Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Building an “Active Democracy” through “Constructive Engagement”. Chris Trotter responds to John Minto.

 Woman In The Hot Seat: New Zealand needs to develop new relationships with the countries of the Pacific Rim. And those new relationships need to be based on progressive ideals, mutual protection and solid economic self-interest – with the latter being underpinned and facilitated through mutually beneficial multilateral trade agreements. Throughout history, trade and peace have marched hand-in-hand. New Zealand diplomacy needs to reflect that fact.

“UNBELIEVABLE! WRONG! IDIOTIC!” One of the many admirable qualities about John Minto is that he never leaves anyone in any doubt about where he stands. His rejection of the strategy of “constructive engagement” with the Labour-NZ First-Green Government is unequivocal. For John, only “active democratic opposition” to Labour’s rather tentative embrace of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) will suffice. In spite of the fact that barely thirty days have passed since Winston Peters anointed Jacinda Ardern as New Zealand’s first progressive prime minister in nine years, John is ready to call the Left onto the streets in protest at her government’s refusal to walk away from the CPTPP.

John’s argument for actively opposing the coalition government on this issue is driven by his conviction that the CPTPP is, substantially, the same document that the previous National Government signed up to in 2016. If this is true, then his question – “Why would any self-respecting New Zealander oppose the TPPA when National was in government and then excuse Labour for signing up to it?” – is entirely fair. But is the CPTPP substantially the same document as the TPPA? Unfortunately for John’s argument, the answer is an emphatic “No!”

The withdrawal of the United States from the TPP has fundamentally weakened the agreement and prompted its signatories to set in motion a plethora of revisionist initiatives. In the absence of the US, most of the worst clauses of the TPP are in abeyance until the Americans are ready to return to the fold – at which point the remaining signatories are practically certain to demand their renegotiation. True, the hated Investor/State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions stand part of the new CPTPP, but only in an attenuated form, and with a majority of the signatories actively pursuing bi-lateral “side agreements” intended to render them toothless.

These agreements are evidence of the growing global effort to diminish the power and scope of corporate interference in the affairs of nation states which the ISDS processes represent. This resistance to corporate power is not limited to “working people around the world”, as John suggests. On the contrary, it is being spearheaded by the same national governments which were forced to bail-out the delinquent financial institutions responsible for the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09. Donald Trump, himself, is a fierce opponent of the ISDS provisions of multilateral trade agreements – quite rightly perceiving them as a threat to United States’ sovereignty. John is insisting that Jacinda’s government lop-off the ISDS provisions as some sort of grand anti-corporate gesture. She and her advisers, wisely in my view, are content to let them wither on the vine.

The Coalition Government’s circumspection in regard to the CPTPP is admirable in another, very import, respect. It indicates the Labour-led Government’s determination to avoid being drawn into the looming geopolitical stand-off between the United States and China.

Many New Zealanders would have noticed the diplomatic bonding that took place between Jacinda and the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in Danang and Manilla. This relationship is important – especially in the light of Australia’s recent, heavy-handed pushback against Jacinda’s Manus Island initiative. The new government is clearly looking to build diplomatic relationships untainted by America’s and Australia’s aggressive geopolitical ambitions. Wooing Canada is a good start. If followed by a strengthening of New Zealand’s relationships with the peoples of South America, it may allow us to “respectfully decline” to participate in Donald Trump’s, Shinzo Abe’s and Malcolm Turnbull’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy”.

With Australia as its southern pivot, the Indo-Pacific Strategy envisages the United States, Japan and India running a two-ocean-straddling policy of economic and military containment against the People’s Republic.

This is not a strategy New Zealand should have any part of, and yet, as John rightly points out: “The big Australian banks have been [plundering our economy] for decades. In 2015 for example the BNZ, ANZ, ASB and Westpac took over $4.4 billion in profit from this country.” New Zealand needs to prepare – and quickly – for the day when it may need to unequivocally distance itself from the increasingly bellicose policies of the US, Japan, Australia and India. When that day comes, the Australian bullying we have witnessed over the past week will be made to look like child’s play!

New Zealand needs to develop new relationships with the countries of the Pacific Rim. And those new relationships need to be based on progressive ideals, mutual protection and solid economic self-interest – with the latter being underpinned and facilitated through mutually beneficial multilateral trade agreements. Throughout history, trade and peace have marched hand-in-hand. New Zealand diplomacy needs to reflect that fact.

Is the CPTPP perfect, John? Of course, it isn’t. But, it is a substantially different document from the TPP-11, and the original TPPA. Rather than see the as-yet-unsigned agreement as a reason to get out and protest on the streets, it is my contention that we should view it as an opportunity to construct a new, progressive consensus about New Zealand’s place in the world – one which eschews the dangerous ambitions of our larger neighbours. It seems to me that Jacinda has already caught a glimpse of this radically different future, and she is as determined as we are to reposition New Zealand in a way that keeps its people safe, prosperous and independent.

My term for this drive towards a new consensus encompassing New Zealand’s diplomatic, military and economic future is “constructive engagement”. John might prefer to call it “active democracy”. Whatever its name, I do not believe it is in any way unbelievable, idiotic or wrong to call for a united front of progressive activists on the ground, to complement and energise the united front of progressive parties – Labour, NZ First and the Greens – in Parliament.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 21 November 2017.

Is The Talented Mr Twyford Talented Enough?

The Man With The Plan: The “Housing Crisis” strikes at the core expectations of hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders. By promising to meet those expectations, the Labour-led government has made itself a hostage to the supremely-confident individual who insists that he alone has the political skills to end the crisis – Phil Twyford.

PHIL TWYFORD is an eye-roller. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We all know eye-rollers: those guys (and gals) who consider themselves to be so incontestably “across” a subject that anyone offering a contrary viewpoint is dismissed with an exasperated roll of the eyes. All well and good, providing the subject under discussion is rugby, or the best way to cook a Christmas turkey. But, if the subject under scrutiny is housing: the issue upon which this government is positioned to either succeed or fail; well then, that’s not so good. Not so good at all.

It doesn’t help that the Minister of Housing and Transport, in addition to being an eye-roller, is also a chin-jutter. As anyone who’s ever watched him on television can attest, he is prone to sailing into political discussions like one of those Ancient Greek war-galleys: with his chin standing-in for the battering-ram! Unhelpfully, by positioning his head in this way, Phil is more-or-less required to look down his nose – which only makes things worse!

Eye-rolling superiority, coupled with chin-jutting belligerence, can sometimes work for a politician. Especially when they’re simply part of a much larger ensemble of intimidating behavioural gestures. Just think of Sir Robert Muldoon – or Donald Trump! On the other hand, if you’re determined to be Mean Mr Mustard, then there’s absolutely no point in you also attempting to be Sweet Baby James! Or Phil, for that matter.

All very personal. But, a politician’s personality is not something to be casually disregarded. As Jacinda Ardern has so spectacularly demonstrated, the ability to project a likeable personality can take a politician – and her party – a very long way indeed! By the same token, an irritating political persona can all-too-easily distract voters from their government’s core messages, or, even worse, impede the progress of its core policies.

There is no policy more critical to this Government’s political survival than housing. The availability and affordability of warm, dry houses for all New Zealanders was a key voter motivator in the 2017 election. For many working-class Kiwis, simply finding somewhere to live – at a rent they can afford – has become a relentless struggle. At the same time, young middle-class Kiwis are beginning to despair of ever being able to afford to buy a home of their own. The “Housing Crisis” thus strikes at the core expectations of hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders. By promising to meet those expectations, the Labour-led government has made itself a hostage to the supremely-confident individual who insists that he alone has the political skills to end the crisis – Phil Twyford.

No pressure, then, Phil.

Except, every day, the pressures bearing on just about every aspect of the housing crisis grow. Most seriously, doubts have been expressed within both the Reserve Bank and Treasury about the viability of Labour’s flagship housing programme, “KiwiBuild”.

Promising to build 100,000 “affordable houses” in ten years, KiwiBuild has stood at the centre of Labour’s housing policy since 2012: a flashy hand-me-down from the doomed leadership of David Shearer. Essentially, KiwiBuild was a feel-good policy, cobbled-together by the Labour Right to defuse an internal party crisis. It was a rickety concept five years ago and, unfortunately, it’s gotten no stronger.

The problem with KiwiBuild, along with Labour’s other big promise to build an additional 1,000 state houses per annum, is that there simply isn’t an agency of sufficient size and authority; with sufficient financial resources, labour and building materials; to turn Labour’s promises into actual houses in anything like the numbers promised. Regardless, Twyford refuses to countenance the socialistic methods adopted by the First Labour Government, preferring, instead, to rely upon “the market” for a construction effort unprecedented in 80 years.

Accordingly, KiwiBuild looks set to become one of the largest Public-Private-Partnerships in New Zealand history. At least as large as the partnership between the First Labour Government and James Fletcher’s state house construction firm. Unfortunately, this is not 1937: there is simply no slack in the building industry: everything, including its labour force, is fully stretched. Nevertheless, Twyford remains “confident” that the private sector will come to the KiwiBuild party. In the absence of substantial state subsidisation, however, that seems unlikely.

The only path to fulfilling Labour’s housing promises is via the creation of a massive state-directed, properly resourced and publicly-funded entity, driven forward with the same monomaniacal zeal displayed by New Zealand’s first housing “czar”, John A Lee. Jacinda Ardern erred in over-loading Twyford with two key portfolios: Transport and Housing. She should have given the whole Transport portfolio to the Greens’ Julie Anne Genter.

Twyford does not believe he is overburdened. Nor does he accept that his reliance on the private sector will ensure Kiwibuild becomes a fatal political failure. Suggest otherwise and he will simply jut out his chin, and roll his eyes.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 November 2017.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Settling In: How Was The Last Labour-Led Government Doing Two Months Out From Election Day?

Entitled “The View From The Seventh Floor”, this article was published on 26 January 2000, sixty days after the election of the Labour-Alliance coalition government on 27 November 1999. The circumstances and challenges confronting Helen Clark’s new government, when set alongside those facing Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues, are at once strikingly similar but also jarringly different. By reproducing my seventeen-year-old article today, I hope to provide the readers of Bowalley Road with an opportunity to compare and contrast these two historical moments of significant political departure. - Chris Trotter

WHAT HAPPENS on the Seventh Floor of the Beehive affects everyone. From a handful of cramped offices thirty metres above Lambton Quay, issue forth the media releases, speech notes, bills and regulations intended to shape ­- and re-shape - the New Zealand economy. For the next three years, the speed and direction of economic policy will be determined by the two politicians currently occupying the Seventh Floor – Labour’s Treasurer and Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, and Jim Anderton, the Alliance’s Minister for Economic Development. The success or failure of these two ministers will have an enormous bearing on the fate of the Labour-Alliance Coalition. Voters respond most vociferously to Government decisions which have a direct impact on their material standard of living. If they wish to remain on the Seventh Floor, Cullen and Anderton will have to get it right much more often than they get it wrong.

Five years ago, the idea that Michael Cullen and Jim Anderton might one day be working alongside one another would have been greeted with derision. As Labour and the Alliance staked out their respective economic positions, the responsibility for articulating the issues which divided the two parties fell to the two men who must now – somehow – unite them. It must be said, that both Cullen and Anderton embraced the former task with all the fervour and vitriol for which the Left is famous. Cullen christened the Alliance Leader “Jim Il Sung” – equating Anderton’s protectionist predilections with the North Korean command economy. Anderton, not to be outdone, never tired of reminding Alliance audiences that Cullen’s air-fare to an exclusive seminar in Aspen, Colorado, had been paid for by a member of the Business Roundtable so that Labour’s finance spokesperson could be further indoctrinated with New Right economic theory.

These were blunt rhetorical instruments, however, when compared to the razor-sharp analysis of Laila Harré, who, in her maiden speech to Parliament, provided by far the best summary of the policy issues separating Labour and the Alliance:

“A government cannot both embrace the full force of globalisation and retain sovereignty over key economic decisions. A government cannot deliver a first class health and education service accessible to all regardless of wealth without a substantially more progressive income tax system. A government cannot deal with fundamental issues of biosecurity and ecological diversity by adopting a market model which will by definition subsume these needs to the perceived interests of foreign investors. These fundamental issues of difference between the Alliance and Labour must be resolved, and not simply disguised by clever packaging.”

It is now clear that Harré’s words were directed as much towards her own party’s leadership as they were to Labour. The 1996 election débacle brought about a decisive shift in Jim Anderton’s
long-term political strategy, the first sign of which was his June 1997 speech to the NewLabour Party conference in Hamilton, where he proposed a substantial revision of the Alliance’s taxation policies. This rightward shift brought the smouldering civil war within the Alliance’s ranks to flash-point - precipitating a battle in which the Marxist Left of the NLP was pitted against an opportunistic coalition made up of Anderton supporters, Mana Motuhake and the Democrats. The Greens, rather than become involved in another three years of fratricidal bloodletting, opted to withdraw from the Alliance altogether.

Anderton’s faction – as so often in the past – emerged triumphant from the repositioning argument, thereby clearing the way for the formal rapprochement with Labour which took place at the Alliance Annual Conference held on Massey University’s Albany campus in August 1998. The decision of the latter to opt for a “loose” coalition with Labour – rather than a detailed National/NZ First-style agreement – signalled a further defeat for the NLP Left. Harré and her allies had argued strongly for a much less accommodating approach.

From Helen Clark and Michael Cullen’s perspective, Anderton’s demonstrated capacity to master the Left of the Alliance was a necessary precondition to any reciprocal shift of position on the part of the Labour Party. The Labour Caucus’s decision to confirm a six cent tax hike for those earning more than $60,000 per annum was Clark and Cullen’s answering gesture to Albany’s warm fuzziness – and proof positive that the process of “policy convergence” was now an accomplished fact.

Astute readers will recognise in this brief historical narrative a political motif strikingly similar to the one imposed on NZ First by Michael Laws in 1996. Before either party could “coalesce” with a mainstream political force, it first had to be shorn of its more radical elements. That this process necessarily entailed the shedding of large chunks of its electoral support, and the steady disillusionment of its most active supporters, was considered by both the Alliance and the NZ First leadership to be the unavoidable price of power.

All attempts by the Left of the NLP to arrest this process of de-radicalisation proved fruitless. In spite of Alliance Director Matt McCarten’s best Machiavellian efforts to supplant Mana Motuhake and Democrat candidates with NLP Leftists on the Alliance List, the tax issue once again provided Anderton with the means to demote and exclude the radicals from serious contention. By aligning the Alliance’s initial tax rate with Labour’s, Anderton not only eliminated the progressive elements of Alliance fiscal policy, but also undermined its capacity to offer a truly radical alternative to Labour’s economic direction. The NLP Left’s last ditch defence of Progressive Taxation did little more than reveal the true extent of its isolation and weakness within the wider Alliance coalition.

Walking around the Seventh Floor of the Beehive today, one gets the feeling that Jim Anderton has “come home”. Surrounding the Minister of Economic Development is exactly the same group of individuals who supplied him with advice and support back in the late 1980s. Just across the circular stairwell is the office of Peter Harris - the former CTU economist who, alongside the redoubtable Pat Kelly, was one of the key driving forces of the Labour Party’s “Economic Policy Network” – a group set up by Anderton in the mid-1980s to contest the Douglas/Prebble assertion that “There is No Alternative”. Interestingly, Peter Harris is now advising Michael Cullen. Advising Anderton, as they have done since 1988, are Integrated Economic Services’ John Lepper, Petrus Simons, and Len Bayliss. The other long-term advisor from the 80s with easy access to Anderton’s office is constitutional lawyer, Andrew Ladley. It was Ladley who successfully argued the case for Anderton’s readmission to the Labour Caucus following his suspension for refusing to support the privatisation of the BNZ in 1988.

Matt McCarten’s request to keep the Alliance’s Parliamentary and Organisational staff in close physical proximity – i.e. on the same floor of the Executive Building - was over-ruled by both Anderton and Clark. If you want to chat with the radicals nowadays you have to move out of the Beehive altogether and make your way through a maze of corridors to their new offices in the old parliamentary complex. Nothing could better illustrate the changes that have swept over the Alliance as it has moved steadily towards the political mainstream.

It was a series of tactical – not ideological – differences which separated Cullen, and Anderton back in the late-1980s. Ten years on, even those have disappeared.

This essay was originally published in The Independent Business Weekly of Wednesday, 26 January 2000.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

A Song For The Times - "The Perilous Night" by Drive-By Truckers.

Something's got a hold of our feel alright
out of control in the appetite.
We're moving in to the perilous night, Amen.

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Not Quite An Act Of War: Analysing Australia’s Push-Back Against Jacinda’s Manus Island Outreach.

Real Human Suffering: In the face of the extraordinary Australian push-back against the government of Jacinda Ardern, it is important to remember the people at the centre of this controversy - the appallingly-treated victims of Australia's "Pacific Solution" who remain trapped on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

YOU HAVE TO GO BACK A LONG WAY to find anything remotely resembling Australia’s current treatment of New Zealand. For a supposedly friendly government to deliberately inject inflammatory disinformation into the political bloodstream of its supposedly closest neighbour is an extraordinarily provocative act. Not quite an act of war, but the sort of intervention that can all-too-easily provoke a catastrophic loss of trust.

It’s the sort of thing that the Soviets and the Americans used to do to one another all the time during the Cold War. Except, of course, those two superpowers were ideological and geopolitical rivals of the first order. It takes a real effort to re-cast the relationship between New Zealand and Australia in similar terms. Nevertheless, it’s an effort we are now obliged to make.

So, what is it that Australia has done? Essentially, its national security apparatus (presumably at the instigation of their political leaders) has released, mostly through media surrogates, a number of related stories calculated to inflame the prejudices of a certain type of New Zealander.

Like Australia, New Zealand harbours a frighteningly large number of racists. Politically-speaking, such people are easily aroused and have few qualms about setting-off ugly, racially-charged, debates on talkback radio, in the letters columns of the daily newspapers and across social media. These individuals are trouble enough when all they have to fight with are their own stereotypes and prejudices. Arm them with the carefully assembled disinformation of “fake news” and they instantly become quite dangerous.

And yet, this is exactly what the Australian authorities have done. Planting stories in their own press (knowing they will be picked up almost immediately by our own) about at least four boatloads of illegal immigrants that have set out for New Zealand only to be intercepted and turned back by the ever-vigilant officers of the Royal Australian Navy and their Coast Guard comrades. The purpose of this story (unsourced and lacking in detail, making it, almost certainly, fake news) was to paint New Zealand’s prime minister as an ill-informed and ungrateful diplomatic naïf: an inexperienced young idealist who doesn’t know which way is up when it comes to dealing with real-world problems.

This, alone, was an extraordinary intervention. To gauge how extraordinary, just turn it around. Imagine the reaction in Australia if some unnamed person in New Zealand’s national security apparatus leaked a memo to one of this country’s daily newspapers in which the negative diplomatic and economic consequences of being tainted by association with Australia’s flouting of international law is set forth in clinical detail. If the memo also contained a collection of highly critical assessments of Turnbull’s cabinet colleagues, allegedly passed-on by a number of unnamed western diplomats, then so much the better!

Canberra would not be impressed!

If the Australians had left it at just one intervention, then perhaps New Zealanders could simply have shrugged it off as yet another case of bad behaviour from the land of the under-arm bowlers. But when have the Aussies ever left it at “just one”?

The next intervention came in the form of “Ian” – formerly a guard (or so he said) at both the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. For reasons it has yet to adequately explain, RNZ’s Checkpoint programme provided “Ian” with nearly ten, largely uninterrupted, minutes of air-time during which he poured-forth a stream of accusations and characterisations which, to put it mildly, painted the protesters occupying the decommissioned Manus Island facility in the most lurid and disquieting colours. The detainees were criminals, drug-dealers – paedophiles even! Not at all the sort of people New Zealanders would want in their country.

“Ian”, it turns out, is a “witness” well-known to the many Australian NGOs that have taken up the cause of the detainees on Manus and Nauru. They have noted the curious similarities between “Ian’s” supposedly personal observations and experiences, and the inflammatory talking-points constantly reiterated by Australia’s hard-line Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton. A cynic might describe the grim “testimony” of “Ian” and Dutton as mutually reinforcing.

No matter. New Zealand’s racist, Islamophobic and militantly anti-immigrant community had been supplied with yet another truckload of Australian-manufactured ammunition.

Enough? Not hardly! Only this morning (17/11/17) New Zealanders were fed the shocking “news” that the protesting Manus Island detainees are harbouring within their ranks an unspecified number of men guilty of having debauched and prostituted local girls as young as 10 and 13!

Too much? Over the top? Redolent of the very worst instances of the murderous racial-incitement for which the Deep South of the United States was so rightly infamous? It sure is! Which is why we must hope that the Internet does not operate on Manus Island. Because, if the local inhabitants were to read on-line that the detainees were responsible for prostituting their daughters, what might they NOT do?

One almost feels that the Australian spooks behind this extraordinary disinformation campaign would actually be delighted if the locals burned down the Manus Island detention centre with the protesting detainees inside it.

“This is what comes of 37-year-old Kiwi prime ministers meddling in matters they know nothing about!” That would be the consistent theme of the right-wing Australian media. It would not take long for the same line to be picked up here: first on social media, and then by more mainstream media outlets. Right-wing outrage, mixed with a gleeful “we told you so!”, could not, however, be contained within the news media for very long. Inevitably, the more outré inhabitants of the Opposition’s back bench would take possession of the controversy, from there it would cascade down rapidly to Opposition politicians nearer the front.

Before her enemies could say: “It’s all your fault!”, Jacinda would find herself under withering political fire from both sides of the Tasman. Canberra would register her increasingly fragile government’s distress with grim satisfaction.

As the men and women responsible for organising “Operation Stardust” deleted its final folder, and fed the last incriminating document into the paper-shredder, one or two of them might even have voiced a judiciously muted “Mission Accomplished!”

This essay was posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Saturday, 18 November 2017.

Friday, 17 November 2017

What Are The Greens Playing At?

"WTF, James!" The Greens do not appear to understand that the key to improving their party’s position electorally, as well as strengthening its hand politically, lies in conceiving of the Labour-NZ First-Green government as a single entity: one which must either hang together or, most assuredly, it will hang separately! Stealing their comrades’ electoral lunch, in these circumstances, can only damage the Greens every bit as much as it damages (and enrages!) Labour and NZ First.

WHAT DO THE GREENS think they’re playing at? Their response to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has done themselves, and the government they’re ostensibly part of, a huge disservice. Honestly, it’s the sort of reaction one might expect from a clutch of radical student politicians: long on “principle”, short on common-sense. If this is how the Greens plan to conduct themselves over the next three years, then they had better find themselves an electorate they can win (without Labour’s support!) and fast. Because keeping their party above the 5 percent MMP threshold is likely to prove a constant struggle.

Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves that by waving their anti-TPP banners across Twitter and Facebook they will pick up all those “woke” voters who’ve accused Jacinda Ardern and David Parker of “selling out” to global capitalism at Danang. How many might that be? Almost certainly a lot fewer than the very substantial number of generous Labour supporters who gave the Greens their Party Vote on 23 September to make sure they didn’t disappear from Parliament altogether. If the Greens aren’t willing to reciprocate that sort of solidarity, then there’s bugger-all chance of it being repeated!

The Greens do not appear to understand that the key to improving their party’s position electorally, as well as strengthening its hand politically, lies in conceiving of the Labour-NZ First-Green government as a single entity: one which must either hang together or, most assuredly, it will hang separately! Stealing their comrades’ electoral lunch, in these circumstances, can only damage the Greens every bit as much as it damages (and enrages!) Labour and NZ First.

But, then, strategic (or even tactical!) thinking would not appear to be the Greens’ strong suit. Was there no one in their caucus capable of imagining the grim spectre that was bound to be raised by their very public repudiation of the CPTPP? Not one person in their ranks with the wit to realise that by withdrawing their 8 votes from the Government, the Greens would be driving Jacinda straight into the arms of Bill English and the National Party? Did no Green MP pause to consider the “optics” of that? Of how much damage it would inflict on all three of the governing parties?

Even if Labour capitulated at the last moment, and agreed to pull New Zealand out of the CPTPP – would the Greens count that as a “victory”? If so, they’d be wrong. Such a public demonstration of the tail wagging the dog would be catastrophic for Labour and the Greens alike. And if Labour refused to be blackmailed and allowed the National Party to ride to its rescue? What would that say about the viability of the Labour-NZ First-Green government? What would it mean for the relationship between Jacinda and James Shaw? Labour’s wrath would be terrible to behold – but not as terrible as their revenge!

It all could have been handled so differently. All that was required of the Greens’ caucus was some evidence they understood that contributing usefully to the work of a progressive government requires just a little more in the way of political finesse than denying the right of free speech to a handful of National Front tragics in Parliament grounds.

On the CPTPP issue, for example, the Greens could have reached out to their Canadian counterparts for advice on how to build the largest possible political consensus around what should – and should not – be included in a multilateral trade agreement. In this, they would have been doing Labour a huge favour: making the arguments that the Prime Minister and her Trade Minister could not be seen to make, but which would, nevertheless, strengthen their hand in future negotiations.

As it is, by firing off all their “principled” bullets at once (and before their target was even within range!) they have taken themselves out of the game. Even worse, they have demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, that they don’t even know what the game is – or how to play it!

That is not something which can be said of NZ First. Winston Peters has maintained a judicious silence concerning the desirability – or otherwise – of the CPTPP. He will study the problem professionally, from all angles, until he locates exactly the right point to exercise his leverage.

My advice to the Greens? Watch and learn.

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, 17 November 2017.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Darkness At The End Of The Rainbow?

YES! Australians cheer the result of the postal plebiscite on Marriage Equality. This emphatic victory for social liberalism (61.6/38.4 percent) will hit conservative Australians hard. Liberal and National Party strategists may, however, attempt to exploit the fact that of the 17 federal electorates that voted "No", 11 are held by the Labor Party. Progressive Australians have won an important battle - but the culture war will go on.

WEDNESDAY, 15 NOVEMBER 2017 will go down in Australian history as Marriage Equality Day. In an unprecedented national plebiscite, 61.6 percent of the 79.5 percent of voting-age Australians who returned their postal ballots voted YES to marriage equality. With this resounding vote in favour, Australia joined the rest of the world’s progressive nations in rejecting homophobia and discrimination.

But, Wednesday, 15 November 2017 will be remembered for something more than Australia’s endorsement of marriage equality. It will also be recorded by social historians and psephologists as the day conservative Australians were required to accept a forceful and irrefutable message confirming their minority status in Australian society.

Hostility towards homosexuality is one of the most reliable markers of the authoritarian personality. It will, therefore, come as a profound shock to people of this personality type that their attitudes are not shared by an overwhelming majority of the population. That nearly two-thirds of their fellow citizens see nothing untoward about same sex couples getting married will deliver a shattering blow to their perception of “normality”. They will be dismayed by how far the world has strayed from their “traditional values”.

For some, the events of 15 November 2017 will prompt a thorough-going reassessment of their moral and political expectations of themselves and their fellow Australians. If they are lucky, this reassessment will liberate them from the debilitating effects of conservative ideology, fundamentalist religious beliefs and authoritarian attitudes. For many others, perhaps a majority, however, the discovery that their hatreds and prejudices towards the LGBTI community is shared by just 38.4 percent of their fellow Australians will evoke a very different – and potentially dangerous – response.

For these conservatives, the plebiscite outcome will be interpreted as irrefutable proof of how sick and sinful their society has become. Religious conservatives, in particular, will have no difficulty accepting their minority status. After all, doesn’t Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, enjoin them to enter in by the strait gate? “[F]or wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat”? And doesn’t he also say that “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

No, the Christian fundamentalists will not be in the least bit surprised to discover that 61.6 percent of their neighbours are going to Hell.

Political conservatives and authoritarian personalities will have a much harder time of it, however. For their brand of politics, 15 November 2017 can only have been a profoundly delegitimating experience. Electorally, it could very easily signal their imminent marginalisation. “Mainstream” politicians will now have to adjust to the fact that social liberalism, which they understood to be confined to the effete inhabitants of the inner-cities, is actually embraced by a much more extensive cross-section of the Australian population. For many, on both sides of the parliamentary aisle, it will rapidly become advisable to evince a more progressive and tolerant political persona.

For the diehards, however, it is not yet the time to lay down their arms and surrender to the bacchanalian throngs gyrating joyously in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne. They still have eleven cards left to play.

The more sharp-eyed and ruthless members of the Liberal and National party rooms will have noticed that of the 17 federal electorates which voted “No” to marriage equality, fully 11 of them are held by the Australian Labor Party. In the strategically vital “Western Suburbs” of Sydney, the seats of Greenway, Chifley, McMahon, Fowler, Warriwa, Blaxland, Watson, Barton and Parramatta – all of them held by Labor MPs – voted “No”. Some, like Greenway, only very narrowly. (53.6 percent) Others, like Blaxland, by a huge margin. (73.9 percent!) In socially-liberal (some would say, radical) Melbourne, the only electorates which rejected marriage equality were the Labor-held seats of Calwell and Bruce.

There is simply no way the Labor Party can defeat the Liberal-National Coalition if even a handful of these eleven safe seats slip from the Opposition’s grasp. And while, in normal times, any suggestion that a seat like Chifley might be lost to the Liberals would be greeted with full-strength Aussie derision, it remains an awkward fact that we are not living in normal times.

Prior to 8 November 2016, the very idea that the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania might be about to fall to Trump would have been met with loud American guffaws. But not after 8 November. Lashed and goaded in just the right way, the normally left-voting inhabitants of places like Michigan – or Chifley – can end up doing the strangest things.

For progressive Australians, 15 November 2017 will forever be bathed in all the vibrant colours of the rainbow. But, for the conservative ideologues, the religious fanatics and the authoritarian personalities trapped in their suffocating character armour, 15 November 2017 will be registered as nothing more than a temporary setback. The bigots might concede that, on this memorable day, they have lost a battle. But, for them, the war against a society grounded in gentleness, tolerance and love will go on.

This essay has been posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Thursday, 16 November 2017.