Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Climate Changers: Otago's Foreign Policy School Celebrates 50 Years.

Climate Changers: Ordinary New Zealanders make a very direct and public contribution to the evolution of their country's foreign policy vis-à-vis Vietnam in 1967. The effort to move New Zealand out from under America's shadow has been a constant theme of the post-war foreign policy debate. Since its first gathering in 1966, the University of Otago's Foreign Policy School has played a significant role in modifying the "official climate of opinion" in relation to the USA.
GERALD HENSLEY sums up the congealed orthodoxy of New Zealand’s foreign policy establishment in his 2006 memoir – Final Approaches. In 1989, the veteran New Zealand diplomat and civil servant was awarded a fellowship to Harvard by the Centre for International Affairs. Describing with obvious relish the cosy ivy-league environment of languorous breakfasts and roaring log fires, he rounded-off his observations of the winter the Wall came down by musing upon the performance of a group of classical musicians.
“A few nights later I looked down at the Beaux Arts Trio taking their bows after a concert and was struck by the tradition they represented – three dumpy figures with the light gleaming on their white hair and shirt-fronts who had helped carry the values of civilisation through the long totalitarian shadow cast by the twentieth century.”
Let us put to one side the obvious retorts that the Nazis are known to have organised classical recitals in the death camps; and that the Soviets’ reverence for the classical tradition was second to none; and examine instead Mr Hensley’s comfortable assumptions about the character of the Cold War’s ultimate victors.
The battle, according to Hensley, has always been a struggle between the “values of civilisation” and the “totalitarian shadow”. In framing his own, and, by extension, New Zealand’s, diplomatic choices in these stark Manichean terms, Hensley echoes the conceptual conservatism that has dictated the formulation and conduct of New Zealand foreign policy for the last 70 years.
Where, one wonders, were the “values of civilisation” when the United States Air Force was spraying Agent Orange on Vietnam’s forests? (Not to mention its own – and our – troops!) And where, exactly, did the “totalitarian shadow” fall when America’s murderous Honduran proxies (all of them thoroughly trained at the infamous US Army School of the Americas in Georgia) were waging genocidal war against their own indigenous Mayan population? And what about all those Washington neo-cons and their plans for bringing the “values of civilisation” to Afghanistan and Iraq? How’s that working out?
It’s not simply that New Zealand’s foreign policy establishment routinely dismiss such questions as evidence of either naivety or (much worse!) anti-Americanism, but that in soaking-up the cosy collegial atmosphere depicted in Hensley’s memoirs, New Zealand diplomats very rapidly lose all interest in undertaking any such ethical interrogation of their very, very, very good friends.
Writing 40 years prior to the appearance of Hensley’s Final Approaches, William B. Sutch, in his The Quest For Security in New Zealand 1840-1966, recalled the birth of the Cold War in the late 1940s, when the Labour Party, under Peter Fraser, inaugurated “a period, which has now lasted two decades, when not only was dissent from the customary social and economic way of doing things regarded with suspicion, and sceptical thinking discouraged, but an official climate of opinion developed, conditioned to receive US foreign policy sympathetically just as in past years the support for British foreign policy had been almost automatic.”
Academic institutions have played a crucial role in the formulation and maintenance of that “official climate of opinion”. All across the English-speaking world, ‘Centres’ for this and ‘Institutes’ for that make sure that, in addition to churning-out copious quantities of self-serving “research”, they regularly perform the much more important function of bringing together the men and women upon whose shoulders the responsibility for ensuring that the official climate does not change ultimately rests. At such gatherings the official orthodoxy is reinforced, international relationships forged, and new talent spotted and recruited.
The University of Otago Foreign Policy School, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in Dunedin over the weekend, was New Zealand’s first attempt at creating an academic adjunct to the official formulators of this country’s foreign policy. Inspired by Arnold Entwisle, and run by him for the first ten years of its existence, the two-day “school” initially did little more than provide an introduction to the rudiments of foreign policy and alert Otago’s brightest graduates to the possibility of a career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As the year’s passed, however, the School’s annual colloquium began to build up a distinct community of participants and attendees. Not only the Ministry but many of the larger embassies regularly sent observers. Prestigious speakers, both local and international, added to the School’s reputation.
Much more significant, however, was the way the School adapted its subject-matter to reflect the public’s increasing engagement in foreign policy issues – especially the Vietnam War, sporting contacts with Apartheid-era South Africa, and nuclear disarmament. In doing so the School distinguished itself clearly from its local and overseas counterparts. By no means always, but often enough to perturb the official climate of opinion, the University of Otago Foreign Policy School has been prepared to interrogate, and not always sympathetically, the “values of civilisation” – and American foreign policy.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 June 2015.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Kindness Of Friends

Who? How? and With What? The Defence White Paper currently being drafted will attempt to answer the most basic questions about New Zealand's military posture. Who should do our fighting? How should they fight? What sort of weapons should they use? And, how much are we willing to pay? Historically, that last question has been crucial.
RIGHT NOW a hand-picked group of worthy citizens are hard at work spending $26 million of our money. They are doing so at the behest of the Prime Minister, John Key, who decided, a few years back, that what New Zealand really needed was a new flag. At the same time, but a lot further back in the decision-making machinery of state, a diverse collection of top-ranking military officers, senior bureaucrats and politicians are engaged in producing the 2015 Defence White Paper. As part of the flag-changing exercise, New Zealanders are being asked what they stand for. The much lower-key consultative exercise for the Defence White Paper needs to know what they’ll fight for – and how.
It’s a great shame that the same quantum of resources currently being poured into the flag-changing exercise have not been devoted to determining what goes into the Defence White Paper. Certainly a country’s flag is (or should be) a powerful symbol of national identity. As many old soldiers are quick to remind us, it’s the object under which tens-of-thousands of young New Zealanders marched off to war in 1939. And it’s still the object we drape over the caskets of the fallen as we pipe them off our ageing Hercules transport aircraft and into the care of their grieving families. It would, however, be foolish to equate the symbolism of war with war itself. Deciding how our nation should be defended, and by whom, is surely as worthy of intense public debate as the colour of the flag they fight under?
A Government “White Paper” is, as its name suggests, an attempt to come at important public policy from first principles. It should be a statement of fundamental intent: the starting point from which we collectively determine to set forth. What then, are the first principles of a New Zealand strategy for national defence?
The first big question to ask must surely be: Who will defend us?
This is not as naïve as it sounds, because if your answer to that first question is: “a defence force made up of New Zealanders”, then you’re immediately faced with a whole host of other questions. Should that defence force be large and conscripted, or small and professional? Should it operate on the assumption that New Zealand will be fighting its enemies alone, or as part of coalitions of allied forces? And, if it’s the latter, then how much of our national sovereignty are we willing to forfeit in return for the military assistance of larger, richer and more militarily formidable nation states?
The second big question to answer is: How shall we fight?
Should we attempt to equip ourselves with the most sophisticated and effective military technology in order to repel enemies attacking us from any quarter – land, sea or air? Or, should we build military proficiency in only a limited number of areas, relying, once again, on more powerful allies to supply the full array of military options?
The acquisition of full-spectrum military capability would entail the reconstitution of the RNZAF’s fighter-bomber squadrons, along with medium- and short-range surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, a submarine force and naval vessels at least equal to the task of apprehending Patagonian Tooth-Fishers.
The other alternative is to build a resistance-style defence force, based upon a universal people’s militia, ferociously schooled in the strategy and tactics of twenty-first century asymmetric warfare.
The latter option would be by far the cheapest option – a not unimportant consideration. Indeed, the third big question is: How much are we willing to pay?
The answer, historically, is “not very much”. Certainly, a defence force capable of defending New Zealand unaided, using conventional military weapons, would be eye-wateringly expensive. Taxes would rise and our welfare state would shrink. In the absence of a slavering, swivel-eyed existential threat, it is, therefore, very difficult to see the average Kiwi voter ponying-up for a Swiss or Israeli-style defence force. Equally unlikely is the prospect of New Zealanders suddenly becoming the South Pacific’s answer to the Viet Cong or Islamic State.
All of which leaves us in the position of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche relied upon “the kindness of strangers”, New Zealand’s security depends on the kindness of her “friends”.
Bluntly speaking: once a colony, always a colony – with or without a new flag.
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, 26 June 2015.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Poisoning Nauru: How Australia Is Destroying A Pacific Neighbour’s Democracy, While New Zealand’s Government Looks On.

Silencing All Opposition: Matthew Batsiua, one of five opposition MPs expelled from the Nauruan Parliament for challenging the increasingly dictatorial regime of President Baron Waqa, is arrested for leading a protest demonstration against its latest crackdown on free speech and the Internet. While Australia, in the name of its brutal "Pacific Solution", is poisoning Nauru's democratic institutions, New Zealand looks on in silence.
CORRUPTION IS LIKE POISON. Once inside your system it immediately starts attacking your defences. Eventually, if nothing is done to counteract its effects, it kills you. The tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, situated approximately 4,000 kilometres north of Auckland, has been corrupted by Australia. Slowly but surely, its democratic institutions are being poisoned.
Some would argue that it all began a hundred years ago when the Australians turfed out the Germans at the beginning of the First World War. At the war’s end, Nauru was declared a League of Nations “mandate” under the joint control of the British, Australian and New Zealand governments. In reality, however, Nauru has always been an Aussie-run operation.
No one would have cared (other than the Nauruans, who weren’t consulted) had it not been for the fact that this tiny dot (just 21 square kilometres!) on the equator had, over thousands of years, accumulated hundreds-of-thousands of tons of top-quality bird shit.
Nauru’s phosphate deposits were among the purest in the world, a fact which conferred upon the hapless island territory the dangerous status of “strategic possession”. Ruthlessly extracted for use as fertiliser, Nauru’s phosphate deposits would, between 1920 and 1980, transform New Zealand’s farms into some of the most productive agricultural units on earth.
The Nauruans were not permitted to get their hands on this crucial resource until the late 1960s. For a few fat years the newly independent republic of Nauru waxed affluent on its rapidly dwindling guano deposits. Briefly, its citizens enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes on earth. And then, suddenly, it was gone. Leaving Nauru as little more than, in David Lange’s memorable phrase: “a clapped-out quarry”.
What was Nauru to do? In 1991 it had $1.5 billion in its Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust – a not insignificant capital base for 10,000 citizens looking for a fresh start. Tragically, by 2001, corruption and mismanagement had reduced the Trust’s resources to barely $100 million. With its levels of expenditure now well in excess of its income, Nauru was broke.
And then along came the Tampa and its hundreds of rescued asylum seekers. Little Johnny Howard responded by unconscionably exploiting Australia’s most visceral racist impulses. That created an urgent political need to get the whole festering problem off Australian soil. What Howard and his Liberal Party were looking for was a nation state that was not only willing to “accommodate” Australia’s unwanted asylum-seekers, but to also put a dampener on the enthusiasm of interfering human-rights lawyers, UN rapporteurs, and investigative journalists. Thus was born the “Pacific Solution”.
The detention of the Tampa refugees was arranged with indecent haste, but the transformation of Nauru into an hermetically-sealed island of unaccountable state power was bound to take a little longer. Nauru had a perfectly serviceable democratic constitution. It belonged to the Commonwealth and was a member of the Pacific Forum. It had a respectable and responsible judiciary made up of (mostly) Australian judges. Its small, Australian-trained, police force was reasonably competent and honest. On the debit side, the country was broke, and just about everybody lucky enough to have a job worked for the Nauruan government. Politics and public administration was the country’s Achilles’ Heel. To corrupt Nauru, all Howard (or any other Australian prime minister) needed was a fistful of aid dollars – and 10 of its 19 MPs.
It has taken 14 years, off and on, but the poison is clearly working. Nauru’s decision to host Australia’s concentration camps for asylum seekers has eroded every constitutional check and balance essential to the survival of democratic institutions.
The first casualty was the Nauruan judiciary. In January 2014 the Chief Justice of Nauru, Geoffrey Eames, was expelled from the country, along with the Australian magistrate, Peter Law. With them went the rule of law in the tiny republic. The administration of justice is now in the hands of persons answerable only to the politicians. Opponents of the Government can no longer rely on the courts for protection.
The police force, too, has fallen under political control. Its inevitable involvement in the oppression of the asylum seekers has fatally compromised its personnel as impartial enforcers of the law. The Nauruan Police have abandoned their role as the the citizens’ protectors to become the Government’s enforcers. In collusion with the private security personnel responsible for keeping “order” at the refugee detention centres, police officers are increasingly regarded as people to be feared; thugs who can break the law with impunity.
The reason so little news of these derelictions filters out of Nauru is due to the ruthless censorship applied by the state-owned and operated television and radio stations. Attempting to report such matters would instantly cost any local journalist his or her job. It’s no easier for foreign journalists. President Baron Waqa and his Cabinet have imposed a mandatory, non-refundable $8,000 “bond” on every journalist attempting to enter the country. If that doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm, the Nauruan immigration authorities can always arrange for them to be put on the next plane to Sydney or Auckland. Oh, and just in case young Nauruans might feel tempted to organise and communicate through social media, the Government has shut down Facebook.
Not surprisingly, with the Judiciary subverted, the Police corrupted and the news media gagged, Baron Waqa and his allies decided in June of last year that it was time to put the finishing touches to their 21 square kilometre dictatorship. This involved the suspension of all those members of the Nauruan parliament who refused to go along with Waqa’s increasingly lawless regime.
Last week, several hundred Nauruans, led by one of the suspended MPs, Matthew Batsiua, attempted to protest the Waqa Government’s ever more draconian attempts to shut down free speech and the Internet. As they approached Parliament House, the Nauruan Police (aided by security officers from the camps) waded into the crowd and a number of protesters were hurt. Batsiua, along with the opposition MPs Sprent Dabwido (a former President of Nauru) and Squire Jeremiah were later arrested and remain in custody. Another opposition MP, Roland Kun, was physically hauled off a plane due to depart for Wellington and has had his passport cancelled. The Waqa regime is apparently concerned that he will inform the outside world about what is happening in Nauru.
The silence of the Australian Government in the face of this “Lord of the Flies” descent into lawlessness and brutality is readily understood. Prime Minister Tony Abbott needs the Pacific Solution and he is fully aware that it cannot be made to work in a democratic country where the rule of law holds sway.
More difficult to understand, and harder to forgive, is the silence of our own government. The Nauruans and their phosphate may have made New Zealand rich, but that does not appear to have inspired a reciprocal determination on our part to keep them free.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 25 June 2015.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Praise Be For Pope Francis!

Praise Be: Pope Francis, in his first encyclical “Laudato Si” (Praise Be) presents global capitalism with a stark choice. Either, brand this fearless pope a heretic and destroy him; or, embrace his radical Christian ecologism as a uniquely effective way of re-presenting capitalism to an increasingly hostile world.
POPE FRANCIS, like his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, is challenging the powerful to see the world through new eyes. The question, now, is whether the powerful will embrace this radical pope, or destroy him?
The fate of St. Francis would have been grim, had the then occupant of the papal throne, Innocent III, not recognised in his charismatic power a force of huge potential benefit to the Catholic Church. By extending his protection to Francis and his followers, Innocent allowed them to open a new pathway for the faithful. Pope Francis, in his first encyclical “Laudato Si” (Praise Be) presents global capitalism with a similar choice. Either, brand this radical pope a heretic and destroy him; or, embrace his radical Christian ecologism as a uniquely effective way of re-presenting capitalism to an increasingly hostile world.
Laudato Si is not only a masterful presentation of the case for the reality of global warming, but also a fearless exposé of its all-too-human origins. In linking environmental crisis with the mindset that places profit and private property ahead of all other considerations, Pope Francis is openly conceding what those on the right of politics have long suspected: that their opponents see climate change and capitalism as inextricably linked; and that the effects of the former cannot be effectively moderated without radically constraining the appetites of the latter.
It is this suspicion, now confirmed by Laudato Si, that explains the Right’s heavy intellectual (and financial) investment in the promotion of climate change denial. In essence, the climate change deniers want the world to believe two things: 1) That the “science” of climate change is highly contestable and very far from being settled. 2) That unscrupulous left-wing parties and politicians (especially the Greens) are using the alleged “threat” of climate change as a Trojan horse to bring down free-market capitalism.
In the context of normal electoral competition in the West, the general thrust of climate change denial has proved to be remarkably effective. Most voters understand that if climate change is real, then business-as-usual is over, and some pretty radical adjustments to their lifestyle must be imminent. But, if sufficient doubt can be raised concerning the urgency, the severity – or even the reality – of climate change, then business-as-usual will be able to go on for a little bit longer. And if the electorate’s ingrained historical fear of the Left could somehow be bundled-up with climate change? Well, then the life of business-as-usual could be extended almost indefinitely.
What makes Laudato Si so important is that its confirmation of the reality of climate change, and its indictment of capitalism as both creator and perpetuator of global warming, comes from a realm above and beyond the accepted parameters of electoral politics. Francis I is the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics – people who believe sincerely and devoutly that their Holy Father in Rome speaks for God himself. And if God’s anointed should speak with a left-wing accent?
The forces of conservative Catholicism have lived in mortal fear of just such a pope ever since the sweeping “Vatican II” reforms of Pope John XXIII. There are even those who, like the British author, David Yallop, believe that the last pope to advance the beneficial option for the poor, Pope John Paul I, was murdered by conservative ecclesiastical forces in the grip of the Italian Far-Right. Certainly, John Paul I’s successor, the virulently anti-Communist Pole, Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II) put paid to the hopes of liberal reformers and liberation theologians all over the Catholic world – most notably in Francis’s home continent, South America.
Reaction and corruption are still deeply embedded in the Catholic Church, and their minions have already been given every cause to fear the reforming hand of Pope Francis. That they should reach out to their natural allies – the neoliberal defenders of a globalised capitalism red in tooth and claw – is only to be expected.
The American Far-Right, in particular, will be aghast at the contents of Laudato Si. In the electorally critical sun-belt, the votes of overwhelmingly Catholic Hispanic Americans could make all the difference to next year’s presidential election.
There can be no disputing that Pope Francis has taken a great risk in delivering Laudato Si. Equally indisputable, however, is the greatness of his purpose. In his own words:
“We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good.”
Pope Francis has invited us to take ourselves and our planet seriously. It’s almost certainly the last chance we’ll be given.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 June 2015.

What Game Of Thrones Can Teach Us About Magna Carta

Under Duress: In the end, John Plantagenet had nothing but bad options to choose from. Cornered by his barons at Runnymede, about 20 miles west of London, and chivvied by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, King John affixed his seal to the charter which, its high-flown promises about freedom, justice and the rule of law notwithstanding, was drawn up to ensure that government of the barons, by the barons, for the barons, would endure.
“FOR THE WATCH!” With that grim cry, the conspirators of Castle Black struck down their Lord Commander. How fitting that the assassination of the fictional Jon Snow should coincide with the 800th anniversary of a legal document sealed at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Why fitting? Because the breath-taking brutality and treachery of Game of Thrones offers us a much truer guide to the political realities underpinning Magna Carta (as that legal document is now known) than the pious platitudes offered up by its latter-day celebrants.
The power of Game of Thrones, and the likely explanation for its worldwide popularity, is its clear-eyed refusal to pretend that good character and effective policy are somehow inextricable. The very real John Plantagenet, like the fictional Jon Snow, was a man confronted with a multitude of poor options – none of which were likely to significantly improve his position.
George R.R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones, presents Jon Snow to his readers as a man of honour and courage who, in spite (or is it because) of these qualities, is required to make his choices from a set of dwindling military and political options – each one carrying a higher risk of death, either in battle or by assassination. With every decision Jon Snow makes, his personal circumstances grow more perilous, until, eventually, nothing remains to him but fatal choices.
Very few historians (if any) would attempt to present John Plantagenet as an honourable man. The historical cliché of “Bad King John” (so unlike his “good” brother, the chivalrous King Richard the Lionheart) does possess a reasonably solid foundation in historical fact. With brutality to match the very worst scenes in Game of Thrones, John ordered the deaths of the young Welsh noblemen sent to his court as hostages to their fathers’ good behaviour. And, to prevent her spreading rumours (which were, almost certainly, true) that he had personally murdered his own nephew, Arthur, John ordered Maud de Braose, along with her eldest son, to be shut up in the dungeon of Corfe Castle and starved to death.
John Plantagenet was, clearly, no Jon Snow when it came to matters of good character. He did, however, have much in common with the fictional hero when it came to poor political options. The vast Angevin Empire, which John inherited from his father, King Henry II, and his formidable mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Cersei eat your heart out!) was under constant pressure from barons loyal to the French king. To hold onto his family’s territories across the English Channel, men and money were urgently required – and they did not come cheap.
If John had refused to defend his inheritance, he would have been in all kinds of trouble. (His enemies already called him John “Lackland”, or, even worse, “Softsword”!) But, in raising the resources required to defend the empire, he was bound to displease his feudal support-base, the barons. Indeed, it was John’s success as an administrator – and tax collector – that incited his barons (especially those who owed him lots of money) to rebel.
And these barons were very far from being the lordly defenders of the rights of freeborn Englishmen that the celebrants of Magna Carta like to paint them. On their own lands they wielded the same sort of brutal authority as the murderous Bolton family displays in Game of Thrones. One could even argue that it was the royal encroachments on baronial power represented by John’s administrative innovations (he invented to post of Coroner, the “Crown’s Man”) that made his rebellious barons so determined to roll back their King’s expanding authority.
Good man or bad man, John Plantagenet, like Jon Snow, was ultimately left with nothing but bad options to choose from. Cornered by his barons and their “bannermen” at Runnymede, about 20 miles west of London, and chivvied by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, King John affixed his seal to the charter which, its high-flown promises about freedom, justice and the rule of law notwithstanding, was drawn up to ensure that government of the barons, by the barons, for the barons, would endure.
Jon Snow over-ruled his enemies in the Night’s Watch – and paid the price. John Plantagenet bowed to his barons’ assembled swords – and survived. Three months later, at John’s insistence, their long-winded charter was annulled by the Pope.
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, 19 Junes 2015.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

"Home Town Boy": What Jerry Collins’s Homecoming Can Teach The Left About Pasifika New Zealanders.

From Inspiration To Aspiration: Not everyone can feint and side-step like Jerry Collins, but in those moments of transcendent sporting artistry for which he will long be remembered, he has inscribed an irresistible invitation to every young Pasifika man and woman: “You, too, can be this good!”
IT LOOKED SPONTANEOUS, but it wasn’t. Crowds numbering in the thousands very seldom appear without a lot of behind the scenes preparation. And when Jerry Collin’s body returned to Porirua last Sunday, it seemed as if half the city had turned out to welcome their fallen rugby hero home.
It was the same today [17 June 2015]. Te Rauparaha Arena was filled to its 4,000-seat capacity for Collins’s funeral service. Rugby greats of both the past and the present; including Jonah Lomu and All Black Captain, Ritchie McCaw; were there to pay their respects. Porirua’s ambitious young Mayor, Nick Leggett, spoke too, but briefly. More than happy to let the huge crowd speak for itself, Leggett simply noted that Collins was “a home-town boy at heart”.
The rugby field was always the place where Collins spoke the loudest, but, in the extraordinary outpouring of love, grief and pride at his tragic death, he has bequeathed to those with sufficient wit to interpret it, an important message about what moves and inspires Pasifika people in New Zealand.
Because the thousands of Pasifika men and women, boys and girls, who have, in recent days, filled their city’s streets and stadia, are the same people European political scientists and commentators have in mind when they talk, glibly, about the “Missing Million” voters.
It’s not a kindly designation. Those who, though eligible to vote, decline to do so are, more often than not, dismissed as inferior citizens. Their political inertia is explained away by the deleterious effects of poverty and cultural marginalisation. They are deemed to be suitable cases for treatment; targets for education programmes; the problem children of a political system under pressure.
And yet, in the space of a few days, these same “inert” citizens, utilising the social institutions that still count for something in their lives: schools; church groups: rugby clubs; were able to organise a demonstration of love and pride that stunned the nation.
There were some who found it all vaguely de trop: the man was, after all, only a rugby player. “For God’s sake – it’s not as if he cured cancer!” For others, it was touching proof of the essential innocence of Pasifika culture. “Oh, how marvellous! Just look at those hand-made banners. He obviously meant so much to them!”
"Home Town Boy At Heart": Jerry Collins's homecoming was about so much more than rugby.
Such misjudgements only reinforce the need to more fully (and accurately!) decode the meaning of Porirua’s response to Jerry Collins’s death. Clearly, this was about so much more than rugby.
For all immigrant communities there are vectors of escape. For some, the primary route to participation and acceptance in the dominant culture is education. For others, it is service in the military. For a great many more, however, both here in New Zealand and around the world, sport is by far the most effective vector for escaping the constraints of subordinated immigrant societies.
But sport offers more than mere escape. Unlike education, which all-too-often removes the escapee from the cultural milieu in which he or she was raised, sport provides its success stories with multiple opportunities to “give something back”. This may be as simple as giving the fans superlative displays of sporting skill and flair. But it can also include mentoring up-and-coming players, coaching local or national teams, and providing that all-important “role model” for the young and aspirational.
Jerry Collins contributed at all these levels and was recognised as having done so by the community in which he grew up. This could only burnish his status as a local hero. Not only had he proved himself in the European world (including faraway France!) but, as he was doing so, he had remained, in Leggett’s words, “a home-town boy at heart”.
A son of Samoa, a son of Porirua, a son of New Zealand – living proof that to be born Pasifika is no obstacle to greatness.
It was for this that they turned out in their thousands to honour Jerry Collins’s homecoming. For the living proof he provided that ethnicity is not destiny; that it is a good thing to aspire to greatness; and that it is an even better thing to achieve it.
For left-wing European politicians this is the crucial message – though not all of them will recognize, and even fewer will welcome, it. That Pasifika people neither see themselves, nor are they happy to be treated as, victims. That, even more importantly, they do not see the exercise of the franchise as a primary, or even a particularly effective, vector of escape. The European working-class constructed a political party and used it to lever themselves out of poverty and into relative affluence. Pasifika people appear to be engaged in blazing a very different trail to the future.
Much of it is about community. More of it than is any longer the case with European New Zealand is about spirituality. But most of it seems to be about hope and the power of good examples. Not everyone can feint and side-step like Jerry Collins, but in those moments of transcendent sporting artistry for which he will long be remembered, he has inscribed an irresistible invitation to every young Pasifika man and woman:
“You, too, can be this good!”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 18 June 2015.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Dirt And Squalor: The Housing Crisis Comes Full-Circle.

Planned Response: Squalor and dirt was the market’s solution to the acute shortage of affordable housing, and the First Labour Government’s heroic, state-organised, response has become the stuff of political legend. How Mickey Savage, keen to find an outlet for the restless energy of John A. Lee, his great rival for the masses’ affections, gave him responsibility for organising a massive programme of state house construction. And how Lee, by mobilising both the public and private sectors, built thousands of houses for the working poor.
THOUSANDS OF NEW ZEALANDERS are at the mercy of a “slum landlord”. Unfortunately, that slum landlord is the Government. The person who put into words what so many people have, for the best part of a fortnight, been feeling, was Dr Bryce Edwards. The political studies lecturer from Otago University was speaking as panellist on Television New Zealand’s Q+A programme.
It is a measure of how fraught the housing issue has become that TVNZ was only able to persuade the Housing Minister, Dr Nick Smith, to appear on the programme if he was interviewed alone, and was given the right-of-reply to the following interview with Labour’s housing spokesperson, Phil Twyford.
There was a time when Government and Opposition spokespeople felt up to the job of defending their respective positions in head-to-head debates, live, on national television. To my knowledge, guaranteeing a Government Minister a separate right-of-reply constitutes an editorial concession without precedent on either of this country’s free-to-air networks.
The Minister’s sensitivity was, of course, understandable in a week when New Zealanders learned that sub-standard conditions in a solo mother’s state house accommodation had materially contributed to the death of her infant daughter. Then to learn, just days later, of another death attributable, at least in part, to sub-standard state accommodation. When asked by journalists to comment on these tragedies, Dr Smith responded that: “People dying in winter of pneumonia and other illnesses is not new.”
This was the context in which Dr Edwards’ “slum landlord” comment was able to strike such a raw public nerve.
How has it come to this? What has permitted the housing conditions wheel, over the course of 80 years, to come very nearly full-circle?
In his book, We Call It Home: A History of State Housing in New Zealand, Ben Schrader describes how the Truth newspaper, just one week after the election of the First Labour Government, in 1935, began campaigning against “the slum problem”.
“The article began”, writes Schrader, “by vividly juxtaposing the newly completed National War Memorial with its sordid surroundings.” Truth compared this “beautiful piece of architecture”, erected to ensure that the “supreme sacrifice” of the Great War was not forgotten, with that of the Wellington slums, standing “a stone’s throw away” from the Memorial’s tower. In these dwellings, Truth observed: “men, women and children are making a different kind of sacrifice. They live in squalor and dirt, in little shacks lacking even the ordinary comforts of existence.”
Squalor and dirt was the market’s solution to the acute shortage of affordable housing, and the First Labour Government’s heroic, state-organised, response has become the stuff of political legend. How Mickey Savage, keen to find an outlet for the restless energy of John A. Lee, his great rival for the masses’ affections, gave him responsibility for organising a massive programme of state house construction. And how Lee, by mobilising both the public and private sectors, built thousands of houses for the working poor.
So successful was Labour’s scheme that the town planner, Cedric Firth, could write, more than a decade later, about the citizen’s right to a “decent dwelling being regarded as on the same level as the right to education, sanitation, to good and abundant water supply, to an adequate road system and a certain amount of medical care.”
These are no longer the expectations of either those responsible for supplying social housing, nor, sadly, of those obliged to seek shelter in New Zealand’s decaying stock of state houses. Having forgotten (if he ever knew) how manifestly inadequate the market’s “solutions” were to the problems of the 1930s, Finance Minister, Bill English, appears hell-bent on resurrecting a social housing market – even if he has to dig up the corpse with his bare hands!
Commentators across the political spectrum, joined just this week by economists from the OECD, are urging John Key’s National Government to launch a state-financed and directed effort to address directly the lack of affordable houses for the poorest New Zealanders. As Dr Edwards’ fellow panellist on last Sunday’s Q+A programme, Fran O’Sullivan, put it: “It’s been done before in our history.”
The problem, says Dr Edwards, is that the political parties’ housing agendas are “a bit deluded and empty”. National and Labour are “still quite timid” when it comes to committing themselves to the sort of low-cost housing construction effort that offers the only truly effective solution to New Zealand’s twin housing crises. The first, which condemns far too many Kiwis to lives of “squalor and dirt”. And the second, fuelled by the speculative mania currently gripping Auckland’s runaway housing market.
Market delusions and political timidity allowed slum landlords to thrive in the 1930s. Eighty years later, identical failings on the part of their state-owned successor have added an ironical twist to the community’s demand for radical housing reform.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 June 2015.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Not Understood: Why New Zealand’s Current-Affairs Television Is So Bad.

Absurdist Performance Art: The television reviewer, Diana Wichtel, attempting to make sense of the "surely ironically titled" Newsworthy, found only absurdity in the spectacle of the show's co-host, David Farrier, slowly stripping in front of Conservative Party leader, Colin Craig, in a sauna. It's not that New Zealand can't produce top-quality news and current affairs, it's more a matter of a growing number of viewers preferring that it didn't.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it! Upton Sinclair (1878–1968)  Muckraking American journalist and author.
TELEVISION CRITIC, Diana Wichtel, advises her readers to look upon the latest free-to-air current affairs offerings as “a sort of absurdist performance art”. It’s an arresting notion: the idea that television journalists, in attempting to make sense of contemporary New Zealand, can produce only nonsense. Either, the current affairs programmes on free-to-air television are accurate journalistic depictions of an increasingly absurd society, or, depicting New Zealand society accurately has become too troublesome for mainstream TV journalism.
This is a grim pair of options. They raise the question of whether or not the demise of serious current affairs journalism is peculiar to New Zealand television, or, whether it ours is merely the local reflection of a worldwide decline in the genre?
Sadly, the answer is that the decline is a peculiarly New Zealand phenomenon.
Just last week, an hour-long episode of the BBC documentary series, Panorama, exposed the most shocking misdeeds of the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s Special Branch, MI5 and the UK Defence Force. Laid bare was the protection afforded to murderers and terrorists by agents of the British state. It was television journalism at its best: fearless, thorough and absolutely gripping. The powerful were held to account; the voices of the powerless rang out loud and clear; and the interests of democratic accountability were well and truly served.
Genuine television current-affairs journalism is, quite clearly, still possible in other parts of the world – so why not here? Has our society truly reached a level of absurdity such that it makes more sense to turn out a product in which the “surely ironically titled” Newsworthy show’s co-host, David Farrier, “slowly stripped in front of [Conservative Party leader] Colin Craig in a sauna.” The answer, I’m afraid, is: “Yes, that is the level of absurdity that we have reached.”
Thirty years of neoliberal extremism has produced a society in which, for nearly half the population, life has become a bitter struggle for survival. What’s more, the reality of that struggle is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Tragedies, like the little girl who died of an illness that was complicated and intensified by the shocking quality of her family’s state-provided accommodation, cry out for action – but no serious governmental response is forthcoming.
It is the function of the news media in a properly functioning democracy to rouse public opinion against such political and bureaucratic delinquency. An aggrieved public, it is assumed, being all that is required to secure a redress of wrongs. This is what the BBC’s Panorama programme sets out to do, and it is what the now discontinued Campbell Live show more often than not achieved. (What John Campbell and his team would have made of the little girl’s tragic death is easily imagined!)
And yet, even when it was still being broadcast, Campbell Live always came across as representing the exception, rather than the rule, when it came to free-to-air current affairs in prime time. Indeed, I strongly suspect that every time the show’s producers and journalists broadcast another item critical of the status quo, they were all acutely aware of the massive viewer resistance through which it had to pass. They knew that out there – even among the show’s habitual viewers – there was a vast number of people who simply did not want to know.
Who are these people? They are the New Zealanders for whom neoliberalism is working. The citizens who own their own home, who are holding down a well-paying job, whose children attend a high-decile school, and who would rather not have their noses rubbed in the grim realities experienced by those who have none of these things.
Programmes like Newsworthy and Seven Sharp are what results when the network bosses decide that it is both more profitable and less troublesome to produce programmes for the men and women whose salaries depend on not understanding too much about the sort of society that makes them rich and others poor.
In a land of plenty – like New Zealand – such a situation is not only very wrong, it is also utterly absurd. But, when exposing the former is considered too troublesome, then “a sort of absurdist performance art” is all that remains.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 12 June 2015.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Is Labour Finished?

All Washed Up? Perhaps Labour could be saved if, like the ancient Romans, they were willing to install a dictator to “save the Republic” from its enemies (in the case of Labour’s membership that would be themselves!) someone capable of turning the party into a lean, mean electoral machine. Except, of course, Labour, as presently constituted, is never going to do that.
IF IT HAD ONLY HAPPENED ONCE, I could have written it off as a simple overstatement. Politics lends itself to exaggeration, and there was a lot of that associated with the Labour Party’s Review of the 2014 General Election. But, what I’m describing wasn’t the usual bluff and bluster of the instant commentariat. What I was hearing was coming from “civilians” – people without a platform – ordinary folks. And, what they’ve been saying to me, over and over again, in the week or so since the Review was leaked to TV3’s Paddy Gower, is the same statement-cum-question:  “I think Labour’s finished as a major party – what do you think?”
Now, this is a not the sort of statement/question that political parties ever want to hear. Because it isn’t just another complaint about this leader, or that policy. No, this is an existential query: and existential queries only get made when the subject has already got at least one foot (and a good portion of leg) in the political grave.
I recall people saying very similar things about the Alliance after it split apart over Afghanistan. And they’ve been writing off Act as a zombie party for at least the past six years (quite correctly, in my opinion). Some people were even moved to question National’s future after its Party Vote plummeted to 20.9 percent in the general election of 2002.
The difference between National’s response to its electoral nadir and Labour’s reaction to its worst result since 1922, is that the former took its thrashing seriously and Labour isn’t. Long before the Review was complete, Labour insiders were already speculating on whether or not it would be big enough to make a passable door-stop.
National looked upon its defeat as a catastrophic market failure. National Incorporated’s share price had crashed, the Bank was ready to call in its overdraft, and the receivers were hovering. Time was of the essence. The Board of Directors had to do something.
What did they do? Well, they did what every big business in trouble does. They called in the political equivalent of McKinsey & Co. – consultants in extremis – and ruthlessly refashioned the National Party into a lean, mean electoral machine. National’s review panel didn’t just lop-off the dead wood, they fed it into the wood chipper, mixed it with the blood and bones of several sacred cows, and spread it over their flower beds!
This sort of ruthlessness isn’t an option for Labour. National’s whole purpose, from the moment it was founded in May 1936 (less than 12 months after the election of the First Labour Government) is to remove Labour from office whenever voters have been incautious enough to put it into government; and to remain in government for as long as humanly possible whenever Labour’s in opposition. Labour’s purpose is – or should be – very different. It’s supposed to be about ideas, and change, and nationhood. They’re supposed to be socialists, social-democrats, the workers’ party.
Except it isn’t. Hasn’t been since the mid-1980s. A workers’ party, that is. Labour’s still a party of ideas – even if they’re not the sort of ideas ordinary working people cotton-on to (that doesn’t seem to matter anymore). And the changes Labour’s promoting? Well they don’t find many takers either. Not that a distinct lack of voter support is likely to persuade the party to do things differently. Because, whatever Labour has lost in the trust and confidence of its electoral base, it’s rank-and-file members have more than made up for in democratic constitutional practice.
Democracy is one of those things (like fairness) that National tends to honour more in the breach than the execution. Indeed, it’s the Tories’ iron chain of command that allows them to campaign so effectively.  Labour, on the other hand, is just one big tangle of chains: pull on one and, instantly, a dozen others jerk violently in the opposite direction.
Perhaps Labour could be saved if, like the ancient Romans, they were willing to install a dictator to “save the Republic” from its enemies (in the case of Labour’s membership that would be themselves!) someone capable of turning the party into a lean, mean electoral machine.
Except, of course, Labour’s never going to do that. Which is why so many people are telling me “Labour’s finished” – and  why, regretfully, I’m agreeing with them.
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, 12 June 2015.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Ropes of Sand: Honouring The Memory Of Peter Conway - Trade Unionist.

A New Zealander Worth Remembering: Peter Conway was a man whose efforts in the cause of social justice touched the lives of a huge number of New Zealanders; a man who will be remembered and mourned by clothing workers and shop assistants, truck drivers and storepersons. Of him, the employers’ organisation, Business New Zealand, said: “Peter was an industrial leader of the highest integrity and his passing is a sad loss to New Zealand.”
THIS IS HOW IT IS NOW. This is the country we’ve become. These are New Zealand’s priorities – even in the grim business of honouring the dead.
A man, his wife and baby daughter, travelling by car along a French highway, are reported to have veered into the path of an oncoming truck. In the ensuing collision, the man and his wife are killed and their baby seriously injured.
There is no other word for this bare summary of facts except tragedy. To the family and friends of the deceased is owed the sympathy of all decent and caring people.
Except that the victim of this tragic traffic accident was something more than just a man – he was a former member of the All Blacks – New Zealand’s world-beating rugby team. And that is why, for the past three or four days, the country’s newspapers have given this story saturation coverage. The life story of Jerry Collins, his history with both the Hurricanes provincial rugby team and the All Blacks, is related in lavish detail, with considerable empathy and undoubted pride. When his body arrives back in New Zealand, Jerry Collins funeral service will attract thousands of mourners.
An 80-year-old lawyer dies following a six year struggle with prostate cancer.
Once again, all decent people will acknowledge a life lived well, and with considerable success in the nation’s courtrooms, and express their deep regret at his passing.
Except this man was no ordinary lawyer, but the defender of some of New Zealand’s most notorious criminals. Sir Peter Williams QC was the barrister for Ron Jorgesson, the Bassett Road machine-gun murderer, and Terry Clark – a.k.a “Mr Asia”. He also defended Arthur Alan Thomas, the man accused of, and then ultimately pardoned for, the murders of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe. President of the Howard League for Penal Reform for 30 years, Sir Peter was an outspoken critic of the way New Zealand treated the men and women it locked up. A bon vivant and wicked raconteur, he will be remembered as one of this country’s most colourful legal practitioners.
We know all this because, aware of the seriousness of his illness, the nation’s newspapers had prepared fulsome obituaries to mark his passing.
A trade union leader loses his battle with acute depressive illness.
In the NZ Herald of 10/6/15 the death of Peter Conway, former Secretary of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions – at over 300,000 strong, this country’s largest voluntary organisation – merited precisely 63 words.
More than 30 years devoted to improving the lives, wages and working conditions of tens-of-thousands of New Zealand workers was considered unworthy of even a photograph. The stories of how he campaigned alongside the British miners in their doomed struggle against the government of Margaret Thatcher; or, how he organised scores of young New Zealanders to travel to the socialist republic of Nicaragua in the early 1980s to pick coffee under the banner of “The Harry Holland Brigade”; neither of these warranted a mention. Nor did the fact that in his 40s he went back to university to attain a master’s degree in economics – the better to defend the interests of working people against the bosses’ apologists. That he was a fine singer and accomplished player of both the guitar and mandolin was, likewise, left out of the tiny side-bar story.
Peter Conway was a man whose efforts in the cause of social justice touched the lives of a huge number of New Zealanders; a man who will be remembered and mourned by clothing workers and shop assistants, truck drivers and storepersons. Of him, the employers’ organisation, Business New Zealand said: “Peter was an industrial leader of the highest integrity and his passing is a sad loss to New Zealand.” The Greens co-leader, Metiria Turei, recalled that: “As Secretary of the Council of Trade Unions, Peter could still be found running a picket line at 3 in the morning, he never shirked the hard work, and never stopped fighting for a fairer New Zealand.” And, of his friend and comrade, the former Secretary of the EPMU – now leader of the Labour Party – Andrew Little said, simply: “He was a good man and he will be held in the hearts of the labour movement.”
None of these tributes were considered worthy of quotation by the NZ Herald, and, to be fair, by most of the rest of the mainstream news media. Because, when all is said and done, Peter was not an All Black, nor a renowned barrister – he was a trade unionist.
The coverage of this fine New Zealander's death recalls to mind the following verses by James K. Baxter, which seem to have been written for just such a man as Peter Conway:
The man who talks to the masters of Pig Island
About the love they dread
Plaits ropes of sand, yet I was born among them
And will lie some day with their dead.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 11 June 2015.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

In Memoriam: Peter Conway.

Peter Conway 195? - 2015
Trade union leader, economist, folk-singer, loving husband and father, a caring and thoroughly decent human-being.
 “He was a good man and he will be held in the hearts of the labour movement.” - Andrew Little

At this very sad time, and on behalf of Bowalley Road and its readers, I wish to extend my condolences to Peter's family and friends, and to all his many trade union comrades. - Chris Trotter.

Joe Hill ain't dead, he says to me
Joe Hill ain't ever died
Where working folk are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Real Deal: How Labour Could, Once Again, Become A Workers’ Party.

Trust And Identification: Labour’s politicians should look and sound like the people who vote for them. They should come from similar backgrounds and share many of the same experiences.
HOW MANY LABOUR MPs could make a reasonable fist of spelling out the priorities of a family with pre-school children? What about the thoughts of a young couple just starting out on their journey through life together? How many could summarise the views of a Tongan cleaner setting out for work very early in the morning, while her neighbour – a beneficiary – lies tucked up warm in bed? And the elderly: those over 70; how closely does the Labour Party’s world view mirror the attitudes of these New Zealanders?
A healthy Labour Party, with a caucus broadly representative of its voting base, could answer each of those questions with considerable confidence. It would know what each group was thinking because, within the ranks of its caucus, there would be MPs drawn from the same demographic slivers. Labour’s politicians would look and sound remarkably like them because they had come from very similar backgrounds and shared many of the same experiences.
It’s why National is so successful as a political party. It’s MPs don’t have to pretend to be members of the professional middle class, or farmers, or small business owners, or upwardly mobile tradespeople – because that’s exactly what they are. Representing such people, and defending their interests, is what National does. The ordinary voter looks at the National Party, at their MPs, and says: “Yep, they’re Nats alright, true blue through and through. When they open their mouths they sound exactly like the people who sent them there. They’re the real deal.”
Can the same be said, honestly, of Labour? Does Labour’s historical constituency: the hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders who live off wages; who struggle to pay mortgages or subsist on the old age pension; any longer resemble, or have anything in common with, the 32 individuals who comprise Labour’s current caucus?
How does a family, struggling to get by on or below the median household income of $68,600 per year, even begin to relate to a “representative” earning $109,580 per year (after tax but not counting allowances)? The quantum of parliamentary salaries, alone, constitutes a formidable barrier to the sort of trust and identification Labour MPs must have to be effective representatives of working-class New Zealand.
In their much derided review of Labour’s conduct of the 2014 general election, its authors draw attention to the parlous state of the party’s finances. So broke is the party that the reviewers felt moved to warn both the caucus and the organisation that if its financial situation is not improved “then it will continue to experience electoral failure and place the status of the party as a political institution of influence at risk”. Well, here’s an idea (hat-tip to Danyl McLauchlan). Why not make it a rule that a Labour MP cannot take home more than the average wage of, roughly, $45,480 per year (after tax). The balance of their income, $64,100, would go to the party. This would guarantee Labour an annual income, from its current 32-strong caucus, of at least $2,051,200 per year, or, $6,153,600 over the three year parliamentary term.
That’s not a bad war chest – and just think of the effect on Labour’s voters! Knowing that their MPs are unwilling to take home more than the average income earner. That they’re prepared to give up two-thirds of their salaries to ensure that, come election time, the party of the workers stands a fighting chance against the party of the bosses. That they’re not just in it for the money, and the perks, and the power. What do you think that would do for building trust and identification?
“But, what person in their right mind would agree to that?”, I hear you say. “How could you possibly hope to recruit competent men and women to stand for Parliament on an offer of the average wage?”
There are two replies to that question. The first points to the quality of the current crop of MPs. These are the product of Labour’s current, utterly Byzantine, selection process. The cynical horse-trading that goes on, as one sector group deals with another to “get their candidate up”, not to mention the bare-faced corruption in the credentialing of selectors, makes FIFA look like a paragon of democratic probity. Who would be willing to say that, in every case, Labour’s current crop is worth $109,580 per year?
The second reply addresses the need to attract MPs whose overriding motivation is to make life better for ordinary working-class Kiwis. People who go into politics not because it offers them a long and lucrative career, but because there’s something they want to do. It could be in education, health, the environment or the workplace; the important thing is that, for this sort of politician, the goal is everything. All the other political stuff matters only insofar as it propels them towards the place where real and lasting change can be made.
Candidates with concrete goals should not have to win the backing of jealous sector groups, or secretive moderating committees, but only of ordinary party members, in an organisation-wide ballot – after the fashion of the Greens. Consider a candidate like Dr Liz Craig, who, alongside her husband, Dr David Craig, has fought to put an end to child poverty for close to ten years. Every delegate to Labour’s annual conference knows Liz and David – and what they stand for. If Liz’s name had been on a ballot paper sent out to every Labour Party member, she would be in Parliament today. Not for the money. Not for the power. But for the kids.
And there would be more like Liz. A forestry worker, determined to introduce a world-beating health and safety regime, might be put forward by his union. A school principal, absolutely committed to the reform of our education system might throw her hat into the ring. Or, an aged care worker, dedicated to finally achieving equal pay for work of equal value. The list could easily be extended beyond the 120 parliamentary seats available.
And, as the membership and the public grew accustomed to a Labour Party made up of idealists and reformers, chosen transparently and democratically by those with the most to gain by empowering ideals and reforming this rotten economic system, then, very rapidly, Labour would, once again, look and sound like the workers’ party it was always intended to be.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 9 June 2015.

Intergenerational Mischief-Making.

Natural Allies: What a tragedy it would be if, at the precise moment that the inevitable real-world effects of neoliberalism – poverty, indebtedness, homelessness, precarious and/or under-employment – are manifesting themselves in ways that can no longer be hidden or explained away, the urgently needed political programme uniting old and young was forestalled by a cynical ideological project aimed at setting the Baby Boomers and Generation Rent at each other’s’ throats.
A WAR BETWEEN THE GENERATIONS looms, unless we move swiftly and decisively to avert it. Those born after 1966 will be pitted against those born in the first two-thirds of the Twentieth Century – most particularly, that massive demographic bulge born in the 20 years immediately following World War II: the Baby Boomers.
The narrative justifying this war is already in play. Among younger New Zealanders it takes the form of a bitter litany:
The Baby Boomers, who had everything given to them, are making us pay.
The Baby Boomers, who enjoyed state support into tertiary education, employment and housing, have pulled up the ladder after them – forcing us into lifelong debt.
The Baby Boomers, who are now in or approaching their 60s, are not only keeping us out of their well-paid jobs, by continuing to work, but also demanding that our taxes be used to fund their superannuation.
The Baby Boomers, who are selfish, greedy hypocrites, should be made to pay for the many injustices they have visited upon their children and grandchildren.
There’s more than a little truth in these accusations. Certainly the Baby Boomers constituted a significant proportion of the electorate during a period of extraordinary economic, social and political change.
But, hold on a moment, couldn’t a series of very similar arguments be constructed by pitting other social groups against one another? Maori against Pakeha, for example? Or Women against Men? And wouldn’t most of us pause before marching-off down those particular roads? After all, people do not choose to be born Male or Female, Black or White – any more that they chose to be born between 1946 and 1966. The other reason to pause, of course, is the very long list of evil consequences that flow from stereotyping whole classes of people. How would those who see nothing wrong in branding all Baby Boomers “selfish” and “greedy” respond to someone branding all Maori “violent” and “lazy”? Or, all women “weak” and “foolish”?
There are more than a million Baby Boomers in New Zealand – roughly one quarter of the country’s population. That’s a helluva lot of people! Can every one of them be “selfish”? Are they all “greedy”?
Let’s take a look at housing – a subject guaranteed to enrage the members of so-called “Generation Rent”. To hear them tell the tale, every Baby Boomer is the smug owner of multiple properties, as well as the grasping landlord of every young New Zealander condemned to a lifetime of living in other people’s houses. A truly depressing picture – but is it accurate?
Unfortunately, there is no legal requirement for landlords to register with a government agency. According to the Minister for Building and Housing, however, there were (as of 5 May 2015) 129,450 landlords who had registered one or more bond(s) with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Which strongly suggests that only about 1 in 10 Baby Boomers are landlords. (And that’s after assuming, almost certainly incorrectly, that every landlord is also a Baby Boomer!)
What percentage of all those generations who came before the Baby Boomers were landlords? We might well ask. Was it lower, higher, or about the same? Whatever the correct answer, the above figures demonstrate the rank unfairness of stereotyping people purely on the basis of when they were born.
Young New Zealanders need to be very wary of the growing number of individuals and groups who are inviting them to buy into a simplistic and extremely dangerous conspiracy theory. Because the Baby Boomers are no more conspiring to ruin the lives of young Kiwis (who are, after all, their children and grandchildren!) than the Jews were conspiring to ruin the people of Germany. Rather than make war upon their own parents and grandparents, “Generation Rent” should ask themselves the critical question: cui bono? Who benefits from transforming a whole generation of New Zealanders into scapegoats?
As the co-authors of Generation Rent, Shamubeel and Selena Eaqub, make clear, the rise of what they call “housing apartheid” is directly traceable to the late 1980s and early 1990s. The same, roughly 30-year period during which the neoliberal reforms of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson have, so dramatically, re-shaped New Zealand society.
What a tragedy it would be if, at the precise moment that the inevitable real-world effects of neoliberalism – poverty, indebtedness, homelessness, precarious and/or under-employment – are manifesting themselves in ways that can no longer be hidden or explained away, the urgently needed political programme uniting old and young was forestalled by a cynical ideological project aimed at setting the Baby Boomers and Generation Rent at each other’s’ throats.
Those who would punish the Baby Boomers for Neoliberalism’s crimes against the Welfare State should first be satisfied that the vicious political marginalisation of their parents’ generation, is not followed by the economic destruction of their own.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 June 2015.