Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Trouble At Mill.

Rising Like Lions: Between the early-Nineteenth and late-Twentieth Century, wielding their two “unvanquishable” weapons: trade unionism and the franchise; working people lifted their incomes; improved their housing; obtained an education for their children; and secured ready access to medical advice and care. In the space of little more than a century, working people had secured for themselves both a standard of living and a degree of political power unparalleled in human history. How were these lions turned into lambs?
A FEW NIGHTS AGO, I watched “The Real Mill” on Sky’s History Channel. Fronted by the ubiquitous Tony Robinson, the series investigates the historical background to “The Mill” – a docudrama set in early-Nineteenth Century Cheshire. What struck me most forcefully in the programme was the way in which the factory workers of the period fought back against the oppressive conditions of their working lives.
Bear in mind that these were men, women and (in alarming numbers) children, who had just spent at least 12 hours operating the relentless (and often lethal) machinery of the new “manufactories” – as their workplaces were called. And yet, overcoming their fatigue, they found time to read and write pamphlets; gather together to hear speeches; and march in their tens-of-thousands to great outdoor rallies.
None of them could vote. Even after the passage of the momentous Representation of the People Act, in 1832, only one in five of the adult male population were free to participate in parliamentary elections. The remaining four-fifths of adult males – and all adult women – continued to be excluded from the franchise.
It would require another century of struggle by the working men and women of Great Britain before universal franchise was finally achieved. (Roughly one third of the British soldiers who fought and died in the trenches of World War I were not entitled to vote for the Members of Parliament who sent them there.)
Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that, prior to 1824, it was illegal to form and/or belong to a trade union. Even after the repeal of these “Combination Acts”, trade unionism remained a risky business – as the 1834 “transportation” to Australia of the so-called “Tolpuddle Martyrs” attests. It was not until the passage of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875 that the crucial right to mount a trade union picket was legally recognised.
So, what’s wrong with the working people of the early-Twenty-First Century? Like the mill-workers of two centuries ago, many of them are working long hours for scandalously low wages. Many of their employers utilise exactly the same employment strategies (sub-contracting, piece-work) that the mill-owners of the industrial revolution devised to depress the price of labour.
In sharp contrast to Nineteenth Century workers, however, the working people of today possess both the right to vote and the right to form trade unions, go on strike and picket their workplaces. The two decisive achievements of the working class’s long struggle for freedom and prosperity are both intact and available. How is it that these two mighty swords have rusted in their scabbards?
It was the romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelly, writing in the same period as “The Mill”, who in his incendiary poem, “The Masque of Anarchy”, incited the oppressed peoples of the British Isles to:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!
It was sentiments such as these which inspired the aristocrats and mill-owners of Britain (and many other countries) to resist extending the franchise to their tenants and workers for as long as they possibly could. If nothing else, the masters could count. Give an overwhelming majority of the population the right to vote, and very soon the laws of the land will reflect the needs and aspirations of an overwhelming majority of the population!
And so it proved – right up until the final quarter of the Twentieth Century. Wielding their two “unvanquishable” weapons: trade unionism and the franchise; working people lifted their incomes; improved their housing; obtained an education for their children; and secured ready access to medical advice and care. In the space of little more than a century, working people had secured for themselves both a standard of living and a degree of political power unparalleled in human history.
And then, quite suddenly, workers found themselves going backwards. In the late-1970s, the masters, fearing the “lions” were about to devour them entirely, launched a fierce counter-attack. Their behaviour, at least, was understandable. Less so, was the lions’ willingness to be restrained. The masters’ relentless propaganda: in which lions were portrayed as dangerous and selfish creatures which, for the public’s safety, simply had to be caged; proved to be astonishingly persuasive – not least to the lions themselves.
The legal restraints of Maggie Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson and Bill Birch did not fall upon the working-class lions of the democratic West like dew while they slept. With a handful of honourable exceptions, like the British miners, the trade unions entered their masters’ cages voluntarily. An electorally decisive fraction of the working-class continues to vote for their chains.
Those Nineteenth Century mill-workers, marching beneath banners demanding trade union rights and the vote, would be appalled.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 November 2016.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Limits Of Journalism.

Powerless Punditry: Hillary Clinton should be blasted - not only because she lost - but also because in losing she exposed the vacuity of contemporary journalism and the powerlessness of the mainstream media.
DAMN AND BLAST HILLARY CLINTON! Not just because she lost – exposing in the process the appalling political judgement of the Democratic Party. And not just because her failure has saddled the world with President Trump for at least four years. Those sins, on their own, more than merit political damnation. But there is another sin for which I would like to see Clinton blasted. The sin of exposing the vacuity of contemporary journalism and the powerlessness of the mainstream media. Because, to be perfectly honest, Clinton’s failure is my failure too.

The story has its beginnings in the Watergate Scandal. I was just 18 when Nixon was driven from the White House by what everybody said was the investigative journalism of, among others, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and The Washington Post. For one brief shining moment journalists were hailed as heroes and journalism was portrayed as a force so powerful that not even the office of the President of the United States could prevail against it.

Forty years on, however, it is clear that Nixon’s fall owed as much to the deliberate and secretive manipulation of the news media as it did to the efforts of the courageous journalists, Woodward and Bernstein. After all, the latters’ key informant, the infamous “Deep Throat”, turned out to be no less a buttress of the American “Deep State” than Mark Felt, the Associate Director of the FBI.
Deep Throat - or Deep State? The famous parking garage scene from All The President's Men.
In the movie, All the President’s Men, Deep Throat is portrayed as a reluctant but principled whistleblower from the dark heart of the Washington bureaucracy. A more probable explanation, however, is that Felt represented a Deep State faction determined to drive the mentally unstable Nixon out of the Oval Office. In 2016, it is equally probable that a highly-motivated Deep State faction, this time based in the FBI’s New York Field Office, used the news media to prevent Hillary Clinton from re-entering the White House as President.
That the news media can be so easily manipulated by forces it only vaguely perceives and understands is a bitter pill to swallow. But it is far from being the most unpalatable of the home truths which Trump’s election served up.
Since Watergate, the journalistic profession has gradually taken upon itself the role of pontificator-in-chief. Rather than allow the facts to speak for themselves, journalists have felt it necessary to explain to their readers, in great detail, what the facts mean and how they should respond to them. Never was this journalistic pontification and “guidance” more in evidence than in the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential Election. In the eyes of America’s leading journalists, the Republican Party candidate, Donald Trump, represented nothing less than an existential threat to the core values of America. A vote for Trump was, therefore, a vote against the United States.
Did the American people listen? Nope. Nearly half of them were so moved by the journalists’ apocalyptic warnings about the republic that they stayed at home. And in just enough of the “battleground” states, more Americans voted for Trump than against him. The serried ranks of media pontificators notwithstanding, the people made up their own minds.
What the news media was able to do (and, arguably, all it should ever attempt to do) was display both Clinton and Trump to the American electorate. Reports of their speeches, coverage of their rallies, the live broadcast of three independently organised candidates’ debates: the American people read, listened and watched; and, interpreting the information according to their own needs and beliefs, reached their own decisions.
In doing so – and in a way utterly at odds with the instructions imparted to them by the pontificators-in-chief – the American people delivered an important lesson about both the purposes and the limits of journalism.
When the eighteenth century parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, gestured towards the journalists observing the House of Commons from the reporters gallery and described them as “ a fourth estate, more important far than they all”, he was not being complimentary. He was merely recognising in the printing press – and in those who fed it – a power to make visible to multitudes what had hitherto been witnessed by only a tiny minority of the population. It is in making the whole nation witnesses to the actions of their rulers that journalists become heroes.
It is not the business of journalists to tell their readers, listeners and viewers what to think; but to place before them any and every matter that a free people might reasonably be expected to have an interest in thinking about.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 21 November 2016.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

The National Community: Why Populism In New Zealand Is A Right-Wing Thing.

Just An Ordinary Kiwi Joker: Key and his government remain preternaturally popular because they represent, for a substantial plurality of New Zealanders, the most persuasive attempt, so far, at describing what the national community of twenty-first-century New Zealand looks like.
BRYCE EDWARDS AND JOHN MOORE have taken the country-and-western melodies of populism and over-dubbed them with their own revolutionary lyrics. But, the resulting songs will never be sung by populists. Revolutionaries, too, are unlikely to find the Edwards/Moore mash-up inspirational. In the final analysis, revolution should be about overturning and replacing the existing order. Populism, in almost every instance, is about restoring the old one.
The article in question, “Could Anti-Establishment Politics Hit New Zealand?” (NZ Herald, 11/11/16) takes as its starting point the Dutch political scientist, Cas Muddle’s, definition of populism as “having the three key features of being anti-Establishment, authoritarian and nativist”. Certainly, these characteristics are present in most populist political movements, but they do not define them.
At its heart, populism is a revolt against the idea of political and cultural diversity. The populist seeks to make real the homogeneous nation of his imagination, and whether or not he’s successful depends upon how closely his imagined national community resembles the idealised nation of his fellow citizens. A populist movement only ever gains significant political momentum when large numbers of citizens discover that they share a common vision of what and who their nation is – and isn’t.
And if you’re not included in the populists’ definition of the nation, then your chances of being invited in are slim. Seriously, they’d rather build a wall.
Radical though the populists’ programme may be, populism itself is not automatically anti-establishment. If the democratic process has placed an individual or a party in power which the populists reject as unrepresentative of the nation as they define it, then, certainly, they will oppose the elected government.
Populist opposition to a specific political establishment should not, however, be construed as confirmation of populism’s hostility to all establishments. The populists’ ideal nation may be ruled by elites of whom they heartily approve. Restoring a deposed establishment – the rightful rulers – is no less a populist objective than deposing the establishment set up by its usurpers.
Ideologically-speaking, nearly all of New Zealand’s populist moments have been driven by this deeply conservative restorative impulse. The National Party, in particular, owes its existence to the determination of rural and provincial New Zealanders to overthrow Labour’s socialist usurpers and restore the nation’s rightful rulers – farmers and businessmen.
National’s choice of name was no accident. The new party was (and still is) perceived as standing for the pioneering virtues of the nation’s early settlers: those enterprising men and women, overwhelmingly of British stock, whose Christian capitalist values gave New Zealand its distinctive cultural signature.
The Labour Party, by contrast, was (and still is) seen as the party of the big cities: those sinkholes of moral corruption, physical squalor and political insubordination, whose representatives are incapable of recognising and protecting the cherished values of “heartland” New Zealand. (An imaginary entity with no purchase on this country’s actual geography or history.)
It is no accident that New Zealand’s two most accomplished populist politicians both emerged from the ranks of the National Party. The national community imagined by Rob Muldoon and Winston Peters has, from the very beginning, been defined by its enemies: immigrants, overly assertive Maori, militant trade unionists, left-wing journalists, effete academic intellectuals and (back in the 1970s) rebellious student protesters propelled into the streets by the universities’ alien and subversive ideas.
Muldoon’s great skill as a populist politician lay in convincing his fellow New Zealanders that their race, class and gender offered no barrier to membership of his national community. The National Party’s 1975 election slogan, “New Zealand the way YOU want it.”, captured perfectly Muldoon’s contention that the nation had fallen into the hands of people determined to transform it into something no genuine New Zealander could possibly want. The only viable option for right-thinking Kiwis was to join Muldoon’s national (and National) community of traditional Kiwi values. “Rob’s Mob” elected him on a landslide.
Peters’ populist appeal – inspired by the events that followed his mentor’s crushing defeat in the snap election of 1984 – is similarly restorative. Its unchanging target: the neoliberal establishment installed by Labour’s Roger Douglas between 1984 and 1990, and then further intensified by National’s Ruth Richardson between 1990 and 1993.
This bi-partisan betrayal of Muldoon’s “New Zealand the way YOU want it” populism lies at the heart of Peters’ party – New Zealand First. The nation’s tragic fall from grace is, according to NZ First’s founding narrative, the result of the corruption of its two “great” parties – National and Labour.
In the post-Cold War political environment in which NZ First was formed, Peters was free to cast the past leaders of both major parties as patriots. While holding very different ideas about how to achieve it, the NZ First leader assured his followers, politicians like Keith Holyoake and Norman Kirk wanted only what was good for New Zealand and New Zealanders.
Since the mid-1980s, however, (Peters’ narrative continues) the neoliberal, free-market virus has infected both Labour and National. Neither party any longer cares a fig for the national community. On the contrary, both have committed themselves to neoliberalism, globalism, multiculturalism and, most perversely, biculturalism – the disintegration of the “one people” brought into existence by Governor Hobson at Waitangi on 6 February 1840.
So potent is this latter grievance to those who inhabit the national (and National) community that Don Brash, an avowed neoliberal, came within an ace of defeating Labour in the 2005 General Election. His in/famous “Orewa Speech” and John Ansell’s “Iwi/Kiwi” billboards were almost as electorally compelling as Muldoon’s populist slogan of 30 years before.
In the final week of the 2005 campaign, Brash attempted to consolidate the populist surge unleashed by his attacks on “Maori privilege” by equating the national community – “Middle New Zealand” – with the National Party itself. That the electorate failed to respond in sufficient numbers was, almost certainly, due to Brash’s flinty-faced neoliberalism. In order to clinch such a crucial identification: the national community with the National Party; New Zealand’s distinctive brand of restorative populism required an altogether brighter and happier countenance.
Which brings us, of course, to New Zealand’s present prime minister, John Key. For Edwards and Moore, Key’s National-led Government is the establishment against which the flaming-torch-bearers and pitchfork-shakers of populism are massing menacingly. But in this they are, I believe, entirely mistaken.
Key and his government remain preternaturally popular because they represent, for a substantial plurality of New Zealanders, the most persuasive attempt, so far, at describing what the national community of twenty-first-century New Zealand looks like.
Key’s version of the national community is animated by the same virtues of resilience, hard work and self-sufficiency that characterised its earlier iterations. Wrapped around these core attributes are the traditional benefits of a happy family life, a “good” education, gainful employment and home ownership. Ethnicity, gender and sexuality only matter on “Planet Key” when they become a barrier to accepting the values and aspirations of the “average New Zealander”.
It was John Key’s promise to make the nation once again recognisable to the average New Zealander that propelled him and his party into office in 2008. Like another extremely wealthy businessman-turned-politician we are all learning to live with, Key’s message was one of restoration.
Helen Clark’s politically-correct, nanny-state establishment would be dismantled and replaced by the old order (tricked out for the punters in the glad rags of “a brighter future”). Busy-body public servants and the undeserving poor would be firmly but fairly put back in their proper places, and New Zealand’s “rightful rulers” would return to MAKE NEW ZEALAND [a] GREAT [place to bring up kids] AGAIN.
This is what Edwards and Moore cannot seem to see. That an “anti-establishment”, “authoritarian” and “nativist” government actually took office more than eight years ago. That the national/National community is an accomplished political fact. That Populism has already won.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 27 November 2016.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Sixty Four Shades Of Grey

Bright Sunlit Morning - Or Grey Rainy Day? In the final days of the US presidential election some Trump supporters waited in line for 11 hours to see their champion. Eleven hours! Forgive me for being harsh, but honestly, I can’t see too many Kiwis being willing to wait in line for 11 minutes to see Andrew Little.
IS OUR LABOUR PARTY capable of learning anything from the US Democratic Party’s stunning electoral defeat? Andrew Little’s recent string of lacklustre media performances offer few reasons for optimism.
Donald Trump won the White House because he made politics exciting. Newshub’s Paddy Gower was in the US for the final days of the presidential campaign and interviewed Trump supporters who’d been waiting in line for 11 hours to see their champion. Eleven hours! Forgive me for being harsh, but honestly, I can’t see too many Kiwis being willing to wait in line for 11 minutes to see Andrew Little.
And that unwillingness is not entirely attributable to the Labour Leader’s complete charisma by-pass. Possessing the wit and movie-star good-looks of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, certainly wouldn’t impede Little’s political career, but it is not enough, on its own, to guarantee Labour’s electoral success.
Bernie Sanders is hardly what you’d call a matinee idol (more like the voter’s cranky old uncle) but that didn’t prevent him from electrifying huge crowds of young Americans. What lured all those millennials away from their I-Pads had nothing to do with what Sanders looked like. What made them “Feel the Bern” were the things Sanders said.
And even Justin Trudeau could not have become Canada’s PM solely on the strength of his illustrious parentage and pleasing countenance. Indeed, his Conservative Party opponents regarded his sense of political entitlement and youthful good looks as powerful negatives to be exploited.
Canadians, they argued, had no need of a pretty, upper-class dilettante with nothing more to offer them than a famous name. And if that had been all Trudeau offered Canada, then the centre-left New Democrats would have won last year’s election. What finally sealed the deal for the Canadian electorate was Trudeau’s strategic flair and the boldness of his party’s policies. These, combined with the Trudeau family’s indisputable lustre, were what gave Justin and his Liberals their historic victory.
No, Little’s lack of glamour is not Labour’s problem. What’s crippling his leadership – and his party’s chances of winning next year’s election – is that neither he, nor his colleagues, seem capable of inspiring the slightest enthusiasm or excitement in the electorate.
Labour either can’t, or won’t, commit to the sort of hard-and-fast policies its supporters want to hear. Like Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, Little and Labour are deaf to the cries of those who find themselves on the food-supply side of the dog-eat-dog struggle which now passes for life in the neoliberal West.
What Labour’s electoral base is presented with, instead, is wonkism. For nearly two years Grant Robertson and his Future of Work Commission have being toiling away. Their final report was released earlier this month at Labour’s centennial conference. Presented for our perusal were no fewer than 64 recommendations – none of them meriting, even slightly, the description of bold or exciting.
There wasn’t a single policy recommendation to match Trump’s in-your-face promise to build a wall to keep out illegal Mexican migrants. Nothing that came anywhere close to Sander’s promise to abolish student loans. Labour’s policy proposition in 2017 isn’t 50 – but 64 – shades of grey.
The worst thing is, Little and his advisors flatly refuse to see this as a problem. They have only the coldest disdain for the sort of wild-eyed populism which has swept across the United Kingdom and the United States in 2016, and which, in 2017, threatens to wreak equal havoc among the political classes of Italy and France. It’s simply not the way the shell-shocked party pulled together by Helen Clark, Michael Cullen and Steve Maharey cares to do business. When asked whether he would have voted for Jeremy Corbyn, the present, British-born, President of the NZ Labour Party responded curtly: “No.”
In morbid conformity with the limp “Third-Way-ism” which still engrosses them, Little and his people – like Hillary and hers – have placed all their eggs in one technological basket. The mysterious algorithms of their data-manipulating, voter-identifying wonks will do what thousands of committed followers – apparently – cannot. They will locate all the shy, centrist voters Labour needs to win. That these same mysterious algorithms singularly failed to deliver the White House to Hillary has not shaken their confidence in electoral mechanisation.
To paraphrase Talleyrand’s celebrated dismissal of the Bourbon dynasty: Labour has forgotten everything – and learned nothing.
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, 25 November 2016.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

MoW 2.0 - Shaking-Up Our Thinking.

Architects Of The Public Good: Government architects, along with engineers, scientists, tradespeople and thousands of other workers, were employed by the Ministry of Works - the state-owned planning and construction agency that built so much of New Zealand's infrastructure. In a country plagued by earthquakes and facing the consequences of global warming, isn't it time for MoW 2.0?
ONCE AGAIN, New Zealanders are confronted with the raw and unconquerable power of the tectonic forces beneath their feet. Although the rebuilding of Christchurch remains a real and present priority; the nation’s eyes have been drawn inevitably to the earthquake-ravaged landscape of the Kaikoura Coast.
The civil-engineering challenges of this latest disaster are daunting. Reconstructing an urban landscape is one thing. But shifting whole mountainsides of rock and clay? That is something else again! Restoring State Highway One and the coastal railway linking Christchurch with Picton will be the work not of weeks, or even months, but years.
Our political leaders, prompted by the conventional wisdom of the past thirty years, will undoubtedly look to the private sector for salvation. As the initial damage surveys are completed, civil servants will be tasked with drawing up job specifications and seeking expressions of interest from domestic and foreign construction firms. Every bid received will have been carefully calculated to deliver a healthy financial return to the tenderer’s shareholders – not New Zealand’s citizens.
Is this truly the most sensible way to proceed? Wouldn’t New Zealand’s long-term interests be better served by the creation of a large, permanent and state-owned construction organisation? The arguments in favour of establishing a twenty-first century version of the twentieth century’s Ministry of Works are compelling.
The first and most obvious advantage of having a large, permanent and state-owned construction force is the ease of its rapid mobilisation. Organised along the lines of the United States Army Corps of Engineers (one of the largest publicly-owned engineering, design, and construction management agencies in the world) this new Ministry of Works – let’s call it MoW 2.0 – would be able to swing into action at a moment’s notice.
In much the same way as the NZ Defence Force was able to send the HMNZS Canterbury and a convoy of army trucks to the aid of Kaikoura, the MoW 2.0 would be able to move engineers, construction workers and heavy earth-moving machinery to where they were most needed.
Such a force would not only be available to deal with the earthquakes to which New Zealand is so prone, but also to remediate the damage caused by the extreme weather events that are already a disturbing feature of global warming. Violent storms, massive floods, inundating tides and eroding shorelines will become the “new normal” as the planet heats up. MoW 2.0 would take on the lion’s share of repairing the nation’s beleaguered infrastructure and play a leading role in the design and construction of new climate-change protection schemes.
MoW 2.0 could also play an important role in managing the New Zealand labour market. As a major employer of unskilled and semi-skilled workers it would soak up a large number of citizens who would otherwise be unemployed. Remedial education and on-the-job training would be an important part of MoW 2.0’s remit and would constitute an ongoing contribution to the public good.
Within just a few years, MoW 2.0 would be passing out highly-trained and experienced engineers, architects, scientists and tradespeople to take up new positions in the private sector. A massive public subsidy? Yes. But no different from the huge public subsidisation of the medical profession which we accept quite happily every time we are treated by a young doctor working in our local public hospital.
Not all of those inducted into MoW 2.0 would move out into the private sector, however. Many would make the defence, restoration and construction of New Zealand’s public infrastructure their life-long career. In time, MoW 2.0 would build up a formidable body of highly-qualified and highly-creative professionals, dedicated not only to the resolution of present problems, but also to the anticipation of new ones.
An historical precedent for this is clearly discernible in the original Ministry of Works, whose planners, in the final years of the First Labour Government, produced a comprehensive blueprint for the growth and development of Auckland. This extraordinary plan anticipated practically all of the problems which are currently taxing the Auckland Council. Everything: from urban intensification to light-rail connectivity; comprehensive public amenities to pedestrian precincts and cycleways; was foreseen and provided for as long ago as 1946!
And this is, arguably, the most compelling reason of all for establishing a large, permanent and state-owned construction organisation. Unconstrained by the private sector’s need to be constantly in search of better contracts and bigger profits, it would be able to construct a “big picture’ of New Zealand’s vulnerabilities and needs.
Against the blind, overwhelmingly destructive forces of nature, MoW 2.0 would oppose the imagination and foresight of intelligent human-beings. In sharp contrast to the short-termism of free-market capitalism, it would look over the horizon to the outlines of a more appropriately resourced and better prepared New Zealand.
A country awaiting only the earthquake of progressive political change.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 November 2016.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Promise Or Threat? How Is Labour’s Future Of Work Exercise Likely To Be Received?

Tireless Workers: Innovation, automation, relocation, globalisation – the driving forces of change are undeniably real, and their impact on the working lives of working people are visible everywhere. The better jobs and the more fulfilling lives that the fourth industrial revolution is supposed to usher in are much harder to see.
LABOUR’S ‘FUTURE OF WORK’ EXERCISE  has received considerable praise from political commentators and economists. The party has been commended for looking over the usual three-year time horizon of the professional New Zealand politician. The journalistic consensus appears to be that even if the Future of Work (FoW) exercise doesn’t glean Labour a swag of much needed extra votes – it should.
Unfortunately, that’s not how politics works. Worthy and future-focused though it may be, FoW is unlikely to exert a positive influence over the voting behaviour of working-class New Zealanders. There have been far too many reports about what ordinary working people must do to make themselves employable in the labour markets of the future. Far too many experts have pronounced upon the revolutionary impact of technological innovation and how it will force workers to adapt – or be left behind. Working people have been hearing this sort of talk since the Rogernomics “revolution” in the mid-1980s, and all it has left them is behind.
Innovation, automation, relocation, globalisation – the driving forces of change are undeniably real, and their impact on the working lives of working people are visible everywhere. The better jobs and the more fulfilling lives that the fourth industrial revolution is supposed to usher in are much harder to see.
When “inevitable” change arrived in small regional centres like Patea, Hastings and Timaru it left far more empty factories and unemployed workers in its wake than it did new, better-paid and more exciting forms of employment. The new jobs did arrive, eventually, but they generally paid lower wages than the old ones and offered workers much less security.
Some effort was made to prepare workers for the brave new world of adaptation and transformation that was rushing at them. The Fourth Labour Government established what were known as Regional Employment and Access Councils (REACs). These were comprised of representatives from the employers, the trade unions and the “community” (whatever that was!) and were empowered to fund employment and training programmes for those without work.
These programmes were a great success. Not because they imparted new and marketable skills to the luckless unemployed and redundant workers funnelled into them by the Department of Labour, but because they created hundreds of state-subsidised jobs for the middle-class professionals who set up the programmes and ran them. (These social entrepreneurs even got to keep the state-funded tools, office equipment and furniture when their contracts with the REACs expired!)
It was a pattern repeated endlessly during the years that followed. As globalisation hollowed out the manufacturing and processing sectors, driving thousands of jobless workers into the new, low-paying service sector, thousands of well-educated middle classes professionals found themselves designing, resourcing and managing the radical re-organisation of New Zealanders’ working lives that the new neoliberal order demanded.
Which is why, when the conversation turns to the jobs and workplaces of the future, what you hear depends on where you are positioned in the labour market. If you’re a young, highly-educated middle-class professional; or a person skilled in the design and application of new technologies; then the future beckons you forward with a smile. But if you’re a truck driver, or a store-person, then the prospect of driverless vehicles, or robot-operated warehouses, fills you with dread. Young workers have grown up watching their parents being forced to accept lower and lower positions in the occupational hierarchy. Soon, they fear, it will be their turn.
For the working-class voters Labour so desperately needs to return to its electoral fold, the “promises” of its FoW exercise are much more likely to be read as threats.
Bill and Hillary Clinton excelled at extolling the virtues of innovation, automation, relocation and globalisation. Helen Clark was fond of invoking the received economic wisdom that a rising tide lifts all boats. The response of their working-class followers in the years since has been to recite the childhood chant: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
If you want to know what that means in electoral terms, just ask Donald Trump – or Winston Peters.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 20 November 2016.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Political Fault Lines

Vox Populi, Vox Stupidi: To be a working-class Trump supporter: “You had to say it’s all right that this guy lies constantly. It’s all right that he encourages violence. It’s all right that despite having more potential financial conflicts of interest than any other presidential candidate ever, he’s the only candidate in recent history who refuses to reveal his tax returns. It’s all right that he has run a series of cons, stealing the life savings from people who put their faith in him in just the way you’re putting your faith in him now.” Paul Waldman, American Prospect
RIGHT NOW, the English-speaking Left reminds me of those Shi’ite devotees who ritually flog themselves until their backs bleed. “It’s all our fault!”, they cry into their craft beer. “Trump is all our fault!” Yes, that’s right, Trump is all their fault. Not the stinking, roiling mass of racists, sexists, nativists and xenophobes who, with terrifying  speed, are crawling out of the rank American darkness and into the light. They are not the problem. The problem is the Left – who, apparently, should never have driven them there in the first place.
Oh really? So, when the bodies of the three murdered civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were finally disinterred from the earth dam in which the Mississippi Klan had buried them, the Left should have shrugged and said: “Well, you know, good ole boys will be good ole boys!” And when feminist researchers confronted the world with the appalling statistics of domestic violence and rape (not only those relating to the incidence of these crimes, but also those exposing the shocking unwillingness of the authorities to do anything to address them) how should the Left have responded? By warning their “sisters” against “dividing the working class”?
Being working-class doesn’t give you the right to pull a white hood over your head and murder three young men for the crime of registering African-Americans to vote. Being working-class doesn’t allow you to turn your partner into a terrified combination of punch-bag and sex-slave. Wearing a blue collar around your neck and dropping out of high school doesn’t give you special permission to crucify a harmless gay college student on a Wyoming fence.
Nowhere – not even in the United States – does membership of the Proletariat entitle men and women to inhabit a world in which racism, sexism and homophobia are regarded as harmless sins to be winked at and condoned. And yet, this is precisely the sort of free-pass culture that the Left’s energetic self-flagellation over Trump’s victory appears to both imply and condone.
Why can’t these bloody-backed leftists see what the American newspaper columnist, Paul Waldman, writing in The American Prospect, sees so clearly: that the working-class voters of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – the American Rust-Belt – were never, ever, the Left’s to win over, or win back.
As he acidly observes; to be a working-class Trump supporter: “You had to say it’s all right that this guy lies constantly. It’s all right that he encourages violence. It’s all right that despite having more potential financial conflicts of interest than any other presidential candidate ever, he’s the only candidate in recent history who refuses to reveal his tax returns. It’s all right that he has run a series of cons, stealing the life savings from people who put their faith in him in just the way you’re putting your faith in him now.”
What possible reason could any working-class person have for overlooking such failings other than an all-consuming desire to elect a fellow racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, Muslim-hater President of the United States of America?
To be poor in America is to be despised. But to be poor and white in America is to feel a special shame. To be poor and white in America is to experience the pain of failure in a way that only the social proximity of failures even more painful and unforgiveable than your own can assuage. You may be poor and white, but you are not poor and black; poor and Hispanic; poor and gay. And, if you’re a poor man, then, at least, you’re not any kind of woman.
To see these “others”, these “inferiors”, raised up: to have a black man in the White House; to see a liberal feminist getting ready to replace him; this was simply intolerable. And, to prevent it from happening, poor white Americans were willing to support a candidate with all manner of failings.
Waldman calls these folk the “unpersuadables” – but in that description I believe he is mistaken. The shame of poverty and failure is not only assaugeable by the existence of human-beings worse off than yourself: people with life experiences even more humiliating than your own. Shame and failure can also be made bearable by the realistic and believable prospect of escaping them.
That is what the Left failed to offer working-class America.
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, 18 November 2016.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Is This The Right Time To Protest Against An American Warship?

Bearing Witness: Hemmed in by police and sneered at by an unsympathetic news media as “the usual left-wing suspects”, the viaduct protesters view of themselves as a prophetic minority bearing witness against a corrupt and violent world will undoubtedly be reinforced. Their hearts and minds will remain pure.
DOES THIS MORNING’S PROTEST* outside the Viaduct Events Centre advance or retard the progressive cause in New Zealand? Some would say that bearing witness against the horrors of war and calling to account arms manufacturers is, unquestionably, a good thing to do. Others would argue that this is a quasi-religious position which takes no account of public opinion and is, therefore, both apolitical and unhelpful.
At the heart of the debate lie two very different assessments of what politics is about. The first views society as both corrupt and irredeemable: ruined by humanity’s predisposition towards greed and violence. That being the case, it behoves every individual strong enough to resist these twin evils to encourage as many others as possible to do likewise. In other words: politics is not about you changing the world; it’s about striving to prevent the world from changing you.
It’s a view of politics which encourages its adherents to divide humanity into those who “get” how corrupted the world has become, and those who don’t. And because the latter almost always outnumber the former, the ability of democracy to deliver meaningful change is questioned. In a world where greed and violence are accepted as the prime drivers of human affairs, isn’t it more likely that democracy will end up entrenching, rather than eradicating, these evils? And if that’s true (and doesn’t the election of Donald Trump prove it?) then attempting to influence public opinion is a waste of time.
Opposing this view are those who see humanity as being neither wholly corrupt, not wholly irredeemable. Yes, greed and violence occupy a distressingly prominent place in the conduct of human affairs, but they are very far from being the only impulses that drive us. Human-beings are also motivated by generosity, solidarity and compassion. The history of human civilisation is, essentially, a record of the struggle between our worst impulses and our best.
The key arbiter in this endless struggle between selfishness and altruism, violence and compassion, is human reason. Without a belief in humanity’s capacity to be moved by rational argument, politics – especially democratic and progressive politics – makes absolutely no sense.
Which is why, faced with poll results indicating that a very substantial majority of New Zealanders are positive about the rapprochement between their country and the United States, reasonable progressives would have been disinclined to organise a protest against the participation of a US destroyer in the New Zealand Navy’s 75th anniversary celebrations.
That disinclination would have been vindicated entirely by the events of the past few days. Far from being seen as a symbol of American imperialism, the USS Sampson – now on its way to assist earthquake victims stranded in Kaikoura – is being welcomed by the vast majority of New Zealanders as a symbol of American friendship and solidarity.
Those same New Zealanders are unlikely to look with any sympathy upon this morning’s protest action on the Auckland waterfront, and the core messages of the protesters themselves are unlikely to be received. Indeed, they are almost certain to be misinterpreted and/or disregarded.
Hemmed in by police and sneered at by an unsympathetic news media as “the usual left-wing suspects”, the viaduct protesters view of themselves as a prophetic minority bearing witness against a corrupt and violent world will undoubtedly be reinforced. Their hearts and minds will remain pure.
Unfortunately, the hearts and minds of the rest of us will remain unwon.
* Wednesday, 16 November 2016.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 16 November 2016.

Looking On The Bright Side Of President Trump

Out Of Darkness ... Light? That Donald Trump possesses an enormous ego is indisputable. The question is: will that ego be better served by becoming one of America’s truly great presidents – or one of its very worst?
LET’S BE OPTIMISTIC about President-Elect Donald Trump. Optimistic? Seriously? Yes, seriously.
Oh, I know that America’s late-night liberal chat-show hosts are all hyperventilating at the prospect of President Trump. And, yes, I’m aware that the global Left is competing furiously in the self-flagellation stakes. Because, of course, Trump’s victory was all about them and their failure to retain the loyalty of white working-class males. (Although, quite how the Left hoped to do that after nearly 40 years of heaping unrelenting economic, social and cultural humiliation on Caucasian proletarian masculinity defeats me utterly!) But, if you’ll just bear with me, I’ll try to outline why a Trump presidency could end up okay.
Let’s begin with the comments of ex-pat Kiwi businessman turned big-time American corporate CFO and Washington insider, Chris Liddell. On TVNZ’s Q+A current affairs show, Liddell commented that Trump’s victory marks the definitive end of the era of untrammelled free-market capitalism.
According to this former CFO of Microsoft and General Motors, rising inequality and the hollowing-out of the Western middle-classes are trends that the global political class (and the corporate interests they represent) can no longer ignore. Trump’s victory, said Liddell, equals “Brexit x 10”.
Or, as Bob Dylan used to say: “The times they are a-changing.”
“Oh, come on!”, I hear you say. “Optimism is one thing, but peddling pure fantasy is another.”
Fair enough. Let me, therefore, draw your attention to the response of Democrat Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives, to Trump’s election-night promise to launch a massive programme of infrastructure renewal.
The Republican and Democratic parties, she said, will be forced to “come together and find common ground”. She also reminded the news media that a massive programme dedicated to rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure was one of Hillary Clinton’s biggest election promises. If Trump sends an massive infrastructure bill to the House, then there can be little doubt that the Democrats will vote for it.
Which is all very well, but what about the Republicans? Is it really credible to suggest that the party which implacably resisted every economic and social reform advanced by the Obama Administration is suddenly going to embrace his much-maligned “Stimulus Package” as their own?
A better question, perhaps, is what will become of them if they don’t?
What must never be forgotten is that Trump comes to the White House carrying less political baggage than any presidential candidate since Dwight Eisenhower. His billionaire status enables him to operate without recourse to the squalid back-room horse-trading that has turned-off so many American voters.
It’s a situation ideally suited to a successful populist leader. Having run against “The Establishment” and won, Trump now needs to demonstrate what his victory means in legislative terms. The very best way to do that is take up a position bestriding both the Democratic and Republican parties. By demanding bi-partisan support for his plans to restore American greatness he will be offering himself a win-win proposition. If the Democrats refuse to play ball, they will merely reinforce their estrangement from “Heartland America”. If the Republican Party balks at Trump’s Keynesian solutions (which, ideologically-speaking, they are bound to do) then Trump has them over a barrel – a pork barrel.
A Republican congress foolish enough to resist Trump’s programme will prove to the American people that it wasn’t Barack Obama who was the problem, or even the godless Democratic Party. An obstructionist Republican majority will demonstrate conclusively that Washington’s problems are ultimately traceable to the Republican Party itself.
If this eventuates, then Trump’s options are twofold. Either, he reaches out to Nancy Pelosi and the new Senate Minority Leader, and makes America great with the votes of Trump Republican loyalists and the Democratic Party. Or, he turns to his “base” and asks it to deliver him a pliable congress at the earliest opportunity – the Mid-Term Elections of 2018.
This latter course would allow Trump to do what nobody else – Democrat or Republican – has been able to do since 2008: purge the Republican Party of its extremist, Tea Party, element. The consequent drawing together of the two major parties would restore to the Legislative Branch the bi-partisanship it so conspicuously lacks: that willing co-operation among legislators which the framers of the US Constitution deemed essential to the success of representative government.
Such a course of action would, naturally, earn Trump the bitter enmity of his fellow One Percenters – who would almost certainly attempt an end-run around both the Executive and Legislative Branches by appealing to the Judiciary. What better reason could Trump have for appointing a string of intelligent and independent Supreme Court Justices?
That Donald Trump possesses an enormous ego is indisputable. The question is: will that ego be better served by becoming one of America’s truly great presidents – or one of its very worst?
This essay was originally published in The Press Of Wednesday, 16 November 2016.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Interview With A President

"That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
MIDNIGHT IN WASHINGTON. A chill autumn wind, laced with rain, sweeps across the reflecting pool at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. The water is agitated: the reflection of the Washington Monument’s towering obelisk fluid and fragmentary. The National Mall has wrapped the darkness of this bleak November night tightly around itself like a comforter.
Two figures – a young man and a young woman – emerge from the shadows and begin to climb the steps leading up to the temple of the Republic’s tutelary deity. As they mount the memorial’s broad staircase the great seated statue of Abraham Lincoln is gradually revealed behind its screen the towering Doric columns.
The figure is artfully lit. The Colorado marble blazes like white fire, transforming the giant sculpture’s gaunt countenance into a chiselled battlefield of darkness and light. The rail-splitter-turned-president’s gnarled hands grasp the arms of his mighty seat as if straining to pull the lanky body to its feet. As if, above the wailing of the wind, it hears again the distant rumble of enemy guns, the staccato drumbeat of civil strife.
The young couple stare up at the silent statuary. Hugging each other for warmth. Silent in the presence of the author of the Gettysburg Address, the Great Emancipator, the Union’s martyred saviour. Together, they recite the words incised into the rear wall of the temple:
“I wonder what he would say, if he was here”, whispers the young woman. “I wonder how he’d react to President Trump.”
A brittle sound, like uncrumpling cellophane, sends the couple reeling back in fright. Impossibly, the massive, frock-coated figure has become mobile. It bends forward, head lowered, eyes alive, a faint smile playing about its lips.
“Well, Miss, I reckon I’d ask him what in the name of the Good Lord he believes himself to be doing to my Republican Party.”
“What would you say to the people who voted for him?” The young man struggled to maintain eye contact with the giant stone president.
“I would tell them that those who attempt to deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”
“And those of us who voted against him, Mr President, what should we do.”
The giant leaned back in his chair and stroked his marble chin.
“I seem to recall saying once that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. If I were in your shoes, Miss, I reckon I’d allow Friend Trump a few more yards of rope.”
“But the man’s such a fool and his followers are so loathsome!” The young woman objected.
“Maybe so, Miss, maybe so. But they are also you’re fellow Americans. If they are disposed, as you say, to follow a fool, then it is surely pertinent to ask what made them so ill-disposed to follow those who delight in calling themselves wise? And if they are loathsome, who made them so?”
“Those are fair questions, Mr President, but we are fearful of what this man may do to the United States, to its people, it’s institutions.”
The great face settled into something like its usual contours. The eyes once again hooded, the mouth grimly set.
“This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it. Or, at least, that, in my grimmer moments, was what I used to say. But through four long years of the most awful slaughter, I came to realise how ruinous the fall of a divided house can be. My belief, now, is that those who cry ‘Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!’, should be required to take up residence in the ruins. Democracy is a fragile thing, my young friends, do not be too quick to condemn its fruits. Those produced by just about every other form of human government are much, much, worse.”
“But is this truly democracy, Mr President?”
The great figure seemed to stiffen.
“You know I sat on a train once, pen in hand, mulling over how best to sum up what so many young men were dying to preserve. At the time I didn’t think that much of my conclusions, but it has pleased me to see how kindly the passing years have received the final words of my address.”
The wind outside the temple roared and bellowed. Autumn leaves whirled between the columns. The young couple shivered – even as the statue froze into its accustomed pose. A gravelly whisper, mingled with the wind, ran around the stone walls of the Lincoln Memorial. The young couple, recognising the long dead president’s words, added their own living voices to his fading peroration.
“That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
This short story was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 13 November 2016.

Monday, 14 November 2016

A Time For All New Zealanders To Stand Alongside Their Families, Friends and Fellow Citizens.

When circumstances are at their worst, human-beings are at their best. Kia Kaha New Zealand.
ONCE AGAIN, the shaky isles of New Zealand have delivered a shuddering blow to their inhabitants. As the full impact of this latest major earthquake is assessed, our thoughts and prayers are with everyone living in the affected areas. Amidst all the emotional shock and property damage, it is good to remember that when circumstances are at their worst, human-beings are at their best. Kia Kaha New Zealand.

This message is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Friday, 11 November 2016

A Lucky Escape?

Keeping Nope Alive: Tens-of-thousands of mostly young American protesters poured onto the streets of the major US cities in the hours following the shock election of Donald Trump as America's 45th President. It remains to be seen whether, in the days and weeks to come, middle-class Millennial hope is any match for white working-class resentment and rage.
ALL YEAR, NEW ZEALANDERS have quietly congratulated themselves on not being Americans. Like so many others around the world, we have looked on with mounting disbelief as the [Dis]united States of America plumbed new depths of malevolent ignorance. If it’s been said once, it’s been said 100 million times: “Thank God we’re not like that!”
But why aren’t we like the United States? What is it that we, as a people, did – or did not do – that has kept our political system from veering so suddenly, and dangerously, off course.
The most obvious and plausible answer is that we, along with many other Western nations, have maintained a reasonably comprehensive welfare state. More specifically, we have preserved a public health system.
It is easy to overlook the role a functioning public health service plays in preserving even a modest level of social equality. By far the most common reason for so many middle-aged Americans declaring bankruptcy is the crippling cost of medical treatment and pharmaceuticals. In just a few weeks, serious injury and/or chronic illness can swallow up every last cent of an ordinary family’s life savings. There are tens-of-thousands of American workers whose entire pay check gets spent on ruinously expensive medication.
It is one of the great ironies of the 2016 US presidential elections that Donald Trump’s supporters have been so vehement in their opposition to “Obamacare”. Granted, the Affordable Health Care Act has its flaws, but, surely, it is also a small step in the direction of universal, publicly-funded, health care?
“Hell, no!”, cry the Trumpites. “Obamacare is the thin edge of the wedge of socialism!” And you’d better believe that this verdict is delivered through bared teeth. As though, for people in their desperate economic circumstances, socialism is a bad thing.
We chuckle at the ideological incongruity of poor, white, working-class Americans voting for a man like Donald Trump. “Why can’t they see that they’re voting directly against their own interests?”, we ask. “How can they be so blind?”
For an explanation we must turn to American history, and the myths with which it disguises itself. The most enduring of these cultural illusions is that every American has a shot at success. That the path from shoeshine boy to billionaire is real. That it’s open to all. That it’s possible.
Persuading Americans that their much-vaunted equality of opportunity is a mirage is extremely difficult. But, convincing them that they are the prisoners of a class system every bit as pernicious as Britain’s is practically impossible.
But it’s true. As Nancy Isenberg demonstrates so conclusively in her recent book, White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America, the enterprises (and that word is used advisedly) which eventually grew into the United States were predicated on the most ruthless exploitation of indentured labourers and servants. Before America was a slave society, it was a society into which the English aristocracy and their entrepreneurial hangers-on decanted the poorest and most powerless of the English people.
That these readily disposable servants of the American ruling-class have, for more than 300 years, been regarded as more despicable than dangerous is largely attributable to two key factors. The first is the poor whites’ sullen awareness of their own worthlessness in the eyes of their social superiors. And the second is the consoling knowledge that below them on the American totem-pole there exists an even more wretched and put-upon social strata: Non-Whites.
This is the vicious political alchemy which has fuelled every outbreak of white racist populism from the Civil War to the rise of Donald Trump. A crude compound of resentment and rage, it may be directed, with equal success, upwards: against the One Percent and the disdainful middle classes (in whose eyes poor whites are indeed little more than “deplorable” human “trash”) and downwards: against the descendants of slaves, and that floodtide of immigrants whose descendants threaten to strip these “crackers” of what little White privilege remains to them.
And, before we congratulate ourselves too fulsomely on our lucky escape from America’s political and cultural degradation, we should, perhaps, recall our own national origins. New Zealand, too, grew out of British “enterprise”. We, too, deceive ourselves with the mythology of egalitarianism and classlessness.
There, but for the grace of God – and a still socialist public health system – go we.
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, 11 November 2016.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Killing The Flame: More Prophetic Music From Leonard Cohen.


WITH THE SORT OF PRESCIENCE only a true prophet possesses, Leonard Cohen titled his latest album "You Want It Darker". And, lo, this morning has broken with a lot less lustre than the day before. What happened in the USA yesterday is beautifully anticipated in the first five lines of the album's title track:

If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Having extinguished the candles of their better angels, all that's left to Americans now is the cursed darkness of their all-enveloping fear and rage.

Video courtesy of YouTube.

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

"Democracy" - By Leonard Cohen


“I’M SENTIMENTAL, if you know what I mean. I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.” These lines from Leonard Cohen’s magisterial anthem, “Democracy”, sum up the way so many people feel about the United States of America. There are many more – and better – lines in this wonderful song. It’s why I play it so often – especially when Americans are in the process of choosing a new president. As the votes are cast, and the counting begins, why not listen to Lenny’s take on what democracy might look like – if it ever does come to the USA. Certainly, on this occasion, the song’s refrain has a special poignancy:
Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on
May the American people find safe harbour.

Video courtesy of YouTube.

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

From Bottom To TOP.

Man At The TOP: Motivated by founder Gareth Morgan’s desire to ensure that future generations of New Zealanders enjoy the same opportunities as his own Baby Boomer Generation, The Opportunities Party (TOP) aspires to attract the support of enough unaffiliated voters to “light a fuse” under New Zealand’s lethargic and risk-averse political class.
BY A QUIRK OF GEOGRAPHY, we have woken up on America’s election day while the American electorate is sleeping fitfully through the night before. It will be Thursday morning (let’s be optimistic!) before the outcome of the most important US presidential election since 1860 becomes clear. So, while nightmares weigh heavily upon the breast of America’s Lady Liberty, let us turn our thoughts to the incredible lightness of being a New Zealand voter.
Barely five days ago, on Guy Fawkes eve, our very own millionaire gadfly, Gareth Morgan, announced the formation of The Opportunities Party (TOP). Motivated by its founder’s desire to ensure that future generations of New Zealanders enjoy the same opportunities as his own Baby Boomer Generation, TOP aspires to attract the support of enough unaffiliated voters to “light a fuse” under New Zealand’s lethargic and risk-averse political class.
So far, so Trumpish? No, not really.
Donald Trump’s extraordinary achievement was to mount a successful reverse takeover of the Republican Party. Pivotal to his success was the support of America’s most ignorant white voters. Who can forget the moment, early on in the race for the White House, when Trump was proudly listing the demographics he was winning. “We’re winning the poorly educated”, purred the Donald, before flashing his trademark grin and cooing: “We love the poorly educated.”
Morgan is approaching politics from a radically different direction. His openly avowed goal is to wield “undue influence” over New Zealand politics. He cannot hope to do this by enlisting the most ignorant and alienated of voters. The demographics he must win are those containing the nation’s most intelligent and engaged citizens.
Nor does Morgan intend to place TOP’s collective posterior on the Treasury Benches. He’s ruling out coalition agreements with both National and Labour. Instead, TOP proposes to position itself on the cross-benches, from where it plans to assemble one-off majorities for a series of overdue, but essential, policy reforms.
Far from becoming a permanent feature of New Zealand’s political landscape, TOP’s aim is to assemble a transient political movement dedicated to goading the lacklustre and cautious politicians seated on both sides of the aisle into purposeful action. Having ticked-off its strictly limited set of policy objectives, Morgan and his party intend to pack up their box files and go home.
I have to confess to being more than a little intrigued. Whether or not a political party dedicated to achieving a handful of key policy objectives, and then disbanding itself, could attract a substantial measure of electoral support is a thought experiment upon which many productive hours can be idled away.
Naturally, money would be crucial to the success of such a venture – lashings and lashings of money. But, lashings and lashings of money is precisely what Gareth Morgan has got. What’s more, he has spent much of his time since becoming a multi-millionaire looking for answers to some of New Zealand’s biggest problems.
The radical American journalist, Upton Sinclair, famously observed that: “It is hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”
This largely explains why Morgan, the founder of Infometrics Ltd, was widely regarded as one of this country’s leading free-market evangelists. With his salary no longer dependent on preaching that old-time free-market religion, however, Morgan has shown dangerous signs of ideological agnosticism. Indeed, on matters as controversial as climate change, poverty and the delivery of a universal basic income, Morgan has shown himself to be a commendably open-minded intellectual pilgrim.
It’s a quality that could propel TOP a lot further than Colin Craig’s superficially similar self-funded electoral vehicle – The Conservative Party.
Depending on what Morgan and his fellow TOP members settle on as their half-dozen core policy objectives, the party has the potential to draw support away from practically every party currently represented in Parliament. Should this eventuate (and with proper political guidance and promotion there’s no reason to suppose it shouldn’t) it is even conceivable that TOP could achieve its goals without ever having to set foot in parliament.
When Morgan was Infometrics’ leading economist he was a passionate promoter of the virtues of competition. The arrival of a competitor in any given market, he’d argue, will always produce a galvanising effect on existing market players. Is Morgan hoping that, simply by entering New Zealand’s lamentably self-satisfied and sluggish political marketplace, TOP is going get the National/Labour duopoly off its bottom?
This is what differentiates Gareth Morgan from Donald Trump. Rather than goading New Zealand’s ignorant pessimists into doing their worst, our own millionaire-turned-politician is inviting his country’s intelligent optimists to get the best out of their fellow citizens by offering the best of themselves.
In doing so, TOP may even frighten the National/Labour duopoly into giving away the safe move – for the right move.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 November 2016.