Posts Tagged ‘Sir Roger Douglas’

Fire in the House

datePosted on 21:17, May 5th, 2010 by Lew

The opposition was strong in Parliament today. I’m stuck for time, so what follows is somewhat stream-of-consciousness.

Front and centre was the government’s failure to perform on unemployment and wage growth, the subject of criticism from both flanks. Bill English had led off with “the budget will be about the many, not the few”, and then “but seriously …”, to a stinging rebuke from David Cunliffe, who listed the government’s failings as he saw them. This adoption by the government of Labour’s own tagline looks like an attempt to muddy the counter-campaign and poach their emphasis, trying to set up National as the party representing “the many”, rather than the policy merits of the government’s program, but if so it’s a fairly ham-fisted one. While “the many” looks on its way to becoming this election cycle’s “hard-working Kiwis”, the government’s attempt here to muscle in indicates that National has accepted Labour’s rhetorical framing, although they disagree with it. If you adopt your opponent’s narrative, you need to be able to make it your own — either that, or you need to dismantle and discredit it. English did neither.

Cunliffe was strong, also raising the variance between English’s aspirational and controversial “Plain English” ad and the policy track he has delivered. Sir Roger Douglas also took aim, and was forced by the Speaker to rephrase the question (to Paula Bennett): “Which is more important? Young people getting jobs, or pandering to the Left?”.

Bennett also took a bit of a pasting on the matter of the identity of one Peter Saunders. The Standard has picked this up so I’ll not elaborate more. Wayne Mapp, standing in for the Minister of Agriculture also stumbled on a line of questioning from Sue Kedgley regarding AgResearch’s GM cattle trials. Not exactly a shock since, not being the minister himself, that information wasn’t top of his mind, but it contributed to the general atmosphere.

Then it was all on in General Debate, with Goff, King and Cunliffe leading off on the same topic matter (jobs/wages) with a couple of fiery speeches, and re-emphasising the “smile and wave/photo-op/government by poll” meme and the retrenchment of the government’s mining plans. Judith Collins concentrated on David Cunliffe’s lack of orthodox economic credibility, and purported concern for Goff having to shoulder the dual burden of leading a party in which Cunliffe was both the finance spokesperson and a leadership contender. Nice concern troll, but what’s more interesting is how much she was looking forward to seeing Cunliffe’s expenses records — and the threats hurled across the House while she thought she was not miked — “You wait, just you wait! …” Some irony in this given that it was just yesterday Collins raised the most threadbare defence of her (or someone else’s) extensive use of the ministerial self-drive car: “All the travel is within the rules – that’s all I’m prepared to say on it.”

So, while superficially an ordinary sort of Wednesday (albeit one where the Member’s Day was not clobbered by urgency), I think this has provided a few glimpses of the 18 months to come: a robust focus on core materialist issues from the Labour party, ahead of the budget, and a clear desire to debate the policy merits; combined with continued attacks on the credibility and perceived competence of English and Bennett in particular; the government attempting to subvert the opposition’s framing rather than exclusively arguing the merits; Collins v Cunliffe shaping up as a key battle. Nothing flash, but it’s starting to look like something resembling a threat. Most importantly, something to require the government to rethink its own gameplan. Until now they’ve had the ability to act almost with impunity, their errors going unpunished. If today’s performance is any indication, no longer.

L

Impunity, freedom and student body politics

datePosted on 14:21, March 20th, 2010 by Lew

fat_boy_slim_-_youve_come_aJust before the end of the university term last year, Peter McCaffrey and ACT On Campus gave the Victoria University of Wellington Student Association an object lesson in how democracy works. They successfully passed a resolution that VUWSA make a select committee submission in support of Roger Douglas’ Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill (making student association voluntary) despite various machinations employed by the VUWSA members and officeholders there. These events were well documented in text by Jenna Raeburn and in video with a ridiculously triumphal soundtrack (irony noted by felix).

The fundamental problem of non-democratic (and poor-quality democratic) political systems is that they shelter those in power from the consequences of their actions. Authoritarianism (and authoritarian communism in particular) is deleterious not so much due to the economic failings of the system (such as the economic calculation problem) as due to the fact that in such systems there exists no mechanism to force, require or even encourage the leadership to act in its peoples’ interest. I’ve written a lot about the power transfer problem of orthodox Marxist pragma, and this is an aspect of it. When the leadership is invested with the monopoly power and authority to suppress a counter-revolution, how do you ever get them to relinquish it?

The effect of impunity is similarly evident in other fields; particularly in commerce, where the customary opposition of the terms “freedom” and “regulation” are little more than straw soldiers in a propaganda battle. Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite have written at length about the extent to which so-called free trade mechanisms such as TRIPS are instruments of international coercion more than they are of international trade, and how almost the entire intellectual property system of the modern world has been so thoroughly captured by existing rightsholders that it now functions as a form of privatised regulation by asserting near-impassable barriers to entry into the information marketplace. This suppresses competition, promotes the establishment and maintenance of cartels between existing participants, and all this breeds impunity, where participants have no (or few) reasons to develop their products and services to suit their users’ needs, and so they develop them to suit their own needs. The results are everywhere; for instance, in the fact that people are compelled to purchase Microsoft software with most new computers although they might hate and despise it, or simply not need it; or in the fact that those same users, having reluctantly purchased Windows since there are no easily-accessible alternatives (those having been shut out of the market years ago by patent thickets, bundling, cross-licensing, and so on) are then locked into using proprietary media formats, players, content distribution and communication systems with (in some cases well-known) surveillance functions and which are designed to restrict a users’ rights to their own hardware, content and communication, so that the system — and users’ participation in it — works in the provider’s interest, rather than the interests of its users.

That example is just one with which I’m familiar. Much more socially and economically important examples exist; particularly around medical development and crop research. But the point is that this whole system, billed as being about “freedom”, does not mean freedom for users so much as rightholders’ freedom from the need to cater to their users without fear of someone else eating their lunch.

Returning to student body politics. When a student union compels fees from its students, and when students who disagree with the union’s agenda are unable to withdraw their support, what incentive is there for the union to represent the interests of the student body? The political consequence of that system is a student body politic so complacent due to impunity in charge of millions of dollars a year in revenue that it literally cannot organise a SRC vote to save itself.

I am no great supporter of VSM; I view the threadbare rhetoric of “freedom” employed by Douglas, McCaffrey and so on with a jaundiced eye. I don’t believe people should simply be able to “opt out” of their society if they don’t like it, and I accept that the loss of revenue which will result from the (almost certain) passage of Douglas’ bill will place much of the genuinely good work student unions do in jeopardy. But the integrity of political systems is more important than discrete policy outcomes, and to be perfectly frank VUWSA, for its rank incompetence and duplicity in the face of legitimate challenge, deserves to be humiliated in this way.

I hope that the lesson about how democracy works will be well understood — that is: unless people make it work, it doesn’t. CSM as currently implemented promotes apathy and idiocy in student body politics, to a greater extent than it would exist in any case. That is bad for student body politics, and it’s bad for students. It depresses the quality of candidates and policy, and reduces the system to a comic farce which many students are justifiably ashamed of (if they care about it at all). Much better, for me, would be the the genuine politicisation of student politics, with groups organising and campaigning on their positions, winning a mandate and executing it, as in national and local body politics. If ACT on Campus want to campaign on “letting you keep more of your money”, let them do so, and good luck to them. (Of course, they have been, and it hasn’t been working out for them, so the parent party has resorted to regulation in the name of freedom. Plus ça change.)

So in my view the current threats to compulsory student unionism is largely the fault of the student unionists and their sense of entitlement to membership dues without the need to prove the value of their work to those who pay for it. The Douglas bill, while it will likely prove deleterious to the good work student unions do, may have a silver lining in that it will enforce greater discipline and competence upon student politicians, and require them to prove to their constituents that the work they do is actually valuable in order to win a mandate. If the work they do is genuinely valuable, as they say it is, such a mandate should be winnable. May they go forth and win it.

L

Postscript: Go and submit!
Select committee submissions on the bill close on 31 March 2010. Whatever your views, make them known. As I’ve said, I think it’s likely to pass (bloc support from ACT, National and UF), but that shouldn’t prevent you from making your views known. Incidentally, I approve of the relatively impartial editorial line taken by Salient, the VUWSA magazine. Especially given that this august [sic] organ depends on CSM for much of its funding, this is a bold and principled decision. Well done Sarah Robson.

Sue Bradford: hampered by her own effectiveness

datePosted on 20:33, September 25th, 2009 by Lew

I haven’t had a chance to read much of the matter written about Sue Bradford’s resignation today, so I apologise if I duplicate things other, wiser, faster people have said.

Sue will probably not appreciate the comparison, but she is like Roger Douglas in a way — too effective at driving a radical agenda for an orthodox political establishment to fully tolerate. Even the Greens, who for all their activist trimmings are essentially integral to the orthodox political establishment, and looking likely to become more so under the leadership of Russel Norman and Metiria Turei. As with Rogernomics, the s59 repeal was a powerfully controversial agenda against which popular opinion is strongly united. Unlike Rogernomics, though, it’s not so much because of the policy’s specific impacts (which are minimal) as the rhetoric around it which have proven poisonous. Sue made the bill her own and took a staunch position on it, and with a few exceptions (notably including Helen Clark, who also made the bill her own by adopting it as a government bill [turns out it remained a member’s bill throughout, thanks Graeme]) she was allowed to stand alone on the issue, one person drawing the sort of fire which would ordinarily be directed at a party or coalition of parties. She drew it, took it, and saw the bill through to its conclusion.

And that’s the problem; people don’t like the policy — or rather, they don’t like the idea of the policy — and as far as they’re concerned Sue Bradford is the policy.

Sue Bradford is an extremely effective advocate and a powerful organiser, but she is not the person to lead a party whose central policy plank — climate change and environmental sustainability — is ascending ever more rapidly into political orthodoxy. She is the sort of person any party would want as a #3; someone who works like a demon, is ethically above reproach, has phenomenal networks, whose credentials and commitment can be relied upon, and who has the gumption to see things through to their conclusions. She will go far; we will see and hear as much of her in the coming years as we have of people like Laila Harre and Geoffrey Palmer. But because of her forthrightness and personal investment in the s59 repeal, to elect her to the co-leadership would have struck a critical blow to the Greens’ political credibility and branded them as an activist party without a cause. They have a cause: environmentalism. Other aspects of their policy agenda are important adjuncts to that, but they are just that, adjuncts. The Greens have a great opportunity to make themselves indispensable to future governments who need to be environmentally credible, but they need to focus on doing that.

What of the other parties? Despite her strength as a champion, I don’t think the other parties on the right will be thrilled with Sue’s departure. The Greens’ credibility (and the inability to howl about nanny state lesbians for distraction purposes) is their loss, not their gain. The other parties on the left, likewise, although this change is important in that it enables Labour and the Greens to more clearly delineate themselves from one another. This opens the way to a model of left politics such as I have described; Labour as the core, with the Greens as an independent but allied environmentalist party, with very little crossover. It has potential, although it relies on Labour desisting from the current notion that it can be all things to all people, and the Greens’ former notions of activism as an end, rather than a means.

L

Gang whack-a-mole

datePosted on 00:52, May 7th, 2009 by Lew

actpower1This evening, the Wanganui District Council (Prohibition of Gang Insignia) Bill passed its third reading, by a narrow margin of three votes – three votes cast by the three members of the ACT caucus who represent the authoritarian faction which has edged in on the libertarian faction and now looks likely to consume it. Two of the votes will come as no surprise – the reactionary populist John Boscawen; and card-carrying hang-’em-and-flog-’em brigadoon David Garrett. Most surprisingly Rodney Hide – perhaps in a bizarre sort of solidarity with his two newest MPs, because I thought him better than this – also voted for the bill. The other two members – Sir Roger Douglas and Heather Roy – remained true to their liberal principles and voted against.

Let it be understood right away that I agree with the bill’s purpose in principle: to keep the residents of Wanganui free from intimidation by gangs. People have a right not to be intimidated, and that right must be secured by the government. But in this case, the cure is worse than the disease because it does nothing to actually treat the disease, only its smallest symptom; and because it fights arbitrary coercion with more arbitrary coercion.

The bill prohibits persons wearing certain things – `gang insignia’ where `gang’ is essentially at the Wanganui District Council’s discretion, and `insignia’ is determined as an issue of fact by a judge in a given case by recourse to the Evidence Act – from being in certain `specified places’ of the Wanganui district.

This is a weapon long-sought by the authoritarian populists who control Wanganui’s local politics – it enables them to outlaw groups who oppose them, or whom they would otherwise have to deal on more even terms. Practically any group could potentially be declared a gang under the right circumstances – the criteria are that the group, or some of its members be engaged in “a pattern of criminal activity”; that they be commonly identifiable by some sort of symbol which can be recognised well enough to ban; and that the ban be deemed necessary to prevent intimidation. Historically this could have applied to HART protesters, striking longshoremen, tangata whenua occupying land in protest at unjust systems of redress and uncooperative local government bodies. Today it could apply to those campaigning for the h to be put into Wanganui, if the protests become heated enough, which they could well do if Michael Laws carries on the way he has been. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, after all.

But for all that, it won’t matter a damn to the gangs themselves. When you try to constrain identity by legislating against its expressions, you engage in a running battle which cannot be won without continual escalation to more and more illiberal measures. Subcultural systems which are forced to adapt to the norms of a majority culture will always find loopholes – the more constraint imposed, the smarter the subculture gets. The Chinese are finding this out from the Song of the Grass-Mud Horse (video with full-colour English translation here), and the parents of tweens are finding it out from Britney Spears, and media content owners are finding it out from filesharers. If a broad ban on patches is enforced then the definition of what constitutes a gang symbol will change. Bandanas, coloured clothing, and so on will be worn instead of patches, but will convey the same intimidatory meaning. What then? Either the law is an ass, having failed to prevent what it seeks to prevent, or the definition of what constitutes insignia in law must change to match the definition in usage. I own the typical blue-and-black checked swanndri – should I be barred from wearing it in public in Wanganui, lest someone feel intimidated? Should my sister, who owns a red one? Talk of banning all blue and all red will be decried as reductio ad absurdum, but ultimately that’s the only way the policy will work, for the two main gangs which operate in Wanganui anyhow.

Or perhaps they’ll just ban those colours when they’re worn by Māori men of a certain build, and there’s the rub. Fundamentally, culture and class and inequality are the issues over which gang insignia are mere wallpaper, and banning it no more addresses the problem than changing the wallpaper stops the walls of a leaky building from leaking. Fix the alienation problem and you fix gangs – something that driving those at the margins of civil society further out into the cold will never achieve.

Update: Former Detective Sergeant in charge of the Auckland gang unit Cam Stokes made the same argument on Nine to Noon this morning. He goes further, arguing that the ban could make the work of Wanganui police more difficult by robbing the police of some intelligence-gathering capability, and could make convictions for some offences difficult to secure.

Another update: At The Standard Eddie reveals that Hide’s support for the bill – despite categorically stating ACT would never support it – was a trade-off for National supporting the 3 strikes bill. Filthy political lucre!

L