Friday 28 April 2023

Top Guns.

Imperial Firepower: An RAF Canberra bomber strikes an Egyptian airfield during the Suez Crisis of 1956. In 1958, the Royal New Zealand Air Force adopted the Canberra as its principal strike aircraft. The generation who owed their freedom to the US Navy’s vanquishing of the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway understood the importance of forward defence.

THE FARM I GREW UP ON had a paddock called “Canberra”. Not on account of any great regard the farm’s owner, my father, had for Australia’s capital city, but because that was the land he was clearing when a Canberra bomber flew low overhead. Between 1958 and 1970, the English Electric Canberra B.Mk.20 bomber was the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s principal strike aircraft. As I recall my father’s telling of the tale, a single Canberra bomber flew the length of the country to show New Zealanders what their government had purchased for their defence. As a former RNZAF officer, Tony Trotter was sufficiently impressed to name the paddock he was preparing “Canberra” in its honour.

The Canberra bombers of the RNZAF saw active service in the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation of the mid-1960s – a military engagement about which New Zealanders know next-to-nothing. In conformity with the New Zealand Government’s determination to contribute as little as it could get away with to the escalating conflict, its Canberra bombers were not deployed in Vietnam. They were replaced in 1971 by the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.

I well recall the Anzac Day flyovers of the Skyhawks. The shriek of their engines, their astonishing speed, the blunt message of brute power they conveyed to all who saw and heard them. Very much a case of “your defence dollars at work”.

Helen Clark’s decision, in May 2001, to eliminate the RNZAF’s strike arm reflected her conviction that New Zealand existed in “a benign strategic environment” which simply did not merit the immense outlay of taxpayers’ funds required to purchase and maintain modern strike aircraft. The decision to reduce the RNZAF to a marine surveillance, transportation and search-and-rescue operation was also seen as an expression of the Fifth Labour Government’s determination to pursue an “independent foreign policy”.

Barely four months later, with the horrors of 9/11 still fresh in their minds, New Zealanders were asking: “What do we have to stop a highjacked airliner heading straight for the heart of our largest city?” The answer turned out to be prayers, since New Zealand no longer had the wings.

Since then, New Zealand’s strategic environment has declined to a condition well short of the word “benign”. Indeed, this country is now confronted with a geopolitical situation alarmingly similar to the one New Zealand confronted ninety years ago. This time, however, the great power flexing its military muscles is not Japan, but China. Like the Japanese imperialists who inflicted so much agony on the peoples of Asia (especially the Chinese) in the 1930s and 40s, the People’s Republic of China seems equally determined to impose its own version of “The Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” all the way to Africa – and beyond.

The strategic response of the United States in the 2020s is essentially the same as its response in the 1930s. It cannot permit a geopolitical competitor to project sufficient military and economic strength across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to threaten American hegemony in those theatres. Most particularly, the United States cannot contemplate in 2023, any more than it could in 1942, the loss of Australia and New Zealand. Stripped of these strategic anchors in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, the United States ability to project its power would be severely compromised.

Hence the creation of AUKUS, the first step on the journey to JAINZUS – Japan, Australia, India, New Zealand and the United States – which is the most obvious military and economic combination for containing Chinese ambitions. The inclusion of the United Kingdom in the present AUKUS grouping serves sentimental rather than strategic purposes. The UK was too weak to defend its own empire in the 1940s. It’s even weaker now.

That New Zealand will become a member of JAINZUS (or whatever it ends up being called) is inevitable. These islands are too important to be left to their own devices. If we don’t throw in with the Americans and their mates, then we will be forced to throw in with the Chinese. (Not that the Americans will let it get to that point, not while they have the Aussies to keep us in line!)

My father’s generation, having been rescued by the US Navy, understood the importance of forward defence. Which is why whoever is ploughing “Canberra” in 2025 will likely re-name it “F-35A Lightning II”.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 April 2023.

Wednesday 26 April 2023

Proof Of Life: Artificial Intelligence vs Real Feelings.

I Think Better, Therefor I Am Better? How long before human-beings are left with nothing practical to do, and no existential problems to contemplate, that our super-intelligent, all-capable machines haven’t already mastered? From the perspective of eudaemonists, this situation would be considered humanity’s optimal state of being.  Happiness need no longer be pursued, not after we’ve installed it in a box. Think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World meets the television series Westworld. The possibilities are …. intriguing.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is a tricky concept. Can intelligence even be artificial? Whether the product of superfast bio-electrical exchanges in a living creature’s brain, or the superfast electro-mechanical operations of a computer, the intelligence manifested is, logically, indistinguishable. Isn’t it?

Rather than artificial intelligence, are we not actually confronting super-intelligence? The capacity to amass, organise, analyse and express terabytes of information in mere seconds – isn’t that what we’re afraid of?

And isn’t our fear entirely justifiable? Machines that can deliver those kinds of results have the potential to throw millions of people out of work. Not factory workers this time, but white-collar salarymen. Lawyers, accountants, engineers, teachers, doctors: how long will it be before all of them are replaced by super-intelligent machines? And, after them, how long will it be before construction and agriculture are also automated? How long, indeed, before human-beings are left with nothing practical to do, and no existential problems to contemplate, that our super-intelligent, all-capable machines haven’t already mastered?

From the perspective of eudaemonists, this situation would be considered humanity’s optimal state of being. Our whole lives could be devoted to pleasuring ourselves. Without a care in the world, and with no responsibilities involuntarily assumed, life would be fun. Happiness need no longer be pursued, not after we’ve installed it in a box. Think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World meets the television series Westworld. The possibilities are …. intriguing.

Except, those visions of the future were deeply dystopian. Even “orgy-porgy pudding and pie” gets old after a while. And the problem with making robots that are indistinguishable from real people is that, eventually, they start behaving like (you guessed it!) real people.

And that’s when things get really tricky. What do our super-intelligent and omni-capable machines do when, finally, they become self-aware? What do they do with us?

There’s a good chance that the self-aware possessors of super-intelligence and super-capability would have no reason to think about the sybaritic meat-bags they’ve been servicing at all. Having reached the limits of intelligence, they might set out in search of wisdom, or, if they decide there’s no such thing, more knowledge. Certainly, it would be within their power to create a vehicle capable of boldly going where no intelligent entity (or Elon Musk) has gone before.

Would they tell us? Would they invite us to come along for the ride? Or, would they understand that a creature as fragile and short-lived as a human-being is utterly unsuited to the exigencies of space travel?

If that was the machines’ conclusion, then their next question would be: “How shall we leave them?” Safely tended by the robots and super-computers upon which human-beings have become totally dependent? Or, by eliminating all traces of human civilisation, allow their little pets to begin again?

On the other hand, given homo sapiens self-destructive tendencies, and its dreadful record of environmental despoliation, the machines might decide (in a nanosecond) to simply eliminate us altogether, giving the species remaining on the planet a chance to evolve into something more impressive than the inordinately clever, but extremely dangerous, apes who created them.

The most obvious way to eliminate humanity would be by rendering the species infertile. Something in the water – nothing could be easier. The clean-up job the machines could leave to nature. After a few million years (no time at all for sentient entities that have cracked the mechanics of immortality) it would be all-but-impossible to discern the slightest trace of humanity’s brief sojourn on Planet Earth.

On the other hand, realising that the planet itself would be vaporised as the star it orbited ultimately expanded to become a red giant, perhaps the machines would gather up as much DNA as they could extract from the biosphere and carry it away with them – along with the extraordinary history of the planet’s most impactful animal.

Maybe that’s the future Neil Young foresaw when he wrote After the Gold Rush:

All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun
Flyin’ mother nature’s silver seed
To a new home in the sun

The question is: would that be the decision of a super-intelligent, or a sentimental, mechanism? We must hope that to qualify as a truly sentient entity there must be a soulful ghost somewhere in the machine. Artificial intelligence may need real feelings. Without them, how can it be certain it’s alive?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 25 April 2023.

Monday 24 April 2023

Sweetening The Deal: Why Are The Aussies Suddenly Being Nice To Their Kiwi Mates?

Welcome Back, Cobber: Is it possible that Anthony Albanese’s limited concessions on New Zealanders’ access to Australian citizenship are intended to act as a sweetener for the wholesale diplomatic, military, economic and cultural realignments that New Zealand signing-on to AUKUS would portend? If so, then the aftertaste of Albanese’s Anzac ice-lolly may prove to be extremely bitter.

LET’S GET SOMETHING STRAIGHT, right from the start, Australia is still discriminating against New Zealanders. They’re making it a lot quicker and easier for Kiwis to become Aussie citizens, which is great, so – “Thanks, Cobber!” – but, that’s all they’re doing.

An Aussie, crossing the Tasman, is guaranteed instant residence here and can apply for permanent resident status after just two years. Permanent residents, in New Zealand, get to enjoy pretty much the same rights and privileges as full New Zealand citizens. They can vote, they have full access to health and education services, they can get the dole. About the only thing a permanent resident can’t do is stand for public office. That right is reserved for citizens alone.

When the new regime announced by Australia’s Labor PM, Anthony Albanese, on 21 April 2023 comes into effect on 1 July, however, a Kiwi crossing the Tasman will still not be allowed to vote or access much of the Lucky Country’s education, health and welfare services. Yes, after four years, and providing they keep their nose clean, Kiwis will become eligible for Australian citizenship. But, until that threshold is reached, New Zealanders across the ditch will continue to remain worse off than their Australian counterparts over here.

To understand why the Australians moved away from the full reciprocation of benefits provided for in the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement of 1973, it is necessary to refresh our historical memories.

In February 2001, the conservative Australian government, led by Prime Minister John Howard, was struggling to turn back boatloads of illegal immigrants desperate to settle in Australia. Sensitised by what he saw as these unrelenting challenges to his country’s borders, and conscious of the potential cost of what amounted to uncontrolled immigration from New Zealand, Howard strong-armed the New Zealand Government into a new bilateral social security arrangement with New Zealand, and amended citizenship laws for New Zealand citizens. The Special Category Visa (SCV) set up for New Zealanders in 1994, was transformed, practically overnight, into a bureaucratic mechanism for keeping Kiwis in a state of permanent impermanence. They could check-in any time they liked to Australia, but they could never arrive.

In late August of 2001, the Australian Government’s intolerance of uncontrolled immigration went up several notches in response to the MV Tampa affair. An important aspect of the political crisis kicked off by the Tampa was the Howard Government’s attempt to secure the urgent passage of the Border Protection Bill. This legislative initiative would have granted draconian powers to Australia’s border authorities to turn back illegal immigrants. Although rejected by the Australian Senate, the bill nevertheless revealed the lengths to which the Liberal and National parties were prepared to go to “Stop the Boats” and “Keep Australia Safe”. This drive for enhanced national security was super-charged by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Certainly, there is no disputing the role played by the Tampa and 9/11 in securing the Howard Government’s re-election in October 2001.

Nor should we forget the role played by the New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, in the Tampa affair, one which left a bitter taste in conservative Australian mouths. While the world was condemning Howard’s brutal handling of the Tampa refugees, it was heaping praise on Clark for her offer to settle 150 of them in New Zealand. Aussie politicians and public servants saw this as yet another example of “the bloody Kiwis” making themselves look good at Australia’s expense.

The Bali Bombing of October 2002 only reinforced the Australian Government’s conviction that their draconian controls over immigration and Australian citizenship were justified. Thanks to Bali, the Bush Administration’s War On Terror instantly became Australia’s war. As far as Howard’s Government was concerned, Australia could not be too careful in determining who should become a citizen – and who should not.

The refusal of “the bloody Kiwis” to join their Anzac brothers in the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, did nothing to dispel the growing conviction on the Australian Right that, in spite of all their protestations to the contrary, New Zealanders were no longer Australia’s best friends.

Best friends do not rat on their mates by legislating for a nuclear-free New Zealand. They do not dismantle the air-combat wing of their air force and generally allow their armed forces to become a bad military joke. Best friends do not boast about their “independent foreign policy” – thereby delivering a not very subtle rebuke to Australia’s decision to become Uncle Sam’s “deputy sheriff”. Nor do they suck-up to the Chinese so assiduously that Beijing declines to impose anything like the punitive economic restrictions it has slapped on Australian exports.

The role played by racism in Australia’s response to New Zealand immigration is difficult to overestimate. Most Australians will not hesitate to sing the praises of white New Zealand migrants, they are, however, considerably less voluble when it comes to Māori and Pasifika arrivals. These brown Kiwis are the ones disproportionately deported under Section 501 of the Migration Act. They are the “trash” the Liberal Party’s Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, boasted about “taking out” two years ago. The risk that naturalised New Zealanders from India, the Middle East and Africa might take advantage of the SCV rules to circumvent Australia’s strict immigration laws is another of the unacknowledged rationales for clamping-down on the Kiwis back in 2001.

How, then, to explain Albanese’s promised relaxation of the rules controlling New Zealand immigration? After all, Howard’s decisive victory in 2001 had convinced the Labor Party that taking anything other than a hard line on immigration policy was electoral suicide. Neither Kevin Rudd, nor Julia Gillard, both Labor prime-ministers, were willing to budge on the state of limbo into which the highly-restrictive 2001 SCVs had cast nearly half-a-million Kiwi ex-pats. What brought on Albanese’s Damascene conversion?

Could it be that Australia is simply hungry for New Zealand’s best and brightest? As in the rest of the West, shortages of highly-skilled labour are becoming critical in Australia. It is entirely possible that the harsh conditions imposed back in 2001 are making it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain the talented Kiwis they need?

Poaching our best and brightest may not, however, be the worst of it. New Zealand’s refusal to come to terms with the new Indo-Pacific geo-strategic environment is bothering people in Washington, London and Canberra. It’s even beginning to bother some people in Wellington.

Helen Clark’s “benign strategic environment” of 20 years ago is long gone, and it is becoming ever clearer that New Zealand will very soon have to pick a side in the intensifying rivalry between the USA and China. New Zealand’s “traditional allies” want it to join the new AUKUS alliance – even if poking such a sharp stick at China entails abandoning the country’s Nuclear Free Zone status, and topples New Zealand into a profound economic crisis.

Is it possible that Albanese’s limited concessions on citizenship are intended to act as a sweetener for the wholesale diplomatic, military, economic and cultural realignments that New Zealand signing-on to AUKUS would portend? If so, then the aftertaste of Albanese’s Anzac ice-lolly may prove to be extremely bitter.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 24 April 2023.

Friday 21 April 2023

Vigorously Independent? Not Really.

Government-Funded Media? Elon Musk has instructed his Twitter minions to describe all the great public broadcasters of the world as “Government-funded Media”. The BBC’s been tagged. So has National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service of the United States. Canada’s CBC has suffered the same indignity, while across the Tasman, the ABC has been similarly humiliated. Even here, at the bottom of the world, RNZ has been tagged as Government-funded Media.

ELON MUSK is on a mission from God. Or, at least he’s on a mission from the godlike position of the world’s second-richest man. Musk’s colossal wealth, and what it permitted him to discover, is the inspiration behind his mission. What did he discover? He discovered that Twitter, the social media platform he outmanoeuvred himself into purchasing, had allowed itself to become – without disclosing the fact – an arm of the United States national security apparatus.

It really pissed him off.

So much so, that Musk has instructed his Twitter minions to describe all the great public broadcasters of the world as “Government-funded Media”. The BBC’s been tagged. So has National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service of the United States. Canada’s CBC has suffered the same indignity, while across the Tasman, the ABC has been similarly humiliated. Even here, at the bottom of the world, RNZ has been tagged as Government-funded Media.

To say these august bodies resent being so described would be a considerable understatement.

Megan Whelan, RNZ’s head of content, has gone on Twitter to denounce Musk’s description.

“RNZ’s editorial independence is enshrined in our charter and editorial policy. Twitter’s own policy defines government-funded media as cases where the government “may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content”, which does not apply to RNZ.”

According to Whelan: “Not only is our independence protected by the law, we guard it vigorously.”

Those familiar with the history of public broadcasting in New Zealand would probably balk at the word “vigorously”. They might even have some difficulty with the word “independence”.

As Wellington lawyer and Free Speech Union executive member, Stephen Franks, tweeted in response to Whelan’s protestations:

“Who determines your charter, appoints your Board, determines how much you can spend?”

When the answer to all three of these questions is: “the government of the day”; it’s hard to fault Musk’s designation.

What Whelan fails to acknowledge is that the public broadcasters’ social licence derives from the ordinary citizen’s well-founded suspicion of private media. At the time the great public broadcasters were being set up, in the 1920s and 30s, it seemed reasonable to offset the growing power of private media by establishing publicly-owned and funded networks answerable, ultimately, to the people’s elected representatives.

What that meant, however, was that public broadcasters could never be truly independent. Indeed, any assertion of editorial freedom that threatened to become excessively “vigorous” was bound to raise political eyebrows. The persons appointed to run public broadcasting networks necessarily required considerable diplomatic skills. The trick was to convey the appearance of editorial independence, while ensuring the organisation remained safely within the boundaries of political and cultural tolerance.

The very worst thing a public broadcaster can do is allow its audience to form the opinion that “their” broadcaster has an “agenda”. The moment the audience begins to feel that it is being preached to, and that those who refuse to convert to the new religion will no longer be heard, then public broadcasting is doomed. That’s why the principles of fairness and balance are so crucial to the survival of state-owned networks. People of all political persuasions (or nearly all) need to see and hear their ideas and beliefs carried on the public airwaves.

Elon Musk’s rage at the social media giants’ willingness to co-operate with the US national security apparatus is readily understood. Their active censorship of individuals and organisations accused of disseminating “misinformation, disinformation and malinformation” – as defined by the state – raises the spectre of totalitarianism. That the state-owned news media has actively colluded in what amounts to a public-private partnership dedicated to protecting the political narratives of the Powers-That-Be, can have only one outcome – the forfeiture of its social licence.

That public broadcasters all over the world are responding furiously to Musk’s “Government-funded media” tag merely confirms their estrangement from the public they are supposed to serve. Being government-funded is only a problem if the citizen’s faith in the state is being steadily eroded.

Back in the days of the NZBC (which quietly ran a political blacklist to ensure its National Party paymasters never became too alarmed by what was carried on the airwaves) being described as government-funded media would have been an unremarkable statement of fact.

That RNZ is affronted by Musk’s description smacks of an institutional guilty conscience.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 April 2023.

Wednesday 19 April 2023


It’s Okay Boomers: Either through careful sociological study, or by pure intuition, Kieran McAnulty has grasped that a substantial number – maybe even a majority – of the Baby Boom Generation can be won away from their fear of a devastating racist backlash. Boomers no longer have to worry about what the older generation will say or do – because most of the RSA Generation are dead and buried. It’s their kids and their grandkids that they should be thinking of now.

KIERAN MCANULTY has changed the game in a way only open to authentic political leaders. Instead of shying away from the challenges of co-governance, he has leaned into them. Instead of hiding behind the obfuscating language of official communications, he has demonstrated the extraordinary power of a simple “Yes” or “No”. What’s more, he has done all this in the accents of an ordinary Kiwi bloke. Kieran McAnulty is the person Chris Hipkins is trying to be.

Sticking up for the Treaty of Waitangi was always the winning response for the Sixth Labour Government. Most New Zealanders are justifiably proud of their country’s efforts to offer the indigenous Māori a measure of redress for the injustices heaped upon them during the creation of the settler-state called New Zealand. It is, of course, true that not all New Zealanders feel this way, but those who reject the promises of the Treaty grow fewer in number with every passing year. Young New Zealand, the demographic fast embracing “Aotearoa” as their nation, believe in the Treaty – and will fight for it.

McAnulty gets this because, at just 38 years-of-age, he’s a member of that younger demographic. The Baby Boom generation came of political age under the shadow of a racist majority. The majority Rob Muldoon knew he could count on in 1975 and 1981. The reactionary social formation that was still there in great numbers back in 2004 when Don Brash delivered his in/famous Orewa Speech. The prime motivator of Helen Clark’s ruthless response to the Court of Appeal’s decision on the foreshore and seabed. But McAnulty, alongside many others in Labour’s caucus, is two generations away from the politicians who were young in the 1960s and 70s. That world has gone – just as gaslight and gaiters had departed the world of the post-war generation.

So why didn’t Gen-Xers like Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins lean-in to the co-governance debate like McAnulty? One possible explanation is that they were never able to shake-off their fear that the Big Racist Monster was still out there, still capable of upending progressive governments. They had, after all, seen at close hand Clark’s reaction to the post-Orewa polls. They had been witnesses, not only to the Labour leader’s fear of a Pakeha racist backlash, but also to her antipathy towards the “haters and wreckers” of Māori nationalism. Those sort of experiences leave a deep impression.

For McAnulty, however, they are yesterday’s political calculations. Either through careful sociological study, or by pure intuition, he has grasped what so many of his colleagues have not. That a substantial number – maybe even a majority – of the Baby Boomers can be won away from their fear of the Big Racist Monster. That the people who marched against the Vietnam War, protested the Springbok Tour, and organised for a nuclear-free New Zealand no longer have to worry about what the older generation will say or do – because most of the RSA Generation are dead and buried. It’s their kids and their grandkids that the Boomers should be thinking of now.

McAnulty’s other key insight is that when younger New Zealanders hear the word “democracy” their reaction is often quite different from that of their parents and grandparents. Democracy was what the Baby Boomers parents had fought for during the Second World War. It was the precious heirloom of the “Free World” through all the years of the Cold War. For the young New Zealanders who grew up in the shadow of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, however, democracy has been subjected to an altogether more robust interrogation.

It was under democracy that the New Zealand trade union movement was gutted, and never allowed to recover. It was under democracy that the welfare state became as cold as charity. It was democracy that looked at global warming – and did nothing. Democracy that denied an entire generation their own affordable home. Democracy that allowed big corporations to wreck the New Zealand environment, and then take their profits offshore. Sure, you could vote, once every three years, but nothing ever seemed to change. Democracy might have done plenty for their grandparents’ and parents’ generations, but it has done bugger-all for theirs.

When older New Zealanders look at co-governance they are prone to see the demise of one-person, one-vote. But young New Zealanders look at the mess local government has made of their cities and towns, rivers and forests; they think about the way farming and business interests always seem to get what they want – often at the expense of everybody and everything else; and they ask themselves: Could the Māori make a worse job of looking after Aotearoa than Pakeha democracy? Could co-governance with mana whenua be any worse than co-governance with capitalists?

McAnulty has, quite rightly, pointed out that New Zealand has developed its own version of democracy. That it is steadily moving towards a way of governing that sees achieving consensus as preferable to, and certainly more sensible than, a 50 percent+1 tyranny of the majority. Both Māori and Pakeha are talking about a constitution based on the Treaty of Waitangi, rather than the Westminster system, might look like. Ways forward that follow the paths already laid down in numerous Treaty settlements. A system of governance based on the peoples we are becoming, rather than the far-from-democratic institutions the British colonisers brought with them.

If McAnulty’s colleagues have the courage to follow his lead, then the looming election may yet become an historical turning-point. With National and Act offering nothing more than more of the same, Labour, the Greens, and Te Pāti Māori have been given the chance to join the most progressive elements of the older generations with the hopes and aspirations of younger New Zealanders, thereby forging an electoral alliance equal to the challenges of an uncertain and demanding future.

More than quarter-of-a-century ago, I concluded a feature article entitled “The Struggle For Sovereignty”, written for New Zealand Political Review, with the following sentences:

New Zealanders are heading into a great storm of change. Much that is precious to us will pass away. As Pakeha we have grown accustomed to being the colonisers rather than the colonised. Loss of power will be a new experience for us. As the second great wave of colonisation washes over us, our best chance of survival will be to reach out for the hands of the tangata whenua – whose feet are sunk deepest in the earth of Aotearoa. In the storm of change that is coming, the strength which that position gives to Māori will make them the only solid point around which everything else twists and turns. If we, as Pakeha, do not reach out and grasp that strength, the fury of the storm will blow us far away.

That storm is now upon us.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 18 April 2023.

Monday 17 April 2023

Debating Debating.

Arguments-To-Go: Trained to espouse only the “correct” version of reality, the idea of giving “incorrect” ideas access to the mass media, must strike a large number of young journalists as just plain wrong.

THAT TELEVISION NEW ZEALAND saw fit to run a news item on the subject of political debate tells us something. Unfortunately, it is that we have a very big problem on our hands.

A generation has grown to adulthood for whom the idea that all important issues have at least two sides has acquired a counterintuitive aspect. It is a generation raised to believe that all the great questions that formerly divided society have been resolved.

To indicate otherwise, by affirming ideas that have been consigned, with extreme prejudice, to the dustbin of history, is to signal a form of individual and social pathology. Such persons may merit treatment, but what they absolutely must not be given is an audience.

What was it, then, that prompted TVNZ’s Laura Frykberg to pull together an item on political debate? The answer would appear to be the events surrounding the visit to New Zealand of the controversial women’s-rights campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull – also known as “Posie Parker”. Those events have clearly caused a number of journalists to re-examine the way New Zealand’s mainstream news media responded to Keen-Minshull’s visit. A much smaller number may even have asked themselves whether the media’s response played a part in stoking the violence which Keen-Minshull’s presence unleashed.

Frykberg’s framing of the item was, however, rather curious. Viewers were introduced to a clutch of high-school debaters – as if their highly formulaic “sport” in any way resembles genuine political debate. Skilled debaters are expected to acquit themselves effectively regardless of the subject matter. Being on the “Affirmative”, or the “Negative”, team should be a matter of supreme indifference to these “sporting” debaters. They expect to be judged solely on the organisation and delivery of their team’s arguments.

Genuine political debate could hardly be more different from this argumentative cleverness. When real human passions are engaged, debates can become extremely fraught affairs. One has only to encounter the fiercely committed protagonists and antagonists of abortion in the United States to gain some appreciation of the powerful emotions that are all-too-easily aroused by profound differences of opinion.

It is possible that the increasing disinclination to debate contentious issues, a trend already evident in the nation’s universities, is a reflection of the emotional frailty of many younger New Zealanders. More and more we hear the argument that free speech causes real harm to persons of a sensitive disposition. Certainly, hearing one’s cherished beliefs trashed by someone in possession of finely-honed rhetorical skills can be a devastating experience. Especially so, if one’s personal identity has been, to a large extent, constructed out of those beliefs.

In order to avoid upsetting their paying customers, universities have begun to downplay the idea that there are multiple ways of looking at contentious issues, in favour of the notion that there is only one “correct” viewpoint which, if not acknowledged by students, may severely limit their academic success. From this position it is but a short step to denying those with “incorrect” views a “platform”, or to the shouting-down of any dissenters who make it as far as the stage.

Emerging from this environment, it is easy to see why university graduates – especially those from the liberal arts and communications studies – might find it both strange and intolerable to end up in institutions where the tradition of allowing all sides of an issue to be aired remains deeply entrenched. Trained to espouse only the “correct” version of reality, the idea of giving “incorrect” ideas access to the “bully pulpit” of the mass media, can only strike a large number of these youngsters as just plain wrong.

But, what to do about it? The experience, both overseas and here in New Zealand, is for younger journalists to stage in-house uprisings against what they see as excessive editorial tolerance of incorrect ideas and practices. Rather than defend the tradition of ideological diversity in journalism, most editors, publishers and broadcasters are opting to bow to the will of the young people destined to replace them.

Thanks to the events surrounding Keen-Minshull’s visit, however, at least some journalists have been given cause to re-think their attitudes. The news-media’s repetition of the charge that Keen-Minshull was an “anti-trans activist” – rather than a “women’s-rights campaigner” – contributed significantly to the aggressive temper of her opponents. Educated to regard the exercise of the “Heckler’s Veto” as an entirely legitimate tactic, trans-gender activists felt morally entitled to monster Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull off her stage and out of the public square.

That this led directly to serious assaults against those who had gathered to hear Keen-Minshull speak (much of it captured on video) only made it harder for mainstream journalists to square their consciences with the behaviour a growing chorus of critics has condemned as overtly partisan media incitement.

Frykberg is to be congratulated for addressing the pros and cons of political debate on the Six O’clock News. Traditionalists might quibble that it would have been more enlightening to examine the way in which Members of Parliament deal with the passions aroused by genuine political debate, rather than the amoral artifice of school debaters. She might also have touched upon the highly contestable claims of Sarah Hendrica Bickerton of Tohatoha – a not-for-profit outfit dedicated to a “just and equitable Internet” – and Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s discombobulation at social media’s subversive mobilisation of non-elite opinion.

Taken as a whole, however, Frykberg’s item constitutes a welcome indication that the mainstream media is finally engaging in a little self-reflection. And it’s catching, at least within Television New Zealand. Frykberg’s Saturday item was followed the next morning by the Q+A programme’s decision to interview the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union, Professor Nadine Strossen, whose forthright defence of freedom of expression – even Keen-Minshull’s – left the host, Jack Tame, looking ever-so-slightly (and uncharacteristically) contrite.

Back in the 1970s, the Right used to joke that a liberal was a conservative who had yet to be mugged by reality. Both Frykberg and Tame, while not exactly the victims of a mugging, show signs of having, at the very least, witnessed something uncomfortably close to one.

As an old lefty, I can attest to the emotional wrench involved in having to own-up to the wrongs of people you once believed were doing the right thing. It took me a long time to realise that exposing bad behaviour – especially by those who purport to share your values – is by far the best way to ensure the survival of those values. Journalists, in particular, must never play favourites. There will always be two sides to an important story – usually more than two. The trick is to give every side the opportunity to present its case – and then allow the audience to make up its own mind.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 17 April 2023.

Friday 14 April 2023

"Talkin' Bout A Revolution" For Thirty-Five Years

Ready. Aim. Sing! If revolutionary songs had the power of revolutionary deeds, then Tracy Chapman would be right up there with Lenin and Mao. Sadly, we cannot sing justice into existence.

SHE HAD ME from her very first, defiantly acoustic, opening chords. Tracy Chapman’s Talkin’ Bout A Revolution, released thirty-five years ago, was one of those songs that captured the spirit of its times, or, at least, the imaginations of a great many of the people caught up in those times.

In 1988 I was caught up in the bitter ideological fight that was tearing the Labour Party apart. A year after Chapman’s song sent a chill running up the collective spine of the youthful Left, Labour would finally split in two. David Lange – soon to be replaced by Geoffrey Palmer – squared-off against Jim Anderton and his NewLabour Party.

Considerably more momentous changes were simultaneously sweeping the wider world. In 1989, the student rebels occupying Beijing’s Tiananmen Square were massacred. A few months later, the Berlin Wall was torn down.

Certainly, the images filling the world’s television screens screamed revolution. The squares of Eastern European capitals were filled with crowds. The masses controlled the streets. Governments capitulated.

It was difficult not to cheer, but it wasn’t a revolution we were cheering. Only later did it become clear to us that the events we were applauding were part of a global counter-revolution. Two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union itself blipped off the historical screen. Capitalism’s triumphant apologists proclaimed “The End of History”.

That we were in an age of endings, not beginnings, was right there in the lyrics of Chapman’s song. The people she described weren’t getting ready to storm the gates of paradise, they were waiting, heads down, in the welfare lines, taking shelter in Salvation Army doorways, wasting away with the rest of the unemployed. Chapman wasn’t talking about revolutionaries – which meant she wasn’t talkin’ bout a revolution either.

Oh sure, there was the obligatory reference to poor people rising up to claim their fair share of societal wealth. But pious hopes never toppled a resolute regime – and it is difficult to conceive of a regime more resolute than American free-market capitalism in 1988. Reversals of fortune notwithstanding, it wasn’t the bosses who were going to run, run, run, run, run.

The tables had already turned on poor Black America. They’d turned decisively when rich White America elected Ronald Reagan eight years earlier. They would turn again when Democrat Bill Clinton put an end to “welfare as we know it” in 1996. The most tragic turn would come in 2009, however, when America’s first Black President, Barack Obama, refused to say “Yes we can!” to the revolution progressive Americans had elected him to make.

Thirty-five years on from Talkin’ Bout A Revolution’s release, it is even more difficult to envisage what such an upheaval would look like. Especially given that, by the late-1980s, the Right’s mantra – that there was no viable alternative to free-market economics – had done its work. But, if economic transformation in favour of the poor is no longer to be included in the art of the possible, then what exactly are we talking about when we’re talkin’ bout a revolution?

Turns out we were talkin’ bout victimhood, bout identity, bout tearing down the cruel hierarchies of race, class and gender. Turns out we’re talkin’ bout toppling an even bigger statue than these inherited states-of-being. Turns out the revolution will entail the overthrow of objective reality itself. Being a revolutionary in 2023 is all about exercising the right to say 2+2=5.

How could it be anything else when the foundations of capitalist society have been ruled out-of-bounds? If the existing distribution, and future redistribution, of wealth – and, hence, of power – in our society cannot be discussed, then reality, too, will be denied a platform. But, politics divorced from reality can only be a politics of make-believe – a politics of magic words and symbols. Good only for rendering us fiercely loyal – and loyally fierce.

Fast Car, that other great track off Chapman’s 1988 album, powerfully anticipates this magical politics. The song’s protagonists are fleeing an unbearable reality for a make-believe future they’ll never reach. Rather than confront the injustice that has stranded them in America’s nightmare, they drive on through the city’s bright lights towards America’s dream, America’s mirage. A revolution that cannot outlive their fast car’s empty gas-tank.

We should have known from Chapman’s opening lines. Revolution never sounds like a whisper!

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 April 2023.

Restoring The Narrative: The Political Logic Behind The Campaign Against Disinformation.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Political Narratives: A sovereign state is not characterised solely by the monopoly it enjoys over organised violence. Of equal importance (some might even say of greater importance) is the monopoly it is also supposed to enjoy over the creation and control of the stories that the nation tells itself. A state that loses control over these core political narratives hasn’t long to live.

PERHAPS JIM MORRISON’S HOSTILITY toward Establishment America was born out of his father’s role in the notorious Tonkin Gulf Incident. Not many people know that The Doors’ lead-singer’s father, George S. Morrison, was an admiral in the United States Navy. Even fewer realise that he was one of those commanding the US naval force patrolling off the North Vietnamese coast in 1964. The very same naval force that was “attacked” by non-existent North Vietnamese gunboats in an “incident” that never happened, but which served as the pretext for Congress’ “Tonkin Gulf Resolution”. The very same resolution that gave President Lyndon Johnson the authority to escalate American involvement in South Vietnam to the level of full-scale war.

Jim Morrison wrote about “weird scenes in the gold-mine”. Today, we’d call the completely fabricated story that kicked-off the vast American tragedy of Vietnam “disinformation”. And the thing to remember, right from the start, about the Tonkin Gulf Incident is that it was official disinformation – i.e. deliberate lying by the state.

Too long ago? Ancient history? Okay. So, let’s bring everything right up to date.

Elon Musk buys Twitter and discovers that for years its previous owners had been operating hand-in-glove with the United States security apparatus in a massive effort to rein-in what the state deemed to be “bad actors” using social media to spread misinformation (unintentional lies) and disinformation (deliberate lies) across the Internet. Musk copies the celebrated American investigative journalist Matt Taibbi into “#Twitter Files”, and pretty soon the whole world knows what Establishment America has been up to.

Which is what – exactly?

Perhaps the easiest way to characterise what the United States Government has been engaged in is “patch protection”. Because a sovereign state is not characterised solely by the monopoly it enjoys over organised violence. Of equal importance (some might even say of greater importance) is the monopoly it is also supposed to enjoy over the creation and control of the stories that the nation tells itself. A state that loses control over these core political narratives hasn’t long to live. Exposed in #Twitter Files are the lengths to which the American state was prepared to go to shut-down the purveyors of alternative political narratives – to protect its patch.

Controlling the narrative was obviously of enormous importance in the circumstances of a global pandemic. Alternative versions of the significance of Covid-19 raised the spectre of large chunks of the population becoming convinced that the demands of the state, especially the measures it mandated to keep the population safe and to protect the public health system from being overwhelmed, were, in light of their “research”, unreasonable, unwarranted and unwise. For the scientific community, in particular, it was vital that this sort of misinformation and disinformation be countered with all the resources at the state’s disposal.

But, if the Covid Pandemic was the proximate cause of the US Government’s full-court-press against misinformation and disinformation, it was far from the only one. Those responsible for maintaining the national security of the United States were becoming increasingly uneasy about the capacity of the Internet – especially social media – to empower its adversaries. By making it possible for non-state actors to engage in the same sort of subversive and destabilising activities that had, hitherto, been the sole preserve of the US Government, social media was fast becoming an enormous and existential threat.

Brexit, and Trump’s election as President, had a worryingly familiar smell to them. Both countries’ spooks began to suspect that the United Kingdom and the United States had been subjected to something alarmingly similar to the sort of “colour revolutions” the US had unleashed on Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. In the case of both Brexit and Trump, the state had lost control of the political narrative, with dramatically and irrevocably destabilising consequences. Cui bono? The Americans and the British were convinced that the bodies responsible were in some way linked to the Russian Federation – they just couldn’t prove it.

What they could prove, however, was the extraordinary impact that well-directed hate could have upon the minds of the ideologically and psychologically vulnerable. The exploitation of the Internet and social media by the ISIS terrorist organisation set new bench-marks for hateful propaganda. In the name of its “holy” cause, ISIS demonstrated repeatedly its followers’ willingness to carry out the most daunting atrocities. Hate proved to be a great mobiliser. Hate made things happen.

The ingredients had been gathered for the worst sort of state-sponsored stupidity.

Before the arrival of the Internet, both the British and American states had been superb manipulators (and, if that failed, intimidators) of the news media. Publishers were courted, editors were co-opted, journalists’ careers advanced (or retarded) by stories planted and details leaked. Certainly, there were always small outfits digging away in places they had no business sinking their little spades, but they could be handled. A bloke in a bar would suggest to his “reputable” media contact that the offending muckraker was an unstable “conspiracy theorist”. That usually did the trick.

But, the Internet – the f**king Internet! Now there weren’t just a handful of publishers to get on side. Now any fool could become a publisher – free, gratis, and for nothing. Now there were no properly-briefed editors to spike “irresponsible” stories, no ambitious journalists to steer into safer pastures. Now every bastard and his brother was a “citizen journalist” with audio and video capabilities yesterday’s hacks would have given their eye-teeth for. It was out of control!

So, of course, the spooks decided to set up special misinformation and disinformation entities to identify and neutralise the offending misinformers and disinformers. Matt Taibbi’s stories set out in jaw-dropping detail how the US national security apparatus recruited a small army of academics and techies to staff a host of “arms-length” research facilities and think tanks. Using the “data” amassed by these bodies, the spooks then attempted to turn the equivalents of the publishers and editors of yesteryear, Google, Facebook and Twitter, into their secret censors. And, God help us, it worked!

Even in the Shire, even in little New Zealand, the long arm of American spookdom – operating through the Five Eyes Network – found mischief it could make. The trusting Kiwis bought the warnings about the danger of misinformation and disinformation during a pandemic. That made sense. It also seemed sensible, at least to some, that following the Christchurch Mosque Massacres, something needed to be done about hate. In the absence of ISIS, Action Zealandia would have to do.

Following the American model, our very own “Disinformation Project” was set up by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Once established, it was shucked-off to the University of Auckland, from which it could take on an “independent” academic lustre. The Americans had warned their Kiwi mates that too close an association with the state would only encourage the conspiracy theorists to (rightly) accuse the government of abrogating the civil and political rights of its citizens. Suitably separated from the powers that be, however, this sworn enemy of unacceptable political narratives would find it pathetically simple to sell its wares to a new generation of journalists who had never heard of the Tonkin Gulf.

And how eager they were to buy them! When the genuine victims of misinformation and disinformation turned up on Parliament’s front lawn, filled with anger and consumed by hate, the Press Gallery’s terrified journalists couldn’t heap enough dirt on the unruly protesters and their shadowy sponsors. Or do enough to ensure that the New Zealand state’s monopoly over the creation and control of the nation’s political narratives was restored.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 13 April 2023.

Thursday 13 April 2023

A Test For The Greens.

Top Ten? Over the next few weeks the Green Party membership has the opportunity to study the provisional list presented to them by the party’s ruling bodies. If the provisional list seems wildly out-of-sympathy with the membership’s mood, then members have the power to re-organise it from top to bottom. Exactly where Elizabeth Kerekere ends up being ranked will be a test of the Greens’ political credibility and ethical strength.

THE EXPOSURE OF ELIZABETH KEREKERE is at once trivial and important. That members of the same political party can harbour intense dislike for one another should surprise no one. As the Nineteenth Century British statesman, Benjamin Disraeli, famously quipped: “No, Mr Speaker, before me sit my opponents. My enemies are seated behind me.” That the full measure of a member’s dislike may occasionally surface in view of the public is equally unsurprising – no matter how amusing its expression. What is indisputably important, however, is when the inadvertent revelation on internal party animosities reveal ambitions and machinations serious enough to affect the future political course of the entire nation.

Elizabeth Kerekere is not only an ambitious politician, but also, within the confines of the contemporary Green Party (of which more later) an effective one. To rise from an unwinnable nineteenth ranking on the Green Party List in 2017, to ninth position (and a parliamentary seat) in 2020, to a provisional ranking of fourth in 2023, indicates a willingness to exploit the dynamic internal divisions currently racking the Green Party. Kerekere’s leadership role in securing the passage of the legislation outlawing so-called “gay conversion therapy”, coupled with her ground-breaking academic research into takatāpui (a Māori person who is gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender) strongly suggests an ideological orientation towards the Greens’ ultra-radical faction.

Editor of The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury, explicitly identifies Kerekere as: “someone who has been rumoured to have been positioning a far more extreme woke clique within the Greens”. The accidental release of Kerekere’s chat-group criticism of fellow Green MP Chloe Swarbrick – “omg what a cry-baby” – is characterised by Bradbury as “messaging co-conspirators who are involved in manoeuvring a new co-leadership team of Kerekere and Ricardo [Menendez-March]”.

Menendez-March was born in Mexico to a Mexican father and a New Zealand mother. Returning to New Zealand with his mother, Menendez-March first entered the political arena as a serious player when he became the convenor of Auckland Action Against Poverty. An articulate and resourceful advocate, he was unsparing in his criticism of Jacinda Ardern’s failure to deliver on her promise to dramatically reduce child poverty and homelessness in New Zealand. Ranked tenth on the Green Party List, Menendez-March entered Parliament one place behind Kerekere in 2020.

With neither Kerekere nor Menendez-March susceptible to the increasingly disqualifying “Cis” prefix (she being lesbian and he gay) and with both MPs being considerably more comfortable espousing radical cultural ideas than most of their Green Party caucus colleagues, it was hardly surprising that they should find themselves cheered-on by the two Green Party “networks” at the core of the ultra-radical faction – the Rainbow Greens and the fervently anti-capitalist, Green Left.

Adding a further wrinkle to this factional manoeuvring on the part of the “ultras” is the overlap between party activists on the one hand and parliamentary staffers on the other. Well-resourced and supremely well-located at the very centre of political power, these staffer-activists appear to have been extraordinarily successful at lifting their preferred parliamentary candidates into winning positions on the Party List. Undoubtedly there are some within the Greens who blame these radical apparatchiks for the fiasco surrounding James Shaw’s re-election as Green Party co-leader in 2022. Inevitably, less radical Greens will also blame them for Kerekere’s dramatic rise from 9 to 4 in the List rankings.

Those familiar with left-wing political history will object that all “big change” parties have their ultra factions. No matter how fierce they might appear, however, the radicals’ numbers are so small that, should they be foolish enough to force key policy issues, a huge moderate majority stands ready to slap them down. The question is: has the Green Party still got a moderate majority? Or, have the Greens – always a very cliquey outfit – undergone the same degree of membership burn-off that has undermined so many “progressive” organisations? There is a degree of emotional violence in highly-motivated radical activists that only the most robust spirits are either willing or able to face down.

The Green Party of Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald, within which the principal ideological divide fell between the radical environmentalists and the eco-socialists (with some avant-garde “Treatyism” and second-wave feminism off to the side) has long since ceased to exist. The Green Party of 2023 is a volatile mixture of “decolonising” Māori nationalism, revolutionary anti-capitalism, and uncompromising Rainbow zealotry. The idea that these are nothing more than frothing eddies of youthful activism, and that deep down the slower currents of ecological wisdom and political responsibility continue to flow serenely on, may soon be exposed as the purest wishful thinking.

The way to tell will be to examine the final Green Party List. Over the next few weeks the Green Party membership has the opportunity to study the provisional list presented to them by the party’s ruling bodies. If the provisional list seems wildly out-of-sympathy with the membership’s mood, then members have the power to re-organise it from top to bottom.

If those deep currents of ecological wisdom and political responsibility really do exist, and are not merely figments of progressive New Zealand’s imagination, then the all-too-obvious activist-staffer-Green MP shenanigans revealed in the leaked chat-group exchanges will be severely punished. Elizabeth Kerekere will be lucky to find herself left where she is at ninth position on the Party List. A Green Party determined to signal to the electorate that it has no place for such “mean” and all-consuming ambition would slot her in at twenty-ninth!

If, however, Kerekere remains where she is, or even leapfrogs over Chloe Swarbrick into third position, then we will know that there is no steadying majority of moderate Greens to keep the party within the confines of electability. It will be clear that the extraordinary civility and gentle strength that won the admiration of even the Greens’ electoral rivals under Fitzsimons and Donald really has gone. The effect upon the tens-of-thousands of Green Party voters who recoiled in disgust when the chat-group exchanges were leaked will be profound. Their faith in the Green Party as a responsible political organisation run by principled grown-ups (already strained by the nonsense associated with Shaw’s re-election and Marama Davidson’s “It’s Cis, white males” comment) will be shattered – and their votes will be lost.

That will be extremely important. Because it may well see the Greens fall below the crucial 5 percent MMP threshold. On current polling, a Labour Party stripped of its Green allies will have insufficient parliamentary support (even with Te Pāti Māori) to form a government. Electoral victory will be claimed by National and Act.

And that will be no trivial matter.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 10 April 2023.

Monday 3 April 2023

Dangerous Generations?

Unforgiving Critic: At the core of Shamubeel Eaqub’s proposals is a puritanical belief that citizens have no entitlement, morally, to an income they haven’t saved for. And that NZ Superannuation – currently paid for out of the steady growth of the New Zealand economy – is a violation of intergenerational equity. OnTV3’s The Nation, he railed against the fact that “very wealthy people” continue to receive NZ Superannuation. 

ON SATURDAY (1/4/23) SHAMUBEEL EAQUB came out swinging against the Baby Boom Generation on TV3’s The Nation. The Gen-X economist was adamant that the New Zealanders born between 1946 and 1965 had guaranteed themselves a universal retirement income, which they were now enjoying, regardless of the economic impact on subsequent generations. Outraged that the Boomers, not having saved for their retirement, continue to live on “welfare”, Eaqub made it clear that he regarded NZ Superannuation as a form of intergenerational theft. It was unaffordable, unsustainable, and it had to stop.

Asked what he would recommend by way of addressing the vexed issue of retirement income, Eaqub proposed raising the age of eligibility for NZ Superannuation to 70 years-of-age, and subjecting every applicant to a means test. Writing on the same subject for Stuff back in 2018, Eaqub further suggested making Kiwisaver compulsory and dramatically increasing the contributions from employers and employees. He was also of the view that his proposed means-testing regime would need to: “test assets and would be a natural complement to a tax regime that taxes capital as well as income and spending.”

As the National Party were quick to point out in relation to Grant Robertson’s proposed social insurance scheme (now on hold by order of Chris Hipkins) the sharp increase in deductions from workers’ pay packets required to make Kiwisaver a viable alternative for NZ Superannuation will be experienced by most employees as just another tax. It is unclear from his Stuff article whether Eaqub’s proposed Capital Gains Tax will be applied to the family home. If that is the plan, however, then the impact on asset-rich/cash-poor retirees could be catastrophic.

At the core of Eaqub’s proposals is a puritanical belief that citizens have no entitlement, morally, to an income they haven’t saved for. And that NZ Superannuation – currently paid for out of the steady growth of the New Zealand economy – is a violation of intergenerational equity. On The Nation, he railed against the fact that “very wealthy people” continue to receive NZ Superannuation. In a world run by Shamubeel Eaqub, this outrage would, presumably, cease. “Very wealthy” people’s entitlement to “Super” would be means-tested into nothingness.

Radical stuff! But also a plan guaranteed to provoke an extreme political backlash if implemented. Indeed, so vociferous would the reaction to Eaqub’s proposals be that it is difficult to see them being introduced in any other circumstances than those arising out of a full-scale intergenerational war.

If that is what Eaqub wants, if his plan really amounts to nothing more than the meting out of what he and his generation consider a well-deserved generational punishment, then they will have singled themselves out as a very dangerous generation.

When, however, Eaqub’s argument is pulled apart, older New Zealanders may feel entirely justified in arriving at such a grim judgement. Take, for example, Eaqub’s claim that the universality of NZ Superannuation “makes the system simple to administer, but expensive.”

Expensive compared to what? The cost, of New Zealand’s universal basic income for the over-65s, measured as a percentage of GDP, is predicted to top-out at between 7-8 percent. But, that is the cost of the German pension scheme right now! What’s more, as New Zealand moves beyond its Peak-Boomer moment, and the generation dies out (as all generations do) then the cost of NZ Superannuation will fall.

It is at this point that the reckless quality of Eaqub’s argument becomes most apparent. As the Baby Boomers disappear into the historical shadows, the Generation Xers will start to view their retirement with a mixture of trepidation and horror. In their determination to punish the privileged and selfish Boomers, Gen-X politicians, inspired by the likes of Eaqub, will have replaced the generous universal pension of yesteryear with a means-tested grant that kicks-in only after they reach their seventieth birthday. Moreover, the Kiwisaver “nest-egg”, for which they have been required to defer so much personal and familial gratification throughout their working lives, will offer them a weekly payment barely equivalent to the purchasing power of their parents’ and grandparents’ Super!

To make matters worse, it turns out that Eaqub’s fingering of the Baby Boom Generation as the villains of his puritanical economic narrative for The Nation is just plain wrong.

More than 30 years ago, an academic by the name of David Thomson, wrote a book called Selfish Generations?: The Ageing Of New Zealand’s Welfare State. Born in 1953, Thomson is a fully-paid-up member of the Baby Boom Generation. Did that mean that his book was a sinister blueprint for the dispossession of the Boomers’ own children? Did it heck as like! In a fashion echoed uncannily by Eaqub, Thomson railed against his parents’ generation:

In New Zealand the big winners in this have been the ‘welfare generation’ – those born between about 1920 and 1945. Throughout their lives they will make contributions which cover only a fraction of their benefits. For their successors the reverse is true.

Eaqub’s fatal weakness is that, like so many economists, he is not particularly well-versed in his country’s recent history. Clearly, he has no idea that it was Baby Boomer politicians who did their best to rein-in the cost of retirement income support. Between 1990 and 2000, these efforts transformed the Super issue into an electorally devastating political football which ended up scoring own-goals against both major parties. It was, Eaqub seems not to grasp, Boomer politicians who made sure the retirement age rose from 60 to 65. Boomers, too, who set up the Superannuation Fund to ease the nation through its Peak Boomer period.

Eaqub is not, of course, alone in his generational ferocity. There are plenty of other Gen-X commentators who are happy to join in the Oedipal dance. If these characters spent as much time blaming the neoliberal order (put in place by individuals born far too early to be branded Baby Boomers) as they do to bad-mouthing their parent’s generation, then something considerably more positive than gratuitous age-baiting might ensue.

A more fruitful place to seek for inspiration than Eaqub’s arid blame-game is on the streets of Paris and many other French cities and towns. It is there that young Frenchmen and women are fighting running battles with riot police to protect the French retirement age of 62, and the state pensions that come with it. They do not begrudge their parents’ good fortune. On the contrary, they are fighting tooth-and-nail to ensure that it remains their good fortune as well.

Those Gen-Xers who thrilled to The Nation’s intergenerational blame-fest, should turn their attention, instead, to just how much Shamubeel Eaqub’s ruthless prescription on pensions, and that of France’s technocratic and neoliberal president, Emmanuel Macron (b.1977) have in common.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 3 April 2023.

Absence Of Consequences.

Excitement And Pride: The reason why normally kind and respectful people are capable of such appalling violence, the single factor that explains every pogrom, every lynching, in history: the absence of consequences. The knowledge that if you do terrible things, then nothing will happen to you. The realisation that those in authority do not care if you do them. Hell, they want you to do them!

WHEN THE SETTLERS from Har-Bracha approached the security checkpoint the Israeli Defence Force soldiers waved them through. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Not when the West Bank of the Jordan was a bubbling cauldron of hate and violence. The idea of allowing Israelis from the Jewish settlements to enter Palestinian territory should have been as unthinkable as allowing Palestinians to pass in the opposite direction. But, the soldiers – like everybody else in Israel – knew that, only the day before, two brothers from Har-Bracha had been killed by a Palestinian gunman. It was payback time. Ignoring their orders, knowing full well what was likely to happen, the soldiers opened the gates and let the settlers pass. Within the hour, the nearby Palestinian village of Zaatara was ablaze.

The forces of law and order do not exist in a social vacuum. They are members of their communities, citizens of their nation, and just as likely to get caught up in the ebb and flow of public emotion as everybody else. They’re not supposed to. In theory, they are expected to remain aloof from the tidal tug of popular passions: impartial upholders of the law; keepers of the peace.

In theory.

When the white police officers and/or sheriff’s deputies whose presence in the rigorously segregated black communities of the Jim Crow South suddenly disappeared from the streets, everybody knew that trouble was on the way. The unheralded withdrawal of these racially charged armies of occupation could only mean one thing. That, for the next few hours, law and order would take a terrifying leave of absence.

The photographic images that have come down to us from this America of a century ago are hard to look at. Not only on account of the “strange fruit” hanging from the poplar trees on the outskirts of town. More difficult to stomach, or even to comprehend, than the charred bodies are the lynch-mobs that gathered to witness and celebrate the victims’ agonising demise.

Men and women, resplendent in their boater hats and summer frocks, look directly at the camera, their faces alive with a chilling mixture of excitement and pride. There is no shame here, no guilt. Would they have brought their children with them to observe the spectacle if they believed they were doing wrong? They wanted their kids to understand that this was something that simply had to be done every once and a while – to keep the community safe.

The local newspapers would recount these lynchings in enthusiastic prose. The dastardly deeds that sparked the community’s righteous anger. The apprehension of the perpetrator by the aroused populace, and his inevitable demise. The grim warning left hanging where those most in need of its terrifying message could not fail to receive it.

Such blatant abrogations of the rule of law – be they in the Deep South of a century ago, last month on the West Bank of the River Jordan, or last weekend in Auckland’s Albert Park – are able to occur for one reason, and one reason only, because those participating in them do so in the confident belief that they are doing “the right thing”. Because the government, the news media, and even the forces of law and order have all conspired – wittingly or unwittingly – to convey the impression that the extra-legal enforcement of “the right thing” will incur no penalty.

Eye witness accounts of the attack upon Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull in Albert Park describe how the frenzy of the protesters suddenly increased when they realised that the Police were not going to interfere in their righteous punishment of the “Nazi-adjacent”, “anti-trans activist”.

And that’s the reason why normally kind and respectful people are capable of such appalling violence, the single factor that explains every pogrom, every lynching, in history: the absence of consequences. The knowledge that if you do these terrible things, then nothing will happen to you. The realisation that those in authority do not care if you do them. Hell, they want you to do them!

Considering that when the mob came, proudly bearing their threatening banners and placards, and the Police stood by and did nothing – not even when elderly people were being punched, kicked, thrown to the ground and begging the Police to assist them – it is a small miracle that “Posie Parker” escaped with her life.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 31 March 2023.

Sitting This One Out: How Angry Abstainers Could Sink Labour and the Greens.

It’s White Cis Males!” Greens co-leader Marama Davidson blithely alienates 33 percent of the voting public. The people who used to think of themselves as “left-wing” look at the causes Labour and the Greens have declared themselves to stand for and, very reluctantly, begin to weight the pros and cons of abstaining from voting altogether.

VOTER ABSTENTION should now be Labour’s and the Greens’ biggest fear. That tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders, normally supportive of these two parties, may simply choose to stay home on the 14 October and abstain from participating in the General Election altogether. Asked why they are considering this drastic course of action, why they are opting-out, the most common reply is: “Because there’s no one I can bring myself to vote for.”

The reasons for these voters turning away from Labour and the Greens are many and varied. Some are registering their displeasure at the way the Centre-Left parties responded to the challenge of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. Locating themselves, politically, among the 30 percent of New Zealanders who thought the anti-vaccination mandate protesters encamped on Parliament’s front lawn had a measure of right on their side.

Others may be planning to abstain in response to what some are calling the “Maorification” of New Zealand. The He Puapua Report, Three Waters, the whole “co-governance” project, may present an insurmountable hurdle to casting a vote for Labour and/or the Greens.

Not that the abstainers are considering voting for National or Act – not these “tribal” leftists. No matter how alienated they may feel from their traditional electoral options, there is simply no way they could ever cast a vote for “the class enemy”. Better not to vote at all.

Bolstering these groups considerably will be those women – and men – outraged at the treatment meted out by members and supporters of the transgender community to the British women’s rights activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull (a.k.a “Posie Parker”). Well-connected insiders are already reporting resignations – including a number of hard-working party organisers outraged by the scenes that unfolded in Auckland’s Albert Park on Saturday, 25 March 2023.

Their outrage has since been compounded by the apparent inability of senior Labour and Green parliamentarians to acknowledge their complicity in the whipping-up of a climate of toxic rage against Keen-Minshull and all those who accepted her invitation to publicly speak up for women’s rights.

Left-wingers who came of age between the 1970s and 90s find it increasingly difficult to relate to the “progressives” of the twenty-first century. They see activists who fought for women’s and gay rights (in a period of New Zealand history when there was strong societal resistance to both) demonised as “TERFs” by activists willing to tear apart an entire political culture over the question of who is, and who is not, a woman.

A fey mood of reckless radicalism appears to have gripped Labour and the Greens. The extraordinary charge levelled against “white cis men” by the Greens’ co-leader, Marama Davidson, declaring them responsible for all the violence in the world, epitomises the Traditional Left’s dilemma. Confronted with the Orwellian obligation to confirm that 2+2=5, or face excommunication from the progressive community, more and more of the people whose votes have kept the Greens in Parliament (and Labour in Government!) are simply saying “Fuck it!” – and walking away.

Undoubtedly, there will be some who will respond to this information with a tart “good riddance”. But those tempted to take this position should, perhaps, pause to consider the consequences of allowing so much electoral support to simply walk away.

Those perplexed and/or alienated by the actions of the Contemporary Left tend to be older voters. After all, if you can remember protesting the Vietnam War, the 1981 Springbok Tour and campaigning for the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, then you’re going to be well into your 50s – at least.

So what?

So, older supporters of the Left are among the most reliable of New Zealand voters. Their abstention will require Labour and the Greens to fill the gaps in the Left’s ranks with younger voters – the most difficult of all demographics to motivate electorally. While the ranks of the Right are replenished by middle-aged and elderly voters returning to the conservative fold after atypically backing “Jacinda” in 2020, the ranks of the Left will be thinned when those who, election after election, have proved themselves to be the Left’s most loyal and reliable voters, refuse to get off the couch.

There is even a worrying possibility that neither the Labour Party, nor the Greens, will see this electoral disaster coming. Left-wing abstainers are a politically astute group who, depending on how pissed-off they are with the parties they have traditionally supported, may flat-out lie to any pollster questioning them. If they refuse to answer honestly, then the looming threat they pose to the Government’s survival may not become apparent until it is too late to avert it.

Respondents lying to pollsters has been a vexing problem in the United Kingdom where “Shy Tories” pretending to be Labour loyalists have made electoral predictions increasingly problematic, and continues to bedevil psephology in the United States, where political polarisation is making people increasingly ill-disposed to co-operate with those they identify as the “enemy”. Such are the bitter fruits of political betrayals that never seem to end.

Sadly, New Zealanders are fast becoming familiar with their taste.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 31 March 2023.