Wednesday, 20 September 2017

A Song For The Times.



It’s the terror of knowing
What the world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming ‘Let me out’ 

Under Pressure - David Bowie/Queen


Video courtesy of YouTube


This posting exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

When The Country Goes To Town.

Pretty Ugly, Pretty Quickly: That the demographic and cultural divide between rural and urban New Zealand remains a source of deep unease to farmers cannot be doubted. Equally indisputable, historically-speaking, has been the militant, even violent, character of rural New Zealand’s response. In New Zealand history, when the country comes to town, things tend to get pretty ugly, pretty quickly. Morrinsville, New Zealand, 18 September 2017.

YESTERDAY IN MORRINSVILLE farmers rallied against Labour’s proposed “Water Tax”. Why Morrinsville? Because that was the little country town in which Jacinda Ardern grew up. Just think about that for a moment. Think about what it says about the mindset of a distressingly large percentage of New Zealand’s farming community.

The president of the Waikato branch of Federated Farmers, Andrew McGiven, told the NZ Farmer newspaper that farmers were tired of being scapegoated by politicians. Another protest organiser, local farmer Lloyd Downing, complained to the same publication in similar fashion:

“The lack of fairness and consistency in some of the proposed policies, and the laying of blame solely at the feet of rural New Zealand for all of our environmental challenges is what is frustrating farmers – particularly when it is well known that the most polluted waterways are in urban catchments. The water quality issues are a challenge for all New Zealanders. Farmers recognise that, and are spending tens of thousands of dollars each on reducing their environmental impact.”

It was in response to these “continued attacks” on “rural New Zealand” that farmers rallied in their hundreds under Morrinsville’s giant cow statue.

New Zealanders like to think of themselves as people with strong ties to the land. It’s a fallacy which perhaps explains the enduring popularity of the television programme, Country Calendar. Except that, for most of its history, New Zealand has been an urban nation. Certainly, by the early years of the twentieth century most Kiwis resided and worked in towns and cities. In terms of their jobs, lifestyle and political outlook, these “townies” were a very different breed.

That this demographic and cultural divide between rural and urban New Zealand was a source of deep unease to farmers cannot be doubted. Equally indisputable, historically-speaking, has been the militant, even violent, character of rural New Zealand’s response. In New Zealand history, when the country comes to town, things tend to get pretty ugly, pretty quickly.

In 1913, for example, hundreds of armed farmers on horseback (known forever after as “Massey’s Cossacks” after the farmer-friendly Reform Party prime minister, William Massey) were brought into New Zealand’s major cities to crush what would come to be known as “The Great Strike”. According to New Zealand historian, James Belich, exchanges of gunfire between Massey’s Cossacks and the “Red Fed” strikers were common. Many of the trade unionists involved in the Great Strike later became MPs and Ministers in the First Labour Government.

One of those unionists was Peter Fraser. In 1945, as Prime Minister and Labour Party Leader, Fraser presided over the abolition of the infamous “Country Quota”. This was the section of New Zealand’s Electoral Act which, ever since 1881, had added a 25 percent weighting to votes cast in rural electorates.

The reaction of the farming community to Fraser’s long-overdue rectification of what can only be described as a democratic outrage is instructive. In his book, The Quest For Security In New Zealand 1840-1966, W B Sutch describes how Labour’s plans to abolish the Country Quota were met with “country-wide protests from farmers’ organisations, an appeal to the Governor-General asking him to intervene, and threats of direct action.” Quite what the cockies meant by “direct action” remains unclear, but the Dominion Executive of the Farmers’ Union (forerunner of Federated Farmers) was prepared to raise the then quite considerable sum of £250,000 to fund it!

The sort of thing the cockies had in mind only became clear in 1951, when the first farmers’ government since 1935 was willing to shut down New Zealand’s democracy for the 151 days it took Sid Holland’s National Party to replicate its Reform Party predecessor’s success in ruthlessly suppressing militant trade-unionism in the nation’s ports, coal mines, railways and freezing works.

Thirty years later, the reactionary cultural instincts of rural New Zealand were, once again, pitched into a prolonged and violent confrontation with the progressive values of metropolitan New Zealanders. The 1981 Springbok Tour not only bore testimony to the tenacity of rural conservatism, but also to its steady migration into the upper-middle-class suburbs of the largest cities.

When Mike Hosking challenged National’s current leader to name something he would march for, Dipton’s favourite son was at a loss. This was curious, since the photographs of a placard-carrying Bill English, seated jauntily on ‘Myrtle the Tractor’, at the 2003 Federated Farmers’ protest against the so-called “Fart Tax”, in Parliament Grounds, were still in the archives – and easily retrieved.

When Andrew McGiven and Lloyd Downing encouraged their rural brethren to gather under Morrinsville’s giant cow yesterday, they were simply adding another chapter to an already lengthy story of rural antagonism towards the needs and aspirations of New Zealand’s urban majority. The latter looked on, appalled, at the selfishness and ignorance which unfailingly follow the country into town.


This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 September 2017.

Monday, 18 September 2017

1969: The "Nearly-But-Not-Quite" Election.

Labour Nearly Did This: It didn’t really seem possible that Labour could have lost. Its 1969 campaign had broken new ground in terms of media sophistication. Labour’s theme-song “Make Things Happen” had topped the local charts, and its television commercial, put together by a hungry young ad-man called Bob Harvey, was slicker than anything New Zealand voters had hitherto encountered.

“WE’VE GOT IT!” Was the triumphant (if incautious) assertion of the supposedly neutral Professor Bob Chapman on the night of the 1969 “nearly-but-not-quite” general election. The worthy professor should perhaps be forgiven for his premature psephological ejaculation. He had marked down the electorate of Eden as the seat Labour was bound to take if it was on-course to becoming the government. On the night, Labour’s candidate, the distinguished New Zealand historian, Professor Keith Sinclair, had taken it. Chapman, whose Labour sympathies were well known to his colleagues (if not to the television audience) had waited nine long years to see the National Government of Keith Holyoake defeated. And, half-way through the election-night telecast, it seemed as though his political patience was being rewarded. That Keith Sinclair was also Chapman’s good friend and colleague, merely slapped a good-sized dollop of icing on the cake.

By the end of the telecast, however, the story had changed. Sinclair’s narrow election-night majority notwithstanding, Labour had fallen four seats short of the 43 needed to win. An industrial dispute involving a ship called the Wainui – culminating in a march up Queen Street by the communist-dominated Seafarers’ Union – had cost the Labour leader, Norman Kirk, the Auckland seats he’d needed (and confidently expected) to secure the prime-minister’s job. Even Eden, after the counting of Special Votes, reverted to National’s John Rae by the wafer-thin margin of 67 votes.

It didn’t really seem possible that Labour could have lost. Its campaign had broken new ground in terms of media sophistication. Labour’s theme-song “Make Things Happen” had topped the local charts, and its television commercial, put together by a hungry young ad-man called Bob Harvey, was slicker than anything New Zealand voters had hitherto encountered. What’s more, between the 1966 and 1969 elections, New Zealand had passed through its sharpest economic downturn since the Second World War. Export prices had collapsed and unemployment had risen to a post-Depression peak. It seemed inconceivable that a nine-year-old government, offering such a lacklustre record, could possibly be re-elected. How was it that Holyoake won?

First-off, there was the rapidity of the country’s economic recovery. Export prices recovered and unemployment fell sharply in the months leading up to the 1969 election. National’s new finance minister, Rob Muldoon, was thus able to project competence and control in equal measure. To many voters, the 1967-68 recession seemed nothing more than a glitch, an aberrant departure from the steady upward trajectory of New Zealand’s post-war economic performance. Certainly, Muldoon’s message to the electorate was unequivocal: “I’ve got this!” His reputation as National’s “economic wizard” dates from this period.

But an improving economy wasn’t the only reason for National’s surprise win in 1969. There may have been growing ferment on the nation’s campuses, and increasing union militancy in the nation’s factories and freezing-works but, at heart, New Zealand remained a deeply conservative society. The events of the previous year: the annus horribilis of 1968; with its tragic list of assassinations (Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy) and its frightening clashes between young protesters and out-of-control police personnel (Paris, Chicago, Mexico City) had culminated not in revolution, but in the election of Richard Nixon as President of the United States. There was “something in the air”, alright – conservative paranoia!

And so, late in the evening of Saturday, 29 November 1969, it was a visibly relieved Keith Holyoake who gently chastised Professor Chapman for his earlier – premature – celebration of a Labour victory. Against all the odds, National’s three-term government had been returned for a fourth. Only the first Labour Government of Mickey Savage and Peter Fraser could boast an equal number of consecutive election victories (1935, 1938, 1943, 1946).

But, Holyoake was no fool. He knew that only “events, dear boy, events” had rescued his party from the jaws of certain defeat on 29 November 1969. Twenty-six months later, on 7 February 1972, just nine months out from the next scheduled general election, Holyoake would step away from the prime-ministership – passing-on a poison-smeared baton to his loyal deputy, Jack Marshall. Similarly, on the night of that agonisingly close contest (National’s 1969 vote, at 605,960, was just 13,905 votes ahead of Labour’s tally of 592,055) “Big Norm” Kirk was quietly confident that, in spite of losing the “nearly-but-not-quite” election of 1969, nothing short of divine intervention was going to prevent him from leading Labour to victory in 1972.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 18 September 2017.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

VOTE!

Let's Do This Now! New Zealand is poised to repeat the circumstances that produced the shock British election result of 2015. Those with a retentive political memory will recall how both the pollsters and the pundits were predicting an extremely close election which could very easily see the Labour Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, moving in to Number 10 Downing Street as Britain’s next prime minister. Didn’t happen.

IF, ON ELECTION NIGHT 2017, you end up staring at the numbers in horrified disbelief. If National proves the people at Reid Research are the best pollsters in the business. If the Jacinda Train runs out of puff several percentage-points short of being able to form a government. If the Greens: the dear, earnest, tree-hugging Greens; fall below the 5 percent MMP threshold. If, after all these calamities, you’re casting about in your anger and your grief for an explanation, then reclaim from the back of your mind this crucial piece of information from Elections New Zealand.

As at 15 September, just over a week out from Election Day, “nearly 20,000 fewer young people under 30 [have] registered compared with 2014”.

Got that? Notwithstanding the fact that the leadership of the Labour Party has passed to a young woman of 37. Notwithstanding the fact that Labour is promising to enact a suite of policies aimed directly at addressing the problems besetting young New Zealanders. Notwithstanding the fact that the most future-focused of all New Zealand political parties, the Greens, are at serious risk of being ushered out of Parliament altogether. Notwithstanding all of these things, fewer citizens under 30 have registered than three years ago!

New Zealand is poised to repeat the circumstances that produced the shock British election result of 2015. Those with a retentive political memory will recall how both the pollsters and the pundits were predicting an extremely close election which could very easily see the Labour Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, moving in to Number 10 Downing Street as Britain’s next prime minister.

Didn’t happen.

As polling stations across the British Isles closed their doors, and the counting began, the BBC released an exit poll indicating a comfortable win for the British Conservative Party. Pundits and Opposition politicians alike were dumbfounded. When all the polls were predicting a close race – and some a Labour win – how could the BBC’s exit poll possibly be true?

The Tories knew the answer. They had cottoned-on to what was happening weeks before. All those young Britons who’d happily told the pollsters that they supported Ed Miliband and Labour were by no means as committed to making their way to a polling-booth and actually voting for them. Older voters, on the other hand, were borderline obsessive when it came to exercising the franchise. And guess what? Around three-quarters of them were Tories.

Two years later, back here in New Zealand, the chances of something very similar unfolding are distressingly high. Just consider these additional stats from Elections New Zealand:

“So far, 97 percent of people over 70 have enrolled to vote, but as the age drops, so does the percentage. Only 75 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 29 enrolled to vote and that proportion dropped to 67 percent for 18 to 24-year-olds.”

Combine that data with the latest Colmar Brunton poll’s finding that 67 percent of voters aged between 18 and 34 told the pollster that they were intending to vote for the Labour Party. 1New’s political editor, Corin Dann, has described this as a “youthquake” – and if 18 to 34-year-olds voted in anything like the same numbers as the over-60s, then he’d be right, and Labour/Green would cruise to a stunning election victory.

But, will they? In 2014 around 200,000 young New Zealanders declined to cast a vote. If that degree of abstention is repeated in 2017, then the same gasps of disbelief that greeted the BBC’s exit poll in 2015 will likely be heard here as the Early Voting figures are released on the evening of 23 September. Youthquakes are not born of young voters’ stated intentions, they only occur when young people get themselves to a polling station, step into a booth, fill out a ballot-paper, and drop it into a ballot-box. Jacinda will not become prime minister by millennials liking her on Facebook. To effect a change of government, it is absolutely necessary that young New Zealanders vote.

Among all this doom and gloom there is, however, some good news.

When the Tory British Prime Minister, Teresa May, called a snap election earlier this year, the pundits and pollsters were determined not to be caught napping a second time. If younger citizens, in spite of declaring their support for a political party, don’t actually make it to the polling booths, reasoned the pollsters, then we must adjust our raw results to take account of the high level of youth abstention.

Accordingly, the overwhelming majority of polls released prior to the June British election showed the Conservatives increasing their parliamentary majority. Many of the British pundits went further – predicting a massive collapse in Labour support across the country.

Didn’t happen.

Young British voters had learned from the experience of 2015. They understood that if Jeremy Corbyn’s “For the Many, Not the Few” manifesto promises were ever to be honoured, then they would have to get out and vote for them. Which is exactly what they did – in numbers far surpassing the youth turnout of 2015. Support for the Labour Party surged. Teresa May lost her parliamentary majority.

The moral of the story is pretty bloody clear: VOTE!



You can enrol, and vote, at your nearest Advance Voting polling station (check out their locations at www.elections.org.nz ) right up until 22 September. It is NOT possible to enrol on Election Day itself (Saturday, 23 September) so – VOTE EARLY.

And once you’ve enrolled and voted, make sure everyone you know, who’s 18 and over, and wants to change the government, GOES OUT AND DOES THE SAME.



This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 16 September 2017.

Friday, 15 September 2017

One Picture: Toby Morris's Brilliant Take On National's Attack Strategy.



Auckland cartoonist Toby Morris has produced this superb pictorial commentary on National's campaign tactics. His chilling adaptation of the Nat's "Winning Runners" television ad exposes the class warfare which, when all the superficialities are stripped away, constitutes the dark matter of every general election.


This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

A Second Chance For Labour To Put Things Left.

Victory Lies Ahead, Comrades! Allowing the Greens to make the case for change; assessing the force and quality of the Right’s objections; and then, following a period of extensive consultation, fashioning a suite of reforms acceptable to a solid majority of New Zealanders. Such is the royal-road to making Labour the dominant force in New Zealand politics.

IT’S NOT OFTEN in electoral politics that a party is given a second chance to get it right. In 1999, Labour and the Alliance (with the Greens more-or-less in tow) were gifted the chance to craft a political relationship that could have grown into a near-permanent lock on New Zealand’s still-new MMP electoral system. That neither partner in the Labour-Alliance coalition had the wit to seize, or even understand, the opportunity before them is a testament to the woeful immaturity of the New Zealand Left.

Perhaps the best way to describe the opportunity missed by Labour and the Alliance (and, after 2002, the Greens) is by deploying a military analogy.

Think of Labour as a large army marching through enemy territory. (The analogy works best if the army you’re imagining is a nineteenth century one – think of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, or Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.) The much smaller army of the Alliance is spread out well ahead of Labour’s line of march. Its role: to reconnoitre the territory into which Labour is marching; noting the disposition of the enemy’s troops; their strongpoints; and the places where their defences are weak and vulnerable to attack. Should the enemy encounter the smaller force, the resulting engagement will give the larger army plenty of time to prepare its defences.

For a while, it looked as though the Labour-Alliance combination had decided to work in precisely this fashion. The radical policies of the Alliance – especially those relating to employer-funded Paid Parental Leave and the rolling-back of the Employment Contracts Act – provoked a vehement backlash from the business community. Labour was, thereby, warned in advance of exactly where and how the enemy would attack these measures if they were adopted as official government policy.

Unfortunately, Labour failed to make good strategic use of this advance warning. When the business community’s counterattack came (in the form of the infamous “Winter of Discontent” of the year 2000) Labour fell back in confusion. The Alliance’s policies were slaughtered. Never again would the centre-left armies of Helen Clark and Jim Anderton engage the forces of the Right across such a broad front.

Indeed, in the General Election of 2002, the forces of the centre-left found themselves fighting each other. Labour and the Greens, at loggerheads over the issue of Genetic Engineering, were unwilling to march together. Abandoned by its natural ally, Helen Clark reluctantly joined forces with Peter Dunne’s United Future Party.

Reassured that there would be no more left-wing offensives, National concentrated on reinvigorating its worn-out fighting machine and prepared to take the fight to Labour. In 2005, Labour just managed to hold them at the border. But, in 2008, National brushed aside Helen’s broken army and occupied huge swathes of Labour territory.

Nine years later, under the command of its Joan-of-Arc-like leader, Jacinda Ardern, Labour is again presented with the opportunity to take the fight to the Right. Once again, they have an opportunity to send their radical allies out ahead of their main force to draw enemy fire and provide Labour with the information required to seize the strategic initiative.

If Ms Ardern and her advisers decline to accept this second chance to put things right – or, in this context, left – then they will, once again, have denied to themselves, their party, and their radical Green allies, the opportunity of making steady progressive reform New Zealand’s political default setting.

Allowing the Greens to make the case for change; assessing the force and quality of the Right’s objections; and then, following a period of extensive and authentic public consultation, fashioning a suite of reforms acceptable to a solid majority of New Zealanders. Such is the royal-road to making Labour the dominant force in New Zealand politics.

The test will be whether or not Ms Ardern is willing to follow the example of her mentor Helen Clark. In 1999, with the Greens under sustained attack from National, Ms Clark tipped the wink to Labour’s Coromandel supporters to give their electorate vote to the Green co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons.

If, next week, the Greens are still at risk of falling below the 5 percent MMP threshold, and Ms Ardern tips the wink to Labour’s Wellington Central voters to back James Shaw, then we can be sure that the forces of Centre-Left are, once again, on the march.


This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 September 2017.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

This Is Still A Fight: Some Thoughts On The Newshub-Reid Research Poll.

Enough of "Let's do this", Jacinda. It's time to say "Let's do them!" Labour thought it could bluff its way through this election with warm fuzzies and vague promises. They assumed that these would be enough because the electorate has grown weary of the National Government. Well, the Newshub-Reid Research Poll has reminded them in no uncertain terms that this is still a fight.

FIRST OF ALL, it’s just one poll. And, one poll does not a Labour election loss portend. RNZ’s Poll of Polls which averages out the results of the three or four most recent polls, presents a considerably calmer picture. In a nutshell, National and Labour are level-pegging; NZ First and the Greens are drifting dangerously close to the 5 percent MMP threshold; the Maori Party looks set to take two seats; Act just one; and the rest (including The Opportunity Party) simply aren’t in the race.

Even so. The latest Newshub-Reid Research Poll has delivered a pretty solid kidney-punch to the Centre-Left’s morale. What had begun to feel like a smooth escalator ride to certain victory has been brought to a sudden, stomach-lurching halt. The Nat’s are sitting pretty on 47 percent – enough, with the Greens out of the running, to let them govern on their own.

The cynical genius of the Crosby-Textor pairing has armed the National Party with a pretty serviceable baseball bat and they are swinging it hard. Frustratingly, that Nat bat has been carved out of Labour’s errors. In a fine example of Crosby-Textor’s standard operating procedure. National’s fightback strategy zeroes-in on Labour’s point of maximum vulnerability: their MPs’ abiding fear of stating clearly what it is that they intend to do – and how they intend to pay for it.

Instead of responding to National’s “Let’s Tax This” jibe with a resounding “Hell, Yeah!”, Jacinda has been persuaded to double-down on the Little-led Labour Party’s “keep it vague until the election’s safely won” strategy. The Tax Working Group was supposed to save Labour’s blushes by placating voters with the promise of wise and disinterested expertise. Clearly, the party strategists failed to read the Brexit Memo. Had they done so, they would have been alerted to the fact that the electorate’s faith in “expert opinion” has grown rather thin of late. The stock response of 2017 voters to the prospect of having their future decided by a committee of experts is: “Whose experts will they be?” and “Which side will they be working for?”

Forced to rule out more and more of the promised Working Group’s most predictable recommendations, Jacinda has been made to look as if she already knows what her committee’s findings are going to be – but is reluctant to tell us. This merely reinforces the doubts National has been at such pains to sow. Tactically, her position is grim. As Paddy Gower observes:

“Part of Labour’s problem is that it keeps ruling certain tax variations out during heavy interviews. That keeps the story going. And the problem now is there is no way out for Labour – it cannot backtrack on this. It has to take its vague tax policy all the way to the election – and National will hack at it every step of the way. Labour must find a way out of the tax vortex. Suggestions on back of an envelope to J. Ardern of Mt Albert please.”

Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough time for snail mail. So, Jacinda, please accept the following as my best shot at describing “a way out of the tax vortex”.

Strategically, Labour’s best bet is to go on the offensive over tax. Not by responding to endless challenges to rule this or that tax out of contention, but by reminding voters why they pay taxes in the first place. Give it to the voters straight. That if they want better health care, better education, more affordable housing, improved mental health services and clean rivers and streams, then they cannot avoid the question of how all these things are to be paid for. Tell them that Labour’s Tax Working Group will be asked to come up with the fairest ways to gather revenue, but also tell them that they should not be in any doubt that gathering-in more revenue is, simply, what her government has to do if it is to fulfil its promises to repair the damage wrought by nine years of National rule.

Jacinda should remind the electorate that the determination of tax policy: how much should be gathered, and from whom; goes to the very heart of the democratic tradition. It’s why Kings were required to summon Parliaments. It provided the rallying cry for the American Revolution: “No taxation without representation!” Taxes are the price we pay for civilisation – and democracy.

And then she should turn her attention to the farmers. Because, with their bare-faced lies and angry demonstrations, they have shown the rest of New Zealand exactly why a Working Group to improve the fairness of our taxation system is needed. The farming sector’s dirty dairying has been subsidised by urban taxpayers for long enough. A reasonable contribution from farmers to the cost of cleaning up the waterways they have so recklessly befouled is only fair. Jacinda should invite all those who believe farmers should pay a water tax to join her and James Shaw outside the headquarters of Federated Farmers in Wellington. The spiteful decision of Waikato cow-cockies to protest in Jacinda’s home-town of Morrinsville should be answered in kind.

Labour thought it could bluff its way through this election with warm fuzzies and vague promises. They assumed that these would be enough because the electorate has grown weary of the National Government. Well, the Newshub-Reid Research Poll has reminded them in no uncertain terms that this is still a fight.

The National Party doesn’t do surrender. It understands what the Centre-Left appears to have forgotten: that every general election involves a deliberate intensification of what Labour’s founders referred to unashamedly as “the class struggle”. Or, in the words of Leonard Cohen: “the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.”

“Sunny Ways” have taken Jacinda a long way, but now it is time for her to unleash a blast of true arctic fury. “Fear and lying” is a good start, but, to put it bluntly, at this point in the campaign Labour’s voters are in need of a much more visceral morale boost. The opportunity is there to deliver a blunt message to all those who believe that taxes are what other people pay.

National’s friends in the countryside have raised their hands against “Let’s do this”. It’s time to show them what it means.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 13 September 2017.