Saturday, 18 November 2017

A Song For The Times - "The Perilous Night" by Drive-By Truckers.



Something's got a hold of our feel alright
out of control in the appetite.
We're moving in to the perilous night, Amen.


Video courtesy of YouTube


This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Not Quite An Act Of War: Analysing Australia’s Push-Back Against Jacinda’s Manus Island Outreach.

Real Human Suffering: In the face of the extraordinary Australian push-back against the government of Jacinda Ardern, it is important to remember the people at the centre of this controversy - the appallingly-treated victims of Australia's "Pacific Solution" who remain trapped on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

YOU HAVE TO GO BACK A LONG WAY to find anything remotely resembling Australia’s current treatment of New Zealand. For a supposedly friendly government to deliberately inject inflammatory disinformation into the political bloodstream of its supposedly closest neighbour is an extraordinarily provocative act. Not quite an act of war, but the sort of intervention that can all-too-easily provoke a catastrophic loss of trust.

It’s the sort of thing that the Soviets and the Americans used to do to one another all the time during the Cold War. Except, of course, those two superpowers were ideological and geopolitical rivals of the first order. It takes a real effort to re-cast the relationship between New Zealand and Australia in similar terms. Nevertheless, it’s an effort we are now obliged to make.

So, what is it that Australia has done? Essentially, its national security apparatus (presumably at the instigation of their political leaders) has released, mostly through media surrogates, a number of related stories calculated to inflame the prejudices of a certain type of New Zealander.

Like Australia, New Zealand harbours a frighteningly large number of racists. Politically-speaking, such people are easily aroused and have few qualms about setting-off ugly, racially-charged, debates on talkback radio, in the letters columns of the daily newspapers and across social media. These individuals are trouble enough when all they have to fight with are their own stereotypes and prejudices. Arm them with the carefully assembled disinformation of “fake news” and they instantly become quite dangerous.

And yet, this is exactly what the Australian authorities have done. Planting stories in their own press (knowing they will be picked up almost immediately by our own) about at least four boatloads of illegal immigrants that have set out for New Zealand only to be intercepted and turned back by the ever-vigilant officers of the Royal Australian Navy and their Coast Guard comrades. The purpose of this story (unsourced and lacking in detail, making it, almost certainly, fake news) was to paint New Zealand’s prime minister as an ill-informed and ungrateful diplomatic naïf: an inexperienced young idealist who doesn’t know which way is up when it comes to dealing with real-world problems.

This, alone, was an extraordinary intervention. To gauge how extraordinary, just turn it around. Imagine the reaction in Australia if some unnamed person in New Zealand’s national security apparatus leaked a memo to one of this country’s daily newspapers in which the negative diplomatic and economic consequences of being tainted by association with Australia’s flouting of international law is set forth in clinical detail. If the memo also contained a collection of highly critical assessments of Turnbull’s cabinet colleagues, allegedly passed-on by a number of unnamed western diplomats, then so much the better!

Canberra would not be impressed!

If the Australians had left it at just one intervention, then perhaps New Zealanders could simply have shrugged it off as yet another case of bad behaviour from the land of the under-arm bowlers. But when have the Aussies ever left it at “just one”?

The next intervention came in the form of “Ian” – formerly a guard (or so he said) at both the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. For reasons it has yet to adequately explain, RNZ’s Checkpoint programme provided “Ian” with nearly ten, largely uninterrupted, minutes of air-time during which he poured-forth a stream of accusations and characterisations which, to put it mildly, painted the protesters occupying the decommissioned Manus Island facility in the most lurid and disquieting colours. The detainees were criminals, drug-dealers – paedophiles even! Not at all the sort of people New Zealanders would want in their country.

“Ian”, it turns out, is a “witness” well-known to the many Australian NGOs that have taken up the cause of the detainees on Manus and Nauru. They have noted the curious similarities between “Ian’s” supposedly personal observations and experiences, and the inflammatory talking-points constantly reiterated by Australia’s hard-line Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton. A cynic might describe the grim “testimony” of “Ian” and Dutton as mutually reinforcing.

No matter. New Zealand’s racist, Islamophobic and militantly anti-immigrant community had been supplied with yet another truckload of Australian-manufactured ammunition.

Enough? Not hardly! Only this morning (17/11/17) New Zealanders were fed the shocking “news” that the protesting Manus Island detainees are harbouring within their ranks an unspecified number of men guilty of having debauched and prostituted local girls as young as 10 and 13!

Too much? Over the top? Redolent of the very worst instances of the murderous racial-incitement for which the Deep South of the United States was so rightly infamous? It sure is! Which is why we must hope that the Internet does not operate on Manus Island. Because, if the local inhabitants were to read on-line that the detainees were responsible for prostituting their daughters, what might they NOT do?

One almost feels that the Australian spooks behind this extraordinary disinformation campaign would actually be delighted if the locals burned down the Manus Island detention centre with the protesting detainees inside it.

“This is what comes of 37-year-old Kiwi prime ministers meddling in matters they know nothing about!” That would be the consistent theme of the right-wing Australian media. It would not take long for the same line to be picked up here: first on social media, and then by more mainstream media outlets. Right-wing outrage, mixed with a gleeful “we told you so!”, could not, however, be contained within the news media for very long. Inevitably, the more outré inhabitants of the Opposition’s back bench would take possession of the controversy, from there it would cascade down rapidly to Opposition politicians nearer the front.

Before her enemies could say: “It’s all your fault!”, Jacinda would find herself under withering political fire from both sides of the Tasman. Canberra would register her increasingly fragile government’s distress with grim satisfaction.

As the men and women responsible for organising “Operation Stardust” deleted its final folder, and fed the last incriminating document into the paper-shredder, one or two of them might even have voiced a judiciously muted “Mission Accomplished!”


This essay was posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Saturday, 18 November 2017.

Friday, 17 November 2017

What Are The Greens Playing At?

"WTF, James!" The Greens do not appear to understand that the key to improving their party’s position electorally, as well as strengthening its hand politically, lies in conceiving of the Labour-NZ First-Green government as a single entity: one which must either hang together or, most assuredly, it will hang separately! Stealing their comrades’ electoral lunch, in these circumstances, can only damage the Greens every bit as much as it damages (and enrages!) Labour and NZ First.

WHAT DO THE GREENS think they’re playing at? Their response to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has done themselves, and the government they’re ostensibly part of, a huge disservice. Honestly, it’s the sort of reaction one might expect from a clutch of radical student politicians: long on “principle”, short on common-sense. If this is how the Greens plan to conduct themselves over the next three years, then they had better find themselves an electorate they can win (without Labour’s support!) and fast. Because keeping their party above the 5 percent MMP threshold is likely to prove a constant struggle.

Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves that by waving their anti-TPP banners across Twitter and Facebook they will pick up all those “woke” voters who’ve accused Jacinda Ardern and David Parker of “selling out” to global capitalism at Danang. How many might that be? Almost certainly a lot fewer than the very substantial number of generous Labour supporters who gave the Greens their Party Vote on 23 September to make sure they didn’t disappear from Parliament altogether. If the Greens aren’t willing to reciprocate that sort of solidarity, then there’s bugger-all chance of it being repeated!

The Greens do not appear to understand that the key to improving their party’s position electorally, as well as strengthening its hand politically, lies in conceiving of the Labour-NZ First-Green government as a single entity: one which must either hang together or, most assuredly, it will hang separately! Stealing their comrades’ electoral lunch, in these circumstances, can only damage the Greens every bit as much as it damages (and enrages!) Labour and NZ First.

But, then, strategic (or even tactical!) thinking would not appear to be the Greens’ strong suit. Was there no one in their caucus capable of imagining the grim spectre that was bound to be raised by their very public repudiation of the CPTPP? Not one person in their ranks with the wit to realise that by withdrawing their 8 votes from the Government, the Greens would be driving Jacinda straight into the arms of Bill English and the National Party? Did no Green MP pause to consider the “optics” of that? Of how much damage it would inflict on all three of the governing parties?

Even if Labour capitulated at the last moment, and agreed to pull New Zealand out of the CPTPP – would the Greens count that as a “victory”? If so, they’d be wrong. Such a public demonstration of the tail wagging the dog would be catastrophic for Labour and the Greens alike. And if Labour refused to be blackmailed and allowed the National Party to ride to its rescue? What would that say about the viability of the Labour-NZ First-Green government? What would it mean for the relationship between Jacinda and James Shaw? Labour’s wrath would be terrible to behold – but not as terrible as their revenge!

It all could have been handled so differently. All that was required of the Greens’ caucus was some evidence they understood that contributing usefully to the work of a progressive government requires just a little more in the way of political finesse than denying the right of free speech to a handful of National Front tragics in Parliament grounds.

On the CPTPP issue, for example, the Greens could have reached out to their Canadian counterparts for advice on how to build the largest possible political consensus around what should – and should not – be included in a multilateral trade agreement. In this, they would have been doing Labour a huge favour: making the arguments that the Prime Minister and her Trade Minister could not be seen to make, but which would, nevertheless, strengthen their hand in future negotiations.

As it is, by firing off all their “principled” bullets at once (and before their target was even within range!) they have taken themselves out of the game. Even worse, they have demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, that they don’t even know what the game is – or how to play it!

That is not something which can be said of NZ First. Winston Peters has maintained a judicious silence concerning the desirability – or otherwise – of the CPTPP. He will study the problem professionally, from all angles, until he locates exactly the right point to exercise his leverage.

My advice to the Greens? Watch and learn.


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, 17 November 2017.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Darkness At The End Of The Rainbow?

YES! Australians cheer the result of the postal plebiscite on Marriage Equality. This emphatic victory for social liberalism (61.6/38.4 percent) will hit conservative Australians hard. Liberal and National Party strategists may, however, attempt to exploit the fact that of the 17 federal electorates that voted "No", 11 are held by the Labor Party. Progressive Australians have won an important battle - but the culture war will go on.

WEDNESDAY, 15 NOVEMBER 2017 will go down in Australian history as Marriage Equality Day. In an unprecedented national plebiscite, 61.6 percent of the 79.5 percent of voting-age Australians who returned their postal ballots voted YES to marriage equality. With this resounding vote in favour, Australia joined the rest of the world’s progressive nations in rejecting homophobia and discrimination.

But, Wednesday, 15 November 2017 will be remembered for something more than Australia’s endorsement of marriage equality. It will also be recorded by social historians and psephologists as the day conservative Australians were required to accept a forceful and irrefutable message confirming their minority status in Australian society.

Hostility towards homosexuality is one of the most reliable markers of the authoritarian personality. It will, therefore, come as a profound shock to people of this personality type that their attitudes are not shared by an overwhelming majority of the population. That nearly two-thirds of their fellow citizens see nothing untoward about same sex couples getting married will deliver a shattering blow to their perception of “normality”. They will be dismayed by how far the world has strayed from their “traditional values”.

For some, the events of 15 November 2017 will prompt a thorough-going reassessment of their moral and political expectations of themselves and their fellow Australians. If they are lucky, this reassessment will liberate them from the debilitating effects of conservative ideology, fundamentalist religious beliefs and authoritarian attitudes. For many others, perhaps a majority, however, the discovery that their hatreds and prejudices towards the LGBTI community is shared by just 38.4 percent of their fellow Australians will evoke a very different – and potentially dangerous – response.

For these conservatives, the plebiscite outcome will be interpreted as irrefutable proof of how sick and sinful their society has become. Religious conservatives, in particular, will have no difficulty accepting their minority status. After all, doesn’t Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, enjoin them to enter in by the strait gate? “[F]or wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat”? And doesn’t he also say that “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

No, the Christian fundamentalists will not be in the least bit surprised to discover that 61.6 percent of their neighbours are going to Hell.

Political conservatives and authoritarian personalities will have a much harder time of it, however. For their brand of politics, 15 November 2017 can only have been a profoundly delegitimating experience. Electorally, it could very easily signal their imminent marginalisation. “Mainstream” politicians will now have to adjust to the fact that social liberalism, which they understood to be confined to the effete inhabitants of the inner-cities, is actually embraced by a much more extensive cross-section of the Australian population. For many, on both sides of the parliamentary aisle, it will rapidly become advisable to evince a more progressive and tolerant political persona.

For the diehards, however, it is not yet the time to lay down their arms and surrender to the bacchanalian throngs gyrating joyously in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne. They still have eleven cards left to play.

The more sharp-eyed and ruthless members of the Liberal and National party rooms will have noticed that of the 17 federal electorates which voted “No” to marriage equality, fully 11 of them are held by the Australian Labor Party. In the strategically vital “Western Suburbs” of Sydney, the seats of Greenway, Chifley, McMahon, Fowler, Warriwa, Blaxland, Watson, Barton and Parramatta – all of them held by Labor MPs – voted “No”. Some, like Greenway, only very narrowly. (53.6 percent) Others, like Blaxland, by a huge margin. (73.9 percent!) In socially-liberal (some would say, radical) Melbourne, the only electorates which rejected marriage equality were the Labor-held seats of Calwell and Bruce.

There is simply no way the Labor Party can defeat the Liberal-National Coalition if even a handful of these eleven safe seats slip from the Opposition’s grasp. And while, in normal times, any suggestion that a seat like Chifley might be lost to the Liberals would be greeted with full-strength Aussie derision, it remains an awkward fact that we are not living in normal times.

Prior to 8 November 2016, the very idea that the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania might be about to fall to Trump would have been met with loud American guffaws. But not after 8 November. Lashed and goaded in just the right way, the normally left-voting inhabitants of places like Michigan – or Chifley – can end up doing the strangest things.

For progressive Australians, 15 November 2017 will forever be bathed in all the vibrant colours of the rainbow. But, for the conservative ideologues, the religious fanatics and the authoritarian personalities trapped in their suffocating character armour, 15 November 2017 will be registered as nothing more than a temporary setback. The bigots might concede that, on this memorable day, they have lost a battle. But, for them, the war against a society grounded in gentleness, tolerance and love will go on.


This essay has been posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Thursday, 16 November 2017.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A Very Lucky Escape.

Brave Faces At Danang: David Parker and Jacinda Ardern field questions from the news media at the meeting of Apec in Danang, Vietnam. What the new Labour-led government needed more than anything else from this meeting was what they came home with - Time.

THE TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP (TPP) is not dead, but neither can it be said to be in the rudest of health. Considerable last-minute diplomatic scurrying was required to save the Japanese government from a humiliating loss of face. Negotiations, accordingly, are said to be “continuing”. Nothing, however, should be expected before February 2018 – at the earliest. Which means that, for the moment at least, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Trade Minister David Parker, like Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, have taken possession of the commodity they most needed to bring home from Danang – Time.

The situation into which Ardern was flying aboard the RNZAF’s Boeing 757 at the end of last week offered no guarantee that such precious time would be on offer. Danang was fraught with multiple dangers: economic, diplomatic and political.

As the leader of a small trading nation, New Zealand’s prime minister simply cannot affect a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to something as big as the TPP. The inescapable truth confronting Ardern (as it has every one of her predecessors) is that this country’s status as a first-world nation is inescapably contingent upon earning sufficient overseas currency to import the sort of lifestyle to which most Kiwis believe themselves entitled. Bluntly: faced with the choice of announcing whether her government is “in” or “out” of a major trade agreement; no New Zealand prime minister can say “out” with impunity.

All of the official advice the Prime Minister has received to date on the TPP will have kicked-off from that position. Certainly, it will have been the argument reiterated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). It will also have been the lustily repeated refrain of this country’s major exporters. Likewise, from what might be called the “globalisation lobby” imbedded in NGO-land, academia and the media.

Taken together, a very large and intimidating crowd to say “no” to!

Even larger and much more intimidating, however, are the nation states determined to see the TPP (or, as it has rather tendentiously been re-named, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership – CPTPP!) ratified and implemented. The agreement’s principal cheerleader (now that the USA has withdrawn) is Japan, whose diplomatic reach proved to be more than long enough to secure Justin Trudeau’s return to the negotiating table. (It may have been Canada’s wish to walk away from the TPP-11 altogether, but Japan’s “arguments” were clearly “persuasive” enough to cause its prime minister to have second-thoughts and turn around!)

If Canada, with 36.3 million people and the second-largest economy of the remaining TPP signatories, couldn’t make it all the way to the departure lounge at Danang, then what were the odds of little New Zealand making it even as far as the door? New Zealand political leaders have only to review their country’s diplomatic, military and economic experience with the USA between 1984 and 2010 to gain some appreciation of the costs associated with taking a “principled stand”. World headlines last only a few days – their consequences can last for decades.

And then, of course, you have to come home.

It is probable that the National Party was hoping more earnestly than Professor Jane Kelsey and the entire New Zealand Left that Prime Minister Ardern would take a “principled stand” on the TPP. Had she stood up and said “no”, not only would she have felt the full wrath of Japan and its allies, but, from the moment her feet once again touched New Zealand soil, she would also have felt the full blast of a searing political firestorm.

The Urgent Debate in Parliament, which Speaker Mallard would have no choice but to grant the National Opposition, would only be the beginning. Day after day, the voices of exporters, business leaders, bank economists, business journalists, media commentators, academic experts and the globalisation lobby would be ringing in the Labour-NZ First-Green Government’s ears.

The Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues would then have just two political options: either back-down, or double-down.

If they backed-down, then Ms Ardern and her government would stand exposed as a bunch of juvenile attention-seekers who simply had not thought through the consequences of their irresponsible actions. It would be a full-scale debacle from which they could not recover.

But, doubling-down would be even worse. By adopting a sharp-edged, radically left-wing, stance on international trade at both the diplomatic and domestic levels, Ms Ardern’s government would rapidly find itself re-positioned among the world’s “nutty” nation states. Inevitably, New Zealand would find itself drifting, economically and diplomatically, under the influence of China and Russia. For an overwhelming majority of New Zealanders, this would represent an unmandated repudiation of everything their country stands for. Politically, it would be unsurvivable.

To Ms Ardern’s and Mr Parkers’ no doubt immense relief, both of these catastrophes have been avoided. They have had a very lucky escape.


This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 November 2017.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Democratic Engineers, Or Neoliberal Mechanics?

Storming The "Engine Room" of Government: As the product of a “top-down” economic and social revolution, New Zealand Neoliberalism – far from needing to rein-in the powers of the civil-service mandarinate – was determined to re-fashion the state bureaucracy in such a way that it would be able to resist any and all attempts by elected politicians – and their parties – to dismantle the neoliberal machinery of "governance".

“THEY’RE THE ENGINE ROOM where ministerial decisions are put through the mill by officials.” In that single sentence, the very worst aspects of neoliberalism are laid bare. It’s author, political journalist Stacey Kirk, like so many of her generation, have been taught to regard politicians as, at best, necessary evils. Accordingly, Cabinet Committees – the “engine rooms” of government – are held up as the necessary correctives to poorly conceived “ministerial decisions”. Places where the ideas of elected politicians get knocked into a shape acceptable to their unelected “officials” – New Zealand’s only trustworthy wielders of political power.

Kirk’s story, inspired by Opposition criticism of the new government’s apparent willingness to be guided by – and act on – its own advice, plays directly to the crucial neoliberal concept of “governance”. At its core, governance represents the idea that the policies of both local and national government, if they are to meet the fundamental test of effective and efficient public administration, must be professionally crafted and implemented. By this reckoning, the ill-informed amateurism of elected politicians poses a constant threat to the delivery of “good” governance. Which is why “officials” putting “ministerial decisions” through “the mill” is presented not as an affront to democracy, but a very good idea.

Essentially, Kirk ranges herself alongside the Sir Humphrey Appleby character from the celebrated British television series, Yes Minister. Sir Humphrey represents the haughty mandarinate of the Civil Service: the ones who regard themselves as the guardians of the State’s permanent interests. Ever on the alert against the obsessions and enthusiasms of reforming politicians, Sir Humphrey and his colleagues are constantly manoeuvring to thwart the pet projects of their ministers.

In its day, Yes Minister was conceived of – and certainly became – a primer for the “free market” reforms of Margaret Thatcher. The senior civil service of 1980s Britain was depicted as dangerously protective of the fast-decaying post-World War II Keynesian settlement. Yes Minister’s key message was, therefore, that the British people needed to elect ideologically-driven politicians who knew their own minds, and could not be swayed by the blandishments of Machiavellian bureaucrats like Sir Humphrey.

In the case of New Zealand, however, the neoliberal revolution was not carried through by ideologically-driven politicians (as happened in the UK and the USA) but by ideologically-driven bureaucrats in the New Zealand Treasury and, to a lesser extent, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. It was these civil servants who radicalised the political leadership of the Labour Party and placed in the hands of David Lange’s government the carefully prepared economic reform package that would later become known as “Rogernomics”. (The book-sized briefing document, dubbed ‘Economic Management’, can still be found on the shelves of your local public library.)

As the product of a “top-down” economic and social revolution, New Zealand Neoliberalism – far from needing to rein-in the powers of the civil-service mandarinate – was determined to re-fashion the state bureaucracy in such a way that it would be able to resist any and all attempts by elected politicians – and their parties – to dismantle the neoliberal system.

In this regard, the concept of “governance” was crucial. Policy had to become the more-or-less exclusive province of highly-trained professionals. Men and women, thoroughly schooled in the neoliberal ideology, who could intercept and demolish any attempt by politicians – especially those of the Left – to advance an alternative economic and social agenda.

In effect, the whole idea of a democratically-elected government, empowered by the electorate to implement its party’s – or parties’ – manifesto/s, is presented as a dangerous threat to the effective and efficient management of public affairs. Lip-service has to be paid to democratic principles, of course, but all governance-oriented politicians understand that Steve Maharey’s infamous formula: “That’s just the sort of thing you say in Opposition, and then forget about in Government”, continues to describe the true condition of our democracy.

None of which should be construed as an argument for doing away with the civil service. Highly-educated and experienced civil servants will always be needed to provide the policies of elected politicians with effective and efficient delivery mechanisms. Free and frank advice to ministers will always constitute a vital aspect of testing and refining policy ideas. What is most definitely not needed, however, is a civil service comprised of neoliberal cadres: bureaucrats who are, first and foremost, loyal to an ideological system which is absolutely antithetical to the whole notion of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” New Zealand urgently needs to get rid of this neoliberal priesthood.

Rather than question Jacinda Ardern’s government for spending too little time in the “engine rooms”, Stacey Kirk should, perhaps, cast a critical eye over the legislative mechanisms which preserve the neoliberal ascendancy in New Zealand’s civil service. The State Sector Act, the Public Finance Act and the Reserve Bank Act: all provide the statutory obstacles that render effective, politician-led change so exceedingly difficult in this country.

If our new Cabinet Ministers are working independently of their “officials”, then that is not, automatically, a bad thing. On the contrary, in a democracy: the spectacle of officials working for politicians, who are, in their turn, working for the people; offers welcome proof that the system is working exactly as it should!

Surely, the “engine room” of any government is the place where the policies promised to the people by their elected leaders are connected to the machinery of the state by its loyal civil servants – and set in motion.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 11 November 2017.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Chris Hipkins' Mistake.

First Rule Of Parliamentary Politics - Learn To Count! Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins (Centre) confers with Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, and Prime Minister Ardern. Hipkins' mistake - trusting the word of the National Party - is one he will be determined to avoid repeating.

IT WAS A MISTAKE: a serious mistake; a mistake born out of Labour’s naïve readiness to trust the National Opposition. It was, after all, the first sitting of the newly elected House of Representatives. Normally, an occasion for a little bit of pomp and circumstance, when Members of Parliament swear allegiance to the Sovereign, assume their seats, and elect one of their number Speaker of the House. Historically, a day of bi-partisan goodwill; a day for tradition; a day of calm before the House settles into its normal, adversarial, storms.

Not this day.

Clearly, when the Leader of the Opposition, Bill English, told a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery that “it’s not our job to make this place run for an incoming Government”, Labour’s new Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, refused to take him seriously. Not even English’s parting shot: “we have no obligation to smooth [Labour’s] path. None whatsoever”, was explicit enough for Labour to take precautions against an Opposition ambush.

Not on the first day.

Not even when Simon Bridges, National’s “Shadow” Leader of the House, accused Labour of attempting to perpetrate an “unprecedented” erosion of the Opposition’s democratic rights, did Hipkins smell a rat. Why should he, when all he was proposing to do was implement a number of unanimously agreed changes to the rules governing the conduct and membership of Parliament’s select committees?

After all, these same amendments to Parliament’s “Standing Orders” – one of which limited the number of Select Committee members to 96 – had been recommended to the previous House of Representatives by no less a person than the man now proclaiming them to be a democratic outrage – Simon Bridges!

Obviously, this was all about the Opposition giving voice to their frustration. Opposition is never easy and the temptation to rhetorical over-statement is always very strong. English was simply talking tough – that is his job now. And Bridges? Well! Taking his cue from Bill, he was simply pumping-up the rhetoric to bursting point. Hell! Hipkins had done it himself often enough when seated on the Opposition Benches! All this fire and brimstone was being laid on for the benefit of National’s aggrieved voters, still smarting over the election outcome. There was no need for him, or anyone else on the Government’s side of the House, to get excited.

Except, there was.

With the Foreign Affairs Minister, Winston Peters, and the Trade Minister, David Parker, both out of the country, and three more Government members absent from the Chamber, Hipkins was three votes shy of a majority on the Floor of the House. No matter, the only important business of the day was the election of Trevor Mallard as Speaker of the House, with National’s Anne Tolley as his deputy. All parties had been consulted, and all parties were agreed. The vote was a mere formality.

Until Bridges turned it into something else.

They say that the first and most important skill a politician is obliged to master is how to count. Bridges tallied-up the Government numbers and realised that the National Party had command of the Floor. Without a moment’s hesitation he pounced. If Labour wanted Mallard to be Speaker, then they would have to yield to the Opposition on the number of Select Committee members. Instead of 96, Bridges demanded 108. If Hipkins refused, then National would use its temporary command of the House to deny Mallard his heart’s desire – the Speaker’s Chair!

It was a scene of extraordinary drama. Bridges, his face contorted in a rictus of anthropoid belligerence, confronted the beseeching countenances of Hipkins and Finance Minister, Grant Robertson. The image will do him no harm – not among his caucus colleagues, anyway. With a single, ruthless stroke of parliamentary gamesmanship, Bridges has seized for himself the priceless mantle of National’s warrior knight.

But at what cost?

Hipkins made the mistake of believing that National would not stoop to turning the opening of Parliament into an ugly display of aggressive partisanship. It’s a mistake he will do everything in his power to avoid repeating.

Bridges, meanwhile, has signalled that National is ready to employ the tactics of the US Republican Party: obstruction without reason; obstruction without purpose; obstruction without end.

In the memorable words of Bette Davis in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”


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, 10 November 2017.