Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Some Brief Remarks On The Use Of The Word "Austerity".

Over-Ruling Market Forces: Middle Class housewives queue to collect their rationed goods and services. In the first Age of Austerity (1945-1951) the newly elected Labour Government made sure that the inevitable discomforts and shortages of the immediate post-war period were shared equitably across the population. In the second Age of Austerity (2010-Present) precipitated by the Global Financial Crisis, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, off-loaded the cost of bailing-out capitalism on to the shoulders of the young and the poor.
 
SOME WORDS ENJOY a second lease on political life. Although, it’s almost never the case that a political term retains its original meaning the second time around. The word “austerity” is a good example.
 
Originally, the word was used to characterise the period in British history immediately after World War II. The Age of Austerity is remembered as a time of economic stringency when food was rationed, luxuries unheard of outside all but the most exclusive circles, and housing was in desperately short supply.
 
There was, of course, a very good reason for all this. Great Britain had just emerged from a six year war in which, for a few crucial months, the very existence of the British nation hung in the balance. Britain had come through, but not before hundreds-of-thousands of her citizens had been killed or injured, and tens-of-thousands of her houses, factories, ports and other key pieces of infrastructure had been destroyed. To win, the British had been forced to engage in a prolonged period of unprecedented military and economic effort. In attempting to pay for the war, Britain had liquidated nearly all of her financial assets and borrowed heavily from the Americans. By 1945 the cupboard was very bare indeed.
 
What this meant was that Britain had to manage what meagre resources it still possessed (or could borrow) extremely frugally. Consumer demand was tightly constrained – both by rationing and by continuing the tight wartime economic controls. It was not a joyous time. Life was hard. Indeed, in the fat years that followed, many British people looked back on the Age of Austerity and shuddered.
 
If you think all these measures sound a lot like the so-called “austerity” policies implemented by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, between 2010 and 2015, then you really need to think again. Because, historically-speaking, the two periods could not be more different.
 
In 1945 the British Labour Party was elected in a landslide to implement what they openly described as a “socialist” manifesto. The immediate effect of Labour’s election was that, from the very outset, the “peace” – at least in its early years – was to be a time of social equality. Inherited wealth was targeted quite ruthlessly and the near confiscatory taxes on high incomes that had been levied during the war persisted. The distribution of goods and services was organised not by “market forces” but according to need. For the upper and middle classes this over-ruling of the market was utterly unacceptable. For centuries, the ownership of wealth had conferred all manner of advantages: social, economic and political. But for the first 5 years after the war the upper classes ability to avail themselves of their customary advantages was severely constrained.
 
There may, therefore, be an element of cruel historical irony in the Conservative Party’s political appropriation of the word “austerity”. Because Osborne’s response to the Global Financial Crisis and the huge debts it had forced the British Government to incur was very different from that of Clement Attlee’s socialists. Rather than sharing the burden of recovery equally, Osborne piled virtually all of it onto the shoulders of the poor and the young. This was achieved by imposing swingeing cuts on public expenditure – especially spending on the unemployed, beneficiaries, students and even, unconscionably, the disabled.
 
The original Age of Austerity was a time of enforced social equality, Osborne’s austerity was an exercise in looking after the interests of the well-to-do at the expense of the poor. Unlike Labour’s post-war Britain, market forces were in no way restrained and all the advantages of wealth were taken by those fortunate enough to possess them.
 
The other significant difference between the late 1940s and the post-GFC years is that, in 1945, the world’s great creditor nation, the USA, had to exercise a measure of common sense in recovering the money it had lent during the war. The Red Army loomed over Europe just waiting for poverty and starvation to drive the peoples of the West into the arms of soviet-style socialism. The Americans were careful ensure that the anticipated social and economic collapse did not eventuate.
 
How different it was after the crises of 2008-09. Governments had been forced to borrow the money needed to keep capitalism afloat and the financial institutions who had purchased the instruments of their own rescue demanded the full repayment of every Pound and/or Euro that they were owed. And this time there was no Soviet threat to moderate the financiers’ greed, or to convince them that unregulated market forces are, politically, their own worst enemy.
 
Austerity, then, possesses a very different meaning, depending on whether it is being used to describe the enforced social equality of the post-war years, or the punitive imposition of the costs of rescuing capitalism upon those sectors of British and European society least able to bear them.
 
Greece, according to Radio New Zealand has been issued with an “austere” set of economic demands. Seldom has the true meaning of a word been so carelessly traduced. What is being asked of Greece bears little resemblance to anything “plain and unadorned” unless it is plain and unadorned cruelty.
 
Between 1945 and 1951 the British learned to live “without unnecessary things”, but they were not forced to starve on their knees so that their creditors could stay on their feet.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 1 July 2015.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Climate Changers: Otago's Foreign Policy School Celebrates 50 Years.

Climate Changers: Ordinary New Zealanders make a very direct and public contribution to the evolution of their country's foreign policy vis-à-vis Vietnam in 1967. The effort to move New Zealand out from under America's shadow has been a constant theme of the post-war foreign policy debate. Since its first gathering in 1966, the University of Otago's Foreign Policy School has played a significant role in modifying the "official climate of opinion" in relation to the USA.
 
GERALD HENSLEY sums up the congealed orthodoxy of New Zealand’s foreign policy establishment in his 2006 memoir – Final Approaches. In 1989, the veteran New Zealand diplomat and civil servant was awarded a fellowship to Harvard by the Centre for International Affairs. Describing with obvious relish the cosy ivy-league environment of languorous breakfasts and roaring log fires, he rounded-off his observations of the winter the Wall came down by musing upon the performance of a group of classical musicians.
 
“A few nights later I looked down at the Beaux Arts Trio taking their bows after a concert and was struck by the tradition they represented – three dumpy figures with the light gleaming on their white hair and shirt-fronts who had helped carry the values of civilisation through the long totalitarian shadow cast by the twentieth century.”
 
Let us put to one side the obvious retorts that the Nazis are known to have organised classical recitals in the death camps; and that the Soviets’ reverence for the classical tradition was second to none; and examine instead Mr Hensley’s comfortable assumptions about the character of the Cold War’s ultimate victors.
 
The battle, according to Hensley, has always been a struggle between the “values of civilisation” and the “totalitarian shadow”. In framing his own, and, by extension, New Zealand’s, diplomatic choices in these stark Manichean terms, Hensley echoes the conceptual conservatism that has dictated the formulation and conduct of New Zealand foreign policy for the last 70 years.
 
Where, one wonders, were the “values of civilisation” when the United States Air Force was spraying Agent Orange on Vietnam’s forests? (Not to mention its own – and our – troops!) And where, exactly, did the “totalitarian shadow” fall when America’s murderous Honduran proxies (all of them thoroughly trained at the infamous US Army School of the Americas in Georgia) were waging genocidal war against their own indigenous Mayan population? And what about all those Washington neo-cons and their plans for bringing the “values of civilisation” to Afghanistan and Iraq? How’s that working out?
 
It’s not simply that New Zealand’s foreign policy establishment routinely dismiss such questions as evidence of either naivety or (much worse!) anti-Americanism, but that in soaking-up the cosy collegial atmosphere depicted in Hensley’s memoirs, New Zealand diplomats very rapidly lose all interest in undertaking any such ethical interrogation of their very, very, very good friends.
 
Writing 40 years prior to the appearance of Hensley’s Final Approaches, William B. Sutch, in his The Quest For Security in New Zealand 1840-1966, recalled the birth of the Cold War in the late 1940s, when the Labour Party, under Peter Fraser, inaugurated “a period, which has now lasted two decades, when not only was dissent from the customary social and economic way of doing things regarded with suspicion, and sceptical thinking discouraged, but an official climate of opinion developed, conditioned to receive US foreign policy sympathetically just as in past years the support for British foreign policy had been almost automatic.”
 
Academic institutions have played a crucial role in the formulation and maintenance of that “official climate of opinion”. All across the English-speaking world, ‘Centres’ for this and ‘Institutes’ for that make sure that, in addition to churning-out copious quantities of self-serving “research”, they regularly perform the much more important function of bringing together the men and women upon whose shoulders the responsibility for ensuring that the official climate does not change ultimately rests. At such gatherings the official orthodoxy is reinforced, international relationships forged, and new talent spotted and recruited.
 
The University of Otago Foreign Policy School, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in Dunedin over the weekend, was New Zealand’s first attempt at creating an academic adjunct to the official formulators of this country’s foreign policy. Inspired by Arnold Entwisle, and run by him for the first ten years of its existence, the two-day “school” initially did little more than provide an introduction to the rudiments of foreign policy and alert Otago’s brightest graduates to the possibility of a career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
 
As the year’s passed, however, the School’s annual colloquium began to build up a distinct community of participants and attendees. Not only the Ministry but many of the larger embassies regularly sent observers. Prestigious speakers, both local and international, added to the School’s reputation.
 
Much more significant, however, was the way the School adapted its subject-matter to reflect the public’s increasing engagement in foreign policy issues – especially the Vietnam War, sporting contacts with Apartheid-era South Africa, and nuclear disarmament. In doing so the School distinguished itself clearly from its local and overseas counterparts. By no means always, but often enough to perturb the official climate of opinion, the University of Otago Foreign Policy School has been prepared to interrogate, and not always sympathetically, the “values of civilisation” – and American foreign policy.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 June 2015.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Kindness Of Friends

Who? How? and With What? The Defence White Paper currently being drafted will attempt to answer the most basic questions about New Zealand's military posture. Who should do our fighting? How should they fight? What sort of weapons should they use? And, how much are we willing to pay? Historically, that last question has been crucial.
 
RIGHT NOW a hand-picked group of worthy citizens are hard at work spending $26 million of our money. They are doing so at the behest of the Prime Minister, John Key, who decided, a few years back, that what New Zealand really needed was a new flag. At the same time, but a lot further back in the decision-making machinery of state, a diverse collection of top-ranking military officers, senior bureaucrats and politicians are engaged in producing the 2015 Defence White Paper. As part of the flag-changing exercise, New Zealanders are being asked what they stand for. The much lower-key consultative exercise for the Defence White Paper needs to know what they’ll fight for – and how.
 
It’s a great shame that the same quantum of resources currently being poured into the flag-changing exercise have not been devoted to determining what goes into the Defence White Paper. Certainly a country’s flag is (or should be) a powerful symbol of national identity. As many old soldiers are quick to remind us, it’s the object under which tens-of-thousands of young New Zealanders marched off to war in 1939. And it’s still the object we drape over the caskets of the fallen as we pipe them off our ageing Hercules transport aircraft and into the care of their grieving families. It would, however, be foolish to equate the symbolism of war with war itself. Deciding how our nation should be defended, and by whom, is surely as worthy of intense public debate as the colour of the flag they fight under?
 
A Government “White Paper” is, as its name suggests, an attempt to come at important public policy from first principles. It should be a statement of fundamental intent: the starting point from which we collectively determine to set forth. What then, are the first principles of a New Zealand strategy for national defence?
 
The first big question to ask must surely be: Who will defend us?
 
This is not as naïve as it sounds, because if your answer to that first question is: “a defence force made up of New Zealanders”, then you’re immediately faced with a whole host of other questions. Should that defence force be large and conscripted, or small and professional? Should it operate on the assumption that New Zealand will be fighting its enemies alone, or as part of coalitions of allied forces? And, if it’s the latter, then how much of our national sovereignty are we willing to forfeit in return for the military assistance of larger, richer and more militarily formidable nation states?
 
The second big question to answer is: How shall we fight?
 
Should we attempt to equip ourselves with the most sophisticated and effective military technology in order to repel enemies attacking us from any quarter – land, sea or air? Or, should we build military proficiency in only a limited number of areas, relying, once again, on more powerful allies to supply the full array of military options?
 
The acquisition of full-spectrum military capability would entail the reconstitution of the RNZAF’s fighter-bomber squadrons, along with medium- and short-range surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, a submarine force and naval vessels at least equal to the task of apprehending Patagonian Tooth-Fishers.
 
The other alternative is to build a resistance-style defence force, based upon a universal people’s militia, ferociously schooled in the strategy and tactics of twenty-first century asymmetric warfare.
 
The latter option would be by far the cheapest option – a not unimportant consideration. Indeed, the third big question is: How much are we willing to pay?
 
The answer, historically, is “not very much”. Certainly, a defence force capable of defending New Zealand unaided, using conventional military weapons, would be eye-wateringly expensive. Taxes would rise and our welfare state would shrink. In the absence of a slavering, swivel-eyed existential threat, it is, therefore, very difficult to see the average Kiwi voter ponying-up for a Swiss or Israeli-style defence force. Equally unlikely is the prospect of New Zealanders suddenly becoming the South Pacific’s answer to the Viet Cong or Islamic State.
 
All of which leaves us in the position of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche relied upon “the kindness of strangers”, New Zealand’s security depends on the kindness of her “friends”.
 
Bluntly speaking: once a colony, always a colony – with or without a new flag.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 June 2015.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Poisoning Nauru: How Australia Is Destroying A Pacific Neighbour’s Democracy, While New Zealand’s Government Looks On.

Silencing All Opposition: Matthew Batsiua, one of five opposition MPs expelled from the Nauruan Parliament for challenging the increasingly dictatorial regime of President Baron Waqa, is arrested for leading a protest demonstration against its latest crackdown on free speech and the Internet. While Australia, in the name of its brutal "Pacific Solution", is poisoning Nauru's democratic institutions, New Zealand looks on in silence.
 
CORRUPTION IS LIKE POISON. Once inside your system it immediately starts attacking your defences. Eventually, if nothing is done to counteract its effects, it kills you. The tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, situated approximately 4,000 kilometres north of Auckland, has been corrupted by Australia. Slowly but surely, its democratic institutions are being poisoned.
 
Some would argue that it all began a hundred years ago when the Australians turfed out the Germans at the beginning of the First World War. At the war’s end, Nauru was declared a League of Nations “mandate” under the joint control of the British, Australian and New Zealand governments. In reality, however, Nauru has always been an Aussie-run operation.
 
No one would have cared (other than the Nauruans, who weren’t consulted) had it not been for the fact that this tiny dot (just 21 square kilometres!) on the equator had, over thousands of years, accumulated hundreds-of-thousands of tons of top-quality bird shit.
 
Nauru’s phosphate deposits were among the purest in the world, a fact which conferred upon the hapless island territory the dangerous status of “strategic possession”. Ruthlessly extracted for use as fertiliser, Nauru’s phosphate deposits would, between 1920 and 1980, transform New Zealand’s farms into some of the most productive agricultural units on earth.
 
The Nauruans were not permitted to get their hands on this crucial resource until the late 1960s. For a few fat years the newly independent republic of Nauru waxed affluent on its rapidly dwindling guano deposits. Briefly, its citizens enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes on earth. And then, suddenly, it was gone. Leaving Nauru as little more than, in David Lange’s memorable phrase: “a clapped-out quarry”.
 
What was Nauru to do? In 1991 it had $1.5 billion in its Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust – a not insignificant capital base for 10,000 citizens looking for a fresh start. Tragically, by 2001, corruption and mismanagement had reduced the Trust’s resources to barely $100 million. With its levels of expenditure now well in excess of its income, Nauru was broke.
 
And then along came the Tampa and its hundreds of rescued asylum seekers. Little Johnny Howard responded by unconscionably exploiting Australia’s most visceral racist impulses. That created an urgent political need to get the whole festering problem off Australian soil. What Howard and his Liberal Party were looking for was a nation state that was not only willing to “accommodate” Australia’s unwanted asylum-seekers, but to also put a dampener on the enthusiasm of interfering human-rights lawyers, UN rapporteurs, and investigative journalists. Thus was born the “Pacific Solution”.
 
The detention of the Tampa refugees was arranged with indecent haste, but the transformation of Nauru into an hermetically-sealed island of unaccountable state power was bound to take a little longer. Nauru had a perfectly serviceable democratic constitution. It belonged to the Commonwealth and was a member of the Pacific Forum. It had a respectable and responsible judiciary made up of (mostly) Australian judges. Its small, Australian-trained, police force was reasonably competent and honest. On the debit side, the country was broke, and just about everybody lucky enough to have a job worked for the Nauruan government. Politics and public administration was the country’s Achilles’ Heel. To corrupt Nauru, all Howard (or any other Australian prime minister) needed was a fistful of aid dollars – and 10 of its 19 MPs.
 
It has taken 14 years, off and on, but the poison is clearly working. Nauru’s decision to host Australia’s concentration camps for asylum seekers has eroded every constitutional check and balance essential to the survival of democratic institutions.
 
The first casualty was the Nauruan judiciary. In January 2014 the Chief Justice of Nauru, Geoffrey Eames, was expelled from the country, along with the Australian magistrate, Peter Law. With them went the rule of law in the tiny republic. The administration of justice is now in the hands of persons answerable only to the politicians. Opponents of the Government can no longer rely on the courts for protection.
 
The police force, too, has fallen under political control. Its inevitable involvement in the oppression of the asylum seekers has fatally compromised its personnel as impartial enforcers of the law. The Nauruan Police have abandoned their role as the the citizens’ protectors to become the Government’s enforcers. In collusion with the private security personnel responsible for keeping “order” at the refugee detention centres, police officers are increasingly regarded as people to be feared; thugs who can break the law with impunity.
 
The reason so little news of these derelictions filters out of Nauru is due to the ruthless censorship applied by the state-owned and operated television and radio stations. Attempting to report such matters would instantly cost any local journalist his or her job. It’s no easier for foreign journalists. President Baron Waqa and his Cabinet have imposed a mandatory, non-refundable $8,000 “bond” on every journalist attempting to enter the country. If that doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm, the Nauruan immigration authorities can always arrange for them to be put on the next plane to Sydney or Auckland. Oh, and just in case young Nauruans might feel tempted to organise and communicate through social media, the Government has shut down Facebook.
 
Not surprisingly, with the Judiciary subverted, the Police corrupted and the news media gagged, Baron Waqa and his allies decided in June of last year that it was time to put the finishing touches to their 21 square kilometre dictatorship. This involved the suspension of all those members of the Nauruan parliament who refused to go along with Waqa’s increasingly lawless regime.
 
Last week, several hundred Nauruans, led by one of the suspended MPs, Matthew Batsiua, attempted to protest the Waqa Government’s ever more draconian attempts to shut down free speech and the Internet. As they approached Parliament House, the Nauruan Police (aided by security officers from the camps) waded into the crowd and a number of protesters were hurt. Batsiua, along with the opposition MPs Sprent Dabwido (a former President of Nauru) and Squire Jeremiah were later arrested and remain in custody. Another opposition MP, Roland Kun, was physically hauled off a plane due to depart for Wellington and has had his passport cancelled. The Waqa regime is apparently concerned that he will inform the outside world about what is happening in Nauru.
 
The silence of the Australian Government in the face of this “Lord of the Flies” descent into lawlessness and brutality is readily understood. Prime Minister Tony Abbott needs the Pacific Solution and he is fully aware that it cannot be made to work in a democratic country where the rule of law holds sway.
 
More difficult to understand, and harder to forgive, is the silence of our own government. The Nauruans and their phosphate may have made New Zealand rich, but that does not appear to have inspired a reciprocal determination on our part to keep them free.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 25 June 2015.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Praise Be For Pope Francis!

Praise Be: Pope Francis, in his first encyclical “Laudato Si” (Praise Be) presents global capitalism with a stark choice. Either, brand this fearless pope a heretic and destroy him; or, embrace his radical Christian ecologism as a uniquely effective way of re-presenting capitalism to an increasingly hostile world.
 
POPE FRANCIS, like his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, is challenging the powerful to see the world through new eyes. The question, now, is whether the powerful will embrace this radical pope, or destroy him?
 
The fate of St. Francis would have been grim, had the then occupant of the papal throne, Innocent III, not recognised in his charismatic power a force of huge potential benefit to the Catholic Church. By extending his protection to Francis and his followers, Innocent allowed them to open a new pathway for the faithful. Pope Francis, in his first encyclical “Laudato Si” (Praise Be) presents global capitalism with a similar choice. Either, brand this radical pope a heretic and destroy him; or, embrace his radical Christian ecologism as a uniquely effective way of re-presenting capitalism to an increasingly hostile world.
 
Laudato Si is not only a masterful presentation of the case for the reality of global warming, but also a fearless exposé of its all-too-human origins. In linking environmental crisis with the mindset that places profit and private property ahead of all other considerations, Pope Francis is openly conceding what those on the right of politics have long suspected: that their opponents see climate change and capitalism as inextricably linked; and that the effects of the former cannot be effectively moderated without radically constraining the appetites of the latter.
 
It is this suspicion, now confirmed by Laudato Si, that explains the Right’s heavy intellectual (and financial) investment in the promotion of climate change denial. In essence, the climate change deniers want the world to believe two things: 1) That the “science” of climate change is highly contestable and very far from being settled. 2) That unscrupulous left-wing parties and politicians (especially the Greens) are using the alleged “threat” of climate change as a Trojan horse to bring down free-market capitalism.
 
In the context of normal electoral competition in the West, the general thrust of climate change denial has proved to be remarkably effective. Most voters understand that if climate change is real, then business-as-usual is over, and some pretty radical adjustments to their lifestyle must be imminent. But, if sufficient doubt can be raised concerning the urgency, the severity – or even the reality – of climate change, then business-as-usual will be able to go on for a little bit longer. And if the electorate’s ingrained historical fear of the Left could somehow be bundled-up with climate change? Well, then the life of business-as-usual could be extended almost indefinitely.
 
What makes Laudato Si so important is that its confirmation of the reality of climate change, and its indictment of capitalism as both creator and perpetuator of global warming, comes from a realm above and beyond the accepted parameters of electoral politics. Francis I is the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics – people who believe sincerely and devoutly that their Holy Father in Rome speaks for God himself. And if God’s anointed should speak with a left-wing accent?
 
The forces of conservative Catholicism have lived in mortal fear of just such a pope ever since the sweeping “Vatican II” reforms of Pope John XXIII. There are even those who, like the British author, David Yallop, believe that the last pope to advance the beneficial option for the poor, Pope John Paul I, was murdered by conservative ecclesiastical forces in the grip of the Italian Far-Right. Certainly, John Paul I’s successor, the virulently anti-Communist Pole, Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II) put paid to the hopes of liberal reformers and liberation theologians all over the Catholic world – most notably in Francis’s home continent, South America.
 
Reaction and corruption are still deeply embedded in the Catholic Church, and their minions have already been given every cause to fear the reforming hand of Pope Francis. That they should reach out to their natural allies – the neoliberal defenders of a globalised capitalism red in tooth and claw – is only to be expected.
 
The American Far-Right, in particular, will be aghast at the contents of Laudato Si. In the electorally critical sun-belt, the votes of overwhelmingly Catholic Hispanic Americans could make all the difference to next year’s presidential election.
 
There can be no disputing that Pope Francis has taken a great risk in delivering Laudato Si. Equally indisputable, however, is the greatness of his purpose. In his own words:
 
“We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good.”
 
Pope Francis has invited us to take ourselves and our planet seriously. It’s almost certainly the last chance we’ll be given.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 June 2015.

What Game Of Thrones Can Teach Us About Magna Carta

Under Duress: In the end, John Plantagenet had nothing but bad options to choose from. Cornered by his barons at Runnymede, about 20 miles west of London, and chivvied by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, King John affixed his seal to the charter which, its high-flown promises about freedom, justice and the rule of law notwithstanding, was drawn up to ensure that government of the barons, by the barons, for the barons, would endure.
 
“FOR THE WATCH!” With that grim cry, the conspirators of Castle Black struck down their Lord Commander. How fitting that the assassination of the fictional Jon Snow should coincide with the 800th anniversary of a legal document sealed at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Why fitting? Because the breath-taking brutality and treachery of Game of Thrones offers us a much truer guide to the political realities underpinning Magna Carta (as that legal document is now known) than the pious platitudes offered up by its latter-day celebrants.
 
The power of Game of Thrones, and the likely explanation for its worldwide popularity, is its clear-eyed refusal to pretend that good character and effective policy are somehow inextricable. The very real John Plantagenet, like the fictional Jon Snow, was a man confronted with a multitude of poor options – none of which were likely to significantly improve his position.
 
George R.R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones, presents Jon Snow to his readers as a man of honour and courage who, in spite (or is it because) of these qualities, is required to make his choices from a set of dwindling military and political options – each one carrying a higher risk of death, either in battle or by assassination. With every decision Jon Snow makes, his personal circumstances grow more perilous, until, eventually, nothing remains to him but fatal choices.
 
Very few historians (if any) would attempt to present John Plantagenet as an honourable man. The historical cliché of “Bad King John” (so unlike his “good” brother, the chivalrous King Richard the Lionheart) does possess a reasonably solid foundation in historical fact. With brutality to match the very worst scenes in Game of Thrones, John ordered the deaths of the young Welsh noblemen sent to his court as hostages to their fathers’ good behaviour. And, to prevent her spreading rumours (which were, almost certainly, true) that he had personally murdered his own nephew, Arthur, John ordered Maud de Braose, along with her eldest son, to be shut up in the dungeon of Corfe Castle and starved to death.
 
John Plantagenet was, clearly, no Jon Snow when it came to matters of good character. He did, however, have much in common with the fictional hero when it came to poor political options. The vast Angevin Empire, which John inherited from his father, King Henry II, and his formidable mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Cersei eat your heart out!) was under constant pressure from barons loyal to the French king. To hold onto his family’s territories across the English Channel, men and money were urgently required – and they did not come cheap.
 
If John had refused to defend his inheritance, he would have been in all kinds of trouble. (His enemies already called him John “Lackland”, or, even worse, “Softsword”!) But, in raising the resources required to defend the empire, he was bound to displease his feudal support-base, the barons. Indeed, it was John’s success as an administrator – and tax collector – that incited his barons (especially those who owed him lots of money) to rebel.
 
And these barons were very far from being the lordly defenders of the rights of freeborn Englishmen that the celebrants of Magna Carta like to paint them. On their own lands they wielded the same sort of brutal authority as the murderous Bolton family displays in Game of Thrones. One could even argue that it was the royal encroachments on baronial power represented by John’s administrative innovations (he invented to post of Coroner, the “Crown’s Man”) that made his rebellious barons so determined to roll back their King’s expanding authority.
 
Good man or bad man, John Plantagenet, like Jon Snow, was ultimately left with nothing but bad options to choose from. Cornered by his barons and their “bannermen” at Runnymede, about 20 miles west of London, and chivvied by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, King John affixed his seal to the charter which, its high-flown promises about freedom, justice and the rule of law notwithstanding, was drawn up to ensure that government of the barons, by the barons, for the barons, would endure.
 
Jon Snow over-ruled his enemies in the Night’s Watch – and paid the price. John Plantagenet bowed to his barons’ assembled swords – and survived. Three months later, at John’s insistence, their long-winded charter was annulled by the Pope.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 Junes 2015.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

"Home Town Boy": What Jerry Collins’s Homecoming Can Teach The Left About Pasifika New Zealanders.

From Inspiration To Aspiration: Not everyone can feint and side-step like Jerry Collins, but in those moments of transcendent sporting artistry for which he will long be remembered, he has inscribed an irresistible invitation to every young Pasifika man and woman: “You, too, can be this good!”
 
IT LOOKED SPONTANEOUS, but it wasn’t. Crowds numbering in the thousands very seldom appear without a lot of behind the scenes preparation. And when Jerry Collin’s body returned to Porirua last Sunday, it seemed as if half the city had turned out to welcome their fallen rugby hero home.
 
It was the same today [17 June 2015]. Te Rauparaha Arena was filled to its 4,000-seat capacity for Collins’s funeral service. Rugby greats of both the past and the present; including Jonah Lomu and All Black Captain, Ritchie McCaw; were there to pay their respects. Porirua’s ambitious young Mayor, Nick Leggett, spoke too, but briefly. More than happy to let the huge crowd speak for itself, Leggett simply noted that Collins was “a home-town boy at heart”.
 
The rugby field was always the place where Collins spoke the loudest, but, in the extraordinary outpouring of love, grief and pride at his tragic death, he has bequeathed to those with sufficient wit to interpret it, an important message about what moves and inspires Pasifika people in New Zealand.
 
Because the thousands of Pasifika men and women, boys and girls, who have, in recent days, filled their city’s streets and stadia, are the same people European political scientists and commentators have in mind when they talk, glibly, about the “Missing Million” voters.
 
It’s not a kindly designation. Those who, though eligible to vote, decline to do so are, more often than not, dismissed as inferior citizens. Their political inertia is explained away by the deleterious effects of poverty and cultural marginalisation. They are deemed to be suitable cases for treatment; targets for education programmes; the problem children of a political system under pressure.
 
And yet, in the space of a few days, these same “inert” citizens, utilising the social institutions that still count for something in their lives: schools; church groups: rugby clubs; were able to organise a demonstration of love and pride that stunned the nation.
 
There were some who found it all vaguely de trop: the man was, after all, only a rugby player. “For God’s sake – it’s not as if he cured cancer!” For others, it was touching proof of the essential innocence of Pasifika culture. “Oh, how marvellous! Just look at those hand-made banners. He obviously meant so much to them!”
 
"Home Town Boy At Heart": Jerry Collins's homecoming was about so much more than rugby.
 
Such misjudgements only reinforce the need to more fully (and accurately!) decode the meaning of Porirua’s response to Jerry Collins’s death. Clearly, this was about so much more than rugby.
 
For all immigrant communities there are vectors of escape. For some, the primary route to participation and acceptance in the dominant culture is education. For others, it is service in the military. For a great many more, however, both here in New Zealand and around the world, sport is by far the most effective vector for escaping the constraints of subordinated immigrant societies.
 
But sport offers more than mere escape. Unlike education, which all-too-often removes the escapee from the cultural milieu in which he or she was raised, sport provides its success stories with multiple opportunities to “give something back”. This may be as simple as giving the fans superlative displays of sporting skill and flair. But it can also include mentoring up-and-coming players, coaching local or national teams, and providing that all-important “role model” for the young and aspirational.
 
Jerry Collins contributed at all these levels and was recognised as having done so by the community in which he grew up. This could only burnish his status as a local hero. Not only had he proved himself in the European world (including faraway France!) but, as he was doing so, he had remained, in Leggett’s words, “a home-town boy at heart”.
 
A son of Samoa, a son of Porirua, a son of New Zealand – living proof that to be born Pasifika is no obstacle to greatness.
 
It was for this that they turned out in their thousands to honour Jerry Collins’s homecoming. For the living proof he provided that ethnicity is not destiny; that it is a good thing to aspire to greatness; and that it is an even better thing to achieve it.
 
For left-wing European politicians this is the crucial message – though not all of them will recognize, and even fewer will welcome, it. That Pasifika people neither see themselves, nor are they happy to be treated as, victims. That, even more importantly, they do not see the exercise of the franchise as a primary, or even a particularly effective, vector of escape. The European working-class constructed a political party and used it to lever themselves out of poverty and into relative affluence. Pasifika people appear to be engaged in blazing a very different trail to the future.
 
Much of it is about community. More of it than is any longer the case with European New Zealand is about spirituality. But most of it seems to be about hope and the power of good examples. Not everyone can feint and side-step like Jerry Collins, but in those moments of transcendent sporting artistry for which he will long be remembered, he has inscribed an irresistible invitation to every young Pasifika man and woman:
 
“You, too, can be this good!”
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 18 June 2015.