Posts Tagged ‘Pundit’

The left’s lose-lose SOE strategy

datePosted on 11:50, March 10th, 2013 by Lew

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.

Salience
Labour mistook asset sales for a high-salience issue and tried to run a campaign on it, when in reality too few cared enough for it to work. I have no reason to disbelieve the assertion that most people don’t want the assets sold. But the evidence of the election, the sluggish uptake of petition signatures, and the general lack of traction gained by the Labour party, for whom this has been the only coherent policy frame since the election, show that it is not an issue about which people are strongly exercised.

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.

Mandate
The notion that the government, having spent the entire year 2011 campaigning on it, lacks a mandate to proceed with asset sales is utter nonsense, as I wrote when the campaign kicked off. Labour and the Greens have decided the mood of low-level dissatisfaction with the plan that failed to win them the election will be sufficient to derail the policy now that it is on the move. They have decided that a citizen-initiated referendum, which worked so well for the opponents of the Section 59 repeal, is their best tool. Andrew Geddis wrote brilliantly about the problems with this in June last year, and here I essentially restate one of his arguments — that the Greens and Labour should be careful what they wish for. Both Labour and the Greens rely on the maxim that what’s right is not always popular. By insisting that policy be popular to be passed they risk painting themselves into a corner when next in government.

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
The left has lost the argument about asset sales. Barring some sort of deus ex machina it’ll go ahead and will probably be a net vote winner for the government. But the apparent mismanagement of Solid Energy has given Labour and the Greens an opportunity to reframe the state-owned enterprise discussion, away from who owns these businesses to how they are run.

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.

L

White Queen

datePosted on 15:17, March 17th, 2011 by Lew

Andrew Geddis has a good post up on Pundit about Hilary Calvert and her apparent ignorance of the Humpty Dumpty scene from Through the Looking-Glass.

The extent of Calvert’s idiocy being so egregious, it seems a mite churlish to point out — in addition to failures of basic logic and lawyerly literary culture — the flaws of historical and legal reasoning in her now-famous speech on the foreshore and seabed topic. But Calvert dug her own pit when she wittered on about tangata whenua “crawling on the seabed” like some sort of primitive bottom-dwelling life forms, holding their breath for the better part of two centuries, and the length of a cannon-shot — and the following can’t go unmentioned. Despite being a big-city property lawyer, Hilary Calvert apparently hasn’t done the first bit of research into the basic legal history of this particular property-rights debate. The Muriwhenua report of the Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 22), one of the mechanisms which resulted in fishery rights being vested in various iwi (the “Sealord deal”), is a very well-known and documented case, and covered the matter of indigenous control of coastal waters in considerable detail. Its findings were robust, and were summarised as follows in the report of the Foreshore & Seabed Review Panel:

The Tribunal, which heard detailed evidence on that particular district, concluded that there was an ‘inner’ zone related to the continental shelf, stretching 12 miles out from shore. The hapū and tribes of Muriwhenua had full control over fishing and passage inside that zone. They claimed the same rights further out, but only insofar as they could be enforced against challengers. In the ‘Māori idiom the hapū and tribes of Muriwhenua held the “mana” or “authority” of the whole of the Muriwhenua seas’ within a minimum of the 12-mile zone. The nearest British cultural equivalent, the Tribunal found, ‘is to consider that they exercised “dominion” over that part, or “owned” it as part of their territorial waters’. We accept this view that Māori tribes had dominion over their territorial waters as at 1840, and that in the particular circumstances of the Muriwhenua district, it extended for at least 12 miles out to sea.

So neither Calvert nor anyone in the ACT research unit who checks speeches for accuracy (yeah, permit me a little poetic liberty) has even read the definitive public document from which this replacement law has emerged — let alone attained even a passing familiarity with the basic historical situation which underpins the argument around customary property rights to the coastal marine area. ACT don’t even understand the legal situation regarding the foreshore and seabed review; they oppose it viscerally, without even really knowing or thinking about why. Let me be clear: there are good reasons to oppose the passage of this bill. Although I don’t personally agree, I’ll even go so far as to say that there could be good, principled reasons to oppose this bill because it goes too far in compensating tangata whenua. The reasons being stated by ACT in general and Hilary Calvert in particular are not such reasons, by any meaningful standard.

ACT’s position prior to this week was bad enough; this week it has degenerated into farce. In Through the Looking-Glass the White Queen believes six impossible things before breakfast, and lives in backwards, looking-glass time. On the basis of this performance one has to wonder whether Calvert, once apparently a pretty sharp operator, is finding that her faculties of critical and professional reasoning are becoming atrophied. Though, as someone on Danyl’s blog remarked yesterday, it pays to remember that she was ranked below David Garrett on the party list.

L

What the media is for

datePosted on 13:03, February 28th, 2011 by Lew

There has been a lot of coverage about the coverage of the second Canterbury earthquake, and this is another post on that general topic. However rather than deal with the specifics — already superbly examined by Mediawatch (45 minute audio) and others — this is a comment on the purpose and functions of media in a society such as ours. It should be read in light of my previous post on the topic.

A commenter on Tim’s piece at Pundit makes the following objections about the media coverage of the most recent Canterbury earthquake:

I always thought the media collected news, let those involved explain the significance and do their best to give complete and balanced coverage.
It is not the media’s job to carry on carrying on “to show support.”
Media should be getting out the information to those affected and to the general public. Not manipulate us with their constructs of “courage” and “tenacity” but provide the important facts.

It is common, but this is just the sort of idealised notion of the media’s role which I referred to earlier in that comment thread when I said:

So the trend I’ve observed, here and in other discussions on the topic, is that a few of those who don’t really understand the media or its social role, or who have idealised notions of that role, or who are amateur ‘MSM’ critics with an ideological beef, just hate it all the more for doing more of what it does. On the other hand, those who work in or with the media, or have a broad understanding of its wider functions down here in the real world pretty much agree — with a few notable exceptions, like Steven Price — that there’s some sort of social purpose being served by all this additional coverage, even if it’s imperfect; and at least have some respect — if not awe — for the magnitude of the undertaking.
Haters gonna hate, I suppose.

The media’s job is not “just the facts, ma’am”. The media’s job is right there in the name: to mediate events for a society which, by and large, will never experience them firsthand but which nevertheless relies on a strong baseline of common experience. Most New Zealanders’ main exposure to the Canterbury earthquakes will be via the media. So their job is not simply to report the facts of a situation, but its essential truth, or — as usually happens — the various truths. It is incumbent upon the media to present more than a dessicated, dispassionate view of the Canterbury quake, for it is not a dessicated, dispassionate situation for those involved. As a matter of fairness to Cantabrians, if the events they cover speak to narratives of courage and tenacity, or loss or anguish or triumph or solidarity or whatever, then the media has a responsibility to convey those narratives more or less faithfully. And as a matter of national cohesion they need to convey a sense of the magnitude and intensity of it all to the rest of the nation. This is the rough-cut of history, after all, and history is neither dessicated nor dispassionate. So that’s a very open-ended task; incorporating also the functions Bruce mentions. These are non-exclusive.

There are other roles, also. Not least among the media’s other functions down here in the real world is to attract and hold audiences (without which they cannot survive), and to strengthen their newsmaking reputations (without which they cannot retain any credibility). In the case of disaster coverage, the former is almost totally subservient to the latter, since the cost of producing wall-to-wall coverage in trying conditions far outweighs the advertising return from doing so — especially since much of the resulting coverage has been shorn of commercials or aired in place of other, much more lucrative programming. But this is a rare example of a genuine crisis, an opportunity for the news media to put their worst-case-scenario plans into action These are (some of) the self-interested aspects of media conduct, and many of the media’s critics like to pretend (or wish) these imperatives don’t (or didn’t) exist; that the job of the media is simply to be altruistic without consideration of the cost, and without an eye to the benefits they might draw from their coverage. But all major media outlets in this country operate along essentially commercial lines (even those which are not commercially funded, such as Radio NZ, are benchmarked on ratings in ways similar to how commercial media are), so these imperatives apply almost as much to the ‘public service’ broadcasters as to those owned by foreign venture capital firms whose sole interest is shareholder returns.

I mention this because, right or wrong, it is a crucial link in the chain: without some sort of return accruing to media outlets (whether directly financial, or in terms of strengthening their brand, or the profile of their top people, or whatever) they won’t — can’t — dedicate resources to covering an event. As long as media outlets’ performance generally rests on attracting and retaining eyeballs and earholes, media outlets will engage in the sorts of behaviours which tend to maximise their attractiveness to those eyeballs and earholes. (I’d argue that even in the case of public service broadcasters like Radio NZ, this isn’t a bad state of affairs, since a medium not accountable to an audience basically enjoys impunity, and impunity is bad wherever it exists.)

Among the most crucial roles is the ‘fourth estate’ function of holding power to account. Without more than half of the country’s best journalists in Christchurch this past week, this most crucial democratic function would be severely atrophied. While the crisis response capacities of the media are stretched, those of wider civil society are far more so. It is crucial that the quality of the social response, and especially the elite response of the government, civil defence, police, emergency services and the military is adequately scrutinised. Wall-to-wall coverage makes it worthwhile for Mediaworks and Fairfax and TVNZ and APN and RNZ and TRN to give those journalists a reason to be there. Without that strong presence, those whose job it is to coordinate the response and recovery — during a state of national emergency, which gives them the legal authority to do very nearly anything they like, as long as it can be argued to serve the response — would be working with considerably less scrutiny than they are. Impunity, in other words. And that’s no good for anyone. There have been few, or perhaps even no ‘gotchas’ revealed so far. Absent strong media scrutiny this would give rise to suspicions that failures were being hidden. Because the scrutiny has been there — including the constant and often distasteful badgering for an updated death toll — it rather suggests a competent and transparently-run response. That’s something which is good for everyone.

L

The television will be revolutionised

datePosted on 22:50, February 24th, 2011 by Lew

Tim Watkin has written a great think-piece on Pundit about the “birth of a new news” in New Zealand. He asks a lot of good questions about the imperatives and tensions inherent in this (and I hate the term) new paradigm:

Rather than a journalist doing the thinking for the viewers and the carefully condensed report presented, the thinking (and feeling) is done live in front of you, and sometimes is exposed as shallow or headline-driven. It’s real, for better or worse. As Paul Holmes puts it, ‘the curtain is pulled back’. But is the loss of thinking time worth the gain? Are we better informed if we see behind the scenes?
Quantity can become the enemy of quality. Mistakes are made when resources are stretched so far, whether they come in the form of spelling mistakes, tactless phrases, offensive unedited pictures or whatever.
When you have to talk and keep talking and talk some more while the next guest is being moved into position or some pictures are being edited or a dropped phone line re-established, you’re bound to say something off-key and earn ire from your audience. But those skills are being learnt under fire as I write, perhaps making for better journalists down the track, trained in the heat of battle.
I’d be interested to see the comment thread toss these pros and cons around. What do you think of the coverage? Of this trend to such extensive news-telling? What’s stood out? Are you better served? What’s worked, what hasn’t?

While this sort of coverage has been well entrenched in more mature mass-media markets for some years, it is indeed new to New Zealand. The extent of coverage we saw of the Pike River tragedy (and the valuable scrutiny of government and corporate conduct which that entailed) would probably not have occurred without the spur provided by the September 4 earthquake, which forced our local newsmakers to deploy in ways they’d never deployed before, and to consider how they might respond to a greater event.

I’ve been deeply immersed in the earthquake coverage since it happened. Probably too deeply, and it is too early for me to address any of Tim’s questions in any depth. I urge you to go and discuss them at Pundit. But Tim’s next paragraph provides the kernel of my tentative answers: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata:

In TVNZ’s control room this morning decisions large and small were being made in an instant by people who were typing in text for on-screen banners, talking on the phone to journalists about to go to air, receiving updates from the newsroom, and listening to live interviews – all at the same time. Hey, as I’ve learnt in the past year, that’s what producers do. It’s important to understand the complexity of the environment, however, when you’re judging the coverage from the comfort of your armchair.

It is people. All those snap decisions are the reason it’s crucial that serious news organisations continue to employ the smartest and most dedicated people they can find, because when the chips are really down and there’s nobody to direct traffic, news needs to fall back on the instincts, judgement, professionalism and initiative of newsmakers, from the most junior interns to the best-known household names.

For all the howlers (“live bodies” is one I heard this morning; there are dozens more) the overall response by the New Zealand media has been extremely strong, and in addition to broadcasting the facts and context of this event, has served a greater purpose: to make New Zealand and the world care about Christchurch. That’s support that disasters in countries without a robust media infrastructure don’t normally draw: contrast the response with quakes, floods and so on in Pakistan, Brazil, Iran, China, and elsewhere. Individualised human experience — such as that of Ann Voss, interviewed live on TV3 after nine hours trapped in her office, having already farewelled her children — embedded in broader context become emblematic of the event; they provide distant, detached viewers a handle by which to grasp the enormity of the disaster. That’s valuable; not only for those glued to their screens, but for those whose lives and deaths have been laid rudely bare before the cameras. And how much more so for the uprisings in the Middle East, where wall-to-wall coverage, especially on Al Jazeera, has been instrumental in generating worldwide solidarity and sympathy with those who seek to overthrow their oppressors?

For this reason I have little agreement with those who complain of media exploitation — for two examples, see Steven Price and Jonathan Green — although their arguments are understandable. I think most Christchurchers (and West Coasters, Queenslanders, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans) would consider a small measure of fleeting, mostly inadvertent exploitation is a reasonable price to pay for their stories being told to the world in ways which make the world shed tears for them, get angry on their behalf, and reach into their pockets to help. The news production model is mutual exploitation, after all.

A bigger question is: when will it end? At what point will the newsmaking apparatus have outlasted its usefulness, and be doing better service by covering personality politics, celebrity scandal and sporting achievements? Another question I can’t really answer. But I think we can trust the judgement of those people whose decision it is to make.

L

Sleeping dogs

datePosted on 23:08, July 8th, 2010 by Lew

Tim Watkin usually writes good sense, but with the latest post on gun control it’s clear he just doesn’t know his subject. Toughening gun control in NZ is basically a hiding to nothing, both in policy and in symbolic terms. It’s pointless for three main reasons:

  1. We already have pretty sane firearm laws and gun culture which regulate legitimate gun owners, and constrain the sorts of weapons most useful to criminals;
  2. As a country, we own a lot of guns, and they’re important to our way of life and identity, and this importance is the subject of bipartisan political consensus;
  3. We have very low rates of gun-related crime already, and any regulation which would be effective would be very costly, both in financial and political terms.

Just to preface this: I own a hunting rifle, and as a bit of a propaganda geek I’ve paid close attention to gun control as a matter of symbolic politics (alongside abortion, it’s a leading “touchstone” rhetorical issue in US domestic politics). I’ve been watching the way NZ is beginning to develop a (rather amateurish, but effective enough to not be laughable) US-modeled gun-ownership lobby with interest as well. But I’m not one of those “don’t tread on me” gun nuts who thinks bringing a loaded assault rifle to a town hall meeting is a core part of the democratic process. Owning a firearm is useful, but it’s not an absolute right — rather one which must be weighed against other consequences, including those which stem from arming communities. But I object to knee-jerk policy proposals which misoverestimate the problem, won’t solve it in any case, and will come at considerable cost.

What problem?
The most significant objection I have to Tim’s analysis is that he assumes gun crime is a serious enough problem to warrant harsh regulatory consideration; and seems to think that tackling it like the government has “tackled” knife crime is a sensible approach. I reckon both are suspect assumptions.

According to a UN survey from 2000 (the most recent I can easily access), 13% of our homicides (including attempts) were committed with a firearm, at an annual rate of 0.18 per hundred thousand population. That is a rate slightly higher than the UK (0.12 per hundred thousand, with much more strict firearm laws); just over half the rate of Australia (0.31, also with much more strict firearm laws, including a hugely expensive buyback programme undertaken in 1996 with the intention of solving the problem). I don’t think things have changed all that much; in 2009, the year of Jan Molenaar, the figure was 15% of our recorded murders (incl. attempts). You can use the Statistics NZ tools to get data here. You can also compare a bunch of countries’ rates here, but be sure to read the disclaimer. The bottom line is that we have extremely low gun crime rates by world standards, especially given that we have very high gun ownership rates. By far the highest proportion of gun-related deaths in NZ are suicides — I don’t have the numbers to hand but I recall it being above 70%. That’s a consideration, since suicides are usually committed with weapons of opportunity, and a firearm is particularly effective. But this is not the argument being made.

Knives are a much more serious problem, accounting for about twice as many homicides in NZ, and “other weapons” and “manual” which I assume includes unarmed homicides are also generally more common than firearm murders. The government has seen fit to “crack down” on knife crime by trying to prevent youths’ access to knives at the retail level using a voluntary code of practice. This is pure security theatre. Everyone credible knows it won’t make a blind bit of difference because kids don’t go and buy a knife from a shop, they just take one from the kitchen drawer or the toolbox in the garage. Firearms are already much more heavily regulated than this, and as a consequence people wanting one but who lack a license don’t roll into Hunting & Fishing and buy one — they get them illegally because we have no idea how many there are or who owns them (more on this later). So the comparison between guns and knives, while tempting, is bogus. Knife crime is much more serious than firearm crime, much less-heavily regulated, and the trivial additional regulation proposed won’t change anything — but it also won’t cost anything.

What guns?
Part of the reason gun crime is such a minor problem in NZ is due to our history and culture with guns, and in particular the fact that “personal defence” has never been a justification for firearm ownership. Tim also gets this wrong: citing “personal defence” as a reason for needing a firearms license will mean you get denied one, especially if you’re trying to apply for a restricted weapons license (which is the example he uses).

Excluding the post-settlement period, firearms in NZ have generally been conceptualised in law and culture as tools rather than weapons — for hunting, sport shooting, or the defence of the realm. Most in existence today are .22 calibre rabbit guns, or bolt-action ex-infantry rifles from the first and second world wars, passed down from father to son, or modern firearms based on near-identical designs, or shotguns designed for gamebird hunting. Partly due to length, partly due to action design and calibre, these are pretty useless for self-defence except for the appearance of threat and as clubs. By the same token, they are far from ideal for offensive use. Part of the reason criminals are rarely armed with firearms is because they are nearly impossible to conceal (which makes carrying or using them a riskier proposition than, say, a knife), and if sawn off below the regulation length of 30 inches, they are still not very convenient, and give police instant cause for book-throwing if discovered.

There are relatively few pistols or assault rifles in NZ, and those which are owned are very tightly controlled, with extremely high standards required of the owners. The NZ Police apparently operate a “sinking lid” policy on restricted weapons: to gain permission to import or produce one, you need to destroy another. This has driven the market price of such weapons through the roof, putting them out of the reach even of many legitimate collectors; although it must be said that the distinction between a “military-style” semi-auto and any other semi-auto is largely (not entirely) cosmetic, and one is no less deadly than the other. As the rather grim saying goes, the seven-round magazine restriction on an ordinary semi-auto centrefire rifle just means that if you want to kill more than eight people, you’ll need to reload.

Firearm licenses, especially those for restricted weapons like military-style semi-automatics and pistols, are issued at the discretion of an Arms Officer on the basis of the applicant being of “fit and proper” character. The threat of losing the license acts as a firm constraint on legitimate gun owners’ behaviour, with most hunters, collectors, etc. living in fear of having their license revoked. This constraint comes into force, for example, when deciding whether to keep a firearm for self-defence purposes in a country where most potential assailants, burglars, etc. are not themselves armed: if you happen to use it as such, you must then explain to your arms officer how come you had it handy, rather than locked up in its safe, with the bolt and ammunition separated. Most people comply to avoid this inconvenience, and because they know that the chances of a family member actually meeting a life-or-death situation are much higher with a loaded firearm lying around than otherwise.

In general (and again, I don’t have the figures to hand) the vast majority of gun crime in NZ is committed by people without a legal right to own or use a firearm in the first place (being not “fit and proper”). Jan Molenaar was just such a person, so using him as an exemplar of all that is wrong with the system is a bit misleading. It’s certainly an indictment on police procedure following the last shake-up of gun laws. Probably the biggest failure in our gun licensing regime is the lack of a registration system for specific firearms. It’s expensive, time-consuming and bureaucratic but would have been of some use had it been implemented when suggested by the Thorp report, even if just to draw a clear demarcation line between compliant and non-compliant owners. I think that horse has bolted now.

As for the matter of private internet sales of arms and ammunition — Tim clearly hasn’t used Trade Me for this purpose. It’s considerably more robust than any comparable method other than a brick-and-mortar shop (and many B&M shops use the same methods to sell nationwide). Anyone can view restricted auctions, but to bid or ask a question you need to enter your firearm license number. Repeated failure to do so (or entering made-up numbers) gets you blacklisted. If buying otherwise than by a face-to-face meeting, you are required to complete a form designated by the Police for this very purpose, and have it counter-signed by your local Arms Officer, who sights your license. The first step (needing to enter your number) prevents anyone without access to a license even bidding or making contact with a seller. This is probably the most effective safety mechanism in the system.

Sleeping Dogs
These are policy and cultural reasons which explain why trying to crack down on gun ownership in NZ is likely to be pointless. But Tim’s post was largely about the political aspects of the issue: the tension between the imperative to be Tough On Crime and the danger of getting tarred with the Nanny State brush. In symbolic terms, I reckon gun control is a loser for both of the major parties because, unlike the knife measure which is empty theatre, any meaningful changes to the gun ownership regime will come at a considerable costs. One important consideration with this is that in NZ (and Australia), unlike in the USA, gun control is seen as a matter of bipartisan consensus, with both National and Labour generally occupying the middle ground (and ACT and the Greens taking up the flanks). This means there’s little or no partisan advantage to be gained by either side.

The first of these costs is purely financial. A registration, licensing audit, inspection-reclassification or buyback scheme to remove firearms (or certain firearms) from circulation (or from the hands of those not “fit and proper”) is hugely expensive. The Australian Federal Government raised a special tax for the purpose and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its buyback scheme, and even given the dramatic reduction in gun crime rates which resulted, it was generally seen to be wide-open for rorting. In New Zealand, with a much lower baseline level of gun crime, much less money and much more pressing law and order policy issues, this simply wouldn’t fly. Quite apart from the money, the drain on already-stretched police time would make a mockery of the government’s pledge to deliver resources to the front lines and away from the “bureaucrats”. And for all of that, it would still predominantly capture guns possessed by licensed owners: the “good guys” who, of all people, should retain their gun-owning privileges.

The second, and probably weightier cost is about the NZ identity. As I’ve argued before, wild places matter to us in identity terms. While most New Zealanders don’t own firearms, and never will, many more than the 250,000 who do like to think of themselves as potential outdoorsfolk who might go and shoot a possum and do their bit to save the rata. I don’t want to overstate this, though. Gun owners and hunters are viewed with considerable ambivalence by the general public, and with some cause. The gun lobby doesn’t do itself or the more reasonable branches of the sporting community any favours, and to a large extent they’re thought of in similar terms to Jan Molenaar and the various flavours of SHTF nutters.

But Nanny State also comes into this. Tim suggests that Labour couldn’t afford to do this for fear of strengthening the narrative established by the last term of the Clark government (I agree), but that National might just be able to get away with it. I disagree. Half of National’s support base are farmers or rural/semi-rural men of above-average income who are generally law-abiding and consider themselves responsible citizens in partnership with the authorities — of the view that the government “works for us”, rather than the view that the government is an agent of their oppression. (There are exceptions to this last, but mostly they vote for ACT and are thus irrelevant to this calculus.) This is almost exactly the same demographic which wants to be able to take care of his own rabbit problem and hunkers down in a cold maimai before dawn on the first weekend of winter for a laugh, and they greatly value the illusion that doing so is an inalienable right akin to that laid down by the Second Amendment. They tolerate (often with considerable reluctance) the existing licensing regime partly as a pragmatic solution to the social problem of crime, and partly because it accords them the status of being officially deemed “fit and proper”. But they will not tolerate further incursions on these privileges, and it is this demographic whom the gun lobby, with its US-imported “armed society is a polite society” rhetoric, is targeting using the present hysteria about violent crime as a springboard. These are the guys who already feel under threat from policies like the ETS, which prevents them from buying the V8, forcing them to settle for the V6.

This demographic might be the sort of people who could be persuaded to support tighter restrictions if there were a strong crime-reduction case to be made for it. But since there’s so little to gain, and since the existing regime is already at the margins of what is acceptable, National rouses these sleeping dogs and permits their radicalisation at its peril.

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

Current events

datePosted on 13:53, April 27th, 2010 by Lew

I was reluctant to post while I had the chance on ANZAC day, since there was such a good debate going on, and now I’ve (temporarily) run out of time again. So just a few quick observations.

  • Phil Goff’s one-two punch on the top tax rate and Auckland governance is solid, and both are good orthodox Labour positions for him to take. But it’s more of the same: lacking verve and failing to get cut-through as a consequence. I mean to post on the positioning of the taxation pledge at some stage, but in case I don’t get to: this is a good opportunity for Goff to demonstrate compromise as well as differentiate himself, by coupling a reimplementation of the top rate with an increase of the threshold.
  • Even without Sunday’s tragic helicopter crash, Goff’s timing was poor in making these two announcements before ANZAC Day. I guess you take the opportunities you can get, but delaying things by a week would have been more useful in my view.
  • As an aside, my mum knew the three late airmen vaguely through Search and Rescue, and confirms the universal sentiment that they were of the very best sort. I’m pleasantly surprised that the crash hasn’t turned into a witchhunt about why we’re still using Vietnam-era hardware; as true as the sentiment might be, we can all do without people thundering “if we’re going to have a military, we owe it to our troops to have it decently-outfitted” under circumstances such as these. Such is the power of ANZAC day, I suppose.
  • On a related point, the discipline with which the military, government, police and media have adopted the Air Force’s framing terminology in this event is remarkable. All four groups are talking about “the Air Force family” and exploiting the metaphor for all it’s worth. Those words are used almost every time one of these people stands in front of a microphone, and in addition the three deceased are “brothers”; Mark Sainsbury reported live last night from the family’s “lounge”, the squad room at Ohakea air base; all four have referred to the Iroquois as being like “your grandfather’s axe” — the reference being that, although it’s very old, when the handle is worn it gets replaced, and when the head is worn it gets replaced, so while it’s his axe in spirit, it actually contains no parts of the original tool and is as good as new in function. On the one hand, this is compelling symbolic stuff: nobody who deviates from this framing can really be said to be showing the proper sort of respect and deference; on the other hand, it’s a bit creepy for everyone to be falling into lockstep behind Defence HQ communications. There are ways of saying these things without using the exact same words, and the constant repetition spooks me. Maybe I’m just sensitive. [Edit: There was a clean sweep for “Air Force family” or something similar in speeches supporting the Prime Minister’s parliamentary motion of condolence. No shock there, I suppose.]
  • On a somewhat lighter note, Councillor Tony Jack has picked the wrong district council to put a motion banning macrons in council materials. This is the Kāpiti Coast District Council, who moved to put the macrons into Paekākāriki and Ōtaki only a month ago. Jack’s motion was voted down, at which point he predictably declared that PC had gone mad. Bless. Of course, the Stuff article doesn’t contain the macrons, so I guess he wins as far as that goes.
  • Tim Watkin at Pundit continues to write excellent sense and ask smart questions about race relations in Aotearoa New Zealand. I think the emphasis in Tim’s piece is just right — there is a legitimate claim to indigeneity for non-Māori, but it’s not so obvious as Trevor Mallard’s “I was born in Wainuiomata”, and there’s a lot to work out before such definitions can be settled upoin comfortably. I’m all for having this discussion. I particularly like the ornithological allegory drawn by commenter “william blake” — we are all Pūkeko!
  • Also on a lighter note, a (very) atheist friend whose six year-old daughter has chosen to go to Bible study classes recently asked him if, because Jesus had risen from the dead, that meant he was a zombie. It apparently took every ounce of his parental commitment to letting his girl make up her own mind to explain the origins of zombie stories, how myths come about, etc. rather than just saying, yes, Jesus is a zombie. Good on him — not sure I would have had the fortitude.
  • Speaking of things biblical, and of belonging, Joanna Newsom has a new album out, and here’s the first single — about tilling one’s own bit of the Garden of Eden:

Ok, so not so brief after all. Discuss. I’ll dive back in as I can. You can treat this as an open thread as well: post what you want to talk about.

L

Perspective and colonial counterfactuals

datePosted on 08:55, April 14th, 2010 by Lew

It’s hardly the stuff of rigorous historico-social investigation, but Simon Schama sees much to celebrate in NZ biculturalism — particularly in comparison to our Anglo comparators:

But it’s the story of Maori and pakeha, the settlers of European origin, that – for all the pain, betrayals and suffering – still deserve to be known and celebrated as offering a different model of cultural encounter than anywhere else in the world. […] Of course there have been serious problems of unequal social opportunity, of street gangs. But if there is anywhere in the post-colonial world where two cultural worlds truly live an engaged life alongside each other, it’s in New Zealand.
Such stories don’t come along very often. Cherish them. Chant them. Dance them.
Upane upane, kaupane, whiti te ra! Up the ladder, up the ladder, the Sun Shines.

This is broad-brush stuff, and minimises the genuine grievance and disquiet which exists on both sides of the cultural divide — his “divided no longer” caption to a stock photo is altogether too pat. And his assessment of Paul Holmes as a “tough” and “a reproach to dozy thinking” is marginal at best. But Schama’s observation that what we have in this country is quite unlike any other postcolonial nation is exactly right. It provides a glimpse at what might have been been elsewhere, and what might have been here if the post-Treaty settlement had been undertaken in better faith.

This raises a question Pablo and I discussed in email after he wrote this post (I didn’t want to hijack the excellent discussion there): do those who hate and fear Tino Rangatiratanga and consider the Treaty a “simple nullity” really believe that the people of Aotearoa — of all colours — would be better off if the typical colonial counterfactual were true — if Hobson’s marines and settlers had simply driven the natives into the sea or exterminated them as animals? In my email to Pablo, I wrote:

I’ve often argued (as a wind-up or a devil’s advocate position) that the Māori are ungrateful whingers who don’t appreciate what an incredibly good deal they got from Hobson, and that NZ would have been better off if Europeans had just landed with boatloads of armed soldiers and done to the natives what they did in the rest of the world. Anything for a peaceful life. What’s interesting is that, even when discussing the topic with people who genuinely believe that the Treaty is a gravy train and the natives are taking the piss and actually are ungrateful, they generally balk at this suggestion. That consent [given by the colonised to the colonisers], however fraught and limited, is important to how we see ourselves. That’s one of the reasons I’m generally pretty hopeful about the bicultural future.

I expressed somewhat similar views in comments to this post of Chris Trotter’s a short time later. Neither Chris, nor the other commenter to that post (RedLogix, with whom I’ve had robust but usually cordial disagreements on this topic) responded to my comments, which I took as a sort of confirmation of my thesis.* As I say, this is the usual response to the argument I’ve made many times before — all but the most unrepentant rednecks are repelled by the view that colonialism NZ-style was worse than what might have happened if we’d undertaken it Australian-style. This indicates to me that even for those who are highly critical of it grudgingly accept that the Tino Rangatiratanga movement, Waitangi Tribunal and attendant concessions to Māori in our political and social systems are better than the counterfactual alternative of a white monoculture in the South Pacific, even if it were more peaceful. The importance of this for a bicultural future is profound.

L

* I don’t want to put words in Chris and RL’s mouths, though — it may be that they simply thought my remarks too ridiculous to bother engaging with. Happy to accept clarification on this point.

(Schama article via Tim Watkin at Pundit. Thanks! And as it happens, Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn has excerpted it as well.)

The glow of the furniture, piled high for firewood

datePosted on 22:19, February 10th, 2010 by Lew

There’s been much analysis, wisdom, whimsy, and snark about Gerry Brownlee’s plans to mine the conservation estate. But rather than talk about it, I’m going to repair to a rather dubious poll from stuff.co.nz:

stuffminingpoll

Two things are interesting about this poll. First, for an internet poll, the options are uncharacteristically nuanced. This leads to the second interesting thing: these results are deeply incoherent.

I’m going to work from two assumptions (both of which are pretty arguable). First, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that stuff.co.nz poll respondents are pretty similar to NZ Herald poll respondents and the commenters on “Your Views” and Stuff’s equivalent — putting it very charitably, let’s just suppose that they’re somewhat further economically to the right, less environmentally conscious and with stronger authoritarian tendencies than Gerry Brownlee. Second, I’m going to assume that a poll like this should break roughly along partisan lines, since it’s a government policy opposed by the opposition, part of an overall strategy to mimic Australia, a complex topic of national significance with which people generally have little first-hand experience (the sort of thing they tend to entrust to their representatives), and the poll answers are heavily propagandised using the government and opposition’s own sorts of terms.

The poll result is incoherent because it doesn’t break along (rightward-slanted) partisan lines, although it initially looks like it does. A total of about 56% of respondents approve of mining in principle, and this is roughly what I would expect given this framing, the current government position on the topic, and the demographic characteristics of this type of poll. It’s what the government is banking on in terms of support with this policy: if it drops much lower, they’ll probably back down. But where it gets incoherent is in the other two options. The third option (“too damaging to NZ’s green image”) is about what the Green party is polling, and the fourth (“National Parks are treasures”) is about what the Labour party wishes it was polling. That’s bass-ackwards, because the third option is the Labour party’s actual position on many environmental matters (even Carol Beaumont’s passionately-titled post falls back on NZ Inc. reasoning), while the fourth position is the Green party’s actual deeply-held position of principle. A second source of incoherence is the political framing of the second (most popular) question. By definition, if conservation land is mined it’s not being conserved any more.

Both Labour and the Greens have huge opportunities here, but they need to position themselves to properly take advantage of them. Labour, for its part, needs to tone back the NZ Inc. reasoning which plays into all the assumptions of the second question: that it is a simple trade-off of one type of economic value against another type and come out looking good on the margin. This is classic trickle-up politics, rationale which appeals to the brain instead of the gut. The people who are picking options one and two probably think they’re doing so on solid rational bases: more money, more efficient use of resources, etc. — but the real reasons are probably more to do with ideology (mastery of the environment) and nationalism (catching up with Australia). Labour’s best move here is to appeal to peoples’ identity: New Zealanders think of themselves as people who live in a wild and pristine country, and they like having that country to go and ramble about in (even if they hardly ever do it). The Greens could also adopt such a position, abandoning the wonkery for things which matter to people. Russel Norman tried with his speech in reply yesterday, but I swear, whoever wrote it needs the ‘G’, ‘D’ and ‘P’ keys removed from their keyboard. He needs to take a few hints from the team who got an organic farmer elected to the Senate in Montana on an environmentalist platform by telling him to stop talking about environmentalism and start talking about how much he loved the land. The Greens also need to rethink their deeply confused firearm policy, but that’s a minor thing. In a country with such a strong constituency of outdoorsfolk and wilderness sportspeople it’s an absolute travesty that the MP who represents the hunting lobby is the urbane Peter Dunne, and the only party who genuinely values wild places is represented by earnest city-dwelling vegetarians.

But Labour and the Greens can’t divide this constituency between them; they need to make this appeal positive-sum, and steal back some of those who voted option two. The way to do this is to attack the implicit logic of option two, the idea that you can mine something and still be conserving it, and to remove the idea that this sort of thing is for a government to decide, that it’s somehow too complex or technical for ordinary people to understand. This shouldn’t be hard to do — it’s a plain old political education campaign. But it requires framing and a narrative whereby reasonable people can really only bring themselves to choose the wilderness; causing them to lose faith in the assurances of the government’s “strict environmental criteria”. The narrative needs to be about who we are in New Zealand, and it needs to be one which appeals to socially-conservative rural and suburban folk who would never think of voting for earnest city-dwelling vegetarians even though they share many of the same bedrock values. It needs to be like the lyric in the title: we are burning our furniture, and that’s not what civilised people do. New Zealand is not a nation of environmental degenerates, except when insufferable environmentalist smugness forces them to choose degeneracy as the less-bad identity position.

This is an issue on which the left can win, because it’s already a pretty marginal issue for the government. It cuts against a long-standing bipartisan reverence for National Parks, and it cuts against New Zealand identity as New Zealanders see it. Even on what should be a pretty reactionary online poll, the government only wins by 6%. Turn one in six of those people around and the issue gets put on ice for good.

L