Friday, 28 October 2011

Eating Crow

It's The Feathers That I Hate: Having misjudged the nature of Labour's election strategy, and heaped premature scorn on her strategists, it's only fair that I eat my due portion of that most ill-omened of birds - the Crow. 

WELL, I’VE EATEN CROW before and, really, it’s not that bad – tastes like chicken. Even so, I’m pretty sure Labour’s strategists will derive considerably more enjoyment from the experience than I will. They’ve had to endure some pretty harsh criticism from this particular commentator over the past few months, so the sight of Chris Trotter with grease and feathers on his chin is likely to be a very pleasing one.

I can’t deny that it’s been a surprise. The apparent passivity of the Labour Opposition over the past few months had me well and truly fooled. All I could assume was that they’d given away this year’s contest, and that those best-placed to make a difference were more concerned with “succession planning” than winning the election.

Clearly, appearances have been deceptive.

Labour’s strategy recalls Napoleon’s strategy at the Battle of the Pyramids. The French general’s opponents were Egypt’s warrior-rulers, the Marmluks. Mounted on Arab horses, gloriously arrayed, they were supremely confident of victory. And, had Napoleon chosen to meet them on their own terms, he and his army would have been cut to pieces.

But Napoleon was not about to make that mistake. What he saw before him were lightly armed horsemen imbued with an indefatigable belief in their own superiority and a hunger for personal glory. Decimated by thirst and dysentery though they may have been, Napoleon knew that his men still constituted the most formidable fighting force of the Eighteenth Century. They were a highly disciplined army of experienced veterans, fully conversant with the most effective weapons and tactics of their day.

Napoleon configured his army into vast hollow “squares” of infantry, placed his artillery at the corners, and his cavalry in the middle. Then he sat back and waited for the Marmluks to come to him.

Their charge was a sight to behold. In a vast crescent formation they galloped straight for the French lines. Napoleon waited. On came the wave of horsemen. Still the French waited. It was only when the Marmluk warriors were almost upon them that the front ranks of French infantry coolly raised their muskets and fired. The artillery joined them, firing grapeshot and canister rounds into the horsemen at point-blank range. The splendid horses and their even more splendid riders were cut to ribbons. The speed with which the Napoleonic infantryman was able to fire, reload, and fire again was legendary. The Marmluks ornate muskets could be fired once from horseback and were then next to useless. As wave after wave of cavalry hurled themselves against the French formations the slaughter escalated. By the time the smoke cleared, the warrior ruling-class of Egypt was in headlong retreat.

The Battle of the Pyramids, 21 July 1798

Labour’s strategic insight is identical to Napoleon’s. National may look invincible, but, in policy terms, it is only lightly armed. Prime Minister John Key’s popularity and the Government’s soaring poll numbers are the equivalent of the Marmluks’ splendid armour and eager stallions: they look impressive, but in the cut-and-thrust of modern political warfare they are actually rather useless. What counts for much more, once battle is joined, is the quality of the contending parties’ policies; how they are presented; and when they are released.

National’s fatal assumption was that Labour would attempt to fight them on the ground where their man was strongest. That Floundering Phil Goff, wearing nothing but his low preferred prime minister scores, would ride out against John Key, the resplendent Pasha of the Polls, and get slaughtered.

This is where Labour’s experience and discipline have been so effective. They know that big policies, announced during the campaign can produce startling changes in the balance of political forces. (Grant Robertson, in particular, has experience of this; it was his policy of removing the interest from student loans that made such a difference during the 2005 campaign.)

By holding back their announcements on Superannuation and Kiwisaver until the campaign got underway, they have succeeded in inflicting maximum damage on the Government. Key can offer nothing substantial in return. Like a hapless Marmluk warrior he can brandish his rhetorical scimitar and fire-off the occasional (largely ineffectual) round from his ornate musket – and that’s about it.

Key will close with Phil Goff in the Leaders’ Debate on Monday, 31 October. His only hope of evening up the growing imbalance in “serious” policy releases will be to unveil National’s welfare plans to the party faithful at the Government’s official campaign launch on Sunday.

But even this may not be enough. Goff’s and Labour’s achievement has been to re-frame the electoral debate by offering policies which may not be immediately popular but which are unquestionably in the nation’s long-term interest. A punitive, “beneficiary-bashing” welfare policy runs the risk of being dismissed as pandering to the most disreputable elements of the electorate, but contributing nothing useful to the “big issue” discussions which Labour has forced on to the political agenda.

As Labour’s campaign unfolds, we should expect to see more television ads featuring the friendly-but-firm Phil Goff we met in the party’s first sally on asset sales. These will play to Goff’s strengths – his competency, his experience, his safe-pair-of-hands reputation. In all likelihood John Key and his government will barely rate a mention. The focus will be on what has to be done to secure New Zealand’s future, and on Labour’s willingness to take the hard decisions required to make it happen.

Phil Goff and his advisers are betting everything on the voters’ willingness to concede the need to make such difficult choices; and on their readiness to reward the Opposition for its courage in grasping so many stinging policy nettles.

If they’re right, and the voters respond as Labour hopes they will, then National will suffer the same fate as the Marmluks.

“Forward!”, cried Napoleon, as he ordered his troops into position on the melon fields adjoining the distant Pyramids of Giza. “Remember that from those monuments yonder forty centuries look down upon you.”

Phil Goff’s appeal is not to monuments of stone looking down, but to future generations of New Zealanders looking back. The test that lies ahead of us now is no longer just a test of Labour’s leader, it has become a test of ourselves.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

A Landscape Of Flags

In The Shadow Of The Flag:  Mass outpourings of triumphal emotion are all-too-often accompanied by an underlying consciousness of sacrifice and loss. We should never forget that those sacrifices were made so future generations could enjoy moments of joyous inclusiveness - like New Zealand's victory in the Rugby World Cup 2011 - in peace and freedom.

I WENT WALKING with my daughter last Sunday afternoon – RWC-Final Day. Landscape Road is a dead straight kilometre of bitumen and concrete linking Auckland’s much more famous Mt Eden and Dominion Roads.

Socially, the neighbourhood is what you would probably call “mixed”. To the east rise the tall trees and grand houses of Epsom. In Mt Roskill, to the south-west, the ancient lava-flats are traversed by street after street of state houses – among the first to be constructed by the First Labour Government. Along the length of Landscape Road you can see both sorts of dwellings – and a great many more that are neither grand, nor government-built: the modest bungalows of Middle New Zealand.

As we made our way down Landscape Road, the first things we noticed were the flags. They were everywhere: tied to hedges; affixed to windows; nailed to fences; flying from rooftops. I’d never seen so many. And it wasn’t only the New Zealand Ensign that was on display. Outnumbering our national flag by a margin of 2:1 was the silver-fern-on-a-sable-field that is the “All-Blacks” flag. Ranged alongside these quintessentially Kiwi emblems were the flags of the many nations out of which New Zealand itself has been fashioned: England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Tonga, Samoa, South Africa.

I remarked to my daughter how unusual it was for New Zealanders to indulge in this sort of overt display; how we tended to scoff at the ultra-patriotism of the Americans and their habit of flying “Old Glory” over anything and everything: from the overcrowded trailer parks of the poor; to the quiet suburban streets of the middle class; to the luxurious mansions of the obscenely rich. And yet, right there, fluttering before us, was proof that New Zealanders – no less than Americans – are capable of being swept up in the fierce passions of national pride.

“Can you imagine how upset New Zealand will be if the All-Blacks lose tonight?”, I said.

My daughter stood still, looked around at the multitude of fluttering pennants, and slowly shook her head.

But, as all the world now knows, the All-Blacks didn’t lose. And, with their re-claiming of the Webb-Ellis Cup, all that longing, all that confidence, which the flags down Landscape Road represented, has been vindicated.

And how we celebrated. To see literally hundreds-of-thousands of Aucklanders pour into the heart of their city to share in the elation of this long-anticipated sporting victory put me in mind of the vast crowds thronging Tahrir Square in Cairo or Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli. What a fortunate nation, I thought to myself: that its people can turn out in such numbers for something so innocent, so free of death and misery, as a sporting trophy.

How wonderful that our joy in the All-Blacks’ triumph was so emotionally unalloyed. That, beneath the revels, there ran no deeper sadness; no heart-rending knowledge that the price of victory must be counted in the bodies of the fallen.

Historically-speaking, New Zealand is no stranger to those feelings: following two world wars we were forced to undertake our own, grim, calculation of victory’s cost. And let us remember that it was for the possibility of just such moments of happiness, inclusiveness, unity and pride; moments shared by a free people, living in a tried and tested democracy, that New Zealand “laid upon the altar the dearest and the best” she had to offer.

So, as we once again avail ourselves of those democratic instruments, purchased at such expense by our ancestors, let us strive to preserve, in the allocation of our support, that same happiness, inclusiveness, unity and pride that illuminated the nation last Sunday night. Let us give our support only to those who would use our votes as tools for creation – not as weapons to exclude, threaten or destroy.

What made Sunday’s victory so special was that the joy it brought was available to everyone. That, in the shadow of those flags, we were all New Zealanders – all winners.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, The Greymouth Star and The Waikato Times of Friday, 28 October 2011.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Labour's Leg-Irons Remain Unbroken

Still In Use: Labour's "Work & Wages" policies represent a very different approach to industrial relations when compared to the National Party's punitive instincts, and yet, even after 20 years of neoliberal restraint, the Labour Party still declines to extend the protection of union membership to all employees, or to repeal any of the oppressive legislative restrictions on the workers' right to strike. One hundred years ago the socialist journalist, Harry Holland, described these legal restraints as "labour's leg-irons". One hundred years later, little has changed.

THE BEST that can be said of Labour’s “Work & Wages” policy is that it has been universally condemned by the nation’s leader-writers. This is an excellent start for any Labour policy – especially those relating to the workplace. Any Labour plan capable of attracting the unstinting praise of “mainstream” political commentators should always be greeted suspiciously by Labour voters.

Those who claim that there is no real difference between the two major parties have clearly never followed the National/Labour debate over wage-bargaining and the role of trade unions. No other issue throws the differences between the Centre-Left and the Centre-Right into such sharp relief. Because every neo-liberal politician and economist knows that laissez-faire capitalism and a strong trade union movement are mutually incompatible. Where one exists, the other falters and dies.

Though Labour oversaw the introduction of “Rogernomics”, it stopped short of abolishing compulsory unionism and New Zealand’s national awards-based system of wage-bargaining. (National awards were industry-wide, occupation-based contracts establishing minimum wages and working conditions).

Labour’s leadership understood that any Labour Party willing to deregulate the labour-market would forever forfeit the right to be called a Labour Party. The likes of Roger Douglas, David Caygill and Richard Prebble may have looked forward to National’s final solution to the union question in New Zealand, but they could not implement it themselves.

Interestingly, the Australian Labor Government of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, whose time in office lasted from 1983 until 1996, provides an interesting control to the New Zealand experience. Where our union movement was ruthlessly disabled, and our national award system totally destroyed by the National Government’s Employment Contracts Act, Australia’s unions, buttressed by compulsory arbitration and national awards, remained major players in the workplace. The wages and working conditions of Kiwi workers have lagged behind those of their Aussie cousins ever since.

In other words, had New Zealand’s nearly century-old tradition of extending the protection of trade union membership and national award coverage to practically every wage worker in the country endured, not only would Kiwi and Aussie wage-rates be much more closely aligned, but New Zealand businesses would also had to have become much more effective and efficient.

Because what the Employment Contracts Act did, over-and-above making the private-sector trade unions significantly less effective defenders of workers’ living standards, is allow New Zealand capitalists to extract their profits directly from the pay-packets of their own workforce – rather than from the fruits of improved productivity and/or innovation. For what remained of the private-sector unions, wage-bargaining became a dispiriting process of determining how large a chunk of their members’ income would be conceded to the employers this year.

Without the goad of a constantly rising wage-bill, the productivity (and, hence, competitiveness) of New Zealand industry declined, businesses closed, and workers were forced to seek employment in this country’s notoriously low-paid service-sector – where the protection of union membership is even harder to access.

So, how does Labour propose to break this cycle of demoralisation and decline, and restore the living-standards of New Zealand workers?

First, by creating a new “Workplace Commission” – which sounds like a somewhat stunted reincarnation of the old Arbitration Court. Second, by introducing Industry Standards Agreements. Bearing a striking resemblance to the former system of national awards, these new workplace agreements will establish a minimum set of wages and conditions across entire industries.

Sadly, Labour’s “Work & Wages” policy stops short of once again extending the protection of union membership to all workers. Clearly, non-union workers are expected to be so impressed by the Industry Standards Agreements that they instantly do the decent thing and join up.

But will they? As it stands, Labour’s “Work & Wages” policy is a free-rider’s charter. While the boss will be forced to adhere to the decisions of the Workplace Commission (which, unlike the old Arbitration Court, offers no guaranteed seat at the table to the employers) non-union workers will get their “Industry Standard” improvements in wages and conditions at no cost to themselves. Far from guaranteeing an expansion of private-sector union coverage, Labour’s reforms seem designed to keep it small.

And, just like the old system of compulsory arbitration, Labour’s proposed new regime will clamp its intended beneficiaries in legal leg-irons. It will be unlawful for workers to strike over the content of an Industry Standards Agreement.

But, if employers are required to participate in Labour’s new regime, why shouldn’t workers be treated the same? If National was willing to use the full force of the law to smash trade unionism, why is Labour being so half-hearted about devising legal mechanisms to restore it?

Perhaps it’s because the re-creation of a large and democratically organised trade union movement would pose an existential threat to New Zealand’s neo-liberal establishment. And for Labour – as for the nation’s leader-writers – that remains a bridge too far.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 25 October 2011.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Encountering Resistance

Offering Resistance: At the tender age of 26, I learned the hard way that mass support should never be assumed, or demanded. It has to be earned. "Resistance" was modelled on the Polish "Solidarity" (can't ya tell!). In theory a "movement of movements" seemed like a fine idea. Putting it into practice turned out to be a little more difficult.

HAVE YOU EVER HEARD of Resistance? No, not The Resistance, which fought the Germans in occupied France during World War II, but Resistance – as in the single word – like Solidarity? Don’t worry. Unless you lived in Dunedin in 1982, and have a very good memory, there’s no reason why “Resistance” should mean anything to you at all.

The only reason I remember it, is because I set it up.

Radicalised by the Springbok Tour protests of the year before; despairing of formal electoral politics following the narrow return of Rob Muldoon’s National Government; and inspired by the exploits of Poland’s free trade union, Solidarnosc (Solidarity), I was hoping to set up, right here in New Zealand, a similar extra-parliamentary people’s movement, broad enough to encompass all of the big issues of the day.

The movement was to be launched at what I called, with youthful grandiloquence, “The Dunedin People’s Congress”. Invitations went out to interest groups of all kinds: unions, students associations, environmental organisations.

It was a flop. Only a handful of people turned up. And, at the tender age of 26, I learned a bitter – but immensely valuable – lesson about political agitation. Mass support cannot be assumed, or demanded. It must be earned.

The then President of the Labour Party, Jim Anderton, summed it up for me a few months later, when he advised the radical core of Labour Youth’s Dunedin branch to: “Always build your footpaths where the people walk.”

Today, nearly thirty years on, the “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) movement, and its multitude of emulators in the USA and around the world, are inspiring a new generation of activists – just as Solidarity inspired activists in the early-Eighties. In Auckland and Dunedin, small encampments have been erected in the city-centre by “occupiers” eager to assert the OWS slogan “We are the 99 Percent!” Occupy Auckland has even borrowed OWS’s ultra-democratic, consensus-based, decision-making process: setting up its own “General Assembly” to govern the occupation.

I simply couldn’t avoid a wry grin of recognition when I saw the big “General Assembly” banner unfurled in Aotea Square. “Dunedin People’s Congress” anyone?

The central question that Occupy Auckland and Occupy Dunedin now have to answer, after six days of occupation, is whether or not “the people” are walking on the “footpaths” these groups have, with such enthusiasm (and not a little self-importance) constructed? Or, like the doomed “Dunedin People’s Congress”, is their General Assembly only attracting the most idealistic and/or na├»ve of the Radical Left?

Earlier this week, a friend of mine e-mailed me the link to a YouTube clip of the 15 October demonstration in Madrid. The Spanish capital’s most central public square – La Puerta del Sol – and the broad avenues leading into it were filled with demonstrators. There must have been at least 100,000 of them; an angry swarm of “indignant” Spanish citizens. The sort of crowd that, here in New Zealand, only great sporting events like the Rugby World Cup can assemble.

When Occupy Auckland and Occupy Dunedin are able gather support on a similar, massive, scale, their claim to speak for “the 99 percent” of the population which cannot boast great wealth, nor wield great power, will acquire a measure of credibility.

But that day is, I fear, far away.

New Zealand is not Spain. We do not face an unemployment rate of 20 percent. Our government has not unleashed the sort of savage austerity measures that have so incensed the Spanish people. At time of writing, Police have yet to pepper-spray, tear-gas or baton-charge any of the non-violent occupiers camped-out in Aotea Square or the Octagon. And, if for some reason (the MV Rena sinks, for example) people do become indignant enough to fill those public spaces, the radical Left will soon discover just how conservative most ordinary people really are. Broad agreement is possible on economic issues – but on precious little else.

I speak from experience. Because, you see, I did end up at a Dunedin “people’s congress” – of sorts. It was called the Otago Trades Council, and its 100-plus delegates represented more than 25,000 unionised workers throughout the province. You dared not take these ordinary New Zealanders for granted. Their trust was a precious commodity – and you had to work hard for it. But when you’d earned it: when it was given; resistance was guaranteed.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, The Greymouth Star and The Waikato Times of Friday, 21 October 2011.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Drill, Baby, Drill!

Foreseeable Crisis: The mile-deep disaster that overtook the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig in the Gulf of Mexico had massive technological assistance within a day's sailing of the catastrophe. Even so, it took BP several months to bring the massive ecological crisis under control. Given the authorities' obvious logistical difficulties in dealing with the comparatively small oil-spill from the Rena, is deep-sea oil exploration really the best answer to New Zealand's energy deficit?

“DRILL, BABY, DRILL!” It’s the battle-cry of the believers in “business as usual”. Sarah Palin’s infamous injunction is also the Populist Right’s translation of former American Vice-President, Dick Cheney’s, much more ominous observation that: “The American way of life is non-negotiable.”

What did the Vice-President mean? In brutally simple terms, Mr Cheney’s words meant that nothing should be allowed to come between Americans and the supply of cheap fossil fuel that underpins the USA’s extraordinary wealth.

“Drill, baby, drill!”, also sums up the National-led Government’s policy on fossil fuels. The Rena may be leaking heavy fuel-oil into the Bay of Plenty, but the Government’s plans for promoting deep-sea oil exploration within New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) have yet to be put on hold. Indeed, the Greens and Labour have been chastised for even suggesting such a moratorium, and thereby giving the relevant authorities time to absorb the causes, consequences and lessons of Rena’s grounding.

Why the gung-ho attitude? Why is the Government so determined to proceed in the face of so much evidence suggesting the need for extreme caution? The enormous difficulties already encountered in off-loading just 1,700 tonnes of fuel-oil from a coastal container ship pale into insignificance when compared to the ecological tragedy which unfolded in the Gulf of Mexico between April and July of 2010.

That disaster took place within a day’s sailing of the USA and Mexico, two of the world’s largest energy producers and refiners. So, help was close at hand. A similar deep-sea drilling accident occurring off the coast of New Zealand: a country at the end of the world’s sea-lanes; thousands of miles, and weeks of sailing, away from international assistance; would swiftly dwarf the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

Simple common-sense suggests that even the most rudimentary of cost-benefit analyses would flag deep-sea exploration in New Zealand’s EEZ as, at best, marginal, and, at worst, grossly irresponsible.

Of course, the same could’ve been said (and was) about the radical deregulation of our coastal shipping industry. Allowing so-called “flag of convenience” vessels (crewed not by the best, but by the cheapest officers available) to supplant New Zealand flagged and crewed vessels, made a Rena-style accident all-but-inevitable. The Maritime Union of New Zealand warned successive governments over and over again about the risks. Nobody listened.

So, what is it? How is this refusal to recognise simple common sense, and heed the warnings of experts, to be explained?

The answer is frighteningly simple. Politicians like Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, Gerry Brownlee and Hekia Parata (Mr Brownlee’s stand-in as Energy Minister) are all in a state of denial.

Even though a succession of reputable international agencies (the latest being the IMF) have warned the world’s governments that the moment of peak oil production occurred five years ago, and that the chances of the current and future global demand for oil being met by the discovery and exploitation of new deep-sea fields are extremely low (the world needs to locate the equivalent of four Saudi Arabia’s to meet the looming shortfall of cheap oil supplies) the politicians just go on denying that any of this alarming information is true.

Given New Zealand’s acute vulnerability to price and supply shocks, our political leaders’ refusal to face the facts is, perhaps, understandable. The best evidence available suggests that this country’s domestic fossil fuel reserves will be largely exhausted by 2020. That will leave our automobile-dependent society and economy dangerously exposed to the vagaries of international supply and demand.

Try these numbers for size.

The current price of “Brent Crude” is between $US100-$US120 per barrel. The NZ Treasury forecasts that in 2015 our exchange rate with the US dollar will be 0.60$US/$NZ. Assuming that by 2015 the declining global supply of oil has pushed the price of Brent Crude to $US200 per barrel, means New Zealand would need to find an additional $10.5 billion, annually, to pay its net fuel import bill. (Compare this with the total cost to Government of rebuilding Christchurch, estimated by Treasury to be $8 billion.)

The economic consequences of such a massive increase in the price of oil are easily imagined: falling GDP, rising inflation, declining real income, decreased consumer spending, increased unemployment, recession.

And so the cry of “drill, baby, drill!” goes up. Because it’s easier to imagine some lucky offshore prospector uncovering another North Sea oil and gas field than it is to imagine how any government might even broach, let alone manage, the winding-back of our fossil-fuel-based civilisation.

It’s all too hard. Just as it was too hard to resist the deregulation of our coastal shipping industry – and so keep our beaches and wildlife free from stinking, toxic sludge.

Fifty years from now, when the foreign ships no longer call, may our grand-children laugh where we now weep – and wonder at our folly.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 October 2011.

Monday, 17 October 2011

They're Only 0.1 Percent - But It's A Good Start!

A Good Beginning: One-thousand-plus "Occupy Auckland" protesters gathered in Aotea Square on 15 October and constituted themselves as a "General Assembly" of Aucklanders. But, if it really wishes to speak for 99 percent of its fellow Aucklanders, the General Assembly must turn a good beginning into something much, much bigger.

IT’S NOT OFTEN that old age and treachery are bested by youth and idealism, but it happened on Saturday. The “Occupy Auckland” organisers gave themselves just one week to add New Zealand’s largest city to the growing list of “occupied” cities around the world. Too little time, I said. People aren’t angry enough, I said. Can’t be done, I said.

Well, I was wrong.

I had expected less than 300 people to show up. But it was clear from the moment I arrived at QEII square on Saturday afternoon that there were many more people than that. Between them, Facebook and the wreck of the Rena had assembled a reasonably respectable protest march. As an estimate, two thousand would have been too generous, and one thousand too stingy. But if you’d said around 1,400 protesters set off up Queen Street for Aotea Square, you wouldn’t have been far off the mark.

I like that number because it represents exactly 0.1 percent of Auckland’s 1.4 million citizens. In other words, the “Occupy Auckland” protesters numbered just one tenth of the 1 percent of fat-cat capitalist greedsters they were marching against. I’m not making this point to be snarky, merely offering it as a hopefully useful corrective to some of the over-ambitious claims being made by the protest leaders.

Because the people who have set up camp in Aotea Square are very obviously NOT representative of 99 percent of Aucklanders. They are far too young, far too white, and far too unencumbered by the burdens of job, mortgage and family to be anything like the twenty-thousand-plus ordinary Aucklanders who celebrated the All-Blacks victory over the Wallabies throughout the central city the following night.

But they do represent something. There was a pile of youthful energy and a playful sense of creativity permeating the Aotea Square “campsite” on Saturday afternoon. Even I, a staunch opponent of “consensus-based decision-making” for more than 30 years, felt my frown lines disappearing and a smile slowly spreading across my face as the “facilitators” (don’t, whatever you do, call them “leaders”) explained to the thousand-strong “General Assembly” the four basic hand-signals indicating Agreement, Disagreement, Point of Process and Block.

Here on the green lawns of Aotea Square, under a bright spring sky, I was witnessing something new under the sun – and I hadn’t witnessed anything new in left-wing political practice for a very long time. Suddenly, I was laughing at the speakers’ lame jokes. And, when the various “working-groups” who’d made the day’s events possible were introduced to the General Assembly, I found myself joining-in the crowd's very big round of applause.

I was, however, very glad the plan to literally “Occupy Queen Street” had been abandoned. Worried that there might still be some who refused to accept the decision to shift the focus of the protest to Aotea Square, I moved ahead of the march and took up a position overlooking the big Wellesley Street intersection. If there was going to be a street-based occupation, this is where it would happen.

The Police agreed. From a side street, 24 constables, led by a burly Police Sergeant, formed up into what was clearly a snatch-squad. They were decked out in stab-vests, hand-cuffs and appeared to be carrying batons. Further up Wellesley Street, three large “Paddy Wagons” stood ready to receive the constables’ “catch”.

I watched the protest march approach the intersection, saw it pause, gather mass, pause again, and then move on up Queen Street. The back-end of the march did the same: pause, gather mass, pause. A haka was performed – and then the last of the marchers followed their comrades up Queen Street to the Square. The Police snatch-squad about-turned and marched away.

Aotea Square was always the obvious occupation site. In the popular imagination, if not in strictly legal terms, it is Auckland’s most important public space – a city square – just like the city squares of Cairo and Athens, Barcelona and Madrid. Wall Street is a potent political symbol: Queen Street, for most people, is just a carriageway.

But now the rules of the General Assembly are agreed, and the tents pitched – what happens next? The weather is predicted to turn bad for most of the next week, and heavy rain will quickly turn Aotea Square’s green lawns into muddy wallows. A General Assembly of one thousand merry protesters is an impressive sight. An assembly reduced to 100 bedraggled campers will not look so good.

The question of how to build the protest: of how to reach out to the 99.9 percent of Aucklanders who are yet to involve themselves in this bold political experiment; must be answered. Only when “Occupy Auckland” can gather together in one place as many enthusiastic citizens as the organisers of the Rugby World Cup, will their calls for change acquire genuine political heft. (And when the General Assembly numbers 20,000 - instead of 1,000 - I suspect its calls for change will turn out to be a lot less radical than Saturday's revolutionary speeches.)

The organisers of “Occupy Auckland” have made a good beginning – better than I thought possible. But, in the words of All-Black coach, Graham Henry: “The job hasn't been done yet.”

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Lies, Damn Lies, and "Inferences"

"Dunno. Wasn't There.": The Prime Minister's ordeal by press conference over his allegation that Standard & Poors had warned economists that a credit downgrade was more likely under Labour has hopefully cured him of relying too heavily on the "inferences" of businessmen-spies.

THE PRIME MINISTER can count himself very lucky that the House of Representatives stands adjourned and the Speaker is abroad. Were they not, it is difficult to see how John Key could have escaped the scrutiny of the Privileges Committee. Had the timing been just a little different, he could easily have found himself in the same position as Winston Peters in 2008: diverted from the election campaign to answer charges of misleading Parliament.

But, then, Mr Key has always been lucky – as lucky as his principal opponent, Phil Goff, has been unlucky. Even so, the adjournment (and imminent proroguing) of the House, and Dr Lockwood Smith’s absence have not protected him from several days of acute political embarrassment.

His claim to the House that a change of government would increase the likelihood of a credit downgrading by Standard & Poor’s has been exposed as, at best, a false conclusion – drawn from an unjustified inference.

We know this because a spokesperson from Standard & Poor’s has taken the highly unusual step of publicly contradicting a prime-minister.

Melbourne-based Kyran Curry, who was present at the S&P-sponsored meeting of economists where the discussion of New Zealand’s credit-rating took place, stated unequivocally: “I would never have touched on individual parties. It is something we just don’t do. We don’t rate political parties; we rate Governments.”

In the face of such a public slap-down, Mr Key had no choice but to concede that his understanding of Standard & Poor’s position was based entirely on information received from an anonymous source who had been present at the meeting. Fierce questioning from a highly sceptical Press Gallery then forced the Prime Minister to release his “evidence” – an e-mail in which his (still anonymous) informant declared:

“There was a key one-liner that I thought you could well use. S&P said that there was a 1/3 chance that NZ would get downgraded and a 2/3 chance it would not, and the inference was clear that it would be the other way round if Labour were in power.”

That word “inference” should have caused Mr Key’s political radar warning system to light up like a tilted pin-ball machine. Prime Ministers do not rely on inferences – no matter how “clear”. They rely on facts.

Nor should they allow their parliamentary opponents to assume that they were present at a meeting which, in reality, they did not attend. Unless, of course, they enjoy repeating, over and over again, to a roomful of stony-faced journalists: “I wasn’t there.” “I wasn’t at the meeting.”

And, never – under any circumstances – should they twitch back the curtain of Prime Ministerial omniscience to reveal the tacky truth that he or she is the receptacle for an endless stream of petty gossip and partisan innuendo.

How long does Mr Key think it will take a clever journalist to track down the full list of economists present at the Standard & Poor’s meeting? When, by his own admission, one of the names on that list is a prime-ministerial spy, how long does he think it will take before a shrewd process of elimination identifies the guilty party?

The bank economists representing the ANZ and the BNZ have already been forced to deny any part in the leaking of their colleagues’ private deliberations to the Prime Minister. Others are bound to follow. And none of them will be happy.

Contemporary economics reminds me of nothing so much as the huckster’s shill. And, like any confidence trick, it only works while people keep believing what they’re told. Just as in Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, where the smooth running of the Emerald City depends on no one discovering what lies hidden behind the curtain, faith in the Government’s economic management depends upon people believing their leader is guided by more than anonymous spies peddling “one liners” and “inferences”.

Mr Key’s remarkable luck may have preserved him from the Privileges Committee, but in the Court of Public Opinion he stands convicted.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, The Greymouth Star and The Waikato Times of Friday, 14 October 2011.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Moving The Frame

Propaganda Coup: This excellent example of political re-framing should be giving the National Party serious heart palpitations. The Rena Disaster is a classic example of the exogenous political event - the thing no campaign manager can plan for. In 2002 in was "Corngate" - this year it could well be the Rena. Some are already calling New Zealand's worst environmental disaster "Key's Katrina". If the Prime Minister isn't able to escape this frame - and quickly - he could end up drowning in it.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Defusing The Bomber

Defused: Martyn "Bomber" Bradbury's exclusion from Radio New Zealand's Afternoons with Jim Mora's "The Panel" was unfair to the man and embarrassing for public radio, but it was also, in the intimate little country New Zealand has always been, utterly predictable.

I WAS A LITTLE SURPRISED, and a lot impressed, when the production team behind Radio New Zealand – National’s Afternoons with Jim Mora invited Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury on to “The Panel”. Surprised: because Bomber’s style is about as far away from the decorous National Radio tradition as it’s possible to get. Impressed: because it confirmed Afternoons’ determination to remain at the cutting-edge of public service radio in New Zealand.

Since the demise of Radio New Zealand’s commercial arm in the 1990s, and the Fifth Labour Government’s craven refusal to honour its promise to establish a publicly-owned, commercial-free, nationwide youth network, Radio New Zealand – National  has drifted, like a piece of pre-Rogernomics cultural flotsam, in hostile neo-liberal seas.

For nearly two decades the public network has struggled to re-invent itself – with limited success. How could it be otherwise, when the funding increases required for genuine experimentation were consistently withheld by Radio New Zealand’s political masters.

To be utterly dependent on non-hypothecated state funding cannot help but foster an institutional culture of acute self-awareness. Radio New Zealand’s broadcasters have become experts at sensing where the invisible political trip-wires had been laid – and how to avoid them.

“The Panel” – a sort of radio adaptation of TV3’s much-loved The Ralston Group – brought its staff and their guests about as close to those trip-wires as Radio New Zealand’s bosses were prepared to go. And, like The Ralston Group, “The Panel’s” survival depended on its guests fully understanding and respecting the show’s parameters.

I well remember TV3’s Head of News & Current Affairs, Rod Pedersen, telling Ralston’s guests (most of whom were experienced journalists) that he trusted them, as professionals, to know the difference between fair comment and defamation, and thus to keep the network out of the courts. To my knowledge, no one ever let him down.

The producers of Afternoons weren’t as explicit as Rod Pedersen, and yet it was always pretty clear to me that the “culture” of Radio New Zealand was very different indeed from the culture of Newstalk-ZB, Radio Live, and commercial radio in general. Though it ended up as a sort of Ralston-Group-without-pictures, it was originally conceived as a radio version of the BBC’s delightful show Grumpy Old Men – a witty and wistful programme by and for ageing “Baby-Boomers”. You could be many things on Afternoons – but strident wasn’t one of them.

I well remember the day I was ambushed on-air by a bitter and even more than normally vituperative Mike Moore. The former Labour leader really laid into me, landing verbal blow after verbal blow until, becoming very angry, I began to fight back – stridently. Immediately, I felt the vice-like grip of my fellow panellist, Richard Griffin, on my wrist. He shook his head emphatically, as if to say: “don’t go there, stay calm”. Meanwhile, the programme’s amiable host, Jim Mora, very adroitly and professionally, began defusing the confrontation.

This was the institutional culture that Bomber – a natural broadcasting talent honed at stations like BfM and Channel Z – was striding into: pre-written “Soapbox” diatribe gripped tightly in his hand, and that enormous, Gen-X, anti-Baby-Boomer chip he carries around balanced precariously on his shoulder. Talk about inviting Hamas to a bar-mitzvah! This was one gutsy call.

Bomber’s bombastic bloviations swept through Radio New Zealand’s studios – and into the middle-class parlours of the nation – like a noisome radical fart. And, presumably, that was the point. Why else bring Bomber onto “The Panel” unless you genuinely intended to get up the Afternoons audience’s nose? Unless, in the words of Theodore Roszak, you wanted your listeners to experience “an invasion of centaurs”? (Or, in this case, centaur?)

But what about the tripwires? Well, that’s why I was so surprised, impressed, and – yes – even delighted. Because Bomber, host of the high-rating (for Stratos) Citizen A show, and no-holds-barred poster on the Tumeke blog, was gloriously oblivious to any and all of the political tripwires lacing through Radio New Zealand’s corridors. And that could only mean, by inviting him on to Afternoons, one of the network’s highest-rating shows (and one of the highest-rating in the whole country) Radio New Zealand was ready to push out the boundaries of public radio – hard.

Too hard, it would seem.

Perhaps the Radio New Zealand producers were just so used to stepping carefully over all those political tripwires they simply assumed every other broadcaster was too. But there are all kinds of tripwires in broadcasting. In commercial radio they’re laid by the advertisers – via the Sales & Marketing Department – and the shock-jocks ignore them at their peril. In student radio, I imagine the ultimate sin is a terminal lack of “cool”.

As Bomber’s commentaries nudged the stridency levels higher and higher, and Afternoon’s Baby-Boomer audience grew weary of the Bradbury blame-game, the programme was dragged further and further away from its comfort-zone. Sooner or later, Radio New Zealand was bound to say: “Nup. That’s it. We’ve gone too far out on this particular limb.”

The moment came last Thursday afternoon. Bomber took aim at the Prime Minister and squeezed-off a sustained burst of heavy-calibre fire. It was no better or worse than a dozen other well-aimed political fusillades he’d unleashed over the past few months. But, it was one too many.

What happened? I don’t know – and I haven’t been able to find out. Did RNZ Board Chairman, Richard Griffin, put the vice-like metaphorical squeeze on CEO Peter Cavanagh’s wrist? I doubt it. The most likely explanation is that, quite suddenly, and without the clear warning he was entitled to and should have been given, Bomber crossed the invisible line from “gutsy call” to “major liability” – and the Bomber-disposal squad went into action.

Unfair to Bomber? Yes. Bad for the programme? Possibly. Deeply embarrassing for Radio New Zealand? Definitely. But in a society so small; so politically and professionally intimate; and so utterly dependent on invisible lines and unspoken rules as New Zealand, it was also very, very predictable.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

After The Ball Is Over

And Then What?: Only the criminally ill-informed and/or the hopelessly romantic believe that anyone but John Key will be prime-minister after the General Election. The more important question is: What happens then? After the ball is over - and the global recession finally hits New Zealand?

WITH MORE AND MORE voters regarding a National Party election victory as inevitable, the question arises: “What happens after the ball is over?”

When all the hoardings have been taken down, and all the ballot papers counted – what then? What challenges lie in wait for New Zealand’s government a few miles down the track?

While a fitful sun still bathes large parts of New Zealand in a golden light, many communities already lie in the shadow of storm-clouds blown-in from northern climes.

Farmers and their support networks in rural and provincial New Zealand may find it hard to comprehend the difficulties being experienced by metropolitan New Zealand. This is because record export prices have cushioned them from all but the first few recessionary blows.

Even so, the nation’s cockies – being a cautious and responsible breed – are furiously paying down their debt and eliminating all unnecessary expenditure. It seems axiomatic to them that their government should be doing the same. If the National Party was to run the country the same way they run their farms, say the farmers, all would be well.

But, I wonder if they’d still say that if, as many economists now predict, the Chinese economy experiences a sudden contraction? If China’s apparently insatiable appetite for New Zealand milk powder disappeared overnight – along with her equally insatiable appetite for unprocessed Pinus Radiata and Australian minerals – would our farmers still model their economic expectations on a simple set of household accounts?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume they would. What would be the result?

That’s easy. The farming sector’s huge debts to Australia’s banks would very soon precipitate a major financial crisis. If Chinese demand dried up – on both sides of the Tasman – the Australasian banking sector would be in serious trouble. Farmers unable to pay their mortgages would be foreclosed. Rural properties would flood the real-estate market and land prices would collapse. Farming families’ equity in their properties would evaporate, and the ownership of New Zealand farmland would pass into fewer and fewer hands – many of them foreign.

Very rapidly, the farmers’ pain would be transmitted to everyone else in rural and provincial New Zealand. With the demand for agricultural goods and services in free-fall, small to medium businesses throughout the “heartland” would falter and/or fail. Thousands would find themselves without an income. (Being self-employed, these folk would quickly discover the meaning of bureaucratic delay: how much longer it takes to access the unemployment benefit when you’re not a laid-off employee from a major city.)

To make things worse, the Government (still assuming the country is being run according to the household accounts model) would be searching around frantically for ways to reduce ballooning public expenditure.

A collapse in export prices couldn’t help but have a massive impact on the entire economy – sending the indices of unemployment, spousal abandonment, mental illness and sickness through the roof. Welfare spending would soon constitute an insupportable burden on the State. Benefits would have to be cut and eligibility tightened. Working For Families tax credits would be abolished. The age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation would be lifted from 65 to 67 and then to 70. The quantum of the pension would fall from two-thirds to half the average wage.

New Zealand’s misery index would rise sharply.

Of course the cutting wouldn’t stop at the Welfare Budget. Spending on health and education would also fall. The interest-free student loan concession would be removed. Major capital projects, such as hospital, school, state-highway and light-rail construction, would be put on hold. Eventually, the wages and salaries of public servants would face the chop – possibly by as much as 10-20 percent.

This is what “austerity” looks like.

What if the Government adopted a different economic model? A model based on something other than a simple set of household accounts? A model which called for the maintenance of a strong and consistent demand for goods and services? A model which held that price deflation, reduced incomes, and the corresponding reduction in the demand for goods and services thus created, only make the economic situation worse – not better. In short, the model put forward by the British economist, John Maynard Keynes, back in the 1930s?

Well, that model would require the Government to do a great many things.

First and foremost it would have to bring the financial sector under strict public control (yes, that does imply a large, state-dominated banking and insurance industry). Then, in order to equip itself with the resources to maintain employment and demand, it would need to institute a radically redistributive fiscal programme. Finally, it would require policies calculated to sustain the viability of New Zealand’s export and import substitution sectors.

Unfortunately, none of these measures are even remotely compatible with the current policy settings of the National Party.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 October 2011.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Mana - Not A Serious Option

Limited Talent: The choice of the John Key and National Party admirer, Kereama Pene, as Mana candidate for Tamaki Makaurau is proof positive that not only is the party's talent pool woefully shallow – so, too, is its political judgement.

WELL, THAT’S IT. For a while there it looked as though the Mana Party just might turn into something worthwhile – a second chance for all those who were dismayed to see the Alliance crash and burn over Afghanistan back in 2001-2002.

But, no. Mana’s announcement that Kereama Pene, a minister of the Ratana Church, is to contest the Tamaki Makaurau seat has put an end to all that.

Mr Pene is a flamboyant character who has, at one time or another, been a supporter of the Mana Motuhake, Labour, Destiny and Maori parties. He is also on record as saying the Prime Minister, John Key, is “ a person who should be admired”.

Not content with singing the Prime Minister’s praises, Mr Pene has also publicly declared that: “National is actually the group that have done most of the great things for Maoridom over the past 20 years.” Identifying (erroneously) the Treaty Settlements Process, the Waitangi Tribunal and the Kohanga Reo Movement as National Party achievements, Mana’s Tamaki Makaurau candidate told the NZ Herald: “You’ve got to give praise where its due.”

These statements show Mr Pene to be, at best, a dangerously naive political novice, or, at worst, a ticking time-bomb, guaranteed to explode at the worst possible moment. His remarks have deeply compromised the Mana Party at a time when political journalists are already discussing its lack of momentum, and its failure to capitalise on Leader Hone Harawira’s success in retaining the Te Tai Tokerau seat.

The Tamaki Makaurau contest required a candidate of real ability and, well, mana: someone capable of being “retailed” to the Maori electorate. For a while it was assumed that the candidacy would go to the former Alliance MP, and highly successful Maori broadcaster, Willie Jackson. Wisely, Mr Jackson thought better of it – as did his Radio Live side-kick, the former Labour MP, John Tamihere.

The reluctance of these two veterans to risk their reputations (and salaries) in the race for Tamaki Makaurau spoke volumes about Mana’s readiness to engage in the high-octane environment of mainstream electoral politics.

The sort of person to break the grip of Maori Party co-leader, Pita Sharples, and bar the way to Labour’s Shane Jones, had to be able to connect with Tamaki Makaurau's energetic, secular and overwhelmingly youthful population. Someone out of Maori TV’s stable of young, talented and "tuned-in" presenters would have been ideal: a Julian Wilcox or Annabelle Lee Harris.

The choice of Mr Pene is grim evidence that, after Hone Harawira and Annette Sykes, Mana finds itself struggling to identify Maori candidates of genuine (and electable) political talent among its ranks.

It is difficult to see Mana’s erstwhile mover-and-shaker, Matt McCarten, allowing Mr Pene to carry the party’s colours into such an important and highly visible contest. Before being forced out of Mana’s day-to-day decision-making processes by illness, Mr McCarten had set up an extremely testing set of political and organisational hurdles that every prospective candidate was required to clear before their nomination could be accepted. The choice of Mr Pene for Tamaki Makaurau suggests that these pre-requisites are now being honoured more in the breach than in the execution.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Mana would have been wiser to put the radical lawyer, Annette Sykes, into the Tamaki Makaurau seat. Waiariki may include Ms Sykes’ own Te Arawa iwi among its constituents, but that very fact carries with it a significant disadvantage. Te Arawa are among the least accommodating of Maori tribes when it comes to recognising the rights of women, and this may well count against Mana's candidate in the looming battle with the Maori Party’s Te Ururoa Flavell. Tamaki Makaurau is an almost entirely urban seat, containing Maori from all over Aotearoa. Pitted against Mr Sharples and Mr Jones, Ms Sykes would have attracted considerable support – across many iwi affiliations.

Too late now. Mr Pene’s selection is proof positive that not only is Mana’s talent pool woefully shallow – so, too, is its political judgement.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Occupy Queen Street? Not Yet.

The Message Is Spreading: The political virus implanted by the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters has become highly contagious, with similar "occupations" speading rapidly across the United States. But are Aucklanders ready to "Occupy Queen Street"? The answer, almost certainly, is: "Not yet."

LAST NIGHT I sat in a roomful of people inspired by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Some were young, brim-full of idealism. Others, older, wore the scars of numerous victories and defeats. Uniting them all was the belief that “a better world is possible”.

I have long been wary of the New Zealand Left’s propensity for jumping on to other people’s bandwagons. What’s happening in the United States and Europe, and what has already happened along the Mediterranean Coast of North Africa – the so-called “Arab Spring” – are products of those particular countries’ recent (and not-so-recent) histories. I am very doubtful that events occurring there can be replicated here quickly, easily and without significant modification.

The kids who moved in on Wall Street over a month ago may have been anarchists, but I strongly suspect that a great deal of organisation followed their decision to set the fires of rebellion in the very belly of the global capitalist beast. My roomful of people had come to organise an occupation of Queen Street, but they’d given themselves just eight days to do it.

Several months ago Spain’s anti-austerity movement, the so-called “Indignants”, designated October 15 as a day of international action against global finance’s determination to make 99 percent of the planet’s people pay for the economic crisis precipitated by its wealthiest 1 percent. Auckland’s radical leftists are determined to do their bit on that day.

Frankly, I don’t believe 8 days is anything like long enough to get something like this organised. But, even if the “Occupy Queen Street” organisers had given themselves six months to plan a full-scale occupation of Auckland’s main street, I doubt if they could pull it off.

The brutal truth of the matter is that, in comparison to the Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians, Bahrainis and Yemenis, New Zealanders live in a blessed realm. And even if we limit our comparison to the peoples of Europe and the USA, the hard fact remains that New Zealanders have had what might be called an “easy” recession.

Our rate of unemployment is comparatively low, and our government has shied away from the sorts of ruthless austerity measures implemented in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Greece and in many of the individual states of the USA. Our economy’s powerful linkages with the booming economies of Australia and China have spared us the worst effects of the Global Financial Crisis and the deep recession which it spawned. Our great trials (Pike River, the Christchurch earthquakes) have been of the sort that bring people together, not the sort that drives them apart.

The other thing that brings New Zealanders together is, of course, Rugby. One more reason, perhaps, for allowing the Spanish-set “International Day of Action” to go unmarked in Godzone. It is difficult to think of a worse time to ask ordinary Kiwis to focus on the building of a better world than in the week its All Black heroes are closing in on their first Rugby World Cup victory in 24 years. For these folk, a RWC win represents the best of all possible worlds!

The RWC offers another quite serious impediment to any form of prolonged protest action – especially action planned for the main street of the biggest host city.

One of the main reasons Peter Marshall was appointed Commissioner of Police is, I imagine, because of his long experience in providing police protection for large international events. I first encountered him in 1995, when he was placed in charge of policing the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank in Auckland. Recalling the firmness with which he dealt with protesters on that occasion, I can only assume that Commissioner Marshall will respond to any group attempting to engage in prolonged protest action (on or around streets potentially overflowing with RWC revellers) with considerable force.

Indeed, I would be very surprised if any attempt to block streets or set up camp anywhere in the CBD lasts any longer than a few minutes. Nor would I be astonished if the number of constables on hand in Queen Elizabeth Square at 3:00pm on Saturday, 15 October, is greater than the turnout of protesters. In strategic terms, the Police will want to be able to re-deploy their forces in plenty of time for the RWC semi-final match scheduled to take place at Eden Park that evening. The Police Commissioner simply cannot afford to keep a large cordon of police officers on watch over a protest on Downtown Auckland’s main thoroughfare.

Quite apart from anything else, the Police will be worried about the likely outcome of a very large number of pumped-up Rugby supporters, many of them intoxicated, coming into contact with a small number of protesters. The social mores and political attitudes of the former are almost certain to clash with those of the latter. Things could get very ugly, very quickly.

Of course, vivid images of police brutality are wonderful recruiters for any sort of protest movement. On Wall Street, it was the images of a New York cop pepper-spraying a defenceless and non-violent protester in the face that lifted the occupation from a minor piece of street theatre to a genuine political event. The same thing could happen here.

But, I am doubtful. In my opinion both the timing and the venue are all wrong. October 15 is too soon, and Queen Street is simply too critical to the smooth movement of traffic (and revellers) through Central Auckland, for a successful occupation on that date to be successful.

If anything can be read from the overseas experience it is this. Successful occupations take place in the context of major and genuine affronts to the public’s values and welfare; and their venues typically resonate with symbolic power. Egypt’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, for example, was the site of revolutionary uprisings in both 1919 and 1952. Wall Street is, of course, synonymous with the power of global finance capital. The policies of President Hosni Mubarak’s government had imposed extreme hardship on the Egyptian people. Wall Street’s looting of “Main Street” has placed millions of Americans under intense economic pressure.

Auckland’s Queen Street possesses its own symbolic power. It was the site of the largest and most destructive of the unemployment riots of 1932. But these occurred in the depths of the Great Depression when close to a quarter of the New Zealand workforce were unemployed and thousands of families quite literally starving. The “Queen Street Riot” was an explosion of rage and despair from working people at the very end of their tether.

Have we reached that point again? Are enough of us that angry with our government and the economic system it oversees?

Something in me says: “Not yet.”

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday, 7 October 2011

The Not-So-Happy Prince (A Guest Posting by Dr Charles Pigden)

The Prince Who Refused To 'Get Real': People who talk of adapting to reality are in effect suggesting that we should put up with a social reality created by other people rather than trying to remake it in accordance with what we think is right. By doing so, they reinforce that very reality. And by refusing to be actors in history they become the accomplices - perhaps ultimately the victims - of the processes of which they profess to disapprove.

ONCE UPON A TIME there was a Prince. The Prince was very rich and very happy and enjoyed the favor of his master the Emperor. He liked to attend court functions in his fine clothes. He loved dancing and parties and enjoyed fulfilling the not very onerous tasks demanded of a nobleman of his rank and station. He knew that the Emperor was far from perfect but he did not see fit to question his actions. After a while the old Emperor abdicated and left the realm to his son, the King of S.

The King of S did not like the Prince very much but he thought he was a fine gentleman, ideal to be sent as the ornamental ambassador to the King of F. The real business was to be left to the Prince's deputy. But the King of F did not know about this and made the mistake of discussing the real business with the ornamental ambassador. Apparently the two Kings were planning to roast thousands of people who disagreed with them on matters of religion. The Prince was upset about this as he disapproved of roasting people even when they disagreed with him on religious topics.

Soon after this the King of S left for his southern dominions leaving the realm to his half-sister the Duchess who was to act as regent. The Prince tried to persuade the Duchess not to roast people. There were many who thought he was doing the wrong thing. (Let us call them his feeble counsellors.)

'Look', they said, 'the reality is that thousands of people are going to be roasted. You must adapt to that reality. If you don't like it perhaps you can persuade the Duchess to have people roasted in a more orderly and less cruel way.'

But the Prince thought that roasting people was wrong and he would not listen to their advice. But the Duchess (obedient to the orders of her brother the King) was not persuaded. Then the Prince got together a group of other fine gentlemen who disapproved of roasting people to help him persuade the Duchess.

Again, the Prince's feeble counsellors spoke up. 'Look', they said, 'the reality is that thousands of people are going to be roasted.  You must adapt to that reality. You have tried once and failed. Give it up and enjoy your position at court.

But the Prince thought that roasting people was wrong and he would not listen to their advice. Nevertheless the Duchess (obedient to the orders of her brother the King) was not persuaded by the Prince and his fine gentlemen friends. Indeed, she had some of them arrested and the Prince declared an outlaw.

The Prince decided that since persuasion did not work, he would have to try force and raised a rebellion against the King of S's government. There were many who thought he was doing the wrong thing.

'Look', they said, 'the reality is that thousands of people are going to be roasted. You must adapt to that reality. You have tried twice and failed. Give it up and if you say you are sorry, perhaps you can recover your position at court.'

But the Prince still thought that roasting people was wrong and he would not listen to their advice. Now the Prince was not a very good soldier and he was utterly defeated by the Duke of A (The King of S had replaced the Duchess as regent because he did not think she was sufficiently keen on roasting people. The Duke of A was much more fierce and could be relied on to carry on the roasting project with much more vigour.) The Prince lost his money, his estates and his eldest son, who was kidnapped and carried off to be a prisoner at the King of S's court. (The Prince never saw him again.) He was forced to flee to the castle of his brother the Count of D.

Just to show that he was serious, the Duke of A had some of the Prince's fine gentleman friends executed. Many people (the feeble counsellors) thought that the Prince would at last have learnt his lesson. 'Look', they said, 'the reality is that thousands of people are going to be roasted.  You must adapt to that reality. You have tried three times and failed. Give it up and if you say you are very sorry, and if you lie low for a few years, perhaps the King will allow you to recover some of your estates.'

But the Prince still thought that  - reality or no reality - roasting people was wrong. And in addition he disliked the fact that his country was ruled by someone as fierce as the Duke of A. So despite the good advice, after several years of plotting, he scraped together an army and rebelled again.

Well, to cut a long story short, the Prince's second rebellion was but a partial success. He was still not a very good soldier and was only able to establish control over part of the country (where to be sure, roasting and other such cruelties were forbidden). His armies were often defeated and his brother was killed. Most of his money and his estates remained forfeit.  Instead of parties and jousts his life was devoted to planning and committees. He was tired all the time and sometimes ill. In the end, the King of S put a price on his head and had him murdered. So perhaps he would have done better to listen to his feeble counselors and respect the 'realities' after all.


BUT THEN AGAIN, perhaps not. This Prince was William the Silent, Prince of Orange, founder of the Dutch nation, which remained in the hundred years after his death, the true home of liberty and enlightenment in Europe. His actions helped to create a new and rather better 'reality' than the one that would have existed had he tamely acquiesced in the King of Spain's commands. Even today - even here - we enjoy the benefits of his courage and resolution.

Now, what is the point of this story?

What I want to suggest is this. Though physical reality is not made up by us, social reality is in part a human creation since it is the product of human actions and decisions. What is made by human actions and decisions can often be un-made by other human actions and other human decisions. People who talk of adapting to reality (like the Prince's feeble counsellors in my story) are in effect suggesting that we should put up with a social reality created by other people rather than trying to remake it in accordance with what we think is right. By doing so, they reinforce that very reality. And by refusing to be actors in history they become the accomplices - perhaps ultimately the victims - of the processes of which they profess to disapprove.

Of course, there are some fights you cannot win. But there are also a good many that can be won if people are prepared to make the necessary effort. 'Realism' is too often the excuse offered by those too cowardly or too lazy to make that effort. And when advanced by those in power it is too often a fig-leaf designed to conceal the fact that there are no good arguments for the policies suggested. I would like to say (following Dr Johnson) that 'realism' is the last refuge of the scoundrel. But that would not be accurate. Often it is his first resort.

Dr Charles Pigden is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Otago. This is his first Guest Posting on the Bowalley Road blogsite (but, hopefully, not his last).