Wednesday, August 30, 2017

WTF - [W]inston's Pension; [T]he #MotherOfAllScandals; and [F]ilthy Politics in 2017

These days, possibly due to one or perhaps both of us having grown, I don't see eye-to-eye with Winston quite as much as I used to. But if there's one thing I've always absolutely hated in politics, it's an unvarnished and quite undeserved brouhaha-bandwagon-beatup.

And from where I'm sitting, that's EXACTLY what certain figures on the right and in the media (but then, I repeat myself) are attempting to do to Winston over his superannuation overpayment non-starter of a non-scandal.

Let's be clear about this. Yes, Winston received more money than he was entitled to. Nobody denies this - least of all Winston. And yes, Winston was notified about this by MSD with the story eventually being 'broken' by Newshub [who were presumably 'scooping' Newsroom for reasons we'll go into a bit later], rather than "coming clean" of his own admission like Turei did.

But within twenty four hours of the Ministry of Social Development hitting up Winston about his seven years of overpayments, he'd arranged to sort it out with them and pay back the money. Exactly what Turei probably should have done *long* before she chose to go public with her own circumstances - although personally, I'm not quite sure how much of a reasonable comparison there is between an unemployed solo mother struggling to put food on the table and Winston's personal circumstances circa 2010.

So why is this a story at all, then? What possible angle is there to hook leading political journalists up and down the country into devoting so many acres of celluloid and lakes of newsprint (as well as, presumably, the Chinese-owned paper-pulp forestry to print it upon) into covering an older New Zealander drawing his state-guaranteed pension, as is his right - but with a bit extra due to a paperwork snafu, that's since been paid back.

Well, one explanation is - as the old Indian proverb goes - "the monkeys only shake the tree with the good mangoes". Winston is ALWAYS news, with almost everything he does, particularly the more seemingly 'controversial'  bits. And after some decades as a leading campaigner for 'transparency' in just about everybody else's dealings, any whiff of a 'cover-up' [even if there is, pretty emphatically, no such thing actually occurring] is going to send the nation's commentariat into an unholy frenzy that resembles nothing so much as airport sniffer-dogs who've suddenly developed an avowed cocaine problem.

And, as it happens, due to Winston's long-standing championing of superannuation, its rates, and its accessibility, the fact that there is now a superannuation story STARRING the 'king of super' - rather than casting him as a noble champion for the Silver Horde [Cohen the Barbarian notwithstanding] - was also, always going to pique media interest. I remember the time he first used his Gold Card in 2010 [because I was there along for the ride to Waiheke and back as part of the stunt] and how much media attention THAT attracted, as a comparative example.

With this in mind, it would almost have been more intriguing had various breathless faux-"journalists" NOT seized upon this story to relentlessly parade about like a guy on a bogey around November 5th and on fire.

But there is another one. A better one.

Look "behind the curtain", if you will.

The timing of events is, in politics, almost never coincidental.

Winston's superannuation overpayment was picked up at some point in mid-late July - about the same time that Turei's disclosure came out. It's possible, albeit unlikely, that these two events are connected - and if I were a paranoid man (as opposed to actually having a number of folk out to get me), I'd have been wondering if the Nats had decided to go 'trawling' (or, perhaps in deference to Winston's preferred hobbies, "fishing") for data on various Opposition MPs which might be useful from MSD's voluminous records, in light of Turei's circumstances being such a goldmine. [Seriously - an "own-goal-mine" is probably the most charitable way to describe it. As compassionate as we might feel about her disclosure and its reasoning, it's rather difficult ot argue that your poll numbers being halved and a pressurized resignation is a victory for National rather than the Greens]

However, the chain of events we now have to hand suggests a somewhat more 'innocent' path by which the National Party came into contact with the information in question - an MSD staffer informing Anne Tolley about the issue toward the end of the month under the 'no surprises' policy governing the public service. (It also appears, according to the same timeline, that Tolley probed Winston's case again fifteen days later - perhaps 'checking' to see if there was an exploit in it for National)

And that's where it gets INTERESTING.

Late last week, highly placed Beltway contacts of mine hit me up to ask if I knew anything about an impending scandal that was supposedly about to hit New Zealand First. I'm rather out of the loop when it comes to NZ First, so I had to confess that I did not.

I did, however, have the presence of mind to ask my associates just why they thought NZF was about to be in the gun. They bluntly stated that there was about to be a rather 'large' scandal concerning National due to come out early the next week, and that National was looking about to find something to 'defuse' the situation pre-emptively by putting out a DISTRACTION SCANDAL that would harm their adversaries and minimize the damage to their own side.

Some time after this, I found myself on to Twitter [because apparently, that's where all the meaningful opinion-shaping in this country takes place], and saw Newsroom editor Tim Murphy's series of tweets in relation to the "#MotherOfAllScandals" which his organization was due to break on Monday. A quick bit of digging identified what this was likely to be; meaning when folk started posting material about Winston's superannuation situation on Sunday, I didn't think that this was the "MOAS" being breathlessly referred to. And, interestingly, Sunday Star Times editor Jonathan Milne was also of the opinion that the Winston story was not the aforementioned Maternal Super-Scandal.

(no word as yet about what he might have thought of the suggestion from one scurrilous wag over on Twitter that the #MotherOfAllScandals concerned Winston working as a dominatrix to illicitly supplement his state-provided MSD income)

It did, however, fit the profile for the aforementioned distraction-defusion story which National would want out in preparation for Big Things hitting the fan on Monday.

Adding potential complication to the chain of events is that Newsroom appeared ready to break the story on Monday (and we can tell this via the rather more detailed writeup which appeared there, replete with things like an eighteen thousand dollar figure for the repayment etc.), yet Newshub's Lloyd Burr was all over the story as early as Saturday night - which would have been mere hours after the Beltway/Commentariat/Self-Important-People-Of-NZ-Politics were all collectively set aflutter by Murphy's comments on an impending "Mother Of All Scandals".

So here's what I think happened - National freaked about what was about to come out about them (nothing yet has - officially, at least - with speculation that this is due to some rather high-powered lawyers), and then decided to play their *ahem* trump card by 'leaking' the information on Winston's circumstances to Burr et co in a desperate bid to get the nation's news media heading off in another direction to the one they were then sniffing upon. And, at the same time, hopefully diminish NZ First's (again rising) vote ... whilst also perhaps drawing in voters who'd switched over to Labour back to NZ First [the 'battler-sympathy demographic' - as my rather wise former NZ Politics lecturer, Patrick Hine suggested when promulgating this theory].

Although with that theory now out there ... there are still some other questions. Like just why Lloyd Burr was so desperate to present Winston as engaged in some sort of supremely dodgy "cover-up" over this issue. Take a listen to what he had to say on Newshub Monday night, for instance. He is at pains to present Winston's story as demonstrably changing between Saturday night and Monday.

And to be fair, it sort-of does. Winston basically goes from saying [paraphrased] "I'm not dignifying that with a response" through to "I'm not dignifying that with a response, you absolute idiot". I could perhaps tell you more about what Winston says in Monday's Newshub outing ... except Newshub have conveniently chosen to have Burr literally talking over in voiceover form whatever it is Winston says by way of explanation during their "interview" with him on that evening's program. What on earth IS this? Make somebody appear dodgy by claiming they're not responding to your requests for explanation ... and then literally show them explaining the situation but don't allow viewers to judge for themselves the merits of that explanation by ensuring they can't hear it for the voice of a so-called "journalist" endlessly repeating "HE'S DODGY! HE'S DODGY! HE'S DODGY!"

It's literally a situation wherein we might as well have had Burr's contribution to the coverage being "On Saturday, Winston said it was Saturday. On Sunday he said it was Sunday! WHICH IS IT, MISTER PETERS?!"

Like I said - there is an actual beat-up going on here from certain quarters, and I won't stand for it.

And while it's probably not new for errant press-fiends to be attacking and haranguing Winston about just about everything ... it's some of the other points of criticism he's been getting - and, indeed, which the superannuation system at large has been getting - particularly from folk who at least nominally self-identify as being on the 'left wing' or in the center of our nation's politics.

Apparently, this error justifies completely shifting the way we do pensions in this country - whether increasing the age to 67 (or further), shifting to means-testing superannuation, putting pensioners through the same demeaning, debilitating, and denigrating set of hoop-jumping we regularly subject our beneficiaries to, or just about anything else to subtly chip away at one of the last remaining bastions of our pre-Ruthanasia broad-base and equitable Welfare State.

Most peculiarly, it's folk on the to-the-left-of-ACT end of politics who are getting seriously vociferous about all of this. And I can't quite work out whether it's simple animosity towards Winston or more insidious desire to carry out some sort of 'intergenerational political war' against the older generations of New Zealanders ... by targeting some of the least well off in our society (pensioners) except pretending you're somehow taking on the high and mighty (one particular not entirely poverty-stricken MP).

To be fair, Winston is not on a bad salary at the moment as leader of the New Zealand First Party. He's worked hard for that, though; and it's probably important to note that when he applied for superannuation upon hitting 65, he wasn't thusly employed or renumerated. In point of fact, he didn't actually HAVE a stable income of his own - and was frantically shovelling money into desperately attempting to keep New Zealand First ticking over til we got back into Parliament.

So insisting he shouldn't have applied for a pension in the first place is just a complete, woeful misunderstanding of his circumstances at the time. And in any case, it's entirely legal and moral for an older New Zealander to receive the pension that they've spent pretty much all their working life paying into the tax system to fund in the first place. Indeed, one might argue that drawing a pension like that may even help to keep them more 'in touch' with some of the circumstances of those of their constituents who are also similarly funded.

It's a matter of genuine anger for me, reading lines like these in Duncan Grieve's Spinoff editorial from earlier in the week - which attempt to make out that Winston is somehow personally responsible via his pension for "studiously [taking] care to deny [our] children" an appropriate level of state support.

Because even a cursory look over New Zealand First's record in office (where the party was responsible for securing free healthcare for under 6's, for a start) and policy in the manifesto, suggests that if anything NZ First has been leading the charge in direct OPPOSITION to the undeniable trend towards underresourcing our kids which Grieve comments upon.

The unearned vitriol towards Winston is also not simply to be found from the benches of the commentariat, either - an absolute minority of whom, if any, presumably have to get by on an ordinary, unvarnished superannuation cheque per week.

I've seen a reasonable number of much younger, hipper [rather than hip-replacement] "lefties" deciding to take it upon themselves to do National's dirty work for it and take Winston to task for something that pretty much everybody outright agrees probably wasn't his fault.

Amongsts the worst of these was somebody whom I usually have a bit of time for castigating both Winston for allegedly "committing fraud", and pretty much the entire political and media establishment for letting him off scot-free for the aforementioned criminal conduct whilst crucifying Metiria Turei a month earlier.

And to be fair, I think many readers of this site will agree that what happened to Turei was needless at best if not outright horrifying. But there's simply no easy comparison to be had between Turei's circumstances and Winston's. Not least because to commit "fraud" - even the noblest of intentioned fraud as in the case of Turei - requires "intent". Something which even Lloyd Burr was at pains to mention there was no evidence for Winston having possessed as applied his pension overpayments.

And yes, there an array of very unfair reasons why Winston's experience in this regard has been and will continue to be different to that of Turei. For starters, there's the "realpolitik" calculation - both National and Labour are going to need New Zealand First to form a Government next month. Neither party was ever especially wild about dealing with the Greens (except during the brief, halcyon days of the Memorandum of Understanding, I suppose). Winston's circumstances are therefore referred to as "a private matter for Mr Peters" by both Bill English and Jacinda Ardern - in marked contrast to Ardern ruling Turei out of Cabinet.

For further, there's the general disparagement with which beneficiaries are regarded by much of the voting population of New Zealand - the perennial "acceptable targets" of all manner of political (or policy-economic) abuse. Retirees, by contrast [or, more properly in this instance, folk who are 65+ but still working], get a much smoother ride from everybody other than ACT, the extreme right wing of the National Party, and occasionally Labour when it's wishing to appear "fiscally responsible" at the expense of others whom it doesn't think will be voting for it anyway.

And beyond that, well .. to put it bluntly, it's Winston. Even leaving aside the issues of gender, class, and solo-motherishness (race, for obvious reasons, is a bit difficult to sketch a duality on here), Winston is always going to at this stage in his career, get less bludgeoned about the head due to a 'scandal' than another politician in even exactly the same situation - let alone a loosely comparable one. Part of that, no doubt, is because he's become this endearing grandfatherly figure for the nation at large; and another part is due to that ancient Pratchettian maxim [*also* voiced by a man running a Silver Horde as it happens] ... "don't get into an arse-kicking contest with a porcupine".

But like I said. That definitely doesn't mean that Turei's situation was "fair". It also doesn't mean that Winston's situation is "fair" - on grounds that it's very difficult to conceive of a universe in which MSD being used as a political weapon by the Government *is* fair. Not least because this definitely isn't the first time National's done this - recall all those instances of Paula Bennett disclosing information about folk criticizing her and her Ministry? National refused to apologize then, too...

Yet absolutely NONE of this justifies folk going around attacking or outright defaming Winston over this situation, in some sort of mistaken belief that if they just slander him hard enough or take the belt-sander to him vigorously enough ... that this will somehow make the Turei resignation *un-happen*, or ensure "fair" treatment for both of them via the typical gold standard of applying liberally unfair treatment to the one who's perceived as having gotten off 'easier' in both political stakes as well as the court of public opinion.

As a great man once said ... "two wrongs don't make a right". I'm pretty sure that's how that proverb's supposed to go, isn't it?

So let's be clear about this, shall we?

Once more, from the top.

Yes, it appears that Winston was overpaid a state pension for a period of seven years.

Yes, it appears that somebody stuffed up to make this happen - albeit in a non-malicious/intentionally-fraudulent way.

Yes, it appears that the situation was resolved to MSD's satisfaction at some point prior to the National Party's high-ups becoming aware of it.

Yes, it appears some seriously improper things have happened between there and Saturday Night to lead to what should have been a humdrum administrative matter becoming front-page news for what's probably going to be a dominant portion of this year's Election.

And Yes, Metiria did get a lot more of a harsh reception over her issue than Winston has had on his.

Not least, presumably, due to them not actually being the same issue at all - despite attempts to present them to the contrary - and because it's now rather swiftly become National's issue rather than Winston's.

But No, Winston's situation does NOT make the case for seriously monkeying with the superannuation system this country presently has in place. Although it's quite probable that the "No Surprises" policy is going to get some at least strenuously cosmetic adjustment going forward.

And No, no social justice interests are meaningfully advanced - from ANY side - by attempting to lay into Winston because you don't think he's being hacked at aggressively enough.

The only people who benefit from folk seeking to do that, are the Nats and some of the Media - because that's exactly what they wanted to have happen right from the get-go. Why give it to them.

So in summary ... if you REALLY WANT a serious scandal to look into - it's not Winston's overpaid pension. It's not even the outrage from the right and their partisan plants in our commentariat.

Instead, it's the fact that we've got a Third Term government who've evidently chosen to WEAPONIZE the petty tyranny of state apparatii and surveillance/oversight in a bid to try and significantly impact the outcome of this year's General Election. (and yup, again, this is something which ordinary beneficiaries and other welfare recipients have to put up with on a daily basis - it's just that they don't usually get to decide the Government)

I'm almost tempted to get my popcorn out of the pantry that was hitherto being saved for the ACTUAL Mother Of All Scandals to tide me over while this one plays out.

Whether you're of the Left, the Right, or that mythical tfwtoointelligent political alignment, the "center" ... you DESERVE to be ABSOLUTELY OUTRAGED at the way this whole thing has unfolded.

When it comes to this ongoing imbroglio's narrative subject ... Nobody (other than Winston, and yes this is actually in Hansard) has ever declared him to be without fault.

But it's one HELL of a Crosby-Textor Deceased Feline And/Or Monty Python Post-Mortem Parrot that we now find ourselves in a situation wherein people nominally on the progressive side of politics - and everywhere else for that matter - are more interested in attacking the victim of some seriously dodgy practices by the state (or for that matter, beating allegedly "told you so" hobby-horse longstanding matters of policy), than they are in calling out the deplorable Government conduct which has been exposed in its course.

In fact, for the minds of some, it's virtually a bloody albino pachyderm presently domiciled in or about one's cranial lounge.

DON'T lose sight of the real issue here.

If you're angry about Metiria, or angry about Paula Bennett, or angry about welfare, or angry about pensions, or angry about journalists, or angry about (perhaps even if just "at") Winston ... well, I'd like to think there's one thing we can ALL agree on.

What's happened to Winston is deplorable, disgusting, and actually outright dangerous for our democracy.

If you've ever found yourself subject to the state improperly exercising its powers over you and your personal information, then you presumably know where I'm going with this. Particularly if it was for some barely concealed political gain - and especially if it was actually a politician or political party who sought to use privileged information against you.

We need a hashtag. #IAmWinston

But more than that - we need real change.

If you're a Nat reading this (unlikely, I know - but hey, stranger things have happened) ... then please, next month, remember all the hatred you had for the "nanny state" or whatever it was back under Helen Clark, and vote AGAINST the same craven crew who seemingly have no issue finding out whatever it is they like about you, and then leaking it to the press should you even start to look like a threat.

And if you're an anti-Nat reading this ... well, take some solace in the fact that given Winston famously blocked the Green Party out of Government in 2005 as a direct response to, inter alia, Rod Donald basically calling him Hitler - just imagine how cold he'll be on the possibility of supporting a National-led government after all this has blown up.

Hopefully, anyway.

Gosh, all this excitement and there's still 24 days to go! Following on from her odd comments to the media about putting on a different voice down a phone-line, has anybody checked on Paula Bennett recently...?

Tick, tick, tick...

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Purple Rain Man: The Brief History Of Thirty Three Years Of Peter Dunne In Parliament

I remember once upon a time remarking that Peter Dunne's occupancy of the Ohariu seat was one of the great certainties in life, almost equivalent to those other inevitabilities - "Death" and "Taxes". Which, given his previous positions as Minister of Revenue and Associate Health Minister, was a perhaps apt comparison.

The other (slightly disappointed) quip I came up with was that the only thing likely to dislodge Peter Dunne from Fortress Ohariu would seemingly be a rather direct comet impact on the seat.

Well, as of mid-morning yesterday, it would indeed appear that a falling star has brought about the extinction of the Dunneosaurs [sorry, had to have at least one Dunne-pun, and I like to think it's a considerable improvement on the "Done" ones everybody else has felt the overwhelming compulsion to go with in their titles this week].

What brought about Dunne's rather dramatic exit, we cannot yet say with significant surety. The 'official' explanation is that polling-data had him clearly losing to Labour's Greg O'Connor ; and it has also been suggested in concert with this that National may have decided that they preferred their chances putting forward Brett Hudson as an actual serious candidate against O'Connor, and therefore pressured Dunne to stand aside in the hopes that his vote would decamp to National. This is plausible, albeit peculiar - as it wasn't a week ago that Hudson was putting out letters urging his putative not-supporters to cast their vote for Dunne instead of his good self. An embarrassing climb-down (even though for Hudson, technically it's a climb-UP) no matter how one chooses to slice it.

Another potential explanation which instantly popped into my head upon hearing the news, was that the Australians might have demanded Dunne's head on a pike in 'utu' for his outing Barnaby Joyce as a New Zealander. This might sound slightly far-fetched, but consider that Australian Foreign Minister already made plainly clear that she did not see how her Government could work with a New Zealand one containing an MP who sought to undermine Canberra's duly elected masters. And further, that one of the few things keeping National relatively afloat is their positive relationship with the Australians - in both a 'foreign policy' sense, and in a "we're preventing greater brain-drain flight to Oz thanks to the Australians keeping the screws on Kiwis living over  there" one.

But in any case, having addressed the present (I'm not sure we're in a position to be speaking of a 'future' - 'United' or otherwise); I'd like to take a brief moment to return to the past. A sort of 'Walking With Bouffants', if you will and a skin-deep career retrospective for Parliament's apparently-unkillable (except by his own hand) political phenomenon.

Dunne entered Parliament in the 1984 watershed Election, as a young and trusting Labour MP; seeing off the incumbent National representative thanks in no small part to Bob Jones [of New Zealand Party and Mouthy Newspaper Curmudgeon fame] also standing in the seat and splitting the vote there. A pattern of Dunne benefitting disproportionately from asinine vote-splittery which appears to have persisted much of the way through his Parliamentary career.

Now, the date and the demarcation of party are signfiicant - as they colour Dunne as one of the 'vanguard-who-are-now-old-guard' of the Labour Party. Indeed, as pretty much the last of the '84 intake to have still been serving in our nation's politics in an active capacity. While some of those who came in at that Election found themselves basically appalled by what the Labour Party then decided to do in the form of Rogernomics, Dunne appeared to make his peace both early and often with the tawdry neoliberal agenda. And where one of his 'classmates', Jim Anderton, continually attempted to bitterly oppose Labour's new direction until eventually leaving the party entirely in protest at it - Dunne did the opposite, gradually climbing the 'greasy pole' to Ministerial warrants and a prominent position on the 'right' of the Labour Party.

This created something of an interesting predicament for him in the early '90s, however - as following the series of defeats of Labour in the twisted-metal blackened aftermath wreckage of Rogernomics, the party gradually began to reorientate itself away from such a strict and doctrinaire adherence to the rantings of the Mad Monetarists. Dunne's days were perhaps numbered - and so in 1994, he chose to break away from the Labour Party to reconvene himself as an Independent. The impending introduction of MMP in the 1996 General Election presumably weighed somewhat upon this decision, as it gave him an actual serious shot at leading his much-desired "centrist" movement rather than finding his fate at the 'mercy' of theoretically more left-leaning colleagues.

"Future New Zealand" was thus born ... which then promptly folded itself into the United Party. Which Dunne subsequently wound up leading, largely by virtue of all its other seven MPs being turfed out at the 1996 Election.

This um ... no undue disrespect to Mr Dunne ... basically sets up the pattern for Peter Dunne in the MMP era. That of a man whose political career appears to be sustained by the steady assimiliation of other parties (with each of the Advance New Zealand, Ethnic Minorities, and Conservative Party [no, not that one] all joining the United front before the 1999 Election), and whose leadership of the resulting seriously Frankenstinian ['Futurestinian'?] vehicle is guaranteed largely if not entirely by the fact that when the chips are down, he'll likely remain the last man standing. Oh, and as for the OTHER dominant theme of Dunne's political career - the former Labour Minister sought out a coalition agreement with the National Party, and was resultingly made a Minister at their table in consequence.

His 1999 electoral performance retains eerie echoes for more recent circumstances, in that United's vote continued to trend downwards (probably due to voters wishing to punish anybody associated with the unpopular incumbent National government) - but with Dunne himself arguably being saved by the National Party's perhaps somewhat curious decision not to stand a candidate in his electorate at that year's contest.

Following on from this, Dunne appears to have realized  that he was basically incapable of building a movement wholesale from his own cloth; and that the far quicker and more expeditious route to actually providing some shred of legitimacy for his tawdry claims to being a serious political "party" ... would be to shift gear on his 'assimilationist' electoral vehicle-building from snapping up organizations that weren't so much 'minnows' as outright 'microbes' - and instead take a 'bigger fish' [which was still, functionally, plankton].

The first cab off the rank for this 1999-2002 phase was, rather appropriately, the "Future Party". Which for various reasons had gone from being a constituent component of the Christian Coalition (which polled an impressive 4.33% at the 1996 General Election - arguably higher than any other faith-inflected party since, Neoliberal-Cultists perhaps notwithstanding), through to falling out with Christian Heritage and then pursuing a more 'secular'-looking branding using a riff on Dunne's own old party name - "Future New Zealand". Thus making for at least two occasions on which Peter Dunne has sublimated the Future. Perhaps rather amusingly, they managed to considerably out-poll Dunne's "United" party by more than two to one at the 1999 General Election - 1.12% to 0.54%; which must surely have made for interesting circumstances in the 'merger' negotiations.

This sets the stage for the 2002 General Election - wherein, despite an array of jokes about things like "worms knowing their own", Peter Dunne managed a rather impressive performance which garnered him for the first time an actual political party with multi-member Caucus under his leadership.

"United Future" was its name, and with deference to its having eight MPs drawn from a variety of backgrounds for the 2002-2005 Parliamentary Term, at that stage the name was something other than decidedly false advertising. And to be fair to Dunne, his team's 6.69% showing was an inarguably surprisingly strong one for a figure whose previous outings tended to be down within not just the margin of error but actually below 1%. However, it's probably worth noting that UF's strong 2002 result occurred in the context of a phenomenally weak Bill English leading National to its worst-ever outcome [not that it was his fault - the overbearing personage of Jenny Shipley remaining Leader up until almost immediately before the 2002 Election having much more to do with it] - meaning that pretty much ALL the 'minor parties' [other than the Alliance] managed to do strikingly well at that year's Election.

And, for that matter, much worse three years later in 2005 when the National Party's rally under Don Brash squeezed everybody as a result.

The cracks that would come more completely asunder later in United Future's political life were already starting to show during the 2002 term, though - with what had previously seemed like a relatively 'united' front on 'values' to do with the family and the like giving way to a split Caucus on the matter of Civil Unions (although not the actual Civil Union Act 2004 - which was unanimously opposed by UF MPs). This suggests that Dunne's more 'middle of the road' personal beliefs and ethos were perhaps uneasy bedmates with the Christian conservatives whom he'd entered into a supposedly mutually beneficial accord with a few years earlier. These tensions would later basically spell the end of the party being a "party" in the next Parliamentary term, as we shall soon see.

The run-up to the 2005 General Election wasn't all disunity and divisions, though. True to form, Peter Dunne managed to entice a small gaggle of smaller parties to come join his soiree - in this case, the Outdoor Recreation Party (which had scored a relatively impressive 1.28% of the vote in 2002 - just a shade less than the combined United Party shares of the vote for both 1996 and 1999 put together), and a still-smaller political organization called the "WIN Party" set up by a bunch of barmen to oppose the then-imminent-and-controversial smoking ban in the nation's pubs. It is a mark of United Future's relative health as a party at this stage that they were actually in a position to field an almost full list of fifty seven candidates. And it also presumably says something interesting about the nature of the appeal of Dunne's 'safe' seat to various bush-league politicos that he managed to successfully bring in everything from Christian Conservatives (including some actual apparent Fundamentalists and a former rally-car champion) to 'Liberals' to Hunting-And-Smoking campaigners all in the space of a term and a half period.

As mentioned above, the strong National showing in 2005 meant that pretty much all the minor parties who'd profited off its 2002 doldrums were squeezed back towards (or even under) the 5% threshold. United Future was, entirely unsurprisingly, in the latter category - and dropped back by just over four percent to 2.67% (and 3 rather ornery MPs) at that year's Election.

Still, as tempting as it is in just about any given situation to "Blame National" (also often accurate - and fun, too), this is not the entire story. The United Future Caucus and List saw a number of occasionally somewhat high-profile (by the standards of the party, anyway) defections and desertions (including two sitting MPs - Marc Alexander and Paul Adams) in the run-up to the Election which can hardly have helped its credibility with voters. It's also quite possible that the various antics of United Future's rather prominent Christian fundamentalist fringe over the 2002-2005 term turned many more secularly inclined voters off from the Party. It thus found itself caught between a bit of a rock and a hard place electorally - losing 'social conservative' voters to National, Christian-identity voters to an array of other microbial(-scale) parties [including the Destiny Church vehicle and its 0.62%], and people who'd found themselves attracted by the 'Common Sense' theme of United Future's 2002 campaign but who had no great and abiding love for either prior-mentioned demographic heading off in all directions.

And whilst one might have been forgiven for presuming that a Caucus-size of three would limit any future opportunities for interior schisming ... ensuing developments over the course of the 2005-2008 Parliamentary Term would clearly demonstrate otherwise.

Dunne had accepted a Ministerial warrant as part of the price of his support for the 2005 Labour-led Government (a curious development given his participation in the 'original' Cup Of Tea stunt in a Mt Eden cafe with then-National Party leader Don Brash earlier that year), and now found himself again in an intractable position - having to balance both the 'progressive-ish' interests of his coalition partner with the decidedly 'conservative' inclinations of his two caucus-mates [who were both from the Christian end of politics]. The problems which had begun to show themselves from Dunne's cobble-together political construction approach in the 2002 term therefore hadn't just not been transcended - they'd actively intensified.

Matters came to a head in 2006, when the Outdoor Recreation Party decided to quit the United Future umbrella (or, perhaps, pup-tent) in response to the perceived dominance of the Christian strands within United Future's makeup (that had lead to things like one of its MPs attempting to put forward legislation to pre-emptively outlaw gay marriage - a move that must surely have weighed uneasily upon Dunne, given his 1980s support for the decriminalization of homosexuality); which represented a worry not just because of the evident difficulty of keeping so many different political ethoi together under the one roof ... but also because Outdoor Recreation had brought with it at least a percent of the vote, which now seemed set to disapparate.

Dunne's electile dysfunction was not limited to Outdoor Recreation deciding it'd do better outside, either. His decision to not-vigorously-oppose various pieces of legislation put forward by the 'social progressive' end of Parliament [like Sue Bradford's parental discipline bill, and presumably also the previous material on civil unions] lead to an interior standoff (and allegedly, a leadership challenge - because the smartest thing to do when your party is in Parliament purely via the grace of one MP holding a seat is to attempt to ouster him) in what remained of United Future's Parliamentary Caucus. This resulted in United Future finishing the 2005-2008 Parliamentary Term with two MPs rather than three, after Gordon Copeland announced his resignation from United Future (but not, for some reason, Parliament) in order to go off and found his own party ... somewhat imaginatively called "Future New Zealand". (We're now up to at least three such vehicles in connection with Dunne, for those of you playing at home - none of which, it turns out, have actually had any 'Future'.). Alongside this, at least one other somewhat disgruntled former United Future MP wound up convening a Christian-based organization competing rather directly for UF's share of the vote - in the form of Paul Adams and the Family Party [which garnered 0.35% of the vote that year - a figure which might conceivably have netted Dunne a List MP had it remained with UF].

The 2008 General Election was therefore quite a dire prospect for Dunne, as many of the elements he'd successfully tethered to his own electoral life-raft in the form of an outrigger canoe had made subsequent decisions to cleave off and go their own ways. It is perhaps a bitter irony for him that the Outdoor Recreation Party quit in reaction to the influence and shenanigans of a group whom Dunne would himself fall out rather vitriolically about a year later, leaving him a one-man band in Parliament where he might otherwise have used Outdoor Recreation and the like to further his attempted pivot back towards the 'center'/'liberal democrat' style politics.

Where just three years before, he'd had eight MPs and an appreciable above-five-percent share of the vote, his showing on Election Night 2008 was a literal fraction of that - 0.87% and a loss of 1.8% and all of his List MPs. He also faired particularly poorly in his own life-line seat of Ohariu - coming in at just 1,006 votes ahead of Labour's Charles Chauvel [a situation which probably resulted in no small part from the Greens' Gareth Hughes scoring nearly three thousand votes that presumably came at Labour's expense in that seat in that year].

However, Dunne does not appear to have been especially perturbed, and quite quickly settled in to a simulacrum of his previous role propping up National, some twelve years earlier. He got yet another Ministerial Warrant out of it [thus making him a bearer of the perhaps dubious distinction of having served as a Minister in literally every Government, whether National or Labour, since 1984], as well as an undertaking from National not to seriously challenge him in Ohariu so that he'd be able to continue to double-prop-up their regime. And when I say "double prop up", I mean not just guaranteeing them his vote in the House on Confidence & Supply matters (and who knows what else) - but also, due to the terminal unlikelihood of his ever bringing in any List MPs again, creating an 'overhang' seat that would make it still harder for the non-National parties to form Government. [A manipulation of the rules of MMP which an associate who's considerably more of a political follower than even I - Mr Ralph Hall - has described as "the only real Dirty Deal" of recent elections]

The run-up to the 2011 General Election saw Dunne double down on his attempts to market himself as a 'common sense' politician of the middle-of-the-road center, in rather direct contravention of the extremism which had previously flourished under his roof. This was probably at least partially driven by the fact that so very much of United Future's former Christian-conservative support-base had become actively alienated by Dunne's swing back towards 'liberal' values - and were in any case already lining up behind the newly prominent Conservative Party under a then not nearly as ridiculous seeming Colin Craig (who, in retrospect, appears to have based his public persona in no small part upon what worked so strikingly - needless to say, surprisingly - well for Dunne in the yesteryear hayday of United Future's popular height toward the start of the New Millennium).

While there might have been some arguable merit towards his intentional references to United Future as being the local equivalent to the UK's "Liberal Democrats" in a different electoral terrain, the plain fact was that at the height of the John Key Era most folk who'd have been won over by this kind of positioning were already well and truly absorbed by National. It should therefore come as no especial surprise that United Future's polling continued to drop - although this time by a mere 0.27% [to 0.60%], its lowest drop over the span of its history.

However, if United Future's branding on the campaign trail attempted to portray an image of staid moderation (minus his attention-grabbing attempt at 'Planking' on BackBenchers that year, or his 'dead possum' video talking about his admittedly rather impressive hair), the anctics of United Future over the course of the 2011-2014 Parliamentary Term were anything but.

Most prominent among Dunne's legislative 'achievements' must surely be the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 - which sought to reconcile the competing realities of synthetic cannabinoids and other drugs flooding our country with the plain fact that prohibition does not work. Dunne has copped quite a bit of flakk over the years for the PSA, on grounds that it allowed potentially harmful drugs which were already being sold before its passage to remain in the market-place for a number of months after safety-concerns about them were raised. However, it's worth noting that the PSA and its various amendment acts DID (eventually) take synthetic cannabinoids out of the (legal) drug marketplace - even if they did so in a manner which was rather hap-hazard, and which arguably continued to contribute to the wretched trade in human misery right the way through.

More to the point, the chief failings of the PSA remain the 'ring-fencing' around cannabis and other drugs which were scheduled in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, as a concession to National et co. It is my belief that had the provisions prohibiting cannabis from being regulated or even assessed under the PSA not been in existence, then the PSA could very well have provided a viable pathway towards meaningful cannabis law reform in this country. And, along the way, rendered the market for synthetic cannabinoids [whether legitimate or otherwise] pretty much obsolete. Interestingly, some of the noises Dunne had begun making over the last year or so suggests that he, too, had become keenly aware of this possibility - and was occasionally known to speak up actively in its favour. But too little, too late. So for a generation of concerned parents and liberal drug users, he shall live on in infamy as the man who helped to keep real weed illegal, whilst bringing us the scourge of legally available synthetic cannabinoids - even though these were already on-sale before his PSA, and remain illicitly available (and evidently much less safer than even the ones which WERE sold in daries were) after he moved to ban those too.

In any case, it is interesting to look back upon the timing of the Psychoactive Substances Act Amendment Bill which eventually torpedo'd the whole 'legal' part of the "legal highs" trade for good, in relation to the rather illuminating interview-cum-psychoactive-safari which Dunne did with the ever-crusading John Campbell about the same time. There are cynical suggestions that synthetic cannabinoids were finally outlawed [pending further safety testing not involving animals - an arguably impossible requirement introduced by others due to animal welfare concerns] because the problems associated with them had finally really 'come home to roost' in the homes of the well-to-do and white who make up National's prime pandered-to support-base. But I'm not so sure. Dunne certainly appeared genuinely disquieted by what he was witnessing in the proximity of those Porirua 'legal high' shops - and whether or not one thinks it was the right decision to undertake, I see no reason to doubt that his emotional response to viewing just what the legal highs industry was doing (intentionally, negligently, or otherwise) to a depressingly high (in multiple senses of the term) quotient of New Zealand played a role in bringing this law-change about.

At about the same time that the PSA was heading towards its final assent in Parliament in mid-2013, Dunne found himself simultaneously embroiled in two other political scandals. The first - that of his party suddenly ceasing to be (in legal terms at least) a "party", was merely amusing and relatively quickly recovered from. The second, concerning his 'alleged' role in leaking materials relating to the Government's whitewash Inquiry into their own previous mis-use of the state's security intelligence services, is altogether more interesting. And dare I say, may actually paint Dunne in a relatively sympathetic light.

At the time that Dunne's involvement in the long-running imbroglio hit the headlines, much of the commentary on his actions was basically gossip-founded ridicule. The dominant 'theme' generally ran "there's no fool like an old fool" as part of an effort to make it appear that Dunne had had romantic designs on well-known NZ political reporter Andrea Vance (who played a prominent role in the breaking of certain details associated with the GCSB etc. Inquiry in the media). Perhaps this was, indeed, the case - although given the main 'evidence' put forward in support of this contention appears to have been a rather frequent and positive interaction between Dunne and Vance over Twitter, I don't think it's possible nor particularly wise to state this as uncontentious fact.

The other possibility, and one which in my more charitable moments, I'm inclined to place a certain level of weighting upon, is that Dunne actually does have principles after all (despite what his detractors might claim) - and upon seeing what appeared to be a reasonably reckless abuse of the state's security apparatus, undertook to play what role he could in bringing these matters to light so that they might not recur so easily in the future. This entailed him leaking information to a journalist he evidently got on reasonably well with, who then proceeded to publish the resultant material in a way that embarrassed the Government and helped show that National's own attempt to bring 'accountability' to the spying scandal was in actual fact nothing of the sort.

Which explanation is actually true - or, indeed, whether the truth (as is often the case in politics) instead lies somewhere in the middle - will likely remain unknown until Dunne chooses to write his own memoirs. But the latter possibility I've advanced certainly represents a much less bizarre potential explanation than an attempt to trade state-secrets for the promise of continued friendly-banter on Twitter with a (female) journalist. And if it does, indeed, subsequently turn out that Dunne acted with principle rather than penile-tissue as his prime motivator in this incident, then it will be arguably quite sad that a genuine Good Deed done for the Right Reasons wound up having such a deleterious effect upon him both personally and politically. Even though the Parliamentary Privileges Committee eventually ruled that the Henry Inquiry into the Kitteridge Inquiry's leakage had well overstepped the bounds of propriety and even law in its hounding of Dunne, thus allowing him to resume his Ministerial Portfolios some months after being forced out of them, a cloud then settled over Dunne. Which, to be fair, might feasibly have been confused for his trademark 'enthusiastic' hairstyle but for the 'silver lining' being rather harder to find than his own marked signs of age. It also cannot have been nice to have the Opposition and seemingly every politico in the land attempt to reduce the whole thing down to a case of frustrated libido - particularly if it was untrue.

But such is politics.

The 2014 General Election proceeded in much the same fashion as the previous ... ten ... before it. Peter Dunne won Ohariu, although this time with a somewhat reduced share of the vote and a majority over Labour's Ginny Andersen of a mere 710. He was undoubtedly helped considerably in securing this result by National newcomer Brett Hudson - who rather deliberately tanked, scoring less than half Dunne's 13,569 votes in a bid to ensure that National would once again be able to call upon both Dunne's vote in the House as well as his particular competencies in the Revenue and other portfolios.

The most interesting thing about this is probably not how close Labour once again came to securing victory in the seat (and again, we are left to wonder what might have been had The Greens' Tane Woodley not stood and garnered 2764 votes there); but rather the fact that Brett Hudson was brought in to replace the Nat candidate (and sitting List MP) who'd stood there for National for the previous few Elections. It is my understanding from sources well-placed in National, that the reason for this 'changing of the guard' had much to do with Shanks' apparent intent to actually attempt to be a decent 'shadow' constituency MP in the electorate - opening offices, reaching out to constituents, and attempting to help them with their issues. This, of course, placed National's coalition partner at risk of being obviated at the next Election when his wafer-thin majority came under pressure from the National candidate AS WELL AS the Labour one - so Shanks was let go in favour of somebody who definitely wouldn't be interested in winning the seat.

That man was Brett Hudson, and it makes for an amusing spectacle that he's been forced inside a week to go from literally writing to the residents of Ohariu to urge them to vote for Dunne rather than himself ... through to having to attempt to present himself as a serious challenger for the seat against Labour's insurgent Greg O'Connor. Will the electorate buy this sudden influx of steel into the National designated fall-guy's spine? Anyone's guess. Although it's probably worth pointing out that for the last several elections running (since the seat was re-established in 2008 - and going back further, in literally all elections in the MMP era other than 2002), National has convincingly won the Party Vote race in the seat. This doesn't necessarily mean they'll win Ohariu for their candidate, however - as the disparity between Labour's share of the candidate vote and their share of the party vote would appear to indicate that quite a number of otherwise Blue voters have little to no compunction when it comes to voting for the Red guy to attempt to get rid of the Purple man between them.

However, in light of the aforementioned polling showing Greg O'Connor with a fourteen point lead over Dunne in his long-held seat, it's eminently possible that National felt it was worth the gamble to ditch Dunne and run their own man unfettered in a desperate attempt to keep O'Connor out of Parliament. Or maybe Dunne decided to do as his former paymaster the Prime Minister did, and 'go out a winner' rather than facing the very real prospect of an ignominious defeat in approximately a month's time.

Again, we shall likely never know the truth as to what motivated him. Which leads me to note that for a figure often depicted as our most 'beige-iest' of politicians ... Dunne presents a surprisingly enigmatic figure upon closer inspection or implicit interrogation.

About all we can do is ask whether his snap-decision to resign this week (and it must have been a rather swiftly cogitated upon one - as I noted United Future billboards appeared in my electorate, freshly printed and minted, at some point between Friday and Tuesday, which suggests the 'party apparatus' was under the impression that a full campaign effort was still required basically up until Monday's shock announcement) renders him untouched by that most excellent of political observations - that "all political careers inevitably end in failure".

In which case, I suppose we must ask what exactly it was that Dunne sought to do with his life in politics. If it's winning elections, then he has certainly garnered an impressive - indeed, arguably inimitable - record of success. I cannot think of another MP in recent times (and particularly subject to the vicissitudes of the MMP era) who has managed a longer unbroken string of victories. Even that other 'Great Survivor' of New Zealand Politics, Winston Peters [aka 'Taurangasaurus Rex", once upon a time] managed to lose several seats and eventually find himself outside of Parliament (albeit temporarily).

And if it's having an influence upon the course of a Government's actions, then he once again has a singularly impressive resume. I'm not sure there's ever been - since the days of Independents being the norm for our politics at least - another figure who's managed to serve as a Minister in four successive governments. Particularly given the fact that the lead-parties in each nominally thought of themselves as being from 'opposite sides of the aisle/ideology' from each other [however untrue that might have actually been in practice].

But to what grand use or vision did he put this influence? What lasting and enduring achievements an we chalk up to this master of misdirecting MP-mortality. Winston has his Gold Card and KiwiRail. Jim Anderton (arguably) has his Kiwibank. Muldoon has any number of hydroelectric dams and other relics of a bygone age (one of which, I fully believe, ought be turned into a monolithic Muldoon monument in the mould of the Ramesseum of Egypt).

What does Dunne have to show for his time, here on Earth? Other than, perhaps, a succession of jokes about an overabundance of hairspray and politi-hack debates about whether his 'bow-tie' look provided the inspiration for a recent regeneration of Doctor Who.

Well, I guess there's the aforementioned Psychoactive Substances Act. And in his own indirect way, possibly an unintentional role in the formation of the much-more-amusing-now-they're-further-away-from-five-percent Conservative Party (who hoovered up a reasonable number of activists, former MPs, and attempted-successor-political-parties from United Future once it ditched its 'Christian-conservative' angles).

Dunne would probably say that other than several pieces of arguably minor legislation that are no doubt significant and helpful to a certain number of New Zealanders, his main impact upon our politics has been the pushing of a particular set of 'values'. Words and principles like a soft-spoken quasi-liberalism, "common sense", and opposition to the 'extremists' from parties like New Zealand First or The Greens.

That's great rhetoric - and certainly goes hand-in-hand with his previous attempts to cast himself as the lead 'moderating voice' upon our politics (no matter whether it was 'left' or 'right' he felt he was 'moderating').

But the plain reality is that he got into politics to represent a theoretically left-wing party, only to wind up siding with the right-wingers who'd taken over the show - and eventually backing Labour's trenchant opposition in the National Party.

He spent a decent portion of the 1980s, 90s and late 2000s/early 2010s advocating for broadly 'liberal' social values - yet one of his most significant effects upon our politics for at least two Parliamentary Terms was to allow his 'safe' electorate seat to be used as a springboard for occasionally quite noxious Christian conservatives and outright fundamentalists to enter our Parliament as MPs.

He claimed to support the ascendency of the 'political center' in opposition to 'extremes' of right or left; and yet found himself a keystone support-partner for what's arguably the most right-wing government of the MMP era.

A man who vigorously opposed cannabis law reform (up until he didn't), yet gave us first synthetic cannabis and then broader approval for cannabis-derived medical products. Who enthusiastically supported the decriminalization of homosexuality in the 80s, and voted for gay marriage in the 2010s - but also backed a 2005 bill to pre-emptively outlaw gay marriage put forward by one of his own MPs. Who pressed for a 'Code of Conduct' for MPs in the wake of a succession of controversial incidents featuring his Parliamentary 'colleagues' - yet who flagrantly played fast and loose with the bounds of propriety when it came to the outcome of a top-shelf Inquiry into our state security services (although to be fair, in this matter he was at least somewhat subsequently vindicated in this matter by the Parliamentary Privileges Committee).

All things considered, a cursory examination of Dunne's political history and character reminds me of a metaphor deployed by John Ralston Saul to describe the neoliberal technocrats he'd observed operating across the West (and further afield) in the later years of the last decade. And while he probably didn't have Dunne in mind when crafting this metaphor, given Dunne's unquestionable status as an (elected) technocrat par-excellence within our politics it is entirely unsurprising as to how well it fits.

The image which Saul projects is one of rarified elites/experts attempting to surf a wave of events - and doing so with ever increasing skill as the leading edge of the wave becomes more and more vertical; but with ever less actual acknowledgement, appreciation, or engagement from the ordinary public for their efforts in doing so. Because ultimately, what they are doing is - if not meaningless, then functionally difficult to distinguish from same. And in any case, long out of step with the prevailing winds of public opinion.

Dunne, to my mind, is exactly one of those surfers. Nobody can deny the level of political skill it's taken to remain undefeated these past thirty three years (whether in terms of reaching out to his constituents and understanding what they want of him, or pulling off tacit agreements with other parties to both allow him to 'live' through their aiding his re-election and to serve in an unbroken chain of their Governments), and somehow - bizarrely - at the 'center' of our politics for much of that time.

But ultimately, only a very vanishing few wound up watching his ever-more-precarious performance with anything other than bemusement.

And earlier this week in August, he finally lost his footing.

There are probably some heights up in Khandallah where on a particular kind of night and with the right sort of eyes you'd be able to look north and see the high-water mark - the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. [Apologies to Hunter S. Thompson for my appropriation of THAT metaphor]

Earlier this week, The Rev. Rolinson asked me just what it was that United Future stood for.

"Election in Ohariu, I believe", was my reply.

Try as I might, I can't seem to articulate a meaningful response about Dunne that's more accurate than that.

Maybe that's what ultimately did it for him. Finding himself without identifiable 'principles' in a game which more often seems to actively punish those who instead HAVE same.

Peter Dunne - This Was Your (Political) Life.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Why I'm Not Celebrating Steve Bannon's Ouster From The White House

At the time of writing, it's been perhaps sixteen hours since news of Steve Bannon's resignation broke. And dependent upon which side of the aisle you're sitting on, this is either the best news since the Emancipation Proclamation because an alleged far-right apocalyptic ideologue has been turfed out of a position of power ... or arguably even BETTER news, because your decrepit, oligatastic, neocolonially-enthused, warmongering exclusive club of political influencers now doesn't have to listen to somebody from 'outside' the established Beltway consensus attempting to break in.

When I penned that over-long sentence, I originally intended the first part to refer to the Democrats and 'liberals/left' in general; whilst the latter would demarcate the Republicans. Yet thinking more about it, there's a more fundamental division that transcends (US) party lines. Namely, that between the 'mob' whose main source of news and opinion - what they think in other words - on the movers and shakers of great, global events is the frequently outright 'fake news' of medias both mainstream and social, and who exist 'outside' the realm of actual influence and power ... versus those who, put bluntly, do. From whatever nominal party they may hail from.

Now that might sound curious, but let's consider why each group found something to dislike in Bannon.

For the former, it was obvious. He ran Breitbart. And lest we be unclear about this, I am not a Breitbart fan. They put out some pretty nausea-inducing content on occasion. Kinda like our on WhaleOil, I guess - except with a much greater degree of literacy, and the apparent business nouse to be able to successfully turn a profit and pay for Milo's various shenanigans without having to do as Slater did and wind up actively begging readers for their spare change in order to keep things afloat.

His pre-Breitbart days were also laden with some ... odd, and in the eyes of a few folk, decidedly unsettling work in the film industry. And again, the sorts of paens to the 'golden age' of Reaganism or 'documentaries' about 'Islamofascism' which he became known for are not exactly to my viewing taste. Although I'll have to reserve judgment on his somewhat peculiar choice to bring Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus to the big screen [starring Anthony Hopkins] til I've seen it.

But does any of this make him a figure of such unremitting evil to have attracted the impressive opprobrium of seemingly every quarter of the political spectrum all at once? To render him a Palpatine-esque figure as the memosphere chose to represent him? Or the Grim Reaper, in the eyes of Saturday Night Live?

Questionable. After all, much of the above is pretty stock-standard conduct on the 'conservative' end of politics these days - particularly in America. And in any case, most certainly wouldn't lead to him receiving such vociferous hatred even from the folk in his own party and the White House he so recently helped to take.

No, to understand why Bannon 'had to go', we need to look deeper. At things he's actually done or tried to do whilst in a position of power and authority in American - and therefore global - politics.

The most striking thing I can recall about Bannon is hearing, shortly after he wound up taking up the mantle of Trump's White House majordomo, how he'd set up a room in the White House with a big board on it, keeping track of both all the promises Trump had made on the campaign trail - and more importantly, how close the Administration was to 'closing' on each of them.

This is pretty revolutionary stuff. After all, we've become so patently used to the old maxim of "politicians campaign in poetry - then they govern in prose", and other such jokes about how unlikely a given President is to actually stick to his word, that nobody batted an eye when Justice Antonin Scalia of the US Supreme Court included a line in one of his judgements about how campaign promises were legally speaking the least binding form of human commitment. It's not just a Republican or American thing, either. After all, I seem to recall Obama promising an end to Guantanamo Bay, and our own National Party is presently in slightly more than lukewarm water for promising to deliver the same much-needed hospital in Dunedin for two Elections in a row...

But the trouble with what Bannon did there, from a political-insider stand-point, is that no politician tends to like constantly being reminded that they're not actually in a position of absolute control. That they actually have constituents whom they're directly responsible to - who placed their trust in the elected representative to do particular things which were loudly talked about on the campaign trail. Instead, freshly buoyed by the heedless empowerment of possibility, a newly minted political leader tends to wish to just do as he or she pleases and push the line that the electorate will just blithely accept the idea that what was promised during debates and advertisements and keynote speeches is just .. well .. as sort of puffery of no consequence. Not something they actually HAVE to be held to!

And meanwhile, the other traditional constraint upon an incoming politico is the 'machinery of governance'. The folk out there - whether civil service, military personnel, or simply entrenched mandarins and lawmakers who are all necessary to make any given initiative work ... yet who all tend to have their own ideas about how or whether it's a good idea to do so. And who very often are so fundamentally wedded to the previous dominant consensus of whichever political environment they're in that they are both fundamentally incapable of and actively inimical to the possibility of helping  to make anything from OUTSIDE or  that's a direct challenge to that consensus happen.

This partially helps to explain things like why John F. Kennedy wasn't able to completely call a halt to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, for instance. Because even though he might personally have seen the lack of wisdom in what was going on [hence one reason why the operation was downgraded so significantly from something which would have borne closer resemblance to Ronald Reagan's later invasion of Granada, to .. well .. what it was], there was simply too much of a commitment from everybody involved below him to just call the whole thing off.

Anyway, I digress.

The point is that over the last seven months we have basically been watching a slow-motion 'civil war' occurring at the very heart of American Politics. I do not refer to the outright street-battles between 'AntiFa' and others over Confederate memorials or statues of Joan of Arc, either.

Instead, it is that fundamental fault-line of politics which I talked about in a magazine column something like two years ago - "Nationalists vs Globalists".

And whilst Trump was quite plainly elected in no small part thanks to his fairly direct appeals to some Nationalist - even outright 'Nativist' - political themes [things like abandoning the TPPA, or ending US military adventurism overseas, or cracking down hard on the finance industry and restoring regulations which previous administrations had been tearing up from Bill Clinton onwards] ... the forces which have since coalesced around Trump, most particularly in both the Republican Party and his own family members [whom, perhaps somewhat regrettably, he can't just 'fire' - unless they're married to him], have most DEFINITELY been much more towards the 'Globalist' end of the spectrum.

We can see this most prominently with his daughter's advocacy for military intervention in Syria, or his son-in-law attempting to strengthen the US-Saudi de-facto and self-defeating military co-dependence. Or, on a vaguely related note, the succession of just plain daft Republican moves like healthcare 'reform' under Paul Ryan [which, as I've noted previously, flew flat in the face of Trump's previous few decades of pushing for 'single payer' public healthcare]. And, of course, the present ardency of saber-rattling on North Korea [and against Russia].

Now, against all of this, Bannon has been steadily railing. Attempting to both 'break with' and just outright 'break' the previous prevailing political consensus that has shaped American politics for well over three decades now.

No wonder Trump called him a left-winger.

When it comes to the foreign military adventurism, he's continually lost friends across Washington for attempting to remind the President that i) this wasn't what he was elected on [and, indeed, it was the bloody legacy of PREVIOUS Presidents' offshore entanglements which directly won Trump the Presidency - those areas which swung for him in Ohio etc. are also some of those who've been hardest hit by Iraq etc.]; and ii) that 'military options' - whether against Assad or Kim Jong Un - simply serve to produce negative outcomes from the perspective of sane and rational US policy [now there's an oxymoron for you].

In fact, it's his recent comments on North Korea that have probably been amongst the 'final straws' for his White House tenure. Not least because his cool-headed, rational analysis that a strike on the DPRK would basically lead to Seoul being flattened in about thirty minutes are .. well .. pretty much impossible to countermand. And were even positively reported by an array of 'establishment' media outlets like the Washington Post that have spent a good portion of the last seven months basically calling for his head. [and, in the case of the WaPo, the installation of a pliant 'Wealthy Elite' comprised of the Kushners of this wold in his place]

No boss ever likes it when an underling makes him look bad - and the underling positively glorious by comparison - by going 'off script' and pointing out that the Emperor is presently denuded.

But Bannon's record of 'interesting', 'principled', and above all 'controversial-from-the-neoliberal-globalist-perspective' political positions does not end there.

He previously made headlines just a few weeks ago for wanting to make the US tax system more progressive than it is now - and as part of this, ending the present quagmire [dare I say 'swamp'] of loop-hole ridden exigencies whereby US corporations are able to dodge so much of their fair share of the national tax burden.

And on top of that, he's continued to be one of the loudest voices inside the Administration when it comes to outright opposing American involvement in those persnickety international trade deals we all spent afternoons marching up and down Queen St to protest over the last few years.

Little wonder, then, that some of the loudest voices of jubilation at news of Bannon's leaving were to be found in the nation's stock exchanges. The reason for this is simple - the Wolf-Pack of Wall St knows all too well that one of the only folk remaining in the White House to seriously wish to chain and shackle them like the Fenrirs that they are has now departed.

So with all of that in mind ... it strikes me as somewhat peculiar that there are so many folk up and down what claims to be the 'progressive' end of politics are cheering on Bannon's march off into the sunset. I mean, I suppose I could understand it if the idea was that it would just bring down the Administration outright. But that seems rather unlikely.

Instead, in reality, despite Bannon's previous controversial positions in some areas, he represented one of the 'sanest' voices around Trump. And more particularly, a direct force of opposition against the sort of hard-neoliberal wheelbarrow agenda being pushed by many of the folk Trump previously railed against [implicitly or directly] who are now apparently running the Republicans' political efforts.

If you oppose the US turning into more of a Corporate-haven-masquerading-as-a-serious-state, and if you are mortified at the idea of American military power once again making a wasteland and failing utterly to bring about 'peace' ... then you should be similarly aghast about Bannon leaving the White House.

But, of course, you won't be - because all you've really known about Bannon is that seemingly every sensationalizing media outlet desperate for a few extra bucks of clickbait advertising revenue ... cannot avoid the temptation to say he's a "white supremacist" or at best "far right" every time his name is mentioned. Never mind his actual remarks following Charlottesville decrying and disavowing 'white supremacy' and 'ethno-nationalism' in far stronger language than many 'establishment' political leaders (even going so far as to outright state that it's an imperative to "crush it"). Because once the 'brand' is made - it sticks, I guess.

Now once again. Lest I find the local branch of "AntiFa Aktion" camped outside my house the day after this story is run, it's probably worthwhile to note that I do not defend absolutely everything which Bannon has ever said and done. I don't like reasonable swathes of what appears to be his work and his worldview.

But this isn't about that.

This is about whether I want to live in a world wherein the Trump administration is just 'bad' - or instead 'actively destabilizing the international situation at least partially in pursuit of some sort of Monolithic-Market-Monophysite-Corporate-Motivated-Malevolence agenda".

Some might say that the Trump administration as we've seen it these past 7 months is already a pretty heaping helping of the latter.

They might have a point.

Yet tell me ... how does it get BETTER by removing one of the few checks upon that perniciousness.

Oh right. It doesn't.

And no, before anybody says it, "BUT HILLARY" is NOT a serious answer here. We all know that her previous positions on both international trade and the US armed force which apparently underpins the steady expansion of their neocolonialist economic system would render her similarly objectionable.

Once we got past the posturous gushing about "First Female President" to actually start to assess her and her putative Administration on its actual merits, that is.

So in conclusion ... I'd be lying if I said I didn't have some considerable empathy for Bannon at this point. My own previous role in politics - that of attempting to restrain some unabashedly negative sentiments and forces, and instead empower positive elements which occasionally even managed to make their way into actual outcomes ... before being messily oustered as part of a long-running battle for the soul of an institution - may very well have clouded the impartiality and certainly the dispassionateness of my assessment of what's gone on here.

But I stand by the idea that folk crowing about Bannon's heading into exile are either deplorable sorts rather directly aligned with either of the neoliberal or neocon agendas ... or that they're hoodwinked lefty/liberal/progressive types who have been conditioned by the media etc. to believe that Bannon being forced out would represent some sort of grand and glowing victory , rather than the resumption of an even more oppressive pre-Bannon status quo.

Enjoy your Corporate Sovereignty-underpinning 'Trade Deals', and your 'Boots On The Ground In Global Hotspots', Liberals.

You've earned it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


By the end of this week, a quantity of ink fit to fill Lake Rotoiti - and sufficient electrons to power Tiwai Point for about the space of half an hour - will no doubt have been marshalled in service of commentating upon what Jacinda Ardern's 'shock' elevation to the leadership of Labour means for that party. And, for that matter, the prospects of actually securing 'progressive' governance in 2017.

The key questions are whether Ardern will be able to grow Labour's vote - and, just as importantly, whether that growth will come from voters who've recently chosen to switch over to The Greens ... or from parties beyond the MoU that's somehow apparently at the heart of the politics of 'hope' these days.

Those aforementioned analyses by other luminaries of the Beltway people-watching bird-blind will focus upon the above questions.

My attention is on something different.

Namely, what the promotion of Ardern and Davis to the Leadership might mean for two parties which look set to cause an 'upset' later this year - New Zealand First, and MANA.

We shall start with the simpler query - what effect Davis as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party will likely have in Te Tai Tokerau.

There is an argument, to be sure, that the additional prominence and mana afforded to Labour's Deputy Leader will provide a potential boost for Davis in what's set to be quite a hard-fought campaign against the previous representative of the seat, Hone Harawira.

But along with a position that is perhaps more commensurate with his abilities than those he has previously enjoyed in Labour, comes an interesting elevation in list position. In specia, according to rule 8.45.1 of the Labour Party's Constitution, Davis is now set to be the party's number two candidate.

This is potentially problematic for the previously arranged trajectory of Davis' campaign. As the reason he'd previously chosen to not be on the List in the first place was in order to attempt to counter the 'strategic vote-splitting' to get 'two for the price of one' which has come to characterize the thought-process of quite a number of voters in the Maori Seats. The thinking prior to this year's Election was that you could quite happily improve the representation of your electorate through giving your candidate vote to the local non-Labour hopeful [either Maori Party or MANA] to help them get in - whilst giving your party vote to Labour to attempt to ensure that the electorate's Labour candidate would also get in via the Party List. Labour sought to put a stop to that by having its entire slate of Maori Seat incumbents [i.e. not Tamati Coffey - who's in a potentially rather ambitious position of number 34 at present] stand as electorate-only candidates; in order to 'force' Maori Roll voters to vote for them if they wanted them, rather than vote-splitting in a way that would advantage Labour's opponents in Maori politics.

Harawira therefore had something of an uphill fight on his hands - going up against, as he was, a positively regarded and competent-appearing incumbent who'd quite literally be out of Parliament if the local electors did not back him. The notion that Davis is now 'safe' [insofar as anybody on Labour's list is actually 'safe' at this point - there are somewhat reputable projections based on present polling which has them struggling to get even a single List MP ...] regardless of what happens in Te Tai Tokerau may instead convince TTT voters that their interests are better served by maximizing their Parliamentary 'firepower' - through backing Hone to get him back into Parliament.

And certainly, particularly given Harawira's firebrand record, and strong advocacy work [when he was absent in Parliament - he appears to have almost invariably been performing constituency work up North in one form or another], there's a pretty strong argument that his being back in Parliament *alongside* Davis would represent an unvarnished positive for the people of one of New Zealand's most marginalized constituencies.

So all up ... have yesterday's events helped MANA's chances of re-entering Parliament? Potentially.

Political events in 2017 are now well beyond a phase wherein seemingly anyone sane would actually place money on their outcome ... but I'd say the odds are now better than even of Harawira returning to Parliament in September thanks to this result.

An interesting question going forward will be whether Labour seeks to persist with their un-listed number strategy for Davis despite the wording of their own constitution. I have not engaged in an in-depth reading of the Labour Party's constitution to see if their national decision-making body has the power to override their constitution seemingly at-will in the same way the NZ First Party's constitution does.

Meanwhile, where things get unutterably more complex is attempting to augur just how Ardern/Davis will likely impact New Zealand First over the course of this campaign.

It would be tempting to conclude that due to the severely different constituencies and style between Ardern and Winston, that there would be 'no change' in NZ First's fortunes as a result of what's happened. However, I do not necessarily believe that this is accurate.

For a start, Davis has a strong appeal on both 'law and order' and 'regional development' issues - areas that NZ First has attempted to stake out as cornerstone territory over the course of the last Parliamentary Term, and the last few weeks in particular.

However, on the other hand, given Ardern's overall appearance as something of a 'Grey Lynn Liberal', it is perhaps possible that voters out there in Regional/Rural New Zealand who might otherwise have been considering Labour [I'm sure there are more than a few], may instead decide that - particularly in concert with The Greens - that Labour is potentially a 'bridge too far' for their support this time around.

The natural beneficiary of this trend, should it eventuate, will of course be New Zealand First. As out in those electoral 'hill country' seats, where ELSE are people angry about the Government but leery about Urban Liberalism going to go?

One specific seat wherein this might very much play out is the Wairarapa - which, as I covered last week, is presently in the midst of a three-way struggle between Ron Mark, National's Alaistar Scott, and the assembled might of whatever Labour can throw there in pursuit of third place. If Labour finds itself having greater difficulty reaching out to rural-regional voters as a result of their transition [and honestly, in the Wairarapa, the consistent downwards tracking of their vote suggests they were finding it hard enough as-is], then the logical beneficiary of this will be Ron Mark - who needs to keep pulling votes from both National and Labour in order to win the seat off Scott.

On the other hand, it is possible that any 'revitalization' of Labour's fortunes and image which occurs as a result of the changing of the guard and/or deckchairs atop a certain large ocean-going vessel may in fact wind up leading folk who want 'strong opposition' away from supporting the party actually presently LEADING the Opposition [i.e. New Zealand First], and back towards the organization which holds somewhat nominal claim to the Parliamentary position associated with same.

There are also an array of projections about what Ardern/Davis taking over from Little[/Ardern] may mean in terms of Coalition prospects in the event that Labour and the Greens are actually in a position to form a Government with New Zealand First in seven weeks' time. Some suspect that Ardern's relative youth and alleged 'inexperience' may make it easier for NZ First to secure concessions from the Labour-Greens bloc [potentially up to and including what's rapidly become a meme at this point - in the form of asking for, and receiving, the Prime Minister-ship]. Although to that I can only note that I'm not entirely sure what's changed from the start of the week - Ardern has actually been in Parliament three years LONGER than Andrew Little, for a start.

In any case, one of the dominant questions on my newsfeed this morning basically ran "What on EARTH is Labour Thinking?!"

With the above thoughts outlined, perhaps the better question ought be what Hone and Winston are saying privately as of right now.