Friday 23 February 2024

Democracy Denied.

Political Intervention From Above: From the early-1970s on, lobbying firms and think-tanks have grown like Topsy all across the capitalist world. Had the progressive middle-class not drawn its teeth and clipped its claws, an angry working-class might have risen to meet the Robber Baron’s challenge as it did in the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1970s. Without the kratos of the unruly majority of the demos behind them, however, the paternalist strategies of the progressives were easily countered.

DEMOCRACY WILL ALWAYS BE HATED by the rich and powerful. This is a truth that should never be, but all-too-often is, forgotten. If the kratos (power) really does reside in the demos (people) then it cannot reside in the clubs and boardrooms of the corporate elites. The stronger the people become, the more determined the elites will grow to destroy the institutions through which popular power is expressed. Much has been made recently (not least by the Democracy Project) of the political influence of lobbyists and think-tanks, as if this was somehow a new and disturbing development. It is not. All that the growing power and influence of lobbyists and think-tanks reveals is the growing weakness of our democratic institutions.

Rather than devoting their energies to building up the strength of those institutions – by aggressively re-democratising the Labour Party and the trade union movement, both of which have long-since ceased to evince the slightest democratic energy – more and more leftists are avoiding the implications of their crushing political defeat by jumping down the rabbit hole of Mihingarangi Forbes’ Atlas Network conspiracy theory.

According to Forbes’ narrative, New Zealand’s political life is increasingly falling under the influence of unseen bad actors. These dark forces are unfairly resourced with all the talents and resources needed to shape and steer decisions critical to New Zealand’s future without the public’s knowledge.

If this all sounds like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, it’s because both Forbes and the author of The Da Vinci Code both deal in fiction. Forbes’ dark forces are, in fact, openly acknowledged and registered pressure groups, like the Taxpayers’ Union, which operate in the broad light of day and are constantly seeking to engage with the public via electronic newsletters, public meetings, and the media. Real conspirators do not behave like this. Prior to flying hijacked planes into the Twin Towers, Al Qaeda did not issue a press release!

What Forbes is attempting to paint as sinister and illegitimate is actually a very real tribute to the power of grass-roots organising. What makes the Taxpayers’ Union so effective is what made Halt All Racist Tours (HART) so effective: a popular cause; generous donors; dedicated leadership; powerful propaganda; and a bloody huge mailing-list. It is ironic that the organising model which the Left now attempts to pass-off as diabolical, is what made the left-wing pressure groups of the past so politically effective.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the New Zealand Right borrowing the tactics of the New Zealand Left is the New Zealand National Party. National’s founders were determined that their fledgling organisation should grow into a mass party – as large, if not larger, than the New Zealand Labour Party. How else could they hope to defeat it?

Just like Labour, National gave itself a branch structure which penetrated deeply into ideologically sympathetic communities. Membership fees were kept within the reach of the ordinary voter, and the members themselves were constitutionally empowered to choose parliamentary candidates and participate in the formation of National Party policy. The “divisional” structure of the party guaranteed a large measure of regional autonomy from the party’s central office.

In short, until Stephen Joyce transformed it into a self-perpetuating oligarchy in 2003, National was a thoroughly democratic organisation. Had it not been, the party would not have been able to dominate New Zealand’s post-war politics so emphatically. At its peak in the mid-1970s, National’s membership topped a quarter-of-a-million.

What Forbes and her fellow conspiracy-theorists fail to grasp about democratic success, is that the exercise of real political power by working-class people (as evidenced by Labour’s dramatic economic and social transformations of the 1930s and 40s) does not just alarm the corporate elites.

When confronted by a confident and increasingly insubordinate working-class, broad swathes of the middle-class grow fearful that their superior social status is about to be eroded. To resist the rise of the working-class, two strategic options present themselves. The first is to effect a middle-class alignment with the ruling elites. The second is for the middle-class, using its credentialled expertise, to overwhelm the organisations of the working-class, turning lions into lambs and effectively giving the bosses two parties to play with.

The New Zealand middle-class has chosen both options. It’s commercial and industrial half backs the corporate elites in National, while its professional and managerial half makes sure Labour remains the neoliberal party it helped it to become in the 1980s and 90s. Middle-class idealists may have migrated to the Alliance and the Greens, but their more “progressive” policies have not yet contributed, in any meaningful way, to the re-empowering of the working-class.

Historically, “progressivism” represented the educated American middle-class’s answer to the brutally democratic working-class solutions developed by immigrant communities living in the United States’ largest cities during the Nineteenth Century. Dubbed “machine politics” by middle-class reformers affronted by its ruthless majoritarianism and unabashed clientism (which the reformers called corruption) progressivism successfully tamed the unruly beast that was American democracy, and made sure that working-class Americans kept their red crayoning safely inside the lines.

But, just because the kratos has been relocated in the hands of the more respectable sort of demos doesn’t mean that the corporate elites were willing to leave the political stage to those who clearly saw themselves as stepping nimbly between the Scylla of an angry working-class, and the Charybdis of Robber Baron Capitalism. Progressivism (a.k.a social-democracy) needs working-class votes if it is to wield political power, so, at least some of its measures must be to the obvious advantage of the whole population.

Not acceptable. As the capitalist elites discovered in the 1970s, even the middle-class version of democracy has a nasty habit of eventually encroaching on those parts of the system which capitalism has ruled off-limits. Give people of colour, or women, or the environment, enforceable rights and the next thing you know the cheeky so-and-sos will be wanting to use them.

What to do? Easy. Raise several well-equipped ideological divisions and throw them into the battle of ideas. From the early-1970s on, lobbying firms and think-tanks have grown like Topsy all across the capitalist world. Had the progressive middle-class not drawn its teeth and clipped its claws, an angry working-class might have risen to meet the Robber Baron’s challenge as it did in the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1970s. But, without the kratos of the unruly majority of the demos behind them, the paternalist strategies of the progressives were easily countered.

When the corporate elites discovered how intensely the working-class hated the educated middle-class that had shut them out of power, they must have known they couldn’t lose.

And, that’s the problem with democracy, isn’t it? It’s indivisible. Deny it to some, and you end up allowing its enemies to deny it to all.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project of Monday, 19 February 2024.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Is Applying “Tough Love” To A “Fragile” Nation The Right Answer?

The Question Christopher Luxon Needs To Ask –  And Answer: How was it possible for a nation of barely three million citizens to create and maintain an infrastructure that functioned, schools and universities that turned out well-educated and enterprising citizens, a health system that kept its people healthy, and a workforce whose members could afford their own home and enjoy the weekend with their families? 

“THE STATE OF THE NATION IS FRAGILE.” Such was Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s sobering verdict on the state of the nation. It was delivered in an address to the National Party faithful that left many questions unanswered – and even more unasked.

How, for example, does one strengthen a state when those charged with administering it believe the elected government is guided entirely by the wrong beliefs? How is public morale to be lifted when the nation’s key influencers hold huge swathes of the population in contempt? How is New Zealand’s crumbling infrastructure to be remedied in the absence of the sort of publicly-owned design and construction agency that oversaw the creation of so much of New Zealand’s key infrastructure from the 1940s to the 1980s? How can the nation’s productivity be lifted without a wholesale reduction in the size and influence of the professional-managerial class across both the public and private sectors?

Christopher Luxon had distressingly little to say about these issues.

It is not as though he doesn’t recognise the hostility of the political class towards the Coalition Government’s plans, or the obstructions being raised against them, it is just that he is unwilling to say much more about this resistance than that his policies “won’t be popular with everyone – I get it.” Someone should tell the Prime Minister that allowing your programme to be defined by the objections of its critics is never a good idea.

It is all very well to describe the state of the nation as “fragile”, but if you don’t then explain why it’s fragile and how you intend to make it more resilient, then all you’ve achieved is a further demoralisation of the population. What the people of New Zealand need more than anything at this historical moment is inspiration. Telling them that their government’s policies won’t be popular will likely be judged as a pretty uninspiring prime-ministerial offering.

Most voters would agree that it is a good thing for an incoming government to carry out its election promises in a timely fashion, but the fortunes of a “fragile” state cannot be turned around in 100 days – or even 1,000 days. Indeed, as a figurative device, this focus on “The First 100 Days” has drifted a long way from its historical origins in the rush of remedial legislation that distinguished the first three months of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

These bills, many of them unread by members of congress, were passed in what was dangerously close to a state of panic. Roosevelt had delivered his inaugural address on a day when the doors of virtually every bank in the United States remained firmly closed to its distraught depositors. When FDR told his fellow Americans that: “The only thing we have to fear – is fear itself.”, he was not being rhetorical. There were many who believed that American capitalism stood on the brink of complete collapse, and that if the future didn’t belong to the communists, then it belonged to the fascists.

Roosevelt’s avalanche of legislation was not about ticking-off promises made during the presidential election campaign of 1932, it was about showing the American people that he would do just about anything to haul the American economy out of the hole into which it, and the millions of Americans it sustained, had fallen. Those action-packed “first one hundred days” were immortalised by America’s leading political columnist, Walter Lippman, after – not before – Roosevelt acted.

And action was the key. As Roosevelt declared: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

It is this commitment to “bold, persistent experimentation” that is missing from Luxon’s State of the Nation speech. Present in spades, however, is Luxon’s condemnation of his predecessor’s experiments, and his delight at being able to purge them from the nation’s statute books. But, public gratitude for an incoming government’s repeal of unpopular legislation, and for its termination of unpopular policies, has a very limited political shelf-life. Eventually, as Roosevelt so rightly said, a government has to “try something”.

What Roosevelt’s admonition does not envisage, however, is trying something that you and/or your party have tried before – many times – only to discover, each time, that it doesn’t work.

What is it about National that leads them, inexorably, to the poorest and most vulnerable people in New Zealand society? The beneficiaries to whom they then insist on delivering fatuous speeches about “welfare dependency”? Luxon was certainly playing true to his party’s form on Sunday (18/2/24) when he declared to his anything-but-dependent audience: “We’ll do everything we can to help people into work, but if they don’t play ball the free ride is over.”

Free ride? As if attempting to survive on a benefit in New Zealand is a matter of sitting back in your taxpayer-funded limousine, peeling-off $100 bills from your bankroll, and using them to light your fat Cuban cigars. That the constant deprivation, the acute humiliation, and the unrelenting stress of never having enough money to live on, is something beneficiaries actually enjoy; something they seek out; something they’ll do everything they can to prolong.

Has Luxon ever done what every prime minister of New Zealand should do – sit down with a group of unemployed New Zealanders for a day and just listen to their stories? The chances are high that he hasn’t. A poll of National Party members revealed that 70 percent of them knew no one who was living on a benefit. Presumably, this is why Luxon is able to describe National’s latest effort at punishing the poor as “tough love”. Well, the “tough” is certainly there, but where is the love?

The fragile state of our nation will not be strengthened by applying pressure to its weakest citizens. If New Zealanders really are the people Luxon describes: a people “big enough and smart enough to face reality when we need to”, then the questions he needs to put to them are pretty simple.

How was it possible for a nation of barely three million citizens to create and maintain an infrastructure that functioned, schools and universities that turned out well-educated and enterprising citizens, a health system that kept its people healthy, and a workforce whose members could afford their own home and enjoy the weekend with their families?

This is the nation that Luxon celebrates in his State of the Nation speech for splitting the atom and climbing Everest. The New Zealand that nurtured its citizens “from the cradle to the grave”, and where the Prime Minister knew the unemployed by name.

At their simplest, the questions Luxon needs to ask boil down to just two: What made that earlier New Zealand possible? And what will it take to make it possible again?

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 19 February 2024.

Monday 19 February 2024

Keynesian Wisdom.

When the facts change, I change my mind - what do you do, sir?
John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Friday 16 February 2024

Iron In Her Soul.

“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

TELEVISION NEW ZEALAND is to be congratulated for inviting Chloe Swarbrick onto its Q+A current affairs show. The Green MP for Auckland Central is the odds-on favourite to become the next co-leader of the Green Party, making her a vital player in the trio of left-wing parties (the other two being Labour and Te Pāti Māori) that together constitute our alternative government. Allowing the public to get to know Swarbrick a little better was a sensible editorial decision.

There will be many Green members and supporters, however, who, having watched Q+A’s Jack Tame interrogate Swarbrick, may be wondering whether accepting TVNZ’s invitation to be interviewed was as shrewd as issuing it.

Tame is an exceptionally talented broadcaster whose boyish good-looks mask a daunting interrogative talent. If there are weaknesses in any given political persona, Tame may be relied upon to find them. Last Sunday (11/2/24) he found Swarbrick’s – and goaded her into revealing them, live, on free-to-air public television.

The weakness Tame homed in on was Swarbrick’s political inflexibility – a flaw which has only grown as her time in Parliament has lengthened.

When she first burst upon the political scene, as an independent candidate for the Auckland mayoralty in the 2016 local body elections, the clarity of her thought and expression was Swarbrick’s greatest asset. Here was a young woman who was capable of presenting her ideas forcefully, without prevarication, and then supporting them with a truly intimidating army of facts and figures.

Swarbrick’s campaign may have been run on a shoestring, and mostly on social media, but it made sufficient political impact to leave her the third-highest-polling candidate for Mayor. Clearly, this diminutive, articulate and courageous young woman was destined for great things. That Labour and the Greens set out immediately to recruit her, surprised nobody.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to observe that Swarbrick’s choice of the Greens may not have been the best one. While, on paper, the Greens’ determination to arm their politics with the weaponry of reason and science made it a perfect fit for the serious, almost scholarly, Swarbrick, there were risks. The currents of unreason that were flowing with ever-increasing force beneath the surface of Green Party politics were bound to end up battering her core intellectual and political principles.

Swarbrick’s candidacy for the Greens’ co-leadership was prompted by the departure of James Shaw. In spite of an impressive record of political wins – most obviously the Zero Carbon Act – Shaw has found it increasingly difficult to make his colleagues understand that their electoral success depends on voters seeing them as the only party dedicated to combatting global warming effectively. Shaw’s implied warning: that a Green Party which cares less about climate change than it does about fighting the culture wars will end up bleeding away its support (a proposition confirmed by the latest Curia poll) went unheeded.

The politician who emerged from Tame’s interview with Swarbrick cannot replace the qualities the Greens are losing with Shaw. Her six years in Parliament appear to have diminished her faith in democracy as the most effective political system. Swarbrick has observed politicians of all colours tapping into the raw emotional power of ignorance and prejudice, and it appears to have hardened her and made her brittle. There no longer seems to be as much “give” in the Swarbrick of 2024, as there was in the Swarbrick who entered Parliament in 2017. Iron has entered her soul.

Swarbrick’s declining faith in representative democracy is reflected in her conviction that “the people” possess a power that overmatches the tawdry compromises of professional politicians. In her pitch to Green members Swarbrick hints that this power may be sufficient to bring the whole rotten, planet-destroying system crashing down. That, with the masses at their back, the Greens can build a new and better Aotearoa.

How many times has revolutionary zealotry offered this millenarian mirage to an angry and despairing world? How many times has it all gone horribly wrong? And how sad is it that a politician as talented as Chloe Swarbrick now finds herself wandering this arid trail?

Many have praised/condemned Jack Tame for identifying Swarbrick’s unflinching defence of the Palestinian cause as the most effective means of exposing her zealotry. But, to those who once saluted Swarbrick’s political promise, Tame’s uncompromising interview proved profoundly depressing.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 February 2024.

Thursday 15 February 2024

Shrugging-Off The Atlas Network.

Upholding The Status-Quo: The Left’s election defeat is not the work of the Atlas Network. It is not even the work of David Seymour and Act. It is the work of ordinary citizens who liked the Right’s stories better than they liked the Left’s. If the Right’s stories were made more convincing by a sympathetic think tank, then the Left should not be getting mad at their opponent’s effective apparatus, it should be getting mad at itself for not having one of its own.

THE ATLAS NETWORK has been trending lately – in the minds of the New Zealand Left. Devastated by the election result, and further demoralised by recent polling showing the Right increasing its grip on New Zealanders’ political imagination, the Atlas Network has provided the Left with what it most needs – an explanation for its failure.

It is important to state at the very start that the Atlas Network is not the Left equivalent of Q-Anon. It is a real organisation, founded in 1981, by Antony Fisher (1915-1988) devotee of the fanatical anti-collectivist, F.A. Hayek (1899-1992) and a tireless proponent of the monetarist and free-market ideas that ultimately found practical political expression in the government of Margaret Thatcher and the administration of Ronald Reagan.

Fisher’s objective in forming the Atlas Network was to encourage like-minded individuals and groups to do as he had done nearly thirty years earlier: set up “think tanks” dedicated to advancing free-market ideology. His own creation, the Institute of Economic Affairs, was founded in 1955 and played an important role in formulating what would become Thatcher’s economic programme. But, just as Che Guevara wanted “one, two, many Vietnams”, Fisher wanted one, two, many right-wing think tanks. He had witnessed at first-hand what could be achieved by a handful of people “thinking the unthinkable”. The more there were of these ideological handfuls, the faster the “New Right’s” ideas would spread.

None of this information is new, Fisher’s exploits are documented comprehensively in Richard Cockett’s book, “Thinking The Unthinkable: Think-tanks and the Economic Counter-revolution, 1931-83”, published in 1995.

Paying close attention to who is influencing whom behind the scenes is, however, something activists on the New Zealand Left engage in only intermittently. There was a brief flurry of left-wing journalists twitching back the curtains in the late-1980s. They were motivated, mainly, by the dramatic emergence of the Business Roundtable as the New Zealand free marketeers’ ideological powerhouse.

The fact that Roger Douglas, father of New Zealand’s neoliberal revolution, was a member of Hayek’s high altitude think tank, the “Mont Pelerin Society”, prompted even more left-wing interest in the influence of think tanks on New Zealand’s political life.

With the election of the Labour-Alliance coalition government in 1999, however, the power of the Business Roundtable began to wane, leading to a corresponding falling-off of interest in venturing behind-the-scenes by left-wing journalists. This decline was compounded by the death of the Left’s principal keeper-of-tabs on the machinations of the business-backed Right, the editor, author and journalist, Bruce Jesson (1944-1999).

The death of the Business Roundtable’s indefatigable Executive Director, Roger Kerr (1945-2011) was similarly demoralising for the Right. In 2012, having already merged with the New Zealand Institute, the Business Roundtable became a new, much sunnier, think tank, the New Zealand Initiative. Led by the ebullient Oliver Hartwich, the New Zealand Initiative has carefully avoided acquiring the sinister reputation of its big-business-backed predecessor.

Growing alongside the Business Roundtable for most of the 1990s was what began as the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (ACT). Founded in 1993 by Roger Douglas, the former National cabinet minister, Derek Quigley, and multi-millionaire, Craig Heatly, ACT was to serve as a vehicle for those classical liberal ideas no longer deemed acceptable by either Labour or National. In 1994, a year after New Zealand’s adoption of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, ACT became the Act Party. In the first MMP general election (1996) Act (now led by Douglas’s former henchman, Richard Prebble) secured 6.1 percent of the Party Vote.

The question being asked by left-wing journalists in 2024 is whether or not the Act Party has always been associated with right-wing organisations like the Atlas Network. Or, is the Network’s sole link with Act its present leader, David Seymour, who, prior to entering Parliament, was employed by two conservative Canadian think tanks, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the Manning Foundation, both of which were, at one time or another, members of the Atlas Network.

Neither of these questions make much sense.

To begin with, the Atlas Network has never made any secret of its existence (even if, after years of left-wing attention, it now keeps its membership list secret. It was not illegal to set up such an organisation in 1981, and it is not illegal now. Think tanks, and organisations dedicated to facilitating the establishment of think tanks, have been a feature of the global political landscape for decades – and that is as true of the Left as it is of the Right.

Indeed, the rise of right-wing think tanks in the 1970s and 80s was a direct response to what their big-business backers (including, entirely unsurprisingly, big oil and big tobacco) saw as the near conquest of their capitalist societies by left-wing ideas and left-leaning institutions.

The free-market fightback, pioneered by think tanks like Fisher’s Institute of Economic Affairs, represented UK and US capitalists’ last-ditch defence of their profits and power. They had witnessed the trade unions bring down a British government in 1973, and the liberal press force the resignation of an American president in 1974. These unprecedented defeats had struck them as harbingers of doom – their doom.

That the Right was smart enough to realise that the battle for the hearts and minds of voters living in democratic states would be a battle of ideas – ideas that those same voters could believe in and be inspired by – and against which the Left, still mired in the demonstrably inadequate economic doctrines of the past, could offer nothing remotely competitive, was hardly the Right’s fault.

Nor is it fair to blame a young man, inspired by the libertarian and free-market doctrines of the right-wing counter-revolution of the 1980s and 90s, for accepting offers of employment from conservative Canadian think tanks. Where else was he supposed to go looking for a “political” job – the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions? Greenpeace?

It is highly instructive that left-wing politicians with CVs that show them working for “progressive” organisations, NGOs, and yes, even left-wing think tanks with links to billionaire donors, are not portrayed as evil-doers by the mainstream media. Having a background in the trade unions, student organisations, environmental groups, etc, is seen as perfectly natural. Where else are left-wingers going to learn their trade? Exxon? British & American Tobacco? Pfizer?

David Seymour’s links to the Atlas Network do not make him a villain. Working for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy is not the same as working for Hamas. Morally-speaking, is taking money from oil companies really all that distinguishable from giving money to oil companies every time we fill up our petrol tank? Getting from A to B; winning the battle of ideas; the Devil clips our tickets either way.

The Left’s election defeat is not the work of the Atlas Network. It is not even the work of David Seymour and Act. It is the work of ordinary citizens who liked the Right’s stories better than they liked the Left’s. If the Right’s stories were made more convincing by a sympathetic think tank, or two, then the Left should not be getting mad at their opponent’s effective apparatus, it should be getting mad at itself for not having one of its own.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project of Monday, 12 February 2024.

Luxon Rejects The “Rejection Election” At His Peril.

Fitting Right In: National retailed a reactionary manifesto of right-wing, racially-charged policies to the electorate throughout 2023. No talk back then of ignoring the overwhelming political preferences of the voting public and making a strong stand on principle. If Luxon’s pollsters and focus-groups were telling him that the public was in a mood to discipline and punish – then discipline and punish it would be.

MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of Prime Minister Chris Luxon’s definitive rejection of Act’s Treaty Principles Bill. Why? Because Luxon not only confirmed that National will vote against giving David Seymour’s bill a second reading, but at the same time acknowledged that the only reason he agreed to support it to the select committee stage was because he did not want to precipitate an unscheduled general election so soon after 14 October. In addition to providing us with a useful gauge of Luxon’s prime ministerial fortitude, Luxon’s “slap-down” of Seymour’s bottom-line policy also betrays his fundamental misreading of the election result’s meaning.

The General Election of 2023 was a rejection election, and rejection elections are powered, overwhelmingly, by popular anger. Not only was there a broad-based and vociferous element within the electorate determined to punish the incumbent Labour Government, but also a coterminous movement to roll back what was perceived to be Labour’s extreme, ideologically-driven, cultural agenda.

At no time during the election campaign did either Christopher Luxon or the National Party attempt to draw a clear distinction between themselves and the other right-wing parties – Act and NZ First – on matters relating to Māori sovereignty.

When Winston Peters announced his party’s policies in relation to removing Treaty principles from legislation, and reframing the mission of the Waitangi Tribunal, Luxon did not recoil in horror. Nor did he remind New Zealanders that it was National, under Jim Bolger and Doug Graham, that kicked-off the Treaty Settlement process back in the early-1990s. Or recall with pride that it was John Key who sent Pita Sharples to New York to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

To be sure, when questioned directly about Act’s desire to clarify the principles of the Treaty by way of a binding referendum, Luxon described his most obvious coalition partner’s policy as “unhelpful and divisive”. That this response was a sop to the liberal wing of Luxon’s party, and to its more “moderate” voters, was made clear by his promotion of policies that unequivocally aligned the National Party with the right-wing populist mood of the nation. Most notably, National’s policy of curbing co-governance by abolishing Three Waters and the Māori Health Authority.

A National Party willing to send that sort of reactionary message to the electorate was not in the least bit concerned about being seen as “unhelpful” or “divisive”. And neither was the National Party committed to reinstating English at the top of official government stationery.

But those were only the most openly acknowledged efforts to align National with the majority’s determination to reject, repeal, rip-up and remove the ideological advances of Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori. Voters who understood the secret language of New Zealand conservatism were in little doubt that National had plenty more punishment in store for Māori New Zealanders.

Conservatives have long exploited the tendency of the racist Right to associate the social pathologies of drug use, domestic abuse, gun violence, aggravated robbery, juvenile delinquency, and truancy with Māori New Zealanders. That these are the pathologies of poverty, afflicting the lives of Pakeha as well as Māori, cuts little ice with right-wingers, who reject structural explanations for anti-social behaviour in favour of those highlighting personal and/or racial deficiencies.

Nor does the Right care overmuch that “cracking down hard” on crime will send Māori New Zealanders to prison in disproportionate numbers, leaving behind broken families and ruined lives. Even though, historically, “tough on crime” policies merely ensure that the cycle of crime and incarceration continues, most National Party voters regard the policy not as “a fiscal and moral failure” (as Bill English described it) but as a necessary evil.

National retailed a reactionary manifesto of right-wing, racially-charged policies to the electorate throughout 2023. Spooked by Act’s record poll numbers, and watching NZ First’s steady rise with alarm, Luxon and his team were in no mood to front-foot National’s liberal traditions. No talk back then of ignoring the overwhelming political preferences of the voting public and making a strong stand on principle. If Luxon’s pollsters and focus-groups were telling him that the public was in a mood to discipline and punish – then discipline and punish it would be.

Not that Luxon, himself, was personally suited to playing the Hard Man. Robotically positive, with his happy-chappy platitudes playing on continuous loop, Luxon left the dog-whistling to his lieutenants. The nearest he came to playing rough was when he dressed up as a pirate – and even then he had to be instructed on how to wield his sword. Even so, when all the votes had been counted and there was a three-way coalition to negotiate, Luxon struggled to locate his inner-thug. The National Party leader’s priority (in almost every setting) is to get whatever he is doing, done – whatever it takes.

And what it took was Luxon’s commitment to Seymour that his Treaty Principles Bill would be backed by National and NZ First to the select committee stage. What that meant was that Act’s coalition partners were supportive of the broad, open-ended debate that sending this particularly controversial bill to a select committee was certain to set in motion. It defies all logic to sanction this course of action if, in utter contempt for the consultation process, and regardless of what the debate reveals about the wishes of the New Zealand people vis-à-vis Te Tiriti o Waitangi, your Party’s next move is to vote it down.

Such a profoundly cynical political strategy would be dangerous at the best of times – and these are not the best of times. New Zealand is in the early stages of the same populist distemper that has polarised and paralysed the United States. Luxon and his party opted to climb on the back of this populist tiger, getting off it will be no simple matter.

To the hundreds-of-thousands of right-wing voters who backed National, Act and NZ First to bring together a government committed to disciplining and punishing Labour and its allies, it looks like Luxon’s National pony has refused its very first fence. Spooked by hui, hikoi and haka at Turangawaewae, Ratana and Waitangi, and bowing to the relentless bullying of the “legacy media”, Luxon has publicly slapped-down the Right’s young champion which, as far as they’re concerned, is the same as slapping them down – the people whose votes put National in power.

But that is not how populism works. You can’t just switch it on and off like a lightbulb. Nor can you boast about ignoring the wishes of the “overwhelming majority” of the New Zealand people. Not if you want to remain the dominant right-wing party.

The sharp up-tick in Act’s support in the latest Curia poll should be taken as a warning. So, too, should the findings of the latest Research New Zealand survey. Against all the confident prognostications of the punditocracy, a solid plurality of Men, New Zealanders aged 18-34, Kiwis living north of Taupo, and (astonishingly) Māori, are in favour of confirming the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi by referendum.

Small wonder then, that in spite of Luxon’s very public slap-down, David Seymour is not at all disposed to giving-up the fight.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 12 February 2024.

Are You A Leftist?

Nothing To Lose But Our Chains: The emancipatory movement which the Left, understood correctly, has always been, cannot accommodate those who are only able to celebrate one group’s freedom by taking it from another. The expectation, always, among leftists, is that liberty enlarges us. That striking-off a person’s shackles not only frees the person who wore them, but also the person who fastened them in the first place.

THERE WAS A TIME when a leftist’s definition of “leftism” corresponded pretty closely to everybody else’s definition. The term identified a coherent world view – to the point where knowing where someone stood on one issue enabled others to predict with surprising accuracy where they stood on a host of others. If a person was opposed to the death penalty, then the chances were high they were in favour of free speech. If they believed in the closed union shop, then they probably also believed in the public ownership of natural monopolies like power and water. It wasn’t easy being a left-winger – especially during the Cold War – but it was remarkably easy to define what it meant.

Today, the term “left-winger” is applied to persons holding an impossibly diverse and self-contradictory set of beliefs. From the traditional leftist who insists that the content and direction of policy should be informed by science; to the contemporary “leftist” who insists that: “Trans women are real women.” From left-wing parties determined to reinvigorate the public sector; to “left-wing” parties with neoliberal economic agendas indistinguishable from those of their right-wing competitors. From leftists who stand firm on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; to “leftists” who insist that “Hate Speech” be criminalised.

The use of scare quotes is, of course, intended to communicate the author’s rejection of the term leftist being applied to any person or party guilty of rejecting science, endorsing laissez-faire capitalism, or favouring the ideologically-driven restriction of their fellow citizens’ freedom.

There is one more test for determining whether or not one is a leftist – the History Test. If the study of history is reduced to little more than a search for evidence of the crimes of pre-ordained “enemies” and “oppressors’”, then by no means can the “historians” doing the searching be accurately described as left-wing. Indeed, those attempting to harness history to ideology are much more likely to be radical nationalists than radical democrats. Always remembering that another name for radical nationalism is “fascism”.

Leftists underserving of scare quotes regard history as a teacher, not a prosecutor; as a well, not a syringe. Ideology retreats before history in the same way that contaminated judgement retreats before the advance of uncontaminated evidence. Nothing gives away fake “leftism” more irretrievably than its deliberate falsification of history in the name of “social” or “national” justice.

A word or two needs to be inserted here to distinguish “leftism” from its numerous component ideologies: social-democracy, socialism, communism and anarchism. In brief: social-democracy seeks to significantly restrict the size of the capitalist marketplace; socialism attempts to extinguish the capitalist marketplace altogether; communism promotes a state dedicated to operationalising the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”; and anarchism seeks to eliminate the state altogether.

As the world discovered, socialism and communism, precisely because they both sought to replace the economic and social structures with which most human-beings were familiar, provoked a great deal of resistance. In crushing that resistance, the socialists and communists were increasingly driven to rely on state-directed repression and terrorism. Consequently, the states which emerged from these struggles, although proudly describing themselves as socialist democracies, were in fact the cruellest of tyrannies, far removed from the emancipatory well-springs of the radical-democratic project called leftism.

That word, “emancipation” is crucial to a proper understanding of leftism. In societies where power and wealth are distributed in such a way that huge numbers of people are rendered economically, socially and politically defenceless, freeing the oppressed must always take priority.

The working-class, whose subsistence depends upon permitting the tiny capitalist minority who pay them to appropriate the “surplus value” of their labour. Women, denied their rightful share of life’s bounty by the systemic and oppressive violence which characterises societies dominated by men. Diverse ethnic communities, economically and culturally subjugated by those who claim superiority over all other ethnicities and who have shaped their societies to reward their prejudices. LGBTQI+, discriminated against because their behaviour challenges society’s gendered norms. One way or another, all these groups seek emancipation. Leftists are committed to making a world fit for free people to live in.

But, the emancipatory movement cannot accommodate those who are only able to celebrate one group’s freedom by taking it from another. The expectation, always, among leftists, is that liberty enlarges us. That striking-off a person’s shackles not only frees the person who wore them, but also the person who fastened them in the first place.

A fair redistribution of wealth and power ultimately liberates the capitalist as well as the worker. By ceasing to be men’s slaves, women make it possible for men to cease being their masters. The emancipation of the queer marches hand-in-hand with the liberation of the straight. Only by freeing the oppressed can the oppressors themselves become free. Slavery invented the whip, only freedom can make it disappear.

Applying these ideas to the salient political issue of the hour – how best to protect and/or give expression to Te Tiriti o Waitangi – where are the leftists to be found? Are they located at the side of those Māori who insist that Te Tiriti is sacrosanct, and must remain inviolate; that the descendants of those who signed the document 184 years ago – Māori and Pakeha – have no right to interrogate its meaning and relevance in the Twenty-First Century?

The answer can only be “No.” To treat Te Tiriti in this way is to fetishise it and, by doing so, eliminate its power, as a living document, to guide the New Zealand people. It would also entail ignoring the historical fact that notions of the Treaty of Waitangi’s intentions have changed radically over the years. Even worse, it would require leftists to turn a blind eye to the blatant revision of the Treaty’s meaning and purpose by Māori-aligned historians and jurists to facilitate the ideological aims and objectives of Māori irredentism.

If the leftist’s goal is emancipation, then the leftist’s role in this issue is to open up the space for a respectful, but open-ended, national debate on Te Tiriti – beginning, ideally, with the ideas contained in Margaret Mutu’s and Moana Jackson’s “Matike Mai Aotearoa”, and the “He Puapua Report”, and expanding outward from there.

To attack the idea of progressing a national debate on New Zealand’s “foundation document” is to expose oneself as someone who elevates ethnic identity above democracy, and, in the context of the current “official” understanding of Te Tiriti, honours the concept of “rangatiratanga” (chiefly leadership) above the democratic rights of individual citizens. Set within the context of the last 100 years of world history, these beliefs could not be defined, even vaguely, as left-wing – quite the reverse in fact.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project of Thursday, 8 February 2024.