Wednesday 31 May 2023

Luxon’s Lack Of Political “Muscle Memory”.

Slow Learner: Effective leaders develop a political “muscle memory” of their own. The National Party should get one.

SPEAKING IN PUBLIC tops most people’s list of fearful situations. There are some careers, however, for which public fluency is a non-negotiable pre-requisite. There’s little point in pursuing an acting career, for example, if you’re frightened of audiences. The same applies to anyone intending to pursue a career in politics. There’s a reason why the study of rhetoric was part-and-parcel of a young nobleman’s education for a thousand years. Those who wish to rule their fellow human-beings non-violently, must be able to speak to them persuasively.

It is not, however, an easy skill to master. One of the more important reasons for maintaining political parties is to allow the idealistic and the ambitious to perfect the art of public speaking in an environment that is not, in the strictest sense, public. Party meetings and conferences are realistically political, but what is said there is unlikely to inflict serious damage upon party fortunes. Seasoned observers know that most conference delegates are amateurs, and that their utterances are not to be taken all that seriously.

Which is not to say that a shrewd political journalist will not be rewarded for keeping a watchful eye on low-level party gatherings such as regional conferences. In among a great deal of rhetorical dross, attentive journalists do occasionally encounter a truly outstanding public speaker. One whose understanding of the subject under discussion, evocative language, and all-round command of both themselves and their audience positively screams: “One to watch!”

As the years pass, and one party conference follows another, these outstanding performers may be observed rising steadily through the ranks. Some, of course, will fall by the wayside – victims of their own inflated assessment of their political importance. But, those whose political instincts are sound – i.e. those who avoid rocking the boat too vigorously – are generally rewarded with their party’s nomination. Not for a winnable seat, at least, not first off, but in order to further hone their political skills – under live fire.

One of the most important skills a candidate can master in these preliminary electoral bouts is that of resisting the temptation of telling voters what they want to hear. At just about every election meeting there will be an opportunity for questions from the floor. By then, experienced candidates will have already “read the room”. They know their job is not to capitulate to the audience’s opinions, but to shape them. Pandering to people’s prejudices is the essence of demagoguery – not successful party politics.

By the time these “ones to watch” are selected as candidates for winnable, or, better still, safe parliamentary seats, their rhetorical ability, tactical instincts, and strategic skills are plainly evident. But, winning a seat is only the beginning. A whole new apprenticeship looms, during which they must master the art of being a Member of Parliament.

At this point, alert readers will already be shaking their heads. This steady progression towards a parliamentary career may well have been the way politicians played the game forty years ago, when New Zealand electoral politics was dominated by two mass parties operating under the first-past-the-post electoral system. But, it is very far from being the way the politically ambitious become Members of Parliament in 2023.

In a mass party, the competition for the role of party representative in Parliament is fierce, and “winning one’s spurs” in the cut-and-thrust of intra-party politics is both admired and expected. But, neither National nor Labour are any longer mass parties.

The era of MMP is also the era of the so-called “cadre” party. In the mass parties of the past, advancement depended on how successfully party members had mastered the art of winning over their party comrades and pinning-down their votes – the politics of democracy. In parties organised by and for societal elites, the impetus for representation comes not from below, but above. To advance in a cadre party (of which Labour and National are both now examples) one must master the circuitry of power and influence – the politics of the courtier.

Unfortunately, if selection for a winnable seat, or a high placement on a Party List, becomes a matter of not what you know, but who you know, then the winnowing process which served National and Labour so well in the past, and which prepared prospective parliamentarians so thoroughly for the career of people’s representative, is undermined. Parliamentary candidates appear – as if from nowhere – chosen by the high and mighty, known only to party insiders, and, all-too-often, pitifully lacking in even the basic skills of winning voter support.

This is the weakness that saddles the New Zealand voter with Members of Parliament who are not only lacking in rhetorical ability, tactical instinct, and strategic skill, but are also alarmingly ignorant of the experiences, aspirations and values of the ordinary Kiwi voter.

The men and women who transformed National and Labour from mass parties into cadre parties may have rid themselves of bottom-up, democratic, intra-party politics, with all its embarrassments and irritations, but in the process of making their parties lean, mean, elite-driven machines, they forgot that the game they are playing, electoral politics, is, by definition, bottom-up and democratic.

National and Labour are selecting All Blacks who have never played Rugby. How else to explain Sam Uffindell and Gaurav Sharma?

Or, for that matter, Christopher Luxon?

Experience in the management of large corporations is one thing, experience in the rough-and-tumble of democratic politics, quite another. National has not only saddled itself with a politician with zero experience of cutting and thrusting his way up the spiral staircases of the National Party, but it was also willing to anoint as Leader a man with barely 13 months’ experience as a Member of Parliament.

Put a person of Luxon’s political inexperience in front of a hall-full of conservative voters and he is almost guaranteed to make the beginner’s error of telling them what they want to hear. If that involves abandoning Medium Density Residential Standards, the bi-partisan plan National agreed with Labour allowing three-storey dwellings to be built on all residential land in the main cities, then so be it. What was he supposed to say to these angry NIMBY voters? No?

Athletes and musicians talk about developing “muscle memory” – the practically unconscious mastery of their occupations that only comes from thousands of hours of practice, and years of experience. Effective leaders develop a political muscle-memory of their own. In answering tricky questions from the media. In delivering a stump speech as if it is the first time the words have passed their lips. Of knowing exactly how to lure their opponents into a policy trap – and then spring it. Of instinctively veering away from the “creepiness” of AI-generated images.

That National can no longer lay its hands on such a leader, tells us something about the state of New Zealand politics four months out from the 2023 General Election.

It’s not encouraging.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 29 May 2023.

Sunday 28 May 2023

The Persistence Of Racism: Is the Anti-Racist Cause Winning or Losing?

With Open Arms: Is it at all reasonable to suppose that a colonial society in which whites traditionally occupied all the upper rungs of the ethnic hierarchy, and where the colonised were relegated to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, will respond positively to a concerted indigenous push from below, or, to an extraordinary influx of non-white immigrants? Subject any settler state to these sorts of pressures, and something is going to break.

THE RACISM experienced by Australian writer Louisa Lim raises questions about the persistence of racism in Aotearoa-New Zealand. An invited speaker at the Auckland Writers’ Festival, Lim had to endure an anti-Asian rant when she visited a local noodle bar. When challenged by Lim, the person spewing the racist abuse redirected it at her. Lim shared this distressing experience with her festival audience, many of whom later expressed their anger and embarrassment at the emotional pain she had been forced to endure.

Incidents of this sort are difficult to categorise. Obviously, they are expressions of racism, but to what extent do they represent ingrained prejudices widely shared across the New Zealand population?

The stereotypical Kiwi racist is white, old and male. People like to talk about that embarrassing uncle that every family possesses, the one who feels no shame in vouchsafing racist opinions to his horrified kith and kin. Younger New Zealanders, we are confidently reassured, are much more relaxed about ethnic diversity. The unspoken assumption being that racism – along with the racists who spout it – will eventually die out. A more tolerant and welcoming Aotearoa is on the way. All we have to do is wait.

That is a comforting idea – but is it true?

To answer that question, it is necessary to ask another: What causes racism?

For racism to flourish, two things are necessary: 1) exploitation on the basis of ethnicity must be profitable; and 2) there must be a well-established ethnic hierarchy which explains and justifies that exploitation. Racism is incidental to the imposition of exploitation, but also to resisting it, because to overcome their exploitation those at the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy cannot avoid challenging and infuriating those above them. Racism flourishes because the exploiter has no choice but to kick down, and the exploited has no choice but to kick up.

Nothing intensifies racism more dramatically than the exploiters discovering racism is no longer profitable. At that point, the utility of the existing ethnic hierarchy is fundamentally compromised. It isn’t just a matter of those on the bottom getting out from under, it’s the disruptive impact their upward social mobility has on those positioned above them. The prospect of having to treat as equals persons whose condition of permanent subordination has constituted a defining element of one’s personal and civil identity is unlikely to be well received.

Those nearest the top of the hierarchy will experience the liberation of subordinate ethnicities with considerably more equanimity than those occupying the rungs immediately above them. The phenomenon of white, working-class racism is readily understood when one realises that the super-exploited, receiving less of everything that matters in the capitalist system – money, status, respect – are toiling away just one rung below. Equality feels good – but only when you’re moving up the ladder.

Is it at all reasonable to suppose that a colonial society in which whites traditionally occupied all the upper rungs of the ethnic hierarchy, and where the colonised were relegated to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, will respond positively to a concerted indigenous push from below, or, to an extraordinary influx of non-white immigrants? Moreover, if both challenges are being presented to the white majority simultaneously – making it difficult for them to order the rapidly changing ethnic hierarchy with any degree of confidence – what then? Subject any settler state to these sorts of pressures, and something is going to break.

Crucial to the integrity of New Zealand’s social infrastructure is the strength of its defining social narratives. If the pressures being brought to bear on New Zealand society are primarily ethnic in nature, then, at the heart of the story we tell ourselves about ourselves must be an abiding aversion to racism.

New Zealanders must be encouraged to regard racial prejudice as the worst of all sins. No accusation should be more hurtful to the ordinary New Zealander than the charge of racism. To that end, overt racism must always be condemned publicly – and in the strongest possible terms. It should be widely understood that a proven charge of racism is a career-killer. The desired outcome? A population willing to do just about anything to avoid the accusation – “Racist!”

That this outcome has largely been achieved is remarkable. Those responsible for instilling and policing Kiwi “anti-racism” should take a bow. The fear of being called a racist has kept most of the population dutifully silent as Māori nationalism has acquired a seemingly unstoppable momentum, and as the structure of the New Zealand population has been radically re-shaped by decades of mass immigration.

Certainly, the embarrassing old uncles continue to shock their friends, families and neighbours, but the political and cultural evolution of New Zealand has not been deranged by politicians vigorously condemned as racists (Winston Peters, Don Brash) taking control of the state – as happened elsewhere.

Most New Zealanders simply do not appreciate how close their country came to full-scale ethnic confrontation in 2005. The narrowness of the Don Brash-led National Party’s electoral defeat suggested strongly that the forces behind Kiwi anti-racism were nowhere near as powerful as its promoters had hoped. Labour’s victory obviated ideological introspection, however, and allowed the drive towards Māori sovereignty and multiculturalism to continue and gather strength.

National’s 2008 election victory did very little to hinder the anti-racist cause. Daunted, perhaps, by thoughts of what might have happened had Brash won, his successor, John Key, wooed and won the Māori Party as a supporter of his government. Key was also seized by the importance of New Zealand’s growing economic relationship with China. Key’s National Government encouraged the growth of multiculturalism every bit as assiduously as it enabled Māori nationalism. Accordingly, the anti-racist message, now amplified by large sections of the political class, academia and the news media, underwent a significant increase in volume.

The election of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led Government encouraged the anti-racist message to be broadcast even louder. The questions posed by its extraordinary salience, however, were difficult to answer. Were the increasingly jarring manifestations of Māori nationalist and multicultural assertiveness evidence of New Zealand society’s growing acceptance of diversity, or, proof of its opposite? Was ethnic tolerance expanding, or contracting?

The mass demonstrations of solidarity with the Muslim community following the 2019 Christchurch Mosque Massacres strongly suggest that tolerance is growing. The unabashed racism visible on social media, however, hints that, deep down, not much had changed since Brash’s near-victory in 2005.

That the promotion of the anti-racist message is now accompanied by openly expressed concerns regarding the dangers of “hate speech” and unregulated freedom of expression, testifies to the fragility of the anti-racist consensus. The political and cultural elites, to whom the prosecution of the anti-racist cause has been entrusted, are becoming increasingly defensive. Is it any longer sensible to be tolerant of intolerance?

The experience of Louisa Lim makes us wonder. Has racism really been driven into the furthest reaches of rural and provincial New Zealand? Are its promoters, safely corralled among the over-65s, really dying off? Or does it lurk, still, in the shadows of White New Zealand’s gothic psyche? Huge and silent, does it wait for a political leader to do what Don Brash came so close to doing eighteen years ago – give it a voice, and set it free?

Were the racists Lim encountered in that down-town Auckland noodle-bar over sixty-five – or under thirty?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 26 May 2023.

Friday 26 May 2023

Our Maori Future.

Shocking The Pakeha: An entirely forgivable impulse, some might say, given how easily so many Pakeha are shocked. Merely to suggest that Te Tiriti o Waitangi should be taken seriously is sufficient to set some Pakeha off. Others are shocked by the inclusion of more than a word or two of Māori in a news item, or the reciting of a karakia. The temptation to startle these fragile colonial creatures must be hard to resist.

ÉPATER LA BOURGEOISIE, or, in English, “shocking the middle-class” was something the decadent poets of La Belle Epoque worked at. Louche, promiscuous, absinthe-soaked and opium-addled, there was nothing Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud enjoyed more (apart from the aforementioned vices) than sticking their artistic needles into the stuffed shirts of France.

I sometimes wonder if some secret cultural connection exists linking these French provocateurs with Te Ao Māori. More and more these days, Māori leaders seem impelled to Épater la Pakeha.

An entirely forgivable impulse, some might say, given how easily so many Pakeha are shocked. Merely to suggest that Te Tiriti o Waitangi should be taken seriously is sufficient to set some Pakeha off. Others are shocked by the inclusion of more than a word or two of Māori in a news item, or the reciting of a karakia. The temptation to startle these fragile colonial creatures must be hard to resist.

Certainly the creatives who came up with the latest ad campaign for Te Whanau Ora – “Our Future Is Māori” – didn’t put up much of a fight. According to Stuff: “The ‘Our Future is Māori’ message will be visible on billboards, bus stops and televisions throughout Aotearoa, asserting that Māori must take control of their future.”

“Their” future? “Our” future? Pronouns are such tricky things these days. How many Pakeha, do you suppose, will read these ads as something other than an exhortation for Māori to take advantage of Te Whanau Ora (and its big dollop of Budget funding) to shape their own and their family’s destinies?

“Quite a few!” would probably be understating the Pakeha reaction.

And, to be fair to the colonisers’ descendants, the content and structure of the television ad do rather lend themselves to misinterpretation. Not least because they are challenging. “We have been separated,” declares the voice-over, “tikanga pulled from our arms, torn away from the whenua.” Pakeha do not care to be reminded of these truths. Nor are they made comfortable by the potent image of a Māori war canoe being driven through the water by a score of muscular paddlers. It is a troubling image of unstoppable momentum. “We carve our own path,” intones the voice-over, “a path for Māori, by Māori.”

Watching the ad, it is difficult to avoid adding the words: “So, you Pakeha better get out of our way.”

But then the imagery shifts. We see Māori health workers carrying the Covid vaccine to the rescue of their people – doing for themselves what the Ministry of Health had not only taken too long to do, but against which it had also raised legal barriers. Unbelievable? No. The “By Māori, For Māori” kaupapa has always had a revolutionary edge.

The ad shows more. Māori kids enjoying themselves in total immersion Māori schools. Rangatahi, back on their marae, helping to feed the people when the skies opened and the waters rose over Tai Rawhiti.

And, behind these images, a Māori choir singing the anthemic ‘Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi’. A solemn version, this one, performed to the slow beat of a drum – its rhythms matched by the paddlers of that unstoppable waka.

As the ad draws to a close, all the Māori we have seen, the paddlers, the health workers, the rangatahi, the whole cast, stands tall – offering their steadfast gaze to the audience. Not aggressively, not exactly, but definitely not passively or defensively. The voice-over concludes the ad with the words: “There is strength in our whakapapa.”

Was this particular Pakeha shocked? I was, yes, watching the ad for the first time. It confronted me with words and images that made me uncomfortable. That was, I am sure, part of its intention. Pakeha have been telling Māori what to do, and how to do it, for more than a century – seldom to their collective advantage. Now Māori are telling Pakeha to get out of their way. Now they are carving their own path.

In the end, however, the ad is not for us, or about us. That some Pakeha will bristle with indignation when they drive past a billboard declaring “Our Future Is Māori” is certain. As certain as Talkback Radio crackling with anger at Māori presumption.

Épater la Pakeha? You betcha. We’ve had it coming for a long time.

But not as long as the whakapapa of tangata whenua.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 May 2023.

Monday 22 May 2023

National Must Learn To Be Kind – Or Remain In Opposition.

Our sympathy for the poor and disadvantaged is this big. At need, New Zealanders will use their vote as a shield. From preference, they will use it as a tool. But, increasingly, they are refusing to use it as a weapon. Labour grasps the need to “be kind”. Until National does likewise, it will not be the government.

THE POLITICS OF KINDNESS may have left a deeper impression on the New Zealand electorate than is generally acknowledged. Though the nation has not quite arrived at the point of asking: “Jacinda who?”, the speed and thoroughness of the former prime minister’s political eclipse has been remarkable. The temptation, therefore, is to assume that the ideas that characterised her premiership have similarly faded into the background. That the “Politics of Kindness” no longer has electoral currency. But, in George Gershwin’s memorable formulation: “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Certainly, there are strong echoes of Ardernian kindness in Grant Robertson’s sixth budget. The extension of childcare subsidies to two-year-olds, allowing children to ride free on public transport, and, most importantly, the abolition of prescription charges – all point to a still-strong compassionate impulse animating Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ cabinet. Indeed, the Finance Minister’s strategic preference for borrowing over spending cuts stands athwart the Reserve Bank Governor’s recessionary pathway. In effect, Robertson is demanding to know whether the Governor counts himself among the kind – or the cruel.

Hipkins and Robertson are asking the same question (albeit considerably amplified) of their National Party counterparts. “What will it be, Christopher and Nicola? Responsible compassion, or unkind austerity?” The voters need to know.

Astonishingly, the National leadership replied to Labour’s question immediately, telling the voters that prescription charges would be reinstated by an incoming National Party-led government. Given that Labour’s policy of free prescriptions was the announcement received by the electorate most warmly, National’s pledge to nullify it struck most observers as nuts. It is explicable only if one assumes that Luxon and Willis are convinced that the electorate is counting on them to deliver policy medicine of the bitterest kind. Or, at least, every bit as bitter as Act’s.

Act is fast becoming the biggest single obstacle to National forming a government. It has enlarged its share of the Party Vote almost entirely at National’s expense by arguing that only the Act Party is prepared to manage the New Zealand economy with the rigor it requires. In doing so Act has corralled a significant percentage of those voters who like to use their votes as weapons – primarily against people they perceive as undeserving of the state largesse lavished upon them. They expect any incoming right-wing government to discipline and punish these “parasites”.

National’s problem, assuming it really is planning to get all medieval on the asses of the undeserving poor, is that the women-voters of all ages who deserted it for Labour in 2020, the voters it so desperately needs to win, may not be all that keen to take up their allotted seating in the National-Act Theatre of Cruelty. Contrariwise, if National shows the slightest sign of returning to the “Labour-Lite” days of John Key and Bill English – let alone to “Jacinda’s” Politics of Kindness – then they risk seeing even more of their voters deserting the National mother-ship for Act’s swashbuckling space-cruiser.

Presumably, it was to avoid such damaging descriptions that Luxon and Willis were so quick to announce their intention to restore prescription charges. But, their resolve to be right-wing pirates every bit as scary as David Seymour and his crew turned out to be less-than-adamantine. Within hours, National was walking back its hardline commitment to austerity. Perhaps the holders of Community Services Cards and superannuitants’ Gold Cards could be exempted from paying prescription charges. “Targeted assistance” – that’s what National stands for. That’s what it would be offering.

If only it was that simple. Unfortunately for Luxon and Willis, all that those crucial swing-voters will remember is that, first, National was against abolishing prescription charges, and then, the moment it registered the force of the public backlash, its leaders couldn’t backtrack fast enough. In other words: Luxon’s and Willis’s first response made them sound cruel, and their second made them look weak. Is their anything more pathetic in the world of Sado-politics than a “Dom” too squeamish to wield the whip?

Significantly, this backtrack over prescription charges is very far from being National’s first. Over the past year, Luxon, in particular, has appeared to stumble from one hastily-corrected policy misstatement to the next. The public is perplexed. Is it a case of Luxon having bold right-wing ideas which he simply cannot persuade his timid, more centrist, colleagues to accept? Or, is it simply the Leader of the Opposition talking off the top of his head about matters he is not equipped to discuss, and then having to walk his statements back in the face of unrelenting media questioning and caucus fury?

Regardless of the explanation, the cumulative effect of these gaffes is electorally sub-optimal. Luxon, a man with next-to-no serious parliamentary experience; a man, moreover, who spent a large chunk of the past 20 years living and working out of New Zealand; stands revealed as a man not so much out-of-touch as tellingly unfamiliar with the cues most Kiwis respond to without thinking. His performance is reminiscent of those German soldiers who, during the Battle of the Bulge, were apprehended wearing American uniforms. The GI’s tested these imposters by asking them questions that any genuine American could answer without hesitation. Those who failed the test were shot as spies.

It is Luxon’s ongoing struggle to present himself as an authentic politician that explains his failure to make the sort of steady gains in the preferred-prime-minister polling stakes that are the sure sign of a prime-minister-in-waiting. Even worse, Luxon shows every sign of lacking that “gut feel” for politics that distinguished Rob Muldoon, David Lange, Jim Bolger, Jim Anderton, Winston Peters, Helen Clark, John Key and Jacinda Ardern. Unlike those leaders, he has yet to come up with a political narrative in which not only dyed-in-the-wool Nats, but also a solid majority of ordinary New Zealanders, can see themselves.

Muldoon promised “New Zealand the way YOU want it.”, Bolger talked about restoring the “decent society” following the betrayals of Rogernomics, and John Key held out the promise of “a brighter future” as Labour’s lustre faded. An opposition’s narrative need not be one the whole country can agree with, but it must be one in which most New Zealanders can see themselves living – more-or-less happily.

Jacinda Ardern’s enduring political legacy is that fewer and fewer New Zealanders can see themselves living happily in a society where kindness no longer counts. There was time when Kiwis would vote for bullies – but that time has passed. At need, New Zealanders will use their vote as a shield. From preference, they will use it as a tool. But, increasingly, they are refusing to use it as a weapon. Labour grasps the need to “be kind”. Until National does likewise, it will not be the government.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 22 May 2023.

Friday 19 May 2023

In The Lock-Up.

Not Enough: Why should the poorest New Zealanders be expected to suffer the heaviest casualty-count in the battle against inflation? Why should a handful of unelected Reserve Bank officials be able to blackmail a democratic government into austerity by threatening to throw the entire economy into recession? The welfare of the country’s most vulnerable citizens should be our government’s No. 1 priority. It is simply outrageous that families are being forced to choose between paying the rent and feeding their kids.

ERIC SHUFFLED BACK to the desk at which he had only just managed to wrangle a seat. God! How he hated these Budget lock-ups! It wasn’t just the security guards and the inevitable lanyards, it was the inescapable feeling that he was the stupidest person in the room. If it wasn’t the world-weary Gen-Xers, with their “God, I’m so bored.”, expressions, it was the eager-beaver Millennials, flipping their way through the chin-high piles of documents as if they actually knew what they were looking for – which most of them probably did. Eric didn’t even know where to start – had no idea why he was here.

“Don’t worry about the numbers,” his editor had cautioned him, “we’ve got others who can crunch those. What I’m wanting from you, Eric, is an assessment of Robertson himself. How convincing is his act? Does he come across as a man who knows more than he’s letting on, or, as a poor, exhausted schmuck, who’s just counting down the days until the agony of the Finance Portfolio becomes someone else’s problem?”

He had tried to explain to his 40-something boss that politicians like Robertson had become so good at putting up a front that it was almost impossible to see through it. But, it hadn’t done any good. His boss seemed to believe that, as a person in his late-60s, someone who could actually remember Rob Muldoon and the New Zealand that existed before Rogernomics, he possessed supernatural powers of political perception. He just couldn’t get it through to his boss that no matter how much he had seen of it, politics and politicians could still surprise him. If he could predict the future, then he sure as hell wouldn’t be earning his living tapping away interminably at a bloody keyboard!

If only they let you smoke in here! Reflexively, Eric reached for the last sausage roll left on the lunch platter – only to discover that the sauce bowl had been wiped clean. Damn! Now he was bound to send showers of flaky pastry all over the lapels of his crumpled sports jacket – again.

And right there, with impeccable timing, was Robertson, closely followed by Hipkins, taking their places behind twin lecterns. Chewing frantically, Eric, retrieved his notebook and pen, cleared a small space on the desktop, and waited for Robertson to speak.

“This has been a particularly difficult Budget to pull together”, he began. “On the one hand, I was determined to help wage and salary earners keep their heads above water in the face of a worsening cost-of-living crisis. On the other hand, I did not want to pump so much money into the economy that Adrian Orr, the Reserve Bank Governor, would feel obliged to raise interest rates to even more ruinous levels and plunge the economy into recession.”

As Eric swallowed the last of his cold and rather dry sausage roll, it occurred to him that the Finance Minister wasn’t actually talking like a Finance Minister. This was a level of honesty to which most politicians seldom rose. What was Robertson playing at?

“All the advice I was receiving urged me to offer up a few symbolic crumbs: extending ECE assistance payments to 2-year-olds; subsidising public transport fares; abolishing prescription charges. Just enough to reaffirm our identity as a Labour government. Crumbs aside, however, we should spend only what’s required to keep the machinery of state turning. A “No Frills Budget” that offers bugger-all bread and even less butter.”

Eric, enthralled, reached for his coffee. It would be cold by now, but he needed something to wash the sausage roll down.

“But then,” said Robertson, pausing for dramatic effect, “I thought – fuck it.”

Erics’s coffee sprayed heroically over the piles of budget documents in front of him. Were his ears deceiving him?

“Why should the poorest New Zealanders be expected to suffer the heaviest casualty-count in the battle against inflation? Why should a handful of unelected Reserve Bank officials be able to blackmail a democratic government into austerity by threatening to throw the entire economy into recession? The welfare of the country’s most vulnerable citizens has to be our priority. It is simply outrageous that families are being forced to choose between paying the rent and feeding their kids. They need more money and, by God, we’re going to give it to them!”

Eric’s eyes widened in disbelief. In 40 years of covering politics he had never heard a Finance Minister talk like this.”

“That’s why I have today written to the Reserve Bank Governor, formally instructing to cap the OCR at 5 percent until further notice.”

Jesus! Eric let out a low whistle. Robertson was breaking all the rules.

Then it was Hipkins’ turn.

“Thanks, Grant. It feels good to have those neoliberal shackles off our hands and feet, doesn’t it? But, it feels even better to announce that over the next three months the Government will be introducing a Wealth Tax, a Capital Gains Tax, and adding an additional step to the Income Tax. From 1 April 2024, all those earning over $250,000 per annum will be paying 60 cents in the dollar. Windfall taxes will also be levied on all foreign-owned banks, and upon the supermarket duopoly. Those New Zealanders who do not want their society to become more equitable and more just can, of course, attempt to vote Labour out of office. But, we’re betting the farm that a more equitable and just New Zealand is exactly what a majority of voters want – and, moreover, that they’ve been wanting it for the past 40 years!”

“Eric! Eric!”

The young journalist looked down at the dishevelled old hack, head nestled upon chest, crumpled jacket covered in pastry flakes, drooling slightly from the corner of his mouth, quietly snoring, fast asleep.

“Eric! Eric! Wake up, Robertson’s about to speak.”

Eric sat up with a start, automatically brushing the pastry flakes from his shirt-front. Fumbling inside his jacket for his pad and pen, he glanced up sheepishly at the young journalist and her indulgent smile.

“Sorry. Sorry, luv. I must’ve been dreaming.

This short story was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 19 May 2023.

Winston’s Last Shot At Redemption.

The Happy Warrior: In the five months remaining before the 2023 General Election, Winston Peters has to amass enough votes to once again seize the hand-brake. Even a quarter of New Zealand’s 980,000 Baby Boomers would be enough.

NZ FIRST is currently hovering around 3-4 percent in the opinion polls – not enough to make it back to Parliament. Looking back over New Zealand’s recent political history, however, a base of 3-4 percent has been enough to see NZ First crest the 5 percent MMP threshold on Election Day. In 2011, for example, few commentators rated NZ First’s chances of re-entering the House, but it made it back with 1.5 percentage points to spare. Winston Peters remains a formidable campaigner. But, even if he and his party once again re-enter Parliament, Peters faces some extremely difficult political choices.

The first and most important of these would be whether NZ First should enter into a formal coalition agreement with the National Party and Act. On the face of it, such an arrangement would constitute a repudiation of everything NZ First has stood for since its founding in 1993.

Act represents those New Zealanders who are not only convinced that Rogernomics and Ruthanasia were correct and necessary, but also that the neoliberal programme of the 1980s and 90s remains unfinished – a state of affairs that Act is determined to put right.

At his very first Cabinet meeting in 1990, Peters realised that the “decent society” National had promised New Zealanders was no longer on the agenda. So trenchant a critic was he of the Jim Bolger Government’s slash-and-burn policies that he was thrown out of Cabinet, eventually resigning his National Party membership altogether.

NZ First was Peters’ attempt to combine the best elements of the political doctrines espoused by National and Labour before both major parties were corrupted by free-market extremism. In the first MMP election, held in 1996, NZ First secured 13 percent of the Party Vote and 17 seats – a position of strength which allowed him to conclude a comprehensive (and remarkably progressive) coalition agreement with his “frenemy” Jim Bolger.

Unfortunately for Peters, the National host rejected NZ First. Though it meant deposing Bolger, and governing with the support of a malodorous collection of traitors and turncoats, National, no longer wedded to the values of New Zealand’s most prosperous years (1949-1984) made it clear that renouncing neoliberalism was not an option.

National Leader, Christopher Luxon, has said nothing which suggests that his party’s allegiance to the neoliberal ideology is wavering. He is not, however, as open in his endorsement of neoliberal principles as Act’s David Seymour. This ideological diffidence does not sit well with the Act Party. Accordingly, Seymour and his party seem determined to drag National kicking and screaming into the radical libertarian Right’s policy hothouse. Where it matters in 2023, moderation is out-of-fashion.

None of this will have escaped Peters’ eagle political eye. In the 30 years since he was a member, there has been not the slightest sign that the moderate, small-c conservative values that allowed National to rule for 29 of the 35 years between 1949 and 1984 are making a come-back. Even without Act, National might smile and smile at NZ First, and be a neoliberal villain, just waiting for the moment when, like Jenny Shipley, it can thrust a dagger deep into his back.

By contrast, Act, with refreshing honesty, is doing its best to stab NZ First in the front. By refusing point-blank to enter into any coalition affording aid and comfort to Peters’ allegedly antiquated and discredited economic and social ideas, it hopes to leave National with no option but to go into coalition with Act, or go back to the country for a second crack at putting things right.

But, if Peters cannot choose National, neither can he choose Labour. (Let alone Labour-Green-Te Pāti Māori!) It did not take him and NZ First very long to grasp that Labour’s values in 2017 were light-years away from Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s. Jacinda Ardern had promised “transformational” change and, when it came to entrenching radical identity politics, she delivered it. Not that when she invited New Zealand to “Let’s do this!”, voters had the faintest idea she’d do that.

What choice, then, does Peters and NZ First have? In the five months remaining before the election, he has to amass enough votes to once again seize the hand-brake. Even a quarter of New Zealand’s 980,000 Baby Boomers would be enough.

Talkin’ bout my generation’s, and Winston’s, last shot at redemption!

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 May 2023.

Wednesday 17 May 2023

Secretive Constitutional Reform Is Political Kryptonite.

Dangerous Stuff: The moment it becomes clear to non-Māori New Zealanders just how violently Te Pāti Māori’s reforms would re-arrange the country’s constitutional furniture their reaction is likely to sink any chance of a centre-left victory. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, talk of serious constitutional reform has the effect of Kryptonite on most New Zealand politicians.

CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM is Kryptonite to our political leaders. New Zealand’s No. 8 wire constitution, largely unwritten and characteristically informal, has been deemed “rough enough” by the country’s two largest political parties. In both National and Labour, excessive interest in the topic is not career-enhancing – being taken as evidence of the political trainspotting to which most “ordinary” Kiwis are violently allergic.

This allergy has only gotten worse as the political salience of Te Tiriti o Waitangi has increased. The alacrity and energy with which National and Labour politicians kick Tiriti-based constitutional reform down the road is remarkable. That republican proposals regarding the monarchy are similarly postponed to some nebulous future time, merely confirms our politicians’ aversion to serious constitutional debate.

The politicians’ aversion to substantive constitutional reform is perfectly understandable when set against the New Zealand electorate’s strongly-held conviction that Parliament is – and should remain – supreme. Formalising our constitutional arrangements in writing would lead, inexorably, to the Judiciary adjudicating constitutional disputes. The idea of appointed judges having the final say over the actions of our democratically-elected House of Representatives has never gone down well in these parts.

Like it or not, however, the pressure to enshrine Te Tiriti at the heart of our constitutional structures continues to grow. “What to do about ‘The Treaty’?” is certain to be one of the key questions dominating the forthcoming election campaign. This is not because our political leaders have finally decided to bite the bullet on constitutional reform, it’s because Māori activists – both legal and political – have finally forced the issue onto New Zealand’s short-term political agenda.

Both of the major parties have been caught in a pincer-movement. From the left, Te Pāti Māori (TPM) has made it clear that constitutional reform must be part of any coalition and/or support agreement involving itself, Labour and the Greens. From the right, the Act Party is insisting that any conservative coalition government must commit itself to, first, defining te Tiriti’s meaning and scope, and then, confirming that definition by referendum.

The moment it becomes clear to non-Māori New Zealanders just how violently TPM’s reforms would re-arrange the country’s constitutional furniture their reaction is likely to sink any chance of a centre-left victory. By the same token, an affirmative referendum vote for a re-definition reducing Te Tiriti to a mere constitutional flourish would unleash racial conflict on a scale not seen since the land wars of the 1860s.

Presumably, it was thoughts of this sort that prompted the Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, to warn New Zealand’s minor parties against announcing bottom-lines that neither Labour nor National can accept without setting themselves up for a fatal electoral backlash. Hipkins’ (along with the Opposition Leader, Christopher Luxon’s) problem is that neither TPM nor Act can afford to be seen abandoning their principles for the baubles of office. Both parties’ electoral strength has been built upon their very public determination to stand firm even when all those around them are bowing to “mainstream” pressures.

The uncompromising positions adopted by those parties operating beyond the pale of political orthodoxy are what you get when orthodox politicians’ refuse to both sanction and participate in genuine constitutional debate. But if, by their refusal, those same orthodox politicians believe that serious constitutional debate can be stifled indefinitely, then they are wrong. If the non-Māori political establishment was unwilling to countenance constitutional reform, the Māori political establishment – in the guise of the Iwi Leaders Forum – were determined to set the wheels in motion.

It was in 2010, at a meeting of the Iwi Chairs’ Forum, that a proposal for Matike Mai Aotearoa, the Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation, was first laid upon the table. By 2012, Matike Mai, led by Margaret Mutu and the late Moana Jackson, was ready to begin developing and implementing “a model for an inclusive Constitution for Aotearoa based on tikanga and kawa, He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Niu Tireni of 1835, Te Tiriti o Waitangi of 1840, and other indigenous human rights instruments which enjoy a wide degree of international recognition.”

For more than four years, up and down New Zealand, Māori gathered to impart their ideas about constitutional transformation to Matike Mai. For the most part, Non-Māori New Zealanders remained unaware that such a process was underway. Certainly, only a very small number of Non-Māori understood the radical character of the undertaking. In the words of the Working Group’s final report:

The Terms of Reference did not ask the Working Group to consider such questions as ‘How might the Treaty fit within the current Westminster constitutional system’ but rather required it to seek advice on a different type of constitutionalism that is based upon He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti. For that reason this Report uses the term ‘constitutional transformation’ rather than ‘constitutional change’.

Mutu and Jackson clearly considered this approach to be optimal, but, from the perspective of those seeking constitutional reform proposals with significant buy-in from Māori and Non-Māori alike, Matike Mai was emphatically sub-optimal. Its recommendations, untested by the responses of Non-Māori, could hardly avoid becoming political Kryptonite. The moment the Non-Māori population became aware of what Matike Mai was proposing, things were going to get extremely messy.

The change of Government in 2017 hardly improved matters. Now vested with all the powers of the Executive, Labour’s Māori ministers opted to continue down the constitutional reform path unaccompanied by the Non-Maori Treaty partner. Commissioned by Nanaia Mahuta, the extraordinary He Puapua Report (kept under wraps until the 2020 general election was safely out of the way) rehearsed many of the radical constitutional ideas first mooted in Matike Mai. When, inevitably, the contents of He Puapua was leaked to the public, Jacinda Ardern and her Non-Māori colleagues could not back away from it fast enough.

And, as if Matike Mai and He Puapua weren’t enough, there was also a constitutional consultative process of extraordinary design moving inexorably towards its scheduled conclusion. This exercise was notable for its division into two separate stages.

The first stage was restricted to Māori. Only when their recommendations had been finalised would Non-Māori be asked to respond. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson received the Māori-generated constitutional proposals he refused to put them before Cabinet. He then (wisely) decided to halt the entire exercise until after the election.

In the light of this extraordinary history, it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that those charged with managing the discussion of New Zealand’s future constitutional arrangements have been guilty of appalling cowardice. Rather than insist that any and all discussion of the nation’s constitutional future takes place in the full view of its citizens, the representatives of both Treaty partners found it more expedient to do their talking separately and behind closed doors. Inevitably, this secretive process has given rise to profound misgivings, especially among the Non-Māori majority. The Labour Government’s shameful lack of transparency has allowed fear and doubt to grow about the motives and intentions of the Māori minority. This has contributed to an unnecessary and distressing deterioration in New Zealand’s race relations.

To prevent matters deteriorating further, Labour and National should both undertake to defer any significant constitutional change until there has been a opportunity for all New Zealanders – Māori and Non-Māori – to engage openly, and without fear of “cancellation”, in discussing and debating the full range of options for how their country might be governed. It is not in the least reasonable to assume that a durable constitution can be drafted in the absence of untrammelled popular participation.

Political Kryptonite can only be rendered harmless by exposing it to the remedial effects of direct democratic sunlight.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 15 May 2023.

A Grim Template.

Witnesses To A Massacre? The New Zealand Mounted Field Ambulance served in Sinai and Palestine in the latter years of the First World War. What connection, if any, did it have to the bloody events at Surafend? Major Alexander M. Trotter (the author’s grandfather) is seated on the right in the second row.

I DON’T BELIEVE my grandfather participated in the Surafend Massacre, but it’s possible he treated some of the wounded. He was definitely “in theatre” at the time. That is to say he was in Palestine. Riding with the New Zealand Mounted Field Ambulance and the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade alongside the Australian Light Horse. The latter two entities were up to their bloody armpits in the Surafend Massacre, but for the most part the attack was led by ordinary rank-and-file troopers – not their officers. Which is not to say that their officers didn’t look the other way when their men descended upon the little Palestinian village to avenge their mate, Trooper Lesley Lowry, tragically murdered by a Palestinian thief on 9 December 1918 – just 28 days after the war officially came to an end.

Certainly New Zealand and Australian officers remained steadfastly tight-lipped in the faces of the investigation team sent by a furious General Edmund Allenby. The British commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force demanded the identities of the troopers involved in the killing of 30 Palestinian civilians. Denied even a single name, Allenby vented his spleen on the New Zealand and Australian perpetrators. He did not mince his words:

“I was proud of you as brave soldiers but now I am ashamed of you as cold-blooded murderers.”

Allenby’s words came close to provoking a mutiny among the Australian and New Zealand troops, and he was soon forced to retract them.

The Jewish settlers of Rishon LeZion, a Zionist settlement not far from Surafend could not understand what all the fuss was about. Even in 1918 (some might say especially in 1918, barely a year since the Balfour Declaration promising the Jews a homeland in Palestine) there was no love lost between Jew and Arab.

The inhabitants of Rishon LeZion had, however, erected a memorial to the New Zealanders who had fallen twelve months earlier in the Battle of Ayun Kara. The shrewd Zionists of Rishon LeZion understood both the vital importance of freeing Palestine from Ottoman Control and how critical it was that the British Empire become the Holy Land’s new overlord. And they never forgot the New Zealanders. For many years after the First World War, the leaders of Rishon LeZion would send a Christmas message to New Zealand newspapers:

[T]he memory of the New Zealand and Australian troops, Anzac, remains carved in our hearts. You won the highest praise for your splendid valour right throughout the campaign and no less than your valour in battle was your chivalry to the people of the country.

Not a sentiment the villagers of Surafend were likely to endorse, but the Zionists of Rishon LeZion understood that the State of Israel they were so determined to build would always be in need of friends.

How disturbing it would be to discover that the destruction of Surafend by the New Zealanders and Australians in 1918 served as a grim template for what the Palestinians call the “Nakba” – those terrible days in 1948 and 1949 when Jewish militias fell upon the towns and villages of Palestinian Arabs and drove more than half-a-million of their inhabitants into exile. Without these mass expulsions – this ethnic cleansing – the State of Israel could not have been securely established.

Terror has its uses. In spite of his fury at the Surafend Massacre, General Allenby soon found it expedient to employ the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and the Australian Light Horse in quelling the anti-imperialist uprisings that erupted across British-occupied Egypt in March-April of 1919. The mere prospect of receiving a visit from the General’s Surafend “murderers” was usually sufficient to quieten-down any ungrateful and unruly wards of the King-Emperor.

Did my grandfather, a country doctor for 40 years in Herbert, North Otago, listening to news bulletins on the radio receiver he’d built himself, ever recall those long ago events? He must have known about Surafend – especially after Allenby’s outburst. His copy of Lieutenant-Colonel C. Guy Powles The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine is sitting on my desk as I write these words. The “disturbance” at Surafend is described. When he heard about the bitter events of May 1948, did he recall their deadly precursor of December 1918?

What were his feelings when he read those Christmas messages from Rishon LeZion in the Otago Daily Times?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 12 May 2023.

Saturday 13 May 2023

Chaotic Destinations.

Heading For Trouble - Or Away From It? Arguably the most effective pro-MMP poster stated simply: “If you’re looking for a good reason to vote in favour of MMP, just take a look at the people who want you to vote against it.” By the same logic, if National, Act, and the whole right-wing establishment are trying to scare New Zealanders into voting against a Labour-Green-Te Pāti Māori government, then maybe that’s the best possible reason to vote for their “Coalition of Chaos”.

“THE COALITION OF CHAOS”, that’s how Matthew Hooton and the right-wing commentariat are describing the putative Labour-Green-Te Pāti Māori parliamentary alliance. Which is a contradiction, of sorts, since the notion of New Zealanders voting in favour of chaos is, on its face, nonsensical. Then again, Hooton is more than shrewd enough to grasp that the mood of the electorate may be sufficiently volatile to generate precisely this result. As he has pointed out in recent commentaries, the combined vote of the two main parties, at 70 percent, is historically low. Nearly a third of electorate is “grumpy”. That’s a lot of pissed-off people. Chaos is an option.

But, Hooton’s chaos will only eventuate if Te Pāti Māori and, to a lesser extent, the Greens, are able to attract the support of a great many more young and/or disillusioned voters than usually make it to the polling-booth. Since neither party has the political organisation to mobilise a mass vote on their own, a higher than usual turn-out on 14 October will be a sociological – not a psephological – phenomenon. For some as-yet-unrecognised reason, tens-of-thousands of young and/or marginalised citizens will have arrived at the same conclusion: this time, casting a vote will make a difference.

What could lead them to such a conclusion? Paradoxically, it could be the Right’s crazy-screaming-horror campaign against the “Coalition of Chaos”.

Between them, National and Act already have approximately $7 million to spend – most of it over the next four months. More than enough to spread crazy-screaming-horror far and wide. Undoubtedly “Middle New Zealand” will run wild-eyed into the arms of the Right, terrified that a bloodthirsty mob of socialists, eco-warriors and revanchist Māori are coming for the family trust. The question is: will such a scare campaign only make those voters who were already walking towards National and Act break into a panic-stricken sprint? Who will it get them that they haven’t already got?

Advertisers – including political advertisers – generally create their product with a specific demographic in mind. The message they craft is for that particular demographic, and if they get the message, then the ad is counted a success. But, most ads contain multiple messages which, in the demographics not specifically targeted, may excite responses which were not in any way anticipated by their makers.

An ad for a motor vehicle retailing for $80,000, for example, will not be framed for a person living on the dole. And yet, such a person may well see the ad. He or she may notice that the people driving the luxury vehicle are all beautiful, thin, and moving through a physical and social landscape light-years from their own. The fast-moving sequence of images may, therefore, arouse intense feelings of exclusion and deprivation: angry fantasies of conquest and vengeance. Not at all what the ad’s makers intended.

In much the same way, a party political message contrived to inspire crazy-screaming-horror in middle-class Pakeha women who usually vote National, but who gave a vote-of-thanks to “Jacinda” in 2020, may convey a very different message to angry young Māori determined to escape from the impoverished environment in which they feel imprisoned. If the prospect of Te Pāti Māori becoming part of a governing coalition strikes such abject fear into the hearts of the Pakeha, then casting a vote for TPM might begin to look like a very good idea.

If the Left is smart, it will take a leaf out of the playbook of those who campaigned in favour of adopting MMP. Arguably the most effective pro-MMP poster stated simply: “If you’re looking for a good reason to vote in favour of MMP, just take a look at the people who want you to vote against it.” By the same logic, if National, Act, and the whole right-wing establishment are trying to scare New Zealanders into voting against a Labour-Green-Te Pāti Māori government, then maybe that’s the best possible reason to vote for their “Coalition of Chaos”.

Labour, the Greens, and Te Pāti Māori might also decide to simply turn the tables on National and Act by spelling out for the electorate the chaotic consequences of a right-wing victory predicated on thinly-disguised racism, climate-change denial, and the upper-classes’ mortal fear of being required to pay their fair share of tax.

Te Pāti Māori, in particular, could politely enquire of National and Act how they propose to squeeze a million aspirational Māori back into the colonial box from which they have only just begun to emerge?

The Greens could demand to know how a National-Act Government was planning to explain to the rest of the world why Aotearoa-New Zealand isn’t pulling its weight on climate change?

And Labour could invite the voters to decide which combination of parties had the best chance of dealing effectively and fairly with the urgent and inescapable challenges of delivering ethnic, social and ecological equity to Aotearoa-New Zealand: National-Act, or Labour-Greens-Te Pāti Māori?

That the two ideological blocs remain so close in terms of their overall voter support (see the latest Taxpayers Union-Curia poll) suggests that very close to half of the electorate knows that Aotearoa-New Zealand must change. Business-as-usual sounds wonderful, as does the return of racial harmony, and the weather getting back to normal. But, deep-down, half the population understands that a “return to normalcy” is not a realistic proposition. Maybe the other half, the half telling the pollsters that they intend to vote for National and Act, also know that things cannot go on as they are, but they’re resentful that so many difficult challenges have fallen to their generation, and frightened that they may not be equal to them.

Raising the spectre of a “Coalition of Chaos” offers this apprehensive half of the electorate an acceptable excuse for running away from the changes every New Zealander should be steeling themselves to embrace on 14 October. The changes necessitated by the Treaty. The changes necessitated by Climate Change. The changes necessitated by the extreme disparities of wealth in Aotearoa-New Zealand.

That’s what makes the expression so despicable. Electing a National-Act coalition government won’t protect New Zealanders from chaos, indeed, the probability is that swinging hard to the right it will only make their lives more chaotic. Change may be delayed for a while, but it cannot be denied indefinitely. Those who try to stop it are almost always overwhelmed by it.

In chaos there is fertility. Out of chaos new worlds quicken and grow.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 11 May 2023.

Time To Reign.

Reigning But Not Ruling: Republics are generally a people’s political response to a sovereign who has ruled them badly. Oliver Cromwell famously “cut off the King’s head with the crown on it” because Charles Stuart had plunged Britain into a bloody civil war. King Louis XVI lost his head because the French people were no longer willing to starve while Versailles glittered. Once a monarchy has been tamed by its people, however, it becomes an invaluable instrument for isolating the role of head of state from the vicissitudes of politics.

WHAT WOULD MY YOUNGER SELF have said to the person he had become on Saturday night (6/5/23) as the Coronation unfolded? Would he have upbraided the old man seated in front of the television, watching another old man being crowned king? Certainly, he would have reminded him of the day long ago, in the Student Union of Otago University, just days before Prince Charles was due to visit Dunedin, during a debate on the monarchy, when someone (it might have been Michael Laws) shouted “Long live the King!”, and Chris Trotter leapt to his feet and shouted “Long live Oliver Cromwell!” How did that radical young republican turn into a sentimental old monarchist?

A large part of the answer to that question is bound up with the fact that the event recalled was so long ago. Because, at the heart of the monarchical principle lies the brutal reality of time. The span of a human life and all of the experiences that are crammed into it is what a reign is all about. It is not what a presidential term is all about.

The difference between a reign and a term is of no small importance. In a constitutional monarchy such as ours the identity of the head of state is known years in advance. A king or queen accedes to the throne immediately upon the death of their predecessor. Barring some awful catastrophe, the next monarch will already be a known quantity and the succession will be seamless.

The contrast between a royal accession and a presidential election could hardly be starker. Inevitably, the elected head of state will be the product of political choices. Either, he or she will be nominated and confirmed by Parliament – as our Governors-General are now – or, the head of state will be the product of a vote. In the latter case, a number approaching half of the electorate (more if there are multiple contenders) cannot help feeling bitterly disappointed that their candidate failed to attract the requisite support.

If the republic is a healthy one, the losers of the presidential contest will look forward to the next opportunity to assert their will. If it is not, then the losers may refuse to concede defeat – throwing the legitimacy of the head of state into doubt. Presidential terms are, therefore, necessarily short – four to five years – if only to keep the losing sides’ spirits up. Any longer and the president’s opponents might be tempted to shorten his or her term … by other means.

With these potential problems in mind, some republics limit their heads of state to a single term. Providing the president’s role is largely ceremonial, as in the Republic of Ireland, such limitations are generally accepted without objection. In those republics where a president exercises executive power, however, as in the USA and France, the incumbent is generally given the opportunity to win a second term.

Time is as important to the constitution of republican leadership as it is to the subject’s experience of monarchy. In a republic, time becomes the ally of those who see the orderly rotation of political elites – and their chosen leaders – as vital to the health of the state. Republicans regard political permanence as tantamount to tyranny. From their perspective, power is best served up in relatively short periods of time.

As we New Zealanders say: “Three years is too short for a good government, and too long for a bad one.”

Everything changes, however, when the head of state is not only ceremonial, but hereditary. Historically-speaking, republics are an angry people’s political response to a sovereign who has ruled them badly. Oliver Cromwell famously “cut off the King’s head with the crown on it” because Charles Stuart had plunged Britain into a bloody civil war. King Louis XVI lost his head because the French people were no longer willing to starve while Versailles glittered. Once a monarchy has been tamed by its people, however, it becomes an invaluable instrument for isolating the role of head of state from the vicissitudes of politics.

More than that, a constitutional hereditary monarchy, being the enterprise of a single family, mirrors the experiences of the people over whom it reigns. My father was the subject of three kings and a queen. But, for most of my life, I have been the subject of just one monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. As such, I grew up contemporaneously with the sovereign’s children. Like them, I married and began a family. Like them I got older and, hopefully, wiser.

All the ups and downs of the Windsors have been tolerated by their subjects because they, too, have had their ups and downs. Charles is not the only man who married the wrong woman. Harry is not the only grandson to give his grandmother grief. Certainly, the Windsors’ wealth is immeasurably greater than all but a handful of their subjects, but that has never appeared to bother the vast majority of those who, for 70 years, referred to Elizabeth Windsor as, simply, “The Queen”. Monarchs are supposed to live in palaces and ride in golden carriages – that’s what it means to be “royal”. In all the life transitions that truly matter, however, their subjects saw the Windsors as people like themselves.

Crucial to this identification is the very strong sense that the Windsors’ subjects know them. People of my generation recall the Queen’s “royal visits”. We remember Charles and Diana and baby William playing with a Buzzy-Bee on the lawn of Government House. We all felt the shock of Diana’s tragic death. Younger Kiwis watched the marriage of William and Kate and counted-off their offspring. All of us have watched Charles grow older and older, and wondered how he endured his seemingly endless apprenticeship.

No elected president can possibly provide a nation with this sort of story, for that length of time. Nor can an elected head of state offer a backstory stretching back centuries, or an historical drama peopled with such a compelling cast of characters.

That’s why the older Chris Trotter could be found seated in front of the television on Saturday night, watching the man he had always known finally coming into his inheritance. Oliver Cromwell had no option but to behead Charles I. I am glad his revolution, and the French, and the Russian, drove home the lesson that, ultimately, kings and emperors, like presidents, are only entitled to rule with the consent of the governed.

“I come not to be served, but to serve”, said Charles Windsor.

And I said: “God save the King!”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 9 May 2023.

Tuesday 9 May 2023

Don’t Need A Weatherman: Is New Zealand about to experience storm-force winds from a radicalised Māori electorate?

Coming Home: Very few commentators were willing to call Chris Hipkins’ decisions what any reasonable observer could hardly avoid calling them: the ruthless reassertion of Pakeha power and control. What Meka Whaitiri’s defection to Te Pāti Māori made clear, however, was that Hipkins’ “bread-and-buttering” of Maoridom would not be cost-free.

THE EXTRAORDINARY MUDDLE into which the Labour Government manoeuvred itself over “Three Waters” was entirely avoidable. At its heart lay the all-too-common failing manifested over-and-over again by the senior Pakeha politicians of both major parties. Unconsciously, for the most part, Pakeha political leaders consign “all that Māori stuff” to the agenda space reserved for non-urgent and/or too-difficult-to-explain issues.

This Pakeha failure to treat Māori issues with the same seriousness as those referred to them by Treasury, MFAT, MBIE, Health, Education and Social Development is made a lot easier when Māori colleagues are willing to take responsibility for their own advancement. In the case of Three Waters, Labour’s leadership was quite happy to leave pretty much the whole thing to Nanaia Mahuta. Until it all started turning to custard.

When that happened, the response of Labour’s Pakeha leadership was instructive. First, the person in charge when everything started to go wrong, Jacinda Ardern, decided it was time to go and do something else. Second, Ardern’s successor, Chris Hipkins, took the whole Three Waters project away from Mahuta, demoted her, and then sent her into what looked suspiciously like near-permanent exile. Third, Mahuta’s replacement, at the helm of the now renamed “Affordable Water Reform”, was that emphatically Pakeha Kiwi bloke, Kieran McAnulty.

The political meaning of these decisions was not at all difficult to understand. In the words of Bob Dylan: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

“You” may not, but a surprisingly large fraction of the New Zealand news media found it well-nigh impossible to feel (let alone explain) the wind-shift. Very few commentators were willing to call Hipkins’ decisions what any reasonable observer could hardly avoid calling them: the ruthless reassertion of Pakeha power and control. Nor was there much discernible enthusiasm for reporting on the ramifications of the Labour Māori Caucus’s successful defence of the co-governance elements of Three Waters. A more hands-on style of Pakeha leadership had clearly come at the price of keeping co-governance in play. How else to explain McAnulty becoming a more eloquent defender of tino rangatiratanga than Willie Jackson?

There was a similar failure on the part of many journalists to link the defection of the Labour MP for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti, Meka Whaitiri, with the Government’s arguably racist “bread-and-buttering” of Māori policy. A gleeful John Tamihere might hail Labour’s loss of Whaitiri as Te Pāti Māori’s gain, but he forbore from explaining her departure in terms of the Labour leadership’s unconscious prejudices concerning the responsibility – or otherwise – of their Māori colleagues. Hipkins’ refusal to reinstate Whaitiri as a full member of Cabinet may, or may not, have been justified, but the Māori woman who leap-frogged the Ikaroa-Rawhiti MP into Cabinet, Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime, presents as a very different sort of Māori politician to the woman who preserved the flax-roots nurtured by her kaiako, Parekua Horomia.

The defenestration of Elizabeth Kerekere raises some very similar questions about just how far down the road that leads to “transformation” Pakeha politicians – even Green politicians – are prepared to go with their Māori colleagues. It’s one thing to blithely swear fealty to the “principles” of te Tiriti o Waitangi, quite another to put those principles into practice in ways that ruffle the feathers of the status quo. Blaming the world’s ills on “Cis White Males” has a revolutionary ring to it, but it is not at all the same as promising te iwi Māori control over Aotearoa’s water, or restoring “stolen” Māori land to its rightful custodians.

While the polls continue to identify Te Pāti Māori as the holder of the votes necessary to keep Labour and the Greens on the Treasury benches, however, the contemplation of revolutionary demands is something the centre-left will find extremely difficult to avoid.

Of course, contemplation and implementation are two very different things. Jacinda Ardern contemplated a revolutionary anti-capitalist transformation in the early days of her prime-ministership. More than that, she went to Waitangi and instructed Māori to hold her government accountable for how faithfully it upheld the principles of the Treaty. Ardern soon discovered, however, that implementing Labour’s promises was a lot harder than making them. This was serious, because nothing is more likely to cause a revolution than raising the expectations of the poor and the marginalised – and then failing to meet them.

Ultimately, the management of expectations may turn out to be as big a problem for Te Pāti Māori as it is for Labour and the Greens. If Whaitiri is going to win Ikaroa-Rawhiti for her new party, then she is going to have to paint her former Māori colleagues as politicians who talk big, but, whenever the Pakeha majority shows signs of restiveness, allow their colleagues to slam on the policy brakes and throw Labour’s political vehicle into reverse.

It is vital that Te Pāti Māori does not do the same. Its promises of transformation must be unequivocal and non-negotiable. Either, Labour and the Greens embrace the revolution, or, they shuffle-off to the Opposition benches. Regardless of the centre-left’s choice, Te Pāti Māori must not loosen its grip on the radical bunting.

It is difficult to see the Labour Party that abandoned the transformational policy agenda of its Māori caucus for a “bread-and-butter” manifesto being willing to radicalise itself in sympathy with the Greens and Te Pāti Māori. Frankly, it is easier to see Labour quietly reconciling itself to electoral defeat. Sitting back and watching National and Act attempting to solve New Zealand’s rapidly growing list of intractable problems must, surely, have its attractions?

But, what if the New Zealand electorate refuses to let Labour throw the electoral fight? What if Te Pāti Māori mobilises younger voters in unprecedented numbers? What if the Greens do the same? What if, in spite of Labour’s best efforts, the electorate swings sharply to the left? What if, when all the votes are counted, National and Act simply do not have enough to form a government? What then?

One answer is that Labour and National might suddenly discover that they have more in common with one another than they do with the parties representing the extremes, and agree to form a Grand Coalition. Such a solution would, however, offer only a short-term respite, since the processes of radicalisation on both the right and the left would, almost certainly, intensify.

The choice facing voters in three years’ time might not even include Labour and National. “All that Māori stuff” may no longer permit the reassertion of Pakeha power and control. It is even possible that Pakeha may no longer want it.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 8 May 2023.

Friday 5 May 2023

Looking Backwards.

20/20 Foresight? It’s as well A Message From 2040 is animated rather than live-action, because it would’ve been difficult to find flesh-and-blood actors capable of delivering the video’s messages with a straight face. The idea that the changes envisaged would be universally accepted as self-evidently beneficial is naïve in the extreme. It’s as if the bitter arguments about te Tiriti and co-governance offer no hint of the massive resistance such a revolutionary programme would inevitably inspire.

MY OLD FRIEND SIMON called it the Left’s “pink lemonade world”, and not in a kind way. He had very little patience for the naïve idealism of those who insisted they could change the world by offering it a better vision of itself. Some castigated Simon for what they saw as his cynicism. Not me. Simon wasn’t cynical (well, not very) he simply understood that change never came easily, or without pain. It wasn’t enough for leftists to conceive of a world without violence, oppression and exploitation – a pink lemonade world – they also had to produce a clear road-map to Utopia. No road-map, no credibility. It’s what made Simon such a good political journalist.

Watching A Message From 2040 on YouTube earlier in the week, I couldn’t help recalling Simon’s scorn for pink lemonade dreamers. The work of two of this country’s more outspoken political NGOs, Action Station and Just Speak, A Message From 2040 purports to demonstrate how New Zealand undertook an inspirational transition from the darkness of exploitation and oppression to the light of a Tiriti-centric Aotearoa – a country without prisons.

It’s as well A Message From 2040 is animated rather than live-action, because it would’ve been difficult to find flesh-and-blood actors capable of delivering the video’s messages with a straight face. The idea that the changes envisaged would be universally accepted as self-evidently beneficial is naïve in the extreme. It’s as if the bitter arguments about te Tiriti and co-governance offer no hint of the massive resistance such a revolutionary programme would inevitably inspire.

Which is not to say that the narrative device of explaining retrospectively how your Utopia came into existence is a bad one. Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887, written by Edward Bellamy and published in 1888, has the distinction of being one of the most influential political books ever written. Only the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold more copies in its first year.

So compelling was Bellamy’s vision of a socialist United States that it boosted the growth of the socialist movement in America dramatically. And not just in America. When news that a consignment of Bellamy’s book would soon be arriving at Port Chalmers, hundreds of Dunedinites gathered on the wharf to snap-up a copy.

As the historian Dougal McNeill notes in his essay on speculative political fiction in New Zealand:

“There were at least three local editions, and enormous interest and sales. The Dunedin Evening Star ran a report from Braithwaite’s Book Arcade on 17 April 1890: ‘I have sold 5,000 copies of this marvellous socialistic book since I reviewed it in the Star about six months ago’; similar accounts appear in newspapers across the country.”

When Socialism Was A Best-Seller: Edward Bellamy's phenomenally successful Looking Backward sold thousands of copies in New Zealand and around the world.

A key factor in the success of Bellamy’s book was his detailed explanations of how the socialistic America of the future operated. (Detail is necessarily sparse in A Message From 2040 since the video is only six minutes long!) Bellamy also contrived to weave a great deal of speculative science into his fiction. Impressively, he predicted both the Internet and the debit-card. Not bad for someone writing in the late 1880s!

Even so, Bellamy was no Jack London (1876-1916). Absent from his fiction is London’s understanding that the fight for socialism will be cruel and bloody – as anyone who has read his novella The Iron Heel will attest!

And that’s the niggle, both in A Message From 2040 and in the document it complements so uncannily, He Puapua. All these good things, all this transformative constitutional, economic and cultural change, descends like the Ten Commandments from Yahweh’s mountaintop. Except, in both works, it isn’t God, but the Crown, delivering Aotearoa’s new moral order. What we’re looking at here is our old friend, Revolution From Above.

But revolutions are not made above us, and delivered to us wrapped in a bright red bow. They are made by us – or, at least by the citizens who prevail over those who don’t want a revolution at all.

The African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, put it best when he said:

Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground ….. [The] struggle may be moral; or it may be physical; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.

The pink lemonade comes later.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 May 2023.

Tuesday 2 May 2023

Is It “Game Over” For The Greens?

Is History Repeating Itself? From 5 percent of the popular vote in 1975, the Values Party’s share was more than halved to just 2.41 percent in 1978. Within months, middle-class social-liberalism was back in the saddle. Unimpressed, the voters’ judgement was even harsher. In 1981, and again in 1984, Values received barely 0.2 percent percent of the popular vote. The party was over. Are the Greens about to go the same way in 2023?

THERE IS NO POSSIBILITY of a centre-left government being formed if the Greens are no longer in Parliament. That’s a sobering thought, and yet the return of the Greens is taken for granted by most political pundits. A party which could survive the self-immolation of Metiria Turei in the weeks leading up to the 2017 general election, it is widely assumed, can survive anything. But can it? Is the Green brand really bullet-proof? Good for 5 percent of the Party Vote – no matter what?

I don’t think so.

What keeps the Green Party in the electoral game is a widespread misapprehension that, at its heart, the Greens are the same rather quirky but highly principled outfit that impressed itself so deeply on the imagination of New Zealanders in the first five years of the twenty-first century. The most obvious historical comparison is with the pre-Rogernomics Labour Party. So great was the political momentum generated by the First Labour Government under Michael Joseph Savage (1935-1940) that the party was able to win four more elections on the strength of it. But, as Labour demonstrated in 1984, parties can change. And the Greens have changed – a lot.

What the Greens are slowly but surely turning into was always there in the political movement they inherited from the Values Party. When push comes to shove, the Greens, like the majority of the Values Party membership before them, will always break in the direction of the middle-class idealism out of which both parties were born. Logically, Greens should be socialists: if this planet’s a corporation, it’s a corpse. In reality, however, the Greens are social-liberals. How else to explain the fact that the party secures the bulk of its support from the well-heeled professionals inhabiting the nation’s leafier suburbs – and their children?

For those history buffs out there, the other exemplars of the social-liberal dynamic at the heart of middle-class progressive movements are the Suffragettes. Like the Greens, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) embraced the cause of social-justice (a necessary indulgence if it was to enlist the support of working-class women) but at the outbreak of World War I its leaders were quick to jettison the WSPU’s socialist wing. A deal was struck with Lloyd George, the firebrand politician poised to become the UK’s next prime minister. The WSPU would back the war effort, and in return, at the war’s end, women (or, at least, women of means over 30 years of age) would be enfranchised. As proof of their patriotism, middle-class Suffragettes took to the streets handing out white feathers (tokens of cowardice) to young men not in uniform.

“Deeds Not Words” – the WSPU’s motto – was always open to multiple interpretations!

The Values Party broke apart over the question of whether or not environmentalism was a cause that could be embraced meaningfully by the working-class. Between 1975 and 1978, the socialist faction of the Values Party did its best to supply a positive answer. Values’ 1978 election manifesto was an unabashedly radical socialist document. The electors, however, had other priorities. From 5 percent of the popular vote in 1975, the Values Party’s share was more than halved to just 2.41 percent. Within months, middle-class social-liberalism was back in the saddle. Unimpressed, the voters’ judgement was even harsher. In 1981, and again in 1984, Values received barely 0.2 percent percent of the popular vote. The party was over.

Values rebirth as The Greens in 1989 represented the conscientized middle-class’ deep distress at Neoliberalism’s ruthless dismantling of the New Zealand welfare state, along with its unwavering promotion of the “free” market. Even more than Values, the Greens “got” that capitalism was killing the planet. As an internationally successful political movement, the Greens’ electability was based on the growing public understanding that the “old parties”, spawned by the exploitative industrial societies capitalism had created, no longer possessed the imagination necessary to rescue life on earth. Their message was encapsulated in the slogan: “The Greens are not of the Left, the Greens are not of the Right, the Greens are in front.”

But, in order to remain “in front” the Green brand had to fulfil two absolutely crucial obligations. It had to base its policies on the findings of science, and, it had to repudiate neoliberal capitalism and all its works. So long as Green parties did this, they went from strength to strength. Consistent failure to honour these obligations, however, rendered them acutely vulnerable to electoral annihilation.

It is becoming increasingly clear to green-oriented voters in 2023 that the Green Party is no longer as faithful to science as it was in the early 2000s, and that it is much more willing to compromise with the neoliberal order. Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for these two, critical, failures, the party has embraced a particularly volatile and uncompromising form of social-liberalism. One which a great many green voters find deeply offensive and alienating.

In sharp contrast to the leadership of Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald, who, respectively, embodied the movement’s fidelity to science and its duty to challenge the economic status quo, the leadership of James Shaw and Marama Davidson seems to embody constant compromise with the Powers That Be, accompanied by a wholesale rejection of rationality itself. As election day approaches, it is becoming increasingly difficult to construct a rationale for remaining loyal to the off-putting political force that the Greens are turning into.

The brute psephological fact, amply demonstrated by the fate of Values, is that no political party has a core vote below which it cannot fall. The moment small-g green voters feel that a vote for the Greens is no longer a meaningful act of faith in the planet’s future, the party will be over. Ultimately, it is not the members who make or break a political party, but the reaction of the voters watching them.

Those engaged in finalising the Greens’ Party List for the 2023 general election would be wise to remember that.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 2 May 2023.