Saturday, 3 December 2016

Banana Split: David Seymour’s Latest Declaration of Intergenerational War.

Millennials Of The World Unite! Act Leader, David Seymour, has issued yet another call for the Millennials to take up arms against the rapacity of the Baby Boomer Generation. As if all the young people of today will not themselves grow old and be succeeded by a new generation of New Zealanders. As if the whole experience of human existence is not a constant process of paying forward and paying back.
 
THAT DAVID SEYMOUR’S latest effusion of political bile is being hosted by The Spinoff is entirely fitting. The ACT leader and his hipster enablers cannot wait to get into the political engine-room, and their chosen path to the centre of power is via fomenting an intergenerational war. The headline attached to Seymour’s piece says it all: “NZ Baby Boomers are Building a Banana Republic, and No One Gives a Shit.”
 
Except that “banana republics” are characterised by obscene extremes of wealth and poverty, authoritarian modes of governance, ruinous levels of corruption, and the irretrievable loss of national sovereignty. In other words, states that have dispensed altogether with democratic politics. That this continues to be Act’s and Seymour’s endgame should surprise no one. But for those who still regard The Spinoff as a platform for serious journalism, its tacit support for Seymour’s plans to incite young citizens to use their votes as weapons against the old may come as a bit of a shock.
 
Seymour’s latest excuse for fanning the flames of Millennial discontent is the Treasury’s most recent Long-Term Fiscal Outlook (LTFO). And, when the Treasury boffins say “long-term” they’re not kidding. Their latest LTFO purports to describe the fiscal position of the New Zealand government in 2056!
 
To put their heroic prognostications into some sort of perspective, ask yourself how much luck someone living in 1916 would have had describing the world of 1956. As Peter Drucker quipped: “Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.” Which is why the only way to produce a half-way credible LTFO is to proceed on the assumption that current government policy settings remain unchanged for 40 years. If you’re thinking that this reduces the LTFO to a simple exercise in linear extrapolation, then take a bow. That’s pretty much all it is.
 
So, what are the fiscal implications of the current policy settings remaining unchanged for 40 years? Well, not surprisingly, they’re pretty dire. As Seymour, rather breathlessly, puts it:
 
“If no policy changes are made, by 2060, when current students reach retirement age, government debt will be 206 per cent of GDP. In other words national debt will equal two years’ income, worse than the current debt of countries world famous for being fiscally screwed such as Zimbabwe (203 per cent) Greece (179 per cent), Italy (133 per cent) and Portugal (121 per cent). No matter how well you prepare for retirement, you’ll be living in a banana republic.”
 
Unless, of course, we, the voters of New Zealand, taking serious and principled thought for our nation’s future, decide to change the current policy settings.
 
The most obvious way pay for the dramatic increase in human longevity would be to restore a much larger degree of progressivity to New Zealand’s taxation system. Additional measures to improve our future fiscal position might include re-starting government contributions to the Superannuation Fund and making Kiwisaver compulsory. Getting rid of the commercial imperatives currently driving New Zealand’s universities and research institutes into the ground would also help. Neoliberalism is deadening our national imagination.
 
That’s why a thorough-going “deliberalisation” of the whole of New Zealand society would be so helpful. Modelled on the “denazification” of post-war Germany, such an exercise would unleash precisely the sort of pent-up social energy and creativity that the LTFO itself identifies as a the best way of avoiding the long-term fiscal difficulties it is projecting.
 
Not that David Seymour wants a bar of anything even remotely resembling these solutions. He dismisses the option of raising taxes with characteristic venom by presenting it as yet another dastardly imposition by the Baby Boom Generation:
 
“The first way of absorbing [the projected demographic changes] is to raise taxes by about a quarter, so GST becomes nearly 20 per cent and the top tax rate goes over 40 per cent, along with every other rate being increased by the same proportion. People embarking on their careers now would pay a 25 per cent extra “boomer tax” for being born at the wrong time.”
 
As if all the young people of today will not themselves grow old and be succeeded by a new generation of New Zealanders. As if the whole experience of human existence is not a constant process of paying forward and paying back.
 
Utterly dependent when we are born; utterly dependent as we drift inexorably toward death. Isn’t this the universal fate of humanity? As applicable to the richest people in the world as it is to the poorest – and just as inescapable? The true measure of our equality.
 
And isn’t this the dreadful reality that all the pathologically ambitious are running from: that not all the power in the world, nor all the money, can save them from the grave? And isn’t it the true measure of wisdom that, in the end, we come to recognise that we are defined by what makes our fellow human beings’ similar to ourselves – not by what makes them different?
 
As President John F. Kennedy told the students of Washington’s American University in his celebrated commencement address of June 1963 – delivered just six months before his assassination in Dallas:
 
“For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 29 November 2016.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Looking Forward To … Extinction?

Crossing The Line: It’s one thing to be told that anthropogenic global warming is a real and steadily worsening problem that the world needs to address with the utmost urgency. But, it’s quite another to be informed, with Zen-like calm, that the planet is trapped, inextricably, in a deadly process of runaway climate change that can no longer be reversed.
 
TEN YEARS – TOPS. That’s all the time the human species (along with every other complex organism on Planet Earth) has left. At least, that’s all the time Emeritus Professor Guy McPherson, climate-change doomsayer extraordinaire, reckons we have left. Ten years – or less.
 
It was enough to leave the usually unshockable Paul Henry spluttering helplessly in front of the television cameras. Henry, and everyone else who witnessed the breakfast show host’s disturbing interview with the genial Arizonan academic.
 
Because it’s one thing to be told that anthropogenic global warming is a real and steadily worsening problem that the world must address with the utmost urgency – lest by the end of this century, or the next, things start getting uncomfortably warm. But, it’s quite another to be informed, with Zen-like calm, that the planet is trapped, inextricably, in a deadly process of runaway climate change. A process whose every contributing factor is now worsening exponentially, and which long ago passed the point where human intervention might have averted the next great extinction level event in the planet’s history.
 
The most catastrophic extinction event, to date, called by some “The Great Dying”, occurred approximately 250 million years ago. The event featured volcanic activity on a truly massive scale (we’re talking lava flows kilometres thick) to be followed (or, perhaps, precipitated) by an equally destructive asteroid strike. (The asteroid is estimated to have measured nine kilometres across!)
 
Obliterating clouds of smoke rose to the heavens and fire fell from the sky. Carbon-dioxide levels skyrocketed and the atmosphere throbbed with heat. Oxygen levels plummeted and upwards of 90 percent of creatures living in the sea, and 70 percent of those living on the land, perished. So complete was the devastation that for a period of 10 million years there was insufficient plant matter to be compressed into coal. Geologists call it the “coal gap”.
 
How can the accumulated CO2 emissions of a mere two centuries of human industrial civilisation possibly equal the combined impact of the Siberian Traps and an killer asteroid? Surely Professor McPherson is guilty of the most grotesque and irresponsible alarmism?
 
That is certainly the judgement of his peers. According to the Science Editor of the Climate Feedback website, US geo-scientist, Scot K. Johnson:
 
“In many ways, McPherson is a photo-negative of the self-proclaimed ‘climate sceptics’ who reject the conclusions of climate science. He may be advocating the opposite conclusion, but he argues his case in the same way. The sceptics often quote snippets of science that, on full examination, don’t actually support their claims, and this is McPherson’s modus operandi. The sceptics dismiss science they don’t like by saying that climate researchers lie to keep the grant money coming; McPherson dismisses inconvenient science by claiming that scientists are downplaying risks because they’re too cowardly to speak the truth and flout our corporate overlords.”
 
Johnson’s words would be extremely reassuring if only McPherson’s visit to New Zealand hadn’t coincided with the release of the Arctic Resilience Report (written by scientists from the Arctic Council, a body made up of the eight countries whose national territory falls within the Arctic Circle). The Report warns that the Arctic is “undergoing rapid, sometimes turbulent change beyond anything previously experienced”.
 
The Council’s findings are echoed by the director of the United States National Snow and Ice Data Centre, Mark Serreze. He told Scientific American that, even in Winter, the Arctic ice-sheet is continuing to shrink. It’s a polar phenomenon without known precedent: “I’ve never seen anything like it this last year-and-a-half”.
 
That would be the same year-and-a-half during which, month after month, global temperatures have exceeded all previous records.
 
The beatific Professor McPherson takes all of this gloom and doom in his stride. He has made his peace with the planet, which, he’s convinced, is about to undergo its sixth extinction level event. He counsels us to hold fast to those we love, and to devote ourselves to living, if not long, then well. Not so much Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as Zen and the Extinction of Everything More Complex than a Microbe.
 
Some, of course, will not choose to “go gentle into that good night”. Others, like President-Elect Trump, will continue to deny the reality of global warming. Me? I’m putting my faith in humankind’s near-perfect record of predicting the wrong future.
 
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, 2 December 2016.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Trouble At Mill.

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

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Limits Of Journalism.

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

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

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

Sunday, 27 November 2016

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

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

Friday, 25 November 2016

Sixty Four Shades Of Grey

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

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

MoW 2.0 - Shaking-Up Our Thinking.

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