Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Why I'm Not Celebrating The Martin Shkreli Arrest. Much.

Ok, so the title's a little misleading. I guffawed when news of Shkreli's arrest came to my attention - as, seemingly, did just about everyone else on my corner of the internet.

If you've just joined us, and were living in heretofore blissful ignorance as to who and what Shkreli was ... allow me to disabuse you. Remember that pharmaceuticals investment exec from a few months back who massively jacked up the price of a vital medication (by about five thousand percent) - and then appeared ready to "fight the whole internet" when people asked him to relent?

Few men in modern times have inspired such widespread revulsion. On the (American) political spectrum, everyone from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump appeared to believe he was a nasty, entitled piece of work - and arguably more than a little evil.

Pro-tip: when even The Trump thinks you're acting like a "spoiled brat", you've gone so far over the line they might as well build a wall over it.

So - at least initially -  the fact that one hundred percent of people who've bought the latest Wu Tang Clan album are now in federal custody seemed like a cause for celebration.

But then I sat down and thought about the situation ... and something just didn't add up.

People were talking about how Shkreli's arrest was evidence of "karma" in action. And while that's certainly an amusing and narratively appropriate thought (to say nothing of the added levity that this comes less than a week after the whole Wu Tang fiasco), the evidence unfortunately doesn't bear this out.

Shkreli's being done for securities fraud. The charges he's facing are for offences which he committed in the late 2000s and early 2010s. He's not in custody for the vile acts of pharma-profiteering which earned him a hefty score in public opprobium and reviled infamy earlier this year.

Those outrages aren't illegal. Hence why (with the possible exception of some amusing Tinder rejections) he wasn't really punished for them.

Ripping off a few multi-millionaire investors, however, was against the law. And he'll very likely suffer some reasonably serious consequences for it. (Which may play out quite positively for his purported future rap career - Shkreli's gone from shoehorning the truth by claiming he's hard and got cred because ... get this ... "I sell drugs!" to potentially facing jail)

And that's the problem here.


Think about it this way:

All this jubilation about Shkreli's arrest misses the point that the *wrong* crime is being punished.

Because according to the American legal system, it's apparently entirely a-ok for one self-declared gangsta-capitalist to extort ordinary people by holding them hostage for the price of their vitally needed medicine.

But taking from the wealthy rather than the unhealthy? That'll get the book thrown at you.

See how this is an inequitable situation?

Now don't get me wrong. Investment fraud is a serious issue, and those Shkreli has misled possess every right to demand justice. But in all the noise and self-congratulatory hubbub about Shkreli's arrest for securities fraud, there's a very real danger that we lose sight of the real issue here: the pressing need for serious reform in how America (and thus, much of the rest of the world) does pharmacy and drug-selling.

Shkreli made his money (the non-Ponzi scheme parts of it, anyway) by exploiting FDA loopholes. Those loopholes still exist.

And 'Big Pharma' is probably quite pleased Shkreli's now out of their game. His balls-out no-holds-barred approach to shameless profiteering by maliciously manipulating drug-prices is pretty much how many of the big guys in the industry make their millions anyway. The only difference was how brazen and bereft of sound PR Shkreli was about it.

Now that Shkreli's presumably more worried about his own court-case than bailing out errant rappers from prison, he'll presumably have less time, energy and effort to inadvertently and incandescently (to say nothing of "indecently") highlight how the pharmaceutical industry operates.

That's why Shkreli's arrest *can't* be the end of the conversation. We haven't "won" anything - not really, at any rate. If anything, the fact he's now in custody simply strengthens a perception being deliberately fostered by others in the pharmaceutical industry that Shkreli was a rogue and a 'bad egg' - rather than a shining, stinking embodiment of conscience-free profiteering to which they all blandly aspire; and to some extent partake in. Getting jubilant about his comeuppance changes the focus to minor-retribution rather than attempting to force real systemic change

So have a laugh at some of the many - and glorious - Shkreli-memes that are presently circulating the Internet. They're quite funny - and needless to say, eminently well deserved.

But remember: Shkreli's emphatically just the tip of the iceberg. He represents an extreme - but not the exception - of industry practice. And his arrest changes nothing.

For meaningful change to occur, the entire system needs to be put in the dock - not just one public bete-noir fraudster who got caught with his hand in the till.

Monday, December 21, 2015

White Ribbon NZ Plays 'Spot The Difference' Defending Prime Minister

Yesterday, White Ribbon New Zealand issued a statement concerning the Prime Minister's recent on-air antics. This was in response to a petition that had been in circulation which called for the Prime Minister to be dropped as a White Ribbon Ambassador due to the fact that our dear PM appears to have a bit of a serial problem with trivializing sexual assault.

Not a great look for a charity whose purpose is to remind us all that as applies sexual violence ... "It's not OK".

Their statement on Key reads, and I quote:

"White Ribbon asks men to stand up and not remain silent when we see behaviour that is violent and/or demeaning to women. Remaining silent allows the violence and sexism to go unchallenged and to be accepted. [...] Recently, The Rock radio station created a segment that referenced male rape in a manner that trivialised this horrific violence. It was an awful exercise in bad taste and helped to perpetuate violence by normalising and trivialising it. We understand that some people won’t see it that way, it will be in their eyes just a joke. We however do not agree."

So far, so good.

But then it also states:

"As many people know, a White Ribbon Ambassador (the Prime Minister) was involved in on-air segment on the Rock which was highly offensive. We have reached out to the Prime Minister, and we are informed that he did not know what was about to occur, and did not at the time comprehend the rape references or make any. We take the Prime Minister at his word."

There is, needless to say, more than a bit of a contradiction here. White Ribbon NZ can't have it both ways.

Even assuming it's possible to believe that a middle-aged and very much theoretically mature man *didn't* comprehend what dropping the soap while behind bars was supposed to connotate and entail, this is hardly the first strike.

Who could forget his shameful conduct of less than a month ago in attempting to use rape (or, at least, the supporting and endorsement of rapists) as a political weapon during the Christmas Island debacle - and his hiding behind the Speaker shutting down female survivor voices speaking on our behalf to demand an apology from the Prime Minister.

Or what about the workplace assault (arguably with a sexualized element) which became his apparent calling-card in the popular imagination towards the start of the year. It's sufficiently closely connected to his public image and perceptions that another radio station - The Edge - felt it a good joke to give him the option of pulling on the pony-tails of a number of female staff in an on-air stunt the same week.

A successful White Ribbon Ambassador would have embodied the organization's values and virtues by "[standing] up and not [remaining] silent" in the face of problematic on-air behavior ... rather than participating in and perpetuating it. If "remaining silent allows the violence and sexism to go unchallenged and to be accepted", then what exactly does "going along with a puerile and offensive trivialization stunt lent legitimacy by the presence of the Prime Minister" do.

Furthermore, it's rather difficult to believe that the Prime Minister genuinely felt the prison-rape references went over his head. After all, his own Minister of Corrections has previously obliquely endorsed prison-rape as a deterrence policy for serious offenders.

So the questions must be asked: first, if White Ribbon believes Key's litany of conduct is acceptable for one of its Ambassadors; second, whether it would be prepared to tolerate this sort of behavior from anyone else representing the organization; and third, if not, why Key's being given a 'special pass' by White Ribbon (and surely, what else does "taking him at his word" that he didn't know what he was doing was offensive ... over and over and over again ... represent if not that).

From where I'm sitting, the answer is both obvious and sad.

It's not just that the office (if not necessarily the person) of the Prime Minister still carries a pretty significant weight of prestige and potency.

As an analyst friend of mine put it: "Look at the way the Key government responds to its critics and those who embarrass the government. The Ninth floor has become very adept at manipulating public opinion against people or groups who get offside."

And he's right. Ever since it got into office, the Key government has made quite a specialty out of manipulating public opinion to marginalize if not outright discredit groups and individuals who start to become somewhat inconvenient in their truths. In fact, this literally became such an all-pervading pattern for the government that there was literally enough of it to fill a book with. It was called Dirty Politics. You may remember it.

White Ribbon New Zealand will have made the cruel calculation as to whether the limited positive PR boost supplied by keeping the PM on retainer with a ribbon on his lapel is worth the trade-off from the continued hypocrisy inherent in lending the puller of ponytails and dropper of soap added legitimacy by *their* association with him, rather than the other way around.

They will have decided, one way or the other, that they can't afford to drop him. Either because the marginal benefits of connection to such a high-profile figure (regardless of *why* he's making headlines seemingly every other week) will be regarded as too important to lose ... or, more insidiously, because they're too afraid of the fallout to make the right call.

That's sad.

That's scary.

That's "Not OK".

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Neoliberalism, Not Drug Addiction Is The Social Ill Causing Child Poverty

There's two heavily contrasting ways people in the political sphere try and attempt to explain poverty.

Either it's the result of poor choices and personal deficiencies on the part of the individual (the right-wing view - and I note that "the individual" in question is rarely if ever thought to be the Minister of Social Development) ... or it's the result of huge and impersonal systemic failures which leave the fate of those individuals precariously unaffected by any decisions nor virtues of their own.

The real answer's probably somewhere in the middle. Yes - hard work, energy and effort can help to lift a citizen or their family out of poverty. But it's incredibly, insanely hard to do when the cards are so heavily stacked against upward mobility. We are, after all, living with a system which gives us average house-rents of over five hundred dollars a week, yet which has also caused real wages to decline by around twenty five percent since the onset of neoliberalism.

Regrettably, there are few signs that this sorry state of affairs might change at any point in the not-too-distant future. Our political system has, for three Elections running now, continued to give us National, National and more National - a party which possesses no great nor abiding interest in making fundamental alterations to our economic fate.

Instead of winning us over with serious and enduring policy solutions, then - and, y'know, actually *leading* - the National party has become amazingly adroit at coming up with cockamamie buck-passing excuses for the failures and short-comings of their governance.

When pressed about their dismal economic performance for their first two terms in office, for instance, they'd respond that our economic circumstances simply weren't their fault. National had inherited a perilous economic situation from Labour, or so the story went, and that was held up as the sort of self-evident political truth which explained everything. (Funnily enough, it's even sort-of true ... except the woeful economic orientations National inherited from Labour come down to us from the Fourth Labour Government in 1984 rather than the Fifth Labour Government in power from 1999-2008)

Equally, when Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley was asked to explain the dismal phenomenon of substantial and long-term endemic unemployment within her own electorate, she didn't give a serious response.

Instead, she ascribed the situation to the downright curious idea that "it can be a pretty good lifestyle [on the dole]", thus rendering it a "pretty tall ask sometimes to convince people" to go into paid employment instead.

That's an excuse, not an answer - and one which is custom-crafted in order to resonate with National's core support base ... people who don't particularly care to look beyond the easy explanations and subtle rhetorical rightness-feeling afforded by beneficiary-bashing in order to see how "broken" the system actually is for themselves.

Yet it was another part of Tolley's statement which popped instantly to mind when news of John Key's clanger that poverty - and especially child poverty - in this country could be largely explained by drug addiction. She'd effectively claimed that what made a benefit livable for some of her constituents was "a cash crop and good kaimoana". Or, in other words, whatever foraging they were able to pull off, and some drug-dealing to make ends meet.

I must say, it's rather extraordinary for the welfare minister of what's very theoretically a modern, first-world country and enlightened social democracy to outright state that families on the benefit apparently need to engage in illegal conduct in order to survive with a viable standard of living ... but that's our government for you.

In any case, Tolley's remarks inadvertently help to shine a light on one of the most important contributing factors to poverty in New Zealand: whether working poor or people on a benefit, we simply aren't paying enough to actually allow many of our citizens to enjoy a decent standard of living.

Experts agree, and when National announced its "hardship reduction package" as part of the 2015 Budget, academics from Victoria and Otago Universities were quick to note that families on a benefit would require between $100 and $200 a week extra in order to be above the poverty line - not the $25 a week National had promised some families.

As NZ First Social Development spokesperson Darroch Ball pointed out at the time ... the Government would have to be delusional to believe that a mere two dollars a day would have a serious tangible impact when it comes to tackling - much less ending - child poverty here in New Zealand.

The same problem applies for those actually in paid employment in the first place. The minimum wage in this country is $14.75 an hour. The living wage is estimated to be $19.25. There are more than a hundred thousand workers in New Zealand still stuck on the minimum wage, and tens of thousands more earning various figures above the minimum wage yet well below a viable income. The minimum wage also represents an ever-diminishing slice of the economic pie - in 1946, for instance, the minimum wage was 80% of the median wage ... yet has regressed to just over half the median wage in the years since.

All of this together means that even if there were any truth to Key's assertion that drugs represent a barrier to people getting off a benefit and into (presumably entry-level) paid employment ... they'd hardly be likely to find themselves escaping poverty in so doing.

Our labour market just simply doesn't work like that any more.

More to the point, on the face of all available evidence it would appear the Prime Minister is simply making up misinformation in order to 'justify' his Government's woeful lack of action on this pressing social issue.

Let's consider the facts:

At the start of last year, then-Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett trumpeted figures showing only twenty two beneficiaries had either failed drug tests or refused to take them upon being referred to jobs.

Not twenty two thousand or twenty two hundred ... twenty two individuals.

By the end of the year, this had risen to a grand total of 134. To put that figure in context, that's a hundred and thirty four failures out of a pool of nearly three hundred thousand beneficiaries nationwide.

So for these 134 people, yes I suppose it's fair to say that their drug use may have presented a bit of a barrier between them and their more full participation in the workforce. This is true, but there are literal orders of magnitude worth of difference between that number and the more than three hundred thousand Kiwi kids who are presently living in poverty. (Oh, and while we're on the subject, the New Zealand Drug Foundation have also argued that National's more punitive approach towards drug-using beneficiaries may actually *worsen* rather than ameliorate poverty while not actually meaningfully reducing beneficiaries' barriers to work)

So what's happened here?

Well, like I said. The Key-led National government doesn't have any serious solutions for poverty or income inequality in New Zealand. They're not really that interested in that sort of thing.

Instead, when questions like this come up ... they present us with excuses for why things haven't improved, rather than ways we can work together to improve them.

National also possesses a highly regrettable penchant for scapegoating, wedge-politics, and trying to blame the economic victims of neoliberalism for their own misfortune.

It all makes for good politics. Their base doesn't care if the Government lies where convenient - particularly where the deliberate falsehoods "sound right".

And it doesn't matter if there's a wealth of evidence including the Public Health Agency coming out to openly contradict the Prime Minister's breathless claims. Beneficiaries on drugs sounds like something that happens. People who don't want to confront the reality that the government they voted for lacks ideas and is instead inarguably making the situation worse ... are quite happy to believe in stereotypes instead.

But as the lies get ever more desperate, and the gulf between rhetoric and reality becomes steadily more insurmountable by the year ... I have every hope that more and more people will start waking up to the fact that whenever the Prime Minister comes up with an outrageous falsehood like this, it's actually because he's desperately trying to cover for the failings of his own social and economic system.

Because let's be clear about this: the only time poor choices by ordinary New Zealanders creates systemic poverty ... is when a large proportion of us vote for National.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Maori Party, Bereft Of Relevance Or Insight, Tries To Claim NZ First Stealing From Them

There are few parties in Parliament more chalk and cheese than New Zealand First and the Maori Party.

One's a group of unitary nationalists who've provided some of the most trenchant opposition to a hell(a)-bent neoliberal government in recent times, and put "one law for all" into our political lexicon. The other, an ethnically-constituted government lapdog who can be described as "nationalists" only in terms of their steadfast if not slavering support for the Government which is their meal-ticket. We refuse to campaign in the Maori Seats ... they're only able to poll above the margin of error when running in same.

We castigate and criticize Budget after Budget which delivers little for the great majority of New Zealanders - and assets and asset sales revenue to the fiscally and politically privileged few.

The Maori Party, by contrast, takes great pride in getting up and supporting the Government and its economic measures every year when they're presented for a vote.

And yet there are some similarities, too.

To their credit, the Maori Party joined with New Zealand First and others in opposing the #TPPA. They also voted for Fletcher Tabuteau's excellent Fighting Foreign Corporate Control bill in order to help us to try and protect New Zealand from the pernicious implementation of Investor-State Dispute Settlements designed to undermine our nation's economic sovereignty.

And perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given this Government's woeful stance on child poverty throughout most of its history, the Maori Party also agrees with New Zealand First about the pressing need for free healthcare for under-13s.

Ordinarily, this would be cause for celebration. The more parties we have advocating for the same positive change, the better ... right?

Except yesterday in the House, Maori Party Co-Leader Te Ururoa Flavell got up and tried to claim sole credit for the policy. More than that, he outright stated that New Zealand First had been "pinching [their] ideas". He said we should feel "shame" about this.

This is thoroughly out of order - and not just because Flavell appears to have been attempting to claim that finding common cause with other parties in pursuit of a demonstrably positive end is something to be "shamed" over.

Here are the facts:

New Zealand First spent a good chunk of the mid-1990s campaigning for free healthcare for under-13s. To be fair, we were never *quite* able to implement it. In 1996, when we entered into that abominable and apology-worthy relationship with National, we attempted to - but were only able to negotiate them to rolling out free healthcare for under-6s. Which is, at least, almost half-way.

Subsequent to this, we continued to push for the policy. In 2005, for instance, we'd elevated the policy to the status of a "key negotiating plank in post-election talks". We also campaigned on it in 2014.

So it's a bit rich for Flavell to turn up in 2015 and try to claim exclusive credit for the policy ... still, much less, to state another Party who first put it firmly on the political agenda almost a decade before the Maori Party was founded ought to feel "shame" for such advocacy.

It goes on:

In his speech in support of this year's Budget, Flavell claimed of the Opposition (of which New Zealand First is a proud member) "They get nothing. They have delivered nothing to this country. Why? Because they are in Opposition, and here we are at the table getting gains for our people. Today, the Maori Party can, and will, take every bit of credit that comes its way."

Clearly, that remark by Flavell is a statement of general Maori Party policy - namely, that they're so incredibly desperate for something to point to as evidence to justify their sorry existence ... that they're quite prepared to lie outrageously about another Party in order to make political ends rhetorically meet, and ensure those "bits of credit" "come their way".

So let me put it this way.

On Wednesday, when Flavell got up to make that speech in Parliament which this blog is responding to, he embarrassed himself. And not simply due to his idiotic bobble-tinsel antenna.

Parliament should be above this sort of shysterous and inaccurate political point-scoring. We're all there for - at least nominally - the same reason: making peoples' lives better. There's no "shame" in that.

But where there *is* "shame", is in having so little to show from seven long years supporting a corrupt and iniquitous Government that you have to try to shout down and rhetorically de-legitimate the contributions of others in order to try and grasp some sorry shred of relevance for yourselves.

In his speech - by his tone, tenor and mannerisms - Flavell revealed himself to be a frightened, desperate man.

He knows that his party's time is ending.

It's a pity he can't take a leaf out of that other political footnote of a minnow David Seymour's book and embrace (political) death with dignity.

Monday, December 7, 2015

"Judith Collins Is An Unaccountable Monster. It Believes It Is Outside The Law": On Collins, the SuperCity, Democratic Solution-Making & Accountability

Over the weekend, disgraced former Justice and Police Minister Judith Collins claimed the Independent Maori Statutory Board tied to Auckland's disastrous SuperCity arrangement was an "unaccountable monster" which believed it was outside the law.

Given Collins' own personal record with being an unaccountable monster who evidently believed herself to be outside the law during, for instance, the Oravida scandal ... I guess she'd know, wouldn't she. It's been her standard M.O. for pretty much the last half-decade.

Let's remember. This is the same former Minister who:

- Used her position as part of the Government to lobby a Chinese border-control official for preferential access to a premium export market for her husband's company;

- Lied about it repeatedly;

- Attacked a Parliamentary Press Gallery journalist for reporting on the scandal, by revealing confidential information on national television to a rival network - while threatening the Press Gallery generally by claiming she could "recall all sorts of things" about them;

- And was forced to resign after a string of allegations came to light about Collins working illegally or improperly with right-wing attack-whale Cameron Slater in order to get back at political enemies or undermine public officials.

Despite all of this, she refused to resign as an MP ... had to be pressured hugely (including the infamous "final final warning" from John Key) into resigning as a Minister ... and now sets her sights as her number one goal on getting back into Cabinet.

How's *that* for an "unaccountable monster" who seemingly has no compunctions about operating outside the bounds of legality and propriety.

For the record, I do think there is an issue with any organ of local governance picking a fight with the Ombudsman. I also have an issue with unelected statutory boards generally ... which is why it's so peculiar that Collins in the same speech talked up the role of unelected public-private partnerships - like the mess we've got down at the Ports of Auckland - as having a greater contribution to make when it comes to service provision and asset ownership. I note those aren't particularly accountable to the public, either - yet I cannot seem to recall a whiff of opprobrium from Collins meted out towards these quasi-privatized-in-all-but-name shambolic walking imbroglios. Either she wants democratic and accountable public institutions and amenities ... or she doesn't. (And given what happened with, say, Environment Canterbury - I think it's a fair enough assumption to state that National definitively *doesn't*)

But let's remember: who gave us the SuperCity structure in the first place? This is what this is ultimately about, after all.

Who let slip the dogs of rampantly unaccountable local governance into our midst way back in 2010?

Why, it was the ACT Party under then-Minister of Local Governance Rodney Hide - and the National Party which Judith Collins was then part of the preening upper echelons of.

So really, what's happening here, is the two architect-parties of the present Auckland local governance quagmire have gotten together to po-facedly decry the natural and eminently predictable results of the local governance legislation which THEY created and then implemented half a decade ago.

At the time, a certain Winston Peters cropped up to warn National and/or Aucklanders as to the mess they were about to get into with exactly these issues - but sadly, as with most things our very own political prognostication equivalent to Cassandra comes out with ... the Government just simply didn't want to know.

I would have said that this sort of blame-dodging by National and ACT was rather rich ... but considering the nature of the two parties in question, there's very little about them that *isn't*.

When it comes to local governance in Auckland ... they broke it, they're outraged about it, and the only purported "solutions" Collins et co can muster up to propose (i.e. "part-privatize the street-lighting to raise 0.125% of the revenue Auckland needs") is to break it further.

All in all, this entire "SuperCity" fiasco has been one drawn-out half-decade-long Tour de Farce from National & Friends.

There are serious and legitimate issues with local governance in Auckland. It just seems rather curious how National and ACT only started piping up about some of them once it became clear that they'd be unable to beat Phil Goff for the Mayoralty.

P.S. How is ACT still a large enough "party" to warrant having a "regional conference". It wasn't so long ago they were so desperate for numbers to show to the cameras at their conventions that they'd bus in Young Nats from as far afield as Wellington to make up the seat-warming numbers as part of an illusory show of strength.

Is ACT's "Auckland South" grouping just what it calls a half-a-dozen members going out to the Manurewa Golf Course...?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What Comes After Fighting Foreign Corporate Control? International Transparent Treaties! [NZ First Private Members' Bill Series Part 1]

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a seminar by NZ First MP Fletcher Tabuteau on some of the likely impacts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement on New Zealand's economy and economic sovereignty.

Needless to say, it was harrowing stuff.

Fletcher, as you may remember, was the man behind arguably the best and most necessary private member's bill put forward this Term ... the Fighting Foreign Corporate Control bill. If it had passed, this piece of draft legislation would have protected New Zealand's sovereignty from legal attacks by foreign corporations mounted under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions of the TPPA.

Unfortunately, due to the perfidy of Peter Dunne (and, needless to say, the entire National Party writ large) ... it failed by only a single vote.

Still, as The Other Winston once said, that wasn't the end - nor even the beginning of the end - of the fight against pernicious international trade deals. Instead, it was merely the end of the beginning.

One of the parts of Sunday afternoon's discussion that I was most eager to hear was Fletcher's revelation as to what the next step in this fight was going to be.

It's called the International Transparent Treaties Bill, and its stated purpose is to place the power of approving or rejecting international treaties and trade deals *firmly* in Parliament's hands.

Why is this necessary?

Because, as the Bill's own intro puts it: "recent events show a disproportionately small and non-representative group of individuals negotiate and sign secret trade deals on the country's behalf".

This obviously leads to inferior outcomes for our country, because our lawmakers aren't properly able to scrutinize nor criticize potential trade deals before we find ourselves shackled to them and forced to attempt to implement their tenets or face lengthy withdrawal battles.

How did this happen?

Well, at the moment, the power of international treaty-signing isn't held by Parliament. Parliament gets to "ratify" treaties by incorporating their terms into our law through passing legislation, but the Executive wing of government (i.e. Cabinet and its multifarious minions) are the ones who do the negotiation and ultimately decide what agreements we are or aren't going to sign up to.

And unfortunately, that means our present cast of neoliberal overlords are free to bind us to international agreements which aren't in our best interest - without *our* elected representatives getting anything even remotely resembling a say until after the deal is signed and our sovereignty partially signed away.

Worse, in the case of trade treaties like the TPPA, there's a new move toward keeping all the negotiations and substantive details secret from both the public and parliamentarians - further stifling intelligent, informed debate on our nation's economic future and directly contributing to inferior governance outcomes.

The reason why the Executive rather than Parliament as a whole have the power to sign us up to things like the TPPA is a holdover from the by now long-gone days when the "monarchy" in "constitutional monarchy" was rather more important. The powers of regulating international affairs and trade - even issuing declarations of war - used to be squarely invested in the hands of the sovereign, rather than his servants.

Over time, these underwent a steady devolution from being the sorts of decisions kings or queens would directly deliberate over through to undertakings decided "on the advice" of an executive council of ministers and notables. Finally, these became an entirely symbolic function of the monarchy. These days, the Queen or one of her Governor-Generals might be the official focal point for a Declaration of War, but they obviously aren't the ones who actually decide whether or not we'll be going to war. They just take part in the formalities, on behalf of the Executive - who now holds all the real power.

This is because the Executive fulfills much the same role in our constitutional setup as did the monarchs and sovereigns of old. And just as successive generations of English revolutionaries and political reformers seemingly inevitably concluded ... too much of a concentration of that kind of power, unchecked by the will of the people through our Parliamentary watchdog-representatives, is not a good thing.

We long ago decided that one person ought not have the ability to send an entire nation to war - and that instead, it should be up to a larger group of people in order to ensure the best decision was made. Interestingly, this even resulted in an apparent political if not necessarily constitutional convention whereby something approaching a Parliamentary consensus used to be called for in the event of a Declaration of War. Something that now appears to have fallen sadly by the wayside.

So the question must be asked: if we recognize the implicit logic of having our representatives - i.e. Parliament - make decisions on our behalf about almost everything else ... why not international trade deals.

What's so uniquely worthwhile about these instruments of international law that the ability of our lawmakers to legislate ought to be constrained without them (and us) first getting a say in the matter?

There's nothing I can think of.

The simple answer as to why this is happening is because the Government knows very well that had Parliamentarians been made aware of the terms of the #TPPA before New Zealand signed up to the agreement, MPs and civil society would have been in a better position to campaign against our country signing up to the TPPA.

Instead, what's happened is our representatives have been shut out and kept in the dark for more than half a decade by enforced secrecy provisions. Unless they were part of Cabinet, they found out what was in the #TPPA for the most part at exactly the same times we did - through WikiLeaks document dumps. And then, through a massive six-thousand page text-release which they were only allowed to sift through once it was too late to meaningfully change the contents.

That's no way to run a country or its international affairs.

Interestingly, the United States and its Legislature has historically kept a far tighter rein on its Executive's ability to conclude international treaties and trade deals for exactly this reason. American Lawmakers were also allowed access to the text of the TPPA far in advance of the agreement's conclusion, with the Obama administration claiming letting legislators see what was in the treaty before they'd signed up to it was "consistent with negotiating the best possible agreement for the American people".

So if even the Americans can see this sort of transparency is a good idea ... why can't we?

That's why I'm such a strong support of Fletcher Tabuteau's International Transparent Treaties bill.

Not because I'm some sort of rabid Party-partisan. But because I genuinely feel that it's wrong for our Prime Minister and our Minister of Trade to be able to sign us up to potentially perilous international agreements without our political representatives being able to look over the terms of the agreement and check out for themselves what the likely impacts upon our nation and its future will be.

Section 6 of the proposed bill states simply that "the Minister must present the text of the proposed treaty to [Parliament before] any binding action is taken on behalf of the Crown". Section 7 clarifies that the Crown is unable to undertake any "binding action [...] in relation to the proposed treaty" until Parliament has approved the agreement. And Section 8 provides us with additional protection by requiring specific enactment legislation before the provisions of the treaty can be enforced (i.e. merely presenting the terms of the treaty to Parliament is not sufficient to make it binding in our law).

Despite its point of inspiration and origin, Fletcher's bill isn't just an anti-TPPA measure. Looking on into the future, it seems pretty likely that the neoliberal parties who regrettably form the fulcrum of government around which our nation's politics seemingly inevitably for the moment swing, will keep on trying to foist unwelcome if not outright unwholesome international trade deals upon us. Let's remember that it was Labour who first hitched us to the TPPA bandwagon in the first place, just as National's now carried us over the ghastly finish-line some seven years later.

Passing Fletcher's International Transparent Treaties bill is therefore not just a direct message to National that we won't tolerate their frankly opaque and quasi-feudal approach to governance. It's also future-proofing our Parliament and our way of life against the next time something like this happens.

Because it will.

And the onus and the duty is on all of us to try to prevent that from happening.

In the mean-time, I'm just glad we've got quality MPs like Fletcher Tabuteau ready to do their bit to protect our economic sovereignty and our future.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Is There A "Special Relationship" Between The National Party And NZ Police?

There's something odd going on in the New Zealand Police at the moment. They know they've been caught out - and highly publicly, too.

This, in and of itself, is not entirely out of the ordinary. In a string of instances ranging from last summer's "zero tolerance" speed limit policing through to much earlier (and arguably more dangerous) issues around their chopper-borne Rambo-raids of Kim DotCom's mansion ... they've found themselves to be exposed.

But whereas in those instances the Police and the politicians were able to attempt to deflect criticism by presenting a united front and claiming things were 'off limits' due to being "an operational matter", this is different.

Caught out in what noted criminologist Dr Jarrod Gilbert quite rightly states to be a move whose "intent [and] language would have impressed George Orwell", both the police and the politicians are blaming each other.

What's happened, is the Police have started rolling out "research contracts" which academics using police data apparently have to sign. If the Police don't like what you write, these contracts give them the power to veto you publishing - or, at the very least, to work with you to "improve its outcomes" [i.e. make them sound less "negative"].

Don't abide by their conditions? You'll find yourself "blacklisted", and unable to access any further police data - which, as Dr Gilbert points out, is kinda a crippling restriction if you're a research-academic specializing in criminology or policing matters.

So why are these somewhat draconian (because dragons are all about guarding and hoarding secrets) restrictions in place.

Well, according to the Minister of Police, it's an "operational matter".

But if you listen to Police Association chief Greg O'Connor, the policy's in place to ensure information disclosures by the Police don't "embarrass government".

That doesn't necessarily mean, as Green Party Police Spokesman David Clendon put it, that the "Minister sets policy which police then implement". It's entirely plausible given O'Connor's wording about Police commissioners being "[just as] answerable to Ministers as any other CEO in the public sector" (itself a worrying neoliberalist creep/infiltration of corporate terms) that the policy is actually something that's been cooked up in-house and run with the tacit approval of the Police's political managers - rather than being a Woodhouse-authored directive that Police are simply all too happy to carry out.

Either way, there's a culture of secrecy and standoffishiness within the Police that's aided and abetted by their blue-wearing friends in high places. Just remember the furore from former Minister of Police Judith Collins castigating critics of the police ... and, for that matter, the rest of the justice system ... for *daring* to hold Police to account and insist they actually follow the law when carrying out undercover operations (rather than, say, mercilessly forging court documents). In that instance, politicians protected police from embarrassment. Or at least, attempted to.

To witness this "special relationship" in action going the other way, look no further than the time Judith Collins protected Police over - proven - allegations that they'd manipulated crime statistics in order to make themselves and their political paymasters look good.

It was a relationship that benefited everybody (except, of course, for the poor long-suffering public and victims of crime). The Government got to trumpet claims that it had presided over and contributed to a drop in crime. The police got to say they were doing their jobs and meeting public service sector performance targets better than before.

So naturally, when concerns were raised that the Police's efforts and crime stats might in fact have proven to be illusory, the relevant Minister decided not to look into claims the stats had been manipulated lest the Government find things they didn't like.

Starting to get the picture here?

There is very much a two-way relationship between the New Zealand Police and the New Zealand National Party. They each work together to cover each other's backs and to make the other partner look good. They've got it down to such a fine art that they don't even necessarily need to sotto-voce instruct one another to make this happen. When something happens that might embarrass the Police, certain parts of the Government will step in or look the other way to ensure it doesn't untowardly scandalize them (or, heaven forbid, actually provide serious impetus for change). Equally, when the Police turn up something that might take some of the luster out of the Government's sails, they'll deliberately hide, lie and obfuscate in order to make sure the "right" outcomes come out for their pals. Not necessarily as an organization, mind - occasionally as isolated individuals or as small-scale units ... but the effect is all the same.

This means that when National Party-affiliated individuals like Cameron Slater make police complaints, they get 'special attention' from the Police - and a vastly larger share of Police resources allocated to their issues into the bargain.

So I think we can all agree that some serious questions need to start being asked about the nature and extent of the obvious "special relationship" between the Police and the National Party.

Unfortunately, any such untoward collusion will be very difficult to prove - as Police Association President Greg O'Connor warns, they'll have taken serious pains to ensure the relevant information will be well "hidden" from public scrutiny.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

On Syrian Refugees In The Wake Of Paris

There's a meme doing the rounds on social media this week showing a group of Maori on a beach turning away Captain Cook, and bearing the legend "James, I'll say it again slowly - we're not accepting refugees!"

Now leaving aside for a moment the fact that Cook did not come here as a mendicant migrant hell-bent on fleeing religious persecution back home - but rather a representative of the world's then-mightiest Imperial power on a globe-crossing voyage of discovery - it's an interesting notion.

Albeit a point which is better phrased in another other image in circulation which depicts a Native American telling a Pilgrim in no uncertain terms "sorry, but we're not accepting refugees".

The problem for those on the liberal left (or even evangelical right) who're lining up to make the argument in favour of accepting Syrian refugees by using these memes, is that history did not exactly work out favourably for those peoples generous enough to host (whether willingly or otherwise) foreign migrants. As another pixellated Indian tells us: "We took in refugees ... look what happened to us!"

Similar problems abound for images which suggest US Senator Ted Cruz wouldn't be in America (and thus a leading light of extremist right-wing politics there as well as an alleged Presidential contender) were it not for America's previous acceptance of refugees and political exiles from Cuba. It's only a matter of time before a similar meme based around John Key pops up noting he wouldn't be Prime Minister were it not for New Zealand accepting Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust and its aftermath in the middle years of the last century.

In each case, these are not exactly strong arguments in favour of accepting thousands of Syrian refugees into our midst.

But regardless of how one feels about the present-day Prime Minister, it would seem something of a stretch upon our conventional morality - knowing what we now know about the conditions they were fleeing - for us to throw up our walls, bar the gates, and block Jewish refugees seven decades ago from safe haven on our shores ... even if that's *exactly* how American (and other) populations seemingly overwhelmingly felt about Europeans fleeing Nazi persecution in, say, 1938.

So why, then, have I seen so many New Zealanders stating skepticism about allowing Syrian refugee settlement here (or, for that matter, elsewhere in the Western world) in recent days?

The answer's simple: Fear.

Following on from what happened in Paris over the weekend, news outlets lost no time in pointing out that one of the terrorists responsible for Friday night's atrocity may have managed to slip into Europe undetected in the guise of a Syrian refugee - a horrendous irony if true given the fact that fleeing these men and their actions is exactly what's driving the mass-migration of the Syrian people in the first place.

People are, therefore, perhaps understandably spooked about the idea that allowing refugees to enter into our own countries - quite apart from the usual issues that are part and parcel with playing host to new arrivals - may potentially mean welcoming a terrorist threat into our own homes. That acting on decent humanitarian impulses by allowing refugees in carries with it the salient risk of them bringing with them exactly the same evils bedeviling their homeland.

Yet - as a recent Economist piece points out - of the nearly three quarters of a million refugees whom America has accepted since 9/11 ... none have been arrested on any domestic terrorism charge.

More interestingly, there is now speculation which suggests that the Syrian passport found at the site of the Stade de France attack - and which was used to push the narrative of ISIS infiltration via refugees - may not in fact have come from a Syrian refugee at all.

French police appear to believe the passport itself was a fake, manufactured in Turkey. This doesn't, in and of itself, disprove allegations that the man referred to in media reports (rightly or wrongly) as Ahmed Almuhamed snuck in to Europe hidden amidst genuine refugees (although you have to wonder if the notoriously dangerous Mediterranean crossing and arriving in a sinking ship is really the best way to infiltrate personnel).

But it is interesting - even suspicious - that "Almuhamed"'s passport was found at the scene of the attack. One might be tempted to ask what sort of terrorist or covert operative carries clearly identifying personal information on them unless they want it to be found; and French officials have also raised issues around the passport's placement at the scene - suggesting that the passport's presence itself was an intentional act of communication from attackers to target nation.

If true, then the strategy being deployed by ISIS is both obvious and insidious. By making it seem like every Syrian refugee or Muslim migrant is a potential terrorist ... they don't just make potential targets feel continuously, constantly afraid. They capitalize upon that fear when Western hatemongers - the tabloid presses and the far-right aspiring politicos - then broadcast this message to their own readers, audiences and constituents.

How does stirring up hate against Muslims help ISIS? Simple. It feeds into the "us-and-them" dynamic that's integral to the group's world-view - and helps to alienate people living in target countries.

France has long had a problem on this front, with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls directly stating that the divide between France's communities was one of "territorial, social and ethnic apartheid".

These are strong words - the severity of which helps to encapsulate the depth of feeling that's evidently helped to contribute to France producing a number of French-born extremists in recent times that have carried out attacks in Paris ranging from the Charlie Hebdo episode through to the present circumstances.

Starting to see why ISIS wants you to demonize Syrian refugees and Muslim migrants yet?

It appears to be a prime factor driving a very small number of young men into some seriously twisted arms, beliefs and actions. And the best thing about home-grown recruits is you don't have to expend effort infiltrating them across borders - they already live in the country, in the city being targeted.

But that isn't a Pauline Hanson-esque set of reasons to eschew engagement with the demographics being talked about. Instead, quite the contrary.

As Australian commentator Waleed Ali pointed out in his excellent analysis of the subject, to do so would be to "help these bastards" by playing directly into ISIS's hands.

Admittedly, memes suggesting that the present waves of Syrian migration are in any way comparable in severity if not outright danger to successive - and invariably bloody - efforts at European colonialism of other continents are arguably only a very small part of that, if part of that at all.

But at times like these, when emotions are running high and knee-jerk reactions (often delivered swiftly and sharply to somebody else's solar plexus) seem to be all the rage ... it's worth taking pause to stop and critically consider what we're saying and to whom.

Ali's right. This is the time to stand together - not to fall apart. The extremists on all sides - whether white supremacist or sand-strewn lunatic - will hate that.

Which is arguably a pretty great start on it being *exactly* the right thing to do.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

At Labour's Conference - It's Policy (Or Lack Of It) That Matters

So Andrew Little made a decent fist of a speech. Great. It fired up his membership, got good play-time on the evening news, and even had a quirky 'human' touch element for media to gush over and make things memorable - in this case, the sound of breaking glass.

But two years from now, what voters are going to remember as a result of this party convention isn't some leader's keynote address. That's not how politics works. If there isn't a gaffe (and knocking over a glass of water hardly counts), it isn't memorable.

Instead, they'll be casting their eye over a number of policy initiatives (or, more correctly, lack-of-policy initiatives) passed down in Palmy, and letting *that* be the thing that influences their vote.

So first up: the wins.

Labour's decided to ditch its capital gains tax and raising the retirement age policies. This is good. In fact, I'd call it "genius" if such moves weren't i) blindingly obvious, and ii) breathtakingly stupid in having instituted in the first place.

I've said it before, capaciously, but I'll say it again for emphasis: middle voters DO. NOT. WANT. A. CGT. David Lange put it best when he stated in the mid-80s that if Labour wanted a serious shot at winning the next election, they'd be well-advised to shut up about a CGT policy. The only thing that's changed since Lange's day is the size of the property-owning class for whom house-ownership is their lead form of retirement saving. Running the CGT as a flagship was *always* going to cost Labour electorally - and boost the fortunes of New Zealand First and National, neither of whom had previously advocated for such.

Same deal with raising the retirement age. The sort of voter who was in favour of raising the age of entitlement was presumably already voting for National - or, more likely, ACT. Fiscal conservatism doesn't appeal to Labour's traditional supporters, particularly when it's delivered so callously. Nobody - other than the center-to-hard-right - likes the idea of shafting old people. It's just not the left-wing way, nor is it egalitarian. And, like with the CGT, it only served to drive middle (and middle-aged) voters over to New Zealand First to protect their retirement prospects (or, perversely, National - who'd made a point of stating they weren't going to raise the age of entitlement).

In our culture of diminishing political participation, voters are seemingly overwhelmingly going to come from the older and more inclined/able to be property-owning demographics. Penalizing them, scaring them away, and running on a flagship agenda of "raise the retirement age while taxing your retirement savings" was *never* going to be particularly smart politics - no matter how "fair" some people claimed it was going to be.

Andrew Little staked out these two policy-issues as the first things on the chopping block back when he was running for Labour leader this time last year. To his credit, he's managed to pull both off - and off the policy-books. At the time, I said this was a shrewd political intention which would hopefully pay dividends for his party at the polls. We'll soon see if I'm right.

Some of the other initiatives announced, such as Grant Robertson talking about coding becoming core curriculum, also sounded cool and will be difficult to meaningfully oppose.

But unfortunately, other initiatives such as deputy leader Annette King's push to reduce the sugar content of our foods ... won't be anything like as easily salable.

If there's one word Kiwi voters seem to hate, it's "coercion". National (and others) will attempt to lambast this policy as more of the same 'over-reaching' interventionist literal lolly-gagging that gave us the specter of mandatory eco-friendly light-bulbs and maximum shower-times. It doesn't matter that this isn't actually a "sugar tax" (as somebody's surely about to claim it'll morph into) ... it sounds like it reduces yours and my freedom of choice to enjoy a sweetened and/or unhealthy can of tomato sauce at the summer barbie, so will cause problems.

Having said that, Kiwis are increasingly health-conscious as a people, while also being more suspicious of large food producers - so perhaps there will wind up being some electoral dividend to the policy after all. Only time will tell.

My biggest issue with the scheme ... isn't actually with the scheme itself at all. Instead, I'm tormented by the fact that THIS ISSUE is the one Labour's picked as the proving-ground to roll out the coercive power of the state and have its leadership team appear on the 6 pm news talking about taking the "big stick" of state power into corporations with the goal of intimidating them into line with national policy objectives and the good of the nation.

SURELY other areas of the economy like banks and their ruinous extortion of our economy for private gain - or, for that matter, the supermarket duopoly themselves - would be rather more immediately demanding of this sort of iron-fisted rhetoric.

It did also occur that this TPPA thing we've recently found ourselves signed up to, with its Investor-State Dispute mechanisms ... might constrain Labour's ability to actually put forward this kind of legislation without finding any government it lead subject to international lawsuits from foreign companies.

The TPPA was also the other big smoke-wreathed quagmire for Labour on the day, with Little floundering his way through an interview with TV3's Patrick Gower on The Nation as to just what bits of it Labour intends to support or oppose when the enabling legislation for same comes up in The House over the next few years.

It's great that Labour is joining New Zealand First's call to protect our ability to halt land-sales to foreigners. I'm so pleased about that I will only give the barest of mentions to the sheer scale of land-sales to foreigners which took place over the last period Labour was in government.

It's also great that Labour's backing New Zealand First's call to defend our national sovereignty from this voracious intercontinental ISD beastie.

But New Zealanders deserve to know whether the Labour Party they're considering voting for has similar problems with other elements and aspects of the Agreement - and if so, what these are, and what they intend  to do about it.

Hedging responses if not outright stonewalling for an entire interview by blatantly refusing to answer the question and resorting to pre-prepared talking points to try and dodge the queries, as Little did on Sunday morning, is not good enough.

Personally, I suspect the issue is that Labour knows its potential support-base is a horrendously complex (and oft-cantankerous) creature. It knows that it's lost ground on the issues of protectionism - and economic sovereignty - to both New Zealand First and The Greens. It wants those votes back - particularly so it has *some* hope of nominally claiming to lead the next government and its agenda. To do this, it's clearly and firmly staking out its opposition to any erosion of our state's ability to restrict land sales, and to make laws in our own interest.

However, it also knows that deep in the backs of the minds of many a middle-New Zealand voter are ideological qualms about an outright pro-protectionist (or, as I prefer to call it "sensible and sound developmental economics") approach. It's therefore hedging its bets by appealing to its activist-base and the vocal swathe of the population who are frenetically if not fanatically opposed to the TPPA (*on those issues*) with rhetoric about opposing two parts to the agreement ... while also making reassuring soothing noises about how the rest of the agreement measures up to Labour's standards (and therefore implicitly won't be opposed) to everyone else.

When specific questions - like Gower's yesterday morning - come up about things like whether Labour *actually* supports tariff reductions on imports, and what they'll do in the House when these come up for debate and voting ... their default modus operandi from here on in appears to be to obfuscate. To reiterate talking points about other aspects of the agreement where they *do* feel comfortable taking a stand, and to claim they don't know what they're going to be voting on so they can't commit to a principled answer either way, when inevitably saying the same barely-relevant-to-the-actual-question-at-hand three times over starts to wear a bit thin.

Maybe it'll work. Maybe it won't. Although I have this genuinely depressing and sinking feeling in my gut that as time goes on, the general and genial spark of civic unrest which seemed inexorably tied to the TPPA's ongoing negotiations ... will slowly gutter and gurn its way out of general circulation - meaning that there'll be less justified anger about Labour's refusal to be open, up-front and honest about its intentions when the electorate gets its chance to have its say in either polls or the general election.

Either way, as Dr Hunter S Thompson said: "If you can't make yourself understood by your friends ... you'll be in trouble when your enemies come for you."

Finally, there's NZ Power.

Now this was a sad Somme of a policy ill-conceived in years past as some sort of cockamamie contrivance attempt at simultaneously i) bringing down power prices; ii) showing Labour could work productively and collaboratively with The Greens; iii) nominally oppose the part-privatization of SOE power companies; and iv) (apparently most importantly) ... do *ALL* of the above, without buying into (pardon the pun) and getting behind New Zealand First's call for outright asset renationalization.

On this, they roundly failed. The electorate just didn't warm up to - nor get - the policy and how it would work in detail. Attacks from all over the spectrum came in which suggested the policy wouldn't do as intended. If you didn't like asset sales, then the implicit commitment to keep the power companies 49% privately owned made it a sellout suggestion. If you couldn't bring yourself to understand the policy's detail, then there was no reason to buy into its much-vaunted promises of cheaper energy.

And if you were paying attention, you noticed the existence of a Cabinet briefing document prepared by none other than then-Labour finance spokesperson David Parker which stated outright that there were better, simpler ways of securing cheaper power for all New Zealanders ... and, much like what New Zealand First was proposing - they started with #nationalization.

All up, Labour made the right call by abandoning the policy. Although my inner pedant socialist-nationalist feels compelled to note that unless I'm much mistaken (and I'm happy to be proven wrong about this), this means the Labour party is pretty much OK with leaving part-privatization of our power assets seriously unchallenged at least for the forseeable future.


So all up, how am I rating this Labour convention's policy outcomes?

Not bad. Certainly not election-winning in and of themselves - ditching policy *rarely* wins things unless you were sufficiently popular beforehand that those were the only stumbling block. But at the very least, it starts to remove many of the obvious "deal-breaker" which quite a few voters would have turned up their noses at previously when considering whether to cast their vote for Labour.

I'm sure there won't be a shortage of policy-wonk labourites on social media who'll be a bit annoyed about some of this - and will be publicly or privately disquieted about disrupting the 'finely tuned' balance of 'fairness' and 'fiscal conservatism' which policies like raising the retirement age, instituting a CGT, or establishing a power-buying consortium represented ... but they'll be the minority.

Having pulled off a fairly positive "out with the old", it now turns to Little and his team to wow us with the "in with the new" by this time almost two years hence.

Let's hope it's a doozy.

[oh and because some people on twitter have attempted to make an issue about not knowing these sorts of things ... I'm from a particular political party. Guess which one] 

Friday, November 6, 2015

On Ron Mark, Melissa Lee, and Public Holidays in Korea

Every so often, I log on to facebook and find myself deluged with an impressive fusillade of comment-tags and blinking chat-windows, almost invariably drawing my attention to some remark - whether innocent, insipid or asinine - which a member of my Caucus has uttered and that's doing the rounds in the media at present.

Yesterday afternoon was no exception, and I wasn't exactly thrilled to find myself summonsed across social media to defend, equivocate, or just straight-up explain what Ron Mark may or may not have been thinking when he suggested that National MP Melissa Lee might like to "go back to Korea" if she had serious and ongoing issue with the provision of public holiday entitlements to Kiwi workers here in New Zealand.

For the record, I don't think it was a great choice of words - and if they'd been blurted out at random, they'd certainly be deserving of at least some of the opprobium presently being heaped in their direction.

But they weren't. It may have escaped the notice of some of those persons angrily baying for Ron Mark's blood or resignation over this, but they were part of a sustained and direct response to comments made by Melissa Lee earlier on in the Parliamentary debate about getting rid of a statutory national holiday.

During Lee's speech, she drew upon her experiences "as a migrant" to try and highlight how 'backward' she felt New Zealand has been perceived as being for protecting the right of Kiwi workers to adequate time off - and thus, by extension, legislating to protect and enshrine certain national holidays.

She made an implicit comparison between the way we do things here, and the way other countries (presumably the one she had been living in prior to her migration to New Zealand) regulate their own workers' entitlements. In her eyes, New Zealand did not come off particularly favourably.

This comparison, then, was what Ron Mark sought to address - and, by citing a list of Korean national holidays, attempt to turn on its head.

Mark's point, as set out in the rest of his speech after the singular soundbite which the media's decided to remove from context and hone in on, was that the country Lee had come to us from does things very much in line with the Kiwi way in this instance. It therefore made little sense for Lee to suggest her experiences "as a migrant" were a legitimate basis upon which to attack New Zealand's statutory holidays, if the country which she'd emigrated from wasn't all that different from us in this regard in the first place.

The "go back to Korea" comment thus wasn't an out-of-the-blue imperative. It was a one-line set-up for the somewhat lengthy explication of counter-point which then ensued - and which I'm entirely unsurprised to note has been blithely ignored by a predatory media in pursuit of an incendiary soundbite.

Now for the record, I wouldn't have spoken as Ron Mark did. I can see how such a statement could easily be misconstrued and has the real potential to make members of migrant communities who *have* chosen to make New Zealand their home - and work for the betterment thereof - feel unwelcome.

I also disagree with some comments I've seen on social media from people suggesting that migrants don't have a right to complain about conditions here and ought to instead abide by the principle "if you don't like it here, then go home". The reasons for this ought to be self-evident - freedom of speech within reason is one of our cornerstone Kiwi values. But to take one example which came up in conversation recently, we'd hardly likely condemn a Scandinavian member of the public or Parliament for getting up and pointing out that New Zealand's paid parental leave legislation, say, lags behind that of their home country. Instead, if New Zealand First's voting record on the matter is anything to go by, we'd consider it a strong spur to action to attempt to raise our standards to meet theirs.

But there's also been something of a flexible approach to National's sudden outrage on this sort of issue historically - I don't seem to remember any such outcry nor headline-hoisting going on when National Party MP Maggie Barry hollered at Russell Norman in Parliament that he ought to "go back to Australia".

What's the difference between that case and Ron Mark's speech? The fact that in Mark's case, it wasn't a vicious and vituperative interjection, but rather a comment made as part of a broader and reasoned rhetorical counter-thrust backed up with a few facts and evidence?

In any case, while I might disagree with the wording used in the bridging phrase, I can nevertheless easily see why Ron would have cited a list of comparable conditions (in this case, Korean national holidays) designed to demonstrate that Lee's "as a migrant" assertions about New Zealand's status relative to other countries were spurious. 
The "go back to Korea" line was a poor choice of set-up for this, and there are certainly other ways Ron could have lead into talking about that part of Lee's speech ... but I make no apology for New Zealand First harbouring legitimate concerns as to how this legislation might affect and undermine the rights and protections of the ordinary Kiwi worker. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Democracy Suspended In Portugal To Protect Euro, Austerity And Appease Eurocrats

Early yesterday morning, I awoke to the sad spectacle of some seriously curious headlines filling my newsfeed. Chief among them, "Eurozone Crosses Rubicon as Portugal's Anti-Euro Left Banned from Power".

So what the Hell's going on up there?

Well, it's like this.

Portugal recently held an Election. The ruling Portugal Ahead coalition - a right-wing political conglomerate lead by two parties which oxymoronically feature "Social Democrat" in their names despite being nothing of the sort - lost 25 seats, and nearly 12% of Parliament. Sitting on a cool 38.6% of the Portuguese legislature, you'd therefore be forgiven for assuming it wasn't in a viable position to form a government.

The Portuguese Left, meanwhile, surged ahead - with the Socialist Party, United Democratic Coalition and Left Bloc together capturing an additional 24 seats between them. On 122 seats and 50.8% of the vote, they therefore command the legislature - and seemed an absolute shoe-in to work together to become the next government of Portugal.

But Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva had other ideas.

Claiming that however the chips had fallen on election day, the good people of Portugal *hadn't* in fact voted for anti-Euro or anti-European Union parties (possibly because a dismally worrying voter turnout of just under 56% meant a majority of Portuguese couldn't be said to have voted for anything in particular anyway) ... Cavaco Silva then went full Emperor Palpatine by effectively suspending democracy in the name of "[preventing] false signals being sent to financial institutions, investors and markets."

Wait ... what?

We'll leave aside the obvious absurdities of Cavaco Silva claiming that the presumptive left-wing government-in-waiting "campaigned to abrogate the Lisbon Treaty, the Fiscal Compact, the Growth and Stability Pact, as well as to dismantle monetary union and take Portugal out of the Euro, in addition to wanting the dissolution of NATO."

If there's any substance to those claims, it's presumably percolating round the bowl of a glass pipe.

Even if he WERE right about half of these claims (and certainly, opposing Austerity does seem to strike at the core of the E.U.'s now incredibly dubious approach to economics as represented by some of the above) .... the fact remains that Portugal, up until recently, was a Democracy.

That means that people vote for Parties on the expectation that those Parties - once in Government - will be afforded the opportunity to put those Policies into Practice. It's as simple as that.

Having said that, there are some arguable and justified limits upon democratic expression which may necessitate or militate super-national interventions to curtail parties forming governments and putting their ideologies into practice. We generally, as a global community, take a fairly dim view of out-and-out fascist parties getting elected with the stated intention of carrying out the genocide of captive minority populations, for example - unless we're talking about the Government of Israel.

But that is not this. Here we have a quite legitimate contest of ideas, with questions of economic management and destiny being fairly *core* business of the state, that's been ruthlessly shut-down and outright over-ruled simply because one key decision-maker (whom, let's remember, is theoretically answerable to the Portuguese electorate he's shouting down and subjuncting in the first place) decided it might spook financial traders and byzantine Eurocrats.

There's a word for this - and regrettably, it's one Portuguese history is intimately familiar with:


And while it's unquestionably an unfortunate if not outright reprehensible irony that an organization like the European Union which purports to champion the virtues of Democracy across the continent and around the world ... is being used as a spur and lever with which to abrogate that same system of governance in one of its own members, it would be somewhat naive to pretend this was anything other than a sadly systemic pattern when it comes to E.U. member-states doing something Brussels-bound bureaucrats don't like.

One of my earliest "proper" political memories was the contratemps surrounding the proposed adoption of a "European Constitution" by E.U. member-states in the mid-2000s. This process ground to a seeming halt after France and The Netherlands both rejected the idea in public referendums, yet re-emerged two years later under the guise of the Lisbon Treaty - an instrument designed to accomplish much the same thing, but without the messy encumberances of democratic rubber-stampery required for its enactment as the Constitution would have done.

Something vaguely similar with the Lisbon Treaty took place as well, with the Irish rejecting it in a 2008 referendum which nearly derailed the entire process once more - before being pressured into reversing this position and accepting a slightly watered down version of the agreement some months later in late 2009.

But the best example of the inexorable tension between the super-national Austerity-mongers of the E.U. on the one hand and national sovereignty/democracy on the other, is provided by recent goings-on in Greece.

As we all remember, Alexis Tsipras and his SYRIZA coalition were propelled into Parliamentary power as a sort of great left-wing hope in January of this year. They campaigned on a platform of anti-Austerity and attempting to reach an honourable agreement with Greece's creditor nations that would also be fair and just for. What followed was an unmitigated exercise in undermining, blackmail, subterfuge, sabotage, and calumny. A coup d'etat by any other name. A frank demonstration that however you chose to slice it, the Eurozone was not to be construed as a 'partnership of equals' - still much less a shared project in which the individual welfare and wellbeing of the most disadvantaged economies therein might be considered a pressingly important concern.

Instead, the string-pullers of the Eurozone reacted with outrage: first with saber-rattling about the importance of Greece honouring the unfair obligations which previous governments in a ball-vice had seen fit to sign up to ... and then, with an actual and outright attempt to crash the Greek economy as a demonstration of fiscal firepower to try and force the Greeks back into line. Never mind the absolutely catastrophic economic consequences of both this and previous efforts at entrenching the Austerity agenda.

It's even said that one of the callous threats deployed to bring Greece to heel was a withdrawal of the guarantee of European assistance in case of a Turkish attack (in order to properly understand the magnitude of this, it's worth considering that the metanarrative of supreme eminence bar none in Greek history for much of the previous three thousand years has been that of the grand sweeping orientalized existential threat from the East) - certainly, the notion that Greek compliance with the Troika's diktats ensured a "security guarantee" for Greece was fairly openly bandied about in press releases.

The result?

Greece went back to the polls a few months later - SYRIZA's tail between its legs, Tsipras pushing a plaintively pro-Bailout policy package, Varoufakis the Rockstar Economist heading into exile, and European hegemony over the constituent economies which made up its demesne once again unchallenged.

Or so they thought.

The dual and occasionally entwined notions of anti-austerity and fear of the 'democratic deficit' represented by present European politics haven't gone away.

Instead, if anything, they're more potent and powerful now than they half a decade or a decade ago when these concerns assumed their present prominence. In the Anglosphere context, the UKIP's surging electoral support is clear evidence of this - as is, more positively, Jeremy Corbyn's attempted steerage of UK Labour onto a decisively anti-Austerity political agenda.

German Finance Minister and arch-Eurocrat Wolfgang Schaubel might have boldly declared at the height of the Greek crisis that "elections cannot be allowed to change anything" ... but as Portugal earlier this month proves, they already are!

It's anyone's guess as to how this Portuguese constitutional crisis will play out - whether Cavaco Silva will back down and allow the left-wing parties a shot at government, whether the Portugal Ahead grouping manages to successfully form a minority government, or whether Portugal goes back to the polls (and possibly continues to go back and back to the polls until they deliver a result that's found to be palatable to the Eurocrats. "The Elections Will Continue, Until The Results Improve", indeed).

But one thing's for sure. The mask and veneer of democratic sensibility which had somehow miraculously remained largely intact even despite the Greek crisis and Lisbon shenanigans which preceded it ... is peeling off apace.

As much as they might wish to believe otherwise, it's now impossible for the Eurozone to go back to the politics of easy, quiet consensus.

Oh and finally ... the next time somebody starts noisily campaigning for New Zealand to move towards an elected head of state - remember: that's how Portugal got into this mess in the first place.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Why Winston Peters is the Kiwi Bernie Sanders

Not so long ago, national headlines were made by Attorney General Chris Finlayson's ribald and offhand comment that Winston Peters was the New Zealand iteration of one Donald J. Trump - the man presently leading the Republican field in the U.S. Presidential Primaries.

I had to hand it to one of my Party comrades who came up with the rip-snorting riposte: "So what, you think he's going to demolish everyone else in the next election, then?" ... but my own ardently leftist instincts for once decided to eschew witty repartee in favour of making a somewhat bold pronouncement in return.

Winston Peters is the Kiwi Bernie Sanders.

Consider the similarities: they're both physically aging figures who yet manage to move with the levity and rhetorical grace of youth. They run things around Establishment and big-money opponents who're often men and women closer to being half their age. They represent the fight-back and strike-back of a democratic and state-lead economic politics of the sort commonly practiced throughout the Western World for much of the latter half of the 20th Century (before we ditched it all and traded in our functioning social state for the hill of magic beans wrapped up in a Pandora's Package promised by Neoliberalist reform).

They stands for the ordinary, common man - his hopes, his dreams, his aspirations. They resolutely oppose what Sanders terms "Wall St Bankers", and what Winston derisively refers to as "Financial Derivatives Trading Wide-Boys" - in Winston's case, the one in particular who's presently propping up New Zealand's government almost single-handed ... one Hauraki interview at a time.

They're also wildly - perhaps surprisingly - charismatic, and capable of energizing audiences young and old to stand up, be counted, and vocally denounce the old economic order which holds us all down.

Perhaps due to this, into the bargain, they're often eschewed, ignored, and ridiculed by more Establishment-oriented media and broadcast figures.

But there are some differences, too.

Despite Winston's enduring popularity (some would say arguable political "sainthood"), he presently commands less than ten percent of the popular vote - impressive, but hardly the stuff of single-handedly remaking our political discourse. And regardless of Sanders' sudden surge in appeal, it seems still *FAR* too early to tell whether he'll be able to have anything like as much impact upon his own nation's upcoming shape of government as Winston seems almost certainly assured to be able to exert here in New Zealand.

Further, whereas Winston is shamelessly rather "old-school" in some of his attitudes (albeit often for liberally-defensible reasons ... which is often what I find myself seeking to explain), Sanders is a dyed-in-the-wool uber-liberal: a man whose Civil Rights record spans more than half a century, encompassing a time when Winston was serving a government which famously advocated for the necessary separation of politics and sport.

This last point is often where people start quibbling with my Peters-Sanders analogy. They draw attention to the allegedly yawning gulf between Sanders' liberal embodiment, and Winston's "'mere' appeal" to liberals.

And to be fair, it's a counter-point I have some time for. I still recall being the only man in a bar not yelling abuse at the screen when Winston spoke against passing Equality of Marriage without a Referendum back in 2013 (although it helped that he was quoting me in his speech; and that having first articulated the Party's position on the issue way back in 2012 with a Policy Remit to that year's Convention, it was effectively *my* position that he was representing - I'll explain all of that in a future post some other time). I somehow can't imagine Sanders doing that - his commitment is to economic democracy without necessarily *all* the trappings of democratizing social policy as well.

But then I read a most interesting article on Wednesday morning about how Sanders' was starting to broaden his appeal out to encompass conservative (and, indeed, Conservative) segments of the electorate as well as and in addition to his more natural and traditional liberal constituency.

Alternet quotes Sanders: "Sanders has been extraordinarily clear about the kind of shift he’d like to effect: Republicans “divide people on gay marriage. They divide people on abortion. They divide people on immigration. And what my job is, and it’s not just in blue states. . . [is] to bring working people together around an economic agenda that works. People are sick and tired of establishment politics; they are sick and tired of a politics in which candidates continue to represent the rich and the powerful.”"

That's powerful stuff.

And it's also (with the obvious exception of the immigration bit) what New Zealand First rhetoric under Winston is all about: uniting people, rather than segmenting them, behind a rational, somewhat radical anti-neoliberalist and NATIONALIST economic agenda.

It's why we *have* Referendum positions on issues like equality of marriage or the legalization of marijuana in the first place. Because while we recognize the merits of doing either, a lot of New Zealanders don't necessarily agree (rightly or wrongly) - thus creating space for (distracting) debate ... whether we like it or not.

Meanwhile, parties like National get to use spurious logic and diversionary tactics to advance fallacious causes like the Flag-referendum in order to take our eyes off the prize and our attention away from serious issues like the signing of the TPPA and the ongoing deterioration of our economy. It's hard to demand meaningful change as a polis unless we're united, rather than disparate and tearing ourselves apart over other issues.

So this, I think, is the great shining strength of New Zealand First - that we're able to bring people together from a whole raft and diversity of differing backgrounds, social positions and even political standpoints to fight for the *same overarching economic vision*. Where Labour seems to be set to continue imploding and The Greens appear to be pre-occupied slowly inching into upper middle class and businessman segments of the electorate ... New Zealand First alone has a genuine movement that's capable of reaching Kiwis from minimum wage urban factory and shop workers out to neglected farmers and other struggling out in the Regions, and quite literally from Cape Reinga in Northland, to Invercargill in the depths of the South.

And that's something special - not least because it gains for the Opposition the ability to actually hew into National's support and win over people - voters - from across the Aisle. We don't get to change the Government if we're merely trading votes amongst ourselves, here in the nominal Left and Center ... and that's exactly what the Alternet article talked about the Sanders Campaign starting to do with marked success.

So too, with another important idea the piece talks about: that of waking up and energizing voters to the idea that "their economic distress was something for which voting could make a difference."

Whether it's because we've been denied economic good governance for so long (it's been nearly a decade since the Great Financial Crisis began - and more than thirty years since the onset of Neoliberalism here in '84) - or just because Key's political managers and spin-doctors are doing such a good job at presenting both the government and the economic decline it presides over as "inevitable" ... I genuinely believe that a fundamental reason why large numbers of Kiwis utterly fail to turn up at the Polls year after year and election after election, is simply because they've stopped believing not just that their vote counts - but, more insidiously, that their vote is actually able to meaningfully *do* anything regardless of which Party it goes to, to create and effect change.

The explanation in answer to the question of why the "Missing Million" is yet to materialize in polling booths, in other words, is that they can't meaningfully connect many of the policies of other parties being promoted to an improvement in their own circumstance ... or they simply don't trust those whom they're being enticed to vote for to actually deliver meaningful change.

Where Winston and Sanders are different, however, is they appear to have a unique ability to connect voters with their vision - to bring complex economic truths down to simple, easy-to-understand kernels that make real improvements in our lives and our Nation seem to be a genuinely graspable reality rather than a chartable abstraction.

That's powerful. That's important.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is - beyond the obvious surface-level exterior similarities in political persona and packaging ... beyond even the core, fundamental coterminities between their policies and politics ... the core overarching symmetry between Winston and Bernie (apart from the fact they're both first-name brands) is their ability to connect with people (even from outside their 'natural/home/core constituencies'), to energize people, and to make the real change we so desperately need seem possible.

That's why, as something like half my friendslist start frantically online banner-waving for Bernie all across social media and the internet (perhaps as part of some sort of cargo-cult mentality of desperation that doing so will help bring about a similar 'moment of hope' here) ... I'll keep pushing my Winston-Bernie comparison to any who'll hear.

Because, as Winston says (and Bernie would no doubt like to): "Help is on its way!"