Friday, 25 December 2015

Merry Christmas To All Bowalley Road Readers

"Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us." - Matthew 1:23
This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

The Carpenter And The Merchant - A Tale For Christmas 2015.

“A trader? No. Carpentry was my trade – although, some said I did better as a fisherman. As to what brings me south: that is easy. I came looking for a merchant: a merchant with a message. I have a great interest in messages.”
THEY ARRIVED amidst the snorting of camels and the loud shouting of orders. The Carpenter watched the caravan unload. The sun-shimmer on the dust-clouds kicked up by the dark-robed men made him squint. Where was he – this merchant, this messenger, about whom the Carpenter had heard so much? He took another sip of the strong red Arabian wine in his cup, and waited.
The Merchant took in the dimensions of the inn and calculated roughly how much of his animals’ burdens he was likely to leave behind. But, first things first. He needed to wash the desert from his face and feet and hands. The prospect of a cool jug of water was almost as refreshing as the water itself. Yes, he would introduce himself to the inn-keeper, perform his ablutions, and then join that fellow he’d spotted as he crossed the threshold – the one sipping wine in the shade. The one whose glance had stopped him in his tracks.
“Peace be with you, my friend”, said the Merchant, placing his hand lightly upon his chest by way of greeting.
“And with you also”, replied the Carpenter, gesturing towards the stool opposite. “You have travelled far and your beasts are heavy laden, it is good to give them rest and take shelter from the relentless sun.”
“True words, my friend,” the Merchant replied, “even if they are garnished with the accents of the distant north. You are a Galilean?”
The Carpenter smiled and nodded slowly. “Yes. A long time ago. I was a Galilean.”
“What brings you so far south? Are you a trader?”
“A trader? No. Carpentry was my trade – although, some said I did better as a fisherman. As to what brings me south: that is easy. I came looking for a merchant: a merchant with a message. I have a great interest in messages.”
Though the sun was at its zenith, and the landscape all around buckled and wavered in its heat, the Merchant felt a chill run through him – as though a sword, sheathed in ice, had suddenly been driven into his heart.
“Who are you, Carpenter?” The Merchant’s voice withered to a whisper. “There is something in your eyes that I have seen before. Are you one of His messengers?”
The Carpenter laughed, broke an unleavened loaf and refilled his cup. “Won’t you join me? Whoever makes this wine surely knows his business!”
“Thank you, no”, said the Merchant, struggling to regain his composure, “I do not drink wine.”
“No? A pity. But then I hear your message is an austere one. Can you reduce it to a single word?”
“Indeed, I can, Carpenter, and that word would be “Submit!”.
“Submit? Submission? Surrender? This is your message? This is what you believe the One True God demands of his children?”
“No, of course not. The One True God is all Love and Mercy. Submission is what I, the One True God’s chosen messenger, demand of men. The human race is not fit to choose, it is too proud, too lustful and too greedy to be left to make its own way to the One True God. If men are not shown a clear path, then they will stray. If I ask them to obey, it is only fair that I leave them the clearest set of instructions.”
“Instructions?” The Carpenter took a thoughtful sip of wine and smiled, as if remembering an old joke. “Yes, I tried that once, standing on a hill in Galilee. They were simple instructions – or so I thought at the time. They didn’t take.”
“But, that’s just it! What use is there in a rule that is not enforced? If men prove unwilling to follow the path, then we must shepherd them with the sword!”
“The sword you say? I had a friend who tried to defend the work of the One True God with a sword. I will say to you, Merchant, what I said to him: ‘Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword’.
Wonder and terror vied for control of the Merchant’s features. With a wild cry, he fell to his knees.
When he looked up the Carpenter was gone. On the table, scrawled in wine as red as blood, the Merchant found a single word.
This short story was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Thursday, 24 December 2015.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Politician of the Year 2015

Thoughtful Workhorse: For doing most of this government's heavy lifting and for thinking about the half of the electorate who doesn’t vote for the National Party, my Politician of the Year for 2015 is – Bill English.
CHRISTMAS LOOMS, and political columnists – like everyone else – are looking forward to enjoying another festive season in the sun. Before we head off to the beaches and the barbecues, however, one last chore remains. As the Old Year hobbles towards the wings of the political stage, our own grandiloquently judgemental subset of the journalistic profession feels obliged to nominate a Politician of the Year.
It’s tempting to award the prize – again – to John Key. Because, pony-tails and off-colour stunts aside, our Prime Minister remains a phenomenon. Eight years into his prime-ministership, Key’s extraordinary popularity with the voters remains undiminished. This, alone, would be sufficient to conjure-up words like unusual, uncanny and unprecedented. But, when you add to the PM’s bullet-proof popularity, the enduring popularity of his government, then words begin to fail even those of us who use them for a living.
Quite simply, this National Party-led Government has no peer in post-war history. Not even the long, languid summer of the Holyoake Years (1960-1972) can offer New Zealanders a valid comparison. In those First-Past-The-Post days there was a fair bit of give in our electoral system. In 1966, for example, National’s vote dropped 3.5 percentage points to an historically low 43.6 percent, and yet “Kiwi Keith” retained power with a majority of 8 seats.
A decline of that magnitude under MMP would, almost certainly, be fatal. And yet, in spite of the Opposition parties’ fondest hopes, ‘decline’ is not something that John Key’s numbers have, so far, been willing to do.
He won office in 2008 with a very creditable 45 percent of the Party Vote (the highest ever secured under MMP up until that time). In 2011, when all the pundits were expecting a falling away of popular support, National’s Party Vote improbably rose to 47 percent.
Now, 47 percent would have been highly respectable result even under FPP. In the context of New Zealand’s proportional electoral system, however, it was utterly astounding. So when, on Election Night 2014, it looked as though National may have lifted its Party Vote, again – this time to 48 percent! – people began muttering about political witchcraft.
But it is not the Devil that John Key has made a pact with, it is that part of the New Zealand electorate that enjoys secure and relatively well-remunerated employment; a stable family environment (including a home whose value continues to scale new heights of implausibility) and which, if pressed, will admit to living a life of considerable material comfort.
“Winners” is such an ugly word, but that is how these folk would, by and large, define themselves. And while they’d be reluctant to admit that their success is attributable to anything but their own hard work and talent, they’re more than willing to acknowledge that John Key and National have done nothing to hinder their advancement.
To celebrate the absence of a negative is hardly the most positive of political expressions. But, for as long as it delivers National around 50 percent of the Party Vote – they’ll take it.
What makes me reluctant to award the accolade of Politician of the Year to John Key, however, is his apparent lack of interest in the lives of the 50 percent of New Zealanders who don’t vote for the National Party, and for whom John Key is not the Preferred Prime Minister. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that true political greatness is to be measured by what a politician (and government) does: not only for the lucky and the strong, but also for the weak and unfortunate.
Now, at this point you may be thinking that I’m about to bestow the accolade upon someone from the Opposition’s ranks. You would, however, be wrong. Because 2015 has not been a year in which anyone from the Opposition parties has offered the weak and the unfortunate very much at all – not even that most subversive of emotions: Hope.
No, the politician I have in mind is the one who labours away in the engine-room of Key’s Government. The one who keeps the wheels of the economy turning, and international investors smiling.
Solid achievements, both, but I am more disposed towards him because, unlike his boss, he has been giving long and arduous thought to the plight of the weak and unfortunate among us. More than this, he has been thinking about them in a new and intellectually challenging fashion.
His approach has been called actuarial, because his calculations are all about the risk and the cost – both individually and collectively – of not making the weak stronger and their misfortunes less determinative; of not organising the right sort of state intervention at the right time.
For thinking about the half of the electorate who doesn’t vote for his party, my Politician of the Year for 2015 is – Bill English.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 December 2015.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Changing Sides.

Nixon's Southern Strategy: Persuading White, former Democratic Party voters to change sides and vote Republican in 1972 proved a relatively easy sell for President Richard Nixon in Southern US states forced to grant Black Americans their civil rights in the 1960s. In the mid-1970s, New Zealand's Rob Muldoon made an equally successful pitch for Labour voters alienated by what they saw as their party's capitulation to social liberalism. Wooing, winning and keeping this chunk of the electorate has also played a critical part in John Key's long-term political success.
IT WAS FORTY YEARS AGO on Saturday, 12 December, that Robert Muldoon was sworn in as New Zealand’s thirty-first prime minister. His extraordinary success in the 1975 General Election – where he turned a 23-seat deficit into a 23-seat majority for the National Party – signalled the arrival of something new and highly disruptive in New Zealand politics. Since 1975, cultivating the support of a particular (but not especially progressive) type of Labour voter has proved crucial to the electoral success of both major parties.
Like so many of the other influences that have shaped New Zealand society over the past 40 years, Muldoon’s political strategy and tactics were borrowed from the United States.
The US Democratic Party’s support for black civil rights in the 1960s dislodged millions of hitherto rock-solid white voters in the southern states of the USA. The Republican Party (the party of Abraham Lincoln!) lost little time refashioning itself as the new political home for Dixie’s aggrieved white supremacists. By 1972, these blue-collared “good ole boys” had been drawn alongside the Republican Party’s traditional conservative base in what President Richard Nixon called “the great silent majority” – which noisily swept him back into the White House on a landslide.
The not unnatural assumption of the right-wing political strategists who had engineered this stunning desertion of formerly “left-wing” voters to the conservative cause, was that, on economic matters, conservative leaders would need to tread very carefully.
Nowhere was this determination to preserve the economic under-pinnings of the welfare state more in evidence than under the National Government of Rob Muldoon. If Labour’s social liberalism – as evidenced by its deeply unpopular cancellation of the 1973 Springbok Tour – had caused an electorally crucial number of socially conservative blue-collar workers to throw in their lot with “Rob’s Mob”, then, surely, it would be the purest folly to give in to the “New Right’s” demands to curb the unions, free-up the markets and dismantle the welfare state?
But Muldoon’s combination of highly divisive social conservatism and aggressive state interventionism (Springbok Tours and Wage & Price Controls!) was much too volatile a political mixture to be more than a stop-gap solution to the deep structural problems confronting post-war capitalism.
The New Right’s strategists were, accordingly, willing to gamble that a full-scale assault on the key elements of the social-democratic post-war economy (unions, nationalised industries and welfare) would so shatter the political coherence of the Left that the victims of their assault – especially poorly-educated white males – would remain susceptible to an aggressively pitched, socially conservative, agenda.
This was certainly the political wager of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, whose domestic assaults on the post-war social-democratic consensus, coupled with a ruinously expensive upping of the Cold War ante, broke the Left comprehensively, both at home and in its nominal heartland – the Soviet Empire. They were blows from which the Left has yet to recover. The destruction was made even more complete in New Zealand by the Right’s successful subversion of the parliamentary wing of the NZ Labour Party.
The introduction of Neoliberalism to New Zealand by Labour, while enormously dislocating in economic and social terms, did mean that it was social-liberalism, rather than social-conservatism, that set the political tone throughout the 1990s and into the Twenty-First Century. This is especially true of Maori-Pakeha relations and immigration policies across that period. In both contexts, liberal policy settings have facilitated a number of profound societal shifts and apparently irrevocable changes.
Certainly, when Dr Don Brash attempted to harness a mass political following to an indisputably radical revision of race relations in New Zealand, he was unable to duplicate the success of Rob Muldoon in 1975. His in/famous “Orewa Speech” on nationhood was, however, to prove astonishingly successful in uniting virtually the entire right-wing vote behind the National Party. To the point where only a very small shift in the allegiances of Labour voters would be sufficient to usher a National-led Government into office.
In the eighth year of John Key’s National-led Government, his success in wooing back those National Party voters who had defected to Labour under the “competent” governance of Helen Clark, as well as holding on to those Labour defectors, for whom Clark’s progressive policy agenda – especially during her third term – had become insupportable, is without historical precedent.
Key may not remember which side he was on during the Springbok Tour, but he knows better than to engage in such divisive political behaviour. Nor is his political survival predicated (as Muldoon’s was) on making such ideologically aggressive gestures. Labour’s defectors are nothing like the angry white males to whom Donald Trump is currently appealing in the United States. Key’s winning strategy has been to convince the a-little-bit racist, a-little-bit sexist, a-little-bit homophobic “Waitakere Man” that, on his watch, nothing will be done to make him change sides.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 December 2015.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

When Sinatra Was A Red!

“FOR THE FIRST YEARS of his solo career, the early 1940s, Sinatra hadn’t recorded any material. There had been a strike called by the Musicians Union fighting for residual payments for recordings played on the radio. The strike lasted two years. Sinatra said, ‘I didn’t want to cross the lines.’ 
“The strike settled, he now recorded Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week, I’ll be Seeing You, When Your Lover Has Gone, These Foolish Things…
“The jazz magazine Downbeat wrote, ‘He said for the boys what they wanted to say. He said for the girls what they wanted to hear.’
“It was in the midst of this success that Sinatra decided openly to back Roosevelt and the Democrats in the 1944 Presidential election and to throw himself into the struggle against racism.
“Sinatra joined the Political Action Committee set up by the left-wing union federation, the Congress of Industrial Organisations, the CIO. The CIO was in a way the successor to the old Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, who so influenced the revolutionary Red Federation of NZ in the early years of the 20th century.
“He gave money to the Roosevelt campaign, spoke at huge open-air rallies and broadcast pro-Roosevelt messages on the radio.
“The night Roosevelt won a fourth-term presidency, Sinatra and Orson Welles toured the bars of Manhattan and ended up celebrating at the headquarters of the clothing workers’ union, which shared the same building as the Communist Party…”
Today Sinatra is remembered as an entertainer who sided with Republican politicians like Nixon and Reagan, hung out with mobsters and swaggered about Las Vegas with his cronies singing, “I did it my way…”
But there was another side to Sinatra, an early radical Frank.  At the height of his popularity, in the 1940s, he was branded a Red, a commo—ol’ pinko eyes.
He was one of the first major stars of the era to stand shoulder to shoulder with the poor and the oppressed. Asked by a reporter in 1946 what he considered the biggest problem America faced in its post-war world he replied, “Poverty… Every kid in the world should have his quart of milk a day.” The great bandleader Duke Ellington remembered Sinatra in the 1940s as being the leader of the campaign against race hatred.
All of this, and all Sinatra’s great songs, will be remembered at Bloomsday Productions’ December show at the Thirsty Dog on Karangahape Road, Saturday night, December 12—the very day Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, one hundred years ago in 1915.
A century later to the day, Linn Lorkin, Justin Horn, Hershal Herscher, Dave Powell and Stuart Grimshaw—the Auckland Frank Sinatra Big Band—will be celebrating Sinatra: “You Make Me Feel So Young”… “Old Devil Moon” … “One For My Baby, And One More For The Road” … and the Popular Front, the United Auto Workers’ sit-down strike in Michigan, the Westfield Freezing Workers’ stay-in strike in south Auckland…
Frank Sinatra, born Dec. 12, 1915, nine-time Grammy winner, died in 1998 at the age of 82.
Remembered by Linn Lorkin & Friends
Thirsty Dog, K Rd, Auckland. 
TONIGHT, December 12th 2015, 8pm.
This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Friday, 11 December 2015

The Secret Agreement.

The Crusher Returns: Judith Collins, a shrewd Auckland lawyer, is well aware of the widely-held belief that politics has become an almost entirely disreputable profession. She knows that those who enter it are greeted with a knowing cynicism – as if both the voter and the politician have entered into a secret agreement that nothing good will ever come from the latter’s intentions and achievements.
JUDITH COLLINS is to be congratulated. There are very few western nations in which a parliamentarian hauling as much baggage as Ms Collins would be given a second chance. When did ours become the country that awards the average politician more lives than the average cat?
Is no one surprised that Ms Collin’s rehabilitation is so unsurprising. Is no one asking: why wasn’t her treatment of Justice Binnie; her decision to allow Serco into the New Zealand prison system; her fraught dealings with the Orivida company; and her friendship with the highly controversial blogger, Cameron Slater, enough – more than enough! – to rule out a return to the Cabinet Table?
The answer lies with, and in, us – the New Zealand electorate. Our steady disengagement from the political process (in which we were once amongst the world’s most enthusiastic participants) has been accompanied, and justified, by the widely-held belief that politics has become an almost entirely disreputable profession. Those who enter it are greeted with a knowing cynicism – as if both the voter and the politician have entered into a secret agreement that nothing good will ever come from the latter’s intentions and achievements.
In practical terms, this means that it is the honest and principled politicians who attract the most scathing condemnation. Such people have clearly failed to understand their job description, which demands only a show of decency – and not even that if the politician’s indecent objectives can be achieved swiftly, decisively – and with ostentatious brutality.
As Freddy Gray wrote recently in the British magazine, The Spectator: “What strange people we Brits are. We spend years moaning that our politicians are cynical opportunists who don’t stand for anything. Then along comes an opposition leader who has principles — and appears to stick by them even when it makes him unpopular — and he is dismissed as a joke.”
Not that the Brits have “strange” all to themselves. When David Cunliffe, having heard the statistics on domestic violence and met with some of its victims at the Women’s Refuge charity’s annual conference, told his audience that it made him “feel sorry for being a man” – a not unreasonable admission in the circumstances – he was universally pilloried. The New Zealand electorate doesn’t appreciate that sort of raw and unmediated political honesty.
Ms Collins, a shrewd Auckland lawyer, would never make such a fundamental error. She knows what New Zealanders expect of their politicians – and she gives it to them good and strong.
Critics accuse her of arrogance, but a heapin-helpin of self-importance has been de rigueur for National Party politicians ever since the days of “Piggy” Muldoon.
Others accuse Ms Collins of being unable to differentiate private from public responsibilities. But those who believe that all politicians are venal and self-serving remain completely unfazed by such charges.
The same applies to the Serco contract. Sure, the company has a less than stellar international reputation. Yes, it is determined to make incarceration profitable. But – so what? That’s what Capitalism does, and it’s unreasonable to ask capitalist politicians to do otherwise.
But, surely, it is the duty of the Prime Minister to uphold the highest standards of behaviour in public office? Regardless of the low esteem in which many citizens hold their political representatives, shouldn’t the Prime Minister do everything within his power to elevate the public expectations of his government?
John Key knows better than to attempt such a risky project. Improving the average citizen’s opinion of politics and politicians must, of necessity, involve reversing that secret agreement between the leaders and the led. Instead of endorsing the public’s withering contempt for the political process, Mr Key would be forced to contradict it. Instead of validating the unspoken assumption that the system is rotten and immutable, he would have to redefine politics as the best way of improving the lives of ordinary people.
In conveying these messages to the electorate, the Prime Minister would, of course, also be asking them to assume responsibility for holding him and his ministers to account. He would be inviting them to apply a consistent moral code to the conduct of all politicians, and imposing the duty of taking action to reprimand and/or punish all those who break that code. In short, he’d be demanding they behave like virtuous citizens.
“Crusher” Collins would roll him before you could say “Democracy”.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 December 2015.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Our Own Worst Enemies.

Topping Out: The Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change is unlikely to produce any sort of useful agreement in Paris. Only the world’s scientists understand the width of the gulf between the extinction level event seriousness of anthropogenic global warming, and those whose will and resources are required to, at best, soften its impact.
PARIS IS ALREADY A FAILURE. The world has already exceeded the target it’s leaders have gathered to enforce. Scientists estimate that the amount of man-made heat already absorbed by the world’s oceans has locked-in a global temperature rise of 3.5°C. That’s already 1.5°C higher than the Paris target of 2.0°C.
Bad enough news, you might think, but it gets worse. All around the Arctic Circle, but especially in the uppermost reaches of the Russian Federation, rising temperatures are giving rise to massive burps of methane. The recorded incidence of these emissions has soared over the last five years. This is seriously alarming information, because methane is a much more dangerous “greenhouse gas” than carbon-dioxide.
But, newswise, it gets worse still. The rising emissions of methane from the rapidly warming Arctic Ocean are but the feeble harbingers of the vast amounts of methane currently trapped in the planet’s permafrost. Gigatons of the gas will be released into the atmosphere as Earth’s hitherto frozen soil gives up its riches. (Strictly speaking, I should be using the present tense here because, even as you read these words, the permafrost is steaming.) The world faces “runaway” global warming of 5°C and upwards by the end of this century.
Fire In The Hole! Gigatons of methane will be released into the atmosphere as the world's permafrost begins to thaw.
A temperature rise of that rapidity and magnitude is not survivable – not by a human population numbering in excess of 7 billion. Runaway global warming will cause the Greenland and Antarctica ice-sheets to melt. When that happens the seas and oceans will rise by metres, not centimetres, profoundly reshaping the world’s landmasses. Civilisation, as we know it, will end.
Yes, whole cities will be drowned, but that’s not the half of it. The real worry are the inevitable and profound changes in the world’s climate that runaway global warming is bound to trigger. Regions which now produce a large percentage of the planet’s food surpluses will become arid and infertile. The glacial sources of many of the world’s great rivers will disappear. Very quickly water will become more valuable than oil, and men will kill each other with ever increasing ferocity to control it. Famine, Pestilence and War will raise their reeking banners above a sweltering earth. Billions will perish.
Could we have prevented this? Was the current unfolding climate catastrophe ever avoidable?
Probably not. The human animal is not very good at dealing with slow-moving threats. The slightest tremor in the leaves, the faintest rustle of crushed leaf-litter, and your average homo-sapiens is instantly alert, chipped flint spearhead, or rifle, in hand. Humankind’s evolutionary programming has equipped it superbly to handle immediate and short-term threats to its survival. Long-term threats, however, are much harder to resist, not least because the measures required to meet these less-than-imminent dangers will, themselves, be perceived as immediate and/or short-term threats!
As a species, we have evolved the intelligence to perceive long-term threats, but not the wisdom to come together and do what is necessary to eliminate them.
Faced with the imminent danger of being overwhelmed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the United States of America was prepared to direct (or take over) private enterprises, impose strict controls on the operation of the market, raise billions through higher taxes and the sale of war bonds, and require its citizens to restrict dramatically their consumption of fossil fuels. To free up resources for the war effort, neighbourhood “war gardens” were promoted and radical recycling measures made mandatory.
If, from the moment the world’s scientists agreed that it was real, the US Government had treated the threat of man-made global warming as the “moral equivalent of war”, the planet might have been spared.
Better still, if the nations of the world had truly united in the aftermath of World War II; if, instead of waging a Cold War against one another, the USA and the USSR had jointly waged a war against want, ignorance and disease; then maybe the peoples of the planet would have developed the wisdom necessary to avoid the catastrophe being cooked-up by their industrial civilisation’s relentless pursuit of economic growth and material consumption. If, in exploring the solar system, the world’s peoples had grown accustomed to thinking of their planet as a unique and fragile ark, carrying through the void of space everything they hold dear, then perhaps, just perhaps, humanity could have rung the changes necessary for its own survival.
Alas, it was not to be. The Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change is unlikely to produce any sort of useful agreement in Paris. Only the world’s scientists understand the width of the gulf between the extinction level event seriousness of anthropogenic global warming, and those whose will and resources are required to, at best, soften its impact.
That tremor in the leaves; rustling in the leaf-litter: it is ourselves.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 December 2015.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

"A Benn - Not A Bennite" - Finally, The Blairites Have Someone To Replace Jeremy Corbyn.

Cometh The Hour ... Hilary Benn's speech in favour of bombing the Islamic State brought the House of Commons to its feet. Finally, the Blairites have someone to replace Jeremy Corbyn.
IT HAS BEEN HAILED as one of the best speeches delivered to the House of Commons in 50 years. Having urged his fellow MPs to support the Prime Minister’s motion in favour of bombing Syria, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, resumed his seat to resounding cheers from both sides of the aisle. The Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, his face a picture of both puzzlement and exasperation, did not join in the applause. No one from the Labour Party, himself included, had managed to deliver so passionate a speech on behalf of peace.
The emotion missing from Corbyn’s countenance was fear. It speaks well of the man that Benn’s noisy standing ovation did not frighten him. Someone more steeped in the realities of politics would have heard, behind the cheering of the Commons, the dull rattle of the tumbril. He should have known that his opponents weren’t just applauding the impassioned speech of a bellicose social imperialist, they were applauding the fact that, at last, they had found the person to replace the despised Member for Islington North.
It’s been the biggest problem of the Blairites all along that among their ranks there was no one who could hold a candle to Corbyn. When set against the sincerity and plain-spokenness of the front-runner, the bland contributions of the other three leadership contenders came across as utterly unconvincing. Liz Kendall, the candidate most closely associated with the Blairite rump, attracted just 5 percent support from the party membership. What’s more, in the aftermath of the membership’s resounding endorsement of Corbyn, the Labour Right’s petulant refusal to accept that Blairism had been rejected only added to the new leader’s lustre.
Yes, Labour’s parliamentarians had the advantage of a sympathetic press. United in their disdain for Corbyn the journalists and columnists of the allegedly “left-wing” newspapers – The Guardian, The Observer, and The New Statesman – never missed a chance to tell their readers that Labour could not hope to win with Corbyn at the helm. But, increasingly, the left-wing media’s hostility was being written off by the Labour rank-and-file as yet further proof that the whole “mainstream” political establishment was rotten to the core.
What they needed was a challenger untainted by all the petulance and back-stabbing; someone who cleaved to his or her principles with the same sincerity and passion as Corbyn himself. Someone who had served time in the trade union movement. Someone unafraid to summon-up the ghosts of the men and women of the International Brigade who died fighting Franco’s fascists in Spain. Someone who was a teetotaller and a vegetarian. Someone who never fiddled his parliamentary expenses claims,. Someone whose father was, for more than 50 years, one of the towering figures of the Labour Left. Someone, in short, called Hilary Benn.
That Benn the Younger had made a point of telling his constituents that he was “a Benn – not a Bennite”, and had been an enthusiastic supporter of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” from Day One, serving in the Cabinets of both Blair and Gordon Brown, well, that only made it all the more delicious.
Not that the Blairites will be celebrating too loudly. The more intelligent among them understand that Corbyn has shoved “Overton’s Window” decisively to the left. Indeed, when History assesses the (now almost certainly brief) leadership of Corbyn, breaking the neoliberal stranglehold on the British Labour Party will be cited as his greatest achievement. If Benn wants to be Prime Minister he will have to run on a clear anti-austerity platform and to offer the voters policies that are recognisably social-democratic in tone, content and purpose.
But if Paris, as Henry of Navarre is said to have quipped “is worth a mass”, Number 10 Downing Street is worth the renationalisation of British railways and a sharply more progressive tax system. Hilary Benn has only to signal to Labour’s rank-and-file that Corbyn’s vision (minus the pacifism and all that baggage from the 1980s) is safe in his hands, and the incumbent’s already difficult position will become impossible.
As the Andrew Finney character (played by Ian McShane) says in the TV series Ray Donovan: “If you see a man getting ready to take on the world – bet on the world.” After weeks of relentless media and political assault (not least from his own side) even Corbyn’s staunchest supporters know, deep in their hearts, that the British Establishment is never going to allow their hero to become Prime Minister. One way or the other, Corbyn is going to be driven from the Labour Leadership.
But the United Kingdom is an old and devious state, and both its public and not-so-public protectors know that if they are seen to have taken out one Labour Leader, then it is not in their interest to be seen putting too many restrictions on his replacement. In return for Trident, the “Special Relationship” with the USA, and a light hand when it comes to reforming the financial system (i.e. The City of London), the Left will be given their moment in the sun. The protectors of Britain’s Deep State understand that the Westminster System requires two parties of more-or-less equal strength if it’s to go on working. Allow that myth to fail, and who knows what the long-suffering British people might replace it with?
The King is dead (or soon will be). Long live the King!
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Saturday, 5 December 2015.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Stacking The Deck.

A Royal Flush: If only Andrew Little had these sort of cards to play with! Unfortunately, no matter how often he shuffles and cuts, cuts and shuffles, he's never going to deal himself a winning hand. Campaigning with the Greens, however, might just deliver the face cards Labour is lacking.
IT’S LIKE RESHUFFLING a deck of cards with all the face cards missing. No matter how often Andrew Little shuffles and cuts, cuts and shuffles, he’s never going to deal himself a winning hand. Labour’s failure to develop a simple and democratic method of selecting electorate candidates and drawing up its Party List has, finally, rendered it all but unelectable.
To become a Labour MP in 2015 one must first negotiate a multitude of competing interest groups: Women, Maori, Unions, Youth, the Rainbow Council. This is every bit as difficult as it sounds, with numerous compromises and trade-offs to be made all along the way.
Getting through this labyrinth leaves Labour’s candidates with an extremely detailed picture of the Left’s ideological landscape, but only the sketchiest notion of the world in which 95 percent of New Zealanders go about their daily lives.
It’s a process that also puts a lot of potentially excellent Labour candidates off. Someone confident in their understanding of industry, agriculture, science, or (God forbid!) running a business, rightly feels affronted at the prospect of being figuratively pinched, poked and prodded by people whose experience of the world is often extremely limited and narrow.
Not surprisingly, narrow and limited candidates have a head start!
Matters are not helped, of course, when these narrow and limited individuals – now MPs – turn against an obviously talented and successful colleague and conspire to bring him down. Andrew Little’s demotion of David Cunliffe – one of Labour’s most experienced politicians – represents the unwarranted triumph of spiteful Fives and Sixes over a much-maligned King of Hearts.
Nor is it helpful when these number cards are given royal faces. Her regular appearances in the women’s magazines notwithstanding, Jacinda Ardern has yet to impress as New Zealand’s Queen of Hearts. And no matter how rapidly he is pushed up Labour’s pecking order, Kelvin Davis will struggle to be recognised as the King of Clubs. Some chiefs may have started out as warriors, but not all warriors become chiefs.
What, then, should Labour do? If it cannot choose candidates with the same appeal to the voters as National’s selections. If it cannot break its habit of penalising talent and promoting mediocrity. And, if it cannot even persuade colleagues who have sat in Parliament for three decades that it might be time to move aside for someone younger. How can it expect to win?
Helen Clark undoubtedly asked herself the same question in 1996. Having just led her party to its worst result since 1928 (28.19 percent) she needed some means of lifting Labour’s numbers by at least ten percentage points to have any chance of winning the 1999 General Election.
Three-quarters of these she secured almost immediately when Winston Peters, against public expectations, opted to form a coalition with Jim Bolger’s National Party. The remaining quarter came from Jim Anderton’s Alliance, which, in one of the most generous gestures in New Zealand political history, invited Clark to its annual conference and there agreed to give voters the chance of ending the bitter civil war on the left of New Zealand politics by electing a Labour-Alliance coalition government.
With Colin James’s “Poll of Polls” currently putting the Labour Party just under 31 percent, Andrew Little faces an electoral conundrum no less taxing than Helen Clark’s. Somehow, he has to find an additional ten percentage points to become a credible contender for power.
The record shows that the Alliance’s embrace of its bitter rival cost it nearly a quarter of its 1996 vote. From 10.10 percent, the Alliance’s vote fell to just 7.74 percent. This two point drop, when combined with the decline in the NZ First and National totals, was more than enough to supply Labour with the ten-point boost it needed.
Will Andrew Little turn 2017 into a re-run of 1999? Will he use the occasion of Labour’s 2016 centenary conference to invite James Shaw and Metiria Turei to join him on the stage for a symbolic group hug? Will the three of them then invite the New Zealand voter to bring centre-left politics into the Twenty-First Century by electing a Labour-Green Coalition Government? The “optics” – as the spin-doctors say – would be compelling.
And useful. Lacking Face Cards of his own, Andrew Little could end up winning the 2017 election with a Royal Flush of Greens.
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, 4 December 2015.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

How Economists Are Failing Society: Professor Robert Wade At The Ika Seafood Bar & Grill.

Heterodox And Proud Of It: Professor Robert Wade is an economist who refuses to toe the accepted line. Someone with the courage to point out that the neoliberal economic emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.
LAILA HARRE saved the very best for last. The “Salon” lunch with economist, Professor Robert Wade, provided one of those clarifying political moments when, at last, the veil falls away and you are shown the real state of affairs in all its terrifying clarity.
Wade is what his orthodox colleagues at the London School of Economics would loftily dismiss as a “heterodox” economist. Someone who refuses to toe the accepted line. Someone with the courage to point out that the economic emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.
More than this, however, Wade exposes orthodox neoliberal economics as a failure. Presenting itself as a scientific discipline, fully capable of pronouncing definitively on the true nature of reality – the profession was, nevertheless, unable to produce a single accurate prediction of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).
There was a very good reason for this. As Wade explained to his mostly academic audience, the Dynamic, Stochastic, General Equilibrium (DSGE) model used by orthodox economists all over the world – including the OECD, the IMF, the World Bank and the Bank of England – does not factor-in the influence of the financial sector on the economy, and flatly denies that economies conforming to the DSGE model are susceptible to crises generated endogenously (i.e. from within themselves).
Just think about that for a moment. An economic model that makes no allowance for the most powerful force in the modern international economy – finance capital. A model which, for that very reason, simply could not see the Global Financial Crisis coming.
Now, you might think that a profession which had exposed its shortcomings so dramatically might be feeling just a little bit chastened; might be looking for a new economic model; might even be ready to admit that it had got just about everything horribly wrong and apologise to the world for all the extraordinary suffering its failure to read reality correctly has produced.
You would, however, be wrong.
Orthodox economists pride themselves on their positivism. They are not swayed by their emotions, nor do they make value judgements. The language of ethics and social responsibility is foreign to them. Their language is mathematics. Numbers don’t lie – and they certainly don’t apologise!
But if Orthodox Economics pays no heed to the real world and cannot predict an event as devastating as the GFC; if it scorns all those who posit a different interpretation of the economic data; if it guards the tenets of its economic faith as jealously as any member of the Roman curia, and punishes heretics with equal severity; then what, exactly, is the orthodox economics profession?
The answer lies in the word “faith”. Wade himself said that there is a religious quality to the thinking of the men and women in economic institutions like the NZ Treasury. And this, of course, is exactly what the orthodox economics profession has become – a modern priesthood.
In terms of the social and political function it serves, Orthodox Economics is no different from the Medieval Catholic Church. It exists for one reason and one reason only: to justify the ways of the rich to the poor, and to convince them there is no alternative to the inequality and injustice of the existing order. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever more will be, world without end.
This brief review hardly does justice to Wade’s lecture. There is much more that I wish I could recall: astonishing quotations from these naked economic emperors that left his audience shaking their heads in disbelief.
The vote of thanks was given by Laila’s dad, who first met Wade when he was a young student of anthropology back in 1960s Auckland. Indeed, he was able to produce a wonderful photograph of the young Robert Wade, taken during an expedition to the islands of the South Pacific.
There he was, one of many rowers, hauling manfully on his oar, in the midst of a vast and troubled sea.
Somehow, it seemed appropriate.
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Wednesday, 2 December 2015.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Viable Within The System.

Playing By The Rules: Bill Clinton's overriding ambition was to become - and remain - a political player. When he was just 23 he wrote: “For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress. It is a life I still feel compelled to try to lead.” To do so, however, he had to maintain his "political viability within the system." It was this urge to remain viable within the system that would lead a whole generation of Centre Left politicians to dazzling political success and abject moral failure.
“THE DECISION not to be a resister, and the related subsequent decisions, were the most difficult of my life. I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system.”
Bill Clinton was only 23 years old when he wrote these words. Colonel Eugene Holmes, head of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Arkansas, had arranged for the young Rhodes Scholar to join what we used to call the “Territorial Force” so that he might avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam. Clinton was writing to explain why, after much thought, he had decided to reject the offer of ROTC training and take his chances with the Draft.
“For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress”, Clinton explained to the Colonel. “It is a life I still feel compelled to try to lead.”
Had Clinton not drawn a “lucky” number in the ballot, and thus escaped service in Vietnam, his fledgling career might have been cut short by a Viet-Cong bullet. As things turned out, however, the young Arkansas law student’s “practical political ability” was enough to take him all the way to the White House. So “viable” was Bill Clinton in the American political system that, in 1993, he was sworn in as the 42nd President of the United States.
In office, Clinton proved that his decision to risk the draft, rather than, at some point in the future, be labelled  a “draft-dodger”, was in no sense aberrant. Because, although Clinton’s concern for rapid social progress was very real, his desire to maintain his political viability within the system was much, much stronger. Throughout his career, whenever the two objectives came into conflict, Clinton was almost always willing to sacrifice rapid social progress on the altar of his own political viability.
Clinton was by no means alone in making the retention of personal political viability his Number One priority. Two of his most fervent admirers on the Centre Left, internationally, Tony Blair and Helen Clark, operated in much the same way. Clark’s infamous quip: “I didn’t come this far to be burnt out in a hail of gunfire”; demonstrated the importance she attached to remaining viable. As did Tony Blair’s observation that: “Power without principle is barren, but principle without power is futile.”
Some have characterised Clinton’s modus operandi – dignified by some as a “Third Way” between the Far Left’s alleged lack of viability and the Far Right’s hostility to any form of social progress – as entirely consistent with the Baby Boom generation’s determination to have their cake and eat it too. While there is a generous measure of Baby Boomer self-indulgence in Third Way politics, there is also a harder, frankly self-protective, edge to Clinton’s “practical” political style.
The letter to Colonel Holmes was written towards the end of 1969. For ambitious leftists like Clinton, the previous two years had been heart-breaking and terrifying in equal measure. In 1968 the two greatest hopes for securing rapid social change in America – Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy – had both been assassinated. And the inheritor of the darkness into which the country had suddenly been hurled, Richard Nixon, left progressive America feeling angry, isolated and afraid.
In their hit song, Long Time Gone, Crosby Stills and Nash evoked these conflicting generational emotions with heart-wrenching force:
Speak out you got to speak out against the madness
You got to speak your mind if you dare
But don’t, no don’t, no, try to get yourself elected
If you do you had better cut your hair
The Centre Left’s predicament did not improve in the following decades. Object lessons like Chile, Australia and Nicaragua proved that left-wing governments could be shot down just as easily as left-wing politicians. And with the last great challenge to free-market capitalism blipping-off the screen in 1991, “it’s the economy stupid” took on a whole new meaning.
For Centre Left parties to remain viable within the system it had become necessary for them to surrender practically every radical item on their historic agenda. It was still possible to do good, but only if the rich were allowed to do better. It was the likes of Clinton in the USA, Blair in the UK, and Clark in New Zealand, who, finally, made the world safe for neoliberalism.
Meaning that if, by some miracle, a genuine left-winger (like Jeremy Corbyn) should find himself at the head of a modern, Centre Left party, the Right will have no need to go looking for assassins – either real or metaphorical. To remain viable within the system, his own colleagues – all of them politicians of the most practical ability – will strike him down.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 December 2015.