Posts Tagged ‘pragmatism’

Frogs, toadies and tadpoles

datePosted on 11:22, September 20th, 2010 by Lew


There’s been a long and turgid discussion about the Greens’ support for the Canterbury Earthquake Response & Recovery Act (CERRA) on Frogblog, with commenters including many of the usuals from around the blogosphere, Russel Norman and Kevin Hague, and someone called BJ Chip (who I assume is a comms flack) running defence for the Green party. (I can’t figure out how to link to individual comments, sorry). Another commenter, Geoff Fischer, makes a persuasive case against the Greens’ newfound pragmatism, both on the Frogblog thread and on his own site. Whilst I don’t entirely agree with Geoff (I’m a pragmatist at heart) I think his critique is a good one, particularly for the Greens (who aren’t). But there are also strong pragmatic grounds to attack the Greens’ decision to support the CERRA; grounds which, if the Greens are serious about their new realpolitik posture, they’d do well to consider.

I’m often disappointed by the Greens’ persistent — even pigheaded — reliance on the ‘principled stand’ in politics. While valuable among a suite of tactics, it’s overused as a one-size-fits-all response which pigeonholes them as idealistic zealots who don’t compromise and can’t be worked with. But although I think its consistent use is a poor strategy in the general case, it gives the Greens a valuable trump card: the ability to say “these are our principles; if you don’t like them, go ahead on your own”. While it all too often results in other parties abandoning the Greens as irrelevant and going ahead on their own, it does build a powerful narrative about the Greens which speaks to characer and reliability and permanence. Principled politics, as Geoff says in other words, has an objectivity about it which is often lost in modern pragmatic discourse where what often passes for ‘true’ is whatever you can argue. When all the other parties in parliament — even the other parties who (however unjustly) appeal to the ‘principled’ brand, such as ACT — are falling over themselves to betray their principles, it’s all the more important that you stick to your own. Put another way: when your political strategy is to be principled, refusing to act on principle is not a pragmatic decision.

Most obviously, taking a uniquely principled stance at the time when the pressure is greatest to cave in hugely strengthens that narrative mentioned above, ensuring the long-term strength of the brand. It’s easy to be principled when nothing is on the line — the measure of a party’s commitment to principle is how it performs when the stakes are highest. That measure has now been taken.

Secondly, principled politics is what the Greens know. It’s their realm of competence. An idealistic stance would have given them the ability to critique whatever misdeeds the government undertakes in the name of this act with a clear and objectively indisputable line (“we voted against it”), whilst the best they can muster at present is the equivocal, inconsistent line which Norman is running in the Frogblog thread (“we objected to it and we don’t like it but we voted for it anyway because we thought it was the right thing to do”). BJChip demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding how public-sphere political communication works with (her or his, I’m not sure) defence: “if they give us such idiotic cr@p [as “you voted for it”] we can give it back chapter and verse”. I replied with the following:

And not a word after “but you voted for it” will be worth a damn out there in the cold, pragmatic world of realpolitik which the Greens have now decided to enter. In that world “but you voted for it, so STFU” is the super-hero version of the “Nine Long Years” gambit which paralysed the Nats from 1999-2004 and has paralysed Labour for the term so far. You can’t beat it; in the battle of the soundbite, it’s political kryptonite because when they say it, they’re right. You voted for it: it’s your law, you swing by the same rope as the rest if and when it all comes apart. And so you should.

As much as they might believe themselves to be big-game players, the Greens have never even made a serious attempt to master the complexities of pragmatic politics, preferring to leave the cut-and-thrust to others. In the realm they have now entered they aren’t so much frogs as tadpoles. Judging by Norman and Hague’s statements and the spirited defence of BJChip (and others who use the pronoun “we” on behalf of the party), it seems they will attempt to defend the decision to support CERRA as they would any principled stance, with a clear restatement of the whys and wherefores behind the decision, omitting any discussion of the political consequences. This is impossible, because it is clear to even the most casual observer that the decision was a pragmatic one based on the politics.

Third and most importantly, at the electoral sharp end a uniquely principled stand positions the party as a ‘safe harbour’ for voters from other parties who are disillusioned by those parties’ too-enthusiastic embrace of pragmatism. This is where I think the Greens got their political calculus most badly wrong. The Greens’ own membership and support base was not going to be unduly turned off by the fact the party refused to support a bill granting dictatorial powers to Gerry “sexy coal” Brownlee; they may have taken some sort of hit, but the risk was not as dire as it is being spun. But a principled stance against this manifest assault on the constitutional framework of the country would have permitted the Greens to position themselves as the last line of defence against Shock Doctrine authoritarianism; a rallying point for liberal values. “Even if you disagree with our policy orientation,” they might say, “at least you know where we stand, and can rely on us to stand against the worst excesses of government impunity.” Coupled with the ideological moderation signalled by the departure of Sue Bradford and Jeanette Fitzsimons, I believe the Greens stood to gain considerable support from disappointed Labour voters, particularly those who wanted the party to act as a functional opposition to the government — and they might have even picked up a little bit from the other parties, as well.

So the decision manifestly fails on grounds of principle, and because the Greens are a self-declared party of principle with neither a strong history nor any particular skills in the exercise of realpolitik, it is doomed to be a failure in practice as well. One silver lining, though: since the Greens stand to gain nothing from it, their support for CERRA doesn’t really indicate that they’ve sold their principles out for power as “Tory toadies”; more that they simply lost their nerve. This stands in contrast to Labour, whose support for the act was obviously based on pragmatic grounds of political calculus, and principles of good governance be damned. This is especially the case for Christchurch-based MPs like Brendon Burns, who is leading the red team’s defence in a particularly distasteful fashion. They are complicit in the power grab. The Greens and their principles are just casualties of it.

L

Between the Devil and the deep blue sea

datePosted on 10:21, June 10th, 2010 by Lew


(Image, “Road to Hell”, stolen from Alexander West.)

And I did not mean to shout, just drive
Just get us out, dead or alive
The road’s too long to mention, Lord, it’s something to see
Laid down by the Good Intentions Paving Company
(Joanna Newsom)

John Key’s government is starting to play for keeps after a year and a bit warming up. There have been a few clear examples of this, including the aggressive tax and service cuts in Budget 2010, and signs pointing to privatisation in the not-too-distant future. Less orthodox is the recent hardening of the government’s position on take Māori.

Key was not punished for his calculated snub of Tūhoe, and it seems the success has emboldened him to flip the bird to an even larger Māori audience, saying two things: that Māori can take or leave the government’s public domain proposal for the Foreshore and Seabed; and that by “Māori” he means “the māori party”. It’s these things I want to discuss, and they need a bit of unpacking.

Pragmatism and principle
Conventional wisdom on the Left is that Key’s blowing off Māori is (either) paying the red-neck piper, or a genuine manifestation of his (and the government’s) own racism. I think it’s neither and a bit of both. On the second bit, I accept that the National party’s history on Māori issues is broadly racist inasmuch as it hangs on a “one law for all” rhetorical hook whilst systematically opposing measures which safeguard the equal application of those laws to Māori, but I think this is down to the casual racism of privileged ignorance rather than the malicious anti-Māori sentiments of Orewa. Key’s politics, I am convinced, consist of a thick layer of pragmatism on a thin frame constructed of a few very strong principles. The principles are not the bulk of his politics, but they strictly delineate the extremes of what he will and won’t accept. Fundamentally on cultural issues he’s a pragmatist, and doesn’t much care either way as long as he’s getting his. But there is a solid core there which is only so flexible, and changing the ownership status of huge tracts of land (whether by Treaty settlement in the case of Te Urewera or by nationalisation in the case of the Iwi Leadership Group’s suggestion regarding privately-owned sections of the Foreshore and Seabed) is too much of a flex. There are good principled reasons for National to oppose such a scheme, and for this reason I don’t think he’s pandering to the redneck base so much as preserving what he perceives to be the National Party’s immortal soul: cultural conservatism and the maintenance of material property rights. Although I broadly disagree with the reasons, and the decisions, I wish that Labour had done as much to preserve its own immortal soul in 2004 and 2005.

“One law for all”
While I’m on record opposing a “public domain” resolution of the Foreshore and Seabed because it’s a solution of convenience rather than one born of any deep consideration of the issues in play, I have a little more time for Mark Solomon’s suggestion that if Māori are to give up nascent property rights to the takutai moana, those already holding such property rights ought to be obliged to do the same. I’m not convinced by arguments from PC and DPF to the contrary. PC’s argument, that iwi and hapū ought to have full common-law recourse to test their claims as permitted by the Court of Appeal ruling in favour of Ngāti Apa has more merit than DPF’s, but I still consider it a poor option since there is a high likelihood of a culturally and politically repugnant outcome which would lack durability and further inflame racial hatred. Contrary to DPF’s claim that Solomon’s position is unprincipled, Tim Watkin argues that it’s actually a pretty good representation of “one law for all”. It would ensure that existing landowners — most of whom happen to be Pākehā — are not grandfathered into a new scheme simply by virtue of having bought land which may or may not have been legitimately acquired from whomever it was bought, while iwi and hapū — who happen to be exclusively Māori — are forced to give up their rights. I argued much the same thing a few days ago, and I’m pleased to see someone else thinking along the same lines. While the whole Foreshore and Seabed going into public domain is worse than Hone Harawira’s proposal that the land be vested in customary title with ironclad caveats because it strips away rights rather than granting them, it does have the advantage of stripping those rights equally, rather than on the basis of largely racial discrimination.

There is another, economic, point in play: if land not presently in private ownership is placed in the public domain and declared inalienable, the increased value of those few freehold, fee-simple property rights which do exist at present will have a phenomenal distortive effect on the property market and on New Zealand’s social structure, with the inevitable result that almost every scrap of it will end up in foreign ownership. We will then have the perverse and incoherent result that most of the beaches will be owned in common — but those which aren’t will be the exclusive domains of ultra-wealthy foreigners. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is a fair point for debate, but I think this fact will grant Solomon’s proposal considerable appeal to the broader New Zealand public, especially among those who do not — and even at present prices, could never — own waterfront property.

Just who are these “Māori”, anyway?
As I noted above, Key has been clear that he cares not a whit for the Iwi Leadership Group’s views on the matter: he considers that the māori party has a mandate to negotiate for all Māori and the decision is theirs. This is strictly almost correct: they do have a such a mandate, and whatever they decide will be broadly regarded as legitimately representing “Māori”, to the extent that the decision accords broadly with the views of Māori as expressed by their various civil society agencies. This proviso, missing from Key’s glib assessment of the political situation, is crucial. By omitting it, Key aims to drive a wedge between the party and those civil society agencies — chief among them the Iwi Leadership Group convened for this very purpose — from whom they ultimately derive their electoral mana. The māori party, frequent howls of “sellout!” from the Marxist left notwithstanding, do regularly test their policy positions against these stakeholder groups, at hui, and in their electorates. This makes them particularly secure in terms of their support, as long as they act in accordance with their supporters’ wishes. I have long criticised the howlers for misunderstanding just what it is that the māori party stands for, and their mischaracterisation of the party — plump buttocks in the plush leather seats of ministerial limousines, representing “big brown business” — is similarly a wedge, of a slightly different hue. But this issue is the test. Without the support of the Iwi Leadership Group, it’s hard to see how the māori party could maintain its claim to a mandate.

Crossroads
Which brings me to the verse at the top of this post. This issue has deteriorated to the point that the National government — like the Labour government before it — issuing public ultimatums to Māori and prejudging the case by claiming to speak for the māori party’s position. That is not mana-enhancing for a coalition partner which has showed enormous patience and swallowed almost innumerable dead rats in exchange for largely symbolic concessions. This breakdown of diplomacy on its own is not sufficient to call time on the coalition relationship — that comes down to the merits of the choices available, and the proposal simply isn’t enough. I have long defended this approach on the basis that the big issues were still to play out — but the loyalty and commitment shown by the māori party, in the teeth of furious criticism from enemies and allies alike, must be rewarded. A Whanau Ora pilot programme simply isn’t enough. This road was paved with good intentions, and there was a chance it would lead elsewhere than where it did — a chance which had to be taken but which, barring a swift change in the government’s position, seems to have proven unfounded.

If the government holds to its ultimatum, the māori party must turn around and walk back into the light. On this I agree with Rawiri Taonui (audio). The party will lose much more by abandoning its people and agreeing to a Faustian bargain than by simply failing to negotiate the repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act, which realistically was a nearly impossible task in any case. And even if the party did support the bill, it would not mean the end of the struggle. As Taonui says, although they might have the numbers to pass the legislation, the government’s solution will have no legitimacy or durability in practice without the support of the ILG and those it represents. Where there is injustice, resistance will seep out around the edges. If the issue of the takutai moana remains live, the party can continue to advocate for a just and enduring solution, and the ILG’s proposed solution opens a potential route for re-engagement with the Labour party. All is not lost.

The big question — as I asked in r0b’s excellent thread the other day is: what will Labour do?

They can sit back and say “I told you so” to the māori party, hoping they will fold, or they can make a better offer and hope the māori party will become more inclined to work with them. I can see how either would be a reasonable tactical position in terms of electoral numbers, even though the former course of action would continue the erosion of Labour’s historically liberal and Māori support. But there’s also a real danger the party will do neither, or will attempt to do both and fail at doing either, such as by arguing that the FSA was actually not that bad after all. That would be a tragedy.

The whole world’s watching. I have to say Shane Jones, who the party desperately needs if it is to have credibility on this issue, hasn’t helped dispel the predominant impression of Māori politicians held by the New Zealand public.

L