Friday, 30 October 2009

Trading Freedom

A deficit of political will: Free Trade orthodoxy is but one of neoliberalism's many economic and political shibboleths. With the political elites of both the centre-left and the centre-right espousing the same dogma, Western electorates are seldom exposed to alternative explanations for, or solutions to, besetting global problems.

FOR ALL THEIR DIFFERENCES, on the subject of so-called "free trade", National and Labour continue to speak the same language. No matter which of them occupies the Treasury benches, Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) will continue to be signed and celebrated. Regardless of whether New Zealand’s trade minister is Tim Groser, or Maryan Street, the gospel according to Doha will continue to be preached. For the centre-right and the centre-left, "free trade" remains the last great bi-partisan cause.

And why not? New Zealand has always been, and remains, a trading nation. Since the late 18th Century, this country’s flora and fauna, minerals and farm-based products have been exchanged for all those elaborately manufactured articles that make for a civilised society.

In the late 19th Century, we perfected the art of placing high-quality foodstuffs on the tables of the world’s wealthiest consumers. It’s what we do best, and we’d like to go on doing it for as long as possible.

Not surprisingly, therefore, a world of tariffs, quotas and other trade barriers is the sort of world our Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (MFAT) will do almost anything to prevent. What it seeks – the Holy Grail of New Zealand diplomacy – is an international marketplace into which New Zealand’s exports can flow without let or hindrance.

A world unequivocally committed to free trade is MFAT’s idea of Heaven. And, like Heaven, everybody want’s to go there, but nobody wants to die.

If New Zealand wishes to send its products to all the nations of the Earth, then it must allow all the nations of the Earth to send their products to us. As Shakespeare would say: "Aye, there’s the rub."

Next time you’re in the supermarket, try finding a can of apricots, peaches or pears sourced from New Zealand growers. Try finding a packet of biscuits made with New Zealand flour in a New Zealand factory. Try finding a light-bulb, or a tube of toothpaste, that hasn’t travelled thousands of kilometres to reach your supermarket’s shelves.

Our apricots, peaches and pears, grown for decades on the sunny river-terraces of Central Otago, were the best in the world. Our biscuit, light-bulb and toothpaste factories employed generations of New Zealand workers – as did the factories that produced our clothing and footwear.

No longer.

Now, the advocates of "free trade" will tell you that this is all for the best: that our local manufacturers were uncompetitive; that we paid "too much" for our T-shirts and toothpaste.

If other nations produce these things more cheaply, say the free-traders, then why not simply import them and lower the cost-of-living for all New Zealanders – especially the poor?

What they usually keep out of the conversation is exactly how other nations can produce T-shirts and toothpaste so cheaply. The answer, of course, is by paying their workers far less than even the most exploited Kiwi worker; by preventing them from organising into trade unions to reclaim some of the value of the products they make; and, by refusing to allow the democratic freedoms that would make such civic action possible.

When trade is "free", it’s all-too-often because no one and nothing else is.

The other subject the free-traders try to avoid is the delicate matter of relative economic strength.

Some nations – some economies – are simply much bigger and stronger than others. So big and so strong, in fact, that they can turn the whole "free trade" exercise on its head.

Ask the Australians who got the better deal in their FTA with the United States. (Here’s a hint: it wasn’t Australia.) Ask our own apple-growers if, in spite of CER, they have open access to the Australian market? (Here’s another hint: they don’t.)

The brutal historical fact of the matter is, that New Zealand has never been wealthier than she was when her trade was anything but free. And that, if we want to be as wealthy again, our best course of action would be to find another great empire to snuggle-up in.

Given the way the world is going, that is likely to be the Sino-Japanese Great East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. The beginnings of which John Key, Tim Groser and Maryan Street witnessed last week in Thailand.

NZ Incorporated: Suppliers of ice-cream to the new masters of the world.

A trade to make us rich – but not free.

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, 30th October 2009.

Holding the Line

A Bully Pulpit: Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, makes it on to the BBC's "Question Time" programme despite the best efforts of the British Left to ensure the state broadcaster provided "No Platform for Fascists".

THERE’S A SPECIAL FRISSON that runs through even the most conservative citizens when they see a police line buckle and break. The image of authority giving way, quite literally, before public pressure stirs people in ways they struggle to explain. Perhaps it’s the upwelling of deep memories from the historical past – proof that nine-out-of-ten of us are descended from serfs.

A police line outside the headquarters of the BBC in London buckled and broke last week. The flimsy human-chain of constables guarding the "Beeb’s" surprisingly forbidding gates collapsed beneath the weight of hundreds of angry anti-fascist protesters. Around twenty-five of their number actually made it into the building, along the corridors, and up to the very doors of the studio where Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party (BNP) was appearing on the BBC’s "Question Time" programme.

It was "Question Time’s" decision to offer a "platform" for Griffin and his party, that ignited the protesters’ rage. In the eyes of the British Left, allowing Griffin to appear was tantamount to giving Adolf Hitler access to a vast television audience.

Adding to their fury was the decision of the Labour Government’s Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, to appear alongside Griffin. By taking part in the programme, they said, Labour was in breach of the British Left’s informal agreement that there should be "No Platform for Fascists". Sharing the political stage with the BNP, they argued, was the surest way of giving it the legitimacy it craved, and which, as the enemy of tolerance and democracy, it did not deserve.

Watching the programme, it was hard to understand why the protesters bothered. The BBC had assembled a studio audience that appeared to be unanimous in its detestation of Griffin and the BNP. Questioner after questioner delivered stinging criticisms of the party and its leader – criticisms which were picked up and reinforced by the show’s host, David Dimbleby.

Griffin acquitted himself with surprising aplomb in this hostile environment. Responding to criticisms of the BNP’s anti-immigration policies – designed, he said, to protect "indigenous Britons" – Griffin challenged Straw to go to New Zealand and tell a Maori he was not "indigenous". Colour, said the BNP leader, was irrelevant: "We are the aborigines here".

Though the studio audience clearly rejected the BNP’s stance on immigration, and warmly applauded all those who defended the government’s "multicultural" policies, Griffin must have known that in the world beyond the television studio his words were being received very differently.

As the BBC’s own Europe editor Gavin Hewitt discovered during his 2006 foray into the London borough of Dagenham (a BNP stronghold) ordinary, deeply-disillusioned, white working-class voters make up the bulk of the party’s electoral base.

"The mood of the club was one of sullen resentment", recalled Hewitt. "The neighbourhood around them was changing rapidly. Their known world was gone. I remember one of them had got hold of the Labour manifesto from 1997. There was only a brief reference to immigration but the man read out the words ‘every country must have firm control over immigration and Britain is no exception’. They felt betrayed and voiceless. In their view Labour had not been straight and no-one had asked them whether they wanted a sharp rise in immigration."

Like the French Communist Party, whose formerly rock-solid working-class supporters from the inner suburbs of France’s great cities abandoned Marxism for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s xenophobic nationalism in the 1990s, the British Labour Party is paying the inevitable price for its embourgeoisment.

The multicultural dreams of the middle-class idealists who over-ran the mainstream Left in the 1970s and 80s, have turned into the racially and culturally-charged nightmares of the economically-stressed suburbs and towns in which desperate immigrant communities inevitably took root and grew.

Rightly or wrongly, working-class Frenchman and Englishmen regard the loss of their well-paying jobs, the rapid rise in immigration, and the relentless advance of economic globalisation as being all of a piece. That "their" parties – the CPF, Labour – had participated in governments responsible for the imposition of all three "evils" is impossible for many of them to forget – or forgive.

Pakeha New Zealanders’ experience of mass immigration has been very different. Their country’s colonial history precluded any claim to indigeneity, and the careful timing of successive waves of post-war immigration meant that there was little direct economic competition between themselves and the rural Maori and Pasifika immigrants who picked up the low-paid jobs Pakeha workers had left behind them.

With the brief but unpleasant exception of the "dawn-raids" period of the late-1970s, such "immigration politics" as did exist in the New Zealand was fuelled largely by the competition for low-skilled jobs between the urbanised Maori and immigrant Pasifika communities – not Whites and Browns.

That all changed in the 1990s with the very sudden and rapid influx of immigrants from China, Taiwan and the Indian sub-continent. Rather than compete directly with the unskilled and semi-skilled Maori and Pasifika communities, the so-called "Asian Invasion" collided head-on with the Pakeha middle-class.

Possessing substantial capital reserves, and high levels of professional and commercial skill, immigrants from Asia swiftly colonised large tracts of Pakeha suburbia and made significant inroads into the property and services sector of the economy. Thousands of young Asians purchased places in New Zealand’s secondary schools and universities. In Auckland particularly, Asian immigration has wrought an economic, demographic and electoral transformation.

While the New Zealand Labour Party had been highly successful in incorporating the rural Maori migrants of the 1950s and 60s and the Pasifika immigrants of the 1970s and 80s into its predominantly working-class base, it was the National Party which proved to be the more adept at drawing the economically self-reliant Asian immigrants – especially the ethnic Chinese – into its political orbit. With the latter’s numbers threatening to eclipse those of the indigenous Maori by 2025, a whole set of new racial, cultural and ideological calculations must now be made.

New Zealand’s equivalent of the BNP, NZ First, and our own Nick Griffin, Winston Peters, may be temporarily becalmed, electorally, but the chances of both reclaiming their roles as the prime oppositional voices against Asian immigration cannot be discounted. With the nation rapidly devolving into an economically-marginalised Maori/Pasifika underclass; an economically-compressed Pakeha middle class; and an economically-dominant Pakeha-Iwi-Asian upper class – who knows how much longer New Zealand’s multiculturalists will be able to hold the line?

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 29th of October 2009.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Power of Ignorance

Born of War: The Commonwealth's modern promoters date its birth to July 1949. In reality, of course, the institution is inextricably linked to the British Empire - and the devastating global wars waged in its defence.

In July 2009, the Royal Commonwealth Society launched "The Commonwealth Conversation". This was both a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the "New" Commonwealth in July 1949, and an attempt to "refresh the Commonwealth to keep it relevant and effective for the next 60 years and beyond". The New Zealand end of the "conversation" was officially launched last Wednesday evening (21 October) in the Beehive Theatrette. Alongside Professor David McIntyre and Professor James Belich, I was invited to be one of the event’s three "leading presenters". Afterwards, a number of those present asked me to post my address on Bowalley Road.

WHEN I TOLD my friends about this evening’s "conversation" most of them were rather non-plussed.

"Why bother?", one asked. "Who on earth is interested in the Commonwealth these days – apart from a dwindling band of sentimental royalists, academics specialising in international relations, and a handful of weary diplomats who don’t have any choice?"

"I hope you’re going to come out against it", said another. "It’s nothing but a historical relic from the days of empire. A fusty old heirloom that everyone’s too scared to throw out for fear of upsetting, well, who knows – Betty Windsor perhaps?"

I must confess, there was much in their objections to the Commonwealth that I agreed with.

As the generation who grew up in what their parents and the newspapers still called The British Empire dwindles and fades, and as the Baby Boom generation who thrilled to the emergence of the so-called "Third World" from colonial rule ruefully begins to contemplate the same fate, it is indeed difficult to locate any emotional anchors strong enough to keep their children and grandchildren loyal to – or even interested in – this curious institution.

In fact, the more I thought about the Commonwealth, the more it seemed to resemble bombus terrestris – the common bumble-bee – which, according to urban legend, was once pronounced by some pedantic old engineer to be so aerodynamically deficient that its sustained flight was a mathematical impossibility. Of course the bumble-bee, having no deep knowledge of aerodynamics, flies perfectly well – "under the power of its own ignorance".

Is that what keeps the Commonwealth airborne? The power of ignorance? If people truly understood what it was, and why it was – would the Commonwealth be able to keep on flying in the present tense?

How many people, I wonder, realise that, historically-speaking, there were (some say still are) two Commonwealths: the White, and the Non-white? Or that both were the unwanted offspring of the two great global conflicts of the twentieth century?

Great Britain entered the 20th Century as the world’s pre-eminent economic and military power, with a global reach only the Americans have, so far, been able to equal.

Central to the enabling and exculpatory mythologies of the British Empire was a profound and apparently ineradicable belief in the innate superiority of white men – and not just any sort of white men, either. The fate of the world – whether it realised it or not – had been reposed, by the Almighty (or the British navy) in the hands of Anglo-Saxon white men. Which meant that, as both the crucible of Anglo-Saxon civilisation, and the prime exemplar of its moral, cultural, economic and military pre-eminence, the world rightfully belonged to Great Britain.

Our own Prime Minister during that febrile period leading up to the outbreak of World War I, William Fergusson Massey, took this view of the world to its logical extreme by enlisting in the ranks of the British Israelites. These were the folk who genuinely believed that Britain’s King-Emperor was directly descended from the Lion of Judah, and that the Britons themselves were the direct descendants of a lost tribe of peripatetic Israelites who, for reasons best known to themselves, had abandoned the land of milk and honey for the land of cold and clammy – but I digress.

The First World War, as we all know, transformed Great Britain from the world’s pre-eminent creditor nation, into America’s poor (and deeply indebted) relation. Even worse, it created the conditions for the world’s first socialist republic – a republic implacably hostile to imperialism in all its forms.

So dangerous was the new Bolshevik state in the eyes of the capitalist world that its new leader, the United States, felt obliged to offer the world’s peoples at least the prospect of self-determination.

It wasn’t an idea that went down particularly well at the Foreign and Colonial Office in London, but, with an alarmingly large number of the British working-class cheerily whistling the Internationale on their way t’mill, it was one which the Powers-That-Be were, eventually, required to acknowledge.

Hence the famous Balfour declaration of 1926 (not to be confused with the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917). This made it clear to the Anglo-Saxon portions of the Empire that, henceforth:

"They are autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations."

Which only seems fair - given the hundreds of thousands of young Irishmen. Canadians, Newfoundlanders, Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders who’d died to make Great Britain master of the Persian Gulf – and its oil.

Thus were the "young lions" of the Dominions inducted into what amounted to a very exclusive and racially privileged, "club" within the greater British Empire. Never mind that their head of state remained a progeny of the House of Windsor (Saxe-Coburg sounded so horribly German don’t you know) or that most of their key industries were British-owned, or that virtually all of their capital hailed from the City of London. After the 1931 Statute of Westminster the Empire’s "young lions" could prowl wherever they pleased.

Few members of the new British Commonwealth of Nations appear to have given much thought to the fact that if they were free of Britain, then she, too, must be free of them. It was only when the imperial Japanese fleet was bearing down on Australia and New Zealand in the early months of 1942 that Britain’s former colonies grasped the full extent of their "autonomy".

But if Britain entered World War I in the spirit of "wider still and wider, shall thy bounds be set", she faced down Hitler’s Germany in the considerably less hubristic, but infinitely more likeable spirit of, "there’ll always be an England".

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties," intoned the British Empire’s last great statesman, "and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’"

"Finest hour" it certainly was, but the thousand-year-empire which Churchill, that arch-imperialist, was still brazen enough to invoke in his most famous speech, would be gone within quarter-of-a-century.

Maybe it was simply the curse of karma (a concept imported from that jewel in the imperial British crown, long-suffering India) that the price which Britain, along with all the other great imperial powers, would be required to pay for drowning the world in blood to expand their empires – would be to lose their empires altogether.

What made the loss so much easier to bear, of course, was the fact that if the British Empire was no longer a sustainable proposition, its successor, the Anglo-Saxon Empire, was approaching its zenith.

In 1945, Capitalism’s cornucopia, protected by its new atomic sword, was the United States of America. It bestrode the world like a gum-chewing colossus. And at its side, ready to help it challenge that other great winner of World War II, the Soviet Union, were its loyal (and very grateful) English-speaking allies – Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The five fingers of the Anglo-Saxon fist.

And in a world where it paid to keep your friends close and your enemy’s potential friends even closer, the US State Department could see that the rapidly disintegrating British Empire had a vital role to play in keeping its former colonies out of the clutches of the dreaded communists.
Enter the "New Commonwealth" – the British Foreign Offices’ highly successful mechanism for preventing its former subject peoples from turning red – by keeping them pink.

But, the new nations of what would become, simply, "The Commonwealth", remained bound to the old family firm by more than the ties of history, language and sentiment. Like the white dominions before them, their economies were built on a foundation of British capital, and their fledgling armies kitted out with the latest in British military hardware.

And as the playwright Anton Chekov so acutely observed: "If you hang a gun on the wall in the first act, you must use by the last."

The new phenomenon of "neo-colonialism" may have relieved Western Imperialism of the "white man’s burden" of permanent military garrisons and pukka-sahib District Officers, but through a judicious mix of foreign direct investment, loans and aid (often amounting to the same thing) not to mention an entertaining cast of military strongmen, the peoples of the vanished empire remained subjects still.

It has hardly been a glorious history. Whether it be the vast crime against humanity that was the partition of India; or the extra-judicial killings of 1950s Kenya; or the cynical Nelsonian eye turned to the anguish and suffering of Biafra; or the disgraceful and deeply racist machinations of British Intelligence in the extended tragedies of Southern Africa and Rhodesia – tragedies in which successive governments of this Commonwealth member played a not inconsiderable and entirely disreputable part – the history of the Commonwealth "family", like the history of most great families in decline, is not a happy one.

And yet, the old bumble-bee continues to fly.

Though history warns me against the testimony of human memory, when it comes to the Commonwealth one memory in particular endures.

It is of the closing ceremony of the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, when hundreds of athletes and spectators, unburdened by the fears of terrorism which, in today’s climate, would make such a spectacle quite impossible, crowded around the Queen’s and Prince Philip’s open land-rover, laughing and singing and dancing in a joyous celebration of human solidarity – and yes, even love.

It is this special talent of Britannia, and all her brood, to transcend the sins which made them, if not by the power of their own ignorance, then certainly by the power of the great historical romance in which each one of them has played their part, that makes the Commonwealth so curiously effective among all the dilapidated international contraptions of our battered age.

And it is why, for all its faults, I would not see it fall.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

With Us in Spirit

Quintessentially Kiwi: New Zealanders will only fall out of love with John Key when they cease to admire the image in the mirror he's become.

JOHN KEY must occasionally pinch himself – just to make sure he’s not dreaming.

To be told, after a week of quite spectacular political mismanagement, that your party has risen to nearly 60 percent in the polls is certainly the belief-defying stuff that dreams are made of.

But where did the Prime Minister learn this knack for defying political gravity? What is the secret of his success?

"It’s almost as if he’s a sort of political idiot savant", a friend of mine testily exclaimed a few days ago. "He doesn’t know how he knows exactly the right political move to make at any given moment – any more than Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man knows how he knows exactly the number of match-sticks his brother’s dropped on the floor – he just does."

This sounded much too close to Bill English’s description of John Key "hopping from cloud to cloud" to be entirely comfortable. I mean, outwitting an accomplished conservative politician might be difficult – but it’s doable. Being constantly bested by a Prime Minister whose abilities veer-off into the supernatural – well, that’s just not fair.

These dark musings were not helped by David Farrar’s "Kiwiblog" posting an item purporting to prove that John Key is the antichrist. (Did you realise that he joined the National Party in 1998, which, as everybody knows – cue spooky music – is three times six-hundred, three-score and six – the Number of the Beast!)

As Mr Farrar wickedly noted: "This would also explain why he is beating Goff so badly in the polls."

Indeed it would! And it might also explain another of Mr Farrar’s intriguing tit-bits of information – the fact that the National Government’s share of public support, as measured by the polls, is fully a third higher one year on from the 2008 General Election than it was on the night.

Not even if you go back (as Mr Farrar very helpfully has) to David Lange’s first year (Mr Lange being the last prime minister elected to replace a leader who’d ruled NZ more-or-less single-handed for nine years) will you find numbers like Mr Key’s. In June of 1985, Labour was 2 points behind its National opponents. (Thanks Roger!) In September 1991, Jim Bolger’s National Government was a whopping 20 points behind the Opposition parties. (Thanks Ruth!) And even Helen Clark’s Labour-led government, thanks to the employers’ stage-managed "Winter of Discontent", found itself 4 percentage points behind its rivals.

Obviously (if you’ll permit me to paraphrase Bob Dylan’s enigmatic Ballad of a Thin Man) "something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is – do you, Mr Goff?"

We might, however, hazard a few guesses and/or observations.

The first is that Helen Clark’s government – especially in its third term – wildly overshot the New Zealand political runway.

Kiwi voters were in the market for someone willing to haul the country back on to the "mainstream" tarmac. Someone who could return their lives to "normal" and release them from the uncomfortably negative emotions "Aunty Helen’s" behaviour had aroused.

Mr Key was that "someone". Not as bossy or "politically-correct" as Ms Clark; nor as divisively right-wing as Don Brash. A successful bloke they could admire – but who never made them feel inadequate. A guy they could chat with over a summer barbecue without the slightest embarrassment. Someone whose kids looked remarkably like their kids. Someone, in short, remarkably like themselves.

I think it was North & South magazine’s Virginia Larson who dubbed Mr Key "the candidate from central casting" – and, as events have proved, it was a particularly apt description.

My own metaphor is slightly different. To me, the Prime Minister embodies what the Germans would call the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times.

What America had in President Ronald Reagan, New Zealand has in Prime-Minister Key: a leader uniquely capable of reflecting itself – to itself.

It’s not something Labour can do anything about. To attack John Key is to attack up to three-fifths of the voting public. Like a figure from ancient mythology, every blow you strike against him leaves a gaping wound not on his body – but your own.

His fall can only be tragic – and Labour will have nothing to do with it.

Because New Zealanders will only fall out of love with John Key when they cease to love the image in the mirror he’s become.

This essay was originally published in the Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 23 October 2009. 

Without Prejudice

Staunch: What the players who high-tackled Maori Television’s bid for Rugby World Cup broadcasting rights failed to factor-in, was John Key’s determination to keep his promises to Pita Sharples.

"WHAT’S LEFT?" Having dismissed every one of the Government’s excuses for stymieing the Maori Television Service’s (MTS) bid to broadcast the Rugby World Cup, that was the question Derek Fox threw back at Nine-to-Noon host, Kathryn Ryan, on the morning of Wednesday, 14 October.

"What are we left with?"

It was the very best kind of public broadcasting: immediate, critical and crackling with powerful emotion.

As a veteran broadcaster, Fox must have known – even as he put the question – that Ryan couldn’t answer. That she could not speak the word that hung in the air between them. The only word equal to the extraordinary spectacle of two state-owned broadcasters frantically out-bidding one another with the taxpayers’ money.


Finally, the godfather of Maori broadcasting ended the silence by answering his own question. "What are we left with?" he repeated softly. "We’re left with prejudice."

A FEW HOURS BEFORE he spoke to Ryan, Fox was the Maori Party’s chief media spokesman.
Not any more.

It’s easy to join the dots. A man of passionate conviction, Fox wasn’t the sort to take what was happening to the Maori Party and the MTS lying down. Every instinct would have told him to take the offensive. But to do that he had to resign.

Fox’s departure, and Pita Sharples’ tight-lipped assurances that he and his colleagues were not about to "throw the toys out of the cot" told a grim story. It revealed just how strained the relationship between National and the Maori Party had become.

After all, if the Maori party co-leaders, Tariana Turia and Sharples, were willing to put up with racism on this scale, it’s difficult to conceive of the insult they couldn’t put up with.

And the insults which the Minister for the Rugby World Cup, Murray McCully, and the Broadcasting Minister, Jonathan Coleman (in collusion with TVNZ and TV3) were already delivering to the Maori Party – and Maoridom – went way beyond a simple breach of "etiquette".

On full display in the ministers’ attempts to sabotage the MTS bid for the World Cup free-to-air broadcasting rights was National’s ugly underbelly: social attitudes more usually associated with McCully’s and Coleman’s ex-pat South African constituents.

The words "patronising" and "condescending" don’t do justice to such attitudes. A better description might be "sly".

Think of the expression people wear when they’re participating in a practical joke. When everyone else in the room, except the victim, knows what’s afoot. It’s never pleasant.

In this case "the joke" was that dear, silly old Pita really did believe that the National Party had abandoned the ruthless racial stereotyping that fueled Orewa I, and that Key would keep his promises.

How had National’s right wing been able to conceal their bad faith from the Maori Party? The answer lies in the strong affinities between Maori political culture and the noblesse oblige traditions of Western conservatism.

Both are founded on a careful recognition of hierarchy and prestige. Both are governed by an elaborate and highly nuanced code of etiquette. And both rely upon the other side’s ability to read between the lines of the obligatory courtesies.

Essentially, it’s an aristocratic style. When John Key, as Leader of the Opposition, ran into Maori Party MPs in the Koru Club, he always greeted them warmly, sat down, and had a friendly chat.

Labour’s style, reflecting its trade union origins, is very different. Relationships are based squarely on what the parties bring to the table. If Labour doesn’t like, or can’t use, what’s on offer, then the deficient party is automatically relegated to "last cab off the rank" – and its members will seldom merit a friendly nod in the Koru Club.

WHEN NATIONAL negotiated its agreement with the Maori Party following the 2008 election, it is clear that a number of its senior figures fully expected Turia and Sharples to "read between the lines" that Key’s promises ought to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

In return for the lustre of political preferment, and a handful of largely symbolic policy concessions (a mea culpa from the Crown over the foreshore and seabed, recognition of the tino rangatiratanga flag) National’s new-found friends were supposed to keep their mouths shut and stay out of the Government’s way.

Sharples refused. Though the number of obfuscations, deferrals and outright rejections of Maori party initiatives steadily mounted, Sharples’ faith National’s leader never faltered. Hadn’t Key acknowledged the mana of the Maori people? And hadn’t he given the Maori Affairs Minister the power and resources to act independently on their behalf?

Yes, he had. So, when Sharples saw an opportunity to introduce Maori culture to the Rugby World Cup’s vast international audience he acted - independently.

INSTANTLY, the genial masks of the National Party’s conservative political grandees were cast aside, and their true faces revealed. Harmless ethnic tokenism was one thing, assertive ethnic commerce was something else altogether.

Not only was the Minister of Maori Affairs threatening to put a Maori face to the Pakeha nation’s pre-eminent cultural icon – Rugby – but the MTS bid was turning an unwelcome spotlight on the full extent of TVNZ’s political sycophancy and cultural bankruptcy.

Twenty years of relentless commercialisation have produced a public broadcaster perfectly adapted to National’s needs; an institution uniquely positioned to transform the Rugby World Cup into a cultural support-vehicle for the Governments in an election year. Rather than see TVNZ’s "national town hall" functions usurped by the MTS, McCully and Coleman were willing to let National’s new relationship with Maori fall apart.

As documentary film-maker, and Chair of the Screen Directors Guild, George Andrews, archly observed to Kathryn Ryan a few minutes after her interview with Fox: "When the chips are down the rules [forbidding political interference] go out the window."

BUT, BY TWO O’CLOCK on 14 October, Key had shut McCully and Coleman down. In a remarkable display of moral leadership, the Prime Minister over-ruled his over-mighty colleagues and restored the initiative to the MTS. In negotiations with the IRB, TVNZ and TV3 would work with Maori Television – and follow their lead.

Just as he had over the anti-smacking legislation, Key refused to shift his party to the Right. National’s outreach to Maoridom will continue.

Fox had correctly diagnosed the nature of National’s disease – racial prejudice. What he’d failed to identify was the cure – Key’s decency.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 22 October 2009. 

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Impudence To Distort

And you thought he was dead: The corosive cynicism and ruthless amorality of modern propaganda techniques (a.k.a public relations) is Adolf Hitler's most enduring legacy.

ADOLF HITLER may have been the most evil man that ever lived – but he wasn’t stupid. In the years immediately following the First World War he devoted a great deal of time to fathoming the reasons for Germany’s defeat. Among the most important contributing factors, he quite rightly identified the clear superiority of Allied (especially British) propaganda.

We still have difficulty, even now, 95 years after the outbreak of the Great War, in separating the historical reality of the Anglo-German conflict, from the almost entirely contrived version of events handed down to us by the propagandists of our own side.

According to Hitler’s stern critique, Germany’s propagandists were far too cerebral, and far too enamoured with the truth. The British propagandists were better, he said, because they directed their messages at the stupidest – not the smartest – of their people, and because they were willing to tell such shocking lies about their enemies.

While serving a five year prison sentence for insurrection, Hitler reflected on the essentials of effective propaganda:

"The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan. As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain the material offered. In this way the result is weakened and in the end entirely cancelled out."

Of course Adolf Hitler wasn’t the only person ruminating on how to produce effective propaganda in the 1920s. Across the Atlantic, in New York City, the founder of the modern "science" of public relations, Edward Bernays, had arrived at very similar conclusions to those of the banged-up leader of the Nazi Party.

But, Bernays had two very big advantages over Hitler. First, he had actually been one of the Allies’ leading propagandists during the war; and second, he was the nephew of the founder of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud. It was Uncle Ziggy’s professional lock on Western Society’s subconscious motivations that gave his nephew’s propaganda campaigns their special edge. By contrast, Hitler’s understanding of what made good propaganda was wholly intuitive. In the final analysis, however, it made little difference. Be it the work of Aryan superman, or Jewish huckster, the end product looked very much the same.

Why do we need to know all this? Because the techniques pioneered by Britain’s war propagandists, Hitler’s Nazis, and Bernays’ "science" of public relations haven’t really changed all that much in 80 years.

Politicians and big corporations still disseminate the most shocking falsehoods to capture the attention of their audience/market. And the endless reiteration of simplistic slogans, directed at the stupidest – not the smartest – citizens/consumers, remains the surest way to imprint their thoughts upon our brains.

On this, Hitler’s intuitions were spot-on.

"Only constant repetition will finally succeed in imprinting an idea on the memory of a crowd."

And, when you lie, tell big lies. Because it would never enter the heads of the "broad masses" to "fabricate colossal untruths and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously."

And, above all, never equivocate.

Absolute certainty, says Hitler, is the "very first condition which has to be fulfilled in every kind of propaganda: a systematically one-sided attitude towards every problem that has to be dealt with … When they see an uncompromising onslaught against an adversary, the people have at all times taken this as proof that right is on the side of the active aggressor; but if the aggressor should go only halfway and fail to push home his success … the people will look upon this as a sign that he is uncertain of the justice of his own cause."

The legacy of this master propagandist is everywhere around us.

The Big Lie: "Climate Change is a Hoax"; "Globalisation has lifted millions out of poverty".

Constant Repetition: "John Key has a secret agenda."

The Systematically One-Sided Attitude: "ACC is bankrupt. It’s all Labour’s fault. Only massive levy increases and a reduction in entitlements can fix it."

And you thought Hitler was dead.

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, 16 October 2009.

Enemy At The Gates

Lockout! Watch out! They'll call the cops out: Economic recession creates the ideal conditions for employers to deploy their most devastating bargaining weapon: the lockout.

IT’S NOT OFTEN you encounter Classical Greek history in a trade union campaign.

World War I is about as far back as most unionists are willing to go. "Rallying the troops." "Pulling the pin." "Going over the top." They’re all expressions which entered the vocabulary of militant trade unionism in the 1920s and 30s – and can still be heard today.

But Unite, the union for young, low-paid and casualised workers led by Matt McCarten, is going back much further than the killing fields of Flanders for inspiration. All the way back, in fact, to the Battle of Thermopylae.

It’s a stirring story.

When the Persian King, Xerxes I, invaded Greece in 480BC, the Spartan King, Leonidas, undertook to buy his allies the time they needed to re-establish their defences by denying the invaders Thermopylae – "The Hot Gates". According to legend, just 300 Spartans held this strategic pass for two, crucial, days and nights – until, undone by treachery, they were over-run and slaughtered.

With economic recession and a National Government bearing down on low-paid workers, McCarten’s union hopes to defend their living standards by means of a Citizens Initiated Referendum seeking a $15 minimum wage.

In the words of the union’s publicity material:

"A small number of committed people can make a huge difference. The movie "300" immortalised 300 Spartan heroes who defied 200,000 Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. The $15 an hour campaign needs 300 modern heroes who will commit to getting 1,000 signatures each by May 2010. We'll send you forms, badges, stickers and pamphlets. Once you send us 300 signatures we will send you the official $15 working class hero badge, T shirt and cap."

It’s yet another example of McCarten’s talent for lateral thinking. Unite’s campaign not only declines to engage an increasingly hostile and aggressive employing class, but it also seeks to mobilise an increasingly fractured and demoralised working class. McCarten is building an army. Those 300 "working class heroes" will be the nucleus of its officer corps.

Were such a "working-class army" already in existence, the scene outside Open Country Cheese’s sprawling Waharoa dairy factory would look very different. Instead of thirty to forty locked-out employees maintaining a desultory picket in the October rain, there would be thousands of baying trade unionists.

Unionism is all about mobilising workers in sufficient numbers to overcome employer resistance. If McCarten’s successful, the headlines won’t be about lockouts – they’ll be about strikes.

BUT, FOR THE MOMENT, the Unions simply don’t have the numbers. Eighteen years after the passage of the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) in 1991, barely ten percent of the private sector workforce remains unionised. Even when the comparatively well-organised workers in the public sector are included, union density in New Zealand stubbornly refuses to rise above 25 percent of the total workforce.

The sharpest edges of the ECA may have been blunted by Labour’s Employment Relations Act (ERA) of 2000, but the political economy of trade unionism makes it exceedingly difficult to increase the percentage of unionised workers.

To remain economically viable, trade union organisers must devote themselves full-time to servicing the needs of their existing members. This makes the task of recruiting new members – on new sites – extremely difficult. Few unions possess the financial resources to hire "green-fields" staff – especially in a recession.

Economic recession and rising levels of unemployment have always made the unions’ job harder, but the severity of this latest down-turn could prove disastrous. Thousands of workers have been laid-off, and the unions’ membership base is shrinking. With the same number of sites to look after, but fewer workers contributing dues, more and more unions are struggling to maintain an adequate level of service to their members. Since the onset of the recession eighteen months ago, the membership base of the largest private-sector union, the EPMU, is reputed to have shrunk by three thousand – roughly six percent.

The most ruthless (or perhaps just the most desperate) of New Zealand’s employers are taking full advantage of this situation. They’re confident that, with a National Government in power, there’s zero chance of New Zealand’s industrial relations regime being changed in their employees’ favour. They also know that, for unions, weathering strikes and lockouts is an expensive business – especially if they’re prolonged.

While the boss at least saves on his wages bill, the union is obliged to dig deep into its dwindling reserves to prevent its members being starved back to work. Solidarity from other unions is there in spirit, but translating expressions of support into cold hard cash, in the midst of a recession, is hard work.

In short, it’s an ideal time for employers to wield the lockout weapon against both their staff and the unions which represent them – and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

At the time of writing, New Zealand Bus (owned by Infratil) has boldly locked-out 1,000 of its drivers; apparently relying on the pressure of 80,000 daily commuters, and their employees’ sub-$15 per hour wages, to drive them back to work on the company’s terms. Telecom has already manoeuvred some 900 telecommunications engineers into either becoming independent contractors or joining the ranks of the unemployed.

There are other, smaller, examples of the tactic at work, but the salutary effect of big operators like Telecom and Infratil – not to mention the sheer ruthlessness of Open Country Cheese’s principal shareholders, Nelson’s hard-nosed Talley brothers – is enough to make the rest of unionised labour think twice before asking for more.

IN McCARTEN’S brave new future, locked-out Dairy Workers would be able to call upon a much larger labour movement to bulk-up their modest picket-line. Reversing the path of Massey’s Cossack’s, thousands of Auckland workers might even decide to invade the Waikato. Enough to bring Open Country Cheese’s CEO, Mark Fankhauser, back to the negotiating table - pronto.

In the here and now, however, it’s a different story. Last week, when the call went out for a mass picket of Open Country Cheese, only a few dozen unionists and their officials turned up. With Waharoa’s gates assailed by such a rag-tag-and-bobtail crew, the company had scant incentive to negotiate. The financial reserves of the Dairy Workers Union might be substantial – but they’re not infinite. Subsidising locked-out workers’ week-in, week-out, isn’t cheap.

Unlike Xerxes at the "Hot Gates", Frankhauser and Open Country Cheese can afford to wait.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 15 October 2009. 

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Ten Years Ago This Week: The Battle of Wounded Tree

Ironic Victory: The destruction of the iconic tree at the top of Auckland's One Tree Hill was celebrated by Maori nationalists as a victory for tino rangatiratanga. Curiously, the presumably more offensive obelisk - erected in 1940 to celebrate 100 years of European colonisation - was left untouched.

THE SYMBOLISM was perfect. Standing in front of the repeatedly savaged pine tree at the summit of Auckland’s One Tree Hill, the ACT Leader, Richard Prebble, announced his party’s determination to wind up the Treaty Settlement process, abolish the Waitangi Tribunal and do away with the Maori Seats.

That lonely pine tree symbolises something more than the historical contradictions which lie at the heart of New Zealand’s race relations; it is also a powerful metaphor for the vulnerability of the existing bi-partisan consensus on Treaty settlements. Like the damaged pine, the settlement process is currently protected by a complex arrangement of barriers, supports, and surveillance equipment; the priority for National and Labour being to keep it alive for as long as possible. The big – and so far unanswered – question confronting the two major parties is the same question confronting the Auckland City Council vis-à-vis its doomed pine tree: "What do we replace it with?"

ACT’s bold answer to that question is "nothing". And there can be no doubt that their Gordian Knot solution to New Zealand race relations will be welcomed by the very large number of Pakeha New Zealanders, whose patience with the Treaty Settlement process ran out a long time ago.

Richard Prebble’s decision to locate ACT beyond the Pale of elite opinion on the Treaty reflects not only the growing strength of the right-wing populist faction inside his party, but a broader intuition that the "Cultural Revolution" which swept New Zealand during the 1970s and the early 1980s is on the wane. Race and Gender lay at the heart of the "new social movements" which emerged from the tumult of the late 1960s. In the course of their "long march through the institutions" young radical lawyers like Margaret Wilson and Jane Kelsey became highly skilled at using the legal system to further their anti-racist and anti-sexist agendas. The crowning moment of the anti-racist cause came in 1987 when Lord Cooke of Thorndon and his judicially active Court of Appeal used the New Zealand Maori Council v Attorney General case to confer a quasi-constitutional status upon the Waitangi treaty.

The use of the legal system to further the liberal/radical agenda proved to be a highly effective method of achieving social change. Measures which would never have seen the light of day had they been dependent upon the will of popularly elected parliamentarians, acquired legal force through the decisions of an unelected judiciary. In this respect New Zealand was merely following the precedent established by the United States Supreme Court, which, under its activist Chief Justice, Warren Burger, had become the "Liberal East Coast Establishment’s" secret weapon. Whether the issue was the "bussing" of black children into "white" school districts, or the right of a woman to seek an abortion, the Supreme Court was able to over-ride the wishes of often-hostile legislators and impose social change from above.

The problem with this method of achieving social change is that it quite consciously bypasses the grimy business of winning over ordinary voters, in favour of a strategy designed to influence elites. The Ngai Tahu leader, Sir Tipene O’Reagan, has made no secret of his preference for dealing with "The Crown" - the populist instincts of the democratically elected Parliament being much less to his taste.

Many Treaty activists profited by this approach. Throughout the late 1980s and on through the 1990s, numerous small companies composed of dedicated anti-racists won lucrative contracts from both the public and private sectors to explain the significance of The Treaty to high level bureaucrats and managers. Offering a volatile mixture of revisionist history, romanticised anthropology, and coercive group psychology, these slick commercial units became expert at inducing "white guilt" in their clients. Dissenting opinions were shamed into silence, and the Treaty elevated to a level approximating holy writ.

The irony of this approach is that it matches in almost every respect the strategic political template of the New Right. Like the social liberals on the Left, the neo-liberals on the Right made little attempt to win over the "masses", concentrating instead on the commanding heights of the business community, the news media, and the state bureaucracy. In New Zealand, the New Right also zeroed in on the political party of the working class, transforming Labour into the unlikely vehicle of a top-down "revolution".

In some cases – Fran Wilde’s, for example – the Social Liberal and New Right agendas came together in the same politician. Wilde - the champion of that other great liberal cause – gay liberation – is now a powerful advocate of the National Government’s free-trade agenda. Even the Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, a woman of impeccable New Right credentials, does not feel out of place at the Hero Parade, or walking hand-in-hand with the Maori nationalist leader, Titewhai Harawira.

For those at the bottom of the social heap – including many Maori - all this judicial activism and political correctness has been particularly confusing. For generations inculcated with the social democratic values of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, expectations of the state have predominantly centred on the quest for social and economic "justice". Fundamental to that quest was the principle of equality – that regardless of race, colour or creed, all New Zealanders possessed the same rights. This was the principle which kept hundreds of New Zealand soldiers on their troopships in Capetown harbour during the Second World War. When the South African authorities denied Maori soldiers leave to disembark, their Pakeha comrades declared that if all of them could not go ashore, then none of them would go ashore. Back then the differences between the races were held to be far less significant than the similarities. Today it’s the other way ‘round.

Working class New Zealanders also resent the moral condescension of Social Liberalism; its confident assumption of intellectual, cultural and ethical superiority over "rednecks", "boguns", "Westies", and other troglodyte entities. Separated by geography, education, and social status from the often brutal realities of multi-racial New Zealand, the Treaty’s advocates are unwilling to concede any validity to the arguments of their opponents. At street level, however, the accentuation of difference – especially on racial lines – frequently leads to the formation of gangs and other mutual defence organisations. Between the theory and the practice of racial autonomy there is room for an alarming amount of social pathology. Working class New Zealand clings to Governor Hobson’s "one people" ideal for some very practical reasons.

Which is not to say that the righting of past wrongs is not a worthy and necessary objective of public policy, merely that legal triumphs in the courtroom, the Select Committee, and the Waitangi Tribunal may not cut much ice in Otara or West Auckland. To the Maori worker on the dole, possessing only a rudimentary grasp of his genealogy, and lacking any facility for the Maori language, the multi-million dollar Treaty settlements have so far brought little in the way of tangible benefits. They may yet come, but while we wait for the Tainui and Ngai Tahu Corporations to "deliver", the statistics on Maori health, education, incarceration, and employment get worse – not better.

It is to be hoped that Richard Prebble’s speech from One Tree Hill will engender some much needed debate on the future of Maori/Pakeha relations, and that the ensuing discussion ranges well beyond the narrow parameters set by National and Labour. If that occurs, then ACT’s policy release from beneath Auckland’s wounded tree may end up having an even greater impact than Mike Smith’s all-too-eloquent chainsaw.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of 13 October 1999.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Losing Something Precious

The Rights and Liberties of Freeborn Men: New Zealanders are on the verge of surrendering legal rights that date all the way back to King John's issuing of the Magna Carta Libertatum (The Great Charter of Freedoms) in 1215.

AMIDST THE CACOPHONY of angry voices calling for tougher penalties and diminished rights for criminals, something very precious is being lost. Like most precious things, it took many years to create, and the price was very high. Losing this precious thing is likely to prove a mighty tragedy – the full dimensions of which will only become apparent when it’s gone.

This precious thing is, of course, the protective shield of legal rights and privileges which safeguard the citizen against the massive, potentially obliterating, power of the State. It is a shield which took many centuries to fashion, and was purchased at the cost of countless lives.

Of what is this shield composed? Nothing less than the ancient rights and privileges of the subject/citizen – stretching back to Magna Carta and beyond.

The right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The right of habeas corpus (no detention without trial). The right to swift, open and dispassionate justice. The right to face one’s accusers. The right to know the nature and full-extent of the charges brought against one. The right to prepare and present an adequate defence. The right to silence. The right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers. The right to have the State’s case proved beyond reasonable doubt. The right to a unanimous verdict. The right to protection against "double jeopardy" (being tried repeatedly for the same offence).

The State hates this shield: as it hates everything which limits and constrains its power; and will seize upon the slightest opportunity to abridge, weaken, or eliminate entirely the rights wrenched from its grasp by the people.

For example, there’s the consistent failure of successive governments to adequately fund the courts. This has required those accused of wrongdoing, and its victims, to wait longer and longer for their cases to be heard. As the old saying goes: Justice delayed is justice denied.

And only last year, Parliament overturned the long-standing legal prohibition against double jeopardy. The right to a unanimous verdict, an ancient and extraordinarily important safeguard against prejudice and pressure, disappeared at the same time.

And just this week, the Minister of Justice, Simon Power, announced plans for a further round of legal "reforms" – changes which could strip away even more of our rights.

At risk is the presumption of innocence (through tougher bail laws) the right to silence (by re-writing the rules of evidence) the right to a full and adequate defence (by cutting back on legal aid) the right to face one’s accusers (through the introduction of courtroom "teleconferencing") and the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers (by introducing the European system of "inquisitorial" justice for rape cases).

It is ironic that these "reforms" are being contemplated by a National Party cabinet minister. As New Zealand’s leading conservative party, founded in 1936 to restrain state power and protect the rights of the individual citizen, National should be the most avid defender of the ancient rights and privileges of the people. Sadly, on matters of law and order, National long ago surrendered to the irrational populism of the Mob.

There is irony, too, in the Mob’s determination to throw away the legal rights their ancestors fought so hard to secure. After all, those who subscribe to the "eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth" philosophy of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, are the very same people who loudly condemned the depredations of the "Nanny State", and voted overwhelmingly for the right to raise their children as they saw fit – free from government interference.

So thoroughly have criminals been demonised by the Right that a huge number of otherwise sensible and compassionate people are no longer able to see that, for all but a few moments of life-transformingly bad decision-making, most lawbreakers are indistinguishable from themselves. They also seem to have forgotten that policemen, prosecutors – even judges – frequently get things wrong.

With a citizen’s liberty at stake, isn't it entirely reasonable to require the State to establish its right to lock him up "beyond reasonable doubt"?

Those who talk glibly about the pendulum having swung too far in favour of the rights of the accused, would sing a very different tune were they to find themselves suddenly – and unjustly – handcuffed in the dock.

Better to let ten guilty men walk free than imprison an innocent man.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 9 October 2009.

New Zealand's Crooked Backbone

Eliminating the Competition: Special Constables on horseback - "Massey's Cossacks" - deny striking watersiders access to the wharves during the Great Strike of 1913. It took the farmers' political representatives another 78 years to finally subdue their only serious rivals in the business of "holding the country to ransom" - the trade unions.

THE BACKBONE of the country. It’s the way New Zealand’s farmers have always seen themselves, and the way the rest of New Zealand still sees its farmers.

Certainly, with most of the nation’s export receipts still generated in the countryside, the pivotal economic role of its primary producers is difficult to dispute. If New Zealand’s worst nightmare, an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease, ever prevented her farmers from sending their dairy products, meat and wool overseas, the economic consequences would be nothing short of catastrophic.

It’s an enviable position for any social group to occupy. Were farmers of a mind, there is really nothing to stop them from holding the rest of New Zealand to ransom.

Indeed, New Zealand’s history suggests they’ve already done it. And a swift glance at recent newspaper headlines raises the worrying possibility they might be doing it again.

UP UNTIL the Liberal "revolution" of 1891, the government of New Zealand was run by an oligarchy of the country’s most substantial landowners and their city-based factotums. The Reform Party, which, in one guise or another governed New Zealand from 1912 until 1935, was almost entirely the creature of the New Zealand Farmers Union. Its two greatest leaders, Bill Massey and Gordon Coates, were both cockies. Reform’s successor, the National Party, while making room for other major players in the New Zealand economy – importers, retailers, construction firms, property developers, the odd industrialist – has always sunk its deepest roots into rural soil.

So powerful was the rural faction of the National Party that its first prime minister, Sid Holland, rather than be considered insufficiently committed to the cockies’ cause (he was a manufacturer) prudently purchased a farm of his own. National’s greatest leader, Sir Keith Holyoake, made his return to Parliament contingent upon the party purchasing him a handsome rural property in Pahiatua.

And what sort of things did these farmers’ parties do when they finally got their hands on political power? In classic gangster fashion, they set about eliminating their most irksome competitors in the ransom game – the trade unions.

Within 12 months of toppling the Liberal Government in 1912, Bill Massey’s "Cossacks" were laying into the watersiders and their militant allies. It took Sid Holland 15 months to organise the infamous 1951 Waterfront Lockout. His Emergency Regulations, which wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Mussolini’s Italy, held New Zealand in their grip for a shameful 151 days. Jim Bolger, another National Party cockie, smashed the unions for the third, and final, time in 1991. After his Employment Contracts Act, organised labour would never again be strong enough to hold the country to ransom.

But smashing-up the unions was by no means the first (or the only) notch on the cockies’ political gun. As early as 1881 the Oligarchy had introduced the "Country Quota" – an electoral device which, by making New Zealand’s urban electorates considerably larger than those in the countryside, artificially boosted the influence of farmers’ parties. This extraordinary rorting of the electoral system – by which rural votes ended up being 28 percent more valuable than those cast in the cities – endured until 1945.

The almost off-hand abolition of the Legislative Council (New Zealand’s upper house since 1853) was also the work of a farmers’ party. In 1951, Sid Holland wanted nothing standing between National’s majority in the House of Representatives and complete freedom of action.

National’s Rob Muldoon was an Auckland accountant, but it’s hard to think of any other New Zealand prime minister (with the possible exception of Labour’s Mickey Savage) who lavished more of the taxpayers’ money on keeping farmers in the lifestyle to which they’d become accustomed. Lavish agricultural subsidies masked the decline of their farms’ profitability. Indeed, without them, and the heroic efforts of the New Zealand State in prising open new markets for their production, thousands of farming families would have gone to wall.

The 1981 Springbok Tour, which Muldoon made possible, threw into stark relief just how deeply the values of rural and provincial New Zealand had permeated the nation’s establishment. The tumult in the streets was as much an angry assertion of the urban Kiwi’s humanitarian convictions as it was a protest against Apartheid. Young metropolitan New Zealanders was heartily sick of pretending they lived in Tapanui.

The long-deferred restructuring of New Zealand’s agricultural sector under the fourth Labour Government (ruthlessly enforced by Federated Farmers, whose leaders had been won over to the new neoliberal orthodoxy) left the New Zealand cocky feeling violated, victimised and vulnerable. The anti-urban fires that were forever smouldering away in the countryside flared into new life. More than ever, "townies" had become the cockies’ enemy.

Under Bolger, and even more so under his successor, Jenny Shipley, National reverted to the party of rural conservatism. It took the newly formed Act Party to inject a little free-market rigor to the farmers’ home-grown agenda. Meanwhile, Act’s urban ideologues were being encouraged to take onboard the angry cockies’ cultural conservatism.

THE NINE YEAR REIGN of Helen Clark only intensified rural New Zealand’s resistance to urban-based politics. With the covert assistance of its powerful fifth column – the Ministry of Agriculture & Forestry – an unholy alliance of Federated Farmers, National and Act successfully resisted every one of Labour’s attempts to make the country’s backbone more flexible.

From genetic engineering and climate change policy, to the "Fart Tax, high-country leases and the Queen’s Chain, New Zealand’s farmers demonstrated again and again just how skilled they’d become at holding the country to ransom.

Even under the cosmopolitan, and all-too-urban, John Key, the cockies’ hold over New Zealand’s future grows tighter. Tourism New Zealand’s "100% Pure" brand – a crucial contributor to the country’s economy – is under intense pressure from dairy farmers who seem to be driven as much by their quest for capital gain as their concern for unpolluted waterways. Federated Farmers’ influence over the Government’s climate change policies risks transforming "Clean, Green, New Zealand" into an environmentally unsustainable hawker of tainted goods.

As the descendants of "Massey’s Cossacks" lock out the workers at Open Country Cheese, and the Crafers reveal the true cost of dairying’s "white gold-rush", isn’t it time urban New Zealanders asked themselves whether, in order to "learn the trick of standing upright here", it might not be necessary, finally, to break our country’s crooked backbone – and set it straight?

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 8 October 2009.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Ten Years Ago This Week: Punishment No Cure For Violence Bred In The Home

As the sapling is bent, so groweth the tree: It is in our homes that violence is bred, and that is where it must be cured.

I HAVE NEVER MET Norm Withers, the man behind the Citizens Initiated Referendum on violent crime, but if his interviews on radio and television are any guide, he is a very open and honest person. I can scarcely imagine the horror he felt when confronted with the bloody wreck of his elderly mother’s face – nor his rage at the senseless brutality of the thief who very nearly beat her to death for a handful of dollars – but I can, and do, admire the way he has transmuted his experience into practical civic action. By gathering the 200,000-plus signatures required to set the referendum process in motion, Mr Withers has provided New Zealanders with a means of registering their concern at violent crime. But is Mr Withers’ solution – longer sentences with hard labour – the most helpful response to the problem of violent offending?

Now before anyone trots out that facile quip about a liberal being a conservative who hasn’t been mugged, let me state for the record that I know what it is to be beaten up on the street, and to lose irreplaceable possessions to burglars. The feelings of vulnerability and violation took many months to subside, and there were times when I was seized with a murderous rage. "Just five minutes alone with those bastards," I would tell my friends, "five minutes with a baseball bat!" But then my rage would subside and reason would take over. "Violence breeds violence", I would tell myself, "how can the infliction of even more pain and suffering be the answer to the pain and suffering already experienced by the victim of a crime?

Let’s examine that phrase "violence breeds violence" a little more closely, for it is in the intimate setting of the family that violence is learned – and taught. This is dangerous ground: - the family remains the fundamental building block of our society and we hold it up as a bulwark against what songwriter, Leonard Cohen, calls "the blizzard of the world". It is our first, our final, refuge; but it is also the source of terrible social pathologies – behavioural and ethical diseases that are passed down through the generations like an obscene family heirloom.

Family violence can take many forms: from the casual beating of terrified children, to the brooding menace of incestuous desire, to the refined torments of relentless emotional abuse; the family environment can be a waking nightmare not only for children, but also for adults – as any Women’s Refuge will attest.

But we do not like to think of these abuses – let alone act on them. The Family Court shrouds the deeds of dysfunctional families in secrecy, not only to protect the children, but also to shield the public from the awful facts that emerge when activities formerly hidden behind locked doors and drawn curtains are hauled kicking and spitting into the light of day.

The very fact that we live in society – that we are social animals – requires us to accept the products of these appalling childhood experiences as a fact of our daily lives. The bullying superior at work, the vindictive public official, that idiot in front of you on the motorway this morning; we accept their behaviour – up to a certain point – simply because we have to. And that requirement, that need to accept the unacceptable, breeds within us its own special rage – a rage that finds an outlet in political crusades like Mr Withers’.

The awful deeds of violent offenders are the intolerable proof of a pestilence we would rather punish than cure. But how can we lock away what we cannot even acknowledge?

This essay was originally published in The Dominion of Friday, 15 October 1999.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Taking the Red out of the Green

Sue Bradford: She spoke for those conspicuously absent from most Green gatherings: the poor, the brown and the white working-class.

NO WONDER Sue Bradford quit. If a big chunk of your party declared themselves so allergic to your political beliefs that they’d walk away in protest, or form a new one, if you were elected its co-leader, then Hell - you’d quit too.

The Greens have such a cuddly image, it’s hard to believe things could get so nasty. But, pay a visit to the Green Party’s blogsite, "Frogblog", follow the long thread of commentary attached to the posting on Sue’s resignation, and you’ll see just how un-cuddly some Greens can be.

It all looked so much nicer when Rod Donald was the leader. He had such a warm and bouncy personality that the press gallery christened him "Tigger". And that bouncy, optimistic and relentlessly friendly image soon came to encompass the whole Green Party. (Few people outside the Greens ever got to see Rod’s claws and teeth – but, of course, they were there.)

Rod cultivated the Green’s "peace, love and mung-beans" image assiduously because he knew how politically potent their apparently gentle brand of right-on radicalism was when set against the ruthlessness and cruelty of National, Act, Labour and the Alliance.

Behind the scenes, however, the Greens’ political practice reflected exactly what you’d expect from a movement dominated by self-employed small-business people, middle-class professionals and academics. Genteel it might have been. Gentle it was not.

Sue Bradford understood this social milieu extremely well. She had, after all, been born into a distinguished academic family, and was no mean scholar herself. On the other hand, years spent "proletarianising" herself in the Progressive Youth Movement, the Workers Communist League and the Unemployed Workers Movement, also meant that, when she needed to, Sue could play the struttin’, swearin’, rough-as-guts battler from the streets to a nicety.

It was a skill that left most of her political rivals gasping. Someone with the ability to move effortlessly between two worlds; who looks as formidable leading a demonstration against the Asian Development Bank, as she does explaining the finer points of government (not to mention her own) legislation, will generally unnerve most opponents – be they internal or external.

Being on the receiving-end of state-violence on a semi-regular basis also gives the street-level activist another great political advantage: it develops mental, emotional and physical toughness. In a party where non-confrontational manoeuvring behind-the-scenes ("consensus building") is the preferred political style, Sue’s bluntness could be profoundly unsettling.

This was especially true when her bluntness was deployed in the name of social groups conspicuously absent from the standard Green Party muster: the poor, the brown, and the white working-class. Sue never let the Greens off the hook when it came to honouring their formal commitment to social justice (not even when they started calling it "social responsibility").

She also refused to let them get away with the nonsense of "Mother Coke and Father Pepsi" when it came to choosing between Labour and National. Sue’s ideological DNA carried far too many Marxist genes to swallow the "one’s bad as t’other" arguments of a party membership growing increasingly frustrated with, and embarrassed by, its association with the Left.

It was this refusal to let the Greens decline into a genteel and thoroughly non-threatening environmentalism that brought about Sue’s downfall. As more and more New Zealanders shifted restlessly to the Right (a shift given added impetus by her own anti-smacking legislation) the Green rank-and-file decided it was high-time they shifted with them.

Rod’s instinctive grasp of the electoral centrality of the Green’s radical message (of which Sue had become the political icon) would have allowed him to defuse the looming ideological confrontation. But, tragically, Rod was dead. And his successor, Russel Norman, lacked both the instincts and the skills to save his party from itself.

Sue’s rival for the co-leadership, Metiria Turei, with all the reckless insouciance of the genuine anarchist, traded shamelessly on the Greens’ fundamental ignorance of political power’s true nature. To the party rank-and-file she represented the alluring fiction that the planet could be saved from the top down.

Had Sue, in her determination to abolish s59 of the Crimes Act, not suppressed her understanding that enduring political change always comes from the bottom-up, she’d have seen the rank-and-file rebellion that drove her from the Greens coming.

She probably couldn’t have altered their decision, but it wouldn’t have come as such a painful surprise.

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, 2 October 2009.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Auckland Racket

Roads to Real-Estate: Auckland always has been, and remains, a racket.

AUCKLAND has always been, and looks set to remain – a racket. At its heart lie two crucial elements: land, and the transportation networks that inflate its value. To be a true Aucklander one must have a proper understanding of this all-important relationship: real estate = roads, roads = real estate.

The man who first demonstrated the centrality of this relationship was Auckland’s most notorious merchant adventurer, Thomas Russell. It was Russell and his political cronies who, in the early 1860s, persuaded Governor George Grey to build the Great South Road – a feat of military engineering which not only made war with the Maori King Movement inevitable, but also (and this, of course, was its true purpose) transformed Auckland, and the lush plains of the Waikato, into a happy hunting ground for property speculators and developers.

Auckland, as a viable commercial centre, owes its existence to the war made possible by Mr Russell’s Road, and to all the other roads the speculators and developers who came to dominate the city’s ruling class have, for nearly 150 years, persuaded the rest of New Zealand to build for them.

It’s been a constant struggle – to secure this public subsidisation of private greed – and at the forefront of the public fightback has been the Auckland Racket’s perennial rival: the state-owned railways.

Railways and the State have enjoyed a long and mutually rewarding historical relationship in New Zealand. Not only did they knit a geographically chellenging nation together, but they also provided successive governments with a cheap and effective model of urban and rural development.

Though costly to construct, New Zealand’s railway network largely paid for itself by opening up vast swathes of the countryside to settlement. The Crown, as New Zealand’s primary title-holder, was able to recoup the capital required to lay the track and acquire the locomotives and rolling-stock by selling-off the land the railway passed through. As a means of building a nation it had only one significant drawback: it severely restricted the profit-making opportunities for private speculators.

It was the internal combustion engine that rescued the Auckland racket – but only in the nick of time.

Had the rail-based plan for its post-war development been carried out, Auckland would’ve been a very different city. Drawn up by the Ministry of Works between 1946 and 1949 – the final term of the First Labour Government – the plan called for a much more compact city than the sprawling conurbation we know today. Following the Hutt Valley model, public housing would’ve been clustered around the stations of an electrified commuter rail network linking all the communities of the isthmus. The main arterial roads would have gone ‘round, rather than through, the MoW’s Auckland.

It was the election of the First National Government that saved the Auckland Racket from Labour’s social architects and the MoW’s civil engineers. By the mid-1950s, National in Wellington, working hand-in-glove with its local-government surrogate, Citizens & Ratepayers, had hauled Auckland’s future out of its electric railway unit and thrown it onto the back seat of the property developers’ Bentley. Auckland became a loose collection of taxpayer-subsidised (but privately constructed) dormitory suburbs, held together by taxpayer-funded (but privately exploited) motorways.

Instead of becoming the southern hemisphere’s Copenhagen, Auckland became a cut-price Los Angeles.

And that’s the way the people who run the Auckland Racket would like to keep it. Sixty years after Labour’s plan was ditched, the NZ Herald is still trumpeting the virtues of the automobile and the motorway, and belittling the advocates of rail.

In an editorial headed "ARC’s ‘green’ transport plan ignores reality", the paper blithely declares: "Auckland is not and never will be a ‘compact and contained urban form’. Its environment and terrain invite sprawl. The regional plan has been trying for 10 years to contain coastal ribbon development and force population growth into higher density concentrations near railway stations.

"Aucklanders have resisted for good reason. They have come to the region for its coastlines and climate. Planners of land use and transport need to work with the demonstrable demand, not against it."

No prizes for guessing exactly who will be constructing all that "coastal ribbon development" – the very same people responsible for generating all that "demonstrable demand".

Seldom has the Auckland Racket’s ingrained hostility towards any and all forms of democratic urban planning been so overtly displayed. The Herald’s leader-writer openly celebrates the pending elimination of the Auckland Regional Council and its replacement by the new Auckland "SuperCity": "… Auckland’s transport will then be managed by an ad hoc authority representing the Government as well as the Auckland Council."

In other words, the very same arrangement that characterised the region’s development in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. When the Auckland Racket’s political friends in Wellington repeatedly forced the long-suffering New Zealand taxpayer to fund the construction of a succession of multi-million dollar motorways, linking together an ever-growing number of multi-million dollar subdivisions, erected by the Queen City’s indomitable clique of multi-millionaire property speculators and developers.

Opponents of the new Auckland SuperCity have characterised it as a thinly disguised mechanism for privatising what remains of the region’s publicly-owned assets. No doubt there are those among the new structure’s boosters who drool at the prospect, but privatisation may not, in the end, turn out to be their principal objective.

One has only to consider the fiasco over the Cabinet’s attempt to split the Rodney District Council in half, to see the Auckland Racket’s extraordinary political influence at work.

First get a new road built from Albany to Puhoi – thereby opening up the northern "coastal ribbon" that’s in such "demonstrable demand". Then, re-design the entire political architecture of the Auckland region so that you and your mates can get their hands on the aforesaid real-estate without having to clamber over all those pesky democratic hurdles.

It’s just possible, however, that the Auckland Racket has over-reached itself. Have none of the people behind the SuperCity scheme ever paused to ask themselves: "What if we fail to win control of the new council?" Like the Great South Road, Auckland’s new constitutional framework is designed to facilitate plunder, but, when you think about it, Mr Russell’s Road could just have easily brought the Waikato Maori into the city, as kept them out.

The Auckland Racket simply must win next year’s election – it can’t afford to lose.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 1 October 2009.