Monday 31 October 2022

“Governor” Of The People.

Topsy-Turvy: Justice Minister Kiri Allan has got the direction of power and control in New Zealand completely upside-down.

“AS A GOVERNOR.” That is how Justice Minister Kiri Allan described her political function on TVNZ’s Q+A. Unfortunately, Jessica Mutch McKay, standing in for Jack Tame, allowed Allan’s self-characterisation to pass without comment. Which was a pity, since it is highly unusual – unprecedented even – to hear a cabinet minister describe herself in such a fashion. In New Zealand’s down-to-earth democracy, calling oneself a “governor” is just a little bit weird.

New Zealand has had governors, of course, but not for a while. The Governor of New Zealand ruled in the name of the British sovereign, and was appointed by her government. A territory ruled by a governor may, or may not, be democratic, but everywhere and always their duties are exercised alone. There was only one governor in office at any given time in colonial New Zealand, just as there is only one governor in office at any given time in the USA’s fifty states. Being a governor is a job one does alone.

A semantic storm in a teacup? Well, no, not really. Ask a central government politician from New Zealand what they are, and by far the most common response is (or used to be) “I’m an MP.” Even when that MP was also a Cabinet Minister, it was generally left to others to introduce them as the minister of this, that, or the other. To personally flaunt one’s ministerial status in New Zealand was likely to provoke the observation that so-and-so was “a bit up themselves”.

When first encountered, the bureaucratic practice of always addressing the individual in possession of a royal warrant as “Minister” – in recognition of the office rather than the person – strikes most New Zealanders as excessively and ridiculously posh. The Kiwi instinct is to call politicians by their first and/or last names in preference to their titles. Hence, the present Prime Minister is called “Jacinda”, in exactly the same way that her predecessors were hailed as “Bill”, “John”, “Helen”, “Jim”, “David” and “Rob”. Exceptions were made for public servants, journalists, and those officiating at formal gatherings, because, well, it would be a bit rude not to. Otherwise, informality is the rule.

Parenthetically, this egalitarian informality has always struck the acutely status-conscious Brits as reprehensible. There is a famous story, dating from World War II, about the commander of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, Bernard Fryberg, who was chastised by the punctilious commander of the British Eighth Army, Bernard Montgomery, for the way he failed to reprimand his men for not saluting senior officers. Unfazed, Fryberg responded by saying: “On the contrary, Sir, I find that if I wave at them, they generally wave back.”

A constitutional purist would, of course, object that Allan, as a member of the Cabinet, is part of the “Executive” which, under the Westminster System, constitutes the most active branch of government. Indeed, when New Zealanders refer to “The Government”, they are usually talking about the Cabinet, acting collectively. If Kiri Allan is engaged in actively governing the country, then why shouldn’t she refer to herself as a “governor”.

The most straightforward response to this question is: because she’s got the direction of power and control completely upside-down.

Historically, the Cabinet evolved out of the King’s or Queen’s council of advisers, that clique of powerful subjects among whom he, or she, distributed the great offices of state through which the realm was administered.

So far, so Henry VIII.

But, history does not stand still. The evolution of Cabinet government reflects the relentless disempowering of the British monarchy by Parliament, and the British people, to the point where, by the Eighteenth Century, its membership was restricted to those seated in the houses of parliament and appointed solely on the advice of the person commanding a reliable majority of the elected members of that parliament.

The New Zealand version of the Westminster System makes the direction of authority even clearer. Since 1950, this country has had only one parliamentary chamber – the House of Representatives. As its name implies, all the members of this “House” have been elected by the people to govern in their name. Meaning that, if anybody in this country has the right to describe themselves as “a governor”, it is the ordinary voter.

Kiri Allan sits at the Cabinet Table because the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, advised the Governor-General, Dame Cindy Kiro, to issue her a ministerial warrant. The Prime Minister has that power because she commands a clear majority in the House of Representatives. If Allan loses the confidence of the Prime Minister, she ceases to be a Cabinet Minister. If Ardern loses the confidence of the House – or the next election – she ceases to be Prime Minister.

So far, so Politics 101.

Which only makes it all the more mysterious that Allan would ever begin a sentence with the words: “As a governor, …” At least until Sunday’s (30/10/22) Q+A, Allan’s reputation has been that of a rough-and-ready woman-of-the-people: someone not known for putting on airs-and-graces, but for being willing to call a spade a bloody shovel – and then use it. If Allan was to describe herself as anything, the smart money would have been on her calling herself the people’s “servant” – not their “governor”.

Certainly, Allan’s announcement – via Q+A – of her intention to go after the liquor industry is very much an example of leading by serving. She is responding to the anger and frustrations communicated to her by city councils and community advocates confronted with the paralysingly expensive legal obstructions erected by the alcohol distributors’ high-priced lawyers. That she is planning to do this by what looks suspiciously like a curbing of due-process (abolishing appeals and cross-examinations) only confirms what some observers describe as an almost reckless determination on the part of the Ardern Ministry to enact its more controversial reforms before the 2023 General Election.

Frustrated by the lethargy and incompetence of the public service; stung by mainstream media criticism; injured by social media attacks; and bitterly aware that its time is running out; the Labour Government is determined to leave a “progressive” legacy – even if it lasts only as long as it takes an incoming National-Act Government to repeal it.

It is even possible that some Labour leaders, and Allan may be one of them, are saying: “We have to give our core supporters at least some of the policies they requested – and we promised – because that’s the only way we can win.” Less optimistic (but possibly more Machiavellian) Labour strategists, by contrast, may counsel forcing National-Act to play the ruthless right-wing reactionaries, this time, so that Labour can win, next time.

If this is the way Labour’s thinking is heading, then Allan’s words are easily explained. People who know they are forcing a majority of the people to accept policies demanded by a minority, will always, under pressure, fall back on the blunt interrogatives of political power: Who has it, and who is willing to use it?

That’s why it is so easy to finish a sentence that begins, “As a governor”, with the words: “it is my will that prevails – not yours.” Easy, but a perilously long way from New Zealand’s egalitarian political traditions.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 31 October 2022.

Saturday 29 October 2022

The Empire Strikes Back.

From The Periphery To The Metropole: Beyond its personal dimensions, Rishi Sunak’s rise speaks to the extraordinary dynamism and diversity of global capitalism. Brexiteer though Sunak may be, his rise to the prime-ministership of Britain will strike many Brexit voters as yet further proof that, like the guests at the Hotel California, they can check out any time they want, but they can never leave.

WITH RISHI SUNAK’S “CORONATION” as Britain’s third prime minister in as many months, numerous imperial ghosts have been awakened. Sunak’s personal history is inextricably intertwined with the history of the British Empire’s rapid and reckless dissolution.

Beyond its personal dimensions, however, Sunak’s rise speaks to the extraordinary dynamism and diversity of global capitalism. Brexiteer though Sunak may be, his rise to the top will strike many Brexit voters as yet further proof that, like the guests at the Hotel California, they can check out any time they want, but they can never leave.

Global capitalism will always have the last laugh – eh Liz?

Born in Southampton, Sunak is no less “British” than his hapless predecessor. All of us are, however, an inextricable part of our parents’ stories, and Sunak’s parents’ story is about East Africa.

For the peoples of India and Africa the Indian Ocean has always been a mighty highway. Backwards and forwards across it travelled all kinds of cargoes and all kinds of people. Under the tutelage of successive empires, this easy commerce, and the cultural enclaves it created, thrived. It was only when the last of these overlords, the British, cut and ran, that East African cosmopolitanism began to fray.

Substantial Indian minorities in the newly independent former colonies of the British Empire sat uneasily alongside the African nationalist majorities who found themselves governing nation states whose borders owed more to the compromises of competing imperial map-makers than they did to the economic and cultural history of the regions they were carved out of.

Descendants of the tens-of-thousands of indentured Indian labourers imported by the British to build their imperial infrastructure, and of the Indian entrepreneurs and fortune-seekers who accompanied them, the Indians of East Africa had every reason to follow the retreating imperialists back to Britain. Among those who made their way to the Empire’s enfeebled heart were Yashvir and Usha Sunak, from Kenya and Tanzania respectively, Rishi Sunak’s parents.

Decolonisation and the struggle for independence have become a staple of the contemporary Left’s love affair with identity. Its lazy historiography casts all but the white villains of the imperial story as heroes. But, the thing to remember about empires, and the complex human societies they nurture, is that those positioned below the imperial rulers are by no means all inclined to cry: “I am Spartacus!” Certainly, empires can keep people down, but they can also lift them up. Imperialism creates winners as well as losers.

Rishi Sunak’s parents were never losers. Professionally-trained, English-speaking, confident in their ability to negotiate the labyrinthine class structure of British society, Sunak’s mother and father did everything within their power to ensure that their clever son’s abilities were fully revealed to those most likely to value them. Trees that fall in the forests of Winchester and Oxford are more or less guaranteed to make a great deal of noise.

From the dreaming spires of Oxford, the transition to the gleaming towers of London, was relatively seamless. Like so many who climb their way to the top of a social pyramid (as opposed to being born there) Sunak made a close study of those whose ranks he planned to join.

For all their sneers, the British upper-classes have never forgotten that cash-money is always trumps. A coat-of-arms is no substitute for a seven-figure bank-balance – not least because a nine-figure bank-balance can always buy you one!

To fully appreciate the role of money in a globalised capitalist world there is no experience more educative than working for a hedge-fund. And assuredly, there is no more telling proof of how much a hedge-fund manager has learned than arranging to marry a billionaire’s daughter.

Interestingly, among the last hedge-funds with which Sunak was associated was called Theleme Partners. The name is instructive. It is derived from the Greek word for the human will. “Thelema”, derived from the same word, was (and maybe still is!) the name given to a belief system combining occult knowledge with esoteric philosophy. Among its most famous devotees were the British “magus”, Aleister “The Beast” Crowley, and the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard.

The first rule of Thelema sounds about right for a hedge-fund manager: but, maybe, just a little bit alarming for the Prime Minister of Britain.

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 October 2022.

Eliminating The Racism Virus.

Mistaking Metaphors For Reality: The experience of the public fight against Covid-19 has revealed just how injurious to social cohesion and the public peace draconian levels of medical intervention can be. And, let’s not forget, Covid-19 was an real virus! Arming the state with equivalent powers against a metaphorical virus would unquestionably engender much greater resistance.

UNWILLING TO ENDURE the opprobrium associated with its “gulags”, the Soviet Union of the 1970s changed tack. Rather than sending dissidents to labour camps the Soviet authorities decided to redefine dissidence as a form of mental illness. Opposition to the Soviet system could now be presented as a sickness, not deserving of condemnation, but care. Opponents of the USSR no longer faced summary trial and incarceration. Instead they were to be diagnosed and hospitalised. The barbed wire fences of the labour camps rusted away, replaced by the locked doors of Soviet mental hospitals. Resisting the tyranny of the Communist Party didn’t mean you were bad – it meant you were mad.

That this grim historical detail should be recalled more than thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union is due to Ao Mai te Rā | The Anti-Racism Kaupapa a document which first saw the light of day back in August 2022 under the rubric of the Ministry of Health. Subtitled “Combatting racism in the health and disability system”, Ao Mai te Rā boldly declares:

“Eliminating all forms of racism is critical to achieving health equity and the vision of pae ora – healthy futures for all New Zealanders.”

Intentionally, or unintentionally, this statement of official health policy raises the spectre of political dissidence being redefined as a form of individual and/or social pathology. Like Covid-19, racism is being presented as a threat to the future health and wellbeing of New Zealanders. This threat must be eliminated – presumably by a process akin to inoculation.

But racism is not a sickness, it is a political belief. As such, it stands to be argued against and condemned. But, attempting to eliminate “all forms of racism” under the guise of a government health programme is sinister in the extreme.

To oppose the purposeful creation of ethnically derived distinctions is one thing; to treat the creators of such distinctions as “sick” is something else entirely. Pathologising racism instantly casts any kind of political debate about ethnicity and nationalism as illegitimate.

The Ministry of Health’s paper presents racists as the carriers of something akin to a dangerous virus. As New Zealanders have discovered over the past two years, those deemed to be carrying a dangerous virus by the Ministry can be detained and confined until they no longer test “positive”. Should racists refuse to “unite against the racism virus” by undergoing a government-mandated programme of “inoculation”, they could end up losing both their employment, and their ability to access all but the most basic services.

The experience of the public fight against Covid-19 has revealed just how injurious to social cohesion and the public peace such draconian levels of medical intervention can be. And, let’s not forget, Covid-19 was an real virus! Arming the state with equivalent powers against a metaphorical virus would unquestionably engender much greater resistance.

That the Ministry of Health anticipates such resistance is made clear in another document released under its name. Entitled Position statement and working definitions for racism and anti-racism in the health system in Aotearoa New Zealand, this document defines racism in ways that leave no ethnic groups – apart from Māori and Pasifika – in a position to assert their innocence of the charge. Pakeha, in particular, find themselves declared guilty from multiple perspectives: historically, politically, scientifically, culturally, institutionally and socially. It is a verdict in which the legal concept of mens rea (evil intent) plays no part. This is because racism can be both conscious and unconscious. Regardless of whether a Pakeha New Zealander’s closet contains a Ku Klux Klansman’s robes, or an anti-apartheid banner from 1981, they are racists – beyond all reasonable doubt.

Given that the Position Statement was not only released under the authority of the Ministry of Health, but also the Government of New Zealand, what should we make of the state’s “working definition” of racism?

Racism comprises racial prejudice and societal power and manifests in different ways. It results in the unequal distribution of power, privilege, resources and opportunity to produce outcomes that chronically favour, privilege and benefit one group over another. All forms of racism are harmful, and its effects are distinct and not felt equally.

The most important conclusion to be drawn from this definition is that there is no culture, no society, no state on the surface of the planet that would not stand condemned by its content. All societies contain racial animosities and hierarchies based on religious, political, sexual and economic power. Everywhere “privilege, resources and opportunity” are distributed arbitrarily and inequitably so as to “favour, privilege and benefit one group over another”. Equality is a moral aspiration, not an settled condition. Indeed, if one substitutes “capitalism” for “racism” in this definition, it works just as well.

What, then, is the “working definition’s” purpose? The answer, sadly, is to render any attempt by Pakeha New Zealanders to challenge the Māori- and Pasifika-centric project currently unfolding in the health sector, politically and ethically untenable. What the “working definition”, and the twelve bullet points listed below it, set out to achieve is a situation in which the only acceptable role for Pakeha politicians, bureaucrats and medical professionals, is to sit quietly and learn how they might make the fullest possible restitution to the victims of their racism.

And it’s working. So averse is the professional-managerial class of most Western states to the charge of racism that its members will accept just about anything to avoid the accusation. Critical to this posture of surrender is the essential concession that it is impossible for the victims of Western racism to themselves behave in racist ways. Of equal importance is the companion concession that any suggestion that racism can be overcome by treating all human-beings as equal in rights and dignity is itself racist.

As the Position Statement makes clear:

Race and racialisation are social and political constructs designed to categorise physical differences between people (that is, skin colour, hair texture, geographical origins, etc) and assign value and meaning to a hierarchically arranged racial grouping. These constructs originated from Europe and influenced the structure of society, racial superiority and hierarchy.

And if you balk at the almost unbelievable historical cheek of this statement. If you want to shout out “Have none of you studied anthropology!” Or point out that for centuries the majority of the world’s slaves were white. Or that there are a number of other “constructs” that “originated in Europe” – like democracy, and the quaint belief that all human-beings (in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) “are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Well, then, you can only be a carrier of the racism virus, and you should be hospitalised until you test negative.

The bleak Russian humourists of the 1970s expressed the difficulties of principled disagreement slightly differently: “Only a madman”, they declared, “would question the superiority of the Soviet system.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 28 October 2022.

More Than One Way To Skin A Cat.

A woke government, served by a woke broadcaster, might just be persuaded to embark on a bold new broadcasting journey.

NOBODY HAS YET come up with a credible case for amalgamating Radio New Zealand and Television New Zealand. Even so, the merger proceeds apace, costing the taxpayer a ridiculous amount of money – to no good end. No one truly believes the quality of the broadcasting product will improve. The present audiences of both networks have longstanding gripes with the overall direction of their public broadcasters, but the response of those in charge has been to double-down on the very policies their audiences find most objectionable. With no clear rationale for the amalgamation of RNZ and TVNZ on offer, the cynicism of those who were formerly public broadcasting’s strongest defenders can only grow.

The pall of pessimism which has settled over those who still believe in the possibilities of public broadcasting has not been lifted by vague references to the need for a reliable source of public information. Citing the growing strength of the purveyors of misinformation and disinformation on social media, government mouthpieces have presented the new “entity” as the place where New Zealanders anxious to learn what’s really going on can go to for “the facts”. They are being encouraged to think of the new entity as a sort of beefed-up version of the Prime Minister’s infamous “podium of truth” during Covid.

God save us!

The newsrooms and current affairs production hubs of RNZ and TVNZ have become ideological monocultures. Senior executives, producers, journalists, technical staff and, seemingly, the entire workforce of the public broadcasters, subscribe to a single version of economic, political, social and cultural reality. A journalist wishing to put together a programme on the bitter divisions rending the women’s movement over transgender issues, for example, would not only be denied permission, she would be lucky to hold on to her job. The RNZ and TVNZ of today grow only a single crop. If you don’t like the taste of “Woke” – then you had better find an alternative menu of ideas.

Perhaps it is this apparent indifference to the traditions of free inquiry and frank debate which enlivened the public broadcasters of yesteryear that explains the new entity.

At the summit of both RNZ and TVNZ sit people who despise the whole Reithian concept of broadcasting as a public service. It was the first Director General of the BBC, John Reith, who formulated the original three word mission-statement of Britain’s public broadcaster. The purpose of the BBC, said Reith was to “inform, educate, and entertain”.

For many years Reith’s formula underpinned the operations of publicly-owned radio and television in New Zealand. It could not, however, survive the onset of the neoliberal project in the mid-1980s. The latter reduced TVNZ to a commercial operation indistinguishable from those operating in the private sector. It’s job was to sell eyeballs to advertisers and to hell with “inform, educate, entertain”.

RNZ would likely have suffered a similar fate, had it not been so vociferously defended by its loyal listeners. Thwarted in their mission to simply wipe out RNZ, the neoliberals opted to starve it to death by refusing to fund it adequately. Committed to public service broadcasting, RNZ management and staff struggled heroically to do more with less year after year. Ultimately, however, it was the government of the day that appointed the Board of RNZ, and the Board that appointed its CEO. Inevitably, the day came when the Reithian rear-guard was overwhelmed.

At the summit of RNZ, an idea took root that it was morally indefensible for public broadcasters to assume they knew better what the people of New Zealand needed than the people themselves. By this reckoning, RNZ was an educated, middle-class, Pakeha Baby-Boomer redoubt: an island of intellectual snobbery and unconscious bias in a sea of younger, browner, New Zealanders with very different values and tastes.

In the estimation of both the RNZ Board, and its CEO, the time had come for a mighty shake-up. Their first move was an attempt to downgrade and marginalise the Concert Programme and replace it with a youth-oriented network modelled on a hip, Black, New York radio-station. But, in what was very likely the last great public campaign to save Reithian radio, the supporters of the Concert Programme – led by former Prime Minister, Helen Clark, forced the RNZ Board and the CEO to put their plans on hold.

Not to worry, there is always more than one way to skin a cat. With the instalment of a Labour-led Government in 2017, a pathway opened for those who wanted to radically remake RNZ. A woke government, served by a woke broadcaster, might just be persuaded to embark on a bold new broadcasting journey. By merging it with the brain-dead TVNZ, the cerebrally-vital RNZ would finally be in a position to ditch its elitist Boomer audience and show Aotearoa what Generations X, Y, and Z could do.

If this is what happened, then, obviously, the new state broadcasting entity will be run by the bright boys and girls at the top of RNZ. TVNZ really will become “radio with pictures”. Just how much informing, educating and entertaining will go on in the new, clumsily named, “Aotearoa-New Zealand Public Media” is anybody’s guess. To those Boomers who fought so hard for RNZ and its Reithian virtues, F-Boy Island is likely to be perceived as a very poor exchange for Kim Hill and Jim Mora.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 27 October 2022.

Thursday 27 October 2022

Passing The Tests.

Professional Failure: New Zealand’s education system – once celebrated as one of the most successful in the world – is in free-fall. By all the recognised international comparators, we are failing – and failing fast. So bad have things become that it is increasingly difficult to find a sufficient number of willing and able participants to make our international test-results robust enough, statistically, to stand comparison.

BY 2024, this country’s education system is supposed to be delivering competency in literacy and numeracy to all young New Zealanders. What used to be called the “Three Rs” – readin’, ‘ritin’, ‘rithmetic – should have been mastered by all but a handful of students heading into NCEA examinations. Ominously, our education system is far from achieving this most basic of objectives.

The Ministry of Education has been trialing the NCEA assessment tests that it plans to have in place by 2024. The first trial-run took place last year, the second in July of this year, and the results of both trial-runs are dire. Of the approximately 16,000 Year Ten students (14-15 year-olds) tested in July, only 34 percent achieved a “pass” in writing; 56 percent in maths; and 64 percent in reading. These results differ only marginally from those obtained in 2021.

That is to say, after ten years of schooling, only a third of young New Zealanders can write coherently; only half possess basic computational skills; and only two-thirds can cope adequately with a level of written communication fundamental to success in adult life.

These numbers represent a scarcely believable tale of professional failure across New Zealand’s education system. What it reveals is a society that is rapidly losing the ability (if it hasn’t already lost it) to keep itself going – let alone improve itself – on the basis of its own human resources.

Try to imagine the response of New Zealand’s principal export markets if tests revealed that no more than two-thirds of its livestock could be described as healthy. Or if, by other measures, that fraction of healthy animals fell to a half, and then to a third. People would demand to know how the Ministry of Primary Industries could possibly have missed such a catastrophic decline. They would demand to know what it was doing to lift the overall level of New Zealand’s livestock health.

The livestock analogy is brutal, but a level of brutality is warranted here – if only to wake New Zealanders up to the perilous situation in which they now find themselves. For decades, we have been telling ourselves that the best way to make our country wealthier, fairer, and happier was by educating its young people to the highest possible international standard. We looked at countries with world-beating education systems – and test results – like Singapore and Finland, and assumed that theirs was the level of performance to which our own educational experts aspired.

Clearly, that was an unwarranted assumption. New Zealand’s education system – once celebrated as one of the most successful in the world – is in free-fall. By all the recognised international comparators, we are failing – and failing fast. So bad have things become that it is increasingly difficult to find a sufficient number of willing and able participants to make our international test-results robust enough, statistically, to stand comparison. In a telling sign of the times, this dearth of suitable participants is being presented by some school principals as a signal that it is time for New Zealand to abandon international comparisons altogether.

Thankfully, at both the political and bureaucratic levels, New Zealand’s perilous decline has been noted and remedial action demanded. By 2024, the slide must stop. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. The call has come very late, and, tragically, it is likely to be resisted.

Across academia, in the teacher unions, and increasingly at the chalk-face, the whole notion of education being an international enterprise, in which young New Zealanders must be able to participate (and compete) with confidence, is being rejected. In its place, “progressive” educators are erecting a system geared to rectifying the cultural and social inequities arising out of New Zealand’s colonial past.

With increasing vehemence, international standards are rejected as “Eurocentric” – or even “white supremacist” – weapons for obliterating the unique insights of indigenous cultures. The bitter letter-to-the-Listener struggle over the merits of “Western Science” versus “Mātaurānga Māori”, was but the tip of the ontological iceberg currently ripping a massive hole, albeit well below the waterline of public perception, in New Zealand’s education system.

The extent to which this debate has progressed is revealed in the responses to the shocking performance revealed in the trial-run NCEA assessment tests. According to a post on the RNZ website, “independent evaluators” are concerned that: “New literacy and numeracy tests could lower NCEA achievement rates among Māori and Pacific students.”

“They’ve gone back to the ark with these one-off tests which is just ridiculous”, fumed Peter Brooks, Principal of Fryberg High School. “I don’t know where this idea came from that you could test for literacy and numeracy on one day, online, just on computers. It’s just fraught with problems. To me it’s a giant leap backwards in terms of determining whether the kid’s literate or numerate or not.”

A report by Evaluation Associates Ltd identified “a risk fewer priority learners – which included many Māori and Pacific learners, those from low socio-economic backgrounds, and students with special education needs – would achieve an NCEA qualification once the tests were introduced.”

That a disproportionate number of Māori and Pasifika New Zealanders remain concentrated in the lowest socio-economic groups is one of the saddest constants of New Zealand sociology. Breaking the dismal cycle of low incomes, low expectations, low educational attainment, has eluded successive governments operating in the neoliberal era. Convincing Treasury, the business community, and the broader electorate, to endorse the level of spending required to transform the education sector into a credible mechanism for Māori and Pasifika escape from structural disadvantage, is a goal our politicians have yet to set themselves – let alone achieve.

In part, this failure is explained by the unwillingness of the more privileged sectors of our society to state with brutal clarity that breaking free of the dismal cycle of “lows” will only ever be achieved by aiming and scoring “high”. Parents must be told that there will be no special pleading; no softening of standards; no blaming of history. Their children must pass the tests, and they must help them pass the tests. The New Zealand state can build schools, and it can train teachers, but it cannot instill a determination in young Māori and Pasifika to be educated to the fullest extent of their powers.

It must also be made brutally clear that if young New Zealanders – preponderantly Māori and Pasifika – do not acquire the skills needed to run their own country, then their own country will be run by those who do have the skills. Increasingly, these managers and professionals will not even be Pakeha, but people from far-off places, with little or no empathy for the indigenous culture of Aotearoa.

The best way Pakeha New Zealanders can undo the damage of colonisation is to offer Māori an education system equal to the both the expectations of the rest of the world, and to the promises contained in te Tiriti o Waitangi. The best way for Māori to achieve tino rangatiratanga is to take that offer – and ace the tests.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 24 October 2022.

Sunday 23 October 2022

Jackson's Trap.

Tight Spot: Maori Development Minister Willie Jackson has been left holding a draft implementation plan for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which is too radical to present to Cabinet, but which its authors refuse to re-write. Much broader public consultation has been promised once the plan is released, but time is short, and the clock is ticking.

WILLIE JACKSON is caught in a trap of his own making. Three groups, tasked in April with developing a detailed plan for implementing the provisions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) have steadfastly refused to play the bureaucratic game the Minister for Māori Development has forced upon them. In essence, they have delivered Jackson an offer neither he, nor the Cabinet, can accept. Their “Declaration Plan”, clearly politically unacceptable, has been kept under wraps for months.

Non-plussed, Jackson asked the plan’s authors: unidentified representatives of Te Puni Kokiri, Pou Tikanga (Iwi Leaders Group) and the Human Rights Commission; to present a revised document for Cabinet’s consideration by July. With November fast approaching, the document’s authors have yet to respond. It is difficult to interpret this tardiness as anything other than a deliberate effort to run down the clock on Jackson. The Declaration Plan’s authors appear confident that their failure to adhere to the Minister’s consultative timetable will make it virtually impossible to organise an effective public response prior to the 2023 General Election.

Clearly, a high-stakes hand of political poker is being played out here. It is hard to interpret the Declaration plan’s authors’ failure to meet Jackson’s deadline as anything other than an act of deliberate defiance. What has prompted their non-compliance?

The most obvious answer is to be found in the unusual ordering of the “Declaration Plan’s” preparation. Rather than gather a broadly representative group of cultural, political and legal experts to develop a blueprint for UNDRIP’s implementation – something in the nature of a Royal Commission of Inquiry – Jackson initiated a round of consultations with Māori groups across the country, and then tasked TPK, the Iwi Leaders Group and the HRC with producing a “first draft” of the results. Once endorsed by Cabinet, this draft Declaration Plan was to be presented to the whole population of New Zealand for consideration, comment, and revision.

Now, any Māori ethno-nationalist worthy of the name will immediately recognise Jackson’s action-plan as a crude mechanism for forcing tangata whenua to water-down their proposals to the point where a Pakeha-dominated Cabinet will find them acceptable. This signed-off Declaration Plan must then be subjected to all the slings and arrows of Pakeha racism – the mouthpieces of which will undoubtedly demand even more watering-down. By the time the process is complete, New Zealand’s plan for implementing UNDRIP will be so anodyne that even Jair Bolsonaro could give it the thumbs-up!

It is worth recalling at this point that a comprehensive “Declaration Plan” already exists. Commissioned by the then Minister of Māori Development, Nanaia Mahuta, in 2019, the He Puapua report, sets forth a step-by-step process for bringing Aotearoa into full compliance with UNDRIP by 2040 – the 200th anniversary of the signing of te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Kept under wraps by Jacinda Ardern’s government, He Puapua was clearly regarded as far too radical to be placed before the New Zealand electorate in 2020. When, inevitably, the document found its way into the public domain, the newly-elected Labour Government was quick to deny that its proposals were – or would ever be – in any way driving Government policy. The Prime Minister curtly ruled-out He Puapua’s plan for a Māori upper-house of Parliament.

The institutions brought together by Jackson can hardly have missed the unspoken terms-of-reference underpinning their endeavour. Under no circumstances were they to present a Declaration Plan as radical as He Puapua. Not only that, but Matike Mai Aotearoa: Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation, an impressive consultative exercise in its own right, commissioned by the Iwi Leaders Group, and conducted under the guidance of the late Moana Jackson, which, itself, provided powerful inspiration for the authors of the He Puapua report, was also to be consigned to the “too-radical” basket. So constrained, the authorial group might as well have subtitled their Declaration Plan “Uncle Tom’s Report”.

Nevertheless, the institutions tasked with drawing up the Declaration Plan had no option but to serve. That being the case they seem to have agreed that the whole exercise should either produce a document worthy of UNDRIP, or, if that proved impossible, come to nothing.

This is what they appear to have done. Jackson was presented with a Declaration Plan which, almost certainly, incorporated the core ideas of both Matike Mai and He Puapua. Given the extent of consultation within Maoridom which preceded and informed the Matike Mai working-group’s report; and in light of the courageous creativity of He Puapua, the draft Declaration Plan’s authors could hardly have done otherwise. By any reasonable measure, Matike Mai and He Puapua are the truest reflection of the Māori ethno-nationalist position. If Jackson’s group didn’t back-up the work already done, then they risked being written-off as latter-day kupapa.

Jackson, meanwhile, is left holding a draft Declaration Plan he can’t present to Cabinet, and which its authors refuse to re-write. And, the clock is ticking. When he meets with the authors on Friday (21/10/22) what are Jackson’s options?

He could threaten to release their draft plan to the public, reasoning that the reaction of most Pakeha would be so negative that the whole process of fulfilling New Zealand’s obligations under UNDRIP would come to a shuddering halt. If he was feeling particularly embittered and Machiavellian, he could further argue that the racist backlash would be so powerful that the Government would have to abandon, at least temporarily, its whole co-governance agenda – Three Waters in particular. Could they not produce a document that would reassure Pakeha that UNDRIP was no threat: a document that would actually make the introduction of co-governance easier? Isn’t Māori control of water worth a little bit of watering-down?

Shrewd arguments, certainly, but they don’t get Jackson out of his trap. He simply can’t escape the fact that to meet the requirements of UNDRIP – let alone te Tiriti – the Crown will have to cede an unacceptably large amount of its sovereign power to Māori. As a Minister of that Crown, it is more than Jackson’s warrant is worth to place such a proposition upon the Cabinet Table. In the Realm of New Zealand there can be only one Crown.

Moana Jackson, the authors of He Puapua, and the authors of the draft Declaration Plan: all reached the same conclusion. Neither UNDRIP nor te Tiriti o Waitangi will ever be fully realised in the Realm of New Zealand. To fulfil the promises of these documents a wholly new kind of state will be required – one so radically different to the state New Zealanders presently inhabit, that their acceptance of it could only be secured in the conditions of a full-scale revolution.

And not even Willie Jackson can sell a full-scale revolution to this Labour Government.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 21 October 2022.

The Language Of Those With Nothing Left To Say.

Running Wild: Three of the more than 100 young people who trashed and burned a Wawa convenience store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, earlier this year. This degree of lawlessness, akin to, but a whole order of magnitude greater than, our own ram-raids, is indicative of a society that has lost all respect for itself. Societies that respect themselves produce citizens who respect their fellow citizens – and their property .

WHILE NEW ZEALANDERS RECOIL in shock from a seemingly endless series of ram-raids, the news from overseas is worse.

According to the UK internet magazine, Spiked: “a few weeks ago, about 100 young people ransacked a Wawa convenience store in Philadelphia. The mob stole merchandise, knocked over shelves and threw food and drinks around, leaving the store looking like a natural disaster had hit it. Many got their phones out to record the madness. As chaos reigned, a young woman twerked on a counter. Fighting spilled out into the parking lot.”

This degree of lawlessness, akin to, but a whole order of magnitude greater than, our own ram-raids, is indicative of a society that has lost all respect for itself. Societies that respect themselves do not produce young people who pillage convenience stores or drive stolen cars into neighbourhood dairies. Societies that respect themselves produce citizens who respect one another.

Those who recall the rioting that accompanied the “Black Lives Matter” protests against the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer back in 2020, may also recall the number of times journalists and politicians repeated the words of Martin Luther King:

“Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”

What happened in Philadelphia, however, was not the spilling-over of rage at the death of yet another African-American at the hands of the Police. White America heard the rage of the BLM protesters – and the rioters. What happened inside that Wawa store is what happens when White America hears the rage – and ignores it.

Comfortable New Zealand needs to ask itself whether the ram-raids it finds so disturbing are the product of something similar.

Prime Minister Ardern and her Labour colleagues promised action against poverty and homelessness. A government, supposedly driven by “the politics of kindness”, pledged itself to fulfilling a “transformational” programme of social and economic change. Except, the only transformation visible from the mean streets of South and West Auckland was the transition from bad to worse.

The Covid-19 pandemic was undoubtedly a factor in the deterioration of young and marginalised citizens’ life-worlds. For many the habits of schooling were simply lost. That so many of them remained lost, however, owes a great deal to the fact that so few people came looking for them. An education system that does not crack down hard on truancy sends out a terrible message. It is saying: “We don’t care.” Young people seldom need to be sent that message twice.

Comfortable New Zealand is learning the hard way that its alienated and unwanted young people have some “messages” of their own to deliver.

Earlier this week it was reported that, in the past five years, the number of gang members in New Zealand has doubled from 4,000 to 8,000, and that the recruitment of 18-25 year-olds is up by 75 percent. When the state’s official places of learning breathe a huge sigh of relief that their most disruptive students are no longer in the classroom, does that mean that those truants have given up on being taught? Or, are they simply learning different lessons, from different teachers?

And these lessons are dreadful – made all the more so for having about them the unmistakeable ring of truth. Money is everything. No one cares where it comes from. The Courts can’t cope. If you’re under 17 you won’t go to jail. The Police are powerless. The Law is a joke. Stealing is easy. Don’t worry about getting caught. Always remember who your friends are. Violence works.

Think of the ram-raid as a kind of grim performance art. Like the trashing of the Wawa convenience store in Philadelphia, it offers a terrifying, fun-fair reflection of the hyper-consumerist society we all inhabit. Because, if money and things truly are what define us, then why should our alienated and unwanted youngsters be content to remain undefined, simply for want of cash? If, as they strongly suspect, Comfortable New Zealand has given up on them, then why shouldn’t they make New Zealand uncomfortable?

If rioting is the language of the unheard, then ram-raiding and the trashing of convenience stores is the language of those who no longer believe in talking.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 21 October 2022.

Friday 21 October 2022

Who Is Pulling Sharma’s Strings?

Plaything Of The Right? Just how decisively the Right is shaping our politics will become clear in the run-up to the Hamilton West by-election. Though National may consider the by-election outcome a foregone conclusion, it is likely to be disabused of any such notion relatively quickly.

GAURAV SHARMA’S DEATH-DIVE into the Labour mothership may strike many traditional leftists as fortuitous. Certainly, his decision to force a by-election in Hamilton West will inflict far more damage on Jacinda Ardern’s radically elitist government than any number of old-school leftists could possibly hope to achieve. This should not be permitted to obscure the fact, however, that, in 2022, it is the Right, not the Left, that is driving New Zealand politics.

Just how decisively the Right is shaping our politics will become clear in the run-up to the Hamilton West by-election. Though National may consider the by-election outcome a foregone conclusion, it is likely to be disabused of any such notion relatively quickly.

Between them, Act, NZ First, and the new parties of the Far-Right have the potential to siphon-off enough votes to place the contest’s outcome in serious doubt. The lazy assumption among political commentators that National’s strategists will be able to browbeat its right-wing rivals into giving it a clear run at Labour smacks more of wishful thinking than sound analysis.

If National wants a clear run, then it will have to give its rivals some pretty unequivocal assurances about what it will – and won’t – do in government. Even then, the arguments for delivering National a sharp lesson in the raw power of ideological conviction may prove hard for its right-wing competitors to resist.

A political novelist would look at this evolving situation and explore the question of exactly who informed Sharma that Ardern was planning to waka-jump him less than six months out from Election Day 2023. Sharma insists that it was a member of Labour’s New Zealand Council, but, honestly, that seems unlikely. The New Zealand Council of the Labour Party has been pretty effectively “scrubbed” ideologically. The notion that there is someone sitting around that table harbouring dark thoughts about Ardern and her colleagues, and spilling the beans to Sharma, is most unlikely. Easier to believe is that someone – a genuine enemy of the Labour Government – is pulling Sharma’s strings.

If such a person exists, then he or she is almost certain to be a right-winger. But, just how far is that person, and those s/he is working with, prepared to go? Is the idea of a Sharma-led “centrist” party his own, or was it planted and watered by his unnamed “friends”?

It’s an important question. A group of seasoned operatives who knew what they were doing might actually pull together something that looked enough like a genuine centrist party to draw-off a useful number of Labour votes. Then again, why would they invest so much energy and cash in a guy who’s never going to be more than a political footnote?

The only plausible explanation is that the political force best placed to draw off Labour votes – the Greens – have been so thoroughly battered and bullied by Labour, that they no longer possess the necessary political courage to demonstrate their indispensability to the “left-wing” cause.

A surging and ideologically rampant Green Party, slashing into Ardern’s record from the left, would make it next-to-impossible for Labour to retain Hamilton West. Not that a genuine Green Party would care. It’s only goal would be to show that if 2023 isn’t a Labour-Green victory, then it won’t be a victory at all.

Sadly, only the most unrealistic of optimists could foresee such a welcome recovery of electoral nerve. Most likely the Greens will meekly agree to sit-out the by-election. Meaning that, if there’s any vote-siphoning to be done, it will have to be done by the Right.

Viewed from the perspective of the non-National Right, the best possible outcome of the Hamilton West by-election would be a narrow (the narrower the better!) win for Luxon’s team.

A romper-stomper victory for the National candidate is the last thing the non-National Right wants. A win like that would reassure National that they have no need to make serious policy concessions to the parties on their right. It will convince Luxon and Willis that they can continue fudging on the Treaty and Three Waters, and double-down on John Key’s successful formula of doing whatever it takes to win and hold the suburbs. Knowing that, if National holds the suburbs, then the rest of the Right has no real option but to make do with half an ideological loaf.

Ensuring that National’s candidate only just makes it would put an end to all the party’s thoughts of an easy campaign in 2023. The idea that it will be enough to just shuffle along a few paces to Labour’s right, and muddle-through as usual, will be scotched. National will have no option but to respond to the gravitational pull of all those political forces unwilling to accept Labour’s radical elitism. The results are unlikely to be pretty.

But that’s what your country gets when it lacks a mass movement, grounded in the working-class, and dedicated to social equality – rather than radical elitism. The penny has yet to drop in Aotearoa-New Zealand that identity politics is not left-wing politics. Labour and the Greens are by far the slowest learners – dangerously slower than the Right.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 20 October 2022.

The Two Vladimirs.

First Time As Tragedy, Second Time as ... Tragedy: The Leninist will-to-power is also there in Putin, but the dream is different. Not a speculative blueprint for humanity’s future, but a necromancer’s resurrection of Russia’s obscurantist past. Not the white-hot ripples of modernist self-confidence, but the poisonous fogs and vapours of the Middle Ages.

TWO VLADIMIRS, facing each other across a century of time: joined and separated by the Russian nation. Two Vladimirs – Lenin and Putin – around whose understanding of and aspirations for Russia the whole world has, reluctantly, been forced to circle. Two Vladimirs and their contradictory visions of Russia’s meaning dictating the fate of humankind. Two Vladimirs, more alike than either man would willingly admit.

THE FIRST VLADIMIR, Lenin, saw Russia’s potential. Not, simply, as an empire ripe for revolution in ways that the British and German Empires were not, but as a gigantic Petri dish in which something new and immensely powerful could be cultured.

As a dedicated Marxist, Lenin understood just how dramatically Russia deviated from Marx’s revolutionary schema. It was an quasi-feudal empire of peasants, only slowly beginning to industrialise – the starkest possible contrast with the advanced capitalist economies of the United States, Great Britain and Germany – places identified by Marx as the most likely locations for a humane socialist revolution. Lenin wasn’t bothered. A humane socialist revolution was not on his agenda.

In this respect, Lenin was all Russian. His revolutionary politics were shaped by its traditions of terrorist violence and the imposition of new orders from above.

There was a glittering seam of the most reckless nihilism that ran through Russia’s revolutionary rock. It shrugged-off ethics and laughed at caution, fostering an all-or-nothing approach to politics. Lenin mined that seam assiduously, becoming the most fearless political gambler.

He risked the accusation of being a German spy by allowing the Kaiser to facilitate his return to Petrograd. He risked everything on his Bolshevik Party’s coup d’état toppling the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky. He risked the survival of Russia itself by accepting the predatory terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, betting that Germany would not win the First World War, and would ultimately be forced to surrender its gargantuan territorial gains.

Having won Russia, Lenin then proceeded to abolish it. Not even its name remained. Lenin named his Petri dish the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Not that his socialism was all that socialist. He drew inspiration from the way the German war economy had been organised by Walter Rathenau. He admired Henry Ford’s assembly-lines. Had he lived, there is every possibility that he would have prefigured the Peoples Republic of China’s Deng Xiaoping, who famously responded to his party’s bitter internal disputes over which “road” to follow – communist or capitalist – by quipping: “I do not care if the cat is black or white – so long as it catches mice.”

What fascinated and inspired the first Vladimir were the glittering possibilities arising out of a political entity that encompassed one sixth of the planet’s land surface. An entity bursting with resources, and now, thanks to a revolution, a civil war, and the emigration of the Tsarist regime’s fondest supporters, an entity unencumbered by all the usual historical baggage. An entity whose people were a blank slate for his party to write on. An entity which, if it was as lucky as the man who created it, would go on to shape the destiny of the entire world.

THE SECOND VLADIMIR, Putin, looking back over the century separating him from the first, can see with equal clarity not only how much of Vladimir Lenin’s vision was realised, but also the dire, if unintended, consequences of that success. Though raised in Lenin’s Petri dish, and inordinately proud of its achievements, Putin is pinioned by the inescapable fact of its failure.

The Russian people: impassive, resilient, deeply cynical; but also mystical, superstitious and prone to dangerous enthusiasms; turned out to be anything but a blank slate upon which the Bolsheviks could freely write the future. Their country may no longer have been called Russia, but Russians they remained. Their empire also, which, thanks to their heroic efforts against the exterminationist Germans, expanded to encompass all of Eastern Europe.

No Tsar had ever wielded the power of Joseph Stalin. The Soviet Union glowered over Western Europe and the world through black, bear-like eyes: the object, alike, of humanity’s grim admiration and abiding fear.

Lacking in this Red empire was the first Vladimir’s readiness to wager everything to move the experiment forward. Stalin was ruthless, but he wasn’t brave. The man lived his whole life in fear, and made damn sure the Soviet people did the same. Lenin’s Petri dish was poisoned by his fear. The Soviet Empire that evolved may have been bigger and more terrifying that the Tsars’, but Homo Sovieticus was a pretty wretched specimen.

The second Vladimir, like the Russian Federation he rules, is a hot mess of geopolitical and cultural insecurities. He despises the late Mikhail Gorbachev for presiding over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That event, according to Putin: “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”

What Putin missed completely was the historical courage of Gorbachev’s all-or-nothing bet that the entity created by the first Vladimir might yet prove equal to its creator’s optimistic vision.

That Gorbachev lost the bet is, of course, the best possible proof that Homo Sovieticus was an evolutionary dead-end. That the Soviet Union’s successor states all became hopelessly corrupt kleptocracies merely demonstrated how degraded Soviet Man’s political and economic DNA truly was. That Putin rose to become Russia’s new strongman heaped irony on tragedy.

Because its all there in the second Vladimir: the nihilism, the cynicism, the existential wager on nothing more elevating that re-swallowing the Ukrainian people. First devoured by Lenin in the 1920s, and then eaten again by Stalin in the 1930s. The Leninist will-to-power is also there in Putin, but the dream is different. Not a speculative blueprint for humanity’s future, but a necromancer’s resurrection of Russia’s obscurantist past. Not the white-hot ripples of modernist self-confidence, but the poisonous fogs and vapours of the Middle Ages.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 18 October 2022.

Monday 17 October 2022

Cancelling Shakespeare.

The Master: Shakespeare’s art is of a power that at once confirms and dissolves history. In his incomparable mastery of the English language he reminds us that we are more than male and female, rich and poor, Māori and Pakeha. What this “Elizabethan playwright” reveals to us, and hopefully will go on revealing to succeeding generations until the end of time, is the wonder and woe of what it means to be human.

IT IS DIFFICULT to see the Arts Council’s decision to defund Shakespeare as anything other than “propaganda of the deed”. In the current, unusually tense, cultural climate, the idea that a decision to refuse a $30,000 grant to an organisation responsible for introducing the art of William Shakespeare to a total of 120,000 (and counting) secondary school students might, somehow, pass unnoticed and unremarked is nonsensical. The notion that the Council’s decision was a carefully targeted ideological strike is further buttressed by the comments attached to its refusal. To describe these as incendiary hardly does them justice.

Every year the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival invites secondary school students to compete for the best interpretation of an excerpt drawn from a Shakespeare play. To date, upwards of 120,000 students have participated in this hugely popular competition. While the Arts Council’s support accounts for only a tenth of the festival’s budget, its decision to deny this year’s funding application was couched in language that has outraged English teachers, English scholars, and educated English-speakers, both here in New Zealand and around the world.

According to The Guardian, the arts funding body, Creative New Zealand, in its advisory panel’s funding assessment document, stated that: “while the festival has strong youth engagement, and a positive impact on participants”, it “did not demonstrate the relevance to the contemporary art context of Aotearoa in this time and place and landscape”.

Putting to one side the self-evident reality that a festival involving thousands of young people in acting, directing, set-designing and painting, costuming, composing and providing incidental music to a host of independent theatrical productions, offers an unassailable prima facie case for being of great relevance to New Zealand’s “contemporary art context”: how should we decode the assessment document’s gnomic formulation: “Aotearoa in this time and place and landscape”?

Given that all state institutions are now required to ensure that their decisions reflect the central cultural and political importance of te Tiriti o Waitangi, as well as their obligation to give practical expression to the Crown’s “partnership” with tangata whenua, the advisory panel’s meaning is ominously clear. At this time, and in this place, the policy landscape has no place for artistic endeavours that draw attention to the powerful and enduring cultural attachments between New Zealand and the British Isles.

Expressed more bluntly, Creative New Zealand is serving notice on applicants for state funding that, unless their projects both acknowledge and enhance the tino rangatiratanga of Māori, they will be deemed to have insufficient relevance to the “contemporary art context” to warrant public financial support.

This is even worse than it sounds. Creative New Zealand is structurally disadvantaging the 60-70 percent of New Zealanders who trace their ancestry to, and derive the greater part of their cultural identity from, the British Isles. Moreover, future applicants unable to demonstrate a genuine familiarity with Māori language and culture, will almost certainly lose out to applicants who can. In other words: “in this time and place and landscape” and absent the most powerful political and/or institutional patrons, Pakeha applicants should expect to be refused Creative New Zealand funding.

Is this drawing too long a bow? Not when the Council’s own assessment document seeks to know “whether a singular focus on an Elizabethan playwright is most relevant for a decolonising Aotearoa in the 2020s and beyond”.

A “decolonising Aotearoa”. Here exposed is the unabashed ideological bias of the Arts Council and its assessors. There is a considerable head-of-steam building among some Māori (and their Pakeha supporters in the public service, academia and the mainstream news media) for a wholesale stripping-out of the political, legal and cultural institutions of the “colonial state”, and for their replacement by the customs and the practices of te ao Māori. At present, this is the agenda of the “progressive” elites only. Certainly, no such proposition has been placed before, or ratified by, the New Zealand electorate.

Not that these same elites would feel at all comfortable about important cultural judgements being placed in the hands of the uneducated masses. Indeed, it is likely that the decision-makers at the Arts Council are entirely persuaded that an important part of their mission is to so radically reshape the cultural landscape that the “decolonising of Aotearoa” comes to be seen as entirely reasonable. If re-educating the benighted Pakeha majority means limiting its own (and its children’s) access to the works of “an Elizabethan playwright” (indisputably among the greatest artists who ever lived) then so be it.

Too much? Once again, the document released by the funding assessors, suggests otherwise.

The panel of assessors is concerned that the festival’s sponsoring organisation, the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand, is too “paternalistic”, and that the entire Shakespearian genre it is dedicated to promoting is “located within a canon of imperialism and missed the opportunity to create a living curriculum and show relevance”.

That’s an imperialistic “canon” with one “n” – not two! Alluded to here, presumably, is the entire theatrical menu of Western Civilisation: from Aristophanes to Oscar Wilde. (Apart from Ireland, the English had no empire to speak of in Shakespeare’s time!) A cultural collection which, apparently, has no place in a “living curriculum” – from which, one can only deduce, Dead White Males have been ruthlessly purged. Only by excluding the cultural achievements of the past, the Arts Council seems to saying, can any artistic endeavour hope to “show relevance”.

To those who shake their heads in disbelief at this rejection of historical continuity, it is important to make clear just how hostile the post-modern sensibility is to the whole idea of a materially and imaginatively recoverable past – a past with the power to influence both the present and the future. The post-modernists hate the idea of History as both tether and teacher – fettering us to reality, even as it reveals the many ways our forebears have responded to the challenges of their time. When post-modernists talk about relevance, what they really mean is amnesia. Only an amnesiac can inhabit an eternal present – post-modernism’s ideal state-of-being.

Shakespeare and his works are downgraded and rejected precisely because his words and his plays connect us to the past – revealing the tragi-comic continuity of human existence. More than that, Shakespeare’s art is of a power that at once confirms and dissolves history. In his incomparable mastery of the English language he reminds us that we are more than male and female, rich and poor, Māori and Pakeha. What this “Elizabethan playwright” reveals to us, and hopefully will go on revealing to succeeding generations until the end of time, is the wonder and woe of what it means to be human.

Or, in the words of the man himself:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, 
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

A version of this essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 17 October 2022.

The Greens’ Politics Of Fear.

Safe Space: What sort of mentality is required to draw up a list of rules that will not only make vigorous debate impossible, but which is also an unabashed attempt to curb the freedom of expression of politicians, activists, and their fellow students, along with any other group or individual in possession of strong opinions? What is it that drives groups like Auckland University Greens to engage in such extraordinary behaviour?

THE AUCKLAND UNIVERSITY GREENS (AUG) have scaled new heights of political absurdity. In an act of what can only be described as unconscious self-parody, they have decided to boycott the “Baby Back Benches Debate 2022” until such time as “further equity provisions have been enacted”. These provisions, helpfully listed in the AUG’s Facebook post, are of such an onerous nature that political debate, as generally understood, would no longer be possible on the Auckland campus.

Taking one’s party out of a debate in which its rivals: Labour, National, Act, Te Pāti Māori; will all be energetically represented, is unlikely to strike many people as the most intelligent of electoral strategies. Undaunted, the AUG go on to recommend that the University of Auckland enjoin all organisations planning to hold debates on its campus during 2023 – Election Year – to conform to the AUG’s provisions.

Were the University authorities persuaded to follow the AUG’s recommendation, it is most unlikely that any of New Zealand’s leading political parties would bother showing-up. NGOs such as Greenpeace, The Council of Trade Unions and the Free Speech Union would, almost certainly, follow suit. Auckland’s students would, thus, be prevented from engaging in the activity for which were once so notorious: loud, rancorous, scandalous – but hugely entertaining and enjoyable – political debate.

How, then, is the AUG’s conduct to be explained? What sort of mentality is required to draw up a list of rules that will not only make vigorous debate impossible, but which are also an unabashed attempt to curb the freedom of expression of politicians, activists, and their fellow students, along with any other group or individual in possession of strong opinions? What is it that drives groups like AUG to engage in such extraordinary behaviour?

This is how the AUG begin their explanation:

A structural shift from our current system is necessary, as marginalised minorities are actively undermined by the political status quo. University of Auckland Greens is an organisation that offers an alternative. To practice what we preach, our executive committee has decided to abstain from attending Baby Back Benches 2022. Our vision is establishing safe spaces on campus that encourages positive policy-based kōrero, instead of entertaining drunken debates that are not conducive to constructive conversations.

It is difficult to imagine a more embarrassing and self-revelatory political beginning.

Structural shifts in entrenched economic and political systems are not usually achieved by engaging in “policy-based kōrero” in “safe spaces”. It is difficult to imagine Maximilien Robespierre and his fellow French revolutionaries limiting themselves to earnest policy discussions in rooms from which all strong and/or disturbing opinions had been banished. Even harder to see Lenin and Trotsky insisting that their Bolshevik comrades engage only in “constructive conversations”. Would the platform of the Finland Station, crowded with workers’ and soldiers’ deputies from the Petrograd Soviet – most of them carrying banners and brandishing rifles – pass muster as a “safe space”? Would the noisy late-night discussions of Mao Zedong, a man not averse to a few drinks, and his boozy Communist Party comrades, qualify as “drunken debates”?

As Mao famously opined: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

But this is precisely what the AUG want their “structural shift” (why not call it by its proper name “Revolution”?) to be. They cannot seem to conceive of a politics that is anything but leisurely, gentle, temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. The last thing they want to encourage by their actions is an act of violence:

Instead of sowing the seeds of conflict, we should be creating community with each other. This vision is only possible if we focus on redress over reactions, policy over personality, and whanaungatanga over fighting.

Such a pretty picture – until one thinks about their proposed provisions – especially the one that reads: “Anyone in breach of the rules should be immediately removed.”

Removed by whom?

Since it is difficult to imagine members of the AUG removing rule-breakers themselves, it must be supposed that the job of enforcing the AUG’s provisions would fall to University of Auckland security guards. Or, if the rule-breakers refused to go quietly, the Police.

Is this a structural shift? Or is this simply a group of highly-privileged young people using the enforcers of the university and/or the state to impose their notion of political debate on everybody else? And if that is the nature of AUG, then in what way is it distinguishable from the “current system” – in which a tiny minority of privileged and powerful individuals use their control of the forces of organised violence to impose their notion of economic and political order on everybody else?

AUG does not truly seek a structural shift – let alone a revolution. What it is attempting to promote, with its safe spaces and constructive conversations, is a political style that, should it ever be adopted by those with the power to enforce it, would render “one class overthrow[ing] another” impossible.

For what is it that the AUG’s provisions actually promote? The answer, surely, is fear. The fear of the victim. The fear that grows in victims encouraged to embrace not their power – but their powerlessness. The fear that renders victims permanently incapable of confronting the emotional and physical violence out of which their victimhood is fashioned and constantly refreshed. The fear that turns them into the pliable playthings of those with power – the people who actually make the policies they are urged to discuss so constructively. Fear is the AUG’s currency. Fear of those with differing views. Fear of political passion. Fear of debate.

The same fear that, tragically, is fast becoming the currency of the entire Green Party.

To parody George Orwell’s desperately demoralising prediction from Nineteen Eighty-Four:

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a Green Party equity officer’s boot stamping out rowdy political debate – for ever.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 14 October 2022.

The Grapes Aren’t Sour – They’re Just Not The Centre-Left’s.

The Grapes Of Wrath: The resounding defeat of Efeso Collins is all it took for the Auckland centre-left (and its more combustible fellow-travellers) to denounce the entire electoral process as a rort, and to strongly insinuate that the victorious mayoral candidate, Wayne Brown, is lacking in democratic legitimacy. If this is not a case of sour grapes on the part of the losers, then it is difficult to imagine what a case of sour grapes might look like!

FOUR ELECTIONS IN A ROW the centre-left romped home with the Auckland mayoralty. Four elections of postal voting. Four elections in which the logistical management of the ballot was contracted out to the private sector. Four elections won by white, male politicians over the age of 55 years. Four elections of entirely satisfactory results – at least from the perspective of the centre-left.

One defeat, however, is all that it has taken for the centre-left (and its more combustible fellow-travellers) to denounce the entire electoral process as a rort, and to strongly insinuate that the victorious mayoral candidate, Wayne Brown, is lacking in democratic legitimacy. If this is not a case of sour grapes on the part of the losers, then it is difficult to imagine what a case of sour grapes might look like!

Let us begin with the most respectable of the losers’ complaints: the difficulty of keeping track of electors whose socio-economic status entails frequent changes of address. This is a perennial problem for the Electoral Commission (yes, that’s right, enrolment is the responsibility of the Electoral Commission, not private election services providers) letters arriving at addresses where the elector (or potential elector) is no longer in residence. Short of introducing a decidedly intrusive system of comprehensive citizen surveillance, however, it is difficult to see how this problem might be overcome.

Let us not forget that enrolling to vote (as opposed to actually casting a vote) is compulsory in New Zealand. It is the duty of every citizen to ensure that he or she is on the Electoral Roll. Fortunately, registering to vote in this country (unlike the USA) is extraordinarily easy. It can be done in a few minutes online, or at any Post Office. The only obstacle confronting those who move houses frequently from updating their details prior to the postal ballots being sent out is their own indifference to the electoral process.

As many commentators, confronted with the losers’ accusations of a “rigged” 2022 local government election, have noted, there’s not a lot that citizens, sufficiently motivated, cannot do. Music fans will jump online in an instant to secure tickets to the concerts of their favourite artists. Bargain hunters will queue for hours to get first crack at a big-box retailer’s discounted stock. Far less effort is required to enrol and vote in an election. All that’s required is the will.

The other loud complaint of the losers is that there were far too few ballot-boxes made available for those tardy electors seeking to deposit their ballot-papers. Given that upwards of 64,000 votes were successfully cast between sunrise and noon on Saturday, 8 October, this complaint lacks credibility. Further undermining the charge, is the fact that during the three-week-long voting period for local elections, there are ballot-boxes located every few hundred metres for the convenience of electors. They’re called post-boxes. Making it easier to vote was, precisely, why Postal Voting was introduced in 1989.

Yes, yes, yes! Younger voters don’t use post-boxes, don’t even know what they look like, and certainly wouldn’t know where to find one. Even so, sufficiently motivated young voters, ready and eager to participate in the democratic process, could always overcome their ignorance by summoning-up the courage to ask one of those hideous human-beings aged over 65 where the nearest post-box is located. Chances are they’d discover there’s one opposite the neighbourhood dairy, or located conveniently right outside their favourite café. But, that would require them to act as if they were members of a community made up of multiple ethnicities and generations – wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, no one’s yet managed to transform the volksgemeinschaft into an app instantly downloadable to the 18-25-year-old citizen’s smartphone.

The least respectable argument put forward by the Centre-left losers of the 2022 local government elections is that, somehow, the results represent ‘The Revenge of the Baby Boomers’. The claim, here, is that, somehow, everyone over the age of 55 in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin, telepathically received the instruction to dash the hopes of their children and grandchildren by voting for Wayne Brown, Phil Mauger, and Jules Radich, instead of Efeso Collins, David Meates and Aaron Hawkins.

Secure in their obscenely overpriced homes, these Boomers experienced no difficulties in getting their voting papers. Indeed, some of them received more than one set. Some were – shock! horror! – multiple voters.

That’s right. If you own a rated (i.e. a taxed) property in any region, district or city, you are indeed entitled to vote for the body that struck the rate (i.e. imposed the tax). The principle upon which this entitlement is based is as old as democracy itself. It underpins every Westminster-style parliament. It even provided the key slogan of the American Revolution of 1776. “No taxation without representation!”

What is not correct, however, is that any elector in New Zealand is permitted to vote more than once in the same contest. A wealthy Boomer may own six houses in Auckland, but he is not entitled to six votes. His representation on the body taxing his properties is secured by a single vote – in exactly the same way as the young renter’s representation. The Boomer’s holiday-home in Coromandel, being taxed, does entitle him to vote – once – in Coromandel. But only for the candidates standing in that locality. The notion that Auckland’s Boomer landlords were casting fistfuls of votes for Wayne Brown is risible. Proof only of how sorely needed civics classes are in our schools.

A powerful sense of entitlement does, however, lie at the heart of the 2022 losers’ sour grapes. Not the entitlement derived from democratic principle, but the sense of entitlement ingrained in political activists who believe themselves to be on the right (that is to say left) side of history. This certainty concerning their own ideological rectitude exists in inverse proportion to their knowledge of the actual nuts-and-bolts of historical and political agency.

Wayne, Phil and Jules didn’t win because they are jointly in control of some sort of bizarre Boomer hive-mind; they won because they had a more accurate fix than Efeso, David and Aaron on what the citizens of Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin, who were most likely to vote, wanted (and did not want) from their respective mayors and councils. The brutal fact of the matter is that the centre-left mayoral candidates in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin ran campaigns plagued by a conspicuous lack of one, or more, of the “Three Ms” – Money, Message, Machine. (Hat-tip to Mike Hutcheson.)

The proof of this contention is that Tory Whanau, the “Green” candidate for the Wellington mayoralty had the skills and the support to lay her hands on all three of the “Ms” – and she won the election hands-down. Tory found out what the over-55s wanted; but she also found out what the 18-25s, and all the other demographics, wanted; and then she offered it to them in a well-organised, positive, and successful campaign.

Democracy isn’t cheap, and it isn’t easy, but it is simple. Don’t insist that the voters be given what they don’t want. Build your footpaths where the people walk. Never, ever, be a sore loser. And, always remember: vox Populi, vox Dei.

The voice of the people, is the voice of God.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 13 October 2022.

Jacinda’s Hijab.

Iconic Image: Surely it cannot be? No! The very thought is outrageous! That Ms Ardern, so sensitive to the power of images, is unwilling to devalue what is surely the most potent image of her entire prime-ministership; the image projected a kilometre-high against the imposing walls of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa; the image of Jacinda Ardern consoling the families of the Mosque Massacre victims – in a hijab?

THE CELLPHONE RECORDING showed the young woman twirling, twirling, twirling. Her white garments catching the red-orange glow of the firelight. Above her head, above her flowing hair, held aloft for all to see, was the symbol of her oppression. Dancing perilously close to the flames, she flung the hated hijab into the fire. All around her, hundreds of other young Iranian women cheered. Smiling and laughing, the dancer twirled her way back to the safety of her sisters.

The video went viral. All over the world, lovers of liberty and equality applauded the young woman in white. Not long after the first video, however, came a second. It also captured the image of a young woman – a young woman agonisingly similar to the joyous, dancer. Clad all in white, she lay crumpled in the street, unmoving. The young protester’s jet-black hair was spread all around her frozen features like a dark pool of mourning.

According to Amnesty International, more than 200 people have been killed by the Iranian police and security forces since the nationwide protests against the wearing of the hijab began. Sparked by the death in “Morality Police” custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, arrested in September because she was wearing her hijab “incorrectly”, these protests have morphed into an intergenerational struggle for the future of Iranian women – and men.

Extraordinary scenes have been broadcast of girls in their early teens shouting down representatives of the theocratic Iranian government. Bareheaded, waving their hijabs in his face, they cry “Death to the Dictator!” Outraged, the government official recites a poem in which the enemies of the Islamic Republic are compared to flies. Another cellphone video, recorded by a shocked woman standing at a second-floor window, shows helmeted riot policemen beating a twelve-year-old schoolgirl mercilessly in the street.

In the European Parliament, a Swedish lawmaker takes out a pair of scissors and hacks off a lock of her own hair in solidarity with the oppressed women of Iran. Clutching it in her upraised fist, she cries out the slogan of the protesters: “Zan! Zendegi! Azadi!” Women! Life! Freedom!

Our own lawmaker, the Greens’ Golriz Ghahraman, does the same. Cutting off chunks of her own hair in solidarity with the women and girls of the country from which her parents fled for the liberty and equality of New Zealand.

One can only imagine the impact of this country’s internationally acclaimed prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, taking a pair of scissors from the podium in the Beehive Theatrette and making an identical gesture of solidarity with the young women risking their lives on the streets and in the schoolrooms of Iran. Her own cry of “Zan! Zendegi! Azadi!” would be heard around the world.

Why our prime minister has had so little to say about the events in Iran is a question many New Zealanders are asking themselves. After all, if words can become “weapons of war”, as Ms Ardern told the General Assembly of the United Nations only a few days ago, then so, too, presumably, can pieces of cloth. And if the shooting of Ukrainian civilians by Russian troops warrants the loud and very public condemnation of the New Zealand Government, then, surely, the beating of schoolgirls and the shooting down of young women in the street by Iranian policemen and soldiers warrants the same?

Surely it cannot be? No! The very thought is outrageous! That Ms Ardern, so sensitive to the power of images, is unwilling to devalue what is surely the most potent image of her entire prime-ministership; the image projected a kilometre-high against the imposing walls of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa; the image of Jacinda Ardern consoling the families of the Mosque Massacre victims – in a hijab?

Never! Our Prime Minister, a communications studies graduate, would not need to be told that the wearing of the hijab in the fraught context of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings was a powerful statement of unity with the devastated Muslim community. Ms Ardern’s hijab gave visual expression to her inspired declaration “They are Us.”

The New Zealand prime minister did not wear the hijab because she had to. She wore it because she chose to. She wore it as a symbol of her own – and her country’s – rejection of the politics of bigotry and violence.

She wore it in solidarity.

“Women! Life! Freedom!”

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 October 2022.