Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Straws In The Wind

A Change Is Gonna Come: The militant solidarity and bi-cultural unity on display in the anti-TPPA protests has delivered to the neoliberal elite a symbolic message which they would be wise to heed. They have grown accustomed to dominating this country’s political discourse as effortlessly as they dominate its economy. They are not used to being contradicted by people they dismiss, contemptuously, as “losers”. But as Bob Dylan reminds us: "the losers of now may be later to win – when the times they are a-changing."
 
TAKEN SEPARATELY, a series of unusual incidents may not amount to much. Taken together, however, they can suggest that, politically, something important is happening. Specifically, that the long-quiescent New Zealand population (the people upbraided by top left-wing blogger, Martyn Bradbury, as “sleepy hobbits”) are beginning to bestir themselves.
 
Consider the following straws in the wind.
 
Straw No. 1: As last Thursday’s massive anti-TPPA march swung sharply left at the bottom of Auckland’s Queen Street and headed back towards Sky City, construction workers began punching through the white plastic of their “petticoated” building sites and urging-on the marchers with clenched-fist salutes.
 
Straw No. 2: Seasoned activists insist that the huge demonstration was the first Pakeha-organised political protest to be led down Queen Street by a Maori Kapa Haka group. (Some claiming that these toa (warriors) were members of the same group who’d earlier refused to provide a Maori welcome to the TPPA’s signatories.)
 
Straw No. 3: John Key was booed when he turned up to the Auckland Nines on Waitangi Day.
 
It’s this latter event that will have stung the Prime Minister most painfully. His easy, apolitical rapport with sports-mad Kiwis has been one of his greatest electoral strengths. That a major political issue was able, finally, to penetrate the feel-good force-field that has for many years kept our sports stadia politics-free-zones must have given him genuine pause. It may not have been the whole crowd, but it was a large enough section of it to warrant the journalists present filing a story. And that, as Mr Key well knows, is all it takes.
 
The mass participation of Maori in last Thursday’s protest activities is also a highly significant development. New Zealand has seen big Maori protests before: the Seabed and Foreshore hikoi of 2004 being the most impressive. Separate Maori contingents, like the Patu squad of Springbok Tour fame, have also featured in Pakeha dominated protest movements.
 
The 4 February demonstration was different. Last Thursday’s was a genuine bi-cultural protest (the first of any size that the writer has witnessed) in which thousands of Maori bearing fern fronds, and Pakeha carrying placards, marched side-by-side; English and Te Reo mingled seamlessly; and where scores of New Zealand Ensigns flew proudly alongside an equal number of fluttering Tino Rangatiratanga flags.
 
This is a politically explosive combination: at whose heart lies the frightening realisation that more and more Pakeha New Zealanders are losing control of their future. For Maori, that is, of course, a far from new revelation. As Marama Fox, Co-Leader of the Maori Party, told the Anti-TPPA rally held at the Auckland Town Hall on 26 January: “Welcome to our world!”
 
For 176 years the rulers of New Zealand have lived in fear of this alliance. Captain Hobson’s 1840 declaration “now we are one people” notwithstanding, the intention of New Zealand’s British colonisers has always been to separate not only the Maori from their land, but to keep forever separate the interests of colonised and colonisers. The Powers-That-Be may have paid lip-service to the ideal of bi-culturalism by linking together the interests of the Pakeha and Maori ruling elites. But the very idea of non-elite Maori and Pakeha making common cause in defence of their common interests, and their common homeland, has always been culturally and politically terrifying.
 
The fear inspired in the political class by the clearly bi-cultural quality of the 4 February demonstration was expressed, at least initially, in the scornful depiction of the protesters as ignorant dupes of the usual “commie” suspects. What those making fun of New Zealanders very real, if ill-expressed, anxieties about the TPPA simply ignored was the fact that in democratic societies most citizens take their cues from trusted cultural and/or political leaders, by whose deeper understanding of complex issues they are more than happy to be guided.
 
Only a few days ago, it was to Labour voters’ trust in Helen Clark that the TPPA’s promoters were appealing, in an obvious attempt to convince them that Andrew Little’s opposition to the agreement was mistaken. When, however, it became clear that Centre-Left voters put more faith in Jane Kelsey’s assessment of the TPPA than Helen Clark’s, its promoters immediately began mocking them. The very idea that ordinary people’s views might be taken seriously was treated as a joke.
 
Which brings us back to those construction workers’ fists breaking through the plastic.
 
In that arresting image of militant solidarity there is a symbolic message to which the neoliberal elite would be wise to pay heed. They have grown accustomed to dominating this country’s political discourse as effortlessly as they dominate its economy. They are not used to being contradicted by people they dismiss, contemptuously, as “losers”.
 
But as Bob Dylan reminds us: the losers of today may be tomorrow’s winners – when the times they are a-changing.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 February 2016.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Making It Stop: Taking Stock Of 4 February 2016, With Some Thoughts About The Way Forward.

A Huge Response: The Anti-TPPA protest of 4 February 2016 packed out Auckland's Queen Street from end to end. The last big protest to do that was Greenpeace's Anti-Mining in National Parks demonstration of 10 May 2010 - when the NZ Herald estimated the number of marchers at 40,000. The 4 February protests were also notable for the numbers of Maori and young people on the streets. Is the "Missing Million" waking up?
 
SOME TRIBUTES FIRST, then an apology. To Jane Kelsey and Barry Coates I can only say thank you. Demonstrations like the one I marched in on Thursday don’t just happen. They are the product of hours and days and years of hard work, during which people fight not only against loneliness and fatigue, but against the insidious thought that their unceasing efforts might all be in vain. Observing the glowing faces of Jane and Barry, as they rode down Queen Street on the afternoon of 4 February 2016, it was their selfless commitment to battling on, heedless of setbacks and against all odds, that brought tears to my eyes. Once again, thank you.
 
Tribute is also due to Real Choice. By their extraordinary actions throughout the morning and afternoon of 4 February they proved just how sterile theoretical debates about tactics and strategy can be. Somehow, in growing older, I had forgotten the words of the young student activist, Mario Savio, spoken 50 years ago on the steps of Sproull Hall at the University of California’s Berkeley campus. In my teens and twenties I had sworn by them, and, to my older self, they certainly bear repeating:
 
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
 
On 4 February, Real Choice put their bodies on the asphalt of Auckland’s inner-city carriageways, and for several hours they made things stop. In doing so they sent a much-needed reminder to the people who run, to the people who own, this country that it can, if the provocation is great enough, be prevented from working. No one has indicated that to them for a very long time.
 
So, to Real Choice I say: Respect. No one was seriously hurt and no one was arrested. In the words of the little man in the grey suit who was right there in the thick of things, that was: “Bloody marvellous!”
 
I also say: Sorry. For my throw-away, and clearly unfounded, suggestion that Real Choice might be a “false flag” operation, I apologise – and my statement is withdrawn unreservedly. No false-flag operation could possibly have out-thought, out-run and out-manoeuvred the Police like Real Choice did on Thursday. The Springbok Tour protesters of 1981 could not have done it better.
 

BUT, NOW WHAT? In which direction should the energy generated by the 4 February protest actions be turned?
 
Happily, there is no shortage of targets.
 
Parliament resumes sitting on Tuesday, 9 February. The slow wending of the TPPA document through numerous select committee hearings; followed by the Government’s enabling bill’s passage through the four stages of parliamentary debate; both will provide excellent opportunities for carefully targeted protest action. Likewise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trades’ (MFAT’s) travelling road-show of public presentations intended to “sell” the Government’s pro-TPPA position to the electorate. All should be seen as educative political events, reinforcing the anti-TPPA’s core messages of diminished national sovereignty and a deepening democratic deficit.
 
The extent to which these core messages have already entered the public’s consciousness has unpleasantly surprised the TPPA’s supporters. They were taken aback at the size and vehemence of the Auckland protests and will already be working on ways to unpick the picture Jane Kelsey and her comrades have embroidered so vividly on the public mind. The Government’s and big businesses’ counter-offensive will have to be met, held, and rolled back.
 
This will be made considerably easier by the simultaneous fightback against the TPPA occurring all around the Pacific rim – but especially in the United States. Strategically, the struggle is between the progressive/patriotic forces operating within the twelve signatory states, and the defenders of the transnational corporations. Obviously, this puts the “Pro” forces at a serious disadvantage. Far from being able to pass themselves off as promoters of the public good, they will emerge from the contest as the big corporations’ fifth columnists, committed to defeating the patriots fighting to prevent the agreement’s ratification.
 
John Key and his Government thus risk entering election year as a collection of figurative “Quislings”, guilty of conspiring against the national interest on behalf of entities without countries, morals or scruples. If this perception can be driven deep into the electorate’s mind, then National’s chances of re-election will be nil. More importantly, the victorious coalition of Labour, the Greens and NZ First will be swept into office with a broad mandate to take on a corporate plutocracy that has ruled without challenge for far too long.
 
For the first time in over 30 years, there will be a mass political movement dedicated to putting itself “upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus” of the neoliberal machine – and making it stop.
 
This essay has been jointly posted on the Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Saturday, 6 February 2016.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Free Education: About What, And For Whom?

Labour Saving Devices? It’s all very well to offer the 7 year-olds of today three years of free tertiary education in 2025. The really tough question is: what are we going to teach them? Our universities and polytechnics need a massive injection of funds not only to erect the infrastructure required for free and universal tertiary education, but also to help them – and us – understand and prepare for the world that is coming.
 
THERE SEEMS LITTLE POINT in subsidising the post-school education of young New Zealanders if that education isn’t up to scratch. The voters need to be reassured that just because the next Labour Government will be offering up to three years of free tertiary education, this country’s tertiary institutions need no longer concern themselves about providing value for money.
 
Right now, New Zealand’s universities are receiving 30 percent less per student from the state than comparable universities overseas. Staff-student ratios are deteriorating, and it’s getting harder to both attract and retain the top-flight scholars this country needs. Every week another tranche of our best and our brightest departs these shores in response to teaching and research offers New Zealand can no longer match.
 
But, if our universities are in urgent need of a funding boost, our polytechs and wanangas are in need of even more. John Key’s National Government has not been the champion of non-university tertiary education that the sector so desperately needed. On the contrary, there has been an almost punitive aspect to the Government’s treatment of these largely vocational institutions. It began with the defunding of adult education in 2009, and it’s been downhill for the sector ever since – especially for the smaller, regional polytechnics.
 
On the basis of its announced policy, it would appear that Labour is gearing up to become that long-awaited champion of vocational education. Andrew Little made it clear in his State of the Nation address last Sunday that the guiding principle of Labour’s tertiary education policy is that the knowledge and skills required for a productive life should not be imparted on the basis of the recipient’s ability to pay.
 
He also devoted a large chunk of his speech to the dramatic (some might say devastating) changes technology is poised to bring about in the workforce. New Zealand needs to brace itself to meet these changes, and one of the best ways to do that is to make it easy for workers displaced by technology to retrain themselves.
 
In Denmark it is called “flexicurity”: a policy aimed at making it easier for employers to improve the profitability of their firms by replacing staff with the new generation of faster, smarter computers; while ensuring that the workers so displaced are retrained, and helped to find new employment, by the state.
 
Critics of Labour’s “free education” policy announcement have pointed out that what it is proposing is nowhere near as generous, nor as comprehensive, as the Danish model. Labour’s finance spokesperson, Grant Robertson, whose “Future of Work Commission” has praised the “flexicurity” concept, must be aware that those most likely to fall victim to the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” are professionals. It is accountants, nurses and teachers who are about to see an alarmingly large chunk of their current job descriptions handed over to artificially-intelligent machines.
 
In Denmark such post-industrial casualties are paid a very generous job-search allowance and signed up for re-training by the state – regardless of their educational history. For the moment, at least, Labour is restricting its offer of free post-school education to those who have yet to darken the door of a tertiary institution. Accountants, nurses and teachers need not apply.
 
Professionals looking to acquire the (so far) unprogrammable skills of painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, screen-writers and other creatives will have to foot the new skills bill themselves. So, too, will all those tradespeople who’ve served their time as apprentices, received their trade certificates and established thriving small businesses, only to find their skill-sets rendered superfluous by the dramatically expanding capabilities of tomorrow’s 3D printers.
 
It’s all very well to offer the 7 year-olds of today three years of free tertiary education in 2025. The really tough question is: what are we going to teach them? Our universities and polytechnics need a massive injection of funds not only to erect the infrastructure required for free and universal tertiary education, but also to help them – and us – understand and prepare for the world that is coming.
 
Because it’s looking increasingly likely to be a world in which the pursuit of knowledge, for its own sake; and the acquisition of skills, exclusively for the purposes of artistic creation; will be the only remaining vocational options – for human-beings.
 
And the very last political job will be to persuade the machines to pay for it all.
 
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 February 2016.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

For Independence And Freedom: March Against The TPPA!

March in February! The TPPA is inimical to New Zealand’s national sovereignty, and poses a deadly threat to its democratic institutions So, march tomorrow/today as if your independence and your freedom depends on it – because they do.
 
WHAT I WOULD GIVE to get a look at the Government’s polling data on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). Coming out of the summer holiday torpor, my best guess was that the public, generally speaking, was pretty relaxed about the agreement. But everything the Government and its allies have done since early January suggests that the opposite is true: that the numbers reported in TV3/Reid Research poll of 20 November 2015 have not budged, and that a clear majority of New Zealanders remain opposed to the agreement.
 
Since then, the anti-TPPA forces have worked tirelessly to analyse the 5,000 page document and to marshal their arguments against ratification. In the weeks following the 5 November 2015 release of the TPPA text, a raft of expert, peer-reviewed research papers (available at https://tpplegal.wordpress.com/) were written and released. These have made a considerably greater impact on the news media than the rather perfunctory National Interest Analysis, thrown together by New Zealand’s team of TPPA negotiators, and released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) on 25 January 2016.
 
The expert paper entitled “The Economics of the TPPA”, jointly written by University of Auckland economics professor, Tim Hazledine, Dr Geoff Bertram, Rod Oram and Barry Coates, impressed even the NZ Herald’s senior business writer, Brian Fallow. The rising level of vitriol deployed by the National Party’s best ideological skirmisher, Matthew Hooton, and echoed shrilly in the columns of the Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan, indicates strongly how disadvantaged in the propaganda stakes the pro-TPPA forces now feel themselves to be.
 
The greatest blow struck against the TPPA, however, was delivered by the Labour Party. On Tuesday, 26 January, from their New Year caucus retreat in the Wairarapa, Labour MPs dispatched their Finance Spokesperson, Grant Robertson, to Auckland. There, he informed the first of the four main centre town-hall meetings organised by the anti-TPPA group, It’s Our Future, that Labour would NOT be supporting the agreement.
 
The full impact of Labour’s rejection was blunted by Leader, Andrew Little’s, maladroit handling of the TPPA’s two strongest caucus supporters, Phil Goff and David Shearer. Within days, however, the grim fact that the cosy, 30-year-old, bi-partisan consensus on Free Trade had ended, began to sink in.
 
The TPPA had turned out to be a bridge too far – even for the NZ Labour Party. This was not a free trade agreement in the mould of the China-NZ FTA. It was, in the words of the veteran New Zealand diplomat, Terrence O’Brien: “an economic policy integration agreement”. And the intent of such documents is, indisputably, to limit the sovereignty of nation states. As Professor Tim Hazledine explained in a Herald op-ed article of 3 February 2016:
 
“The fundamental idea or ideology behind the TPP is that national governments cannot be trusted to act independently on many issues, because they will inevitably succumb to local vested interests. Only the cleansing discipline of untrammelled global free-market forces will deliver efficient outcomes.”
 
By “local vested interests” the free-marketeers are, of course, referring to the citizens of the nations concerned. That is why the opponents of the TPPA talk about the agreement threatening democracy itself.
 
Exactly how far this message: that the TPPA is inimical to New Zealand’s national sovereignty, and poses a deadly threat to its democratic institutions; has entered public consciousness is what the Government, MFAT, the “intelligence community”, the Police, the NZ-US Council, the National Party, and the mainstream news media have no doubt been working like blazes to find out.
 
Because all of them know that if a substantial portion of the New Zealand population – maybe even a majority – can be convinced that the anti-TPPA message is true, and if that conviction can be given political force by the Labour, Green and NZ First parties, then a great deal more than the future of the TPPA is at stake. If protecting our national sovereignty and defending our democracy become the battle-cries of the 2017 General Election, then the entire neoliberal project will be threatened.
 
So, march tomorrow/today as if your independence and your freedom depends on it – because they do.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 3 February 2016.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

"Show Me The Money!" Filling The Hole In Labour's Policy Framework.

Killer Line: In the last two elections the "Show me the money!" taunt has fatally derailed Labour's campaign. Releasing fiscal policy should never be the last thing a social-democratic party does in an election cycle - it should be the first. Convince people of the need for a more just distribution of wealth and resources, and all the rest of its programme will fall into place.
 
THERE’S A HOLE in Labour’s emerging policy framework – through which too little light is getting in. The party’s latest big announcement: three years of free post-school education; is a case in point. As a headline, it’s fantastic. But, Labour supporters’ euphoria is unlikely to survive the policy’s fine print. Nearly a decade will pass before the plan is fully implemented – but only if  Labour wins the 2017, 2020 and 2023 elections on the trot. It’s not quite a case of  giving something with one hand, only to snatch it back with the other – but it’s close.
 
And why is Labour unwilling to offer three years of free tertiary level education in its first budget? Because it’s not yet ready to adopt a social-democratic fiscal policy to pay for its social-democratic education policy. That’s the hole – and it’s a bloody dangerous one!
 
Does Labour really believe that it can make it to the next election without anyone noticing that it has failed to come up with a way of paying for its promises? Because if that’s the plan, then its chances of success are pretty slim. The essence of social-democracy is the redistribution of wealth. And the best way to redistribute wealth is through a comprehensive system of progressive taxation. A Labour Party unwilling to acknowledge that it intends to raise the taxes of the wealthy isn’t worthy of the name.
 
Labour’s reluctance to talk about fiscal policy is a strategic error. Little is to be gained, electorally, by offering the voters all manner of generous policies – like three years of free post-school education – if its opponents are left free to insinuate that Labour’s generosity is predicated on massive fiscal delinquency. The electorate will either come to believe that Labour has given no serious thought to how its promises are to be paid for – which makes it fiscally incompetent. Or, that Labour knows very well how its promises will be paid for, but is unwilling to say so before it has been safely elected – which makes it politically dishonest.
 
This is why it is strategically vital for Labour to set out its fiscal policies openly and honestly before releasing its key policies relating to education, health and housing. The party first needs to settle upon a revenue target, and then upon the fiscal instruments it will use to achieve it. These may include Income Tax, Land Tax, Inheritance Tax, Financial Transactions Tax, Carbon Tax, as well as a much stricter regime for extracting an appropriate level of taxation from New Zealand’s largest businesses.
 
Unquestionably, making the case for progressive taxation is the most challenging task faced by any left-wing political party. But unless it is done, everything else that it seeks to achieve becomes moot. “Show me the money!” was the taunt which sank Labour’s chances in the last two election campaigns. Had Labour’s leaders been able to respond, with a wicked grin: “Well, John, as a man with $55 million in the bank, you’ll be among the first to show us the money!” Key’s taunt could have been turned against him.
 
Of course Labour’s enemies will accuse the party of practicing the politics of envy – but this old taunt can also be turned back upon its authors.
 
“If you’re talking about the poor envying the security of the rich: the certainty that bills can be paid; food afforded; a roof put over their children’s heads; then, yes, of course they envy them. And if Labour’s determination to extend that basic security to everyone is what you mean by the politics of envy – then we plead guilty-as-charged. But if you’re accusing Labour voters of envying those who lack any semblance of empathy, solidarity and generosity towards their fellow citizens, and who see in money and material possessions the be-all and end-all of human existence, then you are dead wrong. For Labour voters do not envy such New Zealanders – they pity them.”
 
The power of social-democratic politics lies in its refusal to allow the parties of the Right to escape the question that is so often put to the parties of the Left. “Where’s the money coming from?” The Right wagers everything on the ordinary voter not understanding the causal relationship between his or her own straightened circumstances and the ease and comfort of the rich. That’s why it is Labour’s political duty to point out the gaping hole in the Right’s policy framework. Namely, that the wealth accumulated by the rich comes from the people, whose hard work created it, and to whom it is only right and proper that a fair share be returned.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 1 February 2016.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Andrew Little's Labour: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back.

A Big Gesture: Having begun the week clumsily in relation to the TPPA and Mr Goff, Andrew Little was anxious to close it with a State of the Nation speech that, for once, contained more substance than style. Taking a leaf out of US Senator Bernie Sander’s policy book, Labour now promises 3 years of free post-school education. For Phil Goff, the Rogernome who first proposed user-pays tertiary education, Mr Little’s speech could be interpreted as an ideological slap in the face.
 
THERE HAS BEEN PRAISE from a veteran of the “Rogernomics” Labour caucus for Andrew Little’s handling of Phil Goff. Recalling the David Lange-led caucus’s 1988 expulsion of Jim Anderton – for upholding Labour policy! – Jenny Kirk (Labour MP for Birkenhead, 1987-1990) has applauded Mr Little for “making progress on pulling [his own] caucus together – in a difficult environment.”
 
But Ms Kirk’s approbation, while characteristically generous, is misplaced. Not only has Phil Goff’s “dispensation” to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) not pulled Labour’s ranks together (quite the reverse!) it has also been seized upon by Labour’s opponents to discredit the party’s anti-TPPA stance.
 
The TPPA endorsements of former Labour leaders: from Mike Moore and Helen Clark, to Phil Goff and David Shearer; have been a Godsend for the agreement’s supporters. “What can be so wrong with the TPPA”, they demand, “when four out of the last six Labour leaders support it?”
 
It’s a fair question, but one which Labour – for fear of re-opening the old wounds of the 1980s and 90s – is loath to answer. At some point, however (and it may have arrived) the Labour Party is going to have to confront the ghosts of its Rogernomics past and lay them, finally, to rest.
 
There is simply no upside to being utterly defenceless before your history. Labour may be ready to reclaim its progressive heritage – as its position on the TPPA makes clear. But, unfortunately, as Mr Goff’s “dispensation” makes clear, it’s still not ready to repudiate 25 years of neoliberalism.
 
Labour members and supporters have been in the ears of Labour MPs for decades, urging them to cast adrift the barge-load of rotting ideological garbage that the party has been towing behind it since the 1980s. They also suggested the enforced retirement of every MP who refuses to acknowledge the stench. All to no avail. The Bible says: “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.” Unfortunately, far too many of Labour’s dogs never left!
 
Had Labour’s caucus followed the lead of its own Draft Party Platform in 2013, and condemned unequivocally the toxic legacy of Rogernomics (inequality, poverty, community decay) then, today, Mr Little would have no difficulty answering his critics’ questions about former Labour leaders’ pro-TPPA views.
 
“Mike Moore, Phil Goff and David Shearer are all convinced Rogernomes,” he’d say, “so of course they’re unable to recognise the threat posed to New Zealand’s national sovereignty by the TPPA.” And Helen? “Well, sadly, Helen drank just enough of the neoliberal Kool-Aid over her nearly 30 years in Parliament to render her incapable of telling the difference between a genuine free trade agreement (like her own China-NZ FTA) and yet another, US-sponsored, corporate power grab.”
 
Jenny Kirk would likely argue that the cable which attaches Labour to its stinking barge is old and strong, and not susceptible to being severed by a single, heroic, blow from Mr Little’s reforming sword. Labour members and supporters should, therefore, exercise patience while he works his way through its many twisted strands with a much more practical hacksaw.
 
Certainly, it must be acknowledged that there are many in Labour’s camp who were pleasantly surprised that Mr Little and his colleagues were, at least, willing to cut the TPPA adrift. Clearly, his recent summer sojourn in the United States and the United Kingdom brought him into contact with members of the Democratic Party for whom (as US trade critic, Lori Wallach, has been telling audiences up and down the country this past week) opposition to the TPPA is a “no brainer”, and who couldn’t understand the NZ Labour Party’s reticence on the issue.
 
While in the US, Mr Little also witnessed the surging campaign of the “democratic-socialist” Senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Young Americans, in particular, “Feel the Bern” on account of his promise to restore free tertiary education in America’s publicly owned universities.
 
Labour, like many other Kiwi institutions, seems unaware of just how far its definition of the possible now lags behind the rest of the world’s. It’s as though, having embraced change with reckless fervour in the 1980s, Labour just switched off its critical faculties, smugly assuming that its policies remained at the cutting-edge – even though that “edge” had long since re-located itself.
 
Perhaps Mr Little’s American reality-check explains why, having begun the week clumsily in relation to the TPPA and Mr Goff, he was anxious to close it with a State of the Nation speech that, for once, contained more substance than style. Taking a leaf out of Senator Sander’s policy book, Labour now promises 3 years of free post-school education.
 
For Phil Goff, the Rogernome who first proposed user-pays tertiary education, Mr Little’s speech could be interpreted as an ideological slap in the face.
 
Keep wielding that hacksaw, Andrew. Progress is being made.
 
This essay was originally published by Fairfax Media on Monday, 1 February 2016.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Oh Lucky Man! Phil Goff's "Dispensation" Is As Ill-Considered As It Is Ill-Deserved.

You Bet He's Smiling! Phil Goff has somehow managed to convince Andrew Little that it's okay to have a senior Caucus member telling the world that the Labour Party's policy on the TPPA is wrong, and that the National Government's stance is correct. As they say: "With friends like these ..." And it's not even as if Phil has a proud history of approving dispensations for others - just ask Jim Anderton! For some reason, when it comes to Caucus collective responsibility, no exemptions are ever made for the Left.
 
PHIL GOFF IS A LUCKY MAN. Had Andrew Little extended to him the same measure of tolerance that he extended to Jim Anderton, 28 years ago, he’d no longer be a member of Labour’s caucus.
 
Goff was among those Rogernomes who, on 4 August 1988, passed the following resolution:
 
“This Caucus declares that the following understanding governs the relationship of Caucus members with each other: Members shall vote in Parliament in accordance with decisions of the Caucus. Where a member deliberately abstains from voting, or votes against a Government measure in the House which has been passed by Caucus, such action automatically removes the member from membership of the Caucus unless express permission to take that action has been given by Caucus.”
 
Referred to at the time as the “loaded gun” resolution, it was intended to block any member (but most particularly, Anderton) from either voting against, or abstaining from voting for, legislation setting in motion the privatisation of state assets. Anderton’s colleagues were well aware that the Labour Party’s official stance was one of opposition to privatisation, and that, strictly speaking they were all bound – as Labour MPs – to uphold Labour Party policy. They simply didn’t care.
 
By December of 1988, the circumstances anticipated in the Loaded Gun Resolution had come to pass. A bill enabling the government to partially privatise the BNZ was on the floor of the House. In spite of the Labour Party’s New Zealand Council informing the Caucus that privatisation would directly contravene the party’s 1987 manifesto, and contradict the expressed will of the Labour Party Conference, the David Lange-led Labour Government pressed ahead with the legislation.
 
On Saturday, 10 December 1988, Jim Anderton told a hushed House of Representatives:
 
“I cannot give my support to this enabling legislation. If we are not going to sell the Bank of New Zealand, we do not need this legislation. If we are going to sell it, then I am opposed to it and must show my opposition here, at this time, because there will be no other parliamentary opportunity to protest at or prevent the Government having the power to sell the Bank. As I said at the Committee Stages, I will not vote with the Opposition National Party. Their anxiety to sell the Bank of New Zealand and other state assets is well known. I will, therefore, record my opposition by formally abstaining when the vote is taken on this Third Reading.”
 
On Tuesday, 13 December 1988, the Senior Government Whip, Margaret Austin, wrote to Anderton informing him that he would receive no further Caucus communications and was stripped of his membership of Caucus committees. The Whip had been withdrawn; Jim Anderton was out of the Labour Caucus.
 
Not for Anderton the dispensation granted to Goff by his Caucus colleagues. Regardless of the fact that he was attempting, in good conscience, to uphold Labour Party policy (as required of him, and all of his colleagues, by the Labour Party constitution) permission for Anderton to abstain on the enabling legislation was denied.
 
Twenty-eight years later, the same Phil Goff who had voted to expel anyone who defied the will of Caucus has not only been extended the privilege of abstaining from voting against the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s enabling legislation, but also of actually crossing the floor of the House of Representatives and voting in favour of it.
 
The relevant Labour Party media release of 28 January 2016 sates: “Opposition Leader Andrew Little has given dispensation to MP Phil Goff to take his own position on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement due to his historic involvement in negotiating its predecessor, the P4.” According to Little:  “Phil has had a longstanding involvement and public commitment to this agreement which differs with the Labour Caucus’ decision that it cannot support the deal in its current form due to its compromise of New Zealand’s sovereignty.”
 
But the 2005 P4 free-trade initiative, which the Helen Clark-led Labour Government had set in motion, and which Goff played a key role in negotiating, is in no way comparable to the TPPA. The P4 was a modest and mutually beneficial free trade agreement involving New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei and Chile. The TPPA, in sharp contrast, is a freedom charter for US transnational corporations. Granting Goff a dispensation on the grounds that he had a hand in negotiating P4 is, therefore, a political non-sequitur.
 
Moreover, in dissenting from his Caucus colleagues’ view that support for the TPPA compromises New Zealand’s sovereignty, Goff is actually asserting that what Labour is presenting to the electorate as the truth is, in fact, a lie. Which means that Little has given Goff a dispensation to declare that up is down, black is white, and the TPPA is a good thing. And why would a party leader anxious to enhance his own, and his party’s, credibility do that!
 
What’s more, the irrelevance of the P4 argument makes Little’s treatment of David Shearer’s dissidence utterly inconsistent and unfair. If Goff is entitled to deny the truth of Labour’s position, then why isn’t Shearer also being granted a pass from the reality-based community? Or, for that matter, any other Caucus member not yet convinced that the TPPA represents a dangerous corporate assault on what’s left of New Zealand’s democracy and independence.
 
What Little and his colleagues all need to find – and quickly – is a measure of the clarity and courage demonstrated by Jim Anderton on 10 December 1988. If the TPPA is a bad thing, then allowing a Labour MP to vote in favour of it cannot be ethically, or politically, justified. It follows, therefore, that those Labour parliamentarians who do not believe the TPPA is a bad thing; and who are unwilling to abide by the contrary judgement of their colleagues; have only one morally consistent course of action to take. They must resign, forthwith, from both the Labour Caucus and the Labour Party.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 29 January 2016.