Friday, 25 February 2011

The Spirit Of The Phoenix

Resurgam! (I Shall Rise Again!): The Phoenix should become the emblem of Christchurch's rebirth.

THE LEGEND of the Phoenix bears retelling at this awful time. Consumed by fire, this mythical bird rises up, reborn, from the debris of its own demise. From Greece to China, Russia to India, the symbol of the immortal firebird has given hope and comfort to humanity for three millennia. It’s promise of resurrection and renewal speaks to us persuasively as we contemplate the tragic devastation of Christchurch.

The image of the Phoenix, rising triumphantly from the flames, should be the emblem of Christchurch’s reconstruction. Most of the logos and brands we encounter in our daily lives are little more than pleasing shapes, but this ancient symbol is rich with meaning.

It reminds us that many of the world’s great cities have fallen victim to disasters of one kind or another. Rome and Constantinople were sacked. London burned. Berlin was reduced to rubble by bombs and shells.

But these cities did not die. Like the Phoenix they were reborn. From the ruins of Rome rose St Peter’s Basilica: from Constantinople, the beautiful Blue Mosque. Without London’s Great Fire, Sir Christopher Wren could not have given us St Paul’s Cathedral. Without the bombs and shells, there’d be no magnificently reconstructed Reichstag at the heart of Berlin.

For more than a century, the City of Christchurch has been represented by its magnificent cathedral. That the damage inflicted by this latest, deadly, earthquake may prove to be irreparable, and that the whole building may have to be demolished, is truly heartbreaking. And, of course, the Cathedral is but one among scores of historic structures reduced to rubble by the earth’s murderous fury.

There will be calls for the exact replication of these familiar and beloved landmarks. They should be resisted. This is not a moment for clinging to the past, but for embracing the future. Our vision should be of a new, 21st Century Christchurch, with buildings to catch our breath and dazzle our eyes. Let the word go forth to the world’s finest architects; to its most imaginative and radical urban planners: "Come to Christchurch, clear away the debris – astonish us!"

Because we need to be astonished. We need to be amazed. We need to rediscover the pride that comes from building on a grand scale.

Professor James Belich, in his history of the "Anglo World", Replenishing the Earth, pays particular attention to the extraordinary speed of urban development in 19th Century North America and Australasia. "From zero permanent inhabitants in 1835, Marvellous Melbourne grew to 471,000 in 1891." Founded thirteen years later, in 1848, Christchurch expanded at a similar breakneck speed.

That same impatient energy is needed now, not only from the people of Christchurch, but from all New Zealanders. We need to ask ourselves how men and women living in the steam age were able to conjure a graceful and splendidly organised city out of the Canterbury Plains in just eight years. What became of the can-do collective spirit of our great-great-grandparents? How did we lose it? And, most importantly – how do we get it back?

This is no time to engage in petty politicking, but hasn’t the ideological conditioning of the past quarter-century rendered the whole notion of collective energy and collective competence vaguely ridiculous? Haven’t we been encouraged to simply take care of ourselves, and let the "invisible hand" of the market take care of everything else?

But, were they invisible hands that reached into the rubble to rescue the living and reclaim the dead? Or were they the hands of living, flesh-and-blood Cantabrians? Did invisible hands build Christchurch’s iconic Cathedral? Will invisible hands erect its replacement?

This is why the spirit of the Phoenix is so crucial. Because the story of the firebird is the story of humanity itself: of human-beings’ unique ability to conceive of, and plan for, the future. Yes, we are mortal, but it is our very mortality that makes the hopes and dreams we pass on to our children so important. Because as we dream, so shall we build.

The Christchurch that eventually rises from the ruins of Tuesday’s devastating earthquake will be no better – and no worse – than the material we human firebirds bring to the process of its resurrection. For the sake of the city: for the sake of our country; let’s make sure it’s as enduring as it is astonishing.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 February 2011.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

A New News?

A New Kind of News?: The sheer scale of the Christchurch tragedy, and the myriad calls upon officials' time and energy, leaves little or no room for the public relations specialists to present their client's version of reality. The resulting, searingly honest, coverage is what real (i.e. unmediated) journalism looks like.

A NEW NEWS? Tim Watkin, over at Pundit, is trumpeting the free-to-air networks’ continuous, advertising-free coverage of the Christchurch Earthquake as a "game-changing" journalistic adventure.

"Rather than a journalist doing the thinking for the viewers and the carefully condensed report presented," says Tim, "the thinking (and feeling) is done live in front of you, and sometimes is exposed as shallow or headline-driven. It's real, for better or worse."

To say this was overstating the case would be an understatement.

New Zealanders are quite used to journalists reporting live from the scenes of natural and man-made tragedies. And when there is actually something to report – as there undoubtedly is in the devastated city of Christchurch – New Zealand’s television journalists generally do a very good job.

What the earthquake coverage has revealed, however, is how spurious and trivialising most of TVNZ’s and TV3’s "live crosses" really are. The sequence usually involves an embarrassed journalist, positioned well away from any action, telling us what the presenter has already told us (if we’re lucky, in slightly more detail).

What is truly unusual about the free-to-air networks earthquake coverage is the extreme fluidity of the events their journalists are being asked to report. The sheer scale of the tragedy, and the myriad calls upon officials’ time and energy, leaves little or no room for the public relations specialists to present their client’s version of reality.

For what may be the first time in their brief careers (so many of these journalists are barely out of journalism school) young reporters are free to present us with information and images that have not been carefully prepared, edited and slanted – either by the "official sources" on the spot, or back in their own newsrooms.

This is what real journalism looks like and sounds like. Trained observers and communicators, unencumbered by all the usual editorial and political shackles, giving their audience accurate, up-to-date information to the very best of their professional ability.

Tim’s effusive posting is also quite likely a reflection of the sheer novelty of being able to work outside the rigid constraints of a fixed advertising schedule. As he rather breathlessly explains: "The news crashes on through 6pm, Close Up doesn't wait for 7pm for a Mike Hosking interview, Breakfast starts at 5.30am and runs until noon; even Coronation St is sacrificed."

If he but knew it, what Tim is actually celebrating is not some sort of quantum-leap into CNN-land, but the enormous flexibility and freedom which flows from broadcasting undertaken not for profit, but for the public good.

The camaraderie and un-self-conscious display of professional expertise, which Tim describes in the TVNZ control-room, is what happens in any workplace where the workers themselves, rather than their bosses, are given responsibility for production.

It will, of course, all come to an end in a few days time. TVNZ and TV3 cannot afford to keep their broadcasts advertising-free indefinitely. All-too-soon the economic realities of for-profit broadcasting will assert themselves and Tim and his colleagues will go back to their usual job of delivering eyeballs to advertisers.

Still, I’m glad the young producer of Q+A drew our attention to the quality of the work the networks’ staff are currently delivering to their fellow citizens. The tragedy, of course, is that it requires a national crisis of these proportions to shatter the normal templates of broadcasting practice.

Just for a moment we are being given a glimpse of an alternative broadcasting universe. One in which the workers in the control room, the workers operating the cameras, and the journalists delivering the story, are free to communicate with their fellow citizens about things that really matter.

By showing us human-beings helping one another, comforting one another, risking their lives for one another, they have given the lie to the twisted version of human nature transmitted to viewers during "normal" programming.

In this awful – but genuine – "reality show", the survivors of the Christchurch earthquake do not lie or back-stab, manoeuvre or compete. Instead, they tell each other the truth, they put their arms around perfect strangers, and they co-operate heroically for the common good.

What we’ve been given, Tim, isn’t just a rare opportunity to see what real journalism looks like, but a chance to learn how very, very far from the vicious depiction of humanity, typically delivered by commercial television, our fellow New Zealanders truly are.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Christchurch's Agony

Christchurch, New Zealand. Tuesday, 22 February 2011.

MY OWN HEART, and I’m sure the hearts of all Bowalley Road’s readers, goes out to the people of Christchurch this afternoon.

The images broadcast live by Television New Zealand have been deeply disturbing. Clearly there have been fatalities and many, many people are injured.

Much that was old and beautiful, like the stately Christchurch Cathedral, has been damaged or destroyed.

The implications for the New Zealand economy are daunting.

Rebuilding Christchurch cannot now be left to the Market’s invisible hand. It will take all our hands, working through the public instruments of our common purpose, to make good this tragedy.

If we learn nothing else from today's disaster, let us learn that we are frail and wholly contingent beings, whose only solace in a vast and unheeding universe – is each other.

Mr Oram's Revolution

Must Try Harder: Business commentators like Rod Oram (above) are constantly berating New Zealanders for their failure to grasp the nettle of neoliberal "reform". Mr Oram is now demanding a "cultural revolution" to "help us build a business one". But New Zealanders have been living through a Rogernomics-inspired cultural revolution for twenty-seven years - yet still the Neoliberal cry is for more of the same. Perhaps its time to stop criticising the patient's failure to improve - and start questioning the cure.

A CULTURAL REVOLUTION? Rod Oram wants one. Writing in The Sunday Star-Times of 20 February, the respected business commentator laments the state of our nation. "We are locked into a low-growth trajectory thanks to misdiagnosing our challenges, misjudging our opportunities and poor execution of our few good ideas."

Mr Oram attributes these failures to five crucial deficiencies in our national character: Complacency, Delusion, Distrust, Distraction and Frustration. His prescription: "We need a cultural revolution to help us build a business one."

Angry denunciations of Kiwis’ manifold deficiencies by business leaders and commentators have become something of a fixture on the business pages of this country’s newspapers. Clearly we are a bitter disappointment to the arbiters of change – so much so that nothing less than a cultural revolution is required to correct the errors of our ways.

I thinks it’s a little late (and more than a little cheeky) to demand a cultural revolution from a nation which has spent the past quarter-century passing through one.

The economic and social reforms unleashed by the Fourth Labour Government in 1984 have not only transformed New Zealand, they have profoundly altered New Zealanders.

For those born and raised in the dark cavern of Rogernomics there can, of course, be no memories of the sun. The deeper tragedy, perhaps, is that those New Zealanders fortunate enough to grow up in a country bathed in sunshine have somehow convinced themselves that the magic lanterns responsible for Neoliberalism’s deceptive shadows are a preferable alternative.

We have forgotten so much – and swallowed so many extraordinary lies.

Foremost among these being the lies about public ownership and the inefficiencies of the State.

How many times, over the past 25 years, have we been fed the image of the lazy employee of the "Ministry of Jerks", leaning on his shovel at the side of the road? Who now remembers the elite Ministry of Works construction teams who built New Zealand’s world-beating hydro-power schemes on time and under-budget?

Did anyone pause to wonder why the huge snowstorm that cut the power supply to so many thousands of Cantabrians a few years back didn’t wreak more havoc on the region’s energy infrastructure? No. Because we take the excellence of its engineering and the gold-standard quality of its construction completely for granted. It never occurs to us that a privately owned construction company – mandated to provide a healthy rate of return to its shareholders – would never have provided this nation with such a robust and reliable system.

The Rogernomes couldn’t get rid of the Ministry of Works fast enough – and for very good reason. Far from being a fiscally draining make-work scheme for New Zealand’s most indolent and unintelligent drones, the Ministry of Works, from its inception, had been home to some of this country’s most innovative and creative civil engineers, architects, town planners and designers. Indeed, it’s probably not drawing too long a bow to suggest that the Ministry of Works highly-motivated public servants embodied the practical wisdom, quiet self-confidence and understated patriotism, for which New Zealanders are so universally admired.

That’s what made it so dangerous. In the eyes of the Neoliberal revolutionaries the Ministry constituted that most dangerous of threats – an alternative source of ideas and explanations. For a regime whose slogan was: "There is NO alternative" the Ministry was anathema. It not only had to be destroyed, it had to be defamed.

So, perhaps Mr Oram is right. Perhaps we do need a cultural revolution. A revolution dedicated to rooting out the five deforming "character" deficiencies Neoliberalism transmits to the populations it infects.

Complacency: The complacent ideological assumption that the market knows best.

Delusion: The delusion that a nation of isolated and disconnected individuals (the Internet does not equal intimacy) will ever summon-up the collective energy to identify (let alone pursue) the public good.

Distrust: The distrust of the past as a source of solace, strength and inspiration; of intellectuals, artists and anybody else who dares suggest that a more generous existence lies beyond Neoliberalism’s cave; and of the scientific method - with its power to expose the fads and fallacies of dogmatic ideologues.

Distraction: The need for constant and socially divisive distraction – to prevent the population from ever accurately identifying the true source of its insecurity and despondency.

Frustration: The creation of massive levels of personal frustration in order to maintain the social tension required to keep Neoliberalism’s victims angry and divided.

Since the premiership of Julius Vogel (1873-76) wise New Zealanders have understood that their country is only viable as a national economy if its best and its brightest, rather than being dispersed by the anarchy of the market, are concentrated and empowered under the protection of an active and innovative state.

Executing that "good idea" really would require a revolution.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 February, 2011.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Bomber's "To Do" List

So Much to Do: If Martyn "Bomber" Bradbury is genuinely convinced a New Left Party has a Snowball-in-Hell's chance of putting six MPs into the House of Representatives, he needs to get started right now.

OKAY, BOMBER, let’s cut to the chase. You reckon I’ve convinced you that a New Left Party is an electorally viable proposition. Fine. So, what are you waiting for? The General Election is just nine months away – time’s a-wasting!

Get that application off to the Electoral Commission, send a message to everyone on your e-mail address list that you’re in the market for 500 names to register a new political party.

Oh, wait a minute, you’ll need a name. What are you going to call this New Left Party? Ah, I see. Well, how about "The Aotearoa Party"? Okay, you like that? Done!

Now what’s the problem? Hmmm. Well, I have to say that was predictable. You’re a highly political person, and highly political people tend to have highly political friends and acquaintances. So, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that most of the people on your address-list are already committed to a political party or movement.

Nor should you be surprised, Bomber, that even the ones who aren’t already card-carrying members of the Labour Party, the Greens, the Maori Party, the Progressives, the Alliance, the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, RAM or the Workers Party, are going to want to see some sort of manifesto setting forth your new party’s political vision and its basic programme.

You have got a manifesto, Bomber? Sigh. Now, why on earth would people sign up to a political party if they’re given no clear idea as to what it stands for, or what it intends to do? Be careful how you do this, though, because the Left is notoriously hard to please when it comes to drafting a programme that somebody other than a hard-core socialist might want to vote for.

What about a constitution? Please tell you’ve drafted a basic set of rules and procedures. Not as such. Well, you’re going to need one in order to be registered (and, don’t forget, full democratic accountability to the party membership is mandatory under the Electoral Act).

I don’t suppose you know any progressive constitutional lawyers who might be willing to help you out with this pro bono? Pity. And, no, you can’t just bash something out. A robust set of rules is absolutely essential – especially for a new organisation that's yet to establish its operational norms and party traditions.

Political parties are very fractious beasts, Bomber, and, as the Maori Party’s current constitutional shenanigans vividly demonstrate, they cannot operate effectively without a robust and transparent set of rules.

Meanwhile, you need to make a start on acquiring all the paraphernalia of party-building. This includes a party logo, a fully-functional party website, the requisite party bank accounts, party stationery, membership-books, rosettes, badges, bumper-stickers and a handbook of basic party signage protocols to ensure brand uniformity throughout the country. The new party will also need a grand public launch and an inaugural conference. I’d allow a minimum budget for all these elements of not less than $50,000. (You have got $50,000 – haven’t you?)

You’ll also need to know (roughly) who is going to emerge from that conference as your principal officers and allies. The last thing you want is to find yourself surrounded by a bunch of unelectable weirdoes. Ditto for the party’s basic policy platform.

Get all that done, Bomber, and you can start thinking about how you’re going to attract the attention, interest and, finally, the political commitment of those 598,000 low-paid workers and beneficiaries.

A good start would be to send them all an introductory letter – a direct mail-shot.

How do you get their names and addresses? Easy. As a registered political party you’re now entitled to access all the data stored on the electoral roll. Of course to manipulate the roll data effectively you’ll need to lay your hands on some pretty specialised software. The main political parties have spent years developing their IT (and, no, I don’t think they’ll be willing to share).

So, yes, of course you’ll have to pay for your direct mail shots. As a party outside of Parliament you’re not entitled to the hundreds-of-thousands of taxpayer dollars made available to the political parties with representation in the House of Representatives.

The cost of a direct mail-shot to 598,000 electors? Well, NZ Post will almost certainly give you a hefty discount, but I wouldn’t expect to get away with anything less than $250,000. (You do have $250,000 – don’t you Bomber?)

And, of course, you will need to make several more direct mail-shots over the next few months. Allowing for all the pamphlets, billboards, placards and posters you’re going to need; the print advertising costs; and a minimal travel and accommodation allocation; I think you should budget on spending at least $1 million (that’s not including the state-funding you’ll receive for campaign broadcasting).

So, I hope you know the left-wing equivalents of Craig Heatley, Alan Gibbs and Owen Glenn, Bomber. Otherwise the Aotearoa Party’s founder-member contribution is going to be a hefty $2,000 a-piece.

Of course there’s more – so much more – involved in establishing a political party than these basic "to-do" tasks.

Expect to work 18-hour days. Expect to lose friends. Expect to lose partners. Expect to see your ideals trampled-on; your hopes dashed; and the dirtiest of dirty deals done dirt-cheap.

But most of all, Bomber, and hardest of all to bear:

Expect to fail.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Undoing The State

Nation Building?: If a state is merely the institutional expression of territorial seizure, then the law is merely the state's way of justifying and entrenching the land-grab which gave it birth. By this reckoning, any State which recognises (let alone responds to) the claims of those who inhabited the territory prior to its seizure (viz The Marine & Coastal Area Bill) is committing an act of pure folly.

WHAT IS THE DEBATE over the foreshore and seabed really about? Is it simply an argument over who has the best claim to ownership (and, therefore, right-of-access) to New Zealand’s beaches? A dispute over the precise nature of "Customary Title" – driven by a dispossessed indigenous minority desperate to retain this last, vestigial margin of their patrimony? Or is it about something altogether more profound? Is the debate over the foreshore and seabed really about the nature of law, and the future of the state which enforces it?

Let’s not forget that this whole debate began when the Court of Appeal, overturning decades of what was believed to be "settled law", ruled that the customary rights of Maori to the resources of the foreshore and seabed had not been extinguished by the Crown. If those rights could be legally established, said the Court, full ownership of the designated land and resources could pass to the claimants.

The rest of the story is well known to us all, so let’s pause here and ask ourselves what, exactly, the Court of Appeal thought it was doing – or more accurately undoing.

A majority of the judges of the Court were clearly of the view that the New Zealand State was conceived in law and remains subordinate to legal principles and precedents. According to this view, the ownership rights of a country’s aboriginal inhabitants, if not formally and explicitly extinguished, remain in force.

But, as the excellent docudrama, Waitangi: What Really Happened, broadcast on Waitangi Day makes hilariously clear, New Zealand wasn’t conceived in anything except utter confusion. Such law as there was existed only where there was both the will and the means to enforce it. Hone Heke’s axe spoke eloquently and repeatedly on this subject.

Indeed, one could argue that the law – as a tangible and enforceable set of rules – only acquired a purposeful existence after the concrete foundations of the New Zealand State had already been laid.

That didn’t happen at Waitangi – or even at the inaugural meeting of the first New Zealand Parliament in 1854. New Zealand, in the sense of a related and co-ordinated set of institutions operating beyond the effective challenge of any other entity organised within the same territorial space, only came into existence when the settlers, assisted by several thousand imperial troops, invaded the lands and extinguished the authority of the Maori King.

That moment has been described by the legal historian, Professor Jock Brookfield, as "a revolutionary seizure of power" by the Settler State. Professor Brookfield’s description is consistent with the school of jurisprudence which holds that only when there is no other source of legitimate authority to challenge the means of its enforcement does law become real. In other words, law is a consequence – not a precondition – of state creation.

According to this view, the state is born out of what is essentially an act of territorial seizure: not to put too finer point upon it – a land grab. The whole state-building process being nothing more than an elaboration of the means required to hold onto and then manage the territory seized. The mechanisms we construct to do this are dignified by the name of "law". It is, however, dangerous to construe a legal system as anything other than the State’s creature. The law is only ever accidentally about justice. It’s always about politics.

Helen Clark understood all this very well. Her Foreshore & Seabed Act, which Maori quite accurately described as another raupatu – forcible seizure of territory - not only reiterated the "legitimacy precedes legality" formula for the benefit of the Court of Appeal, but also reaffirmed the brute historical reality that "New Zealand" was made by Pakeha, for Pakeha. If Maori were willing to become Pakeha, they could belong. If not – there’d be trouble.

I wonder if the Prime Minister fully appreciates what his Attorney General is undoing with the Marine & Coastal Area Bill – and how difficult it will be to refasten.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 February 2010.

You Know Something's Wrong When ...

You Guy's Have Got To Be Kidding!: You know something's very, very wrong when the only person the Media 7 team could find to argue for the continuation of Women's Studies courses was ...

THE BETE NOIR of The Hand Mirror set ends up fronting for the value of Women’s Studies courses on Media 7.

Say what?

Yes, that’s right, the only panellist willing to defend Women’s Studies courses (and pretty much the whole feminist discourse) on last night’s Media 7 programme was the Queen of Thorns favourite prick – Chris Trotter.

Prompted by the recent decision to cancel the Women’s Studies course at Victoria University, the producers of Media 7 were keen to examine the likely impact of its demise on the coverage of gender issues by the New Zealand media.

But could they get anybody with a strong personal commitment to the teaching of Women’s Studies to appear on the show? Not on your Nelly! Sandra Coney and Sue Kedgely, founding mothers of Second Wave Feminism in New Zealand, declined. All the women in academia who were approached were unwilling to put their heads above the ivory parapet. Even the women at New Zealand’s premier feminist blogsite – The Hand Mirror – refused to participate.

Finally, in desperation (or was it out of a wicked sense of humour?) they asked Chris Trotter if he would be prepared to comment.

Well, after I stopped laughing, my first question was: "Is there no one else slightly better qualified than me – like a woman – willing to discuss this?" The producers explained that they’d lined up Deborah Coddington to discuss women in journalism, and that a young graduate of the University of Auckland’s Women’s Studies course, Hannah Lynch, would supply the voice of direct experience, but they’d been unable to find any women who were prepared to come on the programme and defend Women’s Studies per se. (To be fair, Marilyn Waring would have fronted, but she had another engagement.)

Blame it on the Imp of Perversity – but I said "Okay, I’ll do it!"

And what a weird experience it turned out to be.

The show kicked-off with an interview between Media 7 journalist Sarah Daniell and a former Women’s Studies student from Vic’ who’s gone on to become a household name in New Zealand journalism ….. John Campbell.

Okay, make that two blokes.

Then Deborah – the former libertarian and Act MP – informed the show’s stand-in host, José Barboza (you’re cursing the timing of that Webstock Conference now, aren’t you Russell) that, as a young journalist, she took her inspiration from Joan Didion, Gloria Steinem and woman journalists writing for the left-wing American periodical Mother Jones. Who knew? And, what went wrong?

For my money, however, the star of the show was Hannah. With the forbearance of age, I shall pass over this budding journalist’s first foray into public political commentary in silence. The programme is viewable here. Make up your own mind.

Suffice to say that, by the end of the programme I was ready to start bellowing out the chorus of I Am Woman and, at a pinch, would have burned my Y-fronts on camera.

Is the backlash born of the barbecue-pit and the sports bar really this strong? Have we truly reached such a low intellectual level in this country, and is the climate of fear in our universities, corporations, party caucuses, trade union offices and newsrooms really so great, that the only people willing to defend what is arguably the most important progressive movement of the past half-century are John Campbell and ….. me!

Surely, there’s something very, very wrong with this picture?

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

No Ordinary Bill

Liberty Leading The People: The principle of equality has long been regarded as indispensible to the achievement of liberty. The Marine & Coastal Areas Bill, by establishing the new property right of "Customary Title", will enshrine in law a power that only Maori may exercise. By negating the principle of equality in this way, the National Government threatens the freedom of all New Zealanders.

THE GOVERNMENT’S DECISION to rush through the remaining stages of the Marine & Coastal Area Bill is as ill-considered as it is dangerous. For this is no ordinary piece of legislation, easily repealed by a newly-elected House of Representatives. It is a bill which confers upon Maori, by virtue of their indigeneity, a new kind of property right (Customary Title), along with a powerful new set of legal powers to enforce that right – powers which the legislation’s many critics believe will undermine the generally accepted principles of liberal democracy.

The formal equality of all citizens lies at the heart of the liberal-democratic state. Indeed, any state which invests one part of the population with more rights than another, or strips a minority of citizens of rights enjoyed by their neighbours, is quite rightly condemned for promoting inequality.

The historical path towards full political equality has been anything but smooth. Revolutions and civil wars have been fought to secure its full recognition.

The right to elect a government, for example, was originally restricted to high-status men of property. And even when the property qualification was abolished, women remained excluded from the franchise. In most colonial societies the indigenous population was denied any role at all in government.

The key point to acknowledge here is that, from the 18th to the 21st Century, the expansion of human rights has been a genuine progression: from privilege and exclusion – to equality and increasing participation.

Our own founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, reflects the logic of this progression. The absorption of New Zealand into the British Empire (Article One) is followed by a clear description of how the transition (from tribal society to modern state) is to be managed (Article Two). The document is then concluded by the granting of formal equality to all of Queen Victoria’s new subjects (Article Three). By the standards of the time, this was an extraordinarily generous arrangement – a triumph of missionary zeal and the British Foreign and Colonial Office’s liberal optimism.

Until relatively recently, that liberal optimism did not appear to have been misplaced. Through much travail, and many injustices, the transition of the Maori people – from pre-modern tribalism to full citizenship in a modern state – seemed on the point of fulfilment.

In the 1970s, however, New Zealand intellectuals’ faith in this progressive vision faltered. The reality of economic inequality, coupled with the persistence and institutionalisation of racial prejudice, undermined their confidence in the assimilationist policies of successive New Zealand Governments. Maori intellectuals, in particular, rejected the liberal-democratic assumptions upon which assimilation was based. Maori, they insisted, possessed an indissoluble and separate identity, which could only be protected in and by Maori-controlled institutions. Article Two of the Treaty – which guaranteed tino rangatiratanga – was not a formula for transition, but a charter for the permanent preservation of tribal power and independence.

The extraordinary fact of the past forty years of our history is the manner in which this bold rejection of Captain Hobson’s famous declaration of 6 February 1840: he iwi ko tahi tatou (now we are one people) has become the official policy of the New Zealand State.

Not, I hasten to add, the policy of the New Zealand people – who have never been given the opportunity to formally endorse – or reject – the separatist "two nations in one state" orthodoxy which now prevails in our universities and throughout the public service. Though these latter groups celebrate "The Treaty Debate", the term is cruelly inappropriate. The only issue up for debate among New Zealand’s elite policy-makers is the speed at which our liberal-democratic institutions should be "adapted" to the new bi-cultural orthodoxy.

The Minister for Treaty Negotiations, Chris Finlayson, has unabashedly located himself alongside the Maori Party at the sharp end of this sham debate. His airy sanctioning of the abrupt curtailment of the Maori Select Committee’s consideration of the Marine & Coastal Areas Bill made a nonsense of his Government’s earlier promises of democratic accountability.

The overwhelming majority of submitters opposed the legislation (a situation which the Prime Minister, John Key, had previously reassured the electorate would cause the bill to be withdrawn). No matter. Mr Finlayson, like the leader-writer of The NZ Herald, clearly holds the view that there must be "a gradual acceptance that a post-colonial state cannot be governed simply by majority rule".

There’s simply no way Mr Finlayson and his Maori Party allies are about to let a few "clowns" prevent them from exploiting a wavering and wafer-thin majority in the House of Representatives to pass a piece of legislation inimical to the democratic beliefs – and rights – of all New Zealanders.

Dissatisfied Maori nationalists in Tamaki Makaurau are organising a hikoi of protest from the north against Mr Finlayson’s bill. Perhaps dissatisfied Pakeha democrats in the south should do the same?

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 February 2011.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Could It Happen Here? (A Scenario Inspired by Egypt’s Revolutionary Moment)

The Fire Next Time: Suppose the 30,000-strong hikoi that rolled into Parliament Grounds in May 2004 had refused to disperse? If New Zealand is ever to have an "Egyptian Moment", that moment will be created by the tangata whenua - on behalf of us all.

THE GREAT HUMAN SPECTACLE of revolutionary passion in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square has prompted me to think about what could possibly spark a similar uprising here in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

To my mind, there is only one chink in the armour of the existing state apparatus large enough for something sharp and dangerous to be driven into its heart – and that is the increasingly ill-defined relationship between the New Zealand State and the tangata whenua.

Crucially, the State’s own perception of its powers and responsibilities in this bitterly contested area, including its sense of legitimacy, has become deeply confused and conflicted. Confronted with a sufficiently powerful challenge from the Maori people, it is possible the Government would become politically paralysed just long enough for events on the street to spiral out of control and acquire the sort of unstoppable momentum that brought down President Hosni Mubarak.

It might begin with something as simple as the recent call by Maori Council members from Tamaki Makaurau for a nationwide hikoi against the Marine & Coastal Area Bill. The call was accompanied by a vote of No Confidence in the Maori Party leadership, which could easily be interpreted as an invitation to the Maori rebel MP, Hone Harawira, to make himself available to lead the proposed hikoi – just as he led the 2004 protest against Labour’s Foreshore & Seabed Bill.

Let us assume that the simmering dissatisfaction with the Maori Party leadership’s handling of the Marine & Coastal Area Bill, and its treatment of Mr Harawira, is powerful enough to mobilise the same sort of numbers as the 2004 hikoi. And, let us further assume that in 2011 an additional list of grievances gets added to the protesters' bill-of-fare.

What if issues such as the sale of New Zealand land to foreigners; the threat to privatise state assets; the loss of sovereignty inherent in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement; and the constant degradation of Aotearoa’s natural environment; were grafted on to the injustices of the Marine & Coastal Area Bill? What if the hikoi’s leaders possessed the revolutionary sophistication to forge a conceptual link between the abrogation of tino rangatiratanga in the Nineteenth Century, and the loss of New Zealand’s economic sovereignty in the Twenty-First? Between what happened to Maori then, and what is happening to Pakeha now? What if Maori and Pakeha grievances became conjoined?

A hikoi filling the streets of Wellington, armed with a list of revolutionary demands, and made up of not only of Maori of all ages, but also of a surprising number of Pakeha, advances on Parliament. The protest leader tells the vast throng filling Parliament Grounds that the time for piecemeal change has passed: that only a thorough-going revision of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements – as promised by the National Government – will rescue Aotearoa. Such a revision, he declares, must be based on Treaty of Waitangi, and must guarantee to Maori and Pakeha, alike, the full and undisputed possession of all their rights – political, cultural and economic.

Then, over the cheers of the 30,000-strong crowd, their leader warns them that they must learn from the events of 2004. That they must not simply return to their homes and leave the making of change to others. That they must stay where they are – until their demands are met.

With this last suggestion, the revolutionary potential of the hikoi becomes ominously clear. Watching from the Beehive, the Prime Minister must now decide whether to clear the grounds, or enter into dialogue with the protesters – and thus confer upon their demands an aura of legitimacy.

The Government dithers, and the delay is fatal. As word spreads – by e-mail, texting, Twitter and through the blogosphere – hundreds, and then thousands, of young people pour into Central Wellington to join the uprising.

Reluctantly, the Prime Minister orders Police to clear the protesters from Parliament Grounds. The Police Commissioner is uneasy. There are close to 50,000 people participating in what is already being called the Peoples Constitutional Convention of Aotearoa. Moving them will require a massive use of force.

Rumours quickly spread that the Police intend to use tear-gas on the protesters. The crowd’s instant response is to storm Parliament Buildings. The front doors are forced open – the revolutionary crowd now occupies the House of Representatives.

Right-wing students and business executives, whipped into a murderous fury by right-wing bloggers, attack the protesters still occupying Parliament Grounds. Shots are fired. Several people are killed and many injured. Police officers are accused of allowing the right-wingers through their lines. Some accuse AOS personnel of handing out weapons to the counter-revolutionaries.

The Prime Minister declares a State of Emergency and calls upon the Military to "assist the civil power". Mass demonstrations and strikes break out in all the main centres. Tens of thousands march to mark the funerals of the murdered protesters. Occupations of Auckland’s Aotea Square, Cathedral Square in Christchurch, and the Octagon in Dunedin, follow.

Those in occupation of the House of Representatives declare themselves to be the Provisional Government of the Bi-Cultural Republic of Aotearoa/New Zealand and order the New Zealand Defence Force to defend the Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti from their enemies.

Maori soldiers, ordered to suppress the uprisings, mutiny. The Provisional Government of the new republic now has an army.

The revolution becomes unstoppable.

Friday, 11 February 2011

History's On Hone's Side

Media Target: Practically every journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery has spent the past week channelling the Maori Party leadership's antagonistic thoughts towards Hone Harawira. Had they stepped back a few paces from the action, and considered the historical precedents for principled dissidence within New Zealand political parties, they would have realised that Hone's chances of emerging from the current crisis with enhanced - rather than diminished - mana are actually pretty good.

THE CRISIS GRIPPING the Maori Party deserves much better media analysis than it’s getting. The final result of the 2011 General Election may well turn on who emerges victorious from the conflict between Hone Harawira’s faction of the Maori Party and the faction led by Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. What we are witnessing is a struggle of considerable political significance.

In our own struggle to gain perspective on this crisis, what we – the voters – need most is a parliamentary press gallery that places sufficient distance between itself and the main antagonists to give us an independent account of the action.

Sadly, this isn’t happening.

Overwhelmingly, the story that is being relayed to us by the Press Gallery is the story the Maori Party (and, one suspects, the National Party) leadership wants us to hear.

Now, we mustn’t be too hard on our political journalists. Proximity to power is a crucial aspect of parliamentary reporting. Without ready access to cabinet ministers and party leaders the Gallery simply cannot do its job. Proximity isn’t everything, however. To avoid being "captured" by the political movers and shakers, it’s vital that political journalists regularly step outside the parliamentary hothouse to breathe in some un-spun air.

It would also be of great assistance to the Press Gallery’s readers, listeners and viewers if it possessed a slightly firmer grasp on New Zealand’s recent political history. Because, on at least four separate occasions over the course of the past quarter-century we’ve witnessed intra-party crises very similar to the crisis unfolding in the Maori Party .

In 1989 there was Jim Anderton’s defection from the Labour Party. In 1992, Winston Peters defected from the National Party. In 2002, the Alliance – a small group of relatively inexperienced politicians in coalition with the much larger Labour Party – imploded over its leadership’s decision to support the invasion of Afghanistan. And, finally, in 2004, Tariana Turia abandoned Helen Clark’s government over the Foreshore & Seabed Act.

In assessing the many possible outcomes of the current crisis, surely it would be helpful if our political journalists interrogated these historical precedents?

Were they to do so they would quickly discover that the principled defection of a dissident MP is very far from being the slow walk to oblivion that so many Gallery journalists ("assisted", no doubt, by the governing coalition’s spin-doctors) seem to think it is. Because, to the contrary, Jim Anderton, Winston Peters and Tariana Turia were all re-elected by their constituents, and all of them founded a new political party which went on to play a major role in the political life of New Zealand.

The fate of the Alliance is also instructive. Like the Maori Party, the coalition drawn together by Jim Anderton contained elements spanning virtually the entire political spectrum. When a serious conflict erupted these disparate elements simply weren’t prepared to compromise and the party split asunder. Its now separated components were never again able to attract significant electoral support.

What do these historical precedents suggest in relation to the current crisis in the Maori Party?

First, they suggest that if he is forced out of his party Mr Harawira will be triumphantly re-elected by the voters of Te Tai Tokerau.

Second, they suggest that, by forcing Mr Harawira out of the Maori Party, Ms Turia and Mr Sharples would precipitate a fatal split in their nationwide organisation – from which they will find it extremely difficult to recover. (Let’s not forget, the defection of Jim Anderton and his followers effectively kept the Labour Party out of power for three electoral cycles.)

Third, they suggest that if Mr Harawira possesses the courage to test his claim that more than half of Maoridom has tired of the Maori Party’s overly accommodating relationship with National; and if he is prepared to offer Maori voters an alternative political vehicle in November; then Mr Harawira can be reasonably confident of playing a vital role in the formation of New Zealand’s next government.

Listening to the journalists of the Parliamentary Press Gallery regurgitate the private promptings of the Prime Minister’s and the Maori Party’s spin-doctors, we could all be forgiven for assuming that by "dealing decisively" with Mr Harawira, Mr Sharples and Ms Turia have miraculously cauterised their party’s gaping wounds.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so. Self-inflicted damage is always the most difficult to repair.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 February 2011.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Sorry Bomber (Some Thoughts On Martyn "Bomber" Bradbury's Call For A New Left Party)

Revolutions aren't made on television, Bomber, they're made on the street. And have you met the people who live on that street!

ONE’S FELLOW CITIZENS can be a terrible disappointment, Bomber. You will discover this the moment you cross the Rubicon from political observer to political participant. "The People", God bless ‘em, especially when encountered individually, are not always hewn from that heroic material so beloved by 18th and 19th Century revolutionaries.

Standing on their doorsteps, Bomber, it’s easy to become profoundly disillusioned with the human-beings whose votes decide your country’s future. Regardless of their location in the social hierarchy, and irrespective of their role in the processes of production, individuals all-too-frequently behave in ways utterly at odds with their objective self-interest. Parliamentary campaigners for the Left will regale you with stories of anti-feminist women, racist Maori, pro-capitalist proletarians and anti-welfare beneficiaries.

"There better be wisdom in crowds," grumbles the weary candidate following a particularly gruelling canvassing drive, "because there’s bugger-all in the average voter!"

Even worse than the voters with no conception of their own self-interest, are the voters who just don’t care. If you can get past the vicious dog chained-up in their front yard, and make your presence known over the blare of their massive sound system, your party-political spiel elicits nothing more than a bemused shake of the head.

"Not interested, mate", they’ll drawl, shutting the door firmly in your face. If their mailbox wasn’t already stuffed-full of junk mail, you’d leave them a pamphlet – or slip your card under the door. But that low growl, emanating from the Hound of the Baskervilles straining against his chain just a few metres to your right, suggests that it might be wiser to move on to the next house in the street.

As often as not – the neighbours are even worse.

But, of course, if you’re really serious about forming a New Left Party, Bomber, you’ll soon be experiencing all these things first hand. And don’t for a minute think there’s some way of avoiding the bruising experience of face-to-face canvassing – cos there ain’t.

The people you’re planning on drawing into the electoral process: the state-house tenants struggling to raise a family on two minimum wages; the young Maori solo-mum trying to keep it together on the DPB; the sickness beneficiary doped up to the eye-balls on lithium (because this country doesn’t really run to a decent mental health system); none of these folk read Tumeke, Bomber, or Bowalley Road, or The Standard, or Kiwipolitico. They don’t read newspapers either, or watch Citizen A. They just might pick up snatches of talk-back radio, or catch the odd TV-news bulletin – but I wouldn’t count on it.

So, to win them over you’ll have to knock on their front doors, introduce yourself, and attempt to engage them in political discussion. Which won’t happen, because while you’re launching into your spiel, they’ll be asking themselves: "What does this prick want from me? What the fuck is he talking about?"

Standing in front of them, Bomber, you’ll come across as so completely alien: so far removed from their bleak, narrow, hard-scrabble and often violent world; that you might as well have beamed down from another planet.

The barriers to effective political communication: functional illiteracy; cultural impoverishment; sheer exhaustion: each of these factors, on their own, Bomber, is enough to prevent the anomistic underclass from receiving your message. And if – as is likely – the person you’re addressing is of a different ethnicity, then your communication difficulties will be radically compounded.

So, if the underclass is politically inaccessible to the Left (which is, I’m afraid, the brutal message of the Mana by-election) then what about the working-class? Well, I’ve got news for you, Bomber, and, as Jim Anderton is fond of adding: "It’s all bad."

In fact, you should have a chat with Jim about winning and holding the support of working-class voters. Because you know what, Bomber? He was the only member of the NewLabour Party and the Alliance who ever really mastered the art.

Why? Because Jim never, ever, ever, by the slightest word or deed, gave the voters of Sydenham/Wigram reason to suppose that he considered himself, or his political and moral values, to be better than their own. In this, he remains their true representative. Like so many of them, he takes a conservative stance on abortion and illicit drug-use. But, also like them, he is prepared to embrace radical economic solutions to entrenched social problems.

It’s all about respect, Bomber. The giving of it, and the receiving of it. Respect – and respectability – lie at the heart of Anglo-Celtic working-class culture. Jim Anderton gets that. It’s why Labour could never reclaim Sydenham/Wigram from him. No matter how jarring some of their opinions on issues relating to race, gender and sexuality might be, Jim Anderton would never disrespect the people whose votes he was soliciting. He’d never call them "rednecks".

Can you say the same, Bomber? Not really.

Which leaves you politically situated slap-bang in the middle of the only political market which the "post-modern" Left has truly made its own: young(ish), well-educated, middle-income and upper-middle-income, Pakeha voters. And that market, as I’m sure you need no reminding, Bomber, is now the happy hunting-ground of both the Labour and the Green parties.

What I would say to you, Bomber, (in case you do need reminding) is that in order to win the votes of more than the ever-dwindling band of political activists who draw their ideological inspiration from the left-wing philosophers and politicians of the 19th and early-20th centuries, a New Left Party would have to offer the voters of Auckland Central, Wellington Central, Port Hills and Dunedin North more-or-less the same policies as Phil Goff and Russel Norman.

That’s the problem with the voting public, Bomber. They will insist on ignoring the Left's advice! I like the way Bertold Brecht put it in his famous poem "The Solution", written after the East German workers’ revolt of June, 1953.

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

When you work out how to do that, Bomber, please let me know.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Waitangi's Ironic Welcome

Welcoming " The Enemy": John "Junior" Popata lunges at the Prime Minister on 5 February , 2009. As he approached Te Tii Marae on 5 February 2011, did John Key grasp the irony of being greeted by Wikitana Popata as "the enemy"? Convicted alongside his brother for assaulting the Prime Minister two years ago, Wikitana was sentenced to just 100 hours of community service. A "settler government" less concerned with keeping the goodwill of Maori might not have been satisfied with such a lenient sentence.

I WONDER if the Prime Minister grasped all the ironies of his latest "welcome" to Waitangi. It’s hard to know where to begin - there were so many.

Perhaps the most obvious was the identity of the young man with the megaphone who abused Mr Key as he made his way on to Te Tii Marae.

Two years ago – to the day – Wikitana Popata and his brother, John ‘Junior’ Popata, had physically accosted Mr Key on his way to the same meeting ground.

In any other country than New Zealand such an attack would have been treated extremely seriously. It is difficult to imagine that a person found guilty of assaulting the President of the United States would be at liberty to harangue him again, from a dangerously short distance, just two years later.

True, but we Kiwis are a forgiving bunch. The National-led Government’s need to keep its Maori Party coalition partner on-side, and the extraordinary fact that the accused were relatives of the Maori Party MP, Hone Harawira (who, equally extraordinarily, gave John Key’s assailants his moral support) meant that the two young protesters’ ultimate punishment was very light.

Now, there are those who celebrate this sort of easy-going approach to the personal security of our politicians. That the Prime Minister can be manhandled by protesters in front of the television cameras without the Diplomatic Protection Squad emptying their pistols into those responsible is held to be a good thing.

Our national day is a very relaxed affair compared to, say, France’s Bastille Day. Tanks and guided-missile-carriers do not roll beneath a triumphal arch as Mirage jet fighters trail banners of red, white and blue smoke across the nation’s capital – not in this neck of the woods. Here the tradition is for several hundred protesters, shouting separatist slogans and carrying their own flag, to march up to the nation’s birthplace on the Waitangi Treaty Ground.

That this tradition has been allowed to develop should not be viewed as evidence that "Pakeha racism" is on the wane but, rather, of its growing subtlety. It is precisely because we do not take the ritual posturing of the protesters seriously that we allow them their little show of defiance. That the Police and the Navy are not ordered to break up the annual protest-march to the Treaty Ground is not proof of our tolerance – but of just how patronising the whole Waitangi Day celebration has become.

The late Sir Robert Muldoon at least paid the Maori nationalists of his day the compliment of taking them seriously. He understood the very real challenge they posed to the integrity of the New Zealand state – and acted accordingly. John Key is willing to endure the insults, and even the roughings-up, because he’s firmly convinced that it represents nothing of genuine political significance: that it’s all just theatre.

He’s wrong, of course. States that decline to defend their constitutional integrity place themselves – and their political representatives – in mortal danger.

If he had listened carefully to what Pita Sharples said in his State of the Nation address, delivered last Saturday evening, Mr Key would have heard him describe the steady evolution of a political-economic entity known as the Iwi Leaders Group (ILG).

The ILG now negotiates with the New Zealand State in much the same way as the great feudal magnates of medieval England negotiated with their King. And what Mr Sharples speech made very clear is that the ILG will use the forthcoming constitutional review to secure for the leaders of the Maori tribes, the same sort of "Magna Carta" of aristocratic rights and privileges that the barons extracted from King John at Runnymede in 1215.

Like the new legislation regulating the ownership of the foreshore and seabed, the growing power and influence of the ILG is but the latest instance of the re-modelling of New Zealand’s constitutional conventions which has been going on for nearly 30 years. The citizens of this country have never been seriously consulted about these changes. If put to a referendum, I strongly suspect Pita Sharples plans for New Zealand would be decisively defeated. But, as the anonymous leader-writer for The New Zealand Herald blithely expressed the new orthodoxy among this country’s elite:

"Progress in the nation’s central social partnership does not come in sudden breakthroughs or even visible steps. It is a gradual acceptance that a post-colonial state cannot be governed simply by majority rule."

Does John Key subscribe to these sentiments? I’d like to think not. Even so, I doubt if he appreciated the true irony of his "welcome" to Waitangi. That the young firebrand, Wikitana Popata’s, angry declaration: "The enemy is amongst us! He is the one responsible for stealing our lands!" Could now just as easily have come from a conservative Pakeha as a radical Maori.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 February 2011.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Talkin' About Waitangi & Hone Harawira

Time to Talk: The hour-long, news-driven format of TVNZ7's News at 8 - in sharp contrast to the One News shock/horror-entertainment and weather-driven bulletin at 6:00pm - allows for considerably more in-depth discussion on the important issues of the day. It's coverage of Waitangi Day 2011 and the growing rift between Hone Harawira and the Maori Party leadership shows what genuine public-service broadcasting could (and should) look like.

A FRANK DISCUSSION on the subjects of Waitangi Day and the future of Hone Harawira took place between myself and Miriama Kamo on yesterday’s (Sunday, 6 February) bulletin of TVNZ 7’s News at 8.

I don’t know how long this will stay up at TVNZ-On-Demand, but at the moment the item can be accessed here (the interview begins two-thirds of the way through "Chapter 1"). [Sadly, the link no longer takes you to the items in question.]

The earlier interview between Miriama and TVNZ’s political reporter, Jessica Mutch, is fascinating. The young journalist clearly cannot conceive of any style of politics that isn’t bound up with the institutional norms of parliamentary representation. Nor is she willing to explore the more likely consequences of her own (or should that be Pita Sharple's?) predictions.

Is Ms Mutch really so lacking in political and historical imagination as to suppose that if Hone Harawira is forced out of the Maori Party he will depart alone? That thousands (especially in Te Tai Tokerau) will not resign from the Maori Party in solidarity with their MP? That the party will not be riven with angry recriminations?

More importantly, can she not see that any splitting of the Maori Party could only have the most serious electoral repercussions for the governing coalition come November?

Friday, 4 February 2011

A Second Coming?

Been There - Done That: The launch of the NewLabour Party in 1989 was derailed by the antics of the Far-Left. Twenty-two years later, and those contemplating the formation of yet another "New Left Party" (like Sue Bradford and Matt McCarten who were there, as I was, at the birth of the NLP) will find themselves with very little, apart from the Far-Left, to work with. The New Zealand electorate is unlikely to respond kindly.

A NEW LEFT PARTYhardly are those words out when a dispiriting image out of the late-1980s troubles my sight: somewhere (I seem to recall it was the Overseas Terminal in Wellington) a queue of youthful extremists, their gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, are shuffling their sneakers inexorably towards the microphone, while all around them reel indignant social-democrats – recalling, too late, W. B Yeats warning about the worst being full of passionate intensity.

The Inaugural Conference of the NewLabour Party on Queen’s Birthday weekend, 1989, should have been a triumph. Deploying all of the organisational flair for which he was famous, Jim Anderton had gathered together around five hundred eager refugees from the pod-party Labour had become under Rogernomics. An overwhelming majority of those attending the conference were ordinary Kiwis: workers, students, beneficiaries and pensioners – with a smattering of academics and trade unionists.

I wasn’t worried about them. When they spoke I was confident they would put into words the feelings of outrage and betrayal shared by hundreds-of-thousands of their fellow citizens.

No, the people I worried about (and I was not alone) were the fifty-to-sixty Trotskyites, Maoists, "Permanent Revolutionaries", Treaty fanatics, hard-core feminists and uncompromising environmentalists who would climb aboard this new political vehicle like Baader-Meinhof terrorists boarding a jet-liner.

We tried to warn Jim, but he simply couldn’t see the problem. "Don’t worry," he said, "we’ll outnumber them ten-to-one." What Jim didn’t seem to grasp was how much damage fifty-to-sixty fanatics could do to the public’s perception of his nascent political movement.

And, oh, what a lot of damage they did. In the days following Jim’s announcement of the NLP’s birth, on 1 May 1989, opinion polls showed support levels around ten percent. In the weeks following the hi-jacked Inaugural Conference public support plummeted below three percent.

"Ah, but that was more than twenty years ago," I hear you say, "times have changed".

Indeed they have.

In 2011, New Zealand is governed by a right-wing coalition supported by close to 60 percent of the electorate. The dominant partner in that coalition, the John Key-led National Party, has been supported by more than 50 percent of the voters for two straight years.

Does this sound like the right time to launch a New Left Party to you?

Who would join it?

Not the moderate, social-democratic Left: they have all returned to the Labour Party. Not the moderate, environmentalist Left: they have the Green Party.

This is important – and not only because, between them, Labour and the Greens account for practically all of the Centre-Left vote. They also account for 99 percent of those who have the slightest idea about how to run an effective election campaign.

A crucial element in the success of Jim Anderton (ex-Labour) and Winston Peters (ex-National) was the large number of experienced election campaigners who rallied to their side. These people didn’t have to be taught how to fund-raise, organise a canvassing drive, or run an election-day system – they already knew.

"No worries," say the promoters of a New Left Party, "we’ll just game the MMP system by recruiting Hone Harawira. That way we can avoid the necessity of winning 5 percent of the Party Vote. If it’s good enough for Rodney Hide in Epsom – it’s good enough for us."

Hmmmm? Not sure that’s the slogan you’re looking for, Comrades. Besides, if you really think an electorally poisonous bunch of eco-anarchists, Maori nationalists, unreconstructed ‘80s feminists and hard-core Marxist-Leninists are going to attract anything like Act’s vote in 2008 – then you’re away with the fairies.

Just consider the stats: The combined 2008 vote of New Zealand’s Centre-Left parties (Labour Party, Greens, Progressives) was 975,734 or 41.62 percent of the Party Vote. Altogether, the Far-Left parties (Alliance, Workers Party, RAM – Residents Action Movement) attracted just 3,306 votes or 0.14 percent.

It’s nowhere near enough, Comrades. Even if he won every vote in Te Tai Tokerau, Hone would still be on his own.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 February 2011.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Will Key's Courage Provoke Media Bias?

Masterful Performance: If Phil Goff is still wondering how one goes about seizing the political initiative, then he's a very slow learner. The danger now is that the mainstream media will start treating the 2011 election not as a contest - but a coronation.

JOHN KEY’S COURAGE over the past ten days has been extraordinary. Not only did he utter the deplorable word "privatisation", but he also gave us ten months advance notice of the General Election’s precise date. Having surrendered one political advantage the Prime Minister then went on to give away another. By reaffirming his 2008 determination not to enter into a post-election coalition deal with Winston Peters, Key has given New Zealand fair warning that if he cannot win the election on his own terms – he’d rather not win it at all.

If, after this performance, Phil Goff is still wondering how one goes about seizing the political initiative, then he’s a very slow learner. It takes courage. It takes clarity of purpose. And, it takes the ability to speak forthrightly to the electorate. When a reporter asked the Prime Minister what would happen after the Election if Peters ends up holding the balance-of-power, Key replied, simply: "If Winston Peters holds the balance of power it will be a Phil Goff-led Labour government."

It’s this rare ability (in a politician) to give a simple, straightforward answer to a simple, straightforward question that endears Key to friend and foe alike. We are reassured that he’s speaking without mental reservation – hiding nothing. Voters cannot but respond positively to such frankness – so very different from the usual circumlocutory political prattle. The result is paradoxical: by demonstrating his consummate political skills, the Prime Minister convinces us that he isn’t really a "politician" at all. "As some of you have noted", he told journalists, "I’m a different politician to a lot of politicians". Indeed.

It takes a very different sort of politician to hide his intentions in plain sight. Only now, in the light cast by the events of the past ten days, has Key’s strategic plan been revealed to us.

Stage One involved persuading New Zealanders that they were dealing with a very different sort of National Party leader – one they could trust. Everything Key has done since deposing Dr Don Brash in 2006 has been directed towards this end, and he has succeeded brilliantly.

Stage Two requires Key to parlay the trust he has so assiduously cultivated into majority support for a radical manifesto of economic and social change. (This is where we are now.)

Stage Three, to be attempted only after securing an unequivocal democratic mandate, is to implement the promised changes as swiftly and as comprehensively as possible.

Essentially, Key’s strategy is the same as the strategy adopted by the Labour leader, Michael Joseph Savage, from the moment he succeeded the formidable (but rather frightening) Harry Holland in 1932. Most New Zealanders don’t realise that the election which cemented-in Labour’s policies took place not in 1935, but three years later, in 1938. That was the election in which Labour secured the most emphatic electoral mandate in New Zealand’s history – 55 percent of the popular vote. It was a victory built on faith and trust. Key is hoping to repeat Mickey Savage’s triumph.

And, unless I’m very much mistaken, he will be assisted at every turn by a news media which long ago gave away any idea of "monitoring the centres of power" or – God forbid! – holding them to account. Absent also (except among a handful of worthy journalistic veterans) is any conception of the Habermassian "public sphere". The idea that the media’s role is to facilitate a democratic discourse strong enough to interrogate and clarify the political choices on offer finds few, if any, advocates in the upper reaches of the so-called "mainstream media".

Carrying much more weight among news editors and producers is the plebiscitary principle inherent in big media’s reliance on opinion polls. Journalists are increasingly aligning themselves with what their newspaper’s and network’s pollsters tell them is the majority viewpoint. Critical examination of the majority’s claims is strongly discouraged, and media bosses only rarely sanction the presentation of a minority report (unless, of course, such reporting serves the interests of a major advertiser).

With all their polls showing Key well in front of his challengers, the mainstream media’s response will almost certainly be to present the Prime Minister’s political discourse as its own. This was certainly true of Morning Report’s coverage of the Prime Minister’s decision to once again rule out Winston Peters as a potential coalition partner. Radio NZ’s parliamentary reporter, Julian Robbins, was scathing in his dismissal of Peters’ electoral chances. NZ First, he assured us, had just become "irrelevant". Excluded from the Prime Minister’s coalition options, Peters would struggle to gain media attention, opined Robbins.

This was extraordinary stuff – especially since Key himself had already made it clear that if NZ First crossed the 5 percent threshold there was every chance he would be forced from office. The real story is that Peters and NZ First's share of the Party Vote will have a crucial bearing on the outcome of the 2011 election - only becoming "irrelevant" if journalists (especially those working in the Parliamentary Press Gallery) decide to make them so. And if that is their decision, what possible claim can they – or their employers – make to either fairness or balance in their election coverage?

Goff and the Labour Party should protest loudly against this sort of treatment being handed out to any political party – no matter how detested by right-wing politicians and voters. If elements of the news media allow themselves to be used – as they were in 2008 – to do the National Party’s and Act’s dirty-work, then it won’t only be NZ First that finds itself in the cross-hairs of an aggressively partisan media pack, but Labour and the Greens as well.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Vesting Day (In Praise of Nationalisation)

On Behalf of the People: With the privatisation of state assets back in the headlines, it is useful to recall why privately owned industries were nationalised in the first place.

IT’S ONE OF THOSE PHOTOGRAPHS that capture history in the making. Taken by a proud mineworker on 1st January 1947, it records the erection of a large wooden sign outside the gates of a grim and grimy British coal mine. The sign says: "This Colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the People."

Thousands of miners’ lives had been lost to lung disease, gas explosions and cave-ins. The miners’ unions had been forced to engage in some of the most prolonged and bitterly contested industrial conflicts in British history. But at last, after a century-and-a-half of constant struggle, "Vesting Day" – when the proprietary interest in Britain’s coal industry was prised from the fingers of its private owners and vested in public hands – had dawned.

At the little colliery of Berry Hill, near Fenton, in Staffordshire, a group of miners posed for a formal "Vesting Day" photograph. The broad grins beneath the cloth caps bear testimony to the enormous hopes working people all over the world had invested in the nationalisation programmes of their Socialist and Labour parties.

Just a year earlier, and half a world away from Fenton, five thousand trade unionists had marched through the streets of Wellington in support of the New Zealand Labour Party’s long-delayed promise to fully nationalise the Bank of New Zealand. Many of the marchers wanted to go further. They had only to glance at their party membership card to be reminded that Labour’s succinctly formulated political objective was "the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange".

But what did that mean? What was nationalisation/socialisation supposed to achieve?

At the most basic level it was intended to lift the burden of private ownership from the shoulders of the men and women who laboured in its service. Returning a healthy dividend to their shareholders all-too-often obliged private industrialists to extract more effort from their employees for less reward. Health and safety considerations were similarly subordinated to the owners’ over-riding imperative to increase the rate of return on capital. Public ownership was – at the very least – intended to construct a solid floor under the workers’ wages and conditions.

But that was just the beginning. The workers in nationalised industries also hoped to play a central role in their management. To "socialise" production was to break down the artificial hierarchies separating those who made the decisions from those who carried them out.

Socialisation was also intended to broaden radically the definition of who held a legitimate interest in the nation’s mines, factories, warehouses, shops and offices. "Stakeholders" in these enterprises were said to include not only the workers, their families, and the local community, but also those who worked in the civic, cultural and agricultural infrastructure which sustained them.

Nationalisation would thus allow democracy, hitherto reserved for the ballot-box, to flow inexorably into the workplace, where, the socialists insisted, it has always been needed most.

The historical experience of nationalisation fell well short of the millenarian hopes of the 1940s. Only the most basic expectations of the process were fulfilled. Because, although the State generally proved to be a better employer than the private capitalist, it opted to run the nationalised industries in exactly the same fashion. The strict division between "the bosses" and "the workers" endured, and the latter’s vast store of knowledge about the enterprise’s operations remained as under-utilised in the state-owned industries as it did in the private sector.

In New Zealand, the nationalised industries did acquire an unintended – but important – social dimension by being used by successive governments to absorb large numbers of workers who would otherwise have found themselves unemployed. By soaking-up this surplus labour, the State protected New Zealand society from the manifold curses of mass unemployment: domestic violence; child abuse; family break-up; juvenile delinquency, alcohol and drug addiction, and rising crime-rates.

The great post-war wave of nationalisations was finally broken by the countervailing force of the neoliberal revolution. By the late 1980s, in New Zealand, all publicly-owned entities had been forced to abandon their fiscally unsustainable "social" functions and become profit-making "State Owned Enterprises". Operated as if they were privately-owned business, the new SOEs were required by the Treasury to deliver market-determined rates-of-return to their "share-holding ministers". All of the state-owned banks and insurance companies; the nationalised telecommunications sector; the state airline; and the publicly-owned railways were privatised.

The neoliberal justification for privatising state-owned industries has always been that the private sector, on balance, is more productive. That being the case, it makes more sense to cash them up and use the proceeds to retire government debt.

The miners photographed outside Berry Hill Colliery in 1947 would probably agree. Collective exploitation is clearly a contradiction in terms. Fairness seldom turns a profit. And the coal-master’s girth was always inversely proportional to their own.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 February 2011.