Sunday, 27 November 2022

A Strange Hill To Die On.

Last Stand? Has Labour’s caucus chosen the Government’s deeply unpopular Three Waters policy as the hill upon which it will stand and die? And, if that is the case, then – why?

CURIA RESEARCH recently conducted a poll in the Napier electorate. Bad news for Stuart Nash, the Labour incumbent, whose chances of holding the seat are currently fluctuating between slim and none. Bad news, too, for the Labour Government as a whole, because the issue of most concern to local voters, by a Hawke’s Bay country-mile, is Three Waters. Around a third of the voters polled put the controversial water project at the top of their list of concerns. That’s nearly twice as many as the next most pressing concern for Napier voters – the parlous state of our health system.

One has to go back a long way to find a government so willing to press on with a policy so roundly rejected by the electorate. It is more than thirty years since Richard Prebble, confronted with the evidence that close to 90 percent of New Zealanders opposed the sale of Telecom, responded with the observation that Kiwis should be proud to have a government with the guts to face down such a powerful pressure-group!

Opponents of Rogernomics knew their efforts to turn around Labour’s caucus were doomed when MPs, confronted with evidence of the damage the Government’s policies were doing to their own chances of re-election, proudly declared that they would rather lose their seats than abandon the economic reforms. When fanaticism replaces politics, there’s not a lot anyone can do.

Is that what New Zealanders are faced with in the Three Waters Project – fanaticism? As happened thirty years ago with Rogernomics, has Labour’s caucus chosen this deeply unpopular policy as the hill upon which it will stand and die? And, if that is the case, then – why?

Tasked with a very similar question by the veteran business journalist, Fran O’Sullivan, the Deputy-Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson, indicated that if the most controversial element of Three Waters, the co-governance provisions, were stripped out of the Water Services Entities Bill (which is now only one reading away from the Royal Assent) then the two key questions Three Waters was formulated to answer: ‘Who owns the water?’ and ‘Who should manage it?’ would “end up in the courts immediately”.

Why should that be seen as an insurmountable problem? The answer, for Labour, can be given in three words: “foreshore and seabed”. The younger generation of Labour activists and politicians were mortified by Helen Clark’s ruthless countermanding of the Court of Appeal’s controversial judgement on who owned the watery margins of New Zealand. They still cringe at her in/famous description of those leading the protests against Labour’s legislation as “haters and wreckers”. Jacinda Ardern’s and Grant Robertson’s generation vowed “never again”.

What they still fail to grasp, however, is that Helen Clark’s government’s political response was both courageous and correct. The Court of Appeal had presumed to intrude upon matters that – as subsequent events proved – were quintessentially political in nature and, therefore, the proper preserve of the nation’s supreme political arbiter, Parliament. By reaffirming, through over-riding legislation, what the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders already believed to be the case – that the coastline belongs to all the people – Prime Minister Clark was telling the judiciary, in no uncertain terms, to get back in its box.

It is a matter of considerable constitutional concern that this present Labour Government does not appear to be willing to invite the courts to do the same.

Mr Robertson’s fear of the Three Waters controversy ending up in the courts strongly suggests that he and his Cabinet colleagues are simply unwilling to avail themselves of the power to determine who does – and who does not – own the water.

Is that because they are frightened that Labour’s Māori caucus will revolt if the co-governance provisions of the Water Services Entities Bill are stripped out of the legislation? Or, is it because they are afraid that the Judiciary will openly declare any such move by the Legislature to be ‘inconsistent’ with the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi?

If the first explanation is correct, then Mr Robertson and his Cabinet colleagues are guilty of political cowardice. If the second explanation holds true, then the Ardern Ministry is guilty of constitutional dereliction-of-duty.

The day unelected judges are permitted to dictate policy to the people’s elected representatives, in Parliament assembled, is the day that democracy dies in New Zealand.


This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 November 2022.

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

The Most Pertinent Question.

Why Now? As Rebecca Wright pointed out to Justice Minister, Kiritapu Allan, on Newshub Nation, a great deal of political travail could have been avoided by the Labour Government if they’d simply accepted the Royal Commission’s recommendation to extend the already existing legal protections against the incitement of racial hatred to include religious communities. In the evil shadow of the Christchurch Mosque Attacks, most New Zealanders would not have objected.

THE LABOUR GOVERNMENT’S wholesale retreat from its dangerously exposed positions on “Hate Speech” should be applauded. Had it remained committed to the hardline definitions it trailed before the public a year or so ago, Jacinda Ardern’s ministry would have been condemning itself to a battle it did not need to fight – and could not win. The truth of the matter is that Labour’s dangerous dalliance with the Woke variant of Hate Speech has served no one but the Act Party, whose staunch defence of Freedom of Expression accounts for much of its impressive increase in electoral support.

One of the most pertinent questions put to Kiritapu Allan, the Cabinet Minister in whose name the watered-down legislation will be introduced, came from Newshub Nation’s Rebecca Wright. What was it, she wanted to know, that prevented the Labour Government from implementing these measures when they were originally recommended by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch Mosque Shootings almost exactly two years ago?

As Wright pointed out, a great deal of political travail could have been avoided by the Labour Government if they’d simply accepted the Royal Commission’s recommendation to extend the already existing legal protections against the incitement of racial hatred to include religious communities. In the evil shadow of the Mosque Attacks, most New Zealanders would not have objected to proscribing the sort of language contained in the writings of the Norwegian mass killer, Anders Breivik, and his Australian disciple, Brenton Tarrant.

Like the legislation outlawing semi-automatic weapons, the protection of religious communities from verbal incitement to inflict serious bodily harm would likely have passed through Parliament swiftly and with a minimum of debate. An issue fraught with all manner of risky political and cultural side-bars could thus have been resolved: the legislated solution being generally perceived by New Zealanders as morally congruent to the problem which called it forth.

The Royal Commission’s recommendations regarding the current hate speech laws were as follows:

1. sharpening the focus of the statutory language;

2. adding religion to the list of protected characteristics;

3. including electronic communications in the types of publication covered;

4. including the offence in the Crimes Act rather than the Human Rights Act;

5. increasing the maximum penalty from three months’ imprisonment to up to three years’ imprisonment; and

6. adding “racial superiority, racial hatred and racial discrimination” to the list of grounds for classifying a publication as objectionable under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.

With the obvious exceptions of recommendations 5 and 6, the Royal Commission’s suggestions were admirably moderate. After so many false starts, inept attempts at explaining the Labour Government’s thinking, and frightening proposals advanced by some of the more extreme actors in this drama, Minister Allan’s response is no less measured:

Currently, under the Human Rights Act 1993, it is illegal to publish or distribute threatening, abusive, or insulting words likely to ‘excite hostility against’ or ‘bring into contempt’ any group on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins. Those grounds will now be extended, in both the civil (section 61) and criminal (section 131) provisions, to cover religious belief.

Unfortunately, Ms Allan’s Royal Commission-inspired “solution” is unlikely to be as well-received in 2022/23 as it would have been in 2020. Closer to the tragedy, the manifold problems associated with exciting “hostility or ill-will against”, or, “bringing into contempt or ridicule” any group of persons living in New Zealand on account of their religious beliefs, would undoubtedly have been easier to overlook. Two years on, however, it will not be so easy.

While the average New Zealander might accept the criminalisation of language or behaviour which is intended to – and does – “threaten” faith communities, it is much less likely that they would accept people being criminally sanctioned for “abusing” and/or “insulting” people for their religious beliefs.

It is important to bear in mind as the debate rages over the Government’s proposed changes to the Human Rights Act, that the historical context out of which the demand for individual freedom of expression arose was first and foremost a religious one. It is one of the most problematic aspects of religious belief that it not only lays down strict rules for one’s own conduct, but also, almost invariably, the conduct of others. When the prize at stake is one’s immortal soul, being required to conform to some other person’s religious beliefs quickly assumes the character of an existential threat. People will kill their fellow human-beings for a whole lot less than their billet in eternity.

How would New Zealanders respond to the news that the state legislatures in the USA had passed laws making it illegal to excite hostility against or ridicule of the Christian religion? Would they consider that a necessary legal protection? Or would they condemn such a law as an outrageous curtailment of Americans’ freedom of expression? Unhappy with hypotheticals? Well then, what is the response of most New Zealanders to the sentences of death imposed upon those who insult the Prophet Mohammed in Muslim countries? (Or, in the case of Salman Rushdie, from well outside Muslim countries?)

On the questions of how best to save one’s soul, the liberal-democratic state has learned, usually by the hardest of ways, to take itself out of the conversation. It willingly grants its citizens the right to believe in all manner of deities, with all manner of strict rules and regulations concerning their worship, but it does not attempt to enforce the exemption of those same citizens from all manner of criticism, insult, and ridicule. Although the New Zealand state had not prosecuted anybody for a very long time for the crime of blasphemous libel, it nevertheless thought it appropriate to remove the offence entirely from its statutes. By what curious logic, therefore, does it now propose to reintroduce it under the cover of the Human Rights Act?

Significantly, the National Party has signalled its unwillingness to accept the extension of the Human Rights Act’s protections to include religious belief. Their argument, like Act’s, is that such an extension would constitute an unwarranted curtailment of New Zealanders’ freedom of expression. Labour faces a united Right on this issue, and with it the guarantee that the Free Speech versus Hate Speech debate will feature prominently in the run-up to the 2023 General Election.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Labour also faces a year of angry protest from its left. Woke New Zealand (among whom we must now include the leading lights of the Human Rights Commission) is outraged that Minister Allan and her colleagues have not extended the protection of the Human Rights Act to women, the LGBTQI community, and the disabled.

Contemplating the coming months of rancour and rebuke, Rebecca Wright’s question about why the Prime Minister and her government didn’t strike this particular wedge of iron when it was still red hot, only grows more pertinent – and the Government’s answer, all the more puzzling.


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 21 November 2022.

Sunday, 20 November 2022

If It Ain’t Broke, Why Fix It?

Still Going Strong: Why has the Minister of Justice cobbled together a group of “progressive” academics, most of whom subscribe to the core beliefs of Māori nationalism, “decolonisation”, and te Tiriti revisionism, to “review” our political system? In the absence of any convincing evidence that our electoral machinery is “broke”, why is the Labour Government so determined to “fix” it?

DEBORAH HART is sceptical about democracy’s effectiveness. Or, at the very least, she believes it can be improved. “We should never take for granted that our electoral system, or indeed our democracy, will work effectively”, says the Chair of the Independent Electoral Review Panel.

It’s a rather curious comment for the person charged with giving our electoral system the once-over to toss – almost randomly – into the “conversation” about New Zealand’s democracy. After all, New Zealand boasts one of the oldest, continuously operating, democracies in the world. Countries much larger and more powerful than our own cannot point to an uninterrupted stretch of free and fair elections of nearly 130 years. Neither the French nor the Italians could make such a boast, and certainly not the Germans or the Russians.

Not only were New Zealand women the first to be enfranchised, but its indigenous people, the Māori, have enjoyed permanent parliamentary representation since 1867. Indeed, Māori were exercising their right to vote years before their Pakeha brethren. The citizens of very few nations have had the benefits of universal adult suffrage for as long as Kiwis. Certainly not the British or Americans. (The women of the United States won the federal franchise in 1920, and British women were not fully enfranchised until 1928!)

What’s more, our Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, in operation since 1996, has successfully rid our democracy of the unedifying spectacles of yesteryear, when individual political parties receiving considerably less than 50 percent of the votes cast, somehow ended up commanding a majority of the seats won. MMP has also allowed political parties to use their “Party Lists” to more accurately reflect the rich diversity of the New Zealand people. Our House of Representatives, formerly a chamber dominated by old, white, men, is, at last, what it says on the tin.

There are some who lament New Zealand’s lack of a written constitution – on the model of America’s and Australia’s. Others criticise our unicameral parliament, arguing that we would be better served by restoring its second chamber, abolished by National’s first prime minister, Sid Holland, in 1950.

The problem with written constitutions is that the inevitable conflicts over their interpretation are resolved by unelected lawyers in judges’ robes. And, as anyone who’s been paying attention to US politics recently knows, allowing judges to determine what should and shouldn’t be included among the fundamental rights of citizens, can throw up some very disturbing results.

With their single house of Parliament, their unwritten – and hence flexible and adaptable – constitution, and their highly efficient electoral machinery, New Zealanders are the masters of their own destiny to a degree unencountered among many peoples. Our courts cannot strike down legislation passed by the House of Representatives, nor can one Parliament bind another – both prohibitions guaranteeing a radically majoritarian mode of government. If the essence of democracy consists of giving effect to the will of the majority, then New Zealand must rank as one of the most democratic nations on Earth.

Why then did the Minister of Justice see fit to cobble together a group of “progressive” academics, most of whom subscribe to the core beliefs of Māori nationalism, “decolonisation”, and te Tiriti revisionism, to “review” our political system? In the absence of any convincing evidence that it is “broke”, why is the Labour Government so obviously keen to “fix” our electoral machinery?

Some idea of the expectations raised by the formation of the Independent Panel may be gleaned from “advocate and political commentator” Te Matahiapo Safari Hynes, who told Radio New Zealand’s Pokere Paewai:

There’s only a certain level that we can exist as Māori within this system that’s currently here in terms of central and local government. There’s only a certain amount of things that we can achieve […..] We cannot achieve our full potential as a self-determining people within this political system. However this is what we have and we have to be a part of it.

This is, indeed, “what we have”, but one senses that Mr Hynes’s intention to be “a part of it” is the same as the Lion’s intention to be “part of” the herd of wildebeest he is tracking. One also gets the uneasy feeling that the members of the Independent Electoral Review Panel are committed to doing everything within their power to help him.


This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 November 2022.

Wednesday, 16 November 2022

The Facts Don’t Always Tell The Truth.

Sins Of Omission: Ardern’s speech to the 2022 Labour Party Conference shows just how much of the truth can be obscured through the presentation of the “facts”. Had she been of a mind to speak honestly to her party, Ardern could have explained to conference delegates that the reason so little has been accomplished on her watch is because the Fourth Labour Government deliberately powered-down the state.

WHAT WOULD YOU THINK of a man who offered himself for high political office with the following credentials? He was raised in humble circumstances, fought his way out of poverty and, at 44, is a twice-decorated war hero. He does not eat meat or drink alcohol, loves animals and has an easy rapport with children.

Worth a go?

Not when you hear his name. Not when you discover that the man seeking your support is Adolf Hitler.

And yet, all the attributes listed above are completely factual. Adolf Hitler was all of those things. But, simply listing facts, especially when they are stripped of context, is not the same as telling the truth. To grasp the truth of Adolf Hitler’s contribution to world history requires more than mere facts, it requires understanding, interpretation and judgement.

When the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, addressed her party’s annual conference on 6 November 2022, she cloaked herself in the legacy of the Labour leaders who had preceded her. This is what she said:

On the 9th floor of the Beehive building in Wellington, sitting directly behind my desk, is a picture of Michael Joseph Savage. You could say he’s on my shoulder but also ever so slightly in my ear.

“Of course it was Savage and the first Labour Government that lifted New Zealand out of the depths of the Great Depression. Not by cutting taxes and services, but by investing in jobs, and building a social welfare safety net. They built the country’s first state home. And not long after these social reforms - New Zealand’s living standards were among some of the highest in the world. Not for the few, but for the many.

“The Finance Minister who supported Savage, Walter Nash, then led Labour’s second government as it continued to build our nation’s social welfare system, while advocating on the world stage for peace over war after World War 2.

“It was Norman Kirk and a Labour government who tilted the country towards a modern future with reforms of trade, health, the arts, and education. They worked hard to foster a renewed national identity and partnership with Maōri - all the while challenging global evil such as apartheid and nuclear testing.

“It was a fight David Lange continued, making New Zealand nuclear free, while also righting the wrongs of the past by legalising homosexuality, and fully abolishing the death penalty.


There are many facts embedded in the PM’s speech, but precious little truth.

It is certainly a fact that the Second Labour Government was led by Walter Nash, but to suggest that he was some sort of courageous pacifist visionary is very far from the truth.

Nash was 75 years old when he became Prime Minister in 1957 and was a notorious prevaricator and procrastinator. The two Labour Ministers who drove the Second Labour Government were Finance Minister, Arnold Nordmeyer, and the Trade & Industry Minister, Phil Holloway. Inspiring these two men was a third – the senior public servant and left-wing intellectual, Bill Sutch.

Knowing these things about the Second Labour Government, being able to put Nash and his colleagues into their proper historical context, offers the present-day member of the Labour Party a radically different perspective on the possibilities of social-democratic government. Sadly, Ardern did not want to share even a small measure of the truth about those three years. Her only concern was to establish her place in the line of succession.

Poor Norman Kirk fares little better. On the basis of the PM’s summary, the Third Labour Government could easily be presented as laying the groundwork for the Fourth. The truth is, of course, very different. Kirk was a nation-builder who, like his Australian counterpart, Gough Whitlam, was determined to extend and expand the Labour accomplishments of the 1930s and 40s. In other words, Kirk’s government represented the antithesis of Lange’s.

The Fourth Labour Government made New Zealand safe for neoliberalism by dismantling everything that the First, Second and Third Labour Government’s had built. Ardern’s impossibly brief sketch of the Fourth Labour Government, in which Lange champions the anti-nuclear policy, decriminalises homosexuality, and “finally” abolishes the death penalty comes perilously close to lying by omission.

Lange initially attempted to water-down the anti-nuclear policy, and then made sure he was as far from Wellington as possible when the critical decision to either admit or deny entry to a visiting US warship could no longer be put off. The decriminalisation of homosexuality was effected by a private members bill in the name of Fran Wilde on a conscience vote. It was not a government bill, and Lange had nothing to do with it. The big battle over the death penalty for murder had been won twenty-three years before Lange became PM. It was accomplished under a National Party government in 1961. All that the Fourth Labour Government abolished, thanks to Sir Geoffrey Palmer (not Lange) was the death penalty for treason in time of war.

Ardern’s reference to the Fourth Labour Government shows just how much of the truth can be obscured through the presentation of a few highly dubious “facts”. Had she been of a mind to speak honestly to her party, she could have explained to conference delegates that the reason so little has been accomplished on her watch is because the Fourth Labour Government quite consciously decided to disempower the state, and had carefully dismantled all the machinery that made it possible for previous Labour Governments to make New Zealand a better place.

It is entirely possible that Ardern approves of David Lange’s and Roger Douglas’s “reforms”. Certainly, neither she, nor her Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, have seen fit to roll back the neoliberal revolution which the Lange/Douglas partnership began. And that’s fine – just so long as she doesn’t then pretend to be one more gleaming crimson link in the long democratic-socialist chain that begins with Harry Holland in 1919!

The Labour Party does not like to be criticised and is fiercely protective of its leaders. Over the years it has discovered that the best form of defence is to personally attack all those who draw attention to its shortcomings. Crucial to the success of this strategy, however, is the fostering within its ranks of a pervasive political amnesia, and the encouragement a profound level of historical ignorance. The measure of these Labour apparatchiks’ success is that, to date, not one party member has dared to protest the Prime Minister’s grotesque misrepresentation of the Labour governments which preceded her own.

There is so much that the Labour Party could learn from its past. So much courage that could be drawn from the men and women who refused to be told that their plans were beyond the scope of practical politics. People who didn’t have to pretend to be radical reformers. A party that said “Let’s do this!” – and then did it.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 15 November 2022.

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

The “Us versus Them” Worldview.

Behind Closed Doors: What were the organisers of He Whenua Taurikura, the second hui called into existence by the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch mosque shootings, afraid of? Were they worried that journalists not 100 percent sympathetic to the ideals animating the hui might report something untoward? Like the truth?

THE SIGN said it all: “No Media Access”. Whatever was going on behind these closed doors, it was not open to the scrutiny of a free and independent media. Given the meeting’s/hui’s ostensible purpose – Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism – this was rather odd. The sheer volume of government and quasi-government noise being generated on the subject of extremism surely suggests that the proceedings of He Whenua Taurikura deserved the widest possible audience.

What were the organisers of this, the second hui called into existence by the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch mosque shootings, afraid of? Were they worried that journalists not 100 percent sympathetic to the ideals animating the hui might report something untoward? Like the truth?

Something like the Director of the NZ Security Intelligence Service, Rebecca Kitteridge, announcing her concern that there were New Zealanders out there at risk of developing an “Us versus Them” worldview.

What could she mean? Who could she be talking about?

Is it possible that she was thinking about the 120 members of the NZ House of Representatives? Certainly, our Members of Parliament are irretrievably enmeshed in the “Us versus Them” worldview about which the SIS Director is so concerned. One can only imagine her horror upon discovering that the House, itself, is quite deliberately divided into “The Government” (Us) and “The Opposition” (Them). The radicalising effect of the Chamber’s architecture, which forces these antagonists to confront each other from a distance traditionally expressed as the length of two drawn swords, can only be imagined.

When it comes to officially sanctioned polarisation, however, Parliament does not stand alone. Our legal system openly describes itself as “adversarial” – with the “Prosecution” (Us) doing all it can to discredit and undermine the “Defence” (Them) – and vice versa. And what about labour relations? The radicalisation of exploited workers confronted by rapacious bosses is as old as capitalism itself.

Clearly, Director Kitteridge is on to something: the “Us versus Them” worldview is everywhere!

It would certainly explain why the SIS has devoted considerable resources to producing a helpful handbook encouraging New Zealanders to “Know the Signs” of somebody at risk of succumbing to “violent extremism”.

There are no fewer than 50 of these signs, apparently, a cluster of which involve the afflicted individual deliberately seeking out opportunities for camaraderie and self-sacrifice, learning how to handle firearms and explosives, and surrounding themselves with martial and nationalistic symbols.

We must assume that Director Kitteridge has already been alerted, via the SIS’s special contact number – 0800STASI – to the existence in Aotearoa of a force of more than 5,000 such individuals, and that this violent organisation, “The NZ Army”, has been placed under round-the-clock surveillance.

Ms Kitteridge has become an easy target for this sort of satire for the very simple reason that hers was one of the few contributions to He Whenua Taurikura that received extensive coverage by the mainstream news media.

What the country didn’t hear very much – if anything – about were the contributions of other hui attendees. A cynic might suggest that the suppression of this material was deemed necessary by the hui organisers because if the average citizen was made aware of its existence there would be an outcry. Most New Zealanders do not see it as a role of their government to “guide” the thinking of the nation towards the radical, ideologically-driven goals of a tiny, unelected, elite of bureaucrats, academics and activists.

To be fair to these elite reformers, the presence of the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, at the hui, could be construed as a sign that she and her government had cast the mantle of their protection over He Whenua Taurikura’s deliberations.

Indeed, since the horrific events of 15 March 2019, the Prime Minister has evinced an uncompromising determination to strengthen the country against the violent extremists of word and deed. One could almost say that she has been “radicalised” by her experiences, and that her views on matters like “hate speech” have become deeply polarising.

Ms Ardern’s and her government’s radicalisation is fast becoming electorally problematic. Precisely because radical ideas, practically by definition, are polarising, they tend to make those who espouse them politically defensive and hostile to criticism. Those citizens who oppose state-sponsored radicalism, mark themselves as “enemies of the people”.

“No Media Access” is only the beginning.


This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 November 2022.

Wednesday, 9 November 2022

Much Worse Than It Looks.

Bad News:  While Labour’s refusal to back away from its most controversial policies is mobilising right-wing voters against them, its all-too-evident failure to address the worsening problems associated with the cost of living, health, education, housing and criminal offending will be having the opposite effect on the voters in its heartland.

THE NEWSHUB/REID RESEARCH POLL is much worse than it looks. Twelve months from now, when the actual voting papers, as opposed to responses to pollsters’ questions, are counted, Labour’s tally is likely to be much lower than 32 percent. Why? Because the level of voter abstention will be higher than it has been for many elections. Higher than the pollsters at Reid Research and other agencies are willing to assume, which means that the pre-election polls will flatter the Left by a significant margin. When the true level of abstention is revealed on Election Night – especially in relation to Māori, Pasifika and Pakeha voters under 30 – the vicious destruction of the Labour Party by older, whiter and righter voters will be explained.

The flight to abstention in 2023 will reflect a turning away from politics that is likely to gather strength as Labour’s contentious legislation on Hate Speech, Three Waters and Co-Governance contributes to a political climate of unprecedented bitterness and strife. While the determination of right-wing New Zealanders to defeat the Labour Government will only be strengthened by Labour’s intransigence, the voters of the centre-left will feel increasingly uneasy about defending Jacinda Ardern’s government. As the political rancour grows, the inclination of “mainstream” voters to “sit this one out” will grow along with it.

Certainly, the overseas experience – especially in the United States – confirms that the nastier politics gets, the stronger the temptation felt by moderate voters to simply walk away from the whole business. The Right’s supporters, by contrast, are energised by their political opponents’ escalations, and typically respond with even more outrageous escalations of their own. The fear inspired by these tactics is even less conducive to normal political engagement. Voters shut their doors against the unpleasantness and determine to have nothing to do with the extremists on both sides.

The dynamic was memorably captured by W.B. Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming”:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

While Labour’s refusal to back away from its most controversial policies is mobilising right-wing voters against them, its all-too-evident failure to address the worsening problems associated with the cost of living, health, education, housing and criminal offending will be having the opposite effect on the voters in its heartland.

Among Labour’s “base”, expectations have been high that the changes promised by the party since 2017 will make their lives easier. That these changes – at least on the “transformational” scale suggested by the Prime Minister – have not eventuated, cannot help but contribute to a mood of disillusionment among “Jacinda’s” most loyal supporters. Indeed, according to the results of a survey commissioned by Stuff Media, fully 35 percent of those asked how the Prime Minister made them feel, responded by saying she made them feel “disappointed”. A third replied, “concerned”. More than a quarter said, “angry”.

To make matters even more confusing, Labour has not spent the last five years attempting to re-define itself in the manner of the Fourth Labour Government. In fact, it has done the opposite, taking every opportunity to distance itself from “Rogernomics” and reaffirm its admiration for the heroes of the Labour Movement, Michael Joseph Savage and Norman Kirk.

To older Labour supporters, this is quite simply baffling, and not a little irritating. Many of them lived through the government of Norman Kirk, and are well aware that Jacinda Ardern’s period in office – putting to one side the exogenous shocks of the Christchurch Mosque Massacre and the Covid-19 Pandemic – has been nothing like “Big Norm’s”.

Undeterred, the PM continues to insist that hers is a government in the finest Labour tradition. In her speech to the party conference on Sunday, 6 November 2022, she reiterated her government’s claim to the historical mantle of its predecessors:

On the 9th floor of the Beehive building in Wellington, sitting directly behind my desk, is a picture of Michael Joseph Savage. You could say he’s on my shoulder but also ever so slightly in my ear.

Of course it was Savage and the first Labour Government that lifted New Zealand out of the depths of the Great Depression. Not by cutting taxes and services, but by investing in jobs, and building a social welfare safety net. They built the country’s first state home. And not long after these social reforms - New Zealand’s living standards were among some of the highest in the world. Not for the few, but for the many.

The Finance Minister who supported Savage, Walter Nash, then led Labour’s second government as it continued to build our nation’s social welfare system, while advocating on the world stage for peace over war after World War 2.

It was Norman Kirk and a Labour government who tilted the country towards a modern future with reforms of trade, health, the arts, and education. They worked hard to foster a renewed national identity and partnership with Maōri - all the while challenging global evil such as apartheid and nuclear testing.

It was a fight David Lange continued, making New Zealand nuclear free, while also righting the wrongs of the past by legalising homosexuality, and fully abolishing the death penalty.


Virtually every claim made by the Prime Minister in the passage quoted above is either historically contestable, or just plain, flat-out, wrong. For that very reason, it is a powerful illustration of the deeply flawed thinking that has led the Ardern Government to the brink of electoral ruin.

At its heart is a cynical contempt for the truth, and a smug conviction that the falsehoods scattered through it will not be noticed by anybody whose opinion matters. Labour’s leaders have been able to get away with this sort of rhetorical flim-flam since 2017 because the intervention of the unpredictable – Christchurch, Covid – helpfully distracted the country from its government’s moral vacuity. The longer the electorate has had to take stock of its government’s ethics, however, the less it has found to like.

It is certainly no accident, that on the issues that have so divided the nation – Hate Speech, Three Waters, Co-Governance – Jacinda Ardern and her ministers have been uncharacteristically tongue-tied. The redefinition of democracy which lies at the heart of all three proposals requires attributes this government simply does not possess. The intellectual ability to frame and present an argument. The straightforwardness needed to persuade even one’s own voters to accept it.

Small wonder New Zealanders feel disappointed, concerned, and angered by their Prime Minister. And, no wonder at all that, come Election Day, a very much larger number of them than usual will steadfastly decline to make their way to the nearest polling booth and cast a vote.

Yes, as they watch their older, whiter, and righter neighbours set off to destroy the Sixth Labour Government, they will experience a pang of guilt.

But, it will pass.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 8 November 2022.

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

Jacinda Ardern’s Wall Of Sound.

Thirty Minute Symphony? Among her peers there is no one who approaches Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when it comes to talking the talk. She is, indisputably, New Zealand’s foremost impresario of political verbiage.

PHIL SPECTOR’S “WALL OF SOUND” production technique revolutionised the recording of popular music in the 1950s and 60s. Simple multiplication lay at the heart of Spector’s innovation. Where other producers would hire one musician, he would employ many. Three, not one, drummers. Two, not one, pianists. Multiple guitarists – acoustic and electric. All dedicated to enlarging his young listeners’ experience. The effect he was looking for – and delivered – was a two-minute symphony.

Jacinda Ardern has perfected her own version of Phil Spector’s wall of sound. A multiplication, not of instruments, but of words. Verbal riffs and phrases that build upon one another to create an edifice of explanation that doesn’t so much enlarge as overwhelm those assigned to question the prime minister, along with those inclined to listen to her. Among her peers there is no one who approaches the Prime Minister when it comes to talking the talk. She is, indisputably, New Zealand’s foremost impresario of political verbiage.

To describe Ardern in these terms is not in any way to deprecate her. Increasingly, across the Western World, the quality most sought after by politicians – and admired by voters – is fluency. To be at a loss for words, in the current political climate, is a sure sign of weakness. What counts today is polish, style and ease. The ability to convince: not by the meaning of one’s words, but by how well one delivers them. In an age of celebrity, all that matters is the smoothness of the “talent’s” performance.

Nowhere was this phenomenon more agonisingly on display than in the on-screen confrontation between the Democratic and Republican contenders for the open Pennsylvania Senate seat: John Fetterman and Dr Mehmet Oz.

Prior to the debilitating stroke that hit Fetterman in the opening weeks of his campaign, he had been well-ahead of his rival. In spite of the fact that “Dr Oz” is a well-known television personality, he was unable to match Fetterman’s working-class “authenticity” – manifested principally through his rough-and-ready working-man’s vocabulary and diction.

Robbed of this easy fluency, however, Fetterman soon began to flounder. His positive medical prognoses notwithstanding, Fetterman’s stroke-induced inarticulateness, when set alongside Oz’s smooth delivery, instantly began to tell against him in the polls. The voters did not appear to care about the candidates’ policies, or even about their characters. The only factor that seemed to count was who sounded most like the host of a reality TV show. Pennsylvania, which, six months ago, had been seen as a slam-dunk for the Democrats, is now too close to call.

As New Zealand enters election year, a change of government may ultimately come to depend on how closely National’s Christopher Luxon can match the Prime Minister in political fluency. At the moment, Luxon is well behind Ardern. Plausible, rather than convincing, the National leader presents well enough under gentle questioning. Pressed to explain his words, however, Luxon’s fluency falters. Openly challenged by politicians or journalists with the facts at their fingertips, his fluency has an alarming tendency to disappear altogether. Unlike the PM, notorious for being formidably well-briefed, Luxon, under pressure, sounds neither convincing, nor reassuring.

The contrast between Luxon and his health spokesman, Dr Shane Reti, is instructive. Even more than Ardern, Reti presents an easy authority. On both the generalities and the details he is a hard man to fluster. That medicine is his profession undoubtedly helps, but so, too, does his ability to think on his feet.

Questioned by John Campbell on Sunday’s Q+A, Reti turned his interviewer’s collection of official statements and reports into a formidable debating point – demanding to know why it was necessary to have so many bureaucracies dedicated to supplying more-or-less identical advice to the Government. That is the calibre of performance that wins a Leader’s Debate in the final weeks of an election campaign: the sort of “Show me the money!” improvisation that enabled John Key to defeat Labour three times in a row. Can Luxon think that fast? Not on current form.

Luxon’s performance also falls short in another important respect: his ability to emote convincingly. On the “performative emotion” scale, the National Party leader is positioned several rungs short of the Prime Minister. Sadly, Nature has not supplied him with the highly mobile features of Ms Ardern, who can flash a dazzling smile of reassurance with the same ease that she adopts the pathos of a mourning Madonna, or demonstrates the empathic rictus of a woman who feels your pain. Luxon does cheery tolerably well, but all those other emotions, so critical to a successful political performance: anger, pity, disdain, lofty indifference, intense solidarity; still need a lot of work.

Naturally, all of the above were on display at various points during Jacinda Ardern’s speech to the Labour Party’s annual conference (6/11/22). Unsurprisingly, there are few contexts in which the Labour leader feels more at home than in front of the party faithful. Given the amount of practice she has had, Ms Ardern’s ease is only to be expected. Long before she became leader, “Jacinda” had made herself the darling of Labour’s membership. Her youth, her vivacity, and her ability to string together words that conveyed less in the way of deep meaning than they did of happy feeling, made her the ideal Mistress of Ceremonies at party gatherings.

It is a testimony to just how much Ardern learned about the art of communication at the University of Waikato, that she has been able to parlay her talent as an MC into the skills of a PM. She grasped early what her predecessors – Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little – missed. That what people are looking for in a leader are exactly the same qualities they admire in a game-show host. Warmth, wit, and a complete absence of condescension, obviously. But, also unflappability: the quality of always appearing to be on top of things – even when they are going wrong.

That unflappability, so evident in the hours and days following the Christchurch Mosque Massacre, White Island, and – most impressively – during the Covid-19 Pandemic, is what makes Ardern such a formidable political contender. That sense of being in control – without appearing to make any obvious effort – drives her political opponent’s crazy. John Key has it – albeit with a slightly different performative repertoire . Boris Johnson has it. And so, to the deep chagrin of millions, does Donald Trump.

Phil Spector’s two-minute symphonies made his career. That wall of sound testifying to the unstoppable power of pop music. The other wall of sound, the one produced by men and women who can read an autocue without appearing to, points to another kind of power: the kind that reassures us that even in the midst of chaos – someone is still in charge. Small wonder, then, that the politicians capable of conveying that reassurance – without an autocue – tend to win more elections than they lose.


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 7 November 2022.

Friday, 4 November 2022

0-800-STASI

The Lidless Eye: New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service has scoured its own files, and drawn on the relevant files of its Five Eyes partners, to produce a handbook identifying all the tell-tale signs that a citizen has undergone radicalisation, and is on the verge of organising and/or engaging in an act of deadly violence. But, that’s not all. The SIS has also set up a special number for people to call if they believe their next-door-neighbour has become a violent extremist.

“WHAT THE HELL IS THIS!” Gerald stared at the words on the screen as if, somehow, he could make them blink first.

“What’s up?” Gerald’s co-worker, Elise, swivelled towards him, eyebrows raised interrogatively. Gerald was usually such a quiet and studious worker, she found his angry outburst just a little bit shocking.

“See for yourself”, Gerald replied, turning his screen towards Elise.

“Hmmmm.” Elise settled back in her chair with a thoughtful expression. “That is certainly an unusual brief. Not the Boss’s style at all. What do you suppose has led her to issue such an odd assignment?

“I don’t have to suppose anything, Elise, I know what inspired this. It’s the second of those national anti-terrorism seminars. The first one was a complete waste of time, and the second has been a complete waste of time multiplied by ten. Why doesn’t the Boss just tell the Prime Minister to leave national security to the professionals?”

“Because Directors don’t get to tell Prime Ministers what to do, Gerald – as you well know. The PM has immersed herself in this misinformation, disinformation, bad actors stuff, to the point where she can no longer think rationally about national security matters.”

“No, she can’t. What Prime Minister in her right mind would ask her security chief to prepare a ‘How To Tell If Your Neighbour’s A Violent Extremist’ handbook? Dear God! Putting to one side the utterly appalling anti-democratic ramifications of the idea, why would a national security agency provide an actual or potential violent extremist with a helpful list of all the behavioural tells to avoid? How wise is it, do you think, to warn these characters what to keep hidden from their friends and family? Surely the PM can be made to see that putting out something like this only makes the bad guys’ work easier?”

“The problem, Gerald, is that she’s been persuaded that we, and all the other national security agencies, are either incompetent, or racist, or both. She probably thinks that, with the right sort of surveillance, violent extremism can be stopped in its tracks.”

“Nuts.”

“Yep. And the animosities stirred up by the Pandemic have only made things worse.”

“True, but whose fault is that? Who went from being the Good Fairy, trusted protector of the people; to full-on Maleficent, imposing vaccination mandates with a cackle? Who allowed the Speaker to go on whacking that Hornets’ Nest in Parliament Grounds until its occupants erupted in fury and started stinging all-and-sundry? Who made it clear how pleased she was with the sort of journalism that portrayed the country as brimming over with white supremacists and fascists?”

“I know, I know, Gerald. Nor does she appear to understand that the moment a political leader indicates an explanatory preference, that is the only explanation she will receive.”

“Hence, the Boss’s instruction to write this bloody handbook. I’m supposed to go through all our own files, along with the relevant files of our allies, and identify all the tell-tale signs that someone’s undergone radicalisation, and is on the verge of organising and/or engaging in an act of deadly violence. But, that’s not all. I’m also supposed to set up a special number for people to call if they suspect their next-door-neighbours are preparing to ram-raid their Petunias. I’m going to suggest 0-800-STASI.”

“If you’re thinking Stasi, you should talk to Dieter – he used to be a Colonel in the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, the Ministry of State Security, back in the days of the German Democratic Republic.”

“East Germany?”

“Yep. He moved here to be with his children and grandchildren after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He works for us from time to time. On contract, presumably. Come to think of it, Dieter’s been around the building quite a bit lately.”

“Do you think the Boss would contract him to give me a hand with this assignment? I mean, who is better qualified to write a handbook on identifying real and/or potential enemies of the state than a former Stasi colonel?”

“I don’t see why not. Gosh, Gerald, this is actually getting quite exciting. Have you been watching Kleo – that Netflix series about a GDR assassin?”

“I keep meaning to, but I haven’t yet, no.”

“Oh, but you must, it’s a hoot. Kleo worked for the HVA, the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance – the external arm of the Stasi responsible for espionage, propaganda, sabotage, and assassination. Believe me, Gerald, that girl is dangerous!”

“Hey, do you think, Dieter might have been in the HVA? I mean, espionage, propaganda, sabotage, and assassination – he’d know all about that stuff!”

“Jeez, Gerald, we’re not at that point – surely? All we’re being asked to do is alert people to the tell-tale signs of violent extremism. That hardly makes us the Stasi.”

“Actually, Elise, that’s exactly what it makes us. In the early years of the GDR there really were thousands of former Nazis to identify and punish for the crimes of 1933-45. By the 1980s, though, the Stasi were keeping tabs on just about everybody. Neighbours were asked to spy upon neighbours – and they dared not refuse. A word in the right ear, and your worst enemy could lose her job, or you could be thrown into prison. When thoughts become crimes, Elise, everybody is a potential criminal.”

“And what better incentive could there be for committing an act of violent extremism than being punished for thinking about one?”

“Exactly.”


This short story was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 4 November 2022.

Three Waters. Three Mayors. Three Cheers!

Three Wise Men: Who should pay for upgrading New Zealand's waste, storm and drinking water services? That is the $64 billion (at the very least!) question. The most obvious answer: and the one Mayor Wayne Brown in Auckland, Mayor Phil Mauger in Christchurch, and the Mayor of the Waimakariri District, Dan Gordon, reached for with plain, old-fashioned, common-sense, was that the state should pay.

THE THREE MAYOR’S proposed revision of Three Waters is timely, sensible, and ought to be accepted by the Labour Government. If Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues press on regardless, then the electorate will know just how little Three Waters has to do with securing an affordable upgrade of New Zealand’s water infrastructure, and how much the controversial scheme is now about mandating the co-governance of water.

Not that the Prime Minister will admit that co-governance is the driver of the proposed reforms. To do so would be to lay upon the table, for free and frank debate, the fraught issues of radical constitutional change, and the future of our democracy. Ms Ardern is, almost certainly, in possession of poll data indicating that any such debate would be lost by her Government – decisively.

No, the Prime Minister’s explanation for why the Three Waters project must proceed is already being aimed, unwaveringly, at the voter’s back-pocket. If Three Waters isn’t implemented, she is warning the electorate, council rates are going to go through the roof.

Caught in the grip of a serious cost-of-living crisis, citizens desperate to get their household budget under control will receive the PM’s message with relief. If Three Waters can prevent the average household’s rates bill from skyrocketing, then the average household will more than likely give “Jacinda” the big thumbs-up.

What the average household almost certainly doesn’t realise is that the Prime Minister is spinning them a yarn. Providing the nation with clean drinking water, dealing with its stormwater, and getting rid of its waste water, is already costly, and cannot help getting costlier. Three Waters, or no Three Waters, there’s a mighty big bill coming New Zealand’s way – and, for better or for worse, New Zealanders will have to pay it.

But, how will they pay it? That is the $64 billion (at the very least!) question. The most obvious answer: and the one Mayor Wayne Brown in Auckland, Mayor Phil Mauger in Christchurch, and the Mayor of the Waimakariri District, Dan Gordon, reached for with plain, old-fashioned, common-sense, was that the state should pay.

Nothing can borrow money more cheaply than a solvent, sovereign state. Why? Because states, unlike people, corporations, and even banks, are immortal. There was a time when investors thought of municipalities in the much the same way. If nation states weren’t going anywhere, then neither were their cities and towns. But then New York City went bust, and international investors had to think again.

States, too, thought it advisable to impose strict limits on their borrowing. That’s why, for the last 40 years, successive Finance Ministers have forced local government to borrow the money it needed on the open market. The problem with this “solution” is that a city’s credit-card is maxed-out a lot faster than a state’s. Ditto, its rate-payers’ willingness to pay more and more and more. The present government has heaped scorn and derision on local authorities for their failure to adequately manage municipal infrastructure. Unfair. Those responsible for starving a person, are not really entitled to then complain about their victim’s weakness!

The Three Waters project, with its four “entities” and their hideously complex financial and governance structures, was the Government’s answer to local government’s maxed-out credit cards. The water entities could borrow the money that New Zealand’s cities, towns and districts could no longer access.

There was, however, a catch. According to the international credit-rating agencies, the four entities had to be protected from politics. International investors do not like politics – it’s messy and destabilising. If the cost of drinking, storm and wastewater management rose sharply, said the credit-raters, then the entities responsible had to be protected from every kind of consumer backlash. Whatever else these big beasts might be – they won’t be in any way democratically accountable.

Small wonder, then, that iwi authorities, and the co-governance faction of the Labour Government, were so keen to hitch a ride on the Three Waters bus!

Labour’s big mistake was letting them climb on board. Because, by doing so, it turned the Three Waters project into the hottest of political hot potatoes. And what don’t international investors like? That’s right: putting their money into political hot potatoes.

If this government has a lick of sense, it will greet the Three Mayor’s solution to Three Waters with three cheers.


This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 November 2022.

Thursday, 3 November 2022

David Parker Rejects Co-Governance.

Stubbornly Thoughtful: According to veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, the Environment Minister David Parker rejected the inclusion of co-governance provisions in his Natural & Built Environments Bill, facing-down the opposition of Nanaia Mahuta and Labour’s Māori Caucus “in what may be seen as a defining move by the Government, which has been under fire over the Three Waters co-governance proposals.”

ON HIS POLITIK WEBSITE, Richard Harman reveals how Environment Minister David Parker upset the co-governance project. Labour’s Māori Caucus saw co-governance becoming a central feature of Parker’s Natural & Built Environments Bill – the legislation poised to replace the Resource Management Act. On the all-important regional bodies established by the legislation, it was assumed that 50 percent of the seats would be reserved for Māori, leaving the rest for the rest.

According to Harman, Parker refused: successfully facing-down the opposition of Nanaia Mahuta and the Māori Caucus “in what may be seen as a defining move by the Government, which has been under fire over the Three Waters co-governance proposals.”

While Harman is undoubtedly correct to interpret Parker’s successful resistance as an important straw in the wind, it would be wrong to count it as a total victory. As Harman, himself, went on to report, the proposed clause in the Natural & Built Environments Bill which states: “that in achieving the purpose of this Act, those exercising functions and powers under it must give effect to the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi”, remains intact.

It is important to remember that the co-governance project is justified as a way of giving effect to the principles of the Treaty. Fifty-fifty representation is promoted as the political expression of the supposed Treaty “partnership”. The Natural & Built Environments Bill isn’t out of the woods yet.

Even so, the fact that a Labour cabinet minister has taken a stand against co-governance – with the support of both a Cabinet and a caucus majority – is an extremely important political development. Without Labour, the co-governance project could never have progressed so far. If Parker’s stand is emulated by other Labour MPs, then co-governance will be stopped in its tracks. Neither the Greens nor the Māori Party have the numbers to push it forward against Labour resistance.

What Harman’s reporting makes clear is the alarm which even rumours of Parker’s resistance generated. The Māori Council and their corporate iwi allies – represented by the former National Party Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson – took their concerns to the Waitangi Tribunal. While legal niceties prevented the Tribunal from releasing a definitive judgement on co-governance and the Natural & Built Environments Bill, it did suggest that its absence from the legislation would be undesirable.

Clearly, the Tribunal has become an integral part of the co-governance political machinery: a body of sufficient mana to offer cover for both the project and its political sponsors. The same applies to much of the media, academia, and – more worryingly – the courts. And yet, even this impressive line-up of allies could not hope to save co-governance if it was openly repudiated by a Government.

How far would the co-governance project have proceeded had John Key not agreed to ratify the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? How could the Treaty’s “principles”, and its expectations of “partnership”, have been embedded in so many Acts of Parliament had not successive governments declined to take issue with them? The co-governance project may not be the historical offspring of senior National and Labour politicians (like Geoff Palmer and Chris Finlayson) but they certainly provided the room in which it was conceived.

Only now, and only to thoughtfully stubborn individuals like David Parker, is the extraordinary naivete and arrogance required to facilitate the co-governance project becoming clear. It simply did not occur to those Pakeha politicians who set about creating a Māori middle-class to keep the increasingly restive Māori underclass from setting the country on fire, that their creation might one day turn on its creator. Locating cultural and ideological enemies at the very heart of the colonial state was never likely to produce a happy ending.

Extracting these racial revolutionaries from the strategic locations they have occupied in the course of their “long march through the institutions” is not going to be easy. Judges, in particular, cannot be removed without a great deal of fuss. Ideologically-driven public servants, academics, teachers and journalists are similarly well-placed to defend the “gains” of the racial revolution. And then there’s the younger generations of New Zealanders. These youngsters may not be intellectually or emotionally equipped to challenge the radical orthodoxy of their revolutionary mentors, but they are more than equal to the task of inflicting a lot of harm on their behalf.

All of which adds up to a difficult and potentially dangerous mission should Mr Parker and his Labour comrades agree to accept it. They will have to re-learn both the liberal-democratic catechism of universal human-rights and freedoms (the freedom of expression in particular) as well as the good old democratic-socialist creed that bound the Labour Party and the Ratana Church together so tightly all those years ago. Fortunately, they have at least two very important things going for them. 1) Most New Zealanders – Māori and Pakeha – do not want co-governance. 2) The electorate will reward any government that has the guts to say: “This far, but no further!”


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 3 November 2022.

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 Interest.co.nz 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.