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!"

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"Render Unto Shiva That Which Is Shiva's..." - On Auckland City Council's Rescheduling Of Diwali

There's an old saying derived from the words of the New Testament: "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, but render unto God that which is God's".

Now as with just about any Biblical statement, there's a bewildering array of multifarious interpretations which are often ascribed to it.

The simplest, however, is that there's a necessary separation between secular and ecclesiastical/spiritual authorities. And for good reason. Although whereas most modern secularists would cleave to the opinion that such a partition is desirable lest religious or ecumenical concerns start to contaminate the nation's politics ... my father, the Rev. Rolinson, has often taken a different view - that a separation of religion and politics is also good because otherwise, politics and political considerations can serve to warp and contaminate religion.

This sort of attitude might, at first, seem somewhat curious. We're used to thinking of exceedingly religious folk as zealots hell-bent on infringing upon the secular public sphere in order to pedantically push their own pet opprobiums into legislative reality. For the average anti-abortionist American Teabagger, for instance, the notion of a protective barrier (if semi-permeable membrane, albeit) between Church and State is anathema.

However, so too is such a buffer regarded by the governing authorities of the People's Republic of China - who, after all, are so suspicious of (independent) organized religion as to indulge in setting up their own pet/pocket Catholic Church, and to attempt to bend the skeins of metaphysics to the laws of man by issuing reincarnation licenses for Llamas.

In other words, just as secularists feel there is something to fear in allowing religion too great a role or control over political concerns ... so too might the religious legitimately feel resentful of secular authority barging its way in and re-arranging their affairs to suit.

That way, sacrilege lies.

It was in this sort of spirit that I was rather disappointed to learn that Auckland City Council is once more planning on holding Diwali in mid-October.

Which is odd, because it's the first day of Navratri today - a festival which customarily precedes Diwali by some twenty days, and which won't wind up till the 22nd of October, in a little over a week's time.

In other words, according to the fiat of the Auckland Council, it's possible to move around the days and the dates of official recognition for religious festivities in order to better suit what I'm sure is a busy local-governance agenda.

This makes about as much sense as the Mayor deciding to convene Christmas in July so as to boost economic activity in the city during the customary mid-year retail slump.

The reasoning advanced for the date-swap, that of being able to get performers for India for the public celebrations, only makes sense insofar as we consider the importance of civic celebration of Diwali not for its own importance ... but rather, as a friend put it, "so white people can turn up and feel 'cultured'."

That isn't good enough. Particularly given this is an even *worse* timeline snafu than a similar shifting of dates which occurred last year; and especially given the nominal commitment to "undertake diligent investigation into alternative dates [...] outside of 13-22 October" which the Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development agency had promised.

So in other words, what appears to have happened here is Auckland Council's decided to co-opt a religious/cultural event for civic (and possibly secular) purposes, done it at a time and in a manner that's most convenient to them regardless of the actual significance of the day and the date.

Then, when called upon this by Hindus and members of the Indian community, they've deflected criticism by promising 'consultation' and 'accommodation' of the views of the people whose festival they're 'borrowing' (or, more accurately, 'appropriating') in the first place ... only to eventually brush this aside and go ahead and do exactly what they'd already planned to do anyway, in response.

That ain't cool.

Now for the record, I'm generally all for the greater inclusion of important occasions into our civic calendar (not least because the closest thing I've pretty much ever seen to a civic spirit and community engagement amongst Aucklanders is the annual Chinese Lantern Festival held in Albert Park at the start of each year).

But if you're going to do it ... have some decency and some respect. LISTEN to the perspective, views and concern of the Aucklanders whom you're borrowing (or, better yet - and more fulsomely - *adopting*) the practice from, and take heed.

Because ultimately, it's *their* festival - not yours.

And to do anything else ... especially in a manner that almost deliberately robs the occasion of its true - contextual - significance ... is more akin to cultural appropriation and window-dressing than it is to any genuine engagement or incorporation of a community and its beliefs.

This year, I'll be celebrating Diwali after Navratri.

It would have been nice had Auckland Council done the same.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Who's Afraid Of The Flying Russian Bear? On Paul Henry On Russian Intervention In Syria

Earlier this week, I made the mistake of tuning in to the Paul Henry Show.

Why? I don't know. Presumably because it was relatively early in the morning, TVNZ'S Breakfast seemed passe (as opposed to TV3's "interestingly terrible"), and watching marine biologist Steve Crow in action's often good for a laugh.

Anyway. This isn't a post about that much-maligned perennial processional, Boobs On Bikes.

Instead, it's an expression of slowly smoldering outrage about that *other* furiously divisive public show of power ... Bombs On Bunkers.

Specifically, the Russian Air Force in and around the skies of Syria.

Now before we proceed any further, it's probably necessary to set out a few of my proscriptive perspective biases:

I'm, generally speaking, pro-Russia. I'm anti-ISIS. If I were being anti-inflammatory, I'd say I was anti-Paul Henry for much the same reason.

I'm also fairly rigidly pro-Palestine and anti-Zionist ... but then again, these days, who of any sense isn't.

So it was with some annoyance that I saw Henry and Hillary Barry prognosticating and pontificating about the impetus and implications of a recent incident in which Russian jets were alleged to have violated Turkish airspace.

They puffed and they purred about the Russian Bear trespassing the territorial integrity of a fellow sovereign nation state, in purported violation of international law - and with a supposed view to provoking an international crisis of dire proportions.

It's funny. I don't think I saw this sort of 'freestanding' (or, more accurately, 'grandstanding') condemnation of a violation of sovereign airspace the last time Israeli jets turned up over Syria...

...possibly because the Israeli F-15s in question were chased back out again over Lebanon by none other than the Russian Air Force :D

So when Paul Henry et co perambulate into their pentacled pulpit to propound on the evils of advanced military aircraft being used as the saber's edge in a high-stakes game of realpolitik ... it's worth considering exactly whom they're talking about on this score, and why.

Henry and Hillary, like many Western commentators (most of whom presumably grew up during the halcyon days of the late Cold War), are pre-primed as to who they see as the "antagonists" of any given situation. In this instance, being blind to the excesses of other actors in the region due to a hide-bound hand-wringing morality inherited from their parents' generation and earlier surroundings about the pernicious threat represented by Russia.

Interestingly, my generation seems to have no such qualms.

Whereas older people I've observed and interacted with seem to mostly be intensively leery about Putin and his motivations, the people more closely proximate to my own peer-group in terms of age (and often political stature) seem far more cordial in our consideration of the relative merits of Russian intervention in Syria.

After all, it certainly seems (at this *highly* early stage) to be rather more effective than previous Western-implicitly-sanctioned air-assault efforts by, say, Turkey - the net effect of which seemed to be a far more obvious and damaging advancement of national-interests realpolitik for the nation with the air power and consequent general deterioration of the Syrian situation in train.

Whatever the outcome - and I suppose I should limit the spikes in my blood-pressure by consciously choosing to avoid unintentional exposure to Henry in the future - it irks me considerably that the news-sources of talking heads (or chattering voices, if you're only tuned in to the radio edition) through which many, many Kiwis get their substantive news and second-hand opinion about current events and world affairs ... can be so clearly, plainly and transparently ... well ... localized-essentialized-parenthialized-dumbed-down-Faux-News-esque in angle and reporting.

But then again, this IS Paul Henry. So I'm not sure quite why I sound so surprised.

In conclusion: when it comes to seeking out analysis of the complex "geopolitical" (I'm starting to hate that word) situations which seem to be springing up apace the world over of late ... have a brain, have some eyes, do your own research, and don't - whatever you do - simply blithely internalize a bobble-headed opinion from breakfast-nor-daytime TV.

Thank-you and goodnight.