Saturday 30 March 2024

The Missing Body.

And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor. –  Matthew 27:2

“THIS COURT OF INQUIRY will come to order!”

The Presiding Officer surveyed the room. The tables arranged to form a hollow square. The soldiers in their dress uniforms. The evidence folders placed neatly before them. The mood, he noted, was unusually sombre. The death of Palestinian militants while in the custody of the Israeli Defence Force was far from uncommon. Escapes from custody, however, were rare – and always investigated.

The bare facts of the incident were relayed without embroidery by the young Major who had overseen the investigation.

“Isa Al-Salām was arrested by the Palestinian Authority Police in a private garden in East Jerusalem. There was a brief scuffle between Al-Salām’s followers and the arresting officers which the prisoner, himself, brought to an end. At PA Police HQ, Al-Salām was questioned by several high-ranking Fatah officials. His answers led these officials to send him to the Commander of the IDF in East Jerusalem.”

“Why did they do that, do you suppose?”, the Presiding Officer interjected.

“The Fatah officials believed that Al-Salām’s ideas posed a profound threat to peace and good order across the whole West Bank. Not just to their own authority, but to ours.”

“How so?”

“The Isa Movement has already attracted thousands of followers. The man prophesises that the whole Israeli State, and the Palestinian Authority along with it, will soon crumble to dust. He preaches the imminence of the Kingdom of Heaven, where, all harms being healed, love and peace shall reign, and where Jew and Arab will be reconciled. The healing of harms part he has already begun. People repeat wild tales about him curing the sick and raising the dead. His followers call him the Son of God.”

“That’s a dangerous title in these lands. How did the Commander respond?”

“He questioned the prisoner in private, Sir, and emerged from the interrogation visibly shaken. Conferring with the Fatah officials, the Commander issued orders for Al-Salām to be held incommunicado at IDF East Jerusalem HQ. He then sent for his senior intelligence officer to join him in his office. The two men conferred together for more than an hour.”

“And it was shortly after this meeting that Al-Salām was shot and killed while attempting to escape?”

“Yes, Sir. That is correct.”

“How very convenient.”

“Subsequent inquiries indicated that the representatives of the Palestinian Authority thought it best if Al-Salām be eliminated by the IDF. They were fearful that should he die at their hands then the reaction of his followers would undermine what little authority it still possesses.”

“And the Commander agreed to this?”

“In his letter of resignation he confirms that: rather than have this individual alive in a city, and a country, sacred to at least three world religions; a man of astonishing presence and charisma, who, once taken-up by the international media, was quite capable of throwing the entire planet into chaos; it would be better if he died while attempting to escape.”

“And he did die, Major. There is no doubt surrounding his physical condition?”

“None whatsoever, Sir. The Medical Officer confirmed his demise at 12:01 Hours, Friday afternoon.”

“The same time as the earthquake?”

“Why, yes, Sir. I suppose it would have been about that time.”

“And yet, Major, this dead man somehow contrived to get up and walk out, completely unseen, from the Headquarters of the IDF in East Jerusalem?”

“His body was taken to the East Jerusalem Morgue. The door to the storage room was locked and armed guards posted with strict orders to admit no one without a signed order from the Commander.”

“But …”

“But, on Sunday morning some of Al-Salām’s followers arrived to claim the body. They came with a signed order from the Commander, so the soldiers on guard unlocked the door and led them to where Al-Salām’s body had been laid.”

“And the body was gone?”

“Yes, Sir. It was gone.”

“The guards had the key. At some point between Friday and Sunday could not the soldiers on duty have admitted Al-Salām’s followers to the Morgue and let them carry off the body?”

“The obvious explanation, Sir. But the men detailed to guard the body all swore that they saw no one. What’s more, the CCTV record bears out their stories.”

“So, Major. Isa Al-Salām, and his message, lives?”

“Yes, Sir. He is risen.”

This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star during Easter 2024.

National’s Governing For (Crony) Capitalists – Not Capitalism.

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme! The late Bruce Jesson used to say that while National governed for capitalists, Labour governed for Capitalism. Jesson’s suggestion: that National was so firmly locked inside the individualist logic of the private sector that it struggled to see the broader capitalist picture; was a shrewd one.

WHY IS THE NATIONAL PARTY doing so much for landlords, property developers, trucking, and construction companies, and so little for everybody who isn’t already pretty well-off? It’s as if protecting landlords’ investments and building apartments and roads now constitute the whole of National’s policy objectives. Even their most faithful supporters in the farming community are being neglected by National’s present crop of leaders. What has happened to the National Party?

The late Bruce Jesson used to say that while National governed for capitalists, Labour governed for Capitalism. Jesson’s suggestion: that National was so firmly locked inside the individualist logic of the private sector that it struggled to see the broader capitalist picture; was a shrewd one. Certainly, no politician with even the most rudimentary grasp of the public interest would consider doing today what made National Cabinet Ministers of the past so notorious: ensuring that the gravel roads leading to their farms (so many of them in those far-off days were farmers) received a generous topping of bitumen.

But, how different, really, is seeing nothing wrong with sealing a seemingly random collection of rural roads at the public’s expense, from accepting a $1,000 per week government allowance for inhabiting a property one already owns, mortgage-free? The first example might have fallen under the heading of ministerial discretion, the second remains a perfectly legal ministerial entitlement. Real effort was – and is – required to bring these “entitled” National Party grandees to a more realistic understanding of their responsibilities.

Christopher Luxon’s problem with his Wellington accommodation allowance reflects his background as a corporate leader and property investor. Such perquisites are taken for granted at the CEO level, and very few, if any, eyebrows arch upwards when they are accepted. Luxon and his ilk float freely in the gravity-free milieu of the privileged. For these types, getting reacquainted with solid ground can be a fraught process.

At least when National was the party of the farmers its leaders’ feet remained firmly rooted in the soil. Drawing one’s wealth from lamb-sales, wool-clips, and cow’s milk is very different from watching property and share prices surge. Farmers are intimately connected to the real world. The best one can say about money is that it is a representation of the real world. Which isn’t the same thing – not at all.

So who are these capitalists on whose behalf National is governing the country? Predominantly, they are the capitalists involved in building houses, apartment buildings, and all the ancillary infrastructure that goes with property development. Not far behind them are the capitalists who use and build New Zealand’s roads – the trucking companies and the big civil-engineering firms.

What little understanding of Capitalism’s priorities National does possess is reflected in its support for the extractive industries of mining, oil and gas, forestry, and fishing. The party’s perception of these industries’ importance is sharpened by the quantum of their donations to its campaign funds.

That said, the number of these “crony” capitalists is insufficient to sustain an electoral party. National needs a Party Vote approaching 40 percent to have any hope of governing the country in coalition with the other parties of the Right. (Forty-eight percent if it seeks to govern alone.) But, to achieve these sorts of numbers, National needs to make a plausible pitch for the support of close to half the population.

To forge the necessary synergy between National’s capitalist cronies and its electoral base, its strategists have targeted those older New Zealanders in possession of their own, mortgage-free, homes – along with one or more rental properties. These voters may continue to make their homes in the leafier suburbs of New Zealand (electorally-speaking, National has long been the party of the better-off suburbs) or, they may have joined the burgeoning number of ageing Kiwis living in retirement homes and villages.

A great many of the people living in retirement communities will be cashed-up beneficiaries of the housing boom. As such, they have no interest whatsoever in Adrian Orr lowering the official cash rate. The higher the interest rates, the greater the return on their savings. They have no interest, either, in Wealth or Capital Gains taxes. When the time comes to sell the family business, they have no inclination to cut the Tax Man in on the deal. Certainly, National did not lose any votes by relieving these older landlords of Labour’s pesky tax deductions.

That these older-voters-with-money have children and grandchildren also works to National’s advantage. With more and more young people relying upon the Bank of Mum & Dad for the deposit on their first house, any measure depleting the Bank’s deposits is unlikely to be welcomed. Then there’s the touchy subject of their inheritance. Mum & Dad don’t live forever. These voters-waiting-for-a-legacy are not likely to support any party promising to impose an Inheritance Tax.

Which just leaves those Kiwis who want nothing more than to become the owners of the big mansions that feature on the front pages of the real-estate supplements. The sort of people without whom Lotto would go broke. “Aspirational Voters”, that’s what the political scientists (and the election campaign specialists) call them. The people who are never tempted to swap their avarice for a commitment to social justice – or even for a capitalist system that works! In their eyes, equality makes losers of us all. They may not be winners – yet – but by voting for National they at least get to feel like winners.

It’s just possible that National’s Simeon Brown has cottoned-on to the fact that these aspirational voters – especially the blokes – also feel like winners when they’re tearing down the highway in a gas-guzzling SUV. Nothing shouts “Freedom!” like a fast car. Not something that’s generally observed of busses and trains!

So, that’s National: the party that governs for capitalists – large, small, and aspiring. As proof of their commitment to the avaricious, they have promised, and are absolutely determined to deliver, tax-cuts. To pay for these National is perfectly willing to: defund the Police; keep the NZDF on its knees; run the risk that Foot & Mouth Disease will get past overworked border security staff; downgrade KiwiRail and the inter-island ferry service; pare-back public transport; see another generation of Māori and Pasifika children grow up poor, malnourished and angry, while they stand back and watch the public health and education services – those time-tested ladders out of poverty – fall apart.

It’s not the pathway to a thriving and profitable capitalist society. Capitalism works best when the state encourages it to lift the whole population to a level of comfort and security that makes increased productivity more than a pipedream. Historically-speaking, that’s been Labour’s goal – and achievement. More to the point, when National’s been intelligent enough to follow Labour’s lead, that’s been its achievement, too.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project Substack on Monday, 25 March 2024.

Rapture and Rage.

When Push Came To Shove: If Jacinda Ardern’s government struggled to contain 3,000 angry Kiwis in 2022, how will Christopher Luxon’s cope with 300,000 in 2025?

THE OCCUPATION OF PARLIAMENT GROUNDS stands as one of the oddest moments in New Zealand political history. Not the least of its oddities was the mixture of what might best be described as rapture and rage. There were moments during the occupation when Parliament Grounds recalled the “human be-ins” of the 1960s. Others when it resembled a Mississippi lynch-mob. Day-to-day, the logistical sophistication of the protest organisers rivalled that of the NZDF – a true tour de force of Kiwi can-do. On the other hand, the apocalyptic scenes of the protest’s final day could have been directed by Francis Ford Coppola: it’s “fire and the fury” eclipsing anything seen in New Zealand for a hundred years.

Although the traumatic events of February-March 2022 are not discussed or debated with any enthusiasm in 2024, it would be most unwise for the present government to dismiss them as just another of their predecessors’ blunders. Without the political energy generated by the Occupation of Parliament Grounds, it is possible that Christopher Luxon, David Seymour, and Winston Peters (especially the latter) might have failed to amass the electoral heft needed to govern. The Occupation was the living expression of the political polarisation occasioned by the measures taken to fight the Covid-19 Pandemic. That polarisation has not ceased to exist. Indeed, it could be argued that it has gotten much worse.

The inflexible character of Christopher Luxon’s Coalition Government, his repeated assertion that its collective electoral mandate gives it the right to over-ride any and all objections to its policies, runs the risk of alienating still further an uneasy and politically volatile electorate. Understanding what led to the fire and fury of the first Occupation, may help to prevent New Zealand’s political class from igniting a second.

Perhaps the most startling effect of the original Occupation was how severely it tested the resilience and capability of the New Zealand State and its related institutions. From the moment the occupiers realised the scale of the challenge which their mere presence posed to the authorities, and the effort that would be required to reclaim Parliament Grounds, they began to develop a collective strategic confidence that left the state looking flat-footed and irresolute.

The protesters’ belief in themselves and their cause was hugely bolstered by the idiotic behaviour of Parliament’s Speaker, Trevor Mallard. Up there, on his granite balcony, looking down on the crowd, he bore a more than passing resemblance to Tolkien’s treacherous wizard, Saruman, as he surveyed the damage done to his mighty stronghold, Orthanc, by an angry army of Ents. Alas for Mallard, his spells: turning on the sprinklers; playing Barry Manilow at full volume; proved as inadequate as Saruman’s. There were plumbers and drain-layers in the crowd who made short work of the Speaker’s sprinklers, and the occupiers had a sound system of their own.

The most serious consequence of Mallard’s actions, however, was to reinforce the occupiers’ determination to go on saying “No.” Their blank refusal to be “moved-on”, placed the Police in a quandary they had not faced for years: determining the level of force required to compel the compliance of resisting protesters, without turning too much of the population against them. What is required, policing-wise, when a large number of citizens simply withdraw their cooperation from the state’s law enforcers? The answer came back forcefully when the Wellington Police Commander sent constables in their shirt-sleeves to clear the grounds: helmets, armour, shields, batons, pepper-spray, and lots more personnel!

It was only after the fires of the final day had been extinguished and the smoke had cleared, that New Zealanders discovered how terrified the Police and Parliamentary Security had been that the occupiers would attempt to storm Parliament itself. A sudden rush up the steps, the swinging of heavy battering rams, and there would have been very little to stop the crowd except the firepower of the Diplomatic Protection Squad which, if deployed, would only have made the situation worse.

But, the occupiers were not of a mind to turn their protest into a revolution. They had come to Parliament for a redress of grievances – most particularly the abandonment of their bête noir – the vaccination mandates. In spite of all the frightening rhetoric about Nuremburg Trials, and the gallows nooses carried aloft, the occupiers had come to “their house” not to hang the Government, but to make it listen to them. They had come to be heard.

That the Government and, more astonishingly, the Opposition, would not listen, or talk, to the occupiers requires careful explanation. Nothing communicated the politicians’ contempt for the people who elected them, more forcefully than Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s ban on any kind of communication with the occupiers. But, that ban, obeyed by all the members of the House, demonstrated something much more significant than contempt – it demonstrated fear.

What would have happened if the Prime Minister, flanked by her DPS bodyguards, senior ministers, and several dozen police officers, had come down the steps and invited the occupiers to parley? Would they have hurled abuse? Something more solid? Or would they have moved up to the barricades and begun to talk?

One of the reasons that never happened was because the News Media, which could have humanised the protesters and turned them into something more that scary caricatures, had, from the very beginning, declined to do so.

Partly, this was a manifestation of the media’s determination not to give an inch to those who challenged the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic. In the eyes of many journalists (including the author of this post) those who refused the Pfizer Vaccine were – by the most generous estimation – dangerously misguided, and not to be indulged. Cast in the least favourable light, they were enemies of “The Team of Five Million”: spreaders of disinformation; weavers of absurd conspiracy theories; deserving of nothing but the unrelenting scorn of all intelligent people.

But, there’s no getting round the fact that the journalists were also petrified of the Occupiers. They were not the sort of people they were used to dealing with. Most of them came across as indefatigably ignorant and/or irrational. Undaunted, the Occupiers made no secret of the fact that they hated the journalists of the “mainstream” news media with a passion that the latter found genuinely terrifying. To make matters even worse, the Occupiers had their own media: “citizen journalists” who returned the mainstream reporters’ disdain measure-for-measure.

Christopher Luxon and his colleagues would be wise to factor into their political calculations both the electorate’s increasing polarisation, and its declining faith in the mainstream news media. If his Finance Minister, Nicola Willis, is determined to unleash the sort of austerity programme that, in the early-1990s, under Ruth Richardson, gave New Zealand MMP; and in the UK, thanks to George Osborne’s spending cuts from 2010-2015, Brexit; then she should make herself aware of just how many New Zealanders get their political information from sources quite distinct from the six o’clock news.

The occupation of Parliament Grounds happened because a significant number of New Zealanders allowed themselves to be convinced that their government was out to ruin their lives. If the Coalition Government wishes to avoid another uprising of the “deplorables”, it should consider what these folk might be prepared to attempt if their “research” confirms that their government is doing it again – except this time to a whole lot more New Zealanders.

If Jacinda Ardern’s government struggled to contain 3,000 angry Kiwis in 2022, how will Christopher Luxon’s cope with 300,000 in 2025?

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday,  25 March 2024.

Tuesday 19 March 2024

Promiscuous Empathy: Chris Trotter Replies To His Critics.

Inspirational: The Family of Man is a glorious hymn to human equality, but, more than that, it is a clarion call to human freedom. Because equality, unleavened by liberty, is a broken piano, an unstrung harp; upon which the songs of fraternity will never be played. 

“Somebody must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.” – Franz Kafka. The Trial. 1925.

NOW, those who object to Chris Trotter comparing his troubles to those of Joseph K. undoubtedly have a point. The Police aren’t knocking on my door – not yet. Nevertheless, there is something just a little bit Kafkaesque about finding yourself being misrepresented all over the Internet by people you have never met. Especially when their misrepresentation consists of disputing the veracity of Chris Trotter’s long-standing identification as a person of the Left.

Now, there will be plenty of people who, having read that last sentence, will demand to know why being drummed-out of the ranks of the Left is being presented as a bad thing. Given the truly awful place where the Left of the 2020s has ended up, they would argue that my expulsion from its ranks could only be taken as proof that I still possess a respectable intellect and a functioning moral compass. Their advice would be: “Crack open a bottle of Champagne! Celebrate! You’ve had a lucky escape!”

But, no matter how tempting that sounds, I’m not quite ready to say “good-bye to all that”. Principally because my online critics are not only challenging my bona fides as a person of the Left, but are also insisting that I have become a person of the Right. While no longer bearing the imprimatur of the Left may not be all that grim a prospect, I’m not quite ready – not yet – to be branded a “crypto-fascist”.

My secret fascist mission, apparently, is to do all within my power to secure two objectives. First, to prevent the establishment of a bi-cultural, Tiriti-centric Aotearoa. Second, to assist the Zionist entity in its genocidal war against the Palestinians.

These charges reveal a great deal about the individuals levelling them. Clearly, their expectation is that a leftist-in-good-standing will refrain from interrogating the propositions put forward by … well, that’s one of the most serious problems with the contemporary Left, isn’t it? One is never entirely sure who is setting the Party Line.

In the case of Te Tiriti, exactly who are the leftists-in-good-standing supposed to follow? The late Moana Jackson? The very much alive Margaret Mutu? The team who drafted the He Puapua Report? Linda Tuhiwai Smith – author of Decolonising Methodologies? The Greens? Labour? Willie Jackson? All of the above?

The answer, of course, is that, as an ageing Cis Pakeha Male, it is deeply racist of me to suppose that I have any say at all in matters pertaining to Te Tiriti, or the final shape of any society which might emerge from its fulfilment. My only role is to back te iwi Māori unreservedly and without question. My personal opinions are irrelevant. So, check your privilege, Mr Trotter, and shut the fuck up.

But, what sort of leftist could possibly surrender their right to question, challenge, and join any and every attempt to revolutionise their society? The idea that some people, on account of their ancestry, age, ethnicity, gender – or any other criterion beyond their personal control – should be denied the right to participate intellectually, culturally and/or politically in their nation’s affairs owes nothing whatsoever to the traditions of the Left.

Neither does the threat to unleash violence against anyone who proposes a thorough re-examination of the principles of Te Tiriti. Not unless one’s idea of the Left is drawn from the rigid orthodoxies of the Stalinist and Maoist communist parties, and the murderous totalitarian regimes they constructed to enforce them.

But that has never been my Left. As a democratic, dammit, as a libertarian socialist, my unwavering conviction has always been that it is only when people are free to receive and communicate information; free to discuss and debate all manner of ideas and policies; free to participate; that there can be any enduring hope for the human emancipation which has always been the true leftist’s desideratum.

All very fine, Mr Trotter, but what about your support for Israel’s genocidal violence in Gaza?

That’s easy – there is no such support.

This is what I wrote, just weeks after the atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October 2023, about the best possible response Israel could make to the horror. This was the picture I painted:

Drones and reconnaissance aircraft would be sent aloft, circling like eagles above the jackals’ lair. But not one bullet would be fired at, and not one bomb would be dropped upon, the crowded streets of Gaza. Across that whole benighted enclave only the whoosh of Hamas’s missiles and the pop of Israel’s interceptors would break the pregnant silence […..] Only then would the Hamas commanders realise what had happened. Rather than the global media focusing upon Israel’s hideous retaliation, and nightly displaying the broken bodies of women and children. Rather than the streets of the world’s capitals being filled with pro-Palestinian demonstrators calling for the death of the Jews. Rather than remaining safely hidden behind a curtain of civilian blood, Hamas would realise, with a deathly chill, that the whole world was staring in horror and disgust, not at Israel – but at them.

My curse as a political writer – if curse it be – is an ability to view the constantly unfolding human drama from multiple perspectives; to be able to stand, as it were, on both sides of the wire. Where did it come from, this dangerous faculty for promiscuous empathy? I’ve thought long and hard about this and decided, predictably, that it came from a book.

No, not the Bible, but from a book of extraordinary photographs and wonderful quotations from writers and peoples from all over the world. Published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, The Family of Man made me a leftist. Not by persuading me of the correctness of an ideology or religion, but by revealing to me the sad and beautiful continuities of the human species – the human family. The book also made me the enemy of all those who would smash those continuities by setting one part of the human family against another. An addiction to which the extreme Left has fallen prey with a fervour more than equal to that of the extreme Right. Indeed, political extremism, like the mythical serpent, Ouroboros, seems driven, ineluctably, to devour itself.

The Family of Man is a glorious hymn to human equality, but, more than that, it is a clarion call to human freedom. Because equality, unleavened by liberty, is a broken piano, an unstrung harp; upon which the songs of fraternity will never be played.

And that’s it. The best I can offer to those who have been telling lies about Christopher T.

I very much doubt that it will be sufficient to get the people’s commissars off my case.

If it is a crime to want to build the nation of Aotearoa-New Zealand out of the dreams of all its people, then I must plead guilty. Likewise, if it was wrong to recoil from the horrors of 7 October as forcefully as we daily recoil from the crucifixion of Gaza, then I was wrong. If it is a crime to understand the Jews’ need to build a home of their own since, as History has amply demonstrated, they are not safe in anybody else’s, then convict me. Convict me, too, if it is “antisemitic” to understand the longing of the Palestinian to, at last, insert the key in the lock of his family’s bullet-scarred front door, and return home.

To my faceless, Kafkaesque judges, I offer these words. They were written by the English jurist, writer, and radical politician, Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd, and are to be found among the many other wise words included in The Family of Man:

Fill the seats of justice
With good men, not so absolute in goodness
As to forget what human frailty is.

This essay is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blog.

Misremembering Justinian’s Taxes.

Tax Lawyer Barbara Edmonds vs Emperor Justinian I - Nolo Contendere: False historical explanations of pivotal events are very far from being inconsequential.

WHEN BARBARA EDMONDS made reference to the Roman Empire, my ears pricked up. It is, lamentably, very rare to hear a politician admit to any kind of familiarity with the past – especially the distant past. To hear Labour’s shadow Minister of Finance offer the career of the Emperor Justinian as a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive taxation was refreshing – and profoundly disappointing.

Rounding off his interview with Edmonds on the current affairs programme Q+A, Jack Tame asked: “What does tax policy have to do with the fall of the Roman Empire?” Edmonds responded:

When I was going through Law School, I was also doing some ancient history papers. And, basically, Emperor Justinian. It was the fall of the Roman Empire because, basically, they had to over-tax people to pay for the war and for the [indistinct]. So, the lesson I learned from that was that if you over-tax people, well, in Justinian’s case, it broke down an empire.

Sadly, none of this is true.

The Emperor Justinian ruled over the Eastern Roman Empire – better known to history as the Byzantine Empire – from 527-565 AD. Far from presiding over the fall of the Roman Empire, Justinian and his generals recovered many of the Western Empire’s lost provinces – an achievement which dramatically boosted Byzantine tax revenues. Justinian used this surplus income to construct the extraordinary Christian basilica of Hagia Sophia. This, the Emperor’s most tangible legacy, still stands in the heart of Istanbul (converted, now, to a mosque). Justinian’s other great legacy, known as the Justinian Code, still serves as the foundation of Europe’s legal system. The Byzantine Empire did fall – but not for almost another thousand years. Its mighty walled capital, Constantinople, was besieged and conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

No one academically equipped to lecture students in ancient history – especially classical history – could possibly have got the story of the Emperor Justinian so wrong. Clearly, Edmonds has misremembered the content of her ancient history course.

“Hardly a hanging offence!”, the ordinary voter would doubtless respond. “Most people don’t know anything about Justinian, or his empire, and care even less!” True enough, but they do care about being over-taxed. So, if Labour’s finance spokesperson cites the deeds of some long-dead dude as a warning from the past against taxing citizens too hard, then that same ordinary voter is likely to store her (mis)information in the back of their mind. A handy counter-argument to throw back at all those tax-and-spend radicals.

And, the political impact of Edmonds’ misremembered history doesn’t stop there. In the course of the next few months, New Zealanders will hear a great deal about being “over-taxed”. Finance Minister Nicola Willis will argue passionately that the Labour Government’s decision to allow inflation-generated “fiscal drag” to pour unwarranted billions into the state’s coffers stands as a text-book example of over-taxing wage and salary earners. To describe National’s policy of returning the state’s ill-gotten fiscal gains to the ordinary Kiwis from whom they extracted as a policy of “tax cuts”, Willis will insist, is most unfair.

Now, imagine that Edmonds’ caucus colleagues are as clueless about the history of Ancient Rome as the ordinary voter. (It doesn’t require all that much imagination!) In their minds, too, a little voice may commence insisting that what Labour did was wrong.

Grant Robertson, acting with the best of intentions, had connived in their working- and middle-class supporters being over-taxed year after year after year, the little voice will say. So, just as the Emperor Justinian’s over-taxation of Rome’s citizens caused the Empire to crumble, Labour’s reliance on the unfair extractions of “fiscal drag” contributed to the fall of its own electoral regime. If Edmonds’ misremembered history was to take hold of her colleagues’ imaginations in this way, then the Labour Opposition’s whole campaign against National’s tax-cuts could be seriously undercut.

False historical explanations of pivotal events are very far from being inconsequential. Perhaps the most pernicious example of historical disinformation is the Dolchstoßlegende – the entirely false accusation, spread by the reactionary Right, that Germany’s World War I soldiers, far from being defeated by the Allied Powers on the field of battle, were actually “stabbed in the back” by Socialists, Bolsheviks and Jews agitating on the Home Front. This “Big Lie” contributed hugely to the undermining of the Weimar Republic.

If people can be so dangerously misled about the cause of events that happened only a few months earlier; then misleading them about events that happened 1,500 years ago ought to be a doddle!

Then there’s the question of why Edmonds misremembered her ancient history so comprehensively. Could it be that she wants the historical record to show that excessive taxation is politically unsustainable? Is that because she is personally and professionally convinced (as a tax lawyer) that promising to raise taxes is politically unsustainable? Were that the case, then her appointment as Finance Spokesperson, ahead of the considerably more experienced – and fiscally radical – David Parker, could easily be interpreted as a decisive power-play against the Wealth Tax Faction of the Labour Party by Opposition Leader, Chris Hipkins.

To head-off such dangerous speculation, Edmonds should ‘fess-up to her historical mistakes and treat her colleagues to a short corrective lecture on the actual achievements of the Emperor Justinian. She could tell them about his comprehensive reform of the Byzantine tax system. How he both simplified tax collection, and made it vastly more efficient – thereby increasing the flow of gold and silver to Constantinople.

She could point out, also, the parallels between Justinian’s experience and Labour’s. How the so-called “Justinian Plague”, by decimating the Byzantine Empire’s population, played havoc with its finances – just as the Global Covid-19 Pandemic deranged New Zealand’s economy. Or, how the “Blues” and the “Greens”, rival chariot-racing factions in Constantinople’s hippodrome, joined forces in the “Nika Riots” of 532 AD – very nearly costing Justinian his throne.

There was a time when politicians’ self-immersion in History was one of the profession’s most striking characteristics. Hardly surprising, given the enormous advantage a solid working knowledge of history confers upon those with a hankering to make it themselves. Human nature changes much more slowly than human technology. There are very few, if any, political scenarios that are entirely new. As Mark Twain is said to have quipped: “History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

The trick, Ms Edmonds, is to remember the words correctly.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 18 March 2024.

Saturday 16 March 2024

Expert Opinion: Ageing Boomers, Laurie & Les, Talk Politics.

It hardly strikes me as fair to criticise a government for doing exactly what it said it was going to do. For actually keeping its promises.”

THUNDER WAS PLAYING TAG with lightning flashes amongst the distant peaks. Its rolling cadences interrupted by the here-I-come-here-I-go Doppler effect of the occasional passing car. Laurie watched as Les, taking exaggerated care not to spill a drop from the tall glasses of pale ale he was carrying, steadily closed the distance between the bar and their corner-table by the window.

“That’s welcome rain”, observed Laurie, nodding in the direction of the passing squall.

“Yep,” confirmed Les, glancing out the window, “I was beginning to think we were in for a drought. Perhaps its Nature’s way of celebrating the end of the Government’s first 100 days in office. Blue skies and sunshine just don’t seem appropriate. Or, are you still happy with their work?”

“I am, as a matter of fact. It hardly strikes me as fair to criticise a government for doing exactly what it said it was going to do. For actually keeping its promises.”

Les winced in recognition of his friend’s point. “You got me there, mate.”

“I reckon I have at that. It’s been so long since any incoming government put on such a show of political fidelity. That’s why so many of these young journalists have been so shocked by the roll-back – they’ve never seen one before. Well, not on this scale, at any rate.”

“You’re right. I was trying to think of the last time that an incoming government made such a fetish of dismantling practically every major reform its predecessors had put in place. When would you say it was?”

“That’s easy. You and I are about the same age, so we share quite a few of the same memories. It was Muldoon’s National Government of 1975. Unsurprisingly, he was even more hard-core than Luxon.”

“More hard core than Seymour! Do you remember how he just told employers to stop deducting workers’ contributions to the New Zealand Superannuation scheme? The law was still in place, Muldoon hadn’t had time to repeal it, but he just told them to stop – and they did.”

“Didn’t someone take him to court? Some civil servant, citing the Bill of Rights of 1688?”

“Nothing wrong with your memory, Laurie! That’s exactly what happened. And, if I remember rightly, his name was Fitzgerald, and he won his case. The Supreme Court ruled that Muldoon couldn’t simply cancel the laws of the land – even if he was the Prime Minister. Only Parliament can do that.”

“Something of an own goal, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, all these twerps complaining about this government forcing things through the House under urgency. If that’s the way the Bill of Rights of 1688 says it has to be done, and you’ve promised New Zealanders you’re going to make all these changes in your first 100 days, then of course your going to legislate in haste. After all, the people doing the complaining would be making an even bigger fuss if the Coalition had failed to achieve what it promised to achieve in its first three months.”

“Fair enough, Laurie. But, even so, you can’t be in favour of their decision to repeal the smoking legislation. I mean that went against all the best advice from all the experts in the field. Big Tobacco’s laughing all the way to the cancer clinic!”

“Speaking personally, Les, you’re right – I wouldn’t have repealed the Act. That said, I’m getting heartily sick of hearing people objecting to government policy on the grounds that it goes against expert advice. Who the hell governs this country, eh? Experts? Or the people who elect representatives to govern on their behalf?”

“But …”

“No! Don’t you tell me that the people are too thick to make those sort of decisions. Because, if you believe that, then why bother to have a Parliament at all? Why not just hand over the responsibility for governing us ‘deplorables’ to the experts? You know, all those over-educated idiots in the universities and the public service who can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman, and want to teach our grandkids that Mātaurānga Māori is the equal of Western Science. Jeez, Les, that’s the whole reason the Labour Party was thrown out on its ear – because it no longer trusts ordinary people.”

Les stared mutely into his ale. The thunder sounded a lot closer now.

This short story was published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 March 2024.

Manufacturing The Truth.

Subversive & Disruptive Technologies: Just as happened with that other great regulator of the masses, the Medieval Church, the advent of a new and hard-to-control technology – the Internet –  is weakening the ties that bind. Then, and now, those who enjoy a monopoly on the dissemination of lies, cannot and will not tolerate competition.

HISTORICAL PARALLELS between the impact of the printing press and the impact of the Internet are not new. Both inventions almost immediately began to undermine the command and control hierarchies of their respective societies. In the case of the printing-press, the reimposition of elite control became the work of centuries. And, even then, the technology was constantly falling into the hands of rebels and revolutionaries. Judging by the amount of noise they are making, the elites of the twenty-first century are terrified that the social and cultural upheavals produced by the printing-press are about to be replicated by the subversive communications made possible by the Internet.

Most of the noise is being made by those who claim that the Internet – social media in particular – is unleashing a veritable tsunami of what they call misinformation, disinformation and malinformation against societies ill-equipped to defend themselves against its pernicious influence. To amplify the elites’ unease, unholy alliances have been forged, right across the Western democracies, linking state agencies (often including the organs of national security) with the mainstream news media, in a crusade against the misinformers.

New Zealand’s own “Disinformation Project” is matched by similar joint ventures in information control in the United States, Canada, the UK and the European Union. While it is not at all difficult to understand why the state and its agencies might have cause to fear the spread of information inimical to its ability to control the population’s general understanding of reality, the participation of the news media – working journalists in particular – in what amounts to a grand censorship project requires further explanation.

After all, the reaction of editors and journalists to even the suggestion of state censorship should be visceral. No less vociferous should be their reaction to the idea that everyone and everything – apart from the state – is capable of spreading serious misrepresentations of reality. Those journalists working in close proximity to the political and bureaucratic branches of the state cannot be ignorant of the lengths to which their servants will go to shape and control public perceptions. Attempts by these agents to set themselves up as dispassionate adjudicators of truth and falsehood ought to be laughed out of the room by any journalist worthy of the name.

So, why isn’t this happening? Why are editors and journalists closing ranks with political and bureaucratic institutions determined to bring the flow of information back under their control. Much of the explanation is to be found in the ideological shift, from right to left, that has accompanied the generational shift from the economically radical, but socially conservative, pre-war generations, to the economically “dry”, but socially radical, post-war generations.

From the late-1940s until the 1980s, the overwhelming majority of editors and journalists were eager supporters of, and participants in, the Cold War consensus that declared anything more challenging than mild social-democracy to be subversive of the democratic order. Equally difficult to accommodate were those who challenged the equally conservative social consensus of the period. Patriarchal, heterosexual, racially-stratified: little, if any, space was afforded to those who rejected its monolithic institutions – and assumptions.

How things have changed. Fifty years after the West’s very own “cultural revolution” succeeded in, if not demolishing, then seriously damaging the rigid post-war social edifice, the overwhelming majority of editors and journalists have become eager participants in the suppression of whatever remains of the conservative social and political order.

Any intellectual branded as a “communist” in the 1950s and 60s would struggle to find a mainstream newspaper, or broadcaster, willing to publish their material, or allow their views on the air. To be branded a TERF in the 2020s immediately precipitates a similar struggle to make one’s views known. A regime of censorship every bit as ruthless as that which characterised the “Red Scare” of the 1950s has been erected to defend the cultural and political verities of the twenty-first century. Today’s editors and journalist have become the new McCarthyites.

Except that the seepage of forbidden ideologies into the public mind is far greater in the 2020s than was the case in the 1950s. We all know the reason why. In the 1960s, the Communist Party might set up its own, very small, printing press in a comrade’s garage, running-off maybe a thousand copies of “The People’s Voice” – of which only a few hundred might be sold. In 2024, a gender-critical blog, costing its contributors precisely zero dollars, can spread its views to millions, worldwide, at the stroke of a key.

And not just their “views”. Blogs and websites are perfectly capable of turning out journalism as well as commentary. Exposés of mainstream media perfidy are contributing to the fast-growing mistrust of mainstream news media institutions. Fewer subscribers to newspapers, shrinking television audiences: all manifestations of reader and viewer migration to content providers outside the mainstream; are rightly construed by the former masters of information as a direct assault upon their power. It is steadily transforming what were once idealistic and free-thinking journalists into brutal and unforgiving political commissars.

The situation is not helped when editors reveal themselves to be openly contemplating imposing a collective ban on reporting the Deputy Prime Minister’s criticisms of – you guessed it – the behaviour of the mainstream news media!

In the howling moral vacuum that opened up in the years immediately following the calamitous First World War – a period that coincided with the beginnings of the technologically-driven mass societies we still live in today – there were profound misgivings among the elites and their ideological enablers about how the masses would respond to what was emerging from the collision of capitalism and democracy.

The solution they hit upon came in two parts. Firstly, it would be necessary for the emerging mass media to devote itself to “manufacturing” the consent of the governed. Secondly, the new science of public relations was charged with redirecting the desires of the masses away from dangerous participation, and towards harmless consumption.

These are still the prime objectives of elite socio-political policy. Achieving those objectives, however, has been made increasingly problematic by the manner in which the Internet has developed. Just as happened with that other great regulator of the masses, the Medieval Church, the advent of a new and hard-to-control technology is weakening the ties that bind. Then, and now, those who enjoy a monopoly on the dissemination of lies, cannot and will not tolerate competition. The elites and their defenders in the mainstream media talk nobly of defending the truth, but what they really mean to re-establish are the key, system-protecting lies which ordinary people must then be denied the information to challenge.

Precisely what the printing-press gave, and now the Internet gives, to the people. The power to manufacture the truth.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project website on Tuesday, 12 March 2024.

A Powerful Sensation of Déjà Vu.

Been Here Before: To find the precedents for what this Coalition Government is proposing, it is necessary to return to the “glory days” of Muldoonism.

THE COALITION GOVERNMENT has celebrated its first 100 days in office by checking-off the last of its listed commitments. It remains, however, an angry government. It is angry with the poor. It is angry with the regulatory environment. It is angry with those who resist its policies. Some would say it is angry with the last 50 years of New Zealand history, and with the political forces that have driven it. Inevitably, anger breeds nostalgia. The explanation, presumably, for the powerful sensation of déjà vu in which this government is now wreathed.

The Coalition’s anger at the poor is manifested in many ways. It began with the restoration of the sanctions which Labour had removed from the MSD’s repertoire of responses to what it regarded as the delinquent behaviour of beneficiaries. As the first 100 days drew to a close, the Housing Minister, Chris Bishop, reinforced this trend by announcing the phasing-out of emergency motel accommodation for the homeless who have run out of options.

On the face of it, putting an end to accommodating homeless people and their families in motels sounds like a positive and compassionate policy. What began under Bill English’s government as a genuinely ad-hoc and temporary response to the burgeoning housing crisis, morphed under Labour into a seemingly permanent answer to the growing discrepancy between need and supply. Entirely predictably, this concentration of the most vulnerable into the “motel rows” of New Zealand’s cities and tourist towns attracted all manner of dangerous predators. What had started out as a short-term fix, turned into a long-term nightmare.

And an expensive one. By the time the government changed, the state was pouring in excess of a million dollars a day into the pockets of New Zealand’s motel owners. Just as well, given that it had not taken New Zealanders and travel organisers very long to twig that motel accommodation was not an option to be considered seriously unless one actually enjoyed the soundtrack of immiseration. Loud music played at all hours, accompanied by frighteningly imaginative offensive language and behaviour, frequently spilling-out into the motel car-park, where a situation could deteriorate from the merely disruptive to the outright criminal in the flash of an illegal blade.

Stories multiplied of kids roaming unsupervised under the predatory gaze of gang members; of drunkenness and drug-use, and of the MSD’s wards “trashing” motel units. The effective nationalisation of the nation’s motel accommodation, far from mending homelessness, had created crime-ridden no-go zones, where defenceless victims were thoughtfully gathered for the convenience of their victimisers. Included among whom, as the years passed, turned out to be the very same state that had set the whole sorry mess in motion.

It was enough to make anybody mad. But, what turned out to be much harder for the Coalition’s ministers was getting mad at the right people. Rather than ask themselves whether the clamour from moteliers and developers to kick out the homeless beneficiaries might have been prompted by the end of the Covid emergency and the steady recovery of the tourism industry, the ministers called for ever more aggressive invigilation of the homeless.

MSD was instructed to make even tougher checks of their wards’ eligibility. Were they guilty of biting the hands that fed them? Did they have a history of trashing their rooms? Was there really no one who could take them in? Never mind that in the absence of such MSD scrutiny the homeless would never have been provided with a motel room. Scrutinize them harder!

Such intensification of what is already a profoundly stressful environment only makes sense if those responsible believe poverty to be the fault of its victims. It’s what happens when it is both ideologically and politically impossible to address fundamental causes.

A society which, forty years ago, gave up on the idea that it is the state’s duty to ensure that all its citizens are adequately housed, is left with no option but to look to the market for solutions. These will not be forthcoming, for the very simple reason that there is nowhere near enough profit in poverty. (Unless, of course, the state is willing to provide that profit by paying exorbitant prices for the motel rooms in which the market economy’s victims are warehoused.)

And then there’s the state’s ever-increasing collection of rules and regulations – society’s legal acknowledgement that an unregulated marketplace is a dangerous marketplace. How can society be so sure? Because, 150 years ago, society witnessed with its own eyes the consequences of allowing public health and safety to be ignored. It was around the same time that people began to become alarmed at how rapidly their country’s natural environment was falling foul of Capitalism’s costless externalisation of its waste. The response of the politicians was to create reserves and national parks.

It wasn’t enough. Post-war New Zealand was hungry for energy, and its electrical engineers, working alongside the Ministry of Works, gave it to them. It wasn’t until the early-1970s that the costs of such breakneck development became insupportable. The campaign to “save” Lake Manapouri grew into New Zealand’s first mass environmental movement. The “Baby Boom” generation, now old enough to vote, made sure it would not be the last.

The electoral heft of that generation was sufficient to limit the plans of those who had been encouraged to “rip-in, rip-out and rip-off” in the name of national development. It presented the Right with a problem: how to keep National’s long-term love-affair with mining companies, forestry interests, roading contractors, and urban developers hot and steamy. The strength of the environmental movement, and the rise of “green” politics, enforced a frustrating measure of discretion – and it rankled.

But in 2024, with the political phenomenon of “wokeness” having driven strategically devastating wedges into the Left’s electoral coalition, the numbers are finally with the Parliamentary Right. All that pent-up fury with the constraints imposed upon those willing to dream and think “big” is now being released. For the first time since the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s and 90s, New Zealand has a government that understands the state’s key role in fostering and protecting national development. That, without the state riding shotgun, the market – especially in a country the size of New Zealand – is too weak to play the role of nation-builder.

The truth of this proposition has been clear since the 1870s, when Sir Julius Vogel launched New Zealand’s first “national development” plan. It was equally clear to Bill Sutch in the 1950s. And even clearer to Rob Muldoon when he launched his own “Think Big” push for economic growth in the late1970s and early-1980s.

To make it work, however, the House of Representatives will have to reassert its supremacy over all the other players in the New Zealand polity: the judiciary, the public service, te iwi Māori, the trade unions, the universities, and the mainstream news-media. All the elements, in short, whose resistance to the Coalition Government’s plans, be it actual or merely potential, is fuelling the Coalition’s leaders’ resentment and anger.

That the Coalition’s political conduct harks back to the days of Rob Muldoon is no accident. To find the precedents for what this government is proposing; and for its willingness to engage in the most ruthless kind of majoritarian politics to make it happen, it is necessary to return to the “glory days” of Muldoonism.

No wonder so many New Zealanders are gripped by the feeling that they have been here before.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 11 March 2024.

Thursday 7 March 2024

For the Self-Loathing Left, Charity Definitely Does NOT Begin At Home.

The Ill Wind’s Beneficiary: George Galloway’s Rochdale by-election victory will make not one whit of difference to the unfolding catastrophe in Gaza. He will be despised by virtually the whole of the British Establishment, including the overwhelming majority of his parliamentary colleagues. Aside from making speeches in front of evermore bloodthirsty assemblies of Israel’s enemies, Galloway will have little to offer the people of his constituency, or the broader labour movement. 

GEORGE GALLOWAY’S STUNNING VICTORY in Rochdale has provoked a sharp response from leftists whose primary analytical focus remains socio-economic. Galloway turned the by-election into a referendum on the two main British political parties’ stance on the war in Gaza. Successfully exploiting the fact that 30 percent of the Rochdale electorate (located on the periphery of Greater Manchester) is Muslim, Galloway secured 40 percent of the votes cast.

A minority of leftist commentators lamented the fact that the immediate needs of the working-class people of Rochdale had been superseded by the needs of the Palestinians. Galloway’s win has, however, been hailed as a triumph by the sort of leftist who no longer sees white workers as a progressive force. For those who do, Rochdale isn’t worth the fuss all these “progressives” are making of it.

Too harsh? Not at all. Galloway’s victory will make not one whit of difference to the unfolding catastrophe in Gaza. He will be despised by virtually the whole of the British Establishment, including the overwhelming majority of his parliamentary colleagues. Aside from making speeches in front of evermore bloodthirsty assemblies of Israel’s enemies, Galloway will have little to offer the people of his constituency, or the broader labour movement. There are precious few red flags to be found amongst the thousands of Palestinian flags being brandished by anti-Israel demonstrators. And those that do appear are not announcing an English revolution.

Not that New Zealand has any need of a George Galloway to defend the Palestinian cause in its Parliament – not with the Green Party of Aotearoa so willing to do the job. New Zealand’s Labour Party, in sharp contrast to its British counterpart, is only marginally less supportive of Palestine than the Greens. Meanwhile, Te Pāti Māori has been quick to link the Palestinians’ fight against “racism” and “colonialism” with their own.

That a majority of New Zealanders stand with Israel in its war against Hamas, daunts not one of this country’s “left-wing” parties. On this issue, as on so many others dear to the hearts of “progressive” Kiwis, there is no room for dissidence; no possibility of debate.

How did the New Zealand Left come to abandon the politics of class, in favour of expressing unquestioning solidarity with emphatically non-progressive religious/political movements in far-off lands – and why? The following comparison may help to clarify at least some of the issues in play.

The Destiny Church is a fundamentalist Christian organisation pursuing a radical right-wing political agenda. It recruits most of its followers from the indigenous poor, to whom it offers practical, as well as spiritual, assistance. Its religious doctrine is theologically conservative, militantly patriarchal and virulently homophobic. Brian Tamaki, the Destiny Church’s charismatic leader, is constantly striving to win political power. His objective is to acquire the means to enforce what he believes to be the will of God upon a nation of unrepentant atheists, apostates and sinners.

Destiny’s pursuit of political power has been singularly unsuccessful. His parties’ share of the Party Vote in successive elections has hovered around 1 percent. Tamaki’s uncompromising religious fanaticism does not sit well with New Zealand’s largely secular electorate. Certainly, no one describing themselves as a leftist would ever consider voting for Tamaki’s religious/political enterprises.

Why, then, are so many leftists coming out on the streets in support of a Palestinian religious/political regime drawn from a movement bearing a more than passing resemblance to Brian Tamaki’s? Hamas is theologically conservative in its interpretation and application of the Muslim faith. It, too, is militantly patriarchal and virulently homophobic in its socio-cultural attitudes. It has also pursued political power relentlessly to restore spiritual order and punish the unfaithful. The fundamental difference between these two movements is that Destiny remains politically powerless, while Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007.

All those “progressives” spluttering and guffawing at this comparison, should consider this follow-up question. If New Zealand was occupied by what its people considered an alien nation, a nation which New Zealand’s secular resistance movement, in spite of plentiful military and financial support, had consistently failed to defeat, how confident could they be that the passionate certainties of a body like the Destiny Church would continue to be rejected by a majority of voters?

Not confident at all, is the honest answer. Except Western “progressives” would never submit to the rule of such a government. Their innate sense of superiority, and their lofty disdain for the credulous and the ignorant, would prevent them supporting such a movement – unless, of course, it was a movement located in a country far enough away for them not to have to worry too much about the manner in which its people are governed.

The truth is that it’s not the people, or the nature of their government, or even the fact that they are suffering, that engages the western progressive, it’s the identity of the nation, or nations, inflicting the suffering. If the nation inflicting pain and suffering on the Palestinians was an Arab nation, a Muslim nation, would hundreds-of-thousands of westerners be marching in protest? After all, while tens-of-thousands of Gazans are dying at the hands of the IDF, similar numbers of Sudanese Christians are being shot and starved by their fellow citizens. Who is chanting and waving flags for them? 

Not many, if any. Because, it isn’t death and suffering that western progressives are concerned about, it’s who’s to blame. If the pain isn’t being inflicted by human-beings like themselves, upon human-beings emphatically unlike themselves, then really, they’re not that interested.

Where is the international movement against the oppression of women in Afghanistan to equal the international movement that emerged to fight the oppression of Blacks in South Africa? There is no such movement. Why, because those responsible for oppressing Afghan women and girls are defiantly misogynistic, murderously homophobic, Islamist fanatics. If only they were Americans or Europeans! Then it would be a very different story!

Can it really be that simple? Is it simply a matter of the Western Left’s overwhelming self-loathing? Having failed to change their own societies – doubtless because “their” workers were too fat and happy to bother, or, more likely, too culturally conservative to see revolution as anything other than a mortal danger to all but the most unpleasant kinds of human-being – did the Western Left simply decide to stop cheering for the “genocidal” cowboys, and start rooting for the “colonised” Native Americans?

Or, in George Galloway’s case – the Palestinians.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project of Monday, 4 March 2024.

Why Newshub Failed.

Too Small To Survive: Was it ever realistic to believe that two commercial television networks could profitably share such a tiny market?

TO UNDERSTAND WHY NEWSHUB FAILED, it is necessary to understand how TVNZ changed. Up until 1989, the state broadcaster had been funded by a broadcasting licence fee, collected from every citizen in possession of a television set, supplemented by a relatively modest (compared to present levels) amount of commercial advertising. This arrangement reinforced both the public character and the public obligations of the state broadcaster. As the network’s primary funders, the viewing public constituted TVNZ’s most important clientele. These were the citizens to whom TVNZ’s professional broadcasters believed themselves accountable.

And then everything changed. The Broadcasting Act (1989) transformed TVNZ from an entity dedicated to serving the public, to an entity legally required to conduct its affairs in the manner of a private company. The Broadcasting Licence Fee survived (until it was finally abolished in 1999) but under the new act the funds it raised were funnelled into NZ On Air – a body whose hi-falutin objectives would be forever compromised by its obligation to first obtain a commitment, from what were now commercial broadcasters, to screen the productions they were being invited to commission.

This was a devastating Catch-22 for all those producers and directors dedicated to producing high-quality television programmes. Why? Because before switching-on a single camera, they had to satisfy TVNZ – and later TV3 – that the product they were pitching would deliver the right number of eyeballs to the right number of advertisers. It didn’t really matter to the executives compiling the broadcasters’ schedule if the proposed programme was topical, powerful, much-needed, or culturally outstanding: what they needed to know was whether it could meet – or exceed – the opportunity-cost of not slotting-in a high-rating/high-earning programme in the schedule upon which the production house was asking to be placed?

What this meant was that drama and documentary features – the most expensive to make – had to work so much harder than the makers of the relatively cheap “Reality TV” shows in order to secure that all-important sign-off from the networks. Once those same networks saw how well Reality TV rated, the difficulties confronting the makers of programmes not tailored to the tastes of “ordinary viewers” became practically insurmountable.

For the Minister who drafted the Broadcasting Act this was not a bug, but a feature. Richard Prebble wanted his new State-Owned Enterprise, TVNZ, to tailor its production and its schedule to the signals it was receiving from the entertainment marketplace. The commercial enterprises with advertisements to place before the network’s viewers’ eyeballs, the enterprises now funding the networks’ running-costs, would, henceforth, be the ones sending the most important signals. But the viewers who rated the shows in which the ads were being broadcast, they sent signals that were only marginally less important.

The signals communicated to the networks’ schedulers and programme-makers by viewers could hardly have been clearer. They liked to watch programmes in which one group, or multiple groups, of people were pitted against each other in a highly competitive environment. They lapped-up the nastiness and pettiness that such environments elicited. They relished the betrayals and laughed at the tears. Ancient Rome knew the type – they had filled its amphitheatres and cheered-on its bloodiest gladiators.

Those programme-makers who believed the public deserved something better than these crude theatres of cruelty were scorned. The schedulers demanded to know why they thought their product was superior to the output of Reality TV. Wasn’t it just the teeniest bit elitist, they inquired, to think that your sort of television – which rates like a dog – should take precedence over shows that rate through the roof? Who are you to tell the people what they should be watching? Who are you to defy the rough-and-ready democracy of the remote control? Cultural snobs – that’s who!

There were those who watched, as TV3 attempted to carve out a profitable niche in this increasingly cut-throat broadcasting environment, and shook their heads sadly. New Zealand was a country with a population smaller than Sydney’s – so television’s infamous “money trench” was never going to be all that big. Which raised the questions: Was it ever realistic to believe that two commercial television networks were going to profitably share such a tiny market? Wasn’t it inevitable that one network would claim the lion’s share of viewers and revenue; while the other was condemned to fight off every hungry hyena and vulture for the rest?

It is not well understood (outside broadcasting circles) just how viciously TVNZ fought, from the very beginning, to be the network that claimed the lion’s share. It fought TV3 every single inch of the way: moving heaven and earth to head it off at every conceivable strategic pass; competing with it aggressively for every pair of eyeballs; scheduling against it with ruthless precision.

Ever since 1989, the truth of the matter has been that it was TVNZ that behaved like the rapacious capitalist television network, and TV3 that strove, against all the odds, to produce programmes that had something more to offer than carefully contrived schadenfreude. This weird reversal of roles is attributable to the fact that, from the very beginning, TV3 was driven by the sort of cussèd under-doggery that always brings out the best in New Zealanders. It was the founders of TV3, not the administrators of TVNZ, who believed most fervently that, given the chance, Kiwi broadcasters could astonish the world.

(Which isn’t to say that there weren’t broadcasters in TVNZ who shared their TV3 counterparts’ faith in the possibilities of television, merely that in the years that followed the passage of the Broadcasting Act (1989) they were purged from the TVNZ payroll with an efficiency that would have made Stalin proud.)

Perhaps the saddest part of the lopsided battle between TVNZ and TV3 is that it simply never needed to have happened. The answer to the problem posed by two competing commercial networks in an advertising market as small as New Zealand’s was always blindingly obvious. Turn TVNZ into a genuine public broadcaster. That is to say, a state-owned, commercial-free, broadcaster, paid for by redirecting most of the taxpayer dollars currently funding New Zealand on Air. That would leave the television advertising market, which, even in this digital age, remains large enough to support one (carefully managed) private television network. (Especially if the Government waived its transmission charges.)

Imagine, then, a scene reminiscent of the prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and Russia. All the hard-nosed bastards who regard Reality TV has high-culture trooping in a body from TVNZ headquarters to the studios of the newly resurrected private network. While moving past them, in the opposite direction, go the mavericks, the dreamers, and the journalists who still understand the meaning of the word. All of them eager to claim their place in the genuine public broadcasting network that should always have been their home.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 4 March 2024.

Tuesday 5 March 2024

Unintended Consequences.

The Basilisk’s Glare: From his eyrie in the Kremlin, Putin’s eyes remain fixed upon the United States. Not in fear does he gaze upon the world’s unconquerable continental Goliath, but with rising hope. In President Biden’s palsied hand, the sword of freedom is loosely held. Meanwhile, from the heartland of the continent, the people America has left behind are steadily pushing their comb-over Moses towards Washington.

TWO YEARS AGO, when Vladimir Putin sent his armed forces across Ukraine’s borders, he was expecting a quick war. His generals had reassured him that the Ukrainians wouldn’t fight, Nato would sit on its hands, and his soldiers would be welcomed with kisses and flowers. Kyiv, they told him, would be his within three weeks – tops.

Putin’s advice was ill-founded in every respect. The Ukrainians did fight – and are still fighting. Nato, far from sitting on its hands, has backed the Ukrainian war effort with massive quantities of munitions and economic aid.

Everything short of unleashing Nato’s own forces against the Russian invaders has been thrown into this war in Eastern Europe. More important, at least from Putin’s perspective, Nato has expanded.

Daunted by Russia’s naked aggression, and its disdain for international law, Sweden has abandoned 200 years of neutrality for Nato membership, Finland has done the same. Nato navies now control the Baltic from Copenhagen to Helsinki. And Russia has given itself an additional 1,200 kilometres of “hostile” borders to patrol. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: From the Gulf of Riga to the Black Sea, all the ancient nations of Europe are gathered behind Nato’s security guarantee – its tripwire for Armageddon.

And yet, from his eyrie in the Kremlin, Putin’s eyes remain fixed upon the United States. Not in fear does he gaze upon the world’s unconquerable continental Goliath, but with rising hope. In President Biden’s palsied hand, the sword of freedom is loosely held. Meanwhile, from the heartland of the continent, the people America has left behind are steadily pushing their comb-over Moses towards Washington.

Donald Trump’s army is distinguished not only by its enormity, but by its indifference to the rest of the world’s troubles. “Beware of foreign entanglements”, warned their first President, George Washington, and Trump’s followers are ill-disposed to gainsay their founding father.

“Why should we defend the borders of Ukraine”, they demand to know, “when Biden refuses to defend his own from hordes of illegal immigrants?” Sufficient unto the day are the troubles of these “deplorable” Americans.

“Make America Great Again” is embroidered on their headgear, but the greatness they invoke is not the greatness of the American military cornucopia that supplied the Red Army with the wherewithal to defeat Hitler’s invasion. With the food that fed them, the boots in which they marched to battle, and the heavy trucks that carried their ordnance across the limitless East-European Plain – all the way to Berlin.

Nor is it the greatness that saw America garrison Europe with its own sons: those young soldiers who stared down their Soviet opposite numbers across the narrow defiles of innumerable Checkpoint Charlies, all along the Iron Curtain, for the four frigid decades of the Cold War.

No, the greatness Trump seeks to restore is the greatness of White America. The America that looks right through Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and all the other vibrant elements of the great American melting-pot – as if they don’t exist. The greatness of Christian America which, in spite of invoking “Jesus!” at every turn, conducts itself as though the New Testament does not exist. Trump’s people are seeking the greatness they passionately believe can be theirs only by putting “America First!” – and the rest of the world dead last.

In the hands of these Americans, Putin is placing all his hopes. And yet, even if Trump wins the presidency and, to the cheers of his followers, tells Nato to go to hell, Putin’s dreams of a de-fanged Europe may still not come to pass.

Even without the United States, Europe constitutes an unanswerable challenge to Russia’s imperial dreams. Half-a-billion strong, possessed of a technological and industrial prowess that far exceeds the Russian Federation’s, the nations of Europe have the capacity to become, in very short order, a truly formidable military power. Two of its nations (the UK and France) already possess nuclear weapons, Germany could easily become Europe’s third.

Are these, the unintended consequences of his geopolitical hubris, truly the outcomes Putin was anticipating when, on 24 February 2022, his armies shattered the hard-won peace of Europe? An enlarged Nato, Germany furiously re-arming, and the Poles dreaming of once again rescuing Europe from eastern invaders, just as John III Sobieski did outside the gates of Vienna in 1683.

The West is not beaten yet.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 March 2024.