The Israeli offensive in Gaza has rekindled debate about the role of collective responsibility in the initiation and prosecution of war. Israel is specifically accused of collectively punishing all Gazans in retaliation for Hamas missile attacks on the Israeli population, with some claiming that aspects of Israeli military operations amount to war crimes. Such may or may not be true, but the issue is more complex than that.

Hamas argues that it is justified in firing missiles into Israeli population centers because all Jews are complicit in the Zionist enterprise and all Israelis eventually complete some form of military service. From that perspective better to kill a Jew in the crib than on the battlefield. Sunni extremists in Iraq target Shiia worshippers at their holy sites because they hold them accountable for the apostasy of their clerical leaders. Osama bin Laden has openly stated that the US public made itself a target for attack by repeatedly electing pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim administrations. Kurds and Armenians hold all Turks responsible for the sins of the Ottomans, Kemalists and their successors. Chechnyan militants hold all Russians culpable for the depredations of the Russian military in the post-Soviet republic. Germans are still held by some to be collectively guilty for the sins of the Nazis. The Japanese are accused on not feeling guilty enough for the depredations of Hirohito and company. The list of collective finger-pointing, responsibility, guilt, targeting and punishment is long.

The issue is complicated by the fact that, by the criteria of collective responsibility, open and honest elections increase the culpability of the electorate in the sins of their political representatives. That was Osama’s point about the US. Whatever one may think about the US electorate’s complicity in Bush 43’s follies, by that logic the Palestinians are collectively culpable for having voted in favour of a Hamas-majority parliament in 2006. Put another way, citizens of non-elected authoritarian regimes cannot be held accountable for the behaviour of those regimes unless there is some other mechanism to attribute direct support for the authoritarian project. An example would be Argentines during the Falklands/Malvinas war, which was initiated by a brutal military dictatorship feared by its own people. Conversely, the citizens of all democratic regimes are complicit in the behavior of their governments because it was their majority vote that brought those governments into power. The minority of those who voted against these democratically-elected incumbents may take issue with that (and indeed have), but the logic is inscrutable on the point: mass elections make the masses collectively responsible for the conduct of their elected leaders. Read the rest of this entry »

Representational democracy is fundamentally flawed

datePosted on 16:35, January 19th, 2009 by Anita

Representational democracy in New Zealand necessarily fails entirely to live up to its name. With a hundred and twenty people representing four million or so, this should be obvious. It is a system that forces each voter to make a choice using only at most a few of their views. Which party, or which individual, represents the person who wants to ban genetically modified organisms and privatise the health system? 

Even if the party you vote for is elected, they will hold different views from you and they will vote in ways you would not wish them to. In short they are not representing you.

This not only makes the choice a futile one, but also impoverishes any sort of debate or conversation, because the debates are led by politicians who work within blocks, and are covered by a media which is unable to tease out the individual issues.

This futility, and the requirement to give your vote to a package of policies, means we end up giving far too much power to politicians, and keeping far too little for ourselves. Indeed giving this power to politicians is a mistake. We give people whose motivation is largely to gain power the ability to say they are representing us although they have no desire to listen to our individual opinions, and there is no framework to force them to. Three yearly elections do not allow us to hold politicians to account on individual issues, or even individual actions. 

The problem is not the frequency of our elections or the parties we are able to vote for, it is that the system itself does not allow for all of an individuals views to be represented. Every single one of us is effectively silenced on the majority of our views, and forced to listen politicians claiming to speak on our behalf.

Is the Christian Right a necessary sea anchor?

datePosted on 06:00, January 19th, 2009 by Anita

In the early 1970s a group named the Family Rights Association wrote

All families are suffering at present, infidelity and divorce are very common. Marriages are breaking down at a record rate. When love dies hatred emerges and the children are exposed to suffering and neglect. Parents often see their children’s lives being ruined by drugs, alcoholism and promiscuity, swept along by an overwhelming flood of pornography and evil. Pressure groups claim that marriage is outmoded. De facto relationships are accepted by society and are treated generously by the Government. Normal sexuality is almost submerged by demands for recognition of homosexuality and other perversions. Illegitimacy and venereal disease have reached epidemic proportions. Social anarchy threatens.

Much of that could have been written by Family First in 2009, or many other groups in the intervening 35 years.

Despite this constant thread of social conservatism and fearful reaction to social change, NZ has made enormous socially progressive change since the early 1970s. We have criminalised rape within marriage, decriminalised anal sex, provided access to abortion, passed the Human Rights Act, allowed no fault divorce, decriminalised prostitution, provided sex education in schools, enabled legal recognition of same-sex relationships, banned corporal punishment in schools, and passed domestic violence protection laws (to name just a few).

Perhaps the role of the Christian Right is a necessary one; it does not prevent change but it slows it and makes sure there’s enough discussion that the more conservative members of our society don’t get left behind and alienated from a society that moves too quickly and doesn’t take the time to persuade them and bring them along.

While I campaign for more liberal and progressive progress, I’m not sure I would be willing to pay the price of a divided antagonistic society. Perhaps I should thank the Christian Right for slowing us down enough that we can move together as a community.

Zaoui: the lessons

datePosted on 06:00, January 18th, 2009 by Anita

We’ve had comments around the Zaoui debacle on a couple of threads, so I thought I would try to pull together some things I think the government (public servants and politicians) should have learned from it:

  • “National security interests” must be publicly defined and open to public debate and influence
  • Secret evidence is unacceptable in all but the most unusual situations, when it absolutely must be used genuine checks and balances must be in place
  • Refugees should never be housed in prisons, and should be in secure facilities only in the most unusual situations (and that must be open to judicial review)
  • The immediate families of refugees should be allowed to join them as soon as possible.

What have I missed?

RfP: Hate speech laws

datePosted on 13:07, January 17th, 2009 by Anita

Recently I’ve read a number of paired essays, one arguing strongly for something and one arguing against it. I really like the form and reckon the arguments are much better than those that have to pretend objectivity. I’m wondering if we can get the same thing going here – two posts on one subject arguing strongly for opposing views.

So, with no more ado, I’m looking for anyone who might be willing to write a brief strongly argued post for or against hate speech laws. It’s a fascinating topic as it involves competing rights, and NZ has (perhaps without thinking too hard about it) legislated against racial hate speech but probably allows hate speech against other groups.

If you’re interested either email us (kiwipolitico@kiwipolitico.com) or post in the comments and we’ll get in touch.

P.S. If you’re keen to do this but run your own blog please get in touch, I’m sure we can figure out cross-posting.

P.P.S. If you don’t run your own blog I can promise you writing a post would be more fun and easier than you think! :)

[Many thanks to Lew and Rich, we have posts for the case for and against hate speech laws]

Inclusion: The Kevin Bacon Principle

datePosted on 06:00, January 17th, 2009 by Anita

I know someone who knows John Key. I know people (or know people who know people) who know all the party leaders, and who know each cabinet minister, the mayor, senior journos and public servants. Who else matters? Because I probably know someone who knows them too.

If I meet someone influential we’ll do that kiwi thing and figure out the connection, and in 5 mins we’ll know we have friends or family in common.

I know those people because I’m middle class, well educated and have lived in NZ my whole life. I expect most of you can make the same claims, it’s the beauty of being at the heart of a small connected country. 

That connectedness helps me in a variety of tiny ways; I can ring a friend and say “So, who do I need to talk to to get the promised traffic calming measures on my street under way?” if I ever needed something passed through a Minister’s office I’d have coffee with a mate and ask who’d be the best person to get the request to.  When a less connected friend was struggling with immigration rules I hooked him up with a friend who explained how it really works, and permanent residence was back on track.

More importantly it makes me feel connected and part of society, I know that the rules are made by people like me for people like me and I know people who know (and make) the rules. I’m confident that I can make my way through the maze, and that my friends will make sure I do.

New immigrants don’t have that connectedness nor do most beneficiaries. A kid from a working class background starting university doesn’t have the connectedness advantage I did.

The informality and friendliness that we love about New Zealand can also be insular and exclusive. From the inside we’re a classless level friendly society, from the outside we look a like a clique.

Does New Zealand have Political Prisoners?

datePosted on 23:26, January 16th, 2009 by Pablo

Anita’s thread on the failures of the 5th Labour government got me to thinking about the criminalisation of political dissent during its tenure. That in turn got me to wonder about whether there have been politically-motivated incarcerations in recent (since 1995) times. I can think of three, but since I am a relatively new immigrant (currently in economic exile of sorts) and new to the intimacies of New Zealand political life, I am not sure if there have been others.

Ahmed Zaoui was clearly a political prisoner. He posed no threat to anyone, much less the security of NZ. Yet he was incarcerated for over two years, including one year in solitary, because of what he represented–the face of political Islam that was not a lapdog of Western (read in this case French) interests. Right wing troglodytes and bigots may not like it, but he committed no crime in NZ and he never committed an act of violence against anyone, anywhere. Yet the Labour government saw fit to violate his civil rights in order to curry favour with the French and look good in the war on terror (at least in the eyes of the US, Australia and the UK). Shame on Richard Woods (SIS director general at the time), Lianne Dalziel (Immigration Minister at the time), and Helen Clark for orchestrating this farce–remember “lie in unision?” Praise Allah for Deborah Manning, Rodney Harrison and Richard McLeod for speaking truth to that abuse of power.(Note to retrogrades: Allah means God so chill on the pro-terrorist accusations).

Tim Selwyn spent more than year in stir having been found guilty of sedition. Read the rest of this entry »

Who took down Winston?

datePosted on 06:00, January 16th, 2009 by Anita

Winston Peters did not fall, he wasn’t even just pushed, he was dragged down by an effective tactical campaign. Some political operative got everything they needed – the evidence, the source, a couple of journos, a couple of commentators and a couple of politicians – and they went for it, and they won. 

It’s tempting to see it as a joint National-Act campaign with a disgruntled ex NZ First staffer feeding them information, but the idea that National and Act managed to work that closely together and completely shared everything seems really far fetched. Also the main source will have needed a single main contact.

So maybe it was a National campaign, carefully orchestrated, inviting Act in when needed. National had the biggest benefit from the end of NZF, so that counts for it. But… National ran a very low risk campaign and this was not a low risk strategy: imagine the fallout if the media had covered the strategy orchestration by the Nats, or if Peters really did have the material on the Nats he’d always claimed.

Ok, possibly an Act campaign which occasionally invited in National? Much more plausible from a risk perspective: Act could’ve withstood this going bad without any real difficulty. But… if you were a disgrunted ex-NZFer, would you go to Act? And how much did Act really get from the death of NZF? And does Act have the internal political infrastructure to pull this off?

Final option, someone on the right but outside both parties – relationships and trust with both parties, but not beholden to either. So no political risk to either party, more plausible deniability for journos (it’s not coming straight from a party operative) and the ability to co-ordinate across and beyond party lines. But… there are only a few right operatives that skillful who aren’t in parties and surely someone’s checked them out.

So, who did it? Who had the skill, ability and connections to take down Winston Peters?

Hillary Reinvents the Wheel

datePosted on 01:53, January 16th, 2009 by Pablo

The Senate confirmation hearings on Hillary Clinton’s nomination as Secretary of State went remarkably well for her. She showed all of her moxie, knowledge and intuition to great advantage. She is a shoo-in as the next Secretary of State, the third female in the job and the first ex-Senator in ages. But it is what she said about the conduct of US foreign policy in the Obama administration that was most interesting.

Clinton talked of the need to use “smart power,” as opposed to hard or soft power. She made it seem that “smart power” was the judicious mix of soft and hard power in the approach to foreign policy. One would have thought that when using the coercive disincentives of the threat and use of force embodied in “hard” power concepts, or the economic, diplomatic and cultural incentives of the “soft” power construct, the US would be “smart,” to say nothing of judicious and nuanced, in their application. It goes without saying that under the Bush 43 administration it did not. But is the notion of “smart power” really a new conceptualisation of how to conduct foreign policy, or is it merely rebranding something tried and true (and perhaps found wanting in the past).

I argue the case for the latter. “Smart” power is no more than the 21st century recycled, renamed approach know as Wilsonian pragmatism. Wilsonian pragmatism is the (uneasy) meshing of principled idealism and realism in the conduct of US foreign policy. The idea is to push democratic capitalist ideals as a moral imperative, but deal with thorny foreign policy issues from a realist baseline. Realist baselines are based upon pragmatic self-interest, which is value neutral and power-oriented. When idealism and pragmatism clash, pragmatism always wins. When ideology meets realism, realism holds sway. Realism, a term derived from the German realpolitik and first enunciated by Metternich, simply posits the thesis that nations have interests, some of which are essential to national survival and some which are not. Nation-states use all aspects of national power (political, economic, diplomatic, cultural) to advance core interests, and leave non-essential interest pursuit to times of plenty or peace. Otherwise, there is no room for idealism in international politics or foreign policy. Now is not a time of peace or plenty. Read the rest of this entry »

Freedom?

datePosted on 10:52, January 15th, 2009 by Jafapete

The right-wing fringe think-tank, the Heritage Foundation, has scored NZ slightly higher on its yearly Index of Economic Freedom. NZ comes in at number 5. Rankings here.

This despite a Labour-led government being in charge at the time the data were collected.

According to the Heritage Foundation, the increase–from 80.6% to 82%–was due to improvements in trade, investment and property rights. The Herald notes that, “Freedom from corruption declined but remained high at 94 per cent, and labour freedom fell but was also high at 89.65 per cent”, but doesn’t tell us that the “labour freedom” score declines with higher minimum wages, protections against arbitrary dismissals, etc. It doesn’t mean freedom for workers. Still, with December’s stripping of low-end workers’ protections against arbitrary dismissal (barring provable discrimination), NZ should score even higher on this “freedom” next year.

Interestingly, NZ came in just behind Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and Ireland, and just ahead of the United States and Canada. What do all these countries have in common? A clue… Britain came in at number 10. Yep, the English-speaking, common law countries–all ruled by Britain at some point– share a predilection for light regulation of business. (This is borne out in the rankings of the right-wing Fraser Institute as well.)

It will be interesting to see how the Anglo-American economies and their Asian cousins fare compared to the rest of the world over the next couple of years.

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