Posts Tagged ‘The Standard’

A discourse on David Shearer and the identity politics thing

datePosted on 20:51, December 14th, 2011 by Lew

For my sins, over the past week or so I have been engaging at The Standard again. It’s been a rather tiresome business (for them as well, I’m sure) but has yielded some lucid moments. One exchange between “Puddleglum”, Anthony and I in the bowels of an open mike thread has been particularly useful, and since it contains my views on a question I am often asked, I’d rather it not end up down the memory hole. I reproduce it here in full (without the benefit of editing; so it’s a bit rough).

[I originally said Anthony was the author FKA "r0b" at The Standard -- this isn't the case; it's some other Anthony. My mistake, and thanks to the r0b, Anthony Robins, for pointing it out.] Puddleglum has a blog himself — thepoliticalscientist.org — that is well worth reading.

Puddleglum
Hi Lew,

If Armstrong is correct in the following quotation (and this leadership race has all been about the ‘blokes’ battling the ‘minorities’ and the ‘politically correct’), then won’t the election of Shearer shift Labour more towards the right wing, social conservatism that you appear not to like about NZF?

“Shearer will bring change by making the party less hostage to the political correctness that still plagues its image. He is interested in things that work, rather than whether they fit the party’s doctrine. “

I may misunderstand where your ‘loyalties’ or preferences lie, but it does seem odd if you are supporting a shift in Labour’s focus towards something that would be much more compatible with NZF (including Prosser and Peters, neither of whom strike me as staunch upholders of ‘political correctness’), given how little regard you appear to have for NZF.

(As an aside, I’m not sure why Armstrong is so sure he knows Shearer’s mind – he’s obviously heard Shearer say more than he’s been reported as saying – but I guess he is a political journalist … It would have been good to hear Shearer say these things to the public if, indeed, Armstrong has it from the horse’s mouth, as his tone strongly implies – “Shearer will …”, etc..).

Lew
Hey PG,

I’m not convinced by this argument that Shearer represents the forthcoming defenestration of Māori, women, gays, the disabled, and so forth as a matter of doctrine, although folk who hope it does have been eager to say so — Armstrong, Audrey Young, Trotter amongst them. Shearer’s MSc was on the tension between Māori cultural values and environmental resource management, and he has worked on behalf of Māori in that field, preparing Tainui’s land claim to the Waitangi Tribunal and looking at sultural issues around wastewater treatment in Auckland. I have as yet seen no evidence that Shearer represents the social “right” of the party either. His pairing with Robertson as deputy certainly seems to counterindicate that argument. He says he’s “right in the middle” of Labour, though I suppose he would say that. I am open to persuasion on both these points, however, and if such defenestration does occur I may yet come to regret my support for Team Shearer.

But I think there’s also a misreading of my “loyalties”. The much-loved canard around here and at Trotter’s place is that I want Labour to be an “identity politics” party, whereas, in actuality, I want an end to the infighting that pits “the workers” against other marginalised groups or seeks to subsume everyone’s needs to those of straight white blue-collar blokes. All must have a presence within any progressive movement. I think there’s a false dichotomy that to appeal to “middle New Zealand” a party must be just a wee bit racist, homophobic and sexist, because that’s what “middle New Zealand” is. I don’t agree; although I can see how that is one route to popularity, I don’t think it’s one that’s very suitable for Labour.

Notwithstanding all of that I do think that being able to break the factionalisation and patronage — crudely expressed by Damien O’Connor — that has resulted in a weak list and a dysfunctional party apparatus is the most crucial task facing Shearer, and I can see how this could be spun against him. But on balance, getting the overall institutional and overall health of the party back on track is the priority. As long as it’s not simply replacing one lot of factions with another.

L

Anthony
It really depends if he plays zero-sum loss/gain, instead of fixing problems that when addressed help everyone. But even though I preferred Cunliffe I don’t think Shearer is a evil bastard who will throw women, gays and Maori under the bus.

It’s just convincing insecure pricks like Armstrong that they’re not missing out (and normal people who are perfectly fine), while they lift everyone up.

Been one of the problems with the left for a while – not taking middle NZ with them in their thinking and just expecting them to “get it” after it’s done and dusted.

You can see how the Nats do it better with their policy formation and with the task forces they set up, they admit there is a problem that needs to be solved in some way, get a team of “experts” in place, get feedback from all quarters then create policy based on it (even if they were planning that policy all along). It’s a great way to create a narrative that the electorate can follow to understand policy or at least get some understanding that a problem that needs to be solved exists in the first place.

If it looks in the slightest way controversial or a potential wedge issue they will use this method.

Puddleglum
As I said, “If Armstrong is correct …”

I think previously you’ve noted the importance of symbolism (e.g., in the early days of the MP coalescing with National).

There is a danger that the symbolic projection being attempted (‘we are ordinary New Zealanders too’ – whatever that means) can box Labour in when it comes to ‘judgment calls’ on those social issues.

Trying to benefit electorally from symbols you don’t really believe in (in its crudest form, ‘dogwhistling’) can bite you back.

I think, for example, that Shearer may well be keen not to “get in front” of middle New Zealand on any of these issues (wasn’t that one of the concerns about Clark’s government, for ‘middle New Zealand’?).

That’s fine and pragmatic, and doesn’t mean necessarily being a little bit racist, homophobic, or whatever. But it might mean muting your commentary and positioning on those issues a tad.

And that could make some, at least, leap from the windows rather than waiting to be ‘defenestrated’.

I think that’s the challenge with the more ‘centrist’ positioning.

Lew
Anthony, I agree with all of that.

PG, I think that is the challenge with a more “centrist” positioning, but ultimately the long game is what matters. It’s mostly futile to try to campaign outright on unpopular topics — or those that are “in front” of popular thought, as you aptly put it — when you don’t control the agenda. Clark found out in 2004/5 when Brash hijacked the agenda at Orewa after a very progressive first term, and again in 2008 when the s59 repeal became a de facto government bill about the childless lesbians Helen Clark and Sue Bradford* wanting to personally bring up Waitakere Man’s kids.

I daresay there will be a lot of ideological austerity shared about over the coming term, not limited to the usual whipping children of progressive movements, but likely encompassing the unions and hard-left factions as well (and much of this may be pinned on Shearer to frame him as a “right” leader, when his hand may have been forced by political circumstance.) The project is to rebuild Labour as a political force, because if Labour continues to decline nobody — not Māori, not women, not the unions — is going to benefit.

Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. My major stipulation is that whatever gets nudged out onto the ledge, as it were, is done with due engagement and consideration of those it impacts, not simply decreed by the leadership as being “not a priority” (and if you disagree you’re a hater and a wrecker).

L

* Notwithstanding the fact that neither are lesbians, and Sue Bradford isn’t childless.

Opening moves

datePosted on 18:46, December 13th, 2011 by Lew

This morning David Shearer won the Labour leadership, as many expected and as I had hoped he would. More substantive analysis will follow, but I want to remark on two things. First, via Mike Smith at The Standard:

He’s a listener and an unifier – the best sort of leader. When both David’s were asked the question in Wesley Church, “What is charisma”, David Shearer’s answer was to quote Drew Westen’s “The Political Brain” about the importance of connecting emotionally, and to say that the first thing he would do was to get out and listen to people all around New Zealand. I was reminded of Lao Tsu’s famous saying:

Go to the People. Live among them, Love them, Learn from them. Start from where they are, Work with them, Build on what they have. But with the best leaders, When the task is accomplished, The work completed, The people all remark: We have done it ourselves.

As a non-member I was not in attendance at that meeting, and I was not aware of this detail, but it should be clear to anyone who has read me over the last few years that this gives me great hope. One of my chief complaints about the Labour leadership and its activist community has been its boneheaded obsession with hard facts and rational policy detail. To the extent that Shearer can moderate that he has potential to breathe new life into the movement.

The second is Shearer’s first public action as leader: declaring that the ministerial forum on poverty announced as part of the māori party’s confidence and supply agreement should include leaders of other political parties. Video from interest.co.nz:

This is a good move for three reasons: first because it gives Labour an opportunity to be at the centre of a major policy initiative, rather than on the outside; second because it gives Shearer an opportunity to use his much-hyped skills in this field; and third because it should add some heft to a committee which otherwise would likely have been dominated by Bill English channelling advice from Treasury. It doesn’t take a terrible cynic to see that the committee was intended as a sop to Tariana — another symbolic bauble with nothing behind it. Shearer’s presence, and possibly that of other leaders, would make it a much more meaningful concern, which is probably why it won’t happen. But nevertheless, it sends a crucial signal: poverty is bigger than partisan politics. National would be foolish to ignore it.

The job’s not even started yet; there’s much to do and much ground to gain, the bones of which have been sketched out in two epochal posts by Jordan Carter, here and here. Other important questions, like whether David Cunliffe’s abilities will be adequately used, remain — but I am very encouraged by what I have seen.

L

Know your enemy

datePosted on 19:46, December 4th, 2011 by Lew

The image above is “scientifically formulated to enhance [women's] perception of men who drink Molson [...] a perfectly tuned combination of words and images designed by trained professionals. Women who are exposed to it experience a very positive feeling. A feeling which they will later project directly onto [men who drink Molson].”

That’s not my analysis; it’s what the creatives who developed the ad said about it, in another ad. The first ad, the one you see above, ran in Cosmopolitan and was pitched at women. The ad from which the explanatory text was drawn ran in Playboy under the heading “Hundreds of thousands of women. Pre-programmed for your convenience.” The full analysis is here, on the Sociological Images blog.

The lesson is essentially that propaganda relies on market segmentation; messages crafted and pitched with accuracy and intent. If you read what you’re told to read, you’ll think what you’re told to think. Avoiding such a fate means embracing diversity of input, understanding your opponents’ arguments and their reasoning even if you disagree with it. To a large extent that means consuming their media. For a rounded perspective you’ll need, at least occasionally, to read sites like DailyKos and Free Republic, infuriating and interminable comment threads on The Standard and Kiwiblog, and SOLOpassion and Gates of Vienna and WSWS and the Wall Street Journal; listen to talkback, watch Fox News and pick up both Cosmo and Playboy from time to time, for the articles or whatever. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but the point is: read, listen, watch and discuss promiscuously. Argue with those folks you disagree with; drink beer with them from time to time. Take them seriously. Insist that they take you seriously, and give them reasons to do so.

It might hurt; in fact, it often will. But it beats being a dittohead.

L

Edit to add: Anita points out that the Sociological Images post created a bit of a stir. They write:

Apparently the company has been getting calls from consumers and reporters regarding the Molson Cosmo/Playboy ads we posted about yesterday. It turns out the ad campaign is quite old (2002/2003) and they would like to distance themselves from it now.

As you would. Not clear whether they now regret the decision to run such ads, or whether it’s a pro-forma blowback response.

Further thoughts on Team Shearer

datePosted on 01:08, December 3rd, 2011 by Lew

These things occurred to me while making my daughter’s birthday cake:*

Endorsement games continue, with a range of people from across the political spectrum still out for Shearer; including Goff’s erstwhile strategist John Pagani and that notorious Mooreite Phil Quin alongside the rest of us Tory plants. Meanwhile, David Cunliffe has the endorsement of the Young Nats, here and here. Cheap shots, but it is the Young Nats after all. When they’re not photoshopping your head onto a dictator they obviously have the hots for you.

This sudden and spontaneous outbreak of public-sphere democracy is sending Labourite dittoheads into a panic; they’re convinced it’s a trap — one so cunning they can’t see what the right has to gain from it, but it must be something. It’s like they’ve forgotten what they believe; they just read Farrar, Slater, Hooton and Odgers and believe the opposite. Tragic. Those guys are good and all, but they only have so much power because so much of the NZ left is stricken with paranoiac idiotosis.

Meanwhile Trevor Mallard has it all figured out: the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy decision to endorse Shearer is not a trick to ship Labour with an easybeat leader (or worse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing) — in fact it’s a double-bluff designed to give Labour second thoughts about choosing the obviously-best candidate. (Incidentally James Meager, formerly of the now-defunct Mydeology blog, called this on Thursday.) Someone should redo the poison scene from The Princess Bride with such rationalisations. It’s positively Kremlinesque; parallels to the well-documented phenomenon of impending-collapse paranoia within authoritarian regimes seem almost too obvious.

Nevertheless, amongst all the bogus objections, I think there are two legitimate concerns about Shearer’s potential leadership. The first I noted in the Close Up interview: his presentation is not strong. He ums, stutters and hesitates, speaks too softly and lacks cut-through. When he’s been put on the spot he has struggled. He is much better at the set-piece but that on its own is not enough. What he does have to say is often very good; he is a very perceptive listener and he has a pretty remarkable grasp on a wide range of issues. (There’s a comprehensive archive of his weekly in-depth interviews with interesting and important people on the radio here.) That having been said, our present PM is akshully not the world’s greatest public speaker, and the public may view a less-polished performance as a common touch. Whatever the case, this weakness can be overcome by training; presentation is one of the few things in politics that can really be taught. Key and Clark are both great examples.

(Incidentally, it amuses me greatly to see folk who’ve always been focused on wonkish detail and hard policy, to the stern exclusion of doing anything that might win elections, now complaining about a candidate on the grounds that he talks a bit funny.)

The second objection is a bit more substantive, and was raised separately by Anita and by Chris Trotter, and also by Audrey Young: Shearer is reputedly aligned with Damien “gaggle of gays” O’Connor, and perhaps other members of what I have previously termed the blue collars, red necks faction of Labour. Because of this, Young suggests, a Shearer-led Labour will be “a more pragmatic party, with less emphasis on gays and feminists”, or as others might say, he might mean the end of identity politics. Leaving aside the offensive dichotomy between pragmatism and support for equal rights, I don’t think this necessarily follows. O’Connor’s views as expressed in his infamous “gaggle of gays” comment were somewhat archaic, but it’s not clear they will greatly shape the party’s culture. In addition, O’Connor has a point: homophobia aside, his critique of the faction politics of the Labour party has some merit (he also criticised “self-serving unionists”, Trotter’s latest target). Absent any indication that Shearer himself shares O’Connor’s unreconstructed views I think it’s a long bow to draw. Even so, I think the priority for Labour now is sorting its institutions out, and that will mean deemphasising some other projects. I can see this being a touchstone issue for some people; vive la difference.

Lastly, what we have before us is a Labour leadership candidate that can be supported by the right-wingers and former strategists noted above, Sanctuary, AK, myself and presumably because of his potential appeal to Waitakere Man and supposed opposition to identity politics, Comrade Trotter. A person like that doesn’t come along very often.

L

* Huhu grub cake made of rolled lemon sponge filled with fresh cream and bush honey, lemon cream cheese icing. Yeah, colonial-bourgeois Kiwiana is how we postmodern Gen-X long-spoon suppers roll.

Pagani and polls

datePosted on 21:47, April 19th, 2011 by Lew

I’ve been very busy, and had no time to thrash over John Pagani’s rather remarkable outbursts in defence of his tenure as the Labour party’s chief strategist, which ended a few weeks ago. Lots of commentary, but the best is by Danyl once, and again; Scott, and Eddie. Read the comments too.

I’ll not go into great detail, except to reiterate that the problem with Labour’s narrative — which John was presumably involved in constructing — has been that it lacks cohesion and a distinct, authentic character of its own. The song of the Labour party has failed to ring out these past two and a half years, it turns out, because John Pagani has been counselling his choir to mumble along to the prevailing tune, on the assumption that that’s the song the electorate wants to hear.

But how would he know? When Scott Yorke suggested that dismissing Danyl and Eddie as ‘trolls’ was an attempt to silence his critics rather than engage with the substance of their critique, Pagani tweeted “If only I could silence them.” That, right there in less than half a tweet, is in my view the root cause of the Labour party’s malaise. The predominant attack narrative which saw Clark Labour ejected from office in 2008 was ‘out of touch’, and I wrote in September 2009 that the way forward was for the party to start listening to the electorate again. John disagrees. I’ll let his record, currently illustrated by the 3 News Reid poll which puts Labour on 27.1% of the party vote, with 78% of the electorate believing the party cannot win the forthcoming election, speak for itself.*

John appears not to believe that a successful political movement needs to lead public opinion, rather than simply following it, and needs to be willing to alienate some people to that end. But most crucially it must listen to them. This was exactly the course of action advocated by Labour insider Jordan Carter back in January 2010:

Our task this year, to be blunt, is to listen to what people have been saying, and to go beyond listening, and into reflecting back the things we are hearing and seeing what people think. Instead of listening and saying “that’s nice”, we have to say, “we’ve heard you and this is what we think.”

Jordan was recently named on the Labour list at #40, which on current polling is sadly outside the running for a seat. But the party could do a very great deal worse than Jordan as a strategist; though who would want that job right now I can’t quite imagine.

Someone else who has been making sense on this topic is Matthew Hooton, who endorsed Eddie’s take in comments on The Standard post linked above. There’s a discussion about opinion polling in the comments to that thread as well, in which ak raises the fact that widespread reporting of poll results can influence turnout and voter choices. People like to back a winner, the reasoning goes.

Well, yes — but a couple of things: first, the ‘poll effect’ favours leaders, not one side in particular. The left has benefited from this in the past, it’s a bit churlish to complain about it now. Secondly, regarding the argument that landline-only polls favour conservative parties. There’s a good point here. Yesterday in the NatRad politics slot Hooton was pooh-poohing the landline bias, arguing various sorts of anecdata to say he didn’t think it made a difference. I’m aware of no rigorous research on this topic in NZ, and since (I believe) all the major polls are landline-only, it’s largely moot (polls are mostly useful as sources of continuous, compatible data — a known set of methodological distortions — and screwing with polling methodology breaks that). But Pew Research did study this in the US context late last year, and found a 6-point bias in favour of the Republican party in landline-only polls, compared to those which included cellphones. So it rather seems to me that the onus is on those who reckon there’s no bias to explain why and how the NZ context differs from the US context. I’m sure it could be done, but it’d take a good deal more than Matthew Hooton’s anecdotal waffling about how if pollsters want to reach him, they’ll have to call him on his cellphone.

L

* There’s every likelihood this is a rogue; but let’s not pretend that the trend is much more rosy.

Like a fox?

datePosted on 21:02, March 29th, 2011 by Lew

Lynn at The Standard has a nothing to see here sort of post about how the Darren Hughes scandal isn’t important. True to form, he misses the fact that that the ‘Labour footsoldiers’ for whom he claims the scandal is an irrelevant distraction are the least-important players in this particular game. What matters is the public, and in that regard the views of the media and the ‘beltway creatures’ matter plenty. So while he might be right that it’s a beat-up and there’s nothing in it, that doesn’t really matter — if Labour treats this as a matter of ‘business as usual’ the results will be deservedly catastrophic.

But one thing which struck me while watching the news coverage of the Dunedin stand-ups before and after the front bench meeting today: he looks happy and confident and genuinely at ease; even effusive. As some wag on twitter said: “Phil, leave some kool-aid for the rest of the caucus!” Looks like he did, because the front bench response of solidarity also looks like it’s for real. If you watch it with the sound off, it’s the very model of a party holding a unified front.

The trouble is that what Goff is saying — that his leadership is stronger now than it was before the Hughes scandal broke — is totally barking mad. It simply doesn’t make any actual logical sense that it would be, that it could be. My instinct is that the fact the caucus and the advisers are letting him bark in this way indicates an utter dereliction of duty on the part of the advisers, and a complete lack of political nerve and sense on the part of the caucus. But, as I argued the other day, as bad as Labour is, I don’t think they’re that far gone. So maybe there’s an explanation other than mass political psychosis: maybe he’s banking on this strategy being just barking mad enough to work. This response, for all its other failings, does hint at the Machiavellian characteristic of virtù which I/S (I believe correctly) diagnosed as lacking in Phil Goff’s leadership. It is nothing if not audacious. It is certainly not a ‘business as usual’ response.

So maybe he’s hoping to catch the government on the hop by simply pretending his situation isn’t as dire as it is and hoping that the pretence is infectious. Perhaps it’s actually not pretence; perhaps he really does have that support. Perhaps he’s relying on people ignoring the waffly words and inept deeds and simply taking their cues from the appearance of functionality which Labour is trying to present.

This might not be as far-fetched as it sounds: Lynn does make a good point that people don’t pay close attention to the details; and it’s an old trick to watch political TV appearances with the sound off to get a feel for how a naïve viewer might perceive it and to look more closely at the underlying messages about the political actors and organisations which appear in them.* This sort of presentation of functionality is also a pretty good indicator of eventual success: Drew Westen documents cases where random voters could predict with reasonable accuracy the outcomes of political contests by watching brief segments of silent footage and simply observing the political actors’ nonverbal cues.**

So are they crazy like a fox? Yeah, nah, I don’t really believe it either. The hell I know. Good luck to Phil, and all of them, because they’re going to need it.

So, setting aside the conventional wisdom that Labour is just marching into an electoral abyss, what are your theories as to what they’re up to at present? Wackier the better.

L

* There’s a bit of this sort of analysis done on US political events, such as Sarah Palin’s blood libel speech — see here for example. Though not really the same thing, it’s also worth you googling “breath libel”. Scary.
** I’ve lent my copy of The Political Brain to someone, so I can’t substantiate this at the moment, sorry.

The three cities of Christchurch

datePosted on 12:59, March 2nd, 2011 by Lew

As local context and in contrast to my recent posts on the media response to the Christchurch earthquake, you must read this arresting report from Christchurch resident Peter Hyde. It is long, but the following facts are crucial:

There are THREE cities in Christchurch right now, not one.
RESCUE CITY is inside the four main avenues, and it is cordoned off. That means almost all our knowledge of it comes from media, and man is it a honey-pot for them!
It’s given us understandably-incessant tales and images of injury, tragedy, loss, broken iconic buildings, heroism, sacrifice, leadership and gratifying international response. It’s extremely television-friendly.
My quake experience started there, but actually almost nobody lives in Rescue City. The resources and attention which are seemingly being poured into it right now are NOT addressing the most urgent post-quake needs of the population of Christchurch.
SHOWER CITY is any part of Christchurch where you can take a hot shower, because you have electricity and running water and mostly-working sewer lines. By latest estimates, that’s about 65% of the city — much of it out west.
In that part of Christchurch, weary and stressed people are getting on with life — though some may be wondering if they still have a job. And a few of them with energy and time to spare are wondering if they can do more to help the rest of the city.
The media naturally lives in Shower City, and they talk almost exclusively to the business leaders and the Rescue City leadership who also inhabit it.
REFUGEE CITY is the rest of Christchurch — mainly the eastern suburbs, though there are pockets elsewhere. It includes perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 people, though a more-mobile chunk of them may have self-evacuated by now.
Only half of those who remain in Refugee City have power, and almost NONE have running water. Many have been living on their own resources, and their neighbours’, for over a week now.
That means that batteries have run down, gas (if they had any to start with) has run out, other supplies are low or gone. Roads are often very bad – and a lot of those from the poorer suburbs have no transport anyway.
Their houses may or may not be intact. Their streets may be clear, broken, or full of silt. Or sewage. There are no showers. Or ways to wash clothes. Or to wash dishes. Or to heat the “must boil” water that is available — assuming they can make it to the nearest water truck, day after day. No refrigeration. No working toilets, and precious few portaloos. No face masks to defend against the blown silt.
They have no internet either, and usually no phones. And their radio batteries are dead or dying. The papers — if you can get one — are rapidly dated, and usually far too general in their coverage. It really doesn’t help someone without a car in Aranui to know that Fisher and Paykel are providing free laundries in Kaiapoi!
All the above means the locals have few resources, little information, and no “voice” either. It’s remarkably hard to call talkback radio – or your local politician — or emergency services — when your landline is out and your cellphone battery is dead. Or when it maybe has JUST enough charge to stay on hold for 5 minutes – but not 20! – when calling the sole government helpline.
The media flies over, drives past and dips into Refugee City, usually at the main welfare or water points. But they don’t cover it that much. From my observations, the officials – those who are making decisions about the relief effort – seem to do likewise.
[...]
IN THESE POWERLESS SUBURBS, THE OFFICIAL RESPONSE IS FAR FROM ENOUGH. Especially in terms of the fundamentals.

It continues at considerable length, and I urge you to read it all, particularly the bit which tells you what you can do to make a difference.

Edit: There is another similarly grim comment from Puddleglum at The Standard:

I’ve spent the last few days shovelling silt in the east of Christchurch. My nephew who had helped dig a friend out of his house in Bexley on Saturday has been over more of the eastern suburbs. Basically, it gets exponentially worse the further east from the central city you go.
These people are already angry, stressed, dismissive of the reactions of most authorities and doggedly trying to do it themselves – yet, as the poster notes, they had the fewest resources to begin with. It’s heartbreaking. Bitter jokes punctuate emotionally strained comments about ‘you just have to go on’, ‘what else can you do?’, ‘THEY won’t help’. They did really appreciate the volunteer ‘diggers’, though.

Read the whole thing.

I’m on deadline and short on time, but my initial response is as follows.

The response is not blind to class or social station. Of course it’s not; as early as last Wednesday I was seeing tweets from people in what is now Shower City saying “we’re doing it hard, but those poor areas down the line haven’t got anything”. This is a feature of disaster responses everywhere. Of course, those suburbs hardest-hit are those suburbs hardest-hit. But what’s really problematic is intersectionality: live in a hard-hit suburb and you’re poor? Tough for you.

I suspect the problem is not so much exploitation as it is ignorance, both wilful and otherwise; by both officials and others. Referring back to the discussions of exploitation on my previous posts, it might be that the residents of Refugee City would welcome a horde of snooping cameras, as long as they could be assured that the footage they captured would stimulate a greater and better-targeted response.

The media has a responsibility to tell this story, as much as it does to relay the uplifting narratives of solidarity and community resilience from Rescue and Shower Cities. A week on from the event, it should not fall to an insomniac resident of Refugee City who is fortunate enough to have the electricity, technical means, personal wherewithal and social networks to tell this story as if it is some sort of revelation. That is the job of the professionals. We should already know all of this.

In their meagre defence, I have heard some media outlets asking questions such as these. A reporter (from TV3) asked Bob Parker yesterday, after the fanfare resulting from the discovery of the time capsule, whether it was good enough that Aranui still didn’t have toilets. (His reply was not good enough — that the response had been very good overall — and the journalist did not push him.) They toured Aranui yesterday, talking with the residents and broadcasting their concerns — lack of facilities, lack of attention, breakdown of the rule of law. Breakdown of the rule of law. People fleeing their homes because, at twilight, groups of people roam around casing houses for burglary.

The media must report this, and in some cases it has: but ultimately it is for the government to undertake a response which mitigates against this inequitably-distributed misery. And a government who is reportedly considering policy changes which will weigh heavily upon lower-income New Zealanders would be well-advised to look after those citizens’ response.

As they say: the whole world’s watching.

L

(Thanks to Emma Hart for bringing this to my attention.)

Hard rain’s a-gonna fall

datePosted on 00:14, February 3rd, 2011 by Lew


The past week has illustrated in clear terms the New Zealand Labour party’s decline as an effective opposition party. In the opening moments of election year 2011, John Key has stepped up to demonstrate the full extent of the National government’s apparent impunity. He has done this in three ways.

First, by fronting Morning Report, Nine to Noon, Campbell Live and other tier-1 hard-news media to outline his intention to partially privatise SOEs. Privatisation, since the Fourth Labour Government, has been a ‘third rail’ issue; one the NZ left is unequivocally opposed to. By going into bat for privatisation personally, and in considerable policy detail, Key confounded criticism which has been (justly) levelled at him throughout the electoral term so far that he often refuses to show up on hard media, while continuing to keep regular spots in soft formats like Breakfast, and on less rigorous media such as Newstalk ZB. He also invested his own (considerable) political capital in the enterprise, making privatisation a matter of his own judgement and credibility.

Second, he sought out and is revelling in the controversy caused by his “Liz Hurley is hot” stunt, undertaken on Radio Sport with convicted back-breaker Tony Veitch. In political terms, the first bit was no meaningful risk; Key has played the ‘frankly, I’m a red-blooded Kiwi bloke’ card several times before, always to good effect, and most notably when he informed a press scrum he’d had a vasectomy. The decision to undertake an interview with the disgraced Veitch was a considerably more risky proposition because of the nature of Veitch’s offending against his partner, combined with the subject matter of their conversation, and the fact that Key’s political appeal to women has been considerably stronger than previous National leaders. This seems clearly calculated to demonstrate what he can get away with; and the gamble has in fact paid off so well that Phil Goff today felt compelled to follow suit, suggesting a slightly sad “me too, me too” narrative.

The third of Key’s big moves was today’s dual announcement that the election would be held on 26 November, 10 months away and following the Rugby World Cup; and that he would not consider a coalition arrangement which included Winston Peters. Coupled with ruling out working with Hone Harawira outside his present constraints in the māori party, this declaration will provide considerable reassurance to National’s traditional base, and will scotch any possibility of wavering conservatives casting a hopeful vote for Winston Peters as an each-way bet. It is a risky proposition, though — Peters remains a redoubtable political force, and it is not beyond possibility that he returns to parliament. However I think Key has read the electorate well; he knows that while a small number of people love Peters, and a small number loathe him, many of those in the middle are vaguely distrustful of him. As Danyl points out, he’s managed to link Peters to Goff in a way which emphasises both leaders’ worst attributes: Peters’ polarising tendency, and the general unease and disdain with which voters view Goff. The decision to call the election so early is also bold. It means relinquishing the incumbent advantage of being able to control the electoral agenda; being able to determine when ‘government as usual’ ceases and ‘campaign season’ begins. This is an intangible but valuable benefit, and it has been traded off against another piece of reassurance: the sense that Key and his government are “playing it straight” with the New Zealand public; that they intend to run an open and forthright campaign and to seek an honest mandate for their second term. The choice of election date isn’t entirely selfless, of course — the All Blacks are odds-on favourites to win the Rugby World Cup, and even if they don’t, the tournament, its pageantry and excitement and revenue boost will bifurcate the campaign. The traditional campaign period will mostly be drowned out by this event, save for the last few frantic weeks.

In most election years, swapping agenda-setting rights for a “playing it straight” feeling would be a poor tradeoff. In most election years, a sexist stunt with a known and publicly reviled wife-beater would be a poor start. In most election years, running a campaign based on privatisation would simply be a non-starter. While the paragraphs above read somewhat like breathless praise of Key’s status as a political playa, that’s not my intent. I think he’s good, but mostly John Key just knows what he can get away with. The reason he can get away with all of these things is because there is no credible opposition to prevent him from doing so. Anyone half-decent can look sharp when playing against amateurs.

It has been Labour’s job to prevent the government from reaching the state of near-impunity they now enjoy, and their failure to do so means there is now a real danger that Key will get the genuine and sweeping mandate he seeks. To a considerable extent they were doomed in the task of preventing this from the outset, because they didn’t think it was possible that he’d ever achieve it. Clark Labour throughout 2008 fundamentally misunderestimated Key, writing him off as a bumbling lightweight, and this was a crucial error. Since well before the election — this example is from July 2008 — I’ve been arguing to anyone who’ll listen that instead of taking easy pot shots at Key based on his weaknesses, any critique should focus on his strengths. Quoting myself, from the above:

Key’s strengths [per the Herald bio], which enabled him to succeed as a currency trader: Decisiveness. Determination. Patience. Ice-cold calm under fire. Willingness to risk it all. Ability to follow through. Remorselessness.
If you want to attack John Key, draw attention to what might happen under a Key government. Given his history, he’s not some motley fool who won’t make sweeping changes – he hasn’t gotten where he is today by being timid. I think he has the wherewithal to roll out a sweeping programme of political and social change the like of which we haven’t seen since Lange, but I think that, unlike Lange, he won’t get cold feet. If you don’t like Key’s politics, I suggest you begin thinking about what might happen if the guy is given the power he seeks.

The delusion that John Key is a hapless fool who’s somehow mysteriously gotten his hands on the reins of power remains very much alive within New Zealand lefties; this was the tired old line I got spun as recently as this afternoon, by one of the internet’s best-known Labourites (with a nice dollop of ‘if you don’t praise Labour, you’re a rightie’ for good measure).

But this tendency to misjudge and underestimate Key is only part of the problem. Denizens of The Standard aside, anyone within the loop who has a modicum of reason has figured out that Key is not the lightweight he was — quite willingly — framed as. But now the narrative is set: it’s That Nice Man John Key, who drinks beer out of the bottle while tending the barbecue with Prince Harry, and thinks Liz Hurley is hot. They don’t have a credible counter-narrative, but they have to say something against the health cuts, education cuts, tax cuts, ACC cuts, pending privatisation and so on — and so they fall back on their usual tired old cliches, which, while superficially looking like what an opposition is supposed to do, lack cohesion and run counter to the established wisdom about Key and his government — wisdom laid down, in the first place, by the Labour party in its 2008 campaign.

The lack of narrative cohesion is so dire that the party claims that privatisation of SOEs is repugnant to the voting public of New Zealand; and almost simultaneously puts out a press release saying that it’s a cynical ploy to “cling to power”. The manifest incompatibility of these two propositions — cynically promoting an unpopular policy to retain power — speaks for itself.

If the inability to construct a viable narrative is symptomatic of a wider lack of ideas and direction within Labour. Election-year spin aside, their policy offering is weak as well. Their big blockbuster kicking-off-election-year policy of a $5000 tax-free zone was big enough to draw plenty of criticism about cost and targeting (including from people like Brian Easton), but timid enough that nobody was made to sit up and take notice for any other reason (sidenote: when Brian Easton, John Shewan, Chris Trotter and I all oppose something, I think you can be pretty sure it’s not a winner).

This is just the most recent example of what we’ve seen throughout the past two years: Labour’s vision, and its execution, simply aren’t up to scratch. I have no internal knowledge of the Labour party, and I don’t know whose fault this is. I guess the leadership blames the strategists, the strategists blame the policy wonks, the policy wonks blame the spin-doctors and the spin-doctors blame the MSM™. All that’s just excuse-making for losers. There are no socially-just power-redistribution schemes in politics, and if there were they would be rorted. There is no fair. The job of being in opposition is to win despite the odds being stacked against you; to do and say things worthy of the news media’s time, worthy of the government’s concern, and worthy of the electorate’s endorsement. If you’re not doing that, you’re not up to the task.

As the title implies, the political weather this election year is not going to be a warm drizzle. John Key wants a mandate; he wants a strong and broad mandate which will permit him to wreak widespread social, economic and political changes upon New Zealand’s landscape, and he is prepared to put a lot on the line to gain it. He is playing for keeps, and my instinct is that an opposition who couldn’t keep pace with ‘smile and wave’ is going to be crushed by the rampant beast which is currently girding for war. What’s more, by all accounts Key is actually, genuinely coming to the New Zealand electorate with a transparent policy offering in good faith, keeping his promise that nothing would be privatised without his first having sought a mandate to do so, which robs Labour of their strongest symbolic weapon: the “by stealth” bit of their catchcry “privatisation by stealth”. Time will tell if this holds, but at present the Key government is doing exactly what it says on the box. Labour can’t claim they haven’t known about this all along. Privatisation has been the bogeyman about which they’ve been warning the New Zealand public for at least a decade, which makes the incoherence of their recent response all the more unforgivable. That National would consider running an election campaign on this cornerstone issue, loathed and feared by so many New Zealanders, is surprising. That they can expect to do so without trying to get their agenda through on the sly is shocking. That they reasonably expect to do all that and win is unthinkable. Let there be no doubt: if Key wins this election on these grounds, it is because Labour, by failing to adequately discharge their role as a competent opposition, have permitted him to do so.

Perhaps it is not too late. Perhaps Key has overplayed his hand; perhaps Goff has a secret weapon. Perhaps a young Turk is fixing to roll Goff and his cadres and make a break for it. I do not think any of these are likely. So it may be that the one good electoral thing to emerge from 2011 is a heavy and humbling loss which would see the Labour party reduced to a meagre husk. An exodus of the lively and creative thinkers of the party to another vehicle; or the enforced retirement of the deadwood responsible for the present state of affairs; or both would clear the way for a thoroughgoing rejuvenation of the movement’s principles and its praxis and its personnel. While it would be cold comfort to the generation of New Zealanders who will bear the brunt of the Key government’s second and third-term policies, it would be a crucial and long overdue lesson in political hubris, never to be forgotten, and infinitely preferable to another narrow loss and the moribund hope that next time it’ll be different.

L

Bloody liability

datePosted on 10:41, January 19th, 2011 by Lew

Sarah Palin, as has been clear for some years now, has an unmatched talent for drawing the spotlight. A week after the infamous ‘blood libel‘ video she’s still at it today, pouring more fuel on a fire which should never have been started. ‘Blood libel’ and the American Right’s shrieking, paranoid victim complex are now a bigger story than the (attempted) murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others at a political rally outside a suburban supermarket. That takes an awful lot of doing.

But she simply doesn’t know when to shut up. Let me be clear: I’m by no means saying that she must shut up, or even that I want her to shut up; nor am I attempting to curtail her First Amendment rights or impinge upon her cherished liberty — let there be no persecution fantasies regarding the humble analysis which is to follow. Palin’s conduct is a matter of political strategy for her PAC, the wider Tea Party movement and ultimately the Republican party. If they want to keep pursuing a strategy which, politically, is a hiding to nothing, then far be it from me to stand in their way. But I am arguing, as are plenty of Republican-oriented strategists, including former Bush advisor David Frum — that as a matter of strategy she should just shut the hell up and resume her place on the fringes of this topic, because there’s nothing to be gained and an awful lot to be lost by continuing to fan these flames. Frum is hardly a bleeding-heart liberal; he invented the ‘Axis of Evil’. He is also Jewish, as is Rep Giffords, so one assumes the misuse of ‘blood libel’ by a renegade WASP like Palin has special salience to him.

Let me also say that Palin and the Tea Party had some right to be angry at the invective levelled at them and their movement in the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shooting. I generally agree with Pablo’s previous points, that Palin and the Tea Party must bear some responsibility for the climate of discourse they have created; but I’d also say that they have not created such a climate on their own. While disproportionately on the elephant side, warlike imagery and symbols of political violence are a commonplace in both camps of US politics. Influential US liberal commentators, notably Keith Olbermann, jumped all too gleefully upon the chance to all but blame Palin (and Beck, etc) for pulling the trigger, although at best there is only a tenuous link between Jared Lee Loughner’s anti-government sentiments and the Tea Party. (Although it is often overlooked that Olbermann’s rant also called strongly upon the American left to repudiate (not refudiate) violence in word and deed). The extent of the speculation and the attempts to pin the murders on Palin and the Tea Party before the dust had settled were unmerited and, as I say, the objects of these accusations were justified in a certain amount of self-righteous indignation.

But one of the defining characteristics of the Tea Party, and of libertarian-oriented small-government revivalist movements in general, is their utter lack of perspective, and Palin simply went too far. These are people who genuinely believe taxation to be armed robbery, after all. So, like the white supremacist who blames all misfortune on immigrants; like the misogynist who bemoans the PC feminazi dykocracy; or the wealthy white elderly Sensible Sentencing Trust supporters who believe themselves to be the most vulnerable victims of crime, when, objectively, the reverse is true — the Tea Partiers and Palin simply can’t see past their own trivial victimisation to the actual and genuine victims of the Arizona tragedy, those who are dead, wounded or bereaved. IrishBill, writing at The Standard recently referred to these sorts as Right Whingers, and the persecution narrative is a feature of modern backlash movements: when elites come under such threat that they feel as if they no longer command the fields of cultural battle, they claim to have been victimised. And they go on and on about it. “Help, help, we’re being repressed!

Nobody likes a whinger or someone who talks a big game but can’t play, especially in US politics. One of the Republican party’s strongest symbolic assets through the latter 20th century has been the sense that it’s a party of rugged individuals with the thousand-yard gaze of their pioneer forebears, while the Democrats are a bunch of preppy sissies with excuses always at the ready. To an extent there’s been some truth to this narrative, but the “all hat and no cattle” label attached to Bush did his party’s political fortunes considerable harm, and Palin has already weakened her own pioneer and Mama Grizzly credentials immeasurably with the now-infamous ‘hunting’ episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska. In it, despite her claim to being a life-long hunter, she appears unfamiliar with her rifle (“does it kick?”), is unable to chamber her own rounds (daddy does it for her); and takes five shots to hit a large animal standing on a skyline 120 yards away (and then there’s the estimate that a hunting trip in her home state cost $42,000 — not very pioneerish, that).

Likewise, the emergence of the Tea Party and its rather more extreme rhetoric has seen the erosion of the traditional, conservative pioneer narrative in favour of a more excitable tone — perhaps a shift from ‘pioneer’ to ‘revolutionary’ would be the metaphorical change. This shift in itself is not a weakness, except when its less favourable characteristics come to the fore, and it is these aspects of the Tea Party movement which the Democrats and other liberals have been emphasising: its crazed extremes and frightening rhetoric; the cultish, heightened emotionality of leaders like Glenn Beck, which verges on the religious; its lack of concern with details like grammar, factual accuracy and proportion; its brittleness and temporary, ad-hoc nature as opposed to the reliable stability of the Grand Old Party.

By resort to the strident ‘blood libel’ line, Palin has fallen into the trap of confirming — and defending — key aspects of the liberal narrative about her and by extension about her movement: she lacks any sense of perspective or proportion, public decorum or decency or compassion; she is an attention-seeker with a persecution complex who thinks it’s always all about her; she doesn’t know what the terms she uses actually mean; that they’re desperate cranks rather than serious statespeople; and most seriously, that she can dish it out but not take it. This last will be the master narrative going into the 2012 Presidential election, in the increasingly unlikely event that Palin is the nominee, and Democrats and liberals the world over relish the prospect of a proven big-game player like Obama against a scattergun show-pony like Palin.

The decision to release and then defend the ‘blood libel’ video is a double tragedy for the Republican party, who took a strong lead in the November mid-terms, and have now missed the best opportunity in a decade to consolidate that lead by looking like the calm, sober, conservative adults they claim to be and to represent. Palin’s decline may be better for them in the long term; many commentators are now confirmed in the belief they held before the mid-terms that she had outlasted her usefulness as an energising agent, and is now simply a liability, a distraction from the serious business of government to which the GOP must now turn its attention.

L

Class, identity, solidarity and dissent

datePosted on 21:36, November 1st, 2010 by Lew

Recently commenter Tiger Mountain raised the parallel between solidarity with Actor’s Equity regarding The Hobbit and support for the māori party given their coalition with National and sponsorship of some bad legislation. I explained how they’re not equivalent, but leaving aside the main difference of mandate (which the māori party has and AE doesn’t) the wider issue of critical solidarity is an important one, and one which has been raised several times recently. In the wake of The Hobbit fiasco matters of class, identity and solidarity are high in everyone’s minds, and I think in spite of our many differences, we can agree that’s a good thing.

Another contribution to the wider debate is by Eddie at The Standard. For once I find myself agreeing with Eddie’s opening sentence about the māori party, which is:

The problem with any identity-based political movement is it pre-supposes that the common identity of its members surpasses their conflicting class interests.

It’s true, although I would have phrased it as follows:

The problem with any class-based political movement is it pre-supposes that the common class of its members surpasses their conflicting identity interests.

I wrote at length about this dynamic tension at a time when it looked like Labour was going to force Māori to choose between their class identity and their identity as tangata whenua — and how foolish forcing such a choice would be. (It’s still not clear whether Labour has abandoned it, but it at least seems obvious that they don’t have a full-blooded commitment to the blue collars, red necks strategy. But that’s by the way.)

What tends to follow from statements like that one is a series of value judgements about which set of interests ought to take precedence. This can be valuable, but is often tiresome, particularly when those making the pronouncements are “fighting a corner” for only one half of the equation (usually, it must be said, the “class” corner). But Eddie has mostly (not entirely) resisted the urge to do so and focused on the internal dispute within the māori party, and in particular the rather dictatorial stance taken by Tariana Turia regarding opposition to the new Marine & Coastal Area (hereafter MCA) Bill. That’s an important debate and examination of it is valuable, but what’s not really valuable is Eddie’s attempt to frame Turia’s stance as a matter of māori identity v class identity. It’s not. It’s a matter of the tension between moderate and radical factions within the movement; part of the internal debate within Māoridom.

Class is an element of this internal debate, but it is not the only element, and I would argue it is not even the predominant element. I think it’s clear that the conciliatory, collaborative, third-way sort of approach to tino rangatiratanga taken by Turia and Sharples under the guidance of Whatarangi Winiata (and whose work seems likely to be continued by new president Pem Bird is the predominant force. I also think the main reason for the left’s glee at the ascendance of the more radical faction is largely due to the fact that there’s a National government at present (and recall how different things were when the boot was on the other foot from 2005-2008). Those leading the radical charge against the MCA bill — notably Hone Harawira, Annette Sykes and Moana Jackson (whose primer on the bill is required reading) are not Marxists or class advocates so much as they are staunch advocates for tino rangatiratanga, who oppose the bill not so much for reasons based on class, but for reasons based on kaupapa Māori notions of justice. The perspectives of all three are informed by these sorts of traditionally-leftist analyses, but those analyses are certainly not at the fore in this dispute (as they have been in some past disputes). In fact, the strongest (you could say “least refined”) Marxist critiques of the bill advocate for wholesale nationalisation of the F&S, unapologetically trampling on residual property rights held by tangata whenua in favour of collective ownership.

For Eddie’s caricature of the dispute as “identity” v “class” to hold strictly, Turia, Sharples, Flavell and Katene would need to occupy the “authentic” kaupapa Māori position, the legitimate claim of acting in the pure interests of mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga; while Harawira, Sykes and Jackson (among others) would need to be largely denuded of this “identity” baggage, and be more or less pure class warriors. Neither is true; Harawira, Sykes and Jackson’s critique of the bill isn’t a Marxist critique; they’re arguing that the bill doesn’t serve the imperative of tino rangatiratanga and is therefore not an authentic kaupapa Māori position; an assertion that Sharples has tacitly accepted with his response that the Maori Party must accept compromise. (This is true, of course; I agree with Sharples and Turia as far as that goes. I just disagree that this bill is the issue upon which to compromise so heavily. Because of that, I come down on the side of Harawira, Sykes and Jackson.)

The other misguided thing is how Eddie frames Turia’s insistence that Harawira and others adhere to the party line as some sort of manifestation of Māori over class identity within the party — the quelling of dissent and insistence on loyalty to the leadership elite’s position as a “Māori” way of doing things, opposed to a “Left” way of doing things. This is absurd. The “left” does not automatically stand in defence of dissent or the public airing of heterodox views, much though Eddie (and I) might wish that it should. As I already mentioned, this is shown by Labour’s response to Turia in 2004 and the māori party’s first full term, suspicious at best and hostile at worst. The AE dispute is also an excellent illustration. In that case, the prevailing, “authentic” left position (including that taken by many writers at The Standard, though not — as far as I can recall — by Eddie) was to insist on total public solidarity with the union. In other words, precisely what Turia is insisting upon. I disagreed with this position in AE’s case, and I disagree with it in the māori party’s case. Dissent of this sort (or the imperative of its suppression) is not some innate part of “the left”, nor is it absence a characteristic of “identity politics”. It can exist or not in movements of either type, depending on the merits and specifics. It’s my view that such dissent is the beating heart of a movement, and it is peril to quash it. It is a shame that Turia seems to be making the same error as Helen Clark made regarding this issue in 2004.

But despite these objections, ultimately I agree with Eddie about one other thing: the dispute is really interesting, and the emergence of radical critiques and challenges within the movement is exciting and important. The māori party has a mandate to agree to the MCA act as drafted; after all, according to Edmund Burke’s famous saying, representatives owe their constituents not only their efforts but their judgement on what is just and right and possible. They’re not elected to always take the easy route of political martyrdom, and because of this they may find themselves staring down their constituents. Sometimes they may win. But nowhere are representatives guaranteed that those constituents must not try to stare back. If those who oppose the bill can raise a hīkoi in support of their cause, then let them do so, and more strength to their waewae. And let members of the “left” movements, if their enmity to the bill is genuine, rather than a reflexive attack on a National-led government and the māori party orthodoxy which supports it, march alongside them in solidarity. That will be some sort of justice.

L

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