Monday, January 4, 2016

Truce

Now we are in the time of truce, politically speaking. Politicians abide by it every summer. No papers are signed, no declarations made, but by unspoken agreement they withdraw from battle. A curious business: for 11 months of the year the members of all parties attack and challenge each other as if their lives depended on it. The urgency of the nation’s problems apparently demands it. Answers are sought, assurances given, taunts and tirades fly. But come Christmas, the rhetorical guns fall silent, as the real guns did on the Western Front in the First World War. One is irresistibly reminded of the famous stories about troops in opposing trenches singing carols to each other, even coming out into no man’s land to play a game of football. As if the terrible reasons for being at war with each other were not really that momentous—not even true, perhaps. If trying to kill each other mattered so much for the rest of the year, how could it be set aside so easily now? Was war in fact a giant game, to be taken up and put down as one chose?

So with our politicians. They have all gone on holiday and only the faintest murmur of disagreement clouds the air. We scarcely know where our leaders are. We may not want to know, I grant you—perhaps the public welcome this respite from having them in our faces all the time—but what about the ‘issues’ that seemed so vitally important during the rest of the year? What are we supposed to believe? That somehow ‘child poverty’ and ‘housing crisis’ have stopped happening? That the poor have taken a break too—kicked back for three or four weeks without a worry in the world before, come 18 January, when cabinet meetings resume, suddenly feeling poor again? I don’t think so. But how is it that politicians can so easily put on the back-burner what for the rest of the year is supposed to be boiling its head off on the front element?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Emergency requisitioning

It was after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 that the American journalist Rebecca Solnit wrote a memorable condemnation of the media’s use of the word ‘looting’ when massive disasters occur. What would you do? she asked. ‘Imagine, reader, that your city is shattered by a disaster. Your home no longer exists, and you spent what cash was in your pockets days ago. Your credit cards are meaningless because there is no longer any power to run credit-card charges. Actually, there are no longer any storekeepers, any banks, any commerce, or much of anything to buy. The economy has ceased to exist.’ If, then, you go out and help yourself to food, water and medicines from stores, she asks, should that make you a criminal? Should you be labelled a looter in the international media? Or are you in fact a rescuer, helping, perhaps to save the lives of your children? In short, Solnit asks (and this is the big question), is the survival of disaster victims more important than the preservation of everyday property relations? Yet here we are again with the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan being labelled looters left, right and centre. I’m with Solnit on this: ‘looting’ and its derivatives are very loaded words, and every time I see or hear them used, I feel we comfortably-off Westerners run the risk of sounding grossly patronizing towards people whose suffering is, for most of us, unimaginable. I agree with her completely when she says we need to banish the word ‘looting’ and call it instead (for example) emergency requisitioning. If you take necessary supplies to sustain human life in the absence of any alternative, she says, ‘Not only would I not call that looting, I wouldn’t even call that theft.’

Monday, September 23, 2013

What's wrong with this picture?

 
Looking at Labour’s reshuffle, Russell Brown concludes that the ‘partisan bloodbath confidently forecast by some of the bolder pundits has rather failed to happen.’ Well, maybe not, but I fear there’ll be many more tears before bedtime yet. In the picture taken today of Cunliffe, Robertson, Parker, King, Moroney et al I have never seen a more likely recipe for future dissension. These are not happy campers. Maybe they’ll somehow keep it together through to the next election but in the medium run we are probably looking at splits and defections. With this present line-up in Parliament, all frozen smiles and gritted teeth, Labour simply cannot survive credibly as a united party. One entirely fanciful scenario is that some MPs will migrate to the Greens, which over time will become the more centrist middle-class social-democratic party, leaving Labour more to the traditional left. Or a new party could take shape. Whatever form it takes, a major realignment of the centre-left now seems inevitable. And, historically speaking, a good thing too.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Open skies


Hopefully, before too long, we’ll know who the next leader of the Labour Party is. I know someone else has just got the job but it’s by no means clear that David Cunliffe is destined to be a long-term Labour leader; the best of luck to him but like Goff and Shearer he could well turn out to be another stopgap, a place-holder, someone temporarily occupying the position that rightly belongs to another. The same would be true had Grant Robertson or Shane Jones got the job. None of them has looked really right for it. This is the legacy of Roger Douglas and, to a lesser extent, Helen Clark: a party so diminished that the kind of outstanding political talent you’d normally expect to come through, generation by generation, has failed to show. Cunliffe, Robertson and Jones are all thoroughly competent politicians fit to be cabinet ministers in any administration; but none inspires as a real leader should. Each in their own way, to tell the truth, has come across as awkwardly ill suited for the top job. Let’s be frank: did any of them really excite anyone?

If another golden age of power is possible for Labour, then somewhere out there, in the mists of the future, is the real leader who will take them to those glorious heights. She or he is probably not even in Parliament at the moment. In fact, they aren’t. I can think of two, if not three possible future Labour leaders, all of whom must be weighing up their prospects now; though not in the House yet, they could swiftly be parachuted in. Pay attention to the open skies; you never know what will be coming down.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Smaller


Tony Abbott had a carefully crafted soundbite ready for his first speech as Australia’s next prime minister: ‘Australia,’ he said, ‘is under new management and Australia is now open for business.’ From his point of view, you could see it summed up exactly where he was coming from and what signal he wanted to send to the electorate. But from the point of view of anyone with a shred of respect—dare I say reverence—for democracy, it had a chilling ring. It fused the idea of business with the idea of government, as if the two were one and the same, as indeed they have more or less come to be in recent years. Business, commerce, the worlds of exchange and finance are of course part of what governments engage with, but then so are a host of other things that aren’t about making money—things that have far more to do with the essence of democratic government. To see a newly elected leader choosing with his very first words to present himself like the chief executive of a business corporation that has just completed a successful takeover is profoundly dispiriting. It plays to a pinched idea of politics, a diminished idea of democracy, a mechanical sense of government. Australia, I think, just got smaller.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Zombie alert

 
It seemed ungracious of John Key to dismiss the now-confirmed asset sales referendum as an ‘utter waste of money’ while, in effect, describing it as pointless, because, in his words, ‘We've had a referendum—it was called a general election, and National won that election on the back of this major policy plank with an overwhelming majority—the biggest result we've received in MMP history. So it isn't like this is something that wasn't fully debated.’

Key is on  flimsy ground if he thinks that an election win justifies everything subsequently done by the election winner on the basis that issue A or issue B was a ‘major policy plank.’ Let me quote a recent Economist editorial that cautions against what it calls majoritarianism —the belief that ‘electoral might always makes you right.’ Voting is an important democratic right, the editorial says, but ‘it is not the only one. And winning an election does not entitle a leader to disregard all checks on his power.’

The Economist was not referring to New Zealand and John Key; it was referring to the abuse of democracy by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The fact is that 327,224 New Zealanders have signed the petition for a referendum—nearly a third of the number of those who party-voted National in 2011, ie, it’s by no means a negligible figure and it ought to be respected for that alone. But above all it ought to be respected, and not treated churlishly, as an authentic expression of public opinion expressed en masse. The Prime Minister is perfectly entitled to disagree with the views of the petitioners but to dismiss them so cheaply degrades him and his office, and runs the risk of fostering what the Economist calls zombie democracy—something that 'has the outward shape of the real thing' but lacks the heart.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Chummy and Paddy

If Grant Robertson really wants to lead the Labour Party, and the country, the first thing he should do is stop looking and sounding so matey with Patrick Gower. Announcing his candidacy last night via an interview with Gower on TV3, beamed nationwide on the 6pm news, Robertson's first words were 'Yes, Paddy.' From then on, it was Paddy this and Paddy that and Paddy how's your father. If Robertson really wants to shed his beltway image, then that's hardly the right way to go about it. Being chummy with the Press Gallery does not play well in Milton and Matamata. I notice David Cunliffe dropped in a 'Paddy' too, announcing his candidacy tonight. What hold does the Svengali-like Gower have on these politicians? Personally I rate him as as terrific political journalist, mandatory viewing in fact, and can only assume that the pols are in mortal fear of him. But please, guys, no first names: the rest of us are watching.