Friday, 15 December 2017

Grant Robertson’s “Mini-Budget” Presents Progressives With A “Maxi-Problem”.

 Same As The Old Boss? Robertson’s fetish for paying down Crown debt and amassing government surpluses will limit this government’s options to doling out some extra cash to beneficiaries and the working poor; increasing public servants’ pay; and making a handful of modest improvements to the nation’s infrastructure.

IT’S OFFICIAL – there is now no prospect of this government living up to its promises of introducing “transformational” change. Thanks to Grant Robertson, the Labour-NZ First-Green Government will, with one exception, be fundamentally indistinguishable from the Clark-Cullen ministry of 1999-2008.

The exception? After its initial “Free Tertiary Education” and “Families Package” spending splurges, the Ardern-Robertson ministry intends to keep new spending at levels well below those of both Clark-Cullen and Key-English. Robertson’s fetish for paying down Crown debt and amassing government surpluses will limit this government’s options to doling out some extra cash to beneficiaries and the working poor; increasing public servants’ pay; and making a handful of modest improvements to the nation’s infrastructure.

Now, don’t get me wrong, all of these things are “nice to have”, but we must be very clear about the sort of economic policy Robertson’s “Mini-Budget” is locking-in. Essentially, what we have is a new government offering to be – at best – a slightly more generous version of the government it replaced. At worst, we may be looking at an initial burst of generosity followed by years of the most flinty-faced parsimony. Very much a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

Conservative politicians and commentators are forever telling us that problems cannot be solved simply by “throwing money at them”. This simply is not true.

If a business is failing to grow; if it’s employees are being lured away by promises of higher wages; if the technology in use is out-of-date and prone to breaking down: what does the business owner do? If he’s smart, he borrows additional capital and ploughs it into the business. With the additional funds he buys new technology which, in turn, allows him to employ fewer staff at higher wages. The resulting uplift in the business’s productivity generates higher profits, out of which he repays the borrowed capital sum.

Throwing money at problems works a treat. If it didn’t, Capitalism would never have gotten off the ground.

Unfortunately, Robertson does not appear to grasp the critical fact that if New Zealand is to be “transformed” then he, as Finance Minister, is going to have to lay his hands on a very large sum of money. But, not only is Robertson averse to increasing the level of Crown Debt (even though it has never been cheaper for governments to borrow money) but he is also absolutely determined not to use the most important tool which governments – and only governments – possess: the ability to raise “capital” by levying taxes.

Raising taxes is important not only because it would allow the government to accumulate the financial resources necessary to do more than deliver a one-off lift in the incomes of the poorest New Zealanders, but also because a significant increase in the taxes of the wealthiest New Zealanders would begin to undo the transformation that the neoliberal policies of the past 30 years have already accomplished.

The transformation I’m talking about is the transformation which brought an end to the humane and generous social-democratic society for which New Zealand was renowned internationally, and which, in its place, erected the brutally competitive and grossly unequal society the vast majority of New Zealanders are required to live in today. If that society is to be transformed into something more decent and caring, then a substantial redistribution of wealth and power will have to be accomplished.

That could have been the brief of the much-ballyhooed “Tax Working Group”. (On the subject of which I penned a small political fantasy for The Daily Blog back in September.)  But, once again, Robertson erred on the side of caution – not transformation. The Tax Working Group, chaired by Robertson’s mentor and political patron, Sir Michael Cullen, has been given a ridiculously narrow brief, whose less-than-transformational outcomes will not come into effect until after the 2020 General Election.

By when, of course, it will be much too late to rescue this government from its all-too-evident parsimony and political gutlessness. Robertson’s tight rein on spending can hardly fail to set the coalition partners at each other’s throats. And as for that “Hallelujah Song” of emancipation and transformation, which Jacinda Ardern somehow convinced Winston Peters of Labour’s willingness to sing. Her ruthless finance minister will, long since, have truncated its stirring verses to a few discordant bars.

There will be some who take umbrage at my uncompromising pessimism. To them I say: “It is only because I have been here before.” I remember another inspirational Labour leader who put an end to nine long years of National Party rule by promising to take New Zealand “up where we belong”, and who then allowed his Finance Minister to wreak havoc on the expectations and aspirations of his party’s electoral base.

David Lange’s was a “transformational government” and no mistake. As transformational in its way as the First Labour Government. Except that, the transformation Labour wrought was not the transformation the people who’d voted for it were expecting.

“Rogernomics” was able to destroy New Zealanders’ humane and generous society because the political resistance to it was too little, and came too late. If the members and supporters of this government similarly fail to act immediately and decisively against the give now/withhold later policies of Finance Minister Robertson, then the best chance New Zealanders have had in 30 years to heal the harms of the neoliberal “revolution” will be lost.

Not that you’ll hear the National Party and their friends complaining. The low debt and large surpluses bequeathed to them by Grant Robertson will be more than enough to fund yet another round of generous tax cuts – for the rich.

The right-wing transformation of New Zealand will continue apace.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 December 2017.

Transformational Politics Demands Transformational Economics.

Change Agents? Grant Robertson’s economic orthodoxy bodes ill for the expectations of Labour, NZ First and Green Party followers that Jacinda Ardern will, indeed, preside over the “transformational” change promised in her new government's coalition agreement.

LABOUR’S ECONOMIC ORTHODOXY presents its supporters with an A-Grade conundrum. If all you ever do is all anyone has ever done, then what are the chances that anything will ever change? Something in the Marxist nucleotide of Labour’s DNA continues to carry forward the message that economics and politics are inextricably linked. Stuff up the former and the latter will swiftly follow suit. That being the case, Grant Robertson could be Labour’s worst enemy.

Not that he should feel too badly about that, because Labour finance ministers have a well-established historical reputation for being their party’s worst enemies.

One has only to think of Philp Snowden, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain’s first and second Labour governments. While no one could fault the old man’s dedication to Labour’s working-class voters, his utterly conventional economic ideas left him helpless in the face of the Great Depression. In the words of his biographer, Keith Laybourn: “He was raised in an atmosphere which regarded borrowing as an evil and free trade as an essential ingredient of prosperity.”

It was Snowden’s unwavering faith in these nineteenth century liberal orthodoxies that broke his party and discredited his government. The people who paid the price for their Chancellor’s intellectual rigidity were (as is so often the case) his beloved working-class.

Things might have gone the same way here in New Zealand just a few years later had the proposals of Labour’s economically orthodox leaders (Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser and Walter Nash) not been voted down by the more radical members of their party’s caucus.

It was thanks to this latter group that Labour went into the 1935 election with an economic policy calling for the “immediate control by the state of the entire banking system; the provision of currency and credit to ensure adequate production, guaranteed prices and wages; readjustment of all mortgages” – along with a policy of state-fostered industrialisation which, today, would be described as “economic nationalism”.

How very different these policies were from the policies of Roger Douglas, the Labour Finance Minister who championed the same laissez-faire economic policies implemented by Philip Snowden between 1929 and 1931. “Rogernomics” radically transformed New Zealand’s economy and politics – and very nearly destroyed the New Zealand Labour Party!

The two politicians most responsible for rescuing Labour from political oblivion were Helen Clark and Michael Cullen. In a double act of extraordinary sophistication, Clark and Cullen kept hold of the political reins for nine years by cleverly masking both the true extent of their government’s economic success, and the political opportunities it opened-up.

As Finance Minister, Cullen proved a master at making his burgeoning revenue surpluses, which might have funded a much more ambitious social-democratic programme, disappear.

Some of Cullen’s billions were invested in the special superannuation fund that still bears his name. Even more went into Working for Families, the massive employer subsidy which Cullen introduced in preference to allowing the trade unions to extract the money from corporate shareholders. Most of Cullen’s surplus billions, however, were directed towards paying down Crown debt.

The opportunity cost of these fiscal diversions would only become apparent towards the end of the next decade, when New Zealand’s physical and social infrastructure began to, quite simply, fall apart.

That Michael Cullen has for many years been Grant Robertson’s political patron and mentor bodes ill for the expectations of Labour, NZ First and Green Party members that Jacinda Ardern will, indeed, usher in the “transformational” change promised in the new government’s coalition agreement.

Even before he received his ministerial warrant, Robertson was at pains to bind Labour to precisely the same diversionary economic strategies pioneered by Cullen.

A Finance Minister who repeatedly swears allegiance to his own “Budget Responsibility Rules” is unlikely to champion the sort of creative and progressive economics that makes for creative and progressive politics.

Unless, like Savage, Fraser and Nash; Ardern, David Parker and Robertson are reined-in by a Labour caucus determined to fulfil their government’s “transformational” ambitions, then the long-deferred renovation of New Zealand’s disintegrating institutional and physical infrastructure will not receive the resources it requires.

A transformational government cannot be brought into being except by means of transformational economics. For all his faults, Roger Douglas understood this fundamental proposition. Progressive voters need a Finance Minister whose economic policies are as bold as his government’s political promises.


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, 15 December 2017.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Yanis Varoufakis Would Tell Grant Robertson That Neoliberalism’s Rules Are For Breaking – Not Keeping.

 Progressive Economist: Yanis Varoufakis is one of neoliberal capitalism’s most outspoken and acute critics. Winston Peters might have declared his determination to give capitalism a human face, but Varoufakis would likely argue that the necessary transplant operation would entail far more effort than it was worth! Hardly surprising given his belief that the leading capitalist nations have been waging an unrelenting war on their poorest citizens for the past forty years.

IMAGINE THE REACTION if Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, announced a broad-ranging, government-sponsored seminar on progressive economics chaired by Yanis Varoufakis. Vilified and demonized by EU bankers and politicians for his heterodox economic ideas, Varoufakis resigned as Greece’s Finance Minister in 2015 rather than impose yet another of the European Central Bank’s crushing economic diktats on his impoverished homeland.

Inviting Varoufakis to chair a seminar on progressive economics would constitute the clearest possible proof that the Labour-NZ First Coalition’s promise to be a “transformational government” was genuine. International and domestic market reaction to such an announcement would, however, be instantaneous and extreme. New Zealand’s government would be portrayed as having taken leave of its senses.

And, in many respects, the markets would be right. Varoufakis is one of neoliberal capitalism’s most outspoken and acute critics. Winston Peters might have declared his determination to give capitalism a human face, but Varoufakis would likely argue that the necessary transplant operation would entail far more effort than it was worth! Hardly surprising given his belief that the leading capitalist nations have been waging an unrelenting war on their poorest citizens for the past forty years.

Writing for the latest newsletter of Project Syndicate, Varoufakis marvels at the “bourgeois rage” directed at the “militant parochialists” responsible for Brexit and Trump:

“The range of analysis is staggering. The rise of militant parochialism on both sides of the Atlantic is being investigated from every angle imaginable: psychoanalytically, culturally, anthropologically, aesthetically, and of course in terms of identity politics. The only angle that is left largely unexplored is the one that holds the key to understanding what is going on: the unceasing class war unleashed upon the poor since the late 1970s.”

As evidence for his class war claim, Varoufakis presents the following stark statistics:

“In 2016, the year of both Brexit and Trump, two pieces of data, dutifully neglected by the shrewdest of establishment analysts, told the story. In the United States, more than half of American families did not qualify, according to Federal Reserve data, to take out a loan that would allow them to buy the cheapest car for sale (the Nissan Versa sedan, priced at $US12,825). Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, over 40% of families relied on either credit or food banks to feed themselves and cover basic needs.”

Unleashing Varoufakis on the equivalent New Zealand data would doubtless produce a series of equally startling conclusions. Which is why Grant Robertson, himself, would, almost certainly, resign rather than invite someone like Varoufakis to draw the obvious policy conclusions from the last 30 years of class war in New Zealand – especially since many of that war’s most destructive campaigns were conducted under the generalship of Labour Party politicians!

Robertson’s pitch to New Zealand’s capitalist class is very different from Varoufakis’s unabashed “economic humanism”. Only this morning, (11/12/17) speaking to the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, Robertson declared:

“For us to keep being able to afford the policies necessary to achieve higher living standards we must remain fiscally responsible. It goes without saying that a Government that presides over high deficits, increasing debt, or a shrinking economy could not provide the quality public services that New Zealanders want and deserve. That is why we have developed and committed to our Budget Responsibility Rules.”

Which is precisely the sort of language that Varoufakis encountered when he travelled to Brussels on his doomed missions to secure a more rational approach to managing the consequences of Greece’s crippling indebtedness. That Robertson shows every sign of being as committed to following “the rules” as the European Central Bank’s pitiless bailiffs, strongly suggests that, even if he could, somehow, be prevailed upon to organise a seminar on progressive economics, and invite Varoufakis to chair it, the maverick Greek economist would feel obliged to decline.

The former Greek Finance Minister’s own experience tells him that “the rules” formulated by the world’s economic and political elites; “the rules” bankers and politicians consider themselves bound in solemn duty to uphold and enforce at all costs; are, in reality, no more than “the rules of engagement” in neoliberal capitalism’s “unceasing class war” against the poor. If Varoufakis was ever to accept an invitation to chair a government-sponsored seminar on progressive economics, it would only be because he had already been convinced, by their actions, that the politicians asking him to elaborate a more “transformational” political economy were rule-breakers – not rule-keepers.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 December 2017.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Bringing Down Labour’s Warrior Queen.

Magnificent Loser: Boudica may have raised the Ancient British tribes against their Roman rulers, but she proved to be no match for the discipline and experience of Suetonius's XIV Legion. If Jacinda Ardern is to successfully overthrow the Neoliberal political and economic consensus and establish a genuinely "transformational" government, then she will have to weld her disputatious political tribes into a fighting machine every bit as formidable as Bill English's disciplined and experienced National Opposition.

ANYONE WHO VISITS the British Houses of Parliament cannot fail to notice her. Upright in her war-chariot, the Ancient Britons’ warrior queen, Boadicea, and her daughters, burst out of history like a trio of avenging angels. The bronze statuary does not, however, celebrate a victory. In the bloody revolt against Roman rule of 60AD, Boadicea (or Boudica, as she is properly called) was the loser. It was Suetonius, commander of Rome’s XIV Legion, who won.

Jacinda Ardern’s sudden emergence as New Zealand’s warrior queen, though nowhere near as bloody as Boudica’s, certainly bears comparison in terms of its sheer drama. Like Boudica, Jacinda was able to draw together all the political tribes determined to end the incumbent government’s rule. Also like Boudica, she has enjoyed considerable initial success.

What lies ahead of Jacinda, however, is an enemy who, though outmanoeuvred, has yet to be decisively defeated. Like Suetonius’s XIV legion, the National Party is well-equipped, highly-experienced, and, most importantly, formidably-disciplined. Jacinda’s ragged tribes may outnumber them – but can they outfight them?

The Colmar-Brunton opinion poll, released by TVNZ’s Q+A show on Sunday, brings that latter question into sharp focus. National’s level of support, measured at 46 percent, has not only held up, it has actually improved slightly over the 44.4 percent it won at the General Election.

For the governing parties, the news is not so good. When translated into seats in the House, the Government’s numbers (Labour: 39 percent; Greens: 7 percent; NZ First: 5 percent) deliver no advance on its current tally of sixty-three. If Jacinda was anticipating a “post-election bounce” in the polls, then she and her colleagues will find it hard to avoid feeling ever-so-slightly jumpy.

It’s not only the fact that National continues to enjoy a substantial lead over Labour that must be vexing the Government, but also the sheer size of its opponent’s electoral base. Unlike the Centre-Left, the Centre-Right in New Zealand is not required to continually marshal political parties as diverse as they are disputatious. Instead, they can range themselves against the Left’s warrior queen as a formidable unitary force commanded by a single leader. If Jacinda is Boudica, then Bill English is Suetonius. And if the Government represents the fractious war-horde of the revolting British tribes, then the National Opposition represents the XIV Legion.

Historical metaphors aside, the disposition of political forces revealed in the latest Colmar-Brunton Poll reflects a dangerously divided society. National’s voters clearly remain unconvinced by the new government’s arguments for change. Certainly, this poll has registered nothing like the decisive 10 percentage-point shift in voter allegiance that followed the election of Helen Clark in 1999, and John Key in 2008. Branded by its enemies as a “coalition of the losers”, the Labour-NZ First-Green Government is beset by legitimacy issues entirely absent from previous MMP configurations.

These legitimacy issues are unlikely to be ameliorated by the Government’s apparent determination to keep its spending within the narrow bounds of its “Budget Responsibility Rules”.

The strategic thinking behind this self-imposed restraint is unclear – to say the least! For parties and candidates pitching themselves against the status-quo, boosting electoral turnout is everything. Donald Trump and the Brexiteers did not win by offering their angry constituencies careful and measured policies! For Labour’s share of the popular vote to overtake National’s, its leaders need to roll-out policies of sufficient boldness to mobilise the tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders who have, hitherto, seen little or no point in voting. Proud reiterations of your government’s “fiscal and economic responsibility” will likely strike many of these potential voters as a pretty odd way to bid for their support. Very much a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

National’s strategy, by contrast, is clear and simple: take confidence in our strength; remain united and disciplined; and seize every opportunity to inflict maximum damage upon the Government. The Centre-Right seldom requires special policy carrots to lure its voters to the polling-booths. Conservatives know who their friends are.

When Suetonius set the XIV Legion across Watling Street and waited for Boudica to come at him, he was supremely confident that, providing his men remembered their training and followed their orders, the Britons would be unable to translate their numerical advantage into victory. On the contrary, he anticipated that the massive casualties inflicted by his legionaries would soon break the British tribesmen’s fighting spirit and send them into headlong retreat.

If Bill English and his National Opposition are similarly able to hold the line, and drive back every government advance, then he, too, will be rewarded with a loss of confidence in his enemies’ ranks. Moreover, if he takes advantage of Labour’s ridiculous determination to limit the Coalition Government’s room for fiscal and economic manoeuvre, then Bill English, like Suetonius, will bring down his warrior queen.


This essay was originally published in The Press and The Dominion Post of Tuesday, 12 December 2017.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Warning Signs: The Briefings To Incoming Ministers Reveal A Country Gripped By Multiple Crises.

 Ominous Warnings: The Briefings to Incoming Ministers, released this week, paint a bleak picture of the previous government's consistent under-funding of public services. The veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, puts it like this: “What the Government is confronting is two separate pressures on its spending – one deferred spending from the austerity imposed by the last Government as a response to the GFC in 2008 and a new force in the form of a rapidly growing, ethnically diverse population.”

THE BRIEFINGS TO INCOMING MINISTERS (BIMs) have laid bare the accumulated failures of nine years of National Party Government. In sector after sector senior civil servants paint a grim picture of incompetence and neglect. The clear message which emerges from this sorry record is that New Zealand has been the victim of a nine-year austerity programme that nobody – other than the poor – seems to have noticed. Taken together, the BIMs offer stark proof of just how deep the class divisions in this country now run.

The veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, puts it like this: “What the Government is confronting is two separate pressures on its spending – one deferred spending from the austerity imposed by the last Government as a response to the GFC in 2008 and a new force in the form of a rapidly growing, ethnically diverse population.”

One of the reasons the three parties making up the present government were able to secure the votes necessary to win power was because the National-led Government was no longer able to confine the effects of its austerity programme to the poorest – and brownest – working-class communities. The effects of prolonged underfunding were beginning to be felt in New Zealand’s leafy suburbs as well as in its meanest streets. More and more people shared in the common agreement that something must be done.

An understanding that a great deal more money would have to be raised and spent, should have been at the heart of that agreement – and Labour should have been the party that put it there, imbuing it with the moral and intellectual force required to overcome the Right’s inevitable resistance. This had been the strategy of the Labour Party in the early 1930s, and it succeeded brilliantly. Labour took power in 1935 with a comprehensive and progressive manifesto, backed by the irresistible weight of an informed and impatient public.

Sadly, this was not the case in 2017.

Rather than build a broad consensus around the need for a substantial increase in public expenditure, funded by an equally large increase in taxation, Labour set out to convince voters of the exact opposite. No increase in personal income tax contributions were necessary, they were told, not even from the very wealthy. Corporate taxation, similarly, would not need to rise. The rate of the Goods and Services Tax could remain fixed at 15 percent. There would be no Capital Gains Tax, Land Tax or Inheritance Tax. Labour was at pains to let people know that it intended to cleave faithfully to the broad fiscal and economic settings bequeathed to it by the outgoing National Government. Gusts of rhetorical stardust notwithstanding, the new Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, was determined to run a tight fiscal ship.

In essence, Robertson’s strategy was the same as Steven Joyce’s, his predecessor: keep the middle-classes happy. National had done it with rock-bottom interest-rates, and by allowing the value of their personal assets to soar. Labour hoped to keep them happy with promises of free tertiary education and affordable homes for their kids; decent pay raises for teachers, nurses, hospital doctors and civil servants; and the gradual upgrading of New Zealand’s ailing infrastructure as and when finances permitted. For the working-class and beneficiaries there would be lots of smiles and hugs – and bugger-all else.

But, as Harman puts it on Politik: “There is a subtle but strong message running through the Briefings to Incoming Ministers […] which comes near to putting a price that the Government is going to have to pay to implement its promises.”

Unsurprisingly, given the neoliberal predilections of senior Treasury officials, the price envisaged is a capitulation to the idea of opening-up the renovation of New Zealand’s public services and infrastructure to private investors. Robertson’s principal advisers are steering him, very quietly, in the direction of Public-Private-Partnerships. In this they will be greatly assisted by Robertson’s personal aversion to unorthodox economic ideas, and by his determination to stay within the bounds of his “Budget Responsibility Rules”.

No matter that New Zealand is short 75,000 houses, or that 700,000 Kiwis cannot be sure of the purity of their drinking water. Too bad that there aren’t enough beds for the mentally ill, and that the prisons are full-to-overflowing. Unfortunate that our courts are so under-resourced that justice is being denied by trial delays of up to 18 months. Labour will continue to resist the rising clamour for increased spending via the tax rises essential to the maintenance of a civilised society.

The grim picture painted in the BIMs is the consequence of National’s class-driven programme of austerity. Labour’s seeming helplessness in the face of the multiple crises they reveal, is the direct consequence of its refusal to accept that the wounds of austerity can only be healed by applying the sovereign remedy of substantial increases in state spending – facilitated by a radical expansion of the tax base.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Saturday, 9 December 2017.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Trump Recognises Jerusalem: The Zionist End-Game Begins.

There Can be Only One: No matter how eloquently the partisans of a Jewish homeland reassured their Arab neighbours that they had nothing to fear from a future State of Israel, the brute logic of Zionism argued against the longevity of any such attempt at cultural and religious cohabitation. Sooner or later, the sheer impossibility of the two communities, Jewish and Arab, rubbing along together in peaceful coexistence would become apparent. And when that happened, one of those communities would have to go.

“APOCALYPSE IN THE VALLEY OF ARMAGEDDON”. The Daily Blog editor, Martyn Bradbury, certainly displays a gift for evocative language! On the subject of President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, however, I believe Martyn’s evocation of the apocalypse is premature. Trump’s decision is less a sign that Armageddon is imminent, and more a signal that the Zionists’ end-game is about to begin.

By announcing the United States recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump has sent two very important messages to the extreme Zionist elements in Israeli society. The first message is brutally simple: the so-called “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dead. The second, to the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, is that, as the political logic of the two-state solution’s demise is followed to its inevitable and brutal conclusion, the United States has got Israel’s back. Not just at the UN Security Council, but everywhere Israel needs American support.

The political logic of the two-state solution’s demise is inextricably bound up with the relentless colonisation of the West Bank by extreme Zionist “settlers”. Essentially, the so-called “settlements” were planted on the West Bank in order to render the formation of a viable Palestinian state impossible. The larger those settlements grow, the tighter the hands of Israeli politicians are bound. The political cost of dismantling the settlements has risen so high that no sensible Israeli any longer believes that a Palestinian state is achievable.

This leaves the Israeli authorities with two options. They can either continue to act as an army of occupation on the West Bank of the Jordan River: controlling every aspect of the Palestinian people’s lives, while Zionist settlements metastasise into every corner of Palestine’s shrinking body. Or, they could simply transform the West Bank into a Palestinian-Free Zone.

This latter option has lain dormant in Zionism from its very inception. No matter how eloquently the partisans of a Jewish homeland reassured their Arab neighbours that they had nothing to fear from a future State of Israel, the brute logic of Zionism argued against the longevity of any such attempt at cultural and religious cohabitation. Sooner or later, the sheer impossibility of the two communities, Jewish and Arab, rubbing along together in peaceful coexistence would become apparent. And when that happened, one of those communities would have to go.

Ethnically cleansing the West Bank would, of course, be a gross violation of international law. It would constitute a crime against humanity on a scale not seen since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide and, more recently, the expulsion of the Rohingya people from Myanmar.

Protected by Donald Trump and the American veto in the UN Security Council, however, Israel is unlikely to much care what the world thinks or does. When all is said and done, isn’t its fifty-year occupation of the West Bank a blatant contravention of international law? And, haven’t Israel’s repeated incursions into Lebanon, and its brutal bombing of the civilian population of Gaza, occasioned many crimes against humanity?

If a decision to expel the Palestinians from the West Bank is taken by the Israeli authorities, it would undoubtedly provoke fury in the Arab world. So great is Israel’s military power, however, that launching any kind of meaningful retaliation against such forced expulsions would risk a potentially devastating Israeli counter-strike.

Some of the most extreme Zionists might even welcome an Arab attack. What better justification for levelling the Al-Aqsa Mosque and laying the foundation-stone for the Third Temple?

Certainly, the rebuilding of “Solomon’s Temple” and the expansion of the State of Israel to the full extent of its biblical boundaries would be welcomed by the tens-of-thousands of so-called “Christian-Zionists” (and fervent Trump supporters) living in the United States. In their eyes, such developments would constitute proof-positive that the “End Times” had well and truly begun.

“Apocalypse in the Valley of Armageddon” would only be the beginning.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 8 December 2017

Getting Labour "Off The Couch" To Break Unemployment's Vicious Circles.

Avuncular Intervention: Regional Economic Development Minister, Shane Jones, tells TVNZ's Q+A programme that he is determined to introduce measures which will ensure that his "ne'er-do-well nephews" get "off the couch" and into work. Historically, breaking the vicious circles of unemployment has required the state to become the employer of last resort.

YOU’VE GOT TO hand it to Shane Jones – he sure knows how to seize control of the political agenda! Ever since his provocative performance on last Sunday’s Q+A, his name has seldom been out of the headlines. More impressive still, his ideas are being debated everywhere.

Sparking a genuine national conversation on anything other than sport and celebrity sex isn’t an easy thing to do. Generally speaking, it’s evidence of somebody, somewhere, striking a nerve. In Jones’ case, the phrase that caused so many Kiwis’ knees to jerk was the one prompted by his determination to get his ne’er do well nephews “off the couch” and into work.

In many ways, Jones’ arguments for unemployed youngsters to be forced into the world of work are classic Labour. Traditional working-class New Zealanders have little patience with slackers and bludgers. Decent men and women measure their worth by the hours they put in. Neither are they fussy about the jobs they put their energies into. The main thing is to be busy; to contribute; and be seen to be doing everything possible to stand on their own feet and pay their own way.

The problem (if problem is the right word) with this “can-do” attitude, is that it’s, almost always, a reflection of the “virtuous circles” in which its exemplars have been raised. Families in which the virtues of hard work, and the need to “better oneself”, have been drummed into children from birth tend, strangely enough, to produce hard workers who better themselves. Success is thus rendered intergenerational: fixing the family’s upward social trajectory; and ultimately carrying them out of their class altogether. No matter how high such families may rise, however, the values that drove their success, providing they continue to be inculcated, prevent them from falling.

But, what about the much less fortunate inhabitants of “vicious circles”? Families broken by massive economic dislocation and enforced idleness. Families in which hope curdles and faith in the future withers. Households where all sense of self-worth is undermined by repeated knock-backs and rejections; where, even when work is secured, it is precarious, wretchedly-paid, and subject to conditions that only further erase any semblance of personal dignity. In these circumstances, the wonder is not that such vicissitudes precipitate addiction, desertion, violence and abuse; but that so many men and women struggle to resist the vicious downward spiral into indifference and despair.

The puzzle which Shane Jones has set himself, and (through sheer chutzpah!) the coalition government, to solve is: how to rescue those trapped in these vicious circles; and how to then install them in virtuous circumstances of sufficient permanence for that virtue to become self-sustaining?

Significantly, Jones is reaching back into New Zealand history for answers. Because, of course, this country has broken vicious circles before. To secure a decent life for the social casualties of economic depression and world war, the First Labour Government expanded dramatically the employment opportunities offered by the state. Tens-of-thousands of workers who might otherwise have subsisted from odd-job to odd-job, found permanent employment, with union-negotiated wage-rates and conditions, in the state-owned railways, postal and telegraphic services, and infrastructure projects. They may not have been the world’s most productive workers, but these state-provided jobs allowed them to establish homes and families, and to raise children untroubled by the viciousness of the downward spiral.

That Jones is experiencing resistance from his former Labour colleagues is one of history’s little ironies. Or, maybe not. Because it was the Fourth Labour Government who made such an issue out of the alleged “inefficiency” of New Zealand’s “feather-bedded” government departments. The much-vaunted process of “corporatisation”, out of which emerged the significantly-titled “State Owned Enterprises”, saw thousands of workers lose not only their jobs, but the economic and social security that came with them. Virtuous circles of fifty years duration were broken, and the vicious circles, which have become such a feature of the free-market era, began sucking thousands of New Zealanders into their whirlpools of dysfunction.

Shane Jones, and his boss, Winston Peters, both know that short bursts of employment, even for the minimum wage, cannot cure the effects of structural unemployment. They’re aware that the vicious circles of dysfunction can only be broken by the state-subsidisation of permanent employment.

And that will require the Labour-led Government to “get off the couch”.


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, 8 December 2017.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

"Closing The Gaps" 2.0

Dangerous Politics: Both Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson were up-close witnesses of the racist backlash that scuttled the Helen Clark-led Government’s attempt to “Close the Gaps” between Rich and Poor/Maori and Pakeha in the early 2000s. The National Party does not have a monopoly on redneckism. Many Labour voters also have plenty of unpleasant things to say on the subject of “the Maarees”.

THE WORST SIDE-EFFECT of New Zealand’s thirty-year “free-market” experiment is the way the words “Maori” and “dysfunctional” have become interchangeable. That the poor in New Zealand are disproportionately brown has made it much easier for the Pakeha majority to submerge their racial animosity in the less inflammatory vocabulary of socio-economic prejudice. Just like their White American counterparts, Pakeha racists have found a way to communicate their hatred and intolerance of ethnic minorities by couching their attacks in the language of economics and sociology.

As newspaper columnist Dave Witherow, and the former National Party leader, Dr Don Brash have both discovered over the past fortnight: to rant and rave publicly against Te Ao Maori is to invite instant, extensive and very loud condemnation. Condemning the poor for their ignorance, improvidence, laziness and criminality, however, provokes no such backlash. Liberal and progressive New Zealand is content to keep ethnicity and social deprivation in separate conceptual boxes. In the racist imagination, however, being poor, and being Maori, remain kindred categories.

This ethnically-coded discourse about poverty and the poor explains the otherwise puzzling phenomenon of the former National Government’s ability to embrace much of the programme of the Maori Party without provoking the mass desertion of the sort of National voter who had responded so dramatically to Dr Brash’s in/famous “Orewa Speech” of 2004. John Key may have basked in the praise of liberal New Zealand for throwing his arms around Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples, but National’s less “politically correct” supporters had only to observe his government’s hard-line approach to beneficiaries to be reassured that their party’s intolerance of all manifestations of “Maori/Dysfunction” remained as fierce as ever.

As political subterfuge goes, it was a pretty sophisticated double-act. On the one hand stood Chris Finlayson: working his way through the backlog of Treaty claims with admirable dispatch. On the other, Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley: wielding their punishing sticks against the undeserving poor – a disproportionate number of whom just happened to be brown. The urban liberals were moved, but so, too, were National’s provincial conservatives. A win-win strategy for everyone – except the Maori poor.

And on 23 September 2017, the Maori poor had their revenge. Unwilling to give the Maori Party the benefit of the doubt a fifth time, Maori voters drove its two remaining representatives out of Parliament altogether – thereby securing Labour a clean sweep of the seven Maori electorates. Between them, the Labour, NZ First and Green parties making up the current government contain an unprecedented 19 Maori MPs.

For these Maori politicians, the linkage between ethnicity and poverty is as important to the overall conduct of Jacinda Ardern’s government as it was to John Key’s – but for diametrically opposite reasons! Maori, both inside and outside the House of Representatives, will not tolerate an economic and social strategy that is not committed unequivocally to freeing their communities from the consequences of thirty years of racist neglect: those crippling social dysfunctions which so many Pakeha cite as justification for their prejudice.

This is dangerous politics. Both Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson were up-close witnesses of the racist backlash that scuttled the Helen Clark-led Government’s attempt to “Close the Gaps” between Rich and Poor/Maori and Pakeha in the early 2000s. The National Party does not have a monopoly on redneckism. Many Labour voters also have plenty of unpleasant things to say on the subject of “the Maarees”.

Enter NZ First’s Regional Economic Development Minister, Shane Jones. His mission, to unite conservative provincial New Zealanders, Maori and Pakeha, around an economic nationalist programme committed to uplifting both communities. Anyone who watched Jones’s bravura performance on TVNZ’s “Q+A” current-affairs programme of Sunday, 3 December – during which he openly talked about forcing his feckless Northland “nephews” “off the couch” and into paid work – can only have felt for Finance Minister Grant Robertson. Jones, undoubtedly speaking on behalf of his boss, Winston Peters, made it very clear that Robertson’s business-oriented commitment to “fiscal and economic responsibility” cut little ice with him – nor, one suspects, with the Coalition Government’s other Maori MPs.

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the Coalition Agreement”, quipped Jones, paraphrasing Psalm 20:7, and making it very clear to his political cohabiters that the Maori members of the Government will not be truncating their Maori-centred agenda to satisfy either Robertson’s “Budget Responsibility Rules” – or the prejudices of Pakeha.

What Jones and his comrades have come to understand, finally, is that the “market-failures” which they are determined to correct were also, perversely, politica successes. The free-market policies of the 1980s and 90s contributed to the disintegration of many Maori communities. The resulting “Maori underclass” spawned a host of seriously dysfunctional behaviours – creating fears which were exploited politically to “weaponise” Pakeha racism.

Fix the first problem, and the second falls apart.


This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 December 2017.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Radical Transformers? Doesn't Sound Like It.

Labour's Responsible Fiscal and Economic Manager? Or, will Grant Robertson's unwavering adherence to his own "Budget Responsibility Rules" strap New Zealand into a fiscal and economic straightjacket, the primary effect of which will be to render the Labour-NZ First-Green Government’s “transformational” promises incapable of fulfillment?

TO ACCUSE POLITICIANS of being part of a “tax and spend” government is just another way of calling them social-democrats. By the same token, politicians who explicitly renounce the policies of tax and spend are signalling that they are anything but social-democrats. What, then, should we make of Grant Robertson’s speech to the ANZ Business Breakfast of Friday, 1 December 2017? The short answer is: if Finance Minister Robertson is a social-democrat, then he’s not a very good one.

Let’s begin with the most positive paragraph of his address to the assembled business leaders. Unfortunately, it’s not his. Robertson is merely quoting the core objectives of the Labour-NZ First- Green Government’s “common mission statement”:

 “Together, we will work to provide New Zealand with a transformational government, committed to resolving the greatest long-term challenges for the country, including sustainable economic development, increased exports and decent jobs paying higher wages, a healthy environment, a fair society and good government. We will reduce inequality and poverty and improve the well-being of all New Zealanders and the environment we live in.”

There is no avoiding the radicalism of this declaration. “Transformational government” is what happens when the old ways of doing things are jettisoned in favour of news ways of managing a nation’s economy and society. The 1984-1990 Labour government of David Lange and Roger Douglas was unequivocally transformational. It cast aside the political, economic and social assumptions of the previous fifty years of New Zealand history in favour of a market-led society in which taxing and spending would be relentlessly “downsized”.

Significantly, the current Labour-NZ First-Green Government has, in large measure, come into being because just over half the New Zealand electorate was determined to bring an end to and, if possible, reverse, that downsizing.

Unfortunately, it just isn’t possible – on the basis of Robertson’s address to the ANZ Business Breakfast – to see how that can happen. The Finance Minister makes it very clear that the Ardern Government (its promises to bring about “transformational” change notwithstanding) is absolutely determined to offer “responsible fiscal and economic management”.

In case his audience was in any doubt as to what this entailed, Robertson spelled out Labour’s “Budget Responsibility Rules”:

“To recap, this means that we will deliver a sustainable operating surplus each year unless there is a significant disaster or major economic shock or crisis. We will ensure that government spending as a proportion of the economy won’t rise above the recent historical average of 30% of GDP. We will reduce net core Crown debt to 20% of GDP within five years of taking office.”

It’s important to identify these commitments for what they truly are: a fiscal and economic straightjacket, the primary effect of which will be to render the Labour-NZ First-Green Government’s “transformational” promises incapable of fulfilment.

Robertson’s Budget Responsibility Rules will achieve this result all on their own. Throw in Labour’s election campaign commitment to leave income and company taxes unchanged for three years, and what New Zealanders are faced with is thirty-six months of “Austerity-Lite”. Which isn’t quite the “transformation” New Zealanders had in mind when they accepted Jacinda’s invitation to “Let’s Do This”.

Somehow, Robertson’s rigid adherence to “responsible fiscal and economic management” will have to be overcome. Failure to reclaim the ability to tax and spend, or, to put it in less tendentious language: the ability to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor while accelerating the nation’s infrastructural development in ways that both reduce social inequality and expand individual opportunity; can only result in the Labour-NZ First-Green Government being thrown out on its ear in 2020.

Most of all, the Labour caucus needs to be weaned-off the self-denying-ordinances of neoliberalism. The whole history of our democracy has been about the determination of ordinary people to claim the same rights and privileges that King John’s barons acquired in Magna Carta. Namely, that before the King can tax them, he must first obtain their consent. In other words, determining the quantum and purpose of revenue gathering is the people’s prerogative. Winning control of the Treasury Benches becomes meaningless if the winners then refuse to exercise their right to raise revenue and spend it as they see fit.

If this is, in truth, to be a radical, transformational government, then perhaps its parliamentary majority should consider delivering a small demonstration of radical, transformational politics. All the Labour, NZ First and Green MPs outside Cabinet could agree to meet as a single entity and demand that the “Red October” appendix to the Coalition Agreement be made available for discussion and debate. This revolutionary “Common Mission Committee” could then communicate to Finance Minister Robertson which of the many promises agreed to by Labour were to be financed and implemented. If he refused, a new Finance Minister could be suggested.

Fanciful? Of course, it is! Not least because the Executive could easily thwart such a rebellion by entering into a grand coalition with the National Party. Would that cause the Labour Party to self-destruct? Probably. But wouldn’t that be a more honest outcome than forever putting up with governments run by unelected neoliberal civil servants?

A Labour Party that refuses to tax and spend really should call itself something else.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 2 December 2017.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Winston Peters Has Options - Jacinda Ardern Does Not.

Clowns To The Left Of Me, Jokers To The Right: Winston Peters with his crucial nine NZ First seats can make or break the fortunes of both major parties. Jacinda Ardern, on the other hand, cannot lose Winston's support without losing office. It would, therefore, be prudent for Labour to honour the promises that secured them the Treasury Benches.

JACINDA ARDERN needs to get a whole lot smarter – and quickly. Or Bill English might stop behaving like the dimmer half of Dumb and Dumber and start thinking strategically. The object of all this clever, strategic thinking? Winston Peters.

The Prime Minister’s frantic attempts to keep the “annex” to the Labour-NZ First coalition agreement secret, suggests strongly that the rumours about the post-election negotiations are true. Labour, it is said, could not believe the radicalism of the changes Winston Peters and his fellow negotiators were seeking. Unwilling to jeopardise their chances of ultimate victory, Labour’s negotiating team were, accordingly, careful to shunt NZ First’s most radical policy propositions into the now notorious annex.

Describing these as mere “notes”, the Prime Minister is flatly refusing to acknowledge the annex as official information. The moment NZ First’s nice-to-haves become official government policy, she reassures us, they will be made public. Until then, however, the sheer scale of NZ First’s policy ambitions will remain under wraps.

What must Peters be making of all this fancy prime-ministerial footwork?

It’s hard to see him being anything other than aggrieved and alarmed. Is this how Capitalism is to be given a human face? By falling back on the secrecy and manipulation of the Clark years? God knows, there are enough of Helen’s old comrades cluttering-up the Beehive lift-wells as it is! Do they really expect him to abandon his stated preference for “change” over “a modified status quo” before he’s even had time to hang up so much as a single Christmas stocking?

Peters is by no means the first political observer to note just how completely the “Jacinda-Train” has been stripped of its radical political signage. What had looked to many like a replica of Trotsky’s legendary armoured train; a vehicle for carrying the revolution forward against all enemies; has taken on the appearance of a drab KiwiRail locomotive in the process of being rotated 180 degrees on the Wellington turn-table.

This is not what Peters and his party threw in their lot with Labour and the Greens to achieve. Clarks “glacial incrementalism” is not the stuff of which political legacies are made. As he stood beside the young prime minister in the Beehive Theatrette on Monday afternoon, is it possible that Peters was beginning to feel, ever-so-slightly, foolish? Was he wondering whether, somehow, the old grand-master of the political chess-game was being checked?

Had he and his colleagues not been so busy forwarding thousands of written parliamentary questions to the Clerk’s Office, Bill English might have registered just how taut the hawsers holding the Labour and NZ First ships together have become. He might have asked himself what the Prime Minister’s refusal to come clean about all the policy concessions NZ First had demanded, and Labour had nodded through, portended for the Coalition’s long-term prospects. He might have concluded that “a [barely] modified status quo” is the very best NZ First can hope for. He might have thought to himself: “But, National can offer that!”

Indeed, it can. Which is why the Prime Minister needs to rein-in all those lofty Labour condescenders who have plonked themselves down at the coalition table and started explaining the facts of political life to their NZ First and Green Party allies. Most of all, she needs to ban absolutely any further references to Steve Maharey’s infamous quote dismissing political promises as “the sort of thing you say in Opposition, and then forget about in Government”.

Winston Peters had every reason to give the National Party a wide berth in the aftermath of the 2017 general election. Even so, he would never have joined forces with Labour had he not been assured of the policy space necessary to construct an enduring political legacy.

If English senses that Labour is denying the NZ First leader his promised policies of change, then what’s to stop him offering Peters an alternative legacy? By setting-up NZ First as its sister-party in provincial New Zealand, National could avoid becoming “Johnny-No-Mates”: New Zealand’s largest party, but never able to win enough seats to form a government. If English can convince him to become National’s provincial partner, then Peters will be able to bestow upon his beloved NZ First Party the precious legacy of permanence.

Time to smarten-up Jacinda! Give Winston the policies he was promised.


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, 1 December 2017.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Green Party Lesson No. 1: Anticipating The Direction Of Political Sniper Fire.

Not A Good Look: Golriz Ghahraman (then an intern for the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) poses alongside Simon Bikindi - the Hutu singer-songwriter whose "killer songs" played a deadly role in the killing of 800,000 to one million Tutsi tribes-people during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Ghahraman has come under intense criticism for not making clearer this, and other, associations with war criminals. That the Greens did not anticipate such attacks should be of real concern to the Ardern Government.

IN POLITICS, as in war, the aggressor’s first strike is almost always directed against the defender’s weakest point. That being the case, the National Opposition has clearly identified the Ardern Government’s lacklustre political management skills as its primary target. Their secondary target, equally clearly, is the Greens. This should be the cause of considerable angst on the Government’s part. The Labour-NZ First Coalition’s political management skills will improve with practice. Improving the Greens political skills is a much taller order!

The Greens face a number of serious problems at the moment, not the least of which is the extremely heavy workloads being borne by the most experienced members of their tiny caucus. James Shaw, Julie-Anne Genter and Eugenie Sage, as Ministers Outside of Cabinet, have their hands full just bringing themselves up-to-speed with their portfolios. Of the remaining five Green MPs: one is an Under-Secretary; one the Party Whip; another is campaigning to become the next Female Co-Leader; and the remaining two are complete newbies.

Unsurprisingly, it was one of the latter, Golriz Ghahraman, who this week found herself in the cross-hairs of David Farrar and Phil Quin, two of New Zealand’s most deadly political snipers.

Both men’s attention had been drawn to what can only be described as the unnecessary grandiloquence of Ghahraman’s CV. Describing her fairly modest role in the massive UN exercises known as the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and the Special Tribunal for Cambodia (ICTs) in terms that made her sound like Geoffrey Robertson and Amal Alamuddin Clooney all rolled into one, really was asking for, if not trouble, then most certainly some pretty close enemy scrutiny.

That Ghahraman was not well-placed to withstand such scrutiny, raises two obvious and important questions. Why did she draw attention to her participation in these ICTs without fully disclosing her potentially controversial roles as a member of the defendants’ legal team? And, why didn’t the Green Party carry out the same sort of due diligence exercise on Ghahraman’s CV as Quin and Farrar? At the very least, these simple precautions would have allowed Ghahraman and her Green Party colleagues to anticipate precisely the sort of attacks that eventuated.

The obvious lesson which the National Party will have drawn from this incident is that the Green Party – or at least those responsible for its communications strategies – are in the grip of a conception of politics that places far too much emphasis on marketing and spin. Only the most inexperienced (and cynical) public relations flack could consider it “okay” to leave out of a politician’s most immediately accessible biography (the one on her own party’s website!) something as potentially explosive as the information that she had helped to defend people accused of genocide and other, equally horrifying, crimes against humanity.

The incident will also have alerted National to the fact that the Greens have learned absolutely nothing from the parliamentary bullying meted-out to their colleague, the former Green MP, Keith Locke.

It was the Labour Party’s Opposition Research which dug out of the pages of Socialist Action, the Trotskyite newspaper which Locke edited for many years, a nugget of pure political gold. The Socialist Action League had been an enthusiastic early supporter of the Khmer Rouge – the revolutionary party led by Pol Pot which, in 1975, toppled the right-wing military government of Cambodia. As the editor of Socialist Action, Locke had celebrated the Khmer Rouge takeover as a “victory for humanity”.

In vain did Locke attempt to explain to his parliamentary accusers that, at the time the offending articles were written, neither he nor the Socialist Action League were aware of the wholesale “politicide” unfolding in the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia. John Pilger’s shocking revelations that the Khmer Rouge had murdered millions of Cambodians, however, rendered Locke’s after-the-fact explanations utterly ineffective. He had written in support of Pol Pot – and for many MPs that was enough to place him beyond the pale of political respectability.

The point of this cautionary tale? That a political party – especially one which, like the Greens, attracts radicals and activists of all kinds – not only needs to keep its institutional memory alive, it needs to keep it kicking-in. The most important lesson to be drawn from Locke’s experience is that political parties need to conduct exhaustive research into the backgrounds of all its candidates, so that areas of weakness and vulnerability can be identified early and, if possible, neutralised by preventive revelation.

It is supremely ironic that Ghahraman, Locke’s successor in the role of Green Spokesperson for Global Affairs, was a member of the Special Tribunal for Cambodia’s prosecution team for bringing the mass murderers of the Khmer Rouge to justice. Ironic, too, that she, like Locke, has seen her credibility in the Global Affairs and Justice Spokesperson roles severely damaged by a failure to anticipate how the Greens’ enemies, however unfairly, might turn the actions of her past, no matter how well intentioned, against her.

After Ghahraman’s ambush, Jacinda Ardern will be acutely aware that improving her government’s political management skills is not simply a matter of keeping her own Labour Party safe from political snipers, but that the job also entails teaching the Greens how to anticipate – and then dodge – their common enemy’s bullets.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 30 November 2017.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Genuine Open Government Empowers People And Politicians Alike.

"What I See, You See." In Chris Mullins' political thriller, A Very British Coup, the democratic-socialist prime minister, Harry Perkins, empowers the people by sweeping away all government secrecy. In the process, he makes it easier for his colleagues to resist the temptation to keep the media and the electorate in the dark. What a coup it would be if the Labour-NZ First-Green Government did the same. 

ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE aspects of A Very British Coup, is the left-wing prime minister’s commitment to open government. Thirty years may have passed since the television adaptation of Chris Mullin’s novel was broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4, but with a left-wing pacifist Leader of the Opposition poised to become the UK’s next prime minister, the series has taken on a surprisingly contemporary feel. Certainly, the question of how much of the day-to-day business of government should remain hidden from public view has become a very live issue in New Zealand.

Much has been made of the National Party Opposition’s “spamming” of the new Labour-NZ First-Green government. The thousands of written parliamentary questions piling-up in Ministers’ offices have been decried as a cheap political stunt by the Government’s supporters, but other commentators, determined to uphold the principles of government accountability and transparency have defended the Opposition’s actions.

When A Very British Coup first screened here, back in the late 1980s, I very quickly came to think of it as a wonderful primer in how a genuinely left-wing Labour government should behave. Nowhere was the radicalism of the fictional British PM, Harry Perkins, more vividly on display than in the way he treated his government’s “official information”.

Rather than force political journalists and Opposition MPs to file endless OIA requests and ask endless parliamentary questions, Harry simply announced that what he saw, they would see, also. Everything, from his daily appointments schedule, to Cabinet briefing papers and departmental reports, would be released to the news media, and the public, immediately and without distinction. Government secrecy would become a thing of the past.

Chris Mullin (a British Labour Party MP, as well as a thriller writer) was making a truly revolutionary point about political information.

The moment a government decides that some information is simply too sensitive, problematic and/or embarrassing to be shared with the voters, it is entering into a conspiracy against the public good. Why shouldn’t ordinary citizens know who Cabinet Ministers are meeting with – and the nature and content of their discussions? It is, after all, in their name that government decisions are made, and their money which pays for them. Surely, only a politician with something to hide would raise objections to a policy of full and immediate disclosure?

Civil servants and lobbyists would, of course, object that by exposing their interventions to public scrutiny such a government would very quickly end up being told only those things that their advisers would be happy to see on the front page of the NZ Herald. To which I would respond: “And what’s wrong with that?” If their advice is well-founded in fact and devoid of any hint of self-interest, then what possible objection could they have to the public being copied in? Surely, it would only be those offering tendentious, ideologically-driven advice to ministers, or appealing to them on their private clients’ behalf, who would find such a radical open government policy objectionable?

The old adage: “Information is Power”; imposes a real moral burden on democratic socialist politicians. If democracy is all about giving power to the people, then withholding information from them is, objectively, an act of deliberate disempowerment.

A radical open government policy, such as that adopted by Harry Perkins in A Very British Coup, offers something else to democratic socialist politicians: protection from themselves. Unable to hide their words and deeds from the public, deviating from their own principles and/or their party’s policies becomes much more difficult!

Harry Perkins, unlike Steve Maharey, could never quietly abandon a policy with the cynical observation that it was “just one of those things you say in Opposition and then forget about in Government”. His radical open government policy was, at once, a means of further empowering the people who elected him, and of making sure they were governed by decent and more honest politicians.

No wonder the Establishment was so desperate to bring him down!


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 28 November 2017.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

When Five Million Seems Like A Very Small Number.

Divided Loyalties: When it comes to settling on a Twenty-First Century protector, New Zealand faces a dilemma. The United States provides military protection, but refuses to offer economic security. China provides economic security, but cannot (for the moment) offer military protection. Neither power is likely to go on contributing the ‘missing half’ of a complete protection package indefinitely.

NEW ZEALAND is a tiny nation living in a big country. It’s one of those mind-boggling facts that in an island roughly the same size as New Zealand’s two largest islands combined, the United Kingdom somehow manages to squeeze-in 66 million human-beings. Greater London, alone, packs twice New Zealand’s entire population into an area smaller than Stewart Island. In the greater scheme of things, Planet Earth’s roughly five million New Zealanders don’t count for much: not in the eyes of the other 7.6 billion human-beings who share it with them.

Given its tiny population, how should New Zealand position itself vis-à-vis the rest of the world? How does it deal with the all-too-obvious discrepancy between its landmass and its population?

This is not a trick question. As Maori discovered in the Nineteenth Century: a large pair of islands, located comfortably in the southern hemisphere’s temperate zone, and peopled by (at most) 150,000 human-beings; is simply too-tempting a prize for the world’s predator nations to ignore. Had the tribes not signed-up with the British, chances are they’d have signed-on with the French.

From a strategic perspective, the Maori decision to place themselves under the protection of what was then the world’s most powerful state makes perfect sense. That their faith in the British Government’s promise to respect the manifold local sovereignties of hapu and iwi was misplaced is hardly their fault! Even after the military defeat and economic marginalisation of New Zealand’s indigenous population, however, the Waitangi signatories’ original strategic insight remains unimpeachable. Two relatively large, but thinly-populated islands, located at the bottom of the world, will always be in need of at least one unanswerably powerful friend.

Unfortunately, that sort of protection comes at a price. (As any victim of the New York Mafia will attest!) And, Dear God! New Zealand has paid dearly! For keeping the sea-lanes open to the endless circuit of refrigerated vessels transporting this country’s lamb, wool, butter and cheese to the port cities of the British Isles, the “Mother Country” siphoned-off a small lake of New Zealand blood.

Less visceral, but arguably even more debilitating, was the oppressive cultural straight-jacket into which the United Kingdom fastened its most loyal dominion. All the worst features of British imperialism: its deeply ingrained class prejudices; the complacent avarice of its monied elites; and, most damaging of all, the Empire’s indefatigable racism; left deep scars on New Zealand’s collective psyche. More than a century after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and notwithstanding the tragic losses of two world wars, New Zealanders – Maori as well as Pakeha – could still be reduced to obsequious delirium by the mere physical presence of the reigning British monarch.

There was, however, no disputing the fact that Britain’s imperial sun was setting. If New Zealand was to remain safe, it would require a more credible protector than the over-extended empire whose power-projection pretentions were sent to the bottom of the South China Sea in December 1941.

The United States’ rise to super-power status during World War II, when combined with the UK’s demise as a global player, unleashed a cultural revolution in far-off New Zealand. The official egalitarianism of the American republic, especially when combined with the raw energy of its artistic output – its music and cinema particularly – armed the USA with a historically unprecedented amount of “soft-power”. Though Kiwis have been slow to admit it, the emancipation of their cultural imagination owes an enormous debt of gratitude to their American protector.

New Zealand’s strategic dilemma in the Twenty-First Century arises out of two historically related developments. The first was Deng Xiaoping’s decision to pursue “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” – basically, his Communist Party’s re-invention of traditional Chinese mercantilism. The second, the “Reagan Revolution’s” triumph over Rooseveltian progressivism in the 1980s. This brought about a qualitative change in the character of American soft power. It was a change which many New Zealanders found unpalatable – even frightening.

As the consequences of these two historical shifts worked their way through New Zealand’s economy and society, the maintenance of a coherent foreign policy became increasingly difficult. Economically, New Zealand is oriented firmly towards its crucial Chinese markets. Culturally, diplomatically and militarily, however, the ties that bind remain American. The challenge confronting successive New Zealand governments has been how to reconcile Washington’s insistence that New Zealand remain a US protectorate, while simultaneously refusing to guarantee its economic security.

When it comes to settling on a Twenty-First Century protector, therefore, New Zealand faces a dilemma. The United States provides military protection, but refuses to offer economic security. China provides economic security, but cannot (for the moment) offer military protection. Neither power is likely to go on contributing the ‘missing half’ of a complete protection package indefinitely.

There are times when five million seems like a very small number indeed.


This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 November 2017.

Monday, 27 November 2017

A Moral Victory: The Supreme Court Rescues Our Judiciary From Itself.

The Last Line Of Defence: What is wrong with our justice system that the judgements of its lower courts have so often been overturned and criticised by the Law Lords of the UK Privy Council and, more latterly, the judges of our own Supreme Court?

THE SUPREME COURT has finally declared the deal struck between the Department of Labour and Pike River boss, Peter Whittall, “unlawful”. A moral victory for Sonja Rockhouse and Anna Osborne, certainly, but hardly a victory for the New Zealand justice system. Though the Supreme Court came through for the plaintiffs in the end, the High Court and, more worrying still, the Court of Appeal, had both earlier rejected their legal team’s arguments. Had these two women not been as tough as the Pike River rock, their gruelling legal journey all the way to the Supreme Court might never have been completed. It would still be legally acceptable for delinquent chief executives to buy their way out of a conviction. Significantly, too much time has passed for Mr Whittall to be hauled back into court.

What is wrong with our justice system that the judgements of its lower courts have so often been overturned and criticised by the Law Lords of the UK Privy Council and, more latterly, the judges of our own Supreme Court? Why, for example, did it require a determined journalist, an Aussie jurist and a bloody-minded prime minister to give Arthur Alan Thomas justice? Why was New Zealand’s Court of Appeal so manifestly unequal to that task? And why was Peter Ellis unable to rely upon that same Court of Appeal to clear his name? In other jurisdictions, all the victims of the moral panics induced by false “Satanic Abuse” accusations had their convictions overturned in their countries’ courts of appeal. Not here.

It’s almost as if the New Zealand courts are afraid of acknowledging the occasional mistakes that all highly complex human institutions are bound to make. That once the State, or the Courts, have determined a person to be guilty, and an institution innocent, then that judgement must be upheld at any cost. Those exercising authority over their fellow citizens have been robed, like the Pope, in the vestments of infallibility. Thus protected, their judgements are only very rarely overturned.

Those filling the high seats of our justice system are not only reluctant to overturn the decisions of their colleagues in the lower courts, but they seem equally reluctant to hold accountable their peers in public administration and corporate management. And woe betide any members of the judiciary who so forget themselves that they condemn wrong-doing in high places in memorable and evocative language. When Judge Peter Mahon called the testimony of Air New Zealand to the Erebus Inquiry “an orchestrated litany of lies”, the national airline appealed to his brother judges to have the offending words struck out. They happily obliged!

This ingrained reluctance to hold New Zealand’s most powerful citizens and institutions to account, renders our justice system contemptible in the eyes of those who look to the judiciary for protection against the growing power of the state and its agencies. As if this failure wasn’t serious enough, the judiciary’s all-too-obvious reverence for the wielders of power in New Zealand society has, over many decades, seeped down into the minds of the broader population, contaminating the pool of potential jurors.

The near impossibility of securing a conviction in even the most egregious cases of police officers breaking the law is, in part, a reflection of the judiciary’s failure to educate the public in the supreme importance of making sure that those entrusted with the enforcement of the law understand how absolutely they are professionally and personally bound to uphold it. It is not difficult to understand why, earlier this week, after learning of the acquittal of two Police officers charged with kidnapping a 17-year-old youth, Dr Dean Knight, a senior law lecturer at Wellington’s Victoria University, tweeted: “I worry the rule of law took a hit today.”

It’s as well the Supreme Court chose the same week to reaffirm the principle that, in a nation of laws, it must remain utterly unacceptable for persons charged with offences to avoid conviction by simply handing over a great deal of money. Until the members of this country’s highest court intervened, the Labour Department’s refusal to present evidence against Peter Whittall had provided the critics of our judicial system with a seemingly irrefutable example of the way in which the powerful are able to close ranks against people like Sonja Rockhouse and Anna Osborne – making a mockery of their expectation that all citizens will be treated equally before the law.

Had they not, then the words of the Ancient Scythian philosopher, Anacharsis, would have been borne out in their entirety:

“These decrees of yours are no different from spiders’ webs. They’ll restrain anyone weak and insignificant who gets caught in them, but they’ll be torn to shreds by people with power and wealth.”


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 26 November 2017.