Archive for ‘May, 2012’

Performing to spec

datePosted on 19:03, May 29th, 2012 by Lew

At the Dim-Post, a searing explanation of how class-size dogma works in the real world, by a teacher. He or she describes The Dumb Class of 15, who struggle with the assistance of their teachers to barely pass; and The Smart Class of 30, who are underresourced and consequently underperform, but pass because they’re, well, smart. And then Treasury looks at the data.

They look at one sheet of results and say “Look here – the class with 30 all got Achieved, and the class with 15 all got Achieved too. That means, statistically, class size doesn’t make a difference. Let’s cram forty of the little firestarters in there next year!”

No word on what happens to The Average Class, who have neither the advantage of adequate teaching resources, nor “smarts”.

But clearly, it’s all the fault of the teachers. They’re messing with the Natural Order Of Things.

By wasting so much resource on The Dumb Kids who are never going to amount to anything anyway, they disadvantage The Smart Kids, preventing them from realising their potential. Those Smart Kids are essentially being forced to subsidise the underclass — in their childhood as it will inevitably be in their adulthood, supporting the unproductive bludgers all around them.

So no sympathy for teachers. If they would just let The Dumb Kids fail, as the laws of nature and the market intended, The Smart Kids would perform to their full ability, soon enough we’d have all the productivity growth we could possibly want, and the government would have plenty of money to afford tax cuts for The Smart Kids’ parents. Since the teachers have sabotaged the education system by trying to tilt the scale in favour of The Dumb Kids, the government really has no choice but to implement a system that reverses that tilt by rewarding excellence, to ensure that the education system performs to operating spec, where The Smart Kids succeed and The Dumb Kids fail.

Just as nature, and the market, intended.

L

Edit to add: Phil Sage has obliged us all by making pretty much this exact argument on the square, in comments on the original thread. Thanks, Phil!

On “average”

datePosted on 20:44, May 25th, 2012 by Lew

The New Zealand Herald’s archetypal “average” Kiwi family, the Ray family of Sandringham East, has declared the 2012 Budget “sensible and unspectacular”, probably the strongest endorsement Bill English could have hoped for. But let’s look at what this article signifies.

First and most obviously, the article makes something of the fact that the average income in Sandringham East is nearly identical to the average income across Auckland as a whole — not quite $27,000 per annum* — but the Ray family income is about four times that, $105,000. If both adults were in paid work, their income level would be about twice the average. But the article says that Amanda Ray is a full-time stay-at-home mum, from which we can reasonably assume that Alistair Ray’s income is four times the median on its own. Income level: not “average”.

The figures given for income, and for the decile rating of the local school, date from “the last census”, which was held in 2006. Census data from 2011, had it been held, would probably not yet have been released anyway, so that’s not really a factor — but the data is six years out of date in any case. The principal of the local school says the area is “gentrifying” and the middle-of-the-road decile 5 status is likely to be revised upwards. Suburb: not “average”. [Edit to add: the school decile rating doesn't necessarily support this conclusion; see Graeme Edgeler's comment explaining deciles, below.]

Alistair Ray is an urban designer, and Amanda has a doctorate in cancer research. I’m not sure of the qualifications required to become an urban designer, but I think it’s safe to assume that it requires postgraduate study to honours — probably master’s — level. Education: not “average”.

Education is just one aspect of social capital more generally. The Rays immigrated relatively recently from the UK. Their language is our language; their qualifications and experience are accepted here without question; many of our social norms and customs, and our legal and political systems are very similar to those of the UK, having been largely derived from the institutions of the Old Country. This is hardly uncommon — roughly a third of immigrants to NZ come from the UK — but neither is it typical. Immigrants from Asia and the Pacific (combined) make up a higher proportion, and these groups do not enjoy the same degree of familiarity that British immigrants do. Social capital: not “average”.

None of this is any sort of criticism of the Ray family. I have no doubt that they are honest, hardworking, skilled and decent folk who are committed to this country, who make a valuable contribution to it, and are as entitled as anyone else to express opinions on its government. They are welcome here. The Herald chose to frame them as an “average” family, though, and by these metrics they are not an “average” family. I think it is fair to characterise the Rays as an “aspirational” family.

And that, I think, answers the implicit question of whose view the Herald’s coverage seeks to express, and whose interests yesterday’s budget serves. The elision of “average” and “aspirational” is, I think, the single most powerful shift in this country’s political discourse in the past five years — since John Key took the National party leadership. This piece of terminology (and its close cousin, “ambitious”) dominated the 2008 election campaign, and while it has tailed off more recently, the policy settings the government has chosen demonstrate that it is still a core theme of their ideological project. This government does not speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders, and in this article the Herald does not really speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders. Blurring ideas of “aspiration” almost interchangeably with ideas of “average” defines an “us” in which nearly everyone includes themselves, persuading “average” people that the government speaks for, and to them, even though the policy programme yields them no direct advantage whatsoever. At the same time, it permits the government and others to define anyone who fails to “aspire” hard enough, for whatever reason — a lack of education or financial or social capital, chronic illness or disability, or a history of abuse, mental illness or repression, poor choices or simply bad fortune — as an unperson. So defined, the state can with relative impunity dismantle the system of benefits, state assistance and remedial advantage that, in the final analysis, enables more of the population to become genuinely “aspirational”.

That bell probably can’t be un-rung. I think we are stuck with this elision, and this delusion that everyone can be above-average — it’s normal, and expected, and if you aren’t, you’re a failure. That’s a concerning prospect.

L

* I should at least give credit to Simon Collins for using the median, rather than the mean with regard to income — many, including the government, are not so scrupulous.

The Crown Gets Its Pound of Flesh.

datePosted on 17:27, May 24th, 2012 by Pablo

I am surprised by the jail sentences handed down to Tame Iti and Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara in the Urewera 4 case. I had expected substantial fines and at most community service sentences for all of the defendants. The same day the Urewera 4 were sentenced a doctor was fined $1000 for firing a crossbow at a tree 3 meters from a tent of sleeping children at a DOC camp site, so it seemed reasonable to me that people who discharged firearms in the vicinity of no one other than themselves would receive sentences in line with the good doctor’s. But, as it turns out, the Judge in the Urewera 4 case had a different line of reasoning, and it is worrisome.

Even though the Urewera 4 were not found guilty on criminal conspiracy charges, the judge who sentenced them, Rodney Hansen, repeatedly referred to them as if they had been. He spoke of an armed militia with leaders and followers, and he mentioned molotov cocktails–the possession and use of which they were not convicted of–as proof of something sinister going on the outskirts of Ruatoki. But the sentences were supposed to be for violations of the Firearms Act alone–six in the case of Iti, Kemara and Emily Bailey and five in the case of Urs Singer. So why did the judge bring in a line of reasoning at sentencing that is more appropriate to a guilty verdict of criminal conspiracy, and why the relatively harsh penalties for violations that, quite frankly, are fairly routine in some sectors of New Zealand society? In fact, the sentences do not distinguish between the types of firearms used by different individuals, so that those who handled a sawn off shotgun were treated the same as those who handled a bolt action .22. Bringing up the subject of molotovs, militias, purported bombing (but not bus-flinging) plans at sentences for Firearms Act violations is irrelevant and prejudicial.

Lew and I have written previously at some length about the discrepancy between this prosecution and the seemingly blind eye the Police and Courts cast on very similar bush antics by right-wing extremists who make no secret of their hatred for assorted ethnic and religious groups and who have proven histories of violence against those they hate. I shall therefore not repeat what we have said. But what I can say is that these sentences confirm to me that this Crown prosecution was about punishment and deterrence, not justice. One way or another the Crown was going to extract its pound of flesh from at least some of the original defendants, a process that not only involved lengthy delays in providing the defendants with their day in court (by over four years) and the admission of illegally obtained evidence,  but which also is designed to serve as a warning to others who might be of similar ideological persuasion and direct action mindset. As I have said before, the process was the punishment for the original 18, and these sentences are the final act in that process. It has not been fair, it has not been just, and other than assuage the primordial fears of conservative Pakeha such as Louis Crimp, the National Front and the closet Klansmen that inhabit the right-wing blogosphere, it does nothing to advance respect for the law and the concept of equal treatment for all.

Given that the sentences for Iti and Kemara appear to be disproportionate to the crimes committed, and that the judge’s reasoning was at least in part based upon tangentials that should not have been admitted at the sentencing phase, I would hope that they will be appealed and eventually reversed. Otherwise the conclusion to Operation 8 looks like another case of Pakeha utu on people who dare speak truth to power in unconventional, theatrical and ultimately silly ways.

 

They Never Learn.

datePosted on 12:27, May 23rd, 2012 by Pablo

There is an old rule in politics that states that it is not the original sin that gets politicians in trouble. It is the cover-up or lying about it that does them in. The examples that prove the rule are too numerous to mention and span the globe. This week we have another classic case in point: Shane Jones and his explanation as to why, as Associate Minister of Immigration (the Minister of Immigration at the time, David Cunliffe, had earlier refused to revoke Liu/Yan’s residence visa and for some reason unknown to me was not involved in the granting of citizenship), he ignored expert legal advice and granted a Chinese fraudster expedited citizenship.

According to Jones he did so on humanitarian grounds because he was told by an unnamed Internal Affairs official that the applicant–he of at least three different names and an Interpol warrant out for his arrest–would be executed and his organs harvested if he were sent back to China. Forgive me if I cough. That is up there with Annette King’s claims that no one in the Labour government knew about Operation 8 until the weekend before it began.

Others have already torn Mr. Jone’s supposed rationale to shreds. Beyond the fact that not even the Chinese execute people for common fraud, even if they are members of Falun Gong (a claim supposedly made by but never proven by Mr. Liu/Yan), a legitimate fear of a politically-motivated death sentence would result in an asylum request, not a citizenship application based  upon a business visa. Nor would Mr. Liu/Yan speak of traveling back to China with a delegation of Kiwis in order to explore business opportunities in the PRC (as it is claimed he did in his conversations with immigration officials now testifying at his trial on false declaration charges). But according to Shane Jones, not only was he facing certain death but also certain organ harvesting (which raises the question as to how the unnamed Internal Affairs official could know this in advance given that the Chinese do not harvest organs from all executed prisoners because the health of the condemned varies). Put bluntly, Mr. Jones is simply not credible, and unless that unnamed official comes forward to take responsibility for the bogus claims (which Mr. Jones could have ignored), his justification simply does not wash. Add in the fact that Mr. Liu/Yan had donated considerable sums of money to Labour coffers in the lead-in to his citizenship application, and the smell of something fishy permeates the affair.

What is amazing is that when confronted with the evidence presented in court, David Shearer continued to back Mr. Jones and even allowed him to go public with is ridiculous justification. That violates a second rule of politics, which is that when smoke begins to surround a politician on ethical issues his or her party needs to move swiftly to prevent a full-fledged fire from erupting by distancing the tainted one from the party as a whole. By not doing so immediately and only leaving open the possibility of standing Jones down if an investigation proves him guilty of wrong-doing in the Liu/Yan affair, Mr. Shearer has failed the basic test of leadership that involves saving the party from further uncomfortable scrutiny on the issue of campaign financing and political donations.

Once again, let us remember the iron law of oligarchy that governs all political parties: the first duty of the party is to preserve itself. Individual political fortunes come second. Legalities aside, it is the appearance of unethical behavior on the part of Mr. Jones that is at play here.

What is even more amazing is that this comes on the heels of the John Banks-Kin Dotcom scandal and John Key’s equally egregious mistake in not removing Banks from his ministerial post while the Police investigated whether Banks violated political finance laws in his dealing with Mr. Dotcom. Regardless of whether the press played this sequence of events on purpose, the scenario unfolded as follows: National was on the ropes in the weeks leading up to a dismal budget announcement, beleaguered by policy and personal conflicts and dogged by an increasingly assertive mainstream press. Rather than strike a contrast in approach that would give it the moral high ground that would allow it to score major political points against its weakened rival, Labour’s response to revelations of the dubious ethics of one of its senior members in a past government–dubious ethics that are being aired in court for crikey’s sake–is to bluster and blow more smoke on the matter. Do they never learn?

Just as Mr. Key should have removed Mr. Banks from his ministerial position as soon as his denials and lies about his relationship with Mr. Dotcom were exposed, so Mr. Shearer should have moved quickly to demote Mr. Jones until such a time as an independent investigation exonerated him. Given the passing of a few news cycles and the issue would have faded into the political “bygones be bygones” category. By not doing so Mr. Shearer has allowed the Jones-Liu/Yan relationship to become a distraction away from National’s peccadillos and policy failures. He has, in fact, thrown National a life line in the days before the budget announcement and the decision to demote Banks (who could stay in government but not be a minister pending the resolution of the Police investigation), and I would imagine that the National caucus are high-fiving and back-slapping each other in delight.

Of course there are political calculations in all of this. By-elections are costly, list candidate replacements are unproven or unreliable, internal Party factional disputes run the risk of being aggravated or exposed.  National is clearly waiting for the Budget to be announced before moving on Banks. Labour does not want to lose a senior figure who “ticks the boxes” of important internal constituencies. And yes, there is a difference between illegal and unethical activity.

But in putting these calculations ahead of ethical considerations given the appearance of impropriety, both parties have once again shown their contempt for the NZ public. And on this score, Labour’s contempt is much worse. After all, Mr. Banks was just a greasy-palmed private citizen seeking to be mayor when he approached Mr. Dotcom for support. Mr. Jones, on the other hand, was a Minister of State who apparently used his office to bestow special considerations on an individual in exchange for, uh, party “favors.”  Both actions were slimy, but it is the official nature of Mr. Jones’s intercession that makes his behavior worse. Which is why he should have been stood down straight away, because rightly or wrongly, it is the attempt to downplay or cover up past impropriety, rather than the potentially unethical or illegal behavior itself, that will cling to the Labour Party long after Mr. Liu/Yan’s case is adjudicated.

ACT and National Front to announce merger.

datePosted on 12:19, May 19th, 2012 by Pablo

That is about all I can figure after reading this about Louis Crimp, Act’s largest individual donor in the 2011 election. The line about Invercargill is priceless but there are several other gems as well. Mr. Crimp appears to be getting PR advice from Kyle Chapman or Jim Beam, so why keep up the pretense any more and not just announce the merger of the two white rights movements?  Better yet, once John Banks gets the inevitable boot from parliament, perhaps the AKKKT Party can dip into some of that NF talent pool for a replacement.

AKKKT–a political cough in the larger scheme of things, but a full throated sputum of the NZ Right.

Whining John.

datePosted on 15:28, May 15th, 2012 by Pablo

Late last year a friend of mine who works in the media said to me that the press had turned on John Key over the Teapot Tape affair. Key’s attempt to have the photographer prosecuted, following on his defamatory and/or contemptuous treatment of individual members of the press corps, was seen as the last straw. My friend noted that the press had generally been kind to Mr. Key during his first term and had avoided digging into a veritable trove of scandal and mischief simply because Mr. Key was riding high in the polls and they did not want to get off-side of a popular PM. That, my friend said, changed after the election, and the press would take a more critical stance with regard to Mr. Key and his government.

To my mind that was welcome news, because it seemed to me that Mr. Key had been treated with kid gloves during his first term and I felt that he needed to be pushed a bit on matters of National policy as well the behavior of some of his party entourage.

In the first quarter of 2012 a number of questions have been raised to Mr. Key that appear to support my friend’s prediction. None of these questions are particularly damaging by themselves, but a pattern has emerged in Mr. Key’s responses. Slowly but surely, as each new mini-scandal or crisis was revealed, Mr. Key began to drop his smile and wave optimism and replaced it with a surly, if not seething disdain for his questioners. Although he keeps his nice persona sharp for staged interviews on TV and radio, his guard drops when doing the impromptu stand-up Q&A with the press gallery. This was very evident when he was asked on one such occasion about the No Asset Sales hikoi, where he clearly struggled to reign in his contempt before saying that he did not concern himself with the opinion of 1000 people.

Now it appears he has had enough with the press in general and the NZH (and to a lesser extent the SST) in particular. He complained  to a rightwing talkback microphone jockey that the press was aggressive and sensationalistic and singled out the NZH as scandal-mongering in its treatment of him and his government in order to raise flagging sales of newsprint.

I do  not have any particular affection for the NZH, SST or the NZ MSM in general–in fact, just yesterday the TVNZ evening news borrowed without attribution a phrase I had used in a discussion about drones with Chris Laidlaw the day before(a phrase I did not coin or copyright but which I nevertheless introduced to the NZ discussion of the subject, which just happened to be the subject of the news item in the TVNZ One broadcast). Since such behavior is increasingly the norm in the NZ MSM, the standard of NZ journalistic training and ethics is, in my opinion, in the main less than optimal (needless to say there are some exceptions to the rule). But I find it ludicrous that Mr. Key is upset about the “aggressive” and “antagonistic” nature of the press approach towards him as of late. Shoot, he got the press equivalent of a free pass for the first three years in spite of often equivocal, deceptive or disingenuous answers to anything other than patsy questions. Why should he get upset when the questions begin to develop a harder edge? Does he not think such questioning comes with the job? Does he think that he is entitled to be treated differently than other politicians?

Of course, all politicians complain about their treatment in the media and past NZ prime ministers have not been above attacking the messenger or interrogator. But it seems to me that Mr. Key is being very rich when he complains about his recent treatment in the press. It may not be the solicitous if not supplicant posture of the first term, but the press approach to Mr. Key is also not anywhere close to the hostile negativity and contrariness of press corps in a wide range of democracies (I think of the partisan jousting that goes on in places like Argentina, the Philippines, the US, Spain, Taiwan and Italy, where the relationship between sections of the press corps and government executives is often very strained, if not toxic).

Thus I have come to the conclusion, following on previous posts about Mr. Key’s demeanor and attitude, that he is a pampered whiner with a royal’s sense of entitlement. He simply does not see himself as having to be accountable to a critical press, and as a result complains to the lapdog press that he is being treated unfairly. Not only is his accusation untrue. It is also politically stupid because it now has the media dissecting his complaint in public. If he thought he was going to win sympathy from anything other than his diehard base, he needs to think again.

Whatever calculus he may or may not be employing, I have one thing to say to him: harden up and do your friggin’ job, which includes fronting up to hard questions from time to time. After all, you do not get the big bucks just to smile and wave.

Against “courageous corruption” as Crown policy

datePosted on 12:40, May 14th, 2012 by Lew

It should come as no surprise that I disagree with Chris Trotter’s latest piece about the Urewera raids. Don’t get me wrong — I think his assessment of the operational capability New Zealand police and intelligence services are correct. Their actions were strategically and tactically flawed, and they seemed to hold unrealistic expectations of the task they were undertaking. But some of the judgements Chris wraps around this argument are troubling to say the very least.

Not all of them. Some are fine: we need a competent security and intelligence apparatus, and the lack is something that should be rectified. Some are nonsense: a sophisticated left-wing propaganda network (where have they been these past two electoral terms?) and sleeper cells of “sympathetic journalists” (presumably not those who are shills for the corporate élite?). Some are merely distasteful. Others, however, are downright frightening, and the worst of these is the notion that the Crown should not be bound by its own laws when prosecuting dissident citizens.

Also lacking were the reliable media “assets” so highly prized by the British security services. Individuals to whom key elements of the Crown’s case … Where, for example, was the Crown’s equivalent of Wikileaks? Clearly no one was prepared to play the role of Private Bradley Manning by dumping all the evidence denied to the Prosecution on a suitably insulated and legally untouchable website.

Let’s not forget that some of this actually happened. Elements of the Crown case actually were leaked to the public, and some suppressed material was published in daily newspapers and was the subject of (unsuccessful) contempt proceedings.* Other elements, having been retrospectively ruled in by a court despite having been collected unlawfully, were used throughout the trial to create a prejudicial atmosphere around the trial.

Given those events, the argument here is essentially that the Crown didn’t leak enough evidence; didn’t act ruthlessly enough and was too heavily burdened with scruples to secure a “right” outcome. The call for an officer of the Crown to wilfully breach the very laws they have sworn to uphold, in the name of their own individual assessment of a complex situation, is extremely concerning. Having failed to conduct their evidence-gathering operations lawfully, and having failed to persuade a judge that, in spite of that, there was still a sufficient reason to admit all the evidence, the argument here is that the Crown should have taken an extrajudicial Mulligan.

When I started writing it this piece was considerably more personalised to Chris, and how his post seems to provide final proof of his degeneration from idealistic radical to authoritarian establishment curmudgeon. The reference in the title is to his now-infamous declaration that Labour’s breach of electoral law during the 2005 election campaign was justified inasmuch as it prevented a terrible counterfactual — a National government led by Don Brash — from coming to pass. I disagree with that argument on the grounds that the integrity of the democratic system as a whole is of greater importance than any particular electoral outcome, and I disagree with his argument regarding the Urewera 4 for the same reasons: the integrity of the justice system is of greater importance than the outcome of any given case.** But I don’t want to dwell on the personal; rather than trading extensive cannonades with Chris (again), I think there’s more value in covering my reasons for holding these views in principle, leaving aside the specific merits (on which we’re never going to agree), or whether I support the principals in either case.***

The first and most obvious argument against this sort of extra-legal recourse is: be careful what you wish for. If you want the Crown to leak, to cultivate sources in the media whom they can trust to run their propaganda for them, and to resort to whatever other means they might need to secure what you think is a “right” outcome, you’d better hope you always agree with them. If you don’t, eventually you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of it. The danger of this for the ideological left in Aotearoa should need little elaboration: almost all the authoritarian cards and most of the ruthlessness in playing them are in the hands of the various factions of the ideological right, and they are constrained more by norms of conduct and the need to appear to be less ruthless than they are than by black-letter law or constitutional barriers. These norms are quite robust, but they essentially all operate on the honour system: they persist because people observe them. If you break the law in the name of the rule of law, you erode the rule of law. If you destroy the village to save the village, you still destroy the village.

This leads into the second point: changing norms of Crown conduct, or what we might call “authoritarian sclerosis”. Norms that constrain what a government, the Crown or its agents may acceptably do are becoming more lax, and have been since shortly after 9/11, when the Terrorism Suppression Act that gave rise to the current farce was hastily passed. In the past two parliamentary terms this has continued to accelerate, partly as a consequence of hysteria around — and blurring of — activism and terrorism more generally. The government, by leave of an increasingly punitive and paranoid populace, can now impose disproportionate punishment on certain offenders via the “three strikes” regime, and indefinite “civil” detention of certain offenders. The infiltration of the security and intelligence apparatus into harmless activist groups such as those that agitate for animal rights has been well-documented in recent years. It has gotten to this point despite the fact that (Urewera case aside) the two most significant threats to our national security in the past decade have been an Algerian theologist who now makes kebabs in a food hall on Karangahape Road, and three Catholic pacifists with agricultural implements. The government can now amend or suspend almost any law or enact almost any measure it likes, with immediate effect and without meaningful judicial oversight, in the service of rebuilding Christchurch. There are laws on the books that shift the burden of proof of innocence for some types of copyright infringement from the accuser to the alleged offender. On US urging, the New Zealand police recently undertook expensive, unprecedented and legally risky operations against a foreign national who had apparently committed no serious crimes against New Zealand law, and it now seems increasingly unlikely that the case will amount to anything. The government may now spend beneficiaries’ money for them. They are are moving to require DPB mothers (and their daughters!) to use long-term birth control, and to force them to work when their youngest is just one year old. The latest proposal is to force beneficiaries to vaccinate their children, in violation of the fundamental right to refuse medical treatment. These latter policies of authoritarian sclerosis disproportionately affect Māori, who are already disproportionately impacted by the state’s historical use of its power via colonialism. I could go on, but you get the point: the door to the police state is not yet open, but it is creaking ajar. Those who benefit from opening it do not need agents of the left nudging that door wider for them, but they will gratefully accept it if some are willing to do so.

This is all bad enough in itself, but as well as eroding the norms of what is acceptable, authoritarian sclerosis makes it more difficult to erect robust black-letter or constitutional safeguards against undue exercise of power by the state over its citizens, making it more likely that the norms which are being undermined are all we will be able to rely on in future. Again: be careful what you wish for.

Perhaps more important than all of that, though, is the incentive that the Mulligan creates within the organs of the Crown responsible for implementing the policies outlined above. If you make excuses for underperforming or incompetent agencies, if you cut senior officials slack when they or their subordinates fail to discharge their duties adequately, when they bring into question the good standing of their departments; if you seek to tailor laws and regulations to them rather than requiring them to work within the existing bounds of proper conduct, then you produce agencies which are dependent on special pleading and special treatment. When you select against competence, independence, resourcefulness and strategic thinking by allowing “right-thinking” loyalty and patronage to thrive, you breed pampered inbred poodles reliant on favour from political masters, rather than vigilant, independent watchdogs of civil society.

Multiple layers of dysfunction contributed to the Crown’s failure to convict on substantive charges in the Urewera 4 case. They started with the drafting of the Terrorism Suppression Act, which Solicitor-General David Collins declared “unnecessarily complex, incoherent, and as a result almost impossible to apply”. Court interpretations giving the police permission to undertake surveillance operations that were later ruled illegal also contributed. Police culture and operational capability, and a lack of both strategic and tactical awareness also contributed strongly, and Crown Law’s failure to make best use of the meagre evidence that derived from those preceding actions was merely the last in a long chain of failures.

If you want to make a system stronger, the solution is to genuinely strengthen it, making it better, by having those agencies take their lumps and learn their lessons, by punishing failure and rewarding success; by staffing it with better people, better trained and with greater strategic vision. I want an intelligence/security and police apparatus and a justice system good enough that it doesn’t need to be oppressive to be effective. One that I can trust to keep society safe, and to not persecute me while doing so. That can’t happen if we erect a scaffold of legal or extra-legal privilege beneath the sagging edifice, pretend there’s nothing wrong, and call it a win. It didn’t work for the investment banks, and it can’t work here.

L

* Chief High Court Judge Randerson and Justice Gendall found that the publication had not “caused a real risk” of prejudice, so fair enough. But they also stated that “The breaches of suppression orders and the unlawful conduct of a major news organisation and a senior newspaper editor should have resulted in their prosecution” by the Police, and that the court was “at a loss to understand why these breaches were not prosecuted.” While they raised the point that the penalties for such breaches are risibly small, it’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that the Police were simply reluctant to punish actions that might have helped their case.

** In principle, there is a time for extrajudicial action, for exercise of the reserve powers or of the almost-limitless authority of the sovereign parliament, or for rebellion by the people. Desperate times may call for such measures. These are not such times.

*** For the record: Of course, I did not support the 2005 National party. I am satisfied with the Urewera 4 verdicts since they accord with what I know about the case, though I also would not have been averse to a retrial and an opportunity for them to clear their names more forcefully.

This may sound mean but having bank economists talk about global macro-and political economics on major NZ news outlets is like having pedophiles talking about childcare. Having them speak authoritatively on the “news” skews public perceptions of economic matters towards the preferred constructs of finance capital. Leaving aside the matter of finance capital’s interest in deregulation of capital flows and currency manipulation, using bank economists may be fine when discussing banking take-overs or interest rates in local markets. But there are many other economic interests at play that deserve mention when it comes to issues of political and macro economy and bank economists are ill-suited for a robust discussion of them. To the contrary, their “expert”opinions masquerading as informed commentary in the news media are often poisonous to the integrity of public debate on economic matters.

Is there not a single non-banker economist in NZ who could be used instead? Are all the Economics, Business and Management departments in local universities full of useless PBRF worshippers devoid of real world experience? Are there no economists in research centers, institutes or government agencies who could present a dispassionate and non-vested perspective on the state of global economic play? I find it hard to believe that is the case.

Just saying…

Today the President of the United States of America came out (if that’s the right term) in support of gay marriage. Hours later, The leader of the New Zealand Labour party did likewise. The responses they got could hardly have been more different. Obama’s statement was greeted with a worldwide ripple of excitement; Shearer’s with a localised wave of criticism. Aside from the obvious difference in scale, we can make some sense of the difference in valence by looking at two main factors: the content of their respective messages in political context; and the media and moment in which they were made.

Substance and political context

Allowing for the differences in political context, Obama’s and Shearer’s statements were reasonably similar. Both expressed support for gay marriage in principle, with reservations about implementation. In Obama’s case, the reservations were constitutional. The President can’t unilaterally pass an act permitting gay marriage; it has to go through two federal houses and most aspects of marriage are still, ultimately, determined by the states. Obama’s statement was symbolic and aspirational. First of all, it was a means of defining who he is, politically — a rebuttal of suggestions that he is timid or not liberal enough, and a means of illustrating a sharp distinction between his administration and the caricatured culture-war conservatism of his Republican opponents. It was also an opportunity to reinvigorate the American political left. David Frum said it well:

The statement changes everything because it galvanizes flagging liberal enthusiasm for this president—while subtly corroding even further the Republican hold on the next generation of voters.

(You should read Frum’s whole piece, it’s short and articulates clearly why this was a strategic coup.)

Shearer’s statement was, if anything, less equivocal than Obama’s; he merely said that he “would like to see the detail of any legislation before giving formal support”. In purely rational terms, that’s totally reasonable; nobody signs a blank political cheque. Much of the criticism has centred on the assumption that any such law would be introduced by Labour, so Shearer would not only get to see it but would get to vet it before declaring support. This isn’t really so; Labour are in opposition, and barring extreme exigencies they will be for at least 2.5 years to come. Given the Greens’ long-standing commitment to gay marriage and remarkable success in the member’s ballot, there’s a better-than-even chance that a hypothetical same-sex marriage bill drawn at random would be theirs.* There are plenty of potential pitfalls in such a bill, if badly drafted, and it is reasonable to hold reservations.

Other criticism of Shearer has centred on the argument that Obama’s political context is much more hostile to gay marriage, and his declaring in favour of it constitutes a genuine act of political bravery, while it’s a rather less contentious issue here. Also not entirely fair; of course, that difference in political context exists, but Obama is in power, and (largely due to Republican infighting) in political ascendancy, while Shearer is in opposition and in the doldrums. It is also very unlikely that any gay marriage bill would pass the current NZ Parliament, especially now that social-conservatives like NZ First are back in.

So on the merits, criticism of Shearer for appending this seemingly-innocuous qualifier seems a bit unfair. But there are two better explanations for hostility: first, he misread his medium; and more importantly, he misread the moment.

The medium and the moment

Obama made his statement in a medium and situation that afforded him considerable control over how his message would be transmitted and received, and that enabled him to articulate his position both from a personal perspective and politically. Good Morning America was a sympathetic venue; morning TV is warm and nonconfrontational, on the ABC network even more so than usual. It is not strictly time-controlled and interviewers generally do not play hardball. Its audience is more liberal, more female, and more inclined to respond favourably to expressions of personal warmth and reflection such as this one.

Shearer chose Twitter to make his announcement — the most constrained medium possible, one that permits no contextualisation, no emotional or personal connection. Given his performance to date as leader of the opposition, and the NZ Twitter left’s activist bias, it’s probably also one of the more hostile media open to him. It’s not talkback, but in some ways it’s worse: a lot of people who really want to like you, but are already frustrated and disappointed and are beginning to despair can be a harsher audience than your outright enemies. Twitter also means that you are expected to be spare and to the point, and to only include detail that is significant. By hedging, he signalled that his position was not firm or genuine. The medium is the message, so the inclusion of an obvious redundancy like “need to see the detail” when characters are so limited doesn’t look like understandable prudence, it looks like fuzzy-headed waffly-thinking at best, or political cowardice at worst. David Shearer mistook a platform for slick, aspirational one-liners as the venue for earnest political positioning.

And that leads to the most crucial point of all: Shearer misread the political moment. Obama’s declaration in personal, philosophical terms of his “evolution” from someone who did not support gay marriage to someone who does was a watershed moment, a genuinely epochal event: when the President of the United States of America supports your cause, all of a sudden it looks a lot more like happening. A loud shot was fired in the culture wars; it instantly became global news, and with the news came a wave of liberal euphoria. This was, as Russell Brown noted, the best possible moment to note Labour’s progressive history and rededicate to the goal of marriage equality, but it was not a time for wonkish quibbling about details, or careful delineation of party policy. The moment was one of joy, of celebration, of possibility — of hope and change — and any response had to be congruent with that. Shearer’s wasn’t. The contrast jarred, and made the other, lesser, deficiencies in the message and its presentation more evident.

Substance, context, medium and moment. You can’t really afford to be without any of these, but if you’re trying to catch a wave of public sentiment, you really have to get your moment right.

This is symptomatic of Labour’s ongoing failure to articulate its vision: a lack of mastery of the tools and techniques at their disposal. Shearer’s lack of authenticity and his inability to speak clearly and unequivocally from his own position, that I touched on in my last post on this topic, was depressingly evident in this episode, and it may be that he’s still being tightly managed. A more concerning possibility is that this is the real David Shearer: lacking in virtù, like his predecessor.

But despite everything, I think this was a good experience for Labour — hopefully it has demonstrated to them that sometimes being timid is worse than being silent. If “go hard or go home” is the only lesson they take from today, it will have been worth it.

L

* Hypothetical, because none are in the ballot at present, though I expect that to change soon. Idiot/Savant drafted one some years ago, and it would not be an hour’s work to get it in.

The GC: is this what we’ve come to admire?

datePosted on 10:59, May 4th, 2012 by Lew

After some consideration of my sanity, I watched the first episode of The GC. It was more or less as I expected. I’ll probably never watch another minute of it, but it’s not a show for me. Nor is it a show for all those other high- and middlebrow honkeys (including Mike Hosking, TV reviewers, and 10,000 Facebookers) who are wringing hands and clutching pearls about how it’s empty trash that glorifies superficial extravagance and shallow excess at the expense of what is “real” or “authentic”, how it’s exploitative and demeaning to Māori, or whatever.

There’s some merit in these critiques, and in the complaints about NZ On Air funding, which it seems to have been allocated to a slightly different show than what ended up actually getting made. But ultimately I don’t think it matters. The GC tells us important things, not only about the beaches, bods and booze society it portrays, but the society from which its participants originated. The most legitimate object of critique is not the show, or its cast, but the system that makes such a bizarre phenomenon not only viable, but compelling.

Always bound to be something. Don’t matter if it’s good or not. Mama always said, “finish your kai. Don’t be fussy!”

Tame (pronounced “Tommy”) was talking about aunties, but the statement expresses the main reason many young Māori leave school and go to The GC and places like it in the first place: because they’re places where there always is bound to be something that’s better than nothing; you take your opportunities as they come up, and eventually you’ll be ka pai. Aotearoa, for many young Māori, is not such a place: the release of employment data showing that Māori unemployment is twice the national average will be no news to anyone who’s been paying attention, and the trans-Tasman wage disparity for those who are employed remains broad. If a kid like Tame can roll like a wideboy property investor on a scaffolder’s coin in The GC, and the counterfactual is minimum wage, gangs and prison back home in Timberlea, why not? As Annabelle Lee-Harris, a producer for Māori Television’s Native Affairs, said on Twitter:

Stay in NZ with the other 83 k unemployed youth or go to the GC where everyone has $ and lives in bikinis? Seems like a no brainer #TheGC … You can’t deny Maori have a far better quality of life on #TheGC. It may seem shallow but actually their kids aint gonna get glue ear etc.

Returning to the question: is this what we, as a society, have come to admire? The answer is yes; this is the neoliberal reality in which we all live. The truth is we always did admire it; it’s only the nouveau-riche cosmetics we cringe at. When our hereditary nobles and “real” celebrities live their extravagant, idiotic lives in public we celebrate them. When a bunch of brown kids do it, all of a sudden they’re an embarrassment; they’re abandoning their heritage, dishonouring their ancestors, should get real jobs and get back in their place.

But it’s all very well for snooty middle-class (and, I suspect, largely middle-aged) white folks to peer down their noses and mutter about how much of a shame it is. It’s easy to do when you’ve got options, mobility and capital (both financial and social). It’s easy to do when you’re not forced to choose between keeping your ahi kā burning, staying with your people and trying to preserve (or find) your place in society on the one hand, and earning a decent wage and staying out of prison on the other. It’s all very well to mythologise and romanticise Māori as a noble people, beyond wealth, if you don’t have to live their reality. And the Māori reality is not static. NZ On Air funding was sought and granted to examine aspects of the contemporary Māori reality. If you look beyond the caricature, the phenomenon examined by The GC is an aspect of the contemporary Māori reality. This goes some way to mitigating the criticism. Former TVNZ CEO Rick Ellis was completely serious (if wrong) when he cited Police Ten-7 as a legitimate portrayal of Māori on TV; there are few outside the niche market occupied by Maori Television, and like the shows on that underrated network The GC at least has the benefit of being made by, for and starring Māori. You don’t have to be very cynical to conclude that there’s a racial motive, however unconscious, behind calls for The GC to be cancelled and its funding redirected to saving TVNZ7, which Paul Casserly recently called “Pākehā TV“.

Maybe the “I’ve got mine” flight to material wealth is simply neoliberalism dragging people away from their values and further into its clutches, but at some point it stops mattering. Māori have had enough generations of being told to be patient, to make do, to play nice and they’ll get what’s good for them. Those who do the telling are are far from impartial. How long are Māori supposed to wait for the Pākehā justice system to make things right, to repair the alienation and dysfunction and reverse the discrimination that still affects them? And even when the system does finally deliver, it’s no sure thing: emerging Māori business leaders are mocked as fools when their ventures fail and abused as fat-cat tribal oligarchs when they succeed. As far as Pākehā society is concerned, Māori can do very little right, so the only surprise about the Mozzie phenomenon is that there are still so many young Māori who haven’t given up waiting for the NZ system to work, and set about making the Australian one work for them. We expect them to act in their own self-interest, and we construct economic and political mechanisms to that end. This is our system, not theirs: if you don’t like their rational responses, don’t blame them: blame yourself, and your part in making it so.

L

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