Sunday, 18 February 2018

“The Data Is Simply Not Available, Minister.”

SIR HUMPHREY APPLEBY: "Yes Minister, promising to build 500,000 affordable homes would be a very courageous policy, indeed!"

IS LABOUR getting Sir-Humphreyfied on housing? For younger readers, Sir Humphrey Appleby is one of the leading protagonists in Antony Jay’s and Jonathan Lynn’s incomparable 1980s television satire “Yes Minister”. So compelling was the Sir Humphrey character (played to perfection by the late Nigel Hawthorne) that his name quickly became synonymous with the obfuscating, prevaricating, manipulative and often downright misleading senior civil servant who steers his ministerial master away from his better instincts towards the maintenance of the bureaucratic and political status quo.

Dr Chris Harris, a specialist in urban design and planning, raised the Sir Humphrey question with me after a careful reading of “Stocktake of New Zealand’s Housing”, the study authored by Alan Johnson of the Salvation Army, Otago Public Health Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman and economist Shamubeel Eaqub, which was released by the Housing Minister, Phil Twyford, on Monday afternoon.

One figure, in particular, caught his attention. This was Figure 3.4 “New Dwellings Consented, By Owner Type, 1970-2017” (see below). It’s most notable feature, explained Dr Harris, was the extraordinary spike in new dwelling consents which followed the election of the Third Labour Government, led by Norman Kirk, in 1972.


The graph shows consents flat-lining at around 23,000 per year in 1970, 1971 and 1972. Between the end of 1972 and the beginning of 1974, however, the number of dwelling consents shot up to an astonishing 39,000.

The first and most obvious question that springs to mind is: “How on earth did the Kirk Government do it?” Finding the answer to that question would, surely, be of considerable assistance to Minister Twyford as he sets about tackling New Zealand’s appalling shortage of affordable housing?

Presumably, the same thought occurred to the “Stocktake” authors. What was their conclusion? That’s when Dr Harris’s eye fell upon the concluding sentences of the paragraph printed immediately below Figure 3.4:

“While current levels of new house building compare favourably with the low levels of construction seen immediately after the global financial crisis, during the period 2009 to 2011, these current volumes are not historically exceptional particularly compared with the early 1970s. However, data on government involvement in the 70s boom is not available.”

Get that? Information on the way in which the Kirk Government managed to nearly double the number of houses being consented “is not available”. (My emphasis.)

In his e-mail alerting me to this extraordinary omission, Dr Harris writes:

“Note the last sentence! In fact, you can find out quite a lot from consulting the on-line NZ Official Yearbooks of the time. State Advances credit, available for actual housing construction but not speculation since 1919, was increased. And on top of that there was as yet no Accommodation Supplement to fritter away government housing money, so that it very much went on actual building. There was also a shift from building large stand-alone houses on the city fringe to building lots and lots of small and affordable flats in more urban locations, which is where the real shortage was, and had long been. And this was all directed from the top by Big Norm.

“Norman Kirk re-founded the old-time Ministry of Works as the Ministry of Works and Development in 1973, and founded the Housing Corporation in 1974, also to try and get more houses and flats built. It turned out that urban flats proved easiest and quicker to build once central government weighed-in to overcome the usual obstacles. This was a really important part of the recipe for getting runs on the board quickly. Our cities are still full of flats built in the 1970s – the standards were higher than in later decades. Mass-produced hollow concrete blocks, suitably reinforced, were the building material of choice. Concrete block walls signify a 1970s flat in the same way that a tiled roof is typical of a 1940s state house. 

“Big Norm's policy of pulling out as many stops as possible and focusing on flats really did work surprisingly quickly and the proof is in the consent graph. Our population back then was only a bit over three million, so the graph actually understates the success of the policies of the 1972-1975 Labour Government.

“Actual builds are always a bit less than consents granted. In the early 1970s the peak rate for actual housing construction was 34,300 units built in one year. This roughly equates to 50,000 a year today, if not more, and that nice round number might explain why Shamubeel Eaqub challenged the government to see to it that 500,000 housing units are built in ten years.

“Interestingly enough, few of the houses built under Kirk's administration were state houses. To get things moving quickly, the policy was very much one of collaboration with commercial builders and developers, who were offered guarantees to go and work flat out building small affordable units without worrying too much where the money was coming from, or whether the consent was going to be approved.”

Dr Harris goes on to observe:

“You have to wonder whether there is some kind of an embargo on the level of government activism that led to such a boost in housing production in the early 1970s. It's like an episode of Yes Minister in which the bureaucrats have hidden all the relevant files and the politicians don’t notice that they’re missing straight away. Adding to suspicion of a stitch up by a business-as-usual brigade is the fact that the word ‘credit’ does not appear in the report and there is only spotty and empirical reference to ‘finance’. So, no need to frighten the banks in other words. There also doesn't seem to be any mention of the really important part played by central government institutions in making things happen more effectively and in a streamlined way back in the past: institutions such as the State Advances Corporation, the MWD – which the Rogernomes abolished in 1988 while dialling-back state construction lending at the same time – and the Housing Corporation. The Housing Corporation is still with us of course, but only in a feeble and gutted sort of a way.”

Here, perhaps, is the explanation for Shamubeel Eaqub’s extraordinary forthrightness during Monday’s media conference in the Beehive Theatrette. With barely concealed frustration at what he clearly regards as the new government’s half-hearted housing effort, he urged the governing parties to break free of the fiscal “straightjacket” in which they are currently restrained by Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s Budget Responsibility Rules.

The last thing the “Sir Humphrey’s” at the top of our own civil service want, deeply imbued as they are with the neoliberal economic orthodoxy which has guided New Zealand public policy for more than 30 years, is for “their” ministers to begin searching back through the historical record to discover how, forty years ago, a newly-elected Labour Government responded to the needs of its people by – of all things – fulfilling them.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 17 February 2018.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Princess Stardust versus The Crusher Queen.

Demolition Woman: Who is best placed to demolish Labour's Jacinda Ardern most effectively? Simon Bridges? Amy Adams? Some other National MP of whom the overwhelming majority of conservative voters have heard next to nothing? Or the woman tens-of-thousands of conservative voters already admire for her take-no-prisoners approach to parliamentary politics – Judith “Crusher” Collins?

IT’S GOT TO BE JUDITH COLLINS. There will be many in National’s caucus who bridle at the very suggestion of Collins replacing Bill English. “She’s too divisive!”, they’ll cry. “She carries too much baggage”, others will mumble. “It would be the Woman of Yesterday going up against the Woman of Today”, the pundits will pronounce. “Jacinda’s relentless positivity would leave Collins battered and bleeding in the rubble of her negativity.”

And all of them would be missing the point.

The sort of leader the Right chooses when the Left has been in power for nine years is always very different from the leader it chooses when the Left has been in power for less than nine months. The former needs to present himself as the friend of continuity: the man who will hold the country together; the fresh pair of eyes in a familiar landscape. The latter must be a demolition agent: someone who can smash to pieces the dangerous installations of left-wing radicalism; a living rebuke to socialism in all its forms: a crusher.

The most vivid exemplar of the National-Party-leader-as-demolition-agent was, of course, Rob Muldoon. The redoubtable Norman Kirk, himself, would have struggled to match the political force-of-nature that was Muldoon. The mild-mannered Bill Rowling stood no chance at all.

What do you say to a man who wisecracks to his followers that he has seen “the shivers running ‘round Bill Rowling’s body looking for a spine to crawl up”? (And here you were thinking it was Donald Trump who invented that sort of political invective!)

Muldoon’s weapon-of-choice against the Rowling-led Labour Government was his self-proclaimed mastery of all things economic. Presented with the political gift of the 1973 Oil Shock – which injected a virulent booster-shot of commodity price inflation into the already inflation-plagued economies of the West – Muldoon seized upon the Labour Government’s policy of borrowing heavily overseas (to prevent the New Zealand economy from falling into recession) as proof of its economic recklessness.

Given that the debate on whether or not Grant Robertson should relax his grip on the nation’s purse-strings is likely to grow ever more heated over the next few months, it would make sense for National to elect a leader who is ready, willing and able to expose and exploit the divisions over the proper level of public debt already widening within the government’s ranks.

Who is best placed to do this most effectively? Simon Bridges? Amy Adams? Some other National MP of whom the overwhelming majority of conservative voters have heard next to nothing? Or the woman tens-of-thousands of conservative voters already admire for her take-no-prisoners approach to parliamentary politics – Judith “Crusher” Collins?

The expectation of a head-to-head contest between the Kiwi equivalents of Game of Thrones antagonists Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister extends well beyond the boundaries of the political Right. Collins is one of those rare politicians who, like Rob Muldoon, are able to imbue their bids for leadership with a sense of political inevitability.

Jacinda Arden displayed considerable political skill in masking the scale of her ambition until she was certain of success. From the moment she trounced Julie Anne Genter in the Mt Albert by-election, however, that same sense of inevitability was all around her as well.

It was the tragedy of Bill English’s career that, in spite of his supporters’ best efforts, not quite enough New Zealanders were able to look at him and see a prime minister. A highly competent finance minister? Yes. But, a prime minister? Yeah-Nah.

The question National’s caucus needs to ask itself is how many New Zealanders look at Simon Bridges, or Amy Adams, and say to themselves: “That person is going to be prime minister one day.” Does either politician possess that twinkle in the eye; that infuriatingly knowing smirk; which betrays the leader’s intimate acquaintance with Destiny?

The other factor National’s caucus needs to consider is whether its leadership candidates are strong enough to truly test Jacinda? This is the question that the Labour caucus and party never answered honestly in relation to John Key. It would be astonishing if the National Opposition repeated the folly of sending one leaden amateur after another to do battle with such a consummate sprinkler of stardust.

It is a huge mistake in politics to pit like against like.

Judith is nothing like Jacinda.


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, 16 February 2018.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Second Coming Of National's Rough Beasts.

Its Hour Come Round At Last: Instead of being thankful that New Zealand’s democratic constitution transforms days of retribution into peaceful transitions of power from one combination of political parties to another, National's far-right seethes with frustration, and consoles itself with fantasies of imposing a day of retribution of its own. On that day, all those who have deprived them of their rightful power and status will get what’s coming to them.

WHAT ROUGH BEAST SLOUCHES towards Wellington to be born? What sort of National Party are the people who brought down Bill English trying to establish? And will there be enough reasonable men and women in National’s caucus on Tuesday, 27 February to stop them?

In the movie, Schindler’s List, the hero, Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) attempts to persuade the SS labour-camp commandant, Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes) to refrain from picking-off random prisoners with his hunting rifle. For a few days, Schindler’s appeal appears to be working. Eventually, however, the commandant’s murderous impulses get the better of him and he resumes his deadly sport.

For 12 years, Bill English has played the role of Oskar Schindler: cajoling, persuading and, on occasion, outmanoeuvring the far-right of the National Party into running with a moderate, liberal-conservative political agenda. It was by trading on the popular appeal of this agenda that John Key and Steven Joyce were able to give the National Party three general election victories in a row.

Not that English was some sort of bleeding-heart liberal in disguise. On the contrary, his Catholic faith mandated a deeply conservative stance on many of the social issues which Key supported as proof of National’s liberal bona fides. By the same token, however, it was English’s Catholic faith that caused him to reject the swingeing economic austerity measures imposed by right-wing finance ministers in the UK, Canada and Australia.

Not only was English convinced that austerity was economically ineffective, but he also recognized that it was politically counter-productive. Not that the economic and social policies of the Key-English era were entirely benign – far from it. The National Right had to be appeased with anti-worker and anti-beneficiary measures that were intended to – and did – inflict a great deal of unnecessary suffering on tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders. In the hands of a different finance minister, however, matters could have been a great deal worse.

This was the knowledge with which the National Right, like SS Commandant Goeth, found it so difficult to be reconciled. Why be just a little oppressive of the poor and marginalised when you possess the power to grind their faces in the dust? Why restrict oneself to fastening legal leg-irons on the trade unions when you can legislate the evil socialist bullies out of existence altogether?

For the far-right, political power only becomes real when it is used. To exercise restraint is to allow those within your power to set the limits of their own persecution. Far from being a manifestation of strength (as Schindler suggested to Goeth) the willingness to exercise restraint is a craven demonstration of weakness.

In his fascinating Newsroom essay on Bill English’s political career, Bernard Hickey describes the occasion upon which his subject was so moved by the recollection of his own and his wife Mary’s family histories that he wept:

“He talked of his admiration for his father-in-law’s family ethos and hard work in raising a big family in Wellington, despite the struggles of arriving with little from Samoa in an unfamiliar city. He also talked about a quiet chat he had with a kaumatua on a marae about the problems of Maori youth, and the need for strong communities with their own resources. His point was that he admired the self-reliance and quiet conservatism of family and community life. He saw his role as helping those communities and pulling Government out of the way to let them get on with it. It wasn’t an ugly or dry form of libertarian scorched-earth politics. It was a deeply humane and thoughtful approach where Government was supposed to treat people with empathy and dignity and as individuals, rather than as just another beneficiary locked into welfare for life. His views on helping to lift people out of poverty were a precursor to his championing of the social investment approach, which he was only just starting to roll out through the Government as Labour returned to power in late October.”

It was during this part of his talk that English was obliged to pause for a few moments:

“The tears rolled down his nose and splashed onto the lectern. You could hear a pin drop. The audience was with him though. English's story was utterly authentic and thoughtful and showed a depth of humility and humanity that struck a chord that night. He got a standing ovation when he finished.”

English’s moderate conservatism, Hickey seems to be saying, is born out of a love for ordinary people. By contrast, the vicious conservatism of the far-right is born out of the gnawing fear that ordinary people might one day decide to exact retribution from those who have found it expedient to grind their faces in the dust. That fear begets hate which, in turn, is translated into institutional and physical violence. The great paradox of far-right aggression, however, is that by oppressing the poor, the marginalised and the dispossessed it only brings the terrifying day of retribution closer.

Instead of being thankful that New Zealand’s democratic constitution transforms these days of retribution into peaceful transitions of power from one combination of political parties to another, however, the far-right seethes with frustration, and consoles itself with fantasies of imposing a day of retribution of its own. On that day, all those who have deprived them of their rightful power and status will get what’s coming to them.

That’s where we are now. English’s moderation is deemed, by his colleagues, to have failed the National Party. New, and much more aggressive leadership is required. Those panderers to, and enablers of, the poor and marginalised – Labour and the Greens – must be driven from the Treasury Benches as quickly as possible. And Winston Peters, that conservative turncoat and traitor, must be cast into the ninth circle of political hell – and his worthless party with him.

William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, saw it all happening nearly a century ago, in the fretful aftermath of the First World War. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”, he wrote in his most famous poem, The Second Coming.

The final lines of that poem can still send a chill down the spine:

… but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


This essay was jointly posted on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of  Thursday, 15 February 2018.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Taking Stock: Is the Government Doing Enough to End the Housing Crisis?

A Fading Dream: “The past 25 years have seen the gradual demise of the so-called Kiwi Dream – a place where home ownership and the economic independence which this offers, was within reach of most working families. Home ownership rates have fallen to a 60-year low and could fall further. These falls have been alongside rapid house price inflation in many parts of New Zealand and, with this, deteriorating affordability. We are quickly becoming a society divided by the ownership of housing and its related wealth and recent housing and tax policy settings appear to have exacerbated this division.” - Stocktake of New Zealand's Housing, 12 February 2018.

THE FULL MAGNITUDE of the housing crisis confronting the new government stands revealed in its Stocktake of New Zealand’s Housing. Released this morning, the document paints a far worse picture of the situation than even the parties now in government presented to voters from the opposition benches.

In the words of the three authors of the stocktake, Alan Johnson of the Salvation Army, Otago Public Health Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman and economist Shamubeel Eaqub:

“The past 25 years have seen the gradual demise of the so-called Kiwi Dream – a place where home ownership and the economic independence which this offers, was within reach of most working families. Home ownership rates have fallen to a 60-year low and could fall further. These falls have been alongside rapid house price inflation in many parts of New Zealand and, with this, deteriorating affordability. We are quickly becoming a society divided by the ownership of housing and its related wealth and recent housing and tax policy settings appear to have exacerbated this division.”

The policies advanced by the Labour-NZF-Green government in response to New Zealand’s housing crisis – most particularly Labour’s KiwiBuild initiative – no longer impress informed observers as either bold or comprehensive enough to bring about a speedy resolution of the crisis. On the contrary, they seem doomed to fail: there being neither the material, nor the human, resources required to make them succeed.

One has only to look back at the first great wave of state-initiated and funded house construction to appreciate the full scale of the difficulties confronting the new government.

Between 1936 and 1949 the first Labour government was responsible for the construction of 30,000 state houses. In other words, over a period of 13 years, the Department of Housing Construction and its private sector contractors were able to build fewer than a third of the number of dwellings which the present government has promised to build in ten!

What’s more, those 30,000 state houses were built at a time when the New Zealand economy was awash with unemployed labour and underutilised resources impatient to be set to work. Labour’s state housing programme was the New Zealand equivalent of US President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”: a massive public works programme designed to both enhance the nation’s quality of life and provide steady and well-paid employment for its people.

One of the ways the First Labour Government accomplished these goals was by mandating the use of local materials in state house construction. This decision gave an immediate and massive boost to all those businesses ancillary to the construction industry. To help the private sector keep pace with the state-induced demand, the Department of Housing Construction established two publicly-owned factories dedicated to producing the standardised joinery used in state house interiors.

The present government’s chief promoter of the CPTPP, David Parker, might pause to consider that such a policy of buying and using only Kiwi-made and sourced materials is expressly forbidden in practically all of the free-trade agreements New Zealand has signed since 1984 – including the CPTPP.

The state housing programme of 1936-1949 involved an unprecedented mobilisation of New Zealand’s human and material resources to construct a total of 30,000 dwellings. Even allowing for the fact that New Zealand’s population has more than doubled in size, how likely is it that Labour’s Phil Twyford is going to out-build Jack Lee’s Department of Housing Construction by a factor of 3 – in just 10 years?

Is it even remotely feasible that: from a tight labour market already suffering serious skill shortages; and from a construction sector already running at full-tilt; this government will be able to elicit an average of 10,000 additional houses per year?

Because, just to be clear, that total of 30,000 state houses constructed between 1936 and 1949 was over-and-above the normal total of dwellings commissioned and constructed by and for private companies and individuals. It is not yet clear whether Twyford’s promise of 100,000 “affordable homes” between 2017 and 2027 is on-top-of, or included-in, the output of private house construction.

It is important to remind ourselves at this point that Twyford’s “affordable” KiwiBuild homes are expected to sell for between $500,000 and $600,000 – a price completely beyond the reach of the tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders who possess neither a home of their own, nor a secure tenancy in somebody else’s.

For these: the working-poor on rock-bottom wages; Kiwis struggling to survive on a benefit; and, increasingly, for pensioners without a freehold home of their own; the Labour-NZF-Green government is promising to build just 1,000 state houses a year.

With the findings from the Stocktake of New Zealand’s Housing in their hands. With their heads chock-full of data showing how desperate New Zealand’s housing situation has become, Mr Twyford and his colleagues are proposing to build 1,307 fewer state houses than Jack Lee and the First Labour Government managed to build in a little country laid flat by the greatest depression in human history – eighty years ago.


This essay was posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 13 February 2018.

No Matter Whether You’re Red Or Blue – You Must Keep Paddling In Your Own Canoe.

Each To Their Own: More than any other party, NZ First has good reason for seeking legislative protection against “waka jumping”. It was, after all, NZ First that, in August 1998, was forced to watch eight members of its caucus jump out of their own party’s waka to become either solo kayakers or de facto paddlers in National’s.

SHOULD MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT be permitted to jump from their own party’s waka into the waka of another political party? The question is more than rhetorical because under the provisions of the Election (Integrity) Amendment Bill, currently before Parliament’s Justice Select Committee, political defection by parliamentarians will render them liable to expulsion from the House of Representatives.

Introduced last December by Justice Minister, Andrew Little, in fulfilment of the coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First, the Bill is being strenuously opposed by the National Party and Act. The Greens, having supported the legislation’s introduction, are now entertaining some pretty outspoken second thoughts.

Why the fuss? Who could seriously oppose the idea of penalising politicians who head off to war in the coat of one army only to turn it when the heat of battle grows too hot?

Many New Zealanders would endorse the argument of the bill’s NZ First promoters: If you don’t like what your party is doing, then quit. It is, quite simply, unethical to upset the balance of the House of Representatives by giving another political party, or parties, votes that they did not win.

More than any other party, NZ First has good reason for seeking legislative protection against “waka jumping”. It was, after all, NZ First that, in August 1998, was forced to watch eight members of its caucus jump out of their own party’s waka to become either solo kayakers or de facto paddlers in National’s.

That spectacular act of political mendacity was glossed-over at the time and has remained largely unexamined ever since. National’s supporters were too busy celebrating their escape from the clutches of their erstwhile colleague, Winston Peters. While Labour voters were prepared to write-off the whole episode as but the first instalment in the political retribution NZ First had well-and-truly merited by leaving Helen Clark standing at the altar.

The unacknowledged truth of the matter, however, was that the nature and general policy direction of a New Zealand government had been fundamentally changed without the fuss-and-bother of a general election. The last occasion upon which such a change-of-government-by-political-defection had been accomplished was the destruction of Thomas Mackenzie’s Liberal Government by the Reform Party leader, William Massey, in 1912.

But, if it suited both National and Labour to turn a blind eye to this blatant assault upon New Zealand’s constitutional norms, it was never forgotten by Winston Peters and NZ First. Nor, indeed, by the late Jim Anderton, who had, similarly, been required to sit back and watch as the renegade Alliance MP, Alamein Kopu, took tea with Jenny Shipley and cast her vote with the National Party.

National and Act’s “principled” opposition to the Election (Integrity) Amendment Bill should, therefore, be taken with a grain of salt.

The Opposition’s objection to the legislation, if the speeches of its MPs can be taken seriously, is because Members of the House of Representatives are there to carry out the wishes of their constituents – not the orders of backroom party chieftains.

If that was ever true, then it was only in the era before the establishment of coherent and tightly disciplined political parties. Since the advent of party politics (which in New Zealand dates from around 1890) candidates have taken their parliamentary seats not on the strength of their character and ability, but courtesy of the political colours they stand under, and the support those colours attract.

This crucial role played by political parties has been further entrenched and strengthened by the introduction of Mixed Member Proportional Representation.

That being the case, becoming a political turncoat is not simply an act of personal moral inadequacy, but of constitutional vandalism. New Zealanders elect parties to govern them – not individuals. Members of Parliament who repudiate their party spit in the face of the whole ethos of representative government.

“Oh, but what about the individual member’s conscience!”, cry the waka-jumping legislation’s opponents. “Is that to be sacrificed to faceless party bureaucrats?”

The only answer to that is: “Of course not!” But, that does not mean that members of parliament are free to do as they please. If an MP no longer finds it possible, in good conscience, to support his or her party, then the only ethical course of action is to resign.

That is precisely what Winston Peters did in 1993 (and what Jim Anderton should have done in 1989). By resigning, Peters gave the electors of Tauranga the opportunity to reject or endorse his refusal to toe National’s party line. Would that his colleagues, four years later, had demonstrated a similar respect for the basic tenets of representative democracy.

There really is no need for the Greens to further equivocate on this matter. The only politicians opposing the Election (Integrity) Amendment Bill are those who have no qualms about rorting our representative democracy.


This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 February 2018.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Hypothetical Questions.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?  (Who Will Guard The Guardians Themselves?) All knowledge is power: and the acquisition, by your enemies, of knowledge you’d rather they did not possess, and of whose unauthorised transfer you remain entirely ignorant, could – hypothetically – give them a great deal of power indeed.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP and his White House staff are convinced America’s “Deep State” is out to get them. They’re probably right.

Regardless of their ideological leanings, a persistent base-note of paranoia thrums through the heads of most politicians. In the case of the Trump Administration, however, that drumbeat is growing faster and louder with every passing day. Making it stop is fast becoming a POTUS obsession.

It’s easy to imagine how vulnerable a political leader must feel when it becomes clear that the individuals and institutions charged with protecting the integrity of the state are, simultaneously, being encouraged to gather information about the private life of the head-of-state. Knowing that was happening could easily drive a person onto Twitter in the early hours of the morning!

If New Zealand even has a “Deep State”, then it is unlikely to be a very big or a very scary one. Our population is simply too small for big secrets. Always, there’s someone who knows someone, who heard it from someone who was/is directly involved. The fear of being exposed publicly is almost always enough to prevent those institutions best equipped to undertake covert surveillance of New Zealand’s political leaders – the SIS, the GCSB, the NZDF and the Police – from even considering such a risky mission.

But, what if the surveillance and the reporting-back was being undertaken unofficially? What if a group of renegade state operatives, motivated out of ideological conviction – or baser considerations – decided to act independently, outside the chain-of-command? What if, having seen their superiors escape any kind of meaningful official reprimand for engaging in unethical conduct, they decided to embark on a little free-lance politicking of their own?

Suppose, to illustrate these hypothetical questions, we imagine a small, democratic nation governed by a young, socialist, prime-minister. Like her immediate predecessors, this young prime minister is protected by a group of specially-trained and armed bodyguards.

These bodyguards are, naturally, sworn to keep secret everything they see and hear pertaining to the public and private life of the politician under their protection. Because, of course, anyone spending so much time in such close proximity to another person is bound to witness all kinds of behaviour; overhear all manner of exchanges; which, if wrenched from their context and passed on to an interested third party, could give rise to the most acute political and personal embarrassment.

Now, let us further suppose that a number of this young prime minister’s bodyguards, being strong supporters of the conservative political party which she and her left-wing allies have only recently supplanted, decided to “help” her conservative opponents by feeding them detailed information of a private, personal and politically highly-sensitive nature.

Obviously, our hypothetical prime minister’s hypothetical opponents could not use this information publicly without betraying its source. Nevertheless, the intelligence in their possession would likely prove to be of enormous benefit to them, both strategically and tactically. All knowledge is power: and the acquisition, by your enemies, of knowledge you’d rather they did not possess, and of whose unauthorised transfer you remain entirely ignorant, could – hypothetically – give them a great deal of power indeed.

Not that anything as dangerous as the scenario sketched-out above could possibly unfold in corruption-free New Zealand. Our happy South Pacific democracy is simply too small for really big secrets, and our public servants too big-hearted to pass on its small and private ones to unauthorised persons.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 1 February 2018.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Hard Choices: Genter’s Candidacy Lights-Up The Greens’ Internal Divisions.

The Pragmatist Most Likely To Succeed: The historical pattern of Green leadership elections is clear. Asked to choose between a candidate associated (at least in the public mind) with radical and/or controversial political causes; and a candidate unburdened by an excess of electorally-negative baggage; the Greens have consistently opted for the latter over the former. In the face of historical precedent, therefore, the smart money would be on Julie Anne Genter – not Marama Davidson.

JULIE ANNE GENTER’s entry into the Greens’ co-leadership race presents Green Party members with a hard choice. Either, they will opt for sentiment and symbolism, and elect Marama Davidson. Or, by electing Genter, signal their determination to prioritise cool-headed pragmatism and substantive policy achievement.

Some commentators have already decided that the Greens’ “activist base” will vote in overwhelmingly numbers for Metiria Turei’s “natural successor”. As both a Maori nationalist and a fervent fighter for social justice, Davidson openly celebrates the sort of street-level agitation that the “Baby Boomer” Greens look back on with pride, and which some Green “Millennials” regard as the only “authentic” way of doing Green politics.

The assumption here is that these “activists” constitute a clear majority of the Green Party’s membership. A swift review of Green leadership elections, however, raises serious doubts as to whether the party membership really is as radical as many New Zealanders believe it to be.

Following the tragic death of Rod Donald in 2005, Green Party members were presented with a choice between Nandor Tanczos and Russel Norman. They chose Norman. A few years later the choice was between Sue Bradford and Metiria Turei. They chose Turei. The last contest was between Kevin Hague and James Shaw. They chose Shaw.

The historical pattern here is clear. Asked to choose between a candidate associated (at least in the public mind) with radical and/or controversial political causes; and a candidate unburdened by an excess of electorally-negative baggage; the Greens have consistently opted for the latter over the former.

In the face of these historical precedents, the smart money would be on Genter – not Davidson.

That historical preference for a safe (or, at least, safer) pair of hands is likely to be accentuated this time around by the traumatic experiences of the 2017 General Election campaign.

Just how likely is it that a majority of the Green Party membership stands ready to embrace a candidate who proudly aligns herself with the radical policies of Metiria the Martyr? Do they really want to witness their female co-leader engaging in ideological fisticuffs with the leaders of the Labour Party and NZ First? Are constant headlines highlighting the policy differences between the coalition partners and their activist sidekicks more, or less, likely to see the Greens lift their share of the Party Vote in 2020?

The political trajectory of the Green Party over the past ten years has been towards precisely the cool-headed pragmatism and substantive policy achievement that Genter, more than any other member of the Green Caucus (with the possible exception of Shaw himself) has come to represent.

At her announcement on Parliament’s forecourt, she told the assembled journalists that she wanted to help the Greens develop a “clear, bold and distinct vision for 2020”.

Decoded, her message is all about presenting voters with the sharpest possible contrast between the Greens’ and the coalition parties’ election manifestos. Genter is betting that the Green Party truly is, as she told waiting journalists, “the future of politics”, and that if the Greens’ vision of a sustainable New Zealand is presented in a way that doesn’t frighten the electorate, then the Greens position in the House can be improved dramatically.

That is a goal which can only be achieved, argues Genter, if her party “manages the risks”. Which is the closest thing to a “dog whistle” anyone is ever likely to hear in the mouth of a Green candidate. The message, aimed at what Genter clearly believes to be the “moderate” Green majority, could not, however be simpler – or more brutal: The last thing we need now, after waiting 20 years for a place in government, is another Metiria!

It’s a dog-whistle to which a great many Green Party ears will prick-up and listen.

Assuming the fight remains a straight-forward contest between Davidson’s symbolism and Genter’s pragmatism, the pragmatist will, almost certainly, join Shaw at the top of her party’s greasy pole.

The entry of a third candidate – most likely the Conservation Minister, Eugenie Sage – would, however, signal an effort by the Greens’ “old hands” to blunt the increasingly sharp edges of the Green Party’s internal differences.

The risk, however, is that the membership might fail to take the hint, and that the moderate vote would be split between Sage and Genter – allowing Davidson to come through the middle. Should that occur, the Minister for Women, and the Associate Minister for Transport and for Health will simply have to put her head down and wait for better weather.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 9 February 2018.

Bonny Prince Billy.

Leader In Waiting? If this government falters, then the Opposition Leader will be perfectly placed to become the nation’s “Jacobite” leader-in-exile: the only legitimate inheritor of the 2017 General Election; the King-Over-The-Water; Bonny Prince Billy.

Will ye no come back again?
Will ye no come back again?
Better lo’ed ye canna be;
Will ye no come back again?

Jacobite Lament


THAT, FIVE MONTHS AFTER the 2017 election, 44.5 percent of New Zealanders remain loyal to the National Party is astonishing. Political defeat almost always foreshadows political desertion – usually on a large scale. Finding oneself on the losing side of any conflict is never a happy experience. The temptation to treat harshly the people who put you there can be very strong.

And yet National’s support remains precisely where it stood on election night. Conservative New Zealand is yet to be convinced that the government of Jacinda Ardern is worthy of so much as a second glance – let alone a second thought.

The reason for the Right’s steadfast opposition to the new regime is very simple: they do not believe it to be a legitimate government. No matter how many times the constitutional lawyers and political scientists insist that the present arrangement is perfectly legitimate: that a ‘coalition of the losers’ has always been one of the potential outcomes of any MMP election; the Right refuses to accept their arguments.

As adherents to New Zealand’s informal constitution, they cannot reconcile National’s stunning election-night plurality with its subsequent exclusion from government. How is it possible that a political party securing 44.5 percent of the popular vote – 7.6 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival – is denied power? How can it be ethical for a party receiving fewer than 7 percent of the votes cast, to set aside the clear preference of nearly half the electorate?

In the eyes of a worryingly large number of voters, the politicians currently seated on the Treasury Benches cannot be considered a legitimate government; and their leader, Jacinda Ardern, cannot be considered a legitimate prime minister.

The corollary to this denial is equally troubling. If Jacinda Ardern, the leader of the party which won the second-highest tally of votes, is not the legitimate prime minister; then the proper bearer of that title can only be the leader of the party which received the most votes: Bill English.

It is possible that Bill English’s colleagues are unaware of the power of this sentiment. As Members of Parliament, they know that the only votes that count in the formation of a government are the votes cast on the floor of the House of Representatives; and that the brutal truth of the present situation is – National doesn’t have enough.

Unlike so many of those who voted for them, they are moving on. The big question exercising their minds: Who should replace Bill – and when?

In this regard, they are, arguably, a little premature.

Jacinda’s stardust continues to dazzle us – her performance at Waitangi being just the latest demonstration of its brilliance – but, beneath the sparkling surface of this coalition government, powerful contradictions are at work. The Labour-NZF-Green government is determined to lift New Zealanders into paradise, but it lacks the funds required to pay for their new accommodation. Even worse, it is refusing to do what’s necessary to raise them.

By Budget Day – 17 May – it will have become demoralizingly clear to Jacinda’s Cabinet that her Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, is about to make liars of them all. By then, he’ll have made it clear that their generous promises of redress and renewal simply cannot be adequately funded. That’s when the deepening fissures in this ramshackle political construction will suddenly and dramatically widen; and the government’s most loosely-fastened adornments will begin falling-off.

That will be National’s Jacobite Moment.

For those who know their Scottish history, the Jacobites were the followers of the descendants of the deposed Stuart king, James II, whom they hailed as the only legitimate rulers of Great Britain.

If this government falters, then the Opposition Leader will be perfectly placed to become the nation’s “Jacobite” leader-in-exile: the only legitimate inheritor of the 2017 General Election; the King-Over-The-Water; Bonny Prince Billy.

The National Party’s best strategy is, therefore, to make no move against Bill English until it becomes clear whether or not Jacinda Ardern possesses the political skill to both deliver on Labour’s promises and adhere to her Government’s self-imposed “Budget Responsibility Rules”

If she doesn’t, then the 44.5 percent can start serenading their Bonny Prince Billy:

“Will ye no come back again?”


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, 9 February 2018.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Image Of The Day - No. 1



Jacinda Ardern as Ziggy Stardust promises New Zealanders ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!

The quotation belongs to Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) the despised Second International reformist, who spurned the doctrine of violent revolution in favour of an evolutionary, peaceful and parliamentary road to socialism.

If any readers know the identity of the artist, please let the rest of us in on the secret. Such a brilliant piece of agit-prop deserves to be properly credited.

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Blowing Smoke: Why Jacinda Needs To Talk Less And Do More.

Star[dust] Performer: The image of Jacinda quite literally serving the people (with bacon butties!) will do nothing to diminish her lustre in the eyes of most New Zealanders.

“SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES”, wrote Jerome Kern’s lyricist, Otto Harbach, in 1933. The tears well-up even faster, however, when your eyes are full of stardust. This latter affliction appears to have struck just about every journalist assigned to cover the Waitangi Day celebrations of 2018. Simon Wilson’s eyesight, in particular, seemed to be quite seriously impaired. How else to explain his confusing the arrival of Prime Minister Ardern with the Second Coming of Christ?

Which is not to say that the PM didn’t put on a very good show. The image of Jacinda quite literally serving the people (with bacon butties!) will do nothing to diminish her lustre in the eyes of most New Zealanders. When it comes to contriving the perfect photo-op, New Zealand’s youthful PM is a true professional. Her speechifying skills are also up there with the best. Whoever wrote her address from the porch of the whare runanga certainly knew what they were about.

All-in-all, as she settles back into the Beehive routine, the Prime Minister has every reason to adjudge her 5-6 days in the Far North an unqualified success.

The early images of any prime-ministerial term make a huge difference to the way he or she is perceived in the longer run. Think of John Key swigging beer from the bottle as Prince William barbecues their steaks. Or, going back even further in time, recall the image of “Big Norm” leading a little Maori boy across the Treaty Ground in 1973. Priceless shots. And now, the image of Jacinda, radiant among the bacon and sausages, must be added to this memorable slide show. Smoke gets in your eyes, indeed!

But, no matter how bulging Jacinda’s good-will account may have grown after Waitangi, the day-to-day exercise of raw political power will soon empty it out. On a multitude of fronts: international trade, health, housing, and poverty-reduction; her government’s mediocre performance (read John Minto’s excellent summary, here) presents a stark contrast to its soaring and benevolent rhetoric.

Even the Labour-NZF-Green government’s grand gestures appear puny when placed alongside the grand gestures of its progressive predecessors. Compare Jacinda’s Waitangi Day barbecue with the gesture I describe in No Left Turn:

“Shortly after his election as Labour Party leader in 1961, Arnold Nordmeyer was asked by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation to recall for its listeners ‘My Most Memorable Christmas’. He spoke movingly of the first Labour Government’s decision, in December 1935, to advance the equivalent of an extra week’s relief payment to all the unemployed as a ‘Christmas Bonus’. That single act of state generosity, he said, sent ripples of hope and goodwill through thousands of destitute families and hundreds of cash-strapped communities. By Christmas its effects were evident across the whole of New Zealand.”

The newly-elected Labour Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, did something very similar in December 1972.

Not such an arresting image as Jacinda serving-up bacon butties to the Waitangi crowd, but I’ll wager Savage’s and Kirk’s gestures filled more bellies!

Perhaps, I’m being too harsh on the Prime Minister. Perhaps, in 2018, the public’s willingness to countenance giving away a whole week’s-worth of social assistance to every beneficiary in the country just isn’t there anymore. Perhaps, after 30 years of neoliberal brutality, we are no longer the caring and generous people we used to be.

Bluntly, my problem with Jacinda’s stardust is that, while it’s in the air, it’s difficult to focus on anything else. Amidst all the glitter it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that, apart from a handful of long-overdue inquiries, and a return to the status quo ante in employment law (read all about it on Richard Harman’s Politik website, here) very little of any real substance has been done.

Unless, of course, you consider signing-up to the “Comprehensive and Progressive” TPP a singularly worthwhile achievement. Personally, after reading Professor Jane Kelsey’s analysis of the CPTPP, I can’t help feeling that the whole tawdry exercise should be understood in the spirit of The Who’s incomparable line: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

And, please, all you Labour apologists out there, don’t tell me that all this inaction is about the fiscal cupboard being bare.

How much would it have cost the Minister for Social Welfare, Carmel Sepuloni, to stand up in front of an appropriate audience (the PSA springs to mind) and deliver a speech in which she set forth the new government’s expectations of all those employed by the Ministry of Social Development? What, precisely, would have been the price of her instructing the people at Work and Income to treat their clients with a modicum of compassion and respect? Surely, a public reaffirmation of every citizen’s right to public assistance in times of hardship and affliction would not have bankrupted the Treasury?

Likewise, with the Minister of Labour, Ian Lees Galloway. Could he not loudly and publicly have proclaimed the government’s rock-solid commitment to protecting and expanding the right of every citizen to fair treatment in the workplace? Could he not have urged every New Zealander in a position to do so to join a trade union? And could not Jacinda, in the course of her negotiations with NZ First, have told Winston Peters that while she was prepared to compromise on many issues, on the question of workers’ rights – specifically the 90-day fire-at-will legislation – Labour was not for turning?

In her speech from the porch of the whare runanga, Jacinda urged Maori to hold the Labour-NZF-Green government to account if it failed to deliver on its promises of uplift and renewal. They were fine words. But, then, Jacinda has a thing for words. She is always promising to engage in “discussions” and “conversations” about the problems confronting so many New Zealanders. Ideally, however, political discussion and conversation is what happens after political action has been taken.

The “other half” of New Zealand is crying out to this government for brave deeds – not fine words. The last thing Jacinda needs to be remembered for is substituting stardust for substantive action.

For blowing smoke into our eyes.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 8 February 2018.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

When ‘Maintaining The Rage’ Isn’t An Option.

"Just One Of Those Things You Say In Opposition": Had the rage so evident on the streets of Auckland on 4 February 2016 been maintained, Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters, and Labour’s intrepid Trade Minister, David Parker, would not have found it such an easy matter to renege on the undertakings Labour and NZ First had given on that day when it seemed prudent for Mr Parker to stand outside the US Consulate, microphone in hand, and pledge Labour to the defence of New Zealand’s sovereignty against trans-national corporate predators.

THE HARD-LEFT of New Zealand politics enjoys nothing more than enumerating the shortcomings of the Labour Party. No matter that the hard-left itself represents only a tiny fraction of the electorate (a deficiency confirmed with crushing finality whenever it fields candidates in a general election). Not to worry. This past week [i.e. the week ending 27 January 2018] the Labour-NZF coalition government’s decision to sign-up to the Comprehensive and Progressive Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP) has afforded its hard-left critics multiple opportunities to, once again, rail against the manifold shortcomings of social-democracy.

Were they of a mind, however, the despised social-democrats could mount a telling critique of the hard-left’s own dereliction of political duty. The focus of such criticism would be the hard-left’s failure to “maintain the rage” against the Trans-Pacific Partnership which, in February 2016, had just been demonstrated with truly exceptional power on the streets of Auckland.

So effective had the campaign of the “It’s Our Future” organisation been in rousing public indignation at the TPP’s multiple assaults on New Zealand sovereignty, that the Andrew Little-led Labour Party felt obliged to step away from the long-standing bi-partisan consensus on free trade and come out openly against its ratification. It was joined in this radical oppositional stance by Winston Peters’ NZ First Party and the Greens. Foreshadowed in this ad-hoc anti-TPP multi-party alliance, was the Labour-NZF-Green government sworn into office in October 2017.

Was the hard-left quick to warn the still-fizzing anti-TPP demonstrators that this sudden display of radicalism on the part of Labour, NZ First and the Greens was not to be trusted? Did it urge the movement to shift its focus from the streets of Auckland to Parliament Grounds in Wellington? Was a concerted campaign proposed to pressure MPs directly by besieging the House of Representatives and impeding the Select Committee hearings into the legislation ratifying the TPP? Was the hard-left able, as its predecessors had been in the days of the Halt All Racist Tours organisation, to transform participation in a single day of rage into a permanent reserve army of protestors, capable of being mobilised at a moment’s notice?

No, it was not.

Had it been, Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters, and Labour’s intrepid Trade Minister, David Parker, would not have found it such an easy matter to renege on the undertakings Labour and NZ First had given on the day when it seemed prudent for Mr Parker to stand outside the US Consulate, microphone in hand, and pledge Labour to the defence of New Zealand’s sovereignty against trans-national corporate predators.

So, what did the hard-left do?

Well, it did exactly what it so loudly condemns the centre-left for doing: it attempted to engage constructively with the many and varied processes of institutional power so as to get the firmest possible grip on the levers of political influence. Even now, the effective leader of the anti-TPP movement, Professor Jane Kelsey, is cautioning her followers against precipitate action:

“And yes, I know there are people who want to get out on the streets. We need to think about when and where that might have maximum effect. But we can’t go off half-cocked. People need to be confident that they know why the TPPA-11 is as bad as the original, and believe that their voices collectively can make a difference. And we can.”

The difference between hard-leftists and social-democrats, however, is that although they could mount a critique of the hard-left’s failure to maintain the momentum of the 2016 protests, the social-democrats haven’t. Why? Because they understand that, at some point, rage in the streets must give way to the demands of practical politics.

Once Labour, NZ First and the Greens had all publicly committed themselves to opposing the TPP – as currently configured – the hard-left’s ability to turn people out into the street evaporated almost immediately. Maintaining the rage for months on end was never an option.

Fighting TPP was quite unlike fighting Apartheid – which could be relied upon to keep the world horrified with its constant and ever-worsening acts of racial oppression. A year ago, when Donald Trump pulled the USA out of the TPP, most of its opponents – and even some of its supporters – believed it was dead. And yet – it lives!

The tenacity with which the proponents of the TPP have fought for their project should, perhaps, cause the hard-left to pause from their castigation of Labour and its allies. Is it really credible to suggest that so many countries have worked so hard, for so long, to secure their own economic and political subordination?

Perhaps, once they had made themselves familiar with their fellow CPTPP partners’ arguments, Ardern, Peters and Parker realised that ‘maintaining the rage’ wasn’t an option for them either. Perhaps, in the face of massive Australian and Japanese economic pressure they reluctantly settled for the best deal they could get.


This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 January 2018.

Labour and Maori: The ‘Auld Alliance’ Re-Forged.

Getting The Band Back Together: It is to be hoped that Ms Ardern understands the extent to which she and the Labour Party are indebted to the strategic insight of Andrew Little and his Chief-of-Staff, Matt McCarten, for the 2017 result.

THE FIVE DAYS allotted to Waitangi 2018 by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern can only be accounted as time well spent. Maori votes were critical to Labour being able to construct a governing coalition with NZ First and the Greens. Ms Ardern is well aware that maintaining – and if possible building on – the tangata whenua support that gave Labour a clean sweep of all seven Maori seats in 2017 will be crucial to securing her government’s re-election in 2020.

It is to be hoped that Ms Ardern understands the extent to which she and the Labour Party are indebted to the strategic insight of Andrew Little and his Chief-of-Staff, Matt McCarten, for the 2017 result.

At the core of that insight was an acceptance that Labour and the Greens, alone, would be unlikely to secure sufficient votes to govern alone, or in coalition with NZ First, unless the National Party was first stripped of as many of its potential coalition partners as possible.

The means adopted to secure that outcome were by no means universally welcomed within Labour’s ranks. In particular, the recruitment of its principal human instruments, Greg O’Connor and Willie Jackson, outraged more than a few of Labour’s social-liberals.

As a former President of the NZ Police Association, O’Connor was derided as a “fascist” by some social-liberals, and his selection for Ohariu, the seat held by the leader of the United Future Party, Peter Dunne, for 36 years, was lambasted as a sop to “Waitakere Man” – the socially-conservative element of Labour’s electoral base.

The response to the recruitment of Willie Jackson was even more vociferous. Labour’s feminists recalled the broadcaster’s role in the “Roastbusters” media controversy of 2013 and spoke out angrily against Little’s decision to more-or-less guarantee Jackson a winnable position on Labour’s Party List.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, Little’s and McCarten’s foresight is remarkable.

By positioning O’Connor in Ohariu, Labour confronted Dunne with a candidate uniquely qualified to attract the support of that electorate’s socially-conservative voters. With just the slightest swing to Labour, Dunne’s position would become untenable. Jacinda Ardern’s elevation to the Labour leadership, by delivering the required surge in Labour’s support, duly spooked Dunne into announcing his retirement from parliamentary politics.

National’s potential coalition partners were reduced by one.

Willie Jackson’s role in eliminating the next partner – the Maori Party – was pivotal. As the man appointed to run Labour’s campaign in the Maori seats, he took the leaden offer from all seven candidates to foreswear any ranking on the Party List and turned it into gold. The battle for the Maori electorate was reduced to an all-or-nothing fight to the finish between Labour the Maori Party.

How those seats were won for Labour is of crucial importance to the way Ms Ardern and her colleagues govern New Zealand.

In essence, Willie Jackson and his team ran an unabashedly class-based campaign in the Maori seats. In terms of tone and imagery, their propaganda celebrated and spoke directly to the lives and aspirations of working-class Maori families. In startling contrast to Labour’s appeal to the general electorate, the party’s message to the Maori electorate was all about working-class jobs, working-class aspirations and working-class pride.

Bearing comparison with the rhetoric of its storied past, Labour’s message to Maori voters was clear. The Maori Party has sold you out to the corporate warriors of the Iwi Leadership Group. While your whanau has been living in cars, theirs has been living high-on-the-hog at the Northern Club. While your rangatahi have struggled to find decent jobs, the children of the Maori Party’s principal benefactors (and beneficiaries!) have moved effortlessly from university to high-paying jobs in the private and public sectors. If you believe, as Labour does, that it’s time for decent, working-class Maori families to have a fair go, then you know who to vote for.

They sure did! And with those Labour votes went all hope of National securing a majority without NZ First. Little and McCarten had blown all the bridges that could possible carry the National Government to a fourth term with its preferred allies. Only Act survived Little’s and McCarten’s strategy – and Act, on its own, wasn’t enough.

Keeping those Maori votes in Labour’s column is now critical to Labour’s re-election prospects. Five days at Waitangi are, therefore, only the beginning of what’s likely to become a sort of royal progress around the marae of Aotearoa.

Ms Adern’s undoubted warmth and empathy will not, however, be enough to deliver the promised lift in Maori working-class conditions. That will require economic and social interventions as reflective of Labour’s traditions as the campaign which destroyed the Maori Party and reclaimed all seven Maori seats.

Ms Ardern’s challenge, now, is how to govern for both the Pakeha middle-class and the Maori working-class.

Serving two masters is never easy.


This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 February 2018.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Can Sovereignty Be Shared?

Warm Words: Jacinda’s intentions and those of her Maori caucus colleagues are unquestionably benign. But in political circumstances as fraught as those presently confronting her government, good intentions are seldom enough. If, as the revisionist historians insist, Maori sovereignty was never ceded to the Crown, then the descendants of the Waitangi signatories’ determination to reclaim it; to exercise it; is entirely reasonable.

SPEAKING FROM THE PORCH of the whare runanga, overlooking the Waitangi Treaty Ground, Jacinda Ardern challenged Maori to challenge her. “[W]hen we return in one year, in three years, I ask you to ask of us ‘what have we done?’ Ask us what we have done to improve poverty ... ask us, hold us to account.”

Jacinda asked Maoridom to score her government on how well – or how badly – it has addressed the big issues confronting Maori. She spoke encouragingly about New Zealanders coming to terms with their country’s history and the Waitangi Treaty’s pivotal role in shaping that history.

What she was careful not to do, however, was openly concede – as the Green Party leader, James Shaw did – that Maori had never ceded sovereignty to the British Crown. As Prime Minister, such a concession would immediately pitch New Zealand into a protracted and extremely bitter constitutional crisis.

The authority of the Crown in the Realm of New Zealand is absolute and indivisible. To preserve that authority, the settler government of Sir George Grey invaded the Waikato in 1863. Through the bitterest strife, the kingitanga movement came to understand that Her Majesty’s Government would never accept the idea of a sovereignty shared between Pakeha colonists and tangata whenua. The only sort of Maori king acceptable to the British Crown was the sort that wielded no power.

The notion that sovereignty was never ceded to the Crown by Maori arises out of the radical and highly tendentious historiography of the Waitangi Tribunal. For this particular historical interpretation of what transpired at Waitangi on 6 February 1840 to stand, however, it is necessary to ignore all the subsequent actions of the Crown between that date and the early 1980s.

The construction and elaboration of the New Zealand State; the creation and interpretation of its laws; the legal status and inviolability of its citizens’ private property: all would be called into question if the idea that Maori sovereignty was never actually ceded to the Crown in 1840 was ever to be formally accepted by a New Zealand prime minister and her government.

Warm and inclusive though Jacinda’s speech from the whare runanga may have been, it was nevertheless the speech of a political leader in control of an absolute and indivisible state apparatus.

Was she promising to turn that apparatus to the urgent task of uplifting Maori New Zealanders out of poverty, homelessness and the bitter legacy of 178 years of colonial oppression? Yes, she was.

Was she proposing to unleash a constitutional revolution inspired by revisionist historians’ interpretation of the Waitangi Treaty? No, she was not.

Jacinda’s speech to the Iwi Leaders Forum at the beginning of her five-day sojourn in the Far North made clear her government’s intentions. In short, these were all about dealing with Maori material deprivation. Iwi leaders intent on pushing forward “cultural” issues – by which they mean constitutional issues – will very soon find they are pushing in vain.

Do the 13 Maori members in Labour’s caucus get this? Are they okay with this?

In all probability they are working very hard not to apprehend the dangerously contradictory currents into which Labour’s waka is drifting. All of them are eager to begin the process of uplifting their people. How many of them have thought through the medium-term consequences of this policy of empowerment is another matter altogether. What they will do when material uplift morphs into uncompromising cultural assertion is anybody’s guess.

The whole of Labour’s team is desperate to draw a line under the malign political effects of Helen Clark’s and Margaret Wilson’s Foreshore & Seabed Act. The demise of the Maori Party as a parliamentary force has raised hopes that this has, indeed, occurred. But it will take more than Jacinda’s warm words to cause the structures of sovereignty and executive power by which all New Zealand prime ministers are constrained to disappear in a puff of stardust.

Clark and Wilson did not overturn the Court of Appeal’s judgement out of racially-motivated spite. They overturned it because to do otherwise would have been to catch the judgement’s loosened legal thread in their fingertips, pull on it, and watch the entire constitutional garment of New Zealand unravel before their eyes.

Jacinda’s intentions and those of her Maori caucus colleagues are unquestionably benign. But in political circumstances as fraught as these, good intentions are seldom enough. If, as the revisionist historians insist, Maori sovereignty was never ceded to the Crown, then the descendants of the Waitangi signatories’ determination to reclaim it; to exercise it; is entirely reasonable.

The question which such a response immediately poses, however, is as difficult as it is portentous: Can two peoples exercise equal sovereignty in an undivided state?


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 6 February 2018.