Known principally for his weekly political columns and his commentaries on radio and television, Chris Trotter has spent most of his adult life either engaging in or writing about politics. He was the founding editor of The New Zealand Political Review (1992-2005) and in 2007 authored No Left Turn, a political history of New Zealand. Living in Auckland with his wife and daughter, Chris describes himself as an “Old New Zealander” – i.e. someone who remembers what the country was like before Rogernomics. He has created this blog as an archive for his published work and an outlet for his more elegiac musings. It takes its name from Bowalley Road, which runs past the North Otago farm where he spent the first nine years of his life. Enjoy.
The blogosphere tends to be a very noisy, and all-too-often a very abusive, place. I intend Bowalley Road to be a much quieter, and certainly a more respectful, place. So, if you wish your comments to survive the moderation process, you will have to follow the Bowalley Road Rules. These are based on two very simple principles: Courtesy and Respect. Comments which are defamatory, vituperative, snide or hurtful will be removed, and the commentators responsible permanently banned. Anonymous comments will not be published. Real names are preferred. If this is not possible, however, commentators are asked to use a consistent pseudonym. Comments which are thoughtful, witty, creative and stimulating will be most welcome, becoming a permanent part of the Bowalley Road discourse. However, I do add this warning. If the blog seems in danger of being over-run by the usual far-Right suspects, I reserve the right to simply disable the Comments function, and will keep it that way until the perpetrators find somewhere more appropriate to vent their collective spleen.
Real Human Suffering: In the face of the extraordinary Australian push-back against the government of Jacinda Ardern, it is important to remember the people at the centre of this controversy - the appallingly-treated victims of Australia's "Pacific Solution" who remain trapped on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.
YOU HAVE TO GO BACK A LONG WAY to find anything remotely
resembling Australia’s current treatment of New Zealand. For a supposedly
friendly government to deliberately inject inflammatory disinformation into the
political bloodstream of its supposedly closest neighbour is an extraordinarily
provocative act. Not quite an act of war, but the sort of intervention that can
all-too-easily provoke a catastrophic loss of trust.
It’s the sort of thing that the Soviets and the Americans
used to do to one another all the time during the Cold War. Except, of course,
those two superpowers were ideological and geopolitical rivals of the first
order. It takes a real effort to re-cast the relationship between New Zealand
and Australia in similar terms. Nevertheless, it’s an effort we are now obliged
So, what is it that Australia has done? Essentially, its
national security apparatus (presumably at the instigation of their political
leaders) has released, mostly through media surrogates, a number of related
stories calculated to inflame the prejudices of a certain type of New
Like Australia, New Zealand harbours a frighteningly large
number of racists. Politically-speaking, such people are easily aroused and
have few qualms about setting-off ugly, racially-charged, debates on talkback
radio, in the letters columns of the daily newspapers and across social media.
These individuals are trouble enough when all they have to fight with are their
own stereotypes and prejudices. Arm them with the carefully assembled
disinformation of “fake news” and they instantly become quite dangerous.
And yet, this is exactly what the Australian authorities
have done. Planting stories in their own press (knowing they will be picked up
almost immediately by our own) about at least four boatloads of illegal
immigrants that have set out for New Zealand only to be intercepted and turned
back by the ever-vigilant officers of the Royal Australian Navy and their Coast
Guard comrades. The purpose of this story (unsourced and lacking in detail,
making it, almost certainly, fake news) was to paint New Zealand’s prime
minister as an ill-informed and ungrateful diplomatic naïf: an inexperienced
young idealist who doesn’t know which way is up when it comes to dealing with
This, alone, was an extraordinary intervention. To gauge how
extraordinary, just turn it around. Imagine the reaction in Australia if some
unnamed person in New Zealand’s national security apparatus leaked a memo to
one of this country’s daily newspapers in which the negative diplomatic and
economic consequences of being tainted by association with Australia’s flouting
of international law is set forth in clinical detail. If the memo also
contained a collection of highly critical assessments of Turnbull’s cabinet
colleagues, allegedly passed-on by a number of unnamed western diplomats, then
so much the better!
Canberra would not be impressed!
If the Australians had left it at just one intervention,
then perhaps New Zealanders could simply have shrugged it off as yet another
case of bad behaviour from the land of the under-arm bowlers. But when have the
Aussies ever left it at “just one”?
The next intervention came in the form of “Ian” – formerly a
guard (or so he said) at both the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. For
reasons it has yet to adequately explain, RNZ’s Checkpoint programme provided “Ian” with nearly ten, largely
uninterrupted, minutes of air-time during which he poured-forth a stream of
accusations and characterisations which, to put it mildly, painted the
protesters occupying the decommissioned Manus Island facility in the most lurid
and disquieting colours. The detainees were criminals, drug-dealers –
paedophiles even! Not at all the sort of people New Zealanders would want in
“Ian”, it turns out, is a “witness” well-known to the many
Australian NGOs that have taken up the cause of the detainees on Manus and
Nauru. They have noted the curious similarities between “Ian’s” supposedly
personal observations and experiences, and the inflammatory talking-points
constantly reiterated by Australia’s hard-line Immigration Minister, Peter
Dutton. A cynic might describe the grim “testimony” of “Ian” and Dutton as
No matter. New Zealand’s racist, Islamophobic and militantly
anti-immigrant community had been supplied with yet another truckload of
Enough? Not hardly! Only this morning (17/11/17) New
Zealanders were fed the shocking “news” that the protesting Manus Island
detainees are harbouring within their ranks an unspecified number of men guilty
of having debauched and prostituted local girls as young as 10 and 13!
Too much? Over the top? Redolent of the very worst instances
of the murderous racial-incitement for which the Deep South of the United
States was so rightly infamous? It sure is! Which is why we must hope that the
Internet does not operate on Manus Island. Because, if the local inhabitants
were to read on-line that the detainees were responsible for prostituting their
daughters, what might they NOT do?
One almost feels that the Australian spooks behind this
extraordinary disinformation campaign would actually be delighted if the locals
burned down the Manus Island detention centre with the protesting detainees
“This is what comes of 37-year-old Kiwi prime ministers
meddling in matters they know nothing about!” That would be the consistent
theme of the right-wing Australian media. It would not take long for the same
line to be picked up here: first on social media, and then by more mainstream
media outlets. Right-wing outrage, mixed with a gleeful “we told you so!”,
could not, however, be contained within the news media for very long.
Inevitably, the more outré inhabitants of the Opposition’s back bench would
take possession of the controversy, from there it would cascade down rapidly to
Opposition politicians nearer the front.
Before her enemies could say: “It’s all your fault!”,
Jacinda would find herself under withering political fire from both sides of
the Tasman. Canberra would register her increasingly fragile government’s
distress with grim satisfaction.
As the men and women responsible for organising “Operation
Stardust” deleted its final folder, and fed the last incriminating document
into the paper-shredder, one or two of them might even have voiced a
judiciously muted “Mission Accomplished!”
This essay was posted
simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The
Daily Blog of Saturday, 18 November 2017.
"WTF, James!" The Greens do not appear to understand that the key to improving their party’s position electorally, as well as strengthening its hand politically, lies in conceiving of the Labour-NZ First-Green government as a single entity: one which must either hang together or, most assuredly, it will hang separately! Stealing their comrades’ electoral lunch, in these circumstances, can only damage the Greens every bit as much as it damages (and enrages!) Labour and NZ First.
WHAT DO THE GREENS think they’re playing at? Their response
to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has done
themselves, and the government they’re ostensibly part of, a huge disservice.
Honestly, it’s the sort of reaction one might expect from a clutch of radical
student politicians: long on “principle”, short on common-sense. If this is how
the Greens plan to conduct themselves over the next three years, then they had
better find themselves an electorate they can win (without Labour’s support!)
and fast. Because keeping their party above the 5 percent MMP threshold is
likely to prove a constant struggle.
Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves that by waving their
anti-TPP banners across Twitter and Facebook they will pick up all those “woke”
voters who’ve accused Jacinda Ardern and David Parker of “selling out” to
global capitalism at Danang. How many might that be? Almost certainly a lot
fewer than the very substantial number of generous Labour supporters who gave
the Greens their Party Vote on 23 September to make sure they didn’t disappear
from Parliament altogether. If the Greens aren’t willing to reciprocate that
sort of solidarity, then there’s bugger-all chance of it being repeated!
The Greens do not appear to understand that the key to
improving their party’s position electorally, as well as strengthening its hand
politically, lies in conceiving of the Labour-NZ First-Green government as a
single entity: one which must either hang together or, most assuredly, it will
hang separately! Stealing their comrades’ electoral lunch, in these
circumstances, can only damage the Greens every bit as much as it damages (and
enrages!) Labour and NZ First.
But, then, strategic (or even tactical!) thinking would not
appear to be the Greens’ strong suit. Was there no one in their caucus capable
of imagining the grim spectre that was bound to be raised by their very public
repudiation of the CPTPP? Not one person in their ranks with the wit to realise
that by withdrawing their 8 votes from the Government, the Greens would be
driving Jacinda straight into the arms of Bill English and the National Party?
Did no Green MP pause to consider the “optics” of that? Of how much damage it
would inflict on all three of the governing parties?
Even if Labour capitulated at the last moment, and agreed to
pull New Zealand out of the CPTPP – would the Greens count that as a “victory”?
If so, they’d be wrong. Such a public demonstration of the tail wagging the dog
would be catastrophic for Labour and the Greens alike. And if Labour refused to
be blackmailed and allowed the National Party to ride to its rescue? What would
that say about the viability of the Labour-NZ First-Green government? What
would it mean for the relationship between Jacinda and James Shaw? Labour’s
wrath would be terrible to behold – but not as terrible as their revenge!
It all could have been handled so differently. All that was
required of the Greens’ caucus was some evidence they understood that
contributing usefully to the work of a progressive government requires just a
little more in the way of political finesse than denying the right of free
speech to a handful of National Front tragics in Parliament grounds.
On the CPTPP issue, for example, the Greens could have
reached out to their Canadian counterparts for advice on how to build the
largest possible political consensus around what should – and should not – be
included in a multilateral trade agreement. In this, they would have been doing
Labour a huge favour: making the arguments that the Prime Minister and her
Trade Minister could not be seen to make, but which would, nevertheless,
strengthen their hand in future negotiations.
As it is, by firing off all their “principled” bullets at
once (and before their target was even within range!) they have taken
themselves out of the game. Even worse, they have demonstrated, beyond
reasonable doubt, that they don’t even know what the game is – or how to play
That is not something which can be said of NZ First. Winston
Peters has maintained a judicious silence concerning the desirability – or
otherwise – of the CPTPP. He will study the problem professionally, from all
angles, until he locates exactly the right point to exercise his leverage.
My advice to the Greens? Watch and learn.
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, 17 November 2017.
YES! Australians cheer the result of the postal plebiscite on Marriage Equality. This emphatic victory for social liberalism (61.6/38.4 percent) will hit conservative Australians hard. Liberal and National Party strategists may, however, attempt to exploit the fact that of the 17 federal electorates that voted "No", 11 are held by the Labor Party. Progressive Australians have won an important battle - but the culture war will go on.
WEDNESDAY, 15 NOVEMBER 2017 will go down in Australian
history as Marriage Equality Day. In an unprecedented national plebiscite, 61.6
percent of the 79.5 percent of voting-age Australians who returned their postal
ballots voted YES to marriage equality. With this resounding vote in favour,
Australia joined the rest of the world’s progressive nations in rejecting
homophobia and discrimination.
But, Wednesday, 15 November 2017 will be remembered for
something more than Australia’s endorsement of marriage equality. It will also
be recorded by social historians and psephologists as the day conservative
Australians were required to accept a forceful and irrefutable message
confirming their minority status in Australian society.
Hostility towards homosexuality is one of the most reliable
markers of the authoritarian personality. It will, therefore, come as a
profound shock to people of this personality type that their attitudes are not
shared by an overwhelming majority of the population. That nearly two-thirds of
their fellow citizens see nothing untoward about same sex couples getting
married will deliver a shattering blow to their perception of “normality”. They
will be dismayed by how far the world has strayed from their “traditional
For some, the events of 15 November 2017 will prompt a
thorough-going reassessment of their moral and political expectations of
themselves and their fellow Australians. If they are lucky, this reassessment
will liberate them from the debilitating effects of conservative ideology,
fundamentalist religious beliefs and authoritarian attitudes. For many others,
perhaps a majority, however, the discovery that their hatreds and prejudices
towards the LGBTI community is shared by just 38.4 percent of their fellow Australians
will evoke a very different – and potentially dangerous – response.
For these conservatives, the plebiscite outcome will be
interpreted as irrefutable proof of how sick and sinful their society has
become. Religious conservatives, in particular, will have no difficulty
accepting their minority status. After all, doesn’t Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel,
enjoin them to enter in by the strait gate? “[F]or wide is the gate, and broad
is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat”?
And doesn’t he also say that “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which
leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
No, the Christian fundamentalists will not be in the least
bit surprised to discover that 61.6 percent of their neighbours are going to
Political conservatives and authoritarian personalities will
have a much harder time of it, however. For their brand of politics, 15
November 2017 can only have been a profoundly delegitimating experience.
Electorally, it could very easily signal their imminent marginalisation.
“Mainstream” politicians will now have to adjust to the fact that social
liberalism, which they understood to be confined to the effete inhabitants of
the inner-cities, is actually embraced by a much more extensive cross-section
of the Australian population. For many, on both sides of the parliamentary
aisle, it will rapidly become advisable to evince a more progressive and
tolerant political persona.
For the diehards, however, it is not yet the time to lay
down their arms and surrender to the bacchanalian throngs gyrating joyously in
the streets of Sydney and Melbourne. They still have eleven cards left to play.
The more sharp-eyed and ruthless members of the Liberal and
National party rooms will have noticed that of the 17 federal electorates which
voted “No” to marriage equality, fully 11 of them are held by the Australian
Labor Party. In the strategically vital “Western Suburbs” of Sydney, the seats
of Greenway, Chifley, McMahon, Fowler, Warriwa, Blaxland, Watson, Barton and
Parramatta – all of them held by Labor MPs – voted “No”. Some, like Greenway,
only very narrowly. (53.6 percent) Others, like Blaxland, by a huge margin.
(73.9 percent!) In socially-liberal (some would say, radical) Melbourne, the only
electorates which rejected marriage equality were the Labor-held seats of
Calwell and Bruce.
There is simply no way the Labor Party can defeat the
Liberal-National Coalition if even a handful of these eleven safe seats slip
from the Opposition’s grasp. And while, in normal times, any suggestion that a
seat like Chifley might be lost to the Liberals would be greeted with
full-strength Aussie derision, it remains an awkward fact that we are not
living in normal times.
Prior to 8 November 2016, the very idea that the states of
Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania might be about to fall to Trump would have
been met with loud American guffaws. But not after 8 November. Lashed and
goaded in just the right way, the normally left-voting inhabitants of places like
Michigan – or Chifley – can end up doing the strangest things.
For progressive Australians, 15 November 2017 will forever
be bathed in all the vibrant colours of the rainbow. But, for the conservative
ideologues, the religious fanatics and the authoritarian personalities trapped
in their suffocating character armour, 15 November 2017 will be registered as
nothing more than a temporary setback. The bigots might concede that, on this
memorable day, they have lost a battle. But, for them, the war against a
society grounded in gentleness, tolerance and love will go on.
This essay has been posted
simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The
Daily Blog of Thursday, 16 November 2017.
Brave Faces At Danang: David Parker and Jacinda Ardern field questions from the news media at the meeting of Apec in Danang, Vietnam. What the new Labour-led government needed more than anything else from this meeting was what they came home with - Time.
THE TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP (TPP) is not dead, but neither
can it be said to be in the rudest of health. Considerable last-minute
diplomatic scurrying was required to save the Japanese government from a humiliating
loss of face. Negotiations, accordingly, are said to be “continuing”. Nothing,
however, should be expected before February 2018 – at the earliest. Which means
that, for the moment at least, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Trade Minister
David Parker, like Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, have taken
possession of the commodity they most needed to bring home from Danang – Time.
The situation into which Ardern was flying aboard the
RNZAF’s Boeing 757 at the end of last week offered no guarantee that such
precious time would be on offer. Danang was fraught with multiple dangers:
economic, diplomatic and political.
As the leader of a small trading nation, New Zealand’s prime
minister simply cannot affect a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to something as
big as the TPP. The inescapable truth confronting Ardern (as it has every one
of her predecessors) is that this country’s status as a first-world nation is
inescapably contingent upon earning sufficient overseas currency to import the
sort of lifestyle to which most Kiwis believe themselves entitled. Bluntly:
faced with the choice of announcing whether her government is “in” or “out” of
a major trade agreement; no New Zealand prime minister can say “out” with
All of the official advice the Prime Minister has received
to date on the TPP will have kicked-off from that position. Certainly, it will
have been the argument reiterated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade
(MFAT). It will also have been the lustily repeated refrain of this country’s
major exporters. Likewise, from what might be called the “globalisation lobby”
imbedded in NGO-land, academia and the media.
Taken together, a very large and intimidating crowd to say
Even larger and much more intimidating, however, are the
nation states determined to see the TPP (or, as it has rather tendentiously
been re-named, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership –
CPTPP!) ratified and implemented. The agreement’s principal cheerleader (now
that the USA has withdrawn) is Japan, whose diplomatic reach proved to be more
than long enough to secure Justin Trudeau’s return to the negotiating table.
(It may have been Canada’s wish to walk away from the TPP-11 altogether, but
Japan’s “arguments” were clearly “persuasive” enough to cause its prime
minister to have second-thoughts and turn around!)
If Canada, with 36.3 million people and the second-largest
economy of the remaining TPP signatories, couldn’t make it all the way to the
departure lounge at Danang, then what were the odds of little New Zealand
making it even as far as the door? New Zealand political leaders have only to
review their country’s diplomatic, military and economic experience with the
USA between 1984 and 2010 to gain some appreciation of the costs associated
with taking a “principled stand”. World headlines last only a few days – their
consequences can last for decades.
And then, of course, you have to come home.
It is probable that the National Party was hoping more
earnestly than Professor Jane Kelsey and the entire New Zealand Left that Prime
Minister Ardern would take a “principled stand” on the TPP. Had she stood up
and said “no”, not only would she have felt the full wrath of Japan and its
allies, but, from the moment her feet once again touched New Zealand soil, she
would also have felt the full blast of a searing political firestorm.
The Urgent Debate in Parliament, which Speaker Mallard would
have no choice but to grant the National Opposition, would only be the
beginning. Day after day, the voices of exporters, business leaders, bank
economists, business journalists, media commentators, academic experts and the
globalisation lobby would be ringing in the Labour-NZ First-Green Government’s
The Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues would then
have just two political options: either back-down, or double-down.
If they backed-down, then Ms Ardern and her government would
stand exposed as a bunch of juvenile attention-seekers who simply had not
thought through the consequences of their irresponsible actions. It would be a
full-scale debacle from which they could not recover.
But, doubling-down would be even worse. By adopting a
sharp-edged, radically left-wing, stance on international trade at both the
diplomatic and domestic levels, Ms Ardern’s government would rapidly find
itself re-positioned among the world’s “nutty” nation states. Inevitably, New
Zealand would find itself drifting, economically and diplomatically, under the
influence of China and Russia. For an overwhelming majority of New Zealanders,
this would represent an unmandated repudiation of everything their country
stands for. Politically, it would be unsurvivable.
To Ms Ardern’s and Mr Parkers’ no doubt immense relief, both
of these catastrophes have been avoided. They have had a very lucky escape.
This essay was
originally published in The Press of Tuesday,
14 November 2017.
Storming The "Engine Room" of Government: As the product of a “top-down” economic and social revolution, New Zealand Neoliberalism – far from needing to rein-in the powers of the civil-service mandarinate – was determined to re-fashion the state bureaucracy in such a way that it would be able to resist any and all attempts by elected politicians – and their parties – to dismantle the neoliberal machinery of "governance".
“THEY’RE THE ENGINE ROOM where ministerial decisions are put
through the mill by officials.” In that single sentence, the very worst aspects
of neoliberalism are laid bare. It’s author, political journalist Stacey Kirk,
like so many of her generation, have been taught to regard politicians as, at
best, necessary evils. Accordingly, Cabinet Committees – the “engine rooms” of
government – are held up as the necessary correctives to poorly conceived
“ministerial decisions”. Places where the ideas of elected politicians get
knocked into a shape acceptable to their unelected “officials” – New Zealand’s
only trustworthy wielders of political power.
Kirk’s story, inspired by Opposition criticism of the new
government’s apparent willingness to be guided by – and act on – its own
advice, plays directly to the crucial neoliberal concept of “governance”. At
its core, governance represents the idea that the policies of both local and
national government, if they are to meet the fundamental test of effective and
efficient public administration, must be professionally crafted and
implemented. By this reckoning, the ill-informed amateurism of elected
politicians poses a constant threat to the delivery of “good” governance. Which
is why “officials” putting “ministerial decisions” through “the mill” is
presented not as an affront to democracy, but a very good idea.
Essentially, Kirk ranges herself alongside the Sir Humphrey
Appleby character from the celebrated British television series, Yes Minister. Sir Humphrey represents
the haughty mandarinate of the Civil Service: the ones who regard themselves as
the guardians of the State’s permanent interests. Ever on the alert against the
obsessions and enthusiasms of reforming politicians, Sir Humphrey and his
colleagues are constantly manoeuvring to thwart the pet projects of their
In its day, Yes
Minister was conceived of – and certainly became – a primer for the “free
market” reforms of Margaret Thatcher. The senior civil service of 1980s Britain
was depicted as dangerously protective of the fast-decaying post-World War II
Keynesian settlement. Yes Minister’s
key message was, therefore, that the British people needed to elect
ideologically-driven politicians who knew their own minds, and could not be
swayed by the blandishments of Machiavellian bureaucrats like Sir Humphrey.
In the case of New Zealand, however, the neoliberal
revolution was not carried through by ideologically-driven politicians (as
happened in the UK and the USA) but by ideologically-driven bureaucrats in the
New Zealand Treasury and, to a lesser extent, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.
It was these civil servants who radicalised the political leadership of the
Labour Party and placed in the hands of David Lange’s government the carefully
prepared economic reform package that would later become known as
“Rogernomics”. (The book-sized briefing document, dubbed ‘Economic Management’,
can still be found on the shelves of your local public library.)
As the product of a “top-down” economic and social revolution,
New Zealand Neoliberalism – far from needing to rein-in the powers of the
civil-service mandarinate – was determined to re-fashion the state bureaucracy
in such a way that it would be able to resist any and all attempts by elected
politicians – and their parties – to dismantle the neoliberal system.
In this regard, the concept of “governance” was crucial.
Policy had to become the more-or-less exclusive province of highly-trained
professionals. Men and women, thoroughly schooled in the neoliberal ideology,
who could intercept and demolish any attempt by politicians – especially those
of the Left – to advance an alternative economic and social agenda.
In effect, the whole idea of a democratically-elected
government, empowered by the electorate to implement its party’s – or parties’
– manifesto/s, is presented as a dangerous threat to the effective and
efficient management of public affairs. Lip-service has to be paid to
democratic principles, of course, but all governance-oriented politicians understand
that Steve Maharey’s infamous formula: “That’s just the sort of thing you say
in Opposition, and then forget about in Government”, continues to describe the
true condition of our democracy.
None of which should be construed as an argument for doing away
with the civil service. Highly-educated and experienced civil servants will
always be needed to provide the policies of elected politicians with effective
and efficient delivery mechanisms. Free and frank advice to ministers will
always constitute a vital aspect of testing and refining policy ideas. What is
most definitely not needed, however, is a civil service comprised of neoliberal
cadres: bureaucrats who are, first and foremost, loyal to an ideological system
which is absolutely antithetical to the whole notion of “government of the
people, by the people, for the people.” New Zealand urgently needs to get rid
of this neoliberal priesthood.
Rather than question Jacinda Ardern’s government for
spending too little time in the “engine rooms”, Stacey Kirk should, perhaps,
cast a critical eye over the legislative mechanisms which preserve the
neoliberal ascendancy in New Zealand’s civil service. The State Sector Act, the
Public Finance Act and the Reserve Bank Act: all provide the statutory
obstacles that render effective, politician-led change so exceedingly difficult
in this country.
If our new Cabinet Ministers are working independently of
their “officials”, then that is not, automatically, a bad thing. On the
contrary, in a democracy: the spectacle of officials working for politicians,
who are, in their turn, working for the people; offers welcome proof that the
system is working exactly as it should!
Surely, the “engine room” of any government is the place
where the policies promised to the people by their elected leaders are
connected to the machinery of the state by its loyal civil servants – and set
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Saturday, 11 November 2017.
First Rule Of Parliamentary Politics - Learn To Count! Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins (Centre) confers with Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, and Prime Minister Ardern. Hipkins' mistake - trusting the word of the National Party - is one he will be determined to avoid repeating.
IT WAS A MISTAKE: a serious mistake; a mistake born out of
Labour’s naïve readiness to trust the National Opposition. It was, after all,
the first sitting of the newly elected House of Representatives. Normally, an
occasion for a little bit of pomp and circumstance, when Members of Parliament
swear allegiance to the Sovereign, assume their seats, and elect one of their
number Speaker of the House. Historically, a day of bi-partisan goodwill; a day
for tradition; a day of calm before the House settles into its normal,
Not this day.
Clearly, when the Leader of the Opposition, Bill English,
told a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery that “it’s not our job to make
this place run for an incoming Government”, Labour’s new Leader of the House,
Chris Hipkins, refused to take him seriously. Not even English’s parting shot:
“we have no obligation to smooth [Labour’s] path. None whatsoever”, was
explicit enough for Labour to take precautions against an Opposition ambush.
Not on the first day.
Not even when Simon Bridges, National’s “Shadow” Leader of
the House, accused Labour of attempting to perpetrate an “unprecedented”
erosion of the Opposition’s democratic rights, did Hipkins smell a rat. Why
should he, when all he was proposing to do was implement a number of
unanimously agreed changes to the rules governing the conduct and membership of
Parliament’s select committees?
After all, these same amendments to Parliament’s “Standing
Orders” – one of which limited the number of Select Committee members to 96 –
had been recommended to the previous House of Representatives by no less a
person than the man now proclaiming them to be a democratic outrage – Simon
Obviously, this was all about the Opposition giving voice to
their frustration. Opposition is never easy and the temptation to rhetorical
over-statement is always very strong. English was simply talking tough – that
is his job now. And Bridges? Well! Taking his cue from Bill, he was simply
pumping-up the rhetoric to bursting point. Hell! Hipkins had done it himself
often enough when seated on the Opposition Benches! All this fire and brimstone
was being laid on for the benefit of National’s aggrieved voters, still
smarting over the election outcome. There was no need for him, or anyone else
on the Government’s side of the House, to get excited.
Except, there was.
With the Foreign Affairs Minister, Winston Peters, and the
Trade Minister, David Parker, both out of the country, and three more
Government members absent from the Chamber, Hipkins was three votes shy of a
majority on the Floor of the House. No matter, the only important business of
the day was the election of Trevor Mallard as Speaker of the House, with
National’s Anne Tolley as his deputy. All parties had been consulted, and all
parties were agreed. The vote was a mere formality.
Until Bridges turned it into something else.
They say that the first and most important skill a
politician is obliged to master is how to count. Bridges tallied-up the
Government numbers and realised that the National Party had command of the
Floor. Without a moment’s hesitation he pounced. If Labour wanted Mallard to be
Speaker, then they would have to yield to the Opposition on the number of
Select Committee members. Instead of 96, Bridges demanded 108. If Hipkins
refused, then National would use its temporary command of the House to deny
Mallard his heart’s desire – the Speaker’s Chair!
It was a scene of extraordinary drama. Bridges, his face
contorted in a rictus of anthropoid belligerence, confronted the beseeching
countenances of Hipkins and Finance Minister, Grant Robertson. The image will
do him no harm – not among his caucus colleagues, anyway. With a single,
ruthless stroke of parliamentary gamesmanship, Bridges has seized for himself
the priceless mantle of National’s warrior knight.
But at what cost?
Hipkins made the mistake of believing that National would
not stoop to turning the opening of Parliament into an ugly display of
aggressive partisanship. It’s a mistake he will do everything in his power to
Bridges, meanwhile, has signalled that National is ready to
employ the tactics of the US Republican Party: obstruction without reason;
obstruction without purpose; obstruction without end.
In the memorable words of Bette Davis in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts,
it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
This essay was
originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The
Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 November 2017.
Starting As They Mean To Finish: Simon Bridges' opening parliamentary gambit has made it more-or-less impossible for National’s period in opposition to be anything other than a bloody, no-holds-barred fight to the finish. Bill English had hinted that this might be the Opposition's game-plan when he told the NZ Herald that “it’s not our job to make this place run for an incoming Government […] we have no obligation to smooth [Labour’s] path. None whatsoever.”
WHAT WAS HE THINKING? When Simon Bridges pulled his little
parliamentary stunt and extracted his procedural pound of flesh – what was he
thinking? Was it no more than a spur-of-the-moment bluff? Did Labour’s Chris
Hipkins give in too readily? What would have happened if the Government had
been prepared to call his bluff? We’ll never know. We never do. History turns
on such moments. The course our political leaders end up taking is always just
one of an infinite number of alternatives they could have followed. But the
courses chosen: the paths followed; they matter. You can put a ring around
that, they matter a lot.
What Simon Bridges was thinking, probably, was that it was a
risk worth taking. As the Shadow Leader of the House, he had given the
Government his word that National would support Trevor Mallard’s bid to become
Speaker, providing that, in return, his colleague, Anne Tolley, would be
elected Deputy-Speaker. Labour had agreed. A deal had been struck. As an “honourable”
Member of Parliament, Simon’s word should have been his bond. So, yes, his bold
parliamentary gambit represented a huge breach of trust. It was risky. But the
potential reward was worth it.
Welching on the Speaker deal. Slapping Labour’s face in front
of the whole world. Making them look weak and incompetent by turning the first
sitting of the House of Representative into a shambles and a farce – and coming
out of it with a concession that promised many, many more opportunities to
frustrate and humiliate the Government. These were all victories – his
victories – and they would transform him into National’s warrior knight.
Bridges’ actions had achieved something else. Such an open
and unconscionable breach of trust made it more-or-less impossible for
National’s period in opposition to be anything other than a bloody,
no-holds-barred fight to the finish. Bill English had hinted that this might,
indeed, be National’s plan when he told the NZ Herald that “it’s not our job to
make this place run for an incoming Government […] we have no obligation to
smooth [Labour’s] path. None whatsoever.”
But like this? On the first day? Surely not.
Jacinda Ardern must now decide how her Labour-NZ First-Green
government should respond to Bridges’ ambush. Like Barack Obama, she has come
into office with an all-embracing programme of social, economic and cultural
uplift. A programme in which she hoped the losing party would not only be
willing to play the role of her government’s necessarily critical opposition,
but also that of a patriotically constructive partner in the urgent task of
national renewal. It is now very clear that this objective will only be
achieved over the broken body of the National Party. With all hopes of
collaboration and compromise dashed on the very first day, Jacinda’s new
government is faced with the additional challenge of advancing its ambitious
legislative programme in the face of the Opposition’s implacable and
The most effective way for the National Opposition to resist
Jacinda’s reforming government is by doing everything within its power to
shatter its supporters’ faith in the political system’s capacity to deliver
real change. The most terrifying sight the National Opposition has witnessed so
far must surely have been the size and enthusiasm of the crowd of ordinary New
Zealanders who gathered in Parliament Grounds to welcome the newly sworn-in
Prime Minister and her Cabinet back from Government House. Bill English and his
caucus would have observed all those expressions of hope and joy and realised
that unless this new-found faith in politics – Jacinda’s “stardust” – was
dispersed, and rapidly, then the new government’s lease on the Treasury Benches
was likely to be a long one.
National is well aware that its own supporters’
understanding of politics is very different from that of Labour’s, the Greens’
and NZ First’s followers. National voters see politics as a purely instrumental
activity: the means by which their interests and aspirations are secured and
encouraged. Most of them are well aware of the fact that this can only be
achieved at the expense of the less prosperous half of the New Zealand
population – and most of them are quite okay with that. In their eyes, the poor
and the marginalised have only themselves to blame for the multiple misfortunes
which assail them. If you’re a loser in this society, it’s obviously because
you haven’t tried hard enough to win!
It is this ruthlessly competitive approach to life and
politics which allows them to respond to Simon Bridges parliamentary ambush
with nothing but unalloyed admiration. Whatever it takes to win is fine by
them. If their opponents label such tactics “dirty politics”, then they will
simply shrug-off the accusation. “Dirty politics?”, they will chortle. “Is
there any other kind?”
What was Simon Bridges thinking when he staged his
parliamentary ambush? That it would not hurt his political career to be seen to
be responding so unequivocally to the expectation of his party’s supporters
that everything must be done to make politics appear tawdry and mean-spirited?
That every stratagem which serves to make people despair of politics; and every
act that causes them to turn away from politicians in disgust; will be heartily
approved by National’s voters?
Those would certainly have been the thoughts of a young,
ambitious leader-in-waiting, brashly confident that the National Opposition
will retain the unwavering support of all those New Zealanders intent on
recovering their lost social and economic ascendancy – no matter what it does.
Use any means necessary – just so long as that bloody
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Thursday, 9 November 2017.
"Here's looking at you, kid." But what does Jacinda Ardern see when she looks at the Australian PM, Malcolm Turnbull? A friend and ally? The dissimulating representative of an arrogant and aggressive regional bully? Or, the ruthless commandant of a terrifying collection of fetid tropical concentration camps?
WHAT DOES IT MEAN when otherwise intelligent people look at
something – and don’t see it? How do people train themselves to misperceive –
and therefore misrepresent – the reality before their eyes?
Paul Simon’s song, ‘The Boxer’, explains it like this:
I have squandered my
For a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises. All
lies and jest.
Still, a man hears
what he wants to hear
And disregards the
Faced with the deepening humanitarian crisis on Manus
Island, why is the New Zealand Government, like the boxer, only seeing what it
wants to see, and disregarding the rest?
What should our new government be seeing?
First and foremost, it should see the Australian
Government’s policy on illegal immigration by sea as an exercise in imposing
immediate cruelty to achieve long-term kindness. Assailed by the victims of
corrupt criminal enterprises: the desperate men, women and children being sent
out in flimsy boats, foundering on the high seas and drowning; successive
Australian Governments have embarked upon a programme of extreme deterrence.
Refugees and economic migrants attempting to circumvent
Australia’s official immigration policies, by sailing there illegally, will be
treated with the utmost harshness. Without the slightest regard for age or
gender, they will be interned in fetid tropical concentration camps; brutally
mistreated; and informed, coldly, that under no circumstances will the
Australian Government ever permit them, or their offspring, to set foot on
And, it’s worked. The terrifying example presented to
potential “boat people” by the inhabitants of the Manus Island and Nauru
detention centres has had the desired effect. The criminal middle-men have
found fewer and fewer individuals and families willing to pay them the huge
sums of money they had previously been able to demand for a journey to
Australian shores. People smuggling has become uneconomic. The leaky boats have
stopped sailing and their passengers have stopped dying.
When criticised, the Australian Government simply points to
the situation in the Mediterranean. The European Union’s “humanitarian” policy
of rescuing and receiving boat people has resulted in a huge expansion of
people-smuggling. Every week, thousands of refugees and illegal migrants set
sail from North Africa for Spain and Italy. Of those thousands, many hundreds –
men, women and children – drown at sea.
On 17 June 2017, the British e-newspaper, The Independent, reported that: “More
than 2,000 migrants have died attempting treacherous boat crossings to Europe
so far this year”. That number must now be approaching 4,000.
These are the numbers that the Australian Government points
to as justification for the astonishing cruelty of its policies. The so-called
“Pacific Solution” may not be pretty to look at, runs the official argument,
but it saves lives. Mothers’ lives. Children’s lives. “If we gave in to the
demands of our critics,” say the Australian authorities, “we wouldn’t just have
detainees, we’d have blood, on our hands!”
In the authorities’ eyes, the actions of the Australian
navy, in intercepting the people-smugglers’ vessels and towing them back to
their departure points; and the harsh internment regimes subsidised by the
Australian state; are not only the delivery mechanisms for effective policy,
but they are also entirely morally defensible. By their reckoning, it is the
“humanitarian” NGOs; the groups which insist on “saving” the boat people, that
have thousands of drowned human-beings on their consciences – not the
Australian Government. For every boatload of refugees and illegal migrants that
are “saved”: ten, twenty, thirty more overloaded and leaking death-traps are
encouraged to set sail.
Faced with an adamant Australian Government which is utterly
convinced that it is doing the right thing vis-à-vis illegal immigration by
sea, what should the New Zealand Government do?
If we engage the Aussies in a full-scale moral debate on this
issue, can we even be sure of winning it? With the example of the EU’s policy
before us; and with the Australians arguably blocking the people-smuggling
routes to New Zealand as well as to their own country; might we not expose
ourselves to the charge of allowing our kind hearts to get in the way of the
higher moral good of breaking the people-smuggling trade?
Let’s assume, however, that we are capable of refuting the
Australians’ moral arguments (their policies are, after all in breach of
numerous international covenants to which New Zealand remains firmly committed)
what, then, should be our course of action?
Some are arguing that we should negotiate directly with the
government of Papua-New Guinea. But, that really would be evidence of our
diplomatic blindness! The government of Papua-New Guinea is almost entirely in
the thrall of the Australian Government – its former colonial master.
Ostensibly a democracy, the country is, in fact, a corrupt kleptocracy whose
senior ministers are pretty-much the bought-and-paid-for playthings of
Canberra. Were we to ask Port Moresby if it was willing to allow New Zealand to
take 150 detainees off their hands, its officials would simply pick up the
phone and ask Canberra if that would be okay.
Canberra would say “No!” – and that would be that. The same applies to
the supposedly independent state of Nauru – another Pacific regime morally and
politically compromised by the Australians’ Pacific Solution.
All of which should tell us exactly what we are looking at
when we fix our gaze on Australia.
Because it’s not just big Papua-New Guinea, and tiny Nauru,
who find themselves in no position to do anything other than obey without
question the dictates of Canberra. Australia may not have purchased our
politicians, the way it has in other parts of the Pacific, but that’s only
because they don’t need to. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is quite
capable of assessing this country’s strategic economic, military and diplomatic
interests without the need for Canberra to spell them out for us.
What Jacinda saw when she arrived at Kiribili House on
Sunday was what she wanted to see. Our good friend and ally, the Australian
prime minister. She comported herself accordingly: joshing and joking; and
reporting (politely) on her Government’s response to Australia’s latest policy
Had she seen anything else: a nation able to break the New
Zealand economy at will, for example, or, a regime prepared to be almost
unbelievably ruthless and brutal in the pursuit of its national objectives. Had
she registered a nation arming itself to the teeth in preparation for
projecting “Five Eyes” power north, into the Indonesian archipelago, east, into
the Pacific, and west, into the strategically vital Indian ocean, and which
looks upon its “little mate”, New Zealand, as a lucrative source of economic
tribute, a handy supplier of skilled labour, a cheap holiday destination, and,
at need, an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” fortuitously positioned to defend
Australia’s eastern flank; then what, realistically, could she have done?
Other than josh, and joke, and hope like hell that Australia
never decides to treat Kiwis the way it treats the detainees on Manus Island
Oh, wait a minute …
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Tuesday, 7 November 2017.
Power In The Hands Of The People - For A While: One hundred years on, the revolution which the Bolsheviks not so much made, as destroyed, deserves to be remembered for what it was – a joyous eruption of ‘people power’. It unleashed the creative political and cultural energies of ordinary men and women in ways that by turns astounded, delighted and inspired the whole world. So much so that, even today, a century later, it is the event’s historic assertion: that a better world is possible; which keeps the vivid colours of the Russian people’s revolution so bright in the memory – and hopes – of humankind.
“GO HOME!” Ordered the Bolshevik soldiers surrounding the
Tauride Palace in Petrograd. The assembled delegates to the All-Russian
Constituent Assembly looked at the rifles and bayonets pointed at them, looked at
one another, and dispersed. Thus, was representative democracy ushered-off the
Russian political stage in the snows and freezing mists of January 1918. The
Assembly, elected by more than 40 million Russians in the first free election
of their nation’s history, had deliberated for precisely thirteen hours.
The shutting down of the Constituent Assembly by the
Bolshevik government of Vladimir Lenin provoked very little in the way of
protest. Lawyers and other professionals objected, of course, rightly foreseeing
that a revolutionary regime upheld by rifles and bayonets was unlikely to be
the most reliable guarantor of individual liberty and human rights. For the
remainder of the politically active population, however, there was simply too
much going on.
Their revolution, which had begun nine months earlier on
International Women’s Day (8 March) 1917 was still in full-swing, Constituent
Assembly, or no Constituent Assembly. So, too, was the debate about the best
form of democracy. Perhaps Comrade Lenin was right on this issue. Perhaps the
workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ “soviets” (councils) whose members were
directly elected at the factory, barracks and village level, and instantly
recallable if they deviated from their mandates, were a better and more accountable
form of democratic representation.
What mattered most to Russia’s political activists in the
winter of 1917-18 was their conviction that the revolution still belonged to
them: that they were still in charge; still directing the flow of events. Many
of them, while harbouring serious reservations about the Bolsheviks’ blatantly
unconstitutional seizure of power on 7 November 1917, were nevertheless
relieved that the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky, and its
criminal determination to continue the war against Germany, had been removed.
They were also heartened by the Bolsheviks’ uncompromising determination to
defend the revolution against Tsarist reactionaries like Kornilov. It was
possible to fault Lenin’s methods, but not his revolutionary zeal!
With the benefit of a century’s hindsight, it is easy to
dismiss these notions as short-sighted and naïve. How could any thinking
Russian not understand that a political party guilty of seizing power in a
carefully-planned and ruthlessly executed coup d’état had already pronounced
the revolution’s death sentence? That the Bolshevik’s aggressively ideological
regime, based on the fragile majorities it had constructed in the
far-from-stable urban soviets (while the peasantry, 80 percent of Russia’s
population, gave their support, overwhelmingly, to the Bolshevik’s rivals, the
Socialist Revolutionary Party) could only ever be a regime of rifles and
Easy, yes, but wrong. It would take the Bolsheviks many
years to fasten a collar around the boisterous puppy that was the Russian
Revolution. Many years, during which they would have to overcome innumerable
setbacks and dangers.
On 30 August 1918, the young Left Socialist Revolutionary,
Fanny Kaplan, very nearly assassinated Lenin. Her party had rebelled against
Lenin’s cession of vast tracts of the former Russian Empire to their German
foes in the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk, causing the Bolsheviks to proscribe
her party and arrest its leaders. Lenin recovered from Kaplan’s attack, but her
bullets left him frail and in deteriorating health.
In the crackdown that followed Kaplan’s attempted
assassination, the Bolshevik “Extraordinary Commission”, the Cheka, began its
ominous transition: from skilful intelligence gatherer, to the Bolshevik Government’s
terroristic secret police.
Meanwhile, the British, French and Americans dispatched
troops to Russia, and supplied huge quantities of arms and ammunition to the
counter-revolutionary “Whites”, in a concerted effort to strangle the world’s
first socialist revolution in its cradle. The resulting civil war which raged
from 1918 until well into the 1920s cost millions of Russian lives – including
tens-of-thousands of the most decent and democratic Bolsheviks.
As we who live in the Twenty-First Century can well attest,
civil wars and the terror-tactics they unleash are tremendously corrosive of
civilised values and the democratic institutions they underpin. Mass killing
and systematic repression coarsens a culture – raising up sociopaths and
psychopaths to dangerously important political and administrative positions.
Socialism did not make Joseph Stalin inevitable, but the Bolsheviks’ utter
refusal to share power with any of the other participants in the Russian
Revolution most certainly did.
One hundred years on, the revolution which the Bolsheviks
not so much made, as destroyed, deserves to be remembered for what it was – a
joyous eruption of ‘people power’. It unleashed the creative political and
cultural energies of ordinary men and women in ways that by turns astounded,
delighted and inspired the whole world. So much so that, even today, a century
later, it is the event’s historic assertion: that a better world is possible;
which keeps the vivid colours of the Russian people’s revolution so
bright in the memory – and hopes – of humankind.
This essay was originally published in The Press
of Tuesday, 7 November 2017.
Either render it harmless, Jacinda, or cast the TPP Ring of Power into the fires of Mt Doom. Otherwise, it will consume your own - and your government's - political will, and fatally undermine New Zealand's national sovereignty.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN if Prime Minister Ardern and Trade Minister
Parker sign-up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) without fixing it?
For a small, but powerful, group of New Zealanders it will
be taken as a sign that the new, Ardern-led government can be relied upon to
‘do the right thing’. Like proud parents who’ve entrusted the family car to the
care of their teenage daughter – and had it returned to them unscathed – the
promoters of free trade will praise Ms Ardern for her political responsibility
and maturity. That she put the interests of her country ahead of the wishes of
her loopy left-wing supporters will be hailed as proof that New Zealand is in
The nation’s editorial writers will take up the chorus:
praising Ms Ardern’s steely resolve even as they pour scorn upon her critics’
complaints. The TPP’s opponents will be cast as a ridiculous collection of
dinosaurs and dingbats; Trump supporters and tin-foil hat wearers. Any hopes
they might have entertained of being listened to by the Labour-NZ First-Green
Government will be publicly and viciously dismissed as delusional.
The National Party Opposition will delight in heaping their
own shovelful of hot coals on the heads of Labour’s coalition partners. They
will ferret out every impassioned plea from the Greens to reject the TPP as a
corporate thieves’ charter. Likewise, every NZ First condemnation of the
agreement as a deadly threat to New Zealand sovereignty. Every argument against
the agreement will be rehearsed to a chorus of Tory chortles and guffaws. “Meet
the new Labour bosses,” Bill English will perorate to his 56-strong
parliamentary team: “same as the old Labour bosses!”
“How’s that hopey-changey thing goin’ for ya?”, Paula
Bennett will demand of the Prime Minister in her best Sarah Palin drawl. “Tell
us, sweetie, how’s the supply of stardust holding up?”
And the thousands of New Zealanders who marched against the
TPP in February of 2016 – how will they react? Those Maori protesters who’d cut
their political teeth on the hikoi against the alienation of the foreshore and
seabed back in 2004, and had turned out again, twelve years later, in the face
of what they perceived to be an even graver threat to the sovereignty of
Aotearoa – what will they make of Labour’s decision?
How will Willie Jackson respond to Labour’s voters on the
Maori Roll? The ones he’d so successfully persuaded to abandon the Maori and
Mana parties for a renewed and reformed “Te Rōpū Reipa”? When they charge
Labour with, once again, deceiving and betraying them – what will he say?
“If Labour can’t even say ‘No’ to the TPP’s Investor/State
Dispute Settlement clauses, Willie, how can it – with any sort of credibility –
say ‘Yes’ to Article Two of Te Tiriti o Waitangi? Our people tried to stop
foreigners from purchasing Maori land – and we all know how that ended. It
beggars belief that the Pakeha, having acquired virtually the whole of
Aotearoa, are now getting ready to sell her all over again!”
And Jacinda, herself? How will she be changed by a decision
to sign the TPP without fixing it first? Without paying heed to the Labour
Party’s own warning, recorded in the parliamentary select committee report,
that the TPP “will have ramifications for generations of New Zealanders. For
their sake, we should not so lightly enter into an agreement which may
exacerbate long-term challenges for our economy, workforce, and society.”
Because no leader can emerge unscathed from such a base
repudiation of solemn promises given and received. If a political party
undertakes to protect its compatriots’ homes and farms from foreign
speculators; if it vows to prevent multinational corporations from bringing
their government before an international tribunal for the ‘crime’ of defending
its people’s interests; then that political party’s leader is going to pay a
very high price for any failure to follow-through.
It won’t happen immediately, but with every broken promise
(and there will be many because, after the first, breaking promises gets easier
and easier) that sacred light in the eyes of her supporters will go out. The
hope on their faces; the smiles on their lips; their delight in the selfies she
helps them take: slowly at first, but then with gathering speed, all these
manifestations of her specialness will fade.
“Jacinda” will have
become “just another f***ing politician”.
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, 3 November 2017.
"Just one of those things you say in opposition and then forget about when you're in government." - Steve Maharey, former Labour cabinet minister. On the question of whether or not to support the TPP, is the new Trade Minister, David Parker (pictured above addressing an Auckland anti-TPP rally in 2016) preparing to follow in Maharey's philosophical footsteps?
WHAT WORRIES ME MOST about the proposed “No Foreign Buyers”
amendment to the Overseas Investment Act (OIA) is its apparent simplicity.
Nothing in politics is ever that easy! And isn’t it remarkable, the way the
proposal just happens to solve Labour’s primary objection to the Trans-Pacific
Partnership (TPP)? It’s almost as if somebody at the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs and Trade (MFAT) had the relevant file tucked away in a draw somewhere,
ready to be presented to the incoming Trade Minister, David Parker, with a Yes
Minister-style flourish, at just the right moment.
Come to think of it, exactly when did the foreign-buyer
problem become Labour’s primary objection to the TPP? More importantly, when
did it become a more important issue than carving out the Investor/State Dispute Settlement
(ISDS) provisions from the agreement? How did that ISDS carve-out end up as a sort of
secondary issue? When did it become what Bill English used to call a “Nice To
Have”? An outcome the Prime Minister and her Trade Minister will do their
utmost to achieve, but not something over which neither of them are willing to offer concessions.
It makes no sense. The ISDS provisions of the TPP are the
ones permitting foreign investors (a.k.a huge multinational corporations) to
sue the New Zealand Government for imposing legislative and/or regulatory
restrictions on their existing or proposed investments. Such litigation to
occur not in a New Zealand courtroom, in front of a New Zealand judge, but
before an international tribunal staffed and adjudicated by the sort of lawyers
more usually to be found working for – you guessed it – “huge multinational
How does that work? Well, a government pledged to uphold the
provisions of a multilateral trade agreement might decide that, in order to
secure its people’s right to access affordable housing, it will legislate to
prevent foreign buyers from bidding-up the price of private dwellings beyond
“Oh no you don’t!”, objects the huge multinational
corporation dedicated to acquiring foreign real estate on behalf of its
fabulously wealthy international clients. And before that government can say
“goodbye national sovereignty”, it finds itself in front of an ISDS tribunal.
I know, I know! The Trade Minister, David Parker, has
assured us that providing the OIA is amended before the TPP comes into force,
then New Zealand will be protected from the ISDS provisions of the agreement.
To which I offer the following two objections.
My first, is that David Parker’s “solution” logically
foresees New Zealand being bound, in all other respects, by the TPP. Why else
would he bother using this rather convoluted way of banning foreign property
speculators? There must be simpler ways. The only logical answer is: because
the new Labour-NZ First-Green Government is committed to signing the TPP – ISDS provisions included – and Parker’s “solution” is the only
way it can keep its big election promise to end foreign property speculation.
My second, is that the new Government’s “solution” may prove
to be not a solution at all. Even if the OIA is amended prior to the TPP coming
into force, I believe that those foreign property investors affected might
still have a crack at New Zealand under the ISDS provisions.
They could argue that the legislation banning them amounts
to a pre-emptive circumvention of the agreement. The OIA’s original purpose of
protecting “sensitive” land was to ensure that sites of environmental, historic
and cultural significance remained in New Zealand hands. They could, therefore,
argue that the amendment’s redefinition of “sensitive sites” to include private
dwellings represents a deliberate perversion of the OIA’s original intention.
As the victims of a pre-emptive circumvention of the TPP, they could demand
that the ISDS tribunal award them billions of dollars by way of reparation. And
what guarantee do we have that the corporate lawyers sitting in judgement of
the New Zealand state’s actions wouldn’t find in favour of the plaintiffs?
That’s why I’m so uneasy about this amazing, eleventh-hour
“solution”. I can’t help seeing it as too good to be true. Yes, it is acting as
a superb distraction from the most dangerous aspect of
the TPP – its ISDS provisions – but why? The arguments in favour of refusing to
sign the TPP until New Zealand is exempted from those provisions are very easy
to make – hell, they’re core NZ First and Green policy! – so why aren’t Jacinda
and David making them?
What would make me a whole lot happier, is a rock-solid
guarantee from the Prime Minister and her Trade Minister, that a TPP agreement
containing ISDS provisions applicable to its own actions will not be entered
into by the New Zealand Government.
Aotearoa must not surrender its tino rangatiratanga.
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Thursday, 2 November 2017.
Back Room Player: Craig Renney, the person behind the person controlling New Zealand’s purse-strings:
VERY FEW NEW ZEALANDERS would have the slightest idea who
Doug Andrew was or is. And yet, in his role as an economic advisor to the then
Leader of the Opposition, David Lange, Andrew was one of the people who helped
prepare the way for “Rogernomics” – the introduction of neoliberalism to New
Zealand. Seconded in the early 1980s from Treasury – then a hotbed of “Chicago
School” free market economics – Andrew was one of the principal conduits
through which the economic ideas animating the governments of Margaret Thatcher
and Ronald Reagan found their way into the policy-making forums of the New
Zealand Labour Party.
Thirty-four years later, another economist, also with a
Treasury (and Reserve Bank!) background, is proffering policy advice to another
Labour Finance Minister. Craig Renney, identified by Stuff’s Vernon Small as
one of the key “back room players” in Jacinda Ardern’s new Labour-NZ
First-Green Government, has become Grant Robertson’s “economics adviser”; “the
man who did the grunt-work on the Alternative Budget – and disproved National’s
claim of a ‘fiscal hole’.”
And, that’s it. To find out any more about the person behind
the person controlling New Zealand’s purse-strings, it is necessary to go
hunting in the forests of the Internet.
Fortunately, Mr Renney is a pretty easy quarry to track
He appears to be a citizen of the United Kingdom, aged in
his late 30s, who embarked on his professional career by enrolling in the
University of Stirling as a student of Economics and Politics in 1997. After an
intriguing stint in Prague (2000-2001) Renney undertook post-graduate study at
the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, from which he received a Masters in
Urban Policy and Sustainable Regeneration, and another, in Public
Upon leaving university, Renney worked, variously, in local
government, the UK Audit Commission, and as a public-sector consultant. In 2012
he emigrated to New Zealand to take up an analyst’s position in the NZ
Treasury. Between 2014 and 2016 he was a Senior Policy Adviser in Steven
Joyce’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – from whence he was
seconded to the Reserve Bank. In January of last year, he took on the job of
Senior Economic Advisor in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition.
It’s an impressive CV. But, it tells us virtually nothing
about the political leanings of its subject. The north-east of England, where
Renney spent his university years, is generally regarded as the British Labour
Party’s heartland. So, it is tempting to paint the advisor to our new Minister
of Finance as a Geordie with traditional Labour sympathies. Certainly, the work
he undertook for local governments in the north-east has the whiff of
progressivism about it. On the other hand, Renney’s student years coincide with
those of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” Government. So, it’s just as easy to see him
as an eager follower of Anthony Gidden’s “Third Way” economic and social
The point is, we don’t know anything like enough about Craig
Renney, let alone the direction in which he is steering our new Minister of
Finance. And, dammit, we should know! Thirty-four years ago, advice was being
tended to Roger Douglas that led directly to the radical restructuring of the
entire economy and society of New Zealand – and we knew nothing about it!
This is what the New Zealand historian, Hugh Oliver, had to
say about what was happening to Roger Douglas all those years ago:
Clearly an enormous
shift had taken place in Douglas’s positions on economic policy and it appears
that most of this shift occurred in the latter half of 1983. It is also
apparent that the shift was towards the kind of free market economics that were
espoused by the Treasury. It cannot be proved that the shift in ideas resulted
from the influence of Treasury officials; however, it can be shown that it
coincided in time with the presence in the Opposition Leader’s Office of Doug
Andrew, a Treasury adviser with whom Douglas developed close links … During his
time with the Labour Opposition Andrew produced papers on a range of economic
policy topics and debated with existing opinions in the Caucus Economic
Committee. Andrew argued for lower levels of trade protection as the key
economic policy instrument. He argued for floating the currency as a matter of
Similarly, it is possible to show that Labour’s adoption of
its radically self-limiting “Budget Responsibility Rules” coincided in time
with the presence in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office of an economic
adviser from the UK called Craig Renney. The same Craig Renney identified by
Vernon Small as the person who did the “grunt work” on Labour’s Alternative
But what, exactly, does that mean? Is Craig merely putting
flesh on the bones of Grant’s, and the Labour Policy Council’s, ideas? Or, are
Grant and Labour merely repeating ideas and policy positions fed to them by
Craig? And, if it’s the latter, then what are the ideas and policies our new
government is being asked to swallow?
It is a question that has always intrigued me: “Who is more
powerful? The person with a loaded rifle? Or the person who supplies the
ammunition, places the rifle in another’s hands – and tells them who to shoot?”
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Tuesday, 31 October 2017.
Test Mission: The way in which Prime Minister Ardern and Trade Minister Parker conduct themselves at the TPP-11 discussions in Danang, Vietnam, will have a major bearing on how the new Labour-NZ First-Green Government is perceived by its supporters. To sign the TPP, without first fixing it, would be to "Fail" the first major test of the Coalition's political resolve.
IN JUST NINE DAYS, Prime Minister Ardern, and her Trade
Minister, David Parker, will be in Vietnam. At a side-bar gathering to the Apec
Conference that summons them, they will meet with the remaining 11 signatories to
the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). At that gathering, the New Zealand
government will attempt to negotiate a number of minor modifications to the
Essentially, the Prime Minister and Trade Minister will be
asserting their country’s right to prevent foreign speculators from purchasing
urban property and farmland within its borders. A right the previous National
government, for reasons it never adequately explained, failed to assert. A
right reserved by just about every other signatory to the TPP agreement.
The Prime Minister and Trade Minister will also assert New
Zealand’s right to renegotiate its predecessors’ acceptance of the
Investor/State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) procedures of the TPP. These are the
procedures which grant foreign corporations the power to sue the New Zealand
Government for legislating in what it believes to be the best interests of its
own people. Such litigation will take place in corporate-controlled tribunals,
without reference to the New Zealand judiciary. Once again, the previous
National government’s failure to defend this, the most fundamental duty of any
sovereign state, awaits a convincing explanation.
Presented in this fashion, the mission of the Prime Minister
and Trade Minister is not only an important, but also a necessary, act of
remediation. In its present form, the TPP should never have been signed by the
former National Government. Accordingly, any failure on the part of the
remaining 11 signatories to accede to the Labour-NZ First-Green Government’s entirely
reasonable requests for minor, country-specific, modifications (President
Donald Trump has already pulled the United States out of what he dismissed as
“a very bad deal”) should trigger New Zealand’s immediate withdrawal from the
What a pity, then, that the Prime Minister’s and Trade
Minister’s mission is not being presented in this fashion. Ms Ardern and Mr
Parker will depart for Danang shrouded in the same obfuscating clouds of
free-trade rhetoric that have prevented the New Zealand public from ever being
vouchsafed a clear understanding of the TPP agreement.
Rather than allowing an open and informed debate on the pros
and cons of the TPP, the free-trade lobby is presenting Ms Ardern’s trip to
Apec as a crucial test of her political and economic maturity. Any outcome
other than New Zealand’s unequivocal ratification of TPP-11 will be publicly
represented as a significant failure.
Even if the Prime Minister and Trade Minister manage to
secure their desired modifications to the TPP text, the free-trade fanatics
will still insist that the Labour-NZ First-Green Government has fallen at its
first hurdle. By displaying hostility to globalism in general, and foreign
investment in particular, the new government will be accused of endangering New
Zealand’s economic security.
As if that wasn’t reason enough for Ms Ardern and Mr Parker
to feel nervous, the opponents of an unmodified TPP are as likely to turn her
trip to Vietnam into a critical test of her government’s intentions as its
The fight to turn Labour away from what its
“free-trade-right-or-wrong” position under Helen Clark has been as gruelling as
it was long. For those engaged in this fight, persuading the Labour caucus to
take a firm position on the critical question of national sovereignty
constituted a pivotal victory. Without it, Labour’s relationships with NZ First
and the Green Party would have come under enormous strain. Indeed, had Labour
not refused to sign-on to the TPP, as negotiated by the National Government, it
is difficult to see the formation of a Labour-NZ First-Green government ever
becoming a realistic possibility.
Labour’s opposition to TPP was also an important factor in
deescalating the vociferous protest movement which reached its crescendo in
February 2016. Had all the parties committed to changing the government not
been more-or-less on the same page in relation to the inadequacy of the
National Party’s TPP, it is debateable whether or not the massive protest
demonstrations it was beginning to inspire would have proved so easy to wind
To the New Zealanders who feared that TPP would bring with
it a permanent loss of their nation’s sovereignty, the following words from
Labour were a source of considerable reassurance:
“The TPPA will have ramifications for generations of New
Zealanders. For their sake, we should not so lightly enter into an agreement
which may exacerbate long-term challenges for our economy, workforce, and
The votes that made the Labour-NZ First-Green government
possible were inspired by many factors. That the three parties’ common
opposition to the TPP was one of then cannot be disputed.
As Ms Ardern and Mr Parker wing their way to Vietnam, they
should consider very carefully whose test of free-trade principles they most
wish to pass.
This essay was
originally published in The Press of Tuesday,
31 October 2017.