Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Crowding the road

Steve Braunias called me the other day to explain that he'd just walked down a section of the Great South Road, in the hope of finding inspiration for next month's issue of Metro. After returning from his walk and popping on the internet, Braunias had discovered that Paul Janman and I have been talking about filming a journey down the Great South Road for the last six months or so, and have documented some preliminary forays.

It is hard to feel proprietorial about an arts project based around a journey down a road, when so many people, both in New Zealand and elsewhere, have written about or painted or filmed their jaunts along country lanes or highways or urban thoroughfares. British writers are famous for taking to the road: William Cobbett's rides through counties torn apart by enclosures and industrialisation in the early nineteenth century, Edward Thomas' walks down tranquil Sussex byways in the years before World War One, and Iain Sinclair's demented orbit of the M 25, London's ring road, in the dying days of Blairism all make irresistable reading.

New Zealand, too, has its tradition of what we might call the road text. John Mulgan's canonised Man Alone describes the wanderings of a glum English immigrant down the roads of a Depression-era New Zealand. Although Man Alone is a novel, its author was a fanatical walker. The literary scholar Rod Orange discovered the extent of Mulgan's researches after he stepped out of his study, put on his boots, and hit the Desert Road and the rough byways of the Kaimanawa Ranges, in an effort to trace the route of the protagonist of Man Alone. After what must have been a good deal of huffing and puffing, Orange found that Mulgan's descriptions of the backblocks and back roads of the central North Island were extraordinarily accurate. At about the time Mulgan was beginning Man Alone, a young socialist and feminist named Elsie Locke crossed the Waikato River from her native Waiuku and headed down the paper roads and stock races of the area sometimes known as Limestone Country. In the days it took her to travel south from the Waikato to Raglan harbour, Locke encountered Maori communities still innocent of the English language and the cash economy, as well as vast sheep farms ruined by ragwort, gorse and the global financial crisis. Locke wrote her journey up nearly five decades later in Student at the Gates, an impressionistic account of the miseries and pleasures of life in 1930s New Zealand.

In the 1960s the octogenarian AH Reed made a series of walks across New Zealand, travelling first from North Cape to the Bluff and then from the western to the eastern extremes of Te Ika a Maui. Reed was a self-advertising, and therefore tedious, ascetic, who spent his nights in a sleeping bag with his head halfway out a window and began his days at six o'clock by loudly chanting Methodist hymns and eating a bowl of cold porridge. Editors at his firm were instructed to purge all the manuscripts they handled of expletives and references to alcohol and gambling.

Reed's prose style was about as exciting as his lifestyle, but he managed to sell thousands of copies of books like From East Cape to Egmont on Foot at Eighty-Six and The Happy Wanderer: a Kiwi on Foot. Perhaps the elderly Reed's odysseys interested New Zealanders for the same reason that Rolling Stones tours interest us in the twenty-first century. Even if Reed saw and did nothing particularly noteworthy on his walks, the sheer fact that he survived them, at his advanced age, may have seemed both commendable and somehow consoling. As he strode down tarred highways, guided by well-wishers to whom he offered hymns and improvised sermons, he may not have faced high water or landslides or loneliness, but he did continually risk a heart attack or stroke.

As Steve Braunias and I swapped stories of our adventures on the Great South Road, I was alarmed to realise that he possesses something of AH Reed's passion for exercise. When Braunias told me that he'd walked, on a single rainy day, from Greenlane all the way to Manurewa, I thought guiltily of the afternoon I recently spent sitting on a couch near a pleasant rural section of the Great South Road, drinking beer with Paul Janman.

Paul had wanted me to travel by Shanks' Pony over the Bombay Hills, visiting on the way the eroding redoubts the British army raised alongside its road to the Waikato, but after we had spotted an old couch sitting under a macrocarpa in a quiet valley I had convinced him that we ought to learn from the casual, blokey aesthetic of trashy television programmes like Sports Cafe, and sit down to have a couple of drinks and improvise a dialogue. The masses were tired, I told Paul, of earnest scholars in cardigans puffing down the camera and pouring out facts and figures: they wanted something less intimidating. I don't think I actually believed my arguments, but that couch looked very comfortable, particularly in comparison to nearby Razorback Redoubt.

As a result of my urgings, the following piece of footage lurches from a leisurely couchside chat to a montage of images made by William Temple, the Victorian Cross winner and incompetent photographer who unwittingly captured some of the unpleasant realities of the 1863-64 war against the Waikato Kingdom:

Anti Travels in the Ararimu Valley from Public Films on Vimeo.

Paul has coupled the photo montage with 'E Pa To Hau', a famous lament composed by a member of Ngati Apakura, a hapu that lived at Rangiaowhia, one of the richest areas of the Waikato Kingdom and the site of what was perhaps the worst massacre of the Waikato War. Near the end of the war, Apakura women and children took refuge in Rangiaowhia's church, only to have it set on fire by advancing Pakeha troops. In a poem written in 1958, when discussion of the the New Zealand Wars was very rare in Pakeha society, Kendrick Smithyman alluded to the market gardening economy booming in the Waikato before the invasion, and linked the slaughter at Rangiaowhia to General Duncan Cameron and Bishop Augustus Selwyn, the military and spiritual commanders of the invaders:

Never small mill’s grinding
nor peachgrove’s banding, not the beanvine’s blossom
should any wind’s blow turn or lessen.
None will simple occupation in their least defend
from the irregular cavalrymen descending
to let their soured guiltiness ripen
rot-red in a valley good days abandon.

How is it to fall from your God’s just hands
between clutching at your crop and the quick
stroke your reaper planned? How may these, their brown bodies cured
in unholy smoke, count the kindness you afford
them, Bishop? How, General, are your commands
to read lawful...


Smithyman's text has, for me, the same tone of majestic sadness as 'E Pa To Hau'.

Like the highways and byways the likes of Cobbett and Thomas travelled down, the Great South Road has run through many thousands of lives, and been the scene of or backdrop to thousands of stories. The Great South Road was built to help prosecute a war, but it has also been the route for wedding processions. It is a site for deadly crashes, and for boozy street parties. Anybody who records a journey down such a road has to find a way of coping with the incongruity of the different parts of its history.

As I watch Paul's clip, I am troubled by the transition from our jocular exchanges on a roadside couch to the menacing photos of William Temple and the lament of Ngati Apakura. I don't like the idea of creating a relentlessly bleak, determinedly humourless account of the Great South Road's history, but I'm not sure about the notion of prefacing William Temple with laughter and beer drinking, either. Perhaps Steve Braunias' piece for April's Metro will hint at an effective way of treating the complex and contradictory history of the road I grew up beside.

Twenty Steps Down the Great South Road from Public Films on Vimeo.


[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Be careful what you wish for, Cameron



Sacha Gervasi's 2008 film Anvil! is a celebration of a heavy metal band which has been struggling for decades to make the big time. The hairy but wrinkled members of Anvil are full of ambition, but almost comically unaware of the sheer awfulness of the music they make. Again and again they are rejected by audiences and panned by critics; again and again they release a new album, and hit the road to promote it.

If the world of scholarship has an equivalent to Anvil, it is surely Noel Hilliam, the retired farmer from Dargaville who has become infamous, over the past quarter century, for making a series of bizarre claims about New Zealand history. Over the years Hilliam has discovered a Viking city in the forests north of Dargaville, Spanish ships in the sandy mouth of Kaipara Harbour, a Nazi submarine filled with gold in the Tasman Sea, and the skeletons of an ancient tribe of giant white people in remote caves. Again and again, Hilliam has failed to produce evidence for his sensational claims, and faced ridicule. Again and again, he has presented gullible journalists with new fantasies.

Back in 2010 Hilliam made a particularly strange and embarrassing claim. After Hilliam rang up its editor, a publication called Dargaville Online ran a story celebrating his receipt of the prestigious Senior New Zealander of the Year award. Investigations by readers of this blog, though, soon revealed that Hilliam had not received the award at all, and Dargaville Online had to run a retraction.

I had hoped that the Senior New Zealander of the Year affair might have dented Noel Hilliam's enthusiasm for fantasy, but his new book To the Ends of the Earth suggests that he is incorrigible. Co-authored by Hilliam's fellow cranks Gary Cook and Maxwell Hill, the book argues that Greeks and Egyptians sailed to New Zealand several thousand years ago, established settlements and raised stone monuments, collected local jade and adorned it with hei tiki and other designs now associated with Maori, and then suddenly retired to the margins of these islands. Historian Paul Moon struck the right note when he told a newspaper reporter that 'there is no evidence at all' for the claims in To the Ends of the Earth.

Noel Hilliam's book may not be popular amongst trained scholars, but it has excited a number of right-wing bloggers. Cameron Slater, for instance, took a break from his campaign against Auckland's wharfies to post a link to an account of the book. Slater predicted that Hilliam's claims 'would bend some Maori out of shape', and said that he couldn't wait 'for the headlines expressing outrage'. Slater and some others on the right are enthusiastic about Hilliam's book because they feel its widespread acceptance would lead to the abrogation of the Treaty of Waitangi and the end of Maori claims for the return of land and other resources. If Maori are deprived of their status as tangata whenua then, the thinking goes, they will cease asking for compensation for stolen land and funding for kohanga reo and other 'separatist' institutions. This comment from the Stuff site is typical:

It is certain that Maori were not the first here and about time everybody knows that. I hope this book gets the coverage it deserves as it will help unite ALL kiwis instead of giving preference to one as though the rest of us are secondary citizens.

Cameron Slater and other right-wingers should be careful what they wish for, though, because Hilliam's tome appears to be built around his relationship with some very strange and rather avaricious people.

Hilliam is a long-time associate of the Universal Peace Nation of Waitaha, a cult whose members claim to be the descendants of extra-terrestrials with psychic powers who landed in ancient Egypt and later travelled to New Zealand via South America and Easter Island. The Waitahans make money off gullible New Agers by selling glossy picture books full of gobbledygook and running tours of their supposed ancient 'sacred sites'.

Last decade, when he worked as a volunteer at Dargaville's maritime museum, Hilliam developed a relationship with Patrick Ruka, a prominent member of the Waitaha cult. After deciding that a carved Maori pou found near Dargaville was an ancient Waitaha artefact, Hilliam got Ruka to perform a 'ceremony' to 'welcome' the object into the museum. The museum eventually repudiated both Hilliam and the Universal Peace Nation of Waitaha.

In Hilliam's new book, a man named George Connelly claims to be a descendant of Egyptian settlers who arrived in this country via Peru. Hilliam presents Connelly's testimony as a sign that some New Zealanders have always maintained an awareness of their connection with the ancient Mediterranean.

What Hilliam doesn't tell his readers is that Connelly, who also uses the name Hori Kupenga Manuka Manuka, has connections with both the Universal Peace Nation of Waitaha and another bizarre outfit, Ko Huiarau. In the 1990s Ko Huiarau attracted hundreds of members, including broadcaster Mary Forbes and Auckland War Memorial ethnologist David Simmons, by claiming to be the modern representative of an ancient government of these islands which had signed treaties with numerous foreign powers, including Britain. Ko Huiarau insisted that when these treaties were recognised it would take control of the whole of New Zealand, and promised to share the wealth of the country with those who joined its ranks. Ko Huiarau has fragmented over the last decade, and now has no clear leadership, but George Connelly continues to promote its ideas. Connelly claims, in fact, to be a direct descendant of the leaders of the ancient Ko Huiarau nation, and thus to be the arbiter of contemporary constitutional issues in New Zealand. Connelly denies the indigenity of King Tuheitia, calling him a 'Tahitian', and accuses Tainui of committing a 'genocide' against his imaginary Waitaha ancestors.

Maxwell Hill lives down the road from Connelly in Taupiri, and has a history of supporting the man's absurd claims. In 2010, for instance, Hill sent a long letter to Waikato's regional council and New Zealand's parliament in which he insisted that Connelly's existence was enough to refute the notion that Maori have any customary rights to this country's seabed and foreshore. Hill's rambling epistle was filled with invocations of Ko Huiarau, and also features a warmed-over version of the myth of Moriori as a pre-Maori people. Last month Hill sent a tangled, often incomprehensible second document to the Waikato council, in which he claimed that the 'research' he did for To the Ends of the Earth proved George Connelly's identity.

There is a certain irony in the way that many right-wingers are publicising Hilliam and Hill's book, and hoping that it might somehow deliver them from the supposedly unreasonable demands of the Treaty of Waitangi. If some of the people behind The Ends of the Earth ever got their way, then the whole of New Zealand might be delivered up to the members of a couple of small and very odd sects.

Footnote: why is Beattie's Book Blog promoting Hilliam's nonsense?

Footnote (2): It is rather comical, but also a little sad, to see the way that the pseudo-historians have once again tried to associate themselves with high-profile Kiwi scholar Paul Moon. In 2009, after the likes of Martin Doutre had persistently nodded in his direction, Moon wrote a letter to the New Zealand Herald to distance himself publically from the Celtic New Zealand thesis.

Now the boosters for Hilliam's peculiar book are trying to brandish Moon's name, circulating a formulaic e mail which Moon directed at one of Hilliam's co-authors, and presenting it as some sort of endorsement.

Over at the Franklin E Local, which seems still to be the house journal of pseudo-history in this country, Michael Botur has been asserting that Moon endorses the theory that Greeks and Egyptians visited these islands thousands of years ago. Botur didn't, of course, bother to contact Moon before making his claim. I'm not sure whether Botur was aware of Moon's 2009 letter savaging the Celtic New Zealand thesis and decided to ignore it, or whether he didn't bother to do the most basic research before writing his article for Franklin E Local.

As usual, the hijinks of the pseudo-historians have backfired. Presumably because of the way his name was being associated with Hilliam's book, Paul Moon was contacted by the mainstream media and asked to comment on the tome. Not surprisingly, he repudiated it in very strong terms, and denied that Hilliam and his co-authors had any credibility as scholars.

I've just exchanged a couple of e mails with Michael Botur, and he continues to assert, in the face of all the evidence, that Paul Moon is a supporter of Hilliam and co's theory that white folks arrived in New Zealand thousands of years ago. Botur seems to regard Moon's very public rejection of Hilliam and co over the past couple of days as a sudden and inexplicable aberration, rather than as the continuation of the position Moon made very clear in his letter to the Herald back in 2009.

I think that, as far as denials of reality go, Botur's blusterings are on a par with Hilliam's easily disproved claim to have won a prestigious award in 2010. Back then the Dargaville Online publication had the good sense to admit that Hilliam had led it up the garden path, but Botur seems determined to stand by his crank. More fool him.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Secret texts and sacred weapons

I blogged last month about Michael Arnold's increasing anxiety over my labours on the 44th issue of the Kiwi literary journal brief. When Michael appointed me the guest editor of issue 44, and awarded the issue the theme of Oceania, he didn't envisage me disappearing for days at a time into archives of nineteenth century Pacific history, or scanning cartoons from books with titles like Biggles in the South Seas and suggesting they would serve well as illustrations, or transcribing and publishing free-flowing, boozy chats about Tongan philosophy with my mates, or soliciting submissions from historians and anthropologists as well as poets and short story writers.

Showing generosity, or weariness, or both, Michael has now decreed that issues #44 and #45 of brief will be published in one volume, and share the theme Oceania. He and I hope to have the double issue organised by the end of next month.

When I haven't been nosing around in old newspapers, excavating my father's Biggles collection or arguing about the ta va theory of space and time with the likes of Paul Janman and Ted Jenner, I've been conducting a series of interviews with contributors to the Oceania issue of brief. I enjoy interviews, because they give me an opportunity to impose myself on people I admire and pester those people with questions borne of my private obsessions. If I imposed myself on a distinguished writer or scholar in a bar, buying them the cheapest beer on tap, ushering them to a quiet corner, and raving on about the problems of English prosody or nineteenth century historiography or Marxist theory, then I could expect to be talking very soon to a wall, or to a bouncer with an unsympathetic glare and thick forearms. When I turn up in the e mails boxes of scholars and writers claiming to represent a journal or some other publication, though, I seem to attain a certain precarious respectability, and my questions are answered politely.

Here's an interview I've done with the Mark Derby for the forthcoming double issue of brief.

Secret texts and sacred weapons: a talk with Mark Derby

SH: You have researched both the history of the labour movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the history of Maori struggles for self-determination in the same period. Are there advantages to having this double interest? Are there points where the two subjects intersect?

MD: I’ve certainly found that it enriched both streams of historical investigation to have these parallel interests. The early labour movement and groups of Maori who sought to retain, or regain, some degree of self-determination had some similarities in that both tended to stand in the way of the country’s most powerful and wealthy interests. During the 1890 maritime strike, for example, the labour activist Arthur Desmond tried, not very successfully, to convince the radical wing of the labour movement to support the fiery King Country Maori chief Mahuki, who had physically obstructed the surveyors preparing to put the main trunk railway line through his tribal land. Desmond pointed out that the strikers and Mahuki’s people were not only confronting the same political opponents, but that exactly the same powerful land speculators and investors, men like Thomas Russell, were behind the scenes in both cases. Mahuki spoke little English so after he was arrested and taken to Mt Eden prison, Desmond used his knowledge of Maori language to try to communicate with him and offer him the services of a labour lawyer.

It was a different matter during the 1912 Waihi strike, when numbers of rural Maori were actively recruited to act as strikebreakers and thugs, and this caused a lot of bitterness between them and the non-Maori workforce at the mine. So the following year, when strikes broke out at most of the country’s ports, the Federation of Labour made sure to solicit the support of influential chiefs like Te Heu Heu of Tuwharetoa. He then announced that his people would not scab on the wharves at any price. I’ve found that hunting down and taking account of the voices of both of these intransigent groups has often provided a more complex and revealing take on key political events than simply noting the official versions of one or the other.

SH: In The Prophet and the Policeman, your study of Rua Kenana and his adversary at the top of the Kiwi police force, you use the term 'dual sovereignty' to describe the situation in some rural areas of the North Island in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. Could you explain 'dual sovereignty'?

MD: I believe the term was first employed by Richard Hill whose hefty yet riveting multi-volume history of early policing has broken new ground in this and quite a few other areas of our colonial history. He describes how some tribal groups that had not sided with the government during the New Zealand wars (whether or not they actively sided against the government) afterwards chose to retreat to remote enclaves of their remaining tribal territories.

There they were generally tolerated, or at least ignored, by government agencies including the police, as long as they didn’t actively threaten major economic activity. So they were able to impose and enforce their own laws to some extent, and to reintroduce some traditional customs and activities. It was a fascinating episode of localised, limited self-determination which has been little studied but which deserves close attention for the future of Maori-Pakeha relations, I think. SH: You worked as a researcher for the Waitangi Tribunal for some years, poring over documents written by nineteenth century Maori. What was the effect of all this raw material on your interpretation of New Zealand history?

MD: For a period from about the 1850s, as an outcome of the mission school programme of Maori education, a large proportion of Maori were highly literate in their own language although they may have had little or no knowledge of English. Government archives from this period have huge amounts of material – letters, reports, court records, circulars, all kinds of documents – that are written in Maori and generally have no translation provided. Very little of this material seems to have been drawn upon by historians, probably because of the language barrier, and also because equivalent documents in English by non-Maori officials were perhaps seen as more historically authoritative.

I’ve barely begun to read this material but I’ve found it fascinating from all sorts of angles - partly just because of the language of the documents themselves. Most Maori language in print today is written by and for people whose first language is English, and this tends to affect the spelling, syntax, and all sorts of other features. Whereas these early Maori clerks and correspondents wrote in a language almost entirely uninflected by English. It’s usually very difficult to read at first, but you get a feel for it after a while, and the voice that comes through is remarkable and unlike anything else in our primary historical record. I’m a long way off being able to posit what effect this may have on our overall interpretation of 19th-century history, but I’m keen to pursue the question.

SH: You have researched the life of Mahuki, the prophet who staged what were perhaps the last acts of aggressive resistance to Pakeha authority in the King Country, and who was eventually incarcerated in a mental hospital. You've argued that Mahuki was not mad, despite what Pakeha doctors and journalists wrote, but is it possible that, by the end of the nineteenth century, any strong Maori resistance to Pakeha rule was considered automatically to be a symptom of insanity? Is the treatment of Mahuki a measure of the stability and smugness of fin de siecle Pakeha society?

MD: Mahuki was a lifelong and devoted follower of the pacifist Taranaki leader Te Whiti, who is today almost universally revered by Maori and non-Maori alike. But in his own lifetime Te Whiti was frequently described in the settler press, by government officials and in contemporary Pakeha accounts as a ‘fanatic’, a ‘madman’, a ‘dangerous Messiah’ and so on. Much the same terms were used of Mahuki once he began to actively obstruct the government agents trying to overcome the King movement’s opposition to selling their tribal lands. He was several times imprisoned and finally transferred to the Avondale Mental Hospital, where he died. I’ve looked through his patient records, and although I have no medical training I think there’s good reason to at least question the universal Pakeha assumption that he was hopelessly mentally ill. For a start, when he was facing sentence for the last time, aged in his 60s, the judge raised the issue of whether he should be sent to prison or a mental hospital. His jailer, who had been able to observe him closely in the weeks before his sentence, said that he could see no evidence of mental instability at all. So he was sent to prison. There he was reported to disturb other prisoners by loudly addressing the sun in Maori at morning and evening. This was taken as proof of his developing insanity, but it is also a description of the practices of the Pai Marire faith, to which he adhered throughout his life. Another ‘symptom’ of his insanity was that he was known to masturbate. Just as the Soviet Union, in more recent times, found that a lengthy spell in a state mental institution was an effective way of silencing even the most defiant of dissidents, so I think that a combination of public derision, cultural ignorance and official hostility is more likely to have placed Te Mahuki in Avondale than the true state of his mental health.

SH: You have a longstanding connection with the Hokianga, and have used Kendrick Smithyman's epic poem Atua Wera in your research into the history of the region. As a historian, do you read Smithyman differently to, say, a literary critic?

MD: I love Atua Wera as a work of literature, but I also admire the careful and extensive historical research that underpins the writing. The poem references many obscure documentary sources that almost no historian seems to have noticed. At one point Smithyman introduces the term ‘wahu’, explaining (in rather more elegant language than I am using in this précis from memory) that it means a special kind of tohunga or spiritual advisor who was employed by Hokianga chiefs to wage tribal wars through supernatural tactics. The most effective of these wahu, Smithyman notes, came from Hawaii, and although this sounds improbable, he references relatively impeccable sources for the information. Although Smithyman doesn’t press the point, the name ‘wahu’, of course, suggests the Hawaiian island of Oahu. And the possibility that these tohunga were deliberately contracted by Maori to travel from their homeland to the Hokianga to serve as secret weapons in inter-tribal conflict raises questions about South Pacific trade, travel and polity in this early-contact era that have not even begun to be answered by historians, that I’m aware of. The wahu were, surely, the first Pacific migrant workers to arrive in this country. Did they return home when their contracts expired, or are their descendants still living here? I think I’ll never get to the end of the historical questions that Te Atua poses.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Excalibur Downunder

Last year I mentioned Gregor McLennan's claim that Blairism is not so much a coherent set of beliefs as a 'vehicular ideology', made up of callow concepts and improvised slogans which are abandoned as soon as they have served some brief rhetorical purpose.

David Shearer's first major speech as leader of the Labour Party marked him as a vehicular ideologist par excellence. Moving relentlessly from soundbite to soundbite, Shearer showed a thoroughly Blairite contempt for linear argument and empirical proof.

The Dim Post blog has been hosting a less-than-earnest discussion of the following sentences, which constitute perhaps the strangest piece of rhetorical debris in Shearer's speech:

A vision is a marvellous thing, but it’s a bit like Excalibur. You have to know what you’re doing with it.

Excalibur, of course, is the magical sword wielded by the once-and-future King Arthur in the set of legends which were created in the confusion of pre-Norman Britain, and which today continue to inspire painters, writers, and dodgy auteurs around the world. In the early written versions of the the legend Arthur is gifted Excalibur by a mysterious character known as the Lady of the Lake, but since at least the nineteenth century storytellers have often depicted him drawing the sword from a stone. Shearer's use of Arthurian imagery may seem eccentric, but there have been earlier local incarnations of the Excalibur myth.

As every cricket fan who grew up in the 1980s knows, Lance Cairns’ bat bore the name of Arthur’s weapon. Cairns was a barrel-chested swing bowler who batted at number nine in the Kiwi order and liked to play short explosive innings. After Cairns' sword of willow smote an Australian pace attack led by Dennis Lillee for six sixes at the Melbourne Cricket Ground at the end of the 1982/83 season, the Mad Butcher arranged for it to be displayed in the window of one of his South Auckland stores. I have a vague memory of standing on tiptoes and squinting through glass smudged by the breath of a crowd at the sacred relic lying between strips of sirloin steak and piles of sausages. Excalibur was, I noticed, thinner than most cricket blades. With its shaven shoulders, it certainly looked more like a sword than the Grey Nichols bats used by many other members of the Kiwi cricket team.

Towards the end of Redemption Songs, her massive and magnificent biography of the nineteenth century prophet, writer, hermeneuticist, and guerrilla warrior Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, Judith Binney discusses another, rather more profound local adaption of the Excalibur story.

Binney describes how, after finally being pardoned by the Pakeha government which had pursued him through the forests and mountains of Te Ika a Maui for four years and then isolated him for another decade or so, the elderly Te Kooti decided to attempt a visit to his hometown of Turanga/Gisborne. The prophet had renounced violence and dedicated himself to spreading the gospel of his Ringatu church, but Gisbornians were nevertheless nervous about the prospect of his return to their town. The last time the prophet had visited, on November the 10th, 1868, he and his disciples had executed fifty-four locals. The raid was intended as revenge for Te Kooti's imprisonment without trial on the Chathams and the theft of some land he co-owned, but most of its victims had nothing to do with these injustices.

Twenty-one years later, Te Kooti had not been forgiven. While the prophet rode towards Turanga with scores of his followers, stopping along the way at favourite taverns, the citizens of what was now a majority Pakeha town improvised a militia, and trotted off to confront him. Te Kooti was prevented from entering central Gisborne, but before his arrest he did make it as far as Makaraka, near the southwest edge of the town, where roads heading south into the Hawkes Bay and east into the Poverty Bay hill country intersect.

According to a Ringatu story which Binney relates, as Te Kooti stood at the Makaraka crossroads his walking stick suddenly began to sink into the ground. It disappeared, and continued to fall until it lay some distance from the surface of the earth. As he observed this event, which was only the latest in a lengthy series of supernatural interventions in his life, Te Kooti is supposed to have said something like “There will be peace in New Zealand as long as my sword remains in the earth”.

The most famous claimant to Te Kooti's prophetic mantle offered up his own adaption of the Excalibur story. When he announced in 1905 that he was the new prophet the dying Te Kooti had predicted, Rua Kenana claimed that he had climbed Maungapohatu, the sacred mountain in the heart of the rohe of Tuhoe, and found on its peak a huge diamond. Rua added that he had successfully removed this rock from the mountaintop, then returned it safely to its resting place. He argued that by drawing the diamond from the mountain he had proved himself the the successor to Te Kooti.

The Arthurian myths became very popular in nineteenth century Britain, because they seemed to endow the country's rapidly expanding empire with a deep history and a certain gravitas. It is not surprising that Te Kooti and his followers would appropriate an element of Arthurian romance to suit their needs, in the same way that they had appropriated and reinterpreted the Bible, and especially the mythology of the Old Testament.

We can't, sadly, expect the same sort of systematic assimilation of ideas and symbols from David Shearer: like all good exponents of vehicular ideology, he flourishes a slogan or an image only to abandon it in haste.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Holier Than thou

If a week is a long time in politics, then it is even longer in an industrial dispute. Last Friday I got an e mail from a rank and file trade unionist whose job gives him an interesting perspective on the conflict between wharfies and Ports of Auckland Limited bosses.

In his message* the trade unionist, who wanted to be identified only by the initials UCR, worried that POAL's aggressive tactics had not received an adequate response from the workers' movement and the left, and urged the beginning of active pickets and the eventual mounting of a mass blockade of Auckland's port.

Last week only small far left outfits like Socialist Aotearoa and the Communist Workers Group seemed to be arguing in an organised way for a blockade, but in the aftermath of last Saturday's large and enthusiastic march in support of the wharfies and an active picket which briefly stopped traffic into the port on Monday morning support for mass direct action on the waterfront is growing.

Chris Trotter is a man with longstanding affiliations to the social democratic wing of the Kiwi left, so his new article 'Only People Power Can Save the Ports' is perhaps a sign of the way the debate about tactics on the waterfront is moving. After remembering the demonstrations which closed Melbourne's port and saved fourteen hundred jobs in 1998, Trotter's piece calls for 'mass, non-violent flying pickets' to prevent strikebreakers entering Auckland's wharves. These pickets would, by their very nature, involve not only the few hundred local members of the Maritime Union, but large numbers of the union's supporters.

As the wharfies and their allies become more confident, POAL and its cronies in the bourgeoisie are becoming shriller and more vicious. In the aftermath of Saturday's large demonstration and Monday's militant picket, POAL has been using right-wing websites like Cameron Slater's Whale Oil and David Farrar's Kiwiblog to leak all sorts of private information about members of the Maritime Union. Slater, who has been accused repeatedly of taking money from POAL for his services, caused particular offence when he publicised the story of a wharfie whose wife died of cancer several years ago.

Karl Marx famously used the term lumpen proletariat to describe the gangs of conmen, adventurers, and thugs who are sometimes used to do the dirty work of the political right. We could justifiably adapt Marx's language, and describe a man like Slater, who has biological and financial connections with the ruling class as well as a violently ungovernable nature, as a member of the lumpen bourgeoisie. By letting Slater off the leash, POAL has shown how determined it is to deunionise Auckland's waterfront.

But it is not only the dogs of the right which have attacked the wharfies and their allies over the last few days. As they begin to contemplate mass direct action, supporters of the wharfies have been treated to a series of criticisms made in the names of those perennial, solemn-sounding abstract nouns, Peace, Morality, and the Law. Chris Trotter, for instance, has been vociferously condemned in recent days in the comments boxes at his own blog for having the temerity to suggest breaking the law to save the jobs of three hundred Aucklanders.

One of Trotter's most regular and ardent critics has been a chap named Than. When he isn't upbraiding the trade union movement and the left, Than uses his online time to maintain a blog with the unfortunate name Solo Wargamer, where he describes his reenactments of some of the bloodier chapters of history on a series of tables in Christchurch. Although Than often seems to play soldiers by himself, he does have at least a few fellow enthusiasts in the south. Here is his report on his attempt to reenact the Russian Civil War with a friend:

I suppose we’ve all endured those awkward moments when an opponent points out that the epaulets on your guard battalion are painted the wrong shade of blue. Well, last night I experienced an interesting variation on the theme. I’d just set up my 15mm Russian Civil War HoTT army (Reds of course!) when my opponent John quipped: “Ah, you’re fielding mixed sex units then are you?”

I was bemused by his comment, so he elaborated: “Well, half of them appear to have breasts…” Dear Reader, I was shocked. I know that my eyesight is becoming a little less acute with the passing years, and that sometimes purchasing ready painted troops on eBay can be a recipe for disaster. But it was a bit galling to realise that I’d mixed up the regular infantry with some doughty members of the Women’s Shock Battalion! Ah well. I can see that I’m going to have to spend an hour or so with a magnifying glass and my rebasing kit...


Than may be a tabletop warrior, but he has not been afraid to condemn Auckland's wharfies as brutes, and to accuse Chris Trotter of attempting to provoke violence. According to Than, Trotter's call for a blockade of the waterfront is 'naive and dangerous', because a blockade is likely to lead to some serious scrapping:

Surely you have seen the aggression on the early morning picket lines over the last couple of days? Do you genuinely believe a gathering of hundreds of motivated, highly charged picketers trying to shut down the port would remain non-violent? Even if a brawl didn't break out while people were trying to get to work, it certainly would once the police arrive.

Kid yourself that it will definitely be the other side that throws the first punch. Kid yourself that it matters. Regardless, you are advocating a course of action that will almost certainly end in violence. Please consider whether what is at stake is worth that much human suffering.


As you may have guessed by now, I find Than's hysterical response to Trotter's article rather amusing, given the obvious fascination for violence revealed by his blog. Than reminds me, in fact, of the late Patricia Bartlett, the 'anti-pornography' campaigner who was responsible for depriving New Zealand audiences of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. In television and radio interviews, Bartlett would condemn this or that movie as hopelessly obscene - and then go on to describe the allegedly obscene bits of the offending movie in what seemed like loving detail. But it is worth addressing Than's argument against Trotter, because the same argument is being made at the moment by many self-appointed guardians of the morality of the trade union movement and the left.

Chris has explicitly called for a non-violent but (under the present pro-business Employment Relations Act) illegal blockade of the Auckland wharves. Any mass non-violent illegal action inevitably leads to a bit of pushing and shoving, and sometimes to a good deal more than that, depending on the way it is policed. The 1981 anti-Springbok protests were intended to be non-violent, but violence flared after protesters were attacked by right-wing vigilantes and cops.

Than's position seems to be that Chris' call for non-violent illegal action is immoral, simply because it could lead to violence. Even if the violence comes from the cops, the protesters will, it seems, be responsible for getting their own heads cracked, because they had the temerity to break the law and irritate the police. Following Than's logic, nearly every protest movement in history, including the illegal and violently repressed movements led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, would have been immoral.

It is worth noting the limits of Than's understanding of violence. He associates violence with war and rioting - with guns being fired and fists flying - but is oblivious to other, more insidious forms of the phenomenon. Violence, after all, can be inflicted by corporations and governments, as well as by soldiers and terrorists.

In the late 1980s and the '90s, under instruction from local and international capitalists, successive governments closed down hundreds of worksites around New Zealand, gutting communities by depriving them of incomes and services. If he drove through Kiwi towns like Moerewa or Kawerau or Ohura, with their boarded-up shops and gutted former post offices and caved-in mills, would Than recognise the rubble and ruined lives left by decades of economic violence? The Key government and its supporters in the business community are now attempting to unleash a new economic war on New Zealand workers, and the wharfies of Auckland are in the front line.

If terrorists or a foreign government had bombed Kawerau or Moerewa, levelling factories and offices, then the likes of Than would, without doubt, be full of indignation and calls for retaliation. When the victims of scorched earth economics try to hit back at their enemies using collective, fundamentally peaceful weapons like the strike and the picket line, though, Than can only condemn them. Perhaps Than ought to put away his toy soldiers, and play some different and more educational game. The distinguished Marxist philosopher Bertell Ollman might have a product to sell him. *Here's the analysis of the waterfront dispute I received last week from UCR. I don't necessarily agree with all of it, but can vouch for the credibility of the author. Anyone who wants to chat with UCR can e mail him at frankefoxton@yahoo.co.nz

When British Airways unions launched 'major' industrial action not that long ago the company's share prices went up, not down. That tells us a few things.

This is already an uphill, almost rearguard action that is demonstrative rather than decisive. If Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch port workers are taking action over a ship having already been handled by non-union workers in Auckland then the critical point of impact has been negated. Pickets in Auckland have been something other than pickets (i.e. work has been carried out) and weekend rallies will not be the difference, although it is important to have demonstrations in support of besieged workers.

Labour MPs are bound to be there on Saturday but it is their party's legislation, the Employment Relations Act, that makes meaningful and effective industrial action a serious criminal offence. Ports of Auckland Limited and their sponsors don't want a mediated outcome and the Employment Relations Authority offers POAL cover for their pretence of negotiation. You may recall that Australian wharfies claimed legal 'victory' at the time a few years ago after being dragged through the courts but if you go to a wharf in Melbourne or Sydney today they are desolate, maximum security zones with far fewer workers than before.

Hudson, the company advertising for scabs on behalf of POAL, is situated right on the waterfront and a demonstration there - as part of a picket - would have, in my view, been part of a proper escalation. If secondary strikes are unlawful but outright scab herding is ongoing then this a glaring contradiction which should be exploited.

The ports dispute represents a major offensive against labour in this country and others are emboldened: Oceania, AFFCO, POAL...these are all big disputes with a lot at stake and in the current economic situation a point-blank test of organisation. All are being fought very aggressively by the bosses but this is not being met equally by a workforce hamstrung by prohibitions on both primary and secondary industrial action. And if, as February Public Services Association newsletter suggests, 5,000 public sector jobs can be cut in NZ in just a few years is it any wonder we have such hardball being played by employers right now?

The Council is the beneficial interest behind POAL, demanding a 12 per cent return on investment but this is not the legal entity recognised as the employer party. None of this is news for you, I am sure. The Council of Trade Unions assuming 'leadership' of this dispute (which the Maritime Union of New Zealand has been involved in for a while) is literally a kiss of death and reduces the struggle from industrial to a contest for public opinion, donations, sympathy and expensive dead-end legal jousting. Today's online issue of the
New Zealand Herald reported Helen Kelly as being concerned about a lack of good faith(!) by the Ports and the Council. Statements like that are a gift for some, unfortunately not for those in the to-be-fired line.

As for other official big wigs, Matt McCarten, while offering some helpful insight into the dispute in his regular column in the
New Zealand Herald on Sunday, is, after all, the head of a union representing security guards (auxillary cops), some of whom may be further deployed against wharfies should the dipute be prolonged. Australian unionists have been generous in their financial support for their New Zealand counterparts but often this type of assistance is compensation for an unwillingness to genuinely intensify or internationalise a struggle.

A long dispute for a small union in New Zealand today, however 'strategic' their depiction, will sadly only result in casualties and, in this case, casualisation. This is not being defeatist, just facing facts. In the wash up Gibson may end up up being served up by the POAL Board for damage control - the aggro CEO style of doing things hasn't exactly enamoured the likes of the Chamber of Commerce; they wanted results, not fallout and he might end up being a fall guy, albeit with several hundred thousand dollars of severance pay. Then again he might just get a bonus and take over from fellow job slasher Rob Fyfe at Air New Zealand.


[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Youtubing Futa

Futa Helu, who died in 2010, was Tonga's most influential modern intellectual. He founded the 'Atenisi Institute, Tonga's first university, called for the melding of Polynesian and European intellectual traditions, wrote essays on topics as different as psychology and ancient Greek philosophy, and was a key figure in the pro-democracy movement which became strong in his country in the last decades of the twentieth century.

Helu may be famous in Tonga and a continuing inspiration to the many graduates of 'Atenisi who have made careers for themselves overseas, but he is little-known in New Zealand outside the Tongan community. The neglect of Helu reflects a wider indifference to Tongan culture amongst New Zealanders. Tonga is our closest neighbour and, as the only Polynesian nation to avoid colonisation, it has a unique and important history, yet it seldoms registers on our cultural radar. We are far more acquainted with literary and artistic developments in London and New York than we are with the thoughts and deeds of Tonga's creative community.

Futa Helu was an authority on aspects of European culture like ancient Greek philosophy and Italian opera, but he also maintained a continuous interest in the culture of his own country. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he published a series of essays about the history and features of Tongan poetry in the little Nuku'alofa-based magazine Fai Kava. These essays, which were complemented by a long text on the same subject delivered at a conference in the late '80s, offer English-language readers an entertaining and illuminating introduction to an ancient and still very vital Tongan artform. As he explains the origins and development of Tongan poetry, Helu supplies English-language translations and explications of numerous verses, and also offers up fascinating asides about the geography, sociology, and politics of his country. I recently helped Titus Books prepare an application to Creative New Zealand for funding to publish some of Helu's essays about Tongan poetry.

But Helu wasn't only interested in literature. He was so knowledgable about Tongan genealogy, etiquette, song, and dance that his country's leaders would often forget their opposition to his politics and call on his advice when they were planning a major public event, like the wedding of a royal or a state funeral.

While he was making Tongan Ark, the feature-length documentary about Futa Helu and 'Atenisi which has been reviewed and debated on this blog, Paul Janman collected many hours of footage of Helu working with and talking about dancers and singers. Using that magical device known as the internet, Janman is now sharing some of the remarkable footage he could not incorporate into Tongan Ark with us. Paul has established a Youtube channel to show off the work of the 'Atenisi performing arts troupe Futa created and oversaw. This film clip shows Helu introducing a performance by the 'Atenisi troupe in Wellington in 1997. With a typical lack of regard for the boundaries between intellectual discourses, Helu uses some of the terminology of physics to describe the movements of Tongan dancers. Drawing on his neo-classical philosophy of art, which equates beauty with harmony and immutability, Helu goes on to argue that the goal of Tongan dance is "to make human beings divine".

Just as the essays Helu wrote for Fai Kava make a fine introduction to Tongan poetry, so the clips Paul Janman has uploaded to Youtube expose us to Tongan dance and song in all their strangeness and splendour.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Friday, March 09, 2012

Why Len Brown shows Labour its future

A week or so before the last general election I had a rather strained encounter with Carmel Sepuloni on the deck of a cafe in Ranui.

Carmel was campaigning for the Labour Party in the seat of Waitakere, and when I encountered her at Ranui she was giving my partner an election broadcast. In between sips from a blueberry smoothie, she condemned the way that Key's government had made workers and the poor pay for the global recession, by cutting state services and public sector jobs. She pointed out that, by cutting the spending power of ordinary Kiwis, National was perpetuating the recession. As Kiwis spent less and less, more and more workers in the retail and manufacturing sectors were laid off, and the economy grew weaker.

I agreed completely with Sepuloni's criticisms of National, but I worried that a Labour government might walk a similar path. After all, the last time New Zealand faced a profound economic crisis, the Labour government of David Lange and Roger Douglas responded by implementing the most radically right-wing set of policies ever seen in this country.

And, since the global recession began in late 2008, it has been governments led by Labour-style social democratic parties which have made some of the worst attacks on trade unions and the poor. In Greece, for instance, it has been the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, an organisation affiliated to the Labour parties of New Zealand, Australia, and Britain, which has been doing the bidding of bankers and the International Monetary Fund by cutting hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs, slashing the minimum wage, and flogging off state assets at bargain basement prices. In Spain the social democratic Zapatero government became hugely unpopular for implementing similar policies.

In New Zealand some of Carmel's fellow Labour MPs had used ominously right-wing rhetoric on the election trail. On the stump in the high-profile seat of Epsom, Labour's David Parker had condemned his opponent John Banks for failing to 'balance the budget' during his time as Auckland's mayor, and had argued that Labour, not National or Act, was New Zealand's 'party of fiscal responsibility'.

It would be fair to say that Carmel Sepuloni was unimpressed with my fears about the response a Labour government might make to the recession. As the transcript of our conversation shows, she repeatedly lamented the fact that she couldn't enjoy a blueberry smoothie at her local cafe without having to listen to the irrational criticisms and ridiculous prophecies of a sectarian ultra-leftist.

Because Labour lost last November's election, it might seem that the argument I made to Carmel has yet to be tested by events. But while Labour has failed to win the Treasury benches from John Key, it does control the government of New Zealand's largest city. Labour's Len Brown was elected mayor of Auckland in 2010, after a campaign spearheaded by trade unionists, and has majority support on the city's council. Over the last week, though, Brown has outraged many of the people who voted for him, by backing the attempt of Ports of Auckland Limited bosses to smash the Maritime Union of New Zealand. After POAL, which is owned by Auckland city council, announced that it was making all three hundred workers on Auckland's docks redundant, Brown took to the airwaves to justify their move. POAL and Brown insist that Auckland's wharfies deserve to lose their jobs, because the wharfies have refused to abandon their collective contract and become casual labourers. During his election campaign a couple of years ago Brown presented himself as the voice of Auckland's trade union movement, but now he is endorsing the most egregious attack on a group of workers in New Zealand's recent history.

Over the past week Len Brown has been booed at public appearances, denounced by trade union leaders, and mocked on left-leaning blogs. Political commentators have written off his chances of re-election. For many Labour supporters, Brown is a traitor to the party's ideals. Dark rumours about the reasons for his apostasy have circulated at internet discussion fora. Some of the disenchanted say that Brown has been bought by Auckland's business elite; others say he is being blackmailed by right-wing members of the city council.

But we don't need conspiracy theories to explain Brown's decision to turn on Auckland's union movement. His political trajectory closely resembles the journeys taken by social democratic governments in places like Greece and Spain over recent years.

Brown campaigned for mayor promising a number of left-wing policies which appealed to voters in Auckland's south and west. His call for a major upgrade of Auckland's public transport system was particularly popular. As soon as he sat down in the mayoral office, though, Brown was made aware that the Tory government in Wellington was not keen on paying for a social democratic policy programme in Auckland. John Key was determined to cut rather than expand spending by local governments.

There were two ways in which Brown could have responded to National's attempt to stymie his agenda. He had the option of condemning Key's intransigence, and launching a campaign for more funding from Wellington for Auckland's problems, or accepting the fiscal restraints imposed by the Tories, and trying to deal with funding shortfalls by squeezing his own administration and constituents. Brown chose the second option when he decided to try to fund his policy programme by increasing the revenue from city-owned assets. Brown was soon demanding that POAL double the profits it made annually from Auckland's port. Brown hoped to plough the extra cash from the port into projects like the construction of a light rail network round central Auckland. Charged with boosting profits, the port bosses decided that they must slash their labour costs. A clash with the wharfies became inevitable.

Brown's decision to accept the fiscal straitjacket imposed by a larger and more powerful institution reminds us of the recent decisions of social democratic governments in nations like Greece and Spain to accept the dictates of foreign financial markets, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund. Faced with big debts caused by the global financial crisis of 2008, the Greek social democrats had the option of confronting the foreign banks and European bureaucrats which had helped create that crisis, or acceding to the demands of the bankers and bureaucrats. They chose, of course, the second path, and are now set, like Brown, for political oblivion.

The sad stories of Brown and of the Greek government offer us a lesson about the essential nature of social democracy. Social democratic parties like Labour have traditionally tried to use taxation and state regulation to civilise capitalism and make sure that some of the wealth of society is redistributed from big business to workers. During periods of fast economic growth, a social democratic government often finds it relatively easily to channel an increased share of wealth, in the form of wage rises and increased spending on services like education and health, towards its working class supporters.

But capitalism is an unstable system, prone to cycles of boom and bust. When the system is in crisis, the economic basis for social democracy's civilising mission disappears. Classes are polarised, as wage and tax demands cut deeply into bosses' profit margins. Industrial relations become a zero-sum game. Social democratic governments that come to power during economic crises cannot balance the interests of classes, but have to choose one class over another. Not every social democratic government elected in a period of crisis has been as supine as the Greek regime, or the wretched Len Brown. New Zealand's first Labour government took office in 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, after promising an impoverished population jobs and a proper welfare state. The new government came under great pressure from local capitalists and British banks, but left-wing Labourites like John A Lee were determined to stare down these enemies. After the British threatened to call in the loans they had made to New Zealand, Lee and his allies called for Labour to thumb its nose at foreign financiers by defaulting on the country's debts. When right-wing newspapers launched a propaganda campaign against the Labour government, accusing it of wanting to impose a communist dictatorship on New Zealand, Labour responded by setting up a national radio network and using the airwaves to defend policies like its state housing programme. The achievements of the first Labour government came through confrontation with the political right and the capitalist classes of New Zealand and Britain.

In the twenty-first century, the governments of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia have both faced down capitalist revolts and implemented left-wing policy programmes. After his country's wealthy elite and the CIA organised a coup, a lockout, and a programme of assassinations against his supporters, Chavez encouraged Venezuelan workers and peasants to occupy and run by themselves factories, farms, and oil refineries. The balance of power in the country changed. Many grassroots members of Labour are calling for Brown's expulsion from their party, in the wake of his endorsement of the attack on Auckland's wharfies. But purging Brown will change nothing, because his political cowardice and opportunism is shared by the rest of Labour's establishment. Party leader David Shearer has repeatedly refused to take sides in the conflict on Auckland's waterfront, and some of his key advisers have criticised the city's wharfies. Josie Pagani, for example, used a recent appearance on Wellington's ZB radio station to condemn the union for not realising that 'flexibility' and 'casual labour' are 'the future', and have to be embraced. Shearer and Pagani are chips from the same rotten block as Brown. A Shearer-led Labour government would cave to the demands of big business and the right just as quickly and completely as Len Brown.

Instead of trying to expel Brown, Labour's grassroots members should remove themselves from the party. At the Ranui Cafe back in November I suggested to Carmel that she would be happier in the Mana Party than in what David Parker so proudly calls the 'party of fiscal responsibility'. The contrast this week between the cowardice of Brown and Shearer and Mana's gutsy challenge to foreign investors looking to rip off Kiwis once again shows which organisation has inherited the fighting spirit of John A Lee and his comrades.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Going global

Midwives and training manuals like to warn new parents to avoid feeling exasperated or angry or disconsolate. A calm parent, they've told me, equals a calm baby. With this advice in mind, I've been steering away from potentially inflammatory webpages and books this week. Over at the Guardian website, for instance, I've resisted the temptation to click on a link to a report about Benjamin Netanyahu's warmongering against Iran, and read only the first paragraph of an account of Rick Santorum's demented campaign against that modern device of Satan, the condom.

When I tuned into the news yesterday, though, and heard that Ports of Auckland was laying off nearly three hundred wharfies, and blaming them for their dismissal because they have had the temerity to go on strike, all that well-meant advice from the baby whisperers went out the window.

What I find outrageous about enemies of the wharfies like Ports of Auckland bosses Tony Gibson and Richard Pearson is not their desire to cut costs by deunionising their worksite - that sort of agenda is to be expected from bosses, when a right-wing government sits in in Wellington and a global recession is tightening the labour market - but their unctuously hypocritical rhetoric. I complained a few weeks ago about the way that Gibson, who earns three quarters of a million dollars a year, had phoned journalists from the luxury Coromandel resort where he was spending his Christmas holidays to denounce the wharfies as a bunch of overpaid loafers.

Over the last week Gibson and his supporters on the political right have found a rich new vein of hypocrisy to mine. In press releases and interviews, they have condemned the support given to our wharfies by Australian and American unions as 'outside interference' in New Zealand affairs. By sending members to thicken the picket lines in Auckland and by refusing to work ships loaded here with scab labour, organisations like America's International Longshore and Warehouse Union are, according to Gibson and co, undermining the autonomy of this country's institutions and the integrity of its economy.

Gibson's characterisation of Aussie and American solidarity with the Auckland wharfies as some sort of devilish globalist plot to undermine Kiwi sovereignty is rather unconvincing. Since taking up his job as Chief Executive of Ports of Auckland last year, he has argued that the demands of globalisation make the casualisation of labour on Kiwi waterfronts a necessity. According to Gibson, international shipping lines determined to get the best deals and rival ports with lower wage costs both make the old collective contract at Auckland, with its rostering of the hours wharfies must work, untenable.

The truth, of course, is that Gibson, like the National government from John Key down, is in favour of globalisation when it serves the interests of big business, and opposed to globalisation when it benefits the subaltern classes. The right believes that capital should be able to move freely from one nation to another, as investors buy up farms or factories in one place and send the profits somewhere else, but opposes the international cooperation of trade unions, and the staging of international boycotts and strikes.

Unfortunately for the right-wingers, Kiwi maritime workers have been in the vanguard of cross-border union campaigning for more than a century. Because they work on the high seas and in the doorways between New Zealand and the rest of the world, seafarers and wharfies routinely fraternise with the peoples of many different nations, and have always been aware of the international contexts for economic and political trends in this country.

In the 1930s Kiwi wharfies reacted to the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia by raising money for the International Brigades which fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and by refusing to unload pig iron made in parts of China which had been conquered by Japan. After World War Two the Waterside Workers Union angered successive governments by campaigning against military conscription in this country, and helped to found the movement against sporting contact with apartheid South Africa. In the 1970s the Seaman's Union joined demonstrations against the Vietnam War and went on strike when nuclear-powered American vessels visited Kiwi ports.

I found out about the internationalist heritage of the wharfies and seafarers firsthand when I was involved in the Anti-Imperialist Coalition in 2002 and 2003. The AIC was formed to oppose the wars which George Bush began in the Middle East after Al Qaeda's attacks on America. At the end of 2001, after listening to an address by AIC member and former seafarer Steve Hieatt, Maritime Union members voted to oppose the deployment of Kiwi troops in Afghanistan. A year later a group of Maritime Union members took a stack of AIC leaflets opposing the coming invasion of Iraq and distributed them to the seafarers working ships in New Zealand waters. It is commonplace now to consider the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as disastrous imperial adventures, but in the eighteen months after the 9/11 atrocities those who spoke out against Bush's wars were often derided, by sections of the public as well as by the political establishment, as de facto supporters of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The Maritime Union's early decision to oppose Bush's wars was courageous.

In October 2002 the 'War on Terror' became an excuse for the repression of unionism in America, as Bush used the Taft-Hartley Act, a draconian piece of legislation concocted in the depths of the McCarthyite era, to break a strike by the wharfies of California, Washington, and Oregon. Citing 'national security concerns', Bush sent the army to unload the West Coast docks in place of members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Along with other workers' organisations from around the Pacific, our Maritime Union gave its strong support to the American wharfies. The AIC produced a leaflet explaining Bush's union-busting actions, and held a public meeting to further publicise the issue. Now that the wharfies of Auckland are under attack, it is only natural that their comrades in Australia, America and elsewhere are offering them support.

After having my attempts at Zen-like post-natal tranquility ruined by yesterday's news, I hunted down a copy of the leaflet the Anti-Imperialist Coalition produced about Bush's attack on American wharfies back in 2002.

Support US workers attacked by Bush’s War of Terror

President Bush has decided that the West Coast ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) port workers struggle to renew their industrial contract is a threat to US internal security. The port employers locked out the longshoremen, and Bush threatened to call out the National Guard. Now he has imposed the Taft-Hartley Act to force the ports open for 80 days. Bush is using the war on terror to target the enemies of the US ruling class at home as well as internationally. This proves that the war on terror is a class war and that only the working class can stop war. Our first task is to build international solidarity with the locked out workers and put union bans on scab ships.

What’s behind the current attack on the ILWU?

The ILWU, representing 10,500 dockworkers at 29 major Pacific ports, is embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing the shipping lines. The longshore workers’ contract expired July 1 and the ports have been operating on the basis of day-to-day contract extensions ever since. The key sticking point involves management demands for concessions that would allow for the introduction of new technology. Wages and benefits are not the issue in these negotiations. The hourly rate for longshore workers ranges from $27.68 to $33.48-about the same as a plumber or electrician. What they would like, however, is to keep certain workers out of the union, the vessel planners who tell the cranes where to put every shipping container; clerical workers who use computers to help track container movement, and drivers who haul containers in and out of the ports.

Workers in these jobs have already joined the ILWU, or tried to, attracted by its good wages. The union wants to include them to replace the potential loss of jobs among the clerks who track cargo manually. Negotiators for the PMA have said no. The union looks at this as an issue of survival.

The union has already made concessions to the employers to accept new technology that would see around 30% of the clerks lose their jobs. But that is not enough for PMA that also wants to claw back hard-won health conditions and freeze pensions.

According to a ILWU leader Steve Stallone, the US Labor Department told the union early on that unless it meets the employers conditions the Bush administration would invoke the seldom used Taft-Hartley Act that can delay any strike by 80 days, use the Railway Labor Act to force the union to bargain port-by-port and bring in the army or navy to run the ports. The government has threatened the union with a "PATCO-type scenario," referring to President Reagan’s mass firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981. This week after 10 days of the lockout, Bush delivered on the first part of his promise invoked the Taft-Hartley Act and forced the ports open for 80 days.

Bush is backed by big business to smash unions

Why has a labour dispute been dragged into Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’? Bush is seizing the post September 11 clampdown on democratic rights in the US to attack the longstanding rights of unions. Both the Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfield have told the union that strikes are a threat to ‘national security’ at a time when the extreme right wing Bush Administration considers that the US is at war.

Bush’s right wing agenda is to use the war on terrorism to try to make US workers pay for the crisis of the US economy. Bush is supported by the WCWC, (West Coast Waterfront Coalition) made up of big businesses such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Ikea, Nike, Target and The Gap. The WCWC wants to prevent any strike action that would affect the $300 billion worth of goods that flow through the Pacific ports each year.

The Los Angeles Times reported a June 5 memo to Bush from the WCWC whose members "met with key Bush Administration Officials to convey the message that there is a need both to obtain labour concessions at the West Coast ports that will allow the application of technology and to avoid labour disruptions on the West Coast this summer that could stall a fragile economy."

Bush is following a precedent set already with federal employees. He used the pretext of the war on terrorism to strip 170,000 federal employees being transferred to the newly formed Department of Homeland Security of their rights as public service employees and union representation.

Rank and File solidarity undermined by officials

What has been the response of organised labour to Bush’s threats to smash the ILWU? The rank and file Longshoremen have responded with militant actions up and down the west coast. There has been huge support from unions and workers all over the world. In NZ, Seafarers and Watersiders Union officials have visited the lockout ports, and taken resolutions to ‘black’ any ships loaded by scab labour or the military.

However, the response of the official leadership of the ILWU and the AFL-CIO (main US national labour organisation) to the Bush administration’s threats has been to appeal to the Democrats in Congress to put pressure on Bush and to claim that the ILWU is fully supportive of his patriotic war on terrorism.

The Democrat representatives hope that they can get Bush to back down by promising that the union will accept the bosses’ terms, in particular the job losses following the introduction of new technology. This has been the record of the ILWU leadership over the last few decades as thousands of jobs have been sacrificed with hardly a fight. In Seattle of 2,400 workers in 1963 there are only 550 left today. The union officials admit that today workers handle 10 times the cargo with one-twentieth the workforce.

The rank and file of the ILWU have to break from their officials to win this fight. If workers allow patriotism to replace working class solidarity they will lose. The union is saying "Fight terrorism, not workers". The official union line is that the workers are much more patriotic than the bosses who are importing cheap Asian goods at the expense of American jobs. So they call for worker boycotts of foreign made goods.

But this attempt to prove the workers’ loyalty to the US prevents any real working class solidarity with workers inside or outside the US. It allows Bush to shift the blame for the state of the US economy off the bosses onto the longshore workers.

By supporting the US imperialist policies of a preemptive strike against Afghanistan, Iraq or any country designated ‘terrorist’ by the Bush administration, the ILWU workers unite with the class enemy, at a time when Bush is using the ILWU dispute to unleash his union-busting domestic drive for the same reason that he is promoting the war on terrorism abroad.

US imperialism is crisis-ridden and can only be revived by massive military spending on war, and the driving down of labour conditions at home. The ‘permanent’ war against US enemies abroad and the domestic war against its own working class are one and the same. The US ruling class must resort to the super-exploitation and oppression of workers at home and abroad to survive.

What should NZ workers do?

The ILWU is a strong union with a history of struggle. It opposed the Vietnam War. It closed down Long Beach and San Francisco ports to scab ships during the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) dispute in 1998. New Zealand workers have a clear duty to take solidarity action in support of the West Coast port workers. Multinationals like Carter Holt Harvey have tried to bust the NZ Waterside Workers Union and replace workers with new technology. Only by uniting internationally can workers become strong enough to take on the global corporations that dominate the world economy and win the fight against imperialist oppression and war.

The NZ Terrorism Suppression Bill passed on October 10 is modeled on US bills like the Patriot Bill introduced after September 11. It has provisions that will allow the state to designate industrial action a threat to national security. This includes solidarity action taken by NZ workers in support of locked-out wharfies in the US. We can petition the government to respect our rights as workers, and oppose Bush’s attack on Iraq, but it will be the ability of organised workers to go on strike that wins these rights and defends Iraq from further attacks.

The recent court acquittal of the killer of Christine Clarke shows that workers can place no reliance on the protection of the government and the police to win their struggles. Quite the reverse. As NZ’s history of militant struggle proves, state forces were used to smash strikes in 1913, 1951 and every other major dispute. Mass pickets are what is needed, supported by international action to stop the state from using scab workers or the military as strike breakers.

Solidarity with the locked out US workers!
For a union ban on scab US cargo!
Rally on October 26! 12 noon QE2 Square
Stop the Attack on Iraq


[Posted by Maps/Scott]