"John Frum, He Come." The National Government's stubborn promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been likened to the post-World War II Melanesian "Cargo Cults" whose followers constructed their own "runways" and "aircraft" to entice the recently departed GIs "John From America" (John Frum) to return bearing the miraculous "cargo" that had so suddenly enriched their lives.
IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST EXTREME REACTIONS to a speech that I have ever witnessed. I had written it for the newly-elected Mayor of Dunedin, Sukhi Turner, and she had made it her own. Delivering it with her trademark forthrightness, she set the Dunedin Establishment ablaze. The offending paragraph had been the one in which she accused the Dunedin business community of having a “cargo cult” mentality.
The anthropological term, “cargo cult”, arose from the responses of a number of isolated Melanesian populations whose subsistence communities had been overwhelmed during World War II: first by soldiers; then with all the things that soldiers need. When the war ended, and the soldiers and their “cargo” departed (as suddenly and mysteriously as they had arrived) the islanders were distraught. Desperate for the return of these bringers-of-all-good things, they laid out jungle runways and fashioned crude facsimiles of aircraft. “John Frum [John from America] he come”, they intoned to the heavens. “John Frum, he come.”
The point I was making in the speech, and which Sukhi embraced, was that our own local (and national) business elites were behaving very similarly to those Melanesian islanders. They also believed that if they laid out the equivalent of jungle runways (financial inducements, deregulated markets) then John Frum’s precious “cargo” – in the form of big, one-off, economy-rescuing, foreign-investment projects – would follow.
The firestorm created by the speech took a great deal of hosing down. (Unsurprisingly, I wrote no more incendiary mayoral speeches!) It did, however, teach me a couple of very valuable lessons. First. What are presented as highly sophisticated economic arguments in favour of globalisation are driven by some very unsophisticated (some might even say primal) human impulses. Second. The people advancing such arguments do not take at all kindly to being labelled cargo cultists!
That being the case, the veteran journalist, Gordon Campbell, should probably watch his back. Because, in his latest analysis of the Bill English-led National Government’s peculiar obsession with keeping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) alive, Campbell writes:
“New Zealand – and other nations – made concessions and spent their political capital in order to meet American corporate demands. The likes of English are still promising to observe these commitments to the letter, even though the Americans won’t be there to keep their side of the bargain. The TPP has literally become a cargo cult ritual that’s being performed in the hope that someday, one day, the Americans will return, bearing gifts.”
No surprise, then, that the National-led Government is so keen to enrol the Labour Party in this, to date, fruitless ritual. Labour’s return to the Free Trade fold would represent a much-needed infusion of political capital to the project. Without it, the New Zealand political class’s considerable reputational investment in TPP stands to be lost.
Exactly why Labour would offer its company to all this pro-TPP misery is far from clear. Such an about-face would not only alienate its prospective coalition partners in the Greens (whose opposition to the TPP remains staunch) but also enrage the September election’s likely arbiter, Winston Peters – whose adamant opposition to such agreements is well known on both sides of the parliamentary aisle.
Accordingly, by far the most fruitful course of action for Labour would be to make common-cause with the Greens and NZ First against any and all attempts to revive the TPP in its current, unamended, form.
Such an alliance would constitute a stern warning to the political class that its participation in such absurd cargo cult rituals must end. It would also signal that the days of electoral politics being a “heads we win, tails you lose” proposition for New Zealand’s “permanent interests” are over.
The National Party (which certainly likes to think of itself as the spokesperson for those permanent interests) should recall the fury of the tangata whenua at the sovereignty-threatening clauses of the TPP – especially the Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions. Is its relationship with the Maori Party strong enough to withstand such a test of loyalties?
The three (possibly four) parties currently positioned to bring National’s nine-year-reign to an end could hardly have wished for a better issue around which to gather the forces seeking a change of government. It offers the Left a rare opportunity to bestow upon its parliamentary representatives the benediction of mass political action: the chance to allow Labour, the Greens and NZ First to be carried all the way to the Beehive’s Ninth Floor on a vast wave of popular discontent.
All of which poses the question: Why would English and his allies (both inside and outside of Parliament) willingly hang the weighty carcass of the deeply unpopular TPP around their collective neck? Do they really intend their final words, as the rising tide of change closes over their heads, to be: “John Frum, he come”?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 May 2017.