Archive for ‘March, 2010’
It’s well known to most that Chris Trotter and I have had considerable differences. But despite them, I must say that when he’s on form it can be a sight to behold.
So it is with his latest set-piece about Auckland governance, which gives voice to the intuitive disquiet felt by many, weaving many of the themes behind the sometimes tentative and incoherent criticism of the (aptly-named) Supercity plan into a cohesive polemic narrative, putting meat on those bones and placing these recent events in a historical context which resonates.
Required reading, whether or not you agree with it, and deserving of a wider audience than the blogosphere generally provides.
Being pro-Israel is not to be pro-Zionist or anti-Palestinian. To be anti-occupation is not anti-Semetic.
Posted on 17:59, March 30th, 2010 by Pablo
One of the ironies of the perennial Middle Eastern conflict is how the Western democratic Left shifted from a pro-Israeli position (held until the 1970s), to an anti-Israeli position during the last three decades. Much of this is Israel’s own fault, as its continued expansion into, and occupation of Palestinian lands in violation of the 1967 and 1973 war settlements, to say nothing of the Camp David accords, has re-cast its image to that of an imperialist oppressor rather than besieged liberal democracy surrounded by a sea of hostile Arab despots and medieval theocratic zealots.
Yet Israel remains the sole functioning democracy in Middle East (Turkey is further afield and excluded from this analysis for argument purposes), one that if, in a process of increasing decay (think the Olmert and Sharon corruption scandals), internal polarisation (think of the political ascendence of the rabid orthodox Right and its impact on Israeli settlement policy) and restrictions on the political and civil rights of Arab Israelis and the Arab inhabitants of the occupied territories, remains in stark contrast to the autocracies or facade democracies that, even if pro-Western, surround it. In terms of social toleration, gender and economic equality, and freedom of expression, Israel remains ahead of all of its neighbours. In fact, Israel is a classic social democracy whose betrayal of its basic principles has also been seen in the negative fortunes of its Labour Party, something that has only been partially been compensated by a rising peace movement in opposition to Likud and its religious zealot allies (it should be noted that most of the orthodix Jewish zealots are fairly recent foreign immigrants from the US and Russia, and not second or third generation Israelis).
But the view that Israel, in spite of its grave flaws, remains a country worth supporting is a view that can no longer be safely voiced in Left circles and is in fact now a minority opinion. Instead, the Palestianian struggle has become the main Left cause celebre as an expression of anti-imperialism, no matter that both Hamas and Fatah are intensely authoritarian political organisations with little socialist inclination, the former acting not only as militant counter to the “betraying” moderation (and corruption) of the latter, but also acting as a proxy (along with Hizbullah) for Iranian influence in the Eastern Mediterrean (Iran being an elected authoritarian-theocratic regime in which basic civil liberties are, to put it gently, seriously curtailed). Moreover, Hamas in government in Gaza has been anything but democratic in its treatment of internal dissent, so even if it was voted in fairly (much to the US and Israel’s dismay), it has not made good on its promises to bring democratic governance to its beleaguered people. The larger point being that Israel may suck as a democracy, but its neighbours and opponents may suck just as bad or worse.
Thus, if one is on the Left side of the Western political spectrum and expresses a sympathy for Israel in spite of its flaws, even if only in comparison to its neighbours and the character of Palestinian political society, then one risks being pilloried by ideologically kindred spirits.
On the other hand, if one points out the illegality of Israeli occupation of land in Gaza and the West Bank, and the illegality of the ongoing settlement of Palestianian lands, and/or notes the deterioration of Israeli democracy, then one risks being labeled an anti-Semite by Israeli sympathizers and the political Right. These see no fault in Israel and no good in Palestianians. Their fear of Islamicism overrides their concern Israel’s political decadence and its overtly bellicose approach to regional affairs. They see and hear no evil when it comes to Israel.
There is no point in arguing, as many do, about who came first to that part of the world–Jews, Arabs or Christians. Arguing about who came first 2000+ years ago does not advance one iota the prospects for a peaceful settlement of current disputes (there is a parallel here to the “we were here first” arguments of some Maori activists). Nor does it do any good to re-visit the circumstances surrounding Israel’s founding as a nation-state (much like there is little point in arguing the legitimacy of European colonisation of Aotearoa). The fact is that Israel (like Pakeha) is (are) not going anywhere.
Israel is here to stay regardless of whether its neighbours or non-state adversaries may wish it not to or plan for its demise. Thus, the real point of departure for any prospect for peace is admission of the fact. Sadat recognised this and paid for it with his life. In turn Rabin recognised that Israel needed to deal as equals with its Palestianian counterparts and paid for that view with his life. Perhaps it is fair to say, then, that there are those on both sides (and inside and outside the Middle East) who have a vested interest in perpetuating the conflict rather than solving it, and they do so by dredging up historical grievances and past offenses as one means of doing so.
Needless to say there is a fair bit of anti-Semeticism in the opposition to Israel, particularly that voiced in Muslim and some Christian fundamentalist circles. And, needless to say, the heretofore seemingly blind US support for Israel has very much made it the tail that wags the US dog when it comes to Middle Eastern policy and has contributed to Israeli intransigence and defiance when it addresses international conventions (something that may be shifting as a result of the Netanyahu government’s latest affronts to US attempts to re-start the so-called “peace process”). But opposition to Israeli occupation is not reducible to anti-Semeticism or anti-US beliefs. Instead, it can rest on a principled opposition to illegal behaviour on the part of a democratic state that more than most should understand the long-term consequences of oppression and inequality. Israel may continue to feel besieged (although truth be told many Arab states de facto accept its existance, so much of the siege mentality is driven by domestic ideological competition) but much of the opposition to it now has to do not with its origins or ethno-religious character but with its current behaviour.
The current rift in US-Israeli relations is a moment to drive that point home, devoid of the emotional and ideological baggage that has impeded rational discussion about the way forwards towards a durable peace. It remains to be seen whether those with a vested interest in perpetuating the conflict, be they from the Left or Right, will accept that to be the case.
Forewarning: Comments that attempt to rehash historical disputes (i.e. the “who came first” or “Israel’s founding was illegal” arguments) will be deleted simply because they add nothing to what has been said ad nauseum already. Likewise for personal attacks on what some might take to be my position one way or the other. In the latter case the point will have been missed that what I am trying to do here is steer a middle course through the ideological minefield that surrounds discussion of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
In the USA, the Spotted Owl evokes the spectre of trivial busybody environmentalism. This species has been extremely well propagandised by the forestry lobby and other anti-environmentalists as a symbol for “putting other species ahead of humanity”. But it is not so in New Zealand (although there is Powelliphanta augusta). For a hint of what the public response to Gerry Brownlee’s plan to mine Schedule 4 of the conservation estate could be like, look no further than the firestorm which has erupted over the YouTube video showing Norwegians shooting protected native birds, among other things.
This has been a pretty persistent story. It’s been at or close to the top of the Stuff “most read” list for going on three days now; at the time of writing, it’s #1. It’s third on the NZ Herald website’s NZ section. It was in almost every dead-trees paper with a national news focus in the country on Friday. It’s featured prominently on One and 3 News (and consequently RadioLIVE), Radio NZ National, Newstalk ZB, and is at present the third-placed story on English-language Norwegian news website News and Views from Norway and has made Norwegian-language mainstream news there too, as well as action from Norway’s own environmental agencies. It’s drawn outraged official comment from DoC and the Conservation Minister; but notably not (as far as I can see) from the Minister of Tourism. There are 400-plus infuriated comments on the original YouTube clip, and 300-plus on the Fish’n’Hunt Forum, the oldest and most popular NZ internet site for discussion of hunting and fishing topics. Stuff.co.nz has a poll up, and the results are quite clear, for what they’re worth:
This outpouring of righteous fury has not come about because of the death of a few birds. None of the species shot by these hunters are so close to extinction that the loss of an isolated handful of individuals will critically harm the population. The reason for the response is that this sort of thing offends us deeply and personally. It is antithetical to who we are as New Zealanders, and it is as if a little part of each of us dies with those birds.
I wrote a few days ago that the task for the opposition, for conservationists and those who love the land and its wildlife was to relegate mining Schedule 4 to the “political too-hard basket”. More specifically, that task for those people — and for the 74% of (notoriously reactionary) Stuff respondents for whom these events are a grave injury — is to see the proposal to mine Schedule 4 as the same thing on a much greater scale, which it ultimately is, and to respond in kind.
Update 30 March: A vivid event like the one discussed above often primes the media and public to pay closer attention to similar events which previously might not have been newsworthy. Dog attacks are a case in point. So it is with this case: the release and eventual death of a weka, hardly endangered but well-loved, from Hagley Park, is now news.
Sorry about that. As you were. I’ll try to find time to reply, but it probably won’t be today.
As promised the latest “Word from Afar” column at Scoop focuses on the 2008-2009 NZSIS annual report. As I anticipated in an earlier post, there are a few nuggets of information about its work amid all the PR jargon and managerial double speak. Check it out here.
Paula Bennett’s damn-the-torpedoes attitude toward the Attorney-General’s advice regarding the Bill of Rights Act — and Idiot/Savant’s observation that this is just the latest bit of policy in breach of that act — has me wondering. What happens if there are torpedoes?
What happens when a widower has his benefit cut by WINZ, having refused a work test which a woman in identical circumstances would not be required to undergo? Surely he has recourse to sue WINZ for that breach. If that’s so, and it seems like in a civil society governed by the rule of law it should be so, the government will surely open themselves up to considerable legal liability by implementing and enforcing this sort of policy (quite apart from the symbolic side of such cases getting hauled through the courts, and so on).
Can some of you lawyerin’ types out there in the internets give me a pub-argument explanation of the issues in this situation?
Labour’s campaign against mining Schedule 4 land looks strong, especially at the iconographic level.
The slogan and to an extent the photo frames the issue as a matter of identity, echoing Phil Goff’s “the many, not the few” and Phil Twyford’s “not yours to sell” (though the visual style has come a long way since that campaign, and there’s some subject-object confusion). It also echoes Iwi/Kiwi, undoubtedly the most effective campaign of this sort in recent memory. The hard economic matters — the cost-benefit analysis between mining and tourism and so on — are there, as they should be, but backgrounded to the symbolic concerns.
Goff is clear that he’s not anti-mining, but wants to focus on the 60% of mineral resources outside the DOC estate. That’s the crucial point to make because it draws a bright line between acceptable and unacceptable which is still well north of Schedule 4 — to cross that line the government must first gain electoral consent to mine DOC land, and having done that must gain consent to mine the most precious areas of that estate. The point isn’t that mining is all bad; the point is that mining conservation land is worse than the alternatives. The job of the opposition, environmentalists and anyone who loves the fact that NZ still has wild places which are sacrosanct, or who thinks of those places as a part of them, is to relegate the idea of mining them to the political too-hard basket.
Labour and the Greens are also well-coordinated on this, with Metiria Turei pointing out the government’s duplicity in not revealing its intent to mine areas on Great Barrier Island which are under Treaty negotiations. The māori party should get in on this, as well. It looks good.
Pita Sharples has severely undermined his own and his party’s credibility with his Race Relations Day speech criticising “one person, one vote”. As a minister in a democratic government, he has taken aim at one of democracy’s fundamental symbolic virtues, in such a way as to give the impression he (and his party) are anti-democracy. After years of fighting for the voices of mana whenua to be heard in democratic politics on strong principled grounds, Sharples seems now to have accepted the extreme right’s framing of that representation as antithetical to democracy.
Let’s just be clear: “one person, one vote” is no sort of actual democracy, it is an illusory ideal which persists only in hearts and minds, placed there by bold principles and the stirring oratories brought by democratic leaders of old looking to appeal to something bigger than they were. Even our present democracy, which is a very great deal closer to the ideal than the original American system, is pretty far from “one person, one vote” at a functional level. For a start, we have two votes. Even if you had one, what sort of vote would it be: first-past-the-post, where you’re at the mercy of geography; or single-transferable, where you’re not sure until after it’s all over who your vote actually got counted for; or what? For another thing, you can be a person and not have a vote — people under 18 don’t, prisoners convicted of serious offences don’t (and that could soon include all prisoners). There are more, but I won’t go on — the point is that “one person, one vote” is symbolic, not literal.
But neither are Sharples’ objections literal, they are symbolic. In the non-literal sense, what “one person, one vote” means is the opportunity for equality of input into the electoral process — whether that be by one or two votes, in a big electorate or a small one. What happens after that is democracy in action. In this regard, an electoral system which pays at least some regard to the principle of “one person, one vote” is a minimal bound for a modern democracy (though there are others also). Sharples’ criticism is that this isn’t enough — that democracy should be about equality of outcome rather than input. I agree — and I think very many other people do as well. Making democracy work takes much more than votes. But when it’s framed in the way he has framed it, this sort of discussion is political poison, because it attacks the heart of our political culture. This “race-based” framing of mana whenua political representation has been expressly developed in order to make those things seem indefensible in a liberal democratic context. Sharples has swallowed the hook, and instead of continuing to defend the Māori Seats and mana whenua representation on the existing and well-proven grounds (that it’s necessary for the establishment and maintenance of tino rangatiratanga, guaranteed by the Treaty) he has made a declaration which amounts to “yeah, they’re anti-democratic: so?” The most ridiculous aspect of it is that the existing mechanism which is so reviled complies with the principle of “one person, one vote”: electors on the Māori roll get get the same vote as anyone else, the only difference is in how they cast it. There is equality of input to the democratic process by Māori at the electoral level — it’s elsewhere in the process which is the problem.
I’ve argued before that the core symbolic and philosophical stuff of modern democracy is liberalism of one brand or another. No mainstream political concern can hope to win a democratic mandate without founding a lot of its agenda in liberalism. The symbolism of “one person, one vote” is crucial to this orthodoxy. Charles Elder and Roger Cobb, in The Political Uses of Symbols presented a typology of political symbols in the American context, organised into “political community” symbols which express political values at the highest level (“America”, “The Flag”, “The Constitution”); through “regime” symbols which express the political values of the current orthodoxy (in this case, American democracy, not a specific administration — the examples given are “The Presidency”, “Congress”, and “One Person, One Vote”); and three classes of “situational” symbols which express particular policy or administrational preferences of lesser affect (“The Reagan Administration; “gun control”, etc.) The higher up Elder and Cobb’s typology you go, the greater the degree of political consensus on the values imbued in a particular symbol. Nobody in American politics gets anywhere if they stand against “America”: the task of politics in that context is to convince people that what you stand for is “America”. “One person, one vote” is pretty high up that symbolic ladder. It is an illusion, but it’s a sacred illusion.
Every party in New Zealand’s parliament at present, except one, lays claim to this broad liberal tradition in one way or another. That one party which does not is the māori party. That is not to say that their agenda isn’t broadly liberal in function, but that it’s largely that way for non-Western-liberal philosophic reasons. This is the māori party’s great electoral purpose: to normalise an indigenous political-philosophical tradition. But they can’t do so this way, by attacking the liberal orthodoxy’s sacred illusions, the bedrock values held even by those who would never dream of calling themselves liberals. The māori party, more than any other, must recognise the value of “one person, one vote” as part of the history of democracy working for downtrodden minorities rather than against them, and adopt this as part of its own political basis.
As libertarians have discovered, if you don’t really believe in democracy it’s best not to bother with it — then you get to maintain whatever you claim as high moral ground and leave the actual business of governing to those who lack your unshakeable principles. But that’s not what the māori party is about. They do believe in democracy; they do recognise the importance of engagement and compromise and consensus, and they do plenty of work toward it, and a misguided outburst like this one puts it all in jeopardy. “Race-based” is National’s catch-cry from just a few short years ago, and they will take any encouragement given them to reach out to New Zealand’s conservatives, who are already distrustful of the māori party. It will force Labour further down the path of attacking the māori party to try to recapture the centre ground, rather than encouraging cooperation and the mending of fences. Most critically, it could create a backlash against the very mechanism Sharples seeks to save, generating opposition to the Māori seats his party needs for its survival, and which exist only by the pleasure of the Pākehā majority whose sacred illusions he has slighted.
While it should have been underway already, the māori party must now redouble its efforts to appeal to voters outside the Māori electorates, and prepare to live in a world without them.
Just before the end of the university term last year, Peter McCaffrey and ACT On Campus gave the Victoria University of Wellington Student Association an object lesson in how democracy works. They successfully passed a resolution that VUWSA make a select committee submission in support of Roger Douglas’ Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill (making student association voluntary) despite various machinations employed by the VUWSA members and officeholders there. These events were well documented in text by Jenna Raeburn and in video with a ridiculously triumphal soundtrack (irony noted by felix).
The fundamental problem of non-democratic (and poor-quality democratic) political systems is that they shelter those in power from the consequences of their actions. Authoritarianism (and authoritarian communism in particular) is deleterious not so much due to the economic failings of the system (such as the economic calculation problem) as due to the fact that in such systems there exists no mechanism to force, require or even encourage the leadership to act in its peoples’ interest. I’ve written a lot about the power transfer problem of orthodox Marxist pragma, and this is an aspect of it. When the leadership is invested with the monopoly power and authority to suppress a counter-revolution, how do you ever get them to relinquish it?
The effect of impunity is similarly evident in other fields; particularly in commerce, where the customary opposition of the terms “freedom” and “regulation” are little more than straw soldiers in a propaganda battle. Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite have written at length about the extent to which so-called free trade mechanisms such as TRIPS are instruments of international coercion more than they are of international trade, and how almost the entire intellectual property system of the modern world has been so thoroughly captured by existing rightsholders that it now functions as a form of privatised regulation by asserting near-impassable barriers to entry into the information marketplace. This suppresses competition, promotes the establishment and maintenance of cartels between existing participants, and all this breeds impunity, where participants have no (or few) reasons to develop their products and services to suit their users’ needs, and so they develop them to suit their own needs. The results are everywhere; for instance, in the fact that people are compelled to purchase Microsoft software with most new computers although they might hate and despise it, or simply not need it; or in the fact that those same users, having reluctantly purchased Windows since there are no easily-accessible alternatives (those having been shut out of the market years ago by patent thickets, bundling, cross-licensing, and so on) are then locked into using proprietary media formats, players, content distribution and communication systems with (in some cases well-known) surveillance functions and which are designed to restrict a users’ rights to their own hardware, content and communication, so that the system — and users’ participation in it — works in the provider’s interest, rather than the interests of its users.
That example is just one with which I’m familiar. Much more socially and economically important examples exist; particularly around medical development and crop research. But the point is that this whole system, billed as being about “freedom”, does not mean freedom for users so much as rightholders’ freedom from the need to cater to their users without fear of someone else eating their lunch.
Returning to student body politics. When a student union compels fees from its students, and when students who disagree with the union’s agenda are unable to withdraw their support, what incentive is there for the union to represent the interests of the student body? The political consequence of that system is a student body politic so complacent due to impunity in charge of millions of dollars a year in revenue that it literally cannot organise a SRC vote to save itself.
I am no great supporter of VSM; I view the threadbare rhetoric of “freedom” employed by Douglas, McCaffrey and so on with a jaundiced eye. I don’t believe people should simply be able to “opt out” of their society if they don’t like it, and I accept that the loss of revenue which will result from the (almost certain) passage of Douglas’ bill will place much of the genuinely good work student unions do in jeopardy. But the integrity of political systems is more important than discrete policy outcomes, and to be perfectly frank VUWSA, for its rank incompetence and duplicity in the face of legitimate challenge, deserves to be humiliated in this way.
I hope that the lesson about how democracy works will be well understood — that is: unless people make it work, it doesn’t. CSM as currently implemented promotes apathy and idiocy in student body politics, to a greater extent than it would exist in any case. That is bad for student body politics, and it’s bad for students. It depresses the quality of candidates and policy, and reduces the system to a comic farce which many students are justifiably ashamed of (if they care about it at all). Much better, for me, would be the the genuine politicisation of student politics, with groups organising and campaigning on their positions, winning a mandate and executing it, as in national and local body politics. If ACT on Campus want to campaign on “letting you keep more of your money”, let them do so, and good luck to them. (Of course, they have been, and it hasn’t been working out for them, so the parent party has resorted to regulation in the name of freedom. Plus ça change.)
So in my view the current threats to compulsory student unionism is largely the fault of the student unionists and their sense of entitlement to membership dues without the need to prove the value of their work to those who pay for it. The Douglas bill, while it will likely prove deleterious to the good work student unions do, may have a silver lining in that it will enforce greater discipline and competence upon student politicians, and require them to prove to their constituents that the work they do is actually valuable in order to win a mandate. If the work they do is genuinely valuable, as they say it is, such a mandate should be winnable. May they go forth and win it.
Postscript: Go and submit!
It has recently been announced the the External Assessment Bureau (EAB) has become the National Assessment Bureau (NAB), combining external as well as internal intelligence assessments in the lead up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup (although I believe that the claim that the move was needed to better coordinate threat assessment for the World Cup is a bit specious, especially since the recommendation for an integration of internal and external intelligence assessment came from a report by former Foreign Affairs Secretary Simon Murdoch that was commissioned independently of the World Cup bid). There has long been dissatisfaction with the lack of coordination between New Zealand internal and external intelligence collection and analysis agencies (to say nothing of their professionalism and competence). Although there is a veritable alphabet soup of such agencies, there was until now no single unit that coordinated all of the intelligence flows into one coherent assessment brief for the PM. Some believe that this rendered the EAB ineffectual because it was a duplication of resources (since all of the operational agencies also have analytic branches that formulate their own assessments). Others simply claimed that it was a waste of space because PMs usually dealt directly with the operational agencies themselves (since the PM is also the Minister of Security and Intelligence). Thus the options were to disband the EAB or refocus it. The government has chosen the latter course.
The important thing to note is that the EAB/NAB is an analytic group located in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, and is responsible for providing intelligence assessments for the PM. It is not an intelligence-gathering (spy) agency even though it handles classified material. Yet, news that it has now assumed an internal focus along with its ongoing external assessment duties has alarmed civil libertarians and elements on the Left. The Greens put out a press release expressing concern over the move, with Keith Locke offering the humorous observation that the only area of growth in the public service seems to be the spy agencies.
Well, not quite. Although I respect Keith Locke’s position, I disagree that giving the revamped NAB an internal focus is a bad thing or that this reform signifies a growth of the spy apparatus. The NAB budget and those of the operational agencies have remained relatively consistent the last five years (after major increases post 9/11), and the NAB is not targeted to increase the number of personnel working within it (which means more responsibilities for the same number of people assigned to it). Hence all that has been done is to give the intelligence assessment unit with the PMs office access to more rounded intelligence streams from both internal and external security agencies so as to be able to better prepare unitary and coherent net security assessments for the PM. Before, the EAB only looked at foreign issues as fed to it by MFAT, the SIS, the GCSB, Customs, Immigration and the NZDF intelligence units. Now it will get streams from the Police, CTAG (Counter Terrorism Assessment Group, which is an inter-agency unit that does both internal and external terrorist assessment) and from the SIS/GCSB and the other mentioned agencies on internal issues of concern. That way the NAB can provide a more comprehensive picture of any given security matter to the PM, since often times threats have what is known as a “glocal” character–a mixture of global and local characteristics. Think organised crime and its potential nexus with terrorism….the “glocal” or “intermestic” overlap is broad and variegated
In a way the change makes the NAB the NZ equivalent of the US National Security Council (NSC)–the primary assessment agency working for the President/PM. It is an assessment unit, not an intelligence collection (operational) unit. It is full of analysts, not spies. With a 3 million dollar budget covering 30 people, it does not have the capacity to do anything other than read and assess what the operational branches provide them. From my perspective, were I to be offered a government job, this would be the best place to be (knowledge being power, etc.).
This is not to say that the announcement is worry-free. The troubling parts are: 1) whether this means that both internal and external intelligence assessments will now be politicised, much as the Zaoui and Urewera 18 cases were; and 2) no Parliamentary consultation or inputs were done in the build-up to the change. Although the Murdoch report is correct (there was a need to rationalise the flow of intelligence to the PMs office), it might have been more transparent and democratic to run the proposed reform past the country’s elected representatives rather than to just do it by executive fiat. There are also issues of accountability, since the NAB is not required to deliver specific reports to the the Intelligence and Security Committee (such as it is) or Parliament in general (although it does maintain a web site and issues and annual report on the generalities of its mission). The latter is not an insurmountable obstacle, however, because the PM can be made to account for the actions of his cabinet.
Thus, unlike many of my learned counterparts on the Left and in politics, I do not see the revamping of the EAB/NAB as an assault on civil liberties or an expansion of the security apparatus. Instead I see it as an effort to streamline and lend coherency to what the PM receives as informed advice on matters of security and intelligence. Time will tell if I am correct.