Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Team of Five Million Becomes Team Leviathan - On The Impending Coronation Of Our First MMP Monarch


[Author's Note: I started penning this piece in early August. Events on the ground have, as they say, shifted quite considerably since then - we've had a Second Lockdown, and some of the lustre on Labour may have worn off ever so slightly as exhibited via their collapse down to only just being able to govern alone on most polling. Yet I still think that the core sentiments are applicable. So I've picked it back up again, where I left off ... ] 

I'll always remember my first Law test at University. Largely because I failed it (before, to be sure, then going and arguing my way to a pass ... literally lawyering my way into law-school). What it was on, was a pretty well-known New Zealand constitutional case - Fitzgerald vs Muldoon. If you weren't around in 1975, the facts of the matter were thus: The Rowling Labour government had instituted a compulsory national savings scheme, National had campaigned on rolling it back in favour of a universal superannuation (the famed 'Dancing Cossacks' ad) ... and when the latter won, they did exactly that. Via Rob Muldoon issuing a press statement and declaring that was what was happening - rather than, say, the more usual process of putting a bill through Parliament first. 

One plucky teacher, however (for some reason, it's often teachers who do this kind of thing), refused to recognize this - and kept sending his Compulsory National Savings deductions into the IRD anyway, who kept dutifully returning them. Fitzgerald, for that was the teacher's name, then proceeded to sue the Prime Minister over the matter. And, to the surprise of many ... he won. It was held that Muldoon was in violation of the 1688 Bill of Rights - specifically, section 1: "That the pretended power of suspending of laws, or the execution of laws, by regal authority, without consent of Parliament, is illegal:"

Now, I won't bore you with how my 17 year old self endeavoured to argue that Muldoon was *not* in fact in the wrong upon this matter; nor the economic argument for why a pension scheme rather than a saving scheme was actually pretty socially just in 1975. And will instead skip ahead to what one of my American colleagues recently said upon the matter when I explained the case to him - namely, that Muldoon was demonstrably not acting with the "pretend power [...] of regal authority", because quite clearly if the nation re-aligns itself like that following your issuing a statement, the power being exercised is obviously not "pretend". It is genuine. It's a little more complex than that in actual constitutional legal terms, but never mind that for now.

Why am I mentioning all of this? Because sometimes, it seems, there are few things new under the Sun. A few days ago, it was announced that somebody was once again suing the Government alleging of executive overreach. In this case, the claim is that our Covid-19 Lockdown protocol was legally invalid. That Ashley Bloomfield overstepped his authority by enacting the Lockdown, and that the Prime Minister made declarations with presumed legal force via press-conference. 

Except that's not really what's interesting about this.

What is - to me, anyway - is the reaction that the suit's been getting, as expressed both through our media and in the voices of ordinary New Zealanders. 

There's been some dissenting from this, to be sure, usually from people who're lawyers or constitution-enthusiasts, or avowed opponents of the Government ... yet in the main, Kiwis have not so much shrugged their shoulders at the suit as they have overtly sneered at it.

And that's understandable. The Lockdown worked. It's proven significantly popular, even (perhaps especially) with the benefit of hindsight. Many of us actually wanted it to go much further while it was on. So when somebody sues the Government over it, explicitly claiming that they don't care "how necessary" the Lockdown turned out to be - we, collectively, raise an eyebrow and wonder if the bloke's got his appropriate priorities in order. 

It probably helps, too, that one of the major implicit defendants in all of this, is one of the more well-regarded political figures in living memory - with a pretty incredible 82% of Kiwis feeling they can trust Jacinda per this week's Colmar Brunton poll. There's no similar polling effort that I'm aware of to assess Dr Bloomfield on a comparable basis, but if there were, I feel pretty confident in asserting that he'd be doing well, too. 

And the current crisis in Victoria as well as the ongoing shambles in America mean that all we have to do is look at the World section of the paper to see why the Lockdown being "necessary" is not an irrelevant consideration. 

Yet while it is inarguable that the circumstances around the Covid-19 Crisis have built the pyre ... the flames which have risen thereupon have seemingly taken on a life of their own. The Crisis may still be raging elsewhere, and is thankfully at bay here - but the popularity of Labour, which is in large measure more truly designated the positive reputation of Ardern, continues to surge. It's possible to read this, to be sure, as people concerned and anxious about their future choosing to place their trust in a figure who's managed a decent job of steering us through the calamitous crises of the recent past. It's also probable that the utter implosion of the National Party through their own invidious internal democracy has left Labour as the major force for stability in our politics (something unthinkable a mere three years ago when Jacinda ascended to the leadership, for a few reasons). 

Whatever it's based on, the net impact is that our upcoming Election has been transformed from a potentially fraught democratic contest between two major blocs ... into an effective coronation. Well, a post-facto formalization of the coronation that has implicitly already occurred. The salient 'democratic' element to it is basically us collectively deciding whether we can really be bothered with Winston for another three years, and perhaps The Greens - acting as 'handbreak' and 'biofuel' [or, if you prefer, NOS] respectively. This, in spite of the fact that a little less than three decades ago we demanded the comprehensive reform of our electoral system so that never again would we have the one-party rule of majority-government. 

But if there's an election involved, no matter how symbolic it may be - why do I then call it a 'coronation' ?

Because judging by the significantly unfavourable reactions to the Lockdown lawsuit, we've collectively and in the main come to the conclusion that we actually don't mind the idea of a single figure, perhaps two, exercising that kind of power (provided that it works). It verges on 'regal authority', some might say. 

And you know what? I'm actually pretty OK with this. We have found ourselves the proverbial 'good dictator' or 'good monarch' which [Author's note - that's as far as I got back in August. Everything which follows is more recent re-view.]

I call it a 'Coronation' - because this 'Good Monarch' is the one that we have chosen. The one that we have decided, most of us anyway, we would really quite like to continue to be ... well, just what a monarch is. Something like the Queen in Chess (although in Jacinda's case, she has the weakness of the Labour Party of being their King upon the board also). Wherein the reason that the Queen piece is the most powerful - is because the Queen represents the Nation, the Spirit of the People. It would be entirely inappropriate to term this the 'Figurehead' - as it is a piece with quite considerable and capacious *actual power*. Also why a certain associate of mine has argued that Muldoon was not in violation of the 1688 Bill of Rights Act - for Muldoon's power was most definitely not "pretend" ! He held a press conference, and the law de facto changed around his words. 

However, I also term this a 'Coronation' in a far more archaic sense than we would often think of such a thing today. In the old days - indeed, it is right there in the earlier Germanic conceptions of the ceremony - the King was an elective position. Under 'Democracy' - Your Vote Counts. Under Feudalism - Your Count Votes. And it was a matter of a personal loyalty, a personal engagement between the electors and the figure vying for the position. Who could say, looking at the crowds of people who have flocked into the streets and the town-hall meetings' aftermath to snap their personal selfie with our near-sainted Prime Minister - that there is not at the very least the simulacra of such a personal relationship, personal engagement. We feel, especially in New Zealand, as if we know many of our representatives directly - that clip from The Simpsons wherein an outraged Australian man goes to his local MP ... and then both go to the Prime Minister ... and everybody is on a first-name basis, literally talking in-person? That is also the Kiwi way. And it is one of the things which renders our form of democracy something more sacred, more pure than the American loosely fitting equivalent. 

And yet - what this picture is 'missing' is a pseudo-aristocratic 'middle class'. And by that I do not mean "middle class" in the economic sense - I mean what it used to mean, some two to three hundred years ago, if not more. The layer in the cake between the Monarch and the People. The Middle-Management of Empire. With all the unresponsivenesss and obstructionism that this 'middle-management' term would more modernly, customarily imply. 

This is not to say that they do not exist, of course - only that the last six months have rendered them increasingly irrelevant in practice. Who are they? Well, they are the people who seem to believe that they are 'born to rule'. The National Party, for example, the self-declared 'natural party of government'. The Media, too, contains more than a few self-appointed scions and arbiters of what is 'proper' , the gate-keepers, the key-shelvers who must be appeased if not downright assuaged upon the pursuing pathways of the road-network to power. 

That is partially, I presume, why for some months mid-way through this year there was both such frank incomprehension and active tearing down of the Prime Minister's putative popularity by these sorts. Because they at first subconsciously and thence self-consciously came to realize that they had been .. marginalized. There was now a direct line between the Prime Minister (and never mind even most of her party) and the People. Both in terms of the appeal, the emotional resonancy - but also in terms of speaking directly to the nation during the 1 pm press conferences. As somebody put it , we all collectively felt reassured by Jacinda and Dr Bloomfield as a sort of ersatz 'Mother' and 'Father' of the Nation. [In essence, I would actually say that it is the Dumezilian 2nd and 1st functions respectively - the Warrior-Aristocracy / Monarch , and the Priestly / Academic castes, to speak a little figuratively; rather than what would otherwise be connoted by a Mother and Father of the Nation - a Queen and King ... but I digress] 

So, for weeks it seemed, we had a situation of the poll results being frankly disbelieved. An almost embarrassed tone by media reporting upon them. The succession of "Rogue Polls", as National put it. Because this was Not How Things Were Supposed To Go. It turned out that the Nats were not, in fact, the true 'natural aristocracy' after all. And nor were the Media the genuine 'Anointers'. It was as if Napoleon had taken the Crown from the hands of the Pope and placed it upon His own head. And therefore, the constant attempt on the part of both some Media and the other, official Opposition - to force their way back into proceedings, barge their way back into not merely relevancy, but actual, active saliency into the bargain. 

At the time, I speculated that this would have the opposite-to-intended impact, the converse effect to that which was looked for. Recalling the 2014 Campaign, when Dirty Politics came out and was all the Media could talk of in their harrying of the Key-led administration then in power ... it was precisely this which helped to tip the scales ever further in National's determined favour. New Zealanders like an underdog, and have an innate sense of fairness, fair play. So when we all collectively saw John Key being seemingly harrassed (however righteous that scrutiny actually was), many people therefore concluded that it was some sort of unfair beat-up. And rallied behind the then-incumbent Prime Minister and his colleagues as a result. The pudding, in short, was over-egged, and the Government's critics wound up with egg upon our collective faces as a result. It happens. It especially happens when we are playing the pop-cultural version of Canute - endeavouring  to stand against and thence turn back the onrushing, indefatigable Tide. 

There is another factor, as well - albeit a closely related one. 

During the course of Simon Bridges' latter tenure as National Party Leader, what we saw was a terrier yapping at the pant-leg of democracy. And that became the 'democracy', in practice. Instead of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition , we were treated to the choleric spectacle of "Opposition For Opposition's Sake". And seemingly upon the most spurious and flimsy of matters. 

It got so bad that when Todd Muller took over, one of his first acts as part of his 'sales pitch' was that he would be bringing to an end exactly this kind of performative pantomimicry in our Parliament. Which lasted all of five minutes before we saw a spate of National functionaries capitalizing upon a literally imaginary homelessness problem (as in, not our real homeless problem - an imaginary homeless man being housed in a real hotel, I mean) , the ethnic surnames of New Zealanders returning to quarantine here, and the improper use of a position of trust with an emergency service provider ... amidst inter many alia. 

The National Party also then demonstrated its effusively strong enthusiasm for Democracy by having its second Leadership election in a little more than two months. You could perhaps be forgiven for presuming that all this 'practice' at voting for their figurehead meant they were warming up for the big one later this year (the General Election, I mean - not the internal party contest for who gets to replace Judith Collins and have a crack at the next one). Although the fact that National MPs seemingly kept taking their lead from their new leader(s) and undermining the leader would appear to suggest that they're vastly more interested in "struggling together" than they are in struggling together. 

All things considered - if a relatively strong level of support for the National Party is thought to be vitally necessary to our Democracy ... it is difficult indeed to blame the ordinary voter for thusly concluding that this oppositional "democracy" thing may, in practical terms, be a bit overrated. 

Now some may suggest that this is dangerous. Certainly, a few voices in the media stated as much, saying that because they did not feel free to criticize Ardern without getting a negative response from their audience - that this was a stifling effect upon their freedom to report as they saw fit ... an effective pillow 'pon the face of our democracy. We saw this particularly following a certain 1 pm press conference where the Prime Minister was relentlessly harangued on some matter she'd already answered in pursuit of a 'gotcha' moment. And I say "we saw this", because we quite literally did - it was all broadcast live. And people weren't particularly enthused by the spectacle. What did this result in? Media claiming that it was our fault for being unimpressed - that we didn't understand how a press conference was "supposed" to work , and that we should stop broadcasting the pressers so that the only accountings of what happened which voters would get ... would be the media's own reporting of what happened, shorn of all context and just a gutsful of 'Gotchas' all the way down. 

This is NOT to attempt to suggest there's no place for scrutiny of a Government, especially during a crisis scenario - such as that we've implicitly been grappling with for seemingly all of 2020. It's just to state the obvious: that what people saw, from both the Opposition and the Media, often seemed much more like a vested interest in tearing down the Government rather than helping it to meaningfully do better in its execution. Is it any wonder that we progressively began to tune these voices out? 'Jacinda Under Fire' became a sort of avatar-cum-apotheosis for every elector who'd felt themselves unfairly critiqued, complained about, harassed, harangued, beleaguered, blamed, and battered. We really did start to empathize and identify with this evidently hard-working figure apparently surrounded by idiots and egotists upon a daily basis. 

Except it was not only the vehicle of our major putative Democratic Alternative that turned out to be a clown car. It was also what they were actually endeavouring to push for most of that time that fit that description. During a period of significant success for our home-grown elimination strategy, National and various voices in the Media instead pushed for opening the borders or 'having the conversation' about what an 'acceptable' death-rate would be relative to the economic harms of continuing to ensure our populace are kept safe. To say it was unpopular (except with a certain narrow sector of the business world and, apparently, certain universities who are seemingly entirely dependent upon masses of foreign students to be economically viable), would be an understatement. But they kept at it 

It was only relatively recently that National finally chose to move away from such short-sighted rhetoric, under Collins of all people, and even then they STILL semi-frequently descend into "whatever Labour is for, we want the opposite!" style contrarianism. We also STILL occasionally hear from the "Plan B" advocates, along with other such fringe voices who've all-of-a-sudden discovered an enthusiasm for Swedish Social Democracy .. but only for the certain style of "interventionism" that's delivered greater restrictions than present New Zealand for markedly inferior virus control.

At best, as applies National during those months, you could read their rhetoric as being pig-headed and pig-eared (in the form of a purse) stubbornness ; a lack of flexibility and responsiveness because they're both out of touch and not used to having people question the economic Received Wisdom which has prevailed here since the mid-1980s. More cynically, as well as more recently, you could interpret their actions as being driven out of a desire for "Power for Power's Sake" ; a willingness to say or do absolutely anything in pursuit of the scepter and the crown. Ironically, exactly what many people would find most repugnant about a certain sort of monarchy - or, more aptly, a tyrant. And a petty, tin-pot tyrant certainly would seem to aptly encapsulate their present leadership in both style and (lack of) substance. 

If you want something "Dangerous" for our democracy - for our society! - that, I would humbly submit, is it.

Therefore, while you can argue that it's "dangerous" for us to be moving in the direction we are electorally - wherein a system expressly designed to ensure that there would never again be absolute / majoritarian governance is now prospectively going to deliver us up exactly that - I am not sure that I agree. In this instance, anyway. And that's for one very simple reason. 

The idea that a lack of choice is dangerous - requires that there actually be a lack of choice. This situation is not that. Rather, it is precisely that there IS choice, and people are overwhelmingly choosing one party, one leader. 

The opposition to this sentiment - and you mark my words, the Mike Hoskings and Leighton Smiths of this world shall be absolutely breathless in their turmoil of an "It Can't Happen Here" piquant texture and flavouring - is effectively tantamount to suggesting not that absolutism or 'monarchy' should be avoided for its own sake ... but rather that democracy in and of itself is a bad idea because it may, every so often, produce a rather remarkable out come. 

Some might opine that this view could just as easily be affixed to Donald Trump ... and yet I don't think that's right either. Not least because Judith Collins is presently doing an admirable job of demonstrating just why Trumpian pseudo-"populism" is rather ill-fitted and seemingly quite seriously unpopular here in little old Lilliputian New Zealand. But also because, properly considered, the Jacinda phenomenon is, in essence, the mirror image of Trump - and that is why everything is exactly the other way around. Proving, I suppose, that being right is not mutually exclusive with being popular - and that populism can be the wind in a progressive ship's (flying boat) wings. 

There are valid reasons, to be sure, to lack a certain enthusiasm for Labour governing entirely upon its own - and this helps to explicate just why the two horse race at this year's Election is apparently between Labour and Labour-Greens for the Government. But to bring things back to the jurisprudential matters which provided the active inspiration for this piece - the legal challenge to the first Lockdown, and that most curious of statements by its presumptive prosecutor that it did not matter whether the lockdown was 'necessary' , only that it was pro-forma legal ...

While, again, there are legitimate and valid reasons for looking into the legality of state actions here in New Zealand (and we should be thankful that we have a system, a society wherein such a thing can take place with relatively swift expedition, it would seem); it also feels that various of the people most up in arms about such things are less concerned with heading off some illusory Road to Fascism - and more with actively diverting us down the Road to Freedumb. In the American sense. Where all manner of strange and counterproductive proscriptions as well as prescriptions are left inviolate due to a slavishly hidebound adherence to certain 'letters of the law' (quite literally judiciously reinterpreted to suit) and a largely feigned fear of Tyranny. As in, the historical specter of the King of England, rather than the currently-festering, present-day proclivities of their pseudo-democratically empowered despot in the person (or should we perhaps phrase - 'persona non grata') of the President. Not just the income-bent one, either. A situation which has sadly come to its ultimate fruition through precisely the kind of internal and internecine division into multiple semi-literally armed camps that Jacinda as a sort of 'grand uniter' [capable, it would seem, not only of welding together coalitions - but also of drawing votes from both Labour and even National's usual supporters] is again a diametric opposite to. 

That, too, speaks toward Jacinda as a Hobbesian figure - an avatar of the collective pooling of our individual sovereignties. An Over-Sovereign, if you will [Chhatrapati] - a monarch. 

Or, in short: 

Leviathan Is Coming 

Get Out Of The Way 

Monday, October 5, 2020

On Judith Collins Curious Posturing At Her Rendezvous With The Other JC


A wise man once noted that the essence of successful political presentation was authenticity. Once you could fake that, you'd got it made. 

Now, as applies Judith Collins' apparently entirely unscripted and totally sincere church-visit en-route to vote over the weekend ... well, reasonable minds may differ as to whether the above quote applies. Many are certainly suggesting that the motivation for Collins' apparent Conversion On The Road To Oblivion (via way of Clevedon) is to head off the prospective growth of the New Conservatives , Advance NZ , and other such fringe-right parties who tend to be big on 'politicized Christianity' in pursuit of an Evangelical-esque appeal. Because while these vehicles are unlikely to hit five percent apiece - every percent they DO get comes at National's likely expense. Particularly due to the prospect of various splinters of National's own base decamping (or simply staying home) due to their possible lack of desire to support a leader who's voted in favour of abortion and euthanasia. 

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. You can read elsewhere those sorts of analysis for the strategic impetus for WHY Collins may have chosen to engage in a performative posture of prayer en-route to a polling place (in Kohimaramara, oddly enough). 

Rather, it's the very concept itself - that of public piety in politics - which interests me here. 

Despite the aspirations of pretty much every party I've mentioned thus far (National, the New Conservative party, and Advance NZ, for those of you playing at home) inter alia, New Zealand is not that much like America. And by this, I do not just mean that religion is a far less active and overt portion of our public life here than it is over there - the quantitative metric. There's also something qualitatively different about it, as well. 

While it's definitely and demonstrably true that we have American-style Evangelicals operating here - including prospectively within our next Parliament assuming one of their number beats a certain Seventh Day Adventist in Botany later this year (that's Christopher Luxon and Jami-Lee Ross, respectively); we also have always had something else, as well. Older style, and dare I say rather 'left-wing' strands of Christianity that are unafraid of taking directly political stands on things which affect their parishioners and the broader country. Michael Joseph Savage famously described the work of the visionary First Labour Government as being 'Applied Christianity'. The Methodist Church here regularly overtly opposes neoliberal developments, such as the TPPA. For comparison, the most prominent Methodist saliency in American politics of recent times was probably George H.W. Bush. 

This is not to suggest, either, that community-oriented and economically progressive religious bodies are unknown across the Pacific (or, for that matter, across the Tasman - which has its own Evangelical Christian political projection within the corridors of power). Only that those groups tend to be marginalized and shoved/crowded out both in the popular imagination, as well as the political hublands of power, by the more happy-clappy or otherwise 'performative' (seemingly at the expense of substance) varieties. 

And in THAT situation, I tend to think that EVERYBODY suffers. Both because the more 'right-wing' amenable  Christianities tend to have some rather funny ideas which thence find forceful expression through the political system (some might say 'infliction'); and as a direct result of all of this, the 'crowding out' effect continues apace. So whether you're secular or religious, there's something to be concerned about. People come to think that the ONLY form of religion in politics is the right-wing iteration - leading to a negative perception of these by those not keen on the (neoliberal/neocon) right, and an increase in support for the (neoliberal/neocon) right by genuinely religious people who think that this is now the only legitimate political expression for their beliefs. 

We've seen this in India, wherein the BJP has sought quite effectively to 'monopolize' the political expression of Hinduism - an effort that has occasionally lead to bad theology being promoted upon occasion; and also to a certain level of people reacting to the BJP by either distancing themselves from their ancestral faith, or seeking to redefine it in opposition to the BJP 'brand'. Which, not coincidentally, also occasionally leads to some rather bad theology. 

All of which brings us back to Collins' stunt on Sunday. 

Now, as I have said - there is some debate as to just how 'authentic' Collins' performative piety in fact was, upon that day. On the one hand, everybody seems to agree (other  than Collins - which is perhaps unsurprising) that she has never before in her political career been this overt about her faith. On the other hand, Collins herself counters this by claiming that she's always had it as a guiding principle, citing the remark in her 2002 maiden speech: "I believe in God, and I believe that every human being is created with free will to do either good or evil." Which is ... not exactly a heavily Christian perspective, to my mind, even if some important fundaments are there. Fundaments, I would argue, shared with many other religions - and which, importantly, do not actually directly qualify what Good or Evil actually are other than words upon the page. 

And that goes to the heart of why I'm feeling so iffy about this whole thing. Because it is, in the most literal sense, "virtue signalling". And, with what is meant by the term in its idiomatic context - a potential lack of actual, tangible, deeply-held 'virtue' to be signalled. Instead replaced merely by the words, the forms, the exterior-perceptible symbols so as to disguise the lack of substance. Which is also a bit of a risk, because again - some may then have their perception that ALL religious expression in politics is like this .. performative in a pantomime sense rather than rolling its sleeves up to be performative in a potent one ; and others may take the opposite view - that as it is 'genuine' expression, this means that all that goes with it is suddenly sanctified into the bargain. Because, as we all know, JC (the *other* JC - not the two-letter sign-off Judith Collins has begun appending to all her tweets these past few weeks .. presumably entirely coincidentally) was obviously all about supporting small business and deferring the Rendering Unto Caesar with a temporary tax-cut so as to stimulate the economy. 

Now don't get me wrong. I do think that there's a place - and quite a strong one - for religion in our public sphere. Partially this is because, as a religious fundamentalist zealot, I would be entirely hypocritical if I suggested anything to the contrary. But also because it enables one to get a better sense of who a politician (or a voter, an institution) actually is and what they really stand for. Politics, as with religion, is about the immanentization of values out into our mortal world. And I quite like that we know who the potentially-fringe Evangelical sorts are BEFORE we might vote for them and find out the hard way through their conduct in office - precisely because they tend to directly tell us that this is what they are, themselves. 

Which does not mean  that religious values, religious expression in our politics is above criticism, above contention, above reproach. I mean, both Tony Abbott and Simon O'Connor would hardly be criticized for being 'inauthentic' with their religious adherence - both were, if memory serves, in-training to become Catholic Priests prior to their lives in politics. However, as applies Tony Abbott's recent remarks about how Covid-19 should effectively be allowed to go unchecked because of the cost of preserving the lives of the elderly ... both myself and the Rev. Rolinson were rather chagrined that this apparent lack of regard for life in favour of coin was coming from a man so vocally "Pro-Life" in his other political enthusiasms. 

Similarly, when Donald Trump had protesters cleared from near a Washington D.C. church so as to carry out a bible-wielding photo-op - I think many quite justifiably looked in askance at this Election-year (re-)discovery of America's majority symbolism. Noting the degree of divergence between what's actually in said book and building and the way Trump's generally conducted himself both in politics and in personal life. 

Trump's maneuver is quite relevant for Collins, however - as what he had sought to do, was portray Christianity, Christian Values in America as being under attack, under threat, under siege during the waves of protest and rioting going on over there at the time. Positioning himself, perhaps, as a self-appointed 'Defender of the Faith' [a title more usually held by the Kings of England ... and ironically referring to the *Catholic* Faith, despite the well-known Protestant allegiance of these men; Prince Charles, interestingly enough, is considering amending this to "Defender of the Faiths", plural] - and disregarding all of those people of the faith in question who were actively participating in the collective outrage as to America's race-relations situation at the time. 

Collins may have anticipated that she'd receive a wave of criticism for her gesture on Sunday - and factored that into her calculations. She'd have seen the commentary from various vectors in relation to her sudden frequency of "As a Christian ... " remarks in the course of the Leaders' Debates. She'd know that being photographed in an about-as-stereotypically-"Prayer" posture as you can possibly get would generate criticism. And that sentiment - of people attacking both her for acting in a religious manner in politics, as well as the occasional opposition to religion in our politics full stop - is part of the 'mobilization' strategy. It portrays both Collins - and, via surrogate-proxy, Christianity - as being the 'victim'. As being under siege due to the perceived 'incompatibility' of her pointedly declared faith and politics. And therefore, in addition to garnering her some sympathy from certain sorts of Christian voter (who may, themselves, feel a bit under glowering cloud due to their adherence, from time to time), also positions her as both sword and shield against this negativity. 

In the same way that you find people in America (and, to be fair, here too) voting for Trump or other Republicans in order to "trigger the Libs" (regardless of whether he or they are almost an opposite to what the voter would usually prefer) - so, too, may you find some rallying behind Collins in order to "trigger the Sickulars", the left, the "Woke" (and thus, apparently, the Reserve Bank) or whatever it is this week. 

Having said that, there are other possibilities to consider. I know, better than many, how a sudden outpouring of religiosity during a difficult time can in fact be quite genuine. It is for the same reason that there are rarely to be found many 'Atheists in Foxholes'. Perhaps Collins' prayer prior to voting on Sunday was, as somebody on Twitter put it, a "Hail Mary". 

The real test of this, is the extent to which the religiosity in question persists after the the cessation of the immediate crisis correlate with its promulgation. Whether, following the Election, we still see Collins conducting herself in a manner that might be thought of (or perhaps 'confused for') as religious. 

That might not be such a bad thing, as it happens. It would be good if the implicit coterminity between Collins and Bill English - extended beyond the prospects for an unsuccessful election result (the 2002 one, I mean), and on to some of the man's values. The same ones which saw him describe our prisons as a "moral and fiscal failure" during the same term which saw Judith Collins wanting to escalate this failure via shipping-crate cells and double-bunking for 'deterrent value' (well, more what would likely come with the double bunking as the deterrent value). 

In line with the Hindu axiom - "Hands that help are holier than lips which [merely] pray", it is the actual conduct that goes beyond the prayer via which commitment to religious values (in politics or without) ought be meaningfully assessed. 

Although there is one further consideration Collins may wish to bear in mind. 

Last week, a day or so prior to his Covid-19 circumstance, Trump invited a Hindu Priest to the White House to carry out a puja for peace and protection. It would not seem beyond the bounds of possibility that this prayer was answered - in a rather more general sense than had perhaps been intended by the President. 

Or, phrased another way - Collins may find that endeavouring to call upon (the) God(s) may lead to Divinity Answering. And doing so in a manner that serves a Plan, an intent, other than one's own. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Where NZ First Went Wrong

The way a snare works  is quite simple. The more the creature in it struggles .. the tighter the noose becomes. Had it gone another way, taken another approach, and resisted its instinct to thrash madly against the rope - it could much more easily slip out. But in its desperation - it does not do that, and consigns itself to its fate. 

Now, New Zealand First is no wild animal (for the most part) - and we are not yet at the point wherein the Party can safely be cut open for a postmortem. It is an old war-horse - and woe betide the man who sneaks up behind a horse unprepared for a good kicking. That vigour may yet manage to propel the charger across the five percent finish line rather than to the 'finished' line a few weeks hence. 

But last night's Reid Research poll - coming as it does upon the heel of last week's Colmar Brunton and seeming to confirm the party's down in the margin-of-error thickets of circa two percent - should be worrying for them. Despite all the customary bluster about polling for NZF never being accurate (and I can still hear Winston's words echo in my ears about the 2002 results being out by "more than a thousand percent") - there was only an 0.1% difference between the Reid Research poll prediction for NZF immediately prior to the 2017 Election, and their actual result on the night. 

So what has happened? How has it come to this? 

Well, the simple answer is also simply wrong. Many people shall look at tonight's Reid Research (as well as the various other previous polling of this cycle) and conclude that the rising New Conservatives (on 2.1% in the Reid Research, 1.6% in the Colmar Brunton) and Advance NZ have cannibalized NZF's vote. 

Except if we go back through 2014 and 2011 - the Conservatives were able to return reasonably high (by their standards) results of 3.97% and 2.65% ... without eating significantly in to NZ First's vote (8.66% and 6.59% respectively). 

It would be tempting to presume that New Zealand First has been trading votes with the parties of the right-wing fringe. In some cases, this is not impossible - although even as applies ACT, I'd suspect that their sudden rise is the result of haemorrhaged National support rather than coming at Winston's personal expense. (This shouldn't be a point of serious doubt, as NZF and ACT are theoretically diametrically opposed on so many core issues ... but who knows what goes through the minds of some ACT supporters some of the time)

Yet what has actually been occurring is that NZ First has been losing votes to Labour. As, to be sure, has just about everybody else. 

And therein lies the rub. 

NZ First's strategy for much of the campaign this year has been to present itself as 'in this government but not of this government'. At Cabinet at least partially to prevent Labour (and the Greens) from Governing in particular areas. The proverbial 'hand-brake' upon our democracy. 

And some of the time, this is a viable stratagem. It is possible that, were circumstances different than they are now, that this would even have been a successful prospect for the party. 

If this were genuinely a 2002 style situation, for example, a weak National would mean that voters distressed about the terrifying specter of a moderate allegedly-left-wing government would be queueing up in droves to support parties perceived as able to 'counter' or at least 'limit' Labour's agenda. Whatever that "agenda" may be perceived to be. It almost does not matter. 

But this is not a 2002 style situation. It's a 2020 style situation. A Time of Endings. And twists in the narrative that keep occurring so we're never quite sure when or where that "Ending" may happen to be. 

As soon as NZ First chose to go with Labour in 2017, it made it exponentially harder for itself to present as being "the outsider" - it was now going to be part of Government. Which makes running *against* the Government quite a difficult proposition to successfully pull off. 

Running *with* the Government as a necessary support partner, however, is quite a different - and, I suspect quite a lot more of a viable - prospect. It's something the Greens are, arguably, doing right at this minute - and reaping the polling rewards of being about three times as popular as NZ First, and over the 5% threshold. In theory - we'll see how things play out on Election Night. 

As I have written about before, from 2014 onwards there was a concerted effort inside NZF to move the whole thing 'rightwards'. I don't say that this was the dominant perception of members - nor even of everybody with an actual decision-making power inside the tent at that time. But some pushed for it, arranged things, and that's in part how NZF wound up moving away from its 2011 positioning to be more 'center' between Labour and National than it had previously been. And thence, where its self-contradictory series of "Bottom Lines" showboating from the 2017 campaign presumably got its start. Attempts to draw in voters from National - a strategy that was doubled down upon once it became more difficult for multiple reasons to get more votes from Labour. 

But in 2020 - there are precious few votes to be garnered from National. They've already all either left (whether for Labour or for ACT), or are battening down the hatches and clinging on for dear life.

So aiming to win (soft) National support by presenting yourself as the vector for Government restraining - is , at the moment at least , somewhere between a losing wicket and a slow hole to nowhere. 

If you like Labour, why would you want to vote for the party that is the self-declared "handbrake" upon Labour governance. If you don't like Labour ... you're probably desperately clinging on for dear life pretending that National's actually somewhere in the mid thirties despite an escalating mound of "ROGUE POLLS" and Goldsmith accounting to the contrary. Or you're a Greens voter. 

The sensible way forward as of several months ago - it's probably too late for this now - would have been to present as the 'elder statesman' party. The one that had productively worked with others to produce a strong and stable response to challenging times. And who had worked overtime in the relevant portfolio sectors (like Foreign Affairs) to help augment rather than undermine the Government's core directives.

Because in large measure ... all of that's actually rather true, and it is a shame that it has been de-emphasized: both by deliberate signalling on the campaign trail, and by some of NZF's high-profile actions while in or around Government (that handbrake thing being quite prominent within them). 

There would have been meaningful 'room for difference' as well to prevent the specter of being 'absorbed' and 'eclipsed' by Labour - a risk, to be sure, for attempting to run 'with' rather than 'against' the dominant party of government.

But looking at the Greens at the moment - who are presently in a rather better position than NZF - we can see that it is possible to support Labour *and* present a vision that goes further than Labour's in important ways which get noticed by voters. Not necessarily *positively* noticed by voters, perhaps, but that's the risk you take. 

It's not impossible that things will change quite rapidly over the next month, and NZF will somehow perform yet another amazing resurrection from what would otherwise be the dying embers of their funeral pyre. I'd certainly like to believe that to be the case - but the *good* NZ First, not the rather obstructivist-obnoxious petty-point-scoring-for-petty-point-scoring's-sake would-rather-be-working-with-the-other-guys-anyway side we've occasionally seen from time to time over the past three years, particularly wearing a quite literally Donald Trump style hat. Like ... literally wearing a Donald Trump style hat. 

Because ultimately - it's been that sort of vibe which has been the problem. I'm not talking about giving a voice to the voiceless - in a democracy, that should *never* be a problem. Although the Public Party is certainly pushing the limits of *that* particular envelope, to be sure. Rather, it's the attempt to forcibly push a centre-right outrage agenda, by generating one - and fatuous windbaggery breathing hard and heavy so it's so difficult to see all the actual, real positive contribution being made. 

It's evident that the 'conventional logic' inside parts of the party is that this strategy should be working - and should be providing just enough difference from Labour to bring in both 'conservative' Labour supporters and National supporters alike. But it isn't. 

And so, the noose is tightening. As it has been, really, all year. NZ First's polling has been progressively tracking downwards for much of this cycle - as, more worryingly, have Winston's Prefered Prime Ministership ratings (which interestingly tend to be a better predictor of the party's support than polling, some of the time). 

So it's running on instinct. Its instinct - at least in some quarters - being to thrash about and ever more dramatically. Just last week we had talk of "bringing down the Government" rather than making use of the "agree to disagree" provisions in the Coalition Agreement. And a range of other previous outbursts that sound more like rival parties on opposite sides of the aisle instead of coalition partners joined at the hip on the Treasury Benches. 

And just as we saw with the mechanism of the snare - in situations wherein the animal thrashes about acting out its instincts , the noose does not leave its limb. Instead, it begins to cut off the blood-flow as it constricts in fairly direct consequence. 

It's probably too late to do anything about that now. 

The only serious question is whether NZ First possesses sufficient strength left in its hindquarters to rip out the snare from its moorings rather than successfully breaking free. 

Maybe, just maybe, its leg (last or otherwise) can still support it yet. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Sanctifying The Sub-Cluster - What Needs Now Happen Following Mt Roskill Evangelical Church Covid-19 Outbreak

Like many New Zealanders, I felt that the news coming through yesterday that some "science-disbelieving" Evangelical church had produced itself a sub-cluster of Covid-19 seemed a cold slap in the face. Hadn't we all worked so hard over first the Level Four lockdown, and then the much more recent Level 3? Who WERE these people to come along, do the wrong thing, apparently potentially deliberately, and thence undermine the Team of Five Million by patching over to Team Virus right as we seemed to be getting things back under control. 

And then I stopped myself, and thought about it a bit. 

The first thing to be said ... was actually put rather more eloquently than I'll likely be able to manage by the relevant Local Board Chair, Julie Fairey. 

In a statement to Twitter yesterday, she said:

"It is looking increasingly like the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship have made some terrible mistakes and are dealing with horrible consequences as a result.  Shaming and blaming doesn't help, in fact it encourages people to hide symptoms and contacts.  Please be kind."

Quite right. You see, our first impulse in scenarios such as these is to reach out and to apportion blame. It makes us feel like we're Doing Something. It gives us back that illusory sensation of 'control'. We fool ourselves into thinking that by reaching out with hard words, harsh words, self-declared "necessary" invectives - that we are shoring up the defences against anything like it ever happening again. 

And occasionally, that is not altogether incorrect. Some people do respond to that measure of 'discipline' and social, peer pressure, and they correct themselves and never do whatever it was ever again. Except in this instance, the idea that one might come in for a heaping helping of opprobrium for just so happening to harbour within one's self the virus ... may be counterproductive. People leap to conclusions, leap down your throat, and provide an active disincentive towards actually coming forward and getting tested - standing up and helping to contain the virus's further spread. 

You may think that I am projecting fantasy - but take a look at how the South Auckland family at the 'ground zero' for the Coolstore cluster were treated. There is no indication that they did ANYTHING wrong - in fact every indication that by coming forward and getting tests done, they saved lives ... and we STILL had a certain swathe of moral outrage brigade pounce upon them to absolutely INSIST that they MUST have bent the rules, broken the rules, sold out the rules for thirty pieces of inequitable silver and/or a one-night romantic liaison into the bargain. 

Our need to 'judge' and to 'condemn', in other words, meant that even those who were absolutely squeaky clean, got put through the wringer - in a way that precious few of us would claim to actually be facilitating people coming forward and Doing The Right Thing in earnest on into the future. 

Now imagine what we'd do to some people - like some of these folks at the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship Church - who may have done the wrong thing in a more active sense. Whether because they genuinely didn't remember a close contact, and therefore allowed a "tentacle" of the virus to slip through the contact-tracing net ... or due to something more (c)overtly intentional. 

The point we absolutely need to remember is that when we're in a mess like this, it's less important pointing fingers as to how we got here and who's responsible for it ... than it is to work together to get out of the situation. Something that can really only be accomplished by working together - and supporting the people we actually DO need to reach in this scenario, to make good choices. For ALL our sakes. 

Although having said that, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't rather angry about all of this. Albeit for somewhat different reasons to most of us, perhaps. 

You see, I am what we could probably describe as a "religious fundamentalist zealot". I am not Christian (although I am given to understand that my immediate forebear, the Reverend Rolinson, may happen to be), but my place of worship is directly adjacent to Mt Roskill - it's where our religious community is perhaps centered. 

And as soon as I saw the news reports around this Evangelical church being at the center of an expanding sub-cluster, apparently because some of its members were ill-disposed toward taking the threat seriously, believing the science, working with the state upon this matter ... I knew exactly how things were going to go. 

Every time something like this happens, various people will go "Aha! The Religious! Always are the problem! Tut-tut!"

Which ignores, of course, all the devoutly religious sorts who aren't, and all the non-religious who are.

Now this does not mean that there is no correlation in some corners of the world between particular strains of religious adherence and ... unhelpful behavior. Certain American mega-churches spring instantly to mind. As do the frankly terrifying reports of the actions and flagrant conspiratorial conduct of the Shincheonji group in South Korea. I mean "conspiratorial" here also in its older Latinate sense - they literally  "breathe together", as well as concealing their membership from the state. 

But here's the thing. Various religious groups behaving badly in these crisis-ridden times are "letting the side down". They're making the rest of us look bad precisely because they loom so large within the public imagination that they block out everybody else who's doing the right thing. My Mandir (Hindu Temple) closed its doors as soon as the Lockdown order went into effect. The Rev. Rolinson has put zealous effort into mastering the intricacies of Zoom so as to continue preaching to his congregations without requiring all his parishioners to be in the same room. 

And I say "making us look bad", "letting the side down", etc. not simply because I am idly concerned about the optics of the situation in an abstract measure. But because these optics, these perceptions have real consequences. If you don't believe me, take the word of Reverend Frank Ritchie

"Just heard of a church that is following the rules, now receiving hate mail from members of the public because of the latest cluster."

That's something happening here, in New Zealand, as of this morning. 

And it's something which may yet have further consequences, also. Because if religious groups start feeling that they're being unfairly singled out and persecuted - some may begin to behave poorly in response. It's not because they're religious - it's because they're human. 

I saw this a few months back with some associates overseas. They saw that in their jurisdictions, religious worship was being severely clamped down upon ... at the same time that Black Lives Matter protests were being allowed to go ahead. They therefore felt that they were being singled out. That there was an anti-religious, or perhaps anti-Christian agenda afoot. And they therefore became rather less than favourably disposed towards the restrictions upon churches and church-gatherings as a result. 

Optics matter. Particularly when it's the compliance of those who may feel harshly singled out that makes or breaks the crisis-response. 

Having said all of that, I don't think it incorrect to acknowledge that there's an occasional correlation of 'conspiratorial thinking' out there in the community with certain groups. 
It's just that the "certain groups" in question aren't necessarily the religious ones. Rather, they're the sorts of people who'd be having an issue with a Labour-led Government etc. whether there was a pandemic or not. 

Or, phrased another way - 

If they were sketchy about "big" government and pro-conspiratorial thinking BEFORE the pandemic ... well, they may be Gerry Brownlee. 

And that's really the crux of it, I feel. 

There are no authentic tenets of Chistian (or, for that matter, Hindu) theology that I am aware of which overtly demand people to frustrate disaster-relief efforts in the course of a pandemic. There are several that seem to cut almost exactly the other way when it comes to enjoining the obeying of secular authorities with reasonable legal instructions. But that's almost immaterial at this point. 

I have long observed that an appreciable amount of Theology-Done-Badly is people basically coming up with excuses to go ahead and do whatever it was they wanted to do anyway. 

The same goes for the anti-religious out there in our society who are, at this juncture, behaving likewise. They're entitled to their views, of course - but I can't help but feel that many of them up in arms about this present situation are seeking to utilize the current Covid-19 sub-cluster to push an anti-religious barrow-and-bandwagon which has precious little to do with the actual realities of the situation. That is to say - what they wanted to do anyway. 

I don't want to end on a harsh note, so I'll simply say this: 

Various figures from the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship Church now appear to be more actively working with the Ministry of Health in order to get the Covid-19 sub-cluster under control. Whatever you may happen to think about their beliefs more generally, I think that that approach of engagement - on both sides - deserves to be applauded. 

Success is not necessarily contingent upon making the right choice all of the time, nor especially making the right choices consistently and to begin with. But rather, it is attained through growing, learning, and making better decisions today and tomorrow than you did yesterday or the day before that. 

And that - with its implicit spirit of 'repentance-of-the-deed' - goes for all of us.

Not just the religious. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Singapore's Recognition Of Success Of NZ Covid-19 Response Shows How Well We're Really Doing

 On Friday, Singapore made an announcement - New Zealanders heading there would no longer be required to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. Instead, Kiwis will simply be given a Covid-19 test and assuming it's negative, they'll be allowed to go on their way. 

That's pretty huge - and shifts New Zealand from the clade of 'low risk' countries (such as Vietnam, Taiwan, and South Korea) where visitors to Singapore are allowed provided they undergo 14 days isolation. 

To phrase it another way - Singapore has such confidence in New Zealand's measures to fight Covid-19, that they think we're doing a better job than the three Asian countries often cited as the 'gold standard' for controlling the disease. 

I don't think I've seen any media reports on this here in New Zealand - partially because it's a recently breaking story, but also I suspect because it conflicts with the narrative that various portions of our media seem to wish to push: that the Government has been incompetent, lazy, if not outright flagrantly negligent over the past three-and-a-half months since the last Lockdown ended here. 

To be fair and sure, it's true that over-reliance upon the perceptions of foreign governments in assessing our own Covid-19 response is a bit of a fraught avenue. If you listen to Trump, after all, we're currently in the middle of a massive disaster that means it's "all over" for us. Which is fairly patently not the case. 

Yet even though Singapore's rather ... different to us in many ways, and runs off a social and economic model that would be painfully inappropriate for New Zealand - one thing they're generally very good at is the analysis of risk. They've had to be. That's how they've managed to survive as a small island nation the size of Lake Taupo sandwiched between much larger and often semi-hostile neighbours. And also raised themselves from a small colonial backwater to a prominent international economic powerhouse. 

They've made the decision to regard our people - and therefore, the fruits of our Covid-19 control campaign - as below even 'low risk'. Lesser risk than the countries which went down the pathway of eschewing major lockdowns in favour of localized control and contact tracing. You know, what various domestic right-wing voices here are claiming we should (or should have been able to) have done. 

And they made that decision AFTER the most recent round of Auckland-lockdown-lite had been in place already for a week and a half. 

Don't get me wrong - there are various areas in our Covid-19 response wherein it's quite clear that somebody has dropped the ball. I hardly need to detail them here. And certainly, we've been incredibly lucky upon occasion, as well. 

But at a time when a number of voices are seemingly attempting to portray our Government as clueless and crazy when it comes to controlling the Corona virus, it's useful to be able to apply a bit of perspective. And really compare the scale of our success - as well as our shortcomings - relative to other nations held to be 'doing well'. 

In this case, by making use of the perspective of another. After all - it is notably difficult for a subject to observe itself. 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

National Debacle Over Stripper Allegations Shows Trajectory Party Is On


There are bad news cycles, there are poor news weeks lacking in cut-through - and then there's whatever's happening with the Opposition. Wherein they've transcended mere mediocrity to start showing their true colours in the most inadvertent and unintentional of ways, splashed across our headlines. 

The weekend's revelation that some in National are reportedly attempting to torpedo their own potential candidate in Auckland Central by claiming she's a former stripper, is by now about par for the course for the party. It's hardly a 'new low' - really more of a 'new middle'. 

And pretty emblematic all-up of where the National Party is at at this point in the campaign. Quite a number of them are so focused on scrabbling for their own individual simulacrum of success that they're doing ridiculous things which don't help the party - and therefore, in the real sense, undermine their own potential future prospects.

Rumours, muckraking, and invented attacks on rivals - internal to your own party or otherwise - are part and parcel of party politics, unfortunately. Although it's rare that they ever serve anything other than the most petty and personal of motivations.

In this case, it's a pretty bad look on just about every score. The party which has been attempting to brand itself as the vehicle for glass-ceiling penetrating , aspirational liberal feminism and women-in-power-ment ... is having a localized meltdown because party members presumably in favour of one up-and-coming female candidate are trying to take down the other female candidate by spreading rumours the latter's a stripper and sex-scandal-implosion liability.

Feminism in National, it would seem, means that the women just as much as the men get their opportunity to take pot shots at women in pursuit of their own personal advancement.

Now to be fair and sure, this isn't a phenomenon exclusive to National - nor is it, for that matter, a proclivity exclusive to politics.

Yet as the National Party's prospects for power diminish as we close upon the Election, their propensity for fighting ever more frantically for what skerricks of potentiality remain has little actual success to immerse itself in and hide behind.

The only thing we can see about them - isn't the fools' gold lustre of faked progress on GDP or housing stats or purportedly vital road construction (or tunnel costings). It's just them as they actually are. Nakedly self-interested invertebrates who'll quite happily sell their own grandmother for the illusory prospect of power, and cook their own goose amidst the duck-shoving to even have a semi-shot at its attainment. 

In a healthy political environment, and when one has the self-confidence to feel secure in possessing principle - this sort of allegation doesn't tend to happen. It's usually only when the desperation kicks in, the poison of despair begins to make all manner of previously morally turgid avenues seem palatable, that we see this kind of conduct happening in earnest. 

It would therefore be tempting to file this alongside Judith Collins' weaponized dobbing in of Iain Lees-Galloway just recently; however this is something else. And not only because there's nothing to suggest there's any truth to the claims made against Samarakone, the National candidate in question. 

Rather, it is because whereas Collins' quip against Lees-Galloway was a sideswipe across the aisle - this is something that is intra-party, yet turning up outside of the party because the famed National Party internal discipline which usually has all the troops facing the same way even in pressing circumstances has begun to break down in earnest. 

Facing the same way does not, of course, mean that knives aren't also pressed into the backs of those immediately ahead of you, of course - and that is something we've seen at least once in the past few months at the very highest levels of the party. But I suspect that, in concert with Collins' moves to marginalize a few other people in the Party, we are beginning to see National descend into the sort of factional infighting which plagued Labour for much of the nine years it spent in Opposition. 

This is particularly the case given the implicit additional target of the attacks upon Samarakone is National Party President, Peter Goodfellow. The infighting therefore, will assumedly be going well beyond the relatively small-scale selection battle over a single now-marginal seat , and may continue to exert a corrosive effect upon National's interior administration and governance for some time to come. 

That may not necessarily be fatal for them in the longer term, of course - as we saw between 2002 and 2005, the roiling chaos which engulfed the party following its worst-ever election result facilitated the rise of one Don Brash, and the re-invigoration of National from not-even-also-ran to almost-government status. 

So who knows how things will play out over the next three years. They might even manage to get near 40% ... eventually. 

Still, I must express my sympathy for Samarakone in this situation. As a younger man, I had not entirely dissimilar underhanded maneuvers and rumour-spreading-for-tactical-nukery carried out against me. Some of it was even semi-true! But fortunately in my case, most of it took place behind closed doors and as whispers in ears to subtly influence things (up until it didn't). It must be a pretty horrible feeling for her to have these sorts of increasingly lurid allegations blared across the headlines.

And not least because it makes her the villain for daring to stand up to the faceless 'whispering campaign' by refuting it, bringing in legal sanction to get it to actually stop, and then having somebody leak that that's what she's doing. Because then it's perceptibly 'on her' that there's bad publicity and 'oxygen' as to the matter. 

In any case, I think it fair to say that National is not so much starting the campaign in Auckland Central on the back foot - as actively underwater. And when you are in it up to your eyeballs, it is occasionally good advice to close your mouth. As a party, I mean. People might inadvertently adduce something as to your character from what you say otherwise.  

Monday, July 20, 2020

2020 - NZ First's St Anger Moment ?

Over the weekend, NZ First did something rather remarkable for a smaller party. They turned 27.

Now, in the annals of music and film, a standout performer's twenty seventh year is always one that's for some reason fraught with risk of imminent mortality. Whether Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison or Amy Winehouse ... there's just something about that age that seems to inspire the critical existence failure in the renowned. Their potential never becoming quite realized, and leaving them forever frozen in time. Which can, from an artistic perspective, be no bad thing - there is never the ensuing slide into mediocrity which, say, Metallica underwent in the St Anger era. They are remembered amongst the constellation of Greats by virtue of never having stopped being, even as and when they stopped being.

Except while it is unquestionably the case that NZ First in its two-point-seventh decade is facing a bit of a death-risk in the next few months, that last statement is only of questionable application to the party. In much the same manner as the old parlour-game of asking at what point the French Revolution ceased being a Good Idea, the debate as to whether or perhaps when NZ First stopped being Great (as opposed, presumably, to 'Make New Zealand Great Again' - with all that *that* entails) is one that could go on for some time.

For what it's worth, my answer to the former question is to be unfavourable as to The Terror, but to consider Napoleon to be the apotheosis of The Revolution and therefore fundamentally its savior and the stalwart support for its Goodness going forward to the end and then some. And as applies the latter question .... while I've been pretty disappointed upon occasion by my former party (c.f the TPPA volte-face, Shane Jones in general, inter alia), I have nevertheless been broadly content that my vote for it in 2017 was the right one. We did, after all, get a pretty decent Labour-led Government out of it, for a start. And I've been genuinely pleased with Ron Mark's actual forward thinking and strong advocacy in the Defence portfolio - a series of decisions which we shall reap the benefits of for years if not decades to come.

But all up, in recent weeks NZ First has seemed a rather different kind of rock-star to a sprightly young suicide risk of just under 30. In my writeup on NZ First at its 2017 Convention, I compared the Party to Motörhead - on the basis that while it did seem to basically be releasing the same album every three years or so ... that was OK, because that's exactly what the fanbase seemed content with, and it kept things ticking over consistently if perhaps not immensely excitingly for everybody else within earshot of the stadium.

This no longer quite seems to be the case. Insofar as NZF's found itself in the ineluctable position of no longer quite being able to convincingly play the rebel Outsider following nearly three years in Government ... and is instead attempting to deploy an array of rather bemusing foreign-import cliches to try and give itself some maladroit 'maverick' appeal to paper over its lack of genuine, transformative change.

These range from those so-called 'Bad-Boys of Brexit' that either are or aren't working for NZ First at this year's Election contingent upon which day of the week it is and how the question is asked ... through to Winston's apparent keynote sub-theme of rejecting "Woke Pixie-Dust" in his yesterday's address.

All up, the sense I'm getting from this is not Lemmy Kilmister. It's rather, some *other* aging, punch-drunk hard-living music-scene stalwart that's regrettably started to go a bit tone-deaf and as a result has gone down a bit of a peculiar trajectory in a semi-desperate bid to reclaim the 'vibe' of their now-distant youthful prime. Perhaps 2020 shall prove to be Winston's "St Anger" moment. Or, possibly it's like Dave Mustaine following the frankly remarkable recovery from his stroke - during which his born-again Evangelical Christianity really started to shine through with no off-switch and lead to the critically as well as fanbase panned 'Super Collider'.

Anyway, I digress.

I wasn't at NZ First's Convention this year, so my perception of events is based on little more than media reports and talking with people actually still involved or proximate to the Party who were.

This appeared to confirm that the substance on-view in the media was broadly accurate: that not too terribly much of import occurred (with one major exception), and that in lieu of meaningful announcements, we had Winston attempting to out-woke on being anti-woke Judith Collins in a 'how do you do, fellow kids' sounding attack on what in the old days would have been termed 'political correctness', while also making pretty standard remarks about the importance of 'stability' and preparing for this country's 'future'.

And you know what? That's not actually so bad. Most parties don't signal flagship policy launches in Election years at their annual Conventions. They save those for when precious oxygen is needed on the campaign trail. Stability IS important, going forward - and it's a pretty amusing and positive sight to compare the way the Coalition Government, despite containing three occasionally rather different parties ... hasn't imploded or rolled its leadership in the manner that National has done twice in two months over on the other side of the aisle. It would be nice to presume that 'Stability' of Government also means that NZ First is keen to make ready to support Labour (and perhaps the Greens) for a second term in office, but I suppose we'll have to see what happens.

I'm rather less impressed all up with NZ First's commitment to 'back our future', given that its major contribution (again, with the exception of Ron Mark's decent defence portfolio work) to future-planning for New Zealand has been to turn on a somewhat less than discriminate hose of Provincial Growth Funding and seemingly support the continued status of New Zealand as economic colony through a lack of positive vision for transformative change away from over-reliance on primary industries and tourism (and this, in the same week that Tiwai Point's closure unlocks by necessity a whole nother conceptual space for regional development in Southland) ... but that is another rant for another time.

In terms of actual policy announcements ... there appears to have been but one of serious significance - Tracey Martin's push for the restoration of a Universal Family Benefit. Which is actually a pretty decent proposal. I don't think that it's a serious competitor for a Universal Basic Income - or, for that matter, to the Green Party's significantly watered-down Guaranteed Minimum Income proposal ... but that's because these are different tools with different objectives in mind. You could probably even run them somewhat complementarily. And I perhaps wouldn't even have brought up the Green Party's GMI, except for the fact that Martin, in speaking about the NZF proposal, asserted that part of her objective was to "bust [the] myth" that "the Greens have got a monopoly in caring about poverty" with reference to their recent policy announcements in the relevant area.

Interestingly, the brusqueness towards the Greens ... by claiming to be equal to or better than the Greens in what's ostensibly Green Party core competency, was also something Winston got in on - declaring NZ First to be "in fact the greenest party in Parliament". Presumably with a substance other than envy.

Which, if nothing else, goes to show that I was right all along about the two parties actually realizing they have more in common in terms of values than either really wants to believe ... and therefore fighting bitterly, animositically as a result.

Now, in terms of the actual 'mood of the people', it may also be worth looking at a few of the policy remits that were successfully passed by the Party over the weekend. These included some somewhat predictable ones around abolishing conscience voting for MPs on matters put to referendum and doubling the manpower of our defence force in order to facilitate better humanitarian (as well as military) response.

But also some slightly more surprising ones, such as a push for greater efforts at recycling and minimizing the use of landfills ... and, perhaps in light of present circumstances across the Pacific, a proposal to institute body cameras for Police and Corrections personnel.

All things considered, this year's NZ First Convention - as seen from a rather far distance of a whole few suburbs away and second-hand (instead of just the smoke being second-hand as in previous years) - seems to have been a bit average. Nothing really bad appears to have happened ... but, then, with the plausible exception of Martin's Universal Family Benefit proposal, nothing rather remarkable seems to have occurred, either. Even the Green Monster that turned up part-way through Sunday was both 'non-political' and dealt with outside the venue by security.

As I have said ... in an Election Year, this is almost to be expected - you could view Labour's Convention a few weeks back in much the same light. However, the trouble is that with NZ First, I'm not really sure how much more and different they're actually going to manage going forward from now until the Election.

It's certainly possible that the Party shall surprise us with some visionary, big-ticket items that are actually worth turning out for. I definitely hope so.

It's even possible that some of those visionary, big-ticket items (should they exist) are actually intended to be pursued with some vigour by the Party when (or, perhaps, if) it is back in Government in four or five months time.

Although after the way in which NZ First's ever-mounting stack of Bottom Lines seemed to become occasional Bottom Afterthoughts during the course of last Election's culminatory coalition negotiations process (a matter that was, to be fair, not necessarily under NZF's control - unless it wanted to genuinely go cross-benches and/or subject the country to another election as a result of neither Labour nor National being prepared to countenance some of the more .. unique ones) , it could be well understanded if the Party chose to eschew such things (until it gets desperate) in favour of basically just standing upon its record.

A record which, for all its (occasional) faults - is not actually a bad one, especially in light of its positive contribution to good governance over the past three years, and keeping National seriously hammered for the nine years before that.

Certainly, the notion of 'Stability' and continuance for prudent governance is what Labour's running on this time around - and therein lies at least half of the problem.

The Party will have perceived that being too closely aligned with Labour , effectively means becoming subconsciously indistinguishable from Labour - and therefore likely to become electorally eclipsed by them. This is the opposite scenario to what prevailed in 2011, wherein the Party being fundamentally distinct from Labour (not least, by virtue of being politically purportedly 'dead' at the time) induced many left-of-National Kiwis to tactically or enthusiastically vote for NZF as a fairly direct result.

So instead of running on its record of Good Governance with Labour, we see this curious Cat on the Doorstep campaign stratagem (that is to say, not quite sure whether 'in' or 'out) - of simultaneously running on a record of supposed Good Governance against Labour (and the Greens), as can be seen with the 'handbreak on silly policy' rhetoric of late. But also performative signalling of just how different they are (or like to think they are) from Labour (and most especially the Greens) in areas that are heavily visually distinctive, but lacking in real substance.

Or, in other words, Winston's "Woke Pixie Dust" is just exactly that. The Pictsie [with deference to his proud Scottish heritage] dusting of shouting "Woke" about the place [as he recently did to The Spinoff, for instance, to deflect from their scrutiny of his British associate's pledged assistance], in order to distract from how little there is to easily distinguish NZ First and Labour from each other after three years joined at the hip in coalition governance and Cabinet.

"Where Is My Mind", indeed.

And yet - it could be worse. While I'm not exactly enthused by this contemporary choice of stylistic veneer ... in many ways, it's preferable to NZF deciding to try and add substance to its claim of distinctiveness from those it's recently been in government with. Because while in yesteryear it did this rather effectively by actually running to the economic left of the Labour party ... I rather suspect that were it to try and do genuine policy or ethos distinctiveness from Labour (and the Greens) today, it would go in the exact opposite direction.

But this comes with a risk. The 'Woke' attack line is not merely a distracting bauble for some of its supporters to play with. It's also something of a cathartic steam-valve for various portions of the Party that probably really do think that they've been enabling Government-By-Tumblr for the past three years and are now fed up with it.

What this means in practice, is that what's supposed to be a gimmick - could turn into a much more genuinely felt and genuinely pushed surge of emotion. Especially with them Brexit Back-Street Boys involved. Soon as that happens, it could well turn into, to quote Megadeth's Foreclosure of a Dream:

"Backed in a corner, caught up in the race
Means to an end ended in disgrace
Perspective is lost in the spirit of the chase"

That is to say, in much the same manner as Metallica in the early 2000s, NZF may wind up attempting to push through its doldrumish funk by channeling that raw frustration and emotion and have it become the message, the vibe itself. An outlet, rather than outreach, perhaps.

And while this may have worked rather well in previous years, and upon previous releases (by which I mean NZ First at its arguable necessary-best in 1993-1996 and 2011, and Metallica in its early best albums, Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets) ... the part that's arguably missing in the here and now is both the technical proficiency to make it a seriously engaging output, as well as the 'something to say' to match that emotional heft to other than perceived personal annoyance.

A lack of realization of these facts - a lack of self awareness - and a decision to press forward down the rabbit-hole of what felt good at the time to release ... appears to have been how St. Anger happened. An album which, for those unaware of the controversy, was basically the musical equivalent of recording a patient screaming their neuroses out in a therapy session. Which may sound incredibly Metal in theory ... but in practice, the questionable (even arguably somewhat 'tone-deaf') quality of the result effectively definitively ended Metallica's reign at or near the top of their relevant musical scene and splintered its fanbase irreparably.

You can see how this might relate to NZ First if it keeps going too hard down this trajectory as we head toward the Election - and especially if there's little else to offset it or otherwise add substance to its offering.

I could probably take the metaphor further at some length (including Load / Reload and S&M representing NZF's years in Government ... therefore adding pressure to 'act out' at the end of the term to draw a line under the previous; and the frankly disconcerting supposition that if NZF's emotive 'Anti-Woke' posturing is Metallica circa 2003, Judith Collins as the larger and likely more successful mobilizer of the phenomenon may be Nu Metal) ... but this stopped being a report on NZF's Convention and started being rather peculiar politico-musical history some paragraphs ago.

To phrase it succinctly, then - NZ First in its 27th year is facing a risky situation. The largely lackluster Convention isn't really a problem for that - however the prospect of the party doubling or even trebling down on some of the only material from said Convention to actually get air-time (i.e. the "Woke Pixie-Dust" - the ruin of many a rockstar) in lieu of much else of substance ... could lead to this becoming the Party's "St. Anger Moment" - and thence joining the Twenty Seven Club itself.

A fate which, despite the Party's traditional colours, would be a most unfortunate 'Fade to Black', indeed.