Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Laughing-Stock City?

Testing Times: Auckland's Mayor, Len Brown, not only faces the certainty of being formally censured by his Council, but will also have to contend with a concerted effort by councillors to pare down the considerable executive powers granted to the "super-city's" leader by its principal political architect, the then Local Government Minister, Rodney Hide.
IS AUCKLAND about to join Toronto? A city with a mayor some would dearly like to be rid of but cannot sack?
Auckland’s Len Brown may not have smoked crack cocaine or clean-bowled an elderly councillor in the council chamber, like the rampaging Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, but he is fast engendering a very similar sort of cringe factor.
Like Toronto, Auckland is its country’s commercial heart. Politically, it plays a similarly pivotal role. Who leads a city like Toronto or Auckland matters. Getting stuck with a laughing-stock mayor would be but a short step away from becoming a laughing-stock city.
That Auckland could finds itself contemplating that possibility is due to a peculiar constitutional anomaly.
At the national and regional levels of government in New Zealand our leaders are chosen from representatives elected by the people. The prime minister serves at the pleasure of a parliamentary majority. Regional chairs are similarly answerable to a majority of their fellow councillors.
 At the level of our districts, towns and cities, however, the position of mayor is filled by direct election. It is a very curious constitutional arrangement, because, with the exception of Auckland City, the people elected to lead our local bodies are vested with no special executive powers, do not control their council’s budget and may not even enjoy the support of a majority of their fellow councillors.
Quite how New Zealand ended up with these popularly elected but essentially powerless mayors is a bit of a mystery. We certainly didn’t inherit the practice from our colonial forebears. In the United Kingdom – and Australia – the mayoral chain goes around the neck of the council’s majority leader (or his or her nominee).
Certainly, the British and Australian practice makes for a much more powerful and coherent style of local government. Mayors chosen in this fashion know, from the very beginning of their terms, that the numbers are there around the council table to carry forward the plans they announced during their election campaigns. Majority support also protects them from having the council’s budget wrested from their control.
Most importantly, if they suddenly start behaving bizarrely – like smoking crack cocaine – or embark on an orgy of unauthorised spending, then their fellow councillors can simply bust them back to the ranks and elect a new mayor.
The new Auckland “super city” was intended to be something else entirely. Its principal political architect, former local government minister Rodney Hide, wanted a city that could get things done swiftly and efficiently. That ruled out the parliamentary model of the UK and Australia which, being dominated by local political parties, was prone to pork-barrelling and horse-trading. Not being a conspicuous fan of either pork-barrelling or horse-trading, Hide opted instead for a lean, mean governance machine presided over by a mayor equipped with unprecedented executive powers.
No doubt the sort of figure Hide had in mind as the first mayor of his new super-city was a charismatic business tycoon; someone who could transform the Office of the Mayor into the workplace of a tough-minded, no-nonsense political CEO.
But that was not what he got.
Auckland’s first “super mayor” turned out to be a rather daffy family lawyer from South Auckland. A great emoter and prone to random outbursts of song, Mayor Len Brown did not, in my view, appear to be either tough-minded or no-nonsense. He was, however, possessed of a keen legal mind and very quickly appreciated the possibilities inherent in the “executive mayoralty” Hide had bequeathed him.
Using the super mayor’s budgetary independence and patronage powers, Brown very rapidly constructed what I believe was a well-nigh impregnable political position within the governance structures of Auckland City. So much so that he could, without the slightest trace of irony, instruct his councillors to “leave their politics at the [council chamber] door”.
One of the greatest dangers confronting politicians who, like Brown, have been successful in protecting themselves from just about every kind of political attack, is to mistake impregnability for invulnerability. Those who believe themselves safe from their enemies’ attacks are all-too-often un-done by their own personal weaknesses.
So it proved with Toronto’s Rob Ford, and, in a very different way, I believe Auckland’s Len Brown has suffered the same fate.
In both cases, it is their council and their city that is being forced to pay the price.
So eager was Hide to set up his new and streamlined governance structure for the super-sized Auckland City that he neglected to include in its constitutional design any mechanisms for bringing a wayward super mayor to heel.
Even the president of the United States is subject to impeachment. But, short of being convicted of a serious crime, adjudged a bankrupt or declared insane, the mayors of Toronto and Auckland are effectively unsackable.
A bad mayor could, potentially, do a lot of damage in three years. The people of Toronto and Auckland deserve better mechanisms for keeping their elected Mayors on the straight and narrow.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 December 2013.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Wrong Side Of History?

Which Side Were You On? The Prime Minister's decision not to include a representative of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the New Zealand delegation to Nelson Mandela's memorial service in Johannesburg revealed how very close to the surface the memories and passions of the 1981 Springbok Tour still lie. The words and gestures of the racists may have moved in a progressive direction, but their hearts and minds have not followed. (Photo and superimposed text by John Miller)
DO PEOPLE REALLY CHANGE?  Do political parties? It’s a question that many people have been asking this past week.
Well, I say “people”, but the one’s I’m actually thinking of are those who are old enough to remember the days when Apartheid was a living system, and Nelson Mandela’s jailers still called him “Prisoner 46664”.
We were all 32 years younger back in 1981 – most of us just kids in our late teens and early twenties – but that didn’t mean we couldn’t tell the difference between right and wrong.
Because, seriously, how difficult was it to identify South Africa’s racially segregated society as a vicious affront to human dignity? After 1976 and the wanton killing of hundreds of protesting high-school kids in Soweto, you didn’t need to be a moral philosopher to know that Apartheid was wrong.
And yet, there were hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders (and millions more around the world) who just couldn’t or wouldn’t make that judgement. When they saw the images of black school-children doubled over by 12-guage shotgun shells, their sympathies were with the man holding the shotgun. They had no problem imagining themselves into these horrific scenes but, invariably, it was alongside the white slayers – never with the black slain.
They hated us – the opponents of Apartheid – with an intensity that was frightening to behold. We just wouldn’t stop telling them that they were wrong to back a tour by Apartheid’s most effective sporting ambassadors; kept on insisting that only bad people could possibly defend such a self-evidently evil political system.
It made them furious.
Because they couldn’t admit that what they were doing was wrong: their indefatigable racism simply wouldn’t let them. White was right, and anyone who said different was a treacherous commie stirrer. And they weren’t the only ones saying so: the National Party Government said exactly the same thing. The Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon himself, had accused Hart and Care of actions “bordering on treason”.
And the New Zealand prime minister wasn’t alone. When the US Congress passed the Anti-Apartheid Act, mandating economic sanctions against the South African regime, the Republican President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, vetoed it. As late as 1987 the UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was still telling the House of Commons: “The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”
Her Conservative Party colleagues were blunter: “How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist? asked Terry Dicks. “Nelson Mandela should be shot.” declared Teddy Taylor.
Seven years later Nelson Mandela and the ANC were running the South African government.
The racists and the haters had backed the wrong horse. History was spitting in their faces. Reluctantly, and seething internally, they found themselves nodding and smiling as the world celebrated the end of Apartheid. How sorry they were, the smarter ones confessed, that they hadn’t seen it earlier, because, clearly, Nelson Mandela is the Black Messiah: Jesus with a Xhosa accent.
And Mandela, bless him, forgave them their trespasses. He simply declined to notice that his former persecutors (and the multitude who had apologised for their crimes) still had blood on their hands. And when the White World finally acknowledged Black South Africans’ formal political equality it was only after the saintly “Madiba” had conceded his people’s continuing economic servitude.
How confusing it must be for the racists and haters: how complex and mutable the language and mechanisms of oppression. The man who was once branded a terrorist is now hailed as a statesman. Segregation, once as blatant as “Blankes”, “Nie Blankes”, is now achieved by the promise that black and white, alike, are free to live wherever they can afford the deposit.
But the racists’ visceral hatred of the ones who called Apartheid and its supporters by their true names has not diminished. The same Prime Minister who professes no memory of his opinion of the 1981 Tour has somehow remembered enough of his National Party contemporaries’ hatred of John Minto to deny the anti-Apartheid leader a place in the delegation to Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg.

"Where black is the colour, and none is the number" - Bob Dylan
But, perhaps, John Key’s instincts are correct. Where black remains the colour, and their number is still zero.
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, 13 December 2013.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Hero For The Ages?

Property Of The Ages? President Obama borrowed Abraham Lincoln's famous epitaph to honour the passing of Nelson Mandela. But was Prisoner 46664's ultimate contribution to the fate of Black South Africa entirely benign? Who benefited the most from the bargain he struck with South Africa's last White President, F.W. de Klerk? Will the Ages judge Mandela as kindly as they received Lincoln?
AS ABRAHAM LINCOLN breathed his last in a fetid boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre, his friend, the Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, declared: “Now he belongs to the ages.”
President Barack Obama borrowed Stanton’s magnificent epitaph to honour the passing of Nelson Mandela – the man who, throughout Obama’s political career, had served as the living exemplar of political heroism.
The American President is merely the mightiest of world leaders to pay tribute to this remarkable man. The fortitude he demonstrated through 27 long years of imprisonment, and the readiness with which he forgave his former enemies, greatly eased South Africa’s transition from racial oppression to multi-racial democracy, and made Nelson Mandela a statesman for all seasons.
But how will the ages, to which President Obama has now dispatched him, judge Nelson Mandela?
The Apartheid-era judges who sentenced Mandela to life imprisonment on that tiny speck of offshore rock called Robben Island knew what they were doing. Martyrs are politically useful only to their own side, but an imprisoned leader may one day be of service to both. This is especially true when, as the duration of his captivity lengthens, that leader’s reputation, unblemished by the inevitable compromises and crimes of politics and war, is permitted to grow to almost mythic proportions.
Hundreds of anti-Apartheid fighters (most infamously Steve Biko) were murdered in police custody. Why Nelson Mandela did not share their fate is one of those important political questions that contemporaries consistently deemed it better not to ask.
But we may be sure that, alone in his cell on Robben Island, Prisoner 46664 asked himself: “Why am I still alive? Why haven’t they killed me? What role do the Whites expect me to play in South Africa’s future?”
The answer, of course, and if you’ll pardon the rather cruel pun, is that Nelson Mandela was the Apartheid regime’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card. If repression failed; if the opportunity to preserve the property of White South Africans – even at the expense of surrendering their political dominance – presented itself; then Prisoner 46664, beloved by his people, the world’s most celebrated political prisoner, would be there to avert the fire and the blood that a Just Providence held in store for the architects and beneficiaries of the hated Apartheid system.
But Mandela was not White South Africa’s only saviour.
In the early 1980s the prospect of a Soviet-backed African National Congress replicating the triumphant national liberation struggles of Angola, Mozambique and Namibia seemed entirely plausible. With a continent-wide front of socialist enemies to the north and their backs to the sea, White South Africa’s future looked bleak.
By the end of the 1980s, however, Soviet power was collapsing. In 1991, its European empire gone, and its world-wide network of national liberation regimes scrabbling for more reliable sponsors, the Soviet Union, itself, simply blipped-off History’s screen. And with it went any chance of securing Black majority-rule in South Africa by outside force. Democracy would arrive there in one of only two possible ways: either blood-soaked and fatally compromised by a racial holocaust of historic proportions; or peacefully, via the ballot-box.
The White leaders of South Africa, understandably, opted for the latter. In February 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the last White President of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, authorised the release of Prisoner 46664. Nelson Mandela got out of jail.
But he was not free. Like Abraham Lincoln, to whom he is so often compared, Mandela found himself caught up in political and economic currents beyond his control and in whose grip he struggled to keep the frail craft of South Africa’s hopes afloat. If he was not to bequeath his people an economy stripped of all essential expertise, materiel and capital, then the socialist elements of the ANC programme would have to be abandoned.
It was no accident that Mandela’s new offices were located in Shell House. Without the endorsement of transnational capital, South African democracy would be a poor and ragged thing. But Mandela’s parallel guarantee to protect the farms and businesses of the hated Afrikaners also meant that the poor and the ragged of South Africa would remain black.
Will the Ages welcome Nelson Mandela with the same solemnity that they received Abraham Lincoln? Surely the avoidance of a racial bloodbath and the likely fracturing of South Africa along tribal lines – not to mention the introduction of a working multiracial democracy – is a legacy worthy of posterity’s approbation? It has certainly merited the applause of the Present Day.
And yet, in the story of Nelson Mandela there remains a nagging sense of saintliness too readily and too easily bestowed. Great victories are not won except at great price. Abraham Lincoln paid for his at Ford’s Theatre. Nelson Mandela died in his bed.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 December 2013.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The South African National Anthem

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela 1918 - 2013

Nelson Mandela (Tata Madiba) outside St Matthews Church, Hobson St, Auckland, New Zealand, during CHOGM, in 1995. Photo by John Miller.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
1918 - 2013
Anti-Apartheid Revolutionary
Father of Free South Africa

I Think Continually Of Those Who Were Truly Great

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

Stephen Spender

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

It Takes A Village

Just Passing Through: But would the social and economic problems confronting contemporary New Zealand have reached their current levels of urgency if the country had retained its former intimate character? If we really were what Statistics New Zealand, in presenting the 2013 Census results, asks us to imagine: a village of 100 people?

MANY NEW ZEALANDERS JOKE about the size of their population. “Forget about six degrees of separation,” they chortle, “in this country you’re lucky to make it as far as two!” The general consensus seems to be that if the rest of the world is a collection of big cities, then New Zealand is a village – and a pretty small one at that!
But if New Zealand’s a village – what sort of village is it?
A curious question? Not if you’re Statistics New Zealand and you’re looking for a simple way to present the results of the 2013 Census. Visit their website and you’ll be asked to think of “New Zealand as a village of 100 people”.
The first thing you’ll notice about the village is how much it has grown. Thirty-two years ago there were just 74 inhabitants – most of them of European and Maori origin. It was also a much younger village. In 1981 half the population was under the age of 28. In 2013 the median age of the village has climbed to 38 years.
The other thing you’ll notice is how many people living in the village are now of Asian ancestry. Since 2001 the number of Asian inhabitants has doubled. Where once there were 5 there are now 11 villagers of Asian origin.
If the growth in the village’s Asian population is not slowed appreciably, then the 14 villagers identifying themselves as Maori will soon be displaced as the second-largest ethnic group. Already, in 2013, as many villagers speak Hindi as Samoan.
What really stands out about the village in 2013, however, is its seriously lopsided socio-economic structure. Only ten villagers of working age earn in excess of $70,000 per annum. There are 25 working-age villagers earning between $30,000 and $70,000, and 38 whose incomes are less than $30,000. Over half of the village’s workers earn less than $28,500 per annum.
The disparity between the earnings of male and female villagers is ever starker. Over half the working-men in the village earn more than $36,500, while half of its working-women earn less than $23,100.
The village’s poverty is also on display in the fact that only 2 out of every 3 inhabitants own their own home. In 2013, more than a third of the village’s residents live in rented accommodation. Thirty years ago nearly 3 out of 4 villagers owned their own home.
Of course, for the 10 percent of working New Zealanders earning a comfortable income it is extremely fortunate that they are not living cheek-by-jowl with the 50 percent earning less than $28,500 – and that the people renting their second, third or fourth property live 30 miles across town and not just across the village street. Social-economic disparities are a great deal easier to manage, and to bear, when the community’s social-geography encompasses more than the few square kilometres required to support 100 souls.
The 10 percent of the workforce categorised as “professionals” are only able to enjoy their well-remunerated and relatively untroubled lives because they do not have to eyeball on a daily basis the young women struggling in quiet desperation to raise families on less than $25,000 per annum. Would they really be able to pass them by on the other side of a village street? Would they really find it so easy to brand them the “undeserving” poor?
And would those struggling to survive on $25,000 really find it as easy to sink into apathy and anomie if those living in the big houses and earning the big bucks were to be found not in leafy suburbs they will never visit, but just a stone’s throw away at the top of the hill.
If, as Hannibal Lecter so chillingly explained, we covet what we see every day, then it would not be wise to be too wealthy in a village.
Maybe that’s why, for a long time in New Zealand, the distance between the rich and the poor remained so narrow.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 December 2013.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Surviving Their Advisors: What Happens After Labour Wins?

CHEERS! With Christchurch East in the bag, David Cunliffe needs to give increasing attention not only to winning in 2014, but also to how his government intends to establish a "Leftward and interventionist" administration in the teeth of extreme neoliberal opposition from an ideologically hostile civil service.
LABOUR PARTY MEMBERS and supporters are still celebrating Saturday’s decisive by-election victory in Christchurch East. With more than 60 percent of the votes cast, Poto Williams well-and-truly dispelled the nagging fear that National’s 2011 Party Vote advantage might preface a morale-sapping defeat.
For avoiding this outcome fulsome tribute must be paid to Ms William’s campaign manager, Jim Anderton. Few political operators can match Mr Anderton’s fighting skills in the trench warfare that is electorate politics. Among the most important of these is the ability to pre-identify your party’s supporters and make sure they cast a vote. Mr Anderton and his team did this with a thoroughness that National clearly could not match. Not even the low turnout (roughly 13,000 compared to 28,524 in 2011) could upset Mr Anderton’s calculations – indeed, the decisive result points to just how successfully his campaign team was able to mobilise the Labour vote.
If Labour is wise it will attempt to replicate Saturday’s mobilisation effort in Christchurch East across the entire country in 2014. In next year’s big battle, however, the prize will not be electorate seats (though they will be welcome!) but a clear plurality of the all-important Party Vote.
To that end, Labour’s leader, David Cunliffe, must assemble a policy package of sufficient power to dislodge the hundreds of thousands of disillusioned and/or despairing Non-Voters and propel them towards the polling booths. Psephological analysis of the 2011 General Election’s record-breaking abstention rate indicates that approximately 70 percent of the Non-Vote was drawn from demographic categories most likely to vote Labour.
To paraphrase Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams: “Build it [an authentic Labour manifesto] – and they will come [out and vote for it].”
And that, clearly, was the message Mr Cunliffe took from his party’s emphatic by-election victory. Ms Williams, he said, had formed  “a genuine connection” with the electorate’s voters. But, there was something more: “Our grassroots campaign in Christchurch East was run and won on the issues facing the city. On housing, insurance and standing up for people in the rebuild.”
According to Fairfax Media’s political correspondent, Vernon Small: “It all suggests Labour under Cunliffe see the by-election as a sign the party should press on even more strongly in the Leftward and interventionist direction it has taken so far.”
Brave intentions! But one of the biggest challenges facing a political leader striving to make the transition from Opposition Leader to Prime Minister is not only to be thinking constantly about how to win power, but also about how he is going to wield it once victory is achieved.
Sixty or so MPs, seated in the House of Representatives, may have the power to change the laws of the land, but the drafting and execution of those laws falls to a vast and highly complex bureaucracy which has, for the past 30 years, administered the state, managed the economy and generally guided society according to the widely accepted principles and practices of neoliberalism.
Over-riding these, of course, is the convention that civil servants must carry out the instructions of their political masters to the very best of their ability. That is not to say, however, that they will (or should) meekly receive those instructions without venturing an opinion concerning the desirability of the course of action proposed. Civil servants have a duty to provide their ministers with “free and frank” advice. A Labour-led Government determined to radically redirect the New Zealand state along “Leftward and interventionist” lines would be wise to anticipate a fair amount of “free and frank” resistance.
Mr Cunliffe, rejoicing in the democratic wind filling his sails following Saturday’s bracing victory, should be asking himself how many of the men and women likely to form his Cabinet possess the ideological confidence to stare down officials whose unanimous advice will almost certainly be that their party’s policy amounts to the purest folly, which, if implemented, will lead ineluctably to economic, fiscal and/or social disaster.
It’s an important question. Mounting a confident defence of “Leftward and interventionist” policies in the face of voluminous and coherently argued objections from one’s most senior policy advisers is no easy task. Mr Cunliffe should know that only a handful of Labour and Green MPs are even remotely capable of out-arguing neoliberalism. In New Zealand, the number of left-wing politicians with the foresight to cultivate and maintain strong relationships with policy specialists external to and independent of our neoliberal civil service is depressingly small.
With Christchurch East behind him, it will be interesting to see how aggressively Mr Cunliffe sets about developing and releasing the core policies of the next Labour-led Government. It’s a task that brooks no delay because if Labour and the Greens do not set their own policies before the election, then, most assuredly, their officials will do it for them afterwards.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 December 2013.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Holy Folly

David and Goliath Struggle: Critics of Greenpeace have condemned its latest protest against deep sea oil drilling as folly. But, in a world made miserable by the “wisdom” of our neoliberal masters, “folly” may be exactly what people are looking for.
BE CAREFUL what you wish for, Prime Minister. If the New Zealand electorate has shifted as far to the left as the polls show the British and American electorates shifting, a Labour Party committed to re-nationalising the partially-privatised energy SOEs and Air New Zealand may not be as unpopular as you think. By the same token, Mr Cunliffe: “Profligate Communist!” may not be the insult you assume it to be.
Across the world, but especially in the developed world, there is a growing sense of enough being enough. Enough inequality. Enough unemployment. Enough insecurity. Enough retrenchment. Enough austerity. Enough of swallowing the lie that all of these things are as immutable as the seasons. Unalterable. Just the way it is.
“Enough of that!” People are saying. “What was made by Man can be changed by Man.”
Enough is enough.
It’s been slow to arrive in New Zealand. Nearly three decades of bipartisan agreement on the essentials of neoliberal economic policy have seen to that. A whole generation has grown up believing that this is as good as it gets. That the Reserve Bank Act, the Public Finance Act, the State Sector Act and the Employment Contracts/Relations Act – like the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt Sinai – are laws written by God.
But the problem with raising up a massive, all-embracing, hegemonic structure is that, eventually, it has to deliver. People will tolerate a slow start – especially if the system being replaced held sway for a long time and embedded its values deep in the national psyche. At some point, however, the new system has got to work. And by “work” the average person means “work for everyone – not just a privileged few”.
Thirty years has been more than enough time for the neoliberal system to have proved its worth. That it has delivered the world we live in today argues pretty decisively against it being much more than a mechanism for making the rich richer and the rest of us wretched.
The newspapers and the electronic media may tell us that things are not as bad as they seem, and that, really, our government’s “common-sense” policies are working splendidly; but their spin is counter-spun by our lived experience. The content of our day-to-day lives is constantly constructing a powerful “counter-hegemony”. We “just know” that things are not getting better.
And, knowing this, we are constantly bemused, amazed and (more recently) aggrieved that the political parties purporting to offer a challenge to the status-quo do not seem to be aware of it. Or, even if they are aware of it, remain steadfastly unwilling to embrace the sort of policies that might do something about it.
Mr Cunliffe’s unwillingness to be labelled a “Profligate Communist” reveals the power that neoliberalism still wields over New Zealand’s political class. Every editor, every political journalist and commentator in the country would declare his unequivocal pledge to renationalise the energy SOEs utter folly – and the Leader of the Labour Party has balked at the prospect.
But, in a world made miserable by the “wisdom” of our neoliberal masters, “folly” may be exactly what people are looking for in a Labour leader. The “holy folly” that inspired the Saints: that prompted Martin Luther to nail his manifesto of protest to the cathedral door; that kept Rosa Parks in her seat, immovable, on a Montgomery bus.
We New Zealanders have a soft spot for that sort of holy foolishness. It’s why we cheered when Norman Kirk dispatched a frigate to Mururoa. It’s why we applauded when hundreds of little boats sailed out to blockade the nuclear warships of the US Navy. It’s why, deep down, and in spite of all the sneers and jeers, we are willing Greenpeace’s little flotilla to stay the distance and succeed.
When we see the size of the drilling vessel: the way it dwarfs the little craft that have sailed into Anadarko’s forbidden zone to bear witness against the reckless gamble that is deep sea oil; something in us reaches out to them – law or no law.
“This will not stand”, whispers the voice of holy folly. And then, loud enough to disturb his whole Government, that same voice makes a second promise: one our Prime Minister was certain he would never hear – and now recoils from:
“They will not stand alone.”
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, 29 November 2013.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Colin Craig's Conservatives: A Noxious Political Potpourri

Me, Myself, I: If Colin Craig's Conservative Party was a book we'd call it a vanity publication. The question New Zealanders need to be asking the National Party is: "Why is this country's second oldest political party contemplating an alliance with the purpose-built political vehicle of a disturbingly reactionary millionaire?"

IF THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY was a book we’d call it a vanity publication. Born of successful Auckland businessman’s, Colin Craig’s, decision to enter politics, it was never meant to be anything more than a reliable vehicle for its creator’s messianic ambitions.
At the 2011 General Election Mr Craig’s Conservatives outspent the Labour Party by more than $100,000. In spite of this lavish expenditure ($1.8 million!) the party garnered just 59,237 votes (2.7 percent). Putting that another way: Mr Craig and his followers spent a staggering $13.71 for every Conservative Party vote!
Now, in normal circumstances, that information would probably have been filed under “A fool and his money are soon parted”. But in the political circumstances of 2013, Mr Craig’s 2.7 percent of the Party Vote is not so easily dismissed.
Not when the Prime Minister, John Key, fears losing the 2014 election because his government’s current support parties attract insufficient support to carry him across the finish line. What the Prime Minister needs is a new support party – one with considerably more electoral energy than the largely spent political forces currently keeping him in office.
Enter, Stage Right, the Conservative Party. If Mr Craig could somehow be assured of winning an electorate seat, he would, on current polling figures, bring with him up to four additional MPs. These would more than compensate for any decline in the parliamentary contingents of Act, United Future and the Maori Party.
Small wonder, then, that over the past week or so the Prime Minister has been doing his best to talk-up Mr Craig’s self-published electoral book. If enough “punters out there in Punterland” (as his predecessor, Dr Don Brash, dubbed the electorate) can be persuaded to vote Conservative, Mr Key’s electoral bacon may yet he saved.
This prime-ministerial promotion of Colin Craig raises a number of disturbing questions about the health of New Zealand’s democracy. Not the least of these is why a responsible Prime Minister, the leader of one of New Zealand’s oldest political parties, would make the slightest effort to encourage Mr Craig’s political ambitions?
The Conservative Party is Mr Craig’s personal creation, and like the creations of the Christian God he worships, it bears a more than passing resemblance to its maker. Now, were Mr Craig blessed with the wisdom of Jehovah that would be no bad thing, but, alas, Mr Craig is very far from being the fount of all wisdom. On the contrary, both he and his party present an amalgam of some of the least respectable political ideas on offer.
It is Mr Craig’s view that parents should be at liberty to assault their own children. That all citizens should possess firearms and be entitled to use them with deadly effect against intruders. That our daughters are the most promiscuous in the world. That anthropogenic global warming is neither a significant, nor even likely, cause of climate change. That homosexual attraction is a matter of personal choice. The list, lamentably, goes on and on. A noxious political potpourri uplifted from the more disreputable elements of the American Religious Right.
Why would a responsible, twenty-first century New Zealand prime minister have anything to do with a person whose political philosophy is so antiquated that calling it “medieval” would pay it an unwarranted compliment?
Were the Conservative Party the legitimate offspring of New Zealand’s long-standing conservative traditions; and were it peopled by ordinary, decent defenders of the values and institutions upon which New Zealand was founded and which have underpinned her prosperity, then the prospect of it entering into a workable political alliance with the National Party’s nascent liberalism would not be in the least bit daunting.
But the Prime Minister knows that Colin Craig’s Conservative Party is no such thing. Indeed, if Mr Craig is to be believed, his creation isn’t really intended to conduct itself as a political party at all. The Conservatives’ role, rather, is to facilitate government by binding citizens’ initiated referenda.
Can it really be the case that the National Party is contemplating an electoral alliance, and even entering into a governing coalition, with the vanity project of a man who is seriously advocating the abolition of our representative form of government and its replacement with the crudest form of plebiscitary democracy?
Has Mr Key not asked himself why Mr Craig favours government by referendum? Does he not see that it is by such means that the Conservative leader hopes to erect a system which renders impotent all the virtues of parliamentary discussion and debate; all the persuasive power of social and scientific research; all the sage advice and collective wisdom of the many interest groups and institutions that comprise our pluralistic society?
Mr Craig’s Conservatives intend to bring our representative democracy to book. The book which Mr Craig has written, unaided and alone.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 November 2013.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Outflanked On The Left - By The Voters!

Public Service Notice: Across the Western World there is evidence that the political parties ostensibly standing for progressive change are being comprehensively outflanked by their own supporters - on the Left. Is it possible that the people are becoming more radical than the politicians "representing" them?
WITH LABOUR’S POLL NUMBERS FALTERING, there will undoubtedly be much agitated discussion in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition.
“What’s wrong with everybody?!” David Cunliffe’s advisers will wail. “Why didn’t anyone like KiwiAssure? What was not to like about a state-owned insurance company? What on earth do people want!?”
Well, if the news from abroad is anything to go by, they want a good deal more than the cautious gestures they’ve seen so far. Indeed, if the research published recently in both the United Kingdom and the United States is correct, a substantial chunk of the electorate is willing to embrace economic and social policies that are genuinely and unashamedly radical.
A YouGov survey for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class) think tank, carried out at the end of last month, showed that UK voters “strongly supported support state-imposed price controls on the utilities, re-nationalisation of the railways and Royal Mail, an end to private cash in the public sector and even state power to regulate rents”.
Putting it bluntly: a solid majority of the UK electorate is well to the left of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party.
Nick Assinder, the political editor of the IBTimes, summed up the poll results rather incredulously with the observation: “[I]f the findings continue to be borne out as the general election campaign moves into top gear, and if Labour takes them to heart, it could spark the sort of ideological debate which Britain has not seen since the late 1970s and 1980s – for good or ill.”
Something similar would appear to happening on the other side of the Atlantic. New polling from Hart Research Associates, undertaken on behalf of Americans For Tax Fairness, indicates a strong, pundit-confounding, public appetite for imposing higher taxes on the rich.
On the liberal website, Campaign For America’s Future, blogger Richard Eskow writes: “As that covert recording of Mitt Romney showed last year, some of the ‘1 percent’ think other Americans aren’t pulling their own weight in this economy. As this new polling confirms, the feeling’s mutual. By a seventeen point margin (56 percent to 39 percent), the American people want the next budget agreement to include new tax revenues from corporations and the wealthy.”
One of the reasons David Cunliffe won the leadership of the Labour Party was the widely held view among the party’s rank-and-file that he – alone of all his rivals – “got” this. On the day he announced his candidacy, his “You betcha!” response to a question about raising taxes on the rich had thrilled not just his Labour Party followers, but a large portion of the wider electorate.
At Labour’s annual conference, held in Christchurch at the beginning of this month, considerable behind-the-scenes diplomacy went into blunting the sharper edges of policy proposals from branch members and union affiliates who had taken Mr Cunliffe’s radicalism at face value. For the most part, the radicals were happy to oblige – not wanting their man to be embarrassed in front of a sceptical news media.
But, if the trends from abroad are any guide, smoothing off the radical edges of Labour’s policy platform was exactly the wrong thing to do. If Mr Cunliffe would improve his political fortunes, he should think about sharpening – not blunting – his party’s attack on the status-quo.
The Labour Caucus, too, needs to summon up the courage to abandon what may turn out to have been its entirely unnecessary caution. It is one thing to protect the party leader from stepping beyond the limits of the electorate’s tolerance; quite another to stand between the voters and the radical policies they’re hungering for. Neoliberalism has been weighed in the balance and found wanting – Labour MPs should not attempt to second-guess the zeitgeist.
Bill Clinton’s campaign-team’s note-to-self: “It’s the economy, stupid!” has become the stuff of US political folklore – and a potent reminder to stay focused on voter priorities.
Perhaps Mr Cunliffe’s note-to-self should be: “Radical policies for a radicalised electorate!”
This essay was originally published by The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 November 2013.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Worse Than It Looked

Bringing Out The Worst: For reading the words of Yeb Sano, a Philippines' delegate to the Warsaw conference on Climate Change, into the parliamentary record, the Greens' co-leader, Russel Norman, elicited howls of outrage from the National Government's MPs. Their response is emblematic of the Right's growing contempt for science and the evidence-based reasoning that underpins it.
LAST WEEK’S UNCOUTH DISPLAY by National Party MPs revealed as much about its authors as its target – Dr Russel Norman. It spoke of a political mindset quite unable to distinguish occasions when rowdy interjection is appropriate, from those when it most emphatically is not. More than that, however, it exposed an unwillingness – now alarmingly widespread among conservative politicians – to accept the findings of empirical science.
The Green Party’s co-leader had risen to add his party’s response to a parliamentary statement expressing New Zealanders’ sympathy and support for the Filipino victims of Super-Typhoon Haiyan. In doing so he drew heavily on the comments of Yeb Sano, a member of the Philippines delegation to the international conference on climate change in Warsaw.
Speaking to his fellow delegates just hours before, Mr Sano had declared:
Passionate Advocacy: Climate Change Conference Delegate, Yeb Sano, spoke for the people of the super-typhoon-ravaged Philippines, demanding international action to curb anthropogenic global warming: "If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”
“I speak for my delegation. But more than that, I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves after perishing from the storm … We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons are a way of life.
“Because we refuse, as a nation, to accept a future where super typhoons like Haiyan become a fact of life. We refuse to accept that running away from storms, evacuating our families, suffering the devastation and misery, having to count our dead, become a way of life. We simply refuse to.”
Dr Norman’s intention in quoting extensively from Mr Sano’s speech was to draw his parliamentary colleagues attention to the fact that Super-Typhoon Haiyan wasn’t simply an Act of God but a terrifying example of what climate scientists call “anthropogenic global warming”. In other words, that it was a man-made disaster. And if the New Zealand Parliament was not to find itself expressing sorrow and support for the victims of climate change with ever-increasing frequency, then its members would have to respond to Mr Sano’s urgent plea for action.
Quoting a student hero of the Philippines’ long and bloody struggle for democracy, Mr Sano had challenged the Warsaw delegates:
“If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”
A more mature National Party would have listened to the quoted words of this Filipino scientist in  respectful silence. Startled, perhaps, that a member of the House had moved beyond the platitudes that traditionally accompany such ritual expressions of sympathy, but willing, nevertheless, to at least try to understand why he was stepping beyond the norm.
But, because the words of scientists no longer command the respect of conservatives, the National Party members of the House (including at least one Cabinet Minister) began braying like tethered asses for Dr Norman to resume his seat. Such incivility has, sadly, become reflexive on the right of politics – especially when anyone attempts to engage its representatives in serious discussion about the consequences of anthropogenic global warming.
The contrast between these Tory “know-nothings” and “climate-change deniers” and the leading conservatives of fifty years ago is stark. The Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik in October 1957 had so shocked the United States that the Eisenhower Administration felt it had no option but to defy the ingrained religious obscurantism of huge swathes of the American Right and embark on a campaign to place science and its myriad applications (not least its military spin-offs) at the centre of American life. If science reigned to such obviously good effect in Red Russia, argued the President’s advisers, then it must also rule in the Land of the Free.
The debt we owe the extraordinary era of scientific competition between the USSR and the USA is huge. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what the world of 2013 would look like had it never happened.
The vast expansion of scientific research and development did, however, bring with it an extremely worrying political problem. How to ensure that the revelations of science – the outcome of rational thought and disciplined experimentation – would be received by equally rational and disciplined politicians? If the findings of science contradicted the deeply-held prejudices of politicians, then which of the two – the scientist or the politician – would be required to step back?
In a 2012 article for The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza quoted Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, from their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks:
“One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Following last week’s uncouth display, it is clear that, when it comes to rational right-wing responses to anthropogenic global warming, it’s looking pretty bad here too.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 November 2013.

Friday, 15 November 2013

A Disturbing Precedent

GUILTY MEN? Tried and convicted in the Court of Public Opinion for their insensitive questioning of "Amy", a friend of one of the "Roastbusters'" victims, Maori broadcasters Willie Jackson and John Tamihere were taken off the air. Radio Live's decision was assisted by massive criticism from social media and direct pressure on the radio station's advertisers. But, were Willie and JT's failings personal or cultural? Is it pure coincidence that their Pakeha colleagues - also guilty of insensitivity in relation to the Roastbusters scandal - have escaped Willie's and JT's fate?
AM I ALONE, amidst all the liberal self-congratulation at the silencing of Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, in experiencing a chill of foreboding? Has no one else on the Left paused for a moment to consider what manner of precedent this appeal to advertisers may have set? Has no thought been given to how – or even if – the demise of The Willie & JT Show can be reconciled with the NZ Bill of Rights’ guarantee of freedom of expression?
Because there can be little doubt that the decision by so many businesses to withdraw their advertising from Radio Live was prompted by the implicit threat of a consumer boycott of their products if they didn’t. Bluntly, the proposition put to Radio Live amounted to: “Take these guys off the air, or, first off, we’ll hurt your advertisers; and then we’ll hurt you.”
And it worked. Messrs Jackson and Tamihere have been silenced and their show shut down for at least two months. They have been tried in the Court of Public Opinion for expressing opinions and evincing attitudes that a great many New Zealanders deem to be not only objectionable but dangerous. They have been found guilty and punished.
But, when you think about it, they didn’t really get a fair trial – did they?
In a fair trial they would have been asked why they treated the young woman caller, Amy, the way they did. Were their questions about her friend’s attire and the amount of alcohol she’d consumed framed deliberately, to inflict maximum harm and humiliation? Or were they merely reflective of the values and assumptions that characterised the circumstances in which her inquisitors were raised?
At a fair trial, someone might have posed the question: “Is it more or less likely that Willie’s and JT’s alleged “misogyny” reflected a predisposition toward deliberate cruelty? Or, was it the product of deeply ingrained misconceptions about sexuality and gender?” And, if we’re willing to concede that it might have been the latter, then hasn’t the discussion moved on from failings that are personal, to responses that may be cultural?
At a fair trial, Willie’s and JT’s defence attorney might even have tried to turn the story around to where it was no longer about sexism but racism. Because the charge of rape, when levelled against a black man, carries with it all manner of disreputable historical baggage.
What did Willie and JT see when 3 News broke the Roastbusters story? Two young brown faces. What did they hear? Middle-class Pakeha liberals baying for their blood. To what did their first thoughts turn? Rape Culture or Lynch Law?
And the sad fact is, there could have been a fair trial – or, at least, a free exchange of views about the many issues raised by the Roastbusters scandal. Had the first instinct of Willie's and JT’s critics been to ask Radio Live for an opportunity to go head-to-head with them on air; to challenge their ideas about young women and rape; then the result might well have been a week’s worth of productive and progressive dialogue. But that is not what happened. Rather than korero, the left-wing social media’s first instinct was to condemn, threaten, punish and shut down.
And now that they have tasted blood; now that they have fixed the heads of these two high-profile Maori “misogynists” above the gates of their virtual Utopia; listen to what some in the left-wing social media believe it to mean:
“Old media Radio Live have been damaged by the new media blogs. The power of Twitter and Facebook allows a focused roar from the crowd to descend with crushing force on whatever target it decides to destroy. It’s trial by social media.”
Now, I’m pretty sure that the author of those sentences, The Daily Blog editor, Martyn Bradbury, did not intend them to sound quite so triumphant. Because the situation he is describing in no way merits self-congratulation. Nor is it one which any leftist worthy of the name will approach with equanimity.
Freedom of expression is absolutely basic to any movement which places challenging the status quo at the core of its political practice. In denying that freedom to Willie Jackson, John Tamihere and Radio Live, the Left has set a precedent upon which, at the first opportunity, a vengeful Right will pounce.
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 November, 2013.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Rescuing Us Right Back: Further Reflections On The Roastbusters Scandal

Rescuing Each Other: Between them, the early medieval troubadours and their aristocratic patronesses of Southern France created a new and enduring cultural style: the Ideal of Courtly Love. For a thousand years in the West it has been possible to like and respect women, seek out and enjoy their company, heed their advice – and still be considered a man.
THEY CAME FROM THE SOUTH, wandering the rough roads and sweeping beaches of Aquitaine. Bringing with them all the news and scandal of the day and singing long strange tales to the rhythm of a tabor and the ripples of a harp. They were the troubadours: half journalists, half rock-stars; and wholly welcome in the castle-based culture of Southern France during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
As often as not those castles were ruled by women. With their lords far away, settling old feudal scores; or even further afield, crusading in the Holy Land; these ladies found themselves temporary matriarchs. They may have been ruling over men in their husband’s name, but they were ruling nonetheless.
Out of these two – the troubadours and the matriarchs – emerged a new cultural style that was to influence the relationship between the sexes for centuries to come: the ideal of courtly love; chivalry; romanticism.
Powerfully influenced by the sparkling cultures of Islamic Spain and Sicily, this new cultural style was aimed directly at the uncouth brutality of the fiercely patriarchal societies of Northern Europe. From across the Pyrenees the troubadours brought glimpses of a world where manhood was not defined entirely by the violent assertion of power and control, but by how completely he was able to enter the life of the mind. To read, to write, to make music, to patronise beauty and knowledge: these were accomplishments of which men could also be proud. Yes, and women, too.
Women were the key, the means by which a feudal brute could be transformed into a courteous knight. The Ideal of Courtly Love challenged men to seek out and savour all the qualities that a warrior culture despises: tenderness, vulnerability, longing, patience, generosity and sacrifice.
Patriarchy rejects these emotions precisely because they are the qualities it associates most closely with the world of women. Were men to open themselves to these experiences, then interaction between the sexes would at once become both more intelligible and more equal, and the rigid barriers of patriarchy would crumble.
It was this, the revolutionary potential of courtly love, that inspired Eleanor of Aquitaine (Queen to both the King of France and of England) and her daughter, Marie, the Countess of Champagne, to champion courtly love throughout the courts of Europe. Aristocratic feminists they may have been (did serfs even have feelings?) but the cultural style which they and their troubadour propagandists promoted has, over the intervening millennium, become a defining motif of Western culture.
For a thousand years in the West it has been possible to like and respect women, seek out and enjoy their company, heed their advice – and still be considered a man.
Modern feminists tend to give the Ideal of Courtly Love short shrift. Queen Eleanor and her troubadours have largely been denounced for “putting women on a pedestal” which, according to their latter-day sisters, confers upon women an entirely spurious superiority, rather than the equality that is theirs by right. “Benevolent” sexism chivalrous behaviour may be, but it’s still sexism.
In a week during which New Zealand women have become acquainted with all the gut-wrenching details of malevolent sexism, feminism’s swift dismissal of chivalry’s benevolence surely warrants reconsideration? The narrative of courtly love may have been a literary, historical and sociological fiction, but it provided men with a model of “the perfect knight” they could become. By the rules of chivalry, honour and virtue were the consequence of neither a man’s genealogy, nor his wealth, but of his character. A man attained honour by the virtue of his choices.
Where was honour and virtue among the Roastbusters? In a room full of young men made brutes by the fictions of pornography, isn’t it tragic that not even one boy was raised on the fictions of chivalry? Not one young man who, perceiving the evil intent of his companions, recognised damsels in distress and chose to become their perfect knight? Not one 17-year-old boy who chose to, in Matthew Hooton’s anguished father’s appeal to shock-jocks Willie Jackson and John Tamihere: “look after them and get them home safely”?
For all stories have power. As the Canadian producers of a documentary looking into the sexualisation of young women revealed, a huge number of girls are still raised on the fictions of the Disney Corporation. Encouraged to see themselves as little princesses, they grow up expecting their very own Prince Charming.
Sadly, their brothers grow up with very different expectations. Rather than draw inspiration from the chivalrous deeds of King Arthur and his Knights, they revel in the murders and rapes depicted in Game of Thrones.
Perhaps Queen Eleanor and the troubadours were right: in a world of brutal exploitation and violence, men must be encouraged to rescue women. So that women, in their turn, can rescue us right back.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, November 12, 2013.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Fathers And Sons

Assumptions Of Complicity: The young men involved in Roastbusters projected a jarring sense of invulnerability: an assumption that their sexual humiliation of young women was just the normal stuff all young men engage in. It was an attitude which received a measure of endorsement from media figures who described the Roastbusters' behaviour as "mischief".

IT WAS THEIR SMIRKS that enraged me the most: the “Roastbusters’” easy assumption that every male in New Zealand was envying them. Telling us: “You want this, too. This is your best fantasy. We’re doing everything you ever dreamed of doing but didn’t – because you never believed anyone could possibly get away with it.”
And there was more.
The mocking expression on these young men’s faces was also saying: “You’re complicit in this because, deep down, you’re just like us. Deep down, your view of women is no different from ours. They’re meat. You chew them up. You spit them out. And if you can organise a bit of a laugh at their expense along the way – then so much the better!”
How has New Zealand raised such sons?
That’s a question only New Zealand’s fathers can answer.
What sort of example have we set?
When New Zealand was governed by a woman, did the nation’s fathers indicate to their sons that this was a state of affairs of which they should be proud? Were they outraged on their sons’ behalf when their workmates and drinking buddies stood around the barbecue making jokes about her looks, her voice, her sexuality – or did they join in the ribald laughter?
Paraphrasing Dr Martin Luther King, did they tell their sons that a woman is to be judged not by the shape of her body, but by the content of her character?
Do New Zealand’s fathers teach their sons that before anybody is male or female; black or white; gay or straight; intelligent or stupid; beautiful or ugly: they are first and always a human-being?
And, since they are human, their irreducible share of humanity’s common inheritance must be acknowledged and respected.
Shakespeare, in The Merchant of Venice, puts into the mouth of his character Shylock, a despised Jewish moneylender, what is perhaps the greatest appeal to our common humanity in all of English literature:
“Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses affections passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
What is missing from the education of our sons that so many of them seem incapable of even the most basic empathy? Why, when invited to participate in the “Roastbusters” theatre of cruelty, were so many West Auckland boys incapable of imaginatively trading places with the young women they were planning to abuse? What was it that prevented their consciences from shouting out on their pitiably young victims’ behalf: “If you stupefy us, and gang-rape us, and broadcast our humiliation on Facebook? Will we not want to die?”
In attempting to explain the “Roastbusters’” appalling behaviour, many New Zealanders will point to the pornographic images that are now so easily available on the Internet. They will argue that the “message” young men are taking from these staged sexual encounters is that women enjoy being dominated and abused, and that a man is not a man unless he is capable of deriving sexual pleasure from dominating and abusing his female partners.
Given the ubiquity of both the Internet’s pornographic websites and of the devices required to access them, it is surely past time that New Zealand’s teenage men and women were given a more wholesome series of messages regarding not only what they have a right to expect from one another sexually, but also regarding their fundamental human rights.
The “Roastbusters” revelations make it very clear that our secondary schools’ sex education syllabus is in need of urgent revision. Against pornography’s messages of exploitation and abuse we must counterpose the messages of respect, compassion and equality. Not only for our daughters’ safety, but also for our sons’.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 November 2013.