Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Sir Robert Muldoon Centre for Time Warp Research

One of the curious little oddities of Kiwi politics, is the lack of an overt culture of comparing present leaders to their antecedents. Sure, when relatively more frothing parts of the right wing wish to cast inaccurate aspersions upon the present-day National Party, they conjure the ghost of Helen Clark via wewege-board to talk about how John Key's "socialist streak" is dragging us all kicking and screaming back to a place called "Helengrad" ... but I ascribe that less to any actual notoriety on her part, and far more to the fact that Helen looms large in the popular consciousness due to her recency as PM and the notion she represented something slightly different to the aggressively warmed-over neoliberalism promulgated by Key et co.

Muldoon is different.

Even some thirty years and climbing since the end of his tenure as Prime Minister, the venerable old "tusker" still casts an incredibly long shadow. Given that a good whack of the modern-day Parliamentary Press Gallery started or nurtured their careers under him, as well as the quite frankly impressive degree of personal influence he managed to exert on our politics, public life and economy, this is perhaps not surprising.

What is, however, is the ridiculously broad array of politicians, parties and policies which find themselves caught up in that shadow, and tarred as being "Muldoonist".

In no particular order of significance nor accuracy, a cursory peruse of my google reveals Greens co-leader Russel Norman accusing Nat Prime Minister John Key of "acting like Muldoon"; Rodney Hide then accusing Russel Norman of sharing Muldoon's economic views; right-wing no-idea-ologue Matthew Hooton levelling the charge of aiding and abetting "Muldoonery [...] from beyond the grave" at Steven Joyce; The Standard declaring Key to be Muldoon's "doppelganger"; Failoil reckoning then-Labour leader David Shearer to be a dyed in the wool advocate of Muldoonism, in the form of controlling the exchange rate to prevent the ongoing ruination of exporters [trigger-warning: FailOil]; neoliberal former Labour Prime Minister Mike Moore making the comparison at Helen Clark's expense; ACT's John Banks (himself an arguable disciple of Muldoon) saying it about Labour and the Greens over NZ Power; and an array of sources commenting on the linkage between Muldoon and Winston Peters.

We even wound up with the New Zealand Herald describing me as a "Muldoonist" late last year.

So given the singularly impressive rogue's gallery of politicians to whom the charge of "Muldoonery" evidently applies, we should probably pin down what, exactly, we mean by a Muldoonist. I must confess a certain innate suspicion of any word flexible enough to encompass in its scope and ambit the personal affectations of everyone from Helen Clark to John Key; and the economic proclivities of Winston, David Shearer, and Steven Joyce ... apparently simultaneously ... but this is no reason to dismiss the term out of hand.

As with most things in our nation's political discourse, the answer is bifurcated. If you're coming at it from the right wing, then "Muldoonism" invokes the specter of the highly visible (and apparently iron-fisted) interventionist hand of the state exerting a great leaden weight upon the invisible hand of the market; using sui generis and economic-reality-breaking legislative powers to attempt to bolster the incomes and employment rates of workers, using the transformative power of the state to spur economic growth in other ways (like state-owned power generation assets, and renewable energy :P ), while attempting to co-ordinate and regulate the entire economy through a corporatist command and control mechanism that by some accounts wouldn't seem entirely out of place on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Oh, and the whole system makes use of this forgotten school of political economy known as "Industrial Policy", wraps the entire thing in tariffs and moves toward energy independence, and then keeps it all ticking over by controlling the exchange rate.

Apparently, in the eyes of right-wingers, these are *bad things*. And naturally, given my status as one of New Zealand's more eclectic socialist economic nationalists ... this all sounds pretty much *right up my twisty, benighted, 100% state-owned, #Renationalized alley*.

Now given we're presently living under a National-led government which seems hell-bent on doing exactly the opposite of what the right-wing caricature of Muldoon would have done, you will perhaps forgive me if I overlook in this piece the litany of egregious legislative, constitutional, and environmental abuses and shortcomings which the *left-wing* interpretation of Muldoon fixates upon.

This is not, of course, to pretend they did not happen ... and if you really want to re-tread such highlights of New Zealand political history as the time Muldoon necessitated the 1689 Bill of Rights being invoked at him (specifically, the bit covering what monarchs are allowed to do) because he pretty much managed to circumvent Parliament's law-making ability through pure force of personal charisma alone; the time concerned citizens attempted to secede from New Zealand in order to prevent one of his Think Big projects going ahead; the time his cavalier attitude to international agreements brought the country about as close as it's ever been to a civil war during the 20th century; or the time he provoked an apparent constitutional crisis by refusing to do something bloody stupid suggested by Roger Douglas with the New Zealand dollar ... then you can. Dr Russel Norman's various statements on the subject do quite a reasonable job at enumerating Muldoon's various crimes against ecology and the rule of law; although I had noted with some amusement the problem Dr Norman faces when dealing with the Think Big parts of Muldoon's legacy - as a Green with a sense of history, he's no doubt appalled at the environmental impacts of the projects; yet, as a left-winger with a sense of present, I'm sure the lack of overt and specific condemnation for Think Big (in fact, he points out Think Big made more sense than the Roads of National Significance program) derives from our mutual appreciation for what a state with an aggressively pro-active attitude to fostering its economy by strategically increasing its asset base can actually achieve.

But if we are to gain some value from disturbing the tomb of Muldoon (beyond somewhat wide rhetorical shots at the man's antithetical successor presently leading the National Party), and see what lessons we might derive from his record for Fortress Aotearoa here in the 21st century; then it is not to the left-wing invocation of Muldoon that we turn, but rather to his right-wing bete-noir counterpart.

Because that's where the actual record of something fundamentally /different/ from the post-1984 neoliberal consensus in our history is to be found. It's also why the more ... frothy elements to our domestic right wing keep churning out endless screeds of thought-terminating cliches about going on a waiting-list for imported consumer goods, carless days (what an environmental policy win that would be today lol!), the length of time it took to get a telephone connected, or rampant and runaway inflation. Because what better way to stifle any debate about what shape alternative, state-centric economic arrangements to warmed-over neoliberalism might look like, than by deluging anybody who might participate or take an interest in said debate with so much empty rhetoric about "inevitable" consequences for challenging the neoliberal paradigm. [I hereby apologize for using the phrase "neoliberal paradigm". I am not a sociology student. It won't happen again]

I'm saving the in-depth examination of the economic ins-and-outs of actually-existing Muldoonism (or, if you prefer, "Socialism with Kiwi Characteristics") for a future post, but suffice to say the rampant inflation was at least partially explicable via the cost-push "shock" created by successive oil crises in 1973 and 1979; the idea of imported consumer goods being out of reach of the average consumer is certainly not new (only difference is nowadays it's wage rates rather than import licensing that keep creature comforts distant for many...while necessities are less affordable); and as applies waiting for phone-line connections -  well we appear to have collectively traded in spending days waiting for a phone-jack from a publicly owned arm of the state ... for spending $600 million on subsidies for a privately owned company like Chorus to faff about and eventually get around to providing one lucky town somewhere in the North Island with gigabit-speed broadband.

Suddenly, the idea of a government which has the gumption to muck in and do things itself - rather than paying its mates to pretend to get the free market to do so - has a certain, insurgent appeal.

And that's really at the heart of what Muldoonism represents, to me.

Jane Clifton, in her absolutely excellent book "Political Animals" (seriously, go out and read it; then buy a copy for the politico in your life!) sets out the theoretical underpinnings of Muldoon: a child, growing up amidst poverty and mass unemployment, then sent off to fight for New Zealand as a soldier. She sets out the way in which our grandparents' generation - who, it must be remembered, bear a large amount of responsibility for voting him in in the first place - "Went Without"; then posits that it was an "avenging desire to ensure that New Zealanders never again Went Without" that motivated Muldoon to "Do Something" in the first place. She succinctly sums up the Muldoonist mentality as "that of an embattled parent - 'I will provide for my family /no matter what/. I will do /anything/, and I will smack down /anyone/ who tries to get in my way'."

Just as we can attempt to understand David Lange's time in office as being the logical conclusion of a clever, overweight kid seeking approval from his peers; stories of Muldoon as a child having to pilfer rotten fruit for sustenance and sugar definitely tell us a helluvalot about the values and ethos which the more venerable Muldoon would bring to his tenure in office.

That's actually the thing that rankles me most about comparisons between Muldoon and Key. Both of these leaders of the National Party grew up in conditions of relative poverty and rose, through the assistance of the state, to become leaders thereof. One of these Prime Ministers has taken his formative experiences, and absolutely committed himself to ensuring they never recur for the next generation of Kiwis; while the other appears to have wholeheartedly adopted the Jordan Belfort creedo that there is no nobility in poverty, which ought to be escaped as fast and as rapaciously as possible, while making a buck for one's mates, and bugger the rest of us.

Whichever way you dice it, and even (perhaps especially) when taking into account and consideration the many, many, many dickish things Muldoon did while in office; there's no getting around the impression that Muldoon did what he did, and the way he did it, out of a genuine and deeply held series of convictions about how best to help his fellow Kiwi and build a better tomorrow rather than a brighter future.

It's eminently possible now, with twenty first century eyes polished to the fine rhetorical standard of twenty-twenty, to conclude that Muldoon "could be a right prick" (as a certain MP who served with him, but who shall remain nameless, once told me); but such a simplistic and superficial analysis totally ignores the both the context the man was operating in - and, more importantly, his position as one of, if not *the* last leaders of a political generation which had actually known genuine want, and which was committed to a genuine egalitarianism. This was a man, after all, who seemed personally offended by high rates of unemployment - a position that's totally at odds with the "relaxed" attitude John Key took to his own government having some of the highest unemployment figures of the MMP era.

(And having said all that, I reserve the right to criticize the absolute hell out of his social policy and elements of his personal style)

While the case for Socialist Paragon Muldoon is always going to be a controversial one to make, it's by holding up a mirror that actually shows the differences between National leaders then and now that we reveal how far we've fallen. The vast majority of New Zealand's entire political spectrum presently exists to the right of Muldoon, and has done so now for almost three decades. Without a yardstick like Muldoon to actually demonstrate this in practice, who'd believe that yesterday's National Party could be so incredibly to the left of today's Labour?

I'll leave you with a few quotes from Muldoon's seminal book The New Zealand Economy: A Personal View, which I believe really strongly set out the difference between Muldoon-era National and the present days of the InterNational party.

"The political scene had been greatly influenced by the advent of a new dirty word, "intervention". [...] intervention by the Government in the economy was a normal procedure in New Zealand as it is and has been in every country around the world. The whole concept of government is based on intervention. [...] Intervention is what government is about, and in a democracy it is the people who decide whether that intervention is acceptable"

"Economic management is not a matter of textbooks and algebraic equations. It is people: their reactions to stimuli, to adversity, and to one another.[...] In these circumstances economic management in New Zealand requires first of all a knowledge of the people, and then the judicious use of the widest range of weapons that are available".

So a governing philosophy entirely based around active intervention using any means necessary, and a rejection of neoliberal econometric modelling as a source of fiscal policy. Bet you wouldn't hear any of that coming from the mouths of Bill English..

They've even got dancing Cossacks!

Monday, June 23, 2014

East Coast Blase

There's something really, really stupid afoot in the electorate of East Coast Bays. You see, a specter is haunting the North Shore. A specter of Conservatism! And whether Murray McCully, or Jamie Whyte ... all those on the Right whom you'd assume would be bitterly opposed to an electoral accommodation with New Zealand's David Brent-iest new kid on the block, instead appear to be queuing up like frankincommonsense-bearing Magi to help celebrate and anoint the birth of a new political movement.

So what's going on up there?

Well, in terms simple enough for the average Conservative voter ... Colin wants to stand on his own two feet like a big-boy party, and crack 5% under his own steam. Except he also wants to try and win an electorate, because he's not actually that confident of being able to drag an additional 40,000 voters with him. Again, on his own two feet and under his own steam, rejecting Epsom style Two Parties One Cup (of Tea) deals with the National Party as "bland and insipid" (funnily enough, also the words I'd use to describe Craig). Except he would welcome such a deal, were it offered to him, because it would ensure him a place in Parliament.

So to sum up, this is the curious case of a man who wants to crack 5%, acknowledges that it's rather unlikely that he can; rejects Cup of Tea deals on point of "insipid" principle, yet welcomes Cup of Tea deals because ultimately power (or, more charitably, the ability to give effect to principle) trumps principle. Following so far?

And yet right wing commentators [trigger-warning: Failoil] had the nerve to mock the Internet Party's strategic use of the coat-tailing provision as "hypocrisy"!

The only slight fly in the ointment (apart from Colin, of course) is that voters in East Coast Bays aren't viewed as likely to play ball. Craig himself is of the opinion that he'd have to "run unopposed" in East Coast Bays to actually pull off a victory there; a statement which either indicates that his own personal polling of ECB has been *that bad* for him ... or, more likely, that even when staking out the most important make-or-break deal of his political career, he's horrendously gaffe-prone. Either of these phenomena (Craig's penchant for embarrassing flailing; right-wing ECB voters potentially having more electoral backbone than right-wing Epsomites; or even growing discontent with coat-tails deals generally) may be responsible for the National Party's sudden iffyness about a deal with Craig.

John Key's gone from what passes for reasonably strong language by his standards ("I'm not ruling it out, but neither would I say that we're absolutely going to do a deal") that appeared to indicate the Nats were seriously and strongly considering an accommodation; through to the Prime Minister's suggestion this morning that voters, pundits, and iPredict users "don't bet the ranch" on McCully standing aside in ECB. Murray McCully, meanwhile, went from "leaders and boards of parties do make strategic decisions" last week, to "I have enjoyed strong support from the people of East Coast Bays in past elections. This year I will be campaigning strongly to seek their support again" yesterday. He issued that statement direct from the Islamic Republic of Iran, so I suppose it's pretty good, given what's going on in his home electorate, that McCully's getting in some early practice working closely with theocrats with bad reputations on certain issues.

This concern about Craig's candidacy potentially doing more harm than good to National's own branding, in return for a negligible shot at Craig actually winning a seat, assumedly also explains why both One and 3News yesterday had National Party sources surreptitiously attempting to pour cold upon the idea of a deal. The fact they're even still publicly considering a deal with the Cons (or, at least, refusing to publicly rule one out) indicates just how absolutely and incredibly desperate Key is to avoid the possibility of having to do a deal with Winston.

Of course, it's also possible that National has taken frank stock of its newfound coalition "ally", looked at what they "stand" for, and decided that provided they're still above 50% in most disreputable polls with Seymour on course to nascently bonbon-snatch the electorate of Epsom ... they'd rather not have to get too close to the Cons, thanks. And given the Conservative Party is apparently the sort of organization whose number 3 candidate at the last election (Larry Baldock) professes Conservatism of a sufficiently Jim Crow flavour that he believes that "inter-racial relationships" are a social evil on par with alcoholism, necessitating censorship in the media; while their number 10 candidate last time and campaign manager Kevin Campbell [trigger-warning: Kiwiblog] apparently thought the disabled should be barred from becoming MPs, and that "John the Jew" was an acceptable way to refer to the Prime Minister ... I can well understand why the National Party would be all too eager not to get too close, thus necessitating such ... interesting courtship displays from Craig.

Besides, the position of annoying talking animal has already been filled.

So where does this leave Craig?

In possession of polling that shows he'd lose less hard in East Coast Bays than he would in Rodney, apparently. Although given Craig's previous penchant for dodgy polling - as evinced by the 2011 incident wherein he trumpeted results showing him winning Rodney ... against outgoing National MP Lockwood Smith, who wasn't even *contesting* Rodney at that election, or the 2013 incident wherein Christine Rankin managing 24% in Upper Harbour (versus 20% for "Other Candidate" and a massive 56% "Undecided") [trigger-warning: Kiwiblog; Colin Craig using the word "Catfight"] apparently made for a "no-brainer" candidacy - who knows what this would actually mean in practice.

The only things we've really got to go on about Craig's self-projected impact on this year's general election, is that he's targeting National voters, running a right-wing-and-referendums ticket of "One Law For All", being tough on crime (i.e. stupid on parole), and rather expansive tax cuts, and apparently thinks comparing himself to Social Credit is a surefire ticket out of the loony-bin also-ran section of the 21st century electorate's consciousness.

(incidentally, as a brief digression ... why is it that parties promoting a "One Law For All" agenda invariably seem to do so exclusively on the basis of race? If strict legal equality for all New Zealanders is such a desirable policy vibe, then what's the issue with extending this "one law for all" egalitarianism to other groups in society, like sexual minorities, or women? Oh. Right. That.)

Anyway, he's also taken a rallying cry ("Stand for something!") that seriously reminds me of then-FOX personality Glenn Beck's famous line "Believe in something! Even if it's wrong! Believe in it!"; and while there is a certain appeal to "Stand against Craig!" as a counter, the slogan-for-victory we should all be out there chanting in the electorate (particularly if you're in a North Shore electorate demarcated for Rotten Borough status by National) is ...

"A Vote for National is a Vote for Colin Craig!"

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Campaign To Elect Paul Goldsmith

As regular readers will know by now, I got into politics to destroy ACT. I therefore take my sacrosanct responsibility as an Epsom voter very, very seriously; as one day (hopefully very soon) my vote could well help to beat ACT's candidate and ouster them from Parliament. I'll do this, by voting for our man in Epsom, local MP Paul Goldsmith.

I first met Paul Goldsmith back in 2011 when he was out campaigning in Newmarket. I know this might sound hard to believe, given that for much of the election, sightings of him in that vicinity appeared to be the man out shopping rather than campaigning ... but there he was, on the corner of Broadway and Morrow street, standing with a National party minder presumably there to make sure Goldsmith didn't get too overtly enthusiastic with proceedings.

I went up to him, shook him by the hand, and jubilantly declared that I was shaking the hand of a National hero; for he was the man who was going to prevent Banks from entering Parliament, and finally destroy ACT. I then told him that myself, my friends and family, as well as the local NZF crew were all intending to vote for him and were out actively campaigning to help him take the seat.

The man looked positively terrified.

My uncle had a similar experience with Goldsmith in 2011, also in Newmarket. He walked up wearing a Warriors cap, and surprised the man by striking up a conversation. "Oh, I didn't think you'd be wanting to talk to *me*. You're a warriors fan, so I assumed you'd be a Labour voter" or words to that effect were intoned. My uncle assertively clarified that he is in fact an NZ First voter for party vote, but would be giving his electorate vote squarely to Mr Goldsmith. "So you're wrong. I'm not a Labour voter."

So far, you've seen two people state their intent to engage in tactical voting. But check out Goldsmith's reaction in the second one. This is more than non-campaigning ... this is actual anti-campaigning. Stereotyping people as voting for your major opposition party straight from the get go on the basis of a classist assumption about League fans, and clarifying that they shouldn't actually want to talk to you is *not* how you win votes. It's how you actively alienate and get voters off side in dialogue so they don't *want* to engage further or entrust you with their vote. It's also a telling example of the candidate's classist "us and them" mentality blurted out in public, and used to justify why you shouldn't vote for him. You'd almost think the leader of the ACT party had come out and explicitly said that a vote for Paul Goldsmith was a vote for Winston Peters.

Despite some obvious shortcomings, I, like thousands (and hopefully tens of thousands) of my fellow Epsomites will be voting for this man come September 20th. Not because he is some great and bold reformer in the House, or a black-belt in Tae Kwon Do ... but merely because with our help this man stands a very much better than even chance of flipping the table on ACT, cleaning up our rotten borough, and taking the seat. He was a mere two thousand, two hundred and sixty one votes behind John Banks last time - a very high profile former Minister and two-term Mayor of Auckland campaigning in his very own well-heeled backyard. If Goldsmith could (involuntarily) pull off that, then against a 30 year old policy man (who, unlike Banks wasn't noteworthy enough for Goldsmith to write a biography of) I am entirely confident of Goldsmith pulling home a victory later this year.

But only if we actually actively get out there and help him to achieve it!

Unfortunately for the nation's collective anti-ACTivist proclivities, Paul Goldsmith is an example of that narrative trope known as "The Reluctant Hero". He's capable of an immensely mighty deed (possibly accidentally); but, like many protagonists deeply afraid of their own power, he recoils from this noble responsibility and attempts to relegate himself to obscurity. Last election, this manifested itself in the curious phenomenon of Goldsmith removing his own lawn signs some time before polling day, to limit the chances of favourable exposure. This time around, we already have Paul Goldsmith dodging a slew of interviews and media appearances this week alone; even finding himself involuntarily represented on TV3's The Nation, by a bag of flour.

Fortunately for the nation, however, this is also going to be an example of the narrative trope known as The Call To Adventure Knows Where You Live. Because between now and polling day on the 20th of September, I and many others like me will be getting out there and doing our bit to ensure Paul Goldsmith is elected. We feel that with your help, and with the assistance and votes of every friend, family member, casual acquaintance, and guy-on-the-street that you and I can round up and extol the virtues of a man as pure as the driven flour to ... well, with that, we're certain of victory.

Oh, and if you're one of the two thousand one hundred and sixty Epsomites who vote for The Green Party's David Hay, or the three thousand seven hundred and fifty one who voted for Labour's David Parker ... don't feel too bad. Sure, your inability to grasp how tactical voting works may have effectively doomed the nation to another three years worth of single-seat-majority National-ACT-Maori Party misrule ... but on election day 2014 you get a chance to prove you've learned from your mistakes by helping to fix the future and voting for Goldsmith.

Goldsmith needs every right-thinking elector in Epsom to give him their vote. Of course, to quote US Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, "That's not enough, Madam! We need a majority!" But it's a start.

So whether on social media or while you're socializing, please do your bit and join us in actively campaigning to elect Paul Goldsmith for Epsom in 2014.

Because once again - he's the lesser of two evils!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Why I'm Not Celebrating John Banks Being Found Guilty

I've been asked by a number of people why I'm not jubilantly throwing my hands up in the air about John Banks being found guilty of a pretty serious electoral offence earlier this week. 

The reason is simple: Anyone who knows me will be aware that I first got into politics with the stated objective of DESTROYING THE ACT PARTY. 

I then concluded, after a chain of events that included surely the most cap-handed backfire-prone coup since Untung in Indonesia ... that in the mission of doing fundamental harm to ACT, the ACT Party did not need any help. Particularly when they were left with John Banks as their sole MP, leaving a party of nominal "classical liberals" represented by a man so conservative he /prayed/ in Parliament against the passage of the Homosexuality Reform Act in 1986.

[Ironically, given Jamie Whyte's apparent leanings, Banks specifically cited "legalization of incest" as grounds for his furious opposition to the decriminalization of homosexuality]

A friend of mine put it this way: "When I was in Belfast in the early 90's I asked a friend of mine who was a member of the Provos why the IRA hadn't shot Ian Paisley to which he replied aghast "Shoot Ian Paisley?!! He's one of the best propoganda weapons we have."" For reasons that shall soon become apparent, I feel pretty much the same way about Banks. 

Without even getting into the recent court case, it has become readily apparent that John Archibald Banks was one of the single greatest threats to ACT's ongoing viability.

I mean, seriously. John Banks as 100% of the Caucus of ACT produced such wonderful gems as ACT on Campus declaring they wouldn't campaign for him dependent upon a vote in the House. Where else could you pay to see the spectacle of a party's youth wing in open rebellion against its parliamentary Caucus? Particularly when the cassus belli was apparently widespread doubt amidst the more zealous and principled of the ACToid breed that Banks could actually be trusted to give effect to their principles.

Banks' curiously stringent ideas about drug use (particularly by animals) also made a contribution. First, he single-handedly cost ACT a 2nd MP by shooting down in flames Don Brash's absolutely inspired off-the-cuff comment-slash-policy-suggestion that ACT would favour the decriminalization of marijuana. There are tens of thousands of "stoner voters" in New Zealand (yes, contrary to the stereotype, stoners are actually a /very/ involved political class - something like thirty four thousand of them turned out to vote for the Aotearoa Legalize Cannabis Party back in our first MMP election in '96, for instance), as well as many, many more disenfranchised youth who were looking for a place to go.

Given the more than eight hundred thousand electors who didn't vote last time around, as well ... we can really only imagine how much ACT's share of the party vote would have swollen had Brash been allowed to go ahead with Operation: Electorate of the Long White Cloud. From where I'm sitting, it would have almost unquestionably been enough to revitalize their campaign amidst youth, and grow their vote just enough for Brash to become "relevant" again. (shudder)

The second intersection of John Banks' "morals" and ACT drug policy concerns the recent Psychoactive Substances Act. For those of you playing at home, this was a piece of legislation designed to create a world first *legal* market in mind-altering substances. On the face of it, voting for this legislation would be /everything ACT is about/. It's got free-market capitalism! Dubious (and ineffectual) intervention by the state in the marketplace that's best described as "hands-off"! Kiwi entrepreneurs making cold hard cash by slanging products that rational consumers were making informed decisions to put into their own bodies! Selling out our young people for a quick economic boost!

And yet, Banks somehow managed to earn his place in history by being the only MP principled enough to actually vote against the legislation. Admittedly, he did so out of a concern for animals rather than a concern for Kiwis (there's just something about him thundering on about "sacrificing Beagle puppies at the altar of recreational drug use") ... but that's only added to the legend. The Green Party tabled an amendment to the PSA to try and protect animals (then voted for the legislation anyway when said amendment failed). Banks actually had the balls to vote against the legislation. Alone.

For that, I guess we have to salute him.

It was kinda sad, though, that the same iron inflexibility of principle wasn't demonstrated by Banks over the convention-center-for-pokies deal. It took him just over a decade to go from declaring that casino operators were "wideboys, they're flashboys, they're big boys and they can take it", on grounds that "the little people of this country have been sucked, hung, drawn, quartered, bled by these people in these casinos” through to accepting generous donations from SkyCity to his mayoral campaign ... and then voting to allow said casino operators 230 additional pokie machines for the assumed purpose of further sucking dry, bleeding hanging, drawing and quartering those same "little people".

We also had the absolutely awesome spectacle of John Banks' speech during the Debate on the Prime Minister's Statement earlier this year. Not content with telling Hone Harawira that he knows nothing of child poverty, Banks then set out "unconditional love" and charter schools as a surefire path out of poverty apparently more effective at poverty eradication than "welfare" or "big government".

"There's no votes in representing people with no hope", indeed.

And when you put that together with Banks' previously announced views about the criminal tendancies of Maori and Pasifika youth ... well, it really displays why we loved John Banks so much in the first place.

Every time we wanted an emblem, an avatar or a symbol for the pernicious, corrupt and dehumanizing impacts, mechanism and effects of neoliberalism ... there he was. If we wanted an example of how ACT and National treat our poor as a political inconvenience ... there's that quote. If we needed a way to demonstrate the casual and implicit racism that drives some on the right-wing of our policy elite ... here he is. If we desired a handy-dandy put-it-on-a-postit-note quote that demonstrated just how limp-wristed, hand-wringing and vapid the neoliberal effort to understand poverty and criminality as moral, rather than economic failures ... surf's up. 

It was an absolutely delicious long-running farce, with the most serious criticism I'm able to mount of the enterprise being that the whole tottering edifice was, appropriately enough, a fulsome waste of taxpayer money to keep operational.

Oh, and also that Banks is, if anything, too easy an ACT to follow. (apologies)

The two guys who're coming in to replace him (Whyte and Seymour) are in some ways different to their illustrious predecessor, and in some ways the same.

They're all three of them figures who seem to just axiomatically lend themselves to ridicule while presenting as so incredibly straight-faced that one almost thinks them a parody. Who could forget David Seymour saying "Hi" ("...Hi; Hi; Hi; Hi") to "Wemwera" in his absurdly awful campaign video (now a viral hit). Or Jamie Whyte proving decisively that he's an anti-politician by loudly and repeatedly declaring his personal views in favour of doing something positive for incest, then having the insane political temerity to "stand by" his comments rather than immediately retract them.

The trouble is, neither is either larger-than-life enough, nor prone to being frankly absurd enough, to actually properly step into Banks' shoes. When we find ourselves casting about for political stereotypes and archetypes to affix Seymour and Whyte to, the best we're able to come up with is fresh-faced young careerist (with stupid campaign video) and complete-political-novice mad-libertarian philosophy professor. That's it. Useful on a tactical level, perhaps; but nothing as epic or epigrammatic as a full-blown Banks tirade about fundamentally misunderstanding the causation of child povertyascribing crime on a racial basis to transparently try and scaremonger votes out of the "good people of Epsom"; or the man's many and various pronouncements in denigration of homosexuals (the remark about six inches of barbed wire being inserted into the anus of a gay man being a "waste of barbed wire" particularly stand out here for outrage points).

Attempts at denigrating ACT post-Banks, therefore, simply don't have the effectiveness and jocularity associated with the excellent sport of Banks-bashing. At best, we're left bemoaning hollow men with extreme philosophical positions, and that's not nearly as fun as grappling with the existential sense of buffoonish political evil that seemed to drape Banks like a cloak.

So why am I not celebrating John Banks being found guilty?

Because there is still an ACT Party. They are still running a candidate in Epsom. They've apparently door-knocked thousands of houses already, and are doing their level best to try and rebuild and restore ACT's (by now surely necromantic) credibility.

And because our problems with the ACT Party did not begin with Banks, nor shall they end with his passing.

There's now a new "dynamic" duo fronting for ACT, and while I can't bring myself to type "and we must take them seriously" with anything approaching a straight face ... it does seem a little premature to be jumping for joy when there are still ACT candidates in the field - one of whom looks pretty likely to be another ACT MP come September 21st.

Let's sort that out before we break out the victory champagne. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

On Very Wealthy Men Buying Political Parties

On Thursday, the Prime Minister decided to describe Kim DotCom as "a very wealthy guy trying to buy a political party".

Now, ordinarily I'd be inordinately tempted to just discount out of hand as ribald sledging virtually anything the PM said about his most enduring political opponent ... but then I remembered that when it comes to very wealthy guys attempting to buy political parties, John Key is in a pretty uniquely experienced position to tell us what's what.

Let's start back in 2005, an election wherein "very wealthy guys" seemed to pop up like mushrooms to finance or otherwise contribute to the National Party's campaign, necessitating questions about who was *really* in control of National's policy agenda.

Flashing forward to 2011, National picked up absolutely incredible quantities of money from various Chinese business donors - the figure cited in the hyperlink is more than a hundred thousand dollars inside eight days, the majority of which came from a small little company nobody's ever heard of, called Oravida, and which was deposited four days after the election on November 30th. I also wasn't aware, up until researching this part of the story, that Oravida was actually set up by Terry Lee, a figure closely associated with the Shanghai Pengxin bid to buy up the Crafar Farms.

While we're talking Crafar, there's also the small matter of the $200,000 worth of donations to National from a Chinese husband-and-wife team closely associated with both Jack Chen's Natural Dairy NZ attempt at acquiring the Crafar Farms, as well as then-Cabinet Minister Pansy Wong.

(Pansy Wong's dumping as a Minister, you may recall, eventuated as the direct and attributable result of her facilitating her husband's commercial ventures in China, including the use of taxpayer funded travel and her position as a Minister for her husband's commercial gain. Now where have we heard that before?) 

And then National (in the persons of Minister Maurice Williamson, whom we'll be meeting later in this piece, in the company of Donghua Liu; and Jonathan Coleman, whom we'll also be meeting later, in the company of British American Tobacco) engaged in some questionable executive conduct to get the sale approved.

Looks interesting, doesn't it.

More recently, we've been treated to the unwholesome spectacle of a bunch of "very wealthy men" doing something even worse than "trying to buy a political party":

They've been successfully buying the attentions and action of the whole bloody government, in the form of having Ministers of the Crown literally go out of their way to help the donors in question, and other special treatment.

The Donghua Liu case really gets to the heart of what's going on here: a wealthy man takes advantage of his exclusive connections within Nat circles in order to have official advice overturned, non-compliant officials put in the cross-hairs of Ministerial attention, and a potential appearance of endorsement of commercial projects into the bargain - all for the relatively modest sum of $22,000 .

In this case, it's then-Minister Maurice Williamson, alongside then-Mayor of Auckland and present-day National-linked Satrap of ACTistan John Banks (whom we'll also be meeting later, both in the company of a certain "very wealthy man trying to buy a political party" and again lobbying officials and Ministers on behalf of the donor) successfully lobbying the Immigration Minister to go against official advice and approve Liu's application for NZ citizenship; followed up by his friend-in-high-places intervening on Liu's behalf to question a "senior police officer" about whether the Police were really sure they were "on solid ground" in pursuing Liu over domestic violence charges. Williamson's grounds for intervening are telling: according to the officer in question, Inspector Gary Davey, his grounds for doing so were that "Mr Liu is investing a lot of money in New Zealand". How about that. 

No catalogue of the nefarious linkages between wealthy businessmen and the National Party would be complete, however, without an attempt at crying foul over spilled milk in relation to the ongoing Oravida Affair.

This is pretty much the apotheosis of "very wealthy men buying political parties" in New Zealand right now, and features what appears to be an impressively long-running campaign by Oravida to inculcate its influence - and the appearance of having influence - in the highest corridors of power in the land. 

In this case, things appear to have started with a golf game. Oravida's high-ups apparently decided to pay $56,600 in order to tee up a round of golf with the Prime Minister. Photos of said golf game were then splashed across Oravida's website, as part of the latter's ongoing efforts to flaunt its close connections and ease-of-access with important Kiwi politicians. 

The golf game also looks rather dodgy from the Kiwi-side perspective. Think about it this way - what's happened here isn't (as initially claimed by National) a very wealthy man winning a charity auction for a game of ball-sticks in a field somewhere avec a National notary as the prize ... it's a very wealthy man spending more than fifty thousand dollars to buy several hours of the Prime Minister's time in a secluded location so they're able to talk privately. This sort of scandal is known as "cash-for-access", and while we'll meet a more widespread instance of such later in this piece with the Cabinet Club, the Oravida example goes well above and beyond the usual donation-for-a-spot-of-lunch-with-someone-important - both in terms of its brazenness (usually the participants don't brag about this sort of engagement all over their websites), and the scale and scope of the "access" involved. 
We then had a series of interesting revelations concerning the timing of Oravida's attempts to smooth Chinese border security requirements, the identity of Mrs Collins' anonymous dinner partner (a Chinese customs & border control official, apparently - from the AQSIQ), and a subsequent backhander donation to the National Party to pay for it all.

Never mind the singularly impressive cavalcade of Nat MPs, party functionaries, and even Prime Ministers (yes, that's an intentional plural) whom Oravida was able to wheel out for the grand openings of its offices; or the way it was then able to monetize these connections - this access - into advertising revenue for its milk, scampi and general (literal) brand ambassadorship ... as you can see here, by seeking governmental assistance in easing border restrictions, then receiving (clandestine) governmental assistance in the person of Collins to personally lobby an AQSIQ official to secure this, the Oravida affair crossed the line from "cash for access" into full-blown "cash for influence".

With the meter running into the tens of thousands of dollars for the purposes of Prime Minister-rental and Collins-deployment, and a time-span stretching for about three years from initial deposit to final pay-off, it seems fair to state that this was less an instance of Oravida paying for the services of senior Cabinet members by the hour, and more one of their having "bought" a political party - or at the very least, having entered into an incredibly long-term, easy-conditions lease of one.

Of course, there are potentially worse things than Oravida lurking out there in the political wilderness. At least when it came to *that* instance of very wealthy men purchasing a political party, we knew exactly who was involved - and, for the most part, when.

The problem associated with National's "Cabinet Club", and Key's expensive fundraiser dinners at Antoine's, is that because the admission fee to these events is below the fifteen thousand dollar threshold at which donations must be declared, the general public has literally no idea which "very wealthy men" out there have been stumping up something like $165,000 for some intimate personal time with the PM.

At least when the Maori Party pulled the same trick down at the Northern Club, we found out pretty sharpish whom the moneyed hands were who could afford to contribute $5,000 a head in order to play musical chairs for best "ease of conversation", "confidentially" with the Prime Minister.

Now let's be clear about all of this. There is absolutely no problem, in a representative democracy such as ours, with ordinary citizens like you and me managing to talk to an MP or Minister, and getting their help in our affairs. Indeed, the entire system is built around exactly this - egalitarian access to the movers and shakers of our polity, so as to allow the citizenry to move and shake things (or at least, to have some input into what's moved, and who's shook).

The problem arises when some small coterie, cabal, or company of citizens (or, as the case may be, Permanent Residents) manage to use their resources and propinquity - whether fiscal, physical, or some other mechanism entirely - to secure access or influence over our nation's decision makers in the way the rest of us cannot. Because then, well ... money talks - and the danger is that it talks far louder and more effectively than those of us who must go cap-in-hand to our elected representatives.

The examples in this piece thus far have all shared a number of points in common: "very wealthy men", or the friends and families of National Party Cabinet Ministers, parlaying their financial resources or familiar ties into opportunities for access or influence - indeed, into actual outcomes - that would not be ordinarily possible for any other New Zealander.

That's why so many Kiwis find National's antics over donations recently to feel "not right" in the gut. Because we know this isn't how a system that theoretically runs on a principle of "one man, one vote" and "Jack is as good as his 'master'" is supposed to work.

We all know that certain groups in Kiwi society tend to have closer links to politicians and political parties - think the Business Round Table with ACT/National, or some unions with the Labour party. Indeed, for the best example going of small groups exerting questionably accountable (or transparent) influence over the policy process and politician-access of political parties, look no further than each party's Youth Wing.

With the occasional exception of right-wing commentators and spectators whinging over the allegedly plenipotentiary role of the unions in connection with the Labour party, nobody seriously alleges that this represents a fraught or iniquitous situation that's injurious to democracy. This is at least partially because everything's supposedly conducted above board and with a reasonable appearance of transparency - we know, for the most part, who's paid what, to whom, and for what. We also generally expect particular parties to "go in to bat" for "their" sectional interest groups, and are entirely unsurprised (even a little reassured) when this is what winds up happening.

This doesn't mean such a system is perfect, of course - pretty much all the donations cited so far in this article were, to quote the Politician's standard universal warding talisman "well within the rules". It also doesn't mean that parties and politicians intervening to help out particular individuals rather than generalized classes or demographics is anything to axiomatically get wildly concerned about.

However, the easygoing nature of our polity and public attitudes to same is entirely contingent upon the appearance that there's nothing dodgy going on. As soon as that appearance is called into question, our tenuous faith in the system - that everybody really does have mostly equal legal/theoretical opportunity of access to essential state and political assistance - starts to go out the window; and with it, our engagement with that system. Because what's the point of playing the game when the odds are so hugely stacked against you by the very fact that you haven't got the resources to pour into accessing what's theoretically your birthright that the wealthy guys already winning said game, at your expense, do.

That's what Key's trying to do here with his "[he's] a very wealthy guy trying to buy a political party" quip. Demonstrate that DotCom, contrary to his self-appointed title as the "Visionary" of a new pan-left political grouping dedicated to improving access to the state and political system for hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Kiwis ... is actually in reality no different from a latter day Bob Jones or Owen Glenn.

Somebody who wants to take shortcuts and skirt around the actual ins-and-outs of democratic procedure to go straight to the top for the outcome he wants, and jump the queue of other (moneyed) supplicants.

Back in 2010, this appears to have been pretty much the case. DotCom appears to have paid his $50,000 (or, if we're of a mind to pay attention to Banks' legal defence, two donations of $25,000 each) to John Banks at least partially to secure his and Maurice Williamson's help in getting official approval for DotCom's acquisition of the Coatesville mansion he now resides in.

A Cabinet Secretary of Lincoln's by the name of Simon Cameron once opined that the definition of an "honest" politician was one who, when bought will stay bought. In addition to the more conventional ones associated with not outright lying to the general public, Banks also failed this test of honesty in rather spectacular fashion.

When DotCom called him for help with the furnishings of his more modest and recently acquired real estate (i.e. a small cell in Mt Eden Prison), he was unceremoniously told where to go.

So in a nutshell, then ... Dotcom tried the overt "buy influence" route; found that Washington had outbid him; and has therefore today decided to attempt to enter the political market place straight at the top - as a "vendor" rather than "purchaser" of political influence, if you will.

Given his appalling experiences to date with attempting to play the system the Nats have set up - cash for influence & outcomes - I almost can't blame him for trying to subvert the game entirely by choosing to play his own. And, while having a mega-millionaire bankroll a political party out of his own effectively limitless pockets is arguably a pretty substantial departure from the egalitarian principles our representative democracy is often held to run on - when you sit down and consider all the other instances of "very wealthy men" attempting to buy, rent, or otherwise co-opt political parties over the last ten years ... suddenly, a very wealthy man who's completely 100% straight-up about what he's doing with his money in our politics and why ... well, that no longer seems quite the worst thing in the political world.

Even if it is being done by Colin Craig