Posts Tagged ‘Labour’
In recent months I have become increasingly concerned at the state of bullshit in this country. Bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt famously wrote, is distinguished not by its intentionally negative truth value (those are lies) but its absence of intentional truth value, or as Frankfurt terms it, “indifference to how things really are”. In the democratic context, this is the generally low-level governmental pabulum that we are expected to believe because the full truth is unavailable to those from whom we demand it (more on that later), or because there are more or less legitimate reasons why it cannot be conveyed.
Bullshit and its proliferation
I am concerned because the standard of bullshit that we are expected to believe from the government has declined. Bullshit is eternal — it existed before Key and will persist after him — but I am convinced that it wasn’t generally this bad under Clark. I may be biased in this regard, but I accept we were invited to believe some articles of truly egregious bullshit, such as that Taito Phillip Field was merely helping out a friend, or the 21st Century’s most magnificent local example of bipartisan bullshit, that the Ngāti Apa verdict would result in Māori owning all the beaches. But in general the bullshit we were offered was at least plausible. That is, we generally did not have to stretch too far to believe that those in charge did in fact believe what they were telling us to be something approximating how things really are.
That an official government source should believe this is a pretty low bar. But in the past few weeks, the Key government has invited us to believe a number of articles of bullshit that they themselves cannot possibly believe, including but not limited to the following:
Surely nobody is credulous enough to believe even the first of these. But that is what we are expected to do: to march along with the pretence that the government is not simply making things up to keep people from becoming angry about matters we have a right to be angry about. While it is not clear that all these are pure, canonical examples (some probably contain actual lies, others possibly honest obliviousness), it is clear that these cases were articulated without due regard to how things really are. They are bullshit.
What’s more, this is purposeless bullshit, deployed for trivial tactical reasons by a government which, it appears, is indifferent to the link between what we are expected to believe and how things really are.
How we know it is bullshit
In the most obvious cases, the bullshit needs no proof. A senior Merrill Lynch banker knows what overseas trusts are for, and the Prime Minister’s wide-eyed protestations of innocence are manifest bullshit. In other cases the bullshit comes from the pretence that things are not as bad as they seem, such as in the case of the food at Dunedin hospital, which Jonathan Coleman pronounced “standard kiwi fare” while patients refused to eat it, instead bringing their own food or going hungry, and while the DHB’s doctors are considering legal action to force a change. In yet other cases the bullshit fills the gap between the endeavours which have been claimed and those that have actually been made to improve a situation — such as for emergency housing, which was termed “incoherent, unfair and unaccountable” in an internal MSD review last winter, but which has not been fixed. Whatever the cause of emergency accommodation problem, the claim that the government is doing all it can to resolve it is clearly bullshit. In yet other cases, bullshit begets bullshit, such as when the head of MPI’s bullshit is revealed by the leak of an internal report, prompting the Minister to aver that there is no cover-up.
At first glance it seems that these are straightforward cases of lying — that is, that the heads of MSD and MPI are perfectly aware that they have misled the public as to these matters. But it is likely that those doing the bullshitting are themselves being bullshitted, or they could, if they chose, learn how things really are but have not done so, the lack of which knowledge means they unavoidably produce bullshit when called to speak.
To explain this, we must consider organisational dynamics. In 2008 computer scientist Bruce F Webster wrote a brief treatise on The Thermocline of Truth, “a line drawn across the organizational chart that represents a barrier to accurate information”. (Webster’s context is large IT projects, but the corporatisation of government means the same dynamics are to some extent useful to this context too.) He identified four factors:
So while the Social Housing Minister may well have been told of the review last year, this does not mean she read it in full or was substantively briefed on the implications of the policy, much less that she comprehended it all. The government’s relentless Pollyanna routine and commitment to achieving a surplus, and the concomitant constraints on new spending and general disdain for the wellbeing of the poorest New Zealanders shown across the government means that the Social Housing Minister is incentivised to not bring the matter to wider attention, which a real solution would require. That being so, she is incentivised to know as little about it as possible, so that if questioned she can simply bullshit, rather than having to admit that she was aware of the problem but did nothing. Frankfurt cites this maxim in On Bullshit: “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”
[Update: At least, this is what the Social Housing Minister tried to do in this case. But she failed, and ended up correcting herself before Question Time today. As Alex Coleman said, she tried to bullshit but ended up lying and corrected the error (with more bullshit). So it goes.]
This sort of thing is sometimes framed as the government or the minister having “other priorities” which, refreshingly, is not bullshit.
Bullshit is the enemy of democracy
But the truth will out. Even if we do not agree that policy analysts are optimists (I accept that this is pretty dubious), it only takes one or two who are willing to risk their position to bring an end to the bullshit. In two of the cases I cited above, we are only able to plumb the bullshit’s depth because internal documents revealing how things really are have been leaked, enabling a comparison to be made between that and what we are expected to believe. It turns out that where something greater than the survival of an IT project is at stake, some people will take action to blow the whistle on departmental or ministerial intransigence. This may emerge from a commitment to a certain political or policy agenda, intra-governmental power games, or honest, decent professional frustration. But whistleblowing recognises that democratic systems thrive on openness, truth and accountability, of which excessive bullshit is the eternal foe.
Whistleblowing, which Danah Boyd calls the new civil disobedience, and other anti-bullshit measures have become profoundly important to both global and New Zealand politics. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Rawshark, the Panama Papers leaker, and the unheralded sources within MSD and MPI all provide a check to governmental systems whose connection to how things really are is increasingly incidental. Boyd concludes:
The stakes are lower in New Zealand, but the principles remain. There is a long tradition of protecting and celebrating whistleblowers and other civil disobedients for exercising their consciences, and this tradition must be preserved. Incompetence, intransigence, and the cynical use of bullshit such as identified here are considerably more damaging to democracy than principled, non-bullshitty ideological initiatives, because at least with those we can see clearly what we are getting. If the government were to baldly state that, yes, New Zealand is an international tax haven and these are the benefits of being so; or that homeless people are not really a priority; or that fish being dumped overboard is simply a regrettable cost of production, then at least we would be well-placed to decide whether those were policies which we could support. It does not do so, because the political costs would be too great, and seeks to avoid those costs by way of bullshit. Whistleblowers and leakers require them to pay at least some of the costs of their intransigence. This is just.
The electoral risks of taking the piss
Finally, the problem with bullshit on this scale is that people in a democracy may come to rely on what they are expected to believe as a substitute for how things really are. People can usually tell when the two do not accord, but only with regard to factors that directly effect them. The poor will recognise bullshit regarding poverty, and generalise from that. Environmentalists will recognise bullshit regarding, say, the health of the oceans, and generalise from that. But in the absence of non-bullshit information, people’s rationalisations are often scarcely more useful than the half-recognised bullshit from which they emerge. As a consequence people tend to factionalise around the most compelling purveyors of bullshit-alternatives, which promotes epistemic closure and contributes to radicalisation and polarisation such as is evident in the US Presidential nomination race currently underway.
At least one state has weaponised bullshit in service of its ruling regime, and because of this Putin’s Russia is probably the most prodigious emitter of bullshit in the world today (though the other superpowers are not so far behind as they might think). Putin’s command of bullshit is so great that there now exists no democratic threat to his rule.
That is not true in New Zealand. Aside from the fact that we are not nearly so far gone, the long-term success of more or less bullshit-reliant governments led by both Clark and Key suggests that bullshit persists in government by the consent of the bullshitted. We tolerate a certain amount of bullshit, and we can often forgive its emitters, subject to one condition: that they do not take the piss.
While bullshit is ubiquitous, its current standard is, I think, too egregious for people to put up with. The government’s continuing reliance on bullshit could come off as disdain for the intelligence of the electorate, as Clark and Cullen’s did in their final term, when they told us that the Auditor-General was wrong about Labour’s misuse of taxpayer funds for its 2005 pledge card. One of Key’s great strengths is his ability to present mid-level bullshit as being pretty plausible, but the sort of disdain for the electorate noted above seems new. If people begin to reflect that the government is taking the piss, and ask themselves “what kind of fools do they take us for?” the results could be more politically damaging than any amount of ordinary incompetence or policy failure.
The TPPA signing came and went, as did the nation-wide protests against it. I did not think that the government was going to be swayed from publicly commemorating what it considers to be the crown jewel of its trade-dominated foreign policy, but I had hoped that the numbers turning out to protest would add up to more than 100,000. At least that way the government could be put on notice that a sizeable portion of the electorate were unhappy about the surrender of sovereignty to corporate interests enshrined in the 6000 page text. Alas, the numbers assembled came nowhere close.
One interesting sidebar was the decision to stage a parallel protest at the Sky City complex rather than join with the larger protest march down Queen Street. The specific objective of the Sky City protest was ostensibly to use so-called non-violent direct action (NVDA) and other acts of civil disobedience to block the streets surrounding the gambling complex. In the build up to signing (and protest) day the leaders of the two rival demonstrations publicly debated and largely disagreed on the merits of each. The Queen Street march organisers were concerned that any pushing and shoving at Sky City would feed into the government’s narrative that the matter was a law and order issue (following reports that the police had conducted riot control refresher training and door knocked activists warning them about the consequences of unruly acts). The leaders of the Sky City blockade argued that peaceful marches were simply ineffectual and were ignored by policy-makers. As it turns out, both were right.
The Sky City protesters, some of whom showed up in helmets and assorted face coverings, were forcibly prevented by the Police from effectively shutting down access to and from the venue and surrounding areas. The activists responded by engaging in a series of rolling blockades of major intersections, including the Cook Street on-ramp leading to the Harbour Bridge and Northern Motorway. This continued well after the signing ceremony was over and while the Queen Street march was still in progress. That had the effect of causing gridlock in the Auckland CBD.
Coincidentally or not, there was a bus strike that day. Although Auckland Council allowed its employees to work from home, many other entities did not. That meant that people who normally used buses to get to work had to use alternative transportation, including cars. That added to the number of cars on Auckland inner city roads at the time of the rolling blockades. Needless to say, motorists were not happy with the seemingly random temporary road closures in and around the CBD.
That is why things got too clever. As a tactical response to the police thwarting of the initial action, the move to rolling blockades was ingenious. But that bit of tactical ingenuity superseded the strategic objective, which was to draw attention to the extent of TPPA opposition. In fact, it appeared that the Sky City activists were trying to outdo each other in their attempts to make a point, but in doing so lost sight of the original point they were trying to make. After all, blocking people from leaving the city after the signing ceremony was over was not going to win over hearts and minds when it comes to opposing the TPPA. Plus, it displayed a callous disregard for the motorists affected. What if someone was rushing to a hospital to be with their badly injured child or terminally ill parent? What about those who needed to get to work on time so as to not be docked pay? What about cabbies and delivery people who earn their livings from their vehicles? None of this seems to have factored into the blockader’s minds. Instead, they seemed intent on proving to each other how committed they were to causing disruption regardless of consequence to others.
I have seen this before in other places, most recently in Greece, where anarchists and Trotskyites (in particular but not exclusively) infiltrate peaceful protests and engage in acts of violence in order to provoke what are known as “police riots” (a situation where isolated assaults on individual police officers eventually causes them to collectively lash out indiscriminately at protesters). Fortunately, NZ does not have the type of violent activist whose interest is in causing a police riot. Unfortunately, it has activists who seemingly are more interested in establishing and maintaining their street credentials as “radicals” or “militants” than using protest and civil disobedience as an effective counter-hegemonic tool. So what ended up happening was that the Sky City protestors were portrayed by the corporate media and authorities as anti-social misfits with no regard for others while the Queen Street march was briefly acknowledged, then forgotten.
On a more positive note, Jane Kelsey has to be congratulated for almost single-handedly re-defnining the terms of the debate about TPPA and keeping it in the public eye. As someone who walks the walk as well as talk the talk, she was one of the leaders of the Queen Street march and has comported herself with grace and dignity in the face of vicious smears by government officials and right wing pundits lacking half the integrity she has. I disagree about the concerns she and others have raised about secrecy during the negotiations, in part because I know from my reading and practical experience while working for the US government that all diplomatic negotiations, especially those that are complex and multi-state in nature, are conducted privately and only revealed (if at all) to the public upon completion of negotiations (if and when they are).
For example, the NZ public did not get to see the terms of the Wellington and Washington Agreements restoring NZ as a first-tier security partner of the US until after they were signed, and even today most of their content has been ignored by the press and no protests have occurred over the fact that such sensitive binding security arrangements were decided without public consultation. More specifically with regards to the TPPA, no public consultations were held in any of the 12 signatory states, and in the non-democratic regimes governing some of those states the full details have still not been released. Even so, I do think that it was a good opposition ploy to harp about “secrecy” as it simply does not smell right to those not versed in inter-state negotiations. In any event, what Ms. Kelsey did was exactly what public intellectuals should be doing more often–informing and influencing public opinion for the common good rather than in pursuit of financial or political favour.
I would suggest that opponents of the TPPA focus their attention on the Maori Party and its MPs. The Green Party’s opposition to TPPA is principled, NZ First’s opposition is in line with its economic nationalism and the Labour Party’s opposition is clearly tactical and opportunistic (at least among some of its leaders). So the question is how to wrestle votes away from the government side of the aisle when it comes to ratification. Peter Dunne and David Seymour are not going to be swayed to change sides, but the Maori Party are in a bit of an electoral predicament if they chose to once again side with the economic neo-colonialists in the National government.
For all the sitting down in the middle of public roadways, it may turn out that old fashioned hardball politicking may be the key to successfully stymying ratification of the TPPA in its present form.
Now THAT would be clever.
— Finnish soldier during the Winter War, 1939
— Red Army general during the Winter War, 1940
With their horrendous Chinese housing investment analysis Labour hoped to start a discussion. Well, they’ve done that. For 11 days until yesterday, the story led, or nearly led the news. The question is: are they happy with the discussion they’ve started?
They may really have wanted a discussion about race, dressed up as a discussion about housing, or they may have genuinely wanted a housing discussion with a slight racial frisson. Regardless of their hopes and ambitions, the party at this point has to have a long, hard look at their choices, for in reality, they’ve had neither of these two things. What they have had is an excruciating public discussion about one of the most boring and alienating topics it is possible to imagine: research ethics and methodology. For eleven straight days, during most of which time they had the agenda to themselves because the Prime Minister was out of the country, Labour has unsuccessfully defended its commitment to good social science practice.
Unsuccessfully, because yesterday, 11 days on, an increasingly frustrated Labour leader was still defending the data. “This is how the debate gets out of control,” said Andrew Little to Patrick Gower — and for once, he was right. “The Auckland housing market is not a morality play,” said housing spokesperson Phil Twyford, and he was right, too, but that’s all anyone has been talking about for 11 days.
Earlier in the day the party’s statistical guru Rob Salmond
This is a horror show. Quite apart from giving unreconstructed racists an opportunity to pretend outrage, and appropriative neo-colonialists grounds to go around trumpeting about the coming race war, Labour has spent 11 days debating the definition of “is”, losing, and looking like mendacious buffoons into the bargain. Quite apart from the vileness of this exercise, it has been handled even more badly than I have come to expect.
They need to just stop. There is no ground to be won by these means, and further fighting will mean more dead to bury. The only poll since the announcement has them effectively stagnant, following a poll taken mostly before the announcement, which had them well up. Pretending nothing is wrong with their work, that their high-minded-if-admittedly-risky project has been hijacked by a mendacious media and the leftist-liberal fifth-column is no kind of strategy, even if it were true. The keys to the twitter accounts need to be taken away and, as much as possible, a dignified silence maintained. Go away and get some evidence, find a way to return the discussion to the issue of housing prices and non-resident investment, because those are serious issues about which we deserve a serious discussion which Labour’s delusional incompetence has rendered impossible.
It turns out that nearly 5 months after getting re-elected, the government has decided on the composition of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). Besides himself as Chair of the ISC, the Prime Minister gets to select two members from the government parties and the Opposition Leader gets to select one member from opposition parties. In both cases the respective Leaders are expected under Section 7 (1) (c,d) of the 1996 Intelligence and Security Committee Act to consult with the other parties on their side of the aisle before selecting the remaining members of the committee. The language of the Act is quite specific: “c) 2 members of the House of Representatives nominated for the purpose by the Prime Minister following consultation with the leader of each party in Government: (d) 1 member of the House of Representatives nominated for the purpose by the Leader of the Opposition, with the agreement of the Prime Minister, following consultation with the leader of each party that is not in Government or in coalition with a Government party.” (1996 ISCA, pp. 6-7).
Not surprisingly the government has nominated two National MPs, Attorney General Chris Finlayson and Justice Minister Amy Adams, for membership on the ISC. It is not clear if ACT, the Maori Party and United Future were consulted before their selection. What is more surprising is that Andrew Little nominated David Shearer and did not consult with opposition parties before making his selection. While Shearer is a person with considerable international experience and has been a consumer of intelligence (as opposed to a practitioner) during his career, Mr. Little has been neither. In fact, it can be argued that Mr. Little has the least experience of all the proposed members when it comes to issues of intelligence and security, which means that he will have to lean very heavily on Mr. Shearer if he is not not be overmatched within the ISC.
Moreover, in past years Russell Norman, Peter Dunne and Winston Peters have been on the ISC, so the move to re-centralise parliamentary oversight in the two major parties represents a regression away from the democratisation of representation in that oversight role. Since these two parties have been in government during some of the more egregious acts of recent intelligence agency misbehaviour (for example, the Zaoui case, where intelligence was manipulated by the SIS to build a case against him at the behest of or in collusion with the 5th Labour government, and the case of the illegal surveillance of Kim Dotcom and his associates by the GCSB in collusion or at the behest of the US government under National, to say nothing of the ongoing data mining obtained via mass electronic trawling under both governments), this does not portend well for the upcoming review of the New Zealand intelligence community that this ISC is charged with undertaking.
The Greens have expressed their disgust at being excluded and have, righty in my opinion, pointed out that they are the only past members of the ISC that have taken a critical look at the way intelligence is obtained, analysed and used in New Zealand. But that appears to be exactly why they were excluded. According to John Key, Labour’s decision was “the right call” and he “totally supports it.” More tellingly, Mr. Key said the following: “A range of opposition voices from the minor parties could railroad the process. I don’t think the committee was terribly constructive over the last few years, I think it was used less as a way of constructing the right outcomes for legislation, and more as a sort of political battleground” (my emphasis added).
In other words, Russell Norman took his membership on the ISC seriously and did not just follow along and play ball when it came to expanding state powers of search and surveillance under the Search and Surveillance Act of 2012 and GCSB Act of 2014.
That is a very big concern. Mr. Key believes that the “right” outcomes (which have had the effect of expanding state espionage powers while limiting its accountability or the institutional checks imposed on it) need to be produced by the ISC when it comes to the legal framework governing the intelligence community. Those who would oppose such outcomes are not suitable for membership, a view with which Andrew Little seems to agree.
This is so profoundly an undemocratic view on how intelligence oversight should work that I am at a loss for words to explain how it could come from the mouth of a Prime Minister in a liberal democracy and be tacitly seconded by the Leader of the Opposition–unless they have genuine contempt for democracy. That is a trait that W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard shared as well, but what does that say about the state of New Zealand democracy?
Mr. Little has given his reason to exclude Metiria Turei of the Greens from ISC membership as being due to the fact the Mr. Norman is stepping down in May and Mr. Little wanted “skills, understanding and experience” in that ISC position. Besides insulting Ms. Turei (who has been in parliament for a fair while and co-Leader of the Greens for 5 years), he also gave the flick to Mr. Peters, presumably because that old dog does not heel too well. As for Mr. Dunne, well, loose lips have sunk his ship when it comes to such matters.
The bottom line is that Mr. Little supports Mr. Key’s undemocratic approach to intelligence oversight. Worse yet, it is these two men who will lead the review of the NZ intelligence community and propose reform to it, presumably in light of the debacles of the last few years and the eventual revelations about NZ espionage derived from the Snowden files.
As I said last year in the built-up to the vote on the GCSB Amendment Act, I doubted very much that for all its rhetorical calls for an honest and thorough review process that led to significant reform, Labour would in fact do very little to change the system as given because when it is in government it pretty much acts very similar to National when it comes to intelligence and security. If anything, the differences between the two parties in this field are more stylistic than substantive.
What I could not have foreseen was that Labour would drop all pretence of bringing a critical mindset to the review and instead join National in a move to limit the amount of internal debate allowable within the ISC at a time when it finally had an important task to undertake (in the form of the intelligence community review).
As a result, no matter how many public submissions are made, or how many experts, interest groups and laypeople appear before the ISC hearings, and how much media coverage is given to them, I fear that the end result will be more of the same: some cosmetic changes along the margins, some organisational shuffles and regroupings in the name of streamlining information flows, reducing waste and eliminating duplication of functions in order to promote bureaucratic efficiency, and very little in the way of real change in the NZ intelligence community, especially in the areas of oversight and accountability.
From now on it is all about going through the motions and giving the appearance of undertaking a serious review within the ISC. For lack of a better word, let’s call this the PRISM approach to intelligence community reform.
We already know that John Key dissembles and misleads, especially on matters of security and intelligence. NZ is soon to put troops into Iraq as part of the effort to roll the Islamic Sate (Isis is an Arabic girl’s name) out of that country. For whatever reason Mr. Key will not admit to this even after the British Foreign Secretary mentioned that the NZ contribution will be a company sized (“100 odd” in his words) detachment.
The evidence of military preparation is very clear, with an especially selected infantry company training for desert warfare at Waiouru over the past few months and a detachment of SAS soldiers rumored to be already in theatre. The US and other anti-IS coalition partners have announced preparations for a Northern spring offensive against IS, centred around taking back Mosul from the jihadists. The decision to launch the offensive and the division of labor involving participating ground forces was made at the working meeting of coalition military chiefs in Washington DC last October (the chief of the NZDF attended the meeting although at the time Mr. Key said no decision had been made to send troops). Since the NZDF cannot contribute combat aircraft, armour or even heavy lift assets, it is left for the infantry to join the fray, most likely with a fair share of combat medics and engineers.
With his misrepresentations John Key only obscures the real issue. New Zealand has no option but to join the anti-IS coalition (which he has said is the price for being in “the club”) given the international commitments it has already made.
There are three specific reasons why NZ has to join the fight, two practical and one principled.
The practical reasons are simple: First, NZ’s major security allies, the US, UK and Australia, are all involved as are France, Germany and others. After the signing of the Wellington and Washington security agreements, NZ became a first tier security partner of the US, and as is known, it is an integral member of the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network. It therefore cannot renege on its security alliance commitments without a serious loss of credibility and trust from the countries upon which it is most dependent for its own security.
Secondly, most of New Zealand’s primary diplomatic and trading partners, including those in the Middle East, are involved in the anti-IS coalition. Having just secured a UN Security Council temporary seat at a time when the UN has repeatedly issued condemnations of IS, and having campaigned in part on breaking the logjam in the UNSC caused by repeated use of the veto by the 5 permanent members on issues on which they disagree (such as the civil war in Syria), NZ must back up its rhetoric and reinforce its diplomatic and trade relations by committing to the multinational effort to defeat IS. Refusing to do so in the face of requests from these partners jeopardises the non-military relationships with them.
The third reason is a matter of principle and it is surprising that the government has not made more of it as a justification for involvement. After the Rwandan genocide an international doctrine known as the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) was agreed by UN convention to prevent future horrors of that sort. It basically states that if a defenceless population is being subject to the depredations of its own government, or if the home government cannot defend the population from the depredations of others, then the international community is compelled to use whatever means, including armed force, to prevent ongoing atrocities from occurring. There can be no doubt that is the situation in parts of Iraq and Syria at the moment. Neither the Assad regime or the Iraqi government can defend minority communities such as Kurds or Yazidis, or even non-compliant Sunnis, from the wrath of IS.
That, more than any other reason, is why NZ must join the fight. As an international good citizen that has signed up to the R2P, NZ is committed in principle to the defense of vulnerable others.
So why have the Greens, NZ First and Labour (or at least Andrew Little) opposed the move?
The Greens are true to form with their pacifist and non-interventionist stance, but they are ignoring the matter of international principle at stake. NZ First is its usual isolationist self, acting blissfully unaware of the interlocking web of international networks and commitments that allow NZ to maintain its standard of living and international reputation (in spite of having Ron Mark to speak to military issues).
Most of all, why has Andrew Little run his mouth about reneging on the NZDF contribution to the anti-IS coalition (which involves formal and time-constrained commitments)? Little has previous form in displaying ignorance of international affairs, but this level of hypocrisy takes the cake. Does he not remember that the 5th Labour government started the rapprochement with the US after 9/11, and that it was the 5th Labour government that initially deceived and misled about the real nature of the SAS role in Afghanistan as well as the true nature of the mission in Southern Iraq (which is widely believed to have involved more than a company of military engineers). Is he not aware that a responsible country does not walk away from the security alliance, diplomatic and trade commitments mentioned above? Did he not consult with Helen Clark, Phil Goff or David Shearer before this brain fart (or did they gave him the rope on which to hang himself)? Does he really believe, or expect the informed public to believe, that on defense, security and intelligence issues Labour in 2015 is really that different from National? If so, it is he, not us, who is deluded.
All this shows is that Labour is still unfit to govern, or at least Little is not. If he does not understand the core principles governing international relations and foreign affairs, or if he chooses to ignore them in favour of scoring cheap political points, then he simply is unsuited to lead NZ before the international community. There is a big difference between being a political party leader and being a statesman. It is clear that John Key is no statesman, but his glib and jocular nature gives him the benefit of international respect so long as he backs up his talk with the appropriate walk. By comparison, Andrew Little comes off as some provincial rube who cannot see further than the nearest bend in the road.
Whether we like it or not–and there are plenty of things not to like about getting involved in what could become another military morass in the Middle East–NZ has an obligation to get involved in the fight against IS. The obligation stems not just from the particular disposition of this National government but from years of carefully crafted international ties under successive governments that give practical as well as principled reasons for involvement. Andrew Little should know that, and the Greens and NZ First need to understand that this is not about belonging to some exclusive “club” but about being a responsible global citizen responding to the multinational call for help in the face of a clear and present danger to the international community. Because if IS is not a clearly identifiable evil, then there is no such thing.
In any event the fight against IS is dangerous but cannot be avoided.
In 1995 I published a book that explored the interaction between the state, organised labor and capital in the transitions to democracy in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. The book was theoretically rooted in neo-or post-Gramscian thought as well as the vast literature on collective action and the politics of the case studies. In it I explained how democratic transitions were facilitated by class compromises between labour and capital brokered by the state, which acted as an institutional mediator/arbitrator in resolving conflicts between the two sides of the labour process. I noted the importance of neo-corporatist, tripartite concentrative vehicles for the achievement of a durable class compromise in which current wage restraint was traded for increased productivity in pursuit of future wage gains under restrained rates of profit-taking, all within state-enforced workplace, health, safety and retirement frameworks negotiated between the principles. That way the relations in and of production were peaceably maintained.
One of the things I discovered is that labour or working class-based parties were served best when they had union representation in the leadership. That is because, unlike career politicians, union leaders were closest to the rank and file when it came to issues pertinent to those relations in and of production. As a result, they translated the needs of the rank and file into political imperatives that determined working class political praxis under democratic (read non-revolutionary) conditions.
In contrast,Left politicians tended to be drawn from the intelligentsia and were prone to compromise on matters of principle in pursuit of strategic or tactical gain. Many did not have working class backgrounds, and some spent their entire careers, if not adult lives, currying favour in the pursuit of office and the power that comes with it. More than a few have never held a job outside of the political sphere, which led them to hold an insular view of how working class politics should be conducted. As a result, they were often disinclined to put the material or political interests of the working classes first, preferring instead to pursue incremental gains around the margins of the social division of labour within the system as given.
For those reasons, I found that working class interests were best represented when the union movement dominated the working class party, not the other way around.
But there was a caveat to this discovery: unionists only served as legitimate and honest agents of working class interests if they adhered to a class line. In other words, they had to be genuine Marxists or socialists who put the working class interest first when it came to the pursuit of politics in competition with the political agents of capital. “Class line” was broadly interpreted to include all wage labour–blue and white collar, temporary and permanent, unionised or not. That made them honest interlocutors of the people they represented (the ultimate producers of wealth), since otherwise they would be conceding the primacy of capital and business interests (the appropriators of surplus) in the first instance.
Since the system is already stacked in favour of capital in liberal democracies, it was imperative that the agents of the working class in post-auhoritarian contexts wholeheartedly and honestly embraced ideologies that a minimum rejected the unquestioning acceptance of market directives as a given, much less the idea that capitalism as a social construct was the best means by which societal resources were organised and distributed. The post-transitional moment was an opportune time to press the critique of capitalism, as the authoritarian experiments had demonstrated quite vividly the connection between political oppression and economic exploitation. It was a moment in time (the mid to late 1980s) when unions could impose working class preferences on the political parties that purported to represent the rank and file, and where working class parties could genuinely speak truth to power.
As it turns out, the record in the Southern Cone was mixed. Where there was a Marxist-dominated national labour confederation that dominated Left political representation (Uruguay), the political Left prospered and the working class benefitted the most. In fact, after two decades of failed pro-business government by the centre-right Colorado Party, the union-backed Frente Amplio coalition has now ruled for over a decade with great success and Uruguay remains Latin America’s strongest democracy.
On the other hand, where the union movement was controlled by sold-out opportunists and co-opted bureaucrats (Argentina), who in turn dominated the majority Left political party (the Peronists), corruption and concession were the norm and the working classes benefited the least. In fact, in a twist on the New Zealand story, it was a corrupt, sold-out and union-backed Peronist president, Carlos Menem, who used the coercively-imposed market driven economic reforms of the military dictatorship as the basis for the neoliberal agenda he implemented, by executive decree, in Argentina in accordance with the so-called “Washington Consensus.”
In Brazil the union movement was divided at the time of the transition between a Marxist-dominated militant confederation (the CUT), led by Luis Inganicio da Silva or “Lula”as he was better known, and a cooped confederation (the CGT) that had emerged during the military dictatorship and which was favoured by business elites as the employee agent of choice. The CUT dominated the politics of the Workers Party (PT), whereas the CGT was subordinated to the logics of the political leadership of the right-center PMDB.
As things turned out, although the PMDB won control of the national government in the first two post-authoritarian elections, and the subsequent governments of social democrat Fernando Henrique Cardoso began a number of social welfare projects designed to reduce income inequality and enforce basic human rights, working class interests did not fully proposer until the PT under Lula’s leadership was elected in 2002 (the PT just won re-election for the fourth consecutive time under the presidency of Lula’s successor Dilma Rouseff). In the PT Marxist unionists have dominant positions. In the PMDB and Cardoso’s PSDB, the sold-out unionists did not.
That brings me to the the election of Andrew Little as Labour Party Leader. Leaving aside the different context of contemporary New Zealand relative to the subject of my book and the question as to whether the union movement truly dominates the Labour Party, consider his union credentials. His background is with the EPMU, arguably the most conservative and sold-out union federation in the country. In fact, he has no record of “militancy” to speak of, and certainly is not a Marxist. Instead, his record is that of a co-opted union bureaucrat who likes to work with the Man rather than against Him. The fact that business leaders–the same people who work incessantly to strip workers of collective and individual rights under the guise of employment “flexibilization”– find him “reasonable” and “thoughtful” attests not only to his powers of persuasion but also to the extent of his co-optation.
But maybe that was just what he had to do in order to achieve his true calling and show his true self as a politician. So what about his credentials as a politician? If winning elections is a measure to go by, Mr. Little is not much of one, having never won an election outside his unions. Nor has his tenure as a list MP in parliament been a highlight reel of championing working class causes and promoting their interests. As others have said, he smacks of grey.
Which brings me to the bottom line. Does he have a class line?
Complex social organisations are the collective means by which individuals aggregate common interests beyond primordial forms of identification (family, clan, etc.). The nature of the interest determines the type of social organisation. Interest and context determine the organising principles by which the collective is aggregated and represented.
The more an organisation becomes entrenched in the social fabric and serves as a landmark feature of the social order, the more it achieves institutional status. Institutions are characterised by their own structures, mores, norms and behavioural characteristics. For example, the military institution has organisational features and behaviours that are not the same as those of churches or sports associations. The Police and surf lifesaving have institutional cultures all of their own.
Political parties are social organisations created in pursuit of ideological, political or policy objectives.Well-entrenched political parties often achieve institutional status and serve as channels for aggregating political interests amongst the majority of the population.
With that in mind, and with an eye towards the rolling disaster that is otherwise known as the NZ Labour Party, here are some immutable laws of social organisation. They are a combination of Weberian, Michelian and Leninist principles with a bit Olsen, Offe and Wiesenthal thrown in.
Rule Number One: The bottom line of the organisation is to survive.
Rule Number Two: The organisation must succeed in achieving core goals in order to survive. Core goals and the pursuit of them are defined by the interests being represented, which involves agent-principal relations. Unlike interest aggregation manifest in social organisation under authoritarian conditions, in liberal democracies long-term collective representation is more consultative rather than directive when it comes to the relationship between agents and principals.
Rule Number Three: Core goals are strategic, not tactical.
Rule Number Four: Winning over competing groups is tactical, not strategic.
Rule Number Five: Leadership is about pursuing if not achieving core strategic goals based on collective interest. Tactical decisions are left to lieutenants who understand the strategic objectives at stake. Tactical decision-making should be seen as a step towards leadership but cannot infringe on the pursuit of core interests.
Rule Number Six: People may come and go but the organisation must live on.
This rule has two sub-components: 1) the organisation is more than the sum total of the people in it at any given time. It has history, traditions, rules, by-laws, informal and formal agencies, symbols, and physical assets that together make up the organisational context in which individual party members operate, features that remain long after individuals have left the scene; 2) the organisation is more important than the individuals within it at any given time, but it is only as good as the individuals that comprise its human element at any given moment. The quality of the people involved in the organisation determines its strength and resilience given the backdrop mentioned in component number one.
Rule Number Seven: The organisation is different from and not reducible to the ambitions of individuals or factions.
Rule Number Eight: While factions are inevitable in complex social organisations which aggregate heterogenous interests around core objectives, no single faction should dominate organisational logics and strategies given the diversity of interests at play. While an ebb and flow in dominant views can be expected given conjunctural conditions, prolonged domination of organisational representation or outlook by one faction is inimical to the organisation’s long-term health.
Rule Number Nine: Internal conflicts should focus on policy, not personality.
Rule Number Ten: Internal backstabbing and skullduggery may offer short term advantages for those involved but can backfire over the long-term and are corrosive on morale of the organisation in any event.
Rule Number Eleven: Internal quarrels are like family feuds–they need to be kept within the organisation because exposure to outsiders aggravates, complicates and makes such conflicts more difficult to resolve since the interests of outsiders come into play.
Rule Number Twelve: Social organisations are more than marriages of convenience and should be treated as such. That means purging the organisation of those who see it in opportunistic or instrumental rather than principled terms.
Rule Number Thirteen: If the organisation cannot abide by the first twelve rules, it fails the basic test of representation and should reorganise or cease to exist.
These rules are simplified and in no way novel or exhaustive. Let them merely serve as a reminder of the basics of organisational survival.
It is precisely because of this that Labour’s current woes are all the more alarming for those who would otherwise see it as the preferred vehicle for channeling political aspirations. If it cannot adhere to the basic rules for survival, then it is even less likely that it can become successful anytime in the near future. To the contrary, although it may remain alive in name it is now closer to organisational demise than it is to renewal.
Contenders, pretenders, opportunists, fence straddlers and hangers-on in the Labour Party ranks need to be cognisant of this fact. After all, they may be clinging to different lifelines but they are taking on water together.
The matters I discussed in the previous post to do with reality-adjacent campaigning are about targeting voters with messages they can grok about issues they care about. But empiricism is not much good for deciding a party’s ideological values or for developing policy. Parties made up of committed ideologues remain indispensable for that reason.
As is often pointed out to me, I am not such a person. I have never been a member of a party, nor involved in a campaign, and I have little desire to do either. For some people this means I obviously don’t know what I’m talking about; fair enough. As an analyst, I prefer the outsider’s perspective. I don’t feel any pressure to be loyal to bad ideas or habits, and I try to answer only to the evidence. Ironically, though, there isn’t much hard evidence for the arguments I’m about to make about the medium-term future of the NZ left. Nobody has any. It’s value-judgements all the way down. So my reckons are as good as anyone else’s, right?
For mine, the major shift from the 2014 election — apart from the unprecedented dominance of the National party — is away from Small Vehicle politics and towards Big Vehicle politics. Only National and NZ First gained modestly. All other parties all failed to meet the threshold or lost support. The destruction of Internet MANA and the failure of a much-improved Conservative party demonstrates that there is no tolerance for insurgency, and the cuts to Labour and the Greens indicates that any confusion or hinted shenanigans will be brutally punished. National can govern alone; it is including ACT, United Future and the Māori Party as a courtesy, and to provide cover. This is Key’s money term. It should be a period of grand political themes and broad gestures, and the left needs to attune itself to this reality: Labour needs to take the responsibility of being a mass movement with broad appeal and capability; a Big Vehicle. The Greens will hopefully get bigger, but I think they will remain a Small Vehicle, appealing to relatively narrow interests, however important they are.
Assuming it doesn’t annihilate itself utterly in the coming weeks, Labour will be the core of any future left-wing government, but the strategies that served it poorly as a substantial party of opposition will be utterly untenable in its diminished state. Throughout most of the past six years, Labour has been the party opposed to National. They haven’t been a party that clearly stands for anything, that projects the sort of self-belief that National, the Greens, and even NZ First does.
Labour therefore needs to re-orient its conduct and messaging to its core values, and those are fundamentally about secure and prosperous jobs for the majority of working people, and those who rely on the state as the provider of last resort. But I am emphatically not calling for a retreat to doctrinaire materialism at the expense of superstructural considerations. The demographic groups that kept Labour alive this election were women (6.6 points higher than men), Māori, and Pasifika, and the party would be insane not to recognise the debt that they owe these voters. Of 11 MPs in whose electorates Labour won the party vote, only one — David Clark — is Pākehā, and in his electorate of Dunedin North Labour got 24 votes more than National. Five (Williams, Mahuta, Sepuloni, Wall, and Whaitiri) are women. The return of Te Tai Hauāuru, Tāmaki Makaurau and especially Te Tai Tokerau to Labour underscores the opportunity that exists to reconnect with Māori.
There will be enormous pressure to begin taking these voters for granted again, and it must be vigorously resisted. As for talk of reaching out to “the base” — a party’s “base” is who votes for it when it is at its lowest. Labour’s base as demonstrated by the 2014 election is comprised largely of working-class women, Māori, and Pasifika. So policy proposals that impact those groups more directly — parental leave, free healthcare, ECE, support for family violence services, social welfare — should not be neglected. By and large, though, these voters will also be motivated by many of the same concerns that speak to anyone else, particularly as the National government’s policies begin to bite. But the party’s appeal must expand well beyond this base into the centre ground. It need not be zero-sum. Labour cannot afford to be caricatured as a party that only cares about those groups, it must be a party that a broad range of people feels like it could vote for — like the party understands their needs, and would act in their interests. The key is framing messages and policies in ways that speaking to the base without alienating the broader public, and to the broader public without excluding the members of these base demographics groups, using separate channels and emphasis where necessary. The key term here is “emphasis”.
The party also has to be smarter and more pragmatic than it has been, especially in social policy. At a minimum, this means an end to opposing Whānau Ora on principle. The new MP for Hauāuru, Adrian Rurawhe, speaking to Radio New Zealand’s Te Ahi Kā on Sunday, has a strong line on this: to not attack the philosophy, to not attack the model, but to attack the implementation of individual schemes. There’s a distinction between cartelised privatisation of service delivery, and self-determination, and a party of Māori aspirations should work, even in opposition, to strengthen and entrench the latter so it can succeed. National has spent six years making policies targeted at Māori, run by Māori and under Māori delivery models politically and culturally acceptable, and has made enormous progress on Treaty claims. Labour must capitalise on these gains. They also provide an opportunity to reach out to the Māori Party, should they survive another term in government and remain viable.
The same imperative also means collaborating with the government on distasteful topics like RMA reform, regional and rural development, and charter schools. The battle over whether these will happen is comprehensively lost; the questions now are how badly are they going to be done, and how much political capital will be wasted in trying to unshit the bed later. Better for Labour to work collaboratively with the government to limit the damage and make the best possible use of the rare opportunity to reform entrenched systems. Let the Greens fight them. Don’t worry! There will be plenty else to oppose.
The Greens are here to stay, and Labour should not be reluctant to bleed some of its liberal-activist support to them, to make up bigger gains elsewhere. This will infuriate many in the activist community, and most everyone on Twitter, but my sense is nearly all of those folks vote Green anyway, and they will be in safe hands. Labour hasn’t been a radical or activist party in recent memory, except for 1984-1990, and we know how that turned out.
There is an opportunity to coordinate and make use of the temperamental differences between the parties, with the Greens taking a more vigorously liberal and activist role against Labour’s moderate incrementalism. The strategy that has been proposed intermittently for ages that Labour should attack the Greens directly is insane — the two parties, while allied, do not and should not substantially share a constituency. Labour, like National, is is a mass movement of the people, and should become more so; the Greens are a transitional insurgent movement seeking to influence the existing mass movements, and they seem intent on continuing in that role.
Of all the Small Vehicles, the Greens are best equipped to thrive in a Big Vehicle-dominant context. New Zealand First will struggle. While Labour should collaborate with the Greens, Labour should contend with NZ First, and aim either to gut it of its voter base or, more plausibly, to drive it towards National where the inevitable contradictions and ideological enmities will probably cause harm to both parties. ACT and United Future are wholly-owned by John Key and are effectively irrelevant.
The worst case for Labour, apart from continuing in the blissful ignorance that nothing is really wrong, would be a retreat into sullen populism, trying to out-Winston Winston or out-Key Key, or chucking the vulnerable passengers overboard so that the ship might float a little higher in the water for those who remain. The party has to have its own identity and its own motive force, and it has rebuild its own constituency. It can be done. I hope they can do it, because we haven’t had an effective Labour party for a long time now, and we really need one.
John Key and David Cunliffe both spent much of the election campaign talking about the dreaded “things that New Zealanders really care about”. But Key, under direct attack, was much more disciplined about sticking to those things. The metacampaign, Dirty Politics, and the Dotcom Bomb were worth nothing more than haughty dismissal. At the time this seemed arrogant and ill-advised — how could he just shrug off such scandal? But he did. The National party ran an orthodox, modern campaign. They stuck to their guns amid all the madness, and the result was triumphant.
The poster child for this campaign was candidate Chris Bishop, who ran an old-fashioned shoe-leather campaign in the Labour stronghold of Hutt South and pushed the party’s strategic genius Trevor Mallard to within a few hundred votes of losing the seat he has held for 20 years. No stunts, no social media hype, no concern for the wittering about his being a former tobacco lobbyist, he just talked to the people and listened to the answers that came back.
But how did they know?
John Key could afford to dismiss the metapolitics because he had plenty of good data telling him that people didn’t care about it, and to the extent that they did care about it, it favoured him. The single most evident difference between the campaigns is that When John Key said “the things New Zealanders really care about” he actually knew that these were the things that New Zealanders actually care about. The National party ran a reality-based campaign, not a hype-based, or a hope-based, or a faith-based campaign. In this they mirrored the most famous hope-based campaign of all time — Barack Obama’s — where the breezy, idealistic messaging was built on a rock-solid data foundation.
Key seems to have been the only party leader who was really secure in this knowledge. The Greens and Labour did seem to want to stick to their guns, but their data was evidently not as good, and they bought at least some of the hype that Dirty Politics and the Dotcom Bomb would bring Key low. So did I. But nothing much is riding on my out-of touch delusions. But opposition has a responsibility to be, if not reality-based, then at the very least reality-adjacent.
Play, or get off the field
But data is not a Ring of Power that puts its users in thrall to the Dark Lord. And, unlike the One Ring, it can’t be thrown into a volcano and the world saved from its pernicious influence. Evidence and strategy are here to stay. Use them, or you’re going to get used. The techniques available to David Farrar and the National party are not magic. They are available to anyone. Whether Labour has poor data or whether they use it poorly I do not know. It looks similar from the outside, and I have heard both from people who ought to know. But it doesn’t really matter. Data is only as good as what you do with it. Whatever they’re doing with it isn’t good enough.
The best example from this campaign isn’t Labour, however — it’s Kim Dotcom. He said on election night that it was only in the past two weeks that he realised how tainted his brand was. He threw $4.5 million at the Internet MANA campaign and it polled less than the Māori Party, who had the same number of incumbent candidates and a tiny fraction of the money and expertise. Had he thought to spend $30,000 on market research* asking questions like those asked by Curia about what New Zealanders think of Kim Dotcom, he could have saved himself the rest of the money, and saved Hone Harawira his seat, Laila Harré her political credibility, and the wider left a severe beating.
That is effective use of data: not asking questions to tell you what you want to hear, but to tell you what you need to know. This electoral bloodletting is an opportunity for the NZ political left to become reality-adjacent, and we can only hope they take it. Because if they don’t, reality is just going to keep winning.
* In response to this figure, UMR pollster Stephen Mills tweeted “$1000 would have been enough”.
During the 25 years I was in academia I wrote a fair bit on the subjects of democracy and democratisation, both in theory and in practice. I continued in that vein in some of my blogging on this site, including the 5 part series on deconstructing democracy in 2009. As part of my ruminations, I have delved from time to time into the subject of democratic accountability, specifically its vertical and horizontal dimensions, both of which are absolute requirements for the health of liberal democracy. Among other things and contrary to what some pundits might say, my understanding of the two dimensions of democratic accountability is what allows me to state categorically that dirty politics such as that practiced by the National Party’s vicious wing is not inherent to democracy
Vertical accountability refers to the accountability of the governors to the governed. The signal feature of this dimension are elections of those who govern, but also include the ability of the electorate to demand review, recall or sanction of non-elected officials such as those in the judiciary and civil service if and when their actions become to egregious or are ignored by the other branches of government. There a variety of methods with which to do so, but that requires a degree of horizontal accountability as well. In any event vertical accountability is aided by a robust, critical and independent media that draws public attention to what otherwise might be quiet indiscretions by those in office.
Here is where horizontal accountability comes in. Each branch of government is formally accountable to the others. In the event of malfeasance in one branch the other branches have a right and indeed duty to independently investigate any potential wrong doing. They must maintain a degree of institutional autonomy in order to do so, because otherwise they cannot exercise the degree of inquisitorial independence that is required for transparency and integrity to obtain.
It is this dimension where New Zealand appears deficient, and the proof of that is the inquiry that the Prime Minister has ordered into Judith Collins use of a public servant’s personal information. In this case the PM gets to frame the terms of reference of the inquiry, and has done so in way that assures that Collins will be exonerated. In political circles this might be called narrowing the focus to what is strictly illegal, but in common parlance it is known as acceptable corruption.
The inquiry conducted by the Inspector-General of the SIS into the hasty OIA release of sensitive SIS documents to a blogger linked to the government is more independent and therefore more transparent and honest, assuming that the IG does her job correctly.
But the problem remains that horizontal accountability in NZ is nowhere what it should be. Parliamentary committees are dominated by the government and often have limited inquisitorial powers. Crown Law has, time and time again, adjusted its prosecution priorities to accord more closely with government interests (recall the time and cost of the Zaoui and Urewera prosecutions, both of which ultimately reduced to far less than the government initially alleged). Some judges are said to lean politically one way or another when it comes to examining government behaviour.
Less we think that this overly friendly relationship between government and prosecutors be exclusive to National, let’s remember that the two prosecutions cited above began (and in Zaoui’s case ended) under the 5th Labour government.
Some say that the lack of a written constitution impedes the full exercise of horizontal accountability in NZ. Perhaps that is so but I also think that it is a product of habitual practice in a small country, where the political elites are for the most part a relatively small club that play by their own informal rules as much as they do by the law. Those in government are given fairly broad license when it comes to how they account for their actions to the other branches. Those in opposition wait for their turn in office to do the same. The judiciary and public bureaucracy publicly maintain their independence but at a senior level they play close attention to the interests of the government of the day.
Voters give a veneer of vertical accountability to the status quo by turning out for elections. Their susceptibility to spin and deflection makes them targets of the dirtier machinations of politicians, and in the absence of genuine horizontal accountability counter-weights that is all that is needed to govern. In such a context governance is all about bread and circus, or in the NZ case, pies and rugby. The fact that National has not suffered much in pre-election polling pretty much confirms this truth.
It can be argued that this is politics as usual, in the form of one hand washing the other in the interest of political stability. Indeed, all of this is perfectly acceptable, except that it is also perfectly, albeit not by legal definition, corrupt. But what is wrong with a little acceptable corruption amongst political friends so long as the public does not care and there are no real institutional checks on what they do so long as they do it quietly?
I could be wrong on this and John Key is just being a jerk when it comes to the terms of the Collins inquiry. But something tells me that the rot runs much deeper, and it will not stop should he and his nasty pack of party colleagues be voted out of office later this month.