Saturday, 31 May 2014

Keeping Our Eyes On The Prize

THIS extraordinary footage of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s bears searing testimony to the historical truth of the Black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass', famous observation: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." 

"Keep your eyes on the prize - hold on!", sings Mavis Staples, reminding all seekers after social justice that it will never be found by those who allow themselves to be distracted from and lose sight of the ultimate goal. There are many roads to the Promised Land, the important thing is to keep on walking and not to let anyone turn you around.

May the courage and determination of Black America's epic struggle for freedom and justice inspire us all to keep our eyes on the prizes we are seeking.

Videos courtesy of YouTube

Authoritarian Labour: Why Kelvin Davis Needs To STFU - Right Now!

One Angry Man: For a person who attaches so much importance to the concept of "respect", it's a pity Kelvin Davis seems utterly incapable of respecting other politicians and parties on the Left. If Labour continues to behave as if it has no need of allies, it's chances of winning the election are nil.
DAVID, MATT, SOMEBODY – PLEASE! Tell Kelvin Davis to pull his head in. His outburst on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report this morning was way beyond embarrassing. The ill-considered slagging of Hone Harawira and the Internet-Mana Party (IMP) not only reflected poorly on his own political skills, but it also raised doubts about Labour’s overall ability to read what is happening in the run-up to 20 September.
It wasn’t just the absence of any semblance of strategic – or even tactical – understanding that was so worrying about Davis’s performance this morning, it was his barely concealed aggression. There is an anger in Davis that calls into question his suitability for any kind of public office. Anger, and what appears to be a classic authoritarian character structure (the two often go together).
Just listen to how he describes his family in the potted biography Labour has displayed on its website. Davis tells us that he is “married with three beautiful, intelligent and respectful children”. It’s the use of the word “respectful” that gives him away. Such a public declaration of the importance Davis attaches to the concept of respect is a very telling character marker. It tell tells us a lot about his personality and where he most likely fits on the Left-Right/Authoritarian-Libertarian grid.
My guess is that he occupies a position that places him towards the Authoritarian end of the Authoritarian-Libertarian gradient and on the right of the Left-Right spectrum. He is very far from being the first Labour MP to be so located. Indeed, it would have been impossible for the Clark-led Government to have introduced so many pieces of reactionary Corrections and Justice legislation without the presence of a solid rump of such individuals in Labour’s caucus.
The authoritarian character structure does not, however, confine its political influence to law and order issues. Authoritarians tend to be threatened by just about any form of behaviour which deviates from what they define as “normal”. If required to do so they will tolerate “deviant” behaviour and life-styles, but their toleration should never be mistaken for acceptance. In the company of trusted “normal” colleagues, their true feelings will be aired – and seldom in a tolerant or accepting way!
The other give-away contained in Davis’s biography is his almost total reliance on education as a means of lifting families out of poverty. “Kelvin is passionate about improving outcomes for Maori and believes education is the vehicle that will enable Maori to fulfil their aspirations.” While no one can sensibly dispute the role education plays in enabling social mobility, when it is held up by politicians as a universal panacea, then their advocacy usually merits closer scrutiny.
Does Davis believe education is the Maori people’s best hope because, liberally interpreted, education draws forth from every individual both the self-knowledge and the self-confidence needed to live a full and self-determined life? Or, does he measure the value of education in terms of its ability to inculcate the social, political and economic values of those who control capitalist societies like our own? And because this latter type of education turns out individuals who are “fit for use” by those whose business it is to use them?
My concern is that Davis belongs in the second camp. How else should we interpret the statement that: “He believes that Treaty settlements are but the cream on the cake, and not the cake itself - he believes that education is that path that Maori need to take to enable us all to achieve greater health, wealth and happiness.”?
Surely this is an assimilationist view of Maori development? And isn’t the word “education” being used here by Davis as a sort of code for “equipping Maori for a place in the world that global capital is daily reconfiguring”? Is he not lining up alongside those who insist that Maori cultural identity is best relegated to a subsidiary, “off duty”, status? That Maori are best advised to let the sugared cream of monetary compensation, via the Treaty settlement process, obliterate the bitter taste of their people’s defeat and dispossession?
If this is, indeed, Davis’s view, then his barely concealed aggression towards Hone Harawira is readily explained. Not only is Harawira’s warrior persona an affront to the former intermediate school principal’s sense of order, but Harawira’s vision of a decolonised – an emancipated – Maoridom, is diametrically opposed to Davis’s vision of a New Zealand in which the well-paid servants of global capital might just as well be Maori as Pakeha.
Bluntly stated, Hone stands for everything Kelvin despises. Moreover, in the eyes of this angry representative of authoritarian Labour, the IMP can only be seen as a deeply subversive assault upon neoliberal capitalism’s core ideological values.
And what can Davis possibly make of Kim Dotcom? A highly successful capitalist who refuses to take the power of money seriously? A capitalist who plays with his money, makes merry-hell with it, and, now that the Powers-That-Be have come after him with armed policemen and extradition orders, is using it to carve a path to power – using Hone Harawira, Laila Harre, Annette Sykes and John Minto as his hammers and chisels.
Labour needs to decide – and quickly – if the authoritarian Davis really is the very model of a modern Labour MP that he (along with many others in the party and the news media) sees himself as representing. If he is, then it will be war in Te Tai Tokerau and throughout the country, and John Key will win the election. If he is not: if Labour wants to be seen as something more than an aggressive hard-man bereft of all strategic and tactical understanding; then someone has got to make Kelvin Davis STFU – right now!
A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 30 May 2014.

Friday, 30 May 2014

L’État c’est Sue

You'll Do It My Way: Observers have noted the extraordinary condescension of a middle-aged Pakeha and former Green MP setting forth the correct moral path for a party dominated overwhelmingly by young, marginalised Maori. Her refusal to be bound by their votes, followed by the very public repudiation of both their judgement and their party, has given rise to considerable speculation concerning exactly who Sue Bradford thinks she is – much of it less-than-flattering.
THERE’S NO SHOW WITHOUT PUNCH, they say. But on the left of New Zealand politics it’s more a matter of there being no show without Sue Bradford. Hone Harawira and Vikram Kumar may have been the ones up on the platform announcing the formation of the Internet-Mana electoral alliance, but it was Sue who, once again, gate-crashed the party.
Since the decision to join forces with the German millionaire, Kim Dotcom, clearly struck at the heart of everything Mana stood for, Sue told the world, she was left with no other choice but to quit the party in protest.
No other choice? Well, not exactly, Sue. You could have decided to abide by Mana’s democratic decision-making processes. Having put forward the case against an alliance with the Internet Party to Mana’s membership, you could have left the final determination to them and accepted the outcome with good grace.
But, you weren’t willing to do that, were you, Sue? Right from the start, when you very publicly hung the threat of your resignation over Mana’s head, you made it very clear that if the party rejected your advice, made the wrong decision, then you were out of there.
Now, an unkind commentator might draw his readers’ attention to the extraordinary condescension involved in a middle-aged Pakeha and former Green MP setting forth the correct moral path for a party dominated overwhelmingly by young, marginalised Maori. He might even observe that her refusal to be bound by their votes, followed by the very public repudiation of both their judgement and their party, might give rise to considerable speculation concerning exactly who Sue Bradford thinks she is – much of it less-than-flattering.
And, while he was at it, that commentator might also question why a person steeped in the writings of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong, and possessing an encyclopaedic knowledge of twentieth century revolutionary movements, should be so down on politically motivated millionaires.
Was it not the Belarussian millionaire, Alexander Parvus, who bankrolled the Bolsheviks into power? And wasn’t it Parvus’s gold that paid for Lenin and 30 of his comrades to be spirited across Germany in a sealed train to join a Russian revolution that had had the temerity to start without them?
JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy once quipped to his son: “A man only needs three things to become President of the United States. The first is Money. The second is Money. And the third is … Money!” The same formula clearly works for revolutionary leaders.
And maybe, Sue, that is the real reason behind your rejection of Kim Dotcom’s money. That it might make Mana into something more than a mere pin-prick in the shins of power. That with the funding Mr Dotcom will undoubtedly make available to the alliance, Mana’s Annette Sykes will have a better than even chance of knocking Te Ururoa Flavell – and with him the Maori Party – out of Parliament. That with the Dotcom dollars behind him, Hone Harawira will be able to bring into the House of Representatives your erstwhile comrade, John Minto. (Not since the days of Harry Holland will our Parliament have welcomed a more revolutionary MP!) Isn’t that the unspoken explanation behind all your many party entrances and exits over the years, Sue? That, to remain pure, your parties must relinquish any prospect of political success?
If I’m wrong, you have my sincere apologies. It’s just that, sometimes, I think the entire New Zealand Left would rather cling to their principles in a state of weakness than compromise some of them from a position of strength.
Revolutionary ambition is made of many things. For Hone Harawira it was the crushing effect of the Pakeha nation’s economic and cultural power upon an indigenous people beaten to their knees by 150 years of settler injustice and racism. For John Minto it was the obscenity of Apartheid South Africa.
And for Kim Dotcom? Perhaps it was the experience of having his home invaded and his family terrified by 80 heavily armed police officers acting on information illegally supplied to them by the Government Communications Security Bureau, at the behest of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, and with the smug approval of the New Zealand Prime Minister.
Sometimes, Sue, the story’s about more than your principles.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 May 2014.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Game-Changer: Laila Harre Accepts The Leadership Of The Internet Party.

Tailor-Made: Dotcom’s representatives wooed and won Laila Harré, the former Alliance MP, Cabinet Minister and Party Leader. Often described as the best MP Labour never had, Harré ’s appointment was critical to the success of the Internet-Mana alliance announced on 27 May 2014.

FROM THE MOMENT he was appointed CEO of the Internet Party, Vikram Kumar’s quiet competence told me two things. The first was that Kim Dotcom, for all his ebullient playfulness, was perfectly capable of recognising and bringing on board extremely talented individuals. Clearly, he had not acquired his considerable fortune by chance. Beneath all the video games and the vanity recordings, the flash cars and statuary, there beat the calculating heart of an astute German businessman.
Which brought me to the second thing. If Kumar was Dotcom’s choice for CEO, then he was clearly very serious about the political venture he was launching. The same strategic and tactical skills which he had brought to the creation of Megaupload (Dotcom’s billion-dollar file-hosting enterprise that struck such fear into Hollywood moviemakers that they were willing to call in some of their most valuable political markers to have it and him destroyed) were now being brought to bear on the problem of how to bring about the downfall of those responsible for destroying his business and instigating the armed Police raid on his home – the Prime Minister and Government of New Zealand.
Those who characterise the Internet Party’s strategic alliance with the Mana Party as an unlikely pairing fail to grasp the sheer, unwavering strength of Dotcom’s purpose. John Key’s government was never going to be brought low by the forces of the Right. That left only the forces of the Left as his potential allies.
It would not have taken Dotcom long to determine that Labour and the Greens were too rigid, too locked into the political and electoral status-quo to serve his purpose. Above all else, the Internet Party he was building needed to be flexible – a political force capable of adapting instantly to the constantly changing circumstances of the modern election campaign. If it was to align itself with any party at all, it could only be with the smallest and most nimble left-wing party in Parliament. The party with the least to lose and the most to gain by allowing the Internet Party to exploit the “coat-tail” provisions of the MMP electoral system. Mana. That Hone Harawira shared many of Dotcom’s swashbuckling character traits made the prospect of such an alliance even more attractive.
The final stage in the Internet Party’s formative process involved finding the right person to lead it. The successful candidate would have to be credible, experienced, electable and, most importantly, ideologically compatible with both Hone Harawira and his Mana Party comrades as well as the broader progressive community. He or she must also be capable of fulfilling Dotcom’s mission if the US Government’s efforts to extradite him for copyright infringement, racketeering and money laundering proved successful. Considerable financial resources were being poured into the Internet Party, Dotcom had to be satisfied that its leader possessed the management skills required to use his money wisely and to the best political effect.
Incredibly, there was a person available who fulfilled every one of Dotcom’s criteria. Laila Harré  had been working for the Greens, but when the time came to draw up the latter’s Party List no one in the Green hierarchy considered Harré  worthy of a winnable slot. Harré  was then snapped up by the CTU to direct its “Get Out and Vote” campaign. It was from that position that Dotcom’s representatives wooed and won the former Alliance MP, Cabinet Minister and Party Leader. Often described as the best MP Labour never had, Harré ’s appointment was critical to the success of the Internet-Mana alliance announced yesterday.
When they learned of Dotcom’s decision, the Greens are said to have been incandescent with rage. Their fury is understandable, with Dotcom’s resources behind them, the Harawira-Harré  pairing is certain to generate considerable excitement. To complement the launch of the Internet Mana Party (which very appropriately shortens itself to IMP) Dotcom himself is said to be preparing to launch his own version of “Rock-the-Vote”. In its American form, this is a concert-based exercise in persuading young people (especially young people of colour) to enrol and vote. Of all the parties on the Left, it’s the Greens that have the most to lose if IMP and Dotcom are successful in mobilising the 18-25 years demographic.
But the Greens problems pale into insignificance when placed alongside those of the National Party. The appointment of Harré  as Internet Party Leader changes the electoral equation significantly. No matter how hard they try to characterise it as such, IMP is no longer a “dotty” addition to the electoral mix – not with Harré  in charge. John Key and his advisers must now recalibrate their predictions to accommodate a left-wing challenger that could take as much as 4-6 percent of the Party Vote.
In a fight which Key himself has acknowledged to be very close, that 4-6 percent will not only be a game-changer, it will be a government changer. Whether he is still here in New Zealand, or languishing in a US prison cell, the taste of revenge on Kim Dotcom’s tongue will be very, very sweet.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 29 May 2014.

Ocean's Fourteen: How David Cunliffe Plans To Pull Off The Political Heist Of The Century.

He Came, He Grabbed, They Conquered: Labour plans to win power for itself by combining its own votes with the votes of as many of National's enemies as it can help over the line into Parliament. For the first time in the MMP era, Cunliffe plans to make the party with the second-largest number of votes the core of a governing coalition.

THE LATEST POLL RESULTS are cause for celebration on the Right and commiseration on the Left. There will be many in the National Party who are now convinced that, providing John Key’s government avoids making any serious mistakes in the remaining 117 days to Election Day, victory is assured. By the same tokens, there will be many in the Labour Party who now regard victory in September as a fading mirage. Barring some sort of miracle, they’ve already conceded the battle to National.
For the wider New Zealand community the 2014 General Election is also looking like a done deal. Those of settled conviction and strong partisan loyalties will participate once again in the democratic ritual of voting, but many citizens will question the efficacy of participating in a contest whose outcome is constantly being presented as a statistical certainty. Combine these sceptics with the perennially inert 15 percent of eligible voters who never exercise their democratic rights and it is possible – even likely – that the turnout for the 2014 election will be as low, if not lower, than the record abstention of 2011.
Analysis of the 2011 data suggests that these poll-guided abstainers are as likely to be found among the ranks of National’s voters as they are among Labour’s. That would certainly explain John Key’s playing-down of the Colmar Brunton/Reid Research figures; his anxious reiteration of the likely closeness of this year’s electoral contest; and his repeated appeals to all Centre-Right voters to get up off the couch, make their way to the nearest polling-booth – and vote.

SINCE LOSING POWER IN 2008, the Labour Opposition has had no shortage of self-appointed critics and advisers. Those who have come at this task from the Left have never wavered from the view that if Labour abandoned neoliberalism and reoriented itself towards the democratic socialist principles of its constitution, then a majority of voters would get in behind the resulting left-wing manifesto.
Moreover, so disruptive of “politics-as-usual” would such a manifesto be that even the perennially inert 15 percent of voters would be jolted out of their political apathy and the Centre-Left Vote would surge beyond the Right’s capacity to restrain it. Combined with the left-leaning abstainers of 2011, the numbers available to Labour and its allies would, potentially, be huge. With only slight exaggeration, the left-wing advocates of this “jump to the left” strategy talked about mobilising the “Missing Million” New Zealanders who did not vote.
When sceptics demanded to know what sort of policies it would take to rouse this sleeping psephological giant, the Left-jumpers pointed to the public’s, the business community’s and the news media’s reaction to the joint release of the Labour-Green energy policy in 2013. So strident was the Right’s reaction that even those who usually took no interest in politics pricked up their ears.
By releasing a series of bold and unashamedly left-wing policies, argued the Left-jumpers, Labour would goad the right-wing parties and their media allies into fostering so much jarring and polarising controversy that it would have the effect of stampeding the Non-Vote into active participation.
This is what lay behind the Left’s relentless promotion of David Cunliffe as Labour’s next leader. Unlike David Shearer, Cunliffe was willing to move beyond the orthodoxies of neoliberalism. In a series of speeches he signalled to Labour’s left-wing that the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) had moved on his thinking about Global Capitalism. As far as he was concerned the Age of Small Government was over.
It was an offer the Left could not refuse.
The Labour Left’s big mistake, however, was to assume that, along with their votes, Cunliffe would also happily accept their electoral strategy. They soon discovered that their man had his own sources of advice, and that these had their own ideas about how to win the 2014 election.
Cunliffe’s inner core of advisers were less interested in the “Missing Million” of non-voters per se, than they were in the roughly 200,000 voters who’d voted for the Labour Party in 2008 but who, for whatever reason, had opted to stay home in 2011. They were confident that these people could be identified, contacted and re-engaged as electors in 2014.
Safely back in Labour’s fold, these voters would lift the party’s level of support into the mid-30s. If the Greens could hold the 11 percent of the Party Vote they’d won in 2011 and NZ First remained above the 5 percent MMP threshold, then the National Party would be squeezed out of contention. John Key’s party could be 10 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival – and still lose.
It was a high-risk strategy with very little margin for error. And, in terms of popularly understood notions of political legitimacy, it was also likely to lead New Zealand into unchartered waters. Since the first MMP election in 1996 the party winning the largest number of votes has always constituted the core of the governing coalition eventually cobbled together after the votes are counted. Cunliffe’s strategy would end that convention by making the party with the second-highest tally of votes the core of a governing coalition. While constitutionally kosher, it nevertheless exposed the resulting government to accusations that “silver and bronze had beaten gold”, and that, as a “coalition of losers”, it lacked a “moral mandate” to govern.
Not to worry. If possession really is nine-tenths of the law, then how the requisite number of seats on the floor of the House of Representatives have been cobbled together will matter much less than the fact that Cunliffe and Labour can rely upon their occupants for Votes of Confidence and Supply. Which leaves us facing the only really important question: “Is the strategy working: do the polls show Labour sitting pat on 34-36 percent of the Party Vote?”
And the answer, of course, is: “No, not at the moment.”
The National Party’s polling agency, Curia’s, time and size-weighted public polls average dated 11 May 2014 has Labour on just 30.5 percent. (A figure unlikely to improve when its proprietor, David Farrar, updates Curia’s averages by including the latest Colmar Brunton and Reid Research results.)
For Labour to be in a position to form a government from just 30 percent support the Greens would have to win an unprecedented 14-16 percent of the vote – and Winston Peters would have to come through with 6 percent-plus. Unfortunately, both Colmar Brunton and Reid Research show the Greens with considerably less than that – just 10-11 percent.
Not enough.
All Labour’s strategists – that is, the ones Cunliffe listens to, not the ones he ignores – can advise the party’s supporters to do now is wait and hope. The process of identifying, contacting and re-engaging the Labour abstainers of 2011 is by no means complete. And, for the strategy to work, all the other components of Labour’s 2014 campaign need to begin functioning as planned and on schedule.
It’s an enormous gamble. A sort of “Ocean’s Fourteen” political heist that has to unfold perfectly at every stage – or end in disaster. But Cunliffe, from what I hear, remains as cool as George Clooney in the Hollywood remake of Ocean’s Eleven. He still believes in his star – and, more importantly, in his staff.
All we can do now is sit back, relax, and watch the movie.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 26 May 2014.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Let Them Eat Cheese

 Cheese On Toast: Not for New Zealanders the reckless, ideologically-driven fiscal mayhem that Joe Hockey saw fit to visit upon their Australian cousins. Here in the Shaky Isles, Finance Minister Bill English delivered up a steady-as-she-goes financial statement so wholesome and tasty that even Labour’s own supporters could not resist giving it a big tick when the pollsters came calling.
FINDING A CONTRAST more dramatic than the respective receptions of the Australian and New Zealand budgets would not be easy. With hardly a sector of Australian society spared the heat of Joe Hockey’s fiscal blowtorch, a bushfire of dissent has erupted across a broad political front. Not surprisingly, Australian public opinion has turned decisively against the Liberal-National Coalition. So much so that, according to the New Zealand National Party’s pollster, and well-known blogger, David Farrar:
I don’t think the question anymore is whether Tony Abbott has lost the next election, and the Coalition will be a one term Government. I think the question is now how many terms in opposition will they have?”
What has angered Australians the most are the crude ideological justifications offered up by Tony Abbott’s government. Treasurer Joe Hockey’s swingeing fiscal cuts were, he insisted, a necessary response to a genuine fiscal crisis. Rescuing Australia from the long-term economic imbalances inherited from the previous Labor Government would require sacrifices from every sector of Australian society.
Hockey’s economic justifications have been greeted with scorn by just about every Australian economist not infected with the Australian Centre for Independent Studies’ (CIS) uniquely virulent strain of neoliberalism. These resistant economists have pointed out that Australia’s economy is more securely foundationed than most comparable countries, and that bringing the deficit under control in no way necessitates the social carnage Hockey’s budget threatens to create.
So why did Abbott, Hockey and their colleagues sign up to such a self-defeating document? To answer that question it is necessary to examine the Australian neo-liberal virus more closely. Cultured for nearly forty years in its New South Wales laboratory, and marketed under the “Classical Liberal” brand, Australian neoliberalism not only features all the usual justifications for restoring to the ruling elites as many of the powers stripped from them by successive waves of progressive reform as possible, but it also insists that this can be done without incurring a democratic backlash.
Much like the ACT Party here in New Zealand (which maintains close personal and philosophical associations with the CIS) the far-Right faction of the Australian Liberal Party purports to believe that if its policies are explained calmly and rationally to ordinary voters, then eventually the scales will fall from their eyes and they will understand that policies which hitherto had appeared to be directed against their interests are, in fact, aimed at propelling them into prosperity.
Joe Hockey: Expecting ordinary people to vote for their own impoverishment.
In spite of all historical evidence to the contrary, these neoliberals simply refuse to give up their belief that ordinary people, rationally propositioned, can be made to vote for their own impoverishment. It is an ideological affliction which both Labour and the conservative parties on both sides of the Tasman have struggled to confine to the margins of electoral politics since the early 1980s – not always successfully.
The Australian Labor Party negotiated the international neoliberal surge of the 1980s and 90s with particular skill (and thus avoided the decade-long civil war that so debilitated the New Zealand labour movement). The Australian Liberals under the (mostly) pragmatic John Howard were similarly successful. (Setting aside the brief reign of the arch-neoliberal ideologue, John Hewson.)
The equally pragmatic National leader, Jim Bolger, was unable to drive his own arch-neoliberal, Finance Minister Ruth Richardson, out of his cabinet until the fall-out from her “Mother of All Budgets” had driven National to the very edge of destruction and contributed substantially to the demise of New Zealand’s First-Past-the-Post electoral system. The resurrection of arch-neoliberal extremism under Dr Don Brash came very close to unleashing fiscal savagery of the sort Abbott and Hockey are currently perpetrating. With a little bit of luck, however (not to mention the Labour voters of South Auckland) National and New Zealand managed to dodge Dr Brash’s bullets.
Which brings us to John Key, Bill English and New Zealand’s 2014 “Cheese-on-Toast Budget”. Not for New Zealanders the reckless, ideologically-driven fiscal mayhem that Joe Hockey saw fit to visit upon their Australian cousins. Here in the Shaky Isles, Finance Minister Bill English delivered up a steady-as-she-goes financial statement so wholesome and tasty that even Labour’s own supporters could not resist giving it a big tick when the pollsters came calling. With increases to paid parental leave, and free doctor’s visits for children under 13 years, how could they not?
Which is not to say that English’s budget is entirely ideology-free – it isn’t. It’s just that the history of the past thirty years in New Zealand (if not in Australia) has taught the more thoughtful and moderate elements of the Right that it is better to give a little than to take a lot. The protection of elite power, conservatism’s fundamental mission, is best achieved by surrounding the privileged with crowds of contented citizens munching cheese-on-toast – not with angry mobs waving pitchforks.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, May 27, 2014.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Hellfire And Run-Of-The-Mill Damnation

American Justice? It was a Hellfire missile launched from a US Predator Drone like the one pictured above that killed the New Zealander, Daryl Jones. New Zealand’s prime minister did not object. According to John Key most "average, run-of-the-mill New Zealanders" would not have put themselves in harm's way by going to Yemen. He does not anticipate, nor in all probability will he receive, many complaints.

THE AVERAGE, run-of-the-mill, New Zealander would not be in Yemen, says the Prime Minister. He’s right. Apart from the odd diplomat, business-person or, very occasionally, the even odder tourist, who in their right mind would be found dead in Yemen?
Daryl Jones is the New Zealander who springs to mind. He was found dead in Yemen because someone in the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had him targeted for assassination. Sometime last year; somewhere far above the New Zealander and his companions; a circling “Predator” drone locked onto the convoy of vehicles Daryl was travelling in and launched its Hellfire missiles.
If God was feeling merciful that day, Daryl wouldn’t have felt a thing. If God was somewhere else, Daryl’s final moments would have been agonising.
All we know for certain is that someone in Langley, Virginia gave the order, and Daryl Jones was found dead in Yemen.
Was he in his right mind? The Prime Minister tells us that Daryl put himself in harm’s way. We are encouraged to believe that he travelled to Yemen with the aim of becoming a Jihadi – a warrior of the faithful – and that he may have made contact with the terrorist organisation known to the CIA as Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The principle aim of AQAP is to bring down the House of Saud – the royal family that has ruled most of the Arabian Peninsula since the Early Twentieth Century. Few would dispute either the brutal character of the Saudi regime, or the crucial role the United States plays in guaranteeing its survival. In the course of his alleged “training”, Daryl would have been spared few details concerning the grisly fate of those who fall into the hands of the Saudi security forces. The evil reputation of the Kingdom’s torturers and executioners is well-deserved.
Not that AQAP’s goal of toppling the House of Saud has anything to do with establishing a Western-style liberal democracy in its place. Not at all. The jihadists’ ultimate objective is the creation of a radical Islamic state, governed under Sharia Law. The nearest historical precedent among the English-speaking peoples would be Oliver Cromwell’s puritanical republic, “The Commonwealth” (1649-1659).
So, was Daryl crazy? If he was, then there are many Americans who merit the same description. A United States governed according to a strict, fundamentalist interpretation of The Holy Bible is the dream of millions of conservative US citizens. If theocratic beliefs are now the benchmark for not being in your right mind, then Daryl wasn’t short of company.
But that’s not how the average, “run-of-the-mill” Kiwi thinks about people like Daryl, is it? The average, run-of-the-mill Kiwi isn’t the slightest bit interested in comparing the goals of twenty-first century jihadists with seventeenth century puritans. Nor is he interested in teasing-out the similarities between Radical Islam and America’s Religious Right. When President George W. Bush declared: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”, the average, run-of-the-mill Kiwi hadn’t the slightest hesitation in coming down on the side of “us”.
Sometime towards the end of last year, the CIA got wind (quite conceivably from our own GCSB’s intercepts) of an AQAP-led operation against the United States. As a precautionary measure the US temporarily shut down its diplomatic posts in the region and escalated its drone strikes.
Having already eliminated a large fraction of the organisation’s leadership in earlier attacks, the list of targeted assassinations was expanded to include “lower level militants”. In the course of nine separate strikes, one of those lower level militants, a decidedly non-average and a nothing like run-of-the-mill New Zealander, Daryl Jones, lost his life to an American Hellfire missile.
New Zealand’s prime minister did not object. No protest was laid with the US Government. And even though being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, is not a capital offence in New Zealand, most average, run-of-the-mill Kiwis remain disinclined to complain.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 May 2014.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Not Proven: "Campbell Live" Still Searching For CONCLUSIVE Evidence Against Key, Fletcher And The GCSB.

Lots Of Smoke But No Gun: Short of their very own Edward Snowden stepping forward with video, audio and written evidence of every word spoken by the main protagonists in the Kim Dotcom surveillance decision/s, Campbell Live’s investigation can progress no further.

WHILE IT IS ENTIRELY FITTING that we should congratulate TV3 and Campbell Live for the show they broadcast last evening, it is important to also acknowledge that they have gone about as far as they can go. John Campbell and his colleagues are now in the same position as the makers of the 1990 TVNZ documentary, For The Public Good, and they face the same hard choices. The evidence they have assembled is indisputably very suggestive, but it is not even remotely conclusive.
Back in 1990, the makers of For The Public Good went ahead and drew conclusions anyway – and it cost TVNZ a great deal of money and most of them their jobs. To avoid a similar fate, Campbell and his boss, TV3’s Head of News and Current Affairs, Mark Jennings, had no option but to do exactly what they did last night – end their investigation into John Key, Ian Fletcher and the GCSB inconclusively.
Short of their very own Edward Snowden stepping forward with video, audio and written evidence of every word spoken by the main protagonists, Campbell Live’s investigation can progress no further. Yes, there are many questions that cry out for answers, but those in a position to do so cannot be compelled to testify. And if TV3 attempts to put their “best guess” answers in the mouths of the “Intelligence Community” they will be sued – and they will lose.
That’s why so few in the mainstream news media are prepared to take on these sort of stories. Every aspect of “National Security” stories is so wrapped in secrecy, and that secrecy is so powerfully protected by the Law, that making any kind of headway is extremely difficult. Nicky Hager or Jon Stephenson, remarkably talented and tenacious free-lance investigative journalists, might beg, borrow and steal the resources and time to track down and marshal conclusive evidence, but TVNZ and TV3 – networks with many competing claims on their time and resources – are required to consider the commercial, legal, and, especially on stories like this one, the political cost of proceeding. It is a huge tribute to TV3’s journalistic values that it was willing to let Campbell run with a story like this for so long.
Having led us this far, and having painstakingly constructed the time-lines so essential to the process, Campbell Live is leaving the business of speculation to us.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 21 May 2014.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Shouting From Beyond The Crossroads

Green Marx: The growing awareness that Capitalism, unchecked, will ultimately consume the life-giving properties of the planet itself is challenging Green parties' reliance on "Green Technology" and the technological fix. Karl Marx saw the overthrow of the capitalist system as a social and ethical necessity, but it is now clear that revolution and human survival are no longer separable.

DO YOU SHOUT at the television? Indulge in lengthy harangues at the radio? I’m afraid I do. Increasingly so, given that it’s an election year and there’s a growing number of things to shout at television about. Time was when I’d have attributed this habit of berating inanimate objects to advancing years. But young people assure me that nowadays they do it too.
Last Sunday I gave my lungs a good workout during TVNZ’s current affairs programme Q+A. Bryce Edwards, the University of Otago’s peripatetic commentator on all things political (and compiler of that utterly invaluable compendium of political news and commentary, NZ Politics Daily) was criticising the Greens for attempting to use Green Capitalism to save the planet.
“Awh, jeez, Bryce, give us a break!”, I yelled at the offending collection of electronic circuitry, “How many viewers do you suppose are going to hold that against them? And how many extra votes do you reckon they’ll attract by decking out Karl Marx in a green suit?”
Later that morning, however, after my blood pressure had returned to normal, I began to think more carefully about Bryce’s criticism. By mid-afternoon I’d already half-convinced myself that the young political studies lecturer was right.
If even the Greens aren’t prepared to call things by their true names – who is?
Can you really prefix “Green” to the global phenomenon that’s pouring more and more Carbon Dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere? From Brazil to Indonesia: in all the world’s denuded tropical rainforests, what else but Capitalism is powering the chainsaws of the tree-fellers? Could the gaunt and exhausted construction workers recruited from across the Muslim world really distinguish between the Capitalism that vomited up their squalid shanty towns and the Capitalism that’s erecting Dubai’s towering “eco-friendly” architecture? And, much closer to home, can Green Capitalism really displace the Cow-Cockey Capitalism pouring nitrates and phosphates into our waterways? Or the Carbon Capitalism sinking drill-shafts into our deepest seas?
Green Capitalism? You might as well speak of Green Cancer. But, if you’re looking for alternatives – why not ‘Man Crusher’? Or, ‘Earth Eater’?
I’m old enough to remember when the first whispers began to spread about the limits to capitalist growth. When individuals like Rachel Carson and groups like the Club of Rome first connected the insatiable appetites of industrial capitalism with the gaping rents that were appearing all around the globe in the fragile webs of life we were only just beginning to call ecosystems.
It was around the time when, in the manner of a glittering cosmic cue, the Apollo astronauts began sending back to humankind the first images of its tiny blue planet floating – so beautiful, so vulnerable and so alone – in the infinite reaches of space.
And it was here, in New Zealand, that those whispers first cohered into an audible political voice. Formed in 1972, the Values Party was the first to openly question the idea that economic growth could be pursued endlessly and without cost.
It was heresy, but it stuck. Tens-of-thousands had just signed the ‘Save Manapouri’ petition. The Labour Party’s election ads depicted the environment in an Agee preserving jar! Tantalisingly close to the surface of the voters’ minds, not only in New Zealand but all across the developed world, a realisation of extraordinary power was taking shape. That humanity had reached a cross roads.
Down one road lay something new, something transformative. A new, lighter and less destructive way of being human. Charles Reich called it “The Greening of America”. Values promised to take us "Beyond Tomorrow".
Down the other road lay more: much more; unbelievably more. Waiting for us was a cornucopia of technological wonders that also offered something new and transformative. A human society increasingly wired to its machines, and those machines becoming more and more human.
But such magic technology could only ever be the distillation of processes fatally destructive of the planet’s capacity to maintain ecosystems conducive to human survival.
Capitalism’s technological fix, founded upon the shifting sands of cheap energy, finite resources and cheap labour is, ultimately, unsustainable. Its ever-more miraculous industrial alchemy can only be sustained by cannibalising its own children and heating up the planet’s atmosphere.
These are unglad tidings for any political party to bear. Values tried to warn New Zealand about the ultimate cost of Capitalism but only succeeded in splitting itself apart. Like the rest of us, Values’ members (and now the Greens’) have found it easier to believe in the power of science to resolve all contradictions.
Hence Russel Norman’s promise that Green Capitalism, wielding Green Technology, will rescue us from the twin threats of Global Warming and critical resource depletion. I suspect he knows this is nonsense. The Devil is not defeated by weapons manufactured in Hell.
From the road we’ve chosen there is no turning.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 May 2014.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Housing The People: Will The Next Labour Government Be As Economically Inventive As The First?

Housing The People: During the 1930s and 1940s New Zealand cities faced a chronic housing shortage. In response the government started a state rental housing scheme, which included building entire suburbs of houses. This is the Hutt Valley suburb of Naenae in 1944. Following the lay of the land, the curving streets were designed to reduce the monotony of straight streets. (Photograph and caption courtesy of Te Ara)

WHICH IS MORE DIFFICULT? Listening to the Prime Minister deny the existence of a housing crisis, or trying to make sense of Phil Twyford’s solution to it? The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) has just ranked New Zealand 34 out of 34 when it comes to the over-valuation of residential property relative to rent and income. According to the OECD, New Zealand house prices, relative to rents, are 70 percent too high.
The Prime Minister will have none of this. Rather than reflecting some sort of crisis, soaring house prices are merely a symptom of the New Zealand housing market’s rude good health. Besides, says John Key, one has only to go on to ‘Trade Me’ to discover plenty of houses priced affordably at around the $NZ300,000 mark.
Twyford’s response to this nonsense began well enough on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report. New Zealand’s very real housing crisis, he said, was the result of market failure: something which only the State possesses sufficient resources to correct. Labour’s KiwiBuild programme, he said, was pledged to building 100,000 affordable homes in ten years.
If only KiwiBuild meant the New Zealand State buying the land, constructing the houses and then leasing them out at affordable, income-related rentals to young New Zealand families. That, after all, was what the First Labour Government had done. Between 1935 and 1949 entire suburbs had been built by the State. Sturdy, well-designed “state houses”, constructed out of local materials, were erected in the tens-of-thousands.
Orakei, Mt Roskill, Mt Wellington, Panmure, Naenae, Taita, Corstophine – Labour’s commitment to “Housing the People” made as real as the concrete foundations these suburbs’ state houses stood on. In its propaganda for the 1938 General Election Labour quoted the words of Professor A. H. Ryan, of Queen’s University, Belfast, who told an Auckland audience: “I had the good fortune to visit the Orakei housing scheme. I have an extensive knowledge of housing schemes and have visited them all over Europe, and I want to congratulate New Zealand in having the finest housing scheme in the world.”
Sadly, KiwiBuild offers nothing like the First Labour Government’s housing policy. Essentially, it is a Public Private Partnership, in which the State facilitates the private sector’s construction of houses which it will then sell at “affordable” prices ($300,000 to 400,000 in Auckland) to first home buyers.
In other words, Labour is promising to help the sons and daughters of middle-class New Zealand into their first home. Twyford may talk in emotive terms about coming to the aid of people living in garages in South Auckland, but the houses that he, Labour and an army of grateful property developers are proposing to erect are not intended for them. Where are working families on the minimum wage going to find the deposit on a $350,000 house?
The question that rattles around in my head is “Why?” With the noble precedent of Labour’s first great exercise in “Housing the People” still standing on a thousand streets all over the country, what is preventing Twyford from following it? Does it all come down, like so many things the Labour Party would like to do, to a lack of money?
The cost of its housing policy certainly taxed the ingenuity of the First Labour Government. The answer they eventually came up with shocked New Zealand’s Civil Service mandarins to the core.
W.B. (Bill) Sutch, writing in his book The Quest for Security in New Zealand 1840 to 1966, describes the extent of Labour’s political inventiveness:
“To build the houses, credit was created by the Reserve Bank at a rate of 1.25 percent for the first £5 million. John A Lee was made Under-Secretary in Charge of Housing. He accepted on the understanding that money would be available from the Reserve Bank. This procedure was a political victory for those in the Labour Party who wanted to use the financial system to build New Zealand even though such an action might conflict with the banking authorities in New Zealand and in Britain and necessitate a change in ‘free trade’ conceptions. Said Lee later, ‘This was a contentious Party issue. With tens of thousands of men on relief work the Labour Party, Nash and Fraser apart, believed that the funds of the Reserve Bank should be used for essential capital works until available men, machinery and materials were being fully employed. We wanted to undo the politically enforced bankers’ deflation.’”
Can it really be true that the Labour Caucus of 2014 contains no one with the wit and courage of Jack Lee and his colleagues? Is there really no chance that the sort of unorthodox economic thinking that made possible the first great exercise in “Housing the People” will be replicated on Twyford’s watch?
Is there no one in Labour’s ranks who was present and understood what the late Sir Owen Woodhouse was telling them two years ago, on 3 November 2012, at the fortieth anniversary of the election of the Third Labour Government?
Sir Owen was the architect of New Zealand’s world-beating Accident Compensation Scheme. Originally, the scheme had been a pay-as-you-go operation – it’s costs being met out of the levies charged, augmented if necessary from the Consolidated Fund. In the late 1990s, however, in preparation for its eventual privatization, the National Party insisted that the Accident Compensation Corporation become fully-funded. In other words it was required to build up a fund sufficiently large to meet all of its existing and likely future obligations.
According to Sir Owen:
“… ACC has been regarded by some as an insurance scheme under another name. And eventually the need for an income flow was converted from pay-as-you-go to a commercial insurance-type funded system. It is an expensive mistake. For this reason, every year employers and owners of vehicles have been paying much larger amounts than need be in order to build up the large invested funds which now total more than 20 billions. The funded approach should cease in favour of ACC’s annual needs – the system that has always operated for health, education and all general social benefits. By this simple change levies and vehicle charges would be much reduced; they could be averaged across all industries; individual ACC accounts could be amalgamated. And only by this means can the system be extended to sickness as intended by the original report and later outlined as feasible by the Law Commission. It may be asked what of the large fund now in place?”
What indeed?
Sir Owen’s suggestion was that a “sufficient portion should be retained as the necessary contingency against the risk of major disaster with a balance to future levies”.
Well, yes, that would be one solution. But, were a future Labour Government to follow Sir Owen’s advice and revert to a pay-as-you-go ACC, then that $20 billion, or, at the very least, the annual income it generates, could be turned to other purposes.
Like “Housing the People”.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 19 May 2014.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Alright For Some: Bill English Delivers A Profoundly Political Budget.

Blue Cheese: Hot off the press, the Finance Minister, Bill English, holds a copy of what the NZ Herald's Business Editor, Liam Dann, dubbed "The Cheese-on-Toast Budget". Nothing fancy, but wholesome, tasty and a firm family favourite.
AS NEW ZEALAND CHOWS DOWN on Bill English’s “Cheese-on-Toast Budget” – relishing the sharp, melted-cheddar flavours of free doctors’ visits for the under-13s and an additional month of paid parental leave – Labour must be wondering just what they did to piss-off the political gods so badly. (As it happens, I can give them a hint or two on that score, but it’ll keep for another day.) Contrariwise, the near universal positivity pouring out of the “vox-pops” (those random interviews journalists conduct with people in the street) left little room for doubt that, when it comes to capturing the affections of the voting public, National and the political gods have still got a good thing going on.
And that’s the crazy thing about budgets, they’re all about the three or four hours immediately following their delivery. It is in this ridiculously short period of time that the character of the Government’s economic plan – for good or ill – will be decided.
There’s quite a troop of people who play a part in this. Obviously, the Finance Minister’s performance is important. A lack of confidence and clarity on the part of the document’s author is seldom considered helpful. Then there’s the Leader of the Opposition’s speech in reply. If it’s any good, the Budget will be passed on to the news media roasted, stuffed and with an apple in its mouth.
The media’s characterisation is, of course, crucial. If the Opposition’s on its game editors and journalists will already have been given the target or targets to attack. Economists and major league NGOs are then asked to pass judgement on the issues raised. Inevitably, one of these players will come up with the moniker by which the budget will forever after be known. (This year that honour went to the NZ Herald’s Business Editor, Liam Dann. He christened Bill English’s sixth “child” the “Cheese-on-Toast Budget”. Nothing fancy, but wholesome, tasty and always a firm family favourite.)
Sadly, David Cunliffe and his finance spokesperson, David Parker, failed to land a single solid blow on English’s creation. Cunliffe described it as the “Fudge-it Budget” (only to have the Prime Minister gleefully remind him that Rodney Hide had already given that name to Michael Cullen’s 2002 Budget). Parker’s response was typically wonkish: a perverse mixture of praise (for the $372 million “surplus”) and impenetrable – at least for the average punter – fiscal detail.
Not that we should be too hard on poor old Labour. What are they supposed to do when their enemies so shamelessly steal their policies? For the “true believers” at both ends of the political spectrum such behaviour is unconscionable. Whatever happened to principle!
But, like “Kiwi Keith” Holyoake before him, John Key is by no means averse to appropriating his opponent’s ideas – if that is what it takes to hold National’s vote together. That’s because Key remembers what the ideological hard-liners of his caucus (and Act) appear to have forgotten. That the purpose of the National Party is to bar the door to the House of Power and prevent the Labour Party from entering. Or, should Labour somehow manage to gain entry, to do whatever it takes to evict them. National’s first – and last – principle has always been: “Hold on to power at all costs, and don’t, under any circumstances, let Labour win!”
It’s what makes good National Party opposition leaders so ruthless and good National Party prime ministers so accommodating. It is also why it takes a special kind of Labour leader to summon the tremendous force required to make it through the door.
The House of Power cannot be entered without struggle. So, if there are still some in Labour’s caucus who secretly subscribe to the theory that all they have to do is wait until it is their “turn” to be in government, then they should abandon it immediately. They need to understand that, as far as National (and the interests it represents) is concerned it will never be Labour’s turn.
Think about it. It took the full weight of “Big Norm” Kirk and the unstoppable momentum of the 1960s social revolution to oust the National Party from office in 1972. And it was only Rob Muldoon’s refusal to be guided by his party’s “New Right” backers – plus the extraordinary subversion of the parliamentary Labour Party itself – that brought about the change of government in 1984. Labour takes power only in extraordinary circumstances, and it seldom makes those by itself.
A Labour leader more attuned to the animal spirits of the New Zealand electorate would have described English’s effort as the “Looking Through The Window Budget”.
He would have described National’s world in terms of a comfortable home with its lights blazing and the dining table loaded with good things to eat. The inhabitants can be seen through the window raising their glasses in a toast to their own good fortune. Things had been tough, but they have come through. They were back in the black!
Then he would have described the scene outside the house. The people standing there in the late Autumn darkness. The ones who haven’t made it through. The ones who are still doing it tough. Struggling to feed their families. Despairing of ever owning their own home. Overworked. Underpaid. Their unions under siege. Wanting a future. Angry that they’ve been denied one. Waiting, with growing impatience, for someone to break down the door to the House of Power – and lead them in.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 16 May 2014.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Should Journalists Have To Declare Their Ideological Predispositions?

Helpful Hint: Nobody reading my own newspaper columns has ever had to waste any time working out from which side of the political divide I draw my inspiration. Would we be better or worse off if all journalists' work was so clearly identified?
IF YOU’RE READING this column you know already that it’s coming to you “From the Left”. You are, therefore, free to absorb its contents with a rare foreknowledge of its author’s ideological predispositions.
But how often can you say as much? How many of the stories, columns and feature articles published every day carry such a useful consumer warning? And how easy is it, Dear Reader, in the absence of such a warning, to discern how those stories, columns and feature articles have been put together and why?
Because, make no mistake, everything you read, watch and listen to, every newspaper article, television programme and radio broadcast, has been carefully constructed by an individual, or individuals, working consciously, or unconsciously, from well-established ideological predispositions.
The information a journalist decides to include in a story is very often less important than the information he or she decides to leave out. Indeed, this is almost always the case. Because in any “newsworthy” event there will always be many more details and contributory causes than a journalist’s employers could ever possess either the time or the space to relate.
A few mornings ago, for example, I listened to a correspondent reporting on the referenda on regional autonomy that had just taken place in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. His report concentrated on irregularities in the way the referenda were conducted. He then linked these irregularities to statements from European Union and United States officials in which the “Russian-backed separatists’” referenda were angrily condemned as “illegal”.
Another journalist, reporting from the same country, might just as easily have started her report by reiterating the illegal status of the government in Kiev. She could have pointed to the presence of the overtly fascist political formations within the Western-backed regime and linked this to the determination of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers to protect themselves by voting in hastily organised referenda for regional autonomy. After all, these so-called “separatists” are living in territory which had, up until 1922, been part of Russia-proper.

Hero Or Villain? It depends on which facts journalists choose to put into their stories about the crisis in Ukraine, and which they decide to leave out.
What made the media outlet I was listening to choose the first report over the second? Both are constructed out of facts which, thanks to Google and Wikipedia, are readily checkable. And yet, the Ukraine which emerges from the way these facts are either included or excluded differs wildly. In the first report the referenda symbolise illegal Russian-backed separatism. In the second, the referenda represent East Ukraine’s determination to protect itself from Western-backed fascists in Kiev. In the end, it probably came down to the news editor’s ideological predispositions.
Or, alternatively, the news editor made a rational assessment of the way his bosses would react to his broadcasting the second report, and opted for the first. Such self-censorship is extremely common, reflecting the fact that individuals are not the only things with ideological predispositions – institutions have them too. And if you would discover the political direction of an institution’s bias, just find out who pays the bills.
In the light of the recent report on political bias released by Television New Zealand, the question of a journalist’s ideological predispositions has acquired an unusual moral salience.

Shane Taurima: Conflict of interest?
Mr Shane Taurima was forced to resign from his job at TVNZ because he allegedly failed to adequately separate his political ambitions from his statutory obligations, as a public broadcaster, to be politically neutral and only broadcast news and current affairs that is fair and balanced. TVNZ plans to avoid any future suggestion of political partiality by requiring its news and current affairs staff to declare and relinquish any existing ties and/or affiliations to political parties.
But, surely, this can only be regarded as a mixed blessing? At least an open declaration by all TVNZ journalists of their ideological predispositions would allow viewers to judge their output with a greater understanding of what kinds of facts they are more likely to put into, and leave out of, their stories. Just like the readers of this column, TVNZ’s viewers would then be able to calculate an appropriate political discount.
The Law may require our public broadcaster to be fair and balanced, but the Law can’t be there to witness what goes into or gets left out of everything we see.
Would we not be better served if all journalists were required to identify themselves as coming “From the Left’ or “From the Right”?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 May 2014.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Budget Alternatives And Alternative Budgets

Walking The Talk: The NLP's 1991 Alternative Budget. NewLabour's leader Jim Anderton understood the political and ethical rewards accruing from his party's willingness to show the voters not only what they wanted to do - but how they intended to pay for it. Act's new leader, Jamie Whyte, has just picked up the idea. What's stopping Labour from putting some numbers alongside its promises?
IT WAS ONE OF THE THINGS I admired most about the NewLabour Party (and later the Alliance) – it’s Alternative Budget. From its inception, in 1989, until its absorption into the Alliance, the NLP Leader, Jim Anderton, made a point of pre-empting the Government’s official Budget Statement with one of his own.
Along with Anderton, himself, the alternative document was put together by the NLP’s economic consultants, John Lepper and Petrus Simons, with invaluable input from the University of Otago’s Professor James R. Flynn. The irrepressible Flynn was the party’s unofficial conscience when it came to fiscal policy, insisting that it was politically unethical and tactically foolish to offer voters all manner of benefits without, at the same time, demonstrating how the party intended to pay for them.
It was Flynn’s stated intention to make not only his party comrades, but also the wider electorate, understand that democratic socialist outcomes could not be guaranteed in the absence of democratic socialist taxes. He knew that the fastest and most effective way of turning a party of idealists into a party of realists and pragmatists was by showing them how high income taxes would have to rise in order for them to cover the costs of what Bill English describes sneeringly as “nice to haves”.
It was very instructive to observe how the policy maximalists would wince when they saw how high the income taxes of not just the obscenely wealthy but ordinary middle-class professionals and skilled wage workers would have to rise if the Party’s pet projects were to go ahead. The wily old Flynn knew that the prospect of having to levy politically suicidal income tax rates would spur the membership into moderating their demands and searching for alternative methods of revenue-gathering. The result was the NLP/Alliance’s adoption of the Financial Transactions Tax – a measure which, very neatly, solved the problem of how to pay for paradise.
The preparation of an alternative budget is a highly educational (not to say therapeutic) exercise for any political party, but it is especially useful for radical parties like the NLP/Alliance and ACT.
That the ACT Party’s new leader, Jamie Whyte, not only recognises this but has actually gone ahead and released an alternative budget bodes very well for the party’s electoral future. At the very least it has forced ACT’s members into thinking seriously about where they want the country to go and how they propose to take it there.
Getting In On The Act: Jamie Whyte recently released his party's own Alternative Budget.
As neoliberals, not democratic socialists, the task confronting ACT’s members would have been pretty much the opposite of the one facing the NLP/Alliance. Rather than starting with all the things they’d like to have and then calculating how much tax would be needed to pay for them, ACT’s members began by asking themselves how far taxes should be lowered and then worked out how many government services and transfer payments would have to be eliminated to make that figure possible.
The answer, of course, turned out to be: “A helluva lot!”
Whether the scale of expenditure cuts required to produce a top income tax rate of 17 percent made ACT’s members wince I do not know, but, after reading their alternative budget, I’d wager that very few of them were in any doubt about the radicalism of their party.
Why 17 percent?
Well, I have a theory about this seemingly random number. Originally, I suspect, the desired top tax rate was deemed to be 10 percent. But, when ACT’s economic advisors told them that to bring the top rate down to that level would require them taking a very large and a very blunt axe to health, education and welfare spending, they reluctantly decided that, 10 percent being electorally suicidal, a higher figure was required. Hence 17 percent.
Set at this level, Whyte is able to reassure (the Epsom?) voters that taxes can be lowered dramatically without slaughtering the New Zealand electorate’s sacred cows.
It is interesting to note that immediately following the release of its alternative budget the value of ACT’s “stocks” on iPredict rose to 3.8 cents. In other words the political speculators now expect ACT to win nearly 4 percent of the Party Vote.
Why, then, does Labour not produce an Alternative Budget? Wouldn’t such an exercise be of enormous assistance in putting some credible flesh on the bones of Opposition policy? Would it not ensure that when John Key, channelling Tom Cruise, began shouting: “Show me the money!” the Leader of the Opposition was well equipped to do exactly that?
Because, when you think about it, there’s really no excuse for an opposition party not being able to cover its policy bones with detailed flesh of. Opposition politicians would, after all, like us to believe that they have what it takes to form an alternative government. So, surely, within its ranks there ought to be sufficient wit and experience to pull together an alternative budget?
Oh yes, I know, the political “strategists” will have none of it. “Why show the Government your hand?” They will ask. “Why risk Treasury ripping all your numbers to shreds? The resources just aren’t there for the Opposition to even contemplate producing a document to challenge the government’s budget statement.”
But no one’s asking for that sort of detail. All Labour’s supporters want to hear is the two Davids – Cunliffe and Parker – making confident replies to Government and news media questions about numbers. The policies of the alternative government have got to add up. If working people are going to be better-off – or worse-off – as a result of Labour’s policies, then surely they have a right to know by how much? If Phil Twyford wants to be believed when he says the next Labour Government will build 10,000 affordable homes every year, then he must be able to quantify “affordable” in a way that makes sense to a young couple bringing in $70,000 per year.
The so-called “cheese-on-toast” budget that National will deliver on 15 May is unlikely to be spectacular – but it doesn’t have to be. The Government will simply point to their handling of the Global Financial Crisis; to steadily expanding economic activity; to rising business confidence and falling unemployment and say: “See? It’s steady as she goes. The economy’s in safe hands.” The advantages of incumbency are numerous and usually decisive.
Unless they are systematically undermined by an Opposition with a clear and compelling story to tell. Using broad brush strokes to outline their alternative narrative, but also supplying sufficient detail for ordinary people to be able to imagine themselves into the story.
If there really is an alternative – for God’s sake, let’s hear it!
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 14 May 2014.