Archive for ‘intellectuals’ Category
In 2007 a certain university lecturer, fed up with the managerial push to admit sub-standard and unqualified foreign students in pursuit of revenue, with the resultant pressure placed on lecturers to pass these students regardless of their performance, wrote a rude email to one such student who had failed to deliver a essay on time and who used a tired excuse of family death to justify the late submission. Although it was later proven that no evidence of any death was offered to any university authority and that there were mitigating factors surrounding the intemperate email, the lecturer was sacked for serious misconduct after selected contents of the email exchange with the student were made public by some of her associates (in violation of university confidentiality policy regarding emails).
The dismissal was later found to be unjustified and some monetary reparations were made, but after 25 years of involvement in university teaching and research in several countries (a rarity in NZ), the lecturer never worked in NZ academia again in spite of several applications for NZ university jobs and a very strong record of teaching, research, fellowships and community outreach, especially when compared to NZ peers.
I recount this sorry tale because the real crime committed by this lecturer was to challenge prior to the fact, then jeopardize with his email the revenue streams provided to NZ universities by foreign students willing to pay full fees of 20K or more but who often had no qualifications in their chosen field of study or who could not speak or write comprehensible english (as was the case with the student in question). This began long before National became government, but is now said to be worse because of twenty percent cuts in public spending on tertiary education.
The quest for foreign fees is such that when the same ex-lecturer was suggested some time later as a potential member of a foreign area focused business board, government and education officials purportedly objected on the grounds that his presence could disrupt recently-signed educational agreements between NZ and several countries in that region (this, in spite of his never having had an issue with students from that region and having significant visibility in academic fields relevant to it).
Such is the obsession with using foreign students as revenue generators. The trouble is that obsession has led to a gross lowering of academic standards for admission, passing and graduation of foreign fees paying students. This has had unpleasant results.
Long before National became government, instances of plagarism and bogus excuses for failure to complete course requirements on the part of foreign students well versed in how to abuse staff pastoral care responsibilities was already a thorn in the side of many lecturers, particularly those concerned about the quality of degrees and the well-being of students who worked hard to meet requirements. Managerial pressure to allow sub-standard students to pass is reflected in performance reviews and promotion criteria. The steady erosion of academic union influence eased the way for imposition of managerial edicts focused on quantity rather than quality of incoming students and graduates, to which were added academic restructuring projects that eliminated departments and courses deemed irrelevant to business or incompatible with profit-making.
Given increased academic job uncertainties in such environments, lecturers feel compelled to toe the managerial line, particularly in light of that ex-lecturer’s well publicized experience. The overall impact has been to devalue the reputation of many NZ university departments and programs while opening up a pandora’s box of predictable as well as unintended consequences.
One manifestation of the downside of the push to put high fees-paying foreign bums in seats has gone commercial: institutionalized ghost writing and student identity impersonation on behalf of Chinese students enrolled in NZ tertiary institutions. Some good student stories follow on the subject.
This situation has been going on for over a decade and has been the subject of repeated internal and public complaints (for example, public disclosure about the lack of security vetting of Pakistani and Saudi students seeking degrees in chemistry, chemical engineering and physics, or the well-reported use of Chinese students by PRC intelligence). The government and higher education institutions have been repeatedly warned about the dodgy side of foreign student admissions but have done nothing prior to media publication of the details.
I am not surprised by this commercialized academic cheating because it fills a market niche, and that niche was created by those who thought that NZ higher education instruction was a tradable export commodity for non-English speakers regardless of their cultural context. But with market opening comes consumer expectations, and under the current NZ tertiary foreign education model the expectation from foreign student consumers is to receive a first world-style degree by buying third world practical and ethical standards.
Like in so many other policy areas, unprincipled opportunity-takers on both sides of the process have benefitted at the expense of the common good. After all, and revenue-generation aside, encouraging dishonesty in any endeavour is bound to be deleterious over the long term.
Posted on 13:11, May 12th, 2012 by Pablo
This may sound mean but having bank economists talk about global macro-and political economics on major NZ news outlets is like having pedophiles talking about childcare. Having them speak authoritatively on the “news” skews public perceptions of economic matters towards the preferred constructs of finance capital. Leaving aside the matter of finance capital’s interest in deregulation of capital flows and currency manipulation, using bank economists may be fine when discussing banking take-overs or interest rates in local markets. But there are many other economic interests at play that deserve mention when it comes to issues of political and macro economy and bank economists are ill-suited for a robust discussion of them. To the contrary, their “expert”opinions masquerading as informed commentary in the news media are often poisonous to the integrity of public debate on economic matters.
Is there not a single non-banker economist in NZ who could be used instead? Are all the Economics, Business and Management departments in local universities full of useless PBRF worshippers devoid of real world experience? Are there no economists in research centers, institutes or government agencies who could present a dispassionate and non-vested perspective on the state of global economic play? I find it hard to believe that is the case.
The labour dispute involving the University of Auckland and the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) is the culmination of more than a decade of escalating conflict between the university management and its employees that began during the tenure of former Vice Chancellor John Hood. If Hood, who was VC from 1998 to 2004, was a scalpel designed to eviscerate the union, then his successor Stuart McCutcheon is a sledgehammer focused on bludgeoning the staff into submission. The root of the VC’s hostility to the union lies in their adherence to the so-called “new management” theories that are popular in the private sector (Hood had no academic background prior to his appointment, while McCutcheon was a physiologist prior to being appointed Head of the Department of Animal Sciences at Massey University before holding higher administration positions at that university and later VC of Victoria University). Before arriving at Auckland both men cultivated reputations for being anti-union and ruthless when it came to staff cuts in pursuit of cost savings.
The application of “new management” techniques is nothing more than corporate-speak for imposing modern Taylorist practices on the academe (On Taylorism, see here). The idea is to turn all staff into regulated production units with as little independence and autonomy as possible, in a system where they discharge responsibilities allocated them by the non-academic central management (which has grown significantly at Auckland while the teaching staff has diminished), and in which their “output” is evaluated on spreadsheets and so-called performance based reviews (PBRFs) administered by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) rather than by disciplinary peer reviewers. In this scheme Deans, Associate Deans and department heads become “line managers” for the VC rather than as representatives of their faculties or departments, and staff are made to log in their hours, leave time and generally operate as if they were on an assembly line or phone bank service centre. The primary goal of academic Taylorism is to generate revenue by securing research funding, increasing full time (and increasingly foreign) student enrollments (EFTS) while maintaining or cutting staff levels (thereby increasing staff workloads), and making the university more “corporate-friendly” by encouraging business-related disciplines while eliminating those that are not. Under these schemes, the bottom line of the university is no longer to serve as critic and conscience of society and as a generator of creative talent and broad-based knowledge. It is to pursue the bottom line.
As a result, quality of education and scholarly contribution have now given way as the basis for individual and collective advancement and recognition to quantity of enrollments and research outputs regardless of merit. Be it in admitting unqualified foreign students, lowering academic standards to increase passing rates, publishing shallow edited volumes based upon academic crony conferences or listing magazine articles and media commentary as evidence of “research,” the university has forsaken its charter.
The problem is that the “new management” approach has no understanding of the intellectual enterprise or the nature of academic life. Ideas are not merely “outputs” and are not generated in a cubicle farm setting. New ideas and the resolution of complex problems can be generated on a bus, or during a long run on a beach, or over a cup of coffee while gazing out the window at some pretty greenery. Lectures are not merely a means of conveying power point presentations. Intellectual worth is not reducible to its profit-making potential, and intellectual life is more than being at the service of business or focused on technical disciplines with commodified economic worth. Some creative ventures or disciplines, say modern dance or the Classics, are important not because of their money-making capabilities but because they are expressions and reaffirmations of the human spirit in all of its manifestations. That is what universities are for, and that cannot be quantified on a time clock or spreadsheet.
Because of this, the University of Auckland management and its staff have been locked in a morale-sapping struggle over the future of the university. While Mr. Hood approached the union (then known as AUS) in an adversarial manner, he was at least fairly transparent about his intentions and appeared to understand that there were limits to the imposition of Taylorist practices on academic life. Mr. McCutcheon and his senior team, on the other hand, have adopted an overtly hostile scorched earth approach to the academic staff and union, a stance that has seen management engage in extremely dubious and highly unethical practices such as the falsification and destruction of documents, the intimidation, constructive and unjustified dismissal of staff, and the litigation rather than mediation of employment disputes using vast sums of taxpayer funding to pay corporate legal defense fees (from Simpson-Grierson) and PR representation. The Human Resources department and individuals such as John Morrow (Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), who was brought by McCutcheon with him from Victoria), are notorious for their bullying and stand-over tactics, using techniques that often times would amount to serious misconduct and border on criminal behaviour if done by anyone else (note that I am only referring here to a limited range of questionable practices and have not delved into issues regarding management relationship with foreign governments that supply students, senior staff travel expenditures and personal misconduct that goes unpunished).
The reason why the Auckland University management has adopted this approach is three-fold: first, because its intention is to destroy the union, pure and simple. Second, because under the current employment climate and labor legislation, it can do so with impunity. And third, because the tertiary sector union has allowed it to do so by adopting mistaken and now possibly terminal negotiating strategies in the past.
Under the leadership of Helen Kelly, the then AUS preferred to emphasise wage increases in the face of inflation rather than working conditions and academic integrity and autonomy. Year after year the sole focus of union negotiators was on wages, for which the union was willing to incrementally give away staff prerogatives when it came to teaching loads, recruitment and retention, and even the elimination of entire disciplines (such as Russian and Indonesian language instruction). The problem with this strategy was first, it elicited little sympathy from the wider public because as things stand people believe that academics are overpaid and under-worked relative to the “real” world (when I left the university my salary was over NZ$102,000 as a Senior Lecturer 5, so I can see how the public would think that). Secondly, because the union only represents thirty-odd percent of the academic staff (the overall percentage of organized university staff increased after 2009 with amalgamation of the AUS and the Association of Staff in Tertiary Education (ASTE), which covers university administrative staff, but still does not cover the majority of academic staff), the university management could undercut union negotiations by offering separate wage packages to unorganised staff on individual contracts, thereby forcing the union to eventually relent and accept the same deal as the unorganised staff in exchange for the university retaining the collective contract governing other aspects of the employment relationship not subject–yet–to managerial discretion. This process of stalled negotiations, threatened industrial action and on several occasions strikes themselves did not hinder management’s steady, yearly erosion of the basic terms of employment.
In fact, rather than trade wage restraint for a halt to managerial intrusions into workplace autonomy and research and teaching independence, the union stubbornly clung to the wage/inflation parity fixation. By the mid 2000s, every year it wound up settling for the wages unorganised staff had agreed to and slowly but steadily found itself subject to increased management control of basic working conditions regardless of the specifics of the academic discipline or the nature of research involved. As Taylor would have had it, academic synthesizing was in play.
Ms. Kelley’s mistake was that she sought to preserve the union’s agency by trading incremental wage gains for non-wage concessions when confronting an opponent that was most interested in destroying the union. This was evident in her approach to forced redundancies and constructive or unjustified dismissals, which was to seek monetary settlement rather than go to court even if this meant the end of the union member’s academic career. Since the university has money to burn for such things, this approach played neatly into its hands.
And so it happens that this year McCutcheon and his wrecking crew minions have made their boldest move. After gradually tightening leave requirements, increasing on-site hours and teaching and research (make) workloads, adding administrative chores (such as the endless paperwork associated with the PBRF and Annual Performance Reviews) loosening burden of proof standards in employment disputes and restricting opportunities for academic staff to work off-campus without penalty, the university has proposed to eliminate research and study leave and have disciplinary matters removed from from the collective contract (research leave is now guaranteed for one semester every three years subject to the submission of a viable research proposal estimating costs, itineraries etc., and disciplinary procedures–which have been repeatedly breached by the management anyway–are outlined in the collective contract) as well as remove a number of clauses in the contract governing the non-wage employment conditions of the staff (these include ongoing changes to promotion criteria and guidelines that make it easier for managers to deny or confirm promotions based on on non-standardised assessment measures). In exchange, the university has offered an increase in annual leave from four to five weeks for all staff along with a four percent pay increase. McCutcheon’s attitude is clear, as he has stated to the press that he believes that universities should not be encumbered by employment agreements that constrain management’s ability to dictate policy. Taylor would be proud.
Unlike Ms. Kelly, the new TEU president, Sandra Grey, is an academic who knows the inside of a classroom and the research requirements inherent in academic employment. Finally realizing the real stakes involved, the TEU has responded by asking Auckland members to refuse to engage in the annual PBRF exercises that help determine the amount of research funding that the university receives from the government. The PBRF, which is a glorious time and energy-consuming make-work exercise introduced the early 2000s as part of the new managerial approach to research funding, is considered to be the holy grail for the management bean counters in the Clock Tower and VC’s office, so naturally enough McCutcheon has shown his bully self by threatening that any reductions in PBRF funding caused by staff refusal to perform the exercise could result in dismissals (ignoring the fact that staff numbers are below those of the pre-PBRF days and that enrollments are up, which means that he would have to reduce course offerings and turn away students in the measure that he fires lecturers, or at a minimum replace them with less-qualified personnel). The union has responded with a PR and media campaign and promised more direct action if the VC’s proposal is not withdrawn. At the moment both sides are at an impasse. Truth be told, in the contemporary economic, political and social climate and given its member numbers as a percentage of the overall academic workforce, this is a very risky act of TEU brinkmanship.
It will be interesting to see what will happen if this confrontation continues. But one thing is sure: this is the TEU’s last stand in Auckland. If it loses this battle then it will be destroyed as a credible agent for the interests of the Auckland University staff. And once that domino has fallen, it will not be long before management in other NZ universities will follow suit and adopt the sledgehammer approach towards union branch-busting in the pursuit of academic Taylorism. At that point the notion of “the academe” will have ceased to exist in New Zealand.
PS: Less you think I am off track, check this out from someone who still works at Auckland University (hence the diplomatic and deferential tone).
OK, you knew this was coming. In the interest of ideological balance, or better yet, just because I am curious, I would like to ask readers who the under-60 Right thinkers are. Given that the Left thinker thread spun off into tangents about age limits, outlets and who and what constitutes the “proper “Left (thereby confirming the view that Lefties would rather argue about ideological purity and how many Marxists can balance on the head of the pin than simply answer a straight-forward question), here the label “Right” includes anything that is not skinhead neo-Nazi holocaust denier (which means Ann Rand enthusiasts and those of religious inclinations are eligible). In order to avoid nomination of the fossilised architects of the neo-liberal destruction of NZ’s welfare state, I have placed an age limit of 60 so that we can see if there is new blood in the Right waters.
Please be nice. I was gratified to see that only one commentator on the Left Thinker thread engaged in trolling, and just once at that. Thus I ask that Lefties not engage in bad behaviour and either refrain from making nasty or derisive comments or be sincere in their choices. Of course the same applies for any Right-oriented readers. That means, among other things, that due to reason of probity Rick “I think that my argument is so powerful that it’s not necessary to talk about it” Giles is ineligible for nomination. Beyond that and within the guidelines mentioned above, the field is open.
Although the Left Thinker post elicited a spike in page reads and much commentary (still going), it only elicited a couple of consensus names and a few others, thereby falling short of the short list I had asked for (perhaps that was my mistake, as I figured that a short list would be somewhere between 5-10). Thus I wonder what the Right list will look like (should there be one) even if I have added 20 years to the upper age limit and made no negative editorial remarks about various Right factions in the post (except about skinheads, neo-Nazis and their ilk).
I yield the floor to you.
I almost choked on my chardonnay when I read over the weekend a quote from Chris Trotter stating that Bomber Bradbury represented the future of NZ Left thinking. Martin is a genial enough, alternative-minded, progressive niche market entertainer with strong opinions, generally good intentions and a decent grasp of current affairs. But Chris must have dropped an E to be that generous in his assessment of Bomber’s contributions to NZ’s Left intelligentsia. He also mentioned Jordan Carter as an up-and-coming Labour strategist, which seems to be less a product of party drug induced rapture and more of a wide-spread consensus amongst Lefty consignieri (and Labour Party consiglieri) about Jordan’s talents as a party strategist.
That got me to thinking about who are the next generation of NZ’s Left thinkers. I have had a fair share of young progressives pass through my classes while engaged in university teaching in Aotearoa (including, I believe, both Jordan and Bomber), which makes me wonder who in the under 40-generation will inherit the mantle that Chris, Matt McCarten, Laila Harre and very few others currently represent (not that I think that the over 40′s are finished in terms of their contributions to activism and Left political thought–it is the future of the ideological school that has been piqued in my mind by Chris’s comment). Note that I am not thinking exclusively of activists, academicians or politicians, and am trying to get an idea of the wide swathe of young Left thinkers that may be out there.
I of course am biased in favour of my colleagues here on KP Anita and Lew, who I think represent the sharper edge of Left-leaning bloggers. Idiot Savant is another blogger who seems to fit the bill, as do some of the authors at The Hand Mirror, and some of the folk over at the Standard exhibit intellectual depth beyond their obvious partisan ties. Bryce Edwards might be one who straddles the gap between blogging and academia (although truth be told, I know little of Bryce’s scholarly writing and am quite aware that there are very few quality Left academicians in NZ social science departments–most are po-mo or derivationist navel-gazing PC knee jerkers with little to offer by the way of contribution to modern Marxist, neo-Marxist or post-Marxist debates). There are bound to be young Maori who can contribute to future Left debates from more than a reflexive, grievance-based perspective. Of the neo-Gramscians, Kate Nicholls is a personal favorite of mine, but I am too close to her to be fully objective. For their part, I do not think that Stalinist or Trotskyites represent the future of NZ Left praxis, much less thought.
The issue is important because unless the NZ Left can rejuvenate itself intellectually and separate its scholarly tradition from the base practice of partisan politics and street-level activism, then it will cede the field of reasoned debate to the intellectual Right, something that in turn will have negative consequences for the overall prospects of progressive change in the country. In other words, the Left needs to reproduce itself intellectually as well as politically if it is to compete in the market of ideas that in turn influences the way in which the very concepts of politics, citizenship, rights, entitlements and obligations are addressed.
I therefore pose the question to KP readers: who would be on your short list of young NZ Left intellectuals who represent the future of progressive thought in Aotearoa?
By all accounts a good man, a first rate mind and someone who chose to immigrate and contribute to New Zealand. He also proved that intellectual blogs can be lively, popular and profitable. He will be missed.
I was not going to post on the Witi Ihimaera plagarism scandal, having commented under my own name on another blog that covered the matter. But as I compare my summary dismissal for writing a rude email to an unqualified and underperforming student with the lack of even a cursory reprimand for his theft of intellectual property, and then find out that apparently it is not the first time that Mr. Ihimaera has appropriated someone else’s work as his own, I find myself wondering if indeed there is a double standard at play when it comes to our respective treatment by my former employer. Let me explain why, but first point to the one consistency in the handling of both cases.
The University has, as part of its collective contract with the union representing academic staff, a series of procedures and regulations that have to be followed before an academic staff member can be dismissed for serious misconduct. This includes receiving a formal complaint detailing the misconduct, attempting to mediate the matter using the offices of the Ombudsman, handling the matter within the department, issuing two formal written warnings before dismissal is sought…the requirements are pretty detailed and in fact were made even more so after my dismissal precisely because of the controversy surrounding it. Perhaps Mr. Ihimaera is not a member of the union so other procedures were followed, but that usually mitigates against favorable resolution for the employee.
In my case none of the internal procedures were honoured other than as a facade. No formal written complaint was ever made against me, but without getting my side of the story the Ombuds(person) immediately brought the issue to the attention of my department HOD, who without saying a word to me passed it on to the Dean, who after consulting with the student as to what should be done held a series of brief meetings with me and a union rep in which he shrugged off my apologies and assurances, ignored the fact I had no prior formal warnings, and sent me packing. In fact, he and his HR advisors attempted to use a couple of unrelated events from the past (an argument with a former HOD about managerial practices and an email disagreement with a colleague about a grad student who failed to attend a class) to argue that prior warnings had been given. Those were later found to be irrelevant by the ERA.
In Mr. Ihimaera’s case it appears that, upon hearing that news of the plagarism was about to go public, the University rapidly pushed through an “investigation” of the matter apparently involving his HOD, the new Dean of Arts (who was not the Dean the fired me) and Mr. Ihimaera. No disciplinary board with colleagues outside of the HoD and Dean was apparently convened. Mr. Itimaera gave apologies and assurances, and the case was closed.
What is consistent in both cases is that the lengthy rules and procedures for handling discipline cases involving academics were circumvented, in his case favourably to him and in my case not. This galls me not because I think that Mr. Ihimaera should be fired–I do not, and think that both of us should have received a final written reprimand about our respective transgressions–but because the University argued that I was fired because of the damage I did to its reputation. This line of argument continued after the dismissal was found to be unjustified, then into the settlement agreement by which formal reinstatement meant no actual reinstatement. But what about my reputation? Not only did the leaked email wind up on the front page of the national newspaper and then went global, but the University did nothing to prevent its release or demand its withdrawal when a student newspaper under its authority first published it (even though leaking the email was a violation of the email policy under which I was ostensibly fired). Moreover, the University knew well what the impact of the dismissal would be. As the Dean who fired me said to the ERA, “in a reputation-based business like academia, summary dismissal essentially means the end of a career.” In my case that seems to be proving true, and perhaps it was that knowledge that made for lighter treatment for Mr. Ihimaera–but I suspect not, simply because his association with academia was one of mutual convenience rather than professional necessity.
My major question is, if what I did was so injurious to the University reputation, what about Mr. Ihimaera’s plagarism? Plagarism is the single worst thing that an academic can do. Working in a genre such as historical fiction does not excuse the lifting of other’s words. Plus, being housed within an academic institution means adhering to its requirements on original work, so he was, in fact, more duty bound than independent writers in that regard. Students get failed and often expelled for plagarism. Academic staff get demoted or fired for plagarism. And Mr Ihimaera did not even merit a reprimand? Now, it seems that the case gets worse, as others have come forth to claim that Mr. Ihimaera has plagarised in his previous work. If so, and if the University knew about those previous incidents, then its absolution of the latest episode is even more alarming.
The University and Mr. Ihimaera say that his plagarism was “inadvertent” and thus excusable. Even if that were true–and it stretches credulity to think that a famous author would not know the difference between his own words and sentence structure and those of others– standard guidelines on plagarism, including those specifically used and distributed by the University to students and staff, state that inadvertent or unknowing plagarism is no excuse for it. It is the author’s responsibility to ensure his/her work is original and properly cited, and the crosses all academic fields and intellectual genres.
Some have claimed that because Mr. Ihimaera is Maori, famous and gay, he got off lightly. I initially thought that was ludicrous and that there were other mitigating circumstances at play. But the more I learn about the case and think about the differences in our treatment, the more I wonder as to why those differences. Certainly universal institutional standards need to be upheld over and above the specific identity and interests of any individual. That is what the University claimed in my case. Yet, was what I did worse than plagarism? Did my email to an individual student cause more damage to the University than the discovery by a book reviewer in a national magazine of the as of then unattributed passages in Mr. Ihimaera’s latest book? How can he not even receive a reprimand, and how can the University claim that in both cases its standard rules and procedures were followed to the letter?
The real shame is that it is not my actions or Mr. Ihimaera’s that have tainted the reputation of the University. Instead, it is playing loose with the rules and attempts to “spin” both stories in a way that gives the illusion of procedures being properly followed that sullies the brand. That has a negative impact not only on the managerial cadre that are the perpetrators of the double standard but also the staff, alumni, current and prospective students who share association with the University name. Yet, instead of being ashamed and contrite, University managers continue to obfuscate and bluster, refusing to reveal how their “investigation” of the Ihimaera case was conducted citing privacy concerns (concerns they were not so concerned about when my email went public). It appears that management are blissfully unaware that the ship is sinking beneath them or else are confident that no matter what they do, they will not be held to account by anyone other than themselves. Since the taxpayers ultimately pay the salaries of all involved, that should be a matter of public interest.
This verse has been on my mind rather a lot since moving to my new exurb (it’s not quite a chain-store ghost town, although there sure is one of every chain store here.) But it’s the second pair of lines I’ve dwelt most upon; a potent image of Brave New World escapism as a substitute for real-life engagement, a soma-ed out populace who’ll take what it’s given.* This is a fashionable refrain in postmodern affluent liberal polities: democracy is being undermined by apathy, generated by those who would prefer you didn’t engage in politics at all so they can just get on with running the world without pesky peons interfering.
Political engagement in NZ is fairly weak and superficial, and that is bad for democratic politics. Engagement with and understanding of both the function and the presentation of political process is critical sustenance for democracy; but note, it must be with both the function and the presentation. It can be active (marches, submissions, donations, party membership, etc.) or passive (caring about the news, writing letters-to-the-editor, talkback, bloggery, heated discussions at the pub).
Both are important. In a political network model of concentric circles, a party’s leadership is surrounded by a wider group of insiders, cadres, activists, lobbyists and so forth, surrounded in turn by the party’s wider electorate. Organised political activity will only ever be the domain of a relative few, whom we might call second-circle elites; those who are involved in the political process but who do not drive it. The major role of these second-circle elites is to act as intermediary between the first and third circles; to channel information from the electorate to the leadership and to spread politics out to the electorate. These two functions (in and out) are very different; the former involves constant, frank and honest self-appraisal, a critical assessment function which must be independent from the proselytising imperative. The latter is the proselytising imperative; it requires faith and focus and adherence to doctrine and discipline.
When the feedback loop breaks down and information is fed out but not back in, a political movement becomes hijacked by its elite base — as if the second circle can somehow substitute for the third circle, as if burning desire among a few people can somehow substitute for smouldering will among a much larger number, in apparent ignorance of the fact that votes are not distributed on the basis of intensity of feeling. Ultimately the role of second-circle elites is to promote engagement between the first and third, and where apathy reigns in a polity, it is generally due to their failure to adequately perform those gatekeeping, proselytising and critical assessment functions. But second-circle elites all too frequently blame the electorate for these failures. Often, as in NZ at present, this leads to them decrying ‘politics by focus group’ or ‘pandering to the masses’ as defence of their own ‘principled’ or ‘just plain right’ positions; a view which scorns and patronises the electorate. Often, this position is combined with the grudging acknowledgement that the masses do in fact have all the votes and must therefore be ‘pandered to’ in order to gain sufficient support to prosecute a political agenda which may or may not resemble the agenda campaigned upon. This elite-centred view of politics kills engagement and increases apathy among non-elites, and results in the self-fulfilling prophecy that the unwashed hordes make poor political decisions — they often do, because they often don’t get what they vote for and didn’t have much of a hand in defining it anyhow.
But although the elites might sneer, engagement among the so-called silent majority is highly valuable, and the number of their votes is the least part of their importance. Their scrutiny of political events, policy and discourse may not be so intense, but it is broader and more stable. Even a moderate degree of political and media literacy among a wide section of the electorate provides a valuable check on how much government, its delegated authorities, lobbyists and other political actors can get away with, raising the bar of political action and discourse and providing a check that a high degree of literacy among a small second-circle elite can never provide. This is simply the wisdom of crowds.
Political movements need to decide whether their main priority is to agitate their own partisan lines for short-term electoral gain and alienate those segments with whom they disagree, or to build a democratic infrastructure of engagement and literacy in the polity in the knowledge that greater engegament and literacy will pay dividends. Or, to put it another way, political movements need to decide how much of the one they are prepared to sacrifice to the other. It’s a tricky balance, and I don’t mean to suggest it’s a precise zero-sum tradeoff, but the project of building democratic literacy and engagement is not usually compatible with a partisan agenda, and this means accepting that some proselytisation opportunities will be missed. But if the core problem is a low standard of political action and discourse in the polity, and the imperative is to drive up the quality of political action and discourse by increasing polity-level political and media literacy, then the strategic job of the agitators should be to promote political literacy above all else; even to the partial exclusion of short-term partisan gains. In my view, too much has been sacrificed to the electoral cycle; that the government so often gets away with the ‘nine long years’ gambit, itself a propaganda device to deflect attention from some policy failure or unappealing priority decision, indicates the failure of this imperative.
The NZ electorate is not entirely unengaged, though the standard of that engagement is quite low. There have been a number of catalytic issues in recent years which have made people sit up and care about politics: the Orewa Speech, the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the Electoral Finance Act, the s59 repeal; the h debate are a few which spring readily to my mind. Most of these were created by the right for largely partisan reasons, realising that engagement was a way of taking the political initiative. It is critical to note here that engagement is not the same as literacy, but that it can lead to literacy in the long term if properly managed. While the iwi/kiwi debate and the smacking debate and so on generated much heat and little light, they provide an illustration that political activism isn’t quite hunched before the TV screen with a beer in one hand and a remote control in the other. What’s needed is a cultural change in NZ democratic politics; issues that the polity cares about, politicians who are responsive to those issues, and elites who are committed first and foremost to raising these issues and sustaining the discourse betwen the first and second circles for the good of democratic politics rather than strictly for partisan gain.
Crowdsourcing politics for democracy’s sake is preventative maintenance. It’s well overdue.
* Really, what will we do now that NZ’s Next Top Model has been cancelled?
One thing that is striking about the tone of contemporary public policy debates in NZ is the absence of intellectuals. Although various academics are trotted out by the media to give sound bites and opinion based on their supposed “expertise” in given subject areas, they otherwise do not loom large in the national conversation on issues of policy. Likewise, activists and partisans of various stripes make their views known on a number of fronts, but their contributions are notable more for their zeal than their intellectual weight. So, what happened to NZ’s public intellectuals, or perhaps better said, has there ever been a real tradition of public intellectuals in Aotearoa?
I ask this because as a relative newcomer to the country (arrived in 1997), I may have witnessed the passing from the public eye of the final generation of public intellectuals. People like Andrew Sharp, Bruce Jesson, Barry Gustafson (who is retired by active), Michael King–their likes are no longer seen in policy debates, and there does not appear to be another generation of intellectuals emerging to replace them. Moreover, due to my ignorance of NZ intellectual history, I remain unsure if theirs was the only generation of scholars who had an impact on public life, or if they are the final generation in a tradition that extends back to pre-colonial days.
To be sure, the likes of Jane Kelsey, Brian Easton (who, if from that previous generation is still alive and involved in contemporary debates), Gareth Morgan, Ranginui Walker, Sandra Coney, Ian Wedde, perhaps Chris Trotter (who is prolific if not consistent in his views) continue to agitate for their causes. Various bloggers have made their mark on public discourse, and Maori luminaries interject their insights into discussions of tangata whenua and tino rangatiratanga. But it appears that there is an anti-intellectual bias deeply ingrained in NZ society, one that has its origins in the much celebrated egalitarian ethos of the country, but which is now reinforced by the corporate media disposition to sell teenage pop fodder, “infotainment,” culturally vacuous “reality” shows and sports instead of providing even a minimum of in-depth news, analysis and debate. Although there are evening and weekend segments dedicated to public affairs on major media outlets and plenty of talkback options in which opinions are voiced, those that feature them are dominated by policy dilettantes or, worse yet, journalists, society celebrities or ex-politicians talking to each other (in a version of the Fox News syndrome of mutual self-promotion via staged interviews on personality-driven shows). There is even an academic version of this, in which individuals who are purported experts in “media studies” are brought out to pontificate on how media covers politics and social issues. No need to consult those that actual work in these subject areas–all that is required for public consumption is someone who looks at how the media covers how sociologists, economists and political scientists track issues of policy. That is enough to make definitive judgements on the matters of the day. Add to this the fact that many media guest talking heads are paid for their appearances, or if not, wish to keep their mugs on the society pages, and what passes for informed public scrutiny of policy cause and consequence is nothing more than a collection of glib retorts and one-liners. This is the media equivalent of comfort food.
The pandering syndrome has infected the political classes. Personal image and party “brand” is more important than substance. Market research drives approaches to policy. And nowhere is their an intellectual in sight to serve as critic and conscience of society. Instead, “opinionaters” from all parts of the political spectrum pass shallow retrospective judgement on matters of import, and in the measure that they do so they rapidly fade from the front lines of the degraded public debates. Small wonder that political debates often tend towards the banal and trivial.
I am therefore curious as to whether there has ever been a robust tradition of public intellectuals in NZ, and if so, why has it all but disappeared? The 2007 book Speaking Truth to Power (Auckland University Press) decried the dearth of public intellectuals, and the situation appears to have gotten worse since then (good reviews of the book can be found here: http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3493/artsbooks/8641/that_thinking_feeling.html; and here: http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/feature-archive/163908/Smart-thinking-NZs-public-intellectuals).>>Sorry, I am having trouble placing the links in shorter format<<
The word “intellectual” itself has become a focus for ridicule and derision, and professions in which intellectual labour is the norm are denigrated as the province of losers who otherwise could not get a “real” job (hence the tired saw that “those that do, do, and those than don’t, teach”). This is odd because in other societies intellectual labour is valued intrinsically, and in NZ there has been at least rhetorical championing of the move towards a higher level of public discourse. What happened to the “knowledge economy” and the effort to turn NZ into a value-added, innovation-based manufacturing platform? Is there no role for public intellectuals in that project, to say nothing of more lofty efforts to argue and impart a normative as well as positive theoretical framework for the ongoing betterment of Kiwi society? Are intellectuals indeed just pointy-headed bludgers ruminating about how many angels can fit on the end of a pin from the obscurity of their ivory towers and smoke-filled staff rooms? Or is there something amiss in the larger society that denies them a public role?
I shall leave the answers to you.