Saturday, 28 February 2015

What's Good For Them: Tony Abbott And The Australian Electorate

Tuning Out: Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and his Chief-of-Staff, Peta Credlin, epitomise that faction of the political class which believes that popular consent is no longer essential to effective governance. The Australian electorate is fast disabusing them of this elitist political fantasy.
 
TONY ABBOTT, Australia’s beleaguered Prime Minister, is just the latest (and nearest) casualty of a steadily widening rift within the international political class. Essentially, this class is split between those who believe that effective and efficient governance is possible without popular consent. (Which, they assert, can now be convincingly simulated without political risk). And those who continue to believe that a certain, irreducible, measure of popular consent remains indispensable to the maintenance of a government’s political legitimacy.
 
Abbott is a particularly vivid exemplar of the non-democratic mode of governance. The speed with which he jettisoned his electoral promises to the Australian electorate confirms his entirely instrumental view of the electoral process. In Abbott’s eyes, a party manifesto should never be construed as some form of contract with the electorate. This is because electoral promises are not promises in the conventional sense. They are, rather, to be understood as straightforward voter motivators: an important means to the ultimate end of amassing more votes than one’s opponents and winning power.
 
Abbott’s extraordinary practice of making “Captain’s calls” – decisions made without reference to either his cabinet colleagues or his own backbench – epitomises his view of governance as a series of top-down directives – to be implemented without question or delay. In pursuing this strategy, Abbott is strongly assisted by his controversial chief-of-staff, Peta Credlin, who has repeatedly demonstrated her contempt for cabinet ministers and back-benchers alike. Working together, Abbott and Credlin have perfected an Australian variant of government-by-decree – a practice more usually associated with hard-pressed presidential regimes (most infamously with the ill-starred Weimar Republic).
 
That Abbott sees himself as some sort of presidential figure was made clear in his outraged reaction to the suggestion that his colleagues might be preparing to over-turn “the people’s choice” for prime-minister. In advancing this position (with considerable support from the right-wing news media) Abbott was, in effect, turning the whole Westminster System of parliamentary government on its head.
 
Between elections, he was saying, the Prime Minister must be invulnerable to challenge. A notion which directly contradicts the long-established convention that the Prime Minister holds office at the pleasure of Parliament, and that democratic accountability is traceable through the people’s representatives exclusively. It is Members of Parliament who determine, by majority vote, the composition of the government – and no one else.
 
The problem with this convention, at least as far as the non-democratic faction of the political class is concerned, is that it places far too much power in the hands of politicians who are, themselves, vulnerable to the electoral power of the voters. Inflict too much pain on the electorate and it just might decide to turf the government responsible out of office.
 
That this is much more than a theorem of political science was demonstrated to the Australian political class by the voters of Queensland, who, only last month, rounded savagely on their proudly non-democratic premier and his unmandated assault on the people of the sunshine state by emphatically reinstalling a thoroughly chastened Labor Party to office.
 
It was this demonstration of the voters’ power (which, itself, followed hard on the heels of a similar upset in the state of Victoria) that prompted a significant minority of Abbott’s back-benchers to call for a leadership ballot. That Abbott held them off was in large measure due to the formal loyalty of his Cabinet. But even inside the Cabinet Room, a restive and growing group of Liberal Party ministers are rapidly coming to terms with the practical political dangers of persisting with the fiction that Abbott is some sort of elected Kaiser and Peta Credlin his Iron Chancellor.
 
The neoliberal zealots who populate the think-tanks, employer lobbies and commentariat of the Australian Right may have convinced themselves that elections are mere charades to be managed by public-relations mavens, pollsters and spin-doctors; and that, as soon as these irritating democratic rituals have been safely concluded, the real business of “responsible” governance can resume – regardless of promises made and any naive voter expectations that those promises will be kept. Wiser heads within the political class know better.
 
Major economic and social changes, imposed without a clear electoral mandate, can only be preserved through an ever-increasing reliance on political distraction, demagoguery, and outright deceit. Inevitably, this sort of political chicanery, accompanied, as it so often is, by the imposition of unannounced and unfairly distributed pain, will be answered by the sort of emphatic electoral rejection so recently demonstrated in Victoria and Queensland.
 
As the moderate faction of the political class absorbs these fundamental democratic realities, and their unease is communicated to the Liberal Party’s wavering politicians, Abbott’s position will become increasingly untenable. Sooner or later (and most probably it will be sooner) he will be made to pay the price for ignoring the pragmatic examples set by his more durable predecessors.
 
The best Aussie barbeques are those where the guests get to eat the steaks and salads they’ve prepared themselves – not the ones where the host alone decides what’s good for them.
 
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Saturday, 28 February 2015.

Friday, 27 February 2015

A Killing Joke: Halford Mackinder's Last Laugh

Defending The Heartland: Russian volunteers bar the eastward road to a US-installed Ukrainian government determined to derange the strategic equilibrium of Eastern Europe - even at the risk of igniting World War III.
 
IN THE CAPITAL CITIES of Europe, diplomats are sharing the following, rather grim, joke: It seems that Washington, having missed out on the beginning of World Wars I and II, is determined to be in right at the start of World War III.
 
No one in the European Union is laughing very loudly. The flames of war are already lighting-up Europe’s eastern horizon, and a fire in your neighbour’s house, if not extinguished quickly, can all-too-easily set your own ablaze.
 
Beneath the joke’s mildly anti-American punch-line lie a host of barely acknowledged European fears. For almost half-a-century after the end of World War II the nations of Europe were effectively relieved of the responsibility for formulating their own foreign policies. To the east, the nations of the Warsaw Pact followed Moscow’s lead. In the West the members of Nato allowed themselves to be guided by Washington.
 
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the collapse of the USSR two years later, that all changed. The collapse of the Soviet Empire allowed a huge power vacuum to develop between the eastern border of the newly re-united Germany and the western border of a Russian Federation shorn of territories formerly regarded as integral and indispensable to the Russian State.
 
Diplomacy, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The West was thus presented with some very difficult – but crucially important – choices. Would the United States and her European allies take advantage of Russia’s temporary weakness and extend Nato’s reach hundreds of kilometres to the east. Or, would they acknowledge the historical justification for Russia’s demand that a buffer-zone of friendly and largely demilitarised states be erected between itself and the military might of the Nato powers? After all, the last time a large Western European state decided to move eastwards, 20 million Russian citizens lost their lives.
 
In spite of giving the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, his word that the Nato powers would not attempt to extend the alliance all the way to Russia’s new borders, the US President, George H.W. Bush, and his successors, attempted to do exactly that.
 
Their strategy was almost exactly the same as the one which had been urged on the Big Three victors of World War I, Great Britain, France and the USA, by the British envoy to Southern Russia in 1919, the geopolitician, Sir Halford Mackinder.
 
Sir Halford Mackinder: The father of geopolitics.
 
To keep the revolutionary Russian government weak, he argued, it would be necessary to construct a “cordon sanitaire” of Western-oriented regimes out of bits of the now defunct Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian Empires. Crucially, among the territories to be included in Mackinder’s list of westward-oriented buffer-states were Georgia, Byelorussia and the Ukraine.
 
According to Mackinder’s own “Heartland” theory, whichever great power, or combination of great powers, ended up acquiring these territories – especially the Ukraine – would soon be in a position to rule the world. This was because the possession of these territories would open the way to the strategic heart of what he called “The World Island” – the geographically contiguous Eurasian and African land-masses.
 
Mackinder’s infamous geopolitical formula: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World”; was to inspire not only Adolf Hitler, but an alarming number of American geostrategic thinkers throughout the Cold War.
 
 
Geopolitics For Beginners: Frank Kapra's Why We Fight - a motivational series of films produced for American servicemen during World War II - leans heavily (and without attribution) on Mackinder's geopolitical theories. That  they were seized upon by German nationalists in the 1920s and 30s rendered Mackinder's ideas unfit for polite public discussion. (But not for Cold War strategy sessions!) The relevant section begins about 4 minutes in.
 
These same geostrategic thinkers, confronted with the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union, immediately sought to apply Mackinder’s formula. The US and its Nato allies were urged to take control of East Europe as quickly as possible.
 
What was surprising was that the West European states, freed from the threat of Moscow’s armoured divisions, were unwilling to assert a more independent course. In spite of seeing the ruin all previous attempts to apply Mackinder’s geopolitical formulae had wrought upon Europe, her leaders made no attempt to restrain their American counterparts.
 
Perhaps those European leaders would have tried harder, had they known that Russia’s rising political star, Vladimir Putin, and his sinister coterie of foreign policy and military advisers, were every bit as enthusiastic in their admiration for Sir Halford Mackinder’s theories as their hawkish American adversaries. The West is not going to be permitted to rule East Europe on their watch. Not while Russia still commands nuclear weaponry.
 
Contemplating the outbreak of World War III is no joke.
 
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, February 27, 2015.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Sharpening The Stick At Both Ends: "Lord Of The Flies" Comes To Parliament

"I've Got The Conch!" Democracy is a brittle construct and easily shattered. The Prime Minister's behaviour in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, 24 February 2015 plumbed new depths of intemperance and aggression. Like Jack in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, John Key evinces scant regard for the traditions of free speech and honest disagreement.
 
THE PRIME MINISTER’s conduct in the House of Representatives yesterday afternoon was disgraceful. It is doubtful if any of John Key’s predecessors have ever displayed such contempt for the dignity of their office. Shouting across the chamber in a manner which has been described, with considerable justification, as unhinged, Mr Key looked and sounded like someone on the verge of unleashing physical violence.
 
The Prime Minister, John Key: Unhinged?
 
“Get some guts! Join the right side!”, the Prime Minister screamed at the Opposition benches – as if it was an argument.
 
What happened then was, if anything, even more unnerving that John Key’s out-of-control demagoguery. As he dropped, exhausted, into his seat, the Prime Minister’s colleagues leapt to their feet, roaring and clapping.
 
Watching them on television, it was difficult not to mentally superimpose upon the screen the 1930s black-and-white footage of thousands of ecstatic Germans hoisted to their feet by the frenzied ravings of the Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler. If those National Party MPs had stretched out their right arms and begun chanting “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!”, it would not have been any more outlandish than the Prime Minister’s own conduct.
 
It is to be hoped that, having had 24 hours to reflect upon their conduct during yesterday’s debate on the Cabinet’s decision to deploy close to 150 troops to Iraq, Mr Key’s parliamentary colleagues are feeling appropriately shamefaced.  Because, in the course of delivering his response to the other party leaders’ near-unanimous opposition to the Government’s announced troop deployment, Mr Key crossed a vital constitutional line.
 
Parliament’s rules, its “Standing Orders” insist that all members are “Honourable Members” – and must be treated as such. Without this rule, the conduct of the legislature’s business would rapidly descend into rancorous disorder. Rational debate would become impossible – raising the spectre of MPs coming to blows on the Floor of the House. It has happened many times in other jurisdictions, it would be tragic if it happened here.
 
Parliamentary democracy is a brittle thing and very easily broken. All it takes is for those who have agreed to abide by its rules to suddenly renege on their agreement. This democratic vulnerability and fragility is captured brilliantly in William Golding's famous novel, Lord of the Flies.
 
In the story, a group of English school-boys, stranded on a desert island, create a democratic assembly in which all important decisions are debated. Anyone wishing to speak at these gatherings asks for and is given a beautiful conch shell which, while held, guarantees the holder a fair hearing. The boys’ final descent into barbarity occurs when Jack, driven by his lust for power and control, kills the cleverest boy on the island, Piggy, as, conch in hand, he attempts to persuade the boys to keep working together. The murder weapon is a giant boulder which Jack dislodges from above. Piggy is crushed, and the conch shatters into a thousand pieces on the rocks below.
 
Yesterday, in the House of Representatives, John Key became Jack. His intemperate outburst, bristling with insults and barely concealed threats against everyone who'd dared to speak out against his government’s decision to commit New Zealand to another war in the Middle East, was as unprecedented as it was chilling. If not shattered, the delicate conch shell of parliamentary democracy was very roughly handled.
 
Tellingly, instead of reacting to their leader’s extraordinary display with the same stunned expression of horrified disbelief as the Opposition, the faces of the Government members registered only the most delirious approbation.
 
In Lord of the Flies, Jack’s followers whisper darkly that their leader has “sharpened a stick at both ends”. It is a metaphor well suited to this Government’s announced intention to not only deploy troops to the Middle East, but to pass legislation further strengthening the powers of the security and intelligence services. The same Parliament which the Executive refused to entrust with a vote on the Iraq Deployment, will soon be asked to invest that same Executive with even more powers to keep the New Zealand people under surveillance.
 
After catching a glimpse of the Jack that lurks beneath the mask of genial John, the House of Representatives would be most unwise to oblige the Prime Minister in this regard. Or, at least, not before he gives proof that he accepts and understands that the Labour, Green and NZ First parties (and, in the case of the Iraq Deployment, the Maori and United Future parties as well) constitute Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
 
That these parties have rejected the Government’s decision to re-join the Middle East conflict is both their right and their duty. In saying “No.” they are representing the very substantial number of New Zealanders who do not want their soldiers in Iraq. These people are not gutless. Nor are they on the wrong side of the argument merely because the Prime Minister believes himself and his government to be on the right side.
 
The aggression and intolerance which the Prime Minister displayed in the House yesterday afternoon should fill all New Zealanders with a deep sense of foreboding. If the Iraq Deployment gives rise to deadly reprisals by Islamic State, it is by no means clear that this government’s response will be either rational or restrained. Those who hold the conch of free speech in their hands will need to keep their eyes open and their backs against the wall.
 
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Wednesday, 25 February 2015.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Iraq: The Unasked And Unanswered Questions.

Invasion Force: Western troops return from an exercise in the Saudi Arabian desert in the run-up to Operation Desert Storm (1990-91). St Thomas Aquinas enjoined his fellow Christians to avoid all wars in which the cost of their participation was, by any rational calculation, likely to be higher, in human terms, than their abstention. Is the Middle East a better or worse place after 25 years of Western intervention?
 
BY THE TIME you read these words, the dispatch of New Zealand troops to Iraq will, almost certainly, have been announced. For the fourth time in less than quarter-of-a-century, Kiwi boots will be kicking up sand in the Middle East. Unasked, presumably, by those seated around the Cabinet Table yesterday morning, were the questions:
 
“Has the Middle East become a better, or a worse, place since the West’s first, massive, post-war incursion, back in 1991?”
 
And: “Will it be a better, or worse, place for the Western “Club’s” intervention in 2015?”
 
It is worth reminding ourselves that Osama Bin Laden’s decision to shift Al Qaida’s focus to the “far-away enemy” was triggered by the arrival of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in the Arabian Peninsula – home of the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina. Imagine how Catholic Christians would react to the sight of several Arab divisions setting up camp in the Vatican City, and you’ll have some inkling of how profoundly affected Bin Laden and his followers were by the Americans’ arrival.
 
The past has much less purchase on the sensibilities of the average Westerner than it does on the hearts and minds of those belonging to the Islamic faith. Even today, both Al Qaida and Islamic State denounce the military contingents of the West as “Crusaders” – referencing the Frankish knights who invaded the Muslim world early in the Twelfth Century. Nor is this mere rhetoric on their part. Through all the intervening centuries, street-singers from Beirut to Baghdad have kept alive the horrors perpetrated by the Christian invaders, and recounted proudly how Islam’s great captain, Saladin, recaptured the holy city of Jerusalem. The Crusades are as real to the people of the Middle East as the much more recent tragedy of Gallipoli is to us.
 
Every grain of sand kicked-up by Kiwi soldiers’ boots in Iraq will be weighted down with centuries of history. It is, moreover, a living past, inextricably intertwined with the present, and its effects can be deadly. The terrible punishments meted out to those who have fallen into the clutches of Islamic State are not the random choices of sadistic criminals, but the fate prescribed by Islam’s 1,383-year-old holy book, the Quran:
 
“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter”.
 
This is the world into which our government has decided to send one hundred or more young New Zealanders. Our soldiers will now be numbered among “those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger”. From the moment New Zealand’s participation in the war against Islamic State is announced, the fate of any Kiwi soldier, or citizen, falling into the hands of Islamic State, is sealed.
 
New Zealand is very far from Iraq and Syria; so far that it is possible the self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has forgotten we exist. The news that 100 New Zealand troops are on their way to join the ranks of the “Crusaders” will, therefore, come as a forceful reminder of our role in Middle Eastern history. It is to be hoped that Prime Minister Key has not forgotten how far the influence of al-Baghdadi’s regime now reaches. If he needs instruction, he has only to ask the citizens of Copenhagen, Paris, Sydney and Ottawa. The “Caliphate’s” arm has grown very long indeed.
 
If our Government has deliberately invited the religious fervour of the Middle East into these peaceful and hitherto tolerant islands, then we, ourselves, will have to answer the questions they refused to consider: “Has intervention worked in the past?”, “Will it work now?” And, “Is it justified?”
 
The first two answers are, obviously, “No.” But what about the third? What possible justification can we offer for dispatching troops to a country where millions of the people they’ve been sent to help will curse them as enemies of God?
 
Is it possible that we, like the gullible inhabitants of Medieval Europe, have allowed ourselves to be goaded into action by sermons filled with the details of hideous atrocities? Are our soldiers about to depart these shores with the red cross of the crusader knights emblazoned – if only metaphorically – on their uniforms? If so, then we are embarked upon a fool’s errand that can only end in horror and despair.
 
St Thomas Aquinas enjoined his fellow Christians to avoid all wars in which the cost of their participation was, by any rational calculation, likely to be higher, in human terms, than their abstention.
 
Our presence in Iraq cannot be justified. It will end badly.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 February 2015.

Gods And Monsters: Reflections On Saturday's "Auckland Pride Parade".

How You Can Tell That The Struggle Has Been Lost: When a parade intended as a celebration of people's rights is taken over by the State's primary instruments of coercion and control.
 
IMAGINE A MAY-DAY PARADE headed up by representatives of the Army, Navy and Air Force. With Police and Corrections officers following close behind! A little further back, Members of Parliament from the governing party wave gamely at the crowds lining the parade route. Only after all these groups have marched past, proudly declaring their solidarity with the working-class, do the country’s trade unions finally make their appearance. (May Day is, after all, a workers’ festival!)  Even so, interspersed among the union bands and banners, are expensive floats, sponsored by some of the country’s largest and most successful banks and businesses.
 
What would such a parade say about the status and purpose of the country’s trade union movement? Surely a May Day parade in which the country’s soldiers, policemen and jailers were given pride of place could only have been organised in the old Soviet Union or one of its East European satellites?
 
The prominent presence of the state’s key institutions of coercion and control would be proof positive that the trade union movement had long since ceased to be in any way subversive, transgressive, or emancipatory. It would signal that trade unionists had become “okay” people to know, and that their representatives could safely be invited to gatherings frequented by the good and the great.
 
It would also proclaim that the state was no longer frightened of trade unions or trade unionists. And why would it be? When nothing trade unions did in any way interfered with or disrupted the smooth operation of the system. What was not to like, when trade unionists now counted themselves among the strongest supporters of the political, economic and social status quo.
 
The final proof that the trade union movement had been completely swallowed up by the Establishment would a media release from the Council of Trade Unions celebrating the parade as “bigger, better and more mainstream” than ever before, and praising the “massive symbolism” of the armed forces’ and the Police’s participation.
 
Presumably, the CTU media release would end by pointing out that: “The contrast between the bad old days, when the Police were better known for batoning strikers on the picket-line, and when the army’s trucks were used for the transportation of scabs; and the progressive present, when nearly all large institutions can boast at least one Trade Union Liaison Officer; could hardly be more striking.”
 
Watching a May Day Parade in which everyone from the Army and the Police, to MPs and City Councillors were proudly waving red flags and punching the air with clenched-fist salutes would be deeply, deeply depressing. It would mean that the movement I had devoted much of my adult life to promoting and defending had been drained of all its radicalism and danger.
 
I would feel as shocked and alienated as I imagine many LGBTIQA Aucklanders felt when they saw what used to be called “The Hero Parade” turned into a showcase for the “openness and diversity” of  the New Zealand Defence Force, the Police, the Department of Corrections, Air New Zealand, assorted commercial radio stations and the ANZ Bank. As if all the vicious prejudices and hidden brutalities of “mainstream” New Zealand society have floated away like so many helium-filled balloons over Western Park.
 
New Zealand led the world in passing legislation that not only made collective bargaining legal but also supported it with taxpayer-funded institutions. Did that legislation succeed in overcoming the stigma attached to all those who demanded a greater share of the wealth their labour had created? No, it did not. There remained, deeply entrenched in New Zealand’s capitalist society, the most powerful antipathy towards trade unions. So much so that, in 1991, the National Party passed the Employment Contracts Act – in which even the term “trade union” did not appear.
 
Has the passage of legislation decriminalising homosexuality, recognising civil unions and legalising gay marriage truly eliminated the deeply entrenched negativity towards all things LGBTIQA in “mainstream” New Zealand society? Are we really as welcoming of “diversity”, so forgiving of difference, as Saturday’s “Auckland Pride Parade” organisers insisted? The tragically large number of young people committing suicide in response to their families’ and their peers’ reception of their sexual natures suggests that we are still very far from that goal.
 
More than forty years ago, the radical sociologist Herbert Marcuse coined the phrase “repressive tolerance” to describe the way capitalist society was subverting the traditional concept of liberal tolerance and transforming it into its opposite – subtle domination. All those institutions and social tendencies considered hostile to capitalism’s interests were gradually being absorbed into its processes and neutralised. As I watched the Auckland Pride Parade make its way along Ponsonby Road on Saturday night, and contrasted its corporate slickness with the wild and gloriously transgressive Hero Parades of the 1990s, I silently congratulated old Marcuse for his insight.
 
Protest: Thankfully, there was at least one human-being at Saturday's parade who still knew how to say "No!"
 
And later, when I read about the young person whose arm was broken by a security guard for daring to protest against the oxymoronic travesty of soldiers, police officers and jailers celebrating unconventional sexualities, I offered up a silent prayer to the gods and monsters of perversity and resistance: the ones who embolden rebels and keep the authorities off-balance. Among that gawking and guffawing crowd, they’d reassured me, there was at least one human-being who still knew how to say: “No!”
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 23 February 2015.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

While Evils Are Sufferable: What Would It Take To Rouse New Zealanders To Revolt?

Uprising: Kathe Kollwitz's vivid 1899 etching captures the moment when a people decide that the evils besetting them are no longer sufferable. What would a New Zealand Government have to do to forfeit all moral and political legitimacy? What would it take to make New Zealanders revolt?
 
WHAT DOES A GOVERNMENT have to do before it forfeits all legitimacy in the eyes of its people? It’s a question many people have asked down the centuries. In the modern era, no person has set forth the conditions under which all government legitimacy may be considered lost more eloquently than Thomas Jefferson. Author of the American Declaration of Independence (1776) Jefferson set forth in the rolling cadences of the Eighteenth Century exactly why governments are created, and exactly when they may, justifiably, be destroyed:
 
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
 
Were Jefferson, transported through time to Barack Obama’s America, to publicly assert “The Spirit of ‘76”, it is highly likely that he would find himself under investigation by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, or both. For openly proclaiming the right of the American people “to alter or to abolish” their system of government – should it become destructive to their “unalienable rights” – he would, almost certainly, find himself placed on what Edward Snowden calls the “cast-iron watch-list” of the National Security Agency. There he would be subjected to “a long train of abuses and usurpations” considerably more despotic than anything contemplated by the loyal servants of King George III.
 
We New Zealanders, though lacking entirely the revolutionary tradition of a United States or a France, are able to boast the longest, continuous exercise of fully democratic government on the planet. Governments elected by universal suffrage have ruled New Zealanders since 1893 – much longer than is the case in the United States, the United Kingdom, France or Germany.
 
This long, unbroken stretch of government with the consent of the governed has instilled in New Zealanders a possibly over-large measure of the “prudence” which Jefferson cites as the explanation for human-beings’ disposition to “suffer, while evils are sufferable”. Rather than secure our rights by abolishing the form of government to which we have become accustomed – and which has, up until the late-1980s, at least, served us extremely well – we have been willing to cut our political masters an awful lot of slack.
 
Not being natural ideologues, we struggle to make the connections between the neoliberal policies imposed upon this country by successive governments since 1984 (none of which have ever had the courage to seek an explicit electoral mandate for the entirety of the neoliberal programme they intended to pursue) and the appalling social consequences to which those policies have given rise.
 
Although the cause-and-effect relationship between cuts to mental health services and successful suicide attempts is indisputable, very few New Zealanders would consider it fair or appropriate to lay those deaths at the door of the responsible Cabinet Minister. Similarly, most Kiwis would feel uncomfortable about sheeting home the blame for child abuse and domestic violence to a government’s failure to pursue policies of full-employment and the provision of public housing. Many of us regard such ills as the unavoidable “collateral damage” of responsible public administration.
 
Where most New Zealanders would draw the line, I suspect, is at the suggestion that their government might be willing to sacrifice the life, or lives, of a New Zealand citizen, or citizens, in the pursuit of purely partisan political objectives.
 
The protection of its citizens, both at home and abroad, is the first and most fundamental duty of any government. To abrogate that duty, for whatever reason (other than to ward-off an imminent and deadly threat to the whole population) would not be accepted by the vast majority of New Zealanders.
 
Were it to be proved that the government had been willing to allow one or more of its citizens to be reduced to a mere pawn and then ruthlessly sacrificed in some partisan political chess game, that might just be enough to see Kiwi “prudence” thrust angrily aside.
 
Such a government would have forfeited all claim to moral and political legitimacy. Channelling the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, many thousands of New Zealanders might even conclude that, in the face of such insufferable evil, it was their right – and their duty – to throw off such a Government, and provide new guards for their future security.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 21 February 2015.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Debating America's Wars

The Price Of Principle: Labour's new leader, Norman Kirk, follows his party's defeat on Election Night 1966. Labour's opposition to New Zealand's military involvement in the Vietnam War was an important factor in the National Government's re-election. Polls taken in 1965 indicated that upwards of 70 percent of voters favoured Keith Holyoake's decision to send New Zealand troops. By 1972, however, public opinion had shifted decisively in favour of withdrawal.

A PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE on whether or not New Zealand should participate in America’s latest war is long overdue. That New Zealanders will soon be going to the polls makes it even timelier. The deployment of New Zealand troops overseas is much too important to be left to National Party Cabinet Ministers alone.
 
The Leader of the Opposition, who will argue against participating in America’s war, has not been leader of the Labour Party for very long. Nor is he especially popular. The man he replaced as leader may not have been well-liked by the public, but he was beloved by the more forward-looking and liberal elements of his party. They resent the way in which the newcomer’s been foisted upon them with the near unanimous support of Labour’s powerful trade union affiliates. Many fear that, as the unions protégée, he will drag Labour back to the attitudes of the 1930s and 40s. They worry that the much-needed “modernisation” of the party, which his predecessor promoted, is destined for the dustbin.
 
If you’re thinking that the Leader of the Opposition described above is Andrew Little, then you’re wrong. Nor is the American war referred to the one threatening to flare up again in the Middle East. The set-piece parliamentary debate described above took place not in 2015, but during the penultimate week of the 34th New Zealand Parliament, in October of 1966. The war in question was raging across South Vietnam. The new Leader of the Labour Party was Norman Kirk.
 
Rather than go on escalating New Zealand’s military involvement in Indo-China, Kirk argued strongly for a humanitarian, aid-based response to the conflict. He remained unconvinced that a just peace in Vietnam could ever be secured simply by administering ever-increasing doses of military force.
 
Little’s current assessment of the most effective contribution New Zealand can offer to the struggle against Islamic State is remarkably similar to Kirk’s 1966 position on Vietnam. He, too, favours a humanitarian, aid-based response; arguing that only an economically strong, socially cohesive and religiously tolerant Iraq can hope to lure away Islamic State’s aggrieved Sunni supporters.
 
The parallels do not end there. If Andrew Little’s foreign policy and defence assessments mirror those of Norman Kirk’s, then the Prime Minister’s, John Key’s, position is remarkably similar to that of Keith Holyoake’s.
 
As New Zealand’s National Party Prime Minister from 1960-1972, Holyoake distinguished himself as an astute “consensus” politician. Pressured by President Lyndon Johnson to add New Zealand footwear to the steadily increasing number of US “boots on the ground” in Vietnam, Holyoake did his best to limit this country’s involvement. He rightly suspected that even his minimal offer of a single artillery battery would generate vociferous opposition from a sizeable minority of the electorate.
 
Token Force: New Zealand troops load an L5 howitzer on to an armoured personnel carrier in Vietnam circa 1965.
 
That the trade unions would oppose military involvement was a given, but Holyoake and his colleagues were genuinely surprised and dismayed when Labour opted to follow the unions’ lead. Up until the 1965 decision to send troops to Vietnam, National and Labour had maintained a solid bi-partisan consensus on foreign-policy and defence matters. Holyoake’s decision to hold a set-piece parliamentary debate on the issue, just a few weeks prior to the 1966 General Election, was not made in the hope that consensus would be restored, but that it would remain broken. He was betting that Labour, by holding fast to its principles, would cause the 70 percent of Kiwis who backed the Vietnam intervention, to also back his government. He won the bet.
 
With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is clear that Holyoake and National lost more than they won. The shattering of the bi-partisan consensus on foreign policy and defence presaged the even greater fissuring of New Zealand society. It was Labour, not National, which rode the radical changes of the late-1960s and early-70s to victory.
 
Nowhere was this radicalism more apparent than in Labour’s changing view of New Zealand’s place in the world: “Circumstances dictate that, while we preserve the warmest ties and closest sentimental attachments between our country and the United Kingdom,” said Kirk, in 1972, “we recognise that we have come of age and must now stand on our own feet to reject the role of the dependant and at every opportunity seize the initiative.”
 
“Big Norm’s” declaration of independence is reaffirmed in Andrew Little’s principled position on Iraq.
 
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, 20 February 2015.