One of the fundamental instincts of the political conservative is to Punish. To 'Protect'. To levy the superior powers of the state as a mechanism with which to push 'down and out' against perceived 'undesirables' who may be living in our society's midst.
In ages past, the demographic targets for this form of umbrage have been many and multifarious. These days, it's no longer polite nor acceptable to go after some of them (although beneficiaries and the working poor appear to remain popular objects of scorn in some circles).
But one of the groups which apparently remains absolutely A-OK for right-wing opinion leaders to come down on like a tonne of bricks in pursuit of positive returns at the polls ... is criminals.
I guess it's not hard to see why. Criminals - and those convicted of crimes serious enough to warrant a term of imprisonment in particular - are generally regarded as harming others. As having forfeited some measure of their intrinsic human worth and dignity by transgressing upon the civic norms to which each and all of the rest of us nominally subscribe. They are, quite literally in the popular imagination, the angry threatening figure out there in the dark of the night. The drunk whose aggressive attentions we flailingly attempt to recoil from when we see them coming towards us. An inexorable drain upon the public purse through both the willful damage they cause, and the expensive efforts which We, The People must undertake in order to find, apprehend, vigorously prosecute and punish them.
At least, in the frenetic Conservative's irritation-fuelled imagination. In real life, some criminals are exactly as monstrous as that outlined above ... and others, well, aren't. Cannabis-smokers and small-time drug-dealers are probably a pretty good example of these only semi-reprehensible reprobates. Their behavior isn't intrinsically objectionable, and I'm even aware of a recent case in New Zealand law in which a Judge referred to the latter as being a quite literally "victimless crime".
But regardless of how you feel about crime, criminals or politicians ... it is inarguable that there is strong necessity for there to be both strictures and restraints upon the coercive powers of the state. Where there is no legal basis to lock somebody up, they should not be allowed to be locked up. Where the state has considerably erred in its usage of powers to condemn, indemnify and incarcerate, there ought to be tangible action to put things 'back into balance' - often in the form of restitution. And where the state has been caught out red-handed in wrongfully imprisoning somebody or otherwise doing injurious harm to their person or reputation (for such, a term of incarceration almost assuredly is) ... then it really should think VERY long and hard before considering the utter affront to the Rule of Law implicit in casting retroactive legislation to post-facto legalize its previously wrongful conduct.
Given that all of this is the 'right thing to do', it should probably come as absolutely no surprise to just about anyone that Judith Collins - the Corrections Minister who memorably once suggested prison-rape as an active deterrence to future offending - appears to want to do just about all the opposite.
As many are now aware, a recent New Zealand Supreme Court decision has clarified that we've been illegally keeping New Zealanders - potentially somewhere up above five hundred of us - behind bars illegally. The Government, caught somewhat flat-footed by the court's judgement, appears to be moving to block compensation for those wrongfully imprisoned - and, potentially more worryingly, change the law to retroactively keep people in prison.
This is wrong. This is so obviously wrong that we could dress it up in a rosette and run it as an ACT Party candidate.
But what's behind it? It's exceedingly tempting to just and simply characterize the Nats - and the insouciant Collins in particular - as a nasty pack of work, out to derive some considerable pleasure from ruining and coralling the lives of others. Yet there's almost certainly more going on here.
We've seen this sort of behavior before - frequently enough, in fact, to start drawing out a bit of a pattern.
Remember when David Bain was released? Then, compensation was mooted. A report was ordered into the subject in order to ascertain whether this was appropriate. In the view of the expert member of the Canadian judiciary whom the government had headhunted in order to produce the judgement, it was. While Bain hadn't proven his innocence - he HAD produced sufficient 'reasonable doubt' over his conviction to effectively remove his guilt. The state, therefore, had had no basis for keeping him locked up - and owed him some measure of compensation for putting his life into cryo-sleep in the interim behind bars.
Judith Collins disagreed. And after excoriating the Judge responsible for this fair and accurate determination (allegedly after wasting yet more taxpayers' money to fly him over here from Egypt in order to give him a verbal dressing down personally), a new report was ordered by another luminal figure of the legal fraternity with the specific objective of producing a settlement - and a dollar figure - vastly more amenable to the Crown's (by which I mean the Government's) political interests.
And that's why David Bain is, today, walking home with zero compensation for his time spent behind bars (albeit with several hundred thousand dollars recompense for his legal fees).
A regrettably similar pattern played out with Teina Pora's bid for compensation. In this instance, there was no doubt. Pora had been found innocent, and was entitled to compensation. But there WAS some measure of quibbling to be had as to the precise level of coin which he got. Due to accident or malignancy, the relevant legal provisions did not allow for an incorporation of inflation into the dollar amount Mr Pora was entitled to. He therefore wound up somewhere in the area of $1.5 million dollars short. A not inconsiderable amount of money.
Various politicians, commentators and activisty-types pressed for the Government to use its discretion, and go beyond the strict letter of the law in order to make full restitution to a man who'd been so considerably wronged by the system.
Those pleas fell on deaf ears; and I can't help but find myself wondering whether, if it were a matter for completely open Governmental discretion, whether Pora would have found himself given any compensation whatsoever at all.
All things considered, the Government's attitudes towards both criminals - and, more worryingly, those who were illegally locked up alongside them - appears to be categorically and comprehensively mean-spirited.
This should come as no surprise. In an age wherein National are fairly desperate to direct attention away from their chronic under-funding of the police, and the rising tide of crime which accompanies seriously flawed economic mismanagement ... how better to placate the baying mob of its corner of the electorate, than by being seen to kick downwards against nominal 'criminals'.
There is always a 'fiscal argument' raised in cases such as these against compensation being paid. This is wrong-headed. Justice for the citizen ought trump petty economic considerations where possible - and, in any case, the disincentive for the state of having to pay out when it wrongfully imprisons somebody is a useful tool. Besides, considering this is the same group of politicians who felt quite comfortable wasting twenty six million dollars on a flag-change referendum nobody wanted, it's not like they're exactly concerned with being model bastions of economic frugality elsewhere, anyway.
Thus, I maintain that these economic 'justifications' against compensation are merely a front. The Government is concerned with how it would look to some of its hard-on-law-and-order supporters if it were seen to make rightful restitution to victims of the justice system's ongoing legislative incompetence.
I'm also not entirely sure that the public safety justifications raised by Collins in response to this issue are any more factually viable. Preventative detention is, indeed, a sentence we mete out to some of the worst offenders - serial and compulsive sex offenders and the like. It thus does have some precedent. But that is not what we are talking about here. Instead, Collins appears to be suggesting that locking up offenders - illegally - for longer will lead to a reduction in crime (provided, one supposes, that the crime is not committed behind bars - a possibility she also acknowledges).
It's a pretty worrying stance for a politician to take - justifying illegitimate incarcerations in the nebulous pursuit of public safety. And a more than somewhat questionable one in practice. The longer one spends in prison, the greater the risk of an inmate being scarred and socialized - brutalized - towards an enduring life of crime.
But, of course, National doesn't care about that.
Instead, they're only concerned with the "optics" of the situation - and there, for an uncomfortably large share of their voters, "cheapness" and "meanness" as applies criminal justice policy and the rights of those incarcerated, must apparently win out every time.
It is a scary thing indeed to be rendered subject to the coercive power of the state. It is even scarier to be held so wrongfully. And, on top of this, to see one's rights and restitution treated as political footballs to be kicked out of play rather than meaningful concerns to be properly examined and taken seriously.
So frankly, to put it bluntly, it's absolutely terrifying that National are gearing up to legitimate all of those things through retroactively protecting wrongful imprisonment, and denying those affected compensation.
In Sunday's piece, Seymour makes the utterly bizarre contention that National is, at present and in its modern form, to the left of the Labour Party. Now to be fair, this has historically been true on some occasions - in 1990, for instance, National campaigned on *rolling back Rogernomics* (before betraying the nation with Ruthanasia); and when it comes to the superannuation debate, we can sensibly argue that Labour's previous advocacy for raising the retirement age placed it somewhat to the right of National's (and New Zealand First's) insistence upon maintaining it at 65.
But none of this exculpates Seymour's assertion from being anything other than manifestly counterfactual.
If anyone cares to remember, in 2010 the National Party made some fundamental alterations to our tax system - but they didn't exactly make it more progressive. In fact, quite the opposite. They DECREASED tax rates for the wealthy, while INCREASING the regressive GST which we all pay (and which consumes proportionately more of lower income earners' wages, because we don't and can't save as much). It also put a hole in the government's books which has so far consumed somewhere over five billion dollars (there's an approximate cost of $1.1 billion dollars a year in foregone revenue for the new tax levels) - but we'll leave that aside for the moment.
So if National decreased the proportion of their income which the wealthy pay in taxes ... but the proportion of income tax paid by the wealthy has noticeably increased over the last seven years, then there's presumably one very obvious explanation for why this has occurred.
How else could rich people who're taxed less wind up paying more of our taxes, unless either i) they were making a lot MORE to be taxed on in the first place; and/or ii) the other, 'bottom' 90% of us were making so much less as to cause a noticeable drop in the share of tax that we're paying.
Indeed, given the bottom 42% of New Zealand households apparently require more in benefits, tax credits and other economic support measures than they pay out in taxes to be able to survive from day-to-day and week-to-week, it seems pretty resoundingly clear that the rewards for any slow pickup in economic growth are being DECIDEDLY unfairly distributed.
All of this fundamentally undercuts Seymour's suggestion that National is noticeably or markedly to the left of Labour. For all its faults, it would appear fairly blatantly obvious that the last Labour Government didn't preside over a situation of income inequality this bad.
Although one further item caught my eye.
Seymour cites John Key's 2008 criticism of Labour's last term in government being "communism by stealth".
But when we think back to the sort of policies which might have earned Labour that particular sobriquet, I'm not entirely sure how many of them were actually Labour's at all.
Consider: the 2005-2008 Parliamentary Term saw Labour and New Zealand First working together - during which time, we enacted such key and essential NZF initiatives as renationalizing several hundred million dollars worth of formerly private enterprise (in order to create Kiwirail); raised the minimum wage by an unprecedented amount (something like a dollar a year - while also effectively abolishing youth rates); opposed pernicious foreign trade deals; and delivered substantial personnel increases to both a key state service (the NZ Police) and a Ministry bureaucracy( MFaT).
So really, when you get right down to it, what the Neoliberal Right of New Zealand politics were seeking to criticize about the last term of Labour when they derisively referred to "Communism by Stealth" ... was actually New Zealand First core policy (meaning if there's anybody whom Seymour should be criticizing for having a track-record to the demonstrable left of Labour ... it's probably not National, but instead New Zealand First).
This theme was continued during the last Parliamentary term when a certain Government Minister (none other than Peter Dunne, if memory serves) referred to Winston as "The Hugo Chavez of the South Pacific" for the economic agenda which we wished to push forward from 2011-2014.
At the time, I took it as a bit of an unintentional compliment.
In any case, and all things considered ... Seymour probably isn't the person deserving of scalding scorn and opprobium here. He's being a bit contrarian in pursuit of a headline and rather intellectually disingenuous in pursuit of getting his point across. 'So what', I'm tempted to say. That's basically what he does - and it's mostly harmless in this instance, because the only people who'd possibly take him seriously in his assertions are those who'd presumably never dream of voting for Labour anyway (except in 1987 - when the Reds came perilously close to winning Remuera).
Instead, if you're feeling any considerable ire over this (and really, you should be) ... then it probably and presumably ought to be targeted squarely at Steven Joyce and the rest of the National Government.
Not only have they created and presided over a situation of seriously escalating economic inequality in this nation ... they have the utter temerity and arrogance to brag and boast about it as if it's a key hallmark of ongoing economic progress. Madness!
There's nothing wrong with operating to the economic left of Labour. But it seems fairly patently obvious that that's not what National are doing. If there's any dyed-in-the-wool Cold Warriors out there in the audience, they may perhaps choose to disagree - but running a fairly broadly social-democrat economic policy is not supposed to substantially increase inequality by benefiting economic elites at the expense of just about everyone else.
That would be the economic creed of the Right Wing that Seymour's thinking of.
Now don't get me wrong. I am not saying that the material Frank quoted was either inaccurate or wildly out of context. It wasn't. Winston, while in government with the National Party from 1996-1998, wound up backing and supporting principles and policies which might fairly be regarded as almost the complete opposite of what our Movement was founded to propound all those years ago in 1993. Probably the biggest clanger is something which Frank hasn't directly referenced - Winston's in-public support for the privatization of a state asset (namely, the Auckland Airport).
But we all have pasts - particularly those of us who've effectively spent something like forty years straight in politics - and while previous actions can be quite instructive in helping us to understand where someone's come from ... I find myself customarily FAR more interested in what they're doing now (or, for that matter, over the last ten to twelve years) as compared to what they were doing quite literally almost twenty years ago.
The other points which desperately needed to be included in Frank's article yet which evidently must have been left on the cutting-room floor include i) our actions in and around government *since* 1998 (i.e. the 2005-2008 co-operation with the Labour Party and even, later, the Greens); and ii) what we've done and said both out of Parliament and in Opposition since then.
As applies our record from 2005-2008, the evidence is clear: New Zealand First is no Neoliberal party. Otherwise, why would we have pushed for unprecedented rises in the minimum wage commensurate with a figure of about a dollar per year (and effective scrapping of youth rates)? Why would we have delivered the renationalization of KiwiRail? Or secured a thousand extra front-line police plus three hundred support staff?
There are numerous other examples drawn from that three-year period to cite ... but even considered in the most superficial manner, renationalizing assets, raising wages, and pouring vastly more funding into an essential state service (for such the provision of law and order surely is) hardly smack of "Neoliberalism".
Indeed, given the privatization of assets, undermining of real wages, and slashing of state services are pretty much the sine qua non criterion for a given party or regime being "neoliberal" ... I'd even go so far as to say that our more recent Record In Office is tantamount to us being Neoliberalism's very Antithesis Incarnate.
This trend doesn't exactly abate during either the Wilderness Years from 2008-2011 (during which time, I joined the Party - because it appeared to be the strongest anti-Neoliberal force available), or for the period running from late-2011 to the present day in which we've been back in Parliament.
On issues like the privatization of state assets or the Government and Reserve Bank's ongoing quixotic obsession with controlling inflation rates at the expense of both currency and unemployment concerns ... for the longest time, New Zealand First effectively seemed to be standing alone. I am more than happy to be proven wrong about this, but I don't seem to recall either of Labour or the Green Party putting forward serious policy nor legislative proposals to comprehensively #Renationalize stolen Kiwi assets, or fundamentally reform the Reserve Bank Act to move our country's key monetary policy instrument away from the avowedly Neoliberal theoretical underpinnings and preferences which had so deleteriously constrained it for so long.
I do not deny that some of Winston's rhetoric from 1996-1998 was seriously average ... but to ignore all of the above in favour of insisting that a specific interpretation of what he said two decades ago is absolutely and axiomatically what we believe today seems almost scurrilous. Or at the very least rather willfully myopic.
Matters become even worse when we see the oblique comparison between National-NZF on one hand (as the 'parties of the right', although the author doesn't name them as such), and Labour-Greens on the other (as the assumedly anti-neoliberal "left") towards the end of Frank's piece.
Certainly, nobody denies that the Green Party are generally pretty good when it comes to advocating for what's customarily a principled left-of-center and redoubtably anti-neoliberal position. This is one of the many reasons why I keep advocating #BlackGreen2017
According to Frank's logic of taking quotes from a certain period of a Party's history, and then applying them at face-value as present-day ethos and proclivity ... surely this indicates that the Greens are in the same boat as New Zealand First when it comes to neoliberalism? Perhaps even a bit deeper into the vessel considering the fact that the Norman-quotes come from a mere two years ago, while the Winston-speeches are from twenty?
Further, consider the other party which Frank has identified as being of the (supportable) "left" in this country. Labour. Now we all know what they got up to in the 1980s. I won't waste half a piece by setting out exactly which still presently serving front-bench spokespeople did seriously, SERIOUSLY neoliberal things during and after Rogernomics. But that was closer in time to Winston's 1997 misadventures than either set of incidences is to the present day.
And more importantly, if Labour's severely mixed messages about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement are anything to go by, while New Zealand First has clearly and avowedly left our past mistakes in the rear-view mirror ... for the Parliamentary Labour Party, their own egregious missteps appear more a case of "objects in this mirror may be much closer than they appear".
New Zealand First lead the charge against the TPPA in Parliament. We put forward not one but TWO excellent bills to try and stop the TPPA and its worst effects from being allowed to happen here. In our vision for the future of New Zealand, foreign corporate power should NEVER be allowed to trump New Zealand people power. If that isn't 'anti-Neoliberal', then I really don't know what is.
Now all of this is not put forward out of spite or out of hand. I have no great interest in attacking either Labour or the Greens in this piece. But the plain fact of the matter is that if we apply Frank's own evidentiary standards which he's subjected us to, to the two parties he's quite happy to label as "left", then we inevitably wind up with a situation wherein they're attackable under exactly the same pernicious charge of "aiding, abetting and embodying Neoliberalism" as New Zealand First supposedly is.
Or, to phrase it another way - if we are to convict Winston of 'neoliberalism' on the basis of a speech made twenty years ago (and disregarding pretty much all the available evidence of his conduct, aspirations and beliefs for much of the two decades since, including the last time we were in/near Government) ... then we quite quickly wind up in a thankless and just about impossible situation wherein virtually everybody in or near Parliament ought be rhetorically tarred and feathered for much the same reason. If not outright more ardently, due to the far more recent (in the case of the Greens) and sustained (in the case of Labour) nature of their offending.
In summary - as I said at the outset, I often have considerable time and regard for what Frank publishes. I mean him no disrespect (in fact, quite the contrary) by seeking to engage with, critique, and riposte against his most recent piece.
But while it is probably too strong a term to state that charges of New Zealand First being 'neoliberal' are entirely "unfounded" (Frank's digging up of two speeches from twenty years ago does sort-of put paid to that) ... asserting that the present, modern New Zealand First which I joined up to some seven years ago is either i) 'neoliberal'; or ii) by implication, somehow more 'neoliberal' than, say, the Labour Party, makes an utter nonsense of the term.
I could go on at some (even greater) length, but I think the point is made.
New Zealand First has undeniably and unquestionably made some graven mistakes in the past. Many of us are amongst the first to acknowledge this. But we have also made strident and stringent contributions to the political good of our nation - often, although not exclusively, in the field of repealing and rolling back dire neoliberal 'reforms' wrought and put into play by parties other than our own.
Going into the 2017 Campaign, you're going to hear an awful lot of prognostication and punditry about New Zealand First's likely future prospects and potential political positioning. Much of it will be sensationalized. Some of it will be slanderous. And as always happens, there will be a bevvy of persons erroneously insisting that we're somehow "right-wing".
But look to the evidence - ALL of it, rather than piecemeal and cherrypicked slivers from several decades ago - and you'll quite rapidly start to get a proper picture of who and what we actually are.
"Neoliberal", whatever the actual meaning and import of the term, would appear to be pretty far down the list of terms which one could feasibly use.
About a month ago, I lodged an Official Information Act request with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The object of my inquiry was to attempt to discover just how many of the people applying for New Zealand Residency were actually on the long-term skill shortages list. Or, in other words, how many people coming here were bringing skills and aptitudes which we desperately need, and which can't otherwise be easily found in the general New Zealand Population.
The answer, somewhat to my surprise, was that the figure was around 40%. Or, phrased another way, a clear majority of migrants to New Zealand - some 60% - are not people whom we vitally need on an economic basis.
Why this matters is because for the longest time large-scale immigration commensurate with a figure the size of the population of Nelson turning up in our midst every year was justified to us on the basis that these people were bringing essential skills which we needed - and that our economy would surely begin to grind to a halt if we were to attempt to seriously curtail migration numbers.
That has been the argument issuing forth from the Government Benches every time somebody from New Zealand First, Labour, or civil society in general have sought to suggest that untrammeled population growth through immigration is at least partially responsible for spiraling Auckland house-prices and ongoing escalating pressure upon already over-subscribed infrastructure and social spending. (And, to be fair, it's not just the Opposition who've noticed this happening - even the Prime Minister now accepts that large-scale immigration has placed a strain upon infrastructure)
From the perspective of a migrant worker, this is all obviously seriously bad. But the effects and ambit of what's been going on here don't just affect them. Instead, the net impact of adding tens of thousands of extra workers to our labour market have an impact upon all those who participate in same - not just the more recent arrivals.
We know from the basic and elementary economic law of 'supply and demand' that the more supply there is to a market, the lower the price of the commodity in question will be. Labour is the service being supplied here. Adding supply - particularly supply which is buyable/hirable at a price rather below that which existing supply is available at - drags down the equilibrium price of that labour. In order to remain competitive with those who are willing (or less-willingly forced) to work for lower wages, workers must demand less pay and refrain from attempting to negotiate for pay-increases.
The twin obvious justifications for why National continues to allow in thousands of migrant labourers who aren't on the long-term skill shortages list thus ought to be plainly obvious.
It's because our Government are working hand-in-glove with their economically exploitative employment-offering mates to attempt to artificially depress both pay and conditions in the broader New Zealand labour market - for everyone, not just migrant workers.
Ever since the roll-out of the Rogernomics economic "reforms" in the 1980s, take-home pay in real terms has been declining for workers in New Zealand. We have also witnessed ongoing attempts by successive Governments to corral and constrain Union power. But while they have evidently accomplished oh so much economic devastation for the ordinary person through direct legislative instruments, since the halting of the 'mainstream' Neoliberal 'revolution' in the mid-late 1990s following the running out of steam of Ruthanasia etc, more insidious means to further the same broad objectives have had to be pursued.
It is deeply regrettable that so many come to our shores in pursuit of a 'better life', only to find exploitation and marginalization awaiting them. I mean no malice nor antipathy towards our migrant populations and those seeking accession to Permanent Residency by writing this. But the grand and impersonal macroeconomic forces that our extant Neoliberal overlords have unleashed - which push and which pulverize propelled in no small part through population-flows drawn from across the ocean - do indeed deserve calling out and commentary upon.
It is, after all, our Government's fault rather than the 'malaise' of any migrant that we are in this situation to begin with. And therefore our collective responsibility, as voters and as citizens, to penetrate the murk and see what they're actually up to.
The figure of only 40% of those applying to gain Residency here as migrants who're able to meet essential, long-term skill-vacancies helps to show us quite conclusively that National's priorities when it comes to immigration are not exactly in the interests of ordinary New Zealanders.
Saturday afternoon at NZF's Convention was set aside for a presentation on New Zealand First Tertiary Education Policy by spokesperson Tracey Martin. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but wondered privately whether it had something to do with the promised costings on free tertiary education which Tracey was widely rumoured to be pursuing.
Now to be clear, NZ First advocacy for abolishing ruinous barriers to tertiary education access in the form of spiraling fees and loan-debts for living-costs is not exactly new. I pushed for both this, a Universal Student Allowance, and debt write-off schemes for those working here in New Zealand in the 2011 Tertiary Education Policy which I prepared for that year's New Zealand First Manifesto.
But what makes Tracey's announcement on Saturday an absolute sea-change for us is something else. This is a fully-costed, comprehensively researched, and well fitted together wraparound policy set. Whereas previously, we sort of coasted through by pointing to - of all things - United Future-sourced costings for some of our tertiary policy (among other stopgap countermeasures); this time all the hard work to make sure the policy-set's viable has been prepared endogenously, and in such a way that it's not hard to look through the detail and see how the whole thing works.
But perhaps more importantly, the document with which we were presented on Saturday did something else: it directly compared and contrasted the dollar-figures to pay for what New Zealand First is proposing, against the present-day costs of the way we do student loans and allowances and all the rest of it (i.e. the machinery of tertiary education accessibility which we want to re-tread and replace) alongside it.
The exact figures, if you're interested, are $4.183 billion for the way things are now (equivalent to 1.67% of GDP); versus $4.638 billion for what New Zealand First is proposing for the future (equivalent to 1.86% of GDP).
What I'm basically trying to say is: even though four hundred and fifty million sounds like a fair bit of cash (which it is) ... in the context of government programs, it's really not that huge a figure. Our existing neoliberal overlords have already demonstrated they're quite content just flat-out WASTING similar (if not inordinately larger) amounts of money - and with seriously questionable returns.
The key difference between spending several hundred million on funding a dramatically improved support for the accessibility of tertiary education in this country (and helping to keep recently-upskilled graduates both living and working here in the nation which paid for it) is that at the end of this process we actually *get* something for it other than an enduring hole in the books.
Tracey has done some serious and sustained Good Work both for our Party and for the tertiary education sector generally by putting all this together. It is presumably a sign of the policy-set's strength and utility that opponents such as the Tertiary Education Minister feel they have to engage in counter-factual distortion in order to try and rubbish it.
I look forward to the thinking outlined in Tracey's latest policy push (including the concept of 'skill-debt' replacing 'financial debt'; and viewing education as an investment rather than a mere expense) permeating out further into conversations around and about the sector.
Because what we're doing right now clearly isn't working. Instead, we drive our young people overseas with ruinous debt, and then arrest them at the border for returning. We refuse to pay many less well off students who aren't being supported by their parents any minimum stipend to live on (while instead handing a modicum of money to those on the dole) - and then act surprised and tut-tut when it turns out they're borrowing to live.
If we're serious about building a smart, technologically and societally sophisticated economy going forward, then we need to be doing something different.
The policy-set outlined by Tracey Martin over the weekend represents exactly the kind of starting shot-in-the-arm which our education sector - and our young people - need in order to begin making this a reality.
One of the unique privileges of my position in the NZ politisphere is that I straddle two worlds. I'm a commentator and purveyor of insight - but I'm also a card-carrying member of one of New Zealand's most interesting (yet inscrutable) political parties.
Every so often, I get to bring the two facets together and write pieces which provide a depth of illumination on New Zealand First which you simply don't often see elsewhere in the media. Particularly when it comes to the happenings, movings and shakings of our annual Party Convention.
The internal intrigues and evolution of NZF make for fascinating material. This is especially the case given that i) information is often kept rather carefully controlled by the Party itself; and ii) even when things do come out, the Media rarely has much interest in reporting upon goings-on inside the Party unless they're overtly and outrightly scandalous.
Starved of augury, then, both people and politicos almost inevitably just buy into the staid old spin that there is little to New Zealand First other than one Winston Peters; and that it is upon his mighty, craggy shoulders which our success or failure largely if not entirely depends.
As I've attempted to set out in a number of pieces published here over the last two years, nothing could be further from the truth - even if once upon a time the situation might have borne a slightly closer resemblance to this than it does now.
But why am I indulging in a lengthy prosody and prologue? Because it's important to set the scene for my coverage hot from the halls of 2016's New Zealand First Convention down here in Dunedin. I don't know what the media are going to focus on this time (other than the seemingly-inevitable shots of some of our more venerable and snow-haired veteran members deliberately focused on for the nightly news), but I'm willing to bet there will be much talk about Winston, Winston, Winston as we gear up for the 2017 Campaign.
Fair enough. Except what experienced Party observers will be seeing over the course of the weekend is something quite different.
It's a Party which has well and truly come of age.
Earlier in this piece, I stated that - while never entirely true - the perception of NZF as a Winston-centered organization was once more true than it is now. This is not to be taken as a condemnation of some sort of Soviet-style, Bolivarian or North Korean 'cult of personality' - but instead, as a simple recognition of organizational fact. Throughout our long years in the wilderness from 2009-2011, and for a good chunk of the 2011-2014 Parliamentary Term, there simply wasn't anyone else (or at least, very many people) with the same depth of political experience and sheer know-how in the operation as Winston. We often went through him to get things done not because he's some sort of autocrat ... but because he was the hardest worker, and the 'go-to' guy for telling you how to make something happen in the best, most efficacious way possible. I miss having his personal guidance.
I spent almost half a decade on New Zealand First's Board of Directors, and particularly with the way things were set up around Parliamentary Services doing a lot of the heavy lifting for outreach materials, communications with members etc., it could often feel like a bit of a skeletal (but definitely vital and oft-vibrant) organization.
But all that's started to seriously, SERIOUSLY change over the last year or so since our 2015 Convention, leaving NZF now feeling much more like an established, orthodox political party. And while Winston (and the other MPs) obviously deserves credit for trooping up and down the country to fill community halls and keep a steady stream of new membership signups coming in ... the man who clearly and obviously deserves a huge share of the credit for this quantum sea-change in how we are as a Party is none other than current (and then recently-elevated) New Zealand First Deputy Leader Ron Mark.
Thanks to Ron and his (our) team of quality Board members, our Party organization now does more than ever before. Clearly, some of the elections to same which were made thirteen months ago were wise choices. Brent Catchpole has brought a welcome competency to the office of Party President over this time since winning big in Rotorua last year; although if there's one Board member whose performance I particularly wish to highlight, it's that of Acting North Island Vice President Julian Paul.
Julian was elected onto the Board at the same Convention, and wasted no time in energetically pouring himself over just about everything which needed doing across the entire Party. Under his aegis, we've started once again setting up proper digital infrastructure (something previously seen as rather controversial three years ago during my own tenure on the Board where I attempted to push similar) - as well as better ways to organize, grow and utilize membership. That last point might sound a little boring ... but thanks in no small part to him, we have several new 'electorate hubs' with the capacity to mobilize scores of volunteers and do things like organizing the Winston meeting I attended out in Papakura earlier this year which attracted so many (non-Party) people that you literally had a rapt audience standing out in the hall's carpark to hear our Chief speak. They're intending to do the same thing several more times in the run-up to the next Election, and drew a crowd of several hundred at a recent meeting in Manurewa held as a followup. We simply didn't really have that capacity to engage in sustained, concerted (pre-)campaign efforts before. I certainly hope he wins election to the NIVP position on Sunday. It is a great record of operation to continue.
(And if you want to see a little tangible visual evidence of the sort of changes wrought inside NZF ... ask yourself whether the cover photo of this piece - which depicts a debrief meeting of activists immediately after that Manurewa event looks anything like what you'd imagine a collection of NZF folk to be. The lowering of age demographics and increasing of diversity of those involved has been a trend consistently mirrored across the entire Party)
Now I could wax lyrical about the contributions which Board candidates like Robert Monds (one of my NZ First Youth comrades from back in the day) or Mark Thomas have already made; but suffice to say it's much in-line with the above. That is to say, helping in integral ways to build an actual, modern political party that's taking serious steps (like any good adolescent should) towards being future-independent of its illustrious progenitor.
Because that's going to be the Real Story of this Convention. The continual shoring up of the impressive team which has helped and will help Ron to lead New Zealand First on into the next phase of our independent development.
You probably won't have seen this transition through NZF's outings in the media. They tend to focus upon Winston and Parliamentary derring-do. But behind the scenes, there has been an ongoing serious evolution carried out by the names cited above and many others towards a Party that's basically unrecognizable on the inside from the phantom revenant I first washed up in all those years before.
Author's Note: This piece was originally written for my regular 'Sex, Drugs & Electoral Rolls' column in Craccum Magazine. It was unable to be published in a timely manner there due to a mix-up with the vagaries of print-deadlines, so has been presented with some alterations for your enjoyment on TDB instead.
Late last month, US Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton made world-sweeping headlines for a campaign stump-speech in which she called out - by name - the previously internet-bound phenomenon known as 'the Alt-Right'. That same evening, Newshub aired a resyndicated news story from abroad which mentioned in passing one Milo Yiannopoulos (widely regarded as a figurehead sine qua non for the disaffected gaggle of networked malcontents we're talking about), while also addressing the 'Alt-Right' as being a "white nationalist movement".
In the case of both Clinton and that errant news report, the claim and purpose of invoking these groups by name was much the same as earlier eras' emphases upon shadowy yet monolithic Islamic terror networks, and vastly insidious Communist conspiracies - that is, to give a new and looming Official Boogeyman for Establishment figures (whether political or media) to point to as a creeping, subversive threat.
Certainly, in the climate of political upheaval being inspired by political moments such as #Brexit and the ongoing, inexorable rise of Donald Trump (alongside the consequent breaking and political bankruptcy of the US Political Establishment), it is very handy to be able to cast about and identify a single unifying phenomenon or philosophical grouping responsible for all of the above. Even better if you can seek to marginalize and reduce the cause you're talking about by turning your reporting or speechifying on its underpinnings into itself an act of de-legitimating.
And there is, generally speaking, nothing less legitimate in the eyes of many than a bunch of anime-watching, LCD-tanning, adolescent (whether biologically or behaviorally) young men embracing notionally extremist political creeds drawn from the darkest, strangest, and most irrational-outrage-prone corners of the Internet - which, among other things, is what the Alt-Right is often regarded as being. (Presumably the main reason Key hasn't attempted to attack Winston's support-base like this is because the National Party stereotype of NZF-voters all being over 60 effectively precludes same from hanging out on image-boards) About the only thing which could possibly be regarded as more absurd and derision-worthy in association with a mainstream political campaign would be actual Neo-Nazis and cross-burning American White Separatists. Both of which, you'll note, the 'Alt-Right' is often described as containing.
But while there is an obvious and potent rhetorical force to be had in describing your opponent's core supporters thus (however true or otherwise it might be), the trouble with both politicians and con-men is that they eventually start to suffer the deleterious after-effects and clouding of judgement which almost inevitably accompanies starting to believe your own propaganda. Worse, there's a curious property of the political realm that makes things you talk about as 'mere' narrative oratical flourishes turn into terrifyingly concrete reality (c.f the way there largely wasn't an organized Islamic armed "Caliphate" up until US rhetoriticians started talking about one). The esoterically inclined might recognize this as a temporal manifestation of the Buddhist concept of 'Tulpa' - wherein sheer force of believe can actually make otherwise illusory objects real through the manipulation of Maya (because if everything's vaguely unreal anyway, then forming unreality into things which are as tangible as 'real' objects isn't actually that hard - a perfect metaphor for the modern operation of PR and rhetoric in politics).
By putting an increasing energy into 'calling out' opponents of Clinton, or the E.U., or Globalization, or any of the rest of it as being 'Alt-Right', and "White Nationalists", and all the rest of the unsavory gumbo of slurs which we're going to see unfold over the next few weeks ... the Protectors of Orthodoxy are committing three grave errors.
First, and most obviously; Clinton, half the UK Conservative Party, and probably sooner or later John Key et co (in other words, your Technocratic Globalist Elites) engaging in this sort of rhetorical legerdemain, do so to fairly deliberately mischaracterize their adversaries. As I've covered in previous columns both in this magazine and elsewhere, the driving forces kicking back against Establishment Politics across the Anglosphere and even further afield are not what they're being sold as. Instead, they're disgruntled and disaffected working-class folks who're fundamentally OVER the way they've been continually marginalized and passed over by the alleged benefits of Globalization and successive layers of economic 'reform'. They are fulminating and fustigating, in the main, about being left behind and lied to by the neoliberal elites who've misgoverned and misruled over us for the best part of a generation. It's the same phenomenon (and quite literally the same people) which adequately explain both Trump and Sanders, Corbyn and Brexit.
To insist, blithely, that all of the above is effectively reducible down to a veritable CARICATURE of a political movement as largely carried out over 4chan is not just to engage in the most comprehensive misjudgement of upheaving political forces since a certain previous prominent female naively presumed that a few cakes would put down the French Revolution ... it is to also blatantly insult all the decent, mature people who've *actually* built up and sustained the above and aforementioned political shifts. Fifty Two Percent of British Voters are not Alt-Right, and nor are most of the people who fairly resolutely think Hillary is unfit to be President.
And yet ... if you name something like this - give title and prominence to the 'phenomenon' - then like teenagers queuing up to buy suddenly outlawed 'explicit' music as a form of rebellion, it can therefore take on a life and vitality all of its own.
The second cardinal error, therefore, is something which an associate of mine termed the 'backdraft principle'. Rather luridly, he described the ambit of such as being akin to standing outside of a burning building, and opening a great, heavy-set door. All of a sudden, "oxygen rushes into a previously enclosed space, rapidly adding intensity to the conflagration, resulting in an explosion". I'm not sure of the precise application of thermodynamics here, but the metaphor is an apt one. If Liberal Voices mean what they say about this 'Alt-Right' being an even more dangerous adversary for that which they value than your run-of-the-mill Trump supporter, then perhaps the very worst thing Clinton could have done, from a long-term perspective, would be to give voice - her voice - to their Movement. In much the same way as the Ancient Greeks sought to destroy Herostratus ... there are some iconoclasts whom, if you're serious about curtailing their influence, all you can do is cease to mention them in public in the hopes of considerably aiding and availing their withering demise. To do otherwise - to lend them the legitimacy of mention in a Presidential campaign speech ... is to give them an entirely undeserved respectability.
The third fault is perhaps rather innocuous, except from an academic's or pedant's point of view. There is no single monolithic 'Alt-Right' any more than there is a 'unitary' anti-West in the Middle East. Over the last eighteen months of running battles and skirmishes which I've had with an eclectic array of the 'Alt Right's' online membership, about the only consistent feature of the term's adherents is their diversity. You will quite literally encounter *everything*. Semi-reconstructed fascists duel with Pinochetian economic libertarians who share the former's substantive enthusiasm for f(l)ashy uniforms. Raging homophobes are lead by a flaming homosexual. Former Eastern-Bloc Jews make common cause with Anti-Semites (I'm not even kidding - I've seen this a number of times). Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran are praised, while Muslim migrants are referred to as "rapefugees". "Don't Tread On Me" yellow-black Anarcho-Capitalists are found a stone's throw from semi-ironic Stalin-enthusiasts. And an increasingly bewildering 'rainbow' array of reprehensible representatives of wildly differing ethnicities come together to make jokes about African-Americans and each other.
Truly, if we are to conceptualize the 'Alt-Right' as a "movement" (which would, itself, do almost irreparable harm to the concept of a 'movement' in politics), it must be the single most diverse political grouping ever conceived since the Fall of the Tower of Babel. From what I have seen, it quite literally makes the NZ Labour Party appear to be a bastion of staid white/beige hetero-dimensional 'uniformity' by comparison.
In any case, leading political figures should exercise a certain degree of care when it comes to 'calling out' their opponents. Particularly, as in this case, where it apparently involves an attempt to masque and market otherwise-ordinary middle-of-the-road types as being radical and radicalized extremists. As an associate put it - "the danger of being called a fascist is that if it happens often enough, eventually you might cease questioning it and just go with what's expected of you".
Because to continue down this road - of lumping the spectrum of more sensible objection in with extremism - is to invite extremists to take leadership of the sensible objection.
And if that happens, then all this present talk of the 'Alt-Right' as a mainstream (or 'mainstream-threatening') "movement" might very well make the leap to being 'prescriptive' rather than merely 'predictive', as it is presently.