Posts Tagged ‘open government’
Recent court victories by Jane Kelsey and Jon Stephenson have vindicated those who have long complained about the culture of excess that permeates the National government’s cabinet. Excess and abuse of authority preceded the current government but this one has taken the practice to art form. It has resulted in allegations of corruption and behaviour such as that outlined in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics, and it has compromised the integrity of the DPMC, GCSB, NZDF, Ombudsman and SIS in doing so. If it did not openly encourage, at a minimum it facilitated managerial excess in agencies “overseen” by a variety of ministerial portfolios. The combination of ministerial and managerial excess–executive excess, to re-coin the phrase–is malignant in a liberal democracy.
Apparently the courts, or perhaps better said, two High Court judges, have caught on to the problem. Although the reasoning of the judge that forced the Stephenson settlement has not been made public, the judge in the Kelsey versus Groser case made abundantly clear that the “unlawful” behaviour exhibited by Groser and his staff included the Office of the Ombudsman as well as abuse of process. Likewise, the settlement of the Stephenson case involved not only a payment but a retraction and statement of regret by the NZDF as an institution, rather than by the command officer who was the subject of the defamation lawsuit. That suggests that more than one individual and branch of government may have had a hand in slandering Mr. Stephenson. Yet no independent review of their actions has been done.
There are other instances where the independence and integrity of reviewing agencies have come into question. Think of the Police Complaints Authority and the skepticism with which its findings are held. Think of past findings (such as during the Zaoui case) by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. Think of the way Crown Law has behaved in several high profile politically charged cases. Although adjustments have been made to some oversight agencies like the IGSI and not all oversight agencies are uniformly compromised, there appears to be a necrosis spreading across the system of institutional checks and balances in Aotearoa.
Those who regularly submit Official Information Act (OIA) requests will already know that the process is routinely abused, especially but not exclusively by security services. Delays beyond the mandated time frame for response are common. Censoring of material prior to release is common. So is the Ombudsman’s practice of upholding decisions to withhold or censor material on broadly defined national security grounds. Cynics might say that is a case of one hand washing the other. Others might go further and say that the problem is systemic rather than random and occasional. However skepticism is voiced, there is a sense that when it comes to the Ombudsman and other oversight agencies, they are more about whitewashing than honest scrutiny.
This again raises the issue of politically neutral, independent and transparent oversight. I have written a fair bit on the need for independent oversight of intelligence agencies above and beyond the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Commissioner of Warrants and current Select Committee on Intelligence and Security. I have not written about the problems with the Office of the Ombudsman and treatment of OIAs. But it should be clear by now that when it comes to democratic oversight of executive departments and those that lead them, New Zealand is hollow at its core.
Readers may recall that I have written about horizontal and vertical accountability in the democratic state. This academic concept finds real meaning in this case. Beyond the problem of vertical accountability in a country where electoral preferences are the subject of poll-driven media manipulation by government PR agents, elite cronyism is the norm and where civil society organisations are weak in the face of that, there is a serious lack of horizontal accountability in New Zealand. Agencies such as the Ombudsman that are entrusted with overseeing the behaviour of politicians and senior state managers are seemingly subordinate (or at least submissive) to them. With some notable exceptions, when it comes to executive excess even the courts appear to have become as much instruments as they are arbiters of government policy and behaviour.
The first question that has to be asked is when does ministerial skirting or manipulation of the rules rise to the level of criminal offence? Is the complicity of more than one government entity (say, MFAT and the Ombudsman) in circumventing or obstructing OIA requests a trigger for a criminal investigation? If not, what is? If so, who prosecutes the offence given current institutional arrangements?
There are a number of reviews and investigations of government agencies already underway. There are Royal Commissions on matters of policy. Private prosecutions are possible. Constitutional experts may know the answer, but I wonder if there also is an overarching investigatory body or process with legal authority that can look into the system of institutional (horizontal) accountability and oversight mechanisms currently operative in the country. I ask because from where I sit the system looks broken.
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.
Posted on 08:56, August 27th, 2014 by Pablo
Not that readers of KP will need much convincing, but Selwyn Manning has written a decisive essay on why the PM is lying about his involvement in the Slater/SIS/OIA fiasco. To do so he uses the State Services Commission’s guidelines for the release of sensitive information. The question now is twofold: 1) should NZ trust an individual as PM who overtly involves himself in political dirty tricks such as those uncovered by Nicky Hager? 2) should NZ trust a PM who repeatedly bald faced lies to the public on matters of considerable import?
As the saying goes, we may be stupid but we are not idiots.
Anyway, read the proof for yourself.
In the wake of Nicky Hager’s latest revelations, Chris Trotter has penned a cynical defense of dirty politics as being the norm. For Chris, when it comes to politics “(t)he options are not fair means or foul: they are foul means or fouler.”
Idiot Savant at No Right Turn categorically rejects this view. I agree with him and can only add that either Chris has lost his ideological bearings or has consciously decided to join the Dark Side.
The Standard reprinted the NRT post and I commented on it there. Here is what I wrote:
“The stability of democracy is based on mutual contingent consent, not only between capitalists and workers but between opposing political factions. Mutual contingent consent requires that all actors accept mutual second best outcomes (that is, no one gets their preferred outcome all of the time), something that is evident, for example, in compromises over wages and employment conditions at the bargaining table or in the lobbying of political parties over legislation. “Winning” is therefore temporary and tempered by the pursuit of self-limiting strategies in pursuit of the mutual second best. Otherwise the political game descends into zero-sum self-interested maximisation of collective opportunities. That is not democracy, even if there are those within the democratic system who adhere to such views.
This is why Chris is wrong. He mistakes the venal pursuits of a political few for the general substance of democracy as a political form. The pursuit of dirty politics represents a fundamental corrosion of democratic principle and practice. It reflects a fundamental contempt for the foundational tenets of this type of governance. That this contempt is channeled into underhanded tactics by some does not undermine the core values upon which democracy rests and in fact serves to underscore what democracy is not. That the resort to dirty politics in NZ has at its core a group of people with pathological tendencies and profoundly disagreeable personalities is further proof that their style of play is not politics as usual.
Chris may be a bit jaded by years of fighting the good fight in losing wars. He seems to given up all hope that politics can be played cleanly. But he and many others (including some on the Right) would not have fought, and continue to fight, if they did not think that there was a better way to do things in pursuit of a just society. Mr. Slater, Mr. Ede, Mr. Bhatnagar, Ms. Odgers, Judith Collins and John Key clearly do not, but that does not mean that democracy as a whole is reducible to their contemptible view of politics.”
Let us be crystal clear. There is no moral equivalence between what the Left does or may wish to do versus what the organised dirty tricks cell centred around Cameron Slater does. Moreover, what Slater and company do centrally underpins not just how National engages politics, but how ACT has done as well. In contrast, Left activist groups may sputter about “direct action,” hold demonstrations and on occasion undertake animal liberations or environmental defense by climbing into trees or blocking trains, but they do not systematically attempt to uncover dirty laundry in order to smear, blackmail or undermine opponents within and outside their partisan ranks. They do not take covert money in order to cut and paste ghost written attack columns supplied by others. They do not get favoured backdoor access to sensitive government documents based upon their partisan, when not ministerial, connections. Perhaps that is why they are less effectual than those on the Dark Side.
The institutional Left centred in the Labour Party may gossip about their rivals across the aisle and backstab each other in factional disputes, but even then there are limits to where they will go in the pursuit of “winning.” The Slater-led dirty tricksters have no such limits.
Whatever his motivations, Chris needs to reconsider his position. There still is room for the good fight to be fought fairly even if the opponent does not. Contrary to what John Key believes, that applies as much to politics as it does to sports.
Maurice Williamson is forced to resign as Minister because he made a phone call to the police asking them to be undertake a thorough review and be “on solid ground” when investigating a domestic violence incident involving a wealthy Chinese friend of his who invested a lot of money in New Zealand (the same Chinese fellow granted citizenship over the objections of immigration authorities, and who donated more than NZ$ 20 thousand to National in 2012).
Judith Collins retains her ministerial portfolios in spite of revelations that she interceded with Chinese officials on behalf of her husband’s export company while on an official visit to China that had nothing to do with exports or trade.
What is similar and what is different about the two cases? They are similar in that they both involve Chinese nationals with economic ties to the National party or entities linked to it. They are similar in that the ministerial interventions were in violation of the cabinet manual regarding conflicts of interest. They also represent obvious forms of political influence peddling.
How are they different? Collins is a a key player on National’s front bench, whereas Williamson is on the outers with National’s heavy hitters. Thus he is expendable while she is not.
Comparatively speaking, Williamson’s crime was arguably less than that of Collins. He made a call on behalf of a constituent urging Police diligence when investigating the charges against his friend, then left the matter at that. The fact that rather than tell the minister to buzz off the cops bent over backwards to satisfy him that they were on “solid ground” before prosecuting is a police issue, not a Williamson issue (the Police decided to prosecute in any event, with Mr. Liu eventually pleading guilty to two charges of domestic violence).
Collins used taxpayer funded official travel to take time out of her official schedule to divert and meet with Chinese business associates of her husband over dinner in the presence of an unnamed Chinese government official at a time when her husband’s business interests in China were being hindered by official reviews of New Zealand based export contracts. Although she had no real business being there, she brought an aide with her, adding to the impression that her presence at that dinner had the stamp of official approval.
Of the two, which is more obviously a conflict of interest and which has the clear stench of corruption wafting over it? Of the two, which one would be viewed more dimly by the likes of Transparency International (the anti-corruption agency that habitually lists NZ amongst the least corrupt countries to do business in)?
Hypocrisy much in the handling of the two cases by the Prime Minister? You be the judge, by I think that there is.
Although I always knew that “hope and change” was a rhetorical chimera rather than a realizable objective, and understand full well that the US presidency is a strait jacket on the ambitions of those who occupy its office, I am one of those who have been disappointed by the Obama administration on several counts.
I fully understand that he inherited a mess and has done well to dig out from under it, particularly with regard to revitalizing the economy and disengaging from two unpopular wars. With some caveats, I support the drone campaign against al-Qaeda. I support his health care reforms, his support for gay marriage and his efforts to promote renewable energy. I support his measured endorsement of the Arab Spring coupled with his cautious approach to intervention in Libya and Syria, where he has used multilateral mechanisms to justify and undertake armed intervention against despotic regimes (US intervention being mostly covert, with the difference that in Libya there was a no-fly zone enforced by NATO whereas in Syria there is not thanks to Russian opposition).
But I am disappointed in other ways. The failure to close the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Marine and Naval base, and the failure to put those detained there on trial in US federal courts because of local political opposition, are foremost amongst them. Now, more egregious problems have surfaced.
It turns out that after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, the administration removed from its “talking points” for press briefings and interviews the facts that the attack was conducted by al-Qaeda affiliates (and were not a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic on-line video, as was claimed), that repeated requests for security reinforcement at the consulate before the attacks were denied in spite of warnings about imminent threats, and then military assets were withheld during the incident (which lasted eight hours).
The public deception was out of proportion to the overall impact of the attack. Whether or not al-Qaeda affiliates conducted it, serious questions about the lack of security were bound to be raised. The White House appears to have panicked under campaign pressure about the significance of the date of the attack and who was attacking (a purely symbolic matter), compounding the real issue of State Department responsibility for the security failures involved.
While not as bad as the W. Bush administration fabricating evidence to justify its rush to war in Iraq, it certainly merits condemnation.
There is more. It turns out the IRS (the federal tax department, for those unfamiliar with it), undertook audits of right-wing political organizations seeking tax-exempt status as non-profit entities. IRS auditors were instructed to use key words and phrases such as “Patriot,” “Tea Party” and other common conservative catch-phrases as the basis for deeper audits of organizations using them. That is against the law, albeit not unusual: the W. Bush administration engaged in the same type of thing.
Most recently it has been revealed that the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Eric Holder (a recent visitor to NZ), secretly obtained two months of phone records from over 100 Associated Press reporters and staff, to include their home land lines, office and cell phones (in April-May 2012). The purpose was to uncover leaks of classified information about counter-terrorism operations to reporters after AP managers refused to cooperate with government requests to divulge the sources of leaks. That made the phone tapping legal. But there was an option: the government could have subpoenaed those suspected of receiving leaks and forced them to testify under oath as to their sources.
The main reason I am disappointed is that the Obama administration should have been better than this. I never expected the W. Bush (or the Bush 41, Reagan or Nixon administrations) to do anything but lie, cover up, fabricate, intimidate and manipulate in pursuit of their political agendas. They did not disappoint in that regard. But I do expect Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, to behave better in office. They are supposedly the defenders of the common folk, upholders of human rights and civil liberties, purportedly staunch opponents of corporate excess and abuses of privilege.
Republicans inevitably use public office to target domestic opponents and bend the law in favor of the rich and powerful. Democratic administrations are supposed to be better because, among other things, they know the consequences of such manipulation. Yet apparently they are not, even if these events pale in comparison to the crimes and misdemeanors of Republican administrations.
I am not being naive. I spent time working in federal agencies under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, and the difference in approach to the public trust, at least in the fields that I worked in, were great and palpable. It would seem that the things have changed since then.
Democratic governance often involves the compromise of principles in the pursuit of efficiency or cooperation in policy-making. There are always grey areas in the conduct of national affairs, and there are events and actions where reasons of necessity make secrecy more important than transparency in governance. The actions outlined above are neither.
I still prefer Obama to any of the GOP chumps that rail against him. But as John Stewart makes clear in this funny but scathing (and profane) critique, he and his administration have just stooped closer to their level.
Hence my disappointment.
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.
During the dark years of dictatorship in South America in the 1970s and 1980s, there emerged a phrase to capture the attitude of the elites who benefitted from such rule: the culture of impunity. It referred not only to the attitude of the uniformed tyrants who ran the regimes, but more to that of the civilian elites who gave them social and economic support, and who benefitted lavishly thanks to the repression and restrictive laws on basic rights of association, dissent and movement. These civilian elites literally lived above the law, since they could, if not be directly protected by the regime’s thugs, be immune from prosecution or liability for crimes and other transgressions they committed simply because of who they were. Murders, rapes, abuse of servants, violent attacks on members of the public–all of these type of behavior were excused, ignored or bought off rather than be held legally accountable (I do not mention justice simply because it is impossible to have real justice under dictatorial conditions). Although there was variation in the attitude of some elites and cross-country differences appeared as well, the bottom line is that during the authoritarian period in South America a culture of impunity developed that was one of the salient social characteristics of the regimes in question.
With that in mind I ask readers if such a culture of impunity exists in NZ. I ask because it strikes me that although diluted and less repressive in genesis, there appears to be an attitude of impunity in the political and economic elite. They can buy silence and name suppression when they misbehave; with a wink and a nod they accommodate employment for their friends and provide sinecures for each other (think of various Boards); they consider themselves better informed, in the know, more worldly and therefore unaccountable to the popular masses when it comes to making policy (think of the use of parliamentary urgency to ram through contentious legislation and the NZDF command lies about what the SAS is actually doing in Afghanistan); they award themselves extraordinary powers in some times of crisis (Christchurch) while absolving themselves of responsibility in others (Rena). They use the Police for their own purposes (Teapot Tapes and Occupy evictions, the latter happening not because of public consensus but done by summary executive fiat). More generally, think of the lack of transparency in how government decisions are made and the duplicity of elite statements about economic issues (say, the price of wage goods) and political matters (e.g., recent internal security legislation). Coupled with equally opaque decision-making in NZ’s largest publicly-traded firms, or the cozy overlap between sectors of the judiciary and other elites, the list of traded favors and protections is long.
None of this would matter if NZ was run by Commodore Bainimarama. It would just be another Pacific island state ruled by a despot and his pals. But as a liberal parliamentary democracy NZ regularly scores highly on Freedom House and Transparency International indexes, to the point that it is often mentioned at the least corrupt country on earth (which is laughable on the face of things and which raises questions about the methodologies involved in such surveys). To be sure, in NZ traffic cops do not take cash bribes and judges do not have prostitutes procured for them by QCs representing defendants, but corruption does not have to be blatant and vulgar to be pervasive. And in the measure that elite sophistication in accommodating fellow elites outside of the universal standards applicable to everyone else is accepted as routine and commonplace, then a culture of impunity exists as well.
My experience in NZ academia, two respectable volunteer organizations and in dealing with national and local government officials suggests to me that such a culture of impunity does exist. It may not be that of Pinochet, Videla, Stroessner, Banzer or Geisel, but it seems pervasive. It appears to have gotten worse since I arrived in 1997, which may or may not be the fault of market-driven social logics and the “greed is good” mentality that has captured the imaginations of financiers, developers and other business magnates (or it could just be a product of a long-established tradition of bullying, which has now spilled over into elite attitudes towards the country as a whole).
Mind you, this does not make NZ a bad place. It simply means that there is an encroaching, subversive authoritarian sub-culture at play amongst the NZ political and economic elite that undermines the purported egalitarianism and equality on which the country is ostensibly founded (I am sure there are sectors of Maoridom who will take reasoned exception to that claim). And if so, has the corrosive culture seeped into the body politic at large so that almost anyone is a relative position of power vis a vis others thinks that s/he can get away with behavior otherwise contrary to normal standards of decency and responsibility?
Does NZ has a culture of impunity?
Is the global “Occupy” movement a genuine grassroots mobilisation with revolutionary potential or is it bound to fizzle out, be coopted, voluntarily moderate its demands or splinter into myriad fringe groups without promoting substantive change in the socio-economic status quo?
Interested readers are invited to share their views.
Posted on 10:07, October 12th, 2011 by Pablo
Throughout the globalised system of capitalist production, grassroots discontent with the economic and political status quo has produced a number of national counter-hegemonic mass mobilizations. All are born of alienation, but their social origins, goals, modalities and outcomes differ.
Alienation is a product of environment, natural and human. Even if conforming in the main to universal standards of conduct, individual (and later collective) social subjects become emotionally detached from the realities of everyday existence. The causes are many–disaffection with a job or lack of employment prospects, racial difference, inter-personal difficulties, environmentally-caused psychological disorders, etc. This promotes a social outlook that grows increasingly hostile in the measure that adverse life conditions are interpreted to be the result of circumstances created or exacerbated by the socio-economic and political elite. That leads to various types of “anti-social” behaviour, individual and collective, which constitute expressions of the resentment that alienation breeds. Some of this behaviour is little more than petty acts of rebellion. Others pose a more serious threat. Individual and small-group alienation can often be treated as a psychological and criminal problem. Mass alienation resulting in grassroots mobilization is another thing because it involves horizontal solidarity and networking between self-perceived disenfranchised groups rallying in opposition to a common (elite) enemy. However, this does not mean that there is ideological coherence in the oppositional claims of the alienated.
The reason is simple. One product of alienation is false consciousness. False consciousness is a condition where the individual and collective social subject thinks about the causes of alienation in ways that run contrary to material self-interest under the assumption that the reasons for deteriorating or negative life circumstances are rooted in cultural or ideological factors rather than structural realities. Rather than confront the macroeconomic presumptions and biases inherent in a market-driven system of private (and increasingly corporate) ownership, consumption and exchange, false consciousness focuses on behavioral differences rooted in primordial beliefs, identities, ideological differences or contrary collective action.
Under conditions of collective false consciousness there is often a yearning for a return to tradition or a retrenchment of in-group identification along national, ethnic, religious or racial lines, sometimes with overtly nostalgic class content. This mainly occurs with descendent class fractions (for example, the industrial working class in the US) whose position in the social division of labour has been eroded by structural changes wrought by the globalization project. Confronted by this slippage in class status, descendent class fractions such as the white Christian middle classes in a host of liberal democracies blame their condition of so-called “others:” immigrants, religious minorities, non-traditional or opposition ideological movements, etc. In an effort to reclaim their past status, declining social groups are willing to condone anti-establishment, non-institutionalised forms of political competition because for them the threat is existential. When these forms of collective action take on a restorative or revanchist tone, they are considered to be passive revolutions.*
Passive revolutions are not genuine social revolutions. Although they can be violent, they do not destroy and transform the socio-economic and political parameters of society. Instead, they seek to use non-institutional means to reclaim a previous status quo in which they prospered. Because contemporary and future structural conditions preclude a return to a previous form of production and its attendant social division of labour, these groups are prone to extremism in the measure that they are denied their self-perceived just rewards. The starkest examples of passive revolutionary movements were European fascism and Latin American national populism. Although each had a different socio-economic core (Southern European fascism was a mixture of working class and small property owners’ movements, whereas Northern European fascism was urban middle class based, with national populism being a combination of urban working class and peasant movements depending on the specific country in which it manifested itself), they all had the commonality of being a reaction against something rather than a source of substantive forward-looking change to the basic parameters of society.
Not that all progressive counter-hegemonic grassroots movements are necessarily revolutionary. Many progressives seek to improve upon rather than transform the status quo. They do not seek to question its basic foundations but to make it more humane (hence the refrain “people before profits”). Coupled with an aversion to violence on the part of most progressive groups in liberal democratic societies, this leads to counter-hegemonic strategies that are not wars of position or of maneuver. Instead, they are collectively reformist rather than revolutionary in nature.
Given the above, from an elite perspective counter-hegemonic grassroots mobilization is best handled via state reformism and reform mongering. State reformism is the adoption of a conciliatory and concession-based policy approach by which elites give up certain prerogatives and agree to modify certain institutional frameworks in order to allow for more popular voice and benefit. Although the distribution of benefits between dominant and subordinate groups may be altered by such arrangements, overall control of material conditions, ideological context and political office remain in the hands of the elite. Reform mongering is the piecemeal allocation of concessions to social groups based upon the persistence of their demands and their strategic importance in the social division of labor (which can also be part of a divide-and-conquer strategy). Things such as civil rights and labor legislation represent examples of reform mongering in capitalist regimes, with broader programs such as the US New Deal and Great Society are examples of reformism at work.
This brings up the issue of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements in the US, the England riots and the mass mobilizations that have occurred in France, Greece and Spain among other places. While some of the mobilizations have been progressive, there has been plenty of passive revolutionary sentiment embodied in them as well. The Tea Party movement is a glaring example of the phenomena, but the rise of right-wing nationalism throughout Europe is also emblematic in that regard. Even the ethereal “Waitakere Man” has, if only latently, as much passive revolutionary as it does reformist traits, with very little progressive revolutionary consciousness evident in the collective “him.”
The dominant ideological tendency towards reactionary or reformist rather than revolutionary perspectives poses problems for progressives because the three ideological strands that are the most difficult to overcome in any parametric struggle are cultural tradition, nationalism and religion. When these are combined in a reactionary groundswell against the usurping “others,” they make for a formidable obstacle to substantive change, especially when elites tacitly support their emergence as a hedge against mass collective action that is focused on structural transformation.
The so-called Arab Spring is a variant on the theme. Although some believe the uprisings to be revolutionary, they are in fact reformist at best and passive revolutionary at worst. There is no doubt that post-Gaddafi Libya will remain capitalist, sectarian and tribal, albeit under different (most likely authoritarian) leadership. Mutatis mutandis, the same holds true for Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and other Arab states, to say nothing of Iran should popular discontent magnify to the point of unstoppable mass uprising. Revolts are not revolutions because of their reformist and passive revolutionary character.
The lesson in all of this is to recognize that alienation may be at the root of the thirst for socio-economic and political change, but false consciousness often intrudes on perceptions of the proper “solution set” to the point that the passive revolutionary option remains as viable if not more so than reformist alternatives, with the chances of genuine social revolution lessened to the extent that false consciousness, be it spontaneous or manicured, prevails in society.
In sum: passive revolutionary sentiment in the body politic in modern capitalist society constitutes the biggest obstacle to progressive change. With corporate elites dominating the media discourse and actively encouraging such beliefs, the task of the grassroots mobilizer becomes all the more difficult because the first step required is to promote an ideological conversion amongst non-believers who are indoctrinated to believe that the status quo is worth defending, even if in modified form.
Couple that with the limited revolutionary consciousness of the organized labour movement in most advanced capitalist democracies, the reformist nature of the likes of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the apathy and narcissism that is another manifestation of alienation, this augers poorly for the prospects of parametric grassroots change in the near future.
* Left for another time is discussion of ascendant class fractions in the contemporary capitalist context, not all of who (such as finance elites) embody the spirit of progressive change.