Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Keeping Obama and Chavez on the same side

Honduras Agonistes: The best way of restoring democracy to the Honduran people is to do everything humanly possible to keep the Obama Administration on side with the left-wing governments of Central and South America. So long as Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez stand together, the Honduran Right's plans for establishing a dictatorship cannot succeed.

THE MILITARY COUP D’ETAT in Honduras has brought about the "pinch-me-I’m-dreaming" sight of revolutionary Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, ranged alongside reformist US President, Barack Obama.

That is a pairing worth preserving.

Not only because the cementing-in of US opposition to the Honduran elites’ attack on democracy is clearly the most effective means of restoring that country’s ousted President, Manuel "Mel" Zelaya, to power, but also because it would represent a massive advance towards the Holy Grail of left-wing Latin American diplomacy – a United States Government willing to stand behind the right of the region’s peoples to determine their own futures without the overt or covert interference of American capitalists.

Unfortunately, the first response of the New Zealand Left has been to more-or-less ignore Obama’s (and Hilary Clinton’s) condemnation of the Coup, and insist, instead, that the Honduran military are simply carrying out the wishes of their American advisers. It is inconceivable, they say, that such a controversial political intervention by the armed forces of a Latin American state (the first since 1993) could have been initiated without first receiving the green light from Washington.

Accordingly, a number of New Zealand leftists are planning to picket the US Consulate in Auckland. Their demands will include the closing of the notorious School of the Americas – training-ground for every military dictator and death-squad commander since the early 1950s, along with the withdrawal of all US intelligence agents from Central and South America.

Both strategically and tactically, I believe this is precisely the wrong course of action to follow.

Of course US intelligence officers and military personnel would have been aware that the Honduran Right was planning to head-off a Venezuelan-style revision of the country’s constitution, and many – perhaps most – of these individuals would have been strong supporters of such a plan. But the facts – as far as we know them to date – all point to the Obama Administration refusing to back the proposed coup.

To ignore this fact is to, objectively, play into the hands of the most right-wing elements within the US Government, Intelligence Community and Armed Forces. They don’t care if Obama is castigated by the International Left as an imperialist – in fact they’d rather welcome it. What terrifies them is the prospect of Obama and Clinton, by publicly repudiating the actions of the Honduran military, along with its right-wing civilian backers in the judiciary, congress and the news media, forcing the Americans on the ground in Tegucigalpa to break-off their relationships with the plotters and, by standing back, allow the popular resistance to gather strength.

Keeping the USA aligned with Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador on this issue should, therefore, be the prime progressive objective world-wide. The New Zealand Left – along with their comrades across the world – should be heaping praise upon Obama and Clinton. Instead of angry demonstrations outside the US Consulate, we should be organising expressions of support for the Obama Administration’s stance.

Only if Washington abandons Honduran democracy - thereby signalling a return to business-as-usual in Latin America - should the anti-imperialist slogans be dusted off, and Old Glory resume its time-honoured relationship with paraffin and matches. 

Seventies Pessimism (Poem from 1978)

Winter Sonnet

Dressed all in burgundy, so roughly swathed,
What does she seek, this pilgrim of the night?
Who startles winter revelers neon-bathed,
And meeting Victory, will call him Flight.

I meet her constantly in places drunk with lies,
Our speaking purged of all uncertainty.
As doubtful lust our faith and purpose tries
We laughingly salute each other’s frailty.

What blasts my soul that I do call it love,
And ache with every vacant hour I live?
No answers do I find in Powers above,
Nor Powers below do any answers give.

She is a dream that plagues my hours so.
Yet if I could to her each night I’d go.

Chris Trotter

Sunday, 28 June 2009

More in Sorrow than in Anger: To Lew at Kiwipolitico

The Freedom of Speech: Norman Rockwell's famous illustration reminds us that it is the speech itself, and not the speaker, that we are obligated to contend with. Argument ad hominem (against the man) does not belong in the genuinely progressive person's rhetorical armoury.

NEVER has my conviction that engaging in personal debates on the Internet constitutes a truly fruitless enterprise been more painfully vindicated than in the posting I’m reluctantly responding to here.

Lew at Kiwipolitico disagrees with my stance on the Maori Party – fair enough. One of the truly great aspects of the Internet is that through websites and blogs such as these it really is possible to let a "thousand schools of thought contend". And if Lew had been willing to leave it at that I’d have had no problem with his posting.

But, he wasn’t.

Repeatedly, in his postings on Kiwipolitico, Lew has responded to articles and/or postings I have displayed here at Bowalley Road not by honestly confronting the arguments I have put forward, but with personal abuse and gross misrepresentation.

His latest posting, here, is the worst instance so far. In it he accuses me of "repeated denial and denigration of indigenous rights" and "denying that women should be free of sexual predation as of right".

Let me first state that I deny these charges absolutely, and defy any reasonable person, having read the postings on this blog, to draw such outrageous conclusions from them. Anyone who knows me, or has followed my writings over the years, will affirm that while I may have strong (and perfectly legitimate) disagreements with the followers of identity politics, I have never argued against the rights of women or indigenous peoples – nor denigrated any person for doing so.

It is ironic that Lew’s article should be headed up "Brogressives and Fauxgressives" because his own conduct casts serious doubt over whether he is now entitled to any sort of claim to the title of "progressive".

The essence of progressivism is its insistence on rationality – as the only tested method of fully comprehending reality; and its insistence on speaking the truth – as a counter to the lies and misrepresentations of those who seek to obscure reality for their own self-interested purposes.

But this is precisely what Lew is guilty of doing. Rather than attempt to test the truth of the statements I have made on this blog (statements made in good faith, I might add, and with the intention of helping both myself and my readers to more closely approach the truth) Lew has told lies about me. Moreover, he has told those lies with the aim of discrediting me – a fellow human-being – not the arguments I have put forward.

By resorting to these arguments ad hominem; and by conceiving and executing them in bad faith and with what appears to be malicious intent, Lew has effectively cast himself beyond the pale of the entire progressive community – perverting what is clearly a very fine intellect in the process.

I write this more in sorrow than in anger, fully acknowledging that I am as capable as anyone of becoming enraged, and of indulging in behaviour which, upon more sober reflection, was clearly insupportable. I must confess to responding in this way more than once to Lew’s postings. I guess the big difference between myself and Lew, though, is that on the one occasion when I foolishly gave vent to my anger, and posted the result on this blog, I quickly regretted my actions and deleted the offending material as grossly unfair to Lew – a person I had not met, and who certainly did not deserve the ad hominem attack I had leveled against him.

I just wish Lew possessed the decency to have done the same.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Minority Opinion

"They've got the guns, but we've got the numbers", or so sang 60s icon Jim Morrison of The Doors. But, for the first time since the progressive majority of the Baby Boom Generation became old enough to influence social and political trends, "the numbers" now lie with conservative social movements like the anti-anti-smackers, Family First .

FINALLY, the die-hards have got the numbers. For years now, on the issues that divide New Zealanders into progressives and conservatives, the progressives have been in the ascendant.

Whether it be issues as old as the death penalty and a woman’s right to choose, or as relatively recent as New Zealand’s nuclear-free status, genetic engineering, or the Iraq War, a solid majority of New Zealanders have held up their hands for compassion, justice, peace and rationality.

This progressive ascendancy has lasted a long time. From the late-1980s until about 2005 – nearly twenty years.

Historically, it coincided with the rise of the NewLabour, Green, and Alliance parties, and the election of the Helen Clark-led Labour Government – all of them elevated by the public’s deep mistrust of the New Right revolution of 1984-96.

Progressive dominance was also reinforced by the advent of proportional representation. Instead of a hide-bound club, comprised overwhelmingly of white, middle-aged men, MMP forced the House of Representatives to live up to its name. Nandor Tanczos’s dreadlocks, hemp suit and skateboard were only the most colourful proof that the times were a-changing.

Underlying all of this, however, was the relentless demographic pressure of the Baby-Boom Generation (1946-66).

The first of the Boomers were in their late-30s when Rob Muldoon’s conservative government finally fell in July 1984. Over the next 20 years, they and their younger brothers and sisters would steadily occupy all of the strategic decision-making points of New Zealand society – and progressively transform it.

From the moment they entered primary school in the 1950s, the Boomers had been absorbing New Zealand’s nominally progressive "official" ideology. And, as they entered high-school and university in the 1960s and 70s, these youngsters were naturally impatient to test its authenticity.

There was genuine reason for doubt.

Apart from a handful of progressive enclaves in the universities, civil service, arts and trade unions, the New Zealand of the 1960s and 70s was a profoundly conservative society. There were overwhelming popular majorities in favour of restoring the death penalty, keeping abortion and homosexuality illegal, maintaining sporting contacts with South Africa, and preserving the ANZUS alliance with Australia and the United States.

When it came to challenging the "official" values of their parent’s generation, the Baby-Boomers (as in so many other aspects of their lives) were spoiled for choice.

New Zealand had signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – but was willing to play Rugby with representatives of Apartheid. We had endorsed the UN Charter – but backed the United States’ rape of Vietnam. We solemnly affirmed that in our democratic society all citizens were equal – but we paid women less for doing the same work as men, and refused to protect te reo Maori, their lands and other treasures.

The Boomers’ great mission became matching their nation’s deeds with its words. And, to a truly remarkable degree, they were successful.

Or, perhaps it’s more truthful to say that the Baby Boomers who genuinely believed in the progressive ideals they’d been encouraged to actualise were remarkably successful. Because not all of the generation born between 1946 and 1966 ended up falling under the progressive spell.

For conservative Baby Boomers, these past 20 years have been a torment. While New Zealand’s officially progressive ideals remained little more than window-dressing, behind which the majority’s die-hard conservatism continued to hold sway, all was well. But when the official credo found official backing, and theory became practice, things turned decidedly sour.

Railing against the "political correctness" of the Boomer generation’s progressive majority, its conservative minority could only wait for the same demographic forces which had unseated their parents’ regime to come to their rescue.

And come they did, in the form of Generations X and Y. Innocent of the old conservatism’s crimes, but only-too-aware of their Boomer parents’ glaring hypocrisies (who was it who took everything the Welfare State had to offer, and then decided it was all too expensive for their children to enjoy?) the New Zealanders born after 1967 proved easy prey for the "political correctness" calumnies of the conservative Boomers.

And so the period of progressive ascendancy has ended, and the conservative Baby Boomers – backed by their privileged generation’s alienated offspring – are eagerly anticipating an historic victory for the anti-anti-smacking referendum.

Which leaves the progressives exactly where they’ve always done their best work: carrying the flickering flames of our vulnerable virtues into the cankered heart of the conservative darkness.

A version of this essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 26 June 2009.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

My Enemy's Friends

My Enemy's Friends: Until the Maori Party ceases to support the neoliberal agenda of the National Party and its allies, it must remain the un-natural enemy of all progressive New Zealanders.

SOMETIMES important political questions just have to be answered – no matter how much we might prefer to avoid them.

A few weeks ago, I encountered a posting by "Lew" at the Kiwipolitico blog entitled "Memo to the Left: The Maori Party is not your enemy."

I was sorely tempted to respond: "Memo to Lew: Yes it is." But blogosphere debates with well-meaning but misguided political naïfs like Lew are never-ending, and I had better things to do with my time.

The question, however, refused to go away – resurfacing at a PPTA field officers’conference in Auckland.

As I was the guest speaker, I could hardly avoid answering, and I’m afraid my reply was rather brutal.

"Yes, the Maori Party did make a huge mistake by throwing in its lot with National. No, I do not think the Maori leadership had a very clear view of their long-term political interests. Yes, the National Party did trick them. And no, I do not believe – even after six months – they realise how very wickedly they’ve been deceived, nor how much damage their relationship with National is about to inflict on both Maori and Pakeha New Zealanders."

To properly understand the Maori Party/National Party relationship, it is first necessary to comprehend the scale of the betrayal represented by the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

For Maori, the Fifth Labour Government’s decision to nullify the Court of Appeal’s judgement on Maori customary rights was every bit as egregious – and just as devastating – as the Fourth Labour Government’s betrayal of the broader labour movement under Rogernomics.

The Maori Party was born out of the same sort of deep political anguish that saw an embittered working-class battler scrawl on the wall of the Christchurch Trades Hall: "You were supposed to help." The same sort of anger that led to the formation of the NewLabour Party in 1989, and the Alliance in 1991.

It took nearly ten years for the rage of the people who walked out of the Labour Party to subside sufficiently for Helen Clark to be invited to the 1998 Alliance Conference, and for the delegates to vote unanimously in favour of a coalition with her despised party. For most of that decade the emotional intensity of the Alliance’s attacks on Labour had always been much greater than its criticisms of National. How could it be otherwise? Pain inflicted by someone you love is always more hurtful than the blows of an enemy.

With feelings running so high, the old proverb, "my enemy’s enemy is my friend", takes on a grim logic.

But, of course, your enemy’s enemy can just as easily be your enemy too – and in the case of the foreshore and seabed debacle this was especially true. Labour’s erstwhile deputy-leader, Michael Cullen, was telling no more than the truth when he pointed out that his government had no room to manoeuvre over the Foreshore & Seabed Bill.

From the moment the Court of Appeal’s decision was announced, Labour’s pollsters began to register a rising level of anti-Maori feeling in the Pakeha population. Clearly, it would require a strong, bi-partisan effort to withstand such political pressure. Of course, National’s pollsters were picking up the same racist vibes as Labour, but, rather than stand against them, the strategists surrounding National’s new leader, Don Brash, opted to exploit them.

The Orewa Speech delivered by Brash in January 2004, and the extraordinary shift in political allegiance from Labour to National that it accomplished, destroyed any hope of a bi-partisan approach to resolving the issues raised by the Court of Appeal.

Labour was left with just two choices: It could either take a principled stand against National’s racism – and watch its electoral support evaporate; or, it could bend before the racist gale, pass the most generous legislation it could get away with, and wait for better weather.

Labour’s Maori MPs – with the obvious exception of Tariana Turia – knew enough about te riri pakeha (the white man’s anger) to grasp that, in the long term, their constituents would be better off under Labour’s reluctant racists, than they would be under a National Party eagerly exploiting anti-Maori feeling to stay ahead in the polls.

It’s the failure of the Maori Party leadership to make the same differentiation that is setting up their people for disaster.

Driven by its nationalist ideology, the Maori Party refuses to draw a distinction between the Pakeha Right and the Pakeha Left. Both the National Party and the Business Roundtable have exploited this ideological colour-blindness with consummate political skill. John Key has deployed his considerable personal charm to engage with and befriend the Maori Party MPs. (Something Labour, unaccountably, refused to do.) Meanwhile, the Business Roundtable, in an astonishing display of ideological legerdemain, somehow persuaded Turia and her co-leader, Pita Sharples, that tino rangatiratanga and laissez-faire capitalism amounted to the same thing.

On the strength of this (false) identification, both National and the Business Roundtable have been quietly transforming the Maori Party into a stalking-horse for a new round of neo-liberal "reforms". Maori Party MPs are already supporting the privatisation of prisons, and their endorsement of education vouchers and private-public-partnerships in healthcare delivery is widely anticipated.

Seduced by the Right’s uninhibited "love-bombing" (not to mention the "mana enhancement" of ministerial salaries and prestige) Turia and Sharples seem oblivious to National’s and Act’s continuing promotion of anti-Maori prejudice among their conservative base.

While "that nice Mr Key" has been playing volleyball at Ratana Pa, paying court to the "underclass" of McGeehan Close, and hongi-ing furiously with every Maori leader he can find, the National and Act parties have been indulging in "dog-whistle politics" like there is no tomorrow.

In place of the "Maori privilege" of Brash’s Orewa speech, the two right-wing parties have substituted the over-heated rhetoric of "law and order". Why? Because whenever terms like "child abuse", "violent crime" and "dysfunctional families" appear in the news headlines, the stereotype conjured up in the mind of the "right"-thinking Pakeha voter is black – not white.

Not content with becoming a stalking-horse for neo-liberalism, the Maori Party has also allowed itself to be cast in the role of the Judas-sheep: bleating dutifully about Maori "empowerment", even as it leads its trusting followers into the slaughter-houses of poverty, ill-health, educational failure and incarceration.

Although they dearly wish it were otherwise, until the Maori Party stops advancing the Right’s extremist agenda, it must remain the un-natural enemy of all progressive New Zealanders.

This is a slightly amended version of an essay originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 28 May 2009.

Friday, 19 June 2009

New National Party not a patch on the old.

Chief Conductor of the "Years of Lightning": George Chapman (above) working closely with Rob Muldoon, fashioned the National Party into a formidable (and, for a while, unbeatable) political machine.

WHAT has the Mt Albert by-election taught us about the 2009 National Party?

Well, for a start, it has taught us that the National Party of today isn’t a patch on the National Party of yesterday.

It is simply inconceivable that the "years of lightning" (1974-84) National Party, presided over by the redoubtable Sir George Chapman, could have overseen the political travesty that was Melissa Lee’s candidacy.

For a start, the Chapman-led National Party of the 1970s, boasted a nominal membership of 250,000 New Zealanders – a considerably larger pool of political talent than the 25,000-strong party of today.

Initially, they would have been looking for a local candidate – someone who’d spent the best part of their life in the electorate and was well-known to its citizens. A local GP, perhaps, or the headmaster of a local school, with a friendly, familiar face and reassuringly moderate views. A candidate broadly acceptable to Mt Albert’s tories, and even, properly presented, to some habitually Labour-voting liberals.

In the absence of this ideal candidate, however, they would probably have opted for a young up-and-comer from the regional party organisation. Someone like the ambitious young accountant chosen to fly National’s flag in Mt Albert during the General Election of 1954.

The then 33-year-old Robert David Muldoon had grown up in the electorate, attended Mt Albert Grammar School, and his maternal grandmother, Jerusha, had been a celebrated local socialist. He won a very creditable 35.7 percent of the votes cast.

With National riding as high in public esteem as it is at present, however, the old-school campaigners would have looked at the 43.8 percent of the vote won by F. Ryan, National’s candidate in the General Election of 1975 (when Labour was equally unpopular) and established that result as the benchmark for 2009.

An organisation as independent of its parliamentarians, and as internally vigorous as the National Party was in the mid- to late-70s, would have had little difficulty in locating a candidate ready, willing and able to take the fight to the beaten and demoralised socialists.

Active party organisations, especially those in which policies are still robustly debated on the conference floor, are constantly testing the strategic thinking, organisational skill and rhetorical ability of their most ambitious rank-and-filers. The leaders of such parties cannot help but notice those with the charisma to muster a following and, most importantly, the force of intellect and persuasive power to sway an audience.

The president of such a party would no more have dreamed of absenting herself from National’s campaign headquarters on election night, than she would of flying to the moon. Getting candidates elected is what political parties are for – it’s what they do!

The fact that National’s current president, Mrs Judith Kirk, allowed herself to be told, by Dr Jonathan Coleman (an MP!) that her presence in Mt Albert on the evening of the by-election would not be required, speaks volumes about the state of the party organisation.

Clearly, the National Party has become entirely subordinate to its Leader and his Parliamentary Caucus. John Key and his inner circle were permitted to pick Ms Lee and appoint her campaign manager. No matter that Mr Key and his cronies are relatively new to the complex demands of electoral politics. No matter that very few (if any) of them appear to understand that the only rational criterion for selecting an electorate candidate is political skill. Not a pretty face; not the ability to read an autocue; not even a proven talent for making pots of dosh; but the ability to practice politics.

But, from the moment she opened her mouth on TVNZ’s Q&A programme, it was painfully clear that Ms Lee was profoundly politically disabled. Shoulder-tapped by Mr Key, and given a winning Party List position at his insistence, she quickly became an example of the dangers and weaknesses of our MMP electoral system.

So long as she was required to do nothing more than adorn her party’s propaganda, National was safe from Ms Lee. The moment she was allowed anywhere near the hustings, she became a disaster on two legs.

It was her opponent, David Shearer, who practiced politics in Mt Albert. He was very lucky, however, to be up against the National Party of today.

Sir George Chapman would have taught him a thing or two.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 19 June 2009.

Monday, 15 June 2009

More on the Bain Case

Challenging the "official" version: Joe Karam, David Bain, and the Defence Team exposed the the State's failures - a sin not easily forgiven by bourgeois New Zealand.

An anonymous commentator responded to my "David Bain and the class divide" posting by dismissing it – along with my focus on class issues generally – as both nonsensical and overly simplistic. This is my response.

Nonsense Anonymous? Simplistic? I don’t think so.

You claim that the national division of opinion over Bain’s innocence/guilt breaks along intelligence rather than class lines. Well, forgive me, but it is difficult to conceive of a more forthright assertion of class prejudice.

The association of intelligence with class advantage is well established historically. This is because the modern middle-class, until relatively recently, was limited in the degree to which it could transfer the social advantages it enjoyed to its offspring. High progressive taxation and death duties militated against the straightforward transfer of physical capital from one generation to the next, and so most middle-class effort was directed at securing, and passing on, its cultural capital.

Obviously, the key to securing cultural capital, along with all the advantages it brings in terms of access to the professions, and hence higher social status and income, lay in gaining control of the education system. Educational institutions, along with familial example, are the prime conveyor-belts of cultural capital. Making sure that their children had access to the best teachers, the most lavish educational infrastructure, and the most appropriate (i.e. professionally oriented) curriculum has been, and remains, one of the most important "jobs" of the middle-class as a distinct social formation.

Equating the ability to negotiate this complex pedagogical system successfully with "intelligence" has always been crucial to the middle-class’s claim that society operates on "meritocratic" principles. If people "fail", it is vitally important that they are seen to do so simply because they fall on the wrong side of life’s great bell curve. It certainly has nothing to do with a system quite consciously designed to advantage one class over another.

If you’re really interested in this stuff, I strongly recommend the writings of Barbara Ehrenreich and Prof. James Flynn.

Now, let’s return to the "class struggle" aspects of the Bain case.

The case has always been problematic for the middle-class because of the extremely confused and conflicting signals it has transmitted over the past 15 years.

The default position of the middle-class on practically every issue – economic, social, political and legal – is to remain safely within the boundaries of the "official view". In the Bain case that meant trusting the police evidence, the original trial judge’s exclusion of critical evidence, and accepting the first jury’s verdict. The "safety" of this position was further reinforced by the Court of Appeal’s upholding of the original verdict.

Karam’s refusal to accept the "official" verdict against Bain marked him out as a threat to all "right-thinking" and "intelligent" citizens. The growing body of evidence that Bain had been the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice – much of it from professionals like themselves – could, therefore, be swept under their mental carpet and ignored. The emotional energy required to repress the logical consequences of Karam’s new evidence was, however, bound to multiply the irrational elements in the bourgeois mindset.

The mentally dislocating effect of the Privy Council’s rejection of the "official" result must, therefore, have been devastating. Karam’s new evidence was deemed to be compelling, and that meant that there was now a new, much more "pro-Bain" official position on the case. However, because this new official position came from outside the ambit of the New Zealand bourgeoisie, it could be dismissed as in some way illegitimate. In a very important sense, the Law Lords – by challenging the competence of the local ruling class – had "let the side down".

Which is why it was so important to secure a second conviction of Bain. Only by persuading the new jury to reaffirm his guilt could the legitimacy of the original official judgment (and hence the competence of the ruling-class and its middle-class backers) be reinstated.

The dissonant effect of seeing so many expert witnesses confront and contradict the Crown’s (i.e. the Police’s) evidence must have grown increasingly pronounced in middle-class minds as the trial progressed. The official narrative of the Bain family murders was unraveling before their eyes, and that part of their being not bound up with the "politics" of the trial, would, almost certainly, have been warning them that the Crown’s case could not possibly pass the test of "beyond reasonable doubt".

And so it proved. In just 5.5 hours the Jury acquitted Bain on all five murder charges.

The middle-class’s subsequent and quite astonishingly vicious response to Bain’s acquittal has nothing whatsoever to do with "intelligence" and everything to do with its profound resentment toward, first and foremost, the Jury, and secondly, towards Bain, Karam and the Defence team, for overturning the original official view in such a public and final fashion.

Bain has moved beyond their reach – at least in a legal sense – and it rankles.

He has not, however, moved beyond their ability to cause him grief and harm. The bourgeoisie’s control of the news media allows it to harass Bain with impunity, and prevent him from leading the quiet and unmolested existence he now has the right to expect.

And, it is here that the irrational and atavistic impulses which lie so very close to the surface in the bourgeoisie make their most frightening appearances.

In their fury at being gainsaid, middle-class opinion-formers are openly calling for the abolition of trial by jury, and promoting Europe’s inquisitorial justice system. Also under attack is the right of accused persons to remain silent, along with their entitlement to proper protection against the admission of evidence highly prejudicial to receiving a fair trial.

That the New Zealand middle-class is willing to sacrifice the protections of the common law for the inquisitorial methods of the absolutist state, testifies to the highly tenuous nature of its commitment to the democratic state.

"If juries cannot be relied upon to deliver the right verdict, then we should do away with them altogether, and leave the adjudication of guilt and innocence to middle-class professionals – like ourselves. After all, people like us don’t have the time to sit on juries, and – clearly – justice can no longer be left to the sort of dummies who do."

For the bourgeoisie, retaining control is everything.

But why?

Because, in the middle-class mind Bain represents much more than a convicted murderer. As the sole survivor of the Bain family, he has always been expected to carry the guilt – and bear the punishment – for its terrible failure to uphold core bourgeois values.

The dilapidated, squalid, stinking family dwelling: a fine (and valuable) old house allowed to go to wrack and ruin. The parent’s failed marriage: followed by their mental and moral disintegration. The waywardness of the children: with one of the daughters regularly prostituting herself. The dark hints of rape and incest. The whole, tragic picture of an attractive and talented middle-class family descending into a pit of self-neglect and social demotion. It is this, the truly terrifying spectacle of family failure and downward social mobility, that gnaws away at the middle-class psyche whenever the Bain case is contemplated.

That is the real, unspoken crime for which the entire Bain family stands condemned in the court of bourgeois opinion. For acting out the middle-class’s most fearful nightmares, it was psychologically vital that nobody emerged from 65 Every Street – "not guilty".

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Helpless Victims?

Helpless Victims? Twenty years ago the feminist slogan was "Girls can do anything!" Today's feminists seem to be arguing precisely the opposite. That, far from being men's equals, like these Israeli women conscripts, they are really nothing more than helpless victims, utterly incapable of looking after themselves. The women in the photograph (and their M16s) would probably disagree.

"VICTIM" is a slippery word. Our hearts go out to the "victims" of natural disasters and random attacks – people who have suffered harm through no fault of their own. We are more sparing with our sympathy, however, if the "victims" are perceived to have, even in the slightest degree, participated in, or contributed to, their own misfortune.

The women involved in the political downfall of Dr Richard Worth provide a topical example. Across the airways and throughout the blogosphere debate has raged over the degree of culpability (if any) attributable to the former Cabinet Minister’s "victims".

The Left – especially the Feminist Left – has come down firmly on the side of the women, painting them has the helpless prey of a powerful and predatory male. The Right, while expressing scant sympathy for Dr Worth, has been equally reluctant to acknowledge the women’s "victimhood" unequivocally.

To the rising fury of the Left, right-wing commentators have homed in on the details of the women’s allegations – asking pertinent questions and raising reasonable doubts.

I must confess to harbouring one-or-two questions and doubts of my own in relation to this "sex scandal", but what worries me most is the Left’s apparent inability to assess critically the variety of allegations currently being levelled against Dr Worth.

In the ever-diminishing sorority of radical feminist ideologues, all that is required to convict a man of sexual misconduct is a woman’s accusation. To demand proof from the accuser, or an inquiry into the context of the accused’s alleged "crime", is tantamount to colluding in the woman’s ongoing victimisation by our repressive patriarchal society – to which, ultimately, all women fall victim.

But, to create an alternative society, one in which a man can be convicted of a serious offence purely on the accusation of a woman, is to create a society even more oppressive than the patriarchy it is intended to replace. To abandon the presumption of innocence; do away with a person’s right to confront their accuser; fatally compromise the fundamental rules of evidence; and renounce trial by jury and "reasonable doubt", is to undermine our justice system in its entirety.

Yet this is the road that many feminists (motivated, no doubt, by the very best of intentions) would have us go down.

Feminist sociologist, and Whanganui Family Violence Case Management Coodinator, Dr Angela Jury, for example, argues for "an ideological shift away from burdening abuse victims with the responsibility of choosing to end the abuse".

According to Dr Jury’s research: "the use of language around choice and freedom in advice to abused women – ‘you don’t have to live like this’, ‘you can leave’, ‘there is help available’. All of these – while probably selected as terms offering empowerment to victims – can also operate to engender a sense of weakness on the part of the victims … thus creating a sense of shame and self-blame."


But, if we’re not allowed to encourage the woman to end the abuse herself, by leaving the abuser and/or alerting the authorities, how are we supposed to keep her safe from harm? By encouraging others to alert the authorities on her behalf? But wouldn’t that mean dobbing in our neighbours, our workmates, even our friends – if we believed them guilty of abusing their wives, partners or children? And, what if the abuse victims were too overwhelmed by "shame and self-blame" to testify against their abusers – what then? Should they be convicted without hard evidence? Purely on the basis of our accusation?

No scope there for the most egregious miscarriages of justice!

But this is exactly the tangled ethical thicket into which an uncritical focus on victimhood leads us.

If we are to build a just and equitable society, it can only be constructed upon the assumption of a free and equal citizenry. And I use the word "assumption" quite deliberately here, because "freedom" and "equality" – like "justice" and "truth" – are abstract nouns which may, or may not, refer to real and concrete entities like you and me.

And yet, without assuming the abstract concepts of democratic citizenship refer to something real, we are lost. Because, if we are not free and equal citizens, then what are we? Nothing but problematic bundles of neuroses and psychoses? Bent and battered human vessels, chockfull of defective genetic material? Suitable cases for "expert" treatment?

Nothing but helpless victims.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 12 June 2009.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

David Bain and the class divide

The Trial of the Century: David Bain's acquittal has provoked a storm of middle-class outrage.

HAVE YOU NOTICED that most of those who’ve come out against David Bain’s acquittal are middle class?

Quite why there should be such a glaring class divide over the verdict is puzzling. Is it simply a case of those with something to lose naturally reposing more faith in the institutional guardians of private property – the police and the courts?

Or perhaps the middle class is reacting to a rare New Zealand example of épater les bourgeoisie – skewering the middle class. Taking umbrage at the one-fingered proletarian salute from all those on the receiving end of bourgeois "justice", as they witnessed the spectacle of this strange, gangly jailbird finally making it over the cuckoo’s nest.

On the other hand, the explanation could come down to something as banal as journalistic jealousy. Unlike Arthur Allan Thomas and David Doughety, David Bain wasn’t freed by the professional skills of a tenacious and courageous journalist, but by the dogged determination of the surly ex-All-Black businessman, Joe Karam.

Openly scornful of what he regarded as the news media’s inexcusable failure to recognise a blatant miscarriage of justice, Bain’s swarthy champion made few friends on the press bench. It is in the nature of journalists to simplify and dramatise. If Karam was in David’s corner – they would be in the Crown’s.

But to blame in on the journalists doesn’t get rid of the class issue, it merely pushes it back a few steps. Journalism is very much a bourgeois trade – especially in its upper reaches. Only someone with the gift for translating the subtle, and not-so-subtle, nuances of class interaction can write a truly great tabloid headline.

Never forgetting, of course, the New Zealand journalist’s infatuation with authority and "official sources". When the Court of Appeal rejected Bain’s bid for a re-trial, few – if any – of this country’s editors were willing to second-guess the judges. Karam’s persistence in the face of the Court’s rejection was interpreted as the behaviour of a crank; someone who didn’t know when to quit.

We can only imagine their consternation when the Privy Council ordered a re-trial of the Bain case. Implicity, the British Law Lords were criticising the entire New Zealand Establishment; telling them in no uncertain terms that they were a bunch of provincial buffoons who couldn’t recognise the most rank injustice (and police incompetence) even when a layman like Karam had made sure it was staring them in the face.

No wonder they wanted Bain to be found guilty a second time. An acquittal could only be seen as vindication of every accusation Karam had ever levelled at the New Zealand Police and the New Zealand legal system – as well as a serious indictment of its news media.

So, when, last Friday, that Christchurch jury found David Bain "Not Guilty" of murdering all five members of his family, it turned out to be much more than a victory for the Defendant, Karam and their supporters. It was also a victory for the potent democratic impulse our Anglo-Saxon ancestors enshrined in the practice of judging an accused person by a jury of his or her peers. Not by the Police; not by lawyers and judges; and certainly not by editors and journalists: but by twelve ordinary men and women.

The almost obscene delight the news media has taken in revealing the highly prejudicial "secret evidence" which had been, quite rightly, suppressed by the courts prior to Bain’s trial, speaks volumes about the vigilante temperament of so many of our editors and journalists. And, it only gets worse. Because, not content with helping to defame Bain, these same middle-class journalists are now calling into question the whole institution of trial by jury.

The vindictiveness and fury of the middle-class, when robbed of its prey, is truly terrifying to behold.

So, God bless that Christchurch jury! Because, in freeing David Bain, they were, in effect, freeing us all. Not, as far too many of my journalistic colleagues seem to think, from the responsibility we all have to uphold the law, but from the oppressive power of a wayward State which, having failed in its duty to administer the law without fear or favour, persisted in that failure regardless of contradictory evidence, and heedless of the fact that it had imprisoned an innocent man for 13 years.

Ruling classes do not enjoy being told they got it wrong. But just as the Tree of Liberty must occasionally be watered by the blood of patriots, so must the keenness of Justice’s blade every now-and-again be tested on the bone-hard prejudices of the bourgeoisie.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Johnny & Billy - Zombie Slayers?

Night of the Living Dead: This 1968 horror classic features creatures that refuse to die. Is the National Government battling a neo-liberal establishment which similarly refuses to accept its own mortality?

IS THIS GOVERNMENT really the free-market horror film its left-wing critics make it out to be? Or, are John Key’s and Bill English’s most daunting political challengers now coming at them from the Right?

Not if you subscribe to the Left’s political narrative.

According to Labour and its left-wing allies, John Key is a hard-line free-marketeer who had to be "sold" to the New Zealand electorate (principally by the Australian political consultancy, Crosby-Textor) as a benign centrist. Had Key not adopted this persona, the Left insists, he would never have been elected. Which means National’s election-winning formula: Labour-lite + tax-cuts; cannot be abandoned before 2011 without putting its re-election at risk. Consequently, Key must wait until he wins a second term before unleashing his "secret" agenda: radical welfare reform + wholesale deregulation and privatisation.

But what if we are actually watching a very different movie? What if, far from being a sort of antipodean werewolf, impatiently waiting for the next electoral full moon so he can tear to shreds what remains of the egalitarian New Zealand dream, Key really is a moderate? What if the horror-movie we’re watching isn’t The Howling, but a political version of Night of the Living Dead, in which Key and his Finance Minister desperately battle the reanimated corpses of economic and social policies everyone believed dead and buried in the 1990s?

Now, that would be a real horror-show.

So, has the Budget really got the zombies pounding on the Beehive door? Well, National’s far-Right allies were certainly vocally unimpressed by Bill English’s "Road to Recovery". Act Leader, Rodney Hide, (as befits his ministerial status) has remained silent, but the keeper of the party’s ideological flame, Sir Roger Douglas, has unleashed volley after volley of verbal scorn upon English’s economic programme.

"This is the budget of deficits", thundered the former Finance Minister on Budget Day. "A deficit of spending, a deficit of the current account, a deficit of courage, but most importantly, a deficit of imagination."

But what would a budget which passed Sir Roger’s imagination test look like? What do the unreconstructed disciples of Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek actually want from John Key and Bill English? And could Key’s government possibly deliver it?

Fortunately, former Act MP, and proprietor of the NZ Centre for Political Research website, Muriel Newman, also wanted answers to these questions, and asked the Executive Director of the NZ Business Roundtable, Roger Kerr, to supply them.

In his guest commentary to the NZCPR Weekly newsletter, Kerr is careful not to be too specific in his recommendations, but the overall direction of his proposed programme of "reform" is reasonably clear.

He applauds what he claims is Bill English’s emphasis on "structural adjustment" – meaning a "shift of resources from the domestic economy to internationally competing industries". This "basic change in economic direction", says Kerr, is one of the (all-too-few?) "positive features" of the Budget.

What that ominous term "structural adjustment" means in plain English, is that Kerr very badly wants this Government to slash public spending on the goods and services New Zealanders consume, and redirect the state’s resources towards private businesses producing goods and services that foreigners consume.

In reality, there’s very little in this Budget that redirects resources in the way Kerr suggests. Indeed, English has been criticised by many commentators for maintaining the level of state spending in health, education and social welfare at the expense of the export sector. He did, after all, cut back on state support for research and development and skills training – both of which are crucial to lifting productivity.

To be blunt, I think Kerr is confusing what English has actually done, with what the Business Roundtable would like him to do. It’s a frequent mistake among left-wing ideologues, especially those dealing with conservative social-democratic governments – so it’s comforting to discover that right-wing ideologues suffer from the same wishful thinking.

The key passage in Kerr’s commentary, however, is this one:

"If we are to [catch up with Australian income levels by 2025] the government (and the community at large) have to recognise the need for policy settings much more like those of more successful countries. We can’t continue avoiding ‘third rail’ issues such as the superannuation eligibility age, privatisation of commercial businesses, a freer labour market and welfare reform."

In unpacking that heavily loaded sentence, we catch a glimpse of the sort of New Zealand the Business Roundtable is hoping to create.

It will be a New Zealand without unions. What else can "freer" mean when, already, barely seven percent of the private sector workforce is unionised? To further "free" the labour market, the public sector unions covering teachers, nurses and civil servants would have to be targeted. But, eliminating these powerful democratic institutions will not be achieved without massive political upheaval.

The same, of course, might be said about imposing "welfare reform" – a code-word for radically restricting citizens’ access to transfer payments, usually by limiting the period of eligibility to 3 months, or less.

Limiting elderly New Zealanders’ access to superannuation, by lifting the age of entitlement to 67, or more, and privatising what remains of the publicly-owned airways, railways and electricity generators rounds out Kerr’s vision of the future. Clearly, the Business Roundtable’s "ideal" New Zealand is going be a much less generous – and a much more politically contentious – country in which to live.

Or will it? Given that Kerr holds up both Hong Kong and Singapore as models of "small, high income countries" (‘with authoritarian governments’, he should have, but unaccountably failed, to add) political dissent may not be all that welcome in the Business Roundtable’s brave new world.

Writing about the current global economic crisis in The London Review of Books, recently, the veteran British labour historian, Ross McKibbin observed:

"The present crisis has established beyond doubt that neoliberalism, even the British form, and democracy are incompatible. To try to make them compatible, governments have adopted ever more risky policies, which brought down the last Conservative government and will probably bring down Brown’s."

"Risky" is a most inadequate word to describe the prescription which Kerr is offering Key and English. Filling it would be political suicide.

Perhaps, the Left should reconsider its rather gruesome characterisation of National’s leaders. Compared to the undead ideological creatures pounding on their door, who do Key and English more resemble: villains – or heroes?

This commentary was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 11 June 2009.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

I #*! Super City: Why Metro has got it wrong. Really

Metro's Simon Wilson: Cheerleading Rodney Hide's Auckland "super city" power grab.

FOR sheer Pollyanna puffery, Simon Wilson’s "Why We Love Super City", in the latest issue of Metro, takes some beating. The image of a perky cheerleader dominates Wilson’s text, and that is wholly appropriate. When your sub-heading is "Why Rodney Hide has got it right. Really." – cheerleading is pretty obviously the name of the game.

It’s a pity really, because Wilson is usually a thoughtful writer, and not given to lending his support to the sort of PR glad-games currently being rolled out to justify one of the most audacious power-grabs in New Zealand’s political history.

The article begins with the picture of a region suffering from "economic underperformance, blighted urban planning and social dysfunction" – all of it, Wilson implies, the dystopic residue of incompetent "local fiefdoms". He has to do this, of course, because if it could be proved that Auckland’s multiple afflictions (if they exist at all) are in no way the fault of its local authorities, then the whole rationale for Hide’s "Super-City" disappears.

But, this is precisely what Auckland’s history does; it completely explodes both Hide’s and the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance’s arguments for collapsing local democracy into regional "governance". The city’s woes, going back to, and beyond, 1865, have almost always arisen out of Auckland businessmen’s determination to turn politics into profit.

Whether it be Thomas Russell, fomenting war with the Maori king to expedite his company’s land-grabbing; or the powerful "development" business nexus, which spawned the sprawling, car-dependent culture of post-war Auckland; or the mirror-glass speculators, who tore down what remained of the city’s graceful Victorian architecture in the deregulated 80s; it has always been that fateful combination of greed and ambition (both local and national) which made Greater Auckland so much less than it could have – should have – been.

Were the cities and boroughs of Auckland responsible for the motorway system which demolished so many thriving communities in the 1950s and 60s – or was that the work a handful of Auckland roading contractors and property developers, operating hand-in-glove with their National Party cronies in the Capital?

Was it Auckland’s local politicians who shut down the great manufacturing plants of south and west Auckland in the 1980s – or was the resulting "economic underperformance" and "social dysfunction" the legacy of the MPs for Mangere, Manurewa, Te Atatu and Auckland Central?

Was it the avarice of mayors and city councillors which saw the wealth of middle-class Aucklanders wiped out in the crash of ’87 – or was it the greed of the wide boys who drank at the Rogues Bar and worked for Equiticorp?

Was it the Auckland Regional Council which stalled the electrification of Auckland’s rail services for the past four years – or was that Michael Cullen and his Treasury advisers?

The key premise behind the Super City proposal is that Auckland’s local problems are the fault of Auckland’s local politicians – and it just ain’t true.

Wilson, as an editor of New Zealand history, and one of Metro’s senior writers, should know all this. So why is his article a history-free zone? Perhaps because it’s so much easier to declare, bluntly, and without the slightest supporting evidence, that: "The status-quo is not an option."

But even if we accept that some sort of change is desirable, the more important question: "Why Rodney Hide’s version of change?", is one that Wilson does not even begin to answer.

It’s all very well to play-up the Royal Commission’s emphasis on social, economic, environmental and cultural "well-being", but the brute fact of the matter is that all of its "namby-pamby, feel-good sloganising" has been rejected by both the National and Act Parties. They have a very different set of priorities.

And before citing Singapore, Seattle, Glasgow and Barcelona as examples of "vibrant" urban economies, why didn’t Wilson do a little research into the nature of their governmental structures.

Rightly celebrated throughout the European Union as one of its most progressively governed cities, Glasgow, with a population of 580,690 citizens, is roughly comparable in size to the present City of Auckland. The similarities end there, however, because instead of Auckland’s 19, Glaswegians get to elect 79 city councillors – one councillor for every 7,350 citizens. Compare that "vibrant" and very democratic ratio with Rodney Hide’s one Super City councillor for every 65,000 citizens. Even Barcelona’s 1.6 million citizens, living under a municipal constitution drafted in 1960 by General Franco’s fascist regime, are entitled to 41 councillors (1:39,000).

What Wilson has either failed to understand, or refuses to acknowledge, is that the Auckland Super City has been designed by neo-liberals, for neo-liberals. From its very beginnings, as the brainchild of senior Auckland business leaders, it’s purpose has never been to generate the "social well-being" which the members of the Royal Commission so naively attempted to interpose in their report, but its opposite. What Rodney Hide and his backers want to see in their shining Super City on a hill, is that universal hallmark of neo-liberal success: growing income inequalities.

That’s why Hide is promoting the democratic obscenity of 20 councillors for 1.3 million citizens. (With eight of the 20 elected "at large", an electoral option rejected by New Zealanders more than 20 years ago.) It’s why he’s promoting 20-30 powerless "community councils", rather than the four, more influential, "city councils" recommended by the Royal Commission. It also explains his vehement opposition to special Maori representation, and why the straightforward, democratic, expedient of taking the 75 councillors currently representing the four major cities of the Auckland region, and putting them under the roof of a single chamber, simply wouldn’t occur to him. Why not? Because, fundamentally, neo-liberalism and democracy are incompatible.

In his final paragraph, Wilson quotes the Royal Commission’s vision statement, noting approvingly its preference for "an integrated sustainable approach" and its wish that the city’s business be "actively and effectively managed … in a responsible way". But this is the bloodless language of corporate bureaucracy – not popular democracy. Nowhere in his article, and in spite of all his condescending concern for the "common folk", does Wilson acknowledge that it is their right to self-government – not good governance – that is at stake for Auckland’s 1.3 million citizens.

A Super City Council of Aucklanders, by Aucklanders, for Aucklanders.

All Aucklanders.

"Who doesn’t want that? Who doesn’t think we need it? And who seriously thinks we’ve got it already?"

This commentary was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 4 June 2009.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Grown-Up Stuff

WHAT IS IT with left-wing women? Why does it take a Cactus Kate to spell out the bleeding-bloody-obvious about Phil Goff’s damsel-in-distress? And, where’s the advantage, when it comes to living a fulfilling, exciting and, yes, occasionally risky life, of behaving like a permanently helpless victim?

So Dr Richard Worth hits on women. So what? It’s a thing men do. Some with genuine style and panache, others with all the finesse of a slobbering dog. Women worthy of the name take the stylish ones to bed, and tell the slobberers to take themselves somewhere else.

And, if the silly sods refuse to take the hint? Well, that’s what, workmates/bosses/girlfriends/boyfriends/husbands and, if worse comes to worst, police officers are for.

By the sounds of things, Dr Worth is a slobberer. A slobberer, moreover, who seems to have real difficulties taking the hint. Presumably, that’s why he’s become the subject of a serious allegation of wrong-doing, and why his political career lies in ruins.

If you behave like a slobbering prat, entirely unmindful of your responsibilities as a husband, a father, a minister of the Crown, a member of Parliament, a member of the National Party caucus (not to mention a member of the human race) then you deserve nothing better.

The curse of Karma has caught up with the erring member of the erring Member. So what is all the simpering and mewling and tut-tutting and isn’t-it-awfulling about?

Sex is a thing that grown-ups do. Learning to negotiate one’s way through the reefs of lust and longing is, therefore, an important and inescapable part of becoming a mature human-being. In a culture (one of the very few cultures, in fact) which proclaims and enforces the principle of sexual equality, it looks really bad when left-wing "feminists" start behaving like a bunch of Victorian maidens confronted with a naked table-leg.

If "girls can do anything", then surely they can tell some randy old bugger to fuck-off and leave them alone?

Re-defining Empathy

Barack Obama: "The empathy to understand what it's like to be poor."

IT was one of those throwaway lines that sets an alarm-bell ringing in the back of your mind. A sneering, belittling tone which makes you wonder. "What was that all about?" Or ask: "Who rattled his cage?"

The line in question appeared in an article by William Langley, a conservative political correspondent for the right-wing British newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph. He was writing about President Obama’s nominee for the US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, and how she exemplifies the human quality the new American President prizes most: Empathy.

"The word – ", wrote Mr Langley, "a longstanding pop-psychology and self-help manual standby – has been heavily in play since Obama last week proposed Sonia Sotomayor, a New York appeals court judge, as his first Supreme Court pick."

"Whoa there, Billy Boy!" I thought to myself, as I read those words. Since when has "empathy" connoted something as frothy and ultimately superfluous as "pop psychology"? And who, exactly, has decided that the moral impulse which lies at the root of all the world’s great religions; the defining quality of the most exalted human behaviour, should be downgraded to the status of a "self-help manual standby"?

I didn’t have to read much further to discover the answer. According to the man who scripted most of the George Bush Jnr presidency, Karl Rove: "Empathy is the latest code word for liberal activism, for treating the constitution as malleable clay to be kneaded and moulded in whatever form justices want."

Aha! So that’s the caper. President Obama, in the tradition of America’s greatest presidents, is attempting to infuse his countrymen’s’ political discourse with a moral language more nuanced and sophisticated that the Bush Administration’s crude division of the world into a Manichean "Us" (the good guys) versus "Them" (the evil-doers).

This sort of language:

"We need somebody whose got the heart, the empathy, to recognise what it’s like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old. And that’s the criteria by which I’m going to be selecting my judges."

Good Lord! No wonder the Right is all a-twitter. For the past thirty years they have enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the use of religious rhetoric. Never mind that it was Old Testament rhetoric – full of "thou shalt nots", and trailing the fire and brimstone of the Pentateuch God. So long as the Left refused to plough this most fertile of all political fields, the Right couldn’t lose.

But President Obama is only too happy to toil in the fields of the Lord, and to confront the Republican Party’s Old Testament rhetoric, with the emancipatory and, yes, empathic language of the New.

It’s there in his Inaugural Address, when he talks about the contribution of the men and women "obscure in their labour, who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom".

Who can hear those words and not be reminded of Christ’s: "straight is the gate and narrow is the way, that leadeth unto life, and few there be who find it"?

Consider, too, President Obama’s Georgetown University speech, in which he draws explicitly from the Sermon on the Mount:

"We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock."

The President’s New Testament rhetoric strikes at the heart of the Right’s political project in a way that is peculiarly American – and peculiarly effective.

In a nation whose visceral fear and hatred of "Godless Communism" is legendary, Christ’s liberating theology of love and justice has long supplied the American Left with a potent alternative to the class-ridden rhetoric of Marx and Lenin. When that great American revolutionary, Dr Martin Luther King, made out the case for racial emancipation and social solidarity, he did so using the language of the Bible – not Das Kapital.

Empathy – the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes – is fundamental to President Obama’s redemptive project. By recruiting Jesus to the Democratic cause, and setting him against the Republican’s Jehovah, The President has forced the Right into a theological and political battle it cannot win.

Unless, of course, it first persuades us that empathy – the attribute without which we cannot truly be called human – is nothing but "pop psychology" and a "self-help manual standby".

A version of this essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 5 June 2009.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Ten Years Ago This Week: Fattening Tigger

The face/s of the Green Party 1999-2005: Rod Donald & Jeanette Fitzsimons.

WHAT SHALL WE DO about poor little Tigger? If he never eats nothing he’ll never get bigger. So sings Winnie the Pooh as he attempts to rustle-up some breakfast for his new playmate. The Left is asking the same question about those Tiggers of New Zealand politics – the Greens. For if Jeanette Fitzsimons is not given a clear run at the Coromandel seat in the forthcoming election, the Greens chances of ever growing big enough to climb over the five percent MMP threshold look very slim indeed.

The key to unlocking Coromandel for the Greens is in Labour’s hands. At the last election Ms Fitzsimons received 9,561 votes, just 2,450 less than National’s Murray McLean. If the 4,255 people who voted for Labour in 1996 could be persuaded to come in behind the Greens in 1999, then there is every chance of Ms Fitzsimons winning the seat. A Green victory is even more likely when one considers the likely voting behaviour of the 7,932 people who, in 1996, supported NZ First.

According to the rules of MMP, a party which wins an electorate seat is automatically entitled to the number of seats represented by its overall share of the valid Party Vote – even if that share amounts to less than five percent. In the Taranaki-King Country by-election the Greens won approximately 2.5 percent of the vote, and most commentators believe they will achieve at least that level of support simply by having their name on the ballot paper. With 2-3 percent of the Party Vote - plus Coromandel – the Greens could expect to see at least two - and possibly as many as four - MPs in the House of Representatives. And seats in the House are what Tiggers like best!

The question for Labour to answer, as the election draws near, is this: "What reasons can they sensibly offer for NOT throwing their support behind the Greens in Coromandel?" As the undisputed leader of the Left – at least in electoral terms – shouldn’t Labour be committed to seating the broadest and most accurate representation of progressive New Zealand which is possible? And, if it is acceptable for the Labour Party to align itself formally with the Socialist Left, in the form of the Alliance, why not Ecological Left with the Greens?

Broadening the base of a future Left Coalition also makes excellent electoral sense. Historically, the Green Party has drawn its support not only from red-green radicals, but also from blue-green conservatives. A brief glance at the electorates in which the Greens won strong support in 1990 (the last time they stood in their own right) shows that a Green Party with momentum is as likely to take votes from National as Labour. In other words, by backing the Greens Labour can actually grow the total Centre Left vote. That has to be a better prospect than simply redistributing the same amount of support between themselves and the Alliance.

To achieve that momentum, however, Labour needs to signal its support for Ms Fitzsimons sooner rather than later. If the voters can be persuaded that, come what may, the Greens are certain to be represented in Parliament, then they can tick their box on the ballot paper with a clear conscience. Without Labour’s (and then almost certainly the Alliance’s) agreement to stand aside in Coromandel, people considering casting a Party Vote for the Greens may reluctantly come to the conclusion that they would be throwing it away.

And that would be a pity. The Greens, like A.A. Milne’s Tigger, may be bouncy and prone to mischief (especially with genetically engineered potato crops!), but they also represent our last, best hope for a sustainable future.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion of 11 June 1999.