Friday, 23 February 2018

Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord!

Succession Planning: The core political mission for National’s caucus is a curiously biblical one. It must choose a John the Baptist figure to prepare the way for National’s Saviour to come.

WHOEVER EMERGES VICTORIOUS from National’s leadership contest will face the challenge of re-defining their party’s core political mission. With Labour showing little sign of deviating from the general policy lines of the Clark-Cullen ministry – lines which John Key and Bill English more-or-less adhered to for nine years – it makes little sense to define National as Not-Labour. The steady reduction of the formerly stark ideological differences between National and Labour makes the Not-Labour definition increasingly problematic.

The relative sameness of the two major parties leaves both of them acutely vulnerable to any sudden break from the status-quo. Any sudden lurch to the far-right by National, for example, would benefit Labour hugely. Without having to deviate even slightly from its current policy settings, the Labour Party would be able to energise its base by presenting Jacinda Ardern’s government as the defender of moderate mainstream values against right-wing extremism. A lurch to the far-left by Labour and its allies would confer an identical advantage upon National. Policy convergence guarantees obvious electoral benefits to both parties.

Just how important preserving bipartisan policy convergence has become in the major western democracies was illustrated by the reaction of the US Democratic Party’s National Committee to Bernie Sanders presidential bid, and the response of British Labour Party MPs to the election of Jeremy Corbyn. The reaction of both party establishments was one of shock and horror. They were convinced that the enunciation of radical ‘socialist’ ideas would render their parties “unelectable”.

Events appear to have proved them right.

By the same token, the triumph of the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom, and the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, has been taken as evidence of a sudden lurch towards extremism by two political parties hitherto perceived as moderate and mainstream. The dramatic improvement in the fortunes of the Democratic Party and the British Labour Party would appear to confirm the wisdom of keeping one’s political colours safely inside the lines.

Presumably, this explains why so many National Party MPs, while remaining tight-lipped about who they intend to vote for, are only too happy to make clear who they will be voting against.

The election of Judith Collins as Leader of the Opposition would allow Jacinda Ardern to go into the 2020 general election as the nation’s protector. The electorate would be urged to use their votes as shields against a rabidly right-wing National Party. The effectiveness of this pitch was proved by Helen Clark’s 2005 exhortation: “Don’t put it all at risk!” In successfully casting National’s Don Brash as an ideological bridge too far, Labour eked out a narrow election win.

The rejoinder of Team Collins would, undoubtedly, be that the secret to winning elections is to increase – not decrease – the level of political polarisation. Pitting like against like in any political contest benefits only the incumbent.

Polarisation can be benign, as it was, generally speaking, in Jeremy Corbyn’s “For the Many, Not the Few” campaign against Teresa May’s Tories; or, malign, as in Trump’s divisive crusade to “Make America Great Again”. The point Team Collins would make is that there has to be a clear reason for voting one way or the other. Without a clear choice before them, voters have an irritating tendency to opt for the devil they know.

The core political mission for National’s caucus is, therefore, a curiously biblical one. It must choose a John the Baptist figure to prepare the way for National’s Saviour to come. The hard-line Brash energised National’s base and gathered-up the overwhelming majority of New Zealand’s right-wing voters beneath its dark-blue banner. He was then removed from the scene so that John Key’s sunny, jokey, Labour-Lite Messiah could start turning water into wine. National’s caucus is thus tasked with identifying which candidate’s voice will sound the most persuasive crying in the wilderness. It must also decide whose head it is most willing to see served up on a platter in the aftermath of a 2020 election defeat.

The candidate seeking the role of Jesus in this two-part resurrection drama would be well-advised to spend the next two-and-a-half years keeping his, or her, head down in the National Party equivalent of Nazareth.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 23 February 2018.

Of Radical Conservatism and Illiberal Democracy

Straight Shooters: Radical Conservatives like Judith Collins encourage the electorate to seek out and support those politicians who promise to strengthen the powers and purview of the State. That this will inevitably entail curbing the independence of the Judiciary; authorising the increased surveillance of citizens; and locking-up an ever-increasing number of their fellow citizens; bothers them not at all.

ACCORDING TO former Labour cabinet minister, Steve Maharey: “Social democracy is in trouble”. Who cares? If challenged to define social democracy, most Kiwis would shake their heads and shrug. It’s not a term that pops up very often in New Zealand political conversations. Whether or not it’s in trouble is unlikely to keep anyone awake at night except left-wing politicos.

On the other hand, if Mr Maharey were to say “Labour is in trouble”, then New Zealanders would have no difficulty at all in understanding what he was saying. With Labour riding high at 48 percent in the polls, they might question his grasp on political reality, but at least they’d know what he meant.

A more interesting question, especially in the context of National’s unfolding leadership contest, might be: “Is New Zealand conservatism in trouble?” If, for example, the National Party caucus were to make Judith Collins Leader of the Opposition, what would stand out as the most important item on her political agenda?

If her past record is any indication, the Law and Order issue would be right at the top of her To-Do list. It was, after all, in recognition of her get-tough approach to boy-racers that she was given the political nickname “Crusher”. She has worn it with pride ever since.

The Law and Order issue works exceptionally well for right-wing politicians because it allows them to play directly to the average voter’s powerful emotional response to the horrors of serious criminal offending. People see the damage inflicted on the victims and their families, and their first response is to demand that the person, or persons, responsible be subjected to the harshest possible punishment.

They do not want to hear the explanations put forward by bleeding-heart liberals or left-wing academics. As far as they’re concerned the people who kill, rape and injure innocent human-beings are evil monsters. Lock them up and throw away the key.

End. Of. Story.

In the febrile atmosphere whipped-up by right-wing political firebrands and media sensationalists, the demands of due-process and constitutional legal safeguards are received with scorn. If the Police have arrested you and brought you to trial, then you must be guilty.

Sir William Blackstone’s famous legal dictum: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”, cuts little ice with a public whose blood is up. To the mob, the idea that the Law might occasionally allow the guilty to escape punishment is an insufferable provocation.

All of which encourages the electorate to seek out and support those politicians who promise to strengthen the powers and purview of the State. That this will inevitably entail curbing the independence of the Judiciary; authorising the increased surveillance of citizens; and locking-up an ever-increasing number of their fellow citizens; bothers them not at all.

On the contrary, the State is perceived as their champion: a counter-force to all those “activist judges”, annoying civil libertarians and immoral defence lawyers who demand proof of guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”, and who bleat on about the “rights of the accused”. What about the rights of the victims – eh? Don’t they deserve justice!

The perverse consequence of this kind of conservatism is that, far from preserving the traditions and institutions bequeathed to us by past generations, it actively seeks their destruction.

In place of the liberties of the citizen: extracted at great cost from the arbitrary power of the state, these “radical conservatives” advance the notion that the collective welfare of the people can only be secured by suppressing anyone who sets their individual “rights” against the obligation of the state to execute the people’s will.

The political consequences of this decidedly troubling variety of conservatism are observable in the so-called “illiberal democracies” of the Russian Federation, Hungary and Poland. In these countries, elections still take place and opposition parties continue to exist alongside a diversity of media outlets. The crucial factor which distinguishes illiberal democracy from the real thing, is that in illiberal democracies the definition of “the people” is radically narrowed to exclude all those who refuse to support the governing party.

In winning power, illiberal democrats avail themselves of all the opportunities genuine democracy provides. Once elected, however, they move swiftly to delegitimise and marginalise their political opponents.

For those unlucky enough to live under it, illiberal democracy tends to be a crushing experience.


A version of 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, 23 February 2018.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Too Little, Too Late: The Opportunity To Stop the CPTPP Has Passed.

Off The Hook: Since early-November 2017, the Labour-NZF-Green Government has been able to sell its message that the CPTPP represents a genuine improvement on the TPPA. So much so, that the street-based protest option has quietly dropped-off the anti-TPP agenda. That’s why the anti-TPP pressure group "It's Our Future" is promoting a “Day of Action” on 4 March 2018, rather than an honest-to-goodness protest march like the one that stunned New Zealand on 4 February 2016.

“TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE.” That’s what I would say to David Parker on the day he released the text of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). With the signing ceremony due to take place in the Chilean capital, Santiago, on 8 March – a mere fortnight from the document’s release – the time available for thorough public scrutiny and debate is simply too short.

I would also say “Too little, too late” to Oliver Hailes, the new spokesperson for the anti-TPP pressure-group, It’s Our Future (IOF). He has announced a “Day of Action” against the CPTPP on Sunday, 4 March. But, at just four days out from the signing ceremony, what is IOF’s “action” supposed to achieve?

It’s hard to tell. In the bulletin released by Hailes, the Day of Action is described as:

“[A] Nationwide Day of Action across New Zealand in opposition to the Government’s plans. The Government intends to sign the treaty in Chile on Thursday 8 March and there will be an organised presence at Parliament on that day - watch this space, details are to come!”

Reading on, it becomes clear that IOF’s strategy in relation to the CPTPP is fundamentally unchanged from the strategy it adopted against its predecessor, the plain old Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).

In Hailes’ own words:

“Signing is not the end of the process! [The CPTPP] must be presented to Parliament for debate, and then it will be referred to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee for examination. These are opportunities for all of you to have your say through written or oral submissions. Eventually the Select Committee will make a recommendation to the Government as to whether or not it should ratify the text and adopt implementing legislation to bring New Zealand law into line with its international commitments. And then, if the Government gets its way, New Zealand will undertake binding action. Each one of these steps provides an opportunity for you to intervene and let the Government know why it should turn back. Remember, the whole plan fell to pieces last time.”

Well, yes, it did, but only because President Donald Trump yanked the United States out of the Agreement at the last minute. Submissions to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee made absolutely to difference to the National Government’s plans to bring the TPPA into effect. It is fanciful to suggest that submitting to the same select committee on the CPTPP will produce anything other than exactly the same outcome.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”? The IOF should turn that quotation into a poster and pin it up on the wall above Oliver Hailes’ desk.

So, what would work? The answer, sadly, is that, right now, a fortnight out from the signing ceremony, it’s hard to see anything working.

Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters and David Parker were vulnerable to the critics and opponents of what was then being called TPP-11 for only a very brief moment: the period immediately preceding, and immediately after, the Apec Meeting in Danang, Vietnam on 6-11 November 2017.

That was the period during which it became clear to all those who had trusted in Labour’s, NZ First’s and the Greens’ declared opposition to the TPPA, that the new coalition government was preparing to renege on its promises. If the IOF movement had called its 20,000-plus supporters onto the streets in early-November 2017, under the slogan “Hold Them To Their Word!”, then there might have been a chance of spooking Jacinda, Winston and David into resisting the pressure from MFAT, MBIE, MPI, Federated Farmers and Business NZ to treat their pre-election promise to defend New Zealand’s sovereignty as “just one of those things you say in Opposition and then forget about it Government”.

Sadly, the IOF did not activate its data-base of followers and lead them into the streets, with the result that, in the weeks and months that followed, the Government has been able to sell its message that the CPTPP represents a genuine improvement on the TPPA. So much so, that the street-based protest option has quietly dropped-off the anti-TPP agenda. That’s why Oliver Hailes is promoting a “Day of Action”, rather than an honest-to-goodness protest march like the one that stunned New Zealand on 4 February 2016.

Getting a handful of worthy souls to gather in city-centres and parks on 4 March 2018 and hold up a tired display of re-cycled placards and banners, is something IOF can manage. Putting 50,000 angry Kiwis on Queen Street is no longer within its power.

The impact will be negligible. A Government riding-high on 48 percent in the latest Colmar Brunton opinion poll has nothing to fear from a single day of [in]action.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 22 February 2018.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

A New Zealand Political Dissident.

Dangerous Mind: International interest in Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s research into the growing reach of Chinese "soft power" was sharpened recently by her disclosure of the presence of former Chinese nationals in the caucuses of New Zealand’s two largest political parties; most particularly, the fact that one of those Members of Parliament has historical links with the Chinese intelligence community (if only in a pedagogical capacity).

THAT PROFESSOR ANNE-MARIE BRADY has had her home and office broken into, and her lap-top stolen, is deeply troubling. That the perpetrators were brazen enough to warn her that their attack was imminent, only heightens that concern. The most compelling reason for feeling uneasy about Professor Brady’s misfortunes, however, is their obvious potential to seriously damage Chinese-New Zealand relations.

Professor Brady is a China specialist who has won international acclaim for her research into the methods used by the Chinese government to monitor and, where possible, influence the conduct and opinions of Chinese nationals living abroad; as well as for describing the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) efforts to build maximum support for the “Motherland” among the world-wide Chinese diaspora.

What has sharpened international interest in Professor Brady’s work is her disclosure of the presence of former Chinese nationals in the caucuses of New Zealand’s two largest political parties; most particularly, the fact that one of those Members of Parliament has historical links with the Chinese intelligence community (if only in a pedagogical capacity).

Taken together with her itemisation of the appointments of former political leaders of New Zealand to the boards of a number of Chinese financial institutions, the Professor’s revelations were more than sufficient to secure coverage in major media outlets in Australia, the UK and the United States.

The most recent reference to Professor Brady’s research is to be found in the influential US magazine, “Foreign Policy”. Concerned about the links between the Chinese Embassy in Washington and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association operating on the campus of Georgetown University, foreign-policy specialist, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, quotes Professor Brady on the information-gathering role of these Chinese Government-supported student groups:

“It’s a deliberate strategy to make sure that the Chinese students and scholars living abroad don’t become a problem.”

That the political and cultural views of young Chinese citizens studying abroad could become a problem for the Chinese Government is readily appreciated. As Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian points out, there are 330,000 Chinese nationals studying in the United States, alone, with scores-of-thousands more at other universities around the world. That’s an awful lot of highly-educated, highly-skilled young people to come home with “problematic” ideas!

This is much more than a theoretical proposition. As an at-least-nominally revolutionary party, the CPC will be well aware of the “Russians in Paris” syndrome.

Following the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, the armies of the victorious powers – which included the Russian Empire – occupied Paris. Young Russian officers suddenly found themselves in the midst of a free-wheeling culture which prized intellectual and artistic pursuits of all kinds – not least the passionate discussion of political philosophy.

Unsurprisingly, these Imperial Guardsmen returned home to St Petersburg with more than a taste for French cuisine and Parisian coffee. Travelling with them were the core principles of the French Revolution: “Liberty. Equality. Fraternity.” Within ten years, some of them (known as “Decemberists”, after the month in which they rose against the Tsar) were attempting to spark a democratic revolution in Russia.

The last thing the Chinese authorities want is a “Decemberist” revolt of their own. A revolt fuelled by ideas and ideals imported into China from the United States of America in the heads of their best and brightest university graduates. Those among the CPC leadership who had to deal with the consequences of the tragic events of June 1989 will not have forgotten that the symbol of that earlier student revolt was a papier-mâché replica of the Statue of Liberty.

The studied indifference towards Professor Brady’s research (not to mention her personal security) displayed by the New Zealand authorities, speaks to the existence of considerable sympathy within New Zealand’s own ruling circles for the stern measures which the Chinese authorities feel obliged to undertake.

Peoples’ uprisings may be a recurring feature of Chinese history, but they are generally remembered as short-lived periods of chaos and confusion, preparatory to the restoration of order and tranquillity by a centralised, authoritarian government, in whose strong hands the gods have reposed the all-important “Mandate of Heaven”.

It is, clearly, the view of the Ministry of Foreign Relations and Trade, the Ministry for Primary Industries, and Treasury, that an orderly and tranquil China is much to be preferred to a democratic and turbulent China. As a crucial market for its primary production, and an equally important source of foreign direct investment in its industry and infrastructure, China is obviously regarded by the New Zealand Government as an economic partner much too big to rile.

Equally obvious, is Professor Brady’s status as a New Zealand political dissident. Innocent of any crime, but guilty of that most heinous offence – upsetting the apple cart. If she is waiting for the New Zealand authorities to help her, then she will likely be waiting a very long time.

UPDATE: On Monday (19/2/18) came the welcome news that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has asked the Security Intelligence Service to investigate the break-ins to Professor Brady's home and office and the theft of her lap-top computer. Welcome, too, the news that the PM's intervention has breathed new life into the hitherto stalled Police investigation. It is, however, noteworthy that the PM has yet to use the word "China" in relation to Professor Brady's case.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 February 2018.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

National’s Moderates May Win This Leadership Battle – But Can They Win The War?

All Smiles - For Now: A victory for the moderate Amy Adams will not sit well with the National Party rank-and-file who, pretty obviously, favour the more right-wing Judith Collins for the role of Opposition leader. Moreover, the longer the race continues, the more pressure Collins’ rank-and-file supporters will be able to apply to their local and/or List MPs to give her their support.

IN THE RACE FOR OPPOSITION LEADER, the numbers are solidifying around Amy Adams. A consensus is forming among the journalists of the Parliamentary Press Gallery that Adams, with 20 votes, is at least 2 or 3 votes ahead of her nearest rival, Simon Bridges. The moment Adams assures the National Party Board that she has no intention of dispensing with the services of National’s chief strategist, Steven Joyce, her lead will advance by at least 4 votes. At that point, Adams will be only 4 or 5 votes shy of the 29 votes she needs to become Leader of the Opposition. If Mark Mitchell can be enticed into Adams’ camp (with the offer of the Deputy’s spot, perhaps?) then it will require only 1 further defection from either Team Bridges or Team Collins for the game to be over.

A victory for Adams will not sit well with the National Party rank-and-file who, pretty obviously, favour Judith Collins for the role of Opposition leader. Moreover, the longer the race continues, the more pressure Collins’ rank-and-file supporters will be able to apply to their local and/or List MPs to give her their support.

Team Collins’ argument that only their candidate has the strength and decisiveness to keep National polling in the mid-40s is already beginning to tell with those MPs positioned at the bottom of National’s Party List contingent. Indeed, some have already moved quietly to join Collins’ very small band of supporters – just 4 to 7 strong at this stage.

From the vantage points of both Adams and the National Board, it therefore makes sense to hold the Leadership ballot as soon as possible.

The less time Team Collins has to raise a clamour from the membership for their candidate’s election, the easier it will be for Team Adams to nibble away at the edges of Bridges’ support.

The Board, meanwhile, has every reason to fear that Collins’ efforts to rouse the membership could very easily set the National Party up for exactly the same “Us” versus “Them” struggle that tore the Labour Party apart between 2011 and 2013. (That was the fight which erupted after Labour’s parliamentary caucus imposed a leader on the wider party organisation that it clearly did not want.) A swift and decisive victory by Adams would, from the Board’s point of view, be less likely to provoke such a debilitating outcome.

The pressure is, therefore, on Adams to accede quickly to Joyce’s and Mitchell’s demands, so that, having pocketed their votes, she can commence the deal-making required to deflate Bridge’s numbers.

This is the point at which Bridges would be well advised to secure what he can from his position (a place in Adam’s “Kitchen Cabinet”, perhaps?) by magnanimously marching as many of his followers as possible into her camp and, figuratively, crowning her National’s Queen before the smoke of battle has had time to clear. The title of “Queenmaker” is not one to be discarded lightly!

With the serried ranks of the now largely unified National Caucus arrayed against her, Collins could elect to either fight it out to the bitter end, or, to lower her banners and join in Adams’ victory feast.

That meal need not taste too bitter in Collins mouth. After all, a victory for Adams can only be interpreted as a victory for the Key-English status-quo. Collins and her followers, convinced as they are that, ideologically-speaking, that status-quo has positioned National well to the left of where its members and voters believe it should be, need only wait for the polls to register conservative New Zealand’s disappointment at the National caucus’s failure to elect their champion. When that happens, Team Collins’ banners can, once again, be unfurled; and the battle for the heart and soul of the National Party can recommence – minus Amy Adams.

UPDATE: This morning (20/2/18) Steven Joyce further complicated National’s leadership contest by announcing his own candidacy for the top job. Clearly, the contest is now set to run until Tuesday 27 February. Team Collins will, therefore, re-double its efforts to mobilise the National Party rank-and-file in her support. Also stepping-up their effort will be National’s Board. It is now absolutely imperative that the two front-runners – Amy Adams and Simon Bridges – strike a deal. With Labour at its highest poll-rating in 15 years, the last thing National needs is a divided Opposition caucus.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 February 2018.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

“The Data Is Simply Not Available, Minister.”

SIR HUMPHREY APPLEBY: "Yes Minister, promising to build 500,000 affordable homes would be a very courageous policy, indeed!"

IS LABOUR getting Sir-Humphreyfied on housing? For younger readers, Sir Humphrey Appleby is one of the leading protagonists in Antony Jay’s and Jonathan Lynn’s incomparable 1980s television satire “Yes Minister”. So compelling was the Sir Humphrey character (played to perfection by the late Nigel Hawthorne) that his name quickly became synonymous with the obfuscating, prevaricating, manipulative and often downright misleading senior civil servant who steers his ministerial master away from his better instincts towards the maintenance of the bureaucratic and political status quo.

Dr Chris Harris, a specialist in urban design and planning, raised the Sir Humphrey question with me after a careful reading of “Stocktake of New Zealand’s Housing”, the study authored by Alan Johnson of the Salvation Army, Otago Public Health Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman and economist Shamubeel Eaqub, which was released by the Housing Minister, Phil Twyford, on Monday afternoon.

One figure, in particular, caught his attention. This was Figure 3.4 “New Dwellings Consented, By Owner Type, 1970-2017” (see below). It’s most notable feature, explained Dr Harris, was the extraordinary spike in new dwelling consents which followed the election of the Third Labour Government, led by Norman Kirk, in 1972.


The graph shows consents flat-lining at around 23,000 per year in 1970, 1971 and 1972. Between the end of 1972 and the beginning of 1974, however, the number of dwelling consents shot up to an astonishing 39,000.

The first and most obvious question that springs to mind is: “How on earth did the Kirk Government do it?” Finding the answer to that question would, surely, be of considerable assistance to Minister Twyford as he sets about tackling New Zealand’s appalling shortage of affordable housing?

Presumably, the same thought occurred to the “Stocktake” authors. What was their conclusion? That’s when Dr Harris’s eye fell upon the concluding sentences of the paragraph printed immediately below Figure 3.4:

“While current levels of new house building compare favourably with the low levels of construction seen immediately after the global financial crisis, during the period 2009 to 2011, these current volumes are not historically exceptional particularly compared with the early 1970s. However, data on government involvement in the 70s boom is not available.”

Get that? Information on the way in which the Kirk Government managed to nearly double the number of houses being consented “is not available”. (My emphasis.)

In his e-mail alerting me to this extraordinary omission, Dr Harris writes:

“Note the last sentence! In fact, you can find out quite a lot from consulting the on-line NZ Official Yearbooks of the time. State Advances credit, available for actual housing construction but not speculation since 1919, was increased. And on top of that there was as yet no Accommodation Supplement to fritter away government housing money, so that it very much went on actual building. There was also a shift from building large stand-alone houses on the city fringe to building lots and lots of small and affordable flats in more urban locations, which is where the real shortage was, and had long been. And this was all directed from the top by Big Norm.

“Norman Kirk re-founded the old-time Ministry of Works as the Ministry of Works and Development in 1973, and founded the Housing Corporation in 1974, also to try and get more houses and flats built. It turned out that urban flats proved easiest and quicker to build once central government weighed-in to overcome the usual obstacles. This was a really important part of the recipe for getting runs on the board quickly. Our cities are still full of flats built in the 1970s – the standards were higher than in later decades. Mass-produced hollow concrete blocks, suitably reinforced, were the building material of choice. Concrete block walls signify a 1970s flat in the same way that a tiled roof is typical of a 1940s state house. 

“Big Norm's policy of pulling out as many stops as possible and focusing on flats really did work surprisingly quickly and the proof is in the consent graph. Our population back then was only a bit over three million, so the graph actually understates the success of the policies of the 1972-1975 Labour Government.

“Actual builds are always a bit less than consents granted. In the early 1970s the peak rate for actual housing construction was 34,300 units built in one year. This roughly equates to 50,000 a year today, if not more, and that nice round number might explain why Shamubeel Eaqub challenged the government to see to it that 500,000 housing units are built in ten years.

“Interestingly enough, few of the houses built under Kirk's administration were state houses. To get things moving quickly, the policy was very much one of collaboration with commercial builders and developers, who were offered guarantees to go and work flat out building small affordable units without worrying too much where the money was coming from, or whether the consent was going to be approved.”

Dr Harris goes on to observe:

“You have to wonder whether there is some kind of an embargo on the level of government activism that led to such a boost in housing production in the early 1970s. It's like an episode of Yes Minister in which the bureaucrats have hidden all the relevant files and the politicians don’t notice that they’re missing straight away. Adding to suspicion of a stitch up by a business-as-usual brigade is the fact that the word ‘credit’ does not appear in the report and there is only spotty and empirical reference to ‘finance’. So, no need to frighten the banks in other words. There also doesn't seem to be any mention of the really important part played by central government institutions in making things happen more effectively and in a streamlined way back in the past: institutions such as the State Advances Corporation, the MWD – which the Rogernomes abolished in 1988 while dialling-back state construction lending at the same time – and the Housing Corporation. The Housing Corporation is still with us of course, but only in a feeble and gutted sort of a way.”

Here, perhaps, is the explanation for Shamubeel Eaqub’s extraordinary forthrightness during Monday’s media conference in the Beehive Theatrette. With barely concealed frustration at what he clearly regards as the new government’s half-hearted housing effort, he urged the governing parties to break free of the fiscal “straightjacket” in which they are currently restrained by Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s Budget Responsibility Rules.

The last thing the “Sir Humphrey’s” at the top of our own civil service want, deeply imbued as they are with the neoliberal economic orthodoxy which has guided New Zealand public policy for more than 30 years, is for “their” ministers to begin searching back through the historical record to discover how, forty years ago, a newly-elected Labour Government responded to the needs of its people by – of all things – fulfilling them.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 17 February 2018.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Princess Stardust versus The Crusher Queen.

Demolition Woman: Who is best placed to demolish Labour's Jacinda Ardern most effectively? Simon Bridges? Amy Adams? Some other National MP of whom the overwhelming majority of conservative voters have heard next to nothing? Or the woman tens-of-thousands of conservative voters already admire for her take-no-prisoners approach to parliamentary politics – Judith “Crusher” Collins?

IT’S GOT TO BE JUDITH COLLINS. There will be many in National’s caucus who bridle at the very suggestion of Collins replacing Bill English. “She’s too divisive!”, they’ll cry. “She carries too much baggage”, others will mumble. “It would be the Woman of Yesterday going up against the Woman of Today”, the pundits will pronounce. “Jacinda’s relentless positivity would leave Collins battered and bleeding in the rubble of her negativity.”

And all of them would be missing the point.

The sort of leader the Right chooses when the Left has been in power for nine years is always very different from the leader it chooses when the Left has been in power for less than nine months. The former needs to present himself as the friend of continuity: the man who will hold the country together; the fresh pair of eyes in a familiar landscape. The latter must be a demolition agent: someone who can smash to pieces the dangerous installations of left-wing radicalism; a living rebuke to socialism in all its forms: a crusher.

The most vivid exemplar of the National-Party-leader-as-demolition-agent was, of course, Rob Muldoon. The redoubtable Norman Kirk, himself, would have struggled to match the political force-of-nature that was Muldoon. The mild-mannered Bill Rowling stood no chance at all.

What do you say to a man who wisecracks to his followers that he has seen “the shivers running ‘round Bill Rowling’s body looking for a spine to crawl up”? (And here you were thinking it was Donald Trump who invented that sort of political invective!)

Muldoon’s weapon-of-choice against the Rowling-led Labour Government was his self-proclaimed mastery of all things economic. Presented with the political gift of the 1973 Oil Shock – which injected a virulent booster-shot of commodity price inflation into the already inflation-plagued economies of the West – Muldoon seized upon the Labour Government’s policy of borrowing heavily overseas (to prevent the New Zealand economy from falling into recession) as proof of its economic recklessness.

Given that the debate on whether or not Grant Robertson should relax his grip on the nation’s purse-strings is likely to grow ever more heated over the next few months, it would make sense for National to elect a leader who is ready, willing and able to expose and exploit the divisions over the proper level of public debt already widening within the government’s ranks.

Who is best placed to do this most effectively? Simon Bridges? Amy Adams? Some other National MP of whom the overwhelming majority of conservative voters have heard next to nothing? Or the woman tens-of-thousands of conservative voters already admire for her take-no-prisoners approach to parliamentary politics – Judith “Crusher” Collins?

The expectation of a head-to-head contest between the Kiwi equivalents of Game of Thrones antagonists Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister extends well beyond the boundaries of the political Right. Collins is one of those rare politicians who, like Rob Muldoon, are able to imbue their bids for leadership with a sense of political inevitability.

Jacinda Arden displayed considerable political skill in masking the scale of her ambition until she was certain of success. From the moment she trounced Julie Anne Genter in the Mt Albert by-election, however, that same sense of inevitability was all around her as well.

It was the tragedy of Bill English’s career that, in spite of his supporters’ best efforts, not quite enough New Zealanders were able to look at him and see a prime minister. A highly competent finance minister? Yes. But, a prime minister? Yeah-Nah.

The question National’s caucus needs to ask itself is how many New Zealanders look at Simon Bridges, or Amy Adams, and say to themselves: “That person is going to be prime minister one day.” Does either politician possess that twinkle in the eye; that infuriatingly knowing smirk; which betrays the leader’s intimate acquaintance with Destiny?

The other factor National’s caucus needs to consider is whether its leadership candidates are strong enough to truly test Jacinda? This is the question that the Labour caucus and party never answered honestly in relation to John Key. It would be astonishing if the National Opposition repeated the folly of sending one leaden amateur after another to do battle with such a consummate sprinkler of stardust.

It is a huge mistake in politics to pit like against like.

Judith is nothing like Jacinda.


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, 16 February 2018.