Known principally for his weekly political columns and his commentaries on radio and television, Chris Trotter has spent most of his adult life either engaging in or writing about politics. He was the founding editor of The New Zealand Political Review (1992-2005) and in 2007 authored No Left Turn, a political history of New Zealand. Living in Auckland with his wife and daughter, Chris describes himself as an “Old New Zealander” – i.e. someone who remembers what the country was like before Rogernomics. He has created this blog as an archive for his published work and an outlet for his more elegiac musings. It takes its name from Bowalley Road, which runs past the North Otago farm where he spent the first nine years of his life. Enjoy.
The blogosphere tends to be a very noisy, and all-too-often a very abusive, place. I intend Bowalley Road to be a much quieter, and certainly a more respectful, place. So, if you wish your comments to survive the moderation process, you will have to follow the Bowalley Road Rules. These are based on two very simple principles: Courtesy and Respect. Comments which are defamatory, vituperative, snide or hurtful will be removed, and the commentators responsible permanently banned. Anonymous comments will not be published. Real names are preferred. If this is not possible, however, commentators are asked to use a consistent pseudonym. Comments which are thoughtful, witty, creative and stimulating will be most welcome, becoming a permanent part of the Bowalley Road discourse. However, I do add this warning. If the blog seems in danger of being over-run by the usual far-Right suspects, I reserve the right to simply disable the Comments function, and will keep it that way until the perpetrators find somewhere more appropriate to vent their collective spleen.
Not-So-Subliminal Messages: Labour's first campaign video is a shocker. I wasn’t expecting much but, depressingly, Labour managed to deliver less. Yes, Andrew Little does promise us "A Fresh Approach", but there should be a better reason for voting Labour than the fact that National’s getting a bit stale.
LEFT-LEANING VOTERS looking for a good reason to vote Green
should take a look at Labour’s latest campaign ad. When the video arrived in my
Inbox, I was almost too scared to open it. I wasn’t expecting much but, depressingly,
Labour managed to deliver less. If this is the best the party’s highfalutin
Aussie ad agency can do, then the sooner they’re sent packing back across the
Tasman the better!
A while back, someone let slip that Andrew Little had been
taking acting lessons. Three words: Waste. Of. Money. To call Little’s
performance wooden would be an insult to the vibrant living entities we call
trees. Do Labour’s Aussie ad-men not know that the best way to make any
human-being look awkward is to ask them to act natural?
Unfortunately, authenticity is the quality Labour’s video
most conspicuously lacks. It’s as though Labour’s Campaign Committee
brainstormed for hours on Little’s positive qualities and then turned
everything they’d scribbled on the whiteboard into his script. Whoever told Little
to deliver the line, “as a former cancer patient”, should be told to seek
The most jarring aspect of the video, however, is the way it
exploits poor Jacinda Ardern. Every few seconds she appears, without any
discernible narrative purpose, smiling brightly at Little’s side. It’s as if,
at some point during the final edit, the production team suddenly remembered
that the video was supposed to promote the Little-Ardern partnership. “Quick! someone
track down those Andrew and Jacinda smileathons we recorded!” If that’s not the
explanation, then I shudder to think what is.
And then there’s the tag-line: “A Fresh Approach for New
Labour’s former Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, was fond
of regaling audiences with what he liked to call Kiwis’ “beach cricket approach
to politics”. As in: “Aw, come on Helen, you’ve had the bat for ages. Don’t you
think it’s time to give someone else a go?” Labour’s 2017 slogan comes
perilously close to validating Cullen’s insight. There should be a better
reason for voting Labour than the fact that National’s getting a bit stale.
What a pity the New Zealand Labour Party hasn’t been able to
snare an Aussie creative director like Paul Jones. His 1972 campaign ad for the
Australian Labor Party, “It’s time!”, featured Alison McCallum belting out the
party’s campaign song with what appeared to be the whole of Australia joining
in. It was a classic of its kind – and well worth checking out on YouTube!
The problem, of course, is that to make an ad like that
work, you have to have something – and someone – to sell. Jones had Gough
Whitlam. And, if I may paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s famous put-down of Dan Quayle
in the 1988 US Vice-Presidential Debate: “I remember Gough Whitlam. And, Mr
Little, you’re no Gough Whitlam!” Or Norman Kirk, for that matter.
Someone should remind Little and his team of what happened
to their Canadian equivalent, the New Democratic Party, in 2015. Its leader, Thomas
Mulcair, was so determined to be a “strong and stable” alternative Prime
Minister that he persuaded the NDP to jettison everything even remotely radical
or inspiring from its manifesto. Justin Trudeau, whose Liberals had been
counted out of the race, saw the opening and seized his chance.
Following the inspirational performance of Metiria Turei, at
last weekend’s Green Party AGM, there is now a real risk that Labour’s putative
junior coalition partner could steal a march very similar to Trudeau’s. Never
has the New Zealand Left been in such a state of flux. Turei’s passionate
declaration: “We will not be a government that uses poverty as a weapon against
its own people” is the sort of statement that changes minds.
If Andrew Little’s Labour Party refuses to stand with the
poor, the marginalised and the downtrodden, then what, exactly, is its “fresh
approach” supposed to deliver?
This essay was
originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The
Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 July 2017.
"Something In The Air": Whatever it was in his country’s political atmosphere in 2015, Justin Trudeau blew out enough of it to inflate the Liberals’ appeal to winning proportions. With Winston exhaling anger, and Metiria Turei breathing hope, Andrew Little and Labour need to offer the New Zealand electorate something more than a deflated ideological balloon.
THOMAS MULCAIR wanted to be Prime Minister – and he thought
he knew how to make it happen. His New Democratic Party (NDP) was the leading
Opposition contender in a Canada grown weary of Stephen Harper’s brutal
Conservative Government. More importantly, the formerly dominant Liberal Party
had been reduced to a risible rump of just 36 MPs in the Canadian House of
Commons. Its leader, Justin Trudeau, may have been blessed with a famous
political name, but was widely dismissed as a pretty playboy who knew a lot
more about snowboarding that he did about grown-up politics. Thomas Mulcair was
far from being the only Canadian convinced that the 2015 General Election was
the NDP’s for the taking.
But that’s not how the story ended. Determined to present
both himself and the NDP as sensible and responsible, Mulcair prevailed upon
his party colleagues to jettison any and all policies likely to scare the
Canadian establishment’s horses. Canada’s equivalent of the NZ Labour Party promised
“budget responsibility” – with bells on. Public spending would be kept in check
and surpluses fattened. “Nothing to be frightened of here”, was Mulcair’s
message to the people he thought he had to please to win. That was the point at
which Justin Trudeau demonstrated that he was a great deal more than just a
Mulcair’s decision to steer the NDP sharply to the right of
its traditional position on the centre-left had opened up a dangerous amount of
unoccupied ideological space. If Mulcair was willing to make his peace with
neoliberalism, then Trudeau was prepared to lead his party into a passionate
Keynesian embrace. With interest rates at record lows, Government borrowing
would never be cheaper. The Liberals would give Canada’s economy the much-needed
shot in the arm that Harper’s austerity programme had forsworn. Health,
education and infrastructure would be the big winners. The Liberals, said
Trudeau, were the only political party who understood that more of the same was
unacceptable. Oh yeah – and they were ready to legalise marijuana!
Outflanked, out-argued and out-bid, Mulcair watched
helplessly as the NDP’s poll-numbers dwindled and the Liberal Party’s
popularity surged. Policy audacity was made palatable by Trudeau’s relentlessly
sunny disposition. The clouds of gloom parted, and by the time the last ballot
paper was counted the “pretty playboy” had rewritten Canada’s political
rulebook. Not only had the Liberal’s driven the NDP into third place, they had
won an absolute parliamentary majority. It was a comeback without precedent in
Trudeau’s historic 2015 election victory is a cautionary
tale which New Zealand’s Labour leader would do well to study closely. There is
still time for Andrew Little to halt his party’s relentless march towards the
political centre. Still time to understand that the “something in the air”
which Shane Jones talks about is the factor that will determine the outcome of
this year’s election. Still time to realise that whatever it is in the political
air, it is not a desperate public hunger for more of the same.
There is anger in the air – and that is the harvest which
Winston Peters and NZ First are determined to gather in. But the air is also
stirring with hope. That’s what the Greens have – at almost the last possible
moment – understood. And, just like Justin Trudeau, they are preparing to ride
the forgotten New Zealander’s hope for something better all the way to the
biggest share of the Party Vote they have ever received.
Thomas Mulcair’s bid to become Canada’s Prime Minister
foundered on his strategy of offering his opponents the smallest possible
target to shoot at. All he succeeded in doing was reducing the NDP to something
so dull and uninspiring that a crucial number of Canadians lost sight of it
Whatever it was in his country’s political atmosphere in
2015, Justin Trudeau blew out enough of it to inflate the Liberals’ appeal to
winning proportions. With Winston exhaling anger, and Metiria Turei breathing
hope, Andrew Little and Labour need to offer the New Zealand electorate
something more than a deflated ideological balloon.
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Wednesday, 19 July 2017.
"But he hasn't got anything on!" - For 30 years New Zealand’s best and brightest business leaders, academics, journalists and politicians have been telling the rest of us that the only reason neoliberalism appears to be promoting a nakedly brutal and inequitable economic and social system is because we are too stupid to perceive the true beneficence of the free market. Painting by Thorarinn Liefsson.
IF THE 2017 GENERAL ELECTION turns into a messy boil-over,
it will be the fault of New Zealand’s most successful people. For the best part
of 30 years, the high achievers of New Zealand society have aligned themselves
with an ideology that has produced consistently negative outcomes. Not for
themselves. In fact, they have done extremely well out of the economic and
social changes of the past 30 years. For the majority of their fellow citizens,
however, the Neoliberal Revolution has been a disaster.
The real puzzle of the past 30 years is, therefore, why a
political system intended to empower the majority has not consigned
neoliberalism to the dustbin of history. Why have those on the receiving end of
economic and social policies designed to benefit only a minority of the
population not simply elected a party, or parties, committed to eliminating
A large part of the answer is supplied in Hans Christian
Andersen’s famous fable, The Emperor’s
New Clothes. Those who know the story will recall that the crucial element
of the swindlers’ con was their insistence that the Emperor’s magnificent
attire could only be seen by the wise. To “anyone who was unfit for his office,
or who was unusually stupid”, the Emperor would appear to be wearing nothing at
The interesting thing about Andersen’s fable is that it’s
actually supported by a critical element of scientific fact. If people whose
judgement we have no reason to doubt inform us that black is white, most of us
will, in an astonishingly short period of time, start disregarding the evidence
of our own eyes. Even worse, if an authority figure instructs us to administer
punishments to people “for their own good” most of us will do so. Even when the
punishment appears to be causing the recipients intense, even fatal, pain, we
will be continue flicking the switch for as long as the authority figure
insists that the pain is necessary and that we have no alternative except to
proceed. (If you doubt this, just google “Stanley Milgram”.)
For 30 years, then, New Zealand’s best and brightest
business leaders, academics, journalists and politicians have been telling the
rest of us that the only reason neoliberalism appears to be promoting a nakedly
brutal and inequitable economic and social system is because we are too stupid
to perceive the true beneficence of the free market. In language ominously
reminiscent of Professor Milgram’s terrible experiment, we have been told by
those in authority that there can be “no long-term gain without short-term
pain”, and, God forgive us, we have believed them – and continued flicking the
Nowhere has this readiness to discount the evidence before
one’s own eyes been more pronounced than in our politicians. How many of them,
when confronted with the social and environmental wreckage of neoliberalism,
have responded like the “honest old minister” in Andersen’s fable, who, upon
being ushered into the swindlers’ workshop, and seeing nothing, thought:
“Heaven have mercy! Can it be that I’m a fool? I’d have never guessed it, and
not a soul must know. Am I unfit to be the minister? It would never do to let
on that I can’t see the cloth.”
How else are we to explain the unwillingness of the Labour
Party and the Greens to break decisively with the neoliberal swindle? Or, the
repeated declarations from National and Act praising the beauty and enchantment
of its effects: “Such a pattern, what colours!”
Even as the evidence of its malignity mounted before them.
Even as the numbers harmed by its poisonous remedies increased. The notion that
the best and the brightest might perceive them as being unusually stupid and
unfit for office led the opposition parties to concentrate all their criticism
on the symptoms of neoliberalism. Or, in the spirit of Andersen’s tale,
critiquing the cut of the Emperor’s new clothes instead of their non-existence.
Eventually, of course, the consequences of neoliberalism are
felt by too many people to be ignored. Children who cannot afford to buy their
own home. Grandchildren who cannot access mental health care. The spectacle of
people living in their cars. Of homeless men freezing to death in the streets.
Eventually someone – a politician unafraid of being thought unusually stupid,
or unfit for office – breaks the swindlers’ spell.
“‘But he hasn’t got anything on,’ a little child said.
‘Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?’ said its father.
And one person whispered to another what the child had said, ‘He hasn’t
anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.’
‘But he hasn’t got anything on!’ the whole town cried out at
Now, the whole New Zealand electorate may not be calling
“Time!” on neoliberalism – and certainly not its best and its brightest – but
Winston Peters is.
And the town is whispering.
This essay was
originally published in The Press of
Tuesday, 18 July 2017.
Do You Hear The People Sing? Metiria Turei’s pledge that: “We will not be a government that uses poverty as a weapon against its own people”, is nothing less than a call to arms. Requiring the MSD to stop treating its “clients” as second-class citizens: making a bonfire of work tests, drug tests, bedmate tests, and all the other oppressive means of “sanctioning” beneficiaries, will have the same electrifying effect as the cry which swept through Paris on 14 July 1789 – “To the Bastille!”
METIRIA TUREI has rescued the 2017 General Election from the
timidity and moral squalor into which it was fast descending. In a speech that
brought tears to her listeners’ eyes and cheers to their throats, the Greens’
co-leader carried her party out of the shadows of moderation and into the
bright sunlit uplands of radicalism that have always been its natural habitat.
The Green Party’s AGM of 15-16 July 2017 will go down in history as the moment
when it repudiated the “Insider’s” devilish bargains – and reclaimed its soul.
Turei’s revolutionary plans for New Zealand’s social welfare
system will be examined below, but first a word or two about her prescience in
regard to Winston Peters and NZ First.
Clearly, there is now no disputing her warnings about the
racist implications of NZ First policy. What looked like gratuitous and
counter-productive name-calling a week ago has been vindicated emphatically by
Winston Peters’ utterances of the weekend just past.
It’s one thing to allow race and immigration to become
confused (NZ First is by no means unique in this regard!) but it is quite
another to call for a binding referendum on the retention of the Maori Seats.
The last senior politician to draw a bead on the Maori Seats was Don Brash –
and New Zealand only dodged that bullet by the skin of its teeth!
So, let’s be clear: there is nothing democratic about
demanding a binding referendum on this issue. On the contrary, it is a
shameless appeal to the very worst majoritarian instincts of the New Zealand
electorate. Allowing 85 percent of the population to determine the fate of a
representative institution dedicated to protecting the rights of the country’s
indigenous 15 percent is not only reactionary, it is a direct threat to the
“public welfare, peace and tranquillity of New Zealand”. In such
circumstances, no progressive New Zealander could possibly consider voting for
By the same token, The Greens’ revolutionary welfare
policies make it difficult for any progressive New Zealander to vote for
As anyone who has read the heartfelt postings of people
living at the razor’s edge of our welfare system (the latest one is here)
knows, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) presides over an empire of
cruelty with few precedents in New Zealand history. The National Government
boasts about the numbers who have been removed from the welfare rolls since
they assumed office. That this is due to the sheer awfulness of being caught up
in the Work and Income mincing machine is an “achievement” they are much less
keen to acknowledge.
Though most Kiwis remain oblivious to what is happening
behind the security-guarded doors of their welfare system, there are
tens-of-thousands of families with direct personal experience of what it’s like
to be a beneficiary – or the loved one/s of a beneficiary. To these folk,
Metiria’s pledge that: “We will not be a government that uses poverty as a
weapon against its own people”, is nothing less than a call to arms.
Requiring the MSD to stop treating its “clients” as second-class citizens:
making a bonfire of work tests, drug tests, bedmate tests, and all the other
oppressive means of “sanctioning” beneficiaries; will have the same
electrifying effect as the cry which swept through Paris on 14 July 1789 – “To
The question is: do the Greens possess the electoral
infrastructure to spread the good news to the tens-of-thousands of
disillusioned voters who stand to gain from their policies. These marginalised
citizens (minimum wage workers as well as beneficiaries) now have a very good
reason to enrol and vote. The Greens boast that, this election, they have more
campaigning resources than ever before. Here is their chance to prove it.
One reason to be hopeful that beneficiaries will hear about
the Greens’ revolutionary welfare policies is Metiria’s extraordinarily
courageous decision to admit that when, as a solo mum, she was faced with the
choice of lying to the welfare authorities, or letting her child go hungry, she
lied. Except that the story does not end there. Like Jean Valjean, the hero of
Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, Metiria made sure that the many
opportunities which flowed from her transgression were turned towards making
her society a better place.
Hugo wrote of his sprawling literary masterpiece that:
“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom,
a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates
hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality;
so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the
ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and
spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia
shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view,
so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be
Any more than Metiria’s confession, or, the Greens
transformative welfare policies, can be useless. They are the stuff out of
which social justice is made. Meaning that, if Labour wishes to catch up with
the only progressive coalition partner now available to them, then they had better
start running hard – now.
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Monday, 17 July 2017.
Making Poverty History: Dorothea Lange's iconic portrait of a Depression Era mother and her children speaks of a time when poverty was a problem to be solved - not a condition to be sneered at.
WHEN ENOUGH PEOPLE ARE POOR, poverty changes. Instead of
being seen as the outward manifestation of vice, poverty is transformed into
the enabler of virtue. In communities where everyone is poor, the merits of
compassion, solidarity and generosity are everywhere on display. Poor people
support one another, take care of one another, defend one another.
In societies where wealth and resources are controlled by a
tiny minority, it is the rich who find themselves stigmatised. Their greed,
love of luxury and relentless selfishness are everywhere condemned. In the eyes
of the poor, wealth and vice are indistinguishable.
Eighty-five years ago, at the height of the Great Depression,
poverty stalked four out of every five New Zealand streets. More than one in
four men of working age were unemployed, and those who still had jobs were
forced to accept regular – often savage – reductions in their wages and
As the economic crisis deepened, the spectre of poverty
crept out of the urban slums and into the leafy suburbs of the middle-class.
Respectable men on respectable salaries found themselves “let go”. Poverty
ceased to be something that affected the “lower orders”. Now ordinary “decent”
people were staring it in the face.
In 2017, with a general election looming, the issue of
poverty still ranks as one of New Zealand’s big voter motivators. People
sleeping in their cars; children succumbing to Third World diseases; workers lining-up
at food banks for assistance; whole families going hungry to pay the power bill
and keep the landlord happy: those lucky enough to live in the three out of
four streets where poverty does not intrude have been made to feel profoundly
uneasy by its evident proximity.
In a society where only a quarter of children are being
raised in poverty, however, the remedies for privation and despair are hotly
contested. With security and comfort now the norm in New Zealand, the question
a great many voters ask themselves is: “What is going on in these families
which prevents them from living a happy and productive life like the rest of
In 1935, the answer to that question could be reduced to two
words: “The Slump”. The effects of the Great Depression weighed upon the whole
of New Zealand like a leaden overcoat. It made all the old explanations of
poverty redundant. Whoever was to blame for the collapse of the capitalist
economy – it wasn’t the poor.
And, for those who were hurting, the remedy was clear: vote
for the party pledged to make poverty history. Let the state take the place of
your family, friends and neighbours and become the collective deliverer of
compassion, solidarity and generosity. All those things denied the poor: good
jobs on good pay; free education and health care; a warm, dry house at an
affordable rent; a measure of equality in the workplace; state assistance in
old age, infirmity and economic adversity; these were the changes that Labour
promised – and delivered.
Not only was poverty (in the sense of the harsh economic and
social conditions experienced by a clear majority of the population in the
early years of capitalism) reduced dramatically by the creation of the Welfare
State, but in the decades that followed its moral character underwent an
No longer was poverty seen as the consequence of the
viciously rich and their failed economic system. No longer was it celebrated as
the creator of virtuous behaviour. Now it was regarded as the consequence of
individual and familial inadequacy. Now it was the poor who exemplified vice.
Laziness, drunkenness, violence, cruelty and crime: these became the new
markers of Poverty.
The National Party’s twenty-first century response to this
re-defined poverty is unequivocal: deal with the individual and familial
inadequacies of the poor and the vicious circles of deprivation can be broken.
They call it “Social Investment”.
Labour’s position is much more difficult. Gone are the days
when an economically victimised majority saw themselves as the deserving
beneficiaries of a long overdue and radical redistribution of society’s
resources. In 2017, the no-longer-poor majority identify much more readily as
taxpayers, and are much less certain that Labour’s (and the Greens’) compassion,
solidarity and generosity are entitlements to which the “undeserving poor” have
Poverty will be motivating voters in 2017 – but in ways far
removed from those of 1935.
This essay was
originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The
Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 June 2017.