Category Archives: Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture

Robert Wade 2009: How to Stop the Money Men from Taking Over the World

Robert Wade[1]


What a great title, Only Their Purpose Is Mad: The Money Men Take Over NZ. Jesson adapted the first part  from Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, who in a rare moment of self-awareness says, “all my means are sane, my motive and my object mad”. Ahab was indeed very  rational in his pursuit of his goal of hunting down the whale which had sunk his ship and caused him to loose a leg; he was not a madman. But he was gripped obsessively by his goal or purpose, and the combination of rationality and obsession produced the ultimate disaster.

Continue reading Robert Wade 2009: How to Stop the Money Men from Taking Over the World

Michael Lee 2008: Strangers in the 21st Century: Auckland and New Zealand politics without Bruce Jesson

Strangers in the 21st Century

Auckland and New Zealand politics without Bruce Jesson

Lecture on behalf of the Bruce Jesson Foundation Maidment Theatre,Auckland University. 6 October 2008. Michael Lee

Taking up Bruce Jesson’s books again when I began to prepare for this lecture – and reading again that clean, simple, but incisive writing style, the wry self deprecating humour and the clever use of the dialectic – reminded me how much the New Zealand political scene, had been diminished by Bruce Jesson’s passing in 1999. Interestingly it brought back to me the feeling I had when Bruce died – how to articulate this? Many of you I guess must have experienced similar feelings yourselves. But for me especially in terms of politics, that extra interest, that intellectual challenge, the extra spark that Bruce Jesson brought to New Zealand politics had gone for good. And we are all the poorer for it.

The title of this lecture ‘Strangers in the 21st century’ has different layers of meaning – on a personal level, for me it is about operating in politics in the absence of the advice and intellectual companionship of Bruce Jesson. In a wider sense it relates to our society’s alienation from the past and its uncertainty – uncertainty perhaps is not the right word – lack of contemplation – about the future. It was argued by Bruce on more than one occasion (for instance in the chapter The State of Amnesia in his last book Only their Purpose is Mad – that we New Zealanders are careless – perhaps deliberately forgetful – about our history – and there is a price we pay for that. As the Roman politician Cicero once said – “to live in ignorance of the transactions of the past is to always live as a child.”

So I want to talk a bit about history – specifically (and not surprisingly I guess) the history of local government in Auckland. History does repeat itself as Hegel and Marx famously noted. I think that in examining Auckland’s history we can discern recurring tendencies and patterns. This I believe can be instructive for how we can

better manage and develop Auckland now and in the future. This will lead me to the present day debate on the restructuring of Auckland local/regional government, specifically in terms of the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance. Finally I would like to pose the question – that if major changes to the governance, the constitutional arrangements of Auckland, are deemed essential – then what about the country as a whole.

At the outset I should point out that I count myself lucky in not only having known Bruce Jesson as a friend, but I also was fortunate to have served alongside of him during what I believe to be some of the more dramatic and important events in the recent political history of the Auckland region – when the continued public ownership of the Ports of Auckland and other regional assets hung in the balance. During those rather tumultuous months of 1992 after being elected to the Auckland Regional Council soon after Bruce and due to an ARC convention about seating members in alphabetical order, we sat next to each other in the debating chamber. That was an unforgettable experience for me.

Now to begin the story, the first steps towards the establishment of local government for pakeha settlers came in 1845 when the Colonial Office in London decided that New Zealand should have formal local government (part of getting the colony to pay for it own upkeep) and duly communicated this to Auckland – to the new Governor George Grey. By all accounts this was not well received at Government House.

I quote from Edmund Bohan’s biography of George Grey, To Be a Hero:
“During 1845 Earl Stanley (Secretary of State for the Colonies) had ordered the establishment of elective municipal councils in Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington and Nelson, with powers to pass by-laws and levy rates. Grey, having so easily disposed of Adelaide’s once troublesome council now wrote to Stanley to express his fears that the greedy speculators and merchants who swarmed in Auckland would be those most likely to be elected to local bodies by the ignorant settler masses.”

A draft constitution for New Zealand drawn up in London proved to be unrealistic for local conditions and Grey managed to avoid implementing it while he drew up his own more practical constitution, which came into force in 1853. George Grey’s

constitution provided for elected provincial councils in Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury, Otago, Taranaki and Nelson.

As Grey predicted the settler capitalists quickly ascended to political power in the colony but despite Grey’s contempt for them – especially the Auckland settler capitalists – it wasn’t too long before Grey found himself in an unholy Alliance with the Auckland business set when it instigated the invasion of the Maori King’s lands in the Waikato. Of course for them the New Zealand War was purely about seizing land for speculative purposes, for Grey the motive for war was all about Empire and Imperial sovereignty.

After an inauspicious start, local government in Auckland for a time became the responsibility of the Provincial Council, which worked reasonably well. Unfortunately from the outset the provincial councils and the central government could not get on – and bickered constantly. The situation became so bad that the Auckland provincial council even thought about seceding from the rest of the colony. This unhappy state of affairs lasted until the provinces were abolished by the central government in 1876

After the capital was transferred to Wellington in 1865 there was renewed pressure for local government and yet another Auckland City Council was established in 1871 and this same body has remained in existence to this day.

Not surprisingly, the free-wheeling individualistic culture of Auckland – very much based on speculation and subdivision of land, resulted in a city which sprawled out in a haphazard fashion and which continually tended to outgrow its infrastructural carrying capacity. I am deliberately simplifying things here because Auckland’s early leaders did create a number of beautiful buildings, in my opinion, far superior to anything done in more recent times – I am talking about the Town Hall, the Customs Building, the Ferry Building, the Central Post Office, what is now the art gallery, and of course the superb Auckland War Memorial Museum.

However for its first 100 years or so, Auckland’s main infrastructural problems related to the supply of bulk water and especially the disposal of sewage – both of which proved to be inadequate to cater for the constantly growing population. Over those years the city experienced periodic crises because of this. The chronic sewage disposal problem was underlined in 1888 by a serious outbreak of typhoid in Auckland.

Up until the mid 20th century then, it was sewage and not transport, which caused the major headaches and was the focus of considerable public and political debate in Auckland.

For the first half of the 20th century raw sewage was conveyed by the Hobson Bay sewer line and dumped into the sea at Orakei (the holding tanks are where Kelly Tarlton’s aquarium is today). As the city grew in size the pollution of the harbour and neighbouring bays from this sewage became greater and increasingly offensive.

Eventually in 1931 the authorities decided on a major new scheme in which Auckland’s sewage would be conveyed by an undersea pipe to Browns Island where after minimal treatment it would discharged out of sight and out of mind into the Rangitoto channel. The Browns Island affair as it came to be known turned out to be an extremely bitter, acrimonious business, which ran on for nearly 25 years. This cause celèbre led to the launching of a previously unknown businessman Dove-Meyer Robinson into local body politics. Robinson became a leader of what was probably the city’s first urban environmental group, the Auckland and Suburban Drainage League.

Robbie, as he came to be known, eventually concluded that the best way to fight the system was to take it over – which he proceeded to do. He was elected to Auckland City Council in a by-election in 1952, and in 1953 he was followed by four of his ‘United Independent’ supporters including Professor Kenneth Cumberland future head of Geography department at Auckland University. Together they proceeded to take control of the Drainage Board and halted the Brown Island project – though contracts had been signed and construction was already underway – (imagine that?).

To settle the vexed question of the city’s sewage disposal, they called in a panel of international experts, which recommended the revolutionary technology of oxidation ponds and for these to be located at Mangere. This happily was exactly the solution Robbie had always wanted. Robbie was elected Mayor in 1959 by grateful Aucklanders and and re-elected to that office for a record six times.

Apart from the legacy of a clean Waitemata Harbour, Robbie’s capstone achievement was the establishment of the Auckland Regional Authority in 1963.

All throughout the 20th century parochialism, infighting and a chronic lack of unity had been an unhappy feature of Auckland local government. By 1960 there were 32 territorial authorities (city, boroughs and counties) and some 15 ad hoc bodies. In the post World War II era when Auckland’s population began to grow rapidly, there was a realisation by some of the more farseeing city leaders that if Auckland was to cater for that growth some sort of strong and co-ordinated regional planning and development authority was required. In 1963 after three attempts, the Auckland Regional Authority Act was passed through parliament – after years of intensive lobbying by Robinson and others.

The ARA was the New Zealand’s first regional government since the abolition of the provinces. Its responsibilities included bulk water supply, sewage reticulation and treatment, public transport, waste management, management of Auckland International Airport, the Waitakere Ranges Centennial Memorial Park – and regional milk distribution.

The new Authority quickly embarked upon an era of major infrastructural development, which I will call the era of Post War Building.

In terms of bulk water supply, from 1965 to 1977 the ARA built five new major dams in the Hunua and the Waitakere ranges in 12 short years, doubling the number of dams and increasing Auckland’s bulkwater storage capacity by over 385 %. At the same time Robbie’s baby, the Manukau Sewage Purification Works, (now called Mangere Wastewater Treatment Plant) and the network of main interceptors and pump stations were comprehensively upgraded

The ARA also constructed four major landfills and two refuse transfer stations processing about 70 per cent of Auckland’s rubbish.

The ARA also started buying land – mainly coastal land as part of the regional parks network. From the 1950s regional planners like F.W.O. Jones realised the need to protect outstanding coastal landscapes from the subdivisions which began to appear after the war. Also as Auckland was some 400 km from the nearest national park, provision would need to be made for the recreational needs of the region’s growing working population.

In terms of public transport throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, the ARA building from the assets of the old Auckland Transport Board progressively bought up and amalgamated numerous private bus companies. By 1989 the ARA was operating the country’s largest urban bus fleet.

Faced with the growing problem of traffic congestion the ARA also built regional roads, including the Greenlane to Balmoral arterial, the Avondale NewLynn by-pass, upper Queen Street to Dominion Road, the Pakuranga Highway and Bridge and the upper harbour crossing at Greenhithe.

However, one of the most interesting and visionary ARA projects was one that never came to fruition. Known as Robbie’s Rapid Rail this was an ambitious scheme to upgrade, extend and electrify Auckland’s suburban rail network. It was developed by the ARA and the New Zealand Railways Department, and energetically promoted by Dove-Meyer Robinson. In 1975 the project had gained the approval of the Kirk Labour government but tragically it was thrown out in 1976 by the incoming National government of Robert Muldoon.

The rejection of Robbie’s Rapid Rail, followed by the completion of the massive Mangatangi Dam in 1978 – signalled the beginning of the end of the era of Post War Building in Auckland.

By the 1980’s the ARA had began to fail.

Its difficult to explain why such a successful organisation should fail. The oil shocks of the 70s perhaps led to a loss of confidence. A rather hostile National government was followed by a Labour government in 1984 which was as we know preoccupied with a free market agenda and was essentially indifferent to the building of infrastructure. The new wisdom from Wellington was that the market having at last been unleashed would now take care of most things. Centralised planning had become ideological anathema. In the brave new world of Rogernomics, of ‘crash on through’ deregulators and ‘dashing corporate raiders taking on the world’, the ARA began to appear somewhat clunky and old-fashioned.

There also remained the old problem – the so called ‘Auckland disease’ – hostility from the city and borough councils, which resented the ARA’s growing domination and objected to its cost on their ratepayers.

In 1983 a ticket largely organised by anti-ARA Mayors and borough councillors, calling themselves, with a distinct lack of historical authenticity, the ‘New Deal’, succeeded in winning control of the ARA. The ‘New Deal’s’ political programme was to prevent the ARA from doing what it was originally designed to do – in fact stopping it from doing much at all.

For all of these reasons the ARA stopped doing major capital works – yet the city continued to grow faster than ever. When the big infrastructure projects ground to a halt, the ARA lost momentum, it lost self-belief and soon enough it lost public support. Once it stopped doing major public works the ARA became a large, bureaucratic slow-moving target.

Auckland entered what can only be described as a period of distinct mediocrity – this was the time of a generation, in both politics and business, which reaped but did not sow.

What is interesting about the so-called ‘New Deal’ era was that the long standing tensions between the regional authority and the territorial councils became internalised – brought within the walls of the ARA as it were – consequently

throughout the late 80s and early 90s the ARA became known for its political fractiousness.

1989 was a critical year for local government in Auckland. This was the time of the second wave of reforms of the Labour Minister of Local Government Michael Bassett, which involved major local government amalgamation. The winners were the new bulked-up city councils (in those days they were called the ‘super cities’) – the losers were the innumerable boroughs and county councils. The ARA which been strengthened by Bassett in terms of its elected representation in a first wave of reforms in 1986 was now given 80% of the shares of the former Auckland Harbour Board, now reconstituted as a port company. But at the same time the Authority had its named changed to the Auckland Regional Council. I believe there is a lot in a name – the ARA to a degree had not only lost its raison d’être, it had also in some ways lost its identity.

In 1988 ARA members had employed one of the new generation of high-flying CEO’s, Colin Knox (soon to be empowered under legislation to be the sole employer of council staff). This was controversial because when the new CEO was given a generous private sector-style salary package (including an inducement payment) it appeared to the media and the ratepayers as extravagant. Things got worse when the members were persuaded to build themselves a brand new headquarters – New Regional House. Unhappily this entailed a large debt (arranged by Fay Richwhite) at a usurious interest rate. During a time of economic recession the flash new building was seen as the height of self-indulgence. The word ‘profligate’ started to appear in media reports about the ARC. The more bad publicity the ARC generated – the more the council turned to expensive public relations consultants to improve its image – but rather than improving the ARC image, the pr effort itself drew more bad publicity.

This all was decidedly unhelpful and just as the New Right revolution began to burn its way through to local government .

The full blast of the New Right hurricane arrived in 1990 with the National government in the form of the Local Government Minister Warren Cooper. On form this guy was always going to be a problem for regional government in Auckland.

Here was a new Minister of Local Government who was not only a rural South Islander, a hardline conservative and a Neo Liberal but also and perhaps most menacingly of all – a former small town mayor. The new Minister made it known he had no time for regional councils and wanted rid of them – especially the ARC.

In 1989 legislation had been passed forcing local bodies to corporatise their services – this particularly impacted on the ARC, now faced with the threat of abolition the ARC restructured itself fundamentally, corporatising its service departments, appointing boards of outside businessmen to run them and progressively removing them from direct political accountability. This was part of a phenomenon the then head of Political Studies at Auckland University Professor Richard Mulgan dubbed ‘Rogerpolitics’. Some of the ARC members objected – but most were demoralised. Everyone knew by then what the next step would be – privatisation. Meanwhile the city councils were formulating their own plans to take over the ARC assets.

It was about this time that Bruce Jesson was first elected to the ARC after scoring an upset victory standing for the new left wing Panmure Alliance in a highly publicised by-election.

This was of course budget year 1991/92 – the fiscal year of ‘the Mother of all Budgets’ and as a direct result there was a widespread mood of public anger – and mounting opposition to public asset sales. The new Alliance was the political beneficiary of all that anger. As an illustration of the tone of the times, the Alliance led in the opinion polls over both National and Labour and in February 92, came within a whisker of winning Muldoon’s old blue ribbon seat of Tamaki.

This is how Bruce saw the ARC when he walked through the doors in late 1991. “It [the ARC] had become a house very much divided against itself…I found staff members and councillors conspiring (successfully) against the chief executive Colin Knox. Councillors would spit insults at each other across the members room where councillors sipped their g & t s after the meeting. The ARC’s disunity left it vulnerable to attack from the city councils of the region who saw it as a competitor for influence and rates; and from Wellington bureaucrats who thought that services such as ports, buses and tips should be privatised.

The bad press that the ARC received was related to the debt associated with Regional House and this, as much as anything else, was the source of acrimony among the councillors… At that stage, I would say that the ARC councillors lost their sense of purpose, and that the acrimony prevented them properly defending the public service goals of the ARC.”

Early in 1992, the ARC, under pressure from the Government, and the usual suspects (Fay Richwhite was the sales agent) was poised to sell its 80% shareholding of the Ports of Auckland.

By co-incidence in December 1991, a month after Bruce’s election I was selected by the Alliance for a by-election for the ARC seat of Auckland Central. When I walked through the doors of the ARC in February 92 the Council was in a pretty advanced stage of selling the port. Meanwhile a fiery public campaign against the port sale was being whipped up by talk-back radio host Pam Corkery – (which I believe I helped instigate through a talk back call I made the day before voting closed for the Auckland Central by-election). The radio campaign fuelled an enormous public petition against the sale, which eventually filled a whole room and ARC members were invited along by Radio Pacific to view it. Some ARC members who had been supporting the sale began to waver.

Meanwhile the sale process was proceeding to timetable. Bruce and I thought it important that we seize the initiative – so we put together a Notice of Motion, with some help from other ARC members like Paul Walbran, calling for the Council to abandon the sale and cutting off funds for the sales process.

As a new member (I had come straight off a ship) the 28 member ARC struck me as being rather like parliament in those days. Not only because ARC members at that time were elected from parliamentary seats including two Maori seats – a legacy of the first Bassett reforms – but debates were invariably long and often heated – punctuated with noisy interjections and obscure points of order. The late Keith Hay for example might lead off a typical oration beginning “Mr Chairman, members of the Authority – when I left the Labour Party in 1946 with John A Lee…” and so it would go on.

Our notice of motion to halt the port sale had gained a huge amount of public interest, thanks to people like Philip English at the NZ Herald, and was debated in an atmosphere of high drama – it was supported by the other new Alliance members and supporters but also by old-fashioned conservatives like Keith Hay and Alan Brewster and by mavericks like David Hawkins, June Hieatt. In the end, the sale of the Port was effectively aborted by the narrowest of margins. This was the first defeat for a major asset sale up until that time.

Though this unexpected revolt embarrassed the National government, it was even more grimly determined to push through legislation to break the ARC in half and to strip its assets. Under the Local Government Reform Bill (No.2) of that year, ARC assets including Ports of Auckland, the Yellow Bus Company, Northern Disposal, Watercare, downtown properties, and the ARC debt (mainly on Regional House) – and Regional House were to be ‘divested’ to a new body – the Auckland Regional Services Trust (ARST). The ARC was to be left with the rump functions of environmental management, RMA planning and regional parks. In that legislation the ARC was expressly forbidden to own public transport infrastructure.

The Regional Services Trust, which was totally unique in New Zealand local government – it was clearly custom-designed to be an agent of privatisation. In terms of its constitution it had only one saving grace – its trustees were to be democratically elected. But the catch to this was that the trustees had to be elected at large – and the electorate was the whole Auckland region – some 700,000 voters. This was clearly designed to ensure that only very rich individuals or very well resourced political machines like the Citizens and Ratepayers would stand much of a chance of winning seats on it.

But the government officials who designed the Trust were to be confounded again. In the local body elections of October 1992 in a remarkable political campaign organised by Matt McCarten, the Alliance under the slogan ‘We won’t sell out, captured the ARST and Bruce became chairman.

The government and its officials though obviously surprised at the turn of events – reassured themselves, that because of the level of debt, Jesson and his colleagues would have to privatise the port and be forced into a humiliating back down. Again they were to be confounded. After years of advising politicians – ‘There is No Other Way’, the Wellington bureaucrats apparently had actually come to believe it. Bruce and his colleagues in a manner remarkably reminiscent of the way Robbie and his supporters captured the Auckland Metropolitan Drainage Board exactly 40 years before, took hold of the ARST and proceeded to transform its purpose to serve the public interest. They refused to sell assets.

Though they kept their promises or actually because their kept their promises what came to known in the media as ‘the Alliance dominated ARST’ did not get an easy ride. As Bruce explained in his Metro article ‘An Accidental Politician’ of November 1995.

The Alliance had made a lot of enemies in its brief existence, both nationally and in local government. We must have seemed insufferable with our belligerence and holier-than-thou politics. Now, we were the focus of attack and I was the obvious target.

For those three years Bruce was forced to live his life on a political battlefield. The attacks came in from all sides. Not only from the right wing media, but also from the Labour Party which saw the Alliance as a deadly rival, and behind the scenes to a degree even from the Alliance itself! As Bruce put it so memorably in the same Metro article:

“The situation of the trust was difficult enough as it was. The trust as a totally new body, was moving onto other people’s territory and we found ourselves at the centre of an incessant squabble. We squabbled with the ARC over the divestment of the assets and debt from them to us. We squabbled with the Auckland City Council over our jointly owned downtown properties. We squabbled with nearly all the councils about the control of the water and wastewater system. I had always thought of myself as a meek and mild little man, but I now discovered a cantankerous and stubborn side of my nature. After squabbling all day with other politicians, I would go to an Alliance meeting of an evening and squabble with them as well.”

To keep the ARST afloat in its first few months without selling assets ARST Chief Executive Mark Ford with a small group of financial advisers formulated a subordinate debt arrangement with the ARC – the debt to be repaid over 15 years. When Bruce retired from politics in 1995 the ARST assets were worth $1.8 billion dollars and as he pointed out in 1999 “few private sector companies performed as well during the six years the Trust existed”.

To the consternation of the political establishment a viable alternative to privatisation had been created – holding on to public assets – and managing them to create public wealth in the public interest. “Economic Jessonism” – perhaps we might call it. This completely flew in the face on neo liberal conventional wisdom. I have absolutely no doubt that the remarkable success of the ARST between 1992 and 1995 was to have an important influence on the Labour-led government some ten years later.

Since that time the profits from the Port and other regional assets have been a key funder of Auckland transport and storm water projects – and are now virtually taken for granted in Auckland. It is hard to imagine how we could have embarked on the recent transport and other infrastructure upgrades without it.

The ARST had proved to be remarkably successful but ironically – not in the way it was designed for. For the New Right officials in Wellington it had been an embarrassing failure – therefore it had to go. In 1997, the officials went back to the drawing board and created Infrastructure Auckland (IA). This time there were to be no elected trustees. At the same time there was another attempt to sell off the regional assets by the National Government led by Jenny Shipley and Maurice Williamson – which once again ran into widespread public opposition and also from the Auckland mayors who had their own ideas about where the assets should go. But in a last gasp blow – the National Government recklessly forced the privatisation of the former ARC Yellow Bus company which was purchased by the Scottish company Stagecoach.

The name ‘Infrastructure Auckland’ was also quite revealing – because by the mid- 90’s Auckland’s outdated infrastructure was beginning to reveal the consequences of

years of neglect. First of all the draught of 1993-94 showed Auckland’s bulk water storage to be inadequate, the Mangere Wastewater Treatment Plant had reached capacity, and early in 1998 there was a major power outage in the CBD which was so bad it made international headlines. Bruce and I, Paul Walbran and Bruce Hucker anticipated these problems when we helped drew up the Alliance Greater Auckland Plan in 1995. Though the water, wastewater and power problems were eventually fixed by Watercare and the Auckland Energy Consumer Trust respectively, the most deep-seated and intractable problem transport – grew increasingly serious with chronic traffic congestion and the city close to grid-lock. Chickens were coming home to roost after years of neglect by the state and by the region.

Interestingly in 1998 the regional assets were not handed back to the ARC but instead to the city councils. The councils were also gifted the shares of WaterCare.

In 2004 the political wheel turned once again and the Labour government returned the remaining IA assets including the 80 % shareholding in Ports of Auckland to the ARC, in the form of Auckland Regional Holdings. In 2005 proving the wheel had really turned, ARH bought back the 20% of shares in the Ports of Auckland which the Waikato Regional Council had privatised in 1993.

But in other respects Auckland was very much as Bruce Jesson described in his 1995 Accidental Politician article.
…Auckland remains a political mess, despite the local government reforms. There are four cities, three district councils, a regional council and now the trust. There is little cohesion at a regional level and constant squabbling among the politicians. The place is very much like a collection of medieval fiefdoms, from which the politicians ride forth to do battle with each other. Sometimes the cities were fine to deal with. Barry Curtis, the mayor of Manukau was always courteous and helpful. Sometimes they were difficult. Waitakere City councillors always seemed well meaning but obsessive. And Auckland City was invariably obnoxious.

It would be tempting to blame Les Mills, with his bombastic assertive style, for the arrogant tone of Auckland City, but that wouldn’t be fair. Arrogance is steeped in the culture of the place. The officers are as bad as the politicians. It dates back I suppose, to the days before local government reforms, when Auckland City regarded

itself as the premier city in a region of tinpot borough councils. The intercity rivalries used to cause some embarrassing bickering at the mayoral forums. Les Mills would try to dominate proceedings. Barry Curtis would stand on his dignity and insist on the last word. Usually he would get it, but it sometimes took a long time.

The ongoing tensions between the city councils and the regional council surfaced once again in September 2006 when amidst widespread public protests at council rates increases, the Mayors of Auckland, Manukau, North Shore and Waitakere City were revealed to be planning what became known as the ‘Mayoral Coup’.

Though there was much talk at the time about a ‘super city’ – the Mayors actually advocated three cities and a ‘Lord Mayor’ and proposed that they themselves be appointed to the ARC as of right, along with ‘business leaders’ and even central government politicians and officials. They also called for the 2007 local body elections to be postponed. Essentially the ‘Mayoral Coup’ was an attempt to take control of the ARC assets and also to annex neighbouring councils Franklin, Papakura and Rodney. Waitakere, much to the indignation of its councillors, was also to be carved up. However the Mayors’ scheme was so transparently self-serving and essentially flaky that the whole scheme quickly collapsed amidst widespread public ridicule. In response the ARC proposed that the councils engage on ways to reform the Auckland local government system.

A formal process called ‘Strengthening Regional Governance’ involving all the councils was gotten underway with central government encouragement and a sort of consensus was cribbed together. The results were presented to the government which quite understandably was not especially impressed. In response it called for a Royal Commission on Auckland Local Governance clearly in the expectation of fundamental change.

In formulating the ARC submission to the Royal Commission we tried to keep in mind why there was Royal Commission in the first place – essentially this is because of widespread public dissatisfaction with local government in Auckland. There are I believe two principle reasons for this unpopularity – the cost of rates and user charges like water which in recent years have risen significantly higher than the CPI. The

second reason is a perception of arrogance in the way local bodies deal with the public. I believe these two problems are to a large degree interrelated and probably relate to the corporate culture that is one of the most persistent legacies of the neo liberal colonisation of the public sector of the 80’s and 90’s.

Despite the assertions of the councils, in my opinion in recent years a far too greater slice of the rate-take is consumed in the administration of the councils themselves and on a whole network of contractors, consultants and consultancy houses. Furthermore a lot of these costs appear to be duplicated between the councils. As David Shand reported in his Local Government Rates inquiry of 2007, on present trends local government rates will become unaffordable to a large number of people – especially those on fixed incomes within 10 years.

As a result of the neo liberal influence, the old-fashioned ethic of public service and democratic accountability have been progressively weakened.

In formulating the ARC submission we were therefore confronted with a dilemma: How to achieve the regional cohesion and unity that many Aucklanders have been calling for, for over 100 years – genuine regionalism – but also at the same time how to retain and indeed restore genuine local government for local communities.

The ARC proposal for Auckland is radical but we believe this approach is the best way to deal with the persistent problems of fragmentation, rivalry and inefficiencies leading to the growing costs of local government. Essentially Auckland has outgrown socially and economically the present three-tier, eight council governance model. We believe it needs to be replaced by something much more efficient and cost-effective and indeed more democratic.

Therefore we are calling for the ARC and the other seven city and district councils to be abolished, to be replaced by a single Auckland unitary authority, which we suggest should be called the Greater Auckland Authority.

Essentially what we propose is in effect a single organisation but with two tiers of governance – what I would call ‘the One and the Many.’ A regional tier the Greater Auckland Authority – and a local tier comprising some 30 community councils.

Under this model all council assets and land would be owned in common by the unitary authority: local community councils would be responsible for defined local assets and activities and the GAA would be responsible for regional assets and projects.

The Greater Auckland Authority would be in charge of transport, bulkwater, wastewater and stormwater, waste management, heritage protection, RMA planning, regional amenities like the Museum, art gallery and zoo, the regional parks network, the volcanic cones. It would be responsible for a standardised building consent and a single rates bill. We envisage the Greater Auckland Authority would be administered by some 22 members elected from parliamentary seats including 2 or possibly 3 Maori seats,

On the other hand the Community Councils largely based on the present day community boards would provide local democracy, and be responsibility for local amenities, roads, parks and libraries. The Community Councils would have greater responsibilities and therefore greater standing in their community than the present community boards. The elected members of community councils would be called ‘councillor.’ Unlike the community boards, community councils would have their rights and responsibilities protected by statute.

Conversely, the community councils would be constrained from legally challenging the activities of the Greater Auckland Authority for some parochial purpose, – after all they would be members of the same unitary authority. In other words checks and balances would be essential.

Under the ‘One and the Many’ model there would be significant opportunities for close cooperation between the Greater Auckland Authority and community councils, for instance through joint committees and working parties.

Let’s be in no doubt that what the ARC has proposed to the Royal Commission is a very powerful governmental entity for Auckland. There would therefore need to be checks and balances between the regional and national levels of government just as with the regional and local level and a clear division of labour. But again one can see the opportunity for joint task force approaches between regional and central government agencies to tackle major infrastructural problems, similar to the way ARC, ARTA and Ontrack will be working on electrification of the Auckland rail network.

As I have pointed out Transport – or more to the point chronic traffic congestion has been a major problem for Auckland in recent decades. The good news is that after almost two decades of neglect the present Labour-led government has done a huge amount for transport infrastructure in Auckland and so has the ARC, ARTA and indeed the city councils. But the fact remains that in terms of rapid transit we still lag some 50 years behind Wellington – which is now embarking on a second generation of rail electrification – Why is this? Well the reasons are intimately tied up with Auckland’s political history.

As I noted earlier, the biggest infrastructural headache for Auckland up until the mid 1950s was sewage disposal. Transport – especially public transport was not a problem. Auckland had an excellent electric tram service supported by trains and harbour ferries. In terms of rail transport thanks to the research of Dr Chris Harris which was referred to in Chris Trotter’s recent book No Left Turn, we know that in 1947 the Ministry of Works had plans to electrify and comprehensively expand the Auckland suburban rail network in a similar way to Wellington.

The MOW plans remained on the books until 1954 at which time the Holland National Government in the form of the Minister of Transport, Railways, Works and Housing Stan Goosman managed to persuade the Auckland City Council to agree to their abandonment. Harris points out that the day after Auckland City Council agreed to effectively ditch the rail plans, the government signed the contract to build the Harbour Bridge – a cheaper than originally planned harbour bridge at that.

Harris argues that these decisions were conscious and deliberate and taken at the highest level of government to ensure Auckland was developed along a California/Texas American model – Trotter goes one step further and proposes that this was a form of social engineering. This may well have been the case for the result was an Auckland transport system, designed to give priority to the private automobile, and a city designed on motorways, shopping malls and sprawling suburbs and subdivisions – somewhat different to the more compact European style design of Wellington and Melbourne. And this is essentially what we have in Auckland today.

This scenario is strongly supported when one takes into account what happened to Auckland’s electric tramway – in other words light rail. The decision to end the tram service was taken soon after the rail decision and from 1956, 72km of tram tracks extending all over the isthmus were systematically ripped out at great cost – one must surmise the purpose was to ensure electric trams could never be economically restored. These decisions had a profound influence on Auckland’s future urban design and quality of life. A graphic illustration was the impact on public transport patronage. Up until 1956 when the population was just over 400,000 people public transport patronage in Auckland had exceeded 100 million passenger trips per year – after 1956 and the demise of the popular and convenient trams, patronage almost halved to around 57 million trips per year. From 1956 Auckland almost overnight went from having one of the best public transport systems to one of the worst. In 2008 with a population nearing 1.4 million people, Auckland’s public transport system, which is still largely dominated by buses, carries just over 54 million trips per year – at a cost of around $140m per year in public subsidies. The tramway in contrast, made a modest profit for the city.

Exactly how and why this decision was made is unclear – this part of Auckland’s history remains obscure and requires further research. One thing we do know is that at that time the Auckland City Council was still bitterly divided over the Browns Island sewage affair. Perhaps Dove-Meyer Robinson and his newly elected colleagues were distracted with the task of replacing the Browns Island scheme with the oxidation ponds at Mangere. Robbie certainly tried to make up for it some twenty years later but by then it was too late.

But then again its never too late – as Bruce Jesson pointed out in the last chapter of Only their Purpose is Mad. “There are no final victories in politics” – to which I might add and “no final defeats either.”

Today I am advised that this week the government is considering on an order-in- council allocating fuel levy funds to enable Auckland to begin what should have been achieved in the 1950s. So at long last we will be able to electrify the Auckland rail system, and embark on building the inner city loop, and hopefully extending rail to Auckland International Airport.

Auckland of course cannot complete these sorts of projects on its own – these projects are of national importance and therefore their success requires not only the support but the absolute commitment of the state. On this score the National Party’s position in regard to Auckland rail is a cause for concern.

Bruce Jesson was vitally concerned about Auckland and could be even said to have been, like Dove Meyer-Robinson, a saviour of Auckland – but he wasn’t just concerned about Auckland – and neither should we be. Bruce was concerned about New Zealand – he was a nationalist – a republican – all his adult life. The last article he wrote – just before he died was called ‘To Build a Nation’ which set out very optimistically his hopes and aspirations for New Zealand.

Bruce in his last years had become a firm admirer of Helen Clark. And Bruce’s confidence in Clark really is testament to his prescience because Helen Clark has grown over the years to become one of New Zealand’s most outstanding Prime Ministers. Had Bruce lived no doubt through his writing, he would have had an active and constructive influence on the fifth Labour government – or Labour led government. He would have generally agreed with and applauded the Cullen fiscal/economic approach – similar in many ways to that which he helped formulate for the ARST. He would have admired the logical progression and coherence (seen from hindsight at least) of the Cullen National Superannuation fund, Kiwisaver, Kiwibank (an Alliance initiative of course) and Kiwirail and the major investment in transport infrastructure. He would have also applauded the implications of these initiatives in terms of New Zealand economic nationalism.

He would have been critical though I imagine, of a lack of progress towards constitutional independence – in other words towards a republic. Bruce after all as Andrew Sharp has reminded us was not just a New Zealand nationalist, he was a New Zealand patriot.

The question of nationalism has always been controversial amongst the Left – and mostly the NZ Left has been suspicious or merely indifferent to it. There are of course arguments for this but Bruce rejected those arguments – and I believe he was quite right to do so. Many of the social problems we face today I believe comes from a lack of national direction and national self-belief. This lack of overall national direction affects the body politic, the public service and I believe the whole of society. The fact is the country has no overarching organising principle or idea – nowadays the national interest seems to limited to aspiring to economic prosperity – and for success on the sports field.

Whether people like it or not the vision of Empire was once the organising concept of New Zealand – George Grey was prepared to fight a civil war over it and New Zealand as a nation made huge sacrifices in blood and treasure in the two World Wars for it. But the British Empire is long gone. Nowadays – there would be a tendency to scoff at the very idea of the British Empire – especially amongst people like us. But despite this New Zealand still clings stubbornly to the vestiges of British Imperial rule. Whether or not we appreciate the essential absurdity of New Zealand’s Head of State living on the other side of the world – most people would agree that the British monarchy is increasingly irrelevant to this country. The disinclination of the Royal Family to send a representative to Sir Edmund Hilary’s funeral this year drew quite a lot of criticism – but in my opinion it was perfectly understandable. I think there was a subtle message being signalled from London (rather like the missives from London in the 1840s) – the new message from London is – that just as the Britain has come to terms with the ending of the British Empire then perhaps it is time that New Zealand did as well

New Zealand for its part seems to have become stuck in a pro-longed adolescence – living on the face of it a normal independent life but privately unable to bring itself to

leave home. What I find interesting (and irritating to be frank) is the increasing tendency in recent years for bureaucrats and people in general to refer to the state, or the New Zealand Government as ‘the Crown’. I am not arguing here for a rejection of the British heritage – quite the contrary – but I think we need to apply our energies to create a new national vision to replace the vision of Empire – which gave our ancestors so much confidence and faith in their destiny. We no longer have that confidence and certainty in New Zealand and I believe we are a weaker society for it.

Before he died Bruce called for a new nation building exercise with republicanism as its focal point. For Bruce republicanism was not merely about making a nominal change to the head of state but and I quote “reviving and extending the concepts of citizenship and democracy…and combining the issues of national identity, egalitarianism and democracy.” For Bruce nation building was about “creating a cohesive society that can act internationally with some sense of purpose.”

What has this to do with the governance of Auckland – I believe quite a lot actually. There is a lot of talk about Auckland being New Zealand’s only ‘World Class City’, or being ‘World Class’ at this or that – but actually when you think about it – it is difficult to see how New Zealand can be ‘World Class’ let along Auckland, when New Zealand is not really a fully-fledged independent nation. In the day’s of Empire, within the living memory of many, Auckland was proudly known as the ‘Queen’s City’ – which was more than a mere catchy brand – it was an assertive political philosophical statement. But those days have gone and since that time in many respects in terms of its identity Auckland has lost its way.

Our city scape tends to reflect this loss of greater purpose. As we have become too much a dependent, derivative, international branch office economy, so our city has become jammed with cheap ugly buildings.
The city needs a new overarching vision – or organising principle. I am not talking about branding or marketing gimmicks which are about the business of attracting visitors and making money – they may have their purpose but are not about the cultural aspects of building a city society. As Bruce Jesson said in the last chapter of his last book “Nation-building is not about concocting an image of New Zealand for the benefit of the rest of the world. It is not a ‘branding exercise’…which is how some

politicians treat it. Nation building is an internal matter, not an external one, for our benefit rather than the benefit of others.”

Our vision for Auckland should be of a city/region, which in terms of its built environment and quality of life aspires to match the sublime qualities of Auckland’s natural environment and for its people to have a unifying sense of purpose and national destiny. I would like Auckland to be known as the first city of the New Zealand Republic. I am sure Bruce Jesson would have agreed.


Laila Harre 2007: Union Relevance in Aotearoa in the 21st Century

Union Relevance in Aotearoa in the 21st Century

Laila Harré
National Secretary National Distribution Union Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture Auckland University
9 November 2007

Whanau, friends, comrades and fellow inquirers.

My aim this evening is to re-state the case for trade unionism in Aotearoa in the 21st Century, to review the struggle for union relevance in the 20 years since labour market deregulation took hold in New Zealand and to present some challenges, and dispense some advice, to a few key players – unions, employers and policy makers.

I want to demonstrate why union efforts to give workers a voice and to build workers’ collective power matters. And why all of us should care greatly about how well unions do.

There being a paucity of public discussion on these matters I do this with some trepidation. It is a mixed blessing to be given the privilege of this platform on this subject and I take it seriously.

Given the approach our friend, mentor and comrade, Bruce Jesson, in whose memory this annual lecture is delivered, took to his intellectual duty I suspect I am more likely to be accused of being too careful than too cruel.

Perhaps that is a product of the times in which we find ourselves renewing unionism.

As the late Moss Evans, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in Britain is reported as once having said, “When I look in the mirror when I am shaving I don’t see the face of a man who will bring down capitalism”.

Of course like your typical union member today, I don’t get to first base on this one. I’m female.

But as Evans was observing, while the ordinary work of unions has remained unchanged over a century – to organise around workers’ demands for better pay and conditions, a voice at the table and protection from unfair treatment at work – the decades have blurred their strategic purpose.


If union’s relevance were to be measured by union membership numbers then we have to advance from the premise that our relevance can no longer be assumed, at least from the perspective of a majority of workers. Since 1991 union membership has fallen from 50 per cent to 22 per cent overall. As few as 12 per cent of private sector workers are now union members.

Of course the likes of Business Roundtable’s Roger Kerr concludes from the fact that “Only one worker in five now belongs to a union in New Zealand; [that] most want to be treated as individuals rather than as parts of a collective ‘lump of labour’.” ( 2004/040122yeahright.htm).

A much more likely explanation is found from the context in which choices to join, or not join unions, are offered to and made by workers.

Evidence provided in the 2003 New Zealand Worker Participation and Representation Survey and reported by Boxall, Haynes and Macky in the recently published and invaluable comparative study “What Workers Say” suggests that lack of access to unions is a primary factor in low union density.

If actual membership were combined with the number of workers who say they would join a union if there was one in their workplace potential union membership reaches 36 per cent in the private sector and 60 per cent in the public sector, or nearly 40 percent overall. That is not such a distance from the 50 percent achieved under compulsory unionism, and this despite the enormous barriers erected in the 1990s between workers and unions.

That’s the good news. I’ll come back to more of those numbers in a bit because who those potential union members are and where they work presents us with our greatest organising challenge.

What the unmet demand for union membership tells us is that something has driven a wedge between workers and their desire to express a collective voice through unions.

The first culprit is the industrial relations framework itself.

From the 1894 Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act until the 1991 Employment Contracts Act industrial relations legislation recognised unions as the primary representatives of workers when it came to the settling of incomes and other working conditions. Unions had a statutory role in the negotiation or arbitration of industry and occupational collective agreements, ‘awards’. Awards provided for comprehensive minimum terms and conditions of employment binding all workers and employers in an industry or occupation.

A system of ‘relativities’ operated between awards.


This meant that gains made through collective action by well-organised and strategically located groups of workers influenced the outcomes for others.

However the relationship of the well-organised core to the apparently dependent remainder of the unionised workforce was not one of host to parasite.

At the risk of appalling any classical scholars among you, it perhaps could be said to more closely resemble the more complex relationship of sultan to harem.

In No Left Turn (p 175) Chris Trotter describes how the introduction of compulsory trade union membership by the first Labour Government saw “tens of thousands of formerly unorganised workers [pour] into the hitherto tiny unions set up to represent clerical workers, hotel workers and shop assistants. The new ‘conscript’ unionists were the key to power.” Chris’s context is the internal factionalism within the labour movement of the day.

But at a movement level these so-called “conscripts” and the direct interest they had in the outcome of union struggles through the system of relativities was an important factor in legitimising those demands and the industrial action taken in support of them.

The Employment Contracts Act in 1991 abolished the award system in favour of direct wage and conditions bargaining between employers and individual workers.

Individual bargaining could be aggregated at an enterprise level but could not occur across an industry or occupation without the agreement of each employer. Industrial action to get that agreement was illegal.

Compulsory unionism disappeared with the awards.

Union organising rights, including rights of access to workplaces for recruitment were removed. The word ‘union’ did not appear in the legislation, which reduced us to ‘bargaining agents’, a role that did not require any democratic workers’ organisation and was shared with all manner of groups and individuals, including private sector consultants facilitated and even paid by employers.

Collective Employment Contracts drafted for employers’ by consultants and offered to workers on a take-it-or-leave it basis were both legal and normal. Remember this point when I discuss the threat posed by National’s announced industrial relations policy to the embryonic growth of unionism in places like shops and the hosoitality sector.

For unions to maintain collective bargaining across all the workplaces that had previously been covered by awards was an impossible task in these circumstances. Bargaining in multiple enterprises would require enormously


greater resources than representation at an industry or occupational level. That would require more members, not less.

A bosses’ charter, the ECA attacked workers’ rights to organise and bargain in order to attack the protections that bargaining had delivered over generations. Protections that were now called “rigidities”. Conditions which put a brake on working hours and job insecurity like penal rates, casual loadings, and overtime pay were the first to go. Not content to stop there employers drove basic wage rates down to a minimum wage well below the old awards.

In the face of this assault on its most fundamental job – collective bargaining – the union movement at this point failed to recognise the strategic choices available to it.

In 1991 unions still had significant reserves, a considerable workforce of paid officials and leaders in a large number of workplace. In 1991, and in the years immediately following it, there was no end of injustices to workers to organise around as a movement. The monumental blunder of the Council of Trade Unions to organise industrially and politically against the ECA foreclosed on the opportunity to unify a labour movement wracked by the divisions that had been driven into it through the term of the 4th Labour Government. Instead of taking this chance to heal and empower the movement through collective action, the CTU’s actions entrenched those divisions.

What’s more there was a complete failure to anticipate the impact that the loss of bargaining power among the increasing number of workers in the service industries would have on union membership, the union movement and wage and conditions across the whole workforce. The opportunistic approach of some unions to the introduction of contestability fell right into the deregulators’ hands.

It’s almost too depressing to imagine now what might have been possible had the CTU followed a path like that taken by the Australian council of Trade Unions in the face of Howard’s reforms. There an aggressive political, industrial and community campaign has made industrial relations a major political issue and given a high and positive profile to unionism. This has greatly reduced the usual effectiveness for the right of using Labour’s association with the unions as a campaign weapon against them. It has provided Labour with a crucial and positive area of differentiation. And it has probably reduced the loss of union membership by both highlighting the need for collective protection and improving the image of the union movement. At the same time ACTU is working with unions on strategy, organising methods and the other capacity needed to respond to employer attacks and workforce change at the workplace level.

Instead in New Zealand in the 90s, unions like the National Distribution Union were fighting against membership raids into sites of traditional strength by erstwhile comrades, while having to strategically dispense with the large majority of workers


in retail workplaces in order to pour resources into holding a collective base in the largest national chains.

With their capacity and influence minimised, unions contracted their role to the direct representation of paid-up members through enterprise bargaining and individual representation, moving further than ever from a social movement orientation, with its emphasis on the representation and advancement of workers’ interests. Inter-union solidarity all but disappeared as unions representing workers in the traditionally stronger areas went into competition for members in organised workplaces.

Meanwhile trade policy and deregulation conspired to shrink the traditional union base in manufacturing, with employment growth being largely generated in the domestic services sector – the very industries where workers’ access to unions was all but shut off in the 1990s.

Privatisation and the associated introduction of competitive tendering for services back to the state sector forced thousands of jobs in previously large and unionised workplaces into cut-throat competition between an ever-increasing number of contractors. At the same time ever-growing movement of women into the labour market has created swathes of jobs in sectors previously dominated by unpaid work. By 2003 care giving for elders and the disabled was the fastest growing occupation. Union density remains highest in manufacturing at nearly 30%, and has fallen to plummet to 8 – 10% in the private services sector.

In other words the combination of a growing and new workforce, changes in the distribution of employment between industries, the industrial relations framework itself and the failure of the union movement to grapple with its strategic choice in the early years of the ECA have increased the distance between workers and unions.

This is the state in which unionism found itself in 1999 at the time of the change of Government and the introduction of the Employment Relations Act.

  • –  a relatively low and predominantly passive membership
  • –  depletion of financial reserves
  • –  a reduction of union’s role to the protection and servicing of existing

    members through enterprise collective bargaining and advocacy on

    individual employment problems

  • –  dealing with employers whose businesses had been built off a low wage

    and low employment risk platform, acutely aware of the risk unions

    represented to their bottom line

  • –  somewhat secure in the areas of traditional strength but having a minimal

presence in the key areas of private sector employment growth


The impact of all of this upheaval on wages and working conditions has been calamitous and persists.

The supermarket industry is a case in point. Before the ECA awards had provided for everything from hourly pay rates and allowances to a range of protections against casualisation. The system of relativities described above ensured that despite their passive role in the industrial relations system the wages of supermarket workers retained relativity to wages in general.

Most importantly awards took wages and conditions out of the competition between employers for market share.

The end of the award system in 1991 coincided with rapid expansion of the supermarket industry and the first supermarket “price wars”.

With labour costs a significant portion of total costs, those with lower labour costs gained an immediate advantage.

Unemployment was high at the time and new supermarkets under Foodstuffs’, Pak n Save brand, opened their doors in working class communities, offering “take it or leave it” collective employment contracts that represented a 20% pay cut to the award. The welfare reforms announced in the Mother of All Budgets meant workers who refused jobs would lose their unemployment benefits.

Although these collective employment contracts were not the product of collective bargaining, workers press-ganged into them were prevented from taking action to improve their conditions, deemed to have already exercised their collective bargaining rights.

The owners banned the union from their supermarkets and distribution centres, intimidating workers who showed interest in the union.

Meanwhile, the established supermarket chains came under huge pressure from the newcomers. What followed was a period of concessionary bargaining – where key conditions such as penalty and overtime rates were traded for a collective bargaining foothold in the industry.

From 1991 to 1994 – in just three years – youth wages in supermarkets fell by 40% and adult wages by 11%. (Conway)

In other words the industry standard was driven down by pressure from non- union workplaces, rather than driven up by unionised workplaces.

Union membership in the industry fell to about 12% of the workforce, concentrated in the Progressive chain of stores.


With the NDU’s current focus on re-unionising Foodstuffs, in the first collective bargaining across its northern wholesale arm, Gilmours, we were this week presented with a 0% offer on the standard rate of $11.74 an hour.

Despite continuing record low unemployment – 3.5 per cent according to yesterday’s and quantifiable labour and skills shortages, we are a low wage country and not a lot is happening to change that.

Between 1993 and 2003 the average annual increase in real wages was 0.7 per cent, only slightly more than half the OECD average of 1.1 per cent and the Australian average of 1.3 per cent.

From 1980 to 2001 real wages actually fell by 6.5 per cent – compared to increases in Australia of 28 per cent, Canada 39 per cent, UK 46 per cent and Finland 68 per cent).

The gender pay gap is widening again, after narrowing in large part due to wage cuts for men rather than wage increases for women.

So how have the bosses been doing?

According to a Reserve Bank study, from 2000 to 2004, corporate profits increased by 11 per cent a year. Whereas in 2000 a CEO could expect to earn eight times as much as the pay of the average worker, by 2006, the average CEO pay-packet was 19 times the average wage.

Meanwhile New Zealand holds second place in the OECD for our long working hours. One in five us works more than 50 hours a week.

Anna Berger, Chair of the US’s largest union grouping, Change to Win, places the urgent need for unionising the new workforce in the expanding service sector at the centre of the project to restore incomes and social protection:

“The myth of the new American economy… that highly aid, high tech jobs will offset the loss of the well-paid, union jobs in manufacturing; that all we had to do was re-train and re-tool; that the new economy is on the information superhighway is pure fiction.

“In reality, unless we do something about it, the new economy is a dead-end street of underpaid, high-turnover, no-benefit jobs that cannot sustain families…

“The workers of the new economy are not low wage workers in low wage jobs – they are underpaid workers in underpaid occupations.

“We should always remember that the good jobs of the 20th century were the underpaid jobs at the turn of the previous century, until workers joined together in unions – bargained contracts that provided living wages and family benefits –


won family friendly government policies – and forged a pact with corporate America that provided for economic growth and prosperity for working families.”

Low wages, long hours, a workforce separated from its collective union voice – a perfect environment for doing business.

Or is it?

Like those who profiteered from the privatisation programme, mining state enterprises for short term profits and failing to improve assets over time, employers have mined our workforce for its labour to similar effect.

If notions of fundamental labour rights and simple justice were not sufficient grounds to increase workers’ access to the collective power of unionism then the economic and social unsustainability of this toxic mixture of low wages, long and insecure working hours, and underinvestment in education and skills surely is.

With unemployment and labour force participation at historic lows and highs respectively, already long working hours and an aging workforce demanding higher levels of productivity in future, the new right’s labour market chickens have come home to roost.

Notwithstanding John Howard’s more recent efforts to “catch down” with us, comparisons with Australia demonstrate that from a similar position in the 1980s, New Zealand’s low wages have discouraged investment in capital and skill, accounting for most of the difference between the two countries in the productivity stakes.

This situation demands that the short-term approach of individual firms to maximise profit through cutting or holding labour costs down should be subservient to a national interest in raising wages, skills and job quality.

Short of a command and control approach, building the capacity of workers to organise in unions, to engage in collective bargaining and to have much greater influence on the organisation of the workplace is therefore an urgent economic task.

It is also an urgent social and democratic task.

There are obvious benefits to family and community wellbeing of increasing wages and providing a collective voice for workers on issues like secure hours and work organisation that meets the needs of today’s workforce.

But there is also a less tangible and yet vital value in unionism as a social and democratic institution in itself. Much like the unaccounted value of women’s


traditional work in the household and community, the “social capital” provided by unions has become more visible as it has deteriorated.

Unions themselves grew out of intimate communities of workers where solidarity flowed naturally between the workplace and the outside world. Important sites for worker education and leadership development, mutual support, the social capital inherent in unions was once immense.

The destruction of that community resource in the face of catastrophic economic decisions – like the closure of a plant where the union has simply disappeared – has significantly weakened the resilience of many communities with inter- generational effects. Clubs, welfare organisations, political party branches and other key social and democratic forums have been disrupted and wrecked.

But unionism’s own retrenchment to a the protection and servicing of existing members through enterprise collective bargaining and advocacy on individual employment problems has also contributed to this decline.

Neither the fee-for-service culture of unionism that prevailed through the 1990s, nor the increasingly dominant “organising model” which aims to increase the role of union members and workplace leaders so as to enlarge the capacity of unions to organise new workers into unions are sufficient. We have to incorporate aspects of both while moving beyond their boundaries, which limit the ability of unionism to deliver on our historic purpose – to broaden and deepen social and political solidarity.

So to summarise thus far before moving to my attempt to answer the question of what sort of unions we need.

First, the decline in union membership is not due to worker rejection of a collective voice on employment matters. It is due to a number of related factors: anti-union and anti-collectivist industrial relations policy, a decline in the numbers employed in areas of traditional union strength and employment growth in sectors and firms never organised and among workers never unionised, workforce and workplace change, and unions’ own strategic choices in response to these factors.

Second, the withdrawal of supports for unionism and the national industrial relations framework have had a catastrophic effect on wages, working conditions, and security and contributed to steep increases in income inequality by reducing the real and relative value of most workers’ jobs.

Finally, the costs of this catastrophe extend beyond the workers themselves to the economic, social and democratic spheres damaging our prospects to preserve national values like social solidarity and justice under threat from globalisation and market forces.


So how is our recovery going and what more can we do as unions to reverse the loss of workers power and workers organisation at a workplace, community and national level?

A change of Government in 1999, the restoration of union organising rights and to lesser extent collective bargaining mechanisms through the Employment Relations Act, as well as paying long overdue attention to the internal life of unions, have brought a real surge in union activity and confidence.

First, to the legislation, which provides an important backdrop to union renewal. The ERA restored the statutory role of unions as workers’ representatives in collective bargaining as well as the right of workers to take industrial action to press claims for multi-employer collective agreements. Employers and unions are required to bargain in good faith and to conclude collective agreements. Rights facilitating organising have been restored, including the ability of unions to enter workplaces to recruit and communicate with workers, paid employment relations education leave and meeting time for union members, and a requirement for employers to deduct union fees from members’ wages.

The threshold for union registration is low, requiring only the 15 members necessary to form and incorporated society. The emphasis is on independence from the employer, a critical protection against the practice of employers under the ECA to dictate the terms of collective employment contracts and thereby prevent workers from demanding genuine collective bargaining rights, including the right to strike, during the term of the agreement.

We have a long history of defining unions’ relevance and role almost entirely in terms of the industrial relations framework. Perhaps this is why some of the strategic choices that have always been available to unions, including in the 1990s – like running industry- and labour-market-wide campaigns for higher wages and building the capacity of the union membership and leadership in the workplace – have really only come into their own with these law changes.

The New Zealand Nurses Organisation’s ‘Fair Pay – because we’re worth it’ campaign in 2003-2004 combined workplace, community, networking, public relations activities and a high media profile with the threat of strike action to pressure Government to fund public hospital employers to meet a claim by nurses for ‘pay equity’ with other, traditionally male dominated state sector professions, and nurses overseas.

The ‘Fair Share’ or ‘5 in 05’ Campaign led by the EPMU in 2005 called for a series of above-inflation pay rises cross the private sector to restore losses incurred by workers through the long-term transfer of company earnings from wages to profits. Mass stop-work meetings and industrial action were reinforced by print and broadcast advertising and a media strategy.


Unite’s ‘’ campaign launched in 2005, re-introduced unionism and collective bargaining to the fast-food sector. All national chains are now covered by collective bargaining resulting in higher minimum wages and more security of hours in this low-paid and casualised industry. The margin between youth rates and full rates has narrowed and the campaign spawned largely successful political action and collective bargaining by other unions to end youth rates. Youth-oriented events and festivals, the engagement of politicised school students, one-hour strikes, networking with social justice organisations and a high media profile were all features of this campaign.

Most recently the SFWU’s Healthy Hospitals campaign combined membership growth and activism with intense political lobbying to drive all but Spotless Services into a new industry standard for the lowest paid hospital workers. Once isolated, Spotless was targeted through a successful industrial and public relations campaign, succumbing in the end to the inevitable.

If anyone doubted the ideological quality of employer opposition to collective bargaining this case provided it. Like all other providers Spotless was promised the money by Government to meet the newly-bargained industry standard, but locked out its employees in pursuit of its right to use economic power to extract an even larger slice of profit from the public purse.

Each of these campaigns has involved elements of traditional industrial action, but were characterised much more by their community, media and public relations strategies. Such campaigns helped improve the profile of unionism and collective action. They have also created a momentum for others to capitalise on. Each time a successful battle is played out and won in the public eye the confidence of the union movement grows, other union members expectations not just of good results but worthy fights are raised, and workers not yet in unions become more interested in joining.

With the exception of the “5 in 05” campaign which was firmly directed at a moderate redistribution of the fruits of production from profits to wages in industries with a long history of collective action, these campaigns have all been driven by wage justice issues – low pay, gender-based pay, youth wage discrimination – and all organised in industries or services with a history of dependence on relativities for wage increases and a strong client or customer link with the general public.

Each has utilised that link to win. Given that the greatest potential for re-building unions lies in the domestic services sector, direct public appeals for social solidarity with service and care workers is clearly a winning strategy.

Add into this mix of wage justice issues in a business with close links to the general public an industrially aggressive employer prepared to hold its wages as near to its lower paying competition as possible, and you have the recipe for the 4-


week long lock-out of Progressive’s supermarket distribution centre workers just over a year ago.

Unlike these other campaigns, from an insider’s perspective this one bore a closer resemblance to well-managed civil defence emergency than a well-planned and strategic campaign.

I have earlier described how in the 1990s Foodstuffs used de-unionisation and wage cuts to fund price cuts, forcing pay and conditions down throughout the supermarket industry.

It was natural therefore that the NDU’s sights were directed at organising Foodstuffs supermarkets and distribution centres in order to protect higher rates at Progressive and improve standards across the industry.

Progressive’s new owners, however, had a different plan. Rather than bargain in good faith to close a $2 an hour pay gap between its three distribution centres, the company decided to go to war with its workforce and their unions.

Necessity being the mother of invention, the campaign mounted in defence of the workers’ right to collective bargaining and equal pay was driven by one overriding objective: the need to shift the economic damage of the lockout from the workers to the company. There is not time here for a full account of the battle which has been written up by me and Frances Hancock in Love Chile’s recent book, “Community Development in New Zealand.”

Nonetheless some important clues to union relevance can be drawn from a campaign that attracted unprecedented union movement solidarity, raised $450,000 from union, workplace and public donations, saw a re-emergence of sympathy industrial action in related food manufacturing, transport and logistics companies, and creative activism by many others. The union decided not to call for a customer boycott because of the way it might have been used by management to undermine our legitimacy among our much larger but generally inactive in-store membership. Despite this, spontaneous customer action stopped much of what did get delivered to the stores getting out of them, taking a heavy short-term toll on earnings and market share.

What clues are there for union relevance from this dispute?

First, a genuine culture of solidarity remains central to union movement values. Not a single union refused a request for assistance – to bolster picket lines, take up collections or provide relief organising staff – and members of ours and other unions were prepared to back the workers with collective action in related jobs. That culture extends beyond the labour movement to churches, political parties, social justice, welfare, and cultural organisations whose own social capital was invested in this battle.


Second, New Zealanders can and will back workers defending themselves against a bully – especially an Australian bully.

Third, the lack of a large union strike fund was a strength of the campaign. It made it even more important to get the workers and the union into the public eye because of the need to raise funds, reinforcing the imbalance of power between warring parties and giving workers, the union and the employer a clear measure of support. That support allowed us to achieve the primary objective of any industrial dispute which, as Matt McCarten puts it, is “to stay out one day longer than the boss”.

Fourth, and most importantly, it demonstrated the resilience and resources of workers in battle. Communities were established on the picket lines, which became the centre of solidarity, welfare and activism. Leadership in building these communities came from the workers themselves, their partners and social networks. For me, inclusion in this community was a privilege beyond description. As the campaign built public and union support workers who had mostly never taken action before realised that they were at the centre of a struggle that had much wider ramifications. Their involvement in industrial action not only brought about self-consciousness but also created new meanings and awareness of unionism as a social movement. The workers realised that they could make a difference by bringing about social change through collective action.

Finally, the truce established by the employer’s withdrawal from the battle established new terms of engagement between the union and the company. It is no coincidence that in supermarket bargaining this year the same principle of equal pay for equal work was finally implemented across the three brands and we delivered an effective end to youth rates.

So, for unions, building relevance and gaining respect from workers and employers through collective action is a must. While evidence like that produced in the NZWRPS shows that workers want to see co-operation between their union and management, they also want unions to vigorously defend their interests.

This series of successful collective action-based union campaigns has created a momentum that needs to be capitalised on by the movement.

There are three very substantial barriers to that happening.

First, no union has the capacity to extend the reach of unionism to the areas where the unmet demand for unions is greatest – among younger workers, low paid workers and those in smaller workplaces.


Second, employer hostility to unionisation and collective bargaining adds very significantly to the cost of not just recruiting but retaining members through often protracted bargaining for a collective agreement.

Third, the industrial relations framework fails to provide the kind of institutional support needed to get sufficient coverage of collective bargaining in large, low union density industries like retail and hospitality to take wages and conditions out of competition between employers.

There are many things unions can do to address these barriers, but there are others that will require greater resources from within or outside the labour movement as well as law reform to extend collective bargaining beyond its enterprise focus.

All unions are paying greater attention to the most glaring opportunity revealed by the evidence. That is, that a significant proportion of non-members, including workers in sites with collective agreements, say that the reason they aren’t in the union is because they have never been invited to join.

As well as developing the workplace and union-office capacity to recruit new staff, industries like retail with a history of bargaining in the national chains but only moderate or low membership density also need to use new ways of re-framing the problem of free riding in low or moderate density workplaces, before we will be able to minimise it.

It has been usual for unions to define free riding – that is the passing on of collectively bargained terms and conditions to non-members – as a problem of fairness. It is not fair, it is said, that one person pays fees to benefit someone else. This way of looking at the problem reinforces the fee-for-service approach to unionism and is ultimately counter-productive. Most of these free riders are opportunistic, rather than hostile.

In these sorts of workplaces, free riding is not a problem of fairness but a problem of capacity. It reduces the union’s income and fragments collective power. Without recruiting people we can’t solve the fees problem, but by involving non-members in union organisation on the job we have a better chance of overcoming the problem of collective weakness and creating a stronger link between the non-member and the union which will ultimately increase the likelihood of them joining. The prevailing attitude to free riders only feeds the cycle, as invariably in collective bargaining the employer strongly aligns their interests to the interests of non- members, acting as their patron and defender against union claims to advantage union members.

Like the NDU’s challenge in retail, in an industry like Fast Food that has 100% turnover and low worker commitment there are obvious difficulties in maintaining membership density, and retaining experienced union members. Unite has had two


other approaches to this problem. First, it resources campaigns and builds alliances with activists and community groups which allow it to maximise its impact on reputation-sensitive employers. The union actively promotes the reach of its collective bargaining across the industry, rather than the depth of its membership density. Second, Unite continues to develop a wider role to increase the value of union membership. Most significantly this has gone beyond the standard set of union discounts (which are, incidentally, a very popular membership service) to partnership with Te Wananga o Aotearoa to provide literacy, computing and Te Reo courses to union members. In true Freire-esque “Liberation through Education” is the motto.

But as already stated there is a limit to what unions already struggling to recruit many thousands of members a year just to stand still can achieve.

In the supermarket industry alone, there are 160 separately owned Pak N Save and New World supermarkets just waiting to be organised. The exceptional performance of the NDU’s Growth Unit has seen three of the largest of Pak n Saves in Auckland organised through to a first collective agreement in the last year, with three more underway. But with significant union resources necessarily invested in meeting the needs of 20,000 members in over a thousand workplaces and covered by over 350 collective agreements, the unmet demand for unionism lingers.

The retail and wholesale industry has 8.5% density. In other words about 27,200 of the 320,000 people employed in the industry are in a union. Perhaps 20% of the 320,000 are already within the reach of collective bargaining – either through union membership or free riding. This leaves 256,000 retail and wholesale workers, or the equivalent of every manufacturing worker in the country, beyond the reach of unions and collective bargaining.

The union movement must consider how it can share this responsibility with the unions on the frontline of the “under paid workers in the underpaid occupations” of the service sector.

While the Progressive dispute put any question of shared values beyond doubt, there is an opportunity just waiting to be grabbed to increase the size and reach and power of unionism beyond its present public sector and large private enterprise boundaries.

An example of the resources needed for a serious effort comes from the Change to Win coalition’s conditions for membership. These unions, which represent a majority of unionised workers in the USA, have an obligation to spend at least 20% of their income on green fields organising in core service industries.

In New Zealand terms, 20% of the estimated fees income of the trade union movement is almost identical to the total combined incomes of the NDU, the


SFWU, Unite and the Amalgamated Workers Unions, those unions in the sectors with the greatest un-met demand for union membership.

As CTU President Helen Kelly said to the Labour Party last weekend: “It is often this group of unions that is expected to do the “asking” in those areas where workplaces are numerous, the industry voice is weak, the turnover is high and the workers are not your average full time employee. If we leave it at that – many workers will not have the opportunity to become a union member.”

I will reinforce that message to the Government, but it is equally important to direct it at our own movement.

Acting on it is essential to the growth, credibility and influence of the trade union movement as a whole – and therefore to each union in it. Furthermore, it is collective culture which legitimises the public sector as a whole, where most union members work, and the breakdown of collectivism which continues to threaten it. Union participation is a major means for developing the collectivist world-view on which public support for public services depends.

So finally, to the Government, politics and public policy.

We have already seen how the relevance of unions to workers is heavily dependent on the industrial relations and public policy framework.

The fundamental purpose of the Employment Relations Act was to address the power imbalance inherent in the employment relationship through the promotion and encouragement of collective bargaining. This was the primary tool of the Labour-Alliance government for restoring a fairer distribution of the fruits of production between wages and profits.

The wage and profit figures I have used show that both more legislative support and more than legislative support will be needed to achieve this objective.

As well as providing a challenge to the union movement, the minimal capacity of unions in the private sector to extend our reach is also a public policy problem. An unmet demand for union membership under a framework that is intended to promote collective bargaining prolongs the injustices imposed through labour market deregulation in the 1990s.

If the right to organise in unions is a fundamental human right recognised by this Government, then it needs to be given greater practical support. The situation we face is a bit like offering everyone free health care and then closing 80 per cent of the hospitals. Access to collective bargaining should not be treated as an “optional extra” dependent only on the low capacity of a trade union movement gutted of resources in the 1990s.


The unmet demand for unionism and the positive view both members and most non-members hold of unions must surely outweigh the ideological objections of employers and the National Party. In their own industrial relations practice the government has shown its willingness to back collective bargaining against ideologically-motivate interests. Most recently it has been sued for insisting that extra funding for wage increases for caregivers in private aged care facilities must be delivered through mechanisms related to collective bargaining.

Direct government support for union capacity building is needed, as are stronger institutional measures to prevent employers from undermining union organising efforts and new methods to extend the reach of collective bargaining on an industry basis,

And what we don’t need is a National Party committed to rolling back the progress we are making for nothing more than the pacification of ideological employer interests. Among the most dangerous of their propositions is to empower employers to put in place non-union collective agreements. I can tell you that at our current rate of organising in Foodstuffs if such legislation were passed in 2009 there would be 10 genuine collective agreements and 150 employer drafted ones locking workers out of collective bargaining for another three years.

So, while there are many signs of revival, no end of demand, compelling reasons for workers’ voice to be heard and for their power to be mustered, the union movement remains not just relevant but of fundamental importance to the achievement of economic, social and political aspirations as workers.

As Bruce Jesson said in his book “Only Their Purpose is Mad”:

“….definite social, democratic and national goals……would be an essential element in defining the role of the nation within the global marketplace. But, as is often the case, the process of formulating those goals might be as important as the goals themselves. A democratic process whose purpose was to provide a national perspective would in itself help restore New Zealand’s democratic processes.”(p220)

Such an approach demands that we pay attention to the building blocks of our democracy, and among these our union movement.



Gordon Campbell 2006: Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture

Gordon Campbell 21 November 2006

Good evening, thanks for coming. My name is Gordon Campbell, and it is my privilege tonight to present this annual lecture which, as you know, is intended to honour the life and works of Bruce Jesson. As much as anything, it was the deeds of politicians – and the media’s failure to hold them properly to account – that impelled Bruce into his life of commentary and political action. And I think he’d have enjoyed being here tonight, to argue the toss afterwards about this topic.

I do apologise for reading this lecture. Listening to someone read a lecture must be a deadly experience. If its any consolation…for someone who writes, reading this out loud is….well, its like karaoke. The music is all in the head. Believe me, I know.

One disclaimer I should make. The kind invitation to do this lecture came before I started work with the Greens. The views I express do not reflect in any way, shape or form the views of the Green Party or caucus. I’m here tonight strictly as a former journalist, and part time music promoter.

Oddly enough, the last time I was in the Maidment Theatre just over a year ago, was to hear a musician, called Joanna Newsom. One of her songs captures in a few phrases something of what I’ve got to say tonight. So please, bear with me if I quote :

And all the books our fathers wrote are in the middle of the road
Little by little, we implode

We can’t remember what was spoke
But we stare in wonder at the smoke
What it begets is born alone
We know not now what we have known…

It’s a song about cultural amnesia, and not just with regard to the war in Iraq. I think that theme speaks to any regular viewer of the news, or of the visible workings of Parliament. The events matter, but they often don’t seem to grounded in any sense of history or context, and nor is there any opportunity to respond. It looks like a private, hermetically sealed game. To the point where, as Joanna Newsom intimates, you can start to doubt your own convictions – we know not now what we have known.

In a speech delivered this time last year, Al Gore pointed out the obvious irony of this situation. Television is now more accessible to more people than any other medium of communication in history, but its content allows for less and less genuine participation. Unlike the marketplace of ideas that emerged in the wake of the printing press, Gore pointed out, there is virtually no exchange of ideas possible in television’s domain. “It is a rigged market, an oligopoly, with imposing barriers of entry that exclude the average citizen.”

Early on, people did try to get around television’s lack of true interactivity. “Soon after television established its dominance over print, “ Gore continues, “young people who realised they were being shut out of the dialogue of democracy came up with a new form of expression in an effort to join the national conversation – the demonstration.” Basically, this

was a poor quality theatrical production aimed at getting the attention of the cameras ljust ong enough to hold up a brief message on a placard to the wider public. These days, even that doesn’t work any longer as an avenue for getting on the six o’clock news.

My starting point then has to be to look for the sources of what seems a fairly widespread sense of exclusion. Television keeps on telling us that its our news, that its us, that its part of our community, because patently it isn’t. Its an alien, pretending to be part of the family. But obviously television news isn’t the only source of this alienation.

Politics in also a one way street – voters don’t vote in governments, they vote out Governments whose apparent indifference to them has become intolerable, as the Helen Clark administration seems well on the way to discovering. Unfortunately, the operating stance of the political media is more part of the problem than it is part of the solution.

I’m talking in particular about the media’s gaming impulse. As the American journalist James Fallows says: “Deep forces in political, social and economic structures account for most of the frustration of today’s politics, but the media’s attitudes have played a surprisingly important and destructive role. Issues that reflect the collective interest, such as crime, healthcare, education, economic growth – are presented mainly as arenas in which politicians can fight. The press is often referred to as the Fourth Branch of Government, which means that it should be providing the information we need, so as to make sense of public problems..”

Far from making those public challenges easier to grasp, Fallows says, the media routinely makes it harder. “ By choosing to present public life as a contest between scheming political leaders, all of whom the public should view with suspicion, the news media help bring about that very result.”

Now, there are several reasons WHY the media treats politics with such corrosive cynicism. Some are more justified than others. In part, I think the cynicism serves as a shield against the humiliations they endure daily at the hands of their sources, but….safe to say, if you do convince yourself that its all crap – or all just a game, or all just business as usual – you’ve largely rid yourself of any imperative to evaluate it on any other level.

It is probably an unfair comparison, but it may be salutary. You can only contrast the stance of today’s media with the achievements of the “golden age of public service journalism” – aka muckraking – between 1900 and 1912. As journalism historian Mark Feldstein says, that period of advocacy journalism was strongly linked to many progressive reforms – and he lists among them the Pure Food and Drug Act, child labour laws, federal income taxes, the direct election of Senators, and the anti-trust prosecution of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil company – a blow against monopoly capitalism that Richard Prebble seemingly had never heard about before he sold Telecom.

The current stance of the profession has consequences for the news coverage that we receive, and affects both style and content. For the purposes of this talk, I’m classified what I see to be the key elements in this process as being one, commercialisation, two personalisation and three, the tabloid mindset.

Commercialisation is easy enough. It has to do with the concentration of media ownership – and the impact this has had on the media’s Fourth Estate role, to ensure that it remains

secondary to market forces and ratings. Media de-regulation here in the late 1980s quickly saw most of our print and electronic media fall into the hands of Australians and North Americans.

Worldwide, the concentration of media ownership has seen profits rise, while the number of journalists employed continues to shrink. The normal career path in print journalism in particular makes it look m ore and more like an apprenticeship scheme for the public relations industry. Even television is doing less, with less. As late as 1989, the CBS network had 38 foreign correspondents in 28 bureaus. Today, CBS has five correspondents in four bureaus. At home, TVNZ is being rumoured to be about lose nearly one sixth of its current workforce during 2007.

Personalisation is a bit more complicated. In practice, it refers to the relentless pursuit of the human interest angle – whereby political process is depicted as something done merely by individuals to individuals, usually without reference to the impact that class, income or other forms of privilege and opportunity have on the outcome of the story. It also elevates personal anecdotes above policy, puts victim narrative ahead of analysis, and focusses on outcomes far more often than it does on causes.

We saw much of this at work recently in the media’s handling of the Herceptin cancer drug decision. The meta-narrative of that story – Paul Krugman calls it the “media script” – was that cancer victims were being denied life saving treatment by the heartless bureaucrats down at Pharmac. Telling the story via accounts of personal tragedy is always going to be easier to present and to consume than figuring out the real balance between Herceptin’s costs and the extent of the benefits it may deliver.

A narrative of victim-hood is also easier than tackling say, the political decisions and Government priorities that give the Pharmac its skinflint mandate, which has meant that New Zealand now has the lowest per capita spend on pharmaceuticals among nine developed countries cited in a report last week by the Commonwealth Fund. Is that good for society? Hey, no one was asking last week. It was all about whether we should spend $400 million, $600 million or $900 million on a rugby stadium, and where we should put it.

This personalised approach not only dramatises and exploits the emotional extremes of individuals – it can also expose them to retribution by the authorities. This is particularly the case when it comes to stories about the welfare system. The media always wants personal stories, but the exposure can be really dangerous, for people who are already vulnerable. The beneficiaries involved may also be naïve enough to expect that the media will look out for them, and protect them.

Even more to the point, this personalising process is wide open to manipulation by politicians, and the media is usually more than happy to serve as their production crew. The two parties have gained quite a lot of experience in recent years in staging folksy photo opportunies and media events. Right now, Rodney Hide’s best chance of getting re-elected doesn’t hinge on very much at allon Act policies – but on him being taken to our hearts as that oddly emotional guy who dances badly, swims across the harbour and cooks kebabs on television.

Similarly, the media has re-packaged Richard Prebble as a loveable elder statesman, the nation’s rascally uncle. No one is churlish enough anymore to bring up his political legacy :

the sales of Telecom, Railways and a few other achievements. The game here is to maximise exposure, by choosing the sort of contexts where the opportunity for genuine scrutiny is kept to a minimum.

I thought the retirement of SIS Director Richard Woods a few weeks ago was the most striking example of the media’s love affair with personality packaging. Surprise– there were no questions about the credibility gap or the human rights issues facing the SIS and other security agencies, post 9/11. No one asked Woods why = given the SIS had three whole years to prepare its case against Ahmed Zaoui – it failed to meet the deadline to get its paperwork ready in time this year, and thus forced Zaoui and his family into another round of delays.

No one has asked why, despite this history of official bungling and delays, the part time judge hearing the review is said to be working only three or four hours a week on the Zaoui case. And in particular, no one asked Woods why – of the 39 classified files of information that the SIS plan to present against Zaoui, a whole 28 of them don’t even mention Zaoui by name. How can this stuff be so secret and so damning that Zaoui and his defence team can’t be allowed to see it – when 72% of these classified files don’t even mention him? We’ll maybe never know, because the media image was a of a wise old head, taking his leave.

The third plank is the tabloid trend in news coverage. The jury is still split on this one, and that might seem surprising. Al Gore again, sees tabloid style and content as an erosion of democracy, because it denies citizens the information they need – not only to fully participate in decision making, but in the informed discourse with each other that is the stuff of a healthy society. Bruce Jesson used to talk and write a lot about the hollowness of discourse in New Zealand, and Gore is right there alongside him in decrying the consequences.

Tabloid style demands shorter stories That’s been an undeniable trend. If you think television sound-bites are getting shorter, you’re right. If you think stories in magazines and newspapers are getting shorter, you’re right again. Count the word length of the one, two and three page stories in the Listener now compared to five years ago, and you’ll find those stories have shrunk on average by a third, and that’s the common rate of contraction in Time, Newsweek and other newsweeklies as well.

There are other symptoms. Sensational tone and celebrity driven content. The interviewing style is also …increasingly on the hyper side. Often it’s a schtick, a pantomine of aggression : news reporters get to ask softball questions in a phony, hardball fashion. If it is covered at all, politico-economic policy tends to be relegated down the bulletin, or into the business pages. At the same time, there has been a higher ratio of coverage afforded to celebrities, crime, sex and sports – or in the case of O.J. Simpson, all four at once.

If this sounds like I’m complaining about tabloid media, I am. But by doing so, there’s always a risk of romanticising what came before – like the early days of television when authority meant middle aged men in suits. It wasn’t that great. In fact, news and current affairs during the 70s and 80s tended to make a virtue out of one part of the elite talking to the other in a language and tone of exclusion – BBC accents and all. It was, in effect, a club for the educated few, claimingto be a national forum.

What it aspired to were the virtues of print journalism. Yet it now about 30 years since print lost its place as the main conduit of news in this country – although for the first 20 of those years, television news had slunk along like some low life cousin of the print media, ashamed

of its own flashiness. That all changed in 1992, when TVNZ consciously adopted the tabloid style of news coverage.

That was the year that Paul Norris, then head of news and current affairs at TVNZ, brought in the American adviser Fred Shook to transform the state broadcaster’s mode of news presentation. This included teaching journalists how to write news for the visual medium and coaching newsreaders on how to read it – or more accurately, Shook taught them how to emote their lines. This included tips on how news anchors could signal the desired response to news items, via side comments and visible reactions, thus giving viewers comfort and guidance on how they should be reacting to a given story.

All of this being based on the premise, as Norris told me in a Listener interview at the time, that “Television is not very easy to use for detailed examination or analysis of complex matters.” Mr Norris is now an astute critic of the media, and head of the Broadcast School of Journalism in Christchurch.

Not a happy state of affairs. Fourteen years ago, we entered an era when taxing the brain was seen to be a violation of television’s true and essentially visual nature. TVNZ news, to use Lindsay Perigo’s classic term, has essentially been ‘brain dead’ ever since that point in 1992, and the charter has made no visible difference.

Even so, the tabloid trend has its defenders. In their view, tabloid media are trading in different realms of subjectivity. Quite different so this argument goes, to the remnants of mainstream journalism – which, however shakily these days – still tries to present facts as if they belonged to an empirical reality. If there are any veterans of the 1990s cultural studies wars here tonight, you’ll know I’m really channelling the views of the British cultural theorist John Fiske.

Fiske believed that more information is embedded in popular culture about the prevailing power relationships in society than mainstream journalism is ever likely to uncover. As Larry Strelitz, one of Fiske’s protégés, says about mainstream journalism : “The tone [of mainstream journalism] is serious, official, and impersonal, aimed at producing understanding and recruiting belief – largely by addressing the audience from the position of one who knows, and providing information to those that don’t.”

By contrast, the tone of tabloids is conversational. It employs the language of its audience in order to promote DISBELIEF, and it provides the pleasures of not being taken in by a shifting constellation of them, the ruling others. The stance is a bit like the cynicism of the political press that I mentioned earlier, but at its best, its tone is far more playful. At its worst, it exploits and promotes the sexual and racial anxieties of its audience – particularly by directing them against foreigners and ethnic minorities.

Lets take a concrete example. A relevant one, as we head into a major debate here in New Zealand on immigration policy. Not so long ago, the term “refugee” had positive meanings. A refugee was a victim fleeing persecution, a survivor needing our help and deserving our sympathy. More recently, it has become fused in the public mind with the more negative term ‘asylum seeker’ – which carries the added sense of a foreigner seeking something for nothing, while being a drain on taxpayer funds, social services and the country’s reputation.

From there, the leap to ‘ illegal immigrant’ and ‘potential terrorist’ is a pretty short one. The tabloid media has been a key player in the transformation of language and attitudes. In a speech marking Refugee Week in Britain in 2004, Forward Maisokwadzo noted ironically how the British media had blamed asylum seekers for terrorism, TB, AIDS and SARS, for failing schools, failing hospitals, falling house prices, rising house prices, road accidents and dwindling fish stocks in British rivers.

In two sensationally untrue beat-ups, asylum seekers were blamed for snaring and baking swans on the banks of the river Lea, and for stealing and eating a missing donkey.

“If asylum seekers did not exist, ” Maisokwadzo says, ” they would have to be invented. When every major and minor problem of the day can be blamed on a small number of outsiders who make up only a tiny fraction of the population and expend only a tiny fraction of the public purse, then ..I want to put it to you that the problem has nothing to do with asylum seekers. It is a failure of democracy..”

For all that, John Fiske, who was a genuine maverick, saw tabloid media as potentially subversive. Why is the tabloid style so popular ? In his view, it was because its audience had been subordinated for centuries, and systematically excluded from conventional political discourse. Structurally, he wrote, shows like Jerry Springer, by giving open rein to conflicting voices, allowed viewers to challenge the traditional role of the news anchor. It was kind of a 90s thing. Since then, Fiske’s approach has been pretty much supplanted by Ben Bagdikian and his protégé Robert McChesney, who use more trad left analysis to trace the impacts of media convergence and de-regulation.

I think we still do need Fiske’s sensitivity to populist media and popular culture – allied to McChesney’s analysis of the impacts of media ownership and de-regulation. Its easy to be conspiratorial about big media. And its true – the media corporates do have something of a vested interest in screening the hoopla around Tom and Kate’s wedding, rather than giving their reporters a free hand and expansive budgets to chronicle the evils of growing income disparity.

I’m probably wrong about this, but I’ve never been as agitated as some by media ownership issues. If big media didn’t exist would people be any less passive, as news consumers ? Beyond a certain point of critical mass – which we reached decades ago – genuine diversity in media opinion in New Zealand all but disappeared long ago. We’ve been gleaning for content ever since.

That doesn’t bother me unduly. One, because I believe that in the United States and here at home, the private sector is reliably incompetent – you only have to look at the marriage of Time Warner and AOL, or scrutinise most issues of the Herald on Sunday to see that. Second, anyone who’s ever worked for a media conglomerate knows the various arms compete with each other even more viciously than they do with players in the outside world. And thirdly, I think the ideologies that journalism embodies are a bigger problem than who happens to be sitting in the big chair in the media boardroom.

What is the ideology of the media ? Its collective mind and the socio-economic privileges that help to shape its worldview are rarely probed. The skirmish earlier this year between Michael Cullen and TVNZ’s Guyon Espiner’s over whether the latter’s interest in tax cuts was driven by the prospect of personal gain, was not a very helpful exception. Tom Frewen

eventually estimated in NBR that the average gallery journalist earns between $65 -$85,000. That’s the top tax bracket, but it hardly explains the desire to keep banging on about tax cuts.

More likely, it probably reflects another point made by Frewen – that once journalism’s collective mindset gets fixated on a media script, no counter evidence can be allowed into the frame to disrupt the narrative. The S59 issue is a classic case. From day one, the media has framed this as an anti-smacking issue, about the rights of parents. In fact, the measure is about the rights of children, and about preventing violence against them. That perspective has never framed the news coverage of S59 – even though the international comparisons leave New Zealand with a lot to be ashamed about with respect to our record of violence against children.

The example Frewen chose was our nuclear policy. For years, the US has been telling us in various ways – hey guys we’re pretty much over it. This year, Frewen indicates, they’ve even mentioned our anti-nuclear stance is as being of help in their anti-proliferation efforts. None of this seems able to deflect the media’s insistence – – at say, the infamous Peters/McCain meeting this meeting -that it’s still a barrier to better relations.

Most days, we talk about the media in the same personalised and theatrical terms – boy, that Sean Plunket interview was rough – that the media now use to talk about everything else. Its gossip. Unfortunately, I think it tends to inflate the power that journalists have, in their dealings with government and with bureaucrats. Sure, politicians who are in opposition, or who belong to small parties certainly do need to woo the media – but the Government and the media hardly need each other to anything like the same degree. It is a tricky intersection, though. Personally I’ve found it a bit disturbing to see the degree of dependence that journalists seem to have on the spin cycle, the press release, and on the “he said/ then he said” two hander that passes for objective reporting. Not to mention the managed leak by sources with agendas of their own that journalists seem to be quite happy to serve, as the admission price for information.

Initially, when I started on this lecture. I had thought that relationship counselling might help to explain what is so dysfunctional in this exchange. But its too lopsided for that to make much sense.

Out on the margins, the best journalists try to battle against the clock to extract information from people who – thanks to the prevalence of media coaching – have been trained not to divulge it on anything but their own terms. If all else fails, the Government is often quite willing to resort to the final sanction : shut up, release nothing, and after a couple of days, the media will usually go away, starved out for lack of official comment.

For all those reasons, I’ve come to think that the effectiveness of journalists usually stands in inverse proportion to their proximity to power, especially when it comes to investigative reporting. Its not an accident that the White House press corps, for instance, broke none of the major Watergate stories. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the three US television networks screened 414 stories about Iraq between September 2002 and February 2003 – and all but 34 originated at the White House, Pentagon or State Department, with predictable results.

In most political press galleries around the globe, original research usually just means being the first person to be told something, by someone else.

So believe me, if Sean Plunket sounds a little testy some mornings, that’s the least of our problems. If it really wants to be seen as the peoples’ check on government excess – which is what its Fourth Estate privileges hinge upon – it had better start playing the part. Because more often, the ideology of the profession points it in the opposite direction. Quite some time ago, journalism came to regard its job as being to report the news, not to make it or analyse it – and as a consequence, the sayings and doings of public officials have come to dominate our news agenda.

I would argue that this co-dependency between officialdom and journalism became pathological quite a long time ago. In the name of objectivity, journalism largely shrinks from countering the spin machines of government and corporate public relations. There is a strong conservative ideology in journalism that says the format of news and current affairs should resemble a blank slate – on which the forces of the left and the right are invited to write, under equal fire from the host. I strongly disagree. I think the media outlet should be encouraged to reach conclusions based on its own prior evaluation of the evidence, and to subject the politicians to strong and persistent questioning to pursue the truth. That is precisely why the recent TV3 dioxin doco was so powerful. One other reason it was so effective was because it wasn’t shoe-horned by TV3 into a commercial television hour.

It’s a tough system to crack, though. Down at the Broadcasting Authority – for instance – the notion that fairness and balance require a theatre of conflict where all parties are subjected to the same rations of aggro from the interviewer is deeply ingrained. That was central to their verdict on TV3’s Corngate programme. So the tabloid mindset isn’t just popular with the viewers, its apparent in the thinking of the regulators as well.

In my view, that kind of ping pong dualistic thinking inhibits the media from performing its key functions: which I see as being to evaluate and to discriminate, and to pursue a responsibility for social outcomes that is rarely parcelled out equally on all sides, however rosily that might fit the textbook notions of balance. Not every story – in reality, hardly any – has two sides, neatly and equally arrayed.

My own theoretical grounding ? Such as it is, it derives from Louis Althusser and 1970s film theory, which holds that the medium IS its ideology. As I’ve said, that holds true for the media as well. Even at their best, the media’s motivating impulses are reformist, not radical. In ,my experience, most of its practitioners have bought into the meritocracy – perhaps partly because, educationally at least, they have been prime beneficiaries of it.

What I mean by that is that the days when people could walk into journalism literally off the street – as I did – are all but over. Entry to journalism now requires a degree ticket, and specialist training. That’s really quite a change. During the 1993 election campaign, I remember interviewing Jim Bolger on the National campaign plane and he asked me rhetorically at one point – how many of of the journalists in this cabin here do you think, are Catholics, or used to be ?

Quite a few, at the time. It used to mean a career in politics, or journalism, Bolger said wryly. He was referring to the strand of Christian social activism cited at the recent Labour party conference, but which is now much less common as a motivating impulse for taking on the job.

For most people, objectivity is probably the word that would come to mind if anyone ever did briung up the question of the media’s guiding ideology. Quite wrongly I think, the word has been equated with fairness or honesty. In practice, it enjoys only a fleeting acquaintance with either. I find it interesting that the objectivity ideal began as a commercial impulse 100 years ago – after the owners of the partisan press began to see it as a useful new tool of the trade, to help them extend their readership base.

Much of the time it is an excuse for a “get the two sides and go home” coverage. In political coverage, this is a particularly useless technique for framing stories about issues like immigration or national security – or any subject at all where the two major parties share roughly the same position.

For that reason, when the Zaoui review finally begins, I have a hunch that the Crown could well try a line of attack that seeks to discredit him personally – and I say that not because there is anything substantial for them to feed on, but because I really can’t see how the Crown can have any faith left in the ability of the SIS to win them this case on legal and policy grounds. The Government knows the media’s appetites. And apart from Keith Locke, there are no “two sides” with which the political media could even begin to frame a story of substance about the Zaoui case. With a couple of notable exceptions, the media have treated the subject as being too hard for them.

For many people, it is the language of objective journalism that is its real Achilles heel. Robert Fisk, when he was here earlier this year, talked about the sanitised language that that objective journalism routinely uses, particularly in its coverage of the Middle East. Fisk also objected to the way the profession’s aversion to making judgement calls on contentious issues regularly leads it into putting the aggressor and the victim onto the same, morally neutral footing. Providing history and context is treated as advocacy, and self censored out of the frame.

There have been a few attempts to fill the gap. While the mainstream media potters about within its self-imposed restraints, the so called “newsbook” has come along to fill the void. People like Al Gore, Bob Woodward, James Fallows, Seymour Hersh, Ron Susskind – and in New Zealand, Nicky Hager – have ending up doing the traditional media’s job, The news books have ended up providing the history, the context and the newsbreak research that the mainstream media has been failing to deliver.

In Fallows’ opinion, the rise of Fox television in the States may have drilled the final nail in the coffin. As he told me in a Listener interview a couple of years ago, that 100 year experiment in objectivity now seems all but over. “Essentially the change to a market driven and more partisan press has become an undo-able thing ..Murdoch has set so powerful an example of the success of mainly market minded, mainly partisan media that the rest of the media world is just having to align itself with this example. It is taking the US system toward a European system of more identifiably partisan newspapers.”

While there will always be a high end niche for sophisticated news and comment – and some of that has migrated to the Internet – the mass market will, Fallows says, steadily become more partisan.

In the States, this process is well under way. The mainstream media is being hollowed out, with partisans rising on both of its flanks. The success of Fox on the right is matched by the

popularity of Michael Moore and the parody news of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – while at the centre, the bastions of trad news coverage, like the New Yort Times are in deep trouble.

In New Zealand, we’re not in that situation of partisan diversity, as we might find in parts of Europe. Thanks to the legacy of Prebble and his colleagues, we’re virtually at the mercy of media covergence. TVNZ’s sale of its Sky shares under National, and the Clark government’s ongoing refusal to invest in any significant way in digital media, has left control of the digital gateway in this country firmly in the hands of Rupert Murdoch.

What are we willing to do about it? Usually at this point, the speaker points at the Internet and disappears over the horizon in a visionary cloud I don’t think the Web is our salvation. Its freedoms are crucial, but they’re also vulnerable, and though I’m no expert, I don’t think the battle for control over domain naming – which is just one area where the Net is vulnerable to control – is over. In fact, if you want a new cause, or career worth fighting that may be new to you start working on copyright law.

If I can take time for an aside on that point…There’s a good reason why intellectual property rights are the leading edge of the US free trade agenda – its because copyright law is not only about commerce, but is perceived to be tool of social, economic and cultural domination. I think the battle over Don Brash’s emails, which has been waged so far as a battle over property – is very revealing, because as argued in court last week, it’s a gagging order on content of political and social importance.

For my five cents on this, I think an interesting double standard may be at work here. When employees use the office computer, the content is said to become an issue for the boss, because its his computer – that’s what licenses him to read personal communications posted on office gear. Yet Brash seems to be arguing that emails on the Parliamentary Services system are his private property – I would have thought that if anyone should be filing for redress from the courts, it should be Parliamentary Services. In other words, there’s not only a public interest in the content – arguably, there’s public ownership at stake with the emails. Once Brash put this stuff onto publically owned systems, I think he may well have lost his absolute right to object if they now become part of the public discourse.

Moreover, when one considers the difficulty in gaining access to this information by traditional channels, the means used by Nicky Hager are far more understandable.

Back to the Net. For all its influence, it is still really a political niche player when its outreach is measured by gross numbers. In the US, Pew opinion studies a few months ago showed that the overwhelming majority of teens and young adults still receive get their news information from the television networks, just like everyone else.

In other words, blogging alone will not allow us to defeat or significantly alter the upcoming immigration legislation. This I believe is looming to be the single worst prospect during the twilight years of the Clark administration.

I hope you already know about the draft immigration proposals that were released earlier this year. Briefly, they increase the powers of surveillance and powers of entry of immigration officials, reduce narrow the access to Ministerial review and discretion, and significantly broaden the use of secret information and hearsay information by officials. Cumulatively, the

measures proposed would reduce the capacity of ordinary people to challenge the crucial and sometimes even life threatening decisions taken by officials and politicians.

My point throughout this talk has been that the media is just not configured in a way likely to be of very much help. The information lies elsewhere. Already, blogs such as the always excellent No Right Turn, and the efforts of Tze Ming Mok have been invaluable sources of information on the draft immigration documents, and their contributions have put the traditional media to shame. I think what we might need to do now – given the glimpses we already have had of what our immigration policy will look like, and given our related readiness to put some of our most ancient freedoms at risk in the name of the war on terrorism -–is to pool our resources. I think there’s a need here now for an organization that functions in a way very similar to the Liberty organisation in the UK. This organization – perhaps expanding upon the existing Human Rights Foundation – would seek to bring together legal expertise and campaigners. It would serve both as a lobby group to Government and an information base for the media on issues of human rights, and to protect the freedom of political and cultural expression. I think there’s room within that mandate for centre left and libertarian perceptions to come together.

That’s probably enough. I hope its not seemed too long.. Just over there on this stage a year ago, Joanna Newsom also played some long songs – some of them almost as long as this lecture, but with far more grace. The very long song I quoted earlier ends by warning us just what it can require to finally get our eyes open, and our minds engaged :

And all the baby boys we’ve born With eyes averted from the storm Sent off to die in perfect form We know now what we have known

And I guess thats always has been the ultimate price of not being aware – that you end up by betraying your children. That prospect should be motivation enough for all of us. Thanks for listening.

And all the books our fathers wrote Are in the middle of the road
Little by little we implode
History brittle, brown and broke We can’t remember what was spoke So we stare in wonder at the smoke What it begets is born alone

We know not now what we have known

Ladies; breathe deep against your whalebones For your children come home made of stone

The terror seething sees a way
Or like the wheezing of the bay
In miniature agonies
They travel westward on the breeze Bring us all to our knees

The dappled horse, the sorrowed mare With eyes that do not see but stare

Beneath boots as black as Malachi He drives a nag into the nigh
Into the nigh

And all the baby boys we’ve born With eyes averted from the storm Sent off to die in perfect form
We know now what we have known

Colin James 2005: After the Treaty: a new fiction

After the Treaty: a new fiction

Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture

Colin James
14 November 2005

This is an honour and an astonishment: an astonishment because this occasion is grandly titled a “lecture” and I am a journalist — journalists write stories; and an honour because I think Bruce Jesson was worthy of having a lecture named for him.

I don’t claim familiarity with Bruce. But on a couple of occasions I went fishing (well, sitting on a boat) with Bruce and his generous friend Peter Lee. Once we became marooned when the motor in Peter’s venerable vessel would not start. As Peter communed with his engine and we gently rocked far out of swimming distance from Peter’s little bay on Waiheke, Bruce suddenly grinned at me. Imagine the story, he said, if the news media were to report our loss at sea, each in the incongruous company of the other, he of the “left” and I supposedly of the “right”.

In fact, we shared, I think, two interests: in policy, where it originates, how it works and what it does to people; and in the ingredients of this place, this country, which we who perch here sometimes fancy we can call a nation. But Bruce was an activist as well as an observer; as much a politician as an analyst of politics; he shaped as well as described. I just watch. The price I pay for the incalculable privilege of watching up close is to have to write down some of what I see. Moreover, Bruce was, Andrew Sharp wrote, a “patriot”. My roots are too shallow and my ambitions too small to be a patriot. I am ephemeral; Bruce has a legacy.

Bruce had a framework, marxism, into which to fit the world he studied and wanted to change. I have no such framework.

I did fall under Marx’s spell as an instantly impressionable 17-year-old university fresher. “From each according to ability, to each according to means” seemed as indisputable as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

But, while my grandfathers were working class, my parents were teachers, which stranded me in the petty bourgeoisie and so doomed me to fail the class-consciousness test. (I am a life member of the Engineers Union but that is another story). So it would not have surprised Bruce that Marx lost his grip on me when the following year my French lecturer, Max Adereth — incidentally, a marxist — introduced me to the bleak, and for me, as it turned out, inescapable, limbo of existentialism where there are no bearings other than those one makes up for oneself. My journalism reflects that: no right answers, just a stumbling search for questions, confined to the empirical, not the theoretical, to the event, not the imagination, to human muddle, not tidy templates. Journalism the way I live it operates by its own version of the uncertainty principle, all the more uncertain because its role is to haphazardly freeze-frame that everlasting wide- screen movie, The Human Condition.

My freeze-frame this evening is the Aotearoan/New Zealander of 2005. Like all freeze- frames, however, it is of a subject in motion. And, as I shall make clear later, I am here to ask for help.

By definition, to talk of the Aotearoan/New Zealander is to talk of someone who belongs in Aotearoa/New Zealand — or in Aotearoa or in New Zealand or in New Zealand/Aotearoa, for different people belong in different place-names.


So who belongs and how do they belong? Many sorts. Here’s some ways people might stake their claims:

“I belong here because my ancestors came here 650 years ago.”

“I belong here because my ancestors, or my kin, brought to these benighted shores the fruits of the finest civilisation then invented.”

“I belong here because me and my mates are in a gang or football club.”

“I belong here because my ancestors came to work the tailings after the gold rush and stayed to work the soil in the market gardens, even though they could not be citizens.”

“I belong here because I chose this place for a more prosperous or peaceful or close-to- nature life than I could have where I came from.”

“I belong here because my parents or their parents or their parents came to live a better or more prosperous life than where they came from.”

“I belong here because I was driven out of my homeland and this country kindly gave me refuge. I need very much to belong.”

“I belong here because I feel this land in my bones, its colours and mysteries, its grandeur and softness, its bounty and its ghosts.”

“I belong here because my family has farmed this place for generations and is embedded here.”

“I belong here because I share a special way of seeing and knowing the world in sport, songs and writing and art and dance.”

“I belong here because this is home and there is no other.”

This babble of belonging has prompted some to assert a hierarchy, to say: “I belong more than the others” or “I belong and those others don’t” or “I am indigenous and they are not.”

The most insistent claim to superior belonging has been from Maori. Over the past 35 years Maori have reasserted their first-arrival status, reinvigorated and claimed respect for the language, culture, spiritual beliefs and traditions, asserted self-determination and demanded redress of past wrongs.1 And the political elites have responded to those claims in law and administrative practice to a degree near-unimaginable 20 years ago. The assertions and responses have amounted to a revolution. That has made large numbers of non-Maori feel culturally insecure. Some have responded with deference; some with rejection. We have seen both in our politics in the past few years and most recently in this year’s election. It is not pretty.

But is indigeneity a sort of finders-keepers? Can only Maori be indigenous?2 I think there has been another powerful claim to indigeneity, a claim that was asserted through an “independence revolution” from the colonial mother-country.

This revolution came about not by guns or civil unrest but initially by way of an outpouring of plays, novels, music, film, dance and revisionist historical writing from the late 1970s onwards. This proclaimed a new confident expression that was a decisive

1 I have canvassed much of what follows in more detail in speeches and writing over the past two years. They are on my website,
2 Jeremy Waldron, Indigeneity? First Peoples and Last Occupancy, Quentin Baxter Memorial Lecture, Victoria University of Wellington, 5 December 2002


break with the self-conscious and half-apologetic differentiation from mother-Britain which marked both popular culture and the arts up till then. Britain stopped being Home. This place became home. This relocation was not, as many think, a response to Britain leaving us for Europe. It was a brash young generation asserting its own place in the world and stating that that place was here, in mind, spirit and body. This new expression was adolescent, for sure, and it was still British in derivation. But there has been no going back. Instead the new brash overturning of the old order infused our way of doing business and politics; it added up to a change in the value-system. There were dramatic, swift and deep policy changes, especially in economic and foreign policy. We were independent. We belonged here. We were — and are — indigenous.

One revolution is a big shock for any society to accommodate. Two at once is doubly a shock — and the policy and economic upheavals were highly disruptive and earned Bruce Jesson’s dismay and disgust. Yet our society has absorbed these shocks with remarkable resilience. The institutions, though modified, still stand. The middle class, though remodelled, still runs the show. No bus has been blown up, no political leader has been assassinated, no mass popular movement has stormed the parliamentary heights.

But there is more to come. To be indigenous requires a strong, confident culture that can accommodate new influences without losing its integrity.

That requires, in the case of the newly indigenised British-derived New Zealand culture, the reclaiming of the pre-colonial heritage, the rich history of Britain and Europe, and its integration with the new. For now the 650-year association Maori have with the land, against only six or seven generations at most for non-Maori, give Maori the firmer cultural base. The folk history of those with Maori ancestry is deep; that of the ex- British still in infancy.

But we are now, I think, on the brink of a mixing of the two cultures.

In one direction is now beginning to flow an increasing Maori and Pacific influence on the majority culture — language, kapa haka, sport, ways of seeing things in graphic arts, music, especially popular music, ceremonial ritual. No longer is the Maori dimension place-names, Ka Mate at sports events and plastic tikis. We will all over the next generation or two become of the Pacific instead of just in the Pacific — and I say “Pacific” because the link between Maori and Polynesia is being re-forged in South Auckland and Samoan and other Pacific influence is also beginning to be felt.

I call that influence on the majority culture Pacific-ation. It will profoundly unsettle many people, particularly older people. It challenges what had seemed to be settled notions about religion, family, how we speak and how we govern ourselves.

In the other direction will flow a challenge to traditional Maori culture and governance. It will not be imposed, as during the colonial period, the monocultural British period. It will develop organically with the now rapid growth of a Maori middle class.

Middle classes make wealth in their societies. And they modernise, individualise, and democratise those societies. So this rising middle class will, as it grows, challenge tradition and tikanga and those whose positions and power depend on tradition and tikanga. When will top Maori women refuse to play second fiddle to second-rate men? When will the indiscriminate display of powhiri tail off? And at what point will those on the rolls which iwi and hapu are building use their voting power to decide who governs them and how? Middle classes value science and technology and the rule of law and good management and the material wealth that can bring. So they will challenge the


capacity of whakapapa to explain phenomena and challenge whanaungatanga as a principle of organisation and say that it makes mistakes in handling commercial enterprises and social services delivery agencies.

You might call this the second advent to te ao maori of the Enlightenment — this time grown from within, not imposed from without.

This remix of the two cultures will disturb and enrich both. At some point haka will have English words, which will be right and proper when a haka speaks for the nation. Maori words adopted into English will take on new meanings. If traditionalists object the response will be: “It’s our haka, too. Those are our words now.” Cultures are not frozen, they live and evolve. So don’t be surprised if the New Zealand accent changes to reflect Maori intonation — if it shifts from New Zealand to Aotearoan. South Auckland has a lot more to say to us yet.

This intermixing will eventually take us beyond the fraught business of claiming and conceding rights, which has been at the nub of much of our politics of the past 20 years and has divided us more than it has united us. But as over the next 20 years we leave behind the rights argument and the overburdened Treaty of Waitangi on which the rights claims have been hung, that does not mean we will elide into a new monoculture, a convenient nation. Animism and the Enlightenment do not fit easily in the same mental and spiritual space. There is a great deal of cultural insecurity ahead of us yet, on both sides. And there are ethnically visible disparities in achievement, the products of underclass disadvantage, which have enormous implications for social cohesion and economic performance. Will this ethnic drag on the economy trigger white flight to other countries in search of cultural and material comfort? Already there are signs of that, at least in some of the emails I get from expatriates.

I mentioned “nation”. In my simple journalist’s calculus there are two ways to make a nation (apart from abitrarily drawing lines on a map, as after Vienna and for Africa). One is by long occupation of a place by a folk so that the land and the folk become one. Maori might lay such a claim but non-Maori are the majority and their six or seven generations is not long enough here to embed a nation. The other way to be a nation is by way of an “idea”, the American way — perhaps one might cite also the Jewish way. If we once thought we had candidates for a nation-forming idea they are unconvincing in 2005: “frontier”, “No 8 wire”, “mates”, “progress”.

Some think the idea of the Treaty, two cultures in one space in harmony, might do. But the Treaty is now too loaded with fears and invested with hope to bear such a weight. It was the creature of an imperial moment; it has more recently served as a momentary instrument of revival and reconciliation. But it is not a charter for a nation. Not least, it sets some of us apart from the rest. In a democratic age, that can’t work.

Moreover, there is a bigger earthquake building under us, which will shake this half- nation to its foundations.

We are becoming used to a world in flux: turbulence in trade, huge flows of people fleeing tyranny or seeking riches or getting an education, environmental interdependence, random terror. Many of the old nations, particularly in Europe, are losing their cultural integrity as burgeoning immigrant groups import discordant customs. Their material security is under threat from cheap or efficient Asian producers and energy is becoming expensive. Even the most powerful city in the world was not immune from attack. Some talk of a “clash of civilisations”, God v Allah. We in this tiny corner of the world are a pingpong ball on this cauldron.


But something bigger is coming for us.

For nearly two centuries we have sourced our people, our investment, our science and our ideas from Europe, North America and their offshoot, Australia — what might be called the North Atlantic sphere.

For five centuries the North Atlantic has dominated the world economy and devised its economic mechanisms. It has bestrode the world strategically, for much of the time through direct colonial occupation. It has found almost all the new science that has enriched us materially and lengthened our lives. It has thought up the ideas by which we govern ourselves and run our societies. It has produced the great innovations in art and music and writing.

We are kin with the North Atlantic. We have a privileged place at the fount of riches and ideas. This is our cultural wellspring. I say “we” because Maori are, through miscegenation, North Atlantic as well as Pacific.

Now China and India are on the rise. Of course, China has growing internal social and political tensions, economic imbalances and pressures, serious water shortages and pollution, which it must navigate on its way to sustainable prosperity and in the short term it will be buffeted when the world’s serious economic imbalances are unwound. And India is a turbulent democracy beset by grinding poverty so its economy develops at most in fits and starts. But both have great energy and strong commercial instincts which are now being given space to breathe. And both are very big.

China has long exported people. Increasing numbers of that diaspora have fetched up here. That has fuelled cultural insecurity over the past decade. Its people save. A growing proportion of investment here already comes from east Asia; that proportion will surely grow. And, of course, China is a vital trade partner and east Asia as a whole is bigger than Europe and the United States.

China is also investing in science. Over time some, and in due course a lot, of the world’s science will come from China. We might not have such ready access to Chinese science as we have had to North Atlantic science. And as China asserts itself on the world stage, it is likely also to challenge the North Atlantic’s hegemony of ideas and ideologies for political and social organisation. Our self-confidence will be tested to the core if we have to comprehend very different ways of thinking. (Just as, in the nineteenth century, the Maori had to.)

For us this rebalancing of the world will be especially intense because we are already in Asia’s strategic sphere in geography and trade and, to come, in people. In due course we will have to work out how to live with China’s assertion of its strategic interests. We are kin of the North Atlantic but not of China, though as Chinese come here in increasing numbers a growing minority will be kin of China. And India is coming up and Indians are coming here in rising numbers. We might find ourselves perched unstably at the apex of an Asian triangle.

And this will be happening at the very time we are groping for a key to nationhood. Our cultural security will be deeply disturbed.

Which brings me to the request I flagged earlier: I am here to ask for help. This is a university and as I understand universities, they are places for thinking. If I am half right about the changes looming over the next generation or so in our place in the world and in what makes a New Zealander/Aotearoan, some hard thinking is needed to develop appropriate analytical frameworks.


Hard thinking is your job. You are underfunded, understaffed and crammed with undergraduates (at least a third of whom should not be here). But that is no excuse. Jeremy Waldron, arguing the Treaty of Waitangi’s “obsolescence” in a lecture at Otago University in August, put it this way:

“We have a responsibility as tenured academics to explore different frameworks and new and perhaps disconcerting pathways of thought. If we are not prepared to do that, we don’t need our tenure and many of us are wasting our salaries.”3

The “we” in question are academics in this country, not those in the great northern hemisphere cloisters to which we customarily genuflect. And “new” is not some minor reformulation of the great authorities of the past. “New” is “new”.

And the hard thinking must be unique to this place.

Bruce Jesson recognised, Andrew Sharp tells us in the introduction to the book of his collected articles, that he was observing a unique society which required unique analysis. One of his articles refers to “working class, not in a cloth cap English sense but in a New Zealand black-singlet sense”. So he did not plonk orthodox marxism on New Zealand and expect a fit. He searched the byways of modern marxist writing for ways to make sense of this unique society, for example to explain Maori sovereignty arguments which eluded orthodox marxist analysis.

In short, Bruce respected facts, including inconvenient ones. And I respected him for that.

So, in memoriam of that respect for facts, let me offer some facts as starting points for your hard thinking. (I am aware, by the way, that “facts” are elusive and changeable and that “events” are a more convenient word. But I am using “fact” in the journalist’s sense of what I see in front of me that has not been falsified.)

My first fact is this unique society’s bicultural nature.

Bicultural here is not a subset of multicultural but an issue of power and of belonging. Many people think they can wish or ideologise it away, that if they change a few dozen acts of Parliament they can return us to a golden age when taniwha didn’t get in the way of roads and sacred Maori places were a matter for private contemplation, not public respect. But too much has changed. And the cultural intermix now under way which I talked about earlier is embedding that change. One indicator is the number of National party people, including some in high places, who feel the party’s election race policy was wrong or inappropriate or unworkable.

Tied up with this is the inescapability of dealing with Maori claims to rights and Maori educational, economic and social performance. First, Maori are not a tiny minority, as are the original indigenes in Japan or North America or Australia, nor an eradicable irritant, as in Brazil. There are too many Maori and the demographics tell us there will be many more. Their demands cannot lightly be ignored. Second, Maori became an alienated migrant underclass, similar in that to blacks in Watts in 1965 and Brixton in 1981and North African muslims in France today. Leave them alienated and this economy and society will underperform. So these matters are not just ethical matters or matters of “justice”. They are matters of self-interest for all of us who live here.

There is much to get right on rights yet. But I increasingly find younger Maori, while

3 Jeremy Waldron, The Half-Life of Treaties: Waitangi, Rebus Sic Stantibus, F W Guest Memorial Lecture, University of Otago, 22 August 2005


giving no ground on rights, are focusing on development. And that is the overriding issue for Maori now: prosperity and dignity in the modern, internationalised world. That is to fully belong.

My second fact is the Treaty of Waitangi. Logically, it should not be a fact. Times and circumstances have changed beyond recognition since 1840. But the Treaty was brought back to life in the 1980s, to heal some of the wounds from the injustices of the past and in that sense is an agent of reconciliation. It now infuses our policy, our jurisprudence and our administrative practices and some of our ceremonials. It has become, for better and for worse, part of the national consciousness. It cannot be wished into thin air.

But, third, the majority is also a fact. Neo-romantic notions about a partner-state that gives article 2 of the Treaty the same weight as article 1 run into a majority brick wall. The Foreshore and Seabed Act made that bluntly clear. The Treaty cannot dismantle the majority and it cannot disaggregate the unitary state. In any case many who have Maori ethnicity choose the majority. We are not two absolutely separate peoples.

Moreover, to give the Treaty life in the 1980s we invented two fictions: its “principles” and “partnership”. These have been valuable as public policy mechanisms to meet the particular needs of that time. But they are fictions, the majority thinks they are fictions and some future Parliament will likely trim them. So I think we can say the second Treaty period is within a decade or two of its end.

So what do we do instead? If the Treaty cannot make a nation, what can?

Maybe there is a clue in that word “fiction”. Maybe there are not two bases for nationhood but one — that “folk” and “idea” are in essence fictions, so every nation rests on a fiction. If so, it must be a fiction to which the great majority, preferably all, the people subscribe and draw spiritual nourishment from. (The French fiction is fraying right now in Paris’s suburbs.)

But if we are to find such an enduring fiction, who is to formulate it?

I can think of three candidates.

The first is you, here, in this thinking place. And that requires some of Professor Waldron’s “new and disconcerting pathways of thought”. The Lockean fiction and its derivatives, which lie behind “one law for all”, are insuffiicent in the face of the fact of biculturalism and likewise the neo-romantic indigenous rights fiction, which lies behind “Maori sovereignty”, is insufficient in the face of the fact of the majority.

The second candidate is the creative arts. Perhaps their weaving together of ex-British and Maori (and ex-Maori) will in time generate a fiction.

My third candidate is the people. We have muddled through not badly so far in our republican manner (to call up another of Bruce Jesson’s preoccupations — we are a republic in all but form in that the people ultimately do the deciding, often with only half an ear and eye on the political elites’ actions and justifications). Perhaps we can just muddle through the tensions and upsets — and the cultural intermixing — of the next generation or so and find our fiction written then in the interstices of our daily lives.

If so, if we can somehow make or find a fiction to make a nation here, I hope I am given the time and opportunity to watch, up close, a bit more of the process. A journalist — at least of my sort, a watcher not a shaper, a taker not a maker of ideas — cannot ask for more. Thank you for having me. Go and think hard.


Ani Mikaere 2004: Are we all New Zealanders now? A Mäori response to the Päkehä quest for indigeneity

Are we all New Zealanders now? A Mäori response to the Päkehä quest for indigeneity.

Ani Mikaere

Racial conflict was one of the formative experiences of New Zealand society. Pakeha New Zealanders are the products of an invading culture. As individuals we can be magnanimous or guilt-stricken, according to our inclination. But as a society we have this amazing capacity for self-deception. For more than a century we smugly believed that this country was a model of racial harmony, that we were one people. Maori radicalism has put an end to that particular delusion, and we are now in the process of putting down new layers of hypocrisy.

Those among you who knew Bruce Jesson well or who are familiar with his writing will doubtless recognise his voice in the extract I have just read: he wrote it in 1986,1 in the wake of Michael King’s book Being Pakeha.

Unlike those who have gone before me in presenting this address, I never met Bruce Jesson. From what I have been able to find out about him, however, I wish I had. I am well aware that he commanded enormous respect and I am honoured to celebrate his memory by participating in this event. And I was particularly pleased, while working on this lecture, to come across material written by him that was so relevant to the topic that I have chosen to talk about tonight.

My attention was drawn the notion of Päkehä indigeneity by a speech that Trevor Mallard made shortly after his appointment as Co-ordinating

1 Jesson, B “Race and Identity: Looking the Other Way?” Sites no.13 (Spring 1986) 14, at 15.

Minister, Race Relations. Entitled “We are all New Zealanders now”, his speech emphasized the need to put the difficulties of the past behind us in order to forge a collective sense of nationhood. Mallard expressed the hope that this new century would be about “perfecting our nationhood”, “banishing the demons from our past” and “cheering each other on as New Zealand citizens”. Of particular interest to me was his claim that:2

New Zealand has to get its British imperial past behind it. Mäori and Päkehä are both indigenous people to New Zealand now. I regard myself as an indigenous New Zealander . . .

Of course, Mallard is not the first Päkehä to speak of his feelings of indigeneity: in 1999 Michael King insisted that “[p]eople who live in New Zealand by choice as distinct from an accident of birth, and who are committed to this land and its people and steeped in their knowledge of both, are no less ‘indigenous’ than Mäori”.3

Don Brash, meanwhile, continues to pursue Hobson’s dream that we will all become one people, embracing with enthusiasm the emergence of what he calls “a distinct South Seas race of New Zealanders” and minimalising the significance of ethnicity altogether by asserting that most people treat their ethnic allegiances fluidly, with matters such as religion, profession, sports club, gender and political allegiance mattering more to them than their ethnicity.4

2 Mallard, T “We Are All New Zealanders Now”, speech to the Stout Research Centre for NZ Studies, Victoria University, Wellington, 28 July 2004.
3 King, M Being Pakeha Now: Reflections and Recollections of a White Native (Auckland: Penguin Books, 1999) at 235.

4 Brash, D “Nationhood”, speech to the Orewa Rotary Club, 27 January 2004, at 6-7.


It may surprise some of you that I speak of Mallard, King and Brash in the same breath: no doubt there will be those among you who cannot see the similarity in their positions. But while there are differences between them, from a Mäori point of view they also have much in common.

Brash’s eager anticipation of the growth of a single multi-ethnic New Zealand race is prefaced by a discussion which takes us back to the days when it was thought that identity could be measured by blood quantum. His focus on the amount of intermarriage that has taken place and the fact that anthropologists say there are no full-blooded Mäori left in the country can only be described as bizarre: many of us thought that such ideas had been safely put to rest thirty years ago. Brash’s vision of a “multi-cultural melting pot” future whereby we will all be merged into one people is so out-of-date that it would almost be entertaining were it not so blatantly assimilationist. Entertainment aside, a central feature of Brash’s argument is the somewhat petulant insistence that non-Mäori have just as much right to be here as Mäöri.

While neither Mallard nor King hankers for the day when we will all be one people, their claim to indigeneity is similarly an assertion of their right to be here. But what does such an assertion really entail? Avril Bell has this to say about the Päkehä claim to indigeneity:5

If Pakeha are to be indigenous they are cut off from their history as the descendants and inheritors of the privileges of the colonisers of Aotearoa. This history is discarded as Pakeha are ‘born’ post colonisation out of the New

5 Bell, A “We’re Just New Zealanders: Pakeha Identity Politics” in Spoonley, P et al Nga Patai: Racism and Ethnic Relations in Aotearoa/New Zealand (Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1996) 144, at 156.


Zealand soil. Such a move represents a desire to be ‘born again’ New

Zealanders, disowning their parents and imagining themselves adopted . . . Little wonder, perhaps, that Päkehä seem to suffer from a deep-rooted sense of insecurity about their identity. From a Mäori perspective, there is almost an element of desperation in this quest for indigeneity, calling to mind John Mulgan’s description of Päkehä as being “a queer, lost, eccentric, pervading people looking for satisfaction”.6

This insecurity has some curious manifestations, among them defensiveness, bordering on hostility. By way of example, in 1998 New Zealand First MP Tau Henare suggested that the North and South Islands be known instead by their Mäori names, Te Ika a Mäui and Te Waipounamu. Legal academic David Round objected strenuously to the proposal, appearing on national television to debate the issue with Henare. The Evening Post ran a story headed “when biculturalism goes too far” in which it was observed:7

Round made it clear that the reason he objected to a name change was that he was fed up with what he called forced biculturalism. . . It was one of those rare moments when someone had the courage to articulate what a lot of New Zealanders privately think, but are either too polite or timid to say.

While the programme was on air, viewers were asked to call in to register their approval or otherwise of the proposed name change. At the end of the programme the results of the digipoll showed that 87 percent of those who called were opposed to the idea while just 13 percent were in favour.

6 Quoted in Simpson, T Te Riri Pakeha:The White Man’s Anger (Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986) at 12.
7 Du Fresne, K “When Biculturalism Goes Too Far”, Evening Post, 7 October 1998, at 4.


The Evening Post took this as proof that most New Zealanders opposed the proposed name change, suggesting the reason as being that:8

[L]ike David Round, they resent the feeling that this thing called biculturalism is increasingly being imposed upon them, and their own cultural heritage devalued and pushed aside in the process, with very little regard for the will of the majority.

What is fascinating about this analysis, aside from the characterisation of our colonisers as “polite” and “timid” and the assumption that an 87 percent majority in a Holmes Show digipoll is conclusive evidence as to what “most New Zealanders” want, is the suggestion that the names “North Island” and “South Island” somehow represent Päkehä cultural heritage, which must be defended at all costs. Little wonder that Päkehä New Zealand struggles with the question of identity, seeking to create cultural icons of gumboots, black singlets, pavlova, kiwifruit and the buzzy bee toy. When travelling overseas, Päkehä leap forward to perform bastardised versions of the haka and “Pökarekare Ana”, and adorn themselves with Mäori pendants in an attempt to identify themselves as New Zealanders: when in Aotearoa it is often those same people who decry any assertion of Mäori language and culture as a threat to their identity. Their cultural insecurity appears to know no bounds. Interestingly, Bruce Jesson saw a connection between these shaky cultural foundations and the status of coloniser:9

New Zealand had such a shallow culture that most New Zealanders knew little about their country’s history. Amnesia is not a recent development, but is part of the colonial condition.

  1. 8  Du Fresne (1998) 4.
  2. 9  Jesson, B Only Their Purpose is Mad (Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1999) at 70-71.


This takes us back to Bell’s point about the Päkehä desire to be cut off from their history as the descendants and inheritors of the privileges of the colonisers of Aotearoa. That many Päkehä would like such unpleasant matters to be forgotten or overlooked is undeniable. Brash, for example, complains:10

None of us was around at the time of the New Zealand wars. None of us had anything to do with the confiscations. There is a limit to how much any generation can apologise for the sins of its great grandparents.

Mallard insists that Päkehä “want to be trusted by their Mäori fellow- New Zealanders . . . New Zealanders do not want to be condemned and cursed as if they are the British imperialist white ascendancy colonialists”.11 And last year King argued that Päkehä were seeking what he called a ‘mutuality of respect’:12

As another manifestation of that respect, just as Pakeha were now decades away from the stance which viewed Maori culture as ‘primitive’, ‘backward’ or ‘barbaric’, so Pakeha felt that they ought not to be viewed by Maori as tau iwi or aliens, representatives of a colonising power that merely stole material and cultural resources from Maori and gave nothing in return.

Such sentiments reveal the sizable burden of guilt that many Päkehä carry about the means by which they have come to occupy their present position of power and privilege. Brash’s way of dealing with this guilt is simply to deny personal responsibility for the detrimental impact on Mäori of colonisation. Mallard’s response is essentially to demand that

  1. 10  Brash (2004) at 3.
  2. 11  Mallard (2004) at 6.
  3. 12  King, M The Penguin History of New Zealand (Auckland: Penguin, 2003) at 516.


Mäori forgive and forget. King’s approach is more sophisticated: he suggests that both sides have made mistakes by unfairly stereotyping each other, thereby implying an equivalence of fault on both sides. This has the effect of masking the fact that the wrongs were overwhelmingly committed by one side and inflicted upon the other: to suggest any kind of equivalence here, in my view, is deeply problematic.

These exhortations from Brash, Mallard and King are heavily dependent upon the need for the past to be forgotten, or at very least, not spoken about. Yet, as Jeremy Waldron has pointed out, “the determination not to forget is part of the moral respect we owe to human identity; the task of remembrance is bound up with the very being of community and individuality in the modern world”.13 To euphemise the impact of colonisation on Mäori is to fundamentally disrespect the memory of those who suffered as a result of resources wrongly taken, of language denied, of spirituality suppressed. It is also to deny the true cause of the disadvantage that so many Mäori are faced with today. Does this matter? Waldron suggests that it does:14

[T]he neglect or forgetfulness urged on us is seldom the blank slate of historical oblivion. Thinking quickly fills up the vacuum with plausible tales of self-satisfaction on the one side and self deprecation on the other. Those who as a matter of fact benefited from their ancestors’ injustice will persuade themselves readily enough that their good fortune is due to the virtue of their race, while the descendants of their victims may too easily accept the story that they and their kind were always good for nothing.

13 Waldron, J “Historic Injustice: Its Remembrance and Supercession” in Oddie, G & Perrett, R (eds) Justice, Ethics and New Zealand Society (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1992) 139, at 143.
14 Waldron (1992) at 142.


To forget history is to allow myths to spring up in its place, myths which serve to ease the conscience of those upon whom history does not reflect well. For Mäori to collude in the forgetting of history requires us to remain silent so that the business of Päkehä myth-making and self- deception can proceed unhindered. However, I cannot accept (in the words of Mohawk legal academic Patricia Monture-Angus) that it is our responsibility to carry the guilt of the oppressor, or to silence ourselves for the sole purpose that the oppressor will not feel badly.15 To do so would be an extraordinary act of denial. Yet it sometimes appears that our colonisers demand nothing less from us, in their determination to forget or disguise the past beyond recognition and in their quest to convince themselves that history has nothing with which to reproach them. A commitment to forget is clearly something that the asserters of Päkehä indigeneity share.

Brash, for example, looks forward to the day when the categories Mäori and Päkehä will be forgotten altogether, as we amalgamate into a single new breed of New Zealander. Like King, he employs the device of false equivalence to gloss over the stark differences in Mäori and Päkeha experience over the last two hundred years. His version of our shared history, ironically headed “the myths of our past”16 engages in some major myth-making itself, suggesting equivalence of blame on both sides for the massive land-grab that took place. He opines, for example that “[a]ny dispassionate look at our history shows that self-interest and greed featured large on both sides”17 and suggests that Maori were separated from their land “partly through settler greed” and “partly through a

15 Monture-Angus, P Thunder In My Soul: A Mohawk Woman Speaks (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1995) at 63.

  1. 16  Brash (2004) at 2-3.
  2. 17  Brash (2004) at 2.


couple of generations of deficient leadership by some Maori”.18 His approach has the effect of conveniently “forgetting” that the vast majority of wrong-doing was committed on the Päkehä side.

Amusingly, Labour appears to regard it’s own stance on these matters as progressive by comparison. In 2003, for instance, Michael Cullen accused Bill English of seeking “a coalition of Pakeha fearful as to the impacts of the Treaty of Waitangi”.19 As Brash’s Orewa speech makes plain, a change in National party leadership has not altered the party’s policy in this respect. Mallard revels in making fun of National’s position, accusing them of being “backward-looking. . . stalled in the 19th, or perhaps the 18th century, . . . the inheritors of the original assimilation project” and labelling them “the successors of the Victorian colonialists who wreaked havoc in so many countries”.20 Brave words from a freshly-appointed “Coordinating Minister, Race Relations”, eager no doubt to bring some intellectual vision to the debate. Yet, just as Brash continues to cultivate a coalition of the fearful, it is equally plain that Mallard is intent on forging a coalition of the forgetful: Mäori must forgive and forget, and Päkehä must be allowed to forget, so that we can all live together as one big, happy, amnesic family.

Well, Mäori will not forget. As Mohawk Taiaiake Alfred has said “today’s challenge must be shouldered proudly because it is no less than the sacred heritage passed on by generations of ancestors who sacrificed

  1. 18  Brash (2004) at 3.
  2. 19  Cullen, M, Speech to Region Two Labour Party Conference, 5 April, 2003) at 3.
  3. 20  Mallard (2004) at 3.


and died to preserve the notion of their being”.21 Mäori understand only too well our obligation, to generations past and future, not to forget.

And the truth of the matter is that no matter how hard they try, Päkehä cannot forget either. As Bruce Jesson stated so simply, Päkehä are the products of an invading culture. Brash can bluster all he likes about the limits to which he can be made to apologise for the sins of his ancestors; Mallard can appeal to Mäori to trust him; King can insist that the colonisers did not simply take without giving anything in return; Round can defend the cultural significance of the names North Island and South Island as if his life depends on it. But whatever they might say I do not believe that any of them can truly forget. A sense of underlying unease, of unresolved guilt pervades their words. One barely has to scratch the Päkehä surface to find the guilt lying immediately beneath, guilt which manifests itself as denial, self-justification, defensiveness and, incredibly enough, a sense of victimhood.

I am aware that the picture I have painted so far is a fairly gloomy one. Yet I can see, even in the words of those whom I have criticised, some cause for optimism. To begin with there is an implicit acknowledgement from each of them that the key to their desire to feel that they “belong” here somehow lies in the relationship between Päkehä and Mäori. There is also a sense that in order for that relationship to be put on a sound footing, something has to change.

These are sentiments with which I am in complete agreement. It is plain to me that the relationship between Mäori and Päkehä is deeply

21 Alred, T Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1999) at 33.


dysfunctional. The cost to Päkehä, as I have already said, is a burden of shame that they cannot escape. The cost to Mäori is also high. When in 2000 Tariana Turia spoke about the phenomenon of Post Colonial Traumatic Stress Disorder22 many leading politicians scaled new heights of sheer absurdity in their reactions, such was their horror at being reminded of a past they wanted so desperately to forget. As a result of the madness that erupted in the wake of her speech to the New Zealand Psychological Society Conference (and it is pertinent to note the head of the Psychological Society’s public statement that her speech had been entirely appropriate in the context of the occasion) a whole new vocabulary of words that should not be mentioned in public emerged. We now know that, in relation to the Aotearoa context at least, the “g” word (genocide) is considered impolite, the “h” word (holocaust), simply unmentionable.

Regrettably, amidst all the stupidity the message that was being conveyed was completely lost. Turia referred to Native American Psychologist Eduardo Duran who suggests that the colonial oppression suffered by indigenous people inevitably wounds the soul.23 There is no doubt in my mind that Mäori continue to bear the scars of colonisation. I have already said that Päkehä guilt lurks just beneath the surface; Mäori grief and rage inhabit the same psychological and spiritual space, often unleashed by the smallest of triggers.

But I for one do not accept that this is how things have to remain. The prospect of being forever locked into the roles of oppressor and oppressed must surely be as unfulfilling for Päkehä as it is frustrating for Mäori.

  1. 22  Turia, T, Speech to NZ Psychological Society Conference, 29 August 2000.
  2. 23  Turia (2000) at 3.


The foreshore debacle has provided a timely reminder of the ease with which the Crown slips into its time-honoured pattern of threats and coercion, consigning Päkehä yet again to the role of oppressor. I find it hard to believe it is a role that Päkehä relish. I doubt whether our collective grief is something of which Päkehä are proud. I also know that the very last thing we need is Päkehä wallowing in guilt. All of us, Mäori and Päkehä hope for a better world for our children and grandchildren. If the key to creating that better world does not lie in forgetting our past, where does it lie?

I suggest that the answers may well be found in tikanga Mäori. Tikanga Mäori has been defined by Charles Royal as “ethical behaviour”, based upon fundamental principles or values.24 While the practice of tikanga may adapt over time, the underlying principles or “conceptual regulators” (as Justice Taihakurei Durie has called them),25 comprising values such as whanaungatanga, manaakitanga, aroha, mana, tapu, noa, wairua and utu, do not. Durie has pointed out that Mäori society was open to change but “protective of the fundamental norms or principles of the conceptual regulators” and that this approach “enabled change while maintaining cultural integrity”.26

I regard tikanga as the first law of Aotearoa.27 It arrived here with our ancestors and it operated effectively to serve their needs for a thousand years before Päkehä came. It was the only system of law in operation when the first Päkehä began living here amongst us. Had the

24 Royal, C “Kaupapa and Tikanga”, paper presented at the Mai i Te Ata Hapara conference, Te Wananga-o-Raukawa, Otaki, 11-13 August, 2000, at 1.

  1. 25  Durie, T “Custom Law”, unpublished paper, 1994, 4-5.
  2. 26  Durie (1994) at 8.
  3. 27  See Mikaere, A “The Treaty of Waitangi an Recognition of Tikanga Mäori” in Belgrave, M et al

Waitangi Revisited: Perspectives on the Treaty of Waitangi (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2004) 330 for further discussion of tikanga Mäori as the first law of Aotearoa.


reaffirmation of Mäori authority in the second article of Te Tiriti o Waitangi been adhered to, the relationship between Päkehä and Mäori would have been regulated by tikanga Mäori throughout our shared history. I believe it would have resulted in a far healthier relationship than the one we currently have. While tikanga has largely been displaced by the operation of the coloniser’s law, it is still an important determinant of Mäori behaviour. It embodies a number of highly relevant principles and precedents, the application of which in a contemporary context would suggest an exciting range of possibilities for Mäori and Päkehä.

The fundamental purpose of Mäori law, as the Waitangi Tribunal has noted, is to maintain appropriate relationships of people to their environment, to their history and to each other.28 The first relationship that must be mentioned is that of people to the land. Mäori are born out of the land, conceived and given life by Papatüänuku. When a Mäori child is born, the placenta or whenua is returned to Papatüänuku. These spiritual and genealogical connections to her are what make us tangata whenua. It is a concept that can only have meaning within the context of a Mäori world view.

The spiritual connection to Papatüänuku is strengthened on a hapü level by occupation of a particular area of land, with which an intimate connection is formed over time. Landmarks within the area are associated with hapü identity, ancestors are buried there and the attachment to the land is, in the words of the Waitangi Tribunal “reinforced by the stories of the land, and by a preoccupation with the accounts of ancestors, whose admonitions and examples [provide] the

28 Waitangi Tribunal, Muriwhenua Land Report (1997) at 21.


basis for law and a fertile field for its development.”29 Thus the term tangata whenua, while referring to all Mäori by virtue of our descent from Papatüänuku, is also applied more specifically to the iwi and hapü associated with a particular area of land.

Having considered the connection between people and land, it is appropriate now to turn to the matter of human relationships. Let us begin by talking about the relationship between tangata whenua (loosely translated as hosts) and manuhiri (visitors or guests). When manuhiri go into the area of another people, it is understood that the tikanga of the tangata whenua apply. While there are variations between iwi and hapü in way in which tikanga is practised, there is no question that within the domain of the tangata whenua, it is their interpretation and application of the principles underpinning tikanga that prevails. Manuhiri from Tainui, for instance, would never dream of telling their hosts in Te Taitokerau or Te Tairäwhiti, how they should conduct themselves on their own marae or in their own area.

Nor would manuhiri ever assume tangata whenua status in another people’s domain. That is not to say that people from outside an iwi area never took up residence within that iwi’s boundaries: there are precedents that show such arrangements took place, whether on a seasonal basis (for example, for food-gathering purposes) or otherwise. But arrangements of this type were always carefully negotiated, and the consent of the tangata whenua was imperative, as was the fulfilment of any conditions they laid down. And always, it was the relationship between the two parties that mattered most. Both sides were expected to actively nurture the relationship, with the concept of utu or reciprocity

29 Muriwhenua Land Report at 23.


operating to bind them together more closely as time passed. Naturally, this understanding applied to Päkehä individuals who took up residence amongst iwi during the earliest days of Mäori-Päkehä contact. Sometimes such incorporation of outsiders in this manner brought with it an allocation of land. The Waitangi Tribunal has this to say about such situations:30

Land allocations to outside individuals. . .were not an alienation of the land but the incorporation of the individuals. A rangatira who allocated land to an individual augmented not the recipient but the community the rangatira represented, for it was the recipient who was the most obliged. The purpose was not to elevate the individual but to build the community.

It was not uncommon for marriages with local people to be arranged in such instances, as the children of any such unions would give a stake in the land by ancestry. Nevertheless, the outsider who married in would never become tangata whenua in the true sense of the word. Nor could they ever presume to take on for themselves that status. If I lived my whole adult life in my spouse’s village, for example, I would never reach a moment when I would refer to myself as tangata whenua of that place. That does not mean that I could not fulfil an important and valued role as a member of that community: it simply means that I could not assume for myself the status of tangata whenua there. I would remain manene, a stranger in a sense, albeit one who forged a powerful connection with the hapü and iwi of that place by virtue of sharing in their lives and producing children who could claim such tangata whenua status. It would be exactly the same for my spouse in the event of his coming to live in my area.

30 Muriwhenua Land Report at 25.


The point is that it is never possible for manuhiri or manene to take upon themselves the status of tangata whenua. An outsider may be incorporated into the tangata whenua group, be allocated land and other rights and may even have their place within the community cemented by marriage and children. But ultimately, it is for the tangata whenua to determine the way in which they view the outsider in their midst.

A second relationship that is worthy of consideration in the context of Mäori-Päkeha interaction is that of wrong-doer and wronged. Colonisation the world over has resulted in oppression of indigenous peoples, and Aotearoa is no exception. Despite the occasional somewhat desperate suggestion to the contrary, the fact is that iwi and hapü the length and breadth of Aotearoa have suffered almost unimaginable injustice at the hands of Päkehä, injustice that has been either sanctioned or actively perpetrated by the Crown. According to tikanga Mäori, when a wrong is committed it creates a depletion of mana and a situation of serious imbalance, not just between the parties concerned but also amongst their respective whänau and hapü. Relationships are damaged. Action is necessary to restore the mana of the people and groups involved, thereby re-establishing the balance and returning the various relationships impacted upon to a healthy state.

One of the chief means of achieving such an outcome in earlier times was the institution of muru. This required the whänau or hapü of the wrongdoer to submit to a process whereby the whänau or hapü of the victim would be free to take for themselves the offending group’s belongings, goods or produce. Treasured personal items along with food- stores and other valuable goods could legitimately be taken, houses could


be destroyed and in some instances it was possible that lives might be taken or injuries inflicted. The greater the significance of the parties involved, and the more serious the wrongdoing, the greater the extent of the muru that could be expected.31 It has been noted that whakamä, the notion of embarrassment or shame, was a pivotal concept in muru. Whakamä was felt, not just by the individual who had committed the wrong, but also by his or her whänau or hapü. The consequences of the individual’s actions were suffered by the collective group. There was also a powerful element of trust involved: in submitting themselves to the justice meted out by the wronged whänau, the whänau of the wrong- doer had no option but to trust in the other party’s ability to gauge the extent of action required to mend any damage to the multiple relationships affected. Muru was essentially restorative in nature, having the effect of restoring mana to the whänau and hapü of both offender and victim, and thereby re-establishing balance between them. Muru rehabilitated not only the victim but also the offender.

What do each of these examples offer us in a contemporary context? Crucial to the acceptance of manene or manuhiri in the domain of an iwi or hapü is their compliance with the tikanga of the tangata whenua: the outsider is granted such status and rights as the tangata whenua determine. Central to the resolution of a wrong-doing is the commitment of the wrong-doer’s whänau to submit themselves to the measures taken against them by the wronged party.

Let us return now to the relationship between Päkehä and Mäori today. It is generally assumed that the Treaty settlement process that has been in

31 Ministry of Justice, He Hinätore ki te Ao Mäori: A Glimpse into the Mäori World (2001) at 99-103; Mead, S Nga Tikanga Tuku Iho a Te Maori: Customary Concepts of the Maori (Department of Maori Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, 1984) at 31-46.


progress over the past twenty years represents an attempt to resolve the injustices of the past, and that steps such as the incorporation of Mäori terms into legislation (for example, the Resource Management Act or Te Ture Whenua Mäori) represent a genuine effort on the Crown’s part to bridge the divide between Mäori and Päkehä. But how do these developments measure up against the tikanga Mäori principles governing the relationship between tangata whenua and manuhiri, or between the wrong-doer and the wronged party?

Put simply, they don’t. The Waitangi Tribunal, for instance, while having achieved a great deal through its meticulous report-writing and its ability to operate on the proverbial smell of an oily rag, is a creature of statute, its powers subject to legislative interference – as happened, for instance, following the Te Roroa report.32 Appointments to the Tribunal are made upon the recommendation of Ministers of the Crown, it is ritually starved of resources, and its recommendations routinely ignored by the Crown. When negotiating settlements with the Crown, claimants are typically presented with a “take-it-or-leave-it” bottom line, with the Crown prepared to negotiate on minor matters only. Any legislative provisions that have unforeseen consequences (unforeseen to the Crown, that is) are either amended to ensure that the impact of Mäori concepts on the operation of Päkehä law remains minimal, or they are interpreted restrictively by the courts, or both.

The problem with this approach, in terms of a tikanga Mäori analysis, is that it is the manuhiri who are dictating the way that things should be done in the tangata whenua’s domain. It is the wronged party who is being expected to submit to terms imposed by the wrong-doer. Such a

32 Waitangi Tribunal, Te Roroa Report (1992).


method of dealing with the injustices of the past cannot possibly hope to achieve resolution. The irony of being lectured by Trevor Mallard on the necessity for Mäori to trust the perpetrators of our oppression is, quite frankly, breathtaking.

For Päkehä to gain legitimacy here, it is they who must place their trust in Mäori, not the other way around. They must accept that it is for the tangata whenua to determine their status in this land, and to do so in accordance with tikanga Mäori. This will involve sorting out a process of negotiation which is driven by the principles underpinning tikanga, a process which Päkehä do not control. There is no doubt that many Päkehä will find this challenging: their obsession with control over the Mäori-Päkehä relationship to date could almost be categorised as a form of compulsive disorder. Giving up such control requires a leap of faith on the part of Päkehä. In my view, however, nothing less will suffice if they truly want to gain the sense of belonging they so crave, the sense of identity that until now has proven so elusive.

This may seem rather intimidating to a people more used to “putting down new layers of hypocrisy”33 than confronting their most deeply-held prejudices and fears. Yet I am encouraged by the fact that there are some who are prepared to do just that. In 1986 Ray Nairn wrote of the need to get Päkehä to “name the fears they have about relinquishing control”, and looked to a time “when we can come as two peoples: Maori and Pakeha, tangata whenua and manuhiri, to negotiate a basis for our society”.34 Of course, there are Päkehä individuals who have discovered that the sky does not fall if they negotiate their personal relationships with Mäori on

  1. 33  Jesson (1986) at 15.
  2. 34  Nairn, R Sites no.13 (Spring 1986) 17, at 18.


such a basis. While that in itself is cause for optimism, I encourage them not to settle for building positive relationships with Mäori on a personal level only: I urge them to use their experiences constructively, to bring about the mind-shift required amongst Päkehä society as a whole.

Perhaps it is Mike Grimshaw who best addressed the question of Päkehä identity when earlier this year he observed: “I am a Pakeha because I live in a Maori country”.35 When you think about it, there is nowhere else in the world that one can be Päkehä. Whether the term remains forever linked to the shameful role of oppressor or whether it can become a positive source of identity and pride is up to Päkehä themselves. All that is required from them is a leap of faith.

35 Grimshaw, M “What Lies Beneath”, Listener 4 September 2004, 40, at 41.


Jane Kelsey 2003: Recolonisation or decoloniation – where does our future lie?


I vividly remember the last conversation I had with Bruce. He wanted to talk about the failure of the left to address the theoretical and political challenges posed by global capitalism. I was in one of my populist phases, high on activist politics and fresh from the victory against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the MAI. Bruce was visibly impatient with the theoretical shallowness of what I was saying. It’s the kind of conversation you wish you could rerun, but you can’t.

Tonight’s lecture is my belated attempt to address the problem in a way that Bruce would have appreciated. His approach was always to look beyond the immediate and identify underlying trends and prospects for the longer term. He also didn’t believe there was much place in the politics of the left for idealists who were driven simply by revulsion for suffering and hopes for a better future. The point is, if you are to change the world, you need to understand it empirically and theoretically.

So here, for Bruce, is my argument. The past 20 years have seen a paradigm shift from the Keynesian welfare state and state socialism to neoliberal economics and government. Economically this transition was driven by the need to restore the flagging profitability of capital, drawing on new technologies and a shift in focus from production of goods to finance capital and services. Yet most attention has focused on the more visible political agencies that have facilitated this transition by changing national laws, policies and regulation – that is the role of national governments and the international institutions, notably the World Trade Organisation.

Today, this support structure appears to be coming unstuck. At the same time, the US as the dominant patron for international capital has decided there are greater gains to be made from striking out on its own. The current combination of economic and military imperialism reflects a new aggression that increases instability as it seeks to extend US hegemony and the dominance of its associated capital. These are not just the acts of a political elite intent on preserving and expanding its power. They reflect a growing sense of insecurity. Since the mid-1990s the prospect that states would voluntarily and comprehensively submit to neoliberal globalisation has receded. Market failures have set in. Poster girls, such as Argentina, have sunk into an economic, social and political quagmire. Competing superpowers, notably China, have emerged on the scene, while renegade governments have been elected, such as Chavez in Venezuela and Lula in Brazil. Social movements, mobilising nationally and internationally, have intensified the pressure on governments. This in turn has helped to sink a number of international initiatives that were intended to promote global economic policymaking.

1 Fourth Bruce Jesson Lecture, Maidment Theatre, Auckland, 17 November 2003 delivered by Professor Jane Kelsey, Auckland University. Thanks to Bill Rosenberg, Joce Jesson, and Andrew Sharp for comments during its preparation.


Despite these setbacks, however, the power of international capital still seems overwhelming. Its relentless quest to maximise profits creates social, cultural and political fallout. This has been effectively contained in many countries through constant restructuring, new political techniques like the Third Way, and political repression. Yet there are signs, especially in the South, that this is now vulnerable. New transformational possibilities are emerging through the mobilisation of social movements that are influencing what happens on the national and international stage. New Zealanders will need to engage more with these realities if we are to have a say in the shape of our future world.

Let me begin with the ‘here and now’ and build an analysis from there. The collapse of the WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun this September means two of the last three ministerials have failed. Even the ‘successful’ Doha meeting only secured agreement to a new round of negotiations because it was held in the shadow of September 11. What seems extraordinary to me about Cancun wasn’t the outcome – that was utterly predictable. It was that some, including New Zealand politicians, remain in denial about its significance.

It was obvious when the World Trade Organisation was created back in 1995 that it was a tin budgie that was never going to fly. It was a multinational body whose decisions would in theory be based on a consensus of its 140+ member governments, but which in practice would operate on a diet of super- power domination, economic coercion and political bullying. Its rules, reinforced by the IMF and World Bank, were designed to force member governments to surrender their countries to an aggressive new phase of capitalist expansion. The initial agreements on goods, services, agriculture and intellectual property favoured transnational corporations, finance capital and northern elites. Subsequent demands from poorer countries to revisit these agreements were sidelined. The richer countries insisted that in return for even discussing those concerns the WTO should expand into new areas that would increase their dominance and widen the inequalities.

The resolute stand by the Southern governments at Cancun over agriculture and the so-called Singapore issues such as investment and competition represented an important geopolitical realignment. For the first time since the early 1970s, they stood together and refused to buckle to the demands of the superpowers. Equally important, key governments acknowledged the central role played by both the NGOs who worked alongside them and by the ‘uncivil’ elements of ‘civil society’ — social movements who had been mobilising back home, as well as that week in Cancun, insisting that ‘another world is possible’.

The outcome at Cancun further delegitimised an already fragile WTO and has left it paralysed for the time being. This combination of internal division and external dissent is not an isolated development. By 1997 a similar dynamic had deflated APEC’s grand vision of free trade and investment by 2010 for the richer ‘economies’ of the Asia Pacific and 2020 for the poorer ones. In 1998 attempts at the OECD to negotiate a bill of rights for transnational companies,


known as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, collapsed under similar pressures.

Warnings that this would occur were, and continue to be, routinely dismissed by politicians, media and business as the rantings of ideologically driven ‘globophobes’. But it is they who are the ideologues, out of touch with reality. Most of the politicians, officials, journalists and industry lobbyists who I talk to barely seem aware that there is a bigger picture, let alone what dynamics are driving it and where it is heading. Those who are aware are often unwilling to say so publicly.

A classic demonstration of this was the parliamentary debate that followed the Cancun meeting’s collapse. This was real headless chickens stuff. ACT blamed Labour for not having a coherent trade policy and supplicating itself to the US. For his part Bill English conceded that the Doha Round might never produce the goods and that there might well be no deals with the US or Australia. Nevertheless he somehow thought that Labour should do better. Peter Dunne, who was in Cancun as chair of the Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Select Committee, portrayed the outcome as a hiccup rather than a catastrophe. He conceded that Southern governments would remain a force to be reckoned with in future WTO negotiations, but viewed their resistance as an obstacle for New Zealand and other Cairns Group members to overcome as they rethought how to get agriculture back on centre stage and inject some steel into the WTO leadership.

It was the Prime Minister’s response that I found most disturbing, because she’s intelligent enough to understand what’s going on. First, drawing on a deeply flawed study of alleged gains to New Zealand from the Uruguay Round, Helen Clark denounced those who celebrated the meeting’s collapse as “wreckers” who were prepared to cost this country $1 billion a year. She portrayed the US and EU as flexible and willing to compromise, and the Southern governments who dared to say “no” as recalcitrant. Her patronising terms effectively applied Paul Holmes’ infamous epithet to governments that represent over half the world’s population.

The one thing the parliamentarians all agreed on was that Mike Moore would never have let the WTO meeting collapse. This is the same Mike Moore who oversaw the fiasco in Seattle in 1999, and who is on record as asking one Southern delegate at the Doha ministerial whether he wanted to be ‘consulted or terminated’.

No political party except the Greens recognised that the collapse of Cancun reflects a deeper challenge to the model of globalisation to which they have intractably committed New Zealand. It is clear that New Zealand must now rethink our approach. The WTO is going nowhere. It is very likely that the Doha Round will break down completely. But even if it does eventually produce an agreement, that will not include major agricultural concessions from the US and EU. Any concessions they do make will be driven by their domestic imperatives and be conditional on their gaining further control for their transnationals over the world’s services, manufacturing and intellectual


property. ‘Consensus’ agreement to such a deal will only be achieved by coercion and will impose undeliverable obligations on many poorer countries.

Negotiating bilateral or regional agreements looks even less promising. The major powers, the US most firmly, believe they have got as much as they are likely to from the WTO for now. To secure a better deal they would have to make concessions that are politically unsaleable. Hence, their shift to focus more on pragmatic bilateral and regional arrangements – a shift designed to further their international ambitions, while minimising the costs at home.

This was already happening before the collapse at Cancun. That is why the US wasn’t too fussed about the outcome. It is now focused on two objectives. The first is to reproduce internationally the conditions that maintain the profitability of US capitalism. The second is to make any economic engagement conditional on those countries surrendering their foreign policy to the US. As one senior US trade official put it in April this year: “Why shouldn’t we use trade policy to reward our friends and hurt those who don’t support us?” A recent trade deal with the 48 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa explicitly says that their activities must not ‘undermine US national security or foreign policy interests’.

What does this mean for New Zealand’s fallback policy of bilateralism? Our trade ministers and senior diplomats have enjoyed privileged access to the inner circle at the WTO because they have taken an ideologically pure position that the US found useful in a multilateral setting. In bilateral negotiations, the US will see New Zealand’s ideological purity as a liability.

Despite reassurances that New Zealand will not accept a deal that lacks significant gains for agriculture, the US will set the terms. For a reality check look at Australia. Despite being the US proxy sheriff in Asia, reports suggest it’s being offered a deal that contains almost nothing on agriculture. In return the Howard government is expected to guarantee extensive and enforceable rights for US transnationals over Australia’s manufacturing, services, culture, natural resources, intellectual property and government procurement. Farmers, manufacturers, service providers and many citizens have objected that Australia has nothing to gain and everything to lose. But they have no say in secret negotiations for a treaty that doesn’t require the Parliament’s approval.

Compared to Australia, New Zealand is economically and geo-politically insignificant. The terms the US sets for any deal with us would be far more draconian and we have a much less diversified economy to survive the impact. Recent US hit lists have objected to New Zealand’s vetting of overseas investments and Fonterra’s ownership and monopoly regimes. As US Ambassador Swindell has made abundantly clear, one pre-condition for New Zealand being invited to negotiate such a lousy deal is the repeal of the anti-nuclear legislation. US foreign policy demands won’t stop there. Even if we comply, they might still say no.


A free trade and investment treaty would render New Zealand an economic and political satellite of the US. Politicians in ACT and National, supported by many in business, would apparently surrender us tomorrow. Some day they may become the government. Labour’s leaders still insist, genuinely I believe, that the antinuclear policy is not negotiable. Yet they are constantly seeking other ways to appease US imperialism.

They do have a problem. If the WTO remains paralysed and Labour sticks to its anti-nuclear guns, the option is to seek bilateral agreements with other peripheral governments, such as Chile, Mexico and Thailand. Such negotiations are driven more by shared ideology than expectations of any significant economic gains. The deal with Singapore has already shown that New Zealand exporters stand to lose even then.

The proposed deal with Hong Kong has stalled because it would effectively mean unrestricted entry for Chinese clothing and textiles. The likelihood of zero tariffs by 2010 is likely to remove that barrier. But we have no idea of what a free trade and investment agreement with China would really mean. Again, New Zealand seems well down China’s list of priorities; may it long remain so.

The remaining option is deeper integration with Australia through an expanded CER and a common currency. Australia appears profoundly uninterested. It would set the terms for any such negotiations and, given the current penchant for mimicking the US, may demand an equally intolerable price.

Looked at empirically, the current strategy has us heading down a dead end street. The strategy is also futile as a matter of policy theory. Let me explain why. Moves to establish the WTO came relatively late in the transition from the Keynesian welfare state and state-socialism to neoliberalism – a transition prompted by the declining profitability of capitalism by the 1970s. It was a time when finance capital became increasingly delinked from actual production, and services assumed a new commercial prominence. An emerging elite of managers and professionals exploited new technologies to get around constraints that national governments had imposed.

Paradoxically, replacing those policies with a new template that would liberate capital needed the cooperation of those same governments. Often this has been achieved through debt conditions imposed by the US-dominated Bretton Woods institutions of the IMF and World Bank. Sometimes, the so-called Washington Consensus has been adopted voluntarily, as in New Zealand.

The WTO offered a means to achieve near-universal adherence to the new paradigm and to prevent governments from retreating. Countries that break the rules face potentially crippling sanctions – except for the major powers whose economic strength leaves them relatively immune. Countries that stay outside or seek to break away lose the guarantee of market access and face discrimination in most other countries of the world. Increasing countries’ exposure to WTO rules make them more dependent on international capital.


That dependency dominates government decisions about tax and spending, labour markets, monetary policy, environmental regulation and more, even though these currently fall outside the ambit of the WTO.

Hence, advocates have described the WTO as the first truly global rulemaking body. The WTO’s first Director General Renato Ruggiero explained, in the context of negotiations for the MAI: ‘We are no longer writing the rules of interaction among separate national economies. We are writing the constitution of a single global economy.’

Although the WTO is clothed in the benign language of neoclassical trade theory and comparative advantage – and it is this theory which New Zealand’s policy relies on – it was never about promoting competitive global markets. The aim expressed by the global corporate alliances was and is to strengthen their control over all potentially profitable aspects of life. Their ultimate vision is a world where the mobility of capital is unrestricted; where markets for goods have no borders; where services (whether social, cultural or infrastructural) are fully commercial and controlled by transnational enterprise; where mega-corporations have enforceable monopolies over technologies and knowledge; and where the overriding role of national regulation is to facilitate markets.

The problem for the grand corporate vision is the assumption that economic relations can be detached from the social, political and ideological realms in which they are embedded. Both experience and critical theory tell us this isn’t so. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the WTO has failed to achieve the legitimacy that it requires. When it was being created during the Uruguay Round of the GATT, there was relatively little resistance. The process was shrouded in secrecy. Novel ideas like ‘trade in services’ such as education were not well understood. Nor were the implications of agreements on intellectual property rights and investment measures.

That has changed. Building on critiques of neoliberalism at the national level, social movements, NGOs and intellectuals have severely damaged the claims that are made for the WTO. Some NGOs, such as Oxfam, and the international trade union body the ICFTU, still aim to reform the WTO. But more and more critics are now seeing the WTO as irredeemable. Social movements that span the national, regional, sectoral and international stage are engaged in an increasingly coordinated resistance that is driven by local experience of alienation and exploitation. They are demanding economic and political decolonisation. Their targets are the international regimes that promote and enforce policies that are designed to empower international capital and the governments that try to implement them. And they are having an effect.

This intensifies pressures that paralyse the WTO internally. Under neoliberalism, the state is expected to maintain conditions favourable to capital. But most of the governments that make decisions within the WTO are democracies of one kind or another. Democratic governments are dominated by the interests of competing national elites, but they must also maintain buy


in or at least acquiescence from ordinary people who need jobs, schools, hospitals, safe water, clean air and personal security. Powerful democracies, especially the Quad countries of the US, Canada, EU and Japan, face contradictory imperatives. On one hand they must placate their domestic constituencies. On the other hand they must advance the interests of their associated capital offshore. Governments that are not democratic, such as China, also aim to advance the interests of their national elites. No-one knows how those interests may end up being defined.

These political imperatives are bound to intrude when the WTO claims to operate through a consensus of every member. As the more dominant powers seek to neutralise that tension through coercion, bullying and bribery, or bypassing formal procedures, they further delegitimise the institution and invite a concerted resistance by governments that give priority to their national objectives – as we saw in Seattle and Cancun. When the most powerful of them set up their own game, a variation of the same contradictions will emerge, especially when they are backed by overt repression.

New Zealand therefore needs to conduct a hard headed debate about the consequences of maintaining an ideologically pure globalisation line and to explore some alternatives. But that’s only part of the challenge. The institutions of global economic policy making may be showing signs of crisis. But the dominance of international capital and its protective shield of neoliberalism remain. This is a stark reality for New Zealand. We are deeply exposed to the power of internationalised capital. Very little of our limited manufacturing capacity has survived and few new industries have risen from the ashes. Almost all our transport, communications, energy, media and financial sectors and many of our natural resources are controlled by foreign investors. These investors have a history of siphoning off short term profits with minimal reinvestment, leaving behind a fragile infrastructure and a chronic deficit in the balance of payments. Several decades of trade liberalisation have created equally chronic import dependency, measured in distressingly recurrent trade deficits. Relentless pressure has maintained a low tax regime and fiscal austerity, at the price of a dilapidated social and physical infrastructure. Market failures in privatisations, such as Air New Zealand and TranzRail, or in light handed regulation of telecoms, electricity, buildings and taxis are forcing a reluctant government to step back in.

These neoliberal policies shape New Zealanders’ lives. Some suffer hugely. Relative poverty remains a reality for one quarter of our families, especially in Maori, Pacific and new migrant communities. There is gaping inequality. Neoliberalism has intensified the legacy of colonisation, racially exploitive immigration, gender and class divides. Yet that reality has now become normalised. We express outrage at each new report of deaths blamed on our dilapidated mental health and children’s services, but we no longer rage against the obscenity of massive budget surpluses or that they are seen as an opportunity to cut taxes for the rich even further.

Charges for essentials, such as water, education and health care are normalised too. Mayors talk in blasé terms about toll roads encircling


Auckland, with no need to explain how someone on a benefit or the minimum wage is supposed to get around – or what happens when workers who have to rely on public transport routinely arrive at work one hour late. Five percent unemployment is hailed as a success story; we no longer ask what that ‘employment’ means. Instead, we celebrate Labour Day when very few in either the professional elite or the unskilled workforce can remember a 40 hour week.

Many Pakeha express outrage at Maori claims to the seabed and foreshore; yet few objected as a wealthy, often foreign, elite secured private property rights over the same ‘common heritage’. Maori positions are not consistent either. The debacle over who gets to share the dividends from commercial fisheries has obscured the original goal to reclaim rights over the fisheries as a matter of tikanga and tino rangatiratanga to build a development strategy that allows small fishers in local communities to catch and sell fish. Today, the ‘Maori fishing industry’ operates in joint ventures with foreign companies. Few of its earnings have yet to trickle down. According Te Puni Kokiri, itself a Crown agency, the new pathway to Maori liberation is an autonomous Maori economy that floats free of the colonial state in a competitive global market place.

New Zealand is not unique in facing this. Almost every critical analysis I have read recently notes the durability of neoliberalism and the ability of international capital to ride out the crises and contradictions. Some argue that global capitalism is infinitely sustainable. Former Marxist, now committed Blairite, Lord Meghnad Desai in his book Marx’s Revenge bases this conclusion on the process Shumpeter described as ‘creative destruction’. Globalised markets for production and finance face constant cycles, crashes and recoveries. Jobs are destroyed as economies are restructured and capital recovers its profitability. Workers whose livelihoods depend on their own exploitation and who once derived their strength from their ability to combine, find this is neutralised by globalisation because capital is mobile and labour is not. While governments come under pressure to respond, they can only push capital so far before it migrates. So they discipline their responses in ways that maintain conditions that attract and retain capital in the face of competition from other countries. Desai sees nothing to suggest that these cycles of creative destruction won’t endure.

Alternatively, the state may not be able to contain the tensions that are created as economic and political control is progressively concentrated in the hands of international capital. Bob Jessop, for example, in The Future of the Capitalist State explores four political management strategies. Since the 1980s the strategy of neoliberalism has been the driving force. States have limited their own power, liberated market forces and internationalised their domestic economic space. Jessop says this proved effective as a transition strategy from Keynesian welfarism and state socialism. But neoliberalism has a raw impact. That puts governments under intense political pressure to intervene. Today these impacts tend to be smoothed by grafting strategies of neocorporatism and neostatism onto neoliberalism under the rubric we know as the Third Way.


Neocorporatism tries to relieve the pressure on government legitimacy by balancing competition and cooperation through ‘partnerships’ between various ‘stakeholders’. This takes a broader, but more uneven and selective, form than the old-style of corporatism between government, labour and capital. The partnership with business takes precedence over others with unions, local government or Maori. The state’s role is to implement these ‘negotiated’ outcomes.

Neostatism sees central and local government play a more active role in guiding the development of market forces. For example, government sets strategic targets to increase the dynamic efficiency of the economy by focusing on new technologies and innovation strategies. It provides infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals through public/private partnerships. It launches active skill development programmes such as modern apprenticeships. It sets about restructuring declining industries like the clothing sector and supporting new ones, such as export education.

Jessop suggests this political management strategy can only be sustained by a new social compromise where people identify their fate with the success of global capitalism and accommodate themselves to rising inequality, exploitation of the environment and dominance by a few corporations and capitalist powers. Such buy-in becomes more likely when workers’ pension plans and government owned superannuation funds are invested in the international sharemarket. Or when returns from Maori resources such as fisheries or forests depend on favourable global commodity markets, exchange rates and foreign investors. Or where professionals can pay off their student loans by taking well-paid jobs overseas. Or simply because people depend for their income on wages, and can’t find better paying jobs to supplement a dwindling social wage.

Problems arise when that social accommodation can’t be maintained. For example, a commitment to fiscal austerity, based on low debt, low tax and budget surpluses, may mean the provision of core services like health, education, electricity, transport, post and broadcasting can’t be sustained. Risk increases when the collapse of international markets plunges the economy into a recession. Unemployment rises, but there is a minimal safety net and the government says it can’t redress the rising rate of poverty and inequality. Where the impact on already impoverished and disaffected communities provokes social unrest, the veneer of democracy can easily give way to a divisive and authoritarian backlash. Foreign investors or currency speculators who focus on short-term gains can heighten the risk of economic, social and political instability. When those investors have bought or been contracted in partnerships to run the country’s infrastructure, government faces demands to step back in. When these factors coincide, the harsh realities of people’s lives make them much less accommodating. In such a serious crisis, alternatives that were once deemed unthinkable can emerge.

This scenario seems most likely to occur in countries of the South. Argentina is the exemplar. But we should not assume that it could not happen in New


Zealand – especially with a return to raw neoliberalism under a Brash/ACT coalition. Nor should we assume that New Zealand can remain quarantined from the impacts of such turbulence elsewhere. Even more threatening are the spillovers from countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, that are forced to adopt crude neoliberalism by an occupying imperial power that is intent on plundering their resources and syphoning money into the pockets of its transnationals.

Jessop has a fourth scenario, which he calls neocommunitarianism. This is premised on a social economy, as opposed to a market-driven economy. It re- embeds the economic in the specific place and time where it operates. Social use-values take priority over exchange value. Free market competition is limited, especially the extension of capitalist logic to previously non- commodified areas of life, such as culture, education and water. But that’s as far as Jessop takes it. He excuses himself by arguing – as I have myself – that developing such alternatives must be a collective and democratic exercise conducted on a broad-ranging, multi-national stage, not a unilateral dictate delivered by a political theorist.

This exercise is now happening. The most commonly cited example is the World Social Forum where philosophical debates are being fleshed out with examples of actually working alternatives. These are drawn from and fed back into various countries, sectors and regions. But the Social Forum’s potential to provide an effective counter-force tends to be romanticised and it lacks credibility when pitted against the juggernaut of neoliberal globalisation.

To build a belief that there really are alternatives requires something more substantial and concrete. I want to explore one such development that is beginning to transform the debate on agriculture and fundamentally challenges the ideas on which New Zealand’s current strategy is built.

Inside the Cancun meeting the net food importing countries, the impoverished cotton producers of sub-Sarahan Africa and the G20+, led by Brazil, had to frame their demands as exceptions to a WTO agreement that promotes the interests of northern agribusinesses. The failure of Cancun has made that model more vulnerable and creates more space for social movements to insist on a different approach to food and agriculture.

This alternative was showcased in Cancun at the three-day indigenous and farmers forum convened by Via Campesina, whose affiliates claim to represent 60 million farmers across 46 countries. They shared knowledge and strategies around common issues of land ownership, access to food, biodiversity, water, the impact of commercial forestry, fisheries and tourism, and the exploitation of farm workers. Significantly, their message of unity and internationalism was expressed through a rich diversity of cultures and identities.

The forum culminated in a mobilization at the barriers that were erected at Zero Kilometres to protect the WTO meeting from the masses. It was here that the South Korean farmer Lee Kyong-hae climbed the broken barricade


and sacrificed his life. The placard he was holding – “WTO Kills Farmers” – gave voice to the thousands of desperate farmers throughout the world who commit suicide each year. They were joined in the streets by thousands more students, unions, NGOs and ordinary Mexicans who stood in solidarity over food as a life and death issue. Their short-term goal was the collapse of the Doha negotiations on agriculture. Their longer-term objective is to shift the focus from liberalization of agricultural trade to a food system based people’s right to self determination.

Social movements such as Via Campesina are actively developing alternative agricultural strategies in collaboration with each other across the Americas, Africa and Asia. Their alliances bring together indigenous and peasants, workers and trade unions, intellectuals and sympathetic national and local politicians in an increasingly effective counter-hegemonic movement. Sometimes they are met by repression. Sometimes their governments feel impelled to shift ground. This affects not just the government’s makeup and priorities, but also its alignment with other governments in regional and multilateral negotiations and the more basic relationship of the state to international capital. Such social movements are now reshaping what happens on the national and international stage.

A complementary position has emerged from the International Union of Food, Agricultural and Allied Workers (IUF) whose affiliates represent 12 million workers in 120 countries. This is especially significant because unions affiliated to the ICFTU have historically been weak on globalisation.

For the IUF, agriculture is a life and death issue too. They object that “the right to safe, adequate and nutritious food, and the collective rights and interests of 450 million agricultural workers are affected by the Cancun agenda, but are not on the agenda.” Although the world food system generates over US$500 billion in agricultural exports annually, eight million people die each year of hunger and hunger-related diseases. Another 840 million people go short of food, farmers and agriculture workers among them. The conversion of land to grow non-traditional export crops leaves poorer countries even more dependent on imported food. This fuels the dominance of conglomerates like Cargill, ConAgra and Tyson over the world’s food supply, while agro-chemical giants like Monsanto, Bayer and Dupont require contract farmers to use high yield seeds based on GMOs. Companies like Monsanto and Nestle, meanwhile, are moving to control that other essential of the life and food cycle – water.

The IUF insists that the problem is not with subsidies per se, but how they fuel control of the world’s food system by these few corporations. Most US and EU subsidies go to northern agribusinesses. This allows them to export food at below the real cost of production. Local food producers can’t compete with them. Small farmers in both rich and poor countries suffer the same syndrome. What’s needed, says the IUF, are agricultural subsidies that support socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture, provide public services to rural communities, and promote job creation and an end to rural


poverty. New patterns of trade based on these priorities are needed on a regional basis and should be supported internationally.

This is not a readjustment that can be achieved within the WTO paradigm where the object of ‘global agriculture’ is to increase the value of agricultural goods exported overseas. The capacity to produce local food to meet local needs and pursue sustainable social objectives in agriculture, including decent work, has no place in the WTO’s corporate-dominated vision.

New Zealand’s obsession with the interests of agriculture exporters means we have almost no understanding of this bigger picture. Yet the debate is as relevant to us as it is to the Third World. Transnational agribusinesses increasingly control the production of food in New Zealand, from the intellectual property over seeds and embryos through to processing, marketing, transport and retail. If shares in Fonterra become tradeable and it ends up like ENZA in the hands of asset strippers such as Guinness Peat Group or a joint venture controlled by Nestlé, farmers will become captives of global corporate strategies and price takers in short-term competitive supply contracts. They will have to plant GE seeds whether or not they – or we – like it. The trend towards corporate farming with tenant farmers is already transforming our rural communities and farm labour practices. That will intensify. In the 1980s we saw deeply indebted farmers committing suicide; we could see that again. Maori especially would struggle to maintain control of land and production practices.

The real question for New Zealand is not how to get more lamb carcases into the US or butter into Europe. It’s what forces will shape our future as workers in farms, meat works, supermarkets and ports; as consumers wanting GE-free food; as rural communities concerned to sustain access to essential services; and as Maori, claiming recognition as the ultimate guardians of the land, fish, forest, plants and knowledge that sustains our existence.

Most fundamentally, and almost inconceivably, for New Zealanders this is about a choice between continued recolonisation by international capital under the mantle of the WTO and bilateral agreements, or decolonisation by reasserting a right to determine our own development and alternative approaches to trade. Realistically, we can only create the space to open that debate by joining forces with each other within the country and building alliances with social movements and sympathetic governments internationally.

For those who expected a talk entitled ‘Recolonisation or Decolonisation’ to centre on constitutional reform, te Tiriti and the flag, or to respond directly to Chris Trotter’s lecture last year, let me offer this final observation. What I’ve talked about are the underlying dynamics that are shaping our future. I’m not predicting the imminent collapse of global capitalism. But we are increasingly seeing social movements engaged in what, in traditional Gramscian terms, we would call a counter-hegemonic war of position. And they are having an international impact. For the reasons I have outlined, these movements are likely to be centred primarily in the South, alongside those, such as indigenous peoples, who constitute the South in the North. But there are


important opportunities for us to forge alliances. For that to happen we must be able to transcend single-issue politics and to transcend eurocentric and patriarchal stereotypes of class. Any changes we achieve will only be truly transformational if political, economic and cultural decolonisation are seen as inseparable.

The New Zealand we have known for the past century is set to change dramatically in the next decade or two. If we want a say in that future, we need to abandon the current road to nowhere, we need to take off our blinkers, we need to engage with the realities that are already reshaping the future and we need to build alliances with others who believe that together we can create a better world.


Chris Trotter 2002: What’s Left?

What’s Left?

THANK YOU ANDREW for that stimulating introduction, and thank you ladies and gentlemen (if I may use such a disreputably bourgeois mode of address at a gathering such as this) for coming along this evening to hear the third Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture.

As Andrew Sharp has told you, my first encounter with Bruce Jesson was at a seminar organised by the Robert Stout Research Centre in Wellington. The paper which he delivered that day reflected all the qualities that I later came to admire most about Bruce Jesson, both as a writer and as a friend. It was clearly argued in the plain, unvarnished, but immensely strong vocabulary of everyday English – that wonderfully democratic style which George Orwell recommended to the Left – but which so few of us have ever mastered. It was also unsparing in its analysis – owing nothing to partisan loyalties or employer prejudices. And, most importantly, it delivered its conclusions fearlessly and without flinching.

Bruce Jesson was that rare intellectual who insisted upon gathering and analysing the evidence before forming an opinion – and who had the courage to back his own judgement. In doing so Bruce demonstrated the truly radical character of rational thought. I remember him telling me once that this was the quality he most admired in the writings of Karl Marx – not the revolutionary fervour, but the analytical rigour.

I regret to say that, on that first occasion, my reaction to Bruce Jesson’s paper was all-too-typical of the New Zealand Left – I was outraged that his hard-headed empirically-derived conclusions entirely failed to match my idealistic expectations. But that was Bruce. More than any other individual on the New Zealand Left he epitomised Antonio Gramsci’s grim dictum: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

Like Gramsci, Bruce understood that in order to act effectively one must first see clearly. He also understood that the perceptions of the Left – especially the New Zealand Left -are notoriously unreliable. Because we believe so passionately that justice should be done, we all-too-easily – and all-too-often – fall into the trap of assuming that justice will be done.

I will always be indebted to Bruce Jesson for showing me that the socialist’s true vocation lies in teaching first himself – and then others – how to get justice done.

DELIVERING SOCIAL JUSTICE used to be the Left’s stock-in-trade. Whether it be the eight-hour-day, votes for women, state housing, social security or full- employment, there was something reassuringly tangible and practical about the Left’s agenda. And it wasn’t hard to sell. To the exploited and exhausted wage

worker the idea of an eight-hour day pretty much sold itself. To that half the population excluded from the franchise, the right to participate in the political life of the nation could only be denied at the cost of simultaneously denying their own humanity. To the rack-rented slum dweller, the sturdy state house seemed the living embodiment of social justice – socialism in weather-board and tile, as solid and as permanent as Bakelite and brick.

This was a Left that could command majorities – in unions, in parties, in councils and – yes – even in parliaments. They called themselves socialists and social democrats because they envisioned a society in which the people would exercise political power not just in the narrow sense of electing representatives to sit on this council or in that parliament, but in the much broader sense of determining collectively and directly how they should work – and what they should make – and for whom?

While the liberals contented themselves with miniature portraits of the sovereign individual, the socialists claimed the whole of society for their canvas. Arguing, as Hilary Clinton would later declare, that it takes a village to raise a child. And that the struggle to make a whole human being – which some call freedom – is always and everywhere a collective struggle. Because no one can ever be truly whole – or truly free – on their own. Because Liberty unextended is Liberty denied. Because human beings are social beings – and if there is no such thing as society, then there can be no such thing as humanity.

Such was the rhetoric of international socialism in its heyday; in those halcyon years before the outbreak of the First World War, when the Second Socialist International preached brotherhood, peace and progress in the great “commonwealth of toil” that was to be.

It was a time of intellectual ferment, of constant and illuminating debate, of confidence that socialism and science were marching in step towards the same future. It was a time when superstition was called superstition. When the cruel practices and benighted traditions of humanity’s infancy were exposed and excoriated. When the prospect of emancipation, of liberation, presented itself – like a bright vista glimpsed briefly from a high hill – to the whole human family.

Freedom was the prize. Not just the freedom from class and colonial and sexual oppression – the freedom of the bent body to rise and stand up straight. But freedom for minds – twisted by lies. Freedom for souls – stunted by fear.

In the world-wide congress that international socialism would make possible, all peoples would come together – and no one would be left behind.

THEN WAR CAME and the grand vision failed.

Perhaps the only man in Europe who could have rallied the working classes of the combatants to resistance – the indomitable Jean Jaurés – was shot to death as he sat sipping cognac in a Parisian café. As the news of his death spread through the neighbourhoods of the Parisian poor, his socialist followers shrugged – as only the French can shrug: Jaurés mort. Il est guerre. Jaurés is dead. So it is war.

Nationalism trumped socialism in those sunny August days – as the rulers of Europe so fervently hoped that it would. For the next four years the hope and courage of what was the world’s first – and possibly also its last – socialist generation was turned against itself in a frenzied orgy of killing.

The consequences are with us still. For rising out of the carnage, looking down upon the squalid wreckage of Europe with a basilisk glare, came Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Bolshevism was socialism in arms. Socialism stripped of its warmth, and its joy, and its boundless, reckless optimism. The Bolshevik leader, the brilliant Vladimir Lenin, had sent his Russian socialists to boot camp – where he taught them discipline and obedience. Lenin had not surrendered to nationalism in 1914. Lenin was Jaurés without the shrug, without the laughter, without the pity.

Lenin and his comrades took that miraculous spring of February 1917 – when the Cossacks finally learned that they had more in common with the seekers of bread than the wielders of whips; when the workers in the factories realised that their judgements were as good – if not better – than their masters; when Russian women claimed not only the right to vote, but the right to child-care, and birth control and abortion – they took it, and they destroyed it. With the forces of reaction knocking at their gates, Lenin and his comrades took the great rollicking puppy that was the people’s revolution, and in the snows of November snapped the collar of a new political orthodoxy around its too trusting neck.

Marxism-Leninism – elitist in principle, authoritarian in practice, and preaching a political economy borrowed wholesale from the German Jewish industrialist, Walter Rathenau, whose state-administered version of capitalism had underpinned Imperial Germany’s war effort, rapidly became the unchallengeable template of revolutionary socialism in the 20th century. Except that it was now dubbed “communism” – so as to distinguish it from the despised reformism of social democracy.

So now there were two Lefts. Revolutionaries and Reformists. Communists and Socialists.

ENTERING INTO THE WORLD of left-wing politics as a lad of fifteen, I soon learned to distinguish between the two. The communists were cool and condescending. In appearance they tended towards the thin and angular.
Many wore leather jackets and steel-rimmed spectacles. Some had been invited to the USSR – more had toured the Peoples Republic of China. They talked about revolutionary justice and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The effect was altogether dramatic and very attractive. To my youthful eyes, they looked and behaved like the ideological shock-troops of a vast international army, driven forward by the impetus of world historical forces and the mysterious promptings of dialectical materialism.

The socialists were altogether different. They tended to be fatter and rounder. They didn’t wear leather jackets. They shouted you jugs of beer and told hilarious stories about National Party MPs. You shouted them jugs of beer and they told hilarious stories about Labour Party MPs. They were members of trade unions. They belonged to the working class. They knew absolutely nothing about dialectical materialism – but they knew a huge amount about the cities they lived in. They could tell you which streets voted Labour and which streets favoured the Nats. They could fill in a canvassing sheet, and knew how to organise an election-day system. They didn’t want a revolution. They wanted Labour to win.


Of course the communists insisted that social-democracy and revolutionary change were mutually exclusive. The capitalist state had to be smashed, they said, before a socialist state could come into being.

Well I can’t say that I ever much cared for the idea of smashing the state. The historian in me kept objecting that states are not abstract things – they are composed of very real human beings. Which meant that the communist injunction to smash the state was really nothing more than an invitation to smash all the people who disagreed with you.

Left-wing social-democrats have been wrestling with the historical legacy of Marxism-Leninism long before Martin Amis made it fashionable. The idea of becoming one of History’s earthly apostles – freed from all the normal social and political restraints – has always exerted a powerful fascination. To wipe humanity’s slate clean and begin again; to abolish the past; has always been the greatest of temptations. Thus did Mephistopheles whisper to Faustus. Thus did republican virtue seduce Robespierre. Thus did the dialectic corrupt Lenin and Stalin – and Trotsky too.

For what all the fine phrases came down to in the end were a windowless basement cell and a pair of bloodstained bootcaps. Or, to a hastily dug trench in a silent forest at dawn. Or, to a nameless grave in the featureless tundra beyond the perimeter wire of the gulag.

As that stubborn old social democrat Karl Kautsky warned Lenin at the very beginning of the Soviet Experiment: Ends do not justify means – means become ends.

And so, at least for me, it could only ever be Labour. Better by far to accept responsibility for the tawdry misdemeanours of social democracy, than to spend the rest of my life excusing the huge historical crimes of Marxism-Leninism. Not that I was satisfied with Labour as it was – an, old, tired party going through the motions of electoral politics and living off past glories.

I used to shock my party comrades by telling them that I had joined Labour in the same spirit as Alec Guinness joined the Tsar’s armies in Doctor Zhivago. Those of you who have seen the movie will recall the scene. The crowds cheering the soldiers as they march through the streets of St Petersburg – volunteers falling in behind as the young women throw flowers. Alec Guinness – who played the role of Zhivago’s brother – the Bolshevik agitator – joins the marching column with a cynical smile. Shrewdly aware of what lies in wait for these eager idealists, he lets the congratulatory flowers fall from his hand.

I would also remind them of the words of their new, young president, Jim Anderton, who advised his party’s youthful activists to “always build your footpaths where the people walk”.

BUT THERE WAS ANOTHER REASON for taking refuge in the Labour Party – and that was because by the early 1980s the extra-parliamentary Left had become an increasingly difficult and destructive environment in which to operate.

The extraordinary upheavals that accompanied the 1981 Springbok Tour – far from binding the extra-parliamentary Left into a stronger and more coherent whole – produced precisely the opposite effect. Communists and socialists alike found themselves assailed by those late arrivals on the left-wing block – the New Social Movements.

Lesbian Separatist Feminism and Maori Nationalism – the key driving forces of what came to be known as “identity politics” – were driving huge wedges into the Left. Splitting up the small communist parties, sundering decades-old alliances between the intellectual Left and the trade union movement, leaving in their wake the tragic wreckage of personal and political relationships.

This was the time when working-class playwright Mervyn Thompson, was abducted in the dead of night by a gang of separatist vigilantes, physically assaulted, branded a rapist and left tied to a tree. Did the intellectual left rise to his defence? They did not. Did the trade unions defend their own? They did not.

I remember being told of the bitter debate in the Wellington Trades Council over whether the unions should stand behind a boycott of Thompson’s plays by members of Actors Equity. Of how the Chairman of the Council, a working-class scouse from Liverpool by the name of Pat Kelly, watched, with tears in his eyes, tears in his eyes, as the Workers Communist League and their hangers-on threw their weight behind the politically correct actors – instead of the correct political principle.

I remember how an emotionally shattered Mervyn Thompson left Auckland for Christchurch and the relative safety of the South Island.

I remember how the separatists cheered.

Even in Dunedin, dear old social-democratic Dunedin – where for years the Left had worked and played together without worrying too much about which political party one belonged to – felt the sting of this virulent new strain of sectarianism. I well recall the night a hard-core band of Maori Nationalists hi-jacked an anti- nuclear march – to the utter consternation and confusion of the two thousand or so Dunedinites who had come out to protest the presence of the USS Schofield at Port Chalmers. I also remember hearing of the ugly scenes at the de-briefing one week later, when a veteran of the US civil rights struggle of the 1960s – a person who had risked the attentions of billy clubs and fire-hoses and the Ku Klux Klan – was forced to endure chants of racist, racist, racist, for daring to challenge the right of a minority to impose its agenda on the majority.

It was a scoundrel time. When the repellent tactics of a bigoted, elitist, ideologically driven minority drove all but the hardiest souls from radical left-wing politics. We must be grateful that Bruce and Joce Jesson were sufficiently thick- skinned to provide a record of those awful years in the pages of The Republican. Future historians will read those issues with wonder. And those who today lament the fact that so many young women feel obliged to preface their remarks with the words “I’m not a feminist” should perhaps recall the image of Mervyn Thompson tied to his tree. Just as those who wonder how the police could outnumber protesters at the APEC meeting in Auckland in 1998, when tens of thousands of protesters helped to shut down the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999, should give some thought to how difficult it is to build any mass movement in this country when confronted with the separatist political agenda of tino rangatiratanga.

It is easy to forget that it was the Left – not the Right – who pioneered the tactics of “crash on through” in the 1980s. So, should we really be surprised at how easily the Rogernomics Revolution swept through the professional middle classes? When we recall how accustomed they had already become to being told that this was no longer acceptable, and that was no longer possible, by groups of self-appointed political commissars – is it really any wonder that they succumbed so quickly to the new managerialism? And is it really so strange that

the neo-liberal assault on New Zealand was launched from the parliamentary wing of the Labour movement?

In a very real and alarming sense, the Rogernomes were a mutant species of right- wing Leninists. Their revolution was made possible – like the Bolshevik’s – by a coup d’état, from the top down, without a popular mandate, and over the strenuous objections of the very people in whose name they were purporting to act. Certainly, I was not surprised when so many of the new identity politicians – far from criticising the havoc Rogernomics was causing amongst working class New Zealanders – actually climbed aboard the New Right’s gravy train. After all, identity has never been a problem for capitalism – which cares much less about the race and gender of the exploiters than it does about whether the exploitation for which they are responsible is being successfully carried out. Indeed, the practical application of “identity politics” seemed to make Capitalism’s job easier rather than harder.

As Cybele Locke – almost reluctantly – concludes in her essay entitled Organising the Unemployed: The Politics of Gender, Culture and Class in the 1980s and 1990s – just published in Pat Maloney and Kerry Taylor’s On the Left, the adoption of the New Social Movement’s “non-hierarchical” organising structures fatally weakened the New Zealand Left at a critical time. As Locke ruefully admits: “Maori unemployed formed their own political structure within Te Roopu Rawakore, allowing Maori to organise separately but alongside Pakeha unemployed. This permitted Maori to discuss unemployment issues within the wider Maori agenda of ‘tino rangatiratanga’. However, when more attention was given to Maori and Pakeha caucus time than to setting the agenda of the whole movement, the leadership became paralysed and ineffective.”

Or, as Naomi Klein – writing from a slightly different perspective in No Logo – points out: “The backlash that identity politics inspired did a pretty good job of masking for us the fact that many of our demands for better representation were quickly accommodated by marketers, media makers and pop culture producers alike – though perhaps not for the reasons we had hoped … we found out that our sworn enemies in the mainstream … didn’t fear and loathe us but actually thought we were sort of interesting … our insistence on extreme sexual and racial identities made for great brand content and niche marketing strategies. If diversity is what we wanted, the brands seemed to be saying, then diversity is exactly what we would get.”

And so, as the identity politicians rode off into the sunset with the post- modernists (whose nihilistic ethical relativism was so ideally suited to their needs) the bruised and battered remnants of social democracy fought each other to a stand-still in the Labour Party.

IN A CURIOUS WAY, the ethical arguments enlisted by both the moderate and radical factions of Labour had much to recommend them. Both sides loathed the neo-liberal cuckoos which had taken up residence in Labour’s nest, and both were absolutely determined to be rid of them. But the moderate faction was convinced that the Rogernomes could only be defeated slowly, in three-year campaigns, by means of the party’s candidate selection processes. To that end, they argued, it was vital that the radicals and moderates, together, retain control of the party – even if that meant tolerating Rogernomics in the short term.

The radicals, of course, argued that the Rogernomes must be confronted and routed sooner rather than later – lest the damage their policies were inflicting on working people should permanently undermine the political and economic strength of the labour movement. When the radical Left’s attempt to re-install Jim Anderton as Labour President was thwarted by the Moderates in 1988, a split in Labour became inevitable. I am firmly of the view that the radicals’ decision to form the NewLabour Party was the right one. Defending social-democratic principles behind closed doors could never hope to keep working people engaged in the political process. And, as Karl Kautsky pointed out, a willingness to constantly compromise one’s principles leads inevitably to the modification – and, ultimately, to the corruption – of those principles.

The image I use to illustrate this process is drawn from another political movie; an adaptation of Howard Spring’s famous novel Fame is the Spur – based on the life of the infamous Labour politician, Ramsay MacDonald. At his election rallies the movie hero is fond of brandishing a dragoon’s sabre from the infamous Peterloo Massacre. At the climax of his speech, he draws the weapon from its scabbard as proof that Labour will always be there to defend the rights of working people. But, as the years pass and the compromises multiply, the hero forgets all about his famous electoral prop. Eventually, of course, the moment of crisis comes and he remembers the Peterloo sabre. Proudly he raises the political relic above his head for all the crowd to see, but as he goes to unsheathe the bright sword of socialist defence, he finds that he cannot do it. So many years have passed since it was drawn forth that the blade has rusted to the scabbard.

It was thanks to NewLabour, and later to the Alliance, that the sword of social- democracy did not sleep in the Left’s hand. And not just the sword of social- democracy. For a word or two must here be spared for the Greens. Political scientists puzzle over the Green phenomenon – uncertain of where to place it on the ideological spectrum. To them I say this: cast an eye at the paintings and woodcuts of Walter Crane, or read the curious novels of William Morris. For it is in Morris’s artisan socialism; and in slogans like Crane’s “The plough is a better backbone than the factory.” that we find the historical forebears of the Greens. By their love of the land, and of nature unspoiled, the Greens place themselves squarely in the revolutionary Romantic tradition. Think of Blake’s Jerusalem, of all those “dark satanic mills” corrupting England’s “green and pleasant land” and you have the very essence of Green politics.

In this they identify themselves as the brothers and sisters of early 19th Century socialism – of that youthful and robust socialist movement that flourished before an endless succession of dour trade union secretaries and snobbish Fabians squeezed the life out of it. Squeezed it – but never quite killed it. For did not the tens of thousands of working people who gathered outside Transport House in 1945, to celebrate Labour’s landslide victory, sing Blake’s Jerusalem until they were hoarse? And is it not still the task of all who call themselves socialists to build that shining city? For, has not the wheel of history come full circle? Are we not standing, upon the threshold of the 21st century, where the socialists stood one hundred years ago? Freed at last from the long nightmare of Lenin and Stalin and Trotsky and Mao; released from the sticky webs of identity politics and its stultifying political correctness; is it not time to re-dedicate ourselves to the priorities of a truly majoritarian socialism.


But first – like Bruce Jesson – we must face the facts. And the facts are these. The New Zealand working class and its greatest political achievement – the Welfare State – were smashed to pieces in the 1980s and early 1990s. That much, most progressive New Zealanders can agree on.

But, what is much harder to swallow is that the prime architects and beneficiaries of those extraordinarily destructive years – the local representatives of international finance capital, and the transnational corporations which now dominate the New Zealand economy – could never have done what they did without the active and enthusiastic collaboration of the professional middle class.

I have never subscribed to the theory that the middle class is a force for moderation and rationality. On the contrary, I endorse the thinking of Walden Bello, who, while acknowledging the role of the CIA in the coup that toppled the Chilean socialist, Salvador Allende’s, Popular Unity government, reveals – in the latest issue of the New Left Review – that he puts “equal, if not greater, weight on domestic class forces in explaining the consolidation of the anti-Allende bloc.”
He says that his experience of the Chilean counter-revolution gave him “a healthy scepticism – running clean against much standard American political science on developing countries – about the democratic role of the middle class. I could see that this was a very ambivalent layer.”

My own experience in the Labour Party convinces me that he is right. Between 1983 and 1989 I was a member of Dunedin’s Castle Street Branch of the Labour Party – the university branch founded by Austin Mitchell in the 1960s. Castle Street had a reputation for being a radical branch, but when the left-wing members of Castle Street started organising against Rogernomics all hell broke loose. The liberal academics that had formerly dominated the branch hissed and

spat at our “trade union tactics”, branded us “cloth caps” and refused to be bound by the will of the majority.

The same process was at work throughout the Labour Movement – where whole layers of working class leadership were being quietly – and in a few cases noisily – shunted aside. It had begun in the Parliamentary Labour Party as far back as the 1970s, but by the end of the 1980s virtually the entire Labour Party organisation, and whole swathes of the trade union movement, had fallen victim to the same relentless forces of what was called “professionalisation”.

In reality, however, what we were witnessing was a middle class takeover of the movement. The nadir came in 1991 when the cream of the New Zealand working class rose up in revolt against Bill Birch’s Employment Contracts Act. I am reliably informed that the National Party was prepared – nay, expected – to have to concede as many as a third of the Bill’s clauses in the face of a trade union fightback. But thanks to the PSA, the PPTA, the NZEI, the Nurses Union, and those aristocrats of labour in the Engineers Union, Bill Birch didn’t lose even one.

True to his Socialist Unity Party heritage, Ken Douglas preferred to keep control of the losing side, rather than lose control of the winning side, and, backed by his middle class union allies, refused to authorise a general strike – thereby condemning eight out of every ten workers to a future without union representation. Today, if you are not an employee of the state, or a large manufacturing concern, your chances of being covered by a collective contract are less than five percent.

But, in trashing the working class for the ripe plums of the new managerial revolution, the New Zealand middle class also trashed the key collective mechanisms for the transmission of class advantage – most particularly fully publicly subsidised tertiary education.

Still burdened with Rogernomes, Labour was in no position to offer political leadership to either workers or their middle class managers. It was the Alliance that kept the flame of social democracy alive through the long dark night of the 1990s, and it was the Alliance that eventually proved to Labour that it could not govern New Zealand until it made a genuine attempt to restore some dignity and strength to working class New Zealanders. Without the Alliance, Labour would have had no programme worth speaking of to place before the voters in the 1999 election.

The great tragedy of the past three years has been Labour’s inability to recognise its enormous debt to the Alliance, and the Alliance’s failure to define a constructive role for itself within the constraints of government under the Westminster System. The Alliance Left’s decision to make their stand on Afghanistan was, in my estimation, misguided. In the wake of September 11, New Zealanders by and large supported the United States “War Against

Terrorism”, and were comfortable with the Government’s dispatch of SAS troops to help hunt down al Qaida. But, that said, I cannot forgive Jim Anderton for using their resistance as an excuse to destroy his own party. That was an unconscionable act, the ramifications of which we still cannot fully appreciate. And Helen Clark’s refusal to step in and heal the split was a short-sighted as it was self-interested. History will condemn them both.

The working class of this country will benefit from having Laila Harré in the Nurses Union, and Matt McCarten back in the field, organising a union for low- paid workers, but by God it would have benefited much more from having them in Parliament.


One in three New Zealand children are living in poverty, and one in five New Zealand families face material hardship. With eight out of every ten workers not represented by a trade union, we are still a very long way from even beginning to exercise democracy in the workplace. We have a government that is hell-bent on signing up to free trade agreements that will lower our living standards, damage our environment and limit our sovereignty. The moratorium on genetically engineered organisms has less than twelve months left to run.

Working class New Zealanders – of all colours and cultures – need more and better publicly funded education and health services, more state houses, and more police officers who are less interested in what they smoke than they are in curbing family violence and building safe urban communities. Refurbishing New Zealand’s crumbling infrastructure can only be achieved by utilising the collective resources of the state – not through bogus public-private partnerships. Re- nationalisation of the railways is an urgent priority. And we must stop arguing about immigration and develop instead a viable population strategy. New Zealand desperately needs more children – so let’s stop talking about family values and start talking about valued families.

We also need to talk about constitutional change. We need to learn from the Alliance’s struggle against the Westminster tradition. But, most of all, we need to finish what Bruce Jesson started. New Zealand must become a republic.

I do not believe that the Labour Party – alone – is capable of implementing this agenda. I know that the Greens are ready to assist, but I fear that their constituency is too frail to bear the burden of building a progressive future unaided. That puts the onus upon what remains of the Alliance to do all that it can to re-enter the parliamentary fray. And the onus upon all of us who share their social-democratic vision to get stuck in and help them do it.

BUT UNTIL THAT HAPPENS, my answer to the question: “What’s Left?” must be this. An idea. A memory. A bright vista glimpsed briefly from a high hill. It is liberty extended. It is justice being done. It is seeing someone lying on the road and not passing by on the other side. It is signing a petition, participating a street march, and standing on a picket line. It is joining a progressive political party.

And, in the dangerous months that lie ahead, I believe it means standing up and being counted as one of the millions of people around the world determined to prevent a rebirth of naked Western imperialism. The people of Iraq have already sustained a million casualties through the imposition of UN sanctions. Dear God – have they not suffered enough for the sins of Saddam Hussein?! Ending unnecessary suffering.

Ah, yes. The Left remains what it has always been – what it always will be: the collective cry of humankind for right to be done and wrong to be vanquished. And the strength of the Left waxes and wanes in accordance with each individual’s conviction that such a goal is worthy of their effort.

Bruce Jesson’s pessimistic intellect would almost certainly have told him that the Left in New Zealand is finished. That through a poisonous mixture of elitism, sectarianism, political ineptitude and betrayal, it has handed over the future to the forces of greed and violence. But I am not so gloomy. Indeed I am optimistic. Because New Zealanders are full of surprises.

A Frenchman visiting these shores one hundred years ago described us as socialists without doctrines. Looking back at the havoc that doctrines have wreaked in the course of the past, sad century, I find that observation curiously heartening. Perhaps it is our fate to be socialists of the heart and not of the head.

If so, I – for one – will be well content. ENDS

Brian Easton 2001: Nation building and the textured society

Download this document as a word file or PDF.

This is a revised version of the paper presented on Tuesday 23 October. It remains a draft, and should only be quoted after specific permission.

I did not know Bruce Jesson as well as many of you in the audience, although I may have known him longer, for we went to the same high school. Bruce was in my younger brother’s class, so I only just knew him then. While I have a memory of him gawky in the dreary gray school uniform, it may be this is re-created because we all looked awkward in the uniform, so it is easy to imagine with hindsight. We did not overlap at university, but I recall being stunned by the occasion in 1966 when Bruce and some friends burnt a Union Jack in front of the governor-general, asking why we were upset about damaging a foreign flag, We were already refusing to stand up in the cinema for “God Save the Queen”, but that protest lifted the level of analysis, challenging us to think more deeply about what being a New Zealander really meant. However, it was not really until the 1970s I began to link with Bruce, first by reading his wonderful journal, The Republican, and later visiting him in Auckland.

Our dialogue was a part of a wider one in which a handful of New Zealand intellectuals were, and are, redefining the political economy of New Zealand. Its brash public face was part of the resistance against Rogernomics, but the longterm goal has been to construct an account of New Zealand consistent with our history and our values. The intent is not just to interpret the course of New Zealand but to change it. Tonight, I want to use the honour of being invited to give the second Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture to continue that dialogue, by developing one of his central insights – the ‘thesis of the hollow society’ – and show how developing a textured society is central to nationbuilding.

Bruce’s book Only Their Purpose is Mad, is pregnant with ideas but none was more exciting than this one. I used it in The Whimpering of the State, which I was writing at the time, and it also has a central role in my just published The Nationbuilders, which Bruce told me he was so looking forward to – except it is out too late. Making Bruce the subject of the book’s envoy is little compensation.

Bruce summarises the thesis as:
New Zealand was a state-created society in that the state did not emerge from some already-existing social order, some civil society, but instead created it. The state was responsible for creating the infrastructure of the country – the social infrastructure, as well as the economic infrastructure. And while this was unavoidable, it meant New Zealand was a society without texture. New Zealand might without exaggeration be thought of as a hollow society.2

(To begin with a scholarly disavowal. The notion of a textured society is intimately linked to that of civil society, it is a way of discussing rigorously the social capital, and I have also linked it to the writings of Joe Stiglitz, who has just shared the 2001 Nobel prize in economics.3 Tonight I do not have time to explore these connections, because there are the particularities in their application to New Zealand which much of our colonial discourse ignores. Tonight’s presentation is in a New Zealand context.)

While the notion of ‘the hollow society’ can be oversimplified to parody, subject to thoughtful caveats it provides rich analytic insights. It is not arguing that New Zealand society is empty. Rather the key notion is that because the government of New Zealand preceded New Zealand society, the social institutions did not evolve organically out of its people. Rather, many have been largely imposed top down by the central government, which has given a particular character to New Zealand which Bruce has called textureless or ‘hollow’. We might contrast the New Zealand experience of continuous government well before settler society had developed to any significant degree with that of Germany whose state goes back only to 1871, but whose social institutions began hundreds of years earlier.

Bruce recognised his hollow society thesis was less true today than it was a hundred years ago. Another important exception is that the Maori social institutions are older than the New Zealand government. The theory also recognises that some of the ‘hollow’ has been filled by foreign institutions. Very often government sponsored institutions were created in order to replace foreign ones.

The theory enables us to explain some salient features of New Zealand’s development. What captured me was how it explained why there was so little formal resistance to ‘rogernomics’, despite it being an anathema to a large majority of the population. Because so many institutions were beholden to the government, they could not express the people’s opposition to the government. But the power of the thesis is much greater than just explaining the lack of institutional resistance to Rogernomics. Consider the development of the union movement.

The beginnings of unionism in New Zealand are traditionally associated with Samuel Parnell demanding a 40 hour week in 1840 on the Petone foreshore.4 A Sunday morning meeting outside Barrett’s Wellington pub in the following October resolved ‘that 8 hours shall be the working day, and that anyone offending shall be ducked in the harbour’. There were various industrial disputes throughout the land in the 1840s, including some which involved the Maori. Unions popped up in the 1850s, but it is not until the 1860s that we get the first unions whose descendants remain with us. Not surprisingly, their inspiration usually came from Britain, with names and rules copied from there. Some were branches of British unions.

Initially the unions were small, fragile and fragmented. But they reflected the working communities which they represented. Some of the most significant involved seamen, watersiders, miners and railwaymen, who came together in late October 1889 to form the Maritime Council, which covered a third of all unionists. We commemorate the Council in yesterday’s Labour Day, its date being chosen to commemorate the Council’s founding. It chose that date to link with the October 1840 meeting demanding the eight hour day. The Council had close links to the Maritime Council of Australia, which got involved in a bitter industrial dispute in 1890. The New Zealand struggle lasted 77 days, ending in complete defeat.

Weakened by the depression of the 1880s, and broken by the strike, unions took a lower profile for the next few years. But if working men and women had lost on the industrial field in 1890, the election of the Liberal government with a commitment to workers gave an alternative way forward. (The secretary of the Maritime Council, John Andrew Millar, now an MP, chaired the parliamentary committee which introduced the Labour Day holiday in 1899.) In 1894 the Liberals passed the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act whose objectives included the encouragement of unionism. For the next hundred years the union movement was torn between those who saw the Act as a means by which unionism could be promoted, and those which saw it as an industrial leg iron. Instructively, the unions which most wanted to break away from the statutory framework were those that had arisen organically from specific social conditions which reflected the workers’ lives – the seamen, watersiders, miners, who had earlier formed the Maritime Council.

The tension was sharpened after 1936 when compulsory provisions for union membership were enacted. Once an award was established, everyone in jobs covered by the award had to join the union. The resulting union structure was haphazard. A single union could have a minor role in a dozen industries: a dozen unions could organise the same site. Demarcation disputes were common, and they don’t contribute to solidarity.

Since the new members were easily recruited, there was no great need to respond to their specific needs. Often it was impracticable. In 1983 the clerical workers’ unions had 50,000 odd members on 20,000 work sites. Nor need the new workers be enthusiastic unionists. Between 1981 and 1990 turnout at annual general meetings of the Northern Clerical Workers Union was always under 5 percent of membership, and only 20 percent took part in the 1989 postal vote to elect the executive.

Compulsory and quiescent membership was not unattractive to some union officials. All they had to do was to be re-elected by the few associates who turned up at meetings, and take in the compulsorily levied union fees, collected by the employers.5 The union ‘becomes a bureaucratic, fee collecting machine, dependent on compulsory unionism and the arbitration system and devoid of membership support.’ Of course not all union were such creations of the government. Some were deeply embedded in their social fabric. But the existence of these statute-created unions markedly changed the nature of the union movement.

Unions were not unaware of the effects of the changes. In The Nationbuilders I explore Bruce’s notion of ‘the historic compromise’. In the 1930s and 1940s Big Jim Roberts of the watersiders, Angus McLagan of the miners, and Fintan Patrick Walsh of the seamen all threw their lot in with the Labour Government, believing they could get a better deal for workers by using the powers of the state. This requires the state to be considerate of workers’ aspirations. Walsh learned in the 1950s that the historic compromise was much more compromising when the government was less sympathetic. The militant unions were not just shackled by the provisions of the law, but their room to manouevre suffered because solidarity required they recognize the concerns of the statute created unions, which could only survive with government legislation.

This tension came to a head in the 1980s. With a Labour Government, the union movement was able to some extent to look after itself in regard to the Labour Relations Act, although the public sector unions were steamrolled by the State Sector Act. But they found themselves unable to challenge other changes, no matter how unacceptable they were to the public which the unions represented, and the wider republic. After 1990, with an even less sympathetic government, the unions could do little about opposing the Employment Contracts Act. Despite the claim that the legislation was neutral towards unions, the ECA was anti-union, making it very difficult for unions to function properly. The International Labour Organisation concluded that the ECA infringed international standards.

The effect of the ECA was to dramatically change the union structure, halving the number of members and destroying a number of unions. The eliminated unions were those which were most the creation of statute, while those unions which had a organic relationship with their members survived, albeit in a diminished form. In an important way the ECA has had a positive impact on the union movement, for unions which survived are based on a close relationship with their members.

The union movement did not demand a reversion to its old ways when the Employment Relations Act was being implemented. They recognised that statute-created unions hinder their development, so there are no compulsory coverage provisions. When a right wing government comes along to replace the existing legislation, the union movement will not collapse as it did 1991 but have an independent base in the community. That does not mean that governments now have no role in industrial relations. Because the modern union cannot practically cover many workers in need of social protection, the state will have to enact statutes to protect those workers for whom there is not a suitable union.

So while the union movement is not turning its back on the government, and is still willing to operate as a partnership, it no longer trusts that government will act eternally in the interests of workers. By looking for a power base outside the government, in the voluntary support of and enthusiasm from its members, it is looking to the day when the government is again hostile to the interests of workers. By doing so the unions are contributing to the filling the hollow society – enhancing the social fabric.

The story I have told about the unions can be told about many other social institutions, whose dependence upon the government limited their ability to challenge government policy. When in 1989 two of the universities took the government to court, the other five universities did not join in. Given that Auckland and Canterbury won their case, the reasons for not joining cannot be that the legal case was weak. It seems that some of the other universities felt themselves so dependent upon the government that they were unwilling to challenge it, even when they were in the legal right.

The same story applies to local government, where again it has been rare for there to be serious resistance to the central government’s impositions. The area health boards never had a chance, their elected representatives eliminated in a single sitting of parliament. So many of the social and political institutions were dependent on the government, they could not convey the people’s dismay at the pursuit of policies which the public firmly rejected.

New Zealand had evolved a government predicated on the assumption that it would act in the people’s interests. For most of the time it has been manned by an elite, who maintained some sort of empathy with the average New Zealander, perhaps recalling the hardships they had gone through before they became powerful. But it was, in Lord Hailsham’s phrase, an ‘elected dictatorship’. It worked as long as the dictators were benevolent. Less benign dictators were able to impose their will virtually unchecked. When terrorists took over government institutions designed for protecting the community, they could turn the guns on the people.

In the last decade the governmental arrangements have been changed to prevent such takeovers. That is the purpose of MMP, which hobbles the ruling powers by requiring two or more parties in government, thereby shackling potential terrorists. Additionally, as we saw with unions, some of the social institutions are now less dependent upon the state for their existence. There are more local authorities willing to stand up to arrogance from the centre. Even the universities have been less feeble recently. And to give the government due recognition, its current proposals for the reform of local government, the re-establishment of local involvement in district health boards, and the new structure for TVNZ, add to the independence of these institutions and the social texture.

The vision of the ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ reforms was that empowering the local community in the running of their schools, would protect them from predations from the centre.6 The shift was all the more intriguing because it took place during the greatest intensity of Rogernomics, and was diametrically opposed to it – one of the earliest counter-terrorism strategies. Perhaps the reforms were not as successful as the minister intended – therein lies an interesting tale of the reluctance of the centre to devolve power – but it was an attempt to base a social institutions more on people and their communities.

One of the problems any democratic government faces is the arrogance of power. The holders tend to forget from whence they came, and how even in an FPP electoral system the populace can transfer the power to others by the tick on a voting paper. More humble politicians would recognise that one day their party will no longer hold power, and try to thicken the texture of society so that they will have some support in opposition. With a few exceptions, such as Tomorrow’s Schools and history research, the Fourth Labour Government did exactly the opposite, hatchetting those who might have supported them after it lost office. Not surprisingly, it found few friends in opposition, probably spending an extra three years out of government as a result. My impression is that the current government has not yet learned from its predecessor’s mistake

Curiously, Rob Muldoon had alerted the Rogernomes to the dangers of the hollow society, and they embarked on a strategy to reduce the businesses’ dependence on the state. Theirs was an ahistorical vision, ignoring how the state had accumulated its powers in part to offset the power of business, and in part because business could not deliver what the nation desired. Many of the businesses they privatised had become state owned assets because of business failure, or to counterbalance the powers of foreign business, or a means of restraining local monopolies.

The Rogernomes approach assumed the only valid means of filling in the hollow society was through private corporations. Recall the attack on Maori social institutions in Treasury’s 1987 post-election briefing. Observe how Rogernomics deliberately undermined the nascent alternative institutions, especially those that might have been critical not only of the government but also big business. (No wonder the Labour Party had so much trouble being in opposition in the 1990s.)

Although the public may think it a dreadful failure, there is a sense in which the Rogernomic program to restrain the power of government was a success. Unfortunately the transfer of power was to foreigners operating through their branch businesses. That is fine if you are one of those businesses or one of their well remunerated acolytes, but it is less beneficial to the ordinary New Zealander. In today’s political environment the Rogernomes are able to run a sustained campaign against the government, albeit without success in reaching ordinary New Zealanders. One assumes they aim to return to power and turn their guns on the public again. No wonder they loathe MMP.

Ironically then, the broad effect of the Rogernomic revolution was to further hollow out society. Certainly the business community is less dependent on the state than it was two decades ago, but it is less a part of New Zealand society. You can see this in that membership of the BRT which has changed from being predominantly New Zealand producers to foreign financiers in a couple of decades.

This transferring of power to foreigners rather than New Zealanders worried Bruce, as it does many New Zealanders. Of course, New Zealand has been a colony or neo-colony for much of its history, but in the period from the early 1930s to the 1980s we sought as much control over our destiny as was possible for a small open economy on the margins of the world. Those ambitions have suffered a serious setback in the last two decades, and they are under further pressure from the current round of globalisation, which is one of those great forces of history, just as were the forces of globalisation and industrialisation in the nineteenth century. Karl Marx’s great insight was that despite the destruction to workers and their social and physical environment that those forces caused, they were ultimately progressive, and the descendants of the workers benefited from the resulting higher standard of living and the opportunities it generated. The issue was not to reverse the forces but to redirect them, to the benefit of mankind. That is the challenge which this round of globalisation also presents to us.7

One of the consequences of the current bout of globalisation will be a diminution of the role of the nation-state. The increasing requirement to tackle public issues in an international framework means that some of the powers of state will be passed to supranational agencies. That need not always be a bad thing. The union movement will not hesitate to obtain ILO support when there is another legislative attempt to impose ECA type industrial relations.

In fact, the nation-state is a recent arrival on the global scene. It seems to come out of the nineteenth century process of globalisation-industrialism. But recall that Germany, among others, was a nation-society long before it was a nation-state. While some may regret the diminution of the authority of Germany as the European Union evolves and as other supranational authorities become more powerful, there will remain German-society and German-culture, for centuries to come. We know organic communities and cultures can survive for a hundred and more years in a hostile environment: witness the Jews, witness the Maori.

The difficulty which New Zealand faces is that because the state preceded society, we are currently dependent upon it for too many of the institutions of our society. As globalisation reduces the power of the nation-state, government created and sponsored social institutions must suffer. But that is not a consequence of globalisation, it is a consequence of the hollow society. As New Zealand becomes a more textured society, we have less to fear from this aspect of globalisation.

The conclusion then, is that New Zealand needs to move on from the hollow society for two main reasons. The first is to limit the ability of terrorists to command the state against the interest of New Zealanders; the second to ensure we have a fully functioning society despite the significance of the nation-state being reduced by globalisation. How can we achieve these goals?

Bruce saw nationbuilding as a key element, although when he wrote about it in his very last essay, ‘How to Build a Nation’ he was gloomy about New Zealand’s prospects.8 I do not think this reflected his health, for his natural cheerful self lasted to the end. Rather, the pessimism had accumulated over the previous twenty years as he watched terrorists tear the nationbuilding state apart. I understand his gloom but would like to be more optimistic. My book, The Nationbuilders, shows how a couple of generations – our parents and grandparents – built the nation over the middle half of the last century. We can learn from them, and pray for their courage, competence and commitment.

Even so, this century’s nationbuilding will be different from the last. New technologies and new products change possibilities. The next round of nationbuilding will not be simply a matter of defining a mature relationship with Britain and the United States. It will have to struggle with the complexities of today’s globalisation. And we will have to respond to new personal, social, and political demands. The postwar world unleashed the importance of human rights. Affluence has meant we can be afford to be more concerned with the environment.

A major challenge is how the Maori fit into the New Zealand nation. I did not find much evidence of Maori as a part of New Zealand twentieth century nationbuilding, partly because they were building a Maori nation (or nations). It is unclear what a Maori nation might be, especially as globalisation is changing the very meaning of ‘nation’. More broadly, there is a whole challenge of building ethnic diversity and tolerance into the New Zealand nation. As big a challenge is building a society which recognises the different situation of women. There were important women in the twentieth century New Zealand but again they were not closely associated with nationbuilding. It was a ‘white boys’ engineering thing’, and others often felt excluded.

The articulation of a vision of this millennium’s New Zealand in which men and women – white, brown and yellow – share their nationhood has yet to be made. I suspect that this is partly because the traditional war and rugby symbols of New Zealand do not grip women as much as they do some men. Yet women can feel as passionately about New Zealand. They may have different symbols, but it is still the New Zealand of the nationbuilders cared about and struggled for.

Allen Curnow wrote in 1945 ‘Strictly speaking New Zealand doesn’t exist yet, though some possible New Zealand glimmer in some poems and on some canvases. It remains to be created – should I say invented – by writers, musicians, architects, publishers; even a politician might help.’9 Actually every generation has to re-invent the nation, maintaining continuity and yet responding to changing circumstances.

One of the reasons why Bruce was gloomy about the prospects was because of the widespread anti-intellectualism he saw in New Zealand. The closest we have to a manifesto by Bruce is a 1997 essay, ‘The Role of the Intellectual is to Defend the Role of the Intellectual.’ He wrote:
I am an incorrigible romantic. I believe in the importance of the intellect as something that is essential to society, not for what it can provide in a tangible way but as something that is valuable for its own sake. I maintain the role of an intellectual is to be a critic of society as well as being a servant of it – and in fact there is no difference between being a servant of society and a critic of it. An intellectual serves society best by maintaining a position of critical independence. Society gains through the sorts of debate and discussion that question its values and beliefs and that challenge the sources of power and authority. Society is richer for containing intellectuals of independent spirit and integrity who value ideas for their own sake.10

The essay, which is a foreword to a book on the universities, goes on to discuss how so many people in intellectual occupations fail to function as intellectuals, and indeed how they are even anti-intellectual. That especially includes the Rogernomes, who followed Lenin’s dictum that after the revolution first shoot the intellectuals.

If nationhood is about a common set of symbols – that is the best short definition I came across when I was writing The Nationbuilders – then as Curnow argued, it is the function of intellectuals to create or sustain them. However the Establishment will only tolerate a limited degree of dissent, insufficient for an intellectual to function properly. Thus the hollow society is inimical to proper intellectual activity, and the hollowing out that occurred in the last twenty years has made it even more difficult. For example the quality of the indigenous economic debate is vastly inferior to what it was two decades ago. Those in the private sector speak from the viewpoint of their employers who are usually branches of foreign firms. The academy makes hardly any contribution, perhaps because of the high proportion of foreign appointees, while government documents rarely refer to New Zealand research, but slavishly report American studies which are often irrelevant. We can be obsequious to second and third rate foreign visitors, even when their contribution is irrelevant to local issues. How can we have a nation when its intellectual workers strangle real intellectual endeavour, while adopting a colonial demeanour?

(A couple of weeks ago a second-year student wrote in an essay that the concept of a hollow society would be valuable to government officials thinking through the inclusive society. Looking at the official reports, one is struck the absence of references to local contributions and their dependence on foreign works. There can be no future in New Zealand if our intellectual workers imitate second rate foreigners, and dont systematically adapt the material for the particularities of New Zealand. What happens between second year studentship and graduation?)

There is no simple prescription for nationbuilding, but I am sure that this time it is not a matter of reinforcing the powers of the state, except insofar as it is necessary to use them to offset pressures from business and foreigners. Rather by replacing the hollow society with authentic indigenous social institutions, we enable the nation-society to develop even as the nation-state retreats. So my first recommendation is that we should pressure central government to devolve power to potentially viable community institutions. But the experience of Tomorrow’s Schools tells us there will be much resistance from the centre.

Second, we need to refrain from always expecting the government to do things for us. This is not the New Right philosophy which says the government is a block on progress, a view inconsistent with the historical facts. But they were right when the saw the tendency to turn to the government as a first resort, rather that using it after all other means of pursuing our goals have proved unsatisfactory, as a weakness in New Zealand political life. It detexturises society.
The third element of the strategy is that each of us has to play the greatest possible role in the social institutions. The possibilities are large, but include being an active member of your union, your school council, and various local organisations and pressure groups, depending on your particular circumstances. It means attending meetings, volunteering assistance, paying subscriptions, voting, supporting it in public and private.

The fourth element comes out of Bruce’s remarks on the need for genuinely independent intellectuals in a healthy society. We need to be less anti-intellectual, to support intellectuals and intellectualism – to respect them not to reject them, and certainly not to repress them. Reflect how those involved in intellectual work and failed to criticise the terrorism have done far better in terms of career opportunities, status and remuneration. As John Maynard Keynes remarked ‘Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.’

Out of this comes my fifth and strategy penultimate step. We need to regain the belief in ourselves as New Zealanders, able to tackles our own problems without being obsequiously imitative of second and third rate foreigners. Of course we need to be in constant dialogue with the world, as Bruce was, but we can do that as independent equals not as cringing colonials. The worst anti-intellectualism is to ignore our own intellectual resources.

My sixth, and for tonight, final element is the need to control the social surplus, that part of output over which a society has discretion to spend on its own purposes, rather than routine maintenance of living, which enables a people to maintain some control over its future. Some of the surplus will go into capital formation, some into education, some into health, some on culture, some on the fripperies of life (and why not), and so on. Until social institutions have discretion over resources they cannot function effectively and autonomously.

Historically New Zealand resolved the problem by the state commanding a share of the social surplus through taxation. Thus the social institutions became dependent upon the state, because the state held the purse strings. Hence the hollow society. When the state gave up some of its control over the surplus, it gave it to the rich and the corporations, so it is they who now make the discretionary decisions. They are not all bad ones, but the outcomes are not all ideal. For instance there is much commendable in the substantial flows into the world of the arts from rich patrons, although I would like to see more emphasis of authentically indigenous efforts, and less on imitative international ones. Similarly universities are benefiting from financial flows from corporations making them less dependent on state funding, although I wish more of it was for the liberal arts and sciences, and other intellectual activities, and less was for business schools.

But part of the social surplus comes from the activities of ordinary New Zealanders. When you do some voluntary work for your organisation or pay your subscription or give a donation you are enabling it to function with greater discretion. When you purchase a book or subscribe to an independent journal, you are promoting intellectual effort – often genuine intellectual effort.

So, the prescription of filling out the hollow society in order to avoid the dangers of political terrorism, and the dangers of globalisation undermining the nation-society as well as the nation-state are:
– decentralisation of institutions, giving them an independence to function on their own;
– relying less on central government;
– taking an active role in social institutions by individuals;
– rejecting anti-intellectualism;
– having more confidence in ourselves, and being less colonially imitative; and
– enabling the organic institutions to command a greater share of the social surplus.

Thankyou for the opportunity to develop the idea of the hollow society and the need to develop a more textured one. Thankyou too for the opportunity to pay tribute to Bruce in doing so. He would be delighted with such an occasion, not only because – I hope – he would see it as developing some of his ideas, but because the Bruce Jesson Foundation is an organic institution in its own right, promoting the ideals he valued so highly. The memorial lecture is a venue which offers a New Zealand intellectual the opportunity to constructively criticise economic, political and social life, without having big brother the state or big brother business limiting what can be said. While Aucklanders should name the second harbour bridge after Bruce for his contribution to infrastructural funding through his stewardship of the ARST, I suspect he would take greater pleasure in this annual lecture.

And if I have conveyed anything of the need to build self sustaining independent organic institutions for the survival of New Zealand, the following thought will occur to you as you leave the lecture hall and pass the buckets inviting a koha. Bruce’s memorial lecture depends on a share of the social surplus too. So any donation you make is not simply a way of saying thank you to the organisers of this event, as I do, but it is also an investment in the promotion of a selfsustaining socially organic institution. I know you will give generously – for Bruce, for New Zealand.

David Lange 2000

Rt Hon David Lange – November 2000

Bruce believed that people had lost the power of decision which should belong to them in a democracy. In his memory, I’d like to carry on the conversation we had about this.

I should say something about my relationship with Bruce. I first met him in court. I was working, and he was charged with breaking windows in a development in Freeman’s Bay in a protest against the Auckland City Council’s building houses for the rich. We were political opponents for a good few years and didn’t get to know each other until I was winding down my time in parliament. He wrote what I still believe was a lot of nonsense about me when I was in office.

We had differing interests in politics. I’ve always been interested in politics as performance. I like the drama of it. When I was in it, I loved the contest, and I didn’t go into it to be nice to my opponents. Bruce was far more dispassionate. He could reject an argument without dismissing its advocate. He was probably less interested in personality than in ideas and how they worked in practice.

He thought deeply about politics and the nature and uses of political power. I won’t try to match him. What I’m going to do is take as my starting point the last chapter of his last published work. The chapter carries the heading There Is Always An Alternative. In broad terms, it suggests how New Zealand might be rebuilt after its transformation of the last fifteen years.

What strikes me about Bruce’s proposals is that many of them have been adopted, or at least acknowledged, by the present government. Some of them, of course, have been misinterpreted, or rejected. This evening I’m going to look at Bruce’s alternative through my own understanding of the political process, and try to answer the question he put at the very end of his last work, when he said “In the end it comes down to something as basic as that: political power, who wields it and what is done with it”.

In his last work, Bruce described a country in which commercial values have come to dominate. What Bruce called the benign and humane role of the government vanished when government began to make a virtue of doing as little as possible at as low a price as possible. Government is now characterised by its officious or oppressive elements. This, in Bruce’s analysis, is especially unfortunate in a country like ours, where many of our economic and social institutions were the creation of the state. He called it a hollow society, and argued that when the government adopted a commercial culture it left us without much of a society at all. We don’t, he said, have much of a sense of self, and we’re too inclined to think that because we’re small we must be powerless.

These are not the words I’d use to describe what happened, perhaps because I don’t in the least regret that we don’t live in New Zealand the way it was before


1984. But I don’t dispute the judgement that something has gone badly wrong, and that the failure can’t be separated from the government and what it does.

I entirely agree with Bruce in his refusal to accept that our country is destined to be tossed around on the tide of globalisation. If there is a country called New Zealand, and that country has a responsible government, then we engage with the world on the terms we choose for ourselves. We choose, and we live with the consequences of our choices, for better or worse. What I want to talk about tonight is whether we really have the means to make that kind of choice.

I’ll briefly run through the strategy which Bruce suggested might be adopted by a reforming government, and compare it with what the present government is actually doing.

He argued that there should be curbs on speculation, or the creation of an environment which discourages it, so that investment is channelled towards the productive sector. There are signs, like the new takeovers code, that the government wants an orderly market. Saving should be encouraged, because there are limits to our reliance on foreign capital. I see the plan to pre-fund superannuation as much in this light as in light of a solution to a contemporary political problem. There should be an industry policy. The government is developing one. There should be a return to collective wage bargaining. The law now allows its return.

Bruce also suggested that the government actively manage and develop its assets, and that it should have a planning function. In fact, I think it’s almost impossible for the public sector, in its present form, to do this successfully. Bruce was well aware of its limitations, and argued for its remodelling. I’m not sure that we would have agreed on the form the remodelling should take, but one way or another, remodelling is critical. It is one of the government’s most significant challenges, because the core public service has become an imperfect instrument of policy.

Before I come back to this point, I’ll complete my summary of Bruce’s blueprint for a reforming government.

He argued that a reforming government would have to create a constituency for change. It couldn’t implement an economic programme without creating a constituency to support it. He wanted to encourage institutions which could build a sense of community, because he understood that a stable and cohesive society was the basis of a strong economy. I haven’t heard the government describe the employment relations act as a constituency-building measure, but that will likely be one of its effects. The government’s regional development policy specifically sets out to build consultative and co-operative institutions in areas where they don’t exist or have been eroded. Ministers have frequently spoken


about capacity-building, in the provision of community health services, and across the board n the voluntary sector.

Now I come to issues which are more problematic.

Members of the executive branch of government are more than our representatives. They’re more than managers. They are, or should be, our leaders.

Bruce clearly identified some of the important elements of leadership, although he didn’t call it that. He was adamant that a reforming government would need a definite point of view, based on its own social, democratic and national goals.

I don’t believe that the government has yet clearly established its goals.

It tells us frequently that it has rejected the past, but I saw, by way of example, a speech made recently by the minister of finance in which he listed the pillars of economic policy of the last decade, and told his audience most emphatically that they hadn’t altered. In this most important area, the government appears to be looking two ways at once. I don’t intend here to be critical of what the minister is actually doing. I’d be dismayed if he suddenly dismantled the whole framework of economic management without having first laid the groundwork for whatever is going to replace it. My point is only that the rhetoric leaves us uncertain if that is actually what is intended.

The prime minister used to say that hers is a social democratic government. With respect, this is a phrase that has no meaning outside a school of political studies, and strikes no chord among the public.

For whatever reason, the government tends not to put its actions in any kind of significant context. There are for instance any number of reasons why the government should have replaced the employment contracts act with something more humane and potentially far more productive. But the impression left with me as an observer was that the government was doing it because it had said it was going to. It sounded just as defensive when it passed the accident compensation legislation.

Here is another example. In my view, one of the government’s most important actions was the full restoration of school zoning, a decision which carries implications for education which go far beyond Epsom property values and the grammar zone. I’ll go into this further when I talk about the public sector, but the decision must mean that the government has rejected the market model of schooling and is attempting to restore the ideal of equality of opportunity in education. But if that is its goal, it hasn’t got it across to the general public, so that it seems to have left the field to a few disgruntled parents who can’t get their children into the school of their choice.


It’s hard in all of this to identify what Bruce called a point of view, or I would call an idea. This is a way of thinking which can be applied to any particular proposal, and is a yardstick by which the government and others may judge its actions.

The most powerful ideas are very simple, however difficult their implementation might be in practice, and all-encompassing. Equality of opportunity is one. Full employment is one. The knowledge economy doesn’t really seem to be one, because it has nothing to say to a large part of the population. The Greens have an idea which appears to guide almost everything they do. If a proposal can’t meet the standards of sustainable development, they won’t support it. In the eighties and nineties, the idea which came to dominate was the ideal of the market.

What Bruce suggested as a counter to the values of the market was
an exercise in nation-building. It’s obvious from its rhetoric that, consciously or not, the government agrees with him, although some of its members seem to have missed the point of it. In the last few days I’ve heard two very dissimilar ministers inform the public that the government is engaged in nation-building. This must be disconcerting for anyone who imagined that we already lived in one. Bruce can’t possibly have intended the words to be flung around in the abstract, and in fact what he proposed was an exercise which had the establishment of a republic as its focal point. In other words, there has to be an object to the exercise, and one which is capable of commanding broad-based support.

My guess is that the leading figures in the government understand this perfectly well. But what has happened in practice to the government’s attempt to seize the high ground has brought it close to crisis.

When the government took office it announced that it intended to close the gaps between rich and poor. That is an honourable goal for parties on the left of politics and an entirely appropriate stance for a government which wishes to revisit the policies of the recent past. It is quite capable of being what Bruce called an organising concept, the yardstick by which the government measures its actions. But whether the government meant it to happen or not, the goal has been redefined in the public mind. If the government today talks about closing the gaps, it is understood as closing the gaps between Maori and the rest. Rather than unifying, it appears divisive, and the idea has done little more to date than erode the government’s popular support.

I’m not sure what Bruce would have made of this debacle. In the last chapter of his book he identified the obstacles a reforming government would face, but falling over its own rhetoric wasn’t among them. The question I’d like to deal with is whether what happened is really accidental, or whether the government has in


fact been obliged to follow a course which is both less than it intended and ultimately futile.

Let me look in the first place at the government’s capacity to turn policy into practice.

It’s become commonplace to observe that the more competent among the government’s ministers are overburdened with work. This is an odd reflection on the nature of the restructured public service, since one of the aims of its reform was to relieve ministers from administrative detail and allow them to concentrate on wider issues.

I know from experience that many ministers were overburdened with detail in the 1980s, and I know that there was much that was inefficient, ineffective or downright frustrating in the old public service. A large part of its restructuring was based on principles which had gained currency world-wide by the beginning of the eighties, and which can be summed up very simply by saying that you get the most from your resources if you allow managers enough freedom to manage so that they can be held accountable for their performance.

If that was all we’d done, I doubt there would be much to say that was critical about the performance of the public service. But we didn’t stop at that. The state sector act 1988 and the public finance act 1989 go far beyond the mainstream in their approach to public sector management. They are at the very extreme of practice. This almost certainly seemed like a virtue at the time. Several years of looking at the results has persuaded me that nobody else does it the way we do because nobody else would take the risk. It is not orthodoxy as much as oddity.

The guiding assumption of our modern public service is that people act in their own self-interest. In light of this premise, managers can be made accountable only by means of contract. This is why the public service today is structured on commercial principles, even where there is no obvious commercial focus of its activities, and why ministers must purchase services from their departments, and why departments flood ministers with the reporting necessary to demonstrate their compliance with financial requirements. Ministers must submit to a ritual of purchasing services from departments they ostensibly own, while in practice they can’t act like the owner of an asset because the short-term demands of purchasing always defeat the long-term interests of ownership. Ministers can’t in practice develop the resources of their departments, and departments which might wish to plan for the future find themselves obliged to give priority to the current year’s outputs.

The greatest absurdity of all is that the theory of contracting makes sense only if there is competition between providers of services. Ministers and their departments don’t actually work like this, but they’re condemned to an endless and wearying charade of behaving as if they do.


Reducing accountability to a matter of contract has given us a wonderfully efficient, but hopelessly limited, sometimes insolent, and ineffective public service.

Leaving it as it is will mean that some of the policies the government wishes to promote can’t possibly work. I include among them its industry policy, its regional development policy, and many of its social policies, including its remodelling of the health sector. I can probably best explain what I mean by using as an example the recent history of the ministry of education.

Here I go back very briefly to the devolutionary system of school administration which has always been known as Tomorrow’s Schools. I’m resigned to dying without ever convincing the left of politics that the whole thing wasn’t a Treasury plot, but I can only say, as I’ve often said before, that, whatever might have become of it, it was originally a democratic scheme of management.

It was a devolutionary scheme because equality of opportunity doesn’t always mean acting as if everybody was the same, and because you can’t run everything from Wellington. The model was designed to allow schools to be different.

It rejected the market model of schooling, and it did so by insisting that children go to the local school. Its driving force was democratic participation in schooling. If the local school was not the best school it could be, parents and others were entitled to make their voice heard, up to and including the point where new arrangements could be made locally for the schooling of some or all of the students. As well as boards of trustees, there was a parents advisory council, long since abandoned, to assist parents in making a case, and community education forums, also a non-starter, to thrash out the issues and communicate local views to the government.

It’s hard to believe all these years on that the scheme was greeted with great enthusiasm, but it was. The government got 20,000 responses to its proposals inside six weeks, and almost all of them were welcoming.

The democratic elements of the scheme were soon subverted.

This was partly a matter of choice by a successor government, which did away with school zoning in an attempt to create a market in education in which schools would stand or fall on the basis of parental preference. But it was also the result of the inability of the public service to respond appropriately to a devolved model of administration, and it’s this which gives most cause for concern about the capacity of the present government to implement its policy.


The model depended on constructive engagement between government and the school community. This kind of engagement is what the government today calls partnership. It demands at the very least close contact between government agencies and the school community. It requires the government to know local needs and local capacity and have some idea of local intentions, so that it can plan accordingly. In turn the local community should understand the government’s intentions as a funder, a provider or a regulator of services, and perhaps have some influence on those intentions, or be influenced by them.

Critically, the partnership model demands a response from government. In the original scheme of Tomorrow’s Schools, the education review office was designed to monitor not only the performance of schools but also the government’s performance in allocating resources and in maintaining a supportive national infrastructure. Not surprisingly, this function soon fell by the wayside. The model came to be characterised, not by the government’s active engagement with the school community, but with its frequent passivity in the face of school failure.

As far as I know the ministry of education has been through three major restructurings since 1989, and several smaller ones. It became as a matter of choice a hostile environment for staff who identified with the education sector. Collaboration with practising educators was actively discouraged. The ministry closed its small regional offices, so that schools lost contact with officers who could reasonably be expected to know them and their special circumstances. The ministry soon lost touch. It came up with crackpot schemes like allowing schools to set their own holidays, it neglected issues like truancy which have national implications, and you couldn’t get it to intervene in a failing school unless you threatened it with publicity. When ministers in the last government felt the political pressure of issues like disastrous school failure in Northland, South Auckland and the East Coast, they suddenly demanded intervention, placing a hopeless load on the few staff in the ministry who knew what to do. The ministry’s interventions were too often reluctant, clumsy and uninformed.

This experience is the basis of my concern about the government’s efforts to achieve what it calls a rebalancing of its economic policy through initiatives like its industry policy and its regional development policy. Both demand that the government’s agencies engage actively with the community. If they don’t, the government’s planning, if it does any, is uninformed, and its interventions take on the nature of a gamble. But the public service as it is now is not geared for constructive engagement with the community. It doesn’t have the people, it doesn’t have the resources and because of its contractual limitations, it doesn’t have the will.

The same issue arises in the planned reconstruction of the health sector. Again, what is proposed is a devolved model. The contractual bases of relationships in the health sector will be retained, which begs some questions, and a


representative element injected into the mix through partly-elected local boards. The government obviously doesn’t intend to be a mere spectator while the new boards get on with it, so the question must then arise of whether the agencies of central government are ready to take up their role in the partnership. An effective health sector demands that some agency of central government be ready to monitor performance and improve it, to prevent failure or remedy it, to plan for the future and work constructively with a range of partners in a diverse and inherently difficult sector. As far as we can tell at the moment, the ministry and the health funding authority between them can’t manage a simple national screening programme.

We’re condemned to some years yet of trial and error in the health sector. As happened in education, the democratic elements of the scheme will almost certainly be subverted by its contractual elements.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that any of this will come as news to the government. The minister of state services says that the public service puts too much emphasis on financial competence, that it’s too fragmented, that it doesn’t have a broad view of the national interest, that it’s lost sight of the values and standards of public service and that it doesn’t have the capacity to engage with the communities it serves.

The minister is not planning to amend the state sector act or the public finance act. He does not anticipate major structural change in this term of office, other than in the health sector, arguing that it is too disruptive and damaging to morale. He prefers to encourage changes in what he calls approach, style and culture. Just as the government leaves the pillars of economic policy unaltered while it rebalances the economy inside the existing framework, it leaves the structure of the public service unaltered while it changes the attitudes of the people who work in it.

The danger for the government is that it gives us nothing to hope for.

It repudiates the economic and social policy of the recent past, and deplores the inequality they have created. It doesn’t say how far its repudiation will go. Until it does, its interventions may seem like tinkering and inevitably foster the suspicion that it doesn’t intend to go very far at all.

I doubt if Bruce would have been surprised at this. He wrote in his last work that Labour politicians in particular seemed intimidated by the situation they faced, and he doubted that there were any contemporary politicians bold enough to remove what he called financial coercion from the public service.

It would be wrong to see that as any reflection on individual politicians. The government can be bold. It has been almost recklessly bold in its dogged pursuit of a wrong idea.


Here I come back to the government’s aim of closing the gaps between rich and poor, and the way in which it was overtaken in public understanding by the subsidiary goal of closing the gaps between Maori and the rest. I don’t describe the second goal as lesser than the first out of any wish to minimise the effect of growing inequality on Maori people. What I mean is that from the point of view of a democratic government, the first goal can encompass the second, but the second can’t encompass the first. If the government’s goal is to reduce inequality, it follows that it will do whatever it can to improve the position of Maori.

How goals like this are achieved is the whole business of politics. It is not particularly easy politics, because the racial element always makes politics difficult, however you handle it. In this country there is the history of dispossession and displacement. There is the growing number of people who identify as Maori. There is the growing number of those who wish to wield political power as, and on behalf, of Maori, and increasingly have the means to do so. These are challenges to the political process, but they are not insurmountable.

Democratic government can accommodate Maori political aspiration in many ways. It can allocate resources in ways which reflect the particular interests of Maori people. It can delegate authority, and allow the exercise of degrees of Maori autonomy. What it cannot do is acknowledge the existence of a separate sovereignty. As soon as it does that, it isn’t a democracy. We can have a democratic form of government or we can have indigenous sovereignty. They can’t coexist and we can’t have them both.

This brings me to the preoccupation of successive governments with the Treaty of Waitangi.

It is with no disrespect for Maori feeling for the treaty that I have to say it means nothing to me. It can mean nothing to me because it has nothing to say to me. When I was in office I understood that the government had succeeded to certain legal and moral obligations of the government which signed the treaty, and that in so far as those obligations had not been met it was our responsibility to honour them. But that is the extent of it.

The treaty cannot be any kind of founding document, as it is sometimes said to be. It does not resolve the question of sovereignty, if only because one version of it claims one form of sovereignty and the other version claims the opposite. The court of appeal once, absurdly, described it as a partnership between races, but it obviously is not. The signatories are, on one side, a distinctive group of people, and on the other, a government which established itself in New Zealand and whose successors represent all of us, whether we are descendants of the signatories or not. The treaty cannot even resolve the argument among Maori themselves in which one side maintains that that you’re a Maori if you identify as


such, and the other claims that it’s your links to traditional forms of association which define you as Maori.

As our increasingly dismal national day continues to show, the treaty is no basis for nationhood. It doesn’t express the fundamental rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and it doesn’t have any unifying concept. The importance it has for Maori people is a constant reminder that governments in a democracy should meet their legal and moral obligations, but for the country taken as a whole, that is, and must be, the limit of its significance.

Here I come to the dangers posed by the increasing entrenchment of the treaty in statute. The treaty itself contains no principles which can usefully guide government or courts. It is a bald agreement, anchored in its time and place, and the public interest in it is the same as the public interest in enforcing any properly-made agreement. To go further than that is to acknowledge the existence of undemocratic forms of rights, entitlements, or sovereignty.

The treaty is a wonderful stick for activists to beat the rest of us with, but it could never have assumed the importance it has without the complicity of others. It came to prominence in liberal thought in the seventies, when many who were concerned about the abuse of the democratic process by the government of the day began to see the treaty as a potential source of alternative authority. It’s been the basis of a self-perpetuating industry in academic and legal circles. Many on the left of politics who sympathise with Maori aspiration have identified with the cause of the treaty, either not knowing or not caring that its implications are profoundly undemocratic.

I don’t think it any coincidence that the cause gained momentum in the eighties and nineties, when the government retreated from active engagement in economy and society and in doing so weakened the identification between government and governed which is essential to the functioning of a democracy. It isn’t in the least surprising that undemocratic ideas flourish when democracy itself seems to be failing.

I think that in practice the present government will find it difficult to draw back from its public commitment to the treaty, and that this will almost certainly rob it of its chance to build a more cohesive society and a more productive economy. It has, in the public mind if nowhere else, adopted a goal whose pursuit is inevitably divisive, and it is spending its political capital on it almost by the hour. The result, if the worst comes to the worst, will be a fractured society in which political power will be contested in ways beyond the limits of our democratic experience.

This is the sum of it. In practical terms the government has done very little to change what it says it rejects about the last fifteen years, and very little to equip itself with the tools it needs to build an alternative. What it has done may be the


groundwork for greater change in the future, or it may be tinkering. It’s impossible to be sure. The government is diffident in its language and has not yet succeeded in associating itself with any unifying idea. On the contrary, it has become too clearly associated with an undemocratic and divisive goal which is likely to deny it more than one term in office. The conclusion which then must be drawn is that the last election has changed very little, and that democratic values are still at risk here.