Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

Gilmore’s ghosts

datePosted on 10:36, May 11th, 2013 by Lew

I disagree with Pablo’s post about media treatment of the Aaron Gilmore saga — but I only disagree a little. In my view the Gilmore case is “stuff that really matters”, but I do agree with Pablo that most of the coverage of it isn’t getting to the “stuff that really matters” elements of the case nearly well enough, and that it is displacing coverage of more crucial issues from the agenda. All the stories Pablo mentions are worthy of much more, and more in-depth reporting than they have received. Two other points Pablo makes are particularly valuable — that “blood in the water is not akin to developing real critiques of the way power is exercised”, and that “the problem of Gilmore’s unwillingness to resign stems not from MMP but from political party charters regarding their lists in an MMP environment.”

The Gilmore story is important, as are those others — but the coverage is so individuated to him that it makes the issues seem trivial, because ultimately, if you reduce the story to that of a drunken backbencher, it is. At the heart of the Gilmore saga is the abuse of power, and the problem is that the coverage is about Aaron Gilmore’s attempted abuse of his own power, not about a culture within the National Party and the government where the abuse of power is not merely acceptable, but routine and expected.

The deep questions — how such a megalomaniac got into an electable position on a party list; who, having been apprised of these born-to-rule tendencies after previous incidents of this sort, approved his position; and the implications of this for the health of our democracy — these are important questions. They haven’t really been asked, or answered, though Matthew Hooton, of all people, had a go at it early on.

The John Key National-led government has a lot of form for bad and self-serving appointments, and for the abuse of power. This has presented opportunities for the opposition to frame them as serial cronyists, which they haven’t been able to take. (I wrote a couple of things about this in the first term — it’s not new). And it’s still going: to hear locals tell it, how Gerry Brownlee and CERA are treating Eastern Christchurch isn’t all that different in its principles to how Aaron Gilmore treats waiters and public servants. (The difference is that they have real power.) Recent appointments on the basis of loyalty or malleability at the expense of quality or expertise include Catherine Isaac to implement charter schools, Ian Fletcher as head of the GCSB and Dame Susan Devoy as race relations commissioner.

This is a government which has been particularly unconcerned with even the appearance of due process, and this should be acknowledged in every story on this topic. There’s no credible argument they hadn’t done due diligence on Aaron Gilmore — he was already in Parliament once. Why do they appoint people like this, and why do they get away with it?

The hard truth is that political parties will overlook an awful lot if there’s a financial or electoral advantage to doing so, just as corporations will. Militaries will overlook almost literally anything, up to and including the mass murder of civilians. This is true of the “nice” guys as well as the nasty ones — the Obama administration’s continuing support of Guantanamo Bay and its increasing use of UAVs are two clear examples of this. Apple products are manufactured by the notoriously exploitative Foxconn (Apple is far from alone in this, but we’re supposed to think Apple is somehow better than others). For a recent local example, see the Labour Party’s dogged defence of Taito Phillip Field, whose abuse of vulnerable workers cut directly against everything a Labour party ought to stand for. There are many more.

The fundamental reason this sort of behaviour is endemic is that we — as voters, or in the corporate case, as consumers — reward it with our votes, or our wallets, or both. Parties and companies that eschew these methods tend to lose to those who accept them as an ethical cost of doing business because while we are happy to get outraged, when the chips are really down, we don’t actually care that much about this sort of thing. It doesn’t really change our behaviour.

The danger is that people start caring, and more importantly, start remembering, and changing their behaviour. If the Aaron Gilmore affair haunts the National party — and the other parties — such that they see a strong downside risk to appointing cronies, selecting megalomaniacs for their lists, and generally swaggering around as if they own the place, we’ll all be better off. If parties are forced to accept responsibility for their bad decisions, and as a consequence to select better people and implement better systems of accountability and conduct, cultures of power-abuse will abate. Incidentally, this is why I don’t favour a rule that allows parties to eject rogue MPs from Parliament* — the Nats bought Aaron Gilmore, they own him. We should judge the entire party by his actions.

But for this sort of change to occur, we need media coverage to develop those real critiques of the exercise of power, rather than critiques of an obnoxious individual who is ultimately just a product of larger cultural systems. That would make this sort of wall-to-wall coverage worthwhile.

L

* Though I still believe any credible political leader should be resourceful enough to find ways to persuade rogue MPs to resign.

Framing marriage equality to win

datePosted on 07:00, August 31st, 2012 by Lew

On Wednesday night Parliament voted 2:1 in favour of marriage equality, as defined by Louisa Wall’s Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, which would permit two people of the same sex to marry. I haven’t been involved in any of the organised aspects of this movement, but I have watched it closely and lent some ad-hoc support to it. Here are some observations on some of the symbolic and framing issues in the campaign for marriage equality, and some discussion of why, and how, it was successful.

Unity and commitment
This campaign had two features that many do not. First, its proponents worked to find common cause with their erstwhile political opponents. This iteration of the debate was sparked by Barack Obama’s “coming out” a few months ago (I wrote about this here.) It has been a bipartisan project; groups and people from across the spectrum worked together. As many National MPs voted for the bill as did Labour MPs (30 each), splitting the National caucus almost in half. The United Future, ACT, māori Party and Mana MPs also voted for the bill. That is a diverse ideological range.

Second, they committed to really making the case, even though they believed it to be self-evident. Too many many good causes fail because, believing them to be oviously right, their originators fail to organise and articulate their “rightness”. This was not so with marriage equality. They employed a broad range of complementary strategies to appeal to different demographics and constituencies. The campaign spoke to queer people, obviously, but it also spoke to straight people; to the families and friends of those who might benefit from it. It spoke to urban liberals and rural conservatives and Māori and Pasifika and other groups. It spoke to atheists, but it did not generally alienate people of faith. It spoke to peoples’ heads, and to their hearts.

These themes — unity and commitment — are central to marriage, and they were central to this campaign for marriage equality.

Naming rights
One of the great battlegrounds in the Culture Wars is over names, and marriage equality won this hands down. This framing was not the incumbent: early battles were waged for “marriage equality” to supplant “gay marriage”/”same-sex marriage” as the preferred term, and it was successful. One example of this was by Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson, who appeared on the TV show Back Benches and suggested the change in terminology, insisting that “I didn’t just do gay parking or have gay dinner”.* This groundwork was laid long ago — there’s a substantial discourse about this piece of terminology, and all Robertson and others did was articulate it effectively. But that was important to do.

“Marriage equality” frames the cause as being about non-discrimination, a universal civil right nominally guaranteed in law and accepted (again, nominally) by a vast majority of people. It’s also an emotively-neutral term, which in this case worked to exclude stereotypically negative or controversial words — words like “gay” and “(same)-sex” — from the frame. These terms may not be generally offensive, but they do retain some valence as insults and evoke an “ick” factor in some people. Largely for this reason, opponents of marriage equality continue to use “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” almost exclusively. (In other contexts these terms, and stronger terms, were used within the campaign to shock or challenge, or were owned & celebrated — I certainly am not suggesting that such terminology be erased from the discourse.)

Note that there’s no discussion of “civil union” as a frame here. This was rejected outright by proponents of marriage equality as being a half-measure, a technocratic institution, and simply not an equal form of marriage.

Hearts and minds
“Marriage equality” is a strong intellectual and symbolic frame with some emotional undertones. Its intellectualism played a key role: it provided a rights-based analysis of the issues, and that rights-based analysis, in turn, provided a platform for a broader, less threatening set of frames.

The rights-based analysis on its own would probably not have won this battle. Intellectual arguments rarely win on their own, particularly when the issues are emotionally-bounded and tied into deep non-intellectual sentiments of culture, history, identity, family, faith and the role of the state, as marriage is. But an emotionally-oriented argument would probably have lacked the necessary rigour to succeed, as well, since the reasoning that marriage ought to be extended to all couples is not self-evident. The “marriage equality” frame appealed strongly to people who were willing and able to articulate the rights-based analysis, to coordinate and disseminate it, and to establish it in the public consciousness. They did so forcefully, with flair and humour, they scored the points and won the policy battle.

This activist community, who mobilised in the social and mainstream media, on the streets and outside the electorate offices, were not themselves the target audience — there aren’t enough of them and they are not widely-enough distributed to strongly influence politicians’ sense of electoral self-preservation. But these actions provided cover for the less-intellectual, but ultimately more emotionally resonant frames — especially “legalise love” — to thrive, and to reach the wider non-activist community and make them care.

“Legalise love” framed marriage equality as being about the recognition of already-existing reality, of acceptance, and diversity, and contemporary family values. Whereas “marriage equality” made a case for what was just, “legalise love” made a case for what was right. Like the best Australian Greens campaign ad the Australian Greens never made, it asked people to think of marriage as being “about love, not laws”; it evoked peoples’ experience of the gay people in their lives — their parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues — and asked people to identify with gay couples, not in terms of their practices in the bedroom or their sense of fashion, but in terms of the quality of their love. It asked people to consider how hard it would be for their own relationships to have been declared verboten by a state and society that just didn’t get it. These are deep, emotional arguments that strike people in ways that an intellectual policy debate, no matter how clever, cannot.

Another strength of “legalise love” was its breadth. Whereas the intellectual “marriage equality” arguments were focused and direct, arguments about love and the quality of relationships touched on more expansive religious and moral themes. Importantly, the cause was framed as being integral to conventional morality, not a subversion of it, and as modern “love thy neighbour”, “live and let live” Christianity in practice, the bloviations of a handful of self-appointed conservative demagogues notwithstanding. Marriage equality was not framed as a challenge to family values, but as a manifestation of family values; to paraphrase a number of politicians, including London’s Conservative mayor Boris Johnson: marriage is great, let’s have as many as possible. David Farrar made this case well, here.

Double-framing a cause like this — running complementary intellectual and emotional arguments in parallel — is quite hard to do without getting your narratives mixed up and turning incoherent, and too often the weakest aspects of either frame can be exploited by an opponent. But if you can pull it off, it really works. It worked for Obama in 2008 (“hope” and “change”), and it worked in this case. Where the cause came under attack from rational arguments (admittedly this was rare), rational arguments were able to be deployed in defence, and when it came under attack from moral and emotional arguments, those were available as well.

But while the intellectual arguments were effective at laying the groundwork, in my view it was these emotional and moral themes, rather than the logical, rational arguments that underpinned them, that did the heavy lifting of persuasion, of shifting peoples’ consciences, not just their brains. The diverse range of arguments and appeals permitted the campaign to reach a wide demographic range, to reach into faith communities and to appeal to people outside the activist clique. Most importantly, this reach made clear to the MPs whose job it was to vote on the matter that they could, but also that they should vote in favour.

Not done yet
I have used the past tense throughout this as my reference has really only been the campaign so far, but it cannot be emphasised enough that the battle is not won. An unknown but significant number of MPs have voted for marriage equality to go to select committee for further public discussion, but have made no guarantees to support the bill in future. As Jane Clifton argues, there is a coterie of socially-conservative MPs who saw which way the vote was going to go and decided to be on the right side of history as “both a tactful and a time-buying” strategy. There will be attempts to derail this cause, to minimise and distract from it, to dilute and to neuter it. The first of these may have already emerged: Whanganui MP Chester Borrows, perhaps seeking to reprise his role as the great diplomat who proposed the “sensible” compromise position on the Section 59 child discipline repeal, is said to have proposed a compromise position on marriage equality.**

New Zealand’s Parliament passed marriage equality legislation through its first reading, and the lower house of the Tasmanian legislature is set to pass its own. I have not followed that campaign closely, but from what I have seen, many of its framing and symbolic characteristics are similar to those observed here. It is a policy whose time has come, and this is a winning strategy to enact it. Marriage equality holds the high ground; now we must retain it.

L

* Not 100% sure about the phrasing of this, and since TVNZ removed old TVNZ7 episodes from their on demand site, the video is no longer available to check. I’va amended this to match Grant’s recollection. Another twitter user, Jessica Williams points out that it was originally American comedian Liz Feldman.
** I missed this announcement and have been unable to find any detail on Borrows’ proposed compromise but I understand it was announced on Wednesday — if you have details, I would appreciate hearing them.

Today the President of the United States of America came out (if that’s the right term) in support of gay marriage. Hours later, The leader of the New Zealand Labour party did likewise. The responses they got could hardly have been more different. Obama’s statement was greeted with a worldwide ripple of excitement; Shearer’s with a localised wave of criticism. Aside from the obvious difference in scale, we can make some sense of the difference in valence by looking at two main factors: the content of their respective messages in political context; and the media and moment in which they were made.

Substance and political context

Allowing for the differences in political context, Obama’s and Shearer’s statements were reasonably similar. Both expressed support for gay marriage in principle, with reservations about implementation. In Obama’s case, the reservations were constitutional. The President can’t unilaterally pass an act permitting gay marriage; it has to go through two federal houses and most aspects of marriage are still, ultimately, determined by the states. Obama’s statement was symbolic and aspirational. First of all, it was a means of defining who he is, politically — a rebuttal of suggestions that he is timid or not liberal enough, and a means of illustrating a sharp distinction between his administration and the caricatured culture-war conservatism of his Republican opponents. It was also an opportunity to reinvigorate the American political left. David Frum said it well:

The statement changes everything because it galvanizes flagging liberal enthusiasm for this president—while subtly corroding even further the Republican hold on the next generation of voters.

(You should read Frum’s whole piece, it’s short and articulates clearly why this was a strategic coup.)

Shearer’s statement was, if anything, less equivocal than Obama’s; he merely said that he “would like to see the detail of any legislation before giving formal support”. In purely rational terms, that’s totally reasonable; nobody signs a blank political cheque. Much of the criticism has centred on the assumption that any such law would be introduced by Labour, so Shearer would not only get to see it but would get to vet it before declaring support. This isn’t really so; Labour are in opposition, and barring extreme exigencies they will be for at least 2.5 years to come. Given the Greens’ long-standing commitment to gay marriage and remarkable success in the member’s ballot, there’s a better-than-even chance that a hypothetical same-sex marriage bill drawn at random would be theirs.* There are plenty of potential pitfalls in such a bill, if badly drafted, and it is reasonable to hold reservations.

Other criticism of Shearer has centred on the argument that Obama’s political context is much more hostile to gay marriage, and his declaring in favour of it constitutes a genuine act of political bravery, while it’s a rather less contentious issue here. Also not entirely fair; of course, that difference in political context exists, but Obama is in power, and (largely due to Republican infighting) in political ascendancy, while Shearer is in opposition and in the doldrums. It is also very unlikely that any gay marriage bill would pass the current NZ Parliament, especially now that social-conservatives like NZ First are back in.

So on the merits, criticism of Shearer for appending this seemingly-innocuous qualifier seems a bit unfair. But there are two better explanations for hostility: first, he misread his medium; and more importantly, he misread the moment.

The medium and the moment

Obama made his statement in a medium and situation that afforded him considerable control over how his message would be transmitted and received, and that enabled him to articulate his position both from a personal perspective and politically. Good Morning America was a sympathetic venue; morning TV is warm and nonconfrontational, on the ABC network even more so than usual. It is not strictly time-controlled and interviewers generally do not play hardball. Its audience is more liberal, more female, and more inclined to respond favourably to expressions of personal warmth and reflection such as this one.

Shearer chose Twitter to make his announcement — the most constrained medium possible, one that permits no contextualisation, no emotional or personal connection. Given his performance to date as leader of the opposition, and the NZ Twitter left’s activist bias, it’s probably also one of the more hostile media open to him. It’s not talkback, but in some ways it’s worse: a lot of people who really want to like you, but are already frustrated and disappointed and are beginning to despair can be a harsher audience than your outright enemies. Twitter also means that you are expected to be spare and to the point, and to only include detail that is significant. By hedging, he signalled that his position was not firm or genuine. The medium is the message, so the inclusion of an obvious redundancy like “need to see the detail” when characters are so limited doesn’t look like understandable prudence, it looks like fuzzy-headed waffly-thinking at best, or political cowardice at worst. David Shearer mistook a platform for slick, aspirational one-liners as the venue for earnest political positioning.

And that leads to the most crucial point of all: Shearer misread the political moment. Obama’s declaration in personal, philosophical terms of his “evolution” from someone who did not support gay marriage to someone who does was a watershed moment, a genuinely epochal event: when the President of the United States of America supports your cause, all of a sudden it looks a lot more like happening. A loud shot was fired in the culture wars; it instantly became global news, and with the news came a wave of liberal euphoria. This was, as Russell Brown noted, the best possible moment to note Labour’s progressive history and rededicate to the goal of marriage equality, but it was not a time for wonkish quibbling about details, or careful delineation of party policy. The moment was one of joy, of celebration, of possibility — of hope and change — and any response had to be congruent with that. Shearer’s wasn’t. The contrast jarred, and made the other, lesser, deficiencies in the message and its presentation more evident.

Substance, context, medium and moment. You can’t really afford to be without any of these, but if you’re trying to catch a wave of public sentiment, you really have to get your moment right.

This is symptomatic of Labour’s ongoing failure to articulate its vision: a lack of mastery of the tools and techniques at their disposal. Shearer’s lack of authenticity and his inability to speak clearly and unequivocally from his own position, that I touched on in my last post on this topic, was depressingly evident in this episode, and it may be that he’s still being tightly managed. A more concerning possibility is that this is the real David Shearer: lacking in virtù, like his predecessor.

But despite everything, I think this was a good experience for Labour — hopefully it has demonstrated to them that sometimes being timid is worse than being silent. If “go hard or go home” is the only lesson they take from today, it will have been worth it.

L

* Hypothetical, because none are in the ballot at present, though I expect that to change soon. Idiot/Savant drafted one some years ago, and it would not be an hour’s work to get it in.

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

Skirting the storm.

datePosted on 07:47, August 31st, 2011 by Pablo

I arrived in Miami just as Hurricane Irene turned northeast, sparing Florida but pounding the Mid- and North Atlantic seaboard. From what I saw of the outer fringe of the storm when it was a category 3 hurricane–5 meter frothing waves, high gusting winds and torrential (sometimes horizontal) rain, the folk up north were lucky that the storm weakened as it hit colder water and made landfall. Not surprisingly, many complained about the mandatory evacuation measures that were put into place, arguing that it was over-kill given the downgrading of Irene to a category 1 storm, even though the flooding and winds that did reach the major population centers clustered along the East Coast caused more than 30 deaths, major damage to property and infrastructure, and prolonged  power outages that affected over 5 million people. Just like those who flocked to the shoreline to see the big surf, it is as if they simply cannot understand the implications of what was originally headed their way. In many ways, this reflects the general state of US politics at the moment.

The current political climate in the US is dominated by the Republican primary campaign. Truth be told, it has all the aspects of a circus side-show, freaks and all. There is Michele Bachmann, she of the “always on high beam” glazed stare and Cold War apocalyptic views with the closet queen husband who claims that he converts homosexuals to heterosexuality through prayer (giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “laying on of hands”). There is Rick Perry, a W. Bush wanna-be Texas governor who does not believe in man-made climate change and endorses creationist interpretations of evolution. There is a black guy with a slave name (Herman Cain) who ran a chain of pizza shops and seems to think this is enough experience to run the country. There is the evergreen Ron Paul, who looks better over time in the measure that his party candidates increasingly evidence pre-reconstruction beliefs. There is Newt Gingrich, serial adulterer and engineer of the last government shutdown, pontificating about a return to “constitutional values” ( he must be thinking about the founding father’s penchant for liasions with female slaves). There is millionaire Mitt Romney, once again attempting to recast himself in a right-wing image, this time as a Tea Party supporter. Romney and another candidate, John Huntsmann, are both Mormon former governors of states that in no way reflect the larger society in which they exist (Massachusetts is an unsually liberal state, while Utah is unusually conservative). Behind this motley suit-clad crew are the ranters and ravers, led by Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, who want to bomb Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Pakistan and any other place the communist-socialist, islamofascist, feminazi, ecoterrorist gay-lesbian secular humanist alliance is taking hold.

The GOP is a party now governed by its rump, in the guise of the Christian fundamentalists and Tea Party anti-government activists (who in spite of their claimed belief in self-reliance are strangely silent on the issue of accepting federal aid to the hurricane disaster zones, perhaps because Bachmann and televangalist Pat Robertson both claimed that the hurricane and the earthquake that preceded it on the East Coast were acts of God designed to warn politicians to be fiscally prudent and morally conservative). It is a party that has congressional leaders that openly gloat that their primary objective is to make the Obama administration fail, even if it takes forcing government agency closures as arguments over budgetary matters continue at an impasse (the agreement on the debt ceiling is only a temporary measure). This includes trying to tie federal disaster relief to budget cuts in other areas. It a party that is openly disloyal and disrespectful of the presidency, and which has open champions on conservative media outlets that are equally disrespectful and delusional in their approach to “correcting” the multiple ailments afflicting the country. These people dream of an Ozzie and Harriet la-la land where Negros, Hispanics, Arabs and other non-whites know their place.

The trouble for this crowd of neo-cons, bible-bashing fundies, xenophobes, racists, isolationists, revanchists and neo-imperialists (and yes, there is a bunch of contradictions layered in there) is that their proposed solutions to the US malaise avoid the major issue and in fact will serve to exacerbate it: growing class differentials, both in income and opportunity. In the US today, the top 400 individual income earners control as much of the national wealth as the bottom 60 percent of the population. This is what I have called in the past the “Brasilianisation” of US society, where income inequalities become monumental, except that now Brazil is thriving and growing its middle class by using the type of state-managed macroeconomic policies so reviled by the American Right, to the point that it beginning to look like what the US once was (no insult to Brazil intended).

Yet the Tea Baggers and GOP want to continue tax breaks for the upper ten percent of the population and corporations (some of whom have paid no net tax in the last five years) while drastically reducing public funding for so-called “entitlements” like universal health care, welfare, education and infrastructure development. The new scapegoats, along with the traditional targets of brown-skinned immigrants, are public sector employees, who now are being targeted for layoffs and redundancies at both the state and federal level. A major target are public school teachers, whose pensions are considered to be a major drain on state coffers (in spite of the fact that these employees paid a significant percentage of their salaries into their pension funds).

Behind all of this is open hatred of unions to the point that some GOP candidates want to eliminate them entirely. Bachmann, for example, wants to disestablish the National Labor Relations Board, a non-partisan oversight body established by FDR as part of the New Deal that encourages the right to collective bargaining and union representation in the workplace (but not closed shops). Anti-union governors have emerged in several states (most notably in Florida, Minnesota and Wisconsin) using union-bashing as a populist tool in pursuit of fiscal reform. Given president Obama’s conciliatory and compromising stance vis a vis GOP demands (some have called it a sell-out), cracks in the Democratic support base are starting to show, with the labor movement, Congressional black caucus and Hispanic leaders all denouncing his retreat from the “progressive” (as much as you can be in the US)  policies on which he campaigned. This augers poorly for his re-election chances in 2012, although given the dog-and-pony show that is the GOP candidate list, he remains the default option.

Of course, these same reactionaries want the US to maintain a global military presence (now in more than 80 countries) that can strike at any adversary, real or imagined (recall the invasion of Grenada under a previous Republican president). They fail to understand that keeping a global war machine requires and exceptional level of public funding through taxation, and that the 100+ trillion dollar US public debt is in large measure due to the Bush 43 administration’s deficit-spending pursuit of two wars of occupation (one of necessity, one of choice) that is currently costing 1 million dollars per deployed soldier per day (one only has to think of the logistics lines and cost of equipment to see how these figure tallies up).

Rather than push to withdraw or downscale the US foreign military presence these same folk preach about the need to maintain the US role as global policeman, particularly in light of the re-emergence of China and Russia as strategic rivals along with the threats posed by states such as Iran and other middle powers that fail to adhere to US dictates. They deny that they are imperialists, but in order play the role of world cop the GOP is willing to sacrifice the roots of domestic stability, in the form of an equitable tax base and the robust provision of public goods and services.

This brings up what the GOP and Tea Party extremists cannot see and what their policies will aggravate: class conflict. The US has always been good at deliberately down-playing class conflict in favour of racial tensions, cultural differences and issues of social choice. During times of plenty, say the 15 year period between 1993 and 2008, the underlying class divisions in US society could be more readily submerged by these distractions, making the electorate easily manipulable by the corporate-political elite that benefited the most by the macro-economic policies of the last two decades. But in the last three years, as the same economic elites who plunged the US economy into recession were awarded corporate bail-outs by both the Bush 43 and Obama administrations, millions of “ordinary” Americans have lost their jobs, their homes and their future prospects. Now, rather than providing the federal safety net as a stop-gap against further social dislocation and the unrest that it brings, the GOP is successfully pressuring the federal government to remove key components of the fundamental social contract that has underpinned US society since the 1960s.

The proposed conservative roll back ignores the fact that what got the US out of the Great Depression, the New Deal, was founded on a federal job creation program, and that the Great Society of the 1960s was rooted in the expansion of civil rights tied to equal opportunity access promoted and enforced by the federal government. Instead, the American Right has adopted a “survival of the fittest” approach in no small part because they are the fittest to survive given who their economic benefactors are. The reality is that their proposed remedies are exactly the opposite of what has worked in the past to revitalise the economy and will have negative consequences far in excess of whatever benefit they hope to achieve.

What the GOP, Tea Baggers and the frothing-at-the-mouth media conservatives are blind to is the fact that their policies will accentuate class differences, leading to increasing alienation and dispair amongst those for whom the American Dream no longer exists. One only need to look at the UK riots to understand where such policies lead to, yet the likes of the infamous Koch brothers (billionaires who are funding the Tea Party movement) continue to push for policies that reduce the ability of the federal government to help those at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole.

There is irony in the fact that the Tea Party movement is made up of mostly white middle  and working class people yet advocates tax and fiscal policies that openly favour the rich and corporate interests instead of their own. In fact, the Tea Party movement is backing policy prescriptions that are a thinly veiled attack on the working poor and lower middle classes as much as they are a coddling of the wealthy. But then again, false consciousness is a common feature of declining class fractions confronted with the evolution of society in which they no longe matter, as they seek to cling to a nostalgic version of the past in which they served as the motor force of the economy and culture. They no longer are, and the conservative correctives will ensure that it stays that way.

The bottom line is that like the fools who ignored warnings about the hurricane, the American Right is plunging the country towards its worst nightmare: the day in which class conflict emerges out into the open and cannot be disguised by so-called “culture wars” and the other customary diversions that have been used successfully in the past. When that day comes not only will the discourse of politics be different. So too will be social interaction, which will begin to adopt centrifugal rather than centripetal characteristics as the fabric of society begins to fray.

NB: A note for Lew: you will be interested to know that television advertising in the US increasingly sees the use of military personnel (or actors protraying armed service people) in a variety of huckster roles, from selling donuts to cars to anxiety medicine. Most of the military personnel being potrayed (including female soldiers) are depicted as being from the enlisted ranks, as a common touch with the consuming masses. Since you are the media analysis guru I shall leave it to you to ponder the implications of the military presence in US advertising, but if it is true that advertising reflects more general social preferences, trends and mores, then from my non-expert vantage point it sure looks like the militarisation of public discourse is near complete (which only will make the impending clash of class interests that more alarming).

Notes on democratic fundamentalism

datePosted on 22:48, June 9th, 2011 by Lew

Perhaps I’m reading a bit much into Jordan Carter’s declaration that he’s a libertarian socialist — as he said on the tweets, “it’s just a pun, an oxymoron. Which I found amusing”. So I may be overreacting in the particular case, but if you’ll forgive that, it’s made me look at and consider my own perspective in a way which lends itself well to writing down.

I think Jordan is cherry-picking his definitions; co-opting two existing pieces of fashionable terminology for the sake of provocative pretension. I think what he’s described is really just liberal-social-democracy of the relatively ordinary modern kind — a pretty far cry from anything resembling either libertarianism or socialism in actual history — and I don’t see what’s gained by smacking an ill-fitting label on it. But there’s a fair bit to lose. For a start, by doing so you alienate all those who really do call themselves libertarians and the socialists (though perhaps that’s not a great loss).

Moreover, as a matter of political branding it’s braindead. By applying what is, unjustly or not, heavily loaded and controversial terminology to what is actually a thoroughly mainstream political movement you risk marginalising it. ‘Socialist’ and increasingly ‘libertarian’ are markers of political extremism, at least in the Anglo world. They breed mistrust and fear, and rightly so: you can carry on all you like about how the horrors of 20th Century socialism and communism weren’t worthy of the names, but the fact is those were the names which stuck. They’re beyond reclamation. (I’ve argued this before, and I understand it’s not a line which is popular with wishful socialists, and you’re free to disagree — but I’d prefer not to argue the toss at too much length again; it’s really a sidebar in this post.)

‘Libertarian’, although Ayn Rand hated the term and its baggage, has been similarly redefined from its original usage by her heirs, and the authoritarian-conservatives who are busily colonising that movement (Tea Party, UKIP, ACT etc; collectively I call them ‘liberthoritarians’). Association with that lot is anathema to social democracy and left praxis of any sort. On the other flank you have the link with anarchism, whose symbolic currency among the social mainstream to whom a political vehicle like the Labour party must appeal is little better.

That’s all really just a preamble, though, to the following more important bit of the post, which is about my own rather amorphously-defined political perspective (bearing in mind that this is also a massive topic which I hope do deal with in about a thousand words and a couple of hours). The reason I think it’s daft and a bit pretentious to adopt titles like ‘libertarian socialist’ is that I’m less interested in what people declare to be their philosophy and more interested in the mechanisms they choose to promulgate that philosophy. Being a “socialist” or a “libertarian” or whatever else is one thing, but if your commitment to achieving the aims of your chosen creed is via democracy, that implies a commitment to fulfilling the expressed wishes of your society whether or not they accord with your own. If the electorate really does decides it wants a full-scale neosocialist agenda and votes in a government which will deliver it, a genuinely democratic libertarian movement will not impede the progress of such an agenda except by legitimate legal means; and by the same token, if the electorate seriously votes for the neutering of government and the implementation of a social-Darwinist Nightwatchman State, then a genuinely democratic socialist movement will grudgingly accede to that. The trouble is that many, if not most, libertarian and socialist movements are only democratic movements insofar as democracy is convenient.

Although I think I have previously disclaimed the title, I am essentially a democratic fundamentalist — I consider the commitment to democracy to undergird the rest of a political-philosophical agenda, rather than sitting on top of it. The reasoning is a mix of principled and pragmatic arguments which I’ve also made many times before, mostly derived from uncontroversial old-fashioned liberalism — that people have the right to determine the shape and nature of their society (right or wrong), that the government must answer ultimately to the governed, that there’s no other proven method of ensuring smooth, regular and nonviolent power transfer, and so on. For these reasons I have no truck with non-democratic movements on either side of the aisle; the authoritarian socialists who killed a millions in the last century, or the modern-day liberthoritarians who call for the violent overthrow of legitimate governments with which they happen to disagree, or those who argue that democracy is broken because voters make ‘bad’ choices (with the inference that, for society’s sake, the power to make such choice should be stripped from them).

Such movements don’t hold with democracy; they may tolerate democracy as long as it gives them results they like, but democracy doesn’t work that way. You take the bad with the good, on the understanding that you will have the opportunity to win back the fort and set things to rights again, if you can persuade the electorate that you’re worth supporting. So to merit consideration as a legitimate political movement, this commitment to democracy is a necessity. And to a large extent such a commitment — assuming bona fides can be demonstrated — is sufficient to grant legitimacy. For this reason, as much as I despise the ACT and New Zealand First parties, for instance, I do accept that they have legitimacy inasmuch as they generally conform(ed) to and support(ed) the robust, existing democratic norms of society. Regardless of the policy mix which sits on top of it, I can tolerate a genuinely democratic movement because in a robust democracy, you should only get away with doing what the electorate permits you to do.

Explained this mechanical sort of way it’s a naïve view, but to be useful, notions such of these do need to be considered in light of what lies beneath. Determining whether a given system constitutes a democracy worthy of the name is often non-trivial, particularly at the margins. Even within generally robust democratic systems, there exist distortions and imbalances which warp access to and exercise of power in favour of one group or another. There is even a pretty wide tolerance within which a democratically-elected government with a mandate to do so can fiddle with the levers, creating advantages for itself while not fundamentally rendering the system undemocratic. The authority of democracy is also not ironclad, it does not obtain outside the existing normative moral, ethical and legal frameworks of humanity; if 51% of an electorate decide it’s ok to slaughter all blue-eyed babies, it being democratically certified does not make such a provision legitimate. So in this way what I’m talking about it isn’t really democratic fundamentalism at all — there are sound arguments to be had all down the line about these and other factors, and indeed recognising and addressing the (many) limitations of democracy isn’t something to be shied away from.

The question of ultimate sovereignty also can’t be ignored. The ultimate authority for how a society ought to be configured rests with the people, and if this means that a government, democratically-elected or not, is acting egregiously counter to the electorate’s wishes in ways which democracy can’t fix, stronger medicine must sometimes be applied.

This is the reasoning the Tea Partiers claim when calling for Obama to be overthrown; and that Lindsay Perigo (now shilling for a noted authoritarian who is the parliamentary leader of a noted authoritarian party) appealed when he declared the Clark government illegitimate. But while some legitimate grievances exist(ed) in both cases, those calls were and are vexatious. In reality a stronger standard is needed to maintain the balance between democracy and ultimate sovereignty. Of course, in both cases the calls for insurrection came to nought — they were manifestly idiotic and consequently did not attract support; and moreover, in both cases subsequent democratic elections under the systems that both provocateurs claimed were invidious returned strongly in favour of the opposition parties, utterly disproving the assertion. In the New Zealand case, the incoming government repealed the offending Electoral Finance Act, doubling that proof (and then proceeded to enact something very substantively similar, to very scarce outrage from anyone).

Of course, this principle of the peoples’ sovereignty means the electorate can relinquish its power, vest it permanently or semi-permanently in some other mechanism of power. I’ll get the obvious out of the way now: this is what happened to the Weimar Republic; the existing democratically-legitimate rulers of Germany ceded their authority to Hitler, who enjoyed impunity from democratic censure (and, it must be said, who brilliantly exploited the constitutional arrangements of the republic to engineer the ongoing popular support for his cause and the ineffectuality of his opponents). What happened in the years following 1933 is an example of why a movement’s commitment to robust democracy must be treated as fundamental, but the ultimate recourse to power must remain with the people.

For me what it all really boils down to is the comment usually attributed to Tocqueville, that a democratic society gets the government it deserves. But this is both misattributed and misquoted — it was Joseph de Maistre, and the original quote omits ‘democratic’. The implication is that any society gets the government it deserves. A sham democracy exists because those governed by it do not demand more — more representation, more transparency, more robustness, more accountability. A dictatorship is such because its victims didn’t do enough to prevent one from becoming entrenched, or overthrow it once it had become entrenched. This is a harsh view, and strictly incorrect — there is little the Ukrainian peasantry of the Holomodor could have done to prevent their expurgation as a result of Stalin’s decrees, and nothing they did to deserve such a fate, for instance — but the essence of truth in the quote is generally that, in the final analysis, nobody has a greater responsibility or ability to ensure that their government carries out the wishes of the people it governs than the people themselves.

L

Coming this Fall: the Battle for America’s Soul

datePosted on 09:17, October 20th, 2010 by Lew

Imagine that title in scary-movie-narrator-voice. Via Pascal’s Bookie, a simply magnificent piece of propaganda from Personhood USA.

This two-minute ad is superbly done. It frames Colorado’s 1967 abortion law as the beginning of the end, and Amendment 62 in Colorado, which aims to declare that personhood begins at the moment of fertilisation, as the beginning of the battle to save America. Amendment 62 is up for the vote at the mid-term elections in November.

What we have here is clearly not the work of amateurs, nor of itinerant cranks in trailer parks, as many (including myself) have mocked the Tea Party movement. It draws together all the conventional Tea Party wisdom about what’s wrong with America into powerfully truthy narrative: start with a misappropriated Jefferson quote; follow up with Semitic “men in black robes” who hate truth, justice and the freedom and “legislate from the bench”; portray the fringe radical rump of conservative white folk as a valiant oppressed minority group; intolerant millennial-cult hypervigilance as the American Way; Obamacare as morality and human life being bought and sold as a commodity (oh, the irony!); and most crucially, Obama himself as the Grim Reaper, the lynchpin of it all, with the caption “Then the Angel of Death arrived, and Hell followed with him”. The whole thing is capped with fireworks and the Statue of Liberty, a Daisy-esque girl fading to black and a fist-pumping don’t-tread-on-me baby. And the soundtrack really just speaks for itself.

The whole thing is absolutely barking. In the cold light of day it’s nothing more than a Dan Brown plot. It’s fevered stuff, wound up to eleven to inflame passion and suppress reason. But that’s the whole point: this ad is basically the movie trailer for the upcoming battle for America’s soul, coming soon to a screen near you. Just sit back, let it wash over you, and marvel at what that country has become.

L

Things that scare me

datePosted on 20:35, October 4th, 2010 by Lew

Today I was waiting in my doctor’s waiting room and, as my older daughter played with the water machine, I espied in the hands of a kindly, grandmotherly looking woman, a copy of the July edition of Investigate magazine — the one about how Obama is going to eat everyone’s babies. But also the one with the article about whether North & South got their recent report on vaccination right.

The North & South June edition, which contained the report on vaccination, was also on the magazine table. I’ve read it, and it’s sound investigative journalism about an important topic: how some diseases we thought were dead and buried are enjoying a resurgence because some otherwise sensible people decide not to vaccinate against them. I haven’t read the Investigate article in question, because my life is short enough as it is, and at any rate I refuse to fund Ian Wishart.* But the Investigate editorial position on vaccination — pretty well documented in previous articles which I have read — is just the sort of thing which raises the spectre of doubt in the minds of parents already nervous about having to hold their little treasures down so a nurse can stick a needle in them. Finding such a hysterically anti-science tract as Investigate in a doctor’s surgery bestows upon it a medical legitimacy it does not deserve. There’s a time and a place for this sort of material, but a medical context is not appropriate. It’s like the proverbial smoking doctors whose habits were supported by Big Tobacco in exchange for reassuring their patients that smoking didn’t do them any harm.

The other daughter? At the time, she was in the nurse’s office getting her jabs. I had a word to the nurse about it; she was almost as alarmed as I was and said she’d remove the offending rag. That’s something.

L

* I’m sure this entitles me to a free bout of Wishartian pig-wrestling and not-at-all-veiled implications about the standard of my professional work such as Scott received, but I’ll pass, thanks all the same.

You can’t mess with the messers

datePosted on 17:43, July 2nd, 2010 by Lew

[Note: Idiot/Savant stole my initial title for this post -- word for word! -- forcing me to get more creative. The definitive version is here. Not sure about the video, though.]

Education minister Anne Tolley has tacitly threatened to go nuclear on primary principals who refuse to comply with National Standards directives, or who speak out against them. In a speech to the Principals’ Federation conference in Queenstown today, she said:

It’s much quicker [contacting me with concerns] and you will get results, rather than going to the media and making threats, which is just politicking, and achieves little.
And while we’re on that subject, you are pretty unique among public servants who can speak freely in the media. May I remind you that I made representations to make sure that continues.
However – no public servants have ever been granted the privilege of picking and choosing which Government laws they choose to administer. Lawyers, accountants and all the other professionals working in Ministries can offer opinions. But it’s the Government that makes policy decisions.

Now, there’s an implication here that the minister might retract her “representations” to make sure that the rights of teachers to speak freely are preserved, but there’s nothing to this. Any move to constrain teachers’ views or their expression would immediately draw furious and justified denunciations of the government for politicising and propagandising the education system, such as no liberal political movement could withstand.

In the final analysis she’s 100% correct about the government setting policy and the sector implementing it. By way of remedy, the ministry can take over the running of a school which fails to implement education policies adequately, and Trevor Mallard suggests the ERO has already started heavying truculent schools to set an example to others.

But it is an empty threat. For one thing, you can’t play the bossy schoolmarm with schoolteachers and principals — they wrote the book on it, and know all the tricks of the game, having put up with them from students for their entire professional lives. Not to mention that, as career educators they have far more invested in the quality of their education system than a minister who’s only been in the job two years and could be gone in the next cabinet reshuffle.

More crucially, though, the minister is up against old-fashioned collective action: a heavily unionised workforce which knows it is indispensable and irreplaceable. So what happens if it’s not just one school? What happens if it’s a dozen, or a hundred, or almost all the primary schools in the greater Auckland area, or the schools of two National heartland electorate regions at either end of the country, or as much as 94% of the sector overall?

Later in the speech, Tolley said:

I’ll say it again – we are going to get this right, for the students, and for their parents.

But when push comes to shove, National Standards simply cannot be implemented by fiat. Teachers, directed by principals, are those who must undertake the implementation of the policy. While I cite them reluctantly because I don’t entirely agree, it’s somewhat like what the Randians are saying about Obama’s response to the BP oil spill: no amount of threat or bluster can provide any additional incentive to progress a cleanup whose failure or undue delay will spell a certain end to the company. No matter how you slice it, there are not enough Ministry of Education staff members, non-unionised part-time relievers or teachers who are happy with National Standards as proposed to do the complex and important work of assessing all the students who need to be assessed; cataloguing, moderating and communicating those assessments to parents and the ministry in a coherent manner. This is ignoring the fact that you can’t simply parachute a compliant teacher or apparatchik into an unfamiliar classroom and have them do it with any legitimacy. The teachers who stand up in front of that class of kids day-in and day-out are the only ones who can properly assess them, and they know it.

The sector also knows it’s in the right. Educators’ opposition to National Standards is neither ideological nor capricious, and they have have consistently levelled principled and pragmatic arguments against only the proposed implementation of the policy, backed by the best local and international experts in the field. They support assessment standards in principle, and have repeatedly suggested reasonable alternatives to the proposed implementation. The problem isn’t with their willingness to work with the minister; it’s that the minister isn’t interested in working with the sector.

So ultimately one of two things will happen: one side or the other will compromise sufficiently for the issue to progress, or the minister will be faced either with backing down in abject failure or sacking a significant proportion of the education workforce, with the consequent failure of the policy by default, not to mention a massive outcry from parents who’re forced to take time off work because their kids can’t go to school (and from their bosses, and bank managers, and almost everyone else). There’s no better way to bring the country to its knees.

Tangentially, this situation illustrates a branding risk I’ve been meaning to post on for a while: if you name a policy initiative after your party or some other core bit of your identity, you had better be damned sure you can get it through to full implementation without a hitch, lest its failure tarnish your good brand. Quite apart from any concerns with the policy, his National government has failed to do so with its National Standards. Not only is the policy programme and its attempted implementation against the wishes of the only people who can implement it a catastrophic mistake, but its naming looks like a spectacular failure as well. If it’s not pulled out of the fire soon, in future, all National’s political enemies will have to do to score a point is recount some of the more embarrassing events of this episode and say “these are National’s Standards”. It’s already happening — I’ve seen that very sentence used at Red Alert, for instance, regarding something unrelated to education reform. Instant conversion of a wonkish policy criticism to a gut-level identity observation which will resonate with the folk who just wanted their kids to go to school, those who wanted nothing more than to teach them as best they could, and ultimately the kids themselves. For this reason, my instinct is that the long-term damage to National’s brand and electability on this matter will become too high a price to pay for the perceived win over the sector, and those with a more strategic view of National’s situation will require that the wound be cauterised. Although it’s a backdown, over the long term this will be good for the party. More importantly, it will be good for the country.

L

Life mimicking art: ask and tell

datePosted on 12:21, February 3rd, 2010 by Lew

Following President Obama’s undertaking in the State of the Union address, Admiral Michael Mullen (Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Robert Gates (US Secretary of Defense) have recommended an end to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy preventing homosexuals from openly serving in the US military, in testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee. While the arguments are not quite the same, the general position and line of rhetoric (“the troops will get over it”) was memorably presented a decade ago in The West Wing:

All that having been said, it’s neither the Chairman nor the Secretary nor the President’s call. It’s for Congress to decide, and at present the bill is thirtyish votes shy of passing. But if it is done, this will be a genie of sorts; once out of the bottle, no force will put it back in. If the armed forces are even faintly representative of wider society, there will be thousands — tens of thousands, even — of demonstrably capable, patriotic, decorated soldiers, including perhaps some in the very highest ranks of the service who, while perhaps not having a coming-out parade, will nevertheless feel gradually more free to leave the closet. A future administration will court political and military ruin if it embarks on a witchhunt to purge them all from the nation’s ranks, particularly given the extensive nature of the USA’s current military deployments.

Update: Thanks to Hugh and Pablo (in comments) for correcting me on whose “call” it is.

L

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