Friday, 31 October 2014

Ghost Dancing?

Ghost Dancing circa 1890: With the buffalo effectively exterminated, the material basis for the Native American cultures of the Great Plains was destroyed. The Ghost Dance, it was believed, would reconstitute the basis for an independent indigenous existence. Has the removal of the material basis for a self-conscious industrial working-class similarly undermined the social base and cultural integrity of the New Zealand labour movement? Are the four contenders for the Labour Party leadership simply Ghost Dancing?

OF THE FOUR CONTENDERS for the leadership of the Labour Party, it is David Parker who pursues most consistently the “traditional” Labour member’s support. “Labour was formed by working people, for working people”, is one of Mr Parker’s favourite riffs. And lest any member of the party should doubt his commitment to Labour’s “core values”, he chose Labour Day as the time and the Savage Memorial as the place to launch his Auckland campaign.
But how much sense does it make to pursue the votes of Labour’s traditionalists when so little of the world that made them (and the Labour Party for that matter) still remains? Is it even possible to be a party of the New Zealand proletariat when the New Zealand proletariat (or, at least, the New Zealand proletariat as it was configured from 1935-1985) no longer exists?
Which is not to say that, globally-speaking, the industrial working-class, with all its vast potential for upsetting the applecart of industrial civilisation, has ceased to exist. Far from it. What should be said, however, is that if you’re looking for a mass of exploited toilers recognisable to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, then you’ve a much better chance of finding them in China than you have in the post-industrial societies of the West.
Over the past 40 years, western capitalists have solved the problem of having large and self-assertive working-classes in their own backyard by ruthlessly shipping their employees’ jobs overseas to places where unions, civil rights and most other democratic practices are conspicuous by their absence. If you want to see the equivalent of Henry Ford’s vast River Rouge car assembly plant nowadays, you’ll have to visit Shenzhen.
Think of the political economy of globalisation in terms of the fate of the American buffalo.
Before the great waves of European settlers washed over the American prairie, it was the preserve of Native American tribes and unimaginably large herds of buffalo. So long as the buffalo endured, settlers would not only have to contend with the indigenous peoples the great beasts supported, but they’d also find it impossible to transform the prairie into profitable farmland.
Obviously, both had to go. In the space of just 45 years the buffalo herds (the largest of which sometimes stretched from horizon to horizon) were reduced from more than 30 million to just a few hundred. And with the destruction of the buffalo the indigenous cultures of the prairies found themselves robbed of the very substance of their being. After a brief but doomed burst of resistance they were reduced to objects of anthropological curiosity and Hollywood fantasy.
The social-democratic welfare-states that grew up in the West in the 1930s and which reached their peak effectiveness in the early 1970s had the same relationship with factory-based production as the indigenous tribes of the prairie had with the buffalo. It was the factory-based process of mass production that underpinned the full-employment upon which the welfare state depended. Also dependent on the jobs of secondary industry were the trade unions – out of whose economic and political influence the social-democratic and labour parties of the West had emerged. Take away those jobs and in remarkably quick succession the unions, their parties and the welfare state itself would crumble and die.

Rust Belt Ruin: The continuing export of Western factory jobs has undermined the unions, their parties and the welfare state itself.
The mass slaughter of the buffalo came to an end in the mid-1880s submerging the tribes in existential despair. Five years later, however, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began to receive reports of a strange religious phenomenon sweeping the reservations – the “Ghost Dance”.
A Paiute shaman, Wovoka, prophesised that if the tribes danced the Ghost Dance, then the living and the dead would be reunited, the world re-made anew, and all its peoples could live in peace. Among the Lakota nation, however, the new religion took on a more millennial character. The dance would bring back the buffalo, said the Lakota chief, Kicking Bear, and by wearing “Ghost Shirts” warrior-dancers would be rendered impervious to bullets. On 29 December 1890, at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, this belief was put to the test – with tragic results.
Could David Parker be Labour’s Wovoka? Is his invocation of a political movement created “by working people, for working people” as tragic, in its way, as the Native Americans’ longing for the buffalos’ return? Could we be witnessing Labour’s Ghost Dance?
This essay was originally published by The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 31 October 2014.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

A Very Weird Story: Deconstructing Darren Aronofsky's "Noah".

An Heretical Work: Darren Aronofsky's Noah is an attempt to reconstruct from the ill-fitting fragments of the much older and more finely textured myth of the Great Flood, a religious homily about human power, human guilt, and human redemption. That he failed matters much less than that he tried at all.
NOAH is a curious movie. Conceived as a biblical epic, it’s target audience was originally the millions of Americans who regard the Bible as "the inerrant word of God". With the sin-filled works of Hollywood forbidden to these true-believers, Christian movie-makers have developed a lucrative niche market for church-backed big-screen offerings that faithfully reproduce the scriptural plot-lines.
But if fidelity to the Genesis story was central to Director, Darren Aronofsky’s, original pitch for Noah, the final cut presents the viewer with something altogether different. Essentially, Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, have taken the biblical tale and re-worked it into a homily on the human urge to dominate and the damage it inflicts upon both the social and the natural world. Not surprisingly, when Paramount Pictures attempted to secure the support of the Christian distribution networks for Aronofsky’s final offering, the response was less than enthusiastic.
The ease with which Noah’s screenwriters’ were diverted from their original intentions is understandable because, read closely, the Book of Genesis is a very weird story. What, for example, are we supposed to make of this?
“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.”
Or this?
“There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”
These verses are just there in the sixth chapter of Genesis – apropos of God knows what! One thing, however, is clear: that in the years following Adam’s and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden some very peculiar things were going on. Odd enough for Aronofsky and Handel to incorporate these fallen sons of God, these angels, into their movie’s plot-line. They called them “The Watchers”
Exactly what America’s stern guardians of evangelical Christian orthodoxy made of this plot device when asked to view the final cut of Noah one can only guess. In all probability they did not want the younger members of their congregations speculating about why angels might want to “come in unto the daughters of men”. Aronofsky’s and Handel’s use of the expression “The Watchers” posed even bigger problems.
Any good dictionary of religion (not to mention Google!) will lead any person curious to learn more about the Watchers to another very strange collection of stories about what happened in the years between the expulsion from Eden and the Great Flood. The Book of Enoch is, if possible, even weirder than Genesis. So weird that for more than 2,000 years both the Judaic and the Christian religious authorities have thought it best to keep Enoch out of both the Torah and the Bible.
Because, according to Enoch, the Watchers didn’t just content themselves with seducing the daughters of men, they had a much bigger agenda:
“It happened that when in those days the sons of men increased, pretty and attractive daughters were born to them. The Watchers, sons of the sky, saw them and lusted for them and said to each other: Let’s go and pick out women from among the daughters of men and sire for ourselves sons”.
To these, the offspring of the “sons of the sky”, the Watchers passed on all manner of useful knowledge. Enoch helpfully vouchsafes to us the names of some of these Watchers and what they taught:
“And Azâzêl taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all colouring tinctures. And there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways. Semjâzâ taught enchantments, and root-cuttings, Armârôs the resolving of enchantments, Barâqîjâl, taught astrology, Kôkabêl the constellations, Ezêqêêl the knowledge of the clouds, Araqiêl the signs of the earth, Shamsiêl the signs of the sun, and Sariêl the course of the moon.”
If you’re beginning to think that all this is beginning to sound like the script of one of those Ancient Aliens “documentaries” that infest the History Channel, then you’d be entirely justified. That Aronofsky and Handel declined to take their screenplay in that direction was, perhaps, a mistake. It would have made a lot more sense to re-tell the story of Noah as a terrifying example of what happens when ordinary human-beings get caught up in the quarrels of horny “Sons of the Sky” bearing gifts.
As it is, the screenplay of Noah is neither fish nor fowl. It’s certainly not a biblical epic in the tradition of The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told, but neither is it a work of science fiction like Stargate. Instead, Noah is that rarest of things in this irreligious age, an heretical work.
Sensing that the biblical version of the Great Flood is but a fragment of a much older and more finely textured myth, Aronofsky and Handel have attempted to construct from its ill-fitting remnants a story about human power, human guilt, and human redemption. That they failed, producing a film so filled with gross failures of logic, motivation, and theology that not even the participation of Russell Crowe, Emma Watson and Sir Anthony Hopkins could save it, is not to be wondered at. Myths are generally the work of many literary hands, refined over centuries. It’s takes a scholar of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stature to make a believable myth from the contents of a single mind.
What can be said, however, is that Aronofsky’s and Handel’s Noah possesses the power to set those whose temperament leans towards the mystical on a fascinating path of inquiry. It also reminds us that the world depicted in the Bible is a very strange one. A world choc-full of all manner of supernatural beings – only some of whom are benign (or even decent!)
No wonder the Christian Right refused to endorse it.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Thursday, 30 October 2014.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

If Ebola Goes Global

Reassuring Image: Among the peoples of the West, the latest Ebola outbreak is generally being categorised as just another of those terrible things that happen “over there” in the hot, poor and indifferently-governed places of the world. The Ancient Greeks would have called this hubris.
IT BEGAN with a two-year-old child: a little Guinean boy whose father and brothers regularly supplemented the family diet with “bush-meat”. That’s what killed him. Something deadly in the carcase of a hammer-headed fruit bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus) carried home for the cooking-pot somehow found its way into his bloodstream.
A “megabat”, boasting a wingspan of nearly a metre, the hammer-head offers bush-meat hunters in the West African highlands a substantial meal. Unfortunately for the two-year-old, and then for his mother, sister and grandmother, Hypsignathus monstrosus is also one of the recognised asymptomatic carriers of the Ebolavirus.
Officially, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that upwards of 10,000 West Africans have contracted the deadly Ebola virus, and that this latest outbreak of the highly contagious haemorrhagic disease has a terrifying case fatality rate of 70.8 percent. Unofficially, WHO is saying that the number of cases could be three or four times greater than the official estimate. They are also deeply fearful that in spite of positive stories about the disease’s containment, it may already be moving inexorably across the African continent. If (or perhaps that should be ‘when’) it reaches the densely populated cities of the East African coast, the number infected will soar into the hundreds-of-thousands. And if it continues to move along Africa’s traditional trade routes north, into Sudan, Somalia and Egypt, and further east, into India, then the world will be faced with a global pandemic of truly catastrophic proportions.
Among the peoples of the West, however, the latest Ebola outbreak is generally being categorised as just another of those terrible things that happen “over there” in the hot, poor and indifferently-governed places of the world. With our highly sophisticated public health systems geared-up and ready to respond, any infected person somehow making it across our borders faces instant containment and state-of-the-art medicine. For the fortunate minority of the planet’s population blessed with a white skin, all remains well.
For the moment.
Because, as American historian, Mike Davis, writes in his deeply depressing book, Planet of Slums: “[T]oday’s megaslums are unprecedented incubators of new and reemergent diseases that can now travel across the world at the speed of a passenger jet.”
Not that Ebola needs to be airborne. Every single day frail and criminally overloaded boats set sail from North Africa for Southern Italy. How long will it be before a lethal percentage of these thousands of illegal economic migrants arrives bearing the deadly virus? In the crowded slums of Naples, Rome and Milan, Ebola will spread with the same awful alacrity that brought it to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Perhaps this is simply the price we have to pay for twenty-first century capitalism’s “world without borders”? To discover that, in Davis’s words, “economic globalisation without concomitant investment in a global public health infrastructure is a certain formula for catastrophe.”
And even if the navies of the European Union were prepared to repel all boarders, the economic consequences of half-a-world afire with a deadly pandemic cannot be so easily sent to the bottom of the Mediterranean. One can only imagine how the already fragile global economy would respond to Ebola’s spread across the world. Fear and panic would grip Wall Street. Global transportation links would be severely, perhaps fatally, disrupted. Xenophobia would run rampant across the Western world. The long-discarded doctrine of economic self-sufficiency would instantly return to fashion. And, if the pandemic was to sweep up from South Asia and engulf China, the entire edifice of global industrial civilisation would shudder on its foundations.
It’s happened before. In the middle decades of the Fourteenth Century the whole of Eurasia was ravaged by a pandemic caused by the flea-borne microbial pathogen Yersinia pestis. The Black Death, as it came to be known, left entire regions depopulated. Villages and even cities were emptied of all but the dead. In Southern France and Spain the death rate may have climbed as high as 70-80 percent. The best estimates put the overall death toll at 100 million victims – more than a fifth of the total human population! It may have taken medieval civilisation another 150 years to finally expire, but there is no disputing the identity of its killer. Yersinia pestis.
Located where we are, at the bottom of the world, it is easy to dismiss all these grim speculations as unhelpful scare-mongering. Certainly, we must hope that they are nothing more than that. Our economic survival depends upon the unhindered flow of seaborne imports and exports and airborne tourists. New Zealand could not long endure in a world frozen solid by the ravages of Ebolavirus. The bitter truth being that if the death toll of any global pandemic ever exceeds one billion souls, then the world will have little pity to spare for a faraway nation of 4.5 million.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 October 2014.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Songs of Yesteryear - Or, What I Was Listening To 40 Years Ago

Sonnet to the Fall: Penned by the group, Dulcimer's, founder, Peter Hodge, the song also features the English actor, Richard Todd, reading Hodge's poetry. Dulcimer's first album, And I Turned As I Had Turned As A Boy was released on the Nepentha label in 1970.

THIS LITTLE GEM from the almost completely forgotten English folk group, Dulcimer, captures something of the sweet innocence of the early-1970s - that wonderful bygone era of full-employment and free tertiary education. In all of New Zealand's major cities (and some of its smaller ones) there were folk clubs where traditional and contemporary compositions were played by musicians of often astonishing skill and originality. Meanwhile, the audience of mostly long-haired youngsters of both sexes drank cheap red wine out of casks, flirted, laughed and, most importantly, sang away the chill winter nights.

Mais où sont les neiges d'antan? Asked the French Renaissance poet, Francois Villon.

Where are the snows of yesteryear?

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Labour Needs To Stop Saying What People DON"T want to hear.

A Freight Train Called Key: On election night 1975 Bill Rowling said Muldoon's landslide victory felt like being run over by a bus. Oh what David Cunliffe would have given for that bus on 20 September 2014!

THE ANGUISH of Labour supporters on election night was expressed mostly in Anglo-Saxon. Polite English just doesn’t have the emotional range for disaster on such a lavish scale.
Unquestionably, as political disasters go, this one was a biggie.
Bill Rowling told the nation on election night 1975 (when Rob Muldoon sent Labour plummeting to the abysmal depths of 39.6 percent) that he “felt like he’d been run over by a bus”. Oh, what David Cunliffe would have given for that bus! On the night of 20 September 2014, Labour’s hapless leader must have felt like he’d been run over by a fully-laden freight train, which had then stopped and reversed back over him, just to make sure.
No wonder the poor fellow behaved bizarrely. When the political historians have to go all the way back to 1922 to find a comparable result, bizarre behaviour is probably the very least that should be expected. Because, sadly, no political leader can come back from a hiding of such career-killing severity. Sooner or later that bitter truth just had to sink home. In David Cunliffe’s case, sooner would have been better, but he got there in the end.
And now, of course, we are witnessing the contest to find his successor. Andrew Little, Nanaia Mahuta, David Parker and Grant Robertson are all vying for Labour’s top job while the rest of New Zealand looks on with a mixture of fascination and disbelief. Most cannot fathom why Labour’s caucus and the wider party organisation have opted to set about finding a new leader before determining what needs to be done to get Labour match-fit by 2017.
See above re: bizarre behaviour. By resigning the leadership when he did, Mr Cunliffe set in motion a relentless constitutional process that neither Labour’s MPs nor its New Zealand Councillors can countermand. A more rational order of events might have been assured if, on election night, Mr Cunliffe had announced his intention to stand down as leader in six months’ time – thereby permitting a thorough post-mortem of the debacle. But, he didn’t. So, they ain’t.
In the absence of any conspicuous rationality, a host of political journalists, columnists, PR specialists, bloggers and academics have hastened to proffer their well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) advice as to how the party might be resurrected. Most of this may be boiled down to: Labour lurched too far to the left. Recovery lies in the centre-ground.
Labour’s 2014 manifesto was considerably less left-wing than the manifesto it took to the country in 2011. David Cunliffe may have campaigned for the Labour leadership in fiery left-wing poetry, but he campaigned to become New Zealand’s prime-minister in the dullest, the most uninspiring and, ultimately, the most unconvincing prose.
The party’s election strategy, under both David Cunliffe and his predecessors, David Shearer and Phil Goff, had been to woo “soft” National Party voters back into Labour’s orbit. There was nothing remotely left-wing about raising the age of eligibility for superannuation. In fact, it turned Labour supporters off – in droves. The same applies to Labour’s Capital Gains Tax:  a measure which even the OECD has advised New Zealand to introduce!
Labour didn’t lose the election because it was too left-wing; it lost because in an election dominated by extra-parliamentary sideshows (Dirty Politics and The Moment of Truth) it failed to get cut-through.
How does one get cut-through? Well, for a start, you hire the very best pollsters and focus-group analysts you can afford; you tell them exactly what you’re trying to do; and then you listen to them when they tell you how to do it. That’s what National and its leader, John Key, does – and it works.
There is absolutely no point in acquiring accurate intelligence about the electorate’s mood; its likes and dislikes; its hopes and fears; if you then do nothing constructive with it. A political party should never allow its policies to be dictated by polls and focus groups, but when it comes to telling a party how to present or, more importantly, how not to present its policies, they become tools of extraordinary utility. If talking about a specific policy turns voters off, then don’t talk about it!
Whoever becomes Labour’s leader needs to understand, precisely, what New Zealanders do NOT want to hear, and stop saying it to them – loudly.
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, 24 October 2014.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

More Latté Than Lager: Reflections on Grant Robertson's Campaign Launch

The People's Flag Is ... Mint Green? Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern (whom Twitter immediately dubbed Gracinda) pose in Mint Green for one of the glossy women's magazines. In a non-revolutionary era, superficial is about as deep as it gets.
BIKERS? SERIOUSLY! Had Grant Robertson’s campaign launch been organised by Phil Goff? Was this a pitch for the votes of what few Waitakere Men remain in the Labour Party? Was I even at the right place?
Well, yes, I was. And rather than doubling as crude political props, those bikers were simply middle-aged motorcycle enthusiasts enjoying a smoke in the King’s Arms car-park. So, no, the Robertson launch was not even remotely interested in winning the support of Labour’s Waitakere Men. Quite the reverse!
The young men and women bustling self-importantly about in their New Generation To Win T-shirts looked like they’d be more comfortable sitting in a Courtenay Place or Ponsonby Road café than on a tradie’s West Auckland deck. The King’s Arms, itself, (car-park bikers notwithstanding) was chosen by Robertson for its close associations with the New Zealand music scene – no doubt in hopes that the popular late-night venue’s cultural street-cred would rub off on the candidate.
Labour’s new process for electing the party leader cannot help being inward looking, but even allowing for the fact that it’s all about the membership talking to itself, there was something about the Robertson campaign launch that reminded me of the ultra-cool university student parties of my youth. The whole insider/outsider shtick was unmistakeable. It made me wonder if an old-fashioned bogun’s mullet would have been as well-received among these bustling Grantistas as their diminutive comrade’s close-cropped purple hair.
In spite of the fact that the King’s Arms serves some very fine beers, I have to say that the whole event struck me as being much more latté than lager. Certainly, the speeches delivered by both Robertson and his “running-mate”, Jacinda Ardern, appeared to be comprised almost entirely of froth. About the only mentally taxing portion of Robertson’s brief address was the bit in which he promised to make Labour the party of “the worker, the small businessman and the entrepreneur”. Presumably all three of those groups will be found in that section of the socialist paradise where the lions lie down with the lambs?
But perish all such unworthy thoughts! On One News at six o’clock it was impossible not to observe what a lovely couple Grant and Jacinda made. And not only on the telly. Who could possibly prefer Revolutionary Red after seeing Grant and Jacinda – or, as Twitter immediately dubbed them, Gracinda – smiling sweetly for the glossy women’s magazine’s photographer in matching outfits of Mint Green?
Fluff and froth may be my abiding memories of the Robertson launch, but upon sterner analysis it is easy to discern in its overall design the guiding influence of an astute political brain. Pitching for the votes of the generation with the longest futures in the Labour Party (as opposed to the longest pasts) is very far from being a silly idea. Equally shrewd is Robertson’s understanding that the political choices of young New Zealanders in 2014 are more akin to what sort of music they like, what sort of clothes they wear and what sort of places they go to have fun, than they are about which group of grim ideologues they would have aligned themselves with back in the 1980s.
The essential truth that Robertson and his key advisors (take a bow SIR Michael Cullen) have grasped is that the politics of 2014 are the politics not only of a post-revolutionary, but a non-revolutionary era. In such times superficial is about as deep as it gets.
A friend of mine recently compared Grant Robertson to Joseph Stalin. There is, he insisted, the same easy familiarity with the party apparatus; the same willingness to wield it ruthlessly in his pursuit of power. According to this same friend, David Cunliffe was Labour’s Leon Trotsky. Brilliant, but utterly blind to the importance of building (and keeping strong) the networks so essential to political success.
Too much? Probably. But the comparison got me thinking.
If Labour is to survive this latest, catastrophic, electoral defeat then it’s going to need a Stalin figure. Someone capable of restoring party unity – even at the cost of purging Labour of all dissent. Because, if you think about it, unity is exactly what Helen Clark was able to offer the party, and why she was able to remain its leader for an unprecedented 15 years. (And let’s not forget whose protégé Robertson once was and from whom he learned most of what he knows about Labour.)
Of course life was made a great deal easier for Clark by the decision of the Labour Left to split from the party in 1989 and form NewLabour, and by the departure of the Labour Right for Act and the United Party five years later. The so-called “centrists” who opted to remain with the mother-ship were thus spared the “wet work” of an involuntary and very large purge of party comrades.
Which is not to say that the “rectification” of Labour under Clark was entirely bloodless. In assigning candidates to the seats Labour needed to win back after Jim Bolger’s landslide victory in 1990, Clark’s supporters in the party apparatus were careful to ensure that as few as possible were supporters of Mike Moore – the man Clark had manoeuvred into the party leadership just weeks before the 1990 General Election, and who she very badly needed to lose in 1993. (Indeed, the unpleasantness currently on display within Labour’s parliamentary ranks bears a striking similarity to the viciousness which accompanied Clark’s deposition of Moore in the aftermath of the 1993 general election.)
With Moore’s fall, and the relegation of his faction to powerless purgatory, Clark and her supporters in both the caucus and the wider party organisation were free to re-orient the Labour Party towards the radically revisionist ideas of the British sociologist, Anthony Giddens. Steve Maharey (himself a sociologist and for a long time Clark’s assumed successor) was a strong supporter of Giddens’s new take on the Labour project – which boiled down to the conclusion that, thanks to the historical success of Labour’s original mission, we are all capitalists now.
Ideological gleichschaltung (co-ordination, making the same, bringing into line) will also be an urgent priority for whoever wins Labour’s latest leadership contest. Without a recognisable – and recognised – party line, the endless troubles which have bequeathed Labour five different leaders in the space of six years will only continue. And in this regard, at least, my friend’s comparison of Robertson to Stalin may not be so outrageous.
Speaking last Sunday (19/10/14) on TVNZ’s current affairs show Q+A, Robertson made it very clear that, as leader, his line would be the party’s line:
ROBERTSON: If people step outside of that, there have to be consequences.
Q+A: Does that mean they have to leave the Labour Party?
ROBERTSON: It may well do – for some.
Dissenters in the Labour Party – piss off. Grant has everything to lose – and a new generation to win.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Wednesday, 22 October 2014.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Gough Whitlam: 1916 - 2014

A Mighty Totara has Fallen: Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam paying his respects to the late NZ PM, Rt. Hon. Norman Kirk, during his Lying-in-State at Parliament Buildings, Wellington. Wednesday, 4th September, 1974. (Photo by John Miller.)
A BIG MAN IN EVERY SENSE, Gough Whitlam tested the boundaries of social-democracy under capitalism. Though he wielded power for just three years (1972-1975) it seemed longer because he had made Australia, and the world, feel larger. Wherever the power of principled advocacy and progressive endeavour is honoured, Gough Whitlam will be remembered.

Men and Women of Australia! The decision we will make for our country on 2 December is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and the demands and opportunities of the future. There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time.

Gough Whitlam - 13 November 1972

Well might we say 'God save the Queen', because nothing will save the Governor General!

Gough Whitlam - 11 November 1975

Australian Labor Party election advertisement 1972
Video courtesy of YouTube
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Manufacturing Terrorism

Domestic Terror: Police constables and detectives outside the Wellington Trades Hall, 27 March 1984. After 33 years of vilification directed at trade unionists, at least one of their enemies finally made the leap from words to deeds, and an innocent caretaker, Ernie Abbott, lost his life.

“IF ANYONE BELIEVES there is absolutely no risk of a form of domestic terrorism here then they're actually deluded.” So says John Key, our Prime Minister, and of course he’s right. New Zealand has already been the victim of at least one fatal domestic terrorist bombing. The carefully planned and professionally executed attack resulted in the death of an elderly Wellingtonian. Sadly, the perpetrator (or perpetrators) of this terrorist outrage have yet to be brought to justice.
The Wellington Trades Hall Bombing of 27 March 1984 had only one victim, the building’s caretaker, Ernie Abbott. He was killed by three sticks of gelignite concealed in a suitcase and triggered by a movement-sensitive mercury switch. It is generally conceded in trade union circles that the bomb’s intended target was not the unfortunate caretaker but the impending meeting of the Wellington Trades Council Executive. Ernie Abbott (as is so often the case with terrorist attacks) was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What differentiates the Wellington Trades Hall Bombing from more recent acts of terrorism around the world is that the bomber’s motives were ideological – not religious.
A deep hatred (and that is not too strong a word) for organised labour lies at the very core of the National Party’s ideology. Unions are despised and feared by National Party members because their unabashed collectivism challenges directly the individualist ideal so vital to the conservative’s self-image. It took the first National Government just fourteen months to engineer a run-of-the-mill dispute between the Waterside Workers’ Union and the ship-owners into a brutal and divisive industrial confrontation lasting five months, during which nearly all of the accepted notions of democracy and civil liberty were cast aside.
And if you think such animosity is a thing of the past, then just look at the recently re-elected National Government’s legislative agenda. At the very top you will find the long-delayed “reforms” of the Employment Relations Act. By the time Michael Woodhouse finishes the job begun by his predecessor, Simon Bridges, the already fragile capacity of trade unions to service their members will be reduced still further.
It is precisely within such officially-sanctioned (and all-too-often officially created) climates of fear, loathing, denigration and discrimination that domestic terrorism grows and acquires strength. In the 33 years that separated the 1951 Waterfront Dispute from the Wellington Trades Hall Bombing, at least one right-wing extremist was impelled beyond the political conviction that trade unions had no right to exist, to the homicidal belief that trade unionists – or, at least, their “misleaders” – had no right to live.

Cold Case: In spite of intensive enquiries, the identity of the Wellington Trades Hall Bombers has never been discovered. The file remains open.
Which is why the best defence against domestic terrorism is always political and religious tolerance and officially reiterated respect for the rights and liberties of the citizen. The very worst thing that any government can do to restrict the growth of terrorism is to either openly declare, or slyly imply, to a majority of the population that it is under threat from a dangerous and alien minority: the proverbial “enemy within”.
The designation of any minority population – the New Zealand Muslim community, for example – as a potential “breeding ground” for terrorists, immediately sets up a pernicious and potentially deadly dynamic.
Members of the majority culture may feel encouraged to take “action” against the potential “terrorists”. This has already happened in Australia where, following the massive police “anti-terrorist” raids of Muslim addresses in New South Wales and Queensland, Muslim women and girls have been verbally abused and physically attacked for wearing traditional attire.
In response to such persecution, the citizens living in these targeted communities may feel obligated to defend themselves against the majority culture. In such fraught circumstances, extremists of all kinds – local and foreign – will inevitably receive a more sympathetic hearing.
Finally, if Government’s response to the threat of terrorism is to increase dramatically the surveillance and interrogative powers of the State, then the officials so empowered, protected from both media scrutiny and judicial sanction, may themselves begin to behave in ways indistinguishable from the terrorists they are supposed to be protecting it from.
Holding people in solitary confinement for days or weeks without access to family or friends. Subjecting detainees to traumatic forms of interrogation. Is this not, itself, a form of terrorism?

State-Sponsored Terrorism: On 10 July 1985 French agents blew a hole in The Rainbow Warrior, killing Greenpeace's Portuguese photographer, Fernando Pereira.
Let’s not forget, New Zealand’s other fatal bombing, of the Rainbow Warrior, was perpetrated by state terrorists.
This essay was originally published by The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 October 2014.

Friday, 17 October 2014

What A Real Labour Party Member Sounds Like.


HARRY SMITH, 92 years old, describes the world in which he was raised. A world of poverty in which the ravages of ill health simply could not be resisted by ordinary working-class families. Harry lost his sister to tuberculosis and heard his neighbour succumb, with agonised cries, to cancer. "My life", he told the British Labour Party Conference, "is your history, and we should keep it that way."

In 1945, at the age of 22, Harry cast his first vote for Labour to secure the National Health Service which formed the centrepiece of the Party's manifesto. Seventy-one years later, he implores the members of the contemporary Labour Party to hold fast to the crowning achievement of their predecessors.

To Britain's present Prime Minister Harry Smith had only this to say: "Mr Cameron keep your mitts off my NHS!"

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

What A Genuinely Progressive Leader Sounds Like

I FOUND THIS extraordinary recording while searching for something quite unrelated on Google. It contains excerpts from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's speech to Democratic Party supporters gathered in their thousands at New York's Madison Square Garden during the presidential election campaign of 1936.

Under the rubric of Roosevelt's "New Deal", the United States was passing through what was undoubtedly the most radical period of economic and social reform in its history. After four years in the White House, Roosevelt, as is plain from this recording, was at the peak of his powers as a reforming (as opposed to his later role as America's wartime) president.

Of most interest - at least to me - is the way Roosevelt confronts head-on his enemies in the ruling-class. "They are unanimous in their hatred for me," he bellows defiantly, "and I welcome their hatred!" It is difficult to imagine any American (or New Zealand!) politician uttering such a statement in the Twenty-First Century. Nor was Roosevelt willing to step back one inch from his programme of reform: "Of course we will continue ...", he repeatedly assures his followers ("Yes we can!"?) and then proceeds to reiterate every radical plank in the Democratic Party's platform.

Yes, times have changed. And, yes, we might approach social and economic crises on the scale of those of the early 1930s differently in 2014. But the need for, and the inspirational effect of raw political courage and an unswerving commitment to the needs of ordinary people: that does not change.

Video courtesy of YouTube.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Discordant Chimes Of Freedom: Why Labour Has Yet To Be Forgiven.

Whose Tune? The state of New Zealand politics in 2014 is a reflection of the decades-long discordant clash of the two great manifestations of humanity's will to be free: freedom from and freedom to. (The painting, Divine Light Series No. 45: The Suspended Broken Square, is by the Chinese artist, Zhang Yu.)
WHY DOES THE ELECTORATE routinely punish Labour and the Greens for their alleged “political correctness” but not National? It just doesn’t seem fair.
Consider, for example, the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 – the so-called “anti-smacking legislation” – which was passed by the House of Representatives with broad bi-partisan support (113 votes to 7) on 16 May 2007.
John Key had actually come to Helen Clark’s parliamentary rescue over this progressive (but highly controversial) measure by throwing most of National’s votes behind it. He’d even stood alongside the Prime Minister when the deal ensuring Sue Bradford’s private members bill would be passed by a substantial majority was announced.
And yet, in spite of his overt support for Bradford’s bill, neither Key nor his National Party suffered any significant electoral damage in the 2008 election.
The same could NOT be said of Clark and Labour. In fact, their support for the anti-smacking legislation is generally regarded as one of the more important factors contributing to the Labour-led Government’s loss.
Clearly Labour’s support for measures like the anti-smacking bill is viewed in a way that is very different from the way most voters view National’s politically correct gestures. In the end, I believe that it boils down to motive. It’s not so much what a political party supports as why.
When Labour was unambiguously the party of the working-class, the question of political motivation was reasonably clear. Labour backed the workers’ trade unions and was dutifully funded by them in return. Labour similarly strove, whenever it was given the chance, to improve the Welfare State it had created in the 1930s and 40s. It built state houses for working families and used the large state-owned enterprises – NZ Railways, the Post Office, and the Ministry of Works – to soak up unskilled labour which would otherwise be unemployed. Labour was also the party most closely associated with nation-building – not simply in the form of its massive public works projects, but also in the way of fostering and funding a distinct New Zealand identity and culture. The State Literary Fund and the NZ Symphony Orchestra were Labour Party creations.
In the 1950s and 60s Labour’s ranks were swelled by young, idealistic men who had come back from the Second World War determined to make all the suffering and destruction mean something. Politicians like Martyn Finlay, Phil Amos and Bob Tizard wanted to soften a society that could still be very harsh and unforgiving. To the radical economic reforms of the pre-war period they sought to add a strong measure of liberal social reform.
This younger generations’ liberal ideas were not universally welcomed in Labour’s ranks, where the influence of the Roman Catholic and Methodist churches remained very strong. On matters pertaining to Christian forgiveness and the sanctity of human life, such as Capital Punishment, the liberals and the more traditional elements of the party marched together. On matters pertaining to human sexuality and the role of women in society, however, there was considerably less agreement.
In the 1970s and 80s Labour’s ranks were swelled by yet another cohort of young idealists. Their formative political memories were not of economic depression and world war but of uninterrupted prosperity, national liberation movements, Cold War paranoia, mutual and assured nuclear destruction and the obscenity that was Vietnam.
The economic equality Labour had fought so hard to secure was experienced by the numerically vast Baby Boom generation as a near-obsessional concern with economic security. In political terms this quest for security took on a decidedly authoritarian cast. The so-called “RSA Generation” expected and exacted strict conformity to their notion of the good society.
The Baby Boomers were having none of it. Many of them – especially the many thousands swelling the university rolls – emphatically rejected their parents’ social and political docility. What they wanted was freedom. Not the freedom their parents had sought: freedom from. The freedom they were seeking was much more radical. It was the kind of freedom which had, throughout the course of human history, been reserved almost exclusively for the rich and the powerful: freedom to.
But freedom from was Labour’s defining rallying cry. Freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from ignorance and disease: these were the freedoms Labour offered. Freedom to was National’s rallying cry.
No one understood this better than Norman Kirk. In his address to the 1974 annual conference of Labour Party, made just four months before his death, he spelt out the difference between the two types of freedom:
Margaret Hayward, Big Norm’s private secretary, summarised his remarks in her Diary of the Kirk Years:

The Prophet: Norman Kirk at the Labour Party's 1974 annual conference.
“And the permissive society – it was just another way of saying ‘I can do what I like’. That would include not just the right to use marijuana but the right to exploit, to speculate, to put monetary gain above social duty.
“Some customs and laws might well become irrelevant through the passage of time, but the permissive society, carried to its logical end, meant that there was no law. ‘And if there is no law, the freedom of the permissive society is a trap and a prison for the weak in society.’ ”
Labour’s baby-boomers didn’t listen. Hadn’t the party already solved all the problems associated with freedom from? Wasn’t the country fully-employed, comfortably housed, kept healthy, and offered educational opportunities all the way to varsity at the State’s expense? Yes (in 1974) it was. So, Labour needed to shift its gaze from yesterday’s problems – the problems of scarcity – and focus, instead, on the problems of today and tomorrow – the problems of abundance. What the rising generation of voters wanted was the freedom to become something altogether different; something new; something better!
Except that material deprivation wasn’t the only problem that needed the Left’s attention.  For female, Maori and homosexual New Zealanders the problem was how to win their freedom from a daunting nexus of legal and social discrimination. Or, to turn the problem around: how to win the freedom to be themselves. The debate had been growing in both volume and intensity since the late-1960s. By the early 1980s, freedom from and freedom to had begun to merge.
And then, in 1981, all this progressive philosophical wrangling was suddenly confronted by an altogether unexpected New Zealand – one with very different ideas on the meaning of freedom. Presented with the Left’s demand that New Zealand do everything it could to secure Black South Africa’s freedom from racial oppression, this other New Zealand claimed the freedom to go about its lawful business without let or hindrance. Against the Left’s freedom to protest against injustice, the Right asserted the Rugby fans’ freedom to watch a sporting fixture in peace – free from moral and physical intimidation.
Faced with the inconvenient truth that freedom meant different things to different people, the Left predictably (and as events in South Africa, at least, would later prove, justifiably) determined that their definitions were superior.
That a huge number of working-class people had rejected the Left’s account of freedom did not give the latter pause. In spite of everything Labour had done for them, these workers had failed dismally the ethical test History had set for them. It was a judgement which, as the global rejection of freedom from in favour of freedom to gathered pace, was about to cost working people dearly.
In the Fourth Labour Government the Baby Boomer Left’s sense of moral superiority and its conviction that the time was ripe to escape the constricting hug of freedom from and embrace the exhilarating possibilities of freedom to came together in Roger Douglas’s fatal cocktail of ruthless and largely unmandated economic and social “reform”. Kirk’s prophecy of ten years earlier, that “the permissive society” – freedom to – “would include not just the right to use marijuana but the right to exploit, to speculate, to put monetary gain above social duty” was borne out – with a vengeance!
It was something that just about everybody actively engaged in the 1981 Springbok Tour protests remembers: the way pro- and anti-tour people could identify one another, often at considerable distances, with almost 100 percent accuracy. There was something about the way they dressed, the cut of their hair, their gait, the way they took in (or ignored) the world around them, that positively screamed-out their position on the Tour. It was a very useful survival skill for the outnumbered anti-tour protesters, but it no doubt proved useful to the pro-tour people as well.
I wonder, now, 33 years later, whether something similar still lingers in the New Zealand community. Whether the same subtle signals are still being broadcast and received by the antagonistic groupings within our divided society. Whether people look at Labour’s and National’s representatives and make exactly the same instant judgements that we made all those years ago. Is he or she one of us – or them?

Instantly Recognisable: Supporters and opponents of the 1981 Springbok Tour could spot each other from 100 metres.
I wonder, too, 30 years after the election of the Fourth Labour Government, how many Labour MPs realise how many New Zealanders are, once again, in the political marketplace for freedom from?
National will always get a pass from working people for promoting freedom to – it’s what they do and, frankly, it’s a freedom that a great many working people themselves hunger for. Labour, however, will always be judged more rigorously. It cannot get away with saying “I can do what I like.” To be Labour is to be forever associated with what Norman Kirk called our “social duty”.
In the bitter words that some unknown but desperate person spray-painted on the wall of the Christchurch Trades Hall in the late-1980s for the unions, the Labour Party and the Left in general to read:
“You were supposed to help.”
This essay was originally published by The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 15 October 2014.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Between The Sea And The Stars


THIS HAUNTING SONG Gortoz A Ran (I Am Waiting) written and sung here by the incomparable Denez Prigent and Lisa Gerrard, was chosen as the theme song for Ridley Scott’s 2001 movie Black Hawk Down.
As the West contemplates yet another foray into the broken world of Middle Eastern conflict, it is timely, surely, to contemplate the bitter lessons of Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The song’s lyrics, translated from the original Breton, are printed below.
I was waiting, waiting for a long time
In the dark shadow of grey towers
In the dark shadow of grey towers
In the dark shadow of rain towers
You will see me waiting forever
You will see me waiting forever
One day it will come back
Over the lands, over the seas
The blue wind will return
And take back with it my wounded heart
I will be pulled away by its breath
Far away in the stream, wherever it wishes
Wherever it wishes, far away from this world
Between the sea and the stars

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

If Kobane Falls?

Under Fire: The fate of the Syrian border-town of Kobane has assumed an international significance. Its capture by the forces of the Islamic State would be a serious blow to the West's collective resolve to degrade and ultimately destroy this new and extremely dangerous radical Islamist project.
IF KOBANE FALLS – or should that be when Kobane falls – a number of terrible things will happen. Any Kurdish soldiers found alive in the Syrian border town will be killed. For propaganda purposes some will be beheaded, their deaths recorded, and the video clips uploaded to the Internet. Young Shi’ite women will be rounded up and sent deeper into the Islamic State (IS) where many will find themselves being offered to IS soldiers as “brides”. Any professional women (doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers) found in Kobane will face instant execution by the Islamic State pour encourager les autres. All facilities for the secular education of women will be closed.
If Kobane falls – or should that be when Kobane falls – the strategic and geographical coherence of the Islamic State will be greatly enhanced and their victorious forces re-deployed to apply what is likely to prove decisive additional psychological and military pressure on Iraqi forces battling the Islamic State’s advance into Anbar province.
If Kobane falls – or should that be when Kobane falls – the resolve of those Western nations pledged to degrade and destroy its aggressive military potential will be further weakened. Turkey, a NATO ally of the US and UK forces already engaged in Iraq and Syria, will face furious international condemnation for refusing to deploy the overwhelming strength of its armed forces in defence of Kobane’s Kurdish defenders.
If Kobane falls – or should that be when Kobane falls – many people in the West will observe that if the Syrian people’s nearest neighbour is prepared to sit on its hands and watch while thousands of soldiers and civilians are slaughtered or sent into sexual slavery, then why should nations thousands of kilometres from the fighting be expected to expend blood and treasure on their rescue?
If Kobane falls – or should that be when Kobane falls – New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, and his Cabinet will be faced with some extremely difficult decisions. They must weigh very carefully the costs and benefits of committing elements of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) to the international coalition currently battling the Islamic State. If they decide upon a military commitment (most probably in the form of personnel belonging to the NZDF’s elite Special Air Service) then how long should it be for, and under what circumstances might it be curtailed? Should New Zealand remain engaged if the seemingly unstoppable advance of the Islamic State prompts the armies of Turkey and Iran to intervene? With the boundaries of the entire Middle East being re-drawn, what business would New Zealand soldiers’ boots have on any part of its disputed ground?
If Kobane falls – or should that be when Kobane falls – what are young Sunni Muslim men and women living in New Zealand and other Western countries likely to make of yet another Islamic State victory? Will they (as we hope) recoil in horror at the brutal battlefield behaviour of their co-religionists? Or will at least some of them attempt the ethical calculus required to determine whether the beheading of a Western aid worker is more or less reprehensible than the “collateral damage” inflicted by an American Predator drone unleashing its Hellfire missiles on a Yemeni or Waziri village? And will those same young Muslims not wonder why Saudi Arabia, in which 57 people have been beheaded in the last year alone, has not merited the same expressions of international outrage as the Islamic State?
If Kobane falls – or should that be when Kobane falls – wouldn’t it be a good time to ponder the reasonably obvious fact that in the eyes of many young Sunni Muslims the Islamic State is not the dwelling place of monsters, but the one location in the Muslim world where corruption is ruthlessly rooted-out; where the administration of the law is given over to ordinary people pledged to uphold and enforce the traditions of their faith; where the State is not the enemy of ordinary people but their friend, extending to them not the iron fist of tyranny but the solicitous hand recommended by the Prophet; and where, to be a woman is not to be paraded as a lump of sexual meat, but as a precious vessel to be cherished and protected. Isn’t it time we in the West asked ourselves: just how likely is it that young Muslim men and women are leaving their families and their friends, travelling thousands of miles and hazarding their freedom, their lives, their very souls – for monsters? Internationally acclaimed expert on the funding of terrorism, Loretta Napoleoni, has already asked herself this question. Her conclusion: “It’s not.”
The question New Zealanders should now be asking themselves is whether the fight against the Islamic State is their fight? Ethically, militarily, diplomatically and politically – what  should we do if Kobane falls?
Or should that be when Kobane falls?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 October 2014.

Friday, 10 October 2014

On The Edge Of Darkness?


I AM INDEBTED to Gordon Campbell for drawing my attention to this excellent video of Eric Clapton performing live his haunting theme to the classic 1985 BBC political thriller, Edge of Darkness. Like Gordon, I cannot help regarding it as eerily appropriate to the times.

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Daggers In The Dark: Why John Key Should Remain Minister-in-Charge Of The SIS and GCSB.

John Key's New Spymaster? Chris Finlayson has proved to be a politician of icy rectitude: an austere and unbending executor of his official responsibilities as Attorney-General. All well and good, it is an office well-suited to austerity. But John Key should think again before entrusting a person so confident in the unassailability of his own judgements with the awesome weaponry of the secret state.
JOHN KEY’S DECISION to hand off day-to-day responsibility for the national security apparatus to Chris Finlayson is deeply troubling. The tradition of making the Prime Minister the Minister-in-Charge of the NZ Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and, more latterly, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), reflected the public’s expectation that foreign and domestic intelligence gathering must never be permitted to overstep the democratic boundaries. As the nation’s most powerful elected official, the Prime Minister is supposed to keep the spooks in line.
But now the Attorney-General – the country’s most important legal officer – is being asked by the Prime Minister to double as New Zealand’s Spymaster. Ominously, the responsibility for administering the law and supervising New Zealand’s national security apparatus is to be vested in a single individual. Inevitably, the biblical question arises: can Mr Finlayson serve two masters?
Historically, those charged with preserving the safety of the State have demonstrated little patience for formal legal protocols. In the words of the Roman jurist, Cicero: salus populi suprema lex – the safety of the people shall be the highest law. And when that safety is perceived to be under imminent threat, the first impulse of those in possession of the State’s defensive weaponry has almost always been to strike first and ask the judges later.
And if the Spymaster’s swift action results in the threat to the State being removed, then why should the courts be troubled with it at all? A spymaster is, of course, expected to declare absolute fealty to the Rule of Law and express nothing but horror at the thought of the Crown’s servants taking the law into their own hands. All quite right and proper. And yet, the State will have its reasons, as compelling as they are unacknowledged. What spymasters profess to believe, and what they actually do, have long been very distant cousins.
It is also worth bearing in mind just how difficult it is for those with the power to execute their judgements secretly to then have those same judgements subjected to wider  (even public!) scrutiny. Surely the expectation of any leader who sees fit to devolve such extensive authority upon a subordinate is that his servant will use that power to both protect and advance their master’s cause? And, surely, one of the best ways to protect one’s master is to ensure that he or she retains what the American’s call “plausible deniability”. To work from the assumption that there are some decisions best made and executed without the leader’s knowledge – or approval?
And therein lies the greatest threat to the liberties of the citizen. That an individual, having been given immense power within the State begins to use that power in ways that are accountable to no one – save the conscience of he or she who wields it. From Elizabeth I’s Walsingham to Joseph Stalin’s Beria to the FBI’s almost wholly unaccountable J. Edgar Hoover, spymasters have, practically without exception, regarded themselves as the system’s secret dagger: a weapon to be driven home in dark places, far from prying eyes, but always in defence of its most profound values. Often unacknowledged and frequently unthanked (at least in public) the Spymaster seeks no greater reward than the knowledge that he or she has kept the Crown/the Revolution/the Constitution safe from its enemies.

Sir Francis Walsingham: Queen Elizabeth I's spymaster.
And it is precisely for this reason that, hitherto, our prime ministers, by making themselves, alone, accountable for the exercise of the State’s secret power, have protected us from the rise of such individuals. Theoretically, it is an arrangement that denies our leaders all hope of “plausible deniability”. They know what has been done because they were the ones who gave the orders to do it. If the State’s secret dagger must be wielded, then better the blood be upon our leaders’ hands. That way, only the public, in full democratic array, has the power to absolve them.
Chris Finlayson has proved to be a politician of icy rectitude: an austere and unbending executor of his official responsibilities as Attorney-General. All well and good, it is an office well-suited to austerity. But John Key should think again before entrusting a person so confident in the unassailability of his own judgements with the awesome weaponry of the secret state. Let the Spymaster’s dagger remain in the Prime Minister’s hands – where we can all see it.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 9 October 2014.