Posts Tagged ‘Greens’

Primary thoughts on Te Mana

datePosted on 06:33, May 25th, 2011 by Lew

My thoughts on Te Mana aren’t very mature — they are very mixed, and quite primary, and I’m afraid I’m not very well informed. I’ve also been insanely busy the past few months — and especially the past month, and have had little time to focus on it. But last week I received a request by email from a regular KP commenter to post my thoughts on Te Mana, and what follows is a somewhat expanded edit of the reply I sent to him.

The initial comments suggested concern that Te Mana might be “opportunistically” taken over by the Pākehā “far left”, and I do agree that Te Mana needs to be Māori-led, and its functions need to be safeguarded against hijack by the usual bandwagon-jumpers — among whom I include folk like John Minto, Socialist Aotearoa and so on. The māori party, I think it’s now pretty clear, has been significantly colonised by Pākehā interests on the right, and if Te Mana is to prove any more robust, it must insure itself against the same happening from the other side. As a minor party, above all it needs to have focus and discipline, and too many chiefs (as it were) will lead to factionalisation, and that’s to everyone’s detriment. I’m not opposed to diversity within a movement, but I am against the leaders of one noisy faction taking over a movement for their own ends. That’s the major risk I see from people like John Minto and the principals of Socialist Aotearoa taking a prominent role: their vision isn’t the same as Hone’s, and although I expect they understand that, I’m certain the rank and file they command do not. Moreover, I think they’re a liability — even more than Hone is a liability, if possible — because they will turn off Māori as well as non-socialist Pākehā. That’s as far as my reasoned thoughts on the party’s internal dynamics go, and I welcome comment from anyone better informed on this topic than I am.

As far as where the party sits within NZ’s wider political context I think I have a better handle on things. The conventional wisdom about ACT and Te Mana engaging in a bit of mutual base-engagement is pretty good, but still a sideshow. The main event is (as ever) between National and Labour, and Te Mana’s relevance here rests on four main points.

First, Te Mana, with Hone likely to win Te Tai Tokerau, should be self-sustaining, at least for now. It needs to stand tall in the by-election to prove to people that they should support it in the general election. As far as Te Mana’s brand goes, the establishment Left distancing themselves is not really a bad thing (much more on this later). Te Mana needs to attract disenchanted māori party voters, and those who can’t be bothered voting for those parties. Its constituency needs to be positive-sum to as great an extent as possible, because the existing electoral offerings are broadly zero-sum.

Second, this is the establishment Left’s opportunity to say “for the past decade and a bit, National have been scaremongering about how we’re loony fringe extremists; socialists, communists, environmentalist haters of humanity, run by anti-family lesbians and all that — now Aotearoa gets to see what a real radical left party looks like.” The truth is that the Greens are perfectly moderate and gentle, and Labour are so ferociously orthodox they pose no meaningful threat to the established order of things, and Te Mana gives them a chance to illustrate that.

Third, and further to the second point, Te Mana provides Labour a crucial opportunity to differentiate from National. While historically the right has taken great glee in painting the Greens as the left’s equivalent of ACT, this is bogus. ACT is a genuine extremist party, espousing positions abhorrent even to many right-wingers, whose electoral existence in New Zealand relies upon them gaming the MMP threshold exemption because for most of the past decade they have been unable to persuade even one in 20 voters to support them. The Greens, on the other hand, represent a global movement whose positions and support are becoming more, not less, mainstream, and while not exactly rocketing skyward, their support remains strong and is steadily climbing. As much as the right wishes to claim the Greens are ACT’s left-wing equivalent, it is Te Mana who more appropriately fills that role. John Key was swift to label ACT and Don Brash ‘extremist’. He’s right, but he’s also protecting National’s voter base. This was tactically smart but strategically foolish, because Labour now get to label Te Mana as ‘extremist’ (‘radical’ is more correct, but that’s a technicality) and then say “National are working with the guy they admit is an extremist — we’re ruling out working with the extremist Mana Party. We’ve been telling you this whole term that John Key is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and now he’s proven it.” They’ve done the first bit and I can only hope they have a plan to do the second bit, reclaiming the boring harmless sensible moderate ground they so richly deserve to hold.

Fourth (this wasn’t included in the email but is something I’ve argued elsewhere): while many people have pointed out that the by-election will cost money, which the three parties contesting it don’t have much of, by the same token it gives those parties an opportunity to go into the general election with a bit of momentum. It will give them a fair bit of media exposure (not all of which will be favourable), an opportunity to field-test their lines and positions. Most importantly, it will give the people involved — the candidates themselves, and the campaign managers and organisers and doorknockers and drivers and ringawera — valuable frontline experience. Falling into a rugby analogy: it gives the parties a chance to build match-fitness for the main event which follows.

Finally, I think the best outcome for both Labour and Te Mana here is the one Morgan has persuasively argued is most likely — for Hone Harawira to beat Kelvin Davis by a slim margin. Davis is a strong MP, if inexperienced, and although marginally placed at 33 on the list, should get in at the general election if Labour can at least maintain their polling. A tight contest will light a fire under both parties, which is valuable in and of itself. Hone Harawira has remained mostly true to his principles, undoubtedly represents a constituency and thus possesses at least a moral mandate to represent those who vote for him; Davis, also, but those principles are also represented by the Labour party. Hone would (on present polling of about 3%) bring in a couple of others, who would be in a position to advocate radical positions and apply pressure to the māori, Labour and Green parties while permitting Labour and Green to solidify their claim to the middle-ground, and would give the parties of the left an opportunity to feel each other out and reposition. More to the point, in terms of November 27 realpolitik, the lesson of NZ First in 2008 should be clear: if Hone doesn’t win his electorate and Te Mana doesn’t pass 5%, those votes are wasted, and National will be the main beneficiary. Labour’s future — in 2012 as it was in the past — is not to go it alone as the all-singing, all-dancing united left party, but at the core of a wider movement including the diverse and often misguided voices which characterise the wider left. Those horses (as has been exhaustively demonstrated by the NewLabour, Alliance and Progressive parties) cannot be bound by the same rope, and sometimes must be given their head.

L

Helen Clark understood well the axiom that in politics the best defense is a good offense. She was a master of the art of character assassination and discrediting the opponent. This was particularly true when the opponent was not a politician but someone from outside of the partisan divide who pointed out a dubious policy decision or raised ethical questions about the behavior of her government. I know this first-hand, because I was the subject of one of her attacks (with regard to the role of former ambassador Richard Wood, then director of the SIS, in the Ahmed Zaoui case). She also knew the value of having everyone in her government play off of the same sheet of music when it comes to cover-ups, hence the “lying in unison” refrain. Love her or hate her, Ms. Clark knew how to play dirty.

When National came to office it argued that it was going to end the sort of practices Ms. Clark was so adept at. But as it turns out, it has done exactly the opposite and instead deepened the dark “art” of shooting the bearer of bad news. The latest instance of this is its treatment of independent war correspondent Jon Stephenson. Mr. Stephenson is by all objective accounts a remarkably brave and serious journalist. He is also a thorn in the side of the NZDF. The reason is because he travels independently to conflict zones in which the NZDF is deployed, foregoes the embedded journalist niceties that accrue to the likes of TV talking heads, and asks hard questions about the actions of Kiwi soldiers as well as the polices and rules of engagement under which they operate. That line of inquiry does not conform to the scripted narrative that the NZDF would prefer that NZ audiences consume, so it makes the Defence brass uncomfortable.  As a result some of the NZDF and Defence leadership are antagonistic towards Mr. Stephenson. The irony is that such antagonism does not extend down to the rank and file troops, many of who candidly share their views with Mr. Stephenson under conditions of anonymity. In fact, they are often the source of his insights into how the NZDF operates in combat environments. For his part Mr. Stephenson has repeatedly voiced his high regard for the integrity and professionalism of Kiwi soldiers, those in the SAS in particular. The animus, in other words, is not mutual.

In April Mr. Stephenson published an article in Metro magazine titled “Eyes Wide Shut.” In it he writes that in its previous and current deployments in Afghanistan the SAS transferred and continues to transfer prisoners to US and Afghan forces that have been implicated in abuses of the Geneva Convention. He makes very clear that the SAS does not abuse prisoners, although–contrary to the National government’s initial assertions–the SAS takes a lead role in counter-terrorism and search and destroy missions, kills adversaries as a matter of course (some of whom it turns out were not hostile but either misidentified or the victims of faulty intelligence), and detains and transfers prisoners to Afghan and US custody as part of its standard operating procedures. The trouble for the government is that after Labour withdrew the SAS from Afghanistan in 2005 in part because of concerns about the treatment of prisoners initially detained by the elite force, National turned around and re-deployed them in 2009 without getting ironclad assurances from either the US or the Karzai regime that prisoners detained by the SAS would be treated in strict accordance with the Geneva Convention. The lack of such assurances are what have forced UK forces serving in Afghanistan to refuse to hand over prisoners to the Afghan government and played a part in the Danish decision to withdraw their special forces from ISAF, so the concerns are wide-spread and well known. Yet, rather than wrestle with the ethical dilemmas involved, it appears that the NZ government has repeatedly misrepresented what the SAS is actually doing in Afghanistan, and on at least one occasion has played loose with the truth when asked about that role, to include, specifically, whether the SAS leads combat missions and takes prisoners on its own.

Mr. Stephenson’s article raises all of these troublesome points. Its well researched account of incidents in 2002 and 2010 raises questions about what National agreed to in 2009 that Labour could not stomach in 2005. It specifically questions General Jerry Mateparae, former NZDF head, current GCSB director and Governor-General-designate over his statements to parliament in 2010 that the SAS does not detain prisoners and does not lead combat engagements. It is damning stuff that should be the subject of an independent inquiry.

The government response has been to take a page out of Helen Clark’s book on character assassination, and then attempt to write it more crudely. Prime Minister John Key, current head of the NZDF Lieutenant General Richard Rhys-Jones and Minister of Defense “Dr.” Wayne Mapp have all attacked Mr. Stephenson as being “non-credible” and of having an anti-NZDF bias. Military sycophants like Ron Smith of Waikato University (who is reported to have a personal connection to General Mateparae) have accused Mr. Stephenson of having a “hidden agenda,” with the insinuation that the agenda is pro-Taliban as well as anti-NZDF. Although General Rhys-Jones has disputed some facts in the Metro article, Mr. Mapp has been forced to admit under questioning in parliament that the SAS does in fact lead combat missions, does detain prisoners and does indeed hand them over to Afghan or US authorities without proper follow up monitoring (worse yet, Mr. Mapp initially claimed that the NZ government has an arrangement with the Red Cross for the latter to monitor prisoners captured by NZDF forces once they are handed over to the Afghan authorities, but the Red Cross denies any such agreement exists, among other things because it only signs agreements with the governments holding prisoners, not with those who may have initially captured them).  

The result of Mr. Stephenson’s reporting and its follow ups reveals that in effect, the National government re-committed the SAS either ignorant of what its operations would entail or fully cognizant of them, but then lied to the NZ public rather than admit the truth (or has the NZDF lie on its behalf). Either way it is not a good look.

Rather than own up to what was agreed to in 2009, the government is pursuing a campaign of character assassination against Mr. Stephenson. It cannot argue his facts so it is playing him instead. It is not surprising that a money-changer like Mr. Key would not have a strong ethical compass, or that a career politician like the good “Dr.” Mapp would weasel rather than front on the ethical dilemmas involved in the deployment. But it is unfortunate that the top military brass have joined in the campaign, regardless of whether or not they are simply trying to close ranks around General Mateparae. They of all people should know that the integrity of the force should come before politician’s political machinations.

If there are reasons of state behind the decision to commit the SAS back into Afghanistan under less than optimal ROEs (at least with regard to the treatment of prisoners), then they should be stated clearly and openly. It is quite possible that a majority of New Zealander’s would have no problem with the mistreatment of prisoners initially captured or detained by the SAS. However, if there are domestic political considerations behind the government’s apparently duplicitous approach to revealing the considerations involved and the terms under which the SAS was re-deployed, then the NZDF should not carry the water for it. Responsibility for the decision lies with the civilian command authority to which the uniformed crowd are ultimately subordinated, and if the NZDF has been asked to misrepresent the terms and conditions of the re-deployment, that is unethical as well as injurious to morale. Troops do not like to be pawns in some political game played by people with no experience in soldiering and no regard for their individual fate, which is why the NZDF leadership should come clean on what it has been asked to do and not do when it comes to its commitment of troops abroad.

In reporting on what the SAS does in Afghanistan, Jon Stephenson was just doing his job, in the time-honoured fashion of war correspondents. In that he is a rare bird in NZ, where flak-jacketed and helmeted media figures “report” in hostile theaters from “sanitised” positions miles away from the action that are surrounded by layers of armed security (i.e. these journalistic poseurs are kept away from real harm and instead are the guests of government-orchestrated field trips in the proximity of battle zones). It is because he adopts the independent, non-scripted line that Mr. Stephenson is being attacked, and in the measure that a democracy is only as good as the free flow of information allows it to be, the actions of this government against him are not only despicable, but a clear sign of the ingrained authoritarian (some would say bullying) ethos that permeates the NZ political elite.

The Greens have called for an independent inquiry and sensing a chance to wound National, Labour has joined them (since it can now use its 2005 decision to not continue the SAS deployment and objection to the 2009 re-deployment as ammunition against the government). Mr. Key has refused to agree to the demands, insisting that he is satisfied with NZDF explanations about the incidents Mr. Stephenson has reported on. What he really means is that he is applying the first rule of bureaucracy when it comes to handling prickly issues: CYA (Cover Yer A**e).

As a political community we should not allow the government to get away with such a cynical response, nor allow its slander of Jon Stephenson to go unchallenged. After all, basic principles of democratic accountability and NZ’s international reputation as a defender of human rights are at stake, as is Mr. Stephenson’s career.

Another locked closet.

datePosted on 00:19, April 6th, 2011 by Pablo

The old saying that the two things one does not want to see being made are sausage and legislation comes to mind given that the Security Intelligence Amendment Bill public submission hearings commence this week (the first reading on the Bill was held in December, during the usual Xmas lull in which serious media scrutiny of pretty much anything unrelated to the season is negligible). Labour and the Greens wanted the submission hearings to be held in public, but the government has knocked that back and declared that they will be held in “private” ( that is, in secret). Although submitters can disseminate their submissions as they see fit, the content of the meetings, including questions by committee members and submitters, are subject to non-disclosure provisos. 

Regardless of the  subject of the hearings, which has to do with specifying the scope of SIS authority and the warrant process involved in conducting surveillance of new electronic technologies such as mobile phones, GPS systems and other gadgets, the failure to hold public hearings is yet another sign of the ingrained authoritarianism of the political elite and its disdain, if not contempt, for the pubic at large. For example, one of the reasons for the surveillance upgrade, according to the government, is the security concerns surrounding the Rugby World Cup. To use that as a rationale beggers belief and just shows the disconnect between the thinking public and what National believes the public will swallow (the reasons why the RWC is not going to be a terrorist target are many but suffice it to say that NZ security agencies have a vested bureaucratic interest in hyping the threat. And should they come, RWC threats will be of a local dissident-protest rather than terrorist in nature, and will not require anything beyond what is already in place in terms of warrants for electronic eavesdropping).

Labour’s call for public hearings is pretty rich given that during its term in office it never held a single one when it came to SIS matters. The Greens, as always when it comes to such things, stand on principle. What is interesting is that the Maori Party and ACT, which have members on the Intelligence and Security oversight committee that will chair the hearings, have sided with National on the issue of transparency–that is, they have opted for the closet rather than the open door when it comes to airing contending views on juxtaposed issues of national security and civil rights. What this says about the Maori Party and ACT leadership, given the targeting of the former’s members by the SIS and the supposed championing by the latter of civil rights, individual freedoms and governmental accountability, I am not not in a position to say. But what I can say is this: the move to hold the SIS Amendment Bill public submission hearings in private is designed to cover the fact that the oversight committee is going to disregard submissions against the granting of expanded surveillance powers to the SIS and will rubber-stamp the legislative changes in any event. There will be no incisive or critical questions offered by committee members with regard to how the electronic spying will be carried out, under what circumstances, for what purposes and with whom it will be shared. 

Instead, there will be a collective nod and wave by the majority of the committee behind closed doors, and the SIS Amendment Bill will pass. What is being protected is not state secrets, not confidential material, or anything remotely connected to national security. The reason the hearings will be held behind closed doors is to conceal the lackey lock-step into which the committee will fall. It is about saving coalition face in an election year rather than addressing the serious concerns of intelligence service power-expansion. That shallow political PR calculation is the sole reason why these hearings will be held in secret.

So much for informed public consent and parliamentary accountability when it comes to security and intelligence in this small democracy.

Shame on the Herald

datePosted on 08:36, March 17th, 2011 by Lew

… for trying to run game on New Zealand, scaremongering the Foreshore and Seabed hÄ«koi:

That was on page four of the dead tree edition, and online here, under the headline “Opponents put up roadblocks to bill”. Use of this outrageously unrepresentative photo makes a number of unjustified implications which aren’t present in Claire Trevett’s generally factual and balanced article. These include:

  • Most obviously, the suggestion that the marchers are gang members, with the implication of violence and public menace that creates, despite the fact that the march was peaceful having been mentioned in the opening sentence of Trevett’s article;
  • Creation of a general equivalence between Māori protesters and gang members, with all the racism that implies;
  • The suggestion that opponents of the foreshore and seabed legislation are acting on a separatist “black power” imperative, when the article makes clear that the opponents mentioned in the headline are an ideological grab-bag consisting of the ACT and Green parties, and Hone Harawira;
  • The suggestion that the marchers are literally blocking roads, when the article makes clear that the roadblocks referred to in the headline are metaphorical, and little more than the usual sort of procedural delaying tactics employed in Parliament to drag out the progress of a bill — in this case until next week, when the hÄ«koi reaches Wellington.

The core message of this choice of photo to accompany what is mostly a story about the trivial frustrations of a government trying to pass an unpopular law is this: Māori radicals and gangs are forcibly blocking this law, and they will block you from the beach as well.

It would be absurd if it wasn’t so offensively misleading.

(via Pascal’s bookie)

L

Revealed preference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L

Double-tracking

datePosted on 12:24, March 3rd, 2011 by Lew

Danyl Mclauchlan posits a conspiracy theory:

there is a pretty great opportunity to use the Maori seats to rort the system: if you had two Maori Parties, one that ran electoral candidates in six out of the seven electorates and only canvased for electorate votes, and another that had a safe seat in the seventh electorate and only canvased for party list votes in the other regions then you could, conceivably, end up with a dozen MPs (albeit with some overhang due to your electorate imbalance) and hold the balance of power in perpetuity.

Danyl’s scheme is essentially what the Greens tentatively proposed before the last election: green voters in Māori electorates consider casting electorate votes for the māori party candidate, and māori party voters cast their party vote for the Greens. The proposal was rejected by the māori party, which at the time was (in my view) a tactical error but a wise strategic choice.

It was a tactical error because of the efficiency argument (a positive-sum alliance permitting the two parties to extract more parliamentary representation from the same base of electoral support). But without the benefit of hindsight it was a good strategic move because the māori party’s whole point was not to be shackled to the ‘Pākehā’ parties, and its long-term survival still likely depends on its establishing its own persistent powerbase; one which could stand a chance of surviving even the abolition of the Māori seats. The only way to do that is to grow the party vote by strengthening ‘brand’ support among its electorate. (Also the proposal was made quite late in the campaign, and the potential for voter confusion was high.)

Those factors which made the plan a strong strategic risk for the māori party in 2008 now no longer obtain, or at least not so strongly. It has largely sacrificed its independence from the Pākehā political mainstream anyway, and could potentially lose considerable support for that reason. It may hang onto electorates, but it is likely that ‘brand’ support is lower than before. So with the benefit of hingsight, they might as well have gone with the Greens last time. Nowadays, they have a radical wing-man in Hone, who will work with them and who shares, despite all the rhetorical ructions, considerable common ground with the party’s other members and its foundational kaupapa. They can work together; Hone working to attract the ‘brand’ support for an independent indigenous party, the existing māori party maintaining their electorate positions and continuing to work within the mainstream.

I’m not convinced this will happen — as the Richards say in comments to Danyl’s post, a lot of it is personality-bound — but it could work in principle.

There’s one other factor, though. Although ACT and National have been collaborating in this way since Rodney Hide was gifted Epsom, the moment the māori party and a new radical wing led by Hone start doing it, the headline will be “Maaries rorting democracy to establish an apartheid state”. Those who’ve been benefiting from this sort of positive-sum electoral coordination for years will be those most urgently banging that drum and waving those banners. That’s a powerful disincentive.

Edit to add: Of course, there’s also a referendum on MMP on the day of the election. A scheme such as this would be an outstanding means of undermining MMP’s popular support and endangering its future.

L

Playing us for suckers.

datePosted on 14:39, December 7th, 2010 by Pablo

John Key has announced that changes to the SIS enabling laws that will expand its powers of surveillance of cell phones and computers as well as its use of electronic tracking devices will be pushed through parliament before the Rugby World Cup. He claims it is necessary to do so because “many world leaders” will be visiting during the RWC and appropriate security measures must be in place that require changes to the 41 year old SIS charter. The Privacy Commission advised for a three year review of the pertinent laws but was ignored.

This is the second time that Mr. Key has used the RWC to justify a modification of a security measure, the first being the withdrawal of the NZSAS from Afghanistan in 2011 because they are needed for duty at the RWC. Just as it is ludicrous to believe that NZ’s most elite troops would be used as guards or stand-bys for a sporting event held in Aotearoa, it is also an insult to the NZ public intelligence to claim that the RWC is the reason for the law changes that expand the SIS powers of search and surveillance.

The changes are actually just another continuation of the steady expansion of the NZ security apparatus over the last ten years. It runs in parallel with the proposed Search and Surveillance Bill, which gives wiretapping and eavesdropping authority to a range of local and national agencies that have nothing to do with security. Each year the SIS budget increases, as does its personnel. Police intelligence has also increased in numbers and seen its role expanded. The question is, first, what threats exist now that require such an expansion of the coercive powers of the State?  Are these threats of such a magnitude that basic civil liberties must be curtailed in the purported interest of national security? If so, why are they not publicly identified and enumerated so as to raise public awareness of them? If not, why, in an age of public bureaucracy down-sizing and privatisation, is the repressive apparatus growing, especially in its internal dimension?

Truth be told, all claims about terrorists notwithstanding, from where I sit there appears to be very little in the way of new, imminent and developed threats that constitute a clear and present danger to NZ national security so as to justify the continued expansion of the repressive apparatus at the expense of civil liberties.

We will never hear an answer to the questions I have just posed because John Key says that “it is not in the public interest” for hearings on the proposed changes be open to scrutiny. Instead, submissions on the proposed changes will be open to the public but the hearings on them held in private because–you guessed it–it was “not in the interests of national security” for the hearings to be heard openly. In sum: for John Key, the public logic is that for the sake of a one-off athletic event that is limited to a handful of former rugby-playing Commonwealth countries and some joiners (unlike more universal competitions like the World Cup, the Olympics or Commonwealth Games), the entire fabric of (mostly domestic) intelligence-gathering must be expanded and domestic liberties further curtailed.

One wonders what National’s  private logic is.

What are Mr. Key and his pipe dream team smoking that he can bald-faced say such utter nonsense and expect the NZ to be so gullible as to believe him? Or is the NZ public that stupid that it will believe that these proposed law changes are needed to protect visiting world leaders at the RWC and are so sensitive that their merits cannot be debated openly? Does he think that Kiwis do not care about legislation that curtails their basic rights, or that they believe that it is best to allow the government to just push through tougher ‘anti-crime” laws without public debate?

It could well be the case that the proposed changes are due to the fact that advances in telecommunications have allowed criminal and extremist groups to transfer funds and send instructions more easily and securely in and out of NZ. It could well be that criminal and extremists groups are scheming and plotting in NZ, and the proposed law changes will allow the SIS to better counter them. But that should be publicly explained and justified, not considered privately within the confines of the Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee, which is comprised of a grand total of 5 people and in which the government has the majority.

The bottom line is that the proposed legislation has nothing to do with the RWC and all to do with an ongoing expansion of the State’s powers of coercion at a time when its ideological apparatuses are increasingly failing to reproduce mass consent to the elite’s preferred ideological project. Having supported the equation of dissent with terrorism while in Opposition during the 5th Labour government, National is keen to ramrod more encroachments on basic rights in pursuit of the challenged elite project. Having eroded the right to organise and collectively defend worker’s interests while opening up the country to a variety of investors, yet having its hopes for asset sales to foreigners  and de-regulated mining on public lands thwarted by public resistance, National has turned to the old canard of “security” to dupe the public into giving up more rights to the State.

Raising the spectre of security threats provides a convenient cloak for the assertion of State powers of control and punishment on all those who challenge it, criminal or benign. That is why Mr. Key wants hearings on the proposed changes to be held behind closed doors, because if they were made public then open challenges can be made to the justifications for an expansion of SIS powers as well as the underlying reasons for them.

Mr. Key and his minions must be resisted as the closet authoritarians that they are.  In democracy. law changes need to receive a full and open airing, it is changes to security and intelligence laws that threaten the fundamental rights that lie at the heart of democratic society. The proposed changes are one such instance, which makes it too important a matter to be left to the privacy of the Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee in the run-up to the RWC. Mr Key cannot have it both ways: either he believes in democratic accountability when it it comes to national security matters and its impact on fundamental rights and restrictions on them, or he believes in elite perogative, to include the issue of balancing of security and rights.

The only way to find out is to force him to choose, and for that to happen requires an Opposition that understands–surprise, surprise– that political advantage can often be gained by standing on principle. One can only hope that is now is such a moment of realisation for Labour, even if it means turning on the monster that it created nearly ten years ago.

No democracy on the honour system

datePosted on 21:47, September 14th, 2010 by Lew

This morning I posited a conspiracy theory that the government would use the temporary deregulation measures undertaken in response to the Canterbury earthquake to progress another tranche of wide-ranging reforms to the resource management regime and building and construction industries after the 2011 election.

Absurdly, if the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill is passed without very extensive amendments of the sort proposed by the Greens and voted down by both major parties (it’s going through all three stages right now), then all that and much, much more could happen this week, no election required, and without any review by the courts. The executive powers granted to the relevant Minister (that’s Gerry Brownlee) in this bill are so sweeping as to permit him to do almost literally anything as long as it has something to do with quake recovery — amend or suspend almost any piece of legislation, overturn any electoral decision — really, Dean Knight, Graeme Edgeler and Andrew Geddis (themselves no wide-eyed conspiracy nuts) are just three of the constitutional law experts who are boggling at the possibilities; Idiot/Savant is also much more than usually incandescent, and Gordon Campbell pulls few punches, either. Geddis says the law gives him “a case of the screaming collywobbles”. How’s that for a technical term. Their argument — contra government speakers such as Nick Smith — is that, because there is no real oversight to test whether actions taken are “reasonably necessary or expedient for the purpose of the Act”, the bill’s scope is not strictly limited in black-letter law to those matters, nor indeed to the region impacted by the quake, and the minister and his commission basically enjoy immunity. These are sweeping powers such as those which might be accorded an executive head of state in a command-government situation such as a major war.

Not would happen, mind. I don’t think anyone genuinely thinks Gerry Brownlee will decriminalise murder, approve mining across all schedule 4 land, enact wartime conscription or overrule the results of the forthcoming Supercity election. I don’t. But the point is (assuming Dean Knight knows what he’s talking about) that Brownlee can. Or will be able to tomorrow, until April 2012, which astute readers will note is a good half-year after the next general election must be held. There are no real checks or balances, much of the actions taken under this legislation are able to be taken in secret, and actions taken will not — at least on paper — be subject to judicial review. This means that we are relying on Gerry Brownlee to not be evil. But democracy doesn’t work on the honour system. It can’t. It doesn’t work on the basis that you give a government power in the hope that they use it legitimately; you give it power on the basis that you have the authority and ability to wrest it back from them if they misuse it, and on the assumption they will misuse it. The honour system is fine for bouquets being sold at the cemetery gates. It’s no basis upon which to run a country.

As I’ve often argued here and elsewhere, what sets liberal democracy, with all its failings, apart from authoritarian systems is the ability for the electorate to transfer power by the exercise of these sorts of checks and balances. Under orthodox authoritarian socialism for examplem — more or less the only form of socialism ever fully implemented on a nationwide scale, in the USSR and China, for instance — the transitional dictatorship is empowered with the sole authority and means to put down any such counter-revolution as might endanger the transition to genuine communism; and because of this, the dictatorship enjoys impunity. It has no reason to work in the interests of the people it purports to serve, inevitably becoming inefficient, corrupt and brutal. (Thus, the problem with socialism is authoritariansm which accompanies it, not so much the economic aspects, but that isn’t my point here).

The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill, of all the ridiculous things, brings into being the potential for just such a regime in New Zealand, and we can only hope it is not used to that effect. It is a colossal, hypervigilant overreach. And if any ill comes from this, Labour — and even the Greens and the māori party — will bear as much responsibility as National; they are all supporting it out of “unity”.

Where now are those who railed against the Electoral Finance Act, who speculated darkly that Helen Clark might not relinquish power after the election, or might suspend the operation of the free press; who shrieked about the Section 59 repeal; against ‘Nanny State’ and the illusory Stalinism of lightbulbs and shower heads, drink-drive limits and alcohol purchase ages and compulsory student union membership? Here the papers are being signed to dismantle robust constitutional democracy right under our very noses, and there’s barely a whimper.

(Updated to add Lyndon Hood’s fantastic image of Brownlee VIII, link to Campbell’s article, and tidy the post up a bit.)

L

Brief thoughts

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

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

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

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

L

A Diplomatic Dilemma: Kowtow or Confront?

datePosted on 17:53, June 18th, 2010 by Pablo

The manhandling of Green Party leader Russell Norman by Chinese security guards as they escorted a high-level delegation into Parliament raises some thorny questions for the government. Norman was protesting in favour of a free Tibet when his flag was taken from him and he was shoved to the ground. Technically speaking, he was exercising his democratic right to free speech and protest on parliament grounds, so the minute the guards laid hands on him they were guilty of assault. Of course, it remains to be seen if Norman did anything to provoke the guards reaction, such as by rushing at the visiting officials or uttering threats (neither of which appears at this juncture to have happened). Some commentators believe that he deserved what he got because he was being provocative merely by protesting , or because the whole episode was a PR stunt anyway. Even so, if the assault on him was provoked by his holding the flag or shouting “free Tibet”  rather than him posing an immediate physical threat to the delegation, then the guards were in fact violating his rights as well as NZ criminal law and parliamentary protocol. So what is the government to do?

China is now the second largest trading partner of NZ, which has secured the first bilateral free trade agreement between China and a Western country. The National government has worked hard to deepen ties with the PRC, to the point that it is working on the details of a military exchange program with the Asian giant and has not opposed the sale of strategic assets to Chinese consortia. In the past the 5th Labour government has coordinated with visiting Chinese delegations to prevent protesters from getting close to the visitors. There is, in other words, a history of NZ officials working to appease Chinese sensitivities about protest and dissent within a larger context of improving relations between the two countries.

But there has never been a direct confrontation between members of a Chinese entourage and NZ citizens, much less a shoving match between Chinese nationals and an MP inside of parliament itself (as far as I know previous protests by Ron Donald never escalated this far). So a precedent is about to be set. If the NZ Police charge the security guards with assault, or if the government declares them personae non grata and expels them, then NZ runs the risk of having these strengthening ties disrupted by a Chinese diplomatic backlash. Even of short lived or partial, any retaliatory curtailment of trade and investment could end up costing NZ millions of dollars in lost revenue (and the jobs that go with it). But if the Police or government do nothing, then they send the signal that NZ’s commitment to civil rights is secondary to its commitment to trade. Some might see that as kowtowing to an authoritarian one party state in the pursuit of profit. So far the Police have said that they will investigate Norman’s complaint about the incident, but  that does not mean it will result in charges being laid.

One line of argument could be that NZ has to look at the broader and longer-term picture and not jeopardise a relationship that is crucial to NZ’s future prosperity over a trivial incident. A counter-argument is that NZ has more to lose if it abandons its democratic principles in favour of the ethereal promise of cash down the road. One rationale privileges principle over practicality; the other privileges the reverse.

So, what is to be done? What should be Labour and ACT’s responses be (as the majority opposition party and supposed champion of individual rights, respectively)? Should pragmatism triumph over principle, or should principle outweigh economic and diplomatic considerations? Is there a compromise solution in which face is saved all around? Will the Police go through the motions of an investigation but do nothing, and if so, what will National do by way of official follow up?

Less one think that this conundrum could only occur because of the nature of the Chinese, consider this scenario:

A protester attempts to approach US Vice President Biden and/or Secretary of State Clinton at the Beehive entrance in order to deliver a petition demanding closure of Camp X Ray at Guantanamo, or better yet, a summons to the International Court of Justice for complicity in US “war crimes” in Iraq and Afghanistan. What do you think the Secret Service response would be, and if the Secret Service agents surrounding the US dignitaries were to react in a physical manner, would the NZ Police or government press charges against them?

Such are the quandaries of being an elf amongst giants.

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