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.

Tuesday, 29 August 2023

Going For Broke With Woke.

Not Welcome Here: Once celebrated for its broad inclusiveness, Chris Hipkins’ Labour Party has opted to greet potential supporters with a grim array of ideological bouncers.

WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE of Chris Hipkins speech “Working With Others”? Ostensibly about unity, the Prime Minister’s address homes in on the two issues which, for the last three years, have divided New Zealanders the most – Ethnicity and Gender. For good measure, he has also ruled out leading Labour into any kind of coalition agreement with NZ First. Taken in its entirety, Hipkins’ speech has much less to say about unity than it does about refusing to work with anyone who declines to embrace Labour’s radical social agenda. That being the case, it would have been more honest to entitle his address: “Going For Broke With Woke”.

Implicit in this strategy is a strong belief that New Zealand society, or, at least, a majority of those New Zealanders determined to vote on 14 October, have embraced the Labour Government “line” on Ethnicity and Gender. Clearly, those who balk at the idea of injecting the concept of co-governance into the provision of public services; or reject as unfair the idea of trans-women competing against biological women in sport; will no longer find a welcome in Labour’s “big tent”. Once celebrated for its broad inclusiveness, Hipkins’ party has opted to greet potential supporters with a grim array of ideological bouncers.

This is not, however, the picture Hipkins wishes his audience to conjure-up. Quite the opposite, in fact:

“Elections are contests of policies and values”, says Hipkins. “Disagreements are a fundamental part of a healthy democracy. But I won’t seek to divide our communities. Labour’s focus in this election won’t be on imported culture wars, but fighting an economic war against inflation and inequality.”

From the man who issued a “Captain’s Call” ruling-out a Wealth Tax, these lines have a disturbingly Orwellian quality to them. It wasn’t Labour’s opponents who commissioned the He Puapua Report, and then kept its recommendations hidden from both NZ First and the voting public in the months leading up to the 2020 General Election. Nor was it National, Act or NZ First that whipped-up opposition to the visit of “Posie Parker”, and then downplayed the violence unleashed upon those who came to hear women exercise their right to free speech. No, when it comes to importing culture wars, Labour is well out in front of its rivals.

How else are we to interpret the following sentence explaining Labour’s refusal to work with Winston Peters’ party?

“New Zealand First has become a party more interested in toilets than the issues that really matter.”

The reference is to NZ First’s policy of ensuring that biological women’s – and men’s – right to privacy is protected by requiring public toilets and changing-rooms to include spaces for those whose definitions of gender differ radically from those of their fellow citizens. NZ First’s “architectural” solution to the intrusion of biological males into biological women’s spaces, may well strike voters as a laudable attempt to broker a compromise between the contending parties.

That’s not how Hipkins sees it. According to the Prime Minister, Peters is:

“[S]eeking to make trans people the enemy in this campaign.”

That is an extraordinary accusation. It does, however, comport with the political style of the aggressively woke, who interpret anything other than 100 percent acceptance of the “correct” ideological position as proof positive of “incorrect” beliefs and “genocidal” intentions.

In for a penny, in for a pound, Hipkins presses on:

“Living fully in your own skin isn’t always easy for any of us at the best of times, and it can be particularly hard for our rainbow communities. None of them deserve the kind of abuse that is being directed their way, stoked up by politicians who should know better.”

This is hard to take from the political party which, alongside the Greens, lent its support to a social movement whose followers openly threatened violence against those who dared to oppose them – and then delivered it.

It is all of a piece, however, with a party so convinced of its own rectitude that it has become incapable of construing disagreement as anything other than – to use the buzzwords du jour – “misinformation, disinformation and malinformation”. In its mildest form, this mindset offers “education” as the optimal solution to the “wrong-think” of dissenters. Among the hardcore, however, dissenters are to be suppressed. What Hipkins has signalled in his speech is a personal preference for the hardcore’s response to the communicators of “wrong-thought” – among whom he clearly includes Winston Peters and NZ First.

That Hipkins has opted to drag New Zealanders into the strange, looking-glass world of the super-woke is deeply troubling. According to the Prime Minister, dissent on questions of gender threaten the unity of the nation and automatically disqualify the dissenting party, NZ First, from any role in government. At the same time, Te Pāti Māori may pour scorn upon the principle of majority rule, and the democratic system it upholds, without rebuke. The party’s claim that Māori genes are superior to those of New Zealand’s other ethnicities, likewise, presents no barrier to entering a Labour Party-led coalition government.

What Hipkins’ speech makes clear is that Labour has opted to “go negative” for the seven weeks remaining before the election. The Prime Minister may wax eloquent about the unity of the nation, and claim that only Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori have the right to speak for the shining Aotearoa-New Zealand of tomorrow; but what he has done, in the fractious world of today, is divide the nation into an “Us” who agree with the Red-Green-Brown troika’s radical programme, and a “Them” who cling to the wrong-thought of their outdated ideas and dangerous beliefs.

It is the intractable problem that besets all populist movements, be they of the Left or the Right. Who is, and who is not, to be counted among “the people”? Because, once you have determined who may properly be included in the “true” nation, then it follows that all those who fall outside your definition must be “untrue”. And what is the usual fate of those who prove untrue?

By the strictures set forth in his speech, Hipkins has identified the untrue nation as those who still believe that one-person, one-vote, one-value is the unalterable foundation of representative democracy. Also excluded from Team Chippy are those who answer the question: “What is a woman?”, with the words “Adult human female”.

By sunrise on 15 October, New Zealanders will know which nation is larger: the Woke Left’s “Us”, or the Centre-Right’s “Them”. Whatever else follows, the “others” being “worked with” are unlikely to include the untrue. The side, representing close to half the nation, that lost.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 28 August 2023.

Sunday, 27 August 2023

The Election Labour Has To Lose.

Bonjour Tristesse: The next time you see Chippy on the news, take a look at his eyes. There you will see the sadness and resignation of a man who not only knows that he cannot, but also that he must not, win. Labour is going to lose the election, not because it wants to, but because it has to – before it remembers who it was created to serve.

LABOUR’S GOING TO LOSE the General Election, and everybody with a shred of objectivity left to them knows it. The government of Chris Hipkins is doomed, and it’s not just the polls that are giving us the bad news, it’s Hipkins himself. He has nothing to offer the electorate: nothing that it wants to hear; and he knows it. Political promises are useless now. There are simply too many voters convinced that, after 14 October, Labour will be in no position to honour them. Hipkins is in the same position as a country experiencing hyperinflation: no matter how many zeros get added to the notes rolling off the printing presses, the currency remains worthless.

The real question is: “Why is Labour going to lose?” At the beginning of the year the party stood at 38 percent in at least one of the major polls. Hipkins’ takeover from Jacinda Ardern had been executed flawlessly and his “bonfire of unpopular policies” had been well-received. For a few precious weeks, the electorate believed Labour was listening to them. Had Hipkins and his colleagues followed through: focussing, laser-like, on “bread and butter” issues as promised; they would now be odds-on-favourites to win the electoral race. But, they didn’t follow through, they stopped listening, and Labour’s long, slow slide into the sub-30 percent electoral “death-zone” commenced.

It is clear now that Hipkins’ really didn’t care one way or the other about the “unpopular policies” – and neither did most of his colleagues. There was no factional divide in either Cabinet or Caucus over issues like Three Waters or Free Speech: no ideological conflict with passions running high on all sides; just the polls, the focus-group findings, and the tactical opportunities they presented.

That’s why what was probably the least popular of the “unpopular policies”, Three Waters, underwent only cosmetic changes. The Māori caucus wanted it because Iwi leaders wanted it, and if they didn’t get it, they might start knocking on Te Pāti Māori’s door. No one else in the Labour caucus proper felt strongly enough about the issue to organise any kind of serious resistance. So, Hipkins allowed Three Waters to be tweaked and re-named, and hoped that the public would be satisfied with a ludicrous name change. They weren’t.

It was left to Labour’s resident policy boffins, Grant Robertson and David Parker, to come up with something to replace the “unpopular policies” theme. It had to be about tax (because tax was National’s headline policy initiative) and it had to be bold enough to get the voters thinking and talking about Labour’s radical proposals all the way to the polling booths. To give Robertson and Parker their due, the plan they came up with felt like a winner. Certainly, it would have kept the political spotlight fixed upon the Government. Parker’s investigation into who-pays-what in tax had already predisposed the public to radical change – the polls were saying so quite emphatically – so, it just might have worked.

But, if the polls were pointing to widespread public support for making the super-wealthy pay their fair share of tax, Hipkins was adamant that the focus-group reports were all pointing the other way. From the other side of the world, in Vilnius, Lithuania, the Prime Minister issued his “Captain’s Call”, voiding Robertson’s and Parker’s plan, thereby making Labour’s election defeat inevitable.

Why did he do it? Because, deep down, Hipkins is a conservative politician, with a conservative politician’s deep-seated horror of anything that threatens to upend the status quo, and a genuine conservative’s loathing for all those who presume to challenge it. Oh sure, he is a Labour Party politician, but only because he got into parliamentary politics via student politics, where a rhetorical commitment to the Left is more-or-less de rigueur.

At heart, however, “Chippy” believes in the hierarchies of expertise and competence by which New Zealand politicians are surrounded from the moment they enter Parliament. It matters not at all whether they enter the circles of power as political advisers, Members of Parliament, or, in the cases of Hipkins’, Robertson and Ardern, a good measure of both: the idea that all great political ideas come from below, from the people, is dismissed out-of-hand as antiquated nonsense. Those who believe otherwise do not fare well in the NZ Labour Party of the Twenty-First Century.

The great irony, of course, is that if the Labour Party had somehow remained a mass party, made of, by, and for the New Zealand working-class, then Labour’s present difficulties would never have developed. A party permitted – nay, encouraged! – to engage in robust policy debates would have equipped its parliamentary representatives with a set of policies which enjoyed the democratic imprimatur of a political movement boasting powerful and organic attachments (through trade unions and community groups) with something very close to a majority of the voting public. A party of that sort would require a lot of convincing to take on board policies that struck its members as peculiar, offensive, unfair, unscientific and/or at odds with plain, old-fashioned, human decency.

Such a party is, of course, an impossibility in a society dominated by neoliberal ideology. Such a society cannot countenance any serious political movement that is not dedicated to preserving the interests of the ruling elites, or run by anyone other than their enablers in the professional and managerial class. What Chris Hipkins (and Jacinda Ardern) have shown us is that remaining in office is, ultimately, much less important than ensuring that no policies are contemplated – let alone enacted – which might undermine the neoliberal order.

Unpopular policies, especially those that encourage social division, are nothing for neoliberals to worry about. It is the policy capable of attracting two-thirds or more of the electorate’s support, the policy holding out the promise of actually challenging and changing the neoliberal status quo, that must be resisted – at any cost. A policy calling for the introduction of a Wealth Tax, for example.

The next time you see Chippy on the news, take a look at his eyes. There you will see the sadness and resignation of a man who not only knows that he cannot, but also that he must not, win. Labour is going to lose the election, not because it wants to, but because it has to – before it remembers who it was created to serve.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 25 August 2023.

Tuesday, 22 August 2023

The Song That Everybody In The USA Is Talking About: "Rich Men North Of Richmond" by Oliver Anthony.


He's a working-class Christian from the American South with a simple message of hurt and frustration that has touched the hearts of Americans of all classes, races, and genders. He has translated into words and music what so many of them feel and wish their leaders could grasp - that the status quo serves nobody but "rich men north of Richmond".

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today: More at Stake Than Sun and Sand.

In The Public Domain: The territory of New Zealand is the collective possession of all the people who inhabit it, and the question of how best to dispose of its resources the responsibility of their democratically elected representatives – or so argued Helen Clark’s Labour-led Government back in 2003.

“AN UNHAPPY SUMMER” is the prediction of at least one of the Maori leaders laying claim to the foreshore and seabed in response to the Government’s declaration that New Zealand’s beaches and coastal waters lie in the “public domain” - i.e. belong to all of us.

Maori nationalists have raised the prospect of fencing off public beaches and requiring non-Maori to apply for “visas” before being granted access. Titewhai Harawira has gone even further, denouncing the Government’s proposals as another “confiscation” of Maori property rights, and threatening to organise a nationwide march on Parliament in protest.

Cooler Maori heads have expressed their misgivings in less inflammatory language, but with an equal degree of concern at what they regard as the Government’s lack of respect for due process.

The Government’s parliamentary opponents are no less vociferous in their condemnation of its proposed resolution to the foreshore and seabed problem. The National Party, in particular, is highly critical of what it sees as the legally imprecise notion of a “public domain” and is urging the Government to legislate the foreshore and seabed back under Crown ownership immediately – and unequivocally.

“Crown ownership” is, however, a highly problematic expression in the context of Maori/Pakeha relations. Hard though it may be to believe, a great many Maori still construe “Crown ownership” to mean ownership by Queen Elizabeth II (who is deemed to have inherited the title to New Zealand from her Great-Great-Grandmother, Queen Victoria).

A recent example of this constitutional wrong-headedness occurred last month when a gathering of Taranaki Hapu calling themselves Te Puraranga met at Parihaka on 26 July to discuss the foreshore and seabed issue. The hui ended with a ringing declaration of “Maori sovereignty over land and sea”. Having effectively decided to tear up the Treaty of Waitangi, the group then thought it best to send a copy of their declaration to the Queen (along with other “state leaders” in the Pacific region) presumably to let her know that the Windsors’ antipodean real estate had come under new management.

It is precisely to reduce this sort of political naiveté that the Government has introduced the concept of “public domain”. Hopefully, by dispensing with the perennially misunderstood concept of Crown ownership, and replacing it with the new vocabulary of collective ownership, groups like Te Puraranga can be released from their peculiar constitutional delusions.

The territory of New Zealand is the collective possession of all the people who inhabit it, and the question of how best to dispose of its resources the responsibility of their democratically elected representatives.

In other words, sovereignty resides in the people – all the people – and is indivisible. It cannot be reposed anywhere other than in the House of Representatives - which is constructed out of the people’s electoral choices. Nor does it subsist in any ethnic group – no matter how elaborate its genealogy. And sovereignty certainly does not lie in the courts. The New Zealand judiciary exists to enforce the will of the people – as expressed in parliamentary legislation – and has absolutely no mandate to supplant it.

Those who reject these propositions must also repudiate the entire legacy of human civilisation since the Enlightenment. To invest the monarch with anything other than purely ceremonial significance; to elevate the Judiciary above the Legislature; to deny the Executive the right to govern in the people’s name; is to embrace a species of politics engendered by superstition, fed by prejudice, and disfigured by the vagaries of arbitrary power.

Regrettably, such people do exist. In a paper entitled “Some Core Values for Resolving the Foreshore and Seabed Issue” prepared by Te Hau Tikanga - the Maori Law Commission (some of whose members advise the Associate Minister of Maori Affairs, Tariana Turia) one may read the following: “The nature and extent of Iwi and Hapu title and rights to the foreshore are aspects of te tino rangatiratanga which only Iwi and Hapu have the right to define.”

In other words, 15 per cent of New Zealanders, by virtue of their bloodlines, arrogate unto themselves, exclusively, the power to define the “nature and extent’ of their legal rights vis-à-vis the remaining 85 per cent of the population. There is a name for this form of government; it is called Aristocracy: – rule according to genealogical or ethnic descent.

If that is the sort of society New Zealanders wish to live in, all they need to do is keep their heads down and their mouths shut. As an egalitarian democrat, however, I’m hoping that every Kiwi decides to spend this summer at the beach.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of 22 August 2003.

Signs of the Times.

The Words Of The Prophets: The practice of New Zealand politics, and the reporting of it, has changed – and the voters have noticed. Many more citizens than the major parties appear willing to acknowledge are furious about the changes the political class continues to impose upon them. Nor do they appreciate being gas-lit by politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists who clearly consider themselves a cut above the average voter.

PULLING OUT of the truck-stop at Mercer (home of Pokeno Bacon’s incomparable toasted sandwiches) I noticed three large signs. Hung from a chain-link fence, the signs were hand-painted and impossibly wordy. Whoever it was who placed them there was angry – very angry. They were also completely unskilled in the dark arts of political communication.

It obviously never crossed their minds that the overwhelming majority of those passing their signs would be travelling at 100 kph. Nobody driving a motor vehicle at that speed has time to take in more than a few words. It’s only political tragics like myself who take the time to read these angry manifestoes.

Having done so, however, and for the benefit of my wife, who was driving, I condensed their author’s cries from the heart into three simple statements – one for each sign.

The Government Is Lying.    The Media Is Lying.    Stop The Lies.

When I told this story to an old comrade of mine, he exhaled noisily through his teeth and said: “There are times, Trotter, when I’m really glad you’re on our side.”

The anger and mistrust manifested in that angry Mercer signage came back to me a few days later when I tuned into a RNZ news bulletin to receive the startling information that the leader of the Act Party, David Seymour, wanted to blow-up the Ministry for Pacific Peoples. Now, I was aware that it’s Act’s policy to abolish all of what might be called the “identity” ministries: Women’s, Youth, Māori, Pasifika; along with the Human Rights Commission. I was unaware, however, that the policy mandated the use of high explosives!

And, of course, it doesn’t. What I had heard was what the writer of RNZ’s news copy had distilled from a political quip, uttered by the Act leader on the evening of Thursday, 17 August, during an interview on Newstalk-ZB. The context of the quip is crucial – especially in relation to what happened later. It involved a discussion of the Ministry of Pacific People’s gross overspending ($40,000!) on a farewell bash for its departing Chief Executive. Asked how he felt about the overspending, Seymour replied:

“In my fantasy, we’d send a guy called Guy Fawkes in there and it’d be all over, but we’ll probably have to have a more formal approach than that.”

Though you would never know it from the leaden humourlessness of the party political and mainstream journalistic responses to his words, Seymour was joking. In exactly the same way as the person who came up with the oft-quoted quip: “Guy Fawkes – the only man to enter Parliament with honourable intentions” – was joking.

The Deputy-Prime-Minister, Carmel Sepuloni, did not get Seymour’s joke. Or, if she got it, she didn’t like it: “David Seymour’s remarks are in line with his history of race-baiting and creating divisions, particularly concerning Pasifika and Māori communities”. Clearly, nobody in Labour was laughing. The Greens, too, remained stony-faced: “Just a man who received donations from known white supremacists making a ‘joke’ about his fantasy to bomb brown people institutions” tweeted Golriz Ghahraman.

Here, at least, was the source of the dreary literalism inspiring the writer of RNZ’s news bulletin. A humorous historical reference to Guy Fawkes (who would have posed no threat at all to the Ministry of Pacific Peoples, given that he proved singularly incapable of blowing up the Palace of Westminster on 5 November 1605!) had somehow morphed into the unembellished claim that the leader of New Zealand’s third-largest political party, the man set to become New Zealand’s next Deputy-Prime-Minister, had entertained seriously the terroristic notion of blowing-up a building housing a government ministry and, presumably, everyone in it.

It is, of course, possible that RNZ is, all-unwittingly, harbouring yet another unauthorised “editor” of contentious news items going out under its name, and that the publicly-owned radio network is every bit as outraged at the suggestion that David Seymour has ideas about blowing things up as the 12-15 percent of New Zealanders telling the pollsters they intend giving Act their Party Vote on 14 October.

One can only speculate, however, about the number of New Zealanders who found it strange that a number of mainstream news media outlets had chosen to make a news-story out of the fact that two citizens had entered a government building with some stern questions for the staff about what they regarded as the outrageous expenditure of tens-of-thousands of dollars of public funds on a senior bureaucrat’s farewell function.

There was a time in this country’s history when citizens asking questions of public servants was an entirely unremarkable exercise of their civil rights. A time when, far from causing fear and alarm, the practice of holding bureaucrats to account was regarded as a pivotal feature of a properly functioning democracy. That the questions asked by these two citizens went unanswered, and that they were physically ejected from the building, is, surely, prima facie evidence that our democracy could do with a bit of a shake-up. Oops! Sorry. Some “refurbishment”.

Similar thoughts arise from the fact that it required some heavy-duty interventions from a number of prominent right-wing habitués of social-media to nip in the bud the thoroughly disinformative narrative that placed the “disruptive” individuals at the Ministry of Pacific Peoples after (therefore because of) David Seymour’s remarks on Newstalk-ZB. The facts of the story, however, produce a timeline in which the “threatening” citizens arrive at the Ministry long before Seymour’s quip hit the airwaves.

A small story? A storm in a teacup? Unworthy of all these words? Well, had I not read those signs at Mercer, I might agree. We are, after all, less than two months away from a general election, and peak rough-and-tumble is still weeks away. But, I did read those signs, and they disturbed me.

The point I’m labouring to make is that grown-up politicians are assumed to be capable of differentiating a rhetorical quip dressed-up in Jacobean finery, from an Al Qaeda To-Do list. And so are professional political journalists. The claim that David Seymour spoke seriously about blowing-up the Ministry of Pacific Peoples is, quite simply, a lie; and references to “race-baiting”, and bombing “brown people institutions”, advance the dial well beyond “rough-and-tumble”.

The practice of New Zealand politics, and the reporting of it, has changed – and the voters have noticed. Many more citizens than the major parties appear willing to acknowledge are furious about the changes the political class continues to impose upon them. Nor do they appreciate being gas-lit by politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists who clearly consider themselves a cut above the average voter.

Rhetorically-speaking, an increasing number of citizens would be quite happy to see someone put a bomb under a system they no longer trust. Which is why, heading into this election, nothing is more important than for New Zealand’s political and media leaders to do everything within their power to regain the public’s trust.

Otherwise someone, somewhere, will start hanging signs that everybody can read.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 21 August 2023.

The Radical Consequences Of Doing As Little As Possible.

The Man With His Hand On The Handbrake: NZ First’s participation in government is defined not so much by what it does, but by what it prevents its coalition partners from doing. Photo by Richard Harman.

IN THE NORMAL COURSE OF EVENTS New Zealand general elections are won and lost in the centre-ground. Even under MMP, the multiplicity of parties is more apparent than real. For the most part, the minor parties are ideological outriders, positioned to the left or right of the more moderate political sentiment pursued by the majors. When National showed signs of losing its taste for economic reform, Act stepped forward to keep it honest. When Labour embraced neoliberalism in the 1980s, it spawned a succession of protest parties: NewLabour, the Alliance, the Greens; to keep the progressive flag flying. It is, therefore, a pretty straightforward exercise to work out who will go with whom after the votes have been counted. Everyone knows that the outriders have only one credible choice of coalition partner.

What makes the NZ First Party such a difficult political proposition is that it is the only party which claims the centre – not the centre-right or the centre-left – as its natural home. Since its foundation in July 1993, NZ First’s consistent pitch to voters has been that National and Labour are fraudulent centrists: pretending to moderation while secretly embracing extremism. Coming from the National Party, the founder and leader of NZ First, Winston Peters, has witnessed at close hand the enormous political effort required to prevent New Zealand’s business and farming interests from bending successive governments’ economic and social policies to their will. Peters knows what a radical undertaking the defence of moderation has always been.

Radicalism of any sort is disruptive, and the sort of radical populist interventions required to thwart the predatory intentions of the Australian banks, big business, the agricultural sector, large public sector unions and iwi-based corporates must entail major disruptions. This explains the unabashed hostility towards NZ First which has become the default position of virtually all the other political parties. They know that any coalition relationship with Peters and NZ First is bound to involve the frequent use of the party’s infamous “handbrake”. NZ First’s participation in government is defined not so much by what it does, but by what it prevents its coalition partners from doing.

The first coalition government of which NZ First was a part illustrates the political dilemma created by the mere presence of a genuinely centrist party. The changes demanded by NZ First were small-scale, but very popular: free doctor’s visits for children under six years old; generous concessions for superannuitants. They were bearable. But, NZ First’s refusal to support any further privatisations of municipally- and/or state-owned enterprises most certainly was not. National’s “dries” could not countenance such a direct challenge to the core tenets of neoliberalism. The successful plot, first to oust Jim Bolger (the coalition’s enabler) and then to dismiss Peters and his party, gave the lie to National’s pretentions to moderation. It also illustrated in the most vivid terms the radically disruptive effect of, in effect, doing nothing.

NZ First’s coalition with Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party also illustrates the disruptive effect of centrist aspirations, this time from the point of view of a populist party which had quickly become profoundly alarmed at both the inexperience of its senior coalition partner’s ministers, and what its leader and his colleagues were persuaded was the extremism of some of those ministers’ ambitions. It was not long before NZ First was reaching for the handbrake – most notably in relation to Labour’s preference for a Capital Gains Tax. Here, again, we see NZ First’s strong reluctance to disturb the status quo. Tax-free capital gain constitutes a vital part of New Zealand’s small enterprises’ business model. Peters was unconvinced that his Labour colleagues fully grasped the likely consequences – economic and cultural – of introducing a CGT.

Peters’ apprehension concerning the extremism permeating Labour’s parliamentary ranks was subsequently borne out by the eventual release of the He Puapua Report. The fact that the far-reaching recommendations of this guide to New Zealand becoming fully compliant, by 2040, with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples had been kept from them was bitterly resented by NZ First and its leader.

Had it known about He Puapua, it is likely that NZ First, by campaigning strongly against it, would have remained above the 5 percent MMP threshold. While it is probable that the 2020 general election would have freed Labour from the need for NZ First’s support, Peters’ mere presence in the House would have strengthened the opposition to Labour’s decolonisation and indigenisation efforts significantly. In these circumstances, Act’s opinion poll support may not have surged so dramatically, and the 2023 electoral battlefield would look quite different.

Certainly, Act’s implacable opposition to serving alongside Peters and his colleagues in a National-Act-NZ First coalition government lends strength to the argument that political parties determined to keep the actions of a multi-party government within the parameters of public tolerance cannot avoid having a decisive impact on its conduct.

A National-led government committed to a purely ameliorative programme vis-à-vis infrastructure, housing, health and education would, surely, welcome the support of a similarly inclined NZ First? That the National leader, Christopher Luxon, has, to date, had so little to say on whether he would, or would not, welcome Peters’ participation in a coalition government, suggests strongly that his party’s ambitions fall well short of the grandiose. Unfortunately for Luxon, the same cannot be said for the ambitions of David Seymour and Act.

Act’s radicalism may yet prove its undoing. Were Peters and NZ First to retire to the cross-benches, promising their support for any confidence motion in a National-Act minority government (in much the same way as the Greens promised their support for a Labour-Alliance minority government back in 1999) Luxon would become New Zealand’s next prime minister. The downside of this arrangement would be that he and his party would be governing as hostages to Act’s extreme policy agenda.

While NZ First could vote for those items on National-Act’s agenda enjoying majority support, and for which it had also campaigned, this would not be the case when it came to Act’s hardline economic and social policies. As the time for National-Act to present their first Budget drew near, the question of whether Peters’ promise of confidence also included “supply” would become increasingly acute.

Were NZ First to say “This far – but no further!” and join with Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori in voting down a cruel austerity Budget, a new election would have to be called. With Act having demonstrated what it is made of, Peters and NZ First might humbly invite the electorate to provide National with a less extreme coalition partner. One not so determined to force unkind and unwanted policies down the electorate’s throat.

Of course, all the pundits will opine that any party forcing a snap election so soon after a general election will be punished mercilessly by the voters. It is possible, too, that if given the option of a second crack at getting the country back on the right track, the electors might opt for Labour-Green-Te Pāti Māori. Then again, a great many of those same electors, marvelling at the political magic of the Great Centrist Showman, might give him exactly what he asks for – thereby confirming the radical consequences of doing as little as possible and as much as necessary.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 14 August 2023.