Monday, 16 October 2017

Dainties and Chains: Progressive MPs And The “Wellington Bubble”

To Rove Free, Or Bark In Another's Interest? Aesop's ancient fable concerning the House Dog and the Wolf offers a moral every bit as relevant to today's political realities as it was to those in Classical Greece. Once inside the "Wellington Bubble" is it only a matter of time before our progressive wolves become "great favourites" of the House?

EVEN IF WINSTON VEERS LEFT, the progressive New Zealand community still has a problem. Their new political representatives: the people upon whom so many progressive voters have pinned their hopes for meaningful change; will soon discover that the speed at which they, themselves, are being transformed is far outstripping any changes in the wider world. Indeed, it will not be long before their elevated status leads them to begin questioning the wisdom of the many economic and social changes they are expected to make.

Even the lowliest Labour or Green backbench MP, on a salary of at least $160,000, now finds themselves among the top 5 percent of income-earners. It will require considerable willpower on their part to resist the lifestyle choices made possible by such a generous income. An even greater effort will be needed to prevent the blandishments of their fellow movers-and-shakers (who will be drawn to them like bees to honey) from turning their heads. As fully-paid-up members of the New Zealand political class, they will be expected to play by its rules. The most important of these: “Insiders do not talk to Outsiders!”, is intended to render meaningful economic and social change all-but-impossible.

It will only take a few weeks for these MPs to pass over from the world inhabited by their friends and constituents, into the “Wellington Bubble”. Once inside, they will find it very difficult to leave. Only when they are inside the bubble will the true character of events be revealed to them – nothing of which may be communicated to those living outside. They will soon come to accept that the power to solve problems is only ever made available to those who understand the importance of working inside the bubble. Trying to effect change from the outside will only bring home to them how powerless outsiders truly are.

These lessons will force our newly-minted progressive MPs to make some hard choices among their friends and comrades. They will have to decide who has what it takes to become an Insider, and who will forever be counted among the outsiders.

Once inducted into the rules of “Insiderdom’, these people will become the MP’s most trusted advisers and helpers. Regardless of what office they hold (if any) within the wider party, these will be the ones who, working alongside the MP, are permitted to wield the real power. Perhaps their most important role is to supply outsiders with explanations and excuses for why so many of the party’s promises for real and meaningful change cannot – at this time – be fulfilled.

As a means of protecting the world of the Insiders, this current arrangement is vastly more sophisticated than those of the past. Summer warmth is always more likely to encourage a relaxation of vigilance than the icy blasts of winter.

When the Labour Party was in its infancy, back in the 1920s and 30s, the salary paid to ordinary MPs was derisory – less than the wage of a skilled tradesman. Traditionally, the role of legislator was deemed one for which only “gentlemen” were socially, professionally and financially equipped. The rough-hewn working-men and women who entered the hallowed halls of Parliament were, therefore, met by a veritable force-field of class prejudice and scorn. Labour was the party of Outsiders – and the Insiders weren’t the least bit shy about letting Labour’s MPs know it.

While this state of affairs undoubtedly gave the enemies of progressivism considerable satisfaction, it was, politically-speaking, dangerously counter-productive. In terms of their lifestyle, working-class Labour MPs remained largely indistinguishable from their constituents. The complex apparatus erected around present-day electorate MPs by Parliamentary Services, was non-existent. When people came to a Labour MP seeking assistance, they were met more often than not by their spouse, who acted as the MP’s unpaid electorate secretary. There are countless stories about Labour MPs – especially during the Great Depression – reaching into their own, near-empty, pockets to prevent their constituents from going hungry. These were gestures that bred a party loyalty strong enough to bridge generations of voters. As Outsiders living among outsiders, the fires of progressive fervour that distinguished Labour’s team of parliamentarians were never in any danger of going out. No bubbles of wealth and privilege surrounded them to shut out the cries of the angry poor who were Labour’s nation.

In the words of Aesop’s fable – The House Dog And The Wolf

THE MOON WAS SHINING very bright one night when a lean, half-starved wolf, whose ribs were almost sticking through his skin, chanced to meet a plump, well-fed house dog. After the first compliments had been passed between them, the wolf inquired:

“How is it cousin dog, that you look so sleek and contented? Try as I may I can barely find enough food to keep me from starvation.”

“Alas, cousin wolf,” said the house dog, “you lead too irregular a life. Why do you not work steadily as I do?”

“I would gladly work steadily if I could only get a place,” said the wolf.

“That’s easy,” replied the dog. “Come with me to my master’s house and help me keep the thieves away at night.”

“Gladly,” said the wolf, “for as I am living in the woods I am having a sorry time of it. There is nothing like having a roof over one’s head and a bellyful of victuals always at hand.”

“Follow me,” said the dog.

While they were trotting along together the wolf spied a mark on the dog’s neck. Out of curiosity he could not forbear asking what had caused it.

“Oh, that’s nothing much,” replied the dog. “perhaps my collar was a little tight, the collar to which my chain is fastened – ”

“Chain!” cried the wolf in surprise. “You don’t mean to tell me that you are not free to rove where you please?”

“Why, not exactly,” said the dog, somewhat shamefacedly. “You see, my master thinks I am a bit fierce, and ties me up in the daytime. But he lets me run free at night. It really is very convenient for everybody. I get plenty of sleep during the day so that I can watch better at night. I really am a great favourite at the house. The master feeds me off his own plate, and the servants are continually offering me handouts from the kitchen. But wait, where are you going?”

As the wolf started back towards the forest he said:

“Good night to you, my poor friend, you are welcome to your dainties – and your chains. As for me, I prefer lean freedom to fat slavery.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 14 October 2017.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

An Expression Of Democratic Interest.

People Power: "Politics without romance" was how the extreme right-wing "public choice" theorist, James Buchanan, described the substitution of market forces for Democracy’s “expressive interests”. If the 2017 election was about anything, it was about turning that around.

REGARDLESS of NZ First’s ultimate decision, Writ Day, 12 October 2017, was a day for celebration. The 2017 General Election, now completed, will, eventually, deliver a government which has been shaped by the will of the New Zealand people – in full accordance with democratic principle. The tragedies and injustices that impelled the electorate's judgement will carve-out for themselves a substantial and urgent claim upon the new ministry’s programme. The priorities of government will change, for the very simple reason that we, the people, have changed them. Any politician who believes it possible to simply pick up where he or she left off before the voting started, is in for a rude awakening.

Not that our elected representatives need to be told this. Those who live and die by the democratic sword require no lessons in the keenness of its blade. Of much more concern to us should be the people in our community who wield delegated authority. Those employees of central and local government whose daily decisions influence people’s lives so dramatically. The class of persons who used to be called “public servants”, but who are, increasingly, taking on the appearance of our masters.

It’s a process which has been underway for the best part of thirty years; set in motion, as you would expect, by the radical “reforms” of the Rogernomics era. The idea of public service was, of course, anathema to the devotees of the so-called “free” market. The ideas of the latter only made sense if human-beings were driven entirely by self-interest. That thousands of people willingly, and for only modest financial reward, were daily devoting themselves to the welfare of their fellow citizens, flatly contradicted the free-market ideology of the “reformers”.

That these free-marketeers seized upon the “public choice” theories of the American economist, James Buchanan, is unsurprising. A Nobel laureate, Buchanan was feted by the Right for his “insights” into the behaviour of public institutions. These he characterised as classically self-interested entities, whose actions, more often than not, turned out to be economically and politically sub-optimal.

It was only after Buchanan’s death that researchers uncovered his life-long links to the most extreme anti-democratic elements of the American Right. Buchanan’s concern, like that of his wealthy backers, was that the stark contrast between private selfishness and public altruism would, in the long term, prove politically unsustainable. Only by forcing the public sector to become as vicious and unaccountable as the private sector could the dangerous example of collective caring be negated.

The recent furore about the level of remuneration paid to the upper-echelons of New Zealand’s largest local government bureaucracies points to the “success” of the public choice theorist’s reforms. The old local bureaucracies, presided over by executive officers known, quaintly, as “Town Clerks”, exerted minimal pressure upon the public purse. The new bureaucracies, however, modelled as they are upon the ruthless rapaciousness of the private sector, are presided over by CEOs who clearly draw their inspiration from the obscene bonuses paid out to their corporate counterparts. Such unaccountable looting of the public treasury is, of course, music to the free-marketeers’ ears. Collective unaccountability and excess being infinitely preferable, as an example of public sector conduct, to collective responsiveness and restraint.

If our new government is serious about wanting to bring public spending under control, it could do a lot worse than to start by reversing the perverse reforms of Buchanan’s “public choice” disciples. After all, if there is one group these free-market theorists hate more than responsible and caring public servants, it is responsive and caring politicians.

It is a measure of the free-marketeers’ success in undermining the credibility of anyone claiming to serve the public good, that merely suggesting a politician might be responsive and caring is enough to invite instant incredulity and derision.

Buchanan and his ilk’s hostility to democracy arises precisely out of its ability to create public institutions capable of responding positively to the expressed interests of ordinary citizens. Democracy also makes it possible for ordinary citizens to redirect economic effort away from purely private purposes and towards more publicly beneficial endeavors. In other words, the expressed will of the people is able to override the “logic” of the market.

“Politics without romance” was how Buchanan described the substitution of market forces for Democracy’s “expressive interests”. If the 2017 election was about anything, it was about turning that around.

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, 13 October 2017.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Talkin' 'Bout A Revolution - Or Not?

An Unlikely Revolutionary Banner? A well-organised campaign to root out neoliberalism from all of our economic and social institutions would signal that Peters was serious about changing the way this country is run. And for all those who pretend not to know what the term neoliberalism means, let me spell it out. I am talking about the deliberate intrusion and entrenchment of the logic and values of the marketplace into every aspect of human existence.

“THESE TALKS ARE ABOUT A CHANGE in the way this country is run. Both economically and socially.” That is how Winston Peters characterised the government formation negotiations currently drawing to a close in Wellington. But, what could his words possibly mean, in practical terms?

If seriously intentioned, Peters’ call for economic and social change would have to encompass the thorough-going “de-neoliberalisation” of New Zealand. And, yes, the obvious reference to the “denazification” of post-war Germany is quite deliberate. Between 1945 and 1947 (when a resurgent American Right began insisting that Soviet communism posed a far greater threat than the tens-of-thousands of National Socialists who were quietly re-entering German society) the Allied occupation forces undertook a serious attempt to identify and exclude all those who had facilitated and/or participated in the most appalling crimes in human history.

A well-organised campaign to root out neoliberalism from all of our economic and social institutions would signal that Peters was serious about changing the way this country is run. And for all those who pretend not to know what the term neoliberalism means, let me spell it out. I am talking about the deliberate intrusion and entrenchment of the logic and values of the marketplace into every aspect of human existence.

Neoliberals have been hard at work in New Zealand society since 1984 and the damage they have inflicted upon practically all of its institutions is enormous. So, how would a Labour-Green-NZ First government that was serious about redefining good government in New Zealand begin? Well, it could start by inviting the two Maxes, Rashbrooke and Harris, to undertake a root-and-branch reform of the State Sector Act. The two Bryans. Easton and Gould, could be asked to revise the Reserve Bank Act. Matt McCarten, Robert Reid and Maxine Gay could be given the job of beefing-up the Employment Relations Act. Claudia Orange, Annette Sykes and Moana Jackson could be tasked with fully integrating the Treaty of Waitangi into the New Zealand Constitution being drafted by Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Geddis. Metiria Turei and Sue Bradford could be issued with blowtorches and sent into the Ministry of Social Development.

It’s only when you start thinking in these terms that the awful implausibility of Peters’ statement strikes home. Putting to one side the ingrained provincial conservatism of NZ First’s electoral base, there is simply no possibility of anyone in the senior ranks of the Labour Party endorsing even a pale imitation of this “de-neoliberalisation” agenda. Willie Jackson and a handful of his Maori and Pasifica colleagues might be keen, but no one else. Only the Greens could advocate with an credibility for this sort of root-and-branch reform – which almost certainly explains why there were no Green Party negotiators seated at the table with Winston and Jacinda!

But, if New Zealand is not going to be de-neoliberalised in any meaningful way. If neither NZ First nor Labour would entertain for a moment any of the individuals mentioned above, in any of the roles mentioned above, then what of any lasting worth could a Labour-Green-NZ First government achieve?

More importantly, perhaps, what would be in it for the Greens? If Peters’ very public characterisation of the Greens as a powerless appendage of the Labour Party, with no role at all in the government formation talks, is an accurate reflection of his attitude towards the party, then not only do the Greens have no way of influencing the shape and policies of any new centre-left government, but they will also have no place within it. As Newshub’s Lloyd Burr so succinctly put it, they are being “shafted”.

It is possible, of course, that Peters is talking-up his disdain for the Greens in order to avoid spooking his core supporters in the countryside; and that, privately, he is right behind the eco-socialists’ radical policy agenda. Except, if that is the case, then he must surely be bitterly disappointed by Labour’s extreme policy timidity. Is the sort of party that invites Sir Michael Cullen and Annette King to join its young leader at the negotiating table, really the sort of party that is getting ready to throw its weight wholeheartedly behind “a change in the way this country is run. Economically and socially”?

By this time next week, Winston willing, we’ll have an answer.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 12 October 2017.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Play It Again, Winston: An Article Written 12 Years Ago For "The Independent".

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine. 
- Humphrey Bogart (as Rick Blaine) in Casablanca 

WINSTON PETERS may have thought he could sit out the looming years of parliamentary conflict on the cross benches. Like Rick Blaine, the flawed hero of Warner Brothers’ classic movie Casablanca, he figured on doing as little harm and as much good as he could, as far away from the action as he could possibly get. But just because you don’t go looking for trouble, doesn’t mean trouble won’t come looking for you. Now trouble has found Winston Peters. Trouble in the shape of a lanky brunette with a bad haircut and a crooked smile. “Here’s looking at you kid.”

Like one of those affairs that seem inevitable to everyone except the participants, Labour and NZ First were bound to get together sooner or later. There’s just too much of the old Labour spirit in Winston. That cussed determination to set an independent course for the New Zealand economy – the vision that drove Coates and Sutch and Kirk - has always been central to NZ First’s philosophy. In much the same way, Winston’s instinctive mistrust of big business, and his realisation that only the state is strong enough to challenge its power, used to be central to Labour’s philosophy.

Most of the men Helen works with aren’t like that. Today’s Labour men tend to resemble the Victor Laszlo character in Casablanca – high-minded types who grasp the theory, but struggle to master the practice. Above all else, Winston is a practical man.

And so, in ways that Winston has yet to appreciate, are the Greens. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty of practical politics, he may find that he and Rod Donald are not so far apart. Sustainability, for example, may turn out to have a great deal in common with forging a multi-party consensus on the optimum size and composition of New Zealand’s population.

The Greens opposition to Free Trade Agreements, their call to “Buy NZ Made”, and their policy of keeping New Zealand land in New Zealand hands, slot easily into Winston’s campaign for economic sovereignty. Both parties also decry the fact that 25 percent of New Zealand children live in poverty, and both have called for the Minimum Wage to be raised to $12 per hour.

Give the deal a year, and Winston may even end up repeating to Rod and Jeanette Rick’s famous line to the Vichy French police captain at the very end of Casablanca: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

An even closer alliance stands ready to be forged between Winston’s team and the beleaguered remnants of Labour’s right-wing faction.

Right-wing Labour MPs like Phil Goff, Clayton Cosgrove and Damien O’Connor will find ready-made allies in the likes of Ron Mark, Peter Brown and Doug Wollerton. These are men who can be relied upon to hold the line against the Labour Left and the Greens’ obsession with unpopular causes.

It may even have occurred to the wily Mr Peters that his current core constituency of elderly New Zealanders isn’t getting any younger. If it is to grow and prosper in the 21st Century, NZ First needs to expand its electoral base beyond white-haired old women and grumpy old men. This is especially pertinent given Winston’s surprise defeat in Tauranga.

In Labour’s socially conservative, blue-collar voters there lies a vast reservoir of potential NZ First support. Fed up with “political correctness”, sick of the Treaty, opposed to mass immigration, punitive when it comes to drugs and crime, instinctively protectionist and proudly patriotic, these voters used to regard the incautious Mr Tamihere as their spokesman. Now that he’s no longer in Parliament, they may be in the market for a new champion.

It’s not a silly idea. Jim Anderton and Matt Robson have spent the last three years trying to persuade Labour’s blue-collar battlers to switch over to the Progressive Party. Unfortunately for Jim and Matt – especially Matt - the fledgling party was sending out too many mixed messages. On the one hand there was the Progressive Party’s popular stance on drugs and the drinking age; on the other, its decidedly unpopular championing of Ahmed Zaoui and the rights of refugees.

Winston Peters and his team are in no danger of getting their messages mixed. No one is likely to mistake Ron Mark for a bleeding-heart liberal.

On some issues, however, Winston and his colleagues will have to tread carefully. Granting confidence and supply to a Labour-Progressive minority government presupposes a willingness on NZ First’s part to engage both more frequently and more effectively with organised labour. The same social conservatives who applaud Peter’s stance on Ahmed Zaoui, will look askance at any attempt to undermine workers’ rights in the workplace.

Once again, NZ First and its leader may discover they have allies in the unlikeliest places. Winning a $2.50 increase in the Minimum Wage is not the worst way to kick off a closer relationship with the Council of Trade Unions. And Winston Peters’ distinct lack of enthusiasm for Labour’s proposed Free Trade Agreement with China is unlikely to get him off on the wrong foot with CTU economist, Peter Conway, or the Engineers Union boss, Andrew Little.

Nearly ten years ago, in the April/May 1996 issue of NZ Political Review, Bruce Jesson attempted to define the phenomenon that was Winston Peters. Jesson felt aggrieved that his fellow political journalists were always so quick to brand him as both a racist and a populist:

“I personally think that they have consistently misjudged Peters as a politician. His strength as a politician is that he has the ability to cause a sensation, but that does not make him simply a sensationalist. He has the ability to tap popular feeling, but that does not of itself make him a populist (whatever that means in the New Zealand context).”

Jesson took a kinder and more measured view of his subject:

“Perhaps the truth is that Peters is a sensationalist with an element of sincerity? Who knows? Probably not even Peters. It doesn’t matter anyway because Peters’ importance is his role not his motives. His role is indicated by the name he has chosen for his party: New Zealand First. And it is indicated by the things he campaigns about, because there is a consistent thread running through them. He is as fiercely opposed to foreign investment as he is to the government’s immigration policies. Peters is a rarity in New Zealand, he is a nationalist – probably our only serious nationalist politician since Norman Kirk, or perhaps even John A. Lee.”

It is significant, I think, that both of the politicians to whom Peters is compared by Jesson were from Labour.

At this point in its history, New Zealand stands in need just such a nationalist politician. Already, in the private seminars and political briefings paid for by the big corporations, there is talk about the changes our association with the burgeoning economies of Asia is bound to bring. Hints that our Enlightenment faith in individual liberty and the Rights of Man may have to be modified if we are not to antagonise our new “partners”.

Winston Churchill heard similar whispers in the early months of 1940 – and rejected them. Britain, he knew, was more than a collection of islands, it was a collection of ideas. Ideas too valuable to surrender for the paltry “rewards” of a dictated “peace”. Ideas worth fighting for.

It’s that same determination to stand and fight that lifts the movie Casablanca so far above the ordinary Hollywood fare. The unlooked for appearance of the idealistic Ilsa, draws forth a kindred response from the world-weary Rick. In the end we discover that the hero’s dead-pan, wise-cracking persona hides something altogether more admirable - more noble.

So play it Winston. Play it one more time.

You know what we want to hear.

You played it for Bolger, now play it for Clark.

If he could stand it, so can she.

Play it.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Wednesday, 19 October 2005.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The Hallelujah Song.

The Only Question That Counts: Have Labour and the Greens got Winston singing that Hallelujah Song?

WHAT’S WINSTON LOOKING FOR in a Labour-Green-NZ First Government? What must he be convinced of before he tells Bill English and the 44.4 percent of New Zealanders who voted for the National Party that, this time, he and his party are signing-up with the Left? 

First and foremost, he needs to be convinced that such a government will be a success. Between now and 2020, Winston is looking to secure an enduring political and historical legacy. That can’t happen if the government he imposes on New Zealand turns out to be a fractious shambles – disaster is not the legacy he’s looking for.

So, as he receives Labour’s offers and makes his counter-offers, he will be watching closely and listening carefully for the slightest sign, the faintest note, of the Hallelujah Song. Winston needs to know that Labour’s reach continues to exceed its grasp: that its MPs strive for something beyond mere political power; that it is still a party of nation-builders.

He will be studying Jacinda Ardern especially closely. Does she fully appreciate the sheer weight of the hopes and dreams New Zealanders have heaped upon her? Is she ready, truly ready, to fulfil them? And, does she show even the slightest sign of knowing how? Is hers the principal voice among Labour’s team of negotiators? Or, does she constantly defer to her friend and ally, Grant Robertson? And does Grant, in turn, look to his mentor and patron, Sir Michael Cullen, for the right words at the right time? And has Sir Michael ever known how to sing the Hallelujah Song?

Objection will be raised that Winston’s a hard-nosed old bugger; and that he’s much more likely to be found singing along with Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”, than attempting to join in some airy-fairy Hallelujah Song. That will certainly be the case when he’s sitting down with Bill English and his wise-guys. With National, everything will be hard-nosed and zero-sum. He is, when all is said and done, of National’s tribe: they know him, and he knows them.

Winston is fluent in the transactional languages of the Right. When he’s with National it will all be about things given, things taken; advantages secured, potential gains foregone. Like Kenny Rogers’ Gambler, he’ll tote-up his winnings and calculate his losses – but never at the table. NZ First’s and National’s negotiations will be conducted according to the bloodless protocols of businessmen exercising due diligence on a proposition their principals will be asked to either endorse or reject.

But National is Winston’s fall-back position. It is the party he’ll turn to if, in spite of his best efforts, he can find no trace of the Hallelujah Song. He knows full-well that a Labour-Green-NZ First Government will only work if it is animated by a unifying determination to roll-back thirty years of ignorance, cruelty and greed. He will be looking for the unmistakable signs of a political army getting ready to march. Not only must he find evidence of solidarity, but also of that fierce delight which people display when they find themselves in the company of like minds and kindred spirits.

You Got Me Singing - Leonard Cohen.

If that’s present in the room when he meets with Labour’s negotiators, then he really has no need to meet with the Greens. If he encounters a Labour Party charged with the thrill of solidarity and primed for action, then the Greens will be too – only more so. In a room like that there’s no need for the brute diction of win and lose, profit and loss. He and his team will know that NZ First, Labour and the Greens can do this in a way that will allow him to leave politics as an honoured and beloved statesman.

But, if all he hears in that room is the language of caution and denial. If all he’s given are countless reasons why things cannot be done. If all he senses on the other side of the table is a supercilious disdain for himself and his party, and open contempt for the Greens. Well then, he will listen politely and walk back sadly to the barren realism of Bill and his buddies.

In the absence of the Left’s uplifted voices, Winston will take what he can get from the Right. Better to deal with people who have never known that such transformational music exists, than be disappointed by Labour-Green politicians who no longer consider the Hallelujah Song worth singing.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 10 October 2017.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

"Dear Winston" - An Open Letter To The Leader Of NZ First.

The Man In The Middle: “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.”
 - Winston Peters.

Dear Winston,

With all you’ve got on this week, it’s highly unlikely you’ll have time to read these words. Even so, I thought it was worth adding my ten-cents-worth to the raucous debate about what NZ First should do with the final election result. Your party has been left holding the nine votes needed to assemble a majority in the House of Representatives. As you wryly observed, this puts it between the Devil and the deep blue sea. For the next three years, New Zealand’s future lies in NZ First’s hands.

Before adding anything further, however, let me be very clear about the expectations of the New Zealand political class. In the eyes of all those whose job it is to sell the status-quo to their fellow New Zealanders, your party has no choice at all – it must deliver all nine of its votes to National. Any other choice will earn you, and your party, their bitter – and active – enmity.

That is not something to be casually dismissed. I’m sure the memories of 2008 are still very raw. Even from the perspective of a rank outsider, the behaviour of the political class on that occasion was a whole order of awfulness beyond the norm. How it felt up-close-and-personal, I can only guess. Still, that’s the way the political class rolls. Nine years ago, they needed you gone – and you went. Nine years later they need you to kiss-and-make-up with your former tormentors – and they expect you to do it with feeling. Telling them “No.” would be a mighty-big – and a mighty brave – call.

What is it, then, that tells me a decision in favour of the status-quo is not the decision you wish to make. There’s a clue, perhaps, in the illustrious name you bear. Winston Churchill was a conservative, and yet he served in one of the great reforming governments of the twentieth century. In 1940, when vast swathes of conservative Britain were every bit as keen to make peace with the fascists as conservative France, he chose, instead, to lead his people in the paths of righteousness – to their finest hour. It’s part of the explanation for why the political class fears and hates Winston Peters so much: his need to do the right thing – as opposed to the Right thing.

The temptation must be very great to kick this slippery ball of choice into touch, and seat NZ First on the cross-benches. Resist it. A decision to abstain on matters of confidence and supply is just another way of siding with Bill English and his National Party. Keep your NZ First troops out of the fray and the Nats will win every confidence and supply motion by 57 votes to Labour-Green’s 54.

Is that the legacy you wish to leave behind? An enfeebled minority National government kept in power by NZ First’s refusal to strike it down? Never think that by sitting, Caesar-like, on the cross-benches and giving the thumbs-up, or down, to every piece of legislation that comes before the House, you will earn the admiration and support of your fellow citizens. Rather, they will curse you for making such a circus out of their democracy – and such a bonfire out of everything NZ First used to stand for.

Neither Jacinda Ardern, nor James Shaw, possess anything like the quantity of true political grit required to change this country’s economic and social direction. But, if your political career has been about anything, it has been about acquiring the grit needed to, one day, truly put New Zealand first. It was Nietzsche who wrote: “What doesn’t kill us, only makes us stronger.” You have learned the truth of that; and, more importantly, you can teach the next generation of political leaders not only how to survive the difficult choices, but also how to turn them to their advantage.

The National Party needs no such instruction. National and its predecessors represent all those who came to these islands – and who come here still in their thousands – to make money. Their one, unwavering, political objective has always been, and remains, to keep out of office, or drive from power, every individual and/or political party which stands in the way of private enrichment. Bill English and his colleagues have more than enough grit to go on doing what National has always done. Why would you choose to help them?

I wonder if you recall these words you sent me 23 years ago?

“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.”

Changing the government will require a wise head and a great heart. You have until Thursday, Winston, to prove to New Zealand that you possess both.

Chris Trotter.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 October 2017.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Adults In The Room?

Meet The Old New Boss: Sir Michael Cullen's snow-white head of hair is clearly visible as Labour's negotiating team prepare to meet waiting journalists after their preliminary meeting with the negotiators for NZ First. The presence of so many former members of and advisers to the government of Helen Clark in Jacinda's entourage raises some troubling questions. When Labour's new leader talked about ushering in “generational change”, most New Zealanders fondly assumed that she was committed to taking their country forward – not back.

WHAT’S GOING ON, JACINDA? Why has the former Labour Finance Minister, Sir Michael Cullen, and Helen Clark’s former Press Secretary, Mike Munro, been invited on to your team of negotiators with NZ First? And, while we’re on the subject of Labour’s Rogernomics Generation, why was Annette King sent to ride shotgun alongside you for the duration of the election campaign?

These are important questions, because when Jacinda talked about ushering in “generational change”, most New Zealanders fondly assumed that she was committed to taking their country forward – not back.

The other assumption New Zealand made, as the baton of leadership passed from Andrew to Jacinda, was that she was completely up to the job of carrying it without assistance. We made precisely the same assumption about her senior team’s readiness to govern the country without “adult supervision”.

The September newsletter from “Positive Money” (a group dedicated to creating “a money and banking system that serves a fair, democratic, and sustainable economy”) may, however, give many Labour supporters cause to wonder whether any of those assumptions were justified.

In the newsletter, two of Positive Money’s stalwarts, Don Richards and Sue Hamill, describe a “surprising and somewhat disappointing” exchange of views with Sir Michael Cullen at an election meeting in Whakatane on Friday, 15 September:

“Sir Michael, the former Labour Finance Minister during the Helen Clark-led government was with Grant Robertson, the Labour Party’s current Finance spokesperson and Kiri Allan, our local Labour Party candidate.

I asked Grant Robertson if he was aware of what was happening in Japan with the Central Bank buying up a significant portion of their national debt. Inflation in Japan was close to zero and the real economy was thriving. Had he considered instructing the Reserve Bank to do the same, thereby saving taxpayers money for social and infrastructure projects?

Grant asked Sir Michael to answer the question and he said that Japan had been experiencing negative growth for some time and so the two economies were not similar. I reminded Sir Michael that the Japanese economy was now thriving and the Central Bank was still buying up their national debt. I was told that a Labour government would not be doing that.

Sue then asked Grant Robertson if he had thought about doing what the first Labour Government did in the 1930s, using the Reserve Bank’s balance sheet to fund the building of housing and infrastructure? The question received a few claps from the audience.

Sir Michael once again fielded the question. He said that we had to be fiscally responsible otherwise we could end up with an economy like Germany after World War One, Venezuela or Zimbabwe. Sue carried on with a second question stating that as private banks create most of the money in the economy, why not let the Reserve Bank do it as well. Sir Michael responded by saying the banks do not create money.

The meeting finished with an invitation to meet at a local café for a chat. We went home and printed off the Bank of England’s article and the IMF’s discussion paper that stated categorically that banks create money in the act of lending. Sue went back to the café and had a further conversation with Sir Michael. He dismissed the Bank of England paper as not relevant and that it did not mean that banks created money. He also dismissed the IMF paper saying that banks lend out people’s savings.

It was a frustrating experience and if Sir Michael has the ear of Grant Robertson, as he appears to have, then no difference will be made to the way our money is created, should the Labour Party come to power.”

When Richard’s and Sue’s report of this encounter was drawn to my attention, I responded with the following comment:

“That is the most alarming piece of intelligence I have received in the entire course of the 2017 election campaign. It is hard to distinguish which is the most dispiriting aspect of [the] report: that Grant Robertson cannot answer basic questions on political economy without reference to his mentor, Sir Michael Cullen; or, that Sir Michael’s grasp of these issues is as woeful as Don Brash’s (who also refuses to accept that banks create money). If this truly is the level of understanding in Labour's senior ranks, then we are all - to use a technical political science term - fucked.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 7 October 2017.