Posts Tagged ‘Labour’
I disagree with Pablo’s post about media treatment of the Aaron Gilmore saga — but I only disagree a little. In my view the Gilmore case is “stuff that really matters”, but I do agree with Pablo that most of the coverage of it isn’t getting to the “stuff that really matters” elements of the case nearly well enough, and that it is displacing coverage of more crucial issues from the agenda. All the stories Pablo mentions are worthy of much more, and more in-depth reporting than they have received. Two other points Pablo makes are particularly valuable — that “blood in the water is not akin to developing real critiques of the way power is exercised”, and that “the problem of Gilmore’s unwillingness to resign stems not from MMP but from political party charters regarding their lists in an MMP environment.”
The Gilmore story is important, as are those others — but the coverage is so individuated to him that it makes the issues seem trivial, because ultimately, if you reduce the story to that of a drunken backbencher, it is. At the heart of the Gilmore saga is the abuse of power, and the problem is that the coverage is about Aaron Gilmore’s attempted abuse of his own power, not about a culture within the National Party and the government where the abuse of power is not merely acceptable, but routine and expected.
The deep questions — how such a megalomaniac got into an electable position on a party list; who, having been apprised of these born-to-rule tendencies after previous incidents of this sort, approved his position; and the implications of this for the health of our democracy — these are important questions. They haven’t really been asked, or answered, though Matthew Hooton, of all people, had a go at it early on.
The John Key National-led government has a lot of form for bad and self-serving appointments, and for the abuse of power. This has presented opportunities for the opposition to frame them as serial cronyists, which they haven’t been able to take. (I wrote a couple of things about this in the first term — it’s not new). And it’s still going: to hear locals tell it, how Gerry Brownlee and CERA are treating Eastern Christchurch isn’t all that different in its principles to how Aaron Gilmore treats waiters and public servants. (The difference is that they have real power.) Recent appointments on the basis of loyalty or malleability at the expense of quality or expertise include Catherine Isaac to implement charter schools, Ian Fletcher as head of the GCSB and Dame Susan Devoy as race relations commissioner.
This is a government which has been particularly unconcerned with even the appearance of due process, and this should be acknowledged in every story on this topic. There’s no credible argument they hadn’t done due diligence on Aaron Gilmore — he was already in Parliament once. Why do they appoint people like this, and why do they get away with it?
The hard truth is that political parties will overlook an awful lot if there’s a financial or electoral advantage to doing so, just as corporations will. Militaries will overlook almost literally anything, up to and including the mass murder of civilians. This is true of the “nice” guys as well as the nasty ones — the Obama administration’s continuing support of Guantanamo Bay and its increasing use of UAVs are two clear examples of this. Apple products are manufactured by the notoriously exploitative Foxconn (Apple is far from alone in this, but we’re supposed to think Apple is somehow better than others). For a recent local example, see the Labour Party’s dogged defence of Taito Phillip Field, whose abuse of vulnerable workers cut directly against everything a Labour party ought to stand for. There are many more.
The fundamental reason this sort of behaviour is endemic is that we — as voters, or in the corporate case, as consumers — reward it with our votes, or our wallets, or both. Parties and companies that eschew these methods tend to lose to those who accept them as an ethical cost of doing business because while we are happy to get outraged, when the chips are really down, we don’t actually care that much about this sort of thing. It doesn’t really change our behaviour.
The danger is that people start caring, and more importantly, start remembering, and changing their behaviour. If the Aaron Gilmore affair haunts the National party — and the other parties — such that they see a strong downside risk to appointing cronies, selecting megalomaniacs for their lists, and generally swaggering around as if they own the place, we’ll all be better off. If parties are forced to accept responsibility for their bad decisions, and as a consequence to select better people and implement better systems of accountability and conduct, cultures of power-abuse will abate. Incidentally, this is why I don’t favour a rule that allows parties to eject rogue MPs from Parliament* — the Nats bought Aaron Gilmore, they own him. We should judge the entire party by his actions.
But for this sort of change to occur, we need media coverage to develop those real critiques of the exercise of power, rather than critiques of an obnoxious individual who is ultimately just a product of larger cultural systems. That would make this sort of wall-to-wall coverage worthwhile.
* Though I still believe any credible political leader should be resourceful enough to find ways to persuade rogue MPs to resign.
Justice Minister Judith Collins has appointed Dame Susan Devoy as Race Relations Commissioner.
She replaces Joris de Bres, who has served two five-year terms and is very well-regarded in Māoridom (at least) because (in part) he understands the importance of his own Dutch whakapapa, and the complexity of his place as an immigrant in Aotearoa. As Bryce Edwards and Morgan Godfery have noted, he has also shown an unusual willingness to comment on issues related to his mandate of opposing racism.
No doubt this fact has informed Collins’ decision to appoint someone less feisty. Dame Susan has little or no high-level experience in the field, and I suppose the thinking is that she brings a clean slate to the role or, to put it another way, her thinking and the degree of her engegement with the issues will be more easily influenced by the prevailing governmental culture. But Dame Susan is not a blank slate. A week ahead of Paul Holmes’ now-infamous Waitangi Day a complete waste column, she wrote one of her own that, although it employed language more befitting a Dame, nevertheless expressed similar sentiments. One year ago our new Race Relations Commissioner wished that instead of Waitangi Day we could have “a day that we don’t feel ashamed to be a New Zealander” and pined after a holiday like that celebrated in Australia, where — a few recent and grudging obeisances aside — 50,000 years of history and the brutal facts of the settlement of that land are blithely ignored in a jingoistic celebration of Ocker Pride.
That would be bad enough, but it gets worse: Dame Susan doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing:
This is a terrible appointment. Anyone who thinks Aotearoa’s race-relations culture isn’t complicated is by definition not equipped for the job of guiding and guarding it. Not only is our new Race Relations Commissioner ashamed of our national day, but as far as she’s concerned it’s just another ism — revealing how little she must know about disability, employment or gender issues into the bargain.
So as far as that goes, she looks like the perfect post-ideological, post-identity selection for such a job: a common-sense managerialist who, to the limited extent that she understands the issues in play, finds them distasteful.
What a good opportunity for Labour! The National government, at a time when racial and cultural tensions are a major issue, clearly doesn’t value race relations sufficiently to put anyone competent in the job. But the Labour party has selection problems of its own: an Ethnic Affairs spokesperson who is a former race relations commissioner (Rajen Prasad) so far down the list that he doesn’t get a ranking; and a Māori Affairs spokesperson — and former minister — Parekura Horomia, also unranked. Labour is perilously short on brown faces, with none in the top five and one — Shane Jones — in the top 10, and him only recently returned from purgatory.
The hard truth is that Labour isn’t in a position to criticise the government on race relations issues. This is due to their internal failures of strategy, not due to exigencies forced upon them. For all that the appointment of Dame Susan Devoy to Race Relations Commissioner is terrible, the Key government has done a lot more than expected in other areas of race relations, particularly with regard to progressing Treaty settlements. That gives them cover. They’ve gotten away with worse than this appointment, and they’ll keep getting away with it as long as the major party of opposition lets them.
If it wasn’t already over on the night of 26 November 2011, the argument about the popular legitimacy of the government’s plan to partially privatise selected state-owned enterprises was finally put to bed when the pre-registration website for the Mighty River Power float fell over shortly after it went live. Whether this was a result of intentional underprovisioning to generate buzz or genuine organic demand doesn’t matter: within 24 hours 100,000 people had pre-registered interest in buying shares. That’s about one-third of the signatures opponents of the scheme took seven months to collect to force a citizens initiated referendum. The battle over whether these assets will be sold has been well and truly lost, and expending more political firepower on it is futile. The left needs to start organisaing around how they will be run.
This episode highlights two separate failures of strategy; one from the 2011 election, and one for 2014 and beyond.
This strategy worked quite well for NZ First, and to a lesser extent the Greens, both of whom have the luxury of being able to appeal to a smaller base who care more strongly about a narrower range of issues. But it didn’t work for Labour, and the recognition that what works for parties of a relatively activist mindset doesn’t work for a broad-based, moderate mainstream party is long overdue. It failed. Time to move on.
Plenty of bad policies are popular — three strikes, scaremongering about immigration, and most of the government’s welfare reforms are good examples. Despite what Josie Pagani might say, all are inimical to Labour and Green politics. How can they oppose these policies, if they’re so popular? Conversely, how can they insist on passing unpopular policies? Many of these are more central to the Greens than to Labour — the Greens are not a popular party; they poll just above 10%, so why are they embracing populism? Their policy agenda relies on making the electorate eat its greens, so to speak. Emissions control legislation, for example, will be deeply unpopular if it’s remotely effective. Likewise public transport and urban development policies, whose upfront costs are large and immediate but whose benefits are long-term and gradual, will be incredibly hard to pass if they insist on gaining the support of car-reliant suburban villa-owners.
Whether they “win” the referendum or not, at best Labour and the Greens will be vulnerable to legitimate accusations of hypocrisy whenever they propose policy that is merely somewhat popular, as opposed to being very popular. The will have demonstrated that consistency doesn’t really matter, and that could do deep harm to their long-term credibility. Worse yet, they could stand rigidly by their new-found populism and only propose policy that a clear majority of the electorate wants. Both strategies do more for NZ First than they do for Labour and the Greens.
The discussion has changed
Both parties must be reluctant to do this, given that many of the bad decisions were made under the previous Labour government, and much of the lost money was poured into “green” tech like biofuels. But it is a necessary shift if the left is to own some of this debate. Regardless of what occurred before 2008, that things got so much worse under the current government, and that this was apparently a surprise to the shareholding minister is a serious failure of governance, and the public deserves answers about it. It’s a good opportunity for the left to highlight the point that there are good government managers and bad government managers, and that they will be the former, not the latter. The Greens have begun to do this by arguing that the government’s policies and directives to Solid Energy — including the lignite strategy, and changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme — effectively kneecapped the company.
Labour and the Greens should take the initiative and reframe this SOE debate now. If they persist with beating the dead horse of ownership, the risk is that the government will strengthen its case that the state simply isn’t fit to own businesses, paving the way for the rest of the SOEs to be sold as soon as they can secure a mandate to do so. The only alternative I can see for the opposition is a pledge to re-nationalise the sold assets. If they’re going to do that they need to get on with it — if they reveal this policy after the Mighty River Power float goes ahead the risk isn’t the argument that the state shouldn’t own businesses; it’s that Labour and the Greens are parties of big-government kleptocracy, trying to turn Aotearoa into the Venezuela of the South Pacific.
In light of recent events involving the NZ Labour Party, it is worth pondering the phenomenon known as political fratricide and its sub-set, party fratricide.
Political fratricide is the tearing apart of a political movement or organization due to internecine differences amongst political allies or the ideologically kindred. It is fratricidal in that erstwhile brothers and sisters in political arms turn on each other over differences of ideas, strategy and tactics to the point that the movement can no longer sustain itself as a coherent political entity. The original movement is purged of dissenters by the dominant, and often increasingly authoritarian faction. Clear examples are provided by a myriad array of Left movements that fracture and split over ideological hair-splitting and matters of praxis. This weakens their broader appeal, segments them into marginal factions, and therefore diminishes their overall import in the political debates of the day. The more intense and acrimonious the political fratricide, the less likely a movement will recover its original shape and play an effective role in mainstream politics. In most instances that means permanent marginalization.
Party fratricide is a sub-set of this phenomenon. It is characterized by increasing cleavages, factionalization and fragmentation within political parties over any number of issues, including issues of leadership. Party fratricide results in the elimination or purging of losing factions. It is due to either of two reasons. One is irreconcilable differences within the Party on core beliefs. In this instance the very nature of the Party as a political entity becomes the subject of angry internal debate to the point that it can no longer function as a coherent whole. That forces splits and defections by discontented Party members that ultimately results in the formation of new Party off-shoots. As with the case of political movements, this dilutes the electoral strength of the original Party, which may or may not be replaced by one of its off-shoots as the preferred vehicle for the marshaling of a given political cause or belief system. Although the original Party may survive, its core belief structure will be modified by the defections and emergence of ideological competitors holding different conceptualizations of the original beliefs that once bound them together. That has the overall effect of diluting support for the belief system itself because the increased number of disputed interpretations resultant from the fratricidal process muddles popular interpretations of what the “pure” belief really is.
The second cause of Party fratricide is an absence of core values. In this instance, which often is seen in “catch-all” parties that seek to appeal to the widest array of interests possible, the absence of an ideological core leads to the narrow pursuit of segmented interests and policy implementation by a variety of internal factions. That in turn sets the stage for tactical opportunism, be it in the trading of favors via pork-barreling or log-rolling, or in regular shifting of support for policy positions or party factions based upon self-interest and the contemporary dynamics of the Party at any given moment. People of ideological principle finds themselves isolated and outflanked by the tactically astute who are less rooted in ideological conviction. The more this occurs the more likely that bitter personal antipathies develop within the Party as ambitious individuals joust for leadership roles in an evolving informal or subterranean contest that parallels the formal rules of Party leadership contestation and selection. Since there is no one central belief system to which all adhere, the field is left open for cunning tactical opportunists to hold sway in internal party debates.
This appears to be what has happened to the Republican Party in the US, and it shows signs of occurring in the Australian and British Labor/Labour parties. It seems to be what happened to ACT. These parties contest power not out of a core belief system but because of the platform of temporally shared policy interests that they represent. Although that may suffice to win power or office, it also is a source of constant internal tension that has the potential to explode into outright conflict should personal animosities or policy differences turn irreconcilable.
Party fratricide does not necessarily spell the death of the Party but is a sign not only of deep division within it, but of fundamental weakness. After all, if a Party cannot unite around a common set of objectives, leaders or beliefs in the face of a coherent and well-organized opposition, then it is less a political Party than an amalgam of sectoral interests forced together by political circumstance and shallow ideological affinity.
All of this is quite obvious. The question for the day is whether a Party that is exhibiting signs of fratricide can pull back and regroup in a manner that retains its coherence and effectiveness as a political interlocutor. One way may be to rehabilitate, resurrect or recruit again those that have lost favor or been relegated by the internecine battles (many a political Laxarus has been returned to the fray in NZ and elsewhere). There are a number of other means for re-constituting a coherent political platform and leadership cadre that enjoy the support of the Party membership as a whole. Thus the solution set to the problem may be as varied as it is difficult, but for one NZ political party at least, it is also absolutely necessary.
Following my recent post on charter schools and the Canterbury education restructure I received an email from Alwyn Poole, principal of the private Mt Hobson Middle School, disagreeing with my assessment. The ensuing discussion was good, so I’ve posted it here with Alwyn’s agreement. (Below the fold).
On Wednesday night Parliament voted 2:1 in favour of marriage equality, as defined by Louisa Wall’s Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, which would permit two people of the same sex to marry. I haven’t been involved in any of the organised aspects of this movement, but I have watched it closely and lent some ad-hoc support to it. Here are some observations on some of the symbolic and framing issues in the campaign for marriage equality, and some discussion of why, and how, it was successful.
Unity and commitment
Second, they committed to really making the case, even though they believed it to be self-evident. Too many many good causes fail because, believing them to be oviously right, their originators fail to organise and articulate their “rightness”. This was not so with marriage equality. They employed a broad range of complementary strategies to appeal to different demographics and constituencies. The campaign spoke to queer people, obviously, but it also spoke to straight people; to the families and friends of those who might benefit from it. It spoke to urban liberals and rural conservatives and Māori and Pasifika and other groups. It spoke to atheists, but it did not generally alienate people of faith. It spoke to peoples’ heads, and to their hearts.
These themes — unity and commitment — are central to marriage, and they were central to this campaign for marriage equality.
“Marriage equality” frames the cause as being about non-discrimination, a universal civil right nominally guaranteed in law and accepted (again, nominally) by a vast majority of people. It’s also an emotively-neutral term, which in this case worked to exclude stereotypically negative or controversial words — words like “gay” and “(same)-sex” — from the frame. These terms may not be generally offensive, but they do retain some valence as insults and evoke an “ick” factor in some people. Largely for this reason, opponents of marriage equality continue to use “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” almost exclusively. (In other contexts these terms, and stronger terms, were used within the campaign to shock or challenge, or were owned & celebrated — I certainly am not suggesting that such terminology be erased from the discourse.)
Note that there’s no discussion of “civil union” as a frame here. This was rejected outright by proponents of marriage equality as being a half-measure, a technocratic institution, and simply not an equal form of marriage.
Hearts and minds
The rights-based analysis on its own would probably not have won this battle. Intellectual arguments rarely win on their own, particularly when the issues are emotionally-bounded and tied into deep non-intellectual sentiments of culture, history, identity, family, faith and the role of the state, as marriage is. But an emotionally-oriented argument would probably have lacked the necessary rigour to succeed, as well, since the reasoning that marriage ought to be extended to all couples is not self-evident. The “marriage equality” frame appealed strongly to people who were willing and able to articulate the rights-based analysis, to coordinate and disseminate it, and to establish it in the public consciousness. They did so forcefully, with flair and humour, they scored the points and won the policy battle.
This activist community, who mobilised in the social and mainstream media, on the streets and outside the electorate offices, were not themselves the target audience — there aren’t enough of them and they are not widely-enough distributed to strongly influence politicians’ sense of electoral self-preservation. But these actions provided cover for the less-intellectual, but ultimately more emotionally resonant frames — especially “legalise love” — to thrive, and to reach the wider non-activist community and make them care.
“Legalise love” framed marriage equality as being about the recognition of already-existing reality, of acceptance, and diversity, and contemporary family values. Whereas “marriage equality” made a case for what was just, “legalise love” made a case for what was right. Like the best Australian Greens campaign ad the Australian Greens never made, it asked people to think of marriage as being “about love, not laws”; it evoked peoples’ experience of the gay people in their lives — their parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues — and asked people to identify with gay couples, not in terms of their practices in the bedroom or their sense of fashion, but in terms of the quality of their love. It asked people to consider how hard it would be for their own relationships to have been declared verboten by a state and society that just didn’t get it. These are deep, emotional arguments that strike people in ways that an intellectual policy debate, no matter how clever, cannot.
Another strength of “legalise love” was its breadth. Whereas the intellectual “marriage equality” arguments were focused and direct, arguments about love and the quality of relationships touched on more expansive religious and moral themes. Importantly, the cause was framed as being integral to conventional morality, not a subversion of it, and as modern “love thy neighbour”, “live and let live” Christianity in practice, the bloviations of a handful of self-appointed conservative demagogues notwithstanding. Marriage equality was not framed as a challenge to family values, but as a manifestation of family values; to paraphrase a number of politicians, including London’s Conservative mayor Boris Johnson: marriage is great, let’s have as many as possible. David Farrar made this case well, here.
Double-framing a cause like this — running complementary intellectual and emotional arguments in parallel — is quite hard to do without getting your narratives mixed up and turning incoherent, and too often the weakest aspects of either frame can be exploited by an opponent. But if you can pull it off, it really works. It worked for Obama in 2008 (“hope” and “change”), and it worked in this case. Where the cause came under attack from rational arguments (admittedly this was rare), rational arguments were able to be deployed in defence, and when it came under attack from moral and emotional arguments, those were available as well.
But while the intellectual arguments were effective at laying the groundwork, in my view it was these emotional and moral themes, rather than the logical, rational arguments that underpinned them, that did the heavy lifting of persuasion, of shifting peoples’ consciences, not just their brains. The diverse range of arguments and appeals permitted the campaign to reach a wide demographic range, to reach into faith communities and to appeal to people outside the activist clique. Most importantly, this reach made clear to the MPs whose job it was to vote on the matter that they could, but also that they should vote in favour.
Not done yet
New Zealand’s Parliament passed marriage equality legislation through its first reading, and the lower house of the Tasmanian legislature is set to pass its own. I have not followed that campaign closely, but from what I have seen, many of its framing and symbolic characteristics are similar to those observed here. It is a policy whose time has come, and this is a winning strategy to enact it. Marriage equality holds the high ground; now we must retain it.
* Not 100% sure about the phrasing of this, and since TVNZ removed old TVNZ7 episodes from their on demand site, the video is no longer available to check. I’va amended this to match Grant’s recollection. Another twitter user, Jessica Williams points out that it was originally American comedian Liz Feldman.
Posted on 17:04, August 1st, 2012 by Pablo
A recent canvass of members of the diplomatic community resident in Wellington had as a common theme the apparent incoherence of contemporary New Zealand foreign policy. That prompted me to attempt to deconstruct the major features of New Zealand foreign policy during the last three decades and to offer some explanations as to why they no longer hold in the measure that they once did. You can find the explanation here.
There is an old rule in politics that states that it is not the original sin that gets politicians in trouble. It is the cover-up or lying about it that does them in. The examples that prove the rule are too numerous to mention and span the globe. This week we have another classic case in point: Shane Jones and his explanation as to why, as Associate Minister of Immigration (the Minister of Immigration at the time, David Cunliffe, had earlier refused to revoke Liu/Yan’s residence visa and for some reason unknown to me was not involved in the granting of citizenship), he ignored expert legal advice and granted a Chinese fraudster expedited citizenship.
According to Jones he did so on humanitarian grounds because he was told by an unnamed Internal Affairs official that the applicant–he of at least three different names and an Interpol warrant out for his arrest–would be executed and his organs harvested if he were sent back to China. Forgive me if I cough. That is up there with Annette King’s claims that no one in the Labour government knew about Operation 8 until the weekend before it began.
Others have already torn Mr. Jone’s supposed rationale to shreds. Beyond the fact that not even the Chinese execute people for common fraud, even if they are members of Falun Gong (a claim supposedly made by but never proven by Mr. Liu/Yan), a legitimate fear of a politically-motivated death sentence would result in an asylum request, not a citizenship application based upon a business visa. Nor would Mr. Liu/Yan speak of traveling back to China with a delegation of Kiwis in order to explore business opportunities in the PRC (as it is claimed he did in his conversations with immigration officials now testifying at his trial on false declaration charges). But according to Shane Jones, not only was he facing certain death but also certain organ harvesting (which raises the question as to how the unnamed Internal Affairs official could know this in advance given that the Chinese do not harvest organs from all executed prisoners because the health of the condemned varies). Put bluntly, Mr. Jones is simply not credible, and unless that unnamed official comes forward to take responsibility for the bogus claims (which Mr. Jones could have ignored), his justification simply does not wash. Add in the fact that Mr. Liu/Yan had donated considerable sums of money to Labour coffers in the lead-in to his citizenship application, and the smell of something fishy permeates the affair.
What is amazing is that when confronted with the evidence presented in court, David Shearer continued to back Mr. Jones and even allowed him to go public with is ridiculous justification. That violates a second rule of politics, which is that when smoke begins to surround a politician on ethical issues his or her party needs to move swiftly to prevent a full-fledged fire from erupting by distancing the tainted one from the party as a whole. By not doing so immediately and only leaving open the possibility of standing Jones down if an investigation proves him guilty of wrong-doing in the Liu/Yan affair, Mr. Shearer has failed the basic test of leadership that involves saving the party from further uncomfortable scrutiny on the issue of campaign financing and political donations.
Once again, let us remember the iron law of oligarchy that governs all political parties: the first duty of the party is to preserve itself. Individual political fortunes come second. Legalities aside, it is the appearance of unethical behavior on the part of Mr. Jones that is at play here.
What is even more amazing is that this comes on the heels of the John Banks-Kin Dotcom scandal and John Key’s equally egregious mistake in not removing Banks from his ministerial post while the Police investigated whether Banks violated political finance laws in his dealing with Mr. Dotcom. Regardless of whether the press played this sequence of events on purpose, the scenario unfolded as follows: National was on the ropes in the weeks leading up to a dismal budget announcement, beleaguered by policy and personal conflicts and dogged by an increasingly assertive mainstream press. Rather than strike a contrast in approach that would give it the moral high ground that would allow it to score major political points against its weakened rival, Labour’s response to revelations of the dubious ethics of one of its senior members in a past government–dubious ethics that are being aired in court for crikey’s sake–is to bluster and blow more smoke on the matter. Do they never learn?
Just as Mr. Key should have removed Mr. Banks from his ministerial position as soon as his denials and lies about his relationship with Mr. Dotcom were exposed, so Mr. Shearer should have moved quickly to demote Mr. Jones until such a time as an independent investigation exonerated him. Given the passing of a few news cycles and the issue would have faded into the political “bygones be bygones” category. By not doing so Mr. Shearer has allowed the Jones-Liu/Yan relationship to become a distraction away from National’s peccadillos and policy failures. He has, in fact, thrown National a life line in the days before the budget announcement and the decision to demote Banks (who could stay in government but not be a minister pending the resolution of the Police investigation), and I would imagine that the National caucus are high-fiving and back-slapping each other in delight.
Of course there are political calculations in all of this. By-elections are costly, list candidate replacements are unproven or unreliable, internal Party factional disputes run the risk of being aggravated or exposed. National is clearly waiting for the Budget to be announced before moving on Banks. Labour does not want to lose a senior figure who “ticks the boxes” of important internal constituencies. And yes, there is a difference between illegal and unethical activity.
But in putting these calculations ahead of ethical considerations given the appearance of impropriety, both parties have once again shown their contempt for the NZ public. And on this score, Labour’s contempt is much worse. After all, Mr. Banks was just a greasy-palmed private citizen seeking to be mayor when he approached Mr. Dotcom for support. Mr. Jones, on the other hand, was a Minister of State who apparently used his office to bestow special considerations on an individual in exchange for, uh, party “favors.” Both actions were slimy, but it is the official nature of Mr. Jones’s intercession that makes his behavior worse. Which is why he should have been stood down straight away, because rightly or wrongly, it is the attempt to downplay or cover up past impropriety, rather than the potentially unethical or illegal behavior itself, that will cling to the Labour Party long after Mr. Liu/Yan’s case is adjudicated.
It should come as no surprise that I disagree with Chris Trotter’s latest piece about the Urewera raids. Don’t get me wrong — I think his assessment of the operational capability New Zealand police and intelligence services are correct. Their actions were strategically and tactically flawed, and they seemed to hold unrealistic expectations of the task they were undertaking. But some of the judgements Chris wraps around this argument are troubling to say the very least.
Not all of them. Some are fine: we need a competent security and intelligence apparatus, and the lack is something that should be rectified. Some are nonsense: a sophisticated left-wing propaganda network (where have they been these past two electoral terms?) and sleeper cells of “sympathetic journalists” (presumably not those who are shills for the corporate élite?). Some are merely distasteful. Others, however, are downright frightening, and the worst of these is the notion that the Crown should not be bound by its own laws when prosecuting dissident citizens.
Let’s not forget that some of this actually happened. Elements of the Crown case actually were leaked to the public, and some suppressed material was published in daily newspapers and was the subject of (unsuccessful) contempt proceedings.* Other elements, having been retrospectively ruled in by a court despite having been collected unlawfully, were used throughout the trial to create a prejudicial atmosphere around the trial.
Given those events, the argument here is essentially that the Crown didn’t leak enough evidence; didn’t act ruthlessly enough and was too heavily burdened with scruples to secure a “right” outcome. The call for an officer of the Crown to wilfully breach the very laws they have sworn to uphold, in the name of their own individual assessment of a complex situation, is extremely concerning. Having failed to conduct their evidence-gathering operations lawfully, and having failed to persuade a judge that, in spite of that, there was still a sufficient reason to admit all the evidence, the argument here is that the Crown should have taken an extrajudicial Mulligan.
When I started writing it this piece was considerably more personalised to Chris, and how his post seems to provide final proof of his degeneration from idealistic radical to authoritarian establishment curmudgeon. The reference in the title is to his now-infamous declaration that Labour’s breach of electoral law during the 2005 election campaign was justified inasmuch as it prevented a terrible counterfactual — a National government led by Don Brash — from coming to pass. I disagree with that argument on the grounds that the integrity of the democratic system as a whole is of greater importance than any particular electoral outcome, and I disagree with his argument regarding the Urewera 4 for the same reasons: the integrity of the justice system is of greater importance than the outcome of any given case.** But I don’t want to dwell on the personal; rather than trading extensive cannonades with Chris (again), I think there’s more value in covering my reasons for holding these views in principle, leaving aside the specific merits (on which we’re never going to agree), or whether I support the principals in either case.***
The first and most obvious argument against this sort of extra-legal recourse is: be careful what you wish for. If you want the Crown to leak, to cultivate sources in the media whom they can trust to run their propaganda for them, and to resort to whatever other means they might need to secure what you think is a “right” outcome, you’d better hope you always agree with them. If you don’t, eventually you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of it. The danger of this for the ideological left in Aotearoa should need little elaboration: almost all the authoritarian cards and most of the ruthlessness in playing them are in the hands of the various factions of the ideological right, and they are constrained more by norms of conduct and the need to appear to be less ruthless than they are than by black-letter law or constitutional barriers. These norms are quite robust, but they essentially all operate on the honour system: they persist because people observe them. If you break the law in the name of the rule of law, you erode the rule of law. If you destroy the village to save the village, you still destroy the village.
This leads into the second point: changing norms of Crown conduct, or what we might call “authoritarian sclerosis”. Norms that constrain what a government, the Crown or its agents may acceptably do are becoming more lax, and have been since shortly after 9/11, when the Terrorism Suppression Act that gave rise to the current farce was hastily passed. In the past two parliamentary terms this has continued to accelerate, partly as a consequence of hysteria around — and blurring of — activism and terrorism more generally. The government, by leave of an increasingly punitive and paranoid populace, can now impose disproportionate punishment on certain offenders via the “three strikes” regime, and indefinite “civil” detention of certain offenders. The infiltration of the security and intelligence apparatus into harmless activist groups such as those that agitate for animal rights has been well-documented in recent years. It has gotten to this point despite the fact that (Urewera case aside) the two most significant threats to our national security in the past decade have been an Algerian theologist who now makes kebabs in a food hall on Karangahape Road, and three Catholic pacifists with agricultural implements. The government can now amend or suspend almost any law or enact almost any measure it likes, with immediate effect and without meaningful judicial oversight, in the service of rebuilding Christchurch. There are laws on the books that shift the burden of proof of innocence for some types of copyright infringement from the accuser to the alleged offender. On US urging, the New Zealand police recently undertook expensive, unprecedented and legally risky operations against a foreign national who had apparently committed no serious crimes against New Zealand law, and it now seems increasingly unlikely that the case will amount to anything. The government may now spend beneficiaries’ money for them. They are are moving to require DPB mothers (and their daughters!) to use long-term birth control, and to force them to work when their youngest is just one year old. The latest proposal is to force beneficiaries to vaccinate their children, in violation of the fundamental right to refuse medical treatment. These latter policies of authoritarian sclerosis disproportionately affect Māori, who are already disproportionately impacted by the state’s historical use of its power via colonialism. I could go on, but you get the point: the door to the police state is not yet open, but it is creaking ajar. Those who benefit from opening it do not need agents of the left nudging that door wider for them, but they will gratefully accept it if some are willing to do so.
This is all bad enough in itself, but as well as eroding the norms of what is acceptable, authoritarian sclerosis makes it more difficult to erect robust black-letter or constitutional safeguards against undue exercise of power by the state over its citizens, making it more likely that the norms which are being undermined are all we will be able to rely on in future. Again: be careful what you wish for.
Perhaps more important than all of that, though, is the incentive that the Mulligan creates within the organs of the Crown responsible for implementing the policies outlined above. If you make excuses for underperforming or incompetent agencies, if you cut senior officials slack when they or their subordinates fail to discharge their duties adequately, when they bring into question the good standing of their departments; if you seek to tailor laws and regulations to them rather than requiring them to work within the existing bounds of proper conduct, then you produce agencies which are dependent on special pleading and special treatment. When you select against competence, independence, resourcefulness and strategic thinking by allowing “right-thinking” loyalty and patronage to thrive, you breed pampered inbred poodles reliant on favour from political masters, rather than vigilant, independent watchdogs of civil society.
Multiple layers of dysfunction contributed to the Crown’s failure to convict on substantive charges in the Urewera 4 case. They started with the drafting of the Terrorism Suppression Act, which Solicitor-General David Collins declared “unnecessarily complex, incoherent, and as a result almost impossible to apply”. Court interpretations giving the police permission to undertake surveillance operations that were later ruled illegal also contributed. Police culture and operational capability, and a lack of both strategic and tactical awareness also contributed strongly, and Crown Law’s failure to make best use of the meagre evidence that derived from those preceding actions was merely the last in a long chain of failures.
If you want to make a system stronger, the solution is to genuinely strengthen it, making it better, by having those agencies take their lumps and learn their lessons, by punishing failure and rewarding success; by staffing it with better people, better trained and with greater strategic vision. I want an intelligence/security and police apparatus and a justice system good enough that it doesn’t need to be oppressive to be effective. One that I can trust to keep society safe, and to not persecute me while doing so. That can’t happen if we erect a scaffold of legal or extra-legal privilege beneath the sagging edifice, pretend there’s nothing wrong, and call it a win. It didn’t work for the investment banks, and it can’t work here.
* Chief High Court Judge Randerson and Justice Gendall found that the publication had not “caused a real risk” of prejudice, so fair enough. But they also stated that “The breaches of suppression orders and the unlawful conduct of a major news organisation and a senior newspaper editor should have resulted in their prosecution” by the Police, and that the court was “at a loss to understand why these breaches were not prosecuted.” While they raised the point that the penalties for such breaches are risibly small, it’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that the Police were simply reluctant to punish actions that might have helped their case.
** In principle, there is a time for extrajudicial action, for exercise of the reserve powers or of the almost-limitless authority of the sovereign parliament, or for rebellion by the people. Desperate times may call for such measures. These are not such times.
*** For the record: Of course, I did not support the 2005 National party. I am satisfied with the Urewera 4 verdicts since they accord with what I know about the case, though I also would not have been averse to a retrial and an opportunity for them to clear their names more forcefully.
Posted on 21:25, May 10th, 2012 by Lew
Today the President of the United States of America came out (if that’s the right term) in support of gay marriage. Hours later, The leader of the New Zealand Labour party did likewise. The responses they got could hardly have been more different. Obama’s statement was greeted with a worldwide ripple of excitement; Shearer’s with a localised wave of criticism. Aside from the obvious difference in scale, we can make some sense of the difference in valence by looking at two main factors: the content of their respective messages in political context; and the media and moment in which they were made.
Substance and political context
Allowing for the differences in political context, Obama’s and Shearer’s statements were reasonably similar. Both expressed support for gay marriage in principle, with reservations about implementation. In Obama’s case, the reservations were constitutional. The President can’t unilaterally pass an act permitting gay marriage; it has to go through two federal houses and most aspects of marriage are still, ultimately, determined by the states. Obama’s statement was symbolic and aspirational. First of all, it was a means of defining who he is, politically — a rebuttal of suggestions that he is timid or not liberal enough, and a means of illustrating a sharp distinction between his administration and the caricatured culture-war conservatism of his Republican opponents. It was also an opportunity to reinvigorate the American political left. David Frum said it well:
(You should read Frum’s whole piece, it’s short and articulates clearly why this was a strategic coup.)
Shearer’s statement was, if anything, less equivocal than Obama’s; he merely said that he “would like to see the detail of any legislation before giving formal support”. In purely rational terms, that’s totally reasonable; nobody signs a blank political cheque. Much of the criticism has centred on the assumption that any such law would be introduced by Labour, so Shearer would not only get to see it but would get to vet it before declaring support. This isn’t really so; Labour are in opposition, and barring extreme exigencies they will be for at least 2.5 years to come. Given the Greens’ long-standing commitment to gay marriage and remarkable success in the member’s ballot, there’s a better-than-even chance that a hypothetical same-sex marriage bill drawn at random would be theirs.* There are plenty of potential pitfalls in such a bill, if badly drafted, and it is reasonable to hold reservations.
Other criticism of Shearer has centred on the argument that Obama’s political context is much more hostile to gay marriage, and his declaring in favour of it constitutes a genuine act of political bravery, while it’s a rather less contentious issue here. Also not entirely fair; of course, that difference in political context exists, but Obama is in power, and (largely due to Republican infighting) in political ascendancy, while Shearer is in opposition and in the doldrums. It is also very unlikely that any gay marriage bill would pass the current NZ Parliament, especially now that social-conservatives like NZ First are back in.
So on the merits, criticism of Shearer for appending this seemingly-innocuous qualifier seems a bit unfair. But there are two better explanations for hostility: first, he misread his medium; and more importantly, he misread the moment.
The medium and the moment
Obama made his statement in a medium and situation that afforded him considerable control over how his message would be transmitted and received, and that enabled him to articulate his position both from a personal perspective and politically. Good Morning America was a sympathetic venue; morning TV is warm and nonconfrontational, on the ABC network even more so than usual. It is not strictly time-controlled and interviewers generally do not play hardball. Its audience is more liberal, more female, and more inclined to respond favourably to expressions of personal warmth and reflection such as this one.
Shearer chose Twitter to make his announcement — the most constrained medium possible, one that permits no contextualisation, no emotional or personal connection. Given his performance to date as leader of the opposition, and the NZ Twitter left’s activist bias, it’s probably also one of the more hostile media open to him. It’s not talkback, but in some ways it’s worse: a lot of people who really want to like you, but are already frustrated and disappointed and are beginning to despair can be a harsher audience than your outright enemies. Twitter also means that you are expected to be spare and to the point, and to only include detail that is significant. By hedging, he signalled that his position was not firm or genuine. The medium is the message, so the inclusion of an obvious redundancy like “need to see the detail” when characters are so limited doesn’t look like understandable prudence, it looks like fuzzy-headed waffly-thinking at best, or political cowardice at worst. David Shearer mistook a platform for slick, aspirational one-liners as the venue for earnest political positioning.
And that leads to the most crucial point of all: Shearer misread the political moment. Obama’s declaration in personal, philosophical terms of his “evolution” from someone who did not support gay marriage to someone who does was a watershed moment, a genuinely epochal event: when the President of the United States of America supports your cause, all of a sudden it looks a lot more like happening. A loud shot was fired in the culture wars; it instantly became global news, and with the news came a wave of liberal euphoria. This was, as Russell Brown noted, the best possible moment to note Labour’s progressive history and rededicate to the goal of marriage equality, but it was not a time for wonkish quibbling about details, or careful delineation of party policy. The moment was one of joy, of celebration, of possibility — of hope and change — and any response had to be congruent with that. Shearer’s wasn’t. The contrast jarred, and made the other, lesser, deficiencies in the message and its presentation more evident.
Substance, context, medium and moment. You can’t really afford to be without any of these, but if you’re trying to catch a wave of public sentiment, you really have to get your moment right.
This is symptomatic of Labour’s ongoing failure to articulate its vision: a lack of mastery of the tools and techniques at their disposal. Shearer’s lack of authenticity and his inability to speak clearly and unequivocally from his own position, that I touched on in my last post on this topic, was depressingly evident in this episode, and it may be that he’s still being tightly managed. A more concerning possibility is that this is the real David Shearer: lacking in virtù, like his predecessor.
But despite everything, I think this was a good experience for Labour — hopefully it has demonstrated to them that sometimes being timid is worse than being silent. If “go hard or go home” is the only lesson they take from today, it will have been worth it.
* Hypothetical, because none are in the ballot at present, though I expect that to change soon. Idiot/Savant drafted one some years ago, and it would not be an hour’s work to get it in.