Tag Archives: George W Bush

Carter’s Par Avion Putsch — politics interruptus

Leaving out the utter incompetence of how Chris Carter’s abortive coup — and I hope I’m the first to coin it the “Par Avion Putsch” — was conducted, his egregious damfoolishness for following such a course of action in the first place guarantees that Phil Goff’s leadership of the Labour party is now safe, though it is critically wounded. The caucus has had to close ranks around a lame duck leader, and all the ambitions of the younger and more vibrant contenders previously mentioned here and by many others must now be shelved for the sake of party integrity. By seeking to artificially accelerate the ordinary and necessary process of leadership selection, challenge and renewal, Carter’s actions have in fact retarded it.

I agree with him that those systems were working too slowly in this case, and on the substantive point that Phil Goff can’t win the election without a fantastic political deus ex machina such as that which benefited George W Bush. But the system is what it is, and you either work with it or you cut yourself loose from it in a fashion which places the system — rather than your own conduct and the competence of the sitting leader — front and centre as the object of critique. By doing neither Carter has snookered any nascent leadership challenge and undermined Goff’s leadership into the bargain, and that practically ensures the outcome he claims to oppose.

Two possibilities present themselves. Either Carter was and remains oblivious to this, in which case he’s a fool whose long experience of party politics has taught him nothing. Or, like everyone else with a functional knowledge of NZ politics, he’s perfectly aware of this fact and has cynically exploited it in an effort to establish a lasting legacy for himself: the final ability to say, post-2011, that he was right, and Phil Goff was a dead man walking, and to be remembered for that, rather than for his taxpayer-funded jetsetting and general uselessness. Ordinarily I would assume the former — incompetence is usually a more apt explanation than malice — but I’m sorely tempted in this case to believe that, as Chris Trotter says, Carter has seen his own political end, and determined to take the rest of the party down with him (update: I think this is a more accurate assessment than Tim Watkin’s suicide by cop).

This course of action could not be more different to that taken by Helen Clark who, with her swift acceptance of the political reality in which she found herself, ensured that the party retained its dignity after the 2008 election defeat. I don’t know anything about the personal relationship between Clark and Carter, but from what I know of her political mind I suspect this will cause it considerable strain, with the episode perhaps costing Carter not only his credibility, his job, and his party membership, but the only political friend and ally he had not already alienated.


All’s fair, even when it’s unfair

As much as it pains me to say it — having long hoped against hope for the illusory Liberal Democrat rally which would see the Conservative party locked out of the British government for another five years — on reflection, I think the result of Thursday’s election in the UK was a reasonably fair one.

That’s a bizarre thing to say for a bunch of reasons, so let me explain. I don’t mean it’s fair in the sense that the views of the electorate were adequately reflected. Hundreds were turned away from polling stations or otherwise prevented from voting, but that pales into irrelevance compared to the fact that somewhere north of 40% of electors who did manage to cast their votes legitimately had no influence whatsoever on the makeup of the parliament. Spare a thought for the 15,903 Lib Dem voters of Camborne & Redruth, whose incumbent candidate lost by just 66 to the local Tory. It’s certainly not fair to the “Celtic fringe” and other minor parties whose candidates were excluded from the main electioneering set-pieces. I’m frequently on record saying that politics isn’t fair, and it isn’t — you don’t get out what you put in, there are no guarantees and sometimes the righteous are not rewarded nor the wicked punished. But from time to time, despite its unfairness, democratic politics does cast a thin, pale shadow of justice, and this is just such a time.

The Labour party betrayed the trust of its electorate in myriad ways. Most egregiously by blindly backing Bush rather than undertaking its own due diligence on the Iraq war; more insidiously by quickening the pace of Britain’s march toward a surveillance state; and most materially by claiming to represent the caring face of modern compassionate capitalism while permitting the barons of the banking industry to make out like bandits to everyone else’s cost. The handover from Blair to Brown was slickly managed but its slickness betokened a deep rot within: a reluctance inside the party to interrogate and dispute and disagree on crucial matters of policy and principle. The absence of any such critical engagement with the big issues of our time during a period when those issues were front-and-centre for the first time in a generation was clear in that nobody challenged Brown, even for show — and it was evident in Brown when he spoke to the electorate. He was a leader who had been given his place; he had not earned it, and it showed. New Labour was deservedly rejected for their performance over the past three terms, and I do not rue its loss greatly.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, were little more deserving. Cameron is unashamedly Blair-like, even describing himself as Blair’s heir. But although early in his leadership he has more characteristics of the later Blair, lacking much of the political verve which marked Blair’s inspirational early career. He is a self-declared moderate, which seems to mean he doesn’t really believe much of anything; he claims to be a “compassionate conservative” but speaks fondly of Thatcher. He derides parliamentary politics as a circus — which, to me, is an indicator of authoritarian managerialism, the preference to stitch up faits-accompli in smoke-filled rooms rather than submit ideas and policy programmes to the chaos of public dispute and scrutiny. For all that, he is an extremely intelligent and politically astute man; his former Oxford tutor speaking of him with surprisingly high regard during the BBC election broadcast. He is in some of these regards deeply reminiscent of our own Prime Minister. His party, however, do not seem to be of this standard; certainly not in terms of ability, and certainly not in terms of ideas. They struggled to keep pace with an ideologically bankrupt Labour party throughout the campaign and preceding term, no doubt just thanking their lucky stars that they were not having to make any of the hard decisions throughout the financial crisis. They were deservedly kept from securing government on their own, although they probably consider that they’ve been robbed, given how deeply loathed Brown and his Labour party are.

But the Liberal Democrats were robbed, although not so much as comparing their share of vote to their share of seats might suggest. They were much less to blame than either of the other two parties for abusing their expenses, and have proposed a much more thorough programme of economic and social reforms to present to an electorate clearly displeased with the tired and mediocre offerings of the mainstream. In a loose moral sense, they deserved more than they got from this election, not simply on the numbers but on the basis of their performance. But they were also the architects of their own misfortune to some extent. They unselfconsciously tried to drive a “sensible moderate” path between two parties whose electoral programmes were positively defined by stultifying sameness and a refusal to commit to anything which might make a blind bit of difference. There was too small a space between those two for anything to properly bloom. They targeted the young, immigrants, and the otherwise marginalised for votes — groups who might respond to polls, but never really turn out on election day. Clegg also played with best-of-both-worlds populism, and his “I agree with Nick” slogan is now being cruelly mocked — as it perhaps always would, given that not even the most generous projections had them winning more than an eighth of seats.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats hold an ace, and that is proportional representation. Now Labour, which has long had the political capital to implement a proportional system but has consistently chosen not to even consider it, declares itself in support of electoral reform. Blair, for all the great things he did in his first term, could potentially have saved his hapless successor’s — and his party’s — hides in this election by starting the PR reforms when he could act with impunity. I hope he regrets the decision not to. Even David Cameron, an avowed opponent of PR and representing a party with a deep, even tribal opposition to such measures, now claims to support “reform of the political system”, though — remaining true to form — he has been carefully circumspect on what he actually means by that. I reckon he means “make sure all the polling stations have enough ballot papers”, which is admittedly a good start. But PR is the only way to end the electoral corpulence of the two major parties; while they remain insulated from the challenges of lesser parties there will be no genuine improvement.

So the Liberal Democrats have to go for bust to get proportional representation, now. That, paradoxically, means supporting the Tories to the minimal extent necessary, in the classic sort of compromise that leaves neither party happy. (Though it does mean that the Lib Dems must rebuff as much of Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive” coalition deal as they can get away with.) For all that it seems, on paper, like a wonderful idea for the Liberal Democrats to give Labour the chance to build a coalition out of the the minor parties — everyone except Sinn Féin and the DUP would be needed — such a course of action would lead to proportional representation being robustly rejected by the British electorate. To stitch together all of these competing interests and Quixotic crusades into a cooperative which can agree on a seating plan, let alone draft constitutional reforms as important as devolution wast would require a bona fide political genius. Gordon Brown is not that genius, and nor is Nick Clegg. If such a person existed in Britain at present, he would probably be the leader of a very much more substantial majority in the House of Commons already. The inevitable, catastrophic failure of such a merry band of jokers would paint for the British people the worst possible picture of what proportional representation parliaments would look like, at the worst possible time, and would leave the Tories free to simply sit on the sidelines and shake their heads knowingly. For all that it’s a self-serving platitude to excuse a deeply undemocratic system, “strong, stable government” really is quite useful during times of such deep economic crisis. Not only would these events drive the electorate into the arms of the Conservative party (who would not even need to change their slogan), but it would sink any chances of PR being adopted for a generation or more. On the other hand, to force the Conservatives to permit even a discussion about PR could grant Labour a new lease on life. Once it’s cut away the extensive dead wood, the party would be in a strong position to stand against the nay-saying Tories trying — and likely failing — to limit their exposure to the public’s will and to make a decent fist of their time in government (in that order of priority).

Probably the most memorable quote for me from this election coverage was “the voters have spoken: we just don’t know what they’ve said”. Well, it seems to me that what they’ve said is “screw the lot of you”, with the perhaps unspoken exhortation to “sort your bloody act out”. I hope that’s the message received. That means the death of expressionless, gutless managerialism in politics, and it means a genuine engagement with the electorate on electoral reform. Neither can come soon enough.


Climate credibility fail


I’ve remained largely silent on the so-called ClimateGate thus far, mostly out of an abject lack of expertise to judge the whys and wherefores of it all. It’s science, I’m not a scientist. But given Poneke’s magnum opus on the topic, the likelihood of an IPCC Himalayan glacier retraction and a NZ Herald survey which found that New Zealanders harbour deep doubts about anthropogenic climate change, I thought it apposite to repost something I wrote the other day at the bottom of a very long (but interesting) thread (somewhat edited). It’s something I’ve argued many times in other contexts.*

Climate change is often couched as an important problem of the sort which democracies fail to address — along with things like the global credit crisis, and fascism. But the failure is not with democracy itself, but with the calibre of certain actors within it. Climate change is an issue which should have been hit out of the park by any political movement with any competence, because the magnitude of the stakes and the weight of both reasoned evidence and benign symbolic matter which it embodies yield raw material for the most profound and powerful sorts of political campaigns — the sort which fundamentally change peoples’ beliefs and allegiances and which, if properly conducted, can grant a political movement incredible license to implement far-reaching policy of the sort which reforms society at its most basic levels. The Great Depression was just such an event for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Michael Joseph Savage. The miners strike was for Margaret Thatcher. September 11 was for George W Bush. And so on.

And yet, the skeptics are winning the battle of ideas around climate change. The failure to convince the electorates of the free world of the need for urgent climate change policy, a matter of the most critical and immediate importance backed by the best science available, reflects an utter failure on the part of political and scientific elites whose most important job it is to provide such leadership. The political and scientific establishment has squandered a phenomenal opportunity, with the exception of Al Gore, who with An Inconvenient Truth did more to progress the cause of gaining electorate buy-in to the topic than everyone else has done since. They are struggling and failing, not only to implement reforms of the magnitude which are required, but even to maintain the credibility of the scientific establishment.

Some [including Ag, to whom this was originally addressed] argue that it was always impossible to sell climate change to the electorate due to the vested interests amassed against it, cognitive biases, lack of expertise, plain ignorance, etc. Those are important factors, but other factors are more important and more controllable to boot — after all, people in a liberal society can only really control their own actions, and must be prepared to defend their positions against others.

The scientific establishment failed by allowing a tiny minority of skeptics and raving moonbats and vested interests to frame their establishment as a corrupt back-slapping club funded by grant money; by evading and prevaricating and playing dirty when legitimately challenged on important matters of fact and procedure; most recently by covering up emails and giving the conspiracy theorists grist for their mills. In defending their failures, they blame the heterodox minority, the vested interests, the rapturists and the conspiracy theorists.

Politicians have failed mainly by couching their arguments in favour of urgent climate change policy in terms of hard facts and economic figures, assuming that people could connect the dots themselves rather than spelling it out in terms they could understand at a visceral or intuitive level as well as when they whip out their utility calculators. The politicians blame the same people as the scientists, ignoring the fact that a generation of failure on their part to adequately contest the battle of ideas and to safeguard the political process against the influence of vested interests has allowed such lobbyists to become entrenched.

Part of this is systemic — there are problems with the scientific peer review system which politicians can’t understand; there are ruthless and well-resourced lobbyists with vested interests which have been permitted to entrench themselves in democratic political systems. But none of that is any excuse. They should have been able to drive it home anyway, given the raw material at their disposal. This is not a failing of democracy, but a failing of certain actors within the democratic system: particularly, those who believe so deeply that they are right, so they need not prove their case. People who think that inherent truth of the position will simply shine through. If their position was that strong, then it should have been easy, right? This ignores a fundamental reality of a free society: that people are free to be wrong, and must be brought about by reason and persuasion or not at all. I think it is that strong, and should have been easy.

The world is going to pay for the failure of climate scientists to adequately protect their credibility, and for the failure of politicians and policymakers to adequately sell the most politically saleable concept of the past generation — that the planet is going to get inhospitable if we continue to pollute it, and we don’t have a fallback position — and it’s infuriating that those responsible for this failure want nothing more than to shift blame for their own incompetence.


* It should be clear, but nevertheless: I’m not arguing that AGW isn’t real; in fact, the opposite: I am arguing that the problem is real but that the credibility of much of the evidence and the policy agenda is critically undermined. I don’t really buy Poneke’s conclusions drawn from his analysis of the emails, although I do accept that they demonstrate severe systemic and credibility failures which call a lot of the evidence into question. But in order to believe that it’s all a hoax, you have to believe in a scientific conspiracy of unprecedented scale, with no credible payoff. I just don’t see it.

Protesting a little bit too much

21clarkyoungnats_smallDPF published two posts yesterday about prominent lefties comparing righties to fascists: Minto comparing Bush to Hitler and Amin, and Carter comparing Key to Mussolini. I agree with him that both comparisons are entirely unjustified, and do a great disservice to political discourse in this country.

But without taking away from that, let’s not forget that David, his commentariat, his blogging cohort and indeed some of his ideological allies have spent most of the past decade making political hay by comparing Helen Clark to various dictators. David was central to the Free Speech Coalition whose billboards protesting the Electoral Finance Act evoked Mao Zedong and Frank Bainimarama; he wrote a weekly column entitled ‘Dispatch from Helengrad’, perpetuating the Clark=Stalin syllogism; his blog permits and tacitly endorses the almost daily comparison of left-wing political figures to tyrants; his closest blogging acquaintance Cameron Slater has constructed his political profile almost entirely of such cloth. The National and ACT parties themselves have a very large portfolio of such comparisons — from the Young Nats publishing the famous image above, to Heather Roy talking about the Clark government’s ‘feminazi’ welfare agenda to Bill English’s frequent comparisons of the Clark government to the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, both in the House and in the media. And how could I forget John Banks — former National party cabinet minister and now Citizens & Ratepayers Mayor of Auckland — whose public comparisons of Clark to Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot and references to her as the ‘Chairman of the Central Committee’ among others only ceased when he decided to run for Mayor and they were no longer politically tenable. To say nothing of the foaming of various branches of the libertarian and objectivist movements, who are admittedly further from National than Labour are, but nevertheless have been occasional allies of convenience. Although typically less egregious than Carter’s and Minto’s comparisons, these are all the same in principle. The difference is one of magnitude, not of type. And the very worst examples of the type are exclusively from the right.

I should imagine that many of those who engaged in these sorts of attacks on Clark and her government but who are wide-eyed with mock outrage now that the shoe is on the other foot believe (to themselves if not in public) that the former comparisons were rooted in reality, while these latter are not and so are not justified. This demonstrates a phenomenal absence of political or historical perspective: Clark, like Bush, was removed peacefully from office by the ordinary process of democratic action, and the comparison of their programmes with those of the named dictators simply does not bear comparison, and it is disrespectful to history to draw it. David is right to point out that Labour are wrong for stooping to the level of National and ACT and their less-savoury constituents, but that does not erase the initial wrongness which spawned it, and in which he played a role.


[Edited to add Banksie and the libertarians to the list of offenders, and add the image at top.]

Add Condi to the list

According to this story, Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has admitted involvement in a (technical) conspiracy to torture US terror detainees:

In little-noticed comments Thursday, the former White House counsel for President Richard Nixon John Dean said Thursday that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may have unwittingly admitted to a criminal conspiracy when questioned about torture by a group of student videographers at Stanford.
Rice told students at Stanford that she didn’t authorize torture, she merely forwarded the authorization for it. …
“She tried to say she didn’t authorize anything, then proceeded to say she did pass orders along to the CIA to engage in torture if it was legal by the standard of the Department of Justice,” Dean said. “This really puts her right in the middle of a common plan, as it’s known in international law, or a conspiracy, as it’s known in American law, and this indeed is a crime. If it indeed happened the way we think it did happen.”

Now, there’s a lot of ifs in there, and anyone with a more thorough knowledge of the issues in play is welcome to pour cold water on it. But to my eye, if this lawyer is right then it stands to reason that the Hat Trick of those at the top of the US torture agenda has now expanded to a Gang of Four.

Incidentally Pascal’s bookie, who ought to blog more often, makes a strong case in defence of Obama’s restraint on the torture issues in a series of comments at The Standard. The key point is the following:

[if Obama was too heavily involved] the story would become Obama v Bush, Dem v GOP. Rather than The Law v Criminals.

He’s right: if it’s to be done, it must be done right, and the taint of partisan politics mustn’t be admitted as a distraction. His role is to provide political and legal conditions within which such a prosecution can thrive of its own accord, not to drive the prosecution himself. He’s doing that; those who want Bush, Cheney, Gonzales and (perhaps) Rice to stand trial had best hold their tongues and show a little faith.