Archive for ‘Democracy’ Category

Boliviarian or Stalinist?

datePosted on 15:54, February 17th, 2009 by Pablo

Victory in the constitutional referendum on removing term limits on Venezuelan presidents and National Assembly members has been heralded as a mandate for Hugo Chavez to continue the process of deepening his so-called “Boliviarian Revolution.”  His supporters see the open-ended election option as the best guarantee that the socialist and populist -inspired reforms implemented by Chavez during the last decade will continue for the next one. Opponents (who received 46 percent of the “No” vote to 54 percent in favour of the “Yes” vote in the referendum) believe that this event will entrench the slide towards Stalinism evident for the last few years (in which Chavez engineered constitutional reforms that allow him to stack the judiciary and parliament with his followers, and places the armed forces at the service of his “Bolivarian” ideals).  Given the heat generated on both sides, the question is whether Chavez is a a neo-Stalinist in disguise or a new form of democratic socialist responding to the exigencies of the 21st century Latin American context.

To be clear: Chavez has handily won every election he has contested, has survived a (US-backed) coup attempt and was restored by popular acclaim, has reduced poverty levels and increased literacy and health standards with massive funding  from state-controlled oil profits (and with Cuban technical assistance in the form of hundreds of doctors and teachers performing their “internationalist” missions–a Cuban version of the US Peace Corps, if you will), has provided developmental aid and low-cost petroleum to several Latin American neighbours as well as low-income communities in the US, has expanded Venezuela’s web of diplomatic and economic partners, and has served as a champion of the anti-imperialist cause in Latin American and elsewhere by pushing for more egalitarian trading blocs organised around “socialist” principles of fair exchange. He is the most popular Venezuelan leader since Simon Bolivar himself, and like Juan Peron in Argentina, Getulio Vargas in Brazil or Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico during the last century, his appeal to the working and lower classes is equalled by his hatred by the local elites and distrust by larger foreign powers.

On the other hand, Chavez has closed down opposition media and imposed a censorship regime on what his government deems to be “traitorous” commentary; he has armed citizen militias to ensure the “purity” of his “revolution” and to guard against traitors; he has replaced independent military commanders with personal cronies and embarked on a massive military spending spree in anticipation of a US attack that most security analysts believe is a figment of his imagination; he has failed to deal with the country’s escalating crime rate and deteriorating infrastructure; he has failed to invest in the oil industry to the point that production is now 25 percent below what it was ten years ago (although that was disguised by high oil prices up until this past year); he allocates public good provision based solely on partisan adherence to his Boliviarian Party, with the funding criteria being that no funding goes to agencies or individuals not affiliated with his Party. To that effect he has required state registration of all organised interests and collective actors, thereby marginalising those who refuse to register or register as independents or unaffiliated. He has embraced Iran, North Korea and Russia as diplomatic partners, and has threatened to nationalise foreign assets in Venezuela without market value compensation (or negotiation of value). He has been accused of funding and supplying weapons to guerrilla forces in Colombia and elsewhere in the region, as well as providing illegal cash payments to sympathetic politicians in other countries (the most prominent being a money-for-influence scandal involving president Kischner of Argentina). His government is accused of replacing the kleptocratic oligarchy of the Accion Democratica and COPEI governments in the past with red-clad slogan-spouting thieves in the present.

With oil prices in decline and demand slacking, lower anticipated revenues means budgetary shortfalls will hit hard this year, forcing Chavez to curtail some of his spending projects. Some argue that is why he pushed for the re-election referendum now, before the recession bottomed out, so that he could impose austerity and betray his campaign promises by force. There are signs of organised anti-semitism among Boliviarian militias and para-military squads, and there are reports that student activists as well as wealthy opposition figures have been the subject of intimidation, beatings and arbitrary arrest. Yet, the elections that Chavez wins, and the referenda that he holds, are inevitably characterised by impartial observers as fair and clean, so such acts would appear to be unecessary in any event. Since Chavez has a fair dose of political smarts, why would he authorise activities that were not needed given his popularity and ability to rule in a transparent fashion?

To be sure, being anti-imperialist does not mean that he is democratic. Engaging in popular redistribution programs does not mean he is democratic. Enjoying a large positive majority in public opinion polls does not mean that he is democratic. But what all of this does mean is that unlike the Latin American military dictators of the 1960s through the 1980s (all backed by the US), he can walk the streets of Caracas without fear of a riot–and not because his armed supporters surround him. Thus the question must be asked: even if he annoys Western powers, irritates neighbouring governments, buys favours at home and abroad and exhibits messianic and narcissistic traits that are at times both intemperate and intolerant, is it not for Venezuelans to decide what he is and  is not? Although he can continue to run for office, so long as elections remain free, fair and the standard for leadership selection, and even admitting the advantages that go to an incumbent such as he (where he can use the entire state machinery to mobilise his supporters), it is that mechanism–the institutionalised uncertainty of elections–that ultimately allows Venezuelans to decide whether Boliviarianism is a benefit or a curse. The combination of free elections, the need to address social problems in a non-partisan way, and the uncertain fortunes of a sclerotic  oil-dependent economy are the best hedge against further personalisation and authoritarian hardening of the Boliviarian dream.

Progressive bills and freedom of information

datePosted on 09:22, February 17th, 2009 by Anita

No Right Turn is running a wiki for the development of Progressive bills, it’s a great opportunity to figure out some progressive possibilities and get them happening. So if there’s any way you’d like to make NZ more progressive, and you can imagine it being achieved through a private members bill this is the place for you! :)

I”m currently struggling with how to improve our freedom of information legislation, the Mexican model has some real possibilities, but it’s not as easy as one might hope.

My goal is two fold, firstly to extend the amount of information made available (extending it to Parliament and so on) and secondly to make it harder for agencies to game.

My experience with OIAs is that some agencies are lovely, when others require chasing, more chasing before they provide incomplete and overdue responses (at which point the Ombudsmen can sort it out), but it makes a mockery of the current rules, and is unreasonably time and energy intensive. I’m not sure whether legislative change would fix it, or whether a fundamental cultural change is required

The principle underpinning freedom of information is that it’s our information and our government; and that transparency increases justice, fairness and accountability, yet many agencies behave as if they have a right to secrecy and evasion. What would change the attitude?

Direct action praxis and the threshold of toleration.

datePosted on 23:17, February 11th, 2009 by Pablo

The 2007 police raids on an assortment of activists sparked heated debate amongst progressives throughout the country about the merits of direct action. Some, whom I shall unfairly label the “soft” Left, argue that under  no circumstances should violence be used in pursuit of political ideals. Others, who I shall flatter with the label “hard” Left, argue that under certain circumstances the resort to violence is justified. How do we reconcile these views?

Please note that I shall not be referring here to issues of right wing praxis. Besides the fact that I think that the ultra-Right are beneath contempt, I do not want to offer any pointers they might not already have. I will note, however, that it is curious that the Police and SIS focus their attention on Left activists and appear singularly uninterested in according the same treatment to neo-nazis, skinheads, anti-Semites and Aryan survivalists even though these losers openly advocate violence against people on their websites and in their communiques, and have a history of violence against those they hate. Perhaps it is a bias on the part of the Police and SIS; perhaps it is because the ultra-Right are inept, but either way, the double standard seems weird.

Getting back to the point, what constitutes legitimate direct action in Aotearoa? Let us begin with two simple definitions. Direct action is the use of non-institutionalised (to include illegal), highly symbolic methods of resistance, protest, grievance or voice in pursuit of political objectives. Praxis is the melding of theory and practice into a coherent strategy of action. From a praxis standpoint, the nature of the cause matters less than the nature of the action (although the people involved may disagree). The resort to extra-institutional forms of redress is designed to highlight the cause or issue that is the focus of the action. But to be successful, direct action has to follow some simple rules: 1) it must raise public consciousness about the issue in a way that institutionalised channels and agencies can or do not; 2) it must force a government and/or private agent’s reaction that otherwise would not obtain; 3) it must elicit majority sympathy for the action or empathy for the cause. This last point is important because it brings up the issue of the threshold of toleration, which is the point at which favourable public reaction tips over into rejection. The key for direct action adherents is to get as close to that threshold of toleration without stepping over it and producing a negative backlash against both the activists and their cause. So long as they stay within the threshold of toleration, their actions will be successful (whether or not they are arrested or charged for violating criminal or civil statutes). Finally, direct action adherents must accept the legal consequences of their actions and be prepared to use the judicial system as an echo chamber and bully pulpit in which to reiterate the justice of their cause.

The main issue confronting the direct action advocate is to ascertain the limits of the permissible. In  New Zealand, it appears that regardless of cause, violence against people is not acceptable to the majority. The irony of NZ government-ordered  brutality against protestors notwithstanding (say, during the 1954 dockworkers strike or Springbok tour), it is clear that the majority of New Zealanders abhor political violence against persons. Hence, “terrorists” will find little fertile ground here, and anything that results in physical harm or the threat of harm to people is likely to elicit a negative reaction from the pubic. But what about things such as spitting or throwing excrement or blood on others? Is that within the threshold of toleration? In NZ, I would think not.

On the other hand, violence against property, be it public or private, is more open to discussion.  With sedition laws no longer in force, where are the limits to physical assaults on property? Is throwing a brick through a bank window an acceptable protest against corporate greed? Is painting a statue or monument in blood legitimate? Is setting fire to a mosque or synagogue acceptable protest against the perceived transgressions of the Taliban, al-Qaeda or Israel? Is trying to occupy NZDF headquarters acceptable protest against NZ involvement in foreign conflicts? Is destroying animal testing facilities OK? Is sabotaging rail lines to impede coal shipments within the threshold of toleration? Is tree-spiking a legitimate tactic? Is running around the bush throwing molotovs while talking trash about race wars and traitorous politicians a valid direct action precursor (or sidebar)?  Although the specific answers to these questions may or may not be easily found, the broader issue is finding the appropriate threshold of toleration for a given type of direct action given the context in which it is engaged.

By the rules I outlined above, the Waihopai Plowshares direct action was a success. Some may think it ineffectual since the Echelon eavesdropping stations remain operative, but the point was never to physically stop the operation (which is why the activists did not damage equipment once inside the dome). It was done in order to raise public awareness and questions about NZ’s participation in the Echelon network, and the action most certainly did that. On the other hand, threatening the spouses and children of pharmaceutical company executives over the latter’s role in animal testing is an example of crossing the threshold of toleration. Whatever the justice of the cause, threatening to harm people not directly involved in animal testing–especially children–is bound to elicit a negative reaction from the public majority. It is therefore counter-productive, even if many believe that executives need to be held directly and physically accountable for the corporate logics of profit that justify the exploitation and torture of animals for human benefit.

I could go on but the thrust of my argument should by now be clear. Direct action is an effective political tactic if it follows certain guidelines. It must differentiate between the target of the action (let’s say, the US embassy, which has been chosen to be flour-bombed ), the object of the action (to raise awareness of, lets say, extraordinary rendition and secret detention centres in which torture is practiced as an interrogation technique), and the subject of the action (the NZ government and public, so as to put pressure from both on US diplomats that NZ does not condone or accept such practices).  The purpose of the hypothetical illustration is not be polemical but instead to chart the ends-means sequence that needs to inform direct action for it to be successful.

The bottom line is this. Direct action is a legitimate political tactic when institutional channels fail. The nature of the action depends on the cause espoused and the society involved, since the threshold of toleration varies from culture to culture and political society to political society. What might be an acceptable form of direct action in Nigeria may not be so acceptable in NZ. Thus the main “problem set” for activists is to determine the toleration threshold for a given form of direct action in a particular socio-political context, Having done that, it is on to the barricades, comrades, y hasta la victoria, siempre, companeros!

Follow up on the SIS files and what should be done.

datePosted on 13:26, February 11th, 2009 by Pablo

When I found out that I was mentioned in the SIS files on Keith Locke (apparently in an unflattering letter), I got to thinking further about what can  be done to improve that agency and rid it of an institutional culture that is seemingly unprofessional, unaccountable and biased in its presentation of threats. There is more to the story, which revolves around the window of opportunity presented to the new government by the director-general of the SIS, Warren Tucker,  in opening up the SIS files to public scrutiny. Rather that repeat it here, please see the link below, where I outline the broader picture. I do not mean to be shameless with the link, just synergistic. A full post (on direct action) is forthcoming soon.

This week we look certain to see National repeal most of the Electoral Finance Act under urgency. While Simon Power is publicly stating they’re going to keep the disclosure rules, which sounds good but … as National well knows the disclosure rules have loopholes.

Like the old rules they allow organisations and individuals to wash large donations by cutting them into smaller donations which fit below the “anonymous” donations threshold. This is the same practice that was enabled by a similar loophole under the old electoral finance rules.

If National was committed to transparency it would be closing that loophole now, and publicly shaming any party that refused to support the action. In reality, of course, National is committed to the appearance of clean hands while maintaining funding routes for its large donors.

Whither Labour?

datePosted on 23:02, February 10th, 2009 by Lew

That’s a question, not an imperative.

It’s impossible to ignore the impact of the Clark-Cullen legacy on NZ’s political orthodoxy. Their government – like Thatcher’s and like Lange’s – moved the political mainstream, requiring incoming governments to appeal to it in order to win support. John Key’s ability to learn from some of the mistakes of his predecessors in both major parties, but not others, has been considered in plenty of different ways, and some of those give more than a moment’s thought to his future. At least now people agree that he has one which doesn’t involve being rolled by Bill English.

But what of Labour? I see two broad possibilities, which I’ll characterise as the Crusaders Game and the Hurricanes Game. Despite being a Hurricanes supporter, by that I don’t mean to privilege one over the other.

The Crusaders Game

Labour recognises that the political agenda is no longer theirs, and concentrates on their core stuff: defence, set-piece, taking advantage of their opposition’s mistakes and infringing at the ruck (but not so much as to seem a cheat).

This means a retrenchment of sorts. Goff is the ideal leader for this game: steady, capable, etc. but they will probably have to alienate the Greens, and if the māori party and its constituency gets what it needs from being part of the National-led government Labour may find themselves friendless. Whatever the case, this strategy will mean ceding the political field to National and starting again in three or six or nine years from within someone else’s political agenda – as National are doing now. This relies on fairly orthodox two-party-plus-hangers-on political thinking – the idea that occupying the centre is the route to success.

The Hurricanes Game

Labour sees in Key’s concessions to the Clark-Cullen agenda an opportunity, and maximises it by relying on gut instinct, team spirit, inspirational leadership, raw opportunism, personal brilliance and complaining about Key’s infringing at the ruck (but not so much as to appear a whinger).

This strategy will require three things: first, new leadership; second, a much closer relationship with the Greens; third, intense and sustained energy. Labour will have to learn to live lean, to rehabilitate itself with the wider left, and ultimately to normalise the idea of the Green New Deal among skeptical NZ voters. This relies upon a quite unorthodox political strategy – the idea that a party or bloc of parties can and should cooperate to move the centre in order to more easily occupy it in their common interest. The danger is that they run out of puff in getting there, and find themselves in three or six or nine years having to adopt the Crusaders Game anyway.

There are other possibilities, of course, but these seem most plausible and simple dichotomies are nice.

So, four questions: what should Labour do (in your humble opinion) and what will Labour do? How, and why?


NGO advocacy: it’s all right with me!

datePosted on 06:00, February 10th, 2009 by Anita

Idiot/Savant has been wading through OIAs in an attempt to figure out which government agencies joined SOE Solid Energy in paying for a report to undermine government climate change policies. Solid Energy has paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars of our money to lobby against the government addressing climate change.

Yet at the same time NGOs are rigourously banned from using any state funding to advocate for legislative or policy change. Small volunteer run organisations are forced to segregate their government funding from any funding used for advocacy.

This causes all kinds of administrative and compliance overhead – if a social worker’s salary is paid by a government contract for service, can they discuss difficulties caused by Housing NZ policy when they meet HNZ staff to organise emergency housing for clients? If someone producing information material’s salary is 60% funded how can we prove that the time they spent putting together material for the CE’s meeting with the incoming Minister was in their other 40%?

On the one hand we give the most ethically dubious state owned enterprise the right to use as much of our money as they like to lobby, hire spies, breach the Conservation Act and pay private investigators to summarise Indymedia.

On the other we load such compliance cost on small NGOs that using their own money to lobby becomes impractical.

As well as tightening the leash on Solid Energy, we need to give NGOs their freedom. NGOs provide richness and diversity, they advocate for people whose voices are lost in our majoritarian culture – a little government funding would be worth every dollar.

Meaningful referenda

datePosted on 06:00, February 5th, 2009 by Anita

Later this year we will have the opportunity to vote on a referendum asking:

Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in NZ?

There are two pretty serious problems with the question. Firstly, it has rolled two ideas together but we only have one vote. What say I believe one should not criminalise good parenting (“No” to the explicit question) but I believe that smacking is not good parenting and should be criminalised (“Yes” to the implicit question)?

Secondly, if the referenda succeeds what should the government do? The referenda is intended to be about repealing the current section 59 and replacing it with an explicit permission to use physical discipline for correction, but that’s not what it says. The government would be entirely justified in saying that the law as it stands is not criminalising good parents.

So we have a question that is not straightforward to answer and which doesn’t actually say what it wants.

I believe we should change the process for setting the question for referenda so that they are clear simple questions which provide an unambiguous direction to government. This probably means groups providing a description of the issue as well as possible questions if they wish then the Office of the Clerk getting the possible questions checked or new questions drafted so that the group can be given a choice of questions which are simple, clear and directive.

RfP: Electoral systems

datePosted on 14:56, February 4th, 2009 by Anita

National has promised us a pair of referenda over the next 5-ish years on whether to retain MMP or move to a non-proportional system.

Many of us have strong feelings about how our system should word: proportional or not, electorates or not, how much parties should have, and so on. So this is a request for posts, would you like a chance to put up your opinions for discussion? 

If you’re interested please email us at or put a comment onto this post.

And with further ado I’ll put up our first post in the series. Many thanks to Ari for kicking this off with the first of two posts arguing for open lists.

Why would someone give $100,000 to a political party? Because they know that money makes a difference in politics, even if they don’t want a personal pay back, they believe that the money will help the party advance its agenda. 

One of the principles of democracy is described as “one person one vote”, which is to say each voter should have equal influence. If money can help buy a party influence, then the amount of money each person can given to political parties should be equal. This requires capping political donations to a level everyone can afford, which is going to be pretty low.

The usual counter argument is that I’m suggesting restricting free speech, but I’m not. Everyone can speak as often as an loud and as enthusiastically as before, what they can’t do is buy political influence: that’s not free speech.

Principle III: equal money for equal influence – individual’s donations to political parties should be capped at a level every voter can afford.

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