Posts Tagged ‘Crony capitalism’

Unmix these metaphors

datePosted on 22:57, February 23rd, 2010 by Lew

ace_of_spades

In the last couple of weeks the government’s pistons have started pumping. After a year’s worth of blue-boiler-suited (non-unionised) engineers making sure the sleek machine is primed and fuelled and oiled and ready for action, the engine has roared into life and is beginning to blow out a cloud of smoke in preparation for a screaming burnout. As it proceeds, the party has dealt its Labour opposition a decent hand of cards; you could say they’ve built a house of them, which the mighty engine is in danger of knocking down. After campaigning on a platform of returning integrity and effectiveness to the Beehive, the public are beginning to get an inkling that the emperor may lack a couple of vital articles of clothing.

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Returning to cards: the strongest card is the decision to mine the conservation estate, announced last year. Classic crony capitalism is shaping up to be the trump suit. The other cards: Hide‘s junket timed to coincide with a wedding; Harawira‘s trivial but more spectacularly mismanaged junket; Key‘s and McCully‘s mining shares; revelations that Brownlee lied about being lobbied by mining interests which would stand to benefit from his actions as a minister; attacks against Radio NZ which benefit Joyce‘s former business partners; attacks against ACC which benefit the insurance industry to which the party has well-known ties; and ministers Heatley, Brownlee and Groser who were pinged pinching from the public purse for their own private pleasure.

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Mining the conservation estate is the keystone of all this, the central peg on which the whole thing hangs — because the allegations cannot be denied outright, only explained. Particularly in the cases of Key and McCully’s shares, the value of the conflict of interest is irrelevant. It probably should be relevant, but it isn’t really: either there is a conflict of interest, or there isn’t. While there would be (much) more hay to be made from a large shareholding, that isn’t necessary to plant the seed of doubt in the rich loam of the electorate’s and the media establishment’s collective consciousness.

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Likewise the other issues: trivial, but they ring true and all riff on the same themes. Hide’s transgression was much more significant in actual material terms than was Harawira’s, but Harawira was punished much more harshly because he failed to recognise the symbolic matter in play: both required abject, cringing apologies. Key’s “sloppy” uranium shares, which he was “too busy running the country” to recall owning is reminiscent of John McCain‘s failure to remember how many houses he owned, for which he was rightly crucified by a country staring down the barrel of an economic crisis which would cost many people their only home. The smiling visages of the three ministers on the front page of the Dominion Post: the Minister of Economic Development who can’t be trusted with a credit card; the Fisheries Minister who likes to splash out on feeds of kaimoana for his mates and party hangers-on; the Minister for Climate Change Negotiations wining and dining the former National minister who was an integral part of the Copenhagen negotiation, and now heads the environmental branch of the OECD apparatus. And so on. These are symbolic issues, not matters of real actual wrongdoing. But the government can’t just dismiss them outright, it needs to argue the merits, and by the time you have to argue the merits on this kind of thing, you’ve probably already lost the symbolic battle. This sort of behaviour passes the public’s sniff-test about how they think about the National Muldoon gave us. And it fits the narrative of the modern Key/Brash-era Nats as wheeler-dealers, well-heeled fat-cats with a finger in every pie, feathering the nest for their secretive plutocrat mates. It brings to mind an iceberg, with the tiny, trivial transgressions peeking above a glassy surface which hides the monstrous mass below.

iceberg

The job of the opposition is to tie all this into a coherent story which people can understand and feel in their guts: a myth that trips off the tongue at the pub or in the line at the football, in the front seat of a taxi, sitting on the bus, standing around the water-cooler or in the smoko room — in as many variations as there are poets of the NZ electorate.

This post cannot end without a mention of the good work the folks at The Standard — particularly Eddie — have done toward assembling the blocks for this narrative pyramid. I am often critical of them, and their tendency toward partisan hackery frustrates me, but they do a lot of good work, and it shouldn’t go unrecognised. They’ve covered all the main aspects listed here, but they can only go part of the way: now is for the opposition parties and their allies to lurch into action. All the cards have not yet been dealt; the ace of spades may yet be seen. Although the raw material is all there, it won’t be easy writing this story — just ask Lockwood Smith, who only by dogged repetition and worrying away at the Taito Phillip Field bone managed to raise the electorate and media’s awareness of that actual and manifest case of political corruption. But this is the opposition’s job, and if they can untangle the metaphors and lay them out for people in simple, appealing, resonant terms, they will gain some traction. Then perhaps, they too will begin to belch smoke and fire, and roar down the road to victory.

L

A return to “our foreign policy is trade”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L

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