Monday 22 August 2022

Politics Barren Of Principle.

Meet The New Boss: We are living in a political culture unmoored to anything more edifying than the petty priorities of personal ambition.

LABOUR’S VICTORY over Dr Gaurav Sharma will be complete, final, and soon. In roughly twenty-four hours (23/8/22) he will be expelled from Labour’s caucus and relocated to the farthest-back of the back-benches. His expulsion from the Labour Party proper will follow just as soon as the members of its ruling council can be gathered together on Zoom.

While some pundits are speculating that the waka-jumping legislation might be used to eject Sharma altogether from the House of Representatives, the Labour leadership seems to have already decided there is no need to go that far. Sharma’s crusade has, to date, been on behalf of himself. He is seeking a redress of wrongs, real or imagined, about which most voters simply do not care. Jacinda and her colleagues will be quite content to leave Dr Sharma pissing into the wind.

Which is a pity. Because the political culture of the New Zealand parliamentary complex could do with a radical shake-up. Not only on account of the bullying behaviour which pervades both Labour and National, but because it is a political culture unmoored to anything more edifying than the petty priorities of personal ambition. The picture presented to the public is of a politics almost entirely barren of principle. Accordingly, voter cynicism, not to say disgust, grows ever stronger – to the detriment of our entire democratic system.

But not, it must be said, to the detriment of the over-arching ideological infrastructure of neoliberalism. In both major parties there is a common horror of unorthodox economic ideas, which manifests itself in the rigorous suppression of anything resembling the promotion of an alternative economic regime.

One would have to return to the late-1980s and early-1990s to encounter a genuine clash of economic ideas within either Labour or National. That these factional struggles preceded the splits that gave rise to the NewLabour Party (later the Alliance) and NZ First is, of course, the chief explanation for the determination in both major parties to enforce an all-encompassing economic orthodoxy at every organisational level.

This horror of disagreement and debate is, however, born of something more than mere “voters don’t vote for disunity” pragmatism. In the Labour Party, particularly, there is a deeply entrenched conviction that the promotion of policies unsanctioned by the leadership should never be taken at face value. The assumption is always that alternative ideas are nothing but a front for those angling to provide alternative leadership. The proposition that economic policy can hardly avoid engendering strong principled objections is rejected out-of-hand. Advocacy of unsanctioned economic policies is condemned as an attempt to cast caucus colleagues in an unfavourable moral light – i.e. an ego-driven assault on the integrity of the “team”.

Nowhere was this attitude towards dissent more obviously on display than during the period when David Cunliffe was leader of the Labour Party (2013-14). The personal animus directed towards Cunliffe was so intense that it fundamentally undermined his attempt to steer Labour to victory via a more leftward course. Rejecting neoliberal economic theory was presented by Cunliffe’s caucus rivals as tantamount to rejecting common-sense – something only an excessively ambitious and/or slightly unhinged person would do. Cunliffe’s fate became a cautionary tale. Factions based on principle, rather than personality, were bound to founder.

Cunliffe’s election as leader by Labour’s rank-and-file, followed by the wafer-thin defeat of the current Labour leadership faction by Andrew Little, may also explain the Ardern Labour Government’s apparent disdain for one-person-one-vote democracy. If the faction of common sense could be defeated by ill-informed and/or ill-intentioned party members, then, clearly, there was something wrong with the whole democratic idea. Far better to leave the matter of choosing a party leader to the people who know the potential candidates best. In other words: personality must always be allowed to trump principle.

The National Party’s woes in the fraught business of selecting candidates may also be traced back to the decisive victory of neoliberalism over paternalistic conservatism in the run-up to the 1990 general election. As with Labour, the assumption at both the summit of the National caucus and the National Party organisation soon became that only oddballs and trouble-makers questioned the moral and practical efficacy of neoliberal economic policies.

Steven Joyce’s corporatisation of the National Party in the aftermath of its worst ever electoral defeat in 2002 effectively disconnected all the levers of democratic accountability that mattered. The qualifications for entry into National’s caucus were narrowed to evidence of unwavering support for the economic status-quo, coupled with an impressive CV – ideally in the fields of commerce and law. The not altogether welcome outcomes of National’s recruitment processes serve as a warning of what can happen when adherence to principle becomes a matter of conformity, not character.

The only matters in which a measure of disagreement within caucuses was deemed acceptable were those that did not impinge directly on economic policy. If the public’s growing suspicion that the major parties had become ideologically interchangeable were to be allayed, some dramatic public demonstrations of political diversity were needed.

Marriage Equality, Euthanasia, Legalising Cannabis, Decriminalising Abortion. On these “conscience issues”, the full glory of principled political behaviour could be put on display. With the Whips removed, the public could glimpse, if only for a moment, what a legislature freed from the dead hand of ideological orthodoxy might look like.

Such visions had to be momentary, however, for the very simple reason that allowing factions to form within parties, or, worse still, encouraging genuine ideological differences to develop between parties, would only result in such factions being replicated in the general population. And a general population engaged in genuine debate between factions and/or parties capable of making a real difference to the direction of economic and social policy would place the whole, over-arching ideological infrastructure of neoliberalism in the gravest peril.

Also imperilled would be the profoundly elitist and democratically deficient culture of “governance” and administration that has grown up to keep the neoliberal state apparatus ticking-over. Popular engagement in the running of public institutions terrifies the professionals and managers who have, over the course of the past four decades, come to see themselves as the sole repositories of competence outside the private sector.

Genuine discussion and debate are not encouraged in a public sector now entirely beholden to the cult of expertise. Increasingly, at the levels of both local and central government, the people’s elected representatives find themselves being gently “nudged” in directions deemed “appropriate” by the experts. Genuine discussion and debate, by making it plain to ordinary folk that there is more than just one way of looking at an issue, strikes at the very heart of these “experts’” unmandated authority.

Said ordinary folk can only hope that the sudden rise in “expert” commentary on the perils of misinformation and disinformation is not the first sign that the neoliberal nomenklatura is preparing to strike back against the risible political pretensions of the “deplorables”.

Dr Sharma’s alleged “mad”/”bad” behaviour has made him dangerous to know. One can only imagine what might have happened if he had rebelled in the name of something more critical to the wellbeing of New Zealanders than his personal reputation.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 22 August 2022.


Barry said...

I dont know why everyone thinks that Sharma wants to stay IN the Labour party. Comments like 'he will be banished to the far back bench' and 'He will be very lonely' are just the utterings of someone with a weak brain.
Besides the fact that there will be a serious trimming of back bench Labour MPs and being about number 1042 on the Labour list it seems obvious that Sharma would rather be lonely and be at telescope distance from the Labour tent than to be in it.
And hes a Doctor of health with about 500 vacancies locally. Hes got a brilliant future out of Labour.

greywarbler said...

Wow, I have an old knitted jersey and feel I should undo it to save the wool, but that's difficult. Undoing the felted cloak of NZ/AO is a task for heavenly fingers. You are transcending your mortal status I think Chris. You may be challenged on some points but I think your essay is an assay of the quality of our mettle; it seem to be fool's gold.

Odysseus said...

I'm not sure we have heard the last from Dr Sharma. His revelations about how Labour MPs are coached from the PM's Office on how to evade the OIA were possibly just an appetizer. After he is expelled, who knows what further disclosures may ensue?

I joined a "policy" department in the early 70s. I was enthralled by the oddballs I encountered. Here were people with every kind of qualification, recruited for their intellectual grunt and judgement, who contended vigorously over advice to the government on matters that were of real importance to the country's future. Formal advice to Ministers set out clearly the arguments for and against each proposed course of action, with the department head's formal recommendation at the bottom.

Then came the revolution of the mid 80s and with it the culture of mindless managerialism. Days and weeks were consumed in developing "operational plans". It was made clear to oddballs, perhaps proto-Dominic Cummingses, they were no longer welcome. "Yes-Men" or "Yes-Women" were publicly praised and rewarded. Under the dogma of "There is No Alternative" debate was throttled. And the rest is history, which brings us to where we are today: "Up Shit Creek Without A Paddle".

greywarbler said...

Could it be said that Labour has led us away from a glimpse of Social Democracy to that of Anti-social Democracy?

The Barron (of Principle) said...

"a huntsman's assistant who keeps the hounds from straying by driving them back with the whip into the main body of the pack', so the OED define the 'whipper-in', since the mid-eighteenth century the term has been adapted to the Whip of a Parliamentary party (I have a memory that the Greens use the term muster to soften the perception of the role).

Workplace NZ defines bullying as "unreasonable and repeated behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that can lead to psychical or psychological harm" Workplace NZ offers definition as to 'repeated' and 'unreasonable'. Workplace also gives a what workplace bullying is not guidelines, this includes 'setting high performance standards', 'constructive feedback and legitimate advice and peer review', 'reasonable management actions delivered in a reasonable way' and 'differences of opinion or personality clashes that do not escalate into bulling, harassment or violence'. I have not read the Francis report, but it the presumption that she followed similar to the Workplace guidelines.

Parliament by it's very nature is defined by power relationships. One group is in power, the other fights for power. While select committees and other facets are less adversarial, Parliament as a whole is contention for power. Within this is the various party constitutions for cabinet selection and hierarchy and inter-party cooperative agreements. Then there are those employed by Parliamentary and Ministerial Services. Those employed by the office of an MP, and those employed by a Minister - some neutral civil servants, some political advisors. All of these power relationships must be managed under the Workplace NZ definitions of bullying.

To complicate things further, those elected to Parliament often have no people management skills, or history of working within large hierarchical organizations. They immediately have management control over Parliament Services employees in their office.

This returns us to the position of the Whip. Even his harshest critics (or highest praisers?) would compare Kieran McAnulty to Francis Urquhart. The questions that are outstanding is which side of the bullying definitions the allegations from Sharma fall, or, indeed, the allegations against him in regard to staff. There simply is not enough detail to draw a conclusion. My personal view is that the staff question has precedence. Workers are the least empowered, and if there were issues about Sharma's management they had to be acted on. This would certainly be 'reasonable management actions delivered in a reasonable way' and not bullying. Whether the fallout of that management has instances that constitute bullying has not been shown to date.

"Politics Barren Of Principle." Since the Francis report there is principal within the guidelines for managing 'bullying' allegations. I am aware of the issue in regard to Nick Smith's office, and I held that priority must be the worker as the most vulnerable within the Parliamentary relationships. Until shown otherwise, I hold the line that any issues to do with Sharma's management of staff had to be managed by the Parliamentary wing of the party and the leadership. If Mr Sharma's feels slighted by this, one has to wonder as to his view on worker safety and rights.

Jason Barrier said...

Chris - What do you make of ACT's idea of turning select committee control over to the opposition (regardless of who is in power) so that policy can be more rigorously challenged?

Archduke Piccolo said...

Mr Trotter: this is about as clear and condign an analysis of institutionalised incompetence as one is ever likely to encounter among this this country's commentators.
Thank you -
Ion A. Dowman.

Anonymous said...


Guerilla Surgeon said...

There are huge numbers of comments about this online, mostly from people who don't have any more information than I do I suspect – so let me provide my comment here.
Perhaps Doctor Sharma – being a doctor and being used to people saying "how high?" When he says "jump!", and perhaps coming from a slightly more authoritarian culture than NZ – found out that New Zealand public servants don't necessarily do that. Therefore got into conflict with his staff necessitating a talking to from leaders of the party.
This makes just as much sense as any other bloody explanation – but if someone has insider knowledge on this perhaps they'd like to share it with the class? Because at the moment all we have is speculation.

AB said...

What you say about the entrenched pervasiveness of neoliberal economic ideology and how this has kept us permanently stuck, is broadly correct. However, to link it with the Sharma affair is to juxtapose two entirely different things for no apparent reason - other than perhaps some personal animus lingering from the horrendous Rogernomics-induced bustup in Labour in the late 1980's.

greywarbler said...

I have not noticed Dr Sharma looking unfazed in any image, remarkably calm, pleasant and composed. Indians are brainy and savvy and he may well be just regarding this as an introduction to politics. There are so many Indians in NZ they might be able to get 5% and perhaps they would make a better job than our present who have abandoned old shibboleths and not found any new others of consequence or effectiveness that would be valued by the voters.

Scott said...

Thanks for a very perceptive essay Chris. I agree there is no debate on economic policy. I would go further and say there is no debate on any subject. When I watch shows like "The Project" on TV 3 there is only one opinion. They have a hive mind.
Due to political correctness and the cancel culture there is only one opinion that is deemed respectable in the public square.
Here are some correct opinions -
-global warming is a fact and if we don't do something the world is going to end
-Jacinda is marvellous
- Chris Luxon is not marvellous and his Christianity is a weird anomoly
- Importing people from overseas is essential, the more the better
- On no account encourage businesses to locate here. All manufacturing must be done in China.
- Brian Tamaki is the worst person ever.
I could go on and on. We need to open up debate and free speech again. But that would be a threat to our elites so we can't have that.

David George said...

Hear hear Archduke.
Chris: "Genuine discussion and debate are not encouraged in a public sector now entirely beholden to the cult of expertise."

The growing disconnect between observable reality and the entreaties of our elites is a real danger. No wonder faith in the legacy media is at such a low level. I recall an article in the Herald: "NZ man gives birth". The story maintained this pretence throughout apart from a wee bit near the end where it admitted said man "transitioned" a couple of years earlier.
So this was plainly a women pretending to be a man; the truly bizarre aspect was that not only did they believe in this apparent miracle, they expect everyone else to believe it as well. Worse, the idiot government happily implement legislation to give legal effect to this bullshit. The emperor has no clothes.

greywarbler said...

Revealing and informative comments. Thanks Odysseus 13.25 for your experiences
and outcomes. I had time in Wellington in the 1970's and met some of the those who were in the law-drafting team, who were dedicated to their tasks and may have been regarded as oddballs. They weren't ring-ins from law companies outside as now. They may have used some outside help with checking precedents I don't know. But solicitors I have known are more interested in the application of the law, its meaning, as the tool they work with. The people affected by it if badly drawn, are not their kaupapa. It is a different mindset to those who are required to frame the law for the government. I don't see how legal firms can be Janus-oriented.

Gary Peters said...

"Accordingly, voter cynicism, not to say disgust, grows ever stronger "

That would have to rank as one of the greatest understatements so far this year 😎

What we have is what we expected from MMP. The "Party" rules and you either fall in or eff off. Shame really as some, like Sharma, could really contribute to the betterment of New Zealand.

One thing I noticed over this. Labour have few MPs that couldn't be regarded as "professional politicians" and National have few that could. Jamie Lee Ross sprung as a "professional politician" to mind and he caused National a problem, whereas Sharma is certainly not and he has caused Labour a problem. Maybe the ideology of each of those two parties affects "professionals" in a differenty manner.


Sorry My Trotter there are so many ... too many to count ..."Longbows drawn" in your argument that overall ... a "C" minus grading. 

There is no need, in spite of what may "look relevant" ... to continually feel compelled ... your compunction to anchor; the current situation to historical precedent and outdated context.

We live now in a very different political and historical landscape ... different even to recent events say back to just 2015 or thereabouts. It is no more than interesting? to dig up the remains of Muldoon, Lange and Kirk.

In the "Now" of 2022, Yes 2022! (no matter what "history might teach us ... NOT!)... today we live with personality (and Trumpian) politics with its concomitant hubris, BS, false "facts" and despicable Internet garbage.

Large audiences now are quite immune/agnostic to rational alternatives founded upon instructive historical precedents and are unable to appreciate the Trotter academic polemic.

Sorry Mate.

However ... there are at least two of us "thee n mee" who "Utterly Despair" at the result of kiwis-and their voting idiocy ...see below... 


Mike Hosking, (Opinion NZ Herald 25/08/22) scourges the Government for its poor performance. There would be few rational and fair-minded Kiwis who could cogently and persuasively refute Hoskin's damning citation of their failures, incompetence and hubris. 

Pro-government supporters, the diehards, columnists, talkback callers and radio and television supporters in their denials sound and look risible and unconvincing. 

The depth and strength of the factual evidence that Hosking's has cited of the Ardern administration's terrible economic and social mismanagement stands firmly on its merits.
As a lifetime observer of New Zealand politics and currently a Kiwi greatly fearing the future consequences of Labour's derelictions, Hosking has made, in my opinion an ironclad case that today we are suffering under quite the worst government in our collective living memory.
There is a strong case to be made for a snap election but the chances of that happening are near zero, such is the intransigence of this government in clinging to its power.

In the remaining year or so, until our next election the government should be called upon for its first duty to do no "further" harm. 


But then at least your (CT) piece 23 August 2022 was headed "Barren of Principle"

Got that bit right ...

David George said...

A great interview (and a feather in the cap for Bari Weiss) just released with Bill Barr touches on a lot of this Chris. The Trump Whitehouse, the deep state, January 6th etc:

Bill Barr Calls Bullsh*t
A frank conversation with the former Attorney General on Trump's "extortion" of the GOP, Russiagate, the most awkward White House moment, and much more. Transcript available.

BW...."Is there any going back to that world of good faith disagreement, when politics weren't the politics of total personal destruction? Have we left that world behind?"

AG BARR: "If we’ve left it behind, I don't think this ends well for the country. I don't see that this leads to any future for the country. I think we have to return to that if we’re going to have a future. I put this on the doorstep of the radical progressives as their responsibility. They’re the ones who have sharply shifted. The political model before this was the liberal democratic spectrum where you have right and left, but we’re all within the liberal, democratic, Anglo-American political tradition.

What we’ve moved to is a bipolar system that’s more typical of revolutionary countries, where you have a party like the Marxists or some other totalitarian party trying to take power. It’s all or nothing and anything goes. It’s war by other means. That’s where we are, and it doesn’t end well.

Those of us who are traditional conservatives, Reagan conservatives––I grew up on Bill Buckley and so forth––believe in the Anglo-American system of politics. We have a First Amendment that allows citizens to debate and come to some consensus for the public good. One of the things that bothers me is that people talk about democracy and the threat to democracy. Well, what did the framers think was the threat to democracy? In Federalist 10, Madison says it’s when the majority uses democracy to oppress the minority. When someone takes a transient 51% majority and tries to ram things down the throat of the other 49%, and now we’re finding ourselves sort of oscillating between those two worlds. Get 51 votes, good: Obamacare. You have 51 votes and you shove it down people’s throats. Whereas the institutions that we’ve had before this were meant to require some form of consensus and incremental change. They allowed people to build up some consensus for an approach, and things moved slowly. That’s not good enough for revolutionaries, who want to tear things down or change things instantaneously. I think that’s the basic challenge we face right now."

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ah David, I see young Bari has hopped on the right wing "pundit" trough. Not bad for someone who was allegedly cancelled – who for those who don't actually know anything about it – cancelled herself. There is a grain of truth in what Barr says however, the Republicans have moved so far to the right, and have become so obstructive that the US is in deep shit. They are the true revolutionaries if you are being objective about it. Get a majority on the Supreme Court and ram the worst aspects of Christianity down people's throats.
Incidentally, William F Buckley was a racist prick. Hardly the sort of person you should base your personal or even economic ethics on.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I'm still waiting for some actual information about the Sharma affair – all we seem to have still is a lot of hot air.

David George said...

Thank you GS. Yes, Bari Weiss left the NYT of here own volition, her (typically) beautifully written and lucid resignation letter explains the reasons.

The "commonsense" substack site she set up with her wife Nellie Bols (also ex NYT) and sister Suzy has, unsurprisingly, gained a huge following in the short time they've been operating. She's an avowed liberal, in the classic meaning of the word, so there's a wide range of views.
She's really a lefty politically but deeply concerned with the censorious and authoritarian turn the left have taken.

I suspect you've not read the full interview or misunderstood it, if the comments re Barr are any indication, so I'm not going to comment further.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

With her expensive education David I'd be surprised if she couldn't write lucidly. And I'm not surprised she has a huge following given her sense of white victimhood and persecution, which resonates with reactionaries.
What I do take issue with this her hypocrisy and lying. The beautifully written and lucid resignation letter is full of – let's say disputed facts. Particularly around the criticisms of her - which co-workers claim was about her lack of fact checking among other things.
And of course she also neglects to mention that she spent much of her career trying to cancel various professors at her university. Not much in the way of freedom of speech there I guess. She's distinctly wary of mentioning it these days of course, given her championing of the right-wing version of "free speech".
I do believe some research has been done that shows that it's the right who have shifted not the left, but feel free to do "my own research" on this. But it might pay if you did it on more neutral sites rather than your usual extreme right ones.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Scott for listing some correct opinions. His use of "hive mind" has some literal truth. The correct opinion on bees is that neonicitinoid insecticides are causing a huge decline in bee numbers, to the point that we are risking starvation due to a lack of pollinators. We must follow the EU example and ban all these chemicals immediately! (Kathryn Ryan on National Radio is one of many firmly holding the correct view of this).

The alternate view does appear in mainstream media, but only if someone can afford to pay. The Herald did publish a page of "sponsored content" from Plant and Food Research on the work of their bee team. The actual (and publicly funded) bee scientists say the story of bee decline owes more to hyperbole than fact. The biggest threat to bee health is the varroa mite. In spite of this pest, honey bee colony numbers in New Zealand have approximately doubled in the past decade.

And in the business pages of the Herald, honey company Comvita is reporting second best ever profits from best ever revenue. Not only from manuka honey, but other honeys as well.

And apple growers report losses from fruit rotting on the ground for lack of apple pickers. No evident lack of pollination there.

And from the Environmental Protection Authority website, the then new insecticide sulfoxaflor was approved for use in December 2013, with extra controls to protect bees. Those protections would seem to be working adequately, given the growth in honey bee hive numbers since.

I've written to Kathryn Ryan suggesting an interview with the Plant and Food bee scientists. Especially with the one who has published research on the effect of neonicotinoid insecticides on bee larval development. (Spoiler alert: at levels reflecting actual exposure in the field, no major problems). I'm not holding my breath, however.