Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Journey: A Political Memoir - Posting No. 7

And So It Begins ... : Roger Douglas announces radical tax reform in his first Budget, November 1984. The regressive Goods & Services Tax prompted considerable opposition, both within the Labour Party organisation and from the broader labour movement. President Margaret Wilson, responding to rank-and-file alarm, announced a full-scale internal economic debate to coincide with the party's next round of regional remit conferences, scheduled for April-May 1985.

It was supposed to be a book about the birth of the NewLabour Party, but somewhere along the way it became the story of what led me into, and out of, the old Labour Party. In hopes of providing future political studies students with a glimpse of what it was like to be a left-wing Labour activist in the days of David Lange and Roger Douglas, I am publishing The Journey on Bowalley Road as a series of occasional postings. L.P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” May these memoirs, written in 1989, serve, however poorly, as my personal passport.

Sunday, 21 April 1985 

WE ARE GATHERED in the back room of the University of Otago’s Adam’s House. Russell Taylor, an organiser for the Otago Clerical Workers’ Union, has dubbed us the Sunday Morning Club (a reference to the Sunday Club, whose rallies for the deposed leader of the National Party, Sir Robert Muldoon, have seriously weakened an already dispirited opposition). The title is apt: already a number of Parliamentary Press Gallery journalists are calling the Left Wing of the Labour Party “the real opposition”.

Our official title is the Economic Policy Group; ostensibly we are here to discuss alternative economic strategies to those of the Government we all slaved to elect barely twelve months earlier. Our true purpose, though unstated, is clear to everyone present: we must defeat GST.

The new president of the Labour Party, Margaret Wilson, has proclaimed a full-scale economic debate – to be held in conjunction with the 1985 round of regional remit conferences. It is an exercise in damage control. Roger Douglas’s first budget has shocked the party. Central to the Government’s monetary and fiscal policies is a dramatic shift from direct to indirect taxation. A ten percent Goods & Services Tax (GST) will be levied on all consumer items without exception.

The trade unions are aghast. A progressive income tax has always been the cornerstone of New Zealand's welfare state. PSA economist, Peter Harris, and FOL national executive member, Rob Campbell, will lead the fight at the regional remit conferences. As Secretary of the Otago Trades Council, I am determined to build an organised resistance to the GST proposal. Sean Fleigner, Youth Representative on the New Zealand Council of the party; Mike Hanifin, former regional organiser for the party in Southland and now a trade union official based in Dunedin; Louise Rosson, an economics teacher at Moreau College; Russell, the Convenor, and myself constitute the core of the fight-back in the southern region.

Mike is the most accomplished tactician among us. He has had the foresight to acquire a full list of the delegations to the Otago-Southland regional remit conference. One by one we go through the names, ticking off our likely supporters, crossing out our opponents. When we add in the block votes of the trade union affiliates it is clear – we have the numbers.

Thursday, 25 April 1985  

THE SEMINAR ROOM is filling up with members of the Castle Street Branch of the Labour Party. Widely regarded as a branch for the University of Otago staff, Castle Street has a surprising number of working class members. Many of them are here tonight: lured by the prospect of hearing Rob Campbell address them on the GST issue. It is my sorry duty to tell them he isn’t coming.

Campbell has sent me a copy of Peter Harris’s speech to the Northern South Island regional remit conference. I don’t like the omens: it’s the evening of Anzac Day – commemorating New Zealand’s most appalling military defeat – and I am supposed to “carry the ball” with speech notes that failed to convince the delegates at Westport.

All over the country Margaret Wilson’s economic debate is proving to be an extraordinary catalyst for organisation and participation. The Northern-South Island regional remit conference, held in the Labour stronghold of Westport a few days earlier, attracts hundreds of delegates. The GST Debate is ferocious. On the speaking order Peter Harris is sandwiched between Associate Finance Ministers David Caygill and Richard Prebble. Personal attacks proliferate. Outside the hall the Communist Party mounts a picket. Anderton – an increasingly vocal critic of the Government’s policies – declares himself and his supporters to be “the only opposition the Government’s got”. The vote, when taken, is very close. The Government is saved by the 17 card-votes of the Canterbury Hotel and Hospital Workers – all of them cast by Graham Harding who, shortly afterwards, is appointed national secretary of the Police Association.

The debate at Castle Street is brief and brutal. The Left has the numbers here and the objections of the good ladies of the university are swept away by an alliance of socialist academics and ordinary workers. We take the precaution of binding our delegates to vote against GST at the remit conference on Saturday. The air after the meeting is full of snide references to “cloth caps” – the Labour Right’s sneering epithet for the union-dominated Left.

Saturday, 27 April 1985

‘THIS IS A SET UP!” Margaret Wilson hisses to Terry Scott, chairperson of the Otago-Southland regional council of the Labour Party. “Get me on the next flight out!”

Wilson’s agitation is understandable. Like some large, pre-programmed machine, the regional conference is rubber-stamping the remits of the left-wing/trade union  alliance. There is no debate. Nikki Larson, the delegate reporting back the decisions of the workshop on economic policy, is reading out the resolutions and the conference is endorsing them without discussion. I am finding it hard to believe myself. Could it be that we are actually going to win?

The GST debate begins. Roger Douglas and Rob Campbell present the arguments for and against. Campbell, a former lecturer in economics at Victoria University, sets out the sums on a blackboard. His presentation is cool and professional – almost detached. The audience listens intently, struggling to absorb the numbers and the jargon. The applause is polite.

Douglas is messianic. He scrawls figures on the blackboard with violent energy, barking out his arguments like a parade sergeant. There is an aura of absolute conviction about the man that is taking its toll on the waverers. Will they hold?

With the opening salvoes still echoing through the packed auditorium of Taieri High School, David Caygill rises to second the Finance Minister. His rhetoric is polished but strangely unmoving. Nevertheless, his argument that a failure by the Party to endorse GST can only be seen as a “No confidence motion in the Government” strikes home.

It is left to Michael Cullen, MP for St Kilda and the Government whip, to clinch the argument for the parliamentary wing. He moves an amendment to our resolution opposing the introduction of GST. The delegates must now decide whether they should make their support for the new tax conditional upon a clear demonstration that the incomes of low paid workers will be fully protected.

It is all the delegates need. Our majority melts away as the Government’s appeal to loyalty over-rides the arguments of equity. Campbell’s figures clearly show that there is simply not enough revenue to fully guarantee the incomes of the poor. But reason isn’t sufficient. Helplessly, I watch our Sunday Morning Club comrades raise their cards in support of the Government. Outraged, I see our Castle Street delegate vote against the instructions of her branch. Cullen’s amendment is carried: 75 votes in favour, 54 against.

Out in the foyer, Roger Douglas and David Caygill catch each other’s eye. Caygill sweeps his hand down from his shoulder, snapping his fingers in a triumphant gesture of domination.

They expected to lose in Dunedin: they have won again.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Shattered Symbol

Symbol Of A City: As the Cathedral fares, so fares Christchurch itself.

IF QUEEN ELIZABETH, inspired by her financial advisers, decided to demolish St Paul’s Cathedral, England would be horrified. No one would care that, as Head of the Anglican Church and Tenant-in-Chief of all England, such ecclesiastical property was hers to use as she pleased. St Paul’s Cathedral, they would say, does not belong to the House of Windsor, it belongs to the people of England. Some would go further, insisting that such a beautiful artefact of the past belongs to all humanity.

And if the Queen persisted? If the protests of her subjects (not to mention those of her eldest son!) and appeals from lovers of neo-classical architecture all around the world were insufficient to make the Queen abandon her plans? Well then, I suspect the British Parliament would intervene on their behalf. If St Paul’s could defy Hitler’s bombers, I’m pretty sure it could defy Her Majesty.

There are some buildings whose power and dignity simply scorn the ravages of man and nature. Which is why, even if Hitler’s bombers had found their target, and the mighty dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece no longer towered over the streets of England’s capital, I strongly suspect that Londoners, like the citizens of Dresden, would have rebuilt their beloved cathedral stone by stone – no matter how long it took, no matter how much it cost.

What does that say about us? Why aren’t more New Zealanders willing to join with the 5,000 Cantabrians who marched on Saturday to save Christchurch Cathedral from the wrecker’s ball? Why isn’t the Opposition calling for the Government step in and “nationalise” this New Zealand icon? What is wrong with Prime Minister Key and his cabinet that they have not already – unbidden – promised Christchurch, and the country, that no matter how long it takes, no matter how much it costs, their beloved cathedral will be rebuilt?

Is it simply because the men who somehow ended up in charge of rebuilding Christchurch have turned out to be too oafishly “pragmatic” to even consider the restoration of the city’s historic precincts? Is it because they share Henry Ford’s conviction that “history is bunk”? Believing  that no right-thinking person could, for a single second, entertain the expensive fiction that the preservation of a precious civic icon – like the cathedral – was anybody’s business but it’s owners?

Or, should we look elsewhere for answers? Does the fault lie not in our political stars – but in ourselves?

The men and women who, in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, erected New Zealand’s greatest buildings, were persons of extraordinary confidence and vision. They were part of what New Zealand historian, Professor James Belich, calls “the settler revolution and the rise of the Anglo-World”. In just a few decades, from Chicago, Illinois to Melbourne, Victoria, their cultural and commercial certainty had summoned forth huge cities, replete with stunning architectural tributes to all the ages of Western Civilisation – from the Roman Republic to Byzantium; from Gothic spires to Baroque rotundas. Citizens who walked on streets that were barely as old as they were, looked up at buildings that might have stood for centuries. These towering manifestoes in stone declared proudly to posterity that their makers, the children of empire, had come to stay.

Is that what now eats away at the decision-making of the New Zealand Anglican Church? In its new, bi-cultural, guise does it recoil in dismay from the thought of pouring both its reputation and its treasure into such an unequivocally imperial statement? Is that why the cathedral’s temporary replacement (cardboard being a so much humbler building material than stone) looks so much like a wharenui? Is the Bishop, mindful of her own homeland’s problematic relationship with the indigenous, unwilling to rush back in where white marble angels were once so unafraid to tread?

This discomfort with history is not, I suspect, limited to the Anglican Church. The spirit of globalisation also has scant patience with the past. Reading the historical record as an unending sequence of economic errors, it will as easily press “Delete” on imperial preferences, protectionist tariffs and five-year plans, as the architectural follies in which they were conceived. Glass and steel, not slate and stone, are the signature materials of neoliberalism’s brave new world. If the past features at all, it is only as pastiche.

On that terrible February day, when I switched on the television to scenes of blood and horror, it was the sight of the ruined cathedral that unlocked my emotional floodgates. There, in a heap of rubble, lay the symbol of the city.

The decision not to rebuild Christchurch’s iconic cathedral makes a profound statement about the entire city’s future. Those shattered stones are more than fallen masonry, they represent everything else that the earthquakes destroyed.

As the Cathedral fares, so fares Christchurch itself.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday 29 May 2012.

Monday, 28 May 2012

No Comparison: Why Tame Iti Has No Role In "Smith's Dream"

Bogus Equivalence: As anyone who's actually read C.K. Stead's novel Smith's Dream, or seen Roger Donaldson's Sleeping Dogs will tell you, the desperate political situation prevailing in their fictional New Zealand bears absolutely no resemblance to the real New Zealand of either 2007 or 2012. Sam Neil's heroic "Smith" has nothing in common with Tame Iti or his embryonic Maori militia.

THE POSTER featured at the top of this posting indicates how very far from reality the Far Left in this country has drifted. So far that they can no longer even distinguish the salient differences between C.K. Stead’s 1971 novel Smith’s Dream (which Roger Donaldson turned into the 1977 New Zealand film Sleeping Dogs) and Tame Iti’s embryonic “private militia”.

In Stead’s/Donaldson’s fictional setting, New Zealand finds itself in the grip of an authoritarian dictatorship - complete with secret police, imprisonment without trial, torture, military tribunals, executions and lethal violence meted out to protesters on the streets. Not surprisingly, this leads to the formation of an armed resistance movement, which in turn spurs the government to invite in American "advisers".

Were any of these factors present in 2007? No.

So, the equating of Stead’s/Donaldson’s fictional New Zealand with New Zealand as it really was in 2007 is completely bogus. No one was being fatally beaten in the streets by murderous riot police. No one was being tortured. No one was being tried and sentenced to death by military tribunals. No American “advisers” were clambering through the New Zealand bush.

Yes, there was an unnecessarily heavy-handed raid on Ruatoki by armed police. But this was the culmination of a year’s worth of observation and evidence-gathering directed at apprehending a group alleged to be organising covert, military-style training camps in the Urewera Ranges, and undertaken on search-warrants lawfully issued. It resulted in the seizure of 18 firearms.

The persons arrested as a result of “Operation Eight” were not held incommunicado, denied access to legal advice and tortured until they confessed. Nor were they tried and executed in secret. On the contrary, they were given a fair trial in an open court and only convicted on a number of firearms charges. Two of the accused were jailed for two-and-a-half years. Their convictions and their sentences are now being appealed.

So, no. The "real life" Tame Iti is not the same as the fictional hero "Smith" played by Sam Neill. He was not fighting a murderous dictatorship. He was not being hunted down by US “advisers”. Nor were he and his followers being strafed and bombed by RNZAF Skyhawks.

What Mr Iti does appear to have been doing, however, was giving practical effect to the numerous discussions, extending over many decades, in which Maori nationalists and their far-Left Pakeha allies have weighed the pros and cons of organising a revolutionary Maori army.

Inspired by the Mexican “Zapatista” model, in which indigenous issues are fused with issues of environmental despoliation and globalisation, was Tame Iti attempting to turn the Ureweras into Mexico’s Chiapas province, and himself into Tuhoe’s own “Subcomandante Marcos”?

Finally, as bogus as it undoubtedly is, the poster’s comparison remains potentially very dangerous. People who construct a fantasy world, and then decide to live in it, very rapidly place themselves beyond the reach of arguments grounded in reason and evidence. And, as the images emerging from Syria over the past 24 hours make so tragically clear, those who forsake reason for violence are capable of doing just about anything.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Journey: A Political Memoir - Posting No. 6

Anderton's Party, Lange's Government: By September 1984 power had shifted from Labour's left-leaning, 85,000-strong party organisation, to the 56 members of the parliamentary caucus. Fiercely (and successfully) protective of it anti-nuclear policy, the party could not halt the "Rogernomics" juggernaut.

It was supposed to be a book about the birth of the NewLabour Party, but somewhere along the way it became the story of what led me into, and out of, the old Labour Party. In hopes of providing future political studies students with a glimpse of what it was like to be a left-wing Labour activist in the days of David Lange and Roger Douglas, I am publishing The Journey on Bowalley Road as a series of occasional postings. L.P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” May these memoirs, written in 1989, serve, however poorly, as my personal passport.

Saturday, 8 September 1984

WELLINGTON’S MICHAEL FOWLER CENTRE has become a vast political celebration. Nine hundred delegates fill the auditorium – upstairs and down. “Labour is back! This is the Victory Conference!”

The stage management is masterful. Never before has the Labour Party’s touch been so assured. The platform gleams in the television lights; cool whites reflecting a Nordic efficiency. The party’s worship of the Scandinavian social democrats is reflected in the furniture of power. The cantilevered podiums rear up effortlessly from the floor, everything is smooth, all the corners are rounded.

Jim Anderton is triumphant. More than any other’s this is his victory. He presides over the party with an unquestioned authority.

But the party is not the government.

The days of crisis  that followed the general election have consolidated the leadership of David Lange and Roger Douglas. Overnight the balance of power has shifted. The party, vast and energetic though it may be, no longer has anything to trade with. The election has been won. The Parliamentary Wing is secure. The process of transformation can now begin.

It is begun with great subtlety. The delegates are invited to the Beehive. “We are your government. If you have any questions, come and ask your Cabinet Ministers.”

A sense of misgiving prevents me from joining the throngs of proud delegates who traipse up the hill to stand open-mouthed amid the pomp and circumstance of executive power. The parliamentarians do not need to speak; their environment speaks for them:

“We are the masters now.”

Power Shift: Following the Snap Election of July 1984, the Labour Party organisation no longer had anything to trade with. "Rogernomics" - the process of neoliberal economic transformation - could not be stopped.

Back on the conference floor, however, the parliamentary leadership’s control falters. During the debate on international affairs, Lange and Frank O’Flynn make a bid to soften Labour’s anti-nuclear policy. Anderton is outraged. Passing over the chair to his vice-president, he vaults off the stage into the body of the hall, and pausing only to roll up his shirt-sleeves, strides towards the speakers’ podium. The atmosphere is electric. In a few taut sentences he demolishes the parliamentary leadership’s arguments. The conference is ecstatic. The lesson is clear. In matters anti-nuclear, the party is not for turning.

The debate on the economic policy remits follows. In stark contrast to the earlier encounter, the arguments are all with the Government. Out in the lobbies delegates drink coffee and chatter away unconcerned as the parliamentarians demolish the rank-and-file’s programme of state-led investment, capital gains taxes and protectionism.

“We’re getting slaughtered in there!” Dunedin delegates Emily and Dick stare back at me blankly over their coffee cups. I return to the auditorium.

Rob Campbell, widely tipped to succeed Jim Knox as leader of the industrial wing of the labour movement, is addressing the conference. “I am frankly horrified at some of the statements of the Government.” Campbell’s delivery is slow and measured. By the sheer force of his personality he compels the conference to concentrate on the palatable facts of the Government’s conduct of economic affairs. “To go ahead without planning and controls, or to reject interventionism, is economic lunacy.”

Pat Kelly follows Campbell in the speaking order. Where Campbell dissected with the scalpel of reason, Kelly wields a broadsword of passionate rhetoric. Like some Old Testament prophet, he lays bare the economic pathway Douglas, Caygill and Prebble have chosen for New Zealand. His peroration falls like cold rain on the heads of the delegates: “These policies are an outright betrayal of everything this party stands for!”

Jonathan Hunt, the newly appointed Minister of Broadcasting, leaps to his government’s defence. “Mr Chairman, I believe Pat Kelly owes this conference an apology.”

Kelly’s reply has become part of Labour folklore: “Mr Chairman, if, in a year’s time, I am proved to be mistaken, I shall gladly tender to the conference my apologies … but I do not think you’ll be asking me.”

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Bill's Bigoted Budget

"Stimulus? Hah! That's A Good One!" Finance Minister, Bill English, like an Eighteenth Century quack, has only one remedy for his unfortunate patient: "Bleed him, bleed him, bleed him and then bleed him some more!"

“THE SOFT BIGOTRY of low expectations” is a phrase attributed to George W Bush. It’s more likely author, however, is Michael Gerson, President Bush’s speechwriter. Some of the other, equally memorable, signature lines he supplied were “armies of compassion” (to describe America’s faith-based charities) and “axis of evil” (to describe Saddam Hussein’s partners in tyranny). Regardless of who authored “the soft bigotry” phrase, it makes an excellent starting-point for a discussion of Bill English’s fourth budget.

Whatever else might be said of Sir Roger Douglas and the economic programme which bears his name, as New Zealand’s finance minister he always aimed high. Indeed, There’s Got To Be A Better Way – the slim volume on economic reform he produced in 1980 – opens with a comment from no less a philosophical earth-shaker than Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche.

The quotation is taken from Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, published in 1878, in which the German philosopher declares that: “A nation usually renews its youth on a political sickbed; and there finds again the spirit which it had gradually lost in seeking and maintaining power.”

The image of a nation weakened by a debilitating illness; its people divided, confused and dispirited; was clearly a powerful motivation for Mr Douglas. New Zealand, he warned: “stands on the brink of economic ruin”. It has “stifled innovation for mediocrity”, and, as a result, the country “is losing thousands of New Zealanders, most of them young, each year.”

The Finance Minister-in-Waiting’s anguished cri de coeur: “New Zealand is a nation that has lost its spirit, the fire in its belly!”, is followed by the question: “How much further will New Zealand sink before we start to fight back?”

All of which, surveying New Zealand’s present predicament, possesses a very familiar ring. The big difference, of course, is that our present Finance Minister lacks his predecessor’s fervent belief in New Zealanders’ ability to make big decisions and absorb big changes. Mr English’s budget is a bigoted budget – not only because it evinces the bigot’s signature incapacity to entertain any ideas but his own, but also because, in the Bush/Gerson sense, it holds such offensively low expectations of its recipients’ capabilities.

It is a budget of “cant’s” not “cans”. For everything it gives, it makes a parsimonious virtue of taking something away. If New Zealand, to employ Nietzsche’s sickbed analogy, is a weak and dispirited patient, then Mr English must be cast as an Eighteenth Century quack, whose only answer to his patient’s declining health is to “bleed him, bleed him, bleed him and then bleed him some more”. The same leech-craft that is killing Europe, is being touted by Mr English and the Prime Minister as our own unfortunate country’s sovereign cure.

Is a more competent physician waiting outside the door? Is the Labour Opposition ready to stride into the sick room, cast back the dingy curtains, throw open the windows to fresh air and sunshine, and bid the patient, in the words of John 5:8, to: “Rise, take up thy bed and walk”?

Sadly, there is not. Labour’s David Parker bustles about with his sheaf of papers, muttering dutifully of thrift and probity, sounding for all the world like a provincial family lawyer, concerned about his ailing client’s unpaid debts, and anxious to settle the terms of his will.

Only the Green’s Russel Norman shows the slightest sign of possessing the Nietzsche/Douglas spirit. He, unlike Mr Parker, will not bow down to the deficit idol. The Greens co-leader simply refuses to go on heaping sacrificial victims (beneficiaries, public servants, the sick, students) upon the corpse-strewn altar of “Returning the Government’s Books to Surplus by 2014/15”.

Given the chance, I believe Dr Norman would cast back the curtains and throw open the windows of New Zealand’s economic sick-room. With the highest expectations of his fellow New Zealanders’ recuperative powers, he shows them a vista of blue skies and green fields, and invites them to get out of bed.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 May 2012.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Hybrid Vigour: A Critique Of Bi-Culturalism

 Hybrid Vigour: New Zealand's All Black rugby team is the epitome of this country's unique blending of the indigenous and the colonial. The Maori haka, or war-challege, with which the national team opens every game is as much a part of New Zealand's evolving culture as any of the ethnic traditions inherited from the British Isles.

GROWING UP on a farm, you just can’t escape genetics. Breeding for positive inheritable traits is a fact of pastoral life and its results are observable everywhere. I can still recall my father telling me that the particular bounciness of a lamb, or a puppy, was attributable to “hybrid vigour” – the prized outcome of a breeding pair’s best genes combining to produce a more than usually intelligent, energetic, or just plain flavoursome, off-spring.

In polite circles it is considered highly distasteful to apply the language of the farmyard to human interactions. This reticence is, however, misplaced, because the mixing of genes is as important to the health of our own species as it is to any other. Indeed, the dwindling of a species’ gene pool generally presages its imminent demise. Marrying outside the tribe not only makes sense diplomatically, it’s pretty much a biological necessity.

It is one of history’s most regrettable ironies that the individuals and nations most closely associated with Eugenics (with a capital ‘E’) fundamentally misunderstood the science of genetics. Instead of welcoming what they called “miscegenation” – the blending of genetic material from the widest possible range of human sources – they anathematised it. Ethnic homogeneity was the goal: “race mixing”, they insisted, was suicidal.

If they had really been interested in where this horror of breeding outside the group might lead them they had only to study the House of Hapsburg. The aristocratic fastidiousness of the Hapsburg dynasty all too often led to cousins marrying cousins, with physiological and mental consequences as grotesque as they were tragic.

The Hapsburgs: Not a good advertisement for aristocratic breeding.

Ignorance of genetic science did not, alas, stop at the level of human individuals, it was compounded to produce the even more pernicious notion that entire human cultures possessed some kind of genetic code: a unique, supposedly hereditary, social template that must be protected from defilement by “cosmopolitan” (by which the Eugenicists usually meant Jewish) and/or “degenerate” (by which they usually meant dark-skinned) influences.

We should, however, be careful not to restrict our condemnation of this Eugenicist nonsense to Europeans alone. The notion of being a superior form of human-being, living in a superior culture which must, at all costs, be “protected” from dilution and/or debasement, is as old as China, India and Japan.

But, once again, there’s an historical counterfactual. The Normans were a highly aggressive people who seized large tracts of Europe at the point of lance and sword. They were not, however, in the least bit fastidious. They married the women they conquered, learned their languages, worshipped their gods, adopted their cuisine and customs, and borrowed promiscuously from just about every culture they encountered. The results are visible from the borders of Scotland to the toe of Italy. The people called “Normans” long ago departed History’s stage, but the cultures they invigorated (our own included) continue to thrive.

All of which is by way of prefacing my misgivings about New Zealand’s “bi-cultural” project. These boil down to one heretical question: “Have we not, for the past forty years, been pursuing (for the most laudable and honourable of reasons) a policy based on the genetic and cultural fallacies of nineteenth century “scientific racism” and twentieth century Eugenics?

Has our pursuit of bi-culturalism not invested a racialised “blood and soil” mythology with all the force of law? Are “bloodlines” not now cited in “egalitarian” New Zealand with all the pride of a Hapsburg genealogist? Have successive governments not spoken approvingly of “preserving” indigenous culture? As if this constantly evolving human matrix was actually a discrete material artefact, impervious to external influences and immune to change?

Is this really the most sensible course for a small, economically-vulnerable nation, situated inconveniently at the bottom of the world, to have set itself?

Few New Zealanders understand the absurd contingency of the cultural porousness that, arguably, made us one of the most successful multi-racial societies on the planet. Instead of driving them further apart, as happened in the United States and Australia, the unfolding of “scientific racism” in New Zealand actually drew its indigenous and colonist populations closer together. By concocting an entirely fictitious ethnological bond between Maori and Pakeha, Edward Tregear’s The Aryan Maori declared them to be kin under the skin. The already high level of intermarriage between the two peoples thus acquired the unimpeachable imprimatur of “science”.

Key Text: According to New Zealand historian, Prof. James Belich, Edward Tregear's The Aryan Maori "arguably ranks with the Treaty of Waitangi as a key text of Maori-Pakeha relations."

It was, I believe, this legacy of “kinship” which allowed New Zealand to take the lead internationally in establishing a process for redressing the worst of its colonial crimes. Our Treaty of Waitangi-based settlements process speaks eloquently of this country’s longstanding commitment to amity and fairness. It would, however, be wrong to suggest that Pakeha are entirely comfortable with the treaty settlement process. They fear that a growing number of Maori regard it as a means of unpicking History’s embroidery and starting afresh on cloth too closely worked to withstand further assault by needle and thread. To subsume the treaty settlement process in the bi-cultural project would, I believe, be a tragic mistake.

New Zealand’s cultural porousness has only increased beneath the blankets of its founding peoples, and, exactly as happened with the promiscuous Normans, the resulting biological and cultural fusions have grown steadily stronger and more complex. And it is these intricate relationships, not the “bi-cultural project” of a well-meaning political class, that is producing the “hybrid vigour” of the people recognised and appreciated around the world as “New Zealanders”.

This single evolving culture, adapting and incorporating the language and lore of both contributors to the “New Zealand Project”, needs no cossetting, no special “protection”. All it requires from the New Zealand state is the freedom to grow, along with an official affirmation that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that no part of the whole is greater than any other.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Telling The Majority "Where To Get Off"

Straight From Central Casting: The millionaire Invercargill businessman and Act Party donor, Louis Crimp, has instantly become the pin-up boy of the Liberal Left's anti-racist agenda. But, loathsome though they may be, is the Left's confidence in the social and political marginality of Mr Crimp's views on Maori culture really justified? Recent local government polls on seperate Maori representation suggest otherwise. Is it possible that the bi-cultural project and democracy are essentially incompatible?

LOUIS CRIMP could have come straight from Central Casting. His narrow face, those pinched features: all the Invercargill businessman needed to complete the quintessential red-neck ensemble was a greasy pair of denim overalls and a shotgun. Certainly, his reported assertion that: “All the white New Zealanders I've spoken to don’t like the Maoris, the way they are full of crime and welfare”, fitted him out perfectly for the red-neck role.

How did New Zealand’s liberal intelligentsia respond to this “racist” eruption from the Deep South? Curiously, with considerable satisfaction. Here, in all its brutal honesty, was living proof of the Left’s fondest prejudices. In Mr Crimp they were confronted with the sum of all their cultural fears.

“But wait,” (as they say on the infomercials) “there’s more!” Not only was Mr Crimp guilty of (ahem) cultural insensitivity, but he was also a millionaire and a major donor to the Act Party. Talk about your “three-strikes” policy! Strike One: Guilty of being a redneck. Strike Two: Guilty of being a rapacious capitalist. Strike Three: Guilty of donating $125,000 to the Act Party’s election campaign. For the promoters of a bicultural, decolonised, anti-capitalist New Zealand, Mr Crimp is the political gift that keeps on giving.

But are those for whom Mr Crimp’s unapologetic expressions of racial unease constitute a weird sort of vindication genuinely representative of majority opinion in New Zealand? What if the dream of bi-culturalism, now so deeply embedded in the social policy agenda of the political class, is most emphatically not the dream of those who live outside the magic circles of elite policy formation and its unmandated bureaucratic implementation? What if, three decades of bi-cultural propaganda notwithstanding, a majority of New Zealanders continue to harbour attitudes toward Maori not all that dissimilar to Mr Crimp’s? What then?

Before answering that question, let’s see if we can find any evidence which might help us to determine whether the bi-cultural message has been accepted by a clear majority of New Zealanders; or, if it is only among Maori that the concept of a Treaty of Waitangi-based “partnership” between  coloniser and colonised continues to resonate.

On the same day as Mr Crimp’s remarks were published, the people of Nelson, in one of those curious historical coincidences, concluded a postal ballot on whether or not their city council should guarantee Maori representation around the council-table by creating a special Maori ward. According to The Nelson Mail, the voters’ answer to this bi-culturally-based question was an emphatic “No!” Of the 15,387 votes received, 3,131 were in support of the proposal, with 12,298 in opposition. The turn-out was 43 percent. At 79 percent of those participating, the result was within 1 percentage point of the findings of The Nelson Mail’s own opinion poll on the issue.

Nelson City’s response matches closely the response of voters in Waikato District who, in a similar ballot, concluding on 5 April 2012, voted 80 percent to 20 percent against separate Maori representation.

Nor is this opposition to separate Maori representation limited to provincial New Zealand. A survey of 1,031 New Zealanders conducted by Consumerlink (a department of the Colmar Brunton polling agency) found that 72.4 percent of Pakeha who answered Yes or No supported the abolition of both the Maori roll and the Maori seats, with 70.08 percent also favouring the abolition of the Waitangi Tribunal. On the question of separate Maori representation on local bodies, 73.29 percent of Pakeha voted against.

It would be quite wrong to extrapolate these figures into some sort of confirmation of Mr Crimp’s caustic assertion that most “white” New Zealanders “don’t like the Maoris”. They do, however, raise serious doubts about the actual level of support for the entire bi-cultural project. It is at least arguable that what most Pakeha New Zealanders really “don’t like” is the whole notion of Maori separatism. Were Pakeha given a choice between the present approach to race-relations, and one which advanced the principle of undifferentiated citizenship in a unitary and colour-blind state, all the evidence suggests that the latter option would win the support of more than two-thirds of the General Electorate.

In other words, the bi-cultural project cannot withstand the audit of democracy and must be imposed from above. That, at least, is the opinion of Race Relations Commissioner, Joris de Bres, who responded to the Nelson ballot by saying that the law should be changed so Maori seats are a right, rather than subject to a vote of the majority: “To put it to a general vote without a very informed electorate, I think, always runs the risk of the minority being told where to get off.” Better, presumably, for a minority to tell the majority where to get off?

Call me a red-neck if you will, but I “don’t like” that at all.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 May 2012.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Safety Of The People

Salus Populi Suprema Lex: The safety of the people shall be the highest law. The Roman statesman and jurist, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) understood that there are times (in his own case, when Julius Caesar's faction threatened to overthrow the Roman Republic) when, in order to preserve the protection of the laws, it is necessary to set them aside.

A JUST REBUKE merits a considered response. I had answered “Lew’s” (at Kiwipolitico) critique of my, ‘In A Weakened State’ posting (11/5/12) with a single quotation from the Roman jurist and statesman, Cicero: Salus populi suprema lex (The safety of the people shall be the highest law). This clearly riled Otago law professor, Andrew Geddis, who spat back caustically: “I’m pretty sure that’s what Sid Holland and William Sullivan had tattooed on their biceps back in 1951 … . Or is it only an acceptable slogan when deployed by a ‘leftist’?”

I’m sure Professor Geddis is right. I think it highly likely that National’s Sid Holland (a member of the quasi-fascist New Zealand Legion in the 1930s, a rabid anti-communist and a fanatical Cold Warrior) genuinely believed he was safeguarding the New Zealand people when he brought down the notorious Emergency Regulations of 1951. I’m equally sure that the Labour Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, believed he was doing the same when, in July 1974, he asked his acting Attorney-General, Roger Douglas, to prepare for the declaration of a State of Emergency under the 1932 Public Safety Conservation Act. (How Cicero would have loved that name!)

“Big Norm’s” feelings about communist-led unions were almost as strong as Sid’s. In July 1974, incensed by the massive and economically disruptive rank-and-file reaction to the arrest of the Northern Drivers’ Union secretary and avowed communist, Bill Andersen, for defying a court injunction, the Labour prime minister made ready to confront the entire trade union movement. According to Kirk’s private secretary, Margaret Hayward, recalling these events in her Diary of the Kirk Years, the Prime Minister asked her to “sound out” union opinion. “In Auckland, I found, many unions held the attitude, ‘if they want another 1951 we’ll give it to them’”. Fortunately for Big Norm’s progressive political legacy, cooler heads prevailed and the threatened confrontation was avoided.

The declaration of a State of Emergency is, by its very nature, an exceptional occurrence. Among the most extreme of all the powers wielded by executive authority, it is reserved for those moments when the normal appurtenances of state power are no longer deemed sufficient to maintain public safety. That only those constitutionally sanctioned to do so can declare a State of Emergency is less important than whether or not the persons so empowered believe such a declaration will be effective. The declaration of a State of Emergency which cannot be enforced is, in effect, a declaration of war by the State upon its own citizens. Or, to put it another way: the safety of the people can only be maintained by exceptional legal means if the people themselves feel sufficiently threatened to abandon legal norms.

But who, in these situations, falls within the definition of “the people”? Clearly, not everyone can be included in “the public” if the threat to the latter’s safety is located within the borders of the State. A nation under foreign attack, or in the grip of a natural disaster, will have no difficulty in accepting emergency regulations; but a State of Emergency declared in the context of a political and/or economic challenge to the smooth functioning of society – especially one interfering with the free movement of individuals and the free disposition of private property – can only be made effective by excluding the challenger/s from the usual definition of “the people”. For emergency measures to succeed their targets must be transformed into non-citizens. They must become “the enemy within”.

Sid Holland and his Labour Minister, William “Big Bill” Sullivan, were able to do this in 1951 because the dispute on the waterfront occurred in a context that made the demonization of the watersiders and their allies considerably easier than it would have been at just about any other time. The Cold War had just turned “hot” in Korea. The militant trade unions had walked out of the Federation of Labour and viciously attacked its leaders; a situation which played into the hands of the devious “boss” of the FOL, Fintain Patrick Walsh. Between 1946 and 1949, the Labour Party, itself, had quite deliberately isolated, vilified and, in at least one instance, deregistered, militant, communist-led trade unions. This vilification, especially of the Waterside Workers Union, had continued on the pages of the country’s newspapers (most effectively through Gordon Minhinnick’s cartoons in The NZ Herald). Holland and Sullivan could, therefore, rely upon Walsh, the FOL and the daily press to back any attack on the WWU. He could also, crucially, be relatively confident that the Labour Party would remain neutral when he did.

The wharfies were also particularly vulnerable to economic attack. Because they controlled one of the economy’s crucial choke-points, any lengthy period of industrial action could be successfully portrayed as constituting a clear and present danger, not only to the country’s exporters and importers, but also, because vast quantities of everyday items were still distributed by ship in the 1950s, to the whole community. Shutting down New Zealand’s ports, argued Holland, was a very real threat to the public safety, and his invocation of the Public Safety Conservation Act (1932) was, therefore, presented as entirely justified.

Draconian Restrictions: In the name of "public safety" the National Government of Sid Holland suspended the rights to free speech and peaceable assembly.

It was enough – just – for the majority of New Zealanders to accept the draconian restriction of their civil liberties, and the harsh persecution of their fellow citizens, that the Emergency Regulations permitted. Had the Korean War not been raging; had the FOL not been split; had Labour been less hostile to the trade union Left; and had the public been less vulnerable to a protracted shut-down of New Zealand’s ports; then the National Government probably wouldn’t have risked declaring a State of Emergency. But, with these factors working in its favour, and with its decisive victory in the Snap Election called by Holland to secure the electorate’s ex post facto endorsement of his treatment of the watersiders, the National Party was given ample proof that, for most Kiwis, Cicero’s maxim: Salus populi suprema lex; the safety of the people shall be the highest law; was no more than the truth.

It remains, I suspect, “an acceptable slogan” for parties of both the Right and the Left to this very day – with these two crucial provisos: 1) A substantial majority of the people must believe their security to be in jeopardy. 2) They must also be convinced that only the imposition of draconian repressive measures against those threatening their safety will avert social disaster.

Neither of these crucial conditions existed in 1974. Not only was the trade union movement at the peak of its post-war power (here in New Zealand and around the world) but New Zealand society in general was in an expansive mood. Young New Zealanders, in particular, would have been most unlikely to see the declaration of a State of Emergency as either justified or endurable. As Margaret Hayward’s “soundings” made clear to the PM, the prospect of dividing-and-conquering the working-class, on the model of 1951, simply wasn’t there in 1974. The FOL would have been united in its opposition, and would almost certainly have been joined on the streets by tens-of-thousands of university students. The prospect of the Police and the armed forces enforcing draconian emergency regulations in the face of mass strikes and demonstrations, without serious loss of life, was bleak. Hence the very sensible decision by Kirk and his Cabinet to pursue a negotiated settlement.

 Power Surge: The massive rank-and-file response to the arrest, in July 1974, of their communist leader, Bill Andersen, for defying a court injunction, incensed the Labour leader, Norman Kirk. But the temper of the times was too rebellious for him to risk a repeat of 1951.

Further evidence of the difficulty in using the provisions of the Public Safety Conservation Act (1932) is provided by the way in which the Muldoon-led National Government chose to police the 1981 Springbok Tour. Unlike his predecessor, Sid Holland, Prime Minister Rob Muldoon did not feel confident enough to invoke emergency powers. Once again, this was because there was insufficient support across the whole country for such measures to be enforced without the use of deadly force. Such was the temper of the country in 1981 that the killing of protesters by police or soldiers would only have increased the numbers of people taking to the streets.

Team Policing: In 1981 not even the pugnacious Rob Muldoon was confident enough to suppress all protest activity by declaring a State of Emergency. Such was the level of public opposition to apartheid that, had he dared, it is likely only deadly force would have allowed the Springbok Tour to proceed.

New Zealand history thus confirms that its people are, indeed, the best judges of their own safety, and will make an exception to the rule of law only when they believe their security is genuinely threatened. That no government, since 1951, has felt certain enough of the public’s broad support to declare such an exception constitutes a ringing endorsement of Cicero’s uncompromising maxim. As their own constitutional guardians, the people are uniquely positioned to recognise those (thankfully rare) moments when the only effective means of preserving the protection of the laws – is to set them, temporarily, aside.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Eighties Satirical Song: "We're All Working For A Labour Victory"

THERE WE WERE, sitting in the student cafeteria at Otago University back in early 1983, talking about the good old days when all three of us, in one guise or another, were supporters of "The Revolution", and contrasting our red past with our pink present. Each of us was serving on the campaign committee of a Labour Party candidate: Me in Dunedin North, Brian in Dunedin West and Ian, if I remember rightly, in Wellington Central. We all shook our heads, laughing wryly at our respective excuses, and I felt a song coming on …

We’re All Working For A Labour Victory

(Sung to the tune of Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday.)

We’re all working for a Labour Victory,
No more Trotsky, no more Lenin or Mao.
We’re all working for a Labour Victory
I’m glad the comrades cannot see us now.

We all used to carry placards,
We all used to hurl abuse.
But now the Marxist vanguard
Just murmurs ‘What’s the use?’


We all used to think that the workers
Would follow our clarion call,
But we’ve given up the Revolution
To go canvassing door-to-door.


We’re told that ambition is a good thing
But we’re warned that dissension is a sin,
So we’ve learned to turn the rhetoric down
When David’s listening in.


But it hasn’t all been plain-sailing,
The conservatives shook their heads,
When we forced through a remit requiring
Retirement homes for Reds.

We’re all working for a Labour victory,
No more Trotsky, no more Lenin or Mao.
We’re all working for a Labour victory,
I’m glad the comrades cannot see us now.

(I’m glad the comrades cannot see!)

Chris Trotter

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Same Sex Marriage - A Turning Point

The Man Of The Moment: President Barack Obama's public affirmation of same-sex marriage, like LBJ's famous 1965 civil rights speech to Congress in which he pledged "We shall overcome.", marks an important turning point in the quest for full civil equality for all Americans.

HE WASN’T ALWAYS A GOOD MAN, in fact Lyndon Baines Johnson was very often a bad man. He was from Texas, of course, which explains a lot. In Texas’s primary elections, which were the only electoral contests that really mattered in the “one party” states of the Democratic South, political bosses would ask their candidates: “Do you want us to vote ‘em, or count ‘em?” By this they meant: do you want us to bring in actual people to pad your vote; or do you want us to stuff the ballot boxes? LBJ won the 1948 Democratic Party primary for the US Senate by “counting ‘em”. He never looked back.

But if LBJ was a byword for the sort of “dirty deals done dirt cheap” that made the US Senate such an august example of republican virtue, he did have one truly great redeeming feature: he loved the poor. And in the United States of America, and most especially in the southern states of the old Confederacy, that meant loving black people. Not enough, it is true, to seat the integrated “Mississippi Freedom” delegation at the Democratic Party’s National Convention of 1964. But enough to put his Presidential signature on the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To be fair, he did more than simply sign the crucial piece of legislation giving teeth to the Civil Rights Act of the previous year. President Johnson came to Congress on 15 March 1965 (just one week after a murderous attack on civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama) and delivered what was, arguably, the greatest speech of his life.

"We Shall Overcome." On 15 March 1965, just one week after civil rights marchers were attacked by state troopers in Selma, Alabama, President Lyndon Johnson placed the full weight of the executive branch of the US federal government behind the Voting Rights Act.

“I speak tonight for the dignity of man, and the destiny of democracy”, he told the assembled representatives and senators. Speaking to America’s purpose: to the promise of freedom and equality that gave it birth; and to the dignity that is the birthright of every American citizen; LBJ said:

“This dignity cannot be found in man’s possessions. It cannot be found in his power or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being.”

The President brought his address to a close with the words that only a week before, as the dogs and the state troopers were unleashed upon them, the Selma marchers had sung to the world. Openly supporting the demonstrators, LBJ declared:

“Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Crippling Legacy: State troopers assault civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama.

Last week the world heard another American president speak out for civil rights. Barack Obama told his fellow citizens that: “It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

How fitting it is that this president offered that affirmation. Because there are still many Americans (some of them in his own party) who refuse to see the question of who can marry whom as anything more than a trivial, second-order issue, and a political diversion. They forget that when Barack Obama’s own mother was born there were still places in the United States where not only marriage, but even sexual intercourse, between a black man and a white woman could land them in jail – or worse. The union between President Obama’s white mother and his black, Kenyan, father, in many American states would have seen outraged Klansmen reaching for their robes, and their ropes.

Presidents are not saints, but neither are they wholly sinners. Light and dark may have been blended in LBJ’s soul to an unsettling degree, but that 1965 pledge to Congress: “We shall overcome”; was a vital step towards the full emancipation of Black Americans.

The question of “Who can marry whom?” is not a trivial, second-order issue. It’s about human dignity and human rights.

There are occasions, said President Johnson, when “history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.”

President Obama’s affirmation of same sex marriage tells us: that time is now.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 May 2012.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Journey: A Political Memoir - Posting No. 5

Victory! Naomi and David Lange (and an extraordinarily youthful Fran O'Sullivan!) arrive at the Mangere Election Night headquarters to celebrate the election of the Fourth Labour Government on Bastille Day 1984.

It was supposed to be a book about the birth of the NewLabour Party, but somewhere along the way it became the story of what led me into, and out of, the old Labour Party. In hopes of providing future political studies students with a glimpse of what it was like to be a left-wing Labour activist in the days of David Lange and Roger Douglas, I am publishing The Journey on Bowalley Road as a series of occasional postings. L.P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” May these memoirs, written in 1989, serve, however poorly, as my personal passport.

Saturday, 14 July 1984

THE QUEEN’S ROOM of the Dunedin YWCA is buzzing. From all over the Dunedin North electorate Election Day workers are arriving to await the results of the Snap Election. Stan and Anne Rodger moved amiably from one knot of excited party supporters to the next, greeting everyone by their first names and reassuring them that: “Yes, this time I think we’ve got them.”

As the first results began to trickle through there’s the usual furrowing of brows. Country booths mainly, with few votes to count, and almost always favouring the National Party, are traditionally the first results to be posted. It never makes for a promising start to Labour Party gatherings on Election Night.

By 8:30pm it’s beginning to look unstoppable. I think back over the past four weeks. ‘Herculean’ barely describes the enormous effort the party has put into the struggle for power. As Stan’s publicity officer, I have been at it non-stop: thousands of pamphlets, flyers, bumper-stickers, newspaper advertisements – all the standard paraphernalia of electioneering – have had to be designed, approved, printed and distributed, and all in under 14 days.

But, we have done it. All of us. The Labour Party has never been stronger or larger. Nearly 100,000 New Zealanders have acquired those little yellow membership cards. Anti-Apartheid veterans of the ’81 Tour; peace activists from the myriad groups and organisations that comprise the most successful anti-nuclear movement in the world; trade unionists in their thousands, desperate to put an end to the two-year wage freeze that has seen the value of their real wages plummet; the unemployed, organised to a degree not seen since the 1930s; feminists, hoping fervently for a genuine political response to the needs of their sisters; Maori, emerging into the light after a century-and-a-half of repression and assimilation: a gorgeous, shimmering, rainbow-coalition of the angry, the alienated, the outraged and the dispossessed people of Aotearoa. We have done it.

Muldoon concedes defeat, and I break into a grin. It seems a very long time since that November night in 1975, but we are back. Labour is back! I shake Stan’s hand with genuine affection. The room is reverberating with noisy celebration.

Francesca and I drive out to the Fairfield Community Hall where Clive Matthewson – darling of the Dunedin Left – is celebrating with his supporters. As we come through the main entrance I am greeted by Brian. Former flatmates, we had both joined the party after that crucial television address by Rowling in 1978, and now we are laughing and whooping like a couple of sand-boys. I recognise Clive further down the hall. “Victory!”, I cry, and we hug each other. Brothers. “Victory!”

Eighteen hours later I’m standing with my father on a windswept Waverley balcony, overlooking Otago Harbour. The freezing air is bracing, Dunedin can be cold in July.

“The winds of change are blowing, Dad,” I laugh into the teeth of the gale. “The winds of change are blowing!”

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Cunliffe Muzzled: The Courtiers Fight Back

Team Effort: David Culiffe's enemies in the Labour caucus attacked his "Get Your Invisible Hand Off My Assets" speech of 29 April as "naive and stupid" and demanded he decline an invitation to appear on last weekend's edition of The Nation. David Shearer then attempted to impose Labour's finance spokesperson, David Parker, on the current affairs show which, predictably, refused. Result: Last weekend Labour's economic policy remained invisible.

DAVID SHEARER’S DECISION to muzzle his rival, David Cunliffe, is deeply worrying. Right now, there’s nothing Labour needs more than an open debate about its future. That its leader, and the coterie of courtiers with which he has surrounded himself, was willing to go to the extraordinary lengths of preventing Labour’s spokesperson on Economic Development from appearing on The Nation reveals how ruthlessly Shearer’s faction intends to stifle all dissent.

Mr Shearer’s petty, politically self-destructive decision can only be interpreted as Mr Cunliffe’s punishment for delivering a speech to his New Lynn electorate’s Women’s Branch highly critical of Labour’s fraught, 25-year association with neoliberal economics. Clearly, the disparity between the Labour Leader’s three uninspiring “positioning” speeches, and the compellingly radical content of Mr Cunliffe’s April 29 address, had rankled.

In spite of Mr Cunliffe seeking – and receiving – a written guarantee from The Nation’s producer, stipulating that TV3 political editor, Duncan Garner’s, line of questioning would be confined to economic issues only, Mr Shearer’s objections persisted. Mr Cunliffe had to make himself unavailable.

Astounded by this refusal, Mr Garner did some digging and discovered that Mr Cunliffe had been on the receiving-end of a sustained and bitter attack from Mr Shearer and his supporters at the caucus meeting of Tuesday, 8 May. According to Mr Garner, Mr Cunliffe’s critics described his speech as “naive and stupid”. Labour’s “Leadership Group”, advised of The Nation’s invitation, then weighed the issue and decided Mr Cunliffe should not appear. The Nation failed to change their minds.

This sort of overt factional squabbling has not been seen in the Labour Party for more than fifteen years. Throughout Helen Clark’s record-breaking reign as leader open dissent was almost always cast as treason. Such limited ideological debate as did occur was hidden deep down in the party’s organisational bowels, far from the public gaze. It was a political style more suited to breeding courtiers than comrades, and Ms Clark’s sudden departure, coupled with the effective coronation of her successor, gave the Labour Party no serious opportunity to decompress. Now it appears to have the bends.

Labour’s full recovery as a vibrant, creative and politically relevant organisation cannot be secured except by a radical opening-up of the party. Interestingly, recent reports about Labour’s organisational restructuring exercise suggest that this may be happening. The party’s constitutional review committee is rumoured to have recommended that rank-and-file members be given a deliberative voice in the choice of party leader, as well as an effective veto over sudden, caucus-inspired, leadership spills. Unsurprisingly, it is also rumoured that Labour’s caucus is doing all it can to prevent such changes coming into immediate effect. The party’s annual conference in November promises to be a bloody affair.

Courtiers make poor campaigners. As Game of Thrones addicts know only too well, power is not always to be found among the wielders of swords. As often as not it lies in the hands of eunuchs and whoremasters: the manipulators, tricksters and casters-of-shadows who keep their daggers hidden and seldom venture beyond the palace gates.

Which is why Mr Shearer’s muzzling of Mr Cunliffe is so very worrying. Seldom has Labour been blessed with two such impressive champions. Both men should welcome the open and principled debate needed to set a new course for the party: one suited to the powerful currents in which New Zealand (and the rest of the world) now find themselves. It’s also needed to ensure that Labour is not secretly corrupted – as it was in the early-1980s – by a “Leadership Group” who were only too willing to promise one thing and then deliver its opposite.

If Mr Shearer believes the country will be best served by turning the Ship of State’s tiller hard to starboard, then let him say so, and let him and his faction spell out clearly what the policy implications of such a rightward shift would be. Mr Cunliffe has made it clear that he believes a sharp leftward turn to be in order. How exhilarating and liberating it would be, not simply for the Labour Party, but for the whole country, to see this debate played out. How depressing, therefore, to learn that, instead of welcoming Mr Cunliffe’s offering, his jealous courtier colleagues described it as “naive and stupid”.

In those words we hear not only the echoes of Clarkian caution, but also, perhaps, the treacherous whispers of a new breed of neoliberal hijackers. Rogernomes Redux, who, like their predecessors, won’t show their policy hands until it’s too late for the party – and the country – to stop them. One would like to believe that, once-bitten, New Zealanders would be twice shy, and yet the editorials and commentaries hailing Mr Shearer’s leadership abilities multiply.

And surely it’s instructive that nearly all of Mr Shearer’s recent applause is coming from the Right.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 May 2012.