich who will, long since, have abandoned the doomed leafy suburbs for vast penthouses at the summit of Auckland’s proudest towers. Or sprawling mansions in the countryside, up long driveways, safe from prying eyes – and clawing hands.

No, this Labour Government isn’t building houses for the poor. This Labour Government hates the poor! Why else would it leave them to rot in mouldy houses, squalid motels, and cheap imported cars? No, this Labour Government is building boxes – tool boxes – for its ever-helpful mouthpieces and apologists.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this Labour Government is building houses for people like Hayden Donnell.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 9 September 2022.

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

The Ukrainian “People’s Storm” Lays Waste Putin’s Dreams.

Old Men And Boys: The Russian soldier pictured on the right has a white beard and looks to be in his sixties. He is standing before a Russian lorry and is carrying a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. But, the most remarkable detail of this photograph, circled in red by whoever sent it, is what this soldier is wearing on his feet. No combat boots for this man. He is expected to go into battle wearing plastic sandals!

AS ALLIED ARMIES were closing in on Nazi Germany from the East and the West, Joseph Goebbels launched the Volkssturm. Inspired by the great popular uprising of ordinary Germans against Napoleon, the Volkssturm (Peoples Storm) was composed of the very last reserves of German manpower. Old men and teenage boys were handed an armband and an anti-tank weapon and ordered to resist – to the death – the vast Allied armies advancing relentlessly, and unstoppably, towards the German heartland.

The creation of the Volkssturm was not just a hopeless gesture, it was a profoundly wicked one. By early 1945, Germany had already lost the war. Continued resistance was utterly futile. To send out old men in their sixties, and boys as young as twelve, to fight highly-trained and well-equipped soldiers was nothing short of murder. Only the leaders of a government bereft of ethics, who had lost all contact with the real world, could contemplate such a disastrous call-up.

What then should we make of the photograph posted on the website Tea Leaves and Russia showing what is purported to be a Russian soldier. The man has a white beard and looks to be in his sixties. He is standing before a Russian lorry and is carrying a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. But, the most remarkable detail of this photograph, circled in red by whoever sent it, is what this soldier is wearing on his feet. No combat boots for this man. He is expected to go into battle wearing plastic sandals!

Now, it is important to own up to the possibility that the photograph might be a fake. That what we are actually looking at is a Ukrainian grand-dad doing his bit for his country’s war effort by pretending to be this poorly-equipped Russian conscript-of-last-resort. Vladimir Putin’s Volkssturm.

But if the photograph is genuine: if this is the quality of the reserves Putin is throwing into the fight; then the general collapse of the Russian Federation (RF) forces in the face of the general offensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) is explained. Against a military force trained and equipped with the latest high-tech weapons by the Americans and their Nato allies, whose commanders, unlike their Russian counterparts, are encouraged to take the initiative and make their own battlefield decisions, and whose already sky-high morale is now off-the-scale, the RF has very little to offer by way of effective resistance.

Images recorded on the advancing AFU troops’ smartphones show tanks and armoured vehicles abandoned on the roadsides. Perhaps they are empty of fuel. Perhaps they have no more ammunition left to fire at the enemy. Whatever the explanation, their crews have fled towards the east, desperate to reach the safety of the Russian border. Moscow is attempting to portray this as a “regrouping” – it is no such thing. What the world is looking at here (at least that part of the world which is not obsessively following the “coffin” – i.e. the body – of the late Queen on its journey south to London) is not a “re-grouping” – it’s a rout.

Just how serious the situation has become for the Russian Government of Vladimir Putin is captured in these words to the Russian President, supposedly spoken by a representative of the leadership of the Russian General Staff:

“Our troops have no more offensive capabilities, and soon there will be no more opportunities for defence. You lost Vladimir Vladimirovich!”

Taken together with the already confirmed reports of representative bodies in St Petersburg and Moscow passing resolutions demanding Putin be charged with treason, and reports of military movements in the capital suggestive of preparations for a military coup d’état, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Putin’s political (and personal?) survival must now be considered doubtful.

Putin and his coterie of supportive oligarchs, bureaucrats, and politicians will be desperate, now, to fix the blame for the military catastrophe unfolding across Eastern Ukraine on his battlefield commanders. His mouthpieces are already calling for the execution of these “treacherous generals”. The military commanders of the Russian Federation must, therefore, move with the utmost haste to protect themselves from the wrath of “Vladimir Vladimirovich”. By decapitating the political leadership, before it decapitates them.

Not only is the personal survival of these principal players at stake at this critical moment, but so, too, is the general shape and structure of the Russian Federation.

In 1905, the Russian Czar, Nicholas II, suffered a catastrophic naval defeat at the hands of the Japanese Empire – an “upstart” power whose military capabilities the Russians had fatally underestimated. The result was a nationwide uprising which came within an ace of overturning the Russian autocracy.

Putin’s oligarch allies will not want defeat at the hands of the “upstart” Ukrainians to spark a third Russian revolution. Better to depose Putin quickly and cleanly, make peace with Ukraine, and restore a measure of normality to the Federation, Europe, and the world in general. As Bob Dylan has the gangster Joey Gallo say in his eponymous ballad: “It’s peace and quiet that we need to go back to work again.”

At any other time, developments on this scale, and of this importance, would be dominating our headlines and, like the Ukrainians themselves, the rest of the world would be following the advance of their forces with bated breath. Only time will tell whether the Western World’s utter distraction by the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the accession of King Charles III, was a help or a hindrance to the Ukrainian offensive.

It is, however, possible that the Queen’s death, by distracting the West, prevented its more hawkish leaders from making the sort of accusations and threats that only ever end up strengthening Putin’s hand. That Ukraine’s armies racked up their victories while the eyes of the West were elsewhere, may yet prove to have been the most extraordinary stroke of good luck.

By dying when she did, the Queen may well have saved the life of that sandal-wearing Russian greybeard, as well as tens-of-thousands of equally ill-equipped and poorly-trained Russian troops, and given the Armed Forces of Ukraine the clear airwaves they needed to drive Putin’s armies back across the border.

Goebbel’s Volkssturm could nor rescue the Third Reich, but Volodymyr Zelensky’s “Peoples Storm” (with a little help from the Americans) has made it possible for Ukraine to lay waste the fondest hopes of Vladimir Putin – and his allies in Beijing.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 13 September 2022.

Monday, 12 September 2022

The Weight Of History.

Receiving The Burden Of Sovereignty: The weight of royal ritual and tradition, and all the gilt machinery of monarchical government, is crushing. 

THE SHEER WEIGHT of it takes your breath away.
 
On display in St James’s Palace on Saturday night (10/9/22) were rituals and traditions dating back centuries. To say the weight of those rituals and traditions, and all the gilt machinery of monarchical government, is crushing, would be no exaggeration. 

To the millions watching on television, however, the ceremony proclaiming King Charles III, conveyed another, older, message. That the House of Windsor is the last great royal house of Europe.

When the late Queen’s great-great-grandmother, Victoria, sat upon the throne of Great Britain and Ireland, the House of Saxe-Coburg (later re-named Windsor) was just one of many great royal houses. Alongside it stood the House of Hapsburg, the House of Hohenzollern, and the House of Romanov. By the end of the First World War, the Queen’s grandfather, the King-Emperor, George V, was the last man standing.

Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated and Germany had declared itself a Republic. The Emperor of what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Karl I, had similarly renounced his throne. The Tsar of all the Russias, Nicholas II, along with his family, had been murdered by the Bolsheviks. The Ottoman Empire, which had once threatened to conquer all of Western Europe, had similarly disintegrated under the hammer blows of war.

Britain, alone of all the great monarchical European empires, stood alone. Only once, in a span of close to 1,000 years, had the English people succumbed to foreign invasion, defeat and occupation. The Norman Conquest of 1066 broke the Anglo-Saxon state into pieces and re-constituted it according to the principles of feudalism. That feudal state then proceeded to see off all foreign challengers for the best part of ten centuries. The Spanish failed in 1588. The French in 1805. The Germans tried and failed twice. The first time between 1914-18. The second, between 1939-45.

It is hard to over-emphasise the importance of British resilience. The grim audit of war had seen the other great royal dynasties declared politically bankrupt. The emperors and aristocrats who ruled them had failed in their first and most important duty – to protect the security and integrity of their realms. That failure allowed their peoples to reconfigure their political systems into new and (sometimes) more democratic ways. Old ideas and old institutions were either tossed aside in revolutionary fervour, or, carefully retired to the national attic – pending more favourable circumstances.

But not the House of Windsor. Not the British Empire. At the end of every existential struggle, England’s king, and its ancient aristocratic families, were there to take the salute of their triumphant armies. Proof that the ideas and ideals of the Middle Ages were more than equal to the challenges of economic and social change. Certainly, other classes had been admitted to the magic circles of political power, but the splendid feudal pageantry, the resonant feudal vocabulary, remained undisturbed – as the millions watching on Saturday night could see and hear.

Yes, the Cromwellian revolution of the 1640s and 50s, and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 had tamed Great Britain’s kings and queens, transforming them slowly but surely into that most curious of creatures – half-medieval, half-modern – the “constitutional monarch”. But, it was never a purely one-way process. Century after century, the rebellious and democratic instincts of the British people have been tamed and domesticated by their kings and queens.

It was impossible to look upon that extraordinary line-up of former prime-ministers – four Tories, two Labour – all of them members of His Majesty’s Privy Council – standing loyally to attention and bellowing “God Save The King!”, without mentally doffing one’s cap to the extraordinary political legerdemain of the British ruling-class.

It is easy to scoff at such scenes, dismissing them as so much medieval mummery, but the deeper truth remains: they’re still being played out. J.M. Barrie in Peter Pan informs his young readers that fairies will continue to exist only for as long as people believe in them. The same is true of kings and queens.

Politicians under-rated the political perspicacity of Elizabeth II at their peril. In the 70 years of her extraordinary reign, the late Queen saw the British economy and the British people transformed. By a sustained act of tutelary will, she convinced them that, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, they remained one people: that there was more holding them together than there was tearing them apart. Her stubborn refusal to be convinced otherwise thus acted as a sort of dam, behind which the waters of division and disquiet rose higher and higher.

It was Louis XV of France who famously declared: “Après moi, le déluge” (After me, the flood!) Although she would never have indulged in such nihilistic despair, Elizabeth II could justifiably have said the same.

King Charles III must be wondering, along with the British political journalist who came up with the metaphor, whether his mother’s death signals “the conclusion of a season, or the end of the whole series?” Certainly, he could be forgiven for considering the term “United Kingdom” to be a joke in very poor taste. Those who witnessed Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s angry rejection of Boris Johnson’s arm, or watched on Twitter the Welsh nationalist actor Michael Sheen’s stupendous evocation of Welsh pride, would surely agree with the King.

A principled man (not a healthy attribute in a constitutional monarch) Charles must be looking with grave apprehension at the new, far-right British prime minister, Liz Truss. She cut a positively creepy figure in the otherwise splendid surroundings of St James’ Palace – bearing a frightening resemblance to the wicked queen in Disney’s Snow White.

The go-to Nineteenth Century explainer of Britain’s unwritten constitution, Walter Bagehot, wrote that the British monarch has only three constitutional rights: The right to be consulted. The right to encourage. And the right to warn. Given the ferocious ambitions of the Truss ministry, one suspects that King Charles III will soon be in need of all three.

And, here, in his far-flung realm of New Zealand? What will his antipodean subjects make of their new king? These islands are no less troubled by division and disquiet than Charles’ own beloved British Isles. Looming constitutional debates, all having at their heart the historical relationship of the British Crown with Aotearoa’s indigenous people, can hardly avoid attracting his royal attention.

In the meantime, the pageantry and pathos of the late Queen’s funeral – not to mention the looming pomp and circumstance of Charles III’s coronation – will serve as a reminder to Māori and Pakeha alike, that their nation is the deliberate creation of an empire presided over by the great-great-great grandmother of its new Head of State. A reminder, too, that, in Karl Marx’s memorable formulation:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

King Charles III’s brain, and those of his subjects, alike.


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 12 September 2022.

Saturday, 10 September 2022

Imagining Away The Opposition.

The High Tide Of Popular Protest: In 2019 Chile was racked by massive protest demonstrations. Hundreds of thousands of mostly young, mostly poor, Chileans served notice on their government that the moment had arrived for their country to cast off “Pinochet’s Straightjacket” – the 1980 constitution imposed upon Chile by its former leader, the dictator Augusto Pinochet, as the price it must pay for even a limited restoration of democracy.

HOW QUICKLY THINGS CHANGE. Three years ago Chile was racked by massive protest demonstrations. Hundreds of thousands of mostly young, mostly poor, Chileans served notice on their government that the moment had arrived for their country to execute a decisive break with its recent past. Politically, economically, and culturally, they said, Chile was ready to ditch the debilitating legacy of General Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year-long dictatorship. Most particularly, “Pinochet’s Straightjacket” – the 1980 constitution he imposed upon Chile as the price it must pay for even a limited restoration of democracy – must go.

For a while, it looked as though the youth of Chile, the poor of Chile, the women of Chile, and the indigenous peoples of Chile, would get their wish. A Constitutional Convention was convened. Delegates were elected from every part of Chile who engaged in passionate debates over the nature and purpose of the new rights to be enshrined in their nation’s fundamental law. When they were finished, the delegates submitted what they proudly described as the world’s most progressive constitution to the Chilean people for ratification.

According to The Guardian: “The proposed constitution: included a long list of social rights and guarantees that had appeared to respond to the demands of [the vast social movement that had called it into existence]. It enshrined gender parity across government and other organs of the state – for the first time anywhere in the world – prioritised environmental protection and recognised Chile’s Indigenous peoples for the first time in the country’s history.”

The new constitution also enshrined the social and economic rights which Pinochet’s dictatorship had swept away in the coup d’état that toppled Salvador Allende’s socialist government in September 1973. The Convention’s delegates had attempted to forbid forever the neoliberal economic policies which Pinochet’s military government had road-tested for the free-market ideologues who would go on to guide Great Britain and the USA – and New Zealand – away from the social-democratic policies of the post-war years.

It was too much. Earlier this week, the Chilean people decisively voted down the new constitution which the Convention’s delegates had delivered to them. Like Allende’s Popular Unity Government before them, the delegates had pressed ahead with the radical vision of the future they were so certain would heal the harms of the past. Like the young socialists of 50 years ago, they would not be held back by the reservations of the conservative Chileans they derided as “Momios” (mummies of the Egyptian kind) and, once again, they have paid the price.

One of Allende’s advisers, Prof. Ariel Dorfman, looking back on those days, recalled:

It would take years to understand that what was so exhilarating to us was menacing to those who felt excluded from our vision of paradise. We evaporated them from meaning, we imagined them away in the future, we offered them no alternative but to join us in our pilgrimage or disappear forever, and that vision fuelled, I believe, the primal fear of the men and women who opposed us.

One of the most striking features of the controversial He Puapua Report is its authors’ assumption that constitutional changes every bit as radical and all-embracing as those just rejected in Chile can be introduced to New Zealand without a Constitutional Convention, and without being voted up, or down, in a binding referendum.

Undoubtedly, some of those who favour the dramatic changes proposed in He Puapua will look at what has just occurred in Chile and say: “See? That’s what happens when you give white supremacists the chance to strike down the just and necessary changes required to heal the harms of 200 years of colonisation!” The fate of the world’s most progressive constitution will be seen as vindication of the He Puapua authors’ horror of “the tyranny of the majority”.

But this would be an entirely mistaken conclusion for radical Māori nationalists to draw from the Chilean experience. The fundamental error of the Constitutional Convention was to allow the best to become the enemy of the good.

The harms of the past cannot be healed by legislating them out of existence from on high. Healing will only come kanohi ki te kanohi – face to face – through hard but honest conversations, over many frustrating years, until, unforced, and almost unaware, the overwhelming majority of Māori and Pakeha arrive at their long anticipated destination – together.


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

Friday, 9 September 2022

The Queen Is Dead.

Elizabeth Windsor
1926 - 2022
Requiescat In Pace


Thursday, 8 September 2022

Left To Rot.

Recovering Their Voice: Not bereft – not this time. Anomie cannot survive the rebirth of hope. Alienation flees before a compelling story. In 1984, it came from a party promising to “lift them up where they belonged”. In 2022, it is coming from a party urging them to lift themselves up.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW why Labour leaves the most disadvantaged New Zealanders to rot in motels – ask the Rogernomes. Ever since Labour abandoned its democratic-socialist beliefs and embraced neoliberalism in 1984, the party has been at pains to keep the disadvantaged politically disorganised and dependent on the good will of the state. They do not do this in expectation of their votes – any votes they get from the welfare underclass are a bonus – they do it because they don’t want them to vote at all.

To fully appreciate the reasoning behind Labour’s demobilisation strategy, it is necessary to go back to the year 1984 and take a look around. New Zealand society was mobilised in a way that “Rogernomic’s Children” – the generations that grew up with no memories of what New Zealand was like before the neoliberal “revolution” – would struggle to accept. Civil society had power in those years. Citizens had power. Even the poor and the unemployed had power.

Right across the country unemployed workers and beneficiaries were being organised. The state bureaucracy still believed that its primary purpose was to help – not hinder – its citizens. Accordingly, the state made funds available to just about any organisation set up to help citizens in need. This included groups set up to assist the unemployed and beneficiaries access the support and services to which they were legally entitled. Centres were established where people on benefits could meet and discuss their problems. By the middle of 1984, more and more beneficiaries were becoming politicised. How politicised? Politicised enough to turn out and vote in record numbers. In 1984, nearly 94 percent of registered voters made it to a polling-booth.

In spite of the fact that these politicised beneficiaries had voted overwhelmingly for David Lange’s Labour Party, the neoliberal cabal of Roger Douglas, David Caygill, Richard Prebble, Michael Bassett and Mike Moore, were acutely aware that politicised workers and beneficiaries were, potentially, their worst enemies. The changes they were about to unleash on New Zealand would swell the numbers of the poor and the marginalised. The last thing the Rogernomes needed was for the victims of their neoliberal policies to find a voice.

The Fourth Labour Government’s solution was as cynical as it was clever.

First, it set up an elaborate employment programme for middle-class people who had lost their jobs called “Access”. Come up with an idea for “helping” the poor and disadvantaged and the government appointed Regional Employment and Access Councils (composed of one third employers, one third unions, and one third representing the rest of society) had money to give you – lots of money.

The key difference between these Access schemes and the Project Employment Programme schemes which had resourced the organisers of the beneficiaries’ movement was that the Access schemes had to be strictly apolitical. The people running them (on excellent salaries!) were to be the poor’s responsible helpers and guides – not their political advocates.

Ostensibly, the people attending these Access schemes were there to be assisted into appropriate paid employment. In reality, they were there to provide a rationale for the generous resourcing of Access managers. Unsurprisingly, very few of these were willing to bite the Labour hands that fed them.

To those unemployed and beneficiaries lacking the entrepreneurial skills to take advantage of the Access schemes, the Fourth Labour Government offered the dole: the whole dole; and nothing but the dole. The bureaucrats in charge of social welfare were not encouraged, as they are now, to micromanage their “clients”. Their “stick” was nowhere near as big and frightening as the one they wield today. The idea was brutally simple: give the poor money, herd them into low-cost housing, and let them rot.

Poverty is only dangerous, politically, when it is widely shared. Confine real poverty to between a quarter and a third of the entire population, rob its victims of the political leadership needed to mobilise them as an electoral force, and the poor become the precise opposite of dangerous – they become harmless.

Once poverty acquires a stigma: once its victims begin to blame themselves for their misfortunes; self-hatred sets in. People begin to withdraw from a society that no longer offers them a place to stand. To alleviate their misery they turn to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex – anything that serves to dull the pain of unbelonging. In the end they become anomic – beyond caring, beyond acting, beyond help. Or, from the neoliberals’ point-of-view: Safe.

The one weakness in the neoliberal plan for the poor is its cost. If poverty and unemployment grows, then the cost of keeping its victims safe rapidly becomes prohibitive. Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets” slashed benefits obscenely. That lessened the state’s burden, but it did not remove it. Welfare roll reduction thus became the new priority: get the poor off the benefit – by any means necessary. It was a song National and Labour sang with equal gusto.

Until Covid.

Turns out that having between a quarter and a third of the population roped-off from the rest of the nation: prey to poverty, plagued by crime, prone to violence, and just not giving a fuck; isn’t all that helpful when it comes to fighting a pandemic. Even less helpful is the inconvenient fact that a disproportionate number of these unreachable ones have brown skins.

The state tried, and the state failed – badly – to reach out to the Māori and Pasifika communities being devastated by Covid-19. To vaccinate as many vulnerable citizens as possible, the hard-and-fast rule, enforced by successive neoliberal governments for thirty-five years, was set aside. Grass-roots advocacy groups were empowered and resourced to get the Covid vaccine out and into the arms of the poor.

The contrast between the “help” provided by the state, and the care provided by their own people, proved to be decisive. Because something else was being injected into them along with the Pfizer vaccine. It was a story in which even they, the poor and the stigmatised, had a place to stand. A story about a country that had once been theirs: about rights and resources guaranteed by a treaty that was not honoured; about a country that could be theirs again – but only if they made a conscious choice to re-create it.

This was a dangerous story for a Labour Government still content, like its predecessors, to push the poor out of the picture. Not into the low-cost housing of the 1980s – that is long gone – but into motels. Out of sight, out of mind. Second-class citizens in third-rate private accommodation. Cramped. Cold. Preyed upon by gangsters in uniform. Desperate. Left to rot.

But not bereft – not this time. Anomie cannot survive the rebirth of hope. Alienation flees before a compelling story. In 1984, it came from a party promising to “lift them up where they belonged”. In 2022, it is coming from a party urging them to lift themselves up.

That party is currently polling 5 percent. After nearly forty years, the poor have recovered their voice.


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

Monday, 5 September 2022

Sounds of Silence.

Comforting Generational Voice: The end of one era in New Zealand broadcasting, and the beginning of another, is being met with widespread public indifference.

A SIGN OF THE TIMES every bit as telling as Paula Penfold’s shock at anti-vaxxers’ hatred for the mainstream media. That the folk who once cried “Hands off National Radio!” have greeted the imminent demise of Radio New Zealand with … silence. The folding of Radio New Zealand and Television New Zealand into “Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media” (ANZPM) an “autonomous Crown entity”, is supposed to be complete by 1 March 2023. This, the end of one era in New Zealand broadcasting, and the beginning of another, has so far been met with widespread public indifference.

Over the past five years, Radio New Zealand’s hitherto ferociously loyal listeners have lost almost all their passion for public radio. Some, aggrieved by the “Maorification” of National Radio, have simply stopped listening. Others, aware that there is nothing better on offer from the private stations, have continued to tune-in – albeit in a mood of sullen resignation. That the station’s programming is uninterrupted by advertisements offers some small consolation.

These listeners skew decisively towards well-educated members of the Pakeha middle-class, 55 years  and over. Given the average New Zealander’s longevity, these listeners have another twenty years of “loyalty” in them before they, and Radio New Zealand’s core audience, give up the ghost. The key challenge facing ANZPM, therefore, is to formulate a schedule that will attract and hold the ears and eyes of the post-Baby Boomer generations.

This is not going to be easy. Historically-speaking, the whole point of public broadcasting – both here in New Zealand and across the Western World – has been to mold the political consciousness and cultural tastes of the middle-class in such a way that they become the state’s most reliable reservoir of “common sense”. Though values and tastes change, the existence of this group – the prime generators of reliable “public opinion” – has, until relatively recently, constituted public broadcasting’s greatest achievement.

At the heart of their success lies the public broadcasters’ preservation, and occasional renovation, of the nation’s core narrative. Or, to cast them in a slightly more heroic light, they have acted as “nation builders”. Their mission: to promote their country’s diversity without sacrificing its unity. Capturing many reflections, but all within a single mirror. Until recently, New Zealand public broadcasters were doing this pretty well.

Perhaps attributable to our post-modern era’s obsession with deconstruction: its determination to put an end to all “grand narratives” in favour of relativism and subjectivism; the West’s broadcasters’ drive for unity has, of late, appeared to weaken. In New Zealand, the post-modernists’ deconstructivist urges have gone hand-in-hand with the rise of Māori nationalism. The latter’s determination to “decolonise” the Pakeha settler state and “indigenise” New Zealand society, has seized at least some of our public broadcasters’ imaginations as a mission worthy of the new ANZPM.

Certainly, the ANZPM’s Charter will set down “clear expectations” for the new broadcaster’s relationship with tangata whenua. It will be te Tiriti affirming and at least two out of ANZPM’s nine-member board will have to be fully conversant with the language, values and practices of te Ao Māori. In light of the stipulations of New Zealand On Air’s Public Interest Journalism Fund, the new public broadcaster is likely to operate under an exhaustive set of “partnership” protocols.

One can only speculate as to how the initial radio broadcasts of ANZPM will strike the ears of Radio New Zealand’s present audience. If the enthusiasm of the current Broadcasting Minister, Willie Jackson, for enhancing the Māori and Pasifika output of the new public broadcaster and “combatting misinformation” is any indication of its future content, then further defections can be expected. Not all of those switching-off will do so sadly and privately. With ANZPM due to hit the airwaves at the beginning of March in an election year, it is hard to imagine the opposition parties not being invited to weaponise its allegedly “woke” programme schedule.

Regardless of partisan loyalties, there will be those who look at the new structure with a certain measure of apprehension. ANZPM is going to be a mighty big beast, with more than enough muscle to dominate New Zealand’s media space.

Relieved of the obligation to return a dividend to the state, the television arm of ANZPM will be able to sell advertising at cost – to the obvious disadvantage of its private sector competition. In its outreach to the young and the ethnically diverse, the new public media entity will find it hard not to step very heavily on the toes of private radio. While printing presses form no part of its remit, ANZPM will be up there online with NZME and Stuff.

Pledged to “meeting its audience where they are” the ANZPM board might think it wise to equip itself with a truly nationwide news-gathering service. With over $100 million for capital investment, how long will it be before ANZPM ’s newsrooms, video and radio production facilities, and live broadcasts become the “places to be” for every talented journalist in the country?

The problems confronting the private sector media would not be limited to ANZPM’s scale and scope, and the competitive challenges they represent. The long-term risk must surely be that ANZPM’s public status, its editorial independence, and the creative freedoms thus conferred, will eventually eclipse the efforts of all media operations encumbered with less generous shareholders. How long will it be before these profit-driven enterprises cry “foul”?

And they might not be the only ones with a grievance. At least some of the voters might come to look upon ANZPM as a state-owned media behemoth stuffed choc-full with left-wingers of all kinds, and sufficiently resourced to dictate the terms of, and easily dominate, the media’s political coverage.

Inevitably, ANZPM’s need for an audience to replace the dwindling eyes and ears of the Baby Boomers must lead it towards the younger generations of New Zealanders. It is to their values and tastes that the cultural production of the big public broadcaster will inevitably be attuned.

The political consequences of such an orientation are equally inevitable. The material aspirations of younger New Zealanders, their easy-going acceptance of co-governance and other Boomer bogeymen, plus their rock-solid determination to take climate change seriously, make it unlikely that the neoliberal economic and political axioms of their elders will be tolerated for very much longer.

The fear of those same elders is that the material broadcast by the new ANZPM will only hasten the day when their cherished values and tastes are rudely overwhelmed. A hard core of them are already convinced that Radio New Zealand has successfully unleashed its own version of the Cultural Revolution. Hence their unwillingness to get too excited about Radio New Zealand’s imminent demise.

No matter how unkind, it is tempting to further discombobulate these grumpy old-timers by shouting: “Comrades, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 5 September 2022.