Tuesday 30 April 2024

Winding Back The Hands Of History’s Clock.

Holding On To The Present: The moment a political movement arises that attacks the whole idea of social progress, and announces its intention to wind back the hands of History’s clock, then democracy, along with its unwritten rules, is in mortal danger.

IT’S A COMMONPLACE of political speeches, especially those delivered in acknowledgement of electoral victory: “We’ll govern for all New Zealanders.” On the face of it, the pledge is a strange one. Why would any political leader govern in ways that advantaged the huge number of citizens who’d cast their votes against her party? Surely, in a nation governed by political parties, strengthening one’s own, and advantaging its most loyal supporters, would be the two top priorities?

That so many political leaders reiterate the “We’ll govern for all New Zealanders” pledge is attributable to what might be called the unwritten rules of democratic politics. A government which ruled in open defiance of all but its own voters would very swiftly unite the rest of the country against it. Worse still, when such a government fell (which would likely be sooner rather than later) its replacement would have no compunction about following its predecessor’s example.

Very quickly, general elections would come to be feared by all sides. Failure to win could mean impoverishment, discrimination, even persecution, for the members and followers of the losing parties. The irresistible temptation, upon winning a general election, would be to make damn sure there wasn’t another one, or, at least, not one conducted freely and fairly. At best, the result would be an Hungarian-style “illiberal democracy”. At worst, outright tyranny.

“We’ll govern for all New Zealanders”, preserves at least the fiction that partisanship ceases when the last vote is counted, and that, henceforward, the election winner/s will govern in the “national interest”. Crude partisanship is banished to the sidelines, right up until the electoral term is set to expire.

In this fiction, the incoming government will be seconded by the public service, whose role, at least theoretically, is to preserve the inviolability of such key state institutions as the judiciary, the armed forces and the police, as well as ensuring the continuity of the state’s day-to-day administrative entities and services.

In reality, the public service serves the interests of the party, or parties, that have just won, or been returned, to power. It advances the new/re-elected government’s policy agenda, offering advice, and doing everything within its power to protect its ministers from their own arrogance, inexperience and/or stupidity. In other words, they are the government’s best friend, right up until the moment it is no longer the government. Very much a case of “The King is dead. Long live the King!”

“We’ll govern for all New Zealanders” is also a pledge to refrain from undoing everything the outgoing government has done whilst in office. Aside from one or two highly symbolic revocations and repeals, the new government is expected to retain those legislated reforms which were well-signalled, widely discussed and debated, and properly passed through all the required parliamentary stages.

Failure to be bound by this unwritten democratic rule is tantamount to repudiating democracy itself. If every attempt at reform is to be ruthlessly undone by the reformers’ successors, then democracy itself will be reduced to little more than a triennial search-and-destroy mission.

The whole utility and, ultimately, the very possibility of meaningful reform will be undermined, to the point where, once again, people begin to ask what democracy is good for.

If every attempt to improve society is countermanded by those who benefit most directly from its defects, then people will begin to insist that a more permanent method be found for negating their advantages. Understandable, but a “people’s tyranny” is still a tyranny.

“We’ll govern for all New Zealanders” is, at its core, a bi-partisan affirmation that the whole point of a democratic system is to make possible the steady advance of the general welfare. Parties of the Left will do their best to speed up that advance. Parties of the Right will attempt to slow the pace. But underlying and informing both Left and Right is a belief that history moves forwards, not backwards. The moment a political movement arises that attacks the whole idea of social progress, and announces its intention to wind back the hands of History’s clock, then democracy, along with its unwritten rules, is in mortal danger.

Is this where New Zealand presently stands? Have New Zealanders elected themselves a government determined to wind back the hands of History’s clock? There are some who insist that a narrow majority of New Zealanders have done precisely this. That the National-Act-NZ First Coalition Government has demonstrated not the slightest intention of governing for all New Zealanders. That it is a government for farmers, landlords, road-builders, mining companies – and the rest of the country be damned!

Or, in the colourful language of The Daily Blog editor, Martyn Bradbury: “This Hard-Right, racist, climate-change-denying, beneficiary-bashing Government.”

Others would argue that the only reason the incoming government felt obliged to wind back the hands of History’s clock is because their predecessors had pushed them too far forward. That, in spite of her promise to govern for all New Zealanders, Jacinda Ardern had allowed elements within Labour’s caucus to promote policies and pass legislation that caused a great many of her fellow citizens to feel disoriented, disliked, and even disinherited. Many Non-Māori New Zealanders felt robbed of what they considered their birthright – the country their European ancestors had built, and the European religious and political beliefs that animated its institutions.

The most precious of these Pakeha taonga is representative democracy. From the election of the Liberal Government in 1891 to the election of the First Labour Government in 1935, the Second in 1957 and the Third in 1972, New Zealanders took pride in their country’s designation as the “social laboratory of the world”. Sure, there were periods of conservative consolidation, when the clock’s hands slowed considerably, but, for the most part, it recorded the steady advance of New Zealand’s socially progressive hours. Not even the years of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia could halt its hands entirely.

What happened to so derange the operation of History’s clock remains a matter of heated debate. Beyond dispute, however, is that at some point between 2017 and 2023 its machinery was over-wound to a degree that gave rise to an unprecedented level of social unease. Changes, uncalled for and ill-explained, came in rapid succession. Too quickly to be either understood, accepted, or forgiven. Political polarisation worsened until there was only one statement that all but the Labour Government’s most ardent followers could agree upon: the politicians in the Beehive are not governing for all New Zealanders.

Entirely predictably, the breaking of one unwritten rule, led swiftly to the breaking of another. And, now, the critical motivational spring of this country’s historical clock – its hitherto unshakeable belief in democracy and the social progress it makes possible – is on the point of failing altogether.

But, if Christopher Luxon’s Government shows no sign of pausing in its reactionary backward lurching, then neither does Chris Hipkins’ Labour Party demonstrate the slightest indication of understanding how close they came to breaking the precious democratic mechanism, nor how urgent is the need for its repair.

Democracy, once lost, is not easily recovered.

If ever there was a time for both Left and Right to declare: “We’ll govern for all New Zealanders” – and mean it – then that time is now.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project website on Monday, 29 April 2024.

Sweet Moderation? What Christopher Luxon Could Learn From The Germans.

Stuck In The Middle With You: As Christopher Luxon feels the hot breath of Act’s and NZ First’s extremists on the back of his neck and, as he reckons with the damage their policies are already inflicting upon a country he’s described as “fragile”, is there not some merit in reaching out to a Labour leader who is undoubtedly as fearful of his own “allies” as Luxon is of his coalition “partners”?

NEW ZEALAND POLITICS is remarkably easy-going: dangerously so, one might even say. With the notable exception of John Key’s flat ruling-out of the NZ First Party in 2008, all parties capable of clearing MMP’s five-percent threshold, or winning one or more electorate seats, tend to find themselves ruled-in to the government formation game. (While it is true Labour’s Chris Hipkins ruled out NZ First as a coalition partner in 2023, that was only after NZ First had ruled out Labour.) ‘Never say never’, would appear to be the operating principle when it comes to forging coalition governments in New Zealand.

The contrast between New Zealand’s and Germany’s approach to forming coalition governments could hardly be starker. Doubtless on account of their Twentieth Century political nightmares, the major, and even some of the minor German political parties are prepared to collectively rule out of coalition contention any political party deemed morally unacceptable as a partner in power.

On several occasions in the past 20 years, the German Social Democrats (SPD) and Die Grünen (the Greens) could have governed Germany from the left if they had been willing to forge a three-way coalition with Die Linke (The Left Party). That they did not do so was on account of the fact that, in addition to a breakaway group of left-wing SPD members led by the former Finance Minister, Oskar Lafontaine, Die Linke also included the Party for Democratic Socialism, successor to East Germany’s Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party).

For a local comparison, think Jim Anderton and his NewLabour Party merging with New Zealand’s own Moscow-aligned Socialist Unity Party!

The presence of former members of the brutally totalitarian SED in Die Linke was unacceptable to the SDP and Die Grünen. Accordingly, and well before voters cast their ballots, Germans were warned that Die Linke would form no part of any future German government – Left or Right. Obviously, the voters were still free to vote for Die Linke, but they would do so knowing that they were making a left-wing coalition government less – not more – likely. (Die Linke now polls below the five-percent threshold of Germany’s MMP system.)

On the other side of the political divide, the conservative Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and its allies, have made it clear that they are not prepared to enter any governing coalition in which the Far-Right, ethno-nationalist, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is being considered as an acceptable participant. With the parties of the Left all giving the same undertaking, the Nazi-adjacent “Alternative for Germany” has found itself excluded altogether from polite German politics.

Whether the AfD’s total exclusion from Germany’s coalition politics will hold, now that it is registering between 16 and 25 percent support in the opinion polls (becoming Germany’s second party after the CDU) remains to be seen.

What makes this exclusion of the political extremes electorally viable is the willingness of what used to be the two major German political parties, the CDU and the SPD, to come together and form a “Grand Coalition” of the Centre-Right and the Centre-Left. Such coalitions more-or-less completely undercut the bargaining power of the smaller parties and made it impossible for the tail to wag the dog. Once again, it is Germany’s tragic history, most particularly the unwillingness of the major parties of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) to deploy such system-protecting blocking coalitions against the Nazis, that explains the Grand Coalitions of post-war Germany.

All of which is by way of setting the scene for a reconsideration of the question: Is a “Grand Coalition”  a realistic option for New Zealand?

The whole idea has been dismissed, almost out-of-hand, in the past. Political observers point to the fact that New Zealand continues to be dominated by two major parties, National and Labour, and that these “majors” both have ideologically compatible “minors” with which to coalesce. According to this conventional wisdom, a Grand Coalition would likely prove extremely damaging electorally. Principally, to the party deemed to be the weaker partner, but also, potentially, to the stronger party – especially if it appeared to be making too many concessions to its traditional enemies.

But, is it still the case that Act and NZ First, for National; and the Greens and Te Pāti Māori, for Labour; remain ideologically compatible with their ‘natural’ coalition partners? Or, has the socially and politically destabilising impacts of Covid-19, and all its attendant malignancies, altered fundamentally the political cultures of the minor parties – and not in a good way? With the extreme policy demands of the Far-Left and the Far-Right destabilising the centre-ground, it is going to require political leadership of an increasingly high order to prevent New Zealand’s electoral politics from resolving itself into two snarling blocs of fanatics, hostile not only to one another, but also to the whole idea of bipartisanship and parliamentary compromise.

Already we are seeing the electoral scene being set for what might be called “retaliatory deconstruction”. The National-Act-NZ First Coalition has led the way by repealing the legislative achievements of its Labour-Green predecessor on a scale unprecedented since the ill-fated Muldoon Government of 1975-84.

It is sobering to recall the extent to which Muldoon’s electoral success was dependent on the baying extremists of “Rob’s Mob” – that uncompromising core of ideologically disoriented New Zealanders lured away from Labour by Muldoon’s populist promises to undo all the radical reforms that Labour’s “arty-farty, namby-pamby, left-wing liberals and academics” had foisted upon the “ordinary blokes” of a beleaguered working-class.

To reclaim the Treasury Benches, it seems inevitable that Labour-Greens-Te Pāti Māori will have to promise their voters a 100-day burst of retaliatory deconstruction every bit as thorough and destabilising as that overseen by Christopher Luxon. Political polarisation will intensify to the point where “normal” government becomes impossible, and democracy is reduced to a triennial search-and-destroy mission.

In his exit-interview with TVNZ’s Jack Tame, the former co-leader of the Greens, James Shaw, acknowledged the many reactionary measures – now implemented – that might have been avoided had Luxon had the courage to reach out to him for support. Shaw recounted to Tame the positive response he had received from 15 of the 16 Green activists he had been canvassing alongside in Dunedin when he asked them whether or not the Greens should reach out to National. Their support was not given on account of what could be achieved by such an alliance, but what it could prevent.

As Luxon feels the hot breath of Act’s and NZ First’s extremists on the back of his neck and, as he reckons with the damage their policies are already inflicting upon a country he describes as “fragile”, is there not some merit in considering the German example, and reaching out to a Labour leader who is undoubtedly as fearful of his own “allies” as Luxon is of his coalition “partners”?

In the words of Billy Bragg’s poignant anthem:

Sweet moderation
Heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are
Between the wars

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 29 April 2024.

Listening To The Traffic.

It Takes A Train To Cry: Surely, there is nothing lonelier in all this world than the long wail of a distant steam locomotive on a cold Winter’s night.

AS A CHILD, I would lie awake in my grandfather’s house and listen to the traffic. The big wooden house was only a few metres from State Highway One, but, sixty years ago, the traffic, especially after dark, was pretty sparse.

In the silence of the North Otago countryside an approaching automobile announced its presence from a great distance. Nearer and nearer it came, tyres hissing on the tar-seal. Then, as it passed the house, the Doppler Effect dropped the note of its engine until, fading slowly, the darkness swallowed it up.

Rarer even that the cars down Highway One, were the passing trains chuffing up and down the Main Trunk Line. Surely, there is nothing lonelier in all this world than the long wail of a distant steam locomotive on a cold Winter’s night.

The long ribbon of State Highway One was in considerably better nick then than it is now. Not only were there fewer cars, but about the only sizeable vehicles on the roads in those days were the “sheep trucks” transporting lambs, quite literally, to the slaughter.

It was the absence of heavy trucks that kept New Zealand’s highways in such good condition. Potholes were not a “thing” – not in 1962.

That there were so few heavy trucks on the roads was not accidental. The transport regulations of the time were framed to advantage long-distance transportation by rail. In 1961 road haulage was limited to 67 kilometres, increased to 150 kilometres in 1977.

Madness? New Zealand’s big capitalists certainly thought so. They knew that by eliminating the double-handling of goods the nation’s transportation system could be made much more efficient – for them. Canned goods could be loaded onto a heavy truck at a Watties factory in Hawkes Bay and driven straight to the waiting Auckland supermarkets overnight. NZ Railways couldn’t compete.

A great many New Zealanders, caught up in the de-regulatory mania of the 1980s and 90s, were disposed to agree with the road transport lobbyists. It was only as the years passed, and the highways became white-knuckle contests between frail family sedans and multi-wheeled behemoths travelling at terrifying speed, that travellers began to understand what had been hidden in the fine-print of the Neoliberals’ deregulatory gospel.

Not only were the roads becoming increasingly difficult to drive on in safety, but the road surface itself was being chewed up an spat out in chunks. State Highway One was fast becoming an impossible obstacle course of potholes and plastic cones.

To make matters worse, New Zealand’s two main parties could not be persuaded to agree on the optimum mode of transportation. This disagreement was a simple matter of ideology. Capitalists believed in cars. Socialists (and Greens) believed in trains. Cars fit perfectly into the individualistic lifestyle encouraged by capitalism. Trains (and trams) embody the collectivist instincts of socialism. Transportation by rail may be socially rational and economically efficient, but nothing signals “fun” like a fast car.

That’s why, in this battle of the transportation modes, trains were always on a hiding to nothing. And, it certainly didn’t hurt the roads-before-railways lobbyists’ case that the car’s big brother, the heavy-motor-vehicle, had become critical to the top-tier capitalists’ profitability.

Railways are expensive to build and maintain, making them excellent reasons for raising the capitalists’ taxes. They also contribute, in a host of other ways, to the cost of doing big business. Just as well, then, that New Zealand capitalism has the National Party, which has never seen a “highway of national significance” that it didn’t like, or a railway recovery plan that it didn’t loathe. “Tina”, of TV commercial fame, may be sold on “Cars! Cars! Cars!”, but for National it has always been “Roads! Roads! Roads!”

In a world struggling to mitigate the effects of climate change that might appear insane. It has not, however, dissuaded National’s Nicola Willis from compromising the “floating bridge” of railway ferries that binds the North and South Islands – up to and including forcing businesses to unload their containers from railway wagons and load them onto trucks. I’d like to see the Neoliberals explain the improved efficiency of that!

I’d also like to see Labour and the Greens sharpen and amplify their own policies in relation to rebuilding New Zealand’s railways.

Because, the only sound sadder than a locomotive’s wail is … silence.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 April 2024.

Comity Be Damned! The State’s Legislative Arm Is Flexing Its Constitutional Muscles.

Packing A Punch: The election of the present government, including in its ranks politicians dedicated to reasserting the rights of the legislature in shaping and determining the future of Māori and Pakeha in New Zealand, should have alerted the judiciary – including its anomalous appendage, the Waitangi Tribunal – that its days of calling the shots on race relations in general, and the Treaty in particular, were coming to an end.

THE CONSTITUTIONAL PRINCIPLE of “comity” acknowledges the susceptibility of what should be complimentary state functions to dangerous entanglement. It enjoins the three branches of government; executive, legislative and judicial; to demonstrate a mutual respect for each other’s functions. Without “comity”, not only is the smooth functioning of the three branches of government put at risk, but also the political legitimacy of the state itself.

This is a big enough ask in a republic with a written constitution, but it imposes an enormous set of expectations in countries governed by the Westminster System. When the executive and legislative arms are conjoined, as they are under the Westminster System, the judicial arm is acutely exposed to being bullied into conformity by its “brothers”. It is a bold and/or reckless judiciary that negates the virtues of comity by challenging the elected centres of state power head-on.

The limits of judicial power have been on vivid display in the palace of Westminster ever since the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom declared “unlawful” the legislative mechanisms devised by the Conservative Government of Rishi Sunak to “Stop the Boats!”. Incensed by this breakdown in comity, Sunak and his party passed a law negating the judgement of the Supreme Court justices. Regardless of the actual conditions on the ground, the House of Commons has declared the Central African state of Rwanda to be a “safe place” for asylum-seekers.

In the course of this bitter constitutional arm-wrestle with their own judges, Conservative MPs have voiced equally bitter condemnations of the European Convention on Human Rights (the charter drafted in the late-1940s by the UK, among others, in the aftermath of Nazism’s defeat) and its judicial extension, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) whose jurisdiction still extends across the United Kingdom.

From the perspective of Tory MPs, British judges overturning the will of the elected representatives of the British people is bad, but manageable. On the other hand, being told what to do by a bunch of European judges is intolerable. Small wonder, then, that there is a growing clamour from the British Right for the UK to repudiate the Convention and withdraw altogether from the ECtHR. Predictably, human-rights activists in the UK are outraged and dismayed by such suggestions.

Historically, the principle of comity enjoyed only a brief lifespan in the United States where, early on in the history of the American Republic its Supreme Court seized – and has exercised ever since – the right to strike down as “unconstitutional” the decisions of the lower courts as well as the executive and the legislative branches. Unelected, and enjoying lifelong tenure, the nine justices of the US Supreme Court have wreaked havoc across two centuries of American history. “Dred Scott”, its most infamous judgement, declared that African-Americans could never enjoy the same rights as White Americans, and made the American Civil War inevitable.

Bringing the vexed issues of minority rights before the judicial arm has, however, always attracted those who cannot persuade either political leaders, or legislative assemblies, to respond to their appeals. The strategy is particularly attractive if the judiciary gives cause for activists to suspect that it might look sympathetically upon their respective causes.

So it was that, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the US Supreme Court proved jurisprudentially obliging where federal and state legislatures proved politically obdurate. Legally outmanoeuvred by liberal lawyers and judges, the American Right drew the obvious lesson from historic victories like “Roe v. Wade” – make sure that conservatives, not liberals, dominate the Supreme Court. Implementing that strategy took the Federalist Society the best part of 50 years, but it got there in the end.

Naturally, with the judiciary in the hands of their enemies, left-wing Americans reached out instinctively for the legislative branch – most especially those provisions of state constitutions allowing for legislation by plebiscite. Statewide referenda on issues enjoying clear majority support, like abortion, were able to overcome even the most outrageous of Republican gerrymanders.

And now the principle of comity looks set to vex the New Zealand political scene. The Waitangi Tribunal (which entertains pretensions to being a court) has summonsed a cabinet minister, Karen Chhour, to appear before it and answer its questions.

This unprecedented move has elicited strong, and arguably quite threatening, responses from senior parliamentarians outraged by what they clearly consider to be an egregious breach of the principle of comity. In turn, their remarks have prompted claims that the cabinet members responsible, David Seymour and Shane Jones, are constitutionally out of line and should be reprimanded by the Prime Minister.

The passions now in evidence have not arisen out of nowhere. For at least three decades the New Zealand courts have been encroaching on territory that rightly belongs to the legislature. That the legislature deliberately set the judiciary up to act as its proxy on the Treaty of Waitangi does not excuse the latter’s reckless acceptance of its poisoned chalice. The fraught historical relationship between Māori and Pakeha is simply not susceptible to judicial remedy, being adjudicable only by the electorate – responding through the ballot box to policy alternatives thrashed out by New Zealand’s political parties.

Unfortunately, the lawyers, judges, and university professors, who had taken responsibility for dealing with the volatile matters vouchsafed to them by frightened politicians were not prepared to let the voting public adjudicate the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, or any of the other pressing issues driving race relations in New Zealand. As in the United States, the judges seized the initiative. The expectation was clear: on this, the judicial branch would be leading its executive and legislative brothers.

It was a decision only those not subject to electoral sanction could possibly have made. As the shape of a “Tiriti-based” constitution, in whose creation the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders had been denied involvement, began to emerge, revealing a schema in which the democratic principle was being treated as, at best, an irritant, and, at worst, something to be eliminated altogether in the name of “indigenisation” and “decolonisation”, the people, and at least some of their political representatives, began to realise just how far back along the road the judiciary had lost sight of the principle of comity.

The election of the present government, including in its ranks politicians dedicated to reasserting the rights of the legislature in shaping and determining the future of Māori and Pakeha in New Zealand, should have alerted the judiciary – including its anomalous appendage, the Waitangi Tribunal – that its days of calling the shots on race relations in general, and the Treaty in particular, were coming to an end.

In the spirit of comity, the judiciary and the Waitangi Tribunal should have stepped back, relieved, perhaps, that the executive and legislative branches of the New Zealand state were, at long last, stepping up to their constitutional responsibilities. What they chose to do instead, however, was summons Karen Chhour.

As Crown Law’s counsel have been making admirably clear in the High Court today, that was a mistake.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project website on Monday, 22 April 2024.

Ending The Quest.

Dead Woman Walking: New Zealand’s media industry had been moving steadily towards disaster for all the years Melissa Lee had been National’s media and communications policy spokesperson, and yet, when the crisis finally broke, on her watch, she had nothing intelligent to offer. Christopher Luxon is a patient man - but he’s not that patient.

MELISSA LEE should be deprived of her ministerial warrant. Her handling – or non-handling – of the crisis engulfing the New Zealand news media has been woeful. The fate of New Zealand’s two linear television networks, a question which the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media could have settled long ago, remains inexcusably obscure. Given the simplicity of its answer, Lee’s failure to offer it is unacceptable. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon should sack her.

He won’t, of course, for the very simple reason that Luxon and his colleagues do not believe that Lee has done anything wrong. National and Act have a visceral aversion to state participation in cultural affairs. Were it not for the practised intervention of elite patrons of the arts, it is probable that the leaders of both parties would decree that if cultural producers cannot attract paying customers, then they should share the fate of every other business that fails to satisfy the market. Though they could never afford to admit it, National and Act would likely find much to commend in the words of the Nazi-sympathising poet and playwright, Hanns Johst, who famously admitted: “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my pistol.”

Winston Peters and NZ First almost certainly do not share such extreme attitudes towards the arts. They are as much cultural, as economic nationalists, with an altogether firmer grasp on the vital relationship between a nation’s culture and its politics. It is even possible that Peters and NZ First understand the vital role played by free-to-air television networks in the fashioning and preservation of social cohesion. But for one thing, NZ First and its leader may well have been filling the policy vacuum created by Lee’s inaction.

Unfortunately, that “one thing” is the television networks’ history of unrelenting hostility towards and, at times, active sabotaging, of Peters’ political career. Winston wouldn’t piss on the NZ news media if its bum was on fire – which, of course, it is.

[In spite of all the above, but certainly on account of the political failure it describes, the Prime Minister, Christopher Luxon, finally relieved Melissa Lee of her broadcasting portfolio on Wednesday, 24 April 2024, replacing her with Paul Goldsmith - C.T.]

So, what is this “simple” answer to the television network’s problems? The resolution to the financial difficulties afflicting both TV3 and Television New Zealand requires nothing more than that this nation adopt the solution long ago arrived at by the countries with which we like to compare ourselves: Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada.

Nominally publicly-owned TVNZ should become a genuine, non-commercial, public broadcaster like the ABC, the BBC, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), and the CBC. This would allow TV3 to pick up the advertising revenue currently accruing to TVNZ. There may not be enough advertising dollars in our economy to sustain two commercial television networks, but there are more than enough to sustain one. The money currently allocated to New Zealand on Air would go to fund the public broadcasters RNZ and TVNZ.

If more financial support was required, then it wouldn’t be hard to find. According to Myles Thomas of the Better Public Media Trust: “TVNZ’s annual budget is roughly $300 million. For the cost of just $5 a month per capita, New Zealand taxpayers could fully fund TVNZ so that it need no longer rely on any advertising at all”. Given that a huge number of Kiwi’s shell out in excess of $15.00 per month for streaming services such as Netflix and Neon, a broadly comparable deduction for public broadcasting shouldn’t be too big a shock to the nation’s system.

A blindingly obvious solution? Of course it is! So, why on earth didn’t Labour and the Greens, in office for six years, do the blindingly obvious thing? Knowing the answer to that question would certainly help New Zealanders understand why the parties of the Left failed so comprehensively to accomplish so many other blindingly obvious things.

One possible answer is that the sort of people who now inhabit New Zealand’s political parties are loathe to approve anything that might turn out to work brilliantly. The idea of a state-owned entity rising boldly and innovatively to the challenges of the twenty-first century makes them uneasy. Very few politicians in this country are comfortable with people and/or institutions that take the independence vouchsafed to them by the system seriously. The New Zealand state may hand out the crayons and the colouring books to its creative children, but it expects them, always, to stay inside the lines.

Māori Television, for example, was formally guaranteed full editorial independence and supplied with the money to make that promise real. The result? Its initial headquarters, in Auckland’s Newmarket, quickly became a buzzing hive of questing creativity. Its broadcasters, equally quickly, proved themselves to be among the best in New Zealand. In very short order, MTV began to show up TVNZ and TV3 for the crass, commercially-driven behemoths they had become.

What happened? What do you think happened! Māori Television’s journalists, in full accordance with its charter, began to ask questions – embarrassing questions. Not just of Pakeha politicians and bureaucrats, but of their own elites. What followed bore out the old trade union saying: “The bosses give you all the rights and privileges of free and independent citizens on only one condition – that you never use them.”

Pressured by the outraged Māori elites and their political mouthpieces, MTV’s Newmarket studios were shut down and its studios relocated to East Tamaki. The channel’s fearless journalists found it expedient to offer their talent to less “traditional” employers. Responsibility for MTV’s future was deemed to require an extremely safe pair of hands. Questing creativity no longer fizzed through its corridors.

Ask yourself. In all the fuss about Newshub closing down and TVNZ ceasing to produce “Sunday” and “Fair Go”, has there been any mention of Māori Television – sorry, “Whakaata Māori”? How many New Zealanders are even aware that it’s still broadcasting?

Now, some may say that all that bad stuff happened under National. But, in the six years they were in office did Labour do anything at all to restore Whakaata Māori’s questing creativity? Nup. Too risky. Even in its own caucus. Even in its own Māori caucus.

The contrast between the present Labour Party’s approach to public broadcasting and that of Norm Kirk’s Third Labour Government could hardly be more stark. The Broadcasting Minister of the day – a young, questing, entrepreneur of a politician called Roger Douglas – set in motion what most media historians still regard as the “golden age” of New Zealand television.

Kirk and his ministers understood what Labour politicians of the twenty-first century only fear: that giving creative and intelligent producers and journalists the freedom to make the best television they can is never going to work against the cause of developing a vibrant national culture; and that developing a vibrant national culture is never going to disadvantage the Left.

Pretty obviously, Melissa Lee, understands understood that too.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project website on Thursday, 18 April 2024.

Thursday 25 April 2024

Who’s Going Up The Media Mountain?

Mr Bombastic: Ironically, the media the academic experts wanted is, in many ways, the media they got. In place of the tyrannical editors of yesteryear, advancing without fear or favour the interests of the ruling class; the New Zealand news media of today boasts a troop of enlightened journalists dedicated to expanding social justice. 

WILLIE JACKSON is said to be planning a “media summit” to discuss “the state of the media and how to protect Fourth Estate Journalism”. Not only does the Editor of The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury, think this is a good idea, but he has also offered up ten names for Jackson’s consideration. The idea is not a bad one, especially in light of Labour’s success in bringing together a similar collection of experts to discuss the pros and cons of New Zealand signing up to Pillar 2 of AUKUS. It won’t work, however, if there’s only one song-sheet.

The cynics among us will no doubt wonder aloud why Jackson, when he was the Minister of Broadcasting and Communications, did not think to summon a similar colloquium to chart a path forward for the country’s struggling Fourth Estate. It is certainly highly frustrating to see former Labour cabinet ministers calling upon the good and the great to debate the burning issues of the moment in circumstances where they are structurally powerless to give force to their advice.

It would seem that Labour is only keen to listen and discuss policy with New Zealanders when giving practical effect to their ideas is impossible. Once in office, however, the opinions of those Labour deemed worthy of consulting whilst in Opposition rapidly lose their persuasive power. Those masters of deflation, the Public Service are quick to prick their new masters’ policy balloons. Big ideas are prone to creating big consequences – and by no means all of these are favourable. Best to leave the difficult business of devising and implementing policy-change to the professionals.

Few political observers would blame Jackson for telling these “professionals” to bugger-off. After all, they were the ones who spent months and months chewing over Labour’s plans for merging Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand into a single public broadcasting entity. They were also the ones who oversaw the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars on private consultants. Not that this lavish spending on “expert” advice in any way empowered Jackson and his colleagues to offer the voters a succinct and compelling explanation of the merger plan. Perhaps there wasn’t one. Perhaps that’s why, in spite of the vast sums already spent, Chris Hipkins knocked the entire project on the head.

Would the names advanced by The Daily Blog Editor do any better?

Certainly, the academics on Bradbury’s list, Professor Wayne Hope, Dr Joe Atkinson and the key figure in AUT’s “Journalism, Media and Democracy” (JMAD) research team, Dr Merja Myllylathi, have all, over many years, written and spoken out forcefully on what they perceive to be the strengths and weaknesses of the New Zealand news media.

Ironically, the media they wanted is, in many ways, the media they got. In place of the tyrannical editors of yesteryear, advancing without fear or favour the interests of the ruling class; the New Zealand news media of today boasts a troop of enlightened journalists dedicated to expanding social justice. The challenge now, for these wise members of the academy, is to explain why the media they wanted is not what so many of its readers, listeners and viewers wanted.

Perhaps the seasoned journalists on Bradbury’s list of media luminaries could help them? Although it’s possible that John Campbell, Barbara Dreaver, and Mihi Forbes are not entirely sure that being on the list of a radical left-wing blogger is something that will necessarily rebound to their advantage.

Most media observers would hail Dreaver as a journalist of the old school: that is to say, a gutsy television reporter who has always worked tirelessly to uncover the facts, and then been content to let those facts speak for themselves. Campbell and Forbes, by contrast, often come across as fully-paid-up members of Team Truth.

Given that the truth is not always factual, and the facts don’t always align with the truth, the work of journalists like Campbell and Forbes tends to be the sort that raises hackles. As Bradbury’s academics are, perhaps, only now discovering: the Great New Zealand Public is more in love with the tellers of “good yarns”, than they are with the campaigners for the right (or should that be left?) kind of morals.

Few would dispute the wisdom of putting Myles Thomas on a list of New Zealanders seeking to rescue the Fourth Estate. As the spokesperson for Better Public Broadcasting Trust, Thomas brings a refreshingly Alexandrian approach to the Gordin Knot that is New Zealand broadcasting policy. 

Anyone who can tell a parliamentary select committee: “TVNZ’s annual budget is roughly $300 million. For the cost of just $5 a month per capita, New Zealand taxpayers could fully fund TVNZ so that it need no longer rely on any advertising at all”, is blessed with a very sharp intellectual sword indeed! Sharper, certainly, than Jackson’s blunt old blade.

It is not very likely that the “Old School” Gavin Ellis, former NZ Herald Editor and university lecturer, and the bombastic Mr Bradbury would have got along very well had Fate thrown them together in the same newsroom or classroom, and yet, Ellis’s name is also there on The Daily Blog editor’s list.

Fiercely loyal to his beleaguered profession, Ellis struggles, like all of us, to square the circle of a Fourth Estate that is crucial to democratic politics, with a Fourth estate that can no longer command the advertising revenue that made people like himself such key players in the game. Ellis knows that social media has already transformed the game of politics, and not necessarily for the better, but he can come up with no better remedy for the desperately ailing “legacy media” than for the state to help it to dip its bucket into the New Media giants’ “rivers of gold”. In the meantime, Ellis, like AUT’s Myllylathi, is at pains to fend off all those critics who cry: “Physician, heal thyself!”

Quite why Matthew Tukaki and Michael Wood appear on the list of media sages is anybody’s guess. Bradbury has friends in Te Ao Māori, and the Labour Party, but even so …

Conspicuous by their absence from Bradbury’s list are the critics of, and challengers to, the Fourth Estate that Jackson is now so keen to rescue. And, right there, is the besetting sin of both the Labour Party and the besieged bastions of broadcasting and the print media – a dread of giving those whom they perceive to be their enemies access to the microphone. Twenty years ago, key players in the Fourth Estate would have recognised that for what it was: cowardice – and dumb cowardice at that.

All the “summits” in the world will avail their organisers nothing, if all they are willing to listen to are their own fears.

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 22 April 2024.

Saturday 20 April 2024

The Folly Of Impermanence.

You talking about me?  The neoliberal denigration of the past was nowhere more unrelenting than in its depiction of the public service. The Post Office and the Railways were held up as being both irremediably inefficient and scandalously over-manned. Playwright Roger Hall’s “Glide Time” caricatures were presented as accurate depictions of a public service that contributed nothing useful or worthwhile to the nation.

THE ABSENCE of anything resembling a fightback from the public servants currently losing their jobs is interesting. State-sector workers’ collective fatalism in the face of Coalition cutbacks indicates a surprisingly broad acceptance of impermanence in the workplace. Fifty years ago, lay-offs in the thousands would have engendered a much more aggressive response from the state-sector unions. The bonds of solidarity were a lot stronger then than they are now.

So, too, was the idea that public servants should not be laid-off in the same way as private sector workers. Offering workers in the state-sector a job for life was seen as critical to preserving both the Public Service’s effectiveness, and its integrity. It was also a way of paying workers in the state sector wages and salaries well below the “going rate” in the private sector. The state’s guarantee of permanence – job security – was an important part of retaining its workers’ loyalty, and preserving their bureaucratic efficiency.

Even in the depths of the Great Depression, it was considered more prudent to apply an across-the-board reduction in public servants’ wages and salaries than it was to engage in mass lay-offs. When the right-wing Coalition Government of 1932 announced a 10 percent cut in Postal and Telegraph workers’ wages, their protest meeting in the Auckland Town Hall, from which the unemployed were excluded (the venue being full-to-overflowing) became the catalyst for the Queen Street Riot that shook conservative Auckland to its core.

How many of today’s public servants are aware of their own history? Judging by their reaction to the loss of so many of their colleagues’ jobs – not many. A more likely proposition is that a clear majority of them would regard the idea of a job for life as just another of those absurd practices condoned by the protectionist regimes swept away by the reforming governments of the 1980s and 90s. For younger workers, in particular, impermanence of employment is a fact of life: a reflection of the economic “rationalism” to which all employees are subject; including public servants.

This tearing away of citizens from their nation’s past is the most important confirmation of the neoliberal ideology’s cult-like practices. Among the very first things that a cult seeks to do is engineer a complete break with the individual follower’s past. More than that, the cult leaders will go to extraordinary lengths to characterise everything that has come before as evil and destructive. The follower’s old reality is blamed for everything that has gone wrong with their lives; it has no redeeming features; and must be abandoned completely.

Anyone old enough to recall the transition from New Zealand’s formerly social-democratic society, to the market-driven neoliberal society ushered in by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, will also remember the way in which everything that came before 1984 was cast in the worst possible light.

This neoliberal denigration of the past was nowhere more unrelenting than in its depiction of the public service. The Post Office and the Railways were held up as being both irremediably inefficient and scandalously over-manned. Playwright Roger Hall’s “Glide Time” endearing caricatures were presented as accurate depictions of a public service that contributed nothing useful or worthwhile to the nation.

This invalidation of New Zealand’s past, operating relentlessly for forty years, has come at the price of growing cultural discontinuity. In the words of the distinguished American sociologist, Daniel Bell:

Today, each new generation, starting off at the benchmarks attained by the adversary culture of its cultural parents, declares in sweeping fashion that the status quo represents backward conservatism or repression, so that, in a widening gyre, new and fresh assaults on the social structure are mounted.

Compounding the culturally disintegrative effects of neoliberalism’s hatred of history, has been the parallel growth of the universities’ disparagement of Western culture in general. The extraordinary achievements of Western art, science, and politics have been reconfigured as expressions of White Supremacy. In a cultural pincer movement of remarkable social malignancy, the young Westerners of the early Twenty-First Century find themselves prevented from drawing anything but shame from the past, while moving into a future belonging to everyone but themselves.

The historical contrast presented by the current bureaucratic milieu, and that of the culture enveloping the public servants of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries is stark. Drawing immense pride from their past, and comfortable in the cultural certainties of their present, they confronted the future of their country with enviable confidence. Christian or atheist, New Zealand’s public servants’ determination to bring “God’s Own Country” ever closer to its maker was manifested in the impressive cultural, social and physical infrastructure they bequeathed to future generations. Built to serve generations its creators would never meet, “Old” New Zealand’s infrastructure proved strong enough to withstand every challenge – except neoliberal hostility and neglect.

It is possible that the quietude of the 2024 Public Service: it’s apparent willingness to mount the scaffold without protest; is explicable not only in terms of its incapacity to draw strength from New Zealand’s past, but also on account of its lamentable failure to make the slightest impact on its present. Could it be persuaded that the charges levelled against public servants by the Coalition Government (and plenty of other New Zealanders besides!) are justified? Is the Public Service pleading “Guilty, as charged”.

After all, those public servants who had been given jobs for life seemed remarkably proficient at getting things done. They created an industrial relations system, an education system, a health system, and an accident compensation system, that ranked among the world’s finest. It designed and helped to construct a national network of roads and railways, as well as a hydro-electric power grid that allowed New Zealand to become a modern economy.

The public servants who rejected the very idea of jobs for life have very little to show for their market-inspired governance. Industrial relations in New Zealand would make America’s Nineteenth Century Robber Barons blush. Education and Health, post-1984, have steadily declined to their present parlous states. New Zealand’s rail network is a joke, and its roads are an obstacle course of potholes and plastic cones. The previous government, briefly seized by the future focus of its Labour predecessors, could not rely upon public servants to get its “transformative” plans off the ground. Labour’s successors – National, Act and NZ First – seem content to leave New Zealand’s future to their private-sector mates.

Impermanence, it would seem, is a guarantee of very little else but failure, and the inability to even envisage success. Denigrating the past has proved to be the most effective way of ensuring that the future never moves beyond the failures of the present. Disinheriting the owners of a culture, while demonising its creators, merely confirms Bell’s insight (following W. B. Yeats) that “in the widening gyre”, where “the falcon cannot hear the falconer”, the future will, indeed, belong to one “rough beast” after another.

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 15 April 2024.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Apposite Quotations.

How Long Is Long Enough?
Gaza under Israeli bombardment, July 2014.

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Saturday 13 April 2024

No Longer Trusted: Ageing Boomers, Laurie & Les, Talk Politics.

Turning Point: What has turned me away from the mainstream news media is the very strong message that its been sending out for the last few years.” “And what message might that be?” “That the people who own it, the people who run it, and the people who provide its content, really don’t like, or approve of, people like me. 

IT WAS THAT MOMENT of the year when comfort teeters on the divide between hot and cold. Les and Laurie didn’t often venture out onto the little pub’s wooden deck, but today, officially autumnal, but generously waving through Summer’s diminishing throng of shirt-sleeved stragglers, they’d decided to risk it.

The two old friends sat there in the silence that descends upon the elderly when the sun is warm, the ale is cold, and the view is full of familiar and friendly detail.

“We should sit out here more often”, said Les, breaking the mellow silence.

“Nah” Laurie responded. “Most days its bloody awful out here. It’s only on the rare, Goldilocks-days of autumn, like this one, that I’m prepared to venture out.”

“Met Office is predicting another one tomorrow.”

“Good Lord! Do you still listen to the news?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Les gave Laurie a quizzical look.

“Why wouldn’t I? Because I no longer believe what the media is telling me is true.”

“Even the Weather Forecast?”

“Even the Weather Forecast. Haven’t you noticed how the whole thing is being sensationalised? I mean, the other day, I heard a forecaster warning that the Met Office might be issuing a Heavy Rain Warning for the West Coast of the South Island. Just imagine that. Rain on the Coast. Stop the bloody presses!”

“I think they call that ‘Click-Bait’, Laurie. It’s everywhere these days.”

“Look, I don’t mind the odd bit of sensationalism. When all is said and done, the media are in the business of getting ads in front of eyeballs. I get that. No, what has turned me away from the mainstream news media is the very strong message that its been sending out for the last few years.”

“And what message might that be?”

“That the people who own it, the people who run it, and the people who provide its content, really don’t like, or approve of, people like me. What was the quote you once gave me from Lenin? After he purged the Bolshevik Party of all the members who disagreed with him?”

“Fewer, but better.”

“Yep! That’s the one! It’s as though the Media doesn’t care if it has fewer readers, listeners and viewers, just so long as the ones who stick with them are better than the ones they drive away. The young journalists, in particular, they just aren’t interested in communicating with the, with the, oh, what did Hilary Clinton call them?”

“The ‘Deplorables’.”

“Yeah. That’s it. The Deplorables.”

“Though it pains me to say it, Laurie, I agree with you. Two things, really, got me going. The first was when the Stuff newspapers apologised for their racist past.”

“I’d have thought you would have approved of that.”

“Well, part of me did. But another part of me winced. A newspaper is a record of the times in which it is published. The record it leaves may not meet with the approval of tomorrow’s readers, but that’s okay. News stories aren’t written for the future, they’re written for the present. Journalism has been called ‘the first rough draft of history’ – composed of the facts, or, at least, such facts as an honest, diligent and courageous reporter is able to assemble under pressure. It’s called a rough draft because it is – or should be – lacking in opinionated analysis. That can come later: from political scientists, historians, economists, and philosophers. But, it is not the job of the working journalist. Their job is to tell us what happened – not what we should think about what happened. I just thought that it was professionally indefensible for Stuff to apologise for its past. What can we possibly learn from a past we’ve just dismissed as morally imbecilic?”

“What was the second thing.”

“Oh, right, the second thing. The second thing is Radio New Zealand. Its rising level of editorial and journalistic bias is becoming a national embarrassment. The public broadcaster seems determined to make every New Zealander pick a side in the Culture Wars. RNZ is saying good-bye to its most steadfast listeners, and, more in sorrow than in anger, those listeners, now deeply mistrustful of the publicly-owned media institution they have for so long relied upon for accurate, fair, and balanced journalism, are leaving.

“They no longer accept us,” Laurie sighed, “and we no longer trust them.”

This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 April 2024.

In Whose Best Interests?

On The Spot: The question Q+A host, Jack Tame, put to the Workplace & Safety Minister, Act’s Brooke van Velden, was disarmingly simple: “Are income tax cuts right now in the best interests of lowering inflation?”

JACK TAME has tested another MP on his Sunday morning current affairs show, Q+A. Minister for Workplace Relations & Safety, Brooke van Velden, once boasted the only economics degree in New Zealand’s Parliament. Since the general election, however, this select fellowship of the dismal science has been augmented by fellow Act MP, Andrew Hoggard. What he would have made of his colleague’s response to Tame’s seemingly innocent question we can only guess.

The question Tame asked was disarmingly simple: “Are income tax cuts right now in the best interests of lowering inflation?”

If looks could kill, then Tame would have died then and there. Van Velden is a very intelligent woman, so, in the very few seconds she had to formulate a response to Tame’s question, she assessed the consequences of providing him with an honest answer, realised that, in this case, honesty would be absolutely the worst policy, and so, summoning her most earnest tone of voice, and with only the tiniest hint of embarrassment, she replied in the affirmative.

At this point there should have been a very loud klaxon-blast, and the word “WRONG!” should have flashed across the screen – in much the same way as incorrect answers are blasted on the British television show “QI”. Because, as Van Velden, herself, Hoggard, economics graduates everywhere, and even the reasonably well-educated person in the street, knows: cutting income taxes right now is most assuredly NOT in the best interests of lowering inflation.

I was still a teenager in the early 1970s, when inflation began to take off in New Zealand, and I remember asking my father what it was. His answer still stands as the best summation of the phenomenon I have heard. “Inflation”, he said, “is what you get when too much money is chasing too few goods.” Economists can encumber the simplicity of that definition with all kinds of impenetrable jargon; they can make it difficult and mysterious by rendering it algebraically; but, boiled right down, that is what inflation is.

If Tame had asked Van Velden another question related to inflation, her answer would likely have been entirely sensible. Zimbabwe, with a current inflation rate of 55 percent, has just issued a new currency – the “Zimbabwe Gold” (ZiG) – backed, at least partially, by the nation’s gold reserves. For those who remember the hyperinflation of the Mugabe era (I still have a Zimbabwean banknote which promises to pay the bearer, on demand, $100,000 “on or before 31st July 2007”) this will be good news. Certainly, Van Velden, if asked, would applaud the Zimbabwean Government’s efforts. At the very least, Zimbabweans will no longer be forced to rely on American currency for their day-to-day transactions.

As an economist, Van Velden would not hesitate to condemn the idea of putting additional dollars in the hands of people already under severe cost-of-living pressures. She would know that the increased spending power being injected into the economy would inevitably lead to further price rises, as the extra money chased the same quantum of goods and services.

Van Velden would also know that the prospect of tax cuts fuelling inflation would place additional pressure on the Reserve Bank to keep the Official Cash Rate higher for longer – a strategy intended to ensure that the ordinary person’s pockets remain as empty as possible, for as long as it takes to reduce demand and lower inflationary expectations – even at the cost of inducing an economic recession.

Van Velden, wearing her economist’s hat, would also understand that Finance Minister Nicola Willis, in order to avoid the consequences of being seen to replenish the reduced state revenues occasioned by tax cuts by borrowing (the example of the British Prime Minister, Liz Truss, who attempted to do exactly that, is salutary) will have no other option but to slash state expenditure dramatically. The economic and social outcomes of such policies are readily predictable. The recession will deepen, public services will falter, and the population’s pain will intensify.

It is also possible, of course, that throwing the New Zealand economy into a deep recession, and increasing social misery, will bring the inflation rate down dramatically. It is even possible that such a strategy could produce deflation – too little money chasing too many goods – with a resulting fall in retail prices. Those tempted to welcome such a turn of events should ask themselves what falling retail prices are likely to do to business profitability and employment.

It should be clear by now why Van Velden the politician and Cabinet Minister chose to answer Jack Tame’s question as she did. Tax cuts in the midst of historically high inflation and a shrinking economy are not something any responsible government should be contemplating. Had she said as much, however, her comments would be leading every news bulletin and political journalists would be speculating avidly about her own, her party’s, and the Coalition Government’s future.

On the other hand, Van Velden could have thrown all caution to the wind and affirmed that the planned tax cuts were definitely in the best interests of the country, because they would necessitate policies aimed at shrinking the size and responsibilities of the state – something hardline neoliberal economists like herself and her boss, David Seymour, have wanted for a very long time.

Cuts in spending would also reduce the ordinary working family’s room for economic manoeuvre. With more expected of them financially, the importance of holding onto their jobs, which are (just) keeping them afloat, could only grow – making them much less likely to resist their employers’ demands to work longer and harder for less. From Van Velden’s perspective, that can only be good for productivity, good for business, good for the country.

Honesty on that scale, however, would likely have a devastating impact on Act’s performance in the opinion polls. A party that grows increasingly excited at the prospect of a large proportion of the electorate sinking into poverty, economic exploitation, and despair is hardly likely to see its poll numbers rise.

Better by far to engage in a few seconds of outrageous flannelling: “I think [the tax cuts] are. I think they are for those New Zealanders who have really, really, really been struggling […] Giving them that little bit more money in their own back pocket makes it easier for them to keep up with that rising cost of living.”

Bullshit economics, but better-than-average politics. So: Jack Tame vs Brooke van Velden? I’d call it a draw.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project Substack website on Monday, 8 April 2024.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Something Important: The Curious Death of the School Strike 4 Climate Movement.

The Hope That Failed: The Christchurch Mosque Massacres, Covid-19, deep political disillusionment, and the jealous cruelty of the intersectionists: all had a part to play in causing School Strike 4 Climate’s bright bubble of hope and passion to burst. But, while it floated above us, it was something that mattered. Something Important.

THE YOUNG MAN is every centimetre the twenty-first century revolutionary: youthful, indigenous, and draped in the keffiyeh of martyred Palestine. Like so many of his generation, raised with-on-by the smart-phone, he communicates faultlessly with his audience. And what he says is every bit as revolutionary as his looks.

Except … Except his message is aimed at an audience that until this week had not, generally, been associated with the Palestinian, or the Toitū te Tiriti o Waitangi, causes – secondary school students.

Posted on “X”, the young revolutionary’s video-post was intended to mobilise the tens-of-thousands of students who had turned out five years ago to play their part in the global “School Strike 4 Climate” (SS4C) movement. Presumably, he and his comrades had reasoned that their own causes would be immeasurably strengthened through this “intersectional” linking of the Treaty, Palestine and Climate Change.

In his own words:

“The primary tool used against the people is division – divide and conquer. Our response must be to unite. We cannot win with fragmented movements.”

Had the young revolutionary’s expectations been met, it would, indeed, have been a political triumph.

On Friday, March 15 2019, an estimated 170,000 New Zealand secondary school students took to the nation’s streets. RNZ still ranks that turnout as the “second largest” protest in New Zealand history. There is no precedent, however, for 170,000 demonstrators turning out on a single day. Those kids represented an astonishing 3.5 percent of the total population!

On Friday morning (5/4/24) RNZ was carrying the SS4C protest organisers’ predictions of a turnout in excess of 100,000. Protest rallies were scheduled from Whangarei to Invercargill. RNZ was also careful to share with its listeners the six demands of the protesters:

  • A ban on oil and gas exploration 
  • Halting the Coalition Government’s fast-track approvals bill 
  • Honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi 
  • “Climate education” for all 
  • Lowering the voting age to 16 
  • Free Palestine - Stop the Genocide

By the end of the day, however, it was clear that something very serious had gone wrong with the plan to unite the Left’s fragmented movements by, in effect, piggy-backing on the huge numbers formerly responsive to the SS4C’s summonses. Rather than a turnout in the range of 100,000: across the whole country, and by the most generous estimate, the organisers of the “Strike” turned out a derisory 5,000 people.

By any measure, the “Strike” was a disaster. Indeed, the whole event turned out to be less than the sum of its parts. That is to say, more people turned out to rallies organised in solidarity with the people of Palestine, and/or to protests against the Coalition Government’s Treaty policies, when these were staged as separate events, than turned out for SS4C’s unity demonstrations on Friday afternoon. As for New Zealand’s secondary school students, well, apart from a few hard-core “intersectionists”, they were nowhere to be seen. The largest turnout of 5 April was in Wellington, where a few hundred kids gathered in Parliament Grounds to chant “From the river, to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

What the hell happened?

To answer that question we have to go back to 2021, and the tragic demise of SS4C Auckland at the hands of the very same intersectionist forces responsible for Friday’s debacle.

The young people behind the Auckland chapter of SS4C were responsible for turning out 80,000 protesters in 2019 – beating Labour legend John A Lee’s 1938 record of 70,000. Predictably, such extraordinary support bred deep resentment and hostility among less fulsomely supported activists. Homing in on the whiteness of the SS4C organisers’ and their middle-class origins, the “decolonisers” and “indigenisers” within the Auckland chapter’s ranks “persuaded” the leadership to shut down the most successful protest organisation in the city’s political history.

In their final communique to the people of Auckland, SS4C’s local leadership stated:

“We are disbanding because, since 2019, SS4C AKL (as well as the wider national group, though we can’t speak on their behalf) has been a racist, white-dominated space. SS4C AKL has avoided, ignored, and tokenised BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Colour – C.T.] voices and demands, especially those of Pasifika and Māori individuals in the climate activism space. As well as this, the responsibility and urgent need to decolonise the organisation has been put off for far too long. SS4C also delayed paying financial reparations for the work BIPOC groups/individuals within and alongside the group have done for this organisation in the past.”

There is much, much more, all in the same vein, in this cringing example of polemical self-criticism (which would not have been out of place at a Maoist Red Guard rally circa 1967) admirably concluding with this, its guilt-tripped authors’ parting admonition:

“We fully discourage any future and current Pākehā-led groups from occupying the space we leave behind.”

Strangely enough, neither this incident, nor the subsequent collapse of the fight against global warming in Auckland’s secondary schools, is mentioned on the SS4C website promoting the 5 April “Strike”. Those intending to join the demonstrations are, however, urged to chant: “The people united – Can never be divided!”

Equally strange, but much less excusable, is the almost complete absence of mainstream media analysis of this mass-event-that-wasn’t. How could a movement that had put 3.5 percent of the country’s population on the streets, on a single day, have crumbled to virtually nothing in the space of five years? How could the organisers of Friday’s event have deluded themselves to the point of predicting a turnout of 100,000? And what do those same organisers make of New Zealanders’ apparent indifference (if not downright hostility) to the causes in support of which they had been invited to demonstrate?

These are important political questions.

Certainly, the dismal turnout must have given Green co-leader, Chloe Swarbrick, considerable pause. After all, she has staked a great deal of her political credibility on the proposition that she and her party can mobilise, electorally, the young, the alienated, and the disenfranchised. After Friday, however, transforming the 2026 general election into a people’s crusade would appear to be a much taller order.

Contrariwise, the failure of the “Strike” offers Messers Luxon, Seymour and Peters considerable cause for celebration. Their coalition is described on the SS4CNZ website as: “the most conservative government in our history” – a claim that would doubtless bring a wry smile to the lips of Bill Massey, Sid Holland, and Rob Muldoon. Still, if Friday’s flop is the best the New Zealand Left can set against the Great Strike of 1913, the 1951 Waterfront Lockout, and the 1981 Springbok Tour protests, then our Coalition Government can breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Perhaps the most important lesson of Friday is that political consciousness cannot be assembled like so many Lego blocks. The huge SS4C mobilisations of 2019 were symbolic of a confrontation as old as history. The intergenerational hostility encapsulated in the young Swedish founder of the movement, Greta Thunberg’s, choked challenge: “How dare you!” She spoke for the children and grandchildren of the men and women who run this world. “If you cannot save the planet for yourselves,” she seemed to be saying, “then, in Gaia’s name, save it for us – your own flesh and blood!”

The Future confronted the Present – and demanded action. Its partisans may not have displayed the revolutionary chic of the young man in the video with whom our story began, but they made their parents simultaneously proud and penitent. One-hundred-and-seventy-thousand strong, they convinced the system, if only for a little while, to stop, and listen.

The Christchurch Mosque Massacres, Covid-19, deep political disillusionment, and the jealous cruelty of the intersectionists: all had a part to play in causing the SS4C’s bright bubble of hope and passion to burst. But, while it floated above us, it was something that mattered.

Something important.

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 8 April 2024.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Fair Enough!

Sounds About Right: It would seem that the realities of practical politics makes utilitarians of us all.

DOING THE GREATEST GOOD for the greatest number has long been the ethical rule-of-thumb for New Zealand politicians. At least, that is how they would argue if challenged to justify their own, or their government’s, actions. What’s more, if they present their crudely utilitarian arguments with sufficient force, then most New Zealander’s will nod decisively, and bestow upon them that supreme Kiwi benediction: “Fair enough!”

It was not always thus. Within the living memory of more than half the New Zealand population, the ethical quality of a political decision would have been judged according to how closely it followed the precepts of Christianity. But, are the moral calculations of “Do as you would be done by” really all that different from determining government policy on the basis of how many will benefit from its introduction?

A utilitarian calculation indicating that a policy’s benefits are likely to be received by 90 percent of the population will, in almost every case, allow it to proceed. Providing they are not too severe, the policy’s detrimental impact on the remaining 10 percent, will not be enough to stop it. It is this, the ruthlessness of utilitarian reasoning, that has contributed to the popular uneasiness that often accompanies its application.

Certainly, the utilitarian calculations that led to Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government introducing the vaccination mandates left a bitter aftertaste. Pushing vaccination rates up to 90 percent was generally accepted as being “a good thing” – even “the right thing” – to do by a clear majority of citizens. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the pain and suffering inflicted upon the 10 percent of Kiwis who refused the Covid-19 vaccine – not to mention the fury of their reaction at being made outcasts in their own land – raised considerable doubts as to its moral safety. The utilitarian arguments presented by those who believed that, for the sake of the economy, Covid-19 should be allowed to do its worst, were no more palatable, and even more unsafe from an ethical point-of-view.

Christian reasoning, however, is no less fraught. If we are bound to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, then the art of godly politics is immediately reduced to making the same political calculations as all the others.

Would a farmer welcome the construction of a hydro-dam that drowned three-quarters of his farm? No. After he had been offered generous compensation for the land lost? Probably. After he has been told how many people will benefit from the energy generated? Of course! If the farmer, no less than the hydro-electric company, is bound to do as he would be done by, then his objections will, perforce, be tempered by the Golden Rule.

It would seem that the realities of practical politics makes utilitarians of us all.

What, then, should the political philosopher make of the Coalition Government’s decision to repose with just three Cabinet Ministers – Shane Jones, Chris Bishop, Simeon Brown – the power to decide upon the utilitarian merits of nationally significant, if environmentally questionable, development projects, personally?

In many respects, the use of words like “nationally” and “significant” makes the Ministers’ jobs considerably easier. Half the utilitarian battle is won before the ministerial calculation has even begun. If what is being proposed is in the interest of the nation, and will be to the significant benefit of its people, then, for the arguments of environmentalist objectors to be upheld, they, too, will have to demonstrate that a significant national issue is at stake.

By the very nature of environmental issues, that is no easy matter. Especially since Economic Development Minister Shane Jones has already made it abundantly clear that arguments claiming a project will threaten the survival of a rare species of native frog will no longer be enough to stop it. It is the greatest good for the greatest number of human-beings that is being weighed in the ministerial balance – not the greatest number of frogs.

It is difficult to see how environmental issues – most especially those relating to Climate Change – can be judged according to anything other than anthropocentric considerations. Since concern for the environment is an entirely human phenomenon, the political response to deforestation, species extinction and global warming will be determined according to the usual utilitarian question: What is the policy response that produces the greatest good for the greatest number?

To your average Greenpeace member this question is a no-brainer. Obviously, the planet, and all the living things that depend upon it for their existence, must come first. Unfortunately, while such simple sentiments look fine on a T-Shirt, the politics of “saving the planet” are just a little more complicated.

For a start, neither the planet, nor all but one of the living things dependent upon it, get to vote. Indeed, in the more than 4 billion years of its existence, the planet has seen species come and go with monotonous regularity. What’s more, as a ball of hot rock, circling an average-sized star, in an average-sized galaxy, it really doesn’t care who, or what, is circling with it. The quality and duration of the ride on the planet’s crust is of importance only to the 8 billion murderous apes who call themselves homo-sapiens.

Tell these homo-sapiens that their lives must be made inconvenient by, for example, the banning of all fossil fuels, and see how the utilitarian calculation unfolds. If, for a very large number of the voting public, the “greatest good” is interpreted as meaning “free access to the latest, gas-guzzling SUV”, then the Greenpeace member better hope that the “greatest number” of voters, like her, defines it differently.

Tell these clever apes that, in order to save an utterly indifferent planet, the overwhelming majority of them will have to renounce all the wonders of fossil-fuel-based civilisation and make do with the subsistence existence “enjoyed” by their ancestors, and they are likely to insist that you run the utilitarian calculation again – this time remembering that it is they who constitute the greatest number. Chances are high that the resulting definition of the greatest good will have little to say about the planet.

All of which may suggest that it is better to leave the judgement of what constitutes the greatest good to those who fully appreciate what’s at stake. Problem being, that even Philosopher Kings and/or Philosopher Technocrats cannot, indefinitely, ignore the interests and preferences of the greatest number.

Which can only mean that the essence of successful politics (which is not at all the same as rational politics) lies in persuading the greatest number of voters that your party’s definition of the greatest good, while not entirely fair, is “Fair enough!”

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 1 April 2024.