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Some thoughts on Syrian refugees.

datePosted on 16:57, September 4th, 2015 by Pablo

I must be getting soft, but the image of the drowned Syrian child haunts me. Perhaps it is because I have a two year old or perhaps I am just getting sentimental and weepy in my advancing age, but it is doing my head in. I am not going to be the same for having seen it.

I say this because I have watched and read the coverage of the crisis for a while now and like so many others have not only wondered why the EU cannot craft a viable humanitarian response, but have also been struck by the nasty attitude of so many commentators here in NZ as well as in Europe, most of them on the Right, when considering the plight of these godforsaken people. So let me outline my thoughts on the matter.

The Syrian civil war is a man-made humanitarian disaster. Had it been a natural disaster with the same human impact, I doubt that the response would be the same as it is today. It no longer matters who started it, who is involved, who is to blame and when it might end. The people who are fleeing the war are non-combatants whose hand has been forced by events beyond their control. Those who say they have a choice to stay or go are either fools or cynics. That is like saying that a person subject to domestic abuse has a choice to stay or go. Or that a person has a choice to stay or go in a fire. Sure, they could stay but is that really an option? Did that Syrian child and his family really have a choice? Did they deserve their fate for having “chosen” to seek refuge in a supposedly safe part of the world? (the mother and two boys, ages 3 and 5 died; the father survived and has returned back to Kobani to bury them).

When people up stakes, leave most of their material possessions behind and bring their children on perilous journeys to foreign lands to which they have no prior ties and which are culturally alien to them, they are not “migrants.” They are refugees fleeing catastrophe. It does not matter if the catastrophe is human or environmental in nature (and in Syria it has been both). The bottom line is that they have undertaken great risk–in fact, they are risking it all–to flee the country of origin because of a calamity that is no fault of their own. They are refugees seeking safe haven wherever they can find it (which means a place that is stable and economically viable), and any attempt to define them otherwise is not only wrong but viciously inhumane.

Many of those leaving are secular Muslims and Christians who have been targeted by either Assad’s forces, Daesh or both. Many are the bulk of the shopkeeping and white collar service classes whose livelihoods have been destroyed by four years of war. The majority are moderate in their beliefs and political orientation, which is why they (or at least the men) have chosen not to fight. Their children have no educational opportunity at home, much less future careers.  They do not seek passage to Europe to establish a caliphate or even Islamise it. To the contrary, they are fleeing exactly that possibility.

For those who say that they should have “chosen” to seek refuge in Gulf or North African Muslim states, be aware of two things: 1) they are refused at the borders; and 2) they are considered undesirables in any event given their relative secularisation and the fact that they are considered second-class Arabs (as are Palestinians) by many Gulf oligarchies (they very same that are funding and arming Daesh). So that possibility simply does not exist.

Refugees do not choose to leave or where to stay. They may have their preferences but they live at the mercy of others. But that is the operative term: mercy. Along with compassion and empathy, that is what distinguishes open societies from closed ones.  And yet Europe has shown itself closed-minded on the issue in spite of the ongoing tragedy unfolding on their beaches and doorsteps.

Unfortunately, in today’s polarised ideological climate those virtues are disappearing in the West. That includes New Zealand, where Islamophobia and the “greed is good” mantras of the so-called neo-liberal elite have combined to encourage xenophobic, “me first”  “f*** them” attitudes in the population. In spite of the fact that as far as I can tell no Syrian has ever done harm to New Zealand (and NZ has a small Syrian expat community), the National Party and its supporters do not want to increase the country’s refugee quota in the face of this humanitarian crisis. It apparently does not matter that NZ’s international reputation as a humane and open society rests in part on its attitude towards refugee issues. Nor does it apparently matter that as part of the UN Security Council, New Zealand has a diplomatic obligation to lead by example. Or that a broad reading of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine suggests that protection be awarded to those fleeing conflict as well as those immediately subject to it.

Say what you will, the Syrian exodus is a true humanitarian crisis. The people fleeing are refugees, not migrants. The world, or at least that part of it that is open and funded on notions of compassion, empathy and mercy, has a duty of care to them. It is therefore imperative, and a matter of pure humanity, for Europe and other open societies to step up and help the refugees as much as possible. We may ask ourselves why China, Russia and other nations do not heed the call of the desperate. But the fact is that it does not matter whether they do or not. The moral imperative is to ourselves as well as to those in need.

That is why it is despicable for the Key-led government to shirk its responsibilities on this matter. We have the room, the facilities and the community to support an increased refugee quota targeted at the displaced Syrians. The people we accept will be vetted and are highly unlikely to be interested in jihad or Islamisizing the country. If we can spend $28 million on a flag referendum and $42 million on a boat race challenge, then surely we can find some (considerably less) money to cover the costs of their assimilation. And who knows, we as well as they might be the better for it.

To not do something is a sorry indictment of what we have become as a society, and for those in the government that refused to act, their collective shame will last long after they have departed. The bottom line is clear: regardless of partisan orientation the time to act is NOW.

Don’t tase me bro

datePosted on 23:47, August 1st, 2015 by Lew

Police Commissioner Mike Bush on Friday announced that tasers will be deployed for the use of all front-line officers.

The reasoning behind tasers emphasises the taser’s potential for de-escalation — a “less-than-lethal” alternative to shooting someone — sometimes on the basis very limited operational data. In 2009 and early 2010, when the weapons were on limited deployment in Auckland and Wellington, 10 people were tased, prompting then-Commissioner Howard Broad to write: “It’s pretty clear that in several instances, the person could have been shot with a firearm if Taser hadn’t been available.” The wiggle room here is important: several, could.

Technical and cultural problems
In June, science writer Phillip Ball addressed (MP3) the Royal Society of New Zealand on the topic of invisibility, emphasising that while we tend to regard advantages of this sort as technical problems they are, in reality, moral problems: problems of money, power and sex, or all three at once. One might as well say “cultural problems”. The crucial questions are not about what it does, but about how it is used, by whom, for whose benefit, and governed by what norms. This is the same profound observation that underpins restrictions on weapons of mass destruction, landmines and poison gas, why signatories to the Geneva Conventions use full metal jacketed ammunition, and why no nuclear weapons have been used in war since 1945. So it is disappointing, but not surprising, that the discussion around the Police’s deployment of tasers is largely technical, not cultural.

The justification is clearly-articulated: tasers have, the Police say, proven a useful tactical option between OC spray and a firearm. But the evidence is more complex. It is clear from New Zealand Police operational reports that tasers are safe in aggregate — from 2010 to 2014, 87% of situations where a taser was presented were resolved without it being fired, and the injury rate from their use was 1.1%.

How they are used, by whom, against whom
Aggregates do not tell the whole story. More than half of those tasered are Māori or Pasifika, a figure that has remained reasonably consistent, and which matches the overseas experience in the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia — in Queensland from 2010 to 2012, Indigenous Australians were subject to 22.6% of taser use, despite comprising only 3.5% of the Queensland population. People with mental illness are also subject to much higher rates than others — the British Home Secretary says mentally ill people are about 30% of taser victims, and the Queensland Police Service data cited above says 24.2%. We know also that those at the margins of society, with the fewest options and the least access to legal systems and good medical support — including victims of domestic abuse, sex workers, trans people, drug users and homeless people — are also much more likely to be subject to profiling, greater suspicion, and greater threat of violence by Police. Members of these groups are also more likely to suffer from medical conditions such as heart disease and schizophrenia that can elevate the danger of being hit by a taser. Mental health risks are also particularly concerning, given how prevalent mental illness is in members of these groups, often with violence or abuse by people in power as a contributing factor.

Risks are not evenly distributed. Non-white people are overrepresented in crime statistics, and this must explain some of the increased rates of taser usage against them, but the fact that they are overrepresented is itself a function of the economic, systemic and cultural biases that infuse our society. All else being equal, wider deployment of weapons in the hands of the Police is escalation. It means those at the margins get a double-dose of systemic bias: they’re more likely to be selected as a potential criminal, and once selected, they’re more likely to be subject to violence. Those that are subject to violence then suffer greater harm and have fewer options for recovery or redress.

It is surely with this in mind that Emmy Rākete has requested the Police release whatever research they have conducted into the lethality of tasers, and their potential for abuse. Gina Rangi also asked, on Twitter, about Police training in institutional racism, and the monitoring of it in relation to taser usage. We deserve answers to these queries.

Even the presentation of a taser without it being fired is a strong tactical option, including “laser painting” and “arcing”; explicit threats of force. And although injury rates are low, the fact that tasers are regarded as “less-than-lethal” means they tend to be used more readily than “lethal” tactical options, and are apt to be used as a compliance tool, rather than to defend the safety of Police or the public. In New Zealand, about half the time tasers are used against people who are threatening, but not violent towards Police, and according to Amnesty International, 90% of those who died as a result of taser were unarmed and do not present a serious threat. The New South Wales Ombudsman found that one in seven taser presentations was “inappropriate”, including cases of tasers being used on fleeing suspects and people who had already been handcuffed. “Less-than-lethal” violence can still be a heavy punishment.

These risks are all cultural, not technical. No amount of “less-than-lethal” rhetoric or low recorded-injury rates can adequately address these concerns when the factors leading to the decision to use a taser are not subject to the same scrutiny as its final use. Given that context, and absent significant change in the cultural factors, the wider deployment of tasers is not de-escalation, it is escalation.

Displacing firearms or augmenting the existing arsenal
To the extent that tasers displace firearms from frontline Police use, their wide deployment is a good thing, because in spite of everything else, it is generally better to be tased than to be shot. Tasers are less lethal than firearms, they operate at shorter range without such risks to bystanders, and they are equipped with cameras that provide some context to aid inquiry in case of abuse. Firearms do not record the circumstances in which a trigger is pulled — though the technology exists, and its use may grow, along with with the advent of body-cameras. While the last year’s worth of fatal shootings of unarmed black American men by white Police illustrates that technical solutions do not themselves correct cultural problems, the prospect of being charged with murder may prove a deterrent to the worst abuses. To ensure this, New Zealand should provide for the release of taser-cam footage in case of alleged abuse. (The NSW Ombudsman released video of case studies showing abuse of the weapons in that context; some are taser-cam, and some are not. You can watch them here, but be warned; some of it is quite harrowing.)

However, the real trouble with the argument that tasers displace guns isn’t with the claim that tasers are less-lethal than guns, or that they provide better oversight — it’s that that the evidence for displacement is weak, or at best unclear. In New South Wales, firearm presentations by police remained steady at about 800 per year for the three years following the introduction of tasers — while taser usage nearly tripled from 407 presentations to 1,169 over the same period. Similar effects were noted in Canada, where Police have walked back the argument that a taser is a replacement for a firearm:

When the RCMP unveiled plans to equip its Alberta detachments with Tasers in 2002, Sgt. Steve Gleboff told reporters “what we’re trying to do is eliminate the necessity to shoot somebody.” [...] That expectation was wrong, according to the man who trains Calgary police officers to use Tasers. “Use of force experts across Canada right now, we’re kind of shaking our heads going, ‘How did we give the impression to the lay public or the media that Tasers were ever supposed to be a replacement for lethal force?’” said Staff Sgt. Chris Butler. “They were another use-of-force tool in the same regard as the baton, the O.C. spray. Just another tool.”

Given this position — that the taser is not a replacement for a firearm, but an alternative to OC spray and batons — it is clear that wider deployment of a more effective weapon over and above those existing tools, where the ultimate tactical option of firearms does not already exist, means the escalation of violence, not its de-escalation, as a matter of policy.

The limited deployment of firearms is an important difference between New Zealand and the jurisdictions for which good data is available (in Australia and North America), that make these comparisons uncertain. (In the UK, which would be a better comparison, there are strong calls for similar policy.) Given this difference, we may have little to fear — it may be that the deployment of tasers forestalls the routine arming of frontline police for five or 10 or more years longer than it otherwise would have occurred. But as someone pointed out to me on Twitter, the avoidance of hypothetical violence by the application of actual violence also is not de-escalation: you can’t defend giving the Police machine guns on the basis that you have declined to give them tanks as well. The onus is on the Police to demonstrate that their decision to deploy tasers across the force will reduce the use of firearms, and will also be accompanied by more rigorous training and oversight to prevent abuse, and to limit excessive use on the groups who already bear the heaviest burden of Police violence.


This week I attended a talk by Kiwi journalist Yasmine Ryan, currently based in Tunis. Yasmine previously worked for al-Jazeera and now freelances from her Tunisian base. Her talk was about the state of affairs in the Arab world, and more specifically, North Africa.

She had many interesting things to say but I garnered three main points from her talk. First, the the so-called Arab Spring has failed to open Arab politics in any meaningful way. Second, levels of corruption in the Arab world are so high and so pervasive that reform is virtually impossible, especially when foreign interests back the entrenched power elites. Third, state capacity (measured by public infrastructural development, enforcement of norms beyond simple repression and provision of goods and services) is woefully lacking throughout the region, something that contributes to pervasive discontent amongst disempowered groups.

Her bottom line was that although Tunisia is touted as an Arab Spring success story, it is in fact not and yet is the best of a sorry lot of post-dictatorial regimes now governing in North Africa.

As Yasmine spoke, I found myself pondering her use of words. She referred to the Tunisian “revolution” and to the “democratisation” of Arab politics. Her use of these terms reflects standard journalistic practice although she knows well that nothing of the sort has happened in North Africa. Let me explain why.

“Revolutions” properly conceived are popular uprisings that lead to the armed overthrow of the state and the imposition of a paradigmatic change on society under a new political regime in the wake of the overthrow. The first key to revolutionary success is victory over the repressive apparatus, either as a result of combat or because the repressive apparatus switches its allegiances to the new sovereign contenders. The second key to revolutionary success is the scope of paradigmatic change covering political society, civil society and the economic structure of the nation-state. Needless to say, none of this happened as a result of the so-called Arab Spring.

So what did happen? Well, if revolution does not eventuate and democracy does not obtain, then other outcomes are possible. The regime being challenged can use its repressive superiority to reassert its authority and crack down on dissent, thereby quashing the seeds of popular uprising. This occurred in Bahrain, although it took Saudi Arabian troops to help repress the mostly Shiia uprising against the Sunni elite in that country. To a lesser extent it occurred in the 2009-10 election protests and the 2011-12 Arab Spring-inspired “Day of Rage” protests in Iran.

Another alternative outcome is a civil war where the challenged regime is forced into an armed struggle with rebel groups or in which the old regime is overthrown but new power contenders fight each other in order to establish their claim to being the new sovereign. The former is happening in Syria and the latter is happening in Libya.  Iraq is a variation on this, with foreign intervention rather than popular unrest being the gateway (if not cause) for post-authoritarian internecine violence marshalled along sectarian lines.

A third option is for the authoritarian regime being challenged to engage in what is known as a “passive revolution.” “Passive revolution” is where the regime elite adopts cosmetic changes and engages in reform-mongering to appease popular discontent but does not fundamentally alter the power elite or the institutional bases of their power.  One of the cosmetic changes is electioneering rather than democratisation (which involves more than elections and encompasses institutional, social and economic life). This, sadly, is what has happened in Tunisia after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and in Egypt after the respective ousters of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. In both cases the power elite underpinning the ousted authoritarian leaders regrouped under an electoral facade that allowed them to cloak their rule in a mantle of “democratic” legitimacy. In Egypt’s case the scenario had a twist in that Morsi was allowed to become the first freely elected president in Egyptian history, but when his Muslim Brotherhood government pushed its Islamicist-backed constitutional project and Morsi granted himself unlimited executive powers not subject to judicial or parliamentary review, they were deposed in a military coup. The leader of the coup and then head of the Egyptian military, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is now president of Egypt.

However, for a passive revolution to work it must, along with continuing to selectively repress dissent, deliver goods otherwise not obtained by the discontented masses. Be it as a short term or longer term strategy, the passive revolutionary approach is more than political window dressing because it hinges on giving the appearance of progressive change by providing public goods and services, and material benefits, that previously were unavailable. Yet, in Egypt as well as Tunisia, none of that has occurred because of rampant corruption, lack of state capacity, and an absence of economic opportunity under the power elites that ruled before the regime changes and who continue to rule today. What has occurred is the resumption of repression of those who wish to push for a further and more substantive political opening.

This means that the root causes of popular discontent remain unaddressed, which makes the passive revolutionary approach inherently weak. It is akin to putting a sticking plaster on an arterial bleed–it may staunch some short term dissent but it cannot contain the surge of discontent over the long term.

But there is a twist to the story. It turns out that Tunisia has supplied the largest contingent of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. Egypt also has proved to be a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists, and Libya is overrun with them fighting to overthrow the central government in Tripoli. Why would alienated individuals in Tunisia and Egypt opt to join a foreign war rather than continue to fight for progressive political change at home?

I believe the answer is that those who choose to leave to fight for IS or al-Qaeda see the results of the Arab Spring for what they really are: a reassertion of the traditional status quo under different guise. Understanding the impossibility of affecting significant political, social and economic change at home, these disaffected fighters migrate to foreign conflicts in which the enemy is clear (be it the West, Israel, Iran or Shiia Islam in general) and in which their skills in the management of organised violence can be honed for future use at home should they survive combat. Should they not, they will have died for what they believe to be a good cause.

That is the crux of the “returning jihadi” problem. They pose no existential threat to the West or even stable authoritarian regimes (barring an overreaction by the state and society that makes it appear as if there is in fact a “war” between Islam as a whole and the non-Islamic world). They do not pose an existential threat to stable Muslim dominant societies such as Indonesia and Malaysia. But they do pose a potential existential threat to the passive revolutionary regimes in North Africa as well as in failing or failed states such as Yemen, Somalia and/or those in which civil war is occurring (to include Nigeria even if Boko Harum is comprised of indigenous fighters who for the most part have not traveled abroad).

That is why I see al-Qaeda  and the Islamic State as regional rather than global problems–they may have a world wide impact given the decentralised nature of terrorist tactics outside of the Middle East, but their real strategic impact stems from the existential threat they pose to the Middle East itself. After all, even if they use the US, the West, Israel and/or Iran as foils for their violent ambitions, al-Qaeda and IS have their eyes focused squarely on the Gulf petrolarchies as much if not more than they do on any other territorial and political objective.

In the end, it has been the failure of the Arab Spring to deliver on its theoretical promise and popular expectations for real change that has led to the rise of IS and the spreading wave of violent unrest throughout the Arab world. After a moment that promised a thawing of old political structures and the germination of new ideas about the relationship between state and society, the region has proven yet again to be barren ground for peaceful, progressive and lasting social change.

PS: Here is something I wrote in 2011 about Tunisia and other Middle Eastern transitions. Although I do not claim any particular expertise on the Middle East or Arab world, I think that by and large my observations of four years ago have stood the test of time.

Perhaps not yet a Cuba Libre, but an opening nevertheless.

datePosted on 14:55, December 19th, 2014 by Pablo

In a previous life one of the US government roles I played was as co-team leader of the OSD/JCS Cuba Task Force. That was a combined team of officials and officers from the US Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) tasked with exploring contingency scenarios for Cuba, including refugee flows (then ongoing) as well as possible civil unrest and regime transition scenarios in the wake of the withdrawal of Soviet aid to the island nation and the increasingly geriatric nature of its original leadership. My co-team leader was a Cuban American political appointee, with the idea being that my academic experience studying authoritarian regime transitions and knowledge of the Cuban approach to irregular conflict would be balanced by his sensitivity to the domestic political implications of  any moves we proposed to undertake.

Although I cannot reveal much of what we did, I can say a few things about the process that has now led to a normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba.

First, almost everyone in the US government realised that the embargo was a failure. However, the Cuban lobby is on a par with the gun and Israel lobbies when it comes to single issue fixation and willingness to spend money for the cause. This made Cuba a thorny political problem for any US government trying to improve relations with it, as the usual suspects would (and still do) immediately hurl the “soft on communism” and “appeasing dictators” invective as part of their negative electoral campaigning. This placed the issue in the “too hard” basket as far as most politicians were concerned, especially given the myriad of other issues at play and the trade-offs they involved. As a foreign diplomat said in my presence when asked about the US approach to Cuba: “That is a domestic matter, not a diplomatic one.”

Secondly, from the 1980s to the present day, every former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Chamber of Commerce have repeatedly called for an end to the embargo and resumption of full diplomatic relations. One would have thought that the weight of conservative military leaders and the leading business organisation in the US would hold some sway, but in fact their views were trumped by the lobbying efforts described above. Episodic attempts have been made to launch US business initiatives in Cuba (for example, in agricultural machinery), but the legal and monetary costs of circumventing the embargo by using off-shore subsidiaries, etc. simply proved too much given the limited nature of the potential returns.

Third, as of the early 1990s the Castro brothers increasingly delegated authority to second generation leaders, who now have been replaced in large measure by third generation revolutionary cadres (people in their 40s and 50s). In fact, both the Cuban exile community as well as the revolutionary leadership have seen the physical decline of the so-called “dinosaurios” (dinosaurs) and their replacement with younger, often more moderate leaders who were not present during the revolution and who therefore do not all have personal scores to settle stemming from it. My co-team leader was second generation and not fuelled by the rabid thirst for revenge exhibited by many of his parent’s generation (some of whom I got the dubious pleasure of meeting). Now that second generation’s children are coming to the fore. This has opened the door for initiatives focused on normalising relations.

But the issue remains complex. The end of the Cold War and fall of the USSR actually reinforced the view in some US policy circles that an embargo could, given the withdrawal of Soviet aid to Cuba, bring the Castro regime to its knees.  On the other hand, the increase in non-US foreign investment in Cuba after the Cold War (mostly but not exclusively in tourism) was seen by some in the US as making the embargo counter-productive when it came to promoting US business interests in its near abroad. Overlying these views was a persistent belief that Cuba continued to logistically and intellectually support Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups in Latin America (including those that drug trafficked) as well as rogue regimes such as North Korea, Libya, Syria and Iran (to say nothing of Nicaragua and Venezuela). As a result, foreign policy opinion in the US after the Cold War remained very divided on the question of what to do with Cuba given the embargo and rudimentary diplomatic relations.

Yet given the demographic changes mentioned earlier, the question about Cuba the last twenty years has mostly been one of political timing: when is the opportune moment to make the move towards restoring normality to the bilateral relationship? Conventional wisdom on US presidential politics states that only during second terms can presidents get away with bold foreign policy initiatives, and even then they have to be popular and presiding over a strong economy in order to do so (since voters tend to ignore foreign policy issues when their pockets and bellies are full). However, owing to the perverse ideological evolution of the Republican Party, only Democrats would even contemplate doing so after 1990, which meant that it was left to Clinton or Obama to be bold (recall that Nixon opened the relationship with China and Reagan encouraged glasnost and perestroika, even if both Republican presidents did so for self-interested reasons).

I have little doubt that Clinton would have normalised relations with Cuba in his second term if he had not been hamstrung by the Lewinsky scandal, which helped turn the Elian Gonzalez saga into a Republican battle cry (Elian Gonzalez was a little Cuban boy who washed up on US shores in a raft in which his mother died. After weeks of to- and fro-ing between the US government and exiled members of the boy’s family, he was forcibly repatriated to Cuba to live with his divorced father. Sensing that Clinton was wounded by the Starr investigation into Cigargate, the GOP turned the boy’s ordeal into an anti-communist political circus, which effectively ended the quiet efforts Clinton’s administration had initiated with an eye towards opening up the Cuban relationship).

Now it appears that Obama has seized the moment to undertake a little glasnost of his own, perhaps because he senses that he has little to lose given the disloyal nature of the opposition (which will rant and rail at anything he does), perhaps because the US economy is doing well enough for him to feel immune on some aspects of foreign policy even after the adverse results of the midterm elections, and perhaps because, like gay marriage and medical marijuana, the US public has simply changed its views on Cuba over the years.  In fact, it is likely a little bit of each, as the GOP and Fake News blowhards may not want to waste political capital on a dead issue that will gain the GOP no electoral traction. As it turns out, with the exception of some posturing clowns like Marco Rubio and the braying jackasses on conservative media outlets, the reaction from the political Right has been fairly muted.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years. Back when I was dealing with Cuba, the word from their side was that everything was negotiable except for two pillars of the revolution: health and education. That is to say, the vaunted Cuban health and educational systems were sacrosanct and could not be touched in any post-Castro environment. Beyond that, market forces could dictate how Cuba would re-insert itself in the global economy. With an extremely literate, healthy and underemployed work force, it would seem that Cuba would be ideal for any number of value-added export commodity production ventures (textiles and pharmaceuticals have already become targets of foreign investor interest).

The other issue, left unresolved during my time working that beat, was the role of the Communist Party. It is clear that the Cuban political elite have been watching the transitions in the former socialist world, be it the USSR, China, Vietnam or Eastern Europe. They have also watched the experiments in indigenous socialism in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. It is pretty clear that they would prefer to do a China-style transition to state capitalism under one party rule.

The trouble with that preferred picture is that it is only a partial transition, with the political regime remaining largely the same while the economy changes. That may be possible in a huge country like China but is problematic in a small country like Cuba, especially when it is so proximate to a formerly adversarial super power and has a number of expatriates with ideas about Cuba’s future that do not include a dominant role for the Communist Party, much less its continued sole rule.

Thus the conundrum for the second and third generation Cuban Communist Party leadership is whether to embark on a sequential transition (first changing the economy then the political system, or, less likely, vice versa), or  to go all in and mount a simultaneous transition of the economic and political systems. From the standpoint of keeping things peaceful and orderly, the best hope scenario is a sequential transition in which economic change precedes political change. Opening Cuba for business will present a formidable challenge for the Communist Patry, and the social and cultural influences that will come with diplomatic normalisation and economic opening will be hard to contain, much less stop. So whether by design or by the forced pace of change, it is likely that the Cuban political system will open up as a result of the economic transition and its superstructural ramifications.

The key is for the Cuban political elite to realise that the Chinese transition model is not possible for them given the circumstances, and that the days of one party rule will either come to a natural end or be overturned by force. In that light the best thing to do is to prepare a timetable leading up to multiparty competitive elections somewhere down the road, with appropriate guarantees put in place to preserve key revolutionary gains and to safeguard the institutional position of entities like the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).  That will take some doing, and could well take a fair bit of time given the current makeup of the Communist Party leadership (in which Fidelistas still hold significant influence along with Raulistas).

The question remains as to what will happen with the two pillars of the revolution in a market-driven economy. It also remains to be seen as to how Cuban society will respond to the introduction of full market logics on the island. Things like the elimination of food subsidies and introduction of merit-based employment criteria in and outside the public serve could prove painful for Cuban society. It could also lead to  criminal opportunism in what some observers have already characterized as an increasingly amoral and feral civil society no longer wedded to the revolutionary ethos of the original 26th of July movement. If one thinks of where Cuba is spatially located in relation to drug trafficking corridors, the downside possibilities should be obvious.

Even so, the resumption of full diplomatic relations is a welcome development and hopefully followed by a formal end to the US embargo (not a certain thing, given opposition by GOP majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives). There still will be many hard days ahead as Cuba comes to grip with its post-revolutionary future, but at least the range of potential outcomes will be expanded relative to those extant up until a few days ago. As for the US, it demonstrates that sometimes diplomatic face-saving on foreign policy is a waste of energy and the better self-interested choice is to admit mistakes and move on. As the old Korean saying goes: a rich uncle can afford to be generous.

Whatever its motivations, Uncle Sam just was.


Military rule erodes military professionalism.

datePosted on 12:03, September 7th, 2014 by Pablo

One of the important lessons taught by the study of  military dictatorships is that when the military rules as an institution, such as in the case of the military-bureaaucratic regimes of Southern Europe, Latin America and East Asia in the 1960s through the 1980s, organisational professionalism is compromised. Having military officers sitting at desks as Ministers and department chiefs of non-military portfolios keeps them away from the training grounds and deployments in which military leadership is honed and exercised. Having soldiers patrol the streets and suppressing domestic dissent takes them away from the combat tasks that are supposedly their reason for being. Prolonged tenure in government makes both officers and enlisted personnel susceptible to the temptations of unchecked authority, from material corruption to unethical personal behaviour.

The very nature of military organisation is incompatible with governance. Whether it be collegial or Prussian style or some variant thereof, the military is a pyramidal organisation in which orders are passed from top to bottom and duties are delegated without question. There is no cabinet made up of ministerial equals. Instead, there is either one Military Commander or there is a High Command or Joint Staff comprised of similarly ranked chiefs of different armed service branches, and even then there is a first amongst equals. The further down the chain of command the more immediate and tight the degree of control of superiors over subordinates.

The rationale underpinning the organisational ethos and structure is to promote discipline under fire. There is little room for compromise and stakeholder consultation such as that which is the norm for most public agencies. There is no public consultation and few feedback loops other than after action reports and what soldiers tell their superiors in a chain of command. Superimposing a military organisation on the State apparatus may impose discipline (or at least fear) on the public bureaucracy, but the price paid for that is the softening of the military organisation in question.

The situation is compounded by militaries that use foreign peacekeeping missions as a substitute for combat exercises and as a source of remittances (since UN pay tends to be much high than local military pay in most of the world). Whatever dangers exist in peacekeeping, and there are many, keeping the peace is not, nor can it ever be, a substitute for combat training.

When taken together these factors erode the professional competence of the military as an institution. In countries that have military rule and conflicts with neighbours, this is often seen as a sign of weakness by adversaries. After all, pushing pencils and having long working lunches is not quite living like in a tent eating rations in between live fire exercises. Thus, somewhat ironically, prolonged military rule invites attack by hostile states in which the military does not rule and instead focuses on its combat role.

The capture of 45 Fijian Army peacekeepers in the Golan Heights by the Al-Nusra Front is a variant on this theme. The Fijians were part of a detachment that included a similar number of Filipino soldiers. When the al-Nusra rebels surrounded and attacked their jointly held UN outpost, the Filipinos, who have years of experience fighting Abu Sayyaf  rebels in the southern Philippines,  staged an armed retreat that allowed all of them to escape capture. They laid down suppressing fire as they drove their armoured column out of the compound at speed, and prevailed in the firefight occasioned by their escape. They suffered no losses.

The Fijians, on the other hand, although being similarly armed and equipped, surrendered without a shot. They are now waiting “divine justice” at the hands of their al-Nusra captors. Neither the Fijian military nor the military government can do anything about the situation, and instead have to reply on UN negotiators for the safe return of their soldiers. Other than appeals to the captors, the only response evident in Fiji is threats to the local Muslim community made by some Fijian nationalists.

The difference between the two outcomes in the Golan Heights is attributable to relative military professionalism. The Philippines Army does not govern and fights on a regular basis with the Abu Sayyaf rebels. They are battle hardened and disciplined as a result. The Fijian Army, in contrast, has ruled Fiji since 2006. Senior military leaders from the rank of major up have held managerial positions in the civilian administration, and the military spends most of its time engaged in domestic repression rather than training for combat. As part of the sanctions levels against it, Fijian military officers were denied admittance to Western military colleges and the Fijian military does not participate in multinational exercises. In spite of a limited military exchange program with China, the Fijian military has not engaged in the types of corporate training that makes for an effective fighting force against other armed adversaries. Instead, it has sent hundreds of soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions, but this is more due to the domestic importance of remittances from Fijian soldiers to their kin (especially in the villages) rather than securing the benefits of operational experience in conflict zones.

The result is that what used to be considered one of the more professional military organisations in the South Pacific is no longer capable of defending itself when attacked by irregular forces abroad. It lacks the leadership and discipline required to engage in organised violence against such armed opponents because it has spent too much time focused on ruling rather than serving its compatriots.

All of this illustrates the point that, beyond the negative impacts of military rule on society at large, the military as an institution is adversely affected by military rule. This is why “enlightened” militaries that stage coups try to relinquish direct control of government as quickly as they can. But others, perhaps safe in the knowledge that they have no immediate adversaries and enjoying the perks of governance, tend to linger in power. In spite of their lofty nation building rhetoric, the longer they retain power the more likely that the military will begin to lose the combat leadership and soldiering skills essential for survival in battle. And should that military ever find itself in battle, it stands a poor chance of victory when confronting hardened soldiers.

That has been proven sadly true for the Fijian Army in the Golan Heights.

Transitional Dilemmas.

datePosted on 11:20, March 16th, 2014 by Pablo

Military-bureaucratic authoritarian regimes often seek to legitimate their rule and establish a positive legacy by transferring power to elected civilian authorities. However, they do so only under certain conditions and with specific outcomes in mind. One way to ensure that their post-authoritarian vision is adhered to is to run a military-backed candidate (often a retired military leader) as the “official” candidate while actively working to use their control of the election process to promote divisions and disunity amongst the opposition. The way in which the elections are governed and the process leading up to them are used by the outgoing authoritarians to produce a voting outcome that upholds the status quo under elected civilian guise.

In spite of its dominant position in such “top-down” forms of electoral transition, military-backed candidates and/or parties are confronted with several dilemmas that complicate their ability to ensure their desired post-authoritarian outcome. In this 36th Parallel Assessments brief I point out two of them as well as some other political dynamics at play in such scenarios.

Although the analysis is framed broadly, it may be of particular interest to those interested in the elections scheduled for September in Fiji.

Blog Link: The Transition Tango in Fiji.

datePosted on 11:35, October 3rd, 2013 by Pablo

Over at 36th Parallel Assessments I explore some of the dynamics that are and will be key factors in the political transition to free and open elections in Fiji scheduled for mid 2014. Unique circumstances in Fiji notwithstanding, the success of a transition from military-bureaucratic authoritarianism to freely elected government (if not democracy) hinges on some key factors, particularly the interplay between regime and opposition hard- and soft-liners. The essay explains how and why.

Crossing: the flaw

datePosted on 23:35, August 21st, 2013 by Lew

This evening the GCSB Amendment Bill passed its third reading in Parliament, 61-59, despite a desperate last-minute campaign to persuade selected government MPs to cross the floor and vote against the bill.

I’m sure everyone involved would accept it was a long shot, a last-ditch effort after every other challenge had failed. But it shares some faults with the remainder of the campaign, and the left’s political strategy more generally, which has been marked by a lack of coherence and internal consistency, poor targeting, and seemingly more at shoring up support among activists than in extending that support.


The merits of the GCSB issue were thoroughly thrashed out — the main problem is that it is an extremely complex topic about which few people have the expertise to make authoritative claims. Nevertheless, many of those people have made such statements, and the evidence is out there. This has been the strongest aspect of the “Stop the GCSB Bill” campaign more generally: its appeal to evidence.

But this was not a topic upon which government MPs were amenable to evidence. If they had been, they would surely have been swayed by testimony from the Law Society, the Human Rights Commission, and defence, security and IT experts including the former head of the GCSB itself. They were not moved by these appeals to evidence; not even slightly. They simply hold a different opinion on the merits of the GCSB Bill, one that happens to not be supported by the aforementioned experts (no doubt the PM provided another set of experts who gave them a counterview).

This is fundamentally because their motivation for passing the bill is ideological, not policy-oriented. National governments are strong on security. Whether they are or not, it’s part of their brand. They keep people safe, both at the day-to-day criminal level and at the level of transnational crime and terrorism. They are simply not willing to let some liberal bed-wetters prevent them from implementing a security system that better suits their petit-authoritarian worldview.


Calls to cross the floor arose mainly from the left-liberal activist community. The biggest problem with calling on your ideological foes to cross the floor is that they’re your ideological foes. If they cared about what you thought, they wouldn’t be your foes, and they very likely would be amenable to changing their views based on the evidence, or at least to moderating them and cooperating.

But this is war. Not war on terrorism; war on the liberals, who are the real strategic threat to this government, and are ascendant in New Zealand’s left following the success of marriage equality, the continuing strength of the Greens, relative to Labour. In a war, when your enemies offer to parley, it is a sign of weakness, and nobody could mistake left-wing activists begging the Minister of Justice for a vote to sink a key plank of her government’s legislative agenda as anything other than a sign of desperation. In a war, when your enemies offer to parley, you only accept if you can’t crush them, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women. Hard ideological power is rarely vulnerable to moral suasion.

Trying to persuade individual MPs to betray their cause from a position of such ideological and strategic isolation was never likely to have any effect other than to harden their resolve, and to increase pressure on them from within their party to toe the line. In particular, given the vitriol to which certain MPs — notably Peter Dunne, hilariously regarded as being the most likely to switch — have been subjected in recent months, a sudden switch to flattery and appeals to better nature was simply incoherent and too jarring to be credible. Even a dog, if mistreated, will bite when petted. The fact that so much abuse continued even after the charm offensive began made it doubly ineffective.

In many ways this was a concentrated version of the overall strategy of moral and evidence-based persuasion: because support for the bill has been framed in a partisan way, there’s little point in convincing your own side. The task is to convince people who, for the most part, like John Key and trust his government that they are neither likeable nor trustworthy. It’s a hard thing to do — but doubly hard when your cause gets occupied by the Occupy movement, a point that Pablo made in one of his many excellent posts on this topic recently.

Target selection

Nine MPs were selected. Not to say that there were any actually good targets, but the selections misunderstand each MP’s place within the government machine.

The most obviously-idiotic target was Judith Collins, the Minister of Justice and probably the toughest authoritarian in government, including Key himself. Converting her was simply never a happening thing. National party newcomers Paul Foster-Bell and Claudette Hauiti were almost as laughable, given that their political careers exist only at the pleasure of the party.

Peter Dunne was probably the best target six months ago, except that he has since been subject to the greatest amount of vitriol over this issue. His relationship with the government has also been weakened recently, a bond he needed to renew, which he has.

John Banks, although personally of a nature similar to Collins, is vulnerable to his party machine which could possibly have been talked around — but the activist left thinks of him (and it) as being beyond liberal redemption, in spite of his voting in favour of marriage equality.

The others (Sam Lotu-Iiga, Melissa Lee, Jami-Lee Ross, and Nicky Wagner), were no worse than anyone else in the party.

Who do you love?

The only thing that gives a non-delusional Prime Minister in this data-driven age the sort of swagger John Key has is the knowledge that the polls are solid. There have been a few public polls: Research NZ; ONE News/Colmar Brunton; 3 News/Reid Research and most recently Fairfax/Ipsos.

Campbell Live’s unscientific, self-selecting plebiscite is barely worth a mention. So of these polls, only the last gives anything like a picture of an electorate that is closely engaged with this issue; it tells us three-quarters of New Zealanders do care about the GCSB Bill. But 75% on its own means nothing. Polls told us that 80% of the electorate opposed asset sales, and look how that worked out. This poll also tells us how much they care, and the answer is: only 30% are very concerned, and 25% aren’t concerned at all. More than half trust the government to “protect their right to privacy while maintaining national security”.

Key and his government will have much better polling than this, and broken down by party allegiance, too, and that’s important — Key would be perfectly happy to alienate 30%, or even 40% of the population as long as they’re all committed Labour and Green voters, and more than half overall still basically trust him. Key said people were more interested in snapper quotas than the GCSB bill, and he’s probably right — if you read that as “people who might actually vote for him.”

What was the performance in aid of?

The major effect of this campaign was to give the activist community something to believe in, a sense that they were Doing Something, rather than just sitting there while their freedoms got gutted. It was very much attuned towards focusing existing opposition, rather than towards expanding that opposition. (This was true to a lesser extent of the public meetings and mass rallies, which effectively church services, but these did also have an important role in disseminating evidence and bringing the discourse into the mass media).

The effect has been clear: there has been no effect. While opinion polling for the left has picked up in the last few days, it remains to be seen whether this will persist.

Although this one was poorly-executed I also don’t think a “cross the floor” campaign was necessarily a bad idea. Theatre matters. Morale matters. For all the criticism, there are many positives here. One is that people have gotten angry — even if it’s only a relatively small cadre of activists, that’s something we haven’t really seen much of recently. And there are some signs the discord may spread further (though not much further, as yet).

But while Do Something campaigns can be worthy in terms of making people feel better about losing, that is often all they are good for. They are often not very effective in terms of actually winning. This campaign worked well as a salve, but as far as effectiveness goes it was badly framed and focused on the wrong objective. It was both too partisan to draw in broad support from across the ideological spectrum, and then, later (once its ideological hostility was confirmed) began to treat the government as only a semi-hostile force that might be reasoned with. A less-ideological campaign to begin with, hardening into a more rigorous strategy as it became clear that the government would remain intransigent would likely have been more effective if it could have been stitched together (admittedly a big if).

Further, focusing on the bill’s passage was unrealistic. It was a fair enough interim goal, but more realistic is to focus on the repeal of the bill — now act — when Labour and the Greens are next in government, and to use it as a lever to assist them into government. Good progress has been made towards this as well, especially in securing what seems to be solid assurances of repeal from Labour, whose prior form on civil liberties has been very mixed.

What remains to be seen is if those involved can maintain momentum for another year. If they can, and this kicks off a 14-month campaign season, then it will have been a triumph, in spite of its tactical failure.


El Chavismo sin Chavez.

datePosted on 12:23, March 6th, 2013 by Pablo

I am sure that there will be plenty of eulogies, some fawning and some harsh, for Hugo Chavez. Since I spent a good part of my academic career writing about Latin American politics, to include the nature of national populists such as Chavez and a bit about his regime itself, I am well aware of his shortcomings and strengths. It is in the nature of national populism to be redistributive, mass mobilizational and increasingly authoritarian. As a left-wing variant, the Chavez regime was all of those things, and the fact that the US supported the 2002 coup against him only cemented the increasingly authoritarian direction of the regime. But his authoritarianism was mass rather than elite-based, and it was this mass support that carried him through three terms and four elections. He was no tin pot despot. His rule was a bit more complicated than that of, say, Robert Mugabe, who took a popular national independence movement and turned it into an armed clan-based kleptocracy.

The Achilles heel of national populism is the personalist nature of executive rule. Peron, Vargas, Cardenas and Chavez–all increasingly concentrated power in their own hands, thereby removing institutional checks and balances as well as clear lines of authority and succession. That could be the undoing of the Boliviarian experiment.

After the 2002 coup Chavez purged the military and civilian state bureaucracy of professionals and populated the upper ranks with acolytes. This decreased the efficiency and capabilities of state agencies, both armed and unarmed. He increasingly relied on Cubans for behind the scenes leadership of his internal security services, including his personal bodyguards. He played divide and conquer with his parliamentary counterparts at the same time that he re-jigged the constitution to increase the length of his presidential terms as well as the electoral prospects of his political party. He populated the judiciary with supporters and increasingly restricted freedoms of public expression and the press. He trained and armed supporter militias organized along the lines of the Cuban Auto-Defense Committees. Some of these have been accused of intimidating and assaulting members of the political opposition.

He used inclusionary state corporatist mechanisms of interest group administration that bestowed favor and patronage on supportive groups and excluded or punished non-supportive groups (which thereby polarized civil society organizations). This allowed for top-down direction of the thrust of state policy and funding directed at civil society, but it also gradually surpressed independent and autonomous expressions of grassroots interest.

All of this was justified on the grounds that he faced a disloyal opposition aided and abetted by hostile foreign powers, the US in particular. Although there is an element of paranoia in those claims, there is also a large grain of truth to them. The hard fact is that just the appearance of socialist inclinations on Chavez’s part sent the US into knee-jerk opposition, something that was particularly acute under the Bush 43 administration and was not undone once Obama was elected.

Chavez did much good for Venezuela, particularly in the fields of health, education, welfare and community organization. During his time in power infant mortality rates dropped and literacy rates increased dramatically. The percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty dropped from 50 percent to below 30 percent in ten years. Rural hospitals and schools were built where there previously were none. His regime kept the price of domestic petrol cheap (as it could as a major oil-producing and refining nation), which allowed the poorest segments of the population to weather rises in the price of imported commodities.

In spite of the claims of his detractors, he won four elections handily and relatively cleanly in the eyes of most international election observers. His tenure marks a major historical moment in Venezuelan life, and his legacy will be indelible on it. Whatever his authoritarian tendencies, he was no Pinochet or Somoza. Although his regime selectively repressed the opposition, it did not systematically torture or kill. Nor did it expropriate all private wealth, although it did seek to raises upper-income taxes, nationalize some strategic assets and prevent capital flight via financial controls. Needless to say, this earned him the emnity of Venezuelan elites and their foreign supporters.

He was a close ally of the Cuban regime, but given the common hostility of the US, that was born as much out of necessity than it was out of ideological affinity (truth be told, Raul Castro always thought of Chavez as a buffoon but Fidel was flattered by his attention and both were grateful for his cheap oil supplies. The Cubans worried that he would provoke a confrontation with the US that would suck them in and destabilize them).

He expanded Venezuela’s diplomatic, economic and military relations (towards China, Russia and Iran in particular, but also with other Latin American states) so as to counter-balance the traditional US-focused obsequiousness of his predecessors. He was the motor force behind the solidarity market Latin American trade bloc known as the Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which among other things rejected IMF and World Bank financial prescriptions. He had  significant Latin American popular and governmental support, which was mirrored in international media coverage.

He is alleged to have cultivated relations with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

He presided over the deterioration of Venezuela’s core infrastructure, to include its oil production facilities (in which foreign investment dried up in response to his nationalization policies), as well as a dramatic rise in violent crime (Caracas has one of the highest murder rates in the world). He did not stop corruption but merely shifted it in favor of those who wear red berets. Venezuelan consumption of Scotch whisky, already the highest in the world when he assumed power in 1999, increased steadily from then on. He was unable to curb the Venezuelan obsession with female plastic surgery and beauty queens. So not all is well in the Boliviarian Republic. I shall leave it for others to debate the trade-offs involved and the pros and cons of his regime.

On balance, in the Latin American scheme of things Hugo Chavez was a relatively moderate caudillo (strongman) with a staunch independent and redistributive streak and majority popular support until the end.

The real problem at the moment is that his movement has no natural leader to succeed him. Moreover, he was the ideological glue of the regime: it was his vision, his praxis, the drew the course of events. With him gone the ideological basis of the regime is subject to interpretation by contending personalities and factions within the Boliviarian movement. His designated Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, has no independent power base, much less broad support within the Party. He has a serious rival in Diosdado Cabello, a former Army colleague of Chavez’s who is the head of the National Assembly. Cabello has support within the military, whereas Maudro’s support comes from within the union movement and public bureaucracy. Yet neither is visibly stronger than the other, so the backroom maneuvering and in-fighting has begun in earnest (and in fact began when Chavez returned to Cuba for surgery last December).

To this can be added the opposition, which rallied around the figure of Henrique Caprilles Radonski in the October 2012 elections that saw Chavez elected for the fourth time. A presidential election is supposed to be held 30 days  after the public announcement of Chavez’s death (March 5). Riding a wave of grief, unity and solidarity, Maduro is the favorite to win that election if he is a candidate. It will be interesting to see if Maduro can maintain his grip on power before or after the elections in the absence of support for his mandate, however electorally affirmed. One thing is certain: Maduro is no Chavez, and everyone knows that.

Caprilles might not run in the immediate elections so as to delegitimize them and allow the Boliviarian in-fighting to proceed unimpeded and without a common political enemy to focus on. Whatever happens over the short-term, the bigger question is whether the Boliviarian experiment can outlive its creator. Can there be Chavismo without Chavez? Given the dynamics at play within and without the Boliviarian regime, the odds are not entirely favorable.

For the time being we will be treated to the grand spectacle of a Venezuelan state funeral, where the streets will be awash in red and the dignitaries will include a who’s who of US adversaries and critics, Hollywood leftists and very few heads of state from the developed capitalist world. As for Chavez–will his afterlife smell of sulphur or of something more pleasant?

Double impunity

datePosted on 23:18, August 15th, 2012 by Lew

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has been said by the Director of the Office of Human Rights Proceedings, Robert Hesketh, to have breached the privacy of Natasha Fuller by making private information about her public in 2009.

Bennett does not accept Hesketh’s “opinion”; in a letter released by Hesketh she expressly states that “I do not believe I have breached privacy.” Moreover, she goes on to explain that she still considers such a strategy — of releasing private, confidential information about a member of the public to make a political point — to be perfectly legitimate.

And, really, why the hell wouldn’t she? It worked. Not only has she not been found to have done anything wrong, but she has suffered no consequences for those actions. No sort of reprimand has been issued, nor obeisances levied. Hesketh’s “opinion” — with which the minister is free to disagree upon no grounds whatsoever — is not in any way binding, and as such, has exactly as little value as mine. All soft speech and no big stick. It has taken three years and change to get to the point where the massed battalions of our much-vaunted system of civil liberties have been able to issue nothing more robust than a statement that the situation has been resolved “to the satisfaction of all parties”, apparently notwithstanding the stark disagreement between the positions of Hesketh and Bennett.

In a political environment where ministers are required by their leader to employ whatever means they can get away with to achieve their KPIs, we can’t really blame Bennett for doing so. She has proven extremely adept at this sort of machine politics, running decoy lines when other, less-adept, ministers find themselves in trouble — the most recent example of which having also emerged today: that there really was no clamour from employers to drug-test beneficiaries. So we can’s blame Bennett; she’s just following the incentives. Similarly, we can’t blame John Key — after all, his ministers are getting results, and his polling is holding up, so he’s just following the incentives as well. I do not know their mandate, but we may be able to lay a certain amount of blame at the feet of bureaucrats like Robert Hesketh. However, given Bennett’s and Key’s demonstrated ruthlessness, perhaps such a supine position is understandable. Had he caused too much trouble his office might have been gone by lunchtime, or redeployed to some higher-priority task like finding technical justifications for Special Tactics Group action against Kim Dotcom.

But regulatory or statutory means are weak when it comes to punishing ministers for their misdeeds. Since procedural decisions governing what action could and would be taken against a minister in such as case are themselves determined by ministers, the Iron Law comes into play: Unless forced, a Cabinet will never implement measures that might seriously constrain it. The main function of regulatory recourse, then, is not to impose actual, “hard” strictures on members of the executive, but to provide their opponents with opportunities to attack them, either on political or ideological grounds, or on grounds of character or competence. These are “soft” constraints on behaviour, in that they are normative rather than objective, and they rely on tactical factors and on a high degree of competence and tenacity — as well as measures of opportunism and ruthlessness — on the part of opposition politicians. Impunity that arises from hard constraints as I’ve discussed here, and as Pablo has written about previously, is unfortunate but understandable; the lack of soft constraints is less so. Bennett has not suffered any consequences of her actions because she has not been made to suffer them by the only group that might viably do so: the New Zealand Labour Party.* So I return to an argument I’ve made before: the government gets away with all this is because the opposition lets it. In this case, Bennett took a calculated risk and released information in a way that nonpartisan experts consider to be obviously unethical and an abuse of her position. She didn’t even calculate it very hard — she took no official or expert advice before releasing Natasha Fuller’s private information, she just knew she could get away with it. Not only did Paula Bennett enjoy the ordinary sort of impunity that comes from being a minister of the crown, she also knew that she enjoyed the double impunity of being virtually unopposed at the political level.

She had good grounds to know this. The Labour party, even as far back as mid-2009, had been so dysfunctional and so ineffective for so long that it could hardly come as a surprise. How many times, over the past five years, have Labour supporters seen some egregious outrage from the government and thought, “this time — surely even this lot can’t screw things up! If they can’t make the government pay for this, they don’t deserve to win!” I know I have written these sentiments many times, and spoken them aloud countless more.

And yet they keep failing. As long as they keep failing, these outrages will still happen. Even if not for its own sake, Labour owes the people of New Zealand a duty of competence that it is not currently fulfilling.


PS: Given this result and Bennett’s refusal to rule out such actions in the future, here’s a handy thing that Anita wrote at the time, expressly forbidding Bennett or anyone else from releasing our, or your, information for such purposes.

* But what of the Greens? I hear you ask. And fair enough — the Greens have in many ways been doing a better job of being a functional opposition than Labour have. But the Greens cannot apply direct zero-sum electoral pressure on National — they cannot hope for parity, and they cannot threaten the Treasury benches. The Greens are important as a source of pressure on Labour, but only Labour can pressure National.