Symbolic bidding war?

datePosted on 10:47, May 8th, 2009 by Lew

I have long defended the māori party’s decision to enter government with National on two grounds;

  • The decision is theirs to make on behalf of those Māori who form their constituency, not the decision of well-meaning Pākehā, or Māori who vote for other parties. They made clear before the election that it might happen; there is no credible argument for bait-and-switch.
  • By emphasising that the relationship of Māori with Labour is at arm’s length, they send the signal that no party can afford to disregard Māori as Labour did with the Foreshore and Seabed Act. Furthermore, if they can make the relationship with National work (and admittedly that’s a pretty big if) then it puts the māori party in a strong strategic position to promote a bidding war for the Māori policy agenda come the 2011 election and beyond.

The Key government’s record on Māori policy so far has been patchy at best, with the decision to exclude mana whenua seats from Auckland governance, and a distinct lack of targeted recession relief for māori who are especially hard-hit by the recession, showing that there’s still a lot of work to do on that relationship.

So it was with some surprise and pleasure that I heard National Radio’s report this morning that Justice Minister Simon Power has announced that the refusal to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be reviewed, thereby possibly withdrawing us from the other axis of evil of four countries who refused to do so. That can of worms wouldn’t have been re-opened unless there was a very good chance indeed of movement on the issue, since National would severely endanger its relationship with the māori party by ratifying Labour’s decision. So, this looks to me like the first symbolic shot in the bidding war for Māori favour. Or perhaps the second – with the first being Mita Ririnui’s private member’s bill to entrench the Māori seats.

The common objection from ideologues who opposed the māori party’s decision to work with National is that symbolic things are meaningless – a view taken directly from the subaltern Māori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia, who oversaw the Foreshore and Seabed debacle. In defence of the then-government’s decision to join that other axis of evil, he said:

I’m actually more than a little surprised the Mâori Party is prepared to back something which effectively offers indigenous peoples no more than aspirational statements.

The trouble is, unless preceded by banners bearing symbolic aspirational statements declaring a society’s position in principle, progress marches slowly. The Labour government recognised this in its grounds for refusing to sign the UNDRIP, viz, that it was possibly incompatible with our current laws. That’s the point best illustrated by another non-binding UN declaration, on Human Rights, whose most significant principle was that rights were not dependent upon local legislation but were declared to be universal, with the consequence that local legislation must change to meet the declaration where a conflict exists. By and large, local legislation in many signatory states has duly changed to meet the declaration, in spite of its non-binding nature. That is because its symbolic value is more than its practical value. (Amartya Sen is among those who makes this point, for example here). So it is with the UNDRIP – it presents an aspirational position toward which NZ may strive, along with practically everyone else.

Now, Power’s statement is carefully hedged with the words “as long as New Zealand’s current framework for indigenous rights cannot be compromised” – so actual policy change is still a long way off. But symbolic matters like this are a necessary condition for real progress, and the decision to review indicates that the government intends to take Māori issues seriously.


Gang whack-a-mole

datePosted on 00:52, May 7th, 2009 by Lew

actpower1This evening, the Wanganui District Council (Prohibition of Gang Insignia) Bill passed its third reading, by a narrow margin of three votes – three votes cast by the three members of the ACT caucus who represent the authoritarian faction which has edged in on the libertarian faction and now looks likely to consume it. Two of the votes will come as no surprise – the reactionary populist John Boscawen; and card-carrying hang-’em-and-flog-’em brigadoon David Garrett. Most surprisingly Rodney Hide – perhaps in a bizarre sort of solidarity with his two newest MPs, because I thought him better than this – also voted for the bill. The other two members – Sir Roger Douglas and Heather Roy – remained true to their liberal principles and voted against.

Let it be understood right away that I agree with the bill’s purpose in principle: to keep the residents of Wanganui free from intimidation by gangs. People have a right not to be intimidated, and that right must be secured by the government. But in this case, the cure is worse than the disease because it does nothing to actually treat the disease, only its smallest symptom; and because it fights arbitrary coercion with more arbitrary coercion.

The bill prohibits persons wearing certain things – `gang insignia’ where `gang’ is essentially at the Wanganui District Council’s discretion, and `insignia’ is determined as an issue of fact by a judge in a given case by recourse to the Evidence Act – from being in certain `specified places’ of the Wanganui district.

This is a weapon long-sought by the authoritarian populists who control Wanganui’s local politics – it enables them to outlaw groups who oppose them, or whom they would otherwise have to deal on more even terms. Practically any group could potentially be declared a gang under the right circumstances – the criteria are that the group, or some of its members be engaged in “a pattern of criminal activity”; that they be commonly identifiable by some sort of symbol which can be recognised well enough to ban; and that the ban be deemed necessary to prevent intimidation. Historically this could have applied to HART protesters, striking longshoremen, tangata whenua occupying land in protest at unjust systems of redress and uncooperative local government bodies. Today it could apply to those campaigning for the h to be put into Wanganui, if the protests become heated enough, which they could well do if Michael Laws carries on the way he has been. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, after all.

But for all that, it won’t matter a damn to the gangs themselves. When you try to constrain identity by legislating against its expressions, you engage in a running battle which cannot be won without continual escalation to more and more illiberal measures. Subcultural systems which are forced to adapt to the norms of a majority culture will always find loopholes – the more constraint imposed, the smarter the subculture gets. The Chinese are finding this out from the Song of the Grass-Mud Horse (video with full-colour English translation here), and the parents of tweens are finding it out from Britney Spears, and media content owners are finding it out from filesharers. If a broad ban on patches is enforced then the definition of what constitutes a gang symbol will change. Bandanas, coloured clothing, and so on will be worn instead of patches, but will convey the same intimidatory meaning. What then? Either the law is an ass, having failed to prevent what it seeks to prevent, or the definition of what constitutes insignia in law must change to match the definition in usage. I own the typical blue-and-black checked swanndri – should I be barred from wearing it in public in Wanganui, lest someone feel intimidated? Should my sister, who owns a red one? Talk of banning all blue and all red will be decried as reductio ad absurdum, but ultimately that’s the only way the policy will work, for the two main gangs which operate in Wanganui anyhow.

Or perhaps they’ll just ban those colours when they’re worn by Māori men of a certain build, and there’s the rub. Fundamentally, culture and class and inequality are the issues over which gang insignia are mere wallpaper, and banning it no more addresses the problem than changing the wallpaper stops the walls of a leaky building from leaking. Fix the alienation problem and you fix gangs – something that driving those at the margins of civil society further out into the cold will never achieve.

Update: Former Detective Sergeant in charge of the Auckland gang unit Cam Stokes made the same argument on Nine to Noon this morning. He goes further, arguing that the ban could make the work of Wanganui police more difficult by robbing the police of some intelligence-gathering capability, and could make convictions for some offences difficult to secure.

Another update: At The Standard Eddie reveals that Hide’s support for the bill – despite categorically stating ACT would never support it – was a trade-off for National supporting the 3 strikes bill. Filthy political lucre!



datePosted on 13:17, May 3rd, 2009 by Lew

Having been reminded of this excellent neologism by Dolan at Just Left, it’s occurred to me that a similar affliction can be seen among the denizens of the NZ blogosphere.

Now, there are certain wings of that ‘sphere which are well-known for their wingnuttery and general tendency to fly off the handle, and those I won’t dwell upon. But in the past week or so I’ve seen a couple of examples from sources of which I’d expect a bit more.

First, and most egregious, Tim Selwyn’s rabid attack on Christopher Pryde, the NZ lawyer who has taken the post of Fijian Attorney-General. I can’t excerpt most of it, but here’s one of the politer sections:

He deserves to be summarily executed and/or tortured in the same way other victims of the military have under the aegis of his protection – that is the fate he courts. Let that day come soon.

Perhaps Tim’s purpose is to try and finesse a gag lawsuit. Not to criticise the fundamental point Tim is making – that Pryde is an opportunistic illegal-dictatorship-supporting hack, a discredit to his profession and his country – but the degree of invective here is simply over the top. The point would have been better made in more measured tones; as it stands, the personal attacks detract from the real reasons for condemning him, and make Pryde look like the victim of a character assassination attempt.

Second, The Standard’s response to the offensive and moronic smear ‘Nanny State’ with an even more offensive and moronic smear, the ‘Stepfather State’ characterised as distant, violent, self-indulgent and misogynistic, which originated in a comment on Colin Espiner’s blog:

Stepfather State’s taken over.
Our new parent likes to keep his distance…he usually comes home after work at the office…but only for a quick bite to eat…he ignores the kids, yells at the Mrs and kicks the dog on the way out to the club to meet his business mates for a few bevvies…most nights he gets to ogle/grope the pole dancer…and then drives home a “bit p!ssed” (it’s his right you know)…then a quick grope with either the Mrs or himself and a zzzzzz…

This resulted in the commentariat falling over themselves to invent yet more offensive and moronic characterisations in a bizarre competition to see which side could be more bigoted. Worst offender, the usually-sensible vto:

Or a bit like the smaller step-brother, the maori party.
“Our new bro likes to get in your face…he has no work but comes home pissed…but only for some eggs…he ignores the bitch, yells at the other bitch and kicks the kids on the way back to the pub to meet his mates still more bevvies and some P…most nights he gets to ogle/grope the fat slag behind the bar…and then smashes some innocent person walking home, gets picked up by the pigs and ends up with his mates in the klink… no gropes of his missus now so has to play with himself, which comes naturally to him being a labour voter”

What the hell?


Add Condi to the list

datePosted on 20:43, May 2nd, 2009 by Lew

According to this story, Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has admitted involvement in a (technical) conspiracy to torture US terror detainees:

In little-noticed comments Thursday, the former White House counsel for President Richard Nixon John Dean said Thursday that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may have unwittingly admitted to a criminal conspiracy when questioned about torture by a group of student videographers at Stanford.
Rice told students at Stanford that she didn’t authorize torture, she merely forwarded the authorization for it. …
“She tried to say she didn’t authorize anything, then proceeded to say she did pass orders along to the CIA to engage in torture if it was legal by the standard of the Department of Justice,” Dean said. “This really puts her right in the middle of a common plan, as it’s known in international law, or a conspiracy, as it’s known in American law, and this indeed is a crime. If it indeed happened the way we think it did happen.”

Now, there’s a lot of ifs in there, and anyone with a more thorough knowledge of the issues in play is welcome to pour cold water on it. But to my eye, if this lawyer is right then it stands to reason that the Hat Trick of those at the top of the US torture agenda has now expanded to a Gang of Four.

Incidentally Pascal’s bookie, who ought to blog more often, makes a strong case in defence of Obama’s restraint on the torture issues in a series of comments at The Standard. The key point is the following:

[if Obama was too heavily involved] the story would become Obama v Bush, Dem v GOP. Rather than The Law v Criminals.

He’s right: if it’s to be done, it must be done right, and the taint of partisan politics mustn’t be admitted as a distraction. His role is to provide political and legal conditions within which such a prosecution can thrive of its own accord, not to drive the prosecution himself. He’s doing that; those who want Bush, Cheney, Gonzales and (perhaps) Rice to stand trial had best hold their tongues and show a little faith.


A return to “our foreign policy is trade”?

datePosted on 23:57, May 1st, 2009 by Lew

Murray McCully hasn’t so much taken the razor to NZAid as taken the axe to its foundations, in one of the clearest indications so far of the new government’s ideological intentions:

Following a review process, the government has decided to change the mandate of NZAID, the government’s aid agency, to focus on sustainable economic growth.

Notice how he leaves out what the mandate was changed from. Good press release-writing. National Radio is more explicit, however:

The semi-autonomous body NZ Aid will be brought back under the control of the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry and its focus will change from poverty elimination to sustainable economic growth.

Now we see the dichotomy I theorised a while ago made plain: from from least harm to greatest good.

Now, in the context of foreign policy I don’t have a categorical problem with this approach, because foreign policy is different to domestic policy where the government bears a direct and explicit responsibility for the wellbeing of the worst-off of its citizens. NZ doesn’t necessarily have that responsibility to the worst-off citizens of its donee nations. While it serves NZ to look after them, fundamentally all foreign policy actions are taken with the home nation’s interests at the fore, not with the foreign nation’s interests. So I’m not going to argue against this change of mandate on the basis that it’s cruel or unjust or unfair on the poor of the Pacific, plenty of people are doing that. I’m going to argue against it on the basis that it’s short-sighted and bad for NZ in the context of our relationships with our Pacific neighbours.

The problem, paradoxically, is that the realignment of NZAid with the trade agenda prioritises immediate NZ commercial interests to the exclusion of other, more strategic goals. Like democracy, sustainable economic development isn’t something you can create by throwing money about. NZ’s aid agenda to provide an economic floor in (parts of) the Pacific has generally had three broad purposes: 1. maintain peace and order; 2. deter the advances of more predatory regional powers*; 3. enable people to develop economic structures on their own terms. Largely the first two have succeeded; the third remains a work in progress. The three points are in ascending strategic order; that is, the longest-term goal is to enable the people of the Pacific to develop their own economies and their own market structures, structures which serve them, rather then serving the interests of foreign entrepreneurs first. The changed NZAid mandate, which to my mind roughly reverses the order of the three priorities on the reasoning that if people have the third then the first and second will follow, seems unwise because I don’t think they will follow. Markets which exploit people’s vulnerability, or which concentrate wealth and power among the usual sorts of tin-pot third-world elites will not result in stability, and will render the disgruntled Pacific vulnerable to the aforementioned depredations. This policy realignment (by McCully’s own admission) will divert aid money from those at the subsistence line into private enterprise, most of which is owned outside the Pacific. It will result in a subclass of client entrepreneurs both here and in the Pacific, those with the connections to sign on early and sew up a section of the nascent market for themselves, with full government favour. The Pacific needs trade strategies for mutual benefit, driven by Pacific people to meet their own needs, not created artificially from outside with a territorial gold rush in mind. If we profit to the detriment of our neighbours, our trade might be healthy, but the wider Pacific situation will not, and we will suffer in other ways.

In this situation, trade wins and everything else loses. This is what I mean by the title: McCully has tacitly declared that nothing other than trade really matters, a return to Muldoon’s famous position on the matter. Although the aid agenda is more closely targeted to the Pacific, the focus on trade signals the beginning of a more arm’s length relationship based on cash rather than regional allegiance. This in tandem with a more realist positioning from the defence review, in which the “benign strategic environment” doctrine of Clark’s government has been discarded with, I think, little evidence. Those changes will result in less development and support work and a more hard-power focused defence strategy, with its eye on a phantom threat, and a consequent cooling of the excellent operational relationship the NZDF has with the Pacific. Of course, such a realignment will be necessary if the aid=trade agenda results in the sort of destabilisation I’ve talked about.


* Clearly, in this context I’m talking about China. I don’t typically ascribe to the Sinophobia so rampant in the West, but in the Pacific case I think it’s justified.

A May Day Reminder.

datePosted on 20:31, May 1st, 2009 by Pablo

For workers around the world, May Day is not just a statutory holiday. It represents over a century of hard won rights, rights that in most cases were won in the face of considerable structural and political odds. It is also a reminder that without vigilance, solidarity and organisation, those rights can be lost in the blink of a legislative (if “democratic”)  or blinkered dictatorial eye.  New Zealand is an exemplary case in point, with the legacy of the Chilean-dictatorship inspired Employment Contracts Act still strongly felt in the labour market (and likely to be felt even more so if the National government is able to undertake its proposed reforms of current employment law).

Less people think I am exaggerating about the Chilean connection to the 1991 ECA, let it be noted that its inspiration was the 1979 Plan Laboral (Labour Plan) imposed by executive fiat on Chileans by the Pincohet regime. The author of the Plan, Jose “Pepe” Pineda, was a frequent guest of Roger Douglas and the Business Roundtable in the 1980s and 1990s, and his framework for acheiving what is known as “enforced” or “atomizing” pluralism in the labour market is the essence of the ECA (and one that was not completely undone by the 1999 Employment Relations Act). Atomizing pluralism is the forced decentralization of collective bargaining at the lowest productive levels. It mandates a mix of individual and collective contracts and the multiplication of bargaining agents on the shop floor. The stated intent is to achieve “labour market flexibility,” but the real intent is to destroy the union movement as an effective economic and political agent of the working classes by forcibly dividing worker representation. This has been achieved in New Zealand.

In a book co-authored with Kate Nicholls titled “Labour Markets in Small Open Democracies” (Palgrave MacMillan 2003) I compared labour movement responses to the double impact of globalization of production and market-oriented reforms (including labour market reform) in Australia, Chile, Ireland, New Zealand and Uruguay after 1990. We paired the cases based upon their similar location on the global production chain (Australia and Chile, New Zealand and Uruguay, with Ireland as an extra-regional outlier that served as a quasi-control variable). Among other things we found that the single most important factor that allowed the labour movement to resist attempts to reduce or break its collective power in the face of the dual threat posed by market globalization and neo-liberal inspired macroeconomic reform was ideological unity and independence from working class based political parties.

Let me rephrase that: ideological unity and independence  are the key to labour movement success in a market-driven age. Thus, Australian and Uruguayan unions, rooted in a strong blue collar ethos, ideologically unified and independent from Leftist parties, retained a considerable capacity to thwart the most noxious of labour market reform prescriptions such as enforced shopfloor pluralism. Conversely, Chilean and Kiwi unions, subordinate to the interests of Left parties and ideologically divided amongst themselves, were powerless to stop market-driven reforms, especially when those reforms were pushed by Left-centre governments they helped elect and in which former union bureaucrats held official positions. Successful betrayal of working class principles in favour of pro-capitalist reforms by the political Left in power was due, more than anything else, to the subordinate status of the union movement relative to the political Left. The political ambitions of professional politicians and union bureaucrats took precedence over the material interests of the rank and file, and the result was a relative decline in union fortunes.

There is more to the story, to include the impact of a working class debt culture and the role of popular diversions in eroding working class solidarity. But  the cautionary tale on this day is that workers need to remember that their political representatives on the Left should work for them, rather than the other way around. Contrary to Leninist principles of party vanguardism where the Party dominates the union movement, the union movement needs to control the Party if it is to be a genuine agent of working class interests. In this age of globalization in which the class “enemy” is diversified, flexible and fluid, social movement unionism and labour internationalism needs to be coupled with a reassertion of grassroots representation in union leaderships, which  in turn must lead to a reassertion of union authority within Left political parties. The stakes are simply too high for workers to allow union apparatchiks and party bosses to determine their fortunes for them.

UNITE is an example of such a new union. The NDU is known to retain a sense of responsibility to the rank and file, Beyond that, the New Zealand labour movement obeys the iron law of oligarchy, whereby the first duty of the organisation is to preserve itself, which means in practice that the interests of the agents rather than the principles is what comes first.

On this May Day, confronted by a Centre Right government after 8 years of sold-out Labour rule, it may be a time for the intellectual Left as well as workers to reflect on these issues in order to effectively confront (if not reverse) the adverse tide into which they have been headed for nearly twenty years. Or as Lenin put it: “What is to be Done?”

PS: I have previously made comments along these lines in the comment thread on Anita’s earlier post titled “Worker Organized Resistance.” For those who have read it my apologies for the overlap.

Hope springs eternal

datePosted on 11:06, May 1st, 2009 by Lew

Over at The Standard the aptly-titled Mathemagician has been snapped trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat to prove that the government’s student loan carrot is in fact a stick.

This is fundamentally the problem with True Believers – they’re so committed to an ideological position (in this case, that National are trying to rip everyone off) that they’re credulous to the point of naïvete. Skeptic founder Michael Shermer lists this as one of the five core reasons Why People Believe Weird Things in his book of the same name: if it suits people’s worldview to believe something, they don’t bother to examine it too closely for fear they might prove themselves wrong.

The most cursory bit of critical thinking about this topic ought to have revealed it was all smoke and mirrors, but there wasn’t even that – in this sense it’s sort of like Schneier’s Law, viz:

Any person can invent a security system so clever that he or she can’t imagine a way of breaking it.

Since they’ve deleted the old table showing the original calculation, here’s a screenshot. Good work, Pat.


Protesting too much

datePosted on 23:09, April 28th, 2009 by Lew

I don’t mean to post on Kiwiblog so frequently, but oh well – there’s a lot to post on.

Annette King (or the minions who write her press releases) appear to have jumped the shark, intimating that a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy is behind David Farrar’s release of two of David Shearer’s old papers advocating the use of mercenaries. Ok, we know that this sort of thing happens – that some right-wing blogs are used to fly kites for politicians or parties who can’t afford to fly them themselves, and undoubtedly the same happens on the other side. But honestly, DPF does background research like this consistently and well, there’s no secret there, and when you allege this sort of thing in relation to a discrete event then you can expect to get taken to the cleaners if you don’t have the necessary documentary evidence. And, frankly, the real story here is the contents of the papers, not the circumstances of their discovery. So King looks like a weeny whinger unless she can put up, and perhaps even then.

On the other hand, it’s a bit rich for DPF to take such exception to the fine distinction between the parliamentary National party and its wider community apparatus. DPF and the KBR are highly important to National’s political strategy, and the lines between traditional media and citizen media, between internal (orthodox) and external (unorthodox) channels of political advice and communication are getting more blurred by the day. King’s press release makes the mistake of being too specific and trying to pin the issue on the official National apparatus, rather than simply being vague about it and probably having the same effect. Because ultimately, it’s no different whether National’s proxies David Farrar and Cameron Slater do the work or whether someone on the inside does it.


Just do it! The Auckland referendum

datePosted on 18:50, April 27th, 2009 by Anita

If a political party, or combination of political parties, truly wanted a referendum they could just run one. It wouldn’t be governed by any legislation, but who cares? It would be just as powerful as a CIR (which relies on expressing public opinion and is not binding).

Political parties have access to electoral rolls, parliamentary service funding for material and postage, and free mail for people returning material to parliamentary addresses.

The parties would probably want  to find some eminent people for a panel to oversee the decision on the question and the rules under which the referendum will be run. They’d also benefit from maximum transparency: invite in all the media who want to be there, ensure all meetings are open, all agendas and minutes are public, and so on.

Figuring out the question’s gonna be tough; that’s the key to a referendum and worth putting time and effort into consultation and getting it right.

But, seriously, just do it!

It doesn’t matter that National and Act don’t want one, run it anyway!

It doesn’t matter that National and Act will say it’s not binding, would they ignore the outcome?

Just do it!

Cry havoc

datePosted on 18:38, April 27th, 2009 by Lew

DPF is up to his old tricks again – this one about Hone Harawira is content-free and David’s own comments are typically innocuous, but it functions very well indeed as a bone for the slavering mastiffs of the KBR to gnaw upon, making him look like a sensible moderate, if you squint a bit. For once, this one wasn’t tagged `Fun Things’.

All the necessary ingredients are there – race, privilege, power differential, obscenity and homophobia – because all minorities are equivalent, right?

Aspiring demagogues, take note.


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