Monday 31 July 2023

Forward To A New Day, Or Taking The Country Backwards?

Beginning Again: Te Pāti Māori is unequivocal, the system under which 2.1 million New Zealanders earn less than $30,000 per year, must be brought down. Their slogan draws on a metaphor as old as politics itself. Out of darkness a new day must dawn. The nation must be re-made. “Aotearoa Hou.”

TE PATI MĀORI’S ELECTION SLOGAN is “Aotearoa Hou”, which, roughly translated, means “A New Day”. NZ First’s slogan is “Let’s take back our country”. This, in essence, is what the 2023 General Election will be about.

Are New Zealanders still capable of imagining a brighter future, or are they, indeed, desperate for a return to the better country they remember. Most of the other party slogans are variations on these themes. National wants to get New Zealand “back on track”, for the Greens “the time is now”, while Act is promising “real change”.

Labour’s slogan, “In it for YOU”, stands out by being determinedly agnostic about New Zealand’s future direction of travel. All the voters are being asked to do is place their trust in a clutch of politicians who are in the game solely for their benefit. (By which, presumably, they mean the voters’ benefit, not their own!)

A number of political scientists have pointed out the lack of ambition in Labour’s slogan. Traditionally, the Party has focused voters’ attention on the need for change. It has also favoured collective over personal pronouns – as it the upbeat slogan of 2017, “Let’s do this!”

Rather than linking Labour and the people in a combined effort for national improvement, the “In it for YOU” slogan conjures-up the image of a gaggle of well-meaning do-gooders (many on salaries of nearly a quarter-of-a-million dollars) desperately anxious for YOU to believe THEY are without sinister, ulterior or selfish motivation. Labour: A party of altruists, pure as the driven snow, and they’re doing it all for YOU, baby!

It’s a dismal admission of failure, but one which has been implicit in the Labour Party that emerged from the splits and divisions of the Rogernomics era. When Labour was a party of 100,000 paid-up members and financial supporters, “we” had real political heft. To be a member of the Labour Party was to be a member of an organisation that that had transformed New Zealand’s economy, society and culture.

By 1990, however, Labour had been reduced to an organisation of fewer than 10,000 members. Most of these looked upon the party as a sort of social club in which, if they were lucky, they might have their photo taken with the prime minister. These folk actually hated political debate – it only led to unpleasantness. When the minority of political careerists who actually ran the party called upon these stalwarts to guard Labour from dissidents and traitors they were only too happy to oblige.

The present Labour Government constitutes a grim demonstration of what happens to a political party that no longer possesses the transformational impulse that animated its predecessors. (Even the Fourth Labour Government, albeit from the wrong end of the telescope!)

Having been handed the reins of government by Winston Peters in 2017, the party that Helen Clark and Michael Cullen had carried for nine years, almost entirely on the strength of their own prodigious political competence, took less than five years to demonstrate a heartbreaking degree of political ineptitude. Not even an unprecedented (under MMP) parliamentary majority, delivered in recognition of Labour’s initial success in handling the Covid-19 crisis, could help it get whatever “this” was, done.

If this Labour Government really is in the business of government for us, then we can be forgiven for wondering just how much worse-off we might be if they were actually in it for somebody else!

That the National Party can think of no more inspiring slogan than to get the country “back on track”, is evidence of how far it, too, has fallen since the days when John Key (state house boy made good) promised New Zealanders a “brighter future”. National’s current metaphor portrays New Zealand as a train derailed, and itself as the maintenance gang with both the engineering expertise and the heavy-lifting machinery needed to get things moving again.

All of which would make perfect sense if New Zealanders were confronting a more conventional economic and social crisis – one screaming out for remedial action. But, is that the mood? Or is it, rather, that instead of a derailment, New Zealanders are gripped by the conviction that the train they are on has been surreptitiously re-directed towards a destination they were not told about, and would not have chosen if they had been.

The problem with National’s slogan is that it offers the voters no possibility of travelling in a new or different direction. The best they can hope for is that National will convey them in the same direction as Labour, only with a little more attention to their health and safety. The party might just as well have inscribed “National – we’ll get you there in one piece” on their billboards.

Act’s invocation of “real change” – especially in the context of presenting itself as National’s hard line/hard core coalition partner – merely confirms to voters that David Seymour intends to get them to the Right’s neoliberal destination at top speed, ignoring the safety regulations, and without making any further stops.

Having arrived at the terminus, however, it will soon become clear to the travelling public that National and Act have not taken them anywhere they haven’t been before. That Act’s “real change” is really just (big) business as usual – and, maybe, something even worse.

Deconstructing NZ First’s slogan presents a much more intriguing proposition. “Let’s take back our country” invites the voters to participate in a daring act of political intervention. Rather than sit back passively as the ship-of-state sails on into a worsening storm, Winston Peters is inviting the voters to turn him into their Fletcher Christian. With them at his back, he will storm the bridge and take back control from the neoliberal Captain Blighs who stole the good ship “New Zealand” from them forty years ago, and under whose command it has become less-and-less seaworthy. “Let’s take back our country” is nothing less than an invitation to electoral mutiny.

It is only Te Pāti Māori, however, which is offering the electorate the prospect of something entirely new. Only the Māori Party which is willing to take the necessary next steps beyond the Greens’ plaintive warning that “the time is now”.

As Te Pāti Māori has demonstrated with its radical tax policies, the intention is to strike at the very heart of the neoliberal status quo. Tinkering, argues Deborah Ngarewa Packer and Rawiri Waititi, is no longer enough, the system under which 2.1 million New Zealanders earn less than $30,000 per year, must be brought down. It’s a metaphor as old as politics itself. Out of darkness a new day must dawn. New Zealand must be re-made. “Aotearoa Hou.”

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 31 July 2023.

Friday 28 July 2023

The Demonstration Effect.

She’ll Be Back! A fortnight out from the General Election, with early voting already underway, it is difficult to think of any person the Labour Government would be less likely to welcome than Posie Parker. 

WHAT HAPPENED IN AUCKLAND on Saturday, 25 March 2023, revealed the power of officially-sanctioned protest. That power was demonstrated to even greater effect the following day in Wellington. New Zealanders are blessedly unfamiliar with this type of politics, which is more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes such as Viktor Orban’s Hungary, or Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela. Nevertheless, the mass demonstrations against Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull (aka “Posie Parker”) strongly backed by government ministers and the state-owned media, revealed just how potent a weapon the mass mobilisation of sympathetic citizens by official, or quasi-official, forces backed up by the news media, can be.

Since Keen-Minshull has announced her intention to visit New Zealand again in September of this year (perilously close to the election date!) it will be interesting to see whether the same politicians and media outlets who denounced her attitudes towards the trans community back in March – “inflammatory, vile and incorrect” – are prepared to offer the electorate a repeat performance six months later. Were they to do so, there can be little doubt that the result would be the same. New Zealanders sympathetic to the transgender cause would rally against Keen-Minshull in their thousands.

The response of those who share Keen-Minshull’s views about the impact transgender ideology is having on the rights of women and children will, however, be very different the second time around. Should Keen-Minshull return to these shores in September, she is certain to arouse a powerfully demonstrative response from those who support her cause. The March spectacle of 2,000 transgender activists and their supporters drowning-out and then physically attacking Keen-Minshull and her fewer than 100 supporters is unlikely to be repeated.

Citizens hailing from both the left and the right of the political spectrum will not be backward in coming forward to Keen-Minshull’s defence. Moreover, since the trans community set the rules of political engagement so violently in March, Keen-Minshull’s defenders in September are unlikely to pull their punches.

Given, that Keen-Minshull is calling for New Zealand women to speak up for their rights outside the Auckland courtroom in which the person who showered her with tomato juice back in March is set to stand trial, the egregiously “hands-off” policing on display on 25 March (now the subject of an internal Police investigation) will not be an option. Indeed, if two vast crowds of mutually hostile demonstrators seem determined to confront one another outside His Majesty’s courthouse, then Police Commissioner Andrew Coster will have no option but to prepare a very “hands-on” response. Hundreds of police officers will be required to maintain public order.

Scarcely a fortnight out from the General Election, with early voting already underway, it is difficult to conceive of anything the Labour Government would welcome less than dramatic evidence of the deep political animosities dividing New Zealand society. The very real possibility that some deluded individual, inflamed by the white-hot passions besetting the transgender issue, might turn protest into tragedy, will only heighten the Government’s trepidation. Political violence on the streets is the last thing Prime Minister Chris Hipkins needs as he goes head-to-head with the Opposition leader, Christopher Luxon.

Which is why Immigration Minister Andrew Little will be under enormous pressure to deny Keen-Minshull entry to New Zealand under Section 16:1(iii) of the Immigration Act – the sub-clause which authorises the Minister to deny entry to any non-New Zealand citizen who “is, or is likely to be, a threat or risk to public order”. This was the clause cited by the trans community back in March as they attempted to keep Keen-Minshull out of the country. The courts ruled against them then, but they may not to do so a second time. It would not be difficult for Little to make the case that Keen-Minshull’s arrival in March did, as predicted, contribute to a breakdown of public order, and that given the intensity of feeling aroused by her ideas, and by other people’s reaction to those ideas, it risks doing so again if she is granted permission to enter New Zealand.

What Little almost certainly would not mention is that, back in March, Keen-Minshull’s opponents were arguing that public order would be threatened by attacks on the trans community perpetrated by Keen-Minshull and her supporters. If a second attempt is made to keep her out, Keen-Minshull’s defenders will, quite justifiably, respond that on 25 March it was the supporters of the trans community who broke through crowd barriers to harry, harass, and inflict serious physical and emotional harm upon the few dozen people, many of them elderly, who had assembled in Albert Park to join Keen-Minshull in speaking up for women’s rights.

If Little does decide to bar Keen-Minshull’s entry, then the story is most unlikely to end there. The Free Speech Union (of which the author of this opinion-piece is a member) is practically certain to launch a bid to rescue Keen-Minshull from the so-called “Thug’s Veto”. It will argue that those presenting disorder as the most likely outcome of Keen-Minshull’s visit and, hence, the best reason for banning it, are the very people most likely to cause it. Equivalent to Ku Klux Klansmen warning a civil rights worker that if she insists upon addressing the local Black Baptist congregation, then there’s just no telling what might happen to their little church.

Recognising Labour’s discomfort, National and Act would be most unlikely to refuse the political gains of presenting themselves as the staunch defenders of Free Speech. Nor would they likely forgo the opportunity to castigate the Labour Government for lining-up with extremists who cannot give a straight answer to the question: “What is a woman?” They would pillory Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori for lacking the guts to defend the core principles of a democratic society. The Right’s message to the country would be unequivocal: Those who threaten the right of freedom of expression must not be appeased, they must be fought!

The parties of the Right might even feel emboldened to take a leaf out of Labour’s own playbook by throwing their weight behind a mass demonstration in support of New Zealanders’ right to speak freely and without fear of being shouted down or attacked. Were they to help organise such an event, they could be absolutely certain that elements of the Left would not be able to resist organising a counter-demonstration. Like Keen-Minshull, herself, they could rely upon the intolerance and aggression of their political opponents to clinch the argument.

What the Labour Government should do, of course, is what any democratic government should do in such circumstances: uphold the right of both sides to make their case. Let Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull and her supporters have their say. Let the trans community register its disagreement and disgust. And make damn sure that hundreds of cops, in full riot-gear, are standing between them. Holding the ring, as the state is bound to do, and keeping the peace.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 28 July 2023.

A Distracting Tragedy.

Using Kiri For Cover: Ironically, the idea of using a dramatic event to distract the public’s attention from something politically embarrassing was picked up by David Parker. Unwilling to front his party’s “revised” tax policy, Labour’s most progressive cabinet minister quietly relinquished the Revenue Portfolio.

THERE IS AN IRONIC TWIST buried at the heart of the Kiri Allan tragedy.

The word “tragedy” is used advisedly in this instance, since it is always tragic to see politicians of principle and promise dragged down by their own inner demons. Most pundits are assuming that the extraordinary events of Sunday night also spell tragedy for the Labour Government. Certainly, its chances of retaining office appear to have sustained a fatal blow.

The twist of irony in this political debacle is to be found in Chris Hipkins high-handed decision to rule out the one indisputably exciting move that might have distracted the electorate from Labour’s ministerial malfunctions.

Had the Prime Minister, from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, not informed New Zealanders that there would be no Wealth Tax or Capital Gains Tax while he remained leader of the Labour Party, “end of story”, then the acute political discomfort occasioned by Kiri Allan’s misadventures would have been swept off the front pages by the release of his government’s radical new tax policy. Flanked by his Finance and Revenue Ministers, Chris Hipkins could have set the terms of the 2023 General Election in a single media conference.

The policy he was supposed to announce – about now – had been quietly developing within the Labour Cabinet, Caucus and Party for several years. The Finance Minister, Grant Robertson made no secret of his support for a Capital Gains Tax. Indeed, had it not been for the application of Winston Peters’ “handbrake”, he would likely have made history by introducing New Zealand’s first comprehensive CGT in this Labour government’s first term.

David Parker, beneath whose grey exterior beats a surprisingly red heart, was keen to top Robertson’s CGT with a Wealth Tax. Inspired by the radical French economist, Thomas Piketty, Parker commissioned an IRD study into the distribution of wealth in New Zealand. To the surprise of very few, it showed the wealthiest New Zealanders paying a proportionately smaller amount to the taxman than the average wage and salary earner.

Before they could take their tax package public, however, Robertson and Parker needed draft legislation. At Treasury and Inland Revenue, the wheels were set in motion. Alarmed at the speed of the policy’s development, Hipkins grabbed for the handbrake himself, bringing the work at Treasury and Inland Revenue to a sudden, screeching halt. A few weeks later, the Prime Minister issued his infamous “Captain’s Call” from Vilnius, killing the Robertson/Parker Tax Package stone-dead.

This is what he killed. A tax package that would have made the first $10,000 of personal income tax-free. Worth roughly $1,000 per year, this change would have made every taxpayer around $20.00 per week better-off. It was to have been paid for by a Wealth Tax levied on the richest families in New Zealand. These wealthy few would not have been impoverished by the tax, but within ten years they would have been contributing billions to the state’s revenues. Whether Labour’s package would have addressed the problem of “fiscal drag” (a move that would have neatly undercut National’s tax policy) paid for by a CGT and a new top tax rate for those earning in excess of $250,000 per annum, we shall never know. The whole thing lies dead at Chippy’s feet.

Word was spread that the Robertson/Parker package had been very badly received by Labour’s focus-groups. Like Jacinda Ardern before him, Hipkins appeared spooked by the prospect of having to win the country over against the fierce opposition of big business and the right-wing news media. He remained unmoved by the argument that the election could be transformed into a referendum on a fairer tax system and all the pro-social things it could buy. “We have no mandate”, chorused Hipkins’ defenders. The idea of seeking and winning one, was rejected.

One can only speculate on Hipkins’ response to the suggestion that the announcement of the Robertson/Parker package would have refocused the public’s attention dramatically. Kiri’s crash forgotten, voters might now be arguing about something of real importance to their own, their families’, and their country’s future.

Ironically, the idea of using a dramatic event to distract the public’s attention from something politically embarrassing was picked up by Hipkins’ principal victim. David Parker, unwilling to front Labour’s “revised” tax policy, quietly relinquished the Revenue Portfolio. Presumably, Grant Robertson is waiting for October.

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

Wednesday 26 July 2023

Sweet Moderation.

Balancing Act: Looming behind the comparatively modest voting tallies of the minor parties, is the clear preponderance of the votes cast in favour of the major parties. Should push come to shove, with the minor parties refusing to play ball unless their key policies are accepted, the prospect of a Grand Coalition of National and Labour will swiftly emerge as the crucial disciplinary threat.

THE PROBLEM FACING EVERY LEFTIST on 14 October is whether any vote they cast will bring anything resembling progressive change. Gaming it out, the radical voter always loses. There is no combination, short of an absolute majority for either the Greens or Te Pāti Māori (TPM) that holds out the slightest hope of delivering genuine transformational change. And, let’s be honest, the chances of either the Greens or TPM claiming an absolute majority of the Party Vote are as close to zero as makes no difference.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s embrace the most wildly optimistic scenario. Labour, after a surprisingly effective campaign, takes 35 percent of the Party Vote. Somehow, the Greens do enough to hold on to their 2020 Party Vote of around 8 percent. TPM, to the shock and surprise of the pundits, proves the Roy Morgan pollsters right by winning 7 percent of the Party Vote.

On paper, that’s a pretty creditable victory for the Left. Labour with 45 seats, the Greens with 10 seats, TPM with 9 seats: together they command 64 seats – more than enough for an effective coalition to govern. But, honestly, what are the chances of cobbling together a radical programme out of the policies of these three very different political parties? The truthful answer is: Not Good.

With more than twice the number of seats than the Greens and TPM combined, Labour will see no reason why it should not call the shots on all serious policy issues. Having ruled out a whole swag of radical Green and TPM policies in the run-up to the election, Labour’s negotiators would present their plurality of the Party Vote as a clear endorsement of the Government’s moderation. Wealth and windfall taxes would be off the table. GST would remain on food. There would be no state-owned supermarket chain supplied by iwi growers.

In staking out this ground, Labour would receive the near unanimous backing of the business community, the mainstream news media, and (from behind the scenes) the public service. After all, the defenders of the status quo would argue, the combined Party Votes for Labour and National account for more than two-thirds of the electorate. Moderation, they would say, won the election – not radicalism. The radical parties of the Left must, therefore, accept that on all important matters the will of the Labour Party must prevail. Had National and Act secured the majority, Act’s radicalism would have had to be similarly curtailed.

Okay, okay, we know: there is no way the Greens and TPM are about to let themselves be thrust back in their boxes – not this time. This time they’re going to play hard ball: no substantive concessions – no votes. This time, from the cross-benches, the Greens and TPM fully intend to control the flow of events. After all, Labour cannot govern without them. So, this time, it’s Labour that will have to bend.

But taihoa, comrades, you’re not thinking this through! There are no cross-benches for you to sit on – not yet. The summoning of Parliament is one of the very few powers reserved to King Charles III, or his representative (in this case the Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro) and constitutional convention requires that the Crown be satisfied that one or more of the parties elected is in a position to govern the Realm. And, when the Crown says “govern” it means run the country effectively, efficiently, and reliably for three years. Not precariously, from vote to vote, at the whim of one or more of the minor parties.

And, don’t forget, the person advising the Governor-General through this fraught process will be Chris Hipkins. Sure, he will only be a “caretaker” prime minister, but constitutionally he remains the politician Dame Cindy must turn to first. It will be Chippy who keeps her up-to-speed, vis-à-vis the Greens and TPM, right up to the moment he and his colleagues decide it is time to inform the Governor-General that Labour’s negotiations with the Greens and TPM have reached an impasse.

At that point, Dame Cindy will pick up the phone and direct a few well-chosen questions to James Shaw and Marama Davidson. Will their party allow Chris Hipkins to form a strong and stable administration? Will he be able to rely upon the Greens to refrain from turning every important policy decision into a battle of political wills?

What are the chances, really, of James and Marama saying anything other than “Yes”? And then, what are the chances of the designated representatives of the Green membership tipping New Zealand into a constitutional crisis by refusing to back their leaders?

Not that such a refusal would stop the step-by-step Vice-Regal advance towards a resolution of the developing crisis. Dame Cindy’s next move would be to pick up the phone and direct the same questions to Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa Packer. And their response, almost certainly, would be to put off answering Dame Cindy until the TPM President, John Tamihere, had had a brass-knuckle discussion with Chris Hipkins and Willie Jackson about what Labour needed to do to secure TPM’s unswerving backing.

Were Chippy and Willie to promise moving the constitutional/Te Tiriti debate to the next level, while pouring a truly outrageous amount of money into Whanau Ora, would John, Rawiri and Debbie say “Yes”? Almost certainly, they would. The TPM call to Government House would be made.

All eyes would now be on the Greens – assuming they hadn’t already caved. Once again the phone would ring. This time Dame Cindy would let them know that if they continued to withhold the votes Mr Hipkins needs, then her next call will be to Mr Luxon.

And if that call was made, to whom would Christopher Luxon speak next? Chris Hipkins? Definitely. John Tamihere? Possibly. David Seymour? Not if he’s got any sense. You see where this is going, don’t you?

Certainly, both James Shaw and Marama Davidson are quite intelligent enough to know who will end up getting blamed if New Zealand, driven by their intransigence, moves inexorably towards a Grand Coalition. That’s why, after securing Chippy’s promise of four Green seats at the Cabinet Table, the reply to the Governor-General will be “Yes.”

Because, it is utterly unrealistic to believe that the National Party will keep baling a left-wing government out of its multiplying parliamentary difficulties by ponying-up with the needed votes whenever the PM calls. If that’s the way of things, then why not demand the Deputy-Prime Ministership for Luxon? Why not secure multiple National Party seats at the Cabinet Table? In other words: why not go all-in for a Grand Coalition? Either that, or force a new election.

It just isn’t that easy to hold a whole country to ransom – especially when your party, or parties, emerged from the election with 15 percent of the Party Vote. In the end, a democratically-governed state simply will not attempt to rule in defiance of public opinion. If a clear majority of the electorate declines to vote for the revolutionary option, then – one way or the other – the policies of sweet moderation will prevail.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 21 July 2023.

The Power Of “Lived Experience”.

Tortured Testimony: What is cold hard evidence in the face of the naked emotional anguish of the victims of crime? What is reasonable doubt in the face of pleading eyes, tear-stained cheeks, and twisted mouths. What chance does forensic science have in the face of the victims’ lived experience?

HAVE YOU NOTICED IT YET? The emerging power of “Lived Experience” testimony? It’s rapidly trumping the hard data produced by traditional science. And if you are one of those people our society once referred to reverentially as “experts” – then watch out!

Nobody wants to know what “experts” think anymore, because, really, what do experts know? It was experts who told the world that toxic bundles of unredeemable debt were worthy of Triple-A credit-ratings. Experts who advised governments to pursue “herd immunity” from Covid-19. Experts who reassured us that there was absolutely no way that Russia was going to invade Ukraine.

Nope, being an expert ain’t what it used to be.

Lived Experience, on the other hand, is riveting, compelling, heart-breaking, and unequivocally “real”.

It’s been on display in the world’s witness-boxes for centuries. The raw grief, the cold fury, that hunger for justice that is quite impossible to fake. Prosecutors can’t get enough of it. Defence lawyers fear it. Juries lap it up like ice-cream.

How are twelve people chosen at random supposed to know that there are people out there who can fake anything? Not all great actors are on the stage or in the movies.

We can’t even trust our own eyes. Find ten eye-witnesses to the same event, and on the witness stand every one of them will recall it differently.

Thank God for forensic science! Thank God for television series like CSI! Thank God for DNA evidence! For a while there, expertise was on a roll. For a while there, men and women who had been immured on the basis of police corruption, judicial incompetence, and perjured testimony were walking free after ten, twenty, thirty years behind bars.

They were the lucky ones, if that description isn’t obscenely ironic, because, in the USA, innocent men and women were sent to their deaths on the strength of relived experiences that never happened.

Which just left the victims – and the public.

When expert witnesses rob the grieving family (and the vicariously grieving public) of their prey, where is the “closure”, the relief, the satisfaction that the guilty ones will be punished? In one corner of the public mind lies the cold, hard evidence which swayed the jury. But what is cold hard evidence in the face of the naked emotional anguish of the victims of crime? What is reasonable doubt in the face of pleading eyes, tear-stained cheeks, and twisted mouths. What chance does forensic science have in the face of the victims’ lived experience?

The lesson was not lost upon those who, for a whole host of reasons, were looking for a way to drive expert knowledge out of the arguments they were advancing. Science, statistics, history, all of these disciplines (and many others) have an irritating way of taking the winds of passion out of the sails of all sorts of political vessels.

This was especially so in the case of those political causes that looked at science and expert opinion and saw only the Praetorian Guards of oppressive systems that employed Reason not as the liberator of the poor and oppressed, but as their jailer. How many experts had preached the holy wisdom of Patriarchy? The clear superiority of Western Culture? The social virtues of Eugenics? At the time, they insisted that these manifest evils were pure and simple truths. At the time, most people believed them.

What better weapon to wield against these regiments of official lies than the self-evident truths drawn from the victims’ personal experiences? The dignified testimony of the Black sharecropper victimised by the Ku Klux Klan. The courageous testimony of the rape victim. The long-suppressed testimonies of the victims of institutional violence. Truth that lived in human eyes. Truth that was carried on the human voices of those who had endured it.

There was truth in what they said. Systems of oppression have always claimed a monopoly on Truth. The powerful have always used knowledge as a weapon. Experts have silenced far too many critics with right – and science – on their side. Such is the lived experience of all those who fight for justice.

But justice is not served by unchallenged individual testimony. Pain and anguish can warp human judgement no less than greed and cruelty. Lived experience conveys part of the truth, but it is not the whole truth.

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

Thursday 20 July 2023

Standing Conventional Wisdom On Its Head.

Unconventional Antics: Political pundits are virtually unanimous in predicting that any small party which forced New Zealanders back to the polls, rather than surrender their core principles and policies, would be wiped out by a furious electorate. But, New Zealand may be heading into an election in which conventional wisdom gets stood on its head.

THE TWO MAJOR PARTIES, Labour and National, are already flexing their political muscles in response to the minor parties’ policies. Chris Hipkins has made his “Captain’s Call”, nixing any possibility of a Wealth Tax or a Capital Gains Tax while he holds the top job. Christopher Luxon, meanwhile, is indicating that Act can go whistle for its “Referendum on the Treaty” policy. Supposedly wise old heads are backing these unilateral rejections with dire warnings of what would happen to any party which, rather than surrender what they flagged to their voters were matters of principle, dared to send the country back to the polling-booths.

Well, New Zealand may be heading into an election in which conventional wisdom gets stood on its head. It happens every now and again, usually in response to sudden and disturbing shifts in the way the world is seen to work.

Take the two great election landslides of the early 1970s: Labour’s crushing win in 1972; and National’s exact reversal of Labour’s 23-seat majority just three years later in 1975.

In 1972, Norman Kirk had made himself the avatar of the popular conviction, growing in strength since 1969, that it was “time for a change”. Somehow, Kirk was able to represent both the young voters’ impatience with the stifling post-war consensus, and the broader electorate’s expectation that life for ordinary New Zealanders could be improved without upsetting the mixed-economy apple-cart.

Just two years later, in the wake of the Oil Shock of 1973, Muldoon convinced those same ordinary New Zealanders that only he knew how to right the overturned apple-cart, gather-up the scattered apples, and restore something approximating the broad political consensus of the 1960s.

By 1984 it was clear to all but the most steadfast Muldoon loyalists that the rest of the world was now working in a very different way, and that New Zealand could no longer afford to pretend that it wasn’t. This time it was Labour’s David Lange who was offering “consensus”.

It was a promise with as little substance as Muldoon’s 1975 pledge of “New Zealand the way YOU want it.” Lange’s promise was, however, much more cynical that Muldoon’s, who actually believed it was possible to restore the status-quo-ante. Lange always knew that when he and Roger Douglas were through with it, the mixed-economy apple-cart would be a smoking ruin – along with the post-war consensus.

The neoliberal consensus which emerged from the reforms of 1984-1993 proved to be as durable as the Keynesian social-democratic consensus it replaced. Next year, 2024, will mark the fortieth anniversary of “Rogernomics”, a status-quo spanning two generations.

During that time, neoliberalism has shaped a society containing far fewer “winners” than Keynesianism. Unlike the “losers” of earlier periods, however, neoliberalism’s victims have failed to mount a successful fightback. Challenges to the neoliberal order, mounted by populist political parties of both the Right (NZ First) and the Left (Alliance, Greens) attracted insufficient electoral support to halt the steady decay of the country’s social, economic and physical infrastructure. A process which National and Labour, alike, did shamefully little to arrest.

Herein lies the problem. If not enough is done to halt its progress, infrastructural decay leads inexorably to infrastructural collapse. New Zealand is perilously close to passing the point beyond which collapse becomes an inevitability. The only solutions are political, but, being complicit in both the introduction and preservation of neoliberalism, Labour and National no longer appear equal to the task of responding decisively to its failures. What’s more, their easy dominance of the MMP political environment gives the two major parties very little incentive to try. The voices to their right and left, urging them to either advance neoliberalism even further (Act), or roll it back aggressively (Greens, Te Pāti Māori) can safely be ignored.

At the heart of the problem lies the seemingly inexhaustible loyalty of the major parties’ core supporters. Their willingness to go on bearing the burdens loaded upon them by their respective party’s egregious policy failures, no matter what, is reflected in the fact that upwards of half the New Zealand electorate votes exactly the same way election after election after election.

It is the confidence of the major parties in the “rusted-on” character of their core support that causes them to treat their “natural” coalition partners with such disdain. The leaders of National and Labour simply do not believe in the existence of any combination of political circumstances capable of inducing a fatal collapse in their electoral support, and/or its decisive migration to one or the other of the ideological offsiders. It is this confidence that allows them to veto policies deemed too “extreme” well in advance of any votes being cast.

Except that loyalty, like infrastructural decay, has its limits. There are elements in all the minor parties whose willingness to swallow the usual dead rats dumped upon their plates by National and Labour is at an end. These are the MPs and party activists who advocate moving to the cross benches if, as usual, the senior coalition partner insists upon their party abandoning both its policies and the principles informing them.

The rebels preferred strategy is as brutal as it is simple. If the senior coalition partner attempts to rule out a core policy objective – as Chris Hipkins is attempting to rule out the Greens’ Wealth Tax – then the junior coalition partner will publicly announce that, once again, policies desperately needed by the nation are being rejected. Rather than capitulate, however, the smaller party is willing to precipitate a new election. Let the people of New Zealand deliver their verdict on whether or not these policies should stand – by voting for the party promoting them.

The conventional wisdom holds that any minor party attempting such “blackmail” would be wiped-out by a furious electorate. In normal circumstances, the conventionally wise would likely be proved correct. The key question, therefore, is: “Are we living in normal circumstances?” Or, has a majority of the electorate tired of swapping executive power between Labour and National, only to see the resulting governments continue to talk big, and deliver sod all?

If one, or a combination, of the minor parties, puts it to the electorate: “If you want action on the cost-of-living, housing, health, education and climate-change; if you want to keep the hands of the neoliberal establishment off the handbrake; well then, give us the tools and we will finish the job.” How many voters would oblige?

Since 1996, New Zealanders have voted for change and received only more of the same. In 2020, and in spite of the conventionally wise declaring it impossible under MMP, New Zealanders gave Labour an absolute majority – to get the job done. Has any government ever promised so much and delivered so little?

More and more, conventional wisdom sounds like conventional folly. In the end, no political party is entitled to people’s votes. Loyalty should be earned and renewed, not given blindly and regardless of repeated failures and betrayals.

Labour was once a minor party, until it convinced the voters that it meant what it said and, by keeping its promises, proved itself worthy of their trust.

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

Sunday 16 July 2023

Captain’s Call.

Not Now, Not Ever, Never! That Labour has meekly accepted Chris Hipkins’ “Captain’s Call”, nixing both a Wealth Tax and a Capital Gains Tax while he’s in charge, is deplorable. Given the centrality of tax policy to everything a political party seeks to accomplish when in office, his decision to rule out key instruments of revenue gathering without consultation, debate, or vote indicates that tangible accomplishments are no longer on the party’s agenda.

IT WAS THE AUSSIES who came up with the “Captain’s Call” tag, and we Kiwis have followed along behind. In the context of sport, the term has a rough and ready legitimacy. After all, our national teams are not democracies, so the idea of allowing the team captain (instead of the team coach) to make the occasional decision on strategy, tactics, and/or personnel, seems entirely reasonable. Otherwise, why bother having a captain at all?

But political parties are not sports teams. No matter how often politicians and journalists talk about “the team”, politics is not a sporting fixture. Indeed, the more a nation’s politics comes to resemble a sporting fixture, the more certain you can be that nothing important is riding on the outcome of the “game”.

In the past, people joined political parties to change the world. It is a moot point as to whether this is still the case. What is certain, however, is that a political party whose only objective is to beat the other team/s has long since degenerated into something else. The members of such a party might well accept a “Captain’s Call” as the end of the story, but only because they’ve forgotten how to make decisions for themselves.

That the New Zealand Labour Party has meekly accepted the Captain’s Call of its Leader, Chris Hipkins, that his government will not introduce either a Wealth Tax or a Capital Gains Tax (CGT) while he’s the one in charge is deplorable. Given the centrality of tax policy to everything a political party seeks to accomplish when in office, the decision to rule out key instruments of revenue gathering without consultation, debate, or a vote – not even around the cabinet-table – indicates that tangible accomplishments are no longer on the party’s agenda.

When political leaders issue a Captain’s Call, they are effectively inviting their parliamentary colleagues to either back them or sack them. They are signalling that key policies, key decisions, are no longer to be decided democratically by Cabinet, Caucus and/or the wider party; but from above, by the Leader and his/her closest advisors. Where democratic leaders are content to let the party determine policy, seeing themselves as simply the chief salesperson of its policies to the electorate; autocratic leaders have no interest in discussion or debate. It is their judgement, their will, which alone determines whether a policy lives or dies. This sort of leader, once they have made their “call”, can no longer be persuaded, or outvoted. They can only be deposed.

What has led Chris Hipkins to this crucial Captain’s Call on Labour’s taxation policy? That he was the unanimous choice of his colleagues to lead Labour into the 2023 General Election suggests that Hipkins and, at least, the parliamentary party were on the same political wavelength. His bonfire of Labour’s unpopular policies also seemed to have the blessings of the caucus, and was well received by the voters. Hipkins appeared to be on track to win his party a third term.

But, somewhere amid the havoc unleashed by storm and cyclone, the bonfire went out. The Māori caucus refused to countenance the jettisoning of co-governance, and so fiercely were a clutch of expensive pet projects defended by their originating ministers, that it seemed prudent to leave them in place. Even more troubling, from the new Prime Minister’s perspective, was the news that policy development on radical tax reform targeting the super-wealthy was well advanced. Hipkins, who had introduced himself to the country as Mr Bread-and-Butter (with positive results in the preferred prime minister stakes) was not at all keen on being re-branded as Mr Fire-and-Brimstone.

Hipkins’ colleagues, Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Revenue Minister David Parker, found it impossible to persuade the Prime Minister that their tax reform plans were a plus, not a minus, for the Labour Party. Nor could they convince him of the wisdom of their time-line. Robertson and Parker wanted to introduce their tax package in the May 2023 Budget, but delay its coming into force until 2024. By explicitly seeking a popular mandate for the reforms, Labour could set the tone of the forthcoming election campaign: pitching hope and fairness against fear and greed.

Hipkins wasn’t convinced. His advisers had warned him that focus-group reports indicated that a radical tax policy would be a very hard sell. More to the point, all of Hipkins personal political experience told him that most of the privately-owned news media, and all of the interest-groups representing the big end of town, would wage an unrelenting campaign against Labour’s tax package. A campaign loud enough to drown out the Government’s message of hope.

It is also likely that Hipkins feared the consequences of unleashing such a left-populist campaign. Temperamentally, Hipkins is ill-at-ease with the sort of politics that mobilises too many ordinary people. Ever since the political divisions unleashed in the 1980s, the strongest factions in the Labour Party (which Hipkins has been careful to cultivate) have thought it wiser to keep control of the losing side in the class war, than lose control of the winning side.

Hence Hipkins’ Captain’s Call from Vilnius.

That there were public servants in Treasury and IRD willing to tell National’s Nicola Willis exactly what questions to ask and which documents to seek in relation to Robertson’s and Parker’s tax plans, had already put the government on the back foot. If the tax package had been released in the Budget, as planned, Labour might have avoided looking shifty and secretive on tax. But, Hipkins had put a stop to that. And, now, he would put a stop to this.

The upshot of all this political caution is that Labour will go into the election with very few achievements to boast of, and with next to no policies bold enough to persuade the electorate to overlook its many failures. Hipkins’ refusal to risk his own and his party’s future on a policy platform that would’ve helped to make New Zealand a fairer and more hopeful country, coupled with his refusal to let the Greens and Te Pāti Māori make the same promises with any credibility, have made the victory of fear and greed a near certainty.

It was a chance for Captain Hipkins to show his quality, and sadly, he has.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 14 July 2023.

Friday 14 July 2023

An Extraordinary Promise.

An Offer Maori Could Not Refuse: It is hard to imagine a better way of demonstrating the injustice that lies at the heart of our nation’s story. The first time the Māori refused to sell their land to the Pakeha, the Pakeha imported 12,000 imperial troops from Great Britain and confiscated vast tracts of it. Then, having overcome all serious indigenous opposition, successive settler governments passed laws encouraging the Pakeha to take what little productive Māori land was left. Image by Dave Tipper.

THE GREENS MANIFESTO, released on Sunday (9/7/23) contains an extraordinary promise. If it finds itself in a position to do so, the Green Party will “explore” the return of land “wrongfully alienated from the tangata whenua”. To be clear, the Greens are not referring to Crown land. The process envisaged involves giving Māori “a right of first refusal”, enabling “the return of private land to iwi, hapū and whānau at point of sale”.

To describe this policy as “challenging” does it a disservice. On its face, the Greens’ policy is nothing short of revolutionary. Slowly, but surely, Māori could reclaim the lands that were, by war or legal chicanery, taken from them. The processes of colonisation, to which the extinguishing of native title has always been fundamental, would be thrown into reverse.

“But, they can’t do that! All Hell would break loose!” Certainly, that would be the cry. But how loud would it be, really?

After all, the process described has for many years constituted an important aspect of the Treaty Settlement Process. The right of first refusal to land which the Crown no longer wished to own was granted to Ngai Tahu in 1998.

“But, granting first refusal to iwi, hapū and whānau in relation to Crown land is quite different from encouraging them to exercise the same right in relation to private land”, the critics would object. “To give Māori such a right would fundamentally derange our entire system. Individuals and companies must be free to sell their property to whomsoever they please – otherwise the free market economy falls apart.”

Putting to one side the legal nicety that the Crown is deemed to own every hectare of New Zealand already, and that those who purchase real estate generally hold it “in fee simple” from the King. (And you thought feudalism was dead!) What the Greens are proposing is simply that Māori be given the first opportunity to meet the vendor’s price – not that they be given the power to set it! The market will continue to work – at least in the short term. Over time, however, more and more land would, indeed, revert to Māori ownership.

Apart from it being an affront to their colonial amor propre, what respectable reason could Pakeha have for caring who ends up buying what they have chosen to sell? When Kiwis flick on their homes, the identity of the purchaser doesn’t usually signify. What matters is that the transaction goes smoothly, and that the agreed purchase-price ends up in the vendor’s bank account. If iwi corporations were to become major players in the buying and selling of New Zealand real estate who, apart from inveterate racists, would really care?

Certainly not the generations of New Zealanders born after 1965. For more and more of the generations at the end of the alphabet, buying and selling property has become a pipe dream. Some of them might even welcome the steady transfer of real estate from Pakeha to Māori: arguing (with some justification) that large iwi corporations could hardly be worse landlords than the grasping rack-renters who lord it over them now.

No, if the Green’s policy is going to cause trouble, then it will be in the long, not the short, term. Think about it. Once iwi, hapū and whānau have finally reclaimed their lost whenua, how likely is it that they will allow it slip through their fingers a second time? Which can only mean that a time will come when most of New Zealand is in the hands of iwi, hapū and whānau ill-disposed to selling their whenua, their taonga, to any but their own.

Which is why this Green policy comes under the rubric of “Te Tiriti”. It is hard to imagine a better way of demonstrating the injustice that lies at the heart of our nation’s story. The first time the Māori refused to sell their land to the Pakeha, the Pakeha imported 12,000 imperial troops from Great Britain and confiscated vast tracts of it. Then, having overcome all serious indigenous opposition, successive settler governments passed laws encouraging the Pakeha to take what little productive Māori land was left.

By re-creating the disposition of New Zealand real estate at the time of the Treaty’s signing, the Greens’ policy would right these wrongs.

Aotearoa was Māori land – it could be again.

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

Monday 10 July 2023

The Greens’ Manifesto Is Called “The Time Is Now” – But Is It?

You Cannot Be Serious! To announce that your party is even “exploring” the idea of bestowing upon Māori the “right of first refusal” to privately-owned land offered for sale will certainly test the relative strengths of collectivism and individualism in New Zealand! Attempting to restore the status-quo-ante that prevailed prior to the enforced alienation of Māori land is an invitation to civil war.

NORMAN KIRK’S COLLEAGUES called it the “bloody red book”, and privately lamented that he referred to it constantly at Cabinet. But Labour’s 1972 Manifesto was taken very seriously by “The Boss”. It contained promises which the voters expected a Labour Government to keep – and Kirk was not about to let them down.

It is a measure of how profoundly the practice of New Zealand politics has changed since the 1970s that, back then, both the public sector chiefs and the news media took party manifestos very seriously. The former detailed talented underlings to tease out the costs and consequences of the parties’ plans. The news media did its best to do acquaint the public with the same information.

Just how far party manifestos had been downgraded was demonstrated vividly by another Labour prime minister, David Lange, who frankly admitted to his party not bothering with a manifesto in 1987 – on the grounds that had his government told the voters what it was planning to do they would have voted it out of office!

What passed for manifestos in the aftermath of the radical economic changes of the 1980s and 90s were glossy documents containing few words and many pictures. Coherent arguments were replaced by bullet-pointed sentences inspired by the reactions of focus-groups. From being statements of party principle and purpose, manifestos simply told voters what they wanted to hear – as interpreted by the polling agencies hired to translate the vox populi.

Even then, there was no guarantee that these pre-tested promises would be kept. The extent to which cynicism had come to guide the behaviour of New Zealand politicians was famously revealed by the Labour Cabinet Minister Steve Maharey, who informed the House of Representatives that an unfulfilled party promise was: “Just one of those things you say when you’re in Opposition, and then forget about when you’re in Government.”

The exception to this downgrading of the election manifesto was the small, ideologically-driven party determined to present its transformational programme to the electorate in considerable detail. Perhaps the most famous of these was the manifesto prepared by the Values Party for the 1975 general election. Across 91 pages, its idealistic authors described the sort of nation the Values Party believed New Zealand could/should become. Retailing for $1.65 (roughly $20.00 in today’s money) Beyond Tomorrow became a best seller.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the impressive precedent set by their Values predecessors served as an inspiration to the Greens who remembered it. So much so that, even today, the Green Party makes an effort to present its ideas in some detail to the public. This year’s effort, The Time Is Now, at 48 A4 pages, may not be as inspiring as Beyond Tomorrow, but the Greens have, at least, made an effort.

No matter how odious comparisons are said to be, it is instructive to compare the opening lines of The Time Is Now with those of Beyond Tomorrow. The latter begins with a quote from Gandhi: “The earth has enough for everyman’s need, but not enough for everyman’s greed.” The opening line of The Time Is Now reads: “Our vision is a climate-friendly Aotearoa that honours Te Tiriti and meets the needs of everyone within the boundaries of the planet, so that we and the rest of nature can thrive.” The remaining 47 pages are intended to translate that “vision” into a consistent policy platform.

Introducing the Greens’ manifesto to the party’s AGM on Sunday (9/7/23) Co-Leader Marama Davidson began by describing what she believes to be the essence of Greenness:

“As Greens we have always found [our] humanity in being part of a collective.”

Not the best start in a nation whose majority culture is firmly founded upon the principle that the human individual is supreme, and whose touchstone novel is entitled Man Alone. Being of Ngāti Porou, Te Rarawa, and Ngāpuhi descent, it is entirely reasonable for Davidson to espouse the values of te Ao Māori, but for a party whose voter base is overwhelmingly well-educated, middle-class and Pakeha, extolling collective values may not be the most effective opening gambit – psycho-socially speaking.

Never mind. Let us proceed on the assumption that the Green Party’s members and voters are all staunch collectivists. Certainly, that would need to be the case if their commitment to an Aotearoa which honours te Tiriti is genuine. Especially when honouring te Tiriti involves facilitating “the return of whenua that was wrongfully alienated from tangata whenua, including through exploring a right of first refusal process that enables the return of private land to iwi, hapū and whānau at point of sale”.

To announce that your party is even “exploring” the idea of bestowing upon Māori the “right of first refusal” to privately-owned land offered for sale will certainly test the relative strengths of collectivism and individualism in New Zealand!

There was a very good reason why the Waitangi Tribunal was forbidden from considering privately-owned land, a reason which is, almost certainly, as valid today as it was forty years ago. Restoring the status-quo-ante that prevailed prior to the enforced alienation of Māori land is an invitation to civil war. One suspects that the Greens’ manifesto promise to “Implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Aotearoa”, would amount to the same thing.

Not to worry, just a few pages on, under the heading of “Workforce”, the Greens’ manifesto promises to: “Legislate for a right to solidarity strikes and political strikes.”

One of the most effective political strikes on record is the general strike of Protestant workers organised by the Ulster Workers Council, which took place in Northern Ireland between 15-28 May 1974. The strikers successfully destroyed the Sunningdale Agreement establishing a power-sharing arrangement between the (majority) Protestant and (minority) Catholic communities under the auspices of the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The ruthlessly enforced sectarian strike forced the UK Government to restore direct rule from London.

This sort of political strike is, patently, not the sort of political strike the Greens were thinking of when they confirmed that particular element of their Workforce policy. But they should be under no illusion that it is but one of the many radical responses to which the Pakeha majority would likely have resort if UNDRIP was imposed from above by a Green Government.

Many readers will undoubtedly object that the Greens are fully aware that they will be in no position to enforce the policies contained in their manifesto, and that its content is purely aspirational. But, if that is the case, then they are merely children playing at the game of politics, and should not be treated as serious contenders for office.

A political party offering a manifesto to the public, is expected to have thoroughly debated its contents and satisfied itself that the measures proposed are both desirable and workable. And, further, that its MPs are committed, 100 percent, to implementing its promises. “Given the power, this is what we’ll do.” That is the pledge they are making. If the only purpose of publishing a manifesto is to make themselves feel better, then the Greens should abjure participation in any government.

Norman Kirk was very likely the last New Zealand prime minister to take his party’s manifesto promises seriously. What New Zealanders read in the “bloody red book”, was what New Zealanders got from “Big Norm” – until the pressures of giving it to them killed him.

If the “bloody green book” is not a document to be taken seriously, then neither is the party that wrote it.

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

Friday 7 July 2023

Unstoppable And Explosive.

An Awesome Power: The metaphor of the erupting volcano is often pressed into service by journalists and historians. Understandably, since political upheavals, like volcanic eruptions, tend to take all but the most attentive observers by surprise. The existing political order, like a dormant volcano, seems stable right up until the moment it blows apart. 

IT’S VOLCANOLOGISTS who detect the first signs of the pending eruption. Barely discernible tremors, swarms of them, imperceptible to those not equipped with a seismograph, but indicative of something stirring beneath the seemingly solid earth. Magma, rising from the depths, disturbs an equilibrium that may have endured for centuries, causing the ground to shake. Inside the volcano things are heating up. Expanding gases create fissures in the volcano’s flanks, asphyxiating birds and other creatures caught in their invisible plumes. The quakes grow more violent. The air reverberates eerily – as if the mountain itself is groaning. In the final few hours before eruption, the volcano begins to deform, swelling ominously as the magma and the superheated gases expanding ahead of it approach the surface. Finally, with a roar like that of a stricken god, the volcano belches millions of tons of molten rock and ash into the upper atmosphere. For miles, across the landscape, Hell rises and walks around.

The metaphor of the erupting volcano is often pressed into service by journalists and historians. Understandably, since political upheavals, like volcanic eruptions, tend to take all but the most attentive observers by surprise. The existing political order, like a dormant volcano, seems stable right up until the moment it blows apart. Destroyed by forces which have been gathering strength for weeks and months right under the authorities’ noses – not so much unnoticed – as disregarded.

In this volcanic metaphor, the role of the seismograph is played by the polling agencies. It is the pollster who picks up the first tremors of political mobilisation. Barely noticed at first, generating results well inside the margin-of-error, but real nonetheless. Unmistakable evidence that beneath the familiar political topology magma is rising, gases are heating, hitherto solid rock is melting.

It was Act which provided the first indication that the fragile equilibrium established in the aftermath of the Covid Earthquake was coming apart.

As National began its belated rise towards electoral respectability (i.e. a Party Vote in the low-to-mid 40s) it soon became clear that getting there, and staying there, was more than it could accomplish. Meanwhile, the angry Right was refusing to cool down. New Zealand society was being changed radically, and without the permission of those who saw changing things as their prerogative. Moreover, National didn’t seem to be that bothered – as if they regarded the changes as tolerable.

Act’s take-off in the polls was the first sign of the roiling masses of magma churning away deep below the surface. More than willing to take the hard lines that National was eschewing, Act gave voice to the fears of those whose long-established privileges were being challenged by proudly insubordinate social movements pushing transformational ideas about ethnicity and gender.

Below the Me Too and Black Lives Matter agitation, however, and below the bewildering claims of the transgender activists, there was an upward thrusting force that at once empowered and overwhelmed the causes which Act and its fellow travellers dismissed as “Woke”. This was the magma of Māori nationalism, the expanding force of a people whose numbers and aspirations simply refused to stop growing.

The Māori Question was being put to Pakeha New Zealanders with an urgency born of too many wrong and/or misleading historical answers. It was heating the rhetorical gases of the Left, but it was not the Left. To the defenders of Pakeha privilege, however, the denizens of old New Zealand, two things were terrifyingly clear. That all this “Māori stuff” was huge – and that it was rising inexorably towards the surface of New Zealand politics.

Act placed itself athwart the Māori nationalists’ path. It promised to turn back the relentless advance of “Aotearoa” against “New Zealand”. The Treaty of Waitangi would be re-written, all traces of co-governance, would be swept away. A new, written constitution would entrench Pakeha privilege forever. But, these were horizontal solutions: as if the Māori cause was an army advancing towards a defensible border; a force that could be stopped and turned around.

Wrong metaphor.

The upward thrust of the Māori cause is magma – unstoppable and potentially explosive. It may flow down the slopes of New Zealand as lava, reshaping the state in dramatic and irreversible fashion. Or, blocked by the congealed rock of racist resistance in its throat, its pressure will grow and grow until New Zealand disappears in an explosion of fire and ash, leaving behind only Aotearoa.

Therefore, take note of the latest Roy Morgan poll. In that dramatic upward tick of Te Pāti Māori – to a system-busting 7 percent – perceive the first, tell-tale tremors of a political eruption in the making. It is the young people, the rangatahi, who are rising. Not simply in response to Act’s futile policies of obstruction and suppression, but because there is in them a passion for growth and expansion that must, by whatever means necessary, find its way to the sky.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 7 July 2023.

An Electoral Taniwha Is Rising.

Unexpected Participants: Labour’s own pollsters, Talbot-Mills, are reported to have detected a pronounced up-tick in the number of Māori aged between 18 and 35 who are indicating their intention to vote in this year’s election. This is not a demographic in which New Zealand psephologists (people who study elections) generally place much stock. Historically-speaking, roughly two-thirds of 18-35-year-old Māori have declined to participate in the electoral process.

THE FINDINGS of the latest Roy Morgan Poll are nothing less than a political bombshell. It is not only that the poll shows both National and Labour falling to roughly 30 percent of the declared respondents’ Party Vote. It’s not even that Act is now boasting 15 percent of the Party Vote – a share that would entitle them to 6 or 7 seats at the Cabinet Table. No, the explosive nature of these results lies in the fact that Te Pāti Māori (TPM) stands at 7 percent of the declared Party Vote. If that is the result on Election Day, then TPM could be looking at nine MPs. Moreover, Labour and the Greens would need the support of those nine MPs to form a government.

It may be objected that for several months now a plethora of polls have confirmed TPM’s status as “kingmaker” in the 2023 General Election. And, since the National Party has ruled out any kind of deal with TPM, the only King it will be able to crown is Labour. While correct, what this “So what else is new?” response fails to adequately register is TPM’s significant rise in the declared Party Vote. Add TPM’s 7 percent to the Greens’ 9.5 percent and between them the parties of the Far Left are currently representing one out of every six voters.


What’s even more significant, is where TPM’s 7 percent of the Party Vote is coming from. Labour’s own pollsters, Talbot-Mills, are reported to have detected a pronounced up-tick in the number of Māori aged between 18 and 35 who are indicating their intention to vote in this year’s election. This is not a demographic in which New Zealand psephologists (people who study elections) generally place much stock. Historically-speaking, roughly two-thirds of 18-35-year-old Māori have declined to participate in the electoral process.

That amounts to tens-of-thousands of uncast votes – tens-of-thousands of votes which, if consolidated into a bloc, could reconfigure the electoral landscape dramatically. It is precisely this sort of reconfiguration which the Roy Morgan Poll has now made visible to the public. Young Māori are waking up politically and they are telling the pollsters that the overwhelming majority of the votes they intend to cast will go to Te Pāti Māori.

Why? What is it that has, to employ Shane Jones’ rather condescending phraseology, got the nephews off the couch? To those who understand that for every extreme political action there is an equal and opposite extreme political reaction, the answer is plain. It is the Act Party’s policies in relation to te Tiriti o Waitangi, co-governance and affirmative action.

Act’s leader, David Seymour has amassed an impressive number of former National Party voters by refusing to equivocate on the politics of race. Where National has been mealy-mouthed on race – frightened, no doubt, that too much frankness will drive away urban liberals – Act has been all-too-clear. Given sufficient parliamentary clout, it will first re-define, and then re-write, the Treaty of Waitangi. Act will then confirm the revised text by majority vote in a binding referendum.

This raw political meat has proved particularly appetising to those right-wing voters who are strongly of the view that all this “Māori stuff” has gone too far, and that National is doing far too little to roll it back.

That there are votes – lots of votes – in the politics of race has been clear ever since 2005, when Don Brash’s in/famous “Orewa Speech” saw National’s poll numbers go up by a whopping 17 percentage points. Seymour’s attitude in 2023 appears to be: “If you don’t want these voters Mr Luxon, then we’ll gladly take them off your hands!”

Did Seymour think at all about how Māori would react to what would amount to a unilateral Pakeha re-writing of te Tiriti, followed by a tyrannical Pakeha majority’s gratuitous ratification of Act’s new and improved version of New Zealand’s founding document? Does he, even now, have any idea of the fury such a course of action would unleash? Is he really so sure that young Māori New Zealanders, whose expectations of a decolonised and indigenised Aotearoa have never been higher, will just sit on the couch and watch him set their treaty – and their hopes – on fire?

Roy Morgan’s pollsters suggest otherwise. They’re telling us that an electoral taniwha is rising.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 July 2023.

Wednesday 5 July 2023

Art For Our Sake.

Tally Ho! The power of creative communities is little short of miraculous. A handful of self-conscious avant-guardists, playing to each other in the draughty church halls and commercially fragile pubs of the world’s southernmost university city, may not have seemed powerful at the time (the early 1980s) but, in remarkably short-order student radio stations from Oregon state to the River Clyde were playing the music of The Clean, The Chills and The Verlaines.

WHICH DID MORE FOR DUNEDIN – the City Council’s public relations department, or the creators of the “Dunedin Sound”? In any battle for excitement and attraction it would be most unwise to put your money on bureaucracy. Something all governments, and all Ministers for the Arts, would be wise to remember.

The power of creative communities is little short of miraculous. A handful of self-conscious avant-guardists, playing to each other in the draughty church halls and commercially fragile pubs of the world’s southernmost university city, may not have seemed powerful at the time (the early 1980s) but, in remarkably short-order student radio stations from Oregon state to the River Clyde were playing the music of The Clean, The Chills and The Verlaines.

At a time when most Dunedin politicians would’ve characterised the Dunedin Sound as bagpipes and the bells in the varsity clock-tower, indie-music-loving young Americans were thinking “cutting-edge”.

The same thing happened (albeit multiplied by ten) in Wellington. The artistry, this time, was located in Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop and the ever-expanding army of creatives that marched in lock-step with his success. Could the inspired slogan “Absolutely, Positively, Wellington” have worked half as well had the creative community not made all those cafes, clubs, restaurants and bars the places to be seen, and then supplied them with the people to be seen with?

It works everywhere that creatives find the critical ingredients for the mysterious alchemy that is art. It may be as simple as an abundance of cheap space. Abandoned warehouses with square-footage to rent at rock-bottom prices. Inner-city housing emptying-out as its former occupants head for the suburbs.

Most of the people filling these cheap spaces will be poor people of colour, but among the racially downtrodden and friendless immigrant will also be found the artists. And out of these unplanned social combinations, these random assemblies, the sparks of creativity fly upward.

Perhaps the creativity is inspired by the new proximity of cultures previously unencountered. Maybe it’s the novel experience of poverty. The solidarity of the marginalised. Whatever the explanation, new and exciting arrangements of images, sounds and words begin to emerge – like pearls from these gritty oyster neighbourhoods.

The impresarios of artistic production – the record producers, gallery-owners, theatre managers, content-hungry publishers – may be the first to notice, the first to profit. But what they are both responding to and encouraging are the audiences that effective art invariably attracts. Creative communities are only able to thrive and grow when they are noticed.

But, when that happens, the effects can be spectacular. Down through the ages, historians have described the special quality of those special city “quarters” frequented by artists, university students, ne’er-do-wells , prostitutes and outright criminals – the people to whom the Nineteenth Century gave the name “Bohemians”. All of the world’s great cities, from Paris to New York, have these Bohemian haunts, and all of them would be the poorer if the “buzz” and the “vibe” of their creative communities were absent.

Because they’re magnets: huge and immensely powerful magnets; attracting not only real and aspiring artists of every kind, but also those who like to luxuriate in their creative glow. The Dunedin Sound not only transformed its cold and dreary host-city into a Neo-Gothic playground for musicians with a fondness for jangly guitars and mumbled vocals, but also for poets, painters, graphic artists and the punk publishers of fanzines.

The thousands of university students who listened to the artists of their adopted city on Radio One, and who thronged to the bars and concert venues where they performed, would in just a few years become the Dunedin Sound’s greatest evangelists – New Zealand’s current Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, among them.

The problem was, by the time its local politicians grasped the importance of Dunedin’s home-grown artistic movement, which, in its hey-day, had elevated the city to the same level of brand awareness as made-over Glasgow – Scotland’s post-modern urban showcase – the Dunedin Sound had made the transition from hip to history.

It’s a lesson which New Zealand’s artistic community earnestly wishes the present government would learn. That art is not simply important for its own sake, but for the powerful contribution it can make to the reputation, cultural vitality and economic growth of the places where it flourishes. Not only does like attract like, but burgeoning artistic communities are also apt to attract entrepreneurs eager to turn all that creative energy into hard cold cash. Just like all the others, the creative industries require infrastructure. Cheap warehouse studios become expensive studio apartments.

Crass commercialism wasn’t always the prime motivation of our political class’s support of the arts. In New Zealand, state support was a socialist objective long before it became a capitalist fetish. The Labour Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, threw his political weight behind the creation of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and set up the New Zealand Literary Fund.

Partly, this was because Fraser understood that if, in a country the size of New Zealand in the 1940s, the state didn’t get in behind its musicians and writers, then nobody would. But, that wasn’t the only reason for the Labour Party’s support for the arts. As democratic socialists, they were determined that working-class people should have as ready access to the cultural production of their nation as the bourgeoisie. Why should the appreciation of Beethoven and Mozart be limited to the elites?

To political and economic equality, the pre-1984 Labour Party was determined to add cultural equality. Nation-building wasn’t just about erecting hospitals, schools and hydro-electric schemes, it was about resourcing New Zealand’s artists to create and shape the development of a unique national character. Labour used to believe as fervently in fostering a robustly egalitarian New Zealand culture, as it now believes in advancing the indigenous Māori culture.

While there are powerful arguments for redressing the historical under-funding of Māori cultural endeavour, there are equally powerful arguments for supporting the creation of a broad New Zealand culture reflective of all its many peoples and their experiences. Bureaucracy may never be equal to the sort of fleeting cultural moment that produced the Dunedin Sound, but, without intelligent state support, the emergence of a New Zealand voice will continue to be an aspiration rather than an accomplishment.

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