Earlier this week a number of media outlets started running stories about something called the "New Zealand People's Party" - a new electoral vehicle apparently set up by members of the Indian and Chinese communities in a bid to ensure better representation for those communities' interests in our politics.
The launch in and of itself was not necessarily significant. Every electoral cycle, a bold group of political newcomers gather the gumption to put their money and mana where their collective mouth is, and attempt to set up a successful political party in an attempt to break into Parliament. They rarely experience significant success, and almost inevitably flame-out shortly after their first General Election. I should know - I was part of one once, back in 2008.
But what interested me about the New Zealand People's Party in its first week of above-ground, public existence is twofold. First up, the widespread inaccuracies in reporting on the Party (particularly in its context in NZ politics); and second, the potential implications which it might have in the Mt Roskill By-Election contest presumably coming up later this year. Unless the NZPP have some truly gifted people running their media outreach, that last factor's presumably why they've netted such initial newscycle attention. That, and a heaping helping of opprobium from inveterate immigration-skeptic Winston Peters.
This is obviously and demonstrably false. There have been a litany of previous attempts at catering to the electoral territory Newshub thinks the NZPP is aiming at, including the "Ethnic Minority Party" and "Asia Pacific United Party" from the 1996 Election (which scored 0.12% and 0.02% of the vote respectively, before both eventually folding into what would become United Future - a party which itself seems to be kept running merely by cannibalizing the carrion wreckage of others); the New Zealand Pacific Party set up by disgraced ex-Labour MP Taito Philip Field in 2008 (and which went from arguable representation in Parliament once Field was cast out of Labour through to a below-marginal 0.37% of the vote the same year); and the New Citizens Party founded in 2010 (which garnered some notoriety for holding its first official meeting in Beijing, before eventually folding into the Conservative Party for the 2011 Election).
Now, perhaps the seriously insignificant electoral results of almost all of these parties may go some ways towards explaining why none of them are overtly remembered today. But the fact remains that media claims that what the NZPP is attempting is somehow entirely novel, are provably fallacious.
Pleading "equivalency" is a standard rhetorical trope in the Winston Peters Political Speechmaking Toolbox, and you will habitually see him trot it out whenever he takes a possibly controversial position on immigration-related issues. It usually goes something like "no country in Asia would tolerate what we've allowed to happen here with immigration". And he's quite often right.
But not in this instance. I did a short sit-down research session this afternoon, and was able to turn up numerous instances of what you might term "ethnic-based parties" occupying elected office in countries across Asia.
The best example of this is unquestionably UMNO (the United Malays National Organization), which in addition to being an explicitly ethnic-Malay party, has also provided all six of Malaysia's post-independence Prime Ministers. Other parties from Malaysia which would fit the bill include electoral organizations dedicated to the representation of Indian, Chinese, and Bumiputera peoples. And while Malaysia may be something of an extreme example, it's not too hard to find other instances of ethnic parties vying (often quite successfully) for election in other Asian polities. Taiwan has a (successfully elected) 'First Nations' party dedicated to the representation of its indigenous people. Nepal has a 'Mongol Party' set up to provide a counterweight to the 'Aryan' population of much of the rest of Nepal for more 'Asiatic' denizens of same. Japan has an admittedly electorally unsuccessful Ainu Party dedicated towards the representation of that eponymous ethnic group.
You could also look further afield to the United Kingdom and note the number of arguably ethnically based organizations in operation there. The Scottish National Party, for instance, or Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein.
It would be interesting to speculate as to why some states with which we share either a modicum of geographic or historical coterminity with appear to have 'ethnic-based' parties, while others do not - but that is sadly beyond the scope and realms of this piece.
In the mean-time, suffice to say that a comparison between the decidedly multi-ethnic state of New Zealand with some of the more ethnically monolithic countries of Asia ... is perhaps somewhat misleading.
Although lest anyone accuse Winston of an especial case of 'Xenophobia' or racism in this instance, it is worth pointing out that this opposition to 'ethnically-based' politics is something which he equally applies to his *own* people as well.
Still, the overt characterization of the NZPP as an 'ethnic' organization is additionally troubling to me. Except in the mind of the most ardent and blinkered orientalist, it would be extraordinarily difficult to regard Chinese and Indians as belonging to a single and unitary ethnic group. I would also be inordinately surprised to find out that their Party Constitution enshrined any especial barriers to entry or membership for persons who either weren't migrants (which would de facto rule out members of the Indian etc. communities who were born here in New Zealand), or who weren't from the communities who have provided the initial impetus for the NZPP's setup. Even the Maori Party has recognized that it is difficult if not impossible to maintain a viable political vehicle while barring persons not of its initial targeted group. And while the NZPP presumably does intend to target its own 'home' territory of ethnic communities rather vigorously, simply campaigning to a community does not necessarily make one's party an exclusive preserve for same - otherwise the ACT Party with its Chinese-language billboards would be in the same boat.
Which means, when all taken together, that as soon as we stop simply deriding these newcomers as merely an "ethnically-based party", we suddenly find ourselves confronted with legitimate and interesting questions as to what they actually represent and how they intend to reach out to the electorate in order to construct a support-base. This also feeds into later questions as to what their (arguable) electoral impact (or otherwise) might conceivably be.
The main piece of information that we have to go on thus far is that the NZPP intends to put a heavy focus upon law and order policy. This is eminently unsurprising. Many of the small shops which have been targeted in the recent cigarette-driven crime-wave of robberies and standovers have been Indian or Chinese-owned. These shopkeepers have for a long time been fundamentally fed up by alleged intransigence from both police and politicians in actually tackling the issue head-on. Some of these aggrieved citizens have taken the law into their own hands as a protective measure; while others, evidently, have attempted to pursue the alternative root of taking the lawMAKING into their own hands instead.
Considering many of the extant-political parties (and National in particular) are perceived as letting these people down, it is not hard to understand why sitting on the sidelines and supporting other vehicles has now been deemed to be an inadequate non-solution by some in these communities. And can we really fault citizens for wishing to get directly involved in the political process when those who are already ensconced within it appear to be doing such a sub-standard job.
In any case, and turning our attention more directly (if tangentially) to the Mt. Roskill By-Election, some have said that the likely impact of the NZPP will be to take votes off National.
The logic customarily advanced for these claims appears to be that i) it'll draw Chinese support away from the National Party while also serving to somewhat stymie ongoing National efforts to build linkages with the Indian Communities; while ii) the 'class interest' of 'small businessmen' (which appears to be something that the NZPP wants to fairly directly represent) may also be redirected away from National to a better representative.
But I'm not so sure. Migrant communities have often appeared to be at least as responsive to personal linkages and community embedding as they are overt propaganda or political communication campaigns. National has certainly done an improving job of building both with migrant communities (as we can see from the increased number of Indians and Chinese MPs in National's Caucus); but Labour has long held a considerable advantage in this area. In Mt. Roskill, it could certainly count against Labour - with its comparatively fresh-faced (although highly competent) new candidate - rather than against the relatively more established (Indian) National List MP who also calls the electorate home.
Further, it is questionable whether your average dairy, convenience shop or liquor store owner is actually a National voter - or even on an economic threshold comparable with what we customarily think of when we talk of 'small business owners'. They are what earlier Marxists would presumably refer to as the "Petite Bourgeois" - and thus, in many respects, will have much more in common with the middle-middle-class (or even less economically well off than that) voters whom Labour's done such a good job of representing previously (if not necessarily courting presently).
So all things considered, there are many questionable- and outright mis- conceptions floating around about the New Zealand People's Party. Some of these are the result of the evident paucity of information about them presently in circulation. Others are the direct consequence of various parties seeking to deliberately sensationalize and grand-stand about a potential future (minor) electoral player.
Will the NZPP have a substantial impact at next year's General Election? I would rather doubt it.
But might they have a substantive part to play in a by-election in Mt. Roskill? Here, the odds are stronger.
Phrased another way, the NZPP may yet add a tenuous tablespoon of political instability to the Mt Roskill campaign, provided it is actually able to get its act together and mount serious electoral efforts sufficient to bring in at least a few hundred votes behind whomever it chooses as its presumptive candidate.
Do I see the New Zealand People's Party as being a good idea? Questionable.
But I have something of a soft spot for small-but-insurgent start-up minor parties. So I'll certainly be watching their unfolding fortunes with a great deal and degree of interest.
It should come as no surprise that good ideas such as these are frequently met with imitation - and even less surprise that the National Party is, as per usual, late to the party when it comes to dealing with these issues.
That is why New Zealand First's proposal to increase police numbers in line with the twin growths in both population and crime-rate makes so much sense - and why forcing the Government to 'put its money where its mouth is' when it comes to funding increases in service delivery is so important. Because it's very easy for the Minister of Police to merely issue a press-release stating that our boys in blue will be paying more attention to a particular category of crime. A statement to the media, after all, costs nothing except the time of a PR-officer. But it takes far more commitment, energy and effort to ensure that such a promise to the electorate - as National has made on burglaries - is actually delivered upon come Budget-time.
I have no doubt that the average policeman out there wants to do his or her best to attempt to keep our communities safe. I do not necessarily blame them for the present woeful stats on burglary resolution or any of the rest of it. As Winston has pointed out - they are but a blue-line being stretched ever-thinner by under-funding and per-capita proportionate reductions in manpower.
But considering the present Minister of Police also presided over a previous scandal in which police in her own electorate were found to be scurrilously misrepresenting and massaging data in order to make their National Party bosses look good ... it does not take a political Copernicus to be able to observe and adduce that the Government's previous habitual response to rising crime figures and a deterioration in community safety over the previous eight years has largely been to spin, lie and distort rather than actually seriously and sensibly address the issue.
Attempting to work out what's behind the sudden (and welcome) change in attitude, therefore, leads us inexorably to two likely motivators:
First, there's an Election next year. Crime is a hot-button issue - and, unlike with Housing, one which even National's well-off core constituents definitely feel concerned about. It thus makes a certain sort of sense for the Government to start attempting to address the issue now, while signalling future substantive improvements in the number of police which they can unveil for added media attention closer to the Election.
But second, and arguably more importantly, New Zealand First has already started staking out seriously strong territory on Law And Order. National knows this. National are scared. They are therefore seeking to 'head us off at the pass', and take the wind out of our sails on this issue by attempting to 'claim' it for themselves.
That's why I have penned this piece. In order to highlight what I feel to be a reasonably clear chain of causation between Winston announcing a policy bottom-line earlier this month, and National stating they're going to do broadly the same thing less than three weeks later.
In any case, when it comes to the choice between New Zealand First and National over whom you trust with law and order and policing issues ... it's not too terribly hard to make a selection between a Party which delivered you 1000 extra front-line police plus three hundred support staff the last time we were in power - versus a government which has basically spent eight years pretending the problem doesn't exist, except when they're scared of a rival.
Accept no imitations. The only time National's generally serious about bolstering the number of 'boys in blue' is when they're out electioneering to increase their Caucus.
Last week, retirement-savers from around the country were shocked to discover that their hard-earned investment funds were potentially going towards funding the invention, sale and distribution of land mines, cluster munitions, and other nefarious products. Nuclear weapons are also apparently on the portfolio-books.
This is, predictably, quite shocking for many of us (particularly given all other Government long-term investment vehicles such as ACC and the Cullen Fund have stringent policies against pouring public money in these insalubrious directions); but sadly, what wasn't shocking at all was the Government's completely lackluster non-response to this pressing issue.
In stark contrast to this, there's one party which has long believed in the advancement of citizen-based national savings (often in the format of state-directed sovereign wealth funds) ... and it should therefore come as no surprise that New Zealand First has an elegant answer for pretty much all of the above issues:
We provide a #Nationalized option for employees' retirement savings, called Kiwifund.
But the reasoning for putting this idea back on the table now is a little different. The other chief advantage we have by farming our retirement savings out to the state rather than private fund managers is that there's therefore a greater degree of ethical behavior and morality which we can thus expect from the scheme's investment decisions. As already noted, this wouldn't have happened at either ACC or the Cullen Fund - the Government's other long-term investment vehicles - due to exactly the sort of legislative prohibitions which would also prevent Kiwifund from doing likewise.
What last week's shocking developments have roundly evinced is that when it comes to managing our money, the private sector regularly engages in shonky practices. We've already known for quite some time that this includes rampant profiteering at our collective expense. However it is altogether disquieting to find out that their recklessness is not limited to the level of profit extracted from us, but also the specific sources and mechanisms used to generate same.
It is increasingly clear, now, that the only way to truly remedy and rectify this woeful situation is to bring a large portion of the scheme under the aegis of a public-managed and -overseen fund.
Thank goodness that one political party had the foresight and the vision some years ago to propose a policy which would do exactly that.
But what IS interesting is how the conversation around its results appears to be progressing amidst our political class.
Labour, as you may recall, went inside 72 hours from signalling cautious support for a cannabis referendum on student radio ... through to Andrew Little backing away by claiming such a thing "wouldn't be a priority" for his party in government. He's been more recently quoted as suggesting that decriminalization likely wouldn't work in practice, and stating Labour's outright opposition to legalization.
The fear which our National decision-makers have for putting such a policy to a plebiscite can be easily adjudged by the speed and velocity with which Key has started counter-factually spinning upon the issue.
Consider his remarks in response to news of the poll: that first, communities would oppose any likely law changed based around not being able to control whether or not they'd wind up with drug stores or "tinnie houses" on their local street corners ... and then invoking the scary specter of the Legal Highs debacle in order to intimate that 'we've been down this road before'. Which we haven't.
Obviously, this wild scaremongering is intended to attempt to defuse popular momentum and support for a law change. And the manifestly fact-free nature of Key's rhetorical stabs are revealed by the logical contradictions between them.
First, decriminalization DOES NOT MEAN legal cannabis-sales. In just about every jurisdiction which has pursued drug decriminalization, drug-dealing remains steadfastly illegal. The only thing that changes is that individual users who are caught with a relatively small quantity intended for their own personal use ... don't have to take their changes in the criminal justice system upon apprehension - instead getting a small fine, or other civic penalties (Portugal often insists upon repeat offenders being required to attend mandatory drug rehabilitation and counselling). The idea here is to help people with problematic use, rather than harm them with potentially needless criminal convictions. As I have often argued, the manifest ridicularity of enforcing criminal sanction for minor drug offending effectively turns on the implicit logic that drugs *may* ruin the user's life ... so just to make sure, the state will demonstrate this principle in action by ruining it *for* you - often far more irreparably than the drugs themselves.
So right away, we can see that Key is being disingenuous in insisting that the expressed and avowed opinion of ordinary New Zealanders would create something manifestly different to what's actually on the table here.
Now it is true that if we DID intend to pursue full-legalization, that the growing up (or, potentially more accurately, the de-criminalization of an already-extant industry) of 'legitimate' cannabis cultivation, sale and distribution would most likely happen. But Key's own cited example of the public furor over the thankfully now extinct 'Legal Highs' industry reveals exactly why the invoked specter of 'tinnie houses on every street corner' is substantially fallacious.
When the Psychoactive Substances Act came into force (which, let's remember, was National-supported legislation), it was very clear about establishing public and community control over the location of retail outlets. In other words, it was made deliberately legally impossible for people selling mind-altering chemicals to operate in a number of areas as determined by their local community, such as residential areas, near schools etc. So there's a clear precedent for being able to control this sort of thing - just as, in many cases, we do with liquor licensing (see, for example, the liquor licensing trust scheme operating in West Auckland).
The other point to be made here is that at present there is NO legislative control on where or where not that cannabis-dealing can occur. There is probably an intrepid black-market businessman operating in your neighborhood right now as we speak. So bringing the marketplace 'above ground' may perhaps make it easier to control where the sale and distribution of cannabis takes place.
In any case, comparisons between potential cannabis decriminalization or legalization and our previous abortive experience with the synthetic highs industry are patently fallacious. The synthetic cannabinoids which wound up being sold particularly in the later phases of their thankfully brief period of legal availability were pretty much fundamentally different drugs to even the much-mythologized modern high-potency marijuana which some errant baby-boomers will invoke in an attempt to distinguish the relative harms between their own youthful drug use and the cannabis-smoking of today.
I'm quite serious about this. Even though the various classes of somewhat ill-understood Research Chemicals were supposed to broadly mimic the effects of real cannabis, the distinction between what was on sale legally versus that which has always been available illicitly ... often seemed to be about as different from each other as Kahlua and coffee.
There are long and involved neuropsychopharmacological explanations as to why synthetic highs were so qualitatively different to actual cannabis; but rather than bore you with the details, let's just say that pretty much everyone in a position to know agrees that the classes of synthetic cannabinoids on sale here in New Zealand had substantially different effects, response-profiles, and addictive potentiality as compared to the genuine article. As in, they were ACTUALLY addictive, and very really capable of causing serious and long-term physiological/psychological damage in ways that cannabis simply wasn't.
So will the decriminalization or legalization of cannabis in New Zealand lead to burgeoning hordes of young dope-fiends queuing out round the corner on residential streets in their reckless bids to score a wrap of tinfoil from your friendly neighbourhood legal-tinnie-house?
No. This is simply untrue.
As previous experiments with different substances ranging from alcohol to esoteric addictive chemicals have proven, it's perfectly possible to control the legal distribution of psychoactive substances and keep them out of residential areas. The sad specter of burnt out, zombie-eyed addicts desperately fiending for their next fix as a result of this law change is also simply another piece of National scaremongering. We all know cannabis users - some of them even heavy users or arguable dependents. Even the worst of them often appear far better and more functional than middling-grade alcoholics - and infinitely healthier than those who were addicted to potentially lethal synthetic cannabinoids.
So in conclusion, there is a legitimate debate to be had about the merits (or otherwise) of marijuana law reform here in the Land of the Long White Cloud. There is also room for discussion about differences of approach in securing that (for example the relative advantages of the pursuit of #reeferendum, or the more perilous (and thus far repeatedly defeated in Parliament) pure-legislative-push).
But any way you choose to roll it, the key and important thing which must MUST underpin a public debate about this issue is accurate information and fair, even-handed arguments.
We've had several decades of semi-irrational scaremongering. It's lead us to all sorts of unwholesome and deleterious places. Let's hope that - going forward - it's reality rather than risible fear-inducing rhetoric which carries the day.
It doesn't take more than half an ounce of sense to see which side the facts seem to stack up on. No wonder the opponents of the future, then, find themselves having to resort to fact-free spinfotainment in order to attempt to get their prejudicial points of view across.
The last few years have seen some remarkable steps forward for efforts to rectify historic abrogations of justice. Teina Pora was acquitted. He was even belatedly (and pettily-parsimoniously) compensated for his time behind bars. David Bain's conviction was also vacated, on grounds that regardless of whether he did it or not, the Crown's case was simply not good enough to remove all reasonable doubt. He, too, has been 'compensated' after a fashion - although to a much lesser figure, and merely in recompense of his legal costs rather than actual, tangible renumeration for his extended time behind bars.
The Pora case in particular represents one of the great acknowledgements of judicial wrongdoing in this country; while the Bain morass adequately demonstrates that with the power of a passionate, committed advocate - even seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be overcome in pursuit of a man's freedom.
A third instance, that of Arthur Allan Thomas, is also instructive. There, thanks in no small part to the courageous efforts of one Rob Muldoon - then Prime Minister - Thomas's conviction (which had been upheld through both trial and retrial) was first investigated, and then eventually overturned. Allegations of police malfeasance were seriously looked into, Thomas Pardoned, and also given a decent payout of official compensation.
It's amazing what can happen when you are able to convince people in high places to take an active interest in the fostering of justice. Even the Police directly planting evidence against someone can be challenged and overpowered in such a situation.
But sadly, not all strongly arguable miscarriages of justice turn out that way. For whatever reason, some cases go through the works of procedure, come out with seemingly wrong or unsafe and unsound outcomes; and probably innocent men find themselves subjected to all the harshness and cruelty of the wrong end of the justice system despite most likely having committed no crime other than being a semi-convenient scape-goat.
As a prime example of this sad phenomenon in action, the case of Scott Watson springs instantly to mind.
If you're over a certain age in New Zealand, you probably know the rough outline of the details. In the early hours of New Years 1998, a handsome young pair disappeared from the Marlborough Sounds. The last known witness to see them alive, water-taxi operator Guy Wallace, deposited them on a two-masted ketch in the company of an as-yet unidentified 'Mystery Man'. According to the Crown, the vessel in question was the (one masted) Blade and the mystery man none other than Scott Watson.
It didn't appear to matter that the only, best eye-witness to the identity of the suspect had stated categorically that Watson was not the man whose yacht Hope and Smart had disembarked at. Nor that there was an obvious visual discrepancy between the vessel Watson owned, and the one on which the murders presumably took place. The Police had their man, and as has later become apparent, seem to have had little issue with 'fudging' the evidence in certain places in order to ensure that a conviction stuck.
Admittedly, there is nothing so obvious and egregious to the Watson case that has yet come out as the planted bullet which did in Arthur Allan Thomas - but even taking a cursory run-through of the case and judgements against Watson, it would be exceedingly hard to argue that his conviction is in any way "safe".
In the absence of hard proof of this nature, pinning the double-murder upon Watson becomes principally an exercise in conjecture and weaving together witness testimony to attempt to manufacture a cohesive whole.
And that's where things start to get especially sticky.
In order to get a jury to convict Watson in the absence of seriously water-tight evidence linking him to the crime, the Prosecution needed to establish a supremely plausible narrative which could be buttressed by the limited evidence (chiefly eyewitness) available to them.
One part of this narrative concerned an alleged journey made by Watson aboard Blade to dump the bodies of Hope and Smart in an undersea canyon off the Sounds themselves. Both Police and Prosecution put a great deal of effort into attempting to establish that such a journey could have been made by Watson in a manner which lined up time-wise with a bevvy of eyewitness reports of a yacht moving through the area.
In any case, you don't have to necessarily think that Watson is innocent to start to see the problems with the way that this case has been conducted. There are sufficient and sufficiently obvious problems of both procedure and evidence to rather strongly suggest that Watson's conviction is strongly unsound.
Importantly, this is a sentiment shared by a growing number of Kiwis. There has long been a public campaign to attempt to lobby the Government or Governor-General to successfully intervene in Watson's circumstances. They're presently circulating a petition and will be holding a vigil on Saturday down in Christchurch to both highlight and protest the ongoing injustice which has been meted out to Mr Watson.
It would be great to have your support.
Perhaps, with enough public pressure and scrutiny, Watson might one day get his very own Muldoon Moment and be delivered from prison via political intervention or retrial.
Remember when John Key boldly declared that New Zealand was not a tax haven?
Well, the European Union disagrees. And while it might seem rather academic what a transnational institution literally half a world away thinks about our taxation regimen ... the slight issue is that this now means the planet's largest economy is gearing up to put us over in the international naughty corner unless and until we sort our situation out.
Then again, there is a potential other side to this debate. Whenever some great and seismic movement (from our lilliputian perspective, at least) is about to take place in international political economy, it makes sense to ponder the inordinately yet understatedly important question: Cui Bono? Who Benefits?
And the answer to that, in this case, is quite simple. There are any number of French farmers and other European agriculturalists who have lobbied for years to keep Kiwi primary produce as far out of the Eurozone as possible. They represent perhaps the single biggest reason why we're arguably highly unlikely to ever have a proper free trade deal with the Europeans - present and current events with our tax-haven status notwithstanding.
The question ought to be asked: if the Europeans are looking at excluding or downsizing Kiwi trade flows in response to our tax laws ... will they be doing the same for countries like Switzerland? Or is there one rule for some, and another ruleset entirely for those countries who happen to have an enormous comparative advantage in a particular economic sector.
Because at the moment, there seems to be a very real possibility that efforts to put the screws on our exports into the Eurozone are perhaps less motivated by an intergovernmental desire for taxation transparency than they are by frank, rank economic self-interest on the part of the Europeans.
In that case, and if that is the situation, then it is presumably to our advantage that Britain is leaving the Eurozone. At least in that instance, we shall be shortly able to have a productive and blossoming trade-relationship with what's presently the 5th largest world economy.
Still, regardless of the alleged motivation for the E.U.'s actions in this matter - there is a silver lining.
With the kind of serious threat against the New Zealand economy which E.U. trade sanctions (or even the potential for their future imposition) unquestionably represent, the Prime Minister and his cronies surely have no choice but to act and act decisively in order to get our affairs - and our international reputation - back in order.