Monday, September 22, 2014

Where's the plan?

I can't say I have any sour grapes about the election result. It didn't matter to me which major party won. It was always going to be a triumph of the status quo and the continuation of the idea vacuum. 

New Zealand needs some kind of visionary leadership. Dairy and commodities are fine but they aren't sustainable and are entirely 'luck of the draw'.

We need a Callahan Solution.

After two terms and and right at the start of the third with enough support not to worry about pleasing any secondary political agenda there is a never to be repeated opportunity to take a step back and make some investment in a longer term vision.

It might seem odd but, instead of dancing on the grave of the Labour party in their defeat there should be some kind of cross party initiative to look, statesman-like, ahead and formulate some ideas (not cycleway pap and charter schools) for the future. National have nothing to lose except their hubris and Key has an opportunity to leave an enduring legacy instead of the memory of him as an infantile smear merchant. Great leaders from Alexander the Great (whom we know was great because it was his name) and Lincoln (because his memorial is life sized) knew that subjugating and humiliating the defeated only comes back to bite you on the arse later.

Do it now. For the good of all kiwis (if that's what you truly believe in - and you weren't just saying it to gull the gullible…with promises of a block of mild colby in 2017).

Update - since I wrote this Fran O'Sullivan columnist for the NZ Herald has published an op - ed piece advocating a similar stance - though not so cross party in her thinking as me. The risk is that another worthy, well meaning gab-fest occurs at the tax-payer's expense but with little tangible benefit in return. It is worth reading though. Where's the plan?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Mild Colby Report - Post election thoughts.

The New Zealand election is over. The right wing National government retained its hold on power - increasing the number of seats in the parliament to reduce their reliance on fringe parties to enact legislation on issues like dismantling environmental protections (Resource Management Act) and reducing the rights of workers.

But, by and large, life in New Zealand will continue - much as it did yesterday and much as it would have had the Labour party won. The trajectory of the New Zealand economy will progress, much as it has since statistics have been recorded, regardless of who has led. Global market forces and commodity prices will determine how much revenue the New Zealand Government collects in the form of tax. How that revenue is distributed is up to the government of the day - but by and large - the infrastructure for health and education will persist. No party wants ignorant unhealthy people.

These things are innately understood by the people of New Zealand. It leads to a banal apathy. The people most highly motivated to participate actively in government and process are those with the most to gain. Wins and losses on the margins are where they are felt the most. If you have 10 million dollars invested and get a 2.0% return that is $200,000 interest. Change the return by a quarter of a percent and that is an additional $25,000. Add the power of compound interest to that and you will understand the great distortion that liquid capital creates. The trick to making money is having some - not working for it.

At the other end of the spectrum a person on a benefit who depends on a small amount of money to subsist  and who has their stipend cut on the whim of a ministerial edict that people should be 'moved off' benefits is going to be catastrophically affected by the change of very few dollars to cover their modest living expenses.

You might say those are extreme examples but a large percentage of households in New Zealand are contributing the majority of their monthly income to servicing a mortgage. The ratio of income to cost of home ownership is amongst the highest in the world in this country. If a family servicing the mortgage on a home they have bought at the peak of an exaggerated housing bubble were to lose one income and be unable to find work for several months the effect would be significant and, in many cases irreversible. If the property market bursts or deflates then thousands of home owners will find themselves in a very awkward financial position - many young families, those starting out on the 'property ladder' (thank you Sarah Beeny, for that terrible expression) will find themselves riding the property snake to negative equity. I know less than economists about these matters (not that economists know much for sure) but the property bubble will burst. Banks will continue to loan money because, at the end of the day, they 'own' the property and can resell it at whatever price they can to a new buyer when they foreclose - at the prevailing rate of interest (the ultimate recycling). The middle are vulnerable to marginal shifts too. Owning a home is akin to gaming at a casino - rather than seeing a home as shelter it has become a gambling chip. And, because the money involved doesn't 'belong' to the home owner they are more willing to take a risk and continually 'double down'.

People in the majority for whom the vague promise of a tax cut in 2017 - maybe $500/1000/1500 a year (who knows?, we'll see) were nonplussed by the debate between the Reds and the Blues. The 'block of cheese' argument became the most compelling metaphor of the entire election. All the thorny discussion about privacy and spying, the vile revelations about Dirty Politics, child poverty or affordable housing made little difference to the majority. They seemed extreme or absract and 'otherworldly'. But a block of cheese - everyone could understand that in its banal, flavourless, rubbery nothingness. "I couldn't understand the ins and outs of the Greenwald argument, I thought Dirty Politics was what just happened anyway…but a block of cheese I can understand. Look, John Key and David Cunliffe both seem like decent blokes, all this bickering - over what, a block of cheese? It's raining. I've got to pick up some things for a 10th birthday party, Briscoes have a sale on donut makers with nothing down, no interest and 36months to pay…It doesn't really matter who gets in…I won't bother. If National win I'll back them, If Labour win I'll back them…"

And so it goes.

The turnout to vote was the lowest in 100 years.
Some newspapers have reported a landslide victory to the National party. It wasn't. That's hyperbole.
National won 48% of the vote. The majority of New Zealanders who voted (52%) didn't vote National. But the troubling statistic is that as many people who voted for National who were enrolled and eligible didn't exercise their right to vote at all. The incentive was obviously too low. There was too little at stake to overcome inertia.

Except on the margins where there is too much to gain or lose. The balance of power was determined by a 750g Valumetric block of tasteless cheese. Too few cared. It proved the assertion that the opposite of love isn't hate. It's indifference.

She'll be right, mate.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Australia's wonderfully terrible media manipulation

In which you will learn:

  • How to crack a nut with a sledgehammer
  • How turn the threat of terror into the promise of terror with terrifying stupidity
  • How to distract people from what really matters by spooking them.

The Australian terror circus that headed the six o'clock report yesterday is fascinating.
Apparently 800 police were mustered. 15 suspects were detained. One was arrested.
The threat was that a cell of disaffected muslims were plotting to capture and behead a stranger, randomly selected from the street.

Putting it into context - Abbott's Australia has thrown its chips into the kitty to return to the middle east. This is a divisive policy. After a long, inconclusive, possibly failed and very expensive previous expedition the decision needs to be sold to the electorate. What better way than to 'demonstrate' the need to be vigilant and persistent in 'the war on terror' than to pour terrifying petrol on the terror fire.

Terror works both ways. Yes it is terrifying that one minute you could be browsing for a souvenir didgeridoo in Woolamalloo then next you're kneeling blinking in the light before a camera in an orange jumpsuit while some unhinged nutbar has a rant while wielding a nasty looking blade. No doubt about it. Terrifying. We've seen the pictures on TV - nobody should have to endure something like that.

The propaganda value for ISIS has been enormous. It is a striking image. The orange of the jumpsuit. The black of the tormentors. It is a study in contrast that has been art directed for TV.

It is only natural that governments will want to turn, jujitsu-like, the power of that image back on their foes. Or perhaps the government can turn the terror on against their own population to reinforce their own goals?

Whether it is the spectacle of beheading (made worse by news organisations teasing with the footage - but telling you it is too distressing to show you - very Blair Witch) - or planting the timely seed of fear that you could be the victim of a beheading in Gods Own Country - both are acts of terror. Both are designed to create an asymmetrical, irrational fear. By creating a circus around the operation to heroically foil the plot the Australian government are not conducting a war on terror but staging a battle with terror.

If you want to silence a population what better way than with a phantom menace? Here in New Zealand there are plenty of people who are either genuinely, irrationally afraid (of anything from change to chinese migrants or rising mortgage rates) and there are others willing to exploit that fear to advance their own ends and suppress debate about inhibiting the government's ability to spy on citizens with indiscriminate, unwarranted surveillance of private communications. It has been called 'manufacturing risk' - making the population fearful - first with a traffic light system of announcement then with a very public crackdown. Create the problem and then ride in on a white charger with the solution (Before Viagra was invented there was no such thing as 'erectile dysfunction').

Don't get me wrong - I don't support any kind of violence (and I include the threat of violence as a form of violence). But the events of the past week in Australia would be comical if they weren't so cynical and sinister.

It begs the question why so much energy is put in place to engage in chasing will-o-the-wisp 'threats' when so little energy is put into preventing harm to forestry workers - 30 deaths between 2007 and 2103. Of course you can pick your own statistic - children abused and killed…rape and violence towards women…

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

UnUnion Jack - Hijacks NZ Flag Discussion

If Scotland chooses to become independent from The United Kingdom tomorrow there is one consequence that you may not have considered. The cross of St Andrew, which represents Scotland on the Union Jack will be no more.

The remaining countries in UK Lite will have to decide what their new standard looks like.
In the mean-time countries like New Zealand that feature the union flag will also have to consider what their banner will be.

Surely now is the moment to seize the opportunity to replace the tired New Zealand Flag with something a little more current?

Perhaps something that relates to our new torn allegiances might be more appropriate?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

John Key v Glenn Greenwald (and reality).

John Key has said he will 'de-classify' documents that show how he heroically and single-handedly protected the rights of New Zealanders from mass, illegal surveillance by the GCSB's proposed 'protection' racket. 

If that sounds absurd it's probably because it is.

On Monday night at the Auckland Town Hall  the Internet Mana Party are hosting an event they have named The Moment of Truth. This refers to Mr Key's denials that the New Zealand government's spy agencies have engaged in large scale collection of data about New Zealanders in an unwarranted way and Key's denial of knowledge of  or involvement in the infamous paramilitary raid on the DotCom mansion.The effect of the information to be revealed at the event, no matter how revelatory, may have little impact on the electorate. This is a chilling truth. The prime minister may have lied blatantly to the people of New Zealand, he may have engaged in hostile action against the population he has been commissioned to serve and the same population might well reward him for the pleasure with another term in office.'Thank you sir, may I have another"

We live in a strange, Through the Looking Glass society. The effect of the shocking exposé - in their own words - of the National Party's dirty politics did little to exercise the general voting public. In fact it may only have galvanised people to accept that the abuse of power is normal - exciting even - as if we were watching an episode of an 'unscripted drama', rather than a serious breach of potocols, conventions and basic decency. 

The mainstream media were ineffectual in covering the unfolding events and happily rehearsed the prime minister's sound bites about 'conspiracies' in an endless loop. Finally they lost interest and returned to the semi-commercial churn of reporting press releases and vision of the prime minister looking at things in a high visibility vest - saying nothing of consequence.
Pulitzer prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald will reveal information from documents provided by Edward Snowden that challenge the prime minister's bold assertions. The prime minister's response to Greenwald has been to define him as Kim Dotcom's 'henchman' - actually his 'little henchman'. His strategy team and communications advisors will have been working on that soundbite for some time. No matter what Greenwald says he has been characterised as 'the little henchman'. Greenwald's response was bemused. He is used to being confronted by heads of state and powerful interests whom he has embarrassed with his careful reporting and access to Snowdon's material. He wasn't prepared for Key's style - which he called an ad hominem attack. One point to Key. The majority of people in New Zealand don't know what that means. 

Key has learned to 'play the man and not the ball'. It is a dirty politics tactic. He painted Nicky Hager as a 'left wing conspiracy theorist' and famously told the BBC's Hardtalk interviewer that, despite his impeccable credentials, Dr Mike Joy was effectively a mad scientist - who inconveniently provided data that not only refuted New Zealand's claim to being 100% Pure but that the opposite is true. Key said he can pay any number of scientists to express an opposite view - the best science money can buy (though luckily New Zealand doesn't invest in science - it invests in tax breaks for hobbits).

Key seems to have a reality distortion field in operation - the ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of rube 'everyman' charm, bravado, hyperbole, marketing and persistence. If you chant something often enough it becomes 'true'. He doesn't bother with facts or information in support of his rhetoric - he simply states that its ok because 'I'm comfortable with that'. 

Key invokes the proven persuasion trick of creating a false impression of consensus. People look to the actions and behaviour of others to determine their own. So when Key repeats and repeats and repeats 'Most New Zealanders agree…' and the news editors leave the soundbite intact Key enjoys the halo effect of national television's perceived authority (people believe what they see on TV - and it is easier than reading - or critical thinking). It doesn't matter whether any reasonable people, in full possession of the facts agree or not, he has said it, it is unchallenged and so, therefore it must be true. And if everyone else thinks it is true - I should too. That's just how you are wired. Like it or not. Key's opponents haven't quite figured this out. As the advertising legend Bill Bernbach said 'The facts are not enough.'

That is the challenge the Internet Mana party have on Monday night…the facts are not enough.
Anticipating the content of the event Key has attempted to discredit Greenwald - painting him as Dr Evil's hairless cat rather than a serious and committed journalist with a proven track record. He has dismissed Edward Snowden as merely a 'hacker', which he clearly isn't - he was a very senior member of the intelligence establishment who has an intimate working knowledge of the systems he describes - because he was trained in their use. The term 'hacker' is being used as a catch-all to define anyone from Nicky Hager, Kim Dotcom and Snowden. But here's an interesting thing…when you listen to the comments Snowden or Dotcom or Hager (though in the case of Hager - it is more correct to say 'read') they present cogent, reasoned, reasonable arguments, evidenced by fact. If you watch Mr Key's performances you witness evasion, dismissiveness lack of clarity and clear purpose. If he was to give evidence in a court he would not be very credible - unlike Dotcom who has not only vindicated in open court but also praised by the judiciary for his quality as a witness.

When the country goes to the polls in less than a week I have little doubt that the battle lines have been clearly drawn in the minds of many kiwis. I don't think we appreciate the gravity of what is happening. I don't think the media have done their work in being a proxy for us - rather than an advertising medium. There is a sense that the election is a game or a match - red supporters vs blue (and any other spectral variation). Loyalty to the the team is more important than what the team does on the field - biting, Hollywood falls, abusing the ref - all ok if it's our players - to make an omlette you have to break a few eggs). The National Party's ad people have understood this dynamic - heck, they created it - the whole Team Key meme illustrates the point. On Monday night loyal Team Key supporters will be like Argentinian Soccer fans laughing off protests about Maradona's illegal hand-ball winning goal that denied England a chance at the finals in the 1986 FIFA World Cup. ""I was waiting for my teammates to embrace me, and no one came... I told them, 'Come hug me, or the referee isn't going to allow it.'" - They will say"Key was just trying to 'save our lives' - what's a little lie between friends?" and 'What is the point of freedom and personal liberty if you are dead?" (The scoundrel's response to unwarranted government surveillance as a defence against 'terrorism'.)

The distortion of the New Zealand electoral process to make it seem like an American presidential campaign is a nonsense. In spite of the fact that John Key's mug shot is all over my electorate I cannot vote for him - his caucus does and it could oust him in the wink of private poll or a nod from Warner Brothers.

To borrow from Mr Key's own limited patois - at the end of the day - there is little you can do. You can post your vote and that is about it. Or you can pay attention to what is happening in your society and become a little more engaged in the process. Not every three years. Every day. The people who back John Key and his cohort expect you to lose interest. They expect you will be distracted by the day to day business of feeding, clothing and sheltering your family. They know your spare time will be happier if you self medicate with rugby, cheap sauvignon blanc and The Block NZ - while they watch your every keystroke. Hey they will permit you to watch a little porn from time to time, they'll allow me to write blogs like this and they'll quietly gather a file that, as John Key has said he does - kept in a drawer until it is needed. Then you and the people you associate with can be implicated, accused, discredited or taken out (given 'double') when you become an irritant. Does that sound a little paranoid? Well, maybe. But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Compare and contrast: Who would you choose to believe?

These are not the droids you're looking for.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Vote Rational not National - it's time for change.

Living in a democracy is a great privilege. It is not the natural state for human beings. It only a very recent innovation and it is fragile.

Here in New Zealand it is easy to take our advantages for granted. Our country may have its ups and downs but, by comparison to many other places - they are trivial. We have a veneer of civility that has yet to be tested - though we have had our 'moments' - the wharfies strike in 1951 and the Springbok tour thirty years later were flashpoints that divided opinion and erupted in cathartic violence.

Our political system is a curious brew. A government can be formed without the consent of a majority of New Zealanders. A minority of seats won in the the election can be bolstered by coalitions, sometimes the balance of power pivoting on the whims of parties that have won no more than 5% of the total vote.

In spite of their advertising rhetoric and hyperbole the two parties that appeal to the majority of kiwis have little difference in their economic manifestos and history shows that a significant percentage of the eligible voters will treat each as interchangeable by voting alternately with each election.

There is an innate understanding that this is how the average New Zealander can ensure a fair society that is as balanced as possible. Most of us accept that fair taxation provides a first world infrastructure that benefits us all. Most businesses are small businesses and their employees are like members of a family, rather than waged servants. The idea of 'us' and 'them' is a rhetorical abstraction that is used to create some kind of brand differentiation. In truth the Labour Party and National Party are more like Pepsi and Coke - both are cola and preference swings between the taste of the two because they are virtually indistinguishable.

If you were to examine the metadata of New Zealand's economic growth from the point where it was first measured you would see very little variation in the gradual upward trend in economic activity regardless of government. Blips like the depression of the 1930s, world wars and the GFC aside, there is little variation in performance. Issues like health and wellbeing are confusing because the technical advances in medicine have changed radically - as have their costs as our expectations of the health system increase. By and large the majority of us experience good health and unfettered access to essential health care. Neither party want an unhealthy population any more than they want an ignorant one. If defies common sense to imagine otherwise. There was poverty under the most recent Labour government, just as there is now. Any argument between the parties is just rhetorical bickering. They are fraternal twins.

There is no difference between the party's ability to deliver growth or to meaningfully redistribute health or education resources - because we do a pretty good job of that - regardless of who has the helm.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't change the government in this election. You should. The previous government became haughty just as the current one expresses a kind of entitled hubris. They become stale after too long in the sun and need to be switched around. It keeps them honest. It gives the electorate a fair sense of representation and choice.

It is time to change the government as a way of expressing your faith in a democratic process. Not because one party is 'better' than the other but because they need to be reminded that they represent us, the New Zealand parliament doesn't rule - it governs. There is a big difference.

To keep our democracy alive and healthy it needs to be regularly pruned. It's time for some dead-heading.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Hungry Hippos

In New Zealand we have a long tradition of a free press and a Bill of Rights that, in the absence of a constitution guarantees us the right to express our views.

This video, which I have published for academic reasons, has been forbidden in New Zealand - but it needs to be viewed as much for its artistic merit as it's political content.

In a week where the government apologised to Tuhoe for shameful historical abuse and failure to observe The Treaty of Waitangi, perhaps it would be useful to contemplate that the cost of doing the right thing contemporaneously is always better than a humiliating back track - for all concerned.