Thursday 30 June 2022

Let’s Not Make 2023 About Abortion.

No Common Ground: The destructive and punitive impulses aroused by the abortion issue make a rational, let alone a civil, debate virtually impossible. Indeed, the very idea that those on both sides of the abortion issue might be decent and caring individuals, whose opposing positions are based on reasonable and eminently defensible philosophical propositions, religious principles, medical facts and socio-economic realities, will be rejected as dangerous nonsense.

WHETHER OR NOT ABORTION emerges as a major issue following next year’s elections depends on National’s candidate selections. National lost 13 seats in 2020, and on current polling can be reasonably confident about reclaiming most of them in 2023. Much then depends on the beliefs – pro-choice or pro-life – of the candidates selected over the next few months. If National replenishes its caucus with pro-life MPs, and ACT emerges with a reasonable number of pro-lifers in its own, then the debate may, once again, be set alight.

The reignition of the Abortion Debate will become a dead certainty, however, if Brian Tamaki is successful at bringing together the fractious Far-Right political parties under a single banner. Should his new conservative coalition crest the 5 percent MMP threshold, the outbreak of an American-style culture war will be very hard to prevent. Moreover, if Labour and the Greens sustain significant losses in 2023, as current polling suggest they will, then that war will be very hard to win. Certainly, a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion will be among the first casualties.

This state of affairs will not be attributable entirely to the electoral success of the Far Right. In both Labour and the Greens a defeat of sufficient magnitude to bring the likes of Tamaki’s Christian soldiers into Parliament will likely generate a particularly vicious backlash against the social-radicalism which conservative leftists will be quick to blame for their party’s punishment at the polls.

After all, it’s not as if Labour’s te Tiriti-driven, feminist and LGBTQI factions will be able to point to a proud collection of policy successes in relation to poverty, housing, health and education – quite the reverse. Working-class party members (if any remain) will have every reason to demand a thorough-going purge of middle-class social-radicals from Labour’s ranks. A similar purge, mutatis mutandis, will sweep away the identarian Greens.

If such purges do not eventuate, and the two left-wing parties remain in the grip of identity politicians, social-radicals and ethno-nationalists, then it is difficult to see them making a swift recovery at the polls. At least initially, the voting public is likely to cast about for a political movement less alienating, and more encouraging, of “mainstream” electoral support. If the rightward tendencies within Labour and the Greens do not succeed in providing these conservative left-wing voters with such a vehicle, then they will call forth somebody better equipped to offer them a ride.

Historically, the damage inflicted by such right-wing re-settings of left-wing parties’ ideological compasses has been enormous. Convinced that a Labour Party as left-wing as Norman Kirk’s could never be re-elected, the rightward elements that would eventually give New Zealand “Rogernomics” spent fifteen years destroying Labour as a party of economic redistribution. After years of bitter factional strife, the party’s left-wingers were finally driven from its ranks. Labour only survived to reclaim the Treasury Benches in 1999 on account of being restrained from veering too far from its electoral base by the competitive presence of Jim Anderton’s Alliance and Jeanette Fitzsimons’ and Rod Donald’s Greens.

The New Zealand of the 2020s is not, however, the New Zealand of the 1990s. Our thoroughly digitalised society no longer possesses the human resources capable of creating new political parties dedicated to the nation-building and/or nation-restoring missions of the Alliance and NZ First. Corny though it may sound, at the heart of these two essentially patriotic electoral projects lay an undeniable love of country.

Thirty years on, the creation of political movements is driven much more by the voters’ intense hatred of what their enemies: neoliberals, colonisers, patriarchs, heterosexuals – take your pick – have done to Aotearoa-New Zealand. Where once the urge was to build and/or restore, today’s activists seek only to attack, punish and destroy.

In relation to the issue of abortion, these destructive and punitive impulses will make it virtually impossible for the debate to proceed on a rational, let alone a civil, basis. Indeed, the very idea that those on both sides of the abortion issue might be decent and caring individuals, whose opposing positions are based on reasonable and eminently defensible philosophical propositions, religious principles, medical facts and socio-economic realities, will be rejected as dangerous nonsense. Pro-lifers are no such thing, they are simply misogynistic religious bigots. Pro-choicers stand condemned as monsters for whom human life matters less than personal convenience.

In these circumstances, simply to raise the issue of abortion is to set up the conditions for the most reckless expressions of hatred and loathing. In the Age of Twitter, Tik-Tok and Instagram, which is to say, in the Age of Declarative Solipsism, extremism will always arrive on the battlefield firstest, with the mostest. Small wonder, then, that Christopher Luxon is so determined to make sure that the battle never takes place.

Sometimes, as the US Supreme Court may yet discover, doing nothing is the only sensible thing to do.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 30 June 2022.

See What Happens?

What Happened Next? After the Supreme Court of the United States, in 1954, overturned its earlier validation of “separate but equal” schools, hospitals, public washrooms, busses and trains for Blacks and Whites, and told the Topeka Board of Education that segregated education is in breach of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution? After US Marshalls and federalised National Guardsmen were required to enforce the Court’s ruling? 

SEE WHAT HAPPENS when you convince yourself that your principles are self-evident, true and universal? When all evidence to the contrary is simply pushed to one side and dismissed as aberrant or insignificant?

See what happens when you give up on the prospect of ever persuading Southern Whites to abandon Jim Crow? When your fear of the Klan overwhelms your determination to change the hearts and minds of your neighbours. When you turn, instead, to the civil rights lawyers and begin the long, painful ascent through state and federal, courts. When, in 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States overturns its earlier validation of “separate but equal” schools, hospitals, public washrooms, busses and trains for Blacks and Whites, and tells the Topeka Board of Education that segregated education is in breach of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. When US Marshalls and federalised National Guardsmen are required to enforce the Court’s ruling. When all that Southern Whites see are the ghosts of the Union soldiers who occupied the defeated Confederacy at the end of the Civil War.

Even then, we didn’t learn.

See what happens when Dr Martin Luther King’s extraordinary strategy of non-violence sears the consciences of not only the liberal North, but also the racist South, setting in motion a national change of heart, only to be condemned as too slow and insufficiently radical by his younger followers? When the ghettos erupt in violence, looting and arson. When the heavily-armed Black Panther Party scares the skin-deep liberalism right out of White America. When the FBI’s COINTEL programme is unleashed upon the Civil Rights Movement. When the final passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 seals the fate of the Democratic Party in the South and sets the Republican Party in pursuit of its racist “Southern Strategy”. When James Earl Ray guns down Dr King in Memphis.

Even then, we didn’t learn.

See what happens when the Supreme Court upholds a woman’s right to abortion? When seven (out of nine) unelected judges, strike down state laws that, for better or for worse, reflect the values and beliefs of the electors and their representatives in those states. When the opportunity offered to the Republican Party to drive a wedge between the “secular-humanist elites” of the big cities on both coasts, and the “God-fearing” working-class communities of the much smaller towns and cities of the “flyover” states, is simply too good to pass up. When the arguments between the “Pro-Life” and the “Pro-Choice” movements divide not only men, but women as well. When religious belief and political ideology find themselves on a collision course.

Even then, we didn’t learn.

See what happens when a charismatic conservative, Phyllis Schlafly, attracts more and more conservative/religious women to her cause, and powerful men shower her Eagle Forum with advice and money? When all the easy, liberal states are safely included in the feminists’ “Yes” column, but the hard ones in the South and the Mid-West show no signs of following suit. When the clock is running down on the Equal Rights Amendment, which had sailed so effortlessly through the Democratic Party-controlled Congress, but which now seems certain to fall victim to the United States’ arcane federal constitution. When – yet again – the clear will of the majority will be thwarted.

Even then, we didn’t learn.

See what happens when you tell White men, already alienated by the claims and counter-claims of the Black civil rights, women’s liberation, and anti-Vietnam War movements, that the liberals are coming for their guns? When centuries-old family traditions of hunting in the forests and mountains of America, and of acquiring the marksmanship needed to bring down game animals, is presented as some sort of political sickness. When the stark reality of a criminal fraternity accustomed to carrying and using handguns has rendered it only prudent for ordinary citizens to similarly arm themselves. When the social and economic conditions that unhinge the most damaged members of American society are routinely ignored, and their bloody rampages are, instead, blamed on the ready availability of firearms. When trust and confidence in the political process has reached such a low point that many Americans feel it necessary to arm themselves against their own government.

Even then, we didn’t learn.

See what happens to a nation when the core values that once encouraged its citizens to refer to themselves as “We, the People”, fracture and are rearranged into antagonistic belief systems? When long-established economic, sexual and racial hierarchies are challenged by those expected to endure their subordinate status in perpetuity? When the rights enjoyed by the privileged few are claimed by the disenfranchised many? When, in short, the purpose and distribution of social, economic and political power are subjected to unrelenting questioning – and there is no agreement as to the answers?

It is only then we learn that the rights we seek are never given. If we cannot summon sufficient strength to take them, and hold them, then we must resign ourselves to living without them.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 29 June 2022.

Monday 27 June 2022

An Act Of National Self-Harm.

A Dangerous Leap Backwards: A United States forced to live by the beliefs and values of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries cannot hope to go on leading the “Free World”, or compete economically with nations focused fearlessly on the future. The revocation of Roe v. Wade represents the American republic’s most serious act of self harm in 165 years.

THE REVOCATION of Row v. Wade, like the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, is an act of national self-harm. Louis XIV’s decision to revoke the royal promise of religious toleration, drove tens-of-thousands of Huguenots (Protestants) out of his realm. Thousands fled to the Netherlands and Great Britain, thousands more to the rising state of Prussia. Economically, culturally and militarily, the triumph of religious bigotry over rational political compromise weakened the French state profoundly, The revocation of Roe v. Wade is certain to have a similar effect on the future of the United States.

Intelligent American capitalists will be swift in their condemnation of the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision to overturn what most Americans believed to be a settled legal/constitutional right. Removing the option of easily available abortion services from a large percentage of the US female population cannot help but result in a serious dislocation of the American workforce.

While US women continued to be able to exercise personal control over their own fertility, their long-term participation in the paid work-force remained assured. The removal of that control in approximately half of the fifty US states raises serious supply and demand issues for American employers. The impact of millions of young women being required to carry their pregnancies to full-term is readily imagined. Such an arbitrary restriction in the supply of available workers can only exacerbate already serious labour shortages and worsen wage inflation.

The revocation of Roe v. Wade is also likely to incentivise the migration of large capitalist enterprises out of radically anti-abortion states like Texas, Missouri, Mississippi and Alabama. Relocating to a more liberal state may prove to be one of the few ways successful corporations can keep their most valuable senior female employees on the payroll. The Supreme Court’s decision has given these employees every incentive to move out of “Pro-Life” states – quite possibly to a new job with one of their former employer’s competitors.

Nor can it be long before the Pro-Choice forces invite “progressive” Americans to boycott the products of corporations which refuse to leave Pro-Life states. Already many corporate leaders are reassuring their female employees that they will pick up the cost of out-of-state terminations. This can only be a short-term fix, however, given the likelihood that Pro-Life legislatures will attempt to deny pregnant women access to FDA-approved abortifacient medication, or, even more controversially, prohibit them from crossing state-lines while pregnant.

Unintended consequences such as these will impose increasingly intractable problems upon those Republican Party-dominated states proclaiming themselves to be simultaneously pro-business and anti-abortion. Should it become obvious that the state’s outlawing of abortion is negatively impacting its ability to attract investment, or, worse still, promoting dis-investment, then the Republican Party is likely to fracture.

The enormous difficulties associated with ideologically-inspired attempts to reverse the tides of social and economic change – Prohibition being the most notorious – are about to be encountered all over again by a new generation of Americans. This time, however, it may require something more radical than the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment to the US Constitution which brought Prohibition to an end in 1933.

At some point, and the decision of the six conservative Justices of the Supreme Court to revoke Roe v. Wade has undoubtedly brought this point closer, Americans are going to have to come to terms with the fact that their beloved constitution is no longer fit-for-purpose.

A revolutionary document, in its time, the passage of two centuries has exposed the deeply anti-democratic elements deliberately woven into the constitution of the American republic by its founding fathers. So strong are these elements that it required a bloody civil war to expunge the pernicious influence of slavery upon the evolution of American liberty. It is no accident that it is precisely in the constitutional amendments giving effect to the abolition of slavery that the justices responsible for handing down Roe v. Wade in 1973 went looking for the legal principles confirming women in the ownership of their own bodies.

Unsurprisingly, given its dramatic post-war role in expanding the ambit of personal liberty, American liberals have come to regard the Supreme Court as the most effective instrument for securing the social changes they desire. Beginning with Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which racially-desegregated public schools in 1954, the Court handed down a series of progressive judgements (Row v. Wade being one of the most significant) which were believed by most Americans to have changed their society forever.

Most – but not all. American conservatives were both astounded and outraged by the emergence of a liberal Supreme Court. Their consternation was understandable, because for most of US history the Court had been a bastion of political reaction. It was the infamous Dred Scott Decision of 1857, which declared that no Black person could ever be a US citizen, that made the Civil War inevitable. An equally reactionary Supreme Court struck down much of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” in the 1930s.

In the eyes of conservative Americans, the liberal Supreme Court of the past 70 years has been a dangerously aberrant entity. Consequently, the American Right has spent the past 50 years availing itself of every opportunity to replace liberal justices with legal conservatives. Thanks to Donald Trump, the weight of judicial opinion on the Court has finally been shifted sharply to the right. The revocation of Roe v. Wade may only be the beginning.

The “originalist” doctrine of Justice Samuel Alito, and his five Roe v. Wade concurrers, holds that the US Constitution must be interpreted according to the prevailing legal concepts and moral precepts of the historical period in which it was written. Present-day legal and ethical ideas cannot be grafted retrospectively onto the reasoning and intent of the original authors. While this doctrine holds sway on the Court, the Constitution can only become a reactionary cage in which Americans will remain confined for the next 30 years.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of the political reaction to the revocation of Roe v. Wade is the absence of any significant argument condemning the whole anti-democratic schema of the US Constitution. While there has been bitter condemnation of the Court’s judgement, the wider objection to unelected judges, appointed for life, thwarting the will of a clear majority of the American people, has not yet become a feature of the debate. Nor is there any evidence of a growing political movement in favour of summoning a second Constitutional Convention to draft a new, genuinely democratic, set of rules for Twenty-First Century America.

A United States forced to live by the beliefs and values of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: brutal eras in which slavery was legally sanctioned, women treated as chattels, and LGBTQI persons persecuted and imprisoned; cannot hope to lead the “Free World”, or compete economically with nations focused fearlessly on the future. In order to form “a more perfect union” a second American revolution has become as necessary as the first.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 27 June 2022.

Friday 24 June 2022

Matariki: Thoughts and Questions.

Guided By The Stars? This gift of Matariki, then, what will be made of it? Can a people spiritually unconnected to anything other than their digital devices truly appreciate the relentless progress of gods and heroes across the heavens? The elders of Maoridom must wonder. Can Te Ao Māori be concentrated into the equivalent of spiritual orange-juice – to be distributed freely every June in a handy cultural packet? “Here you are Tau Iwi – just add water!”

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT MATARIKI? Are you delighted that, at last, New Zealand has a holiday entirely unrelated to its colonial heritage? A holiday, moreover, that celebrates the natural cycles of a South Pacific island chain, rather than the western extremities of a vast northern continent. Coinciding with the Winter Solstice, Matariki, like Christmas in its original setting, marks the year’s turning: away from the constraining darkness; towards the liberating light.

Or, do you see Matariki as something contrived and imposed? A festival seized upon for ideological purposes? A holiday with an agenda attached?

And how does that make you feel? Guilty? Do you blame yourself for harbouring sentiments driven, consciously or unconsciously, by racism? Or, does it make you feel angry? Do you blame the Government for creating a holiday that highlights the cultural differences between its citizens? Are you antagonised by the state’s presumption that these differences are something to be celebrated?

Then again, you may be a strong believer in secularism. If you’re “not big on religion”, as most non-religious Kiwis tend to say when subjected to spiritual inquiries, you may be experiencing a twinge or two of impatience when you see, hear and read references to Matariki that embrace without challenge its overtly religious content. Your brow may furrow even more deeply when you consider the likely consequences of attempting such a challenge.

Is it not the height of hypocrisy to laugh along with the atheists who poke fun at the Christian eucharist, only to recoil in horror from the suggestion that there might be something just a wee bit peculiar about offering-up a cooked meal to a random configuration of stars?

For a country which, historically, has eschewed the very idea of a state religion, isn’t it also a little jarring to hear state broadcasters helpfully instructing New Zealanders on the ways in which their new state-sanctioned religious festival can be appropriately celebrated?

As anyone who has ever watched the excellent television programme, Waka Huia, will attest, Te Ao Māori pulses with spiritual life. Mountains, rivers, forests, the stars that fill the sky, all are sentient and powerful entities. One approaches them with reverence – and caution – as is fitting when dealing with ancient and holy ancestors to which one is inextricably and irrevocably connected.

It is to be wondered if the men and women who walk in this world are pleased, or alarmed, when they see Matariki – and all it portends – transformed into a public holiday, thoughtfully supplemented with a handy Cole’s Notes summary of the complex spiritual significance of the nine rising stars. Will they experience the emotions of devout Christians as Christmas and Easter approach?

To those who sincerely embrace the Christian faith, these public holidays have been transformed into crass orgies of commercialism. Santa and the Easter Bunny have ruthlessly shoved aside the manger and the cross. People stuff their faces: they bicker, fight, get drunk; and, just maybe, shed a maudlin tear when a particularly effective rendition of “Silent Night” rises above the hubbub of the shopping-mall.

Not that this bothers the overwhelming majority of Kiwis, for whom Christmas was long ago transformed into a celebration of family and friendship. Not for us the dark of winter. Our Christmas is a secular quest for sunshine and happy release. We Pakeha are a people of the middle: beginnings and endings are not really our style.

This gift of Matariki, then, what will be made of it? Can a people spiritually unconnected to anything other than their digital devices truly appreciate the relentless progress of gods and heroes across the heavens? The elders of Maoridom must wonder. Can Te Ao Māori be concentrated into the equivalent of spiritual orange-juice – to be distributed freely every June in a handy cultural packet? “Here you are Tau Iwi – just add water!”

Too harsh?

Isn’t it possible that Matariki may yet prove a cure for, rather than a cause of, racist contention? Maybe, as the Earth grows warmer, and the pretensions of science and modernity are increasingly laid bare, the hunger of all Aotearoans for gods and heroes will increase. Perhaps, when we realise that these islands are all we’ve got, the thought may grow in our hearts and minds: If all things are, indeed, related and alive, then why not be guided by the stars?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 June 2022.

Thursday 23 June 2022

From “Friend”, To “Threat” – In Just Five Years.

New Zealand’s Most Profitable“Friend” Dangerous “Threat”: This country’s “Five Eyes” partners, heedless of the economic consequences for New Zealand, have cajoled and bullied its political class into becoming Sinophobes. They simply do not care that close to 40 percent of this country’s trade is with China.  As far as Washington, London, Ottawa and Canberra are concerned, Wellington is simply paying the price of putting all its milk powder in one basket.

WELL, THANK YOU, JACINDA! In just five years, you and your government have turned New Zealanders decisively against their country’s most important trading partner. According to research released today (22/6/22) by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, the number of Kiwis who view China as a “friend” has fallen from 62 percent in 2017, to just 13 percent today. Meanwhile, the number viewing the People’s Republic as a “threat” has risen from 18 to 58 percent, over the same period.

That dramatic rise (40 percentage points!) in the “threat” perception, is the entirely predictable result of a relentless, American-led, campaign to demonise, isolate and “contain” China. New Zealand’s “Five Eyes” partners, heedless of the economic consequences for New Zealand, have cajoled and bullied its political class into becoming Sinophobes. They simply do not care that close to 40 percent of this country’s trade is with China. None of them are willing to make good its loss by opening their markets to New Zealand exports. As far as Washington, London, Ottawa and Canberra are concerned, Wellington is simply paying the price of putting all its milk powder in one basket.

It is difficult to grasp the precise cause of the West’s falling-out of love with China. Since the late-1970s, the leading industrial powers have been falling over themselves to invest in the Chinese economic miracle. Without compunction, or compassion, they relocated Western industrial production to an authoritarian state where labour costs were low and unions docile, eliminating in the process the factories that had kept millions of their own workers gainfully employed. There were no complaints then about China’s lack of democracy, indeed, its absence was pretty much the whole point!

Ask them, today, what they were thinking, and they’ll spin you the usual yarn about how certain they were that this new, mutually beneficial, economic relationship would lead to the gradual liberalisation of the Chinese regime. Just as it had in the Soviet Union, democracy was coming to the PRC. You are invited to imagine their surprise and horror when Beijing opted, instead, to combine the Chinese people’s economic prowess with the Communist Party of China’s authoritarian political impulses. Western investment hadn’t created a friend, it had produced a monster!

To which we are all entitled to call “Bullshit!”.

Let’s just consider the counterfactual that China had, indeed, embraced democracy, or something approaching it – a la Singapore. According to the West’s own theories, the country would have become even more powerful, economically and culturally. It’s people, freed from the tutelage of the Communist Party, would have grown even more confident and productive. In other words, China’s inexorable rise to global economic dominance would have happened faster under democracy than it did under authoritarianism.

It is simply implausible to argue that the United States would have behaved any differently when faced with a democratic Chinese hegemon than it has in relation to the real-world’s authoritarian China. What can be asserted, however, is that if China had adopted democracy, then the United States would have found it a great deal easier to destabilise and dominate.

That’s the great attraction of democratic political systems to powers like the United States, they are just so pathetically easy to subvert. Pick a colour – any colour – and Uncle Sam will organise a “revolution” in no time. Don’t believe me? Go ask Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine. Or, dig out Time of 15 July 1996, and read the Cover Story: “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisers Helped Yeltsin Win.”

There are, of course, many ways to destabilise and break-up a rival nation. If its authoritarian political system makes the organisation of a “colour revolution” impossible, then a global superpower can always stir up ethnic and religious communities in border regions with sympathetic neighbours. Arms can be smuggled across mountain and desert frontiers. Jihadists can be schooled in terror. Bombs can go off in crowded marketplaces. Innocent people can die. The Chinese have watched and learned, and in Xinjiang they have applied the lessons.

Once again it helps to examine the counterfactual. Imagine a China whose leaders were unwilling to take the measures necessary to suppress an Islamist insurgency. Very quickly, Xinjiang would have come to resemble Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Terrorist atrocities would have become commonplace. Beijing would have been forced to field substantial military and intelligence resources to its autonomous region. Communal hatreds would have grown and spread. Hundreds-of-thousands of the native Uighur population would have fled, or been interned. How different, in terms of repression, suffering and death, would it be from the present situation?

Not that these sort of questions are ever posed by the political classes of the Five Eyes powers and their Asian allies. Roughly six years ago, America’s strategic thinkers finally abandoned their dream of a democratic China that the USA could control, and began to intensify its parallel policy of containment. An important part of that effort was the co-ordination of elite opinion across the Indo-Pacific.

It is necessary, now, for earlier narratives of co-operation and friendship with the Chinese – of which New Zealand was a leading exponent – to be abandoned in favour of Washington’s new narrative of a dangerous and expansionist China, hellbent on establishing, first, regional hegemony, and then, full global dominance.

How easily that change of narrative was achieved by Washington should prompt New Zealanders to query the robustness of their own democratic institutions. That there has been no significant divergence of opinion concerning New Zealand’s pivot away from its largest trading partner – with all that entails for the health of New Zealand’s economy and society – should, surely, give us pause. This country’s much vaunted “independent foreign policy” stands revealed as rhetoric – not reality.

Uncle Sam has informed us that New Zealand is at war with Eurasia: that New Zealand has always been at war with Eurasia. Dutifully, our politicians, academics and journalists all contribute lustily to the compulsory “Five Minute Hate” against the People’s Republic. The “friend” that made us rich, has become a “threat” to be contained.

When the export orders dry up – and they will if China decides we’ve become her enemy – then we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves. Oh, and our “very, very, very good friends” – the Americans.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 23rd June 2022.

Wednesday 22 June 2022

Uncomfortable Comparisons: If Labour’s Harking Back To 2017, Then It’s Not Looking For A Win.

2017’s Queenmaker: Five years ago, Winston Peters’ choice ran counter to New Zealand’s informal, No. 8 wire, post-MMP constitution, which, up until 2017, had decreed that the party with the most votes got to supply the next prime minister. Had National not been in power for the previous 9 years, it is very unlikely that Peters would have installed Jacinda. Certainly, a repeat performance (even assuming NZ First surges back into Parliament in 2023) is out of the question.

THERE IS LITTLE to be learned from most of the analyses of the Tauranga By-Election results. Those on the Right continue to present 2020’s general election as a normal contest. It wasn’t. The 2020 General Election was in fact an aberrant political event. Labour’s majority was the product of Jacinda Ardern’s world-beating response to the Covid-19 pandemic: a hearty “Thank you!” from at least half of her “Team of Five Million”. The Tauranga By-Election was always going to register the return of traditional National voters to the conservative fold. The result for Labour did not spell “catastrophe”. Nor did a represent a “failure” on Jacinda’s part. The percentages won by the two principal contenders closely matched the 2017 result – exactly as anticipated.

The return of those traditional National voters, while anticipated, nevertheless poses a series of very difficult questions for Labour’s strategists. While there is comfort to be drawn from the proximity of Saturday’s results to those of 2017, there is absolutely no comfort to be taken from Labour’s overall 2017 result.

Five years ago, Jacinda Ardern did extremely well to lift Labour’s Party Vote from 25 to 37 percent, but she still found herself 7 percentage points shy of National’s extraordinary (after three terms!) Party Vote of 44 percent. Jacinda’s rather flat speech on Election Night 2017 reflected her understanding that, by failing to win a plurality of the votes cast, she could not expect to become New Zealand’s next prime minister.

Winston Peters changed all that, but, as the photographs taken of Jacinda and Grant Robertson listening to Peters’ speech make clear, they really didn’t know if they had successfully persuaded him to put Labour into power – or not. Certainly, Peters’ choice ran counter to New Zealand’s informal, No. 8 wire, post-MMP constitution, which, up until 2017, had decreed that the party with the most votes got to supply the next prime minister.

Had National not been in power for the previous 9 years, it is very unlikely that Peters would have installed Labour in 2017. Certainly, a repeat performance (even assuming NZ First surges back into Parliament in 2023) is out of the question. Peters reprising his kingmaker role only makes sense in the political context of an electorate that has undergone a pronounced shift to the right. An important part of that shift has been the dramatic re-casting of the Prime Minister: from faerie queen and national saviour, to pantomime demon – and worse. A minor party opting to keep Jacinda Ardern on the Ninth Floor of the Beehive would provoke nationwide fury.

Well aware of this possibility, it is also unlikely that the Māori Party would opt to keep Labour in power – even if it could. Between them Rawiri Waititi, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and John Tamihere have more than enough nouse to discern what would happen if they backed a Labour Party beaten into second place by National. Yes, they might secure another three years in which to implement the He Puapua blueprint, but it would be against a backdrop of racist rage that would not be stilled until te Tiriti and all its works had been cast into the fire.

If the Māori Party’s votes could make it possible for National and Act to rule – moderately – then it would be well advised to let them. The ultimate threat: to pull the pin and bring them down with Labour and Green support; need never be spoken. Christopher Luxon would have the muzzle he needed for Act – without ever having to ask.

There are no friends in politics – only interests to be defended, and opportunities to be seized.

That said, the victory that now looms ahead for National and Act will not be founded upon an enthusiastic right-wing majority within the electorate, but upon the fatal absence of left-wing support. Christopher Luxon is set to become prime minister not on the strength of those who turned out to support him, but on the disillusionment of those who opted to stay at home.

The historical record tells this story in the most unequivocal terms. In 1972, when Norm Kirk romped home to victory, the turn-out was 89.1 percent. Three years later, when Rob Muldoon steamrollered Labour’s hopes for “A New Society” to dust, it was 82.5 percent. In 1984, when Labour again won the Treasury benches, the turnout was a record 93.7 percent. In 1990, when Jim Bolger defeated Mike Moore, it had fallen to 85.2 percent. National Party victories are almost always built on the defeat of Labour voters’ hopes.

Is there anything Jacinda and Labour can do to avert the National-Act triumph that looms ahead? Of course there is! In the simplest terms, they can give their supporters a compelling reason for turning up at the polling-booths. This time, however, it will take more than rhetorical gestures and snappy slogans. This time Labour’s programme will not only need to spell out a clear sequence of reforms, but also the mechanisms required to implement them. And it must be a compelling programme: one that makes losers out of those who have spent the last three decades winning all the prizes; and winners out of those who have spent the same 30 years chewing on their leftovers.

“Bottom rail on top!” That’s how freed African-American slaves described the transformation wrought by General Army Order No. 3, which on 19 June 1865 – “Juneteenth” – gave effect to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Māori New Zealanders have never been so close to seeing te Tiriti o Waitangi honoured in practical and enduring ways than they are today. For this country’s bottom rail to make its way to the top, however, this government must frame the next election as a straightforward battle between the entrenched colonial legacy of “old” New Zealand, and the enlarged democracy of a new “Aotearoa”.

The mission of Labour’s Māori caucus is clear: to persuade their Pakeha colleagues that they must give rangatahi – young New Zealanders of all ethnicities – a reason to get out and vote. Not only is this the only way that Labour can win another term, but it is also the only guarantee that it will not fade into historical oblivion.

Jacinda and her caucus need to take a look around the world and note what is happening to those political parties who still cling to the idea that the centre-ground is the safest place to play. Look at what has just happened in the French legislative elections – where the Far-Right and the Far-Left have both made huge gains. Observe the fate of the business-as-usual candidates for the Colombian presidency, and the historic victory of the former revolutionary guerrilla, Gustavo Petro: Colombia’s first left-wing President.

In his victory speech, Petro thanked the party workers who had fanned out across the nation to “seduce” Colombia’s voters. An interesting choice of words, and an accurate one. Victory for the Left has always been a matter of seduction: of making the voters lust for what the Left is offering. And if that is not, as Petro told the thousands gathered before him in Bogota, a government of love and hope, then what good is the Left? What is it for?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 21 June 2022.

Monday 20 June 2022

Tauranga: A Predictable Result, With A Warning Attached.

Walking On Sunshine: National’s Sam Uffindell cantered home in the Tauranga By-Election, but the Outdoors & Freedom Party’s Sue Grey attracted an ominous level of support.

THE RIGHT’S gadfly commentator, Matthew Hooton, summed up the Tauranga by-election in his usual pithy fashion. “Tonight’s result is poor for the National Party, catastrophic for Labour, very good for the Act Party and brilliant for the far-right nutter fringe. The last bit makes it terrible for New Zealand.” About National and Labour, Hooton is simply being provocative. But his assessment of “the far-right nutter fringe’s” impact on the by-election is spot-on.

The 2020 election result in Tauranga, which saw the gap between National and Labour shrink dramatically, was – as every political commentator should know (but apparently doesn’t) aberrant. Hell, the entire General Election was aberrant – as National’s loss of seats like Rangitata and Ilam made clear. For Jacinda Ardern and her party to have held onto the roughly 400,000 “Thank-you for saving us from Covid-19” votes that pushed Labour up-and-over 50 percent of the Party Vote, would have required her to shift New Zealand into some sort of weird parallel universe, where the absence of success goes unreproved, and political failure is rewarded.

Much as she might like to be living in such a universe, the Prime Minister knows that she is not. Which is why she and her advisers would have been looking at the results of 2017 for guidance – not 2020. On that basis, the Tauranga By-Election was very far from being a catastrophe.

As Greg Presland, lawyer and regular contributor to the Labour-leaning website “The Standard” tweeted shortly after the result was announced: “Election night Tauranga result is Uffindell 56% Tinetti 25%. 2017 election result was Bridges 54% Tinetti 26%. Beware of claim this is a bad result for Labour. Looks like business as usual without the anti-Government bounce that opposition parties hope for in by-elections.”

Equally untrue is the claim that the Tauranga result represents a poor showing for National. To easily restore the status-quo-ante-Covid was all anyone could reasonably have asked of Sam Uffindell. This was especially true of a contest precipitated by an incumbent National MP in circumstances entirely lacking in political drama, whose outcome was never in doubt. Uffindell was always going to win, and win he did in a commendably boring campaign. (Exciting campaigns in safe seats are generally regarded as unhelpful – even dangerous!)

In these circumstances the risible 40 percent turnout was as predictable as the result itself. With the outcome a foregone conclusion and the rain bucketing down, only the most faithful of party stalwarts were ever going to make it to the polling booths. That they did so in almost exactly the same percentages as the 2017 contest should be enough for any sensible commentator to conclude that normal electoral transmission in Tauranga has been resumed.

Although Act’s candidate, Cameron Luxton, should have felt extremely pleased with his 10.26 percent of the votes cast, he could be forgiven for feeling that he had earned a much bigger share. Most observers of the by-election campaign concur that Luxton was by far the most dynamic candidate.

Once again positing a parallel political universe, this one featuring publicly-owned local broadcasters committed to bringing fulsome coverage of electoral contests to their viewers (don’t guffaw, New Zealand once boasted such broadcasters!) Luxton would have ended his campaign with an embarrassingly large number of traditional National voters in his column.

Those Tauranga electors who tuned into the debates on the weekend political shows can hardly have avoided drawing unfavourable comparisons between Luxton and Uffindell. Not that he really needs to, given the result, but if Sam could arrange for a generous injection, or two, of political passion, his value to Team National would undoubtedly be boosted. Languid-and-Aristocratic is not the Kiwi way – not in politics.

But, if the Tauranga candidates with the best chances appeared to lack all conviction, then at least one of those written off as belonging to the worst was definitely not lacking in passionate intensity. Sue Grey, candidate for the New Zealand Outdoors & Freedom Party, managed an impressive 4.72 percent of the votes cast.

Just how impressive is immediately apparent when one considers that the nationwide support for the Outdoors Party in 2020 was a miniscule 0.1 percent. (3,256 Party Votes.) On Saturday, another 53 votes would have put Grey over 5 percent. Replicated across the country in 2023, that would put at least six NZOF MPs in the House of Representatives.

It is important to acknowledge that Grey’s result was achieved in a by-election with a very low turnout (40.6 percent) and in which the Greens, NZ First, and the Māori Party opted not to field candidates. Nevertheless, the 47-fold increase in the NZOF Party’s support is so dramatic that it merits serious political scrutiny.

The Outdoors Party’s beginnings are nothing if not firmly rooted in the “heartland”. It was founded to represent the huntin’, shootin’ fishin’ community: rugged, authority-scorning, Kiwi blokes and sheilas entirely lacking in affinity for the vegan “Greenies” of the big cities, who wouldn’t know one end of a hunting rifle or fishing rod from the other. On the other hand, the sort of hippies who hare off into the bush to live off-the-grid, and who decry the use of 1080 poison by DoC, are a different story. Like them, these outdoorsmen and women also favour the legalisation of cannabis and would like the state to FRO out of their lives.

If that description rings a bell, then it’s because a great many of these characters could be found camping in Parliament Grounds earlier this year. Begin with a general pre-disposition towards believing the absolute worst of the Powers That Be, mix-in the uncompromising government demands of the Covid-19 Emergency, and then allow the resulting anti-vaccination fury to be articulated by a personable online spokeswoman – who just happens to be a lawyer and scientist – and hey-presto! Sue Grey gets 917 votes in Tauranga.

It is also important to note that Grey’s co-leader is fellow lawyer Donna Pokere-Phillips. This bi-cultural aspect of the NZOF Party is important. Though harbouring a strong anti-immigrant element within its ranks, there is very little evidence of the anti-Māori sentiment that disfigures so many far-right groups. If this is fascism, then it is of a quintessentially Kiwi, backwoods libertarian, variety. Not so much brown shirts as black singlets.

Unsurprisingly, the evangelical Christian leader of the Freedoms & Rights Coalition, Brian Tamaki, has been working hard to draw together all the parties of the far-right into a single electoral proposition – an “Alliance”-style coalition of the Dark Side, if you will. So far unsuccessful, Tamaki is likely to remain so. Too much of his message bears a “Made in the USA” stamp. New Zealand, one of the world’s most secular nations, marches to the beat of a very different drummer to Donald Trump and Q-Anon.

The NZ Outdoors and Freedom Party, while far too angry and conspiratorial for most New Zealanders, has, nevertheless, clearly shown itself to have something going for it. Good keen fascism, perhaps? Something that was always there, just below the surface of New Zealand progressivism. The New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter, saw it and wrote about it in his “Pig Island Letters” series.

Lines that could have been written for Sue Grey and her comrades:

Her son is moodier, has seen
An angel with a sword
Standing above the clumps of old man manuka
Just waiting for the word

To overturn the cities and the rivers
And split the house like a rotten totara log.
Quite unconcerned he sets his traps for possums
And whistles to his dog.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 20 June 2022.

Friday 17 June 2022

Jacinda Ardern’s Radical Reshuffle.

Radical Options: By allocating the Broadcasting portfolio to the irrepressible, occasionally truculent, leader of Labour’s Māori caucus, Willie Jackson, the Prime Minister has, at the very least, confirmed that her appointment of Kiri Allan was no one-off. There are many words that could be used to describe Ardern’s placement of two tough political fighters in Justice and Broadcasting, but “conciliatory” isn’t one of them.

KRIS FAAFOI’S DEPARTURE from Parliament has left the Immigration, Justice and Broadcasting portfolios in need of new ministers.

In the case of Immigration the Prime Minister’s choice of Michael Wood to replace Faafoi is a sound one. The issues of employment, migration, and workplace relations are closely related, so entrusting the portfolios of Labour and Immigration to a single, highly capable, politician makes a lot of sense.

When it comes to the Justice and Broadcasting portfolios, however, matters are nowhere near so cut and dried. Between now and the General Election issues with considerable potential for creating serious political division are likely to test the skills of the new ministers to their limits.

Before examining those issues in more detail, however, it is important to establish what the Prime Minister has, and hasn’t, done.

The opportunity existed for her to make good her error in assigning Justice to Faafoi. Although acknowledged on both sides of the House as a man of great integrity and good-will, Faafoi was clearly out of his depth in the Justice portfolio. Unusually, given the requirements of the job, he was not a lawyer. Nor did he appear to have a very firm grasp of the foundational principles of this country’s legal system.

Nowhere was this more clearly manifested than in the fraught subject of “Hate Speech”. Faafoi floundered shockingly when questioned on scope and implications of the Government’s proposed legislation. The experience rendered him gun-shy for the rest of his stint as minister. At a time when the Government needed a person of demonstrable intellectual subtlety to explore with the public the full ramifications of controlling Hate Speech, it was saddled with a Justice Minister who, in spite of his background in broadcasting, seemed inordinately wary of the news media.

To be fair to Faafoi, he did not seek out the portfolio assigned to him by the Prime Minister. Indeed, he had told her back in 2020 that he wished to step down from Parliament altogether. Ardern would have been kinder, both to Faafoi, and her Government, if she had granted his wish.

The Prime Minister’s choice of the qualified lawyer, Kiritapu Allan, may, however, make matters worse. Faafoi’s bumbling, by pushing the Hate Speech issue onto the back burner, was almost certainly a godsend politically. Should Allan take up the cause with her characteristic élan, the chances are good that she will ignite a full-scale culture war between the Government and the defenders of Free Speech.

Ardern could have opted to further settle the feathers of the free speakers by appointing a Justice Minister singularly deficient in “woke” credentials – the Attorney-General, David Parker, perhaps? That she has, instead, opted to advance a feisty member of Labour’s Māori caucus: a woman lionised by Labour’s “progressives”; has sent the New Zealand electorate a message of admirable (if not entirely sagacious) clarity.

By allocating the Broadcasting portfolio to the irrepressible, occasionally truculent, leader of Labour’s Māori caucus, Willie Jackson, the Prime Minister has, at the very least, confirmed that her appointment of Allan was no one-off. There are many words that could be used to describe Ardern’s placement of two tough political fighters in Justice and Broadcasting, but “conciliatory” isn’t one of them.

If Allan presses forward with Hate Speech legislation, and Willie Jackson delivers to the people of New Zealand a state broadcaster that is te Tiriti-driven, committed to advancing the cause of “partnership”, and completely unabashed in its promotion of “co-governance”, the result will be a synergy of political enablement practically guaranteed to raise the hackles of at least half the nation’s voters.

An exaggeration? Not at all. The material made available to those seeking financial support from the Public Interest Journalism Fund (overseen by New Zealand on Air) makes it crystal clear that no state funding will be made available to journalists who do not adhere to te Tiriti, the doctrine of partnership, and co-governance. The advisory documents spelling out what that means in practice are of an historical and ideological inflexibility that would make even the most zealous of Stalin’s commissars blanche.

That the new state broadcasting entity will adhere to these revolutionary stipulations in every respect may be taken as a given. Likewise the temptation for both the Justice and Broadcasting ministers to characterise the inevitable chorus of opposition as Hate Speech.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times  and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 June 2022.

Protecting Freedom/Preventing Harm. Can New Zealand’s New Chief Censor Do Both?

A Delicate Juggler? Internal Affairs Minister, Jan Tinetti (above) has appointed Ms Caroline Flora as Chief Censor. Ms Flora owes New Zealand a comprehensive explanation of how she intends to juggle her duty to respect and protect the citizen’s right to freedom of expression, with her understanding of what is likely to cause society harm? 

IT IS TO BE HOPED that the new Chief Censor, Caroline Flora, will waste no time explaining herself. It is important that New Zealanders are told how her old job, Associate Deputy-Director Strategy and Performance, at the Ministry of Health, made her the obvious choice for her new job.

According to Peter Dunne, the Minister of Internal Affairs responsible for the appointment of Ms Flora’s predecessor, David Shanks: “The Chief Censor is responsible for protecting New Zealanders from material likely to cause harm while balancing the important right to freedom of expression”.

Clearly, the person tasked with this delicate legal and cultural juggling act should be someone with a solid background in law, and more than a passing acquaintance with philosophy, political history, the arts and literature, film, television, and social-media. Are these the core competencies required of the Associate Deputy-Director Strategy and Performance at the Ministry of Health? They may well be, but the prima facie case is not strong.

Which is why Ms Flora owes New Zealand a comprehensive explanation of how she sees, and how she proposes to carry out, her role. Where, for example, is her duty to respect and protect the citizen’s right to freedom of expression positioned in relation to her understanding of what is likely to cause society as a whole, or a vulnerable sub-section of it, “harm”. How does she define harm? A question which, depending on how Ms Flora answers it, will play a central role in how she carries out her responsibilities.

It is vitally important to remember that freedom of expression relates not only to the citizen’s right to communicate his or her thoughts and emotions to others, but also to their right to have their thoughts and emotions excited and stimulated by the communications of others. Our own Bill of Rights Act spells it out: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.” In other words, the right to emulate Shakespeare, as well as the right to read and watch Shakespeare’s plays.

What threshold will a book, play, film or video have to cross before Ms Flora bans it? Would she consider banning the performance of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice on the grounds that it is antisemitic? Would she ban a film which presented a young person’s decision to transition from female to male in a negative light? Would she pull from the bookshelves a work of history that purported to prove that the chiefs who gathered at Waitangi in 1840 knowingly surrendered their sovereignty to the British Crown? Would she prohibit the distribution of a video depicting Islam as a religion of violence?

One would hope that the new Chief Censor’s answer to each of these questions would be an emphatic “No.” But, considering the censorious times we are living through, it is, sadly, necessary to ask. From the Caucus Room to the Common Room, the urge to shut-down and shut-up those accused of inflicting “harm” on others is strong – and getting stronger.

In the United Nation’s summary of the “International Bill of Human Rights” the notion of harm is spelled out in relation to communications inimical to the free exercise, individually and/or collectively, of those rights and freedoms the International Bill of Human Rights was created to protect. The latter provides for protection of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to freedom of opinion and expression. Significantly, it also calls for the “prohibition by law of any propaganda for war and of any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”

If this is Ms Flora’s definition of harmful “speech”, then she will find most New Zealanders are in agreement with her. Incitement of ‘discrimination’, ‘hostility’ and ‘violence’ would strike most of us as a sensible test for determining whether material not already defined as “objectionable” in the legislation establishing the Chief Censor’s office should be deemed so.

Were Ms Flora, in explaining herself to her fellow citizens, to refer approvingly to the legacy of her erudite and classically liberal predecessors, Arthur Everard and Bill Hastings, many of them would breathe a huge sigh of relief. They could then feel reassured that the Chief Censor’s power to rule a particular instance of communication objectionable (invoking all the powerful legal sanctions associated with that term) would be used both wisely and sparingly.

The worry, of course, is that Ms Flora will use the powers of her office to extend its reach into the communication of ideas and policies that, while falling well short of inciting discrimination, hostility or violence, nevertheless are likely to upset and alarm specific individuals or communities.

The new Chief Censor’s background in the upper reaches of the public service raise fears that her institutionally-honed inclination will be to move in the direction of the incumbent government. Given this Government’s growing obsession with misinformation, disinformation and extremism, driven by the Christchurch Mosque Massacres and the Covid-19 Pandemic, it would be helpful to know whether Ms Flora plans to go with the flow, or stand against the tide. Will she be guided by the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism? Or, will she be moved by the definitions of extremism supplied last year to the Department of Internal Affairs by the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue? If it’s the latter, then freedom of expression in New Zealand could take a hit.

This is why the new Chief Censor owes New Zealand a clear explanation of where she stands, and where she would like to go. Ms Flora is taking up office in a climate of deepening antagonisms between ethnicities, identities and faith communities. If the Labour Government’s announced intention to criminalise “hate speech” is expedited by the new Minister of Justice, Kiri Allan, then the Office of the Chief Censor, along with the Human Rights Commission, will find themselves caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. The dual mandate set out by Peter Dunne: to protect New Zealanders from “material likely to cause harm while balancing the important right to freedom of expression” can only become harder and harder to fulfil.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 16 June 2022.

Monday 13 June 2022

Beating The Gangs.

Active Shooters: With more than two dozen gang-related drive-by shootings dominating (entirely justifiably) the headlines of the past few weeks, there would be something amiss with our democracy if at least one major political party did not raise the issues of law and order in the most aggressive fashion. (Photo Image: Freeze-frame from CCTV footage of American drive-by shooting.)

IT IS FASHIONABLE, in some quarters, to sneer at political parties who advance the issues of law and order in an election year. As if it is not one of the prime duties of the state to ensure that its citizens live in peace and safety. With more than two dozen gang-related drive-by shootings dominating (entirely justifiably) the headlines of the past few weeks, there would be something amiss with our democracy if at least one major political party did not raise the issues of law and order in the most aggressive fashion.

The National Party has done just that and, over the weekend, spelt out in some detail how it proposes to address the rising level of gang-related violence. For the most part the measures announced: banning the public wearing of gang patches; passing non-consorting legislation; issuing immediate dispersal orders; and empowering the Police to undertake unwarranted firearms searches/seizures; have been borrowed from the Australian states – most particularly, Western Australia.

National’s Police spokesperson, Mark Mitchell, insists that these measures have proved to be highly effective against the Australian gangs. Criminologists and lawyers beg to differ: arguing that the principal effect of this kind of highly intrusive law enforcement is to drive the gangs ever deeper underground. Meaningful engagement with the authorities is rendered even more difficult, and there is an amping-up of the aggro between the “outlaws” and “law-abiding” citizens.

The banning of gang patches, for example, is unlikely to slow down gang members for very long. The most obvious workaround for such a ban would be to substitute the wearing of coloured items for the banned patches. For many years, those associating themselves with the Mongrel Mob have worn red, while their traditional rivals, Black Power, have favoured blue. Any number of indicators might be used to denote a member’s position in the gang hierarchy: bandannas, tattoos, hats, belts, boots. It is hard to see how Parliament could ban the wearing of particular colours or items of clothing without inspiring all manner of legal challenges.

Laws forbidding certain classes of persons from consorting with one another have a long history. The rationale behind such laws is that since most serious crimes require careful organisation and planning, making it a criminal offence for known felons to be found in each other’s company would render the orchestration of criminal activity especially difficult. Australia’s anti-consorting laws not only make it illegal for criminals to communicate face-to-face, but also electronically. Telephoning, texting and e-mailing are verboten, along with social-media messaging and online meetings courtesy of Skype and Zoom.

The issuing of immediate dispersal orders, and the carrying out unwarranted firearm searches and seizures, raise all manner of health and safety objections. It would be a very brave collection of constables that would order a couple of hundred patched gang-members en route to a fallen brother’s funeral to turn their Harley-Davidsons around an go home. How, exactly, would they respond if the gang leader did a quick head-count of the officers present and politely informed them to stick their dispersal order where the sun don’t shine?

“Or you’ll what?”, is the oldest question in law enforcement. (Or politics, for that matter.) Throw a search for unlawful firearms into the situation described above and the potential for serious – even fatal – violence rises exponentially. Simple prudence would suggest that before attempting such measures the Police would first have to assemble an enforcement body of sufficient size and fearsomeness to give even the staunchest gang leader pause.

What’s more, such a force would have to be available more-or-less instantaneously. It took the NZ Police upwards of a week to assemble the 250-500 police officers needed to clear Parliament Grounds of its anti-vaccination protesters. Gang members are not going to sit on the side of the road for a week while the Police assemble a force equal to the task of disarming and dispersing them!

Building-up such a force is not impossible, but it will require a lot of officers, a lot money and a lot of time. What’s more, the existence of such a highly-trained and fearsomely-armed company of Police Praetorians may prove to be no less disconcerting than the gangs they were created to eliminate! Add to this unease the Bill of Rights ramifications of National’s draconian law enforcement proposals, and the chances of their early introduction are slim.

With the National Party Opposition so far declining to confirm the dramatic increase in Police numbers and resources required to implement its tough anti-gang policies, taking its promises seriously is rather difficult. More knee-jerk than needful, perhaps?

To make an appreciable dent in the gang phenomenon, it is necessary to address its principal raison d’être – the making of money. Risking injury, incarceration and death makes sense only when presented with the prospect of massive profits. Eliminating this incentive may be accomplished in two ways: Politicians can reduce the demand for illicit substances and/or services by legalising them. Or, law enforcement agencies can reduce dramatically the supply of these substances/services. This can be achieved by seizing the product, arresting the suppliers, smashing the distribution system, or, preferably, managing to do all three at the same time.

If this is your strategy, then it is brains you need, not brawn. The key to interdicting and reducing the supply of illegal substances/services is intelligence. Law enforcement needs to know where it is coming from and when, who will be carrying it and uplifting it, where it will be stored, and who will be organising its distribution. Discover these facts, and supply cannot help but be disrupted. What’s more, the management structure of the organised criminal enterprises involved will be seriously damaged. Two birds, one stone.

Disrupting supply in this way can be achieved in three ways: by persuading well-informed gangsters to inform on their confederates; by infiltrating undercover operatives into the heart of the criminal organisation; and by using state-of-the-art electronic surveillance techniques to intercept the communications of the criminal organisation. Preferably, all three of the techniques will be used by the Police. Certainly, this was how the five Mafia families of New York were brought down by the FBI in the 1980s.

The drive-by shootings currently plaguing Auckland are a reflection of a supply operation that has grown either too loose or too tight. Control of “the corners” (as they used to say in the TV series The Wire) is being contested by The Tribesmen and The Killer Beez because there is either an over-supply of product and one gang is attempting to seize the entire market for itself, or, there is a shortage of product and the two gangs are competing for the corners (distribution points) because until one or the other controls the lot, their respective operations will become increasingly unprofitable.

The National Party Opposition would be better employed talking to the Police Commissioner about the best ways to hack the communications of the distributors as well as the suppliers of illegal substances and services. It is difficult to shoot up somebody’s house if you are intercepted en route, your weapons confiscated, and you are sent down for criminal conspiracy to commit murder for five years.

In the immortal words of Sun Tzu: “Foreknowledge cannot be gotten from ghosts and spirits, cannot be had by analogy, cannot be found out by calculation. It must be obtained from people, people who know the conditions of the enemy.”

Gang violence will not be ended by politicians getting tougher, but by police officers getting smarter.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 13 June 2022.

The Recession New Zealand Has To Have?

Going Down? Governments also suffer in recessions and depressions – just like their citizens. Slowing economic activity means fewer companies making profits, fewer people in paid employment, fewer dollars being spent, and much less revenue being collected. With its own “income” shrinking, the instinct of most government’s is to sharply reduce spending. 

CONVENTIONAL ECONOMIC WISDOM insists that the only effective cure for rising inflationary expectations is a short, sharp recession. Easy to say, but much, much harder to accomplish – especially if you are at least nominally a party of the Left. The ghost of John Maynard Keynes is forever whispering in the ears of Labour parties – even those which long ago embraced the precepts of Neoliberalism – and his message is always the same: Spend, spend, spend.

The problem with spending in an inflationary environment is that it does nothing to discourage the notion that the price of basic items in six months’ time will be appreciably higher than they are now. In such circumstances, simple logic dictates that it is better to make a substantial purchase today, than tomorrow. They also encourage the idee fixe that one’s income must be increased to match, at the very least, the rate of inflation. Understanding this expectation, employers budget to recover the cost of increased wages and salaries by increasing the price of their goods and services.

Once stimulated, inflationary expectations, and the upward spiral in wages and prices they set in motion, are very difficult to suppress.

Essentially, a government is required to make it a lot more expensive for people to borrow money. At the macro level, sharply rising interest rates have the effect of slowing economic growth. At the micro level, employers stop hiring and start firing. Those forced onto the dole face a dramatic loss of income and all discretionary spending ceases abruptly. The rest of the workforce, fearful of losing their jobs, stop demanding wage and salary increases. They also stop spending on non-essentials and start saving. Retailers now have the strongest of incentives to keep their prices stable.

Pretty soon, economic growth stalls, and then shifts into reverse. Pessimism reigns supreme. Inflationary expectations, along with inflation itself, come to a shuddering halt.

The trick, of course, is in knowing how long to keep the interest rates going up, when to hold them steady, and when to let them drop. Keep them high for too long and the economy risks transitioning from recession to depression. Those with money, ill disposed to risk it, satisfy themselves with government-guaranteed returns. Unable to borrow, or meet their higher interest payments, businesspeople go bust, and property-owners with mortgages lose their homes. Unemployment rises, spending decreases still further, and retailers are forced to contemplate lowering their prices.

What the economists most fear now is not of inflation but deflation. The prospect of the economy not simply grinding to a halt – but shrinking.

At this point, all eyes turn to the government. Something must be done! But governments also suffer in recessions and depressions – just like their citizens. Slowing economic activity means fewer companies making profits, fewer people in paid employment, fewer dollars being spent, and much less revenue being collected. With its own “income” shrinking, the instinct of most government’s is to sharply reduce spending. Now it is the turn of those businesses, organisations and institutions dependent on government money to feel the pinch. Exactly the same contractionary spiral that wound down the private sector, now grips the state and its hangers-on.

But the trials and tribulations of the state do not stop there. The huge number of unemployed and otherwise impoverished people have nowhere else to turn for assistance but their government. Meeting that need from a dwindling treasury, however, is the stuff of political nightmares. Just keeping the education, health and transportation systems functioning is a huge drain on the state’s resources, feeding and housing the hungry and homeless threatens to render it insolvent.

But you can’t just let people starve – can you? The hungry and the homeless themselves are likely to answer that question, as they did in New Zealand’s hungry winter of 1932, when riots tore the main streets of Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin apart. Terrified, the conservative coalition government postponed the 1934 general election by 12 months and passed the draconian Public Safety Conservation Act. Not that it did them much good. On Tuesday, 26 November 1935, New Zealanders elected their first Labour Government.

And what did that government do? It spent, spent, spent.

So, what should Jacinda and Grant do? Continue to spend, spend, spend? Or allow Reserve Bank Governor, Adrian Orr, to push up the Official Cash Rate (OCR) to 5 percent and watch economic activity nosedive?

From a left-social-democratic perspective, at least part of the answer would be to embark on a massive political education campaign. Explain to Labour’s voters the havoc inflation wreaks upon the lives of ordinary people, and why it must be driven out of the New Zealand economy. Tell them defeating inflationary expectations will require the full co-operation of the whole population. Then announce a two-year wage, price and rent freeze. Further announce the state subsidisation of basic foodstuffs and energy supplies, to be paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy, the restoration of Death Duties and a Capital Gains Tax.

A return to the bad old days of Muldoonism? Damn straight! It certainly beats asking the poorest and most vulnerable New Zealanders to carry the full burden of eliminating inflation. Few people appreciate that the whole purpose of destroying Muldoonism – which was simply an eccentric form of Keynesianism – was to free the wealthy from their obligation to contribute their fair share towards the maintenance of a decent society. That was all Rogernomics and Ruthanasia were ever about: making the poor pay more so the rich didn’t have to.

Not that Jacinda and Grant are at all likely to adopt a left-social-democratic economic agenda to deal with the impending crisis. They will make the poor pay, pretend they’re not, fool nobody, and be bundled out of office in 2023.

Ironically, their policy choices may end up decisively reducing inflationary expectations. To the limited degree permitted by Neoliberal economics, the economy will recover, and the National Party will kick-off another nine year term on a thoroughly sunny note. Who knows, by the time the next election rolls around in 2026 they might even be in the mood to: Spend, spend, spend.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 10 June 2022.

Macho chest-beating won’t tame the gangs, but Poto Williams’ “softly, softly” approach just might.

Misdirection: New Zealanders see burly gang members, decked out in their patches, sitting astride their deafening motorcycles, cruising six abreast down the motorway as frightened civilians scramble to get out of their way, and they think these guys are the problem. Fact is, these guys represent little more than the misdirection of the criminal magicians no one ever gets to see.

THE GROWING CHORUS calling for Poto Williams to be sacked as Police Minister bespeaks a fundamental misreading of her performance. We are so used to bumptious males like Stuart Nash and Mark Mitchell holding (or seeking) this portfolio that we read Williams’ “softly, softly” approach as a sure-fire indication of failure. But, since when did inflated male chests, bombastic claims and political humbug ever bring about anything more useful than inflated poll-ratings? Since we have seen this noisy “Laura Norder” pantomime repeated over and over again, we can say with some confidence that it makes next to no impact on crime.

My impression of Williams is that she has spent the last 18 months searching desperately through all the available research/data for something that just might help her make a real difference. But, seeking to base government policy on something more substantial than rabid right-wing reckons is the very last thing an ambitious Police Minister should be doing. The tried and true methodology is to get the voters’ blood up with rhetoric red in tooth and claw. Then, while you’re doing that, task your officials with finding out what rabid right-wing police ministers overseas have settled upon as their solution to rising crime – and steal it.

Chances are that the real-world effects of these “solutions” will be pretty close to zero. But, since the research/data only proves their ineffectuality after a two-to-five year time-lag, this is of no political consequence. The voters have already watched the launch of the Government’s getting tough on crime initiatives on the six o’clock news, dutifully bumped the ruling party’s poll-ratings up a couple of percentage points, and then forgotten all about it – until the next crime wave. In response to which the entire pantomime will be re-staged. Same script, different actors.

What most people simply don’t understand is how sophisticated criminal offending has become. They see the burly gang members, decked out in their patches, sitting astride their deafening motorcycles, cruising six abreast down the motorway as frightened civilians scramble to get out of their way, and they think these guys are the problem. Fact is, these guys represent little more than the misdirection of the criminal magicians no one ever gets to see. While rival gangs are shooting up each other’s neighbourhoods, draining-off Police resources and thoroughly terrifying the public, core criminal business continues to be conducted largely unmolested.

The Guardian of 7 June reports the existence, in Australia, of “thousands” of members of the Italian Mafia, or, more specifically, the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria. (That’s the “toe” of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula.) Hiding in plain sight in ordinary suburban communities, looking like any other Aussie, upwards of 5,000 of these criminals have been quietly plying their illegal trade for decades. According to the Australian Associated Press: “The Calabrian mafia work with other organised crime groups including bikie gangs and Asian or Middle Eastern crime groups to cooperate on drug importation, money laundering and violence.”

“It’s entirely possible that people will be living next door to members of the ‘Ndrangheta without knowing,” the Assistant Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Nigel Ryan, informed the media. “They’ve been able to stay under the radar while living modest lives in modest homes. They funnelled the illegitimate wealth into their legitimate construction, agricultural and catering businesses. In many ways, I would say that the ‘Ndrangheta are actually the ones pulling the strings of other organised crime groups, particularly the more violent groups, such as outlaw motorcycle gangs.”

As The Daily Blog’s Editor, Martyn Bradbury, has been telling his readers for many years, Australia’s harsh immigration regime is sending hundreds of New Zealand-born members or associates of these same violent outlaw motorcycle gangs across the Tasman as deportees. These “501s” have fundamentally changed the way New Zealand gangs do business, introducing a level of violence that had not hitherto been a feature of indigenous gang culture. It would be naïve in the extreme to assume that at least some of the ‘Ndrangheta’s string-pullers have not crossed the Tasman with them.

The Aussies run our largest banks, so why not our largest criminal enterprises? (If you’ll pardon the tautology!)

The same Guardian article also makes reference to the extraordinary law enforcement coup that saw organised criminals around the world avail themselves of a supposedly unbreakable encryption app called “ANoM”. Little did the crooks know that their every conversation, every text, every e-mail, every JPEG was being copied to the international law-enforcement inventors of ANoM.

“Officers gathered intelligence from the ANoM app to understand how transnational serious organised crime syndicates – including the ‘Ndrangheta – operate and communicate.”

Just how serious is the ‘Ndrangheta? According to Assistant Commissioner Ryan, Calabria’s organised criminals are “responsible for 70 to 80% of the world’s cocaine and they are flooding Australia with illicit drugs ….. They are pulling the strings of Australian outlaw motorcycle gangs who are behind some of the most significant violence in our communities.”

Ultimately, it is the sort of intelligence gathering exemplified by ANoM that will provide the Police with the information they need to push back against the criminal organisations already well-ensconced in New Zealand. If New Zealand’s Police Commissioner, Andrew Coster, is not working closely with Police Minister Poto Williams on this method of bringing not only the local outlaw motorcycle gangs, but also, their Calabrian, Columbian, Mexican, Chinese and Australian string-pullers into New Zealand courtrooms, then he bloody well should be! Undercover operatives and state-of-the-art electronic surveillance have been the key to the apprehension of organised criminals since the 1980s. “Eyes of Mordor” they might have been, but they brought down the Five Families.

Christopher Luxon and Mark Mitchell would do well to ponder the possibility that the recent spate of drive-by shootings may actually be intended to divert Police resources away from the string-pullers. In calling for Poto Williams’ head, they may be doing the very thing that would most assist the real criminal masterminds. If this is the case, then a sudden reduction in drive-by shootings will not be a sign of Police success, but proof that the wise-guys are once again conducting their criminal enterprises in the preferred manner.

Quietly, without being noticed.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 9 June 2022.

Friday 10 June 2022

Our Least Worse Option.

We Can Be Heroes: Ukrainian newly-weds pose for the cameras before heading-off to the front-lines. The Russo-Ukrainian War has presented young people with the inescapable reality of heroism. They see Volodymyr Zelensky in his olive-drab T-shirts; they see men and women their own age stepping-up to do their bit. They have learned that there are some things worth fighting for – worth dying for. They have also learned how to say: Sláva Ukrayíni! – Glory to Ukraine! 

THERE ARE MOMENTS in history when the essential powerlessness of our leaders stands exposed for all their people to see. Moments when they are struck forcefully by the brutal realisation that they have no good options – only the least worse ones. The manner in which they respond to these moments is critical.

Volodymyr Zelensky, for example, presented with the reality of Russian forces rolling across Ukraine’s borders at multiple points, had to accept the reality that his worst nightmare was now upon him. The man who had campaigned on promises of peace, now faced war with an enemy the whole world expected to be rumbling through his capital city within three days.

The Americans famously offered Zelensky a ride out of harm’s way. He refused. Faced with no good options, he chose what was, morally, the least worse: he stayed where he was. Outnumbered and outgunned, he nevertheless vowed to defend his homeland and his people.

And the hearts of the peoples of the West beat a little faster. After the shame of the cowardly flight from Afghanistan, the spirits of Westerners were lifted. Everywhere, from the battlements of Edinburgh Castle, to the rooftops of Dunedin, Ukraine’s blue and yellow banners suddenly blossomed, like bright flowers of freedom.

To the immense relief of their elders, young people were presented with the inescapable reality of heroism. They saw Zelensky in his olive-drab T-shirts; they saw men and women their own age stepping away from their university studies; saying farewell to their workmates; and presenting themselves to be trained in the operation of deadly weapons. They learned that there are some things worth fighting for – worth dying for. They also learned how to say: Sláva Ukrayíni! – Glory to Ukraine!

How much easier it would have been: not only for Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation, but also for the West itself, if Zelensky had taken that ride. If Kyiv had fallen in three days and a puppet government subservient to Moscow had been installed. Diplomatically, the world would have been confronted with a convenient fait accompli. Western leaders, most particularly, President Joe Biden, would have huffed and puffed. Sanctions of a largely cosmetic nature would have been imposed. And that would have been that.

The waters of the world, briefly disturbed, would have returned to their former placidity. And the children of the West would have received yet more lessons from their leaders. That might makes right. That nothing is worth fighting for. That heroism is dead.

It has taken the example of Zelensky to make us understand, fully, the true political magic of Winston Churchill’s example in 1940. France had fallen, and those who purported to speak the language of realism argued that Great Britain was “irredeemably lost”. The world expected to learn, any day, of Britain’s surrender, confirming the irreversible advance of fascism across the entire globe. But, Churchill said “No!” Refusing to bow to the “inevitable”, he vowed that Britain would “never surrender”.

The flame of freedom, guttering, grew suddenly stronger and brighter. The darkness hesitated and drew back. Hope sang – like a nightingale in Berkeley Square.

So, what do we do now? Now that Ukraine is fighting for us all? Now that we can no longer afford to let her lose? What is the least worse option being offered to our own leader, Jacinda Ardern?

She may already have taken it.

Diplomatically and militarily the game is changing. Russia and China are already allies – and only likely to grow closer together. Against the fluttering complexities of liberty and democracy, they will offer the straight lines and sharp edges of authoritarianism. In place of the heady wines of freedom, they will offer the opium of security.

It would be most unwise to believe that this new Eurasian behemoth will not find friends. The wounds inflicted by the West still bleed in many countries. Among the victims of imperialism, the virtues of democracy and freedom are often obscured by tears.

But, if we would not shed tears of our own, then we must look to our own safety. At the end of this month, Prime Minister Ardern will attend the Nato Summit. Alongside Australia’s Anthony Albanese, she will hear plans for a great Western alliance extending the protections of collective security well beyond the North Atlantic.

Our least worse option.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 June 2022.