Te Pati Loco?

Normally I would not write about Maori issues. I may have been living in NZ for over 25 years but I do not feel that it is my place to opine because I am not an expert on Maori history and politics and do not speak Te Reo (because as anyone who seriously studies comparative politics will attest, foreign language proficiency is a bottom line requirement for scholarship in the field unless you only study countries and cultures that speak your mother tongue). Hence in the past I deferred to Lew to write about Maori issues here at KP, but since he has departed there is no one left to do so.

However, in light of the recent carkoi and protests organised by Te Pati Maori (TPM) in response to the Coalition of Cruelty’s budget, I thought I would touch briefly on a matter of Te Pati Maori praxis. I was dragged into the debate about the protests when I noted on social media that the use of the term “strike” to characterise the direct action was done in error or for dramatic effect since “strike” is codified in employment law as a collective withholding of labour services by employees from employers in the context of workplace disputes. If the labour service withdrawal is called by collective agents and follows the procedures for engaging in such action (giving notice, etc.) then it is a strike “proper.” if it is done by individuals or groups of workers without collective authorization, then it is a “wildcat” strike that may be deemed unlawful by employment courts. A general strike is a labour service withdrawal across economic sectors done for economic and/or political purposes, which is difficult because it requires unity of purpose and action by employees working in different productive areas, which in turn requires agreement between union agents and agent/principal agreement in every union on the action. That is a big ask.

Taking a day off from work to go to a protest, be it by using paid, unpaid or medical leave or no leave at all is not a strike no matter what one calls it. Workers assume the employment risks associated with such actions. Employers can weigh their responses according to the law and their relationship with employees. That could even include giving people the day off or paying them overtime to stay on the job, among other options. Again, the nature of the relationship between boss and worker outside of the legal framework can influence an employer’s response for better or worse.

I figured that since I have written two books and a dozen or so scholarly articles about comparative labour relations, including the subject of strikes and State responses to working class collective action, that my neutral if pedantic observation about the proper use of the term “strike” would be as unremarkable as it was incontrovertible. I was wrong.

To be sure, the use of the term “strike” in the Te Pati Maori protest literature, which explicitly references it as a display of Maori economic power, lent itself to the view that Maori were going on strike. As such, right-wingers seized on the term to call for employer retaliation against those who joined the protests. There was much agitation on the Right about violations of contract (individual or collective) and the penalties that should be levied. The PM weighed in with the comment that workers should be careful about striking and that strikes should be done on weekends because that way they would not be as disruptive.

Besides the fact that a PM should know the difference between a strike and a protest (rather than cynically feed into the “strike” narrative), it is pretty rich for him to suggest that strikes are best done on weekends. As I said on social media, by that logic we should take our holidays on weekends as well. The whole point of strikes, protests, demonstrations and other types of direct action is precisely to be disruptive of the status quo as given in defence of a cause or to air grievances. A protest without disruption is like an army without a fight, full of rebels with causes but no stomach for consequences. Protests and strikes are about assuming collective and individual risk. The risk may be large or small depending on circumstance, but in one way or another it hangs over acts of “unauthorised” direct action in most every instance.

Having said all of that, I understand the call to strike in the Te Pati Maori literature as using the original sense of the term, which means “to deliver a blow.” The protest was organised as a symbolic blow against the reactionary anti-Maori thrust of the Coalition of Cruelty’s policies. It was not about Maori labour service withdrawals per se.

For my troubles in clarifying what is and what is not a strike and how the term was misused in the call to action by both supporters and opponents of the protests, I was called condescending, paternalistic, pompous, a lightweight, and best of all, a “racist c**t,” the latter by a lady who surely must kiss her mum and perhaps children with that mouth. As I wrote to her, she must be fun to be around.

All of that aside, I then got the pleasure of watching Te Pati Maori leaders speak in and outside of Parliament on the subject of the protest and much more. Although Ms.Ngarwera-Packer presented her views coolly, her counterpart Mr. Waititi was at his bombastic, hyperbolic best, taking the tradition of Marae oratory to a level that even that tax-funded weiner-tugger Shane Jones cannot match. He threw out gems such as “if Maori are 60 percent of the prison population then (we) deserve 60 percent of the Corrections budget,” a feat of logic so extraordinary that it would be akin to saying that NZ should pay the PRC, Russia and rightwing extremists most of the intelligence budget because they are the ones being spied on. To be frank, I have always found Mr. Waititi to be a bit of a buffoon and charlatan, but then again, that is probably the old Pakeha racist codger in me doing the assessment (I have been characterised as such before).

Which is why I paused to reflect on my reaction to his rants. Others have already noted the hypocrisy of TPM being funded by taxpayers and gaining prominence via “Pakeha” procedures and institutions. They have noted with alarm the seditious rhetoric of Mr. Waititi’s wife, the daughter of none other than that paragon of indigenous resistance, John Tamihere (although Mr. Tamihere’s management of the Waiparera Trust, for whatever its faults, was first rate during the pandemic and is widely respect in the West Auckland community). Now the TPM is calling for a separate Maori parliament, presumably to run in parallel to the “Pakeha” parliament and be equal to it. I am not sure how it will be funded and what outcomes it hopes to achieve, but it provides some food for thought about political alternatives even if it has a snowball’s chance in hell of materialising while the current government is in power.

The proposal is interesting in part because one of the features of a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) democratic system like that in NZ is that it allows small, narrow-focused or single issue parties to get elected and press their interests within parliament, using coalition-building and vote-trading as a means of doing so. The ACT and Green Parties started out this way and have now widened their political appeals beyond their original core policy platforms. Whether that is for better or worse is for others to decide, but the general thrust for both of them was to start narrow and then widen their platforms via the incorporation of other agenda items and constituencies. ACT has gone with the gun rights crowd, incels and racists; the Greens have gone with identity issues, animal rights and rainbows. Both have had success by doing so. NZ First has done something a bit different, using malleable nationalist populism as a vehicle for Winston Peter’s political aspirations. To his original xenophobia and self-loathing Maori appeal (to blue rinse Pakehas), he has now added anti-vaccination conspiracy weirdness and slavish “anti-woke” corporate bootlicking to the party repertoire. Like the broadening shifts undergone by ACT and the Greens, it has served his party well and allowed it and ACT to become the tail-wagging rump ends of the Coalition of Cruelty dog.

Te Pati Maori is a different kettle of fish. Gone are the days of Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia, who tried to play the centrist–some might say assimilationist–parliamentary game.They supported both Labour and National-led governments while confining themselves to practical pursuit of “reasonable” goals, that is, objectives that could be achieved by and within the system as given. Truth be told, the Maori Party record was mixed at best, but one thing that did come out of its emergence on the political scene is that outside of Maori-related issues (say, rural health and lower-income welfare support), it had zero to little impact on NZ government policy. The “big” policy decisions were made by Pakeha-dominated parties, including things like foreign and defence policy (I wrote about the Maori Party’s lack of consequence in NZ foreign policy other than on international indigenous affairs in this scholarly article).

Today’s Te Pati Maori is different. More than a just a party name change, it is overtly anti-Establishment and “progressive” in orientation (whatever “progressive” means to them, which may not be what other “progressives” think that they are). As the proposed Maori parliament suggests, TPM rejects the system as given. That is why it uses the word “strike” without regard to the Pakeha convention known as Employment Law. It’s spokespeople openly speak of “revolution” and government overthrow even if it is unclear what they actually mean when they use those terms. What is clear is that TPM is more about political theatre and symbolic politics than delivering tangible policy outcomes to and for their constituents. If anything, its marginalization within the political system has increased along with its militant rhetoric and actions. It might be too early to tell, but the carkoi protests could be seen in that light: as a lot of bluster and fanfare but no tangible impact or results to show for them. In fact, the response from most other parties was to either lambaste or shrug and ignore Te Pati Maori’s antics. Time will tell if the impact of the protests are more subtle and longer-term in nature but for the moment TPM stands alone, seemingly barking into the wind.

Again, that got me wondering as I stopped to check my white privilege. Am I being unkind to TPM? Or am I just another racist cracker bleating about the rise of a righteous and strong indigenous voice?

I found my answer in Gramsci. It occurs to me that, because TMP often refers to its actions and rationales in neo-Marxist terms with a smattering of Paulo Freire, Franz Fanon and Norm Chomsky thrown in, that Te Pati Maori sees itself waging a war of position within the “trenches” of the NZ Pakeha State. That is to say, it is working from within to disseminate its “counter-hegemonic” vision and policy prescriptions in civil and political society. Its focus is on grassroots organising, starting with Maori and reaching out from there into other “progressive” communities such as those grouped under the Green and Left Labour banners. It is not worried about converting the old Pakeha elites or engaging in parliamentary compromises because, as the recent census shows, Maori are growing in demographic numbers while Pakeha are declining. Given the structure of MMP, that growth can translate into increased seats in whatever parliament they chose to stand in, and given the youth appeal that they presently feel that they have, time is on their side. Along with forging alliances within the Labour and Green parties, unions and other civil society organisations, TPM is using a long-game strategy where what it is doing now sows the seeds for its successes down the road.

They may not be so loco after all.

So what to make of Te Pati Maori? Are they just nuts (as the term “loco” implies)? Are they communists, extremists and separatists as Winston First and Tugger Jones claim them to be? I would argue no to both suggestions. What TPM is doing is a time-honoured yet new form of politics in a social media age, where their theatrics are part of a grassroots appeal to marginalised and disaffected (not always the same) groups, especially proletarians of colour. By working “in the trenches” TPM can slowly promote an ideological re-orientation away from neoliberal vestiges (because neoliberalism is not just an economic doctrine but has become over the course of two generations a social construct that frames our way of life) and towards a type of post-modern indigenous-centric perspective infused with working class-based values and perspectives. This view is self-realised and awake rather than woke, defiant but not always disrespectful, confrontational but not conflictual, independent rather than (Pakeha) dependent, cooperative and collective rather than corporate in organization. It may take time for the TPM-led movement to congeal, but the stirrings are there and the people are ready for generational change to take effect. That is the plan and TPM sees itself as the instrument for converting that plan into praxis.

Or so they hope.

Policing protests.

Images of US students (and others) protesting and setting up tent cities on US university campuses have been broadcast worldwide and clearly demonstrate the growing rifts in US society caused by US policy toward Israel and Israel’s prosecution of its war against Palestinians in response to the Hamas attack on Israeli-occupied territory along the Gaza Strip on October 7 of last year. The police behaviour appears to be a bit over the top, to say the least, given that the protests are purportedly peaceful for the most part, or at least until the cops arrive. It would seem that the police do not care for freedoms of speech or assembly, so there appears to be an anti-democratic bias at play in the suppression of these protests. But there are some angles to the subject that need further discussion, so let’s dig in on them.

Assuming that protesters are not harassing, intimidating or assaulting people or damaging public or private property, then the police response in place like Emory University, University of Southern California and the University of Texas (to name a few), is in fact excessive. Even if trespass orders are given, there is no need to manhandle, use tear gas, rubber bullets or generally hurt protestors in order to get them to leave a designated area unless they are being violent. If they block roads and physically impede public movements in and around the demonstration, then protesters can be arrested and cited under law for a subsequent court appearances. But unless they actively (as opposed to passively) resist, then violence should not be used against them and even then, all care should be made by law enforcement to consider the physical well-being of those arrested. Marching people out by the elbows is one thing. Throwing them to the ground and cuffing them behind their backs is another. Breaking arms or legs and pepper-spraying people people is a step too far. Again, this assumes that protesters are not behaving in a threatening or violent manner.

Private schools can issue trespass notices for any reason and have the police enforce them. Likewise, public institutions can do much the same although here the space being occupied is owned by taxpayers and therefore not as easily subject to tresspass orders unless people start damaging things or other folk. This was the case with the 2022 Wellington parliamentary protest, which was held on parliament grounds but eventually spilled into adjacent streets (and beyond), all of which are public spaces. Given that public institutions are thought of as “the people’s places,” authorities must exercise extra caution when attempting to end protests on and in them. Unlike the centralised nature of law enforcement decision-making in NZ (due to the unitary nature of government), as a federal republic that means that in the US State and/or local authorities must make the decision to move against a protest, usually at the request of university administrators. There are plenty of regulations in place that give State and local governments authority over public spaces, so the right for public authorities to enforce trespass notices is there. It is how they do so that is the issue.

Here I must pause for a brief aside about “free” versus “hate” speech, which is at the crux of the protests and how they are handled. Waving banners and yelling “long live Hamas” is an example of protected free speech. Given Hamas’s record, it may offend many people but no harm is invited and no violence is incited. On-lookers can walk away if they object. It is therefore a case of protected “offensive” speech at worst. However, yelling or waving banners saying “kill the Jews” or “nuke Gaza” is not. It is an incitement to violence against a specific group of people. As such it needs to be treated as a precursor to a hate crime as it invites and incites violence against a designated target. Law enforcement authorities need to understand the difference and formulate their responses accordingly.

Think of it this way: Kyle Chapman and other NZ neo-Nazis can play dressup and march around yelling “Sieg Heil” and “white power” all they want, so long as they do not cross the line into advocating violence or committing acts of violence against others. The police need to know what is protected (anti-social racist incel boorishness) and what is not (advocating harm to others). Unfortunately, the police in Christchurch have a history of downplaying the issue when Kyle and his fellow creeps cross that line, something that may have been a factor in the events of March 15, 2019.

The same logic holds true for pro-Palestinian demonstrators. They cross the line if they call for the eradication of Jews anywhere. “Death to Zionism” is not the same as “Death to Jews” no matter how much some would like to conflate the two. Zionism is an ideology. Jews are people. One is a belief, the other are living humans. Although some Jews are Zionists, not all are and even then they do not deserve to be targeted for being Jews (there are non-Jewish Zionists as well, especially in US fundamentalist Christian communities).

The matter of how to end protests is complicated by the fact that infiltrators with other agendas often join sincere people participating in legitimate protests who are exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The agitators may act as agent provocateurs in order to turn otherwise peaceful protests into something nasty, in order to expose the contradictions of the Deep State, capitalism, Big Pharma, the government or any number of other nefarious agencies who are believed to usurp and act contrary to the popular will. I witnessed this phenomena close up during my youthful protest days, where a group called the Spartacus Youth League, of Trotskyite persuasion, in Chicago and Washington DC, used a tactic where masked “Spart” columns moved to the front of crowds facing off with police and proceeded to assault the cops at close range with projectiles and blunt objects (but from behind the frontline of peaceful protesters). That usually caused a police riot where cops began to beat on everyone in front them while the “Sparts” slunk away to the back of the crowd and started looting and vandalising on the sidelines. The original reason for the protest often got lost in the mayhem, which of course is what the media focused on.

Although I do not know if the “Sparts” or other groups have engaged in this sort of action in the recent student protests, there are reports of non-students joining the student protesters, which in of itself is not a bad thing. But if they come with other agendas, say, turning a pro-Palestine or anti-genocide protest into a “Kill the Jews” hate fest, then the usual protections of speech and assembly no longer apply. Again, that is because the latter is a type of hate speech, inciting violence against a specific group of people because of who they are (as opposed to what the State of Israel does), and as such is no longer afforded the protections available to offensive “free” speech.

Not to belabour the point, but consider this: One can vociferously call Netanyahu a murderer and Israel a genocidal regime without personalising and inciting violence against Jews as an ethno-religious group. One can voice support for Palestinians and call for university divestiture of investments in companies that do business with the State of Israel without hating all Jews. Although holding and voicing these views may be offensive to some, it is not anti-Semitic to do so. After all, not all Jews are Israeli or support Netanyahu or Israel’s polices towards Palestine. The line is drawn when support for Palestinians or criticism of Israel turns into calling for violence against Jews. That moves what some may consider offensive speech into the realm of hate speech, which does not deserve the protections of law. Likewise, defence of Israel cannot extend to advocating the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their ancestral lands. If so, the line between free speech and hate speech is then crossed.

For police in liberal democracies (I shall not bother writing about how authoritarians handle protests since they do not concern themselves with the niceties of free speech and assembly), the conundrum is this: do they come in hard from the onset and disperse the crowds with overwhelming force? Or do they adopt a passive containment strategy that allows people to blow off steam before they decide to end their action either voluntarily or with non-violent encouragement by or disincentives from the authorities (say, by threatening suspension or dismissal from universities if students do not disperse by a specific time)?

In the Wellington protests the police adopted the passive approach. For a month they dealt with the crowds in a largely peaceful manner even though agitators and extremists joined the ranks of the original anti-vaccination/anti-mandate crowd. The police even overlooked the fact that there were public health restrictions (specifically, social distancing requirements) still in place when the protest caravans began to arrive in Wellington in early February, something that contributed to an upsurge in Covid cases in the crowd. Over time the infiltrators began to dominate the protest discourse, to include voicing MAGA support, waving confederate flags, railing against the “Deep State,” echoing QAnon weirdness, voicing violent threats against “Jabcinda” (including her execution and that of other officials) and otherwise behaving like aggressive a-holes. As days turned into weeks the public health and public order downsides of the protest grew larger and more uninvolved people were negatively impacted by it. Many of the original protest leaders, like the so-called Voices for Freedom, retreated back to their home keyboards rather than staunch things out to the bitter and inevitable end. Eventually, after a month of paralysis in central Wellington and at high cost in resources and injury, the cops moved in to disperse the encampment. A riot ensured.

Perhaps it did not help for the then Speaker of the House to order that the parliamentary lawn sprinklers be turned on and that awful pop music be played over loudspeakers above the encampment. Presumably he thought that would weaken the resolve of the protesters and they would all go home. Instead, that just turned the parliament lawn into a cow paddock and irritated the aesthetic sensitivities of the conspiracy theorists, who simply added bad pop music and involuntary cold water showers to their list of Deep State machinations. More importantly, the Speaker clearly did not consult with the Police Commissioner before he made his moves, or if he did, they must have concocted that genius plan after sharing a few pints at The Backbencher. In retrospect it was not a good decision.

So for the police the question is what to do? Go in hard early or adopt a passive containment/defusion strategy? (I will leave aside the idea that the police would chose not to enforce anti-demonstration laws and let people gather as they please simply because in a place like NZ or the US, the cops are mostly anything but progressive or anti-status quo in mindset even if individual members may be sympathetic to a specific cause. Having said that, the Washington DC police refused to move against pro-Palestinian protestors at George Washington University, a private school, after university administrators requested that they clear the student encampment. The cops said that the group was small and peaceful, so the “optics” would not look good. Make of that what you will.).

A different approach might have been to identify infiltrators and extremists via undercover and technological observation and use more selective techniques to isolate and separate them from the crowd. After all, the police are part of a repressive apparatus that not only has a monopoly over organised violence within a given territory but which has the authority of the State behind it. Of all actors, they should know–in fact be schooled in–the art of subtle extirpation of troublemakers as well as in the well-known goon squad tactics usually associated with riot control. That did not happened in Wellington and the goon squad approach eventually had to be used.

(I cannot go into the details here but in Greece there are two types of riot police, one dressed in green gear and the other in blue gear. The different colours signals to protesters the different levels of repression that is about to be meted out so that people can chose whether to stay or leave before the blue goons make their entrance. That serves to separate the protest wheat from the chaff once the blue squad arrives. For their part protesters in Athens had Loukanikos the riot dog on their side during my time in Athens as well as his “son” Kanellos, who is said to still be part of the resistance).

In the US things are different. The police doing the repressing represent state and local (municipal and county) authorities. Consequently, their training and approach to protest varies widely. From what I have seen, the cops at Emory (which is in Atlanta, Georgia) and the University of Texas have very little time for protestors. Their governors, both reactionary Republicans, have joined in the smear that the protestors are anti-semitic and pro-terrorist, thereby opening the door to a heavy-handed approach to dispersing the crowds. It should be noted that Emory University is a private school and its administrators requested that the Atlanta police break up the demonstration. At UT-Austin it was the governor who ordered the troops in (I do not know if that was done at the request of university administrators or of his own volition, but given his remarks the latter appears to have been the case).

Conversely, at Colombia, Yale, Harvard, New York University and USC (all private schools outside of the Deep South), the police initially exercised a bit more restraint but nevertheless resorted after just a few days to forcibly removing people in handcuffs or bodily if they refused to move. Perhaps that is reflective of the US police mindset when it comes to this particular cause and the people doing the protesting. If the protests were reversed (pro-Israel rather than pro-Palestine), it would be interesting to see if the police tactics changed. From the standpoint of equality under the law, one would hope not, but a realistic appraisal of the situation suggests to me that pro-Israeli demonstrations in the US would be met very differently by law enforcement and in fact may have to be “protected” from counter-demonstrators (as has happened in Australia).

Then there is the issue of disinformation. Most of the word about the protests is spread by social media, and various platforms are used by protest organisers to spread the action beyond its origins. This opens a window of opportunity for state and non-state actors to introduce disinformation into protest campaigns in order to advance other, hidden agendas. For example, it would seem to be a professional imperative for Russian and Chinese disinformation units to target the protests in order to further undermine the historic public consensus in support of Israel in the US (born of political elite and media bias in favour of Israel), in order to advance their respective adversarial interests vis a vis the US in the Middle East and beyond. From a strategic perspective it would be derelict of them not to exploit this window of opportunity, as undermining an enemy from within using non-military means is far more resource efficient that waiting until open conflict with that enemy has begun. Both the PRC and Russia have prior form in this regard (including in NZ), so it is not a stretch to speculate that they may be doing so with regard to the student protests. Police and other intelligence agencies need to be aware of this possibility and approach the cyber realm accordingly.

Of course, the root cause of this situation of discord and dissent in the US is the Israeli elite’s psychopathic behaviour both before and after October 7 and the willing blindness of US foreign policy elites to the fact that Israel is not only the tail that wags the US foreign policy dog in the Middle East but has now become a strategic liability rather than a strategic asset (which derives from its importance when it comes to intelligence gathering on and sharing of Middle Eastern affairs). It has taken young adults–students–to bring critical attention to that fact, but for US adversaries they are just pawns in a larger game.

In the end how to police protests has much to do with the cause, the culture (both in civil society as well as in policing), who is doing the protesting and who is in government at the time. Some causes may be purer than others. The students are protesting about terrible events in a far-off place based on the ideal that collective punishment leading to genocide is wrong and that casting a blind on it is complicit. Besides the cookers and nutters, the anti-vaxx crowd in Wellington were more about their personal inconvenience and material losses rather than protection of the commonweal or public good. In an odd way that suggests that the latter should have been dealt with in stronger terms from the onset while the student protests need to be handled in a less repressive way. But that is where culture and governments come in. In the US the police are more about kicking a** and taking names, whereas in NZ the approach is more to play community cop rather than Judge Dread. Likewise, US governments at every level always want to be seen as upholding “law an order” even if the laws are retrograde and the order is rigged, whereas the Labour government in place at the time of the protests was determined to try and play things softly-softly in the hope that cooler heads would prevail in the protesting crowd and things would end quietly, in the Kiwi way.

They did not.

There are lessons to be learned from both of these protest episodes, mostly about what not to do rather than what to do.

Reminder: “Frenemies” are not friends.

News that the Chinese ATP 40 cyber-hacking unit penetrated parliamentary internet networks in 2021 has renewed concerns about the PRC’s malign intentions in Aotearoa. But is the hack that significant given the length of time that has passed since its discovery and the lack of sensitivity of the information that was accessed?  I was asked to write about this for a corporate news outlet but since it is my work I have added some details and posted it here.

The hack is unsurprising given that NZ is a 5 Eyes partner and parliamentary services and the parliament counsel’s office handle sensitive information as a matter of course. NZ may be a trading partner of the PRC but is in essence a security adversary given its membership in 5 Eyes and its close military alignment with the US, Australia and other Western states that are (whether rightly or wrongly) hostile to PRC power-projection world wide. Since the PRC is a main focus of 5 Eyes signals and technical intelligence collection, it would be remiss for ATP 40 to ignore potential avenues of exploitation when it comes to obtaining political or security-related intelligence in NZ. That is part of their mission, and complements the well-known presence of numerous PRC human intelligence agents in this country.

It is therefore reassuring that the GCSB National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) discovered the hack and found that no strategically important or sensitive information was breached. We shall have to trust them on that. However, that does not mean that this will be the last time ATP 40 or some other PRC cyber-hacking unit will attempt to breach NZ government and private cyber defences. That is what they do, and because NZ has in the past been seen as the Achilles heel of the 5 Eyes network due to traditionally poor cyber security practices, it will likely do so again. This is an ongoing problem that the NCSC was created to address, but the offence versus defence dynamic inherent in (cyber) espionage and warfare is still in play and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

Some have suggested that NZ impose sanctions on the PRC in response to the parliamentary cyber intrusion. The US and UK have announced such measures due to similar PRC behaviour with regard to them (more on this below). However, for NZ that would be a mistake because sanctions at this point would be counter-productive. First, because it would be akin to poking a tiger and invite disproportionate retaliation over what is a relatively minor transgression in the broader scheme of things. Since NZ has yet to wean itself off of its self-made PRC trade dependency, it cannot afford to alienate it just yet, if ever, over an intrusion of this order.

Secondly, these type of breaches are usually handled quietly so that the offending party is not completely sure of how and why they were thwarted or countered. In other words, the GCSB does not want to show its hand when it comes to its counter-hacking capabilities. That the breach occurred in 2021 and only has been acknowledged now indicates that the GCSB feels that enough time has elapsed for operational security concerns to be ameliorated and a “fair warning” issued to the hackers that they are being identified, traced and countered. So there is no need to cause an inevitably damaging public spat with a much more powerful interlocutor. For all the coziness of the 5 Eyes members, no one will come to NZ’s economic rescue if the PRC decides to take punitive economic measures against NZ in the event that NZ tries to impose sanctions of some sort on its largest trade partner.

The timing of the GCSB announcement about the 2021 hack is also coincident with the US publishing the identities of ATP 40 hackers targetting US infrastructure and Australia and the UK warning of their and other Chinese political interference efforts in strong terms, with particular focus in the UK and US on PRC hacker compromises to voting systems in election years in both. The timing of the announcements about PRC hacking efforts therefore seems to be a 5 Eyes-coordinated “shot across the bow” that gives warning to ATP 40 and their counterparts that the times of easy access to critical data infrastructure, even if indirectly and even in NZ, are over. 

But that may be all that it is and not, at least in NZ’s case, a reason for NZ to escalate the matter beyond what it already has said and done. Chinese diplomats have been summoned to MFAT for a “please explain” and scolded for ATP 40’s misbehaviour. The PRC Foreign Ministry has rejected the accusations and warned about scurrilous attempts to besmirch the PRC’s good name. Perhaps it is time to let the dogs go back to sleep.

It remains to be seen if this type of State-backed cyber-probing ends because if nothing else the PRC hacking community is ingenious, well resourced and persistent. For them, this is part of the PRC’s ascent to having a multi-dimensional (voice and cyber encrypted communication intercept, physical and infrared (thermal) imagery aquisition, submarine fiberoptic cable “tapping,” capabilities, etc.), broad specturm, multi-domain (air, land, sea, space, cyber) warfare infrastructure on its way to achieving superpower status. As part of 5 Eyes, NZ is standing in the (albeit in a small) way of that goal. It was and is bound to be an ongoing target of Chinese espionage efforts, including in the cyber domain.

Ultimately the revelations about ATP 40s operations in NZ are a reminder against cyber complacency at home and at work, be in the public or private sectors. This is very true when dealing with so-called “frenemies,” that is, States with which NZ has cordial, even friendly relations on the public surface but with which underlying value systems and security relations are incompatible, strained or even hostile. So long as NZ is a member of the 5 Eyes network and the PRC is an adversary and target of that network even if it is NZ’s largest trade partner, ATP 40 and other PRC intelligence units will be hard at work seeking to discover and exploit any potential avenues of opportunity in NZ cyber-space as well as in other domains. It may be in that in the past “loose lips sunk ships,” but in the contemporary era all keystrokes, phone calls, encrypted messages, Tik Toks and Instas are also grist for the intelligence mill—and exploitable as such.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on March 27, 2024 in the NZ Dominion Post (the-post.co.nz, p.19) and affiliated media outlets.

Two offenders, different treatments.

See if you can spot the difference.

An Iranian born female MP from a progressive party is accused of serial shoplifting. Her name is leaked to the media, which goes into a pack frenzy even before the Police launch an investigation. She resigns from parliament, declines to seek name suppression (what was the point?) and eventually pleads guilty to several charges of non-violent property crime involving goods worth less than $9,000 (which is a cut-off standard for sentencing purposes). Her court appearance is the lead story in most media even though there are a couple of major wars and several famines occurring, to say nothing of a number of developments in NZ politics and society that are a bit more significant than the travails of a troubled individual. She and her disgrace are headline news in NZ.

On the other hand there is a male Pakeha “senior political figure” in a rightwing party who during the course of a fraud investigation had someone come forth accusing him of serial sexual offending. Eventually the number of charges grew to nine involving at least two victims. He resigned his senior party position once the fraud investigation heated up, and then he was charged with the sex offences. The offending is historical and related to a well known volunteer service organization in which he held senior leadership roles and was involved with young people in a mentoring role. The judge assigned to the case granted him and his party name suppression in 2023 because, among other things, disclosure of their identities might have a negative impact on his party’s chances in the 2023 election. The judge ordered that the suppression order be reviewed after the election.

The election happened six months ago. No review of the suppression order has been undertaken. The trial of this person has been put off until August 2024. As far as I can tell (am happy to be proven wrong), the media have done nothing to find out why his name suppression continues. The Leader of his party has been asked directly about the case and answers by talking about contempt of court. Worst yet, the media has not asked questions as to why a judge would introduce explicitly political criteria into a decision to grant name suppression in light of the seriousness of the charges, which involve physical sexual assaults on minors. During the build up to an election.

I asked these questions in a series of social media posts. I respected the name suppression order but spoke about the background of the case. Although I received many positive responses I also received a number of veiled threats that I was violating the suppression order by alluding to this man, even obliquely. That is besides the fact that his offending is an open secret in the volunteer circles in which he was a prominent figure, his party affiliation and former role is common knowledge in political circles, and his name has been disclosed in a number of social media outlets and even mentioned in parliament (which even if done under parliamentary privilege and struck from the written record, lives on in the video archive of the debates at the time of his mention). I am told by these critics that it does not matter if others have previously spoken of him in direct terms and that I am liable for up to six months in jail for my “criminal offending” (exact words). If so, I am going to have to get in the back of a long que of criminal offenders and the taxpayers are gong to have to fork out a fair amount of public money having the Crown prosecute us. Selective prosecution, say of me, would only worsen the situation when it comes to the appearance of (at a minimum) Crown bias and (at worst) judicial integrity and neutrality.

I suspect that the threats of legal retribution are coming from within this fellow’s political party. The concern is more about protecting him and the Party rather than seeking justice for his alleged victims or adhering to judicial standards about protecting victims and presumptions of innocence. Plus, the threats have a sort of finger-in-the-dike quality to them, as there will be a flood of coverage once the legal circus hits the road. That is, assuming that things ever get to trial and some sort of pre-trial agreement in not reached (which I think is possible at this point. The trouble with any such deal is that it will likely include some form of permanent name suppression in exchange for a guilty plea to some of the charges).

However things end up, there remains a deeply troubling aspect to this study in contrasts. The first is the media’s behaviour. It involves the hounding the former MP-turned private citizen on the one hand, and the ignoring of the other case almost entirely. This follows a media pattern of going after female progressive politicians for their indiscretions while largely soft-peddling similar behaviour from male politicians. Moreover, it is not as if name suppression prevents intrepid reporters from digging into the larger story of the male senior political figure in more depth, even if as background to the coverage of the trial when it happens (there is plenty of coverage from 2021 to last year). The media double-standard is stark: young female progressive gets the full “cameras in the face and shouted questions” treatment, whereas when it comes to this alleged Pakeha male serial sexual predator, there are nothing but crickets.

Even so, the worst part of this sorry dichotomy is the use by a judge in a criminal case of overtly political criteria as a factor in granting name suppression for a defendant–specifically the possible impact on a political party’s election chances if one of its senior member’s name is released before the election after being charged with sex offences. In my view political considerations simply should not be a criteria for name suppression, ever, and even more so if it involves a senior leader of a party about to contest a national election. That the ruling went unchallenged (as far as I know) and that the media did not question the rationale behind it is a disgrace. It brings the neutrality and/or judgement of that judge into question and opens the door to doubts about equal standards of justice in NZ. Even the appearance of anything other than impartiality and neutrality is a stain on NZ’s judicial good name, and this decision does not look good.

I understand that name suppression orders are designed to protect victims as well as the reputations and livelihoods of people accused of crimes (the sex charge defendant’s name was also suppressed because it was accepted by the court that he could not find a job if his name were revealed and he could therefore lose his house). But in this case the victims are now adults, at least some have come forward already, the defendant has been identified in a fraud investigation involving that voluntary organisation as well as in parliament, multiple face-blurred photos of him have been published that are no impediment to identifying him (especially the ones in which he appears more than once in a distinctive shirt at the fraud and sex charge hearings), and the elections are over and done with (his party did well in them and is now part of government). None of what I have said here or in other fora adds any new light on his identity. It is out there for those who are interested in finding out.

What I have done in this and the other posts is pose an open question about media double standards and judicial neutrality in his case. As I said elsewhere, something smells, and it is not the aroma of purloined boutique shop designer brand merchandise.

Turn to nasty.

From its first actions as government, it seems that the National-ACT-NZ First (NACT1st) coalition is basing its approach to policy-making on utu (they would prefer to say revenge), racism and repaying their donors and supporters with aggressive repeals of legislation passed under the previous Labour government. The approach is brutish, brazen and nasty, but unsurprisingly was not something that they campaigned on during the general election. It seems that they knew how unpopular their retribution would be so they just winked and nodded to their silent partners (like the tobacco and fossil fuel lobbies) while yammering about crime, housing costs, foreign home buyers and tax cuts. They successfully used a compliant clickbait-obsessed corporate media to platform them and highlight personal peccadillos in the Labour caucus in order to undermine faith in the Labou-led government while avoiding answering hard questions about their real agenda.

Now in office, they demonstrate a complete disregard for democratic procedures and processes. For all the talk from the Right about the “Stalinist” bent of the Ardern government during the pandemic, the fact is that Labour spent much (often fruitless) time in public consultations and parliamentary committee hearings hashing out the pros and cons of a number of important policy issues. The actually listened to the public and to the Opposition on important matters even if not ultimately agreeing with them. The NACT1st approach, in contrast, has been to pass under urgency, without any public consultation, repeals of major pieces of legislation like the Smokefree Act, Fair Pay Agreements, Ute Fuel Tax and Clean Energy Rebates. They seek to abolish the use of Te Reo in official communications and review the Treaty of Waitangi (how they propose to do is a matter of conjecture at this point).They cancelled major infrastructure projects already underway. They want to reduce the number of ministries, specifically those having to do with Pacifika and Maori affairs. They propose to deregulate a host of commercial activities, open Conservation lands to mining and renew oil and natural gas leases.They want to privatise parts of the public health service, permit Charter schools and military-style boot camps for adolescents, and in general adhere to long since discredited neoliberal prescriptions for economic management.

In other words, they have adopted a retrograde scorched earth approach to Labour policy measures that appears to be taken out of a book written by Argentine president and “anarcho-capitalist” Javier Milei, the self-denominated tantric sex guru who consults his cloned Mastiffs for policy advice (I am not making this up). Milei has reduced the size of his cabinet from 18 to 9 ministers and has threatened to remove 100,000 public servants from the federal payroll (Argentina is a federal republic with a presidential-dominant democratic system, unlike NZ’s parliamentary democracy). The ministries of education, labor, employment, social development and social security have been absorbed into a new uber Ministry of Human Capital, and the ministries of transportation, women and gender, environment, and culture were eliminated outright.

Milei wants to close the Central Bank and “dollarize” the economy, although his more centrist advisors convinced him to hold off on that while other measures are implemented. Instead they have devalued the Argentine peso by 54 percent overnight last week, basically halving the income of anyone who did not have significant dollar reserves in personal accounts or who is paid in US dollars (one can imagine who the lucky ones might be). The fact is that most Argentines do not get paid in dollars and do not have bank accounts holding them in any significant quantity.

To top things off, Milei, who has a penchant for hurling misogynistic insults at female critics, has publicly stated that “blue eyed” people are intellectually superior (he himself is blue-eyed in a country of brown-eyed people), and proposes to repeal abortion rights and legal protections for non-binary individuals. Truth be told, Milei is a freak both personally and ideologically, a merkin elected out of desperation by just over half of the voting population tired of the corrupt politics as usual but who ignored the fact that he is not the lesser of the many evils that they are saddled with. He is no panacea for what ails the country.

Given the tone of NACT1st statements in recent days, could this be a path that it will chose to follow? Members of its coalition have voiced support for Milei and his project, so it is not a reach to think that they might want to emulate at least some of his policy ‘reforms.” Certainly the attacks on Maori seem to come from a “blue eyed” perspective.

There is something profoundly ugly about this, yet it is an approach to governing that is celebrated by rightwing groups like the Tax Payers and Free Speech “Unions,” assorted rightwing bloggers and, now that Elon Mush has opened the lid on the septic tank, a bunch of reactionary, racist, misogynistic and gay- and trans-phobic social media trolls, to say nothing of the reactionaries on platforms like Counterspin, The Platform and Reality Check Radio. It as if NACT1st has ripped a scab off the NZ body politic and out has oozed the pustulence of rightwing authoritarian-minded intolerance, greed and bigotry.

The good news is that the combination of narcissistic egos and incompetence that is the hallmark of the new government may well be their undoing.They are simply too stupid, too myopic, too crass, craven and venal to understand the subtitles and nuances involved in crafting lasting policy for the betterment of the commonweal. Or perhaps that has never been their intention.

To put it in a vulgar way more in line with the thrust of NACT1st’s approach, if Milei is a merkin, then Luxon is the bell-end on an onanist policy-making caucus.

It will be interesting to see what the public reaction to the razor gang approach will be. In Argentina Milei has already used Executive Powers to repress public demonstrations against his edicts. But Argentine civil society is often raucous and its union movement is staunch and not averse to street violence to make its case. Most of the Argentine public service is unionised, so the move to mass redundancies is going to encounter fierce resistance. Since the security forces are working class people whose families will be negatively impacted by Milei’s cutbacks on welfare, health and education services, it remains to be seen if they will stay loyal to him and follow his orders if people hit the streets in protest. Whatever happens, the next few months will be tumultuous at best.

In NZ the political culture is not as violent as that of Argentina but it does have limits of toleration. The Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy like NZ does not have the Executive discretion available to Milei. But the NZ union movement is nowhere as staunch or as important to the productive apparatus as is its Argentine counterparts, being more of the compromise- rather than confrontation-oriented persuasion (some might call it the lapdog approach to employment relations where getting along with employers and surviving as a collective agent is more important than defending the interests of the rank and file, but I will leave it for others to decide if the characterisation fits). Whatever the case, the moment of truth has arrived for Kiwi society when it comes to responding to these assaults on hard-won social gains. Will Kiwis bend a knee in submission or stand up and fight? If they fight (even if just symbolically with acts of political theatre and perhaps episodic property damage), will the police stand against or with them? Will the NACT1st government try to resort to Emergency Powers in the face of civil unrest?

The larger issue is how NACT1st sees democracy. As readers might remember from previous posts on the subject, one can perceive democracy in two different ways. On the one hand, it can be seen as having intrinsic worth or being an intrinsic good in that it is the best possible (albeit flawed) method of giving voice to the people and substantively protecting the interests of all via a system of contingent compromises on major social, political and economic issues. It has its problems but is universally better than its alternatives when considering the heterogenous diversity of the social fabric and the need for achieving some sort of balance or equilibrium in the face of multiple competing demands in the political, social and economic marketplaces.

On the other hand democracy can be seen instrumentally, that is, as a means to an end or a tool to achieve power or partisan, sectoral or personal gain. Javier Milei has this perspective and it appears that NACT1st does as well. There is nothing intrinsically good about democracy in this view. For those who see democracy instrumentally, authoritarianism would be a better choice but it is too obvious in its bias. Instead, democracy’s worth is that it gives a veneer of representation and voice to the self-serving actions of winners of electoral contests, who then proceed to award themselves, their supporters and patrons with the spoils of governance. As Lenin put it, democracy is capitalism’s “best possible political shell.” There still may be checks and balances on the government, but those come from formal institutions like the judiciary rather than civil society itself. The latter must seek recourse in the street as well as if not more than formal channels and processes because the deck of officialdom is stacked against them when democratic instrumentalists hold the reins.

All of which is to say that the next six months should be interesting for both Argentina and NZ. Under their version of the social contract the new rightwing governments are hellbent on rolling back the clock when it comes to rights and obligations. They want to downsize the State when it comes to the provision of public goods and services, and they want to return to a social hierarchy more akin to the 1950s than the present era. Unfortunately for them, those days are long gone and both Argentine and Kiwi society cannot be remade in that nostalgic image.

In the end the fate of their regressive projects rests on whether civil society will go along with or organise against them. Because the bottom line of democratic governance is mass contingent consent to the political authorities and projects of the day, and on that score it remains to be seen if the Milei or NACT1st governments will enjoy that bottom line for any significant amount of time.

My reckon is that they will not, but that Argentines will be far less complacent than Kiwis when defending their interests.

Bully Pulpits and the Politics of Nastiness.

Teddy Roosevelt coined the phrase “bully pulpit” to describe the US presidency given the position that the country occupied in world affairs. He saw it as a tremendous platform for promoting political, diplomatic, social and economic interests and agendas. Over time the phrase has been broadened to include a wider range of positions of authority and institutional platforms from which to amplify and project views and projects on a range of public and private policy issues. This can include people and agencies involved in popular culture as well as politics and business affairs, sometimes in overlapped fashion (think Elon Musk).

In years past I discounted the weight of the US presidential bully pulpit. I saw it as being more relevant to US domestic politics than foreign policy and international affairs. As a child of Latin America I did not see its influence on my daily life nor on the behaviour of local politicians even if the US was the elephant in the room when it came to Latin American politics in general and economic and security affairs in particular. Even after moving to NZ as an adult, the bully pulpit of the US presidency was to my mind more of a historical anachronism or abstract than a reality of contemporary diplomatic relations or social exchange. For all the US talk about being a “leader of the free world,” “shining house on the hill,” “world’s greatest democracy” and all that other blather, I never got the impression that a US president could use the office to project his particular vision or brand onto the international, multicultural stage. That includes charismatic presidents like Barak Obama and Ronald Reagan (as much as I hated that guy).

To be sure, the US has interests that it projects onto the world stage, but the notion that a US president could use his office to promote a global vision beyond the usual rhetoric of freedom and democracy seemed far-fetched because if nothing else, most of those type of platitudes fell on cynical if not deaf ears. For me, the bully pulpit was just a domestic soapbox.

This notwithstanding, the US has always been a bastion of cultural as well political imperialism, exporting its culture and social mores world-wide along with its economic interests, be it from Coca Cola and KFC to rap, death metal and jazz music. The synergies of economic, political and cultural imperialism are well known so nothing else need be said here other than that I used to teach about this phenomenon, noting how local societies incorporate, adopt and adapt cultural artefacts in their own style according to their native mores and narratives, often with a dominant group versus subordinate group (often ethnic minority) twist added to the mix (e.g., people of colour in the developing world have adopted rap while European descendents have adopted pop-rock, among other things). One only need think of NZ’s hip hop scene to see the process at work.

Now, I see bully pulpit and cultural imperialism being combined in a most pernicious way as manifested in the person of Donald Trump. Trump embodies what I call the politics of nastiness, and he has used the US presidency as a bully pulpit to project his vulgar full spectrum neo-fascist bigotry world-wide. At first I thought of Trump as someone who tore the scab off of racism, xenophobia and crude low brow money-grubbing in the US. But after four years of his presidency and the sequels to it, I realise that his long moment in public life has served as an invitation to and license for others around the world to follow his approach to political and social discourse. The core of this approach is to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the basest of terms, seeking to appeal to the darkest of instincts and deepest ignorance extant in a given political community. This is the politics of nastiness, and the nasty has reached NZ.

It is well known that National has been for some time looking to US rightwing spin doctors for campaign guidance and narratives (crime! waste! taxes!), but now Winston First and ACT’s David Seymour have decided to go full US conspiracy theory (Winston: globalists! mandates!) and pseudo-libertarian racist (David: free speech! bureaucrats! Treaty separatists!). The tone of politics in NZ has gotten cruder (see: Chris Bishop, Judith Collins) and more personal (e.g. treatment of Kiri Allen). The corporate media has clearly decided to go full Murdoch in approach (with a few exceptions duly noted) by stirring partisan and racial division and polemics, focusing on personal foibles and conflicts rather than platforms/proposals and going for “gotcha” moments rather than offering dispassion analyses of the policy platforms of the respective parties.

This is Trump politics 101, and it is nasty.

NZ is not alone in this. From Bolsonaro in Brazil, to Dutarte in the Philippines, to Orban In Hungary, to Milei in Argentina to Modi in India, rightwing populists have adopted nasty politics as the core weapon in their political quiver, demonising competitors and personalising attacks on their opponents in order to get them to capitulate rather than concede and to be destroyed rather than defeated. Besides their embrace of nasty politics, what binds them together and to Trump is that they all profess to be defending “traditional” values and social structures against the supposed (and imaginary) threats posed by “progressivism,” “woke” politics and the growing presence of long suppressed (and oppressed) groups in their respective societies.

In NZ it is not only mainstream politicians who have seen the opportunity of emulating Trump. The Wellington protest riots saw a number of Trump, MAGA and Confederacy references amongst the agitators. The likes of Sue Grey, Liz Gunn, Brian Tamaki and Leighton Baker openly spout conspiracist lunacy and self-serving opportunist populist tropes. The overall effect is that the scab has truly been ripped off and the extremist infection has now spread throughout NZ’s political culture. There is a violent element in it that NZ security authorities continue to be reluctant to fully address, and it is the tail that wags the rightwing minor party dogs, if not National itself.

In summary: Trump is a cultural imperialist phenomenon that has used the US presidential bully pulpit to export his style of nasty politics world-wide. For all their talk about centrism, it is evident that the right side of NZ’s political spectrum has been heavily influenced by the Trump effect. Voters need to be cognisant of that not only when deciding who to elect, but when considering the prospects of how the potential “coalition of chaos” (ACT, National, NZ First) will approach governing once installed. Mutatis mutandis, the model for that approach could well be Trump.

Things could get nasty.

Hara Kiri.

I do not usually write about NZ domestic politics, much less the personal dramas of those involved in them. But here I will make an exception because I am unhappy about recent events.

To be clear, the downward mental health spiral that ended Kiri Allan’s political career has produced some good commentary on the pressures in NZ politics and the toll that they take on politician’s mental health and family life. It was just a few years ago that Todd Muller had to step down from the National Party Leadership due to the stresses of the job, and to the credit of most he was allowed to do so in some measure of peace and dignity. 

However, while there has been empathetic commentary about former minister Kiri Allan, the sad fact is that many in the National-Act coalition—particularly their two leaders– and a swathe of media acolytes have used the personal tragedy to attack Ms. Allan and the government that she served in what can only be seen as venal, nasty political opportunism coupled with media complicity. Like a pack of baying hyenas with a scent for blood, they have continued to hector the former minister in stand-ups and interviews, write irrelevant stories about people who lived in the area of an accident that was the last act in a prolonged process of psychological deterioration, talked with the owner of the parked vehicle that was involved in the accident (who was not present when it happened) and to cap it off, demanded and received permission from the Speaker of the House to engage in an emergency debate on Ms. Allan’s resignation and her mental “well-being” that quickly proved to be nothing more than an excuse to launch spurious attacks on the government. Shame on the Speaker for caving to the demands of the frothing Opposition mob, shame on the ACT Party Alfred E Newman look-alike who used someone’s personal tragedy for opportunistic political gain and shame on the unethical shills who pass as conservative media for cheerleading the whole thing and for continuing the ad hominem persecution well after Ms. Allan departed her portfolios.

Psychologically damaged by a dark combination of personal and professional pressures and therefore fragile in spite of her outwards appearance, Ms. Allan committed an act of political suicide last week. Like Mr. Muller, she should be allowed to find her peace.

Moreover, when one looks at the media treatment of this story and others involving Wahine Maori in politics, one cannot but suspect that there is some misogynistic racism behind the slant in the coverage to say nothing of the crude hypocrisy of not focusing balanced attention on the less than salubrious behaviours of some in the NACT coalition (who tend to be Pakeha and generally male). The “people living in glass houses throwing stones” adage would seem appropriate here, but the Opposition leadership and NZ corporate media seem keen to keep the focus on those being pelted rather than those doing the throwing.

Anyway, in the days after the news broke and seeing how it was covered and commented upon, I wrote a few Social Media posts reflecting on the affair. Here they are in annotated form.

“Voters may want to consider the responses of some Opposition politicians and Rightwing media figures to the personal tragedy of a Government Minister in order to assess their character and fitness for governing. Some might be found wanting (both as politicians and as commentators) if empathy and restraint are required.

Some have claimed that empathy caused the “mess.” Sorry, wrong. The former minister was a competent cabinet member and not an “empathy” hire (whatever that is, but presumably in reference to her Maori ethnicity). Political leadership is measured in various ways and seen on various dimensions, and empathy encompasses both.

Others claim that this is just an attempt to “deflect” from the former minister’s responsibility in causing a non-injury accident. There is no deflection. The drink driving/resisting arrest (which are more likely “failure to accompany”) charges will be handled by the courts under penalty of law. She will face justice and be held responsible for her actions. That is a personal matter, and should not be cause for politically opportunistic attacks. I should also note the the drink driving charge was on the lowest range of the scale so she will at worst receive a fine and possible disqualification from driving. Likewise, the resisting arrest/failure to accompany charge appears to be a case of lack of cooperation rather than physical resistance, so that too will unlikely result in a jail term. It is by no means a trivial matter, but in the scheme of things Ms. Allan’s alleged offending is not going to bring about Armageddon.

Still others claim that this shows Labour government incompetence because Ms. Allan was allowed to return to her job after a previous mental health breakdown. To which I responded: Please stay on topic. This is about a personal mental health problem that destroyed a political career, not about competence (which has never been disputed in this particular case). Other recent ministerial resignations are fair partisan game given the circumstances of their exit, but this one is not.”

It also must be understood that it is hard to ascertain when a person can return to work after a mental health crisis and what might trigger another one. That is at best a matter to be discussed between the person involved and their psychological counselors, not by medically unqualified political party leaders (who should reply on expert advice as well as personal assurances when making calls about reinstatement). Everything indicates that professional criteria, not political expediency, was the main determinant of Ms. Allan’s return to work.

Nearly a week after the accident, today’s news story is that police dogs were used to track Ms. Allan after the crash and she was found 500 meters away from the scene. So the dogs did their job and it is certainly not a good look to have left the scene. But what relevance does this have to politics? Why is it still a major news story? Ms. Allan was in crisis and made bad decisions on that night. The matter is now between Ms. Allan and the justice system, and the evidentiary how’s and why’s of the accident will be presented in court. So what is the point in salaciously belaboring and speculating about the circumstances? She has resigned and will not run for re-election in October, in a district where she is widely respected and admired. Politically speaking, the story has run its course so everything at this point is a partisan beat-up (and bullying).

Meanwhile, the human offal that passes for the National and ACT Party leaders continue to lie and dog-whistle using US-style politics of racial and class division as a wedge on the electorate while capitalizing on personal failures in the government ranks to score cheap political points rather than concentrate on delivering realistic and collectively beneficial policy alternatives oriented toward pursuing the common good. Truth be told, the NACTs have nothing other than the tired old “hard on crime, lower taxes, cut public spending and roll back regulations while privatizing public services” rubbish that has proven detrimental to the welfare of most people in contemporary market democracies. Vague and discredited trickle down economic policies do not work and are no substitute for creative approaches to the collective interest. Since the NACTs have nothing on that score, they just whine, lie and engage in personal attacks as per the Dirty Politics playbook.

Whatever the failures of the current government and some of its ministers, one thing appears certain at this point: having a NACT coalition in power will be a disaster for most of us even while it benefits a very distinct few and the corporate media uncritically applauds—some would say encourages–their self-serving nation-busting antics. Now is the time to open our eyes and see what choice is before us in October: the politics of cruelty, division and avarice, or the politics of moderation and continuity. If the choice turns out in favour of the latter, even as a “lesser evil” option, it offers a basis to repudiate nastiness, greed and sectarianism as well as foreign ideological influences in NZ. If the choice is for the former, it means that a majority chooses to embrace the darker side of our national psyche.

That will be a collective tragedy, not a personal one.

Setting them up to fail?

There has been some excitement about the naming of Nanaia Mahuta as Foreign Minister and Peeni Henare as Defense Minister in the new Labour cabinet. At first glance neither one appears to have much experience or background in the portfolios that they are now responsible for, but Mahuta is the first female (and Maori) Foreign Minister, complete with a moko kauae. Henare, first elected in 2014, has been Minister for Civil Defense during the last year and half. He is also Minister of Whānau Ora. They comprise part of a cabinet that is considered to be one of the most diverse in NZ history and have received global attention as a result.

Mahuta first entered parliament in 1996 on the Labour list, then was elected in 1999 to the Te Tai Hauauru seat (beating Tuku Morgan), then transferred and won the Tainui/Hauraki-Waikato in 2002. She has been re-elected ever since and made a run for the party leadership in 2014. She was Minister for Customs, Youth Development, Local Government and Associate Minister for the Environment from 2005-2008 during the 5th Labour government and prior to her appointment as Foreign Minister was Minister of Local Government and Maori Development in the 6th Labour government (the first of which she retains). While in Opposition she served as the Labour spokesperson for Maori Affairs, Education, Energy and Conservation. She is also Associate Minister of Trade and Export Growth, Environment and Housing.

After 24 years in parliament, Mahuta surely knows her away around the Beehive and the domestic policy scene. But questions remain about her and Henare’s suitability for the positions they have been given. The breakdown of the questions goes something like this:

The symbolism of diversity is a powerful thing. However, beyond its symbolic value diversity in cabinet is a laudable goal only if it is accompanied by substance. The latter is defined as competence, background or experience in the policy areas for which the appointee is responsible, or the ability to learn fast. Diversity without substance is a cynical form of tokenism because it rewards those without merit in order to engage in empty symbolism as a PR tactic. It also sets up the appointees for failure if s/he is out of depth or is unable to overcome resistance from inside and outside of the Ministries for which they are responsible. That in turn serves to reinforce negative stereotypes about the ethnic, religious, racial or other groups to which they belong.

A big problem for ministerial neophytes of any persuasion is that they run the risk of bureaucratic capture by the agencies that they ostensibly oversee. Bureaucratic capture is a phenomenon where career bureaucrats surround a Ministerial appointee with everything from puffery and flattery to stonewalling and sandbagging in order to get the new leader to absorb and accept institutional logics as his or her own. This may include the “baubles” of office: getting to play with big boys toys in the case of Defense, and jetting off to exotic lands in the case of Foreign Affairs. All courtesy of the taxpayer. The syndrome is familiar.

Another problem is bureaucratic resistance or shunning. This phenomenon is when career bureaucrats endeavour to resist policy initiatives and change instigated by the new appointee by diluting or subverting the message within the institutional maze (which the new Minister is unfamiliar with), or simply ignore directives that do not suit or run contrary to their entrenched interests until the initiatives are dropped. This is an all-to-common problem in the intelligence and security field, where cadres of so-called “old boys” work hard to prevent real effective institutional reform from happening so long as they feel that the status quo works for them. The resistance to reform is less visible in Foreign Affairs because of the arc of modern diplomacy (multi-faceted, involving a variety of actors and subjects), but it remains in some institutional niches nevertheless.

In Foreign Affairs and Defence there is the additional problem that newly appointed Ministers must immediately engage with foreign interlocutors. Many of these foreign diplomats and military officials have great experience and often a considerable degree of cynicism when addressing areas of mutual interest. They very often have different cultural backgrounds, different ideological motivations, different economic interests and different ways of conceptualising the international order (say, being realist rather than idealist or constructivist in perspective). Without the shared cultural and ideological referents common to home, Ministerial neophytes thrust onto the world as the senior faces of NZ face formidable challenges unlike those found domestically.

The questions about Mahuta and Henare are therefore driven by concerns about their experience and competence when confronting these realities, and about whether their domestic experience can immediately translate into the skillset required to effectively engage both the internal (bureaucratic) and external (foreign interaction) aspects of their jobs.

Not surprisingly, some of the responses to those asking these questions have been to accuse them of being racist. That could well be true for some people, but the knee jerk, reflexive defensiveness of these reactions simply serves to obscure the reality of tokenism and overlook incompetence in the event that it does occur.

More reasoned rebuttals focus on Mahuta’s long career in parliament and the range of portfolios she has held over the years. Although Henare has a much shorter parliamentary career, he is seen as a competent quick learner in the areas in which he has previously been given responsibility. So the reasoning goes that even if they do not have deep experience in military-security matters and foreign affairs, both Mahuta and Henare are well equipped to rapidly get up to speed on their portfolios.

Beyond that, there is the domestic political side of the appointment equation to consider. Mahuta and Henare represent important Maori constituencies that Labour seeks to retain as a support base. Henare comes from a distinguished military lineage, so the symbolism of his appointment bestows mana on his office and in the eyes of many of his troops. Mahuta, known as “The Princess” in some circles, is Maori royalty. This might prove very useful when engaging Pacific Island nobility on matters of regional and mutual concern, and her familiarity with pomp and circumstance makes her a natural for ceremonial occasions when representing the State.

Other assessments of the appointments are mixed. There is a line of thought that posits that, on the one hand, the Mahuta appointment is a way of getting a long serving, important yet underwhelming MP out of the way via a golden parachute into a glamorous job while on the other hand a young, up-and-coming Maori MP is given his first shot at playing with the Big Boys. If they do not pan out, this reasoning holds, then no harm done because others will be running the show in any event.

That dovetails with the belief that PM Ardern is going to be the de facto Foreign Minister, using the leverage of her global celebrity to advance major NZ initiatives on the world stage while Mahuta works on what a knowledgeable friend of mine calls the “mice and rats” of foreign affairs. Mahuta will also be a visible indigenous symbol of the multicultural and polyethnic nature of NZ society. So, while Ardern does the heavy lifting in things such as climate change, non-proliferation and bilateral relations with the likes of the PRC and US, Mahuta can provide the ceremonial face of NZ diplomatic representation to the global community.

For Henare the issue is simple: translate his generally well-regarded work in Civil Defense into an understanding of the logistics and operational requirements of complex service organisations such as the MoD/NZDF that operate under relatively tight budgetary constraints and with significant institutional shortcomings when it comes to personnel, material and overall force readiness, and which recently have (in the case of the NZDF) suffered some serious incidents of professional and personal misconduct within both senior and junior ranks. That notwithstanding, much of what the NZDF does under MoD policy directives IS civil defense, be it in terms of disaster relief, humanitarian interventions and emergency engineering and transport. So the experience he has gained in his previous portfolio, even if relatively short, should well suit him for his new role. More to the point, none of this will interfere with how the NZDF leadership see and approach the world around them.

The most jaded idea being advanced is that, regardless of whether they are competent or not, both of these politicians will be the subject of bureaucratic capture. Senior managers and careerists in Mfat and MoD and NZDF will in fact run these agencies largely unimpeded by their respective ministers, who will cut ribbons, shake hands and bestow honours instead. A “Yes Minister” scenario will prevail, if you will.

Not all the reaction to these appointments has been negative or questioning. Many at home and abroad are celebrating the diversity represented in the new Cabinet and the individual achievements of Mahuta, Henare and their non-Pakeha, non-straight and/or female colleagues. The era of the straight white male in politics is seen as coming to an end, with NZ leading the way.

Perhaps that is true but it is not for me to say. Along with being called a racist for having broached some of the afore-mentioned questions on social media as well as being labeled a member of the Pakeha international relations and security community (I have to plead guilty to that one), I am loathe to tread further into the minefield that is identity politics in Aotearoa. Moreover, since I focus on matters of international and comparative polities and security, I cannot offer a knowledgeable opinion about appointments made to domestic-focused portfolios or about which of the scenarios outlined above is the closest to the truth. It seems likely that there is a mix of factors and reasons involved in these appointments, both opportunistic and sincere.

All I can hope for is that both of the new ministers are not being set up to fail and that even if their learning curves are steep, that they succeed in gaining command of the important instruments of State that they have been directed to lead. Time will tell.

The misogyny of the alt-Right.

Comments about Green MP Golriz Ghahraman by ACT MP David Seymour on a reactionary radio talk show, and the threats that followed and which the Police deemed serious enough to merit a security detail for her, got me to thinking about how grotesquely disturbed the Right is in its present form. Seymour, supposedly a Libertarian, calls Ghahraman an “menace to freedom” because she wants to tighten legislation on hate speech (which, unlike protected offensive speech involves the incitement to or support for violence against others). His smear is a deliberate incitement to the alt-Right extreme and an implicit call for censorship, an irony lost on him.

The radio host that he was talking to, Sean Plunket, is a man with serious issues when it comes to women. His track record on gender matters is wretched, so Seymour’s comments gave him room to vent more generally on the subject using Ms. Ghahraman as a foil. What is disturbing is that, as readers may know, violent extremists are surrounded by enablers and accomplices, that is, those who simply look the other way when perpetrators plan and prepare for violence or those who in one form or another, passively or actively help perpetrators in the lead up to the commission of acts of violence.

In that conversation Plunket played the role of enabler while Seymour moved from enabler to accomplice because his dog whistle did in fact, provoke the alt-Right scum to crawl out from under their keyboards in order to heap vicious, often violently sexualised misogynist abuse on the Green MP. Seymour has denied being responsible for the threats made against her, which is akin to Donald Trump saying that he has nothing to do with Russia or the rise in attacks by white supremacists since he took office.

That got me to thinking about a core belief structure of the alt-Right and their white supremacist kin: misogyny. Now, I am no psychologist, psychiatrist or psychotherapist, but one thing is pretty clear: this crowd hates women.

In the case of people like Seymour, it seems that this hatred is born of unrequited lust. Ms. Ghahraman is attractive, smart, and self-assured to the point of being “stroppy” (or as a senior male professor once said to my wife when assessing her suitability for an academic career, “precocious”). But she would never be seen in the company, much less succumb to the courting, of the likes of David Seymour because he is simply a loser who has risen above his proper station in life, one who’s social interaction skills are on a par with the greesy-palmed and pimply 14 year olds that inhabit private schools and believe Ann Rand is “hot.” Boys like these like to bully girls who deep down inside they really, really like but from whom they cannot attract a sideways glance. That is why they get mean. For his part, Plunket projects the image of a guy who has been through a bad divorce or two and/or who has been turned down more than few times in spite of his relative fame and wealth. He is pissed off with women in general, and particularly the mouthy ones who disagree with him yet get to make decisions that affect us all.

We should remember that the misogynist streak pervades the alt-Right, here and elsewhere. It has led to the rise of the so-called “Incel” (involuntarily celibate) culture that has produced several murders of women by blue-balled freaks who think that all of their frustrations and disappointments in life are due to the fact that women will not recognise their genius and consent to having sex with them. Some do not even care about consent but still cannot get laid. This leads them to believe that women are the root of all evil and responsible for the decline of traditional culture, at least when”traditional” refers to a patriarchical white male hierarchy calling the shots over everyone else and enjoying the benefits of their status as Alpha males. These are the type of people to whom Seymour was whistling and for whom Plunket provides a space in which to be safe and comfortable in their views.

If one looks at the common denominators amongst the alt-Right, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists and assorted other denizens of forums like 8Chan and 4Chan (which, incidentally, as of yesterday are still viewable in NZ and which continue to have long threads about the “accelerant” characteristics of the Christchurch killer’s actions), there is more than racism, bigotry and xenophobia at play. There is also an unmistakable hatred of women and loathing of what they supposedly represent. Terms like “pussy,” “cuck” (as in cuckold), “wench,” “slut,” “bitch” etc. compete for space with homophobic slurs in the alt-Right discourse. In fact, I am surprised that Seymour and Plunket were able to control their urges to indulge in a few sexist slurs of their own with regard to the Green MP.

It is not just the alt-Right/white extremist extremes that voice such views. Perusal of the comments pages of supposedly Right-Centre blogs regularly turns up variations on misogynist themes in spite of attempts at “moderation,” and Plunket is not the only prominent media commentator who gets to indulge, even if in “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” fashion, a few jabs at females in order to make a point about weakness versus strength (which almost inevitably such opinionating comes down to).

Of course, many if not most women in positions of authority are the subject of misogynist attacks. Equivocators for Seymour like Paula Bennett (now calling for the names of the Parliamentary rapists apparently mentioned in the report on Parliament’s toxic work environment) will try to draw false equivalences by saying that they too were the subject of sexualised attacks, conveniently forgetting that people like Bennett are attacked because of their hypocrisy and nasty policy positions more so than being female per se, and are not in need of security protection an any event. Fellows like Seymour and Plunket will claim that they have (had) plenty of female friends and partners so they cannot possibly be misogynists. This omits one basic thing: the attacks on Ms. Ghahraman are based on who/what she is more so than anything that she does, so regardless of the marital status or physiology of the critic, such attacks are gendered at their core. Even Judith Collins knows that much.

The real issue is that deep inside the abuse of Ms. Ghahraman lies male insecurity–that of sexual rejection and a loss of masculinity. People like Seymour hate women like Ghahraman because they cannot have her and never will, which they fear is a public sign of weakness on their part. This frustrates them immensely, and because they have neither the intellect, looks or social skills to attract such women, that frustration has no place to go other than onanistic rage. Beneath the smirks and the boy’s banter is a deep abiding fear of not measuring up.

That, more than any ideological difference, is what is at play here. So the next time that you hear or read attacks on Ms. Ghahraman and women like her, take a moment to reflect on why, exactly, critics take issue with them.

Political Market Clearing.

As I watched the results come in on US midterm election night, it struck me that the tally was a microcosmic distillation of what democracy is in terms of preferred outcomes: no one gets everything that they want, but everyone gets something of what they want. With the Democrats regaining the lower House in Congress and the GOP increasing its Senate majority, and governorships distributed more evenly with a few Democratic wins, it struck me that this was the “mutual second best” that democratic theorists argue is the core of the democratic bargain.

Over the ensuing days it became clear that the Democratic wins were larger than anticipated on election night and that even if the GOP holds on to disputed seats in places like Florida (where I voted in infamous Palm Beach County), the erosion of Republican electoral support was significant. Conventional wisdom has it that Trump was a decisive factor in both victory and defeat for the GOP, as he galvanised his Red state base but alienated the suburban female demographic nation-wide. Women candidates, including women of colour and non-Christian cultural backgrounds, were the major winners in the congressional contests, although most of that came on the Democratic side (but even Republican women did well in places). What the results mean in practice, beyond all of the talk about investigations and impeachment (which are real possibilities now that the House is under Democratic control), is that Trump’s legislative agenda has had the brakes put on it. Unless he moderates his behaviour and reaches across the partisan aisle to secure bipartisan support for landmark legislation on health care, immigration reform, infrastructure spending, etc., then nothing will get done. And if the Democrats try to unilaterally push through their own pet projects, they may find resistance in the Senate and a veto waiting in the Oval Office.

Given that many in the GOP blame Trump for their losses and most of the new Democratic legislators are ideologically to the Left of their House and Senate leaders, the president and leaders of his congressional opposition have reason to seek each other out in an accord. That could cement their legacies and ward off insurrection within their party ranks in the build up to the 2020 elections.

Of course, Trump can just continue to behave like the unhinged bullying a-hole that he is, the GOP can continue to fracture along pro- and anti-Trump lines while Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer stifle calls for change from the Left of their party. That will lead to government dysfunction and potential gridlock, which opens the door to unforeseen and unexpected developments on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And then there is the Mueller investigation…

All of that aside, what interests me the most at this juncture is the notion that the 2018 midterms represent a type of political market clearing in the US. As with the notion of “mutual second best” the term “political market clearing” is a conceptual transfer from economics. It refers to the moment when after a period of stress and tension in the political system there is a breakthrough that leads to the re-establishment of the system along new equilibrium points. This can entail a clearing out of old structures and individuals and their replacement with newer political agents and/or can come via a re-balancing of the political party system at the federal, state and local levels. The idea is that a watershed moment leads to a catharsis  of the political system, which then seeks a new equilibrium of power relations that is more efficient than the previous aggregation.

This is not just another way of saying political “pendulum swing.” Pendulum swings are metronomic, which makes them regular and predictable. There is nothing regular or predictable about a political market clearing, as it is born of the crisis of the previous system and may undergo several iterations before settling into a newly equilibrated status quo.

In the political market policy ideas and initiatives are the stock in trade. Some rise as others fall. For example, a decade or so ago the idea of universal single user pays health care with no exclusions for pre-existing conditions was considered ridiculous and politically impossible to achieve in the US. Today, it is at the centre of the health care debates, with the non-exclusion of pre-existing conditions being a successful Democratic talking point in the midterms. Likewise, for years the notion of limiting the type of firearms made available for public purchase was considered as ludicrous as was the notion that the National Rifle Association could be confronted directly in any election. Now both of those notions are being actively disputed, including by a few Purple state Republicans. Even the intractable issue of campaign finance reform has, thanks to Bernie Sanders and his influence on the incoming class of congressional Democrats, now been pushed onto the policy trading floor.

If policy platforms are the stocks traded in the political market, then votes are its currency.  With the shift to Democratic governors in several important states two years before the national census and subsequent congressional re-districting process (which are controlled by State governments), gerrymandered  districts that favor Republicans by atomizing non-White voting populations will cease to exist and will be replaced by those that more accurately reflect the demographic and socio-economic shifts of the last decades. That will translate into continued and perhaps more elected Democrats in state and federal legislatures and/or a move to moderation among Republicans at both levels. Voting occurs in committees as well as in upper and lower chambers as a whole, and with the shift in power last week the relative value of selected policy stocks have undergone reappraisal. This will inform any approach to bipartisan consensus on federal legislation so, for example, the sell-off of plummeting stock in the border wall policy proposal will be balanced by increased buying of the rising stocks of comprehensive immigration and health care reform.

It seems to me that the US midterms mark the deepening of a political market clearing. Although the Obama administration will be treated kindly by history, it represented the end of a political generation marked by a quarter century of increasingly polarised and partisan politics reproduced and magnified by media outlets masquerading opinion and advocacy as journalism. It culminated the end of a bipartisan consensus and its replacement with a fiercely disloyal Republican opposition in Congress that stymied any administration initiatives simply because it could. And it was under those conditions that the Trump candidacy emerged and won the presidency with its calls to drain the swamp and make America great again. Although Trump’s rhetoric is more demagogic rather than informed by the realities of the day, it marked the beginning of the US political market undergoing value reappraisal.

The midterms have shown the direction of the reappraisal and the emerging equilibrium points around which policy efficiencies will cluster. Yet the process is ongoing. The political market clearing will not fully re-equilibrate until after the 2020 elections (if then), even as the foundations for new policy efficiencies have been and will continue to be laid.

If I am correct, then we will be able to look back at the Trump era as the last gasp of a political system drowning in its lack of popular representation and elitist excess. Think about it: the racism, misogyny, xenophobia and general celebration of bigoted ignorance unleashed by the Trump effect on US politics–Trump being both a symptom and aggravator of already latent trends–is the inevitably futile last stand of a cultural, racial and socio-economic demographic in inexorable decline. The venality of its political defenders is proof of that, and  the ideological vitality of its supplanters is evidence of the sea change coming ahead. Political clinging to a mythical past that never was will continue for a while more but the trend is clear and that is where the political market re-equilibration gains strength. It is not a matter of if but when the new policy efficiencies are  balanced and a new stable political equilibrium is established.

The questions for the next few months are whether Trump has the ability to build a bridge to the congressional Democrats after demonizing them as a means of whipping his retrograde base, and whether the Democratic congressional leadership will take the bait of bipartisanship on the terms that he may offer. If this happens then the political market clearing will be stymied (which is beneficial mostly to the current political status quo). On the other hand, if the congressional Democrats impose on Trump and the congressional GOP a new legislative agenda that recognises the changing electoral demographic that brought them victory last week, then the process of policy re-equilibration in a political market clearing could well begin to take hold.

One can only hope.