Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Why They Went To War - Anzac Day 2017

Heroism At ANZAC Cove: Hundreds of young New Zealanders and Australians died on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915. We can ask ourselves whether furthering Great Britain's imperial ambitions was worth the blood sacrifice - confident in the wisdom of hindsight that it was not. It is sobering, however, to reflect that, asked the same question, most the boys coming ashore that fateful morning would have answered with a resounding "Yes!"

“THEY DIDN’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT.” That was the awestruck assessment of the young man interviewed for Television New Zealand’s Q+A programme. He was one of a small crowd of Wellingtonians gathered around New Zealand’s handsomely refurbished National War Memorial to hear the playing of the Last Post and the ritual recitation of “For The Fallen”. Every one of the 1,560 days of New Zealand’s participation in the First World War, now a hundred years in the past, is being commemorated in this fashion. The great tragedy of that conflict: a tragedy which endures; is that, like the thousands of young men who rushed to join up in August 1914, far too many New Zealanders still decline to even think about why they went to war.

If pressed, most Kiwis will mutter something about defending freedom and democracy. But that is the answer to another question. Defending freedom and democracy was why New Zealand and the other Dominions of the British Empire went to war against Nazi Germany in 1939.

Except, truthfully, it’s a trick question. Because, if the international crisis of June-August 1914 had been handled differently, then there would have been no need to go to war against Adolf Hitler in September 1939. World War I and World War II constitute the bookends of a single conflict. And what New Zealanders were fighting for at the beginning of this calamitous thirty-year struggle was very different from what they were fighting for at its end.

To say that World War I was spawned by imperial rivalries is simply to state the obvious. The question New Zealanders needed to (but didn’t) ask themselves in 1914 was: “Why is the empire we belong to – the British Empire – so willing to invest its blood and treasure in a quarrel between the empires of Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and France?”

The answer is simple: because the British Empire was frightened.

It was frightened of Russia’s growing capacity to project its military power in the direction of Britain’s most important, and vulnerable, imperial possession: India. The Royal Navy could not defend the Indian sub-continent from a concerted, land-based, Russian advance. It was, therefore, in Britain’s economic, military and diplomatic interests to keep Russia focused on opportunities for expansion in Europe – not Asia.

The British Empire also feared Germany. Since reunification in 1871, German industrial expansion had been phenomenal. Britain’s pre-eminent economic position, along with her ability to defend it, faced a formidable challenger. Unchecked, Germany would soon become the economic arbiter of Europe (just as it is today!) and that economic power, strapped to her undisputed military prowess, would soon make Germany the most powerful nation on earth.

That was not a position the British Empire was willing to relinquish – not yet.

The diplomatic outcome of all this was the Triple Entente. By aligning herself with Russia and France, Britain was able to neutralise the threat posed by the former, while quietly encouraging the anti-German ambitions of the latter. The designated victims of all this geo-strategic manoeuvring were to be the two weakest members of the imperial club: the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. The prospect of dividing-up the territories of these decrepit dynasties (along with those of a defeated Germany) made Russia, France and Britain salivate like hungry dogs.

Not surprisingly, the Germans reacted to the machinations of the Triple Entente with considerable alarm. Faced with the prospect of the Russian “steamroller” lumbering towards them from the East, and the “revanchist” French rushing at them from the West, Germany’s generals applied themselves to devising a plan for fighting a successful two-front war. The one they finally settled on demanded the destruction of the French army before Russia’s could build up steam. It did not require a particularly brilliant strategic brain to realise that this would necessitate a massive flanking manoeuvre through neutral Belgium.

Long before August 1914, therefore, the British understood that Belgian neutrality could only be preserved by ensuring that the military obligations enshrined in the Triple Entente were never activated. In other words, by preventing the outbreak of a full-scale European war.

The British Empire thus found itself in the absurd position of wanting France to recover her lost provinces; Germany to be economically prostrated; Russia to be distracted from any southward push towards India: while, simultaneously, hoping that all these key strategic outcomes could be accomplished without anyone firing a single shot.

By August 1914, however, the British Government had reluctantly accepted that none of its objectives could possibly be secured without committing the peoples of the British Empire to a murderous global conflict. When, 1,560 days later, that conflict ended, Britain’s objectives were secured: Germany crushed; Russia imploding; the Middle-East theirs.

Freedom and Democracy? They could come later.

If we’d thought about it, I wonder, would we still have done it?


This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 25 April 2017.

Monday, 24 April 2017

“Better Late Than Never, Jim!” – Bolger On The State Of The Unions.

Second Thoughts: It speaks well for Jim Bolger that he now recognises, albeit very belatedly, that the Employment Contracts Act, one of the key pillars of the neoliberal order which his government consolidated, has contributed hugely to the growth of inequality in New Zealand .
 
JIM BOLGER’S IMPLIED CRITICISM of his own government’s assault on organised labour is astonishing. The Employment Contracts Act 1991 ranks as one of the most extreme examples of anti-union legislation in post-war history. Certainly, the equivalent statutes enacted in the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia pale in comparison. From the legislation introduced by Jim Bolger’s close friend and ally, Bill Birch, even the word “union” was excluded.
 
Nor should it be forgotten that Jim Bolger had “form” in the union-busting business. As Minister of Labour in Rob Muldoon’s government he had, in 1983, been responsible for legislating compulsory unionism out of existence.
 
It was the catastrophic impact of Bolger’s legislation on union membership numbers that made the Federation of Labour (FoL) so biddable in the first flush of Rogernomics. New Zealand’s trade union leaders were willing to swallow just about anything from the Fourth Labour Government – in return for the restoration of compulsory union membership.
 
Labour obliged, but Stan Rodger, David Lange’s Minister of Labour, let it be known that this would be the last time that the political wing of the labour movement rode to the rescue of the industrial wing. The union movement, Rodger sternly insisted, must learn to stand on its own feet without the assistance of the unqualified preference clause.
 
To assist the unions, Rodger introduced the Labour Relations Act. The new legislation, in an attempt to make the typical New Zealand trade union bigger and better, mandated a membership base of 1,000, offered assistance for union amalgamations and encouraged the evolution of industry bargaining. Rodger also made it clear that the Labour Government expected the public and private sector unions to come together in a single peak organisation – the NZ Council of Trade Unions.
 
Rodger’s reforms sent a clear signal to Bolger and Birch that a future National government’s industrial relations legislation would not automatically be repealed by the next Labour government. They took this as a green light for a root-and-branch reform of the New Zealand labour market. With the assistance of the Business Roundtable, Birch and his advisers began drafting the legislation that would become the Employment Relations Act 1991.
 
In his interview with RNZ’s Guyon Espiner, Bolger volunteers the observation that the unions have become too weak. On the face of it, this is an extremely odd observation. After all, Bolger was well-aware of what would happen to union density in New Zealand the moment the prop of compulsory membership was removed. The experience of 1983-84 was there for all to see. The abolition of standard, occupation-wide contracts (known then as “awards”) applicable to everyone employed to do the same work, was similarly guaranteed to knock the stuffing out of the union movement. How could Bolger possibly entertain the notion that the Employment Contracts Act would not, in very short order, transform the union lions into lambs?
 
Possibly because the leadership of the NZCTU had reassured him that the reformed union movement: bigger and better resourced than ever before; was more than capable of weathering his storm.
 
I have been told by a former trade union leader that the President of the CTU in 1991, Ken Douglas, was convinced that the changes enshrined in the Employment Contracts Act would not cause a precipitate collapse in union density, and that employers would be amenable to the continuation of industry-wide bargaining and agreements. On the basis of Bolger’s recent remarks, it seems likely that Douglas conveyed this confidence to the newly-elected National Government. Certainly, it would explain why the Bolger Government felt able to introduce legislative measures which, in other jurisdictions (like France!) would have been met with massive resistance – up to and including a General Strike.
 
It is, of course, a matter of history that Ken Douglas and his allies in the public sector unions refused point-blank to support the private sector unions’ call for massive resistance. Not even the outpouring of tens-of-thousands of workers onto the streets in the early months of 1991 and the passing of multiple rank-and-file resolutions in favour of a General Strike, were enough to shake the opposition of Douglas and the public sector union bosses. At a special executive meeting of the CTU on 18 April 1991, a motion calling for a one day General Strike was defeated 190,910 to 250,122.
 
As things turned out, the grim misgivings of the rank-and-file and the private sector union leaders proved to be correct, and Douglas’s belief that the new, improved union movement could handle anything the Nats threw at it was shown to be entirely unjustified. In just a few years union density (the percentage of the workforce belonging to a trade union) fell by more than half.
 
The fate of private sector workers over the past quarter-century has been especially hard. Union density in the private sector has fallen from just under 50 percent in 1990 to less than 10 percent in 2017. The cost, in terms of worsening working conditions and stagnant real wages, is plain for all to see.
 
If they were, in fact, given, any reassurances from Douglas concerning the unions’ long-term resilience have proved to be spectacularly misconceived. Their expression would, however, provide some sort of explanation as to why, twenty-six years on, the former National prime minister expresses surprise that New Zealand’s trade unions have become so weak. At the time, Bolger (who has always struck me as a fundamentally decent person) may have consoled himself that the Employment Contracts Act’s bark would be worse than its bite. It speaks well of the man that he now recognises that the signature legislation of his premiership has contributed hugely to the growth of inequality in New Zealand.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 22 April 2017.

Outsiders In?

La Patrie En Danger! The prospect of a victory for the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, looms over the future of the European Union. In the year of Brexit and Trump many would consider it "Strike Three - and your out!" for the neoliberal order. Will the key issue of immigration drive New Zealand politics in a similar direction?
 
IF FRENCH VOTERS advance Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon to May’s run-off presidential election, the European Union will tremble. Both the far-right nationalist, Le Pen, and the far-left firebrand, Mélenchon, are committed to a fundamental reconstitution of the European Project. Victory for two such uncompromising enemies of the status-quo would send crushing shockwaves through the entire European political class.
 
The French punditocracy are, however, supremely confident that this worst-case scenario will not eventuate. As they see it, the pro-EU, neoliberal standard-bearer, Emmanuel Macron, will squeak through just ahead of Mélenchon and the scandal-plagued conservative, François Fillon. Faced with the prospect of the quasi-fascist Le Pen, they argue, conservatives, socialists and the far-left will be forced to unite behind the “centrist” Macron. Extreme ideas, rejected repeatedly by the French electorate will, out of fear of even more extreme ideas, finally secure their long-delayed admittance to the Élysée Palace.
 
Or will they? The colossal cynicism underpinning such a “choice” may stick in the French electorate’s craw. Given the choice of a France fastened to the Procrustean Bed of the EU’s unyielding rules and regulations: or, the fast-fading glories of historical France; the France of hilltop villages and cathedral towns; the France of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; then, who knows, they might just vote for Marine Le Pen – and the cynicism of the political class be dammed!
 
Here in New Zealand, meanwhile, the leader of NZ First, Winston Peters, will be assessing the results of the French elections with particular care. As the man who predicted both Brexit and Trump, Peters has every right to feel confident of his ability to both interpret and exploit the worldwide populist surge.
 
Scornful of the pollsters’ ability to any longer intercept and measure accurately the volatility of twenty-first century popular opinion, Peters relies upon the direct, face-to-face feedback of the public meeting to inform him of the electorate’s mood. He understands that those sufficiently motivated to come out to a political gathering are also the ones most likely to vote. Even better, they are the civic-minded types who encourage others to join them in doing their democratic duty. Opinion leaders in their local communities, they will put into forthright public utterances sentiments that their less confident neighbours only mutter in private.
 
In other words, one modest meeting in a suburban community centre may contain multitudes.
 
If reports of such meetings are accurate reflections of the opinions of active citizens (as well as those of citizens who can be easily activated) then NZ First’s leader will be in no doubt about which “hot button” issues he needs to push.
 
The biggest and hottest button of the 2017 General Election may be summarised in the question: “Who the heck are our politicians listening to? Because they’re sure as hell not listening to us!”
 
All over the world, this is the question which aggrieved and alienated voters are asking.
 
There is no shortage of answers. Among those accused of commandeering the attention of the people’s representatives are: bankers; corporations; politically correct elites; “the lying media”; globalisers. Ordinary, decent, hard-working people; people who pay their taxes and follow the rules; people like themselves; have, in the opinion of these voters, been shunted aside and their preferences ignored. Or, even worse, they have been made to feel that, in the greater scheme of things, they no longer count.
 
The alienated and aggrieved look around them for evidence of their displacement and everywhere, from Taihape to Toulouse, their unfriendly gaze settles on the ones who were not present in the land of their childhood; their parents’ country; but who are now everywhere they look. Speakers of foreign languages; wearers of outlandish clothes; followers of unfamiliar faiths; purchasers of “their” real estate, “their” local businesses, “their” local clout: immigrants!
 
In New Zealand, as Peters well knows, this anger with the immigrant extends not only to the record numbers of people arriving from overseas, but also to those who have emigrated from those impoverished fragments of New Zealand which, until quite recently, had been reserved for the losers of the great colonial struggles of the nineteenth century. Successful Maori generate almost as much rancour among aggrieved Pakeha voters as successful “Asians”.
 
If France’s two populist “outsiders” advance to the second round, what conclusions will our own populist outsider will draw from their success?
 
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, 21 April 2017.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Taking Care of North Korea.

Yesterday's Diplomacy: The Trump Administration has dispatched a naval strike force to the seas off the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, the Kim family's dynastic dictatorship cannot afford to be seen to back down in the face of the President's gunboat diplomacy. Any US attack on North Korea will, likewise, force "Supreme Leader" Kim Jong Un to unleash "Total War" on its enemies. President Trump is, hopefully, being reminded that Kim doesn't necessarily require an ICBM to deliver a nuclear device to US territory - an unsuspecting container ship will do the job just as effectively.
 
PRESIDENT TRUMP says North Korea “will be taken care of” if its dictator, Chairman Kim Jong Un, authorises another round of nuclear weapons tests. A naval strike force, led by the Nimitz-class “supercarrier” the USS Carl Vinson, is positioned off the Korean Peninsula. The American ships will soon be joined for “exercises” by an undisclosed number of Japanese naval vessels.*
 
This grim show of force is intended to serve as a stark reminder of America’s ability to project its military power wherever and whenever if desires. In the aftermath of the recent Tomahawk Cruise Missile strike on Syria, Kim is expected to draw the obvious lessons and stand down his nuclear weapons testing programme.
 
This is not something the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) can do. Not without sustaining a catastrophic loss of face. Though it possesses all the trappings of a Soviet-style socialist state, the DPRK is, in reality, a quasi-monarchical dynastic regime, whose hereditary rulers are required to maintain an image of unassailable power and strength. Backing down in the face of American threats would likely prove fatal to the Kim family dynasty.
 
This would not be on account of the North Korean people rising up and overthrowing their semi-sacred head of state. Such is the iron grip of Kim’s “Workers’ Party” government that the North Koreans would never hear a word about their leader’s back down. The threat to Kim would come from his generals and party bosses. They chafe under the Kim family’s ruthless rule. The international humiliation of Kim Jong Un would be a heaven-sent opportunity to bring his family’s dynasty to an end.
 
A successful American strike against the DPRK’s nuclear weapons test site at Punggye-ri would deliver a similar blow to Kim Jong Un’s prestige. Not that the North Korean people would learn anything at all about a US attack. Punggye-ri is located in rugged, mountainous terrain, far from large population centres. The remoteness of the testing site could not, however, keep the upper-echelons of the army and the party out of the information loop. How would their Supreme Leader respond?
 
Much would depend of just how successful the American strike turned out to be. Punggye-ri is a complex of deep tunnels drilled into solid rock. An attack using the same ordnance as the Syrian strike would likely prove ineffective.
 
The Americans do, of course, possess much larger bombs: like the 10-ton “bunker-buster” dropped on an ISIS-controlled tunnel complex in Afghanistan earlier this week. (Was that operation supposed to send a warning to the North Koreans?) The problem with these huge weapons, however, is that they can only be delivered by large, relatively slow, military aircraft. The Americans would, therefore, have to destroy the fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missile batteries with which the Punggye-ri complex is defended. This would be a major military operation on the part of the United States.
 
There can be little doubt that, confronted with an American assault of such magnitude, Kim Jong Un would order “total war” against the United States. Thousands of 170mm Goksan artillery pieces and 240mm multiple-tube rocket launchers, among the largest such weapons in the world, would rain down death and destruction upon the South Korean capital, Seoul, and devastate the US military bases adjoining the Demilitarised Zone. According to the former US Commander in South Korea, General Thomas A Schwartz, the 28,000-strong US army in Korea “would be destroyed in less than three hours”.
 
Kim Jong Un’s order to unleash total war upon the United States would set in motion something else. A nuclear device, probably not much bigger than the bomb which devastated Hiroshima, would set out towards one of the key ports of the United States. Concealed in the hold of a fishing trawler. Or, perhaps, hidden in one of thousands of identical shipping containers stacked on the deck of a container ship bound for San Diego or New York, this device would be effectively undetectable and unstoppable until it came close enough to inflict scores-of-thousands of civilian casualties. Such a catastrophe would dwarf completely Al Qaeda’s attack of 11 September 2001.
 
And President Trump’s response? (Assuming the North Koreans weren’t inventive enough to deliver their nuclear device to a warehouse in Washington DC!) Who would be willing to bet against the enraged American president ordering a retaliatory nuclear strike against North Korea? Would he listen to those who pleaded with him not to incinerate millions of innocent North Koreans for the crimes of their Supreme Leader? Would he care that the radioactive fallout from such a strike would be no more a respecter of international borders than the fallout from Chernobyl? How could America’s Commander-in-Chief be sure that the Chinese and Russians would not respond in kind?
 
Can Donald Trump really “take care” of this?
 
 
* This information was subsequently revealed to be more “fake news” from the Trump Administration. At the time of writing (16/4/17) the USS Carl Vinson and its strike force was nowhere near the location indicated by the White House Communications Director, Sean Spicer. As of this morning (19/4/17) the strike force was still, apparently, en route!
 
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 April 2017.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Two Very Different New Zealanders.

New Zealand's Janus Face: John Clarke we will long remember for encouraging us to laugh at pomp and power; Sir Douglas Myers for making us fear them.
 
TWO PROMINENT NEW ZEALANDERS died this week. One, a highly successful businessman; the other, a comic genius. Ironically, Sir Douglas Myers will be mourned by the sort of New Zealander who hated the fiercely egalitarian, social-democratic nation that John Clarke’s humour both celebrated and ennobled. That these haters were responsible for destroying “Fred Dagg’s” New Zealand only sharpens the poignancy of his creator’s departure. While John Clarke lived, the society which he chided and cherished maintained a peculiar posthumous existence. With his death, it passes over permanently into the realm of history.
 
The New Zealand which Sir Douglas Myers helped to create is, however, very much still with us. The wrenching economic and social deformations of the 1980s and 90s, which he did so much to promote, have hardened now into a rigid hierarchy of winners and losers. In 1970s New Zealand; the New Zealand of Fred Dagg; Jack wasn’t just as good as his master, he was, in all probability, and after taking all the relevant factors into consideration, better. To suggest such egalitarian heresies in twenty-first century New Zealand, however, would do very little to enhance Jack’s – or Jill’s – career prospects.
 
It was one of Sir Douglas Myers most bitter complaints that, in pre-Rogernomics New Zealand, businessmen were regarded with a mixture of derision and pity. The smartest people became doctors and lawyers, he recalled, or, if the doors to the medical and law schools were slammed in their faces, accountants. But only the real no-hopers, the certified dummies, went into business. The inheritor of the Myers family fortune set out to change all that. Like Ayn Rand, he made it his mission to turn capitalists into heroes.
 
It was an attitude which supplied an endless quantity of grist to John Clarke’s humour-mill. It wasn’t that he found greed funny, far from it. Where the humour lay was in the conviction of men like Myers that greed could somehow be imbued with high moral purpose. That, in the most memorable line from Oliver Stone’s movie, Wall Street: “Greed is good”. Nothing is more deserving of the satirist’s wit than the spectacle of sinners pretending to be saints.
 
But, if Clarke’s celebration of the seditious mixture of fundamental decency and rat-like cunning that makes up the ordinary Kiwi and Aussie won him huge audiences on both sides of the Tasman, it was received with cold fury by New Zealand’s political and bureaucratic elites.
 
There was something deeply subversive about Clarke’s humour. Like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, his comic success flowed from the revolutionary notion that servants are smarter than their masters. Australia’s cultural gatekeepers took this as a given and happily sponsored Clarke’s genius. Not so, their Kiwi counterparts. As Clarke recalls of his days working for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation: “I dealt with directors who thought they were comic geniuses and regarded me as a hired hand. I never had those problems in Australia.”
 
Perhaps it was Clarke’s gift for making the pompous and powerful feel that not only were they regarded as ridiculous by the people they bossed around, but also that, at any time, these servants might decide to cast their masters’ ridiculousness aside, that made him persona non grata. It is surely no accident that following Clarke’s self-imposed exile to Australia, New Zealand satire, or, at least, what passed for satire on New Zealand television, ceased to speak truth to power. Becoming, instead, a comedy of cruelty, in which the strong were lionised and the weak were mocked.
 
Which brings us back, neatly, to Sir Douglas Myers and his mission to elevate the businessperson to the highest rungs of the social ladder. Such a transformation could not, obviously, occur while those obsessed with making money were ridiculed. If New Zealand’s cradle to grave welfare state made its citizens comfortable enough to laugh at those who devoted their lives to accumulating wealth, then it would have to go.
 
As Clarke, from the other side of the Tasman, summarised its deliberate deconstruction:
 
“A social democracy with only one previous owner was asset-stripped and replaced by a series of franchises.”
 
We really did not know how lucky we were – until our luck ran out.
 
John Clarke we will long remember for encouraging us to laugh at pomp and power; Sir Douglas Myers for making us fear them.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 April 2017.

Is There A “Youth Vote”?

When Youth Was King: But the “Youth Vote”, even in the 1960s, was never much more than journalistic shorthand. It was born out of liberal wish-fulfilment and made vaguely plausible by left-wing academics. Discovering that many of the Left’s supporters are young does not mean that the young support the Left.
 
DO YOUNG NEW ZEALANDERS vote in ways that diverge markedly from the voting patterns of older New Zealanders? Does it still make sense to talk about winning the “Youth Vote”? And, if it does, which of our political parties stands the best chance?
 
There was a time when people took the notion of a Youth Vote very seriously indeed. By the mid-1960s, the early cohorts of the Baby Boom Generation were entering their late teens and early-twenties. Middle class children in unprecedented numbers were pouring into new and expanded university campuses. By the end of the decade, the impact of decolonisation and the Vietnam War had transformed, “students” into an important political category.
 
The oft-demonstrated political activism of college students, when combined with the explosion of what Time magazine called “Youth Culture” (forever associated in the minds of “anyone over thirty” with popular music, long hair, sexual licence, recreational drug-taking and Dr Timothy Leary’s infamous formula: “turn on, tune in, drop out”) encouraged the notion that “anyone under thirty” shared a common set of generational expectations and interests. Without this “Youth Vote”, it was suggested, the electoral success of mainstream political candidates could not be guaranteed.
 
This was by no means as fanciful as those living fifty years after the watershed year of 1968 might think. Had not President Lyndon Johnson been routed by Senator Eugene McCarthy’s “Children’s Crusade”? Supported overwhelmingly by young anti-Vietnam War student activists, McCarthy had run the President embarrassingly close in the New Hampshire primary of January 1968. Days later, Bobby Kennedy, also running on an anti-war platform, entered the race for the presidency. By March, Johnson was telling Americans that he would not seek, nor would he accept, his party’s nomination. The “Youth Vote” had driven LBJ from office.
 
Four years later, right here in New Zealand, the “Youth Vote” was being taken just as seriously. Mass demonstrations against the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War had been a feature of the early 1970s. University students comprised the overwhelming majority of these anti-war protesters. Few political scientists questioned the importance of the anti-war movement in securing the Norman Kirk-led Labour Party’s landslide election victory of 1972. Two years later, Labour attempted to lock-in the Youth Vote by lowering the voting age to 18.
 
But the Youth Vote has always been a political illusion. Middle class university students in the 1960s and 70s made up only a small part of the Baby Boom Generation. Most young Americans and New Zealanders of that era did not go to university. By the time many of them turned 18 they had been working full-time for two or three years. Factory workers and shop assistants had much more in common with their parents and co-workers than they did with placard-waving varsity students. If they voted Labour it wasn’t on account of the Vietnam War, but because voting Labour was what Mum and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, had always done.
 
And even among the university students themselves there were sharp divisions. The long-haired, left-wing radicals might be the ones everybody saw on the television news, but back on campus there were thousands of politically conservative students who thought and voted very differently. A university education was – and remains – a middle-class rite-of-passage. And most middle-class people then, as now, support National – not Labour.
 
In truth, the “Youth Vote” has never been much more than journalistic shorthand. It was born out of liberal wish-fulfilment and made vaguely plausible by left-wing academics. Discovering that many of the Left’s supporters are young does not mean that the young support the Left.
 
So, why the Greens believe that positioning twenty-somethings Jack McDonald and Chloe Swarbrick high on their Party List will attract the support of “Millennials” (the latest journalistic coinage) is anybody’s guess. To be young does not necessarily make one Green – just ask David Seymour and Todd Barclay!
 
The best evidence for something called the “Youth Vote” is, paradoxically, the large number of young people who do not vote at all. Whether out of ignorance, indolence, or principled resistance to a perceived lack of credible electoral alternatives, tens-of-thousands of 18-25-year-olds simply do not make it to the polling booths on Election Day.
 
Of those who do make it, the vast majority come from voting households. Ballots, like apples, seldom fall far from the family tree.
 
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, 7 April 2017.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Should We Believe Uncle Sam?

Righteous Wrath, Or Unlawful Attack? In light of the Gulf of Tonkin and WMD fabrications, one might have thought that the default position of “responsible” commentators, when presented with US justifications, would be one of extreme scepticism. And yet, in New Zealand and across the Western World, the US assertion that the chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun was the work of the Syrian head-of-state, President Bashar al-Assad, has been accepted without question.
 
THERE IS AN ASSUMPTION among New Zealand foreign policy “experts” that what the United States tells us should be believed. If, to take the most recent instance, the US Government informs the New Zealand Government that the Syrian Government is responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people, then that intelligence should be accepted by all responsible commentators. More importantly, it should reinforce all subsequent commentary concerning New Zealand’s diplomatic and military responses.
 
But, is this willingness to take the justifications of the United States at their face value really all that responsible? Surely, the first obligation of all those in a position to comment on the tragic chemical release at Khan Sheikhoun and President Trump’s retaliatory missile strike on Syria, is to be guided by America’s record? Shouldn’t we be examining past justifications for US military adventures before offering New Zealand support for this latest attack on a sovereign state?
 
Because the United States’ post-war record really isn’t all that flash when it comes to justifying its military assaults on other countries.
 
America’s most costly military engagement of the post-World War II era, the Vietnam War, was justified with what was later exposed as a carefully constructed falsehood. The so-called “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” of 22-24 August 1965, which prompted the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” of the United States Congress, which, in turn, authorised President Lyndon Johnson to assist any Southeast Asian  government endangered by “communist aggression”, never happened.
 
That America’s allies, including New Zealand, were somehow persuaded that a US naval force, including a fully-equipped aircraft carrier and at least one destroyer, had been threatened seriously by three North Vietnamese patrol boats, tells us much about the influence of Cold War paranoia on Western decision-making in the mid-1960s.
 
The exposure of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident as a fabricated pretext for US military aggression in Indochina should have encouraged America’s friends to treat any future justifications for US violations of the United Nations’ Charter with considerable caution.
 
To the eternal credit of the Labour-led government of Helen Clark, it was not persuaded by the United States’ repeated claims, peaking in January and February 2003, that the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, remained in possession of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMDs) and must, therefore, be overthrown by an American-led invasion.
 
Thirty-eight years after the non-existent Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Clark rightfully insisted that any such invasion could not be supported by New Zealand unless and until it had been authorised by a resolution of the United Nations’ Security Council.
 
In an attempt to persuade the UN Security Council to pass such a resolution, the US President, George W. Bush, sent his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to make the case for military intervention. The hapless Powell appeared before the Council on 5 February 2003, equipped with all manner of diagrams and slides. His “evidence” even included a “model” phial containing the deadly Anthrax virus!
 
The Council was not persuaded and refused to authorise an American-led invasion. A wise decision, as it turned out, because when, in defiance of the United Nations, the US, the UK and Australia invaded Iraq in March 2003, Saddam Hussein’s claims (backed-up by UN Inspectors) that Iraq had destroyed all of its WMDs, turned out to be true. In spite of the most exhaustive searches, the US was unable to locate any WMDs whatsoever.
 
There’s a schoolyard chant: “Fool me once, shame on you! Fool me twice, shame on me!”
 
In light of the Gulf of Tonkin and WMD fabrications, one might have thought that the default position of “responsible” commentators, when presented with US justifications, would be one of extreme scepticism. And yet, in New Zealand and across the Western World, the US assertion that the chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun was the work of the Syrian head-of-state, President Bashar al-Assad, has been accepted without question.
 
Colin Powell and Nikki Haley Show and Tell the UN Security Council ..... Lies?
 
In a diplomatic atmosphere alarmingly reminiscent of Cold War fear and suspicion, the alternative explanation offered by Syria’s ally, the Russian Federation – that Syrian bombs struck a warehouse in which rebel munitions, including deadly chemical agents, were stored – has been dismissed out of hand.
 
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Bill English, responding to the US missile attack, said:
 
“We of course would rather see the Syrian differences resolved by diplomatic processes but the Security Council hasn’t been able to condemn it or do anything about it.
 
“So we can understand the US taking action to prevent that kind of chemical attack occurring again – and we support action as long as it’s proportionate.”
 
Clearly, the events of 1965 and 2003 have left no trace upon Prime Minister English. Nor, it would seem, upon New Zealand’s “expert” commentators. Neither the lessons of history, nor the UN Charter, count for much against the unchallengeable word of Uncle Sam.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 April 2017.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Gas Attack In Khan Sheikhoun! But Why Would Bashar al-Assad Blow Himself Up?

A War Crime? Yes - But Whose? The most obvious interpretation of the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun is that it was intended to inflict as much damage on the Syrian Government as possible. Stopping in their tracks all moves towards accepting that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be involved in the peace-making process. Ensuring that the flow of arms to Assad’s enemies continues – or is increased. Placing the Russians under massive international pressure to abandon their alliance with the Assad regime. And forcing the Trump Administration to back away smartly from its “Assad can stay” position.
 
JUST ONCE, it would be nice to encounter a Western journalist willing to challenge the “International Community’s” official line. Someone willing to acknowledge that the term “International Community” is, itself, a cynical misnomer intended to cloak the self-interested policies of the United States and its Nato allies in the highfalutin language of global solidarity. A journalist willing to have a crack at sifting a nugget or two of truth from the dross of convenient lies.
 
Take this latest story about the use of poison gas against Syrian civilians. It seems certain that on 4 April 2017, the deadly nerve agent Sarin was released in in the rebel stronghold of Khan Sheikhoun, killing scores of civilians, including women and children. Before the last victim of the attack had been loaded into an ambulance, however, the world was being told that the party responsible for this unlawful attack was the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
 
Nobody thought to ask the obvious question: “Why would Assad do such a thing?” Syria was en route to a new round of peace talks. More importantly, she was about to enter negotiations in which the usual American, British and French demands that “Assad must go!” were to be, for the first time since the Syrian Civil War broke out in earnest, quietly put to one side. Having won the war on the ground, the Assad regime was on the brink of clearing away its enemies’ unrealistic preconditions. Finally, a serious conversation about Syria’s future could begin.
 
And yet, we are being invited to believe that, with all this at stake, President Assad ordered the use of Sarin gas on his own citizens. Somehow, instigating a reprehensible war crime against women and children was going to strengthen his moral authority. Somehow, by revolting the entire world, he would improve his chances of being accepted as Syria’s legitimate ruler. Somehow, by embarrassing the Russian Federation, his country’s most valuable military ally, he would enhance Syria’s national security. The whole notion is absurd.
 
The much more obvious interpretation of the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun is that it was intended to inflict as much damage on the Syrian Government as possible. Stopping in their tracks all moves towards accepting that Assad must be involved in the peace-making process. Ensuring that the flow of arms to Assad’s enemies continues – or is increased. Placing the Russians under massive international pressure to abandon their alliance with the Assad regime. And forcing the Trump Administration to back away smartly from its “Assad can stay” position.
 
So many birds with just one, Sarin-smeared stone.
 
The failure of Western journalism to ask “cui bono?” (who benefits?) is made all the greater by the fact that its “Assad uses poison gas on his own people!” headline has been used before. On 22 August 2013, the world awoke to the news that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Syrian civilians living in the rebel-controlled Ghouta suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus, had been attacked with what appeared to be chemical weapons, specifically, the deadly nerve agent Sarin. The author of the attack? Yes, you guessed it, Bashar al-Assad!
 
Surely, the International Community, opined (through its journalistic mouthpieces) President Barack Obama’s “red line” had been crossed? Surely, it was time for the USA to intervene?
 
Then a story appeared on the Mint Press News website based in the US state of Minnesota. Following numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, two freelance journalists, Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh, concluded that the attack had been carried out by rebel forces using chemical weapons supplied by Saudi Intelligence.
 
The International Community and its flacks weren’t buying any of it. And yet, for some reason, Obama declined to be stampeded into war by the Ghouta outrage. Could it be that US intelligence officers and their Israeli counterparts uncovered exactly the same evidence as Gavlak and Ababneh? Did Russian Intelligence come forward with corroborative intercepts? Whatever the explanation, the USA declined to escalate the Syrian conflict.
 
Those peddling the same “Assad did it!” line in 2017 should, perhaps, ask themselves whether the person currently occupying the White House; the man who believes himself besieged by his own intelligence agencies; the man whose quick temper and sensitivity to criticism is legendary; the man currently in the market for a major political distraction; will, like Barack Obama, allow himself to be steered away from diplomatic and military responses that could only further inflame an already critical situation in the Middle East?
 
Just once, I wish the Western news media would use its fucking head!
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 5 April 2017.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Not Worth The Effort: Decoding Bill English’s Response to “Operation Burnham”.

Bad Call: The Prime Minister's decision not to order an independent inquiry into Operation Burnham is as dishonourable as it is misguided.
 
NOTE TO READERS: As I was writing the following post, the Prime Minister announced to his post-Cabinet media conference (3/4/17) that he would not be ordering an independent inquiry into Operation Burnham. On the face of it, then, my last-minute appeal to the better angels of Bill English's nature had been overtaken by events. Re-reading the post, however, I felt that, far from blunting the point of the posting, the Prime Minister's reprehensible decision had sharpened it. I hope you agree.
 
THE PRIME MINISTER can still save himself from dishonour. There is still time for Bill English to set in motion an independent commission of inquiry into the events described in Nicky Hager’s and Jon Stephenson’s book Hit & Run. Over the past fortnight a powerful consensus has formed in support of such an inquiry. Senior parliamentarians, including the leaders of Labour, the Greens and United Future, have added their voices to those of the former National Party Defence Minister, Dr Wayne Mapp, and most of the nation’s leading newspaper editors and political journalists.
 
At the heart of that consensus lies a strong conviction that the reputation of the New Zealand Defence Force can only be protected by an independent and thoroughly transparent investigation into “Operation Burnham”. Anything less will, almost certainly, see our country subjected to the full rigour of international legal scrutiny. In the worst possible case, New Zealand could be found to have breached the rules of war. The Prime Minister owes his fellow citizens a better outcome than to be made the objects of international condemnation and censure.
 
Confronted with the painstakingly assembled evidence of Hager and Stephenson, English had only two options: to accept it, or, to reject it.
 
By accepting it, the Prime Minister would not be declaring Hager’s and Stephenson’s narrative to be accurate in every respect (mistakes have already been detected and acknowledged). What he would be saying, however, is that the authors have established a prima facie case for commissioning an independent examination of the evidence presented in their book.
 
The outcomes of any such investigation would, naturally, be unpredictable. The outcomes of a decision not to hold a full and independent inquiry, however, are readily foreseeable. A solid majority of informed New Zealanders will be left with no option but to conclude that English, his government and the NZDF have something to hide.
 
Deciding against an inquiry would also reveal something particularly shameful in the Prime Minister’s reasoning. English has repeatedly stated that there is insufficient “credible” evidence to justify an investigation. In other words, it is the Prime Minister’s contention that the investigation of Hager and Stephenson cannot/should not be given credence by his government.
 
What does this mean? The only logical conclusion to be drawn is that the Prime Minister is convinced that Hager and Stephenson have either concocted a false account of Operation Burnham; or, that the eye-witness accounts of the raid supplied by the villagers of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad; the death certificates and medical reports issued by responsible local officials (in which the names and injuries of 21 civilian casualties are listed) are not to be relied upon and should, therefore, be accorded no probative weight whatsoever.
 
The Prime Minister is further suggesting that the testimony of unnamed SAS troopers involved in “Operation Burnham”, gathered by Hager and Stephenson in order to corroborate the evidence of their Afghan witnesses, is without substance. Essentially, that they made it up. That everyone involved in Hit & Run: the authors, the villagers, the Afghan officials; are liars.
 
Just think about that for a moment. English had the option of treating the testimony of Afghan citizens (on whose behalf New Zealand undertook its 10 year military commitment) as a truthful rehearsal of the events of the night of 22 August 2010. Instead, he has described their evidence as lacking in credibility. But why would they lie? Presumably, because they were either fully-fledged “insurgents”, or Taliban supporters. (Even three-year-old, Fatima?!) Having killed a Kiwi soldier, these “enemy combatants” were now attempting to besmirch the reputation of his avengers.
 
Is this what the NZDF told the Prime Minister? Is this the essence of their classified briefings? That, in the villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad, and along the whole length of the Tirgiran Valley, there were no innocent civilians – only “insurgents”. That, wittingly or unwillingly, Hager and Stephenson have allowed themselves to be caught up in a Taliban propaganda exercise aimed at turning an “exemplary” SAS operation into a war crime.
 
But, surely, an “exemplary” SAS operation is something the NZDF would be only too willing to open up to the scrutiny of their fellow New Zealanders? What’s more, having been stung more than once by the investigative reporting of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, the NZDF would presumably relish the opportunity to expose the authors of Hit & Run as Taliban dupes – or worse. If the NZDF has nothing to hide then, surely, it has nothing to fear – and much to gain – by recommending to the Prime Minister that he set up an independent inquiry into Operation Burnham?
 
And Bill English, himself? What are we to draw from his willingness to turn his face from the inhabitants of the Tirgiran Valley who have spoken so movingly of the terror, pain and loss they experienced at the hands of SAS troopers and US helicopter gunships acting in our name? Doesn’t he want to make certain that New Zealand does not have blood on its hands? And if there are SAS personnel out there with grave misgivings about the orders they were obliged to follow on the night of 22 August 2010 – doesn’t he want them to be heard? Or are a handful of weather-beaten Afghan peasants, and their brats, not worth the effort?
 
Because if that is the conclusion of our Prime Minister: and if that, ultimately, is his decision; then it is as dishonourable as it is misguided.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 4 April 2017.

The Ideology That Dares Not Speak Its Name.

The March Of Neoliberalism: In essence: a codification of the economic, social and political pre-conditions required for massive social inequality to become a permanent feature of contemporary capitalist society; neoliberalism generally prefers to avoid self-identification.
 
THERE IS SOMETHING PECULIAR about an ideology that dares not speak its name. Historically speaking, those who claimed to have discovered how the world works were never reticent about giving their discovery a name. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did not publish The Manifesto in 1848, they published The Communist Manifesto. By the end of the Nineteenth Century there were very few educated persons who did not grasp the essence of the Marxists’ economic, social and political programme.
 
In the case of neoliberal ideology, however, we are presented with a very different picture. In essence: a codification of the economic, social and political pre-conditions required for massive social inequality to become a permanent feature of contemporary capitalist society; neoliberalism generally prefers to avoid self-identification.
 
Last week, for example, The National Business Review’s Rob Hosking responded to Sue Bradford’s accusation that the Greens had sold out to neoliberalism like this:
 
“As always, it isn’t clear what is meant by ‘neo-liberal’, apart from ‘bad things’.”
 
In the age of Google, Hosking’s professed ignorance as to the term’s meaning is curious. Even the humble Wikipedia could have offered him enough to be going on with:
 
“Neoliberalism (neo-liberalism) refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. These include extensive economic liberalisation policies such as privatisation, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980.”
 
Admirably clear. And while there’s certainly scope for scholarly debate around detail and emphasis, Wikipedia’s definition is more than sufficient to dispel the feigned ignorance of neoliberalism’s most zealous defenders.
 
Why, then, do neoliberals like Hosking continue to insist that they have no firm grasp of the term’s usage – other than as an expression of left-wing abuse?
 
The answer is simple. To survive and prosper, neoliberalism and the policies it inspires cannot afford to be seen as ‘just another ideology’ – like communism or fascism. Rather, it must be accepted as a law of nature – as unyielding to human influence as the weather.
 
What absolutely must not become widely understood is that neoliberalism is, indeed, an all-too-human artefact: formulated by twentieth century economists and given popular currency by individuals and institutes funded by extremely wealthy and politically motivated capitalists.
 
In the face of multiple post-war democratic challenges, these capitalists were anxious to recover and consolidate their class’s dominant position. This had been in steady decline since the 1930s and, by the 1970s, was facing an emancipatory explosion of hitherto suppressed social groups: workers, ethnic minorities, women, youth, gays and lesbians.
 
Consider the fate of these groups since the neoliberal counter-revolution of the 1980s, and the neoliberals’ reluctance to speak their true name becomes clear.
 
The destruction of the trade union movement as a vital economic and political counterweight to the power of capital has permitted a massive transfer of wealth from the employees of capitalist enterprises to their shareholders and senior executives.
 
The elimination and/or privatisation of the public providers of Maori employment ripped entire communities apart – giving rise to social pathologies that, three decades later, are not only still prevalent in Maori society, but increasing. It is no accident that the Maori incarceration rate, at 56 percent, is higher now than it has ever been.
 
In spite of a massive rise in post-war female workforce participation, Kiwi women are still paid, on average, 12 percent less than men. Violent sexism still oppresses them.
 
After 33 years of neoliberalism, young New Zealanders find themselves burdened down with debt and, increasingly, shut out of the housing market.
 
From being among the most forthright critics of capitalism’s power to define the “normal” in the early-1980s, the twenty-first century LGBTI community finds itself re-defined and re-presented as proof of neoliberal capitalism’s tolerance. Many LGBTI individuals now inhabit happily social institutions which their predecessors rejected as oppressive.
 
It is, however, neoliberalism’s unique ability to empty the future of hope that goes to the heart of its apologists’ reticence.
 
The young All Souls Fellowship holder, Max Harris, has written a whole book on what he sees as young New Zealanders’ alienation from politics. But how could a generation raised under neoliberalism be anything else? All their lives they have been told that to be human is to compete. That the way they buy and sell things (commodities, other people, themselves) is much more important than the way they vote. That their position in the socio-economic hierarchy is entirely attributable to the wisdom or unwisdom of their personal choices.
 
“I am interested in whether love could be made a bigger feature of our politics”, writes Harris.
 
Not while neoliberalism endures, Max.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 4 April 2017.