Archive for ‘June, 2011’

Mentoring and Timing.

datePosted on 15:30, June 30th, 2011 by Pablo

Timing is everything, so they say. The Taliban attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was a masterpiece of symbolic defiance. Apparently modeled on the Mumbai attacks of 2008 (which suggests the possibility of links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) Islamicists that  carried out that attack and which are reported to have links with the Pakistani Intelligence Service ISI), the assault comes on the very week that overall security responsibility for Kabul was being transferred from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)  to Afghan hands. It comes in wake of the announcement of the US withdrawal plan, which sees 33,000 US troops headed home between July 2011 and September 2012, and the bulk of the remaining 70,000 withdrawn by late 2014. It occurred during a conference held at the hotel between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on the subject of “anti-terrorism,” considered against the backdrop of an overall ISAF reduction in presence along with the US military draw down.

The first areas to be handed over to Afghan control are Kabul and Bamiyan Province.  NZ troops are stationed in both places, with the SAS company located in Kabul while the majority of the other NZDF personnel serve with the PRT in Bamiyan. If the Taliban logic holds true, they will accelerate the pace of attacks on remaining ISAF forces in areas that are handed over to Afghan security control.  It is therefore plausible to think that NZDF troops will be the subject of targeted hostilities  in both theaters, with the timing and intensity of Taliban attacks increasing. As the symbolic centre of the foreign occupation, Kabul is a target rich environment for urban guerrillas. In Bamiyan the local ethnic Hazari population, long victims of Taliban discrimination, now must ponder a post-PRT future in which the Taliban will be a major player. That advises them to look to negotiate with the Taliban on post-PRT terms and to consequently distance themselves from the PRT. That will have an impact on tactical intelligence gathering as well local logistics, to say nothing of the security of the NZDF personnel stationed there. PRT force protection, rather than combat patrols, could well be the objective of the day once Afghan security forces assume control in Bamiyan.

In terms of the assault itself, the Intercontinental Hotel operation demonstrated sophistication and professionalism. The combined grenade, IED and small arms fire tactic involved a mix of attackers, apparently disguised as guests and Afghan police. It is speculated that some may have checked into the hotel days before the assault, while other reports have the 9-man assault squad launching the attack from the hill that the hotel backs on to. The five rings of road block blast barriers on the road leading to the hotel were ineffectual against the assault.  Afghan security forces at and around the hotel are said to have run rather than engage the attackers from the onset, which allowed them to move beyond the lobby and pool areas and into the floors above. While the bulk of the guerrillas fought floor to floor and room to room with the eventual responders, a few made the roof and used it to engage sniper fire on reinforcements (thereby demonstrating knowledge of standard counter-terrorism tactics using troops rappelling from helicopters onto rooftops). The fact that the battle lasted 5 hours indicates the planning and tenacity of the Taliban fighters, with the last one killing himself at 7AM (the attack began at 10PM).

That is where mentoring comes in. “Mentoring” in the context of the NZSAS relationship with the Afghan anti-terrorist force known as the Crisis Response Unit means training and combat support. The SAS trains the CRU and follows them into battle in incidents precisely like the hotel siege. That is what they train for, in a variety of scenarios. Should the CRU vacillate or prove ineffectual, then the SAS mentors assume leadership roles and coordinate the counter-attack. The involves them at the initial point of contact with the enemy–at the pointy end, if you will. The two wounded troopers were engaged in such roles, which along with the duration of the battle suggests that the initial CRU response was less than optimal.

If reports are true that SAS snipers platformed on a NATO Blackhawk hovering near the hotel killed the rooftop snipers (at night), it will have brought valuable and highly specialised combat experience to to the unit.  Re-taking the hotel will have given the rest of the SAS team (reported as “around a dozen”) equally important live fire exposure (and at least two scars). Should this scenario be true, from an SAS standpoint the engagement was a mixed bag, with the CRU not holding its own without help against a determined and prepared enemy, but where SAS troops combat tested a range of tactics and skills.

The bigger issue is what does this attack mean for ISAF and the NZDF. Let me suggest this: it means that whatever the technical skills and material improvements imparted by NZDF forces in reconstruction, nation-building and “mentoring” roles, the balance of forces vis a vis the Taliban indicates that their efforts have not prospered as hoped, and their security is increasingly compromised as a result.

A boycott is not a ban

datePosted on 11:01, June 30th, 2011 by Lew

Just a brief comment on the Facebook-originated boycott of the Ian Wishart & Macsyna King book Breaking Silence.

A bunch of private individuals, however coordinated, choosing to publicly signal their intention to not patronise outlets which choose to sell a particular book is not a ban in any meaningful sense. You could (and no doubt Wishart will) try to parlay it into something like “de facto ban” or “virtual ban”, but it’s nothing of the sort. Even if major chain and independent bookstores decide against stocking the book, it’s not a ban — they are perfectly free to make whatever commercial decisions they feel like, and in this regard the signal provided to them by a Facebook group is potentially useful. It’s not a “ban” until the state applies its coercive authority to prevent the book’s dissemination, and there is absolutely no suggestion of this happening. The boycott, at present, is nothing more than a civil society movement: a large number of people have apparently decided that the book is (or will probably be) repugnant enough to their values that they will not support its distribution. That’s what you get in a free society. There are a lot of idiots making analogies to the Nazis and book-burning; these people need a serious dose of perspective.

I think the Facebook group’s judgement that the book will be repugnant to them is a fair one. I do not support the boycott, but I wouldn’t buy the book. I’ve read a lot of material I disagree with — Rand, Stalin, Irving from the “war fiction” section, and Kiwiblog comments for example — but it has to be worth my time. I wouldn’t read this book because I don’t think it would be worth my time, not because I find it repugnant. But I can see how this sort of book would be anathema to many people, given the nature of the case, given Macsyna King’s perceived truculence during the investigation, and given Wishart’s well-established reputation as an exploitative, delusional hack.

That having been said, I think the decision by ‘popular’ bookstores to not stock the book is misguided. It’s fair enough for the independent stores — Unity and such — who have a reputation for quality to maintain, but I think it’s an overreaction for the lowest-common-denominator chains to presume that a Facebook group could substantively harm their brands. “Book” people — people who buy lots of books — in general don’t approve of banning or boycotting books, however stupid they might be. I’ll bet there aren’t many such people in that Facebook group.

But it looks like the boycott is going ahead. And that raises an interesting question. People will still be able to buy the book if they want — Wishart can sell it online or whatever. But if his stated motivation that he’s not in it for the money but just wants to “break the silence” is true, then why doesn’t he make it available for free online?

L

Royal Hubris.

datePosted on 16:47, June 26th, 2011 by Pablo

As an ex-pat yank I am not much for royals. Its a war of independence, ex-colonial legacy type of thing, I imagine, but the idea that some otherwise useless people connected by traceable bloodlines can claim superiority and the right to “lead” just grates on me. The universal law of genetic decline comes to mind here (previously posted upon).

So it is with bemusement that I read that the 2nd in line to the British throne and his new bride have decided to skip a NZ visit this year because “it might influence the elections.”

Are they high (legally or not)? Sheeeeet. I suspect anyone who believes this to be true to be absolutely chronic.

Whatever the numbers of royalist fools in NZ, it takes a stoner quantity of imperial hubris to think that Wills and Kate could influence the outcome of the November elections. In fact, I reckon that Alisdair Thompson’s strong National links (including his reported blokey relationship with the PM) will be more decisive in November than these two over-privileged parasites on a party holiday.

If you ever want to see an egregious example of dole-bludgeing, go no further than Royalty.  Some of the men may do military service while living lifestyles way above their pay grade, but the wimin do nothing other than charity socials and token appearances to excite the hoi polloi.

I say **** that. Lets get rid of the bludgers and go for full independence ASAP. After all, what have we to lose other than our symbolic colonial chains?

In which I endorse Cactus Kate’s ACT candidacy

datePosted on 20:56, June 25th, 2011 by Lew

I’ve just gone through my post archive and added the tag ‘open government’ to posts I’ve written on the topic of elected or senior civil society representatives telling their constituents what they really think. I think this sort of disclosure is essential to democratic politics, and as much as I might disagree with the sentiments many such representatives express, my gratitude to them for their candour is entirely genuine.

It is in this vein that I endorse the rumoured candidacy of Cathy Odgers, aka Cactus Kate, for the ACT party in the forthcoming general election. If true, Odgers will be doing Aotearoa a genuine service, showing us all what ACT really stands for. She has never been backwards about coming forwards, and her often outrageous opinions have routinely appeared on her blog. Consequently, we can be assured of what we’re getting.

What we’re getting is someone who represents the elites; those who, if they weren’t born in possession of a silver spoon, quickly set about acquiring one by any means necessary. Hers is a devil-take-the-hindmost sort of social Darwinism which evinces general scorn for ordinary people, and outright contempt for anyone who fails to succeed by her own materialistic standards. She is perfectly frank about her view that only the wealthy net taxpayers should be able to vote, that ‘DPB’ should stand for ‘don’t pay breeders‘, and a host of other repugnant views which should further alienate her and her party from the New Zealand electorate; and which should increase the risk to a second-term Key government if it chooses to associate itself with the new ACT. We can only hope she will remain as candid as a candidate.

But this endorsement isn’t all about foreshadowed electoral schadenfreude. Odgers, for all that I disagree with nearly every aspect of her politics, is intelligent, articulate and possessed of a sharp and analytical wit. By reputation she is driven, hard-working and will not tolerate time-wasters or time-servers. If her boasts about the expat lifestyle and her drinking habits are to be believed, she will be taking a considerable cut in pay and increase in workload if elected to parliament, so we might reasonably assume her intentions are genuine. In other words, aside from her politics — which is admittedly a very big aside — she’s just the sort of person we need more of in Parliament. It may be that the rigours of public office mellow her, or it may be that her prickly public persona hides one more rounded and reasoned. They often do.

L

Today has been a remarkable day. Rarely do we see such an epic failure of communication as we have seen from Alasdair Thompson. Because these events have played out mostly in public, they also present an unusually transparent example.

What follows is ten specific strategic communication lessons which are clearly evident from these events. My analysis isn’t political — I have political and ideological views on this matter, and I intend to write these up after some reflection, but the purpose here is to look at things dispassionately and pragmatically and consider what was done wrong, and what might have been done differently. They are framed quite generically and can be pretty widely applied. This is a long post, so I’ve hidden most of it below the fold.

Everything here is presented on an “in my opinion, for what it’s worth” basis, and should under no circumstances be interpreted as reflecting the views of my employer, or anyone other than me personally.

Read the rest of this entry »

Enough rope

datePosted on 10:34, June 23rd, 2011 by Lew

On Mike Hosking’s Newstalk ZB show this morning, a discussion of the gender pay gap and Catherine Delahunty’s bill on the topic — and an object lesson in not believing your own hype:

Alasdair Thompson [Employers & Manufacturers' Association CEO]: “Let me get down to tin tacks here. It is unfortunate, if you like, that men and women are different –”
Helen Kelly [Council of Trade Unions President]: [incredulous laughter]
AT: “– they are. The fact is, women have babies, they take time out of their careers to have babies. Women have — look, I don’t like saying this, this is how contentious this is, but here’s a fact of life. If you really want to keep some statistics, look at who takes the most sick leave. Why do they take the most sick leave? Women do in general. Why? Because, ah, you know, once a month they have sick problems. Not all women, but some do. They have children that they have to take time off to go home and take leave of. Therefore their productivity — not their fault, it’s … it may be because they haven’t got it sorted out with their partners, where the partners take more responsibility for what happens outside work. There are all of these issues, and none of this is covered in these statistics that this bill wants to sort out. Now, I’m sorry, I don’t like saying these things because it sounds like I’m sexist, but it’s a fact of life.”
HK: “Sure does, Alasdair, I’m glad you said them, it’s fantastic. I let you go on that one.”

(Audio)

Helen Kelly played Alasdair Thompson like a harp here. For a start, his argument is bogus — as Kelly says, the figures don’t back it up in the general case, and where they do back it up there’s a host of confounding variables. (For just one of many possible objections, since women already earn less than men for the same work, there’s an advantage at the margin where they retain the primary childcare responsibility, all else being equal. On the basis of this Thompson says they should be further penalised.)

But quite apart from the standard of the argument, Thompson ended up defending the indefensible in indefensible terms. It’s one thing to defend the indefensible in terms that seem reasonable, quite another to do so in terms that are repugnant. Rather than arguing the difference of interpretation and retaining the dignity of a Captain of Industry, a benevolent leader of men (and women) who cares about their wellbeing, he slipped into the worst sort of boss-man-splaining. This might work just fine in boardrooms where the interests of those present are aligned, but it’s not much good in the public sphere. He clearly realised this, but only once he had committed to it: his delivery was garbled and disjointed, clearly ad-hoc, and so heavily caveated that it’s hard to take any of it seriously.

But that’s what we must do. This guy is an experienced representative of New Zealand’s employers, speaking in his official capacity on a topic for which he had (or ought to have) prepared, in a mainstream media outlet. We are entitled to take him at his word, and we should thank him for telling us what he really thinks. And we should thank Helen Kelly for giving him such a plum opportunity to do so.

Update: Not one to do things by halves, Thompson has doubled — or, tripled down, with a press release arguing that women are paid less because they’re just not worth as much, and statements to the Herald blaming “socialists”, “Labour” and “unions” and claiming 90% support for his position. That number has now mysteriously vanished from the Herald’s story, and comments by readers of the National Business Review — Thompson’s natural constituency — are running 80-20 against him at the time of writing this update.

You could say he’s quadrupled down, even, since he’s now taken to twitter, responding to criticism and barbed quips with cut & pasted lines from his press release. A more epic fail is hard to envisage.

L

John Key spanking behind closed doors

datePosted on 18:16, June 19th, 2011 by Anita

A few days ago the DomPost ran on p2 a generally positive story about John Key’s parenting which contained, without comment, the follow paragraph:

“Apparently it’s called planking but I don’t know – if we hadn’t changed the law, it would have rapidly moved to spanking,” [John Key] joked in a speech to the Parents Inc fathers’ breakfast in Wellington yesterday.

It struck me at the time that it was a joke at odds with the image of Key publicly taking credit for brokering the passage of the legislation. Of course it wasn’t a public joke, it was to an an entirely friendly audience pulled together by Parents Inc[1], of men paying $59 a head to hear Key, Gordon Tiejtens, and others and “enjoying the fellowship of other men”. This is reminiscent of Key joking about Tuhoe being cannibals, again Key showing a reactionary conservative face to an appreciative audience behind closed doors.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, perhaps John Key’s public/private image contrast is no more than we can hope for. But shouldn’t the media be looking out for and commenting on this? If he’d told an equivalent joke about beating his wife, having sex with a 15 year old, or snorting cocaine, would the media have taken the time to point out the contrast?

 

[1] Parents Inc, a conservative Christian organisation, lobbied against the repeal of section 59, and has since had National appoint its Executive Officer to a term as a Family Commissioner and, more recently, had $2.4million of untendered contract awarded to it.

Does small always have to mean provincial?

datePosted on 14:44, June 15th, 2011 by Pablo

Here is a question for readers. Just because NZ is small does that mean it has to be provincial? Having returned–and happily so–to NZ after a 3+ year absence, I am struck as to how insular public debates tend to be. Leave aside the grating RWC ads and hype. Although it makes much ado about a second tier sporting event, it is being hosted here and there is money to be made as well as sporting prestige on the line. So the hoopla could happen anywhere. I also understand the focus on Christchurch given the earthquakes, but am struck by how most attention is on the human dramas and not on the policy response and consequences of the disasters (which seem to this uninformed eye to be slow and not considerate of long-term implications). More broadly, be it in the tone of political debate, the focus of popular culture, or the economic preoccupations of the moment, it all seem a bit inbred to me. Am I just being precious or unduly judgmental?

I ask because I came back from Singapore, which is small but is incredibly cosmopolitan because of its strategic location and thriving expat culture (native Singaporeans are quite insular as well but have been forced to cope with the influx of more worldly people as part of their national transformation project). Switzerland, San Marino, Andorra, Monaco, Ireland and Malta are small but their location in Europe makes them acutely sensitive to and knowledgeable of their larger neighbour’s actions and interests. The same can be said for Uruguay, surrounded by larger States, or Central American republics, dwarfed by Mexico and the US. This is not to say that the masses as a whole in these countries are always on top of international affairs or erudite in their discussions of global trends, but that they seem to have a better appreciation of the world around them than what is evident in NZ. That seems counter-intuitive.

I say so because the tyranny of distance should have been overcome by advances in telecommunications and transportation, NZ is increasingly a nation of immigrants, including many from non-traditional source countries, its commercial ties are more varied and distant than in earlier generations, its has high standards of literacy and access to news sources, it has a good percentage of citizens returning from OE’s and its diplomatic connections reflect all of these trends. So why is it that, if I am correct, NZ remains rooted in a seemingly mythical short-and-gumboots, rugby-fixated mentality unconcerned about the larger world in which it is inserted? After all, unlike like large states that can “afford” to be ignorant of world affairs because of their economic weight and territorial size (e.g., the US), Kiwis are constantly told that their well-being is directly linked to NZ’s position in the international community. If that is true I would expect that average Kiwis would take an interest in global issues and ask questions of national elites about them.

Why, for example, has the NZ government made no public pronouncements on Syria (and muted comments about Libya) given its purported commitment to human rights? Why has issues like human trafficking, child labour and environmental degradation not entered into the debate about undertaking trade agreements with Asian despotic states? Why have tensions between Fiji and Tonga only been awarded two days of media attention, especially given the role of other powers behind the scenes and NZ’s connections to both countries? Why is there no debate about the NZDF role in Afghanistan given the beginning of the US military withdrawal in July? Why is it assumed that “privatisation” and public expenditure reductions are sacrosanct when in many faster developing parts of the world that are also commodity export-dependent (Latin America, SE Asia) such market-driven zealotry has been abandoned in favour of more judicious public management schemes that see public welfare and employment as requisite part of the social contract (and long-term stability)? Why is draconian anti-terrorist legislation and expansion of domestic intelligence powers passed when NZ security elites admit that the threat of a terrorist event is extremely low and that domestic threats are more likely to be criminal than political in nature (with some of that criminality being a direct result of NZ’s permissive attitude towards trade conditions and regulatory requirements on foreign investment and corporate accountability). Why are national leaders allowed to dismiss those who raise such concerns as extremists or unhinged?

In fact, what the heck happened to policy debates in general? Why is it that when not rugby the entire country seems to be fixated on human dramas and political sleaze rather than the pressing issues that impact they very way society is organised?

I realise that NZ may not be alone in this syndrome, should it in fact be real. It just strikes me as incongruous that a country with such an abundance of human capital should be so inward-focused, especially if it’s material, social and political status is directly connected to, and dependent upon, its ties to the outside world. Provincialism may serve the interests of elites who can govern and do business without considered scrutiny so long as a few popular sops are thrown the public’s way, but it seems to me to be an unfortunate comment on national consciousness if indeed it is a reality rather than a figment of my imagination.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been considering returning to blogging; I seem to have the energy to do it again, and it can be just plain fun.

A couple of times I’ve been sitting in a bus or cafe with a post half written in my head and remembered the lanyard around my neck or in my handbag. You see, like many of my fellow Wellingtonians I seem to have traded away my rights to political speech. That lanyard has two cards on it, each representing a whole area of news and policy I can’t safely post about.

Worse than that I have to consider whether being politically outspoken on other issues might prevent another organisation giving me an access card in the future. Can I, should I, risk my employment, my mortgage, my home, potentially the financial welfare of colleagues, to speak out politically? I know people who have lost contracts, on-going work, livelihoods even because of their public political speech.

Cameron Slater’s recent antics have only heightened that sense, people I have worked alongside are worried – what would the consequence of them being named as a Labour Party donor be? Would their employer be willing to leave their name on a document going to the Minister? If not, what happens to their career? What happens when their contract next comes up for renewal?

The interesting thing is that when, in the past, I’ve had private sector clients the pressure was never so great. Sure when working at Fonterra I would have been foolish to post accusations of deliberate environmental contamination, but I could happily have posted about the price of milk, and the effects of freight on roads rather than rail. Meat and Wool never seemed particularly worried I’m vegetarian.

Why is it that our public servants, often people who take their jobs out of a genuine belief they can make things better, are so confined in their political activities? And how can we change it, particularly as public servants speaking out against those constraints are probably putting themselves at risk?

In the interests of some disclosure… I am not a public servant, I am a private sector employee who frequently works within Public Service organisations. I have not intention of listing which organisations at which time, or which topics I’m not posting on – that way lies chaos.

Notes on democratic fundamentalism

datePosted on 22:48, June 9th, 2011 by Lew

Perhaps I’m reading a bit much into Jordan Carter’s declaration that he’s a libertarian socialist — as he said on the tweets, “it’s just a pun, an oxymoron. Which I found amusing”. So I may be overreacting in the particular case, but if you’ll forgive that, it’s made me look at and consider my own perspective in a way which lends itself well to writing down.

I think Jordan is cherry-picking his definitions; co-opting two existing pieces of fashionable terminology for the sake of provocative pretension. I think what he’s described is really just liberal-social-democracy of the relatively ordinary modern kind — a pretty far cry from anything resembling either libertarianism or socialism in actual history — and I don’t see what’s gained by smacking an ill-fitting label on it. But there’s a fair bit to lose. For a start, by doing so you alienate all those who really do call themselves libertarians and the socialists (though perhaps that’s not a great loss).

Moreover, as a matter of political branding it’s braindead. By applying what is, unjustly or not, heavily loaded and controversial terminology to what is actually a thoroughly mainstream political movement you risk marginalising it. ‘Socialist’ and increasingly ‘libertarian’ are markers of political extremism, at least in the Anglo world. They breed mistrust and fear, and rightly so: you can carry on all you like about how the horrors of 20th Century socialism and communism weren’t worthy of the names, but the fact is those were the names which stuck. They’re beyond reclamation. (I’ve argued this before, and I understand it’s not a line which is popular with wishful socialists, and you’re free to disagree — but I’d prefer not to argue the toss at too much length again; it’s really a sidebar in this post.)

‘Libertarian’, although Ayn Rand hated the term and its baggage, has been similarly redefined from its original usage by her heirs, and the authoritarian-conservatives who are busily colonising that movement (Tea Party, UKIP, ACT etc; collectively I call them ‘liberthoritarians’). Association with that lot is anathema to social democracy and left praxis of any sort. On the other flank you have the link with anarchism, whose symbolic currency among the social mainstream to whom a political vehicle like the Labour party must appeal is little better.

That’s all really just a preamble, though, to the following more important bit of the post, which is about my own rather amorphously-defined political perspective (bearing in mind that this is also a massive topic which I hope do deal with in about a thousand words and a couple of hours). The reason I think it’s daft and a bit pretentious to adopt titles like ‘libertarian socialist’ is that I’m less interested in what people declare to be their philosophy and more interested in the mechanisms they choose to promulgate that philosophy. Being a “socialist” or a “libertarian” or whatever else is one thing, but if your commitment to achieving the aims of your chosen creed is via democracy, that implies a commitment to fulfilling the expressed wishes of your society whether or not they accord with your own. If the electorate really does decides it wants a full-scale neosocialist agenda and votes in a government which will deliver it, a genuinely democratic libertarian movement will not impede the progress of such an agenda except by legitimate legal means; and by the same token, if the electorate seriously votes for the neutering of government and the implementation of a social-Darwinist Nightwatchman State, then a genuinely democratic socialist movement will grudgingly accede to that. The trouble is that many, if not most, libertarian and socialist movements are only democratic movements insofar as democracy is convenient.

Although I think I have previously disclaimed the title, I am essentially a democratic fundamentalist — I consider the commitment to democracy to undergird the rest of a political-philosophical agenda, rather than sitting on top of it. The reasoning is a mix of principled and pragmatic arguments which I’ve also made many times before, mostly derived from uncontroversial old-fashioned liberalism — that people have the right to determine the shape and nature of their society (right or wrong), that the government must answer ultimately to the governed, that there’s no other proven method of ensuring smooth, regular and nonviolent power transfer, and so on. For these reasons I have no truck with non-democratic movements on either side of the aisle; the authoritarian socialists who killed a millions in the last century, or the modern-day liberthoritarians who call for the violent overthrow of legitimate governments with which they happen to disagree, or those who argue that democracy is broken because voters make ‘bad’ choices (with the inference that, for society’s sake, the power to make such choice should be stripped from them).

Such movements don’t hold with democracy; they may tolerate democracy as long as it gives them results they like, but democracy doesn’t work that way. You take the bad with the good, on the understanding that you will have the opportunity to win back the fort and set things to rights again, if you can persuade the electorate that you’re worth supporting. So to merit consideration as a legitimate political movement, this commitment to democracy is a necessity. And to a large extent such a commitment — assuming bona fides can be demonstrated — is sufficient to grant legitimacy. For this reason, as much as I despise the ACT and New Zealand First parties, for instance, I do accept that they have legitimacy inasmuch as they generally conform(ed) to and support(ed) the robust, existing democratic norms of society. Regardless of the policy mix which sits on top of it, I can tolerate a genuinely democratic movement because in a robust democracy, you should only get away with doing what the electorate permits you to do.

Explained this mechanical sort of way it’s a naïve view, but to be useful, notions such of these do need to be considered in light of what lies beneath. Determining whether a given system constitutes a democracy worthy of the name is often non-trivial, particularly at the margins. Even within generally robust democratic systems, there exist distortions and imbalances which warp access to and exercise of power in favour of one group or another. There is even a pretty wide tolerance within which a democratically-elected government with a mandate to do so can fiddle with the levers, creating advantages for itself while not fundamentally rendering the system undemocratic. The authority of democracy is also not ironclad, it does not obtain outside the existing normative moral, ethical and legal frameworks of humanity; if 51% of an electorate decide it’s ok to slaughter all blue-eyed babies, it being democratically certified does not make such a provision legitimate. So in this way what I’m talking about it isn’t really democratic fundamentalism at all — there are sound arguments to be had all down the line about these and other factors, and indeed recognising and addressing the (many) limitations of democracy isn’t something to be shied away from.

The question of ultimate sovereignty also can’t be ignored. The ultimate authority for how a society ought to be configured rests with the people, and if this means that a government, democratically-elected or not, is acting egregiously counter to the electorate’s wishes in ways which democracy can’t fix, stronger medicine must sometimes be applied.

This is the reasoning the Tea Partiers claim when calling for Obama to be overthrown; and that Lindsay Perigo (now shilling for a noted authoritarian who is the parliamentary leader of a noted authoritarian party) appealed when he declared the Clark government illegitimate. But while some legitimate grievances exist(ed) in both cases, those calls were and are vexatious. In reality a stronger standard is needed to maintain the balance between democracy and ultimate sovereignty. Of course, in both cases the calls for insurrection came to nought — they were manifestly idiotic and consequently did not attract support; and moreover, in both cases subsequent democratic elections under the systems that both provocateurs claimed were invidious returned strongly in favour of the opposition parties, utterly disproving the assertion. In the New Zealand case, the incoming government repealed the offending Electoral Finance Act, doubling that proof (and then proceeded to enact something very substantively similar, to very scarce outrage from anyone).

Of course, this principle of the peoples’ sovereignty means the electorate can relinquish its power, vest it permanently or semi-permanently in some other mechanism of power. I’ll get the obvious out of the way now: this is what happened to the Weimar Republic; the existing democratically-legitimate rulers of Germany ceded their authority to Hitler, who enjoyed impunity from democratic censure (and, it must be said, who brilliantly exploited the constitutional arrangements of the republic to engineer the ongoing popular support for his cause and the ineffectuality of his opponents). What happened in the years following 1933 is an example of why a movement’s commitment to robust democracy must be treated as fundamental, but the ultimate recourse to power must remain with the people.

For me what it all really boils down to is the comment usually attributed to Tocqueville, that a democratic society gets the government it deserves. But this is both misattributed and misquoted — it was Joseph de Maistre, and the original quote omits ‘democratic’. The implication is that any society gets the government it deserves. A sham democracy exists because those governed by it do not demand more — more representation, more transparency, more robustness, more accountability. A dictatorship is such because its victims didn’t do enough to prevent one from becoming entrenched, or overthrow it once it had become entrenched. This is a harsh view, and strictly incorrect — there is little the Ukrainian peasantry of the Holomodor could have done to prevent their expurgation as a result of Stalin’s decrees, and nothing they did to deserve such a fate, for instance — but the essence of truth in the quote is generally that, in the final analysis, nobody has a greater responsibility or ability to ensure that their government carries out the wishes of the people it governs than the people themselves.

L

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