Archive for ‘July, 2010’

Personal narrativium

datePosted on 07:58, July 16th, 2010 by Lew

From the NZ Herald, Why I should be the mayor:

Len Brown:

Every day I wake up and, for one thing, I’m thankful I do wake up. But secondly, I have the greatest job in the world and it’s a job that enables me to make a difference, to really change people’s lives, to deliver change, new direction and positive growth in the community. I can sort of perform little miracles around our place. When the change occurred I wondered whether I could shift this position to the community that has raised me since I was 7. I have very quickly found that passion. It has been an extraordinary journey thus far and the opportunity to deliver something by the way of step change and extraordinary redirection of Auckland and taking up of its potential, a marrying of our business dynamic with our community aroha and love is something I believe is an extraordinary opportunity, and I would like to take that opportunity.

John Banks:

At age 18, I decided that I would balance the family ledger by joining the police. The Auckland police told me in no uncertain terms that I was a lowlife son of two shitbags and there was no place for me in the New Zealand police. Twenty-five years later, I became the Minister of Police. I’m doing this to balance the family ledger.

So it’s “boundless enthusiasm for community miracles” squaring off against “individual crusade for redemption, nothing to do with Auckland” in the Supercity mayoral battle. If that’s all there was to it, Banksie would be a lost cause.

L

Firearms, no debate

datePosted on 08:23, July 15th, 2010 by Lew

I generally agree with r0b’s reasoning on the police need — or lack — for firearms. This is a mostly-empty moral panic.

But how things have changed for Greg O’Connor of the Police Association. This from 1 June 2009:

Mr O’Connor, who is currently studying policing in Scandinavia, did not support all police carrying guns but said the matter had to be looked at. […] “We said the debate should take place outside the emotion of Len Snee’s death and it’s disappointing to see that now there’s not going to be any debate there needs to be.”

A year ago Greg O’Connor was careful to frame the Police Association response in this way. He repeatedly said he didn’t want to arm all officers, he just wanted “a debate”, and one which would take place in the cold light of reason rather than as a knee-jerk in the aftermath of a police shooting. That’s a mature and responsible position. But even though the debate has not really occurred in the intervening year, his position has congealed — or perhaps he now just feels more at liberty to express it — into “all guns, all the time”.

What’s changed in the past year? The agenda has changed, that’s all: how firearms are framed in the public discourse about policing. Any time a firearm is used — regardless of the outcome — it’s a big media deal. Recent events such as the Urewera Terra raids of October 2007, the retrial of David Bain, the story of a large number of dogs being “massacred” using a firearm, and of course a number of police shootings have imprinted the prominence of firearms as public menace on the public consciousness. This has progressed alongside a police and crime-reporting discourse which has as its basic theme the notion that our plucky boys and girls in blue are under constant attack from all sides. Contrary to O’Connor’s noble aim, there has been no meaningful debate about arming police. This fact suits his arm-the-cops purposes, and it’s now clear that those cries for a debate, and the appearance of a debate within the Police, were made with the primary purpose of simply keeping the issue primed and on the public agenda. It’s lurked there, undebated, for a while, and with these most recent events it’s moving rather rapidly closer to actually happening. That’s a dangerous way to set policy.

Although I accept this is a contentious position, I generally believe that we need to trust the operational discretion and instincts of frontline police staff, as long as we have tough and independent disciplinary oversight as to their policy, and conduct in implementing that policy. On this basis, I’m not categorically opposed to the notion of police vehicles containing a lock-box with firearms in it, which police can use in accordance with firm and well-documented policy in light of the tactical circumstances in which they find themselves. But I would say that this isn’t very different to the current status quo, and the use of firearms must not be left to the sole discretion of an individual officer. The deployment policy and tactical decisions to deploy must be matters for which police command can be held accountable, for which the police as an organisation are responsible.

But what I’m more interested in is a public debate on this, and other policing matters. We really need one.

L

It must be my week for thinking about small states in personal terms. I only took an interest in the specific dynamics of small states when I moved to NZ, having previously written mostly about larger states (although I did write a bit on Cuba and Uruguay before moving to NZ). Living in NZ exposed me not only to the political dynamics of a small democracy, but the social dynamics as well. Things like the 2 degrees of separation that make putting distance on ex-partners very difficult. Things like the rapidity with which one’s personal life becomes the object of professional speculation, and how quickly rumors in one dimension transfer to the other. Things like blacklisting, sinecures and shoulder-tapping.

I write this more as an open question to readers. My question rests against the backdrop of NZ being proclaimed as the least corrupt country on earth by one polling outfit, and the general consensus that it is one of the more successful liberal democracies in existence. But if liberal democratic success is defined as the absence of corruption in and ascriptive rationales for social advancement, plus the universal presence of merit, equality and transparency in public and private upward mobility, can we really claim that NZ is a “success” on those terms?

I may stand corrected on this, but it strikes me that for a democracy NZ has an unusually high incidence of shoulder-tapping and sinecure-mongering. Shoulder-tapping is the practice of rigging a competition by pre-selecting the favorite candidate or outcome, then going through the motions of a transparent and equitable process so as to disguise the pre-determined choice. As an example, consider this from NZ academia. A well-known academic with international credentials is encouraged by the Director of a university research centre to apply for a newly opened position. The invitation is accepted, letters, resume and referee names forwarded, only to have the application rejected within weeks. When asked for the reasons why the application was rejected after the applicant was encouraged to apply, the Director stated that internal competition for the position was fierce and better candidates emerged. Months later it is revealed that weeks before the “search” began for a candidate, an academic at another NZ institution with ties to the Director was approached for the job and eventually awarded it. The international candidate “search” in other words, was a cover for the selection of the shoulder-tapped individual.

In another instance drawn from academia, a search committee was formed to find suitable candidates for a specific disciplinary sub-field. Unbeknown to two of the committee members, the other three members, including the Chair, as well as the external faculty representative, were all co-authors of  a husband-and-wife candidate duo vying to be short-listed. Not surprisingly the duo were listed as the best candidates out of ten finalists by their four co-authors. No conflict of interest is declared. When one of the other committee members discovers the connection and complains to the Faculty Dean about the clear conflict of interest involved in the search process he is given a warning not to disparage the professional integrity of his colleagues. But his protestations continue. The search ends with a compromise candidate being selected, but in the next year the Chair resigns and joins the husband and wife team at a foreign university while the whistleblower winds up being (as it turns out unjustifiably) dismissed on another matter in which one of the committee members with a conflict of interest played a decisive role . The Lesson? Interfere with a shoulder-tapping exercise at your peril.

This are just two illustrations from one profession. I have been told of or have seen myself dozens of other cases–including in such places as my old surf lifesaving club–where the shoulder-tap, with or without a wink and a nod, is used as a means for advancement under the cover of ostensibly “fair” elections, tenders and searches. Sports associations, voluntary organisations, service societies, public bureaucracy, the education system, unions, the media, local councils, the legal profession, political parties, a wide swathe of private businesses and business interest aggregators, perhaps even the Police and Fire Services, hopefully not the military–is there any part of NZ society in which this is not part of the unwritten norms governing career and personal advancement? My question then is: am I wrong in seeing something amiss here? Am I exaggerating the extent to which this occurs?

Likewise goes for the issue of sinecures. A sinecure is a position offered to someone that entails little actual responsibility and is awarded not on merit but as a form of patronage or reward for services rendered. In NZ there appears, again to my uninformed mind, to be a lot of sinecurism in virtually every walk of life. Ex-politicians, ex-bureaucrats and ex-ministers get comfy senior positions in state entities and private boards regardless of their backgrounds or records in a given field. Individuals with much private wealth but little other distinction serve on boards, committees and trusts. There is an affirmative action sub-type in which persons from ethnic minorities are awarded well-paid “honorary” positions or those mentioned previously regardless of their qualifications. From local councils to national-level politics and enterprise, sinecurism seems to be endemic.

NZ is not alone when it comes to such practices, so my question is whether these are just more obvious in a small (democratic) state when compared to a  larger one, or is the practice itself more frequent in small democracies, NZ in particular? 

It needs to be noted that these practices are not equivalent to clientalism. Although shoulder-tapping and sinecurism are seemingly endemic in NZ and can be considered to be institutionalised, they are not recognised as such and in fact occur beneath the mantle of egalitarianism, transparency and merit. They are therefore informal, nepotistic institutional practices that operate under the cover of a rationalist meritocratic Weberian ideal. Clientalism, on the other hand, is a formal institutionalised practice whereby political or personal networking lines combine with merit-based criteria into channels of upward mobility. Such is the case in the small state in which I live, where political allegiance to the dominant party is a requirement, along with professional competence, for career advancement in both the public bureaucracy as well as in state enterprises. In the private sector personal networks outweigh political ones in the clientalist scheme, but here too there is an overlap between the personal and political.

What is different is that in clientalist systems patronage is based on the combination of relative merit and political or personal connections. In the sinecure and shoulder-tap system patronage has little or no relationship to relative merit–it is in fact a non-meritocratic form of favourtism based upon ascriptive rationales of social advancement and mutual entitlement.

As I said before, I could be all wrong about this and am merely extrapolating widely from my own personal observations and experience. Nor would any of this matter if NZ were not a liberal democracy supposedly committed to fair play, social justice and equal opportunity. But since it is, and because Kiwis tend to think of themselves as being better on these dimensions than most other democracies, then my questions about the role shoulder-tapping and sinecures play in NZ society are worth consideration.

I shall leave for another post the prevalence of professional blacklisting in NZ, but suffice to say that I have some experience with it.

Faces not for radio

datePosted on 18:07, July 13th, 2010 by Lew

A post by Janet Wilson expresses a general conspiracy theory I’ve held for a long time about why radio news is usually better than TV news: because the people are chosen for different qualities. To an extent the “beauty bias” is present in every field, and of course, even in news it is simplistic — there are a host of other factors to do with resourcing, format, training and so on. As in almost all fields — and for the same sorts of reasons — these pressures weigh much more heavily on women journalists than on men, and consequently the aesthetic homogeneity of NZ’s top female TV presenters is striking:

What Janet calls “tits and teeth” selection really matters: people instinctively trust attractive people more than unattractive people (as long as they’re not too attractive), and broadcast news is all about projecting authority and trustworthiness via a predominantly visual medium. Dress and bearing are also relevant — as is voice, which is even more important in radio. But those things can, to a much greater extent, be worked on or around.

So TV news is biased in favour of attractiveness. In general, a presenter’s job is to present — their newsgathering, interviewing and editorial skills are backgrounded to a considerable degree. So this bias isn’t entirely unjustified for presenters, but the problem is that it’s also clearly evident in the journalistic ranks from which presenters are drawn. While it does not exclude journalistic quality the beauty bias does weight against it. Because the jump from reporter to presenter is a crucial part of a broadcast journalist’s career arc, and being unwilling — or unable — to fit the pattern is an explicit and well-known limitation to advancement, it likely dissuades people who might otherwise make outstanding broadcast journalists — which society desperately needs — from entering the profession. As Janet notes, the bias also selects against experience, because while men tend to become “distinguished” as they age (strengthening their gravitas) women do not, and those who don’t retain their youthful dash paradoxically become less favoured as their screen experience increases.

A case in point on this last point has lately been evident in the most trivial forum: Breakfast, on TV One. My wife, at home with our daughter, remarked on the greater capacity of One News anchor Wendy Petrie to deal with co-host Paul Henry’s soft-gonzo screen persona while she covered for Pippa Wetzell recently: a sort of dismissive indulgence, as if of a poorly-behaved child on his birthday. The customary pairing is a classic mismatch: Henry dominates the studio while Wetzell — herself a quality presenter, as we occasionally see when Henry is absent — is often forced into the role of slightly-embarrassed fall-gal. Petrie, with close to a decade’s primetime hard-news presenting experience under her belt, is out of Henry’s league and she knows it.

Of course, she herself has the beauty bias on her side. But the question is: how long does she have left? And how many other talents have we lost — or never found — due to the dire ravages of crow’s feet, a poor hairdo, a few additional kilos, or a mismatched outfit?

(Thanks to Naly D for the link to Janet’s article.)

L

PS: I’d like to endorse Nicola Kean’s campaign to go to Columbia Journalism School, as others are doing. Go and vote for her, and perhaps she’ll do better than another well-known graduate from these parts.

MMP in NZ is really safe

datePosted on 10:49, July 13th, 2010 by Lew

As I’ve said before, Peter Shirtcliffe’s campaign to scupper MMP (again) is probably a blessing in disguise for the electoral status quo in New Zealand. If any further evidence were required, the following should suffice for now:

The speech bubbles are blank because Peter is running a caption competition to find a punchline. Demonstrating piercing insight into his relevance to NZ politics, he has chosen the Kiwiblog Right for these words of inspiration. Personally, I think that leaving them blank perfectly captures the character of this campaign: inchoate, futile, tone-deaf irrelevance.

Hopefully he won’t be too disheartened by the far-from-enthusiastic response of Farrar’s captive authoritarians.

L

It might be unpatriotic to say so, but …

datePosted on 08:21, July 13th, 2010 by Lew

… the All Whites’ unbeaten record at the FIFA World Cup was not the tournament’s greatest underdog performance. That accolade should go to the hosts, for beating France, who were a perfect illustration of all that’s wrong with football in 2010. High-strung Ferrari-driving show-ponies who failed to perform and behaved like rebellious toddlers when expected to do so; led by dictatorial, egomaniac management who refused to accept the results of their own uselessness with any sort of humility.

South Africa were ranked second-lowest in the tournament, lower even than the All Whites, and they demonstrated that if you hang tough and play as a team you can beat a side which, on paper, is far better than you are (and keep them out of the second round). The footballing world owes South Africa a rich debt of gratitude, not only for organising what was by all accounts a cracking tournament, but for humiliating France.

A fitting end to a tournament for which they shouldn’t have qualified in the first place.

L

The Racial Basis of a Small SE Asian State.*

datePosted on 16:51, July 11th, 2010 by Pablo

From my perch in SE Asia I have observed with some bemusement what passes for immigration debate in the US, UK, Europe and NZ. I am bemused because the place that I live has a very non-PC approach to immigration and yet is held out as a beacon of ethno-cultural diversity, toleration and meritocratic entrepreneurship. Were it that it be so.

In most of the West the dominant discourse on immigration is phrased in terms of labour market necessity. Countries need skilled and/or unskilled labour as the case may be because their domestic reproduction rates cannot keep pace with economic growth. Since capitalism must grow to survive, it needs labour inputs to provide the human fuel for that growth. Depending on the human resource base of the country in question, skilled or unskilled labour is imported and allowed to settle in order to fill labour market demand and to increase inter-generational reproductive rates conducive to eventual labour market self-sufficiency. Or so we are told.

Yet there is a demographic aspect to this labour-market immigration strategy as well.  In the contemporary US Hispanics fill many of the unskilled labour needs; in Germany Turks do the same; in France Algerians fulfill that function; in Greece Albanians perform the role; in Portugal Romanians, Angolans and Brazilians play that part. In NZ it has been traditionally Pacific Islanders who fill the ranks of unskilled labour, and receive preferential immigration treatment as a result. Skilled labour shortages are filled by Indians, Chinese and Europeans in the US, by Spaniards, Greeks, Italians and Eastern Europeans in “old (Northern) Europe,” and by Indians, Asians and expat Europeans and South Africans in NZ (the list is not meant to be exhaustive and recognises overlap in skill categories in some instances). There is, in other words, an ethnic component to inter-state labour market migration.

The unspoken question, and the elephant in the room in such approaches to labour market necessity requiring the import of foreign labour, involves the intertwined issues of race, culture, ethnicity and religion. Until recently, with the exception of conservative or right-wing cultural supremacists, it was simply unacceptable to wonder out loud whether certain races, cultures or creeds were more or less likely to assimilate and contribute to the dominant culture and society of their adoptive countries.  Race-baiting politicians in the US, Europe and NZ have regularly played that card for electoral purposes, but by and large the majority of “proper” people in Western democracies prefer to not to confront the thorny issue of racial and religious composition of immigrants under conditions of labour market necessity. Yet not talking about it does not make the issue of ethnicity in immigration go away. Put bluntly, elites may see immigration in purely labour market terms, but the masses may just as well see it in ethno-religious and cultural terms, with all the baggage that entails.

The SE Asian country I live in has no PC qualms when it comes to the issue of work force demographics. This country is ethnically Chinese dominant (they make up 65% of the population). The ethnic totem pole then descends through Indians (the faithful lieutenants to the Chinese), Europeans (read: white people who are the managerial class for both local and foreign enterprise, and who are derogatorily called ang mor  or ang moh (red haired, which goes to show that NZ is not the only country in which “gingas” are reviled), other Asians (Koreans and Japanese preferably), Malays, Indonesians, Tamils, Sri Lankans, Ceylonese, Filipinos, Burmese and other sub-continental ethnicities. Immigration and reproductive policy is explicitly crafted to favour ethnic Chinese over all others when it comes to immigration, residency and citizenship. Because the country is labour-starved on both ends of the skill spectrum and the local Chinese reproduce at unsustainable rates, mainland Chinese and Taiwanese are given preferential immigration treatment even though the local Chinese look down their noses at their mainland counterparts as uncouth and unwashed uneducated provincials (their disposition is more generous towards Taiwanese but the attitude of superiority of Singaporean Chinese towards other Asians is pervasive). The country makes no secret of its determination to keep the present racial balance so as to maintain ethnic Chinese dominance, and makes no secret of what it sees as the superior cultural values of the dominant ethnic group (familial piety, ambition and discipline being foremost amongst the supposedly “Confucian” traits). For the rest of us it is a take it or leave it proposition, with money being the great leveler when it comes to attracting both top end and low end talent.

The very good public housing system is based on forced racial integration schemes, with the percentage of units allocated in any given housing bloc reflecting the proportional mix of ethnicities in the country. Although promoting racial and religious “disharmony” is prohibited by law and vigorously enforced in the main, racial integration and harmony are construed on Chinese terms and in their favour. From where I sit, it looks a lot like, albeit in a more disguised and benign way, aspects of the Jim Crow Southern US, except that here everything is written in Orwellian terms so that racial “harmony” actually means Chinese dominance. So long as everyone understands their place, play by the rules as given, bow to the rule of the one party state and accept material gratification and commodity fetishism as their reward, the racial status quo is preserved and the business of making money (or in the official jargon,  “pursuing prosperity”) can continue unimpeded.

Even so and despite the official line on racial harmony, racism is a constant latent fact of life here. Besides resistance to inter-marriage and barely disguised inter-racial contempt (particularly by the local Chinese towards Malays, Indonesians and Filipinos), things like housing blocs are divided in such a way that resident Malays can only sell to Malays and Indians to Indians, thereby depressing house prices and impeding upwards mobility for the majority of these subordinate groups. Non-citizens and non-permanent residents cannot own housing bloc units. Although there is much official palaver about being a meritocracy, the unspoken truth is that nepotism and patronage networks are equally if not more the key to economic success, and these unofficial channels are, given the demographics, Chinese-centric (although ethnic Chinese are not alone in the use of informal vehicles for economic advancement, nor is this phenomenon confined to this one state–NZ has its well-known system of old boy and new boy-girl networks that are anything but meritocratic). Here the bottom line is simple: accept the racial status quo as given and toleration of difference will be the order of the day. Challenge that status quo and run the risk of running afoul of the Internal Security Laws and their very broad definition of sedition. A pervasive system of domestic intelligence gathering, particularly but not exclusively focused on the resident Muslim community, ensures that challenges to the status quo are thwarted early and often.

Non-citizens and permanent residents do not receive anywhere close to the health, welfare and housing benefits accorded to citizens. To the contrary, they are actively discriminated against in allocation of public goods. This goes as much for the high end immigrants as for their low end counterparts, but it is only the former who have the personal income or corporate subsidies to cover costs in the private health, retirement and housing  markets (this is the case with most Kiwis, Australians and Americans living here). Low skill foreign workers, mostly coming from ethnics groups such as Tamils, Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Sri Lankans, do not have the financial resources to engage private care, so most often are deported with token compensation should they fall ill or otherwise unable to work (that includes pregnancy). Most low end foreign workers live in subsistence dormitories provided by employers who sign them to three year minimum wage contracts (some of these dormitories are converted shipping containers housing 30-50 individuals with a single toilet and shower). 

In fact, foreigners in general fall into three categories, investors, employees and dependents, with the first two being the only basis for residency. Should a foreigner lose his or her job or withdraw or lose their investment capital in the country, their visas are withdrawn and they and their families summarily issued orders of deportation (usually with a 30-60 day expiration date; overstayers are regularly caned as part of their punishment). In some cases, such as those of Chinese construction companies, foreign investors bring their own employees with them and subject them to their own labour standards via exclusionary clauses in local labour legislation. Add to that the very lax labour laws governing dismissals and redundancies, and you have a structural bias, in the form of labour market regulations and working visa controls, in favour of ethnic Chinese socio-cultural dominance.

I note all of this with agnosticism. Readers can make whatever inferences they choose to. The larger point I am trying to make is that here is a small state that is considered to be a model of capitalist development in the late 20th and early 21st century that uses an explicitly race-based labour market-driven immigration model in pursuit of the cultural, social and political dominance of the majority ethnic group. The system works; in fact, it is hegemonic by any definition.  Given that success, is it worth broaching the uncomfortable subject of cultural dominance when it comes to immigration in a place like New Zealand? Or is that simply a bridge too far and labour market logics should be the sole rationale (other than refugee quotas) upon which immigration policy is formulated and implemented? But if it is indeed unacceptable for a liberal democracy like NZ to use race-based criteria when confronting labour-market driven immigration  and social policy, then why does the NZ political-economic elite use my current country of residence as a developmental model or example to be emulated?

*Because there has been some misreading of the post in the comments thread, I have updated it in order to clarify some of the argument.

Sleeping dogs

datePosted on 23:08, July 8th, 2010 by Lew

Tim Watkin usually writes good sense, but with the latest post on gun control it’s clear he just doesn’t know his subject. Toughening gun control in NZ is basically a hiding to nothing, both in policy and in symbolic terms. It’s pointless for three main reasons:

  1. We already have pretty sane firearm laws and gun culture which regulate legitimate gun owners, and constrain the sorts of weapons most useful to criminals;
  2. As a country, we own a lot of guns, and they’re important to our way of life and identity, and this importance is the subject of bipartisan political consensus;
  3. We have very low rates of gun-related crime already, and any regulation which would be effective would be very costly, both in financial and political terms.

Just to preface this: I own a hunting rifle, and as a bit of a propaganda geek I’ve paid close attention to gun control as a matter of symbolic politics (alongside abortion, it’s a leading “touchstone” rhetorical issue in US domestic politics). I’ve been watching the way NZ is beginning to develop a (rather amateurish, but effective enough to not be laughable) US-modeled gun-ownership lobby with interest as well. But I’m not one of those “don’t tread on me” gun nuts who thinks bringing a loaded assault rifle to a town hall meeting is a core part of the democratic process. Owning a firearm is useful, but it’s not an absolute right — rather one which must be weighed against other consequences, including those which stem from arming communities. But I object to knee-jerk policy proposals which misoverestimate the problem, won’t solve it in any case, and will come at considerable cost.

What problem?
The most significant objection I have to Tim’s analysis is that he assumes gun crime is a serious enough problem to warrant harsh regulatory consideration; and seems to think that tackling it like the government has “tackled” knife crime is a sensible approach. I reckon both are suspect assumptions.

According to a UN survey from 2000 (the most recent I can easily access), 13% of our homicides (including attempts) were committed with a firearm, at an annual rate of 0.18 per hundred thousand population. That is a rate slightly higher than the UK (0.12 per hundred thousand, with much more strict firearm laws); just over half the rate of Australia (0.31, also with much more strict firearm laws, including a hugely expensive buyback programme undertaken in 1996 with the intention of solving the problem). I don’t think things have changed all that much; in 2009, the year of Jan Molenaar, the figure was 15% of our recorded murders (incl. attempts). You can use the Statistics NZ tools to get data here. You can also compare a bunch of countries’ rates here, but be sure to read the disclaimer. The bottom line is that we have extremely low gun crime rates by world standards, especially given that we have very high gun ownership rates. By far the highest proportion of gun-related deaths in NZ are suicides — I don’t have the numbers to hand but I recall it being above 70%. That’s a consideration, since suicides are usually committed with weapons of opportunity, and a firearm is particularly effective. But this is not the argument being made.

Knives are a much more serious problem, accounting for about twice as many homicides in NZ, and “other weapons” and “manual” which I assume includes unarmed homicides are also generally more common than firearm murders. The government has seen fit to “crack down” on knife crime by trying to prevent youths’ access to knives at the retail level using a voluntary code of practice. This is pure security theatre. Everyone credible knows it won’t make a blind bit of difference because kids don’t go and buy a knife from a shop, they just take one from the kitchen drawer or the toolbox in the garage. Firearms are already much more heavily regulated than this, and as a consequence people wanting one but who lack a license don’t roll into Hunting & Fishing and buy one — they get them illegally because we have no idea how many there are or who owns them (more on this later). So the comparison between guns and knives, while tempting, is bogus. Knife crime is much more serious than firearm crime, much less-heavily regulated, and the trivial additional regulation proposed won’t change anything — but it also won’t cost anything.

What guns?
Part of the reason gun crime is such a minor problem in NZ is due to our history and culture with guns, and in particular the fact that “personal defence” has never been a justification for firearm ownership. Tim also gets this wrong: citing “personal defence” as a reason for needing a firearms license will mean you get denied one, especially if you’re trying to apply for a restricted weapons license (which is the example he uses).

Excluding the post-settlement period, firearms in NZ have generally been conceptualised in law and culture as tools rather than weapons — for hunting, sport shooting, or the defence of the realm. Most in existence today are .22 calibre rabbit guns, or bolt-action ex-infantry rifles from the first and second world wars, passed down from father to son, or modern firearms based on near-identical designs, or shotguns designed for gamebird hunting. Partly due to length, partly due to action design and calibre, these are pretty useless for self-defence except for the appearance of threat and as clubs. By the same token, they are far from ideal for offensive use. Part of the reason criminals are rarely armed with firearms is because they are nearly impossible to conceal (which makes carrying or using them a riskier proposition than, say, a knife), and if sawn off below the regulation length of 30 inches, they are still not very convenient, and give police instant cause for book-throwing if discovered.

There are relatively few pistols or assault rifles in NZ, and those which are owned are very tightly controlled, with extremely high standards required of the owners. The NZ Police apparently operate a “sinking lid” policy on restricted weapons: to gain permission to import or produce one, you need to destroy another. This has driven the market price of such weapons through the roof, putting them out of the reach even of many legitimate collectors; although it must be said that the distinction between a “military-style” semi-auto and any other semi-auto is largely (not entirely) cosmetic, and one is no less deadly than the other. As the rather grim saying goes, the seven-round magazine restriction on an ordinary semi-auto centrefire rifle just means that if you want to kill more than eight people, you’ll need to reload.

Firearm licenses, especially those for restricted weapons like military-style semi-automatics and pistols, are issued at the discretion of an Arms Officer on the basis of the applicant being of “fit and proper” character. The threat of losing the license acts as a firm constraint on legitimate gun owners’ behaviour, with most hunters, collectors, etc. living in fear of having their license revoked. This constraint comes into force, for example, when deciding whether to keep a firearm for self-defence purposes in a country where most potential assailants, burglars, etc. are not themselves armed: if you happen to use it as such, you must then explain to your arms officer how come you had it handy, rather than locked up in its safe, with the bolt and ammunition separated. Most people comply to avoid this inconvenience, and because they know that the chances of a family member actually meeting a life-or-death situation are much higher with a loaded firearm lying around than otherwise.

In general (and again, I don’t have the figures to hand) the vast majority of gun crime in NZ is committed by people without a legal right to own or use a firearm in the first place (being not “fit and proper”). Jan Molenaar was just such a person, so using him as an exemplar of all that is wrong with the system is a bit misleading. It’s certainly an indictment on police procedure following the last shake-up of gun laws. Probably the biggest failure in our gun licensing regime is the lack of a registration system for specific firearms. It’s expensive, time-consuming and bureaucratic but would have been of some use had it been implemented when suggested by the Thorp report, even if just to draw a clear demarcation line between compliant and non-compliant owners. I think that horse has bolted now.

As for the matter of private internet sales of arms and ammunition — Tim clearly hasn’t used Trade Me for this purpose. It’s considerably more robust than any comparable method other than a brick-and-mortar shop (and many B&M shops use the same methods to sell nationwide). Anyone can view restricted auctions, but to bid or ask a question you need to enter your firearm license number. Repeated failure to do so (or entering made-up numbers) gets you blacklisted. If buying otherwise than by a face-to-face meeting, you are required to complete a form designated by the Police for this very purpose, and have it counter-signed by your local Arms Officer, who sights your license. The first step (needing to enter your number) prevents anyone without access to a license even bidding or making contact with a seller. This is probably the most effective safety mechanism in the system.

Sleeping Dogs
These are policy and cultural reasons which explain why trying to crack down on gun ownership in NZ is likely to be pointless. But Tim’s post was largely about the political aspects of the issue: the tension between the imperative to be Tough On Crime and the danger of getting tarred with the Nanny State brush. In symbolic terms, I reckon gun control is a loser for both of the major parties because, unlike the knife measure which is empty theatre, any meaningful changes to the gun ownership regime will come at a considerable costs. One important consideration with this is that in NZ (and Australia), unlike in the USA, gun control is seen as a matter of bipartisan consensus, with both National and Labour generally occupying the middle ground (and ACT and the Greens taking up the flanks). This means there’s little or no partisan advantage to be gained by either side.

The first of these costs is purely financial. A registration, licensing audit, inspection-reclassification or buyback scheme to remove firearms (or certain firearms) from circulation (or from the hands of those not “fit and proper”) is hugely expensive. The Australian Federal Government raised a special tax for the purpose and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its buyback scheme, and even given the dramatic reduction in gun crime rates which resulted, it was generally seen to be wide-open for rorting. In New Zealand, with a much lower baseline level of gun crime, much less money and much more pressing law and order policy issues, this simply wouldn’t fly. Quite apart from the money, the drain on already-stretched police time would make a mockery of the government’s pledge to deliver resources to the front lines and away from the “bureaucrats”. And for all of that, it would still predominantly capture guns possessed by licensed owners: the “good guys” who, of all people, should retain their gun-owning privileges.

The second, and probably weightier cost is about the NZ identity. As I’ve argued before, wild places matter to us in identity terms. While most New Zealanders don’t own firearms, and never will, many more than the 250,000 who do like to think of themselves as potential outdoorsfolk who might go and shoot a possum and do their bit to save the rata. I don’t want to overstate this, though. Gun owners and hunters are viewed with considerable ambivalence by the general public, and with some cause. The gun lobby doesn’t do itself or the more reasonable branches of the sporting community any favours, and to a large extent they’re thought of in similar terms to Jan Molenaar and the various flavours of SHTF nutters.

But Nanny State also comes into this. Tim suggests that Labour couldn’t afford to do this for fear of strengthening the narrative established by the last term of the Clark government (I agree), but that National might just be able to get away with it. I disagree. Half of National’s support base are farmers or rural/semi-rural men of above-average income who are generally law-abiding and consider themselves responsible citizens in partnership with the authorities — of the view that the government “works for us”, rather than the view that the government is an agent of their oppression. (There are exceptions to this last, but mostly they vote for ACT and are thus irrelevant to this calculus.) This is almost exactly the same demographic which wants to be able to take care of his own rabbit problem and hunkers down in a cold maimai before dawn on the first weekend of winter for a laugh, and they greatly value the illusion that doing so is an inalienable right akin to that laid down by the Second Amendment. They tolerate (often with considerable reluctance) the existing licensing regime partly as a pragmatic solution to the social problem of crime, and partly because it accords them the status of being officially deemed “fit and proper”. But they will not tolerate further incursions on these privileges, and it is this demographic whom the gun lobby, with its US-imported “armed society is a polite society” rhetoric, is targeting using the present hysteria about violent crime as a springboard. These are the guys who already feel under threat from policies like the ETS, which prevents them from buying the V8, forcing them to settle for the V6.

This demographic might be the sort of people who could be persuaded to support tighter restrictions if there were a strong crime-reduction case to be made for it. But since there’s so little to gain, and since the existing regime is already at the margins of what is acceptable, National rouses these sleeping dogs and permits their radicalisation at its peril.

L

Conservative dementia in the US

datePosted on 20:08, July 6th, 2010 by Pablo

One has to hand it to the US conservative movement. They have no shame, or at least plenty of chutzpah.

They love to bark about the evils of Democrats while having no regard for the consistency of their own positions. Take the issue of corporate responsibility. Conservatives railed against the bail-outs of the Wall Street banks and Detroit automakers, arguing against the “they are to big to let fail” logic of the W. Bush and Obama administrations when these came to the financial rescue of the beleaguered  giants. “Let ’em fail” they screeched, since “the market will sort ’em out.” Yet, when Toyota lied about the causes of sudden uncontrolled acceleration in its cars and delayed recalls while “investigating” the incidents (which resulted in over a dozen deaths and more than a hundred injuries), these same groups demanded that the US government step in to investigate and charge those responsible for everything from criminal negligence to consumer fraud. Likewise, the US right wing is now raving that the US federal government has done too little too late to respond to the BP oil spill even though–surprise surprise–the US federal government does not have the deep water capping technology available to the private oil industry, had previously deregulated that industry at its request in order to stimulate production (and profits) and was initially relying on that industry to give honest estimates of the disaster and rectify the situation based upon its own expertise and record in controlling spills of that nature. Some conservatives even demanded that the US accept offers of foreign assistance in controlling the spill, and scolded the Obama administration when it declined to do so. Fancy that, conservatives calling for foreign aid at a time of domestic crisis. Thus, when it comes to issues of corporate responsibility, US conservatives cannot make up their minds about the why, how and when of government intervention.

As far as taxation is concerned, the likes of the Tea party movement are opposed to current federal taxation rates and demand cuts across the board without considering that it is taxes that pay, as just one example, for the US military’s trillion dollar budgets and prosecution of a seemingly endless procession of wars abroad in defense of the “freedom” they so much rhetorically cherish. They appear ignorant of the fact that without taxation the US would not be able to maintain its preeminent global position, and that the current federal budget deficits originated in the W. Bush administration’s deficit spending to fuel the wars while lowering the taxation rates for corporations and high income individuals. In fact, in this regard W. Bush was emulating the champion of all American conservatives, Ronald Reagan, who massively increased defense spending and the overall size of the federal budget while lowering taxes for the upper third of the population. How is this “fiscally responsible?”

Finally, although all conservatives are self-styled “patriots” who literally wear their flags on their sleeves, bumpers and lapels, some are of the “America first” persuasion whereas others are of the “US superpower” kind. The former prefer that the US concentrate on its own affairs and limit its foreign entanglements, while the latter wants to see the US as the major player on the world stage. One view is isolationist; the other is imperialist. The two views are irreconcilable.

In effect, American conservatives are not the limited government champions they claim to be, nor are they consistent in their linkage of national necessities with taxation. They are divided on their views of the US role in the world. Instead they are a collection of blustering fools, economic retrogrades and illiterates, corporate toadies, religious zealots, assorted bigots, xenophobes and militarists mixed in with a minority of true libertarians and honest believers in the primacy of individual over collective rights and responsibilities. That means that even if they make major gains in the November 2010 elections, the centrifugal forces within the US conservative movement, as well as the lack of a coherent core rationale underpinning it, will prove deleterious to their chances for successful overhaul of the US political system. In fact, such a victory could well make the crisis of US politics even worse.

A Quarter Million Page Views.

datePosted on 15:50, July 6th, 2010 by Pablo

In the scheme of all blog things, it is a small milestone but still worth a mention. Yesterday we passed 250,000 page views. It has been 18 months since KP started up, and we have built a steady readership base since then. We tend to get between 300-600 page views per day, 200-300 on the weekends. Given that we average around +/- 20 posts a month, that is not too bad. I expect that readership will increase once Anita comes back on line after her hiatus.

I tend to think of KP as a”boutique” blog: non-partisan. non-orthodox and non- doctrinaire Left,  more studied (some would say over-intellectualised) than slanted, as much class-oriented as it is post-modern (especially when it comes to identity, environment and gender), with posts that are considerably longer than the norm. For NZ it is also different in the amount of coverage dedicated to comparative politics, international relations and security affairs. It takes a certain type of reader to enjoy such a mix, and given our rules of decorum, a certain type of commentator to reflect on the posts.

All of which is to say thanks for the reading. We shall endeavour to keep providing informed commentary and critical analysis of contemporary issues, and we hope that you will keep us honest with your thoughtful critiques and points of order.

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