Friday, December 9, 2016

2002/2016 Tunnel Vision. What People Are Missing When They Dismiss Bill English Due To His 20.9%

The Left are a pretty optimistic bunch. And with good cause - after eight successive years of grueling hard-neoliberal governance, and having to watch National's number of seats only grow regardless, you pretty much have to be. It's either that, or give up in despair.

But while some might call this a virtue ... folks suffering from a delirium of hope are not best known for their astute and perspicacious political analysis. In situations like the one we find ourselves in at the moment where there appear to be a relative paucity of bright spots, we instead take it upon ourselves to manufacture things to make it seem like we're in with a chance.

Probably the best example of that at the moment, is the sort of breathless furor of amusement from any number of people about how the National Party have hand-picked to lead them into the next election ... a man whose previous attempt at a Prime Ministerial performance netted approximately 20.9% of the vote.

It's not hard to see why this comparatively minor piece of political arcana is suddenly on everybody's lips. Labourites can take some considerable reassurance that as bad as their poll-numbers are looking ... at least they're not down to *That* level. (Yet...) Meanwhile, other persons in favour of changing the government can relish the prospect that maybe, finally, we're in with a chance. Surely somebody who bombed out THAT badly can't continue to replicate the absolute implacable juggernaut electoral success of the Key years ... right?

But this ongoing obsession with but a single data-point misses two rather important considerations. First, the explanation for why National did so poorly in 2002 doesn't simply hinge around "Bill English is a bad leader" (in fact, I'd argue it's quite a bit more complex than that - and perhaps largely not poor old Bill's fault); and second, at almost a decade and a half on, we're in a seriously, SERIOUSLY different political environment now - rendering all past comparisons additionally flimsical.

To turn to the first point ... there are several reasons why National performed so poorly in 2002. Most of them are (one way or the other) holdovers from the Nineties. People were still rather annoyed about both National's own actions throughout the period (remembering that broadspanning anger with what they got up to in their first term of government that decade was significant enough to drive the populace at large to completely upend the nation's electoral system); as well as continuing to spit tacks about the collapse of the National-NZ First government and the resultant ensuing shenanigans. (So in a way, I guess you could say it was partially Winston's fault - in much the same way that just about everything in modern New Zealand Politics somehow is)

Now, it's always going to be tough for a Party which has just been turfed out after nine long years in office to do incredibly well at its first Election as an Opposition. They've been used to leaning rather heavily upon the resources of Government (in the form of fat Parliamentary and Ministerial Services staffing, easy media time with which to set and control the narrative, and all the rest of it); they're much more prepared to patsy-question their own achievements than they are to attack the steadily unfolding works and ethos of their newfound Treasury-bench replacements; and, as mentioned in the preceeding paragraph ... people, put quite simply, haven't had enough time to forget why they voted them out the last time in the first place.

But successful parties (like, for instance, New Zealand First between our ouster in 2008, and our meteoric re-entry to Parliament in 2011) take a step back, take stock, and start Doing Things Different in order to both attempt to overcome these 'de-institutionalized' disadvantages - and to convince the public that they're either 'Under New Management' (while perhaps not necessarily having to change over *too* many people), or have 'Seen The Light' and mended the previous Error Of Their Ways that was causing all the strife and discontentment out there in the electorate in the fist place.

National's trouble was that it did neither.

Instead, Jenny Shipley persisted on as Leader of the National Party (and therefore of the Opposition) for almost two years. To call her one of the most reviled PMs in recent NZ political history would, to my mind, be something of an understatement. And she probably would have made an effort to retain the leadership right up until the 2002 election, had Bill English not stepped in and deposed her in October of 2001. The trouble was - particularly with the early election which Helen Clark called for nine months later - there wasn't really sufficient time for National to seriously rebrand in a way that meaningfully helped voters to get over their anger, distrust, and gentle enthusiasm for hte new guys in Government.

Now had he been in place a term or two later, I don't think there's too much serious doubt that he would have started to do much better than his 2002 showing. But fate and fortune had other notions in mind, and so we saw the fairly meteoric (in the sense that it eventually burned up in the political atmosphere) rise of Don Brash to replace him in late 2003.

But if I've tried to sketch out that the 2002 defeat wasn't all English's fault - I should also probably point out that it wasn't all National's fault, either. Even leaving aside the fact that a first term government is usually quite popular out there with the Polis ... there were other parties out there who made great and capacious gains against the backdrop of National's ongoing electoral misery.

Foremost among these, of course, was New Zealand First - who, campaigning on a strong platform of law and order, immigration reform, and miscellaneous treaty bits and pieces (Gosh ... that sounds familiar! Perhaps it's not National whom people should be making 2002 allusions about this cycle...), managed a fairly impressive recovery from our 1999 nadir by adding eight seats and capturing 10.38% of the vote.

But there were, of course, others. In those days, each of ACT and United Future were acutally serious parties (it seems crazy now, doesn't it). ACT was still sitting strong on the gains it had previously made at National's fairly direct expense (nine seats, and 7.14% of the vote - somewhere between ten and a hundred times their present modern-day level of support); while United Future ballooned like Peter Dunne's bouffant - adding 7 seats and 5.04% of the vote, for a combined total of eight and 6.69%. [We can also presumably make the case that the occasionally small C's Christian Conservatism of the United Future lot might have fairly directly trod upon the toes of Bill English's personal brand]

Oh, and alongside this Labour was putting out a rather different set of signals as applies 'minor parties' than it is right now. Referring to the Greens as "anarcho-feminists and goths" is exactly the kind of derisive (if occasionally semi-grain-of-truth-bearing) electoral rhetoric which reassures the sort of voters who've decided to continue to back National (or NZ First) because they can't stand the Greens - but who were Labour voters once, even if the contemporary prospects for wooing them home appear somewhat irrevocably dim.

So straightaway, you can start to get a bit of a picture as to why National looked to poll so dismally in late July 2002. They hadn't meaningfully distinguished themselves from one of the worst governments in modern NZ history, people were still annoyed; they were up against a fairly competent and broadly popular first-term government; and their vote was hewed up with somewhere between 15-20% of what National now holds being divvied up amongst more 'minor' parties.

NONE of these factors really apply to the modern National party here, now, in 2016.

Instead, it's almost - curiously - exactly the inverse. National remains a strong and broadly popular (I can't quite bring myself to say 'competent') Government even this late in their third term. There are some rumblings of discontent and some minor-faux-pas-that-should-have-surely-been-major-ones here and there ... but vociferous suggestions that "third-term-itis" have set in are for the most part wildly overblown. John Key remains the most popular PM in recent memory (a stark contrast to Jenny Shipley) - and even though National looks set to take *a* hit as the result of the transition, I doubt it will be that major (not least because Key's personal popularity has for some time now been polling lower than National's party support - so his leaving may not affect it). So they're really in a position of strength. Even if something semi-unthinkable (at this stage, anyway) happened and they suddenly haemorrhaged something like ten percent of the vote ... they'd still be on or about 40% - and only one half-decent coalition partner away from forming the next Government. (Again)

Meanwhile, over on the Opposition benches ... Labour's facing almost exactly the same problem which National once did all those years ago back in 2002. Their vote's gone to the four winds, and they - as yet - appear to have precious little idea how to properly beg it to return. New Zealand First continues to go from strength to strength as the direct result & consequence of Labour's weakness (it is not accidental that Winston now rails very loudly against 'neoliberalism' - he's making a conscious play to be the core pillar of its opposition in territory where the left wing of Labour once sat) - with many, I have no doubt, of the tens of thousands of voters and 11 list seats we picked up on Election Night 2014 having come to us fairly directly from the former Red. And with NZ First continuing to rise, I don't see Labour's Sheolish turmoil coming to an end any time soon.

The Greens are in a similar position (albeit not rising as fast - or, according to some estimations, really at all - their share of the vote actually dropped in 2014, even if their seats didn't). They've increased in stature by a decent nine seats since Labour was last in Government in 2008 - and it seems fair to state that each of the three and five seats they picked up in 2008 and 2011 were largely at Labour's expense as the latter's vote continued to disintegrate before entering full-on free-fall.

Alongside this, there is also talk that some much-muttered about MANA-Maori Party alliance may yet 'deliver' more than a single one of the Maori Seats from Labour  to other parties - further hewing into one of the only areas on our electoral landscape where it can still be feasibly said that Labour is relatively strong.

And turning to Labour itself - while Andrew Little appears to be a throughly decent figure, the continual polldrums (like doldrums, but with an excess of wind-flow due to hot-air of everybody talking about them) show no sign of abating in the near future - rendering Labour a substantial shoe-in to remain in the low-twenties from now until election day next year.

Indeed, you could almost say that Andrew Little represents something of a latter-day 2002-era Bill English...

So with all that in mind ... I get it, I really do, as to why people are laughing up a storm on social media as to Bill English's previous record as Leader of the National Party. It's certainly nice to pretend, for an all too brief moment, that National's somehow stuffed up its leadership selection - and that we'll all soon benefit fairly directly as a result with a Blue-vote collapse. But everybody's got a past - and that doesn't necessarily (especially when it's not actually their fault nor a substantive reflection upon them) determine their present nor future.

National is not phenomenally weak - and it will not become so just and purely because they've elected to go with a 'safe pair of hands' for next year's Election. (Indeed, given much of Middle New Zealand appears to vote  largely on the basis of who makes them feel the most that the economy's being well-managed regardless of the actual truth ... one COULD say that National's in fact selected the ideal man for the job of keeping them in the Blue Tent).

So laugh at The Civilian piece on this theme all you want ... but remember: if we actually want to defeat National, it'll take an awful lot more than historical-factoid guffawing in order for us to get there.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A (Concerned) New Zealand First Perspective On Key's Resignation

Understandably, most of the New Zealand Left is giddily euphoric as the result of yesterday's bolt-from-the-blue-brigade news. Some of us have spent virtually the entirety of our adult lives awaiting this moment - so a certain level of enthusiasm is to be anticipated.

But once the initial shock and jubilation fades away, the canny political mind starts considering what happens next. And, for that matter, what's already perhaps been happening a little beyond the ken of the public eye.

We're likely to hear an array of different theories over the next few weeks as to just why Key chose to resign rather than seek a fourth term in office. Some of them are more plausible (and less interesting) than others.

It's in that spirit that I share the following:

A few months ago, I was told by persons in a position to know that the National Party was looking in to ways it could ensure a fourth term by stitching up a coalition arrangement with New Zealand First. The most obvious manifestation of this so far has been attempts to talk up the inclusion of Shane Jones on our 2017 List (the idea being that Jones, as a man of proven amenability to National, would form something of a 'bridge' into our Caucus for National were he successfully elected - and would be a counter-pole to Ron Mark; both of these factors making a Black-Blue coalition arguably more likely).

But it was also noted that one of the key 'sticking points' between National and 
Winston Peters which would have to be excised in order for a coalition to take place ... would be John Key. There's so much 'bad blood' between between them that Key remaining leader of National and Prime Minister would form an insurmountable obstacle to a fruitful relationship with New Zealand First.
So the 'idea' was to have John Key replaced by Bill English - on the assumption that the latter's more 'restrained' economic approach and considerably dialed down enthusiasm for social causes might make him a better (even 'Bolger-esque') working-mate for Peters. [with an implicit logic that even if National took a reasonably severe popularity hit from replacing Key of several percent and lost one or more support-parties [either due to Peter Dunne in Ohariu losing his seat, or the Maori Party finally siding with someone else], they'd still likely command more votes than Labour+Greens - albeit with newfound need of a new coalition partner to get htem back over 61 seats in the House - a situation for which a 'double-digit' New Zealand First would be the ideal remedy]

At the time ... I dismissed it as a hypothetical strategic play somebody had concocted over too many whiskeys and perhaps a bit of NOS. But given yesterday afternoon's events (and a number of other things I'm aware of going on back there in the shadows) ... I'm no longer so sure.

Certainly, some of the events required for such a previously unthinkable constellation of political forces to take place are now in motion. Much to my consternation, of course. 

In any case ... I think I know what I have to do. Work harder to support Ron, block Jones, and help keep New Zealand First from falling prey to National's nefarious clutches.

Now, more than ever, a left-wing counterweight within NZF is *vitally* important.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Michael Wood's Victory - And The Ongoing Defeat Of National's "Ethnic Strategy"

There are two general schools of thought as to what Michael Wood's rather stunning victory in Mt Roskill over the weekend might mean. The first of these is the predictable National Party supporter (or, perhaps, anti-labour churl) who boldly proclaims that the result means nothing. That Mt Roskill was 'always' going to be won by Labour, on grounds that it's allegedly a Labourite "safe seat" - and that therefore, there is nothing serious to be gleaned from a 66%-25% crushing defeat for National.

The second group is made up of those individuals - myself included - who see it altogether the other way around. That what Wood has pulled off in Mt Roskill does, indeed, suggest a weakening (however slight) of National's overall stranglehold upon the hearts and minds of the broad mass of 'Middle New Zealand' voters - and that, if nothing else, the Labour Party's electoral appeal and party apparatus aren't quite terminal yet. If properly motivated and deployed - they're still evidently more than capable of propelling positive results.

But there is a third area to consider - that of the grander and macroscopic strategic import of what we've seen over the course of this campaign - which doesn't neatly fit into either interpretation above.

It is to there that we shall now turn.

Probably the most important revelation to be had from National's drubbing is that the "Ethnic Strategy" which the Blue party has pursued for quite some time now ... is rapidly reaching its limits.

This is not a phenomenon that has exclusively been confined to this result, but instead forms the terminus of a pattern which we've previously seen sketched out across a number of other contests - particularly at the 'local body' level earlier this year. At the time, it was much commented upon by the organizers and co-ordinators of the local National franchisee-satrapy 'Auckland Future' that they were making a concerted effort to bring Pasifika candidates to their slates in a bid to 'reach out' to less traditional National voters. This was probably a natural continuation of their efforts in 2014 - wherein a certain rather outspoken National candidate by the name of Misa Fia Turner (who's once again been making waves for what we can charitably call ... peculiar pronouncements, on grounds that she'd have been an MP in the unlikely event of Parmar's winning due to her list placing) made a concerted attempt to brand John Key as an 'anti-gay marriage' option for more conservatively minded Pasifika voters in South Auckland at the last Election. (a stance which was, needless to say, almost entirely at odds with reality)

The results from the aforementioned previous 2014 General Election outing of the "Ethnic Strategy" were ... not entirely unencouraging. True, in places like Mangere and Manukau East, National made gains - but at somewhere between one and three percent gains apiece against entrenched Labourites on severely high pluralities still hovering around the seventy percent mark, it would be a bit of a stretch to state that it produced "dividends".

A better test for the strategy's relative merits came earlier this year with the Auckland local body contest. Here, at the Council level we saw several defeats for National's ethnic candidates - with, for instance, the two Pasifika contenders put up in the Manukau ward by Auckland Future managing to come in at around two thousand votes between them fewer than former National MP Arthur Anae's 2013 run result. [5,550 and 5,304 as compared with 12,961 - for those of you playing at home]

The situation does not exactly improve when we consider the data to be gleaned from the Local Board contests, either. In each of Henderson-Massey, Waitemata, Whau, Puketapapa, Mangere-Otahuhu, Papatoetoe, and Otara, Auckland Future (or other National-controlled tickets) put up 'ethnic' candidates - and watched them lose. Now this doesn't necessarily mean that the constituencies in question are either passively or actively inimical to being represented by local politicians of Pasifika, Asian, or Indian extraction. In fact, the results in several of these seats would directly contravene such an inaccurate contention.

But what it DOES suggest is that National (and its allies) are going to face an ongoing difficult circumstance by persisting in attempting to sell their right-wing politics through faces not dissimilar from those out there suffering in the community.

And this handily brings us back to Mt. Roskill.

Right throughout the campaign, the National Party attempted to bank hard upon their candidate - Parmjeet Parmar's - ethnic background. A cynic might go so far as to suggest that this was at least partially because the candidate in question was perceived as having comparatively little to offer to the prospects of victory other than this (a background as a neuroscientist is certainly impressive ... but I'd be somewhat surprised if it were found to have motivated even a single pen upon a single ballot in her favour).

This got to the point, a few days ago, wherein Parmar implicitly suggested that Michael Wood's status as a white male would render him effectively unable to perform the representational duties of an MP for that electorate due to its diversity. (Wood's response was almost perfect - noting that with a bewildering array of different ethnicities represented within the corpus of the constituency, it would be blatantly impossible for any one individual to adequately encapsulate all the diversity of that Seat ... and that instead, Roskilllians would demand competency as the main rubric by which to assess the worth of their prospective MP. Evidently, that's exactly what happened.)

But there is one very good acid-test for any political strategy: whether it delivers the goods on polling-day.

By pretty much any rubric of success which you care to name, what National's attempted here hasn't worked.

Maybe they didn't have to 'win' in order to appear successful or credible. Maybe (as an astute mind from my own Party noted), all they had to do was not lose *too* badly to chalk up a (moral) victory.

They did neither. Parmar's votes are less than the margin of victory which Wood won by. As a proportion, she's gone markedly backwards from her previous 2014 showing in the same electorate.

All the talk from National-aligned folks (and a poking, prodding, probing, pustule-piercing media) that the seat being held by Labour at the last election was purely a function of Phil Goff's personal credibility, with National winning the Party Vote by more than two thousand indicating that it wasn't 'safe' and was, in point of fact, 'winnable' (perhaps with the 'right' candidate) ... has evaporated like shadows afore the sunlight or cobwebs in a whirlwind.

Good riddance.

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister was peevishly proclaiming that a defeat in Mt. Roskill would be "Terminal" for Andrew Little.

Given the result ... the only "terminal" in question would appear to be the one Little promised for a light-rail system running out to the suburb.

It will be interesting to see what National elects to do in the seat (or, for that matter, with its ongoing "Ethnic Strategy") at next year's General Election.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Fidel Castro - A Brief Eulogy

I'm really not quite sure what to say about Fidel Castro's death. The man was an absolute titan of modern politics and the modern world. He not only comprehensively reshaped his home nation from Mafia-run, economically colonized backwater to a vanguard liberation state with enviable first-world healthcare (because to simply say that that's what he did would be almost to imply that it was done in a vacuum); but he also managed to do so despite the might of a superpower breathing both strenuously and semi-literally down his neck, and under the weight of a crippling international embargo. 

Before we had the jokes about the "Curse of Assad" (wherein pretty much every Western politician who's insisted "Assad must go" has, themselves, wound up deposed or otherwise dethroned) ... it was a running sport to tally up the number of US Presidents he'd outlasted (particularly those who'd attempted to have him assassinated - the CIA's Operation Mongoose racking up more than six hundred attempts against his life and featuring everything from exploding seashells to LSD-filled missiles).

And regardless of how you might feel about the man .. that sort of tenacity and indefatigability is certainly worthy of respect. As are, to my mind, the results which Castro's regime achieved in comparison to many of its (still foreign-dominated) Carribean neighbours. Certainly, squaring up outcomes and quality of life for Cubans against the ordinary inhabitants of other (capitalist) countries of the Carribean does not necessarily cast Castroist Cuba in a particularly bad comparative light. (Although for reasons I'll never quite understand, the default point of comparison for many commentators is, instead, living-standards in the US - and never, for that matter, the impoverished parts like Detroit)

But as with any 'great man', whatever he might have been and achieved in life, the serious intellectualizing of what he stood for almost inevitably comes predominantly after his death. This will be particularly the case with Castro, as there were simply so many sides to his political life - so many 'fingers in pies', if you will. I've already touched upon his specific role within the Cuban Revolution; and any serious student of the history of Latin America will also know of his incredibly broad-spanning role influencing and supporting the political developments of his neighbours (including considerable humanitarian assistance to Grenada, military aid to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, an attempt to help Salvador Allende in Chile, the ill-starred Cuban efforts in Bolivia which martyred Che Guevara, and 
longstanding and active comradeship and material support with the Bolivarians of Venezuela).

In addition to these, we also have his tireless advocacy for other marginalized and subaltern peoples (for example, with the ongoing crisis of third world foreign debt); and a broader military participation by Cuba in the overseas struggles of a bewildering array of other nations further afield.

This particular element of Castro's contribution has been overlooked by many of the media accounts of his life which I've read over the past 36 hours; but it is no exaggeration to say that the massive scale of Cuban military intervention in southern Africa (with, at its height, somewhere around 55,000 Cuban troops plus air assets and other military hardware deployed in Angola) contributed to the ending of Apartheid in South Africa. It also occurs, on that note, that this is another mark of the success of Castro's leadership - as over a three-decade period, Cuba had been transformed from a quasi-colonial island backwater 'playground for the American rich' into a regional powerhouse capable of projecting force to the other side of the world.

Still, it would be an exercise in hagiography (which is perhaps, at this early stage, somewhat unwarranted) to pretend that Castro's reign was perfect. A number of commentators have pointed out the reality of prison camps in Cuba (although curiously, often without noting by way of context that the largest such camp on Cuba is, in fact, the Guantanamo Bay facility run by the Americans). And it is certainly true that in the 1960s, internment camps were set up for homosexuals on the island. Although those invoking this reprehensible part of his history rarely also deign to mention that it was Castro himself who shut down those same camps in 1968 (after visiting them incognito to see what conditions were actually like); or that homosexuality's legalization there in 1979 beat us here in progressive New Zealand by nearly a decade.

With all of those facets to consider, we shall no doubt be continuing to debate what Castro's contribution was to human history for many decades to come. (Indeed, the ripple-effects are such that one is put in the mind of Zhou Enlai's famous rejoinder to a question asked by Richard Nixon in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution nearly two centuries earlier - "it's too soon to say")

Many political traditions, groups and movements will seek to claim both Castro and his legacy. This is understandable. Any figure which exerts such an impressive weight upon both the popular imagination and the very fabric of our global politics will, of course, have an almost gravitic attraction for all manner of figures and currents out there in the firmament.

But to my mind, the first and most enduring conceptualization of Castro's politics are
those of a Nationalist. We often obscure this when we focus upon the Cuban Revolution's ensuing alliance with the Soviet Union, and attempts at 'exporting revolution' over the subsequent decades (although I'm not entirely sure why either of these factoids are thought to be in contravention of Nationalist proclivity - both are eminently defensible as the sustained participation in causes affiliated and acting in influence upon with national liberation struggles). But looking at what Castro said, did, and wrote in his early years, this Nationalist orientation is fairly incontrovertible (even down to his early attempts to seek peaceful coexistence with and work productively with the United States, until the latter made such a thing deliberately unworkable). Even looking ahead for the next thirty or so years, his record appears very much as a man interested in both Cuban and other nations' self-determination. 

In any case, I am not Castro. I cannot speak on his behalf. But if I were ... I have little doubt that that's what I'd wish for my legacy to be - acting as an ever-living and eternal (albeit supernal) beacon of both illumination and inspiration to those seeking to better the lot of their fellow man through national liberation struggles even far afield from Castro's own island homeland.

As we say here in New Zealand: "A Mighty Totara Has Fallen".

The serious question now is what grows up in its former shade - and, for that matter, what form of canoe is adzed out of its fallen trunk.

^The image above is, of course, of Fidel's fallen comrade Hugo Chavez. But I do wonder if it also encapsulates the right feeling for the weekend's post-mortem as well.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Multinationals Not Paying Tax Is A Legal, Fiscal & Ethical Issue - Not Just 'Bad PR'

I nearly fell out of my chair yesterday evening when Newshub opened an item with a declaration that the Prime Minister was finally talking about multinationals dodging their fair share of Kiwi tax.

My disbelief was understandable. National has spent quite some years now basically attempting to pretend that this problem doesn't exist. When they're queried about this in Parliament, and just straight-up asked whether they think it's an issue that ten billion dollars of sales generates only $1.8 MILLION dollars in taxes for the top twenty multinationals operating here ... they just waffle away - and, at best, suggest that this is an international problem (which, to be fair, it is) which isn't really solvable by New Zealand.

It's always seemed a bit peculiar to me that our comparatively tiny country on the far side of the globe can do mighty things like bringing to a halt French nuclear testing, or thumbing our nose (and actually getting our way) when it comes to the defence policy of a superpower in our backyard ... yet we apparently balk when confronted with slightly tricky issues involving medium-large corporations. It isn't just a matter of taxation or offshore interests, either - consider the ongoing omnishambles we had attempting to wrangle Telecom to properly provide national communications infrastructure (rather than fat dividends for its shareholders) in the early 2000s.

Maybe it's an issue of our Government lacking the requisite willpower and vision to properly deal with corporates. Perhaps they just simply don't care.

In any case, if National WERE actually genuinely interested in getting foreign multinationals to pay their fair share of tax here, I'd be over the moon and singing their praises.

Except they're not.

You see, what actually happened over the weekend at APEC, was John Key took Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg aside and told him he had a "PR problem". Not, you understand, a legal problem. Not a fiscal/monetary problem. Not even, quelle surprised, an ETHICAL problem.

No, what the Government believes Facebook's ongoing flouting of our laws and our good natured hospitality is ... is a PR problem.

This is a distinction that's presumably quite instructive. When you have legal problems ... you sue (and, in the post-TPPA National Party, perhaps they've altogether forgotten that it's states who can sue corporations ... rather than exclusively the other way around thanks to ISDS). When you have fiscal/monetary problems, you regulate. And when you have ethical problems ... you intervene.

But when you have PR problems - well, that's different. That simply means you've been caught out via the spotlight of the public gaze. And, more importantly, that it's perfectly fine to keep doing whatever it is that you were snapped for - just make sure it's where the filthy proles can't see you doing it.

PR issues, in other words, are the sort of 'problems' which exist to be 'managed' and 'massaged', rather than actually 'solved'.

John Key, by talking to Zuckerberg one on one, can thus claim to actually be 'doing' something about this issue - while in actual fact doing precious little (other than flapping his lips and garnering another successful-person photo-op). It means he's worked out that his Government has started to look decidedly weak in this area.

If he were serious about sorting this issue, there are a number of potential paths he could pursue. Many of us will remember, at the more harshly punitive end of the spectrum, Labour's David Clark floating the idea of a ban on companies such as Facebook operating here in New Zealand if they can't abide by our laws. Personally, I agree with the spirit of this motion - but given how inextricably important the social media platform has become for so much of our personal lives and daily communications, I question whether I'd support such a measure actually being put into practice.

Cooler heads like New Zealand First's Fletcher Tabuteau, meanwhile, have long been making the case for properly tightening up and toughening up our nation's taxation laws so that foreign corporates like Facebook can't continue to flagrantly get away with this kind of pernicious and parsimonious behavior.

If National genuinely want to see Facebook et co. start to pay their proper taxes (rather than just genuinely no longer wanting to be seen as on the back foot on this issue) ... perhaps they ought to hit Fletcher up, and see what the New Zealand First proposal to fairly tax foreign corporates looks like.

I'm sure we'd only be too happy to help.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Sea-Change On Government Attitudes To Protesting

[Author's Note: This piece originally appeared in a September edition of my Sex, Drugs & Electoral Rolls column for Craccum Magazine. In light of the planned Protest Flotilla actions this week timed to coincide with the US Navy's ship-visit for our own Navy's anniversary celebrations, I've chosen to reprint it here for a broader audience]

In 1973, New Zealand Prime Minister Norman Kirk sent our frigate, the HMNZS Otago, to the French nuclear testing site of Mururoa Atoll. On board was the Kiwi Cabinet Minister Fraser Coleman. The stated - and, indeed, officially mandated - purpose of those two hundred and forty three men was to put themselves in the path of foreign military activity, on a ship, as a protest action.

This was a pretty proud moment in New Zealand history - a real David vs Goliath sort of sentiment pervaded domestic remembrance of that time a small group of Kiwis took on the military (and, earlier that year, legislative) might of an Old World nuclear-armed former colonial power.

I open this piece by referencing the exploits of the HMNZS Otago (and, immediately subsequent to this the HMNZS Canterbury) not simply because it is an incident worth remembering in these modern days of our Government tiptoeing around the internationally expressed wills of the Great Powers. But instead, because there is a clear, present, and utterly immense difference in terms of both principle and courage between what the Kirk Government sought to do 43 years ago, versus what the Key Government seeks to do today.

In case you missed it, the Nats are presently attempting to push through legislation which would criminalize protesting at sea. In fact, it's worse than that. With the bill as presently drafted, you would be liable to be labeled a "terrorist" if you disrupted the actions and activities of a foreign military vessel.

You know, like we used to rightly celebrate and lionize doing in both the 1970s and 80s.

Government MP David Bennett supplied the rationale for deeming maritime protesters to be terrorists:

"This is a foreign power's vessel - a military vessel. You're getting in the way of it - so it's a terrorist act on a foreign country, isn't it."

That's a pretty pithy piece of legal reasoning. In the botanical sense of the term 'pith', of course, wherein it refers to the significantly less desirable bit under the rind of a fruit which surrounds the morsels you actually want to eat. Sounds like David Bennett all up.

Now here in New Zealand, we know a thing or two about nautical acts of terrorism committed against foreign countries. 21 years ago, the French carried out exactly such an act in our waters against the Greenpeace flagship, the Rainbow Warrior. (As a point of historical trivia, it had been preparing to depart for Mururoa, to once again continue the mission of observation and disruption against illegal French nuclear testing begun twelve years before by our very own Navy)

What this bill therefore seeks to do, by apparent conscious design, is place legitimate protest actions such as those carried out in New Zealand waters against American naval vessels in the eighties upon the same opprobium-heaped pedestal that we customarily reserve for craven and cowardly acts of actual terrorism like the Rainbow Warrior bombing.

And while this is a singularly egregious situation, it's not entirely accurate to state that the criminalization of potentially significant dissent is an exclusively National-produced phenomenon. The Terrorism Suppression Act brought into force by Labour in 2002 also has some problematic provisions, including 5 (3) (d), which in concert with 5 (2) (b), could effectively have rendered something as innocuous as the anti-TPPA road and motorway blockade action which took place earlier this year an apparent act of terror.

Even though the Terrorism Suppression Act contains a dedicated subsection (5 (5)) which seeks to clarify that the mere fact of an action being protest-motivated is not, itself, grounds to call something a terrorist act ... the fact that such a clause was necessary in the first place goes some ways to illustrate just how problematic previous New Zealand Government efforts at legislating against terrorism (or, more accurately, to punish 'terrorism' post-facto) have been.

Some cynics might even conclude that exploitable 'flaws' in the legislation such as that outlined above would constitute, as an IT professional would say, "a feature, not a bug".

And lest we think that the New Zealand security apparatus, police, courts, and other arms of state are far too 'benevolent' or 'Kiwi-casual' to want to do dodgy things with the powers we give them ... consider the illegal spying which was carried out on Kim DotCom at the behest of what amounts to an ineluctable combination of a foreign government and big-name overseas corporate interests. We literally had our foreign intelligence service using military-grade hardware to stake out an eccentric German tech-magnate over a case of copyright infringement of all things.

The miscellaneous miscreantery of the NZ Deep State doesn't stop there, either.

I still vividly remember in 2013 getting a visit from the detective who'd been second in command of the Urewera Raids, accompanied by an intelligence service spook. Apparently, the fine boys down at the counter-terrorism unit of the New Zealand Police had had me under wiretap surveillance for the previous eighteen or so months. The reason why? We think they were trying to get Winston for something which they thought I was involved in (in connection to the 2011 Tea Tapes scandal) - and they thought that monitoring my communications would prove it. The *official* reason why? I was allegedly a "threat to national security".

My first thought afterwards was wondering whether there was supposed to be an apostraphe and an S after the word "National".

Followed swiftly after by a sense of mounting horror as I realized that pretty much everything I'd said over the last year and a half via facebook messenger, or through txt had quite possibly crossed the desk of at lest one nameless analyst somewhere in the New Zealand security apparatus and/or Police. An acrimonious breakup with a girlfriend (and the resultant emotional fallout), personal secrets confided in close mates ... all of it was now in the databanks of the state and subject to easy, at-will persual by those with the right security clearance.

And all because I just happened to be in the right place at the right time outside a cafe in late 2011.

(Also, if you're wondering just why I got a housecall - the previous relevant legislation governing search and surveillance mandated a duty to report to the target what had happened once the surveillance was lifted - something which is still somewhat present in the 2012 act which replaced it at 61 (1) (c).

This is apparently a check and/or balance for their power - knowing that some judge, somewhere, will force them to front up to explain to the person under surveillance that all their deep dark secret-communications are now Official Knowledge. I guess the idea is that the (potentially mutual) embarrassment of getting the wrong guy and then having to look them in the eye and TELL THEM that, is supposed to keep our security intelligence services in line. Riiiiight.)

The reason why I cite this incident is because it handily demonstrates that i) laws put in place to protect us from terrorism can and have been misused even very recently in the past; ii) that the specific forms of that misuse very quickly cross over into the realms of the political; and iii) that even seemingly innocuous or rather small-scale acts of potential dissent (like standing outside of a cafe in the presence of a few TV cameras) can quite quickly conjure the Heavy Hammer of the State coming down upon you.

When we talk about not just criminalizing - but 'terrorizing' - protests, we go rather beyond the simple maintenance of public order.

We instead send chilling messages with chilling effects upon certain aspects of public participation in the hallowed apparatus of our democracy.

As I've said earlier, these increasingly seem to be "a feature, not a bug", in the minds of many of our august policy-makers. With the Key Government preparing to lionize itself for effectively normalizing military relations with the US, sanctified by a potentially nuclear-armed ship-visit (you know ... EXACTLY the sort of thing we rose up in (maritime) protest against back in the '80s) - it's not hard to see just whom this new kind of "terrorism"-fighting legislation might be aimed at to please.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Secessionists, Demonstrationists, and Defenestrationists: The Unchanging Character Of US Responses To Their New Presidents

I'm now old enough to properly remember three Presidents (Bush, Obama, and Trump. I have vague, hazy memories of Bill Clinton - but that's mostly just bombing Yugoslavia and a sex scandal). And you know what I've realized? There's some remarkable consistencies in how EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM gets reacted to in office.
Each one of these men has been called Hitler. Every one of them's been talked about as some sort of irascible warmonger who's inching us closer to the broad-spanning extinction of the Human Race. They were all #NotMyPresident. All of these Presidencies either have or will preside over a fundamentally racist justice system, and repugnant foreign & trade policies. The only main difference between Trump advocating for targeted killings of terrorists' families ... and Obama's drone-strike program, or Bush's invade-an-entire-country program, is that Trump was straight-up and honest about what he was trying to achieve (and also isn't talking about 'regime change' enforced at bayonet-point) - a theme which presumably applies to pretty much every other area of core contention that most people have against a Trump Presidency based upon what he's said on the campaign trail.
Hell, even the broad, sweeping reactions to a President people don't like are overtly similar. For the last few days, we've had Californians talking about secession from the Union - and, more darkly, outraged arch-liberals suggesting somebody ought to go John Hinckley and assassinate Trump (apparently heedless of the fact that the man who'd replace him as President - Mike Pence - is inarguably worse on EVERY front, being an anti-gay and pro-TPPA classic modern Republican). This is nothing new. Under Obama, it was Texas that was allegedly going to secede, and Tea Partiers and militiamen talking about assassination. Under Bush ... well, it was the "People's Republic of Vermont" [maybe THEY'D have had the good sense to make Bernie Sanders President], and any number of fantasizing books, comics, movies and polemic pieces arguing that the world'd be better off with one less President Bush. 
So what's changed? What's actually different here?
Well, for one thing, this much outrage, this quickly is pretty striking. I don't even think after Bush Jr. got re-elected in 2004 (amidst allegations of *actual stealing of the election* via rigged e-voting machines, systematic disenfranchisement etc.) that there was seemingly this much heat on the street. We're less than FOUR DAYS into President-Elect Donald Trump, and it already looks from afar as if America's starting to unravel (it isn't - starting, that is - but these things often look so much more dramatic from far away).
There's also probably an easy distinction to be made between that outrage and this. In the former case, there was something really big, really abhorrent and really reified which that President had *already* done (namely, invading a foreign country under a false pretext while top officials *lied* about it) to galvanize public support for his popular opposition.
In this case, nothing like that has yet eventuated.
The only thing people can seem to object to is the mere fact of his election itself. (something which, to be honest - albeit from entirely different reasons - was pretty much what the Tea Party people were doing in 2008 with Obama)
There is, of course, a counter-argument - that this Presidential outcome is so singularly sui-generis in sadness and in suicidality that some radical actions are more called for now than they were previously. In that light, I don't think I've ever before seen outright demands for the Electoral College *not* to represent the votes of the people of the states before in order to pick and anoint a preferred candidate.
But in any case, I can't help but wonder whether the scale and the vitriol of the liberal/leftist/democratic-malcontent response to the looming and increasingly corporeal specter of President Trump is actually motivated by this.
Or, instead, whether so many are so bitter precisely because this is a decidedly unexpected turn of events; and because they were all geared up to think that they, Clinton, "had it in the bag" - and that we'd all be ganging up to ridicule and vituperate those silly Trump supporters with their Orange-Meme Nominee for being stupid enough to lose.
Well, we sure aren't laughing now.
And because we can't deal with it - whether rightly or wrongly - we're lashing out in anger and in protest (at just about anybody who fits the bill of "might have helped Trump get elected", into the bargain).
It will certainly be interesting to see whether this wave of semi-popular discontent simmers down or sizzles up with increasing verbosity over the coming days and weeks.
But one thing's for sure: no matter whom the next President is - and whether we see them first in 2020 or 2024 ... they'll presumably face EXACTLY the same wave of Reductio-Ad-Godwinning, street-protests, and pre-emptive criticisms as the last one.
Truly, as that Bible verse goes, "there is nothing new under the sun".