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


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.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The players

It should be evident by now that the pool of people capable of successfully leading a major political party in this country is very small. The precise combinations of characteristics required are extremely rare, so inevitably the list of those who tried and failed is longer than the list of those who got to the very top, ie, led their party to electoral victory in their own right, became Prime Minister for at least a full term as a result and—more important—stamped their personal authority on the office.

The would-bes over the past half-century include Nordmeyer, Marshall, Rowling, McLay, Palmer, Moore, Shipley, English, Brash, Goff and now Shearer. I don’t include Norman Kirk in that list; had he not died after barely 20 months in office he would have served a full term and probably more. Along with him, the list of out-and-out success stories, if you go by the criteria I’ve mentioned, is very short: Holyoake, Muldoon, Clark and Key. That leaves two others: Lange, who seemed more like a spectator of, if not a commentator on, his own leadership; and Bolger, who perhaps gets a pass mark—just.

Only about once in a generation, it seems, does one person arise who seems destined to become a convincing Prime Minister; Clark and Key have been the only two in the past 40 years, and even they, of course, have their flaws. No leader is ever allowed to remain just right for too long. Politics is a two-stage process: first you’re sworn in, then, inevitably, eventually, you’re sworn at. What, then, is the required combination of characteristics?

Researching the biography of Kirk that I’m currently working on, I came across Gerald Hensley’s description of him as ‘instinctive, vengeful, intelligent, suspicious and perceptive—a natural leader.’ That seems as good a job description as any. I’d add just one crucial ingredient: the ability, not given to many who perform on the public stage, to fuse your true self (the person you are to yourself privately) with the artificial persona mandatory for political success at the highest level. Insincerity is the sincerest form of politics. It seems a terrible thing to say, but David Shearer never really got beyond showing us his true self, and like Rowling and McLay in particular, just looked falser every time he tried to bridge the gap between that self and the part he needed to play.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The hidden price

At a gathering of economists in Wellington on Tuesday the chief economist at the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment, Roger Procter, ‘argued that New Zealand’s economic restructuring had consistently replaced high-productivity industries with lower-productivity alternatives’ [Patrick Smellie column, Dominion Post 4.7.13]. Smellie goes on to suggest that if Procter is right, he’s ‘effectively arguing that industries such as car plants, which disappeared in the 1980s when import tariffs came down, should have been allowed to continue. Adds Smellie: ‘Try telling that to the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who have enjoyed access to far cheaper cars as a result.’ That last remark is a giveaway. Blunt, scornful and at first sight unarguably practical, it’s a common response to any suggestion that the economic course adopted by this country since the 1980s might not necessarily be all for the best. But let’s think harder about that. So all it comes down to in the end is that we get cheaper imports and pay less for our cars, our clothes, our flat-screen TVs? That’s not a negligible factor, of course—we all have a keen interest in the cost of living—but this crude reductionism ignores all the benefits that come from a nation protecting its own industries and workforce (as many nations still do). The wasting of KiwiRail’s Hillside workshops in Dunedin is a recent example: a Chinese manufacturer offered to make wagons slightly more cheaply than Hillside could, so the contract went to them—never mind the deleterious effect on the local workforce, the wider Dunedin economy, the intangible moral and psychological impact on people’s belief in the meaning of work, community, nation. Ah yes—the intangibles. They can’t be measured by economic statistics, they don’t show up in spreadsheets. In that world, the case for cheaper cars will always win. But is that, ultimately, the god we want to sacrifice to? Everything has a hidden price. If there’s no such thing as a free lunch, then there’s no such thing as a cheap import. Smellie is an excellent journalist whose columns about business and economic matters are consistently readable but he lets himself down here.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The entertainer

There's something desperately sad about watching Winston Peters trying to milk a scandal about Peter Dunne. It's a familiar routine for Peters, one he could do in his sleep: expose something irregular or embarrassing on the basis of a leak, spin it out over several weeks, harrumph self-righteously, strut the public stage, keep us all agog wondering what he'll come up with next. And, in its heyday, what a routine it was! The Maori Affairs loans scandal, the winebox affair—these were legitimate issues of public concern, exposed by Peters, even if he made rather too much a meal of them. But the days are long gone when he seized on something really meaningful, and it's a sign of how impregnable the National government has been to his usual tricks that all the old shark can do now is sink his increasingly blunt teeth into a fellow minor party. Shark bites minnow: this is news? The more Peters attacks Dunne, the more he shows how weakened he has become. And as it also grows clearer with every day that he has no more of substance to throw at his victim (admitting he hasn't got all the dirt he needs would have been unthinkable once), so we witness the sad spectacle of a veteran showbiz star no longer able to wow the crowds in the same dazzling way. The old soft-shoe shuffle, so slick before, looks worn and creaky now. One is reminded irresistibly of John Osborne's play/film The Entertainer, in which a faded music-hall performer past his prime keeps wheeling out the same tired old jokes and routines, to increasingly thin applause. Peters has so lost the plot this time, in fact, that he's in serious danger of rousing public sympathy for Dunne. Who now looks as though he will pull through to the next election before leaving Parliament with, perhaps, his reputation not quite so battered as it seems now.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Call me royal

I found myself unexpectedly moved by images of the service at Westminster Abbey celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. It’s not that I’d give the monarchy as such the time of day: I regard it as a colossal waste of money and, as far as New Zealand is concerned, an apron string we should long ago have cut. But I guess it’s impossible for someone of my (baby-boom) generation not to have the Queen hard-wired into their worldview, and not to have at least some emotional attachment to it. Dammit, I was there at age six, probably waving a tiny union jack, as she drove through Masterton in January 1953 as part of her triumphal tour of New Zealand. Did she notice me? It’s hard to believe she didn’t, but the historical record comes up short on that score. Never mind; I wish her no ill. She has been a part of virtually my whole life, and while on one level I regard the British monarchy as a sensational lot of nonsense, nonsense, too, has its part to play in the richly unfolding panorama of these things our lives.

Monday, April 22, 2013

On the ball

Let’s see now. A Liverpool footballer in the English Premier League bites another player and already it looks like, at the least, that he’ll be banned from playing for seven games; and according to the Guardian his very future with the club is in doubt. On the other hand, All Black Julian Savea is charged with assaulting his partner, and although the charge is yet to come to court, he has as good as admitted it by apologizing to her. Yet in full knowledge of the incident the Rugby Union allowed him to keep playing for the Hurricanes, and there’s been no suggestion of any ban, temporary or otherwise, from taking the field. Back to Luis Su├írez. The chair of Britain’s Professional Footballers Association says: ‘Players are role models and are highly rewarded. This sets such a bad example.’ And Liverpool’s manager has cancelled an overseas trip to fly back to Britain and deal with the fallout from the bite. He says the club won’t tolerate (my italics) players who bring its reputation into disrepute. Still waiting to hear that kind of response from the Rugby Union or the Hurricanes management. All the focus, in fact, is is on the suffering of Julian Savea. One can almost see the wagons being drawn in a circle around him. Another day, another woman hit. But I guess the game’s the thing. What was it again that's not OK?