Saturday 30 September 2023

Losing The Left.

Descending Into The Dark: The ideological cadres currently controlling both Labour and the Greens are forcing “justice”, “participation” and “democracy” to make way for what is “appropriate” and “responsible”. But, where does that leave the people who, for most of their adult lives, have voted for left-wing parties, precisely to advance the causes of “justice”, “participation” and “democracy”?

IN THE CURRENT MIX of electoral alternatives, there is no longer a credible left-wing party. Not when “a credible left-wing party” is defined as: a class-oriented, mass-based, democratically-structured political organisation; dedicated to promoting ideas sharply critical of laissez-faire capitalism; and committed to advancing democratic, egalitarian and emancipatory ideals across the whole of society.

While some may argue that New Zealanders have not had a genuine left-wing party to vote for since the Labour Party abandoned its goal of “socialising the means of production, distribution and exchange” in 1951, it is more common to date the loss of a recognisably left-wing electoral alternative to Labour’s embrace of the “free market” in 1984.

Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party and, later, his considerably less radical Alliance, attempted to make good that loss, and enjoyed some remarkable, if limited, successes. By 2002, however, the Alliance had broken apart, leaving only the Green Party of Aotearoa to carry forward the left-wing banner.

Problematically, the Greens, like their Values Party predecessor, are a post-scarcity political movement, driven less by class than by environmental and cultural concerns. As the party has come to embrace what is often abbreviated to “identity politics”, its earlier anti-capitalist impulses have been overwhelmed by the party’s increasingly strident discourses on ethnicity and gender.

The Greens move away from the system-challenging principles upon which the international Green movement was founded: Ecological Wisdom. Social Justice. Participatory Democracy. Nonviolence; is instructive. Displaying a disconcerting facility for Orwellian rewording, the Green Party of Aotearoa now lists its own core principles as: Ecological Wisdom. Social Responsibility. Appropriate Decision Making. Non-Violence.

The deletion of the words “justice”, “participatory” and “democracy”, amply confirms the Greens’ ideological trajectory: moving away from the emancipatory principles traditionally associated with the Left, and towards the uneasy marriage of technocratic “governance” and post-modern subjectivism so neatly personified in the party’s current co-leadership of James Shaw and Marama Davidson.

A very similar trajectory is discernible in the post-Rogernomics Labour Party. By embracing neo-liberalism, the party decisively abandoned its anti-capitalist ideology, rendering its use of the Left’s political vocabulary increasingly problematic. A semblance of radicalism and social transformation could, however, be maintained by moving deeper and deeper into the ideological territory of identity politics. In many respects, the alienating impact of this transition on its traditional followers was offset by the synergies it offered with Labour’s most “obvious” MMP coalition partner – the Greens.

Like Caesar Augustus’ Rome, today’s Labour Party presents to the world only the empty shell of its former self. Labour has held onto its revolutionary red. It continues to convene conferences at which (we are told) party policy is democratically debated and determined. And, just as the Emperor’s legions marched under standards emblazoned with the acronym of the defunct Roman Republic – SPQR [Senatus Populusque Romanus – the Senate and People of Rome] – Labour’s constitution still proudly references the “principles of democratic-socialism”.

It’s all a sham, of course. A carefully controlled exercise in deception. Once a political party embraces identity politics, traditional democratic mechanisms have a nasty habit of atrophying. Allowing conference delegates to determine the party’s direction in open plenary sessions would risk the wholesale repudiation of ethnic and gender discrimination as the prime movers of social injustice, and the re-elevation of class. Appointed policy committees are much less prone to cause such ontological difficulties.

Which is not to say that class plays no role in the contemporary Labour Party, merely that the class which now controls the party is the class responsible for managing the real-world social and inter-personal conflicts generated by class, ethnicity and gender. Labour has no more need for the trade union “sergeants” who managed the class warfare of yesteryear; the apparatchiks it needs today are the identity, diversity and equity commissars who manage the twenty-first century’s culture wars.

To gain a flavour of the post-democratic Labour/Green operational style, one has only to watch the video recording of the parliamentary select committee hearings into the legislation empowering citizens to change the gender assigned to them at birth, and recorded on their birth certificates, more-or-less at will.

Held during the Covid-19 Pandemic, the hearing took place on Zoom. Those speaking to submissions opposing the legislation were subjected to vicious cross-examination by Labour and Green committee members. The notion that citizens appearing before a parliamentary committee have a right to be heard respectfully clearly no longer applies to those who step outside the ideological boundaries of transgenderism. Clearly, in Labour’s and the Greens’ moral universe, TERFs have no rights.

When a shocked Nicola Willis rose in the House of Representatives to record her own, and the National Party’s, dismay at the treatment meted out to gender critical submitters by Labour and Green MPs, Labour’s Deborah Russell proudly owned-up to her behaviour and, to the applause of her colleagues, promised the same to all such ideological apostates appearing before her.

These are the drums that Labour marches to in the 2020s. They are the drums of the Professional-Managerial Class – and that class does not march to a democratic beat. Like the Greens, Professional-Managerial Labour is wedded to “appropriate” decision-making: that is to say – decisions made by itself.

But, if the ideological cadres currently controlling both Labour and the Greens are forcing “justice”, “participation” and “democracy” to make way for what is “appropriate” and “responsible”, where does that leave the people who, for most of their adult lives, have voted for left-wing parties, precisely to advance the causes of “justice”, “participation” and “democracy”? What is to be done when these concepts, like the institutions of the fallen Roman Republic, are emptied of their original purpose and replaced by the iron strictures of a new ideological imperium?

When asked by journalists why he was leaving the Labour Party, Jim Anderton’s reply was always: “I never left Labour, Labour left me.” But, did Anderton ever fully appreciate the crucial role he himself had played in allowing Labour to drift away from its working-class roots?

Because, it was Anderton’s determination – as President of the Labour Party between 1979 and 1984 – to select what he described as “first-class, highly-qualified, parliamentary candidates” that kick-started the separation. Engineers, university lecturers, lawyers, successful public servants: such were the people Anderton caused to be selected in preference to the unqualified working-class trade unionists of yesteryear. Paradoxically, it would be Anderton’s protégés who, by embracing “Rogernomics”, finally drove him to abandon Labour in 1989. The Professional-Managerial Class’s takeover of Labour would have been a lot harder, and taken much longer, had it not been for Jim Anderton’s determination to conduct it safely within the party’s walls!

Political scientists would shrug at this tale of class transition and ideological supersession. With some justification they would argue that the trend towards the professionalisation of political parties and trade unions was well underway by the turn of the nineteenth century. It was, after all, Vilfredo Pareto, (1848—1923), who characterised democracy as a political system for securing “the orderly circulation of elites”. That being the case, the best the voter can hope for is to choose the least evil collection of elitists.

Except, to acknowledge this as the only viable solution to the problem of political homogenisation requires the voter to deny even the possibility of securing social justice and social progress through collective action from below. And that proposition is flatly contradicted by the history of the last 250 years – a period which saw ordinary men and women aspire to and claim life improvements of unprecedented scope and scale. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that halting the forward march of this “social” democracy is exactly what the elites mobilised all their resources to achieve. Humanity’s present predicament is the result.

Breaking free of this predicament will require, above all other things, unity. But unity is achievable only if people are free to debate how, and upon what basis, it is best secured. That cannot happen where the principles of liberty, equality and solidarity are despised, or where the citizens’ freedom of expression is constrained. In other words, it cannot happen in political parties where ethnic and gender identity trumps the common heritage of humankind, and where saying as much is condemned as hate speech.

As happens in today’s Labour and Green parties.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project website on Thursday, 28 September 2023.

The New “Emperor’s New Clothes”.

“‘BUT HE HASN’T GOT ANYTHING ON,’ a little boy said ….. ‘But he hasn’t got anything on!’ the whole town cried out at last.”

On this optimistic note, Hans Christian Andersen brings his cautionary tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to an end.

Andersen’s children’s story was written nearly two centuries ago, in the 1830s. One can only imagine, how he might caution his readers in 2023.

* * * * *


The little boy spun round in alarm, to find himself staring up at an Imperial Guardsman.

“I-I-I said, the Emperor hasn’t got anything on, sir”, the boy stammered.

Around them the laughter ceased, as if the whole town had suddenly been struck dumb.

“What a wicked thing to say!” the Guardsman roared. “Anybody who isn’t a complete fool can see that he is attired in the finest suit of clothes the Empire can contrive!”

“But-but, he isn’t, sir, he isn’t wearing anything.”

“What’s going on here? said the Guardsman’s Sergeant, pushing his way through the silent and rapidly thinning crowd of townspeople. Why aren’t these people cheering their Emperor?”

“It’s this child, sir”, the Guardsman replied. “He shouted out that the Emperor hadn’t got anything on.”

“Where are his parents? Who is responsible for this child?” demanded the Sergeant.

Twisting his cap in his shaking hands, the boy’s father shuffled forward.

“What kind of parent are you to let your offspring shout out such false, harmful and subversive disinformation! How is the social cohesion of the Empire to be maintained if little boys are permitted to express themselves with such freedom?”

“I’m most dreadfully sorry,” the boy’s father stammered, “I shall see to it that the boy is severely punished.”

“I’m afraid it’s not quite as simple as that, the Sergeant replied. “Your boy’s behaviour raises some very serious questions about the home environment in which he’s being reared. You had best lead us to your place of residence immediately.”

Flanked by the two Guardsmen, and their tall pikes, father and son made their way through the narrow streets of the town to their home. Drawing her other children to her side, the boy’s mother watched the little party approach.

“What’s going on, husband?” she enquired, casting a worried glance in the direction of the armed men.

“Our son said the Emperor hadn’t anything on, when, plainly, he was dressed in the finest suit of clothes I have ever seen”, her contrite spouse replied, half-smiling at his grim escort.

“But he didn’t, Mama!”, her son expostulated. “If he had been wearing clothes, then I would have seen them. I mean, you’re wearing clothes, Papa is wearing clothes, these men, under their armour, are wearing clothes!”

“Oh my foolish boy,” his mother exclaimed, “what have I told you about contradicting other people’s claims?”

The boy hung his head and mumbled: “That people are entitled to their beliefs – no matter how ridiculous.”

“And?” His mother prompted, tapping her foot in frustration.

“And that it is unkind to undermine people’s ideas about themselves – no matter how utterly bizarre those ideas may be.”

Hearing this, the Sergeant stepped forward, glowering at the woman and her son.

“But this will not do at all, madam, not at all. You are teaching your children that people’s beliefs about themselves – and their attire – may be wrong. You are suggesting that in spite of being sincerely held it is, nevertheless, entirely possible that people can be mistaken in their beliefs. Indeed, you would appear to be saying that it is possible your boy may be perfectly correct. That the Emperor really hasn’t got anything on. That our Head-of-State is walking naked through the streets! But that is treason, madam, treason pure and simple!”

“No! No! My wife is no traitor, sir. She is merely a little simple-minded. She places an altogether unreasonable amount of faith in what she perceives through her senses. She does not understand how wishing something to be true can actually make it so. Like the Emperor’s new clothes – which are real, quite real, for the very simple reason that the Emperor believes them to be real!”

“And what Emperor’s believe to be real,” the Sergeant interjected, “must be real.”

“Yes, sir”, the boy’s father agreed.

“Yes, sir”, echoed his mother.

“Yes, sir”, said the boy – with fingers crossed.

This satire was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 September 2023.

Friday 29 September 2023

The Greater Of Two Evils.

Not Labour: If you’re out to punish the government you once loved, then the last thing you need is to be shown evidence that the opposition parties are much, much worse.

THE GREATEST VIRTUE of being the Opposition is not being the Government. Only very rarely is an opposition party elected on the strength of its manifesto. In the usual course of events, most voters don’t pay all that much attention to what the opposition parties are offering. Providing they present policies which convey at least the appearance of coherence, the electorate generally refrains from asking too many questions. After all, what they’re seeking is the defeat and humiliation of the party/parties which have so recklessly squandered their trust – and their faith. If you’re out to punish the government you once loved, then the last thing you need is to be shown evidence that the opposition parties are much, much worse.

One of the odd aspects of the 2023 General Election campaign is how little real effort the governing Labour Party has put into convincing voters that the National and Act parties are actually planning to hurt them. Labour knows this because it is also planning to hurt the voters. Not as much, admittedly, as the Right, but pretty badly nonetheless.

The Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, alerted by his Treasury advisers, has already announced a multi-billion-dollar reduction in state spending over the next three years. In this he has little choice – not after his leader unilaterally ruled-out any new or significantly increased taxes. Robertson is, thus, acutely aware that even minimal reductions in taxes must be answered by savage cuts in spending. He knows that National’s promised tax-cuts can only be paid for by imposing an austerity programme even more ruthless than his own.

That being the case, Labour’s supporters are entirely justified in expecting both Robertson, and the Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, to go for National’s jugular – and rip it right out.

In the first Leaders’ Debate, for example, as Luxon was trotting out his usual platitudes and slogans extolling – but not verifying with even the most rudimentary computations – National’s tax-cuts, why didn’t Hipkins just interrupt him, in a voice of cold command:

“Stop lying to the New Zealand people, Mr Luxon! If there was even a shred of truth attached to these nonsensical figures, you wouldn’t hesitate to prove it by releasing the evidential basis for your claims. Your refusal to do so proves that you are lying about the affordability of your tax-cuts. New Zealanders deserve better than a liar for their prime minister, Mr Luxon!”

Luxon would have expostulated that he was not lying, and demanded a retraction and an apology. At which point, Hipkins could have responded by saying:

“You say you are not lying, Mr Luxon, and you demand an apology. Well, you shall have it, Mr Luxon, and gladly, if, by the time of the next Leaders’ Debate, you have released your party’s computations for the nation’s economists to peruse, and if, having perused them, the consensus view of the experts is that your tax policy is both sound and affordable. Let us have the numbers, Mr Luxon. Let us have the proof. And if your claims are vindicated, then, most certainly, I will withdraw and apologise. And yet, something tells me that you won’t be presenting us with the truth, and I will not be apologising.”

Can you imagine how utterly confounded poor Jessica Much McKay would have been by such an answer? How effortlessly, it would have handed the advantage to Hipkins? How humiliated Luxon would have felt – and how impossible it would have been for him to hide his humiliation? It would have been Hipkins’ “Show me the money!” moment, and with it he would have won the debate – and, quite possibly, the election.

Except, of course, that is not what we saw, was it? What we saw was two politicians who seemed to agree, more than they disagreed, with each other, and who called each other by their first names, like old mates. What we saw was living proof of the old saying: “Why bother voting? Politicians always win.”

Effective rebuttal of the Opposition isn’t limited to the set-piece debates. Every day of the campaign, the Opposition is releasing material with which Hipkins and Robertson could have a field day.

The release of the GDP figures, for example, offered Labour the opportunity to spring a trap for the National Party’s finance spokeswoman, Nicola Willis.

The better-than-expected numbers were rightfully trumpeted by Robertson as evidence of the soundness of the Labour Government’s economic management. Predictably, Willis responded with a scathing media release:

“Labour has mismanaged and vandalised the economy on a scale unlike anything we have seen in recent history.” Thundered Willis. “Government spending is up 80 per cent - $1 billion a day more than 2017. The current account deficit is the largest in the OECD. The economy has been anything but well-managed by Labour.”

Knowing he would later be facing the cameras, Robertson could have prepared a reply for the woman who would be Finance Minister:

“Nicola Willis clearly regards the Labour Government’s management of the Covid-19 Pandemic as an economic disaster. That can only mean that she would not have taken the measures adopted by our own, and practically every other government in the Western World, to keep New Zealanders safe; to keep their jobs and businesses safe; to keep their children safe.

“If Nicola Willis had been in charge, New Zealand would not now be experiencing an inflationary surge, because she would not have authorised the Reserve Bank to create the credit needed to keep our economy from crashing in the face of the worst global pandemic for a hundred years. So, no cost-of-living crisis.

“We would, however, now be in the grip of a much greater crisis: a devastating recession, with unemployment levels not seen since the 1930s. And that wouldn’t be all. No, that wouldn’t even be half. In addition to economic devastation, New Zealanders would be facing the moral and emotional devastation of 10,000 to 15,000 Covid fatalities – a death toll greater than New Zealand’s losses in the Second World War.

“Still, New Zealand would not now be facing a record current account deficit – just a deficit of human potential, talent and wisdom. Just the aching absence of beloved family members at ten thousand Kiwi Christmas tables.

“Am I being too harsh? Are you telling me that Nicola and National would, in all probability, have done exactly what we did? Then, perhaps, you should ask her what she means, precisely, when she accuses us of mismanaging and vandalising the New Zealand economy. Is she accusing us of saving more lives than was reasonable? Is she saying that National would have allowed more people to die – for the sake of the economy?

“Perhaps you should ask Ms Willis how she can leave something as huge as the Covid-19 Pandemic out of her economic narrative? Because, frankly, the people of New Zealand have a right to know how many people saved were too many people saved?

Sadly, Labour doesn’t talk like that anymore. Somewhere, back along the track, the party lost its sense of responsibility for the people who were bound to suffer if its MPs and candidates lost interest in the contest and gave up. Somehow, they forgot that winning and holding political power is not a game of bloody beach cricket! For true democratic socialists, it is never time to give the other team a turn. Not if the other team is itching to employ body-line bowling against the weak and vulnerable in their own.

Labour’s job is to win – and keep on winning. And if, every once in a while, it loses, then its right-wing opponents should damn well know they’ve been in a fight.

POSTSCRIPT: It seems that I wasn't the only person decrying the lack of aggression in Labour's election campaign. In the second leaders' debate, broadcast on TV3 on Wednesday, 27 September 2023, Hipkins came out swinging and landed several heavy blows on a stunned Christopher Luxon. Took you long enough, Chippy! - C.T.

This essay (minus the postscript) was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 22 September 2023.

Thursday 21 September 2023

Failing To Hold Back The Flood: The Edgy Politics of the Twenty-First Century.

Coming Over The Top: Rory Stewart's memoir, Politics On The Edge, lays bare the dangerous inadequacies of the Western World's current political model.

VERY FEW NEW ZEALANDERS will have heard of Rory Stewart. Those with a keen eye for the absurdities of politics may recognise the name as that of the hapless Tory cabinet minister who fronted for David Cameron’s government during the catastrophic British floods of 2015. It was Stewart who, glumly – and hilariously – informed the news media that: “[T]he flood walls are working well. The only problem is that the water is coming over the top.”

Not the sort of line that is easy for anyone, let alone a politician, to live down. Perhaps surprisingly, Stewart did recover from his prize-winning clanger and went on to hold many more ministerial portfolios under Cameron and Teresa May.

Boris Johnson, however, was a force of nature Stewart couldn’t survive – even if he’d wanted to. When the extreme Brexiters forced May to resign, Stewart offered himself as the sane alternative to Johnson. Roundly rejected by his fellow Tories, Stewart was then cast out of the Conservative Party altogether by the unforgiving Johnson.

Fascinating though Stewart’s career may have been, the only reason he is again being talked about is because he has written an unusually effective memoir entitled “Politics on the Edge”, in which he lays bare the dangerous inadequacies of the working model of politics currently in use across the Western world. In a powerful essay for the Guardian newspaper, published over the weekend, Stewart summarises the working assumptions of that model:

“The polling graphs, which had brought Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to victory, looked like bell jars with the votes heaped in the centre, and few at the extremes. This era had left a whole generation of politicians with three assumptions: that liberal global markets were the answer to prosperity; that prosperity would spread democracy; and that the world would be governed by a liberal global order.”

With our own general election less than a month away, it is alarming how much of New Zealand’s politics is still governed by these three assumptions. Certainly, National and Labour, the two major parties, in whom close to two-thirds of the voters place their trust, have yet to demonstrate, in either their political demeanour, or their policy platforms, any convincing evidence that they concur with Stewart’s assessment that since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 “all this has changed”.

Equally alarming is how closely Stewart’s experiences as a cabinet minister chime with what so many close observers of New Zealand politics have reported about the behaviour of our own executive branch of government. There is an ominous familiarity about Stewart’s reflections on the way contemporary politics is conducted:

“I had discovered how grotesquely unqualified so many of us, including myself, were for the offices we were given ….. It was a culture that prized campaigning over careful governing, opinion polls over detailed policy debates, announcements over implementation.”

That last sentence, in particular, could serve as the epitaph of the Sixth Labour Government.

Stewart’s most frightening observation, however, concerns the reckless excavation of the once proud mound of centre-ground:

“The old bell jar opinion poll, with the votes in the centre, [has] been replaced by a U-shape with the votes at the extremes.”

While New Zealand has yet to experience the extreme polarisation to which the United States has fallen prey, there exists a level of dissatisfaction with the way politics is being conducted that could easily be exploited by a populist politician less benign than Winston Peters and more effective than Brian Tamaki.

That such a figure has not arisen, either here or in the United Kingdom, bears out Stewart’s observations concerning the general level of knowledge and competence possessed by the political classes of most western democracies.

Certainly, it is hard to argue with his general thesis that because there continues to be broad agreement among the political and financial elites about how a twenty-first century society and economy should be run, our ideologically redundant politicians now vie with one another for the coveted title of “person the ordinary voter would most enjoy having a drink with”. Stewart would be the first to concede that, in the political celebrity stakes, Boris Johnson is without peer. What his Guardian essay (not to mention Johnson’s and our own Jacinda Ardern’s careers) make clear, however, is that celebrity is not enough.

The fascist leader, Benito Mussolini was much admired by middle-class Britons for making the notoriously unreliable Italian trains run on time. What was deemed admirable in the 1920s is making a resurgence in the 2020s. Democracy is entering that extraordinarily dangerous political space where a political ideology becomes inextricably associated with failure.

It is the principal reason for the Russian people’s troubling indifference (some would say contempt) for democratic values. In their minds, the global elites’ promotion of freedom, democracy and neoliberal capitalism coincided with the simultaneous collapse of Russia’s national prestige and their own personal well-being. Vladimir Putin’s popularity is due, in no small measure, to his success in restoring a fair measure of both.

Similarly, Donald Trump’s enduring political clout arises from his ability to make the degraded white American working-class feel proud again. Democracy is for college kids, sneer the Deplorables, apparently unaware that for a frightening proportion of woke college kids, democracy is also an over-rated political system.

Democracy’s steady retreat across the globe has left the moderate Tory, Stewart, reaching for such NGO panaceas as citizens’ assemblies and grass-roots, self-help initiatives. He is plenty smart enough, however, to know that these are nowhere near enough. What he, and a great many moderate politicians like him, are struggling to come up with is a democracy that works.

It’s not easy. This is how he describes the fork in the road at which he, a cabinet minister still in possession of a working brain and conscience, eventually arrived:

“I found myself struggling to produce policies that were other than either a grey compromise between past ideals and the populist present, or policies of the new right, cloaked in the language of the old centre. I acknowledged that the liberal consensus had failed to support manufacturing, adequately regulate the financial industry or invest appropriately in areas such as the north-east. But I struggled to come up with an alternative that did not echo Jeremy Corbyn’s nostalgia for the borrowing, protectionism and subsidies of the 70s.”

Which, depressingly, is where New Zealanders still in possession of a working brain and conscience find themselves struggling, just 26 days out from the General Election of 2023.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 18 September 2023.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Calling The Big Dog’s Bluff.

Can This Be Possible? For nearly thirty years the pundits have been telling the minor parties that they must be good little puppies and let the big dogs decide. The parties with a plurality of the votes cast must be allowed to govern – even if that means ignoring the priorities of hundreds-of-thousands of voters.

IT IS THE CONSIDERED VIEW of the political punditocracy that the Act leader, David Seymour, is bluffing. The conventional wisdom of the so-called “experts” has not changed since New Zealand adopted MMP – any small party responsible for forcing an early election will be wiped out. The voters will not be trifled with – not by small parties demanding more than their share of the Party Vote entitles them. That being the case, Seymour must be bluffing. End. Of. Story.

But is it? It was inevitable that at some point, some minor party leader was going to call bullshit on the conventional wisdom. The only real surprise is that it has taken nearly 30 years of MMP coalition governments to produce someone willing to think the unthinkable. Fitting that it should be the leader of Act, because thinking the unthinkable has long been touted as Act’s stock-in-trade.

And, is it really that unthinkable for parties capable of securing hundreds-of-thousands of votes to decide, finally, to make those votes count? What we should all find unthinkable is the bizarre notion that a minor party is morally obliged to shelve 90 percent of its policies, smile sweetly for the cameras, and vote alongside its coalition partner like a robot for the next three years. Especially when most of the senior coalition partners’ members and supporters cordially despise everything the junior partner stands for.

Eventually, any party with even a modicum of self-respect is going to rebel against such unreasonable expectations. Possessing a great deal more than a modicum of self-respect, Act has, over recent weeks, been alarmed by a disrespectful degree of shrinking voter support. Finally, Christopher Luxon’s National Party has the acquired the momentum that makes electoral victory look almost certain. Those voters who had turned to Act, almost in despair, are, in ever-increasing numbers, hauling themselves aboard National’s band-wagon. Somehow, Act has to prevent more defections.

There is only one effective way to do this. Act must play on the widespread fear among right-wing voters that Luxon isn’t much more than a political Ken Doll. Good for joshing and jiving with the punters, but not much more than a handy accessory to a Labour-lite Action Barbie named Nicola. Given the alarming falling away of Act support, isn’t Seymour’s optimum strategy to urge the Right to give the wide-awake David Doll all the muscle he needs to break National out of its plastic fantastic play-world and force it to confront political reality?

It’s why Seymour is telling National that if a detailed coalition agreement, promising to enact the most important of Act’s promises, cannot be negotiated, then it will only be able to rely on Act’s votes in support of parliamentary confidence motions. Act will not pledge to support National on motions of supply (i.e. money bills). It’s support for National’s 2024 Budget would be determined transactionally – it would not be automatic. Seymour’s strategy should be to convince at least one-in-three right-wing voters that they must vote Act – or face a National government even squishier than John Key’s.

Seymour also needs to convince his colleagues that such a hardline approach will not result in what all the pundits regard as inevitable – a new election leading to Act’s destruction. Rather, he must challenge them with these questions:

“Why would the voters punish a party for insisting that politics is not a game? Why would they wipe out a party that is prepared to stake everything on its determination to bring real change? After 15 years of neither-fish-nor-fowl governments, isn’t there a better-than-even chance that at least 5 percent – and possibly much more – of the electorate is in the mood for some honest-to-goodness red meat?”

For nearly thirty years the pundits have been telling the minor parties that they must be good little puppies and let the big dogs decide. The parties with a plurality of the votes cast must be allowed to govern – even if that means ignoring the priorities of hundreds-of-thousands of voters.

But, what if an early election is forced by Act and the party is not wiped out? What if it actually picks up seats? Surely, in those circumstances, the senior coalition partner would be obliged to revise its negotiating strategy?

Not so much a case of the tail wagging the dog, as the tail successfully calling the dog’s bluff.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 September 2023.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

Delirious Hatred: The Dystopic Tendencies of Twenty-First Century Progressivism.

Fighting Mad: That which Twenty-First Century progressives most feared, Twenty-First Century progressivism has become. No one old enough to have experienced the emancipatory power of true progressivism: in the factory or on the streets; in the university quad or in the “old school” newsroom; could possibly vote for the parties it has taken over.

I THINK I’VE WORKED IT OUT – why writing about today’s version of “progressive” politics leaves me feeling so depressed. In the end, the reason I cannot bring myself to vote for either Labour or the Greens is very simple: it’s because they are joyless; because the logical end-point of the ideology they espouse is one of universal dissatisfaction and unending conflict. In other words, their direction-of-travel is dystopic. That’s why so many voters are pulling away from parties they’ve supported all their adult lives. They don’t like where Labour and the Greens are going, and they’ll be damned if they’ll go there with them.

Chippy can talk about “bread and butter” all he likes, but everybody knows that he and Grant Robertson have already committed themselves to less butter and thinner bread for at least the next three years. We also know that if, by some miracle, Labour-Green wins the election, then none of the initiatives which both parties signed-up to over the past six years: radical ethnic nationalism, censorship, transgenderism; are going to be abandoned. What looms ahead of New Zealand if Labour-Green wins is grinding economic austerity and relentless cultural warfare. Thinner bread and bloody roses.

The cynicism of the Greens is particularly galling. As the election looms ever closer, the party’s dominant ultra-progressive faction has been careful to remove the most off-putting of their policies from the party’s shop-front window. Barely tolerated by Green activists for most of the past three years, James Shaw has been thrust forward to sell the party’s popular and genuinely progressive policies to the electorate. Unfortunately, everybody who understands just how radical the Greens have become, also knows that the moment the votes are counted Shaw will be pushed aside and the party’s ultra-progressive priorities reclaimed from the backstage area and reinstated.

It is precisely this sort of conscious deception, this deliberate “fooling” of the voters, that has transformed progressive politics from what used to be a joyful affirmation of idealism into a joyless exercise in dishonesty.

According to this sort of progressive politician, the liberation of the oppressed cannot be achieved if their would-be liberators are open and honest about their intentions. Just look at the trouble that Marama Davidson’s frank identification of “White Cis Males” as the ultimate cause of societal violence got the Greens into. In a world where White Cis Males still hold sway, such frankness is self-defeating. The trick, they say, is to keep all these progressive truths safe in one’s heart, while telling those not ready to hear them a pack of lies.

Far better to send out James Shaw – a White Cis Male – to sell the party’s Wealth Tax, its Universal Basic Income, and all the other inspirational policies on offer from the Greens in 2023. That way the voters will be much less likely to remember that the Green Party also favours sending those found guilty of uttering or publishing “Hate Speech” to prison for three years.

Not that Labour is guiltless in this regard. One has only to recall the secretive process by which the He Puapua Report was prepared and presented. Once again, it was assumed that Pakeha New Zealanders couldn’t “handle the truth”. Why else was the Labour Government so insistent that the report in no way represented a blueprint for New Zealand’s transformation into a bicultural state, when a steady stream of official policy decisions confirmed that’s exactly what it was?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that as far as today’s progressives are concerned the “truth” has changed. The unifying vision of human emancipation and equality which, for centuries, possessed the power to mobilise the downtrodden and oppressed is no longer considered to be either achievable or desirable.

Progressive politics has moved beyond the idea of uplifting and overcoming; of building a society in which there are no masters, no servants; no rich, no poor. Envisaged now is what can only be described as a perpetual theatre of cruelty, in which those to whom evil has been done, are encouraged to do evil in return. Far from serving as the emancipating “vanguard” of the Proletariat, as Karl Marx hoped, the intelligentsia of the Twenty-First Century are claiming for themselves the role of Grand Inquisitor. They have made themselves the pitiless torturers of all those whose “privilege” cannot be overcome or abandoned, only confessed to and punished.

The historical precedent which springs to mind most readily is the extreme form of Maoism promulgated by the murderous Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. Starting where Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” left off, the “Red Khmers” constructed an ideological system grounded in deception and death. Having been marched out of the cities and into the countryside, “bourgeois” Cambodians were encouraged to confess their “crimes against the people”. By no other means, the commissars told them, could they be welcomed into the rural utopia which the Red Khmers were bringing into existence. The moment they stepped forward, of course, they were denounced and suffocated.

Over the top? Barking mad? Grossly defamatory of activists who only want people to be free and equal? How I wish it were true! But one only has to visit the febrile world of social media to grasp the perverse enjoyment contemporary progressives derive from “flaming”, “de-platforming”, and “cancelling” – oh, what an ominous word that is – those who refuse to step forward and confess.

A woman like “Posie Parker”, perhaps?

Those who were in Albert Park on 25 March 2023, and those who watched the many video recordings made at the scene, could not help but note the delirious hatred of the mob, and the brutal behaviour it spawned. Such is the praxis of the post-modern progressive: telling the news media that theirs was a gathering of peace and love – while punching a 70-year-old woman in the face. And then, shamefully, having their lies accepted by the supposedly “independent” intellectuals appointed to expose and condemn media falsehoods.

Have a care when fighting monsters,” warned the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, “lest ye become a monster yourself.” Adding: “Stare not too long into the abyss – lest the abyss stare back into you.” Well, the horrific abyss of the bloody Twentieth Century has indisputably left its impression upon the children of the Twenty-First. Terrified that the monsters it spawned are returning to plague them, contemporary progressives have pre-emptively adopted the tactics of the fascists they profess to abhor.

That which Twenty-First Century progressives most feared, Twenty-First Century progressivism has become. No one old enough to have experienced the emancipatory power of true progressivism: in the factory or on the streets; in the university quad or in the “old school” newsroom; could possibly vote for the parties it has taken over.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 September 2023.

Saturday 16 September 2023

Act’s Message: Cheerfully Libertarian? Or, Radically Right-Wing?

Mr Pushmepullyou: Pushed by the need for votes, Act's leader, David Seymour, like Richard Prebble before him, has reached out to the dark side of the New Zealand electorate. Much as he would prefer to pull in support on the strength of Act's sunny libertarianism, there just ain't enough Eighteenth Century liberals living in New Zealand to make such a party a viable electoral proposition. Although, God knows, Act has tried!

DAVID SEYMOUR IS DISCOVERING what Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley learned in 1994 – the first year of Acts’s existence. That the sort of supporters the party wants are pathetically few in number – far fewer than the sort of supporters it doesn’t want.

From the moment it was formed, the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers had everything a political movement needs to succeed: leaders and spokespeople who were well known; a coherent political ideology; a detailed economic programme; access to large audiences of potential supporters; and money – lots and lots of money. In Act’s first year, it has been estimated that the millionaire entrepreneur, Craig Heatley, spent one million dollars introducing the new political party to the New Zealand electorate.

On paper, Act should have succeeded, but it did not. After a year of touring the country. After a year of free media, and a million dollars’ worth of ads and pamphlets, the opinion polls showed Act hovering just below, or just over, 1 percent. Not enough. No matter how many factory owners obligingly “invited” their employees to hear Douglas’s pitch; no matter how many university campuses Quigley visited; the result was the same. At the point-of-sale, Act lacked the one thing a political movement must have to succeed: a message people want to hear.

Act’s message was liberal in the classical, eighteenth century, sense. Douglas and Quigley preached the gospel of the sovereign, self-actualising, utility-maximising individual, and located him in an economic and cultural environment where state interference is reduced to the absolute minimum. The principle Act subscribed to most enthusiastically was laissez-faire. The doctrine of laissez-faire – “allow to do” – embraced more than free markets, it looked forward to a world without bullies and/or busy-bodies. A permissive world based on the “freedom to” become the best person you can be. A libertarian world.

Or not. New Zealand’s leading Libertarian, Lindsay Perigo, walked out of the founding Act conference, denouncing its refusal to declare total war on the state, and insisting that what Douglas and Quigley were proposing was anything but libertarian. Perigo was free to split ideological hairs because he, unlike Douglas and Quigley, had no real experience of down-and-dirty retail politics. Purity and practical politics don’t mix.

Also present at Act’s founding conference, even if she had no intention of taking part, was the redoubtable left-wing activist, Sue Bradford. With considerably more political savvy than Perigo, Bradford denounced Act as an extreme right-wing party dedicated to finishing the job which Douglas had started. This description of Act was picked up by the news media and repeated ad nauseum. No matter how hard it tried, the Act Party was never able to convince the nation that Bradford’s definition was mistaken. She had branded Act for life.

Not that the “extreme right-wing” brand bothered Richard Prebble all that much. Watching from the sidelines, he was content to let Douglas discover the hard way how very few votes there were in the philosophical doctrines of the Eighteenth Century, or, for that matter, in Ayn Rand’s Objectivist fantasies of the 1940s and 50s. Prebble knew where to go looking for the votes Act needed: exactly which stones, in which dark places, it would be necessary to lift up.

Prebble understood better than just about anybody what MMP was making possible. Parties of the far-Left and the far-Right had never prospered in New Zealand for the very simple reason that the First-Past-the-Post electoral system (which the country had just discarded) made it virtually impossible for such parties to win seats. The one party which had succeeded in doing so was the Social Credit Political League, but only when popular hostility to both National and Labour was strong enough to transform Social Credit into a repository for “protest votes”. Even then, Social Credit was never able to win more than 2 seats.

Prebble was well aware that in the most propitious of political circumstances upwards of 20 percent of the electorate could be susceptible to the blandishments of a third party. Since Act could not expect many votes from the Left (not with Jim Anderton’s Alliance competing so successfully against Labour) the votes he needed belonged to those right-wing New Zealanders who believed that on matters relating to Māori, law-and-order, public morality, women, gays, unions and the environment, the National Party had aligned itself far too closely with Labour. Where is the advantage, Prebble asked his Act colleagues, in allowing Winston Peters to go on sweeping up all these votes?

Taking his inspiration from the right-wing of the US Republican Party, Prebble set about transforming Act into a far-right populist party – albeit one represented by carefully chosen neoliberal/libertarian candidates whose personal beliefs were often at odds with the prejudices of the ideological troglodytes who voted for them. Perhaps the best historical analogy is with the “Dixiecrats” of the southern US states. From the 1940s to the 1970s, outstanding political leaders – like Senator William Fullbright – owed their seats to the votes of unapologetic white supremacists.

While Prebble led Act (1996-2004) the party polled between 6-7 percent of the Party Vote. With his departure in 2004, however, the party’s fortunes plummeted. To 1.5 percent in 2005, recovering slightly to 3.5 percent in 2008, back to 1 percent in 2011, and then to 0.7 percent under the cheerfully libertarian Jamie Whyte in 2014. In 2017, under the stewardship of Act’s incumbent leader, David Seymour, the party won just 0.5 percent of the Party Vote.

Kept in Parliament by its “Epsom Deal” with the National Party, Act seemed likely to fade into obscurity as a one-MP “appendage party”. Then, like so many aspects of New Zealand society, it was transformed by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. With National a fractious political hulk lying low in the water, many right-wing voters cast an angry protest vote for Act. From a risible 13,000 party votes in 2017, David Seymour’s party garnered a remarkable 219,000 votes in 2020 – beating Prebble’s best result (7 percent) by half a percentage point.

Seymour’s stewardship of the Act Party since 2020 has for the most part been exemplary. The party’s 9 additional MPs have presented themselves as a disciplined and competent team – offering voters a stark contrast to the bad behaviour afflicting all the other parliamentary parties. Act’s staunch defence of Free Speech, and its resolute opposition to much of the so-called “woke agenda” – especially co-governance – has pushed its numbers up and over 10 percent in the opinion polls. Not even National’s recovery under Christopher Luxon has been sufficient to seriously undermine Act’s support.

What does pose a threat to Act’s projected success on 14 October, is Seymour’s failure to be guided by Prebble’s thinking on candidate selection. Given the deeply conservative character of  Act’s newfound support – much of it subscribing to the dangerous conspiracy theories growing out of the Covid-19 crisis – the need to scrutinize the party’s prospective candidates within an inch of their lives was urgent. It was absolutely vital that Act’s next ten MPs were (to continue the American analogy) William Fullbrights – not Marjorie Taylor Greenes.

The withdrawal and/or resignation of five Act candidates over recent weeks – a number of them for making claims alarmingly similar to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s – has the potential to give voters pause. Some, perhaps many, will ask themselves just how much they really know about Act and what it stands for.

Here’s a clue: it ain’t libertarianism.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 11 September 2023.

Monday 11 September 2023

The Other 9/11: It's Fifty Years Since The Coup That Toppled Salvador Allende on 11th September 1973.


Fifty years ago today, the democratic-socialist Popular Unity Government of President Salvador Allende was toppled in a military coup d'état led by General Augusto Pinochet, with the backing of the United States.

This fragment of a song is by the Chilean singer-songwriter Víctor Jara, who was shot to death by Pinochet's soldiers in the Estadio Chile, Santiago's soccer stadium, where 5,000 Chilean leftists were detained without charge and many murdered in the days immediately following the coup, it is recited by the late Pete Seeger.

May Jara's words recall to us the terrible events of this, the first 9/11 terror attack.

Music courtesy of You Tube

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Tuesday 5 September 2023

What Sort Of Election Is This?

Change? Restoration? Status-Quo? With the 2023 election just six weeks away, what is it that most New Zealand voters are seeking? From this distance, it is very difficult to identify anything more dramatic than a desire for stability – and normalcy. Act, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori may be seeking “real” change, but the rest of the country appears to be asking itself just one question: “Is Christopher Luxon likely to make a better fist of sailing our battered old ship-of-state than Captain Chris “Chippy” Hipkins?”

HOW WILL THE GENERAL ELECTION of 14 October 2023 be remembered? Will it be included among the great “Change Elections” of New Zealand political history? As a “Status Quo Election” that leaves the incumbent government and its policies in place? Or, is 2023 destined to be a “Restoration Election”? One that returns the country to the status quo ante – how things were before.

More often than not, New Zealanders deliver “Status Quo” election results: opting to keep incumbent governments and their policy agendas where they are. Having elected a political party to power, most New Zealanders are reluctant to acknowledge their poor judgement by throwing it out again just three years later.

Nowhere was this Kiwi preference for maintaining the status quo more in evidence than during the extraordinary 12-year stint of the National Government led by Keith Holyoake and (briefly) Jack Marshall from November 1960 until November 1972. Nine year terms are not, however, uncommon. Generally-speaking, a New Zealand government has to work pretty hard to secure its own defeat.

At this point, students of New Zealand’s political history will raise the examples of the two short-lived Labour Governments of 1957-60 and 1972-75. Both of these examples require explanation – not least because the first is an example of a “Restoration Election”, and the second of a “Change Election”.

The First National Government was in power from 1949 until 1957. Its leader, Sid Holland, was a hard-bitten and ruthless right-wing politician who had once been a member of the quasi-fascist New Zealand Legion. The Labour Government he defeated in 1949 had been in power for 14 years (including the six years of World War II) and Holland was obliged to pledge allegiance to Labour’s Welfare State before the New Zealand electorate would countenance his party’s victory.

By far the most significant episode of the First National Government was the divisive Waterfront Lock-out of 1951. Had the Social Credit Political league not entered the electoral fray in 1954 (claiming 11 percent of the popular vote!) it is probable that Holland’s government would not have lasted more than 5 years. Certainly, by 1957 New Zealanders were ready for a “Restoration Election” – voting (albeit narrowly) to return the Labour Party, of happy memory, to office.

Though led by Walter Nash, one of the leading lights of the First Labour Government, the Second Labour Government proved to be an austere, sharp-elbowed administration, quite willing to implement the unpopular measures needed to steady New Zealand’s wobbly economy. Finance Minister Arnold Nordmeyer’s infamous “Black Budget” of 1958 was not what Labour voters were expecting from their old “friends”, and two years later they took their revenge by restoring Holyoake’s National Party to power.

By 1972, however, Labour voters and a large chunk of the electorate (especially those under 30) believed the country was long overdue for change. Norman Kirk, a curious blend of social conservatism and economic radicalism, and a bona fide visionary when it came to charting a new course for New Zealand in the wider world, was ready and able to lead Labour to a crushing election victory.

Tragically for Labour (and some would say the nation) the “Oil Shocks” of 1973, compounded by Kirk’s sudden death in 1974, caused the electorate to veer wildly away from Labour to embrace the fierce populism of the new National leader, Rob Muldoon, who promised to give them “New Zealand the way YOU want it”.

The fate of the Second and Third Labour Government’s drove home the message that when New Zealand voters say they want change, what they really mean is: change that doesn’t cost too much; change that leaves them better-off. When they vote to restore the status quo ante, however, they show very few signs of knowing what they want. No single voter’s nostalgia is ever quite the same as another’s, and no government can ever honestly promise, or successfully deliver, the past.

Never was this proposition more rigorously tested than by Muldoon, who ended up twisting New Zealand into all kinds of economic and social knots in a doomed attempt to leave the country in no worse condition than he found it. By 1984, after nearly nine years of “Muldoonism”, the desire for change extended right across the ideological spectrum. Partly, on the strength of David Lange’s rhetoric, but mostly on account of it not being National, Labour was swept into power. With a turnout of 93.7 percent, 1984 was indisputably the biggest Change Election of the post-war period.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins spoke no more than the truth this past week when he warned those berating Labour for failing to deliver the “transformation” promised by his predecessor, Jacinda Ardern, to be careful what they wished for. As he rightly pointed out, the government of David Lange and Roger Douglas really did transform New Zealand – and it’s the consequences of that transformation (inequality, poverty, homelessness) that are driving the present demands for a new transformation.

The Neoliberal Revolution of 1984-1993, and its constitutional offspring, MMP, complicated but did not obliterate the basic typology of New Zealand elections. For a fair proportion of the past 40 years, a not inconsiderable number of New Zealanders have been searching for a combination of political parties capable of restoring the New Zealand that neoliberalism destroyed. How else could the redoubtable Winston Peters and his NZ First party have arrived, departed, and returned so often, were it not for the enduring nostalgia for pre-1984 New Zealand? In its earliest incarnations, even Act was a restorationist party: hungering for a return to the days of Sir Roger and his all-conquering policy blitzkriegs.

The problem, of course, was that the revolution of 1984-1993 had well-and-truly put the New Zealand electorate off the whole idea of mandating “Big Change”. No matter how earnestly Jim Anderton’s Alliance and the Greens may have hoped that 1999 would signal major economic and social change, Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s Labour Party understood that its job was simply to deliver a more respectable status quo.

After nine years of Labour rule, National’s John Key was similarly convinced. “More of the same – but without Jim’s, Winston’s and Don Brash’s antics!” That was the message Key received and understood. Between 1999 and 2017, a period spanning 18 years, there was only one change of government – from Labour to National in 2008.

What’s more, and in spite of its eventual outcome, the election of 2017 was also a Status Quo Election. Had Peters followed the precedents of MMP, he would have thrown in his lot with the National Party’s 44 percent, not with Labour’s 37 percent.

Those who lament “Jacinda’s” failed promises should be more forgiving. The momentum for change: that sense of pent-up energy just waiting to be unleashed which was there in spades in 1972 and 1984; was nowhere to be found in 2017. On Election Night 2017, Ardern comported herself like a woman who had saved her party from humiliation, but lost the electoral contest fair and square. Winston’s decision may have been a triumph for electoral arithmetic, but it was also a sad defeat for political common-sense.

And then came Covid-19, and common sense – along with just about everything else – went out the window.

With the 2023 election just six weeks away, what is it that most New Zealand voters are seeking? Change, Restoration, or the Status Quo? From this distance, it is very difficult to identify anything more dramatic than a desire for stability – and normalcy. Act, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori may be seeking “real” change, but the rest of the country appears to be asking itself the same question as Winston Peters: “Is Christopher Luxon likely to make a better fist of sailing this battered old ship-of-state than Captain Chris “Chippy” Hipkins?”

Here’s hoping that all of us get it right.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 4 September 2023.

Monday 4 September 2023

So Little To Defend, So Much To Punish.

Weapon? Shield? Tool?: How will the majority of voters use their votes in the forthcoming General Election? As a weapon to punish their enemies? As a shield to protect them from their enemies? As a tool to build a better world? Given the febrile political temper of the times, only the bravest punters would put their money on the constructive option.

MOST OF US use our votes in one of three ways: as a weapon; as a shield; as a tool. With early voting commencing in a month’s time, the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders would appear to be preparing to use their vote as either a weapon or a shield. All the signs point to those intent upon weaponising their vote being the largest fraction of the electorate. The number intending to use their vote as shield against their enemies is, however, unlikely to be significantly smaller than that of the weaponisers. Sadly, only a tiny minority of voters will be brave and/or principled enough to cast their votes positively in 2023. This is not going to be a happy election.

It was never going to be easy for Labour to live up to the hopes and encouragement of the voters in 2020. Not since the joyful election of 1972 made Norman Kirk New Zealand’s twenty-ninth prime minister, and gave him a whopping parliamentary majority of 23 seats, had so many Kiwis used their votes constructively, as a tool. Not only were their ballots deployed as an enormous “Thank you, Jacinda!”, but many were also given to Labour as a way of facilitating the “transformation” which its leader had promised, but which Covid-19 had interrupted so dramatically.

Tragically, the Labour cabinet, caucus, and party organisation proved unequal to the challenge of using the tools which an astonishing 50.01 percent of the voting public had given them. Something strange and sinister appeared to overtake Jacinda Ardern, darkening her sunny political disposition. Her Cabinet was no help, and neither was her caucus. It was almost as if they were annoyed and/or affronted by the tools thrust into their hands. It was for them to set the agenda, not 1,443,545 presumptuous voters.

All of Labour’s team had failed to read the events of 2017-20 correctly. Most especially, they had failed to grasp that the success of their Covid response was based almost entirely on the state’s decisive intervention on behalf of the “Team of Five Million”. Those aligned to the ideologies of the Right knew exactly what they were looking at as the government seized control of the pandemic response. That’s why they were so furious. Allow the voters to see what a mobilised state could do for them and, inevitably, they would want more.

Painful though it may be to acknowledge, Labour’s ministers were as ill-disposed to keeping the state’s shoulder to the wheel as the Right. Rather than being inspired by the mass support for their Prime Minister and Party, they seemed terrified of it. Rhetoric was one thing, reality another. On the re-elected government’s agenda their was just one item: getting everything back to normal as quickly as possible.

In politics, executing such an unheralded handbrake-turn will always exact a high psychological price, and the Ardern-led government proved no exception. Working against the expectations of her supporters changed “Jacinda” – and not in a good way.

But, the political price incurred by Labour’s refusal to keep on moving forward was much, much higher. Hopes raised, and then dashed, will swiftly curdle into a witches’ brew of disappointment and fury. When next they enter the polling-booths, those who believe themselves betrayed by “Jabcinda” will wield their ballot papers like a butcher’s knife.

In doing so they will add their numbers to the roughly one-third of the electorate who have always wielded their votes as weapons against those who would upend what their “betters” still believe to be the natural order of things.

At the core of this army of nay-sayers are the inhabitants of rural and provincial New Zealand. These “Heartlanders” have always looked upon the cities as sinks of iniquity and havens for the undeserving poor. Every three years, National and Act supporters grind their teeth in fury as impoverished citizens, many of them brown, turn out in support of Labour’s redistributive policies – using their votes as shields against the threatened depredations of the Right.

In uneasy alliance with the Heartlanders are the wealthy citizens of the big cities. Although they live, safely sequestered from the poor and the brown, in the leafiest suburbs of the cities, it is more difficult for these citizens to weaponise their votes in the manner of the farmers and their small-town allies.

The people who work in their factories and warehouses, clean their offices, serve in their shops and fast-food joints, and build the nation’s infrastructure for them to make profits out of are, after all, people they see every day. Somewhere in the recesses of their social consciousness, they understand that the working-class is something their own class cannot do without. When things are going well, they may even be persuaded to help the workers. When things start going badly, however, or when – God rot them! – their employees start joining unions and taking their destiny into their own hands, that’s when the wealthy turn their ballot papers into pistols and start shooting.

It is the working-class voters who, most of all, yearn to use their votes in the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did, as tools to build a better world. Every three years they hope-against-hope that Labour will ask them to create something worth having with their votes, but election-after-election they are disappointed. Reluctantly, and without enthusiasm, they lift the protective shield of the franchise against the worst the Right can offer – keeping Labour viable solely out of fear of meeting something worse.

Labour, as the lesser of two evils, remains the workers’ choice. Even if, in 2023, it no longer represents the working-class who peopled its ranks in 1923. Labour, now, is the party of the people who teach the working-class; who take care of it when its sick; who keep it afloat when jobs are scarce and puts its worst casualties up in hotels when they have nowhere else to go. They’re the people who, when the kids of the working-class start breaking bad, defend them in court, write reports about them, give them counselling, and mange them when they’re released from prison. There are tens-of-thousands of these people: not quite bosses, but not quite workers either. The American sociologists, John and Barbara Ehrenreich, called them the “Professional-Managerial Class” – and they have made the labour and social-democratic parties of the world their own.

The problem with this intermediate class is that its top two priorities are: to preserve the institutions that employ them; and, to keep the power relationships within those institutions from changing in ways that threaten their status. These essentially conservative priorities make the Professional-Managerial Class extremely difficult to like. They may talk the talk of “progressive politics”, but they are far too risk averse to walk it. Indeed, they offer living proof of the early-twentieth century “muck-raking” American journalist, Upton Sinclair’s, famous quip: “It is very hard to make a man understand something, when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”

In this election, the National Party has its knives out for the professionals and managers of the public service, so no one should be surprised to see them voting defensively for their own party. Labour’s problem, however, is that it has given far too many New Zealanders far too many good reasons for wanting to punish it.

Because, when all is said and done, Labour was the party which, in 2020, led half the country to the mountain-top, only to decide that if the promised land had no need of bosses, then it might also have no need for managers and professionals like themselves. Daunted by this terrifying prospect, they opted to proceed no further.

But you cannot show people the gates of heaven, and then turn around and go home. Not when there’s another election in three years’ time. Not when your party has ended up giving the New Zealand electorate so little to defend, and so much to punish.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 1 September 2023.

Saturday 2 September 2023

Bob Semple's Tank.

Home-Made Armour: It was in the context of the seemingly unstoppable German and Japanese victories of the early-1940s that Bob Semple’s tank rattled into New Zealand folklore. Ponderously heavy, acutely vulnerable, inadequately armed and lethally slow, three of these 25-ton behemoths were made. None (thank God!) saw action.

“BIG BOB” stood tall at 3.6 metres, but that was the full extent of its impressiveness. In virtually every other respect “Big Bob” inspired little more than mirth. The man who commissioned “Big Bob”, New Zealand’s first home-made tank, was Public Works Minister Bob Semple. Never overly fond of being laughed at, he is said to have snarled at his critics: “I don’t see anyone else coming up with any better ideas!”

The irrepressible Semple, one of the most colourful members of the First Labour Government, had a point. At the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939, New Zealand had precisely zero armoured fighting vehicles.

Not that the military was all that worried, not then. If Mother England’s distant daughter needed tanks, then tanks she would have – and they would be “Made in Great Britain” – like just about every other weapon in New Zealand’s tiny arsenal.

This was a perfectly reasonable expectation for a nation of 1.6 million – right up until mid-1940, when Mother England was obliged by Herr Hitler’s armoured blitzkrieg to leave nearly all her tanks in France. If New Zealand wanted an armoured fighting capability, it would now be obliged to manufacture its own. After Dunkirk, every new tank that rolled off Britain’s production lines would be dedicated to homeland defence.

In December 1941, things got considerably worse. Starting with the American fleet at Pearl Harbour, Japan launched her own blitzkrieg across the Pacific Ocean and into South East Asia. For the first few months of 1942, New Zealand was without effective defence. Her army was in the North African desert fighting Germans and Italians. With contemptuous ease, Japanese bombers had sunk the two great battleships sent out by the Royal Navy to “steady” the dominions. Singapore had fallen, and no one was 100% sure the Americans were up to beating the seemingly invincible Japanese.

“Big Bob” may have looked like a corrugated iron outhouse bolted onto the tracks and chassis of a caterpillar tractor (which is pretty much what it was!) but, as Semple rightly observed, nobody else in those terrifying months had a better idea.

Thus it was that Bob Semple’s tank rattled into New Zealand folklore. Ponderously heavy, acutely vulnerable, inadequately armed and lethally slow, three of these 25-ton behemoths were made. None (thank God!) saw action.

THE ONLY THING more important than having the weapons and ordnance you need, is the ability to replace them. War is a voracious beast, gobbling up human-beings and materiel at a speed that makes the logistics of re-supply critically important. As New Zealand discovered between 1940-42, rifles without ammunition are little more than clubs, and artillery without shells no better than scrap metal. Which is why your country’s enemies are, when you come right down to it, also the enemies of the nation supplying your nation with its armaments.

New Zealand may talk about having an “independent” foreign and defence policy, but that’s not much more than spin. Think for a moment about those eye-wateringly expensive “Poseidon” surveillance aircraft purchased by the RNZAF to replace its decades-old “Orions”. Or the super-sized tactical airlifters scheduled to replace our truly ancient C130 “Hercules” aircraft. To whom should New Zealand apply for replacement parts and upgrades for these new aircraft? Why, to the manufacturers, of course. And who are the manufacturers? Boeing and Lockheed Martin – mega-corporations located in our “very, very, very good friend”, the United States of America.

That’s right, Uncle Sam has replaced Mother England as New Zealand’s principal armourer. Had he not, our claim to independence might be more credible. Then again, just imagine the uproar in Washington, London, Canberra and Ottawa if Wellington announced that, henceforth, New Zealand would be armed by the Peoples Republic of China. That instead of the MARS assault rifle from America, our infantry would be armed with QBZ191’s from Norinco. That, instead of the Lockheed Martin “Super-Hercules”, our new tactical airlifter would be the Xi’an Y-20 Kunpeng.

Such an announcement would signal a strategic shift in New Zealand’s foreign and defence policy. Our “Five Eyes” partners would, not unreasonably, assume that New Zealand’s loyalties now lay with the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.

Alternatively, we could attempt to set up our own armaments industry. Prohibitively expensive, of course, and there’s always the risk of turning out another “Big Bob”!

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 September 2023.