Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

Its all Greek to me.

datePosted on 22:49, May 3rd, 2010 by Pablo

There is a political rhythm to the Greek economic crisis. We spent a long weekend on Santorini dodging strikes–Tuesday was the transport workers, Wednesday was the wharfies, Saturday was the May Day demonstrations. Next Wednesday there is a general strike. Our timing has so far been impeccable. We took a ferry last Thursday, so missed the wharfie action that paralyzed Pireus and left a bunch of cruise ship passengers stranded. We returned on Sunday evening so missed the May Day demonstrations that disrupted the Metro rail. We fly to Samos this upcoming Thursday, so will miss the general strike as well. Fingers crossed that nothing happens next Monday, when we fly back. Given recent strike patterns, Monday is due for one so our luck may run out (not that getting stuck on Samos is a bad thing). But we are getting the hang of the flow of things and look forward to seeing how the general strike goes. Although the foreign press has focused on some violence, the reality is that it is only small groups of anarchists who are clashing with the police, and most of them are teenage students. The unions and other civil associations are led by grey haired folk who may have been prone to street action two or three decades ago, but who now are just trying to protect their collective livelihoods (although two banks were attacked by petrol bombs last night, the usual anarchist and Marxist-Leninist suspects are being blamed).

What is interesting about the unfolding of the Greek economic crisis is how ignorant most foreign observers are about its root causes. Most focus on inefficiency and waste in the public sector and the supposedly indolent Greek way of life, which even if true has its causes in something other than the Greek psyche (as some allege). Let me explain.

In the 1950s a strain of developmentalist thought emerged called modernisation theory that claimed that the problem of Latin America and the Mediterranean Rim was a lack of Anglo-Saxon Protestant values resultant from the mix of rigidly hierarchical religious cultures (Catholic, Muslim or Orthodox) and warm climates. The general drift of this “theory” was encapsulated in the so-called Iberian or Mediterranean Ethos: a culture of indulgence, indolence, patronage, clientalism and fatalism structurally rooted in a benign climate that allowed for easy shelter and food production. If only the Greeks, Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese (which actually is not on the Med) had to live in cold climates where survival depended on industry and resourcefulness–then they would have developed the “proper” entrepreneurial values that would have allowed them to develop along the “proper” lines of the Anglo-Saxon world. In other words, backwardness is a function of culture and climate.

Leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of temperate climate locations where entrepreneurial spirits have flourished, and plenty of cold climates where it has not, or the fact that lumping together whole regions in a culturalist explanation is ignorant at best and racist at worst, or that the notion of one universally ‘proper” form of development is both, this discredited canard ignored the structures of economic and political power (many overtly shaped by foreign intervention) that emerged in these regions and which were not reducible to either climate, religion, or civic culture.

By the 1970s modernisation theory was shown to be profoundly flawed. On a scale of over-determinism (when not cultural supremecism), it is up there along with the “warm water port” theory of imperialism. Yet, in recent years, and specifically with relation to the Greek crisis, it has been resurrected in revamped fashion as an explanation for developmental failure. Inspired by neo-liberal thought, the neo-modernisation thesis is that countries with “too much” state involvement in the economy are prone to political nepotism, rent-seeking, corruption and inefficiency. That makes for a lazy, supplicant, and favour-seeking society. The key to development lies in reducing the role of the public sector so that private enterpise can flourish. The private sector is seen as THE panacea for developmental retardation, and elites in places like Germany believe that the Greeks need to accept this.

While there may be some truth to the need for private sector leadership,  the root causes of the current Greek crisis are, again, not as simple as the overbearing role of the state, nor is the solution simply a matter of reducing it.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Greece has an underdeveloped private sector. But–and this is a very big but– the weakness of  the Greek private sector preceded rather than followed the advent of the modern Greek state, and the private sector never attempted to become the motor force for the entire society. If one considers the nature of internecine conflict in Greece dating back two  milenia (for the historically disinclined, please think about Athens and Sparta, or better yet, the Peloponnesian Wars), one realises how parochial local, sectoral and island interests can be.  That worldview continues today. Greek private industry, such as it is, has little concern about contributing to the public good. 

In light of Greek capitalist myopia and parochialism, the recipe for social peace has rested on the public sector being used as a means of absorbing excess labour (along with emigration). The labour market and welfare systems are two-tiered: there are few protections for workers in the private sector outside of employer generosity or union strength, while the public sector adheres to ILO standards. Tax-evasion is a national sport, but the problem is not with individuals but with politically-connected corporations and agricultural interests as well as religious organisations who do not pay anywhere close to their due share of the tax burden but who do put serious money into the main political parties and individual politicians in order to protect their profits (since the money spent on politics is infinitesimal when compared to the valuated tax assessment of their worth). In order to conceal the results of this long-standing practice, successive governments, be they centre-right or centre-left, cook the Treasury books and leave it for their successors to sort out, in what has become an elaborate wink and nod shell game played between themselves and their foreign creditors.

Greeks are by and large a nation of small property owners. Owning a home is, like in NZ, their core objective. The private sector is dominated by small and micro-enterprises run by owner-operators (often familial in nature) who eek out small margins catering to immediate needs (think dairies, dry cleaners. locksmiths and the like). The state does not direct investment capital towards these people, not does it particularly focus investment in large corporations either. What large-scale investment exists comes from foreign-connected sectors such as shipping, and much of the profit generated by the handful of such firms goes off-shore.

To this can be added a large black market fueled by unchecked migration across Greece’s incredibly porous borders. One in ten inhabitants in Greece are foreign born and the majority are undocumented.  This cash economy circulates outside the confines of the state (remember my anecdote about the gypsy street fair in the last post), yet is vital to filling the demand for basic necessities as well as for labour in the agricultural and service (including tourism) industries. Relatively little of the economic activity generated by these non-citizens provides revenue for the state, and with little immigration enforcement available (and largely impossible to regularise in the near term), that situation will only get worse as the official economy shrinks under the austerity regime now being imposed.

Thus the historical source of income stability (at least since the end of the colonel’s dictatorship in 1973) are public service jobs. But without an efficient tax system owing to the political cronyism of the major economic players, public budgets require external financing, which has led to more than two decades of deficit spending happily financed by foreign financial speculators trading in risk derivatives. The idea behind this play, which I accept, is that while firms may go bankrupt nations do not. Compounded interest ensures the investor’s profitability even if the principle is lost in a default (as Argentina showed in 2001-02). So the bottom line is that the system now under siege worked for everyone–the Greek elite enjoyed its privileges, the Greek population remained relatively content and peaceful even if economically underdeveloped by modernisation theory standards, and foreign financiers made money off Greek debt.

The trouble is that with the creation of the Eurozone currency system controlled by one central bank, countries such as Greece were placed in a financial straitjacket that eliminated the autonomy and cushion provided by independent national currencies.  It cannot devalue or overvalue its currency based on market conditions (as for example, Singapore does regularly), and thus is locked into a monetary (supply and demand) framework over which it has not control. Hence, should it default on its debt to its European backers, one major option would be to defect from the Eurozone and re-establish its national currency. There will be pain involved but it would allow Greece to reorganise its finances in more independent, if austere terms. It has enough investment to ensure that even with defection it will not sink (consider that tourism constitutes 20 percent of the Greek economy and its limited niche export markets could actually be favoured by such a move). That in turn might encourage others, particularly the other members of the so-called “Club Med,” to follow suit, which could well spell the end of the Eurozone (especially when considering that a Tory victory in the UK will mean an end  of talk of its ever joining and that Turkish incorporation into the EU could set the stage for an even bigger Greek-type scenario). Thus the Greek bail-out is not so much about Greece as it is about protecting the Eurozone as a currency market.

Which means that the strikes are going to continue, at an increased pace and on a potentially broader scale. In the face of elite indifference to their plight, it is the only means of defense for most Greeks. They have just been told that the public sector will take a 25 percent wage cut on top of a ten percent cut six months ago, then have wages frozen for three years. Imagine if that happened in NZ. Do you think that even the placid Kiwi public worker would take that lying down when s/he had no part in the deficit debacle? The retirement age will also rise while pension benefits will be cut. Although most people appear to accept the former, the latter is a major source of aggravation because as I mentioned before, there is little to no private sector pension plans. Prices of public utilities are set to rise and there is talk of privatising the bulk of the health system (which already is a two-tier system in which private health providers are used by the wealthy). All of which is to say that the burden of sacrifice will be shouldered by those who had nothing to do with creating the crisis in the first place. In fact, although improvements in tax enforcement are mentioned, that remains to be seen, and nowhere has it been mentioned that politicians will take a wage cut or corporations will be required to offer non-wage employment benefits in order to off-set cutbacks in public benefit programs while encouraging labour migration to the private sector. 

Which makes me think that the recently announced IMF/ECB Greek rescue package is more cosmetic than substantive and could well provoke a public backlash that could provoke renewed military interest in internal security. That, indeed, would be a disaster.

Note: As always, my observations on Greece are indebted to the insight of my partner as much as my own. I will take blame for any errors.

PS: I have been thinking of writing a post about our brushes with petty crime and come curious Greek mores, but do not want to turn this into a travelogue.  I shall try to integrate any such thoughts into a larger discussion of more serious subjects.

Something About the Symbolism of Poppies.

datePosted on 03:46, April 22nd, 2010 by Pablo

Peace Movement Aotearoa is running a white poppy campaign as a fund raiser for its activities. It is doing so one day before the RSA red poppy appeal. Some think the timing is unfortunate in the extreme. Others denounce PMA as “parasites.” I beg to differ.

There are obvious freedom of opinion and speech issues involved, all of which must be resolved in favour of the PMA no matter how misguided they may be or how they may be piggy-backing on the veneration of the sacrifice at Gallipoli. But that is exactly why the white poppy campaign should be respected.

The red poppy campaign is a recognition of sacrifice that, although in service of a foreign master and resulting in (tactical) defeat, was a prime example of the measure of the Kiwi spirit. It is to be honoured, which is why I, as a foreigner, have attended ANZAC day celebrations. But I also respect the white poppy campaign.

That is because there is the offically unrecognised aspect to ANZAC celebrations, which is the futility and subserviance of the heroic sacrifice by so many of New Zealand’s best (and not so best) men  of the day. To be honest, many died in vain. In the larger scheme of things Gallipoli was not strategically decisive. That war was not fought in defense of democracy and freedom.

Therein lies the justification for the white poppy campaign. Along with the red poppy recognition of sacrifice, it is entirely fair to recognise the futility of NZ involvement in some wars and to campaign against any such future involvement. I tend to believe that WW1, WW2 and Korea were just wars (look at North Korea now if you think that was an unjustifed conflict), and NZ involvement in the liberation of Timor Leste is commendable, but the point of the white poppy campaign is to underscore the fact that NZ, as a sovereign and independent nation, can now pick and choose its fights when it does not involve defense of the homeland. Although they may not realise that NZ has to pay its international security dues in order to receive international protection against foreign invasion (however improbable that scenario may be), the PMA crowd are perfectly correct in choosing to parallel their campaign of reflection alongside the recognition of ANZAC sacrifice. Put another way–how many Kiwis have died in a war of NZ’s choosing? It may be true that sometimes “you gotta do what you gotta do,” but when it comes to war, sometimes you have to recognise that you do not have a dog in the fight.

Of course this hurts the ANZAC veterans (or their descendents) who choose not to acknowledge that freedom of expression, governance and worship  is not what Gallipoli (or Vietnam) was about–it was about great power quarrels fought in areas of the global periphery with military-strategic importance.  Thus,  if the mythological claims of defense of freedom are to be honoured, then the white poppy campaign should be welcomed along with its red poppy counterparts. After all, it is difference of opinion that makes the defense of freedom so fundamental to the democratic ethos. Although it may not have been at play at Gallipoli, it sure is when it comes to respecting the rights of the white poppy campaigners.

I therefore honour the ANZACs for their (often unthinking) sacrifice. And I respect the PMA for their thinking opposition to war, however much I believe sometimes war is necessary ( if nothing but on lesser evil grounds).

As for the maori component of this sacrifice and current opposition,  I defer to Lew.

>>Written from Greece, where democracy is clearly showing strains but in which the right to voice is sacrosanct.<<

Field studying democratic crisis.

datePosted on 15:58, April 19th, 2010 by Pablo

I am off to Greece this evening for a one month research and pleasure trip. My partner is working on book that compares family, immigration and higher education policy in three peripheral European democracies, and Greece is one of her case studies. I am tagging along because of our shared interest in studying democracies in crisis. People have asked why we would travel and live in Greece at a time of financial meltdowns, government paralysis, riots and strikes. Our answer is because that is precisely the case. Let me explain.

Most Western political science focuses on stable polities. Scholars prefer stability because, among other things, it provides more complete data sets and long-term institutional analysis.  After all, it is easier to study what is than what is not, and to theorise about what is certain rather than what is uncertain. The study of politics in NZ is one case in point–most of the research conducted in NZ politics departments focuses on voting behavior, party and coalition politics, the structure of parliament, policy formation, leadership issues, public management and other topics amenable to both qualitative and quantitative dissection (I am referring here to NZ domestic politics and not to foreign policy and international relations, which tend to be more fluid by nature).

In the last 30 years a sub-field of “transitology” has developed that studies political societies in transition. The sub-field was pioneered by Latin American and Iberian scholars studying the collapse of democracy and rise of authoritarianism, which was followed in the 1980s by path-breaking works on the collapse of authoritarian regimes and the transition to democracy during the so-called “Third Wave” of democratisation that swept the globe in the decade ending in 1995. I was a student of these pioneers, as was my partner (one generation removed). In my case the interest was also personal, as my upbringing in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s occurred during a period of rampant political turmoil, including coups, attempted revolutions and virtual civil war in a host of countries.

For people like us the interest is in the politics of change. This involves the fluid dynamics of crisis, which often is chaotic and un-institutionalised, always uncertain, hard to chronicle and which can lead to what is known by neo-Gramscians as the “organic” crisis of the state. Periods of stability, in which politics is regimented, diachronic and orchestrated, tells relatively little about the real fabric or fiber of society. But a society under stress, in which that fabric is loaded by economic, social and political crises, is an excellent candidate for study of what ultimately holds a societal order together. It could be institutions, it could be culture, it could be religion, it could be nationalism, it could be football or some combination thereof, but it is during times of crisis that the fibric stitching of a society is most evident (said plainly: its basic ethno-cultural composition and socio-economic and political organisation). In some societies the crisis leads to regime collapse, in others to government collapse (which is not the same as a regime collapse), and in some cases it leads to regime reform or reconstitution. In many cases, a change of government does not suffice to overcome the crisis (this is less true for mature democracies as it is for new ones, but the crisis of mature democracy is absolutely manifest in places such as Greece).

Like people themselves, how a society responds to crisis is the true measure of its character. Whatever the outcome, all the fissures and seams of the political order are exposed during the moment of crisis. No quantitative data set can fully capture that picture (and in crisis ridden countries data sets are incomplete or unavailable), which is why qualitative field research at the moment of crisis is necessary. The latter is not a matter of sitting in an office on a university-to-university exchange courtesy of a government scholarship, and/or talking to other academics and “important” commentators, but instead involves hitting the streets to get a feel for the public mood, reading, listening to and watching the daily news, then digging through ministerial and interest group archives, interviewing policy makers, sectorial leaders, other interested parties and even casual conversations with taxi drivers, waiters and landlords to get both a structured and unstructured “feel” for how the crisis was caused, is managed, and how it will be resolved (all of which involve linguistic and cultural skills not generally taught in NZ universities).  Although much of what is recorded cannot be used in a book, it gives the observer a better appreciation of contextual depth when addressing the transitional subject.

Which brings us back to Greece. Greece has what could be described as a vigorous civil society burdened by a clientalistic, corporatist and nepotistic political system. Greeks are quick to defend their perceived rights, often by violent means. This approach is not confined to the political fringe but to middle class groups, students, farmers, shopkeepers, unionists and party activists. For example, a few months back university students took their Rector (akin to a Vice Chancellor) hostage, beat him and forced his resignation because of an increase in student fees. Housewives and shopkeepers have joined in violent protest against rising commodity prices than involved molotov versus tear gas clashes with the police. The use of trash can bombs is a common occurence (especially outside of banks), and the occasional political murder has been known to happen.

In the case of demonstrations in Athens, protestors make an obligatory stop at the US embassy to throw rocks, paint and the occasional firebomb just to make the point that the Yanks suck (much the way the Auckland and Wellington rent-a-mobs target the US consulate and embassy during protests against Israel, globalisation, imperialism, climate change, indigenous exploitation and a host of other real and imagined sins that they hold the US responsible for). The point is that Greeks are extremely politically conscious and very staunch when it comes to defending their self-proclaimed rights (the contrast with NZ society could not be starker, because when it comes to politics–and the 100 person rent-a-mobs nothwithstanding–most Kiwis could not be bothered to get off the couch).

Which is why this is the perfect time to go. Greek society is reeling under the weight of a looming credit default that the EU is still attempting to prevent via a financial rescue package crafted by Germany. Government paralysis is such that it can just stand by and hope for the rescue. Greeks are hitting the streets protesting over any number of greviances, one of which is that they are not in control of their collective destiny. Yet, life goes on.

Besides being a traveling companion to my partner, I shall be making my first observations about how the security forces respond to the crisis. I am particularly interested in how the Greek military reacts to the chaos in civil society, and whether it will take a role in internal security after years of working hard to separate internal from external security functions. Given the ever present animosity towards Turkey, issues of foreign-derived terrorism and demographic change tied to EU expansion, it will be interesting to see how the Greek strategic perspective is configured in light of  the internal and external context of crisis in which it is situated.

I shall attempt to write posts once we are settled. In the meantime Lew will hold down the fort until such a time as I get back on line or Anita returns from her hiatus.

PS–the pleasure part involves some weekend island-hopping. Santorini and Samos are on the itinerary.

Niwa Knobs.

datePosted on 21:13, April 15th, 2010 by Pablo

 

***THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED ON APRIL 17 TO ACCOUNT FOR NEW INFORMATION RECEIVED***

Niwa has announced that a contract to upgrade the research vessel RV Tangaroa has been let to a Singaporean company rather than a NZ-based consortium. The EPMU and Labour Party have criticised the move, citing the fact that local jobs were at stake and a chance to up-skill NZ workers was lost. And of course, the flow-on effects of employing NZ workers is obvious, because they will spend their  wages a bit on beer but more on nappies, mortgages, rent and DIY projects. All that is true and reason enough to oppose the Niwa deal, but there is much more to the story. That is because the bottom line boils down to what I shall call a dirty money savings. Here is how it works.

The Niwa chief knob, John Morgan, refused to state what the bids were, but other sources have noted that at $9 million the NZ contractor bid was more than double the $4 million Singaporean bid. Sounds like he got his maths right. Mr. Morgan then went on to say that the Singaporean contractor had a lot of experience and 3000 staff  dedicated to the task as well as many resources to do the upgrade, which he claimed was a complex operation that involved cutting holes in the hull of the ship in order to install a dynamic positioning system (DPS) that holds the ship steady and precise over an undersea target in variable conditions (how he thinks that 3000 people will work on that one job is another question,  as is the complexity of cutting holes in a boat, but I am just quoting from the NZPA article on the decision).

He defended the decision as a cost-savings bonus for the NZ taxpayer, and the Minister for Research, Science and Technology the vainglorious “Dr” Wayne Mapp (Ph.D.s in Law are not usually addressed as Dr.) pontificated that although he was not involved in the decision he supported it because the NZ consortium was not dependent on that contract (presumably that resource-rich Singaporean outfit was) and, quote, “after all we have an FTA with Singapore.” File that one under “another Mapp moronity.”

Here is why the deal is dirty. Unskilled and semi-skilled Singaporean shipyard workers (e.g. stevedores, drivers, loaders, builders and roustabouts)  are paid between SG$10-15 dollars per day. Non-engineer skilled workers (divers, torchmen, pipefitters) may earn double or triple that. They are mostly foreign workers on temporary visas (mainly from Bangladesh, mainland China and India) who cannot bring their families with them and who are housed in containers and squalid dormitories with occupancies of 20-50 men per room and one toilet amongst them (women are not allowed on the docks). They are not allowed to independently organise or collectively bargain. They work 12 hour days and suffer extremely high rates of industrial accidents–over 50 workers died in 2009 from injuries received on the job, and dozens if not hundreds more were crippled by accidents. In the vast majority of cases, seriously injured foreign workers who are unable to return to work are left dependent for months on private charity until their claims for compensation are resolved or are deported once they leave hospital (and often repatriated in any event).

Mr. Morgan is reported as saying that the Singaporean bid, at $30/hour (it is not clear if he is speaking of US, NZ or Singaporean dollars), was half the NZ $60/hour labour costs. But whatever the currency, $30/hour would only apply to supervisory and managerial staff who would not be doing the physical labour involved in installing the DPS system (which would be done by the foreign workers mentioned above). That means that his claims of labour costs savings on which the decision partially rested is either a willful misprepresentation of  the true Singaporean figures or, worse yet, a sign that Niwa did not undertake due dilligence in ascertaining the veracity of the $30/hour figure. In other words, if the latter is true then Niwa got fleeced by the Singaporean contractor, who then pocketed the difference between its real labour costs and the $30/hour figure. If the former is true, the Mr. Morgan needs to be held to account for his miserepresentation.

There is a bigger picture to consider. Singapore is an authoritarian state in which political  party competition and elections are rigged, freedom of speech is restricted and foreign workers are  not covered by the same labour laws as Singaporean citizens. Instruments for foreign worker redress, compensation and mediation are virtually non-existent. The Singaporean lifestyle, so admired by John Key and other acolytes of the Singaporean regime, is based on the gross exploitation of these foreign workers who, after all, build the buildings Singaporeans live and work in, provide the food, transport and maid services they are accustomed to, construct their highways and polish their cars, and staff the hundreds of foreign MNCs the use the country as an operational hub. Foreign workers comprise a quarter of Singapore’s nearly 5 million population, so the economic debt owed to them is great.

That is why the decision is about dirty money savings. Forget the job-related issues in NZ. Niwa’s decision is based on its knowingly countenancing the human rights abuse of a vulnerable group of people in a foreign country. It violates ILO standards, it violates NZ labour law, and it violates nominal notions of decency in doing so. Mrs. Morgan and Mapp may argue that Niwa is saving the NZ taxpayer money, and that it is not responsible for the behavior of foreign contractors, but in doing business with the Singaporean firm it could well wind up with blood on its hands. Put succinctly: the money Niwa saves on the deal comes directly from the sweat and blood of these foreign workers.

None of this would matter if NZ was an authoritarian state unconcerned about human rights and fair labour standards. The problem is, NZ spends a lot of time in international fora banging on about exactly such things. However, this appears to be more a case of  “do as I say, not as I do” because NZ in recent years has seen fit to cozy up to regimes like those of  Singapore, China and a host of Middle Eastern autocracies, in which the very concepts of universal rights and fair labour standards are not only disputed, but rejected out of hand on “cultural difference” grounds. Well, that may be the case because as Lew so nicely put it a while back, “NZ foreign policy is trade,”  but NZ does not have to contribute to the perpetuation of exploitation in foreign cultural contexts, especially if its reputation depends on its rhetorical championing of human rights. That is a matter of choice, and the choice in this instance is clear.

There is such a thing a trading fairly and doing business in an ethical way in which the bottom line is not just about money, but about human decency as well.  A restrained rate of profit or reduced savings on cost are often a better guarantee of long term investment than short term profit maximisation or miserliness,  and an interest in foreign worker conditions can contribute to the betterment of international business practices. But the choice here has been to save costs rather than stand on principle and improve by example. For a country that prides itself on its international status based upon fairness principles, decisions like this one give the lie to the cheap talk in international confabs.

All of which is to say–shame on both of you, Misters Mapp and Morgan. But then again, we would not expect otherwise.

Blog Link: Is all against enough?

datePosted on 12:40, April 12th, 2010 by Pablo

This month’s Word from Afar essay focuses on the nature of and differences between proactive and reactive political movements, with particular reference to the Tea Party movement.

Sacred illusions

datePosted on 11:03, March 22nd, 2010 by Lew

one man one votePita Sharples has severely undermined his own and his party’s credibility with his Race Relations Day speech criticising “one person, one vote”. As a minister in a democratic government, he has taken aim at one of democracy’s fundamental symbolic virtues, in such a way as to give the impression he (and his party) are anti-democracy. After years of fighting for the voices of mana whenua to be heard in democratic politics on strong principled grounds, Sharples seems now to have accepted the extreme right’s framing of that representation as antithetical to democracy.

Let’s just be clear: “one person, one vote” is no sort of actual democracy, it is an illusory ideal which persists only in hearts and minds, placed there by bold principles and the stirring oratories brought by democratic leaders of old looking to appeal to something bigger than they were. Even our present democracy, which is a very great deal closer to the ideal than the original American system, is pretty far from “one person, one vote” at a functional level. For a start, we have two votes. Even if you had one, what sort of vote would it be: first-past-the-post, where you’re at the mercy of geography; or single-transferable, where you’re not sure until after it’s all over who your vote actually got counted for; or what? For another thing, you can be a person and not have a vote — people under 18 don’t, prisoners convicted of serious offences don’t (and that could soon include all prisoners). There are more, but I won’t go on — the point is that “one person, one vote” is symbolic, not literal.

But neither are Sharples’ objections literal, they are symbolic. In the non-literal sense, what “one person, one vote” means is the opportunity for equality of input into the electoral process — whether that be by one or two votes, in a big electorate or a small one. What happens after that is democracy in action. In this regard, an electoral system which pays at least some regard to the principle of “one person, one vote” is a minimal bound for a modern democracy (though there are others also). Sharples’ criticism is that this isn’t enough — that democracy should be about equality of outcome rather than input. I agree — and I think very many other people do as well. Making democracy work takes much more than votes. But when it’s framed in the way he has framed it, this sort of discussion is political poison, because it attacks the heart of our political culture. This “race-based” framing of mana whenua political representation has been expressly developed in order to make those things seem indefensible in a liberal democratic context. Sharples has swallowed the hook, and instead of continuing to defend the Māori Seats and mana whenua representation on the existing and well-proven grounds (that it’s necessary for the establishment and maintenance of tino rangatiratanga, guaranteed by the Treaty) he has made a declaration which amounts to “yeah, they’re anti-democratic: so?” The most ridiculous aspect of it is that the existing mechanism which is so reviled complies with the principle of “one person, one vote”: electors on the Māori roll get get the same vote as anyone else, the only difference is in how they cast it. There is equality of input to the democratic process by Māori at the electoral level — it’s elsewhere in the process which is the problem.

I’ve argued before that the core symbolic and philosophical stuff of modern democracy is liberalism of one brand or another. No mainstream political concern can hope to win a democratic mandate without founding a lot of its agenda in liberalism. The symbolism of “one person, one vote” is crucial to this orthodoxy. Charles Elder and Roger Cobb, in The Political Uses of Symbols presented a typology of political symbols in the American context, organised into “political community” symbols which express political values at the highest level (“America”, “The Flag”, “The Constitution”); through “regime” symbols which express the political values of the current orthodoxy (in this case, American democracy, not a specific administration — the examples given are “The Presidency”, “Congress”, and “One Person, One Vote”); and three classes of “situational” symbols which express particular policy or administrational preferences of lesser affect (“The Reagan Administration; “gun control”, etc.) The higher up Elder and Cobb’s typology you go, the greater the degree of political consensus on the values imbued in a particular symbol. Nobody in American politics gets anywhere if they stand against “America”: the task of politics in that context is to convince people that what you stand for is “America”. “One person, one vote” is pretty high up that symbolic ladder. It is an illusion, but it’s a sacred illusion.

Every party in New Zealand’s parliament at present, except one, lays claim to this broad liberal tradition in one way or another. That one party which does not is the māori party. That is not to say that their agenda isn’t broadly liberal in function, but that it’s largely that way for non-Western-liberal philosophic reasons. This is the māori party’s great electoral purpose: to normalise an indigenous political-philosophical tradition. But they can’t do so this way, by attacking the liberal orthodoxy’s sacred illusions, the bedrock values held even by those who would never dream of calling themselves liberals. The māori party, more than any other, must recognise the value of “one person, one vote” as part of the history of democracy working for downtrodden minorities rather than against them, and adopt this as part of its own political basis.

As libertarians have discovered, if you don’t really believe in democracy it’s best not to bother with it — then you get to maintain whatever you claim as high moral ground and leave the actual business of governing to those who lack your unshakeable principles. But that’s not what the māori party is about. They do believe in democracy; they do recognise the importance of engagement and compromise and consensus, and they do plenty of work toward it, and a misguided outburst like this one puts it all in jeopardy. “Race-based” is National’s catch-cry from just a few short years ago, and they will take any encouragement given them to reach out to New Zealand’s conservatives, who are already distrustful of the māori party. It will force Labour further down the path of attacking the māori party to try to recapture the centre ground, rather than encouraging cooperation and the mending of fences. Most critically, it could create a backlash against the very mechanism Sharples seeks to save, generating opposition to the Māori seats his party needs for its survival, and which exist only by the pleasure of the Pākehā majority whose sacred illusions he has slighted.

While it should have been underway already, the māori party must now redouble its efforts to appeal to voters outside the Māori electorates, and prepare to live in a world without them.

L

The EAB becomes the NAB.

datePosted on 19:03, March 19th, 2010 by Pablo

 It has recently been announced the the External Assessment Bureau (EAB) has become the National Assessment Bureau (NAB), combining external as well as internal intelligence assessments in the lead up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup (although I believe that the claim that the move was needed to better coordinate threat assessment for the World Cup is a bit specious, especially since the recommendation for an integration of internal and external intelligence assessment came from a report by former Foreign Affairs Secretary Simon Murdoch that was commissioned independently of the World Cup bid). There has long been dissatisfaction with the lack of coordination between New Zealand internal and external intelligence collection and analysis agencies (to say nothing of their professionalism and competence). Although there is a veritable alphabet soup of such agencies, there was until now no single unit that coordinated all of the intelligence flows into one coherent assessment brief for the PM. Some believe that this rendered the EAB ineffectual because it was a duplication of resources (since all of the operational agencies also have analytic branches that formulate their own assessments). Others simply claimed that it was a waste of space because PMs usually dealt directly with the operational agencies themselves (since the PM is also the Minister of Security and Intelligence). Thus the options were to disband the EAB or refocus it. The government has chosen the latter course.

The important thing to note is that the EAB/NAB is an analytic group located in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, and is responsible for providing intelligence assessments for the PM.  It is not an intelligence-gathering (spy) agency even though it handles classified material. Yet, news that it has now assumed an internal focus along with its ongoing external assessment duties has alarmed civil libertarians and elements on the Left. The Greens put out a press release expressing concern over the move, with Keith Locke offering the humorous observation that the only area of growth in the public service seems to be the spy agencies.

Well, not quite. Although I respect Keith Locke’s position, I disagree that giving the revamped NAB an internal focus is a bad thing or that this reform signifies a growth of the spy apparatus. The NAB budget and those of the operational agencies have remained relatively consistent the last five years (after major increases post 9/11), and the NAB is not targeted to increase the number of personnel working within it (which means more responsibilities for the same number of people assigned to it). Hence all that has been done is to give the intelligence assessment unit with the PMs office access to more rounded intelligence streams from both internal and external security agencies so as to be able to better prepare unitary and coherent net security assessments for the PM. Before, the EAB only looked at foreign issues as fed to it by MFAT, the SIS, the GCSB, Customs, Immigration and the NZDF intelligence units. Now it will get streams from the Police, CTAG (Counter Terrorism Assessment Group, which is an inter-agency unit that does both internal and external terrorist assessment) and from the SIS/GCSB and the other mentioned agencies on internal issues of concern. That way the NAB can provide a more comprehensive picture of any given security matter to the PM, since often times threats have what is known as a “glocal” character–a mixture of global and local characteristics. Think organised crime and its potential nexus with terrorism….the “glocal” or “intermestic” overlap is broad and variegated

In a way the change makes the NAB the NZ equivalent of the US National Security Council (NSC)–the primary assessment agency working for the President/PM. It is an assessment unit, not an intelligence collection (operational) unit. It is full of analysts, not spies. With a 3 million dollar budget covering 30 people, it does not have the capacity to do anything other than read and assess what the operational branches provide them. From my perspective, were I to be offered a government job, this would be the best place to be (knowledge being power, etc.).

This is not to say that the announcement is worry-free. The troubling parts are: 1) whether this means that both internal and external intelligence assessments will  now be politicised, much as the Zaoui and Urewera 18 cases were; and 2) no Parliamentary consultation or inputs were done in the build-up to the change. Although the Murdoch report is correct (there was a need to rationalise the flow of intelligence to the PMs office), it might have been more transparent and democratic to run the proposed reform past the country’s elected representatives rather than to just do it by executive fiat. There are also issues of accountability, since the NAB is not required to deliver specific reports to the the Intelligence and Security Committee (such as it is) or Parliament in general (although it does maintain a web site and issues and annual report on the generalities of its mission). The latter is not an insurmountable obstacle, however, because the PM can be made to account for the actions of his cabinet.

Thus, unlike many of my learned counterparts on the Left and in politics, I do not see the revamping of the EAB/NAB as an assault on civil liberties or an expansion of the security apparatus. Instead I see it as an effort to streamline and lend coherency to what the PM receives as informed advice on matters of security and intelligence. Time will tell if I am correct.

Outsourcing Counter-Espionage.

datePosted on 15:46, March 16th, 2010 by Pablo

The SIS recently released its 2008-2009 annual report. I will be analyzing it in further detail in a future “Word from Afar” column over at Scoop. However, I thought I would provide readers with a glimpse of one aspect of its activities that called my attention.

On page 14 (out of 29) of the report, in the section titled “Intelligence and Advice to Government,” under the heading “Counter-Espionage,” the following quote summarizes the SIS approach towards countering foreign espionage activities in NZ: “The Counter-Espionage (CE) efforts identifies and frustrates acts of espionage against New Zealand or New Zealanders. We give advice to internal and external stakeholders and disrupt, where appropriate and usually via a third party, espionage activities prejudicial to New Zealand’s national security” (emphasis mine).

Beyond the fact that the SIS does not mention whether, in fact, any foreign espionage actually occurred during the time period in question (I would assume that it did), much less the precise nature of such activities, two points in that sentence are worth noting. First, the mention of external stakeholders. Who might they be? It is obvious who the internal stakeholders are-the government and other NZ agencies. But who, exactly, are the external stakeholders? Who would have a “stake-holding” interest in foreign espionage activities in or involving NZ: Australia? France? The US? UK? Private agents/ies?

That brings up the second and more interesting point. The SIS claims that it usually disrupts foreign espionage via “third party.” Again, who is this party or parties? We can assume that the SIS uses the Police, the GCSB (for electronic and technical counter-measures), the NZDF and perhaps Customs and other government security agencies as part of this effort (since it would be alarming if it it used just one third party for all of its counter-espionage “disruption” tasks). But does the reference to third parties include foreign governments and/or private or non-governmental agencies such as private security firms? Given that private security agencies have recently spied on environmental activists on behalf of  public and private corporations in NZ, it is not a stretch to wonder if this type of out-sourcing is also used by the SIS. Such a privatization of intelligence operations opens a potential cans of worms with regards to civil rights and the blurring of the lines between proper governmental authority and profit-driven interest. If indeed private agencies are used for counter-intelligence operations, who are they? Does that include foreign firms as well as NZ privateers (such as Xe, the re-branded name for Blackwater, which has its own intelligence and counter-intelligence branches)? Hence, an explanation as to who are these third parties appears to be in order (not that I expect that we will receive one).

Moreover, could it be possible that the SIS also contracts to foreign governments counter-intelligence tasks on NZ soil or on behalf of NZ “interests?” Is that not a violation of sovereignty? Or is it simply expedient to do so given NZ’s lack of capabilities in this field?  Does the public have a right to know about such things? More specifically, does the parliamentary committee on intelligence and security (all 5 members) have knowledge of who these third parties are? If so, are they content with the arrangement, and on what specific grounds (such as oversight and accountability)? Again, the questions raised by this simple mention in the SIS report are both numerous and troubling.

I will leave for the larger essay the implication that the SIS does not have the capability to engage in counter-espionage operations on its own, particularly in its human component. That is worrisome in itself, but also is the reason for the third party outsourcing.

The full report is here: http://img.scoop.co.nz/media/pdfs/1002/nzsisar09.pdf

As some may remember, I have been in NZ on a mix of research and personal business (truth be told, I am in NZ accompanying my partner on her research leave. The title of this post is her idea, with a hat tip to Brian Easton). As part of my project on the security politics of peripheral democracies (which has NZ as a case study), I have been interviewing a cross-section of people involved in political life both in and outside the Wellington beltway: politicians, journalists, academicians, policy analysts, community and political activists, opinion-makers, bloggers (!) and a few very smart friends. Oh, and Lew (albeit informally, over a very enjoyable lunch). Some of those conversations were illuminating, some were lucid, some were disappointing and some, well, forgotten in the haze of a very good time.

Notwithstanding the fogginess of my recollection of a few of those conversations, one coherent theme has emerged. NZ’s so-called “number 8 wire attitude,” supposedly evidence of Kiwi pragmatism and resourcefulness, is actually the logical result of a chronic and perpetual lack of planning and an ex post, ad hoc approach to policy-making. One interlocutor phrased it as “policy by anecdote,” where politicians relate stories they have been told as proof that similar approaches elsewhere can work just fine in NZ (such as the repeated mention of Singapore as a developmental model for NZ because it is a small island economy, ignoring the obvious fact that it is authoritarian, stratified and in fact a state capitalist welfare state rather than a true market economy). Others simply noted a lack of vision, or a lack of reward for innovation. Some blamed the NZ character, others colonialism and imperialism, partisans blamed their opponents, analysts blamed the politicians, politicians blamed the analysts, journalists blamed the tabloidisation of news ….the range of explanations ran the gamut.

Be they on the political Left or Right, time and time again these keen observers of and participants in NZ politics and policy-making, some with storied histories of commentary and involvement in the debates of the last 25 years, noted that NZ political elites continually re-invent the wheel, adopt quick fix or knee-jerk responses and plaster solutions to concrete problems, and generally go with the cheapest option regardless of the complexities and repercussive consequences involved. There appears to be no full appreciation of the consequences of any given policy decision (including the shift to market economics and adoption of a nuclear-free status), and whatever sucess NZ has in the global arena is more a product of luck and chance (fortuna) rather than strategic planning and foresight (virtu). The current government is no exception and in fact is considered by this select crowd to be one of the shining examples of the syndrome.

In the view of these participant/observers, the situation is compounded by the lack of political and policy talent available. Beyond those who move overseas, the problem is generally seen as a product of the dunmbing down of political and historical knowledge in schools, media disinterest in anything other than scandal, risk-adverse cultures and abject mediocrity within the public bureaucracy, a gross lack of intellectual acuity and political nous on the parliamentary backbenches, and a general attitude of the part of both policy bureaucrats and politicians that “she’ll be right” regardless of what they do. That, and a loss of ethics, principle and integrity amongst the NZ elite in general.

I invite readers to ponder and comment on this. Given the range of people I have spoken to, this is not just the comments of a small group of disgruntled personalities. At another time I will reflect on what was specifically said about those people and agencies involved in security policy–that the MoD is less than useless, that the NZDF is a bastion of short-sightedness and political ignorance, that the NZSIS is a politicised, vengeful, incompetent cesspit, that the EAB is worthless and deservedly ignored, that the Police are as much a problem as they are a solution to domestic security issues, that the advice of all of these agencies and others are routinely ignored by the politicians in government at the moment–the list of grievances is long but the consensus amongst the consiglieri is strong: NZ needs a serious change in political and policy-making culture if it is going to really “punch above its weight” rather than simply muddle along–or be relegated to the lower tiers of democratic capitalist development within the next ten years.

You are only as good as your opposition.

datePosted on 15:47, February 16th, 2010 by Pablo

During the years that Labour was in government, I was appalled by the lack of serious discussion on security and defense issues (or any other issue, for that matter). Instead of asking hard questions of the government about defense policy, strategic focus, the military budget, reasons for the TSA,  Zaoui’s unfair inprisonement, the competency and purview of the NZSIS, oversight of police intelligence etc., National barked about petty scandals and personal pecadillos. Its strategy was to snipe from the sidelines, make no statements of policy or specific commitments to substantitive changes, and to wait until labour self-destructed and/or voters got tired of its incumbency and opted for change for changes sake. The strategy worked.

The irony is that now in opposition, Labour has not been successful at doing the same. That affords National the political space to continue to test the winds on issues like taxation, defense, educational standards, climate change and mining of national parks without firmly commiting to a course of action. It appears to be a strategy of policy by stealth osmosis: simply announce a proposal, let the pundits and informed public debate the merits, go with the flow and shift the specifics depending on how public opinion polling shows the response to be, or offer rhetorical placations while leaching through the opposition. In some cases (GST perhaps?) that may means abandoning the proposal entirely but in most cases it means saying one thing, speaking of compromise, but doing another without meaningful concession.

The irony is that by being so wishy-washy, National prevents Labour from making political capital out of its opposition. Although it seems to have tried to copy National’s playbook for the opposition–snipe, nag, whine but not commit to a policy or course of action that would directly confront National’s proposals in antithetical terms–which may be due to a belief that the first year in government belongs to the government, with the proper role of opposition being to offer no real alternatives until closer to election day, the strategy has failed Labour.

In an interview Selwyn Manning (of Scoop fame) noted that Key and his advisors could afford to do do policy reversals and utter vague, retractable promises because there was “no cabinet-in-waiting” on Labour’s side of the aisle. The insight is spot-on: with no quality opposition pressing hard, specific, technical questions in a number of policy areas on it, and with the  front and back-benches surrounding Phil Goff populated by lightweights or mealy-mouthed opportunists,  National has the luxury of being indolent. It is the default option, the easy way out, basking in the afterglow of the “anything but Clark” attitude of many in the electorate. Given the abysmal state of political reporting in general, and majority disinterest in, if not distaste for politics, this gives National a triple dose of insulation from sharp questions and better alternatives.

However, that may have begun to change. Evidence suggests that at least some voters who shifted their preferences to National out of a sense of fatigue with Labour, or who thought that National would be more moderate and pragmatic than dogmatic in its approach to policy-making, are beginning to reconsider their support for the Key government (including those who may still like Mr. Key personally).  That in turn offers an incentive to Labour to stop playing the attack poodle role in opposition and to develop some policy bite along with its bark. For that to happen, though, Labour needs a shake up in its ranks, not so much in its Leadership (after all, is there really an attractive alternative other than Mr. Goff?), but in the seats that have potential ministerial rank should they return to power. Best to do that sooner rather than closer to election time, in order to stake out an alternative policy platform that erodes National’s policy justifications while firming up the expertese and debating skills of the pretenders to cabinet jobs in a future Labour government.

NB: I write this after a week in NZ after a year-long absence. My thoughts are preliminary and driven by my alarm at the absence of serious policy discussions, or perhaps better said, the absence of coverage of policy discussions in the NZ media (the kerfuffle over Key’s stake in a uranium mining outfit being an example of political coverage that hammers the margins rather than the meat of its policy implications). That is either a sign of mass comfort or apathy (or both), none of which makes for an informed public and accountable government. After all, a government may only be as good as the quality of its opposition, but government and opposition are only as good as what the informed public demand. At this juncture, I see little public demand and limited quality depth in NZ political society.

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