Archive for ‘September, 2010’

No democracy on the honour system

datePosted on 21:47, September 14th, 2010 by Lew

This morning I posited a conspiracy theory that the government would use the temporary deregulation measures undertaken in response to the Canterbury earthquake to progress another tranche of wide-ranging reforms to the resource management regime and building and construction industries after the 2011 election.

Absurdly, if the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill is passed without very extensive amendments of the sort proposed by the Greens and voted down by both major parties (it’s going through all three stages right now), then all that and much, much more could happen this week, no election required, and without any review by the courts. The executive powers granted to the relevant Minister (that’s Gerry Brownlee) in this bill are so sweeping as to permit him to do almost literally anything as long as it has something to do with quake recovery — amend or suspend almost any piece of legislation, overturn any electoral decision — really, Dean Knight, Graeme Edgeler and Andrew Geddis (themselves no wide-eyed conspiracy nuts) are just three of the constitutional law experts who are boggling at the possibilities; Idiot/Savant is also much more than usually incandescent, and Gordon Campbell pulls few punches, either. Geddis says the law gives him “a case of the screaming collywobbles”. How’s that for a technical term. Their argument — contra government speakers such as Nick Smith — is that, because there is no real oversight to test whether actions taken are “reasonably necessary or expedient for the purpose of the Act”, the bill’s scope is not strictly limited in black-letter law to those matters, nor indeed to the region impacted by the quake, and the minister and his commission basically enjoy immunity. These are sweeping powers such as those which might be accorded an executive head of state in a command-government situation such as a major war.

Not would happen, mind. I don’t think anyone genuinely thinks Gerry Brownlee will decriminalise murder, approve mining across all schedule 4 land, enact wartime conscription or overrule the results of the forthcoming Supercity election. I don’t. But the point is (assuming Dean Knight knows what he’s talking about) that Brownlee can. Or will be able to tomorrow, until April 2012, which astute readers will note is a good half-year after the next general election must be held. There are no real checks or balances, much of the actions taken under this legislation are able to be taken in secret, and actions taken will not — at least on paper — be subject to judicial review. This means that we are relying on Gerry Brownlee to not be evil. But democracy doesn’t work on the honour system. It can’t. It doesn’t work on the basis that you give a government power in the hope that they use it legitimately; you give it power on the basis that you have the authority and ability to wrest it back from them if they misuse it, and on the assumption they will misuse it. The honour system is fine for bouquets being sold at the cemetery gates. It’s no basis upon which to run a country.

As I’ve often argued here and elsewhere, what sets liberal democracy, with all its failings, apart from authoritarian systems is the ability for the electorate to transfer power by the exercise of these sorts of checks and balances. Under orthodox authoritarian socialism for examplem — more or less the only form of socialism ever fully implemented on a nationwide scale, in the USSR and China, for instance — the transitional dictatorship is empowered with the sole authority and means to put down any such counter-revolution as might endanger the transition to genuine communism; and because of this, the dictatorship enjoys impunity. It has no reason to work in the interests of the people it purports to serve, inevitably becoming inefficient, corrupt and brutal. (Thus, the problem with socialism is authoritariansm which accompanies it, not so much the economic aspects, but that isn’t my point here).

The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill, of all the ridiculous things, brings into being the potential for just such a regime in New Zealand, and we can only hope it is not used to that effect. It is a colossal, hypervigilant overreach. And if any ill comes from this, Labour — and even the Greens and the māori party — will bear as much responsibility as National; they are all supporting it out of “unity”.

Where now are those who railed against the Electoral Finance Act, who speculated darkly that Helen Clark might not relinquish power after the election, or might suspend the operation of the free press; who shrieked about the Section 59 repeal; against ‘Nanny State’ and the illusory Stalinism of lightbulbs and shower heads, drink-drive limits and alcohol purchase ages and compulsory student union membership? Here the papers are being signed to dismantle robust constitutional democracy right under our very noses, and there’s barely a whimper.

(Updated to add Lyndon Hood’s fantastic image of Brownlee VIII, link to Campbell’s article, and tidy the post up a bit.)

L

Blog Link: New Zealand’s Coming Melian Dilemma.

datePosted on 09:54, September 14th, 2010 by Pablo

There appears to be a lack of strategic foresight in the conduct of New Zealand’s foreign policy, which appears to me to be short-term, segmented and opportunistic in approach. I explain one possible consequence in this month’s Word from Afar column in Scoop.

Creaky building syndrome

datePosted on 09:40, September 14th, 2010 by Lew

Here’s a conspiracy theory. Building, demolition, waste/fill disposal and other resource consent regulations are being suspended in Canterbury following the recent earthquake. Indications are that exemptions to the RMA regime will be granted by order in council, and (among other things) the norm will be to permit building and reconstruction work to take place without delay, the consents being — here’s a phrase — restrospectively validated. It’s plausible that this will serve as a pilot scheme for the government’s next tranche of deregulation in the building industry and resource management sector.

I’m not a civil engineer or an expert in either town planning or disaster reconstruction. But I have a few concerns. There are obvious concerns with the possible quality of workmanship in the immediate term given the new lack of oversight which, at its most lax, could permit any chap with a hammer and a can-do ethic to undertake their own structural work which will need to be be certified (or not) after the fact; other concerns around the likelihood that rights of objection to resource consent applications will apparently be severely curtailed in order to expedite the reconstruction.

But my main concern is over the longer term. A government which has declared itself the enemy of all environmental regulation — in the local government sector, overseen by Rodney Hide, in particular — is making a There Is No Alternative argument to use Canterbury as the test-bed for its latest massive (and this time rather ad-hoc) deregulation project. The project will have two different and contrasting sets of outcomes. In the short term, the volume of reconstruction and reconstruction work will pick up swiftly, providing a shot in the arm both to a flagging construction sector and to a region whose core industries, particularly manufacturing, were hit hard by the economic downturn. This will begin to peak through the coming year or so, coincidentally about the time it takes to get many resource consent applications underway, and not coincidentally, about the time of the next general election. The adverse consequences of a less-regulated construction and resource management sector — let’s coin the term ‘creaky buildings’ — won’t begin to appear until well after that time.

So, expect the 2011 general election to be fought substantially on this topic of deregulation, particularly of the local government sector, and to be fought on the front-foot with Canterbury as the key battleground. The predominant line in rhetoric will be “under the RMA, nothing would have been rebuilt yet”, and we’ll hear all the same assurances as we heard last time. And based on the rapid development and booming construction sector in that region, similar reforms will be proposed across the country. After all, if it’s good enough for Canterbury, why not everywhere else? And just as before, when the creaky buildings constructed under this regime begin to creak, there’s an even chance it’ll be a Labour government which picks up the pieces. Not only is there No Alternative, for a government focused on the short and medium term with an imperative to grow now and pay the bills later, there is no downside.

L

Fighting like you mean to win

datePosted on 07:05, September 13th, 2010 by Lew

I had meant to write something substantive on the politics-of-not-playing-politics evident in all aspects of the Christchurch earthquake and its aftermath, but circumstances have conspired to prevent me from doing so. I also have two deadlines in the coming week. So just a quickie, via George Darroch: What climate activists need to learn from the NRA and the gun-control wars.

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I’ve made the argument before that climate change, having as it does the weight of scientific orthodoxy behind it, should be an easy win in the battle of ideas. That it isn’t, I believe, is due less to the powerful business cartels and their conspiratist minions arrayed against it, and more down to poor strategy and coordination on the part of those responsible for ensuring that the findings of the science are adequately promulgated throughout society, and for ensuring the policy responses to the problem are appropriate.

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As gun control advocate Robert Walker argues in the linked post, those people — both the scientists and the political actors — can learn an awful lot from the NRA. Despite being pretty far out on the lunatic fringes even in the US political context, the NRA has simply phenomenal support both among gun users and those for whom the specifics of the debate have no direct relevance. They have this degree of support largely because they have succeeded in propagandising that issue to the point where its symbolic aspects matter more than its functional, material aspects. Doing this — breaking your topic from being a policy matter to being a symbolic matter in the public consciousness — is hard and complicated work, and you have to fight as if you mean to win; to not underestimate your enemy or permit your campaign to be hijacked by incompetence and vainglory. But if the NRA can do it with an issue like gun ownership, arguing for which on rational policy bases is deeply problematic, then surely those responsible for climate science can do as much. How they might do so is sketched in Walker’s article.

L

Sometimes the duty of the free press is to not report.

datePosted on 01:55, September 12th, 2010 by Pablo

The on again, off again Koran burning planned by a small time evangelical preacher in Gainsville Florida has received world wide coverage and raised serious concern among the US military and foreign policy elite that it will cause a murderous reaction against US citizens living and fighting in the Muslim world. The issues has dominated the news in the US for days (I am currently located about 120 miles southeast of Gainsville), played out in a perverse media tag team with the so-called 9-11 mosque controversy. Official concern is so great that President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and ISAF commander General David Petreus have denounced the planned pyrotechnics, while Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a personal call to the preacher to ask him to cease and desist.

So far, the preacher has said that he will stop the burnings only if the 9-11 mosque supporters agree to move it someplace else. Which means that on top of the provocation and outrage he intends, he has now added blackmail.

Fueled by right wing media led by Fox News TV and Radio outlets, the issue has been debated on a free speech grounds. It is generally accepted that the wacked out preacher has a right to burn Korans, but division is over whether he has a responsibility to not do so given the larger consequences of his actions. Some officials have tried to find a way to stop him using hate speech legislation, saying that his obvious intent is to spread hatred towards all Muslims and the faith itself, something that is not protected by the first amendment. Others have responded that he should be allowed to do as he please and that the US should not kow-tow to “terrorists” just because Muslims react hysterically to the desecration of the holy book or images of the prophet.

I shall leave aside the obvious greater harm argument that clearly demonstrates why the Koran burning is a bad idea. I shall also avoid addressing the fact that Islam is not the only religion where its adherents respond violently to perceived insults to their faith. I will leave aside the argued to death free speech aspects of the case. Instead, I will address two aspects of this affair that appear to be underplayed.

The first issue is a matter of perception of the event in the Muslim world. Like it or not, most people living in Muslim nations cannot fathom the concept of a separation of church and state, or that the US government and local authorities do not have the power to just physically stop the preacher from holding the event. That is because most live in authoritarian states where religion and politics are deeply intertwined and governments regularly intervene in matters of religion (to include prohibitions on certain types of religious activity, regulations on marriage, etc.).  As a result, most citizens in the Muslim world cannot conceive of  such an event being carried out without government approval, so see it as an officially sanctioned statement of how the US views Islam. That may be ignorant or confused on the facts, but it is the reality of the context in which the Koran burning is perceived in the Muslim world. (Note to those who may take offense: this is a comment about the deeply ingrained authoritarian nature of power structures in the Muslim world rather than about the content of its faith, and refers not to the educated classes but to the broader mass of people who do not have access to the facilities and vehicles that would allow them to make discerning judgements on international issues. The same can be said about other political cultures as well).

The second issue is the reckless role of the US press. The preacher in question leads a 50 person fringe fundamentalist congregation that has in the past protested against gays and threatened to torch a copy of the Torah (since he believes that Judaism is also a “dirty” religion). He clearly has delusions of grandeur, if not being a few cans short of a six pack. The national press paid no mind to his previous antics, so why is it doing so now? Why not just ignore him? Why is this event considered front page news when his other antics were not?  In sum: why give this nutbar oxygen?

Given the sensitivities at play, the national press could have buried the story in the “odd news” section or not covered it at all given its marginal nature. To their credit, outlets like the NYT and WP have limited their coverage to the reactions and not played the story on the front pages of their respective publications. But, led by Fox and a network of Christian radio and TV outlets, the US press has covered the Gainsville Goober as if he were Sarah Palin’s running mate.

That is where they fail their obligations to the public. As with any democratic entity, the press has responsibilities along with rights. Those responsibilities include not inflaming or otherwise causing small events to bocome international incidents that have the potential to cause great harm to US interests and its citizens. It has an obligation not to stoke the fires of religious and ethnic hatred. And yet the right-wing media in the US has done exactly that, aided and abetted by conservative politicians like Newt Gingrich who see political gain being made off of the scapegoating of Muslims and (with regards to immigration and future demographics) Hispanics.

This helps explain why the tone of public debate in the US has become so vulgarised and debased. There is a large element of the press that has become “Murdochised,” (sic), that is, it will report on anything that can cause scandal, outrage and division in the interest of profit and political advantage. It has eschewed its responsibilites to the larger public interest in the pursuit of partisan gain. It is, in other words, unworthy of the constitutional guarantees under which it cloaks its behaviour.

All of which is to say that if there is a nasty fallout from this stunt, whatever blood is spilled is not only on the hands of the religious provocateur and his small band of intolerant followers, but also on the hands of their media and political facilitators who turned a backwoods hoe down into an international incident.

Over the past few months my partner has observed that KP has increasingly become a boys club. Part of that, she notes, is that I write about security things and boys like guns and war, so tend to dominate commentary on those themes. I have pointed out that I write about plenty of other things, and that Lew covers a range of subjects that are not exclusively “male” in orientation. And yet 95% of our commentators are male.  And, as my partner also observes, their comments tend to become the intellectual  equivalent of pissing matches or penis length arguments rather than reasonable exchange of views in which the worth of opposing perspectives is acknowledged. She includes me in the pissing match crowd. 

I attribute the apparent masculinisation of KP in large part to the fact that Anita’s long hiatus has deprived the blog of the gender balance it needs, in part because Anita writes from a feminist perspective and about gender issues from a wimin’s point of view. That of itself is interesting because when she does (and Anita does not write exclusively about gender-related themes), the comment threads show a disproportionate number of females in the mix. In effect, there appears to be a self-segregation going on: men read and comment about “boy” topics and wimin read and comment about “girl” themes. This can be seen on a larger scale in the topics covered by political blogs written by wimin versus those (the majority) written by men, which makes me think that the “problem” is not exclusive to KP.

This bothers me. I do like to think of myself as writing about exclusively “male” topics since I believe that subjects such as international relations, foreign policy, labour politics, democratisation and regime change, and security issues are (or should be) matters of universal interest. Likewise, I do not believe that topics such as rape, child-raising or workplace harassment are exclusively female concerns. But until Anita comes back, it appears that KP is becoming the political blog equivalent of a (somewhat polite) rugby clubhouse.

So I guess the question of the day is whether there is a self-segregation of wimin’s versus male topics, and if in fact this blog, for worse in my view, has become masculinised (sic) beyond repair.

Evaluating the KP debate experiment.

datePosted on 11:18, September 2nd, 2010 by Pablo

The results of the first attempt to host a debate between a right-focused blogger and left-focused blogger here at KP have been decidedly mixed. The idea was to show that reasonable people with opposing ideologies can have a civilised debate about matters of contemporary import in a common forum rather than slag each other across the blogosphere. Since I have good regard for Sagenz writing on strategic issues at New Minister in spite of the company he keeps over there (PM excepted and Gooner occasionally forgiven) and the fact that we disagree on 95% of everything political, I invited him to debate me here on the proposition that the Iraq invasion was a success. Kindly enough, he agreed, even while acknowledging that he was entering opposition turf in doing so.

I assumed that readers would focus on the merits of our arguments, using the ends-means/costs-benefits rationales that are the essence of strategic thought. I thought that the debate would centre on my short to medium negative appraisal versus Sage’s long term mixed success scenario, in which short term failures could lead to longer-term success from a US/Western standpoint. I assumed that people had read enough to look beyond the pretext for the invasion (WMDs), and that they were conversant in the ample literature directed to the topic.  I assume that people would leave their (anti-American and anti-Israeli, in particular) biases at home and concentrate on the merits of the argument as given. My assumptions were wrong.

Although there were a few good comments, what we mostly got was the usual partisan diatribes, several of which were clearly uninformed by a thorough read of what was written. Some were completely off-thread. Then there was the nitpicking troll from Japan who had little substantive to offer, another rant directed at me that actually was about something Sagenz wrote, capped off by the king of pompous armchair revolutionaries harping about me being vaingloriously mean to the troll. The bulk of the comments did not debate the merits of the arguments or even address the subject as specified. That was disappointing.

Even so, after expressing my unhappiness with Lew and Sagenz and hearing back from them, I would like to try the debate experiment again and invite people to submit topics and possible authors. I think that  because KP tries to keep things civilised, we can offer a good hosting platform for some worthwhile, stimulating and reasoned left versus right arguments. But ground rules for comments will be established so that if comments deviate from the subject matter as framed by the debate question, they will be deleted.

Surely this is a worthwhile venture and not to much to ask for people to stay within the margins of the debate as framed. If nothing else, doing so helps improve intellectual discipline because it forces both authors and readers to check their biases and assumptions at the door in the attempt to be concise and to the point.

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