Archive for ‘Authoritarianism’ Category

Against “courageous corruption” as Crown policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L

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

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

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

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.

L

* 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?

 

Hearing no evil

datePosted on 22:25, January 17th, 2012 by Lew

A few days before the November 26 general election, TV3 aired Bryan Bruce’s documentary Inside Child Poverty, and I posted on the depressingly predictable response of the usual right-wing subjects.

And now NZ On Air board member Stephen McElrea (who, in Tom Frewen’s marvellously dry turn of phrase, “also happens to be John Key’s electorate chairman and the National Party’s northern region deputy chairman”) has used his dual position of authority to demand answers from the funding body and, simultaneously, make implicit but forceful statements about what constitutes “appropriate” policy material for such a funding body to support.

There has been some outrage on the tweets about the obvious propaganda imperative here — agenda-control is pretty crucial to a government, never more so than during election campaigns — and I agree with Sav that this shows a need for NZOA to be more independent, more clearly decoupled from the government, not less so. Stephen McElrea, after all, is not simply a disinterested member of a crown funding agency — he is a Key-government appointee to the NZOA board, a political actor in his own right, and has a history of advocating for broadcasting policies curiously similar to those being enacted by the present government, such as in a 2006 column titled “Scrap the charter and get TVNZ back to business”.

I may write more about this as it develops, although it seems likely that the ground will be better covered by people much more qualified than I am. But what I will do is return to my initial point, to wit:

a documentary about child poverty, covering the appalling housing, health and nutritional outcomes borne by children in our society, and the immediate response is to launch a ideological defence of the National party and deride the work as nothing but partisan propaganda. … I haven’t heard a peep out of National about what they plan to do about the problems since it aired. Isn’t it more telling that National and its proxies immediately and reflexively go on the defensive, rather than acknowledging the problems of child poverty and renewing its commitment to resolving them?

I still haven’t heard that peep. Given the fact that the National party leader feels at liberty to dismiss attempts by David Shearer and others to make child poverty alleviation a matter of bipartisan consensus, and that a senior National party official so close to the leader feels at liberty to throw his weight around in this professional capacity, I rather despair of hearing it.

L

Talking tough on the way out.

datePosted on 13:55, January 12th, 2012 by Pablo

Over the years teaching about authoritarianism I developed a series of one-liners that summarized specific aspects of that form of rule. With regards to the circumstances of its demise, I coined the phrase “when the dictator starts wearing capes, he is soon to fall.” The point being that once the head honcho started dressing like Liberace or Elvis in their late phases they had lost touch with reality and, worse yet, had no honest feedback loops within their inner circle to correct them of their delusions. It was a play on the “emperor has no clothes” line and students much enjoyed it. And if we think of Idi Amin, Gaddafi, Somoza, the Shah and assorted other despots, sure enough their final days were literally cloaked in an over-the-top fashion sense that only Lady Gaga would think reasonable and appropriate.

I now have another such observation: the dictator’s end approaches in direct relation to the ferocity of his rhetoric. The more the dictator talks violently tough in the face of mounting popular unrest, the quicker will be his end. I say this after hearing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad talk about using an “iron fist” to “crush” foreign-backed “terrorists” after six months of popular rebellion. I will leave the overuse and abuse of the word “terrorism” for another day, but what strikes me is how Arab dictators under siege ratchet up the violence in their rhetoric even as the walls crumble around them. Who can forget Saddam and his spokesmen talking about American blood running in the streets even as US tanks encircled Baghdad? Or Gaddafi and his sons railing about what they would do to the “cockroaches” and “rats” slowly closing the noose around them? Even Mubarak was using words like “crushing” and “merciless” to describe his response to the Tahrir Square demonstrators, at least until the Egyptian military told him to shut up because he was the problem, not the solution.

The point is simple: once a (here Arab) dictator starts shouting about the nasty ways he will deal to his enemies in a situation of popular unrest, he is finished. This is because such rhetoric suggests a divorce from reality and a lack of proper, realistic council on the part of the tyrant’s advisors (who with few die-hard exceptions will jump ship once the opposition has seized the upper hand in the armed struggle).

It may have something to do with Arab political culture or notions of masculinity, but this type of response is exactly the reverse of what would give their moribund regimes some room for maneuver, if not a longer life span. Once demonstrators spill in to the streets and are not intimidated by police and para-military repression, and before their numbers grow to the point that a full military response is needed, the safest course of action for tyrants is to promise reform and accommodation of dissident demands. If nothing else this can be used as a divide and conquer strategy to weed out moderates and militants within the opposition, thereby allowing better targeting of the hard-core resistance while seeking to co-opt those less inclined to assume the physical risks involved in an escalating fight. It provides the dictator and his coterie an opportunity to listen to grievances and for negotiation of specific demands. It may entail having to offer concessions and perhaps even increased opposition access to or power-sharing with the authoritarian elite, but it could serve as a pre-emptive reform-mongering gesture that keeps the basic composition of the regime, or at least the governing elite, more or less intact.

The alternative is to go fully militarized at the opposition, which entails using disproportionate force against one’s own citizens. This certainly does not ingratiate subjects to the regime and invites foreign condemnation and isolation. It is a no-win strategy and, quite frankly, is the beginning of the end of such regimes for a variety of reasons, military factionalization under the pressures of such a scenario being one of them.

It is thus with bemusement that I watch the Syrian opthamalogist-turned-dictator fulminate against his enemies. Although it is true that his Alawite regime is relatively united and fearful of the Sunni majority and thereby willing to commit atrocities until the bitter end, and that Syria has a geopolitical position that Libya does not, Assad’s rhetoric clearly indicates that he does not realize that his regime’s utility as a strategic buffer has ended. Israel, the US, Arab and other Western states understand that removing the Assad regime and replacing it with a Sunni majority coalition will deny Iran land routes for the logistical supply of its allies in Lebanon and Gaza, who in turn help spread Shiia influence in the Sunni Arab world. After the demise of Gaddafi and other convolutions of the Arab Spring, it has become politically expedient for foreign parties to back the Syrian opposition, which they are now doing with material, safe haven and military advice. At least on this issue Assad is right–foreign actors are now at play in Syria, although he neglected to mention that Iran is one of them because it realizes what is at stake in the proxy struggle in the Levant.

All of which is to say that the outcome is clear and encapsulated by my new authoritarian demise rule of thumb: now that Assad has started to talk hyperbolically tough in the face of a continued uprising that is not bowed by the ongoing military violence meted out against it, his days are numbered. Best for him, then, to tone it down, pull his troops back and look for an exit strategy so that his departure will be unlike that of Gaddafi, Mubarak or Saddam.

On Dynastic Regimes.

datePosted on 16:48, January 4th, 2012 by Pablo

The death of Kim Jung-il and the ascent of his youngest son Kim Jung-un to the Supreme Commander’s role in North Korea highlights the problems of succession in dynastic regimes, particularly those of a non-monarchical stripe. Monarchies have history and tradition to bank on when perpetuating their bloodlines in power. In authoritarian monarchical variants such as absolute monarchies and kingdoms the exercise of political authority is complete and direct, if not by Divine Right. In democratic variants such as constitutional monarchies royal power is circumscribed and symbolic. There are also hybrid systems where royal privilege and power coexist and overlap with mass-based electoral politics, making for what might be called “royalist” democracies (such as in Thailand or the sultanates in Malaysia). In all versions royals are integral members of the national elite.

There are also differences between authoritarian and democratic non-monarchical dynastic regimes, and they have to justify themselves in other ways.  Democratic political dynasties such as the Gandhi’s in India, Bhutto’s in Pakistan, Kennedy’s in the US or Papandreou’s in Greece reproduce the family lineage within the context of political parties inserted in competitive multi-party systems. Their power is exercised via party control and influence reinforced along ideological lines and buttressed by inter-marriage with economic elites. They can come to dominate national politics when in government and their access to national authority is preferential in any event, but they do not have direct control of the state bureaucracy, courts or security apparatus. In a way, dynastic political families in democratic regimes are akin to organized crime: their influence on power is mostly discrete, dispersed and diffused rather than immediate and direct.

Non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic regimes have more direct control of the state apparatus, including the judiciary and security agencies. They tend to reproduce themselves politically via mass mobilisational parties, and tend to divide into religious and secular variants. Religious variants fuse family bloodlines with clerical authority (say, in the ordained status of fathers, uncles and sons) in pursuit of theological constructions of the proper society. Secular variants mix nationalist and developmentalist rhetoric with charismatic leadership or cults of personality, often with military trappings. In both types the dynastic leadership leads the security apparatus, which is often expanded in size and scope of authority (particularly with regard to internal security). In both sub-types personal ambitions are blurred with political objectives, often to the detriment of the latter.

There can be hybrids of the non-monarchical type that are religious or secular-dominant, where a controlling dynastic family accommodates the interests of smaller dynasties (this happens in clan-based societies).

The issue of succession is problematic for all authoritarian regimes but particularly those of non-monarchical dynastic bent. The more institutionalized the authoritarian regime, the less dynastic it tends to be. Institutionalisation of the regime provides mechanisms for political reproduction beyond bloodlines. This most often happens through the offices of a political party and a strong central state bureaucracy. The more personal dynasties fuse family fortunes with institutionalized political reproduction, the better chances they have of holding on to power. Even then, relatively institutionalized non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic rule such as the Assad regime in Syria, Qaddafi regime in Libya, Hussein regime in Iraq, Somoza regime in Nicaragua, Duvalier regime in Haiti or Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic have proven susceptible to overthrow when their rule proves too pernicious for both national and international constituencies.

Monarchies can also be overthrown (such as that of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran), although that type of regime change was more prevalent in the 19th century than it is in the 21st. Some monarchs have seen the writing on the wall and willingly accepted a constitutional status stripped of political power, such as in Spain (after the aborted coup of 1981 known as the “Tejerazo”) and more recently in Bhutan (where the last Dragon King voluntarily relinquished absolute status as part of the 2008 Constitutional reform). Other monarchies are under pressure to liberalize, such as in Tonga or (much less so) Brunei.

Add to these scenarios the problems inherent in the universal law of genetic decline and the prospects for long-term dynastic succession have markedly decreased in modern times. Many non-monarchical authoritarian dynasties span two generations but few go further than that. The transition to the grandchildren is the big demarcation point between non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic wannabes and the real thing.

The key to non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic succession is for the family bloc to embed itself within a technocratic yet compliant non-family political, military and economic circle of influence peddlers, who together form a symbiotic relationship based on patronage networks in order to govern for mutual benefit. The more that they can justify their rule on ideological grounds or in the efficient provision of pubic goods, the more they will succeed in securing mass consent to their rule. Although the bloodline becomes increasingly dependent on the entourage, the overall effect is a stable status quo. The Singaporean PAP regime exhibits such traits, although the passage of the Lee dynasty from its founding father to its third generation is increasingly problematic. The Kim regime in North Korea is in reality a military-bureacratic regime with a dynastic core that has now moved into its third generation leadership (the next six months should tell whether Jung-un will consolidate his position). Its vulnerability is its inability to deliver basic necessities to a large portion of its people, which requires ideologically-justified repression and isolation in order to maintain mass acquiescence to its rule.

Dynastic authoritarian regimes also suffer the same divisions between hard-liners and soft-liners that are common to non-dynastic authoritarians such as the military-bureaucratic regimes of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s or the South Korean and Taiwanese regimes of the 1970s through the 1990s. These divisions on issues of policy and governance are exacerbated when played out within family circles. For example, intrigues of succession and future policy direction within the House of Saud are legendary, but the same can be said to be true about the current North Korean transition or palace politics in Morocco or Kuwait.

The bottom line is that non-monarchical dynastic successions are hard to maintain over time, and increasingly rare. The need for regime continuity is no longer as tied to family fortunes as it once was (even during the Cold War), and the pressures on family-run polities are more myriad and complex than before.  With the ongoing fall of dynastic regimes in the Middle East amid the general decline of bloodline influence on political power in most of the integrated world (“integrated world” defined as politically independent and economically inter-dependent countries), what we may be seeing in North Korea is the last of a political sub-species: the non-monarchical dynastic authoritarian regime. No matter what happens to Kim Jung-un, at least we can be thankful for that.

 

Bainimarama channels Pinochet.

datePosted on 12:57, December 13th, 2011 by Pablo

The Fijian military-bureaucratic regime fronted by Commodore “Frank” Bainimarama has promised elections for September 2014, these having been preceded by a constitutional consultation process that is to produce a new Charter in September 2013. The timetabling of the elections will follow ratification of the new Constitution.

The Commodore has already said that he intends to stand for Prime Minister in the 2014 elections. This presumably means that he will retire from active service and lead a military-backed party in them while allowing for open party competition. To date there is no sign of either milestone happening. Nor, for that matter, have the terms of the constitutional consultation process been detailed, which is of import because the presumed stakeholders in the re-making of the foundational document would have to include groups that are currently banned, dismantled, in exile or subject to legal and physical restraints on their activities.

On the other hand, the Bainimarama regime has, under the de facto state of emergency it has ruled by since 2006, used executive decrees to reshape the legal context in which these actors will need to operate. That includes the Essential Services Bill, which outlaws strikes and imposes serious restrictions on union activities in violation of International Labour Organisation standards. This exclusionary state corporatist approach to labor relations has been paralleled by similar efforts to control the media (to include provisions that media outlets have to be majority owned by Fijian citizens, which forced out foreign-controlled news agencies). In fact, there has been a militarization of the Fijian state apparatus as a whole under the Commodore’s rule, as active duty, retired, reservists and relatives of military personnel are given privileged access to civil service jobs. This form of patronage is designed to maintain loyalty as well as promote a military perspective on policy-implementation within the public bureaucracy.  Given that the regime’s “Peoples Charter for Change, Peace and Progress” proposes a profound transformation of cultural mores, social structures, political institutions and economic practices as part of a project of national rebirth overseen by the Republic of Fijian Military Forces, it seems that military colonization of the state apparatus is being used as a pre-requisite for the pursuit of those goals.

Such ambitious objectives cannot be achieved within the timeframe currently outlined for the constitutional re-draft and elections. That means that either Bainimarama and his colleagues have no intention of relinquishing control in 2014, or at best plan to use the elections as a procedural fig leaf with which to legitimize a military backed “civilian” government led by the Commodore that will continue to pursue the transformational objectives of the Peoples Charter. Since those objectives will be resisted, the elections will have to be rigged and dissent suppressed after they are over. What is envisioned, in other words, is what in Latin America have been called “guarded” or “protected” democracies, or for those who know Spanish, “democraduras” (“hard” democracies).

The Latin connection may in fact be stronger. The Pinochet regime in Chile held a constitutional referendum five years after it came to power in which it re-drew the foundational principles of the nation so that challenges to private control of the means of production and elite domination of the political system were made near impossible. Pinochet also colonized the state apparatus with  military personnel (although in his case the appointments were designed to promote ideological uniformity within the public bureaucracy rather than as a form of personal patronage). His timetable for the foundational elections of 1989 was established by the 1978 constitution and included Pinochet as the leader of a civilian party after his retirement. It had provisions for conservative control of the Senate (including the appointment of “Senators for life” by the Pinochet regime before its departure) and for military veto of legislation deemed inimical to national security or the national interest. Popular resistance eventually forced Pinochet to abandon his plans to rule in civilian guise after 1989 (in exchange for other conservative guarantees like those listed above), but the model for an orderly transition to a “guarded” democracy after a major constitutional reform was established by his regime. It will therefore be interesting to see what materializes in the constitutional reform process set to get underway in Fiji next year.

Given Chile’s market-driven economic “success” and the elimination of serious threats to the socio-economic and political status quo resultant from the authoritarian episode and its constitutional revisions, it seems possible that the Bainimarama regime has taken more than passing interest in it. In fact, it appears that mutatis mutandis, the Commodore and his clique have emulated the Pinochet experiment, Fijian style. The objective, as far as can be determined at this point, seems to be to establish the bases by which a “protected” or “guarded” elected civilian regime can be installed that will continue the transformational objectives outlined in the People’s Charter. Or, it could just be the best way for the regime and its supporters to continue to feed at the public trough. Either way, it is likely that the 2014 elections will not be an honestly contested affair, if they are held at all.

The second alternative (military colonization of the state as a source of patronage and rent-seeking) is not a frivolous aside. Corruption is rife in the Fijian public service, and military appointments to it on non-meritorious grounds exacerbates the problem while diminishing the organizational efficiency (such as it is) of public services. Moreover, it has been demonstrated in Latin America and elsewhere that military colonization of the civil service leads to a deterioration of operational readiness and command authority the longer soldiers are seated at desks in civilian Ministries. This is a problem for the Fijian military, which prides itself on its professionalism (mostly related to its long history of UN peace-keeping service), and which sees itself as the guardian of the nation (it should be noted that the Fijian military swears allegiance to the nation, not the constitution–as the suspension of the 1997 constitution clearly shows).

The more the Bainimarama regime colonizes the Fijian state with soldiers (however smart it may be as a tactical move given his objectives), the more likely that divisions will emerge in the ranks over the proper military role and adherence to corporate standards of conduct. It is one thing to be an arbitrator or mediator military in a praetorian civil-military relations context that intervenes in politics when civilian governments prove too inept or corrupt to govern (as has been the case in Fiji since independence in 1970). It is another thing for the military to try to rule as an institution over the long-term, especially when kleptocratic tendencies are encouraged by the use of military sinecures as sources of patronage. The downside of the latter is great on several levels.

Needless to say there is much more to the Fijian transitional picture, if that is in fact what we are observing. The praetorian nature of Fijian society, evident in zero-sum approaches to politics and economics that results in an impossible game of mutual vetos between contending interest groups divided by ethnicity and class, has continually “pulled” the military into intervening (in 1987, 2000 and 2006). The incompetence of civilian elected governments, the nepotistic and opaque ways in which business is conducted, and the general malaise of civilian institutions accentuate the military urge to put things right. Having failed in its arbitrator role, it now seems that Bainimarama and his colleagues want to perpetuate military rule, even if under civilian guise after 2014, so as to continue the process of national transformation in order to eventually “put things right.”

All of this is set against the backdrop of Fiji re-orienting its “Looking North” foreign policy from West to East in response to the sanctions imposed by its traditional allies and partners (Fiji has been suspended from the Pacific Island Forum, seen the suspension of financial aid from the EU and Asian Development Bank and downgraded its diplomatic ties with Australia and New Zealand as a result of their criticism of the coup and its aftermath). The Commodore has emphasized the need for a “re-balancing” of Fiji’s foreign relations, and to that end has encouraged closer trade, investment and/or military ties with Asian nations (particularly China) and the Middle East. Although these new ties have not brought Fiji out of its economic doldrums as of yet (net growth has been negligible for the last five years even though tourism is at all-time highs in terms of visitors and contribution to GDP), they do allow the Bainimarama regime some room for maneuver as it works to reconcile the constitutional reform and election timetables with its long-term objectives.

All of which is to say, if I were a bettor or a futures forecaster, I would hedge against uncertainty and assume that the 2014 elections will be delayed, manipulated or even canceled. As for the longer-term future–that ultimately will be for the Fijian military to decide.

I quote one of our friendly neighbourhood sociopaths from the gloriously-named SOLOPassion, in full:

NZ Politics: I Have a Cunning Plan – Tax Childbirth
I know! I’m suggesting a tax. Bear with me …
On TV3 Firstline this morning, after picking myself up from the floor when political reporter Patrick Gower dropped it so casually into his ‘reportage’ that the Green’s idea of Government setting up its own Kiwisaver scheme to distort the free market even further was a fabulous one, and he couldn’t understand why Labour and National hadn’t thought of it, it was then reported that pursuant to some overseas agency of or other that one in every four New Zealand children was living in poverty.
I don’t think it is then spurious to draw the logic line to the social welfare commentator Lindsay Mitchell statistic that 23% of all babies born over 2010 (for the State educated, that’s almost one in four) were in ‘homes’ reliant on a hard benefit to live by the end of the first year of life.
Mmmm.
That has set me to pondering. Rather than the Save the Children lady’s solution, when she was then interviewed, of spending yet more money on welfare, and creating yet new layers of bureaucracy, and working on the theory that you can’t fix the problems of welfare by more welfare, I think a radical rethink is necessary.
Hence my proposal to fix this problem in just one generation: rather than taking from all taxpayers as we do currently, and subsidising childbirth, which I pose has led to these two related statistics, I think we should be doing the reverse – taxing childbirth.
This would force parents to assess their financial ability to have children, and only start families when they could afford to. This will mean within one generation, we will have virtually wiped out the horrendous 23% statistic, and with it, child poverty, in the one blow. Further, the childbirth tax could be put toward the State functions that those children will be using: education and health.
There will be a hue and cry, obviously: babies for the rich only, Occupiers in maternity wards, all founded on the protest that governments should not decide such important lifestyle choices as who has babies and who doesn’t. The last of which I entirely agree with, whether it be via a subsidy or a tax, for therein lies my cunning plan ;)

This is a perfect example of Poe’s Law, which states:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.

It’s a perfect example because literally the only thing about it that’s vaguely implausible is that it’s a Randroid proposing a tax.

Swift’s A Modest Proposal was far enough removed from the prevailing norms of his intellectual circle to be distinguishable from them. This isn’t. It’s in the uncanny valley of political discourse.

L

PS: Check the comments, if you think you can stomach them.

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