Tuesday, 31 March 2015

At The Centre Of Attention

Help Is On Its Way: Winston Peters storms home in Northland, but his historic by-election victory has raised a whole new flurry of political questions.
IT WAS WINSTON’S FINEST HOUR. The sheer scale of his Northland by-election victory had the commentariat scrabbling for superlatives. Even old enemies got into the act. In a generous tribute to the NZ First leader he betrayed, Tau Henare told TV3’s The Nation that Winston Peters must now be ranked as “the greatest Maori politician since Aprirana Ngata”.
In answering all the questions about whether or not it could be done, however, Mr Peters’ historic by-election victory has raised a host of new concerns. Let us examine three of the more important questions his win has posed.
To hold Northland will NZ First be required to veer to the Right – thereby alienating the thousands of Labour supporters whose votes provided the foundation for Mr Peters’ upset win?
Will the National Government, looking ahead to 2017 and beyond, begin to re-position itself as NZ First’s future coalition partner?
How will Mr Peters’ Northland victory influence Labour’s political positioning – especially its relationship with the Greens?
Labour, if it is wise, will seize the opportunity provided by Mr Peters’ victory to put even more distance between itself and the Greens. In his continuing effort to “re-connect” Labour with its traditional constituencies, Andrew Little must already have marked the numerous ideological affinities that draw non-National provincial voters towards one another. These are conservative people, whose personal morals and political values often place them at odds with the more “progressive” voters of metropolitan New Zealand.
The extent to which Labour’s Northland voters defected to Mr Peters indicates that, at the very least, the NZ First leader’s political values presented no insurmountable barrier to Labour’s people following their own leader’s tactical advice. Indeed, just about all the insurmountable barriers to the re-connections Labour must make if it is to regain the status of a “40 percent party” have been raised in the cities – not the provinces.
Even in the cities these obstacles persist. Labour’s traditional urban working-class supporters have more in common with their provincial brothers and sisters than many Labour Party activists are willing to admit.
Shunting-off their social revolutionaries to the Greens might decimate the ranks of Labour’s membership, but it could, equally, swell the ranks of those willing to vote for the party in 2017. Shorn of its radical fringe, Labour not only becomes a much more comfortable fit for NZ First – but also for working-class New Zealanders generally.
National’s strategists will not have overlooked this potentially decisive strategic opening for the Centre Left. So long as the voters continue to bracket Labour and the Greens as indispensable components of any future alternative government, National’s dominant position on the political chess-board will remain unchecked. There are simply too many voters ready to believe that a Labour-Green Government must involve a ruinously radical shift to the left. A re-positioning towards NZ First would, however, allow Labour to present itself as an eminently electable party of the moderate centre.
To forestall such an eventuality, National’s strategists would also have to give serious consideration to re-positioning their party towards the moderate centre. Prime Minister John Key’s highly successful strategy of “radical incrementalism” (as close advisers, Crosby|Textor call it) would have to become a lot less radical and considerably more incremental, but the party would, almost certainly, regard slowing down the pace of economic and social reform as an option to be preferred well ahead of losing the Treasury benches altogether.
Mr Peters, meanwhile, describes the Northland result as a “seismic shift” in New Zealand politics. In the light of everything he has just achieved, we would be wise to take him at his word. But a shift to what? That is the crucial question.
Mr Peters would no doubt describe his prescription as “common sense”. And if by that he means offering solutions based not on ideological assumptions, but on the pragmatic assessment of what needs to be done, and who, or what, is best placed to do it, then he is almost certainly on to something.
All over the world, from Greece to Queensland, voters are growing tired of being told, usually by the very politicians they elected to help them, that they cannot be helped. That forces over which mere politicians neither can, nor should, exercise the slightest control have already determined their fate, and that there’s nothing anyone can do.
Mr Peters great insight is that what human-beings have made, they can also unmake: that change is possible; and that New Zealanders, more than anything else, yearn to meet one another halfway, between the extremes of Right and Left.
Twenty-one years ago, Winston Peters wrote: “When one walks down the centre of the road one foot falls slightly to the right, the other to the left, but the head and the heart remain in the centre. So it is with New Zealand First.”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 March 2015.

Monday, 30 March 2015

The Common Affairs Of The Whole: Why The National Party Is So Bad For New Zealand Capitalism.

Capitalist Cronies: Prime Minister, John Key, and his Finance Minister, Bill English. There’s an enormous difference between managing the affairs of the employing class as a whole, and arranging sweet deals for your mates.
[T]he bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.
Karl Marx & Friedrich EngelsThe Communist Manifesto (1848)

IF JOHN KEY’S GOVERNMENT is a committee, tasked with “managing the common affairs” of the whole employing class”, how’s it doing? Would it earn a pass mark from Charlie Marx and Fred Engels? Or, would they condemn Key for his failure to comprehend the whole meaning of the word “common”?
There’s an enormous difference between managing the affairs of the employing class as a whole, and arranging sweet deals for your mates. Indeed, it’s possible to argue that the difference between a “modern” state, and a state which merely aspires to that condition, is how successfully its political leaders have extricated themselves from the webs of personal, familial, and tribal obligations that characterise pre-modern societies.
The late Bruce Jesson shrewdly observed of New Zealand’s two major political parties that, although the National Party knew how to govern for capitalists, only the Labour Party had mastered the art of governing for capitalism.
Just think of the Sky City Casino deal. Or, the irrigator-driven dismissal of the Canterbury Regional Council. Consider the exclusion of the agricultural sector from the Emissions Trading Scheme. Or, the Government’s plans to make the Resource Management Act more developer-friendly. Think about Bill English’s plans to privatise social housing.
All of these policies are designed to serve the interests of either individual businesses, or favoured sectors of the economy. But none of them meet the Manifesto’s test for “managing the common affairs” of the employing class as a whole.
Bill English’s disastrous intrusion into the social housing scene is a telling instance of this government’s failure to comprehend the general good.
The provision of social housing in New Zealand will forever be associated with the First Labour Government’s massive state house construction programmes of the 1930s and 40s. State houses are, however, a little older than Mickey Savage and Jack Lee. It was the Reform Party leader, Gordon Coates who first authorised the building of “state” houses for the employees of the publicly-owned railway network. As a way of giving these workers’ a powerful “stake” in their employment it was a highly successful project.
Labour’s programme expanded the scope of worker housing tremendously. Moreover, by laying a floor of high-quality and affordable accommodation beneath the feet of the working-class, Labour’s “socialists” also conferred a huge benefit on the whole of the employing class.
Thanks to Labour’s state housing scheme, the health of workers and their families improved dramatically – lifting their productivity and reducing the economic burden of disease and chronic illness. Fixing the share of workers’ income expended on accommodation at around 25 percent similarly assisted the employers. By curbing property speculation and rack-renting, Labour’s state housing scheme kept prices stable across the entire housing market. Affordable housing meant that the incidence of workers attempting to offset rapidly rising accommodation costs by ratchetting-up the price of their labour, was reduced. Money not spent on accommodation could be spent on other things. In all these respects, state housing acted as a significant wage subsidy.
Which was just as well, because workers now needed to spend as much money as possible. Mass consumption was fast becoming the indispensable corollary to mass production. And, for mass consumption to continue, wages not only needed to rise – they had to keep on rising.
As the American inventor of modern mass-production techniques, Henry Ford, put it: “if you don’t pay your own employees enough that they can afford to buy your products, sooner or later, you’re going to go broke.”
Ford’s vision was clear – but narrow. He could see the advantage of paying his workers enough to purchase the Model-Ts they were putting together on his production lines, but he never made the next conceptual step: the one that would have allowed him to conceive of a society in which the working-class was paid enough, collectively, to consume its own production.
This was capitalism’s equivalent of a perpetual motion machine (assuming, of course, that capitalism had somehow discovered a way to exempt itself from the laws of planetary thermodynamics). The only downside (from the capitalists’ point of view) was that the full-employment and steadily rising living standards generated by the machine were bound to precipitate a concomitant decline in the political, social and economic power of the employing class.
The fatal paradox of capitalism’s perpetual motion machine (which actually operated throughout the West from 1950-1980) was that the more efficient it became at the equitable distribution of mass-produced goods and services, the more precarious the position of the capitalist system’s owners became.
With the efficient generation of surpluses ceasing to be an occasion for the obscene enrichment of a privileged few; and becoming, instead, the chief mechanism for ensuring better lives for everybody; those we now call “The One Percent” very quickly apprehended that economic inefficiency – even crises – were infinitely preferable to social equality. Even at the price of driving a large proportion of the employing class to the wall, the One Percent’s urgent mission became the election of “executive committees” dedicated to protecting the interests of only the most powerful capitalists – i.e. themselves. The rest of the bourgeoisie could go and join the proletariat in Hell.
The funny thing about Bill English is that 15 years ago he gave every appearance of understanding the crucial distinction between governing for capitalism as a whole, and governing for a handful of National Party cronies and Federated Farmers. His famous speech to the Balclutha Branch of the National Party in 2000 marked him out as a good, Disraelian, “One Nation” conservative. Even today, under Pope Francis, English, as a good Catholic, is obligated to take “the preferential option for the poor”. Why, then, has he allowed himself to become tangled up in a social housing policy that has been widely condemned as a “property developers charter”?
Could it be that Mr English, in his heart-of-hearts, knows that, in new Zealand, any Finance Minister who is serious about making capitalism work effectively and efficiently is much more likely to belong to the Labour Party than the National Party? That “One Nation” conservatism and moderate Social Democracy are, in practical political terms, indistinguishable. Could all the floundering around and making it up as he goes along be evidence of Mr English coming to terms with the fact that he has more in common with Winston Peters than John Key? Or, even more heretically, that in working out what “managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” truly entails, Mr English has come to realise just how far National’s “executive committee” has fallen short of Marx and Engel’s prescription?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 28 March 2015.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Congratulations, Winston! (Fittingly, "Bowalley Road"'s 1,000th Post!)

Congratulations, Winston!

A remarkable victory.

Winston Peters (NZ First): 15,359
Mark Osborne (National): 11,347
Willow-Jean Prime (Labour): 1,315

Winston Peters' Majority: 4,012

Turnout: 79.9% of Northland's 2014 Total Vote

The Little River Band can say the rest.

Video courtesy of YouTube

The posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday, 27 March 2015

High Noon In Petersville.

Help Is On Its Way: Win or lose tomorrow night, Marshall Peters has already saved his home town. (Screen-shot from Jeremy Jones' Animation Nation on TV3's The Nation)
WINSTON PETERS has already won the Northland By-Election. Success in tomorrow’s ballot will merely pin the prized tin star upon Marshall Peters' waistcoat. A sudden spike in the value of NZ First’s political stock is sure to follow. Proof that, when he has to, their old dog can produce an abundance of new tricks.
So much raw political energy has been poured into Northland by the National Party, and so much precious political capital expended there, that even if National’s candidate, Mark Osborne, somehow manages to pull off a surprise, come-from-behind victory, most pundits will dismiss it as Pyrrhic.
A governing party, polling in the high 40s, should not have to pull out all the campaigning stops to hold the ground it took more-or-less effortlessly at the preceding seven elections. When fleets of ministerial cars are forced to cruise the backroads of a safe National seat, disgorging dripping barrels of reeking political pork at every stop, just to beat back a man on the cusp of turning 70, then something’s gone very seriously wrong.
The most obvious “something” that went wrong was National’s choice of candidate. The animator, Jeremy Jones, commissioned by TV3’s The Nation, cast the hapless Mark Osborne as “Hoss” – the largest (and dimmest) member of the Cartwright family in the 1960s television series Bonanza. It was a shrewd choice. Hoss, like National in Northland, was big and strong – but he wasn’t exactly the brightest kerosene lantern hanging from the Ponderosa’s front porch. Pitting this foolishly grinning cowboy against a gimlet-eyed gunfighter like Winston Peters wasn’t just wrong – it was cruel.
Foolishly Grinning Cowboy: Mark Osborne as Hoss Cartwright (Montage by Jeremy Jones)
Because, even if Mr Osborne wins, everyone will know it was in spite of, not because of, the qualities he brought to the fight. If Mr Peters goes down it won’t have much to do with Mr Osborne’s wobbly six-shooter. The man from NZ First is much more likely to be taken out by Steven Joyce’s Winchester rifle, sniping from the roof of the Saloon. Or, shot in the back by the little Derringer pistol that HdJ-Crosby|Textor’s Jo de Joux keeps in her purse.
And if Mr Osborne loses, well that’s it. He’ll go down in National Party history as the man who lost Northland. The last time anybody belonging to the National Party did that was in 1966, when L. F. Sloane, the MP for Hobson, allowed himself to be defeated by Vern Cracknell, leader of the Social Credit Political League. Amazingly, Mr Sloane was given a chance to redeem himself – which he duly did by reclaiming the seat for National in the General Election of 1969. Something tells me Mr Osborne will not be so lucky. Mr Sloane was a returned serviceman who’d fought in Italy. His were more forgiving times.
And the Labour Party? Will Labour be forgiven if, on the night, it turns out that just enough of its supporters have stayed loyal right through to deny Mr Peters the seat? Not by the supporters of NZ First one suspects. Not when they were expecting Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime to take on the role of Amy Kane in Fred Zinnemann’s classic western, High Noon. With Mr Peters playing the part of Marshall Will Kane, NZ First supporters have been counting on Willow-Jean to distract Mr Osborne at the crucial moment – preferably by laying Labour’s 2014 vote at their hero’s feet.
But even if Labour’s Northland voters do not forsake NZ First’s darling, and Mr Peters wins the seat, it’s hard to see Labour coming out of the by-election unscathed.
Politics thrives on drama, and drama must have heroes. Unfortunately for Labour, Andrew Little is no match for Mr Peters. At least, not with Mr Peters in Gary Cooper mode. The NZ First leader’s intuitive grasp of how to infuse a campaign with all the elements of high drama is unequalled in New Zealand politics.
The big silver bus kicking up dust clouds all over the North. That slogan: “Send them a message!” The inspired choice of the Little River Band’s “Help Is On Its Way” for the campaign’s theme-song. Mr Peters, as the director of his own production, had only to shout: “Lights! Camera! Action!” Instinctively aware that, in this sort of movie, gravitas and honesty beats expensive promises and cheap abuse.
Win or lose tomorrow night, Marshall Peters has already saved his home town.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 March 2015.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

A Song For Mr Surkov: "The Man Who Sold The World".


WITH PUTIN'S PUPPET-MASTER IN MIND, I thought the readers of Bowalley Road might enjoy this classic number by David Bowie. It's the title track off his 1970-71 album The Man Who Sold The World. Enjoy.
Video courtesy of YouTube.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Very Different Personages: Vladislav Surkov - Putin's Puppet-Master.

The Kremlin Demiurge: "[Vladislav] Surkov is the real genius of the Putin era. Understand him and you understand not only contemporary Russia but a new type of power politics, a breed of authoritarianism far subtler than the 20th-century strains.” - Peter Pomerantsev
ADAM CURTIS is a documentary-maker whose work has a way of making the world look and feel completely different. The secret to the success of series as varied as Century of the Self (2002), The Power of Nightmares (2004), and his most recent work, BitterLake (2015), is Curtis’s ability to bring what’s been hidden in History’s shadows into the light.
The nineteenth century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, remarked that: “The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.” Curtis not only takes us behind the scenes, he introduces us to the personages.
The latest personage to whom Curtis’s viewers have been introduced is Vladislav Surkov – Vladimir Putin’s political impresario. In the words of Peter Pomerantsev, writing in The London Review of Books: “Surkov is the real genius of the Putin era. Understand him and you understand not only contemporary Russia but a new type of power politics, a breed of authoritarianism far subtler than the 20th-century strains.”
Surkov’s great insight into the character of the post-Soviet era was that it would be an epoch devoid of ideological conviction. A society in which all of the grand narratives of the 20th Century (from Absolutism to Socialism to Capitalism) have been tried and found wanting. A place where cynicism and irony will ride shotgun for an amoral authoritarianism whose twinned priorities of self-enrichment and self-aggrandisement recognise no limits.
It is a world that fosters in its hapless citizens feeling of vertiginous disorientation. According to Pomerantsev’s chilling description:
“[T]he stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away. Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”
If all this is beginning to sound unsettlingly familiar, Pomerantsev has more. Surkov, he says, has perfected what he calls “sovereign democracy”, a new form of governance “in which democratic institutions are maintained without any democratic freedoms”. Surkov was also “the man who [turned] television into a kitsch Putin-worshipping propaganda machine”.
If you think that’s coming uncomfortably close to a description of New Zealand television (substituting “Key” for “Putin”) then you’re not alone.
Obviously, New Zealanders are not ruled over by a political beast as big or as dangerous as Putin, but Pomerantsev’s depiction of a political environment subject to continuous and disorienting shifts of perspective; of leaders performing on a revolving stage whose sets and props are constantly changing; rings more than a few Kiwi bells.
Certainly it is Curtis’s view that the curiously “post-modern” style of politics that has distinguished the UK under David Cameron and George Osborne owes a great deal to the political ideas and methods of Vladislav Surkov. (Curtis illustrates his point by advancing video images of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and then rolling them backward – providing a potent visual representation of Osborne’s black is white, 2 + 2 = 5 political style.)
Our own Prime Minister and Finance Minister display a similar, loose, relationship with reality. John Key, in particular, seems able to shift his shape almost at will. From the saccharine family man ordering in Saturday night pizza; to the jokey-blokey sports-lover trading wisecracks with commercial radio shock-jocks; to the dead-eyed critic of Nicky Hager’s latest revelations daring the Press Gallery to contradict him; our own post-modern performance artist makes it easy to see from whence his fine-arts student daughter draws her inspiration.
Pomerantsev offers us a frightening glimpse of the sort of world to which Surkovian politics is leading us:
“In Soviet Russia you would have been forced to give up any notion of artistic freedom if you wanted a slice of the pie. In today’s Russia, if you’re talented and clever, you can have both. This makes for a unique fusion of primitive feudal poses and arch, postmodern irony. A property ad displayed all over central Moscow earlier this year [2011] captured the mood perfectly. Got up in the style of a Nazi poster, it showed two Germanic-looking youths against a glorious alpine mountain over the slogan ‘Life Is Getting Better’. It would be wrong to say the ad is humorous, but it’s not quite serious either. It’s sort of both. It’s saying this is the society we live in (a dictatorship), but we’re just playing at it (we can make jokes about it), but playing in a serious way (we’re making money playing it and won’t let anyone subvert its rules). A few months ago there was a huge ‘Putin party’ at Moscow’s most glamorous club. Strippers writhed around poles chanting: ‘I want you, prime minister.’ It’s the same logic. The sucking-up to the master is completely genuine, but as we’re all liberated 21st-century people who enjoy Coen brothers films, we’ll do our sucking up with an ironic grin while acknowledging that if we were ever to cross you we would quite quickly be dead.”
To which, as Adam Curtis rightly observes, we can only say: “Oh Dear.”
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Tuesday, 24 March 2015.

Shaken - But Not Stirred: Canterbury Is Denied Democracy For The Third Time.

Water and Grass: The economic value of productive pastures is deemed by the National Government to be more important than popular political control over the water that keeps them green. In Canterbury this has led to a third delay in the return of full democracy to the region.
THE GREAT CANTABRIAN RIGHTS ROBBERY continues. With six of the thirteen Regional councillors set to be appointed, until at least 2019, by the Environment Minister, Dr Nick Smith, Canterbury’s long-promised return to democracy has, once again, been delayed.
And still the streets are empty.
That the people of Christchurch have been a little preoccupied since 2010 is acknowledged. But the same high-handedness that prompted the elimination of Cantabrians’ regional democracy has also been a frustrating feature of their city’s rebuild.
And still the streets are silent.
Large sums of money continue to be extracted from the people of Canterbury by “Commissioners” for whom no one has voted. Practically without a murmur, the oldest principle of democratic governance – that taxes may only be levied by representatives chosen by the people themselves – has been cast aside.
“No taxation without representation!”: the principle for which seventeenth century Englishmen were ready to execute their King, and in the name of which eighteenth century Americans proclaimed a revolution; has stirred New Zealanders hardly at all.
Where are our John Hampdens? Our John Pyms? Why have we yet to produce an Antipodean version of John Adams? John Hancock? Thomas Jefferson? All of these champions of representative government – the farmers, merchants and lawyers who challenged King Charles I and King George III – were men of substance. They dared to win, even though to lose meant death. But New Zealand’s men of substance; our farmers, merchants and lawyers; what have they dared?
Precious little has been risked by those whose screams would, undoubtedly, be among the loudest were Cantabrians rights being abrogated by a left-wing government. Indeed, one could argue that the destruction of regional democracy in Canterbury was undertaken at the behest of farmers, merchants and lawyers. For isn’t it these latter groups that have the gained the most from the elimination of their fellow citizens’ democratic rights? While ordinary Cantabrians retained the capacity to thwart their grand plans for Canterbury’s precious water, how could the region’s farmers, merchants and lawyers possibly have attracted the level of investment required to bring them to fruition?
Dr Smith dismisses all such claims as cynical. Rather than a case of careful political engineering, erected in the interests of the farmers, merchants and lawyers who vote National, the destruction of Canterbury’s regional democracy is presented by the Minister as some sort of glorified water conservation measure. Any return to normal democratic governance, argues Dr Smith, would inflict irreparable damage on a process which he clearly believes to be beyond the capabilities of elected citizens.
“The fear would be that you’ve got this population divide pretty even between rural and urban, and rather than those commissioners being able to look for the middle way through, that you end up where we were – a highly polarised council not making any progress on these very important issues.”
Dr Smith refuses to accept that, by silencing the voice of urban conservationists, he has, in effect, facilitated the water exploitation schemes of rural Cantabrians. His justification hinges on what he considers to be the superiority of technocratic over democratic decision-making.
But this justification works equally well for any and all attempts to limit the scope of democratic decision-making. The notion that society would be morally and materially improved if all the important decisions were left to a self-replenishing caste of “philosopher kings” is as old as Plato’s Republic. That every attempt to put Plato’s ideas into practice has very quickly resulted in the decisions of the wise becoming practically indistinguishable from the interests of the wealthy, has always been one of the strongest arguments in favour of democracy.
Nor is it reasonable to suppose that Dr Smith’s technocratic problem-solving will remain quarantined in Canterbury. In October 2016 it is likely that the balance of power on the Hawkes Bay Regional Council will shift decisively against the proposed Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme. But, after what happened in Canterbury, the region’s voters are surely justified in wondering whether their democratic judgement will simply be over-ruled by Dr Smith, and a group of Commissioners installed to make certain that “progress on these very important issues” continues.
Would this be enough to see the people’s pitchforks lifted up and their flaming torches lit? One hopes so, but all the evidence so far suggests otherwise. New Zealanders definition of democracy appears to embrace a sort of plebiscitary oligarchy, under which a group of politicians are given the right to govern exactly as they please – subject only to a triennial vote of confidence.
But this definition of democracy condemns us all to live under an elected dictatorship where politicians are free to impose decisions of ever-increasing mendacity: ceasing only when a decision of such outrageous awfulness pushes the population beyond its collective pain threshold; and the people remember that they have rights.
This essay was originally published by The Press of Tuesday, 24 March 2015.