Tag Archives: Bowalley Road

Enemies like these

I’m getting used to being vilified by the orthodox Marxist left, such as in the latest round of debate with Chris Trotter and some of his commenters, and to an extent in the response by Scott Hamilton. I don’t mind all that much, but it’s rather aimless. The critique that I’m not orthodox enough, not a proper red; that my sense class consciousness is atrophied — it all misses the point somewhat. I’m not a socialist; never have been. I’m a liberal social democrat, with strong emphasis on the “democrat”.

I’m a trade unionist because of this commitment to democracy. Unions, properly run, are strongly democratic — and their democracy enhances the more usual parliamentary and representative forms which govern our society. The question in the AE case, the matter over which I disagree with Chris and Scott and the orthodox Marxists is: from what does a trade union derive its moral authority? From the democratic mandate granted it by the workers it represents and the extent to which its actions serve their interests, or from its ideological rectitude and adherence to Marxist doctrine? I’d argue that both are necessary; the movement’s activities must be informed by a class analysis, but fundamentally the union exists to enact the wishes of its membership. The job of union organisers and so on is to educate and motivate that membership to commit to class struggle. The argument Chris and Scott are making, as if it’s an irreducible truth of trade unionism, is that the ideological rectitude on its own is enough. The quality or value of a union’s actions must not be assessed or tested against their workers’ stated needs, they say; if whatever a self-declared union and its handful of activist representatives decides to do passes the Marxist sniff-test, then anyone who fails to fall into lockstep behind it is a scab, and mandate be damned. (I’m not sure they even believe this, really; I think there would be some things even the most die-hard socialists would balk at — which would mean we’re simply disagreeing over the merits of AE’s case, which I think is a much more useful argument to have. I posed a hypothetical question to this effect on Bowalley Road this morning, but have received no responses at the time of writing this.)

But falling automatically into lockstep behind a union’s actions without consideration of whether they’re any good, or whether they serve their industry’s stated needs is bad for society, and it’s dangerous for the unions.

In our liberal democratic society, the right for workers to join a trade union and bargain collectively derives from the democratic nature of union movements; the fact that they enact workers’ wishes. This is the basis of the strong and very legitimate democratic Marxist critique of corporatism; that businesses in a democratic society ought to be democratic. It is also one of the chief arguments deployed in unions’ defence, and it is a very good one in a social and political context where the idea of democracy occupies such a powerful symbolic position. Unions do not enjoy any legitimacy by virtue of their ideological rectitude; in fact, their commitment to Marxist ideological doctrine is a considerable disadvantage in terms of their survival. Because of this, the trade union which relinquishes its commitment to democracy also risks relinquishing its claim to legitimacy, and if trade unions as a whole start to cut corners on democracy, then the movement as a whole risks granting anti-union governments a pretext to weaken and outlaw unions on the basis that they don’t actually represent workers’ interests. This is quite apart from the points I made in my last post on this topic, to the effect that non-democratic institutions tend to make bad decisions because they lack robust internal processes for developing and enacting their agendas.

So my overarching problem with Actor’s Equity acting without a mandate is that they risk the legitimacy of the trade union movement at large. (I initially predicted, in comments at the Dim Post, that the fallout would be contained by the wider movement — how wrong I was.) I try never to give my allies a pass for incompetence. Doing so breeds more incompetence. I didn’t give Labour a pass for the Foreshore & Seabed Act and I’m not giving a pass to the māori party as they look to be supporting a similarly expropriative replacement bill. So there’s no way I’m going to overlook the real and serious damage caused to the trade union movement and the cause of workers’ rights by this upstart union who took excessive action without a mandate. They’ve done real and genuine harm to the trade union movement and they’ve made industrial relations — which should have been a Labour’s trump suit — an easy source of tricks for the government. And this at the very time the union movement was beginning to gather strength again! There was an anti-union protest on Labour Day — how much worse do things have to get? Sure, blame the Tory government, or the ‘right-wing media’ or the falsely-conscious running-dogs; and to an extent this is justified. The government must bear sole responsibility for the legislation they’re passing, for instance; the details of that bill cannot be blamed on AE. But AE provided them the cover to pass it without much controversy; and indeed, none of these agencies enjoyed the political and symbolic freedom to unleash the sort of anti-worker tirades they have in recent weeks until AE’s egregious overreach — all with the full blessing of Trotter and Hamilton, almost everyone writing and commenting at The Standard and all those orthodox Marxists who claim to be champions of the worker. With enemies like these, Key and his government — and their ideological fellow-travelers — have no need of friends.


Perspective and colonial counterfactuals

It’s hardly the stuff of rigorous historico-social investigation, but Simon Schama sees much to celebrate in NZ biculturalism — particularly in comparison to our Anglo comparators:

But it’s the story of Maori and pakeha, the settlers of European origin, that – for all the pain, betrayals and suffering – still deserve to be known and celebrated as offering a different model of cultural encounter than anywhere else in the world. […] Of course there have been serious problems of unequal social opportunity, of street gangs. But if there is anywhere in the post-colonial world where two cultural worlds truly live an engaged life alongside each other, it’s in New Zealand.
Such stories don’t come along very often. Cherish them. Chant them. Dance them.
Upane upane, kaupane, whiti te ra! Up the ladder, up the ladder, the Sun Shines.

This is broad-brush stuff, and minimises the genuine grievance and disquiet which exists on both sides of the cultural divide — his “divided no longer” caption to a stock photo is altogether too pat. And his assessment of Paul Holmes as a “tough” and “a reproach to dozy thinking” is marginal at best. But Schama’s observation that what we have in this country is quite unlike any other postcolonial nation is exactly right. It provides a glimpse at what might have been been elsewhere, and what might have been here if the post-Treaty settlement had been undertaken in better faith.

This raises a question Pablo and I discussed in email after he wrote this post (I didn’t want to hijack the excellent discussion there): do those who hate and fear Tino Rangatiratanga and consider the Treaty a “simple nullity” really believe that the people of Aotearoa — of all colours — would be better off if the typical colonial counterfactual were true — if Hobson’s marines and settlers had simply driven the natives into the sea or exterminated them as animals? In my email to Pablo, I wrote:

I’ve often argued (as a wind-up or a devil’s advocate position) that the Māori are ungrateful whingers who don’t appreciate what an incredibly good deal they got from Hobson, and that NZ would have been better off if Europeans had just landed with boatloads of armed soldiers and done to the natives what they did in the rest of the world. Anything for a peaceful life. What’s interesting is that, even when discussing the topic with people who genuinely believe that the Treaty is a gravy train and the natives are taking the piss and actually are ungrateful, they generally balk at this suggestion. That consent [given by the colonised to the colonisers], however fraught and limited, is important to how we see ourselves. That’s one of the reasons I’m generally pretty hopeful about the bicultural future.

I expressed somewhat similar views in comments to this post of Chris Trotter’s a short time later. Neither Chris, nor the other commenter to that post (RedLogix, with whom I’ve had robust but usually cordial disagreements on this topic) responded to my comments, which I took as a sort of confirmation of my thesis.* As I say, this is the usual response to the argument I’ve made many times before — all but the most unrepentant rednecks are repelled by the view that colonialism NZ-style was worse than what might have happened if we’d undertaken it Australian-style. This indicates to me that even for those who are highly critical of it grudgingly accept that the Tino Rangatiratanga movement, Waitangi Tribunal and attendant concessions to Māori in our political and social systems are better than the counterfactual alternative of a white monoculture in the South Pacific, even if it were more peaceful. The importance of this for a bicultural future is profound.


* I don’t want to put words in Chris and RL’s mouths, though — it may be that they simply thought my remarks too ridiculous to bother engaging with. Happy to accept clarification on this point.

(Schama article via Tim Watkin at Pundit. Thanks! And as it happens, Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn has excerpted it as well.)

For the record

I had prepared a thorough response to Chris Trotter’s Fiji Agonistes post, and was going to wait a few more days to see whether he reposted it on Bowalley Road before publishing it. Now Chris has saved me the trouble by redacting his post with an apology of sorts. Kiwipolitico is not the place for perpetuating such disagreements, and so I’ll leave it be with a few final words.

I remain a bit disappointed that Chris hasn’t bothered to engage with my previous critiques, and I agree somewhat with Lurgee’s assessment that he’s been dickwaving to try to gain status as “the alpha-male of the leftish bloglands”. While I was indeed furious enough with the personal attacks* to come out blazing against them, I was not behind the redaction; that’s Chris’ own doing. So, Chris, thank you – and while nothing is forgotten, I appreciate your good sense in this matter.


*The `kupapa Pakeha’ attack was the most offensive, and I can’t let it go unmentioned. I’ve heard that one before – a man with a bald head and steel-capped boots in Molly Malone’s once called me a `race traitor’ on account of my wearing a Tino Rangatiratanga hoodie. Not very progressive, that.

Fear itself

Chris Trotter seems to think I’m being culturally precious and pandering to Māori separatism with my post on the h issue. He misses the point, and fearmongers about vague Orewa-like shadows of a savage threat to the settler way of life.

While it did a lot of describing, the purpose of the post was not descriptive, (is) but normative (ought). The question was not whether Wanganui has become the de facto and de jure name of the town; it manifestly has, a fact I acknowledge by using that spelling throughout that post and this one.* The question was whether those who made it so had the right to make it so, and whether they have the right to keep it so against the will of those who retain rights to the name and its usage – rights granted in principle (but not necessarily enforceable in law) by the Treaty of Waitangi.

Chris seeks to derail this by reference to the changing nature of language, but his example hardly addresses the point, far from invalidating it. The `ought’ I’m arguing is that those with a legitimate historical, linguistic and cultural claim to a name – nobody disputes that they do – which forms a core aspect of their whakapapa and regional identity and who have been actively working to maintain that name for generations should not have that claim summarily invalidated by the whim of a majority whose sole attachment to the word is the ignorance of colonial hegemony – wanting to control whatever aspect of the local culture they can for fear of their own insecure identity. The Bowalley Road example, while interesting, is fundamentally different from the case in point for two reasons: first, it is a name which was attached to a place by individual fiat rather than from long-established common usage; and second, nobody seems to care that it has been changed. My argument rests firmly on both these considerations, and they lend it legitimacy: if it were a made-up name, and if nobody cared, my claim would clearly be invalid. The proponents of retaining the current spelling also appeal to both these grounds for legitimacy, so the question is not which of the two causes is legitimate – it is which of the two spellings should take primacy over the other. Who gets to exercise cultural control – rangatiratanga – over the name? Its originators, whose regional and whakapapa identity is tied to in it, at whose pleasure the original Pākehā settlement was founded, and who have since been systematically excluded from its affairs to the point where they are now outsiders on their own historical lands; or the settlers, whose cultural and linguistic dominance is already evident in myriad ways, who are responsible for the marginalisation of the tangata whenua, and who fight tooth and nail against every attempt at reconciliation or reparation unless it is on their terms and their terms alone. The two claims to primacy have the same grounds in principle – it’s just that the grounds of one are stronger than the grounds of the other.

The second part of Chris’ article is worse, though, because rather than misunderstanding the point and its arguments, he misstates the cause and repeats a divisive propaganda line about the dangers of allowing the natives to exercise any authority. Although Chris might not agree, this kite about the Māori radicals in the closet just waiting for their moment to disrupt the nice harmonious race relations we have in NZ is not too dissimilar from that flown by Don Brash five years ago at the Orewa Rotary Club. Let me deal with the two paragraphs in turn:

What’s more, Ken Mair’s demand that the pre-colonial appellation be restored is, I strongly suspect, part-and-parcel of a much more ambitious plan to reclaim his people’s sovereignty over the entire region. To do that, however, Ken and his people would have to fight the colonial wars of conquest all over again – this time emerging as the winners.

Why didn’t we see through their nefarious plan?

1. Change the name.
2. ?????
3. Declare the Mairist Republic of Whanganui.
4. Profit!

The assertion is beyond preposterous; comparing it to the Underpants Gnome business model almost does the model a disservice.

The goals of tino rangatiratanga ceased to be cession/secession, revolution and mass reoccupation by force generations ago. Tangata whenua – and particularly those of the Whanganui region – have embraced the legitimate governmental and judicial processes at their disposal, so much so that one of their daughters is a minister in the current government.

So perhaps the “grasping settlers” Lew condemns are smarter than he is willing to admit. Perhaps they see right through Ken’s seemingly harmless demand that the spelling of the city’s name be changed. Perhaps, by resisting this little challenge today, the Wanganui District Council and its Mayor can avoid resisting much more dangerous challenges tomorrow.

I never condemned the settlers as stupid – I freely admit that they’re not; they have very smartly and efficiently suppressed almost all Māori resistance, to their great advantage. I condemned their actions and attitudes as unjust and counterproductive in the long term. Chris’ whole argument here begs the question that there’s a race war on, and this is the fundamental assertion that the logic of Orewa and of the iwi/kiwi billboards and of the underclass and the warrior gene expects us to accept – for without it, the edifice crumbles. The entire assumption rises from that same grasping settler mentality I identified – fear of the other, fear of scarcity, fear of losing control, the constant feeling of being embattled and under siege and somehow insecure.

If one accepts – and there is copious evidence for this – that there is no intractable race war, and Māori no longer want to fight, but to retain rangatiratanga over the things they still have, and gain control – mostly symbolic, rather than material – over a tiny fraction of what they lost, there’s no argument to be had here. Work with them, rather than against them, treat in good faith and look to the future, and the future begins to look a whole lot brighter.

Today, 28 February, is the anniversary of the 1995 occupation of Pakaitore, the grounds upon which the Wanganui District Courthouse stands, known formerly as Moutoa Gardens in honour of the `loyal Māoris’ who defended the settlement against a Hauhau assault at Moutoa Island in 1864. The occupation lasted nearly three tense months during which the settlers thought their town had been invaded – my wife’s cousin phoned from London in the middle of the night to make sure she wasn’t in any danger; of course, she wasn’t because there was no violence beyond the usual which happened between the Rutland and Commercial Hotels. The occupation centred upon the claim that the land had been expropriated by the city, not sold by tangata whenua. On this same day in 2007, the Māori Land Court returned the block to iwi, who now receive a rental from the Ministry of Justice, whose courthouse continues to operate undisturbed. The land remains publicly accessible to all, although the statue of John Ballance no longer stands. Today, in the wind and rain, there were tents set up selling fry bread and hāngi and raw fish and home-grown veges and artwork; people standing around talking and kids playing. Ken Mair was there; he doesn’t know me and I’m just about as white as can be, but he greeted me warmly and bid me welcome and we chatted for a moment. There was a big tino rangatiratanga flag, but no chest-thumping or politicking or nationalistic fervour – it was a marketplace, on the site of a historical marketplace. The only problem was that there were hardly any white folk there, and those who were there looked guilty and suspicious, like they thought they were trespassing. The people selling the raw fish were embarrassed that they had trouble producing change for a $20 note. A girl of about seven wanted to know where I was from, and when I told her `Wellington, but I grew up here’, she asked `why don’t you live in Wanganui any more?’ What’s needed, and wanted, is more understanding, not the entrenchment of colonial ignorance or its endorsement as a valid way of life.

So, Chris, beyond the vague shadows of Orewa, what `dangerous challenges’ might the latter-day settlers of New Zealand face if they allow tangata whenua a bit of symbolic and linguistic authority over their own names and history?


* I use the spelling `Wanganui’ because this spelling currently has primacy. While I believe the spelling should be `Whanganui’, it’s not good enough to just have it become the de facto spelling. In order to recognise rangatiratanga, it must be made official – ariki ki te ariki, tangata ki te tangata.