Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Mouths of Sauron

The Mouth of Sauron? Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson, has very unwisely stepped from the sidelines of the dispute between Sir Peter Jackson and NZ Actors Equity to voice his support for the legal claims of Hollywood's Dark Lords.

"UNION" – it’s such a small word, and yet a person’s reaction to it can tell you so much about them. Indeed, to my mind there is no better test of character than the choices people make when confronted with an industrial dispute. The current stoush between the producers of The Hobbit and the union representing New Zealand’s actors has proved especially revealing in this regard.

Sir Peter Jackson’s response has been particularly disappointing. To most New Zealanders, Sir Peter is the epitome of Kiwi can-do-ism. He’s the man who did what no one believed could be done in the time-frame no one believed it could be done in. His hugely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy not only brought Tolkien’s magical prose to life on the cinema screen, it also presented New Zealand’s wild and unspoiled beauty to an astonished world.

So audacious was Sir Peter’s LOTR project that Kiwi actors, extras and technicians fell over themselves to help him. From the point of view of this country’s creative community (if not the trilogy’s hard-nosed Hollywood backers) LOTR was a demonstration of what New Zealanders could do. Sir Peter became the maestro of one vast, collective labour of love.

It made his name, and it made him a very considerable fortune – which none of us begrudged him. His success was our success.

And that’s what makes his response to NZ Actors Equity’s request for dialogue so very, very disappointing. Instead of siding with the people who helped to make him the movie mogul he is today, he’s sided with the Hollywood bosses.

Just imagine how much more New Zealanders would have loved and admired him if he had said to the industry big-wigs: "Look, guys, we were willing to under-sell ourselves once – just to show you what we could do. But now that we Kiwis have proved we’re the equal of film-makers anywhere, it’s time to pay us accordingly."

Sadly, what he actually did when push came to shove was become a union-buster.

The response has been fascinating.

The Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson, has weighed in on Hollywood’s behalf by asserting that any negotiations with "Independent Contractors" would constitute price-fixing under s30 of the Commerce Act.

This is extraordinary, but Mr Finlayson’s price-fixing argument is one with which the American trade unions would be all-too-familiar – going all the way back to the Sherman Act of 1890.

The Sherman Act was originally intended to combat the anti-competitive behaviour of monopolistic big-business "trusts" like Standard Oil, but was seized upon by anti-union employers as a way of preventing unions (which they characterised as "cartels" of workers) from acting as a "restraint of trade" by collectively "fixing" the price of their labour.

Section 30 of the Commerce Act outlaws any contract which sets out to, "or is likely to have the effect of fixing, controlling, or maintaining, or providing for the fixing, controlling, or maintaining, of the price for goods or services". So, any attempt by a group of contractors (i.e. actors) to collectively establish a common price for their services would indeed be illegal.

Needless to say, Sir Peter and his Holywood mates have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that everybody who wishes to participate in their productions does so as an "Independent Contractor" – not as an employee.

There is, of course, nothing to prevent Sir Peter from hiring actors, extras and technicians as "fixed-term employees". Nothing, that is, except the obligation which he would then have to recognise their union, bargain with it in good faith, and afford its members all the rights enjoyed by other New Zealand workers.

The Attorney-General knows this, of course, but has entered the fray on the Employers’ side anyway. Unwisely, I would say, in light of the fact that since the mid-1980s Cabinet Ministers have sensibly elected to remain "on the sidelines" of industrial disputes to which the Crown is not a party.

But Sir Peter and Mr Finlayson are not the only people whose behaviour has given us cause for consternation over the past few days.

What should we make of the well-known media personality and (of all people) the film producer (!) who rolled up to the NZ Actors Equity union-meeting in Grey Lynn expecting to be admitted? How would these gentlemen react, I wonder, if Equity’s Frances Walsh appeared outside their production meetings expecting to join their discussions?

It’s sad really. The neoliberal model of industrial relations has been in place for so long that a whole generation has grown up without the faintest knowledge of what it means to stand together in unity, or to express solidarity with a group of workers under attack.

Since we’ve been discussing Tolkein’s works, let me close with a passage from Lord of the Rings. It concerns the messenger of the Dark Lord, Sauron.

Tolkien describes him thus:

The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man. The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dur he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’

It is to be hoped that all the mouthpieces of Neoliberalism: all the men and women who long ago forgot what it means to stand in solidarity with their fellow New Zealanders; all the "industry people" who have spent the last few days doing everything they could to undermine the unity of NZ Actors Equity; suffer the same fate as Sauron’s evil messenger.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Plots In The Palace

End Game: Maori Party co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples had better watch their backs or like the unfortunate King Alexander I of Serbia and Queen Draga they may end up on the receiving end of a palace coup. In the hothouse atmosphere of nationalist politics, to be on the Right's side at the Left's time can have fatal political consequences.

IF THE KING had closed the door to the secret chamber more tightly, he and his Queen might have survived. On that terrible night, however, it was the barely discernible gap between the door and the smooth wall of the royal couple’s bedchamber that betrayed their bolt hole’s whereabouts to the assassins.

The brutality of the murder of King Alexander I of Serbia and his wife, Queen Draga, in Belgrade’s Konak palace in the early hours of 11 June 1903 horrified the whole world. To Serbia’s radical nationalists, however, it was simply a political necessity.

In their eyes, the King had committed the fatal error of aligning Serbia with the German-speaking, Catholic rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As proud Slavs and Greek Orthodox Christians, the young firebrands of the Serbian army looked to Russia as the guarantor of their nationalist objectives. Only with the Russian Tsar’s backing could their dream of a Serb-led "South Slav" kingdom – Yugoslavia – be realised.

For Yugoslavia to be born, the King and Queen had to die.

THOUGH IT’S UNLIKELY to be as bloody as the overthrow of the ill-starred Obrenović dynasty, a similar coup may be brewing in the Maori Party – and for broadly similar reasons.

In essence, the Maori Party is a manifestation of what the political scientists call "brokerage politics". In the words of Dr Elizabeth Rata, brokerage politics is "a pragmatic mechanism that … enables minority groups to achieve political recognition despite their limited voting power."

To remain effective, however, a brokerage party must deliver the goods to the minority for whom it is acting. A broker who returns nothing to his clients will very soon have none.

When the Maori Party threw in its lot with National it must have known that the only goods on offer would be symbolic ones. To deliver practical assistance to Maori Party voters (located overwhelmingly on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder) National would have had to embrace a redistributive programme utterly unacceptable to its own supporters.

Symbolism was, however, considerably better than nothing at all. Besides, Tariana Turia’s deep loathing of the Labour Party, and the strong political relationship which soon developed between Dr Pita Sharples and John Key emotionally predisposed the Maori Party leadership to accept National’s offer of partnership.The Maori Party’s electoral base cannot, of course, live by symbolism alone. Already demands are being voiced for tangible delivery in education, health, housing and – most crucially – employment. And, by 2011 even National’s symbolic concessions will have gone as far (perhaps further) as its conservative supporters will tolerate. As a brokerage partner it will be all tapped-out.

The logical next step for the Maori Party, therefore, is to broker a deal with Labour. In a party of the Centre-Left the sort of redistributive policies required to uplift Maori New Zealanders would be a much more comfortable fit. (And if they implemented them under the guise of the National Party-endorsed "Whanau Ora" programme, the Centre-Right could offer no credible objections.)

Even on the symbolic front, a deal with Labour makes sense. On current polling, Labour couldn’t hope to form a government without Green Party support. And since the Greens are even more fervent upholders of tino rangatiratanga than the Maori Party, the brokerage opportunities inherent in a Labour-Green-Maori Party coalition are immense.

That just leaves the problem of Queen Tariana and King Pita.

Like the unfortunate Obrenovićs, the Maori Party’s current leaders have aligned themselves with the wrong people. The dream of sovereignty now requires a change of direction and a shift of allegiances – moves that cannot be made by leaders who are allergic to Labour and/or best mates with Mr Key.

The evidence of palace plotting is everywhere (if you know where to look). In last weekend’s Sunday Star-Times, Hone Harawira announced that he was ditching his vituperative verbal radicalism in favour of a more moderate style of political communication. Rumour’s whisper of a high-profile Maori politician preparing to challenge Dr Sharples in Tamaki Makaurau.

And if you would know from which political quarter these winds of change are blowing, just make your way to the 2010 Bruce Jesson Lecture at Auckland University on 27 October.

This year’s speaker is Maori lawyer and activist Annette Sykes, and her address, "The Politics of the Brown Table", issues a powerful challenge to: "A self-anointed Iwi Leaders Group, a Maori Party that supports a National/Act government, and a group of Crown mandated intermediaries drawn from retired politicians and bureaucrats".

According to Ms Sykes, these "agents for the manufacturing of consent and the management of discontent among Maori" are guilty of "harnessing Maori to a global capitalism that impoverishes the mass of working-class Maori and [is] making them dependent on its survival."

Ms Turia and Dr Sharples would be wise to keep their doors shut tight.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 September 2010.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Reconfiguring the Right

Singing from the same song-sheet: National's "Broad Church" made perfect sense in the FPP era of two-party politics. But does the union of liberal city-dwellers and conservative country-folk continue to make sense in the age of MMP - especially if (as seems likely) Act's crucial votes are removed from the Right's electoral equation?

A "LOYA JIRGA": that’s what John Key and the National Party need; a Loya Jirga of the Right.

In moments of crisis, when important decisions need to be made, the tribal chieftains and village head-men of the Pashtun people emerge from their mountain fastnesses in Afghanistan and Pakistan to deliberate together in a "Loya" (Great or Grand) "Jirga" (Council).

The head-men and tribal chieftains of liberal and conservative New Zealand could do a lot worse than follow the Pashtun example. Because, whether the Prime Minister cares to admit it or not, the implosion of the Act Party poses a huge risk to the future of the National Party-led Government.

If (as seems likely) the Act Party is driven from the House of Representatives at next year’s election, the odds against Mr Key being able to preserve a credible and stable administration are formidable. Though National may well receive the largest number of votes in 2011, assembling a parliamentary majority will be extremely difficult without Act’s five seats.

Nor should Mr Key rely upon the Maori Party riding to his rescue. By this time next year there’s a good chance the public face of the Maori Party will have changed dramatically.

Act isn’t the only National ally experiencing difficulties at the moment. Grass-roots dissatisfaction with the Maori Party’s current leadership has risen sharply in response to the perceived shortcomings of the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill. As the 2011 election draws near, Mr Key may see his good friend, Dr Pita Sharples, replaced by someone much less at ease in the Centre-Right tent.

One presumes the National Party’s strategists understand that their Maori Party allies have no enduring loyalty to voters registered on the General Roll. Secure in their Maori Roll redoubt, they enjoy the extraordinary privilege of being able to abandon old allies with impunity.

If the Maori Party concludes that it’s got just about everything it’s going to get out of the 2008 deal with National, there are no serious electoral impediments to it broaching a new deal with Labour in 2011.

A Loya Jirga of the Right could address these looming problems holistically. In much the same way as the chiefs and head-men of the shattered liberal and conservative movement came together in 1936 to reassemble their scattered forces and forge a political weapon equal to the challenge laid down by a triumphant Left.

The National Party represented the Right’s long-delayed adjustment to the new reality of two-party politics.

From the formation of the Labour Party in 1916, until its eventual triumph in 1935, the New Zealand political landscape had been dominated by three major parties. Indeed, that twenty year period may be looked upon as one in which the Right struggled to come to terms with the brute electoral reality that two parties of the Right were one party too many.

Under our present electoral system (and with no real prospect of a return to FFP) the Right faces precisely the opposite dilemma. Rather than too many large parties on the right of the political spectrum, there are too few – and they’re the wrong sort.

The natural division of right-wing labour in this country (like Australia) is between the conservative inhabitants of rural and provincial New Zealand, and the liberal citizens of its major cities. The merging of their respective standard-bearers, the Reform and United parties, to defeat the socialists, made perfect sense ..... in 1936. In a country almost certain to retain some form of proportional representation, their continued forced cohabitation under a single roof makes no sense at all.

The current National-Act configuration is similarly nonsensical. Essentially a neoliberal/libertarian party, Act’s natural constituency is among the economically-dry but socially-wet sophisticates of Auckland and Wellington. But, since these voters are already securely enrolled in either National’s or Labour’s ranks, Act has been forced to seek support from whoever would give it – which turned out to be Far-Right provincial populists. Not surprisingly, it’s been an extremely uncomfortable fit.

At the "Grand Council" which the Right really should convene (and soon) two new parties: one for provincial conservatives; one for urban liberals; should be assembled from the current memberships of National, Act, United Future and NZ First.

I’ll leave the two new parties’ names, logos and credos to Crosby-Textor, but my picks for their respective presidents would be Garth McVicar and Deborah Coddington.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 24 September 2010.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Standing On Shaky Ground

Self-Destruct Mode? The moment he accepted the candidacy of David Garrett, a man who'd admitted to stealing the identity of a dead child to secure a false passport, Act leader Rodney Hide placed the entire edifice of the New Zealand Right at risk. The seismic pulse from the Garrett scandal threatens to destroy not only Act but also John Key's hopes for a second term.

IT NEVER RAINS but it pours. As if a real earthquake in Canterbury wasn’t enough, John Key now faces an earthquake in Epsom.

And it’s a big one. The extraordinary revelations concerning Act MP, David Garrett, have not only put paid to his political career, but the aftershocks seem certain to destabilise – and ultimately destroy – the whole Act Party.

John Key cannot stand aloof from these developments. Act has always been a critical factor in the electoral calculations of the Centre Right. Bluntly speaking: National’s ability to form a stable government depends upon Act’s unequivocal support. Remove Act from the political equation and the Centre Right’s electoral problems no longer have a solution.

TV3’s political editor, Duncan Garner, disagrees. He insists that Act and the Maori Party are interchangeable factors in this equation: that Mr Key’s shrewd decision to lure the Maori Party into the Centre-Right tent in 2008 has given National all the insurance cover it needs to rebuild an effective administration if Act falls over.

I’m not so sure. By 2011 conservative New Zealand voters may have had about as much of the Maori Party as they’re prepared to swallow. A year from now the unease surrounding the repeal of the Foreshore & Seabed Act will undoubtedly have been heightened by the ramifications of a "Constitutional Review" – the last (and potentially the most divisive) item of unfinished business in the Maori Party’s confidence and supply agreement with National.

It’s equally possible, of course, that by 2011 Maori voters may have had enough of "their" party’s association with National. There are strong indications that a second term National Government will intensify its public-spending cuts; throw open the gates to foreign investment, increase immigration and sell-off what remain of New Zealand’s public assets. Such a hard-right programme is unlikely to enthuse the Maori Party’s base.

Not that the Maori Party needs to worry. It’s political location in the Maori – as opposed to the General – electorate shields it from any sort of Pakeha backlash. This gives the Maori Party the extraordinary advantage of being able to switch allegiances with impunity. If the party’s leaders are of the view that they (and the Maori people in general) have got about as much as they can get from National, there is nothing to prevent them signalling their willingness to negotiate a new deal with Labour.

No, I wouldn’t be relying upon the Maori Party if I were Mr Key.

Which takes us back to Epsom. Can Mr Key rely upon the good burghers of Mt Eden, Epsom, Parnell and Remuera to be guided by the winks and nods of their National Party friends forever? Is it reasonable to expect Epsom’s voters (among the most sophisticated in the country) to make themselves permanent accessories to this blatant "gaming" of the MMP electoral system?

Let’s not forget, Mr Hide’s seat – like every other electorate seat – is won or lost according to the rules of First-Past-the Post. So, let’s assume (on the basis of the 2008 results) that there are roughly 38,500 votes up for grabs in Epsom, and that about 8,000 of these are rock-solid National voters who simply refuse to vote strategically. Let’s further assume that there are another 8,000 "Left’ (Labour, Green) voters, and about 2,500 hard-core Act voters. That leaves a "Strategic Vote" of around 20,000 electors.

What would happen to Mr Hide if a person with impeccable conservative credentials emerged from the leafy streets of Epsom declaring that: "Enough is enough! If National isn’t prepared to choose a decent candidate – someone who still adheres to its traditional values and is capable of articulating its ‘compassionate conservative’ philosophy – then someone else will have to do the job."?

An accomplished and successful woman, subscribing to the new "Big Society" ideas of David Cameron’s British Tories, could quite conceivably split Epsom’s Strategic Vote in half – gathering up most of the Left Vote as she swept past (especially if Labour and the Greens declined to stand a candidate). That would leave Mr Hide about 5,000 votes short of the total needed to keep Act in Parliament.

If Mr Key persists in relying upon Act’s gaming of the MMP system to secure the numbers he needs to govern, then something resembling this scenario will almost certainly unfold.

The problem, of course, is that if Mr Key does do the decent thing, and severs all ties between National and the discredited Act Party, he will be left several seats short of the total National needs to remain in office.

He could, of course, appeal directly to the New Zealand electorate for an unequivocal and unencumbered mandate. Unfortunately, no single party (even under FPP) has won more than 50 percent of the popular vote since 1951.

Mr Garrett’s earthquake threatens to reduce much more than Act to rubble.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 September 2010.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Domain Of Pain

Striking a Balance: How much unnecessary suffering must our fellow citizens endure before we can be persuaded to take action on their behalf?

"THE DISTINCTION between necessary and unnecessary suffering defines the limits of political rationality", writes Dr Maurice Glasman, Director of the London Metropolitan University’s Faith & Citizenship Programme. "In delineating a domain of pain which is amenable to concerted amelioration from a sphere of grief that is immutable, it defines the power of society to respond to the miseries of life."

Ah, yes, Dr Glasman, but where does "the domain of pain" end and "the sphere of grief" begin? At what point, exactly, does it become politically irrational to attempt to ameliorate the pain of one’s fellow citizens? How immutable does a person’s situation have to be before we’re willing to consign her to that hopeless "sphere of grief"?

These were the sort of questions I wrestled with for most of last Friday at a public forum jointly organised by the University of Auckland and the Child Poverty Action Group.

"Rethinking Welfare For The 21st Century" attracted some pretty heavy hitters – most notably two, top-flight Australian academics, Professor Paul Smyth and Dr Peter Saunders, who’d crossed the ditch to add their intellectual firepower to the artillery of the CPAG angels in what is becoming an increasingly bitter social policy debate.

In addition to being Professor of Social Policy at the University of Melbourne, Peter Smyth is also the General Manager of the Research & Policy Centre of the Brotherhood of St Laurence (a Christian socialist outfit founded by the radical Anglican priest, Father G.K Tucker, in the 1930s).

The work of Paul Saunders – former Director of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales – has been focused on the non-monetary indicators of social disadvantage. His research has pushed the concept of "adequacy" to the forefront of contemporary academic discussion about poverty relief.

The visitors’ contributions, like their country of origin, were large and sprawling. Information and statistics were applied impasto to a succession of broad canvasses. Indeed, the aptly named Peter and Paul turned out to be a couple of academic evangelists: "big picture" men, engagingly keen on wrenching the welfare debate from the clutches of the Right and "re-framing" it. They came at their Kiwi audience like Aussie pace-bowlers with a new ball.

It took the presentation of another Australian, Eve Bodsworth, to remind us that in spite of the fact that the "Lucky Country" has so much more wealth to distribute, its success in reducing the quantum of unnecessary suffering is really no greater than our own.

Eve had recorded the experiences of Australian solo mums struggling to navigate their way through the labyrinthine cruelties of state and federal welfare bureaucracies. In the plain speech of these institutionally battered women, the "domain of pain" and the "sphere of grief" were brought vividly and heart-wrenchingly to life.

Their words, and those used later by Kay Brereton of the Wellington People’s Centre, was Reality’s answer to the mumbled neoliberal liturgy of Paula Rebstock with which the forum began.

I suppose it was gutsy of the Chair of the Government’s hand-picked Welfare Working Group to show up at all. Certainly it was valuable to learn exactly how vast is the gulf between the world of the Government’s advisers – and its victims.

Ultimately, of course, the Government’s principal advisers are the people themselves, and it was that singularly inconvenient truth that kept breaking through the presentations of Susan St John, Paul Callister, Keith Rankin, Louise Humpage, Cindy Kiro, Manuka Henare, Mike O’Brien and Sue Bradford.

Seventy years ago, New Zealanders won international acclaim for their "concerted amelioration" of unnecessary suffering. The Welfare State decisively re-defined our society’s capacity to "respond to the miseries of life".

Seventy years after Savage & Fraser, and aided by a quarter-century of neoliberal social-policy, New Zealanders’ "pain threshold" has risen dramatically. And though the good people gathered at last Friday’s forum would be loathe to admit it, the "political rationality" of 21st Century capitalism is much less compromised by social sadism than social justice.

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, 17 September 2010.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Working Towards The Fuhrer

A dictator with no need to dictate: The followers of Neoliberalism, like Nazism, know what is required of them. In the rabidly pro-business climate fostered by the current government, neoliberal initiatives will be taken, pressures applied and legislation instigated on the reasonably safe assumption that such measures will be rewarded by the incumbent regime - not punished.

WAS IT REALLY BEYOND the wit of this Government – this Parliament – to rebuild Christchurch without flattening the Constitution? Was there really not a single MP with sufficient knowledge of our planning laws and building codes to strike a principled balance between reconstruction and the rule of law? Not even one boffin, in our entire civil service, who knew how to make it happen?

I simply don’t believe it.

The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act (CERRA) – a rare example of parliamentary unanimity – says a great deal about how impatient our political class has grown with the whole concept of democratic restraint.

Twenty-five years of neoliberalism have so hollowed out our political culture that a bill overturning the whole notion of an executive answerable to both the legislature and the judiciary attracted not even one "No" vote.

The Parliament elected in 2008 contains not one Mike Minogue, not one Marilyn Waring. In the whole 122-member House of Representatives there’s apparently not a single MP who understands what the English Civil War was fought to secure. Not one Member willing to defend the Bill of Rights of 1688. Not one politician prepared to stand for the rights guaranteed in Magna Carta.

All the excited talk about the "next generation of Labour leaders": about how Jacinda Ardern, Clare Curran, Grant Robertson, David Shearer and Phil Twyford were going to lead their party into a more courageous and principled political space; well, it has turned out to be just that – talk.

Though it’s by no means a valid excuse, the social-democrats can at least argue that, as one of the two major parties, Labour’s freedom of action is heavily constrained by its need to keep abreast of public opinion.

No such argument is available to the Greens.

The whole raison d’être of the Green movement is to lead public opinion; to stand by its principles; to bear witness on behalf of those who do not have a voice; to "speak truth to power". But, where were the Green MPs on Tuesday night?

Running scared.

It would not have happened in the Green Party led by Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons. Sue Bradford wouldn’t have run. Rod was a person, and Jeanette and Sue still are people for whom the baying of the media pack and the barking of the talk-back bigots is proof that they are on the right path.

The Green Party of Russel Norman and Metiria Turei is a party which knows what is right, submits the appropriate amendments, watches them get voted down, and then goes ahead and votes "Aye" for what they know to be wrong. And all because Guyon Espiner and Duncan Garner might say unkind things about them on the six o’clock news-bulletins if they voted "No".

The failure of Labour and the Greens to oppose CERRA is further proof that as political movements they lack all conviction. Their behaviour is now entirely circumscribed by what the news media determines to be "good politics". Anything which smacks of political eccentricity; anything which suggests, even for a moment, that the parties of the Left are prepared – in defence of their core principles – to step outside the narrow boundaries of media wisdom, must be avoided at all costs.

They would no doubt reject this negative judgement as both unreasonable and unfair. New Zealanders, they would say, are pragmatic people – not given to high-flown rhetoric or grand gestures (see here for Matthew Palmer’s chilling estimation of our core political values).

Certainly this is what we’ve been trained to say of ourselves, but I’m not so sure pragmatism really is a trait we admire. New Zealand’s recent history suggests that we Kiwis are more deeply moved by principled stands (the anti-tour protests) and defiant gestures (our nuclear-free legislation) than we’re prepared to admit.

Pragmatism may be the admonition of our masters, but principle is the counsel of our hearts.

And if the draconian contents of CERRA tell us anything at all, it’s that our masters do not practice what they preach. A pragmatic piece of legislation would have brought a much narrower and more concentrated focus to the problem of Canterbury’s reconstruction. CERRA’s extraordinary radicalism; it’s quite deliberate traducing of such fundamental constitutional conventions as parliamentary supremacy and judicial oversight; all point to something much more dangerous and extreme than mere pragmatism.

In his magisterial biography of Adolf Hitler, Professor Ian Kershaw seizes upon what one of the Nazi regime’s lesser lights, Werner Willikens, called "working towards the Fuhrer":

"Through ‘working towards the Fuhrer’, initiatives were taken, pressures created, legislation instigated – all in ways which fell into line with what were taken to be Hitler’s aims, and without the dictator necessarily having to dictate. The result was continuing radicalisation of policy in a direction which brought Hitler’s own ideological imperatives more plainly into view as practicable policy options."

In the case of CERRA the entity being ‘worked towards’ is not a man, but an ideology. Neoliberalism is every bit as totalitarian a credo as fascism, and its adherents as imbued as were Hitler’s followers with an unwavering determination to extend its reach and tighten its grip.

In the political parties of the Right – National and Act – and in the key state bureaucracies, policies are devised and legislation drawn up by individuals who, like the politicians and bureaucrats of Nazi Germany, are conscientiously "working towards" the full realisation of the neoliberal project. It is simply not necessary for John Key, Bill English or Rodney Hide to issue detailed directives to these people, because they already know what has to be done – and are doing it.

The aggressively pro-business design of the Auckland Supercity; the sacking of Environment Canterbury’s elected councillors; CERRA: none of these are the product of some dark and carefully orchestrated conspiracy. What they actually represent is the "continuing radicalisation" of the neoliberal project, and the increasing willingness of its promoters to take any initiative, apply any pressure and instigate any legislation which "works toward" the final triumph of the unregulated market, and the final solution of the Democracy Problem. 

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

After The Shocks - The Shock Doctrine

Chapter and Verse: Naomi Klein's study of "Disaster Capitalism" demonstrates how the extreme Right has seized upon natural and man-made disasters to ram through self-serving and often highly unpopular political and economic changes.

"ONLY A CRISIS – actual or perceived – produces real change", wrote the American neoliberal economist, Milton Friedman. "When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around."

What the people of Christchurch should be asking themselves right now is: "What are the ideas "lying around" in the rubble of their stricken city?"

Some ideas have already inspired Cantabrians to action.

Like the extraordinary generosity of the dairy-owner who told his quake-struck neighbours to "help themselves" until the stock on his shelves ran out.

Like the altruism of the young man who organised more than a thousand of his fellow university students into clean-up teams.

The images of these young people shovelling contaminated silt from the front yards of their neighbours sent a swell of pride across the entire nation.

If Christchurch is re-built with generosity and altruism it will soon be a great city once again.

Sadly, generosity and altruism – those most human of responses to social crisis and natural disaster - are swiftly dissipated in the vast bureaucracies of local and central government.

It’s one of life’s tragedies that organised altruism and bureaucratic generosity are never even remotely the same as the real thing. Indeed, they’re all-too-often experienced as the opposite of genuine human feeling.

Large organisations – of the sort required to clean up after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake – are almost always characterised by complex hierarchies and inflexible, rules-based delivery systems. They are power structures and, like everything else that wields power on this earth, they are not at all keen to share that power – let alone give it away.

Basically, local and state bureaucracies have bossiness inscribed into their institutional DNA. Confronted with the enormous task of repairing and re-building Christchurch’s basic infrastructure, the first thought of the City Council and the relevent Government Departments will be: "We’ve got a huge job to be getting on with, so we mustn’t allow ourselves to be distracted by every Tom, Dick and Harriet with a damaged chimney or a cracked pavement."

Fair enough, you might say, the sooner the big things are dealt with, the sooner the little things can be fixed. Unfortunately, the natural arrogance of large bureaucracies isn’t limited to matters of straightforward reconstruction and repair.

In any large organisation there are always a great many ideas just "lying around". Pet theories about architecture and urban design, for example. Or, pet projects long deferred for lack of opportunity and funding. The citizens of Christchurch need to be vigilant against the wants of a few taking precedence over the needs of the many.

But the ideas of big bureaucracies are not the only, or the most dangerous ideas Christchurch faces.

Three years ago the Canadian social activist, Naomi Klein, wrote a book called The Shock Doctrine. Guided by that quote from Milton Friedman concerning crisis and change, Klein discovered that, over the course of the last 30 years, an alarming number of man-made and natural disasters had been turned to the advantage of right-wing corporate interests.

From the 1973 military coup in Chile, to the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, these critical moments of massive social and economic dislocation have been used to erase what "Disaster Capitalists" regarded as the "bad ideas" and practices of the past. Taking advantage of the population’s temporary disorientation and distress they forced through radical (and often unwanted) changes.

In Klein’s own words:

"Believers in the shock doctrine are convinced that only a great rupture – a flood, a war, a terrorist attack – can generate the kind of vast, clean canvasses they crave. It is in these malleable moments, when we are psychologically unmoored and physically uprooted, that these artists of the real plunge in their hands and begin their work of remaking the world."

We are often reminded that the Chinese characters for "crisis" and "opportunity" are the same. The people of Christchurch need to keep this relationship very firmly at the front of their minds in the coming months. Because if they don’t, and if Naomi Klein is right, then they can be absolutely certain that others will.

Perhaps their surest defence against becoming victims of "The Shock Doctrine" would be to require both the leading mayoral contenders, and the opposing slates of council candidates, to provide voters with a list of their ideas for the new Christchurch.

Both Mr Parker and Mr Anderton should be asked to spell out clearly how they intend to involve Christchurch’s bruised and battered electors in the planning and reconstruction process? How the big bureaucracies will be prevented from simply taking over. And – most importantly – how they propose to stop a gang of Disaster Capitalists from using the present crisis to ram through a host of radical neoliberal ideas that they just happened to have "lying around".

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 September 2010.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Sowing Dragon's Teeth

Sowing discord: In Greek mythology Cadmus, the bringer of civilisation, slew the dragon that guarded the sacred spring of the war god, Ares. Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, bade Cadmus sow the dragon's teeth and up sprang the spartoi - an army of ferocious warriors. Painting by Maxfield Parrish

FROM A STRICTLY POLITICAL PERSPECTIVE the details of the Government’s innocuous-sounding Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill don’t matter. The numbers on the floor of the House have already been assembled to secure its First Reading, and once that crucial first hurdle has been cleared the news media will rapidly lose interest. The Parliamentary Press Gallery, in particular, is likely to assume (quite rightly) that if Labour doesn’t oppose the Bill at its First Reading it’s not going to oppose the Bill at all. And if Labour doesn’t oppose this bill it is absolutely certain to become law.

Tactically-speaking, the Labour Opposition’s indulgent attitude towards the repeal and replacement of its costly (in terms of the Maori Vote) Foreshore & Seabed Act is a huge mistake. It’s own supporters will be outraged at Labour’s facilitation of what is likely to prove this country’s most significant privatisation of public property. And it is difficult to conceive of an issue more likely to divide conservative voters than the National Government’s apparent willingness to award thousands of square kilometres of New Zealand’s coastline and territorial sea to a multitude of Maori tribes and sub-tribes.

By highlighting the Bill’s most controversial aspects – most particularly its failure to retain the current legislation’s guarantee of free public access to the seashore – the Opposition could drive a mighty wedge into National’s electoral base. To date, Labour’s spokesperson, David Parker, has limited himself to making a virtue of his party’s refusal to "play the race card". Exactly how many New Zealanders end up thanking him for it remains to be seen.

The Bill’s opponents will, of course, get their moment in the sun at the Select Committee hearings on the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill. The media coverage of their submissions is, however, highly unlikely to be either extensive or sympathetic. Most of the news media remains strongly supportive of the Key Government and it is not about to undercut National’s poll-ratings by dispassionately analysing the legislation’s dire implications for the future economic and social well-being of New Zealand.

Were the legislation being introduced by Labour the media’s attitude would likely be very different. Ironically, such blatant partisanship would, on this occasion, be in the public interest. But, by sanctioning only the most cursory and politically sympathetic reportage of the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill the media is going to sell its readers, listeners and viewers short. In their myopic determination to protect "their" government, New Zealand’s media bosses will shirk their all-important duty to inform the citizenry of a direct threat to its rights.

Because, as the eminent New Zealand economist, Professor Roger Bowden, puts it: "In the present context, the [Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill] will effectively have the status of a constitutional change for the country. The Bill satisfies two of the classical tests for an uncodified constitution such as New Zealand’s: it creates property rights, and it cannot be easily reversed."

Once again, Labour’s abdication of political responsibility is baffling. A measure of such vital importance to the nation’s future should not be passed without the active consent of the electorate (in the form of either an unequivocal electoral mandate or referendum). That National is not availing itself of these alternatives, intending, rather, to secure the passage of the legislation in advance of next year’s general election by using the votes of members elected on explicit promises to keep the foreshore and seabed in public hands, is something Labour should feel constitutionally obliged to oppose. At the very least, it should be making the case for the passage of the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill to be delayed until after the voters have delivered their verdict on its merits through the ballot-box.

That Labour shows no signs of doing this can only mean one of two things: either it is tactically inept; or, it secretly fears the judgement of the electorate on this issue. If it’s the latter, we are faced – as was the case with Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking bill – with a measure massively deficient in popular support, but which the Labour caucus is going to vote for anyway on the grounds that its moral judgement is superior to that of the electorate’s.

In other words, Labour is planning to do what John Key did in relation to Section 59: preserve its social-liberal credentials by piggy-backing on it’s rival’s determination to pass an unpopular measure no-matter-what. No doubt they're calculating that such a show of bi-partisan support will leave their MPs unscathed; Maori voters in a more forgiving frame of mind; and their extra-parliamentary opponents with nowhere to go.

Perhaps. But every time the two major political parties behave in this way they dramatically increase the levels of anger and alienation in the broader electorate. Worse still, they engender a sense of betrayal, and the conviction that there is indeed such a thing as "the political class" – an arrogant and self-congratulatory elite with nothing but contempt for the opinions and aspirations of ordinary people.

It staggers me that this political class does not appear to understand that, by swelling the ranks of those who feel alienated and betrayed by their country’s nominally democratic political system, they are placing the rights of all citizens – and most especially those belonging to ethnic minorities – in grave danger.

Those who cast their vote in favour of the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill will be casting dragon’s teeth into political soil already richly fertilised by the reek of earlier betrayals. And when, in true mythic style, these seeds of the dragon’s mouth call forth a harvest of angry political spartoi utterly unresponsive to reason or pity, then the suddenly powerless and personally vulnerable members of New Zealand’s political class will have no one to blame but themselves.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Designing A "New Citizen's Party"

New Citizens = New Politics: Providing it's not simply a front for Natural Dairy NZ, the Chinese-backed company attempting to purchase the Crafar family's dairy farms, the "New Citizens Party" has every chance of becoming a significant factor in the New Zealand electoral equation.

A FORTNIGHT AGO an application to register the "New Citizens Party" was lodged with the Electoral Commission.

A Mr Paul Young, of the Auckland-based firm Asia Marketing and Advertising Consultants, is handling the paperwork, but until the registration process is complete the identity of the new party’s principal backers must remain frustratingly unclear.

Naturally there’s considerable speculation surrounding the nature and purpose of the New Citizens Party (NCP). Some Aucklanders are already linking it to the public relations campaign being waged on behalf of Natural Dairy NZ – the Chinese-backed firm currently seeking Overseas Investment Office permission to purchase the Crafar family’s delinquent dairy farms.

Similar associations have been made in relation to an expensively produced newspaper, United, which began circulating recently in Auckland.

Celebrating the economic and cultural ties linking New Zealand and Asia (especially China) United is obviously supposed to be an antidote to the poisonous outpourings of anti-foreign (especially anti-Chinese) sentiment unleashed by Natural Dairy NZ’s bid to purchase New Zealand farmland.

Absent from both ventures, however, is any sense that the people behind them have much understanding of New Zealand politics.

Nothing is more likely to arouse the suspicion of ordinary Kiwis than a group of unidentified businessmen funding an expensive new publication and/or political organisation. And if it turns out that those unidentified businessmen are acting in the interests of a foreign power? Well, then it’s "Game Over".

Which is not to say that there is no place in New Zealand for a political party dedicated to protecting and advancing the interests of "new citizens".

The immigration policies of successive governments have caused the percentage of foreign-born New Zealanders to rise quite markedly over the past two decades. In 2005, this country's foreign-born residents (excluding Australians) numbered 624,405 or 18 percent of the total population. It will not be many years, say the Statisticians, before the number of New Zealanders whose parents were born in East Asia (China, Taiwan, South Korea) exceeds the entire Maori population.

If it’s possible to make a coherent political case for a Maori Party, then why not a party for recent immigrants?

The first thing such a party must have is someone to lead it.

The NCP leader would need to be a long-time New Zealand resident and a fluent English speaker with a genuine track-record of service to either their own ethnic group, or the wider immigrant community – or both. If at all possible, they would also have to possess what might be called the "Jackie Chan", or even the "Winston Peters" Factor: an ability to inspire affection and trust across the ethnic divide.

That’s a very big ask.

The only people who spring to mind are Associate Professor Manying Ip from the University of Auckland’s School of Asian Studies, and the former Race Relations Conciliator, Gregory Fortuin. (It would be interesting to know if either of them has yet been approached by the NCP’s organisers.)

The next big ask is a policy manifesto that makes sense not only to immigrants – but to "native-born" Kiwis.

My intuition is that such a manifesto would have at its core the vision of a more disciplined, diligent and family-oriented New Zealand.

Interestingly, the man handling the NCP’s application to the Electoral Commission, Mr Young, is completely "on message" in this regard. According to The NZ Herald, he sees the NCP focusing on "community safety, legal and educational issues", as well as having "a particular interest in improving the economy".

Liberal-minded New Zealanders might find the sort of policies advanced by immigrant communities unappealing. They would almost certainly reject, for example, any suggestion that Parliament re-introduce the death penalty for murder, or require criminals found guilty of multiple offences to serve their sentences consecutively rather than concurrently.

But, an NCP which promoted such hard-line policies on "community safety and legal issues" might be surprised at how much "native-born" support it attracted. How could Garth McVicar’s Sensible Sentencing Trust not give such a party the big thumbs-up?

Policies demanding a radical overhaul of the New Zealand education system could likewise strike a chord well beyond the confines of this country’s immigrant communities.

Hell! Throw in a commitment to promote the sort of state-guided capitalism that’s turned China, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea into such dynamic and successful economies – and even an old lefty like me might start taking an interest in the NCP.

Just steer clear of the Crafars’ farms!

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 10 September 2010.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Resources Of Our Own

The impulse to care for our own: Whenever the earth quakes, the waters rise; the winds rage – or the bombs fall – something within us is simultaneously jolted loose. We call ourselves Homo Sapiens – the man that knows. But we could just as easily (and probably with more justification) have called ourselves Homo Caritas – the man that loves.

The following essay was written on Sunday, 5 September, one day after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck the city of Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island. It was published in a Special Earthquake Edition of The Press, Christchurch’s leading newspaper, on Monday, 6 September 2010. (For a more overtly political response to the Christchurch quake, see Scott Hamilton’s brilliant posting on the Reading The Maps blog.)

VAST AND SLOW are the forces that shape our world. As we human-beings flit, sometimes purposefully, more often heedlessly, across its surface, the mute miles of stone beneath our feet are driven forward, millimetre by relentless millimetre, on invisible and unfathomable tides of molten magma.

Continents move. Climates change. Plants and animals evolve. Our life-spans are too brief for our brains to acknowledge all but the most rapid changes: the transformation of our parents’ and our children’s faces; the steady growth of trees; the rise and fall of empires.

The adult May-fly, they say, lives but a single day. Measured against the finely-ground sands of geological time – we are all May-flies.

Fortunate human-beings can live their entire lives blissfully unaware of this powerful "other history" unfolding below them. There are occasional hints: ash-clouds rising from a distant volcanic peak; a harmless rocking and rolling registered through the soles of the feet. We note them in passing (the more thoughtful among us recalling geography lessons from long ago) only to resume the flitting and darting of our May-fly lives.


Except when the whole blind ballet of stone and magma comes to a halt, and upon its temporarily immovable objects a mountainous weight begins to exert an irresistible force.


Except when the slow-breathing planet, unable to exhale, coughs, the earth heaves, breaks free, and the tectonic dance resumes.

At such moments our own brief histories, and the vast, slow-moving history of the planet itself, touch one another. For a few terrifying, jack-hammering seconds we are made aware of how impossibly, overwhelmingly big and powerful is the one, and how very, very small and insignificant is the other.

All the things we like to think of as solid and dependable: the homes we live in; beloved old buildings of brick and stone; the very streets we walk on; are bent and twisted, lifted up and cast down. It’s as if the Almighty, like a surly child grown bored with his own creations, has laid them flat – just to see them fall.

Being touched in this way by what Charlton Heston, in The Ten Commandments, calls "the mighty hand of God" usually leaves human-beings feeling frightened, helpless and awe-struck.

So often nowadays we hear people using the expression "awesome" to describe what are really quite ordinary, even trivial, events. A major earthquake, however, really is awesome – something which inspires awe: that feeling of terror and insignificance we experience whenever we’re confronted by forces immeasurably greater than ourselves.

But it doesn’t last.

Homo Sapiens may only have walked upon this planet for 100,000 years, and his evolutionary forbears for less than 10 million years – a mere blink of an eye in geological time – but we are not without resources of our own.

Moving below the surface of our waking human mind is the magma of species memory and the far from mute impulses of mammalian instinct. We are, after all, the heirs of the greatest disaster to befall this planet since the cosmic collision that gave birth to the moon.

When an asteroid larger than Mt Everest smashed into the Earth’s crust 65 million years ago it wiped out 95 percent of all the animal species then living. That we are here at all is largely due to the social instincts of the family mammalia – the impulse to care for our own.

With every evolutionary leap towards specialisation and sophistication that social impulse has grown stronger. We call ourselves Homo Sapiens – the man that knows. But we could just as easily (and probably with more justification) have called ourselves Homo Caritas – the man that loves.

For whenever the earth quakes, the waters rise; the winds rage – or the bombs fall – something within us is simultaneously jolted loose. It goes by many names and takes many forms, but the word that best describes human behaviour under crisis conditions is the word our prime minister, John Key, used when asked why he’d come to Christchurch following the magnitude 7.1 earthquake which struck the city on Saturday, 4 September 2010.

He came, he said, to show "solidarity".

It’s such a good word, solidarity. Derived from the Latin solidus, meaning "the whole", it speaks of that most powerful of human instincts – the instinct of the group to draw together when threatened.

Our political and economic systems may heap rewards upon the selfish and the sly, but when disaster strikes, the overwhelming human response is to reach out, to help, to think of what best serves the interests of the whole.

Vast and slow are the forces that shape our world. When the earth heaves our first thoughts rush to the planetary forces that dwarf us. But they are not the only forces at work. Earthquakes may lay cities low – but it’s Love that rebuilds them.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Monday, 6 September 2010.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Now It's Time For Realism

Bernie Madoff in a Vee-Dub? There are times when good intentions simply aren't good enough. As the war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, wrote of another old man who cost people all they had: "'He's a cheery old card,' grunted Harry to Jack/As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack./But he did for them both by his plan of attack."

THE COLLAPSE of South Canterbury Finance (SCF) is just the latest in a long line of serious business failures. What’s different about the latest debacle is that, this time, it’s taxpayers who are picking up the tab.

More than $1.5 billion is being paid out to SCF investors – a sum greater than the entire amount set aside by the Government for new spending in the coming year.

The Finance Minister, Bill English, has been quick to reassure us:

"The up front cost to the Crown of repaying South Canterbury's depositors is about $1.6 billion, but we would expect to recover the bulk of that as the receiver sells the assets over time."

An expectation is not, of course, a guarantee. Time alone will tell whether Mr English’s sanguine response to SCF’s collapse is based on fact or folly.

Right now, however, it’s time to face the brutal fact that New Zealand’s business community has become this country’s biggest liability.

For the best part of thirty years business-people have been telling us that all they need to restore New Zealand’s prosperity is for the State to get out of the way and let them get on with the job.

Labour’s Roger Douglas and National’s Ruth Richardson took them at their word.

And even though it cost us of tens-of-thousands of well-paid jobs and scores of thriving communities, we stoically and selflessly "bit the bullet" of radical economic "reform".

By the time Rogernomics and Ruthanasia had run their course, New Zealanders had lost control of their finance sector, most of their news media, and much else besides. Valuable state assets, the product of more than a century of public investment, had been sold-off to foreigners for a song.

Undeterred, we kept on chewing the business community’s ammunition. Why? Because they’d successfully brainwashed us into believing that the "long-term gain" would, ultimately, be worth the "short-term pain".

Unfortunately, "ultimately" turned out to be a moveable feast.

And while we waited for that ultimate pay-day, things went from bad to worse. The 1987 Stockmarket Crash revealed not only that New Zealand’s business titans had feet of clay, but that some them were also just plain, old-fashioned crooks.

If we’d been smarter, we’d have realised back then, in the early 1990s, that the entire neoliberal project was one almighty scam: a weird sort of political Ponzi scheme in which the early converts reaped all the benefits, and the late-adopters paid all the bills.

And pay we did – with the Employment Contracts Act.

The ECA absolved the business community of all responsibility for learning the lessons of the excesses of the 1980s. Instead of upgrading their technology and upskilling their workforce, New Zealand’s businesses spent the 1990s stripping their staff of hard-won conditions and allowances and putting an end to penal rates.

By the turn of the century thousands of New Zealanders were living off their credit-cards just to make ends meet. Indeed, the whole New Zealand economy seemed to be adrift on a limitless ocean of debt. Like Tennessee William’s fragile heroine, Blanche DuBois, New Zealanders had become hopelessly dependent on "the kindness of strangers".

Also, like Blanche, they no longer wanted Realism – but Magic. And, as it has done so often in our history, this unwavering faith in the "unseen hand" of the market, and the superhuman powers of entrepreneurial capitalists, has led thousands to financial ruin.

"Kindness" and "Magic" are certainly the operative words in the tragic demise of Alan Hubbard’s empire. How else should we explain the quaint anachronism of a man who, in an age of instantaneous data and light-speed capital flows, was still willing to put his faith in the unwritten contract of a handshake; the reliability of a Canterbury cockey’s spoken word?

Now it’s time for realism.

From Vogel to Muldoon, the growth and development of New Zealand’s economy has not been driven by the daring visions and fluctuating fortunes of individual capitalists, but by the cautious intelligence and financial solidity of successive New Zealand governments.

Over and over again, throughout our history, we’ve had to learn this lesson. That we are too small to let big things fail. And that the only institution with both the collective resources and the collective wisdom to make big things succeed - is the New Zealand State.

Who else could have rescued SCF?

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, 3 September 2010.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Brutal Realities

Just who is brutalising who? Justice Minister Simon Power appears willing to do violence to his own (surprisingly liberal) principles rather than forswear the support of the Sensible Sentencing Trust and its right-wing authoritarian advisers.

"RE-BRUTALISATION" – It’s a word you’ll be hearing again and again over the next few months.

The literal meaning of "re-brutalisation" is simple and straightforward. Someone is re-brutalised if they are repeatedly subjected to brutal treatment.

If an Islamic leader fell victim of one of the CIA’s "Special Renditions", for example, and was spirited away to Morocco, "waterboarded" and then released, only to be abducted, waterboarded and released all over again; then I think it would be fair to say that he’d experienced "re-brutalisation".

Because "brutal" is a very strong word – meaning "savagely or coarsely cruel"; "harsh"; and "merciless".

To discover that New Zealand children were being repeatedly subjected to savage, coarse, cruel, harsh and merciless treatment at the hands of our judicial officers would, therefore, be utterly shocking, unbelievable, and – if true – cause for the utmost concern.

But this is precisely what the Minister of Justice, Simon Power, is accusing judicial officers of doing to New Zealand children. According to Mr Power, the nation’s judges are sitting back and allowing taxpayer-funded defence lawyers to savagely, coarsely, cruelly, harshly and mercilessly "re-brutalise" child victims.

I must say that I was deeply shocked to learn that this sort of behaviour was being allowed in our courts. Media reports over the past twenty or so years had conveyed an entirely different picture of how New Zealand’s courts were obtaining and testing the testimony of children – especially those involved in cases of alleged child abuse.

I’d read about testimony being given by video-link so that children would not be required to physically confront their alleged abusers. I’d heard about social workers and psychologists being present to ensure that the child witnesses were not placed under undue pressure during cross-examination. Indeed, the clear impression I’d received from all of these media reports was that in this country our judicial system did everything within its power to make sure that child witnesses were treated kindly, delicately, compassionately, gently and sympathetically.

Apparently, I was wrong. Apparently, the same news media that has consistently misinformed me concerning the measures taken to ensure that child witnesses are not harmed by our legal processes, has also systematically suppressed the fact that, year after year, child witnesses were being savagely cross-examined by merciless defence lawyers, while judges and prosecutors looked on impassively – lifting not one finger to prevent these unfortunate youngsters’ "re-brutalisation".

All nonsense, of course. No such "re-brutalisation" has occurred, or is occurring, in New Zealand’s courtrooms. New Zealand does, indeed, enjoy a very good reputation for the way it handles the testimony of children.

So, why is the Minister of Justice using such extravagant and prejudicial language to convince us that our courtrooms have been transformed into veritable torture-chambers?

The answer to that question is, I’m afraid, as sinister as it is alarming.

Politically-speaking, the Minister has determined that there is more to be gained by aligning himself with the so-called "Victim’s Rights" movement, than there is by defending the core principles of Anglo-American jurisprudence.

The movement behind this politicisation of victimhood has a very specific and very sinister purpose: to roll-back the rights of the citizen, and reinforce what they see as the dangerously weakened powers of the State. Arising in the mid-1970s as a reaction to what many persons in authority around the world regarded as "an excess of democracy", this movement’s ultimate purpose is to stuff the genie of "permissiveness" back inside its bottle.

Were it to announce these purposes openly and honestly, however, such a profoundly authoritarian project would almost certainly be rejected by the electorate. But, when it masks its ultimate objectives behind the carefully manufactured perception that our courts have become places where criminals, awash with rights and flush with taxpayers’ cash, are outrageously protected by weak judges and venal defence lawyers; and where the victims of crime, their rights denied and their voices stifled, are callously "re-brutalised" over and over again; then the clamour for reducing the rights of accused citizens and brutally punishing convicted criminals becomes politically irresistible.

In the 2008 election campaign, the political scientist Jack Vowles noted that: "Hard-line law and order policies seem to have provided the strongest substantive National Party appeal, despite Labour’s considerable concessions to that point of view since 1999."

As a person, Mr Power is an intelligent, compassionate and surprisingly liberal man. As a politician, however, he can’t afford to become the National Minister who turned his back on the suite of policies which persuaded more former Labour voters to switch sides than any other. That is not the sort of legacy someone hoping to succeed John Key as National’s leader wants to have hanging around his neck. Which is why he’s prepared to ally himself with some very cruel, very coarse and very savage ideological beasts.

If anyone’s been "brutalised", it’s the Minister.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31st August 2010.