Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Sitting On Our Hands

"We Nailed It!" New Zealand's representative to the United Nations, Jim McClay, takes a moment as his country's election to the UN Security Council is announced. Prime Minister Key told reporters that New Zealand got there on the strength of its reputation for being "someone that stands up for what's right". Why then did we, just a few weeks later, refuse to support a resolution condemning neo-Nazism?
NEW ZEALANDERS experienced a justifiable surge of national pride when their country was elected to the United Nations Security Council. New Zealand’s UN ambassador (and former Deputy Prime Minister) Jim McClay buried his face in his hands with heartfelt relief. Our foreign minister, Murray McCully, exclaimed “We nailed it!”
Speaking outside his Parnell residence, a clearly delighted Prime Minister told reporters that: “It’s a very good result. There’s a lot of responsibility over the next two years. I think it will be quite a challenging time to be on the Security Council. There are some very big issues – as we see in the Middle East at the moment – and it will be a demanding time for New Zealand.
Commenting on the outstanding success of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s six-year-long campaign, Mr Key observed: “We put on display the credentials of New Zealand. Which is seen as an honest broker. Someone who stands up for what’s right.”
That’s certainly how most Kiwis regard their country. From the very beginnings of the United Nations, New Zealand has stood up for the rights of smaller countries. We made ourselves their champion in the unsuccessful fight to locate the international organisation’s ultimate authority in the General Assembly.
In the aftermath of the most destructive war in human history, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, argued passionately (but unavailingly) against vesting veto power in the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. He had more success in ensuring that economic and social rights were included alongside civil and political rights in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Why then did New Zealand, the “honest broker”; the country which always “stands up for what’s right”; fail to support a resolution sponsored by the Russian Federation condemning the “glorification of Nazism” and declaring the “inadmissibility of certain practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”?
If ever there was a “no brainer” for New Zealand diplomacy – this was it. Who on earth, apart from the extremist political hoodlums it identifies, could fail to support such a resolution?
Well, apparently, we could. When the Russian Federation’s resolution was put to the General Assembly’s Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee on 26 November 2014, New Zealand, along with 56 other UN members, abstained. Included among the abstainers were every member of the European Union (EU). Not even Germany, Nazism’s birthplace and the nation state responsible for the most horrific manifestations of race hatred in human history, was prepared to join the 120 other UN members who voted in favour of the resolution.
Only three UN members could be found among neither the supporters nor the abstainers. Canada, Ukraine and the United States of America had voted against the resolution.
Why? What could possibly persuade the democratic nations of Europe, North America and Australasia to refrain from declaring their alarm at “the spread in many parts of the world of various extremist political parties, movements and groups, including neo-Nazis and skinhead groups, as well as similar extremist ideological movements”? Or, for that matter, from expressing deep concern at “all recent manifestations of violence and terrorism incited by violent nationalism, racism, xenophobia and related intolerance”?
Beating The Tin Drum: Members of the Patriot of the Ukraine party marching to the beat of a neo-Nazi revival in Eastern Europe that New Zealand refuses to condemn.
The answer, of course, is to be found in the well-documented involvement of the US State Department and the governments of the EU in the February 2014 overthrow, by armed neo-Nazi demonstrators, of the democratically-elected government of Ukraine. That both the USA and the EU were prepared to recognise, for the first time since World War II, a European government which included openly fascist and neo-Nazi politicians, rendered support for the Russian Federation’s resolution diplomatically implausible.
Accordingly, the Western democracies argued strongly that supporting the Russian Federation’s resolution would be tantamount to endorsing the latter’s annexation of Crimea, and ignoring its ongoing military and economic support for the breakaway Russian-speaking provinces of Eastern Ukraine.
Utter foolishness.
President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is prey to the very same fascistic and neo-Nazi forces that its UN anti-racist resolution condemns. The uncomplicated endorsement of its content would, therefore, have allowed the democratic countries to serve notice on both the Russian Federation and Ukraine that violent racist xenophobia remains totally unacceptable to the United Nations’ membership.
Sadly, the United States refused to tolerate even implied criticism of its hard-won Ukrainian protectorate. Canada cravenly concurred. And the EU, rather than alienate the Americans, abstained.
As an “honest broker” who “always stands up for what’s right”, New Zealand was gifted an early opportunity to show the 145 UN members who voted for her that their support had not been misplaced. Reminding the world of Nazism’s 20 million Russian victims, and reconfirming its unalterably evil nature would, surely, have done more for international understanding – and our reputation – than sitting on our hands?
This essay was originally published by The Press of Tuesday, 16 December 2014.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Wisdom's Mirror: Can Grant Robertson Slay The Neoliberal Gorgon?

Reflected Gory: The Greek hero, Perseus, used Athena's bright shield to defeat Medusa. If Grant Robertson means to slay the neoliberal Gorgon he should, like Perseus, be guided by what he sees in Wisdom's Mirror. Neoliberalism can only be slain by the thing it set out to negate: the political economy of solidarity and generosity.
HOW TO ELIMINATE one’s rival without getting one’s hands dirty? It’s a problem with a prodigious political pedigree. King David’s lust for Bathsheba drove him to order, Uriah, her unfortunate husband, placed in the front line of battle – where he was promptly and conveniently slain. King Henry II, thwarted in his ambition to dominate the English Church by his old friend, Thomas Becket (whom he’d foolishly made Archbishop of Canterbury) cried out: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” Whereupon four of his knights immediately took it upon themselves to terminate the Archbishop’s turbulence with extreme prejudice. In neither case, however, did matters end well for these errant kings. God was watching David, and Henry had a Pope to placate.
Then again, there’s the legend of Perseus. If they’d had opinion polls on the Greek island of Serifos back in the days of King Polydectes, then the hero, Perseus, would have been the people’s preferred monarch. To protect his throne (and get his lustful paws on Perseus’ beautiful mother, Danae) Polydectes tricked the hero into promising to bring him any gift he cared to name. Without missing a beat, the King ordered Perseus to bring him the head of Medusa – the monstrous Gorgon who had only to look upon a man and he was instantly turned to stone.
Now in the ordinary run of things, Perseus would have been a goner. But, of course, as Zeus’s son, he had friends in the highest of places. And so, with the help of the gods Hermes and Athena, he was able to cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone. Returning to Serifos, Perseus bore the monster’s head to Polydectes who was, predictably, petrified.
Now, it strikes me that Andrew Little was born too late to have been enthralled (as I was) by the Children’s World Record Club’s magnificent rendering of the legend of Perseus and Medusa. [It’s how middle-class Kiwi parents entertained their children in the years before television!] Nevertheless, there is more than a hint of Polydectes deadly errand in Mr Little’s decision to confer the Finance Spokesperson role upon his most formidable political rival, Grant Robertson.

"Slay what?" Labour's Finance Spokesperson, Grant Robertson. 
The confident predictions of right-wing political commentators notwithstanding, Mr Little is expecting a great deal more from his Finance Spokesperson than yet another recitation of the neoliberal catechism. Mr Robertson has been given twelve months to come up with something new in the way of economic policy. Something that moves the Labour Party on from its 30 year infatuation with neoliberal dogma and introduces it to a practical and progressive set of economic alternatives.
Polydectes would be proud. Because Mr Robertson’s quest is full of perils. If ever there was a menagerie of solid rock, it is that vast collection of economic ideas upon which the neoliberal Gorgon has cast her petrifying gaze. Mr Robertson would not be the first social democrat to have his career turned to stone for the capital crime of embracing heterodox political economy. Just consider the fates of the US Democratic Party’s Walter Mondale, or the German SPD’s Oskar Lafontaine.
But perhaps the very myth that exemplifies Mr Robertson’s predicament also points the way to its solution.
According to story, Perseus was gifted with several crucial items by Hermes and Athena. From the god he received winged sandals, upon which he could fly; Zeus’s sword, that cut through brass and iron; and Hades’ helmet, which made him invisible. From the goddess he received a mighty shield in whose polished surface he could safely view Medusa’s harmless reflection. It was Athena’s – the Goddess of Wisdom’s – gift that guided his sword-arm at the critical moment.
What, then, is the mirror image of neoliberalism? To learn the answer, Mr Robertson need look no further than this morning’s (12/12/14) NZ Herald editorial. Responding to the recent OECD report in which New Zealand is singled out for the size of the gulf separating its richest and poorest citizens, the leader writer wrote:
“In one sense this is not a surprise. New Zealand was a highly protected economy until the mid-1980s with a strongly unionised labour force, high taxation and universal benefits. It had removed these arrangements rapidly by the mid-1990s, conscious that it was opening itself to world markets later than most and with trade disadvantages of distance and scale.”
It would seem that Mr Robertson’s search for an alternative to the iniquitous neoliberal prescription should begin with the things that neoliberalism was intended to replace: policies that enable New Zealand-based businesses to grow and prosper; laws that ensure the rights of employees are protected and that their remuneration is both fair and adequate; and finally, the overarching determination that (as the OECD’s report itself recommends) the nation’s wealth be redistributed in ways that permit all of its citizens to aspire to full, productive and happy lives.
An economic policy elaborating these three themes would, indeed, be a mighty sword in the hands of a Labour Finance Minister – especially one who had taught himself to see, in Wisdom’s mirror, exactly where to strike.
Reviewing the tasks Mr Little has set Mr Robertson, it is possible that I have done him a disservice in comparing him to the evil King Polydectes. If the Labour leader’s true purpose had been to send his rival upon a quest he could not complete, would he have put him in charge of Labour’s broad-ranging inquiry into the future of work? Is it not more likely that, by giving Mr Robertson this responsibility, Mr Little has indicated the direction in which he wishes Labour and its finance spokesperson to march? To a New Zealand where the rights of citizens and their prosperity are inextricably bound together, and where the true purpose of political economy is to ensure the continuance of both.
Sometimes the best way to eliminate a rival is not to turn him to stone, but to allow him to blossom and bear fruit. The Gods, they say, help those who help themselves – and each other.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Saturday, 13 December 2014.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Andrew Little: Wanted And Wondered At

Here Comes The Sun: Andrew Little's political career has prospered in no small way by the care he has taken to mask both his ambition and his talent until the most propitious moment. Like Shakespeare's Prince Hal he has imitated the sun; hiding his brilliance behind "base contagious clouds" until the moment "when he please again to be himself" so that "being wanted, he may be more wondered at".
HAS THERE EVER BEEN a leader who commanded absolute loyalty? A king, a party boss, a prime minister so blessed with the attributes of leadership that not even one of his barons, ward-heelers or cabinet ministers ever felt moved to ask the question: “Why not me?”
Even in the court of King Arthur, Mordred plotted murder and ruin. The “one brief shining moment” that was the Kennedy White House shivered in the shadow of Lyndon Johnson’s unappeasable ambition. On the plane-ride back from Norman Kirk’s Waimate funeral his colleagues lobbied furiously for the numbers to succeed him.
The acid of political power dissolves all friendships, all pacts, all solemn pledges of loyalty. All leaders knows this and conduct themselves accordingly. On the battlefield, they bring victory. At the ballot box, more votes than their opponents. On the Government Benches, favourable polls and reliable majorities.
The moment a leader fails to furnish the victories, votes and validation promised to his followers, challenges – and challengers – are inevitable.
Power belongs to those with courage to take it – and the skill to wield it.
Which is why the initial conclusions of Labour’s election review panel made me chuckle. One of the reasons the party performed so poorly, reported the four wise heads appointed to identify where Labour went wrong in 2014, is that its parliamentary caucus failed to unite around the leadership of David Cunliffe.
Well, duh!
David Cunliffe knew that he faced a caucus full of enemies when he put his name forward for the Labour leadership. What he did not appear to understand was how urgently he needed to neutralise that enmity.
In this respect, the behaviour of Mr Cunliffe’s successor is instructive.
To begin at the beginning: Andrew Little’s whole parliamentary career appears to have been inspired by Prince Hal’s soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun, 
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds 
To smother up his beauty from the world, 
That, when he please again to be himself, 
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at, 
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists 
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him
There are times when one’s leadership ambitions are better served by keeping them hidden than by openly parading them before one’s colleagues and the world. Like Prince Hal, Mr Little was at pains to smother up his leadership qualities until such time as his party had most need of them.

Prince Hal In Glasses? Labour's Andrew Little.
And what a masterful job he made of it! As far as most of the political class was concerned there was very little to be hoped for from Mr Little’s wafer-thin victory over Grant Robertson. Commentators almost gloated that Labour’s new leader was everybody’s second choice; had never won a seat; carried neither his caucus nor the party membership; and almost didn’t make it into Parliament at all! Needless to say, the wider electorate’s expectations were similarly modest.
But Mr Little, like Prince Hal, understood that:
By how much better than my word I am, 
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes.
Far from being “a modest little man, with much to be modest about” – as Winston Churchill famously described his nemesis, Clement Atlee – Mr Little burst out of Labour’s corner with his dander well-and-truly up, landing punches on a Prime Minister whose reaction to this new leader’s wholly unexpected onslaught was almost as disbelieving as the Press Gallery’s.
For the first time in a long time the whole of the Labour Party experienced that surge of energy and hope that comes from seeing one’s champion lay low the enemy’s best fighter. MPs, party grandees, union bosses and ordinary members alike heard Mr Little tell the Prime Minister to “cut the crap” and knew that Labour had, at long last, a leader worthy of the name.
Mr Cunliffe failed dismally to unite his caucus for the very simple reason that nothing he did gave his enemies cause to cease questioning his right to lead them. Like a medieval king defeated on the field of battle, Mr Cunliffe was forced to endure, through the whole duration of his long retreat, the contemptuous scorn and open hostility of his embarrassed barons.
Mr Little, by contrast, having demonstrated the requisite courage and skill, can now present that surest proof of leadership.
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, 12 December 2014.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014


Suffocating Justice: The New York Daily News's cartoonist, Bill Bramhall, captures the shock and dismay of liberal America at the frightening implications of a New York Grand Jury's refusal to indict those responsible for the homicide of Eric Garner.
“I CAN’T BREATHE!” Who could hear those words and not respond? What sort of police officer, effecting the arrest of an unarmed black man by placing him in an illegal chokehold, could hear that anguished cry and refuse to lessen his grip?
The first part of the answer is, quite simply: a person who has never learned how to look at a black person and see a human-being. The second: a police officer who understands that, if the deceased is a black man, then his arresting officer/s will never be made accountable for his death.
Racism, and the informal legal protection afforded to racist police officers by America’s Grand Jury system, is what makes the deaths of unarmed African-Americans, like Eric Garner, inevitable. In spite of the fact that the NYPD officer responsible for Mr Garner’s death had a record of “racial bias”; and regardless of the fact that the whole outrageous incident was recorded on a witness’s cellphone; a Grand Jury composed of “ordinary” New Yorkers declined to press charges.
The widespread protests that followed the Grand Jury’s decision have made headlines around the world. Less visible, however, was the counter-protest of a group of female primary school teachers against their union’s condemnation of Mr Garner’s death. These women, all of them white and all wearing an “I support the NYPD” t-shirt, took a photograph of themselves and posted it on Facebook. They were all employees of a public school with African-American and Hispanic children on the student roll.

Racist to the Core: Teachers from Public School 220, Queens, New York, indicate the value they place on the life of a Black father of six.
What shocked liberal Americans was not only the nature of the counter-protesters’ profession – these were teachers, for God’s sake! – but also their absolute and deeply disturbing ordinariness.
Presented to the public gaze were not the angular, lock-jawed matriarchs of some 1960s Mississippi backwater staring malevolently into the lens of a photojournalist from Life magazine. No, these were “Soccer Moms” from Queens. Gals next door. The sort of friendly, fresh-faced suburbanites Americans bump into every day at the super-market. The “lovely women” encountered several times a year at parent-teacher evenings. The trained professionals who teach their kids!
Racists to the core.
The teachers’ Facebook posting produced the same jarring effect as photographs taken at lynchings during the 1920s and 30s. Surrounding the charred remains of the lynch-mob’s Black victims were, typically, scores of perfectly “normal” white people (and their children!) who had turned out to watch the “fun”. The bland, smiling faces of the female staff of New York City Public School No. 220 offered a visual echo of those dreadful images from 90 years ago. They bear grim testimony to a white community every bit as oblivious to its complicity in racial injustice and exemplary violence.

Faces At A Lynching: "Ordinary" people utterly oblivious to their complicity in racial injustice and exemplary violence.
The example of New York’s, Eric Garner, like the example of Ferguson, Missouri’s Michael Brown, and countless others before them, has exposed the extent to which African-Americans remain the despised “Other” of United States’ Society. Many other ethnicities have had to endure the scorn of America’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite. But, while the Irish, Italians, Poles and Jews eventually found their hyphenated niche within the American Dream, African-Americans remain, overwhelmingly, on the outside looking in.
Can anyone honestly say that the extreme animus directed towards the presidency of Barack Obama owes nothing to his colour? That the Tea Party’s extraordinary political traction among elderly white Americans has nothing to do with a Black President’s determination to admit African-American and Hispanic citizens into full membership of the national family? That the relentless arithmetic of demographic change, which points to White Americans falling below 50 percent of the population within the lifetimes of children living today, has not reignited the same primal fears that spawned the intractable racial violence of the Deep South?
Those of us who remember the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s also recall the central role Southern law enforcement played in the enforcement of racial segregation and the maintenance of white power. Southern county sheriffs and local police departments had always provided the front-line troops of Dixie’s racial war. On the rare occasions Southern police officers were charged with offences against African-Americans, Southern juries inevitably voted for acquittal.
The fate of Eric Garner points to the “Dixiefication” of the whole of the United States. The same racialization of poverty and powerlessness that characterised the Deep South has migrated both North and West. The same fetishisation of skin pigmentation as the crucial determinant of one’s place in the social hierarchy now infects even that last, great bastion of liberal influence, the teaching profession. And, finally, the near universal contracting-out of the practical business of racial oppression to local law enforcement is leading thoughtful Americans to the grim conclusion that, in the long-run, it is the South that won the Civil War.
America, herself, will soon be gasping: “I can’t breathe!”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 December 2014.

Friday, 5 December 2014

What's In A Name? Let The Anzacs Rest In Peace, Mr Key.

Imperial Folly: If the Anzac legend is about anything at all, it is about young Australian and New Zealand men transcending the idiocy and mendacity of their leaders and the hopelessness of their situation to assert a set of values and qualities unique to the places they called home.
IF ANYTHING can still be considered “sacred” in New Zealand it’s Anzac Day. For Pakeha New Zealanders, in particular, the commemoration of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 holds a visceral significance which Waitangi Day has never achieved. That the day has survived the passing of all those who were actually there bears testimony to its status as one of the most potent symbols of our national identity.
In her nine years as Prime Minister, Helen Clark devoted considerable energy (and a not insignificant amount of taxpayer cash) to enhancing the power and reach of Anzac Day. Ms Clark’s purpose was to underscore the military tragedy’s role in nudging New Zealanders forward from their reflexive identification with the British Empire towards the first, tentative, notion that they might, one day, become something more than mere “loyal subjects” of the King-Emperor.
You might, therefore, think that Ms Clark’s successor, contemplating the hundredth  anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, would be anxious to ensure that nothing happened to besmirch or cheapen the solemn character of this major historical commemoration. But, in this matter, as in so many other matters of late, our current prime minister, John Key, is full of surprises.
At his post-Cabinet media conference on Monday, Mr Key announced that: “it’s not impossible that they [the training components of Australian and New Zealand military contingents poised to join the international effort against Islamic State] could be badged as an Anzac unit.”
Mr Key and his Australian counterpart, Tony Abbott, have clearly been mulling over the possibility of resurrecting the Anzac “badge” ever since the two politicians teamed-up in the West Australian port of Albany to jointly preside over commemorations of the original Anzacs’ embarkation for Egypt on 1 November 1914.
It is difficult to know where to begin the list of reasons why the Prime Ministers’ suggestion should be dismissed out of hand.
Perhaps we should start by reviewing why the original Gallipoli Campaign proved to be such a disaster.
In April 1915 New Zealand was ordered into a hastily improvised invasion of the Ottoman Empire with no clear understanding of what we were being asked to do – or even if we could do it. If the Anzac legend is about anything at all, it is about young Australian and New Zealand men transcending the idiocy and mendacity of their leaders and the hopelessness of their situation to assert a set of values and qualities unique to the places they called home.
We honour the 2,779 young Kiwis who fell in that fight not simply for their tremendous courage, but also for the terrible lesson which their utterly needless deaths have, hopefully, inscribed upon our national memory. That it is terribly wrong for our leaders to send young New Zealand men and women to right wrongs that we, as New Zealanders, did not commit and which we cannot hope to end.
Mr Key has stated that he has no intention of “doing something that’s disrespectful”. But allowing us to be drawn into a joint role with the Australians under some sort of sentimental throwback to the Anzacs is, as Labour’s Andrew Little noted: “pretty cynical”.
Especially since it would be a joint mission without clear objectives; lacking any reliable metric for success; and which will likely end with New Zealand’s soldiers being hastily withdrawn amidst recrimination and disgust.
Dry Run? US Marines and New Zealand soldiers conduct joint military exercises, "Dawn Blitz", at Camp Pendleton, California, in 2013.
Iraq is a failed state riven with corruption and religious enmity. Its standing army is a standing joke. Nine tenths of the men we’d be “training” have no wish to either kill or die for a regime they neither respect nor trust. The remaining tenth will gladly put themselves and their weapons at the disposal of Islamic State. Nowhere in Iraq is “behind the wire”. The whole country is a combat zone.
If the “strategic studies” departments of our universities were worthy of the name they would be condemning the madness of sending foreign troops to Iraq in order to crush a movement brought into being by the presence of foreign troops in Iraq. With Australian planes strafing IS positions and its special forces readying themselves for combat, nothing could endanger New Zealand’s “home front” more than publicly joining our name with that of the United States’ gung-ho “Deputy Sheriff”.
Imperial folly has claimed enough New Zealand lives. No more.
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, 5 December 2014.

Murder And The Media: The Relentless Pursuit Of Pain And Pathos.

Alternative Sources Of Pain And Pathos: With the end of capital punishment, the news media entered into a new relationship with the ill-fated “cast” of the standard homicide case.
VERY FEW PEOPLE under the age of seventy will remember Caryl Chessman. His execution in the San Quentin gas chamber on 2 May 1960 was the occasion for an international outpouring of condemnation and disgust. The good and the great of the United States (from Aldous Huxley and Norman Mailer to the former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt) had appealed for clemency, but the State of California killed him anyway. Not for murder, mind, but for robbery, kidnapping and rape. The Supreme Court of the State of California had confirmed Chessman as the notorious “Red Light Bandit”. He’d managed to keep the cyanide out of the hole for 11 long years through numerous appeals and stays of execution, but California got him in the end.
The execution of Chessman unleashed a wave of popular revulsion against the death penalty in the United States. Over the course of the succeeding decade-and-a-half, state after state either abolished sentences of death altogether, or operated as if they had by commuting them to life imprisonment.
Not in the Deep South, of course, where the death penalty operated as an unacknowledged form of judicial terrorism against the black population of the old Confederacy. So extreme was the sexual psycho-pathology of the Southern Baptist male that Black American men were as frequently put to death for rape as they were for murder. The alleged “defilement” of a white woman by a black man drove Southern juries (and lynch mobs) into murderous frenzies.
With debate still raging in the lengthening shadow of Chessman’s execution, New Zealand finally rid itself of the death penalty in 1961. The legislation was made the subject of a conscience vote because in the years since 1949, when the First National Government had restored the death penalty (Labour having abolished it in 1941) a growing number of National Party members and MPs had found themselves conscientiously opposed to its retention. Interestingly, the liberal National Party Justice Minister, Ralph Hanan’s, majority for repeal included the new back-bench MP for Tamaki, Robert Muldoon.
The news media’s progressive role in the abolition of the death penalty might seem strange to a generation raised on the vicarious cruelty of reality television. Perhaps it was because journalists, as proxies for the crowds that once gathered to watch these grim events, were required to witness executions.
Only a pathological sadist could derive any pleasure from watching a defenceless man, often crying uncontrollably and begging for mercy, being frogmarched to the centre of a platform, where a canvas hood is thrust over his head, a noose tightened around his neck, and, at a signal from the Sheriff, dropped through a trap-door to his (hopefully) instant death. Seasoned reporters dreaded the execution assignment and their stories tended to be terse and generally sparing of the readers’ feelings.
There were exceptions. The relentlessly factual and highly detailed description of the February 1957 hanging of wife-murderer, Walter James Bolton, so horrified the public that it ended up being the last execution ever carried out in New Zealand.
With the end of capital punishment, however, the news media entered into a new relationship with the ill-fated “cast” of the standard homicide case.
The victims of deadly violence have always supplied reporters with sensational copy, but, in the days of the death penalty, the apprehension and conviction of the murderer naturally shifted the focus away from the dead to the one about to die. Often, the public found themselves caught up in the defence lawyers’ appeals for mercy on behalf of perpetrators who frequently turned out to be as much sinned against as sinning.
But when the worst that could happen to a murderer was being locked in a prison cell for a couple of decades (at most) journalists began to look elsewhere for the sort of pain and pathos that sells newspapers. The murder victims were, of course, beyond the reporter’s reach, but their family and friends were still very much alive. What’s more, the new, humane, Justice System often left the murder victim’s family and friends feeling cheated of the revenge they so desperately wished to see exacted upon the body of the person who had robbed them of their loved one.
Thus began the inexorable rise of “the victim’s family” as an unassailable source of commentary on the whys and wherefores, rights and wrongs, of contemporary crime and punishment. It was from distraught parents, heartbroken husbands and wives, and bereft children that journalists sought definitive judgements on the conduct of the accused’s trial and the appropriateness of any sentence. From the intense pain and suffering of these stricken human-beings the news media was happy to mine bitter attacks on the rights of accused persons, the leniency of judges and the manifest inadequacies of the nation’s laws.
Not surprisingly, politicians of every hue have been quick to attach themselves to the public outrage whipped up by this sort of journalism. The consequent electoral auction has seen an alarming narrowing of the crucial distance which jurists, over many centuries, have laboriously imposed between the raw grief of the victim’s family and the need for justice to be dispensed dispassionately, without fear or favour. The whole purpose of the Crown making itself the aggrieved party – as opposed to the victim’s relatives – along with the state’s insistence on being the only agency legally entitled to exact retribution for proven offences, is at risk of being forgotten.
It all raises a very uncomfortable question. Which is worse: the death penalty, or what happens to society’s understanding of justice when capital punishment is abolished?
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 3 December 2014.

Government By (Some) Of The People.

Unanimity Not Required: Democracy, properly defined, is that system of government which allows those issues which perennially divide a people to be resolved by the will of (at best) a majority, or (at worst) a simple plurality of the responsible adult population.
“GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE, by the people, for the people”. Abraham Lincoln’s supremely succinct definition of democracy has been repeated so often it has become a political cliché. And yet, even as he spoke it, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of Thursday, 19 November 1863, his formulation was political humbug.
The American “people”, in whose name the battlefield at Gettysburg was being consecrated, was then engaged in a titanic civil war over what it meant to be an American. The democratic system of government enshrined in the US Constitution had grappled with this question for 87 years and it had failed. The “people” had been unable to agree, and so now the future of the American Republic was being decided by blood and iron.
Most nations are only held together by sentiment. A unifying national mythology; a common language and history; familiar and beloved institutions; the reflected glory of an all-conquering sports team: these are the things that bind a people together.
But there are many forces that tear a people apart. Class prejudice; religious bigotry; the inequitable distribution of wealth and resources; racism; overbearing courts and tribunals; brutal law enforcement; exactly who should, and who shouldn’t, be defined as the “peoples’” friends and enemies. Nations have gone to war with themselves over such matters.
Democracy, properly defined, is that system of government which allows those issues which perennially divide a people to be resolved by the will of (at best) a majority, or (at worst) a simple plurality of the responsible adult population. Obviously, the stronger the sentimental glue which binds a people together, the more willing those who find themselves in the minority will be to abide by the decisions of the majority. Equally obvious, however, is the need for democratic governments to honour the minority’s forbearance. No democracy can survive an elected government’s attempt to transform its transitory political dominance into a system of permanent rule. The composition of the majority must be permitted to change – or democracy has no meaning.
These musings upon the nature of democracy are inspired by a week of quite alarming revelations. New Zealanders have learned that, at the highest levels of their government,  there is evidence of an abiding scorn for the traditions and institutions that make for a cohesive society and functioning democracy.
The Report of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security into the release of SIS information to Cameron Slater; Justice Chisholm’s Report into the conduct of the Minister of Justice, Judith Collins; the introduction, under urgency, of the Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill; taken together, all of these developments suggest a potentially dangerous loosening of the struts and ties that prevent our democracy from flying apart.
The impression conveyed is of a political class that sets little, if any, stock by the whole notion of democratic restraint. In some very high places, the idea that the minority’s forbearance should be honoured, or that linking the minority’s interests with the majority’s remains a crucial objective of democratic government, elicits only derisive guffaws. In its place has arisen an attitude towards the Government’s opponents which borders on the sociopathic. They are no longer regarded as fellow citizens with rights and opinions to be respected, but as enemies who must be destroyed.
That such short-sighted conduct leads only to destruction, both morally and practically, should be obvious to the meanest political intelligence. One need not be a biblical scholar to grasp the meaning of the verse: “For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” The democratic politician understands that he, his party, and all those his party represents, will not be in power forever; and that it is, therefore, prudent to use only those political tactics that one’s own side could tolerate being used against itself.
But what if this tradition of democratic self-limitation were abandoned? What if a politician and/or a political party, refusing to accept that what comes around goes around, adopted a morally reckless, winning-is-everything strategy? Wouldn’t that mean that, very soon, political defeat entailed such monumental personal and institutional risk that it had to be prevented at any cost – including democracy itself?

Abraham Lincoln: His Gettysburg Address offered Americans "a new birth of freedom".
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was not, in the end, about defining democracy, but about redefining the purpose of the United States in a way that gave the conflict’s appalling losses meaning and prevented another civil war from breaking out. It was about giving Americans a sense of citizenship so vast and inspiring it could dissolve the lure of self-interest and drown out the rancour of partisanship. A “new birth of freedom” is what Lincoln promised the American people – North and South.
Perhaps it is time that we New Zealanders “highly resolve” that our own nation should have the same.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 November 2014.