Friday 30 June 2023

Don’t Walk Away, Chippy – Labour Can Beat National On Tax.

Go Hard, Chippy! Being a magnet for every piece of bad news going is why Prime Ministers cannot afford to just sit still and hope for the best. A do-nothing government is a doomed government. If Chris Hipkins truly wants his government to survive October’s electoral winnowing, then he has to do something.

THE QUESTION upon which the forthcoming election will turn is: “How brave is Chris Hipkins?” If saving his government requires Hipkins to strike out boldly, with policies designed to seriously disrupt the status quo, does he have the cojones to do it?

There is nothing in his political career which suggests that he has what it takes to shake things up. He has succeeded by playing the percentages. Trimming his sails when he had to. Betting the farm when he was handed a sure thing. And it has worked. He is New Zealand’s prime minister. Not by dint of hard-won policy achievements, but by being a political cork. Chippy has floated to the top.

An important aspect of this political buoyancy has been his indifference to how well, or how badly, his policies are performing. Minister of Education for five years, he did not appear to care whether the measures he authorised were actually working. Having implemented party policy, he never looked back.

His pet project, Te Pukenga, was persisted with long after it became obvious that the forced amalgamation of the country’s polytechnics was a very bad (and eye-wateringly expensive) idea. Evidence that New Zealand was tumbling down the international education league-tables, and that the nation’s children were struggling to master the 3Rs, or even turn up to class, failed to produce a serious reappraisal of the Education Ministry’s performance.

Chippy’s choice, when things go wrong, is to keep on walking. It’s a remarkably effective tactic. Don’t hang around, don’t look back, just put as much distance between yourself and whatever is failing as you possibly can. Guilt and proximity go hand-in-hand. Ergo – don’t be found near the scene of the crime.

The problem with being the Prime Minister, however, is that there is nowhere to walk away to. Hipkins’ office is the destination for everything that has gone, is going, or will go wrong in New Zealand society. It’s the place where all the chickens of political failure come home to roost – even when, strictly-speaking – they’re not Chippy’s chickens.

With every passing week, New Zealanders are greeted with more evidence of just what an easy-osey administration Jacinda Ardern superintended. Stuart Nash, Michael Wood, Kiri Allan: how many more ministers and MPs will the news media find cowering under the rug with their fingers crossed? One can’t help wondering whether Ardern, herself, took a leaf out of Chippy’s playbook. Certainly, being able to say “Jacinda has left the building” has its upside – not least for Jacinda!

Being a magnet for every piece of bad news going is why Prime Ministers cannot afford to just sit still and hope for the best. A do-nothing government is a doomed government. Nor is it enough to simply throw unpopular government policies overboard – not when the person doing the throwing had a significant role in formulating and implementing the very same policies! No, if Hipkins truly wants his government to survive October’s electoral winnowing, then he has to do something.

In practical terms, Hipkins needs to announce new policies. Policies that provide the voters with a convincing reason for keeping Labour in office.

Like what?

Given that the 2023 General Election will be held in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, and that Hipkins’ opponents are proposing to relieve the burden of constantly rising prices by lessening the voters’ tax burden, it would seem that fiscal policy is the battlefield upon which Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori must take the fight to National and Act.

Hipkins’ and Labour’s most obvious first move, tax wise, is to adjust the tax thresholds to offset the impact of rising inflation, thereby eliminating “fiscal drag”. At a stroke, National’s flagship policy would be neutralised. Christopher Luxon and Nicola Willis might (with some justification) claim credit, but they would still be left gasping for political air.

Hipkins’ and Labour’s next step would be to address the Greens’ fiscal policies. Citing the extreme practical (not to say political) difficulties entailed in extracting significant revenue from the richest individuals and families on the Rich List, Finance Minister Grant Robertson should rule-out introducing a Wealth Tax. To soften that blow, however, he would signal Labour’s adoption of the Greens’ policy of making the first $10,000 of personal income tax-free.

On a roll, Robertson would then announce the re-instatement of the policy Labour took to the electorate in 2011: the removal of GST from basic food items. This measure would offer immediate cost-of-living relief to New Zealand’s poorest citizens.

Naturally, National’s finance spokesperson, Willis, and the Act leader, David Seymour, will demand to know how Labour proposes to fill the revenue hole created by such significant reductions in the overall tax-take. What spending plans are Labour planning to curtail and/or eliminate in order to pay for them?

One can easily imagine Hipkins asking Robertson the same question when Labour’s campaign team are war-gaming the party’s radical fiscal strategy. Recalling John Key’s killer line from the 2011 General Election, one can hear the Prime Minister commanding his Finance Minister to: “Show me the money!”

This is the point at which Hipkins will be required to step out of his political comfort zone and embrace a policy that would shake New Zealand’s neoliberal order to its very foundations. The same point Jim Anderton’s Alliance arrived at back in the 1990s when it, too, was tasked with filling the fiscal hole created by its even more generous tax policies.

And, no, the answer is not a Capital Gains Tax (CGT). Upon the foundation of tax-free capital gains New Zealanders have constructed a politically sacrosanct economic model. It’s what keeps the small business-person working all the hours God sends. It’s what underpins the financial security of home-owners in their old age. Capital gain is the pot-of-gold at the end of the Kiwi rainbow – and governments will tax it at the peril of their political lives.

The answer Anderton and his Alliance came up with, the fiscal instrument adopted to fill a gaping fiscal void that would otherwise have to be filled by cuts in government spending so savage that publicly funded health and education could hardly survive them, was the Financial Transactions Tax (FTT).

The FTT is a levy on legislatively designated types of financial transactions. Infinitesimal in itself, when multiplied by the millions of financial transactions which take place every day an FTT soon mounts up to serious money. What’s more, the institutions from which FTTs tend to reap the most spectacular revenue harvests – the banks and finance houses – seldom elicit much in the way of sympathy from the general public. On the contrary, most voters are of the view that the banks “have it coming”.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a proposal more likely to inspire fear and loathing at the big end of town that an FTT. Those big-enders will tell you that an FTT would crash the markets, derange the banking system, provoke capital flight, and utterly fail to achieve the objectives of its promoters. Many of the bankers’ objections are rehearsed in an excellent video on the FTT (a.k.a the “Robin Hood Bank Tax”) fronted by the incomparable Bill Nighy. Watch it here.

This, then, is the challenge confronting Hipkins. To embrace a suite of policies that offer genuine cost-of-living relief to the overwhelming majority of New Zealand taxpayers, while, at the same time, stripping National and Act of their principal election sweetener, and throwing into the sharpest relief the difference between tax policies designed to assist the rich, and tax policies intended to uplift the poor.

Not an election strategy for the faint-hearted, it would call upon all the courage and political skills this government and its allies possess. If successful, however, it would, at long last, allow the New Zealand Left to shatter the bonds of neoliberalism and break free into open ground.

Don’t walk away from this one, Chippy.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 30 June 2023.

Bending Us Towards Compulsory Virtue.

Bending Us To Their Will: It is in the “bending” that the trouble starts. Those convinced that the arc of history is sending humanity in quite the wrong direction, often feel a strong moral obligation to wrench it back on track. For such people “live and let live” is a dangerous principle – not least because it means leaving all manner of “incorrect world-views” to flourish unchallenged and uncorrected.

WHAT A TIME IT WAS! Back in the day. Around the time Fran Wilde’s bill to decriminalise homosexuality was making its fractious way through Parliament. A time of passionate – and often deeply divisive – debate.

Many of the country’s largest institutions: the trade unions, the churches, political parties, sporting bodies; were split. It was interesting though, because those in favour of liberalising the law did not seem to be as quite as angry as those who opposed it.

Some reformers even managed to retain a sense of humour. I remember a tough-as-nails old trade unionist who didn’t care who knew that he belonged to the “live and let live” faction.

He would tell his fellow unionists: “I don’t care what people get up to in their own bedrooms.” Before adding with a wink: “Just so long as they don’t make it compulsory!”

Forty years ago, people laughed out loud.

Forty years on, however, it is possible to locate in the unionist’s bon mot the ideological fissures that have, over the decades, widened to the point of unbridgeability.

At the heart of the liberal impulse lies a revulsion against the tendency of empowered majorities to despise, isolate, condemn and punish refractory minorities. The liberal refuses to locate moral certainty in the judgemental multitude. Though an individual may find him or herself quite alone in their personal convictions, it is nevertheless entirely possible that those convictions are correct. Belief, providing it does not actively, deliberately, and without just cause, seek to impose restrictions upon others, is to be tolerated – not persecuted. Similarly, to prohibit actions which do no harm to others cannot be morally justified.

The thing about the liberal temperament is that, for some on the left, it comes across as just a little too relaxed. Getting the angry masses to march behind a banner inscribed with the words Leben und leben lassen (Live and let live) is a lot harder than mobilising them behind the more active slogans of progressive radicals and revolutionaries.

The very term “progressive” embodies movement. Progressives are people with a purpose. People determined to, in the splendid metaphor of Dr Martin Luther King, bend the arc of history towards justice.

Unfortunately, it is in the “bending” that the trouble starts. Those convinced that the arc of history is sending humanity in quite the wrong direction, often feel a strong moral obligation to wrench it back on track. For such people “live and let live” is a dangerous principle – not least because it means leaving all manner of “incorrect world-views” to flourish unchallenged and uncorrected.

So long as evil thoughts do not father evil deeds, a complacent liberalism seems happy to leave the Devil alone. For the revolutionary Left, however, that’s the problem. The Devil has never been content to just sit on his hands and think evil thoughts. Lucifer, Satan, the Devil: Patriarchy, Capitalism, White Supremacy; all of them prefer their brainchildren alive and kicking in the real world. If the Liberals aren’t willing to fight against these evil things, then it’s safe to assume they’re fighting for them.

This is what explains the unusually high heat in the political kitchens of the 2020s. It is no longer enough to take up arms against a specific evil: labour exploitation, racial persecution, sexual discrimination; and defeat it. The struggle for justice must be continuous.

While evil ideas and practices grow strong in the dark interstices of contemporary society, justice-seekers can accept no respite. To those still in possession of the wrong beliefs, it is no longer morally acceptable to apply the principle of “live and let live”. To argue that beliefs do not lead to actions flies in the face of all historical experience. If we are not to live in a worse world, then the struggle for a better one must be constant.

When Fran Wilde’s Homosexual Law Reform Bill became law, many liberals cracked open a bottle of bubbly and toasted a job well done. The “Blackmailer’s Charter” was gone. People could be who they were without fear of legal persecution. Conservative New Zealanders didn’t have to like gays, but they were now required to tolerate them.

Live and let live.

“No!”, shout the moral Jacobins, “Not good enough! Not while homophobia and transphobia destroy lives. Not while heteronormative privilege endures!”

Bending us towards compulsory virtue.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 June 2023.

Monday 26 June 2023

Diplomatic Daydreams and Imperial Nightmares.

The Answer Was “No!”  If the government and people of New Zealand formed the opinion that there was no possibility that nuclear weapons – let alone the use of them – could ever be in the interest of the country, then, surely, abandoning that judgement to satisfy the wishes of New Zealand’s “friends” would constitute a signal failure to uphold the national interest? 

GERALD HENSLEY only had one job. When David Lange became Prime Minister in 1984, the career civil servant and diplomat was tasked with making sure his new boss didn’t repeat the “mistakes” of Labour’s last charismatic leader, Norman Kirk.

Hensley failed.

New Zealand declared itself Nuclear-Free, denied port access to the USS Buchanan, and found itself excluded from the ANZUS Pact. It was a foreign and defence policy disaster, and it happened on Hensley’s watch.

Which is why, for nearly 40 years, Hensley has been buttonholing every diplomat, politician and journalist prepared to listen to explain why none of it was his fault. He has also made it his mission to persuade New Zealanders that their country’s nuclear-free status, along with its “independent foreign policy” is nothing more than “daydream diplomacy”.

His latest attempt to ridicule his country’s foreign policy, (“Daydream diplomacy and the myth of NZ independence”, NZ Herald, 21/6/23) is an unappetising stew of pop psychology, Sinophobia, imperial nostalgia and national self-loathing. This is unsurprising, since Hensley’s Cold War recipe betrays his inability to any longer read the geopolitical runes.

The whole tone of Hensley’s op-ed piece is one of supercilious contempt for all those politicians, past as well as present, who fell prey to the pacifistic rhetoric of the Nuclear-Free New Zealand movement of the 1980s.

In terms of international relations theory, Hensley would probably count himself among the “realists” – the sort of academics who delight in telling their students that “countries do not have friends, only interests”. By this reckoning, New Zealand’s nuclear-free legislation represents a failure on the part of successive governments to accurately discern where the country’s true interests lie.

But, hold on, is Hensley saying that our anti-nuclear legislation is against New Zealand’s long-term interests because it upset – and continues to upset – our friends? Friends that, from a realist’s perspective, must always take second place to the national self-interest?

If the government and people of New Zealand formed the opinion that there was no possibility that nuclear weapons – let alone the use of them – could ever be in the interest of the country, then, surely, abandoning that judgement to satisfy the wishes of New Zealand’s “friends” would constitute a signal failure to uphold the national interest? In other words, the “realist” position is the one advanced by the defenders of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance. It is Hensley, and those who think like him, who are putting sentiment before reason.

And what sentiments! One can almost see the sneer curling Hensley’s lip as he tapped out the following, almost gloating, dismissal of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy:

For 40 years, New Zealand, with no threat, no nuclear arms and therefore nothing to give up, has marched along bravely behind the banner of nuclear disarmament while not a single country joined us. To press on with a policy that failed to achieve anything in nearly 50 years might be seen as deeply eccentric.

Not really. There is nothing “eccentric” about the world’s huge sigh of relief when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union imploded. People spoke enthusiastically about a global “peace dividend” and the hands of the Doomsday Clock edged back a little. As it has so often, New Zealand led international opinion in the 1980s. Throughout the 1990s and into the new century the fear of nuclear annihilation receded and support for comprehensive nuclear disarmament increased.

It was the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and claims by the USA and the UK that dictators were on the point of acquiring “weapons of mass destruction”, that brought the Peace Train to a screeching halt. That the nations who went to war with Iraq in 2003 – ostensibly to confiscate its deadly arsenal – were led by the nuclear-armed USA was an irony not lost on the rest of the world. That Iraq’s deadly arsenal turned out to not exist only made the irony sharper.

That Hensley proclaims New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy a failure because the nation states in possession of nuclear weapons (with the noble exception of Ukraine) refused to dismantle them is risible. No serious participant in New Zealand’s huge nuclear disarmament movement ever expected the USA, the Soviet Union, the UK, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel to beat their ICBMs into ploughshares just because we asked them to.

New Zealand’s anti-nuclear pitch was typically straightforward and pragmatic. The rest of the world may not be able to beat sense into the nations with the nukes, but it sure as hell didn’t have to join them in their insanity. That was a policy banner behind which the rest of the world – except Iran – was only too happy to march.

Hensley’s sneering tone permeates the whole of his op-ed essay. If he is to be believed the only way New Zealand can demonstrate its diplomatic maturity is to reject any notion of acting independently. In his own words: “We are prisoners of our history and geography which will always limit our choice of diplomatic friends.”

Except, the way the world is heading points to New Zealand having plenty of choices about which diplomatic friendships it develops, and which it allows to wither away. History teaches us that empires rise and fall, and that far from being a factor shackling us to a particular region, New Zealand’s geographical location has more often been treated as irrelevant. Every 25 April New Zealanders recall a campaign fought on the slopes of a peninsula 17,000 kilometres from their own shores. Hensley should know better than to run the argument that geography is destiny.

And even if he is right, and that New Zealand’s destiny is inextricably bound up with its location in the South Pacific, then the nation state we have the most to gain by befriending is not the United States – an internally riven, economically fragile, and declining superpower – but the People’s Republic of China. Not only is China New Zealand’s most important trading partner, but its influence across the Pacific Ocean can only grow as the diplomacy of the USA twists and turns, advances and retreats, in accordance with the fluctuating fortunes of its warring political tribes.

It is highly likely that Gerald Hensley was one of the very few New Zealanders cleared to read the Five Eyes decrypts. That privilege, if he did indeed enjoy it, would go a long way to explaining his seemingly unshakeable faith in the unchallengeable preponderance of the English-speaking nations. He cannot conceive of a world in which New Zealand is not in a special relationship with the UK’s and the USA’s “Special Relationship”. Nor, indeed, of a world in which the old empire and the new are not the top dogs – determining what is, and what isn’t, suitable for Kipling’s “lesser breeds without the law”.

We need to recover the old boundaries of a realistic foreign policy, repair the mildewed relationship with Australia, pay much more attention to the Asean countries and stop regarding the South China Sea and Taiwan as faraway problems, says Hensley. The obsession with independence and nuclear disarmament is the sound of people in the dark, whistling to keep up their spirits.

Maybe, it’s a cruel world out there. But, honestly, it seems better to be whistling to keep up a nation’s spirits, than dog-whistling to unreconstructed white supremacists caught up in the sort of imperial daydreams that always seem to end in nightmarish violence.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 23 June 2023.

Who Will Undertake The Scouring Of New Zealand?

The Ubiquity Of Evil: Evil is resident everywhere, even in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire. It doesn’t just live in dark towers faraway, and its servants don’t necessarily make themselves easy to identify by riding black stallions and clothing themselves in black robes. Once embarked upon, however, evil calls to evil. “A little mischief in a mean way” is how it begins, but that is not how it ends.

TWO IMPORTANT PARTS of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings were left out of Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning film trilogy. With his features already running seriously over-length, Jackson decided to cut the Hobbits’ adventures with Tom Bombadil altogether, and to leave out what is arguably the most important chapter in whole book – “The Scouring of the Shire”.

The first omission, while regrettable, is understandable. Tom Bombadil is an extraordinary character, half holy fool, half uncanny woodland deity. (Although, later in the book, Tolkien hints at Bombadil being something much more powerful than a mere spirit of wood and water.) There is no denying, however, that the Hobbits’ journey through Bombadil’s forest domain is in every sense of the word a diversion, and Jackson rightly saw that Tolkien’s narrative could survive its excision. Even so, foregoing the opportunity of bringing Bombadil to life must have been a hard decision for Jackson to make.

Omitting “The Scouring of the Shire”, however, is much harder to forgive. What greets the Hobbits when they return to the Shire is critical to a proper understanding of Tolkien’s tale. Evil is resident everywhere. That is Tolkien’s point. It doesn’t just live in dark towers faraway, and its servants don’t necessarily make themselves easy to identify by riding black stallions and clothing themselves in black robes. It is just as likely that the downward spiral into evil begins with the greed of a local miller, or the acquisitive mania of a local landowner. Once embarked upon, however, evil calls to evil. “A little mischief in a mean way” is how it begins, but that is not how it ends.

In Tolkien’s fantasy, the battle-hardened Hobbits are not permitted to return to hearth and home as if they had never been away – as Jackson has them return in his movie. No, they have to fight for the Shire as desperately as all the other free peoples of Middle Earth fought for their own hearths and homes. Security and freedom are treasures to be won, not taken for granted.

Nor does Tolkien shy away from the fact that the struggle to secure – or to reclaim – security and freedom is everybody’s business. Heroes they may be, but Frodo and Sam, Pippin and Merry, could not have “scoured” (an old English word meaning to clean by friction) the Shire on their own, for that the whole community had to be called into action:

Awake! Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes! Awake!
Fire, Foes! Awake!

Jackson erred in omitting “The Scouring of the Shire”, not least because his version of the tale suggested that there are indeed places from which enterprising people can venture forth in search of adventure, and then return to their haven-home in all its bucolic and unchanging bliss. Did he mean to present New Zealand as such a place? Was the rest of the world intended to construe New Zealand as the Shire? And New Zealanders for the next best things to the happy-go-lucky Hobbits? Shame on Peter Jackson if they were.

If this country ever was the Shire, and those who remember Austin Mitchell’s Half-Gallon, Quarter-Acre, Pavlova Paradise might argue that it came pretty damn close, then its fate closely resembles the fate of Tolkien’s original. Here, too, we had the grasping businessmen and the greedy farmers. Here, too, ugliness was reared up where beauty had once stood, unsullied. Here, too, the collaborators scoffed at those who mourned such fruitless destruction, warning them proudly that: “We’ve work to do in the Shire now.”

Perhaps, if Jackson had reminded us of what Rogernomics and Ruthanasia had done to “The Shire”, and shown us how our besmirched birthright could be made to shine through the friction of defiance and revolt, then maybe, just maybe, he could have ended up making more than a movie.

But a Shire unscoured, a Shire bereft of heroes, a Shire denied even the stimulation of evil perpetrated on a grand scale, must fade into a “negative, wet, whiny, inward-looking” Shire. A pitiful and quiescent Shire, afraid of its own shadow, may indeed stand accused of having lost the thread of Tolkien’s plot. And, only a leader unafraid to sound the horn-call of Buckland can hope to get back the mojo of a Shire so cruelly diminished.

Awake! Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes! Awake!
Fire, Foes! Awake!

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 June 2023.

Who’s Got The Mojo?

Frank Assessments: Listening to Christopher Luxon sledging New Zealand, the voters could be forgiven for thinking that, given the choice, the Leader of the Opposition would rather be the leader of Act.

PERHAPS THE MOST SURPRISING THING about Christopher Luxon’s unguarded and thoroughly negative appraisal of New Zealand has been the reaction. One week ago (12/6/23) forgetting that he was still wearing a “hot mike”, the Leader of the Opposition vouchsafed to a Helensville cocky that: “We have become very negative, wet, whiny, inward-looking country. And we have lost the plot. And we have to get our mojo back.”

Far from being inundated with the angry protests of an insulted electorate, Luxon’s people reported receiving strongly expressed concurrence from across the nation. Though by no means unanimous, the view that New Zealand has lost its mojo clearly has many supporters.

That these nay-sayers will be predominantly rural and provincial voters is a pretty safe bet. Country folk have a long-standing and decidedly jaundiced view of those inhabiting the Big Smoke. The idea that virtue increases in inverse proportion to the distance travelled from the vice-filled cities has a long pedigree in New Zealand.

The other stronghold of nay-saying is to be found in the glass towers and leafy suburbs of the big cities themselves. The idea of their taxes being lavished on the wet and whiny poor is a constant source of vexation to the wealthy. Political “tough love” should be the order of the day. Give the improvident and work-shy no choice but to harden-up and knuckle-down.

Luxon’s unguarded observations indicate a strong measure of agreement with these sentiments, even if they are hardly overflowing with empathy and the milk of human kindness. More a case of the willingness to be kind being inextricably bound up with the willingness to be cruel first. A political credo that is less “applied Christianity”, and more institutionalised political sadism.

That there’s a lot of it about became disturbingly clear during the Covid pandemic. From the very beginning of the public health crisis there were voices raised (almost all of them associated closely with the “Big End” of town) against heavy-handed state intervention and in favour of letting nature run its course. The economic consequences of empathy and social solidarity, they said, were too costly to be seriously considered. The ghosts of Darwin and Malthus haunted the op-ed pages. Terms like “herd immunity”, apart from their regrettable associations with cattle, recalled “the survival of the fittest” – and other upper-class explanations for why the poor should be allowed to go to hell.

When Jacinda Ardern’s lockdowns and Grant Robertson’s wage subsidies delivered, at least initially, extremely positive outcomes for the population – catapulting Ardern to rock-star status internationally – the rhetoric changed. Luxon’s mentor, John Key, talked about New Zealand having been reduced to “smug hermit kingdom” status. It’s an expression that bears close comparison with Luxon’s more recent “inward-looking” snipe. At the time Key coined the phrase, however, it was all of a piece with the vicious criticism routinely directed at New Zealand and its prime minister by that mouthpiece of nasty British Toryism – The Daily Telegraph.

There remains, however, something irremediably mealy-mouthed about National’s sledging of the New Zealand people – especially when considered alongside the no-holds-barred neoliberal policy-wrangling now on display from Act. When it comes to delivering his party’s package without so much as a modesty-preserving fig-leaf, David Seymour is truly a full-Monty man.

Perusing Act’s policy agenda, and translating its bold claims into the practical misery that massive shifts of wealth in favour of the rich, paid for out of ruthless spending-cuts, always bring to the poor, it very quickly becomes clear what is generally understood when the Right resorts to language like “wet” and “whiny” and “inward-looking”, and what they mean when they claim that their country has “lost the plot”.

At work here is a view of government that contains at its core the conviction that democracy is – and always has been – a mistake. A system of government which allows a feckless majority to award itself a living out of the surpluses piled-up by a hard-working minority, is regarded by many on the right as economically and sociologically insane. So mad is it that the minority is entirely justified in employing any and every means at its disposal to prevent itself being dominated and exploited by the majority. Setting one part of the majority against another by seizing every opportunity for creating discord is the tried and tested strategy for preventing said majority from cohering into a political/electoral force which the minority cannot defeat. Divide et impera, divide and conquer, is as old as Imperial Rome.

The key dividing line in the forthcoming election looks set to fall between those who are angry and those who are scared. On the right of New Zealand politics this divides the angry voters, keen to embrace Act’s uncompromising policy agenda, from the frightened voters, desperate for National to make them feel safe and secure again. Act’s job is the easier of the two. In electoral terms, feeding people’s anger has always paid higher dividends than fuelling people’s fears. National will struggle to compose a manifesto capable of allaying voters’ fears without appearing to endorse the Labour Government’s own efforts to calm and reassure the electorate. Such an outcome would only anger National Party voters – driving still more of them into the arms of Act. 

Quite the conundrum.

It does, however, offer a convincing explanation for Luxon’s rather bitter assessment of his fellow New Zealanders – and why so many of them have given it the thumbs-up. National’s leader clearly feels uncomfortable at having to pander to a fearful country. He doesn’t want to lead a negative people, a wet people, a whiny people, or an inward-looking people. Least of all does he want to be the prime minister of a needy people in search of a government committed to kissing everything better. What’s more, he is very far from being the only person on the right of New Zealand politics who feels this way.

The plot which Luxon believes New Zealand has lost, is the plot originally devised and executed by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. The plot based upon the proposition that most people are simply incapable of discerning what is good for them, and that real leadership consists of telling people what is good for them, and then giving it to them good and hard. Unfortunately, leadership of that sort requires an awful lot of mojo and, for the moment, Act has cornered the mojo market.

Listening to Christopher Luxon, that Helensville cocky could be forgiven for thinking that, given the choice, the Leader of the Opposition would rather be the leader of Act.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 19 June 2023.

Saturday 17 June 2023

Orthodoxy and Dissidence at Radio New Zealand.

Our Masters’ Voice: Promoting acceptable ideas and suppressing everything that challenges the prevailing orthodoxy may be the winning formula in Putin’s Russia, but it should not be Radio New Zealand’s.

RADIO NEW ZEALAND has appointed a panel of media experts to diagnose the severity of its present crisis. Willy Akel, Linda Clark and Alan Sunderland have been asked to determine exactly how it was that Michael Hall, working in RNZ’s digital department, was able to insert unauthorised material into Reuters wire stories for five years without being either detected or reproved by his superiors.

This seems unlikely to prove a particularly taxing assignment. Hall has confessed, and, as far as we know, he had no confederates. He was trusted by his employers to play by RNZ’s (and Reuters!) rules, and appears to have betrayed that trust. Either that, or he has for five years been interpreting RNZ’s rules in the most creative fashion. The panel must explain why RNZ failed to monitor Hall’s output. It also needs to discover how a man of Hall’s powerful political convictions could enter the RNZ workforce without raising at least one managerial eyebrow?

Conservative New Zealanders will snort derisively at these questions. To their way of thinking the answers are blindingly obvious. RNZ – a.k.a. “Red Radio” – has been hiring people with “powerful political convictions”, that is to say, with blatant left-wing biases, for decades. The wonder is not that Hall “politically corrected” Reuters wire stories, but that he appears to have been the only RNZ journalist with the political gumption to do so!

Except, those same conservatives – as is so often the case – simply do not grasp how dramatically the “Left” has changed, or, to what extent the current “culture” of RNZ has changed with it. At the heart of RNZ’s transformation are generational, professional, and philosophical divergences sharp enough to have turned the Radio New Zealand of 15 years ago inside out.

What turned Radio New Zealand into RNZ? The short answer is “Generation X”. It was ten years ago this year that the Board of Radio New Zealand, led by Jim Bolger’s former press secretary, Richard Griffin, appointed Fairfax Executive Editor, Paul Thompson to replace Peter Cavanagh. A champion of public service broadcasting, Cavanagh had fought a noble rear-guard action against the John Key-led National Government’s relentless financial strangulation of Radio New Zealand.

Thompson moved swiftly against the Baby Boomer managers of Radio New Zealand. He restructured them out, and brought a younger, leaner and meaner generation of broadcasters in. These new brooms had a very different take on the profession of journalism when compared to the broadcasters they were replacing. Not so much speakers of truth to power as strivers who revelled in their proximity to it, the Gen-Xers were not the least bit embarrassed or hesitant about wielding power to advance their own agendas. Where their predecessors had set out in search of “The Truth”, these new broadcasters went after scalps – the more illustrious the better.

It made for a very different kind of public broadcaster. The Baby Boomers had tested themselves against a powerful status quo, harassing its leaders and challenging its values. Institutional power was a beast to be mistrusted and confronted. No rumour involving the government should ever be believed until it has been officially denied. And while it may not be possible for journalism to beat the powers-that-be, no self-respecting journalist would ever dream of joining them. Baby Boom journalists leaned towards the maverick outsider kicking against the pricks. Generation X admired those who had learned how to pick the locks to the House of Power.

This divergence wasn’t just generational and professional, it was philosophical.

The Baby Boomers had hero-worshipped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post journalists most closely identified with exposing the Watergate scandal and bringing down the malignant administration of Richard Nixon. “Woodstein” led many Boomers to the conclusion that not only could the world be changed for the better by virtuous action, but also that journalism – especially investigative journalism – was one of the most effective means of doing so.

Generation X grew up under the influence of a very different duo – Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. “Virtuous action” was a mug’s game. More often than not, those who spoke truth to power ended up having their tongues cut out. Play it safe, play it smart, play to win. What else were the Eighties about?

The status quo has little to fear from cynicism, which meant that, with one or two honourable exceptions (like the editor of The Daily Blog) the status quo which emerged from the economic and social liberalism of the 1980s and 90s had little to fear from Generation X. After all, the triumphant neoliberal order and the global economy it brought into being was Gen-X’s world, and in it the sunny optimism of the 1960s and 70s was as outré as tie-dyed T-shirts and flared jeans.

The journalism of Generation X followed the neoliberal flag – as evidenced by the fourth estate’s general capitulation to the extraordinary deceptions of the War on Terror. Newspapers that had risked Nixon’s wrath by exposing Watergate, eagerly repeated the Bush Administration’s lies about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”. The American motion picture industry, which had given the world Easy Rider and Billy Jack, served up the television series “24” – a cold-blooded primer on the mechanics of torture.

Meanwhile, back here in Godzone, as one-by-one the rearguard actions of Boomer journalists and editors like Cavanagh ended in defeat, the principle of going along to get along became ever more deeply entrenched. Careers were not enhanced by challenging the fundamentals of the neoliberal status quo, nor by questioning the social-liberal values that offered the economic brutalities of neoliberalism such excellent political cover. Paul Thompson’s RNZ led the way. The people’s broadcaster became both the purveyor and defender of neoliberal and social-liberal orthodoxy – as swift to denounce Posie Parker as Vladimir Putin. Contracting-out economic commentary to the Aussie banks’ in-house economists, and political commentary to PR firms. It’s journalists appeared to be more comfortable attacking Hate Speech than defending Free Speech.

At least, they were, until Michael Hall tossed an old-fashioned left-wing spanner into RNZ’s works. The special, three-person panel appointed by RNZ’s board-of-directors will have little difficulty removing that spanner. Their most daunting responsibility, and a task not specified in the panel’s terms of reference, will be to acknowledge how dramatically Hall’s behaviour has exposed the poverty of RNZ’s journalism. Promoting acceptable ideas, and suppressing everything that challenges the prevailing orthodoxy, may be the winning formula in Putin’s Russia, but it should not be Radio New Zealand’s.

Think about it. If a journalist in Russian state radio had done what Michael Hall’s been doing for the last 5 years, RNZ would have hailed him as a hero. Which is why Willy Akel, Linda Clark, and Alan Sunderland should think long and hard before presenting our public broadcaster’s very own journalistic dissident as a villain.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 16 June 2023.

Friday 16 June 2023

Pick A Side.

Slava Ukraini! The Ukrainian narrative, at least as far as the West is concerned, is not, and should not be, complicated. Like World War II, the Russo-Ukrainian War is a conflict of clear moral opposites. A case of Good versus Evil – with Ukraine backed by all those nations who can still distinguish one from the other.

ABOUT THE CAUSES and conduct of the Russo-Ukrainian War much is disputed, but on these brute facts all are agreed. On the 24 February 2022, in violation of the United Nation’s Charter, and in spite of its 1991 pledge to recognise and gurantee its neighbour’s borders, military forces of the Russian Federation invaded the sovereign territory of the Republic of Ukraine.

It is entirely appropriate that a clear majority of the General Assembly of the United Nations has condemned this invasion, and entirely understandable that many countries, including our own, have joined the member states of Nato in imposing sanctions on Russia’s leaders and businesses. Indisputably, Russia is the aggressor in this conflict, and Ukraine the victim. Against all odds, however, the Ukrainian people, under their indomitable president, Volodymyr Zelensky, have resisted the Russian invader. Not only that, they have driven him back.

In a world bereft of heroes, Ukraine has millions of them.

So far, so simple. The Ukrainian narrative, at least as far as the West is concerned, is not, and should not be, complicated. Like World War II, the Russo-Ukrainian War is a conflict of clear moral opposites. A case of Good versus Evil – with Ukraine backed by all those nations who can still distinguish one from the other.

For some people, however (including the now infamous sub-editor at RNZ Digital) the Russo-Ukrainian War is extremely complicated, and its morality far from clear. To what end is the Russian Federation risking so much, and suffering so grievously? What reward does it anticipate for bringing what it sees as its geopolitically treacherous neighbour to heel? For Russia and its supporters, this narrative is far from simple, and its many complexities worthy of a fair hearing. It is not enough for the Western news media to tell us what is happening, they have the much more important obligation to tell us why it is happening.

Their answer to that all-important question may be summarised thusly:

In spite of American and German promises to advance “not one inch” towards Moscow, the Nato powers have been pursuing a policy of Eastward expansion ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. All efforts by the Russian Federation to halt Nato’s Eastward push by diplomatic means having been rebuffed, and witnessing the American-co-ordinated overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Moskow president in the so-called “Maidan Revolution” of 2014, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, moved decisively to protect Ukraine’s ethnic Russian minority from Kyiv’s new, extreme-nationalist, regime. After eight years of fruitless negotiation, and fearing a Nato-backed Ukrainian attack, Putin launched his pre-emptive “Special Military Operation” – and here we are.

This is the story which RNZ’s Chief Executive, Paul Thompson, dismisses as “Kremlin garbage”. The story which his (now suspended) employee admits to spending the last five years inserting into Reuters reports – allegedly without his employer’s reproof. The story which, Mr Thompson’s epithet notwithstanding, actually contains some small nuggets of truth.

But, those small nuggets do not diminish the single, overwhelming truth of Russia’s culpability for the horrors it has inflicted upon Ukraine. They don’t get Putin and Russia off the hook for their invasion, any more than citing the undoubted unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles gets Hitler and Germany off the hook for their genocidal aggression.

It wasn’t Ukrainian soldiers in mufti who infiltrated neighbouring Russian provinces, inciting Russian citizens to declare themselves independent “peoples republics”, and ratifying their subsequent annexation in bogus referenda. Ukraine’s ageing Soviet-era planes and tanks weren’t conducting military manoeuvres on Russia’s borders for weeks prior to suddenly dealing out fire and death, torture and rapine, as they raced for the capital.

No. The inescapable fact remains that it was the Russian Federation that did all of those things, and, by doing them, not only bestowed ex post facto justification for every criticism and accusation levelled against Russia and its ruthless ruler for the past 23 years, but also brought Putin’s worst geostrategic nightmares to life. What else but the Russian invasion of Ukraine could have persuaded Finland and Sweden to give up their neutral status and apply for Nato membership?

In the end, this dreadful story, playing out on our screens day and night, is as simple as it gets. What’s more, it’s our story, daring us to pick our side, and make our choice between Right and Wrong.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 June 2023.

Monday 12 June 2023

Rewriting History.

Beyond the First Rough Draft of Ukraine’s Recent History: Reality is multi-faceted, what you see invariably depends on where you stand. That used to be a powerful professional incentive for journalists to report all major news-stories from more than one perspective. Top: The 2014 Maidan protests recalled after the event. Bottom: As they happened.

A TANKIE IN THE NEWSROOM, who would have thought RNZ still harboured such vipers in its ideologically awakened bosom? A pretty well-placed viper, too, one can only assume, since there appears to have been no one over-seeing his or, (less plausibly) her output. An old-timer perhaps, someone clinging to the journalistic principle that reality is multi-faceted, and that what you see almost always depends upon where you stand. A powerful professional incentive – at least it used to be – for journalists to report all major news-stories from more than one perspective.

An excuse for transforming RNZ’s digital newsfeed into one’s own personal Samizdat?* Not at all. Whoever is responsible for treating Reuters reports on the Russo-Ukrainian War like the Ems Telegram† crossed a very clear line and will, undoubtedly, pay a high price for their editorial high-handedness.

And yet, if we strip away the high-emotion with which all communications from Russia and Ukraine are received, the edits of RNZ’s re-writer may be interpreted not only as a cri-de-cœur against the current “one-side-right, one-side-wrong” reporting of this particular news story, but also as a doomed appeal for the reinsertion of critical distance, nuance and balance to the journalistic enterprise.

To hear One News’s journalists dismiss the RNZ re-writer’s claims as “Russian propaganda”, for example, is to gain some appreciation of the oppressive effect of a single, state-determined “line” asserted endlessly by the emoting mannequins “official” news-readers have become. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then New Zealand’s handling of the RNZ story must surely have brought a smile to Vladimir Putin’s lips. No critical distance, nuance or balance in Aotearoa – thank you very much.

Which is not to say that the altered Reuters report was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – it wasn’t. Indeed, the original Reuters version stands out for both its historical accuracy and its masterful compression of the dramatic events that overwhelmed Ukraine in 2014. From those sympathetic to the losers of 2014, however, the Reuters narrative is egregiously sparse.

Yes, it is true to say that “a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan revolution”, but it is also true to say that the pro-Russian president had been democratically elected by the Ukrainian people. A great many Ukrainians – at the time – would have disputed hotly the claim that what happened in Kyiv’s Independence Square (the Maidan) was a “revolution”. Given the pivotal role played by the American Government in the events of 2014, their scepticism is entirely understandable. What happened in the Maidan fell well short of being a coup d’état, but neither was it a revolution – at least, not of the progressive kind. Clearly, RNZ’s re-writer felt the same.

By the same token, describing what happened in Crimea as an act of self-determination, confirmed by the results of a free and fair referendum, is the purest fantasy. In 2014, the Russian Federation seized Crimea from Ukraine, whose borders, it bears repeating endlessly, had been agreed – and guaranteed – by both the United States and the Russian Federation in 1991.

RNZ’s re-writer is on much stronger ground when he asserts that “the new pro-western government suppressed ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine”. Only the most one-eyed Ukraine supporters persist in denying the presence of extreme nationalists and/or fascists in the “revolutionary” government cobbled together following the elected president’s departure. This new government was, indeed, extremely hostile to the ethnic Russian majority of the Donbass region. Legislative measures to suppress Russian language and culture were initiated – but so, too, was legislation to repeal the extremists’ laws, as democracy steadily reasserted itself across those parts of Ukraine not occupied by pro-Russian separatists.

Presumably, RNZ’s re-writer was determined to “correct” the sparse Reuters narrative because he wanted to remind his audience that the Russo-Ukrainian War did not explode suddenly out of a clear blue sky; and that the Russian invasion was the culmination of an historical sequence with plenty of blame attachable to all sides.

To the extent that it is the duty of journalists to offer not merely description but explanation, the RNZ re-writer is correct. Ever since Russian armour rolled across the Ukrainian border on 24 February 2022, coverage of the conflict has been uniformly one-sided. At RNZ, TVNZ, Newshub, Stuff and NZME, distance, nuance and balance have been noticeable by their absence.

The problem which the RNZ re-writer must confront however (apart from the looming consequences of his repeated breaches of RNZ’s rules) is that the actions of Putin and his armed forces have obviated any and all obligation to explain the conflict. Ukraine is a sovereign nation whose borders are recognised not only by the United Nations but also (as noted earlier) by the Russian Federation. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a clear violation of the UN Charter and international law. No matter how persuasive his geopolitical arguments may have been prior to 24 February 2022, what he has done to Ukraine since means that no one in the West now needs to answer them.

That said, this country is not a war with the Russian Federation. New Zealand soldiers are not on the front lines of the conflict. (Well, not officially, anyway.) Our Government has condemned Russia and imposed limited sanctions, but that should not require our mainstream news media to behave as if New Zealand is at war, and any attempt to offer critical distance, nuance and balance to their listeners, viewers and readers tantamount to treason.

History always presents us with multiple sides, and, inevitably, events as large as the Russo-Ukrainian War have multiple causes. It is not the recognition of complexity that is treacherous, but the idea that nothing needs to be explained. Describing the RNZ re-writer’s edits as “false” and dismissing them as “Russian propaganda” is not helpful to the Ukrainians, or to their indisputably just cause. Why? Because if simplistic slogans could lead us to support one side, then they can just as easily lead us to support another.

Learning all we can about the history of the Ukrainian people. Understanding the turbulent currents that have surged through their country since the fall of the Soviet Union. Identifying all the actors involved in the drama that began in the Maidan in 2014 – and the roles which those same actors are playing today. This is the knowledge that will help the friends and allies of Ukraine stay the course until victory is won, peace restored, and the rebuilding of the nation begun.

The RNZ re-writer may, indeed, be a friend of the Kremlin, but inasmuch as he has also been asserting the duties and responsibilities of a democratic news media, then he should also be included among those who shout Slava Ukraini! – Glory to Ukraine!

*Dissident political newsletters passed from hand-to-hand to evade the Soviet censors.

†Diplomatic communication, subtly altered and released to the press by the Prussian Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Generally acknowledged to be the immediate cause of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71)

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 12 June 2023.

Saturday 10 June 2023

Unequal To The Task?

A Dark Day: More than 40 years of affirming New Zealanders’ Right to Protest had left the NZ Police without the training or the equipment to “move on” hundreds of determined protesters (many of whom were working-class battlers and not at all averse to mixing-it-up with the cops). It took weeks to assemble the person-power necessary to clear the anti-vaccination mandates protesters’ encampment from Parliament Grounds. 

THOSE WHO DISMISS mass political protest as historically ephemeral, leaving nothing of significance behind it, are wrong. The Springbok Tour protests of 1981 made a huge impression on the NZ Police. So much so that, in the 40 years that have elapsed since the Tour, the policing of political protest in New Zealand has undergone a profound change. Just how vulnerable that change has left the New Zealand people was made frighteningly clear during the occupation and eventual clearing of Parliament Grounds in 2022. If the NZ Police are not now conducting a root-and-branch reform of their political protest policing methods, then they are failing in their duty as protectors of the state and its citizens.

In the weeks and months that followed the Springbok Tour, the Police found themselves repeatedly humiliated in the New Zealand courts. Thousands of New Zealanders had been arrested during the Tour but only a tiny minority of them were convicted – and even fewer were jailed. In case after case it became clear that, right from the start, the Judiciary had been ill-disposed towards the Tour, would rather it had not taken place, and were not prepared to saddle those who had protested against it with a criminal record. Consequently, only those guilty of the most egregious acts of protest (especially those involving aircraft) were subjected to the full rigor of the law.

The Judiciary’s unwillingness to punish protesters conveyed a disturbing message to the Police. On some issues, the usual close co-operation between the Judiciary and the Police could not be relied upon – quite the reverse, in fact. As instanced by the famous case in which protesters pled “Not Guilty” to being unlawfully on a building, but without the intent of committing any other offence. Their lawyer argued that his clients had every intent of committing other offences – hence their “Not Guilty” plea. The Judge, clearly amused, acquitted the defendants. The look of dismay and bewilderment on the face of the Police Sergeant prosecuting the case is readily imagined!

It did not take the Police very long to realise that they were being told to go easy on the sort of people who participate in protests against morally indefensible systems like Apartheid, and/or the pernicious ideologies that spawn them. Regardless of the fact that they are sworn to uphold the law, while it remains the law, Police researchers were left in little doubt that, in the Tour’s aftermath, a great many members of the New Zealand public identified the Police as the Government’s enforcers and the Springboks’ protectors. More bluntly, the Police had made it possible for an immoral and divisive tour by a racist Rugby team to go ahead.

The research data was unequivocal: the policing of the Springbok Tour protests had resulted in a significant decline in the public’s trust and confidence in the NZ Police. Worse, the people whose trust and confidence had been dented the most were, by-and-large, members of the urban professional middle-class. This was not a social formation whose support the Police could afford to lose. Their skills, coupled with their location in the power-structure, made them indispensable mouthpieces for, and buttresses of, the state. The working-class was expected to despise the fists and boots of the Police – but not the middle-class. Henceforth, its protesting children would be treated with kid gloves.

Winning back the trust and confidence of the urban professional middle-class wasn’t the only, or even the most daunting, of the challenges facing the NZ Police after the Springbok Tour. Police commanders were acutely aware that in policing the Tour their human and material resources had been stretched to the limit. Had someone been killed in the protests, the Police’s ability to preserve law and order without resorting to deadly force would likely have been exceeded. As it was, on the day of the Third Test between the Springboks and the All Blacks serious violence broke out on the streets surrounding Eden Park. Armed naval personnel from HMNZS Philomel were very close to being called to the assistance of the Civil Power. Deadly force came within an ace of being used.

Senior Police and the nation’s political leaders would have been aware of just what a near-run thing they had lived through in 1981. Very few of them, if any, would have wanted to risk another highly organised challenge to government policy.

The more thoughtful among them would have considered the policing of the Springbok Tour alongside the Police operation mounted three years earlier at Bastion Point. Clearing away the Māori occupiers of the Point had required an enormous number of Police officers, backed by significant logistical support from the NZ Defence Force. Politicians, public servants, police commanders and senior defence personnel, seeing the effort required to clear a few hundred protesters, operating in a single city, would have shuddered at the thought of one, two, many Bastion Points. In such circumstances, the use of deadly force would be inevitable.

But, even the possibility of the state resorting to deadly force was abhorrent to most New Zealanders – as the Police would learn the hard way in 2007 during the course of Operation Eight. The possibility of an armed terrorist cell training in the Ureweras could not be ignored by the Police – and it wasn’t. The deployment of masked police officers wearing helmets, body armour, and carrying semi-automatic rifles to the tiny settlement of Ruatoki, however, shocked and angered not only the local Tuhoe iwi, but also that same urban professional middle-class whose support for the Police had been so sorely tested 26 years before. Once again, the Judiciary and its minions were less-than-impressed. Once again the Police were humiliated.

The cumulative effect of these lessons in how far the Police’s “social licence” might be stretched was on display in February-March 2022 when Parliament Grounds were occupied by hundreds of New Zealanders protesting against the Labour Government’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic – most particularly its coercive vaccination mandates.

Over and over again, New Zealanders heard the Police Commissioner, Andrew Coster, reiterate the citizen’s “Right to Protest”.

Confronted by protesters who refused to play by the rules, however, Coster and his commanders were at a loss. Their confusion grew when the all-important urban professional middle-class began insisting that the Police clear the grounds – by any means necessary. The same people who had objected to 81’s riot squads, and the gun-toting “ninjas” at Ruatoki, were now insisting that Coster’s officers start cracking heads.

Except that more than 40 years of affirming New Zealanders’ Right to Protest had left the NZ Police without the training or the equipment to “move on” hundreds of determined protesters (many of whom were working-class battlers and not at all averse to mixing-it-up with the cops). The Police’s first attempt to enforce the law ended in ignominious retreat, and it took weeks to assemble the person-power necessary to clear the protesters’ encampment. Even then, the operation ended in fire and fury on a scale not seen in this country for 90 years.

Horrified New Zealanders, looking at the extraordinary photograph of Police officers with their backs to a granite wall, huddled together and cowering behind their Perspex shields, as all manner of missiles are hurled at them by furious protesters, suddenly realised that their state was no longer equal to the task of protecting its citizens from serious political violence.

What was (just) possible in 1978 and 1981, had ceased to be a sure-thing by 2022. And, on all three occasions, it was political protest that provided the critical test of what New Zealanders were – and were not – prepared to tolerate from the forces of the state.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 9 June 2023.

The Numbers That Matter.

Aristocratic Arithmetic: From whence comes the notion of “coming of age”. For many centuries, this was something men did at the age of 21. Why 21? Because it is 3 x7 – both of which are charmed numbers. Don’t laugh, for most of human history numbers have mattered – a lot. The tradition of holding 21st birthday parties is directly traceable to the computations of superstitious noblemen.

DID THE INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL LAW REVIEW PANEL pause to wonder why New Zealand citizens become eligible to vote at 18? It’s a long and convoluted story, very little of which has much to do with cool, calm, considered cogitation. Like most of our constitutional milestones, the age of enfranchisement is the product of superstition, tradition, and political agitation. Rationality has only ever played a bit-part in this drama.

Let’s begin at the beginning with the concept of “coming of age”. For many centuries, this was something men did at the age of 21. Why 21? Because it is 3 x7 – both of which are charmed numbers. Don’t laugh, for most of human history numbers have mattered – a lot.

Among the medieval aristocracy, the journey towards “manhood” was divided into three stages. For a male child’s first 7 years, his life was centred on hearth and home. Upon turning 7, however, the custom was to have the little boy taken into the household of another aristocrat, where his education would begin in earnest. At the age of 14, the boy’s education would turn towards the arts of war and government, a process which often involved him becoming the esquire to a knight. At 21, these boys would finally enter “man’s estate” with all the privileges and responsibilities that entailed. The tradition of holding 21st birthday parties is traceable to this superstitious aristocratic arithmetic.

None of which applied if you were born a serf – a status that mandated very hard work, for very little reward, from a very early age, for the lords whose sons were learning how to become “gentlemen”. Since it was these same lords and gentlemen who wrote the laws of the land, however, 21 became the age at which full adult male status was bestowed.

It was a very different story for girls – isn’t it always? In law they were the property of, first, their fathers, and then, their husbands. For centuries the age at which a girl could be treated as a woman was 12. It was only in the Nineteenth Century that the Age of Consent was raised from 12 to 16 – a reform which was bitterly resisted by an disconcertingly large number of members of the British House of Lords, who seemed to regard it as an unconscionable curtailment of their pleasures.

Although in egalitarian New Zealand the voting age has been the same for men and women since 1893, the same could not be said of Great Britain. The initial enfranchisement of British women in 1918, saw their voting age set at 30. Full equality was not achieved until 1930.

What was it, then, that caused the voting age to be lowered from 21 – the generally accepted age at which people became fully-fledged adult citizens – to 20, and then, in reasonably short order to 18? The answer is to be found in the great “Youth Revolt” of the 1960s and 70s.

The huge “Baby Boom” generation, raised in the most economically and socially propitious circumstances in human history, demanded to know (at least in the USA) why it was considered appropriate to draft 18, 19 and 20-year-old males to fight and die in the jungles of Vietnam, but not to give them a say in electing the politicians who were sending them there.

It was a question their grandfathers and fathers had never thought to ask when their government send them off to World Wars One and Two. Young men had always been the first to follow their country’s flag. Too young to legally buy a beer, or vote, but old enough to kill and be killed.

Well, not any more.

The parties of the Left, seeing a huge pool of what all the pollsters were telling them were “their” voters, hastened to enfranchise these devotees of Peace, Love and Rock-n-Roll. Fifty years later, both here in New Zealand and around the world, history would appear to be repeating itself. Substitute Climate Change for Vietnam and the political dynamics are surprisingly similar.

Where the Greens are rushing-in, Labour will, sooner rather than later, cease to fear to tread – especially now that the Independent Electoral Review Panel has given lowering the voting age to 16 the thumbs-up.

There is, however, a world of difference between giving teenagers the vote, and persuading them to use it.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 June 2023.

Tuesday 6 June 2023

Corrupted Generations.

Socrates Takes The Rap: “Corrupting the youth”, the Athenian philosopher Socrates was convicted and executed for this offence more than 2,400 years ago. It is a sure sign of generational desperation: of the old order’s fear of the values and aspirations of its younger citizens; and of a generation no longer willing to accept the traditions and moral precepts of their parents and grandparents.

CLASHES between Police and supporters of jailed opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, have brought the Senegalese capital, Dakar, to a standstill. Convicted of “corrupting the youth” of Senegal, Sonko will not now be eligible to stand against authoritarian President Macky Sall in the next presidential election.

“Corrupting the youth”, the Athenian philosopher Socrates was convicted and executed for the same offence more than 2,400 years ago. It is a sure sign of generational desperation: of the old order’s fear of the values and aspirations of its younger citizens; and of a generation no longer willing to accept the traditions and moral precepts of their parents and grandparents.

There are many older New Zealanders who would gladly bring a charge of corrupting the nation’s youth – if only they could decide who to bring it against. This country has, after all, witnessed two transfers of generational power. From what the political journalist Colin James dubbed “The RSA Generation” to the Baby Boom Generation; and from the Baby Boom Generation to Generation X. It is, therefore, rather difficult to determine with any exactitude who has corrupted whom – and when.

Some would argue (but they would be in their eighties and nineties now) that the rot set in when the almost-a-Baby-Boomer (he was born in 1942) David Lange took over the leadership of New Zealand from that unflinching champion of the RSA Generation, Rob Muldoon (1921-1992). Muldoon had led the backlash against the all-too-brief summer of principled statesmanship and reform unleashed by Norman Kirk’s Labour Government between 1972-74.

For the Baby-Boomers who had languished under the deeply conservative social policies of the three-term Muldoon Government, and clashed with his supporters during the 1981 Springbok Tour, the election of the Lange-led Labour government in 1984 was like the coming of spring after a long and bitter winter. In relatively short order, Lange set New Zealand’s face firmly against Apartheid South Africa, established a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, extended the Treaty of Waitangi’s purview all the way back to 1840, declared his country nuclear-free and effectively withdrew New Zealand from the ANZUS Pact. The Parliament of 1984-87 also passed Fran Wilde’s private member’s bill legalising homosexuality – defying the 800,000 signatories to a petition urging it not to.

But, if Lange’s almost-Baby-Boomer government fulfilled the dreams of anti-Apartheid demonstrators, second-wave feminists, gay-rights activists and anti-nuclear campaigners, it also dutifully followed the advice of the free-market ideologues at Treasury and the Reserve Bank. Advice endorsed eagerly by the corporate free-marketeers represented by the Business Roundtable. This peculiar fusion of social and economic liberalism would march on boldly for the next 40 years under the banners of both major parties.

Certainly, the election of New Zealand’s first unequivocally Baby Boomer Prime Minister, Helen Clark (b. 1950) did nothing to fundamentally modify the neoliberal economic regime established between 1984 and 1993. Neither did her successor, John Key. Be it Labour or National, the commitment to neoliberalism did not waver. As the years passed and New Zealand’s infrastructure, starved of the necessary investment, continued to crumble and decay, the Baby Boomers’ children, Generation X, observed the steady diminution of their prospects and arrived at the grim conclusion that theirs would be the first generation to fare worse than its predecessor – their parents’.

The election of New Zealand’s first Gen-X Labour prime minister, Jacinda Ardern (b. 1980) backed by yet another almost-Baby-Boomer, the NZ First Party leader, Winston Peters (b.1945) took office among dark mutterings about the failure of capitalism and the need to establish a “Politics of Kindness”. For a moment, it appeared as though the policies unleashed by Lange in 1984, and held in place ever since by New Zealand’s bi-partisan Boomer commitment to neoliberalism, would not survive this latest generational transition.

Economically-speaking, however, this hope turned out to be forlorn. Had it not been for the Covid-19 Pandemic, the policies of Ardern’s Gen-X finance minister, Grant Robertson (b. 1971) would have been indistinguishable from those of his mentor, Michael Cullen (1945-2021). The massive increase in state spending forced upon Robertson by Covid did not signal anything more than a temporary concession to a transitory crisis. The Finance Minister’s response to the consequential inflationary surge has been straight out of the neoliberal playbook.

On social policy, however, the Gen-X governments of Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins have evinced a willingness to accommodate what a great many older New Zealanders regard as revolutionary concepts – most particularly in relation to te Tiriti o Waitangi, “co-governance”, the provision of education and health services, and trans-genderism. Though their efforts in terms of social legislation actually passed has been well short of revolutionary, the perception of this government as being excessively “woke” in its social policy ambitions is very strong.

This is curious, because the “far-left” character of what appears to be Labour Government social policy is more properly described as a manifestation of the social-radicalism that has grown steadily in the public service, the judiciary, the professions (especially journalism) and academia since the first of the Baby Boom generation’s politically radicalised graduates began emerging from the universities in the late-1960s and early-1970s. In the fields of race and gender relations, their social radicalism has come to guide state policy no less absolutely than the economic radicalism of the government’s neoliberal advisers.

In academia itself, a key fraction of the radicalised students of the 1960s and 70s would become the teachers, lecturers and professors of the 1980s, 90s and beyond. By the third decade of the Twenty-First Century, the students of the students who undertook “the long march through the institutions” have themselves emerged from the universities, as persuaded of the “truth” of radical sociology and anthropology, as their counterparts across campus about the “truth” of neoliberal economics.

It would seem, therefore, that the Jeremiahs and Cassandras of the RSA Generation were spot-on in blaming the Baby Boom Generation for “corrupting the youth” of New Zealand. Unable or unwilling to confront the economic powers-that-be, they expended their revolutionary ardour upon the deconstruction of their parents’ moral certainties. The final irony of this long-running generational saga lies in how completely moral relativism, spawn of the great “Youth Revolt” of the late Twentieth Century, has, in passing through the hands of its institutional legatees, congealed into the moral absolutism of the hapless children of the Twenty-First.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 5 June 2023.

Monday 5 June 2023

The Extinction Of Rebellion.

Not Even Close, Comrades! Occupy made it all the way to New Zealand, but its fate here did not differ substantially from its fate everywhere else around the world. The political praxis of identity politics, its extraordinary disintegrative power, made the organisation of any kind of credible threat to the status quo impossible.

JOHN MINTO IS RIGHT, New Zealand needs nothing more urgently than a mass movement committed to ending the wealth crisis. He is right, too, that those who can have a moral duty to do something about the obscene maldistribution of wealth in this country and across the planet. Nor would I quibble with the list of those we cannot and/or should not rely upon to intervene – i.e. the principal economic and political beneficiaries of wealth inequality, and the mainstream political parties. As John says: “only a broad, well-organised people’s movement will be able to end the wealth crisis.”

Where I suspect John and I would part company, however, is over the question of whether a “broad, well-organised people’s movement” is any longer achievable in the New Zealand of 2023.

John reckons it is. He cites the people’s movements of the past as proof of what can be achieved when New Zealanders get organised – and then get active. Certainly, the broad mass movements he cites: women’s suffrage; halting sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa; opposing the war in Vietnam, abolishing conscription, outlawing discrimination on the basis of sex and sexuality; declaring New Zealand nuclear-free; were all successful in achieving their aims. Unfortunately, all of John’s examples peaked around four (or more) decades ago.

The only appreciably younger mass movement I recall achieving its objective is the early twenty-first century campaign to keep genetically-engineered organisms out of New Zealand. There were others – most notably the mass movement against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the mass movement against the Trans-Pacific Partnership – but they did not achieve their objectives.

Some may object that I have left out John’s reference to the 1975 Māori Land March, and the protest activity at Raglan, Bastion Point and Ihumatao. (To which I would add the impressive hikoi against the Foreshore & Seabed legislation of April 2004.) My reasons for doing so turn on John’s use of the crucial qualifier, “broad”. Māori have been successful in achieving a great many of their political, economic and cultural objectives, but these have, perforce, been sectional victories: “by Māori, for Māori”. As such, they do not fit John’s paradigm of the mass movement extending across class, race and gender boundaries to engage the broadest possible cross-section of the New Zealand population.

It is precisely the immense difficulties encountered by those attempting to surmount the barriers of class, race and gender identity that leads me to question the practicality of John’s appeal for a mass movement against the wealth crisis. The “Occupy” movement which swept across the English-speaking world in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 serves as a tragic test case for whether “broad, well-organised people’s movements” can any longer be constructed.

Certainly, it is difficult to imagine circumstances more conducive to the formation of a mass-movement against the obscene maldistribution of wealth than the GFC. Nor is it possible to fault the inspired slogan of the “1 Percent vs the 99 percent”. If any formula could generate unity across the broadest possible cross-section of society, then including on your side of the barricades everyone except the tiny group of super-exploiters memorably referred to by President Theodore Roosevelt as “the malefactors of great wealth” should have been the formula to do it.

And it did do it – but only briefly. Those who rallied to the cause, expecting to find an organisation with a clear statement of aims and objectives, a constitution, elected leaders, and sections dedicated to communications, fund-raising, and keeping the thousands of people eager to get involved in “Occupy” occupied, found something else entirely.

Occupy’s originators, activists drawn from the many manifestations of what people call, for want of a better description, “identity politics”, had no intention of building a movement on the organisational principles of the Boy Scouts of America. There were no elected leaders, speechifying was frowned upon, and rather than applaud or cheer, people were encouraged to wave their hands in the air – but only after they had “checked their privilege”.

Entirely unsurprisingly, most of the people encountering this brave new world of intersectional anarchy turned around and walked the other way. The authorities, initially terrified of this burgeoning political movement, received the reports of their informers and very soon realised that Occupy posed no threat at all. They waited until the Occupy gatherings were reduced to a fractious remnant of their former selves, and then sent in the pepper-spray, tear-gas and billy-clubs to, once again, make the world safe for the 1 Percent.

Occupy made it all the way to New Zealand, but its fate here did not differ substantially from its fate everywhere else around the world. The political praxis of identity politics, its extraordinary disintegrative power, made the organisation of any kind of credible threat to the status quo impossible. Ruling classes, throughout history, have always understood the effectiveness of the “divide and conquer” strategy. In the aftermath of the GFC, however, the “1 Percent” were astounded to discover that its deployment would not be necessary. The “Left” (or what passed for it in the 2000s) was doing it for them.

It is interesting to note that the mass movements cited by John conform neatly to the mode of mass political interventions listed by historian Michael King in his Penguin History of New Zealand. He mentions the visits of America’s President Johnson in 1966 and Vice-President Agnew in 1970. He covers-off the angry reaction to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and recalls the student protests against the installation of the US Omega spy navigation system near Blenheim. Mentioned, too, is the mass campaign to “Save Manapouri”.

Missing from John’s and Michael’s lists, however, is any reference to the movement responsible for organising the 1960s’ and 70s’ most impressive demonstrations: the biggest and broadest mass movement of them all; the trade unions. Certainly, one of the largest demonstrations of the late-1960s and early-1970s coincided with what was effectively the half-day general strike of 12 May 1970, which managed to shut down most of the capital city’s industry and infrastructure. On that day, tens-of-thousands of workers and their families gathered outside Parliament to protest the soaring cost of living.

In the thick of that massive gathering was CARP – the Campaign Against Rising Prices. Formed in 1966 in Auckland, and 1967 in Wellington, CARP was a radical outgrowth of the Housewives Association. It was spurred to action by the abolition of government subsidies on key food items such as bread and milk. Led by the wives of trade unionists from both the private and public sectors, CARP became a household name for the best part of a decade, and a thorn in the side of both National and Labour governments.

New Zealand’s working families are again experiencing severe cost of living pressures. A movement dedicated to easing those pressures, organised by those most directly affected, and unafraid to take their message directly to the powers-that-be, would be a most welcome development.

Except, of course, the New Zealand of 2023 is not the New Zealand of 1966-67. A Housewives Association would be laughed off the political stage in 2023. It is also true to say that the sort of working-class communities that gave birth to political organisations like CARP, no longer exist. Poorly-paid wage-workers by necessity, de-unionised, ill-housed, isolated, with those forced to live outside the workforce under the constant surveillance of the state’s welfare agencies, the working-class women of today would find in difficult to even conceive of such autonomous and uncompromising interventions.

Although, to be fair, they would probably find it easier than the Council of Trade Unions!

It’s hard to mount a sincere fight against the wealth crisis when your union boss is taking home a six-figure salary. Hard, too, to construct a “broad, well-organised people’s movement” when those same people are immediately divided into their respective identity groups, discouraged from indulging in excessive individual assertion (i.e. leadership) and forbidden from applauding it.

Much and all as I agree with John, that a mass mobilisation against the malefactors of great wealth is what we need, I cannot see how it could be done.

I remain transfixed by the tragic image of all those revolutionary hands refusing to come together.

They’re not waving, John, they’re drowning.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 2 June 2023.