Friday, 23 March 2018

Labour And NZ First: Partners In Populism - Or Not?

Kindred Spirits? The only way the coalition between Labour and NZ First can ever be made to work is if Jacinda Ardern, beneath the necessary veneer of “responsible government”, is actually every bit as populist as Winston Peters.

POPULISM VERSUS RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT. The Regions versus Metropolitan New Zealand. NZ First versus Labour. Shane Jones versus Grant Robertson. “Oh yes, Ladies and gentlemen, there’s Trouble: Trouble with a capital ‘T’; and it’s brewing right here in Political City!”

The only way the coalition between Labour and NZ First can ever be made to work is if Jacinda Ardern, beneath the necessary veneer of “responsible government”, is actually every bit as populist as Winston Peters.

No other political modus vivendi offers the slightest chance of success. In no time at all, an ideologically “responsible” Labour-led government would be placing a whole platter-full of dead rats before its coalition partners and expecting them to smack their lips with delight. How many of these delicacies NZ First could consume before its remaining followers threw up their hands in horror and disgust is uncertain – but it’s highly unlikely to be a lot.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if Labour’s junior coalition partner possessed a solid buffer of popular support to keep it safely above the 5 percent MMP threshold. Enough to sanction a little tactical erosion. But this is not the case. By opting to put Labour on the Treasury Benches, Winston Peters instantly burned-off that part of his electoral base which had been expecting him to turn right. The 7.2 percent support NZ First attracted at the General Election was halved in the first of the big post-election opinion polls. A steady diet of dead rats is hardly likely to improve the party’s position!

The biggest of those rats – the CPTPP – was, perhaps, unavoidable. To take on the combined forces of MFAT, MPI, Treasury, Business NZ and Federated Farmers in the first crucial weeks of the coalition’s life was simply too big an ask. Even the most radical of NZ First’s populist followers could see that. Likewise, the need to cry ‘Tai Hoa!’ on the free-trade agreement with the Russian Federation. If Teresa May’s “sexed-up” accusations are proved to be as false as Tony Blair’s WMDs – as a great many of NZ First’s members expect – then Albion’s perfidy will soon be made clear and negotiations can resume with gusto.

The consumption of rat carcases must, however, end right there. Labour cannot afford to set any more before Winston Peters and his caucus colleagues. They have allowed Jacinda to take what she absolutely had to have – now it’s her turn to give NZ First what it needs.

But can she? Will her “Kitchen Cabinet” – David Parker, Grant Robertson, Phil Twyford – let her? The answer would appear to be ‘No’. Not if the Labour Party leadership’s reaction to Shane Jones’ full-scale populist assault on Air New Zealand’s treatment of the provinces is anything to go by.

Jones’ attack was perfectly pitched to the pissed-off provincial voters NZ First needs to win back. It was excoriatingly anti-corporate and anti-elitist: directed with pin-point populist accuracy at the Big End of Town. All that Labour had to do in response was avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as a reproof of Jones’ rhetorical axe-swinging.

After the arrogant telling-off directed at Finance Minister Robertson by Air New Zealand’s management, saying nothing should have been a no-brainer. No government can afford to let itself be lectured to by a corporation in which the people of New Zealand hold a 51 percent stake.  Certainly, a brief media release from Robertson (confirming that he would be carefully considering the composition of the Air New Zealand board in September) would have popped a cherry on the top of Jones’ populist sundae – but it wasn’t essential. Labour’s silence would have spoken loudly enough.

Significantly, neither Jacinda Ardern nor Grant Robertson were willing to keep silent on the subject of Jones’ populist broadside against the management of Air New Zealand. The Prime Minister felt compelled to tell the news media that: “Calling for the sacking of any board member is a step too far and I have told Shane Jones that.” Robertson, according to the NZ Herald, “said he disagreed with Jones and the board and chief executive were doing a good job.”

It is impossible to argue that Robertson’s comment was not also directed with pin-point accuracy at the Big End of Town. The problem is, instead of informing the corporate elite that Labour was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with its coalition partner, he let them know, in terms that could not possibly be misconstrued: “We’re with you guys.”

All of which leaves Winston Peters with some very serious thinking to do. Because the party in which he opted to place his trust in October 2017: the party he still believed capable of belting out Mickey Savage’s and Norman Kirk’s “Hallelujah Song”; is steadily demonstrating, both to NZ First and the New Zealand electorate, that the only songs it remembers how to sing are the ones it learned from Roger Douglas back in the 1980s.

And that won’t do – not at all. Thirty-nine working-parties and policy reviews are no substitute for NZ First’s plain and simple promises to put things right. Those promises were a big part of the reason why Labour, NZ First and the Greens won enough seats to form a government.  If they are not kept or, worse still, they are shown – by Labour – to be “just the sort of thing you say when you’re in Opposition and then forget about when you’re in Government”, then NZ First will simply have no to say “fuck it” – and walk away.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 23 March 2018.

Asking The Right Questions.

Mouth Wide Shut: James Shaw is hoping that if he and his caucus colleagues are seen as good team-players, then by 2020 the Greens will have earned the voters’ respect and, more importantly, their votes.

THE BEST WAY to characterise the Greens curious policy on parliamentary questions is as a gesture of good will. Not, as some might be thinking, towards the National Party, but to their partners in government – Labour and NZ First.

So long as those one or two questions per sitting day remained, the temptation would always be there for the more radical members of the Green Party caucus to use them. Indeed, Marama Davidson has made it clear to Green Party members that she regards it as her duty to ask the questions they need answers to – no matter how embarrassing.

If elected as their new female co-leader, she sees herself as ideally placed to keep the Greens’ brand sharply and safely differentiated from every other party in Parliament. Unlike her opponent, Julie Anne Genter, she is without ministerial responsibilities. That leaves her free to speak truth to power.

Being “spoken to” by a Green Party co-leader determined to raise aloft Metiria Turei’s tattered banner is not, however, anywhere near the top of either Jacinda Ardern’s or Winston Peters’ to-do lists.

Like all political leaders, they fear even the perception of disunity. As far as they’re concerned, most voters do not draw a distinction between the well-intentioned and principled criticism of a government’s friends and the uncompromising and ill-intentioned opposition of its foes. To raise doubts about the Government’s overall policy direction will only weaken it. In the context of electoral politics, dissent is almost always interpreted as treason.

The Greens’ decision to give up their questions to the National Party (and just how that decision was made, and by whom, remains unclear) suggests that at least some of the party’s MPs also fear the prospect of disunity and are keen to keep dissent on the down-low.

Clearly, they are of the view that only by presenting the voters with an image of industrious and effective teamwork can the Greens hope to elude the historical hoodoo of small parties being destroyed on account of their association with large ones.

Whether it be the fate of NZ First’s, Act’s and the Maori Party’s doomed associations with National, or the Alliance’s messy divorce from Labour (the only known case of the kids deciding who should have custody of the parents!) the precedents are far from encouraging!

Paradoxically, Marama Davidson’s and her fellow fundis’ (fundamentalists) view of this problem is very much the same as James Shaw’s realos (realists). Both factions are convinced that the best way to escape the small party curse is by drawing the voters’ attention to the nature of their party’s relationship with its larger partners.

Shaw hopes that by being good team-players the Greens will earn the voters’ respect and, more importantly, their votes. Davidson believes that it is only by differentiating the Greens from Labour and NZ First, and by reassuring the voters that their MPs have not “sold out” their principles, that they will be returned to Parliament.

Neither of these strategies are likely to prove effective. The first reduces the Greens to docile little lambs; the second makes them look like irritating little bastards. That the voters will, almost certainly, reject both of their survival “solutions” is clear to everyone except the Greens themselves.

What both factions need to grasp is that the Green Party has always been about ideas. Forthrightly addressing the big questions confronting people and planet and offering uncompromising answers. That’s the “special sauce” in the Greens’ recipe for electoral success.

The more clearly Greens describe the challenges confronting humanity, the easier it is made for the voters to accept the radicalism required for their remedy.

Getting back into Parliament is not about keeping your head down and working hard; nor is it about shouting slogans and throwing stones.

The unchanging objective of all Green parties is to make it known to the voters that while they are willing to achieve as much as they can in co-operation with other parties; their focus will remain forever fixed upon the measures required to address the injustices identified by the human conscience and to resolve the problems identified by human science.

The Greens’ message from now until 2020 must be: The steps we are currently taking are in the right direction – but they’re too small. If we’re to travel further, our vote must be bigger.

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, 23 March 2018.

The Political Economy Of Mainstream Political Journalism.

New Faces - Same Old Spin: Sensationalism and scandal-mongering have become the bread-and-butter of political journalism. Politics is being reduced to an endless struggle between the good-guys (us) and the bad-guys (them). Complexity and nuance just get in the way of relating this Manichean struggle between darkness and light. All the punters need to remember is that all politicians are driven by the will to power; and all governments are out to get them.

FEW WOULD ARGUE that journalism is not in crisis. Beset by the manifold challenges of a global on-line culture, journalists struggle to keep pace with the demands of readers, listeners and viewers whose tastes they once led but now must follow. The mainstream news media’s dwindling share of the advertising dollar drives it inexorably towards the sensational, scandalous, salacious and bizarre: the “clickbait” upon which its profitability increasingly depends.

For political journalism the consequences of these trends have been particularly dire.

Prior to the arrival of the Internet, the coverage of politics by the mainstream media, like its coverage of the arts, was seen as a necessary and important contribution to the well-being of the community. A well-informed electorate was widely accepted as an essential prerequisite to the proper functioning of the democratic process. Covering politics soberly and comprehensively was just one of the many important services provided by the mainstream news media in return for the rivers of advertising gold flowing into its coffers.

As the revenue required for this sort of disinterested political coverage diminished, the mainstream news media was confronted with a very different set of imperatives. Political personalities and events, which had formerly provided the raw material for professional political journalists’ speculation and analysis, underwent a dramatic transformation. From being the passive subjects of political journalism, politicians and their actions were fast becoming the active drivers of it.

Readers, listeners and viewers were interested in politics, but only on their own terms. Political journalists whose copy failed to both reflect and amplify the prejudices of their mass audiences required the most steadfast of editors to keep their words in print; their voices and images on the airwaves.

How did the mainstream media’s consumers perceive politics? Poorly. As the “more-market” polices of the 1980s and 90s became bedded-in; and as political practice – regardless of which party was in power – took on a dismal and dispiriting sameness; the voting public’s respect for politicians (never all that high) sank even further. Increasingly, politics came to be seen as something which politicians did to – rather than for – the people.

Political journalism which did not reflect the public’s deep-seated cynicism and suspicion of politics and politicians became increasingly difficult to sustain. By far the best way to keep people reading, listening and watching political journalism was for journalists to affect the same cynical and suspicious air towards the entire political process.

Regardless of party, politicians were portrayed as being in it for what they could get: and what they most wanted was power. Those who attributed noble motives to politicians were mugs. It was all a game. It was permissible to admire a politician for how well he or she played the game – but not for any other reason. And the only acceptable measure of how well they were playing the game was the opinion poll.

The medieval saying Vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God) was re-worked by political journalists to read: The results of the polls represent the opinion of the people, and the opinion of the people is the only thing that counts.

It was a formulation that removed from political discourse every other criterion by which the voters could judge the political performance of their elected representatives. In effect, the political journalism of cynicism and suspicion had trapped them in an inescapable feedback loop. If a political party was losing support, then that was only because it was failing to give the people what they wanted. What did the people want? Whatever the political party ahead in the polls was offering them.

The other rule-of-thumb by which political journalists were now encouraged to operate was the rule that told them to regard every person in a position to wield power over others as automatically suspect. Since most people are not in a position to tell anyone what to do (quite the reverse!) this mistrust of authority allowed political journalists to cast themselves as the ordinary person’s champion; their courageous defender; their righter of wrongs. Which meant, of course, that they had constantly to be on the lookout for wrongs to right.

Sensationalism and scandal-mongering became the bread-and-butter of political journalism. Politics was reduced to an endless struggle between the good-guys (us) and the bad-guys (them). Complexity and nuance just got in the way of relating this Manichean struggle between darkness and light. All the punters were required to remember was that all politicians are driven by the will to power; and that all governments are out to get them.

Does it help to sell newspapers? Does it boost radio and television audiences? Of course it does. Human-beings have always been easy prey for those who insist that individuals and groups who thrust themselves forward to the front of the crowd are not to be trusted. And, of course, they’re right to be suspicious: not everyone who claims to have our interests at heart is telling the truth. And yet, the political journalism of cynicism and suspicion cannot, in the long-run, be constitutive of a healthy democracy.

Sometimes those in power are genuinely bad, and those seeking to turn them out of office are motivated by an honest desire to put things right. But, if political journalists are no longer willing to recognise any politician and/or political party as a force for good, what then? If their profession has become nothing more than an endless search for scandal and the abuse of power; if even the possibility that a politician might be idealistic and well-intentioned is rejected with a cynical smirk; then the always difficult process of implementing progressive political change will become next-to-impossible.

The tragedy of our on-line culture, is that to remain profitable the mainstream news media has little choice but to alarm, outrage and inflame its audiences. “If it bleeds it leads” turns tragedy into journalism’s most negotiable currency. For a news media on life-support, there is simply not enough clickbait in the stories generated by a properly functioning democracy. For the foreseeable future, therefore, the only news fit for political journalists to use – will be bad.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 22 March 2018.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Questioning The Greens.

Just Politicians? The Green Party Caucus 2018: Jan Logie (Realo) Chloe Swarbrick (Fundi) Gareth Hughes (Fundi) James Shaw (Realo) Marama Davidson (Fundi) Julie Anne Genter (Realo) Eugenie Sage (Realo) Golriz Ghahraman (Fundi). The term fundi indicates a fundmental and uncompromising attachment to Green Party principles. Realos argue for a  more realistic and instrumental approach to the questions of political power and how it should be used.

IF THE GREENS were a party like any other party, would they have given away their “patsy questions” to National? If we were able to put aside our admiration for the Greens’ proud record of being out “in front” of New Zealand politics-as-usual, how would we analyse their surprising decision? If we were willing to say: “They’re all just politicians: neither better nor worse than their counterparts in Labour, National and NZ First.” How would we call it?

We are tempted to answer that first question by saying: “Of course not! No political party with three Ministers Outside Cabinet would ever voluntarily strengthen the hand of their allies’ enemies. Not while those allies and the government they lead remain utterly reliant on their continuing and steadfast parliamentary support.”

It’s easy to imagine both Labour and NZ First struggling to make any kind of sense out of the Greens’ announcement. If, as they insist, the Greens regard their patsy questions as a waste of parliamentary time, then the simple and most politically defensible solution would surely be – not to ask them. Rather than rising to their feet, the Green MPs could spend the whole of Question Time sitting on their arses – as silent and mysterious as eight little sphinxes.

That they have chosen, instead, to give their questions to the National Party must have all the other Members of Parliament racking their brains for an explanation that doesn’t leave the Greens looking like a bunch of impossibly na├»ve muppets.

“What’s the catch?”, would have been Simon Bridges’ most likely response. “What do you expect from us in return?”

“Who’s the target?”, would have been the response of Jacinda Ardern’s back-room boys: David Parker, Grant Robertson and Phil Twyford.

NZ First would merely have concluded that the entire Green caucus had been taking Ecstasy. “I warned Jacinda,” would be Winston Peters’ world-weary response. “I told her they couldn’t be trusted.”

But, hold on a minute. Is it really impossible that the Greens’ decision was motivated by genuine political values? Why shouldn’t their assurances that the party’s sole intention is to make the government more accountable be accepted? Why can’t it be a case of, as Rod Donald used to say, the Greens not being on the Left, or the Right, but out in front?

The answer is brutally simple. If the Greens really were determined to subject the Labour-NZ First Coalition to the scrutiny of the most informed, articulate and progressive members of the House of Representatives, then they would hardly have given away the chance to do exactly that to Parliaments most ill-informed, inarticulate and reactionary elements.

Progressive Kiwis have only to ask themselves: “Who would we rather held this Government to account: Chloe Swarbrick or Mark Mitchell? Golriz Ghahraman or Judith Collins?” – to realise that the justification advanced to them by Green Party co-leader, James Shaw, is pure, unadulterated, bullshit.

The Greens as a whole are not out in front on this issue. But the Greens realo (realist) faction is, almost certainly, behind it.

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that at this point in the race for the Green Party’s female co-leadership, the fundi (fundamentalist) Marama Davidson is out in front.

One of the more substantial planks in Marama’s election platform has been her argument that as a Green MP without ministerial responsibilities, she will be well-placed to raise the issues, and voice the concerns, that are exercising the Green Party membership.

How would that be done? Well, she could ask questions of the Labour-NZ First Coalition Government: questions relating to the CPTPP, oil-drilling and climate-change. She could hold Jacinda and Winston (and James?) to account on their commitment to end child poverty and homelessness. It’s a promise with clear appeal to those members of the Green Party already heartily suspicious of the pig they’re being asked to support – and the poke it came in.

But, just how effective could Marama be if there were no questions to ask?

The idea of putting a muzzle on the Greens’ fundi faction would have enormous appeal to those realo members of the party determined not to blow this long-awaited opportunity to demonstrate that Green Ministers can make a real difference.

It would also be received with profound relief by the apprehensive leaders of Labour and NZ First.

Giving away the Greens patsy questions to National has drawn a line in the sand for the members of the Green Party’s electoral college. “Cross that line by electing Marama,” they are being told, “and all you will be signalling to Labour and NZ First is your fundamental untrustworthiness. Why? Because stripped of the right to ask questions in the House, Marama will be left with no choice but to keep her party honest by other means – and that can only result in a destabilised government.”

By declining to cross the line which Shaw and his allies have drawn in the sand, the representatives of the Green Party branches will be demonstrating their commitment to effecting real change from within the system – and inside the government.

Progressive New Zealand’s loyalty to the Labour-NZ First-Green Government will only be enhanced by the gift of additional questions to the National Party Opposition. In politics, as in war, it is always preferable to have your enemies’ fire coming at you from the front, not from behind – or even to one side.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 March 2018.

A Lively Terror

An Indiscriminate And Reckless Attack: Curiously, the British Prime Minister, Teresa May, does not appear to regard the “indiscriminate and reckless” attacks made against “innocent civilians” living on the soil of other United Nations member-states as being worthy of the unequivocal condemnation contained in her statement to the House of Commons on 12 March 2018. Only when the alleged attacker is the Russian Federation does the UK start screaming blue, bloody murder.

“I AM STRONGLY in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.” So said Great Britain’s Secretary of War, Winston Churchill, in 1920 – and he was as good as his word. That same year, Aylmer Haldane, the commander of British forces in Iraq bombarded the villages of rebellious “uncivilised tribes” with gas-filled shells. The British estimated Arab casualties at 8,450 killed and wounded. The action was deemed a resounding success. The use of chemical weapons had engendered, in Churchill’s telling phrase, “a lively terror”.

It still does.

Much of Southern Iraq remains contaminated with the residue of the depleted uranium shells used by American armoured columns against the Russian-made tanks of the Iraqi army in the Gulf War of 1991. During the first and second battles for the Iraqi city of Fallujah, in 2004, the use of white phosphorus explosives (first developed for anti-personnel purposes in World War I) inflicted hideous burns on hundreds of the city’s inhabitants – civilian as well as insurgent.

The United States and British-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, undertaken in defiance of the United Nation’s Charter and without the authorisation of the UN Security Council was, in the near-unanimous opinion of jurists around the world, an egregious breach of international law.

To date, no nation state, or collection of nation states, has imposed diplomatic or economic sanctions on the United States or the United Kingdom. The individuals responsible for planning and executing the illegal invasion of Iraq are free to travel and conduct business wherever they choose.

The suspected use of an illegal chemical weapon by the Russian Federation has provoked near-universal condemnation. Rightly so, because the deployment of a deadly nerve agent in the picturesque medieval city of Salisbury was an extraordinarily reckless act. The sheer lethality of the substance has inflicted critical injury not only upon the target of the assassination attempt, the Russian double-agent, Sergei Skripal, but also upon his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, and the local police officer who rushed to their aid. Anyone or anything coming into contact with the Skripals is now being treated as a potential bio-hazard.

The British Prime Minister, Teresa May, has condemned the attack in the most unequivocal fashion. In her 12 March statement to the House of Commons, she unhesitatingly identified the Russian Federation as the source of the nerve agent used in the Salisbury incident. Her concluding remarks made the UK’s position very clear:

Mr Speaker, this attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals. It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk. And we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”

Curiously, Prime Minister May does not appear to regard the “indiscriminate and reckless” attacks made against “innocent civilians” living on the soil of other United Nations member-states as being worthy of an equally forthright parliamentary statement.

Since 2001, armed Predator drones piloted by United States armed forces personnel have patrolled the skies above Africa and the Middle East. Their mission: to track the precise location of individuals and groups whose very existence has been deemed inimical, by the CIA and other intelligence gatherers, to the national security of the United States.

When the location of these “targets” had been pinpointed, the US launched one, or both, of the Hellfire missiles carried under the Predator’s wings. Sometimes these missiles achieved a “clean kill” – “neutralising” only their targets. On other occasions, however, these US drone strikes inflicted “collateral damage” – killing or maiming the “innocent civilians” living inside the blast zone.

It is passing strange, is it not, that the global news media has, to date, seen no need to whip itself into a lather of fury over the fate of these casualties of state-sponsored terrorism? Especially when the death-toll from this US policy, which operates well outside of any reasonable reading of international law – or justice – now numbers in the thousands.

Then again, we are only dealing here with members of those “uncivilised tribes”: human-beings for whom the protection of the law was deemed, as long ago as 1920, and by no lesser authority that Winston Churchill, to be unwarranted.

When set against these current and historical facts, the propensity of Vladimir Putin to engage in “indiscriminate and reckless” acts is suddenly rendered grimly intelligible.

If the West’s use of poison gas, depleted uranium, white phosphorus and Hellfire missiles elicits no outrage in the House of Commons; and if the “international community” is not moved to impose diplomatic and/or economic sanctions against those responsible; then perhaps the only reasonable lesson to be drawn is that “international outrage” has now become just one more “lively terror” to be unleashed upon the “uncivilised tribes” of Planet Earth.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 March 2018.

The Theory And Practice Of Plausible Deniability.

Nothing To Smile About: Was it the need to give the Prime Minister "plausible deniability" that prompted Andrew Kirton to keep Jacinda Ardern out of the loop? Acutely aware of her unblemished political reputation, was it his judgement that the delicate questions arising out of the summer school scandal were better dealt with in places where the Prime Minister was never present?

WHY HASN’T ANDREW KIRTON been sacked? By any common-sense definition of accountability, the actions of the Labour Party’s General Secretary offer ample justification for dismissal. Upon learning of the youth wing of the Labour Party’s failure to keep four young people in its care safe, he decided not to alert their parents; not to alert the Police; and not to alert the leader of his party: The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Surely, at this stage of the scandal, Kirton should be shorter by a head? Why isn’t he?

To understand why the Prime Minister has so far spared her party’s General Secretary, it is necessary to frame a counter-factual account of the incident.

It’s the morning after the party at which four young people have been sexually assaulted or harassed by a 20-year-old attendee at Labour’s 2018 Summer School. The Young Labour organisers have contacted both the Party President and the General Secretary seeking advice about how they should proceed. Andrew Kirton tells them he’s on his way to Waihi and instructs them to do nothing until he arrives. His next call is to the Prime Minister’s Chief-of-Staff, Mike Munro. Having established as clear a picture of the incident as possible, Munro contacts Jacinda Ardern. A small crisis-team is formed to determine the best way of dealing with what is clearly a serious and potentially very damaging incident.

And, therein lies the problem. The number of people involved in an event of this kind begins to grow exponentially the moment state officials become involved. What’s more, every discussion entered into and every decision made by state officials is subject to public discovery under the Official Information Act. (Significantly, decisions made by the senior officials of a private political organisation, such as the New Zealand Labour Party, fall outside the scope of the OIA.)

Once informed of the summer school incident, the Prime Minister would have had no choice except to front it. The scandal would have been hers, regardless of the spectacular twists and turns that inevitably characterise such human dramas – especially after they enter the public realm. It would have been the Prime Minister’s face that people saw on television; the Prime Minister’s words that would, for good or ill, have defined the scandal’s meaning.

Cold political logic would, therefore, dictate that the Prime Minister should be kept in ignorance of such an event for as long as possible. That way, when the story breaks (and in a democratic state, with a free media, the story will always break) she can say – hand on heart – that this is the first she has heard about it. The Prime Minister will have, in the value-free vocabulary of statecraft: “plausible deniability”.

“Plausible Deniability” may be defined as:

“A condition in which a subject can safely and believably deny knowledge of any particular truth that may exist because the subject has been deliberately kept unaware of said truth in order to benefit or shield the subject from any responsibility attached to the knowledge of such truth.”

The first explicit use of the concept may be traced back to the Central Intelligence Agency, whose first Director, Allen Dulles, emphasised the importance of protecting the government of the United States from the consequences of failed agency operations by ensuring its officials are able to offer the American public a “plausible denial”.

As the Wikipedia entry on Plausible Deniability helpfully points out, however, the idea has been around for a lot longer than the CIA:

“[I]n the 19th century, Charles Babbage described the importance of having ‘a few simply honest men’ on a committee who could be temporarily removed from the deliberations when ‘a peculiarly delicate question arises’ so that one of them could ‘declare truly, if necessary, that he never was present at any meeting at which even a questionable course had been proposed’.”

Was this the sort of thinking that prompted Andrew Kirton to keep the Prime Minister out of the loop? Acutely aware of her unblemished political reputation, was it his judgement that the “peculiarly delicate questions” arising out of the summer school scandal, were better dealt with in a setting where the Prime Minister “never was present”.

If the matter could be resolved out of the public spotlight – all well and good. The Party would have dodged some potentially very harmful bullets. If the news media ended-up getting hold of the story – well then, at least none of the bullets would hit the Prime Minister.

This interpretation of events had clearly occurred to senior NZ Herald political journalist, Claire Trevett, as she was summing up the state-of-play of the summer school scandal on 15 March:

“It may have been accidental, but the worker bees [protecting their Queen in the Beehive] have done their job because ‘political management’ was also the only reason not to tell Ardern. Her lack of knowledge now means she does not carry the blame for the initial clumsy handling of it. Ardern is also free from any claims of a cover-up. It is Andrew Kirton who is the worker bee paying the price for his Queen. He fronted on it and it was he who dealt with – or at least made the decision to let Young Labour deal with it without sufficient oversight – after the event.”

And that, almost certainly, is why the Queen in the Beehive is not shouting “Off with his head!” Or, at least – not yet.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 16 March 2018.

Friday, 16 March 2018

School For Scandal.

In Loco Parentis: The errors of judgement made by the event organisers, and then compounded by the party organisation’s leadership, have been well rehearsed over the past week. Too many participants under the age of 18; too much alcohol; too little supervision; too few people with the experience required to manage a serious crisis; too many party members desperate to avoid a scandal.

“WHAT WERE THEY THINKING!?” That’s the question which thousands of New Zealanders put to their families, friends, workmates and, of course, to themselves, when they learned what had happened at Labour’s 2018 summer school, held at the Waitawheta Camp near Waihi on 9-11 Februray.

The errors of judgement made by the event organisers, and then compounded by the party organisation’s leadership, have been well rehearsed over the past week.

Too many participants under the age of 18; too much alcohol; too little supervision; too few people with the experience required to manage a serious crisis; too many party members desperate to avoid a scandal.

And that was just for starters. Having been informed by four sixteen-year-olds that they had been sexually assaulted by an extremely drunk twenty-year-old male, the summer school organisers failed to either lay a complaint with the Police or inform the victims’ parents of what had happened to their children.

Even more astonishing was the revelation that the highly contentious decisions of the “first responders” were not immediately countermanded by the Labour Party’s General Secretary, Andrew Kirton. Not only was the senior administrative officer of the NZ Labour Party unwilling to involve the Police and the parents, but he was also unwilling to inform the leader of his party, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern!

It was only when Labour’s senior officials realised that the story was about to break in the news media, that any serious thought was given to how the country might react to the summer school scandal. The extent to which these officials failed to anticipate the public’s response is, politically-speaking, one of the most concerning aspects of the whole, sorry saga.

Instead of putting themselves in the shoes of the ordinary Kiwi parent of a teenage daughter or son and trying to imagine how they might feel about a political party which kept themselves, the cops and the Prime Minister – for goodness sake! – in the dark about their kids being sexually assaulted, the party organisation opted instead to frame its public response in terms of the victims’ right to determine what, if anything, should be done about the summer school incident.

The party’s senior officials did not believe they had the right to inform anyone about the events of 10 February without the consent of the young people directly affected. In taking this position, they were following the lead of doctors, counsellors and teachers who refuse to involve the parents of the young people who come to them seeking advice on sexual intimacy, contraceptives or, more rarely, the termination of unplanned pregnancies. According to Andrew Kirton, the party organisation was following the “victim-led” protocols of individuals and agencies who deal with sexual trauma on a daily basis.

Nor should it be forgotten that it was only a few years ago that the Labour Party membership came within a few votes of carrying a remit calling for the voting age to be lowered to 16. Should New Zealand parents be surprised that a political party which seriously considered allowing 16-year-olds to vote, decided to allow the four 16-year-old victims of the summer school incident to set the parameters within which the rest of the world would be granted access to their own, extremely personal, experiences?

By adopting this impeccably “progressive” stance, Andrew Kirton and his comrades have forced Labour back into the same perilous political position it took up to defend the so-called “anti-smacking” legislation.

Morally-speaking, that was unquestionably the right thing to do. Politically-speaking, it was the height of folly. Far too many of its working-class voters interpreted Labour’s stance on smacking as an implied criticism of the way they’d raised their kids.

On this issue, Labour seems to be saying: “We’re not going to tell you that some drunken creep has groped your daughter/son during an out-of-control party at one of our summer schools, because we don’t believe you have the right to be informed.”

In the words of the irrepressible editor of The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury:

“That position is utterly untenable to every single voting parent in NZ. And that this is the best excuse Labour could come up with since the event is a terrible blunder and political miscalculation. As the enormity of [Labour’s] defence sinks-in to every voting parent in the country, the backlash will grow and grow and grow.”

Jacinda Ardern simply cannot allow that to happen.

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 March 2018.