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Eye Candy, Window Dressing and Deep Pockets.

datePosted on 15:06, July 29th, 2014 by Pablo

I came back from six weeks abroad to see the beginning of the Internet Party’s “party party” launches. It leaves me with some questions.

It seems that what the Internet Party has done is this. Using Kim Dotcom’s wallet as a springboard, it has selected a candidate group largely made up of attractive metrosexuals (only a few of whom have political experience), recruited as window dressing a seasoned (and also attractive) leftist female as party leader (even though she has no experience in the IT field), and run a slick PR campaign featuring cats that is long on rhetoric and promises and short on viable policies. The stated aim is to get out the apathetic youth vote and thereby reach the three percent electoral threshold.

The strategic alliance with the Mana Party makes sense, especially for Mana. They get additional resources to more effectively campaign for at least two electorate seats, especially given that it looks like the Maori Party is moribund and the Maori electoral rolls will thereby be more contestable even if Labour tries to reclaim its historical support in it. The Internet Party gets to coattail on Mana’s activism and the presence of relatively seasoned cadres on the campaign trail. Between the two, they might well reach the five percent threshold, although current polling suggests something well less than that. The lack of political experience in the Internet Party could be problematic in any event.

But I am still left wondering what the IP stands for and how it proposes to effect change if its candidates are elected. We know that the IP came about mostly due to Dotcom’s hatred of John Key. But Dotcom is ostensibly not part of the IP, which makes his attention-grabbing presence at its public events all the more puzzling. Leaving aside Dotcom’s background and baggage for the moment, imagine if major financial donors stole the stage at Labour, National or Green Party rallies. What would the reaction be? Plus, hating on John Key is not a policy platform, however much the sentiment may be shared by a good portion of the general public (and that is debatable).

Giving free internet access to all seems nice, but how and who is going to pay for that? Wanting to repeal the 2013 GCSB Act and withdraw from the 5 Eyes intelligence network sounds interesting, but how would that happen and has a cost/benefits analysis been run on doing so?  Likewise, opposition to the TPP seems sensible, but what is its position on trade in general? The policies on the environment and education seem laudable (and look to be very close to those of the Greens), and it is good to make a stand on privacy issues and NZ independence, but is that enough to present to voters?

More broadly, where does IP stand on early childhood education, pensions, occupational health and safety, immigration, transportation infrastructure, diplomatic alignment, defense spending or a myriad of other policy issues? Is it anything more than a protest party? Nothing I have seen in its policy platform indicates a comprehensive, well thought roadmap to a better future. In fact, some of the policy statements are surprisingly shallow and in some cases backed with citations from blogs and newspapers rather than legitimate research outlets.

Is having attractive candidates, catchy slogans and a narrow policy focus enough for IP to be a legitimate political contender?

I have read what its champions claim it to be, and have read what its detractors say it is. I am personally familiar with two IP candidates and have found them to be earnest people of integrity and conviction who want more than a narrow vendetta-driven agenda opportunistically married to an indigenous socialist movement. I would, in fact, love to see it succeed because I think that the political Left in NZ needs more varied forms of representation in parliament than currently available.

So my question to readers is simple: is the IP a viable and durable option in the NZ political landscape, or is it doomed to fail?

One thing is certain. If dark rumours are correct, the government has some unpleasant surprises for the IP in the weeks leading to the election. If that happens, it may take more than Glenn Greenwald and his revelations about John Key and the GCSB to redeem the IP in the eyes of the voting public. I would hope that both Dotcom and his IP candidates are acutely aware of what could be in store for them should the rumours prove true, and plan accordingly.

What is success for Internet MANA?

datePosted on 23:29, June 10th, 2014 by Lew

In the previous two posts I’ve covered the strategic rationales behind the Internet MANA alliance, and how, even if they spend their money very inefficiently, they are still very likely to gain a stronger presence in Parliament. But what does success actually look like for Internet MANA?

This is a complex question to answer because Internet MANA, for all its potential, is a mess of vanity projects existing in a state of ideological and pragmatic tension. But tensions all resolve sooner or later.

Kim Dotcom: Disruption (a change of government, or 10%)
Of all these vanity projects, Kim Dotcom’s is the greatest. It’s hard to imagine a guy who donated $50k to John Banks starting a cyber-utopian radical-left-aligned political vehicle for altruistic reasons, and it seems plain that he means to prevent, by any possible means, his extradition to the USA on copyright infringement and money-laundering charges. This is fair enough from his perspective — he can’t spend his pile in a US prison. NZ is a well-chosen target: a country with a small (therefore shallow, cheaply-manipulated) political system, but, unusually, also possessing a reasonably robust and independent judiciary.

To get his extradition case thrown out, Kim Dotcom needs to change the government, and prevail upon an incoming Minister of Justice that he and his party are great assets to that government.

The likelihood of this is slim, because he has already antagonised Labour, and because the leader of his own party has insisted she will not be led on the matter. Other members of the radical left groups aligned with the party are probably supportive of his ideological aim here, if only due to generalised anti-authoritarianism and anti-Americanism. And the other branch of Kim Dotcom’s game is fame, or notoriety, and if he can put his disruption engine in parliament, he will gain that, and it may provide him strategic cover for other manoeuvres regardless of who is in government.

The other way it could happen is if Internet MANA shocks everyone and polls very high — say, 10% — which would ruin almost everyone’s coalition plans. This is also extremely unlikely, but clearly it is Kim Dotcom’s hope, and it would be the purest sort of success for everyone involved.

Laila Harré: A launch (5%+) or a lifeboat (3%)
Her return to politics with the Greens last year was welcomed, and the conventional wisdom is that her appointment to lead the Internet Party was a strategic coup. I agree. But as I discussed in the first post, the deck is stacked in Te Mana’s favour. It is plausible, if the alliance performs poorly, that Harré would find herself marooned amid the wreckage of the Internet Party as its only MP, or even outside parliament, when the Internet MANA agreement expires six weeks after the election.

There’s a quirk here: Te Mana gets list places 1,3 and 4; Internet Party 2, 5 and 6, after which they alternate. So if they win five seats or fewer, Te Mana MPs will outnumber the Internet Party’s. If they win six or more seats, the numbers are more or less even. This provides a strong incentive for the Internet Party to perform, and also suggests shrewd negotiation by Te Mana.

In the event that the Internet Party bring Harré only into parliament (four seats or fewer), or if Kim Dotcom withdraws his cash and the party structure is no longer found to be self-sustaining, it seems very likely that Harré would join Te Mana formally. While her history in parties of this sort is its own guide, I suspect they would welcome her and it would be a fruitful arrangement: a win, of sorts, both for her and Te Mana.

The Internet Party: A future (7%)
The Internet Party doesn’t really exist. Kim Dotcom exists and Laila Harré exists, but without them it has no motive force. It could acquire such force by gaining a very substantial share of the party vote (7-8%, or 9-10 MPs), half of whom woulf be from the Internet Party, which could possibly — not probably — become self-sustaining. Without Laila Harré’s star power and Kim Dotcom’s money, this is a hard row for Vikram Kumar and the Candidate Idol contestants to hoe.

Te Mana and Hone Harawira: The only way is up
Te Mana’s case is easiest here: everything looks like a win for them. They have one MP facing a strong electorate challenge and polling under 1%, with no money, who is almost universally hated by the political mainstream. Even a mediocre performance of 2-3% would see Annette Sykes and possibly John Minto join Hone Harawira in parliament, which would make for some impressive fireworks. Even if the party then has to fend for itself, as Kim Dotcom’s largesse expires, or he is shipped off overseas, they have been granted a rare opportunity to galvanise the marginal electorate, and that’s better than under any other conceivable scenario.

The Left: It’s complicated
Given Labour’s current posture towards all parties that aren’t Labour, there is no way that Internet MANA benefits the left generally in the immediate term. Many commentators — Phil Quin has a good example at Pundit — have argued that the mere existence of Internet MANA could return John Key with a clean majority and the ability to have his way with Aotearoa in a glorious third term. I think this is pretty plausible. By no means does the left look like winning this election. But Labour has been underperforming for most of the past decade, and it might be that an injection of crazy disruptive ideas from a weird agglomeration of old leftwing radicals and young idealistic crypto-libertarians is what they need to shock them back to their senses.

There remains the slight possibility that they will bring enough MPs into parliament to make a chaotic and unholy alliance of the left a just slightly less-bad alternative to the Golden Age of John Key. As an aside: the better the Greens do, the better for Internet MANA post-election; and if nothing else they should hopefully form a strong ideological and generational counterpoint to New Zealand First, which I fear starts to fancy itself as the UKIP of the South Seas.

Aotearoa as a whole
I think New Zealand is better off having this argument than not. Much of what Internet MANA stands for has been unduly marginalised and is due consideration; especially the emergent aspects, such as with regard to modern standards of surveillance, the relationship and competing loyalties of the state to the citizenry and to its international community, and to the comparatively trivial matter of copyright. These debates feed into the notions of sovereignty and the primacy of people, rather than corporations and institutions, which mobilise Te Mana, and there are significant areas of ideological overlap, such as the flagship Internet Party policies of free tertiary education, withdrawal from the TPPA, severe constraints on the GCSB and other security and intelligence services, and — less popular with Hone Harawira than with his voters — the decriminalisation of marijuana. These are debates worth having, and we will be better off for having had them, whether the major parties want to or not.

L

Mongrel renegades, castaways, and cannibals

datePosted on 10:09, June 9th, 2014 by Lew

So Herman Melville described the crew of the Pequod. While it probably seems tendentious to equate them to the Internet MANA party, that seems to be how Kim Dotcom, at least, regards himself — as Captain Ahab, nailing his doubloon to the mast and urging them to seek the destruction of his Prime Ministerial Moby-Dick. But in spite of the many failings he, or Ishmael, attributed to them, that crew were good people, enormously effective, and very nearly successful in their hopeless task of hunting a single whale across all the oceans of the world.

In spite of Dotcom’s megalomania, Key — unlike the white whale — just doesn’t care that much. But in any case, the hauling-together of two unlikely vessels that form the Internet MANA alliance is more interesting than one rich eccentric’s personal grudge, or his attempts to avoid extradition.

The conventional reading of Internet MANA — even among some on the left — is that Kim Dotcom has colonised the Mana movement, buying himself a tame savage who’ll do his dirty work for him. But I don’t think so: I think the Internet Party is trying to bite off more than it can chew.

The Mana movement has always been about those outside the political mainstream. Even while he was forced into collaboration, Hone Harawira was plain about his radicalism. His legacy — barring some major change — is unlikely to be that period, or Te Mana, but the previous three decades of dogged activism in service of his people. One of these was his role in the haka party incident which demonstrated — or rather, reiterated after a long hiatus — to Pākehā New Zealand that Māori were’t going to take it.

Even so, if it were just Harawira this colonisation line might be fair — he’s a tough and principled guy, but running a fringe party without a benefactor — in the form of an electoral liege, or a millionaire backer, or both — is hard going. (Ask Winston Peters.) But Harawira is not alone. Both Annette Sykes and John Minto have decades of unglamorous and largely unrewarded activism behind them, and enormous credibility. Not among the National and Labour-voting public, but in radical and Māori circles, where it counts for their purposes. There is clearly some division — Sue Bradford quit the party, prompting a rush of right-wingers who have for decades said the most vile things about her to praise her integrity. But all in all, few people who know them believe that all of Harawira, Minto, and Sykes can be bought, in one go.

To which add Laila Harré. Many people have written that her appointment as leader of the Internet Party brings it credibility, and I agree. It is a brave, or reckless, appointment from Kim Dotcom’s perspective, because Harré is bigger than he is and, if elected, will influence the party more by leading it than he will by funding it — especially when his largesse runs out, as it inevitably will. Her parliamentary achievements have been limited because of her commitment to activism, but her record outside parliament has been more significant. She has demonstrated she can’t be bought, and is willing to hold her own line and walk away from a bad political situation, even when the stakes are very high.

What’s cleverest about this alliance is how neatly it separates ends and means. Morgan Godfery has argued persuasively that the alliance is a deeply conventional bit of strategy and an obvious next-step, from a Māori nationalist perspective, both mainstream and nationalist-insurgent political vehicles for Tino Rangatiratanga having been thoroughly co-opted by mainstream (white) imperatives. I would say further that it indicates a strategic maturity we have not yet seen from Māori parliamentary parties, and an elaboration of the māori party’s strategy of pragmatic coupling, though this time, to a vehicle it can more readily control. At least in this case, the Internet Party’s agenda is clear.

The two parties seem incongruous, and they are — but what they have in common is a claim to stand for those who feel like mainstream politics doesn’t speak for them, or listen to them. Both parties have links to the Occupy movement, and the policy platforms are pitched at groups with some core interests in common: those who are (or feel) criminalised or oppressed by the mainstream, and who wish to disrupt it. These include tech-libertarians and utopian futurists, internet “pirates” and disaffected geeks, anti-GCSB and TPPA activists, land rights and Māori sovereignty activists, actual socialists (as opposed to the Labour kind), the very poor and economically marginalised (especially rural, Māori), marijuana smokers, and a more fringey element of anti-Fluoride campaigners and other assorted cranks and conspiracists. In aggregate it seems clear that these people comprise more than 5% of the electorate — if only you can get them to vote. And that’s what Kim Dotcom’s millions are for: not so much to persuade them of a single, coherent policy platform, but to fly a radical banner to which the disruptors can flock. For this purpose they need not be all of one kind.

Te Mana has its own marginal voters, which comprise less than 1% of the electorate, and because of the difficulty of persuading it seems unlikely the Internet Party will mobilise much more. But a party vote total of 1.5% should see a second MP, and anything much above 2% should see a third, and this does not seem totally implausible. Even if these are “new” voters — not drawn from Labour or Greens — this probably comes at cost to the wider left if mainstream swing-voters are scared from Labour to National by the prospect of a left coalition including Internet MANA, as Danyl and Russell Brown have suggested. It might well be that the success of Internet MANA weakens Labour’s prospects, but it seems to have little chance of victory anyway, and has declared against Internet MANA, so a robust challenge from the left — as well as the one it has had from John Key on the right — is probably a good thing in the long term. What cares Mana for the neoliberal Pākehā Labour party’s fortunes?

Paradoxically, the addition of Internet Party voters would give Mana voters a stronger chance at locking the Internet party — and Harré — out if they are suspicious of Kim Dotcom’s influence. Harawira is facing a strong challenge in Te Tai Tokerau, but Waiariki is also close. If Labour, Green or Māori party voters tactically support Annette Sykes, hers could be the anchor seat. In this case, the second MP (whether he wins Te Tai Tokerau or not) would be Hone Harawira, with Harré third. Given that two or three MPs seems much more plausible than four or five, the most likely outcome seems to be that Te Mana is no worse off, possibly better off, and has a chance to swap Sue Bradford for the much more politically-viable Laila Harré. It looks less like the Internet Party colonising the Mana movement than the opposite.

L

On Resistance to Climate Change Politics

datePosted on 12:22, June 2nd, 2014 by Lew

Yesterday the Green Party released its Climate Tax Cut policy proposal comprising, mostly, a carbon tax offset by an income-tax-free threshold for individuals and a decrease in the company tax rate. There’s much to be said about the cleverness of the tax-swap policy and so on, but I’m more interested in the cultural differences I observe in Green supporters (who love climate-change mitigation policies) from the rest of the populace at large (who regard them as a necessary evil at best).

Seeing that this cultural gap results in an amount of criticism from greens directed at those less enthusiastic, this morning I put it into the form of a twitter-treatise, as follows:

This seems to me a pretty fundamental map/territory problem: people are cognisant of the threat of climate change and might be willing to do something about it, but are alienated by alarmist rhetoric, guilt-trips and castigation, and policies that might inconvenience them.

The Greens as an increasingly professional and mainstream political operation are, for the most part, pretty good at staying positive on this topic. But how are they to mobilise their activist base without bringing out the elitist and badgering tendencies that come so naturally when people are so convinced of their rightness that they genuinely can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t agree with them?

L

I have noted with growing despair the xenophobia which is becoming a political commonplace this election cycle. On the left it’s about house prices.* But this post is not about racism; it’s about development.

The national median house price is $415,000, a figure skewed substantially upwards by the extraordinary cost of housing in Auckland. But you can buy a three bedroom house in Taumarunui for $26,000, or for $67,000 in Tokoroa. These are extreme examples, but for considerably less than half the median price you can buy a charming colonial villa in Tapanui ($149,500). For a little more than half the median you can buy a newly-renovated house on an acre in central Gisborne ($225,000). Similar houses are available for not very much more money in larger regional centres like Dunedin and New Plymouth, and that’s without considering many apartments, townhouses and more modest types of dwelling.

There are houses out there: there just aren’t jobs to go with them.

The chart above shows income and employment growth by region, and this is why the houses are so cheap. The growth is just not there. (From the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Regional Economic Activity Report 2013).

Opportunity
It’s not just jobs, though; there’s more to life than work. People need confidence in their opportunities in a new place before they will, as Jolisa Gracewood says, buy shares in that community by owning or renting a house there and settling down. They need schools and hospitals and civic institutions and a sense of belonging, they need certainty about their community’s future, and their future within it.

The community likewise needs needs certainty in its new arrivals. A gold rush or an oil boom might provide jobs and cash, but it doesn’t provide certainty for either group. Certainty — and opportunity — comes from deep and sustained development. The fly-in/fly-out mining towns in Australia are a good example, and while that industry has been instrumental in maintaining Australia’s robust economy, its direct value to the regions has been limited — trickling down, lifting all boats — without the adoption of targeted development initiatives such as Royalties for Regions, which seek to return a share of the proceeds of industry to local communities.

As Eric Crampton said about the census income growth figures, increases in average wages across much of the South Island have been coupled with decreases in population, as people on low incomes move in search of better-paying work. Rob Salmond agreed, saying:

The regions with the supposedly highest median income growth also had some of the worst records in population growth, while the areas whose populations grew the fastest had relatively little change in median incomes.

Returning to the MBIE chart above, notice the regions in the top-right quadrant: the West Coast, Waikato and Taranaki. These are distinguished by two characteristic sectors: dairy, and mining, each of which provides a relatively small number of well-paid jobs within a narrow sector, skewing up the income levels but not necessarily changing the overall development picture very much. As crucial as the dairy industry, in particular, is and will continue to be to New Zealand’s economy, a complete solution to development it sure ain’t. Which is why you can buy an enormous Moorish-inspired villa for $220,000 in the middle of gas and dairy country.

Diversification and specialisation
The object of a regional development policy must be to promote structural change, to create industries and communities that are sustainable in their own right — neither transient nor exhaustible, and which attract people whose commitment is likewise neither transient nor exhaustible. These jobs need to go beyond the traditional churn industries like tourism, hospitality and service; though, of course, these jobs will be needed, they should be incidental to development, not its purpose. They need to be high-value and export-led — unlike, for example, our timber industry, and our wool industry. One of our key advantages here is our reputation for being clean and green — demand for premium food, the safety and quality of which can be assured, and including organic and sustainably-produced, is likely to grow strongly and we seem ill-prepared to meet this opportunity, as just one example. Another example is the potential of Māori business, which is as yet terribly underutilised.

In New Zealand we talk a lot about the roles of government in distributing wealth, and in ensuring public access to health, education and other scarce resources. These levers are well-recognised and there is at least a moderate degree of bipartisan agreement on their use. This is not the case with regional and economic development strategies, where there are deep practical and ideological divisions between the parties. I can see why the noninterventionist technocratic right parties like ACT and National are reluctant to consider — or even recognise the viability of — the sort of robust, hands-on regional development strategy that will sustainable economic and community growth in regional areas and persuade the frustrated and overcommitted residents of our major cities to risk a change. It will require considerably more input than building roads, granting mining permits and water rights to permit the extraction of value directly from the land. It will require a lot more than public-private partnerships and white-elephant monorails through virgin rainforest. It very likely will require PPPs, roads, and mining rights, though, meaning the left will have to reconsider some of its positions as well. It will require thorough investment in infrastructure, especially transport infrastructure, and purposeful community-building, possibly funded by a deeper cut from mineral royalties, a localised share of revenues from key industries, or loans from the government. It will probably require considerable autonomy devolved to the communities affected, and the strengthening — rather than the weakening, as is currently happening — of local government. It needs to be a little bit New Deal and a little bit Think Big.

Diversity is resilience, and our economy is very narrowly based. That must change. Different regions have their own strengths — environmental and historical, in terms of personnel and capability — and this represents an opportunity to improve the national economy holistically, by strengthening each of its component parts, rather than by building one economic muscle until it threatens to throw everything else out of balance. In many cases these nascent strengths will need considerable augmentation, and some will need to be developed almost from scratch. That requires significant and sustained investment in research and development — contributions to which the National government cut during the time when it was most crucial; when talent needed to be incentivised to stay here, and when industry needed to prepare to take advantage of the recovery, when it arrived. Public-sector research agencies can be beneficial in quite unpredictable ways, and when it comes to blue-sky research, patience can pay off enormously. If you’re reading this over Wi-Fi, you can thank the Australian government’s scientific agency, the CSIRO.

People and places
One obvious and direct means by which the government can influence regional development is by decentralising — by relocating government departments or agencies to regional centres. At a minimum, governments could decline opportunities to actively dismantle regional industries — such as Invermay — for the sake of short-term cost savings or change for its own sake.

It is clear that having a critical mass of mobile public servants all located within a kilometre of each other can increase efficiency and cross-pollination in government and business. Some significant new businesses — such as Xero and Vend — clearly benefit from strong cohabitation and the development of their own start-up cultures. On the other hand, in the past decade telecommuting has become plausible for a large proportion of people whose work is predominantly reading, writing and talking on the phone, and the major reasons it is not more widely used are to do with middle-managers wishing to retain some measure of direct control over their staff, which they label “team culture”.

There are costs and benefits to decentralisation, but it is hard to shake the sense that government, and the public service, are growing increasingly remote from the people whose interests they ostensibly serve. The gap between the experience of living in Auckland or Wellington and living in the rest of the country is vast already, and is likely to grow. Over the long term, as regional development improves, mobility will increase, as the economic and cultural risk of moving to or from a major centre will decrease, and this seems likely to yield an even greater cross-pollination benefit than that sacrificed by decentralisation.

Political laziness from the left
The reason the housing markets in Auckland and Wellington are refusing to cool is because people — both internal and external migrants — want to live where there is opportunity, and Auckland and Wellington is where the opportunity is. Blaming foreigners for the continually-rising house prices in Auckland is counterproductive. It’s lazy populism for the opposition to monger fear on these grounds, and it’s clear why the government is perfectly willing to let them do so: first because it cuts against the left’s political brand, and second, because it frees them from responsibility for what has proven a poor regional growth strategy during their time in government.

Labour and the Greens have taken strong and well-articulated positions in favour of regional development and smart growth but they’ve also gifted the government an opportunity to reframe what is essentially an economic development debate as being about housing and migration, when the former is a symptom and the latter is all but irrelevant. As a consequence the whole discussion gets sucked into an unwinnable partisan slagging-match. This isn’t so much a failure of policy, but a failure of political emphasis. It should be relatively easy to correct: they mainly need to stop complaining about the yellow peril, and start talking about the future of a country where wealth and innovation is spread beyond its main centres.

Although I disagreed with his dismissive attitude towards the marriage equality debate, it seems likely that the once and future member for Napier, Stuart Nash, will be an important member of the Labour caucus in future. Late last year he argued persuasively that the regions are crucial not only for the economic wellbeing of the country, but for the wellbeing of that party, and so for the wider left. As he says:

If any party only holds seats in Akld, Wgtn, Chch and Dunedin, then they don’t have a particularly wide mandate to govern because they haven’t got MPs in caucus putting forward the views of the vast majority of geographic NZ.

To an extent it is understandable that this hasn’t happened yet. Development is hard. It takes a long time and a lot of money, and in a political context where governments change no less often than once per decade, it requires an uncommon degree of accord between increasingly diverse political movements. With the Greens now forming a substantial and apparently-permanent adjunct to Labour on the left, and the emergence of new climate-sceptic and anti-environmentalist sentiments within National and its allies, this is a big ask. But it needs to be done nonetheless. The regions aren’t going to develop themselves; they haven’t got the wealth or the people to do so, because it’s all tied up in tastefully-renovated villas on the North Shore and in Thorndon.

Downsouthing
This is not an entirely theoretical discussion for me. All going to plan, at some point later this year my family and I will move from the Kāpiti Coast to Dunedin. My wife is going to the University of Otago to work on the postgrad study she’s been wanting to do for 10 years. We’d have done it years ago if we could — every time we’ve been to Dunedin, we’ve said we’d move there in a heartbeat if only there was work. Mostly what’s changed now is that I can bring my work with me.

The reason we live out here is because out here is where we could afford to buy a house on one modest Wellington income. The idea was always to move into town at some point, but that has gotten more distant, not closer, over the past five years with Wellington’s housing market proving largely impervious to the recession. So off we go.

We anticipate significant benefits. My wife will be able to do something meaningful with her life other than raise our kids full-time or working as a rest home carer, worthy though both those tasks are. Commuting into Wellington would cost dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars a week, and at some point both of us would inevitably end up far from our young kids when they needed us. But not least among the advantages is the regional arbitrage of continuing to bring in something like a modest Wellington income while living in a place where houses are, very conservatively, $100,000 cheaper.

But there’s the thing: unless you’re privileged enough to work in a field where you can telecommute (and bosses who’ll let you), or unless you work in a literal field, moving from Auckland or Wellington to pretty much anywhere else in the country is a big risk. (In Christchurch, the case is much more complex.) You can move, but for many people, the opportunity is just not there, and the risk of giving up what you have is very great.

The government that raises those opportunities will find favour with those who want to move, those in the regions whose economies and communities are boosted by new growth, and those in the main centres who wish to stay, or must stay, who will have richer opportunities for doing do.

L

* On the right it’s more about asylum seekers (National) and internal threats to the colourblind state (ACT). The only party that seems clean of this is United Future, for which Peter Dunne should be congratulated.

Should NZ renounce lethal drones?

datePosted on 17:32, May 25th, 2014 by Pablo

The Diplosphere event on lethal drones held in Wellington last week was a good opportunity to hear different views on the subject. The majority consensus was that legal, moral and practical questions delegitimate their use, although one defended them and I noted, among other things, that they are just one aspect of the increased robotization of modern battlefields, are only efficient against soft targets and are seen as cost effective when compared to manned aircraft.

At the end of my remarks I proposed that we debate the idea that New Zealand unilaterally renounce the use of lethal drones in any circumstance, foreign and domestic. I noted that the NZDF and other security agencies would oppose such a move, as would our security allies. I posited that if implemented, such a stance would be akin to the non-nuclear declaration of 1985 and would reaffirm New Zealand’s independent and autonomous foreign policy.

Alternatively, New Zealand could propose to make the South Pacific a lethal drone-free zone, similar to the regional nuclear free zone declared by the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga. I noted again that countries like Australia and Chile would oppose the move (both have drone fleets and do not discount using them in anger), but that many of the Pacific Island states would likely welcome the idea.

Either declaration would in no way impact negatively on the use of non-lethal drones, whose utility is obvious. It would also leave open to interpretation whether NZ based intelligence could be used in drawing up targeting lists for foreign lethal drone strikes, a subject currently in the public eye as a result of claims that the GCSB does exactly that in places like Yemen. The PM says he is comfortable with the intelligence-sharing arrangement as well as the legitimacy of drone strikes, and added that similar intelligence was provided for ISAF drone strikes in Afghanistan (where the US and the UK deploy lethal drones on behalf of ISAF).

His confidence notwithstanding, many Kiwis are opposed to any cooperation with lethal drone programs, so the debate could be expanded to include indirect NZ involvement with them.

I think this is a debate well worth having. I realize that the security community will want to keep all options open and be very opposed to ceding any tactical advantage in future conflicts, and that extending the ban to indirect cooperation would have a negative influence on NZ’s diplomatic and military-intelligence relations with its security partners.

I am cognizant that it may be a hard thing to actually do given the balance of political power currently extant in NZ and the hurdles needed to implement it should the proposition be accepted. One of the other panelists dismissed the idea of unilateral renunciation as simply impractical and said that the proper forum in which to advance it was the UN (cue Tui ad here).

Some may say that is silly to debate something that does not exist. New Zealand does not deploy lethal drones. However, UAVs are already present in NZ skies, both in civilian and military applications. This includes geological surveys and volcanic research, on the civilian side, and battlefield (tactical) surveillance in the guise of the NZDF Kahui Hawk now deployed by the army. The military continues its research and development of UAV prototypes (early R&D worked off of Israeli models), and agencies as varied as the Police, Customs and the Navy have expressed interest in their possibilities. Since non-lethal UAV platforms can be modified into lethal platforms at relatively low cost, it seems prudent to have the debate before rather than after their entry into service.

I am aware that the revulsion voiced by many against the lethal use of unmanned aerial vehicles might as well be shared with all manned combat aircraft since the effects of their deployment ultimately are the same–they deal in death from the sky. Given that commonality, the preferential concern with one and not the other appears more emotional than rational, perhaps responding to idealized notions of chivalry in war. That is another reason why the subject should be debated at length.

Such a debate, say, in the build up to a referendum on the matter, would allow proponents and opponents to lay out their best arguments for and against, and permit the public to judge the merits of each via the ballot box. That will remove any ambiguity about how Kiwis feel about this particular mode of killing.

UPDATE: Idiot Savant at No Right Turn has kindly supported the proposition. Lets hope that others will join the campaign.

 

National Lite

datePosted on 17:29, May 15th, 2014 by Lew

It’s been almost a year since I wrote anything here. Things have been complicated. Anyway, this will — I hope, and circumstances permitting — begin a return to participation. All thanks due to Pablo for holding things together.


Answer: Nobody. That’s the problem.

Today was budget day. The carnage in Australia with Joe Hockey’s first budget two days ago was worse than even the Abbott government’s enemies had predicted, with deep cuts to education, welfare, superannuation, science funding and many other fields, including the imposition of a $7 surcharge for GP visits. The contrast here could not be more stark: a return to surplus not immediately thrust into lowering taxes, modest cuts in some areas, increased entitlements in others, particularly in support for young families, and notably the extension of free GP visits to children under 13 years of age.

I’m no big-city economist so I’ll stick mainly to the political aspects. But it basically looks like Bill English’s sixth budget — somewhat like the preceding five, but to a greater extent — does a little good and almost no evil, and that basically ruins the opposition’s game plan, which relies on Bill English and John Key being terrible ogres that eat babies, rather than supporting their parents with leave entitlements. When the man touted as the Labour party’s most left-wing leader in a generation is reduced to complaining that John Key has stolen his party’s policy — as if that is supposed to be a bad thing — things are pretty dire. The opposition’s increasing desperation over the past six years, continuously prognosticating doom over the horizon, simply looks ridiculous when the doom never arrives. The government has snookered the New Zealand left by simply doing what it said it would do, and as Pablo argued persuasively at the start of the year, that makes clear how lacking the New Zealand left is in its strategic vision. They — Labour especially — are relying on the government to do their heavy ideological lifting, and when the government declines to be explicitly evil, the opposition is left with nothing to say.

When your enemies move to occupy your ideological ground, it is an opportunity to extend that ground, replacing what they claim from you with more advantageous ground deeper within your ideological territory. The trouble for Labour is that National has moved towards them, and Labour are still trying to fight them for the same ground rather than staking out more ground of their own. Six years after the “Labour lite” campaign that saw them ousted in the first place, they haven’t learned. Today’s budget has been tagged Labour lite by commentators including Bryce Edwards and Labour’s own Rob Salmond.

Due to assiduous work by National, and a conspicuous lack of it by Labour, “Labour lite” is now more or less indistinguishable from “Labour”, and Labour has offered no sort of “Labour heavy”; full-cream Labour, deep-red Labour, or whatever other metaphor you like. Because of this lack of difference, the electoral decision comes down to competence: of these two groups of mendacious grey technocrats, which is the least likely to inadvertently screw things up, or intentionally, as Jan Logie puts it, f&%k people over? That’s an easy answer: Labour demonstrates its lack of general competence every single day. If it’s not clear by now that they’re simply not as good at being the Nats as the Nats are, when will it ever be?

It’s too late, now, to change this ahead of the election. The die is cast. Labour has — again — decided to rely on political meta-strategy like syllogising failures of judgement or conduct by individual MPs out to the wider government, and it might have worked had they any sort of foundation to build upon. But they don’t. Far from full-cream Labour, Labour itself is Labour lite. Light-blue, even; 98% Ideology-free. If they’re going to play the National-lite game, they at least need to get good at it.

L

Another National double standard.

datePosted on 15:16, May 1st, 2014 by Pablo

Maurice Williamson is forced to resign as Minister because he made a phone call to the police asking them to be undertake a thorough review and be “on solid ground” when investigating a domestic violence incident involving a wealthy Chinese friend of his who invested a lot of money in New Zealand (the same Chinese fellow granted citizenship over the objections of immigration authorities, and who donated more than NZ$ 20 thousand to National in 2012).

Judith Collins retains her ministerial portfolios in spite of revelations that she interceded with Chinese officials on behalf of her husband’s export company while on an official visit to China that had nothing to do with exports or trade.

What is similar and what is different about the two cases? They are similar in that they both involve Chinese nationals with economic ties to the National party or entities linked to it. They are similar in that the ministerial interventions were in violation of the cabinet manual regarding conflicts of interest. They also represent obvious forms of political influence peddling.

How are they different? Collins is a a key player on National’s front bench, whereas Williamson is on the outers with National’s heavy hitters. Thus he is expendable while she is not.

Comparatively speaking, Williamson’s crime was arguably less than that of Collins. He made a call on behalf of a constituent urging Police diligence when investigating the charges against his friend, then left the matter at that. The fact that rather than tell the minister to buzz off the cops bent over backwards to satisfy him that they were on “solid ground” before prosecuting is a police issue, not a Williamson issue (the Police decided to prosecute in any event, with Mr. Liu eventually pleading guilty to two charges of domestic violence).

Collins used taxpayer funded official travel to take time out of her official schedule to divert and meet with Chinese business associates of her husband over dinner in the presence of an unnamed Chinese government official at a time when her husband’s business interests in China were being hindered by official reviews of New Zealand based export contracts. Although she had no real business being there, she brought an aide with her, adding to the impression that her presence at that dinner had the stamp of official approval.

Of the two, which is more obviously a conflict of interest and which has the clear stench of corruption wafting over it? Of the two, which one would be viewed more dimly by the likes of Transparency International (the anti-corruption agency that habitually lists NZ amongst the least corrupt countries to do business in)?

Hypocrisy much in the handling of the two cases by the Prime Minister? You be the judge, by I think that there is.

Foreign Policy after the Election.

datePosted on 17:39, April 9th, 2014 by Pablo

Lost amid the distractions of royal visits, Mananet Party circus side-shows and assorted other peripheral issues has been the subject of NZ foreign policy after the September 2014 election. The topic is worth considering beyond the attention it has received so far. In this post I outline some (far from all) of the major areas of convergence and difference in the event a National-led or a Labour-Green coalition wins.

If National wins it will deepen its current two-pronged approach: it will continue with its trade obsession to the detriment of other foreign policy areas such as disarmament, non-proliferation and human rights, and it will strive to deepen its security ties with the US and its close allies, Australia in particular. The trade-for-trade’s sake foreign policy approach will see National return to the bilateral negotiating tale with Russia regardless of what it does in Ukraine or other Russian buffer states, and will see it attempt to garner even a piecemeal or reduced TPP agreement in the face of what are growing obstacles to its ratification (especially US domestic political resistance that sees TPP as a drain on American jobs, but also sovereignty protection concerns in areas such as copyrights, patents and strategic industries in places like Chile, Japan and Singapore). NZ will continue to try and expand its trade relationships with Middle Eastern states in spite of their largely despotic nature, and it will continue to push commodity specialization, niche value-added manufacturing and education provision as areas of competitive advantage.

On a security dimension NZ will continue its return to front-tier, first line military ally status with the US and Australia, and will deepen its intelligence ties within the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network as well as with other pro- US partners and in the field of human intelligence. This will occur whether or not Edward Snowden reveals the full extent of NZ espionage on behalf of 5 Eyes in the months leading up to the election, but the government will find itself under scrutiny and hard pressed to defend the behaviour of the NZ intelligence community in that event. Closer military ties with the US brings with it the risk of involvement in American-led conflicts, but the National approach, as it is with the looming Snowden revelations, is to “wait and see” and deal with the issues as they arise (presumably in more than a crisis management way).

Truth is, under National NZ will become another US security minion. One has to wonder how the Chinese, Indians, Russians and assorted Middle Eastern trading partners feel about that, especially if it is revealed that NZ spies on them on behalf of 5 Eyes..

National will conduct its foreign policy unimpeded by its potential coalition partners. United Future and the Maori Party have zero interest in foreign affairs other than to reaffirm whatever status quo they are part of, and ACT, should it survive, is a National mini-me when it comes to the subject. Winston First will not rock the boat on foreign policy issues so long as a few baubles are thrown its way.

A Green-Labour government will have a slightly different approach, but not one that fundamentally rejects the basic premises of National’s line. The Greens have already begun to soften their stance regarding TPP and trade relations, emphasising their interest in “fair” trade and after-entry protections and guarantees. Labour, which otherwise would have likely continued the thrust of National’s trade strategy, will back away from some of the more foreign-friendly aspects of trade negotiations in order to mollify the Greens, and if Winston First is part of that coalition it may place some restrictions on foreign ownership and investment rights on NZ soil.

Along with the softening of single-minded trade zealotry, a Labour-Green government will attempt to reemphasize NZ’s independent and autonomous diplomatic stance (which has now been fundamentally compromised by the nature of National’s two-pronged approach). This will include attempting to rebuild its reputation and expertise in the fields hollowed out by National’s razoring of the diplomatic corps, although it will be very hard to replace the lost expertise and experience in fields such as chemical and nuclear weapons control, multinational humanitarian aid provision and environmental protection. To do so will require money, training and recruitment, so the time lag and costs of getting back up to speed in those areas are considerable.

With regards to security, the Greens and Labour are in a dilemma. The Greens want to review the entire NZ intelligence community with an eye towards promoting greater oversight and transparency in its operations. That includes a possible repeal of the recently passed GCSB Act and, if some of its members are to be believed, a reconsideration of NZ participation in 5 Eyes. For all its opportunistic protestations about the Dotcom case and GCSB Act, Labour in unlikely to want to see major changes in NZ’s espionage agencies or its relationship with its intelligence partners. It is therefore likely that Labour will agree (as it has said) to a review of the NZ intelligence community without committing itself to adopting any recommendations that may come out of that review. It may also agree to a compromise by which recommendations for greater intelligence agency oversight and accountability are accepted as necessary and overdue in light of recent revelations about the scope and extent of NZ domestic espionage as well as its foreign intelligence operations (all of which will become much more of a public issue if Snowden reveals heretofore denied or unexpected espionage by NZ intelligence agencies).

The same is true for NZ’s burgeoning military alliance with the US. Labour will not want to entirely undo the re-established bilateral military-to-military relations, especially in the fields of humanitarian assistance, search and rescue and perhaps even de-mining, peace-keeping and peace-enforcement operations. The Greens, however, will object to continuing the bilateral military “deepening” project and will oppose NZDF participation in US-led wars (especially those of of choice rather than necessity). The Greens will push to further reduce military expenditures as percentage of GDP (which is currently around 1.1 percent) and will seek to restrict weapons purchases and upgrades as much as possible. That will put it as loggerheads with Labour, which will see the necessity of maintaining a small but effective fighting force for both regional as well as extra-regional deployments, something that in turn will require modernization of the force component as well as good working ties with military allies (which is maintained via joint exercises and cross-national training events).

What that means in practice is that the Greens will not be given ministerial portfolios connected to foreign affairs or security, although they will be assuaged by concessions granted by Labour in other policy areas, to include (however token or cosmetic) intelligence reform.

Minor parties that might be part of the coalition will have little influence on the Labour-Green foreign policy debate. Mana will bark the usual anti-imperialist line but will be ignored by Labour and the Green leadership. Winston First will extract a pound of flesh with regard to the influence of non-Western interests on the NZ economy and NZ’s security commitments but otherwise will toe the Labour foreign policy line. The Maori Party will be irrelevant except where there is international  diplomatic interest in indigenous affairs.

The vote on NZ’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council will not be greatly influenced by the election (the UN vote occurs in October). NZ’s chances have risen as of late in the measure that Turkey’s has fallen thanks to the increasingly autocratic and erratic rule of the Erdogan government. Spain, the other rival for the “Europe and other” non-permanent UNSC seat (yes, NZ is not part of Oceania when it comes to such voting), has been tarnished by its economic woes, so NZ’s relative economic and political stability have bolstered its chances by default. Even so, a Labour-Green government will likely be more appealing to the majority of the UN membership given National’s obsequious genuflection to Great Powers on both trade and security.

In sum, foreign policy may be a non-issue in the run up to the elections but that does not mean that it does not matter. Party activists and the public at large would do well to contemplate which direction they would like to see NZ steer towards in its foreign relations, and what international role they envision it should properly play. Otherwise it becomes just another elite game uninformed by the wishes of the majority, which means that when it comes to engaging the world it will be exclusively elite logics that inform the way NZ does so.

 

NATO toasts Putin.

datePosted on 12:18, March 27th, 2014 by Pablo

The end of the Cold War left NATO without its raison d’être. Its creation was predicated on the existence of an existential threat emanating from the USSR, one that would take the military shape of high intensity warfare: waves of armored columns crossing the central European plains backed by massive infantry formations covered by blanketing air cover and even tactical nuclear weapons. NATO was designed as a collective security arrangement whereby superior counter-force on the part of the US and its Northern Hemisphere allies served as a deterrent to Soviet aggression. That strategic orientation was at the heart of the Cold War.

With the Soviet Union gone, so was the need for that strategy. NATO first sought to incorporate, over Russian objections, former Warsaw Pact states into its embrace. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined first, followed by  Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and, most recently, Albania and Croatia. It shifted its focus towards multinational peace-keeping and peace-enforcement, irregular low-intensity conflict operations such as those in Kosovo in the late 1990s (the size, scope, pace, depth and range of weapons used in kinetic operations determine the relative intensity of combat). Later it cast its collective gaze further afield, involving itself in the International Security Assistance Force occupation of Afghanistan and the ouster of the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

The irony is that these strategic shifts did nothing to allay Russian concerns that NATO’s  primary focus remained on curtailing its ability to project force to its West and South, but in Western capitals the belief was that NATO needed to re-boot given the shifting geopolitical landscape and strategic priorities of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

None of the new NATO missions substituted for those designed to counter the threat posed by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, and with the exception of the US, this was reflected in diminishing defense budgets, numbers of uniformed personnel and overall military significance within policy-making circles in member states. However it tried to redefine its core mission, NATO was increasingly seen by elites and public alike as a security organization without a purpose. Many felt that it should be disbanded and replaced by more flexible military agreements that would eliminate the costs of maintaining a permanent NATO infrastructure in Brussels and annually contributing, both militarily and financially, to its operations. It was believed in some quarters that this could be done without significantly impacting on any nation’s self-defense in what was seen as a largely benign European strategic environment where conflicts were more intra-rather than inter-state in nature.

It was for that reason that I penned this column as part of my late “Word from Afar” series as Scoop.

Now, thanks to the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, that has changed. In the eyes of its champions, NATO is once again confronted by hostile Russians on its Eastern flanks. Not surprisingly, US and European military-security officials, especially but not exclusively in places like Poland, have been quick to raise the specter of Russian imperialism in the former Eastern European bloc, calling for a revitalization of NATO’s original primary and core concern: containing the Bear.

The justification for NATO revitalization is based on the belief that Putin will not stop in Crimea or even the Eastern Ukraine, but has intentions to at the very least “Finlandize” a number of former Soviet Republics on Russia’s border that he feels have gotten too politically close to the EU and their Western neighbors. Given that the uprising in Ukraine was seen as a vote in favor of closer ties with the EU, the Russian response in Crimea is taken as indicative of its approach towards other “pro-EU” governments in its near abroad.

Just as Putin was able to capitalize on Russian nationalism as a generator of support for the invasion of Crimea, so too can conservative politicians in many European states use his actions as a catalyst for nationalistic appeals. Fear of the Bear is widespread and often visceral in many parts of Europe, especially those that suffered under Soviet occupation or at the hands of Soviet troops during the Great War. They and their descendants provide receptive audiences for anti-Russian appeals made on both politically opportunistic as well as principled grounds.

This is music to the ears of European defense bureaucrats, even if the US is not quite as capable of shouldering the burden of their collective defense in the measure that it once used to. For European security elites, the good ole days of robust defense spending, new weapons acquisitions, force expansion and significant military say in national policy making are now set to replace the politics of austerity and neglect that characterized the post Cold War period. Security decision-makers will make the argument that resurgent Russia is as much a threat today as it was back during the Cold War, even if its reach is now more regional than global in scope and its power is derived as much from its energy exports as it is from its military capabilities. Their argument will dove-tail nicely with those of anti-Russian nationalists, so the die is set for another re-casting of NATO’s mould.

Of course, while NATO went through contortions of re-defining itself after the Cold War, Russian strategists continued to focus primarily on defending their land borders and promoting Russian influence in neighboring states so as to provide a buffer to would-be aggressors, particularly from the West. For the Russians the “liberation” of Crimea is just a natural and justified reaction to the steady erosion of Russian influence in regions in which it has core historical, cultural and political interests. It is this “natural” reaction that has prompted the calls for NATO’s strategic re-orientation, which in turn means that the two strategic visions have once again been counterpoised.

This will be welcomed by Russian military and NATO officials because it marks the return to the common logics of collective defense that justify their positions and the arguments for counter-force deterrence that bound them together in opposition during the Cold War. However, for the citizens affected by a return to Cold War logics the prospects may not be so rosy.

Whatever the case, there are bound to be more than a  few NATO officials quietly hoisting a glass in honor of Vladimir Putin, for it is is he who has given them importance once again.

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