Sunday 30 June 2024

The Buggers Who Complain.

Problem Solved? When all other options are exhausted, the firing squad remains. As Joseph Stalin is said to have declared: Eliminate the person, eliminate the problem.

THE BEST GUESS I can offer as to the author of the line is William Brandt. He wrote scripts for the 1990s New Zealand television crime series “Duggan”, starring John Bach as an introverted police inspector brooding morosely over the Marlborough Sounds. What was the line? As I recall, it was put in the mouth of an ageing communist, who had reduced his entire ideology to one brutal sentence: “Nationalise everything – and shoot the buggers who complain!”

As an honest summation of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, that line (whoever wrote it) is pretty hard to beat. Indeed, anyone who seriously proposes socialism as a solution to the world’s woes is being disingenuous if they suggest that the Red Dawn, should it ever arrive, will be the product of anything other than crushing centralised control and many, many, executions.

The problem is that it is difficult to present a society in which the local hairdressing salon has 150 chairs, and where critics of the government regularly disappear, as the sort of country in which anybody with a yearning to breathe free, or wear a striking hair style, would ever want to live.

If you’re a socialist living in a liberal democracy, the problem is compounded ten-fold. In those circumstances, the socialist paradise that must be painted has to strike one’s audience as appreciably better than the capitalist economy they currently inhabit. How is the orthodox comrade supposed to answer when asked: “Why would we trade games-consoles and Gucci fashion accessories for the guns and gulags of totalitarian communism?”

Not honestly, for a start. Or, at least, not when you’re addressing anyone who isn’t already so far ground down by the cruelties of capitalism that “guns and gulags” present themselves as intriguing possibilities.

For everyone else, the party line is simple. Guns and gulags are the inevitable outcome of revolutions that take place in under-developed peasant societies where freedom and prosperity have, for centuries, been the stuff of dreams. Socialist revolutions in advanced capitalist societies could only be expected in the most evolved democratic states. What need would the “democratic socialists” growing up in such states have of guns and gulags? Who needs the grim instrumentation of coercion when one’s society is already blessed with a modern and “progressive” education system?

Ah, “Education” – the answer to every problem. Whenever I queried my left-wing comrades about the fate of “the buggers who complain”, a steely glint would, for the briefest of moments, enter their eyes (as if they were picturing the people’s firing-squads in action) only to be followed, just as quickly, by an expression of kindly warmth.

“What would people have to complain about in a society where, thanks to an education system dedicated to undermining the hegemony of all oppressive structures, social justice can flow down like streams from the mountains?”

Such faith in the power of pedagogy! How proudly these comrades would describe their future Commonwealth of Unanimity, in which all accept the truths of socialism, and where teaching is the most revered profession.

And those issues which have always divided humanity: the limits of freedom; the morality of coercion; the inviolability of the individual human conscience; the sanctity of human life; the claims of the divine. How would our kindly socialist teachers prevent these profound questions from tearing their treasured Commonwealth of Unanimity apart?

Not an original question. And their answers were also lacking in novelty. Any failings in the process of eliminating the systems of oppression would have to be rectified by re-education.

And that is where the socialists’ castle in the air begins to disintegrate. Because that word, “re-education”, so often paired with “camp”, cannot help but draw a veil of darkening clouds across the future’s bright sky.

Ask the Uighurs of Xinjiang about the perils of “rectification through re-education”. Ask them about the high-rise complexes in which the tens-of-thousands giving incorrect answers to socialist questions are required to submit themselves to the pedagogy of raw political power. Day after day, week after week, until the lessons are mastered, and the rectified Uighur students are released into the warm embrace of the Peoples Republic’s agreed answers.

And the ones who refuse to submit to this nationalisation of their conscience? The buggers who keep complaining?

We all know the answer to that question.

They are shot.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 June 2024.

Monday 24 June 2024

The Left’s Joyous Cherub: Keith Locke, 1944 - 2024.

The Struggle Continues: Keith Locke belonged to a generation that still believed in a world that could be, through struggle, relieved of its chains. That struggle constituted the core of a life lived with purpose, courage and determination. 

MANY NEW ZEALANDERS would, no doubt, have been surprised to discover that Keith Locke was 80 years old. There was always something of the cherub about the man which generally prompted guesses well south of his actual age. That youthfulness could also be applied to his ideals, which never soured with the passing of the years. Certainly, he reached the age of 80 without losing either his heart or his head. Indeed, there was a joyous naiveté about the man who finally succumbed to the twin ravages of Parkinson’s and Cancer on Friday, 21 June 2024.

Locke was what the Americans, rather unkindly, call a “red diaper baby”. The son of confirmed socialists Jack and Elsie Locke. That being the case, Locke had only two “historical” choices: to follow in his parent’s ideological footsteps, or execute an about-face and become a fierce champion of capitalism. It no doubt came as an immense relief to Jack and Elsie that their son not only kept the left-wing faith, but became (along with his sister Maire Leadbeater) one of its leading New Zealand missionaries.

It is telling, however, that when he returned from tertiary study in Canada to take up a lectureship in sociology at Victoria University in 1970, Locke declined to devote himself to either of the orthodox communist parties then operating in New Zealand.

When Moscow and Beijing parted ideological company in the “Sino-Soviet Split” of 1962, New Zealand and Albania were the only communist parties which sided with Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China. After much internal wrangling, Moscow’s loyalists finally broke away to form the Socialist Unity Party in 1966.

Given that the SUP had all the flair and pep of a Soviet stamp-collectors congress, and the CPNZ’s ultra-leftism made Mao’s Red Guards look like Labour Youth, Locke’s decision to throw in his lot with the Trotskyites of the Socialist Action League (SAL) is entirely understandable.

Leon Trotsky, alongside Lenin himself, was indisputably the most able of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. His upper-class background, however, proved problematic. In a party increasingly composed of hard-bitten working-class battlers, Trotsky’s ostentatious love of “bourgeois” culture raised more than a few comrades’ hackles. Anyone who read French novels during meetings of the Central Committee was asking for trouble – which duly followed him into exile, and caught up with him in Mexico City where, in 1940, he met his death at the hands of an ice-pick-wielding Soviet assassin.

Was there ever any historical figure better suited to attracting the allegiance of middle-class rebels than this cinematic combination of dazzling intellectual, ruthless revolutionary, and sensitive reader of French literature? As the crimes of Stalinism became increasingly obvious, the global appeal of Trotsky – the man who should have succeeded Lenin – grew and grew. Although most of them will be quite unaware of the fact, whenever any politician consigns their political adversaries to “the dustbin of history” they are quoting Trotsky.

Trotskyism certainly found a loyal follower in Locke who, as editor of its newspaper Socialist Action, soon became one of the SAL’s key figures. It was in this role that Locke was to provide future opponents with statements that were, to say the least, embarrassing.

His too-early celebration of the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of Cambodia was to strike him again and again, like an avenging ideological boomerang, throughout his years as a Green Party Member of Parliament. While it is true that he didn’t know about Pol Pot’s killing fields when he wrote his celebratory articles – he should have guessed.

Locke’s naiveté was again in evidence following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which Locke hailed as a victory for the Iranian working-class and its communist cadres. History would render a very different judgement – as would the Ayatollah Khomeini and his legions of deeply conservative Shite Muslim “revolutionary guards”, who never saw a crane that could not be improved by hanging an Iranian leftist from its hook.

Locke’s sojourn in the SAL proved personally costly in other ways. Like so many of his comrades, Locke allowed himself to be buried alive in the bowels of industrial capitalism. This “turn” to the New Zealand working-class involved men and women with impressive academic credentials – Locke had an MA from the University of Alberta and and was working toward a PhD in Sociology at Toronto when he returned to become a lecturer at Victoria – taking the jobs of honest workers in the car plants and freezing works of the nation.

Perhaps this “turn” was inspired by the sneering contempt in which the “bourgeois intellectual Trots” were held by their Maoist and Muscovite competitors. Nowhere is this scorn better captured than in “Socialist Action”, an excoriating parody of Peter Cape’s satirical ditty “Taumarunui – On the Main Trunk Line”. The Maoist bard was merciless:

They run the revolution
From the student union hall.
We’re down here on the picket-line
And we don’t see them at all.
They bring around a pamphlet
Maybe once or twice a year,
Saying ‘Forget about your wage demands,
You’re better off being queer.’

What is clear is that Locke, after 15 years in the SAL, many of them devoted to assembling cars and disassembling sheep, was ready for something else. He threw himself into international causes and became the proprietor of One World Books in Auckland’s Karangahape Road. But, if he remained hopeful of revolution breaking out overseas, Locke had finally reconciled himself to the fact that the only leftists who were going anywhere politically in New Zealand were those prepared to follow the “parliamentary road”.

Locke joined Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party in 1989 and was quickly elected to the roles of foreign affairs and defence spokesperson. He could not, however, overcome Anderton’s ingrained suspicion of any NLP member further to the left than he was. Some up-and-comers Anderton had to endure – like Laila Harre and Locke’s old SAL comrade, Matt Robson – but at Locke, himself, the Alliance leader drew the line. Anderton was not prepared to ease him into Parliament. At Number 24 on the 1996 Alliance Party List there was little chance of that.

Locke’s chance came when the Greens decided to part company with Anderton’s Alliance in 1997. Alongside the former Maoist, Sue Bradford, the former Trot, Locke, secured himself one of the top seven slots on the Green Party List. If the party crossed the magic 5 percent MMP threshold, then this former lecturer, editor, car-assembler, freezing-worker, and bookseller would do what the spooks who had contributed so generously to his bulging SIS file believed to be impossible – enter the New Zealand House of Representatives.

Locke would serve four terms as a Green MP, acquitting himself impressively as the Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson. Few New Zealanders outside the circles of the more-than-rhetorical Left have any real appreciation of how steeped its members are in the great causes of their time. To a degree that would put most Labour, National, Act and NZ First MPs to shame, Locke was able to discourse knowledgably on every one of the many international issues for which he was expected to articulate the Greens’ position.

Locke departed Parliament in 2011, the same year as Phil Goff, whom he’d first encountered as a young left-wing firebrand back in the early 1970s. In sharp contrast to Goff, Locke kept the socialist faith right through, but, that said, both men almost certainly left Parliament at the right time. Because neither of them were truly ready for the changes that were, even in 2011, transforming the New Zealand Left – including Labour and the Greens. Locke was a good communist, and a passable eco-socialist, but he was not “woke”. His retirement was shrewdly calculated.

The contemporary New Zealand Left is many things, but “joyous” isn’t one of them. Locke belonged to a generation that still believed in a world that could be, through struggle, relieved of its chains. That struggle constituted the core of a life lived with purpose, courage and determination. At times, Keith Locke could be naïve, but he was never cruel. Even as the afflictions that claimed him wore down his body, he remained a gentle left-wing cherub. Aware of the darkness in the human soul, but always walking hopefully towards the light.

This essay/obituary was originally posted on the website on Monday, 24 June 2024.

Sunday 23 June 2024

The Realm Of The Possible.

The People’s House: What would it be like to live in a country where a single sermon could prick the conscience of the comfortable? Where a journalist could rouse a whole city to action? Where the government could be made to respond to the people’s concerns? Where real change was possible? And we could make it.

IN A YEAR of important elections, some already held, some yet to come, one common factor has become very clear. The ideological shift that rescued mainstream political parties from the seemingly endless crises of the 1970s has, in the intervening decades, become a serious electoral liability.

Neoliberalism may have provided the political mainstream with the circuit-breaker it was looking for in the 1970s and 80s, and its success in burying the social-democratic orthodoxy of the post-war era may have provided mainstream politicians with a field cleared of credible opponents, but the problems its adoption was supposed to solve have not disappeared. Indeed, many have grown.

Certainly, forty years on from the Snap Election of 1984 and the neoliberal revolution it ushered in, New Zealand’s mainstream parties stand in urgent need of a new circuit-breaker. If a tsunami of radical populism is not to roll over the centre ground, then a new set of answers is required to the key questions of democratic politics: “What is possible – and what is not?”

Since the late-1980s, for example, nationalisation, or even significant public ownership of key infrastructure and services, has been rejected outright as politically impossible, or been characterised with some asperity as the least effective alternative to untrammelled private ownership. At virtually every level of government, and regardless of the manifest severity of key infrastructural failures, both legislators and administrators continue to shy away from the most obvious and financially rational solutions.

Since the state is far ahead of all other borrowers in terms of how much it can borrow and at what cost, it makes obvious sense for it to take over New Zealand’s “three waters” and carry out the necessary upgrading and extension projects that long ago exceeded the ability of local authorities to finance. Cost recovery could be negotiated with the local government sector over a period of sufficient length to render it fiscally bearable. Easy-peasy?

Apparently not. That the option of straightforward nationalisation was never considered seriously by either Labour or National bears testimony to the remarkable persistence of the neoliberal vision. Even in the United Kingdom, where the privatisation of water is an accomplished fact, the abject failure of the experiment – as attested to by the open sewers that were England’s rivers and streams – has been insufficient to make nationalisation the preferred option of anybody except the voting public.

Restoring the organised working-class as one of the great “estates” of the realm has similarly been dismissed as impossible by the neoliberal clerisy. Their reticence on this subject is understandable, since it was the growing power of the trade unions in the advanced capitalist states of the 1960s and 70s – especially their real or potential influence over the major parties of the Centre-Left – that made the identification and introduction of an ideological circuit-breaker so urgent.

New Zealand’s destruction of organised labour in the early 1990s was of a thoroughness unequalled in the democratic West. Over a period of 30 years, union density declined from just under half the workforce to less than 10 percent. Take out the unions representing teachers, nurses, salaried medical specialists and public servants, and the percentage of private-sector workers enrolled in trade unions shrinks away to something not much better than nothing.

Except that, as is so often the case with the neoliberal “reforms” of the past 40 years, the cure for the apprehended “socialist” disease has proved to be worse than the complaint. The elimination of union power removed one of the most powerful drivers of productivity. By making it possible for employers to keep wages low, investment in more efficient plant and machinery, and the uplifting of employee skill levels, could be more-or-less permanently deferred.

The consequences of making it possible for businesses to ‘live’ with low productivity are clearly illustrated in the widening gulf between wage levels in New Zealand and Australia. That this differential (upwards of 30 percent) acts as a powerful magnet for what skilled workers New Zealand has left, not only strips the country of the people best placed to lift its productivity, but also entrenches its status as a low-skill, low-wage economy. The downward spiral becomes self-reinforcing.

The stripping-out of New Zealand’s manufacturing base, justified by the neoliberals’ unbreakable attachment to the Eighteenth Century economic doctrine of “comparative advantage”, may have offset the effects of declining real wages by lowering the price of manufactured goods, but it also robbed the New Zealand working-class of the pride and dignity that attaches to those who make real things in the real world. Emptying container-loads of manufactured imports is a poor substitute for the satisfaction derived from participating in their creation.

Allowing your best and brightest workers to seek a better life elsewhere, while allowing the self-esteem and skill levels of those who remain to fall in unison, is a recipe for socio-economic polarisation. It encourages those positioned higher on the socio-economic ladder to look down on those below them – a disdain which is all too easily translated into self-reproach and self-loathing by those so regarded. Just because the comfortably positioned in the social hierarchy do not have to endure the hidden injuries of class does not make them any less real.

New Zealand was once a society in which the exploitation of citizens was deemed unacceptable. The most dramatic illustration of this determination to be a nation in which few were rich and none were poor may be found in the story of Dunedin’s “sweated” tailoresses – women and girls paid starvation wages for sewing garments all day and late into the night.

An 1888 sermon, “The Sin of Cheapness”, penned and delivered by local clergymen, the Rev. Rutherford Waddell, inspired a local journalist to take up the tailoresses’ cause in The Otago Daily Times. At a public meeting the following year middle-class and working-class activists, acting together, decided to form the Tailoresses Union. In 1890, the New Zealand Government felt sufficiently pressured to set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into “sweated labour”. Legislation followed.

Harriet Morrison of the newly formed Tailoresses Union attacks the monstrous practice of sweated labour in this New Zealand Observer cartoon of 1892.

A Christian preacher, a crusading journalist, a conscience-stricken middle-class, an energised working-class, New Zealand’s first union for women, a Royal Commission, legislative reform, socio-economic change. In 1888, all these factors contributed to defining the realm of the possible in New Zealand.

It was precisely to reduce the constantly expanding scope of what was considered possible, and to address the radical implications of such expansion for the social and economic future of the nation, that persuaded so many powerfully placed New Zealanders to unleash the neoliberal revolution of 1984-1993.

Few would argue that they did not succeed in lowering Kiwis’ expectations of what their society, their government, and they, themselves, were capable of achieving. This shrugging-off of what were depicted as excessively onerous collective responsibilities made it much easier to believe that individual success had been made correspondingly easier, and that individual failure, while regrettable, was no longer society’s business.

But, forty years on, are we really better off for living in a political environment where so little is considered achievable? What would it be like to live in a country where a single sermon could prick the conscience of the comfortable? Where a journalist could rouse a whole city to action? Where the government could be made to respond to the people’s concerns. Where real change was possible?

And we could make it.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 17 June 2024.

Friday 14 June 2024

The Illusion of Power: How Local Government Bureaucrats Overawe Democratically-Elected Councillors..

The Democratic Façade Of Local Government: Our district and city councillors are democratically elected to govern their communities on one very strict condition – that they never, ever, under any circumstances, attempt to do so.

A DISINTEGRATION OF LOYALTIES on the Wellington City Council has left Mayor Tory Whanau without a reliable majority. The cause of this disintegration has been identified by those whose loyalty has been tested to destruction as Council Staff. Not only do WCC employees and consultants stand accused of pushing aggressively for the sale of the Council’s shares in Wellington Airport, but also of intimidating and threatening Councillors opposed to the proposed divestment. If these accusations are proved, then serious questions will need to be raised concerning the authenticity of local democracy right across New Zealand.

But what could possibly persuade a councillor that he or she was not free to vote as they pleased? These men and women are the citizens’ elected representatives, so, surely, the opinions of the Council’s employees may be heeded, or rejected, according to the best judgement of the politicians it is their function to serve. Bluntly, Council staff and their expertise should be on tap – not on top!

Certainly, that is the way it used to be – back in the days when the elected councillors were served by a Town Clerk, assisted by a small but highly competent staff. Back then, no Town Clerk worthy of the name would have dreamed of intimidating or threatening the citizens’ representatives. The very idea would have left the Mayor with little choice but to send his Town Clerk packing. Indeed, any failure to punish such an open affront to local democracy would have left the electors with little choice but to send the Mayor packing at the next election.

Today, however, elected councillors are served by a bureaucracy over which, in practical terms, they exercise no effective control. Theoretically, the Chief Executive of the Council is obliged to give effect to the broad policy objectives identified by the citizen’s representatives. In reality, however, councillors are strongly discouraged from interfering directly with the CEO’s interpretation of his or her received policy priorities. “Operational” matters are the CEO’s preserve – and councillors are legally forbidden from adopting a “hands-on” approach to the governance of their city. Indeed, most councils employ a “Democracy Manager” to make damn sure that the councillors keep their hands off!

No longer can an aggrieved citizen pick up the phone to her local councillor and complain long and loud about the dirty great pothole at the entrance to her street. Neither is it possible for the Councillor to pick up the phone to the foreman of the road gang that fills in the potholes on the aggrieved citizen’s side of town. Were he to be so bold, he would receive a decidedly icy call from the Council’s Democracy Manager. In the course of this “discussion” he would be forcefully reminded that he is legally prohibited from involving himself in “operational matters”. And the pothole? Ah, well, its repair would be added to the extremely long list of potholes that a privately-owned company, contracted to the Council, has been tasked with filling. Best guess? Sometime before the century’s end.

So, right from the get-go, elected representatives are encouraged to see themselves as people who not only should, but must, keep themselves well above the fray of day-to-day administration. What’s more, as they are earnestly contemplating staying above the fray, the Democracy Manager will be introducing them to a document called the “Councillors’ Code of Conduct”. At the heart of this code is a strict series of prohibitions against saying anything unpleasant or critical about the Mayor, their fellow councillors, the electors, or – and this is emphasised strongly – the Council Staff.

Less emphasised is the fact that such documents are not legally enforceable, and that it is not compulsory to sign them. What the unwary councillor will likely fall prey to, in such circumstances, is the irresistible moral suasion that inevitably engulfs anyone who is being “asked” to sign a document that everybody else is signing.

After all, what reason would a councillor have for not signing a document intended to ensure that council meetings proceed amicably and without rancour? A refusal to sign the Code of Conduct will be construed as proof of the noncompliant councillor’s intention to cause trouble. And, being branded a troublemaker in the first week of one’s three year term is unlikely to strike most local government politicians as a good start.

To re-cap: the votes have hardly been counted before the elected councillors are being told that while they are perfectly entitled to talk about policy, they must, on no account, attempt to implement it. And, while they’re talking about policy, or receiving the reports of those who are empowered to implement it (which usually detail how little implementation has actually been accomplished) these same councillors are not allowed to get angry, call each other names, compare colleagues unfavourably with lickspittles and cowards, or – and this cannot be emphasised too strongly – in any way criticise or abuse Council Staff.

The message is crystal clear: As a city councillor you have no real power and should not pretend, to anyone, that you do. It’s the Council staff that really run things. They’re the ones who keep things operating smoothly. They know what’s going on and what needs to be done. Some staff members have PhDs, others have worked successfully in the private sector. How many councillors can boast such expertise? Not many – if any. So, what should they do? That’s right, they should keep their ears open and their mouths shut. If you want to get along as a city councillor, then you’ve got to learn to go along.

And, if none of this works? If there are still a handful of councillors who still feel obliged to heed their own best judgement about where the interests of the city’s residents lie, and to follow the dictates of their conscience. What do Council staff do then?

Well, then, the Council’s lawyers corner the unruly councillors and proceed to spell out for them what they insist is their precarious legal position. Declaring one’s opposition to a plan to sell down the Council’s shares in public utilities, for example, and voting accordingly, could easily result in commercial interests suing them for failing to act impartially. Any proposition brought before the Council, these lawyers will insist, must be judged on its objective merits. Those who have declared their position prior to the Council’s official deliberation cannot possibly expect to cast a vote. They must, instead, recuse themselves of any involvement in the decision. In fact, it would be most improper if they were even seated at the Council Table when discussion is taking place – lest they unduly influence the outcome.

In other words, our district and city councillors are democratically elected to govern their communities on one very strict condition – that they never, ever, under any circumstances, attempt to do so.

The three young progressive councillors who have announced their unwillingness to continue getting along by going along with Mayor Whanau should be hailed as heroes. Against all the odds, they have retained sufficient self-respect to say “This far, Tory, but no further!”

What’s more, if their colleagues in Central Government really wanted to help conscientious and courageous councillors across New Zealand, then they would legislate to outlaw any and all attempts by local government bureaucrats and/or contractors to intimidate, threaten, or by any other means overawe, those elected to serve the public interest, and enforce the people’s will.

But, don’t hold your breath.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project substack page on Thursday, 13 June 2024.

Monday 10 June 2024

Numbers Game.

Respect Existence, Or Expect Resistance? There may well have been 50,000 pairs of feet “Marching For Nature” down Auckland’s Queen Street on Saturday afternoon, but the figure that impresses the Coalition Government is the 1,450,000 pairs of Auckland feet that were somewhere else.

IN THE ERA OF DRONES and Artificial Intelligence, how hard can it be to provide an accurate count of protesters? Knowing how many Aucklanders were willing to make the effort and join the Greenpeace-organised “March For Nature” on Saturday afternoon (8/6/24) would make the calculation of its significance so much easier. If the figure of 20,000 offered by some participants is correct, then the turnout was good, but not spectacular. But, if the old rule-of-thumb which reckons that if Queen Street is tightly-packed with protesters, from Aotea Square to Britomart, then you’re looking at turnout well in excess of 30,000 citizens – then that would be an excellent result.

In earlier times, reports of Britomart filling-up as Aotea Square was still emptying-out would have sparked estimates of 50,000 protesters – a monster march. Certainly, some of the photos taken on Saturday have that look about them. Either way, Greenpeace deserves a solid pat on the back for its ability to mobilise its supporters.

But, does any of it matter? Because even a march of 50,000 protesters, out of an Auckland population of 1.5 million, would struggle to satisfy the definition of a “revolutionary crowd”. To get some idea of what that looks like, check out the huge demonstrations overwhelming the Hungarian capital, Budapest, in the run-up to the EU parliamentary elections. (6-9/6/24) It’s been a while since New Zealanders turned out in those sort of numbers for a political cause – although the School Strike 4 Climate demonstrations of 2019 came close.

The answer to the question “Does any of it matter?” delivered by Resources Minister, Shane Jones, less than 24 hours after 20,000-50,000 protesters marched down Queen Street, was brutal: “Government to reverse oil-exploration ban.”

The decision to cease oil and gas prospecting, announced by Jacinda Ardern and Megan Woods in 2018, ranks as one of Greenpeace New Zealand’s proudest achievements. By reversing that decision, almost before the paint on the “March For Nature” placards was dry, Jones and his Coalition colleagues were telling Norman, Greenpeace, the Greens, and all the putative defenders of “Freddie the Frog”, that they could stick their placards where the sun don’t shine. The only slogan registering with “Matua Shane”, for the foreseeable future, will be Sarah Palin’s fossil-fuel classic: “Drill, baby, drill!”

“Natural gas is critical to keeping our lights on and our economy running, especially during peak electricity demand and when generation dips because of more intermittent sources like wind, solar and hydro,” said the Minister. “I want a considered discussion about how we use our natural resources to improve the security and affordability of energy and resources supplies, stimulate regional economic development opportunities, and increase New Zealand’s self-sufficiency to protect against volatile international markets.”

But, “considered discussion” isn’t really on anybody’s agenda at the moment. Jones has a long-standing and deep-seated contempt for the people he dismisses as “greenies”. In 2014 he told the NZ Herald’s Claire Trevett that “he once told Labour’s leadership he would not be a minister if he was ‘second fiddle’ to [then] Green co-leader Russel Norman as deputy prime minister or in a senior economic role.”

That contempt continues to be passionately reciprocated by virtually the entire environmental movement. Unsurprisingly, the response from Greenpeace to Jones’s media release was blunt:

“Shane Jones is dreaming. The oil exploration industry won’t risk coming back to Aotearoa because they know that it’s not worth coming all this way to fail again”, sneered its spokesperson (and seasoned exploration disrupter) Niamh O’Flynn. “For nearly a decade under the Key Government, together with iwi and hapū the length of Aotearoa, we fought tirelessly to push oil company after oil company out of the country and we succeeded. Oil and gas won’t win in Aotearoa.”

The political parties responsible for the original ban, Labour and the Greens were no less direct:

“Minister Jones is hell-bent on ignoring options of energy that are future-proofed and up to global standards,” said the co-imposer of the 2018 ban, Labour’s Megan Woods.

“This is a manufactured crisis. We know there are reliable and cost-effective energy sources available to New Zealand that can be used without destroying the country. New Zealand is being taken backwards. This government is being cruel to future generations, this will take decades to undo – if the damage can be undone at all.”

Green Party co-leader, Chloe Swarbrick, was equally uncompromising:

“The science is clear that fossil fuels must stay in the ground to limit global warming within 1.5 degrees of warming. This Government’s actions are anti-science and show a flagrant disregard for international climate commitments which could lead to huge costs down the line.”

Swarbrick also had words for the Prime Minister, Christopher Luxon:

“The climate crisis is the defining issue of our time. If Christopher Luxon is unwilling to look in the mirror and deal with the gap between his rhetoric and the reality of his government’s actions, the least he could do is face up to the New Zealanders he’s selling down the river.”

What, then, is the explanation for the Coalition Government’s confidence that neither the environmentalists’ political rhetoric, nor their feet on the street, pose a serious threat to the Coalition’s electoral chances? The answer is bound-up with Jones’s conspicuous reference to “keeping the lights on”.

National, Act and NZ First have convinced themselves (or allowed pollsters and focus groups to do the job for them) that a very large number of voters have a great deal in common with those raised-in-the-faith Catholics who genuflect reflexively before the holy imagery of their religion without giving the gesture much, if any, thought. Like conservatives the world over, New Zealand’s Coalition Government is of the view that although, if asked, most ordinary voters will happily mouth environmental slogans, considerably fewer are willing to freeze in the dark for them.

Minister Jones’s wager is that if it’s a choice between watching Netflix, powering-up their cellphones, and snuggling-up in front of the heater, or, keeping the fossil fuels that power our extraordinary civilisation “in the ground”, so that Freddie the Frog’s habitat can remain pristine and unmolested, then their response will be the same as the Minister’s: “Bye, bye Freddie!” No matter what people may say; no matter how superficially sincere their genuflections to the “crisis” of Climate Change; when the lights go out, all they really want is for them to come back on again. Crises far away, and crises in the future, cannot compete with crises at home – right here, right now.

The Transport Minister, Simeon Brown, knows how this works. Everyone supports public transport and cycle-ways, right up until the moment their holiday journey slows to a snail’s pace among endless lines of road cones, or a huge pothole wrecks their new car’s suspension.

Idealism versus realism: that’s the way the parties of the Right frame this issue; and they are betting their electoral future on the assumption that the realists outnumber the idealists. There may well have been 50,000 pairs of feet “Marching For Nature” down Auckland’s Queen Street on Saturday afternoon, but the figure that impresses the Coalition Government is the 1,450,000 pairs of Auckland feet that were somewhere else.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 10 June 2024.

Friday 7 June 2024

Māori Cannot Re-Write New Zealand’s Constitution By Stealth.

The Kotahitanga Parliament 1897: A Māori Parliament – at least in the guise of a large and representative body dedicated to describing the shape of New Zealand’s future from a Māori perspective – would be a very good idea.

THE DEMAND for a “Māori Parliament” needs to be carefully unpicked. Some Pakeha, thoroughly alarmed by the incendiary rhetoric surrounding the proposition have taken to muttering darkly about “sedition” and “treason”. This is not a helpful line of reasoning to pursue since a threat, if it is to be counted real, requires a credible means of delivery, and, as far as we know, Te Pāti Māori has little to put in the field beyond the thousands of peaceful protesters it has already deployed. But, if the proposition is not to topple New Zealand’s present political system and replace it with one more reflective of Māori tikanga, then what, exactly, do these Māori constitutional architects have in mind?

Crucially, given the fundamental importance of the issues under review, that remains far from clear – at least to most Pakeha. This is not accidental. Indeed, the Māori reticence to openly discuss constitutional reforms with Non-Māori is entirely deliberate. Although constitutional discussions have been taking place within Te Ao Māori for decades, and in spite of the fact that the discussions and debates of the past five years have brought at least the scaffolding of an “Aotearoan” constitution into much sharper focus, Māori are extremely reluctant to discuss their constitutional ideas with the rest of New Zealand.

Their unwillingness is entirely understandable. Most New Zealanders’ understanding of the constitutional instruments by which they are governed is pretty hazy. They know that their country is a monarchy, although an alarming number of them do not appear to appreciate that it is a constitutional monarchy. Many are convinced that the King retains the power to – and should – intervene directly in the nation’s political affairs. They will similarly affirm that their country is a democracy, even if far more of them than is good for any democracy utterly despise the politicians they elect, and would happily reduce their numbers by half. Most Kiwis are confident that they “know their rights”, but are not at all sure it is wise to make them available to everybody.

The sheer scale of this constitutional ignorance, on full display during the occupation of Parliament Grounds in 2022, is frightening. The capacity of New Zealanders to transform themselves, from groovy anarchist collective to howling lynch mob, in no more time than it takes to shout “Hold the Line!”, was daunting enough for educated middle-class Pakeha. For those seeking to advance the cause of New Zealand’s indigenous minority, it can only have been profoundly discouraging.

The question they’ll be asking themselves and their fellow reformers is a brutal one: If Maori cast their constitutional pearls before these pig-ignorant Pakeha, would they have even the faintest notion of what Māori were on about? Assuming that, among those pearls, were the concepts roughed-out in the He Puapua Report, and the institutions sketched by the late Moana Jackson in his Matike Mai paper, the answer would be an emphatic “No!” A new constitution, predicated on the twin principles of Decolonisation and Indigenisation, or, as most Pakeha would instantly rephrase the proposition: a constitution based on race; simply will not fly.

That the mainstream news media seem equally uneasy about spelling-out the ramifications of the sort of reforms favoured by Māori intellectuals is strongly suggestive that editors, too, fear the reaction of “Boomer Cracker Settlers”. Though younger political journalists will eagerly affirm that Pakeha New Zealand has moved on from the sentiments of Don Brash and the Iwi vs Kiwi election of 2005, their bosses seem remarkably skittish about in putting the Millennials’ confidence to the test.

Considering the huge response non-mainstream media outlets, websites and bloggers almost always receive whenever they publish, broadcast or post on the Treaty of Waitangi, decolonisation and/or indigenisation issues, the reticence of mainstream journalists makes a kind of sense.

If, for example, the big media outlets had opted to present the developing story concerning the Waipareira Trust, Te Pāti Māori, and the alleged use of Te Whatu Ora and Census data in the 2023 General Election, in the same way mainstream journalists reported Māori issues twenty years ago, then the public response would likely be crushingly negative. All the more reason to exercise discretion, the journalists of today would argue. If you can’t write something positive about the tangata whenua, then don’t write anything at all.

But this simply will not do. New Zealanders dwindling faith in the mainstream news media will not be restored by such stratagems – especially when so few other New Zealanders are afforded such lavish media protection.

Nor is it possible to bring about significant constitutional change whilst refusing to engage with the overwhelming majority of those who will, ultimately, be required to live with it. And yet, some Māori radicals are already warning that the movement towards an indigenous constitution is being “infiltrated” by “Kūpapa [Crown supporting] Māori”, and celebrating the fact that most of the gritty constitutional discussion is taking place in Te Reo. Such attitudes are certain to prove counter-productive. An already wary Pakeha population will simply become further convinced that Māori are keeping vital information from them.

Certainly, the conduct of the Labour Government between 2020 and 2023 convinced many conservative Pakeha that, in acknowledgement of the fact that consent from the Pakeha majority was unlikely to be forthcoming, significant constitutional change was going to be imposed, piecemeal, from the top down. Lots of little changes, introduced by legislation, would, by 2040 (the bicentenary of Te Tiriti o Waitangi) have added up to really big change – and all of it secured without having to put a conventional constitutional document to the people for ratification by means of a binding referendum.

That’s not the way to change the minds of your fellow citizens. Māori cannot re-write New Zealand’s constitution by stealth. Change will only happen by Māori being open and honest about what they are hoping to achieve, and by giving Non-Māori plenty of good reasons to help them. In this regard, a Māori Parliament – at least in the guise of a large and representative body dedicated to describing the shape of New Zealand’s future from a Māori perspective – would be a very good idea.

Who knows, after observing the way it contributed to building a more understanding and inclusive society, New Zealanders might even vote to incorporate it into what their children are already calling the bi-cultural constitution of Aotearoa-New Zealand.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project's substack page on Friday, 7 June 2024.

Nobody Move: Ageing Boomers, Laurie & Les, Talk Politics.

So long as we live in a democracy, economic policy can never be anything other than social-democratic.

“HEH!”, snorted Laurie, as he waved his debit card over the EFTPOS machine. “Same price as last week. I guess budgets aren’t what they used to be.”

“I wouldn’t know,” replied the young barman, wearily, “my memories don’t go back that far.”

“Heh!”, Laurie snorted again. “I keep forgetting that half the world’s younger than I am.”

Depositing the two brimming glasses of ale on the table in the corner, Laurie seats himself, smiles wanly at his drinking companion, Les, and sighs.

“Remember when Budgets were announced at 7:30 at night, after all the shops had shut, so that people couldn’t rush out as stock up on booze and cigarettes before Parliament raised the excise taxes?”

“I certainly do,” Les replied, “and in those days nobody pretended to be doing it for the nation’s health. The nation’s soul, perhaps, since drinking and smoking were still regarded as sinful by a goodly chunk of the population. But the nation’s health? Nah! Finance ministers just needed the revenue.”

“Anyway, the price of this ale hasn’t changed since last week. So Nicola Willis’s budget can’t be all bad.”

“Even if the excise tax has gone up, Laurie, I doubt if this place can afford to pass it on to its customers. You must have noticed that this old pub ain’t exactly bursting at the seams anymore, not the way it was before Covid. Time was, patrons were three deep at the bar. Now the bar staff are all standing idle, face down, fiddling with their phones.”

“So, what did you make of Nicola’s budget? What would you give it out of ten?”

“I’d give it a flat five, Laurie. Not because it was mediocre, but because, when push comes to shove, finance ministers don’t have a lot of choices about what they include in a budget. Truth is, mate, I’d give the same mark out of ten to every budget since Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets” in 1991.”

“Crikey! That’s not the answer I was expecting – not at all. What would you have given Richardson’s effort, then?”

“Ten out of ten.”

“Aww, come on, Les, an old socialist like you? You’re pulling my leg.”

“Not at all. I’ve given that mark to Richardson because at least she tried to break the mould. She made a genuine attempt to reset the New Zealand government’s spending priorities. Was it a harsh budget? Yes, it was. Was it a cruel budget? Indisputably – to a degree not seen since the 1930s. But, she was determined to change the game, and, for a little while, she did.”

“As I recall, Les, all hell broke loose after the Mother of All Budgets. Voter trust in the two main parties plummeted. Jim Anderton and Winston Peters powered ahead in the polls.”

“That wasn’t the half of it, Laurie. National won the 1993 election by the skin of its teeth with just 35 percent of the vote. Jim Bolger’s government clung-on thanks to the vagaries of first-past-the-post – which was, of course, voted out of existence in favour of MMP. Bolger had no choice except to sack Richardson – a blood sacrifice to appease an incandescent electorate. Not surprisingly, no finance minister since has dared to reprioritise the state’s obligations.”

“So it would seem. Nicola’s spending and borrowing more than Grant Robertson – hardly the best of starts for a right-wing coalition government.”

“And that’s the whole story in a nutshell, Laurie. So long as we live in a democracy, economic policy can never be anything other than social-democratic. Oh, sure, it may be a penny-pinching social democracy when the Right is in power, and a free-spending social-democracy when the Left’s seated on the Treasury Benches. But, the party, or coalition of parties, that attempts to starve the poor, or make us pay for health care, or our kid’s education, will be voted out of office before you can chant “What’s the story filthy Tory? – Out! Out! Out!”

“And the really big problems? Like New Zealand’s lousy productivity, its huge infrastructure deficit, its economy that’s far too dependent on what comes out of cows’ udders? Are they untouchable, too?”

“Did you ever see that old ‘Counting Crows’ video? The one with the woman carrying the sign that read: ‘Nobody move and nobody gets hurt.’? That’s us, Laurie. Nobody’s moving.”

“And everybody’s getting hurt.”

This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 June 2024.

In Search Of Unity.

Kotahitanga: New Zealand’s future belongs to those who do not fear a nation carved out of unity and solidarity, and are willing to trust the carvers. Some New Zealanders will be required to step up, and others, perhaps for the first time in their lives, will be expected to step back.

BUDGET WEEK has thrown up two very different examples of political representation. In the House of Representatives what we have witnessed is the intentionally divisive squaring-off of Government and Opposition. Unity is not a realistic possibility under our system of representative democracy.

On the streets, however, New Zealanders have witnessed something very different. On the streets, the call from one of the largest indigenous minorities on earth (approximately 20 percent of the population) has been for “Kotahitanga” – unity. What’s more, among those for whom indigeneity constitutes the core of their identity, that unity is not only possible – it is likely.

What is it that causes peoples raised in the traditions of representative democracy to accept disunity? The most optimistic answer is that what many critics condemn as disunity isn’t disunity at all. The debates in Parliament, according to the optimists, are intended to improve the legislative process by requiring the governing majority to test its policies against the objections and/or proposed alternatives of the minority. What some perceive as petty squabbles are, by this reckoning, vital contributors to a much broader and more important unity – that of the citizenry’s faith and trust in the democratic system.

That’s the theory, anyway. But it is by no means certain that a majority of citizens are disposed to accept it. Many people find representative democracy’s angry parliamentary exchanges unedifying – to the point of being disgraceful. Many blame the party system for fostering and perpetuating socio-political divisions. They find it difficult to believe that ordinary, decent, citizens would not, given half-a-chance, coalesce naturally around a programme dedicated to the public good. Their instincts tell them that a political system which deliberately divides the nation is a liability, not an asset.

In the context of New Zealand’s democratic traditions, a cynic might point to the fact that between the mid-1850s and the mid-1870s – the period when the spirit of party and faction was suppressed by a franchise limited to Pakeha male property-owners (joined, after 1867, by four Māori Members of Parliament) – the spirit of unity was much more in evidence. Property-owners do, after all, share a unifying inclination to protect what they own from any political movement disposed to redistribute it among those who own next-to-nothing.

By the 1870s, the gravest threat posed to the “private” property of Pakeha New Zealanders was from dispossessed hapu and iwi. Indeed, nothing is more likely to create unity among Pakeha than the prospect of Māori coming together, under the aegis of the Treaty of Waitangi, to reclaim the collective property which the Pakeha, largely by virtue of controlling the Legislature, had empowered themselves to seize. It is no accident that the class antagonisms that would shape New Zealand for the next 100 years did not emerge as a significant historical driver until the Māori had been stripped of the power to defend their resources.

So, if our political system is, fundamentally, a process driven by the see-sawing struggle between those who own a disproportionate amount of property, and those who seek an equitable portion of the life-chances such ownership confers, then is the realisation of social and political unity a goal restricted to soft-headed idealists and hard-hearted revolutionaries?

As is her wont, the Goddess of History offers no easy or comforting answers. She will tell you that social and political unity is possible, but only when a nation is threatened with subjugation and/or annihilation. When an enemy threatens to destroy all that a people holds dear, then all other quarrels are momentarily, at least, set aside.

To the crowd assembled outside his royal palace on 1 August 1914, as war loomed over Europe, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, declared:

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the expression of your loyalty and your esteem. When it comes to war, all parties cease and we are all brothers.”

In New Zealand, too, the unity generated by the outbreak of the First World War brought Government and Opposition together in a coalition that would last until 1919. Something very similar happened at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. And, although the global Covid-19 Pandemic did not inspire a coalition government, it certainly produced a high level of political co-operation between all the political parties. Economic measures that would normally have engendered bitter opposition were introduced quickly, and largely without rancour.

How far away that crisis-induced unity seemed on Thursday, 30 May 2024 when Nicola Willis delivered her first budget to the House of Representatives. Those controlling a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth would have been well-satisfied with the economic and social policies of the conservative coalition government. Those whose life-chances were being limited by those same policies looked to the opposition parties for succour. Very soon, all the ideological binaries were on display.

When it came to solving New Zealand’s problems, division and rancour were more in evidence on the floor of the House than unity and solidarity.

Not so on the streets, or in Parliament Grounds. There it was all unity and solidarity. Under the aegis of Te Tiriti, Māori from all over Aotearoa had gathered in defence of everything they hold dear: their language, their mana, and the rights guaranteed to them 184 years ago at Waitangi. In the eyes of those thousands of marchers, the Pakeha colonisers are, once again, making war on their people, and, once again, the spirit of Kotahitanga is breathing upon the flames in the flax-roots.

On display across New Zealand on Thursday, 30 May 2024 was an indigenous people that still has faith in itself, and continues to believe that its hopes are not vain.

How different is the picture inside the Pakeha nation. There, the National Party, Act, and NZ First have thrown up a defensive palisade around the interests that elected them. Labour, the Greens and Te Pati Māori, far from walking forth gladly to find, in the words of James K. Baxter, “the angry poor who are my nation”, keep faith only with the thin social strata that long ago reconciled itself to the administration of a system it does not control, and will never own.

New Zealand’s future belongs to those who do not fear a nation carved out of unity and solidarity, and are willing to trust the carvers. Some New Zealanders will be required to step up, and others, perhaps for the first time in their lives, will be expected to step back.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 3 June 2024.