Saturday, November 29, 2008

On the wireless this weekend

This is rather late notice, but I thought I'd mention that Bill Direen will be appearing on National Radio between three and four o'clock today, to perform a suite of songs for the Music 101 show. Hopefully Bill's ditties will go up on the National Radio website, or elsewhere on the net. Skyler and I have been on the road with Bill and The Bilders and we'll post an account of their adventures in the misty Waikato as soon as we sober up.

I won't be singing a single note, I promise, but I'll be appearing on 95 BFM tomorrow morning sometime between eleven and twelve to talk with Matthew Dentith about the shenanigans of the Celtic New Zealand circle and the difference between pseudo-history and the real thing. You can listen online here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Double trouble

After a week or so of rehearsals, interspersed with radio interviews, takeaway meals, and arguments about election results, Bill Direen and The Bilders will take the stage tonight at Auckland's Dogs Bollix for the first performance of a national tour designed to promote their new album Chrysanthemum Storm.

As if that prospect wasn't enticing enough, the Anglo-Westie hip hop phenomenon Scalper will be warming up the stage for Bill and the boys with one his incendiary performances. Anyone who saw Scalper at the PR Bar earlier this year will want to experience his fusion of free noise, industrial rock, freestyle rapping and pulpit-shaking preaching again.

Tonight's revelry will be filmed by Campbell Walker, who is planning to make a docu-drama out of Bill's new tour, so get yourself along to that Irish bar on the corner of Karangahape and Newton Roads and make a mark on celluloid.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Why paranoid racists make bad historians

Here's my contribution to the discussion occasioned by my article on Nazi Pseudo-History for the Scoop Review of Books.

Martin Doutre caims that I only need to talk to any Maori of sufficient age to receive confirmation that Celts were the original residents of Aotearoa. I rather doubt whether any Maori of any age would endorse the writings of Doutre and the Celtic New Zealand circle, given that these texts are studded with racist abuse of the tangata whenua of this country.

The Franklin E Local article which I’ve discussed characterises Maori as a 'savage’ people, who have Europeans to thank for whatever happiness they today enjoy. In his rambling tome Ancient Celtic New Zealand, Martin Doutre calls Maori an ‘inbred’ (pg 284) race whose culture was characterised by ‘uncompromising cruelty’ (ibid.).

Doutre complains about my discussion of his racism and his conspiracy theories, claiming that these matters are irrelevant to a consideration of his historical ‘research’. But the man’s own writings, and the texts of the Celtic New Zealand circle in general, are inextricably connected to a racist and a conspiracy theory view of the world. Talking about the Celtic New Zealand thesis without talking about racist conspiracy theories would be like talking about the All Blacks without mentioning rugby.

Like Doutre’s book, the Celtic New Zealand website continually segues from pseudo-scholarly discussions of history and archaeology into racist rants about conspiracies of indigenous peoples and ‘politically correct’ academics. It is not only Maori that Doutre and his friends attack: the Celtic New Zealand site also finds time to inveigh against the evils of contemporary South Africa, where whites are apparently facing ‘genocide’ at the hands of uppity Africans. (Oh for the salad days of apartheid!) ‘Red Indians’ are another group to incur the rancour of Doutre and his comrades, for having the insolence to claim to be the indigenous peoples of the Americas, when white peope were really there first.

Doutre and his friends maintain, in the face of all the available historical, archaeological, biological and genetic evidence, that Celts settled much of the Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Americas. All of the impressive features of the traditional cultures of these regions - the pyramids of the Maya, the fantastic cities of the Inca, the extraordinary sculptures of Rapa-Nui, the wood and greenstone carvings of Maori - were the work of white people. In Ancient Celtic New Zealand, Doutre calls features of Maori material culture like the hei tiki and the carved meeting house ‘inexplicable’, and argues that they were the work of white people who had travelled all the way from Western Europe. After these people were usurped, the 'savage’ and backward Maori ‘had no need to build, carve, or create anything’, Doutre insists (pg 276, Ancient Celtic New Zealand).

Doutre finds the most absurdly circuitous explanations for the most straightforwardly explicable features of Maori material culture. Gazing at the beautiful carved storehouse in the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s Maori Court, for instance, Doutre is struck by the structure’s very small doorway. According to oral tradition and the findings of ethnographers, the small doorway was designed to prevent the easy theft of the contents of the storehouse. Doutre, though, insists that the small door is proof that the storehouse was created by a Celtic subtribe of leprechauns who voyaged from Ireland to Aotearoa in ancient times (pg 274, Ancient Celtic New Zealand).

Absurdities of this nature can only be explained by reference to the racism which saturates the worldview of Doutre and his friends. If non-white peoples are by their very nature incapable of creating works of wonder and beauty, like the exhibits in the Maori Court of Ackland’s museum, or the sculptures on Rapa-Nui, or the Mayan pyramids in Guatemala, then white people must ipso facto be found responsible.

And if generation after generation of scholars have disregarded the notion that white people were responsible for the wonders of indigenous cultures, then a global conspiracy must be operating to obscure the truth. In Ancient Celtic New Zealand, Doutre uncovers a truly antique conspiracy, beginning with the Romans, involving the Catholic church and the Jews, and culminating today with Maori activists and politically correct academics, to denigrate the achivements of the Celts of olden days.

Some readers may wish to try to follow Doutre’s dizzying leaps of logic and elucidate his paranoid, racist worldview. Others may wish to laugh at him. Still others will find the fact that such irrational views have made the pages of a provinical magazine with a not inconsiderable readership disturbing. Whatever response we make to Doutre’s writings, though, let us squarely face the fact that these texts are the work of a racist with a conspiracy theory view of the world.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Turning off, tuning in

I'm in a hotel in the wind-scoured heart of Kilbirnie, somewhere under the intricate flight paths of gulls and cut-price airliners, trying to avoid the giant TV screens that show the Black Caps batting order crumbling yet again (I reckon John Bracewell is the worst coach in any sporting code since John Mitchell, and he doesn't even have Mitchell's excuse of non-terrestrial origins). The hotel is over-run by blind people and labradors holding some sort of convention (is it for the dogs, or for the blind folk?), and I'm sure I saw a couple of old ladies drop their canes and cover their ears as they passed the blaring screen and heard another Kiwi wicket fall.

I'm going to turn off the cricket and tune in to Bill Direen and The Bilders, who will be busy doing promotional work over the next few days, as the release date for their album Chrysanthemum Storm and the beginning of their national tour both approach. Bill will be appearing on the nationwide Radio Live network tomorrow from two o'clock, to talk to fellow Flying Nun legend Graham Humphries (aka Hill) about the new album. The Bilders will take a break from rehearsals to take over Auckland's Fleet FM on Monday from one until three o'clock (although Fleet has a limited broadcasting range, you can listen to the station online). There are other radio dates I don't know - perhaps band members and fans can leave the details in the comments box?

My piece on Nazi pseudo-history has prompted some interesting responses, as well as some foam-flecked discourse by the heirs of Himmler and Yockey. StephenJudd has contributed a succint description of the methodology of the 'Nazi nutbars' in the Celtic New Zealand circle:

First, you self-publish. Then, you submit an article to a minor periodical, referencing the self-published material. Then you can write works that have credible-seeming references and other scholarly apparatus, pointing to the periodical. And so on, until an edifice of pseudo-learning is erected where the faithful strengthen their idiot prejudices and the innocent can be duped into acquiring them.

Well said. I just wish the nutbars would find a less harmful absurdity to champion. Perhaps they could begin to make the case for John Bracewell's coaching prowess?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Neo-Nazis and Pseudo-History

The Scoop Review of Books has published my open letter to the editors of Franklin E Local, a free magazine based in Pukekohe, in the heart of the Franklin District where I was born and raised.

Franklin E Local specialises in advertisements for farm bikes and reports on the feats of pig hunters, but lately it has also been running a series of articles on the 'secret pre-history' of New Zealand. These pieces argue that a conspiracy of academics, museum workers, Maori radicals, and shadowy, very sinister international forces is working methodically to suppress the evidence that white people lived in New Zealand thousands of years ago.

The powers that be don't want you to know that our 'white tangata whenua' lived peacefully for centuries, before 'savage' Polynesian invaders killed their men, made their women into sex slaves, and stole the beautiful carvings they had made in wood and greenstone. The articles are unsigned, but end with the recommendation that readers visit the Celtic New Zealand website 'for more information'.

Franklin E Local boss Mykeljon Winckel has used his latest editorial to enthusiastically endorse the pieces his magazine has been running, and to rail against the 'political bias' of most of those who study New Zealand's past. Unfortunately for Mykeljon, the Celtic New Zealand circle he has chosen to embrace has its own rather unpleasant political bias. Read about it over at the Scoop Review of Books.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Who needs New York?

When he was asked what the secret to literary success was, the venerable Edmond White reputedly advised his interlocutor to 'buy a ticket to New York'. The notion that writers thrive in massive cities filled with publishing houses is an old one, and still brings waves of migrant scribblers to London and Paris, as well as New Amsterdam. If any young writer is bold or daft enough to make a very different journey, away from the imperial centres to the provincial periphery of culture, then they could do worse than make Dunedin their destination. For over four decades now, the cold little city clinging to the bottom right-hand corner of Te Wai Pounamu has been a centre of literary as well as musical experiment. The small size of the city's artistic community, and the isolation - should I have said insulation? - of that community from the fickle winds of metropolitan fashion have fostered a sense of collective innovation unmatched in other parts of New Zealand. In the 1980s and early '90s the musical innovations associated with the Flying Nun and Xpressway labels were eagerly appropriated by American and British bands hungry for 'authenticity'. Dunedin's writers are not as famous as their musical kin, but they have nevertheless produced an impressive body of work in recent decades, as I noted last year.

One of the nerve centres of Dunedin literary culture is the Circadian Rhythm Cafe, a narrow cosy space where I was lucky enough to perform as a guest last year, on a night when local luminaries Peter Olds, Bill Direen, David Eggleton, and Richard Reeve graced the stage. Comrade Direen is about to swap his pen for his guitar for a few weeks, but he managed to send me this report from a recent gig at the Dunedin, where a line-up of six local scribblers read for their work for an appreciative audience. I was particularly pleased to learn that Peter Olds - New Zealand's first beatnik, adopted son of James K Baxter, reformed pisshead, and Otago Peninsula Zen sage - is still writing and performing his work. I did a long interview with Peter last year, and he's given me permission to put it on the blog next week. In the meantime, here's Bill's report on last week's gig, along with a few photos taken on the night:

SIX DUNEDIN POETS presented by Stuff Legend

Six poets currently living in Dunedin took the stage last night (Thurs Nov 13th) at Circadian Rhythm Cafe. Although the gig followed the great exodus of students from the city, and in spite of five of the six being men, a good number of local poetry lovers of both sexes turned out for a spirited and multifaceted event.

Peter Olds, the most experienced of us, read first, and in a break with his policy of recent years, gave a sample of his work from nearly four decades. Most of these were drawn from the only selection of his work available,
It was a Tuesday Morning (Hazard Press, 2001). Smiles of recognition could be seen as Olds revived poems that had long lain silent. ‘Psycho’, an ode to a car and its passengers and drivers who “roared along Ponsonby Road drunk on rum” was delivered with a self-critical tone devoid of nostalgia. Olds has now reached the stage where he can return to poems written when there were destructive elements in his lifestyle. You could have heard a tatt-needle drop. I read recent work (in English of course) inspired by translations (into French) by former Oulipo poet Michele Metail. The originals which she studied and translated were ancient Chinese; the form, called Huiwenshi, can be read backwards as well as forwards, or even in circular fashion. Chinese is more polysemic than English. Any Chinese character may be noun, verb, adverb or adjective but this is rare in English. My Huiwenshi were not translations, they adopted the form. I had taken them as far as I could without reading them to anyone and wasn’t sure how people would react. Feedback was constructive.
M.C. David Eggleton introduced the surprise guest of the evening, Jeanne Bernhardt. Her poems steamed along, though she shrugged them off a little and I suspect that her mind is more in prose mode at present given the recent launch of her novella Fast Down Turk: a study of depression, drug addiction, descent into poverty, hallucination, and a sequence of rather ugly sexual encounters. So it was great that she then gave us an extract from it. Her publisher was not present to sell copies, but I think he would have sold a few! David called for a timely break and the first readers mingled, taking in reactions to their work. Richard Reeve was seen gingerly imbibing naturally brewed beer, which is perhaps a local cure for the Norah virus attack that had obliged him to take this week off work.

After the break, David Karena-Holmes introduced his environmental philosophy and outlined the calamity which New Zealanders and world citizens are facing. He read poems which he had printed out in collectible single-poem editions. Most of these carried an ecological message enriched with his native lyricism. He is concerned with inner spaces as well as outer ones:

though vast we find
the universe, the mind,
even of the blind,
must be just as vast.
( ‘A Star in Space’) The compere himself took the stage and did not mess around! Eggleton’s intense declamatory lines steadily wove together a fairly bleak depiction of consumer society. An impassioned performance by the Kiwi ranter.
Then the aforementioned Reeve let his shirt all hang out so that it resembled a stylish soutane. Neither the virus nor beer had blunted his style. He read with commanding apocalyptic cadence.

There was something for everyone. Jeanne Bernhardt’s poems and the chance to hear an extract from her speedy (cracky?) novella. David Eggleton entering his prime, finding a middle way between expression and impression. The assertive Reeve (who must be thanked for instigating the evening in the first place). David Karena-Holmes’ ecological diatribes. As for Olds and myself, local writer Lani Cole had this to say the following day:

Really liked the variety and the atmosphere last night. Loved hearing Peter Olds read the poem that got my 6th form boys thinking art could be relevant to their lives and enjoyed hearing everyone else. Your own poems were fine, entertaining pieces; I can hardly imagine the work that went into them.

The evening finished with spontaneous encores (is there any other kind?) from Olds, Bernhardt, Reeve, and your bleary-eyed writer. Afterwards, “Nunc est bibendum.” [Now is the time for drinking!] Then off to Auckland for the beginning of The Bilders tour!

Bill Direen

Friday, November 14, 2008

Visiting Alien

As the beginning of the national tour by Kiwi music legend Bill Direen and his backing band The Bilders rapidly approaches, very large and very stylish posters designed by our very own Skyler are beautifying walls, radiators, and billboards all over Auckland and the other main centres of New Zealand. I spotted these beauties pasted near the entrance of the Dogs Bollix, the venerable Newton Rd pub where The Bilders will kick off their tour on Wednesday the 26th of this month.

Later I called in to Alien, the shop Powertools Records boss and Bilders drummer Andrew 'the love machine' Maitai runs out of a warehouse near the dark heart of New Lynn. Andrew's tastes extend to sci fi as well as cutting edge music and books, and I was very pleased to see Jack Ross' novel The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis and my collection of 'proetry' To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps on sale alongside classic Doctor Who and Babylon 5 episodes. Doctor Who has had far more of an influence on my writing than anything I learnt in an English class.

The real strength of Alien is music: as well as the extensive back catalogue that Powertools Records has developed over the past few years, the shop stocks CDs and vinyl from a range of alternative music labels in New Zealand and overseas. Pseudo-Arcana, the long-running Dunedin-based purveyor of free noise and other experimental recordings, is particularly well-represented.

If you're saddened by the apparent demise of Real Groovy Records at the hands of bland multinational music retailers, then make the journey West across the muddy waters of the Whau and check out Andrew's sound-hoard. He'll fix you a cup of tea while you browse, and if you're lucky one of the score or so of bands signed to Powertools will be rehearsing or gigging on the stage behind the shop.

Kiwi Culture: some preliminary reports

Thursday, November 13, 2008

From a guardian of Motai

I have happy memories of visiting Motai, the sacred niu pou erected in 1865 by followers of the Pai Marire religion who had taken refuge from the colonial government in the foothills of the Kaimai Ranges.

Raised on the rohe of the Ngati Raukawa people, Motai was a focus for Pai Marire ceremonies and a gathering place for Maori plotting resistance to the forces which had occupied their land in the after invading the Waikato region in 1863. In 1869 the legendary Maori guerrilla fighter Te Kooti visited Motai, and ran up his his fifty foot long flag, which was named Te Wepu (the whip) after the sound it made in a stiff breeze. We didn't have a camera with us, so Skyler took a few photos with her cellphone, which has a way of making everything it is aimed at look like an Impressionist painting. You can see the photos and my notes in this blog post.

It wasn't easy to find Motai. Skyler and I spent an hour or so driving down one dusty back road after another, guided only by an out of date map and a 1980 paper by Evelyn Stokes, before we spotted Motai rising over the crest of a hill where sheep grazed and several ancient rimu grew. Apart from Stokes, a Waikato University academic who has written a fine biography of the great Tainui leader Wiremu Tamihana, few scholars seem to have noticed the existence of Motai. In his book-length 1975 study of the Pai Marire movement, Paul Clark never mentions Motai, and actually claims that the niu pou at Maraekowhai in the Whanganui region is the only structure of its type left standing. But the descendants of the people who worshipped at Motai have not forgotten the taonga. Earlier this week one of the present-day guardians of Motai left these comments under my post on the subject:

Kia ora koutou, Ki te pou o Motai, tena koe tu tonu! tu tonu! mo ake tonu atu! Konei to mokopuna a Mahirahi Te Mananui Hireme Tamehana! E tu ake nei, ki te mihi atu ki a koe aku tupuna a Motai!
He Kawai Rangatira koe mai te Ao kohatu! He tonu whakahiriri! mo tatou ou Iwi, hapu, whanau ranei,
He uri tenei no Ngati Motai me Ngati Te Apunga hoki, i nga Marae o Paparamu/Te Apunga, Rengarenga me te Pa o Motai hoki i Whaiti Kuranui, No reira kia ora ano tatou.
Motai/Te Apunga is a big part of my history as Raukawa!

I am one of the last spokesmen for this (Te Pou o Motai) of Te Whaiti Kuranui in the Kaimais.
We still hold mana whenua for these 2 fighting hapu, Motai & Te Apunga of Raukawa Te Kaokaoroa o Patetere.
There are only 3 Pa sites today, Motai's Pa, Rengarenga, Paparamu.
They cover the Kaimais, Okoroire, Matamata, Tirau, Tapapa, Kokako, parts of Tauranga, Mamakus, Horohoro, Hinuwera,
Ruahihi, parts of the Waikato area.
The last teacher at Motai's pou was Motai Pakaru 3rd: that is his house next to the pou.

Tiny, ferocious creatures: the far left and the 2008 election

Three far left groups without parliamentary representation contested the party vote at last Saturday's election. The Residents Action Movement (RAM), which had claimed to be a 'new broad left party' with three thousand members, won less than four hundred votes; the Workers Party, a small but active Marxist outfit which ran using the slogan 'Workers should run society', won the support of about eight hundred and fifty voters; and the Alliance Party, which has moved leftwards since being thrown out of parliament in 2002, managed a little over seventeen hundred votes. All three parties ran candidates in a few constituencies, where they also achieved unimpressive results. The tiny Communist League did not make it on to the party list but did contest a couple of electorates, where it fared predictably badly.

An acquaintance of mine who is a sort of burnt-out sixties radical once told me that the far left groups in New Zealand reminded him of 'tiny ferocious creatures fighting each other to the death in a drop of water'. I must admit that I remembered his phrase when I looked through the election results in the Sunday paper and saw that RAM and Workers Party candidates had fought over two hundred votes in Wellington Central, and that the Workers Party and the Communist League had divided sixty votes in the Manukau East constituency.

Did the extraparliamentary left need to be so divided? It's true that there are differences between the Workers Party, RAM, and the Alliance. RAM is a small coalition founded by veterans of Marxist organisations. These activists tend to play down their hard left heritage, and instead focus on populist issues like the price of food. The Alliance Party wants to replace capitalism with socialism, but believes in gradual, incremental change, not revolution. With its talk of Lenin, Marx, and revolution the Workers Party sits to the left of both RAM and the Alliance.

These ideological differences may be real enough, but I wonder whether members of any of the three groups ever tried explaining them to an interested voter not acquainted with the isms and schisms of the far left? I tried, a couple of times, and I found that my explanations were quickly interrupted by laughter. One of my interlocutors compared the disagreements about which party had the best programme with the jibes that rappers trade about who has the biggest penis or the longest limo. I myself hadn't thought of the question in those terms before.

I admit that I find the minutae of the arguments of the far left interesting, but then I'm a geek who wrote a PhD (partly) about the subject, rather than a relatively normal person. I really think it's worth considering whether an electoral United Front based on a few key issues of interest to left-leaning workers wouldn't have been possible between the Alliance, the Workers Party, and RAM. Each party could still have been free to express the unique features of its worldview in its own paper and pamphlets.

From the outside, it looked like each group's campaign had some positive aspects. Alliance members seemed to have plenty of experience and a good grasp of the details surroundings policy debates in areas like social welfare. The Workers Party seemed to have youth and energy on its side, and was able to put its message across clearly in its posters and press releases. RAM helped make the call for the removal of GST on food a minor election issue. Getting time to discuss GST in the mass media and getting the Maori Party to adopt the demand to drop GST on food were achievements.

If the parties had united they would surely have done much better, but they would still have struggled to do really well, simply because the class they want to represent continues to support and vote for the Labour Party in large numbers.

Each far left group seems to be rationalising its election result in a different way. The Alliance is claiming it did well because it got a few more votes than last time, ignoring the fact that party leaders originally called the 2005 result very disappointing. RAM appears to be blaming a swing to the right for its dismal performance, but during its election campaign the group foolishly characterised the 'Labnats' as an undifferentiated right-wing bloc. How can there be a swing from the right to the right, comrades?

The Workers Party admits it didn't get many votes, but seems to be girding itself for some epic journey through the wilderness of slow solitary party-building. The party seems to have decided that workers still suffer from the same levels of apathy that characterised the '90s, and that they'll remain in this fallen state until they are recruited in ones and twos into a revolutionary party.

I think that all three groups are missing the fact that most left-leaning workers are firmly wedded to Labour, and are not prepared to vote for a party that doesn't have a chance of at least acting as a partner for Labour in parliament. After looking like it might go under in the '90s, Labour has reconstituted itself as a social democratic party over the nine years it has been in government. The welfare state has been patched up a little with Kiwisaver and Working for Families. Market rents have gone from state houses and the part-privatisation of education and health has been reversed. Kiwibank is thriving and the railways and Air New Zealand have been renationalised. There has been an impressive expansion of spending on the arts industry which has won Labour the fierce loyalty of people working in that sector.

The unions are growing again with the small but crucial openings that the Employment Relations Act gave them, and they show no sign of withdrawing political support from Labour, even though new union leaders like McCarten and Harre are far to the left of '90s bosses like the terrible duo of Ken Douglas and Angela Foulkes. Labour's own party organisation is far stronger than it was in the '90s.

We on the far left know about the bad stuff Labour has been involved in (the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Ruatoki, the seabed and foreshore legislation, the anti-beneficiary 'jobs jolt') but we are in danger of patronising workers if we don't accept that they have voted for Labour in large numbers in recent elections (even last Saturday's vote was respectable) because Labour rule has been better for them than the era of the Nats. Indeed, Key only won last Saturday by pretending to adopt most of Labour's policies.

Of course, the best things that have been won under Labour have come largely through the efforts of grassroots campaigning and the influence of parties to the left of Clark and Cullen (consider the nurses' new pay regime, which was the result of a superb union campaign, paid parental leave, which was pushed hard by the Alliance when it was still in parliament, and Maori TV, which was the result of many years of campaigning by activists).

We should continue to criticise Labour for the bad things it has done, and point out why the ultimate solution to the problems created by capitalism can't come from social democracy, but we should join with trade unionists and others at the grassroots when they organise to protect the positive things they have won over the past nine years. We can't do that if we deny that anything at all has been won over the last nine years.

The influence of Act and the right wing of the National Party and the oncoming recession make it likely that the Key government will try to inflict government spending cuts and anti-union legislation on New Zealand, in a futile attempt to restart the economic cycle by holding down inflation and wages (what the economy needs is stimulation, not deflation). Many of the hundreds of thousands who believed Key's promises that he would run a 'Labour lite' administration will already be worried by the sight of Rodney Hide and Roger Douglas calling for a government 'razor gang' to cut social spending. In the medium term, at least, a swing against the new government seems very likely. Will this movement towards the left benefit Labour, or has the party's defeat opened a space for its rivals on the left? Like National, the Greens ran an election campaign which valued style over substance. The party's billboards were attractive and vacuous, with their pictures of pretty children and the planet and their apolitical slogan 'Vote for me'. The billboards were a common sight in the wealthier and trendier suburbs of the big cities, but they were rare in South and West Auckland, and in the small towns of the provincial heartland.

Although they have a more left-wing policy programme than Labour and they have attracted the support of some left-wing trade unionists, the Greens fare little better than Act in working class electorates. They got their highest number of party votes in Wellington Central, one of the wealthiest electorates in the country, and also did very well in Ohariu-Blemont and Auckland Central. In Manukau East, by contrast, the party won a pathetic four hundred and fifty party votes. The Greens scored four times as many party votes in trendy, wealthier North Dunedin than in depressed working class South Dunedin.

The Greens struggle to attract a big share of the working class vote partly because they project an image which seems alien to many members of that class. The party is divided between flaky centrists with little interest in workers' issues and honourable left-wing social democrats like Keith Locke and Sue Bradford. The party's election campaign showed that the centrist faction is in the driving seat. Punters in places like Manukau East or Dunedin South are more worried about the global economic crisis than global warming, and more interested in the price of food than in organic food. Until the Greens devote real attention and resources to working class issues and electorates they will struggle to expand their vote. Can Labour recover the voters it has lost on the back of discontent with the new government, or has a space opened up which the far left can occupy? Can we disregard the short to medium-term prospects of a party which has been cast into the wilderness after nine years in power? To answer these questions, we should look at recent history across the Tasman. In Australia a couple of years ago, John Howard tried to smash the unions with a set of very repressive laws which were part of his wider campaign to inflict Rogernomics-style policies on the Aussies. The unions and the left mobilised to stop him; even though they couldn't prevent the passage of his laws, they did ensure that union membership rose, rather than declined.

At the same time, the Aussie Labor Party grew considerably, as workers who saw it as their historic party flocked to its ranks. Thanks to this wave of new activists, Labour won a series of electoral victories, culminating in the defeat of Howard. While this process was unfolding, the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), the largest far left group in Aussie, was insisting that the Labor Party had ceased to have significant working class support and suggesting that the way was open for a new mass workers' party. While Labor stormed back into power with massive workers support the DSP ended up imploding. We should hope that members of RAM, who have lately been saying that Labour is finished and their outfit is becoming a new mass party, will learn a lesson from the fate of the DSP.

Ironically, Labour would be in much greater danger if it had won the recent election and had to deal with an economic tsunami. Clark and Cullen probably would have felt it necessary to cut social spending and hold down wages and this would have angered parts of their union base. A small space might even have opened for groups to the left of Labour and the Greens. In opposition, though, Labour can move to the left and criticise National and Act, freed of the responsibility of having to run the economy. If the Maori Party is foolish enough to get in to bed with National then Labour will probably win the Maori vote back, too, as Pita and co relive the experiences of New Zealand First's Maori 'tight five' in 1996-98.

No one can predict the future with anything resembling certainty, but I wouldn't be surprised if workers move back to Labour as they wake up to the nature of the new National government. The far left needs to acknowledge the continued hold of Labour over much of the working class, instead of trying to wish this reality away, or dismissing every supporter of the party as some sort of class enemy.

I'm a regular protester at the Labour Party's conferences, and at the 2007 bash I heard a Workers Party member shouting 'If there were any decent people in Labour they left long ago'. A Labour Party trade unionist shouted back that anyone who didn't support Labour was some sort of traitor. There is a sensible position somewhere between those two sectarian extremes.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A vexillogical mystery

I fancy myself as an amateur vexillogist, and even learned to pronounce the word properly, but I'm stumped by this beauty, which I photographed from the passenger seat on a recent expedition to an isolated part of the Kaipara with Skyler and Muzzlehatch. The unusual feature of the flag is the thick stripe that runs down its centre (we reversed the car and took a second look after a brief but heated argument as to whether the stripe was black or navy blue. I still think it's black, but I was outvoted).

Does anyone have any idea what nation, city, organisation, or emotional state this banner might represent? And is there some reason it'd be flying below our beloved national flag? If I don't get any answers to these questions I'll have to post the image in the queries section of frighteningly large Flags of the World website.

Monday, November 10, 2008

sunken car

Bill Direen at the polls

Last Saturday was a bad day for those of us at the left end of the political spectrum, though I'm far from despairing - I think that the voters who swung toward National really only wanted Labour policies with John Key's smiling face attached, and I believe the new government will face a very rough ride if it responds to economic crisis with the sort of sadomasochistic Rogernomics-style practices that the rest of the world is busy rejecting.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of healthy chest-beating about last Saturday's vote, of course. Bill Direen has always been a man of the left, and he has produced an experimental video called 'Rosko Votes Right', which marries one of the more aggressive tracks from his forthcoming album Chrysanthemum Storm with a succession of images from polling day. Enjoy Bill's creation - it may be the only good thing National's election brings you...

Friday, November 07, 2008

Party Vote Green

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Muzzlehatch: eat the Greens, but keep left

Muzzlehatch has stepped out of the shadows with this party political broadcast. There's been a good, if occasionally foul-mouthed debate (and Richard Taylor hasn't even gotten involved yet!) about Skyler's endorsement of the Greens, and I'm sure Muzzlehatch's musings will also give cause for concern amd acclamation from various quarters.

Muzzlehatch writes:

MAPS has put the pressure on his two silent partners in this blog to nail their colours to the mast over the upcoming election, having also offered a bribe of a bottle of fejoa-flavoured vodka this evening if we ‘front-up’. There’s really no choice, then.

I have only today registered to vote, so it’s suddenly become serious, and I am still of that vast camp of ‘swinging voters’ who is not quite sure which box I will tick. For the last month I’ve wavered between Labour, Maori and the Residents Action Movement. I met a young organiser of RAM in the smoking room of Fordes Bar on Symonds St (MAPS spends a lot of his time there, getting drunk) a few weeks back, and he seemed articulate and inspired, and the RAM manifesto has some good things going for it, who knows, they may well grow into a real force in NZ politics. On the other hand, they could be part of the ‘dreamer left’ who imagine everyone living in the land of milk and honey with no idea where it’s going to come’s their policy, painfully packaged as ‘the ten commandments’:

Remove GST tax from all our food
$2,000 'baby bonus' to every mum
Offer first-home buyers a 3% interest state loan
Lift minimum wage to $15 per hour
Free lunches in schools serving poor areas
Free tertiary education plus a student living allowance
Free and frequent public transport in our main cities
Offer cheap solar panels to homeowners
Restore to workers their free right to strike
Enshrine the Treaty of Waitangi in a new constitution to guarantee the mutual rights of Maori and non-Maori

Sound a bit too gimmicky? Their website doesn’t offer any comprehensive overview of how society will function under RAM to provide these things, and that’s what I’m basically looking for, a comprehensive manifesto that answers important questions. Who would be taxed by RAM? How much? What percentage of profit can shareholders suck out of a business? What happens to companies/small businesses that can’t afford to pay $15 per hour so fire 20% of their staff? That sort of information should be available somewhere.

I can’t bring myself to vote for the Greens, having actually worked in the building trade most of my life (yes, I'm that real-life worker academics like MAPS like to theorise about). The Greens' militantly anti-industrial ideology I find difficult to swallow - it seems when there's a choice between livelihoods and helping protect some part of nature the question is not even up for discussion, because the Greens unreservedly come down on the side of the butterfly, the fish or the fungi. This failure to engage in thoughtful conversation is annoying, because peoples' livelihoods and their right to work in their a chosen industry are very serious matters that deserves proper consideration. When the Greens grow up I will look at them seriously. What about the Maori Party? Well, I was thinking about it, but if they can’t say before the election whether they will go left or right after the election, I can’t vote for them.

What about Labour? Well, I do have a certain fondness for Helen, she has a certain integrity, and has done some good things. I like the fact this Prime Minister personally favours the arts over sports: for a brief moment last night on the leaders debate between Helen and John Key, when they were asked what ‘moved them’ it appeared like all John was going to come up with was ‘an All Blacks victory’ before he remembered meeting the mother of a three year old baby that had died, which he realised would be a more effective anecdote. Anyway, Helen's artiness, along with her stance on various social issues (gay union, abortion etc) means that there is every chance I will vote Labour on the day.

National, ACT, United Future and NZ First are out, anyway, because I support the rights of the underprivileged over business interests. (Even if he had better policies, I just couldn’t bring myself to tick a vote for Winston Peters. ) When it comes down to the day, I will be ticking either Labour or RAM: hopefully I’ll have made up my mind before I go into the booth.

Why I’m giving my party vote to the Greens

I think it is a waste of time to give your party vote to any of the far left groups at this stage, as they have no chance of getting in to parliament. I don’t really want to give my vote to Labour as they have done many things that I disagree with - for example, as Maps mentioned in his earlier post, Labour’s ‘support for the US's War of Terror in places like Afghanistan, its kneejerk, discriminatory seabed and foreshore legislation, its support for the ludicrous but sinister 'terror raids' of 2007.’ In saying that, I DO NOT want a National government supported by ACT and United Future. A move to the right, especially in the current economic environment, would cause a lot of suffering for working class people. So, I am giving my party vote to the Green Party, who I hope will be a positive influence on Labour and may pull them a little further towards the left and may keep them a bit more honest.

As I mentioned in a comment under Maps’s post, ‘workers should be running the country! And it would be great to see a new energised and effective left wing party but the unions and the workers aren't ready to abandon Labour yet. 

We need to start building support amongst New Zealanders for a new left-wing party, and maybe by the time of the next election it would be viable option, BUT in this election a vote for any of the tiny left wing parties is a waste.’ I am voting Green because they will get over the 5% threshold and they are further left than Labour.

After examining all the Green policies, I find that I like the party's stance on education and children's issues, industrial relations, social and economic issues, and housing.

It might surprise some people that it isn’t the environment that excites me the most. I think it is a given that a party called ‘Green’ will try and look after the environment, and that is important to me. But, for me at this stage, I want to see a party which has among its core values a belief in social and economic justice, and which will strive to make our society fairer. I do believe that there are key members of the Green party who have worked and will work for social and economic justice and who are firmly on the left. Consider, for example, Keith Locke, who attended most (if not all) of the marches last year in support of the people arrested in the ‘terror raids.’ He also fought for and gained basic rights for two of New Zealand's refugee immigrants: Ahmed Zaoui and Ali Panah. Keith Locke also led pressure from the smaller parties to successfully repeal the archaic sedition laws in New Zealand. The Greens’ Clean Slate legislation came into effect in 2004 allowing people with minor convictions, who have not received a custodial sentence or re-offended within 7 years, to leave the stigma behind.

Other things the Greens have done that I think have been progressive and good for the country:
• Pushed the government into taking back the rail track and investing more in public transport
• Ensured legislation for youth wages and flexible working hours
• Changed the law to help protect our children from violence

At the moment I work at the University of Auckland and am an active member of the Association of University Staff union. The Greens' policies regarding the tertiary sector are more progressive than those of any other party represented in parliament. The Greens support:
• Fully-funded public tertiary education
• Supports further reviews to establish whether PBRF have really improved research quality and quantity
• Unions and other social agencies to be part of the development of a new governance framework, and as participants in institutional policies, strategies and processes
• Strengthen the right of workers to organise and bargain collectively
• Provide sufficient funding to address salary problems
• Extend the right to strike and strengthen measures to prevent “free-loading”
• Committed to a universal student allowance for full-time and part-time students. Allowances increased to level of unemployment benefit
• Zero interest on student loans
• Eventually abolish student loan scheme with introduction of no fees and universal student allowances.

That’s why I am voting Green (and I will make a protest vote in my electorate (a safe Labour seat) and vote for Bob van Ruyssevelt in Te Atatu for the Alliance).

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Arguing about elections

I've been struggling to muster the enthusiasm to post about Saturday's general election. I'm not a big Shortland Street fan, but I've only been able to spend five minutes on the Clark-Key debates before switching channel and watching the doctors and nurses frolic.

By contrast, I was glued to the screen throughout the three US Presidential debates. I hope I haven't drunken the kool-aid and become an Obamaniac - the man's rhetoric and mannerisms seems a little too close to those of Tony Blair circa 1997 for my liking - but I do admit to finding something obscurely reassuring about the prospect of the White House hosting a man who doesn't have to ask his Daddy what a neo-con is, and who knows the difference between Zapatero and the Zapatistas.

It's also nice to watch the paranoid right (is there any other kind?) whip itself into a frenzy over the looming triumph of a 'communist Islamofascist mulatto terrorist' who, besides everything else, is 'just too skinny to be President'. I'll be watching Fox News tonight with a beer in my hand and a smile on my face when Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity pronounce the fateful words 'Obama victory'.

There has been a series of debates about the Kiwi election over at indymedia, with members of various far left groups arguing over whether Labour and/or the Greens are worth supporting, and about whether the electoral challenges by the extra-parliametary left - you can choose between the Workers Party, the Residents Action Movement, and the Alliance - are worth supporting.

An Iraqi friend of mine once told me that 'it's hard work being a left-wing radical in New Zealand. It was hard in Iraq, too, but in a different way. Over there you could get killed or imprisoned, but people took you seriously. Over here you're not likely to go to jail, but nobody listens. Everyone laughs at you.' Debates amongst the socialist left about election choices tend to get very emotional, and I think this is evidence of a common frustration at our failure to win workers away from support for Labour and toward the banners we hoist. We think that Labour's Blairite economic and social policies, its support for the US's War of Terror in places like Afghanistan, its kneejerk, discriminatory seabed and foreshore legislation, its support for the ludicrous but sinister 'terror raids' of 2007 and a thousand other sins disqualify the party as an agent of left-wing politics in New Zealand. We think that Labour's working class base would be better off supporting a genuine labour party, which took on rather than adapted to free market capitalism and US foreign policy. Unfortunately, the workers don't agree with us.

Contrary to the expectations of both the far left and many in the political mainstream, Labour has managed to satisfy most of its working class support base since being elected back in 1999. The healthy state of the world economy in recent years and the dairying boom in New Zealand have kept government finances in a healthy state, and enabled Labour to pre-empt the opposition of key groups of workers with carrots like the Working for Families and Kiwi Saver schemes. Nurses and other supporters in the public sector have secured pay rises. Clark's government has made no effort to overturn the fundamental changes made to the Kiwi economy during the neo-liberal era of 1984-99, but they have been able to make the system function in a manner more agreeable to many Kiwis.

Using the same sort of strategy, Clark has also maintained New Zealand's pro-American foreign policy, but softened it a little to placate public opinion. Labour's continued anti-nuclear policy and its refusal to join the invasion of Iraq have obscured the role of Kiwi troops in helping implement US foreign policy Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomons. Critics of the Kiwi role in the War of Terror have found themselves isolated from the mass of the population.

Kiwi socialists tend to agree that a big obstacle to creating a new mass organisation that really represents the interests of workers is continued electoral support for Labour by so many workers. Where we disagree is over how to get workers away from Labour. Senior New Zealand Marxist Dave Bedggood has called for critical support to be given to Labour in the coming election, arguing that workers have to see the party exposed in practice. Dave would probably point to the 1984-90 period, when Labour was split and New Labour/the Alliance was born, and the early noughties in Germany, when the Social Democrats sold out their supporters and suffered a major split which led to the creation of the Left Party, in defence of the tactic that he advocates. Dave's argument has annoyed members of the Workers Party, who think that nine years of Labour is long enough, and believe that only uncompromising electoral opposition to Clark's government will win workers away from her party.

For his part, that indefatigable social democrat Matt McCarten has pointed out that the Workers Party, the Residents Action Movement, and the Alliance are all rather unlikely to pass the magic 5% threshold on Saturday, and suggested that votes for them will therefore be wasted. Matt reckons it's far more sensible to back the Greens. McCarten's advice has annoyed a lot of people at indymedia, but I think he is expressing a view that a lot of ordinary left-leaning workers take when they vote. They think that if a party can't make it to parliament, then there's no point in supporting it.

Back in 2002 the Alliance split, and its vote collapsed, because it looked like the party couldn't make it back to parliament. If Alliance leader Laila Harre had held her seat at the 2002 election, then the party probably would have survived. Today, there are probably tens of thousands of people who would vote for the Alliance, if only they thought their vote wouldn't be disregarded. The Residents Action Movement and the Workers Party don't have the same brand recognition as the Alliance, but there are probably still thousands of voters who would support either party, if only they thought their votes wouldn't be wasted. (If they knew what was good for them, then the smaller parties inside and outside of parliament would campaign for the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation to be abolished. If tens of thousands of people choose a party, why should they be disenfranchised by an arbitrary barrier like the 5% threshold? If a party gets even 1% of the vote it deserves a seat, under the logic of MMP.)

Because of the importance Kiwis give to voting, and the very way pragmatic way they go about voting, I suspect that a sizeable new left-wing formation will only emerge when a sitting MP or two defects from their old party, and thus establishes a parliamentary base around which dissident members of parties like the Greens and Labour and also dissident unions, single issue campaigning groups, far left groupuscles, and so on can gather. We saw something like this happen in 1989, when Jim Anderton left Labour. Unfortunately Anderton's iron will prevailed over the grassroots forces that flocked to his banner and the new party ended up looking a bit like the old one. The 2004 split in Labour which produced the Maori Party may still turn out to a boon for the left, if the views of pro-union Maori Party leaders like Hone Harawira and Syd Keepa prevail over those of much more conservative, pro-business figures like Tariana Turia and Tuku Morgan.

As things stand, the only emotion that will stir me to vote on Saturday is a sort of creeping fear - fear of a National-Act government that revives quaint 1990s neo-liberal practices like evicting old men from their kidney dialysis machines, making the tenants of state houses pay market rates, and logging rainforests on the West Coast. I suspect that a few of you feel the same way. It would be nice to be motivated by enthusiasm, rather than dread, wouldn't it?

Monday, November 03, 2008

Andrew and Brett argue on Fleet

I'm listening to Andrew Maitai and Brett Cross spin some favourite tunes and plug the upcoming album and tour by Bill Direen and The Bilders on Fleet FM. Brett and Andrew are on until three o'clock, and Andrew is on every Monday from one until three. Check 'em out here.

Update: the conversation has just strayed into political territory, with Brett (Ngati Pakeha) criticising Act voter Andrew (Ngati Kahungungu) for wanting to scrap the Maori seats. Ouch! Hope The Bilders don't break up before that tour even begins...