A NZ Identity Crisis?

Some time ago a veteran journalist interviewed me about “foundational myths” and why the US and NZ were different in that regard (by “veteran” I mean a journalist who does research on stories and has some background in the fields pertinent to them, which are then used to write in-depth reports). Although I am not an expert on foundational myths, he had seen something that I had written back then and, having just returned from a trip to the US, his interest in the subject was piqued so he decided to give me a call. We did a compare/contrast exercise that he wrote up for a conservative news outlet.

I was reminded of that exercise by recent events involving ACT Party challenges to the Treaty and the Waitangi Tribunal settlement process. It occurred to me that not only does the Treaty (te Tiriti) serve as a foundational charter for NZ, it is also from whence NZ’s foundational myth comes from. This is not a criticism, just a personal observation, and there clearly is much more to a foundational myth than a grounding in a political contract between indigenous peoples and colonialists. I believe that foundational myths, especially those that are subject to different interpretations, are important for national unification and self-identity because the very differences in “reads” offer a broader canvas upon which to paint a picture of a nation’s collective identity. These myths do not have to be completely true or factually based–after all, they are myths–but are justified and considered worthwhile because they serve the larger purpose of speaking to a polity’s common aspirations, collective history and shared ideals.

As a child I was socialised in contexts that included the foundational myths of Argentina and the US. Both were originally crafted by dominant groups that among other things justified the status quo that they benefitted from, and to which over time other groups were assimilated in whole or in part (if at all). Both myths were symbolised in national anthems replete with words of heroism and sacrifice. Both glorified the constitutions to which pledges of allegiance were sworn (yes, even as kids!). Both myths were perpetrated by dominant groups whose positions of power were born out of conquest. The myths became a type of indelible water mark on my psyche even though, as I grew older, I came to see them for what they were: ideological devices designed to promote a unification narrative rather than objectively present actual historical events (for example, in both Argentina and the US. the “conquest of the West” is celebrated as part of their respective foundational myths even though the treatment of indigenous peoples in both was often barbaric and therefore whitewashed in most instances until very recently).

New Zealand has a different historical trajectory because the Treaty is a different type of foundational charter that is closer to a pure social contract between very distinct groups rather than a compact between relatively homogenous elites. Hence the Treaty creates the basis for a different type of foundational myth, one that is arguably closer to the historical truth than those of Argentina and the US. For one thing, it is not born of conquest. Consequently it is different in that it is not one coherent story imposed by dominant group interpretation, but instead includes several (often competing or opposing) takes on a common starting point (including events leading up to it) and its subsequent legacy. Over time the myth behind the Treaty has slowly seeped into the popular as well as the political collective conscience, creating a cultural amalgam that is considered the essence of what it is to be “kiwi,” be it Pakeha or Maori, Pacifika or Asian in genealogy. This has happened over generations of ethnic engagement and intermixing and is a process that is far from complete. Of course people retain their ancestral identities, some more so than others, but the inexorable march of time forges an intergenerational progression towards a common yet flexible identity in which the foundational myth embodied in the Treaty is seen as the “grand unifier” of a heterogenous assortment of distinct ethnographic groups who share a specifically common Antipodian history. The myth is malleable and subject to interpretation by various parties, but its core unifying properties are very much like those of other countries.

It is that unity that David Seymour’s racist attacks on the Treaty are aimed at. Foreign influenced and funded by well-monied rightwing outlets with international reach, Seymour’s is a type of white supremacist revanchism designed to roll back social gains made by traditionally subordinate groups under the guise of promoting “individualism” and freedom of choice. But what it really is, is an attempt to reassert white capitalist cultural, economic, political and social supremacy on everyone else, and to do that it must destroy NZ’s foundational myth by attacking and dismantling the Treaty using the argument that rather than a cooptation device designed to secure intergenerational social peace, it has created a race-based hierarchy in which Maori are granted privileges unavailable to everyone else. It is an odious project at its core, odious because it is hateful in intent and therefore hate-worthy as an approach to social issues.

Seymour is aided in his project by political opportunists in National and NZ First who cater to what used to be the fringes of NZ society–anti-vaccination groups, conspiracy theorists and, most central of all, racists. He is abetted by a clickbait-focused media that, unlike the veteran that interviewed me, ignores or chooses not to explore the deeper background behind the ACT Party manoeuvres, including its funding and logistical ties to various rightwing astroturf organisations. Between them, what should be a subject of alarm–a frontal assault on the foundational charter and the myths that have been ideologically constructed upon it–have become mainstreamed as merely critical reappraisals of rights and responsibilities emanating from the Treaty and the tribunal settlement process.

That is disingenuous in the extreme. The Waitangi Tribunal settlement process is of itself a critical appraisal of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty as well as the modes of redress for past injustices committed. And as mentioned, it is a cooptation mechanism designed to secure and reproduce social peace along lines promoted by the NZ foundational myth.

In his repugnant actions, Seymour and his acolytes are not only attacking the foundational charter and the foundational myth that is its ideological superstructure. They are questioning what it is to be a New Zealander. For them, the preferred Kiwi identity is white capitalist supremacist, rugby-playing and agrarian in its foundations (this, despite taking money from non-European business interests). Others may opt for social democratic indigenous reassertion and still others may prefer the cultural amalgam that I mentioned earlier. As it turns out, this questioning of Kiwi identity may be a good thing because, if a referendum is held and the proposal to review the Treaty is resoundingly rejected, it could serve to marginalise the likes of Seymour and his band of racist pimply-faced incels (even if they have some political cover via ACT’s party vote and its female representatives, and are provided platforms and money by influential patrons). ACT’s heart is dark, and that darkness needs to be exposed.

So perhaps there is some good in undergoing the exercise of questioning what constitutes a “NZ identity” or what it means to be a “kiwi.” On the other hand, if the assault on te Tiriti continues it could fracture the consensus on NZ’s foundational charter and its surrounding foundational myth and thereby open the door to a crisis of identity when it comes to defining what it means to be a child of the land of the long white cloud.

That would not be good, and yet that is what is exactly what Seymour and company are pushing for. Or as Hillary Clinton said when referring to the MAGA Morons, he and his crew are truly deplorable.

The New Zealand Junta.

Some readers will remember that I spent 25 years in academia researching, writing and teaching about authoritarianism, among other things, and that I was a foreign policy practitioner in/for the US government for a decade, a fair bit of which was dealing with authoritarian regimes and working to promote liberalisation within and eventual democratization from them. Readers also will recall that I have written here about “constitutional coups,” which unlike military coups do not involve the threat of or acts of violence to remove a sitting government. Instead, legal mechanisms and institutional procedures are used to achieve the same end–the removal of a duly elected government, from office most often but not always before its constitutionally-defined term is completed.

It may seem like a stretch, but New Zealand has had a constitutional coup of sorts. In October an election was held in which the major rightwing party (National) did not reveal its true policy intentions, preferring to instead focus on the usual canards of lower taxes, high crimes rates and too many regulations and bureaucratic red tape on property owners. They were assisted by a compliant corporate media interested in generating clickbait material rather than dealing deeper into party policy platforms, and who supported the “change for change sake” attitude of the NZ public by focusing on personal scandals within the (then) Labour-led government ranks. It mattered little that, in public at least, the major rightwing party had virtually nothing to offer. What mattered was that it win, be it in coalition or outright. As it turns out, it needed coalition partners in order to do so.

The more extreme rightwing parties, ACT and NZ First, were a bit more honest in their campaigns about their reactionary intent, but the corporate media chose to ignore the extent of their connections to extremist groups and foreign donors/patrons such as anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists and Atlas Institute seed-funded astroturf groups such as the overlapping Free Speech Coalition/Taxpayer’s Union that contributed to their campaigns. Nor did the political press seriously look into the worrisome backgrounds of candidates in these parties, instead preferring to focus on the leaders and their immediate subordinates.

What that made for was the instrumental use of the October election by the NZ rightwing in order to gain enough votes to cobble together an authoritarian-minded government coalition that would impose regressive policy prescriptions without full public scrutiny or consultation. It did not matter that the two extremist parties received less than 15 percent of the popular vote, or that National received just 38 percent. What mattered was the win, which was the instrument by which the coalition could impose its political will on the +45 percent that did not vote for them.

Sure enough, the new government has gone about imposing policy reforms that basically amount to dismantling much of the social legislation enacted over the last decade, including that of previous right-leaning governments. Smokefree legislation, diesel and petrol taxes, EV purchase rebates, commitment to rail and cycleway building projects (some already underway), rationalisation of water provision services via three-tier regional management–these and many more forward-thinking policies were repealed, and more backtracks (such as eliminating excise taxes on cigarettes) are on the way. It also proposes to implement wholesale redundancies in the public sector, especially in agencies that are focused on Pacifika and other minority group service provision. More existentially in terms of New Zealand/Aotearoa’s self-identity as a nation, the elected authoritarians are proposing to review and repeal sections of NZ’s foundational charter, the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti, because they supposedly give “too many” rights to Maori, thereby effectively disenfranchising the non-Maori (mostly Pakeha) majority (or so they say).

However, as political scientist Kate Nicholls pointed out to me, the assault on Te Tiriti has the potential to be an own goal of epic scale. The Waitangi Tribunal was instituted to peacefully settle disputes emerging from different interpretations of the Treaty’s clauses. it was created in 1975 in the wake of numerous protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s stemming from disputes about interpretation of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty, especially about land ownership and access rights, some of which, to quote the Waiting Tribunal History page, took place “outside the law.”

That is the crux of the matter. The Tribunal calls itself a “standing commission of inquiry” but in fact is a means to peacefully settle disputes about the Treaty that could otherwise turn violent or be subject to direct action by aggrieved and often competing interests. Seen less charitably, the Tribunal is way to buy off or divide-and-conquer Maori, or at least Maori elites, so as to give them a slice of the NZ economic resource pie, stop extra-judicial protests (since the Tribunal is in effect a court with legally-binding authority) and thereby achieve social peace. In other words, the Tribunal is a co-optive device, not an instrument of revolution, reform or comprehensive redress. It is designed to preserve a (Pakeha dominated ) social status quo, not undermine it.

The direct attack on Te Tiriti, be it by putting a review of the Treaty to a referendum or by some other means (say, by legal challenges to Tribunal authority and decisions), has already occasioned Maori-led backlash, something that promises to intensify the more the elected authoritarians push their racially-motivated project. That could well mean that rather than the peaceful and legally binding settlement process overseen by the Tribunal, we could see things settled in the streets via direct action. Given how fundamental the Treaty is to NZ self-identity, at that point it is an open question whether the repressive apparatuses of the State–the police, the courts, the intelligence services, even the military–will side with the elected authoritarians. Stay tuned.

Another thing about the new government is its utter disdain for the public. Polls only mattered in the election campaign but now are ignored. Fighting crime was a priority before the election, then it was not. It did not reveal its full coalition agenda during the campaign and did not consult with other parties or the public in the implementation of its first 100 day plan of action. Instead, the coalition has rewarded its donors and supporters in (among others) the fossil fuel and tobacco industries even though their repeal policies are unpopular and in some instances detrimental to public health, environmental and other social outcomes. This is truly a government for and by the few, even if it was able to claim an electoral victory as its legitimating mantle.

For this reason I prefer not to call them something silly like the “coalition of chaos.” They are that, to be sure, because to put it kindly the talent pool in the coalition parties runs very thin while the egos of their leaders and lieutenants run very deep. This could eventually lead to their collapse and downfall, but for the moment what strikes me is their despotic dispositions. In other words, it is their way or the highway, minus the resort to repression that we see in military dictatorships.

For this reason I choose to refer to the National-ACT-NZ First triumvirate as New Zealand’s junta. In the broadest and original sense, junta refers to a military or political group ruling the country after it has been taken over. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a council or committee for political or governmental purposes.” What is important is that it does not always have to have a military component and it does not always involve a violent accession to power and usurpation of previous authority. A junta, as it turns out, can be installed constitutionally, peacefully and via normal political institutions and procedures.

It is the way how these mechanisms of political succession are manipulated that determines whether a constitutional coup has occurred. If that indeed has been the case, and I believe that in NZ it has, then the recently installed coalition government is in fact a junta. This NZ junta is comprised of the three authoritarian party leaders followed by their fawning acolytes and lesser supplicants, cheered on by rightwing media and corporate and ideological interest groups as well as revanchist voters reacting to what they see as challenges to their privileges by an assortment of “woke” and uppity usurpers. But at its core, the junta represents a coordinating committee of elite capitalist and ethnographic chauvanist (f not supremacist) interests, not the public at large.

To reprise: given the circumstances surrounding it, the October election in NZ was a type of “soft” or constitutional coup in which an authoritarian coalition gained a majority of votes without revealing its full policy agenda. It is now implementing that policy agenda by rewarding its allies and ignoring the public good. That approach–working solely for the benefit of allied groups while claiming that it is doing so in the public interest–is precisely how juntas govern.

Perhaps we should start addressing Mr. Luxon. Mr. Peters and Mr. Seymour each as “mi Comandante” or “mi Jefe” because 1) those Spanish phrases for “my Commander” or “my Boss” seem more suited to their personalities and politics than the term “Honourable;” and 2) they nicely fit with their junta-style approach to governing. In any event, the proper approach when greeting the junta members is to bend at the waist and make sure that one’s nose is pointed squarely at their footwear. Also, following established authoritarian protocol, Luxon can be called the Comandante Supremo or Jefe Supremo because he is supposedly the first amongst equals in the NZ junta, but that will likely increase the intrigue, scheming, plotting and knife sharpening within the coup coalition. If so, things could get pretty chaotic, indeed.

From somewhere in Hades, Pinochet and countless other authoritarians must be having a good chuckle at NZ’s expense.

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.

The beginning of the end of an error

There were no winners in Kim Hill’s interview with Don Brash this morning. Not Kim, and not Don, not Guyon Espiner’s unflinching use of te reo on Morning Report, and certainly not the people of Aotearoa. Pākehā liberals wanted the bloodsport spectacle of their champion vanquishing the doddering spectre of our reactionary past, and Pākehā right-wingers craved the sweet outrage of Hill’s rudeness and dismissive scorn towards people like them. Māori people mostly were just dismayed at Brash getting a platform to debate the value of their existence, again. Everyone except for Māori got what they wanted, but nobody got anything more.

In a way, this morning was a last gasp of credence for the notion that debate is possible with people who are oblivious to evidence. Kim got in her zingers, ably skewering Brash’s incoherence and inconsistency, but there’s nothing new there. All the evidence was as incidental as it was anecdotal. We were treated to discourses on the population density of Māori in proximity to kindergartens, based on nothing at all. Concerns about the use of te reo on RNZ cannibalising the audience of Māori language radio and TV stations, without any reference to what those flaxroots practitioners of te reo want. And discourses about actual cannibalism and the stone-age pre-settlement society, where listeners were asked to accept the claim that the deliverance of the Māori from their horrid existence was worth any price, up to and including their cultural erasure. Nobody who has given even modest consideration to these topics could have learned anything or changed their views this morning.

The discussion mocked the very rationality it sought to demonstrate, because it was all about feelings: Brash’s feelings of alienation from his country and his time, and Hill’s need to defend her employer and her worldview. Centred around Pākehā feelings, with no regard given to what Māori felt, or for their agency, it was merely the latest in two hundred years of discussions about Māori, without Māori.

It was a question of evidence that brought the interview to an end, though. Brash finally went one small step too far, with the claim that the Māori are not the indigenous people of Aotearoa, but merely its second-most-recent invaders. This notion has been debunked for almost a hundred years, since Skinner’s work on the Moriori in the 1920s, and there was enough scholarship done on it through the 20th Century that reliance on these claims in the 21st is a straightforward flag that whatever is going on here, it’s not an evidence-based discussion. There was nowhere left for Kim Hill to go. Nobody can debunk arguments advanced with such disregard for reality.

So she shut it down. But better than shutting it down would have been not entertaining it in the first place — which is, by and large, what Māori seem to have wanted. The error of this interview was not merely giving Brash a platform, but its objectification of Māori, the idea that their right to existence on their own terms was a matter for debate. It was an exercise in discursive theatre, a ritual sacrifice performed to appease the savage gods of fair-minded middlebrow liberalism, in the hope that rational discourse will deliver us into salvation. The sacrificers — yes, Kim Hill was one of them — were Pākehā, and inevitably, the sacrificees were Māori.

I was in the crowd for this sacrifice. Loath as I am to continue focusing on Pākehā feelings, I have to say: my only remaining feeling is the horror of being responsible for all this. Not only for today’s sacrifice, but the small sliver of the past that is my contribution to what got us here. We Pākehā need to take care of our own embarrassments, it should not fall to Māori to do that. So we need to stop treating the right to Māori existence on their own terms as conditional on our goodwill, and start treating it as a fact of life. Which, in the letter and spirit of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, is what it is. It’s not hard to do. When people want to debate the legitimacy of te reo Māori in public, here’s a simple response: “Like the right of Māori people’s physical existence, the right of Māori people to cultural existence is not a matter for debate.” We have, in polite society at least, stopped talking about “maoris”. We have stopped mocking haka, waiata, and karakia, and even people like Brash have stopped mocking te reo, making honest attempts at decent pronunciation and using what kupu they know in ordinary speech. We can stop treating the existence of Māori as debatable, too, and it’s about time we did.

L

Careful with that eugene, ACT

Beth Houlbrooke

Eugenics

ACT’s brand new deputy leader, Beth Houlbrooke, is into eugenics.

That’s what’s behind her emergence from the dusty old crypt of “if you can’t afford children, don’t breed” this week. I called it eugenics because when you use welfare to restrict fertility you’re targeting people who are overrepresented among welfare recipients, which in Aotearoa means you’re targeting Māori and Pasifika people. I was not alone.

And what happens when these benefit cuts produce increased rates of hunger, homelessness, sickness, neglect, and abuse among those families? Well, the government’s brand-new Ministry for Vulnerable Children will take them away from their parents. Welcome to your first glimpse of Aotearoa’s next stolen generation, just days after the government refused to consider redress for the last generation of children abused in state care.

Does this all seem a bit of a stretch? Well, we know what government-mandated child welfare agencies do when they decide parents are not doing well enough: they “manage” those parents. This is explicit in the ACT policy:

ACT WILL:

  • Push for a life-time limit of five years for support under the Sole Parent Support programme, and a life-time limit of three years for support under the Jobseekers Benefit, with “income management” being applied to beneficiaries when those limits are reached.
  • Extend income management to any parent who has additional children while on a benefit.

We know what happens when governments micromanage welfare: people find it a bit harder to buy smokes and booze, sure, but they also are forced to shop at a limited range of expensive outlets, they can’t buy cheap healthy produce at markets, they can’t barter or pay cash, and they are incentivised to game the system rather than working within it. The ACT Party hates perverse incentives, but not this one. And in Australia, it costs a fortune to administer. It would literally be cheaper to give each NT recipient an extra $100 per week than to give them a Basics Card. And we know what the ultimate government sanction is for “bad” parents: the removal of children from their custody. Draw your own conclusions.

As to eugenics. ACT leader David Seymour’s press secretary helpfully confirmed this aspect when he compared the ACT policy to abortion, which has the distinction of being the leading eugenic technique currently in use worldwide (largely for sex-selection). I gave him several opportunities to walk it back but he bravely refused them.

Read the whole thread, and draw your own conclusions. (And yes. Louis Houlbrooke appears to be Beth’s son. Rumination on the political wisdom of appointing the leader’s press sec’s mum as deputy leader are left as an exercise for the reader.)

This is not just ACT’s bag. That nice man John Key — himself raised on welfare — spoke in 2002 of women “breeding for a business” under Labour’s DPB rules. Current PM Bill English, while he would surely disavow the abortion analogy, was happy to compare welfare recipients to drug addicts. This kind of thinking goes all the way to the top.

Class eugenics

My response to the policy was the sort of fury that educated white dudes don’t usually get in welfare discussions: that’s me they’re talking about! After my father died my mother brought three young kids up on the benefit, and we will never forget that. Attacks on welfare, and especially on welfare mothers, are attacks on us. I had a wee rant about it that you can read if you can stand the swearing.

Dozens of others on twitter did likewise. Some are a bit famous. One is a Member of Parliament. A list put together by The Spinoff of notable children of welfare recipients includes millionaires, war heroes, All Black legends, and no fewer than three Prime Ministers. I was amazed by how many people had grown up on welfare and yet, somehow, had managed to become productive, decent human beings. I shouldn’t be, but there you go: that’s how deep anti-welfare stigma goes. Few of us in Aotearoa are many generations from being dirt poor, and it would pay us to remember that and not be ashamed of it.

The fact that so many people not only benefited from welfare, but understand its continuing importance in the age of busted unions, stagnant wage growth, casualisation, and the “gig economy” represents a threat to parties like ACT and National. The social purpose of the welfare is to support people out of poverty and into work and prosperity. It is a system that creates and nourishes the working class, and prevents the worst excesses of capitalism from destroying workers. And it works.

So of course the right-wing want rid of it. They can’t erase welfare kids from my generation, but in terms of long-term strategy, preventing today’s generation of poor people from having kids like us probably seems a pretty sound way to destroy class consciousness.

The way this breaks down illustrates how class politics is not distinct from but a necessary adjunct to identity politics in leftwing praxis. On paper I am pretty middle class, but this is temporary. Few of us welfare kids ever forget how little it takes to fall into economic uncertainty, so culturally, I will always be working class. Purists might bridle at this as just another identity, and some will continue to deride me as a bourgeois liberal managerialist, but I know where I came from.

This is how identity politics intersects with class politics. The same factors which make ACT’s intended victims — young, poor, brown women — vulnerable to this policy means they also stand to benefit most from Labour’s Families Package and Best Start policies, which provoked Houlbrooke’s statement in the first place. So bringing class and identity politics together, even if it was inadvertent, is good: it is brave policy, directly targeting people who already suffer from a lack of equitable access to the political and economic system. And those of us who remember what it was like to be brought up on the benefit, who now enjoy the privileges of a middle-class life and access to the political system, can show solidarity. We must show solidarity. Doing otherwise would be a betrayal of our ancestors.

The lack of a robust response to ACT’s latest attack on poor people from Labour is disappointing. It has largely been left to people on social media to fight the fight, and to my knowledge nobody in the party has used the e word. This is perhaps understandable in light of the party’s own history of man-on-the-roof welfare-bashing, and, you know, I grew up on that benefit under Rogernomics. They’re not blameless on this stuff. But let’s not be churlish. While Labour in 2017 might not be ideal, at least they’re not trying to breed poor people out of existence.

Darkness at heart.

Lets consider a hypothetical scenario.

A group of women appear to be well on their way to intoxication at a polite venue on an island known to cater to the affluent. They are not caucasian. A well-heeled older white male patron observes them and decides, perhaps after a few tipples of his own, to take it upon himself to caution them about the perils of drinking and driving in an area that has a heavy police presence over the holidays. He assumes that they are not locals.

His unsolicited advice is not welcome and he is told by one of the women, a 23 year old, that as local born and indigenous to boot, she “can do what she pleases” (according to his account).

His response, according to her, is to say that she needs to acknowledge that it “is also a white people’s island.” He says that it was just joking banter.

My questions at this point are this: even if she was being drunk and dismissive, of all the things he could have said, why that particular line? Could he not have replied in a myriad other ways, such as by telling her that her behaviour was drawing unwanted attention? Was he trying to say that the rule of law applies to everyone regardless of origin, but that the law is made by white folk? Even more to the point, why did he feel the need to go over and caution them? Is he in the habit of approaching strange women in public venues and giving them the benefit of his unsolicited advice? If so, why?

In any event, in the real world the young woman hits social media with her displeasure and the incident becomes a media frenzy. Various celebrities weigh in to defend the old guy, leaning on his good deeds for sport and various charitable contributions. Others are not so charitable.

The scenario gets stickier because he uses as a PR spokesperson a well-known reactionary woman who, in response to the furore over this remarks, at first says that the 23 year old is too fair skinned to have been the subject of racism and then says that she has never heard of the term “casual racism” until today.

The Race Relations Commissioner, herself of disputed background when it comes to issues of racial awareness, at first says that the old white gent is not a racist but then backtracks and introduces the term casual racism that the PR spokeswoman had previously never heard of. The term is certainly not new but it seems that the PR woman travels in insulated circles.

The questions that arise at this point are: seriously, the old white guy uses an even more clueless old white woman with a rightwing track record to defend him against charges of “casual” racism? And she then decides to use the 23 year old’s skin tone as a defense against the charge of racism (because the young woman is light skinned)? And in 2017 she claims to not know what “casual” racism is (perhaps because she casually is one)?

As for the Race Relations Commissioner–was she conflating her personal and official views when she made either or both of her statements?

Anyway, like I said, this is just a hypothetical scenario about race, gender and generational difference referencing current events in a post-truth age.

in a weird way, it reminds me of another (not so) old guy getting into some strife because of his penchant for serial hair-pulling of (sometimes very) young women in public venues or at events. He too claimed that his actions were just playful, joking physical banter that was misconstrued by one recipient of his attentions (and to be fair, none of his other instances of hair pulling were even noted, much less protested until a waitress complained). According to his many defenders, he was not a sexist or a fetishistic creep.

I guess offence is taken in the eye of the beholder, but in both cases the offence was taken after an older white male in a position of power decided to unilaterally approach and engage younger women in ways that were unwanted. In each case the older male felt entitled, or privileged, to initiate contact with a younger woman without first ascertaining whether that contact was welcome, and continued the contact after it became apparent that it was not. That others defended their actions as, at worst “misunderstandings,” speaks to a number of things.

What could they be and why, in 2017, should they be?

When the PM is away the mice will play: Catch of the Day Edition

It might be the pain medication talking, as I have spent the last few days off work with tooth “issues” (googling “home dentistry” and popping pain medication like candy), but it seems like our current round of infighting in parliament occurred only because the PM was out of the country.

Like the plot of a bad teenage movie, the parents are going to be out of town and the kids have some high-jinks planned while they are away.

One can imagine John Key giving his parliamentary spawn one of those “looks” that parents give to their kids before he hopped on his plane and jetted out of NZ.

But as the plane departs into the sky one can also imagine the kids slowly turning to each other before breaking into wild grins and running around, like dogs off their leashes, free to get into whatever mischief their little heart’s desire.

Of course parents often leave one child in charge, bearing the responsibility of making sure the house does not burn down, no one kills anyone else and to prevent the squabbling that occurs when enough childlike egos congregate in one place, without any parental oversight, to achieve critical mass which descends into the inevitable ruckus where parents are then forced to wade into.

But, like the plots of the afore mentioned movies, the ability of the one responsible voice to keep calm in a sea of chaos, is but a momentary note before dark clouds gather and the whole tea party goes over the cliff.

So what are we to make of the current flap between Winston Peters, the Maori Party and National; the Kermandec issue and the MPI scandal?

First and foremost it’s very clear that Winston has taken the opportunity to flex his political muscles and remind the government who will be calling the shots in 2017 if National does not make a clean sweep of the polls. It might not have been deliberately timed to coincide with Key being away but it sure looks like it.

And while the government and the Maori Party have good reason to be miffed they have played into Winstons hands by publicly firing back at him. Winston gets to bank some more credibility with the NZ First faithful by sticking it to the Nats and “those bloody Maori” while giving all and sundry a taste of what will happen if Winston is kingmaker in next year.

Meanwhile Bill English, hereby designated as “the responsible one”, rapidly shoved Nick Smith aside as what seemed like a done deal on the Kermadec  Marine Sanctuary turned to custard and Smith proved about as useful as a chocolate fireguard on the negotiating front over fishing rights for Iwi.

Now again it might be the meds twisting my perception but my reading of the Governments logic behind the situation was this: “Maori and the Maori Party wont deal with us on the fishing rights issue and don’t agree with it so we won’t bother consulting them and just keep on trying to run this through”.

If this is the case can someone please explain what exactly were they thinking? Were they just simply unaware of this being a potential minefield of an issue or were they expecting Maori to just simply go along with this and say nothing.

In many ways it was a delicate issue from the get go with definite winners and losers no matter how it was played out and in effect, as others have pointed out, may be foreshore and seabed of this government.

Add to this Andrew Little suddenly deciding to pull Labour support for the sanctuary, and in the process giving Chris Finlayson and backhanded compliment by calling him a talented Treaty Negotiations Minister when queried about what Labour would do if they became government (which translates into “they got themselves into it, they can get themselves out of it”) and you have a right royal muck up with National now caught between its own supporters, the Maori Party and other opposition parties and with no easy solution to fix this.

And if that was not enough we have the MPI scandal just coming to a boil with phrases like “industry capture” being thrown around and NZ First making further political hay by calling for a commission of inquiry as well as other parties swinging the bat at the government piñata.

Based on a leaked report there now seems to be enough ammo to fire off more than a few shots at government, MPI and the fishing industry (including Maori owned fisheries) to make headlines well into 2017 (although I fully expect the government to throw MPI under the bus much like the CERCO prison scandal except that Nathan Guy won’t get corn holed as badly as Sam Lotu Liga was).

None of these issues are directly related but in my medication clouded mind they seem to have some linkage simply because it’s either fishing rights, fishing, Maori or the Treaty as the common thread between them all.

What is clear is that John Key will have a mess to clean up when he gets back (if he can).

Many waka, one star to guide them: The Maori Party as a vehicle for Maori politics

When I started posting on this blog it was not my intent to do a party by party round up of NZ Politics (I originally wanted to focus on my areas of specialty in Asia, The Middle East and military matters) but once I started I found myself compelled to continue. I do want to look at the media and the body public a bit later but this post is the last in this vein until something interesting arises in the NZ political sandpit*.

This post has taken a while to write, mostly because there was not much to actually write about without straying into territory that was a lot deeper than I wished to go (something Chris Trotter noted recently in the media) but also because the subject in question, the Maori Party, has not been around as long as most of the other political parties and as such does not have as much of a history that people might want to read about in a blog post such as this.

But things have taken a turn recently and there has been a spate of activity within the party and the subsequent media focus, so suddenly there has been a lot more material to work with which means that a post I was putting off can now be completed.

To begin the recent outburst of media activity seems to relate to the party gearing up for the election in 2017 with the olive branch being extended to Hone Harawira and Mana, the Maori King saying he would not vote Labour and the party refusing to support Helen Clark’s bid for UN secretary general.

Whose behind all this seems to be Tukoroirangi (Tuku) Morgan, through his election as the president of the party. Morgan was previously an adviser to the Maori King (which goes a long way to explaining why the King might suddenly bag Labour in his speech) and his recent comments in the media about rebuilding the party and winning back all seven Maori electorate seats from Labour fit in nicely with the current tone of the messages the party is sending.
All of this is a clear signal that Labour won’t be able to count on the support of the Maori Party come the next election (something which John Key has welcomed) and that the party wishes to re-build the bridges with Harawira (something which Key has not welcomed) and that that the losses of Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia in leadership have not been made good with the addition of Tu Ururoa Flavell or Marama Fox.

And part of the problem with the party is leadership. Flavell and Fox have not really filled the shoes left by Sharples and Turia (at least not yet) and it looks like the task has fallen on Morgan’s shoulders to do the strategic thinking for them. It’s not that Fox and Flavell are doing a bad job steering the party’s ship but for a party becalmed in the polls and electorate there has to be more than a steady as she goes approach on the tiller**.

Currently the party has two MPs in parliament by virtue of Flavell winning the Maori electorate seat of Waiariki and bringing Fox in with him as a list MP. All of the six remaining Maori electorate seats are currently in Labour hands.

In the polls, the party has languished around the 1% mark for so long that they are now in the same position as Peter Dunne and United Future; reliant on a single seat in marginal circumstances for access to parliament.

Policy wise the party can claim to have had some successes with Whanau Ora programme and related funding aspects and while there have been some minor successes in respect to their other policy planks (health especially but also in housing, employment and family violence) these have yet to translate into either the general or Maori electorates, as increases in their polling.

Another problem is that there have been nearly a dozen different vehicles for Maori politics in the last 45 years. From Labour in the 80s (until the fallout over the economic reforms), to NZ First in 96 (when the scooped all Maori electorate seats), to the various splinter parties that formed out of the Tight Five when they left NZ First to a range of others (including representation in ACT and National (although how genuine these were is questionable)) which makes the Maori Party just the current vehicle in a long list of vehicles for representing Maori in Parliament.

So at this time Morgan’s actions to beef the party up are definitely needed but have yet to show any fruit.

Nothing seems to have come out of their overtures to Mana (and given Hone Harawira’s dislike of National and the Maori party’s alliance with them as well as the internal squabbles which lead to him leaving and forming Mana (now dead in the polls after its bizarre alliance with Kim Dotcom) it seems that the band will not be getting back together soon.

The attacks on Labour also may yet backfire given that the majority of the Maori electorate seems to prefer Labour to the Maori Party at this time and how much influence the Maori King has is not currently clear. Perhaps in time his words will have an effect but the issue may be less the message and more the medium (the King) as in other countries, royalty usually tries to appear neutral or apolitical for good reason (that being that once you choose sides its somewhat hard to reverse position and if your horse does not win, then you no longer have friends in the big house).

So 10 out of 10 to Morgan for taking action but minus several million*** for not thinking things through because the real issue, which seems to have dogged the Maori party is somewhat the same as the situation into which they have put the King; that being a partisan one.

The formation of the Maori Party was in direct relation to Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed Legislation in the mid 2000’s and the party remained in opposition until National took power where it decided to throw in its lot with them. This lead to the party getting into government (a definite success) and the previously mentioned policy successes but at the cost of playing the partisan card.

In the case of the other political parties such partisan antics are normal and can be suspended when there is general common ground (the recent security and intelligence legislation is a good example) but since the Maori party is formed around a defined racial and not political core this has issues.

As the parties own goals/kuapapa state, the project of the party is to represent all Maori and to respect all parties but in these circumstances, by coming out swinging at Labour, they have done just the opposite. This is not likely to resonate well with any Maori who have voted Labour (or Green or even NZ First) in either the Maori or general electorates.

And with 16% of the population identifying as Maori and the party’s own 1% polling this means that there are more people this message will drive away than appeal to.

The party’s siding with National has never sat well with many people and Sharples and Turia have defended it in the past by pointing to the successes they achieved only by being in parliament, something which I agree with, but by playing such a partisan position now and signalling no future co-operation with Labour they have (whether they believe it or not) just shifted the party out of the middle and well towards the right.

Now there is no valid argument for saying that National is anti-Maori but it would be hard to defend the range of National government policies which have had negative outcomes for Maori in both the current and previous National Governments.

Conversely there is no real argument to say that Labour is pro-Maori but the biggest bone of contention between Labour and Maori seems to be the previously mentioned foreshore and seabed issue and the biggest reservoir of angst over that seems to be the Maori party itself rather than the Maori electorate.

In short Tuku “underpants” Morgan may have just cut the Maori Party’s throat in a well-meaning but ultimately suicidal plan to bring the party back to life. The party currently lives on Flavells single seat alone and I would bet my bottom dollar that Labour will be campaigning hard in that electorate in 2017 to remove it from him seeing that there is no room for compromise in the other camp.

So come the 2017 election we may see the Maori Party waka run aground on rocks that were on the chart but ignored due to hubris or bad captaining. The problem being that in and of itself the party was one of the better vehicles for bringing Maori issues into parliament than many of the others. The star to which they all steer is always the same but the vehicles do not seem to be able to complete the voyage.

*-knowing my luck probably sooner rather than later.

**-Yes I was trying to pack in as many nautical metaphors as possible.

***-Zaphod Beeblebrox in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

 

 

On the importance of woke whiteys (to other whiteys)

New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd announced this week that he would not seek re-election, due to the abuse he has received after his campaign to introduce a Māori ward representative to the New Plymouth District Council. You can hear his interview with John Campbell here.

Nobody deserves to be spat at on the street. The tragedy is that the spitters, of insults and of phlegm, don’t realise what a favour Andrew Judd has done them.

Much has been made of the favour that Judd’s stand has done for Māori. But two Māori candidates for that council have said Judd needs to go further. They rejected his call for a Māori ward, but they believe he should stand by his convictions and keep fighting. Māori do not have the privilege of walking away when it all gets too uncomfortable.

Bill Simpson: “If Mr Judd was Māori, and he came up with the same issues, do you think this would be publicised as strong as it is now?”
John Campbell: “My honest answer is probably not.”

Simpson: “Maori have been saying what Mr Judd has been saying for a number of years but no-one has actually paid attention.”

This is typical of the Indigenous experience: their histories, their stories and their lived reality is disregarded until it can be corroborated by white folks, and often not even then. It all goes double for women and other power minorities.

It’s not new, or isolated. White society systematically disregards Indigenous views, and not just for contentious, contemporary stuff. In 2003 Australian university researchers led by Heather Builth demonstrated using geographical, chemical and computer analysis that the Guditjmara people of what is now called southwestern Victoria had, for about 8,000 years, constructed and maintained a vast system of weirs and canals to farm eels. Eel farming is something modern societies struggle to do effectively, and 8,000 years is a long time ago — roughly at the same time as humans first domesticated chickens. This was an achievement of incalculable value for hundreds of generations, not only the Guditjmara, but also their trade partners and the other mobs who adapted the technology for use in their own country. But its very existence needed to be anointed by the proper authorities before it would be recognised. Guditjmara man Ken Saunders:

We weren’t nomads. We didn’t wander all over the bloody place and gone walkabout. We had an existence here … Well you couldn’t have a blackfella telling that story. So to prove it we had to have a white person doing the scientific research to say this is real

The dynamic is insidious. In Aotearoa we have come a long way from the bad old days of being caned for speaking te reo Māori, changing names and trying to pass for Pākehā, and most of that progress has not been due to the efforts of woke honkeys, but by the dogged struggle of Māori swimming against a white tide. But little gets done in New Zealand without at least the acquiescence of the dominant White society, because white society only listens to itself. And so it often takes people like Andrew Judd and Heather Builth to usher these contraband discussions past the sentinels of public discourse.

I used to write a lot about this sort of thing, but I have no real standing to talk about this stuff, except that I am Pākehā, and therefore less easy to write off as another crazy radical. It’s easy for woke whiteys to pat ourselves on the back for and doing those poor brown folks a favour, bestowing our privileged advocacy on them, but the only way it works is if we talk to ourselves. Indigenous people are better at fighting their own battles than we are. But because little happens without our acquiescence, there is a role for woke whitey race-traitors working to change our own people.

So from my perspective, Judd’s stand is of greater benefit for other Pākehā than it is for Māori. As I wrote earnestly in 2011, honouring the Treaty is not simply about doing what is right for Māori, but about white New Zealanders honouring our own principles and standing upright on this ground that we occupy.

So it’s really very simple: as Tau Iwi, if we live here in Aotearoa, we have an obligation to do our bit in ensuring the Treaty gets honoured. Because to the extent it remains unhonoured, we’re in breach of the only thing which grants us any enduring legitimacy, the only agreement which gives us a right to be here. One of the basic, fundamental principles of the English civil society which Hobson represented, and which New Zealanders continue to hold dear today is the notion of adhering to one’s agreements; acting in good faith. In fact, Hobson’s instructions were to deal with the Māori in good faith as equals. … I’m Pākehā, and even if those other pricks won’t live up to their own declared standards, I want to honour my agreements, and those of my forefathers; and those made by people from whom I’m not descended but from which my 20th-Century immigrant grandparents benefited. This Pākehā, at least, pays his debts.

Andrew Judd is a good model for this. I am not. I had the fortune to be brought up by a mother who lived with Māori and grew biculturalism into our bones, and I have never been properly able to grok people who think the Treaty is a farce, that bygones should be bygones, or that Māori should just be more like “us”. Judd came to it as an adult with his eyes open to the monoculture that grudgingly permits biculturalism to exist, and he tried to change it in a meaningful way.

Another good model is Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy, who was roundly mocked (including by me) as a part-timer with no credibility for her role, but who has repeatedly proven her ability to learn and own the job. These are the people white New Zealand needs: people who know that insidious racism isn’t just a redneck thing, or a Tory thing, or a South Island thing, but something intrinsic to society that is, nevertheless, curable by honest engagement with the historical facts. The people who hold these views are, by and large, just ordinary decent folk afflicted by banal prejudice and ignorance about the realities of a divided society.

White Aotearoa is right, in its way: these divisions harm us. New Zealand would be a better country without racism, without the poverty and crime and dysfunction that results from racism and from the systematic exclusion of a small but growing proportion of our people from full access to education, healthcare, prosperity and influence. Quite apart from the value of basic justice, there are more measurable benefits: the greatest gains begin from a low base, and there is a vast opportunity for Aotearoa’s underprivileged and under-utilised Indigenous people to make enormous economic, cultural and intellectual contributions to the nation. Some already do, and what a difference it makes.

Judd’s bid to ensure Indigenous representation on the New Plymouth District Council failed, and it seems certain that even were he to stand for re-election he would be beaten, because what Mike Hosking said is basically true: he is out of touch with middle New Zealand, and thank goodness! Middle New Zealand is wrong, and it needs to be told so by people whose views it cannot dismiss out of hand. Judd has showed White Aotearoa a way forward. Not an easy way, but an honest way to be true to ourselves, and we owe him our thanks.

L

Don’t tase me bro

Police Commissioner Mike Bush on Friday announced that tasers will be deployed for the use of all front-line officers.

The reasoning behind tasers emphasises the taser’s potential for de-escalation — a “less-than-lethal” alternative to shooting someone — sometimes on the basis very limited operational data. In 2009 and early 2010, when the weapons were on limited deployment in Auckland and Wellington, 10 people were tased, prompting then-Commissioner Howard Broad to write: “It’s pretty clear that in several instances, the person could have been shot with a firearm if Taser hadn’t been available.” The wiggle room here is important: several, could.

Technical and cultural problems
In June, science writer Phillip Ball addressed (MP3) the Royal Society of New Zealand on the topic of invisibility, emphasising that while we tend to regard advantages of this sort as technical problems they are, in reality, moral problems: problems of money, power and sex, or all three at once. One might as well say “cultural problems”. The crucial questions are not about what it does, but about how it is used, by whom, for whose benefit, and governed by what norms. This is the same profound observation that underpins restrictions on weapons of mass destruction, landmines and poison gas, why signatories to the Geneva Conventions use full metal jacketed ammunition, and why no nuclear weapons have been used in war since 1945. So it is disappointing, but not surprising, that the discussion around the Police’s deployment of tasers is largely technical, not cultural.

The justification is clearly-articulated: tasers have, the Police say, proven a useful tactical option between OC spray and a firearm. But the evidence is more complex. It is clear from New Zealand Police operational reports that tasers are safe in aggregate — from 2010 to 2014, 87% of situations where a taser was presented were resolved without it being fired, and the injury rate from their use was 1.1%.

How they are used, by whom, against whom
Aggregates do not tell the whole story. More than half of those tasered are Māori or Pasifika, a figure that has remained reasonably consistent, and which matches the overseas experience in the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia — in Queensland from 2010 to 2012, Indigenous Australians were subject to 22.6% of taser use, despite comprising only 3.5% of the Queensland population. People with mental illness are also subject to much higher rates than others — the British Home Secretary says mentally ill people are about 30% of taser victims, and the Queensland Police Service data cited above says 24.2%. We know also that those at the margins of society, with the fewest options and the least access to legal systems and good medical support — including victims of domestic abuse, sex workers, trans people, drug users and homeless people — are also much more likely to be subject to profiling, greater suspicion, and greater threat of violence by Police. Members of these groups are also more likely to suffer from medical conditions such as heart disease and schizophrenia that can elevate the danger of being hit by a taser. Mental health risks are also particularly concerning, given how prevalent mental illness is in members of these groups, often with violence or abuse by people in power as a contributing factor.

Risks are not evenly distributed. Non-white people are overrepresented in crime statistics, and this must explain some of the increased rates of taser usage against them, but the fact that they are overrepresented is itself a function of the economic, systemic and cultural biases that infuse our society. All else being equal, wider deployment of weapons in the hands of the Police is escalation. It means those at the margins get a double-dose of systemic bias: they’re more likely to be selected as a potential criminal, and once selected, they’re more likely to be subject to violence. Those that are subject to violence then suffer greater harm and have fewer options for recovery or redress.

It is surely with this in mind that Emmy Rākete has requested the Police release whatever research they have conducted into the lethality of tasers, and their potential for abuse. Gina Rangi also asked, on Twitter, about Police training in institutional racism, and the monitoring of it in relation to taser usage. We deserve answers to these queries.

Even the presentation of a taser without it being fired is a strong tactical option, including “laser painting” and “arcing”; explicit threats of force. And although injury rates are low, the fact that tasers are regarded as “less-than-lethal” means they tend to be used more readily than “lethal” tactical options, and are apt to be used as a compliance tool, rather than to defend the safety of Police or the public. In New Zealand, about half the time tasers are used against people who are threatening, but not violent towards Police, and according to Amnesty International, 90% of those who died as a result of taser were unarmed and do not present a serious threat. The New South Wales Ombudsman found that one in seven taser presentations was “inappropriate”, including cases of tasers being used on fleeing suspects and people who had already been handcuffed. “Less-than-lethal” violence can still be a heavy punishment.

These risks are all cultural, not technical. No amount of “less-than-lethal” rhetoric or low recorded-injury rates can adequately address these concerns when the factors leading to the decision to use a taser are not subject to the same scrutiny as its final use. Given that context, and absent significant change in the cultural factors, the wider deployment of tasers is not de-escalation, it is escalation.

Displacing firearms or augmenting the existing arsenal
To the extent that tasers displace firearms from frontline Police use, their wide deployment is a good thing, because in spite of everything else, it is generally better to be tased than to be shot. Tasers are less lethal than firearms, they operate at shorter range without such risks to bystanders, and they are equipped with cameras that provide some context to aid inquiry in case of abuse. Firearms do not record the circumstances in which a trigger is pulled — though the technology exists, and its use may grow, along with with the advent of body-cameras. While the last year’s worth of fatal shootings of unarmed black American men by white Police illustrates that technical solutions do not themselves correct cultural problems, the prospect of being charged with murder may prove a deterrent to the worst abuses. To ensure this, New Zealand should provide for the release of taser-cam footage in case of alleged abuse. (The NSW Ombudsman released video of case studies showing abuse of the weapons in that context; some are taser-cam, and some are not. You can watch them here, but be warned; some of it is quite harrowing.)

However, the real trouble with the argument that tasers displace guns isn’t with the claim that tasers are less-lethal than guns, or that they provide better oversight — it’s that that the evidence for displacement is weak, or at best unclear. In New South Wales, firearm presentations by police remained steady at about 800 per year for the three years following the introduction of tasers — while taser usage nearly tripled from 407 presentations to 1,169 over the same period. Similar effects were noted in Canada, where Police have walked back the argument that a taser is a replacement for a firearm:

When the RCMP unveiled plans to equip its Alberta detachments with Tasers in 2002, Sgt. Steve Gleboff told reporters “what we’re trying to do is eliminate the necessity to shoot somebody.” […] That expectation was wrong, according to the man who trains Calgary police officers to use Tasers. “Use of force experts across Canada right now, we’re kind of shaking our heads going, ‘How did we give the impression to the lay public or the media that Tasers were ever supposed to be a replacement for lethal force?'” said Staff Sgt. Chris Butler. “They were another use-of-force tool in the same regard as the baton, the O.C. spray. Just another tool.”

Given this position — that the taser is not a replacement for a firearm, but an alternative to OC spray and batons — it is clear that wider deployment of a more effective weapon over and above those existing tools, where the ultimate tactical option of firearms does not already exist, means the escalation of violence, not its de-escalation, as a matter of policy.

The limited deployment of firearms is an important difference between New Zealand and the jurisdictions for which good data is available (in Australia and North America), that make these comparisons uncertain. (In the UK, which would be a better comparison, there are strong calls for similar policy.) Given this difference, we may have little to fear — it may be that the deployment of tasers forestalls the routine arming of frontline police for five or 10 or more years longer than it otherwise would have occurred. But as someone pointed out to me on Twitter, the avoidance of hypothetical violence by the application of actual violence also is not de-escalation: you can’t defend giving the Police machine guns on the basis that you have declined to give them tanks as well. The onus is on the Police to demonstrate that their decision to deploy tasers across the force will reduce the use of firearms, and will also be accompanied by more rigorous training and oversight to prevent abuse, and to limit excessive use on the groups who already bear the heaviest burden of Police violence.

L