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A test of civil society.

datePosted on 14:13, March 28th, 2020 by Pablo

The CV-19 (COVID) pandemic has seen the imposition of a government ordered national quarantine and the promulgation of a series of measures designed to spread the burden of pain and soften the economic blow on the most strategically important and most vulnerable sectors of society. The national narrative is framed as a public health versus economic well-being argument, with the logic of infectious disease experts being that we need to accept short term pain in the form of social deprivation and loss of income in order to achieve long term societal gain once the infection has run it course. However, some business leaders argue that a prolonged shut-down of the productive apparatus will cause irreparable harm to the national economy out of proportion to the health risks posed by the pandemic, and thereby set back the country’s development by twenty years or more.

The lockdown is a classic test of the age old philosophical question behind the notion of the “tragedy of the commons:” Should we pursue the collective good by accepting self-sacrifice in the face of an invisible threat and uncertain common pay-off, or do we pursue immediate self-interest and opportunism rather than accept material and lifestyle losses amid the same uncertainties and invisible rewards? Needless to say, it is not a straight dichotomy of choice, but the poles of the dilemma are clear.

Another thing to consider is a principle that will have to be invoked if the disease spreads beyond the ability of the national health system to handle it by exceeding bed and ventilator capacity as well as the required amount of medical personnel due to CV-19 related attrition: lifeboat ethics. If the pandemic surpasses that threshold, then life and death decisions will have to be made using a triage system. Who lives and who dies will then become a public policy as well as moral-ethical issue, and it is doubtful that either government officials or medical professionals want to be placed in a position of deciding who gets pitched out of the boat. So, in a very real sense, the decisions made with regard to the tragedy of the commons have serious follow up effects on society as a whole.

One thing that has not been mentioned too much in discussions about the pandemic and the responses to it is the serious strain that it is placing on civil society. Much is said about “resilience” and being nice to each other in these times of “social distancing” (again, a misnomer given that it is a physical distancing of individuals in pursuit of a common social good). But there are enough instances of hoarding, price-gouging, profiteering–including by major supermarket chains–and selfish lifestyle behaviour to question whether the horizontal solidarity bonds that are considered to be the fabric of democratic civil society are in fact as strongly woven as was once assumed.

There is also the impact of thirty years of market economics on the social division of labour that is the structural foundation of civil society. Along with the mass entrance of women into the workforce came the need for nanny, baby-sitter and daycare networks, some of which were corporatised but many of which were not. Many of these have been disrupted by the self-isolation edict, to which can be added the shuttering of social and sports clubs, arts and reading societies, political and cultural organisations and most all other forms of voluntary social organisation. Critical services that rely on volunteers remain so rural fire parties, search and rescue teams, the coastguard and some surf lifesaving clubs are allowed to respond to callouts and maintain training standards. But by and large the major seams of civil society have been pulled apart by the lockdown order.

This is not intentional. The government wants the public to resume normal activities once the all clear is given. It simply does not know when that may be and it simply cannot spend resources on sustaining much of civil society’s infrastructure when there are more pressing concerns in play. The question is whether civil society in NZ and other liberal democracies is self-reproducing under conditions of temporary yet medium-termed isolation. The Italians hold concerts from their balconies, the Brazilians bang pots in protest against their demagogic populist leader, Argentines serenade medical and emergency workers from rooftops and windows. There is a range of solidarity gestures being expressed throughout the world but the deeper issue is whether, beneath the surface solidarity, civil society can survive under the strain of social atomisation.

I use the last term very guardedly. The reason is because during the state terror experiments to which I was exposed in Latin America, the goal of the terrorist state was to atomise the collective subject, reducing people to self-isolating, inwards-looking individuals who stripped themselves of their horizontal social bonds and collective identities in order to reduce the chances that they became victims of the terrorists in uniforms and grey suits. The operative term was “no te metas” (do not get involved), and it became a characteristic of society during those times. At its peak, this led to what the political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell labeled the “infantilisation” of society, whereby atomised and subjugated individuals lived with very real fears and nightmares in circumstances that were beyond their control. Their retreat into isolation was a defence against the evil that surrounded them. Today, the threat may not be evil but it is real and pervasive, as is the turn towards isolation.

I am not suggesting that there is any strong parallel between state terrorism in Latin America and the lockdown impositions of democratic governments in the present age. The motivations of the former were punitive, disciplinary and murderous. The motivations of the latter are protective and prophylactic.

What I am saying, however, is that the consequences for civil society may be roughly comparable. Many Latin American societies took years to reconstitute civil society networks after the dictatorial interludes, although it is clear that, at least when compared to advanced liberal democracies, the strength of democratic norms and values was relatively weak in pretty much all of them with the exception of Uruguay and Costa Rica. Yet, in places like NZ, democratic norms and values have been steadily eroded over the last thirty years, particularly in their collective, horizontal dimension.

The reason is ideological: after three decades of imposed transmission, market-driven logics vulgarly lumped together as “neoliberalism” are now a dominant normative as well as structural trait in NZ society. The country has many, if not more hyper-individualistic self-interested maximisers of opportunities in the population as it does those with a commonweal solidarity orientation. Lumpenproletarians populate both the socioeconomic elite as much as they do the subaltern, marginalised classes. Greed is seen by many as a virtue, not a vice, and empathy is seen as a weakness rather than a strength.

The ideological strength of the market-oriented outlook is seen in business responses to the pandemic. In NZ many want bailouts from a government that they otherwise despise. Many are attempting to opportunistically gain from shortages and desperation, in what has become known as “disaster capitalism.” Some try to cheat workers out of their government-provided wage relief allowances, while others simply show staff the door. Arguments about keeping the economy afloat with State subsides compete with arguments about infectious disease spread even though objectively the situation at hand is first a public health problem and secondly a private financial concern.

The importance of civil society for democracy is outlined by another political scientist, Robert Putnam, in a 2000 book titled “Bowling Alone.” In it he uses the loss of civic virtue in the US (in the 1990s) as a negative example of why civil society provides the substantive underpinning of the political-institutional superstructure of liberal democracies. Putnam argues that decreases in membership in voluntary societies, community associations , fraternal organisations, etc. is directly related to lower voter turnouts, public apathy, political disenchantment and increased alienation and anomaly in society. This loss of what he calls “social capital” is also more a product of the hyper-individualisation of leisure pursuits via television, the internet (before smart phones!) and “virtual reality helmets” (gaming) rather than demographic changes such as suburbanisation, casualisation of work, extension of working hours and the general constraints on “disposable” time that would be otherwise given to civic activities as a result of all of the above.

The danger posed by the loss of social capital and civic virtue is that it removes the rich tapestry of community norms, more and practices that provide the social foundation of democratic governance. Absent a robust civil society as a sounding board and feedback mechanism that checks politician’s baser impulses, democratic governance begins to incrementally “harden” towards authoritarianism driven by technocratic solutions to efficiency- rather than equality-based objectives.

The current government appears to be aware of this and has incrementally tried to recover some of the empathy and solidarity in NZ society with its focus on well-being as a policy and social objective. But it could not have foreseen what the pandemic would require in terms of response, especially not the disruptive impact of self-isolation on the fabric of civil society.

It is here where the test of civil society takes place. Either it is self-reproducing as an ideological construct based on norms and values rooted in collective empathy and solidarity, or it will wither and die as a material construct without that ideological underpinning. When confronting this test, the question for NZ and other liberal democracies is simple: is civil society truly the core of the social order or is it a hollow shell?

Given the divided responses to this particular tragedy of the commons, it is hard for me to tell.

Living within our means.

datePosted on 15:08, March 24th, 2020 by Pablo

Years ago the Argentine sociologist Carlos Weisman wrote a book titled “Living within our Means.” It was a critique of Argentine society that focused on the paradoxical question of why, in a land of plenty, there was so much economic instability, inequality, corruption and political turmoil. His conclusion was basically that natural wealth produced indolence and greed: the vast natural resources in Argentina could be exploited inefficiently and without regard to the future, money was siphoned off of productive sectors into all sorts of nonproductive or money wasting enterprises ill-suited for the economics and demographics of the country, and the surpluses generated by the productive sectors (agriculture and mining in particular) could not only line the pockets of those lucky enough to control the means of production but could also be used to buy off subordinate group consent via State benefit distribution derived from minimal taxation on the export-oriented sectors that generated the bulk of the countries GDP.

His most important observation was that Argentines, so accustomed to an economic system that generated wealth in spite of itself, were living beyond their means. The State sector grew bloated, workers lost sight of the connection between productivity and wages, capitalists hoarded, spent and perfected the arts of tax dodging and capital flight, and politicians used patronage and public goods as a means of currying electoral favour, only to have the military step in from time to time under the pretence of putting things right but in reality only to shift benefits of political control to their civilian allies.

New Zealand is not quite as pathological, but for some time I have seen parallels with Argentina in that it appears that the country has, for at least two decades, been living beyond its means. Think of the so-called export sector.

Traditionally, “export sector” means those business that sell their goods overseas, to foreign clients. In NZ that historically meant agriculture (including cattle and sheep farming) mining, forestry and fishing. More recently, high tech value-added industries like software development have been layered into the export mix. But so too have industries like tourism and foreign language and tertiary education. Yes, tourism and educational services for foreign students are classified as “exports” in NZ even though all of the revenue generated and GDP share provided by these services are domestic in nature. Unlike traditional exports, other than some transportation companies, none of the economic activity associated with either industry is generated from abroad (say, via the sale of goods).

There is something insidious about this. Thriving in a largely unregulated environment, tourism surged. Adventure tourism, adrenaline tourism, hobbit tourism, backpacker and freedom camper tourism, glamour tourism, death tourism (trophy hunting) etc. all exploded even thought the infrastructure required to handle them was insufficient or non-existent. Likewise, dodgy fly by night language schools popped up catering to foreign students as young as high school age, and universities lowered admission standards and course requirements in order to attract unqualified foreigners who were willing to pay enrolment fees up to five times higher than domestic students. It did not matter that these foreign student often wound up as the victims of unscrupulous education “brokers,” local employers, hosts and homestay providers. That was fine because the business owners and senior managers operating these industries were rewarded handsomely for their efforts even if their contributions were not, to be clear, really advancing the productivity of NZ society. Both of these industries saw the foreigner’s dollar as their cash cow and soon became dependent on it. So long as the State got its share of tax revenues, all was hunky dorey as far as the economic-political elite was concerned.

A clear case of a non-traditional “export” that does more harm than good is the cruise line business. These floating Petri dishes used to be pretty scarce in NZ ports but now are now commonplace eyesores from the Bay of Islands to Akaroa and Milford Sound. They are seagoing pollution generators with dodgy labour and hygiene practices that disgorge thousands of clueless leisure lovers onto our shores to watch hokey “cultural” shows, go sight-seeing (including to active volcanoes) on fossil fuel vehicles and buy trinkets and baubles from money-grubbing vendors who otherwise could and should be providing services to their communities. What domestic benefit is derived from them is surprisingly narrow in scope, and yet they continue to come in increasing numbers–at least until CV-19 revealed them for what they are when it comes to public health risks.

Even traditional sectors like fisheries and dairy have come to rely more on export markets than on domestic consumption for their well-being, pushing unsustainable growth, environmental degradation, species destruction and oligopolistic market concentration. Uncoupling commodity pricing from domestic wage levels, some agricultural staples have been priced out of the range of most local consumers while a greater percentage of quotas and production are oriented towards foreign buyers. The situation has become so unbalanced in some sectors that, for example, given a drop in Asian demands due to the CV-19 pandemic, fishermen find it more economical to dump crayfish back into the ocean than sell them in the domestic market. Asian demand for cut wood has dried up, leaving huge surpluses in holding lots that are not being released into the domestic market. The price of many wage goods, consumer non-durables and staples is now set by international markets rather than by local demand, thereby narrowing the range of basic goods purchasable by the average NZ consumer.

In light of this, we might see the arrival of the Coronavirus (CV-19) as a great corrective on the national excess. The first industries to shut down are the ones that really should not have grown so large in the first place: tourism and tertiary education. These have been readily followed by service sectors associated with tourism and foreign students, including accomodation and food service provision.

Now the entire country is poised to “shelter in place.” With the government ordering mandatory closures and shut downs as it ramps up its response, primary and secondary schools have closed and a multitude of service providers have switched to at-home work or temporary closures. Soon a full scale lockdown will be imposed.

Essential industries and core state services continue to operate–transportation, food provision, emergency services, law enforcement, telecommunications, waste disposal, etc. Note that if we strip out the non-essential industries that are now shuttered or curtailed, we have a much smaller overall economic footprint yet a larger State presence within it. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

After years of market-driven logics that among other things pushed the kind of excesses described herein, the State is reassuming its role as macro-manager of the economy and direct provider of public goods and strategic production. Prudent financial management that protected surpluses “for a rainy day” allow the current government to ease the burden of pain inflicted on the working population by CV-19. It can also provide the material basis of an economic re-ordering on grand scale. One can only hope that, thanks to the pandemic, the era of down-sizing and privatisation has been proven to be a false promise when it came to national well-being and prosperity, and that it is replaced with a new economic logic that emphasises the importance of the social relations of production as much as the relations in and control of production itself.

There is one more component to this smaller, “natural” economic footprint: small businesses. The NZ economy runs on small business production and services. From metal working shops to plastics manufacturers, furniture makers and tradespeople, NZ has a middle sector in between the big agro-export corporates and State Owned Enterprises and private-public partnerships. The difference between them and the bloated tourism and tertiary education sectors is that they actually produce things of tangible value that benefit domestic society, not the degree-chasing aspirations or Instagram ambitions of foreigners.

The combination of big exporters, State sector and small businesses, one might say, is the critical component of NZ society. Not tourism, not foreign student education, not bars, restaurants, sports and other forms of mass entertainment. These can be resurrected when the pandemic has passed, but this moment of crisis demonstrates where value is created and preserved in NZ society. And it is not with hedge funds, sports teams, video game arcades, waterfront restaurants with space for tips on their service bills, ski resorts, golf courses or heli-tours.

Needless to say, this is a broad brush depiction of the economy of excess in which we live. There are bound to be fine details that prove the exception to the rule such as it has been depicted here. But the gist is clear: NZ has, as a result of the market-oriented experiment of the last 30 plus years created a entire range of parasitic/opportunist capitalism that contributes relatively little of value to the domestic economy or to the population at large. It is this sector that needs to be excised thanks to the arrival of CV-19.

Calls for self-isolation are getting more forceful as the government ramps up its pandemic threat advisories. This type of quarantine is a form of physical separation based on notions of collective solidarity (and not a form of social distancing, as pundits have called it). People retreat into their homes out a sense of collective responsibility and empathy for others, hoping to weather the worst of the pandemic in order to flatten the curve of its distribution. Here again, the burden of sacrifice is borne by small producers, public servants and waged labour, most of whom do not have access to the type of savings or surpluses that allow the corporates to ride out the storm.

It is these people that deserve government financial relief. Not the corporates or those in the bloated, non-essential and non-productive (in a value-added or material sense) sectors of the economy. Not those in parasitic financial sectors and non-traditional export industries. Not sports leagues and yachties.

In the end the CV-19 pandemic is not only a massive corrective to the world and NZ societies, demonstrating the dark and largely ignored side of the globalisation of production, consumption and exchange. It is more than an economic belt-tightening across the globe. It is a moment for pause and reflection on what living within one’s means really means in practice. For NZ, it means that the time has come to drop the growth is good mantra in certain non-critical sectors of the economy and to refocus energy and resources on those that comprise the economic triad underpinning the good society: “traditional” exporters, small businesses and the State-Owned and public/private enterprises that are the core of the national productive apparatus. This may require major adjustments in all three components, especially in the export sector (to include its very definition), but the moment has arrived thanks to the externality known as Coronavirus.

That result may be a smaller economy than what came before CV-19, but it will be more sustainable, efficient, value-generating and ultimately fairer for NZ society as a whole.

A tipping point for the dotard?

datePosted on 12:04, March 16th, 2020 by Pablo

I guess that we should see the silver lining in the CV-19 pandemic. It has finally done what no political opponent could do. It has fundamentally undermined Trump’s credibility and that of the science-denying elements within the GOP and rightwing media. The important aspect of this is that the loss of credibility is evident in a private sector that otherwise was willing to cast a blind eye on the Trump/GOP corruption and buffoonery so long as the latter advanced business interests via deregulation, tax cuts etc.

Now that Trump’s incompetence has been fully exposed, as has that of his immediate advisors and sycophants in and around the White House, private businesses, state and local governments are taking action in defiance of his original bluster and denials. Led by their owners, elected officials and high level managers, entire sports have cancelled or postponed seasons, universities and school districts have closed, cities and states have ordered mandatory quarantines and numerous mass events have been abandoned. Even the military has acted against his original commands, instead opting to listen to military doctors and other experts about the effects of CV-19 on troop concentrations (such as cancelling military exercises and forbidding all domestic travel for service personnel). This, in response to what Trump initially called a politically inspired hoax and to which the GOP/media science deniers decried as the product of partisan hysteria and media manipulation. The fact that private businesses have led the defiant response is especially telling. No lefties among them.

The ineptitude and incompetence of the Trump administration is not only shown in its delayed response and original denials and deflections. The order to institute a ban on all travellers from Europe–done by the same people who crafted the Muslim ban attempted shortly after Trump was inaugurated–was done without forewarning to airlines, airport authorities and local law enforcement, much less the traveling public, American as well as foreign. No contingency plan was crafted, much less enacted, leaving federal border control agencies such as Customs, Immigration, Border Patrol and TSA short-staffed and undermanned in the face of a surge of last minute mass arrivals before the ban commencement date. Additional CV-19 health screenings deployed at the same time has resulted in chaos at airports of entry, with thousands of passengers stuck for hours in baggage returns and lined outside passport control stations (again, manned by federal employees). The result has been a clusterf**k of epic proportions.

Although he has been tested and cleared after being exposed to the virus, Trump may still fall ill because the test only measures one’s status on the test date. If that happens, he becomes a candidate for Article 25 removal from office since he is physically unable to perform the functions of president (which was the original intent of the framers. I shall leave aside jokes about his mental competence but let’s just say that his addled blathering about the pandemic does not inspire confidence). I have a feeling that if he gets sick, those in the GOP who secretly loathe him will have their knives out, because his gross negligence and inaction in handling the response will have election consequences for the party as a whole later this year. Seriously, if the predicted thousands of deaths and job losses and billions in productivity losses resultant from the botched initial response and the chaotic catch-ups since then actually happen, given the now open news that the Trump administration eliminated key public health agencies and replaced public servant scientists with lackeys, then the makings of an election disaster are looming large over the GOP’s political future.

Until now, the GOP’s 2020 election strategy was to ride Trump’s coattails as hard as possible. In the wake of CV-19 that seems politically suicidal. And if GOP politicians start to distance themselves from Trump in their campaigns, the possibility of intra-GOP fratricide becomes more likely. In fact, it is likely that factions are sharpening their knives as I write, with the pro-Trump crowd developing plans to delay the elections or smear anti-Trump politicians as traitorous during a national emergency. For their part, the anti-Trump faction will attempt to convince the public that they did all that they could to prevent him from doing more harm to the Union. That will be a tough sell, but so to will be any argument in support of Trump’s handling of the crisis.

The real trouble for the GOP starts if the pandemic lasts in the US for months, well into the post-convention campaign season (which starts in July). If the death and sick toll mounts to anything close to what is being predicted and job losses increase while businesses shut down, then perhaps even hardened MAGA morons will re-consider their support for the imbecile-in-chief. Even if they do not, undecided and independent voters could well draw the conclusion that enough is enough while the previously apathetic who did not vote in 2016 may finally realise that their votes do in fact count when it comes to national leadership selection. None of this bodes well for the GOP in November.

Perhaps there is a goddess after all. Her name is Mother Nature, and in this instance all she had to do is to let human folly advance her work. That may wind up being a painful but necessary political blessing for the US regardless of who wins the Democratic presidential nomination.

Inviting trouble?

datePosted on 14:43, March 3rd, 2020 by Pablo

Over the next few weeks New Zealand will host two major international sporting events involving hundreds of athletes and spectators gathered together in iconic settings. The gun goes off on Ironman NZ this upcoming weekend in Taupo, and then a week later the World Surf League (WSL) hosts the inaugural Piha Pro surfing competition in the namesake West Auckland seaside town. Ironman NZ will have 1500 competitors at the starting line, and the Piha Pro is said to attract, along with a highly competitive international field of surfers, up to 25,000 spectators during finals weekend (the competition runs for one week). The events are considered to be economic boons for the local communities as well as excellent ways of popularising the Kiwi “brand” around the world.

As a former surf lifeguard who lives near Piha and who spent nearly twenty years doing triathlons (including Ironman NZ), I can attest to the fact that events such as these are very important to those who engage in such sports. I have seen the energy generated by mass competition events and well understand why people are enthusiastic about supporting them. But this year there is something else added into the equation, one that has forced me to put on my day job hat as a someone involved in the risk management business: coronavirus.

Both Ironman NZ and the Piha Pro will bring athletes from all over the world, including countries with coronavirus outbreaks. They will by flying in on what are essentially long metal cigar tubes with recycled air, often on flights of 8 hours or more. Many of these athletes will bring family, friends and other support crews. Likewise, the organisers of these events–both Ironman and the WSL are international firms headquartered abroad,–basically act as a traveling circus, bringing in equipment, machines and staff and hiring local providers to do the same as part of the set-up process. All of these people mingle in close quarters in the days leading up to, through and after the event, and when not at the venues themselves populate the restaurants, bars, hotels, motels and rental accommodations near them.

What makes this issue a bit trickey is that the virus is not only spread by human-to-human contact but via contact with contaminated surfaces, be they plastic, metal, glass or wood. The incubation period is two days to two weeks in humans, but the surface contamination longevity is thought to be much longer. Infrared disinfection is considered the best way of treating contaminated surfaces but that requires resources and knowing which surfaces to treat.

Interestingly, the fitter one is nearing a long-distance triathlon, the more an individual’s immune system becomes depressed. This has to do with rigours imposed on the body by long-distance swimming, cycling and running for months at a time before the race, which is why a so-called “taper” is used whereby athletes gradually back off on training starting two weeks before race day. Surfers do not have quite the same problem, but for many in the WSL time is spent as much traveling as on the water, which also wears on the body.

And now they all get on those flying Petri dishes and head to Auckland.

Out of curiosity I have looked into the specific coronavirus contingency planning around these events. The bottom line is this: there appears to be none. It seems that neither the organisers or the district councils involved have drawn up plans for what happens in the event that someone involved in the competitions comes down sick with the virus. General guidance is provided by the Ministry of Health, to which councils can refer. Auckland Council offered this:

“At this stage Auckland Council is monitoring advice from the Ministry of Health and Auckland Regional Public Health. There is guidance for event organisers and attendees on their website below: https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-novel-coronavirus/covid-19-novel-coronavirus-information-specific-audiences/covid-19-advice-public-events-and-mass-gatherings. We’re aware that some community-led events are being cancelled by their organisers – they have their own reasons for making that decision and is entirely up to them. The current advice we’re relaying is for Aucklanders to take care of themselves and their families and follow health experts’ advice. Organisers and attendees should keep an eye on the health authorities’ websites for any new/changed information.”

That is the general advice given throughout the country. I was unable to find anything by the Ironman Corporation or WSL on coronavirus contingency planning for the New Zealand events, even though some Ironman-branded races have been cancelled or postponed in Asia because of the pandemic. The WSL has been silent on the subject in general even though there have been questions in the surfing community about whether the Olympics to be held in Japan at the end of July will go on if the pandemic deepens in Japan and/or spreads further (with surfing making its debut as an Olympic sport). Ironman New Zealand makes no mention of the disease in media announcements or on its website.

I assume that the insurance underwriters for these events have taken stock of the odds and given the green light for them to go ahead. That is certainly good news for everyone involved. But I also fear that the unique circumstances particular to these competitions might be inviting trouble, and that if it is left to participants, spectators, organisers and local communities to sort things out as per the general guidelines should the coronavirus arrive in their midst, then a public health emergency might occur.

Then again, having just become a naturalised Kiwi, rather than contingency planning and preparation for the possibility of trouble, I can always fall back on the belief that at the end of the day, “she’ll be right.”

The rot at the top (2).

datePosted on 16:14, October 15th, 2019 by Pablo

Thanks to a report from the Acting Inspector General of Intelligence and Security following a complaint by Nicky Hager, we have come to find out that the SIS illegally spied on Mr. Hager on behalf of the NZDF after publication of Hager’s 2011 book, Other People’s Wars. The NZDF justified its request by arguing that it was investigating potential espionage, although it turns out that it was actually looking for the NZDF source of leaks to Mr. Hager. This occurred when John Key was the Minister of Intelligence and Security, Warren Tucker was SIS Director and LTG Rhys Jones was Chief of the NZDF . Did the SIS and NZDF go rogue or were these individuals aware of the spying?

It seems hard to believe that none of these people were unaware of what their subordinates were doing. The NZDF request might have been accepted as a tasking under the partner agency agreement whereby the SIS assists other government agencies when and where needed. But for this to happen the Commissioner of Warrants or the Minister of Intelligence and Security would have to have approved the request. So the question is: did this happen? Was the request, while done through proper channels, truthful in its justification or was the warrant signed under false pretences? Or, did the NZDF and SIS agree to monitor Mr. Hager’s phone records without authorisation from above? If so, who authorised that action? Mr. Tucker and LTG Jones? Some mid level managers in the NZDF and SIS?

It should be noted that this unlawful spying occurred before the Police illegally searched Mr. Hager’s home and accessed his bank and phone records after the publication of his 2014 book, Dirty Politics. Here too we have the question of who, exactly, authorised the intrusion: the Minister of Police? The Police Commissioner? Someone below that rank? A friendly Justice of the Peace? Was the illegal Police access–again, supposedly to find the hacker called Rawshark who leaked to Hager a rightwing attack blogger’s emails and social media communications–a follow up or in any way connected to the previous NZDF/SIS investigation? After all, security agencies share information even after investigations are concluded or cases closed, so it is not inconceivable that the SIS file on Hager was forwarded to the Police once they opened their investigation into Rawshark’s identity. Ironically, the Police ended up with the same result as did the SIS when looking for Hager’s sources: nothing.

After the Acting IGIS issued her report, the Director General of Security (head of the SIS), Rebecca Kitteridge, issued an apology to Mr. Hager, seven years after the fact. But apologies are not enough. Punitive sanction must be meted, however retroactively, on those who ordered the spying in both the NZDF and SIS as well as those in cabinet who may have been aware of it. Will that ever happen? It is for the current Labor-led government to decide, which means that it needs to seriously think about yet another official Inquiry.

This may seem tedious and burdensome on the taxpayer, but it is now pretty clear that there is a systematic pattern of abuse of authority in the NZ security community. In the last ten years the Police, GCSB, NZDF and SIS have all been found to have committed unlawful acts against NZ citizens and residents. Little to nothing has been done to address, much less correct these institutional excesses, so the opportunity is ripe for a calling to account from those involved. Once the inquiries into Operation Burnham and Christchurch terrorist attacks are finalised and their reports submitted, that can be used as a starting point for a fuller inquiry into what I have previously labeled the “culture of impunity” that pervades the repressive apparatus of the NZ State.

As things stand and unless an investigation is launched into the mechanics of these unlawful and illegal acts, those who ordered the spying are likely to go unpunished. The maximum penalty for the SIS breaking the law is a $5000 fine for the agency, not any individuals employed in it. Key, Jones and Tucker are all retired and unlikely to receive any a posteriori punishment. So unless there is an investigation and subsequent law changes that hold people strongly (and retroactively) accountable for ordering or facilitating illegal acts committed by security agencies, impunity will endure and the institutional foundations of NZ democracy continue to be corroded from within.

First a massacre, then the push back.

datePosted on 13:31, April 2nd, 2019 by Pablo

During the first hours and days after the terrorist attack in Christchurch, I tried to be optimistic about what could come out of the event. I saw it as a window of opportunity and teaching moment, a time to grieve, heal and reflect on what New Zealand is as a society. I thought that we could finally confront the elephant in the room: that underneath the veneer of tolerance and egalitarianism there is a dark underbelly in New Zealand. It is called racism.

For the first week it seemed that the opportunity was going to be seized. The government responded with empathy and compassion for the victims and with decisiveness when it came to banning certain types of military-style weapons and parts that can be used to modify hunting weapons into military-style ones. It is pondering how to give the killer a fair trial without turning it into a martyr-making propaganda circus. It is reviewing hate speech laws and has ordered a Royal Commission inquiry into how the attack happened and the intelligence failures that may have contributed to it. The majority of the nation followed its lead and demonstrated that most Kiwis are, in fact, decent people.

However, in the ensuing days the national conversation has been side-tracked. After a period of silence or contrition, rightwing outlets are back to their old enabling games. Outlets like the virulently Islamophobic Whale Oil and slightly more moderate blogs have enforced some degree of moderation when it comes to the language used by authors and commentators, but the hateful tone toward the “Other” remains the same when read between the lines. The rightwing rallying cry is defence of free speech, in which the ruse used is to deliberately conflate protected offensive speech with hate speech in order to demonstrate that “liberal” democratic values are under siege by overzealous Lefties using the tragedy and their control of the state apparatus to impose their will on dissenters. This risable argument is supported by some on the venerable Left who seem to be more concerned about defending the rights of nasty white people rather than consider the fact that it is those people who facilitated and enabled the nasty white guy’s mass murder of a bunch of brown folk whose sole crime was to exist (and who made a point when doing so by gunning them down when they were practicing their faith in their houses of worship).

Diversionary tactics aside, let us be clear. When it comes to free versus hate speech the issue is simple: any speech that incites, encourages, supports, applauds or otherwise instigates or excuses violence against individuals or communities because of who they are (as opposed to anything they have done, although even there the call to violence is debatable), has crossed the line from protected speech into hate speech. Offensive speech remains protected, but the urging of violence is not. The issue is not about causing offence; it is about causing harm.

The gun lobby also has decided that amnesia is the best part of public virtue so now moans and whines about “law-abiding” people losing their gun rights thanks to the government’s legislative reforms, conveniently forgetting that the killer was a law-abiding loser until the moment he stepped out of his car down the street from the Masjid al-Noor on Deans Avenue. Here too, the issue is simple (and I urge readers to look up my blog colleague Lew on Twitter to see his very reasoned explanations of the matters at stake). Tightening of licensing requirements and enforcement of laws governing purchase of semi-automatic weapons and removal of conversion kit and military-style weapons does not infringe on the privileges of the gun-owning majority (note that it is a privilege to own a gun, not a right no matter what the bloody NRA would have us believe). The law changes do not prevent anyone from using guns as tools to target shoot and kill critters. It just helps lower the human body count when a gun owner goes off the rails (do not get me started on the “but then only criminals will have such guns” argument because that is a matter for strict law enforcement, and law enforcement must have the will to, well, strictly enforce the law rather than play nice with gangs and assorted other bad guys).

Then there are the closet racists who have emerged into the light like the Hamilton city councillor and Immigration officer (?!), who besides ranting on Facebook (a prime vector for hate speech in spite of recent bans on white supremacists) about immigrant “scum” in Europe after the Paris terrorist attacks now says without a hint of irony that NZ needs to “move on” from the Christchurch event. He is joined by a-holes like Brian Tamaki, who claimed that the call to prayer on the day of national remembrance a week after the attack was proof the Sharia was being imposed on NZ. He appears to not be the only non-Pakeha religious leader (if you can call a fraudster con artist that) with this sentiment, as I have been told by informed community members that Islamophobia is very much a staple part of sermons in some Pasifika Christian churches.

Assorted talkback hosts and politicians are now in full “whataboutism?” mode, trying to equate the evils of Muslim extremists (and Islam itself) with those of other fanatics (while conveniently avoiding their ideological cause). This follows the denialism of such (perhaps as of yet closeted) politicians as Gerry Brownlee and Lianne Dalziel, who claim (Brownlee in very pointed remarks directed at me) that they were unaware of any white supremacists in Christchurch or anywhere else in NZ. Sensing an opportunity, people with ideological personal and agendas are in full throat, be it as purported experts on gangs and terrorism or pushing lines such as that the 1881 assault on Parihaka is a comparable atrocity (in which no one died).

Let’s not muddy the waters. Arguments about gun control and free speech and the historical grievances that are part of the national story are all diversions from the essence of post 3/15 New Zealand. The core subject is that of racism and the cesspit of bigotry in which it festers, from the enabling head-nodders to the inciting megaphones to the keyboard cowards to the actual perpetrators of physical and psychological (yes, they exist) hate crimes against people who supposedly are “different.”

This is not just a problem with a few skinheads. It is a problem for all. Some Pakeha hate Maori. Some Maori hate Chinese. Some Chinese hate Polynesians and some Polynesians hate Palangi. Some Maori and Pakeha hate Chinese and some Chinese reciprocate the feeling. Some hate Muslims and some hate Jews. Some hate Muslims, Jews and anyone who is brown, black or “yellow.” Some hate gays, lesbians and transgender people. Some hate red heads. Some hate the notion of equality when it usurps patriarchy or heteronormative values. Some hate is individual, some of it is institutional and some is systemic. Some hate involves relationships and asymmetries of power, but not always. Hate comes in multiple cross-cutting dimensions that serve as the foundation for ongoing bigotry and racism. In contemporary Aotearoa it may be a minority sentiment that is fractiously manifest rather than uniformly presented, but it is the wretched garden in which the bitter fruit of bigotry and racism are sown and reaped. And it is endemic in NZ.

THAT is what the national conversation should be about. That is what our children should be taught about. That is what the enablers, accomplices and purveyors of racism must be confronted with. This is no longer a time when we can look the other way, say “she’ll be right” and hope that the unpleasant stuff just goes away.

3/15 changed all that, and it is time to stand up and be counted. And being counted is not to just have academic panel discussions and government inquiries and commemorations. It is about confronting racism and bigotry wherever it rears its nasty head and however it is specifically manifest: on the streets, in buses, in shops, in schools, in sports clubs and volunteer organisations, in churches, in local politics, on-line, on talkback radio and in town halls and community fora–whenever the trolls rise there must be righteous people willing to call them out for what they are: ignorant fearful losers looking for scapegoats for their own failures in life.

It is hard to confront someone, especially if they are bigger or in groups. So strategies must be developed to help the average person perform this important civic duty. That means gaining the support of and involving the authorities so that complaints can be made and charges laid without undue risk to the good people calling out the antisocial misfits. Because if all we do is talk about what a bummer racism is and then go back to our own self-interested lives unwilling to actually walk the walk of daily anti-racist conviction, then we truly are a nation of sheep.

Unions, Parties and the decision to strike.

datePosted on 20:12, July 9th, 2018 by Pablo

For the bulk of my academic career I worked on issues of regime change and interest group intermediation, with a particular interest in Latin America. I wrote a couple of books (one co-authored) about state-labour relations in several South American countries and a fair number of articles that included discussion of how labour engaged in collective action under different regime types. The comparative study of state-labour relations remains an abiding interest of mine.

One of the axioms of comparative democratic labour relations is that unions will engage in more cooperative labour relations strategies and therefore strike less under Left governments than they will under Right governments. The presumption is that since Left governments are working class based or supported, and because they are sympathetic to working class concerns in their policy platforms, there is less incentive for unions to take strong collective action against them, particularly with respect to strikes and  other forms of labour service withdrawal. This is especially so because such direct action could undermine the Left government in question and leave it vulnerable at the next election.

Because unions presumably prefer to have Left governments over Right governments in office, resorting to labour service withdrawals would be a counterproductive union political strategy over the medium term even if economically productive over the short term. That is true of public sector strikes in particular (since strikes, even when focused on economic issues, are inherently political when they involve the state as employer), but private sector strikes are also seen as electorally injurious to Left governments (after all, if a Left government cannot “control” unions then what is the point of having them?).

In terms of so-called political strikes as well as economic strikes, Labour governments are generally thought to offer a better prospect for labour peace.

Conversely, unions supposedly dislike Right governments and therefore engage in more confrontational approaches to labour relations, particularly if there perceive that there has been a rollback of union legal and economic gains under those or previous Right governments. Both economically and politically, unions have reason to adopt more militant strategies under Right governments.

The subtleties embedded in this dichotomy are found in the strategies of public sector versus private sector unions against a backdrop of relative union density and the legal frameworks governing wage-setting. This assumes that union leaders and members share the same ideological orientation and that union leaders accurately transmit the material demands of the rank and file during negotiations with the State and employers (i.e. the principal/agent relationship is tight and coordinated). At that point employer characteristics at the level of the firm as well as productive sector come into play, set against a backdrop of relative business sectorial organisation (both as producers and employers) and the labour relations framework operative at the time. A collective action and strategic interaction is framed by macroeconomic conditions and government budgets, with sectorial growth and Treasury surpluses being determinants of the latitude for negotiation in any particular instance.

For the last three decades all of this occurs in the context of the globalisation of production, consumption and exchange under market-oriented macroeconomic policies developed and implemented by public sector technocrats that seek to outsource public sector service provision and downsize the legal authority and managerial and regulatory functions of the State as part of government mandated, market-oriented ideological agendas.

In the era of market-oriented economic reform, changes in labour relations’ legal frameworks have tended to favour employers and business associations over labour unions under both Left and Right democratic governments, with the degree of favouritism seen in the approaches towards collective bargaining adopted by each. Overall, although Left governments have mitigated much market-oriented labour reform while Right governments have sought to accentuate and exploit them in order to weaken the labour movement and atomise working class representation and collective strength, the trend has seen a weakening of union power across the democratic capitalist world as measured in union density, membership numbers and the collective rights and legal authority governing working class representation in production. This has been acutely felt in the private sector where individual worker rights and contracts predominate over collective rights and representation. With their relative collective strength, public sector unions remain as the diminished core of most contemporary labour movements in capitalist democracies.

A key factor in determining the propensity to strike is wage-setting institutions. Generally speaking, the more centralised the bargaining nexus and more monopolistic the bargaining agents doing the negotiating, the more likely that unions will prosper in their demands without having to resort to strikes. In contrast, the more decentralised the bargaining forum and the more disparate the bargaining agents, the more likely it is that employers will have the upper hand in bilateral negotiations with employees, thereby increasing the possibility of strikes. For example, tripartite (labour, state, capital) wage boards governing wage negotiations in specific economic sectors tend to push compromises that trade incremental wage gains for productivity, job security and reinvestment guarantees. Conversely, enterprise level bargaining between employers and various employee bargaining agents tends to fix or depress wage bills in exchange for non-wage guarantees. In New Zealand collective bargaining is more closely based on the latter model rather than the former and yet overall strike levels have remained low.

The way in which the union movement is incorporated and inserted in the political system matters in this regard. The form of initial incorporation (that is, the way in which unions are initially integrated into the national political system), may be more of historical rather than practical import for well-established unions created in the previous century and whose insertion in the political system today was consolidated some time ago. But initial incorporation matters much to recently organised contemporary unions without long political histories. That is because the terms of their political incorporation and subsequent political insertion in the political system are still being determined and sometimes disputed, including by older or more established unions as well as the State and employers. These may not echo or even resemble the conflicts surrounding initial labour incorporation and political insertion in the past, but they nevertheless condition the way these newer collective agents are allowed to exercise economic and political representation in the present context.

There are three main forms of labour political insertion. In some liberal democracies organised labour is inserted in the political system in Left party dominant fashion, e.g., the party dominates the union in both leadership selection as well as member political affiliation. In other liberal democracies unions dominate or control the party, with union representatives holding key Party positions down to grassroots organising and regularly running for office. In still others unions are independent of Left political parties although nominally sympathetic to them, with union leaders and members displaying a broader range of party affiliations than under the first two types. In illiberal democracies so-called “yellow” unions (factory or business unions and “professional associations”) exist that are independent or affiliate with Right parties. In the main these are not considered to be authentic representatives of working class collective interests because they are created by or at the behest of employers in lieu of them.

This brings up the subject at hand. There currently is the possibility of nurses, public servants and teacher’s strikes in the next few weeks. Conservative commentators have claimed that this is to take advantage of the Labour-led coalition’s “weakness” and to seize the moment of opportunity provided by Labour’s unwillingness to confront the unions in question. That runs against the conventional wisdom about Left governments and unions. So the question is: why are the nurses, public sector and post-primary teacher’s unions threatening to strike?

One answer may lie in that all of these collective agents are public sector unions that are independent of the Labour Party and its coalition partners. Membership density is high but the sociological demographic in each is changing, with younger members being more ethnically diverse and less identified with the traditional class structures of the industrial era (since those under 30 are of the post-industrial, post-modern age). This may have led to a rejigging of agent/principal relations within the respective unions that might make them more prone to challenge the labour relations orthodoxies of the past, to include being more cooperative when Left governments are in power.

Another answer may lie in the fact that Labour, for all of its “progressive” policy pronouncements and initiatives, still clings to market-driven logics of production that, even when cushioned along the margins, reinforce the collective bargaining dominance of capitalists. Seen in labour legislation and the role of national labour administration as an interlocutor between labour and capital, this includes cost-cutting managerial rationales in the public sector, where modern Taylorist principles have been borrowed from the private sector and applied to public sector service provision.

That bureaucratic orientation could be partially due to the fact that most Labour leaders are career politicians with few backgrounds “grounded” in the realities of working class activism, and/or because the party’s focus has recently concentrated more on identity rather than class politics. This has caused Labour to accept market logics in principle and market-oriented solutions to employment relations in fact. The NZ Labour Party is less a working class party than a coalition of post-industrial causes joined by antipathy to conservative (read: Anglo-Saxon Christian capitalist heterosexual and patriarchal) mores. Seeing the situation in this light could well disincline nurses, teachers and bureaucrats from continuing to toe the “cooperative” line, especially if the union demographic traits outlined above prove to be correct.

It is worth noting that the long-established unions affiliated with the Labour Party have not uttered a peep about strikes, to include not offering solidarity with the nurses and teachers. Newly created unions like UNITE in the private sector have engaged in strikes regularly against private employers under the previous Right government and are supportive of the action. But in general the union movement in New Zealand has remained out of the conflict between the State (as manager and employer via the civil service, DHBs and Education Ministry) and the nurses, bureaucrats and teachers unions.

Another question is why did these unions (or most others, for that matter) not strike regularly when the National government was in office? Was it a matter of contracts being in force? Or was it the limits placed on strike action both legally and practically? On the face of it, it seems odd that civil servants, nurses, teachers and other productive groups would wait to strike until Labour was in office if they were out of contract towards the end of the National government. Did they think that striking in an election year would lessen Labour’s chances of winning a plurality and forming a government or, put more appropriately, strengthen National’s arguments that they needed to continue to hold a tight reign on labour market dynamics less the economy lose momentum? This is true for private sector unions but particularly so in the case of public sector unions. Or are the conservative commentators correct and non-Left party affiliated public sector unions simply more willing to exploit Labour’s perceived “weakness” on collective bargaining matters?

If so, then the Labour-led coalition has a problem that is more political than economic.

I am still working through the logics at play because I do not know the internal dynamics of the unions in question nor the Labour-led government’s strategy for handling the strike threat. But if any readers would like to join the discussion and illuminate me on the details of each position, that would be welcome.

On intelligence oversight, a broader perspective.

datePosted on 17:10, April 20th, 2018 by Pablo

The announcement that the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), Cheryl Gwyn, has convened an external Reference Group to discuss issues of intelligence agency oversight (specifically, that of the NZSIS and GCSB, which are the agencies under her purview) has been met with applause and controversy. The applause stems from the fact the Group is a continuation of her efforts to strengthen the oversight mechanisms governing New Zealand’s two most important intelligence collection and analysis agencies. The controversy is due to some of the persons who have accepted invitations to participate in the Group.

The Group is an unpaid, non-partisan collection of people with interest, expertise and/or background in matters broadly related to intelligence and security and their oversight. None are government employees, something that gives them freedom to speak frankly under the Chatham House rules established by the IGIS. The Group is a supplement to and not a rival of or substitute for the IGIS Advisory Panel, made up of two people with security clearances that have access to classified material and who can offer specific assistance on matters of operational concern. However, the Advisory Panel has had no members since October 2016.

The idea behind the Reference Group, which is modelled on a Dutch intelligence oversight counterpart, is to think laterally or “outside of the box” on matters relevant to intelligence oversight. Bringing together people from different backgrounds and perspectives allows Group discussions to gravitate towards areas of common concern, thereby eliminating personal agendas or extreme positions. And because the Group is made up of outsiders, it does not run the risk of becoming slave to the groupthink of agency insiders.

In contrast to the Advisory Panel, the Reference Group does not handle classified material nor discuss operational matters. Access to classified material or operational details is obviated by the fact that the Group’s focus is on the broad themes of accountability, transparency, organizational compliance and the balance between civil liberties (particularly the right to privacy) and the defense of national security as conducted by the lead intelligence agencies. These are matters of legality and propriety rather than operational conduct. And while similarly important, legality and propriety are not synonymous. Often what is legal is not proper and vice versa, and this is acutely the case when it comes to intelligence collection, analysis and usage. Since the IGIS does not oversea the NZDF and smaller intelligence “shops” such as those of the DPMC, Police, Immigration and Customs, the Group will only discuss issues relevant to oversight  of the NZSIS and GCSB.

Who are the members of the Group and why the controversy? The plurality of members are four public interest lawyers, three of them academicians and one an advocate for refugees. Two members are journalists. One is the Issue Manager for Internet NZ, one is the head of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, one is a former Russian diplomat now serving as the Director of the Massey University Centre for Defense and Strategic Studies (CDSS), one is an economist who chairs Transparency International New Zealand and one is a private sector geopolitical and strategic analysis consultant.

Concern has been voiced about the presence of both journalists as well as the refugee advocate and the loyalties of the former Russian diplomat (although he has held positions at a US security institution as well as the NZDF-funded CDSS). The thrust of the contrary views about these and some of the other participants is that they are untrustworthy due to their personal backgrounds, professional affiliations and/or ideological orientations. An additional reason given for opposing some of the membership is that they have been strong critics of the SIS and GCSB and therefore should be disqualified a priori.

Others believe that the Group is just a whitewashing, window-dressing or co-optation device designed to neuter previous critics by bringing them “into the tent” and subjecting them to “bureaucratic capture” (whereby the logic of the agencies being overseen eventually becomes the logic accepted by the overseers or Reference Group interlocutors).

The best way to allay these concerns is to consider the IGIS Reference Group is as an external focus group akin to a Town Hall meeting convened by policy-makers. Communities are made of people of many persuasions and many viewpoints, and the best way to canvass their opinions on a broad range of subjects is to bring them together in a common forum where they can debate freely the merits of any particular issue.  In the case of the Reference Group the issue of intelligence agency oversight and, more specifically, matters of institutional and individual accountability (both horizontal and vertical, that is, vis a vis other government agencies such as the judiciary and parliament, on the one hand, and vis a vis the government and public on the other); transparency within the limits imposed by national security concerns; and the juggling of what is legal and what is proper, are all set against the backdrop of respect for civil liberties inherent in a liberal democracy. These are complex subjects not taken lightly by those involved, all of whom have track records of involvement in the field and who, given the terms of reference and charter of the Group, are acting out of a sense of civic duty rather than for pecuniary or personal gain.

The IGIS does not need political or agency authorisation to construct such a Group, which has no statutory authority or bureaucratic presence. As a vehicle for interest intermediation on the subject of intelligence oversight, it serves as a sounding board not for the IGIS but for the people on it. In that light, the IGIS has called the Group’s discussion a “one-way street” where participants air their informed opinions about agenda items agreed to in advance and in which the IGIS serves as a discussion moderator and takes from it what she finds useful. Expected to meet two or three times a year over tea and coffee, the Group is not likely to tax the Treasury purse and could well deliver value for dollar in any event.

Critics of this exercise and other forms of interest intermediation or external consultation betray their closet authoritarianism because such concertative vehicles are mainstays of policy-making in advanced liberal democracies. Be it the tripartite wage negotiation structures bringing representatives of the State, labour and capital together (even at the regional or local level), to consultative boards and other social partnership vehicles that connect stakeholders and decision-makers in distinct policy areas, the use of interest intermediation is an integral feature of modern democratic regimes (for an example of the breadth of issues addressed by intermediation vehicles, see Kate Nicholls, Mediating Policy: Greece, Ireland and Portugal before the Eurozone Crisis. London: Routledge, 2015.). To argue against them because of who is represented or because they are seen as inefficient talkfests that are a waste of taxpayer money is just a cloak for a desire to silence broad public input and dissenting views in the formulation of public policy. That may have been the case under the previous government but no longer is the case now.

One of the thorniest problems in a democracy is the question of what system of checks and balances keeps the intelligence community proper as well as legal. As the most intrusive and sensitive of State activities, intelligence collection, analysis and usage must be free from reproach on a number of grounds—conflicts of interest, partisan bias, foreign control, illicit activity or criminal behaviour, etc.—and must be accountable and responsive to the public will. The broadening of consultation intermediators between the NZ intelligence community and the public is therefore a step in the right direction, and for that reason the Reference Group is a welcome contribution to the oversight authority vested in the IGIS.

References: http://www.igis.govt.nz/media-releases/announcements/establishment-of-igis-reference-group/

http://www.igis.govt.nz/media-releases/announcements/reference-group/

Disclosure: The author is a member of the Reference Group. The views expressed are his own.

Careful with that eugene, ACT

datePosted on 20:28, July 15th, 2017 by Lew

Beth Houlbrooke

Eugenics

ACT’s brand new deputy leader, Beth Houlbrooke, is into eugenics.

That’s what’s behind her emergence from the dusty old crypt of “if you can’t afford children, don’t breed” this week. I called it eugenics because when you use welfare to restrict fertility you’re targeting people who are overrepresented among welfare recipients, which in Aotearoa means you’re targeting Māori and Pasifika people. I was not alone.

And what happens when these benefit cuts produce increased rates of hunger, homelessness, sickness, neglect, and abuse among those families? Well, the government’s brand-new Ministry for Vulnerable Children will take them away from their parents. Welcome to your first glimpse of Aotearoa’s next stolen generation, just days after the government refused to consider redress for the last generation of children abused in state care.

Does this all seem a bit of a stretch? Well, we know what government-mandated child welfare agencies do when they decide parents are not doing well enough: they “manage” those parents. This is explicit in the ACT policy:

ACT WILL:

  • Push for a life-time limit of five years for support under the Sole Parent Support programme, and a life-time limit of three years for support under the Jobseekers Benefit, with “income management” being applied to beneficiaries when those limits are reached.
  • Extend income management to any parent who has additional children while on a benefit.

We know what happens when governments micromanage welfare: people find it a bit harder to buy smokes and booze, sure, but they also are forced to shop at a limited range of expensive outlets, they can’t buy cheap healthy produce at markets, they can’t barter or pay cash, and they are incentivised to game the system rather than working within it. The ACT Party hates perverse incentives, but not this one. And in Australia, it costs a fortune to administer. It would literally be cheaper to give each NT recipient an extra $100 per week than to give them a Basics Card. And we know what the ultimate government sanction is for “bad” parents: the removal of children from their custody. Draw your own conclusions.

As to eugenics. ACT leader David Seymour’s press secretary helpfully confirmed this aspect when he compared the ACT policy to abortion, which has the distinction of being the leading eugenic technique currently in use worldwide (largely for sex-selection). I gave him several opportunities to walk it back but he bravely refused them.

Read the whole thread, and draw your own conclusions. (And yes. Louis Houlbrooke appears to be Beth’s son. Rumination on the political wisdom of appointing the leader’s press sec’s mum as deputy leader are left as an exercise for the reader.)

This is not just ACT’s bag. That nice man John Key — himself raised on welfare — spoke in 2002 of women “breeding for a business” under Labour’s DPB rules. Current PM Bill English, while he would surely disavow the abortion analogy, was happy to compare welfare recipients to drug addicts. This kind of thinking goes all the way to the top.

Class eugenics

My response to the policy was the sort of fury that educated white dudes don’t usually get in welfare discussions: that’s me they’re talking about! After my father died my mother brought three young kids up on the benefit, and we will never forget that. Attacks on welfare, and especially on welfare mothers, are attacks on us. I had a wee rant about it that you can read if you can stand the swearing.

Dozens of others on twitter did likewise. Some are a bit famous. One is a Member of Parliament. A list put together by The Spinoff of notable children of welfare recipients includes millionaires, war heroes, All Black legends, and no fewer than three Prime Ministers. I was amazed by how many people had grown up on welfare and yet, somehow, had managed to become productive, decent human beings. I shouldn’t be, but there you go: that’s how deep anti-welfare stigma goes. Few of us in Aotearoa are many generations from being dirt poor, and it would pay us to remember that and not be ashamed of it.

The fact that so many people not only benefited from welfare, but understand its continuing importance in the age of busted unions, stagnant wage growth, casualisation, and the “gig economy” represents a threat to parties like ACT and National. The social purpose of the welfare is to support people out of poverty and into work and prosperity. It is a system that creates and nourishes the working class, and prevents the worst excesses of capitalism from destroying workers. And it works.

So of course the right-wing want rid of it. They can’t erase welfare kids from my generation, but in terms of long-term strategy, preventing today’s generation of poor people from having kids like us probably seems a pretty sound way to destroy class consciousness.

The way this breaks down illustrates how class politics is not distinct from but a necessary adjunct to identity politics in leftwing praxis. On paper I am pretty middle class, but this is temporary. Few of us welfare kids ever forget how little it takes to fall into economic uncertainty, so culturally, I will always be working class. Purists might bridle at this as just another identity, and some will continue to deride me as a bourgeois liberal managerialist, but I know where I came from.

This is how identity politics intersects with class politics. The same factors which make ACT’s intended victims — young, poor, brown women — vulnerable to this policy means they also stand to benefit most from Labour’s Families Package and Best Start policies, which provoked Houlbrooke’s statement in the first place. So bringing class and identity politics together, even if it was inadvertent, is good: it is brave policy, directly targeting people who already suffer from a lack of equitable access to the political and economic system. And those of us who remember what it was like to be brought up on the benefit, who now enjoy the privileges of a middle-class life and access to the political system, can show solidarity. We must show solidarity. Doing otherwise would be a betrayal of our ancestors.

The lack of a robust response to ACT’s latest attack on poor people from Labour is disappointing. It has largely been left to people on social media to fight the fight, and to my knowledge nobody in the party has used the e word. This is perhaps understandable in light of the party’s own history of man-on-the-roof welfare-bashing, and, you know, I grew up on that benefit under Rogernomics. They’re not blameless on this stuff. But let’s not be churlish. While Labour in 2017 might not be ideal, at least they’re not trying to breed poor people out of existence.

Still think it is all about postmodern identity?

datePosted on 15:24, June 18th, 2017 by Pablo

Long term readers may recall something I wrote a few years ago about the issue of Left praxis and the need for a class line above all other strategic perspectives. That post was done in part because of the prevalence of identity politics and other post-modern forms of association within the NZ Left (such as certain “polyamorous” factions present in local progressive circles). This focus on non-class based forms of identification has been eloquently defended at some length by my colleague Lew here at KP, so there is merit in it, at least in some instances.

However, I believe that a major contributing factor to the decline of the Left as an ideological force and political alternative to currently dominant market-supportive ideologies and parties is the turn away from a class line, be it by the 3rd Way Labourites that NZ Labour emulates or the NZ Green Party with its election campaign emphasis on youthful (primarily female Pakeha) candidates over policy substance (which has completed the turn away from “watermelon” politics where class was at the core of its environmental philosophy and grassroots demographic and towards a business-friendly largely urban metrosexual orientation). The fact that many on the Left welcomed the victory of Emmanuel Macron, an investment banker, over Marine Le Pen, a neo-fascist, in France and failed to understand Donald Trump’s populist appeal to white American working class and lumpenproletarians (a sin I was guilty of) demonstrates the intellectual and practical vacuum at the core of what passes for modern progressive politics in some parts of the world, Aetoroa in particular.

It puzzles me that even in the face of Bernie Sanders’ remarkable primary campaign in the 2016 US presidential election and UK Labour’s rise under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the UK snap elections of a fortnight ago, that many in the US, UK and NZ Left still cling to the (false consciousness) notion that centrist policies and identity politics are the way to play the game. The truth is that centrist politics have bottomed out under the polarising conditions produced by Alt-Right provocations and disinformation and the futility of the Left trying to successfully play a “soft” version of the market-oriented election game. The corporate and media Right have been quicker to realise this and seized the opportunity to deepen neoliberal era policies of economic deregulation and public sector cost-cutting by adding to it the politics of cultural conflict, immigration control and other methods by which the underlying bases of class conflict are downplayed in order to harvest the political fruits of cross-class uncertainty and fear.

The effect of three decades of market-driven ideological socialisation and post 9/11 politics of fear has been to prompt vulnerable sectors of liberal democratic societies to revert to primal and centrifugal forms of identification–race, religion, ethnicity, culture, nationality–all of which divert attention from the commonality of wage labour class subservience and its increased precariousness under the rule of a predatory type of post-industrial capitalism. Clearly non-class forms of identification need to be factored into any  discussion of praxis in a given socio-economic and political context, but adding non-class identification into the mix as the main focus of progressive struggles only serves to further dilute the solidarity bonds created by the one commonality workers have in the social division of labour of contemporary advanced capitalism.

And yet, in the face of this much of the Left appears to be suffering a form of post-modern paralysis where it is unwilling or unable to recognise that the advances made on superstructural issues like gender and LBGTI rights have their genesis in (but are not reducible to) the class driven struggles of the industrial and post-industrial eras, many of which persist to this day.

With that in mind, rather than prattle on as an old white male former academic, I defer to a genuine organic intellectual of the Left. The context is the aftermath to the Grenfell Tower fire in London:

https://www.facebook.com/thedeepleft/videos/649061075299366/?pnref=story

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