Friday, 31 January 2014

Hoping For A Flame

What Can I Say? David Cunliffe, like all modern politicians, is required to address and impress multiple audiences simultaneously. It makes for conventional speech-making and overly cautious policy. Cunliffe's 'State of the Nation' address of 27 January is a case in point. Transformative social democratic campaigns are made of stronger stuff.

IT STARTED WELL. The Kelston Girl’s College hall was full-to-bursting – an achievement in itself on a sunny public holiday in Auckland. Political meetings are no longer the draw cards they used to be, back in the days when thousands would turn out to hear a party leader speak, so I imagine Labour was delighted with the 700-800 people who had ventured forth to hear David Cunliffe’s “State of the Nation” speech.
 
It can’t be easy, pulling one of these things together. The modern political speechwriter is tasked with addressing (but not upsetting) a multitude of audiences simultaneously. Ranged along the right-hand side of the hall were the conduits to these “demographics”. Running my eye down the media bench, I counted off a slew of the Parliamentary Press Gallery’s finest. In the centre of the hall the television networks’ cameras were lined-up in front of the speaker’s podium like a firing squad.
 
How much easier it must have been when the only people you had to please were those in the room. In the years before live broadcasts and journalistic “balance”, when editors instructed their reporters under no circumstances to report anything the Labour Party said or did. Back then politicians could speak freely to the party faithful in the lingua franca of shared convictions and common dreams.
 
Cunliffe did a little of that: rationing his manse-bred emotion through his cat-who-got-the-cream grin; careful not to give his enemies the ammunition needed to shoot him; appealing to his audience’s dwindling sense of what Labour stands for by appending a mischievous “if you know what I mean” to his deliberately unfinished policy promises.
 
I’m not sure the audience understood their hero’s emotional reticence or much appreciated the modern political leader’s need to engage in communicative multi-tasking. There were moments when their need to hear their own anger and frustration thrown back at them raw and red was palpable. But they were out of luck. For better or worse, David Cunliffe doesn’t do demagogue.
 
Not yet anyway.
 
For the moment he’s listening to his advisers and seeking the opinions of his colleagues. They were all in the hall on Monday, beaming up at him from their front row seats in a gut-churning display of amity and unity. As if the men and women on the media bench had forgotten the secret briefings, the strategic leaks. As if the party rank-and-file had forgiven the bitterness and bile, the cruel rumour-mongering, the ruthless character assassination.
 
Actors assembled, the play continued.
 
The “Best Start” policy of state-rewarded fecundity is the work of many months of flailing and threshing in Labour’s policy mill. A little grist from years of selfless advocacy by Labour’s Policy Council, and a lot of chaff from the uneasy trio of Annette King, Sue Moroney and Jacinda Ardern.
 
I listened and sighed. Not because helping the new-born baby’s parents with a weekly payment of $60 is a bad thing to do, but because there was a time when supplying the wherewithal for the labour force’s reproduction was the employers’ responsibility – not the state’s. Will Labour never tire of subsidising the bosses’ parsimony with money taken from the pocket of one worker and slipped into the hand of another?
 
And why, oh why, this reluctance to embrace universality? If it makes sense to woo those with a combined household income of $150,000, then why not seek the affections of those earning $175,000 – or $200,000? There is something noble in saying: “This is yours because you are a citizen: a co-participant in this thing we call New Zealand.” It should be beneath a socialist’s dignity to say “You – but not them!”
 
The place for drawing up lists and making tables is the Inland Revenue Department. The best “targeting” device ever constructed is called a Progressive Taxation System.
 
It started well, but David Cunliffe’s “State of the Nation” did not progress very far. He damped his tinder down and planted seeds.
 
I was hoping for a flame.
 
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, 31 January 2014.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

No Speeches On The State Of The Capitalist System

State of the System: What is it about Capitalism that allows so much to be denied to so many by so few? None of our political leaders "State of the Nation" speeches had anything to say about an economic system which is steadily reducing the opportunities for human participation in the processes of wealth creation.
 
ALL THREE LEADERS of the leading political parties have now delivered their “State of the Nation” addresses. To what degree the voters have been surprised, moved or inspired by their efforts will be registered in forthcoming opinion polls. If I had only one word to describe my own reaction to these political speeches it would be – underwhelmed.
 
None of our political leaders has yet delivered an adequate response to the extraordinary statistic released by Oxfam on the eve of the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland. According to the UK based aid organisation, the world’s 85 richest individuals control a sum of wealth equal to that of the poorest half of the world’s human population – 3.5 billion people.
 
Now, I do not propose to argue the rights and wrongs of this extraordinary disparity. The gulf between the world’s wealthiest and poorest has always been vast, and who is to say that it is greater today than in 1914, 1814, or 1514 for that matter? A more useful question is what is it about our current economic system that makes it possible for so much to have been amassed from so many by so few?
 
To answer: ‘because that’s just the way the system works’ is clearly inadequate. Economic systems do not simply descend from the sky like rain or sunshine; they are human creations constructed for human purposes.
 
The economy of ancient Sparta, for example, was designed to sustain an army of proud and indomitable fighting men. Aware that money bred indolence and indulgence, Sparta’s rulers went out of their way to make getting rich more of a curse than a blessing.
 
According to the classical historians, Sparta’s official currency consisted of unwieldy iron bars several feet long. The gold, silver and bronze coins circulating among the other Greek city states were forbidden. In their place Spartans operated a form of voucher system – using leather tokens to acquire the basic necessities of life.
 
Not surprisingly, Sparta’s cumbersome currency isolated it from the thriving economies of its neighbours. Sparta’s rulers didn’t care: facilitating personal wealth was not their primary concern. Economically, Sparta relied upon the surpluses it extracted firstly from the Helots (farmers and herdsmen descended from the subject peoples of Sparta’s conquests) and secondly from the Periokoi – a slightly more privileged caste of merchants tasked with obtaining the commodities Sparta lacked.
 
Sparta was not a just, equitable or even a particularly comfortable society, but it was extraordinarily successful at what it set itself to do – which was to fight and win against all comers. Its peculiar economic arrangements were the product of its national objectives. Successes won with gold came a poor second to victories won by iron.
 
If the mind-boggling amount of wealth accumulated by Oxfam’s “85 individuals” is any guide, then contemporary capitalism is also extraordinarily successful at what it has set itself to do: make more and more money for fewer and fewer people.
 
According to a 1983 study undertaken by the German economist, F. Vester, the investment of a billion Deutschemarks in the years 1955-60 produced 1 million jobs. The same amount invested between 1960-65 generated only 400,000 jobs. Between 1965-70, far from generating employment, a billion Deutschemark investment would have eliminated 100,000 jobs. Half-a-million jobs would have been lost if the capital sum was invested between 1970 and 1975.
 
In other words, the ineluctable trend in modern capitalism is towards job-free growth. Or, as the American economist, Allen Sinai, told the New York Times in 2010: “American business is about maximizing shareholder value. You basically don’t want workers. You hire less, and you try to find capital equipment to replace them.”
 
The American socialist, G.S. Evans, calls this “Living Dead Capitalism” – a capitalism no longer capable of addressing contemporary human obligations but which, by super-efficiently funnelling the fruits of its own automatising ingenuity upwards to the dwindling number of real persons directing investment flows, continuously concentrates the “surplus value” of its non-human workforce in fewer and fewer human hands.
 
For a while the dire implications of this trend were masked by the explosion of service-sector employment. While the number of steel and auto-workers shrank, the number of data manipulators and patty-flippers sky-rocketed. But the same inhuman capitalist logic which prompted capitalists to invest in robotic car assemblers is now computerising millions of mid-level service industry jobs.
 
How long can it be before 42 individuals are worth as much as the poorest three-quarters of humanity? Or, just one person controls the wealth of the entire planet?
 
Spartan political-economy may have been brutally inefficient, but at least it delivered its citizens what they prized most – military victory.
 
What will Evans’ “living dead capitalism” deliver?
 
It’s an issue our vote-seeking political leaders unanimously declined to address. State of the Nation speeches are for encouraging voters – not questions.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 January 2014.

Friday, 24 January 2014

The Ukraine's Unfortunate Geography

Taking Cover: Drawn up in the classical testudo (tortoise) formation, Ukrainian riot police await yet another onslaught from the militant members of the far-right Ukrainian nationalist organisation known as the "Right Sector". Of mysterious provenance, the Right Sector is the group primarily responsible for the eruption of deadly violence on the streets of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

AS THE UKRANIAN RIOT POLICE reinvent the Roman testudo (“tortoise”) under a hail of thunder-flashes and Molotov cocktails, it is probably timely to review who is fighting who and for what.
 
The Ukraine remains one of the great prizes of European statecraft. It has been fought over for centuries not only for of its grain and minerals, but also for its strategic location. Whoever controls the Ukraine is well on the way to dominating all of Russia.
 
Which is why the Ukraine has changed hands several times over the past century.
 
In March 1918 Lenin’s Bolsheviks relinquished control of the Ukraine to the German Empire. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk carved a strategically fatal (to Russia) chunk out of the old Tsarist empire, perfectly positioning the Germans (assuming their 1918 military offensive against the Entente Powers was successful) to roll-up and crush Lenin’s newly-formed revolutionary government.
 
Though the Brest-Litovsk treaty only remained in force from March until November 1918, the victorious allies were no less aware than the Germans of the strategic threat even a nominally independent Ukraine would pose to the Bolsheviks. Accordingly, for the next five years Britain, France and Poland directed considerable (if clandestine) effort towards keeping the Ukraine out of Russian hands. By 1923, however, Lenin’s communists wielded sufficient power to ensure the Ukraine, once again, fell under Russian suzerainty.
 
Initially, Soviet policy in the Ukraine was highly sympathetic to its people’s national-cultural aspirations, but the triumph of Joseph Stalin brought with it a savage reversal of the Ukraine’s fortunes. Between 1932-33, upwards of 10 million Ukrainians starved to death in a famine deliberately created by the Soviet authorities to snuff out peasant resistance to agricultural collectivisation, and to mask the systematic destruction of the Ukraine’s cultural and political elites.
 
Not surprisingly, when the Nazis invaded the Ukraine in June 1941 there were many who welcomed them as liberators. Sadly, Germany’s 1941 ambitions for the Ukrainians were little changed from those of 1918: the entire population were to become the vassals of an imported German aristocracy. Accordingly, Ukrainians played a vital role in the Soviet Union’s destruction of Hitler’s Third Reich.
 
In the fifty years between the Nazi invasion and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union the Ukraine grew rapidly into a modern industrial state, supplying no fewer than two of the USSR’s seven leaders – Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.
 
But the disintegration of Soviet power and the Ukraine’s ultimate assertion of national independence in no way rescued it from its centuries-old strategic dilemma. Nor could it magically remove the huge numbers of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians living within its borders. To the north and west, Ukrainian-speakers dominate politically: to the south and east, Russian-speakers.
 
Not surprisingly, given their historical experience, the ethnic Ukrainians look to the West – to NATO and the European Union – to safeguard them from their own geography and its strategic consequences. Unfortunately for Ukrainian Europhiles, Washington, London and Paris are very far away, while Berlin and Moscow stand uncomfortably close.
 
Ostensibly, the battle now raging in the streets of Kiev is about which direction the Ukraine should face: west towards the EU, or east towards the Russian Federation. In reality, it is an acting out of Ukrainian nationalism’s frustration with the geopolitical facts of life.
 
Acting Out - But On Whose Behalf? A "Right Sector" militant in action on the streets of Kiev.
 
A Ukraine that is not under the suzerainty of its much larger neighbour cannot avoid being seen by the likes of Vladimir Putin as an existential threat to Russian security. From the vital economic resources of the Donetsk Basin to Russia’s naval bases on the Black Sea, Ukrainian territory encompasses strategic assets that Russia simply cannot afford to lose.
 
Mr Putin’s fears will not be allayed by news that the violence on Kiev's streets is being organised by a mysterious far-right nationalist group calling itself the "Right Sector", or that the United States Office of eDiplomacy recently organised an event called "Tech Camp" at which young Ukrainian nationalists were taught the same subversive internet skills that touched off the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian “revolutions”. With memories of the Ukraine’s US-assisted “Orange Revolution” of 2004 still fresh in the Russian President’s memory, his determination to keep his ally, the Ukrainian President, Victor Yanukovych, in place and on side is hardly surprising.
 
The spectacle of hundreds of Ukrainian nationalists standing outside the Kiev office of the European Union chanting “WE-NEED-YOUR-HELP!” may stir the conscience of the West. But all it stirs in the Kremlin’s heart is fear – and rage.
 
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 January 2014.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Act 4.0 - Let's hear It From Jamie Whyte

Act's Great Whyte Hope? If the Act Party is seeking a well-spoken, thoroughly erudite, persuasively articulate, refreshingly honest and witty champion of the battle-scarred neoliberal cause, then the New Zealand-born, Cambridge-educated philosopher, Jamie Whyte, is the obvious choice.
 
FIRST IMPRESSIONS are a poor basis for accurate political judgement. Had I been guided by my first impressions of Jamie Whyte my judgement would have been harsh – and wrong. His comments about the calibre of New Zealand’s politicians would have led me to dismiss the “philosopher” who’s trying to become the next leader and reviver of the Act Party as just another right-wing bigot – not to mention a very sorry ambassador for Cambridge University.
 
Our members of Parliament seek the support of their fellow citizens on behalf of many and varied causes. What unites them is a common desire to leave the world a better place than they found it. In pursuit of this goal they risk the breaking apart of their marriages, estrangement from their children and the endless jibes and insults of people who haven’t the slightest idea of the fraught and very lonely existence politicians are required to endure.
 
It is, therefore, quite outrageous to suggest, as Mr Whyte did in this week’s Sunday Star-Times, that: “[S]hamefully, it’s just the best job they are capable of getting … they have no particular talents, somehow they have managed to get in with their party and get elevated and they are as happy as a pig in shit. Otherwise, they would be working in the food industry [think McDonalds] or cleaning.”
 
Outrageous and (if I may be so bold with a Cambridge philosopher) illogical. Glossing over the huge rhetorical, social and organisational effort required to make it across the threshold of the 120-strong New Zealand House of Representatives with the word “somehow” is very “bad thinking” indeed.
 
If every cook and janitor could just as easily find work as a parliamentarian, then surely Parliament would be filled with patty-flippers and mop-wielders? Now, a good socialist might argue that Parliament would be all the better for the addition of some genuine workers, but an empiricist, noting the complete absence of such persons, would have to question seriously both Mr Whyte’s powers of observation and his reasoning.
 
More out of respect for Cambridge University than for anything I had so far learned about Mr Whyte I persevered with my enquiries. Surely there had to be more to recommend this person as a potential party leader than political sentiments more usually encountered in the commentary threads of right-wing blogs?
 
And thanks to the boundless memory of Google and YouTube – there was.
 
The first and most pleasant surprise was Mr Whyte’s accent. Given the frequency with which he reverted to the copulatory expletive in his Sunday Star-Times interview, I was expecting to hear a Kiwi accent broad enough to rival the Prime Minister’s. What I actually heard was beautifully modulated “English” English. (Think Lindsay Perigo’s perfect diction minus the Randian brio.) Mr Whyte could make a recitation of the phone book sound like a neoliberal treatise.
 
The other surprises were Mr Whyte’s facility for oratory; his skill in constructing simple yet persuasive illustrations of his ideas; and his wit. The ability to make people laugh – especially at one’s opponents – is an invaluable political skill. His 2013 address to an Act Party conclave is a little masterpiece of simple but effective political rhetoric.
 
Also impressive (not to say transgressive) is the interview he conducts with himself as part of the IViewMe website’s series of “thoughtful interviews with creative people”. Mr Whyte asks himself 10 questions and the impression which emerges from his own answers is very different from the boorish individual effing and blinding his way across Page 2 of Sunday’s paper.
 
Perhaps Mr Whyte (why do I keep thinking of Reservoir Dogs?) has been told that the New Zealand voter will never vote for a politician who rounds his vowels so beautifully? Perhaps he believes that to win public office it is necessary to speak to the electors as if they are all infantile buffoons? If so he should dismiss immediately any thought of reviving Act’s fortunes.
 
With Mr Key’s centrist policies anchoring the National Party firmly in the centre-ground of New Zealand politics and with his mangled English pronunciation making him the average Kiwi joker’s populist Everyman, the Act Party could do a great deal worse than to choose as its leader a well-spoken, thoroughly erudite, persuasively articulate, refreshingly honest and witty champion of the battle-scarred neoliberal cause.
 
It has always been the dream of Act’s founders that if they built the argument for free markets and open societies then the voters would come. In Jamie Whyte they have the opportunity to put that proposition to one final test.
 
Not with a shrewd but cynical populist; not with an ebullient perk-buster; not with a schoolmasterly admonisher or a robotic former National Party Cabinet Minister; but with someone who not only believes what he says – but says it superbly.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 January 2014.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Sound Of One Hand Smacking

The 87 Percent Solution: Few subjects have lent themselves so readily to the arousal of popular passions as the so-called "anti-smacking" crusade. Colin Craig and his Conservative Party are attempting to harness that emotion and ride it into Parliament.
 
YOU HAVE TO WONDER if, in the weeks since Colin Craig made his interesting observations about astronauts and the Moon, he hasn’t gotten some professional help. Because his latest stunt – to raise again the fraught subject of child discipline – is nothing short of brilliant.
 
Over the past couple of decades few subjects have lent themselves so readily to the arousal of popular passions as the so-called “anti-smacking” crusade. There’s something about the crusaders’ arguments against corporal punishment that gets right under the skin of “the average Kiwi parent”. And, equally, there’s something about “the average Kiwi parent’s” willingness to use the phrases “hitting your kids” and “good parenting” in the same sentence that drives the crusaders’ absolutely bonkers.
 
Given that most of the anti-smacking crusaders are staunch supporters of the Green and Labour parties, inciting them to launch yet another assault on the child-rearing practices of ordinary New Zealanders makes perfect sense – if your purpose is to push Colin Craig’s Conservative Party over the 5 percent MMP threshold.
 
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Mr Craig is acting entirely alone. There has always been a peculiarly guileless quality to the man: a weird “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” honesty that is every bit as attractive as it is off-putting.
 
His ready admission that he still smacks his 8-year-old daughter is a case in point.
 
Only an adviser of Crosby-Textor’s sophistication would have the sheer Machiavellian gall to suggest that a political leader own up to the belief that it is perfectly acceptable for citizens to pick and choose which laws they obey and which they ignore. A party which openly acknowledges its ambition to join the nation’s legislators is generally expected to demonstrate (and usually does display) a little more respect for the Rule of Law.
 
It is, however, a crucial element of Mr Craig’s na├»ve political genius to instinctively “get” that the anti-smacking legislation owes nothing at all to the will of the people and everything to the unshakeable convictions of a self-righteous minority. Those who bridle at this characterisation would no doubt also dismiss the judgement of the 87.4 percent of voters who in 2009 answered “No.” to the Citizens Initiated Referendum question: “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”
 
Mr Craig’s argument is that any law passed in such studied contempt of public opinion has no legitimate claim upon the ordinary citizen’s compliance. Accordingly, he plans to make its repeal a “bottom line” should the Conservatives end up holding the balance of power following this year’s general election:
 
“It would be an easy one for National to put over the line", says Mr Craig, "because obviously the law is not working. Child abuse statistics have risen. It’s a silly law. The vast majority of parents think this law has gone too far.”
 
The big challenge for Labour and the Greens is to demonstrate an equally sophisticated grasp of the political dynamics of the “anti-smacking” debate as Mr Craig (acting either alone or in response to professional advice) has shown.
 
They must resist the temptation to re-litigate the political arguments of 2007-08. Instead they must hold firmly to this thought: “The best way to keep children safe from parental brutalisation is to win the election.”
 
Let Mr Craig knock himself out on the smacking issue. There are a whole host of important things to talk about with voters besides the anti-smacking legislation: inequality; inadequate incomes; child poverty; affordable housing.
 
The Labour-Green strategy must be to coax the non-voters of 2008 and 2011 out of their political alienation; their belief that the political class simply doesn’t give a toss for their opinions. Both parties need to “get” that nothing demonstrates the “truth” of elite indifference better than the “anti-smacking” bill.
 
Why else would Mr Craig’s Conservatives be thrusting it back into public consciousness?
 
If Labour and the Greens cannot persuade alienated voters that someone other than Colin Craig’s Conservatives is listening to them, then the Left will lose.
 
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, 17 January 2014.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Get Ready For A Megaparty Of Serious Fun

Serious Funster: Kim Dotcom's ability to mix serious politics with the digital playfulness so defining of the 18-25-year-old age-group raises the possibility of his putative "Megaparty" mobilising a significant number of first-time and/or abstaining voters, thereby, as Fairfax journalist, Vernon Small, put it: "throwing a spanner in the works" of the 2014 General Election.
 
JOHN KEY must be hoping that Kim Dotcom is extradited before the election, because if Dotcom is still here in November there’s every chance that Mr Key’s Government won’t be.
 
Those who make it their business to know what’s going on politically began hearing the rumours more than two months ago. That talk of a Dotcom inspired and funded political party was no longer talk: that action was being taken to make it happen; that high-profile individuals were being approached to take on the public roles required to bring a new political party into existence.
 
These individuals are young, wired and mercifully free of the sort of ideological and historical baggage that connects both National and Labour politicians to the “failed policies of the past”. Dotcom’s “Megaparty” (its working title) will not be about the past, it will be about the future.
 
As a party of the future, Megaparty will appeal mostly to those voters with the most future to appeal to – the young.
 
Its electoral base will be the generation born into the Internet Age: young New Zealanders in their late teens and early twenties; tech savvy, media wise, eager to make their mark but frustrated by an older, Baby-Boom, generation which refuses to make way for those best-placed to deal with the daunting challenges and changes of the digital age.
 
It’s a demographic that is at once aggressively individualistic and touchingly collective: keen to make their personal contribution, but equally eager to share it. A generation which, ideologically-speaking, finds little to connect with in either National or Labour. If these kids vote at all, it is probably for the Greens – but even there the wagging finger of environmental correctness is as likely to offend their anarchic instincts as it is to engage them.
 
Dotcom has already issued a compressed version of the Megaparty’s manifesto – tellingly to the international website/magazine, Vice:
 
“Government is supposed to serve us, the people. We are paying with our taxes [in the expectation] that they do a good job for us. But look what they do: they undermine our rights, they destroy our freedoms, they censor our internet. So we are the ones who have to bring that change.
 
“That is why I get involved in politics because I am f…ing tired of this nonsense and someone has to stand up and change this.”
 
That Mr Dotcom cannot actually stand for election (he is not a New Zealand citizen) will likely make his party more, rather than less, electable. The idea that someone might set up a party for strictly altruistic and politically limited purposes: to roll back the legislative assaults on individual rights and freedoms and preserve the independence of the Internet; will have huge appeal among the young who tend to view the political class in general and professional politicians in particular with withering disdain.
 
The documentary in which Vice News’s Tim Pool talks to Dotcom reveals a man with an unusually powerful grasp on what makes the younger generation sit up and take notice. Pool’s reaction to the larger-than-life Dotcom is equally fascinating. The mansion, the sprawling lawns, the high-tech toys, nothing on the multi-millionaire’s estate is either enviously resented or even slyly denigrated. On the contrary, the young reporter behaves like a child in a toy store and Dotcom shares in his excitement.
 
Business, commerce, capitalism itself: the younger generation doesn’t damn these things as bad in themselves. It’s the evil capitalism enables that they condemn. Like the Bible says: “The love of money is the root of all evil”. Dotcom’s singular gift is his ability to turn money into fun – and then share it.
 
Statistics New Zealand estimate that on 30 June 2013 there were 333,840 New Zealanders aged 20-24 – more than enough to surmount the 5 percent MMP threshold. A huge number of these young people are conveniently concentrated on the nation’s campuses – making the universities and polytechs Megaparty’s prime recruitment sites.
 
It’s even possible that the tightly-packed electorate of Auckland Central, with its tens-of-thousands of young, upwardly-mobile, inner-city apartment-dwellers, might end up being persuaded to guarantee Dotcom’s and Megaparty’s success by electing their (carefully chosen) candidate to Parliament.
 
Impossible?
 
Not when one considers the 1984 success of that other high-profile, beguilingly- roguish, self-made millionaire, Sir Robert Jones. Or the surprise defection of Auckland Central voters from Labour’s Richard Prebble, to the Alliance’s Sandra Lee, back in 1993.
 
Given his history of making the Internet dance to his tune, Dotcom’s political apps and communication strategies are likely to give Megaparty a reach and a level of sophistication that New Zealanders have never before encountered.
 
“Let the masses see your talent and your gifts”, the ebullient German entrepreneur told Vice’s Tim Pool. With the launch of his party in late-January, Kim Dotcom is poised to follow his own advice.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 January 2014.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Suppressing Fire

Lions Led By Donkeys: In the classical image of World War I, Allied soldiers go "over the top". The Right are desperate to rehabilitate the elites whose decisions led to the deaths of 21 million human-beings. A close examination of the "Why?" of World War I, however, suggests that, contrary to 100 years of historical self-justification, those primarily responsible for the greatest disaster of the past century were France, Russia and, yes, Great Britain.
 
THE BRAYING of Tory asses in Britain inevitably elicits an answering cacophony of hee-hawing from New Zealand’s own conservative community. It is, therefore, only a matter of time before one or more of our right-wing commentators picks up on the historical inanities of British Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and repeats them here.
 
On 2 January The Daily Mail published an article by Mr Gove entitled “Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?” Billed as a series of “damning questions” to his socialist opponents, Mr Gove’s piece was actually a crude attempt to characterise all criticism of his Government’s plans to paint the First World War as a just, honourable and ultimately successful conflict as evidence of “at best, an ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion […] to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.”
 
Mr Gove’s is but the first shot in the “History Wars” of 2014 and beyond. Like the First Word War, whose centenary we will commemorate in August, the struggle to define the truth about the most important event of the past 100 years promises to be prolonged, bitter and exceptionally costly to all concerned.
 
New histories of New Zealand’s participation in the First World War are constantly appearing in the nation’s book shops – and many more will follow. This is only fitting, because New Zealand paid an extraordinarily high price in blood and shattered lives for its privileged status as Britain’s far-flung farm.
 
The number of New Zealanders killed in the war was 18,052, with a further 41,317 wounded. The war dead represented 1.64 percent of the New Zealand’s 1.1 million population. Of the English-speaking countries participating in the war, only the United Kingdom paid a higher price.
 
Most of the new histories will be devoted to re-examining the campaigns in which New Zealanders were engaged (Gallipoli being the most traversed). Some will focus upon the battlefield contributions of New Zealand’s military commanders; while others will study the diaries and letters of ordinary soldiers to present a participant’s-eye-view of the conflict.
 
Very few New Zealand historians, however, will venture beyond the Who? What? When? and Where? of First World War history and into the dangerous territory of Why? It is across the field of the conflict’s causes; of its participants’ motives and conduct; and of their ultimate objectives; that Mr Gove and his ilk will direct their most deadly suppressing fire.
 
On “our” side, the First World War became the occasion for the most extraordinary propaganda campaign ever undertaken by the English-speaking peoples. Germans were transformed: from the civilised citizens of a modern state (enjoying more democratic rights than the British) they became the pitiless “Huns” – ravishers of women, bayoneters of babies.
 
So virulent was the propaganda of the First World War that when, in the 1930s and 40s, news of genuine German atrocities and the genocide of European Jewry leaked out to the West, the authorities – remembering the lies of 1914-1918 – dismissed it as crude misinformation.
 
There was, of course, a very good reason why the United Kingdom worked so hard to demonise the Germans during the war, and, when it ended, were so insistent that Germany accept the “War Guilt Clause” of the Versailles Treaty.
 
It was done so that the people of Britain and of her loyal Dominions would never be willing to accept the fact that it was France and Russia who masterminded the outbreak of war in 1914: or that the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, knew what was happening, but, in order to shatter the military and economic power of Germany and safeguard the British Empire from future Russian encroachment, he did nothing to prevent it.
 
There can be little doubt that, had Grey intervened, the war could have been prevented. The stark and unspeakable truth, however, was that Grey and the British Prime Minister, Asquith, didn’t want to prevent it. Germany was regarded as a threat and Britain was only too willing to let France (a vengeful army masquerading as a country) and Russia (a feudal autocracy masquerading as a modern state) tear her to pieces.
 
Once Russia ordered a general mobilisation, only France could call it back; and the only power capable of persuading France to call it back was Britain.
 
The First World War was “our” fault.
 
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, 10 January 2014.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

An Injury To One Australian Is The Business Of All Australians

Illegal Seizure In The Open Sea: Russian Federal Police illegally board and seize The Arctic Sunrise and her crew of 30 in the open sea. One of those held at gunpoint was an Australian citizen, Colin Russell. Rather than voice the strongest diplomatic protest, the Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, is now suggesting that people like Russell be required to reimburse the Australian Government for the consular assistance they receive.

WHY IS IT that politicians, who owe everything to democracy, frequently display so little understanding of its values? Has the novelty and radicalism of democracy’s core proposition: that the “just powers” of government derive exclusively from the consent of the governed; simply worn off? Has the hard-won right to choose their own leaders been around for so long that voters simply take it for granted?
 
These are just some of the questions arising from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s extraordinary suggestion that Australians travelling overseas, who find themselves in need of consular assistance, could be billed for the services provided.
 
Last Saturday, responding to questions about the amount of “taxpayers’ money” spent on Colin Russell, the Australian citizen imprisoned by the Russian Federation for attempting to draw the world’s attention to that country’s decision to allow oil drilling in the Arctic ecosystem, Ms Bishop declared:
 
“Of course the Australian government is going to support those in trouble but there are circumstances where questions are raised why taxpayers should foot the bill”.
 
The job of reviewing those “circumstances” has been given to the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to Ms Bishop, the exercise is all about “reviewing the consular fee for those who make deliberate and purposeful actions which break the local law and who don’t take out comprehensive insurance and then require [consular] help at the taxpayer’s expense”.
 
Ms Bishop’s statement is not only an extremely misleading interpretation of the circumstances leading to Mr Russell’s detention by the Russian authorities, and of his consequent need for Australian consular assistance, but it is also a fundamental misreading of a consul’s purpose.
 
The term “consul” has its origins in the Roman Republic, but a modern-day consulate’s primary diplomatic function is to protect and facilitate the safe passage of its commissioning nation’s citizens. In classical times the simple statement “civis Romanus sum” – “I am a Roman Citizen” – was sufficient to give anyone within reach of Rome’s retribution pause. Likewise today, when the involvement of consular staff is usually enough to make the authorities of a foreign state behave themselves. It’s says: “Our state is watching you and will hold you responsible for the welfare of its citizen.”
 
In the case of Mr Russell (himself an Australian “taxpayer”) consular staff became involved when The Arctic Sunrise, the Dutch-registered vessel he was sailing on, was seized illegally in open waters by Russian federal police, who then proceeded to sail the ship and its crew to the territory of the Russian Federation. The 30 crew members, citizens of 16 nations, were then charged with “piracy”, denied bail, and incarcerated in conditions of considerable stress and discomfort.
 
The only “law” which Mr Russell and his fellow Greenpeace activists may possibly have fallen foul of is the international law pertaining to oil drilling platforms. One of these was non-violently and temporarily boarded by members of The Arctic Sunrise’s crew in order to display a large banner protesting oil exploration in the vulnerable Arctic environment. Any redress for this harmless symbolic gesture was a matter for international civil litigation – not the criminal code of the Russian Federation.
 
All of these facts would have been conveyed to the Australian Foreign Minister via consular staff on the ground in Murmansk and St Petersburg. Rather than contemplate charging Australian citizens a fee for the assistance they receive in such extraordinary circumstances, Ms Bishop should have demanded Mr Russell’s immediate release and repatriation and issued the strongest possible diplomatic protest at the illegal seizure of a vessel on the open sea and the abduction by force and unlawful imprisonment of an Australian citizen.
 
Mr Russell had every right to expect this reaction from his government because, as a citizen and as an elector, he is one of the 22 million human-beings who, together, constitute the Commonwealth of Australia. The injustice inflicted upon Mr Russell was not just against him it was against all Australians and the politicians elected to govern in their name were duty-bound to do everything they could to rescue and bring home an Australian son in distress.
 
Mr Russell’s treatment bears testimony to the Australian Liberal-National Government’s woeful indifference to basic democratic values. From the moment The Arctic Sunrise was seized, the sympathies of Ms Bishop and her colleagues appeared to lie, almost exclusively, with the oil drillers and the Russian government.
 
The hostility whipped up against Greenpeace by the Murdoch press proved to be a stronger goad to political action than the abduction and detention of an Australian citizen.
 
Mr Russell had a right to his government’s support because in a democracy that’s exactly what it is – his government.
 
Ms Bishop needs to be reminded that she serves at her people’s pleasure. The protection of Australian citizens abroad is not only her ministerial duty, it’s their democratic right.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 January 2014.

Friday, 3 January 2014

2014: A Year For "Glorious Revolution"?

Goodbye and Good Riddance! James II "escapes" to France as the English people once and for all assert that their Kings will reign with their consent - or not at all. This "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 bequeathed to us the "Bill of Rights", still the Westminster System's best guarantee against tyranny. If protest from below is answered by defections from above (as it was in 1688) then 2014 has the potential to bequeath New Zealanders a glorious revolution of their own.
 
IF WE’RE LUCKY 2014 will be a year of non-stop argument. And, if we’re especially lucky, that argument will be about whether the top-down economic modernisation of New Zealand, which began in 1984, should be considered a success and, therefore, continue, or, whether it’s a failure – making 2014 the year for a new programme of economic and social change undertaken by the people themselves?
 
Thirty years have elapsed since the heady days of 1984, when an incoming Labour Government, guided by a tight-knit cadre of Treasury and Reserve Bank officials, took a wrecking ball to the economic and social settlement which had underpinned New Zealand’s development since 1935.
 
In its initial stages, very few New Zealanders disputed the necessity for Finance Minister Roger Douglas’s demolition derby. Since 1981 the country’s economy had come to resemble one of Heath Robinson’s outlandish contraptions: an ad hoc and increasingly complex machine which, ultimately, even its designer and operator could no longer coax into purposive action.
 
It was only after the dysfunctional Muldoonist machine had been reduced to a pile of junk that the real trouble began. The social and economic regime favoured by the coterie of radical bureaucrats and businessmen driving the “Quiet Revolution” simply could not be sold to anything like a convincing majority of New Zealanders. In these circumstances the “revolutionaries’” political mouthpieces (now located in both major parties) had little option but to lie and lie and lie.
 
The British historian, Steve Pincus, argues that it is precisely at these perilous political junctures that the modernising efforts of elites are most susceptible to challenges from below:
 
“It is precisely the modernising state’s actions to extend its authority more deeply into society that politicise and mobilise people on the periphery. State modernisation, not state breakdown – increasing state strength, not impending state weakness – is a presage to revolution.”
 
Viewed through Pincus’ analytical lens, the last quarter century in New Zealand has been marked by the repeated efforts of those on the periphery of political power to challenge (and if possible roll back) the bureaucratic, business and political elites’ “modernisation from above”. NewLabour, the Greens, the Alliance, NZ First: all of these insurgent parties are examples of Pincus’ politicisation and mobilisation – in this case of those New Zealanders determined to resist the elites’ neoliberal agenda.
 
What has so far prevented these electoral insurgencies from developing into Pincus’ revolutionary crisis is the de facto bi-partisan consensus binding the two major parties to the imposed neoliberal settlement. Neither the attachment of NZ First to National in 1996, nor that of the Alliance to Labour in 1999 was sufficient to do anything more than retard the pace of neoliberalism’s top-down modernisation. So long as that consensus endured, so too would the post-1984 reforms.
 
But what if events were to follow the pattern of the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688?
 
In his 2009 book, 1688: The First Modern Revolution, Pincus argues that it was the linking-up of grass-roots protests against James II’s attempt to modernise the British state along Catholic absolutist lines, with key political and military defectors (including Winston Churchill’s illustrious ancestor, John Churchill) from the Jacobean regime, that brought about Jame’s downfall. Britain would indeed be modernised, but according to a very different set of political, economic and religio-social principles to those of the hapless Stuarts. The Glorious Revolution ensured that, in Britain, capitalism and democracy evolved side-by-side and without the bloody upheavals that typically accompanied revolutionary change in the rest of Europe.
 
So, what would be the 2014 equivalent of John Churchill’s ride to Axminister? In the New Zealand context it could only be David Cunliffe and his colleagues publicly forswearing their allegiance to the 30-year neoliberal modernisation programme unleashed by their predecessors in 1984.
 
The radical-populist argument such an announcement would inevitably inspire would very rapidly “politicise and mobilise” the electorate; transforming the 2014 General Election from a mere test of the public’s readiness to change political managers, into “a presage to revolution”.
 
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, 3 December 2014.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy New Year!

 
My apologies for the lack of postings over the past fortnight, me and mine were taking a break.
 
But I'm back now with four new postings (see below) and my very best wishes for a progressive and prosperous 2014.
 
Happy New Year!
 
- Chris Trotter
 
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

New Zealander Of The Year

Still Number One: Five years after his election as New Zealand's 38th Prime Minister, John Key is still New Zealanders’ first choice as leader and his party consistently polls ten clear points ahead of its nearest rival. This would be a remarkable feat under the old first-past-the-post electoral system, it is nothing short of astonishing under a system of proportional representation. Love him or loathe him, John Key remains the indisputable master of New Zealand's political domain.
 
IT IS FITTING that my New Zealander of the Year should be a politician. Not only is politics this columnist’s bread and butter but, like ‘em or loathe ‘em, politicians are the people who affect us most directly. They write the rules of our daily lives. They hold the ring in which we struggle to make a living. In the twenty-first century just about everything we encounter, except the weather, is the product of social organisation. And wherever you find social organisation, there also you will find politics - and politicians.
 
My first thought for New Zealander/Politician of the Year was the new Leader of the Opposition, David Cunliffe.
 
Mr Cunliffe had, after all, begun the year as a disgraced and despised (at least by a majority of his caucus colleagues) back-bencher, and is ending it as his party’s leader. That sort of come-back is, if not unprecedented, then, at least, highly unusual. A great many talented politicians simply would not have bothered to stick around after being treated as shabbily as Labour’s caucus treated Mr Cunliffe.
 
Charles Chauvel, for example, walked away from his political career after being told by the supporters of Mr Cunliffe’s predecessor that his steadfast support for the Member for New Lynn would cost him a seat at any Cabinet Table presided over by David Shearer.
 
In Mr Chauvel’s case, Labour’s (and New Zealand’s) loss was the United Nation’s gain. There can be little doubt that Mr Cunliffe’s highly marketable skills would have been snapped-up just as quickly had he, too, decided that the game of politics was no longer worth the candle.
 
The morale of his supporters certainly flagged following the outrageous treatment meted out to him following the 2012 Labour Party Conference at Ellerslie. Not since the darkest days of Rogernomics in the late-1980s had Labour Party members witnessed such a venomous display of factional back-biting. But the member for New Lynn’s faith in his political destiny never wavered. Throughout it all, Mr Cunliffe conducted himself like one who has seen already the faces of Dame Fortune’s cards - and knows he cannot lose.
 
Runner-Up: David Cunliffe staged a remarkable comeback in 2013, but in his first 100 days as Labour leader failed to capture the electorate's imagination as completely as John Key did between December 2006 and February 2007 .
 
And so it proved. Quite out of the blue Mr Shearer folded his cards, gathered-up what was left of his stake, and left the table. From that point on Mr Cunliffe’s victory was assured. Only the most rank skulduggery could have robbed him of the victor’s crown - and when it came to digging skulls his opponents simply did not know where to sink their spades.
 
But, winning the leadership of the Labour Party is a long way from winning the confidence of the country. To do that one must not only have a story to tell the country, it must also be a story the country is wanting to hear.
 
Now, you might object that Mr Cunliffe has barely been 100 days at the helm of the Labour Party, and that a great many more days than that are required to open the ears of the electors. My answer to that objection would, however, be a blunt as it is bleak: 100 days was all the time Mr Cunliffe had.
 
One year out from an election most voters have already made up their minds. To have any chance at all of changing those minds a new leader has to hit the ground running with a message he knows the electorate is longing to hear.
 
And that brings me to the man who, I believe, must once again step forward to claim the title of New Zealander of the Year.
 
John Key became Leader of the Opposition in November 2006, and by 6 February 2007 he had the country’s full attention. His visit to McGehan Close, a poor street in Labour’s Auckland heartland, marked him out as a National Party politician of a very different sort - a man quite unlike his flinty-faced predecessor, Dr Don Brash. His invitation to take one of the street’s residents - a young girl named Aroha - to the 2007 Waitangi Day celebrations (an invitation she eagerly accepted) only added extra icing to the cake.
 
Seven years on, Mr Key remains New Zealanders’ overwhelming choice as “Preferred Prime Minister”, and his party continues to poll in the high 40s. This would be a remarkable feat under the old first-past-the-post electoral system, it is nothing short of astonishing under a system of proportional representation.
 
Nothing that has happened in 2013: not the GCSB controversy; not the partial privatisation of state assets; not Kim Dotcom; and certainly not David Cunliffe; have been able to make even a sizeable dent in Mr Key’s apparently impregnable political armour.
 
For holding our attention - and our affection - for yet another year, I cannot forebear from naming John Key, New Zealander of the Year.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 December 2013.

"Don't Tread On Me!" - Our Radically Simple Constitution

Leave Well Enough Alone: Had the British parliament not attempted to radically reshape its relationship with its American colonies the United States might never have been born. Most New Zealanders harbour an equally deep suspicion of any politician foolish enough to "mess" with one of the world's most radically democratic constitutions. The Constitutional Review Panel certainly opted for pragmatic discretion over philosophical valour.
 
IT ARRIVED, as I rather expected it would, with a whimper - not a bang. Just as well really. Changes in the way we govern ourselves; in the hardwiring of the state itself; are not the business of hand-picked appointees - no matter how grand. Constitutions are not made by committee.
 
The report of the Constitution Review Panel, a concession extracted from the National Government by their Maori Party ally in 2008, offered little more by way of a final recommendation than that the “conversation” on constitutional matters, which the Panel itself had kicked off, should continue.
 
Outstanding!
 
But, realistically-speaking, what else could the Panel have recommended? There was - and is - no public clamour for constitutional reform from the New Zealand people and the very best efforts of the Panel to interest the public in its work fell spectacularly flat. Indeed, about the only thing the Panel could have done to elicit the popular buy-in it so desperately wanted would have been to bring down a report suggesting something other than maintaining the status quo.
 
Predictably, the worthy ladies and gentlemen of the Panel attributed this lack of interest to New Zealanders’ general ignorance of matters constitutional - a deficit they proposed to rectify by encouraging the teaching of civics courses in our primary and secondary schools.
 
A good idea? It depends on whether or not you agree that Kiwis are ignorant of their constitutional arrangements. Personally, I think the New Zealand people have a pretty good grasp of the way their system works.
 
Since 1852, the year they received a constitution from their colonial masters in London, New Zealanders have worked consistently to both simplify and radicalise their constitutional arrangements.
 
Within 40 years of being granted “responsible self-government” we had attained universal suffrage. The UK and the USA would not achieve the same result until the 1920s.
 
Within 100 years we had dispensed with the Legislative Council - New Zealand’s appointed upper house.
 
It took 144 years to replace the egregiously undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system with a proportional form of representation.
 
Moreover, throughout that entire 161 year period of responsible self-government we have steadfastly refused to fasten ourselves into the straightjacket of a written constitution.
 
Given the radical simplicity of our constitutional arrangements - why should we?
 
As far as most Kiwis are concerned, their rights and freedoms; their ability to effect political change; the resilience of their democratic culture; all flow from the same source: a House of Representatives directly elected by the people for a three year term. That’s it. Popular sovereignty via Parliament. No more need be said.
 
Oliver Cromwell had to win the English Civil War, behead his King and abolish the House of Lords before he could sit in a unicameral parliament answerable to (some of) the electors. In the contemporary world, only the Israelis can boast of anything even remotely comparable to New Zealand’s constitutional simplicity.
 
Luminaries like Sir Geoffrey Palmer may lament this state of affairs and call for “A written constitution, including the Bill of Rights entrenched so that Parliament cannot ride roughshod over it, meaning the courts can enforce it against the Government” (The Dominion Post, 24/12/13) but, as the Constitutional Panel discovered to its obvious dismay, Kiwis are not in the least bit interested in curbing Parliament’s powers to “ride roughshod” over anyone and anything that stands in its Government’s way. Nor are they willing to cede to an unelected judiciary the power to second-guess and/or over-rule the will of the people’s representatives.
 
With a parliamentary term of just three years, most New Zealanders are confident that any government showing signs of going seriously off the rails can be thrown out of office before inflicting too much damage on the body politic. By the same token, however, if changes need to be made they expect their representatives to be able to make them completely free of the threat of judicial intervention.
 
Those who seek to complicate New Zealand’s constitution do so for reasons that have little to do with democracy. On the contrary, it is precisely with its radically democratic effectiveness that most “reformers” take issue.
 
New Zealanders No. 8 wire constitution may be inelegant and lacking in checks and balances - but it's ours.
 
Meddle with it at your own risk.
 
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, 27 December 2013.

"The Defining Challenge Of Our Time"

Progressive Populism: Barack Obama's promise of collective empowerment was crucial to his 2008 election victory. On 4 December he signalled that combatting economic inequality would be the motivating theme of the Democratic Party's 2014 bid to reclaim control of the House of Representatives. If our own David Cunliffe was wise he would make the fight against inequality similarly central to Labour's 2014 election campaign.
 
2014 IS NOT ONLY an election year in New Zealand, it is also the year of the “mid-term” elections in the United States. In both countries the debate between Left and Right will be focus on rising economic inequality and what, if anything, should be done to reduce it.
 
Speaking to a meeting of the Centre for American Progress in Washington DC on 4 December, President Barack Obama described economic inequality as “the defining challenge of our time” – immediately touching off a spirited debate, not only between liberals and conservatives, but between the moderate and radical wings of his own Democratic Party.
 
The rhetorical struggle on the American Left, will be over whether or not the term “economic populism” is presented as being a good thing or a bad thing. The Democratic Senator for Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, has seized the initiative by boldly laying claim to the progressive legacy of American populism – a tradition enthusiastically endorsed by the Nobel-Prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, who ended a recent New York Times blog posting with the words: “go populism go.”
 
The debate in New Zealand has yet to reach this level of noisy excitement, but within the Labour Party a similar struggle between moderates and radicals is underway.
 
At the Party’s annual conference, held in Christchurch in early November, the impetus towards economic populism was readily apparent. Ordinary branch members and the party’s trade union affiliates, fresh from their triumph in the leadership primary, were keen to rally Labour’s traditional support-base around a populist banner.
 
Significantly, their calls for a rethink of Labour’s policy of raising the age of eligibility for NZ Superannuation to 67, and for Labour to distance itself from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (both of which fall squarely under the rubric of economic populism) were finessed away by party bosses behind-the-scenes.
 
The biggest stumbling blocks to a campaign based on economic populism are Labour’s economic spokesperson, David Parker, and its trade spokesperson, Phil Goff. Both of these senior Opposition politicians believe that if Labour is to win the 2014 General Election, then it must present a moderate and responsible face to both the electorate and (perhaps more importantly) to the country’s opinion leaders.
 
Both men subscribe to the view that elections are won or lost in the middle-ground of politics, where men and women of moderate opinions congregate. Without the endorsement of these moderate voters, runs the argument, a change of government will not happen.
 
At work here is a powerful sub-text in which political moderation is conflated with the middle-class. If only by implication, the Right associates economic populism (which it regards as a form of extremism) with politicians purporting to speak for working-class voters and beneficiaries.
 
And this produces another, more sinister, twist to the idea of the “Moderate Middle”. In both the USA and New Zealand, the non-white population is strongly over-represented among low-paid workers and beneficiaries.  It does not, therefore, take much to persuade the mostly white middle-class voters of either country that economic populist policies designed to uplift Blacks and Latinos, Maori and Pasifika, can only be implemented at their expense.
 
The unacknowledged racism inherent in the strategy of appealing to the “Moderate Middle” forced Barack Obama, the Democratic party’s first black presidential candidate, to pursue a strategy of going around the white middle-class and mobilising those Americans least likely to participate in the electoral process: young people and poor people.
 
The extraordinary power of his campaign rhetoric in 2008 – his famous “Yes We Can” slogan – was designed to persuade those alienated and marginalised citizens who habitually dismissed politics as having nothing in it for them that – this time – they could make a difference.
 
And once they were “in” the electoral process, the Democratic Party’s extraordinary political machine made sure that they remained accessible to President Obama’s appeal for a second term. The Democrats ability to identify and mobilise an unusually large proportion of their 2008 vote was a crucial factor in Barack Obama’s defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012.
 
And now the President’s party is preparing to mobilise those same voters by presenting the 2014 mid-term elections as an opportunity to strike a blow for economic equality by helping “progressive populist” Democrats reclaim the House of Representatives from the far-right “Tea Party” Republicans.
 
If Labour is to retake New Zealand’s House of Representatives it needs to learn from the Democratic Party’s example. A strategy based on competing for the support of the Pakeha middle-class will do nothing to mobilise the 750,000 mostly young and poor voters who sat out the 2011 General Election.
 
Only an unashamedly populist campaign that declares “Yes we can eliminate economic inequality in New Zealand!” offers Labour the slightest hope of convincing the young and the poor that by casting a vote in 2014 they, too, can make a difference.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 December 2013.