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.