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.