Category Archives: elections

Hearing no evil

A few days before the November 26 general election, TV3 aired Bryan Bruce’s documentary Inside Child Poverty, and I posted on the depressingly predictable response of the usual right-wing subjects.

And now NZ On Air board member Stephen McElrea (who, in Tom Frewen’s marvellously dry turn of phrase, “also happens to be John Key’s electorate chairman and the National Party’s northern region deputy chairman”) has used his dual position of authority to demand answers from the funding body and, simultaneously, make implicit but forceful statements about what constitutes “appropriate” policy material for such a funding body to support.

There has been some outrage on the tweets about the obvious propaganda imperative here — agenda-control is pretty crucial to a government, never more so than during election campaigns — and I agree with Sav that this shows a need for NZOA to be more independent, more clearly decoupled from the government, not less so. Stephen McElrea, after all, is not simply a disinterested member of a crown funding agency — he is a Key-government appointee to the NZOA board, a political actor in his own right, and has a history of advocating for broadcasting policies curiously similar to those being enacted by the present government, such as in a 2006 column titled “Scrap the charter and get TVNZ back to business”.

I may write more about this as it develops, although it seems likely that the ground will be better covered by people much more qualified than I am. But what I will do is return to my initial point, to wit:

a documentary about child poverty, covering the appalling housing, health and nutritional outcomes borne by children in our society, and the immediate response is to launch a ideological defence of the National party and deride the work as nothing but partisan propaganda. … I haven’t heard a peep out of National about what they plan to do about the problems since it aired. Isn’t it more telling that National and its proxies immediately and reflexively go on the defensive, rather than acknowledging the problems of child poverty and renewing its commitment to resolving them?

I still haven’t heard that peep. Given the fact that the National party leader feels at liberty to dismiss attempts by David Shearer and others to make child poverty alleviation a matter of bipartisan consensus, and that a senior National party official so close to the leader feels at liberty to throw his weight around in this professional capacity, I rather despair of hearing it.

L

Bainimarama channels Pinochet.

The Fijian military-bureaucratic regime fronted by Commodore “Frank” Bainimarama has promised elections for September 2014, these having been preceded by a constitutional consultation process that is to produce a new Charter in September 2013. The timetabling of the elections will follow ratification of the new Constitution.

The Commodore has already said that he intends to stand for Prime Minister in the 2014 elections. This presumably means that he will retire from active service and lead a military-backed party in them while allowing for open party competition. To date there is no sign of either milestone happening. Nor, for that matter, have the terms of the constitutional consultation process been detailed, which is of import because the presumed stakeholders in the re-making of the foundational document would have to include groups that are currently banned, dismantled, in exile or subject to legal and physical restraints on their activities.

On the other hand, the Bainimarama regime has, under the de facto state of emergency it has ruled by since 2006, used executive decrees to reshape the legal context in which these actors will need to operate. That includes the Essential Services Bill, which outlaws strikes and imposes serious restrictions on union activities in violation of International Labour Organisation standards. This exclusionary state corporatist approach to labor relations has been paralleled by similar efforts to control the media (to include provisions that media outlets have to be majority owned by Fijian citizens, which forced out foreign-controlled news agencies). In fact, there has been a militarization of the Fijian state apparatus as a whole under the Commodore’s rule, as active duty, retired, reservists and relatives of military personnel are given privileged access to civil service jobs. This form of patronage is designed to maintain loyalty as well as promote a military perspective on policy-implementation within the public bureaucracy.  Given that the regime’s “Peoples Charter for Change, Peace and Progress” proposes a profound transformation of cultural mores, social structures, political institutions and economic practices as part of a project of national rebirth overseen by the Republic of Fijian Military Forces, it seems that military colonization of the state apparatus is being used as a pre-requisite for the pursuit of those goals.

Such ambitious objectives cannot be achieved within the timeframe currently outlined for the constitutional re-draft and elections. That means that either Bainimarama and his colleagues have no intention of relinquishing control in 2014, or at best plan to use the elections as a procedural fig leaf with which to legitimize a military backed “civilian” government led by the Commodore that will continue to pursue the transformational objectives of the Peoples Charter. Since those objectives will be resisted, the elections will have to be rigged and dissent suppressed after they are over. What is envisioned, in other words, is what in Latin America have been called “guarded” or “protected” democracies, or for those who know Spanish, “democraduras” (“hard” democracies).

The Latin connection may in fact be stronger. The Pinochet regime in Chile held a constitutional referendum five years after it came to power in which it re-drew the foundational principles of the nation so that challenges to private control of the means of production and elite domination of the political system were made near impossible. Pinochet also colonized the state apparatus with  military personnel (although in his case the appointments were designed to promote ideological uniformity within the public bureaucracy rather than as a form of personal patronage). His timetable for the foundational elections of 1989 was established by the 1978 constitution and included Pinochet as the leader of a civilian party after his retirement. It had provisions for conservative control of the Senate (including the appointment of “Senators for life” by the Pinochet regime before its departure) and for military veto of legislation deemed inimical to national security or the national interest. Popular resistance eventually forced Pinochet to abandon his plans to rule in civilian guise after 1989 (in exchange for other conservative guarantees like those listed above), but the model for an orderly transition to a “guarded” democracy after a major constitutional reform was established by his regime. It will therefore be interesting to see what materializes in the constitutional reform process set to get underway in Fiji next year.

Given Chile’s market-driven economic “success” and the elimination of serious threats to the socio-economic and political status quo resultant from the authoritarian episode and its constitutional revisions, it seems possible that the Bainimarama regime has taken more than passing interest in it. In fact, it appears that mutatis mutandis, the Commodore and his clique have emulated the Pinochet experiment, Fijian style. The objective, as far as can be determined at this point, seems to be to establish the bases by which a “protected” or “guarded” elected civilian regime can be installed that will continue the transformational objectives outlined in the People’s Charter. Or, it could just be the best way for the regime and its supporters to continue to feed at the public trough. Either way, it is likely that the 2014 elections will not be an honestly contested affair, if they are held at all.

The second alternative (military colonization of the state as a source of patronage and rent-seeking) is not a frivolous aside. Corruption is rife in the Fijian public service, and military appointments to it on non-meritorious grounds exacerbates the problem while diminishing the organizational efficiency (such as it is) of public services. Moreover, it has been demonstrated in Latin America and elsewhere that military colonization of the civil service leads to a deterioration of operational readiness and command authority the longer soldiers are seated at desks in civilian Ministries. This is a problem for the Fijian military, which prides itself on its professionalism (mostly related to its long history of UN peace-keeping service), and which sees itself as the guardian of the nation (it should be noted that the Fijian military swears allegiance to the nation, not the constitution–as the suspension of the 1997 constitution clearly shows).

The more the Bainimarama regime colonizes the Fijian state with soldiers (however smart it may be as a tactical move given his objectives), the more likely that divisions will emerge in the ranks over the proper military role and adherence to corporate standards of conduct. It is one thing to be an arbitrator or mediator military in a praetorian civil-military relations context that intervenes in politics when civilian governments prove too inept or corrupt to govern (as has been the case in Fiji since independence in 1970). It is another thing for the military to try to rule as an institution over the long-term, especially when kleptocratic tendencies are encouraged by the use of military sinecures as sources of patronage. The downside of the latter is great on several levels.

Needless to say there is much more to the Fijian transitional picture, if that is in fact what we are observing. The praetorian nature of Fijian society, evident in zero-sum approaches to politics and economics that results in an impossible game of mutual vetos between contending interest groups divided by ethnicity and class, has continually “pulled” the military into intervening (in 1987, 2000 and 2006). The incompetence of civilian elected governments, the nepotistic and opaque ways in which business is conducted, and the general malaise of civilian institutions accentuate the military urge to put things right. Having failed in its arbitrator role, it now seems that Bainimarama and his colleagues want to perpetuate military rule, even if under civilian guise after 2014, so as to continue the process of national transformation in order to eventually “put things right.”

All of this is set against the backdrop of Fiji re-orienting its “Looking North” foreign policy from West to East in response to the sanctions imposed by its traditional allies and partners (Fiji has been suspended from the Pacific Island Forum, seen the suspension of financial aid from the EU and Asian Development Bank and downgraded its diplomatic ties with Australia and New Zealand as a result of their criticism of the coup and its aftermath). The Commodore has emphasized the need for a “re-balancing” of Fiji’s foreign relations, and to that end has encouraged closer trade, investment and/or military ties with Asian nations (particularly China) and the Middle East. Although these new ties have not brought Fiji out of its economic doldrums as of yet (net growth has been negligible for the last five years even though tourism is at all-time highs in terms of visitors and contribution to GDP), they do allow the Bainimarama regime some room for maneuver as it works to reconcile the constitutional reform and election timetables with its long-term objectives.

All of which is to say, if I were a bettor or a futures forecaster, I would hedge against uncertainty and assume that the 2014 elections will be delayed, manipulated or even canceled. As for the longer-term future–that ultimately will be for the Fijian military to decide.

The Agony of Defeat.

Well, it was a grim morning of the day after in my household on Sunday. The evil-doers prevailed and the forces of righteousness and progress were soundly spanked, with the exception of a formerly progressive party that now has gone managerial as it mainstreams to the political centre. Sure, there were some points of solace in the otherwise dark landscape of electoral outcomes, but overall the egalitarian side of the NZ political spectrum got hammered.

But all is not lost. In the scheme of things, this was not the worst election defeat I have experienced as a voter. For me, as an ex-pat Yank, that dubious honor rests with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The idea that someone who epitomized prejudice, elitism, ignorance, racism, war-mongering, corporate-backed chickhawk cowardice and the utter insipidness of campaign promises could defeat a decent fellow such as Jimmy Carter actually made me fear for basic freedoms and civil rights in that country. Sure, it was not as bad as living through coups or revolutions in Latin America, where losers in the regime change had very real reason to fear for their lives. But is was as close as I have felt in a democracy to being politically at risk as a result of an election. That feeling was reaffirmed a few months later when Reagan was shot, where the response on the working class African American street where I lived was to “hope that a brother did not do it.” Such was the tone of the times that we worried more about the backlash then the fact that the president was almost killed off (and boy, were we relieved when it turned out to be a white nutter who fired the shots).

I felt nearly as bad when W. Bush was fraudulently installed as president after losing the US popular vote in 2000. However, by that time I had moved to NZ and did not have to worry about directly suffering the consequences of yet another silver spoon-fed corporate chickenhawk imperialist stealing his way into power. But I feared for what he was about to wreak on the US (where my family and close friends live) and the world at large. A decade later the proof of his folly is everywhere to be seen. Helen Clark was right: things would have been different had Al Gore rightfully been awarded the 2000 election. But all that is water under the bridge and the person copping the most flak in the aftermath is Barack Obama. Talk about inheriting a mess!

Given that backdrop I am not catatonic because the currency speculator and his band of money-grubbing bullies have been re-elected under the banner of “stability.” It could be worse, and I am thankful that when compared to the US, the bulk of the NZ political spectrum is less reactionary or retrograde. Even so, with expanded anti-terrorism laws and powers of search, surveillance and seizure all passed by the National government in recent years (something that went unnoticed in the buildup to the election), I can see encroaching authoritarianism in its second term. One only has to watch the Prime Minister’s response to hard questions to see his sense of arrogance and entitlement on display. This is a guy who is used to getting his way, however he can, without much regard for the consequences except with respect to his corporate peers. So regardless of public opinion, the PM will push his asset sales agenda, will continue to suck up to both the US and the Chinese while pursuing trade for trade’s sake, and will play as loose with the rules of the democratic game as his weakened opposition will allow him.  And by playing divide and conquer with the Maori Party and the Greens, he could well get his way across the board.

I take solace in the fact that electoral defeats are the lifeblood of democratic politics. It is not so much what the victor does after an election. It is how the losers respond that makes the difference. Losing allows parties to remove the sclerosis from their ranks and rejuvenate both personnel and policy platforms. Losing allows parties to reinvigorate in opposition. Losing forces parties to explore new policy options and ideological possibilities. Should Labour understand this simple law of democratic politics, it can regroup and compete more effectively in three years. If it does not, we could be saddled with the corporate-cuddling cabal for a third term. The question is: does Labour have it within itself to make the serious changes required for it to have relevance in the years forward?

I do see the Green Party vote increase as a positive sign even if its support is coming from disaffected Labour voters more than anywhere else. Between the Greens and Labour there is still a solid 35-37 percent of the vote, figures that could grow should National’s economic policies continue the trend of growing income disparities, elite enrichment, environmental degradation and foreign control. Since voter turnout was so low this year, a mere rise in those who vote in 2014 is bound to increase support for the Left (such as it is) because people tend to vote when they are unhappy about the status quo (apathy such as that seen in this year’s election had less to do with serious discontent and more to do with complacency and belief in a foregone outcome). Thus this moment of defeat is a ripe time for Labour to undertake the necessary changes required to come back and compete successfully in 2014. That means a major leadership shuffle as well as policy change away from the “National-lite” pro-market stance it has maintained for nearly 20 years. In other words, it needs to turn back Left, both in terms of recapturing a class line as well as more sincerely embracing post-modern progressive causes.

I do not claim any particular expertise in NZ politics and this ramble was merely sparked by my reflection on which electoral defeats were the worst for me as a voter in a democratic country. But I do think that one big redeeming feature of liberal democracy, no matter how manufactured, manipulated and corrupted it has become, is that losers are allowed to compete again at regular intervals, which gives them the opportunity to engage the internal reforms that will allow them to emerge from the ashes of even a catastrophic defeat in a better condition to win down the road. This holds true not only for the biggest loser in this year’s election, Labour, but also for such parties as ACT. After all, Winston Peters has shown that even political mummies can be resurrected without being reconstituted, so there is hope yet for even the smallest losers this time around.