Archive for ‘Politics’ Category
By way of a short thought, I venture again into the waters of US election year politics.
Today’s subject is Donald Trump, or more precisely, the promises he passes off as solutions to the US malaise (as he and his supporters see it). The key denominator in everything he says is that he offers the promise that he and he alone can solve the nation’s problems, foreign and domestic, and that he can do so in a clear, simple and direct fashion without much cost or sacrifice to the nation. Much like PT Barnum a century or so ago, he clearly believes that there is a sucker born every minute in the US. And what he is peddling to them is no more than that snake oil known as false hope.
Let me outline what he has promised to do but which he cannot do. Trump cannot build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. He cannot deport 11 million people including US citizens born of undocumented residents. He cannot place a ban on “all Muslims” immigrating to the US, and he cannot stop refugees from seeking asylum in it. He cannot leave NATO to its own devices. He cannot leave South Korea and Japan to defend themselves against Chinese aggression, and he cannot influence Chinese monetary policy in a way that would “level the playing field” with the US. He cannot force US based companies to return all of their operations to the US while paying US workers higher wages. He cannot reinstitute water boarding and other “worse” forms of torture. He cannot order the US military to commit war crimes such s killing the relatives of terrorists, and he cannot “take the oil” from Iraq. He cannot preemptively launch nuclear attacks based on whim. He cannot renege on trade deals without consequence. He cannot “rip up” NAFTA (the North American trade bloc involving Mexico, Canada and the US). He cannot fire generals because they disagree with his views, and he cannot form a partnership with Russia just because he admires Putin.
Trump cannot make “America Great Again” because his vision of greatness–white male christian nativist and insular–has been overcome by the structural, demographic, cultural, social and technological change of the last quarter century. In fact, his vision of “greatness’ was great only for a socio-economic few, and that few will be a distinct minority within twenty years.
Trump cannot drill, drill, drill or frack, frack, frack. Trump cannot make the US safer by ensuring that more people have guns. He cannot re-institute “stop and frisk” as the solution to African-American demonstrations against police brutality or even urban crime without re-hashing the case of its (un)constitutionality. Trump cannot run his administration like a family owned business lacking shareholders or a Board of Directors and he certainly cannot use bankruptcy as a means of avoiding liability for poor financial decisions. He cannot renegotiate the US debt using default as leverage.
The reasons he cannot do anything of what he has promised is not only that his words are meaningless and empty, in typical national populist demagogic tradition. It is due to the fact that the US political system does, in fact, rest on institutional checks and balances grounded in law. Any and everything that he proposes, were he to try to execute it via Executive Order, would be challenged in courts as unconstitutional and take years to litigate. He needs Congress to pass laws that will allow him to do some of the things that he promises to do, and other promises require congressional approval in any event. Even if it remains in Republican control, Congress has been the subject of his often personal attacks and understands its role as a check on the Executive (witness the obstructionism of the past eight years), so it is clear that he is on a hiding to nothing.
The truly sad aspect of this is that neither Trump or his supporters understand the very basic concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances. They believe that he can just order people around and “get things done.” They think that he can bully foreign leaders the way he bullies out of favour beauty pagent contestants. They think that he can resort to personal insults, to include fat, slut and disability-shaming, to deter his adversaries and critics. They would be mistaken in those beliefs and it is a shame that the US educational system has produced so many people without even an elementary grasp of how government works or why civility is a value. That one such ignorant person is the nominee of a major political party is a clear sign of its demise.
It will interesting to see what happens over the next few weeks of the campaign. It looks like Trump is starting (?) to come unglued as the pressure mounts and his blustery facade begins to crumble under the light of scrutiny. Clinton pounded him into the ropes in the first debate (I scored it a TKO), and if he decides to bring up Bill Clinton’s affairs in future conversation he will be eviscerated on the hypocrisy rack. From my perspective, the election campaign is just getting better.
One thing is certain: ignorance is not bliss and Drumpf is about to find that out in spades.
Posted on 12:05, September 22nd, 2016 by E.A.
It might be the pain medication talking, as I have spent the last few days off work with tooth “issues” (googling “home dentistry” and popping pain medication like candy), but it seems like our current round of infighting in parliament occurred only because the PM was out of the country.
Like the plot of a bad teenage movie, the parents are going to be out of town and the kids have some high-jinks planned while they are away.
One can imagine John Key giving his parliamentary spawn one of those “looks” that parents give to their kids before he hopped on his plane and jetted out of NZ.
But as the plane departs into the sky one can also imagine the kids slowly turning to each other before breaking into wild grins and running around, like dogs off their leashes, free to get into whatever mischief their little heart’s desire.
Of course parents often leave one child in charge, bearing the responsibility of making sure the house does not burn down, no one kills anyone else and to prevent the squabbling that occurs when enough childlike egos congregate in one place, without any parental oversight, to achieve critical mass which descends into the inevitable ruckus where parents are then forced to wade into.
But, like the plots of the afore mentioned movies, the ability of the one responsible voice to keep calm in a sea of chaos, is but a momentary note before dark clouds gather and the whole tea party goes over the cliff.
So what are we to make of the current flap between Winston Peters, the Maori Party and National; the Kermandec issue and the MPI scandal?
First and foremost it’s very clear that Winston has taken the opportunity to flex his political muscles and remind the government who will be calling the shots in 2017 if National does not make a clean sweep of the polls. It might not have been deliberately timed to coincide with Key being away but it sure looks like it.
And while the government and the Maori Party have good reason to be miffed they have played into Winstons hands by publicly firing back at him. Winston gets to bank some more credibility with the NZ First faithful by sticking it to the Nats and “those bloody Maori” while giving all and sundry a taste of what will happen if Winston is kingmaker in next year.
Meanwhile Bill English, hereby designated as “the responsible one”, rapidly shoved Nick Smith aside as what seemed like a done deal on the Kermadec Marine Sanctuary turned to custard and Smith proved about as useful as a chocolate fireguard on the negotiating front over fishing rights for Iwi.
Now again it might be the meds twisting my perception but my reading of the Governments logic behind the situation was this: “Maori and the Maori Party wont deal with us on the fishing rights issue and don’t agree with it so we won’t bother consulting them and just keep on trying to run this through”.
If this is the case can someone please explain what exactly were they thinking? Were they just simply unaware of this being a potential minefield of an issue or were they expecting Maori to just simply go along with this and say nothing.
In many ways it was a delicate issue from the get go with definite winners and losers no matter how it was played out and in effect, as others have pointed out, may be foreshore and seabed of this government.
Add to this Andrew Little suddenly deciding to pull Labour support for the sanctuary, and in the process giving Chris Finlayson and backhanded compliment by calling him a talented Treaty Negotiations Minister when queried about what Labour would do if they became government (which translates into “they got themselves into it, they can get themselves out of it”) and you have a right royal muck up with National now caught between its own supporters, the Maori Party and other opposition parties and with no easy solution to fix this.
And if that was not enough we have the MPI scandal just coming to a boil with phrases like “industry capture” being thrown around and NZ First making further political hay by calling for a commission of inquiry as well as other parties swinging the bat at the government piñata.
Based on a leaked report there now seems to be enough ammo to fire off more than a few shots at government, MPI and the fishing industry (including Maori owned fisheries) to make headlines well into 2017 (although I fully expect the government to throw MPI under the bus much like the CERCO prison scandal except that Nathan Guy won’t get corn holed as badly as Sam Lotu Liga was).
None of these issues are directly related but in my medication clouded mind they seem to have some linkage simply because it’s either fishing rights, fishing, Maori or the Treaty as the common thread between them all.
What is clear is that John Key will have a mess to clean up when he gets back (if he can).
Posted on 11:21, September 16th, 2016 by E.A.
This post came about due to a comment made about my previous post (here) being depressing, which was fair comment given that I had dropped a rather critical rant regarding the state of New Zealand politics as well as the voting public with little context or wider viewpoint.
But what got me thinking was that while my post could be viewed as depressing I, myself, did not view it as such.
Yes it was a rather pessimistic screed (although it’s always cathartic to vent ones frustrations in such a manner) but deeper than that there is a coherent theme and set of ideas behind all the things I post here on KP but thanks to one singular but insightful comment I was forced to consider that I may not have articulated that theme very well and as such what I thought was a coherent and linked set of posts critiquing the denizens of the Beehive and the NZ political landscape in general may have come across as the disparate rambling of some nutter behind a keyboard (or possibly both).
So to address that imbalance in what I post and what I think I am posting I present the following as a means to address that.
And the core ideas or themes behind what I post are relatively simple being that I don’t believe in the Left/Right divide in politics (which is why I have facetiously referred to myself in the past as a “fascist anarchist”) and that human society, and more specifically New Zealand Society is in a transformative phase as the previously standing social and economic structures (US imperialism and neoliberal dominance) are declining under the failure of their elites to govern effectively and as new challenges and challengers arise.
So those are the core ideas but where are they coming from? Have I just plucked these ideas out of thin air and formed some colorful but unsupported opinions as the basis for my rants. The answer is no I have not.
Just as I have previously referenced George Orwell as a strong basis for my political opinions there are other thinkers and writers out there who have helped shape my view of the world and their contribution to my views has been to provide a set of tools for constructing a lens by which I (and others) view the world.
Unfortunately there are too many to all list here but some have been more important than others in giving me the view of NZ politics (and the world) that I have and it’s worth noting them to show that I do not draw my conclusions in isolation or without support.
First up is Arnold Tonybee who through his works like A Study of History* and Mankind and Mother Earth have clearly shown that societies live or die on the ability of their elites to lead their respective societies through the various challenges that they face. The idea being that while elites do get the wealth and privilege they pay it back through the the Noblesse Oblige (the idea that privilege entails responsibility) by leading their societies responsibly and with welfare of the greater whole (even if only articulated through the idea that by not crapping in their own nest they ensure their own survival) as a primary goal.
Following on is John Ralston Saul who through books like Voltaire’s Bastards and the Doubters Companion took a similar idea and not only attacked the failure of the current elites to lead, by cataloging their transformation from genuine rulers into technocratic managers, unable to effect real change in the face of crisis or failure but also who “manage” events in an ineffective fashion due to devotion to one idea or ideal (rationality) at expense of all others.
Saul’s core theme is the rise of the cult of rationality or what he referred to as the “dictatorship of reason” which has seen western politics, culture and thought saddled with a parasitic managerial class (of which our Beloved PM would be part of) in place of genuine leadership and which creates the very crisis’s they are then unable to deal with through slavish devotion to rational process (as enacted through technocratic management practice) as the solution to all problems.
This managerial class is beholden to technocratic practices above all else and represents the triumph of technology and rational dogma over all other forms of thought, leading to various aberrations like Nazism, Neoliberalism and a rabid belief in the invisible hand of the marketplace which denigrate, minimalize and even seek to remove all concept of community, society or balanced thought through promotion of economic and rational dogma.
And if Tonybee looked at the past, Saul looked at the present then its Dimitry Orlov’s book The Five stages of Collapse (link to the original blog post which lead to the book here)** which takes these ideas and translates them into the future.
Orlov’s book is a different take on the failure of our current society from the wide range of often shrill and hectoring books one can read about future doom because instead of simply categorizing all the issues and then trying to tack on at the end some sort of upbeat solution to the mountain of problems listed (what he explicitly refers to as avoiding the “unless we…” or “we must…” turns of phrase) Orlov is simply asking the reader to accept the state of affairs, to take of the rose colored glasses and see the situation for what it is, to accept it.
The other thing about this book which is refreshing is that while he catalogs the various stages of collapse he links them to losses of faith in the following: financial, commercial, political, social and cultural rather than simply (and often inexplicably) piling them up in for display without a genuine exploration of the factors that lead to them or by using the afore mentioned escape clauses at the end of try and add a feel good tone to what is otherwise a rather depressing read (in essence academic level disaster porn having much in common with movies where asteroids strike the earth, plagues threaten or zombies wipe out civilization).
And these are not the only ones that have shaped my views in this area. I also cite the works of Robert Ardrey (specifically The Territorial Imperative); Jared Diamond (his books Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel); Martin Van Crevald (specifically here The Rise and Decline of the State but also his many other books on military theory); John Boyd (for his OODA Loop theory); Karl Polanyi (The Great Transformation); Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth); Paul Kennedy (The Rise and fall of the great Powers); Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine); Chalmers Johnson and Johnathan Kwitney (Blowback and Endless Enemies respectively) and Edward Gibbon (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).
What all of these works have in common in this regard are two things: Societies change, decline or fail as a natural order of progression and/or that it’s not just the events themselves which categorized why societies change, decline or fail but also the response (or lack of) of their ruling classes to these always inevitable processes.
And in world of today we face crisis’s of faith in regards to finance, commerce, politics, society and even culture (to continue to riff off Orlovs idea) which can be seen in the continued failure of the marketplace (the housing hernia and million dollar houses in Auckland, the Global Financial Crisis; the rise of angry politics in the form of Donald Trump, Brexit and a merchant banker as PM on New Zealand; child poverty and homelessness in NZ along with issues of immigration and social decline; failed states around the world down to decreasing numbers of people voting; wholesale escape into fantasy through TV, movies and video games; and the seismic shifts taking place in societal views over issues such as sexuality, transhumanism and AI/robotics.
And to add to this is the even greater issue of the environment and our planet which has finally come home to roost in NZ with a vengeance in the form of water issues across our country (be they third world style water quality issues, dairy runoff, “wadeable” rivers or simply selling the stuff to offshore businesses when there is a drought on) and the lethal paradox between the idealized myth of clean green NZ and increasingly unsustainable tourism leaving NZ bulging at the seams and more an ecological Disneyland for vicarious viewing rather than a genuine unique and sustainable ecosystem which can be enjoyed and explored.
And this is the viewpoint I have when I post on KP; but before the reader assumes I am a depressed and melancholic individual let me assure them I am not. Yes, our society is a bad state, yes our politicians are drooling mongoloids driven by greed, yes things are grim but the key point is that our society is ending but the world is not, a new society will come to be.
As many of the authors listed above make clear, societies fail but that does not mean the end of the world or extinction for human kind. Change may be coming and it will probably be harsh but it’s not some dark terminus for everything and everyone.
And this is why I view politics (both in NZ and more generally) as a urine soaked sandbox full of squabbling infants and cat feces BUT where it’s not ok for us to sit passively like a dog on an electric floor and just let them parade about throwing reeking handfuls of sand at each other. These people, our elites, have not only lost their way but sold their souls, they are slaves to dogma and at best they can temporarily conjure the illusion of progress from the stale ashes of past progressions but it’s fleeting and leaves nothing of substance.
John Key and National, Andrew Little and Labour, Winston Peters, The Greens, Act, United Future, Mana, Maori and all the rest (those business people who like to remain in the background but will funnel money and influence to the party of their choice) are our elites and while some individuals among them may genuinely strive for better things they will be overwhelmed in the miasma of corruption and stagnant thinking that have come to characterize parliament and political process. We turn to them, our elites, our leaders, to lead us out of this but instead they lead us deeper in.
But this is only part one of a two part post and in part two I will go into the second key part of Orlov’s (and others) thesis regarding the decline of our society here in Godzone and elsewhere and show that while we will get brunt going through the fire it’s what lies on the other side of the flames that may be worth getting burnt for.
But to do that we first have to stop fooling ourselves with the idea that the world we live in now will always prevail and that those that rule us now will rule in the future. They have had their chance to deal with the issues and they have failed which is what drove me to make my previous post and which now I can see was without context to any who read it and why I have written what I am posting here. I am not going to spoil what’s in part two but I hope it will show that the future for NZ (once we go through the flames) may be anything but depressing.
*-I have the abridged copy of this (as who is going to be able to afford all 12 volumes of this work) but despite searching high and low through my book collection I could not find it so had to source my info on it from the internet.
**-While it might be tempting to read just the page and leave it there I highly recommend the book as its not only expands on those points but develops others not touched on there.
Posted on 18:39, September 14th, 2016 by Pablo
I spent some time talking with a Radio New Zealand reporter, who I must say is very well versed in the politics of the region, reflecting on the de facto admission of France into the Pacific Island Forum. Unlike the usual media sound bites, he gave me some room to reflect.
Unfortunately I know people, to include some in my own family, who are Trump supporters and who think that Fox News is “fair and balanced.” I also know some people, including one here at KP, who think that voting for Trump is all good because it will break the status quo politics represented by Hillary Clinton.
Many of the people I know that have chosen the Trump/Fox News view of the world bristle at the suggestion that they have issues with race/ethnicity/gender/Islam/sexuality/foreigners/poor people/disabled people/whatever. Some of those who think that voting for Trump is an anarchic stroke of tactical genius appear to ignore the concerns raised by these suggestions or believe them to be untrue. Allow me the right of rejoinder with one link.
It may not be a statistically significant sample of opinion among the Trump/Fox News “nation,” but I believe that this compilation is emblematic of what lies at its core. And if this is the base sentiment behind Trump that is being championed by Fox News, then the situation, if not the very character of his campaign, is indeed a giant basket of deplorable.
Say what you want about Ms. Clinton (and I shall write something about the false narrative about her at some point), she does not attract this type of folk. In fact, she repels them, which is as good enough reason to vote for her as is anything else.
Its a rant, no denying it.
I tried, I really tried.
Firstly I ignored all the reports coming out of Dunedin in the wake of Winstonfest 2016 that it will turn into a cat fight between Ron Mark (long serving but foul mouthed NZ First 2IC) and political mercenary Shane Jones over who will succeed Winston when he finally steps down (whenever that actually is) in one of the more interesting cases of “get your hands off my man!) We have seen in a while.
I turned the other cheek to Colin Craig’s sleazy behaviors being exposed in the press. If his chances of being an MP were slim to none before they are effectively nil now as it looks like his fellow party members (Christine; she of the extravagant spending while a civil servant, Rankin) are more than willing to publicly twist the knives in his back; also the man writes love notes with about as much passion and enthusiasm as a politically conservative Christian businessman running for office, oh wait…
But it got harder after John (I for one welcome our new reptilian overlords) Key blamed kiwi workers being lazy and drug addled as the reason for National having the immigration policies it does. Key (no pun intended) point: importing low skill workers under the guise of student and other visas allows employers to drive down wages and places anyone not willing to work for the same pay and conditions in employment limbo*. This is the equivalent to shooting someone in the foot and then complaining that they can’t walk.
By Wednesday it was getting much more difficult to tune out the noise when the government announced that it was spending 24 million dollars on housing in Auckland when the average house price was now “one meellion dollars” (which as many commentators gleefully pointed out) meant that there would be just another 24 houses up for grabs; Winston Peters decided that hypocrisy was the better part of valor (by taking someone’s money and then accusing them of being a front for the National Party); the Auditor General cleared the Niue hotel deal (but did admit that their hands were tied and their range of investigation limited); the Chiefs found themselves unable to say sorry to the one person they really needed to say sorry to (showing how much our sporting culture remains a bastion of macho BS); the blather about Helen Clark at the UN continued despite it being made clear she is not the preferred candidate (get over it, she is not going to be Sec Gen); Andrew Little called for Nick Smith to resign (about as useful as firing the captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg) and our beloved PM now saying NZ and OZ are still BFF’s (despite OZ deporting back all those its deems no longer BFF and treating kiwis living there like second class citizens). I had to laugh though when the Stuff article reporting this had to include an explanation of what a BFF was.
But what finally sent me over the top was watching parliament go into melt down over the housing situation with question time being cancelled and the government fumbling the ball as the process was hijacked by the opposition. Of course it’s not one of those overseas style parliamentary melt downs like they have in Taiwan or the Philippines with legislators throwing chairs, starting bonfires in the middle of the chamber or fist fighting in the aisles (although I would have tuned into parliament TV if such things were scheduled) but just some filibustering which will peter out sooner or later.
The reason why this particular event, in a week of hard core political gibberish sent me over the top was that it perfectly encapsulates the reason why we are in the situation in the first place.
The Housing Hernia continues to grow and the chances of all this shouting and filibustering (or for that matter any wet-paper bills) actually producing a solution are zero. We have been there and we have passed the point where this process is manageable by some quick fixes or legislative tweaks and we are now heading into territory marked more by backbiting, squabbling, lots of weasel words and no actual action on the matters at hand.
You would almost think that campaigning for the 2017 election had started but this is really just a small hint of what the 2017 election will be like. If you thought that vapid hot topics and political push button issues were going to have our politicians shouting, parading and grandstanding like no tomorrow now then you ain’t seen nothing yet!
And this is the state we are in today: political ineptitude and inaction; corruption and tabloid sleaze; empty political gestures over any genuine action; political infighting; low quality political journalism as a substitute for discourse (I get the irony of writing that) and issues which need genuine attention not more political verbiage.
The summation of the situation came to me last week, as I and several co-workers were in a taxi crawling out of Auckland’s CBD towards the airport, knowing that we had given ourselves over an hour to get to the airport but still not sure if we would make it, by the taxi driver who summed up Auckland’s transport problems in one succinct sentence.
“Auckland’s roads were built when Auckland had about 800,000 people living in it, today its about 1.4 million people and by 2020 it’s expected to have 2.2 million people but all attempts to fix the roads or improve transportation have been blocked or failed.”
Even if those numbers are out somewhat the metaphor remains painfully correct and applicable to NZ at large.
In areas like immigration, housing, the environment and all the rest we are now in a state where what we had is no longer able to cope with what we have got and the people responsible for sorting these problems out (those we elect to run this country for us) remain either unwilling (in the case of National clearly captured by those who are making coin of our current misfortune) or unable (in the case of Labour being too busy sucking up to potential voters and their mortgages to ever rock the boat) or putting their own personal gain over the general welfare of the country (Winston, Peter Dunne and the rest of the gumboots) to do anything about it.
So with that in mind I am no longer able to refrain from comment (I really wanted to keep on with research on Asia for upcoming posts and not get sidetracked). I assume that this week is a combination of moon, tide, weather, biorhythms, the stock market and all sorts of other factors which have produced the political crapfest this week has been so far, and its only Thursday!
And it’s the tone of events which is the most ugly, like other countries the problems are piling up and those supposed to be in charge are turning out to be incompetent middle managers at best and corrupt clowns at worst (I favor the latter).
All of this points to the 2017 election being a real watershed election as these issues won’t go away between now and then and will surely continue to worsen while the clowns continue to bicker over ticket prices to the circus while the tent burns.
I won’t play the doom scenario card too much but we live in interesting times to say the least and calls for action continue to grow. Our current political model is not working very well but will we get any viable alternatives?
Come campaign time I expect all of these little hot potatoes to remain hot and a lot of promises to be made to fix them to an electorate which will be in an ugly mood and in no mind to hear political and economic catamites parading around shouting dogma as solutions to rising waters. Dirty politics will be front and center and media manipulation will be all over the place.
The outcome? Polarization and a parliament less and less able to address the issues (under a minority Green/Labour government with Winston staying neutral) or worse Winston backing our dear leader Key followed by further economic shenanigans from his minions for another three years (imagine the housing hernia in three years time!) or the unthinkable and a Green/NZ First/Labour hate triangle of rivalries and poison looks until its inevitable implosion.
But we kiwi voters are not blameless in this, we tolerate this state of affairs and we continue to vote for the same ugly faces, their ugly messages and their ugly acts. We are as stained and muddled as those filthy beasts in Parliament. Politics has made monsters of us all!
*- The fact that Barry Soper in the Herald felt that such a position had some merit shows how pernicious such BS attitudes are as well as highlighting how out of touch Soper is to the reality of situation (but then I never really liked his reporting anyway).
When people think about coups d’etat, they tend to think about armed interruptions of the constitutional order, usually perpetrated by the military against an elected government. Such was the case with the abortive coup staged by elements of the Turkish military against the government of Recep Erdogan last July. Note that I do not say “democratically” elected governments, as usurpations of the constitutional order can also happen in electoral authoritarian regimes such as that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 (only to be followed by a “full” coup against the subsequently elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013).
The traditional origins of such forms of regime change, known as golpes de estado in Spanish, do in fact hark back to military interventions against civilian governments, and that remains its most common form. But another form of coup has emerged, minus the bloodshed and state of emergency so often associated with military-led coups (I say military-led because it is very seldom the case that the armed forces act alone when moving against the government of the day). Rather than an interruption and suspension of the institutional process by military means, it is a usurpation from within the institutional order by constitutional means. Rather than bullets fired by soldiers it is ballots cast by politicians that overturn the will of the people prior to scheduled elections. The insurrectionists belong to and work within the political system. This is what is now known as a constitutional coup. In order to understand this new form of “golpismo” we need to consider two background factors.
First, liberal democracy comes in two forms: presidential and parliamentary systems. Although they are a possibility in parliamentary systems (such as having the government dissolved by the Governor General, as occurred in Pakistan in 1953 and Australia in 1975), constitutional coups most often happen in presidential systems. By their very nature parliamentary systems have built-in insurance against constitutional coups because there are established means to remove a government, specifically via votes of no-confidence followed by snap elections. The rules governing both the vote and the election may vary from country to country, and there may be a ruckus surrounding such events, but they are an integral part of parliamentary democracy and, some might argue, a much finer tuned aspect of democratic governance than that allowed by its alternative.
Presidential systems provide no such mechanism for the removal of governments prior to their end of term. By definition, any such move constitutes an institutional crisis as the system is based on a separation of executive power from legislative authority. In parliamentary systems the executive (in the form of cabinet) continues to act as a parliamentary faction, to include ministers discharging responsibilities as members of parliament. In presidential systems that is not the case and executive authority can often be confronted by or exercised against legislative majorities (as is currently the case in the US). No matter what the majority in the legislature may wish, it cannot simply call for a vote of no-confidence in the government of the day. In fact, it has no legal basis to do so.
When the legislative and executive branches in presidential systems are locked in impasses or stalemates over any number of potential issues, the resolution mechanism boils down to supermajorities in the former and veto powers in the latter. Ideally, in bicameral legislatures the resolution sequence is usually this: the president introduces or supports a bill submitted for approval by the legislature. The opposition obtains a supermajority against the bill in the lower house, which is vetoed by the president, which is then upheld or overturned by a supermajority in the upper house. In unicameral legislatures the sequence is either one and done or a second legislative supermajority vote is taken after a veto in order to ratify or overturn the veto. Neither of these resolution paths provide a mechanism for the removal of the executive.
This process is cumbersome but offers the benefit of providing space for compromise between the executive and legislature as a bill winds its way through the ratification process. But what about removal of an elected government before its term is up? That is where the second key backdrop factor comes into play: disloyal opposition.
Long term KP readers will recall my earlier writing on this subject. But for those who are not, here is a nutshell refresher on what constitutes loyal and disloyal opposition in a democracy (there is no point in using those terms in authoritarian regimes).
Loyal oppositions are those that, having been defeated in elections or confronted by an opposing party in executive office (remember, the problem is unique to presidential systems), abide by the rules of the political game and wait for the next electoral opportunity to gain executive power. During the meantime they work as much as possible to find areas of compromise so that the machinery of governance can continue to serve the public good (or at least be seen as doing so). Even if token, concessions are exchanged so that consensus on issues of policy can be achieved. Only in the most egregious case of executive misconduct, usually involving criminality or gross negligence, does a loyal opposition begin to contemplate the unthinkable, which comes in the form of impeachment (that is, forcing the resignation of the executive under pressure from the legislature backed by the authority of law enforced by state security agents).
Disloyal oppositions are those that refuse to accept the outcome of elections and/or the legitimacy of a particular government and use their political influence and power to bring down that government by any means short of force. This includes being deliberately obstructionist when it comes to passing legislation, flaunting rules governing acceptable political discourse, manipulating or colluding with media to plant false accusations against incumbents, refusing to authorise budgets and confirm executive appointments, and generally acting in every possible way to stymie government policy initiatives, make it impossible for the executive branch to function effectively within the tripartite, separation of powers framework of constitutional government, and to promote discontent with and distrust of the government and its political supporters.
The classic modern instance of a disloyal opposition was the Christian Democratic led opposition to Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular government in Chile from 1970-73. The result of that disloyalty is well known. But not all disloyal opposition need result in full fledged military coups. Instead, they can veer down the path of the constitutional coup. Consider the case of Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998-99. In late 1998 the Republican controlled House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton on two counts of perjury and two counts of obstruction of justice. The charges related to his accounts of the affair he had with White House intern Monica Lewisky, the salacious details of which were vividly spelt out by Independent Counsel Ken Starr (Starr has recently been forced to resign from his position as president and chancellor of Baylor University for his role in covering up sexual assaults on females by football players). Mr. Starr was appointed by the Speaker of the House at the time, Newt Gingrich, he of the three marriages and many affairs (including with subordinates).
In 1999 the Republican controlled Senate held a trial and voted on the charges. Needing a two thirds (67 seat) majority for the impeachment to succeed and with 55 Senators on the Republican side, the impeachment vote failed when 50 voted in favour on the obstruction charge and 45 voted in favour on the perjury charge. Clinton remained in office, albeit significantly hamstrung by his near-miss.
The issue here is that the impeachment was over a private sexual affair, not an act of public malfeasance . It was led by people who themselves had similar skeletons in their closets and who did so in part just to weaken the president even if their efforts to impeach him failed (given media coverage of the story). More specifically, it was not about gross incompetence, criminal behaviour, military mismanagement, or even lying to Congress about any matter of policy. Instead, it was about the president receiving fellatio from and using a cigar as a sex toy on Ms. Lewinsky during trysts in the Oval Office, then trying to cover it up. It is doubtful that the founding fathers, in Article Two (Section Four) of the Constitution, had this in mind when they wrote that impeachment was to be used only in exceptional circumstances involving “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours.”
That is a slippery slope. And nowhere is the bottom of that slope more evident than in the recent impeachment of leftist President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil.
Brazil has history with impeachment. In 1992 then president Fernando Collor de Mello resigned after Congress voted in favour of his impeachment on charges of bribery and misappropriation of funds. Similar charges of “budgetary mismanagement” were brought against Ms. Rousseff in 2016 by a Congress dominated by the center-right PMDB, Brazil’s largest party, which has the most seats in Congress (66) and is the one to which her vice president Michel Temer belongs (the coalitional aspects of Brazilian politics are too complex to get into here but suffice it to say that Rousseff was trying to keep her friends and allies close and her enemies closer. That did not work out as planned). By the time the first reports of fiscal irregularities surfaced in 2015, the PMDB-led majority in Congress had gone full-blown disloyal in a context of economic stagnation and assorted crises (Zika, lack of Olympic preparations) and were itching to find a reason to remove Rousseff (who was not anywhere as popular as her Workers Party predecessor Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva). The investigation into financial wrongdoing gave them their window of opportunity.
The charges against Rousseff stemmed from “Operation Car Wash” (Operacao Lava Jato) into bribery and corruption involving the state oil monopoly Petrobras, assorted construction firms, politicians, bureaucrats and financial entities. Without going into the details, let’s just say three things: First, corruption is a way of life in Brazil, not just an aspect of how the economic and political elite behave (hence the phrase fazer jeito, or ” a way of doing things” on the sly). Of those legislators demanding her impeachment and who voted against her at the Senate trial, over a dozen are being investigated or have been charged with corruption themselves, including now-president Temer. Included among the luminaries who voted to oust her is a former Army officer who was involved in her torture when she was imprisoned by the military dictatorship in the early 1970s, and who said during the proceedings that it would have been best that she were killed while in custody.
Secondly, creative accounting by Brazilian governments is a time-honoured tradition that crosses party lines. Most reputable political and financial analysts agree that not only was Ms. Rousseff not personally involved or benefitted by dodgy Treasury figures, but that in the scheme of things the book fiddling done by her government was not criminal but in fact par for the course in Brazil. Unfortunately for her, Article 85 of the Brazilian constitution and the Fiscal Responsibility Law specifically prohibit mismanagement and disregard for the federal budget. This was the seldom used rope that Congress hung her with.
Thirdly, no impeachment in Brazil can occur without the tacit assent of the armed forces. Of all the sordid aspects of Rousseff’s impeachment, this is the most sobering one. 30 odd years after they returned to the barracks, Brazil’s military still sees forced removal of elected presidents as a viable option–so long as it does not involve them directly.
This is why what happened in Brazil a week or so ago was a constitutional coup. Impeachment is the weapon of choice for the constitutional coup plotters, but their intentions are disloyal and their objectives sinister at heart. Their motivations have nothing to do with honesty and transparency in government or defending democracy. Instead, they are about playing the system for tactically opportunistic partisan gain.
Brazil is not the only Latin American country to have suffered a constitutional coup. In 2012 Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo was impeached and removed from office, ostensibly because of his mishandling of a land occupation that ended in violence. He was given two hours to prepare his defense, and was replaced by his Vice President, who sided with the legislative opposition against him. Subsequent publication of US embassy cables by Wikileaks revealed that as early as 2009 opposition leaders had begun to discuss using impeachment as a way of ousting Lugo from office (Lugo was elected in 2008). They eventually succeeded.
There is a problem with this strategy: more than one side can play that game, and learning curves may teach that rather than the exception, the use of impeachment in pursuit of a constitutional coup can become the new norm. That in turn can spur a contagion effect, whereby politicians in other democracies with presidential systems see merit in pursuing similar courses of action. Worse yet, repeated recourse to constitutional coups as partisan weapons can lead to outright military intervention, at which point the return to the traditional form of coup trumps any constitutional niceties.
One should take this into account when pondering the activities of political actors in presidential-system liberal democracies, be they big and small. Because in a world where military-led coups are considered particularly thuggish and therefore distasteful, the constitutional coup is the genteel authoritarian’s game.
Barring some disaster, Hillary Clinton will win the US presidential election in November. That poses an interesting question for the US Left, because the defensive support for her offered by Sanders supporters and other progressives in the face of the Trump alternative can only be considered to be more than a short-term tactical ploy if her administration adopts progressive policies. Otherwise it is, as many have accused, continuation of politics as usual or Obama 2.0. This is, of course, at the heart of the negotiations between the Sanders camp and Clinton’s people at the DNC policy platform meetings, and it remains to be seen if the Clintonites will make good on their promises.
That brings up the perennial problem for political activists: how to turn a moment into a movement. US commentators are already using the phrase with regard to the Sanders primary run and the impact it will have on a future Clinton presidency. Some think that he has run his course, that status quo Democratic policies will prevail, and that the forces that his campaign galvanised will either go mainstream or dissipate into another pool of apathy and disenchantment. Others believe that to the contrary, the Sanders campaign has stirred new life into the American Left and that his campaign legacy will have an impact on how Clinton approaches the Oval Office.
It is a tough one to call. It is clear that Clinton needs to cater to Sander’s supporters in order to win the election. She cannot dismiss them before November 8 but could in theory do so afterwards, especially if the Democrats regain control of the Senate (they only need to win four seats) and make inroads into the Republican House majority (the Democrats would need a turnover of more than thirty seats to regain control of the lower chamber). The situation is made worse for progressives if Clinton wins by a landslide (anything over seven points) because she can point to a “mandate” that does not include them. That will be also be the case if political nihilists on the Left opt to “blow up the system” by voting for Trump or minor party candidates in large numbers. The latter will tighten the race unnecessarily (in Clinton’s eyes) and will, should she win, see her turn her back on the post-modern New Left wing of her party (I use the term “New Left” not in the sense of the 1960s Left but in the sense that post-modern progressives in the US are not in their majority affiliated with unions or other traditional organisational sources of Democratic electoral power). After all, she can say that they turned on her and she still won because the US political centre preferred her over Trump. She can feel justified in believing that she does not need the New Left to govern and therefore should not push policy initiatives at their behest.
Assuming a Clinton victory, the ideal situation for US progressives is twofold: most of Sanders’ supporters and others on the Left opt to vote for Clinton and she wins by a relatively close margin (say, between 3-5 points); and vote for Democratic candidates in key congressional districts knowing that a progressive presidential agenda needs congressional support in order to become law. That requires voter education (on the whys and hows of linking down-ballot choices to the presidential race and how executive-legislative relations can impact decisions with long-term consequences such as Supreme Court nominations) as well as mobilisation in favour of the progressive policies adopted by the DNC at the platform negotiations (and perhaps more).
In that preferred scenario, because Clinton will understand that she absolutely required a groundswell of New Left voters to win a close race, it will be harder to abandon them once victory is achieved. Even more so, it will be virtually impossible to renege on the progressive agenda if key wins by Democrats in Congressional races were owed to the participation of New Left voters.
So the Bernie “moment” in the primaries also has to become a dual proposition in the general election and post-election phases of the campaign if it is to become a movement. The New Left need to continue to mobilise in support of Clinton during the weeks leading up to November 8 and they need to continue to pressure her administration, both directly and through the elected Congressional candidates who needed their support to win, after she assumes the presidency and the 115th US Congress is convened in January 2017.
In other words, the transformation of the Sanders moment into a New Left movement requires one other “M:” momentum. That momentum has to be sustained through November and into the next administration and congressional term if the moment is to become a movement.
That is where some dark clouds arise on the Clinton electoral horizon, and they are not caused by Trump. In the purported interest of “balance” (regardless of the outright campaigning on his behalf by conservative media outlets), mainstream news organisations are delving into her emails while Secretary of State, into her relationship with Clinton Foundation donors while in office, into why she does not hold press conferences (which is patently self-serving on the news agencies part) and even into spurious conspiracy theories about her health. These investigative efforts go beyond reporting on official FBI investigations of Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as SecState and in spite of the fact that none of her activities while in office have been linked to any policy decision or personal favour offered on her part. For reasons known only to Julian Assange and his comrades, Wikileaks has targeted her communications and those of the DNC, both independently as well as in cooperation with Russian-based hackers, while neglecting to do so with those of Trump and the RNC.
Any one of these lines of inquiry have the potential to divert attention and resources away from her policy agenda and could even derail her campaign if found to contain seriously negative substance (nothing of which has been found so far in spite of the best efforts of the Trump campaign and its media lackeys). So the onus is on Clinton to re-energise her support base in the face of these dishonest and scurrilous attacks and to re-focus on the policies that she will bring to the Oval Office and share with her Congressional colleagues. That is where the New Left vote is vitally important. Just as Trump has his core base in middle aged white working class lower educated people, Clinton has a core base in urban professionals. But both of them need to expand their appeal outside of those cores, and it is the New Left that Clinton needs to court most assiduously. That gives the New Left leverage on her and they need to know how to judiciously take advantage of it.
To be sure, the GOP is working to separate the New Left from Clinton. It may not get the attention that trying to divorce Trump from down-ballot GOP candidates has received from the RNC, but Republicans clearly want the Sanders crowd to alienate from Clinton whether or not they vote for another candidate like Jill Stein (Green). For the GOP, getting the New Left to stay at home rather than vote is just as important as getting them to adopt the nihilist approach of voting for spoilers.
This is made interesting by the fact that Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson is polling at around 10-12 percent and has received financial backing from erstwhile big GOP donors, while Jill Stein is polling around 5 percent. Usually third party candidates barely receive 10 percent of the vote in a US general election, so the fact that these candidates could receive 15 percent or more changes the dynamics of the presidential race quite dramatically. That reinforces the need for Clinton to get out the New Left vote on her behalf in significant numbers, something that will allow her to build momentum in the run up to election day and which in turn means that she must accept the fact that the Bernie moment has become a progressive movement. This will annoy her backers on Wall Street and corporate America, but they also can see the dangers of having a populist demagogue with Tea Bagger tendencies occupying the White House. For them as well as many on the New Left, she is the lesser evil.
It will be interesting to see how things play out over the next 9 weeks. Two things are certain: every vote will count this time around and what is now a moment of opportunity can only be transformed into a sustainable movement if the New Left puts, however reluctantly or sceptically, its collective weight behind the Clinton campaign in order to build the momentum of progressive change beyond election day.
Let’s hope that I am not wishful thinking.
Fidel Castro celebrated his 90th birthday a few days ago. During the public celebration of his milestone he sat in a specialised wheel chair between his brother Raul and Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela. He is physically frail but his mind is still sharp, as evidenced in a (rather self-serving) editorial he wrote in which he praised his revolution and denounced US president Obama and the thawing of relations between the US and Cuba (which his brother, now president of Cuba after Fidel’s abdication due to illness, helped engineer). As part of the month long celebrations of his birth, he is being gifted a 90 meter long cigar, a world record for “puros” of any type. Bill Clinton should be so lucky.
Yet, I felt sadness and some pity at watching Fidel in his autumn years. Like Garcia Marquez’s Colonel, he is a man of the past wrapped in memories of what could have been. A man who once was an icon of the Latin American Left, worthy successor to Jose Marti, comrade-in-arms of Che Guevara, patron of the Angolan and Mozambiquian revolutions, inspiration to insurrectionists world-wide, cunning adversary of the US for over five decades and arguably the best poker player the world after he bluffed the US into thinking that he would rather be incinerated rather than relent to US demands during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the USSR eventually agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba over Castro’s objections in exchange for a US withdrawal of surface to surface missile batteries in Turkey).
But rather than the imposing physical specimen that towered over so many of his emulators both in height and intellect and who attracted the attention of the rich, famous and powerful during his heyday, here sat a stooped, gaunt, hollow faced elder with visible hand tremors and a certifiable fool sitting on his left side. In fact, if Fidel represented the best hopes and aspirations of a previous generation of revolutionaries, Nicolas Maduro represents the terminal decline of the contemporary “Pink Tide” of elected neo-socialists that emerged during the 2000s and who, with few exceptions like the Frente Amplio governments of Uruguay, have been proven to be no less authoritarian, no less corrupt, and equally if not more incompetent than their capitalist predecessors. In some cases, these Pink Tide regimes were not so much socialist as they were kleptocratic, populist-corporatist or sold-out to the corporate interests they ostensibly opposed. And like Fidel, they have fallen on hard times.
Other than Maduro, no foreign leaders of note attended Fidel’s birthday party (even the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, a country in which many Cubans spilled blood in the overthrow of Somoza and defense of the Sandinista Revolution, did not send a high level delegation). The rich and powerful were absent. In a sense, Fidel’s decline mirrors the struggles of the Cuban Revolution after the USSR withdrew its economic support for it. More tellingly, it symbolises the squandered opportunity of the Pink Tide.
The emergence of elected Left regimes in Latin America during the 2000s was a moment of great hope for progressives in the hemisphere. It followed a wave of so-called neoliberal, market-friendly economic reforms undertaken by a variety of right and populist regimes such as those of Menem in Argentina and Fujimori in Peru during the previous decades. As the negative consequences of neoliberalism began to impact on basic social indicators such as income inequality and child poverty, and could no longer be hidden by creative accounting and statistical manipulation, a window of ideological opportunity opened for the Latin American Left. They were the earliest and fiercest critics of the so-called “Washington Consensus” behind the adoption of neo-liberal reforms. They were the academics, activists, organisers and politicians who marshalled protests, demonstrations and other forms of passive and active resistance to the implementation of market-driven edicts. They were the outlets through which the dislocating effects and social impact of the “more market” approaches were highlighted. And they had one more thing: structural opportunity in the form of a global commodities boom.
With the rise of China as an economic powerhouse in competition and/or concert with other established and new powers (e.g. the US, India), the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the demand for commodities–primary goods, raw materials and especially minerals, metals and fossil fuels–skyrocket. As prices soared on the back of increased demand previously unexploited regions became the subjects of concerted interest by Chinese and other investors. What already existed in terms of commodities–oil in Venezuela and Ecuador, natural gas and oil in Brazil, copper in Chile, even soy, maize and beef in Argentina and Uruguay–saw redoubled investment in extractive export industries. A boom time ensued.
At the turn of the century Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela elected or re-elected neo-socialist governments (El Salvador, Honduras, Paraguay and Peru did as well but their tenures were short-lived). Every one of these countries benefited from the commodities boom. The question was not so much how to generate public money surpluses but in what measure and how to make use of them. But, just like Soviet subsidies gave Fidel’s Cuba an unnatural sense of comfort and inflated standard of living, the commodities boom was a temporary boost rather than a long term panacea for the region’s problems, depending on what was done with the surpluses generated by the golden moment.
With the exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, pretty much everywhere else the preferred combination was public spending on popular projects mixed with epic corruption, graft and theft. To be sure, health, education, welfare and housing services improved in the early years of these regimes and social indicators improved relative to the neo-liberal baselines. Income redistribution downwards was accomplished via generous benefits packages provided to the lower classes. Public services such as transport, electricity and gas were heavily subsidised by the State. So were basic food staples. Public works schemes generated employment. But after a while the money provided for such projects began to run out as the demand for commodities stabilised and prices began to drop.
Worse yet, what most of these regimes did not do was invest constructively in long-term productive capacity and infrastructure. Instead, they threw money at popular short term projects and grandiose schemes such as building sports arenas and stadiums. They pushed increased export commodity dependency rather than diversification of the productive apparatus. In parallel, they siphoned off millions in public funds to friends, cronies and family of government officials, when not to themselves. The combination was one of immediate gain (for them and their supporters) at the expense of long-term sustainability, and now those chickens have come home to roost.
In places like Argentina under Cristina Fernandez de Kichner, corruption was elevated to an art form (in a country where it was already a highly developed practice). In places like Brazil and Ecuador corruption was an integral part of the public-private nexus in construction and fossil fuel exploration. But it is in Venezuela where the full depths of the decline are seen. Even before Hugo Chavez died, his “revolution” had turned into a feeding trough for the Boliviarian elites. Billions of dollars were provided to creating anti-imperialist alliances such as ALBA, the anti-capitalist trading bloc that was supposed to counter MERCOSUR and which never got off the ground. Billions in subsidised oil was sent to Cuba to prop up the Castro regime as a form of anti-US solidarity. After Chavez died, under Maduro, Venezuela has become an economic basket case where shortages of basic staples and power outages are the norm and where both government services and private industry have nearly ground to a halt (in a country with one of the world’s largest oil reserves). In Venezuela and elsewhere there was a conspicuous lack of foresight or public planning. Few sovereign wealth funds were created to save during times of plenty for the inevitable lean times that come with the boom and bust cycles of the commodities trade. Once the lean times came, the response of the neo-socialist Left was to blame anyone but themselves and to grab as much of the dwindling public reserves for their own benefit.
In some cases, the actions of disloyal oppositions and foreign powers hastened the authoritarian response and increased self-enrichment of Leftist leaders. This was very much true in Venezuela. In other cases the sheer weight of historical patterns of political patronage and private nepotism wore down the resolve of Left politicians to resist the temptation to do things “as usual.” That was and is the case of Brazil. In Chile the strength of the military-business network has impeded anything but incremental reform by the most determined Left governments. In some cases (Bolivia and Ecuador) long tenures in power slowly insulated Left governments from the masses and allowed for the development of cultures of impunity in which public officials were no longer responsive to the commonweal and instead focused on maintaining themselves in power. In virtually all cases, again with the exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, public officials treated national treasuries as individual and collective ATMs.
In some countries Left governments have been electorally replaced by Right ones (Argentina and Peru). In Brazil the Left PT government has crumbled under the weight of corruption scandals and succumbed to what amounted to a constitutional coup carried out by no less corrupt right-wingers. In several others such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the Left continues to rule, however sclerotically and increasingly autocratically. In Chile the Concertacion government of Michelle Bachelet that preceded and replaced the one-term Right government of Sebastian Pinera is more establishment-friendly centrist than anything else (because it has to be in order to keep the coup plotters at bay). Only in Uruguay has the Left, in the form of the Frente Amplio governments of Tabare Vazquez and Jose Mujica, been true to its socialist and democratic principles.
This is just an broad overview. The extent of mismanagement, incompetence, ineptitude and outright criminality undertaken by the neo-socialist Left when governing in Latin American during the last decade and a half has been astounding. The hard truth is that the Latin American Left had its golden windows of opportunity in the 2000s and with some notable exceptions squandered it all.
In a sense, that is a fate they share with Fidel. Had he passed from the scene in the 80s or even 90s he would still be revered in many progressive circles. But he has lingered too long, well after the contradictions and frailty of his revolution have been exposed. In fact, an entire generation of Cubans have been raised in the “special times” of austerity and deprivation that have marked the last 25 years of Communist rule in Cuba and which has forced his brother to open the national economy and seek rapprochement with the US. This has made that generation much less committed to revolutionary ideals and much more committed to materially improving themselves. As an old friend said to me upon returning from Cuba: “Ideology goes out the window when you are hungry.”
Worse yet, it now appears true that Fidel was less a committed revolutionary as he was a Cuban nationalist who used the context of the Cold War to bolster his rule and burnish his credentials as a committed internationalist. Mutatis mutandis, that is a trait shared by many neo-socialists of the Pink Tide: they were and are socialists more in name than in deed, and are more interested in enshrining their rule than in truly re-making their countries into viable socialist (or social democratic) societies in which political power is exercised by the people for the people. Revolutionary rhetoric is no substitute for revolutionary praxis and is a poor cover for political and economic mismanagement.
I say this with much regret. One never expects the Latin American Right (or pretty much any Right) to do anything other than enrich themselves and their cronies. But one certainly expects that self-professed socialists will behave differently, especially more fairly and less venally, when in power. Many people, myself included, wanted to believe in the promise of the Pink Tide just as we previously wanted to believe in the transformational impact of the Cuban Revolution. And yet, like the neo-liberals before them, the majority of Pink Tide neo-socialists have been exposed as charlatans, thieves and frauds.
On those grounds Fidel has one thing over them. He may not have accomplished all of the things that he promised that he would, and his “revolution” may have been much less than he promised and more dependent than he admits, but at least he has remained true to himself in his declining years. That cannot be said for the likes of the Boliviarians and their erstwhile regional comrades.
That is why I felt sadness when I watched his birthday celebrations. In the autumn of his life, el Comandante is condemned to the unique solitude that goes with being the last of his kind.
PS: Looks like I am not the only one who thinks that the Pink Tide failed to deliver on its promise (although this author puts a more positive and hopeful spin on things).
I get taking a stand on principles but…
So the Intelligence and Security Bill has passed its first reading in Parliament with a majority supporting it (106 votes to 15) and now goes back to select committee for further work.
The two parties who did not vote for it were the Greens and Peter Dunne (United Future).
For myself, I have read the Cullen/Reddy report that spawned the bill (170 pages), the bill itself and the all-important Regulatory Impact Statement (70 pages), followed the progress of the bill as it moved through the various layers of government and related agencies as well as talked with several of those who will be directly affected by it, should it go through, and it’s a rare day that I find myself in genuine agreement with John Key and the Government on a matter such as this.
Historically I have not been a fan of the Squirrels (one of the unofficial names used in Wellington for the intelligence services in general*), not because I do not believe they have a function in New Zealand but because my dealings with them though my current and previous work inside government has been a relatively vexing process and due to the fact that I don’t believe that these agencies remain fit for purpose in the modern world (I am an advocate of intelligence reform). Also because there is something about a high security clearance that often makes people inflate their own self-importance simply due to having said high security clearance and these agencies output seeming to have less to do with the actual security of NZ and more to do with supporting US hegemony though the Five Eyes agreement (also known as the “Anglo Saxon white peoples business empire protection club”).
Don’t get me wrong, I have several good friends and acquaintances in the squirrels, and there are many smart and dedicated souls slaving away for the greater good whose work will never be acknowledged but most of these agencies should have been shut down and replaced with something new and better a long time ago (something the report mentioned but was outside the scope of the report itself).
Unfortunately the mystique of intelligence work, as detailed by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks in The CIA and the cult of Intelligence (and many other books**), is something that remains by virtue of people being dazzled by the idea of such work being something like a James Bond movie or by the fallacy that because something is a secret it therefore makes it special and those people that handle such material are therefore also special.
In the end the work is the same as that in many government departments but with a blanket of secrecy draped over it. Squirrels go to work, sit at desks, write reports and do many of the same things that other civil servants do. Much of the work is as mundane as that of other bureaucrats in government because they are bureaucrats also.
It’s also an atmosphere which can include a preference for ex-military intelligence personnel over talented staff already in house and a club like atmosphere in senior management characterized by the most venal examples of patch protectionism*** I have ever seen.
In my previous work the easy answer to dealing with squirrelly issues was to work around it rather than try and get them to do anything about it and it is worth relating the mechanics of such an issue to give readers an idea of how bloody obstinate these agencies can be to change or doing anything about problems or issues that exist simply because it would highlight their own failings.
In my previous role in government, my small team dealt with one of the squirrel agencies on a regular basis as part of our work processing and assessing risk cases. The process went something like this: We got a case, we assessed the case for risk using our standard measures and if certain criteria were met we then sent the case off to the appropriate section of the squirrels for comment (sometimes more than one). We then waited for that comment to come back and once it did we would complete the process and make a decision in regards to the case and the identified risk.
The problem was that once we sent the file off to the nutty clubhouse for comment it was the equivalent to throwing the file into a black hole or some sort of temporal vortex.
Once it went in there was no reliable way to predict when it was going to come out, it could be a few days, a week, a month, several months, six months, a year or in the most drawn out instances, well over a year and attempts to find out what was going on were usually met with the blank wall of secrecy.
And when I took over the team I soon found that the black hole was a real problem for our work simply because we did not know when a case was going to come out of the black hole and hence we could end up with half of the files in our cabinets waiting for the Squirrel Nutkin seal of approval and our workflow slowing down and often grinding to a halt while we waited for a result.
So being a solutions not problems sort of person I spent several months politely trying to get the fury rodents responsible for the black hole to give some time frame or indication of what was going on and soon found out that my counterparts on the other side were as over worked as much as myself and they themselves were beholden to processes much larger which were dictated to them by bigger rodents several pay grades above theirs (or my) own.
So I got my manager to arrange a meeting with their manager and we put forward a simple business case to improve the process by putting in place some simple workarounds in the form of queue streams (high and low priority) and more effective communications to enable the Stygian depth of the hole to slightly less opaque.
It was a sound proposal, would have required almost no extra effort by themselves (as we would have done most of the grunt work) and had demonstrable benefits for both parties. There was no risk of information leakage or any security being breached. All we were doing was fixing the mechanics of a process that was clearly broken.
But did squirrel management accept even one smidgen of our proposal? Noooooo, they did not and their reasons for refusing the proposal? They did not have any, they simply refused to do anything or say anything further on the matter.
So in the end I re-organised the entire process at our end to speed up all work before and after we flung the file into the back hole and made sure that our management were well aware of why time frames for files were dragging out so we could point to us having done all we could when the inevitable complaints came rolling in about “the status on these 23 files being on hold for more than six months”.
Sadly if this was an isolated example I would not be writing about it here but it’s not; time and again myself and others I have spoken with have had nothing but praise for the hard working individuals inside the shadow tailed services and lots of scorn and derision for their senior management and their archaic and byzantine practices simply because its “secret”.
And if my previous example is a bit too esoteric for the reader let me give a much clearer and more concrete example of the problem: Security Clearances.
For many people who work in government a security clearance (confidential, secret, top secret, top secret special, super- top secret, Umbra, grey alien etc) is a standard requirement for their job and these clearances range across government departments, many of which people might not imagine would need one (The Ministry of Education being a good example).
Unfortunately the process of getting a security clearance is often loooooong and sloooow which means that most people will start their jobs without the clearance the job description says they need. Now this is not an issue in itself because many clearances (such as a low level Confidential) have a minimal risk or exposure associated to them that the choice has been made to get the person into the role and proceed towards the clearance in due time. A reasonable workaround in such circumstances.
In other cases all manner of people have been in roles with all manner of documents and information with all manner of security levels passing across their desk and not a security clearance to their name in sight.
My favorite example of this is a previous manager I knew who handled a range of sensitive material but who never had the appropriate security clearance until her last week on the job and it was believed this was given to her only so it could be said that she had held the appropriate clearance rather than actually having been genuinely vetted. Nothing more than a box ticking exercise.
And again this is not an isolated incident; I have seen and herd all manner of similar stories from others in government. Much of it is due to limited staff and massive workloads so vetting has to be prioritized but still clearances don’t get given in the right circumstances.
So it’s with these thoughts in mind that I find myself reading through the Cullen/Reddy report and nodding in agreement with much it recommends and then continuing to nod my head when the government decides to take on most of these proposals with the new bill.
Will the new bill fix the technical problems noted above? No it won’t but as the report notes there is a serious fracture in the rules and regulations the various agencies use and how they work together and by having one system for both (as the new bill only really affects the SIS and GCSB with the NAB tabbed in on the side and does not affect the Police or the scoundrels in DDIS at all) with tighter rules for warrants things will actually improve all round by virtue of clarity around the rules and unification of output.
I won’t be going into the bill much further here as I intend to discuss it in greater detail in another post after it has been though a few select committees and the current issues have been worked out.
What I want to look at today is why the Greens are so opposed to the intelligence services in general and I have used my examples of some of the genuine issues with the squirrelly systems to illustrate that changes are needed but it seems that the Greens are not opposing the bill for any practical reasons.
The truth is that the Greens are opposed to the squirrels and their activities mostly on principle AND by having been subject to the intense scrutiny and machinations by sections of the squirrels in the past (and possibly even today). Such treatment would have left a rather bad feeling which is all fine and dandy but a rather strange position in this case because there are genuine issues with the squirrels which this bill could fix and it appears that the Greens are being blinded by principles rather than seeing the situation for what it is, in short principles before pragmatism.
As I noted in my Green Party post a few months back no other party in parliament would have had the level of monitoring and infiltration, in modern times, than the Greens. In the Cold War it would have been Labour and there are stories about party members (including Norm Kirk before he became PM) being watched, monitored and bugged by the SIS which when compared to the known behaviors of similar services elsewhere (MI5 in England) are more than likely to be true.
Also the traditional position of such parties is to oppose expanding the powers of the security apparatus so no surprises there. But if the Right has an ideological blind spot when it comes to social policy and viewing people and society as nothing more than crude inputs for their half-baked economic models then the Left often fails to see the very real Hobbsian argument for a strong state actor and that security is a key aspect of such a state. Hoping that we can all just get along or wishing to impose some sort of communal security arrangement ignores that security risks are real and few if any nations are immune.
So is it just really personal and the Greens can’t see that the bill might actually reign in the behavior of the squirrels rather than letting them of the leash leading to a wholesale expansion of their power (ie spying on Kiwis)?
Certainly if this rather testy exchange between Metirei Turei and IG Christopher Finlayson is to be believed, as while Finlayson has all the personality and people skills of prison camp commandant this would be one of those rare times where I can see that Turei’s questions are just point scoring and grandstanding rather than genuinely about the bill and Finlayson’s frustration and droning out the same answer again and again are entirely justified.
Then again, we expect our Green party candidates to hold and believe certain ideological positions just as much as we would expect National party members to be all for the Neo-Liberal death march to prosperity for the ultra-wealthy at the expense of all others; and the ideological position of the Greens is defiantly opposed to the intelligence services.
Which leaves me in a curious position as I usually like the policies of the Greens, ideology or not, and I myself do have issue with much of the structure and behavior of the security services in NZ but after having picked over the bill and related documents I see that the recommendations of the report are in generally sound (centralization of rules, tighter oversight and protections and clearer definitions) albeit with the need (as identified by Labour) to tighten up some of the details in the select committee process (clearer definition of “National Security” and around the levels of warrant/safeguard etc).
But that’s the details, the bill in and of itself will actually do a lot to bring the services around and in line as well as make them fully part of the public service (and subject to all that being in the public service means) but for some reason the Greens are not going to go for it and for once I find myself onside with John Key and National and genuinely wondering why the Greens hate the squirrels so much?
For those with the time I recommend reading the report (it’s very easy to read and was deliberately written that way as well as defining the issues in clear and simple terms) along with the related documents.
I do get that there are probably deeper concerns if you dug into the Greens on this issue but that’s not how it’s coming out in the media and their website also has little to say beyond their opposition to the bill and such matters.
If the Greens oppose the Squirrels for personal reasons I get that and also I support their being back on the ISC (Intelligence and Security Committee) despite Key’s protestations that their opposition makes it pointless to be there (I believe a dissenting opinion is a useful thing to guide the discussion not matter how contrary) but their voting against it, while a principled stand, really does little and ignores the opportunity that the bill presents to fix part of the problem they are moaning about.
*-So called after a 1960’s cartoon about a squirrel that was also a spy (here)
**-Decent Interval, The Big Breach and Spy Catcher being some other good works which highlight these issues.
***-As seen by myself and related to me through friends and acquaintances inside the wire. For whatever reasons such behavior seems to occur a lot more in the intelligence, risk and compliance spaces than elsewhere in government.