Monday 27 February 2023

The Road To October.

Road Closed: For Chris Hipkins and Labour, the state highway to October has been rendered impassable by inaction and political slash. Christopher Luxon and National, meanwhile, have discovered an unsealed road without slips and fallen trees. It’s not their usual way of reaching the Treasury Benches, but, with a bit of luck, it just might get them where they want to go.

THE NATIONAL PARTY stands at the beginning of an unsealed road which, if followed, might just carry it to victory. The question, now, is whether the party possesses the guts to set off down it. Sometimes politicians hit upon a winning strategy by accident, unaware that they have done so. National’s answer to the Government’s controversial Three Waters project may be a case in point. Wittingly, or unwittingly, National’s policy reflects the principle of subsidiarity – i.e. the idea that the best decisions are those made by the communities required to live most closely with their consequences. Set against Labour’s preference for large, centralised (and almost always unresponsive) bureaucracies, National’s preference for the local and the accountable has much to recommend it.

Labour, meanwhile, may find that its road to October has been closed. Rather than proceed with all speed down the path of repudiation and reprioritisation promised by Chris Hipkins when he became Prime Minister, the exigencies of dealing with the Auckland Anniversary Weekend Floods and Cyclone Gabrielle appear to have provided Hipkins’ caucus opponents with a chance to regroup and push back.

This was especially true of Three Waters. The period within which the unequivocal repudiation of the project remained politically feasible was always dangerously short. Indeed, the slightest delay threatened to make its abandonment impossible. Nor was the threat exclusively internal. The longer Hipkins put off Three Waters’ demise, the greater the risk that National would produce a viable and popular alternative. Which is exactly what it has done.

Announced with uncharacteristic political savvy at the National Party’s “Blue-Greens” conference in Nelson, the Opposition’s alternative closely reflects the ideas and plans formulated by the local government opponents of Three Waters. National is promising to restore the ownership of the nation’s drinking, waste and stormwater infrastructure to its local authority owners – albeit at the cost of the latter submitting to improved and much stronger regulatory oversight.

National’s decision to restore of local authorities’ property could hardly have come at a more opportune moment, given the very recent judicial observation that the asset base of the Three Waters’ “entities” had, indeed, been “expropriated”, from their local authority owners without the payment of fair and adequate compensation. It is a measure of the reckless radicalism of the Three Waters project that a New Zealand court could endorse such a claim. In no other context is it possible to imagine a Labour Cabinet signing-off on expropriation without compensation – a policy worthy of Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

Not that National is averse to a little Bolshevism on its own account. Its “Local Water Done Well” policy paper confirms that local authorities unable to meet the costs of transitioning to the new system without incurring a ruinous level of debt, or striking an impossibly high rate, will be able to turn to the Crown for a “one off” grant. Spurning the short-termism that has plagued infrastructural development for the past four decades, National is also hinting at the availability of long-term (and, presumably, lower-interest) finance for long-term water investments. Such promises point to the strong possibility that, in the expensive upgrading of the nation’s water infrastructure, the New Zealand state will both a borrower and a lender be.

If this is, indeed, what National is planning – and by what other means could citizens escape crippling rate increases and/or water charges? – then it is reasonable to predict a decisive shift in the relationship between New Zealand’s central and local government institutions. If the drift towards ever larger and more remote central bureaucracies is to be halted, then a radically new way of funding local infrastructure and the provision of local services will have to be devised. It is simply untenable for the present practice of central government offloading more and more responsibilities onto local authorities, while simultaneously withholding the funding needed to pay for them, to continue. There is a limit to how much can be borrowed affordably from private lenders, just as there is a democratic limit to the size and frequency of local government rate-hikes.

If National has, at long last, recognised this, then it can present itself as offering something new and progressive to the electorate. Subsidiarity is, after all, entirely congruent with the conservative (but not the neoliberal) view of politics. Conservatives are deeply suspicious of strong, centralised states which have no need to fear the displeasure of their citizens. Democracy, as a means of ensuring political accountability, similarly decreases in efficacy the further away the decisions affecting citizens’ daily lives are made. When the Americans say, “all politics is local”, they’re speaking the truth.

While it is easy to understand Chris Hipkins having other things on his mind these past few weeks, it is not so easy to forgive him for letting Three Waters – and all that it has come to stand for – slip through his fingers. Three Waters was, after all, the big test of whether or not his promises of reprioritisation were genuine, or just more Labour Party spin. He didn’t even have to come up with a detailed alternative, merely a promise to repeal the legislation and begin again. Starting, perhaps, with the proposals put forward by Communities 4 Local Democracy. (Now the basis of National’s plan!) His failure to maintain his momentum on this issue has allowed Christopher Luxon and his National colleagues to steal a march on Labour and, amazingly, outflank them on the left.

Making everything worse, are the public misgivings about the way Labour is handling the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle. Intended or not, accurate or not, Hipkins’ downplaying of claims of lawlessness in the stricken communities of Tairawhiti and Hawkes Bay reminded too many people of the Covid emergency’s infallible “Podium of Truth”. Compounding Labour’s difficulties is Forestry Minister Stuart Nash’s inability to fully articulate the locals’ white-hot rage at the forestry companies. The latter’s failure to do anything about the hugely destructive volumes of “slash” that repeated storms have sent crashing into bridges, fences, orchards and people’s homes, has outraged the whole country. If ever there was a moment for righteous ministerial wrath, then, surely, this is it. Action, not yet another expert inquiry, is what the situation demands. Action, and the colourful condemnatory language of a Bob Semple or a Jack Lee. Labour men who really did “move with speed” in a crisis.

For Chris Hipkins and Labour, the state highway to October has been rendered impassable by inaction and political slash. Christopher Luxon and National, meanwhile, have discovered an unsealed road without slips and fallen trees. It’s not their usual way of reaching the Treasury Benches, but, with a bit of luck, it just might get them where they want to go.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 27 February 2023.

Saturday 25 February 2023

Censoring The Fantastic Mr Dahl.

Keeping It Real: Children need to know that the world can be an extremely dangerous place. They need to know that it is filled with quirky, alarming, and sometimes downright dangerous people. Children need to be able to reach back into their internal libraries for the sort of role models Roald Dahl specialised in creating: not always good; not always nice; but without doubt clever, brave, and entertainingly resourceful.

THAT IT COULD BE DONE AT ALL is unfathomable. That professional publishers and editors, supposedly the possessors of post-graduate degrees in English Literature, could even contemplate sanctioning such a desecration is astonishing. Surely, this must be one of those stories we read on “The Onion” website – preposterously funny satire?

No. Wrong on all counts. This story is true.

The publishers (Puffin Books) and current holders of the copyright (Netflix) have colluded in the re-writing of Roald Dahl’s books for young readers. That’s right, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, Fantastic Mr Fox, the whole Dahl catalogue, has been purged of words and attitudes deemed inimical to the moral sensibilities of these very strange times. Words like “titchy, “tiny”, and (with the most extreme prejudice) “fat”, have been purged from the pages of Dahl’s books.

Not at the behest of Dahl’s young readers, of course, they thrill to Dahl’s spiky, misanthropic and just plain naughty vocabulary. Even the dark and scary aspects of Dahl’s work are lapped-up by his young readers – in much the same way that they thrill to the dark and scary elements of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The occasional spine-tingle is a crucial part of the reading experience – at least, it used to be.

And this is important because ….. ? With a stricken North Island to nurse back to health, why should anyone care about the re-writing of Roald Dahl’s books?

The answer, of course, is that children need to know that the world can be an extremely dangerous place. They need to know that it is filled with quirky, alarming, and sometimes downright dangerous people. Children need to be able to reach back into their internal libraries for the sort of role models Roald Dahl specialised in creating: not always good; not always nice; but without doubt clever, brave, and entertainingly resourceful.

When disaster strikes, it matters – a lot – that it does not strike a society raised in the carefully nurtured belief that there are no disasters. That dishonest, abusive and downright dangerous people do not, in fact, exist. That being raised to recognise moments in which behaving sweetly simply will not cut it, is a good thing, not a bad thing. Moments when the resourceful trickster is a better role model than the politically-correct goody-two-shoes who would never dream of calling anybody “fat”. Call them Roald Dahl moments.

Literature, and all the other forms of cultural expression, are not supposed to make us good people, they are supposed to make us real people. That is why when well-meaning people (or so we must assume) decide to “rectify” the works of artists who care about reality, we should all be very worried.

It’s happened before, of course, back in 1818 when a Dr Thomas Bowdler decided that the works of William Shakespeare contained a surfeit of reality, especially in regard to the vexed questions of sex and death, and that the Bard’s opus would be immeasurably improved by getting rid of all the naughty bits.

“Bowdlerism”, as this improving censorship became known, was embraced with enthusiasm by the Victorians. That is to say by the middle-class Victorians, who looked askance at both the debauched antics of the British aristocracy, and the honest rutting of the working-classes. They were firmly of the view that the behaviour of such persons was unlikely to improve without those in possession of a proper understanding of appropriate human conduct showing them a better way.

As if the gross exploitation of Victorian Capitalism, and the impoverished lives of its victims, could magically be made to vanish by sanding-off Victorian society’s jagged edges. As if purging the artist’s work of everything that made it real and compelling could possibly make its ultimate consumers better persons. Protecting people from reality doesn’t make them good, it only makes them stupid – and dangerously vulnerable to those who wield the censor’s blue pencil.

Roald Dahl, being dead, cannot object to the behaviour of those in whom he entrusted the safe-keeping of his art. But living artists have no cause for complacency. Once the formerly rock-solid reverence for an artist’s work disappears – as it so evidently has among Dahl’s publishers – no writer, dramatist, poet, painter, sculptor, or cinematographer, alive or dead, will be safe. While we, their audience, will remain, thanks to our censorious middle-class betters, innocent ignoramuses.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 February 2023.

Thursday 23 February 2023

Adapting To Climate Change.

Climate Change Gothic: In retrospect the mitigators’ cause was always hopeless. So long as the effects of global warming were not going to be felt for many years, climate activists would never be able to force the changes necessary to prevent them. Once heatwaves, wildfires, storms, floods and rising sea-levels start ruining people’s lives, however, their attitudes will change. “Okay, we believe you about climate change,” they will say. “So, now you have to show us how to adapt to this new normal?”

IT IS ONLY SLOWLY DAWNING on climate change activists that the fight against global warming is lost. Locally, Cyclone Gabrielle has rendered their cause hopeless. By insisting that Gabrielle is slam-dunk proof that climate change is real, and demanding immediate action to mitigate its impact, the activists have, politically-speaking, over-sold their case. The idea of mitigating a weather event as destructive as Gabrielle will strike most people as nuts. If this is what global warming looks like, then most New Zealanders will want their government to help them adapt to it as soon as humanly possible. Increasingly, politicians and activists who bang-on about reducing emissions and modifying human behaviour will be laughed-off the political stage. It will be the parties that offer the most practical and responsibly-funded adaptation policies that win the elections of the future – including the one scheduled for October 14 2023.

In retrospect the mitigators’ cause was always hopeless. So long as the effects of global warming were not going to be felt for many years, climate activists would never be able to force the changes necessary to prevent them. Tomorrow, as everybody knows, never comes – especially not in politics. Once heatwaves, wildfires, storms, floods and rising sea-levels start ruining people’s lives, however, their reactions will be different. “Okay, we believe you about climate change,” they will say. “So, now you have to show us how to adapt to this new normal?”

The other, even bigger, problem facing the mitigators – especially in New Zealand – is this country’s infinitesimal contribution to climate change. Kiwis and their industries pump out just 0.17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and yet the mitigators keep telling them to completely change their economy, and the lifestyle it funds, so as to keep some barmy promise that all the largest greenhouse gas emitters are happy to break every single day. Since the Paris Climate Accords of 2016, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has gone up, not down. Collectively, the human species is burning more coal, more oil, and more natural gas than ever before. So, how likely is it that New Zealand pulling on a metaphorical hair-shirt and crying “Follow our mitigation example!” is going to stop them?

New Zealanders aren’t the only people asking inconvenient questions about mitigation. All across the developing world the penny is beginning to drop that the extraordinary civilisation brought into being by the exploitation of fossil fuels in Europe and North America; the civilisation responsible for anthropogenic global warming; is not a goal the climate change mitigators believe they should aspire to.

Practically speaking, the mitigators have a point. The huge boost given to climate change by the dramatic economic and social development of China, if amplified by equal “economic miracles” in India, Indonesia, Brazil and the nations of Africa, will make a complete nonsense of the Paris Climate Accords. The mean surface temperature of Planet Earth will rise to levels not seen since the dinosaurs roamed a planet without ice-caps.

But, just how receptive are the poorest peoples on Earth likely to be to a message delivered to them by their former colonial masters which boils down to: “Please don’t try to become as rich as we are – the planet can’t take it.” Are they likely to say: “Yes, Master, we are happy to remain poor – for the planet’s sake.” Or, will they not-so-politely suggest that if the peoples of the West really are so determined to save the planet, then how about they agree to spread their extraordinary wealth evenly across it? Will either side agree to mitigate climate change by making such huge sacrifices? Or, will both sides move as swiftly as they can to implement an adaptation strategy?

Not that adaptation will be easy in the developing world. Not when it’s the poorest countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Their leaders have appealed to the richest nations for funds to help them recover from catastrophic weather events – like the floods that put a third of Pakistan under water. Alas, in spite of the West’s solemn promises to set aside billions, billions have yet to be set aside.

Inevitably, as the world warms, nation states will become even more selfish. When cyclones as devastating as Gabrielle lay waste to forests, farms and orchards, and make plain the worst errors of urban planners, every available dollar is going to be spent on recovery and adaptation. Pleas for financial assistance from developing nations confronting similar challenges are likely to fall on deaf ears. Charity, the voters will insist, begins at home – and their political representatives will not dare to disagree.

It has not helped the mitigators’ cause that so many of them seem to be located on the left of the political spectrum, or that those not identifying as left are fervent advocates of indigenous rights. These climate activists characterise “Carbon, Capitalism and Colonisation” as the three evil giants that must be slain before climate change can be effectively mitigated. They are less forthcoming, however, when asked how this slaughter might be accomplished. This is understandable, given that the chances of destroying Carbon, Capitalism and Colonisation peacefully and democratically are rather slim.

Not that these difficulties are likely to bother the true revolutionaries, since for them global warming has always been the most wonderful excuse for imposing the sort of regime that nobody who believes in individual rights, private property, and the Rule of Law would ever willingly submit to. In the grim summation of George Orwell: “Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” For far too many climate activists, mitigation has always been a Trojan Horse.

For those more moderate socialists, however, a strategy of adaptation can only be a good thing. Preparing a nation for the worst a warming world can throw at it will, necessarily, involve a wholesale revision of the economic nostrums responsible for leaving New Zealand – and many other nations – so vulnerable for so long. Setting in place the infrastructure needed to fend-off the worst that Mother Nature can throw at us will not be cheap and will require as its first major project the wholesale re-strengthening of the state. New Zealand can follow a strategy of adaptation, or it can remain shackled to the doctrines of neoliberalism, but it can’t do both.

It’s an ill ex-tropical cyclone that blows nobody no good.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 21 February 2023.

Tuesday 21 February 2023

Gabrielle’s Lesson.

Mitigate That! Cyclone Gabrielle’s lesson is that New Zealand’s climate change adaptation efforts have been woefully insufficient, and that much more work is needed if we are to survive this “time of consequences”.

THERE IS A LESSON to be learned from Cyclone Gabrielle, but far too many New Zealanders are refusing to learn it. From Climate Change Minister James Shaw’s portentous quoting of Winston Churchill, to Jack Tame’s hectoring of Finance Minister Grant Robertson for supposedly moving away from “mitigation”, Gabrielle is fast becoming one of those crises that political actors deem “too good to waste”.

But, if we are, indeed, entering a Churchillian “time of consequences”, then a moment’s reflection should tell us that the “mitigation” ship has sailed. The best we can hope for is a government committed to doing everything within its power to help us adapt to unstoppable global warming.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the climate change debate is how little attention those demanding “action” pay to what is actually happening. From a planetary perspective, all the efforts directed at mitigation – i.e. at stopping and, hopefully, reversing global warming – have not appreciably dented humanity’s consumption of fossil fuels. In spite of all the global gatherings, all the impassioned speeches, all the target-setting, there is scant evidence that more than a tiny percentage of human-beings are willing to renounce the dazzling amenities of the civilisation made possible by coal, oil and natural gas.

The central problem confronting the world’s leaders is a brutally simple one: to combat global warming effectively, four-fifths of humankind would have to foreswear the life that the burning of fossil fuels makes possible; and since no leader would dare demand that his people make such a sacrifice, global warming cannot be significantly mitigated.

Which is why, whether they are willing to admit it or not, governments around the world are focusing their efforts increasingly on adapting to the consequences of a warming planet. The primary lesson which Cyclone Gabrielle delivered to New Zealanders last week is that, domestically, these adaptation efforts have been woefully insufficient, and that much, much, more work is needed if New Zealand is to function (and hopefully flourish) in this “time of consequences”.

Successful adaptation cannot occur, however, while this country’s economic settings remain fixed by the dogma of the 1980s. Practically all of the adverse events unleashed by Cyclone Gabrielle have at their root the unwillingness of successive governments to properly maintain, improve and/or extend New Zealand’s basic infrastructure. The active nation-building overseen by central and local governments in the century following the end of the Land Wars in the 1870s was drastically curtailed by the economic reforms of the 1980s and 90s. The low-tax, privatised and de-regulated New Zealand demanded by the reformers left the New Zealand state weaker and poorer. Infrastructure was ignored until it failed, and then fixed on the cheap.

In a selfish game of pass-the-parcel, competing political parties did their best to bequeath the growing infrastructural crisis to their successors. Our political class understood perfectly well that a day would come when the infrastructural problems could no longer be ignored without sacrificing New Zealand’s status as a First World country. Everybody knew that something had to be done, but everybody also hoped like hell that it would happen on somebody else’s watch.

Their reluctance is understandable, especially when telling the private sector what to do is generally regarded as politically suicidal. According to neoliberal economists, market signals are sufficient to compel private enterprises to behave responsibly. Nobody thought too much about the consequences of the state declining to send the market strong enough signals to produce a change in private companies’ behaviour.

Such “light-handed” regulation was always bound to end in disaster. The forestry “slash” washed down the rivers of the North Island’s east coast revealed the true cost of central and local governments’ failure to make the leaving of unwanted timber on clear-felled hillsides too cripplingly expensive for forestry companies to contemplate. The result, as New Zealanders have witnessed with mounting fury, is environmental and infrastructural damage on a massive scale. Successful adaptation will require extremely heavy-handed regulation – backed-up by extremely painful consequences for those who ignore it.

Adaptation will also require a substantial expansion of the state’s revenue base. It is no accident that New Zealand’s century-long period of nation-building occurred in a fiscal environment that recognised the ongoing and substantial cost of building and maintaining a modern society and economy. To meet the massive costs of upgrading the country’s infrastructure – to the point of being able to withstand significant weather events like Cyclone Gabrielle – new and higher taxes will be needed.

A transport policy that looks beyond roads, roads, and more roads, is another vital component of any serious adaptation strategy. Where possible, a reintroduction of coastal shipping services should be included in the transportation mix. A seriously upgraded rail network would, similarly, help to relieve the pressure on New Zealand’s roads. The increasing severity of rain events generated by global warming may even force a “managed retreat” from the hill- and mountain-hugging roads that recent downpours have sent slip-sliding away.

Cyclone Gabrielle’s severe disruption of energy distribution and telecommunication services has shocked the nation. Their fragility has been exposed in the most disconcerting fashion to a population hitherto unaware that such essential services could be knocked out of action for so long.

Watching Gabrielle lay so many services low, many older New Zealanders will have recalled the “gold-standard” reticulation networks set in place by the “government departments” of yesteryear. Unconstrained by the profit motive, the engineers who designed and oversaw the construction of these services asked themselves only: “How strong and reliable is it possible to make these vital links?”

Politicians will find it difficult to avoid confronting the all-too-obvious shortcomings of privatised energy and telecommunications companies. Successful adaptation to global warming is going to place public ownership of vital infrastructure back on the political agenda – with a vengeance.

Finally, any successful adaptation strategy to the challenges of global warming will have to reign-in the power of private property developers. With the steadily rising premiums demanded by insurance companies acting as the state’s battering-ram, New Zealand’s developer-driven local government regimes must eventually give way to organisations dominated by civil engineers and urban planners. Decision-makers responding not to the hunger for profit, but to the promptings of utilitarian ethics and dispassionate climate science.

Cyclone Gabrielle, in all her exogenous fury, has left our political parties with scant room for manoeuvre. The damage inflicted by the storm must be fixed, and the funds to do the fixing must be found. Moreover, politicians who insist Gabrielle’s primary lesson is that the personal and societal sacrifices bound up with climate change mitigation cannot now be avoided, are likely to get a very short shrift from those whose houses, farms, orchards and livelihoods have been destroyed.

The political party that promises to make good the damage of Gabrielle, while offering an adaptation strategy for ensuring that such destruction does not become an annual event, is going to be much more warmly received than one which asks every voter to don a hair shirt and do without the wonders of our fossil-fuelled civilisation. When U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney said “the American way of life is not negotiable”, he wasn’t kidding.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 20 February 2023.

Monday 20 February 2023

The Privatisation Two-Step: Is Three Waters A Masterpiece Of Misdirection?

Profit Uber Alles: The sort of people who see nothing objectionable in taking over another country’s water resources are unlikely to be put off by the objections of its citizens. Where there’s a will, there’s a way – all the investors have to do is find it.

IF CABINET FAILS to scrap Three Waters and start again, New Zealand may very quickly come to resemble Bolivia. Not the Bolivia of today, where a socialist government elected by a huge majority holds sway, but the Bolivia of 1997. That Bolivia had been ordered by the World Bank to privatise its water – on pain of being refused the loans it so desperately needed to keep its economy afloat. Taken over by French and American corporations, Bolivia’s water resources were very quickly priced beyond the reach of its poorest – that is to say, its indigenous – citizens.

Unsurprisingly, the Bolivian Government soon found itself in the grip of a massive popular uprising. In 2005, after five years of unrelenting struggle, the indigenous Bolivians forced their government to terminate the concessions granted to the French and the Americans.

In place of these foreign-owned private corporations, a publicly-owned water utility, the Empresa Pública Social de Agua y Saneamiento (EPSAS) was established. A strong case can be made that the popular struggle to reclaim Bolivia’s privatised water resources laid the groundwork for the nation’s sharp political turn to the Left. Indigenous interests in water, and socialism, it would seem, go hand-in-hand.

That being the case, one can easily imagine that a foreign investor, or group of investors, anxious to get their hands on New Zealand’s abundant water resources, would be particularly sensitive to the likely response of its indigenous citizens. As the sole possessors of Aotearoa for half-a-millennium, the Māori are linked to its lands, forests and fisheries by immensely strong bonds of lineage and tradition. Any attempt to place those resources in the hands of foreigners would provoke resistance every bit as strong as the indigenous Bolivians’.

Nor would the Māori stand alone. New Zealanders’ experience of the neoliberal privatisations of the 1980s and 1990s – and the partial privatisation of energy generators in the 2010s – has left a sizeable portion of the population implacably hostile to the privatisation process. The idea that something as basic to human existence as water might be handed over to private, profit-seeking interests has become a very hard sell.

But, the sort of people who see nothing objectionable in taking over another country’s water resources are unlikely to be put off by the objections of its citizens. Where there’s a will, there’s a way – all the investors have to do is find it.

Investors making a close study of New Zealand will quickly realise that Māori are the key interest group to neutralise. If the privatisation of water could be disguised as the indigenisation of water, then not only would the potentially unrelenting opposition of Māori be finessed away, but also the opposition of those Pakeha concerned to restore self-determination to Māori after nearly two centuries of colonisation. All the foreign investors need to identify is an appropriate vector through which their two-step process – indigenisation to privatisation – can be realised. (Interestingly, exactly the same two-step process was employed by the Fourth Labour Government to finesse the first wave of privatisations back in the 1980s: corporatisation to privatisation.)

The most obvious vectoral candidate is the National Iwi Chairs Forum. This is an outgrowth of the Treaty Settlement Process – the New Zealand state’s inspired mechanism for de-radicalising Māori nationalism by setting-up a series of neo-tribal capitalist buffers between the traditional/professional Māori elites and the urbanised, poorly-educated and culturally unmoored Māori working-class. The leaders of these tribal corporations are already more than half-way into the deracinated world of global capitalism – a fact they keep well-hidden from their own people behind swirling veils of Māori mysticism.

Enlist the support of these commercial rangatira, and the journey towards the privatisation of water will be underway long before the nation realises. And if an iwi already seething with bitter historical resentments steps forward to lead the process of detaching New Zealand’s water resources from the state, then so much the better. What’s more, any politician willing to front this iwi power grab is bound to become a lightning-rod for all manner of racially-charged criticism and abuse. Cui bono from this cynical exercise in political misdirection? Who else but the true instigators of the project: the always silent, always patient, foreign investor/s.

That this exercise might be all-too-real is attested to by the involvement of those front-of-house facilitators of foreign direct investment – the international credit-rating agencies. Advising the Sixth Labour Government (represented primarily by Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta) on what was now being called “Three Waters” was Standard & Poor’s (S&P Global Ratings). It’s advice was unequivocal: make sure the entities charged with the management of New Zealand’s drinking, storm and waste water are hermetically-sealed from democratic interference. Above all, keep their books and the State’s books entirely separate.

Had political journalists not been so distracted by the so-called “co-governance” arrangements built into the Three Waters proposal, the credit-rating agency’s stipulations would have pointed clearly to the project’s ultimate goal. What could be easier to privatise than a stand-alone, financially “independent” entity, slowly sinking beneath an insupportable burden of foreign debt?

Before that point could be reached, however, the whole process had to be turned into a hot mess of White Supremacists versus De-Colonisers. In this regard, the Three Waters legislation’s author, Nanaia Mahuta, could hardly have performed more obligingly. The deeper the project’s critics dug into the details of the legislation, the more evidence they found for the argument that Three Waters was all about the indigenisation of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s water. Not the least important feature of the legislation in this regard were the “Te Mana o Te Wai” statements – directives relating to both the public and private use of water that have the force of law, and that only Māori can issue!

Among the most vocal critics of Three Waters has been the radically neoliberal Act Party. Its active participation in the debate raises an intriguing (and potentially worrying) question. Is Act just another dupe of the foreign investors’ bait-and-switch operation, or is it surreptitiously giving them a helping hand? Act has always been a strong advocate of privatisation – an objective that would be made considerably easier by thoroughly discrediting the option of indigenisation and, along with it, the whole idea of public ownership.

In an ironic twist to this story, the first person to realise the long-term privatisation agenda built-in to the Three Waters project may well have been Nanaia Mahuta herself. Certainly, it would explain the Minister’s panic-stricken, last-minute attempts (in collusion with the Greens) to entrench anti-privatisation provisions in her legislation. If this is what happened, then it is difficult to avoid feeling sorry for the Minister. She could not adequately explain why her drastic (and arguably unconstitutional) amendments were necessary, because to have done so would have been to acknowledge her stalking-horse role in a project most New Zealanders would have condemned as unconscionable.

One crucial outcome of the entrenchment debacle, however, is that Mahuta’s fellow ministers were no longer content to rely upon her assurances that Three Waters was a sound and necessary project. Accordingly, they took a much closer look at the legislation. In doing so, they could hardly avoid the alarming question: “Is there anything in this legislation to prevent Iwi corporations from entering into agreements that could ultimately facilitate the privatisation of one or more of the four Three Waters entities?”

The answer to that question will be indicated by just how decisively Prime Minister Hipkins rejects Three Waters. Getting rid of the co-governance provisions will not be enough. If the legislation continues to empower the four entities to take on debt that is ultimately redeemable out of the pockets of New Zealand’s ratepayers, then the momentum towards their ultimate sale to foreign investors will not be slowed. If that is Hipkins’ decision, however, then either he, or his successors, will eventually be confronted with the same sort of popular uprising that convulsed Bolivia.

And in that battle, Māori and Pakeha will be fighting shoulder-to-shoulder. Proof that caring for and managing the waters of Aotearoa-New Zealand is the responsibility of all its peoples – and theirs alone.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 17 February 2023.

Friday 17 February 2023

Something Unexpected.

Alien Craft: Nothing could possibly have prepared Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri for the alien craft that sailed into their bay on the 18 December 1642. That they were sailing vessels was obvious, but much, much larger and more intricately rigged than anything they had ever before encountered.

NGĀTI TŪMATAKŌKIRI were an iwi on alert. They had come, unbidden, from the north and were, predictably, surrounded by hostile tribes who bitterly resented their intrusion. In such circumstances it is never advisable to lower your guard. Eyes need to be kept wide open, and weapons close to hand.

But no exhortations to watchfulness could possibly have prepared Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri for the alien craft that sailed into their bay on the 18 December 1642. That they were sailing vessels was obvious, but much, much larger and more intricately rigged than anything they had ever before encountered.

Formally challenged, the strange, pale-skinned men (if men they were and not the unearthly patupaiarehe who stole away women and children) responded in ways that made no sense. Returning the following day, prepared for battle, Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri warriors intercepted a smaller craft, not dissimilar to their own, and killed some of the pale-skinned men propelling it in the direction of a second, more distant, vessel.

Almost immediately, the nearest alien craft responded. Flashes of fire. Clouds of acrid smoke. A sound louder than the loudest thunder. Transfixed, the warriors stared with open mouths at the angry faces of the pale aliens emerging from the drifting smoke. Then, acutely conscious of their peril, the warriors turned the waka about and paddled furiously for the shore.

By the next day the alien craft had gone. Their like would not be seen again by Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri, or any other Maori, for another 127 years.

Is it possible that, over the past few weeks, the United States of America has responded to an alien incursion in ways curiously evocative of Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri? Confronted with what the Pentagon calls “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” in their own (and Canada’s) airspace, F-22 “Raptor” fighter-jets have been sent up to shoot down what most of us still call UFOs – Unidentified Flying Objects.

Responding to the killing of four of his sailors by the local inhabitants, Abel Tasman had named the antipodean crime-scene “Murderers’ Bay”. Has an alien starship commander, now en route (at Warp Factor 5) to a less dangerous part of the galaxy, already named this inhospitable planet “Murderers’ World”?

But, surely, the craft shot out of the skies over recent days were mere elaborations of that downed Chinese spy-balloon – the all-too-terrestrial remains of which the US Navy is currently dredging-up off the South Carolina coast?

Well, no – apparently not. A big balloon is a big balloon. But the craft shot down in recent days were not balloons. One of the UAPs was described as “cylindrical” in shape, another as “octagonal”, and no one from the United States military has yet been willing to hazard a guess as to what was propelling them through the sky at 40,000 feet.

Asked if the USAF had shot down three alien spacecraft, in as many days, the man charged with protecting North American airspace, General Glen VanHerck replied: “I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven’t ruled out anything.”

Which is not quite the contemptuous dismissal the journalist who asked the question may have been expecting.

Even so, by far the most likely explanation for this sudden rash of UAP/UFO interceptions is that they represent a new departure in surveillance technology – not the unheralded arrival of extra-terrestrial visitors.

For the past 75 years the major powers have had their eyes peeled for military and surveillance technology like their own: high-flying aircraft, spy satellites, missiles, stealth bombers. But, imagine that one of the United States competitors, China say, was to come up with craft so unusual that, until recently, the Americans simply hadn’t been able to see them? What if, like the sailing-ships encountered by Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri, these new craft are so far removed from the technology the Americans are used to tracking, the craft they expect to see, that when they turn up in US airspace – and are finally noticed – they seem to come from another world?

It’s an interesting theory – and almost certainly the most plausible explanation for what is happening high above the North American continent. But, wouldn’t it be thrilling if the extra-terrestrial explanation turned out to be true? Instantaneously, the boundaries of what human-beings believe to be possible would be expanded by what could only be measured in light years.

“What the hell is that!”

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 February 2023.

Monday 13 February 2023

Can Words Hurt Us?

The Question Is: Can the Nuremburg Tribunal’s willingness to execute the notorious Nazi antisemite, Julius Streicher, for publishing hate speech serve as a moral rationale for giving the claim that “words breed deeds” the strongest possible legal expression in New Zealand?

JULIUS STREICHER was convicted and executed at Nuremburg in 1946 for what would today be called “hate speech”. For many years Streicher had been the editor of Der Stürmer, the virulently antisemitic newspaper notorious for whipping-up hatred against Germany’s – and Europe’s – Jewish population. The judges at Nuremburg had drawn a direct causal link between the words and images printed in Der Stürmer and what we now call “The Holocaust” – the state-sanctioned and organised genocide of European Jewry. Words breed deeds, the judges said, and Streicher’s hateful words had contributed to the death of millions.

Such reasoning is, of course, made much easier when it is the deeds of the Nazis caught in the moral spotlight. When the effects of extremism are so unequivocally horrendous, a degree of carelessness in identifying its causes is all-too-easily overlooked and/or excused. With the images of the Nazi death camps seared into the consciousness of the Nuremburg judges, Streicher’s squalid provocations encountered a pronounced deficit of historical understanding. Between 1933 and 1945, the editor of Der Stürmer had indisputably got what he wanted. Surely, on the scaffold at Nuremburg, he got what he deserved?

Just Deserts? The body of Julius Streicher, notorious Nazi editor of the antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer, hanged at Nuremburg for his unremitting media hate campaign against the Jews.
The Nuremburg Trials have presented the world with such a clear moral template that they have become the go-to source for generations in search of a clear ethical steer on the conduct of those wielding state power. In the 1960s and 70s, opponents of the Vietnam War warned the conscript soldiers of the United States that when it came to war crimes and crimes against humanity the judgement of Nuremburg was very clear. The excuse, “I was just following orders” is unacceptable. There are some orders that no human-being worthy of the name should follow. Military discipline does not trump the fundamental moral precepts of a civilised society.

That the anti-vaccination occupiers of Parliament Grounds in February-March 2022 also reached for the moral absolutism of Nuremburg – not least its willingness to execute the guilty – should give us all pause. Certainly it should remind us that all human judgement is bounded by the historical events and prejudices within which it is exercised. Even the high-minded pronouncements of the Nuremburg Tribunal are capable of being twisted to ignoble – even evil – ends.

The question, therefore, becomes: Can the Nuremburg Tribunal’s willingness to execute Streicher for publishing hate speech serve as a moral rationale for giving the claim that “words breed deeds” the strongest possible legal expression in New Zealand? Perhaps fortunately, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has handed over this complex legal and ethical argument to the Law Commission. Even so, the consequences of a wrong call on the strength of the causal links between words and deeds is fraught with political risk.

Where should one start? In Streicher’s case, the antisemitic prejudices which fuelled his newspaper sales predated Der Stürmer by several centuries. Crediting Streicher alone with whipping-up hatred of the Jews in Germany is an historical absurdity. One might as readily put the Catholic Church in the dock for instigating the medieval “blood libel” against the Jews. The Nazis did not invent German antisemitism: but, by giving anti-Jewish prejudice the force of law, they made it compulsory. Without Adolf Hitler’s genocidal hatred of the Jews, Der Stürmer would never have amounted to anything more than a loathsome antisemitic rag. One among many.

Those seeking to make hate speech illegal are relying, increasingly, on the concept of “stochastic terrorism” to justify their plans for extensive political censorship. Stochastic, in this context, is best explained as the problem of identifying precisely which one of the ten thousand antisemitic readers of an incendiary online posting is going to borrow his brother’s rifle and walk into the nearest synagogue.

The promoters of hate speech laws argue that it is enough to know that those contributing to the creation of a climate of hatred and prejudice will, eventually, succeed in provoking a deadly political reaction. Although it is virtually impossible for the authorities to identify exactly which one of these ten thousand potential terrorists will pick up a gun, the statistical certainly remains that someday, someone will.

Better, therefore, to legally prohibit extremists from building-up the sort of highly-charged political atmosphere that can only be earthed by a bolt of terrorist lightning. No antisemitic literature, no antisemitic movies, no antisemitic blogs and – Hey Presto! – no antisemitism!

Quite apart from the immense cultural wounds such an approach would inflict – no Merchant of Venice – it is far from certain that such extensive censorship would be effective. The perpetrator of the Christchurch Mosque Massacre, for example, was inspired, in part, by the deeds of the Norwegian terrorist, Anders Breivik. Does this mean that all news of such deadly attacks should be suppressed? Brenton Tarrant was also inspired by the medieval military struggle between Christendom and Islam in the Holy Land and Eastern Europe. Do those promoting hate speech laws also propose placing a ban on the reading of history?

The hate speech legislation packed off to the Law Commission by Prime Minister Hipkins proposed to limit the extended protection of our human rights legislation to religious communities alone. This offered considerably less protection for “vulnerable groups” than had been promised in earlier recommendations, and yet, even when limited to religious belief, the potential for conflict remains high. The Bible and the Koran both contain passages that are, at least on their face, antisemitic. Should both holy books join Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in the sin-bin?

The moral certainties reflected in the judgements of Nuremburg can still evoke a nostalgic response from those old enough to have grown up in their shadow. The Second World War was perceived (at least by its victors) as a Manichean struggle in which the Forces of Light had not only defeated the Forces of Darkness, but also, in the course of prosecuting those minions of evil who’d survived the War, spelled out with crystalline clarity the moral limits of political and military power. After the global exertions of the most destructive war in human history, the installation of a new moral order – the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the judgements of Nuremburg themselves – did not strike them as hubris, but as the very least that should be done to honour the millions who had fallen.

And yet, even as Julius Streicher was twisting at the end of a rope, his fellow defendant, Albert Speer, was being escorted to a comfortable prison cell, from which he would emerge 20 years later to burnish his growing reputation as the only “Good Nazi”. In the end, the thousands of Jewish and Russian slave labourers who died manufacturing the weapons which, as Hitler’s Armaments Minister, Speer had promised his Fuhrer, caused the Nuremburg judges less grief than Streicher’s hate-filled prose.

Truth is a hard goddess to like – and even more difficult to serve – but among all the other gods she stands alone for keeping her promise to humanity. “I cannot shield you from the pain that comes with me,” she told us, “but I am your only sure protection against those who would have you believe that happiness is ignorant, and that lies can set you free.”

This essay was originally posted on of Monday, 13 February 2023.

Friday 10 February 2023

A Real Revolution?

Secret Revolutionary? “I think the general public is not aware that we are going through huge revolutionary changes in the country and, in fact, we have taken that such a long way, there is no going back.”  –  Dame Claudia Orange

SUPPOSE THEY MADE A REVOLUTION, and nobody noticed. Suppose the “Cabinet Office” ordered the nation’s public servants to implement an unmandated revolutionary transformation of New Zealand, and they complied. Suppose one of the leading authorities on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Dame Claudia Orange, confirmed that this revolution was, in fact, a done deal.

This is what Dame Claudia told the NZ Herald’s Audrey Young:

I think the general public is not aware that we are going through huge revolutionary changes in the country and, in fact, we have taken that such a long way, there is no going back.

Now, forgive me, but my understanding of revolutionary change is that it does not, and cannot, take place without the “general public” being aware. The active participation of the people in replacing a regime that has, in their eyes, lost all political legitimacy, is pretty much the definition of a revolution. The idea that not only could such a profound upheaval have taken place, but also gone past the point of no return, without the people either noticing it, or sanctioning it, is, quite simply, absurd.

So what should we call a programme initiated by the “Cabinet Office” (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet?) with the ultimate intention of transforming the nation’s constitutional arrangements in such a way that the “consent of the governed” need not be confirmed by democratic means?

Given that New Zealanders have lived through such a transformation before, when the programme of ruthless economic “reforms” known as “Rogernomics” was unleashed upon them without warning, and without an electoral mandate, between 1984 and 1987, then it seems only fitting that this latest attempt to impose transformational change from the top down be described in the same manner. What New Zealanders have been experiencing since 2019 is a “bureaucratic coup d’état”.

Indeed, the parallels between 1984 and the present are uncanny. In 1984, the incoming Labour Government, led by David Lange, was presented by its Treasury advisors with “Economic Management” – essentially a blueprint for Finance Minister Roger Douglas’s radical transformation of the New Zealand economy.

Prior to the 2020 general election, a similar transformational blueprint, “He Puapua” was handed to the Minister for Māori Development, Nanaia Mahuta. Commissioned by the Minister in 2019 to envision a pathway to the full implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “He Puapua” dovetailed neatly with the “Cabinet Office’s” instructions regarding Te Tiriti.

The parallels do not stop there. Three years after “Economic Management”, the Treasury presented the re-elected Labour Government with “Government Management” – a detailed blueprint for adapting the instruments of state administration to the needs of the new “free market”.

Three years after “He Puapua”, the re-elected Labour Government has been presented with two reports, “Ki te whaiao, ki te ao Mārama” and “Maranga Mai” both commissioned by the Human Rights Commission and reflecting the advice of some of the most radical Māori nationalists in New Zealand. Among a host of revolutionary recommendations, the “Maranga Mai” report concludes:

Reform of central and local government systems is also needed to reduce and eliminate institutional racism which cause inequities and inequalities for Māori in outcomes. This reform should uphold and align these systems with Te Tiriti o Waitangi, by following the foundational work and recommendations set out in Matike Mai Aotearoa and He Puapua reports.

Were the recommendations of “Matike Mai Aotearoa” and “He Puapua” to be followed, the manner in which New Zealanders are governed, and the rights and privileges they are heir to, would indeed be transformed – out of all recognition.

Race Relations Commissioner, Meng Foon, has responded to the reports by committing himself to the long-term goal of “Eliminat[ing] racism in Aotearoa in all forms, in all organisations whether it’s government, non-government organisations, businesses, amongst our communities.”

New Zealanders anxious to learn how this elimination might be accomplished – especially given the Human Rights Commission’s acceptance that racism and white supremacy are baked-in to New Zealand society – should probably study the “re-education” centres established by the Chinese Government in Xinxiang to eliminate radical Islamist ideology from all mosques, schools, organisations, businesses and communities of the Uighur people.

It is difficult to believe that Labour could be contemplating a bureaucratic coup-d’état even more destructive than Rogernomics. If they are, then – this time – they will provoke a real revolution.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 February 2023.

Thursday 9 February 2023

A Modest Exercise In Arithmetic.

Buttering Up Labour's Electoral Base: At his post-Cabinet press briefing of Wednesday, 8 February 2023, Chris Hipkins executed a major and politically adroit course alteration which will not only steer Labour away from Treaty revisionism’ s revolutionary rocks, but also deprive National and Act of the angry political breezes that have, of late, been filling their sails.

THE DAILY BLOG’S EDITOR, appears convinced that there exists in New Zealand a great silent majority of Treaty revisionists. He seems to believe that the revolutionary interpretation of Te Tiriti o Waitangi which underpins, ideologically, both the notion of a “Treaty partnership” and “co-governance”, enjoys widespread and enthusiastic support among New Zealand voters – especially those under forty. Interestingly, the numbers presented to us in the latest Roy-Morgan poll point in precisely the opposite direction.

The poll shows National with 32 percent, Act with 13.5 percent, and NZ First with 5 percent support – a total of 50.5 percent. Labour, meanwhile, comes through with 30 percent, the Greens with 12 percent, and Te Pāti Māori with 4.5 percent – a total of 46.5 percent. On the face of it, therefore, the Great Silent Majority lines up with the parties of the Right. If asked whether Māori ceded sovereignty to Queen Victoria on 6 February 1840, these New Zealanders would most likely answer “Yes, they did.” Having said that, their support for the key Treaty revisionist concepts of partnership and co-governance would be … limited.

Well, okay, but the Treaty revisionists could point out, with some justification, that 50.5 percent is hardly a ringing endorsement for the traditional reading of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. With 46.5 percent in support of the Treaty revisionists’ reading, isn’t it more accurate to say that on this matter the electorate is pretty evenly divided?

Not really.

Unlike the Greens, whose membership would, indeed, line up overwhelmingly behind Treaty revisionism, Labour’s electoral base is more likely to share a view of the Treaty’s meaning that is not wildly at odds with National’s and Act’s. Labour’s working-class voters – Māori as well as Pakeha – are considerably more likely to view the Treaty as the document that made one nation out of two peoples, each of them equal in rights and obligations, than as an enforceable contract binding two cultures together in a relationship “akin to a partnership”.

Surely, this is why Chris Hipkins has been so keen to step back from the brink of what one of this country’s foremost Treaty scholars, Dame Claudia Orange, describes as the “revolutionary changes” unleashed by Treaty revisionists like herself? Any further advance down the partnership/co-governance road and Labour risked seeing its working-class Māori and Pakeha voters peeling away from the party and moving (albeit reluctantly) to the Right.

Which is why, in his post-Cabinet press briefing of Wednesday, 8 February 2023, Hipkins executed a major and politically adroit course alteration which will not only steer Labour away from Treaty revisionism’s revolutionary rocks, but also deprive National and Act of the angry political breezes that have, of late, been filling their sails.

And it’s not just in relation to the vexed Three Waters project that Hipkins has signalled a significant course-change, he has also unceremoniously thrown overboard Willie Jackson’s proposed public media merger, Grant Robertson’s social insurance scheme, and Kiri Allan’s hate speech legislation. It’s a veritable Night-of-the-Long Knives for the pet projects of Labour’s wokesters.

Announcing a $1.50 increase in the Minimum Wage to $22.70 per hour was the new Labour Leader’s pièce de résistance. Nothing could better signal Labour’s return to its political roots – a movement dedicated to the welfare and uplift of ordinary working-class New Zealanders. For these voters, Hipkins’ turn away from wokeism will have been the “bread” of this afternoon’s briefing, but his announcement of a new $22.70 per hour Minimum Wage was, unquestionably, the butter.

Nor is it likely, that Hipkins’ turning away from Treaty revisionism will cost him all that many votes among New Zealanders under forty. Those who have given themselves, body and soul, to the revolutionary politics of partnership and co-governance are more likely than not to vote either Green or Te Pāti Māori. Rather than angst about the Treaty, younger voters will now be asking themselves: “If Chippy’s willing to raise the Minimum Wage by $1.50 per hour, might he not also be willing to freeze rents and raise the taxes of the wealthy?”

That’s a good question. Because, in terms of political arithmetic, such “bread and butter” moves, precisely because they are so very far from being woke, are bound to subtract even more votes from National and Act, and add them to Labour’s growing electoral tally.

A sum which, after today, looks set to re-configure the Great Silent Majority of New Zealand voters in the Left’s favour.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 8 February 2023.

Monday 6 February 2023

A Sorry State Of Affairs.

Apology Accepted? “I dropped the ball on Friday, I was too slow to be seen …The communications weren’t fast enough – including mine. I’m sorry for that.” Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown.

HOW OFTEN do politicians apologise? Sincerely apologise? Not offer voters the weasel words: “If my actions have offended anyone, then I apologise.” That’s the apology politicians offer when they don’t believe they’ve done anything to apologise for. The question is: how often does a politician offer voters an apology like this?

I dropped the ball on Friday, I was too slow to be seen …The communications weren’t fast enough – including mine. I’m sorry for that.

The politician speaking those words is Wayne Brown, the Mayor of New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. Justifiably criticised for his inadequate initial response to the torrential rainstorms that deluged his city on Friday 27 and Saturday 28 January 2023 (since described by meteorologists as a one-in-200-year weather event) Brown has publicly owned-up to his personal failings and said “I’m sorry.”

Not that Brown will receive the slightest positive acknowledgement from his many media critics for stepping-up and accepting his share of responsibility for the multiple failings of public agencies that occurred on the night of Auckland’s devastating rainstorm. The reasons for this are relatively straightforward: Brown is male. Brown is white. Brown is over the age of 65. Brown is also known to be openly contemptuous of journalists. And, most importantly, Brown defeated Efeso Collins, the mayoral candidate many (most?) Auckland journalists wanted to win.

Before examining Brown’s relationship with the news media in more depth, a word or two is needed concerning the shocking level of ageism to which he has been subjected from the very beginning of his campaign to become Auckland’s mayor.

It is remarkable how adept – and shameless – young and supposedly well-educated New Zealanders have proved to be at discriminating against their fellow citizens on the grounds of age. Journalists who would lavish barrels of ink on any person writing disparagingly about the personal appearance of a female politician, nevertheless feel free to dwell upon the ravages time has wrought upon the features of a “grumpy old man”.

That discrimination on the basis of age is outlawed in New Zealand cuts almost no ice with the sort of journalists who glibly describe Brown as “The Boomer King”. It is almost as if the journalists responsible for such ageist slurs are unable to recognise in themselves the same, deeply-ingrained, discriminatory impulses that they condemn so bitterly when manifested by racists, sexists and homophobes.

One can hardly avoid the conclusion that these ageists’ hatred for older human-beings is every bit as visceral as the racists’ hatred for people of colour, and the misogynists’ hatred of women. That they nevertheless feel free to express their prejudices openly is as worrying as it is shameful. Where is the Human Rights Commission when the “hate speech” it condemns so vigorously – and promptly – when directed at Māori, women, Muslims and the LGBTQI community is aimed, instead, at older New Zealanders?

The oddest thing of all about ageism is that every single person who indulges in it will one day (absent the worst sort of bad luck) grow old. How much racism would there be if every White person slowly became a Black person? How much misogyny, if every man turned gradually into a woman? When old age is humankind’s common destiny, ageism makes no sense at all.

The propensity of old age and guile to defeat youth and idealism, is also a common feature of human experience – especially in the field of politics. That Wayne Brown proved the accuracy of the aphorism, by soundly defeating his younger opponent, Efeso Collins, in the mayoralty race of 2022, did little to improve his already poor relationship with “progressive” Auckland journalists, many of them a whole generation younger than himself.

Jacinda Ardern’s “Politics of Kindness”, and her Government’s strong support for Māori and Pasifika, encouraged the Prime Minister’s generation to look forward to Collins becoming the Auckland super-city’s first Pasifika mayor. If Auckland voters had been willing to elect Labour-endorsed has-beens like Len Brown and Phil Goff, then surely, Efeso would be a shoe-in? That Aucklanders might elect a “grumpy old man” like Wayne Brown struck Ardern’s generation of activists as preposterous. They were confident that their assumptions about the nature of contemporary politics and the shape of Aotearoa’s political future were unassailable.

That Brown won the mayoral race easily – principally by applying basic electoral principles to the structuring of his campaign – threw into sharp relief the organisational deficiencies of a generation encouraged to accord bold declarations and positive intentions the same ontological status as actual achievements. As an engineer, Brown is only interested in what works. So instructed, his advisers told him to target only those Aucklanders with a proven track-record of participating in local government elections. These tended to be older, and considerably less tolerant of political dreams and visions, than the younger, typically non-voting, Aucklander.

As it became increasingly obvious that Brown’s pragmatic, non-ideological, “Mr Fix-It” pitch to the active Auckland electorate was going to overwhelm Collins, the active dislike of “progressives” – most particularly those located in the younger generations – grew. Among the least successful at hiding their animosity towards Brown were the city’s journalists – a failure that convinced the newly-elected Mayor that he would be better off not engaging with them.

Brown was right. The reaction of the New Zealand news media – especially those elements of it based in Auckland – was depressingly similar to the United States’ news media’s reaction to Donald Trump’s “impossible” presidential victory of 2016. Unable to accept that it was the political incompetence of “their” candidate that made a Trump victory possible, the American media instead abandoned completely its cherished principles of fairness and balance. Henceforth Trump was the enemy to whom no quarter should be given. Brown, who had also won on the votes of “deplorables” and, like Trump, held most journalists in contempt, would be treated as a reactionary interloper.

It should not be thought, however, that journalists were alone in their animosity towards Brown. Across the entire Auckland City bureaucracy similar misgivings were growing at the prospect of Mr Fix-It telling the Council’s highly-paid managers and professionals how to do their jobs. It would certainly explain why, when the deluge struck, and many of the Supercity’s bureaucrats failed to respond effectively to the emergency, their first instinct was to make the Mayor the scapegoat for what was clearly a system-wide failure. And why the first instinct of the city’s “progressive” journalists was to help them.

Hence Brown’s all-too-public frustration and anger at his inexplicable early exclusion from a number of crucial informational loops. That exclusion in no way excuses Brown’s failure to be seen and heard by Aucklanders as the floodwaters rose and the crisis deepened, but it most certainly does explain them.

And Brown, at least, has had the decency to say he’s sorry. It would be most unwise, however, to hold one’s breath in anticipation of Auckland’s anti-Brown journalists and bureaucrats doing the same.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 6 February 2023.

Sunday 5 February 2023

Making It Look Easy.

So Long - And Thanks For All The Fish: In the two-and-a-bit years since Jacinda Ardern’s electoral triumph of 2020, virtually every decision she made had gone politically awry. In the minds of many thousands of voters a chilling metamorphosis had taken place. The Faerie Queen had become the Wicked Witch. From a resplendent balloon, carrying Labour effortlessly to victory, Jacinda showed every sign of becoming Labour’s Hindenburg – a disaster waiting to happen.

WASN’T IT ALL TOO SMOOTH? The official explanation for the textbook transition from Jacinda Ardern to Chris Hipkins – “nothing left in the tank” – is beginning to strike more and more political journalists as inherently implausible.

What sort of political party manages the acutely volatile business of swapping one leader for another so seamlessly? Was the sole nomination of Chris Hipkins’ strictly kosher? Why did no challenger step forward? Ambition, in Shakespeare’s words, should be made of sterner stuff. Contrariwise, if this leadership change was a stage-managed affair, then Labour’s stage-managers are second to none!

Before conspiracy theories take root and spread like briars across the political landscape, it is worth recalling that Labour has pulled-off such a transition before.

Hadn’t the woman who, on 19 January 2023, announced her intention of stepping-down from Labour’s leadership stepped-up and into that role with an equal absence of fuss and bother back in 2017? Relying, once again, on Shakespeare: is it not true that nothing so became Jacinda’s leadership like her elevation to it? And should we really be all that surprised to discover that the Labour MP who did the most to ensure Jacinda’s effortless ascent was none other than Chris Hipkins?

How interesting it would be to read the reports of Labour’s focus-group convenors and to study the confidential data of its pollsters. Because, if the transition from Jacinda to “Chippy” really was a premediated and carefully-planned affair, then the chances are high that the story the experts were telling the three people at the top of the Labour Party – Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins – was a grim one.

In the two-and-a-bit years since the Prime Minister’s electoral triumph of 2020, virtually every decision she made had gone politically awry. In the minds of many thousands of voters a chilling metamorphosis had taken place. The Faerie Queen had become the Wicked Witch. From a resplendent balloon, carrying Labour effortlessly to victory, Jacinda showed every sign of becoming Labour’s Hindenburg – a disaster waiting to happen.

It is a measure of just how tight Labour’s leadership troika had become during their 15 years in Labour’s caucus that they could contemplate the grim psephological data set before them and conclude dispassionately that the “Jacinda” brand – once Labour’s most important asset – was now its most significant liability.

It was time for her to go.

That Jacinda did not demur is explicable largely in terms of the extraordinary burdens she had been required to carry between 2017 and 2022. Very few Prime Ministers are called upon to lead their nation through events like the Christchurch Mosque Massacres, the fatal eruption of White island and the most deadly pandemic to strike New Zealand in 100 years. In the post-war period, only National’s John Key has weathered storms of equivalent severity. Interestingly, he also decided to make an early departure.

With equal stoicism, the Finance Minister Grant Robertson declined to meet the expectations of the pundits by stepping into Jacinda’s shoes. He would stay exactly where he was – a key figure on the Bridge of the Ship of State, his safe pair of hands welded to the economic tiller. Like his two closest political allies, Robertson’s mission was a simple one: to steer Labour to a third parliamentary term.

Which left only Chippy to slip his feet into the stirrups of power. With weeks to think through and war-game every aspect of the transition, as little as possible was left to chance. In the finest tradition of Hengist and Horsa, not to mention Game of Thrones, Hipkins made sure that all the crucial players were gathered together in one place (Napier, for Labour’s annual “retreat”) before allowing Jacinda’s axe to fall.

Shocked and disoriented, Labour’s stunned caucus offered scant resistance as the Troika’s most trusted allies went to work, furiously spinning the narrative that the smoothest possible transition was an absolute electoral necessity. Anyone attempting to make a fight of the succession would be seen as a traitor to the party. Constrained by a lack of time, outmanoeuvred by Team Hipkins at every turn, potential rivals sensibly opted to fight another day.

Chris Hipkins wasn’t elected – he was crowned.

Once sworn-in as Prime Minister, everything would turn on the public opinion polls proving Hipkins’ colleagues had made the right choice.

On Monday night (30 January 2023) they duly obliged.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 February 2023.

Friday 3 February 2023

Blowing Off The Froth: Why Chris Hipkins Must Ditch Three Waters.

Time To Call A Halt: Chris Hipkins knows that iwi leaders possess the means to make life very difficult for his government. Notwithstanding their objections, however, the Prime Minister’s direction of travel – already clearly signalled by his very public demotion of Nanaia Mahuta – must be confirmed by an emphatic and unequivocal pledge to repeal the Three Waters legislation and start again.

THERE’S FROTH, AND THERE’S BEER. What we see happening on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds every 6 February, not to mention the political performance-art on the lower marae, is froth. The beer of Māori-Pakeha relations is to be found in the private meeting rooms of Waitangi’s Copthorne Hotel & Resort, where the National Iwi Chairs Forum (NICF) deliberates in secret upon Maoridom’s next moves. It is there, in the days leading up to Waitangi Day, that New Zealand’s new Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, will either face down the men and women driving the stake of co-governance into the heart of the Settler State – or see Labour spiral slowly to defeat.

The designation “Iwi Chairs” seems so innocuous. It conjures up the image of a roomful of corporate bureaucrats working their way through a very boring agenda, and breaking-off every now and then to listen to equally boring presentations from bankers, accountants and the occasional politician. In reality, the NICF represents the High Command of Maoridom: the strategic hub of the campaign to take back control of Aotearoa from its Pakeha conquerors. Those gathering at the Copthorne are not a bit like the rag-tag groups of Māori nationalist activists that came together in the 1970s and 80s. If tino rangatiratanga means “the power of the chiefs”, then these are the chiefs who wield it.

Thanks to thirty years of Treaty Settlements, the NICF is both well-positioned and well-resourced to flex its muscles. Between them, the iwi represented at the Forum command assets valued in the billions. That buys them all the big law firms and all the big lawyers they need. It buys them top-of-the-line lobbyists and public relations experts. It buys them influence in the news media and the universities. It means that, when the NICF whistles, serious politicians from all the major parties tend to come running – up to and including prime ministers.

In short, the NICF is what you get when you don’t want hundreds-of-thousands of working-class Māori demanding their fair share of the national cake. An uprising of marginalised urban Māori (the primary focus of Māori political agitation in the 1980s) could hardly avoid inspiring an even larger number of marginalised Pakeha. Such a potent socio-economic alliance would be extremely harmful to capitalism and other exploitative creatures. Hence the Crown’s inspired prophylactic against the further radicalisation of the Māori working-class – the Treaty Settlement Process. Make a handful of Māori aristocrats and other assorted high-flyers rich and powerful, and not only can they then be relied upon to keep the urban Māori poor quiet, but also to co-opt anyone of a mind to stir them up.

For a while.

The great risk of re-establishing a well-resourced and powerful indigenous elite is that, a generation or two later, those responsible will be faced with confident, highly educated young Māori who can think of no good reason why they – the privileged beneficiaries of the Treaty Settlement Process – should continue to provide a buffer between the heirs of their colonial conquerors and the tens-of-thousands of Māori families made poor, and kept poor, by colonisation.

What’s more, this generation will evince no interest in constructing a Māori-Pakeha working-class alliance against either Pakeha Capitalism or the Neo-Tribal Capitalist sub-system brought into being by the Treaty Settlement Process. The generation raised under this ethnically-charged neoliberal regime will not be socialists, they will be ethno-nationalists. If wealth is to be redistributed, it will not be from the rich to the poor, but from the descendants of the Pakeha colonisers to the descendants of the colonised Māori. It will be a revolution driven by race, not class.

There could be no better example of the policies generated by the iwi elites and their political representatives than the project known as Three Waters. Putting Private Members Bills to one side, it is rare to encounter a piece of legislation so closely associated with and shaped by a single member of Cabinet – in this case, the then Local Government Minister, Nanaia Mahuta. Nor is it common to see a legislative project preceded by an advertising campaign subsequently condemned as both misleading and inaccurate. The Labour Government’s decision to reverse its earlier affirmation that local authorities would be free to opt-out of the scheme only compounded the ethical problems besetting Mahuta’s project.

At the forefront of these was the legislation’s commitment to “co-governance”. In the midst of structures specifically designed to protect the relevant “entities” from all forms of democratic accountability, the legislation located a body split 50/50 between members supposedly chosen to represent the interests of local consumers, and those indisputably chosen to represent the interests of local iwi.

NZ First’s Shane Jones’s description of Mahuta’s Three Waters Project was typically robust:

What was initially an attempt to fix some drinking water has turned into a highly divisive and pulverising social experiment that has got nothing to do with poo pipes and infrastructure. Now it’s got everything to do with whether or not tribes should have a superior right [over water].

Jones also argued that Jacinda Ardern’s government had “lost control” of Mahuta’s project:

She was unable to control Nanaia Mahuta, who has proven to be one of New Zealand’s most divisive politicians that God ever put breath into.

Nowhere was Ardern’s loss of control more evident that in the parliamentary debacle which followed the last-minute, constitutionally-dubious, attempt to entrench “anti-privatisation” clauses in the legislation setting up the Three Waters project as it neared the end of its passage, under urgency, through the House of Representatives.

If ever a project needed to be abandoned completely, and the rebuilding of New Zealand’s drinking, storm and wastewater infrastructure reconceptualised in ways that keep it both affordable and accountable, then that project is Three Waters.

Not that the Iwi Chairs gathered at the Copthorne Hotel are likely to see it that way. Mahuta’s project had brought them closer to Jones’s “superior right” over water than any of her predecessors. Their message to Chris Hipkins is likely to be blunt: repeal Mahuta’s legislation at your peril.

New Zealand’s new Prime Minister knows that the National Iwi Chairs Forum has the means to make life very difficult for his government. Notwithstanding their objections, however, Hipkins direction of travel – already clearly signalled by his very public demotion of Mahuta – must be confirmed by an emphatic and unequivocal pledge to repeal the Three Waters legislation and start again.

If Labour is to secure a third term, then Hipkins must make it clear to all New Zealanders – Māori and Pakeha – that his government is not about fulfilling the agendas of corporate/tribal elites. It is about making sure that every New Zealander in need of a job, a living wage, and a warm, dry house, gets one. That their family’s right to publicly-provided, quality health care and education is not denied. And that the promise of equality, enshrined in Article Three of the Treaty of Waitangi, is kept. Because that’s the only beer that’s electorally fit for Labour to drink: the beer of class – not race.

Everything else is froth.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 2 February 2023.