Posts Tagged ‘Australia’

Selections matter

datePosted on 22:22, March 20th, 2013 by Lew

Justice Minister Judith Collins has appointed Dame Susan Devoy as Race Relations Commissioner.

She replaces Joris de Bres, who has served two five-year terms and is very well-regarded in Māoridom (at least) because (in part) he understands the importance of his own Dutch whakapapa, and the complexity of his place as an immigrant in Aotearoa. As Bryce Edwards and Morgan Godfery have noted, he has also shown an unusual willingness to comment on issues related to his mandate of opposing racism.

No doubt this fact has informed Collins’ decision to appoint someone less feisty. Dame Susan has little or no high-level experience in the field, and I suppose the thinking is that she brings a clean slate to the role or, to put it another way, her thinking and the degree of her engegement with the issues will be more easily influenced by the prevailing governmental culture. But Dame Susan is not a blank slate. A week ahead of Paul Holmes’ now-infamous Waitangi Day a complete waste column, she wrote one of her own that, although it employed language more befitting a Dame, nevertheless expressed similar sentiments. One year ago our new Race Relations Commissioner wished that instead of Waitangi Day we could have “a day that we don’t feel ashamed to be a New Zealander” and pined after a holiday like that celebrated in Australia, where — a few recent and grudging obeisances aside — 50,000 years of history and the brutal facts of the settlement of that land are blithely ignored in a jingoistic celebration of Ocker Pride.

That would be bad enough, but it gets worse: Dame Susan doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing:

Jacob McSweeney: “She admits she doesn’t have a wealth of experience in race relations, but she says the job isn’t overly complicated.”
Susan Devoy: “I don’t think it’ll make it any more difficult than dealing with any other issues, I mean, you know, this is all under the Chief Human Rights Commission [sic], and so therefore whether it’s disability or gender or employment or race, you know, the issues are not dissimilar. This is just about making it right for every New Zealander.”

(From Checkpoint.)

This is a terrible appointment. Anyone who thinks Aotearoa’s race-relations culture isn’t complicated is by definition not equipped for the job of guiding and guarding it. Not only is our new Race Relations Commissioner ashamed of our national day, but as far as she’s concerned it’s just another ism — revealing how little she must know about disability, employment or gender issues into the bargain.

So as far as that goes, she looks like the perfect post-ideological, post-identity selection for such a job: a common-sense managerialist who, to the limited extent that she understands the issues in play, finds them distasteful.

What a good opportunity for Labour! The National government, at a time when racial and cultural tensions are a major issue, clearly doesn’t value race relations sufficiently to put anyone competent in the job. But the Labour party has selection problems of its own: an Ethnic Affairs spokesperson who is a former race relations commissioner (Rajen Prasad) so far down the list that he doesn’t get a ranking; and a Māori Affairs spokesperson — and former minister — Parekura Horomia, also unranked. Labour is perilously short on brown faces, with none in the top five and one — Shane Jones — in the top 10, and him only recently returned from purgatory. Morgan Jack McDonald has some advice on this topic.

The hard truth is that Labour isn’t in a position to criticise the government on race relations issues. This is due to their internal failures of strategy, not due to exigencies forced upon them. For all that the appointment of Dame Susan Devoy to Race Relations Commissioner is terrible, the Key government has done a lot more than expected in other areas of race relations, particularly with regard to progressing Treaty settlements. That gives them cover. They’ve gotten away with worse than this appointment, and they’ll keep getting away with it as long as the major party of opposition lets them.

L

(Thanks to James Macbeth Dann for drawing my attention to Dame Susan’s column, which was plucked from obscurity by Coley Tangerina.)

Australia and India are emerging great powers that are the core of the Indo-Pacific strategic architecture, yet they do not have as strong bilateral ties as history, culture, politics, common threats and interests would suggest. In this collaborative essay with an Indian journalist, we explore some of the issues involved in their incipient strategic relationship, along with the prospects for closer ties in the near future.

Blog Link: Australia as a different type of BRIC.

datePosted on 09:39, August 15th, 2012 by Pablo

In spite of some serious dysfunctionalities in its party politics and potential problems with its economic growth model (heavily dependent on mineral exports), Australia is well on its way to becoming a regional great power. In this regard it shares macro-characteristics with three of the four “BRICs:” Brazil, India and Russia (the PRC has surpassed regional great power status and is no longer, in my opinion, appropriately categorized with the others). Although Australians may prefer not be grouped with the others for a variety of reasons, I take the notion of “rising middle power” as the starting point for a comparative analysis of Australia as a different type of BRIC.

Putting the mandate to work

datePosted on 00:41, May 2nd, 2012 by Lew

I struggle to believe the National party that read and led the public mood so well for most of the previous six years has so spectacularly lost its way. Recent months, and the past few weeks in particular, have been the government’s hardest, and only part of that is due to ministerial incompetence and bad optics. Part of it is because they have chosen policies that contradict the very narratives Key and his government have so carefully crafted.

This can’t be accidental. I think the fact that they barely won a majority despite the worst performance in a generation by the Labour party has convinced Key that this term is probably his last, and he intends to make best possible use of it. This is good strategy for them. It’s a strategy I’ve been writing about since Key was in opposition, and one that the Labour party ignored, to their detriment, until late in the last term. John Key is no mere smile-and-waver, but a man of action who, when the time is right, will act ruthlessly and decisively. He has spent his five years as leader earning the trust of the electorate, gaining a mandate, and now he intends to put that mandate to work. This country will not be the same in three years.

There are many possible examples here: privatisation of state assets is the most obvious, but is well-covered by others more informed than I am. I’ll cover three more recent topics: two are bad politics, but I can see the point to them; the last is simply a terrible idea that, if not abandoned quickly, will have profound implications for the future of New Zealand’s political discourse.

Paid parental leave

The decision to call an immediate veto on Sue Moroney’s private member’s bill extending paid parental leave was badly handled. If it were to be done, it ought to have been done immediately the bill was drawn, in an offhand way so as to frame the veto as inevitable; as it was, sufficient space was left for the idea to take root in the collective imagination of the electorate, and now the use of the veto looks anti-democratic; signalling it before it has even been debated looks doubly so, and leaves about a year for sentiment to continue to grow.

Of course, the government has the procedural right to take this action, if perhaps not the moral right to prevent Parliament from passing something that a majority of its members supports. But it chips away at the Key government’s carefully-framed appeal to being pro-middle-class, pro-family, pro-women. Unlike welfare reform, this is not an issue that only impacts people who would never vote for the National party anyway. Paid parental leave predominantly benefits middle-class (rather than working-class) families, and especially middle-class women — those who, for five years, the government has been reassuring that we are on your side. Key is personally very popular among women, and this has been central to National’s success. It looks like the government are prepared to sacrifice this on the altar of fiscal responsibility. The comparison to Barack Obama’s strategy to win a second term on the basis of strong opposition to GOP misogyny could hardly be more stark.

This is in spite of the argument on the merits: a low-cost policy that yields considerable long-term benefits of the sort the government has been anxious to create (or invent, if need be). And the arguments being levied against the scheme are particularly weird: “Is it about labour force participation, or about women spending more time with children?” Well, yes. “It’s discriminatory against non-working mothers!” Well, yes, but I don’t see any of the people making that argument supporting a Universal Motherhood Entitlement, and in fact, I distinctly remember some rhetoric about “breeding for a business” whenever such ideas are raised.

A possible reason for this bad veto call is that it foreshadows a future softening of National’s position on the topic; as Key did with the Section 59 bill, when it looks close to passing the government will signal support, in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation.

Or, maybe it’s just that they don’t care any more — so they’re unpopular, so what?

Student entitlements

The latter argument also explains the decision, announced today, to limit the availability of student allowances and require higher repayments of student loans, although not completely. This is bound to be popular with those who have forgotten (or who never experienced) how hard it was to undertake tertiary study and build a career without Daddy’s cash and connections, and those of the generations who had it all laid on for them by the taxpayers of their day. But it will be less popular among the growing ranks of young voters, and it will be less popular among the parents of those young voters, who are having to provide financial support to their kids through their 20s and in some cases into their 30s, because said kids are finding the economic dream is more rosy than the reality.

This policy is also anti-middle-class, anti-family, and anti-women: because the middle class includes most of those who can afford to (and have the social and cultural capital to) undertake tertiary study; because it places an additional burden on their parents, and because women are already disadvantaged in terms of earning power, and therefore have less ability to avoid or pay back loans. It also erodes National’s aspirational, high-productivity, catch-up-with-Australia narrative, by raising the barrier to becoming qualified to do the high-productivity jobs that such a goal requires. More crucially, it erodes National’s “money in your pocket” narrative by imposing upon borrowers a higher effective marginal tax rate — over and above the existing 10% higher effective marginal tax rate — making it harder to survive on the wages that come with those jobs.

It could be worse. They’re not reintroducing student loan interest. But it is only the first budget of the term, and the same reasoning — this is good because it allows borrowers to pay off their loans sooner, and it will provide cost savings for the government — is true in spades when you charge interest. People can already pay their loans back more quickly if they choose — it is easy to do. People don’t, because wages are low and the cost of living is high, so the government wants to force them to do so. So much for choices.

Refugees

Although I disagree with them, there is some political justification behind both these previous positions. But nothing explains the government’s decision to take a harder stance against asylum seekers. In the Australian context (and in the USA and the UK, although I know less about these), immigration and the treatment of asylum seekers is a political bonfire. This is most obvious in terms of human life and potential. Able, resourceful and motivated people are imprisoned for months or years, barely treated as humans, and allowed to become disenchanted and alienated while hostile bureaucrats decide their fate, and cynical politicians on all sides use them as ideological tokens in a dire game — before being released into society to fulfill the grim expectations that have been laid upon them. But it is also a bonfire for political capital — the more you chuck on, the brighter it burns — and for reasoned discourse. Politicians, commentators, lobbyists and hacks of all descriptions dance around this fire like deranged cultists which, in a sense, they are.

The immigration debate in Australia, though it barely deserves that name, is toxic, internecine, and intractable; it has been propagandised to the point where it is practically useless as a policy-formation tool, or as a means of gauging or guiding public sentiment. It sets light to everything it touches; people take leave of their senses and run around shrieking whatever slogans fit their lizard-brain prejudices. The word “sense” is used so often it ceases to have any meaning: all is caricature, and in keeping with this, other ordinary words also lose their value: assurances that asylum seekers will be treated “fairly” or that systems will be “efficient” would not be recognised as such by an impartial observer. Somehow, it becomes possible to simultaneously believe that the policies are targeted against “people-smugglers”, while being fully aware that the punitive costs imposed by such regimes are suffered by the smugglers’ victims. Otherwise-reasonable people resort to idiotic bourgeois framing such as “jumping the queue” — as if it’s OK to escape from political or religious persecution, if only you do so in a polite and orderly fashion. Mind the gap!

What makes it all the more stupid is that a brown tide of refugees in rusty boats is not even an issue for us: we are simply too isolated, and surrounded by waters too hostile, to be a viable destination. Unfortunately this fact will not be sufficient to prevent people from getting worked up about it, and demanding that Something Be Done. Someone on twitter recently said that anyone who could get a boatload of people here from the third world deserved a beer and our congratulations, and I couldn’t agree more. We need people with the degree of daring, toughness and pioneer spirit to make such a journey, and qualities such as these were once most highly prized.

This policy also undercuts National’s mythology about itself, most assiduously cultivated over the past year in preparation for the sale of the Crafar farms and other assets — of New Zealand as a land of opportunity, welcoming to outsiders and open for business. National have been swift to condemn any deviation from this line as xenophobic, and yet this is somehow different. It is worse than a solution in search of a problem — it is a cure that is far more harmful than its ailment.

What’s more, while I can see the underlying political reasoning behind the two other policies I’ve discussed here, I can’t see the reasoning for this one. Most likely it is an attempt to cultivate some love in redneck-talkback land; to shore up slipping sentiment among the culturally-conservative base that National used to own. But even in this it is misguided: this is not a debate that does any major party any good. It is an opportunity for extremists to grandstand, to pander to society’s most regressive elements. It crowds out meaningful discussion of other matters, it makes reason and compromise impossible, and what’s worst: it never dies. We saw a glimpse of this with the Ahmed Zaoui case; by fearmongering about boatloads of Chinese en route from Darwin on the basis of just one isolated case National runs the risk of admitting this sort of idiocy to the national conversation permanently.

And that might be this government’s legacy. The former two topics, while they will change New Zealand’s politics in meaningful ways, are essentially part of the normal partisan ebb and flow. Asset sales is much bigger; other topics, like primary and secondary education reform and the proposal to cap government expenditure will also have longer-term and more profound impacts. The National government has a mandate, and they are using it while they can, in the knowledge that you can’t take it with you when you go. That is understandable, if perhaps regrettable.

But to use such a mandate to permanently poison New Zealand’s discourse, willingly driving it towards a permanent state of cultural war is a different sort of politics altogether — deeper, more ancient, harder to control, and much more dangerous. I hope I’m wrong.

L

Revealed preference

datePosted on 21:27, March 14th, 2011 by Lew

Former National leader Don Brash addressed the ACT party conference at the weekend, which was half “catching Australia” boilerplate and half a warming-over of the infamous “nationhood” speech given at Orewa in January 2004 (for a thorough rebuttal of which see Jon Johansson, Orewa and the Rhetoric of Illusion). During his address at the weekend (although no mention is made of this in the text of the speech on his website, linked above), Brash correctly stated that the Treaty of Waitangi was ahead of its time, because the contemporary Australian approach, by contrast, was to “shoot the natives”.

At this point, a heckler in the audience piped up: “let’s bring it in“. (Audio).

Moments like these, when people are put in the position of genuinely involuntary response to some stimulus or other, are pretty rare in a political environment dominated by strict stage-management, spin and counter-spin. Their type and quality can tell you a whole lot about a political movement, especially when the response is collective, spontaneous, and embedded within a heightened or aroused political context, such as in the middle of a keynote speech.

What happened next was that the delegates in attendance at the ACT party laughed. At the suggestion that New Zealand implement a system of genocide against its indigenous people which, even back in 1840, was a source of shame for Australia, those in attendance at the annual conference of a New Zealand government party whose ranks include two ministers of the crown laughed. It is hard to be sure from the audio, but it sounds like Don Brash also laughed — someone on-mike did, and in such circumstances only the speaker is miked. Quickly, the laughs turned to disapproving murmurs, and Brash continued speaking as if nothing had happened. But by then the moment was over — the ACT delegates’ true colours had been revealed.

Not all of them, to be sure. No doubt there were those who were agape at the suggestion. Stony, stunned silence from the delegation at large would certainly have been an appropriate response and one which I don’t think would have been too hard to muster. Eric Crampton has suggested (though I suspect he’s by no means committed to this line of argument) that nervous laughter is a fair response to shock; admitting also that nobody seems to be claiming that the laughter was nervous. Eric also placed one in five odds on the heckler being a ringer whose plan was to elicit just this sort of response, in order to discredit the ACT party. Fair enough, I suppose. But it’s not the heckle itself which was disturbing — every party contains its fringe lunatics, those who fly off the handle and say embarrassing things. What’s disturbing is the response, the spontaneous, reflexive, collective reaction to the suggestion of genocide.

Just as Labour are the party of humourless, tuneless harridans after their “John the Gambler” song at the 2008 annual conference, and the Greens are the party of morris dancing hippies because of their 2001 annual conference, the fundamental take-away here is that ACT is the party who laughs at genocide jokes. The ACT delegates own that moment of laughter, just as much as they own the disapproval which followed it. It’s not even out of character for a party which has for some years now campaigned on the basis of arguments that indigenous people represent barriers to the white man’s progress, and was at the time of the interjection revelling in a sustained argument to that very effect: get rid of the bloody natives, and things’ll be a lot easier around here, and then we might catch up with Australia, who solved their bloody native problem good and proper. It speaks to the core beliefs of those in attendance, and what’s more, it largely reiterates what most peoples’ impressions of the ACT party are, based on their rhetoric, their policy positions, and their steadfast opposition to every bit of legislation giving the slightest acknowledgement to Tino Rangatiratanga.

Whether a ringer or an organic outgrowth from the party delegation, whether speaking his own truth to power or having just had a few too many free glasses of capitalist sauvignon, the people of New Zealand are indebted to this anonymous heckler. He has granted the nation a unique insight into the ACT party, and rare basis upon which to judge its underlying character. That’s good for democracy.

L

Stay classy, Atlases

datePosted on 08:11, January 13th, 2011 by Lew

VEXNEWS‘ headline, while verbose, really does nail it: GREEDY GERRY: Heartless Harvey fiddles at lavish Gold Coast party while Queensland drowns.

That’s Gerry Harvey, of Harvey Norman; and John Singleton, who (with Harvey) owns a thoroughbred brokerage aptly named ‘Magic Millions’. This photo and others were taken at its launch while much of the rest of the state of Queensland was underwater. From the article, with my emphasis:

When asked by a reasonably friendly Gold Coast Bulletin scribe about whether continuing the event in light of the hardship endured by the rest of Queensland, Harvey’s partner John Singleton’s response showed a remarkable lack of sensitivity even by the vulgar standards of the average Sydney spiv: “You feel a bit guilty having a good time when you see what is happening in other parts of Queensland and northern NSW, but on the other hand the Aussie way is life goes on.” Charming.

Context, however, is everything. There’s a good reference to the fall of Rome in there, but here’s the real bit of background which brings it home:

Gerry Harvey is closely associated with the brand of his many outlets where so many Australians buy the goods that furnish their homes. Many (fortunate enough to be insured) Queenslanders will come to file into these outlets in the days and months ahead when they want to replace all the things they lost. He stands to make (yet another) fortune. You’d think the man would show a little more decency during this sobering time for our country.

Well, you would — but in fact, it’s worse than that. Many of those worst affected by flooding actually aren’t insured for it — because insurers expressly exclude flood damage from their policies. Most cover storms (falling water in the local area) but not flooding (rising water, or that which originated elsewhere). The Queensland Department of Primary Industry has a summary:

A major obstacle that delays insurance claims is the different definitions for flood and inundation in insurance policies. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) defines ‘flood’ as:
“In general terms, flood damage refers to the inundation of a property by water which overflows from a natural watercourse, while storm and tempest damage refers to the inundation of a property by water as the result of a storm.”
Therefore, some inundation risks are covered by the term ‘flood’.
According to ASIC’s Consumer Understanding of Flood Insurance Report, both types of damage are usually linked to a storm, and a property may be inundated by both water from the storm and water overflowing from a natural watercourse. However, most insurance policies don’t cover damage to a property if caused by:
* inundation of water flowing from a natural watercourse
* inundation of water from both the storm and overflow of a natural watercourse (unless most of the damage is caused by stormwater)
* other phenomena, such as earth movement, even though this may itself have been caused by water from a storm.
The Insurance Council of Australia advises consumers to review the terms and conditions of their cover in their Policy Disclosure Statement.
If in doubt, contact your insurer.

It makes sense, as an insurer, to decline to offer cover for anything which might actually cost money; and there abides a regulatory environment which permits insurers to do just this. The topic, and related problems resulting from poor government policy, are covered in some detail in a column by La Trobe University disaster researcher Rachel Carter in today’s Australian. Consequently, despite the present floods being declared the most severe disaster in Queensland’s history and with some discussion today that it may be the worst in the history of the Commonwealth, insurers were, a few days ago, saying that the losses to their industry would be modest.

(Sidebar: if you’ve not connected the dots, this is the same insurance industry to which the Key government intends to deliver ACC early in their second term. Don’t say you weren’t warned.)

And so it is as it ever was: even in an affluent, modern first-world democracy with strong disaster-response agencies, which likes to regard itself as an egalitarian nation where the “little guy” gets a fair suck of the sav — when push comes to shove the big guys make out like bandits, and the little guy goes under.

In both cases, literally.

L

The Big Wet

datePosted on 15:27, January 12th, 2011 by Lew

Having neglected my bloggerly duties these past six weeks (in fact, I’ve been neglecting all my duties which aren’t strictly in service of looking after my family and keeping my job), I had resolved to write something about one of the many momentous events which have taken place recently. There are many to choose from. Some topics (Pike River; Wikileaks; Foreshore and Seabed for instance) are no longer immediate; others (the re-emergence of Winston Peters, commencement of the NZ general election campaign and its forerunner the Botany by-election) are not yet sufficiently well-formed for me to quite know what to say about them yet. Yet others (notably the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, Wikileaks and the Urewera Terra trials) have been more ably dealt with by Pablo and/or so many others, such that anything I could say would be redundant. There’s already enough peoples’ two cents rattling around in the hollow urn of internet discussion. In the context of these events other things I was meaning to write about (such as the manvertising topic Pablo discussed before the break) seem a bit trivial.

Add to all of this, today there is really only one story; that an area twice the size of Texas — the canonical measure of a really big thing — is underwater in Queensland; including much of Brisbane. The coverage put out by the Australian media, and in particular the ABC, is first-rate, and the best I can do is commend it to your attention.

There is one point, however, that I don’t think has been made strongly enough: and that’s that events such as these are a consequence of climate change. While it is fashionable for climate change deniers to mock those pointing to the increasing frequency and severity of snowstorms, cold snaps, hurricanes and torrential rainfall events as evidence for ‘global warming’; implying that climate science proponents try to take everything as evidence of ‘global warming’, the fact is that the term ‘global warming’ was retired and replaced with ‘climate change’ because the thesis isn’t just that the planet will get warmer.

That’s part of it, but the events — snowfall and what not — being pointed to are not climate; they are weather. The relationship between climate and weather is a lot like the relationship between mathematics and arithmetic — indistinguishable if you don’t understand them, but fundamentally of a different order. Weather, like arithmetic, is by and large small, trivial, unarguable stuff — stuff which is more or less self-evident. It rained this much last week; 2+2=4 — whereas climate, and mathematics, are bigger, more open-ended and by definition less quantifiable. Mistaking ‘weather’ for ‘climate’ is an immensely useful rhetorical device, and one which I believe has not been sufficiently well guarded-against by those whose task it is to argue the climate change case. But even though it may not have been made clear to the degree necessary for broad public and political comprehension, this distinction is well understood by those working in the field and anyone who cares to acquaint themselves even scarcely with the material. And fundamentally the take-away is this: climate change caused by the increased quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to the extent that it takes place, will have unpredictable flow-on effects such as increased frequency and severity of severe weather events, and not just heat waves and droughts such as ‘warming’ would suggest.

The XKCD comic above (of which some years ago, my wife bought me the t-shirt) shows the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation spectrum. This has nothing much to do with climate change, but it is a famous proof of the scientific method: a near-perfect agreement between theory and actuality which is pretty fundamental to our understanding of a bunch of stuff. Science’s only defence; the only thing which gives it any importance or makes it any use at all, is that it works. When properly applied, it predicts actual events. The Queensland floods, as well as other such events, are happening as predicted, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either ignorant, or having you on, or both. In Andrew Bolt‘s case, it’s both. Queenslanders — and others similarly impacted by such events — need neither.

L

Brief thoughts

datePosted on 09:03, August 16th, 2010 by Lew

No time for anything substantive, but here are a few thoughts, in no particular order:

  • This ad for the Aussie Greens, made by Republic of Everyone for the ABC’s election campaign showThe Gruen Nation, is political-symbolic advertising done right. George Darroch tipped me off to it and describes it as “a political-emotional cluster bomb”, which is about right. It frames up some current issues in an explicitly normative, socially aspirational fashion by posing a set of questions which essentially answer themselves. It presents these issues — particularly gay marriage and boat people — in a way which permits cross-ideological consensus, opening the door to support from Coalition-supporting classical liberals. It’s so good the party itself wants to run the ad on TV, and I would too.

  • If the Climate Science Coalition wants science decided by the courts, rather than by scientists, then they’re welcome to open that door. It speaks volumes about their relationship to science; as a chap on Morning Report said this morning, neither judges nor lawyers can make this determination; if they have scientific experts who can legitimately challenge the record, let’s see them do so. But I have one proviso: They must be bound by the court’s findings. If the court rules, as I expect them to do, that there’s nothing wrong with the NIWA record, then I expect the CSC to take their lumps with good grace. But I expect instead to hear shrill shrieks about activist judges and political-ideological conspiracies. By the same token, of course, if the courts rule against NIWA then I expect the same, and will want to hear some answers from them. Science welcomes scrutiny.
  • KiwiRail continues to fail horribly, this time citing ‘unexpected complications’. The only thing ‘unexpected’, as far as I can tell, is that they’re advising commuiters of the problems in advance now, rather than days after the fact. Just another reason I’m thrilled to be working from home at the moment.

L

Cthulhu economics

datePosted on 15:42, August 9th, 2010 by Lew

From the star-touched genius of Lyndon Hood, with reference to the government position on the trans-Tasman wage gap: The Calculator of Cthulhu.

L

Sleeping dogs

datePosted on 23:08, July 8th, 2010 by Lew

Tim Watkin usually writes good sense, but with the latest post on gun control it’s clear he just doesn’t know his subject. Toughening gun control in NZ is basically a hiding to nothing, both in policy and in symbolic terms. It’s pointless for three main reasons:

  1. We already have pretty sane firearm laws and gun culture which regulate legitimate gun owners, and constrain the sorts of weapons most useful to criminals;
  2. As a country, we own a lot of guns, and they’re important to our way of life and identity, and this importance is the subject of bipartisan political consensus;
  3. We have very low rates of gun-related crime already, and any regulation which would be effective would be very costly, both in financial and political terms.

Just to preface this: I own a hunting rifle, and as a bit of a propaganda geek I’ve paid close attention to gun control as a matter of symbolic politics (alongside abortion, it’s a leading “touchstone” rhetorical issue in US domestic politics). I’ve been watching the way NZ is beginning to develop a (rather amateurish, but effective enough to not be laughable) US-modeled gun-ownership lobby with interest as well. But I’m not one of those “don’t tread on me” gun nuts who thinks bringing a loaded assault rifle to a town hall meeting is a core part of the democratic process. Owning a firearm is useful, but it’s not an absolute right — rather one which must be weighed against other consequences, including those which stem from arming communities. But I object to knee-jerk policy proposals which misoverestimate the problem, won’t solve it in any case, and will come at considerable cost.

What problem?
The most significant objection I have to Tim’s analysis is that he assumes gun crime is a serious enough problem to warrant harsh regulatory consideration; and seems to think that tackling it like the government has “tackled” knife crime is a sensible approach. I reckon both are suspect assumptions.

According to a UN survey from 2000 (the most recent I can easily access), 13% of our homicides (including attempts) were committed with a firearm, at an annual rate of 0.18 per hundred thousand population. That is a rate slightly higher than the UK (0.12 per hundred thousand, with much more strict firearm laws); just over half the rate of Australia (0.31, also with much more strict firearm laws, including a hugely expensive buyback programme undertaken in 1996 with the intention of solving the problem). I don’t think things have changed all that much; in 2009, the year of Jan Molenaar, the figure was 15% of our recorded murders (incl. attempts). You can use the Statistics NZ tools to get data here. You can also compare a bunch of countries’ rates here, but be sure to read the disclaimer. The bottom line is that we have extremely low gun crime rates by world standards, especially given that we have very high gun ownership rates. By far the highest proportion of gun-related deaths in NZ are suicides — I don’t have the numbers to hand but I recall it being above 70%. That’s a consideration, since suicides are usually committed with weapons of opportunity, and a firearm is particularly effective. But this is not the argument being made.

Knives are a much more serious problem, accounting for about twice as many homicides in NZ, and “other weapons” and “manual” which I assume includes unarmed homicides are also generally more common than firearm murders. The government has seen fit to “crack down” on knife crime by trying to prevent youths’ access to knives at the retail level using a voluntary code of practice. This is pure security theatre. Everyone credible knows it won’t make a blind bit of difference because kids don’t go and buy a knife from a shop, they just take one from the kitchen drawer or the toolbox in the garage. Firearms are already much more heavily regulated than this, and as a consequence people wanting one but who lack a license don’t roll into Hunting & Fishing and buy one — they get them illegally because we have no idea how many there are or who owns them (more on this later). So the comparison between guns and knives, while tempting, is bogus. Knife crime is much more serious than firearm crime, much less-heavily regulated, and the trivial additional regulation proposed won’t change anything — but it also won’t cost anything.

What guns?
Part of the reason gun crime is such a minor problem in NZ is due to our history and culture with guns, and in particular the fact that “personal defence” has never been a justification for firearm ownership. Tim also gets this wrong: citing “personal defence” as a reason for needing a firearms license will mean you get denied one, especially if you’re trying to apply for a restricted weapons license (which is the example he uses).

Excluding the post-settlement period, firearms in NZ have generally been conceptualised in law and culture as tools rather than weapons — for hunting, sport shooting, or the defence of the realm. Most in existence today are .22 calibre rabbit guns, or bolt-action ex-infantry rifles from the first and second world wars, passed down from father to son, or modern firearms based on near-identical designs, or shotguns designed for gamebird hunting. Partly due to length, partly due to action design and calibre, these are pretty useless for self-defence except for the appearance of threat and as clubs. By the same token, they are far from ideal for offensive use. Part of the reason criminals are rarely armed with firearms is because they are nearly impossible to conceal (which makes carrying or using them a riskier proposition than, say, a knife), and if sawn off below the regulation length of 30 inches, they are still not very convenient, and give police instant cause for book-throwing if discovered.

There are relatively few pistols or assault rifles in NZ, and those which are owned are very tightly controlled, with extremely high standards required of the owners. The NZ Police apparently operate a “sinking lid” policy on restricted weapons: to gain permission to import or produce one, you need to destroy another. This has driven the market price of such weapons through the roof, putting them out of the reach even of many legitimate collectors; although it must be said that the distinction between a “military-style” semi-auto and any other semi-auto is largely (not entirely) cosmetic, and one is no less deadly than the other. As the rather grim saying goes, the seven-round magazine restriction on an ordinary semi-auto centrefire rifle just means that if you want to kill more than eight people, you’ll need to reload.

Firearm licenses, especially those for restricted weapons like military-style semi-automatics and pistols, are issued at the discretion of an Arms Officer on the basis of the applicant being of “fit and proper” character. The threat of losing the license acts as a firm constraint on legitimate gun owners’ behaviour, with most hunters, collectors, etc. living in fear of having their license revoked. This constraint comes into force, for example, when deciding whether to keep a firearm for self-defence purposes in a country where most potential assailants, burglars, etc. are not themselves armed: if you happen to use it as such, you must then explain to your arms officer how come you had it handy, rather than locked up in its safe, with the bolt and ammunition separated. Most people comply to avoid this inconvenience, and because they know that the chances of a family member actually meeting a life-or-death situation are much higher with a loaded firearm lying around than otherwise.

In general (and again, I don’t have the figures to hand) the vast majority of gun crime in NZ is committed by people without a legal right to own or use a firearm in the first place (being not “fit and proper”). Jan Molenaar was just such a person, so using him as an exemplar of all that is wrong with the system is a bit misleading. It’s certainly an indictment on police procedure following the last shake-up of gun laws. Probably the biggest failure in our gun licensing regime is the lack of a registration system for specific firearms. It’s expensive, time-consuming and bureaucratic but would have been of some use had it been implemented when suggested by the Thorp report, even if just to draw a clear demarcation line between compliant and non-compliant owners. I think that horse has bolted now.

As for the matter of private internet sales of arms and ammunition — Tim clearly hasn’t used Trade Me for this purpose. It’s considerably more robust than any comparable method other than a brick-and-mortar shop (and many B&M shops use the same methods to sell nationwide). Anyone can view restricted auctions, but to bid or ask a question you need to enter your firearm license number. Repeated failure to do so (or entering made-up numbers) gets you blacklisted. If buying otherwise than by a face-to-face meeting, you are required to complete a form designated by the Police for this very purpose, and have it counter-signed by your local Arms Officer, who sights your license. The first step (needing to enter your number) prevents anyone without access to a license even bidding or making contact with a seller. This is probably the most effective safety mechanism in the system.

Sleeping Dogs
These are policy and cultural reasons which explain why trying to crack down on gun ownership in NZ is likely to be pointless. But Tim’s post was largely about the political aspects of the issue: the tension between the imperative to be Tough On Crime and the danger of getting tarred with the Nanny State brush. In symbolic terms, I reckon gun control is a loser for both of the major parties because, unlike the knife measure which is empty theatre, any meaningful changes to the gun ownership regime will come at a considerable costs. One important consideration with this is that in NZ (and Australia), unlike in the USA, gun control is seen as a matter of bipartisan consensus, with both National and Labour generally occupying the middle ground (and ACT and the Greens taking up the flanks). This means there’s little or no partisan advantage to be gained by either side.

The first of these costs is purely financial. A registration, licensing audit, inspection-reclassification or buyback scheme to remove firearms (or certain firearms) from circulation (or from the hands of those not “fit and proper”) is hugely expensive. The Australian Federal Government raised a special tax for the purpose and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its buyback scheme, and even given the dramatic reduction in gun crime rates which resulted, it was generally seen to be wide-open for rorting. In New Zealand, with a much lower baseline level of gun crime, much less money and much more pressing law and order policy issues, this simply wouldn’t fly. Quite apart from the money, the drain on already-stretched police time would make a mockery of the government’s pledge to deliver resources to the front lines and away from the “bureaucrats”. And for all of that, it would still predominantly capture guns possessed by licensed owners: the “good guys” who, of all people, should retain their gun-owning privileges.

The second, and probably weightier cost is about the NZ identity. As I’ve argued before, wild places matter to us in identity terms. While most New Zealanders don’t own firearms, and never will, many more than the 250,000 who do like to think of themselves as potential outdoorsfolk who might go and shoot a possum and do their bit to save the rata. I don’t want to overstate this, though. Gun owners and hunters are viewed with considerable ambivalence by the general public, and with some cause. The gun lobby doesn’t do itself or the more reasonable branches of the sporting community any favours, and to a large extent they’re thought of in similar terms to Jan Molenaar and the various flavours of SHTF nutters.

But Nanny State also comes into this. Tim suggests that Labour couldn’t afford to do this for fear of strengthening the narrative established by the last term of the Clark government (I agree), but that National might just be able to get away with it. I disagree. Half of National’s support base are farmers or rural/semi-rural men of above-average income who are generally law-abiding and consider themselves responsible citizens in partnership with the authorities — of the view that the government “works for us”, rather than the view that the government is an agent of their oppression. (There are exceptions to this last, but mostly they vote for ACT and are thus irrelevant to this calculus.) This is almost exactly the same demographic which wants to be able to take care of his own rabbit problem and hunkers down in a cold maimai before dawn on the first weekend of winter for a laugh, and they greatly value the illusion that doing so is an inalienable right akin to that laid down by the Second Amendment. They tolerate (often with considerable reluctance) the existing licensing regime partly as a pragmatic solution to the social problem of crime, and partly because it accords them the status of being officially deemed “fit and proper”. But they will not tolerate further incursions on these privileges, and it is this demographic whom the gun lobby, with its US-imported “armed society is a polite society” rhetoric, is targeting using the present hysteria about violent crime as a springboard. These are the guys who already feel under threat from policies like the ETS, which prevents them from buying the V8, forcing them to settle for the V6.

This demographic might be the sort of people who could be persuaded to support tighter restrictions if there were a strong crime-reduction case to be made for it. But since there’s so little to gain, and since the existing regime is already at the margins of what is acceptable, National rouses these sleeping dogs and permits their radicalisation at its peril.

L

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