• The Voters Deserve Honesty

    When Don Brash failed by a hair’s breadth to become Prime Minister in 2005, it could be said that New Zealand dodged a bullet. Despite his undoubted intelligence, Brash would have been a disastrous Prime Minister, polarising opinion and splitting the country in the cause of extreme social and economic policies.

    I was certainly not alone in welcoming the advent of John Key, who struck me as a much more moderate figure who – though no doubt serving the interests of those who put him in power – I hoped would not do too much damage to New Zealand’s great traditions of social justice and equal opportunity.

    John Key himself was quick to understand the potency of an appeal to moderate opinion. He has courted an image as a politician who is difficult to categorise; we saw that facet of his political personality again in his announcement last week of plans to raise educational standards by paying top-performing principals and teachers to spread best practice.

    That initiative is typical John Key; on closer examination, it may well be asked whether this is the best way to spend $359 million and whether there is any established causal connection between incentive pay and improved educational performance, but it sounds good and is unlikely to cause any actual damage, and the Prime Minister was able to tout it as a step towards an egalitarian society.

    This occasional foray into his opponent’s political territory is all of a piece with the pragmatism shown by the Prime Minister in musing about potential allies if he seeks to form a government at the end of the year. It seems that the actual policies don’t matter; it is only the votes that count, provided they add up to enough to keep him in power.

    So, he is happy to contemplate a deal with the Conservative Party, about whom little is known other than the flaky views of its leader. Both Act and United Future remain in the frame, despite the problems both they and their leaders have endured – problems that should surely have disqualified them from any role in government. The Maori Party will again be welcome, notwithstanding the unhappiness of their voters, while the issues of principle that supposedly excluded New Zealand First have miraculously faded away when the parliamentary arithmetic demands it.

    So far, the voters seem not to mind too much that the Prime Minister gives such a convincing performance as a political chameleon, changing colour from one issue to another – indeed, depending on who he is talking to – from one conversation to another. For the moment, they seem ready to forgive him the ducking and diving; but there may come a time when they grow tired of the sharp tactics and demand something more principled.

    But, in any case, the flexibility – not to say slipperiness – apparently demanded by MMP politics conceals a very different truth. John Key’s carefully cultivated image as a pragmatist is a mask for a much more ideologically driven politician. It has suited him very well to pose as open-minded and ready to consider all options, especially by contrast with his predecessor, but in reality he is just as committed to partisan politics as Don Brash.

    Whereas Don Brash, however, ensured that anyone who would listen would know what his views actually were, John Key is much more circumspect. Perhaps he genuinely does not see himself as an ideologue – that he even believes, in the face of all the evidence, that his government really is a defender of an egalitarian society – but there is a growing gap between image and reality.

    It has surely become more and more evident, especially in his second term, that his starting point is always the same simple inquiry – what serves the interests of big business? This may or may not be described as an ideological bias, but it is certainly in practical terms a sure-fire recipe for ensuring that the interests of ordinary people, and of wider society, are always subordinated to those of business – and, for preference, of overseas business and the bigger the better.

    The result? An economy that is increasingly dependent on a single domestic industry (and the income stream even from dairying, too, is now passing into the hands of foreign owners), and on overseas mining and petroleum companies keen to dig up and drill for whatever they can find, leaving us to pick up the pieces when they leave.

    The price we pay is a polarised society in which increasing numbers of poor and dispossessed have to make do with the occasional well-publicised sop to give the impression that the government cares, while the proportion of national income going to profits (which are increasingly repatriated overseas) grows rapidly at the expense of wages.

    The Prime Minister’s apparent pragmatism conceals, in other words, a deliberate policy that has produced a widening and damaging gap between haves and have-nots, as destructive in economic as it is in social terms. He should stop dissembling and put that policy and its outcome clearly before the electorate; at least Don Brash ensured that voters could make a clear and properly informed choice.

    26 January 2014

  • The Socialist Way – A Review

    The Socialist Way edited by Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson, Palagrave Macmillan, 2013.

    This stimulating and thoughtful collection of essays from across the British Labour movement is long overdue. Throughout what must now be regarded as the New Labour years of wasted opportunity, criticism of the performance of the Blair/Brown government was understandably muted. Now, it seems, a clear judgment of the past and a clear signpost to the future are possible.

    The first hint that times have changed is the title of the book. It is a long time since mainstream British politicians have dared to describe themselves as socialists. It is of course appropriate that one of the two editors is Roy Hattersley – never a left-wing firebrand but someone with an unchallengeable record of commitment to the Labour movement and one of the few to maintain a consistent, reasoned and principled critique of New Labour on the precise grounds that it lacked both reason and principle.

    The second editor is the leading political academic, Kevin Hickson; between the two of them they have assembled an impressive list of contributors – prominent academics, journalists and politicians from both national and local politics. A collection such as this is inevitably uneven, but the best contributions (and there are many of them) strike what is unmistakably a new note.

    That note – belated but for that reason even more welcome – is one of renewed confidence. Perhaps the most striking feature of the political history of Britain in the last three or even four decades has been the left’s loss of intellectual self-confidence. The extent of that loss can be seen in the left’s failure to capitalise on what was on any reckoning the ultimate judgment on neo-liberal politics and economic policy – the global financial crisis.

    Instead of driving home the message that the GFC showed conclusively that unregulated markets would inevitably lead to economic and therefore social disaster, the left (perhaps because of the culpability shared by New Labour) ran scared. What was always obvious, and we now know, is that once you start to run, you can never run far enough. One concession (or failure to make an argument) will inexorably be followed by demands from emboldened opponents for the next concession, and the next.

    What The Socialist Way does is to raise once again a powerful voice that has not been heard in British politics for a long time – the calm and thoughtful voice of democratic socialism, of those who understand that a more equal society in which not only the material rewards of living in society but the respect owed to each individual citizen are fully and fairly delivered is a society that is both stronger and more efficient.

    The remit identified by Roy Hattersley in his opening essay is largely fulfilled by his contributors. What is refreshing is the willingness to take long-established values and to show their relevance to the solution of current and future problems. From economics to the environment and industrial and social policy, from the constitution to the international context, the tone is one of moving forward to grapple with real issues from the starting-point of principle and the traditional left values of compassion, tolerance, social solidarity and equity.

    There is still the sense, however, that left commentators are more comfortable with social issues than with the hard issues of economic policy. There is clearly a growing confidence in developing an effective critique of the failures of neo-liberalism and of austerity as a response to recession; but there is perhaps less willingness to offer a fully developed alternative economic strategy that would address not only the immediate weaknesses and failures of current Tory policy but offer as well a longer-term solution to endemic problems that are now so familiar a part of the landscape that they are scarcely noticed.

    The real significance of this book, however, is that it reflects an understanding of the difficult truth that, in democratic politics, there are never any final battles. The goal must always be to persuade, convince and prevail; but what matters is never giving up, never vacating the battlefield and continuing to fight the battle. The Socialist Way shows that that commitment is alive and well.

    Bryan Gould.

    28 August 2013.

  • Doing What The Big Boys Tell Us

    It is surely now clear that this government sees our economic future as being dominated by big international players.

    Little account is taken of the “little people” – the unemployed, the low-paid, the wage-earners, and their families – or of their contribution, both actual and potential, to a successful economy. Otherwise, the government would not be so relaxed about the numbers unemployed, or struggling to make ends meet in low-paid jobs with little or no job security.

    Nor do small and medium enterprises figure largely in the government’s view of what makes a successful economy. Otherwise, they would not dismiss the plight of small manufacturers and exporters, burdened by an overvalued currency and the low level of demand.

    No, the government pins its hopes of getting the economy moving again on persuading big international investors to favour us with their attention – and John Key seems ready to bend over backwards to close any deal that is offered, whatever its terms.

    We have already seen how far the government is prepared to go. Warner Brothers didn’t even have to break sweat to get a $67 million tax concession and a change in employment law that reduced the rights of New Zealand workers.

    Sky City was able, in a “negotiation” that excluded other options, to extract an increased number of pokie machines in return for building a convention centre which will deliver to them substantial economic benefits anyway.

    But, as Ronald Reagan used to say, we “ain’t seen nothing yet.” The government is really pinning its hopes for foreign investment on drilling and mining – and it is leaving no stone unturned in its determination to make life easy for the big oil and mining companies, whatever price in domestic terms has to be paid.

    The evidence for this is too compelling to be ignored. In the last few months, the government has cut the Department of Conservation’s capability with the loss of a further 120 jobs. Changes to the Resource Management Act will allow Ministers to go over the heads of local authorities and permit mining or drilling activities that are “of national importance”.

    Large mining firms are permitted to prospect in areas that are environmentally unsafe, as in Northland, and in conservation areas such as Coromandel – and we are asked to believe that this prospecting is being done for fun, with no thought of a commercial return from any discovery of mineral resource that might be made. And the government have learned from the Warner Brothers issue; changes to please big business will now be made in advance and not left till the last minute.

    The Prime Minister loses no opportunity to proclaim that our economic future depends on digging up whatever can be found, irrespective of the impact on the environment and on the “clean, green” image we project to tourists. So we can imagine how irritated he was when the Brazilian petroleum giant Petrobras last year pulled out of their exploration off the North Island’s East Coast.

    He was even more angry that a protest at sea organised by local iwi and environmentalists had seemed to be a factor in that decision to withdraw, even though the company itself said they had withdrawn because they weren’t satisfied that the prospects were good enough.

    Kiwis have a history of supporting protest at sea – against French nuclear tests and Japanese whaling – but John Key is determined that future drilling at sea will not be the subject of protest. That is why in Parliament this week, the government is changing the law to make peaceful protest at sea a criminal offence, and to threaten protesters with fines of up to $50,000 and sentences of up to 12 months in jail.

    The proposed amendments to the Crown Minerals (Permitting and Crown Land) Bill break new (and probably unlawful) ground in a number of respects. A protest will be treated as criminal, even though no violence to person or property is perpetrated, and safety is in no way threatened; it will be enough if, in our 500-kilometre exclusive economic zone, the protest “interferes” with a vessel by approaching within 500 metres of it.

    The law has in the past protected installations at sea, such as oil rigs, but this is the first time that a vessel (which may be moving around) has enjoyed similar protection; it is clear that this provision constitutes an infringement of the freedom of navigation, in contravention of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

    And the restriction on the right to protest should raise concern from all of those who value our civil and political rights. We know, from the measures taken to stop a legitimate protest against China’s policy in Tibet when the Chinese Vice-President, now President Xi, visited us in 2010, how readily this government is willing to abandon our own standards to please powerful foreign interests; these latest measures are in breach of both our own Bill of Rights, which guarantees the right of peaceful protest, and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

    The government are again prepared, it seems, to compromise our own standards so that powerful overseas business interests can have carte blanche.

    Bryan Gould

    7 April 2013

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 10 April.

  • Political Ambition Knows No Bounds

    Politics is a funny business, sometimes producing unintended consequences, sometimes revealing human weaknesses that would be better remaining hidden.

    A case in point was the unresolved dispute about the leadership of the Maori party. Few could have imagined that the issue could have produced such a bewildering outcome.

    The Maori party, like the Greens, had adopted a dual leadership – one assumes as a neat way of avoiding the need to decide between the two candidates who might otherwise have been at each other’s throats. But, as luck and events would have it, the fact that the two leaders were of different genders – and that matter had been decided as a biological (rather than political) fact at a somewhat earlier date – became translated into a “principle” that the dual leadership should comprise one of each sex.

    This happy arrangement was disturbed, however, when Tariana Turia – the distaff half of the duo – announced that she would stand down. One possibility immediately presented itself; the other half of the duo, Pita Sharples, might also resign (as he had earlier indicated he would) and bring the dual leadership arrangement to an end, so providing the opportunity for Te Ururoa Flavell to become leader (as the only remaining Maori party MP) in his own right. Te Ururoa Flavell, it will be noted, is a man.

    This simple solution was however stymied by Pita Sharples digging in his toes. He announced that he would stay on, and would oppose any leadership bid by Te Ururoa Flavell. Battle (albeit discreetly) was joined.

    When it became clear that Flavell was likely to win in any ballot of the membership (which could have been conducted with ease and despatch, since there were by now only 17 members left), what was Pita Sharples to do? Being a Minister mattered enormously to him. He enjoyed the prestige and the perks and was quite understandably unwilling to give them up. He enjoyed the flattery applied liberally to him by the Prime Minister and was able to convince himself (if no one else) that his use of a Ministerial car was essential if Maori interests were to be properly defended.

    His problem was that if he was forced to relinquish the leadership of the party, his successor would also have an undeniable claim to take over the Ministerial limousine. The thought of Te Ururoa Flavell stepping into the back seat and instructing the chauffeur as to where to take him was too much to bear.

    So Pita Sharples hit upon a brilliant idea. He would remind the party that it had always had two leaders – and that, even if Te Ururoa Flavell took over one of the spots, there would still be one left to accommodate one P. Sharples. But the sharp-eyed reader will already have identified the flaw in the argument; if it was required that the party should have two leaders, it could equally well be argued that it was also necessary that the two leaders should be of different genders.

    What was to be done? It was undeniable that Te Ururoa Flavell was a man, leading inexorably to the conclusion that the other leader would have to be a woman. And this, according to most observers at any rate, constituted something of a dilemma for P. (as he had taken to calling himself) Sharples.

    Throughout the fateful night, he wrestled with the dilemma. He reminded himself that Henri IV had once asked, “Is Paris worth a mass?” Was a Ministerial post worth a similarly fundamental sacrifice of something he held dear?

    As morning dawned, he had made up his mind. There was, in the end, no real choice. He disappeared from public life for a few weeks – and the rest, as they say, is history. Patricia Sharples was elected with acclaim as the other leader of the Maori Party – and the Ministerial car was safe.

    Bryan Gould.

    25 January 2013

  • Maori Politics Are Not A No-Go Area

    For many pakeha, the Treaty of Waitangi is an exclusively Maori domain. It is seen as simply a mechanism for the pursuit of Maori grievance. This indifference to our defining constitutional document means that our country is weaker and less united than it should be.
    Similarly, Maori politics are seen as solely a Maori concern – so much so that non-Maori gratefully concede that it is not a topic on which they should intrude. Yet pakeha commentators are failing in their duty if they treat Maori politics as irrelevant to our wider national concerns.
    We all have an interest, after all, in the success or otherwise that Maori have, not only in managing their own affairs but in making their full contribution to our national life. We all have a stake in seeing those shocking statistics for Maori health, education and employment reversed. We are all poorer and our society is more divided because we tolerate a situation in which an ethnically defined and growing part of our biculturally based country is left to languish.
    When I was growing up, it was widely believed by pakeha that the future for Maori was assimilation, a process that was seen to be both painless and inevitable. We now know better. Not only have we (or at least most of us) learnt the real and continuing value of Maori language and culture, but we also understand the magnitude of the challenge that Maori have had to meet in adapting to a bicultural world. And we now know, too, that we have much to learn from the Maori world view.
    Most Kiwis of whatever ethnicity will have grasped that Maori have a better chance of success in today’s world if their own language and culture are recognised as the basis of building confidence, security, self-identity and a sense of self-worth. If Maori are required to operate in a pakeha-dominated world according to exclusively pakeha values and prescriptions, it is little wonder that they will struggle.
    So, there will – or should – be an understanding welcome for measures, like the whanau ora programme, that are designed to provide a culturally appropriate way of improving access to a range of public services for Maori – services whose successful delivery for both Maori and pakeha is essential to our health as a society. There is little point in providing such services but placing them behind an impenetrable cultural barrier which in effect denies them to those who most need them.
    But this is only part of the story. It is right to accept that an increased role for te reo and tikanga Maori is essential to provide a secure base from which Maori can play their full role in our country. But that secure base should be just that – a base. Valuable though it is in itself, it is not the destination. It is not the endpoint. Cultural security should be the launching-pad for an assault on the real goal – the increased ability for Maori to operate successfully in today’s rapidly changing and increasingly international and multicultural world.
    My old friend Robert Mahuta used to tell me that “it is time for Maori to stop looking in the mirror and to look out the window”. He was right. Maori, like everyone else, need to be looking forward as well as back – forward to a new world in which a good education, good health and well-paid employment are the crucial passports to success.
    Many Maori are already showing the way. But the statistics for overall Maori health, employment and educational achievement cannot be gainsaid. Maori politicians who want to make a difference should have no difficulty in accepting that these statistics point to the correct priorities. Their concerns must, in other words, go beyond issues of Maori language and culture; Maori are even more directly concerned than the rest of us by wider social and economic issues – not least because, when those issues are badly handled, it is Maori, and particularly young Maori, who are the most vulnerable.
    There is one issue above all that should demand attention. The restoration of full employment, and the chance of a job for the more than 15% of young Maori currently unemployed, would be the single most important advance for Maori that could be made. It would put money in pockets, raise living standards, improve health, lift self-esteem, encourage educational effort – and it would transform the life prospects of future Maori families.
    For as long as large numbers of young Maori are excluded from the chance to play a full role in our economic life, the outlook for Maori – and for all of us – is grim. Maori leaders should be using their political clout to force a government that treats the issue of unemployment with supreme indifference to do something about it. Maori politicians should not be satisfied with a few inexpensive concessions on specifically Maori issues. Their focus should be on those wider issues that really matter, to pakeha as well as Maori, yes, but that have an especially damaging impact on Maori. It’s time that they – and we all – spoke up.
    Bryan Gould
    1 December 2012

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 10 December 2012