Archive for ‘Authoritarianism’ Category

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.

Something to read: Rise of the neo-crusaders

datePosted on 19:58, July 25th, 2012 by Lew

I have been very scarce, again, and I will continue to be for at least a couple of weeks. In addition to cyclical work commitments that take up all my thinking and writing energy, my daughters have recently had some serious and complicated medical issues. We’re all fine, but it’s been enough to shunt this blog well down my priorities. Thanks again to Pablo for keeping things ticking over.

The anniversary of the Norway massacre has passed, and I wanted to write something about it; particularly about how the trial has shaped discourses of nationalism and extremism there and elsewhere.

I haven’t, but DeepRed has probably done better than I could on his own blog, Kumara Republic. I highly recommend you read it here: Rise of the neo-crusaders. His post covers some of the ways the extreme right has reconfigured itself in recent decades, and some of the ways in which its members attempt to distance themselves from, while not really distancing themselves from, Anders Behring Breivik and his actions. A good read.


Managing Policy Fade.

datePosted on 14:47, July 19th, 2012 by Pablo

A conversation with Lew and Selwyn Manning prompted this rumination. It is not meant as a comprehensive organizational analysis but instead as food for thought, using the case of the UN and Fiji after the 2006 coup to outline a phenomenon known as “policy fade.”

Deployment of Fijian soldiers and police as UN peacekeepers after the 2006 military coup in that country is a good example of policy fade, in this case undertaken by the UN. Initial calls for and threats of Fijian suspension from all UN peacekeeping operations never materialized and Fijian involvement in UN-sanctioned armed multilateral operations increased after 2007. Suspension from international organizations such as the Commonwealth and Pacific Island Forum (which included prohibitions on Fiji participation in PIF-sanctioned multilateral armed peacekeeping operations), the halting of foreign aid from the EU and Asian Development Bank, and travel sanctions on officials in the Bainimarama government by Australia and New Zealand were not matched by the UN when it came to peacekeeping. Instead, the UN’s course of action has been marked by non-enforcement of the measures called for by the original policy statements made immediately before and following the 2006 military coup. Along with other circumventions, the UN policy fade allowed the Fijian military to defy the sanctions regime imposed upon it.

Policy fade is the process of putting distance on an initial policy position. There are several ways to back away. Here the focus is not on policy retreats or complete back downs imposed by adverse externalities or changes of mind on the part of policy-makers.  Instead, the emphasis is on types of managed policy fade initiated from within a political organization.  It can accompany policy softening, which is the modification of policy along its margins without removing the original intent.  Managed policy fade is about instituting a controlled move away from failed, unpopular, embarrassing or non-enforceable policy without losing credibility (or face, or honor).

There are several ways with which to manage policy fade. The issue can be ignored over time so that it disappears from the public eye. It can be re-defined so as to diminish its visibility, divert attention away from it or to give credence to a change in approach.  It can be deferred and/or delayed so as to encourage historical amnesia.  The process of policy fade can involve combinations of these approaches. In all cases the intent is to remove the policy issue from public scrutiny in order to eventually abandon or change the original approach.

The UN used the delay-and-defer approach to the subject of Fiji’s peacekeeping role. Kofi Annan’s originally strong language on the consequences of the coup was qualified by his successor Ban ki-moon.  Annan made his statements in October 2006, prior to the coup and during the last three months of his term as Secretary General. Confronted with a lack of votes in the Security Council in favor of a resolution ordering Fiji out of peacekeeping duties and not wanting to risk aggravating rifts in the General Assembly over the issue very early in his term, Ban delayed following up on the promises of Annan and others to that effect. He also deferred the issue to his underlings.

In April 2007 Ban called for a study of the impact a peacekeeping suspension would have on Fijian society as well as the regime. As is well known, service in UN peacekeeping operations is a major source of pride for the Fijian military, which can hone professional skills and maintain espirit d’corps while contributing to domestic stability via remittances from its soldiers abroad. The study was designed to identify the tangible costs of a suspension beyond diplomatic isolation. Its results have never been disclosed. Meanwhile Fijian peacekeepers continued to serve in UN missions and at present constitute the largest source of soldiers for the UN peacekeeping mission in Iraq. It appears that the UN decided the benefits of having Fiji continue to be a contributor to peacekeeping operations outweighed the illegality of its military regime, and simply never admitted to that calculation in public.

The delay-and-defer approach relies on news cycles and diminishing public interest to be effective. If the media and/or public focus continues to bring attention to the issues involved, then policy fade becomes more difficult to implement. On the other hand the press of events means that media and public attention spans are often limited, making the policy fade process possible once the glare of scrutiny is off.

Since 2006 the UN’s and global public attention has shifted elsewhere. That reduced the importance of a possible suspension of Fijian peacekeepers as a UN policy priority. The subject of suspending Fiji from participating in UN peacekeeping operations was consequently dropped from public statements and a quiet accommodation was made with the Fijian authorities that sees Fijian military and police continuing to serve in blue helmet missions abroad (the use of Fijian military and ex-military by private security companies was not effected in any event).  When 36th Parallel Assessments recently questioned the UN about the ongoing presence of Fijian troops in UN peacekeeping missions despite the original talk about suspension, the response was to admit that no suspension was authorized and decisions on Fijian participation in peacekeeping operations are taken on a case-by-case basis.

Although it contravenes the intent of the sanctions regime imposed by other international organizations and individual countries, continued Fijian participation in UN peacekeeping operations may be seen as a way of showing goodwill towards, and exercising some diplomatic leverage on, the Bainimarama government as it moves towards re-scheduled elections in 2014. In fact, an increase in Fijian troop contributions to UN missions in 2011-12 coincides with the suspension of the state of emergency in place in Fiji since 2009 and commencement of the voter registration and constitutional consultation process leading up to the 2014 vote.

After 2007 Australia and New Zealand remained silent on the issue of Fijian troops on UN peacekeeping missions even though it demonstrates the futility of their bilateral sanctions against the military regime. Instead, they also have engaged in policy fade, in this case of the “ignore it and it will go away” variety. Knowing that there are more important issues to address and not willing to enter into a public argument with the UN peacekeeping division or be embarrassed in the Security Council and General Assembly when both are contemplating bids for temporary membership on it, Australia and New Zealand cast a blind eye on the continued use of Fijian peacekeepers by the UN even though in some cases (Sinai, Syria) their soldiers serve side by side with Fijians.

In both countries public disinterest or ignorance of the state of play surrounding the bilateral sanctions regime has helped governments to ignore the issue in public while concentrating on other priority policy areas and allowing relations with Fiji to be handled quietly, both directly and in multinational fora.

Given the diplomatic lifeline thrown to the Fijian regime by the UN with regards to its involvement in peacekeeping, the overall sanctions regime imposed on it was porous. However, it also provided a stick to complement the UN carrot, and the uncertainty of the UN case-by-case approach to Fijian peacekeeping ensured that the Bainimarama government could not rest entirely easy with regards to its diplomatic status or that of its blue-helmeted troops in the field.

The task now for Australia, New Zealand and other international agencies is to gracefully move away from their respective hardline stances towards something more accommodating of the Fijian regime. This can be tied to the gradual (and continued) opening of the Fijian political process as the date of elections draws closer, and could involve incremental lifting of sanctions and resumption of fuller diplomatic relations or practical engagement with the Fijian state on the part of those currently employing sanctions against it. The US, Russia, India and PRC already give full bilateral diplomatic recognition to Fiji, so large international organizations can take the lead in following their example in return for continued progress towards the 2014 ballot.  Should that happen, then Australia and New Zealand can re-consider their stance on travel sanctions with some decorum.

However it is couched, the ineffectiveness of the international sanctions regime in the face of the UN policy fade on Fijian peacekeepers made necessary policy fade on the part of other actors. The fade process on the original international sanctions policy is transiting to the redefining phase, something that should be evident in policy pronouncements on Fiji by the international sanctions coalition over the next year.


A different version of the essay appears as an analytic brief at

Assad Channels Videla.

datePosted on 12:21, June 4th, 2012 by Pablo

Bashar Assad has likened the civil war in Syria to a surgeon performing messy emergency surgery. Much blood is spilled but it is in the best interest of the patient’s survival that it do so. In this case the patient is purportedly Syria (but in actuality the Alawite regime), and the surgery is required because of the gangrenous actions of foreign-backed “terrorists” and extremists.

That comment brought back some unhappy memories. On March 24, 1976 the military dictatorship known as the “Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional” (Process of National Reorganization) was installed in Argentina. Over the next seven years it killed over 30,000 people and tortured, imprisoned and exiled at least that many more. It refined the concept of “disappearing” people without a trace (although it was later revealed that many of the disappeared were sedated and dumped from aircraft over the South Atlantic). It was a very bad moment in Argentine history, and the psychological and social scars of that sorry time are still evident to this day.

Assad’s surgical analogy struck an unpleasant chord with me because that is exactly the language used by the “Proceso” to justify its actions. In one of its first proclamations the Junta spoke of the need to rid Argentina of the “malignancies” of subversion, economic instability, social disorder and moral decay, and that in order to do so it would have to “extirpate without anesthesia” the cancers afflicting the Argentine body politic (on this see “Acta fijando el proposito y los objectivos basicos para el Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional,” Republica Argentina, Boletin Oficial, 29 March 1976 and Republica Argentina, Documentos basicos y bases politicas de las fuerzas armadas para el Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional. Buenos Aires: Junta Militar de la Nacion, 1980). It seems that when it comes to “organic” parallels between the state and society, Arab and Argentine dictators think alike.

It might behoove Mr. Assad to remember the fate of his Argentine counterparts. Their regime collapsed under the double-barreled weight of popular unrest and foreign conflict (the Falklands/Malvinas War, which was staged by the Junta as a diversion from its internal problems). The generals who commanded that regime were all eventually tried and convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, where several have died. Argentine justice certainly was not swift or completely fair, but in the end the self-professed “surgeons” were found guilty of homicidal malpractice rather than lauded as the triage medics of the country.

Assad has that double-barreled weight now resting upon his regime. His conflict is internal rather than external, but the involvement of external actors is substantial and not limited to UN proclamations, jihadist infiltration or covert military assistance to the Syrian Free Army. He is therefore well on the path to following his Argentine counterparts down the road to collapse and overthrow, and it is now more a question of whether he will die in a prison cell or on the street rather than if he will fall. After all, once the dictator starts talking about emergency surgery on the body politic, it may be the case that he is the worst tumor of them all.

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.


* 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.

Showing The Money versus Making Numbers Work.

datePosted on 17:33, May 3rd, 2012 by Pablo

That simple phrase “make the numbers work” catches John Key’s approach to the perennial tension between efficiency and transparency in a democracy. To simplify things, it can be said that the more democratic and transparent the policy process, the less efficient it becomes. That is because the more actors are involved in policy decisions, the more likely that additional decisional sites and veto points will be placed in front of policy choices. They key is to find an appropriate balance between efficient policy formulation and implementation and open participatory representation by all potential stakeholders. If forced to choose, democrats err on the side of representation. Authoritarians prefer efficiency.

The corporate world has no objective need for balance. What matters are balance sheets in the black. Firms are structured so that decision-making is hierarchical rathe than horizontal, with decisions flowing from the top rather than as a result of inputs from the bottom or from external parties. Managers rule, workers obey, and shareholders or owners reap profits. Given the sensitivity of any given project, public consultations might be invited and consideration might be given to mitigating factors that impinge on profitability, but the bottom line is that the numbers work in favor of owners, investors and share-holders.

John Key came from (and is likely to go back to) such a world. In fact, with a personal net worth of around $60 million he is a small time member of the “Masters of the Universe:” the network of financial elites (stock brokers, money managers, currency traders, hedge fund administrators and bankers) built up in the 1990s and headquartered in London, New York, Geneva, Hong Kong and Singapore who made the calls on how global liquid assets should be invested. Theirs is a world of numbers, not morality or ethics, and their worth to the network was and is their ability to make the numbers work when constructing investment deals. They answer to themselves and their clients without regard to the public interest because, quite frankly, they are interested in private gain rather than the public good.

With that in mind the self-styled CEO of NZ Inc., John Key, advised himself that changing gambling laws so that SkyCity can have another 500 slot machines in return for building a convention centre on adjacent land at no tax payer expense was a neat deal that was in both the private and public interest (the public presumably being interested in the tax revenues and ancillary benefits that will accrue from having the convention centre up and running, which is a whole different story). By that logic the numbers work.

In order to come to this conclusion, however, NZ’s self-styled CEO had to ignore the counsel of the Auckland City Council, local iwi, problem gambling-related mental health organizations, the Police, traffic authorities, tourism operators and a host of other potential stakeholders (I mention these because the proposed site of the convention centre involves a myriad of urban planning considerations and is only handy to the Casino and not to the Viaduct, Cloud, Winyard Quarter, Ponsoby, Newmarket or other entertainment districts that depend on tourists). When I say “ignore” I mean that he chose not to solicit advice from any of these parties rather than turn his back on advice already given. Mr. Key’s self-advice also told him to order an end to all other tenders once SkyCity got involved, some of which might have contained the input from non-investor interested parties such as those mentioned above. But as a minor Master of the Universe why should he bother with pretenders and outsiders when he could seal the deal with SkyCity for a small change in an industry-specific law? The Hobbit saga taught him that allowing non-investors to have a say could well kill the deal, so this time around he made sure that negotiations were kept quiet.

Clearly Mr. Key is a man who understands numbers and efficiency. But perhaps he spent a bit too much time in Singapore, where public input into policy decision-making is inconsequential to the point that it is not even considered even when it comes to large public works projects (such as the expansion of the MRT train lines currently underway, which have displaced thousands without any input from them and with compensation determined not by market value but by government fiat). In Mr. Key’s world he does not have to waste time and money listening to the blather of a host of obstructionists and self-interested losers (because, after all, he only deals with winners). He is there to crunch the numbers and do the deals. In the pokies-for-convention-centre trade he has done so, efficiently.

No wonder it is rumored that he is tiring of the job. Here he is, cutting deals and helping commercial players make serious money just like in his good old days in the private sector. But now he has to put up with ex-post whingers and other plebians who all want a voice without a full command of the power of numbers. Plus, he is surrounded by career politicians who for the most part could not make a buck even if they won lotto, and the opposition is nothing more than a bunch of special interest namby-pambies who would not get past the lobby of his former corporate headquarters. Why should he stick around and have to listen to their nonsense about addiction, traffic and other social costs?

You have to feel for Mr. Key. Once he was in the stratosphere, unaccountable to anyone but his corporate masters and the private interests that they served. He made money off of money without having to add value or increase production anywhere, and he got rich doing so in part because he made his name in an authoritarian country in which numbers, not people, matter most. Now he has to smile and wave to a bunch of provincial hicks self-absorbed in some weird Antipodean PC navel-gazing where everyone has a say and little gets done.

Then of course there is John Banks, and how he reads the numbers. For Mr. Banks the deal is not about making public and private numbers work. It is about private interests showing him the money in order to advance his political fortunes. Whereas Mr. Key was looking for a way to balance a specific private actor’s desire with a vague public interest (again, assuming that a convention centre adjacent to SkyCity is in the public interest), Mr. Banks was looking for campaign contributions. Presumably there was a quid pro quo involved with at least two known private parties, SkyCity and Kim Dotcom (there are plenty of others who donated “anonymously” to Mr. Banks but let’s focus just on these since they are in the news). What the expectations were for deliverables from Mr. Banks is as of yet unknown, although whatever they were it appears that Mr. Dotcom now feels that he was stiffed on the deal and is exacting his revenge by releasing details of his donations to Mr. Banks’ mayoral 2010 campaign. Whatever it was it was not in the public interest unless one thinks that granting Mr. Dotcom special favors is a collective good.

In the end, what Mr. Key did was not very democratic but it was legal and efficient as far as the tightly defined numbers behind the deal are concerned. Mr. Banks, on the other hand, had no public interest in mind when he solicited funds from Mr. Dotcom and accepted those from SkyCity, even if the latter’s donation was the same as the amount donated to Len Brown at the time (to his credit Mr. Brown reported the donation from SkyCity to his campaign, which mirrored that given to Mr. Banks “anonymously”). SkyCity was just papering both sides of the mayoral aisle with its symmetrical donations to the two leading candidates, and whatever favor was purchased was bound to be equally small given the amounts involved no matter who won the election. But Mr. Dotcom was an individual who papered only one candidate as far as we know, and he did so in excess of the corporate entity known as SkyCity. He was, in other words, trying to purchase individual favor by backing one candidate over another.

That is why there is a difference between the two men. Mr. Key is an authoritarian-minded money man who thinks he knows what is best for the country without regard to the naysayers and whiners, and who makes the numbers work in favor of his preferred vision. Mr. Banks is an egotistical “show me the money” weasel. With the possibility of more revelations about Mr. Banks forthcoming, it could well be the case that the weasel brings down the money man, or at least accelerates his departure from office.

Urewera Terror: epic fail

datePosted on 06:01, March 21st, 2012 by Lew

Whatever your opinion regarding the Urewera Terror raids, you have to admit that the Police and Crown Law have failed.

The so-called “Urewera 4” were convicted on about half of the least-serious charges brought, and the jury was hung on the more serious charges of participation in an organised criminal group. The defendants may be retried on these latter charges, and they may yet be found guilty. But the paucity of the Police and Crown Law operation is pretty clear regardless.

Let’s put this in context. The Crown sought initially to lay dozens more charges against many more people than the four who eventually stood trial; leave to bring charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act was not granted, and most of the other charges were dropped after the Supreme Court ruled that the evidence upon which they were founded had been illegally obtained. A year of fancy intensive surveillance; an extreme and unprecedented police assault on an unsuspecting community, including violent treatment of old people and children; four and a half years of lawyering comprising the most expensive trial in New Zealand history, held almost as far from the homes of the defendants as is possible; leaks and publicity tactics designed to bring about a de-facto trial-by-media — and the best they convict on is Arms Act offences such as about half the adult male population of rural New Zealand would be guilty of at some time or other? This, we are supposed to believe, is Aotearoa’s finest at work.

Not only did they fail at the nominal objective of securing convictions, they totally failed at the personal, punitive motive of punishing Tāme Iti and shaming him before his people. Iti has been literally the face of Māori activism, at least since Hone Harawira took the institutional path, and it is impossible to see this trial as anything other than utu for his temerity in escaping conviction for previous acts of defiant political theatre, most notably shooting a flag at a Waitangi Tribunal hearing in 2005. By going in loud and heavy, attempting to show them uppity Māoris who was boss, the Crown set themselves an ambitious target: they had to actually show who was boss. By failing to convict him on the serious charges at a canter, they failed. Tāme Iti is now a celebrity. His mythology is greater than his deeds, except inasmuch as resisting such a legal and ideological onslaught with dignity is a significant deed in itself. He has, in the view of a significant minority of the population, been victimised by the system, and that victimisation provides proof of Crown oppression he had previously struggled to demonstrate. For the rest of the population, Iti represents a brown, tattooed bogeyman, an object of fear, and of loathing that ranges from mild to virulent depending on who you talk to. Iti isn’t standing for office, he doesn’t need to be loved by 50%+1; he just needs to engender fervent support among an active minority, and vague feelings of unease in the rest. Notoriety differs from fame only in its polarity. The Police and the Crown have granted Tāme Iti this sort of fame. He should probably thank them for it.

As if the particular and the personal weren’t failures enough, the Crown also failed at the strategic project of redefining “activism” as “extremism”. Despite all the preceding factors weighing in the Crown’s favour, that a heavily-vetted jury was split indicates that they have failed to blur this crucial distinction, and failed to reframe left-wing and Māori activism* as a threat to civilisation, rather than a legitimate expression of dissent in an open society. This suggests that, in spite of years of Police infiltration and surveillance, of decades of stigmatisation and propagandisation of groups from Ngā Tamatoa to Ploughshares to SAFE, in spite of the better part of two centuries of official attempts to elide the gulf between dissent and insurrection, the public doesn’t really buy it. The jury — and, I would suggest, the people of Aotearoa — quite like and value that distinction and although it is been somewhat eroded, there it remains.

For that finding alone, and regardless of the result of any retrial, yesterday was a good day.


* Māori and leftist because, let us not forget, the Right Wing Resistance are free to continue with their training camps and their pseudo-secessionist projects, unmolested.

Russia and China True to Form.

datePosted on 11:58, February 6th, 2012 by Pablo

The double veto cast by Russia and China against the UN Security Resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s repression against unarmed civilians and calling for Bashar Assad to step down in favor of a coalition government harks back to the obstructionist logics of the Cold War. Besides confirming the ingrained authoritarian ethos in both countries (an ethos that does not see human rights as universal values but as contextually constructed), the blocking of the resolution stems from a mix of realist and idealist perceptions.

The idealist perceptions are rooted in the principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Russia and China argue that the UN’s actions amount to externally-forced regime change. That would be true. In their view the right to self-determination, no matter what brutality is evident in a regime’s behavior, is more important than the defense of unarmed populations against the depredations of their rulers. Dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia, sovereignty is the founding principle of the modern nation-state system, and other than as a result of a declared state of war it is illegitimate to attempt to externally impose a political outcome on a sovereign state (exceptions to the rule notwithstanding).

Russia and China are well aware that in recent years the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine has been formalised as part of the UN mandate. R2P states that the international community must act, with force if necessary, to protect vulnerable populations from state violence or in the face of state unwillingness or incapacity to prevent atrocities committed against innocents.  The genocide in Rwanda was the catalyst for the R2P and it has been invoked in the Sudan and Somalia, among other recent cases.

Most importantly, R2P was invoked in UNSC resolution 1973 authorizing the use of external military force in Libya. Starting out under the pretext of protecting Libyan civilians from military assaults by the Gaddafi regime, it morphed from enforcing a no-fly zone to arming and advising anti-Gaddafi forces on the ground in pursuit of regime change. The Russians and Chinese had flagged this surreptitiously planned mission creep from the onset, and had warned that misuse of the R2P to justify armed intervention against a sovereign state government would set a bad precedent.

That is the precedent now being applied to Syria. The Russians and Chinese know full well that external intervention in Syria in pursuit of regime change is on the cards, using R2P as the justification. They also know that military intervention in Syria, should it come, has nothing to do with protecting innocents and all to do with the geopolitical balance in the Levant.

That is where realism enters the equation. China and Russia are partners of Iran. Iran is the Assad’s regime’s closest ally. Under Assad Syria has facilitated the extension of Iranian influence in Lebanon and Gaza by providing land routes for the provision of Iranian weapons, money and advisors to Hezbollah and Hamas. Should the minority Allawite Assad regime fall to a Sunni-majority coalition, then Iran will likely see its influence curtailed significantly, which in turn places Hamas and Hezbollah at greater risk from their enemies (Israel in particular). Moreover, Russia has a military base in Syria and has long been a strong military ally of the Assads. Taken together with Chinese and Russian diplomatic and commercial ties to Tehran, the Assad regime’s forced demise could spell trouble. It will remove a source of Russian influence in the MIddle East. Amid all the sabre-rattling about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it will leave Iran feeling more vulnerable, at least in its own eyes, to Western machinations and internal subversion at home. This not only increases the risk of war but diminishes China and Russia’s ability to act as negotiators between Tehran and the West. Thus the fall of Assad means a diminution of their respective influence in that part of the world.

Thus, by standing on principle (non-intervention in sovereign states), Moscow and Beijing are protecting their geopolitical interests, and their relationship with Iran in particular. It may seem callous for them to do so in what increasingly looks like a civil war between the Assad regime and its people, but it is also in their short-term interest to do so. By holding their UNSC veto power, they can exercise leverage in pursuit of a more favorable accommodation that, if it does not allow Assad to remain in power, does protect their respective spheres of influence in the Middle East.

That is what is behind the double veto. In the absence of universal values and standards in the global community (due to the so-called anarchic state of nature that all realists perceive as the founding principle of international relations), the matter boils down to national interest and the exercise of power in pursuit of it. As such, Russia and China are just doing what they have to do to ensure an outcome more favorable to their respective interests, and by that logic humanitarian appeals and the invocation of the R2P simply have no place as either genuine concerns or as ruses designed to camouflage external meddling in Syrian affairs.

Sad but true.

A Culture of Impunity?

datePosted on 15:16, January 27th, 2012 by Pablo

During the dark years of dictatorship in South America in the 1970s and 1980s, there emerged a phrase to capture the attitude of the elites who benefitted from such rule: the culture of impunity. It referred not only to the attitude of the uniformed tyrants who ran the regimes, but more to that of the civilian elites who gave them social and economic support, and who benefitted lavishly thanks to the repression and restrictive laws on basic rights of association, dissent and movement. These civilian elites literally lived above the law, since they could, if not be directly protected by the regime’s thugs, be immune from prosecution or liability for crimes and other transgressions they committed simply because of who they were. Murders, rapes, abuse of servants, violent attacks on members of the public–all of these type of behavior were excused, ignored or bought off rather than be held legally accountable (I do not mention justice simply because it is impossible to have real justice under dictatorial conditions). Although there was variation in the attitude of some elites and cross-country differences appeared as well, the bottom line is that during the authoritarian period in South America a culture of impunity developed that was one of the salient social characteristics of the regimes in question.

With that in mind I ask readers if such a culture of impunity exists in NZ. I ask because it strikes me that although diluted and less repressive in genesis, there appears to be an attitude of impunity in the political and economic elite. They can buy silence and name suppression when they misbehave; with a wink and a nod they accommodate employment for their friends and provide sinecures for each other (think of various Boards); they consider themselves better informed, in the know, more worldly and therefore unaccountable to the popular masses when it comes to making policy (think of the use of parliamentary urgency to ram through contentious legislation and the NZDF command lies about what the SAS is actually doing in Afghanistan); they award themselves extraordinary powers in some  times of crisis (Christchurch) while absolving themselves of  responsibility in others (Rena). They use the Police for their own purposes (Teapot Tapes and Occupy evictions, the latter happening not because of public consensus but done by summary executive fiat). More generally, think of the lack of transparency in how government decisions are made and the duplicity of elite statements about economic issues (say, the price of wage goods) and political matters (e.g., recent internal security legislation). Coupled with equally opaque decision-making in NZ’s largest publicly-traded firms, or the cozy overlap between sectors of the judiciary and other elites, the list of traded favors and protections is long.

None of this would matter if NZ was run by Commodore Bainimarama. It would just be another Pacific island state ruled by a despot and his pals. But as a liberal parliamentary democracy NZ regularly scores highly on Freedom House and Transparency International indexes, to the point that it is often mentioned at the least corrupt country on earth (which is laughable on the face of things and which raises questions about the methodologies involved in such surveys). To be sure, in NZ traffic cops do not take cash bribes and judges do not have prostitutes procured for them by QCs representing defendants, but corruption does not have to be blatant and vulgar to be pervasive. And in the measure that elite sophistication in accommodating fellow elites outside of the universal standards applicable to everyone else is accepted as routine and commonplace, then a culture of impunity exists as well.

My experience in NZ academia, two respectable volunteer organizations and in dealing with national and local government officials suggests to me that such a culture of impunity does exist. It may not be that of Pinochet, Videla, Stroessner, Banzer or Geisel, but it seems pervasive. It appears to have gotten worse since I arrived in 1997, which may or may not be the fault of market-driven social logics and the “greed is good” mentality that has captured the imaginations of financiers, developers and other business  magnates (or it could just be a product of a long-established tradition of bullying, which has now spilled over into elite attitudes towards the country as a whole).

Mind you, this does not make NZ a bad place. It simply means that there is an encroaching, subversive authoritarian sub-culture at play amongst the NZ political and economic elite that undermines the purported egalitarianism and equality on which the country is ostensibly founded (I am sure there are sectors of Maoridom who will take reasoned exception to that claim). And if so, has the corrosive culture seeped into the body politic at large so that almost anyone is a relative position of power vis a vis others thinks that s/he can get away with behavior otherwise contrary to normal standards of decency and responsibility?

Does NZ has a culture of impunity?